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A frontier-busting Vespa-riding adventurer has covered a quarter million kilometers so far — he's effectively rounded the planet six times and vows he won't stop until he's visited all 198 countries of the world.

An interview with Giorgio Bettinelli

1992, Giorgio Bettinelli was 37 years old and living in village in Indonesia. A friend gave him a Vespa from the 1970s. In just three weeks, he drove the new/old Vespa over 2000 kilometers through Indonesia, Java, Sumatra, and Bali. Then he returned to Italy with a dream that sounded like madness — but which he's managed to turn into reality.

In order to get a good sense of how far Bettinelli has traveled on his Vespa, just consider that the circumfrence of the globe is 40 thousand kilometers and Bettinelli has now made four transcontinenetal trips: Rome-Saigon, six months and 24,000 kilometers; Alaska-Terra del Fuiego, nine months and 36,000 kilometers; Melburn-Cape Town, one year and 52,000 kilometer; five continents Terra del Fuigo – Tasmania, three years and eight months and 144,000 kilometers. It is, in other words, as if he's crossed the globe six times.

Left: Yakutsk, Siberia, Russia, 1998.
Do you ever get tired?
No, actually. In fact, I can even reveal that I am planning a new trip, which will be the hardest, most risky, and probably also the last.

Can you tell us about it?
I want to travel through all 198 countries in the world! It will take about four years though its difficult to be precise; there are hundreds of variables and potential delays.

What inspired you to undertake these trips?
Traveling has long been my dream. I was only fourteen when I hitchhiked to Copenhagen and seventeen when I went to India with the Magic Bus.
Iran, 2000.
What does traveling mean to you?
Traveling for me is a constant challenge with myself and a chance to see wonderful places. As I'm coming back from one trip, I'm already thinking of the next one. I'm not capable of staying still. I plan each voyage down to the last detail with a maniacal precision. But I also give myself over to fate. I'm superstitious and so to this day I refuse to learn anything about the Vespa engine. It worked out for me the first time, why shouldn't it keep working out?

Today you can get almost anywhere in the world in just a few hours, what point is there to traveling on such a slow vehicle not to mention an unsteady vehicle with little wheels like a Vespa?
Iran, 2000.
I'm interested in the journey — everything in the middle between the point of departure and point of arrival. A Vespa has a million defects — I won't argue with that — but slow as it is, it's taken me everywhere. And I like to feel the air on my face while I'm driving..

Have there been discomforts?
Every time that a trip came to an end.

Have you ever felt alone?
I've always traveled alone, but I've never felt lonely. Many people have given me hospitality and invited me to eat at their homes. The Vespa is like a bridge to tolerance and sympathy.

Nambia, 1999.
What's the other side of the coin?
For me, now would be the time to have a child. But this last trip is so important that my companion and I have decided to wait.

What are frontiers for you, someone who's crossed so many borders?
Sometimes they give me a sense of incredible freedom and other times they piss me off a lot because I have to wait 15 days to get a stupid visa. Other times there's simply no road connecting two countries. Between Panama and Colombia for example there are 200 kilometers of impenetrable forest. In situations like I have to load my Vespa on a boat or plane and believe me, it's not easy.

Ethiopia, 1999.
What happens when you cross a border? What's the difference between being on one side or the other of a border?

Sometimes nothing changes at all when I cross a border. But more often, borders coincide with some distinct change in the landscape, like a river or a mountain. Other times it's a political-economic change that you can see in the cities, in the buildings, the homes — like the borders between Russia and Finland or between the US and Mexico. And many times, it's the people themselves who change. The most striking example of that is the border between Pakistan and India. It's a religious border, and in just a few kilometers you go from the most

Kenya, 1999.
rigid Islamic monotheism that doesn't allow the showing of Allah's image to the delirium of the Hindu pantheon. In that moment, even the expressions on people's faces change.

You've gone through many troubled countries?

Based on what I've seen I can say that we don't live in a beautiful world. Which is why when I travel I never ever complain. I adapt myself to any circumstance because I know that for so many people, suffering is the rule of normalcy.

Giorgio Bettinelli, an Italian living in China, who is in the planning stages of a last four-year grand tour of the world. He was interviewed for COLORS by Leonora Sartori at the Festivaletteratura in Mantova, Italy, where he was promoting his recent book, Brum brum, 254.000 chilometri in Vespa (Vroom, vroom, 254,000 kilometers by Vespa), an account of his adventures thus far.   

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