Created by Dietrich Limper
on May 4, 2022
Some records seem to have been set for eternity. The Piaggio Museum in Pontedera, for example, dedicates a section of its exhibition to a very special man: Giorgio Bettinelli. The Italian, who died in 2008, was a true adventurer and set milestones with his tours on the Vespa. In 1992, he rode from Rome to Saigon (Vietnam). 24,000 kilometers through ten countries. The Vespa PX 125 E on which he made this journey is now in a museum, as is the Vespa PX 200 E on which Bettinelli covered an incredible 144,000 kilometers from October 1997 to May 2001 during his "World Odyssey". He started in Chile and traveled via Alaska, Siberia, Africa and Asia to remote Tasmania, where his expedition ended. His last tour took Giorgio Bettinelli crisscrossing China before his untimely death at the age of 53.
Somewhat more inconspicuous, a Vespa named "Corazatta" stands next to the Bettinelli scooters. It belongs to a certain Ilario Lavarra, who some ten years ago covered 80,000 kilometers in 18 months by driving from Antarctica to the Arctic and back again. You can read about it in his book "21 Americhe: Viaggio in solitaria su una vecchia Vespa," which unfortunately is only available in Italian.
But the museum's curators should reserve more exhibition space for Ilario Lavarra, because the Italian from Milan has, so to speak, pulverized Giorgio Bettinelli's record. He started in September 2017 in Milan for the "Vespanda - le Grand Tour". On his 1968 Vespa GT, appropriately named "Ardimentosa" (audacity), he cracked the historic mark in November 2021: 145,000 kilometers through 89 countries. He circumnavigated the entire African continent, traveled the Middle East and exotic countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, was slowed down by the Corona pandemic and experienced wars in Africa firsthand.
We asked Ilario Lavarra where he is right now, what his state of mind is and how long the journey will last.
Hello Ilario. First of all, we would like to get some background information: How old are you, where do you come from, what do you do for a living when you don’t explore the world? I was born in Milano, Italy and grew up there. Later I studied economy at the university and before I started my travels, I had a guesthouse with bed and breakfast in Milano. That was my way to save some money. On the 13th of May I will become 40 years old.
Where are you right now (30.4.22) and how are you in general? At the moment I am in Oman. I came back to the Arabian Peninsula after two years. I was here before Covid and ran away when it broke out to spend the lockdown in Iran, because it is much better and cheaper there. So, I was in a rush and could not enjoy the Arabian Peninsula. That’s why I came back. Right now, I am at a long, beautiful, and very isolated beach in the south of Oman 40 kilometers away from Yemen. In general, I am very happy every day because I am doing exactly what I want. I try to enjoy my life in my way. And I enjoy travelling and riding my stupid old Vespa. (laughs)
What kind of Vespa do you ride and what is special about it? I am riding a Vespa Granturismo from 1968. It was the second Vespa of my life. With the years I bought a lot of Vespas, but I decided to travel with this Vespa because I like the color. (laughs) No, I really love this Vespa because it is 54 years old, and I bought it when I was 16 years old. Back then I did not understand anything about Vespas at all and I walked down the roads and placed stickers on Vespas saying “Would you please sell me your Vespa? Give me a call!”. And finally, a guy called me and said: “If you want to, you can have my Vespa.” The Vespa was crap and very destroyed at the time, so he sold it for 50 Euros. So, I have a deep connection with this Vespa.
Fear is simply not useful
How did and does the Corona-Pandemic affect your travels? I was very lucky when it started because I managed to jump on the last ferry going from Dubai to Iran. Everybody in Dubai told me not to got to Iran because the news said that the pandemic killed millions of people in Iran. But I told them to please let me go. When I must die, I’d rather die in Iran than in Dubai. I love Iran and it is an amazing country. So, I spent eight wonderful months as a solo tourist in Iran. I think I was the only tourist in Iran during that time. And the Iranian people are so f****** friendly, everybody invited me to stay, and I felt eight months like a king. And with my budget I was a king, because with ten dollars a day you feel like: Wow! And there was no lockdown, everybody was free to move around, while the rest of the world couldn’t leave their houses. It was an amazing experience thanks to Covid. I had to leave after eight months because my visa expired, and you don’t want to mess with the Iranian police. I spent the next eight months during the pandemic in a beautiful place in the south of Turkey. The nature was wonderful, and the ocean was amazing. And the Turkish Lira was weak, so I was extremely rich there and that was funny. The Turkish people had to be in their houses after 6 pm and on the weekend, but the tourists were allowed to go everywhere. And I had all the beaches and everything for my own. Another wow-experience. I was really lucky. Thanx Corona!
We saw a video where you tell a story about lions around your tent. Did you fear for your life in many situations? I am not afraid at all. The story with the lions was very strange and unusual. But the most people are afraid of things they don’t know and what they think they cannot face. Fear is a natural instinct. But I am always curious about the things I don’t know. I want to face everything. That’s my lifestyle. I went to the darkest places in Africa to look what is there. I want to discover, understand, and talk to the people face to face. And the bad situations during my travels made me succeed and I always saw something beautiful in them. And I always tell myself: “Let’s see where this situation will bring me.” When I was in Africa, I crossed many countries with a war going on. I was in Afghanistan and will go to Yemen in a few days. I was in Somalia, Cameroon and everybody told me not to go to Nigeria because it is supposed to be super dangerous. So, I was a little worried but told myself: “Let’s go!” And Nigeria was f****** perfect. Everybody had fun and the costs were low. I was told the police is very corrupt and take your money. But you know what? The police stopped me to take selfies with me and my Vespa. Everything was fine. Then I reached Cameroon. Nigeria is always in the media because it is a rich country, but nobody talks about Cameroon. The policeman at the border warned me about the civil war going on: “For the next 150 kilometers you will be in a jungle where the rebels kill someone every day. If you enter Cameroon, you will face war.” But I had not other options. I had to cross Cameroon and was a little bit worried. But I learned to be open to people and not to be angry. That’s the worst approach. If you are positive, the people will react positively, too. If the rebels are going to stop me, I will smile and give them my Italian comedy as usual. Nothing happened in the jungle. I was riding my Vespa with the usual 60 km/h and could not run away from anything. It was fine. This is just an example and happened also in other countries. Fear is simply not useful.
On the Vespa without a plan
The pictures look like you are travelling with not too much luggage. What do you carry during your trip? My mantra is: You carry you fears. If you think: I might need this, I might need that. I only take what is essential. A few T-Shirts, one trousers, one shorts and my beauty case with a toothbrush. And of course, my tent and that is super important to me, because it is my house. This is one bag. The other bag contains a laptop, two cell phones, an action camera and a drone. I carry a lot of electronics and chargers. Then some medicine, some papers and documents. The social media is so important it changes the way of travelling and it affects what you carry with you. I like to share my experiences and to be connected with the world. Human beings are social. I just have a few spare parts and don’t carry a lot of them. Why do I travel with a Vespa? Because it is my perfect business card. Like in Nigeria – the people just smile when they see me. They open their houses and that’s the main reason why I travel: to encounter the different cultures. The Vespa is a very strong scooter, and you can find spare parts everywhere. So, I don’t care about spare parts too much. I was in the jungles all over Africa and especially the elder people recognize a Vespa, because it was the first motorbike over there. And there were some shops in Africa where they try to fix other secondhand odd Vespas. Vespa is everywhere, except for Russia, because it was not imported by the Soviets back then. And you don’t find many in the Arabic World, because in the desert no one wanted to ride a Vespa. So, I only carry some cables, tubes for the wheels, some plugs and my tools. I have an extra piston and some rings. And one tank with oil and another with gas. That’s it.
What were the worst problems you did encounter with your Vespa? I was never stuck in the road with my Vespa. Only once. And it happened in the worst place possible. My rear suspension broke, and you cannot fix this easily. I was on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, central Asia, right at the border to Afghanistan. So, I was in a poor country without a national postal service. I had to wait until my father could send me a new suspension. I think it probably came from SIP. I had to wait for one month. He sent it to Kyrgyzstan and then someone had to bring it to me. So, I had time to enjoy Tajikistan. A wonderful country with wonderful people. A really, really remote and traditional area. There are no real roads and that’s the reason why my suspension broke. Most of the time you ride over stones and rocks. That was the biggest problem I had with my Vespa.
What are your plans for the next weeks and months? My plan is: no plan. Most people can not understand my travels because I have no schedule. It is such a long adventure – everything can happen. You cannot even imagine having a schedule of some sort. If you want to die in a river you have to swim against the current. That means for my travels: I just go with the flow. This is what I do every single day of my travels. The idea is to go to Australia, but now I am in Oman on my way to Yemen. Every day I wake up I don’t know where I will end up or what I will reach. So, I will check the vibe and go with my feelings. Finally, I will reach Australia, then America and then back to Italy.
What are your friends and family thinking about your trip? It is not my first travel, but the second one. They get used to it. My parents know that I am a little bit an unusual guy. But I have a sister and she is “normal”, so that is enough for a family. My parents accept my lifestyle and my friends, too. They know that I will follow my passions. Everybody knows me like this.
How do you finance your journey? Do you have any sponsors? The most people ask this question first. They have the wrong approach and always think about money. It is not relevant; it is not important. If you want to travel the world, the budget is not the thing to worry about. I met travelers who started their trip with ten dollars in their pocket and nothing in their bank account. You can always find people who will give you food. Especially in the western countries where we come from there is this system called “capitalism”. It is very selfish and pushes the people to be selfish. It is all about competition and winning and reaching higher levels. And the people don’t understand that other parts of the world don’t work like this. For example, some people in Africa have nothing, but a sense for their tribe, their families and connections. They have to protect each other. If you are part of the tribe, they will help you. We are animals. And animals in a herd do better than single ones. So, the people are much more friendly than the people in capitalistic society. Here in the Arabic countries the people give me everything: food, they even give me money, but I don’t ask for anything. It is part of the culture. And many foreigners came through who did a pilgrimage to Mecca and needed help on the way. So, the people here are used to help each other. The people are so nice. They are not rich, but they don’t feel like competitors in their societies. This is the point: you will always find someone who gives you water, food and accommodation. Money is important because you have to fill your tank. But that’s two Euros here. I saved money; I have a budget, but I try to live a low budget life. What makes a traveler is not the money. It is all about experiences and emotions. You need the capacity to adapt. And I don’t have any sponsor at all. I want to be free. And to be honest? I never got an offer from a sponsor.
The most difficult part of the journey is the return
How long did you prepare for your trip and what did you do? I didn’t prepare anything, I didn’t study anything, I didn’t do anything. I just want to travel, to ride and to explore as much as I can. That’s enough. All the information you need you’ll get on the road from other travelers. The most important preparations are the mental ones. You have to push yourself forward every day of you travels because it is not always beautiful. You’ll spend a lot of hours alone on the road under the sun or the rain or with wild animals. You can get sick with malaria or typhus. If you are not mentally prepared, you will go back to your home sweet home in two seconds. You need to have a very strong idea about your goal and what you want to reach. I am really determined to do what I am doing now. I have to face many problems: bureaucracy, borders, sickness, delays, bad food, wars … but that’s part of the travels and it makes you stronger. Traveling is the reason why I live, and I just want to do it.
Will you ever be able to return to Italy and live a “normal” life? Or will you be restless for the rest of your life? When you travel for so long, you have really lived three lifes: the first life, is the one you left behind. With your friends and family. Your routines and your comfort zone. The second life is where you experiment and travel and this is the most beautiful life. The third life is when you come back. And this is the most difficult part: You have changed, and you have to re-start again another life. And it is not so amazing as the previous life when you were travelling. And that is hard. So, the most difficult part for me is not the start of my travels, but to come back. Many people tell me: “If I had the time, I would do the same as you.” No! You won’t. You have your comfort zone and live in a system where you are told what to do. You have a schedule, a family, a job. Buy food in a supermarket, spend two weeks in the summer on vacation and go back to work. And you have to feed the capitalistic system. I was part of this where the society told me what to do. Everybody thinks he is free, but he is not. Everybody lives in a box the society provides for them. And it’s OK, it is nice. But not everyone is made for this. It was a philosopher, maybe Schopenhauer, who said: Freedom is very difficult to get, because it is better to stay in the system. When you choose freedom, you have to make many choices in a every single moment of your life. Nobody will tell you what to do. Freedom is harder with more responsibilities. I have to learn to choose. So, I am not afraid to come back, I will figure out what to do. As I always do. It is a joke to be afraid in a western society.
What was the most exciting/dangerous/impressive experience during your trip? I really don’t know. I am addicted to explore and learn every day. I know, it sounds like a stupid answer. I want to discover, see, smell, hear, touch, make love to a beautiful girl somewhere, to have a connection with people. This is the excitement for me. The most beautiful time of my life. I have no idea what I will see in the next days in Yemen. I decided one thing for my life: I don’t want to live the fears of other people. Everybody tries to tell you all the time what to fear and what to worry about. I don’t want to participate in that. I usually don’t listen to the fears of other people. We have different lives and different feelings. Being with the lions was amazing, being in the desert, in the jungle or 5.000 meters high in the Himalaya. Crossing the sea from Panama to Columbia on a sailboat where I almost died. That’s excitement for me. I am the owner of my life and the owner of this beach and I will jump in the water soon and enjoy the day.
What did you learn about the world and the people in general? Is our planet still a great place? Wow, that’s a big question. First of all, I learned how to deal with every kind of person. Different cultures, different countries and you have to be faster than them, because you have to know if they will scam you, want a bribe and it can be dangerous. I learned how to approach and talk to people. I had to figure out the psychological part of the people. That’s most important during my travels. Yes, the planet is still a great place! Of course! It is wonderful. But, let me tell you, I am really worried about it. You see a lot of pollution and the people don’t care about it. And the resources are not treated well. Fish, animals, forests – it’s all going away. And we are so many on this planet. F****** eight billion people! And they need more and more and more to consume. And everything is about growth. But why? We approach the resources like they are unlimited. The world is already overpopulated. Where are the remote places nowadays? There are few. People are building, building and building everywhere. It is all about profit. Does this help the planet to get better? The whole system we live in is wrong. People want the latest iPhone, a car with air conditioning to be able to go to the supermarket to buy any food they want. It provides comfort for the western world. But we steal the resources from other countries. When I was in Africa all the big western companies take their minerals, food, fish, gold, and the people living there have nothing. It is the richest continent on this planet, but the people are the poorest. There is something wrong with this and there is no balance. But the humankind does not understand this. In the long run this is not the right system. Why are millions of people trying to emigrate to the western world? I am not a communist, I believe in nothing, but I am worried about this planet. It is a beautiful world, but we don’t do anything to protect and preserve it. Wow, this was a long conversation, and I haven’t had this for a long time. And I am lying under a straw roof at the beach, with my Vespa behind me and look out at the ocean. I am having a great time. And I hope to see you all at SIP when I am near Germany one day.
Ilario, we thank you for your detailed answers and wish you a safe onward journey. We'll be watching to see where you end up.