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Chasing Adventure Via Motorcycle in Latin America
On the pampas the horizons seem to flee. The llamas are golden, the clouds impossibly white. We let the bikes run. Suddenly, the view changes. The lead bike rises above the line of the horizon, a rider flails through the air 10 feet above the ground. This is not good. Jeff has gone off the road at 70 mph. Katie goes into paramedic mode, calming Jeff, running her hands up his spine, probing, checking ribs, legs, arms. The fall has ripped his touring jacket from shoulder to waist, peeling the back protector to reveal the We-Build-Bridges T-shirt. He is scuffed, but within moments is giggling, flashing the “I Can’t Believe I’m Still Alive” grin that is his default expression.
Ryan pulls the bike up and starts collecting the bits scattered across the desert. The luggage is destroyed. The right handlebar is bent almost to the tank. Mirrors, turn signals, front fender snapped off in a microsecond. Both wheel rims have dents. Incredibly, it still runs. He puts the parts that still work back on the bike, takes it for a test ride. It will last another 7,000 miles. Our motto: We Will Make This Work.
Jeff tells what happened. A small bird had hopped into his path. The next thing he knew he was off the road, launched into a culvert. “I thought, wow. I’m Superman. Oh look, there’s the bike. Oh look, there’s the bird…” In a field strewn with jagged boulders, he had landed on sand.
The trip came up long before I was ready. A phone call, an invitation to tag along with a group of BMW riders embarking on a five-week, 8,000-mile journey from Peru to Virginia. I would document the ride, a fundraising effort for a group that builds footbridges in remote areas of the world. I’d been thinking about a long ride, something open-ended, without support vehicles, the experience of being totally “out there.” This seemed to fit the bill. A third of the distance around the world with complete strangers. I had a brand-new BMW F 800 GS and it was thirsty. If there was a point of no return, I crossed it before I hung up the phone.
First, the riders. Ken Hodge is an insurance benefits specialist and member in good standing of the Newport News Rotary Club. He discovered motorcycles late in life, when he bought a bike, rode it across country in 48 hours, then began to dream of a bigger adventure, something for a good cause.
He recruited his daughter Katie (a fire department paramedic), his stepson Ryan (a mechanic and dirt-bike rider) and Ryan’s best friend Jeff. I’m impressed by their preparations. They ride old BMW R 1150s and F 650 singles. Ryan had spent a year renewing the bikes, poking about the inner recesses, memorizing the shop manuals for each machine. They would bring enough tools and parts to handle almost every emergency.
INTO THE ANDES
We stop at Nazca to view the ancient figures scratched in the rocky desert. From the top of a tower we can see a figure with raised hands. Just to the north, the Pan-American Highway bisects the figure of a lizard, decapitating the creature. Bound by the tight focus of brass transit levels, the surveyors who laid out the road were not even aware of the sacred relics, discovered when aerial flight became common.
I realize that we are as blinded by focus, by concentration as the surveyors were by their instrument. The trip will be a series of images, sidelong glances, captured at speed.
Descendants of the people who built the Inca trail, Peruvian builders know their stuff. But it’s the tracery, the managed flow of momentum, that has our respect. The road ascends ancient seabeds, hills covered with talus, fractured dry ridges with cornices sculpted by landslides. Midday, we find ourselves on a high pampas inhabited by thousands of vicuña and alpaca. In the distance, our first sight of snowcapped peaks. There are stone corrals on nearby slopes, one-room huts. In the middle of this giant nowhere, a lone shepherd walking on the side of the hill.
We discover that the distances on maps are those of the condor. We travel incredibly twisted roads that sometimes take a hundred turns (and several miles) to get from one ridge to the next. The map indicates towns, but to our dis-may not all have gas stations. We buy gas in a small outpost from a woman who ladles it out of a bucket with a coffee pot, then pours it through a plastic, woven kitchen funnel into our tanks. The whole town watches. We push on into the descending night. We make it to the next set of lights, 20 or so buildings on two streets, find a hotel, and park our bikes in an enclosed backyard with dogs, chickens, dead birds, plastic bottles and an animal hide tanning on the wall. Instead of the usual exit signs, the restaurant in our hotel has green arrows that say “ESCAPE.” It is not a criticism of the food. The forces that drive the Andes skyward have been known to demolish whole towns.
The next morning we fire up the bikes, and ascend into the Andes on a perfect road. We are fluid, going through hairpins, double hairpins, squared-off turns-climbing the flank of a single 4,700-meter peak. I can think of only one word: delicious. We move through mist and low-hanging clouds, with shafts of sunlight slanting into rainbows. The valleys below are green and fertile, a mix of old Inca terracing and more modern farms. Slender eucalyptus trees line the road, providing shade for huts with red tile roofs. A girl tends a flock of goats (identified with colorful ribbons) on a green meadow, book in hand. At one point I think the clouds above have parted to reveal patches of blue, but when I look up I see that it is snow-covered rock, another 3,000 or 4,000 feet of mountain. On a turnoff near the top of the peak we find a dozen or so tiny shrines, little churches decorated with flowers and ribbons and photographs of loved ones. The site of a bus plunge. On a hillside across the valley paragliders work the thermals, the canopies looking like bright-colored eyebrows, or ostentatious angels.
We share the road with vicuña, alpaca, llama, sheep, goats, dogs, roosters, pigs, horses and cows. On a narrow lane near Abancay, a bull tries to gore me as I pass, charging and making a hooking motion with its horns. One night after the sunset, I round a corner and a beautiful roan stallion wheels in the light from our bikes, filling the lane with wide eyes and flashing hoofs, inches from my head. I realize that riding sweep poses a risk. The novelty of our passing bikes wears off, and the local wildlife has time to react.
Entering Cusco, Ryan asks directions, a girl directs us onto a narrow cobblestone street, slick with rain, as steep as a bobsled run. The rocks are turned on their side, like teeth. The knobbies have no traction whatsoever. The people on the sidewalks frantically wave their hands, indicating that the road gets steeper. I touch my brake and the bike goes down, pinning my leg against the curb, a quarter of an inch shy of a fracture. The bike behind me goes down. It is harrowing. The locals help us lift the bikes, get them turned uphill.
A police escort leads us to a hotel that lets us store the motorcycles in the lobby. Without bothering to shower, we make our way to the Norton Rats Bar on the northeast corner of the central plaza. The owner, an American expatriate, once piloted a Norton to the tip of the continent. The walls are lined with photos from the trip. Above the bar are mounted heads, the four past American presidents, with their best known soundbites: I am not a crook. I did not inhale. I do not recall. We will find WMD in Iraq. We sip beers, trade stories, trying to reassemble the past few days. The dead battery. The punctured radiator. The roadside repairs. The incredible rush of unrelenting beauty.
Three days of desert north of Lima generate a few details. The total absence of life, the three colors of sand. Young boys pedaling tricycle ice cream carts in the middle of nowhere. We enter a <I>zona de nimbleras</I>, but instead of fog we find a 60-mph crosswind that sends a layer of grit skittering across the road like a special effect in a Steven Spielberg movie. Two lanes narrow to one covered by blowing sand, thick enough to swallow the front tire, deep enough that a road grader prepares to clear the drifting sands.
We decide to try a secondary route through the hills. We turn onto a dirt road and everything changes. We pass through villages alive with people, dogs, tiny three-wheel taxis fashioned from old motorcycles. Kids on motorscooters ride past, snapping pictures with their cell phones. The road throws split-finger fastballs at the bash plate that clang as loud and adamant as the sound of an aluminum bat. We slosh our way through gravel, gray dust on everything, parts falling off, teeth rattling. Oh yes, this is what we wanted.
In Macara, we sit on the sidewalk near a minor town square, eating pork cooked by a rotund woman in a yellow dress. Her daughter brings us three beers (giant) at a time, and keeps the empties in a milk crate for accounting later. Boys on motorbikes cruise the quiet streets, the lucky ones with girls on the back. Across the square, girls sit on benches. Jeff experiences a cultural revelation, that South American girls have breasts, and wear tight pants…and “Hey, I think she likes me.”
Our dinner companion is David McCollum, an American expatriate that Ryan had met on ADVrider.com. He tells us stories about riding the Ecuadoran Andes, and gives us tips on handling roadblocks. “Act Stupid. Do not try to communicate in Spanish. Say ‘No fumar Espanol’ (I don’t smoke Spanish). If all else fails, have Katie cry.” Er, Katie does not do “cry.” The next day he leads us into the Ecuadoran Andes.
Impressions: Razor-sharp ridges. Lumpy, conical outcroppings. Monasteries on top of hills. Slopes so steep they will never be worked by machine. A couple standing above dark earth, the man holding a wooden hoe, the woman a bag of seeds. A woman on horseback, black and red cape, a whip coiled in one hand. Trees. Cloud. Mist. The feel of a Japanese block print, the ones that suggest the road goes to infinity.
I had introduced the group to a family tradition. When we travel, we end each day by recounting high point, low point and funny bone. After this day, I will add “Pucker moments.” Trucks hurtle out of the fog, running without lights, signaled only by the ghostly wave pushed before. They appear in our lane without warning or reason. We go through construction sites where the road narrows to one lane that offers no escape route. One side seems hideously close to the new concrete, studded with rebar fangs. The other side is precipice. Pucker moments? Take your pick.
Sometimes it’s the surface, a half mile of muddy bobsled run, of loose gravel, of gushing water, the bike handling like a loose bowel. Twice, we round a corner and find no road, the surface having caved in, sucked away by underground torrents. Katie’s moment comes when a cow, with no footing, scrambles into the path of her bike. For Jeff, it is passing a truck that suddenly swerves to avoid a pothole, the trailer swinging toward him like a baseball bat.
We spend two days in Cuenca, a 500-year-old city surrounded by mountains. Ken phones ahead and discovers that the ship that was to have taken us and the bikes from Ecuador to Panama doesn’t exist (had we had drugs or been illegal aliens, no problem, but there are no accommodations for <I>turistas</I> with motorcycles). We ask David for help. While we ride to Quito, he will work the phones. He finds a contact, a guy known for getting things done when no one else can. We meet up with this air freight magician at The Turtle’s Head, a biker bar in Quito. At midnight.
The next morning we ride our bikes to the military section of the airport, then into a refrigerated warehouse. The steel floor is covered with embedded ball bearings, across which slide steel palettes. For the next three hours we wrestle with tiedowns. A skinny man dressed entirely in black oversees the operation, taking pictures of the bikes with a digital camera, making sure batteries are disconnected, tires are deflated. Drug-sniffing dogs poke their noses into every recess.
Then, just like that, our bikes are gone, on their way to Panama in the belly of an airplane.
Central American countries are the size of postage stamps. You can cross them in a day and a half, only to spend a half day at customs and immigration. Ken had prepared Xerox copies of all our documents (passports, licenses, titles, registration, VIN numbers) and had them notarized. As he works with the official in the air-conditioned office, we sit in 100-degree heat and watch ants carry grains of dirt from beneath the ground. We will become used to the demands for more copies, the freelance currency traders waving bills in front of our faces, the young hustlers willing to facilitate the process, the food vendors waiting for starvation to overcome caution about local cuisine.
Before embarking on this trip, I’d read State Department travel advisories. The section on Peru warned that five Americans had died from liposuction in Lima. OK, was that consensual liposuction, or were there gangs of thugs wielding vacuum cleaners with sharp pointy attachments? Virtually every entry on Central American countries warned about fake checkpoints, bandits in uniform, soldiers in the middle of nowhere.
Along the roadside are signs with a blood-red eye and the warning <I>vigilantes</I>. We round a corner to find two soldiers walking patrol, miles from the nearest town. They ask for paperwork. A surge of adrenaline turns my mouth to cotton. David, our friend in Ecuador had given us good advice: Act stupid. Smile. We seem to have a natural talent for that. <I>No fumar Espanol</I>. After inspecting our paperwork, they wave us on. In the next few weeks we will be stopped repeatedly, sniffed by dogs, x-rayed, wanded with devices that look like carving knives with car antennas where the blade should be. At border crossings, guys in jumpsuits and facemasks spray our bikes with liquids designed to kill stowaway bugs too lazy to cross borders under their own power. There are soldiers at every gas station, armed attendants at convenience stores and restaurants, guys with shotguns on Pepsi trucks. We are aware of poverty, a culture of criminal opportunity. The night air can strip your bike naked, if you don’t find a hotel with secure parking.
These countries are linked by soil to the United States, and our culture has rattled its way through. Central America is a motorbike culture. Whole families whiz by, perched on narrow seats, wearing helmets with missing visors. In Panama City we run into a group of Harley riders. The bikes have exhausts the size of howitzers, the horns blare a soundtrack of special effects. They surround us, and ask if we want to join their regular weekend burger run. We follow them to an exclusive country club just beyond the Mira Flores locks on the Panama Canal. They send us off with directions to a bed-and-breakfast up the coast. I fall asleep that night in a hammock, a bottle of beer still clutched in my hand, the blades of a fan whirring softly overhead.
Central America has a different feel than Peru and Ecuador, a different gravity. We move through verdant countryside at a speed that would be natural in Virginia or Colorado or California. The vegetation looks like fireworks, only green. Here clusters of one plant have taken over a hillside. There a different species explodes. A slow war.
We have been in the saddle for three weeks. Nothing can break our pace. We abandon the Pan-American Highway and find roads that make it seem like you have two flat tires, ones that seem like you’re riding on an oil spill. There are narrow, one-vehicle-at-a-time bridges of mismatched narrow-gauge rails, or on lesser roads, steel plates tossed across rotting timbers. The terrain is a geological mash-up, without the power of the Andes, but enough unexpected elevation change and tight corners to make for an interesting ride. Towns announce themselves with speed bumps and potholes that can swallow bikes whole. I see road signs unique to the country, silhouettes of odd animals. A snake crossing. A jaguar crossing. In Costa Rica we hit a 30-mile stretch of gravel road, and the world becomes dust. The bikes come alive. We romp, skitter, wander, trusting the gyroscope. I try to read the strange shadows that appear in the dust-bicyclists, ATVs, huge trucks with no lights-not always accurately. There are breaks in the dust cloud when I see fields filled with white cattle and at their feet white egrets. The sky tinges pink with light from a setting sun. A feeling almost like peace.
We spend a night in Arsenal, a destination resort for adrenaline junkies with discretionary income. Posters advertise canopy walks, zipline rides through the rain forest, the chance to rappel down waterfalls, night hikes to lava flows, kayaking, canoeing. We ignore the offers, saddle up and ride into the rain forest. A group of meercats swarms down an embankment onto the road. Monkeys cavort in the trees overhead. A tourist zips by on a steel cable casting a shadow on the road, a blur of color in the sky. It looks like someone was hanging laundry and forgot to take his or her clothes off.
Nicaragua has its own feel. We ride past volcanoes so large they make their own weather, the crowns hidden beneath wide-brimmed clouds. Don Quixote in his barber bowl hat. The streets are clogged with horsedrawn buggies. We find a hotel near the town square. Across the street from the hotel is a shop offering galactic Internet. The traditional culture is slowly losing ground to bandwidth. Relay towers compete with church steeples, billboards for cell service block oversized statues of saints on nearby hilltops.
We visit a bridge, built by Ken’s organization, in a remote area of Honduras. At the turnoff from the main road I think we are entering a drainage ditch. Indeed, during the rainy season the road is impassable, the clay surface too slick for traction. Now, the bikes tackle a road gouged by erosion, working their way around rocks exposed by the force of water. This is by far the most technical riding of the trip.
The 40-mile road will take five hours to cross. The clawmark gullies pull Ken’s bike out from under him; Katie rides into a ditch and smashes her bike’s windscreen. Even Ryan has trouble. The river, when we reach it, is intimidating. I take pictures of the bikes as they come through, pushing a bow wave over front wheels, jouncing up the rocks on the other side. If a trip can be reduced to 1⁄250th of a second, a single moment seared in memory, these pictures would be it.
We cross into Guatemala, and spend the night with Hemingway impersonators and Jimmy Buffet wannabes in Rio Dulce. The hotel has a wonderful tacky feeling. The overhead fan showers sparks. The power goes off at regular intervals, as does the water. If you want a shower, step outside. We spend a long day riding through rain. The water destroys one of my cameras, turning the LCD into an aquarium. Hey, I have enough pictures.
At the first town over the Mexican border, we stop for directions on a crowded street. A truck sideswipes my bike, snags a sidecase, and drags me down. I’m unhurt, but the windscreen and instrument panel lie in fragments. The police, when they arrive, are the opposite of helpful. We collect the broken bits, duct tape everything in sight, and fire it up. We are unstoppable. We ride on, but the mood of the ride changes and the calendar beckons. Katie, Ryan and Jeff have to be back by a certain date, or they lose their jobs.
The ride becomes time vs. distance, a push that blurs most of Mexico, and a final border crossing into the United States.
We hurtle across long roads, nursing bikes that are showing signs of wear. Ken’s bike is missing a sidestand. Ryan’s helmet a visor. Katie treats her BMW’s busted windscreen like a badge of honor, but still, a 75-mph headwind is exhausting. Jeff’s bike has chewed the rear sprocket to nubbins, the chain is beginning to slip. It will wind up in a U-Haul 100 miles from home.
Five weeks after departing, we see the lights of Newport News. As they enter the city, Ken, Ryan and Katie spread across the road, side by side, arms raised. The long ride is over.
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