You're here for a good time, not for a long time.

You're here for a good time, not a long time.

July 24, 2011

Final Boarding Call

As romantic as the idea of overland motorcycle travel sounds, there is no part of it that is easy.  It seems fitting that my last three days in North America turned out the way they did.  On the heels of a sleepless weekend at Bocas I have encountered major engine malfunction, severe tropical downpour, and failed to gather together any of the motorcycle parts I desperately need.

The night at Aqualounge at Bocas was exactly what we expected: loud rap music and drunken twenty-somethings jumping into the Caribbean off the dance floor throughout the night.  Even Charlie hopped in because ‘there was this particularly cute brunette’ that dared him to.  We stayed up too late that night and woke up very tired around noon the next day.  I lay around all day regaining my strength and went to bed as soon as I could Thursday night on the eve of a big push towards Panama City.

Friday morning we caught the 6:30am boat off the island back to the mainland.  We arrived at our pay parking lot around 7:00am and started repacking our bike luggage.  It was probably a forty-five minute process in total putting everything back in its place and putting all the gear on.  Finally everyone fired up their bikes; herd is about to start moving.  I popped the key in, put the transmission in neutral, dropped the choke, disengaged the engine killswitch, and hit the ignition.  The starter engine whined like it always does, but the 650cc’s wouldn’t turn over.  I tried different variations of choke and throttle for five minutes convinced the engine was cold.

That didn’t work.  Then I realized I had left my fuel petcock open all weekend.  In the past this has allowed the gas to seep from the engine and flood my carb.  So I drained the carb.  Still wouldn’t start.  Next step: rip off the seat and gas tank.  It started to rain.  I pulled the carburetor all the way off and disassembled it with Charlie’s help.  We checked all the gaskets and moving parts and everything was in order.  Put that back together and remount it.  Check the air filter; it was showing some dirt but no real signs of disorder.   We pulled out the spark plugs; they were charred but not necessarily bad.  I opened my spares and replaced them just in case.  Then we hit the ignition with the plugs out to blast out any gas that had flooded the cylinder.  There was no more gas in any part of the system.  Put it all back together and try again.

Again, nothing and now my battery was getting weaker.  Then someone recommended pulling the plugs out and actually looking for the spark by holding them to the engine block.   Five more minutes of pulling the seat and tank off again and the problem presented itself.  My spark plugs were not putting out any charge.  We knew the symptom, but a diagnosis was much more difficult.  The four other motor masterminds took turns offering more ideas.  We sprayed WD-40 on every connection in case water had seeped in.  We checked every fuse we could find.  We even pulled Alex’s ignition coil off his bike and put it on mine to see if that was the missing link.  My bike simply would not start.  By 9:30am there were multiple tool sets scattered around the parking lot and no answers. 

Time for a professional.  I got nervous.  The boat to Colombia leaves on Tuesday.  Not an ideal time to get stranded in the third world (Panama could very well be second world for all I know).  The saving grace is that we were in Central America and within a half hour the parking lot owners found a friend who was willing to haul my bike across the mountains to the nearest legitimate mechanic in a city called David.  His rate was $160 up front and that was good enough to me.  He pulled up in his little Toyota with a six foot bed.  Uh oh, my bike is at least seven feet long.  With the help of the town drunk we heaved it into the bed only to find out that it wouldn’t fit.  Amidst a lot of screaming and straining we managed not to drop the beast bringing it back down to the ground.

Of course, the Panamanians were not deterred.  They went to Plan B: take the front tire off.  So we did.  And in the midst of the process the drunk leaned on my bike on the kickstand side and the whole thing toppled over and slid into the ditch.  It was still pouring out.  I was soaked at this point.  I had my sleeping bag and pad on my seat at the time it went over.  I remember seeing both of them floating in the muddy ditch with gasoline reflecting all around them.  How did I ever end up here?  No time for philosophy, though; I rescued all my shit from the waterway and raked the bottom with my fingers to find my keys and padlocks.  I was wet anyway.

With the tire off and my hand now bleeding, we successfully hoisted the bike diagonally into the pickup with the front forks in the far corner tied up resting on top of the wheel well.  The driver strapped the whole thing down super tight and then broke some even more distressing news to us: he didn’t have room in the truck for me to ride along.  Al and I would have to ride two-up all the way to David… over the mountains and through the rain.  I still don’t know what I did to deserve any of this.

So moments later I threw my riding gear on over my soaked undergarments and high kicked over Al’s seat to mount up.  Straddling him like a Guatemalan horse, I gave a thumbs up and we took off following the Toyota.  I don’t know Al’s opinion, but the ride wasn’t as bad as I expected.  He didn’t kill us and I got to check out some cool views.  The rain let up for most of the ride and four hours later we pulled into a backyard mechanic’s garage in David.  Oh great, the ‘friend’ recommendation; classic of Central America, our driver had brought us to his buddy’s hole in the wall operation on the outskirts of town.  We unloaded the bike and I started to explain to the head mechanic what we knew about the spark plugs.  I was sure to stress the fact that I was booked on a boat to Colombia in four days.

Tato the mechanic looked at the bike confidently while deciphering my information.  His mind was obviously racing.  I pulled the seat and tank off and let him go to work.  Immediately Tato pulled out a multimeter and started putting it against all the different connections.  He had a worried look on his face.  He tried the same readings on Alex’s bike; while my bike was reading 1800, Al’s was reading 240; not good.  Tato narrowed it down to two possible conclusions.  First he unscrewed the computer off of my bike and plugged into Alex’s.  Al’s bike fired right up.  My bike has a functioning brain!  Dodged one bullet.

At that point the problem was diagnosed: a failed stator linkup.  I didn’t know what that meant, but I was not excited as I saw the next ten minutes unfold.  Tato drained my oil and then pulled out his Swiss Army knife.  He ripped off my left-side engine case as I watched in horror; four days until the boat leaves and my engine is being pulled to pieces… its guts strewn across the ground.  The stator was mounted on the inside of the case and Tato started cutting through the factory gasket so he could get a better look (the whole time reassuring me that he knew what he was doing as he grabbed for his beer).  He found the culprit; it was a little black box mounted on in the case and some component of it had failed.

Tato pulled out a pair of wire cutters and cut the piece right off, again swearing that he could put it back together with a beer in hand.  The stator is a series of wrapped wires that work with a magnet inside the engine to generate power for the bike.  Similar to an alternator on a car.  A new one costs around $300 and cannot be bought here in Panama.  And Tato just chopped mine in half. 

Somehow though his confidence really was reassuring.  I just watched with blind faith the whole time.  If this guy can’t do it, I am screwed.  Would I truck the bike to the boat and fix the problem in Colombia or miss the boat and catch up two weeks from now?  I didn’t want to think that hard.  I just watched him squirrel through all his little boxes of gadgets until he pulled out a similar looking little black box and examine it.  He seemed satisfied.

Then he ripped the bracket off it and started matching it up to the one from my bike.  They did not match.  For the next half hour Tato sat over a grinder and a vice forging a new bracket that would work in my engine case.  At about three beers deep he managed to get it right.  He put it back in my engine case, dialed its position, and soldered the wires back together.  He pulled out he mulitimeter and it measured 269.  Next beer is on me Tato!

Half an hour later he had my engine back in one piece and refilled with high quality oil.  He hit the ignition and to unimaginable delight the bike chugged once and then roared to life.  Back in the game.  This bike is my identity now and I was getting frantic with it out of commission.  This man just saved my trip; the thrill of adventure had never been stronger.  Tato was smiling and so was I.  He had dropped everything he was doing and in three hours diagnosed the problem and built the solution with his bare hands.  I paid him $115 bucks well spent and then we took a big family picture (by this time we were well acquainted with everyone hanging out on in his garage). 

That night Al and I got the first hotel we could find and rested up for Panama City.  We took off early Saturday morning and spent the next eight hours riding through intermittent rain.  It was nothing new; just plain old hell on wet Earth.  My gear did ok this time but I got wet anyway; before I got a chance to zip my jacket up tight, a bus drove through a six-inch deep puddle next to me and fanned a wall of water down my chest.  I was damp the rest of the day.  We got to Panama City and had a hell of a time finding the guys’ hostel.  After an hour of doing circles we finally did though.

The hostel was the first of its kind.  It is built specifically for motorcyclists who are trying to cross from Panama to Colombia.  There was a plethora of information for spare parts, maintenance, and anything else motorcycle-related.  It sounds like heaven, but we only spent one night there because the place was over capacity just with the seven of us staying.  Seven?  Yes, we are seven people strong now that Jill and Ty have caught up.  Last time we saw Jill and Ty was at Zephyr Lodge and they were off to Guatemala City to fly home to care for Ty’s sick mother.  Good news, she is fully recovered and we are all back on the same trail. 

So, after four months on the road, we have all funneled down into Panama at the same time and we’re all catching the same boat into Colombia.  It’s quite a thrill at such a momentous time.  Unfortunately, Patrick won’t be joining us; he is flying off to his native Sweden this week to continue his vacation.  We’ll have to catch up with him further down the road in the next few years; until then, Patrick, you’ll be missed. 

Today was a Sunday so shopping was limited.  We moved closer to downtown to a more comfortable hostel and everyone is resting up for a shopping spree tomorrow.  I still need tires, cables, sprockets, spare brakes, and a chain.  Luckily the police here ride DR650’s so I should be in luck.  Fingers crossed.  If there is time we also want to ride along the canal and take that in for what it’s worth.  I crossed it coming into town and the scale is much bigger than I imagined.  Tuesday we crane the bikes onto the boat and then it is four days of cruising through the San Blas Islands toward Colombia on a 100 year old sailboat.  I am ready for it after the fiasco I’ve been through.  I probably won’t have Wi-Fi for about a week now, so keep reading and thanks to everyone for the comments.  The trip isn’t even halfway in and there is another full continent ahead.  Buckle up!


  1. Epic post! I've watched anxiously and have been following all your posts so far. Exciting journey and great writing! I hope your luck comes back once you pass over!

  2. Fuck yea Tom, way to keep pushing. Stay safe and have fun!

  3. An incredible journey and experience so far. Over the past 4 days I've read all of Alex's posts over on ADVrider and am now thoroughly enjoying your well-written, thoughtful and vivid account of your trip to this point. I can honestly say that with few pictures than Al in your blog, your writing is terrifically detailed and beautifully written. Superb.

    This post itself is brilliant. I knew the ending from Al's post, but from your perspective the tension and worry are palpable. There's always a mechanic like Tato around in Central America! Incredible skills found at just the right time at the right price.

    Looking forward to seeing how your journey goes after you and Al split in Ecuador. Very good writing though. Ride on.