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

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

August 30, 2011

Journey to the Center of the Earth


I really enjoy the big pushes.  Even though they are endless miles of breathing diesel fumes around white-knuckle corners, these days are what I imagined when we set off.  Roaring engines, technical riding, and grease everywhere.  Cali to Quito had it all.

Saturday we pulled out of Cali at 10:00am and started hauling south on the Panamerican.  It was a pretty simple route given the well-signed highway and Charlie’s GPS.  Ecuador is mountainous, so of course we started climbing early in the afternoon.  There were a lot of magnificent views, but regrettably they were tainted by all the semis.  If they aren’t running you off the road, they are going about 15mph in front of you… and they will never pull off on a straightaway to let the train of cars pass them.  Instead they get as much speed as they can and then roll over on the next turn.  Brilliant.

I had another drop when we pulled off for lunch.  Just like all of them, I was trying to do a very simple low speed turn basically at walking speed.  With my mind on lunch, I let the weight get away from me and before I knew it I was standing over the bike on its side.  No big deal, I just wish all the Colombians hadn’t seen it.

 I think my new boots had something to do with it.  I bought them small, something I picked up when I worked at Wintersport ski shop in college.  Ski boots are supposed to fit tight so every little movement is immediately transferred from your muscle to the ski.  I figure the principle works in all settings.  The smaller the boot, the more precisely you can place it and feel your movements.  You just have to put up with some cramped toes; I’ve been buying boots small for years now so my feet feel at home when my toes are curled in on themselves like a climbing shoe.  Probably doesn’t work for everyone, but I love it.  The TCX’s are way better for riding; I never miss a shift, there’s no draft between the boot and my pant cuffs, and they hold onto the foot pegs better.  The only drawback is that they don’t lock around my ankle as tight as a set of snug leather work boots (they also aren’t worn in yet).  They’re slightly lighter and have less tread so when I put my feet down they slip a little more than I’m used to.  Putting a foot down in those work boots was like dropping a cement brick anchor.  They’re a little awkward now, but I’ll figure out how to walk the bike in these boots quickly.

The second half of Saturday was more intense.  We climbed high into the mountains and the roads turned pretty poor.  For a fifty mile stretch there were dirt patches peppering both lanes over a winding mountain range.  Our tires are built to handle them, but hitting one at 60mph on a decent lean could put me on the pavement.  It took a lot of concentration and some reserved riding, but we navigated them with no problems.  Around 5:00pm we pulled into Pasto, CO and found Alex and Kristi at their hostel.  We had a good night together, but it was pretty tame given another day of mountains would be starting in less than twelve hours.

As promised, Sunday’s mountains were just as rough.  Paved roads the entire way, but we often battled ripples in the tarmac as well as high winds.  Between the two, it can be terrifying coming into a turn having the handle bars wobbling back and forth at 50mph.  What most people don’t expect out of motorcycles, though, is how much they want to stay up.  Those wheels want to stay in line more than anything, so it takes a hell of an effort to throw that harmony off.  Rest assured though, when it does happen, it’s hell to pay.

By noon Charlie, Andy, and I pulled into Ipiales, CO, the last city before the border.  Feeling energetic, the three of us decided to take a half hour detour to the Sanctuary Las Lajas.  I’d seen pictures of Las Lajas, and it proved to be as impressive as I hoped.  Las Lajas is a Catholic cathedral built on top of a bridge that spans across a very deep gully at the bottom of a valley just outside of Ipiales.  We were lucky enough to be there on a Sunday took witness the church in all its glory.  The building itself is very intricate inside and out.  The bridge it sits on is impressive as well.  There is a waterfall that feeds the river flowing beneath it all; the surrounding environment alone is worth stopping for.  Most extraordinary aspect is the rock wall behind the altar inside the church.  The building only has three man-made sides with the cliff wall acting as the fourth.  It’s a trip watching mass.  On one hand you’re surrounded by chandeliers and intricate gold-plated mosaics, on the other it feels like it’s all taking place inside a cave.  I’ll get some pictures up one of these days.

With clouds gathering we took off towards the border early afternoon.  The Colombia-Ecuador border was the simplest crossing we’ve had all trip.  It was well-signed, streamlined, and smooth.  Within an hour we were stamped into Ecuador with imported bikes.  All free of charge.  I was a little bent out of shape after I lost $20 on the money exchange.  I accidently hit the border with about $250 in Colombian pesos.  The only way to exchange cash was with the border sherpas and they like to make a profit.  I argued them down a bit, but in the end I still lost a Jackson.

We left the border around 3:00pm and finally stopped to rest two hours later in Ibarru, Ecuador.  I immediately began to appreciate the prices here.  Ecuador, like Panama, uses the U.S. dollar for its currency so there is no mental exchange to deal with on every purchase.  Even better was the private room at a nice hotel for $16.  We had hot water, Wi-Fi, a pool, cable TV, and even complimentary shampoo.  After a quick wash we all headed down the street for a huge steak and a beer for $7.  A very rewarding night after two hard days of riding.

With Quito just sixty miles away, we got up late Monday morning and got packed at a leisurely pace.  The ride in was pretty simple and somewhere along the way we crossed the equator.  I was pretty disappointed that somehow we managed to miss the photo-op at the center of the world monument, so I may have to go back and find it on the way out of town.  Anyway, I’m in the southern hemisphere now.  Upon arriving in Quito proper we hired a taxi to guide us through town to the hostel district.  Quito starts in a basin between several mountains and its favelas spread up the hills in every direction.  The elevation is somewhere around 2,400 meters and it gets plenty cold at night. 

After three days of intense riding the first thing Andy, Charlie, and I did was open a tab at our hostel (around 4:00pm).  We piled beers onto it until the hostel bar closed at 10:30pm.  At that point there are two options: go out or go to bed.  None of us wanted to go out.  The first thing the staff told us when we arrived is that Quito is one of the most dangerous cities on the gringo trail.  Apparently, it is common for thieves to throw human feces on tourists from the roofs.  Then a second thief comes up and pretends to help clean you up as he cleans out your pockets.  I was tired and I didn’t smell like shit; a status quo sounded just fine.

Today, Tuesday, I’m lounging.  I’m considering finding the Suzuki dealership in town here to continue my search for spare parts.  The clutch cable never came through in Cali so that’s still on my list.  So is the throttle cable.  I’d also be interested in finding some spare clutch plates.  I’ve been hard on mine lately and having them burn out on some dirt road in Peru would be a buzz kill.  They’re doing fine right now, though, so I if I’m careful they should hold out a while.  Whether I find them or not, it’s not the end of the world.  It wouldn’t be the same trip if I weren’t worrying about something every mile of the way.

August 26, 2011

Cali Dreaming

Although it’s just another big city in Colombia, Cali has been an absolute delight from the moment I arrived.  It hasn’t been cheap, but once in a while on a trip like this it’s nice to treat yourself to a little glamor.

The money trail starts at Eurocasco with the owner named Ashley.  Ashley rides a Tenere just like Andy and Charlie so he instantly took affection to them when they met at the hostel.  Ashley owns a high-end motorcycle gear shop just a block from our hostel and he spends a lot of time marketing himself here at Casa Blanca.  It’s a good idea; he carries brands that we haven’t seen since California such as Arai and Shoei.  Charlie was interested in a real helmet (since his Hornet was stolen in Mexico) so we strolled over to see what Eurocasco had to offer.  Long story short, Charlie walked out empty handed and I $300 lighter.  As soon as I walked in I was drawn to a pair of touring boots displayed on the wall.  They were my size of course.  I tried on the TCX Infinity boot and finally understood the hype behind motorcycle specific footwear.  They have reinforcement against all major rubbing points (gear shift, brake, engine case) as well as very strong protection around the ankle and up to the calve.  All black, mostly leather, with a ratcheting strap system that locks my foot comfortably in the heelbox.  I wasn’t excited to spend the money, but after watching Alex hobble around for two weeks in Barranquilla it was a simple decision.  I’m worried about my work boots, though.  I don’t have much room, but I’ll find a way to hold onto them for another few hundred miles and see how it goes.  They are $160 boots themselves and have never let me down.  Shipping them home is out of the question; it would probably cost their worth.  We’ll see, they could come in handy in the upcoming mountainous sections.

Thursday I also had my valves checked by Casa Blanca’s mechanic.  It was a cheap $25 job and he says I’m good to go for another 16,000 miles.  While that was going on I went to the Suzuki dealership just four blocks away and ordered some more spark plugs and a clutch cable.  They don’t have a throttle cable, but at this point it seems that I’m just not meant to carry one so I’ll stop worrying.  I decided to gear up here because the next three countries are known to be very poor.  Neither Ecuador, Peru, nor Bolivia will have much in the way of real motorcycle parts even in their biggest cities.   Better to spend it now than have it shipped in later (I’ve learned that by now).

By evening Alex and Kristi had arrived in Cali and were in our hostel ready to have some fun.  We all got a little dressed up (deodorant actually came out) and hopped in a cab for a local English pub.  Walking in the first thing I spotted was the tap.  I’ve been drinking out of cans and bottles four months straight now without one draft beer in between.  I felt like pulling a Homer Simpson and leaning my face right under the tap and letting it flow.  Instead I held back and ordered a pint of their dark ale.  That went down real smooth.  So did the blonde right after it.  And then the dark again.  There was a burger in there somewhere.  By 9:30pm I was starting to look like a liability so I toned it down a bit and started nursing a Budweiser.  That’s when I started chatting with Jeniffer.

Ever since we left the coast these Colombian women have gotten a lot more breathtaking.  The rumors are true: they are hot.  Maybe it’s that these are the first girls in the last 5,000 miles that seem to give a shit how they look.  Maybe it’s that Colombia is the world capital for plastic surgeries per capita.  In truth I think it’s that they are built like real women and proud to show it off.  Very curvy, lots of long black hair, and they even smell nice.  All of us are developing a severe case of swivelneck. 

Jeniffer is Colombian and she fits the build.  I was enchanted listening to her experiences for a couple hours as I sipped my Bud.  At the same time Charlie was smiling at another Colombian named Liliana two bar stools down.  The prospect of going to Ecuador was looking a lot dimmer.  By the end of the night we asked the girls what their plans were for the weekend… work.  Reality set in and it turns out that the women around here actually have responsibilities such as supporting their sisters’ children and studying ethics homework for flight attendant classes.  It was crushing, but what is there to do?  You can’t have it all.  We’re on permanent vacation interrupting the busy lives of young up and coming Colombians. We’ll be gone in 36 hours anyway; I guess this one will remain a mystery.  I got Jeniffer’s number and might get a late lunch with her today if she has time.  I’ll take what I can get.  Next time, Colombia might be a trip of its own.

August 24, 2011

Ridin´Solo


The positive momentum keeps building the further south I go.  Alex and I picked up Kristi at the airport and then it was off to the races.  It was good to see a familiar face from home, a reminder that it’s really not that far away.  We took a cab back to the hostel and immediately went out to dinner.  When we got back Kristi divvied up all our goodies and then I let the two of them have some alone time.  Somehow there was a communication breakdown and Kristi was never given my cables.  It’s not anything catastrophic, but it means I’ll be searching for them in Cali today.  I also think I’ll have my valves checked.  Charlie, Andy, and I are staying at a hostel that is built around adventure motorcycle travel.  The owner has a fleet of bikes and runs a garage next door where all the work is done.  The bikes are for rent and he offers guided tours on them for weeks at a time.  It’s a great idea and an even better opportunity to have a good mechanic do a simple job on my engine.

I left at 8:15am from Bogota on Tuesday after saying goodbye to Alex and Kristi and the other bikers.  I had studied the maps a lot before this solo trip and it paid off; I never made a wrong turn all the way to Cali.  My route followed the Panamerican Highway for a lot of the trip.  That means four-lane freeway wherever possible (although there are still donkey carts).  I made good time in the morning knocking off 120 miles by 11:00am; I stopped once to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that Kristi’s mom sent down.  I was feeling good, expecting the whole trip to go like that.  And then I crossed the northern Andes.  I went 50 miles over the next three hours through winding roads filled with semis all the way to the 3,300 meter pass at the top.  It was maddening watching the miles tick by so slowly.  I could see they were building a new road; there were bridge pillars in place the whole way up going right over the valley I was weaving.  That road won’t open for years though. 

By the top I was very aware of the altitude.  I was a little short of breath and starting to get cold.  I was high in the clouds and couldn’t see off towards the lowlands, but somehow the sun was shining on my back.  About halfway up I had to adjust my fuel mixture screw because my engine was flooding with the lack of oxygen to burn the gas.  First time I’ve actually been forced to play with that thing, definitely not the last.  It rained off and on most the way up and down.  I pulled into Armenia at 3:00pm exhausted and stopped for lunch.  Cali was still 100+ miles away, but I was ready to prove myself and it was all freeway anyway.  Absolutely stuffed with chicken, I hopped back on the road and blasted to Cali in two hours through a lot more rain. 

I had studied the streets in Cali too and amazingly I pulled up to my hostel not fifteen minutes after entering the city.  I checked in and then got online to see where Charlie and Andy were.  They had found the motorcycle hostel, Casa Blanca, so I showered and walked over.  We had a fantastic time catching up and sharing stories regarding the last three weeks.  Beer flowed and there was a lot of excitement, but we all crashed around midnight after the hard day of riding.  Today I moved over to Casa Blanca to make things easy and hang out in biker haven.  Cali seems to be just another big city so we may hit the road soon.  Time will tell.  It’s good to be back. 

August 22, 2011

Fotos VII


For the first time in four months I’m wearing shoes, jeans, a long sleeve flannel, and a jacket.  At 8,600 feet elevation, the air is crisp up here.  The final day of riding into town went well.  Wilson’s route proved to be beautiful and kept us off the dirty freeway as long as possible.  We crossed through a lot of lush farm fields among the pine forests before dropping into the city.  It smelled like home; I hope the terrain continues on this course for many months to come.

Alex and I worked our way towards the old town tourist district through the city of 8 million until we finally stumbled across the Cranky Croc hostel which has a good name for it in the motorcycle community.  The hostel is pretty comfy, but the highlights are the other motorcyclists we’ve met.  Adam is an Israeli riding an outrageous BMW HP2.  It’s by far the best bike we’ve seen on the road; barely heavier than ours but 1200cc’s of terror.  Adam has been on the road for two and a half years.  He’s done Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and now South America.  He tackles North America next and after that Australia.  He has a year and a half left.  He is a wealth of information and he has this adventure down to a science.  He even ran into Charlie and Andy last week in Medellin and had a blast with them too.  It’s a shame he’s going north; I’ve learned a lot from him in a short time.

Brian is a thirty year old Eagle Scout from Colorado riding a Kawasaki KLR 650.  He started a year ago and worked his way down to Panama just like we did.  Since then he has gone all the way down to Ushuaia and then back around through Brazil.  He’s on the final days of his journey right now.  He and his bike ship to Miami this week and from there he will ride it home and start working again.  Brian isn’t going back to your typical grind though; he’s a wine importer/exporter in Vail.  Also, I got a very nice facebook message from someone name Gage the other day.  I lost your information before I could respond Gage, but thanks for the kind words.  To everybody else leaving comments, I really appreciate it.

Kristi gets in tonight and Alex is obviously excited.  I’m pretty pumped too.  She’s bringing a care package from home consisting of new underwear, two new shirts, a pair of swim trunks, an extra pair of light pants, clutch and throttle cables, brake pads, and extra earplugs.  The excitement is reminiscent of Christmas at six years old.  I’d love to stay around and hang out a couple days while she settles in, but tomorrow morning I am making a move for Cali to meet up with Charlie and Andy.  With Alex and Kristi setting off on their own adventure, I need to do the same.  I’ve finally got a few pictures put together worth showing.  Enjoy.

Back in Cartagena when I was thrilled to be on the Colombian coast.

Alex immediately after the truck hit him.  This picture is one of my favorites of the trip because of the background people. The guy in the blue shirt over his shoulders was the truck driver.  I also love the muchacho holding the bird cage.

Here's the culprit.  You can see on the black bar across the grill where Al put a dent on the right side.  Also just under the right tow hook on the bumper is where Al's tire rubbed.
This is the fishing village of Taganga.  One last look at the Caribbean.

Me and Nicolas hanging out at the pool in Barranquilla.  He was a bit of a mooch, but a great guy to have around given his expertise.
Just as we started ascending into the Colombian mountains on the way to Bogota.

It is hard to capture their reach, but these mountains were magnificent.

August 21, 2011

Long Haulin´

We finally got out of Barranquilla Thursday at noon.  Alex’s lawyer Edwin seemed to be doing his job, but the bureaucracy in that city is apparently among the worst in Colombia.  We lay pretty low the last couple days after my attack.  I didn’t leave the room past 10:00pm once.  Wednesday evening Al and I went to see Super 8 at the theater.  I was heartbroken when the first lines spoken in the film were Spanish; we watched the whole movie without subtitles.  My Spanish improved noticeably during the two weeks in Barranquilla.  I was able to follow the movie pretty well, but a lot of the technical plot development and jokes were lost on me.  It gets hard to listen in Spanish for more than a half hour too.  By the end I was exhausted and pretty confused.  Therefore the movie wasn’t that great, although Alex and I agree it wouldn’t have been that good in English either.  Spielberg fail.

Thursday Edwin showed up with all the signatures and stamps he needed.  He and Alex went to the impound lot and picked up the bike.  Al had to pay Edwin for his services as well as the impound fee.  We immediately got packing for the road as soon as Al came back with his bike.  11:30am we had one final meal at the restaurant downstairs.  The manager was sad to see us go; we had been eating there three meals a day for fourteen days straight.  We said goodbye to the hotel staff too.  They had been mildly sympathetic to me after the gunpoint incident, but I was a little miffed that they never offered any sort of consolation (a beer would have set us square).  We hit the road at noon and had no problem finding our exit since it was the same route that I had taken to Santa Marta. 

It was hot as hell out but we took a good chunk out of the 650 mile trip to Bogota.  We finally stopped for the night in a no-name town after 170 miles of smooth riding.  The only place we could find to stay was a trucker hotel.  It had ample parking, a very drab exterior, but surprisingly clean and comfortable rooms.  We ate the standard Colombian meal across the street and met a longwinded Colombian named Wilson.  He kept telling us about the roads on the way to Bogota and the beautiful views we would encounter.  It was good information, but we were tired and cut him short going to bed early.

Friday had a groggy start and we mounted up around 10:00am.  We took off with aspirations to knock out the majority of the distance remaining.  That dream died twenty miles in when Alex’s bike shut off at 60mph and wouldn’t start up again.    We’ve endured a lot of bad fortune lately; just when we were starting to get some positive momentum going, another breakdown threatened to throw us completely off course again.  After a five minute inspection Al decided he needed to change his spark plugs.  Easier said than done.

To get to our spark plugs the side panels, seat, and gas tank have to be removed.  We’ve done that a thousand times, but after Al’s bike got whacked, his luggage racks crumpled in around the frame and even stabbed through one of the side panels.  The only way to get to the spark plugs was to take the luggage off, and we weren’t sure we’d be able to get it back on.  With no other option, we disassembled the luggage and the racks.  Then we took the bike apart and Al installed his replacement spark plugs.  The bike fired up on first try; wind was back in our sails.  We spent the next twenty minutes putting everything back together and gearing back up; the luggage fit back in place surprisingly well.  Helmets on, earplugs in, we were ready to take off.  Al hopped on his bike and hit the ignition… and we both listened in horror as the bike wouldn’t turn over. 

He sat there for five minutes working the choke and the throttle, but no matter what the bike wouldn’t start.  Devastated, we started taking the whole thing apart again.  Fifteen minutes later we pulled the new plugs out and tested them for spark.  Just like when my stator uplink failed, there was none.  It was a grim sign given our recent luck.  As we were checking all the fuses and connections, a motorcyclist pulled up to see what was wrong.  He didn’t have any new ideas, but he did warn us that we were near guerilla territory and that as gringos we would make easy targets.  I was beginning to hate Colombia.

The motorcyclist did us a favor and called police checkpoint 2km down the road to tell them our situation.  The police acknowledged and said they would keep us in mind (whatever that meant).  The guy recommended that I tow Al’s bike to the police checkpoint and then take it from there.  He wished us luck and went on his way.  Minutes later a flatbed truck rolled by and pulled off on the shoulder ahead of us.  It backed its way right up to where we were.  Fingers crossed it wasn’t guerilla.

The moment the driver stepped out our luck took a dramatic swing in the right direction; it was Wilson from the hotel.  He recognized us on the shoulder and stopped to see if he could help.  Wilson told us he was going our direction and would take the disabled bike to Aguachica, the next city down the road.  Not wanting to hang out on that shoulder any longer, we graciously accepted his offer.  Wilson’s truck was a snub-nose cab with a high bed.  Loading the bike was easier than I expected (it should be given all the practice we’ve had).  Alex and Wilson each took a handlebar grip and lifted the front tire into the bed as I pushed the rear.  Then Alex and I lifted the rear while Wilson kept it upright from up top.  Wilson lashed it all down and were moving again… at about 35mph.

I followed behind Wilson’s truck for sixty miles and he never went above 50mph.  It was painstakingly slow, but the only option we had as well as a tremendous act of good will.  An hour and a half later we arrived in Aguachica and Wilson went straight to an authorized Suzuki mechanic.  As soon as we arrived I went dragged myself to the next door restaurant.  I hadn’t eaten breakfast and I had been out of water for quite a while; it was 2:45pm.  Al’s breakdown caught me off guard and I was running on fumes by the time we arrived.  I ordered the same meal I’ve eaten three times a day for the last fifteen days: carne asada with rice, beans, fried plantains, yucca, and the soup of the day.  It costs about $4 and fuels you up.  I was halfway through the meal when I heard Alex’s muffler blast to life down the street.  Beautiful.

Minutes later Wilson sat down next to me in the restaurant to eat.  He told me that it was just a wire connection that had come loose, probably when we put the gas tank back on.  Go figure; if we hadn’t been spooked about guerillas, we probably would have found it with another five minutes of head scratching.  I asked Wilson about the guerillas, he said there was nothing to worry about in the daytime although nighttime was a different story.  We ate together and watched SpongeBob Square Pants.  Since Wilson knew the area I asked him about the best route to Bogota.  He grabbed my map and marked every city I should hit on the way.  He also warned me about a confusing fork in the road fifty miles south.  He said although the Bogota sign points to the right, we should go left; it was bar none the superior route.  We finished our lunches and then Wilson was ready to go.  Alex tried to pay him, but he would not accept.  He was on a work trip anyway and said the opportunity to help was payment enough.  We twisted his arm and Wilson let Alex pay for his lunch.

The mechanic charged Al $15 for the five minutes of ‘work’ done; consider it a fine for the rookie mistake.  It was 3:30pm and we were back in the saddle.  We flew out of Aguachica trying to make up lost time with the sun already hanging low.  Fifty miles down the road I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There on the shoulder, just before the fork in the road, was Wilson waving us to the left.  For a guy we blew off the night before, he showered us with kindness and wanted nothing in return.  I was beginning to like Colombia.

After the fork, the road started winding into the mountains.  Alex and I rode forty miles further up into the hills until we could barely see the road.  The sun went down behind the mountains around 5:30pm and the whole world got dark way earlier than we expected.  Finally at 6:00pm we pulled into another no-name town and parked at another trucker hotel.  These places are great; they charge $15 for a room and the kitchen is always open.  The guests are all long-haulers and we get along with them well once we mention our trucking days in Alaska.  We ate the standard carne asada meal for dinner and went back to the room fulfilled.  Alex watched some downloaded TV programs while I pulled out my sewing kit and took care of some nagging holes that have been developing in my wardrobe.  I sewed up a tear in the shoulder of my shirt as well as a bunch of holes in three pairs of underwear.  I did quite well; I figured out how to make a knot out of each stitch and it keeps them all super tight and orderly.  It’s probably the most basic sewing method known to mankind, but I taught myself and Mom would be proud. 

This morning, Friday, we awoke at 7:00am and were moving by 8:30.  We covered 150 miles over seven hours of treacherous roads today.  The first stretch was a wet, muddy construction zone.  After that was a long set of winding roads leading high into the mountains.  Every switchback was a test as the semis were constantly crowding the outside lane on their turns.  Passing here is nothing like in the United States.  The cars, busses, and semis are all extremely aggressive and always jockeying for position.  As a motorcyclist, it’s your responsibility to stay out of the way take the opportunities you’re given.  We did well today; no close calls, no tense moments.  The same can’t be said for the truckers, though.  Our first traffic jam was caused by a broken axel on a dump truck.  When I say broken, I mean the truck was leaning on its frame and half the rear axle was lying on the road ten feet behind it.  A couple hours later we passed another semi that had turned over on a small uphill turn.  We had the pleasure of riding through a river of diesel fuel to get past the wreck.

The highlight of the ride was Iguaque National Park (I think that's the name).  Although we never entered the park itself, we rode passed the gates near the top of our ascent.  The views were spectacular and nothing like I expected of Colombia.  We were across from a towering mountain that climbed high into the clouds further than we could see.  Beneath the clouds were a series of ridgelines leading down to a wide river full of sand bars.  Between the ridges were straight-down rock trails where the snowmelt apparently drains every spring.  Iguaque, and my vantage point, sits at the top of the mountain on the other side of the river.  From what I could see during my ride, we were riding through an entire range of mountains like these.  Several times I got a peak over the nearby ridge and all I could see were more cliff bands and ridge patterns.  It was fantastic being so high; zero humidity, a balmy 66F degrees, and Barranquilla long gone.

As we came down from the mountains it began to sprinkle.  Al and I pushed through it for a bit, but the clouds in the distance were forecasting downpour.  We stopped for gas and put our rain gear on.  This was the first time I got to try out my rubber outers.  They fit awesome.  The pant legs have gaiter straps on them to keep them from riding up and the waist comes up to my belly button.  The top has plenty of room in the shoulders for my riding jacket and ends half-way down my thigh.  It is an impermeable fortress, although I look like a plantain.

Our intended destination was Barbosa, just forty miles further.  Al and I set off into the rain just as it started to pick up.  It was a long forty miles.  The rain came so hard at times I could barely see the white line.  We spent forty-five minutes battling it; we had to slow down, turn on our auxiliary lights, and pass semis only when we could see a runway’s distance ahead (which is difficult given the wall of water they kick up behind them).  Finally at 3:30pm we stopped at another trucker hotel just outside of Barbosa.  It was early, but we were tired.  I was thrilled to find myself dry as a bone after the torrent.  We’ve eaten our carne asada, and we might just go down the street and pick up a round of beers for the evening.  Until then, the FIFA Under 20 World Cup Championship is on and it’s live from Bogota… and it’s raining in Bogota.

Tomorrow we should arrive in Bogota midday.  That will give us plenty of time to find a hostel and prepare for Kristi’s arrival.  The trip will change dramatically when Kristi touches down.  Given the condition of Alex’s leg, he will be parking his bike in Bogota for the next month and riding busses all the way to Cusco, Peru with his girlfriend.  In the meantime I’ll ride solo from Bogota to Cali (about 300 miles) to catch up with Charlie and Andy.  It should be a one or two-day trip and with luck I’ll have no problems.  Even if something does come up, I’m confident the solution will present itself as it has countless times on this adventure already.  Also on the horizon is the arrival of Andy’s girlfriend Cass in Quito, Ecuador on September 1st.  I’m not sure the Australians’ plans on her arrival, but hopefully I can at least cross the border into Ecuador with them.  Jill and Ty are currently in Quito as well, so I’ll find company somewhere along the line. 

Long story short, at the end of his bus trip with Kristi, Alex will fly back to Bogota and start a long game of catch up.  By then I will be well into Peru myself.  Best of luck Al.  

August 16, 2011

Gunpoint

Tonight at 1:00am I was held at gunpoint in my hotel lobby by three strangers.  It was easily the most intense moment of the trip, let alone my entire life.  Just like in any horror movie, one second I was minding my own business, the next my life was spinning out of control and split decisions were deciding the outcome.  I’m thankful to say that the moment has passed and I’m calmly lying in bed with a bloody towel draped over my head.

As anyone with a lot of free time, Alex and I are on a pretty warped sleeping schedule.  We go to bed around 3:00am and wakeup around noon here in Barranquilla.  1:00am tonight I was feeling thirsty and it was my turn to go get water from the front desk.  I grabbed $10,000 pesos ($5 US) and slipped out the door.  I took the stairs.  We live on the third floor so it’s a toss-up waiting for the elevator; I figure the exercise can’t hurt. 

I reached the bottom of the last staircase and immediately saw our friendly bellhop.  He was talking to a guy wearing jeans, a purple button-up shirt, and a cowboy hat.  In between them was a rectangular box with a white sheet laid over it.  The bellhop looked over at me and I asked him for water.  He hesitated and told me there was no water for sale.  I could see the water in the fridge.  I figured I had misunderstood his Spanish so I went over to the empty front desk to peruse their candy selection while the bellhop finished up with the other guests.

Barefoot with a pair of Prana climbing shorts and a V-neck tee shirt I was facing away from everyone fantasizing about chocolate when I felt his hand pushing at my back.  I looked down and to my left to see who was bumping into me.  It was the guy in the purple shirt and he had a revolver in his hand.  I ignored his lead and moved for the staircase, just leave the situation.  He followed gripping my arm muttering that we were going outside through the front door.  I didn’t like that idea; people with guns are scary, but even worse is the thought of going out into the Colombian night with them.  I got to the wall and made eye contact with the bellhop.  He looked at me helplessly; there was nothing he could do.  That’s when the alarm really set in. 

Two others, a guy and a girl, joined up with the gunman and started walking me towards the door again.  I started resisting everything.  I was freaking out, throwing their arms off me, telling them that we weren’t going outside, and always moving towards the staircase.  I started throwing my body weight around shuffling the huddle away from the front door.  They didn’t like that and kept brandishing the pistol to in front of my face as leverage.  I had some momentum and forced us up against the wall next to the stairway, raising my voice exclaiming that I wasn’t going anywhere.  Then it got rough.

The purple shirt handed the gun off to the woman; she immediately started waving it around screaming about shooting me for various reasons.  The two guys tried to wrestle me to the ground.  I was on my feet but bent over with one over my shoulders when the other kicked me hard in the gut.  Immediately thereafter I was pistol-whipped right in the back of my head.  A couple more punches to the ribs and I was lying on my side with my back to the wall.  The lady kept going on wielding the gun back and forth like it was a sword.  The purple shirt pulled out a roll of clear packing tape and went down to his knees pulling out a strip for my mouth.  The other guy only had my legs though so my arms were free to keep any and all tape far from my mouth.  I started screaming loud in both languages for whoever would listen.  I looked for the bellhop again; he was horrified in the corner with his hands covering his mouth, unable to react. 

With the tape out it became clear that this could be more than a mugging.  I got real loud, belting up the stairway for help.  They kept telling me to shut up or they’d shoot me.  They looked nervous and I screamed more.  Amidst all of it I managed to get back to my feet.  They kept tugging at me towards the door.  I kept swimming through them and finally my hand caught the stairway bannister.  I was anchored and I could tell they were spooked.  I didn’t even know where the gun was at this point, but I felt a position of power for the first time in the battle.  The two guys grabbed me again, more forcefully.  I slipped out of their grasps and felt my shirt rip in two and fall right off me as I hopped up a couple steps.  I was free and halfway up the staircase and I bolted.  I looked back as I rounded the first turn and the three of them were fleeing towards the front door. 

I blasted through our hotel room door shirtless with blood all over my chest and dripping down my forehead.  I didn’t even know I was bleeding.  I locked the door and told Alex that I had just been held at gunpoint in the lobby.  He looked up, saw that I wasn’t joking, and immediately took over.  I sat down in the chair looking around trying to take in the last two minutes.  It was like a dream or a story; I wasn’t sure whether the struggle had been real or whether it was truly over.  Al handed me the last bag of water and had me recount what happened. 

My tale was full of conspiracy.  I had the bellhop in on it, plus our new Colombian friend Nicolas, possibly even the entire hotel staff.  I felt framed, targeted, hated.  As much as I wanted to go downstairs and start pointing fingers and demanding answers, I was far too terrified.  Alex took a look at my head.  My hair was matted in blood from where the butt of the gun hit so I put it under the shower for a moment.  Upon further inspection, he decided that it would stop bleeding sooner or later.  I threw a hotel towel over my noggin and sat down again.  Moments later I heard more commotion downstairs through the window.  I heard a man’s voice say ‘they’re going to Argentina.’  Alex and I looked at each other and both grabbed knives.  Reinforcements were not going to have their way with us.

It turned out to be the police arriving.  They showed up on the third floor and Alex answered the door.  Outside were a couple cops and the bellhop.  I saw his eyes, just as helpless as they had been during the struggle.  We immediately hugged in the hallway; he was shuddering with tears pouring down his face.  The cops didn’t ask any questions.  Instead they urgently took off in another direction.  Nicolas came out of his room and told me to go inside and lock my door for the night.  So I did and I’ve been cooling down ever since.  A hotel lady knocked a half hour later and gave me a pill for my head.  I took it figuring it can’t hurt.  The remaining fallout has been pretty tame.  My head has stopped bleeding and I’m positive that I’m alive.  It’s 5:00am and my mind is still racing, but let’s face it: I got pistol-whipped in the dome in Colombia tonight.

Looking back on the decision to fight the abductors, it was the only logical thing to do.  I’ve always heard not to get into cars with people no matter what and that’s why I initially fought them off despite the gun.  The more we struggled the more apparent it became that the trio were a bunch of amateurs.  They weren’t playing cutthroat.  If they wanted to, they could have bashed my head into a wall, kicked me way harder in the gut, and then broke my arm throwing me to the ground.  Instead all of their pushing and pulling felt like an insistence with the expectation that I would cooperate.  They also picked the worst type of tape in the history of kidnappings.  Everyone knows that finding the end on a roll of clear packing tape takes a while.  When you have a kicking and screaming Gringo flinging blood around the room from his scalp, it’s impossible.  As for the gun, they never aimed it directly at me.  They waved it around a lot, dragged its crosshairs over my body plenty, but never held it steady at point blank for me to stare down.  I never felt like they had it in them; there was never a do-or-die moment.  With all these hints playing off each other, I knew my best bet was to resist and thank God it ended the way it did.

I don’t understand what instigated it, though.  When I walked down the bellhop told me there was no water for sale even though I could see it.  It was my cue to leave.  What was in the box with the sheet over it?  Were they going to fleece the bellhop or simply wait for the first guest to step into the lobby?  Or did the golden goose gringo waltz in the room and change the game entirely.  I tried to get some of this out of the bellhop but he was too worked up which leads me to believe that I interrupted some very tense words between him and the gunmen.  Maybe he owed them money.  Wrong place, wrong time.  Whatever the case, we are all alive and shaken. 

Since returning from Taganga I’ve had a bad feeling about Barranquilla.  I think my previous report reveals my worries about the way people act here.  It was like I looked around and realized the probability of being there when something bad went down.  Last night in the hotel lobby the numbers game paid out.  Now that the dust has settled, I feel surprisingly better.  Like Alex, I’ve gotten my dose of bad luck and come out on top.  I feel good about the rest of Colombia and I’m ready to hit the road and catch up with my mates.  I want the hell out of Barranquilla.  I want my shirt back too; I only have three.  Most of all, purely out of principle, I want back the $10,000 pesos I dropped!  I guess I’ll settle for my livelihood.  Tomorrow we get Al’s bike back.  At dusk I will whole up in the hotel room with plenty of water to last through the night.  Sunrise on Wednesday we are leaving this shithole. 

Wearing Thin


Today marks my seventh or eighth living in Hotel Caribbean Gold here in Barranquilla.  I took off from Taganga on Saturday with the feeling that I had seen enough of the overpriced section of coastline.  Michael and Liz decided to catch a boat into Tayrona National Park, but I backed out at the last minute.  The more I learned, the less I was interested; the boat ride was $25 each way, I would have had to buy a mosquito net, there was no outside alcohol allowed, and not a hell of a lot to do in the park anyway.  My cheapskate alarms were blaring.  I didn’t want to go get trapped in the Colombian jungle battling sunburns and mosquitos while paying monopoly prices.  I said goodbye to Michael and Liz and loaded my bike up. 

On the way out of town I pulled over to pick up a bottle of water.  As I stood there pouring it out into my Nalgenes, a German hostel owner wandered up and started asking how I’d ever made it all the way here from Washington.  I explained the adventure and we talked about his hostel for the next five minutes.  Soon enough he saw the sweat pouring off my brow and sent me off with these parting words, ‘Remember, it’s Saturday… half the drivers are drunk.’  Good to know.

The ride back really got me thinking about the roads here.  Thirty miles into it I was on a two-lane road.  About 500 yards ahead were two semi grills coming at me, one passing the other in my lane.  Instead of completing the pass by the time our trajectories met, though, both semis simply held their ground and ran me into the shoulder at 60mph with my middle finger flying high.  It’s disgraceful how little respect they show for other drivers here.  It’s not just high speeds either.  People will park their cars in whatever lane they feel like for whatever reason they feel and the rush hour traffic behind them just deal with it.  All the other cars lay on their horns as long as it takes for the parked car to budge an inch so they can get by.  There is absolutely no sense of sharing the road here and it is driving me to insanity.

So far, I’ve noticed this ‘neighbors be damned’ sentiment throughout most of Colombia.  Saturday night here in Barranquilla the hotel hosted a wedding on the roof.  The music only got louder and louder through our half-pane window until it finally shut off at 3:30am.  The same thing happened in Taganga on Thursday night.  Everywhere I go around here, no one gives a shit about the faces they can’t see. 

I know I’m a foreigner looking in and there are some things that I just won’t be able to wrap my head around.  I’ve also been trapped in the same place for two weeks now gasping for fresh experiences.  But having witnessed Alex getting hit by an out of control box truck within the first 100 miles of Colombian roads, it’s no wonder I’m agitated.  The Irish girls in Santa Marta (who have been traveling just three weeks) were telling me that Argentina paled in comparison to Peru and Bolivia.  They said it was too modern and lacked the authenticity and quaintness of its neighbor countries.  I tried to explain to them that the third-world starts to dig at you after four and a half months.  They said I didn’t appreciate the culture enough.  I told them that riding a motorcycle provides more culture (especially the dirty side) than their bus rides and bar tabs could ever uncover.  We never met eye to eye.  In the end I looked like an elitist American pig and they exposed themselves as rubbernecking tourists.  The point is the third world is wearing thin on me.  I probably just need to get back on the road and start making progress, but more than anything I’d love to just hit a four-lane freeway and not worry about bicycles, pedestrians, or cows crossing every hundred yards.  Maybe I just need to get out of this 90% humidity 85F degree heat.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, we hope to get Al’s bike back.  Just to twist the knife a little further in my side, the process of getting the bike released has been long and drawn out with seemingly very little effort offered by those who could help.  Tomorrow Alex needs to sign a paper saying he won’t come back seeking reparations in the future.  Trust me, I don’t think either of us will be returning to Barranquilla any time soon.

As soon as we get that bike we’re blasting south to Bogota to pick up Kristi.  I expect my mood to change on the way.  The boys told us that their ride through the mountains was an absolute highlight of the entire trip.  We’ll be hurrying, but taking plenty of time to smell the roses.

August 12, 2011

Taganga, CO

I’ve moved on from Santa Marta.  Wednesday was fun but by the end I felt I had seen about everything the city had to offer.  I met up with the Irish girls when I checked into the hostel and hit the beach with them.  We spent three hours there swimming in garbage water right next to the tanker ships.  I talked to some twelve year-old Colombian kid for most of that time.  At first I was apprehensive assuming he was working me spare change.  After an hour passed he still hadn’t asked for anything so I finally bought him a bag of chips.  Santa Marta is a nice place, but it’s built up as a place for Colombians to visit for vacation.  That sounds like something I’d like, but the result is an overpriced city of limited entertainment with a toxic beach.  Two days was enough, I said goodbye to everyone and followed one of my leads from Tuesday’s rum and coke marathon. 

Al is still recovering and as far as I know he still doesn’t have his bike back.  The plan was to meet back on Saturday, but unless he’s feeling absolutely mobile by then I’d like to stay out of that hotel room a few more days.  With plenty of time to kill, I took off for Taganga around 2:00pm this afternoon from Santa Marta.  It’s known to be a little fishing/hippie village just over the hill from Santa Marta.  The entire ride took about twenty-five minutes including my getting lost for most of it.  It was probably eight miles in total, but offered some of the best views of the Caribbean that I’ve witnessed in the last several months.  Just on the other side of the hill separating the two cities, the terrain changed completely. The foothills continued off inland and further down the coast as far as the eye can see.  Tucked in a tiny bay is Taganga.  The whole locale sits at the bottom of a green valley that funnels a cool breeze down from the mountains all day long.  The tiny bay is filled with fishing vessels that double as water taxis.  Looking out on the water from the swimming beach you can still see the cranes of Santa Marta over the hill, but otherwise it is a whole new world nestled along the Colombian coastline.

I wandered around a bit and finally ended up at the most popular hostel in town.  Of course the place was full, but while there I ran into Liz and Michael again.  Together we took off across town (about four blocks on dirt road) and ended up checking into La Tortuga Hostel.  25,000 pesos for a dorm bed with breakfast included.  No A/C, but there’s the strong breeze and I’ll take it.  Even though it was a short ride, the whole process of gearing up and sweating out left me completely drained.  Michael, Liz, and I went upstairs to nurse a couple beers and soak in the incredible rooftop view. 

We didn’t say much; instead we just blasted Red Hot Chili Peppers on the house stereo and stared off into the horizon.  There’s a lot of times on this trip when I know I could be taking better advantage of the once in a lifetime opportunities that abound; this was not one of them.  Looking out with sloping green foothills leading down to a coastal cliff line on each side of me, a sandy palm beach in between, I knew that swaying in the hammock with a beer in hand and sunglasses drawn was exactly what I needed to be doing.

The power went out around 7:00pm and since then I’ve been draining my netbook battery playing solitaire and listening to Watch the Throne.  I think I’ll join up with Michael and Liz for the next couple days; as Vancouverites, they understand when I romantically reminisce about a nice mid-fifties overcast day with intermittent showers.  Everyone is taking it easy tonight, saving energy for the notorious Taganga Friday night party scene.  Saturday, Alex depending, we’d like to head another few miles east for the coastal national park down the way.  Until then I’ve got a wide selection of hammocks to choose from.

August 10, 2011

On the Road Again

After six nights of watching the paint stay dry in the same hotel room with Alex, I finally decided to peer out into the world and spread my wings on Tuesday.  The preceding week wasn’t all bad, but it got old quick.  With Alex in a wheelchair and absolutely no ramps leading into any buildings, I couldn’t ditch out on him right away.  We got in a good habit of eating at the same place downstairs two meals a day; the first one when we’d wake up at noon and the second around 6:30pm.  There was seldom English on TV so I ended up downloading a lot of movies and HBO seasons.  Eastbound and Down Season 2 set in Mexico had me keeled over in laughter for about three hours.  Limitless and Source Code were also fun to watch.

One day I went to the mall and bought a new pair of headphones.  First I told my driver to take me to an electronics store; he took me to the slums and found me a brand new pair for $1.50.  I bought them to avoid the awkwardness of explaining that they were absolute crap; you have to ask for the right thing here because these people live on a whole new level of being cheap.  I eventually hopped in another cab for the mall and found a real pair for $17 (about the cost of the cab fare that took me to the slums).  At the mall I got some McDonald’s and had a tender moment with a Colombian lady and her kid who desperately wanted to speak English to me.  I will say my Spanish jumped up a notch over the last week.  It’s a combination of learning the Colombian accent and a whole lot of words.  But buying headphones was the entirety of what I did those six days, so it was time for something new.

Tuesday was the first day it seemed reasonable for me to leave.  He had his crutches (which we had to order for his 6’5” frame), extra gauze and dressings, and all the internet he wanted.  Ideally he would have had his motorcycle too, but apparently that process will require a little more time and money than we thought.  Regardless, the only thing he really needed was more time lying on his ass; there was not much more I could do.

With Al’s blessing, I took off early afternoon for Santa Marta, a nearby city that is recommended by the tourist circuit for its ‘atmosphere’ and beaches.  It was a nice ninety minute ride along the coast.  It just felt good to have the wind in my face and the intensity of the motorcycle again.  I pulled into town and spent two hours trying to find a hostel (I had done absolutely no research).  Eventually I gave up and just pulled into a hotel.  I was sick of sweating in my riding gear and wanted off the bike.  I found a place for 40,000 pesos a night and called it good.  After a shower and a short break in the A/C, I decided to go find the city’s most popular hostel and book Wednesday night there.  I had gotten pretty close; the hostel is one block from my hotel.

I went in, booked a room, and ordered a beer.  I planned to just drink one beer and then save my energy for when I moved in on Wednesday.  Instead I wound up wandering home at 2:00am telling coke dealers to get lost (they’re harmless).  The moment I sat down at the bar I started talking to an English guy named Sam.  He was half Colombian and currently volunteering at a Nature Reserve in the mountains.  This was the third time in two months that he’d come out of the woods and he was obviously thirsty.  We had a couple drinks and then went across the street for dinner.  It was happy hour at dinner.  Then we went back to the hostel bar for more happy hour.  Then I met Liz and Michael.  Liz is from Vancouver, Canada and Michael grew up north of Melbourne, Australia.  They’d been dating and living in Vancouver for the last few years so the PNW connection was strong.  Aussies and English love to hate each other and nothing goes better with cheeky national pride than more alcohol.  Eventually the boys started ordering rounds; by the time it was my turn I was ready for bed.  I did my duty though and ordered them up.  Then I sucked mine down in seconds flat and hit the street leaving Michael slumped over in his chair and Sam lost in conversation with some Irish girls. 

It wasn’t all just staring at the bottom of a glass, though.  I learned a lot about the city and the surrounding region last night.  There’s a surf village nearby, a hippie village, and a national park.  All three sound pretty fun.  I’m spending tonight at the hostel and then tomorrow I might get mobile again and do some exploring.  I’ve got at least until Saturday and possibly longer before Al gets his bike back and starts considering moving south.  I plan to make the most of it; it’s not every day that you wake up in Colombia with a motorcycle at your disposal. 

August 5, 2011

Blindsided

So… there is a lot to cover here.  We got our bikes out of the shop, took off for Medellin the long way, and then Alex got sideswiped by a box truck going 35mph.  From the top:

We woke up Wednesday at a leisurely 9:30am and started packing our bags.  Both of us would have preferred to be on the road at 6:00am ahead of the midday heat, but the Suzuki mechanic was calling the departure time.  10:30am we hopped in a cab and had him drop us off at the dealership.  Proudly displayed in the entrance were our bikes, as clean as they’ve been in over four months.  With the professional wash job, two new tires, and a new chain assembly, both of them looked fantastic (especially since we had removed our beat up luggage from the racks).  I forked over $70 bucks for a job well done and couldn’t wait to hit the road.  Alex checked his gas tank and it was half empty; we dropped them off with completely full tanks.  Mine was drained as well.  The bastards had siphoned our gas.  Our mechanic sat there with the money in his pocket and a stupid look on his face while we examined our tanks and bitched about it in English right in front of him.  He knew we knew.  In the end we didn’t have it in us to start arguing.  We thanked him, fired them up, and took off.

My bike ran like a dream.  Like an aging face, you don’t notice the minute changes from day to day; nonetheless they were dramatic.  With new, fully rounded tires it pivoted from one lean to the next much more quickly.  He cleaned the air filter and it sounded much throatier with a louder roar (he told me to clean my air filter more often).  The chain and sprockets were all brand new and the throttle response acted like a whole different animal.  No more chunky gear shifts, just smooth sailing.  Most of all, I now have a stock 15 tooth front sprocket instead of the 14 tooth I had left with.  I need a little more gas to get off the line, but the bike is much better adapted to the road now.  I can get up to 25mph in first gear rather than 19; this is of huge importance in city riding.  75mph in fifth gear has the engine humming along instead of straining to keep up.  I wish I had made this change long ago.  Best of all, my gas mileage will perk up just a little in the long run!

Absolutely stoked, we went back to the hostel and loaded up our luggage.  Finally around 1:00pm we were ready to go.  I said goodbye to Anna for the near future and we took off on the first big road we could find expecting it to lead us out of the city.  The plan was to follow the other riders towards Medellin and meet up with them in the next couple days.  There are two ways to get there; the long way through the mountains and the short way through the highlands.  Alex and I never did agree which direction we were going, but we eventually came to the compromise that whichever way the road took us, we would take that route.  It was too hot out with too much traffic to start pulling U-turns and asking directions every other mile.  We had a map and we’re Eagle Scouts.  We got this.

The traffic kept up for at least ten miles, around forty-five minutes.  It was finally clearing up when we saw an exit with a recognizable city attached to it: Barranquilla.  Tired of the confusion and inner-city traffic, we bolted for Barranquilla.  We knew if we could get there, we could pass through it and start making our way towards Medellin on the lonely mountain roads.  The exit shot us onto a four-lane highway and I hit the throttle.  The fifteen tooth sprocket kept giving and giving and we were making great time though beautiful prairie landscape.  112 kilometers around 3:30pm later we finally had to slow down as we entered the outskirts of Barranquilla. 

Here’s my account.  The road eventually turned into two lanes with a double yellow between them as we crossed over a bridge with more and more buildings popping up everywhere.  Alex and I had about 100 miles on our tanks and we hadn’t eaten since 10:00am; we needed fuels.  Traffic was going about 20mph as we passed under the big ‘Bienvenidos!’ sign for Barranquilla.  There was a gas station with a chicken joint on the left-hand side of the road and standard procedure, Al turned into it. 

Like any road when you take a left, you cross into the oncoming lane to reach your trajectory.  With nobody coming towards us, Al took a safely arched turn across the open oncoming lane towards the gas station parking lot.  I watched him go and prepared to make my turn immediately afterward.  Just as I started to lean my vision of Alex was erased by a wall of rolling steel.   A box truck flew by right beside me at incredible speed from behind.  It was passing illegally in the oncoming lane and Alex turned right into it.  I heard a loud pop and then grinding; I don’t remember much of the next couple seconds. 

When I came to I was dropping my kickstand as I observed Alex lying motionless on the street up against the curb.  I flew off the bike and ran over to him in an overwhelming sense of shock.  By the time I arrived he sat up, asked the kid next to him whether or not he was ok, and then lay back down on his back.  I asked Alex if he was ok.  He was alert and coherent and he was moving all of his extremities.  He said his foot hurt pretty bad, ‘probably broken’.  I looked at his boot and there was blood on it.  They trained me on this shit back in the day in the Scouts, but nothing could prepare me for the intensity of the situation.  I told Alex I saw blood and he pointed to the kid.

Standing over us was a seventeen year-old guy hold his hand with blood all over his shirt.  The box truck had struck the bike’s rear end and shoved them both into the ground skidding towards the curb.  In some manner Al and his bike slid right into the pedestrian kid and chopped him down.  The kid toppled over and got a good gash to the wrist in the process.  Al and his bike kept going.  Yards later they hit the curb.  The bike hit tires first with enough momentum to flip upright and then keep going another rotation slamming hard on the opposite side it had been sliding on.  Alex managed to stay on the ground tucked up next to the curb. 

Within one minute there were fifty Colombians surrounding the entire scene.  Typical mob mentality, none of them aside from a select two or three offered any help at all.  They just crowded us and the bikes and made it really hard to make any sense out of the situation.  There was one lady who got to the front and actually knew a thing or two about first aid.  There was another guy who seemed helpful but in the end it turned out he just wanted some money.  All of them were tugging at me and asking me useless questions like ‘Where are you going?’ or ‘How crazy was that?’  I didn’t have the time; I walked through them pushing one into the next watching them trip over each other in front of me.  Get out of my way.

Al was stable and in no immediate danger and his biggest concerns were his bike (of course) and his important possessions.  I hadn’t even seen at the bike.  I looked up and immediately saw it ten feet away on its side, the left turn signal still blinking.  I parted the sea of Colombians between me and the bike and walked over.  At first glance it looked absolutely destroyed.  I got it up on two wheels, walked it over next to mine, and pulled the key out of the ignition.  All of Al’s luggage had been ejected except for his two side Pelican cases.  Both of them had taken serious hits and their mounting racks were forcefully warped inward toward the top of the rear tire.  His right rack crushed so horribly that it stabbed holes in his side case dislodging it.  The right box was dented around the rack, similar to mine from a hundred miles back.  His top box was long gone; its bottom had obviously blown out seeing how the trailer hitch lock was still mounted to the rear rack (the hitch pin locks the top box to the bike).  His tank bag was hanging on by one buckle dangling at the side.  For a moment he was on his feet and managed to hobble over to his baby.  He hit the ignition and it started without hesitation.  Then he posed for a photo and sat back down.

By this point the circus was out of my control.  The cops started showing up one-by-one on their motorcycles and within a couple minutes of the accident an ambulance as well.  The truck that caused the accident pulled over immediately and the driver was squawking about explaining his story to whomever would listen.  Alex was a patient in the Colombian medical system and out of the picture.  We each raised a thumbs up as he was carted away with what luggage he needed for the hospital. 

That left me, gringo superstar, to fend off the hordes, protect the gear, and answer a lot of questions.  Colombians speak a completely different language than all of Central America.  They don’t annunciate and they stress different parts of every word.  Everything is spoken under their breath.  Plus they have a whole new vocabulary for half the words I know.  That made speaking to three hurried officers at the same time extremely difficult.  It didn’t help to have the entire city block watching me and murmuring two feet away.  It took a while but I finally got it across that we were travelers from the United States.  We had no family in Colombia, no address, no phones, and no clue where we even were.  There were a lot of ideas thrown around about what to do with me and the two bikes.  I wasn’t going anywhere without mine and I was making sure I saw where Al’s was taken.

After a lot of foot dragging the police came to a consensus.  The plan as I understood it was that we would take the wrecked bike to an impound lot and then head straight to the hospital.  The chief of police confidently mounted Al’s bike and hit the ignition with a smile on his face.  All the other cops were tossing on their helmets (not latching them) and mounting up.  The chief put on his aviators, looked at me as he rolled on the throttle, and then absolutely screamed out of the parking lot.  The rest of us followed trying to keep up with him by weaving traffic, blowing stop signs, and yes, passing in the oncoming lane.  With a police escort, I decided it was permissible.  The entire ride the chief was revving Al’s DR as high as he could, popping the front end up every chance he got.  Like watching a kid with a new bicycle.  When we pulled into the impound lot asked him how it ran, ‘Better than my Yamaha 400!  Like a dream!’  Finally some good news.

They parked the bike inside and the truck as well.  I took a look at the grill and Al managed to do a fair amount of damage.  There is a hole in the hood above the lights from his left Pelican case and you can also see where his tire fried across the bumper.  Well done Al.  While the police filled out some paperwork I took the spare moment to eat a can of tuna, oil and all.  Then we were back on the road driving like maniacs for the hospital.

Inside the hospital I found Alex sitting on a bed with his leg exposed.  His ankle was swollen, but otherwise intact.  The next few hours were a blur.  I spent a lot of time talking to the cops explaining my story over and over again.  I drew it for them, I acted it, I’m surprised we didn’t go out in the street and reenact it.  Alex had already undergone an X-ray and he thought he saw a fracture in the image.  There was a shifty insurance lawyer representing the box truck milling about.  The seventeen year-old kid was leaning against the wall with a bandage around his wrist covering three new stitches.  As the only witness I was a hot commodity.  Everyone urgently asking me questions in rapid Spanish and then turning away to talk to someone else while I delivered my garbled answer.  Absolute chaos.

To no surprise the truck driver was giving a different story.  He said we were riding at his side to the right of him when Al cut in front.  According to him, he swerved in the same direction Al turned, but couldn’t stop in time.  BULL.  SHIT.  I sat down with him and his lawyer.  They started asking me a bunch of legal questions, none of which I could answer.  I didn’t feel like dealing with them anyway.  Eventually they looked at each other and determined that I was a gringo that didn’t understand anything.  I just looked at them and smiled and pointed at my ear.  They smiled back and stopped talking; I understood enough to shut them up. 

I also got yelled at by the seventeen year-old’s boyfriend.  The kid had waved goodbye and walked out at some point during the commotion while I was knee-deep in police talk.  His boyfriend, yes boyfriend, showed up an hour later and started badgering me asking why I didn’t buy him a cab.  I told him exactly what happened and that I was not responsible.  The boyfriend stamped his feet and pouted in the corner glaring at me for the rest of the evening.

I also took on the role of Al’s standing family.  ‘When was he born? Where are his insurance docs? When did he eat last?’  I’m standing in the middle of a Colombian ER in full riding getup holding all of our valuables while sweating my ass off answering questions I don’t know in a language I can no longer speak.  Why didn’t the truck didn’t hit me instead! 

Eventually the dust settled.  The specialist looked at Al’s X-ray and gave him two options: surgery or a cast.  The surgery involved screwing a plate onto his fractured fibula and a three week recovery period.  The cast: immobilization of six weeks and then physical therapy afterward.  The doctor wanted to go forward with the surgery and of course Alex was apprehensive.  We’ve heard a lot of horror stories about third world operating tables.  Plus we’re on a motorcycle trip from Seattle to Buenos Aires; surgery was never part of the plan.  Al weighed his options and within a half hour accepted the doctor’s order.  He would go under the Colombian knife.

With that sorted, I looked at the cops and told them it was my turn.  It was 9:00pm and I hadn’t eaten a meal or sipped a drink since breakfast.  I was exhausted and drenched in sweat.  My bike was outside with all my luggage exposed.  Alex was under supervision, his bike parked, and our stories delivered.  Time for Tom to go to bed!  Surprisingly they understood what I was saying.  I had met a Colombian woman from New York named Ruby who recommended a nearby hotel.  The insurance lawyer was pushing me to stay somewhere else, but Ruby tipped me off that it was a dump; he was getting shiftier every second.  Ruby told me to trust no one and get to a safe place.  I told the cops I wanted Hotel Caribbean Gold and they arranged escort.

We rode out around 9:30pm just as the torrential rain started.  Fitting.  It actually felt cleansing.  By this time I knew the two cops pretty well, Juan Pablo and Carlos.  It was a good ride despite the rain.  We were making jokes about strip clubs and hookers.  They walked me into the hotel, helped me book a room, carried my luggage upstairs, and set it inside for me.  Juan Pablo gave me his personal cell number and told me to call him in the morning when I woke up.  He would then meet me at the hotel and escort me back to the hospital to continue the proceedings.  I thanked them, told them we’d go the night club someday, and said goodnight.  I sank into my bed, cranked the A/C, and ordered room service.   I ate my burger and fries in my underwear watching the only English program on TV: VH1’s ‘I Love the 90’s’.  I finished the meal in seconds flat, hit the lights, and slept like a brick for the next nine hours.

I took my time in the morning.  I knew that the moment the cops arrived I would be back on their schedule as long as they felt necessary (and these cops don’t move fast).  Fully fed and hydrated I called Juan Pablo at 9:00am and told him I was ready to go.  9:45am we arrived back at the hospital.  I went inside with the cops to discover that Alex had just finished surgery.  I went to the post-op room and asked how he was doing.  She said the operation went fine, but he was currently sleeping.  I asked if he would wake up any time soon; she swallowed and responded ‘I don’t know… he finally stopped talking.’  Safe to say his personality was unharmed.

A couple more hours of waiting around and we were out the door around noon.  On the way out we collected two prescriptions from the in-house pharmacy.  Alex never paid a dime.  We’re still not sure what is covered by the motorcycle insurance or who was given the blame for the accident.  Regardless, one of the older cops from the night before had looked Al in the eye and told him not to pay a dime for any medical attention; ‘we have national health care’ the sergeant explained smugly. 

We shoved Al in a cab and once again Juan Pablo and Carlos escorted us back to the hotel.  They helped him hop to the elevator and then asked for his bike key so they could take it to the repair shop for insurance purposes.  That’s where we’re at now.  We’ve got Wi-Fi, A/C, and a lot of time to kill.  Last night we went out and watched Captain America in 3D; it was such an indulgence.  Right now were both lying in bed watching the Colombian Price is Right.  We’re not sure the plan.  Al has to be in Bogota in less than three weeks to pick up his girlfriend Kristi from the airport.  He also needs to recover in bed for most of that period.  I’m going to stick around a couple days and then maybe head over to the nearest tourist town Santa Marta for a night or two, it’s only an hour away.  For how shitty the situation is, we’re both in good spirits.  Al’s alive and I finally got some good material to write about… win-win right?