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?