Riding the Right Direction

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It felt good to get the front wheel pointed south again and get back to three long days of uninterrupted riding, even after getting off to a slow start in Cartagena. I spent two hours walking from building to building in an attempt to get my Colombian motorcycle insurance sorted out. At each place, the ladies behind the counter took my stack of papers, looked them over, and spoke rapid Spanish amongst themselves, making me feel the way I imagine a toddler would when the adults are talking and using words he doesn’t understand. They’d then shake their heads, put the papers back in my hands, point, and say the name of another building or address where this process was soon repeated. Persistence paid off, however, and soon the Caribbean Sea was in my side view mirrors and I was off, heading south through the Colombian countryside with no particular plan in mind but to head toward Ecuador.

I quickly learned that a specific itinerary would be more or less pointless anyway, as looking at the map gives almost no indication of the actual time between points. In some cases, the road tracks arrow-straight through sugarcane fields and it’s easy to streak along at over 120 kph through the hazy, sweet and low hanging smoke from the cane factories. Far more often, however, the roads switchback through the mountains from town to town, past farms and coffee plantations. After seeing the coffee bushes clinging to the steep cliff sides, it’s a wonder Juan Valdez and his donkey haven’t toppled to their deaths by now. These Andean towns are also unlike any North American mountain towns I’ve ever encountered. Rather than being built in valleys, these towns cap the very peaks of the mountains, with the obligatory church dome sticking up from the very tippy-top like the cherry on a sundae.

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Another interesting aspect of these towns is that, unlike the American or Canadian model where each small town may have one florist, one tire shop, one car wash, etc., these towns seem to all have their niche. For example, one town I passed had dozens of wooden sheds lining the road selling gasoline from huge plastic cubes sitting five feet off the ground on wooden legs, dispensed by gravity feed through hoses. Another town, along the Cauca River, was blessed with natural springs that every house had plumbed through a series of conduits into their front yards to create an entire road of spring-fed truck washes. When not actively in use, hoses are propped against rocks so that they shoot straight up in the air (and often directly into power lines, which struck me as unsafe) as both a kinetic advertisement and indication of their water pressure.

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It was while driving through a town such as this that I saw two sets of motorcycle headlights in my mirrors, coming up rapidly from behind. This is unusual because my 800cc Triumph Tiger, while still considered mid-range in size by American standards, has about seven times the displacement of just about every motorcycle I’ve seen so far in Colombia. It is usually my headlights rushing up in somebody else’s mirrors and not the other way around. I moved to the right to let them by and they zipped past, a pair of black, large displacement adventure bikes similar in design to the Tiger. Each bike held two Colombian soldiers in camouflage fatigues, the driver with an M-16 variant rifle slung crosswise over his chest with the muzzle pointing down toward the road and a passenger, similarly armed, holding the rifle muzzle up toward the trees. They roared away around a corner ahead of me and were gone.

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About five minutes later, I passed their rally point. A line of a dozen or so black Suzuki V-Stroms stood in a line in a restaurant parking lot on the side of a mountain, with their riders and passengers standing in discussion behind the bikes. I slowed slightly to observe this pow-wow, and upon hearing the sound of the Triumph, the group turned to watch me pass. I got nods and thumbs-up from about half the group and raised two fingers to my helmet visor in greeting. This passing reinforced a theme that been recurrent on this journey. Whether it be bearded, leather-clad bikers on their way to Sturgis, retirees crossing the country on a Honda Goldwing, Commandos fighting Marxist narco-traffickers in the mountains of Colombia, or one guy on a Quixotic solo ride from the Arctic to South America, there is a camaraderie and a shared interest between motorcyclists that transcends race, class, age, and language barriers. And it’s a big part of the fun.

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