#10–Six Lessons After 6,000 Miles On My Motorcycle in Latin America
#1. Hide your cash
I got robbed in the mountains of Guatemala by some men with angry, dirty faces. They surrounded my motorcycle and wouldn’t let me leave.
Lesson 1: always keep your cash and valuables spread out between different pockets.
It was a day just like any other, riding along some road in the middle of nowhere in Central America, sun out, sweaty buns (not out), and a smile on my face.
I was enjoying some beautiful twisty turns on a classic mountain road connecting the two Guatemalan cities of Coban and Antigua.
After what seemed like a lifetime of flying past small huts, beautiful valleys, and endless families of 3 all piled up on a single 75cc “motorcycle”… one especially sharp turn brought me face to face with the Guatemalan Mountain Bandits.
As soon as they saw me, two men pulled the rope tight while 2-others ran out on either side of my motorcycle to block the path as I rapidly downshifted and came to a stop (my mistake).
Before I knew it, I had two Guatemalan Mountain Bandits holding my handlebars and angrily demanding money with two others yelling encouragement from their place at either end of the rope still blocking the road.
side note: apparently you are supposed to rev your engine loudly and play chicken with the rope holders… I have yet to verify this method of avoiding toll trolls as they are called.
As I took my gloves off and assured them I would be more than happy to pay their toll for guarding the road, I was worriedly trying to remember if I had a wad of cash in my breast pocket or just my spending money…
Thankfully, I was following my own rule and my items of value were separated among the various pockets of my motorcycle jacket (wallet in one, fake wallet in another, cash reserve in one, spending cash in another).
I reached into a pocket that held a growing collection of coins (pesos, quetzals, US cents) and took out a mixed handful representing the 3-countries I had traveled through up to that point handing it over to the now starry-eyed Guatemalan Mountain Bandit to my right.
They were thrilled to receive the treasure trove totaling probably $2.00.
Little did they know that if their search had included any of the other remaining pockets, their treasure would have been far richer.
Always separate your goods, folks.
#2. Don’t follow the rules, follow traffic
I don’t know how many intersections I’ve ridden through in the last few thousand miles but suffice to say, I no longer try to understand the rules, I just find another bike or aggressive taxi and follow them through the locura.
Lesson 2: rules are really just guidelines anyway… run the red light!
That’s a joke.
Although running red lights on a motorcycle seems to be accepted in most Central American countries (and Colombia), as a law-abiding American in a country where the penalties for breaking the law are likely to be more strictly and heavily enforced (any country other than my own) as a product of being a foreigner, I am more than fine with waiting the extra 32-seconds for the light to change to green. :)
But aside from running reds, most rules seem to have gone out the window.
Stop signs sometimes mean stop and sometimes they mean go faster.
Sometimes the LACK of a stop sign means stop…
Intersections with blinking red lights? No idea. Just find your local buddy and stick yourself to ‘em.
Giant intersection of death with 6 different roads meeting and bringing cars and motorcycles and trucks and tuktuks and people selling dried fruits and trying to wash windows at the speed of light? Buckle up and find a buddy.
When in doubt, find a local buddy and try not to run them over as you stick to them like glue to make it through the craziness.
caveat: the only country to pull me over (multiple times) and enforce speed limits was Panama… break the “law” at your own risk in that country.
#3. Everyone is afraid
I left America feeling sick as a product of all the people who told me that riding a motorcycle alone through Central and South America was a terrible idea due to all of the untold and yet (paradoxically) definably huge amount of danger that awaited me.
I kid you not, in almost every town along the way, someone has warned me about the NEXT town and its certainly more dangerous dangers…
Lesson 3: absolutely everyone is afraid of whatever lies outside their small world.
One of the reasons I am doing this trip is to face fear.
I knew that in undertaking a trip like this, I would be forced to make decisions and act in the face of endless new fears and anxieties.
Nearly every single person in the United States with whom I spoke about this trip warned me of the unprecedented danger that awaited me starting at the border of Mexico running all the way down to the tip of South America.
What I did not expect was for this warning of impending danger around the next bend to be repeated by nearly every single person with whom I shared my goal of riding south…
From multi-lingual hostel receptionists, to the women whipping up the typical scrambled egg breakfast served at hotels, to assault rifle-toting soldiers, I have been warned about how dangerous the next step in my journey will be in every single country (and often every other city) along the way.
Either the world truly gets more dangerous according to your latitudinal location or everyone, no matter where you are, can find a reason to fear what lies outside their zone of comfort and familiarity.
Listen to people’s warnings, advice, and words of caution, but don’t forget that most people, if not all people, will easily find a way to be afraid of whatever lies just around the bend of their (often small) known worlds.
#4. Don’t put it on the ground
It took hours for all the little, pale, white creepy crawlies to vacate my precious headspace inside my helmet and days for them to disappear from my duffle bag.
Lesson 4: don’t leave your things on the ground for the night. When you can, find a way to hang them so as to avoid the inevtiable discovery of your pants, underwear, and helmet by whatever species of crawling insect lives in your vicinity.
I will never forget the first morning I woke up to discover my simple yet absurdly annoying mistake.
My eyes were still blurry and my body still sleepy as I slipped out of my bunk bed in a hostel on the southern coast of Nicaragua. I stumbled (quietly, I’m the nice type of hostel roommate) over to the collection of items that make up my life that were scattered at the foot of my bunk; helmet, tank bag, duffle, jacket, and rear cargo net.
It took me a solid 30-seconds before I was sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing… thousands of pale white spidery-somethings could be seen skittering hither and thither on my helmet and cargo net, inside my duffle, and in every nook and cranny of my helmet (the most awful of places to have tiny things crawling and living).
Sadly, this one took me multiple takes to learn…I’d like to blame my being tired at the end of the day and forgetting this golden rule of removing temptation from the realm of insects by hanging items over chairs, bed frames, and various hook-like objects sticking out of walls, but sadly I think I am just slow-witted.
I swear, for the next 100km of riding after that morning, I felt things crawling in my hair/ears/neck every 15-seconds.
When possible, hang your items up or set them on something to keep them off the floor and therefore greatly reduce the likelihood of feeling little white spiders inside your ears for the next 100km of your journey.
#5. Assert yourself
The line had shuffled forward slowly for about 10-minutes when at last I found myself at the front waiting for the lady at the window to call me forward…
As the first person in the line, I took a step forward…
Two other guys behind me jumped forward and ran to the window arriving before me. The lady didn’t care. The line didn’t care. I continued waiting.
Lesson 5: lines don’t really matter. Assert yourself.
I remember how shocked I was when the golden rule of a damn line was so blatantly and carelessly violated. That shock to a system accustomed to a set of rules and traditions respected in one’s own culture and not in another has become a regular, daily event in my journey.
The same situation has repeated itself in grocery stores, gas stations, border control points, and the list goes on.
I do wonder if it is simply more racist treatment of foreigners (like the gringo tax, neglect at borders, and general lying to take advantage of one perceived to have boundless amounts of money). But that is a conversation for another time.
Another example of the need to assert oneself is getting the attention of whomever you are trying to interact with. Whereas I am accustomed to walking up to a hotel reception desk and waiting for the person behind the counter to finish their conversation before interrupting and checking in, this behavior can leave you waiting several minutes for that person to finally turn to you as if annoyed and say “Que?” Contrary to popular belief, even if it is the person's job, they will likely not feel obligated to do it.
Don’t be rude, but don’t give an inch because they will take it and you’ll find yourself waiting in a line that doesn’t ever seem to move forward.
#6. A little goes a long way
The still-as-stone faces behind the counter didn’t change as I said “Buenas” and entered the small open-aired restaurant. We all stared at each other for a few moments before I asked if I could see a menu. Silently, the woman handed me a small, one-page menu listing tacos of various types.
Once the silence became too much, I went out on a limb and tried putting together a sentence in Spanish about how hungry I was and how much of a blessing they were to me. With the stumbling Spanish and clear intent to connect with the two people in front of me through awful humor, faces softened, shoulders relaxed, and smiles appeared.
Lesson 6: a little Spanish goes a long way.
I started this trip dreading the inevitable necessary use of my broken Spanish. From the first gas station, I walked into to purchase gasoline, to the first taco truck I approached with a growling stomach, I felt like a fool for stumbling and fumbling and making countless mistakes in a language not my own.
“Wouldn’t it be better if I simply spoke English and used hand gestures?”
I asked myself.
Nevertheless, I stuck to my Spanish guns and stumbled through many a haltingly-slow conversation to accomplish the most basic of tasks; getting gas, food, checking in at a hotel, and asking for directions.
It turns out that even just a little bit of Spanish through nervous lips can break down barriers, bring smiles, and introduce you to the most kind of people along the way.
From that first taco truck where the stares were cold, hard, and wary, to the quiet stares of the two shirtless men smoking outside their one-bedroom house shared with what looked like 3-other women and several children next to my comparatively fancy apartment in Medellin Colombia, I can still remember the feeling of tension lifting, barriers lowering, and humanity becoming a binding commonality as I broke into some dumb joke or comment in my ever-improving Spanish.
From the taco truck smiles and laughs at my willingness to admit I am 100% gringo through and through, to the easy-going smiles and enthusiastic name-giving and fist-bumps of the two shirtless smokers when I explained I had ridden my Gordita (the name I have given to my motorcycle) all the way from America to their country, each moment it has been the willingness to try to put a few Spanish words together into something resembling a sentence that has won the day.
It may be hard, it may be embarrassing (it is), it may not even make sense but I guarantee you that a little Spanish will go a long way.
#7. (bonus) Not everyone is a bad hombre
When I started this trip, nearly every single person I knew told me that the world awaiting me to the south of the United States border was full of bad hombres.
Not literally, but they warned of impending danger around every curve not just due to the inherent dangers of riding a motorcycle but also due to the truly dangerous and dark-hearted people that inhabit the lands south of the US border…
As I have continued to push my way south through some of the most dangerous places in Central (and now South) America, I have, again and again, been so incredibly surprised by the truly wonderful people I have met.
From the random dudes sitting in a huddle on a curb who seem hostile and dirty and dangerous turning into the kindest and most energetic direction-givers, to the strangers in the street who become friends in moments and demonstrate a desire to help, protect, assist, whatever the characteristic kind, basic, human feeling might be, I have found it in random strangers at every stop along the way.
Perhaps then, this is one of the richest lessons I have been reminded of along this journey’s path; that rich, kind, human connection can be had at any given point along a path no matter whether it leads through the most dangerous or most secure places in the world.