#6 — The Worst Day Yet
In an instant, everything changed.
From peaceful and smiling, to stunned and sick to my stomach.
The crunching sound of his motorcycle tumbling down the slope echoing in both our ears.
Panama City, Panama
I write to you from a freezing cold Starbucks in Panama City, Panama that has not received the memo that we are not in America and therefore the coffee shouldn’t cost as much as it does on the prominade in Santa Monica, California.
The last few days have been… rough. It is not just the fatigue from riding these 10,000km in less than 2-months. It is not just the unbearably hot and humid days. It is not just from eating infrequently and slowly losing weight.
It is because of what happened not more than 10km after crossing the Costa Rican/Panamanian border…
Border crossing mornings.
Motorcycle travel is a special type of masochism, or so a new friend recently told me as we sat at a tiny table in a hostel and talked about our separate but similar experiences riding motorbikes through Central America.
If there is any one thing that substantiates that strangely twisted and yet eerily accurate statement, it is the ordeal that is crossing a border in Central America by yourself, with limited Spanish, importing a motorcycle, and doing it all while drenched in your own never-ending sweat soaking into your already dirty clothes (unless you were dumb enough to wear your clean clothes for a border crossing day 🤦♀️ then in that case your previously-clean-now-dirty-clothes).
I always wake up with a special type of numb knot of anxiety in my stomach on a border crossing day.
Honestly, when I look back and watch the footage from some of the border crossings in Central America, I am stunned I went through that locura (craziness) so calmly (relatively so…).
This morning in Beautiful southern Costa Rica in an expensive but beautiful little hotel on top of a mountain with an included breakfast that was actually delicious (a rarity) with coffee to appease the homesick soul was no different.
I felt sick in anticipation of yet another border crossing.
Yet another massive unknown that is the dance that one must execute to legally leave one country and enter another (the motorcycle often makes this process far more difficult than it would be if I were merely traveling by bus).
I sipped my small coffee slowly, dreading the moment when my last excuse to remain on top of the safe, quiet, beautiful mountain would disappear.
blessedly, rarely, uniquely the approach to the border was missing the by-now-expected unending line of semi-trucks snaking 2–5km back up the road approaching la frontera (the border).
I took this as a good omen of a tranquil border crossing and therefore happy day, happy camper, happy me.
The exit from Costa Rica was practically identical to many other preceding countries with less chaos, less shouting, and more clear signage.
The entrance to Panama was similarly orgasmically simple, with the only hitch in the system being the health official’s suspiciously long “lunch break” taking place several hours before lunch actually takes place in most parts of the world and stretching long enough to create quite a backup of waiting customers ready to get their stamp of health official approval.
But, no matter. 12.8 seconds after saying buenas to the old man in the health official polo, I was saying ciao and moving on to the next step of the departure process.
After a characteristically appropriate amount of sweating and walking in various directions to execute various border crossing quests, I was getting fumigated (or, rather, the lower half of my nameless bike was) and entering Panama!
Headphones and smiles.
The feeling of being set free from the prison of the border and (mostly) believing that you are leaving and entering legally and with all in good order…. is magnificent!
After making it through the final surprise military checkpoint and passing the “Bienvenidos a Panama” sign, I was all smiles and warm feelings (although maybe that was just the intense heat from the sun).
My music was popping in my ears, my body rapidly cooling as the sweat slicking my body evaporated from the Panamanian wind hitting my chest, and my heart was light as I had crossed my last Central American border with little to no trouble and in record time (just under 2-hours).
I commenced the passing of most other vehicles on the road with a slightly faster, overtaking speed that is my custom when riding (always be overtaking traffic slightly until you find your bubble. Then ride that bubble until you need to overtake again).
I have ignored speed limit signs and simply gone a few kilometers faster than pervading traffic patterns for 10,000km of riding in Central America and never been ticketed…
The speeding ticket.
He stepped out into the road, hand raised and gesturing with a posture that expected obedience.
I downshifted and drifted over to the side of the road a bit further than his small, shadow-covered hiding spot under the tree.
A speeding ticket is not the end of the world. Relax, take your helmet and gloves off and be respectful but light. There is no reason for anxiety or anger.
Panama, it turns out, is infamously difficult when it comes to ticketing… Officers are known to be quite aggressive with their ticketing, placing themselves in tricky spots, not hesitating in the writing of tickets no matter circumstances, and generally catching quite a few Panamanians (and gringos on dirty KLR650’s) off guard.
As it turns out, the speed limit was 80km/h right up until the officer’s tree, at which it then turned to 60. Putting my speed of 78km/h as recklessly high…
Thankfully, the officer was quite kind and put my actual speed on the ticket as below my 78km/h.
I was instructed to do a u-turn and park my bike next to his for the filling out of the paperwork.
Once it became clear that neither of us was interested in any ass-holery, the officer and I began to chat almost as friends.
We talked about motorcycles, my crazy solo journey through Central America and beyond, family, love, life.
We even began discussing the United State’s stance on the war between Ukraine and Russia.
After a half-hour of paperwork and chatting, all was ready to go.
I began the process of closing and double-checking every pocket and zipper, putting the key in the ignition, putting the gloves on top of the key, putting the glasses on top of the gloves, inserting the headphones…
…but the headphones were nowhere to be found.
After an initial search of the various pockets and zippers I had just closed and double-checked, even the officer began to help me search (on the ground around the motorcycle).
As the search continued, I became more and more focused on the missing headphones… and less and less focused on the 500+ pound motorcycle balanced between my legs.
At last. Disaster struck.
The sickening sight of a rolling motorcycle.
As I turned for the 4th time to check the cargo net securing my duffle bag to the bike, I lifted my left foot slightly off the ground, and in that instant, disaster struck.
Over the course of 3 distinct and never-ending instants…my heart sunk, my stomach turned, my eyes widened, and both officer and civilian were left dumbfounded at the calamitous turn of events.
The first instant…
My bike began to tip over.
I realized I was losing her.
I jumped free as it came crashing down, thinking that it would merely be an embarrassing moment of dropping my bike in front of a police officer.
The second instant…
As the bike fell, I charted its trajectory and realized my bike would hit the rear tire of the officer’s bike.
I was stunned but still, reassured myself that knocking over his bike would not be the end of the world.
A very awkward and potentially difficult situation, but not the end of the world.
The third and final instant…
As his bike went down, we both realized the tragedy had only just begun.
Where pavement should have met the bike with a hard crunch, only the dead sound of nothingness could be observed as the bike continued through open air.
The bike went over the edge of the ditch, hit the piles of rocks comprising the slope, turned upside down, and continued to roll end over end until coming to a broken, disastrous rest at the bottom of the surprisingly destructive slope.
We both stood stunned for several moments taking in the unbelievable scene in front of us.
“Ahora estamos en problemas, Jeremias.”
Now we are in real trouble, Jeremiah.
Now, something has happened that can’t be ignored.
Now, life has taken a sickening, twisted turn for the worse in only a few marked moments.
After 3-hours of sweat-filled conversation we had to make a choice:
1. report this incident officially, lock my bike away for 10-days, wait another 15-days for the court to decide my fault, pay a ton of money throughout both for the fees as well as my forced stay in the small city of David, Panama until all was resolved…
2. pray to god the officer can convince the police force mechanic to fix the bike unofficially and pay for the repairs as well as the mechanic’s silence up front, in cash, without hesitation.
And so it was that I found myself hunched over my open duffle bag on the side of the highway, pulling out all my emergency cash, and counting out the hundreds it would take to keep me out of an official investigation and a forced stay in a city in Panama in which I had intended to stay no more than 24-hours.
It took several days before I could close my eyes without seeing the sickening sight of the officer’s motorcycle rolling end over end down the rocky slope.
It took me several days to realize and admit to myself that all things considered I came out of that situation in a best-case scenario; neither myself nor the officer hurt in any way, my bike totally fine, his bike being repaired by my cash, my cash buying my way out of a potentially long and expensive process in a foreign country involving damage to state property…
Although it was a sickening experience at first, it will undoubtedly come to be one of my most memorable moments collected along the way of this ongoing, crazy, solo adventure on my motorcycle.