It was d-day and I had to face some brash realities. I likely wasn't going to be able to finish the trip. Despite all the scrounging, camping in the bush for free, eating from dirt-cheap food stands, hustling through expensive countries like Costa Rica, taking it slow through cheap countries like Mexico, and having out-of-budget items like dental floss smuggled in from Canada, I was running out of funds.
In Central America $12/day was possible and I knew it would also be possible through parts of South America like Peru and Bolivia. Though once I got down to Chile this poverty line lifestyle would die a fast death. Not just day-to-day living, If KLaiR needed even one out-of-pocket repair, I'd starve trying to keep her alive.
I would either need to ride like hell to reach the bottom of South America and skip nearly every site off the beaten path while hoping for zero breakdowns, or tuck my tail between my legs and spend the last of my money and fly back to Canada to work for the summer.
If I had no ego this would be an easy choice. Sadly my ego often controlled my rational thinking and made it painfully impossible to make choices that might seem easy to make from the outside looking in.
I made a sheepish phone call to Brett, a guy I’d done business with for many years. The same guy I’d worked for the year before my departure. The same guy who paid me while I turned right back around and paid down a line of credit I used to pay off a hefty invoice I had with his company. I asked him if he’d give me a summer job? I could tell he was a bit confused as to why the hell I’d be leaving this life to return to Canada. Either way, he said he’d be happy to help me out for the summer. I then promptly spent the rest of my money on a plane ticket home and a scuba diving trip.
I felt like a failure. I felt like I couldn’t accomplish my initial goal of reaching the end of South America before riding around the world. I felt like I was still relying on the crutch of Canada to run back to when things got hard. Either way, I swallowed my pride on the basis that if I didn't go back and work now, the pain of possibly not getting to Ushuaia would be worse than the pain of dying a slow, broke, death.
This however presented a new problem.
Typically an owner of a foreign vehicle is only allowed 90-days to temporarily import their vehicle into any country, not a universal rule, but it applies to most countries on the PanAm route. If you go over the 90-days the vehicle is either confiscated by the government and becomes their property or is considered imported property and you are meant to pay taxes on the imported goods along with filing a stack of paperwork. The taxes are often atrocious, sometimes reaching 100% or more of the vehicle's value.
I had made several requests with the Colombian government to extend my temporary import papers for KlaiR but they were all denied. I was feeling desperate to continue the trip, but not lose KLaiR to the government while doing so. I had even gone so far as to fake death certificates and cited a funeral as my reason for return as I heard this was an option for visa extensions. The government didn't care about the funeral and again denied my claim. When this fell through I rode for two days up the coast to another immigration office and tried for the extension there. I was now getting more and more desperate for a solution.
When a four day road trip and a funeral had not worked I had decided to store KLaiR in Colombia. This was more of a bandaid than a solution, but would buy me some time to think about what to do. When I returned I hoped I could later smuggle her out of the country when the time came. This also meant sneaking around Colombia with an illegally imported bike from one side of the country to the other. Trying to avoid the endless police checks in Colombia was like trying to avoid a hangover after a New Years party. The party eventually ends and the consequences catch up with you.
If I was caught with expired documents at the police checks I would either face a fine, have KLaiR confiscated by the government, or possibly end up in prison. It would be tough to plead my case as I had applied for an extension in two different cities and been denied in both. It’s not that I’m a criminal, it’s just that the rules are so hard to follow that upstanding citizens like myself are often forced to bend these rules just to enjoy the beauty of each country and give it the attention it deserves.
I returned to Canada, told everyone some excuse about how great it was to be home for the summer, and agonizingly counted each day until my return.
Shortly before departure from Colombia, I’d called Angie in the hopes of rekindling this impractical international relationship that would spark in one country, then fade, then flare up again in another part of the planet before being snuffed out again.
I was so sure she was going to be excited to see me that I’d booked my flight back to Edmonton where she was living. She was as shocked as I was that I was returning to Canada for the summer, however, the little spark we had was again faded and she had booked herself an extended summer vacation to Europe.
Who was I kidding, I knew this “thing” we had was not sustainable and clearly, so did she. In all fairness, I had not requested that she come to South America at any point nor had I given any reason that I might be back in Canada within the next year or more.
Back in Canada, I worked, kept a close eye on the calendar along with my bank account, and managed to cross paths with Angie a few times before returning to my real girlfriend KLaiR. The summer was fun, but it was merely a stepping stone back to the bike trip.
Eventually, I landed back in Colombia with some parts for KLaiR, a new camera, some money, and a new outlook on the trip. To make this all possible I’d stored KLaiR with some new Colombian friends on a little acreage not far from Cartagena. When I returned I was shocked to see her covered in debris and the tarp I had covered her with shredded, having barely survived the relentless rainy season. With all the excess humidity and all my gear stuck inside my Pelican cases and under a tarp, everything had molded. Moldy green boots, speckled pants, fuzzy helmet, even the air filter was covered in a thick mold. Imagine slipping your head into a big wheel of blue cheese before riding off into the beating sun!
I knew the risks of riding illegally through the country and had carefully been plotting out my trip to ride mostly backroads and remote village routes to avoid the police checkpoints. This was going fairly well and it had been a couple of months without hitting a single police checkpoint. Eventually though, I needed to pass through the city of Bucaramanga and here things suddenly came unraveled.
Every part of this scene was going wrong. I had no desire to be anywhere near a city, but needed to cross through Bucaramanga, I had no other option. The sun was setting and I needed to find a place to stay or camp before it finally got dark. I had hardly slept the night before as the pouring rains that were bashing at the exterior of the tent had kept me up all night. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast as I was rushing most of the day to get to, then through this city. It was getting alarmingly darker, I was officially out of water and the heat of the day had exhausted & dehydrated me. Hungry, thirsty, and irritated, I was now navigating the madness of city traffic trying to avoid being run over.
Dealing with city traffic is one of my least favorite scenarios. The two Pelican cases on KLaiRs hips result in her having a huge ass. Where small, local bikes can easily dart in and out of traffic getting to places faster, I'm typically reduced to the same speed and obstacles as a car. I was getting a little fed up with the endless traffic jams and I was now trying to weave KlaiR and her huge ass in and out of crammed cars while trying to avoid crashing into anyone.
Colombians have this incredible motorbike culture and their love of motorbikes lends to them being true masters on two wheels. To watch them delicately wind in and out of traffic and between lights was inspiring, but well out of my skill set. As the cars got closer and closer to each other and the traffic began to build along with my hunger, dehydration, and frustration, I was looking to get out of this edgy madness as soon as possible. I spotted a small opening in the thick traffic and decided to go for it.
I hit the throttle and just narrowly avoided two cars, but I was free, I made it! Well, free for a minute anyways. I soon met the next red light. As the light turned green I took off, but shortly after a car came up beside me and very angrily started yelling at me and pointing at his car. I had no idea what was going on, the guy probably just liked Canadians. I waved and continued on hoping to avoid having to stop and take some selfies with the guy.
At the next set of lights, he pulled up beside me and began to yell again. I didn’t know what was happening so I turned off of the main road to find a place to park and to talk to him. It was here that I noticed he was pointing to his rearview mirror hanging like a broken arm from his door and pointing to KLaiR. Ohh shit, maybe I didn’t make it so effortlessly through those last set of cars. I put the kickstand down and got off.
Normally this little incident would not have been such a concern to me. I’d probably work out a deal with the guy for some light car repair then be on my way. However, at this particular time, I had the minor backend problem of KLaiR being here illegally weighing on my mind.
This broken mirror was reflecting a “Problems in the mirror may be closer than they appear '' situation into what could be my imprisonment in Colombia. If this guy called the police or the police happened to drive by and see the accident it could be game over. As I stopped the bike, instantly the attention of the locals were drawn to us like kids to a clown. Only I was the clown and no one was laughing. An accident with the obvious foreign bike and a pale white gringo along with one of the locals seemed more captivating than anything else going on around us at that moment.
In my best Spanish I apologized profusely and assured the man I could fix it. I was more than nervous. I was pissing my pants nervous. I was dreading prison time in Colombia nervous. I was going to have my girlfriend taken away from me nervous.
The guy was driving an old family sedan. The type of car you drive when you have no money and just need a car that can taxi around a six-person family. He had what looked like his elderly mother in the front seat, maybe his wife in the back, and a small child next to the potential mother. Great, the rich-looking westerner had just wrecked the family car in front of the whole family. When the driver stepped out of the front seat he was a chubby 250-pounds and easily dwarfed me. I knew there would be no escape if I couldn't solve this little issue fast.
I looked at the mirror and tried to make out how it may have originally looked, then tried to gently set it back in place. Somehow my YouTube mechanic skills were not shining through. I then tried to reassure the man and told him I had some tools. Sweating, starving, tired, and concerned I might be going to jail over a mirror, I quickly got my tools and tried to unscrew the rest of the mirror. The small crowd of onlookers grew and the 250-pound man and his family all watched me fumble nervously with the mirror.
15-minutes of my clumsy mirror repair service went by in what felt like hours and I was sure grandma who was seeing right through my facade had called the police. By now the man realized I didn’t know what I was doing and called my mechanical bluff. He put his large baseball glove-sized hand on my tiny shoulder and pushed me out of the way like I was a small child. He then grabbed the broken arm looking mirror, lined it up with the hole it had fallen out of, and rammed it back into place with his giant hands. Holy shit, it held! He then adjusted the mirror and just like that everything was back to normal.
I took a deep breath, felt like an idiot, and then contemplated my options. There was a bar right across the road, so I asked him if he wanted me to buy him some beer. He said no. I asked him if he wanted some money for his trouble. He looked insulted. He took my little biker hand in his big baseball mitt, shook it, and asked me if I needed anything? I said no. He told me to ride safely and wished me luck. Just like that, all the concerns of bribes and jail disappeared.
This was a far cry from the Colombian criminals you see on t.v. that I was originally assuming I’d be running into everywhere. He did fit the description of nearly every welcoming and friendly Colombian I’d meet during my months in the country though. I feel appalled that I’ve been across half the planet quite intensely and still buy into preconceived notions about a culture before I get there. Colombians aren't the deadly criminals the world thinks they are. One man was, many, many years ago, and he left a nearly irreversible stain on the country's image that is so shockingly different from who the people really are. Do they think Canadians live in igloos and use the same two letters in every sentence? Fuck, I hope not, eh.
(Colombia's backroads) Photo by Philippe Berini / Moto Phil