Jeremy Kroeker and Elle West are riding down to South America from their home in Alberta, and they’re telling us about it as they go. The last time they checked in, they’d made it to the U.S./Mexico border; now, they’re crossing Mexico and Central America on their way to the ferry to South America.
There it was — my lungs filled to capacity with warm sea air and emptied out over the deep blue water of the Atlantic Ocean — my first proper sigh of relief. All along I predicted that I would breathe easy once Elle and I, along with our motorcycles, were aboard the Stahlratte, sailing around the Darien Gap from Panama to Colombia. This feels like a new chapter, and it’s about time.
I’m laying in a net, stretched like a hammock above the water ahead of the ship’s prow, just below the bowsprit. I’m in the wind and it feels like riding a motorcycle, in a way. A school of dolphins appears below me, riding the bow wave. From my position out front, I’m ahead of the school, looking down at them racing through the clear water. They speed with us for a few minutes before splintering off and away. I lay back in the net and smile.
I guess this is what they call smooth sailing. Although, technically, we’re under power of the diesel engine. The sails are up but, Ludwig, el Kapitaen, says the winds are not enough to carry us today. And so, the engine. When you’re astern you can hear it, with its soothing rhythm chook-a-tick-a, chook-a-tick-a chook-a-tick-a. But up here in the net I can only feel its vibration, if I place my hand on the hull. Up here, I can only hear the wind, and the waves. Smooth sailing.
But it wasn’t always so. To arrive here, our journey took some effort.
Busted flat in Central America
There was the 46 degree Celsius heat that stung us through California and Arizona. People warned us that we were too early pushing south. I preferred to think of ourselves as the tip of the spear for this season’s mad rush. (Rumour has it that Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor, et al., are on their way north at the moment. Thus, all subsequent rides through the Americas will be like a column of ants from hill to honey.)
There were the flat tires, all three on my rear wheel. The first, in Mexico, was from an obvious source. When I pulled over to assess the damage, I found a nail. The tube was shredded, but I had a spare. The next two flats, one in El Salvador, one in Nicaragua, were mysteries. In both cases, I discovered the flat in the morning just before we had planned to leave.
In San Salvador, rather than messing with tire levers and dripping sweat, I removed the wheel and brought it to a roadside tire shop. Three kids ran the outfit, young teens at best, and the one in charge used nothing more than hand tools, skill, and aggression to make short work of removing the stiff Heidenau rubber. All of this he did while sucking from a clear plastic bag of mango juice. It never left his lips, and it never interfered with his concentration. The tire off, the tube inspected and … nothing. We all agreed that it must have been a sticky valve stem. Just in case, the rubber burr inside the tire from the Mexico flat was ground smooth and patched. Just in case. The tube went in and the tire got spooned on.
“How much?” I asked in Spanish. The kid thought for a moment.
“One dollar,” he said.
“OK. Here’s two,” I said, paying him. “And, here’s a little extra,” I said. With that, I assume he’ll buy another bag of mango juice.
(The next flat was in Nicaragua but, given my experience in El Salvador, I just inflated the tire, made sure the valve stem wasn’t leaking, and called it good. It’s been holding steady ever since.)
And it was in El Salvador — or rather, the border into El Salvador from Guatemala — that the hand of irony finally grasped the red pony tail on Elle’s silver helmet and gave it a good yank. You see, Elle caries with her a length of pink paracord. She keeps it for when my KLR breaks down and she needs to tow me somewhere, she often quips.
“It already happened,” she mentions to friends and strangers the same, recalling an incident with an older KLR I had a few summers ago. And then we laugh. Always, the laughing.
Well, in the warm, heavy rain, crossing from Guatemala into El Salvador, Elle’s mighty BMW failed to start. We had all the necessary paperwork in order. We just needed to show it all to one more officer before we could go. But, Elle’s bike refused.
We tried once to push start the machine, to no avail. Then I (suppressing every urge to make a really big deal out of this) cleared my throat and said, “I think I’ll need to tow you. Do you have that paracord handy?” Elle produced the exact same length of cord that we had used a few summers back when she towed me to the mechanic. It snapped. We tied it back together and it snapped again. So, we fished out the fresh length of cord, doubled it up, and I towed her (foot-peg to foot-peg), across the border into El Salvador.
The next day we took apart the ignition switch, cleaned it up, and the bike started. The switch was worn and damaged, however, so we lit out for San Salvador to find a permanent solution. There we found ourselves at the doorstep of the Touratech outfitter. Mario welcomed us into his shop, had Elle’s switch replaced, and brought us to his home where we sheltered from the rain for a few days watching geckos on the walls and playing with the dog. He helped me find the tire shop when I discovered the flat the next day.
Along the way there were many tedious border crossings, too. Much has been written about this online, and the opinions are as loud as they are diverse. Some say it’s easiest to hire an advisor to shuffle you through the system. Some say the fixers are crooks. Others claim there’s enough information online that, with a little research, you can tame the chaos. The problem is, all of these opinions have an element of truth.
The borders shift and change, you see. Six weeks ago, when someone last posted instructions on iOverlander for the frontier, this particular office issued photocopies — now it just sells tacos. You need an inspector to process your bike? He’s over there, driving a bulldozer. If you want your bike cleared, you have to operate the bulldozer for a bit.
Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. But Elle likened these situations to escape rooms. “We should sell this experience, somehow,” she’d say. “Rather than making someone solve problems in a locked room, we fly them down here and they have to clear a motorcycle into Nicaragua.”
And it was in Nicaragua that our path became the rockiest, figuratively and literally. We found ourselves on the volcanic island of Ometepe, in Lago de Nicaragua. I had been here before, some 15 years earlier. At that time, my travel partner (Trevor) and I had ridden up to some waterfalls, and Elle wanted to see them too.
I remember that ride, 15 years ago, as a fun but somewhat challenging day. Anyway, Elle did not want to do it. Most people walk the whole way to the falls, and that was her vote. But from the directions that I got at the hostel, and at the lower parking lot when we arrived, I understood the road to have improved since I was there last. Besides, there’s now a parking lot halfway up the trail where we could leave the bikes before the ride became too challenging.
Perfect. With this understanding, soon revealed to be wildly incorrect, we rode two-up on the trail. Almost immediately, the road became too much for me to handle with a passenger. When I nearly careened off the path after striking a smooth boulder, Elle opted to walk. I carried on, bouncing and cursing my way up the exact ride that I now clearly remembered from over a decade ago.
Of the ride, 15 years ago, I wrote in Motorcycle Therapy, “The trail rose sharply and twisted up increasingly difficult terrain, forcing us to stand on our foot pegs and lean heavily uphill. We rolled hard on the throttle in first gear, feathering the clutch to find a balance between momentum on the steep slope and control in the tight corners. The ride, at once exhausting and exhilarating, brought us to a rudimentary shelter on a sunlit, grassy bench.”
Yeah. That was written by me as a young-ish man. Now in my waning 40s, I would use a string of foul language to describe the ride, peppered with more descriptors such as “terrifying,” and “gut-wrenchingly obnoxious.”
Fortunately, just as I had misremembered the difficulty of the trail, so had I underestimated the beauty of the falls. Elle and I lounged in the cool, clear water, straining our necks to watch the spray as it fell all around us. I wiggled into a notch and sat behind the falls, enjoying the moment, but dreading the ride down that trail.
Sailing on down
I did not crash on the ride down. In fact, on this trip, I’ve only once dropped my bike in a sandy spot in Mexico. I’m a good boyfriend to Elle, and I’m too big of a person to mention how many times she has dropped her bike so far. Without getting specific, a lesser person might mention that the ratio of bikes dropped for Elle and me is 4:1, but I would never say that. That might irritate my long-suffering partner.
There’s another thing. I’m constantly irritating Elle. Yes, there have been challenges with us as partners. We’re together all of the time on this trip when, in Canada, we’re used to spending vast amounts of time alone. Yet, in spite of this change, in spite of the challenges, so far this aspect of the journey has been smooth sailing, too. Elle is a trained counsellor. This means that I will never win an argument with her, but it also means that we can communicate about important issues.
She’s beside me now, back on the Stahlratte. Elle and I are up front again, just us. We’re in the net. It’s dark, and we’re just listening to the wind and the waves. We can see some kind of bioluminescent glow in the bow wave and then there are dolphins again.
There are just two this time. In the dark, with the bioluminescence, they glow green as they weave ahead of the ship. Earlier in the day, the school of dolphins was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life. Now, just a few hours later, this is. I’m seeing it with Elle, and I am happy.
Tomorrow, we land in Colombia. A new continent. A new chapter for both of us. We’re not naive. It won’t all be smooth sailing, we know. But together, we are eager to face it and, at least for now, in this moment, we are content.
CMG is publishing regular, exclusive updates from Jeremy during his South American journey.
He is the author of Motorcycle Therapy: A Canadian Adventure in Central America, and Through Dust and Darkness: A Motorcycle Journey of Fear and Faith in the Middle East. With his motorcycle, he has traveled to 30 countries while managing to do at least one outrageously stupid thing in every one.