La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico:
What felt like days had only been hours as I baked beneath my damp, mildewed riding jacket and pants. The road out of Catemaco, Veracruz, had gradually narrowed, the vegetation alongside it growing thicker and more heavily populated with malaria and dengue-carrying creatures who’d have their ways with you if you decided to stop for a breather. The air itself grew so dense with moisture it didn’t move; it occupied and consumed space like an object you could slice with a knife.
My cell phone didn’t work here and my GPS was out of juice. I knew the barely-paved trajectory in front of me followed the Gulf Coast, per the tattered paper map shoved into the clear plastic sleeve on my tank bag. But there were so few landmarks that the only way to track the passing of time and space was to count seconds off in my head – one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four – and when a distraction came along – say, in the form of one of Mexico’s gigantic unmarked topes (square surfaced concrete speed bumps that pop up randomly, sometimes far from any town, which, when hit at speed, will launch a rider several feet into the air) – I’d just have to start counting all over again.
Chunks of pavement crumbled away from the edge of the road as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec grew skinnier, making islands of neglect upon which weeds took root – green and happy in the warm hazy air.
I was headed for Palenque. A friend had told me about the monkeys there – with their ghostly howls – amidst vine-covered, age-stained Mayan ruins all half buried in the Chiapaneco jungle near the western Guatemala border. I wanted to see them; I wanted to see anything and everything I hadn’t seen before, even if it killed me in the process. My world was filled with yeses tinged with that queasy feeling your gut gets when they come with risk.
My gut clenched hard with the approach of the Tabasco state line checkpoint. "BIENVENIDOS AL ESTADO DE TABASCO" loomed above me in black institutional capitals, chipped paint peeling from the rust-inflected welcome sign stretching out over the highway. Men in blue-black uniforms stood around strapped into their AR-15s, looking me up and down with a special kind of serious amusement.
“¿De donde vas?”
“¡¿De donde vienes!?”
“Disculpe, pero no entiendo Español muy bueno, señores…lo siento…”
Crap. Man, these checkpoints scared the bejesus out of me without fail. They made me feel small and suspicious, aware of countless pairs of eyes falling on me at once, looking for some sign or other of deviance. But I always presented myself as a tourist, and once they figured out I was alone and not carrying weapons or drugs, they let me go with a kind, cautious smile, and a warning. And these guys, I’d later find out, weren’t kidding.
“Mucho cuidado, señora.”
Papers checked, I throttled hard out of there, my Triumph Tiger 800 easily hitting highway speed in a matter of seconds. I still had hundreds of kilometers left to go, and I was already tired. Too tired.
So, I saw it too late.
A black shadow stretched all the way across the carretera. In one of those lifelong split seconds, its serrated edges, depth (around half a meter), even the pebbles of crumbled asphalt thrown everywhere by countless impacts of truck tires – all etched into my brain like a corrupted digital photograph that can’t be deleted. All I could do was hold my breath.
Miraculously, I didn’t come off. But I won’t forget the sound my bike made after, either. Like keys dragging along a metal fence.
Immediately I pulled over – as far to the side as I could. I’d soon come to realize, though, it wasn’t far enough; locals and truck drivers who knew the road were swerving onto the shoulder to avoid the pothole I'd hit at full speed. I was in grave danger of being taken out by one of them. But I was so preoccupied with the condition of my motorcycle that I didn’t notice this.
My bike’s front end had compressed so much the forks’ mudguards were accordions; the fender had been ripped off and was hanging from a single bolt.
“Zip ties,” I thought.
Yeah... zip ties. The duct tape of the motorcycle world. They’ll fix anything! Broken plastic? Sure, no problem…
Half an hour passed. I could feel my face reddening in the heat, but was too stressed to remember to take off my gear. My fingers didn’t work. They were as useful as Cheetos sticking out of the clumsy balloons that were supposed to be my hands, and sweat poured into my eyes, making it difficult to see. I kept struggling to tie it all back together, determined to make something work. But I couldn’t, and it sucked. The thought of simply leaving the plastic off felt like failure, which I wouldn’t accept.
Until Juan appeared. Juan, with the amazing smile, kind eyes and thin, nimble fingers. Young enough to be my son, but wise, patient and gentle, he pursued every angle he could think of to help me. Despite my horrible Spanish, I understood he had a motorcycle mechanic friend in a nearby town, and that I could stay with his family if I needed to. He motioned for me to follow him home.
“This is it,” I thought.
This was real; I could feel it. An opportunity to be with people who weren’t trying to sell me anything, to get to know other humans living in a context I wasn’t used to. This was suddenly a true adventure, where I had no idea what I was in for. So, I said yes. With the broken plastic strapped to the rear seat, I climbed back onto my Tiger, turned the key and pressed the ignition. The instrument lights blazed... but she wouldn’t catch. I tried again. And again. Nothing. The "check engine" light stayed on. Fuck.
Juan hopped onto his little motorbike, a 125cc Italika (Mexican-made cycles that dominate the streets of most small towns in this and other Latin American countries), asked me to wait, and took off.
I sat there, ticking off the list of things in my head of what could be wrong, as cars and trucks kept swerving off and on the highway, narrowly missing me. That alarm at the base of my spine that knew how dangerous this spot was kept tingling, but I ignored it, knowing the bike was too tall and heavy for me to muscle to another spot. Not solo, at least, But I felt too stupid to ask someone new for help.
Did the cavalry show up? Hell yes. Juan, plus one handsome-as-all-get-out 40-something moto mechanic named Jose Leonides Garcia Ortega, who knew immediately there was nothing he could do.
“Es uno de los sensores,” he said in six different ways, including pantomime, 'til it sunk into my fried brain that the bike wouldn’t run because of a CPU problem. Which neither he nor any other mechanic within 300 kilometers was equipped to fix.
But he would try.
His shop was only 2 kilometers away in a town called La Venta. No one had a flatbed truck handy, so how did we get the bike there? With Jose’s tennis-shoe-clad right foot. I climbed back up on my 225 kg (496 lbs) monster and steered, while Jose pushed from aboard his own little Italika: up the highway exit ramp, over a bridge, and down into town, yelling out instructions to brake or keep it in neutral. We made it without my dumping it once.
For two days he labored – a posse of seven youngsters aged 12 to 21 hanging around, handing him tools and cracking jokes. At first most of them smirked at me, baffled, never having seen a bike that size, nor imagining a tiny blond gringa would be the person to show up with one. I bought them water and a couple rounds of tacos from the lady across the street, made fun of myself a lot, and eventually we laughed at things together.
It was pretty clear right off the bat that Jose was right: he wasn’t going to be able to fix the bike. I reached out to my Mexico-based friends on the adventure-touring forum ADV Rider, letting them know I was in trouble, and one fellow Tiger owner spent hours with Jose and me on the phone, working through all the strategies he could think of to clear the issue. We needed a computer, cables, and a stronger internet connection. My laptop had a corroded hard drive that took 45 minutes to boot up, so it wasn’t up to the job. But Jose kept trying.
On the first day, as it grew dark I wondered where I was going to stay. There were no hotels or motels in town, Juan had disappeared, and Jose didn’t like the idea of my crashing out in his hammock behind the shop (for good reasons hinted at later). The furniture shop owner next door had an idea. I followed him down some muddy back streets to a one-room shack made from bolted-together sheets of corrugated tin, inside which a lady and her three small kids were watching TV. Her unflinching eyes rested on my face as he explained to her my story: how I’d been traveling alone by motorbike and had broken down, needing help. Gradually her face softened and she let me in. She had a little one attached to her right breast; the other two children gazed at me wide-eyed, smiling sheepishly.
She took me outside and across a yard filled with sagging tarps, banana trees, and strands of ivy. On the other side was a long building broken into three rooms, each with tattered, broken doors stained black inside with mold from the constant humidity. But the walls had a fresh coat of white; and the words, “La Casita del Amor – 3 horas $120” were painted there in a cursive script, the “Amor” replaced with a bright red heart.
The room, too, was bathed in mold. There were no windows, nor did the door have a lock. But there was a bed. And a shower. Up the main street, next to Jose’s shop, was a gas station selling 16-ounce cans of Tecate. I brought one back to the room, ice cold. A single can of beer never tasted so good.
The next morning I called my insurance company to see if their “roadside assistance” could get me to a larger city with a mechanic equipped to help. My ADV Rider friend knew a guy he thought could do it in Veracruz, roughly 300 km (190 miles) away; the nearest Triumph dealer was in Puebla, 500 km (300 miles) opposite, and through a treacherous pass that ran through the Sierra Madres. A tow organized through the insurance company to the closer city would have cost US $1,000 – cash – which I didn’t have in my name, let alone immediate access to.
I turned to Jose. He’s got to know a guy with a truck, who’d do it for a couple thousand pesos, I thought. He couldn’t repair the bike, and he knew I’d be stuck there indefinitely without his help. So he jumped on it. To the bus station! He thought he could sweet-talk the station manager into hauling the Tiger aboard a coach heading toward Mexico City. I was doubtful, but it was his town and his language, so what the hell? I climbed onto the back of his silver Italika and off we went.
I watched him plead with the manager through the station windows, enraptured by his enthusiasm and sweetness. I couldn’t believe how determined he was to make this work, on behalf of someone he didn’t know nor have reason to care about. He walked back outside briskly, shaking his head. We stood on the sidewalk for a moment. He ran his hand across his face and stroked the three-day stubble there, thinking of what to do. Then he lit up like a rocket. “¡Ándale!” Off we went again.
This time I found myself leaning against the poster-covered wall of a fruit and vegetable shop as he spoke proudly to the couple owning it about my plight. They looked me up and down, without expression, the woman cocking her head slowly to the left, her eyes remaining steadily on my face. I tried to look as pathetic as possible.
Yes, they would help me. As it happened, their main product delivery route fell along that same mountain pass leading to Puebla where the Triumph dealer was. A truck was leaving tonight. I think Jose was happier than I was. That night, at 8 pm, after an afternoon of drinking Coke and swapping bad jokes, Jose, myself and his crew all hauled ass for the pickup spot, me and my gear in a taxi, Jose and one of his kids with the Tiger, pushing it as we had the day before.
We stood on a corner together for three hours, fighting mosquitoes, drinking more Coke, eating potato chips and learning secrets about one other. I found out why the Tabasco border police were so tense. Apparently my pothole took me out on a major cartellera route that runs drugs along the Gulf Coast. I asked casually, out loud, if these guys had had problems and I was immediately shushed.
“There are people watching everywhere,” Jose said.
It was 11pm when the truck finally showed up. Its massive form cast a dull shadow in the sodium vapor streetlights as it backed into position, belching out clouds of blue exhaust smoke. The bottom edge of its bed came up to my eyeballs. I looked at my bike. Then at the truck bed.
“How in the hell is this going to work?” I thought.
With the willpower, tenacity, and sheer muscle strength of six determined guys, I’d soon find out. There was no ramp. But there were wooden planks, each only about 8 inches (20cm) wide, which they stacked atop one another. I stood back and watched with my heart in my throat as these amazing men shoved my rhinoceros of a motorcycle up into the back of the truck, thin boards exploding from her weight as she reached the top. I couldn’t believe this was possible, but there it was. Sometimes it’s a beautiful thing to be proven wrong.
Jose never asked for a dime from me, because he couldn’t fix my motorcycle. I gave him what cash I could, but it wasn’t enough. So, I left him a piece of art, dangling from a beam behind his shop.
I curled myself into a ball in the cab of the truck and looked out the window at my new friends as they waved goodbye. As the truck pulled away from town, slowly, I heard a voice yelling out the passenger window, and it came to a stop.
“¡Espera! ¡Olvidado algo!”
It was Jose, out of breath, with the embroidery I’d left him in his hand.
“No, man,” I said. “Es para usted.”