Motorcycle Trip 1989
I turned 14 years old in the summer of 1989. That June my dad and a few other missionaries decided to take a trip to the town of San Buenaventura Bolivia. Grant Mayer and his family were going to be moving there later that summer. Steve Wyma lived there previously and was going to lead the trip. My older brother Neal and I, along with a Bolivian man named Efrain were also going along.
Our mode of transportation in those days was mostly on motorcycles. Honda was the brand of choice because parts were available in the country and they had proved to be very reliable. Some of these were actually manufactured in Brazil which made parts procurement even easier.
We set out from our home on the Pan-American Highway called Tambo. My dad and I rode double on his 1972 Honda XL 250. My brother was riding a late 70’s XL 250 and Grant was on a Brazilian made XL 185.
Tambo was approximately half way between the cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz in the foot hills of the Andes Mountains. The elevation was 5500 feet above sea level in the fertile Comarapa valley next to the Pulquina River. The Pan-American Highway was a dirt road used by trucks and busses traveling between the two cities. Near Santa Cruz the road became paved, but the rest of the trip was a twisty windy road through the mountains.
It was 145 miles to the city of Santa Cruz where we would meet up with Steve and Efrain. The ride that day was uneventful and we arrived safely at the mission guest home in Santa Cruz. We were in town for a couple of days as dad had some supply buying to do for Tambo because this was the closest place to purchase building supplies and hardware.
Santa Cruz is one of the more modern cities in the country. It is located in what we called the “low lands”. It is out of the mountains on the edge of jungles and vast grasslands called pampas.
We met up with Steve and Efrain early on a Sunday morning and set out to the north. They were riding double on a late 70’s Honda XL 250. The two grown men and their gear were weighing the bike down, but they were all smiles. The road to Montero was paved and we made good time once we got out of the city. However, we came to a grinding halt just after the town of Warnes as Steve pulled off into the grass beside the road with a dead motorcycle. This was the point in time that our 2 week trip turned into an adventure. After trying unsuccessfully to re-fire the bike it was determined that we needed to find a mechanic in Montero to look at it.
My dad was given the honors of towing Steve and Ephraim. So I jumped on the back of Grant’s bike to lessen the load. A mechanic was successfully located and an engine tear down commenced.
Montero was bustling with people as Sunday was market day. Farmers brought their produce into town to sell and also purchase supplies to carry back to their farms and ranches. There were people walking about the streets shopping for food and clothing and all sorts of supplies. Trucks were unloading produce. Carts pulled by scrawny horses or donkeys were prevalent and could be hired to carry any sort of goods. I saw one that had what looked like a dozen mattresses stacked up and the driver was perched all the way on top as he made his way down the bumpy dirt street with his load teetering back and forth. I thought for sure the whole contraption would tip over.
The mechanic we located was only a short distance off the main road. His little shop was a simple tin roof with walls that only went about half way up to the roof. The floor was dirt. He didn’t have a tool box to speak off, just random tools laying around. He had a crude work bench with an ancient vise mounted on it. He had a torch set up in the corner and a welder that would probably have stuck a few pieces of steel together if it had to. My dad was mechanic by trade and did not exactly like the situation, but we didn’t have much choice.
After a while the parts needed to repair the engine were located and purchased and the assembly began. Finally just before dark we rode away from that little shop with a running motorcycle.
Originally the plan was to ride all the way to the city of Trinidad on the first day. But with the mechanics issues on Steve’s bike costing us most of the day the plan changed. We rode into the night for what seemed like forever to me. I was hanging on to my dad and for most of the ride I tucked my head down behind his broad back and just prayed for us to stop and rest. Finally, we rolled into the town of Okinawa. Yes, there is a town in Bolivia named Okinawa. My understanding is that a number of Japanese settled there and named it that. Steve knew of a place we could get a room and we all crashed in a crude little hotel. The “bathroom” was out back, and was simply a room with a toilet, sink, and a shower with a drain in the middle of the floor. There was no shower curtain and everything in the small room would get wet while the shower was being used. None of us bothered showering. We were so tired we didn’t care how we smelled. My dad stood nearly 6 feet 4 inches and his bed was far too short for him. I ended up sleeping in a bed with my brother. I don’t think any of us got what we would call a good night’s sleep, but we were grateful for what sleep we got.
We woke the next morning to a beautiful day for a motorcycle ride. Our hotel also doubled as a restaurant and we ate a quick breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice before hitting the road. We did not ride far before reaching the bank of the Rio Grande. Since it was dry season the river was low, but with no bridge we crossed on a ferry.
Now when I use the word “ferry” most people picture a large ship or boat with multiple vehicles and a crew of men piloting the passengers and vehicles to the other side of a body of water. Well, the ferry in this case was a homemade contraption built out of rough cut lumber and boards about 20 feet long and about 10 feet wide. It did not have an engine whatsoever. We loaded all four motorcycles on by way of a plank ramp after traversing the muddy bank of the river. The two operators pushed us across the river with the water being about chest deep. It only took about 10 minutes to reach the other side where we disembarked in the same manner. The bank of the river was muddy and very wide and my dad and I nearly got stuck trying to reach solid ground.
The road on the other side of the river was in surprisingly great shape. It was topped with fresh gravel and smooth. We were making good time riding through grasslands that were divided by farm fields and stands of tall trees. On much of the grasslands cattle were grazing. Occasionally we would ride through a pueblo where all the dogs felt it was necessary to welcome us by chasing us. Some of the children would wave at the crazy gringos on their motorcycles and others would just stare as if we were aliens.
Shortly after the town of San Ramon my dad and I realized that my brother was not keeping up. We stopped and waited for a few minutes and dad decided to back track. After 12 miles of backtracking we found my brother with a flat rear tire. He had picked up a nail and his progress came to a halt. We always carried tools and patches for such an occasion and the men went to work to repair it. It is a bit of a tedious task. While you want to hurry and get back on the road, you also must take care not to put another hole in the tube while remounting the tire to the rim, which would be a completely unnecessary set back which would require starting the whole process over. Those that were ahead of us came back to help and after a bit we were on the way again.
We stopped for a late lunch in the town of Ascension. One great thing about traveling in Bolivia was that good food was usually easy to find. The restaurant consisted of a thatched roof with no walls. The floor was dirt and about a dozen wood tables and chairs that looked homemade filled the area. A typical lunch would consist of two courses. First would be a soup of some sort. It might have a chicken foot, chicken head, or a grizzly piece of beef or goat in it. The second course usually consisted of a small salad, rice, fried plantains or fries, and some form of meat, either chicken or beef. We all usually skipped the soup and ordered “segundo”, or second course. And not knowing the establishment’s food handling practices we also skipped the salad for fear of sickness. I am also not a big fan of fried plantains and usually left them as well. The local dogs would always stroll through looking for scraps while the proprietor would chase them away. Occasionally a chicken might walk through pecking at bugs or food that may have been left by the dogs not realizing that they very well may be served up on one of those tables soon. After lunch we set off again. We had a long way to go if we were going to reach Trinidad that night.
Shortly after lunch my dad and I also punctured a tire. We too had a nail in our rear tire. While we searched for something to prop the motorcycle on so we could remove the rear tire Efrain found a pond in the woods about 50 yards from the road. He called me over and told me there were fish in the large pond. Someone had built a rickety makeshift dock that was about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long that pretty much floated on the water with four to six inch gaps between the round logs used. I wasn’t quite sure about standing on it, but I didn’t want to show my fear. Efrain said “Look, there are fish in here,” as he pulled his gum out of his mouth, stretched into a two foot long string, and drug the end across the top of the water. As fast as he put the end of the gum in the water it was gobbled up by several Piranhas that broke the surface of the water. We couldn’t tell exactly how big they were, but it really didn’t matter because we wanted no part of them. Piranha live in schools. They hunt and devour their prey with a frenzied fury that is hard to explain. When they live where there is plenty of food like a river they are not aggressive unless there is blood in the water. But when held “captive” like these were in a pond or lake they can be very aggressive and attack anything that moves in the water. Efrain and I quickly and carefully retreated off the makeshift dock and returned to the road where my dad was putting our repaired wheel back on the motorcycle.
The condition of the road had deteriorated drastically since our lunch break. Huge holes created by heavy trucks lowered our speed as everyone searched for the smoothest route. There really isn’t much of a highway department performing regular maintenance on the roads. The two flat tires had set us back close to two hours. And then to add to the flats and difficult road, it started to rain. We all carried some form of rain gear so we quickly stopped and donned it. My dad and I just had rain coats without rain pants. We quickly realized that we were going to get pretty wet as our legs were completely exposed to the rain. But what Grant pulled out made us all laugh. He thought he had packed an actual rain coat, but it turned out to be a military green colored poncho. It did not have sleeves to put his arms through. This made riding the motorcycle interesting at best and it did very little to keep the rain off.
The sun was getting low at this point and my brother discovered his headlight was not working. Upon further investigation we found that the bulb had fallen out of its socket due to the rough road and had pulverized in the bottom of the headlight housing. So as we soldiered on my brother rode down the middle of the road using the headlight from our motorcycle to light his way.
Steve made the decision that we were not going to be able to make it to Trinidad that night, but he knew a place we could stay in a village ahead called San Pablo. So he and Ephraim went on ahead to secure some rooms for us. Grant followed along behind us we continued on with the disabled motorcycle guided by the dim light of our motorcycle. The rain grew heavier and the progress slower as the road became quite slick. Mud and water were splashing everywhere. Our rain gear had ceased to keep us dry at this point. There was absolutely no moon that we could see and the darkness was ominous. Our destination seemed like it was impossible to reach. Finally some lights of a village came into view. Grant inquired in a little store if this was San Pablo but to our disappointment he was informed that we had farther to travel. Downtrodden we soldiered on into the wet darkness slipping and sliding down the road. My brother had it the worst ridding in the middle of the road where the water filled holes were the deepest. And he had no choice but to splash through the water filled holes so he could continue sharing our feeble headlight. I would regularly look over my shoulder to check on Grant behind us. He was having issues of his own. His face shield on his helmet kept fogging up so he had it up, but then his glasses would get wet and he couldn’t see then either. He also had a bit of a headlight issue as his was out of adjustment and its only use was to light up the tree tops.
Occasionally we would stop and re-group, checking to make sure everyone was still alright. On one of these occasions Grant hollered out over the noise of the three motorcycles “Are we having fun yet?” And so this became the anthem of the rest of the trip, and in fact for years to come. Every time we would be in a crazy situation we would ask that simple question to lighten the mood. I still use it to this day.
Somehow my dad managed to keep us upright through the mud, but all of the sudden we were slipping and sliding like we were on ice. He put his feet out like skis as our bike went side to side as we slid to a crawl. I quickly looked back to check on Grant and realized his light was pointing every direction but the correct one and then it was gone. I yelled for my dad to stop and I jumped off our bike. I ran back, slipping and sliding, to find Grant wrestling his bike out of the tall weeds and brush next to the road. His glasses were so wet and muddy I was amazed he could see at all, much less in the dark. He was uninjured in the spill and after a few laughs he asked the inevitable, “Are we having fun yet?” Grant was very fortunate, because for much of the last few hours of our ride the road was lined with ponds of water that were created when the bulldozers pushed the dirt up to build the elevated road and his little off-road excursion would have turned into a swim and sunk motorcycle.
After what seemed like an eternity we arrived in the town of San Pablo to find Steve waiting for us at a small house. We parked our motorcycles around back through a rickety wooden gate while some scrawny dogs barked at us from where they were chained up. Our room here was even more primitive than the night before. There was no running water in the house. An outhouse out back was the extent of the “facilities”. There was a barrel we could dip water from to wash up, but it was pointless to “wash up” while standing in the rain. We were all so tired that we collapsed soon after drying off. The beds were terrible, but that didn’t matter all we wanted to do was sleep.