Motorcycle trip Part 4:
I awoke to the sounds and smells of breakfast being cooked. I lay motionless in my makeshift bed on the floor. I had been so tired the night before I don’t think I moved a muscle during the night. Finally, I mustered the strength to get up and make my way to the kitchen. There on the table was a breakfast of eggs, toast, fresh grapefruit, and oatmeal. We ate graciously because the food and the company was wonderful.
We were not in a great hurry to get going that morning. We did not have a long ride to arrive at our final destination of San Buenaventura. The sun shone bright and the sky was filled with large puffy clouds. We all converged in front of the main part of the base and said good bye to our gracious hosts. Everyone was in a great mood after our good night sleep.
The road went to the southwest from San Borja. It was wide and flat, traversing the grass lands. More colorful birds and occasionally an ostrich could be seen. From time to time there was a ranch house with some cattle corrals off one side or the other of the road. The road was full of large pot holes. Road maintenance does not take place very often and only when the road is nearly impassable. Unlike the day before, this road saw much more truck traffic. Occasionally we saw an old Toyota pickup or a larger Mercedes or Volvo truck over loaded with people or produce headed to town. Dad tried to dodge as many of the large holes as possible, but occasionally we would slam into one and both of us would let out a grunt of pain. I held on around my dad’s waist and looked over his shoulder so I could prepare for the big holes. We came upon another herd of cattle that were being herded in the same direction as we were traveling. I sat extremely still as my dad carefully weaved in and out of the skittish cows. A few cows defected in fear off the road and the Cowboys cracked their whips as they directed their horses at them and whooped and hollered as they attempted to regain control of the unruly beasts. Once again the long horns of the cows were extremely too close for comfort. Finally, we cleared the herd and with a wave to the Cowboys we resumed our speed. I really enjoyed watching real cowboys and their work, it was nothing like Hollywood makes it out to be.
After about 2 hours of riding we arrived in the town of Yucumo. Yucumo is located at a crossroads at the base of the foothills of the Andes mountains. By turning south from here trucks from the lowlands begin the long steep climb up into the Andes and the capital city of La Paz. This road is known world wide as the “Death road” and considered to be the most dangerous in the world. In many places the road is one lane and carved out of solid rock. In other areas landslides are always a possibility. One mistake by the driver and a truck or bus may plunge over the edge and free fall for more than 2,000 feet into the canyons below. Over the course of 200 hundred miles the road climbs to over 12,000 feet elevation. We were not going that way, but turning to the northwest and staying the lowlands. The road initially heads northwest skirting the base of the foothills and eventually turning north before ending at the border of Brasil.
We only stopped for a few minutes to regroup before heading out. This road was under construction and had quite a bit of truck traffic. There were many small river and creek crossings. Bridges and culverts were being built but the road had crude detours that were rough and steep down across the creeks and rivers and back up to the road. It only took a couple of hours to arrive in the town of Rurrenabaque.
Our destination of San Buenaventura was on the other side of the Beni river from Rurrenabaque. We were all hungry so we stopped for a bite to eat before heading to the ferry. Lunch consisted of the usual “segundo” of a piece of meat with rice, salad, and fried plantains. As always none of us touched the salad because you never knew if it was washed properly. I didn’t care much for the fried plantains either and left them untouched as well.
Rurrenabaque and San Buenaventura sit at the base of the foothills with the Beni River dividing the two towns. The Beni River is the largest tributary of the Amazon to flow out of the country. The river is a muddy brown color and more than a quarter mile wide here. With towns on each side of the river there is a near constant need for boats to carry passengers across the river. We arrive at the river bank to learn that the large barges only cross the river when larger vehicles need to cross. The only way across for us was to cram all four motorcycles into a 20 foot long, six foot wide, flat bottom boat. It also had a roof to keep the passengers dry during the frequent rains, but also made loading the motorcycles more of a chore. A board was propped up to the bow and the men muscled the near 300 pound motorcycles up onto the bow and then down into the boat rear tire first. I being smaller was the designated helmet holder. Benches lined the sides of the boat for the passengers which only lessened the room for our motorcycles. My brother’s was the last bike loaded and it didn’t fit completely in the bottom. We had to leave the front wheel up on the covered bow. Everyone had to hold onto their motorcycles to keep them from falling over. I climbed on as well and the boat was pushed out into the current.
This boat was powered by what was called a “peke peke” engine. A peke peke is commonly a 20 horsepower engine that has up to a 10 foot long propeller shaft attached to the crankshaft and sticking out the back of the boat. The other side has a control handle the operator uses to steer with. It is mounted on a swivel base in a way that allows the operator to move the propeller up and down and side to side. This is so the boat can be operated in very shallow water while the operator keeps the propeller from hitting submerged logs and the bottom of the river or the propeller can be lowered deeper into the water. These engines are also much cheaper and more readily available than an outboard boat engine. The name is derived from the distinct sound the engine makes. “Peke peke peke peke” is what they sounded like as they made their way up and down the rivers.
The crossing took about 10 minutes. Finally we reached the far side and the motorcycles were wrestled back off the boat and onto dry land. I did not care for the boat ride and was actually quite scared of the boat capsizing. Our destination was only a couple of blocks away and Steve and Efrain led the way up the river bank and through the streets.
We pulled up in front of a white two story house surrounded by a fence. Steve unlocked and opened the gate for us to ride through. The grass had grown up several feet tall around the whole house. All the windows had brown wooden shutters over them with padlocks to keep vandals out. Steve unlocked the door and we made our way into the musky house. No one had lived in the house in quite sometime and it showed with the amount of dust and stale air. The whole point of our trip was to help Grant familiarize himself with the town and for us to help do some cleaning and preparing for his family to move there in a few months.
We unpacked our motorcycles and settled into the house. Steve produced a large ring filled with small keys and handed them to me. I was given the job of unlocking all the shutters. Each one had a padlock and none of them were keyed alike. It was a daunting task of checking every key until the correct one was found. Finally after what seemed forever I had all the shutters open and the house was filled with sunlight. The town’s generator only ran at night, so the house had many windows to let light in. There were some propane lamps for the days when the sun was hidden behind the rain clouds and when the generator broke down.
We spent two days working around the house cleaning and making small repairs. Being the youngest I was always giving the menial tasks. Steve hired a local man to come cut the grass around the house. There was not a lawnmower in the town. He used a machete and slowly cut the three foot tall grass down. It was a slow process, but it was how things were done in these parts. There was a restaurant nearby where Steve knew the owner, so all of our meals were eaten there.
A storm blew in on the second day and the clouds piled up against the mountains, blocking them from view most of the time. Occasionally the clouds would break enough to see the rugged, jungle covered mountainsides. It was a slow drizzly rain kind of day. It made you want to stay in bed all day, but we didn’t have that luxury. That evening we packed up what we could and prepared to start the long journey home the next day.