Colombia – Jeremy Kroeker (Issue 16)

The time between realizing that you will crash your motorcycle, and the actual crashing part, is a real bitch. It may only be a few seconds, but you have a lot of time to think. Usually, there are questions.

“Am I really going to crash?” Yes.

“Really? There’s no way to fix this?” You ask, hoping for an answer from a more talented rider lurking in your subconscious. When no such rider appears, the answer is no, you can’t fix this.

Finally, acceptance.

“Well, I guess this is happening, I’m going way too fast now, and I can’t make this corner.” The rear wheel of my Yamaha XT 660 had locked up when I dropped a gear to scrub some speed on a steeply descending gravel road that wound its way through the mountains and sugarcane fields in Colombia. Still in the process of my inevitable ‘off’, I wondered how I had got myself into this situation. You see, I’m 43 years old now, and I had honestly believed that my days of crashing dirt bikes were behind me. Apparently, the axiom ‘with age comes wisdom’ doesn’t apply to me yet. I’m beginning to think it may never.

Anyway, I had gotten into this mess, skidding off a corner on a mountainous road in Colombia, because I was in a hurry. I had lagged behind a group of riders in order to photograph them as they snaked along a gravel road. The road ran beside a white ribbon of water that slashed through a carpet of green, just begging to be photographed and, having done so, I was now racing to catch up. But, let’s leave the crash for a moment to answer a more interesting question: why was I in Colombia in the first place?

Here we should address the elephant in the room. When I say Colombia, several things jump to mind. If you’re north American, you may imagine Juan Valdez standing in the coffee isle of your local supermarket with his donkey. Of course, bringing a donkey into a supermarket is dangerous and unhygienic, but that fades to black when you imagine the greater perils of Colombia: cocaine and kidnapping.

Admit it. When you hear that someone is travelling to Colombia, most of you (who have not yet been there) recoil and ask, “Isn’t that dangerous?”

That was my opinion in 2003, when I rode with my friend from Canada to Panama on a couple of Kawasaki KLR 650s. In fact, in my first book, ‘Motorcycle Therapy,’ I even voiced the concern thus:

“Trevor and I finally abandoned all hope of reaching South America. We made the decision based on time and money, but we had an unspoken understanding that our partnership could not endure the journey. We planned to explore the option of selling our bikes in Costa Rica and flying home. Failing that, we would have to drive the stupid things all the way back.

But, before getting rid of the bikes, we hoped to drive through Panama to the end of the road … the Darien Gap. There, we’d shout, ‘COLOMBIA SUCKS!’ and drive away as fast as we could, giggling like schoolgirls. If all went to plan, the Colombians would never find us and we could be back in Canada before you could say ‘kidnapping.’”

So, that was my thinking in 2003 and to a degree, I was right about the perilous border region of Panama and Colombia back then. The Darien Gap has long been fraught with danger, especially for two hapless white guys speaking bad Spanish who might be mistaken for American spooks fighting the good fight against the drug trade and communism. There and then, in that jungle, one may well disappear. But since then, the security situation in Colombia has been steadily improving, especially since 2005. Yes, if you want to get technical, Colombia is still in a protracted civil war, but tourists will not notice. The war, as it exists now, is relegated to remote jungle regions that are almost impossible for the average person to access. In these spaces, journalists are at risk along with police and soldiers. But as for tourists … if you seek danger, you may find some, but it must be your ambition.

Fearing a trip to Colombia is similar to feeling apprehension about travel to Croatia or Northern Ireland. Yes, these regions were ‘difficult’ to visit in living memory but, when hostilities ended, or at least went underground, the media did not harp on about how wonderful and safe these places are now. The mainstream media, in the absence of explosions and blood, just goes quiet. Of course. No news is good news, and what have you heard of Colombia lately?

This is the message the government wants to project, and that’s why I was in the process of crashing a dirt bike. I was a guest of the tourism bureau and Motolombia, one of the leading motorcycle tour and rental companies in the country. Prospective guests so often ask about safety that Motolombia must deal with the concern head-on. The following customer testimonial appears in their brochure:

“IMPORTANT: Not once did I feel unsafe. In fact, Colombians are happy, helpful and engaging even though my Spanglish is marginal.” – John Hubbard (USA).

Granted, “Not once did I feel unsafe,” is a modest benchmark for customer approval, but never mind. Other guests in the Motolombia brochure rave about the quality of the bikes, the roads, the culture and so on, but at least one guy speaks to the fear factor.

Of course, there’s an upside to Colombia’s outdated, yet fearsome reputation. It acts as a filter, keeping timid travellers at bay while open-minded explorers have free run of the country. There’s a sweet spot for travel, and it’s now – the years following security concerns, and before tourist hoards drive up prices and dilute authentic cultural experience. In this way, Colombia is to tourism what Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was in the 1980’s, and what Iran is right now. There will be a time, maybe soon, when travellers will pine for ‘the way Colombia used to be,’ and there will be those who regret not having gone sooner.

As for me, my main regret was not having braked sooner on this twisty dirt road. Yes, I was still crashing, but I was going down fighting. After one more search of my brain for a more talented rider, a cartoon bubble of my friend Dave Coe appeared in my mind. Dave was sitting by a campfire in California, strumming a black guitar. He looked at me and said, “Brakes will never save you. But gas sometimes will.” (Then my other friend, Fonzie, hijacked the bubble and, referring to pick-up strategies in bars said, “Go ugly early.”)

“Shut up, Fonzie,” I thought. “That’s not relevant now! Gas you say, Dave? I’m on it!”

Now off the gravel, wide on the corner on a strip of grass that dropped sharply away into the valley, I twisted the throttle hard and turned my head in the direction of where I desperately wanted to be … on the road. The Yamaha wore street shoes, and the drive wheel spun furiously, kicking up grass and mud, leaving a brown scimitar in the earth to mark my folly.

The bike kicked sideways, corrected, and for a moment all was good. I had avoided the big plunge and I was heading back on the road, or at least in that direction. Alas, I was still carrying way too much speed and, as the front wheel locked into a grassy rut at the edge of the road, it washed out. The knee pad on my motorcycle pants made a dimple in the dirt where it impacted, and my helmet made another hollow as it came down so close to where my tires should have been.

Whenever someone else crashes, I hasten for my camera and try to immortalize the moment and their humiliation. In this case, I let adrenaline guide me as I rushed to right the fallen machine.

No photos exist.

The bike had a badly bent shift lever, and it wouldn’t start. Me? I was fine. Actually, for all the drama, I probably wasn’t going that fast when I finally toppled over. It’s just that, I’m 43, as I said earlier, and these days every crash is potentially life-altering. I’ve already had one round of hip surgery.

Anyway, I hopped into the saddle and, holding in the clutch, coasted for over a mile toward the valley bottom where I finally caught up with the group, posing for photos with friendly locals by the river.

“All good?” asked Rick, our lanky American guide who, incidentally, spoke Spanish, but with an accent similar to that of Brad Pitt’s in the film ‘Inglorious Bastards.’

“Not exactly,” I said, the bike still unwilling to start. “I crashed because I was racing to catch up.”

“Well, that was a bad idea,” said Rick, with a smile. “You’re OK?”

Then he dug out his tool kit to fix my gear shifter (another advantage of taking a guided tour: You break. Guide fixes.) The bike required no further attention as it eventually started up and ran like a champion. I followed close behind Rick for the rest of the afternoon, never once lagging behind for photos.

This article first appeared in Issue 16 of OVERLAND magazine.