I contact Compass Expeditions, an Australian outfit that keeps a fleet of BMW motorcycles in South America. By stitching together three of their tours, I can go 5,000 miles from Rio to Lima, spending six weeks getting to know the planet. I’ll have a guide and a support vehicle filled with spare parts. I’ll traverse coast highways, jungles, deserts, high plains, the Andes. I’ll challenge El Camino de la Muerte—the Road of Death—in Bolivia.
At a hotel in Rio in September I meet two New Zealanders who, for reasons not unlike my own, have signed on for the coast-to-coast adventure. We share a passion: the desire to take a skill and use it to unlock the world. On the other side of six weeks we will be different people. Different, i.e., crazed or dead.
Rob, a musician–math instructor, reports he’d been in the country barely 10 minutes before facing drawn guns and someone demanding money. He seems unfazed.
John, a software engineer with a voice that registers on the Richter scale, asks Rob if his Leatherman has a file. He’s chipped a tooth and wants to grind it smooth.
One morning as I try to figure out a mounting system for my helmet cam, I tell them my editor’s hopes for this article. A hint of danger. Exotic locales. Getting buggered by commie guerrillas and capturing it in high-def. “For that,” asks John, “would you mount the camera facing backward?”
In Penedo, a town two hours from Rio de Janeiro, we pick up the BMW F650 GS motorcycles that will take us across this continent. I don’t tell anyone about my eyes.
Micho, our guide, warns us that South Americans are aggressive drivers. Oncoming cars may pull into your lane to pass and expect you to deal with it. Taking electrical tape, the Kiwis put yellow arrows pointing to the right on their windscreens, a reminder that here they have to drive in the opposite lane from home. On the windscreen of my bike I put an arrow of yellow tape pointing straight ahead.
We spend the first few days getting used to the bikes and the odd rhythms of Brazilian roads. We learn to dodge the unexpected: Dog. Goat. Rooster. Vulture. Speed bump. Town. On the coast highway near Bertioga, I have a startling vision. What I think is a bag of trash that has fallen out of a truck reveals itself to be a religious fanatic kneeling on the center line, eyes closed, arms outstretched and raised toward heaven. Rapture? Surrender?
In the coming weeks I will see gravel take flight as what I thought was stone becomes birds. I will see boulders heave themselves from the grass and become bulls. I will throw open a hotel room window and watch a tree dissolve into hummingbirds, then resolve into a tree.
That I can’t read road signs doesn’t bother me. None of us knows Portuguese. Faced with confusing signage for restrooms (ele and ela) Rob comes up with a mnemonic: Would you rather go into a restroom with Elle Macpherson or Ella Fitzgerald?
We stop at fruit stands to buy oranges. The vendors sell window stickers of Christ, Bob Marley, Che, the Playboy Rabbit Head, Yosemite Sam, Betty Boop. A truck driver from Alabama would feel right at home. The magazine racks sell the same glossy dreams, the cleavage and lip gloss, the tips to flatten your abs and improve your sex life. I begin to doubt local culture exists.
And then I take to the highway and catch out of the corner of my eye a hillside covered with horse trailers—a gaucho rodeo. Cowboys are chasing a fake cow being towed by a motorcycle, dropping a lariat over the horns, keeping alive the old skills.
After a week of coast highways, fishing villages and colonial towns, we turn inland toward the highlands of Brazil. A sign even I can read warns atenção: curva sinuosa. The BMW offers its own translation. Sinuous, sensuous curves. The road coils and uncoils beneath me. I create smooth arcs of acceleration that intoxicate. At 60 mph, the BMW scampers, showing off an agility that delights. The passing surge—from 60 to 80—leaves slower vehicles in the mirror. We ignore double lines, pass on corners, anywhere there is an opening—because we can. There is nothing quite as stirring as the sight of three bikes locked in formation, angled over, sweeping through a turn.
We will ride just shy of flat-out for entire days on roads so empty the only distraction will be three pigs crossing, a mule-drawn cart, a gaucho on horseback. To ride at speed is an act of sustained concentration. I extend my sense of sight to the breaking point, aware that a blind spot may contain an oncoming truck.
We pass vultures having their morning meal. A dozen birds perch on the corpse of a large goat to form a black, seething mass, like dog-size maggots with feathers.
Day 6, Brazil: The bodies lie under blue tarps. Leather boots indicate the two are male and, until recently, young. An emergency response team stands idly on the hillside near an ambulance. Three women wrapped in blankets sob hysterically. On the shoulder a Mercedes truck seems isolated and ashamed. The cab sports two impact craters just below the windshield, a good eight feet off the ground. Near the truck is a motorcycle, wadded into something the size of a medicine ball, and the crushed remains of a helmet.
Here lives ended.
Motorcycling is a subtle sport, one that harnesses enormous forces with the twist of a throttle, the gentle push on a handlebar, the squeeze of a brake lever. When you do it right, the bike becomes invisible and you are a creature of flight. Do it wrong, and those forces reveal themselves in mangled metal and mauled flesh. A moment’s inattention and the last thing I will see is the big blue tarp. I’ve accepted and been shaped by that risk for most of my life.
The cobblestone road becomes a dirt track winding through hills. We pass cascading rivers, a farm with a giant spinning water wheel, pastures filled with indifferent cows and small towns with churches letting out. I come around a blind corner at the same time a tanker truck enters from the other direction. If this were a graphic novel, the next frame would show the look of surprise and fear on the driver’s unshaven face. The beads of sudden sweat.
I hear the shriek of locked brakes, the sound of a couple of tons of metal scrabbling across the road into my lane. To my left: truck. To my right: a hundred-foot drop into a river. I aim for the space between and open the throttle.
My heart beats a mantra. Not me. Not yet.
I will hear the noise of those shrieking tires in my sleep for weeks.
Day 12, Argentina: New riders join the group. Newts shows up wearing a T-shirt from the Lazy Gecko, a bar in Cambodia, that depicts a line of marching penguins and the caption one by one the penguins took my sanity. It befits his shaved head and goatee. A former machine gunner with the Australian army, he’d served in Somalia and East Timor before he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The army shrinks told him to destress, so he took up world travel—visiting former war zones as a tourist. Over drinks he tells of waking up in a Kuwait hotel to find himself caught in a shoot-out between the army and Al Qaeda.
“If you call up the BBC footage, I’m the guy in the zip-tie handcuffs and a Hawaiian shirt, sitting on the curb behind an armored vehicle that’s pumping 50-caliber shells into the hotel,” Newts says.
I’m relieved to have him along. If anything is going to happen on this trip, it’s going to happen to Newts.
Andres, a Colombian financial advisor, raises the mischief quotient. His English has a tinge of Borat, the Sacha Baron Cohen character. One night he tries to teach us the music of the Spanish language. He starts by having us practice the proper way to greet a policeman. We repeat the phrase until we have it right. Hijo de puta. Hijo de puta.
The phrase, it turns out, means “son of a bitch.”
We pull into a roadside café with no name. A sweating, gap-toothed chef throws meat onto a sidewalk grill, the smoke collecting under the overhanging tin roof. Andres translates the menu: “cow parts.” The waitress brings a wooden plank with cow ribs, cow intestines, an udder and possibly a tongue.
John asks, “Does this qualify as a hint of danger?”
The tour dossier had said we would discover exotic cuisine like alligator and guinea pig. It made no mention of projectile vomiting inside a closed motorcycle helmet.
Day 18, Argentina: When we wake in Purmamarca—a town lined with hardscrabble streets and adobe houses—it is zero degrees centigrade. We breathe into the locks on the motorcycles to unfreeze them.
We head out of town as dogs watch us from the rooftops and alleys, and we begin to ascend a winding road. We enter a cloud of mist, emerging at about 3,000 meters with the cloud below us blazing white in the sun. We continue over a 4,700-meter pass, the temperature gauge on the bike showing minus 10 degrees centigrade. If we were on a commercial flight, in a cabin without pressure, oxygen masks would be dropping out of overhead compartments.
The ride across the Altiplano is awesome, empty and strange. We pass salt flats, white discs in the middle of vast open spaces, and dark blue lagoons that draw color from the sky. Vicuñas and llamas graze on rare patches of grass. We pass the skeleton of a horse still wearing its skin, propped up as though it were sitting on its rump. Someone has decorated it with flowers and flags.