So we made it to Colombia. Crossing the Darien was the one part of the trip that we always felt would pose the most trouble, but we crossed the obstacle faster than most people claimed was possible and for less money than most (reasonable) people quoted us.
Of course, at this point in time, we’d also had a pretty rough time dealing with Colombians. We (verbally) fought with the launcha guy, then the immigration guy, then the captain of the cargo boat, and then his crew. We didn’t know it at the time, but our luck regarding the sort of people we’d meet would change vastly from here on out.
We were riding again now and the feeling of having control over our bikes and our schedule felt good. We knew we needed to find a place to register our bikes, so we searched throughout the town of Turbo, looking for an office that would help us. We eventually asked some police and they told us that Turbo doesn’t do that, so we decided we would stop at every town on the way south to try to get it sorted.
Before we could leave Turbo in good conscience, we figured we should wash our bikes thoroughly. They’d been strapped to the side of a boat for about two days and we didn’t want the salt getting too comfortable. We stopped at a car wash and watched as two teenagers casually leaned the bikes in some pretty extreme ways to pressure wash the hard to reach places.
We wanted to get as far as we could that day, but just about two hours south from Turbo, while we were filling up our tanks, a cheerful and inquisitive man came over to talk to us. He told us that he just opened his hotel and would love for us to stay there for a discounted price.
We were a bit torn on the issue. On one hand, we still had about six hours of daylight and we were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to get to Tierra del Fuego before Christmas. On the other hand, we did feel tired from the long process of crossing the Darien and we kind of felt like a reward for our efforts was in order.
So we agreed to stay his hotel, Hotel Jaisara, and spent the rest of the day walking around the small town and lounging in the very modern hotel. We hadn’t had decent showers since we left Panama, so after hot showers we watched TV and ate cookies.
At about 8pm, Jaime (that was his name), knocked on our door and asked if we would like some of the local delicacies that his family prepared. Of course we did, so we had some kind of fermented banana jelly and several other interesting and mostly delicious foods.
The next morning we were up and moving early. We stopped regularly to try to buy SOAT, Colombian insurance, but they all refused to sell us anything less than 1 full year of coverage. Considering we were planning to be in the country for only another week or so, we did not want to pay $170us for the majority of a year that we would not be there. The internet told us where we could go to get more relevant coverage, but we kept getting turned away.
When we rode into Medellin, we figured we’d definitely be able to get insurance. We stopped at a pizza place to use the internet and get lunch. When we asked the waiter where we should go to find insurance for our situation, he asked his boss if he could leave for a bit and led us all the way into the downtown area and briefly worked as our interpreter.
While our waiter turned out to be surprisingly helpful and useful to our cause, the insurance workers were equally not. They, too, insisted that we needed to buy a full year of insurance for our bikes and that there was no such thing as traveling insurance or short-term coverage.
Crestfallen, and thinking that we might have to just get to the Ecuador border and pay a fee or even buy insurance as we were leaving; we really didn’t know what the consequences of not registering the bikes would be.
Looking back, we rode about somewhere around 300 miles that day, I think, and still managed to try to run some errands and search for insurance. The main reasons we did this is because we wanted to make up for the time we’d lost relaxing at the hotel the previous night, but also I really wanted to meet up with my friend, Ramiro, in Ecuador. He was going to be in Quito for a couple days and if we really pushed it and crossed the border the within two days, we’d be able to spend some time with him.
We shopped around and found a reasonably priced hotel with a nice big courtyard and a guard. We always wanted to make sure that someone was watching our bikes. In an attempt to make things easier for us the next morning, we did all the normal bike preparation stuff and filled the tanks that night.
We woke up and quickly packed the motorcycles. Aaron asked me to do a quick sweep of the room and make sure nothing was left behind, and nothing was found. WATERSLIDE
Colombia is a truly beautiful country. Of all the places we’d ridden at this point, no other region made us stop and take pictures as frequently. The mountains make for scenic views and the winding roads were really enjoyable on the motorcycles. Additionally, motorcycles don’t pay tolls in Colombia, which is a huge change from some of the other countries (like Mexico) where we were paying the same price as a car, only twice.
About two hours away from our starting point that day, we stopped at a colonial looking mountain city. We decided we would grab some coffee and a quick bite to eat out on the porch with a really nice view of the mountains. It was at this point we realized Aaron did not have his wallet.
We undid all of the packing we’d done earlier in the day and searched every possible bag and pocket, but it wasn’t there.
Aaron’s wallet was very important, because I ran out of money earlier and Aaron was loaning me the money to continue the trip. Without Aaron’s wallet, we didn’t know what we could do.
I still had a credit card in my wallet and we were able to fill the tanks with it, which was miraculous. If that hadn’t worked, we’d be out of fuel, out of money, and, for the most part, out in the middle of nowhere.
Before heading back to the hotel and trying to find Aaron’s wallet, we decided to try my credit card at a restaurant. It was denied.
Then we tried at a little market. They said I could use it, but it wasn’t easy. They pulled an old machine out of a dusty plastic bag and manually entered all the information. There were some failed attempts as well.
So while I was inside trying to buy some sandwich makings, Aaron was outside waiting with our bikes. It didn’t take long for the locals to take notice of him and our bikes. Not long after that, the situation inside was relayed to the people outside and it became general knowledge that we had no money.
Several incredibly nice passersby started handing Aaron yogurt and crackers and all sorts of food. We were comforted in knowing that, if indeed we were to be stuck and waiting for credit cards to be mailed from home to us, these were the sort of people we’d be waiting with.
We rode all the way back on the road we’d previously thought was beautiful and still believed it to be. As we arrived at the hotel we’d spent the previous night at, a woman came running out to us and handed me Aaron’s wallet.
“Was it wrapped up in the sheets?” I asked, as this was the only possible place I could imagine it hiding.
She confirmed that to be the case.
Aaron and I had a few arguments that day regarding this issue. From my point of view, I can’t understand how someone could get on a bike and ride into the distance without checking for their wallet. I personally do a wallet check a couple times every hour, which I don’t think makes me crazy.
Aaron believed this was my doing, as it was my task to check the room and make sure nothing was left behind.
Either way, we were both so relieved to have the wallet again that neither of us cared about winning; we were just so happy not to be stuck again.
Besides, winning the argument wouldn’t take back the five hours we’d lost to doubling back and now having to ride that same incredibly beautiful road again.
At this point, we felt like we knew every twist and turn of that stretch of land and we made much better time riding it the third time around.
We rode until Cali. It was late, but the option of riding further was still on the table.
It was dark and we were tired when we arrived in Cali, but before we could agree that this would be our stopping point, we decided to get some food at a two-story sandwich shop that reminded us of McDonald’s.
After eating we were even more tired than before, so we decided to find a hostel. We found one online and got a little lost finding it, but after asking a few people and getting pointed in the right direction we were alright.
We really needed to get some laundry done at this point, so we made sure to choose a place to stay that had a machine. As we started our laundry, we realized they didn’t have a working drying machine. Considering we were planning on leaving early the next day and clothes on a line don’t usually dry too quickly during the night, we realized we had a slight problem.
In the morning, I rode off to try to find a garage where I could buy some brake pads. I also wanted to see if fixing the top end of the KLR was a possibility (it wasn’t).
While I was gone, Aaron stayed back with our stuff, did some chores, and waited for the laundry to dry. He was also trying to find a good GPS program to use for South America, as the CenRut program we had only worked for Central America and, for some lucky reason, Colombia.
I finally found a good motorcycle shop and was introduced to a man named Alain. He spends a good portion of each year traveling throughout South America and helps make detailed GPS maps. This seemed like the ideal person to talk to about some of our questions about the rest of our trip, so I made Aaron come to the shop, too.
Alain was certain it was a fool’s errand to try to make it into Ecuador that day and wanted us to stay in Cali for a while. We didn’t see this as an option, so we had somewhat mixed feelings as we tried to sort out some of our issues at the garage and were watching the clock.
We left Cali at a time that we believed gave us just enough time to cross the border into Ecuador before it closed. The border was our only concern. Once we crossed it, we figured we could stop anywhere and still be in Quito by lunchtime the next day.
It started to mist just a little at times during this section of the ride and the KLR was still blowing through an unhealthy amount of oil. We figured out that places called ‘aceterias’ will fill a container with oil for a much cheaper price than buying new bottles each time, but just because it was cheaper didn’t make it cheap.
It got dark as we made our way down and around narrow roads and every once in a while we’d pass through a more metropolitan area and would see city lights rise and fade in the distance. On some of the narrow passes the trucks in the other lane felt slightly too close for comfort.
About an hour and a half after it got dark we were met with a traffic jam. Eventually we were able to ride the white lines and get around it, but one of the larger trucks had gone off the road a bit and was causing some major delays for vehicles too big to slip by.
With all the lights behind us and the traffic thinned out, it was just Aaron and me riding dark and winding mountain roads. Aaron’s headlight was doing a particularly bad job of lighting the way; just another one of those minor problems caused by getting hit by a truck in Guatemala. He asked me to lead the way for a while, because the KLR’s light was still doing great.
I’d spent about 14,000 miles or more riding behind Aaron and almost none of the whole ride going first, so the position was a bit unfamiliar. I wasn’t riding incredibly fast, but I was trying to make good time and, given the darkness and the roads, it could be said I was going too fast for conditions.
We stopped briefly and Aaron told me that I was doing a great job and to keep up the good work. About 15 minutes later I misread a turn and we both skidded left and right off one of those safety areas that sometimes appear on the shoulders of steep roads. I’m not sure how much further it would have taken to fall off a cliff, but I imagine it wouldn’t have taken too much. Aaron estimates it at about 20 feet.
Momentary shock became disbelieving chuckles as Aaron told me that I needed to slow down. We got off the dirt beside the road and made the turn the right way and continued on.
I went slower… for a few minutes.
Without really paying attention, I was riding at about the same speed I was in those moments before we nearly careened off the side of the mountain. I was getting tired and the longer days of riding were getting to me. I was listening to music while I was riding and I remember that I no longer had the energy to take out the iPod and change the album, so I had Modest Mouse “We were dead before the ship sank” on repeat.
As it began its third repeat, I froze up on a slight turn. To say I misread the turn is a bit of an understatement. I leaned hard left when I should have given it a very light left. On the left there were some rocks that I did not want to hit. So I, without thinking, leaned hard right. To the right there was a guard rail and a drop-off that I was pretty certain went very far down.
So I overcorrected another time to the left and brought the KLR down. It kind of bounced as it skidded along the road. I had my leg tight against the peg for the first two or three bounces, but on the next one my foot touched road before the bike and I heard and felt the crunch that told me that something in my leg region had broken.
As the bike slid to a stop, resting on the curb near the drop, I found myself nearly within touching distance of the guard rail. Aaron stopped and, as he walked over to me, began asking what I was thinking and telling me that this was why he wanted me to slow down.
I told him my leg was broken and that I could not lift the bike off of me.
He told me that I didn’t know that my leg was broken.
I told him I was certain it was broken.
He still didn’t believe me, but when he lifted the KLR off of me and helped me to my feet (more foot, really) and watched as I shook it gingerly and watched it flop back and forth in a way that, in my opinion, settled all doubts he conceded that it might be broken.
The break was entirely internal, which was nice. Aaron steadied the KLR and started saying that we would need to ride to the hospital.
I told him that I could not ride a motorcycle just then.
He told me that he’d seen people do much more difficult things with much more serious injuries.
I told him that I didn’t doubt that this was true, but that it didn’t change my situation.
Regardless, Aaron lifted me over my motorcycle and as I tried to lift my broken left leg over the seat I experienced what I, at that moment, considered the most painful moment of my life. This moment only enjoyed the honor of that title for a very short time.
After a bit of screaming (manly pain screaming), I was sitting up on the KLR and appeared ready to go. I couldn’t move my left foot, however, so I really wasn’t sure how I was going to shift, but it looked like I was going to try.
It was at that moment that it became clear that the chain had broken. After being angry at the KLR for breaking down all throughout the trip, I was surprised that I was suddenly incredibly grateful for its unreliability (or, in its own way, it could be considered reliable in its likelihood of breaking).
So riding away wasn’t an option. I awkwardly got off the KLR with Aaron’s help and I stood, leaning on it as we looked around and tried to figure out the next step.
Miraculously, there was a light up the road. Miles and miles had past and we’d barely seen signs of any human activity, but just around an eighth of a mile ahead there was a light. And just before that light was a small building.
Aaron pushed the KLR up to the house. Then he came back, picked me up, carried me over to the building, and dropped me somewhat upright on a large pile of dirt. While that sounds like a mean thing to do, it was the nicest place to drop me and it was actually somewhat comfortable.
He knocked on the door and a woman poked her head out. He told her that his brother had been in an accident and that we needed a safe place for the bike.
Her whole family came near when they heard this and they were very worried about me and asked if I was alright.
Aaron repeatedly said that they didn’t have to worry about me; it was the bike that needed the help right now. The house seemed to only have two rooms that were both only accessible from the outside. This amazing family took the table out of the dining room and kitchen area and put the KLR inside. They locked it and told Aaron that no one would go in there until he returned to get it.
We grabbed a couple of things off the KLR so that I could have a change of clothes and the really important things and left the rest with the family.
Aaron left almost nothing of his with them. Even though they gave no reason not to trust them, Aaron innately hates the idea of separating with any of his things.
So I was placed on top of his fully packed Suzuki DR. I had to sit in a way that held one of the tires attached to the top away from the muffler, so that it wouldn’t melt or warp at all.
I had all of my weight on my right foot and the left foot dangled on the other side. If the foot touched the peg, there was shooting pain throughout my ankle and leg with every bump.
Aaron did his best to ride slowly and avoid potholes and I did my best to make sure that nothing fell off his bike as I awkwardly displaced some of his gear.
We decided not to stop at a small dark town that probably had a hospital and continue to Pasto. I think it took between an hour and a half and two hours to get to Pasto from the place of the crash, but it took that long because we were moving very slowly.
When we finally got to Pasto, we followed the GPS to where we thought the hospital was. It led us to a gas station. Aaron asked a man at the station if he could point us towards the hospital.
At first he tried waving us away saying that they were closed, but after hearing the word “emergencia” enough times he got the idea and told us we had to turn around and take a right up the hill.
As Aaron turned us around, three feral dogs roused themselves and began to follow us. Being chased by dogs was commonplace throughout Central America, so Aaron didn’t even really notice them.
I was very much aware of my vulnerability, however, and as they began to match our speed and close in, I started shouting.
It wasn’t the two on the right that I worried about; it was the one on the left.
There was really nothing I could do. As I shouted “No” and tried to think of all the things you’re supposed to do when commanding a dog, it jumped up and latched onto my broken leg.
I dragged that dog with my broken ankle for what I think was about two seconds and somewhere around 8-10 feet. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that it felt like I was dragging it for an eternity. This then replaced the earlier moment as the most painful experience of my life.
It let go and I was somewhere between anger, shock, and hysterics. Aaron asked what was going on and when I told him, he laughed. I can’t blame him for that. We both have the sort of humor in most things that follows the logic, “If you’re going to laugh about this later, might as well laugh about it now.”
We found a hospital and asked the guard at the front and were turned away. This was off-putting at the time, but it turns out that was the mental hospital, so I probably didn’t belong there.
We finally made it to the right hospital and a wheelchair was brought out and I was pushed into the waiting room.
After about 45 minutes of waiting, they showed us to the doctor. Taking off the boot was excruciating. When I was first trying to ride the KLR after the accident, we tightened the straps on the boot to the maximum in hopes that it would provide more structure to the broken area. Loosening it after that was not fun.
We’d already let slip that I was in a motorcycle accident and right around now was when we realized that not having Colombian insurance was going to become a major issue. We slyly asked if it might be possible that I fell off a rock and did not actually even own a motorcycle, but the doctor said “No.”
My understanding of pain was taken one further level that night as they began to take X-rays. For some reason, they refused to hold both sides of the break. Either they held the calf and let the foot dangle or just held the foot. In both cases, it was just beyond my pain tolerance and I remember yelling at them, “’No’ means ‘No’ in Spanish, too!”
After trying to explain to them why what they were doing was terrible, they made a minor adjustment the X-ray and examined my ankle without needing to hold it up with their hands at all. This made me wonder why they were manhandling it from the first place, but whatever the case; this remains, to this day, the most painful experience of my life.
Surgery would be necessary, but it couldn’t happen until the next morning, so after changing into a hospital smock, I was wheeled on a gurney to a “room” that was just a curtained off area in a wide hallway.
Aaron slept on the floor next to the gurney.
I couldn’t get up that night, so I was forced to use a bedpan. Due to an unfortunate hole in the bedpan, Aaron awoke the next morning to urine dripping down on him.
From here, there was a long, five-day series of me being unable to leave a bed and Aaron running errands like retrieving the KLR from the nice family, looking into new travel arrangements, and just trying to make things work in general.
Some things were actually falling into place quite well. Everyone said very good things about my surgeon and after meeting him I felt good about our choice to make it all the way to Pasto instead of stopping at a smaller town.
While I was being operated on, Aaron went about trying to figure out what was going to happen with the insurance. His conversation, when abbreviated, as it happened over the course of five days, went something like this:
Aaron: Yes, I know we don’t have the Colombian riding insurance, but he is covered under Blue Cross and they say that they will cover this.
Lady behind desk: No. It won’t work in Colombia.
[Long argument that leads nowhere follows]
Aaron: Blue Cross says that they do work in Colombia all the time. They have cases in Medellin and Bogota at this very moment and have no idea why you won’t accept their money.
Lady behind desk: Oh, they work in those places, but not in Pasto.
[Long argument that leads nowhere, again, follows]
All through this time I was very unhappy. I really did not like the Colombian daytime TV programming that was provided in the hospital and my leg was on fire. On the first night after the surgery, I tried to get Aaron to find someone to help me, as the button to get more painkillers wasn’t working and either the nurse or the button that called her was being unresponsive. For that matter, Aaron, who was sleeping on an oddly thin and seemingly intentionally hard and uncomfortable couch, was also unresponsive. So I got out of bed and hopped over to the door while dragging the machines behind me and yelled for help while the gown I wore did very little to cover me.
No one came, so I went back to the bed and just waited until morning.
Throughout this whole experience, I was trying my best to be positive and not complain. Sure, my situation sucked, but I knew that I’d just ended the trip for Aaron, too. It was within his rights to continue on the trip without me and let me sort my own way home.
I’m incredibly thankful he did not do this, especially because of the next couple of days. It was around the third or fourth day in the hospital that it became clear to us that I was actually in a condition that would allow for me to leave. The hospital was making it even clearer, however, that we were not allowed to leave.
They believed that we were trying to cheat the system. They thought that we didn’t buy insurance because we didn’t have money to pay for it and that we wanted to leave the hospital without paying. So I wasn’t allowed to leave. This led to a period of time where we felt like animals in a zoo. People would peek into the room just to giggle, shut the door, and run away. We were used to being spectacles, but this was a little beyond our previous experiences.
Eventually, one of the people who had taken interest in us and was trying to help got a glimpse of Aaron’s bank account on a computer and he realized that we weren’t incredibly poor and trying to take advantage of the hospital. Things got a little easier after that, but they made Aaron pay for the whole hospital bill right there. The total cost came to somewhere around $2,300us. This, of course, Blue Cross later reimbursed.
By the time I left the hospital, Aaron was already a minor celebrity in the area. On the hospital grounds and even in the surrounding area, people seemed to recognize him. One of the people he’d met when I was bedridden was our surgeon’s brother, Santiago. Santiago told Aaron that if he needed anything, he should make sure to tell him. Aaron thanked him.
Also, while I was stuck in the hospital, he bought a cell phone, which was something we’d avoided up to that point. With the way things needed to happen for me to get home from the point of the accident, however, it was necessary.
We found a nice and reasonably cheap hotel to stay at and settled in as I began searching for cheap flights home.
Before we could even fully unpack, the phone rang. It was one of Aaron’s new friends, but he was talking for Santiago. The conversation went something like this:
Friend: Santiago is upset with you.
Aaron: I’m sorry. Why?
Friend: He told you that if you needed anything, you should just tell him.
Aaron: Yes. I remember. I will tell him if I need something.
Friend: No. You need a place to stay. You should have called him.
And that was pretty much the end of that conversation.
Santiago came to the hotel, explained to the front desk that this was all a big misunderstanding and that we wouldn’t be staying there and brought us over to his house.
Santiago and his family treated us like their own. They cooked some of the best food we ate on the whole trip and brought us out to a lake house to meet with their friends.
After a couple days it was time for us to leave. We’d found a cheap flight from Armenia, which meant that we had to get on a bus first.
Santiago made an incredibly generous offer to care for our bikes while we were away. We promised that we would return to visit with him and finish our trip soon.
We got on the bus and everything else went almost exactly as well as could be expected, with the exception being that Aaron’s phone was lost/stolen while he was sleeping on the bus. It was our primary source of photographs by the end of the trip, so that’s why parts of the Panama and Colombia aren’t incredibly well-documented.