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Original Issue

South American Travels of a Biker Lady

The author, a 53-year-old U.S. rider, explores the continent by motorcycle

Out in the middle of a Mexican nowhere, the road suddenly forked. Which way? I hadn't a clue.

The Indian woman who appeared on the road seemed bewildered when I asked for directions, so I removed my helmet, assuming it was muffling my dubious Spanish. Startled, she smiled and took my hand. "Un milagro," she said, studying me with unmistakable delight.

"Sí, es un milagro," I responded, smiling back. A blonde foreign woman on a motorcycle was clearly an exotic vision in this part of the world.

What had led me to that place and so far beyond? Well, when the video magazine I was working for in Florida folded in May 1988, logic and several years of persistent saving allowed me to indulge myself on a heroic scale. So I decided to take a motorcycle trip to the end of the world.

I was already a biker, having ridden a Triumph Bonneville for 15 years. I spoke a little Spanish and had earlier visited several Latin American countries. I had studied the geography of the area and knew that with the exception of a gap between Panama and Colombia, I could ride my bike all the way to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, at the coccyx of South America's spine. I figured I could travel for a year, if I kept my costs to just $20 per day.

"Are you crazy?" friends had demanded. "Those people hate Americans. And a woman alone?" It was useless to point out that "those people" were Americans, too, and that nobody else was begging to go along with me. At 53,1 courted only the approval of my mother, Elizabeth, who is in her 80's and lives in Michigan. My mother has taught me many things throughout my life. She taught me courage and not to whine. She taught me that being a snob about race, religion, income or ethnicity was wasteful; what counts is behavior. She allowed me to learn to rely on myself. And she let me see that no one, including herself, is perfect, and that dealing with imperfection is a part of what friendship is about.

She gave her blessing.

I dieted off 86 pounds, bought a secondhand 1980 Honda 250, made a will and rented out my Lantana, Fla., house. As I did these things, I never figured that what started as an almost whimsical exploration would turn into a two-year, 15-country, 28,756-mile odyssey during which my bike and I would travel in temperatures from below freezing to 125°. I would ride 3,200 miles through desert and over mountains so high that the clouds blew like smoke through the motorcycle's wheels. I would roll a thousand miles up the Amazon into the Brazilian jungle. At one point I would travel on 625 straight miles of dirt road.

I rode out of Lantana on Dec. 11,1988, heading west. Among my most vivid memories of the trip, the first was of that meeting with the Indian woman in nowhere Mexico. The next is of an event in the next country I saw, Guatemala. In the city of Quezaltenango, an ice-cream truck jingled the ragtime theme from The Sting as multicolored Holy Week floats cruised down the main street. A day's ride farther on, in the lake resort of Panajachel, I suffered an early bout of homesickness but was able to cheer myself by having dozens of narrow cotton pulseras, or bracelets, woven for me by an ancient Quichè woman with a face as creased as Georgia O'Keeffe's. Into each pulsera was woven the name of someone I loved. I wrapped the bracelets around my boots.

El Salvador was the place that my family and friends had most worried about, because of the ongoing violence there. The first child I saw there raised a crutch from the porch of his house and very smoothly, very professionally aimed it like a gun at my heart. I burst out laughing and gave him a salute. He giggled, dropped the crutch and waved back. In the capital city of San Salvador, other children played ball in the central plaza as helicopters whirred constantly overhead.

Honduras passed in a four-hour flash; the sight of 200 or more gutted cars and buses—the apparent result of continued fighting—along the 100-mile Honduran thoroughfare was all the motivation I needed to keep moving. When a Nicaraguan border guard asked me how to say "rock 'n' roll" in Spanish, I replied that rock 'n' roll was its own language. He stamped my passport and volunteered the name of a cheap hotel in Managua.

"Your dentist uses lousy glue," snorted Costa Rican dentist Melvin Jojas as he popped into place a bridge that had been pulled free by a caramel. Lucky for me, health problems during the trip were few: a bout with bad pork stew in a Mexican ghost town, the occasional two-day trots, a battle early on with leg cramps.

There was an advisory at the time from the U.S. State Department that cautioned citizens about the dangers of traveling in Panama, so my motorcycle, which I had named Mojo, and I took a plane to Colombia. I had been to this country before, but not since 1977.1 learned that it's possible to go home again. "Catarina!" Twelve years after my first visit, Flora Torres remembered my name when dog-tired and dirty from miles of rain and a muddy shortcut, I stumbled into her small hotel in Villa de Leiva. On my last night there, Flora invited me to a birthday serenada for her friend Margarita. Just before midnight, guitarists and guests tiptoed into Margarita's darkened living room. At midnight we broke into song.

One rainy Saturday in Tulcàn, in the middle of a weeklong wait while Mojo's permit papers to travel through Ecuador were processed, an amiable cabbie suggested a tour of the city's topiary-filled cemetery. No thanks, I had seen it in 1977,1 said. "Ah, yes," he replied, thinking fast, "but it's so much bigger now!"

Next came Peru and the prospect of more than 3,000 miles through desert, even as Mojo was beginning to overheat. But a savvy mechanic in Trujillo discovered a worn idle adjustment and fixed it in minutes. Two days later, I rode from the Pacific coast to Huaràs on what would prove to be my expedition's loveliest road. All around me were black peaks, linen-white clouds and burnished-gold fields of aloe vera. The two-lane highway wound and doglegged and occasionally went to gravel, and the mountain views were constant and heart-stopping.

Chile's Atacama Desert was so cold that even swaddled in six layers of clothes and a pair of deerskin gloves, I found it hard to ride for more than an hour at a time. I would climb off Mojo and begin shivering, teeth chattering, at every wayside stop. The women who ran these places—small buildings with a counter and some tables—unfailingly offered me shelter. They would warm my boots and gloves under their stoves. It was hard country: During the 44 days I spent traveling 3,200 desert miles, I saw precious few signs of life—not even road kill.

I was in Chile in December 1989, during the country's first free election in 16 years. On election night when the returns were in, suddenly the roads of Punta Arenas were filled with buses, taxis, farm trucks, cars—anything on wheels—each vehicle packed with cheering people. They displayed their brightly inked thumbs, proof that they had voted. Only one month earlier, while photographing a human rights demonstration in downtown Santiago, I had narrowly escaped being teargassed.

On Dec. 17, a year and six days after I'd left home, I entered Argentina. There were only 300 miles of unpaved road left to the end of the world. Two days later I rode into Ushuaia, a city so far south it didn't get dark until after midnight.

That night I called my mother to tell her I had finally made it to the city that had been just a dot on a map for so long. I felt calm until I heard her voice; then my voice broke, followed by tears and a feeling of tremendous pride.

A week later, Ushuaia's mayor, Carlos Manfredotti, told me that I was the first woman ever to solo a motorcycle from the United States to Ushuaia. But I wasn't finished yet. There were still—in my latest plan—another 14,000 miles to ride and another four countries to discover.

I made more new friends as I headed north. A man in the Argentine pampas gave me a gallon of gasoline. "You are a great surprise to me," he said, "so this is my present to you." Farther north, a race-car driver named Miguel Benede turned away my payment for patching a hole in Mojo's engine casing. "Ah, no, Catarina," he said. "You understand, some work you do for the heart."

The customs office at Igua‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºu Falls on the Brazilian border reeked of an impounded truckload of garlic. Fortunately, I got through the border quickly. The massive waterfalls, two miles wide and more than 200 feet high, were what as a child, I had imagined Niagara to be—bigger than God.

After a six-day, two-boat journey up the Amazon to Manaus, I took an inexpensive jungle tour. Then I returned to Peru, where I celebrated Rosh Hashanah by joining a party on the hotel rooftop. I gazed at the stars of the Southern Hemisphere glittering over Arequipa's skyline, and the immensity of the journey struck me anew. This happened to me occasionally on the trip, and in unexpected places: while trying to sleep in a tin shed in the Atacama Desert and while chugging up the Amazon river at twilight, when sky, land and river dissolve into the same deep shade of blue. These moments of reflection were always startling to me.

The road from Manaus, Brazil, to the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena was 625 miles long—all dirt, much of it one lane. After the first 150 miles, the only gas available was diesel, and even Hondas aren't that tolerant. Moreover, Mojo's chain—and the small front drive-chain sprocket that keeps the chain in line—had been steadily deteriorating. I was concerned as I was about to hit the worst stretch of road I would experience. Along that stretch I found potholes the size of '57 Buicks, with wallows fit for steer-sized hogs and loose gravel designed to put extra English on any wheel. "Lamaze" breathing got me through it: Breathe, ride, breathe, ride. Just keep moving. Breathe, ride.

Smooth pavement began at the Venezuelan border. I asked a guard why the difference between road systems was so profound. The guard rubbed his thumb against his first two fingers in the international sign for money and said, "Venezuela has oil."

In the town of Upata, Mojo was finally repaired and I could once again ride fearlessly. I got to Caracas quickly, and an American travel agent there found passage for Mojo and me on the Rosavanessa, a freighter heading for Puerto Rico. From there I flew to Miami, and I rode the bike to my house. And from I there I caught a plane to Michigan-On Christmas Eve, 1990, still tan from sunny Venezuela, I walked into my mother's house.

As we talked about the trip during the next few weeks, I realized that nothing that had happened had been as terrifying as what I had anticipated. Even my one brush with crime—my stylishly battered five-year-old Casio diver's watch was snatched in Brazil—hadn't scared me much. I had, in fact, fought the thief, chased him and, best of all, remembered to holler "Ladr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o!" ("Thief!"). Indeed, the rigors of my adventure seemed to constitute, in retrospect, a particularly tough management-training seminar. And at $17 a day, the trip had been a bargain.

"So, Toots, what are you gonna do for an encore?" one of the loves of my life asked recently.

"Africa," I murmured.

He thinks I'm kidding.



Florida-based Catharine S. Rambeau is writing a book about her trip through South America.