June 14, 2006 GMT
Colombian Green

I can't believe it! I've got water in the engine oil! Bloody hell, did that damn water pump seal start leaking again? As I stand here in the rain in northern Ecuador my disbelief spurs a quick memory flash back to sunny Arizona and February. The KTM boys in Tucson had replaced the seals and I thought that fixed it. Now here I am 1000 km from the KTM dealer in Bogota and more than 1000 km back to the last dealer in Cuenca, Ecuador. And will this God damn rain never end?

Luckily there is town nearby, the lovely Otavalo (pop 31,000). I was half thinking of stopping here for a few days anyways and take some guided eco-tours. Now the main priority is to consider my options and do it without Katie busily making a cocktail mix of oil & antifreeze in the engine room. My trusty Footprint Handbook of South America lists the Valle de Amanecer Hostel as " $12 to $20 night, includes breakfast, good restaurant, internet, comfortable rooms, hot showers, courtyard, popular." As Chris Brown would say, that's me! And a secure place for Katie. Besides, I like the hostel's name, Valley of Sunrise.

After the usual 20 questions asking directions, I find the place and it is great. The courtyard is full of flowers, hammocks strung like spider webs among leafy trees and decorative stonework to park on. Some of which is a little lost on me in the rain. Getting into the courtyard is a bit of a maze. Luckily Katie is relatively slim except for the Jesse bags. Like entering a fort, I swiggle Katie through the passage way from sidewalk and onto hotel property, then down a nicely sheltered boardwalk, edging between the rooms and bicycles chained to the handrail. Then a sharp turn into the courtyard. Watch out for the flowering shrubs, don't run over those, I think the owner is watching, probably with amusement. Now jockey between dripping trees, being careful not to strangle myself on a hammock.

After some email conversations with KTM Bogota, I decide the best thing to do tomorrow is travel on some 20 kilometers to Ibarra, a bigger town. The owner of Valle de Amanecer gives me the name of a good mechanic there, a Santiago Ipres. Too bad about the eco-tours but Katie comes first. The thought of water in the engine is like finding out I have a tapeworm.

In Ibarra the next morning I track down Senor Ipres. In spite of a ne'er-do-well shop he personally has an intelligent look and several enthusiastic mechanics, and as an added bonus, an everpresent crowd of fans. I barely get some words out of my mouth and his boys are taking parts off my bike right there at the curb. The fans crowd around to the point where I'm now second row.


Whatever is lacking for tools and equipment is more than made up by industry, skill and enthusiasm. Before I know it Katie has the oil drained, inspected and refilled with a new filter (I have two with me). Incredibly, but much to my relief, there is NO water in the oil. The only explanation is the dipstick got water on it as I was checking it in the rain. Probably touched the side of the oil reservoir as I was withdrawing the dipstick. Whatever the reason, it is a great relief to know Katie is not running on agua. A makeshift ramp is thrown together to help bleed air out of the cooling system, a weird little quirk necessary for KTM 950's.

While all this action is going on, two reporters from the local paper La Verdad (The Truth) show up. Interviewed in their native tongue, I dazzle the two guys with my command of chipmunk spanish. Gracefully they decide they have enough information (he's Canadian and he is motorcycling solo back to The Great White North) and take a couple of token pictures. I suspect the look of wonder on their faces is more of disbelief than respect. Santiago's fan club are undeterred and far less judgemental. They continue to wisecrack good naturedly all through the entire operation. I can't help but like Santiago and his ever present amigos. I ride off to many "buen viaje's". Bonus too, I still have half the day to make some miles, even if it has started raining again.


After spending the night in the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan, I hit the Colombia border crossing early next morning with some trepedation. I am about to enter the land of guerrillas, kidnappers and drug lords.

My first encounter at the frontera is with a money changer. Holding a wad of bank notes thick enough to choke a herd of llamas, he explains the rate at the bank and what he is offering to exchange American dollars (used in Ecuador) for Colombian pesos. I listen. Geez, he's not bullshitting, I checked the rate myself the night before on the internet. OK, so I buy $10 worth of pesos, just to get me started. I've already converted my Ecuadorian pocket change into last minute chocolate bars.

Documentation out of Ecuador is even faster than when I entered the country. Next is crossing the bridge and entering crime ridden Colombia. Parking my bike where I can sort of see it among the crowd, I climb the stairs of the open air atrium and join a long slow line to see the single Columbian customs agent. A Colombian family behind me strikes up a conversation with me. The mother immediately calls her son over. As he joins her I note mom and son both have NIAGARA FALLS CANADA sweatshirts. He speaks English and has just visited his brother who lives in Hamilton, Ontario. At his mother's suggestion, Roberto leads me around to all the people to talk to and what papers to get photocopied. He has just saved me about two hours of fumbling around on my own. And true to his word, I am stamped, photocopied, data-entered on the computer and out of there before noon. Wow, for such an unstable country folks here sure are friendly and helpful.


Almost immediately the landscape starts to change. The highway surface improves. The absence of ditch trash is as welcome as it was in Ecuador. The road contours along the Cordillera. The thirty story waterfalls are distractingly beautiful. Wow! It is so green and lovely here. I'm sure Ecuador is equal but I couldn't tell for low cloud and rain. At least here there is some blue sky and a view.


The road to Pasto is a joy to ride. I stop lots and take pictures. The worry about crime and guerrillas starts to fade a bit. How could bad guys live here, it's too pretty.


As I study the landscape, Katie brings me down out of the mountains and into incredibly green foothills. Often along the low ridgetops are lovely homes and estates. Hum, is this where Pablo Escobar lives? Sure looks awfully first world in some places. Does drug money pay for this excellent paved highway too? That seems illogical.


As I travel northeast and to lower country, I also notice more of a negro population. I know Cartegena, in northern Colombia, was a favorite for the Spanish to deliver imported slaves. I note the spread in wealth. Not all blacks are poor but the listlessness the woman in the picture below portrays translates to a future without hope. At least this is what I imagine. I watch her for some minutes, pretending to fiddle with my helmet. In spite of the lush greenery around her, her life looks as poor as the dirt in her front yard.


Next in this visual potpourri comes flowering hedges planted along the roadside. It is hard not to examine all this colour as it blurs past. OK, 'blurs past' might be a bit strong. I am only doing 60 to 80 kilometers an hour, but after a half-day of 20 to 30 in the mountains, this seems like light speed.


Just to make sure I don't become too enraptured with Mother Colombia's glory, the all too common three-way race of oncoming traffic calls my attention once more. Really common is one truck passing another regardless of the double yellow line. That yellow paint is just a guideline for how much lateral clearance there is for passing, not a reference for whether it's safe ahead. I usually head for the shoulder if there is one, slow down if there's not. What is challenging is the three-way where a car does the double capture (more machismo points that way) by passing the truck that is passing the only vehicle in the correct lane. Six headlights coming at me to my one heading their way, well, you do the math.

Oh, and you notice the 30 km speed limit sign? Another guideline. Rule of thumb: double the posted limit and if you have a sprintin' machine that'll get you more before the next corner, do that. Business must be good in the brake shops.


Given the driving habits this roadside Virgin Mother has to watch everyday has understandably brought her to drinking. Or at least at peace with sharing advertising space and alternative methods of obtaining serenity. Obviously, even Divine Mary condones a little Poker, which, as I find out soon enough, is the name of a popular Colombian cerveza.


I do believe, after a day of playing dodge 'em, as I have done for the last 11,000 kilometers, it's Poker Time for this sinner too. I don't blame her for hiding in the shade. No point making it too obvious she understands the realities of latin american drivers.

Posted by Murray Castle at June 14, 2006 04:45 PM GMT

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