You’ve read about bikers all your life, right? On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we got a greenhorn biker chick—who learnt to ride in India—to detail her riding experiences... in Latin America. Text & Photographs VICTORIA BURROWS
A tall, goateed biker in jeans and a leather waistcoat keeps glancing my way and is clearly talking about me, but the Def Leppard soundtrack and my rudimentary Spanish only allow me to pick up a few words: “chica bonita” (pretty girl) … “una moto pequeña” (a small motorbike) … “Mexico.” While I can’t understand the response from his friend, a decent-looking man with a pony tail, his face shows surprise. He asks a question, and from the reply all I can hear is “Inglés”—English. The braver of the two, pony tail takes another beer from the cooler and comes over to me with a smile.
“Hola!” he says, handing me the bottle of Balboa. “You speak English, yes? Sorry, my English is not so good. But my friend say you ride your moto here to Panama from Mexico?”“Yes,” I say, “About 9,000 kilometres so far. I started in Mexico City two months ago. That’s my bike over there.” I point over to my Yamaha Fazer, and it looks tiny among the Harley-Davidsons parked around it, even with my big, dusty bag strapped to it. My friend, Cameron, who I’ve been riding with, has parked his bike next to mine, and even that, a Kawasaki KLR 650cc with two giant steel panniers of filming equipment, a bag, folded sleeping mattress, air pump and spare tire doesn’t look so big.
Another group of bikes pull up, this time a motorcycle club from Costa Rica, and the engines drown out further conversation. These bikes are BMWs, some as big as Harleys but much more understated. While most Harley riders would not look out of place on stage at a Bon Jovi concert, Beamer riders look like they have just stepped out of the office, their biker jackets a sensible uniform grey—sort of like accountants with an attitude.
I’m here at the opening party of the XIV Convencion Internacional De Motos in David, Chiriquí province, Panama, with the Macho Montes motorcycle club. There are a few hundred bikes parked so far, with a few thousand more to take part in the rest of the weekend’s festivities. It’s a man-heavy crowd, but there is a sprinkling of wives and girlfriends, some sporting hot pants and killer heels, and all clutching cold beers or heavy pours of Carta Vieja rum and ginger ale. Old friends are shaking hands and sharing manly, back-slapping hugs among the shining chrome and leather of a sea of motorbikes.
I am one of perhaps four or five women riding their own bike at the convention, and certainly the only woman with long blonde hair. Riders have come from across Central America, with one young couple, who are taking five years to ride across the world on their 125cc bikes, here from Argentina.
I was invited to the motorbike rally by Panama-local Norman, a former dairy farmer from England with dangling bullet earrings, a nipple ring and a big green Honda Valkyrie. I had met Norman on a biker website when he responded to my impassioned plea for information and advice on my upcoming Central American trip: Was it possible for a foreigner to rent a bike or would I have to buy one, what paperwork did bikers need to cross borders, what the roads were like, how safe is was, and more importantly, was I crazy to think that a girl just learning to ride a motorbike in New Delhi could—in two months’ time—fly to Mexico City and ride thousands of kilometres, traversing eight countries, including Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, down to Panama?
My friend of many years, Cameron, was taking six months to ride from Canada to the bottom of Patagonia to research a book and film a documentary on the Mennonite communities of the Americas, and I had decided to join him. As a beginner rider, I restricted myself to the central section of the journey, starting in Mexico City. There, another biker I had met online had found me a second-hand Yamaha street bike to carry me on my journey. Garry, an Englishman who runs an invite-only, bikers-only hostel—actually his home, and free as long as you do the dishes—saw the bike advertised online, test drove it, negotiated the price, found new tires, and had the bike registered in my name. All this for a stranger, and for his passion: Biking. It was the first of many times I would find myself amazed and humbled at the generosity of bikers.
Arriving in Mexico City and seeing my shiny black moto—at 250cc, double the engine size of any bike I had ridden that far—left me terrified, yet excited. I took the bike out for a spin, driving up and down the road outside Garry’s house, repeating a mantra: “Breathe. Drive on the right-hand side of the road. Breathe. Drive on the right-hand side of the road.” By the time Cameron reached Mexico City a few days later, having already traversed Canada, the US and the northern half of Mexico, I felt like I was going to cope just fine.
A short-lived feeling of triumph: The morning of setting out, as soon as I started the engine, oil gushed out onto Garry’s garage floor. While doing an oil change, the o-ring—a 5mm-diameter, doughnut-shaped piece of rubber—had been crushed. No oil equals no-go. Garry set off on his bike to find a new part. After stopping at a number of repair shops, he managed to find a similar-sized ring which we cut to size with a pair of kitchen scissors. It was great to discover that my Indian friends aren’t the only ones skilled in juggad, I realised.
Garry led us out of the city (it had taken Cameron three hours of driving around, lost, to find his way into this giant metropolis) and my adventure had begun. Driving the congested city streets was a breeze—Mexican drivers stick to lanes, stop at red traffic lights, and indicate—although my New Delhi driving style garnered a hoot or two. But being on the outskirts of the city, on highways thick with speeding, 18-metre-long trucks, petrified me. I had never topped 65 kmph in India, but on my first day, Cameron sped ahead and I was up to 100 kmph. Driving at that speed on a motorbike is a frightening experience: The wind batters you and it feels like your head’s going to be ripped off.
After the first day of riding, I was exhausted to the point of barely being able to speak. More than the physical exertion and mental focus it takes to ride a motorbike, being in a state of nerves all day had worn me out. My back ached, I could only just close the fingers on my left hand from working the clutch all day, and I felt like I had been dragged behind a motorbike rather than been on top of one. The words of friends back in India echoed in my head—“brave”, “inspiring”, “girl with big brass balls”—but I didn’t feel brave. I felt like a small, scared mouse. Cameron tried to conceal his concern that I was not going to cope with the thousands of kilometres ahead, as, to him, the day had been an easy one.
After 10 hours of slumber so deep a Hell’s Angel rally right in the hotel room would not have woken me, I felt recharged and ready to show the Mexican highways who was boss. My left hand was stiff and swollen, but I massaged it back to life, popped a handful of painkillers and off I went. Day Two was upon me.
Long days of riding through southern Mexico continued, taking us through cactus-covered hills and open plains, jungle-covered karst mountains and alpine forests studded with pretty Mayan villages. We gazed out over the Pacific Ocean, and swam in the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We stopped at ancient pyramids, charming churches, and gorgeous views. Some days were good, other days we lost each other on the road with night approaching, or repairs meant we were delayed for hours. On a particularly empty road, my gear lever came loose and was dangling from the side of my bike; Cameron fixed it with full juggad panache with a bolt from his Tupperware box of random spare parts, as vultures swooped round a carcass nearby.
I became accustomed to life on the road: The dirt, the sweat, the constant repairing of bikes, and the unadulterated joy of a cold beer and a greasy taco after a long day. Cameron learned to wait for me to catch up before passing military roadblocks and checkpoints, a feminine face allowing us to be waved through without hassle, while I learned about bushings, loose chains and the electrics under a motorbike seat. I grew to love the smell of oil, and the chug of the engine as I jammed it into a lower gear before a curve. I became addicted to the unparalleled sense of freedom a bike offers.
Our route took us through Belize, where we snorkelled with nurse sharks and sting rays, woke up in hammocks to an Alien vs. Predator soundtrack of howler monkeys, and sat out a hurricane. Next, Guatemala, where we visited the magnificent Mayan complex that rises out of the dense, humid jungle at Tikal, gazed at the smoking volcanoes above Antigua from a treehouse cabin, and got drunk on Quetzalteca—a potent local fire water—with another biker, Richard, who rode with us for a few days, showing us the best of his beautiful country, even leading us on steep, winding mountain roads in the hail.
Guatemala was also where Cameron and I faced the Semuc Champey road: A gullied track so infamous that most locals avoid driving it and get lifts with experienced van drivers from the nearby market town of Lanquin instead. The road is only 11 kilometres long, but it’s a test that sorts the men from the boys, or, in my case, the woman from the little girl inside shouting: “Why? Why do I do this to myself? Why can’t I be content staying home baking cakes?”
The road is a rollercoaster of 45-degree, gravel-covered, boulder-protruding, potholed slopes and hairpin bends that takes two bone-rattling hours to navigate. But, at the end, a paradise that makes the adrenalin-overload worth it: Semuc Champey, a natural limestone bridge of crystal-clear turquoise pools and waterfalls with a river flowing underneath it, all set among emerald green, butterfly-visited jungle. We made it to the pools at dusk, just before the national park gates closed for the night. It took a stream of expletives expressive enough to make a pissed-off Indian trucker blush and 20 minutes lying collapsed on the dirt next to my bike before my hands stopped shaking. Even Cameron, whose last bike trip was a month-long ride through the desert and snow of China’s Silk Road, found it an ordeal. “I’ve never ridden a road quite like that,” he managed.
When we had enough energy to move, we put up our tent in the fading light. The pools were officially closed for the night but we sneaked through the jungle and seeing not a soul in sight, stripped down to our underwear for a dip, Cameron gallantly averting his gaze. That swim in the moonlight was heavenly—there was no electricity or running water at the campsite and it had been a long, hot day. Cameron had sweated so much that when he took off his heavy protective motorcycle jacket and draped it over his handlebars, perspiration ran out of the sleeves in streams.
After Guatemala, it was a quick ride through El Salvador, and a shorter stay in Honduras, with its bathtub-sized potholes and air of desperation. Next, Nicaragua, where we hiked up and tobogganed down a live volcano, and where Cameron marvelled more at the beauty of the local ladies than the scenery. In Costa Rica, we watched hundreds of turtles lay eggs on the beach, rode through rivers swollen from wet-season rains, and relaxed in hot springs in the forest.
And here I was now, in David, Panama, the only foreign girl in a sea of bandanas, bikes, big muscles and bigger hearts. Pony tail, real name Alejandro, fetched me another beer, and I am looked around at where I was. If I’d come this far, who knows where I could go next. All it takes is two wheels, an open road and some guts.