The Motorcycle Diaries

2 Feb

A week and a half ago, I bought a secondhand motorcycle off the street. While there were some things wrong with it (broken taillight, non-functioning speedometer and fuel indicator, and a worn out hand brake), the timing and the price worked out quite well. After some good ol’ fashioned haggling, I laid out S/. 1,150 in cash — about $430, to become the proud owner of a used bike.

My previous motorcycle experience was limited to a one weekend course at a community college I took a few years ago, when I had the intention of getting my license and buying a bike. Unfortunately, right after that, I got sent out of town long-term on work travel, and thereafter life as a traveling management consultant extinguished my desire.

Here in Tarapoto, though, where the personal car is still a rarity, virtually everyone gets around on two wheels. (Or three, technically, since half the population rides the three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaws called “mototaxis”.) Since I got here 4 months ago, I’ve had it in the back of my head that I wanted to get back into motorcycles. My Peruvian friend Jean explained the basics of the controls to me (as I had forgotten) and gave me a lesson once where I rode his bike — and that was the extent of my experience.

So of course it seemed like a good idea to just go ahead and buy my own here, to ride around like the locals, jouncing along the rocky dirt roads in my neighborhood or weaving and dodging at high-speed through the madcap traffic in the town center — sans helmet or any other protective gear. At the least, this must prove I don’t have any brain cells to lose in an accident, right?

Embrega? Cambios? Frenos?

I didn’t even know how to ride the bike home when I bought it, so Jean did for me. (Gracias!) But my first time on, when I thought I would get to the end of my street and back, I surprised myself by riding all through my neighborhood and even out onto the main avenue.

Of course, immediately after I exulted over that initial success, I tried to get back on the bike, had it tip over, and I fell to the ground pinned under it. Yeah. Only me — but I won’t forget any time soon that the cheap bikes here are made not out of strong, lightweight frames like back home, but instead probably from recycled Soviet tank scrap metal.

In my first few days, although I could make the short ride between my house and the Technoserve office without incident, I had several predictable mishaps. I often popped the clutch or stalled, and one-time reared up on my bike like I was riding Black Beauty. Miraculously I avoided injury all of those times — only to get hurt in a ridiculously fluky way: one time after parking my bike and stopping to chat for a few minutes with a colleague, I then absentmindedly reached for an object on the ground, and my arm touched the still-hot exhaust tube cylinder. I’ve got a nasty half-dollar sized burn on my forearm that looks like I was branded.

Perhaps the final indignity came a few nights ago, when, thanks to my broken fuel indicator and own unawareness, I ran out of gas while starting to climb a big hill. I had to push my (ridiculously heavy) bike all the way home. I’ve since learned the common habit here of taking an empty Coke or water bottle to the gas station and having them fill it up with a couple soles worth of gas, to keep for emergencies.

How I Got Over

When I bought my bike, I had set a goal for myself of being able to ride to Tarapoto’s central plaza within 6 weeks. Given the slow progress and many setbacks — after a week, I still hadn’t been any further than my own little neighborhood — that was looking perhaps a little too ambitious.

But, as these things go, sometimes the light goes on all of a sudden. On Monday night, after a particularly rough day, I was all set to go home when instead I swerved onto the giant hill leading out of my neighborhood. On my only prior attempt on this road, I had nearly plowed headlong into a taxi. This time though, everything clicked, and I found myself confident and in control, climbing up the hills above town and suddenly opening up into fifth gear on a open stretch of road.

That adrenaline rush, that feeling of absolute euphoria as you hit your max speed, everyone and everything else becoming passing blurs, and (dare I say it?) the wind hitting you not in the helmet but in the face … it’s awesome. Before I even really knew what I was doing, I was descending down the hills clear on the opposite side of town, and found myself… at the plaza! Never having even interacted with stoplights before, yet here I was — it’s not often I truly surprise myself, but this was surreal.

No sooner had I triumphantly parked my bike amidst the row of dozens belonging to locals, a policewoman strode directly over to me. Did I actually look terrible driving? No, as it turns out, everyone entering the plaza at that time was being stopped and asked to show their identity documents. (This is a rather common, and sometimes unsettling, experience here for locals.)

I haven’t yet bothered to go take my official driving exam and get a license, and I think there may be some official fees I haven’t paid yet. More troubling, I wasn’t carrying my registration for my bike at the time, and the cop (seeing my brown skin and hearing my apparently good Spanish) thought I was ridiculing her when I explained I was a foreigner. As she angrily started to tell me about a fine and confiscation of my bike, I managed to dig out my Virginia driver’s license and show her that I was indeed an American. At that point, her demeanor changed completely, and we proceeded to have a friendly conversation about what I was doing in Tarapoto and how I liked it here. After some pleasantries and encouragement to keep practicing, she released me.

Right then, I ran into my friend and co-worker Pilar, who was in the plaza along with her son. She was thrilled to see me getting around town like a local. As we chatted for a bit, another co-worker pulled up alongside on his motorcycle with his family, and I earned more kudos and props. I was completely jazzed up and then sent a mass text out to friends proclaiming that I was officially Tarapotan.

That’s how I’ve felt in the past few days, as I’ve ridden my bike all over, to visit a client situated on a rocky road outside of town, or whizzing down the “highway” to my favorite Morales swimming pool while feeling so liberated wearing just a wifebeater, swim trunks, and flip flops. A semi truck and colectivo taxi occupying the lanes in both directions just means I swerve onto the shoulder, rev, and pass them. This moto business “ain’t no thang”!


9 Responses to “The Motorcycle Diaries”

  1. Goutham February 2, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Jay, this is awesome. But as a father, I feel it is my duty to tell you to be super careful on that thing.

  2. nj February 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm #


  3. Howard February 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    cool guy

  4. AC February 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    Stop being pulled over by Cops and being let go. I’m surprised she didnt ask you to “move down the road a little and park your moto”

  5. Your R.A February 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    A clever way to solve the problem of not being able to see over the steering wheel….

    (insert Sesame Street Laugh)

  6. Andrew T February 4, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    Wow, congrats on your acquisition of new skills, that sounds awesome! That learning process reminds me of learning how to ski…you fear accidentally ending up on a black diamond, then suddenly everything clicks. Come to think of it, also reminds me of learning how to drive 🙂 Go figure.

    I think once the local cops assume you’re native, your claim of official residency is unbeatable haha. Very cool.

  7. Jay February 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    It’s only fair that after a relatively triumphant post like this, I include the flip-side: the inevitable “pride comes before a fall” part. The day after I wrote this, I took a pretty hard spill (completely my fault — I was speeding incredibly recklessly and hit a rough patch) … this afternoon saw me using the scissors on my Swiss Army knife to cut away loose skin from the huge, infected, oozing wound on my arm.

    Oops. Lesson learned. The bike took a good beating… but I’m still able to ride around on it. I might even consider going to get those faulty brakes repaired, as that might have played a *small* part (the non-“operator error” part) in my accident.

  8. becca February 8, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    jay – i definitely can relate to this story. i too, caved and bought a little scooter for $350 (though it’s a dinky little scooter with less than 40cc and is automatic, nothing major like yours). driving it home on the main roads of seoul for the first time EVER on a motorized scooter got me a little overconfident, and that overconfidence actually caused me to fall while renting a scooter in thailand AND while carrying a passenger in the back!! fortunately we were going pretty slow and only suffered some skin wounds, but i still have a matching knee and elbow scar to show for it. in retrospect, i think the accident was for the best because i could have totally seen my overconfidence growing over time, and the size of a potentially bigger (and more life-threatening) accident growing alongside with it.

    that being said, i would say, scooters/motorcycles are fun, but just keep that little accident in the back of your head, hopefully protected by at least a bare-bones helmet! otherwise, enjoy that fresh tarapoto air (prob much cleaner than smoggy seoul air)!!

  9. jen February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    haha i like how in one paragraph you are mocking the bike for being made out of soviet scraps, and then in the next you are lamenting about it’s colossal weight. just think: it could’ve been the Rosslyn Hill !!!

    Makes me miss ovie =p.

    glad to hear you are having fun and enjoying the fresh breeze! don’t forget to put band-aids/coverings on when you shower, otherwise the infection will just get worse and worse (spoken like a swimmer, not like a mom)

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