Caught In The “Strom”
Llama technical name is “V-Strom”. The name V-Strom combines V referring to the bike’s V engine configuration with the German word Strom, meaning stream or current. In the following weeks, my trip will revolve around my bike: I was caught in its “Strom”.
Hints about the trouble awaiting me started in Cancun airport when Colombian immigration required me to have a return plane ticket, i.e. a ticket or way out of the country as a proof I will leave. Duh, I will be riding my bikes out! OK, sure Colombian women are drop dead gorgeous and I could see why a guy would want to stay, but come-on boys, share the wealth. AnywayZ, it took me a good hour of back and forth messages with Bogota before I was allowed to board the plane. Later I realized I was lucky to even have made it in. You’ll see why later, but first thing first; once I got to Bogota all I wanted to do is to go see my baby: nothing beats the sweet prrr of Llama. The following day I went to renew my bike’s temporary import permit issued by the DIAN, the Colombian Aduana. After visiting 4 different DIAN locations, each pointing me to the other, I finally found the right office which would help me with my papers: it was the head office! There are no receptionist here, no customer service desk; this is the actual customs agency offices. So I interrupted the very busy government workers (most where sipping their coffee while chit-chatting and laughing with their colleagues) and I was sent from one cubicle to the next, from one floor to the other, until I was finally pointed to a person who could help… even if he actually didn’t know it! Have you seen “Les 12 traveaux d’Asterix”? Remember his task in a government office where he needed to get a permit? Bingo, he was here! AnywayZ, I filed my bike’s extension claim and headed back to relax and chill in Bogota. I visited Botero museum (still don’t get him…at least other artists were on display) and went to Zipaquirá, the famous salt mine cathedral. The cathedral itself didn’t change much since 2001 the last time I was around; they installed better lighting which really highlights the beauty of the place but on the other hand, it’s now a fully fledged tourist center: snacks, coffee shop, a cinema (in 3D please), artesania, “salt” souvenirs,… even an emerald stand are within the mine’s hallway, 160m deep.
Weekend parties were great and when Monday came, I called the DIAN office to know if I can pick up my papers as I was itching to hit the road. “Your extension request was denied”. Wow, easy now… Why? Well, t turned out the moment I left the country to go on my Caribbean Escapade the bike’s permit was canceled; and that was nearly a month ago, back on January 11th. Technically the law requires the imported vehicle to also leave the country once the owner’s do so. But how could I have known? I decided to just head to the office and talk to them f2f. For the next 2 days I tried to make my case. “Sorry, my mistake, but look at it from my point of you. No one told me anything about these “misterious” laws; it’s not written on any paper I got, I was even allowed to leave the country without anyone asking me about the bike”… “all I want is a simple extension to visit YOUR country”… “I think Colombian customs have more serious problem then a tourist on a motorcycle enjoying his time here”. Unfortunately, that didn’t help. Actually, the situation got worst. “Where’s your bike, it’s illegal in the country and we are required to confiscate it”. Great, kick me when I am down guys. Actually the customs officers weren’t at all mean, they were caught in the same bureaucracy I was tangled in and they were just doing their job… although all I wanted was a simple extension. “Amigo, you can’t confiscate my bike, it’s all I’ve got”. One of the managers took me on the side: “So just exit the country, hope the police won’t stop you along the way and pray that the border’s customs agent turns a blind eye and let you exit”. That doesn’t seem to re-assuring now, does it? Especially knowing my luck with the cops. “Can you give me a temporary permit so I can just make it to the border?”. No. Case closed. Defeated, head low, I headed back to my hostel with one thing on my mind: Get out of here, NOW!. Well actually I was also thinking of faking the customs papers (Photoshop baby!). It’s easy enough, just change the expiry date. But the risk was too big: Not from the DIAN paper point of view, the police won’t even realize what hit them. The issue was rather my bike’s SOAT (Colombia’s mandatory insurance): This can’t be faked, it’s traceable by the cops and if anything happens on the road I will be caught red-handed. Basically, I would dig my own grave. So the only valid option was to rush to Ecuador in 2 days, leaving tomorrow, Wednesday morning. But the sun shone a little on me: Tim, an Oz fellow rider I met in Bogota will accompany me to the border. That’s great news: cops rarely, if ever, stop multiple riders. We decided to leave a day later as Tim had a few things to take care off. As for Llama it was well hidden in the hostel so the DIAN won’t find it if they decided to show up; everyone knew to say it left already.
We rode up early Thursday morning (Kilometer 36,539; Bogota, 10-Feb-11 @ 7:15) aiming to reach Cali by sunset. It’s a long ride mainly because it’s a mountainous terrain: we first head down the Cordillera Central, cross the Rio Magdalena then up the Cordillera Occidental (up to 3,300m.a.s.l) before heading down again to reach Cali. It was an amazing route and I took huge pleasure riding it. And Tim was great company; not only to share a few laugh each time we took a break (Red Bull time!) but also he rides as fast as me and we ripped through the mountain roads and leaned deep on the twisties. We made it to Cali (Kilometer 37,029; Cali, 10-Feb-11 @ 16:05) with sore “behinds” and once there, as Tim put it: “I need a beer and a shower but you know which comes first!” :). Next morning rain was to the rendezvous, accompanying us up to Popayan (Kilometer 37,181; Popayan, 11-Feb-11 @ 10:50) but from there on it cleared up and we could enjoy the roads again, although the first part was very slippery, I had a couple frightening fish tails! Close call guys, saved by kicking my foot on the ground to lift the bike back up. By early afternoon, the sun shone strong to dry the roads just in time for the most beautiful stretch: up from Pasto to Ipiales zigzagging on narrow mountain road.
I had a simple plan to pass the border: Don’t stop :). That sounds ridiculous anywhere else but the Ecuador/Colombian border is just a bridge and the custom + immigration offices lies on the side of the road at each end of the bridge; whose to stop me from just going straight? And that’s exactly what I did. Once Llama was safe in Ecuador, I freely walked back to Colombia immigration to get my passport stamped before heading back in Ecuador to do the same (Whom actually still haven’t got my files properly in the system and luckily I found the border agent who helped me last time I was here; he recognized me, told me to leave the passport with him until tomorrow and he’ll take care of me while I rest in Tulcan). And while Tim was getting his Ecuadorian temporary bike custom’s papers ready (took 3 hours), I crossed back to Colombia to ask if it was OK for me to head back tomorrow into the country with my bike. Hey, no one will stop the Llama show!… well maybe lack of money but that’s another story. For tonight celebrations are in order and we got a couple of liters of beer to help with that (Kilometer 37,532; Tulcan, 11-Feb-11 @ 21:15).
I said my goodbye to Tim as he was heading to meet a friend in Quito while I rode back to Colombia. I only was able to cross the border by noon time because of my aforementioned Ecuadorian immigration file issues (Kilometer 37,536; Ipiales, 12-Feb-11 @ 12:55). At least the sun was shining and I just decided to ride until sunset at which point I’ll find a village to lay my head down for the night. By late afternoon, as I am zipping through some tricky mountain road I passed 2 bikers stopped on the side of the road. That doesn’t look right! I immediately u-turned to see wassup & offer help to my bros. My fears were true: a 3rd rider had crashed. Dan (US) and Nick & Rob (Canada) were riding south when Dan was caught by a closing radius sharp right turn, oversteered and clipped his panier on an incoming car. The bike jolted to its right then flipped forward throwing Dan head first on the pavement before the bike tumbled on top of him, pinning him down. This happened just a few minutes ago; Dan was bruised and shocked but he was OK, able to move all his body members except for his left foot. While Rob was dealing with the car owner regarding the damage, Nick and I were just trying to be with Dan. He didn’t want to go to the hospital as of yet and after a while we told him to remove his boots so we could check the damage; we needed to know what we are facing and make a decision. Well, his big toe was enflamed and its nail ripped out and bleeding heavily. As nightfall was closing I knew we needed to get out of here: this is an unsecure area at night, a guerilla hot bed (Kilometer 37,797; accident scene just south of El Bordo, 12-Feb-11 @ 16:20). El Bordo was 5Km ahead and the car owner proposed to take Dan to the hospital. I proposed to Nick and Rob to ride back to accompany him, find a hotel and come back 2up to drive Dan’s bike back to the town. In the mean time I’ll stay on guard here: “Just be back before 18:30 guys”!
Kilometer 37,805; El Bordo, 12-Feb-11 @ 18:35. The “hospital” (actually more of a clinic) cleaned Dan’s wound, gave him pain killers and told him to go rest and wait until Monday (it was Saturday) for the private clinic to open where he could get his foot X-rayed. So we all headed back to the hotel, sat in the outdoor restaurant to relax, eat and have a drink: it’s been a long day. The next morning, while Dan went back to the clinic (his toe was still bleeding) I took the bike to a local mechanic, Elvio, to start with the repair while Nick and Rob were packing up and watching over Dan. By 13:00, the boys continued their journey south (they were really short on time) and I decided to stay in El Bordo to keep Dan company and to help around: Dan needed a lot of rest (not to mention the pain killers took care of putting him to sleep) and there were lots to deal with: Hospital, Insurance, Bike repair, Panier soldering,…
By Monday early afternoon most of the stuff to do were in motion: Elvio will watch over Dan and the bike, the doctor was awaiting for the X-ray, the welder shop dealing with the panier, I agreed with the hotel owner not to let Dan ride until he’s better :), and the local restaurant señora will cook for Dan special meals to his liking,… it still amazes me how much Colombian are nice, helpful and caring people and especially here in El Bordo the locals are genuinely kind; Dan is still with them up to now. As for me, well my show was still running and I needed to head north.
Since I left El Bordo late that afternoon, the farthest I could reach was Manizales; but I didn’t even make it there. By sunset I was in Pereira and decided to stop for the night (Kilometer 38,243; Pereira, 14-Feb-11 @ 19:00). Pereira is a manufacturing town, richer than other Colombian cities and Suzuki’s assembly line is here. I was still trying to get an appointment with them (yeah, what’s new) and me staying here will hopefully force the issue. It did and on Wednesday I went to meet with Juan-Carlo Manzur (yep, Lebanese descendant) head of Suzuki motorcycle marketing and Ricardo one of his managers. They liked my proposal, were impressed by my trip and with my Suzuki but needed me to make an official request and presentation so it can be forwarded to their director for evaluation. I spent the next 2 days working on the proposal aiming to impress: The idea we agreed upon was to develop an interactive DVD based on my website which contains all information needed by any motorcyclist to travel in South America: Where to go, what to visit, which road to take, distance, time required, status of the road, paperwork needed, mechanic, local contacts,…and much more. This software would be distributed with each bike and to existing customers and motorcycle clubs. By Friday, I sent in my proposal and feeling proud with what I have done, I decided to go to Manizales, a nearby mountain town, to rest and hike its surroundings (Kilometer 38,359; Manizales, 18-Feb-11 @ 16:15). Manizales nests high up on a ridge surrounded by tremendous green scenery. On Saturday I went to a local orchid and butterfly park before spending my afternoon in the city itself. On Sunday, I joined John-Edward, a Suzuki technician I met at the assembly who called in his riding buddies for a motorcycle trip to Los Nevados national park: we were 8 V-Stroms riding through the cloud forest and altiplano, a gorgeous setting in the high Andean mountain. We had lunch in a small village on the other side of the park, before passing (to my great excitement) thorough a village called Libano. I was snapping my pictures like crazy and telling everyone in the street that I am from the real Lebanon, to the local complete indifference; they were just looking at me amused by the sight. Ah well, whatever makes you happy. We continued our road down the valley to visit Armero, a village destroyed by a horrific mud-slide back in 199 6 which left 20,000 dead, before heading back up the Cordillera Occidental to Manizales. We only made it back home long after dark, exhausted yet extremely happy and satisfied with our day (Kilometer 38,647; Manizales, 21-Feb-11 @ 19:20).
I headed back to Pereira on Monday, awaiting Suzuki’s response… but nothing came. I sent them an e-mail mentioning that I could afford to wait for their answer (I still want to visit Colombia vs. working) however I need to do some maintenance on the bike, especially new tires and brakes and re-asked if they could help on that front with a discount on parts… to which they told me yet again “mañana” (BTW this mañana answer started last Thursday). Another mañana came and things were still the same. Luckily I became friends with some of the people working in shops around my hotel and they pointed me to a trustworthy mechanic, Alvaro. And since I already went to check shops for the necessary bike parts, I just headed to Alvaro’s and during the following 2 days, I forgot about Suzuki and just hanged out with Alvaro, Cesar and the guys, working on the bike. The boys took amazing good care of my baby and by Thursday afternoon I was finally ready to hit the road. Suzuki was passé, I didn’t even re-contact them; I just wanted to get out of this town. Although it was late and I would reach Bogota way after sunset I just saddled up and hit the road (Kilometer 38,718; Pereira, 24-Feb-11 @ 14:35); beside I promised Adriana to meet her in Bogota not to mention I need to continue on with my trip.