An International Love Story

Not being the type of person who truly comprehends the meaning of “crazy” or “impossible,” I delighted in a self-realized moment of genius: trading a backpack for a motorcycle to circumnavigate the South American continent. The only hiccup was that, well… I had never ridden a motorcycle. The two-day MSF Beginner Rider Course coupled with reading Motorcycling for Dummies cover to cover (twice) was my crash course in two-wheeled preparedness. On paper the DMV said I could ride a motorcycle, but in reality I had the sum total of eight hours’ experience in the relative safety of an empty college parking lot.

Landing in Quito, Ecuador, my first order of business was to, you know… buy a motorcycle. I did not, however, arrive with an inkling of which motorcycle to buy. After challenging that question by dropping a surprisingly tall KLR and a BMW that didn’t appreciate my zealous handful of front brake on a banked uphill curve, I found the answer to be simple: one that doesn’t hurt much when you wear it, and that can be picked up afterward. I settled on a 2006 Honda XL200, a street-legal dual sport that moonlighted as the local police bike.

With a top box, two kayak dry bags, and a tangle of bungee cords, I wholly embraced being ringmaster of my very own traveling shit show. Once I successfully navigated myself out of major cities (a few times with the help of a taxi), traffic dissipated and I was left to serenely contemplate my life in relative silence, only occasionally interrupted by packs of rabid dogs, wandering llamas, VW Beetle-swallowing potholes, and cliff edges made daunting by gusty winds. There was also another kind of silence: the painfully awkward, gas-gauge-flickering variety. The first occurrence was unexpectedly in the middle of the Sechura Desert of Northern Peru, where I prayed that the generous gas gods would send me an entrepreneurial villager with a plastic five-gallon bucket of fuel. (They did.)

Somewhere outside of Cusco, I found myself alone again (in silence) on a gravel-packed road with a dead bike; only this time the issue appeared to be the ominously dangling chain, its tacky, half-greased surface catching souvenirs in the dirt. Armed with only the under-seat tool kit, I somehow managed to loosen the large chain-tensioning bolt with the basic five-inch tool, my boot, and an explosion of profanity. While I stayed in Arequipa for a few days to explore on foot, I decided it was long overdue I treat the lady to some quality time with a real mechanic. Not being able to read the manual, which had been printed in Brazilian Portuguese, I guess I overshot my first oil change by an itty bit. There was plenty of time for the mechanic to scream at me in Spanish (while what looked like high-viscosity Turkish coffee trickled from the drain hole), informing me that it was once per 1,000 kilometers (not every 3,500). At the very least, the educational earful wasn’t a total loss and I learned how (and how often) to change my oil. That’s progress.

The author and her XL200 on a highway somewhere in Argentina.  Photo courtesy of Farrell

The author and her XL200 on a highway somewhere in Argentina. Photo courtesy of Farrell

When I crossed the Southern Andes between Chile and Argentina in the shadow of Aconcagua (South America’s Everest), I miscalculated how much gas was required to complete the mission, despite departing with a full tank and riding with a one-gallon, gas-filled plastic bottle as a backrest. I was a quick study in figuring out that neutral was my friend while descending 10,500 feet of hairpin switchbacks over Los Caracoles Pass (aka the most dangerous road in Chile), hoping to find a functioning gas station somewhere near the bottom. (There was, and the proprietor was treated to a happy dance of disbelief and overwhelming gratitude.)

The little Honda that could threw me a few curveballs, and deservedly so, as I had become keenly aware of high-altitude/oxygen-starved starts at 12,500 feet in Puno, Peru, the heart-stopping noise of a dead battery at night outside Rio, and the rim-deforming effects of hitting a pothole at speed on a desolate Venezuelan road that could’ve easily doubled as the cratered surface of the moon. I learned that inevitably, when left to my own devices, I found a way to persevere… and that roadside auto mechanics in Venezuela are neither motorcycle savvy nor gentle with a hammer. When the mechanic announced he was finished with the front wheel while clutching a handful of leftover parts, I made the bold move to install the rear tire myself. By this time, death felt like a foregone conclusion, so might as well be at my own hand.

With only a few international incidents, a city-leveling earthquake, and gluttonous consumption of asado, empanadas, tropical fruit, Malbec, and gelato under my belt, the journey was nearly over as I pulled up to the Suzuki Superstore in Medellin. It was here that my little Honda had her final servicing before I regretfully sold her upon my return to Quito. The business owner explained to me that he was a lifelong Suzuki enthusiast, but after my service, he would preach the good word of Honda.

“How many kilometers has it been since you cleaned your air filter?”

“Ummm… 42,000?”

“That’s crazy! It’s damn near impossible for a motorcycle to keep running with an air filter this dirty.  All you needed to do was clean it with a little diesel.”

“Hmmph…good to know.”

Ten years and 100,000 miles after her first foray into motorcycling, Cristi Farrell is an intermittent motorcycle industry freelancer when not chained to her desk as a California-licensed geologist with a local consulting firm. An unquenchable thirst for wanderlust and a passion for motorcycling fuel off the beaten path adventures like chasing fireflies and dodging tigers after dark on an Enfield Bullet in Bardia National Park, getting lost in the deserts of Rajasthan on a Triumph Bonneville, and using a Honda XR250 as a ladder to pick fresh dates in the Dades Valley.  She has contributed to and reviewed motorcycles for a variety of publications including American Motorcyclist, Revzilla's Common Tread, Cycle News, and Motorcyclist, and is a co-host of the Moterrific podcast.