Few Things I Learned While Riding Through South America
It was mid December when we arrived in Banos, Ecuador, and were riding up and down town looking for our hostel when, while stopped at a red traffic light, someone yelled, “You’re a long way from home!” This shouldn’t have surprised me — most people in Central and South America seem to speak English better than me — but this was a native speaker and Banos, while charming, is no major tourist destination. Most Americans see the city name on the map and think, oh good, there's a restroom in Ecuador. Not enough for an entire country, but definitely a step in the right direction. The man calling out was Phil, an American tourist who prides himself on traveling to places off the beaten path. After a brief introduction we became immediate best friends, and after discovering that he, too, came from Oregon, I called Karie to let her know I’d be adding Phil to my will.
It’s clear to me now that had we been in Portland, we wouldn’t have crossed a word, Phil and I, but in Ecuador we were practically family. Being out of your environment amplifies your perception and emotions, and you suddenly become keenly aware and appreciative of the things that would normally escape your attention at home. Which is why, I guess, there are so many articles and blogposts about people who claim that their lives have been fundamentally transformed by international travel.
I wanted to share the meaningful lessons I learned during this adventure, but thinking about Phil made me realize that while these lessons were definitely amplified by the new setting, I had learned all about them at home. This is not to say that travel doesn’t change you — it does — but what I propose is that meaningful growth and transformation aren’t necessarily a monopoly held by those with a heavily stamped passport. So here’s my list of lessons learned and taken for granted at home:
1 — You Don't Have to Know Everything to Take Action
While doing research for this adventure, I read about riders who could craft makeshift tools and parts out of metal scraps, collect water from obscure plants, and prepare dinner from roots and seeds using only energy from the sun. At night. These folks had been riding motorcycles for so long that they considered them an extension of their bodies. According to my preliminary findings, unless you could build a motorcycle from scraps and possessed the survivalist skills of a commando, you had no business traversing the continent on a motorcycle. So with less than 5 years of riding experience and no mechanical skills to speak of, I began to have second thoughts about taking on this adventure. Sure, I can keep the bike upright (most of the time) and I might be able to fix a flat, replace a wheel, and change the oil. But that barely qualifies me for a weekend ride. And the more research I did, the crazier and more impossible the idea seemed.
I had been telling everyone about my plans to take on this adventure, and panicked at the thought of failing to pull it off. I imagined myself, months later, having to cross the street to avoid running into some acquaintance.
“Shouldn’t you be in South America?” They’d ask.
“Oh, about that.”
Then I realized that this situation wasn’t much different than, say, work. As a project manager I lead the implementation of technology solutions, but that doesn’t mean I know how to do every piece of work needed to successfully deliver a project. I don’t know how to build a server any more than I know how to build a motorcycle — I have to rely on my team. Realizing this freed me from the impending paralysis and changed my approach to planning for this adventure. Rather than attempting to anticipate and personally resolve every eventuality — which would have been nearly impossible — I could focus on my core competencies and delegate everything else to the experts. This also helped me better identify and allocate any additional resources, such as cash for towing, as needed.
There’s no denying the value of expertise on any subject before taking action, but remember that you don’t have to know everything about it to be effective. This is not to say you should forgo preparation and try to just wing it — that would be personally and professionally irresponsible. Just don’t let lack of expertise lead you into inaction. Everyone was a novice once.
2 — Conditions Will Never Be (or Rarely Are) "Just Right" to Take Action
Whenever I told people that I wanted to ride my motorcycle to the tip of South America, their immediate reaction was wonder and excitement. Their eyes would light up as they asked about the route, my bike, and whether they served tacos in Chile (they don't). Then their analytical brain would kick in and their line of questioning would change to cost, work, and family. People winced when I said that I’d be funding my adventure from savings, gasped when I told them that I would submit my resignation from a company I loved, and were downright incensed when I said that I probably wouldn’t see Karie for the duration of the trip. Most people told me that they’d love to do something like this. It just wasn’t the right time.
If you've been waiting for the right time to go back to school, open an animal sanctuary, or start that lifestyle blog, then you're not alone. Most of us seem to be waiting for conditions to be just right before taking action, and this, more often than not, translates into doing nothing. Assuming you have a well thought out roadmap for yourself, remember that conditions will never be just right to take action. You rarely will have all the data needed to make a decision. Resources (whether it's money, time, or people) will always be scarce due to competing priorities. And there'll never be a lack of naysayers. Rather than thinking of reasons why something can't be done, if this is something you truly love, a better question is, what can I do today to get started? You’ll be surprised by how attainable this something probably is. I know I was.
3 — Plan, but Remain Flexible and Open to the Surprises Life Has in Store
The apartment resembled one of those solitary confinement cells you’d see on a Discovery Chanel documentary about life behind bars. The sliding metal door had been replaced by a screen door, and a kitchenette had been annexed to the back of the cell. Two armoires side by side served as both closets and dividing wall to give the illusion of two separate bedrooms. And the shared metal toilet and sink were next to my cot, which was bolted to the floor. The AirBnB listing touted these as modern living apartments, but one look at the place and I was no longer buying it.
I don’t know if it was the heat, the humidity, or the fear that I might pass out at any moment, but I set my trepidations aside and hurriedly accepted the keys from Julio, the proprietor. I guess I was just eager to take off my riding suit and crank up the air conditioner, which had been prominently pictured throughout the listing, but, as our luck would have it, was nowhere to be found in the apartment.
I knocked on Julio’s door to let him know about the missing AC. “No aire?” He asked in Spanish, as if an AC unit is the sort of thing one can overlook when it’s a hundred degrees outside and the humidity level is just slightly drier than underwater.
“Well, no worry. No charge for no AC.” He said dismissively.
“But there are no windows either!” This was beyond ridiculous and I was incensed.
“What good is window, uh?” He looked at me as though I was being unreasonable. As if I had been acting like a baby. “The outside is hot. No window is better.”
I tried to explain to Julio in English and Spanish that the apartment was impossibly hot, but he was simply impossible. “No, no, no. Apartment is no hot,” he said while shrugging, “city is hot and make apartment feel hot.”
I stormed back into our apartment and told Russ that I was ready to pack up and take a flight home. There was no reasoning with people like Julio. We might have been better off had we climbed into an abandoned refrigerator we’d seen laying near a drainage ditch earlier. At least there we could open the door and let in some fresh air. “This is a bad, bad situation!” I told him. Russ calmly said, “It’s not a bad or good situation, it just is a situation. That’s what makes this an adventure. We just need to decide what to do next.” Well, all I could think about was setting Julio’s apartment on fire. Of course, I knew Russ was right, so I went with his recommendation and tried to make the best of the situation. Besides, the last thing we needed was smoke seeping into our apartment.
We worked on a detailed plan months before our departure. Everything from routes and weather conditions to gear, documents, and maintenance schedules were plotted on a map and planned for. Then, no sooner than we kicked our kickstands up, things changed. Weather conditions were different. Certain roads no longer existed. Labor demonstrations closed major landmarks we had planned to visit. Some cities were rather unremarkable so we moved on sooner than planned, while others turned out to be amazing weeklong expeditions. And though we found our fair share of Julios along the way, we also ran into some of the kindest, most accommodating people we’ve ever met. This did not invalidate our plan. On the contrary, it made it an invaluable tool, but it was openness and flexibility that allowed us to regroup in the face of each obstacle and helped us adapt and make informed decisions.
4 — Passion Will Focus Your Energy on the Causes that Resonate the Most with You
“This is the cutest… dog… ever!” At fourteen, everything coming out of Ashley’s mouth had exclamation points. She once came home from school with her hand bandaged, claiming that she had nearly lost it in what she called her writing accident. “It was the deepest cut, ever,” she sniffed, “you could practically see the bone. What would you have done? Imagine your little girl, no hand.”
“Well,” I said, “I probably would have gotten you a prosthetic with a vacuum cleaner or a broom attachment.”
This time, though, I was glad she had taken such a liking to this particular dog. It was Adoption Day at the local pet store and while everyone was flocking to the puppies and kittens, no one, except for Ashley, seemed to have noticed this old dog. These people, I thought, are the most insensitive assholes on the planet. Overlook the smell, the matted fur, and his awkward gait, and even I could see the potential. “Can we adopt him?!?” She asked. “Well, we should talk to Karie first,” I replied, not wanting to sound like a no-fun parent who says no to everything. That was Karie’s job.
Later that afternoon Ashley ran to Karie with news about the dog, and before she could finish her pitch, I added, “The dog is about ten years old, he’s blind, partially deaf, and is named Omar. He’s been in shelters and foster for years because no one wants to adopt him. Now, I told Ashley not to get her hopes too high becau…”
“He’s perfect,” Karie cut in. Thirty minutes later the forms were filled out and within a few days Omar was coming home.
Soon after the adoption we got copies of his medical records and learned that Omar had been kept in a crate so small that his muscles atrophied. He had bites on the back of his legs — likely from some sort of rodent — that caused nerve damage. His teeth were rotten, loose, and causing him a lot of pain. He had been severely malnourished and the many scars and bruises were indicative of abuse. Although people had agreed to temporarily house this dog, it seems no one had been willing to properly treat his conditions. And this was only page one of his records. I never read the rest of his history, it was just too painful. What must it be like to be abandoned and unwanted, to be so defenseless, and to feel so hopeless? That night Karie cried when she learned about his life, then Omar curled up on her lap and fell asleep with his head resting on her chest. For the first time, it seemed, he was truly comfortable. For the first time he was truly at home.
Omar was what they call a Schnoodle — a cross between a poodle and a schnauzer — but Karie always said he was half terrific, half amazing. His blindness, among other health issues, meant that he needed twenty four hour care. This might seem overwhelming to most people, and though it was certainly difficult, we also found it rewarding because it allowed Karie, Ashley, and I the opportunity to be truly present whenever we were with him. Over the next several months his overall health improved, and with it his personality surfaced. Because of the nerve damage he couldn’t wag his tail, so he demonstrated excitement and happiness by running and bucking like a bronco. We learned that he loved chickpea soup, Szechuan fried rice (no carrots please!), and apple strudel. He was blind and deaf, but he somehow recognized us when we approached, and loved us unconditionally.
A year earlier we had gone vegan. We were strong in our conviction over animal rights, but it was our time with Omar that turned animal welfare into a passion. We might not be militant — you won’t see us at PETA demonstrations, dousing ourselves in fake blood, telling passersby that meat is murder. It is. But you’ll see us attempting to save animals nonetheless, maybe not en mass, but the old fashioned way, reaching them one by one. We might not be able to save the whales, but we sure as hell can save this dog. And this one. And that one.
So what does this have to do with motorcycle adventures in South America? Nothing, really, and that’s the point. When I set out to ride my bike to the end of the world, animal advocacy was not part of the plan. How could it be? It’d be impossible, or so I thought. But passion has a way of influencing whatever you do, usually in positive ways. In this case it allowed me to pursue my interest in motorcycle adventure and help a few dogs along the way. My passion for helping animals in need also inspired others to join in on the adventure, expanded its impact, and it gave us all a measure of purpose and fulfillment that travel for leisure’s sake would never have done. Most importantly, it made a world of difference to four wonderful dogs, two of whom are already in their furever home in Portland. Passion (or lack of it) can be contagious.