Ipiales, Colombia 5 Dec 05
Odometer 11,943 m 19,220 km

I had been rolling on two wheels for so many months it was strange to be rolling down a runway. Stranger still, I was on a one-way flight to Bogota. Though one hundred and ninety passengers were seated aboard the airplane--I was the only non-Colombian. Did everyone in Panama City know something I didn’t?

I drew the middle seat. To my left was an 800-pound gorilla wearing dark sunglasses and a cheap suit, clutching a briefcase as though his life depended on it. Maybe it did. The flight attendant asked him several times to stow his bag in the overhead compartment; he simply stared straight ahead, sweating profusely. To my right was a 65-year-old woman trying desperately to look 55, kissing her rosary with eyes closed while making the sign of the cross.

Maybe I should’ve listened to the attendant at the Panamanian air cargo company that agreed to fly my motorcycle on ahead to South America. As I handed him $450 is U.S. cash, he protested with both his hands and implored me to take it back.

“You really should reconsider going to Colombia,” he admonished in Spanish, “don’t you know there’s a war going on there?”

Or perhaps I should’ve seen a red flag when the operator at Copa Airlines (irreverently known as “Coca Airlines”), asked me three times to re-re-confirm that Bogota was my final destination.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single soul from Alaska through Central America who didn’t offer me the exact same advice about my plan to ride across Colombia:
don't go.

The plane lifted off.
The idyllic central plaza in the small town of Cajamarca, Colombia.
As we crossed the Darien Gap, the strip of swamp south of the Panama Canal that can’t be driven across, I breached the point of no return. With any luck, El Viento is already there and waiting for me, I reassured myself, and besides--Tierra del Fuego lies to the south.

We sailed over snow-capped peaks barely breaking above the clouds and tropical forests so dense the light never hit the ground. From this altitude you couldn’t see the narco-traffickers, paramilitaries, FARC guerillas, or corrupt police and crooks that everyone seemed so worried about. The infamous coca fields were simply part of the blue-green patchwork of color that from 30,000 feet looked more inviting than threatening. I couldn’t wait to touch down.

Clearing customs and navigating out of the near-signless city of Bogota proved the most difficult part of the ride. Once out in the countryside and amongst the
campesinos, I felt completely at ease. The stereotypical view, once again, was a lie. From tiny villages of sugarcane sharecroppers to breathtaking natural wonders, and from quaint village plazas to busy urban diners--Colombia opened its arms and gave me a great big hug.
Colombian soldiers on patrol for FARC guerillas.
But with the military’s omnipresence, it would be naive to think that my limited experience was emblematic of the average Colombian’s. There is a war going on here. Kidnappings and killings are a sad fact of life. U.S. government-sponsored aircraft are busy bombing the hillsides with defoliant in a futile and ironic attempt to eradicate the only crop U.S. citizens’ demand. In short, it’s a painful, no-win situation that impacts the poorest people most.

But while all of this may be true, the media fails to report on the daily lives of the vast majority of Colombia’s peaceful citizenry and the countless, everyday events that ultimately reveal a country’s soul. They certainly weren't there to witness me turning around on the sidewalk one night in the small city of Ipiales to find a little-old grandmother standing before El Viento, one arm supported by her middle-aged daughter.

“Senor,” she said in perfectly enunciated Spanish as she nodded in amazement, “tu moto es linda, linda, linda (your motorbike is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful)!”

I thanked her for her kind compliment and explained that the trusty steed she so admired was carrying me all the way across the Americas, from tip to tip.

With a look of wonderment on her face, and a reassuring twinkle in her eye, she smiled and gently replied,
“Puede Dios bendecirle en su jornada tan lejos (May God bless you in your journey so far).”

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