Itamaraju, Brazil 23 Feb 07
Odometer 38,689 m 62,263 km

Nature abhors a vacuum, so Aristotle famously stated back in 310 BC. Though at the time he was referring to the physics behind lever-operated water pumps, his insight can just as easily explain the profusion of earth’s life-forms--and the inevitability of commerce.

Given adequate space, energy and water, some creature will somehow adapt itself to any environment that presents exploitable resources. Nothing is left available and underutilized for long. This is why we find lions roaming the Serengeti, blind fish dwelling in caves, tubeworms living off deep-ocean volcanic vents, bacteria thriving in Antarctic ice--and pomegranate salesmen at speed-bumps.

Let me explain that last one.

Just as sunshine falling on a marsh creates an exploitable ecological niche, a hump in the roadway spawns its economic cousin. Called topes, tumulos, chapas acostados, rompemuelles, lomos de toros, or ondulacaos, depending on the country you’re in, they do two things very well: calm traffic and promote business. Though designed to accomplish the former, they invariably lead to the latter.

In fact, an entire speed-bump economy has grown up in Latin America wherever a village has been lucky enough to get one. Some enterprising souls build their own.

It works like this: vehicles that would otherwise race through town are forced to dramatically slowdown. This brief delay allows attentive salesmen, often manning roadside stands, to rush up to the passengers with a handful of fruit, drink or trinkets. It’s akin to having a drive-thru at a mini-mart, only cheaper to build and open to all.

The proverbial
bump in the road thereby creates a “vacuum,” which a slew of farmers, manufacturers, packagers, distributors and ultimately salesmen work to fill. One man’s obstacle becomes another man’s opportunity. The larger the impediment, the greater the potential reward.
Encountering an unexpected "speed bump" en route to Itamaraju.
Zipping down the tropical highway north of Cumuruxatiba, I needed to make up for lost time. I had spent most of the morning battling a little-used dirt road a stone’s throw from the pounding Atlantic surf. What started out dry and idyllic descended into a slippery bobsled run, following a ferocious coastal rainstorm. Back on pavement, El Viento and I swung wide and cut into the upcoming curve with confidence and speed.

Then--without warning--the road disappeared. There were no signs. No barriers. No flagging. No police. Indeed, there was no indication that anything at all was amiss, except for the absence of asphalt. The highway was simply G-O-N-E.

Though far from any town, I was immediately set upon by a gang of frenzied youths demanding that I pay up or go back. I ignored their taunts while wading through the morass until I could reach the lip of the abyss. I dismounted to survey the situation. It didn’t look good.

A small canyon stretched out before me. It was about a hundred feet across and maybe half of that deep. Large chunks of pavement spilled into the breach. The now diminutive river running below, swollen three months prior by what appeared to be the mother-of-all gulley-washers, had obviously taken out the bridge and caused the road’s collapse.

The chasm’s walls were precipitously steep and rocky. There were no access points or shallow areas up or downstream. Going back would require a costly 125-mile detour and too much precious daylight. That left me only one obvious solution: I would have to get a running start and
jump it.

The chorus of hecklers suddenly relented and a shirtless man of imposing stature strode forth through the gathering crowd. He was muscle bound, dark as night, with a deeply furrowed brow. They all called him chefe, “boss” in Portuguese, and when he spoke everyone listened.

reais, non-negotiable,” he flatly stated!

reais,” I inquired in Portuguese, “For what?”

He hesitated, sized me up and down, then replied as though the answer was obvious: “To get you and your moto to the other side!”

I played along. “And just how would you propose to do that when this beast and all my gear weigh maybe 275 kilos?”

chefe squinted slightly, his furrow deepening, then matter of factly declared, “In a canoe.”

A canoe?

Yes, it seems the gorge Mother Nature created, the same one the local government was unable to flag or repair, had become just another speed-bump or vacuum to exploit. Together, the chefe and his companeros had joined forces to form an unorthodox, but effective, ferry service. They’ll get you to the other side, for a fee, when the municipality cannot.

Traveling alone has its drawbacks. Sometimes you need another set of helping hands. And sometimes you need an army.

I looked over the motley crew and examined their rickety wooden boat. Sunlight shown through in places and loose nails protruded from the bow and stern. One guy’s full-time job was to act as a human bilge pump, constantly bailing water out with an old detergent bottle. Not a good sign.

Daylight was waning. I gazed across the canyon at the perfectly good road on the other side. It was so tantalizingly close. I then stared back toward whence I came and agonized over logging the tedious 125-mile detour. Finally, I pictured Evil Knievel in the hospital after an unsuccessful jump.

The mob’s proposal was my best option.
I summoned the chefe.

“Esta bom, 30 reais sem problemas. Com problemas? Nada!”

Translation: I’ll pay you the 15 bucks if we make it across the river without a single problem, otherwise you get diddlysquat!

I had to incentivize them to be careful. Should El Viento take a dive into the drink, my overland journey was finished. It was no small gamble.

chefe once again riveted his gaze upon me. He then waved his hands in slow-motion like an umpire calls a runner safe as his raspy voice agreed, “Nada!”

The crew of 13 mobilized and awaited my instructions in Portuguese: “First, we remove all of my equipment from the bike to lighten the load,” I explained, “and then send it across the river in advance.” I was very concerned about being separated from my gear, and cautioned the chefe again that he would receive nothing if a single item came up missing.

“There are no thieves here,” the
chefe bellowed in assurance! Then, cracking a semi-guilty smile he corrected himself, “Well, maybe one or two. But don’t worry,” he quickly admonished, “my wife is on the other side and she misses nothing!” He then used his fingers to pull down his lower eyelids to dramatize her enormous, owl-like eyes, to the raucous laughter of his companeros. Off the cliff they charged with everything I owned.

Now it was down to getting El Viento and me across.

The chefe took command of his ship. He immediately eliminated the canoe’s human bilge pump; we couldn’t afford his weight. Apparently he calculated that we could pole across the river faster than the water leaking in would sink us.

Next, he and his men used a combination of brute force and makeshift wooden planks to wrestle the bike onboard. The
chefe straddled the bike’s seat with his flip-flop-shod feet riding the gunnels, barking out orders like an old salt of the sea. One poleman manned the bow, another the stern. I was just along for the ride.

As we set sail the canoe immediately began listing to the starboard side. Although I was partially able to counter-balance by shifting my body to port, we were taking on water and the wind was picking up. The polemen and a swimmer on either side tried in vein to steady the load.

At this point another Greek scientist came to mind, only this time it was Archimedes. Dare I call the captain’s attention to the law of buoyancy and risk being thrown overboard for mutiny? There wasn’t time.

“Chefe,” I shouted, “The weight’s not centered. We’re going to roll!”

Nao preocupas,” (don't worry) chefe cried out to extinguish all doubt!

Like a true leader, he was steadfast in the storm, instructing me and everyone else that he had it under control. But from the quiver in his voice and the sight of his toes curling ever more tightly over the gunnels, his degree of concern was as obvious as mine.
Land Ho! Capitan Chefe sails El Viento north.
Incredibly, we made it across. But getting to the other shore was only half the battle. The far bank was a steep, muddy mess with newly exposed soil so unstable that there was no obvious way to extract El Viento from the boat and roll her up the bank.

So, they didn’t. They merely picked her up like a human forklift, carried her up and across the worst of the mud, and set her down on solid ground.

My gear was neatly stacked by the river’s edge under the watchful eye of the Mrs.. I thanked her for her vigilance, repacked and prepared to depart.

As I shook hands with my new amigos and paid the chefe their well-earned fee, I couldn’t help but agree with him. There are no thieves here, just honest entrepreneurs seeking a fair wage for services rendered.

Together, they filled a void and so taught me that bridges are made of more than brick and mortar.

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