Disembarking Motorcycles off the Coast of Colombia, in the Caribbean Sea

Disembarking Motorcycles off the Coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Sea

Cristo Rey, Colombian Caribbean Coast, December, 1994

In the distance, apparently, is a tiny village hidden behind a thin layer of tropical foliage. Underneath a sulking and brooding sky the sandy shoreline fronting the jungle is being battered by waves rolling unimpeded across the Caribbean Sea. There is no pier though, no dock for this rocking boat I am on to safely dock and unload all its wares; a mountain of microwave ovens, alcohol and all sorts of other appliances all wrapped beneath waterproof tarps, secured with ropes. Most importantly, I wonder, is how we will offload the motorcycles? Another problem for us: this is not an official port of entry. My motorcycle and I will enter Colombia illegally. Everything on this boat, including us, is contraband. Inexplicably, 400 meters away from shore the anchor is released.

In 1994 there was no organized ground or sea transportation between Panama and Colombia. You couldn’t drive from one country to the other because of the Darien Gap, an expanse of nearly impenetrable jungle. You simply walked the docks of Colon, Panama asking for someone who could take you in a cargo boat or ship. By the time I met Luis and his new friend Wuillyn camping on the docks, I had already found a boat. But after months of being mostly alone on the road the companionship was tempting. Luis was on his way back to Argentina and I was on my way to Ushuaia, the southern most town in the world. Wuillyn was trying to get back home to a suburb outside of Lima, his dreams of reaching America completely wrecked, at least for now. Fortunately for him he had met Luis who was doing his best to support him getting back home. *

We had left Colon 11 days and 200 nautical miles earlier. It was supposed to take a couple of days to get here but somewhere amidst the San Blas Islands and the Kuna native inhabitants our boat broke down and we drifted aimlessly, burning under a tropical sun until a small, motorized dugout canoe operated by Kuna men passed by and our boat’s mechanic disappeared for the next 9 days. Then another dugout canoe wıth two men tied a rope to us and continued on at a painfully slow pace, finally parking us upon one of their islands. The older women were topless here and the younger ones wore incredibly beautifully patterned dresses and blouses with colorful beads wrapped around their wrists and ankles. Everyone shit from open toilets that dropped directly into the shallow sea.

On that first day of sailing Luis and I had sat atop a mountain of cargo happy to be finally leaving the docks where we had been camping, waiting for the boat to depart. Reaching the open sea, the boat swayed from starboard to port and back and a little too late we realized it was like an old metronome and the highest point had the widest sway. Within hours Luis was vomiting and I was squeezing between boxes of appliances trying to find shade near a diesel smoke belching motor. That first evening though, we anchored amidst two tiny islets inhabited by two families and a smattering of coconut palms. Multiple shades of turquoise welcomed us as the sun thankfully set and we dove into a paradise and our burnt skin sizzled in the cool surroundings. We slept on top of the tarp covered cargo because there was no other space. It should be noted that this tarp stretched over the cargo and then two meters down to the edge or railing of the boat. Rolling around in your sleep was to be avoided…

The next day, after the boat’s motor quit and having been towed to the island, mine, Luis and Wuillyn’s passports were checked since the Kuna islands are autonomous from Panama. Unfortunately for Wuillyn who had had all his documents stolen in Mexico while trying to make it to the United States, his facial characteristics were identical to the Kuna and they nearly beat him trying to get him to admit it. It was crazy: we could do nothing but listen to a macho, wild man berating our new friend. But Wuillyn was Peruvian and their common ancestors and his sad plight eluded the angry indigenous officer.

For nine days the three of us wandered the tiny rock with swaying palms and bamboo huts playing cards, drinking coca cola (no alcohol on the island) and befriending curious kids with warts all over their hands. We took showers from rain water collected in barrels, literally straight from the barrel. Luis pitched his tent on the dock in front of the boat to the wonderment of the island’s inhabitants and I opted for remaining on top of the boat’s cargo, in part due to the nightly display of stars. Just when our boredom was reaching new levels, miraculously the boat’s mechanic suddenly showed up and within hours we were in the open sea again, our immediate destiny unknowable at the time. Here, now the next part of this perilous crossing confronted us: somehow disembarking from this boat in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Colombia. How was this going to be done?

After we anchored, three speed boats approached us from the beach and without hesitation the deckhands on our boat untied the tarps and began throwing heavy boxes down into the waiting hands of the speed boat operators and their helpers. Rolling waves continuously lifted our boats, separating us and then sending us crashing into each other as the swell passed underneath. I realized that like this illicit cargo, we would also be expected to disembark in this manner. The only problem was that while I could swim if I needed to, my motorcycle could not.

For hours the goods were dropped to the small boats who would wisk them away to the shore where more hands would take them, carry them through the waves and transfer them into waiting trucks parked on the beach. Panama’s ports were duty free and in this way, so was Colombia I supposed. Finally, all the goods had been offloaded and only my Yamaha XT350 and Luis’ BMW 1000 were left.

Fear and trepidation in me had been building since we approached this remote coastal area and I’d realized that there was nothing here and that there was no safe way to offload our bikes. But now it was palpable… I couldn’t imagine how they were planning on transferring the motorcycles down to the speedboats. On the other hand I could easily imagine one or both of our bikes slipping out of the grasp of someone’s hands and plummeting into the sea, not to be retrieved, ever. This was no shallow, tropical paradise with colorful coral heads strewn across the sea floor: it was a wild, steely grey sea that might as well have been the middle of the ocean. And now it was time.

I had already been travelling for seven, mostly beautiful but definitely difficult, months. The seed for this dream of travelling by motorcycle to the end of the earth had been planted seven years prior. Now I was doing it, living it. Enjoying that incredible sense of freedom that comes with awaking each day and depending on how I felt, choosing to travel further or just staying put and enjoying my new surroundings. Yet now it seemed, it could all disappear in an instant…

The captain of the boat told his crew to offload the Yamaha first; Luis’s BMW 1000 was a behemoth and if there were any mistakes to be made then they would obviously learn from their experience with my bike. I untied my Yamaha and rolled it over to the edge. Eleven days it had remained tied up and it was sink or swim time. Little by little I was squeezed out by our Colombian crew who took control of the situation. All I could do is watch. Below us one of the speedboats rose and fell against us in rhythm with the relentless swells. Rise and separate then drop and boom! Both boats would smack each other. There was no room for error. At once the front wheel of my motorcycle was up on the edge of the boat and soon eight hands were guiding it down the side of the boat towards a seemingly distant speedboat. Spanish being yelled by at least seven mouths and Luis looking worried, cast his gaze between me and the action. The situation was literally out of my hands.

Two men and four hands below were reaching, straining, trying to grab the front wheel. The boats separated and clashed together again and again and the dark Caribbean opened it’s gaping, bottomless mouth each time.  Mathematics being what they were, the length of the motorcycle being what it was, equal to the length between outstretched hands from above to below, hands from below could only grasp the front wheel of the red and white XT 350 and nothing else. There was nothing to do: they couldn’t haul it back up to reassess the situation and they couldn’t each hold their end of the motorcycle. A second swell would be upon us in moments. “Deja lo, deja lo!”  One did not need to understand Spanish upon seeing the full weight of my motorcycle quickly swivel downwards, gravity doing what it does best.  A crush of red and white plastic, 350 cubic centimeters of iron engine block and heavy knobby tire came crashing down onto both men and the edge of their small boat. Both men fell under the weight of the motorcycle that had gotten me through seven months and eight countries south so far. Partially in their hands and precariously lying on the edge of the boat they quickly gathered themselves and pulled it safely into the hull. Everybody had learned one lesson so far and Luis’ motorcycle would be transferred back wheel first.

The Captain of our boat, not having said two words to me the whole trip, now advised me to go to shore with my motorcycle and I quickly threw down all my belongings into the speed, climbed down the ladder and we sped off towards shore. I wouldn’t be able to see Luis’ bike lowered down but needless to say, it was also successful.

Wuillyn had obvious problems what with not possessing any documentation as to who he was. But Luis and I also had problems now that we were firmly on Colombian soil. First off, we had no idea of where we were, As well, the speed boat operators wouldn’t let us go without paying them. That was fair enough, our payment to the Captain obviously didn’t include the speed boats. Then we were given rough directions on how to get on to the right road. Once we reached Monteria and approached the DAS police, we wouldn’t have to lie a whole lot about our illegal entry into the country, but we went over our stories anyway and made sure we would all say the same thing. It was a good thing because the next day when we approached the heavily guarded compound, though exceedingly friendly, they would interview us one by one. That night in Monteria was one of celebration and I drank copious amounts of tiny Polar beers and ate delicious pizza. We weren’t just in South America but we had gotten through a situation that had been totally out of our control and it was invigorating to be living the aftermath.

*Sometime in January of 1995 I arrived on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. At that time I had nothing that I wanted to see in Lima besides to check in on Wuillyn who I had befriended on our journey around the Darien Gap. I located his small suburb and his house and knocked on the door. We should remember that in 1995 the world was slightly less connected and my hair was long and dirty blonde from the sun and because I was riding a motorcycle I wasn’t always looking my best. Let’s face it, I was a gringo in a place where gringos were nowhere to be seen. Wuillyn’s mom and sister were short in stature as he was and at first baffled by my visit and sudden appearance on their doorstep. They told me that Wuillyn had left home 8 months earlier trying to get to the United States, all of which I told them that I already knew. He had not been in touch all that time. So at least I was able to shed some light onto his journey and explain how I’d met him and when. But why wasn’t he home? I was travelling much slower than Luis and he had been carrying Wuillyn with him. They should have arrived in Lima already.

There were no proper hotels in the area; only ‘love hotels’ that Wuillyn had told me about and I booked one for 24 hours. The next day Wuillyn’s mother, sister and I walked to the local long distance telephone shop and I dialled the number in Argentina that I had for Luis. Scratchy line but I got a hold of him and he told me that he and Wuillyn had had a few small accidents on the BMW because of the weight. Finally, it was enough for Luis and he gave what cash he could to Wuillyn and had to let him go on his own in the south of Colombia not far from the Ecuadorian border. After that they hadn’t had any contact. That day I had to go: there was nothing else I could do to assure mom and sister about Wuillyn’s whereabouts… Perhaps he had stopped to make some money somewhere… Who could really know? It wasn’t until six months later after I’d reached Ushuaia, Argentina, turned around and arrived home in Los Angeles that I found out. A woman speaking Spanish on the phone called me to tell me that there was a letter from Peru waiting for me in downtown Los Angeles, that I could come and pick up.

By an unfathomable stroke of bad luck a war had broken out on January 26, 1995 in the Peruvian jungle between Peru and Ecuador. This coincided with the time that Wuillyn had travelled between Colombia and Ecuador and despite his non-existent documents he was accused of being a spy as he attempted to enter Ecuador, imprisoned for over a month, the duration of the war. His letter wrote, “Christian, I can’t tell you now the physical and psychological torture that I was subjected to…”.

The End

There are Wuillyns all over the world. They are rarely in airports, perhaps with the exception of the middle east. Yet they vastly outnumber ‘us’. They truely possess the most amazing stories.


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