Last Sunday we went to sleep confident that friendly strangers would extend a helping hand come Monday morning, but we had now idea just how lucky we would get. We showed up to Kawasaki Puebla for 10 o’clock on Monday, when it was due to open. About 15 minutes later, a beautiful BMW GS650 cruised down the sidewalk and off hopped a kind-looking man, mid-forties with a twinkle in his eye. Dom had ridden his bike to the shop; Ben had walked. The man rattled off a sentence in Spanish, incomprehensible to the boys, but we soon figured out he was asking what was wrong with the bike. Good – he seems willing to help! We explained the situation and as he fidgeted around for the right keys to open various locks that kept the dealership safe, he muttered to himself as we searched for words in Spanish to ease the communication.
Upon entering the shop we were stunned to see an old KLR in the back corner, a 1994! How lucky was this. “Puedo pagar por esta?” The grammar wasn’t perfect but he understood that Ben would be willing to pay for that one. He explained that it belonged to a customer but he would call him and ask if only he could find the number, jotted down somewhere on one of the giant cardboard boxes, used to ship motorcycles, that lined the shop walls.
This man was named Carlos, and as he was flipping boxes over and running back and forth to stacks of paper on a shelving unit, in walked his amigo Alberto. Alberto, or Beto, spoke good English, so his timing was perfect. He explained that the secretary usually working for Carlos hadn’t been around recently, explaining the unorthodox filing system. Carlos and Alberto gave us their undivided attention as we explained that we would like to get a used KLR, and swap the engines out, to avoid issues with VINs, registration, and importation documents. A bike in Puebla would be ideal, and we explained that time was of the essence in order for us to catch our sailboat to Colombia on September 23rd.
"If we find an engine,” Ben asked nervously, “will you be able to help us with the work?”
“Que dise, Beto?” Carlos asked the translator. Without hesitation Beto responded on behalf of Carlos, “Yes we will help. We will take the bike to my business.”
Not sure what his business was, or what credentials these strangers had for fixing motorcycles, it seemed like we were off to a good start. We left them alone to call their contacts in Puebla and scour Mexican Kijijis and EBays for the replacement bike.
By the late afternoon, our two amigos had found a 2006 KLR in Mexico City just an hour away. Beto generously offered to drive Ben in the following morning to facilitate the transaction and inspect the bike. Amazing. Later that evening, the boys towed Howie through the city, following Beto on a convoluted convoy to his business, which just happened to be an auto shop! Carlos showed up a short while later, arriving on a scooter this time and wearing a Canadian Tuxedo! A good omen indeed. The two of them spent the night taking the bike apart to investigate the problem. Once the top half of the engine was off and apart, the extensive damage was on full display. “Ya valio madres!”
The direct translation is uncertain and likely inappropriate for the blog, but they conveyed that the damage was bad. And that catch phrase was a common theme over the next few days. There was good news though, they didn’t think the damage extended below the piston so it would be a quick fix and we should be back on the road by Thursday.
In the morning, Ben set off with Beto, and Dom and Tym were left to ferry the team’s belongings to a different hotel. The bike transaction went smoothly, as Ben handed over the same amount of money as he had paid for Howie in the first place. Ouch. Luckily Beto was there to have a good look, listen and feel to the engine to ensure the money wasn’t being spent in vain. They convoyed back to the auto-shop, Dom and Tym arriving a short while later with food for the team. Carlos was also on hand, taking a two-hour lunch break from his duties at the Kawasaki shop.
They toiled with the care and attention you might expect from an expert mechanic to give to the restoration of a classic for a hefty sum of pesos. Over the course of the three days, Carlos and Beto swarmed over Howie, and were also on hand to help out Dom and Tym who capitalized on the shop space and expert help to clean their carburetors, and air filters, and take care of some other lingering issues.
Carlos was back and forth between his real job, and the Howie job, while Beto gave the three of us his full attention from Monday morning through Wednesday night. Incredible generosity. The duo worked until well after midnight on Tuesday, accomplishing the main transplant, and the bike was back together by Wednesday evening. The two men, seemed to enjoy the process, laughing and joking the entire time.
"Beto! Ya valio madres!" Carlos would say, earning a similar response. At one point the two cleaned Howie for over an hour. Degreaser, rinse, soap, rinse, scrub, rinse. Ben stood by, not even allowed to help with the cleaning, for fear his efforts might not stand the scrutiny of Carlos the 'Ultra-Clean'.
Once all the bolts were back in place, oil changed and re-changed, coolant added and minor adjustments made the bike was up and running. It felt great. Most certainly better than before the incident and as good or better than when it was purchased in 2014. Carlos took it for a spin to get the feel for it, and gave it the nod of approval. We thanked them profoundly and asked what we owed them for their time and shop supplies.
These two had dedicated the better part of a week and a combined 30 hours of labour to help us out and wanted nothing in return other than to see us off. They put their full time jobs on the back burner, provided parts and pieces, sent employees to run errands for us, ordered in food, and provided us with a wealth of information, help, and memories. And they wanted nothing back, and in fact they gave us a gift! A Suzuki shirt each for the Kubickis and a Kawasaki shirt for the Apedaile. We insisted that we at least pay for the consumables, parts, and food, and they reluctantly agreed. We couldn't have asked for better people to stumble across in all of Puebla, Mexico, or Planet Earth.
When early morning light spilled into the city of Puebla on Thursday, the boys were itching to get some miles in after a frustrating delay. Meeting Carlos and Beto had not only saved the trip, but getting to know the two kindred spirits had been thoroughly enjoyable. But time was ticking to get to Panama… 12 days to be precise, with all of Central America standing between us and a four day cruise through the San Blas islands.
Despite the time crunch that weighed over us, we wanted to stop in and see the family who had helped us at the muffler-shop-corn-stand that dreaded Saturday. Unfortunately, they weren’t open yet, but as Dom and Tym pet the little dogs that sniffed around the shop, the owners of the neighbouring business, a small family restaurant, sparked a conversation and offered us breakfast. ‘Good timing’, we decided and we sat down around the table with the husband who joined us for a hearty meal. We enjoyed a nice conversation with the man who had very good English, and shared a lot of nods and smiles with his wife of few English words. When we asked for the cheque, they shook their heads and said there was no need to pay – they had just enjoyed talking with us. The generosity continued in spades. Again we insisted.
At that same time, Marhy and her husband from the muffler-shop-corn-stand had showed up, and had brought to the table a little tip we had left with a thank you card under their garage door. She was incessantly insistent that she would not take the money, and told us to donate it to our Free The Children cause that we had explained on Saturday.
We hugged our new friends goodbye after a couple of pictures, and rode off with our faith in humanity affirmed.
A little while later, there was a problem. Yes, Howie. Under strict orders from Carlos, Ben was checking the oil at every stop and mid-way through the day the oil was empty. How could this be! Carlos and Beto had sent us off with a spare litre which was great, but at the rate Howie was guzzling oil it wouldn’t last the day. We stopped in Minatitlan to stock up on oil, buying 5 litres to cover us for the rest of the day, and to complete the oil change that had been prescribed by the Puebla boys.
Limping into Tuxtla-Gutierrez for the night, Howie's morale was down after such a high leaving Beto's auto-shop. However, the ride was spectacular. We rode up and down stunning mountain passes, twisty roads disappearing behind bumps in the landscape only to appear again from where you would least expect it. The air thickened as we dropped in elevation and we arrived at our hotel under a dark and muggy sky.
The question lingered with us all, would we be stopping every 100 miles to fill up Howie's oil reserve? A quick call to Beto, who in turned called Carlos, yielded a few suggestions to ease oil loss. Top of the list was an additive, and the Auto-Zone that stocked the miracle goo was only two blocks away.
Friday morning came and we left shortly after dawn. Oil and additive topped up, we climbed for most of the morning through small towns that grew into legitimate cities high in Mexico's mountains, strung between impressive peaks. We were rushing to make it to the Guatemalan border, expecting the regular delays that come with filling out crucial paperwork in a foreign language and sub-optimal operating conditions. It was sad to leave Mexico, and as we reflected on our weeks of adventure dating back to the Baja, we couldn't help but realize that the country's beauty had been exceeded only by the kindness and generosity of its people.
After checking out of Mexico, it was a short drive to the Guatemalan border town of La Mesilla where we drove right trough the rickety gate before stopping ourselves to go through customs and vehicle importation procedures on the sidewalk of a bustling market street.
Like much of Mexico, the small town was alive with activity, but also contradictions. The buildings were colourful but faded, the streets vibrant yet grimy, and the life seemed simple while terribly chaotic. Altogether a charming welcome to the country, and it only took a couple hours to get us through the whole process. The change in landscape was subtle yet profound. We rode along the bottom of near-vertical valley walls bordering a thin river that continued to carve out the rock beneath its rapids. The roads were complete with all of Mexico's disorder but somehow more. Yes there were still families crammed into the back of pickups, but there were now teenagers clinging to the top of busses, their body weight helping to hold down loosely packed cargo. Tiny red tuctucs, three-tiny-wheeled taxis without doors, raced people and their luggage to and from the border crossing, and as we would later find out, across the entire country.
Last night we made it to Huehuetenango in time for a walk through the fun town. Our arrival coincided with the end of the work week and as we walked to dinner, the evening's comings and goings were in full swing. Kids piled onto scooters and motorcycles screeched down the steep cobblestone, while others honked and yelled in anger, salutation, or both. During our walk to dinner, we heard a child's voice from a passing car excitedly shout: "Mama, gringo!".
A late night drum solo outside our hotel, and a rooster who mistook 2 a.m. for dawn had us feeling a bit sleepy this morning, but we were still on the road by 06h30, tearing up the empty streets that had been full to the brim last night. An elderly man tipped his hat to us as he swept the last of Friday's litter into a bin, only to free up space on the ground for Saturday's doings.
Today was packed with adventure. The morning was spent climbing and climbing higher into the mountains through little towns and big towns, farmland and wild land. The vistas were outstanding, with wide open views of sweeping valleys and tall green mountains dotted with the fleeting glisten of impossibly remote tin roofs scattered across the slopes. The towns were clean, and the roads were good. We had ventured away from the Pan-American highway for no other reason than Google said it was shorter. After a late breakfast, signs of trouble began to show themselves. The pavement was buckled in areas, folded like an accordion, and completely washed out in others leaving only a crust of asphalt above the plummeting valleys below. Soon the road was all but gone. Deep ruts, continuous bumps, and big rocks leaped out at our front tires, punching them to one side or another to dictate the route we would take up the continuously steep, tight corners. Somehow trucks of all shapes and sizes were coming towards us, adding to the excitement. We bumped along for an hour or two, stopping now and then to breathe, sip, and take a photo of the views that we had been ignoring to focus on staying alive.
Hitting the pavement again was a welcome feeling, as we had been riding for eight hours with only 200km to show for it. Damn. Time to make up some time! The roads this afternoon were in great shape, and with our ever-growing confidence we were passing trucks like locals, only slowing for the speed bumps or 'tumulos' as they're now called in Guatemala.
At our last break this afternoon, a local biker came up to us to invite us to a party with free dinner and a spot to camp. A kind offer, but we were set on getting closer to the Honduran border. He explained that all the towns between us and the border were a bit sketchy and run by drug lords. Other locals didn't share that view so we continued on, stopping for the night in Los Amates. We found a nice hotel, and the city seems friendly and safe. We will know for sure tomorrow when, or if, we wake up.... But we do know one thing: despite an undeniably rushed crossing of Guatemala, this country will be remembered for its roads, which is somewhat fitting for a motorcycle trip; and we are pleased to have taken the road less traveled by which has, of course, made all the difference.