Trouble in Puebla

We slept soundly throughout the night in Mascota with our bikes safely within the confines of our hotel's courtyard. It rained throughout the night, a common occurrence at this time of year in the Western Sierra Madre mountain range. In the morning, as we woke up early to get a good start to the day, we were treated to a symphony of church bells ringing out of synch for a prolonged period of time. One bell rang a staggering 28 times.

We were treated to a well-paved winding road up out of the valley, a grid of farmland and livestock below us, as the day's first light splashed over the mountain tops around us before the sun itself finally broke the elevated horizon. Small puffs of cloud hung in the heavy air above the small colonial town spread among the valley floor - reds and whites sitting in a green sea of agriculture. 

We climbed and climbed further into the mountains, the sun unable to burn off the cloud cover and we had a pleasantly cool ride past brick archways that guarded dark entrances to storage areas and courtyards as dogs, horses, cows and goats wandered amongst lopsided tractors, piles of old tires and aging pickup trucks. The theme of old vehicles continued, passing many 60's era VW beetles and hippie vans, as we continued up and down cloudy valleys with mottled green slopes that held our gaze. This stretch of road had a pleasant European flavour with many stone stables and mazes of roofless brick walls that occupied the rural communities on our way east towards the main highway that would take us through Guadalajara.

The rest of the day was spent picking up the much-needed miles. We had just under three weeks to make it to Panama for our sail into Colombia, including numerous border crossings, twisty mountain roads and a few days soaking in the Central American culture. Not to mention some buffer days for the unknown... We made it through Guadalajara without a hitch, and continued through the elevated plains of central Mexico that were spread out between the mountains and the vegetation had thinned out significantly since the jungle we had left by the coast. 

The road narrowed at times when it cut through big slabs of rock, the unstable walls either draped in massive chain link fence or sprayed with a thin layer of concrete to protect the motorists below. Alternating layers of oranges and browns folded through the walls representing millions of years of geological activity, witnessed in only seconds. Outside the confines of the rock, towns were a common sight in the distance, spread out like a spider webs crawling up the hills, or tiered on outcrops of rocky land. Primarily red from a distance, each town had a large prominent white church that stood out among the other buildings - a focal point for us from the road, and certainly for the villagers as well.

The numerous tolls increased in price as we approached Mexico City, and the day was nearing an end so we stopped for the night in the uninspiring town of Atlacomulco before the rain and darkness set in. We crunched some numbers before bed, and decided that we would be able to make our previously reserved date of October 17th for climbing Machu Picchu in Peru. Confirming this meant that Tym and Dom's brother Olek, and their friend Josh, would book their flights for the excursion. That would leave us two and a half weeks to travel almost 5000km through northern South America from Colombia down to Cusco, Peru. But first we needed to get to Panama...

We woke up in Atlacomulco early and eager to have another big day on the two-lane highway. Mexico had been a blast but it was time to shift our focus to Guatemala, and we planned to be there in two days - just before our Mexican insurance expired. Ben's morning started off poorly, discovering that his passport and other important paperwork had gotten wet sometime in the past couple days and were in rough shape. He spent a few minutes carefully pulling apart the delicate pages of registration, insurance, Mexican border documents, and more; and dried them as best he could with the heater in the room. Ben's day was only going to get worse...

The three of us rode from over two hours before finally stopping for a 'breakfast' of gas station hot dogs, soggy sandwiches, coffee and hot chocolate. We took the time to figure out our route towards the Guatemalan border which would affect our day's travel plans. After a quick map study our route was set and we stepped off, back onto the fast-paced highway where we could pass trucks with ease and make some great time.

We had all noticed a significant increase to our fuel consumption since climbing into the elevated highlands of central Mexico and the bikes were sluggish going up hills due to the elevation. We had expected that and there were no additional red flags - just a need to stop more often for gas. Shortly after passing Puebla, however, there was an unplanned stop when Ben's bike began to make an odd noise: 'taka-taka-taka-taka-taka'... There was a decent shoulder, and after a quick once over it became apparent that the oil was low. Well actually empty. Uh-oh. But we were carrying some extra, right? Wrong. Tim and Dom set off, having to travel the extra distance to find suitable exits to cross the divided highway, separated by a barricade. They turned around at the exit for the small town of Tecamachalco, doubled back and found a motorcycle shop that sold oil. An hour later we were topping up Howie and the noise seemed to have disappeared. We were back on the road thinking the one-hour delay wasn't too bad in the grand scheme of things.

Well the delay was about to get longer. Five miles after the emergency oil fill, Ben was passing a bus when the bike suddenly died. Having just enough time and space he cut in front of the bus, avoiding a collision with the car behind him that was also passing the bus at speed. Luckily the shoulder was in good shape, and he was able to pull on to it, still travelling at highway speeds. As he rolled to a stop, a brief look down was all it took to realize something had gone wrong. Oil was everywhere.

Dom and Tym pulled over and came back to help diagnose Howie for the second time in as many hours. 'Maybe the oil was overfilled?', 'Maybe some hose blew off and just needs to be reattached?', 'Maybe we can get this thing back on the road?' A lot of maybes. We rolled the bike to a patch of gravel off the side of the road and removed all the luggage, the seat and the gas tank. The top end of the cylinder had a big hole in it, and we were all thinking the same thing: 'It's f#$%ed'.

"To put it bluntly, you need a new bike or a new engine." Tym said, looking at the bike, but talking to Ben who was staring at the bike hoping it was a bad dream. The wet passport was now a distant second on Ben's list of the day's problems. Waves of thoughts and emotions poured through his mind as he continued to stare at the gaping hole that was most certainly not supposed to be there. 'Will I finish the trip?, Of course I'll finish the trip! What if I need a new bike? How do I do the paperwork? Can I find a used engine to go in here? This sucks! This is what the adventure is all about. Are we going to make the sailboat to Colombia? At least you aren't hurt.' Each thought was a blur and none ever fully materialized, the words were inaudible over the blood pounding in his ears.

"Let's try to flag down a truck to get this thing to the next town." Dom said thinking about the next steps. Ben came back to reality, "Ok, let's get it put back together first so if we find a truck it's ready to go." 

With three pairs of hands the damaged bike was back together in no time, but the busy highway was not a friendly place to flag down fast-moving pickups, and of course now it had started to rain. Pick-ups continued to flew by, most carrying either tires, fruits and vegetables, or people. The police and Mexican army fly by in pickups as well, with a soldier on a machine gun and one or two more sitting in the back. Something you don't ever see back home. We eventually decided to put the tow straps to use and with one stretching out from either side of Dom's license plate, Dom pulled Ben down the highway for about 5km to the exit for Tecamachalco, riding along the shoulder and coordinating steering and breaking over the bluetooth headset.

Dom left Ben in the gas station parking lot. While Ben set out to ask for help and talk to some locals, Dom returned to Tym where three bikes worth of luggage needed to be assembled onto two bikes. Ben first spoke with a nice gentleman who was looking under the hood of his old truck and explained the bike was broken. The man offered his condolences and Ben set out to find a mechanic that Dom had spotted earlier. The 'mechanic' turned out to be half muffler shop and half corn-on-the-cob vendor. The family who ran the businesses could not have been friendlier as they called their english-speaking daughter numerous times to translate information to Ben over the phone. Meanwhile, Dom and Tym made use of the spare ratchet straps and bungee cords to lock in the team's luggage and made it back to Ben's location.

It was now about 5 o'clock, and the next 2 hours or so were a bit of a blur as the three boys spoke to various locals and each other to figure out a plan. It was Saturday, so shops would be closed to tomorrow and we were an hour outside the large city of Puebla so that was where we would have to be to get Ben back on the road. Dom's girlfriend Marie helped out again in a big way by finding a hotel right across the street from the Kawasaki dealership. We would try to get to Puebla that night or the next day, and figure the bike out on Monday. A lot of unknowns still, a lot of confusion, and a lot of broken Spanish. 

The gentleman with the old truck Ben had first spoken to offered to drive us back to Puebla either that night or the following morning. But he wouldn't take us to our hotel because his truck was in rough shape and his plates were not allowed in the city. That was an option but not ideal - how would we get the bike into the city for the much needed repairs? 

Marhy, the lady who ran the corn stand, was able to communicate to us that our toll-booth tickets entitled us to a free tow truck! We thought that was perfect and hurried to get everything organized as they would only pick us up if we were on the side of the highway and she told us they would be there in ten minutes... and we still had to sort out the luggage and push or tow Ben's bike back to the highway! As we rushed to get it done, however, a policeman told us the free tow-truck service would not take us to Puebla, but only to the next toll booth. A big let down and we were back to square one. As we sat down to one of Marhy's delightful ears of corn, another corn customer offered to drive the broken bike to a local hotel if we wanted to spend the night nearby and figure out our journey to Puebla the next day - how nice of him, we had some thinking to do.

A lot was happening. A lot of friendly people trying to help. A lot of generous offers. A lot of unknowns. In the end, as we leaned towards spending the night in the nearby hotel, the gentleman with the old truck had a change of heart. After speaking with a friend he decided he would risk driving us right downtown to our hotel, illegal plates and all. What a generous offer. All he asked was that we pay the toll (about $4 CAD) and give him some gas money ($15 CAD). Incredible. 'Let's do it', we agreed.

We lifted the heavy bike into the back of his tiny pickup with a homemade cover, adjusting and readjusting his dusty tools and plastic bins until the bike fit. Next we loaded Ben's luggage and closed the tailgate. It fit. His friend was coming along for the journey, and hopped into the two-person cab, straddling the gear shift leaving enough room for Ben if the door was given some encouragement to close. The truck led the way back to Puebla. The dark red Ford bounced down the highway on loose suspension, wobbling from side to side. The passenger side window was broken, loosely sitting in place with old napkins wedged in place to prevent further movement, and a collection of old packaging, elastic bands, and dusty papers lay sprawled out on the dash over a worn out picture of a Saint that was stuck to the air vent. Joacin, who had a dozen sets of windshield wipers in the back of his truck, had only one wiping his windshield while Rodrigo, his friend, furiously wiped fog from the inside.

Soon it was raining again, heavily this time, and as we entered the city limits it got dark instantly - as if someone had switched off the lights. Remember the rules for driving in Mexico? Don't ride at night, and stick together. Well, it was definitely dark, and the boys were barely together. Dom and Tym followed behind the truck through congested traffic and deep puddles. They were soaking wet, water limiting visibility through their visors, but managed to stay behind the truck despite a series of wrong turns and orange lights. In the cab, Ben tried to navigate the rural duo through the city that was unknown to the three passengers. GPS to the rescue!

By 9, the conveluded convoy triumphantly reached the hotel after one hell of a day. Bags were unpacked and the concierge helped stack heaps of wet, oil splattered luggage on to the trolly that would deliver our life's belongings to our room which we would call home for a still undetermined amount of time. We sat down to dinner, and as the waiter poured a beer into a tall glass, the huge amount of foam was a perfect symbol for our day: could have been worse, but definitely could have been better.

Today we did some research on the cause of the problem and our options moving forward: we decided that our best bet would be to find a used KLR and take its engine. That would save us from the hellish paperwork that would come with buying a whole new bike and leaving the old one here. But that may not be possible, only time will tell. Tomorrow the shops open and a lot of questions will be answered, no doubt leaving many more to be asked. But one thing is certain: tonight in Puebla there are a handful of people going to sleep completely unaware that tomorrow they will meet three Canadians in need of their help. And they will do just that.

This is the town of Mascota nestled into the Mexican mountains as we left early Friday morning.

This is the town of Mascota nestled into the Mexican mountains as we left early Friday morning.

We rode through the beautiful hills most of Friday morning as the sun fought to break through the clouds over the mountains.

We rode through the beautiful hills most of Friday morning as the sun fought to break through the clouds over the mountains.

It's not all tacos and salsa...

It's not all tacos and salsa...

Topping Howie up with oil after the first scare. We thought it was fixed!

Topping Howie up with oil after the first scare. We thought it was fixed!

It wasn't fixed. If you look close you can see the damage on the cylinder head.

It wasn't fixed. If you look close you can see the damage on the cylinder head.

An up close view of where the valve cover exploded.

An up close view of where the valve cover exploded.

Dom and Babar towed Ben and Howie for 5km to the nearest exit.

Dom and Babar towed Ben and Howie for 5km to the nearest exit.

Dom arrives with his luggage and half of Ben's. Tim rolled in shortly after with an equally high and unstable load.

Dom arrives with his luggage and half of Ben's. Tim rolled in shortly after with an equally high and unstable load.

Marhy with her daughter and husband stopped everything they were doing to try to help us out. Truly amazing people.

Marhy with her daughter and husband stopped everything they were doing to try to help us out. Truly amazing people.

The family's dog investigates Dom's bike by the muffler shop.

The family's dog investigates Dom's bike by the muffler shop.

Joacin and Rodrigo look on as Ben and Tym heave and twist Howie into the back of the little truck.

Joacin and Rodrigo look on as Ben and Tym heave and twist Howie into the back of the little truck.

The boys with Joacin and Rodrigo. It was a dicey ride in to Puebla but we made it!

The boys with Joacin and Rodrigo. It was a dicey ride in to Puebla but we made it!