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South American Travels of a Biker Lady
Catharine S. Rambeau
December 02, 1991
The author, a 53-year-old U.S. rider, explores the continent by motorcycle
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December 02, 1991

South American Travels Of A Biker Lady

The author, a 53-year-old U.S. rider, explores the continent by motorcycle

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I made more new friends as I headed north. A man in the Argentine pampas gave me a gallon of gasoline. "You are a great surprise to me," he said, "so this is my present to you." Farther north, a race-car driver named Miguel Benede turned away my payment for patching a hole in Mojo's engine casing. "Ah, no, Catarina," he said. "You understand, some work you do for the heart."

The customs office at Igua�u Falls on the Brazilian border reeked of an impounded truckload of garlic. Fortunately, I got through the border quickly. The massive waterfalls, two miles wide and more than 200 feet high, were what as a child, I had imagined Niagara to be—bigger than God.

After a six-day, two-boat journey up the Amazon to Manaus, I took an inexpensive jungle tour. Then I returned to Peru, where I celebrated Rosh Hashanah by joining a party on the hotel rooftop. I gazed at the stars of the Southern Hemisphere glittering over Arequipa's skyline, and the immensity of the journey struck me anew. This happened to me occasionally on the trip, and in unexpected places: while trying to sleep in a tin shed in the Atacama Desert and while chugging up the Amazon river at twilight, when sky, land and river dissolve into the same deep shade of blue. These moments of reflection were always startling to me.

The road from Manaus, Brazil, to the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena was 625 miles long—all dirt, much of it one lane. After the first 150 miles, the only gas available was diesel, and even Hondas aren't that tolerant. Moreover, Mojo's chain—and the small front drive-chain sprocket that keeps the chain in line—had been steadily deteriorating. I was concerned as I was about to hit the worst stretch of road I would experience. Along that stretch I found potholes the size of '57 Buicks, with wallows fit for steer-sized hogs and loose gravel designed to put extra English on any wheel. "Lamaze" breathing got me through it: Breathe, ride, breathe, ride. Just keep moving. Breathe, ride.

Smooth pavement began at the Venezuelan border. I asked a guard why the difference between road systems was so profound. The guard rubbed his thumb against his first two fingers in the international sign for money and said, " Venezuela has oil."

In the town of Upata, Mojo was finally repaired and I could once again ride fearlessly. I got to Caracas quickly, and an American travel agent there found passage for Mojo and me on the Rosavanessa, a freighter heading for Puerto Rico. From there I flew to Miami, and I rode the bike to my house. And from I there I caught a plane to Michigan-On Christmas Eve, 1990, still tan from sunny Venezuela, I walked into my mother's house.

As we talked about the trip during the next few weeks, I realized that nothing that had happened had been as terrifying as what I had anticipated. Even my one brush with crime—my stylishly battered five-year-old Casio diver's watch was snatched in Brazil—hadn't scared me much. I had, in fact, fought the thief, chased him and, best of all, remembered to holler "Ladr�o!" ("Thief!"). Indeed, the rigors of my adventure seemed to constitute, in retrospect, a particularly tough management-training seminar. And at $17 a day, the trip had been a bargain.

"So, Toots, what are you gonna do for an encore?" one of the loves of my life asked recently.

" Africa," I murmured.

He thinks I'm kidding.

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