Ode To The Kind People

A month and half into my six-month trip around South America, I am stuck in Antofagasta in northern Chile with broken bike, yet content, humbled and in awe of random stranger’s kindness. For some reason, we, people, tend to focus on bad encounters and bad experiences. Rarely do we revel in knowing that there are so many wonderful, kind and eager to help people in this world.

After a day of riding my bike with a dead starter through Atacama desert, desperately trying to reach a motorcycle shop without shutting off the engine, I vowed to write about some of the best and most memorable experiences of my 500,000km on two wheels around the world – people who were there for me when I absolutely needed help.

Dead starter in Atacama Desert

When the starter on my bike quit working at a desolate customs check point in Atacama desert I was desperately worried. Luckily, it was a mandatory stop and all vehicles had to stop and go to the customs office. Two truck drivers that saw me having problems with the bike immediately offered help. They jumped the battery but it wasn't the problem. They then pushed me to bump start the bike, but I needed more momentum. One driver suspected it was a bad starter (worn out brushes). I tried to take off the starter and check it out, but timing chain tensioner was in the way. I asked next truck driver that stopped to tow me to get bike going. He and his partner readily agreed. While chatting, they told me that they always help bikers in need and that I don’t have to be worried while in Chile.

motorcycle towed by a semitruck

Semi pulling me to bump-start the bike in Atacama desert.

With bike finally running, I was trying to reach next gas station to re-fuel. I was low on gas and when the bike started choking, I knew I needed to switch to the reserve while I was still in motion. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the reserve position of the petcock (it was my friend's bike) and by the time I found it, the bike had already lost momentum. Now, I was on a desolate stretch of the road with a dead bike. It was a bad situation, but I kept on replaying truck driver’s words in my head. I lifted my arm to flag down trucks and the third vehicle stopped. When I explained my problem to the young driver, he happily agreed to pull me. Soon, I had a running engine once again.

I barely made it to the gas station and had to explain to the attendant that I cannot shut engine off for the refueling (as I am supposed to). No problems, she filled up the tank with a smile. Now, with only 200km to go, I continued. But the streak of bad luck hasn’t ended. There was a road construction and alternating flow of traffic. Without turning off the engine, I parked and went to talk to the lady controlling the traffic. I explained to her that if the bike sits for too long with engine running, it will overheat. Reluctantly, she agreed to let me go while others waited.

Finally, I got to Antofagasta and noticed a motorcycle shop with a bunch of motorcycles parked in font of it. I rode there and two young guys greeted me. I told them about my problem and finally turned off the bike. They didn’t have time or space in the garage for yet another bike, but eventually they agreed to do their best to get me back on the road ASAP. They helped me find a hotel and it was the end of this day of miserable luck.

That’s why, despite all these seemingly insurmountable problems, I sit in my room, feeling utterly happy and content. Often times, we need to hit the rock bottom in order to re-calibrate our views of life and reality.

Broken chain on a Brazilian expressway

During the same S. American trip, just as I got onto an expressway exiting city of Joan Pessoa, I heard strange noise from the bike followed by loss of power. I knew immediately that it was the chain. When I stopped on a narrow side of the busy expressway, I saw the chain about 100 meters behind. I went back, got the chain, but the master link was missing. I searched for a spare master link in my panniers and found a master link package, but the a part was missing. I even went back and found master link that fell out of my chain, but it was bent. Cars, buses and trucks were blasting by mere 2-3 feet from me and it was unlikely anyone would stop to help me.

At this point, I was already at the outskirts of the city and even if there were some bike shops nearby, I did not know in which direction to go. I could not even see where next exit was and I’d have to push bike uphill. The sun was scorching, there was no shade and I was rapidly getting hot. I knew I had to get out of that place pretty quickly. Do I leave the bike and all of my stuff and go looking for a bike shop by foot? Do I try to flag someone down?

Just as I was getting desperate, Cleber, a local rider on Honda 150, stopped and came back to help me. I was so relieved. He told me where nearest shop was, but I would still have to get there somehow. So, I asked him if he could tow me to the shop, or at least, off the expressway. He readily agreed even though towing motorcycles on expressway is illegal in Brasil.

At one point, while I was being towed, passing motorcyclist honked at us and we stopped. Other riders warned us about a highway patrol car approaching from behind. People look after one another…

Eventually, we got to the motorcycle shop and I thought my problems were solved. Unfortunately, it was just a mechanic, not a store selling spare parts. Even though Cleber has already done so much for me by towing me off the busy expressway, he still stuck around to make sure I can continue riding.

selfie with a fellow motorcyclist

Cleber stopped to help me on a busy Brazilian expressway, towed me to a shop, took me around the city to look for a chain and hang around to make sure I could continue my trip.

After some discussion with the mechanic, Cleber took me across the city to visit some motorcycle stores. It’s a pretty big city, but they didn’t have 520 chains in stock, not even master links with o-rings. I did buy a master link without o-ring, but when we got back to the mechanic, it wouldn’t fit on my o-ring chain. The situation did not look promising. Nobody seemed to know where I could get a new chain. As I banged on my damaged master link, trying to straighten it to put it back on the chain, another customer happened to know a store that might have a 520 chain in stock. He called the shop, got them even to deliver the chain to the mechanic. Soon after, mechanic installed a new chain and wouldn’t even accept any money for it. Cleber was still there to make sure I was not stranded. Once again, a bad situation, without any easy solutions, became one of the most memorable experiences of my trip.

two guys in a motorcycle shop

Mechanic refused to accept any money for installing a new chain on my bike.

Without money or bike papers in Venezuela

During my first long ride around S. America, I crossed from Colombia into Venezuela on a holiday. As it turned out, Venezuelan customs are not open on holidays and I couldn’t get my temporary importation permit for the bike. I figured I’d ride to Caracas and get a permit in the main customs office.

I also did not do my homework and check about money situation in Venezuela. Due to the US economic sanctions against Venezuela, I could not use my credit cards to pay or ATM cards to withdraw cash.

So as it started to get dark, after a whole day of riding without bike papers, money or food, I started to realize the full extent of my dire situation. I got really desperate and I simply walked through an open gate of a house in small village and explained my situation to the family. I had no money or place to sleep and I asked if I could pitch a tent in their yard.

They happily agreed and even offered me to sleep in their house and brought me some food. I laid in my tent thinking about this poor farming family in a remote Venezuelan village, wholeheartedly sharing whatever little they had with me.

group pose next to a village house

This Venezuelan family offered me a safe refuge next to their modest house.

I was so humbled and deeply touched. Next day, I continued my journey. A cop stopped me and after explaining him my situation changed some money for me (at not so favorable rate, but at least I had some money to buy food and gas). While riding around Caracas, looking for a hotel, a pickup truck driver flagged me down and told me that Caracas is a dangerous place. He escorted me to a hotel in a nice area and warned me to be careful.

Next day, I went to the main customs office to get the temporary import permit. They explained to me that I can get one only at the place where I entered the country, 1000km back. A lady passing by overheard my bad Spanish and asked me what the problem was. As it turned out, she was an influential figure in that office. She then made it her job to secure the permit for me.

They faxed copies of my documents to the border post where I entered Venezuela, officers there created a permit for me and faxed a copy to the main office. In less than 30 minutes I had the needed permit in my hands, all thanks to one single person – Elena from Venezuelan Aduana in Caracas. Once again, a deeply humbling experience and one that I will never forget.

Broken chain in Atacama desert

I had the pleasure of experiencing Chilean readiness to help others on my previous ride around South America, fourteen years earlier. Once again, on a desolate stretch of the road through Atacama desert, my chain broke. When the bike came to a stop, I dismounted and while trying to asses the situation, a pickup truck stopped, three guys came out and started talking to me. When they saw that I had no chain, they said “you’re not going anywhere with this bike.” Before I could say anything, they lifted the bike, put it at the back of their truck and we were driving to the next town, 300km away. They offered me food, drinks and we chatted a bit.

They told me they knew a motorcycle shop in town and they called it and asked about a new chain. A holiday was coming up and the shop was gonna be closed for several day. They asked the shop to wait for our arrival. Once at the shop, they unloaded my bike, shop workers had a new chain waiting for me and 15 minutes later, I had a new chain on.

In the end a very bad and possibly dangerous situation turned into one of the most memorable experiences of my ten-month trip around South America. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to take a photo with my saviors.

Fainting in Colombia from a bee sting

While riding in NE Colombia with flip-up helmet lifted, an insect hit my chin and managed to sting me. Even though the pain was significantly more severe than usual (I’ve been stung many times before), I did not think much about it. After a few minutes, I touched my face and it was numb. I stopped the bike in fear of fainting while riding. When I dismounted the bike, I felt itchy all over my body, even my legs. At that point, I got worried of a severe allergic reaction and with nobody around, I could choke to death or someone could just stop and take all of my valuables.

My map showed a village a few km down the road. So I got back on the bike and rode till the very first restaurant with chairs outside. I barely parked the bike, walked over to one of the tables and collapsed.

When I opened my eyes, people were above me asking me what was wrong. They quickly called police and ambulance. After a while, I could get up and sit at a chair, but the medical staff and police insisted I go to a hospital. I thought it would be nearby, but ambulance ride took some 30 minutes, while my bike, backpack with camera and computer and all my luggage were left behind.

After several hours in the hospital, they finally discharged me. The sting caused a drop in blood pressure and that’s why I fainted. It was already dark by the time I got back to the village where the incident happened.

My bike and backpack were safe at the local police station while the owner of the restaurant had my other riding gear. Good people took care of me and my belongings.

In addition to these instances when I absolutely could not proceed without someone's help, there were many other humbling experiences of human kindness. I have heard similar stories from other travelers - when shit hits the fan, calm down, relax and savor the experience. It will be the most memorable experience of the trip, or so I was told by one Brazilian motorcycle rider.

Humbled by young Indian truck drivers

While touring Sikkim state of northern India, I stopped for a rest at a scenic spot along a twisty mountain highway. After I had enough of the view, I simply got up, jumped on the bike and rode off, without checking if I had all of my belongings with me. Half an hour later, when I stopped again to take a photo, I realized that I had left my camera bag behind.

I rode back as fast as I could, hoping for a miracle. I was crushed when I got back to the place where I had left the bag and saw nothing. After a few minutes of cursing and considering whether to go to a police station or continue my ride, I decided not to waste time. Even if someone did turn camera equipment in, police would have probably kept it. Besides, I did not even know which direction people who got the camera were going in.

So, I continued my ride at a normal, slow, pace and watched for passing cars and if anyone would flag me down. With every passing kilometer, my hopes dissipated. At one point, I saw a typical Indian truck parked in a creek, off the side of the road, with two fairly young guys in it (I’d guess they were in their late teens or early 20s). As I rode by, I made an eye contact with them and they waved to me. I slammed onto brakes full of hope. As I walked over, they were smiling and pulled my camera bag and showed to me. I was overjoyed and completely blown away by my luck and, especially, by these young men’s honesty.

A few minutes later, a car that I had passed while rushing back stopped. They knew I a problem when I passed them so recklessly, so they wanted to know what the issue was. My saviors did not speak any English, so the car driver helped us communicate. The guys saw my camera bag by the side of the road and thought that I might have gone over the edge of the cliff. They looked for a vehicle down the mountain, but couldn’t see any. They were gonna take the bag to a police station.

The camera equipment wasn’t new, but if I had to buy a new set, that would cost me 3-4 thousand dollars. They probably didn’t know the value of the equipment and couldn’t find anyone who would pay much money for it, but still, they must have known that it was worth more than what they make in a year. I was simply speechless and deeply humbled. Here are these kids who are working so hard to make living and will probably never be able to own a decent camera or travel to the other side of the globe, like I did, and they are returning me equipment that I foolishly left behind. I felt jealous of their high moral values, wondered if there was a little bit of Buddha in them and wished I could be more like they are.

two guys in front of an old truck

Indian boy who found my camera bag I left by the side of a road.

I gave them some Ruppies that I had on me and $300 dollars as a finder’s reward. I don’t think they saw dollars before or knew where to change them. So the car driver exchanged dollars for Ruppies. I hope my modest reward is more than what they would have gotten had they sold the camera and that it made them feel worth being honest. The car driver happened to be a journalist and he took some photos of us and was going to write a story about the guys.

Thai customs officers save the day

After a month of touring Malaysian mainland , while fumbling with my documents at the Thai customs, I managed to leave motorcycle title behind. I realized my mistake only the following day, almost 1000 miles from the border. My friend dug out a phone number of the customs office, called them and they had my title. They kindly sent it to my address without even asking for the shipping charges. Once again, I was humbled by human kindness.

Countless other examples

I tend to leave my valuables behind. I've backpack with passport and camera on a train in Switzerland, shopping mall in Thailand, internet cafe in Cambodia. In all of these places there was someone honest to save and turn in my backpack with all the valuables.

These were just my personal experiences. I've heard numerous other stories of human kindness from other travelers too.