Touring South America: Road to Perdition
Chapter 9: April 4th, Mejillones, Chile.
My girlfriend has a firm belief that there are people on this planet that possess an infinite source of kindness. These people aren’t aware of it but the aura that surrounds them allows others that are sensitive to it feel their presence. She calls them “angels” and has crossed paths with them in times of need. Keep in mind I’m not talking about winged celestial creatures. These are just incredibly benevolent people. To some it may seem like a fortunate coincidence, but if you come across one of these special people you’ll realize it’s much more than that.
I was lucky enough to meet two on this occasion.
Before departing Iquique, I had noticed that the chain was running a bit loose so I pulled out my toolkit and tightened it. I did a few laps around the block to make sure everything was running smoothly and satisfied with my handiwork, I returned to my daily routine of enjoying life on the beach.
Everything went well on the route outside the city. I reached the halfway point to Antofagasta and stopped at a small diner for lunch. Shortly afterwards, two Aprilia superbikes and their owners also sat down for a bite. I ended up having a chat with some people sitting next to me. I told them of my trip and they wished me luck, as did almost everyone I mentioned it to.
While I was putting on my jacket and helmet, a boy from another table came up to me and asked me about the motorcycle. The look of excitement on his face could not have been greater when I let him sit on the bike and turn the throttle (even with the engine turned off). I left the restaurant and the boy, Franco, stayed behind with a huge smile on his face as he enthusiastically waved goodbye.
The sun started descending and in doing so gave me a riding partner. The company was welcome. It’s always good to have someone to communicate with. I’d alert him if I saw a truck coming down the other lane or if a car would come up from behind. He never lagged behind and if I had to take a break for a bit, he’d wait for me quietly. I named my shadow Wilson.
About 150km from Antofagasta, my destination for that day, I felt the engine hiccup. For a while I thought it might have been a pebble I picked up with the wheel that ricocheted off something. I kept going listening carefully in case it happened again. Several kilometers went by and I slowly started to let it go until it happened again in rapid succession.
The engine kept running but it wasn’t pulling me along anymore. My eyes were wide and staring forward. I was terrified of even imagining the sort of damage that had taken place. I tried switching gears in a futile attempt to get things going again but nothing happened. It didn’t matter what gear I put the bike in, the dashboard showed that I was in Neutral. I made my way to the side of the road. I thought I had destroyed the gear box like I did back in Lima several months ago. I got off the bike to assess the damage and encountered these dreadful images.
When I adjusted the chain back in Iquique I hadn’t taken into account the added weight I was loading onto the bike. That and the lack of proper lubrication caused the chain to snap. Much like the broken brake handle, it was not a spare that I was carrying.
It was almost 6pm and I was 80km from Antofagasta. Pushing it that far was not a thought I would entertain. I started flagging down cars to ask if they could call a tow service for me. After a few cars that didn’t even pretend to slow down, a family in their red pickup truck stopped. We would’ve been able to load the motorcycle in the back were it not for the fact that they were carrying some furniture. It also might have helped if the driver’s family had been two other men instead of a woman and a child. They made some calls asking for roadside assistance but their insurance only covered 4 wheeled vehicles. According to their provider, I’d need a different type of tow truck for a motorcycle.
To his credit, the man did help me stop other trucks. He told me that in Chile, truckers were always willing to help people out. He stopped a huge Sodexo trailer and asked if we could load the motorcycle in the container. For a moment I thought we had reached a solution since they appeared willing to help but to my dismay the container had a security seal on it that couldn’t be tampered with. The truck went on its way.
The family stuck around for another half hour trying to get empty pickup trucks to stop but almost all of them were full of camping equipment that had been used during their Semana Santa vacation. Everybody was going back home after the holiday. I thanked Red Pickup Truck Family for all of their help but I didn’t want to keep them there any longer. They had already done more than I could have asked for. They all wished me luck and told me if they spotted a police vehicle on the way home, they’d let them know I was stranded there.
Fifteen minutes later, the two Aprilia motorcycles from the diner in Tocopilla showed up. One of them had a friend in the nearby town of Mejillones that owned a pickup truck. He made some calls but fate would play an enormous prank on me by having said friend accidentally leave his keys inside the truck. Cue Sad Trombone.
That was all they could do. They left with the same promise of flagging down a policeman if they saw one on the way.
I had about half an hour of daylight left. The sun was already starting to take a refreshing dip in the ocean. I removed the chain that had coiled around the sprocket. The truth is that I was very lucky it hadn’t snagged on any other parts. It could’ve become entangled in the spokes of the rear wheel and I would’ve been launched from my seat, the bike would’ve flipped, and the whole transmission would’ve gone to hell. The damage could have been much worse.
Even so, the thought that I should be so lucky did nothing to lift my spirits. There was nothing I could do. The impotence of the situation had me on the verge of tears. It wasn’t that nobody was stopping to help, it was they couldn’t. The first van that stopped considered tying a rope around the handlebars and towing it that way, but between being involved in an accident because of that and spending the night at the side of the road, I chose the option with higher odds of survival. I had resigned myself to my particular predicament. I turned and saw the desert I had in front of me, looking for a smooth spot to set up my tent. In the distance I saw another long line of headlights coming my way. I decided to make one last attempt to get some help. I stood next to my motorcycle, held the chain in my right hand and lifted it so that passers by could understand the difficulty of my situation. Cars, vans, trailers, and even a tow truck passed me by. Nobody stopped.
I put down my arms, exhausted and defeated. It was going to be a complicated evening.
Just as I began to unpack motorcycle I sensed some headlights shining from behind. It was the tow truck! It had turned around and come back! I couldn’t believe it. Of all the vehicles that had zoomed past me, the one that finally came back to help was the one best suited for it. I ran to them and for the first time I saw what my girlfriend saw when she had these types of encounters. As soon as they got out of the cab I could see in their eyes an infinite kindness and in their smiles the enthusiasm and satisfaction of helping their fellow man.
Raul was driving and operating the crane while Hector directed the actions. I explained to them what had happened. They smiled and immediately started looking for anchor spots on the bike in order to hoist it up with the crane. Using some straps and ropes, we got the bike on the back and fastened it into place.
Once inside the cab there was no way to see if the motorcycle was still on the flatbed but I felt reassured there wouldn’t be a problem. Raul explained to me in detail their decision to come back and help me. We jokingly mocked each other and laughed a lot. The laughter was mostly them. They seemed to be more excited about helping me out than I was about receiving said help, and let me tell you that I could not have been more thrilled about it. It was a state of relief and emotion I had never felt before. The tears of desperation that I was about to spill were becoming tears of joy.
We arrived at Mejillones at night. It was a town whose inhabitants were almost all employed by a local power plant that provided energy to the whole region. We unloaded the bike in the tow truck depot but the manager said we couldn’t leave it there for security reasons. At least he let us keep it there while we found a place for me to stay. Raul accompanied me to a lodge where the plant workers stayed and after some smooth talking he managed to get me a room with breakfast and dinner included. What a pro! It was as though I had been assigned the best person on Earth to help me out.
Raul explained where I needed to go the following day to find a mechanic to sort out my chain woes and if he was unable to help me out, that I should just walk up the main road asking the truck owners if they could give me a ride to Antofagasta. We went back to the depot and pushed the bike to the lodge. He jumped in the seat to steer while Hector and I pushed. He looked as happy as the little boy I had let squeeze the throttle earlier that day. We made it half way to the lodge when my legs gave out. He got off and we all pushed together the rest of the way. Giving him a ride on the motorcycle was the least I could do. Even if it was just pushing the bike along.
It became my heartfelt desire to meet more people like Raul and Hector on the road. I wanted to meet people that believe that there is no greater honor and joy than to help others and expect nothing in return save for the happiness generated by your deeds.
I had dinner at the lodge and the girls waiting tables there whispered curiously among themselves in the kitchen, probably wondering where I had come from. I was too exhausted to maintain a conversation so as soon as I finished my meal, I went up to take a shower and try to read a bit and relax. I didn’t even manage to open the book and when I woke up half an hour later I had a bruise on my arm where I had fallen asleep on the book’s spine.