Hitting the open road in Central America
Motorcycle Diary: What it’s like to put everything on hold and ride in Central America
Words— Tammy Lewin
There I was, on my motorcycle, alone, in Guatemala with the road I had been most forewarned about, behind me. Rocky, treacherous, lined with “thieves” who demand payment for the ability to proceed, it was literally in the rear view—conquered. That’s when it hit me: I was living my dream.
How did I get here? Where did the desire to ride across a foreign country come from? Riding around a developing country, alone, on a motorcycle is not so common. It’s especially not as common as a woman. It tends to garner a certain line of questioning. But the answer to those questions, for a long time, was...I don’t actually know. Where do our desires come from? It sounds cheesy but I hadn’t actually thought about it. When I did, I uncovered a lot.
The mental journey
What I’ve come to understand is: my desire to get a motorcycle was coated with judgements and “I can’ts.” I had judgements about what it would mean to ride a motorcycle as a woman and hang-ups about having a petite frame (5’2”, 100 lbs). I told myself, you’re too short, you’re too small, they don’t make motorcycles your size, you can’t be feminine on a motorcycle.” It played in the back of my mind for so long I barely realized. For years I didn’t acknowledge this desire. It wasn’t until I began to listen to the actual words in my head as opposed to merely hearing them like the words to a song I already know.
I started to notice those words through a series of occurrences. First, a friend (about my size or smaller) told me she herself rode a motorcycle in her home country. Her words made me realize that being small did not make riding insurmountable! My self-imposed limitations fell and the desire crystalized: I wanted to ride motorcycles. And not just around my neighbourhood or the state, but to the end of the world.
I wrote it on a “life list.” It was an I’ll-do-that-someday thing.
Then one day, while in the car with my family, we passed some motorcycles for sale on the road. “I’m going to get my motorcycle license,” I blurted out. With the enthusiasm or lack of judgement I received — a feeling of ease washed over me like I finally accepted it for myself. That was when I fully embraced the desire.
Suddenly, getting a motorcycle was upgraded from the I’ll-Do-That-Someday List to the I’m-Doing-It-This-Year List.
The material journey
I quickly got my license and was the only one in my class to score 100 on my test. I felt proud. It felt natural. It felt good.
From there I thought it would be easy. But no, I needed—the GEAR. It turns out I have a peanut-sized head which led to a 3-month hunt for the elusive XXS helmet. It also took 15 jacket and pant orders to find some that weren’t too big.
Then—the BIKE. It took 9 months of scouring the used bike market, but I found one. It had everything I liked. It was perfect. It was also in Virginia.
I flew down, got on the bike, and...my feet barely touched the ground. It would work. I shipped it to New York, and there she was: my bike—smack in the middle of the streets of Manhattan.
The tips of my toes just hit the ground. Initially, I thought a replacement seat to lower me a couple of inches would work, but no—I needed 5” or 6”. This would be impossible or too expensive. How was I supposed to maneuver a 500-pound bike on my tiptoes? My answer: not to lower the bike but raise my legs.
As a short girl, I’ve fancied platform shoes my whole life so I ordered 8 pairs of black leather 5” to 8” platform boots that screamed GOTH and got on the bike. It worked. I could stand and had all the gear that fit.
I was ready.
The actual journey
A lot had started to change in my life beyond being a person who owned a motorcycle. I was working in marketing tech and—long-story-short—a number of experiences left me cold. That’s when I had an epiphany. Do I really want this? Do I want to continue my days uninspired? What do I really want to do?
After much debate about life, wrestling with indecision, fears and doubts—I took off on my first motorcycle trip to Vermont. For one month during foliage season, every day I was on the bike and everything opened up.
Being on a motorcycle is other-worldly. Not only is it a full sensory experience: the smells, the feel of the wind and the road, your surrounding views, the sound of the engine—but the concentration required puts you in the present moment. You absolutely must pay attention. You must be fully aware. A small blip and you could die. This will make you feel more alive than ever. At least, it did for me.
Usually, I live life through the lens of my thoughts. On a motorcycle, I live life as it is and as it comes, experiencing every moment. On my first solo journey, day by day, my perspective about what I “should” do shifted. I decided to start doing what felt good and let that be my guide, rather than what made me money. The fear of running out of money was certainly there, but the way I saw it, I could do what I wanted... at least for a little bit longer.
While riding in Vermont was spectacular, my true dream was to adventure abroad—to expand my perspective—but to do it on a motorcycle. I realized I needed to do it now.
So it was there in Vermont while on my new motorcycle, that I knew I needed to embark on another journey, to another country and explore fully on the edge—all on my own.
An even bigger actual journey
Fast forward past more strife, self-doubt, and money-worries, I ultimately developed more faith. I was off to Guatemala. I would rent a bike when I got there and explore on two wheels.
Naturally, it came up in conversation a lot. “What are your travel plans? What are you doing here?” People asked. When I shared my plans—yes alone, yes by myself, yes, without friends —99% of those I spoke to would mention the dangers, (“The streets are crazy, it’s dangerous,” etc.). Because of this, I became nervous. Was I being careless? What was previously a mixture of anxiety and excitement was now just anxiety and it was weighing me down.
To help combat this, I asked the motorcycle rental guys a ton of questions, I bought two different paper maps, and made a ton of notes. I was also lucky to meet a new friend who wanted to join my trip for a few days. I could get “my feet wet" alongside a fellow rider.
We roughly mapped our route for the first day, which would be one of the longest. From Antigua going northeast, the closest place with accommodation was over five hours away through mountainous dirt roads. On a motorcycle, it’s usually best to calculate time and a half. So we planned for eight hours. I was nervous and expecting a challenging day.
Within minutes of getting on the road, my pre-trip fears vanished. I loved it. I knew then that all was well. This wasn’t the dumb idea my inner-critic thought it was. It was true that the Guatemala roads were a little chaotic, but the important thing was how I felt on the bike: strong and confident.
After the first full day, I had my first revelation. Whatever madness occurred on the roads, didn’t matter, because—I could handle it. That’s all that mattered. I realized then that those pre-trip nerves were not mine. I had adopted them from others—their stories, their statistics. I realized the importance that I, and I alone, get to decide what I could handle and what I can not. My own experience, my own intuition— they are my guide to how to proceed.
What I’ve learned on my motorcycle is immense. A cosmic feeling that makes words seem trivial. I can feel it in my body but cannot always describe it. But, day by day, different insights emerge and it’s a feeling that is so profound yet, often, so simple. I suspect this is life. Life is often far more simple than our minds make it out to be.