It wasn’t the first time that we have had bike problems—in fact, these setbacks have become somewhat endemic of our trip—but before now we had ample time to adjust our itinerary. As we approach Panama and our sail to Colombia, however, our time is becoming much more precious. There is no shortcut. There is no finely paved toll-road. There is no circumventing the time-intensive border crossings. We had to confront the fact that we were not visiting the ancient city of Tikal and we were not swimming in the natural jade-colored pools of Semuc Champey, we were headed to the clogged streets of Guatemala City.
Shortly after climbing the switchbacks out of San Marcos La Laguna, an indicator light began to glow its little hazard red glow on my dashboard. Reflexively, a surge of panicked adrenaline shot through my veins.
There are two possible sources of the alert: the ‘GEN’ light, indicating that the battery is not charging, and the oil pressure light, indicating that oil pressure is dangerously low. Twice last year my oil pressure light lit up at unfortunate times. On an airhead motorcycle like mine, by the time the oil pressure light comes on, it is probably too late. The engine is probably not getting enough oil and, if traveling at a high speed, the babbitt bearings at the juncture of the crank shaft and the rods have probably been shaved into a million glittering copper flakes suspended in black engine oil and the rods have probably scarred the crank shaft. I won’t go into the details, but this little light informed me that I would need to rebuild my engine, twice. When it glows, I hear, ‘Disaster!’
So when the little red light entered my vision, a vision already filled to the brim with the cracked pavement, the bullying buses, the rabid tuk-tuks, and the peasants wandering the nether region between lanes selling dried bananas from baskets balanced on their heads, I felt a surge of panic almost before I was aware of its source. It could have been a brazen puppy dashing across the road, an unmarked crater of erosion eliminating my lane, or an impatient car passing in the incoming direction, but it was a little dashboard light aglow. The bike sending a clear warning through the melee. The ‘GEN’ light was on and it wasn’t going off. At least it wasn’t the oil pressure light.
I decided I could probably make it as far as Chichicastenango without needing a charge. There we could check into a hotel and I could diagnose the issue. For the rest of the ride, I couldn’t keep my mind off of the red light. Even though I knew it didn’t need immediate attention, subconsciously I heard the panicked cry of the bike. ‘Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.’ I did my best to ignore it, but it frayed my nerves.
We went to Chichicastenango because it was in our path and it was supposed to have a large street market on Sunday, which happened to be the day after we would arrive. We decided to have a look even though we had no intention of purchasing any souvenirs. Of all the free entertainments available to travelers, street markets are among my favorite. The villagers all come to the nexus of the city to sell their wares and buy their goods. We got to see people interact, buy, sell, haggle, and haul their fat chickens and wooden masks and bags of corn and hand knit blouses. I stood a foot above most of the bustling crowd. I must have been a strange sight and a clear target for the eager vendors.
I ended up buying a little souvenir after all, but I couldn’t fix the charging problem. I took the bike to a local mechanic to see if he knew how to test it, but all he could do was clean my terminals, which was a good thing to do regardless, and then try to convince me that 12 volts was enough to charge the battery when I knew well that it needed over 14 volts to charge. I sent some messages to some more people I knew who were knowledgable about such things and got back a list of things to test. After going through all the tests, which mostly involved poking various metal things with the pointy ends of the voltmeter and noting the numbers on the screen and also involved inserting a paper clip into a plug in exactly the manner that, as a child, you feared would kill you, I determined with resolve that the issue was the voltage regulator, a little black box that is nearly untestable, but occasionally is known to fail.
I took a chicken bus to Guatemala City. Chicken buses are repurposed school buses painted in flashy colors and wild designs. They charge willy-nilly through the streets of Guatemala, coughing black smoke and consuming roadside peasants like a demented character from a Miyazaki cartoon. We asked around and found the unmarked bus stop, an unassuming corner near the arch, El Arco. A few minutes later a chicken bus pulled up and someone began yelling at me. ¿¡Guate?! Sí. He dragged me onto the bus and disappeared. I don’t know who he was, but whenever a bus pulls up, he appears and pulls willing passengers aboard. The bus driver had a long soul-patch and was grinning as if he had just told a joke. Disco music was erupting from the speakers. We were off, though whether to Guatemala City or to an alternate dimension, I was not sure.
Before I left Chichi, I had messaged a Panamerican riders Facebook group and had been put in touch with a man named Carlos in the city who generously helped me locate the correct voltage regulator replacement for my bike, of which I purchased two, intending to keep one as a spare. I stayed the night at Carlos’ house and returned the next morning via chicken bus to Chichi, confident that I had the solution in hand. Unfortunately it was not so simple. The new piece of hardware did nothing to alleviate the problem.
We decided to risk riding the bike to the city and get some diagnostic help. A fully charged battery should last long enough, but if necessary we could stop and recharge at a number of small cities along the way. I had no personal interest in going to Guatemala City. Everyone we had spoken to had warned us to stay away. Most of the crime in Guatemala and the reason for its poor reputation derives from the city. It is crowded, polluted, ugly and dangerous, but it does have a lot of parts and people who know how stuff works.
The battery lasted the entire three hours of the trip with a little to spare. Carlos met us and showed us where we could stay and introduced us to Johann who was a BMW mechanic and fellow airhead owner and enthusiast, and who generously helped me diagnose the source the charging failure. Johann set me up with some space in his shop and the next day we got to work. We figured out that there was a problem with the stator on the alternator. Fortunately he knew a guy who specialized in alternators, so we took the piece to him. He thought he could fix it but would need a couple of days. I decided to take advantage of the time and the workspace and work on my list of repairs and modifications that has grown steadily since we left California. I added some auxiliary LED headlights, replaced my broken turn signal with little LED turn signals, got some new bushings made for the gas tank—the old ones have been threatening to disintegrate for months—changed the engine oil and adjusted the valves. Throughout the projects Johann was invaluable, advising about the bike and driving me around the city to find the parts I needed.
All together, I ended up spending a week in Guate, working nearly the entire time. After we got everything together and functioning properly, we went for a ride, Johann, his wife Evelyn, his friend Conzago, and me. We rode down to the black sand beach at Montericco and back. The first half was quite fun. It included some excellent new roads, some bad pot holes, and a short river ride on a small wooden flat bottom ferry. On the return trip, however, we encountered horrendous weekend traffic. Evidently the entire city had the same idea we did.
I will not visit northern Guatemala on this trip, but thanks to the electrical failure I got to experience a side of the country that most visitors don’t see and I met some wonderful people. This will be my memory of Guatemala and perhaps that is for the best.