Amazon to Cape Horn: Journal of Fear

Starting in July of 2021, I embarked on a nine-month solo trip through South America, mostly via motorcycle and without cell phone, GPS, or any real proficiency in Portuguese or Spanish.

Along the way I experienced many lovely things, most of which I won’t bore you with here, because this is a different story; a story about the times I was hit with crippling fear and thought, “OH FUCK, MY TRIP IS OVER!”

Route north to south, overland

DAY 73 — AMAZON JUNGLE TRIBAL LODGE

I’m onboard a cartoonish-looking riverboat with my local guide and a small group of Germans heading three hours up the Rio Negro from Manaus, Brazil.

The Germans are going on some jungle camping trip, but I’m on an entirely diffent mission. Our boat pulls into a secluded dock, where I’m to meet my Ayahuasca Shaman. My guide leaves me on the docks with a bag of raw fish, a bag of fruit, a large jug of water and a green hammock.

“Say hallo to ze gods for me!” says one of the Germans, as his girlfriend shoots me a look of deep concern. I meet my Shaman in front of his tribal lodge which is decorated with a large snake mural and black piranha masks. 

What could go wrong? 

“See ya’ on the other side, kid.”

I spend two days swimming, canoeing and foraging the jungle for medicinal plants with the Shaman’s sons. But I’m feeling a sense of impending doom as my ceremony approaches.

Night falls and I’m alone in the tribal lodge with a single torch burning. The Shaman enters bare-chested with bone neclace, tribal headress and facepaint glowing. His two sons follow, playing war marches on their long, wooden instruments. The Shaman delivers my right-of-passage in Portuguese and then passes me, in brief succession, five bowls of mucky, brown Ayahuasca brew.

After some enjoyable, initial hallucinations, all five doses kick in and the jungle starts to spin and close in on me. I’m feeling like Martin Sheen in a Saigon hotel, sweating and shivering at the same time, struggling to breathe. I desperately call out my Shaman’s name, which is the only word I remeber.

Just as I think, “I took too much, my trip is over,” I begin to vomit profusely, leave my body, and watch from above as I’m rehatched, growing the tail of a reptile and flopping about in the primordial muck. (In utero a human fetus grows a vestigial reptile’s tail — a remnant of our biological evolution.)

The Shaman arrives to give me water and guides me into my green chrysalis-like-hammock to recover. The fear is still gripping me but I remember my Pranayama breathing from yoga school in India. Breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold. I pull out of the trip just as the sun begins to rise.

Reborn. Previous night’s Ayahuasca, bottom right.

“Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for three seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago, and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing.”

— Jack Kerouac

DAY 110 — STREETS OF SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA

When I leave the jungle and reenter city life, I’m hit with a deep, spiritual pain, witnessing the horrors of plastic waste and techno-addiction. During my meditation, I come up with a vision for a more natural trip, free from the tyrany of rush hours, shopping centers, and airport security. 

I buy a used Royal Enfield Himalayan, (410 cc engine, claiming 70 miles-per-gallon) and all the camping gear, cooking supplies and survival tools to help get me to the end of the continent.

Hitting the streets of Santa Cruz on my first motorcycle
Took me a solid week to track down this gear.

I hit the Strip Club to celebrate. It’s decked out like the palace of some Arab Sheikh with multicolored velvet drapes cascading all around. I’m one of the only customers in this Carnal Circus with a dozen performers on tap. Outside, a torential downpour crashes down, leaving me trapped with the girls in their Mirrored Web of Sorcery.

Surely I will be punished for this in some way … but how?

A few nights later, I’m riding through Santa Cruz to meet the Canadian guy who sold me the bike for beers. I forget there’s no stop signs in Bolivia so I roll through a shady intersection with just enough time to see a 4×4 pickup truck barreling at my right side. I hit the brakes but they’re too weak to miss the truck, which plows through my frontend.

I’m smashed to the asphalt in the middle of the intersection as the asshole truck driver completes his hit-and-run. “Oh fuck my bike trip is over,” I think.

I get up, dust myself off and pick up the bike. The headlight, windshield and left indicator are cracked, but miraculously the forks are still straight. I reach down to straighten the fender and receive a third-degree kiss on my wrist curtesy of the bike’s pipes, as if to say, “Don’t even think of dropping me again okay, bitch?”

Now bike and rider are one, flesh melded with chrome in some blistering, incendiary Wolfpack.

We ride south.

DAY 236 — CARRETERA AUSTRAL, CHILE

Upon crossing into Chile, out of sheer dumb luck I find myself in Futaleufú, which is ranked as the “World’s Most Dangerous Comercial Rafting Destination” … excellent.

I join a group for the trip and our entire raft is ejected into the drink (as my grandma Margaret used to say) in the Class 5 Terminator Rapids section.

Blue helmet, about to take a bubble-bath. Not visible, two shreiking Chilean girls.
In the drink, center.

Next I head south on the Carretera Austral, which is said to be one of the world’s most beautiful roads. It’s glorious winding asphault with island-speckled fjords on my right and green, arched bluffs to the left. I’m listening to my new Metal playlist that my buddy Dave helped me compile. Just as Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” comes on, a monsoon rolls overhead from the Chilean coast.

The rain slaps me at the worst time whem the road turns into a rocky, jagged mountain ascent. There’s massive potholes everywhere full of brown rainwater, and a flatbed truck in front that keeps stopping on the mountain and rolling back precarously close to my bike.

“Close your eyes and forget your name, step outside yourself and let your thoughts drain. As you go insane… go insane.”

–Slayer

I don’t have one of those waterproof motorcycle spacesuits like the German guys on BMWs, just my mishmash REI gear, so I’m soaked to the bone and shivvering. My hands are so cold in my cutoff gloves that I have to put them directly on the engine to feel my fingers.

There’s 200 km left to my next destination and no way I can make it. “This is it, my moto trip is over,” I think as i pull into a small fishing village. I arrive at a guesthouse, drenched and freezing and head directly to the bathroom, where I lay naked in the tub and start a bath. But there’s no hot water. “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” Fortunately the owner starts up his old woodfire heater and I lay in front for several hours to dry myself and all my gear.

In the morning I head to the hardware store to buy a waterproof fisherman’s suit and Wellington boots. I head to the docks where I get new energy, realizing I’ve reached the Pacific Ocean for the first time on my trip — exactly five months after leaving the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

DAY 253 — ARGENTINA / CHILE BORDER

After doing some Patagonian mountainclimbing in Argentina, I’m ready to cross back into Chile for the final leg of my trip towards Cape Horn.

I was supposed to spend my last day in El Calafate meticulously mapping out this mission. But then an American girl comes into my hostel who not only graduated from the same school (University of Wisconsin-Madison) but also stayed in my same freshman dorm (Bradley). She just missed being my college dormmate by 15 years but that’s okay, because now we’re dormmates in El Calafate — so let’s get drunk on Argentinian wine.

The next day I’m still buzzing with little sleep as I head out towards the Chilean border. I’m riding down Route 40 in the desert as suddenly a 50-mph wind cyclone hits.

Next time check the wind report

It’s shocking, blowing me clean from one lane to the next, as I lean the bike sharply to recover. Now the wind is trying to rip my full-face helmet off my head so I duck behind my small windscreen to prevent decapitation (okay, whiplash).

As i stop to look at the border sign, a wind gust slaps me and bike violently to the pavement. On pure adrenaline, I stand up my fully-loaded moto and quickly make for the border crossing station. On the Argentinan side it’s looks closed and abandonned for the season. FUCK.

But there’s nowhere to go for shelter from this wind, just endless desert. So I roll-on through into some eerie, gravely no man’s land. The Chilean government website says their crossing is open, so hopefully someone will welcome me in on the Chilean side.

Not exactly what happened.

“Well, fuck. My trip is over.”

Nope… I ain’t going out like that. I use all my political, Spanish and most importantly, meditation skills to get through two police stations, migration, customs, and finally the impound to get my bike back the very next day.

Now I’m on the “Ruta del Fin del Mundo” riding south to Punto Arenas, the last real port city on the continent. I roll into the parking lot of the ferryboat, head in and buy a ticket.

We sail for two days through the Strait of Magellan — past the Chilean glacial islands — past Tierra del Fuego — on to Puerto Williams — southernmost city on Earth — the vestigial tail of the lizard — the Kundalini.

Blue dot; farthest south I reached on moto. Red dot: where the ferry took me.

Now my trip is over.

One thought on “Amazon to Cape Horn: Journal of Fear

  1. What a TRIP!! Intense just as life itself. I am reckoning how powerful the thoughts “this is the end of my moto trip” were but you finally did it. Reminds me of the words of Nisargadatta, not exactly but this was the message, ” you are the road and the one walking on the road, realise this and therein separation ceases to exist.there is no destaination,no end goal.you are it, creating and experiencing!”
    Thank you Alec!!!!

    Like

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