Touring Mexico on a BMW R80GS | The Kindness of Strangers

Our Dependence on One Another is a Good Thing

By Tim Courts, Photography by Tim Courts

We were coming into Navajoa, a city I hadn’t heard of until then. I thought if I could find a place to work on the bike, I might be able to get seals sent from the U.S. or Mexico City, so I stopped at a car dealership with a big service area. They were very helpful, but with my lousy Spanish I soon lost track of what was going on. Many phone calls were made, lots of “wait here” hand gestures, and eventually a pleasant fellow on a Honda Shadow showed up and indicated we should come with him.

We followed him across town and into the courtyard of the nicest motel I’ve ever seen. Tasteful nouveau-Mexican décor, a swimming pool, and a workshop (!) adjacent to the pool area, with every tool I could want. And an R100GS parked in the corner. As we looked around in wonder, the owner of the property and of the GS walked over smiling and, hand extended, welcomed us to Navajoa and asked if he could help in any way.

Could he ever! Friends of his were leaving Tucson the next day, heading for Christmas in Navajoa. They agreed to stop by the dealer and pick up our package. A phone call, predictable damage to the credit card, and the two seals were on their way, along with a new friction disc.

A couple of days in an excellent motel in an interesting city, and the parts arrived as promised. Another few hours of grease-monkeying and we were ready to go. We left just before dawn and got to Guanajuato in 48 hours, a day late but no worse for wear.

A lot of that coast highway is toll road, and it’s expensive. A mile or so before the toll booth, we’d often see an arrow pointing to “LIBRE.” That indicated a place to sneak off the toll road, and onto whatever road went around the toll booths. Probably it was as much to bring commerce to the communities bypassed by the highway as to save us money, but we always availed ourselves when we could.

Fellow travelers, seeing we were not from there, would often help us find the libre road, waving us across the median, down the gully, and up onto the free road. Very appealing to the anarchist in me. One guy, in a truck piled high with fruit, made a point of having us follow him through a complicated series of turns, finally getting out of the truck and handing us a bunch of bananas. Off we went with his cheery “Feliz Navidad!” in our ears.

Those first few days of our four-month tour set the tone. We didn’t have all that much trouble from then on, but whenever a problem arose, solving it became a part of the experience. On the outskirts of Mazatlan we stopped to eat and I realized a saddlebag mount had broken. We were parked outside a busy restaurant, and had taken seats just inside the low wall that separated eating from parking. A boy came up and offered to watch the bike while we ate, even though we were right next to it. I pointed out that I could use my coffee cup to hit anyone molesting the bike but the young entrepreneur persisted. After a while an uncle arrived, and pitched the boy’s case in good English. I remained unconvinced, but he did direct us to a welder, and that seemed like a good enough reason to pay the kid the 10 pesos he wanted. After all, the bike had come to no harm under his watch.

The welder was up on a ladder, working on the bow of a fishing boat. As we rode out onto the dock, he came right down and attended to our problem, putting a good heavy weld on the bag mount and painting it with red lead bottom paint. Once again it struck me how much better the service was than it might have been back in the States.

To be clear; I am not always on the receiving end of life’s helpful impulses. I’ve come through, from time to time, for those without water, or gas, or tools. I like stopping to help push a car out of a ditch, fill a radiator, or tie up a dragging exhaust pipe.

Years ago, on a mountain road in Oaxaca, I came upon a couple of guys in a Beetle, stopped on the road. The throttle cable had broken, a problem they’d not even diagnosed. “No va” was all they knew. One of the guys had some dental floss, and that worked okay. Shoelace was too fat to fit in the housing. A few days later one of the guys recognized me in a bar on the Zocalo (Mexico City’s historic main square) and bought me a beer. My companions were very impressed. Karma is where you find it, it seems.

By Tim Courts
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