Acquired Skills

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“I need a pilot program for a B 212 Helicopter.” Trinity yells into her phone as we stare at a giant military transport atop a Manhattan skyscraper in the first Matrix movie.  Ten seconds later, we are whisked away as Trinity expertly pilots the ship above the city.  Similarly, I dialed up my iPhone to figure out how to rent a “motobike” in Trinidad, Bolivia.  Though Trinity learned a year’s long process in a matter of seconds, I only learned the word for “to rent,” but the result was the same.  I hopped on the moped and rode off into the Amazonian swamp that is eastern Bolivia.

I had come to Trinidad to catch a boat up the Rio Mamore, hoping for five lazy days of jungle scenery before arriving at the Brazilian frontier.  Though I failed in that goal, I succeeded in adapting to the ways of the locals, without computer inputs.

Shortly after speeding away from the leafy town square on my newly acquired wheels, I realized I didn’t know how to start the thing once I turned it off.  The older, to overstate his position, rental agent, had showed me how to steer and change gears, but he neglected to show me out to get from off to on.  Despite this misstep, I fought the throngs of fellow riders and rode past the town’s fruit market on my way out of the city.

My first stop for the day was the riverside town of Puerto Almacen, home to dozens of fish shacks on stilts and my presumptive boat to Brazil.  As ordered by Lonely Planet and my host mother in Santa Cruz, I went straight to El Capitania, some sort of naval base for the riverboats, but that stop was useless.  The man sitting out front said I had to find a captain willing to accommodate me.  The muddy track leading to the rio looked like it would swallow a moped, so I left the bike behind.  Before walking off, I looked back apprehensively wondering just exactly how I was going to get it started again.

A collection of ten barges sat tied up along the opaque river, which was about 100 yards wide and flowing fast but level.  Over the top perched a long bridge, the only one for miles in either direction.  Most of the boats were empty, but three barges, mostly just platforms of plywood, sat at the bottom of custom rigged ramps receiving newly filled propane tanks.  Obviously leery of lounging alongside propane – Bolivian filled propane, I nonetheless trudged ahead, asking away in my broken Spanish, if I could accompany the propane to Guayaramerin.  The captain seemed amenable, but the propane wouldn’t be ready for at least four days.

Next, I found some American engineered coca cola, covering 5 barges and employing several crewmen. The captain wasn’t around, but the young men who lived on the barges said I should come back at 2:00.  The last boat in the port belonged to the Bolivian navy.  One young man, who had worked as a Mormon missionary in Illinois, told me that yes I could go along and that the boat might be leaving as early as the next day.  Ecstatic, I decided to drive around as I waited for Captain Coke to return.

After a brief lunch of some sort of fried fish, ten feet above river plane, I trudged back to the moped.  I pushed the button on the right handlebar, but it didn’t start.  I pushed every other button on the handlebars, resulting in a blinking, honking, nonstarting moped.   I looked down between my legs, and conveniently, Honda had spelled out in English how to start the bike.  After opening the choke valve, I had to kickstart the bike to life.  I had no idea where the choke was, but luckily the bike caught after jumping on the starter three times.

To fill the afternoon lull, I rode past the airport north of Trinidad, which is mostly just a collection of dirt streets and small stores, in search of a wildlife sanctuary that Lonely Planet convinced me existed.  Feeling good about the moped, I opened it up until the engine sounded spent.  Of course the gas and speed gauges had long since stopped working, so I had to drive by feel hoping I wouldn’t run out of fuel.  Supposedly the wildlife sanctuary lay 14 kilometers past cornfields and cattle yards, so I was lost in my thoughts, when an abandoned Boeing 727 leapt into view, sitting in a field no more than 100 yards from the road.

Lacking Trinity’s summoned expertise, the shock of the plane’s appearance and the one coming in for a landing above, startled me out of my daze.  I grabbed the handbrake, but I also accidentally twisted the throttle, so the bike lurched ahead.  With all the leverage on the right handlebar, the bike twisted to the left.  Just before the bike ended up on its side on the highway, I stomped on the footbrake with my right foot and braced the ground with my left.  I let go of the handle and prevented another wreck from accompanying the fuselage.

But there was a Boeing 727 sitting in a field in Bolivia.  I felt like I really was in the Matrix now.  I hopped off the bike to take some pictures of the plane, and found a path leading straight to the jet.  This time I wasn’t worried about restarting the bike.

After dodging various puddles and scanning for snakes, I hopped on the plane’s wing and peered into the abandoned transport.  The interior had been stripped of every usable part, containing only a wooden floor and holes for windows.  I hopped inside, wondering if a serpent was waiting for me in the bathroom.  When I looked out the far side of the plane, I saw nothing but Bolivian farmland just like Neo saw nothing but a sea of human bodies, wondering just what exactly was going on.

Leaving the plane, I got back to the motobike just as an aging soldier, dressed in full camouflage and wielding a machete, pulled up on a bike.  His motorcycle arrived in a hurry, and he hit the brakes just as the plane appeared in his sights.  Luckily, I was mid kickstart, so I simply nodded hello as he stopped and I pulled away.

Later I found out, in 2011 a flight was coming in for a landing at the Trinidad airport and lost power a few miles before it reached the runway.  Everyone on board, 155 people including a Bolivian senator, had survived.  But the plane had been left to rot, or perhaps become a tourist attraction.  I wonder how the arriving passengers above felt about approaching over a crash site.

Eventually, I returned to the docks and found out none of the boats would be leaving any time soon.  So I booked a bus headed for another jungle town, from where I could take a tour of the amazon.  With all my errands accomplished, I relinquished the keys to my bike.  As I walked down the dirt streets back to my hostel, I looked longingly at the dozens of motobikes in the streets, but I knew I was headed back to the real world, where my newly acquired motorcycle knowledge wouldn’t count for much.

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