In one of the more than 52,000 photographs Allan Karl took while traveling the world by motorbike, five llamas are sitting bundled up on the roof-rack of a dilapidated Toyota speeding down a highway in Bolivia. If you look closely, you’ll see three more llamas stuffed into the back of the car.
It is moments like this that Karl captures in his new book, FORKS—A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection, published independently after a successful Kickstarter campaign. Part memoir, part photo album, part cookbook, Forks is like The Motorcycle Diaries with recipes.
It’s the kind of book that makes you wonder why you’re still sitting at a desk, dreaming of setting sail for the Caribbean or hiking the Himalayas.
What pushed Karl to live out his dream was the end of his marriage and a post-9/11 revelation that he was no longer satisfied with his career in advertising and marketing.
“It’s not that I’m telling people to travel the world on a motorcycle or even quit your job, but if you’re open and ready to try something new… What I’m trying to say in this book is be open and don’t be afraid,” Karl tells Newsweek.
Between tales of dodging donkeys in Ethiopia and camping out on the Syrian border for 24 hours waiting for a visa, Karl shares recipes for dishes like Ugandan veal curry with bananas (originally made with goat but that’s hard to find in America), conch soup from Honduras, Sudanese falafel and Brazilian coconut fish stew, known as Moqueca.
In the excerpt below, he describes his adventures in Bolivia.
Bolivia: An Amazing Ride and an Unexpected Fork
By Allan Karl
Crossing Lake Titicaca should be easier. I was expecting a ferry, one with a dock and a ramp. Instead I find a dozen ramshackle boats that look like miniature barges.
There is neither dock nor ramp, just rotten planks thrown over the stern of the boat to the shore. The boat has no deck or floor. More rotten planks are loosely laid on crossbeams over the hull. They are positioned so a car can drive on them, but a wheel will drop off if not lined up perfectly. They are barely wide enough for my motorcycle when it’s on the kickstand.
Another traveler joins me for my journey into Bolivia; one more adventurer on a motorcycle. Roughly my age and riding the same BMW model as me, Jeremiah has traveled from Colorado. We’d met in Mexico months earlier and reconnected in Cuzco, outside Machu Picchu. We share a common dream: to see and ride our motorcycles on the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The Salar, as we have come to refer to it, stretches for hundreds of miles high in the Andean Altiplano in southwestern Bolivia. It’s huge, about the size of the State of Delaware. In fact, it’s so big that it’s visible from space and is used as a target to calibrate satellites. We’ve agreed to ride together and explore this amazing wonder.
I push my bike up the dilapidated planks. Standing in the bilge, I have to brace my bike for the whole trip across the lake. Jeremiah’s bike falls over. No problem, just a little gas leaks out of the tank. At once, the captain smells the gas. He’s not worried about fire; he jealously desires the fuel. “Ah, petrol Peruana, no? Muy bueno!” He can distinguish between the odors of Peruvian and Bolivian gas, the latter of which has poorest fuel quality and measliest octane in South America. Impressed by the Bolivian’s sense of smell, I wonder if he can distinguish a French malbec from an Argentinian.
As we travel to the high plains of Bolivia, Jeremiah and I keep a close watch on the weather. During the rainy season the Salar floods with water—pure, organic saltwater. Riding our motorcycles through saltwater will destroy them. By the time we arrive at Potosí, Bolivia, the highest city in the world, we are drenched. It seems the rains have beaten us. With only 200 miles of dirt roads separating us from realizing our dream of riding on the Salar de Uyuni, we wonder if it is still dry.
We prepare for the worst weather, layer our clothing, step into our rain gear, and pull out our heaviest gloves. The chilling air of the highest city of the world at six-thirty in the morning is one reason. Rain is the other. Despite the blue skies littered with a few puffy white clouds, we know the chance of rain is 100 percent.
As we follow a river and climb hills of limestone and sandstone, the scenery brings back memories of southeastern California and western Arizona deserts. The weather is holding up. This is one of my best days of riding in months. It packs everything that defines great adventure motorcycling: dirt roads, desolate wilderness, water crossings, canyons, gorges, and the wonderful feeling of solitude and nature. We have the road to ourselves as we carve and curve along the edges of cliffs, then drop into small valleys. Even at 13,000 feet, the altitude doesn’t affect me. Riding bliss.
We've been on the road for nearly five hours before we come to the first sign of civilization. The tiny settlement of Ticatica is marked by just one narrow street, which is lined with reddish-brown adobe buildings with thatched roofs. A beautiful Bolivian girl wearing a brightly colored dress and a short-brimmed bowler hat smiles and waves as we pass.
In just minutes, the dirt road deteriorates. In the center of the town, the entire middle of the road is a pool of deep water and mud.
Jeremiah pulls to the right to avoid it, I ride to the left. My tires slither like a slippery snake, with barely any traction. I tighten my grip around the handlebars and, tense with apprehension, continue moving slowly. In just seconds my front tire sinks into the mud and my bike slides out from under me. As I fall into the mud, I watch in slow motion as my bike and my hard aluminum panniers crash on top of me. My leg is caught under the panniers and I can’t move it. I feel dizzy, disoriented, as the blazing high-altitude sun blinds me. My senses are reeling, something feels funny. I know it immediately. My leg is broken, crushed.
My trip is over. My dream to see and ride the Salar, unfulfilled. I want to cry. But I don’t.
I yell at Jeremiah, “My leg is broken!” In shock, giddy, I yell, “Hey, get your camera!"
The locals gather around and hover above me as I lie in the mud. The sun is baking. Unexpectedly, a boy breaks through the crowd, opens an umbrella, and holds it above me. Moments later another boy opens a second umbrella. Suddenly shaded, I feel that these two young boys are angels of mercy, come to protect me from the brutal Altiplano midday sun.
Even so, I am stuck in the middle of nowhere with a broken leg and a motorcycle.
There is no cellphone service and only one phone in town, a radio telephone. In bad weather it operates sporadically. So before we can confirm that an ambulance will come, the phone cuts out. As the storm brews, Jeremiah and the locals move me to a modest medical clinic.
After twelve hours of waiting and wondering and a painful and dangerous five-hour ride in a faux ambulance through pouring rain, crashing thunder, and blinding lightning, I finally get to a hospital in Potosí. Doctors confirm that my leg is broken—in three places. They give me pills for my pain, the strongest they have, I’m told. It’s a high dose of ibuprofen. “Great,” I think. “Here I am in Bolivia, one of the world’s largest producers of cocaine, I’ve got a severely broken leg, and all they can give me for pain is Advil. There is no justice.”
I never thought I’d have to use it, but before I set out on this adventure I purchased medical assistance and evacuation insurance. Now, even with it, in a public hospital in Bolivia, in the highest city of the world, it takes three days to coordinate and then three flights and more than twenty hours to get me back to the United States. My bike remains in Bolivia.
In California, surgeons put the pieces of my leg back together with the help of rods, screws, and plates. In Bolivia, a local retrieves my motorcycle and secures it in his home in Potosí.
Rehab and recovery are difficult. It takes many months before I can walk without a limp. Family and friends ask if they can help and support me.
“What are you going to do now?”
“Are you looking for a job?”
They think I have given up.
I haven’t. I work hard to get strong, and some seven months later I return to Bolivia, retrieve my bike, and continue my journey. Yes—I finally make it to the Salar de Uyuni—and far beyond.
FORKS—A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection is available on Amazon or on the website www.forksthebook.com