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Getting to know… Justin Holtzman

On Sept. 15, 2003, Justin Holtzman, now 31, left home on his motorcycle. He spent most of the next three years riding through Central and South America. After touring national parks in the United States, he dropped down the Baja into Mazatlan, Mexico. He followed the Pacific Coast to Guatemala, then rode to Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. He flew the bike from Panama to Ecuador, then rode to Peru before flying home for the summer of 2004. He resumed his trip that fall, riding to Chile, then Argentina, where he stayed until the fall of 2005. He returned home for two months, then rode through Argentina to Uruguay, back to Argentina, then to Paraguay, then Bolivia, back to Argentina and finally to Brazil. From Brazil he shipped the bike home in the spring of 2006 while he continued his journey by bus, through Bolivia to northern Peru to see a friend. He finally flew home in July.

After graduating from William and Mary, Holtzman worked at a satellite imaging firm in Tyson’s Corner for three years before quitting to plan a goal he’d harbored since college, “an extensive trip to an area of the world that I had no knowledge of.” He lived in El Salvador with a friend for eight months, “a completely, completely, completely new experience for me,” then traveled home overland via Mexico with the goal of saving up for a more extensive trip. He’d been riding motorcycles since he was 24, and found a website (www.horizonsunlimited.com) that became the “bible” for his own trip.

But shortly after crossing into Mexico, he thought he’d have to abandon the trip. He crashed hard in Baja. The first vehicle to pass him was a bus of American tourists. They slowed, rolled down the windows, asked if he was okay, then drove on. A pick-up with five Mexicans in the back came by next. They stopped, pulled his bike out of the ditch, helped him with some basic repairs, and followed him for 20 minutes to make sure he was alright. He learned that a schoolteacher in the next town was a bike mechanic, and the man repaired his bike a few days later, the first in a long list of mechanics who made his journey possible.

What kind of bike did you ride?

“A 1995 Suzuki Katana, 750 c.c. … I was under the impression that there was a lot of those bikes in Latin America. ‘Under the impression’ is a very important part of that … As it turns out, that bike, was a monster. Mechanically she did not break down. That bike, I bow to that bike.”

What did you like most about South America?

“Small towns, that’s where it was at. They were safer. When you get to a big city in Latin America, it’s the same thing. You have huge shopping malls. You have the big cinema. You have your McDonald’s. If you changed the signs into English, you wouldn’t know you weren’t in an American city. But in the small towns you’ve got the local food, the local culture, the local dialect and language. They were more friendly to outsiders because you weren’t one of the masses.

Describe a low point.

“I cross over into Brazil … My bike just stops on the highway and I was trying to make carnival on the coast. It was late Saturday afternoon; I don’t speak Portuguese. I was four hundred miles from the coast. Basically the bike just stops. I push my bike for half a mile and then figure I can’t push my bike forever. I put down my kickstand and take my luggage off it, and then it starts to rain. So I sat down beside my luggage in the rain. And this kid stopped on a moped. Through my Spanish I explain to him what’s going on. He uses a cell phone to call a tow truck. The tow truck comes. They drop me off at a gas station at the edge of town. I talk to every motorcyclist that stops by and try to explain my situation. One guy tells me he has a mechanic. He tells me the name of a cheap hotel. He called me up later that evening and he told me that the mechanic would be there Monday morning. The guy showed up, took me back to his place. He had two days of work backlogged. Slipped me in, I helped him do the work. I was back on the road Tuesday afternoon. The guy did everything he could to help me and charged me fair. The mechanics, they were more valuable than an ATM card. I couldn’t have done it without the mechanics.”

Any other hardships?

“It’s hard to make friends on the road and then you leave. Emotionally that was really tough for me. I never like goodbyes, ever.”

What were your favorite places?

“I can isolate two highlights of the trip. The rain forests in Peru, Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. That park is a triangle that forms the mouth of the Amazon. I did a tree trunk-canoe paddle with a local guide. I saw a spotted sloth, blue-green macaw, scarlet macaw, spider monkey, black monkey, squirrel monkey, wild bird, cayman, alligator, gray freshwater river dolphin, that was the coolest man. Jaguar live in the park but I didn’t see them. And the most painful insect sting in the world is an ant. It’s called the bullet ant. There, it’s called the Izula ant. I got stung in the finger. My whole hand went numb and my shoulder and the joint hurt. There’s nothing to take the pain away. If it’s in the jungle, it’s beautiful and dangerous. It’s got spines on it or it’s camouflaged. The jungle’s amazing.

“Pucon, Chile, in the lake district. It’s a picturesque town, reminds you of Colorado — a crystal blue lake with black volcanic sand. And while you’re swimming you’re looking at all these colored umbrellas, red and green and yellow against the black sand, and then you’re looking into the town itself and above the town there’s this huge snow-capped volcano, and in the winter they ski on that.

You can climb the mountain, it’s an all day hike, and you look down — and you’re looking down inside the volcano. And you can hear it. It’s going ‘Grrrr.’ It’s growling; its rumbling; its churning. It’s alive. There’s a guy monitoring it and every now and then he’ll say, ‘Okay everybody, get back,’ and everybody turns and there’s this pop and it sprays hot sand. They’re not worried about lawsuits.”

What did you learn?

“This is the most important question. It’s the idea that we have so much offered to us, and even the people in the United States who don’t have anything have so much. I realize how much we have here and the happiest people I’ve seen in my life were some of the poorest people. The poor people in South America offered you the most. The people who didn’t have offered you food and drink, and maybe it’s out of necessity, because sometimes they didn’t have [and needed someone else to help them]. One of my best Christmases, aside from being with my family, was in Nicaragua and living in a house that had dirt floors but the family was together the day before Christmas, on Christmas, the day after, and there was plenty of food and drink and that’s what mattered.

“Here you see extremely successful people who aren’t happy but they wish they’d spent more time with their families. Meet your basic needs and then above that, your luxuries. But keep it in check and focus on your priorities instead of competing with this nonexistent competitor. There are two extremes. I’m trying to find that middle ground.

Why did you spend three years traveling?

“People ask me why did I go to South America. I caught a piranha and ate it. I saw a sloth. I saw a river dolphin. They’re like, ‘How can you spend so much time there?’ I’m like, ‘How can I tear myself away?’”