15.6.09 Saraguro, Ecuador.
Bloody cartographers! Lower than pigs, the lot of 'em. Graceless, bovine clods! According to my map of Ecuador, there is but one road north out of Loja towards Cuenca - the Panamericana, an asphalt strip running from halfway up Chile to as far as you can go before you have to get a boat in Colombia.
Instincts cushioned by trust in my German-made Nelles maps, which have been near-faultless for 11500 miles, I point Her Majesty GPS-north and find what must be the Cuenca road. Hmmm... this bit's a bit dirt-tracky but the nice army man at the border told me the roads in Ecuador were variable in quality...
25 miles of muddy lane go by before I stop to check we are actually heading for Cuenca.
"Si!" says the man. "No way is this the Panamericana" says my brain for the 9th time in an hour.
"Bleat?" offers a quizzical goat.
"Squish!" counters the mud, as if to say, "if you think this is the Panamericana, you are even more of a tit than you look, baldy."
Goat, man, brain or mud? Which to believe? I push on for 5 more miles until the decision is made for me by someone from the recent past with a JCB. End of the road. 30 miles back to Loja, where a taxi driver points me in the right direction. There are actually two roads north - one a dirt track with an impassably big hole 30 miles up, and the other the mostly-concrete Panamericana.
Still - hey ho! It was a damn pretty ride. Just a shame it didn't actually go anywhere. I did manage to catch a slavering, vulpine bike-chaser with a stiff toe-punt up the bracket on the way, and as mad, guttural bark turned to shocked, self-pitying whimper, I thought - that was worth the detour. (I like dogs! I don't like crazed bitey things the size of Shetland ponies.)
Ecuadorian drivers? Sensible, courteous and safe. Cops? No idea - I haven't been troubled yet. Insurance? I've emailed the Ecuadorian AA who tell me it's "difficult" to insure a foreign vehicle, but suggest I ask again in Cuenca. Fair enough. Food? Mmm... porky. Ale? Pilsener (do not confuse with either Pilsner from Peru or Pilsen from Colombia) is an amiable, ready-to-drink table lager. These are just notes, you understand. I've only been in the country 4 days, and for three of those, alcohol sales were banned due to the upcoming election.
*pauses to allow reader to assimilate incredible notion*
That's right! You cannot get a drink for the 2 days preceding an election, or on the day itself. God knows I tried. It's worse than Ramadan in Morocco (although it's shorter so perhaps not.) The rationale is that keeping the population sober for election day will result in a massive turnout of well-informed, motivated citizens. Imagine that in the UK. All pubs shut, restaurants not allowed to serve even a glass of wine, supermarket booze-aisles cordoned off for the 72 hours leading up to the polls closing. Whichever party introduced it would never get in again!
So why doesn't everybody in Ecuador just refuse to vote until this Dalekesque bit of Puritanism is repealed? Well, Max from Oliver's Travels (ahem) in La Paz warned me that the same thing happens in Bolivia, and it works because of compulsory voting. Sigh! You must not drink and you must vote. I guess it's the same in Ecuador. In Bolivia, the booze ban continues until the day after the election - to stop the vote-counters geting shitted-up on drinks.
Oh God! I mean, Oh - literally - God!
Eleven year old, 46000 mile, 2450GBP-on-eBay Africa Twin update. Madam Chairman is fine, thanks for asking. Beyond fine - oh, I don't know, heavenly? Like, the Queen of Heaven? Problems, you say? A stuck choke, once - 8 seconds to fix (having found someone who knows what they're looking for). A broken clutch cable - normal wear and tear. What else? Ooh! One broken headlight bulb! Not a major issue, even if Honda's fabulous globetrotter didn't have 2 headlights. Ooh baby - I am so going to treat you to 2.5 litres of semi-synthetic and an oil filter in 800 miles' time.
NB - Some of the photos are a wee bit irrelevant from this bit up to Medellin due to disappearing camera syndrome in Bogota...
29.6.09 Quito, Ecuador
Cuenca is the first town in South America where I've seriously thought "I could live here." The Eucalyptus Cafe (actually a top-drawer pub) is the centre of activities, and it bullets its way into the Top Five Pubs In The World* within 24 hours, despite only selling small bottles and charging a nostril-flaring $4 for a packet of fags ($2.25 elsewhere). As always when one finds oneself in a bar in some lunatic part of the world, it's the mix that clinches it; 50% locals, 25% each of tourists and expats seems about right.
Cuenca, outside the four walls of the Eucalyptus, is just dolly. Inside it's even better. Sit at the bar for 2 minutes and you'll be there for five days, laughing, soaking up the live music, gambling on either the next hand of Hold 'Em or the biomass of Mama at table 7, and scoffing excellent burgers. Perhaps even being passed charming little notes from women with daughters old enough to be your niece.
Off towards Quito, and people are pulling up alongside me, waving and thumbs-upping. The message is plain - they love Ecuador and they're glad you're visiting. Magic! One woman nips in front of me at the lights and hauls her clapped-out Datsun Cherry to a stop one inch from my front wheel. I'm just about to start calling her a cloth-eyed trollop when she jumps out, smiling, lines up her two kids next to the bike and asks if she can get a photo. All is forgiven!
I stop in Chunchi for the night because the road ain't all it could be, and receive a delicious and surprising breakfast for my trouble. Some of it involves stewed steak, and then 2 perfectly hard-boiled (ie soft-yolked) eggs floating in some sort of Paradise Gravy. Does it sound a bit gruesome? It's not. It's phenomenal.
And still no interest from the police on the way north to Latacunga. (Somewhere on the way Michael Jackson throws a seven. Ho-hum. He was amazing when he was a kid; then he was mightily impressive up to 1983; then he was a whiny bore; then he was an oddly-unconvicted alleged tot-toucher; then he was a skint, Vicodin-munching, small-nosed whiny bore; then he was a dead bore. Float that down the Thames on a barge.)
A 24-hour head cold turns into quite perturbing earache in Latacunga, so I ride it out in a 4-star hotel ($20), stuffing myself with sickening quantities of roast chicken and watching fourth-rate Hallmark Channel movies about the politics of deafness, in which the deaf characters describe losing one's hearing as "achieving deafness". No comment.
So here's Quito - A jewel! If you believe the guidebooks, you are definitely going to get murdered here, so don't. The dartboard to the left of the bar in The Turtle's Head could do with an overhaul, but the drinks are cheap and Albert's got Rush on the jukebox. Good man Albert - even though you weren't actually there. If you're off to Quito, be sure to get in a breakfast at the Colibri Cafe - it'll keep you going all the way to the Northern Hemisphere (about 45 minutes away) and beyond. And say hello to Walter the German owner; he seemed to be fighting off a bout of Weltschmerz the other night. Maybe he felt bad about beating me at darts with his injured left hand. *fume*
I wonder if Douglas Bader ever took to describing having his legs cut off as "achieving shortness"? I suspect - without possibly being able to know for certain - that he didn't. I suspect (and I'm open to counter-argument) that he would have described anyone who used the phrase "achieving deafness" as either an incalculably fat-headed bounder or a rat-eyed shitbox.
*That Top 5 in full (excluding UK and Ireland):
1. The Gibraltar, Buenos Aires (despite the fact that you can't smoke)
2. Norton Rats, Cusco, Peru
3. Champs, Accra, Ghana
4. Eucalyptus Cafe, Cuenca
5. Ruperto's, Puerto Natales, Chile.
The Dublin, Tokyo
The Dublin, Ushuaia
The Colonial, Punta Arenas, Chile
Oliver's Travels, La Paz
1.7.09 Ibarra, Ecuador
In the summer of 2007 I flew to Zakynthos on a whim (and back on an Airbus A300 - still a great gag! Sorry...) and spent two scintillating, Heineken-cooled weeks crisping up on Nature's Griddle. My conscious moments were divided between piloting a wheezy, hired "Kawasaki" (well - it was green and they'd stuck a KLR650 sticker on it, but I swear it was a Chinese 250) around the island, helmetless, dumb and salty-skinned; acting the porpoise in the crystal waters; and reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Oh Dawkins! You non-crazy diamond! What. A. Bloody. Book!
Any road up, in the last week or so I've developed a gnawing desire to read it again. Imagine my clucks of disbelief, then, when I turn up at a hostel in Otavalo and there it is on the bookshelf, dog-eared enough even to be the copy I left on the plane two years ago. And yes - I can swap it for my tatty Ken Follett Gatwick-buster (Hornet Flight - it'll do if you're desperate/a wee bit dim). I can even off-load Ann Patchett's quite-nice Run ("Diff'rent Strokes" for the Obama generation), and a mucky book by Anais Nin (translated into Spanish) that H. stuffed into my pocket in Coyhaique.
That night I wax 'n' polish my brain and fire up Prof Dawkins. It's even better than I remember; frequently laugh-out-loud funny, sure, but in-between the gut-larfs a scalpel is applied to the mind-tumour of Creationism, the fatuous balloon of the Ontological Argument* is popped, and the foam-headed, can't-be-bothered-to-think-anymore intellectual ditch of Agnosticism (or, more fairly, Permanent Agnosticism In Principle) is drained. It's - literally - the tops! I'm never losing this copy and I'm already thinking (160 pages in) of going right back to page 1 when I finish it.
Phew. And he's married to a Dr Who assistant!
Here's a magical, pixie-scattered glade to visit if you're near Otavalo - Las Cascadas de Pechugas. The fairytale daydream of it all is offset nicely by the lunch of fried swine blubber I have in Ibarra. Salty and good up to the last two mouthfuls, at which point gastric common sense asserts itself. And all for 85 pence!
Johnny Rotten famously "rocked" an I Hate Pink Floyd t-shirt, and I can genuinely see why many people are rendered pasty/brought out in purulent scabs by them. I can't be doing with any of Dark Side Of The Moon myself, and everything after The Wall (and at least half of The Wall) is unspeakable horse-wash. But "Dogs", from the album Animals, always makes me go "yowwww..." ...for teenage nostalgia reasons I s'pose... and the music chap in Cafe Arte has just put it on, after exactly the right number of Pilseners (4). And turned it up! Good lad.
While we're up it, why didn't Johnny ever wear an "I Love Hawkwind" shirt? Cos he did, you know. Love 'em, I mean. He once said "The Sex Pistols would never have happened without Hawkwind". Ask him!
*me neither - until I read the book! D'you see?
4.7.09 Pasto, Colombia
The word "hooray" scarcely seems adequate
Sundown in the main square, Pasto. It's cool (jacket on = sitting outside) and dry. What exactly do I fancy? Strong coffee with spirituous liquor sounds about right. I order one, and by the third it's plain that Colombian coffee with a generous hit of Cuban rum is today's Best Thing Ever. A dog yelps gleefully in the tree-sprinkler's jet. A wobbly man - the ghost of Saturday Yet To Come - attempts to hail a cab, missing out each time as three separate drivers pull up and conclude - correctly I would guess - that;
a) he's spent all his money on rum
b) he'll almost certainly be unable to remember where he lives
c) the probability that he'll honk over the upholstery is at least 80%.
Yesterday's Best Thing Ever was Natalia, a Colombian customs official and the most punishingly attractive slice of 25-year old womanhood this side of - oh I dunno - Tokyo? You're expected to sit opposite her chirpy, heaving form and write important details on a piece of paper without either howling like a frustrated moose or collapsing into a pool of your own wretched tears. Good luck if you're heading that way.
Thursday - I finish re-reading The God Delusion.
Friday - Sarah Palin resigns (during a characterisically nonsensical press conference). Coincidence????
Insurance Digest: I made it all the way through Ecuador without being asked for it. Thank Blimey, since I didn't quite seem to have any. In fact I was stopped only once in Ecuador, 20 miles from the Colombian border, by some M16-toting narcotics-squad lads. Thoroughly decent chaps, the lot of 'em - a cursory glance in my topbox and I was on my way. Just as well, when one takes into account the 5 keys of uncut Bolivian Yap I had in me panniers. (JOKE! Come on - who sneaks drugs into Colombia?)
It's a short, but imprecise walk down a garden path that starts out surrounded by foxgloves, hummingbirds and friendly bumblebees, and terminates in a foul, sucking pond of cold green duck excreta, from ordering rum in your coffee at 6.30pm, to secretly adding it yourself at 8.00am. It's not a path I intend to take.
In most of South America, you're not supposed to flush your bum-wipes down the toilet - you are exhorted to chuck them in the bin. The plumbing generally isn't up to coping with wads of tissue. Like most toiletary issues, you get used to it. But often the bin has no lid... Don't look! Don't look! You will never get over it.
6.7.09 Popayan, Colombia
Mincing Moses! It looks like the rumours about Colombia may be true! I'm only in the south, but the vibrating greenness of the mountains, the mood-bumping warmth of the people, the eye-popping, shirt-testing Oh-My-God-ness of the honeys, and the (so far) utter lack of getting shot, robbed or kidnapped are all starting to pull Colombia up my (facile and ill-considered) Best Country In South America list.
It's 178 miles from Pasto to Popayan. Supposedly it's the stretch where Bad Things Might Happen, but they don't. It's certainly the bendiest 178 miles I've ever experienced - feels like, if you did it as the crow flies, it'd be about 30. By the end of the day, I've learnt more about how to go round an uphill right-hand hairpin elegantly than in the previous five years. It's - I think - my favourite day's motorbikin' of the last nine months. There's a bucketload of waving and thumb-action, from 6 year old roadside kids to 70 year old moped grannies, truck drivers, BMX teens and Dayglo Tour-De-France-alikes. The only sociological group that doesn't show any interest is the police. Good country! Almost no need to bring in the whitewashed splendour of Popayan, the chatty Colombian army fellows that surround every bridge, the huge, balconied 15 quid hotel room or the perfect, scratchy-78rpm-tango-tunes bar round the corner.
Since Colombia has turned out to be Eden with rivers of sweet, sweet gravy, perhaps I should start worrying about Honduras. "Oh well", I thought, as I watched the news coverage, "I'll just skip round it, through El Salvador." Then I looked at the map. Since I don't have my water-wings with me, that plan ain't gonna fly. On the other hand I'm at least 3 months and 4 countries from Honduras, so let's have another Poker and worry about it when the time comes.
Poker is a 4% abv session-lager with no immediately discernable downside (fact check to follow). The slogan , when translated by someone who isn't very good at Spanish, reads "I always win with Poker". I'll admit to some reservations as to whether that hypothesis holds water, in relation to either the lager or the card game; as always, however, there's only one way to find out.
It's a cliche - and like most cliches, the phrase "it's a cliche, but it happens to be true", while disgusting, doesn't mean it isn't true, that a bunch of old men in suits sitting on a bench in a South American park will always look cool. Or women. If this paragraph doesn't make sense to you, why not visit meneither.com, or just have another Poker and fuhgeddaboudit.
Pig meat is, according to people who tend not to explain how they found out, the closest taste-cousin to human flesh. Having had a hot pork lunch at El Carbono today, I'm in awe of the restraint shown by most of humanity in not going as mad as chairs and just chomping into each other on a daily basis. I'm going back there for dinner.
Come on now - if there was an ethical form of cannibalism, wouldn't you want to try it at least once? If you were, like, really shitted? Say someone young and healthy died in a car crash, and as well as an organ donor card, he carried an Eat Me card? So his - er - offal was all transplanted into worthy recipients, but the steak 'n' ribs action was sold to a licenced restaurant? (Or "donated" if it helps.) You gotta give it a try, ain'cha? Even if it's just the bacon? (A proper cannibal breakfast is of course ruled out by the size of the human egg.)
The bus company in Popayan is called Trans-Pubenza. Is it just me?
8.7.09 Cali, Colombia
We've ascertained, haven't we, what the Worst Song In The World is already. But what's the Other Worst Song In The etc? Spot on! And well done. It's What's Going On by 4 Non Blondes.
-It's a rat with a sore on its leg dying on your lunch.
-It's a burp mishap.
-It's flat, room-temperature Pepsi served by a frowning Mormon.
-It's a wall-eyed stepchild with an expensive and ongoing orthodontic programme for which you are liable.
-It's a fat lout straining in the next stall.
-It's Nottingham City Council's 1947 Christmas "Party". More tinned egg, anyone?
"4 Non Blondes" is the most sickening, faux Marxism Today, Stoke-Newington-When-It-Was-Still-Shit sprout-chod of a band name in the history of pop music. Hey - I read The Guardian - but this is hog-sputum.
Having just watched my first-ever 10 minutes of Monster Trucks, I feel the need to share the names of the four drivers with you. Ready?
I swear I'm not exaggerating. It's worth watching just for the names.
If you're planning a trip to Cali - and if you're not, have a rethink - you'd better firm up your eye-sockets, else them peepers are gonna be bouncing off your chin like wet, fleshy golf balls. It's the breast-augmentation capital* of the world, and if there's such a thing as the opposite of a burka, that's what Las Caleņas are wearing this season. And I'm not talking about the Mrs Beckham-style "two footballs and a snout glued to a broom handle" look. These women are - to a man, almost - getting it right.
The zoo's great as well, apart from - as usual - the poor bastard bear, trotting round in demented circles like a retired, lonely Alan Titchmarsh with only a window-box to fuss over. It was the same story in Buenos Aires zoo. FREE THE BEARS! Everything else seems happy and well-fed; the ostriches are plainly content to the point of utter, robotic vacancy. Two of them stand at the low dividing wall, an arm's length away, and stare at us, motionless, for five solid minutes. The humans blink and laugh; the ostriches blink and burp. It's low comedy, sure, but comedy nonetheless. If - like me - you're slightly scared of butterflies (moths, really, but they're too close for comfort aren't they?), grit your gums and get y'self in the butterfly house. It's excellent - and they have hummingbirds in there as well.
7.8.09 Valdivia, Colombia
Bogota eh? Not a pretty name, and it's not a pretty town. The weather's a bit grim too; and you'd have to be dear old Ferdy Magellan to find your way from the outskirts to the centre in less than 2 hours. On top of all that there's The Curse Of Bogota. Within 24 hours, my camera disappears (with every picture I took in Ecuador, Popayan and Cali), my iPod craps out permanently, and someone at the parking place manages to wrestle a pannier off my bike. Not to steal it, you understand, but it's not supposed to be wrestled off, so it gets a bit bent, and I get a bit narked.
Despite The Curse, I manage to have a spectacular time in Bogota, due almost entirely to Adam, Neil and *sigh* J. J *swoon* is 27 and ooohhh mahh Gawwwd just about perfect *gazes out of window* ...Eh? Oh yeah... so, eventually, having been told in three Bogota camera shops that the replacement camera I want (which is advertised on TV in Colombia every 20 minutes) isn't available in Colombia, it's time to head for Medellin (where - oh look! - it is available), home of The Barking Spider.
The Spider is a brand new motorbikin' pub, and after 2 weeks in Medellin I'm ashamed to say it's almost all I can accurately recall about the place. Apart from the phone number of a girl I met there (only because she wrote it on the blackboard and I photographed it, though I couldn't tell you her name) and a club full of naked ladies (don't know where it was or what it was called).
If you're at all interested in "fun", particularly the kind that tends to crop up between opening time and bed time, I strongly recommend Medellin. Bring plenty of cash. It ain't cheap, but it's worth it.
8.8.09 Planeta Rica
A young family gambols happily on a late-afternoon beach. A slightly smug twentysomething voiceover artist begins to murmur inanities about our "fragile world" and delivers vague reassurances that efforts are being made behind the scenes to save it. At this point, as usual, it's time to guess which planet-raping multinational is behind the ad. Texaco? Shell? Nope - this one's Lockheed Martin! Exsqueeeeeeze me? Lockheed Martin the arms company? Manufacturers of the Hellfire missile? Creators, in 2002, of something called the Integrated Warfare Development System? And something else called the Millennium Gun?
Is that not deeply, richly hilarious, and at the same time the most insultingly cynical, breathtakingly mendacious half-minute of television of all time? Wouldn't it be cheaper, and more honest, just to stick a flashing neon "FUCK YOU!" sign on screen for 30 seconds?
I still haven't managed to find the time to buy any insurance. Now that I'm 250 miles from my final South American destination, and bearing in mind that I haven't been stopped once in Colombia, I'm beginning to doubt that I'll ever get round to it.
If there's a better feeling than rolling into somewhere called "Planeta Rica" at 4pm on a sweaty, sea-level Saturday, parking 'Er Ladyship in the dining hall of a six-pound hotel and settling down to enjoy numerous roadside Aguilas in a pair of relatively clean shorts, I haven't discovered it. By the way, six quid hotels in PR come with 3 beds, a telly, a ceiling fan and a bathroom.
9.8.09 El Carmen de Bolivar
Aguila, like Poker, is a 4% swigging lager perfect for the heat. Served - distressingly - only in small cans or small bottles, it's near-indistinguishable from Poker, but Poker is clearly a better name, so Poker wins. Make sure you don't accidentally order Aguila Light - it's gassy water with yellow food colouring (although the label claims 4% alcohol).
Good, clever telly
Unless something goes as wrong as Hitler tomorrow, I've got one half day's ride to my final South American destination left. Not even that - it's 80 miles to Cartagena and the Caribbean coast. From there it's a 4 day boat ride to Colon in Panama. That'll be nearly 14000 miles in South America: no punctures, no serious bike problems, several entire cows, pigs and sheep, several incidences of nearly boiling to death and nearly freezing to death on the same day, 3 cameras (one broken, one either lost or stolen), six colds, 10 months and 1 day.
Thousands of miles in a straight line, hundreds of miles of hairpins, 15,500 feet, sea-level, good cops (Argentina and Colombia), bad cops (Peru), and no discernable improvement in my Spanish in the last 6 months. Not proud of that last one (though I suspect Northern Colombian Spanish, like Chilean, is more tricksy to the European ear than that of some other countries).
1.5 sets of tyres, dozens of episodes of "House" - great telly - two episodes of "The Nanny" - total shit - mad bikers, sane locals, insane locals and normal bikers, lovely ladies and women who look a bit like Jay Leno, probably a hundred episodes of "Two And A Half Men" (superb), late nights, great tights, early mornings and surly warnings, mountains and fountains, lakes and shakes, wines, pines, lines and fines, highs and lows, pies and nose-blows, and the most beautiful, faultless, forgiving and unstoppably eager 11-year-old Africa Twin on the planet. Cheers!
11.8.09 Cartagena, Colombia.
Tierra del Fuego to Cartagena with no insurance! Eat that, copper! (Unless I get nicked in the last 1.5 miles to the docks...)
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