October 21, 2009 GMT
Why Are Pirates Called Pirates?*

21.1.09 Santiago, Panama

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You might even conclude that I deserve to 'ave me collar felt, doing just over double the speed limit on the first stretch of proper road in an unfamiliar country. My attorney's rebuttal (or summink) will centre around the fact that it was a dual carriageway (which might be "2 lane blacktop" in the USA) and the speed limits were switching, seemingly at random, between 100 kmh and 50. Clearly, the primeval gobs of brain matter that control motorbikin' interpret this information as "do 120 everywhere". Case dismissed! Ah - beg pardon your honour.

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As the radar-equipped bike cop signals me to stop, the dubiousness of my import permit and the total, actionable inadequacy of the sheet of A4 that I will have to proffer as "liability insurance" vanish from my mind, as the urge to Do The Right Thing takes hold. I pull in at the next lay-by. There's a little bit of a comedy Panamanian stand-off - the lay-by is 200 yards up the road, and we squint at each other, thinking either "Well, you stopped me mate - you come up here!" or "I'm the bloody copper pal - you come down here!" We meet in the middle.


There's the inevitable chit chat about "infractions" and "102 in a 50 zone" as we plod downhill to his tatty police Virago. Oooh! A copper on a chopper! The sum of fifty US dollars is mentioned, but not demanded, and then he pulls out a book of speeding tickets. I manage to pluck the necessary feathers of information from the burbling turkey of his Spanish. 50 bucks is to be paid at some weird office before I leave the country. It occurs to me at this point that - hey! - I won't bloody bother, but say I will.

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This is the fulcrum of our encounter; the leverage moment after which a bribe becomes unnecessary. I nod mournfully, indicating - I hope - that
a: I really am most awfully sorry to have troubled him; that
b: I feel genuine remorse for my actions; and that
c: I have every intention of repaying my debt to society - to the tune of fifty smackeroos - at the nearest A.T.T.T. office (whatever in the blue-bottomed hell that might be).

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Then I hand him my UK registration document and my UK driving licence (or amateurish copies thereof). There's a brief pause while he tries to decide which chunks of information - in English, obviously - are the relevant ones. I elect not to help, deciding instead that this is the moment to start audibly cooing over his bike (which is actually quite groovy - a Panama police 1100 Virago.)

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Minutes pass. The speeding ticket has many boxes to fill in, and a UK registration document has many more. Importantly, I've made it clear that I'm not gonna bribe my way out of it. He folds: "too complicated!" and I'm on my way with a friendly warning. As I pull away, teeth a-chat with joy, I thank Booda he didn't ask to see my insurance.

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*Because they Arrrrrrggghhhhh!

Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 09:36 PM GMT
Rum, Lobstery And (Being On) The Lash

22.9.09 David, Panama

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The Stahlratte

Oh Balboa! To understand quite how good this 4.8%, moreish Panamanian brew can be, you should:
a) spend 4 days tossing on the Caribbean, performing acts of borderline self-harm with a quite extraordinary quantity of weak Colombian lager and cheap rum (selected because "the label looks quite piratey")
b) check into a nice Panama City hotel and spend a further 5 days drinking ice water, coffee and Coca Cola, woefully trying to imagine the day you'll ever be able to eat lobster again, or even look at one without retching. (Half a lobster is nice. One lobster is a treat. Six and a half is only a good idea at the time.)

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There is no better way to get from Colombia to Panama than on the 103 year old Stahlratte - the Steel Rat. (I haven't been on any of the others; but the force of my argument is actually enhanced by my iron resolve, which remains firm in the face of my total ignorance of the other options.) Especially if you find out at the last minute that Adam and Neil, my Bogota booze buddies, are on the same boat. There are several very good things about the Stahlratte. It's big - plenty of space for both motorbikes and humans; there's a lot of extremely good food (if you're sailing from Colombia it's easily the best breakfast you'll have had recently) and, while the ship carries all the lager a man could want, Captain Ludwig suggests you stock up at the supermarket (from where giggling Colombian dolly-birds will push your straining trolley to the jetty), to save yourself some cash.

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That, in fact, is where the seeds of destiny are scattered. The supermarket lager comes in 12 can boxes. Within moments me 'n' Neil are deciding on 5 boxes each, plus "some" rum, in case of "emergencies", such as the lager "running out", which would be mathematically impossible, but still.

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Groceries bought, we set sail (or rather switch on the engine, as there's not enough wind to blow an ant off a bun). Having scoffed breakfast, Neil suggests that we might like to make a start on the lager. It's 11.02am; opening time in English money. We have to* drink 20 small cans a day in order to fulfil our mandate, so I accept. Which of us can honestly say we know what happened after that? There were dolphins (look closely), lobsters, islands, arguments about religion and the "Bean Soup" gag (I don't want to know what its been, I want to know what it is now!).

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The world's worst ever picture of a dolphin. Magnifying glass recommended.

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Adam clutches at his last "marble"

Some time that night we make it to 20 each; it's suggested that we have a 21st, to "celebrate". So we do. The rum remains untouched, so all is well the next day, which plays out in much the same way, but with rum. Adam hits his peak - tomorrow he will become mad. The ripe, salty madness of the open sea, intensified by the fact that his skull, or brain-pan, has become a sealed container of rum with a walnut floating in it. There's a bout of prop-comedy with marker pens, and still our boat-mates take it all on the chin.

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Ocean madness

Day 3 arrives. We're literally in Paradise** - Panama's San Blas islands - and we're utterly, utterly plastered. The evening ends with Neil and I finishing the "emergency" rum and singing Highway To Hell at shouting volume 17 times in a row.

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That's it , ladies, and hold that pose...

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...Oh! Well that's disappointing...

Day 4 arrives. I don't feel over-well - part rum, part lobster abuse. Neil and Adam are both way beyond help. Sea-mad and rum-crazed, they batter each other and everyone else with foam flotation devices, weeping with laughter, ignorant of the ice cold fingers of death which clutch at their shoulders.

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It's all I can do to feebly suck down a few more lagers at sunset. Neil hits his 60. I think I made 52. Adam is way too mad - crab crazy, a lobster loon, a rum cove from a cove full of rum - to know how much he's had. Alternating between tears of joy and the wretched snickering of the damned, he disintegrates in front of us. We can only salute his destruction, thanking Neptune for taking him first.

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Yes, thank you Neil, I do believe I will have another.

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Not even remotely scared. (Thanks Phil for the pic.)

It may readily be apparent that trying to get an extremely heavy motorcycle into a canoe, then sitting on it in open water for a nautical mile, then dragging it up a muddy bank, then riding it through a frightening river, then along a steep, wet gravel track through a jungle, with a Force 8 lobster hangover and - oh look! - no water, is something of a trial. Never mind - it's done, and I didn't die. Good.

*We don't really "have to', legally
** if there was a telly

Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 10:11 PM GMT
(Not) Breakin' The Law!

2.10.09 San Jose, Costa Rica

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People who have, at one time, been truly excellent pop stars, but have later revealed themselves to be horrible little bastards:
1. Gary "I love Thatcher" Numan.
2. Gary "I love pre-teens" Glitter.
Hold tight! I think I spot a theme.

What in blazes is Barry short for? Gary = Gareth, Terry = Terence. Barry does not equal Barrence (not even if your surname is Whitfield). Or Bareth. So what is it? Barold? Barathon? WHAT IS IT?

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I bowl through Panama at a reasonable lick, conscious of my ferociously dodgy documents and keen on the idea of a beach "holiday" in Costa Rica. The border formalities are lengthy but straightforward, and include getting fumigated on the Costa Rica side. The indignity! I do have a shower now and then you know. Daily, where appropriate. (It's actually Her Ladyship rather than me that gets de-loused, but it still rankles.) By the end, for the first time since Argentina, I'm 100% legal; proper import certificate, insurance, fumigation cert. and a 90 day visa. It's a great feeling, and I find myself willing the roadside cops to stop me so I can show off my paperwork. (Later on they do, and they're quite terse about it, obviously refusing to see the whole documents thing as a bit of a game, so - phew! etc.)

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Ten minutes into CR, the sky blackens and the regular rainy season downpour leaves me wetter than a cod's nostril. Soon I can't see the potholes as the road's become a river; also the extremely loud thundercracks are making me whimper a bit. I pull in at the next hotel, where Peter and his mum sit me in a rocking chair on the porch and feed me.

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God blast this infernal rain...

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The rain doesn't stop until sundown. It's now that Peter asks me if I like books. Oh dear me yes! I respond. Have you allowed this one into your life, he enquires, handing me a copy of the New Testament and a leaflet entitled "Who is Jesus?".

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There's nowhere to run now baby. Nowhere to hide. Except, it occurs to me, for the deadening embrace of booze. I excuse myself and skip down to the supermercado for some cans, and head back to the hotel to erect a wall of lager between my earholes and the Good News. The makeshift barrier holds for five hours, and I roll out westwards into the blue-hazed morning the next day.

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An hour or so up the Pacific Coast, I meet Brian and Sandra. Funny folks on GB plates! It's a treat to hear their tales over a hastily-scoffed omelette, as they're doing the same trip as me but the other way round. They tell me that they got deluged with interested bystanders in the US - every petrol stop, every food stop - to the point where they were thinking "please don't ask me anything" as another gas-station lurker decided to make his way over, usually just as they'd got their sweaty bike duds back on and the key was in the ignition. Good luck fellas!

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Up the coast a bit more and I fetch up in Matapalo, where USA Charlie gives me half a house, 30 yards from the beach, for 20 bucks a night. Five nights in near-Paradise (i.e. no telly) follow. On night three I promise to marry a barmaid at 10am the next day. She's unfazed when I turn up the next night with the excuse that I forgot. Matapalo! Brilliant.

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Next there's a quick stop in Jaco, where my room has a kitchen for the first time in a year, and I prove that you can fry both chicken wings and pork ribs in butter and garlic salt, eat them, and not immediately die. NB: Jaco's "World Famous Beatle Bar" is, judging by a quick peep I took through the door, a whorehouse.

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Literally gargling butter-fried ribs, I haul my distended body aboard She Who Must Be Obeyed the next morning, and we waddle off to the gleaming capital - San Jose. Except it's not gleaming - it's rubbish. And it's $10 a day just to park a motorcycle, so, after an ill-considered and really quite expensive midnight visit to the Texas Hold 'Em table at the casino, I head to the hills for some volcano action.

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Volcan Poas has an unusual selling point; you don't have to walk up it to peer into the crater. However, you do have to go early in the morning to avoid the clouds which eventually block the view. I make it to a nearby hotel at lunchtime, where the very nice South African fellas that run the place advise me that it's too late to visit the crater. I sense they may be right, given the view out of the window. Scrambling into planning mode, I decide to
a/ start drinking now (1.30pm)
b/ go to bed early
c/ get up early and "do" the crater.

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The important thing with a staged plan is to have the most inviting stage at the top. That gives you a fighting chance of completing stage one; perhaps the others will follow. By 6pm I've persuaded Oliver to play poker with me at the bar. (I win - about 40 pence). Stages 2 and 3 do actually fall into place, and by 10am the next morning I'm staring into an active volcano.

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4.10.09 Puntarenas, Costa Rica

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Comedy Misunderstandings 101: Basic Principles.
Featuring Arnold, a waiter, and me, the me.
Arnold: My name? My name? *points at me*
Me: I have no wish to cause offence old boy, but I'm sorry to say I have literally no idea!
Arnold: No! My name?! *resumes pointing at me*
Me: You are a fine fellow! A stout yeoman, and so on, but I'm nearly sure we've never met... Could you favour me with a clue? Perhaps just the first, or initial, letter?
Arnold: My (etc)!!!!

It turns out that Arnold's English is as bad as my Spanish, and by "my", he means "your". Beautiful! I only came here because the name of the place is almost the same as Punta Arenas in Chile; a town in which hilarious incident was piled, "willy"-nilly, upon whimsical scenario, almost to toppling point. I'm glad I made the effort now.

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Also good.

I simply cannot locate the necessary phrases to tell you how much I love every part of 'Er Ladyship except the saddle. All I can tell you is that if you're thinking of going somewhere weird on a motorbike, and you're well over 5' 7", get a white 1998 Africa Twin. It's pretty and it works - unlike the wife's mother, ladies and gentlemen.

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Arsenal take on Blackburn at the Emirates Stadium today, and due to a 7 hour time difference, if it's on telly at all in CR, it'll be on at 6.30am.
After all the volcano-led excitement of the morning, I'm gratified to see the highlights coming up on CNN in my Puntarenas hotel room. 0-1 to Blackburn! Oh crap. Shortly we equalize. Then - 1-2 to Blackburn! Oh double crap. I prepare for drink-alleviated dismay. Then we equalize. A point ain't so bad. Then it's 3-2. Hoooozah! Then it's 4-2. Yowza! Then, with a rather obvious stage omitted to allow for narrative flow, it's an amazing 6-2! Wooo-bastarding-hoooo!
*applies for post of Chief Sports Writer at The Times*

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Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 10:56 PM GMT
October 22, 2009 GMT
Moving Pig-tures

10.10.09 Liberia, Costa Rica

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A cow, ironically

Last major stop on the north-west highway to Nicaragua, and it's a smiley little town with a freakishly ugly church and a helluva way with a pork chop. I arrive five minutes before the lunchtime rains kick off, having left Samara on the coast reasonably early after the first bacon 'n' egg breakfast in months. Possibly 12 months.

The second-to-last beach bar on the left in Samara is where it's at. There I meet Cliff, and as Imperial follows Imperial, the conversation turns to Rush's golden years: Tom Sawyer, Freewill, The Camera Eye etc. I tell Cliff about my brother Rob. (They're the same age). At the age of 10 or 11, Rob made a (somewhat rudimentary) pig out of clay, painted "RUSH" across its back, glazed it (or whatever) and presented it to our mum. It then sat for more than a quarter-century in her kitchen, savouring the aromas of roast chicken and home-made hamburgers through its unusually-modelled snout, which, perhaps in a nod to Cubist sculpture*, was actually outside its face.

During the Kitchen Years, Piggy Lee´s creator grew from sculptor of Barnyard Progabilia into music journalist, retaining a lifelong if occasionally sublimated Rush fetish along the way (as one does).

Fast forward to 2007: Rob is booked on a flight to New York to interview Rush. "You gotta take the pig, man!" I yelp. He does. If you manage to get your hands on the relevant issue of The Word, you'll be able to detect a deeply moved, very slightly concerned expression on the faces of Geddy and Alex as they clutch the pig for a photo. AWESOME.

Anyway I told that story to Cliff and he thought it was AWESOME. And he was right!

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*Surely the most pointless of all 20th century artistic movements; since Cubist painting was an attempt to represent 3D objects in a 2D medium, why bother with Cubist sculpture? Still, if it looks nice, it's good, as my A-Level History Of Art teacher would have said if you'd massively over-simplified the point he was making.

Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 10:29 PM GMT
One Legged Groove Machine

11.10.09 Rivas, Nicaragua

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Is that Shakira video (the one where she's wearing a mono-leg "jump"-suit, when she's not wearing a leotard that's precisely the same colour as her skin) making anyone else feel a bit "off" in the morality department? My guess, after close scrutiny, is that she's feeling a bit broody. In that event, I would count myself more than happy to "brood" her.

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If you weren't a fan of the Wonder Stuff (and nobody round here's gonna hold that against you) you may be feeling bemused by the title of this entry. If so, thank your lucky stars I didn't go with Plan A, which (and you need to know that Nicaragua has a number of spectacular beaches to appreciate this 'un) was "Sandy Knees? Ta!". If you don't get that one either, I can't help you, but thanks for sticking around for the Mother-In-Law gag.

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So! Nicaragua. So far, there's a HUGE lake with two HUGE volcanoes sticking out of it. The border with Costa Rica is a bit tedious (shocker!) but, once again, I'm fumigated, insured, Visa-ed up and legal as a beagle. Excellent roads around the lake to Rivas, where I'm shown two $10 hotel rooms, either of which I'd be more than happy to commit suicide in, so, heh, no thanks, amigo. Hello, instead, to the cripplingly dear Nicarao hotel. I'm aware at reception that my motorcyclin' trousers have been washed only the once in a year (I know - but it's a terrific pain to get the armour out) but they let me in anyway, and it turns out at 7pm that their nice bar sells the local brew (Victoria - 4.9%) at a frighteningly reasonable one dollar, so really, who's counting?

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Not so good, as it turns out


Note to fellow northbounders: They WILL NOT accept a shit copy of your driving licence at the Nic border, and if you can't lay your hands on the original, the fine's $100.

17.10.09 Leon, Nicaragua.

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If you've ever nurtured a suspicion that, while George Dubbuhyah Bush was the Mother Of All Shits, Ronald Dubbuhyah Reagan was perhaps the Fuckhead That Passeth All Understanding, I urge you to spend a few minuted "boning" up on the history of Nicaragua. On the subject of total arseholes - how about that Jan Moir (a person, it must be said, about whom one would not necessarily choose to write home)? And how about a stint in chokey for the homophobic old bag? How about a crippling fine for the editor and publishers of Britain's most expensive and least hygienic toilet paper, the Daily Mail? You know what they say; better to not wipe your arse at all than wipe it with the Daily Mail. (If, for some reason, the link to Moir's piece stops working, like if it gets plungered down the u-bend of journalistic history, you can email me and I'll send you a copy.)

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There's nothing not to love about Nicaragua. I want to pick it up in my lovin' arms, clutch it to my pigeon chest and squeeze the Bejayzus out of it with the force of my somewhat unhealthy love. It has everything Costa Rica has, but it's half the price because it's not swamped with tourists. It's dirt poor - one of the poorest countries in Latin America - but the people smile and chat, and they're proud as fook of their fight against the (usually) horrific tossers who interfere from Washington (Jimmy Carter being an exception, as far as my pathetically limited understanding goes).

Leon is probably the most Sandinista-friendly town in Nicaragua, and it's a bloody gem. Let's get to it - beers are one dollar. Victoria is not so good, but Toņa may be one of Latin America's best. However, the surprise winner of 2009's glittering "Best Drink In Latin America" pageant is - Nicaraguan Iced Tea! It's literally impossible to have only the one. It's so dreamy I dream about it. You could - I imagine - add premium vodka to it without affecting the taste and actually improve it. Nicaragua mi amor! And smokes are less than a quid...

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Very good

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Leon's cathedral, the largest in Central America, is squat but lovely, in which sense it brings to mind TV's Lowri Turner .

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"Don't you have anything better to do", squawks the Crow of Disapproval, which hangs around my neck by its feet like a Puritan necklace, "than sit around in Central American bars all day, watching football matches for which, in order to register even a crumb of interest, you need to have had a minimum of four Toņas; and either talking, or writing, sarcastic, poorly-judged rubbish?"
No! I reply. I do not! Do you? The question is rhetorical, and his brittle yellow* beak shatters into a hundred ugly splinters as I boot him into a handy storm-drain.

A right rattlin' read! Like Ian Fleming on, you know, drugs.


*re. crows with yellow beaks: what am I, Percy Edwards?

Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 10:55 PM GMT

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