Ecuador, June 2009
June 13, 2009 GMT
Who Loves Ya, Baby?

11.6.09 Catamayo, Ecuador


I stagger home at 10pm from Bar Lovely in Happyville and decide it's time for a haircut. I'm armed with an electric razor and sheer, bloody-minded, booze-enhanced willpower. I am, literally, Mad Britney, with way less cash. A tramp, if you will.


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Just a light trim, please

I haven't had a haircut since Margate in September last year, and my shaver is crap, so it takes 2 hours, but at last it's done. Something that looks like a flattened adult cat is left on the floor. I look in the mirror. I am Telly Savalas. Cool. Bedtime.

The next morning I blunder towards the mirror, confused, dehydrated and vaguely ashamed. Oh goodness. I am Telly Savalas, but as he would look now if you dug him up and punched him in what used to be his face.


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The hotel staff clearly don't recognise me when I descend to reception, but are kind enough not to point/stare/laugh. My face is red-to-brownish, but the area where my hair used to be is Snow White. I wheel Her Ladyship out of the building and scoot. It's hot, jungly and sweaty on the 30-mile border dash. Only 15 minutes elapse before I start to thank Jehovah for my hairless scalp. What a feeling!
(Later, at the hotel in Ecuador, I see they've supplied packets of 2-in-1 Pantene - the finest shampoo a sensible amount of money can buy. Bingo! I think, before remembering that shampoo is a thing of the past. No problem, I counter. I have other hairs! Oh no - it seems I don't. Must unclog my shaver.)
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Proper, Sensible Motorcycle Travel Advice Section.

La Tina is a really easy border crossing if you're going from Peru to Ecuador. I was out of Peru in 15 minutes and into Ecuador in 60 (only because the Ecuadorian Customs computer is a Windows 95 pig-stool). There was no suggestion of a back-hander at any point.

The one issue you might want to look out for is the possibility of a gun-battle between Peruvian smugglers and the Ecuadorian army. I missed one by 10 minutes.


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Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 11:08 PM GMT
August 19, 2009 GMT
Swell Maps

15.6.09 Saraguro, Ecuador.

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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.


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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.)
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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!
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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.
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NB - Some of the photos are a wee bit irrelevant from this bit up to Medellin due to disappearing camera syndrome in Bogota...

Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 10:07 PM GMT
August 20, 2009 GMT
Poker Stars (And Blackjack Hacks)

29.6.09 Quito, Ecuador

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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*
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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.
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*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.

Bubbling under:

The Dublin, Tokyo
The Dublin, Ushuaia
McSorley's, Manhattan
The Colonial, Punta Arenas, Chile
Oliver's Travels, La Paz

Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 09:16 PM GMT
It's Too Late To Lose The Weight You Used To Need To Throw Around

1.7.09 Ibarra, Ecuador

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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.

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Phew. And he's married to a Dr Who assistant!
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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!
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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.


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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!

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*me neither - until I read the book! D'you see?

Posted by Simon Fitzpatrick at 09:54 PM GMT
 


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