Central America
April 13, 2003 GMT
Mexico

Mexico2.jpg

It’s time to re-learn the international waiter language of elbows-out clucking and the moo-cow first-finger horns. Menus mirror the early aspirations of the proprietor not the food options. Giblets and gizzard? That’ll do nicely. No, I’ll give seconds a miss today; je dois garder ma ligne, yes.

Oh, to be rich again. My ripped khakis are no longer hid embarrassed under long shirts. Now they’re the most expensive item in town. Traveller chic? I invented it sunshine. An orgasmic Versace in a Thai backpacker beach cocaine epiphany burst that seam, sure she did my dear. Still people don’t get my bike. Disbelieving stares continue. But funny how “what the fuck is that?” can, if you move the emphasis, change from disgust to wonder,.

But Mexico. What a place. It’s given me something to say to people from the USA when they ask me what’s the best thing about their country: why proximity to Mexico of course. (Haven’t got to try it yet. I’m guessing on a short sinking-in pause, followed by a series of blowing noises. Conversation stoppers, I have them too.) It’s got yer stunning old colonial town centres, to rival anything in Spain; yer ancient cities in the jungle; mountains, beaches, oceans, plains and deserts all in one day. Open friendly people too. Where have all those stupid inaccurate prejudices come from? As if we didn’t know.

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Horse power

It’s the usual IMF-World Bank deal of course-give away your economy to the multinationals, defence policy to the northern neighbour and in return the top percentiles get mobile phones, posh cloth for the body and drive on all four wheels. The rest? Well, we have an exceptionally generous subvention for internal security for them. I’m guessing this pattern is going to repeat itself a few time between here and Argentina.

This is how it should be--my left arm sore from waving at village children. How perfect. Overlanding proper. Fun, no. Romantic, not at all. Easy, no way. But coming over that rise today on that slow left-hander, the valley opening out, the sun on my back and the pine in the air…well, the my world was bling bling bling.

Posted by at 04:39 PM GMT
May 13, 2003 GMT
Mexican bee movie

Near San Miguel de Allende: whach whach whach. Or maybe tatatata. Or maybe more of a dug dug dug. Whatever the noise it was a helluv a thing. A calm sixty miles an hour on a open four lane highway and that smear on my visor becomes a tiny black cloud. Now it looks like it is moving, animated. Decidedly alive. I am right on it and I think, hmm, that’s a lot of flies. Close now: no, I’m wrong, not flies. That would be a swarm of wasps that.

Then the noise. Like a shovelful of gravel out of a catapult. A bombardment. Not prepared for this. No point trying to dodge. I have hit bigtime, an aerial colony. I wonder how they are going to take to this introduction. Not too friendly I guess.

Several dozen of their sisters are motorcycle wasp paste. First experiences always have a particular attraction, even if you don’t want to repeat them. Hot wet pain is spreading up my right arm. I am finding it quite intriguing. That car-crash slow-mo is running quarter-time. I wonder what happens next? Never been here before. There was that bee in Greece. Made my nipple swell to porn star proportions. But this is definitely a step up. Don’t think I have read about this one. Is there a page in the overlanding handbook on massed insect attack? No, I read it cover to cover. I bet they train for this in the special forces. There are a few ways we can go with this thought.

Hold on. Isn’t this, like, uh, dangerous? I pull over. Brake sharply. “Get off”: an alpha command. Not very nice, but she knows something’s wrong. Perhaps I am trying to communicate the seriousness. Or maybe I’m a rude bastard. “I am going to take off my jacket and you’re going to wipe them off”. It’s on the floor with a single shrug. I pull up my arms, assuming the position. Jesus Christ for a moment. Forgive them they know not what they do. A few dazed wasps emerge, fly some circles and then head off. There’s one in my neckerchief. She picks it out, a little too gingerly for my liking. I am okay. A few stings. Nowhere sensitive. I was protected from head to foot. Could have been a lot worse. “Imagine if I’d had my visor up?” Images of bloated blistering Simonface pass swiftly. We are smiling now. A funny thing happened on the way to Zacatecas… We inspect the bike. They are everywhere. All over the front. In wholes and fractions. A massacre. A traditional European gift to the new world. Now onto Mexico fellow conquistadors. I say that maybe they are hornets. “No they’re bees”. I argue the point and lose. They are 15mm long. A dirty mustard colour. Not the vivid yellow of wasps.

I am cursing in amazement. Far out freaky stuff indeed. Then I notice the level of buzzing is increasing. Oh yeah, there’s still another thousand or so of them just up the road wondering where their hundred siblings have got to, and what is that stink of dead bee wafting north from those two? We are being seriously scouted. Uh-oh. How quick does bee dancing get the message across? “Maybe we should get on the bike. GET ON THE BIKE”.

I am doing my reverse shrug as I feel for the ignition key, upright the machine, flick up the side stand, pull in the clutch, hit the starter, check the left mirror, select first and let it go. Hopefully there aren’t more of them in the jacket sleeve. Should have checked that one. My friend hasn’t quite landed yet, but the top box will catch her. Mosquitos can do 42 kilometres per hour. Bees must beat that. But then, a V-twin is surprisingly forceful off the blocks, even my dear overloaded pig. This is a race we win hands down. I am still swearing and shaking my head half an hour later.

Posted by at 04:43 PM GMT
June 13, 2003 GMT
Guatemala

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Paramilitary shootings have doubled in frequency in Guatemala of late. It’s election time, with a 24 caret nasty standing for presidente. So I plan on moving sharpish.

Antigua’s dawn is beautiful. The clean high-altitude light sharply draws out the bright earthy pigments on the walls. The blocks of competing colour jostle happily like drunken wedding guests. By breakfast time the language-learning factory is in business. So we load-up and leave at eight, happy enough after a brownie and café latte in the town square. I took a dozen shots of the town arch. The day before I had used the other half of the film on Mayan children. Clichés satisfied, we move through the country in two days. After a wet week in an endless line of belching lorries and four days on the border trying to get into Guatemala, we have one of those unforgettable lovely overlanding rides. Fabulous new empty roads in the highlands, untouched by tourists, twisting along the sides of jungle-covered volcanoes. Even the noxious capital at rush hour opened up and let us through.

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It’s a day when you are completely happy to be on a motorbike filtering through the city traffic in half an hour, and then transported to that dreamland of mountainside lefts and rights. No other way to travel, for the highs and the lows.

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Photos by Didier Martin.
See his web site at
http://www.ride4kids.t2u.com/

The crossing into Honduras is bribe-free until the last stamp. They had stayed open especially late for us. So they said: that’ll be 20USD please. He went down to ten quick enough, but we probably should have screamed ourselves blue. That sure would have put the frights up his dead ancestors. But we stumped up. Tired after ten hours on the road, a glimpse of finishing line put paid to principles.

Posted by at 04:45 PM GMT
July 13, 2003 GMT
Nicaragua

Parched throat. That sinking feeling. I have been in the wrong queue these last thirty minutes. Did the guy really have to sneer so as he sent me away? Was that necessary? Wrong papers. When does paperwork work? I should have changed out of these big motocross boots before a border crossing. What was I thinking? I look a sight, striding about like a geriatric beast of the jungle. Each heel hits ceramic floor with an indelicate thud. And they squeak. Everyone stares. No local currency. Who do I go to change dollars? The least dodgy looking one. Hummn, now there’s a challenge. Where can I get water around here? Can’t trust the tap in the gents. Look for the boss and win him to my cause. Now there’s a plan. Good one. We’re a cut above the riff raff, the boss and me. Special. It’s understood. We’ll share a wink and between us quietly “expedite matters”, as we say back home where the privileges of caste are just as ingrained. Who’s the boss? Look for the most drunken one. Jesus. It’s a Sunday. Of, course no one’s here. He’s in a happy haze by now. I should know this stuff. I’m so thirsty. It’s so hot. They shuffle and I wait. There’s the deal. Should have taken off my riding jacket. Left it on the bike. Should have, should have. Oh for a world without my favourite should. The sweat is blurring my view and dripping onto the guy’s mas importante paperwork. I’ve done this before. Eternal repetition. Again and again. What other kind of repetition is there? There’s no learning some people. Perhaps there’s a drinking water fountain. How do I indicate that? Piss in an arch? “Yes I realize I need to go to a bank”. “No, I know the banks are shut today”. “Yes I realize now, that I can’t go to a bank, because they are all shut today”. “Thanks you. So kind”. “Agua, por favor?”

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Overlanders congregate

A rough ol’ lot the locals. I guess they’ve had to cope with plenty in the last decades. It was a tough crossing, with the first really dedicatedly unhelpful cops. And it’s got hot. Find myself called gringo an awful lot. Don’t know whether I should be taking it personally. The heat is a bit hard for me, so I am looking forwards to the Andean stretch.

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This happens a lot
Photo: Didier Martin

Posted by at 04:50 PM GMT
August 13, 2003 GMT
Turtle time

Twenty kilometres of dirt, including three river crossings. In the dark. What for? There was none there. We waited. We went back to the car to get food and water. It had a puncture; we fixed it and returned to the beach. We sat for another hour. It was puzzlingly romantic, the six of us staring out to sea wondering if the turtles would lumber in from the sea. There’s a purity in waiting for animals to visit, not knowing if they’ll come. It engenders humility. A couple of bored guards swung their shotguns from shoulder to shoulder. The soup is supposed to be very good.

We waited some more. Our eyes saw more. Our ears opened up. The surf got brighter and louder. A bobbing torch moved towards us. The guy attached to it led us to a turtle further down. We kept the light off for the first ten minutes. She was
digging. Once the warden was sure that she was settled, we lit-up the area and huddled around. He scooped up several handfuls from behind her to show the hole she'd been working on. It was about 40cm deep and similarly wide. She was dropping eggs in twos and threes. It was delightful in its own way. The miracle of new life. Enchanting. I don’t know why I was so fascinated. But sometimes a moment just works.

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An evening's work.

When she was done she buried her work and jumped up and down to compact the sand. Then the waddle back to the sea began, a Mr Magoo affair lasting ten minutes. You can see why turtles have never taken over the Earth. Our beams followed her out beyond the surf until she dipped and dived down back into her element.

Turtle.jpg
Photos by Didier Martin
See his web site: http://www.ride4kids.t2u.com/

Posted by at 04:52 PM GMT
November 13, 2003 GMT
Costa Rica

Ahhhgg, fast food...

I get up at six and work flat out for three hours on my bike, readjusting the carbs, re-routing the fuel line and other fun stuff, before the heat comes up. Then I arrange for a new rack to be made, supervise that, take a siesta, watch the rain for a while, eat a filet of white fish in garlic with beer on the seafront and go on the net for a while. My first break in a while. I’ve got that peaceful easy feeling.

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Photo: Didier Martin

Rain stops play today. It was good to watch it come down in such quantity. The rainy season is extending for my visit. I am the rainmaker. Toads the size of a child’s fist appear in the restaurant. They hop about looking like they own the place. Some of the Tica girls scream. Aren't they used to them? I can’t help but think it is for the benefit of their older Anglo Saxon gentlemen friends.

The beaches are full of frat boys. One good thing about USAification is the availability of fast food. I tuck into my first whopper for a month. I feel no shame after reading Fast Food Nation. The reason we like it, the author explains, and keep going back, is that it tastes so good. Never thought of that one.

Posted by at 04:54 PM GMT
December 12, 2003 GMT
Panama

She shakes her sternly with the finality of a nightclub doorman...

The bed is a treat. A foam mattress. The favourite of bed bugs everywhere--they adore the way it absorbs and holds all the juices. The frame has metal bar crosspieces positioned perfectly for maximum discomfort. I have just taken the doors off the wardrobe with my leatherman (there is a special attachment) and slid them underneath to stop the bruising. I still leave an imprint on the mattress like where a body falls onto concrete in cartoons, but sleep is now possible.

Otherwise I like Panama City okay. What a mix of people. The café latte coloured future of humanity.

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Panama has the biggest...

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...differences of wealth in the world.
Photos: Didier Martin

My face must be a picture. I am standing at the Avianca check-in desk. The bike’s already flown to Bogota. My flight there goes in 45 minutes. ‘I need a what? No, no, Ireland’s in Europe. European Union. No necisisito visa por European Union. Ireland in Europa’. She shakes her sternly with the finality of a nightclub doorman. You aint getting in mate. And sure enough, twenty minutes of phone calls and computer punching later, I aint getting in. My two friends are on their way to gate 15 and I am left asking around if anyone knows where the Colombian consulate is.

It seems the US doesn’t want the wrong sort of Irish in Colombia. So I go along with all my documents to prove that I am made of the right stuff, begorrah. Not the political type at all. The underlings won’t deal with me. I am directed to the consul. She’s advising God. I wait until she’s finished putting him straight. Usual set-up, big office, wide wooden desk with the window behind so I squint into the white light that emanates from around her beatific person.

She’s not a happy woman. ‘You want to ride your motorcycle through Colombia?’ Well that’s the idea. So I nod, smile and say yes. She asks again, just in case yes means something else in my culture, like ‘are you mad, I wouldn’t be seen dead in your armpit of the world you call a country; I would rather be imprisoned for a decade with Leeds Utd footballers’. So that’s an affirmative good buddy, gonna let me in then?

Second time around it provokes a long pause that gives us both time to reflect. I recall that priests do this a lot. And academics. Maybe she has a point. ‘I want to ride my motorcycle through Colombia.’ Hmmm, now I think about it, there is something not quite right about this phrase. I have a week to ponder on it while I await my next audience.

Posted by at 04:58 PM GMT
 
 

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