September 04, 2006 GMT
Riding Backwards

I hadn't ridden a horse for ten years, and that was just a jaunt around the pyramids with a proper syce. So when Lucy said she'd arranged a docile horse for me for a morning ride I was a little trepidatious but reckoned I'd manage as long as someone told me what to do.

Honey appeared as advertised, but as soon as I mounted she went bonkers and refused to to much other than go round in circles at almost a canter (referred to as "a fast walk"). So the stable boy took over, and she went even more frisky. He calmed her down a little and I remounted and attempted to follow Lucy to the grass area. It sort of worked, although steering was a little dodgy. She still refused to go slowly, though. But far and away was the best bit was doing backwards. Honey took it into her head to go down a narrow fenced path between two compounds and without an exit. No room to turn around. So Lucy yelled instructions at me for making the animal go backwards out into the field again. And it worked! Astonishing. Absolutely no trouble at all. Apparently backwards is one of the more difficult manouevres, and Lucy and Jody more than forgave me for my complete incompetence in forwards and steering (not to mention stopping - brakes were worse than the bike).

So many thanks to Lucy for her hospitality (including eggs and bacon for breakfast) at her gorgeous house at Playa Coronado - it's just a shame I missed Ted by a few hours as he had to go to New York.

I left for David on the Interamericana (which is what they call the PanAm once you cross the Canal) and everything was going nicely. A bit of oil on my right boot gave me a moment of concern, but a little oil goes a long way and it appeared to emanate from the breather so not apparently a problem. Having got to David early afternoon I decided that it might be nicer to spend the night at Boquete, further up into the mountains of the continental divide. So, of course, it started raining. Then suddenly my back wheel started behaving as though on ice and I barely stayed upright, then the oil light came on suddenly so I cut the engine and managed to slither to a halt on the forecourt of a small supermarket.

The engine oil was pouring out on to the ground and the drain plug was missing. Don't anyone dare say a word, OK? I know I did it up tight - I even torqued it (which I never normally do and thus was probably the mistake).

As any fule kno, the gearbox filler plug is identical to the engine drain, so I did a swap, plugging the filler temporarily with a bunch of tissues (with the bike on the sidestand the level is above the filler). In the supermarket I was able to buy appropriate oil, a funnel, and a pair of cheap thick-soled flip-flops.

I refilled the engine, then butchered one of the flip-flops to make a plug for the gearbox. It screwed in nicely with pliers, and seems to work a treat (so far). And I managed all this in pelting rain. I walked back to see if I could find the missing plug, following the trail of oil, but no chance.

When I got to Boquete (charming little place) there was not a room to be had, so I returned to David. On the way there had appeared an army checkpoint, stopping all vehicles and questioning the drivers. I have no idea why, because when they stopped me me said "You're English. Welcome to Panamá" and sent me on my way.

It's half an hour from David to the border, which has the reputation of being rather a bear garden so I'd decided to do it a) first thing in the morning and b) on a Sunday. Good move. Very uncrowded, and the market wasn't bustling. Formalities were fairly straightforward, especially as I acquired Mummy's Little Helper in the form of a Panamanian ten-year-old, who knew exactly what to do and where to go. There was a $1 exit tax from Panamá, and a bit of a kerfuffle when it transpired that the customs people at Tocumen airport failed to register the bike in my passport, but other than that no probs.

On the Costa Rican side it was immigration, then fumigation ($2.50) where luckily I was allowed to dismount rather than be soaked in foul-smelling disinfectant. Then to customs where I was immediately at home because of the Horizons Unlimited sticker on the window. Lots of paperwork as usual, facilitated by the chap knowing the proper codes for United Kingdom and BMW from memory (that tells you something). And I have insurance for the first time since Australia ($13 for 30 days). No clocks, of course, but I'd sneakily established that I was going back an hour, which makes me seven hours behind the UK. I'm also back in phoneland, with no less than two networks to choose from.

The road was pretty good most of the way to San José, with only a few rather Brazilian patches. Got stopped for speeding but let off with a smacked wrist. There are lots of pólice checkpoints where they just check papers. One small problem is that I only have an International Driving Permit as the UK licence disappeared in Santiago when I was robbed. But as it has a photo and a certain amount of water damage so it's not obvious it expired at the end of August 2005 they seem satisfied. It was very hot.

As I rode up into the mountains, guess what? Yup, started chucking it down. This road is probably a WGBR but with the total lack of visibility and the low cloud, plus wet road, it was difficult to tell. By the time I got to the top of the pass at 10,000 feet I was perishing and very grateful for the heated grips. On the way down I stopped at a police-checkpoint-with-cafe (not stupid, the plods here) and had a large mug of extremely good coffee to warm me up a bit.

All the houses in the rural areas are very spick-and-span, with immaculate gardens full of local and colourful shrubbery. There's a general air of prosperity and pride, even though by our standards the people are poor. And, of course, they're all very friendly.

So today I'll find the dealer and do a "first service" which you're supposed to do at 600 miles after a rebuild, and if I'm lucky get a proper gearbox filler plug.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at September 04, 2006 03:30 PM GMT

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