Brazilian drivers are really letting the side down.
For a start, they use mirrors and indicators, and not only that but they mostly stick to speed limits and pull back over after overtaking. What´s all that about, then?
I´m gradually getting to grips with Brazilian Portuguese; a lot of words are more or less the same as Spanish, although the pronunciation is often very different. But whoever described Portuguese as being a beautiful-sounding language must have cloth ears - it sounds exactly like a tape being played backwards and is almost completely incomprehensible.
Before I left the UK I said I wanted to visit Rio, but I never really believed I´d make it. So it was one of those pinch-myself moments as I rode into the city, past the Sugar Loaf, and Corcovado topped by the statue of Christ the Redeemer, then along the seafront of Copacabana to Ipanema where I´m staying.
There are miles of sandy beach, kept really clean by the council as there´s very little tide. There´s a wide cycle and jogging track beside the beach, and on Sundays the seaward side of the dual carriageway is closed to traffic to allow walkers, joggers, skateboarders, cyclists and other non-motorised traffic to take their constitutionals. And, of course, it being Sunday, I took a stroll, bought a copy of the Sunday paper, and retired to the pub for a lunchtime pint or two of surprisingly decent Guinness and the first chicken tikka masala I´ve had for nineteen months. Gorgeous.
My laundry´s being done (you should see the state of my riding suit) and with luck I´ll be leaving here on Wednesday, heading towards Brasilia.
When I was at primary school we did a ´project´ about Brasilia, as it had just been finished and become the new Brazilian capital. I´d always wanted to see the reality, and now I have.
It´s a fascinating city, architecturally and geographically. But the one thing that Niemeyer forgot was that people have legs. So although traffic moves smoothly and there´s plenty of parking, it´s really difficult to walk anywhere. When I tried to walk to the cathedral I found the pavement stopped short at a dual carriageway and I had to do all sorts of strange road- and grass-crossing and stuff to actually get there. That´s when I found that the locals have created their own ´people highways´ (a bit like the penguin highways in the Antarctic) - there are paths worn across the greenswards, all very neat and disciplined but there nonetheless, going to and coming from where people actually want to go as opposed to where the planners think they ought to go. In fact, the council has clearly rolled over for this as a few of the paths have actually been paved for part of their lengths.
Yesterday I had one of *those* days. Knowing I had to ride nearly 900km from Barreiras to Bahia, I set off at sparrow´s to maximise the 12 hours of daylight. The ride took me 13 hours in the end.
About 90% of the route was paved. Ish. The rest was rather Cambodian. Still, it was easy to spot the dodgy bits - a large cloud of red dust through which I could discern a bunch of trucks milling around apparently aimlessly. Time to get up on the pegs again. It was even more fun when the mega thunderstorms broke, as although there was then no dust the visibility was no better. When I finally emerged on to asphalt again after each mudbath it was still a bit of a trials course, as the road was so potholed and the holes so deep that even the big 18-wheelers were doing about 5 miles an hour and winding around all over the place to avoid them. I was soaked to the skin (it´s too warm for Goretex) but at least I wasn´t cold, and you can´t get wetter than wet. Getting the suit washed in Rio was a waste of time, though.
I finally reached the ring road at Feira de Santana at dusk, in yet another thunderstorm, and turned on to the dual carriageway down to Bahia. The trucks and buses immediately sped up to around 70, so I surmised that it was probably safe to do the same as I couldn´t see anything by this time. In fact I ended up without goggles and specs as the only way to make anything out. Riding in the dark anywhere outside Europe is aways a nightmare as there are no catseyes and even if there are road markings they´re never reflective, so unless you have extremely good lights it can be pretty difficult to see where the road is, even in good weather conditions. In last night´s conditions it was impossible, so I glued myself to the back of a truck doing around a speed at which I was comfortable, and finally made it not only to Bahia but to a decent hotel on the seafront who´ve insisted the bike is parked on the marble right outside the main doors to Reception.
A note about decent hotels: as I´ve said before, I think, they can actually be cheaper than cheapies, and even if not they can be extremely good value. For example, in Brasilia I squelched into reception at a posh place; "It´s nearly the weekend so a room´s half-price. And we like you and are impressed so you can have a 12th-floor corner suite with a balcony on two sides and a stonking view of the city for that price", the price being around UK B&B level. And here in Bahia, the same sort of deal.
I have some more long days to do (Brazil is *very* big), but have to have a rest afterwards as the little man sitting on my shoulder with the red-hot dagger starts getting restless after about two hours´ riding, and at the end of 13 hours yesterday was clearly very, very angry.
A note for non-British chaps about ´little chefs´. Little Chef is an extensive chain of roadside diners in the UK.
That´s how far and how long.
I´m in Fortaleza, which is more civilised a place than some. Being Easter weekend has meant slightly rearranged plans, but even so I´ve managed a new back tyre and a major service.
The Metzeler I had fitted in Viedma only lasted 5,000 miles (so don´t bother with Metzeler Saharas), and in addition had a couple of chunks missing which appeared due to delamination of the tread from the carcase; having said that, it´s been severely challenged at times. So yesterday morning I hailed a cab (the rain was of the pressure-washer variety) and asked the driver to take me to bike shops for a new tyre. Excellent chap, made it his mission. So we found Big Motos, who had a decent selection of appropriate tyres. "Go and get the bike and we´ll fit it" they said; usually you take the tyre and bike to one of the many tyre repair/fitting establishments.
So I took the taxi back to the hotel, and then followed it back to Big Motos. "Any chance of an oil change?" I asked (again, normally one goes to a specialist establishment, available at most petrol stations). "Sure, no problem". So I was escorted around the corner to get EP90 from the nearest petrol station while the tyre was fitted; and a couple of bright young mechanics did an excellent and careful job of changing all the oils (refilling with Mobil´s best) and the filter. Being a Honda/Yamaha place they´d never worked on a BMW before and were very interested in everything about it, even having a good peruse of my trusty Haynes manual to find out more about it.
I took the opportunity of fitting new NGK plugs and caps, as well, and the entire bill was around 50 quid. Jolly nice helpful chaps, and the even gave me a company T-shirt.
Motels are funny here - very specialised. All are rather discreet, situated behind high walls and electronic gates, with extremely hidden and secure parking. Many of their names aren´t suitable for a family publication and leave little to the imagination, and the staff boggle a little when I ask for a room for an entire night, especially as I´m on my own. The beds are electrically operated, which is nice, but I´m still not sure about the ceiling mirrors. Room service is good, though. One I saw had a sign saying "Now also a hotel".
It gets worse.
Yesterday I rode 575 miles in 16 hours, from Teresina to Belém where I´m getting a boat to Manaus (5 days) because the only alternative is 500 miles of mud.
The road surface varied from excellent to Not There. It started OK - the first couple of hundred miles were great, so I stopped for a glass of the excellent (if rather sweet) and free coffee at a little chef, and a petrol infusion. Then suddenly the road surface completely disappeared. It having rained rather a lot there was no warning dust cloud, and the usual milling of 18-wheelers and buses through the mud and around holes of truck-swallowing dimensions started. I´m really glad I learned muddy ruts in Berkshire, as this would have been an extremely steep learning curve.
Being a one-track vehicle it´s often much easier for a bike to get through in these conditions, and I managed a fair amount of overtaking despite nearly being forced into the roadside ditch on more than one occasion by one of the aforesaid milling leviathans. The trouble with standing on the pegs is that the ergonomics of the bike are set up for sitting, so the bars are really too low and it puts a lot of extra stress on the shoulder.
Occasionally there was a half-mile stretch of decent but potholed tarmac, but the mud soon started again; I was lucky it didn´t start raining just then. After about 70 miles of this I stopped at a posto (petrol station with snack bar, tyre man, autoelectric man etc) for a rest and to glug loads of water. I asked how long the conditions went on for (it was 2pm, so only 4 hours of daylight left to get the 260-odd miles to Belém). I had some difficulty understanding what the chaps were saying, but then my saviour appeared in the guise of the local military policemen, who spoke Spanish. He gave me very precise indications of the state of the road from there onwards (and he was very accurate as it turned out) and reassured me that by the time it got dark I´d be on decent asphalt again.
So I heaved myself back on to the bike, having checked stuff over (lots of suspension-bottoming, and the fork seals are comprehensively blown), negotiated the next 30 miles of not-too-bad and well-graded dirt (that was a relief), then the 10 miles of awful to Santa Luiza where the good stuff started again. There were still big potholes and the occasional washout, but it was all much better. And the rain held off until now - it would have been impossible on the really bad bits.
At sunset (6pm) I stopped for more sweet coffee and debated whether to go on or try to find somewhere to sleep. I´ll go on. I stopped at the next police post and asked where the nearest hotel or motel was. He instantly answered "120km towards Belém". OK, so I have to go on. Then a couple of trucks came along, so I attached myself to the little convoy - thing is, they slow down lots for potholes, speed humps and nasty bits, so I knew that even if I couldn´t see anything that I was probably pretty safe. In fact, once the lead truck realised I wasn´t going to overtake and was hanging on his tail for grim life, he was great at indicating and stuff so I had plenty of warning of what was coming up.
Eventually the truck pulled off and I was on my own, but then a Golf overtook. I gave it some wellie and tagged along at around 65mph. Like the trucker, he tried to get me to overtake, so I switched off the auxiliary lights and he seemed to understand what I was up to and was happy about it. I stayed with him for about 80 miles until he, too turned off. On my own again, but by this time it was clear that I was back on excellent and there was unlikely to be any Not There. And the road was clean so markings were visible. And the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared.
So I continued happily to Belém, the major port on the Amazon delta, and found a hotel just before 11pm, extremely filthy and tired and more or less unable to move my right arm. But I didn´t fall off even once.
Everything´s damp, whether from sweat or rain or both, and won´t dry out because nothing does here. I started yesterday´s ride in damp clothes and finished likewise. You get used to it, honest.
Yesterday a nice taxi driver called Eduardo took me to the docks and helped immensely in sorting my passage to Manaus.
The boat leaves tomorrow at 6pm (allegedly) but, of course, tomorrow´s a public holiday (when isn´t it?) so I had to deliver the bike to the docks this afternoon for loading.
Loading consisted of being threatened with having to ride up a narrow wobbly seesaw gangplank on to the cargo deck. I indicated with a world-class gurn that I wasn´t even going to attempt it, as I´d no intention of a) dumping the bike into the Amazon before I really needed to or b) finding my self shooting across the very narrow deck and off the other side and doing a).
So the chaps relented and for a consideration they heaved the bike on for me and parked it to my satisfaction. It´s a bit like the situation with the Trans-Siberian railway, i.e. no visible paperwork, except that at least I´m on the same boat and can keep an eye on things. I have a piece of paper saying (I think) I´ve paid for the bike´s carriage but no receipt or anything. Hey, this is Brazil.
It´s allegedly five days to Manaus but I haven´t been given any arrival details (que sera sera); so don´t expect any more communication from me for a while.
I´ll do my best with rain forest pix and stuff, but the zoom button on the little digital has died which is a little limiting. I´ve also had to buy a new short lens for the big Nikon as the original 28-80 was irreparably damaged in my Tierra del Fuego incident; the only replacement I could find was a slightly second-hand 35-70 at a very helpful place in Rio, which is a bit of a bummer, but I´ll live with it.
"When does the boat get to Manaus?"
"Wednesday. Or Thursday. Maybe Friday."
The n/m Onze de Maio sails an hour late, which probably counts as early in Brazil. Sleeping accommodation is bring-your-own hammock. Steerage passengers share the engine/cargo deck, most of the rest eat and sleep on the middle deck, and the lucky few are on the top deck with the bridge, the bar and general hanging out.
In the morning I wield the Bangkok kettle to maintain my caffeine level. Small dugouts piloted by eight-year-olds skim across the river and attach themselves to the boat using grappling hooks, and the kids clamber aboard to sell shrimps and fruit.
Toucans flit among the trees; there are egrets, sometimes riding the backs of water-buffalo; ordinary-looking sparrows and finches; carrion-eaters like vultures; bird-sized flying insects; huge dragonflies; and pink dolphins.
The settlements along the riverbank all have satellite dishes and churches, as well as schools. Everywhere people turn and wave, and the kids race in their canoes to ride the swell of the wake. One of the larger boats is called Princesa Dayana.
Many of us pass the time playing canasta and dominoes. Diego and Andreas are the Colombians I saw riding Honda 125s on the road between Fortaleza and Belém. We join forces as they want to learn English and they speak more Portuguese than I, and of course we talk bikes a lot. Gonzalo from Santiago and Daniel from Novi Sad join in as they're both motorcyclists as well. When the boat stops at Itacoatiara the police come on board with a sniffer dog. I blame my boots, which I've locked in the topbox; all three of us have to completely unload our bikes and itemise absolutely everything to the police. Normally I like black labradors, and actually this one is rather sweet in his uniform, especially when he refuses point blank to descend the companion ladder to the cargo deck and has to be carried in the arms of a rather sheepish-looking copper. All rather a pain, though.
Then later the peripatetic chiropractic comes up to the top deck and gives my joints a jolly good seeing-to, after which a well-earned cachaça hits the spot. Tonight's canasta session involves British, Brazilian, Israeli, Colombian, Chilean, Peruvian, German and Serb, and gets into three-pack territory.
We dock in Manaus in the early hours of Thursday. Up at six to throw luggage on to the dock and manhandle bikes up from the cargo deck. We help Simoãa and her scary mum with their bags, including their new duck sitting happily in his very own plastic carrier bag.
And then I ride past the astonishing Opera House, and find I've managed to arrive in the middle of the annual Amazonas Opera Festival; so on Sunday I'm seeing Verdi's Otello. What a treat.
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