May 03, 2006 GMT
A Night at the Opera

I crossed the equator back into the northern hemisphere yesterday.

I was amused to find that the US government (the satellites) and the Brazilian government (the sign) agree exactly on the position of the equator on BR174, the road from Manaus to Venezuela. As I inched to a halt to bring up all the zeroes on the GPS I stopped on the line at the small monument beside the road.

BR174 is paved and in mostly decent condition all the 500 miles from Manaus to Boa Vista; the exception is the 70-mile stretch through the Waimiri Indian Reserve. When the road was built in the '70s the Waimiri killed more than 200 soldiers with poisoned arrows because they were adamantly against the road-building. Consequently not much maintenance goes on there, and there are signs warning against stopping or getting out of your vehicle, and against photography. Not sure where this leaves a motorcyclist, but I managed one photo and decamped rapidly rather than risk a poison dart.

Probably the most astonishing thing about the Teatro Amazonas (Manaus Opera House) is that despite it being 1,000 miles from anywhere, there being only one paved road (to Venezuela), and it taking five days to get there by boat (making flying the only sensible option), every performance is a sell-out. My observation was that most of the audience were locals, with only a sprinkling of foreign tourists. I had to make do with a restricted-view seat for Otello (a whole 3 quid), but the performance and production were terrific. The singers were good but not really A-list except for the title role, sung by that rather wonderful Welshman Dennis O'Neill. In all a fairly surreal experience, and one I wouldn't have dreamed of missing.

Anyway, last night I arrived in Boa Vista and this morning I toddled along to the Venezuelan consulate to get my immigration permit. Diego and Andreas were there, and as Colombians they need visas and have to pay for the privilege. In contrast, all I had to do was fill in a simple form and supply originals and copies of passport, Brazilian immigration papers and Yellow Fever certificate, and 20 minutes later the friendly lady handed me my permit. So I'm off to Venezuela tomorrow, probably in company with the Colombian lads.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:39 PM GMT
May 08, 2006 GMT
Beside the Seaside

Venezuelans are a cheery, friendly bunch; the roads vary from reasonable to superb; best unleaded is around tuppence-ha'penny a litre.

roncal 10 from the Brazilian border at Santa Elena, heading north along the border with Guyana the 400 miles to Cuidad Guayana on the Orinoco, must qualify as a WGBR (World's Great Biking Road) - sweeping benderies, perfect surface, no traffic, no police, wonderful ups and downs, and allegedly excellent scenery but I couldn't see it as the torrential rain limited visibility somewhat. I'm now totally fed up with being wet, and spent two nights at Ciudad Guayana in an effort to dry things out a bit. I also wanted to book a flight over the Angel Falls (total drop nearly a kilometre) but due to the persistent low cloud and rain the flying people said no chance for at least a week. Never mind.

I've ridden up to the Caribbean coast for a couple of days, as although I'm not really a beach person the idea of spending an afternoon lying on a Caribbean beach is rather attractive, and I probably ought to do it while I'm here. Unfortunately it looks as though the little ferry from Güiata to Port of Spain is still suspended so I won't be going to Trinidad.

Politically speaking this has been in interesting time to be in South America. Changes of government, the Fujimori fiasco, Spongebob Squarepants doing a runner from Ecuador, Chavez thumbing his nose at Bush, Brazil doing deals with China (and Paraguay with Taiwan) - and all the while the US's increasingly futile attempts to perpetuate the Monroe Doctrine. All great fun.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:58 PM GMT
May 10, 2006 GMT
Iran and Japan

Venezuela can be a little Iranian - it has fuel coming out of its ears, the fuel is very cheap (by global standards), but petrol stations can be hard to find.

When I left the border town the only petrol station was closed; I therefore stopped at the next one, 60 miles up the road (in torrential rain, of course). The delivery tanker was in. "OK," I thought, "shouldn´t be long." Wrong. The chaps were in the process of repairing the electric pump which transfers the fuel from the tanker to the storage tanks.

"How long?"
"Don't know."
"How far's the next petrol station?"

Umm, not sure about that.

So I waited. And waited. And got chatting to the rest of the crowd who'd turned up. Turned into a picnic party. Coffee was provided by someone or other, Juan insisted I help myself to bread and sandwich spread from his van, and a nice government lady illegally swapped a few dollars for some bolívares (I'd not been able to change anything at the border).

It took two hours in the end, which rather ate into my hours of daylight for getting to Ciudad Guayana, not only in terms of seeing where I was going but also because there's a curfew on bikes in Venezuela. Having said that, much traffic law here seems to be purely theoretical. Red lights certainly are: I'm now very used to sailing through red lights along with everyone else. This isn't as mad as it sounds, though: most intersections have left-turn filter lights which go green while the straight-on lights are red; so if there's nothing coming towards you in the left-turn lane it appears to be at least normal (if not permitted) to simply go across on red.

And there's money. Venezuela is like Japan in this respect, in that magic holes (ATMs) don't accept foreign-issued cards. So you have to go into a bank, queue for hours (well, not really), have your photo taken, do the paperwork . . . it's straightforward but rather long-winded.

I'm in Caracas (drying out again) and planning my route south-west to Bogotá. Not that easy at the moment, because the huge amounts of rain have caused landslides and washed away bridges and roads, and there are reports of FARC livening things up a bit on the Colombian border.

As they say, "Es la vida."

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 06:00 PM GMT
May 14, 2006 GMT
Sir Francis Drake

Had another of those days yesterday.

Up at sparrow's, and followed the directions of the parking chap to get out of Maracaibo. An hour later I finally managed to get out on to the road north, thanks to a helpful truck driver at the BP station.

As with most countries, police checkpoints proliferate the nearer the border yout get, and at one on the 60-mile ride north the policeman tried to tell me that the road to the frontier was the little one to my left. Not likely. Don't know if he was trying to have a laugh, but even my navigation's better than that (city escapes notwithstanding).

Anyhow, when I reached the border the Venezuelan formalities were pretty simple, as was getting into Colombia; me, that is, not the bike. I went to DIAN (the customs service) to do the bike paperwork. It was now 10:30, 35 degrees and extremely humid. No-one to do the paperwork. "Ten minutes" I'm told.

Three-quarters of an hour later the lady arrives. Much shuffling of carbon paper while a soldier casually leaves his AK47 (or whatever) on the chair next to me and makes photocopies of the appropriate bits of paper. Then the forms are filled in. Next problem. The chief who needs to countersign the forms is in Maicao (five miles away) and isn't coming to the border today. All I have to do is take the papers to Maicao, find the Police Command Post and Major Cerano, get his signature, then return to the border so they have their copy. I know border towns - absolute bear gardens and I don't fancy my chances of finding either the Command Post or the Major. But I really, really need to have the paperwork correct. Then a very nice Venezuelan chap (Carlos) who also needs signatures says he knows where the place is and I can follow him there; not only that but he's giving a couple of soldiers a lift there. So off we go, having the usual tollbooth game (you have to go round the side, I can't go backwards, but, I'll pay the toll, Oh, OK) on the way. And sure enough we dive into the middle of the beargarden on dirt streets. Carlos and nice young soldier #1 take my papers and go in while I sit outside chatting to nice young soldier #2, and five minutes later I have my signed paperwork and Carlos is happy to take my copies back to the border as he has to go back there anyway. Hurrah.

So I was now running rather late, with 400 miles to Cartagena and only seven hours of daylight left.

Colombian roads are really good (when they haven't been washed away) so I was able to make pretty good time. What really helped was that there was a fairly heavy army presence all the way along the road (thus reducing my chances of being shot at by FARC) who have also appropriated most of the police checkpoints, so I only had to stop once for a document check. There was only a quarter of an hour of torrential rain (albeit more than enough to be soaked through) and I managed to get to Cartagena just as it got dark.

OK, so I'm lost again. I stopped at a petrol station (er . . . BP again) to consult maps, and a nice young man asked (in English) if I needed help. So I explained which hotel I wanted, and asked him to flag a cab for me to follow; he did so, and not only that but went in the taxi as well, and ferried money between me and the driver when we arrived as I wasn't in a position to get off the bike.

Cartagena is absolutely beautiful; the old and extremely impressive city walls were built after Sir Francis Drake laid siege to and nearly destroyed the city. My hotel is in a 17th-century monastery which has been wonderfully restored. Like Venezuela, many people speak English, often self-taught (and many have bemoaned the fact that the BBC World Service no longer broadcasts to South America). Both countries also claim zero illiteracy; you see hoardings saying "Now everyone can read this message". I don't know how true this is. Oh, and BP was front-page news in today's Sunday paper.

If you read the Foreign Office's Advice to Travellers about Colombia you'd probably think twice about coming here.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 07:32 PM GMT
May 16, 2006 GMT
What do you call a soldier with a gun?

The first part of the ride to Medellěn was great - friendly locals at petrol and coffee stops, no rain, decent road. Then I was stopped at an army checkpoint.

A young soldier insisted he wanted to search the panniers. I couldn't get off the bike where I was because of the adverse camber, so he smilingly gestured me backwards apparently to a place I could get the sidestand down. Still smiling, he waved me further until the back wheel disappeared into a ditch and the bike and I fell over.

I crawled out from under, went right up to him and said "You're a complete shit. How dare you treat a grandmother like that." Then I slapped his face, he dropped his gun, and all the onlookers applauded (including the other soldiers).

I went on my way rejoicing.

When I arrived in Medellěn (soaked to the skin and in the dark, as usual) I found the customary mad feeder-road-and-impenetrable-one-way-system arrangement and got completely lost (again as usual). I was stopped at the side of a feeder road consulting maps by penlight and a pair of nice young heavily-armed policemen arrived on a Suzuki 650 trailie. I explained where I wanted to go, and after a little radio discussion they said "Siganos" which means "Follow us." And they led me at a perfectly reasonable speed to the hotel I wanted in the city centre. We had nice chats when we stopped for traffic lights (they do that here). And when we got to the hotel I gave them both a hug and a kiss. The hotel staff were boggling - I don't think they'd seen that before.

Apparently I'm supposed to tell the Embassy I'm here, but they don't answer the phone so I can't.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 07:34 PM GMT
May 18, 2006 GMT
Garden Centres

You may remember I met a couple of Colombian motorcyclists on the boat from Belem to Manuasand again in Boa Vista - this is them: Diego and Andras.

Publimotos is a magazine and TV program here about bikes, and they want to interview me, so I'll be on Colombian telly - how about that?

Colombia is still amazing me with its friendliness and hospitality - more stories than you can shake a stick at.

I'll be here in Bogotá for a couple of weeks (so you may get a bit bored) as I need to do major bike work and arrange shipping to Panama City. This continent is very hard on machinery. I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't had major problems of some sort. Rupert's more or less wrecked his bike (he's still in Ecuador), but then he clearly has some sort of death-wish.

The BMW chap here (Gustavo Johnson) is being incredibly helpful, and a fellow 1200GS owner, Pedro, is taking me out for lunch in 20 minutes. Yes, I'm reduced to accepting invitations from people I meet online.

Anyway, how can you be afraid of a country full of garden centres?

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 07:36 PM GMT
May 26, 2006 GMT
A Pint of Bitter

Everyone in Colombia is amazingly friendly and helpful, and very aware of their country's reputation in the rest of the world.

When they ask what I expected I give the usual list of drug barons, shootings, kidnappings and so on, and they know that's the perception, but they're working really hard to make all visitors really welcome. When I came into Bogotá (dark, raining) I was trying to follow a raving lunatic taxi driver to a hotel (beds are scarce here as it's the business seasonm whatever that is) and other motorcyclists kept engaging me in conversation when we were stuck and I had to keep saying "Love to chat but I'm trying to follow this raving lunatic taxi."

The Old Dear is in the workshop at Autogermana, who are the main BMW importers for South America. Henry speaks excellent English and did the motorcycle engineering course at Merton College (I remember Tim Stevens starting that in the '70s). My sidekick is Alejandro, who's a very fetching young man and an excellent machanic. Edgar, the workshop boss, speaks hardly any English and has a great sense of humour. Most days I go round the corner with them for lunch - 3-course set meal for around thirty bob. The list of things to fix seems to be never-ending - I've been tolerating all sorts of minor niggles and have the opportunity to get everything perfect while I'm here, and the chaps are bending over backwards to help. Major welding and patching has been done to the right-hand pannier and topbox, and a new topbox mount is being fabricated. Another chap appeared today to re-helicoil the threads for the rocker cover centre studs, both of which have been missing for at least 10,000 miles. Incidentally, I've now ridden nearly 45,000, 20,000 of them in South America.

Rupert turned up on Friday evening (he knew where I was staying). We spent most of Saturday being interviewed for the telly and a bike magazine (video will allegedly be sent to me), then on Sunday Pedro and Juanita and their son and his girlfriend took us to an antiques market and then to lunch. Pedro knows absolutely everyone (he directs TV commercials) and has given both me and Rupert loads of contacts. Tomorrow (possibly) Pedro's taking me to a GPS place where I can upload detailed Central America maps to my GPS. Beats having to follow raving lunatic taxi drivers.

Yesterday Rupert and I took a day off and did tourist - the Gold Museum, a spot of lunch, then up the cablecar to Montserrate to get a stonking view out over the city. He went off to Medellín this morning after taking his leave from the chaps at Autogermana who'd done some repairs to his bike (he *will* keep chucking it down the road and setting fire to it). It's been really good having someone to swap tall stories with and consume copious quantities of Irish Red at the Red Lion.

Looks like I'll be here for a while longer; my parts are allegedly arriving on Tuesday (Monday's a holiday), and part of my deal with Autogermana is to demo the bike to a bunch of technicians from all over South America who'll be here early next week as no-one here (of course) knows anything at all about the old boxers. And I have to do another TV interview once the bike's rideable again.

This weekend will be interesting as there's a presidential election on Sunday and the city has been filling with military. The other afternoon Rupert's bike died on the way home, young Alejandro came out in a taxi to see what he could do, and produced a really loud backfire. Everything suddenly went quiet and three soldiers closed in on us. They quickly understood what had happened but still hung around until the trailer arrived to take the bike back to the dealer. It was just a frayed wire to the crankshaft position sensor so an easy repair.

Anyroadup, don't believe everything you read in the papers or see on the telly. Even if it's me being interviewed.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 07:40 PM GMT
May 28, 2006 GMT

You may remember the nightmare of addresses in Japan, which are vague in the extreme and where even the posties* don't really know which building is which.

Reminder: All my pix are here.

The centre of Caracas has its own conundrum. None of the streets have names, or even numbers. Instead, the street corners are named, and an address will be expressed as in between two corners. Aargh.

Bogotá has yet a different scheme. All the streets are numbered (and some have names as well). Calles run E-W, numbered from south to north, and Carreras run N-S, numbered from east to west; which sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Ha, gotcha. Addresses of individual buildings are a little more challenging.

For instance, my hotel has the address Calle 106 14-49. Aha, you may think, it runs from number 14 to number 49 on Calle 106. You have the Calle 106 bit right, but the 14-49 bit means it's 49 metres from Carrera 14 in the direction of Carrera 15. Obviously it's all a bit approximate, but even locals and taxi drivers have difficulty sometimes. And everything's complicated by Diagonals and Transversals, and as street signs are minimal even really strict counting doesn't necessarily work too well as it's occasionally difficult to distinguish between a street and a building site.

They repealed the helmet law in Colombia some time ago; by which I mean that they allowed motorcyclists to wear helmets. But it went further. All motorcyclists have to wear a bib with their registration number front and back in big reflective characters. The number must also be on the back of their crash helmets (and those of their pillions). Often they don't bother, and it doesn't seem too strictly enforced. I asked a motorcyclist about it the other day, as he had several bikes, and he said you either have to have a helmet or two for each bike, or arrange some sort of removeable sticker you can transfer from one to t'other. Nightmare. Still, if you can afford more than one bike you can afford more than one helmet, I suppose. A standard 1200GS like mine is double the price here, and the guy I spoke to (Andreas) had the new 12GS Adventure so must be loaded.

The fun gets even better this weekend for the election. Not only are the streets absolutely crawling with soldiers and armed police, but I've just had an email from Rupert in Cartagena to say that no bikes are allowed on the streets at all this weekend there, which has caused him some accommodation problems; here in Bogotá no pillions are permitted, so unless a bike can be found for me I can't go on any of the rideouts. Even worse, no booze can be sold between last night (Friday) and Tuesday morning. Don't worry, I've checked that the hotel has a sufficient supply of my medicine.

The reason for all this is that a few years ago there were many ride-by shootings, both criminal and political, so they banned helmets to provide a better chance of identification. Then on safety grounds they repealed that law but insisted on the provisions I described above. And the same fear is the reason for the ban on bikes and/or pillions this weekend.

Hope you all had a good Bank Holiday weekend, but bet it's not as much fun as here.

* Non-Brits: a postie is a postman.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 07:42 PM GMT

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