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.
I spent last night at the foot of an active volcano. It's called Volcán Arenal, near San Carlos de Fortuna, northwest of San José.
At night the summit glows bright red, and glowing ash and rocks are hurled out, coming most of the way down the mountain. A spectacular sight with the full moon. As a consequence, trips up to the main viewing platform are out of the question at the moment because they don't want to kill any more tourists. There are no pix to show you, either, as my little digicam doesn't do the equivalent of ASA1600 with a huge aperture, which I imagine would be the only way to photograph it.
Costa Rica is probably the most beautiful country I've been to so far. It's as though it's designed and maintained by a Master Gardener. Even the rampant rain and cloud forest vegetation seems to have a certain discipline in terms of variety and colour schemes, shapes and sizes. The inhabitants themselves clearly take a great pride in their country, which is clean and tidy, and all the houses with beautifully-maintained gardens. The roads are good, too; I've not seen any vehicle with tyre-inflators fitted--from Brazil southwards all buses and 18-wheelers have inflators on all their wheels, which give some indication of road quality (or lack of).
The hours differ madly from elsewhere in South America as well. San José was buzzing, with busy streets, from 6:30am every morning, then completely quiet and deserted by 10pm in the evening. Bit of a contrast from Argentina where it was unusual to find a restaurant which opened before 9pm. Here they close at 10pm.
One sits very still indeed when being approached by a large Nicaraguan gentleman wielding a cut-throat razor.
But he did a splendid job of defluffing my hair. I have to say it's absolutely NO FUN at all having a stinking cold in a temperature of 35 degrees in 95% humidity, but I pass the time but hunting for a bar which has not only gin but also tonic. One of my more difficult challenges so far.
Nicaragua is very different from Costa Rica. The first thing you notice is that it's much poorer, although the same pride is evident. I'm in Granada on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, and which is a beautiful if somewhat undermaintained colonial town. There's a wonderful market very reminiscent of the ones in the Middle East, and all the lady stall-holders wear frilly aprons. The Friday night rush-hour on the main drag consisted of a couple of cars, lots of bicycles and trail bikes, a couple of tuk-tuks (haven't seen any of those since Peru) and a few horse-drawn landau taxi sort of things. Like Costa Rica, everything starts and finishes early - the bar in the hotel was about ready to close at 10pm last night. I saw in the paper this morning that the government is changing the time zone on October 1st, which will save them an enormous amount of electricity. It was a bit strange coming north and west across a border but going one hour forward in time instead of backward.
The barman/waiter in my hotel is the spit of the chap in the Hotel Palmyra in Baalbek (in the Bekaa Valley so now probably rubble) although somewhat more cheerful. In common with many other places, The Old Dear is so hidden away that it may be difficult for me to find her again. I just hope the hotel staff remember where they made me stash her.
ATMs are a bit of a pain as they'll only let you have 500 córdobas at once, as a single almost unchangeable note, and worth about 15 quid. So you have to stand there and do three or four transactions to get enough to pay for things like fuel and hotels as you go. At least the magic holes are the insert-and-withdraw type so your card can't be swallowed whole.
The border was well-sorted, though. I had (and needed) a Mummy's Little Helper on the Costa Rican side, but the Nicaraguan side was all in one place with step-by-step instructions in both Spanish and English. And I was extremely chuffed when one of the officials asked if I was from somewhere in S America and was surprised when I said I was English. Apparently I speak decent-ish Spanish with a sort of Argentinian accent. Wow. Especially after Fabiola kept having a go at me about my awful Spanish. Having said that, everyone else on this continent reckons Chilean Spanish is unintelligible (so there). I've definitely found that as you come north, people seem to speak more clearly (if not more slowly), but that might just be familiarity on my part.
I was intending to leave León this morning, but have been trapped (yet again) by the start of the Independence Day celebrations.
Most of Central America celebrates September 15 as Independence Day, when they finally managed to get rid of the Spanish. Sometimes the English and Dutch get sniped at as well, as we were in Granada on Saturday. So this morning, just as I was about to get my togs on, the street outside became extremely closed for three hours for processions of schoolchildren with marching drum bands. I couldn't have left even if I'd been able to get at the bike.
So I'm spending another night in what is actually a rather charming colonial town and Nicaragua's second city, boasting Central America's largest (and possibly most decrepit) cathedral. Large is a relative adjective here. When I managed to bypass Managua yesterday (more by luck than judgement) it was clearly yet another capital city around the size of Reading. León is about Newbury-sized, which at least makes it easy to walk around all the interesting places.
The main road from Managua to León, the one the buses take, isn't bad. You don't even have to slow down for the unpaved bits, as they're good hard dirt with no more potholes than the paved sections, so it's just a case of up on the pegs and keep going. There were one or two muddy patches, and I wouldn't want to do it in the rain if there were much traffic around; the only small worry was the sharp-looking rocks, which induce puncture paranoia.
When I finally managed to find the post office to send some postcards (which may or may not arrive) it was, again, more by luck than judgement. I knew where it was in theory, but there was no way to recognise it - just another tatty little hole-in-the-wall, but with a very-armed guard smoking a ciggy just inside the entrance, and hand-written signs on the two letterbox slits in the gloomy interior.
Addresses here, as in Costa Rica, are rather abstruse. In San José the official address of the bike dealer was "50 metres west of the lighting factory which was demolished ten years ago". Not even a street name. No wonder my first taxi driver had a bit of difficulty finding it. Here, addresses often give a street name, but no number. So the hotel in Granada was "at the end of calle Zapalda, in front of the church of Guadelupe" (and thus an easier place to find than most).
Nicaragua produces some of the best coffee in the world, but unless you ask nicely you get Nescrapé. Unbleedingbelievable. Maybe I should go back to Costa Rica. It's more or less impossible to get G&T (the G's available but there's a distinct dearth of T), but the beer's pretty good. The food is veering towards Mexican the further north I get - refried beans have made their first appearance on menus, and the filled tortillas are really good. Good job I like Mexican food as that'll be all there is for a few weeks.
And since you ask, the cold's improving, thanks.
Do you remember I said a while back that everyone in South America warns you about the country to the north? So the Chileans say Peru is dangerous, the Argentinians say Paraguay is dangerous, and they all say Venezuela and Colombia are dangerous.
Well, there I was having afternoon coffee at a little chef in Nicaragua with Dione and Leigh, an English couple on a pair of Yamahas heading south, and they say that everyone in North and Central America warns you about the country to the south. So the Americans think you'll die in Mexico, the Mexicans say you'll die in Guatemala, and so on.
Of course, none of this is really true, otherwise Colombia and Panamá would be really, really dangerous and full of abandoned motorcycles. Mind you, both Dione and I have suffered the nasty flu-type bug that's been racketing around this neck of the woods.
I encountered my first border corruption stunt crossing from Nicaragua into Honduras (apart from the appalling Entre Rios policemen in Argentina). Getting in and out of Nicaragua was a breeze, with plenty of Mummy's Little Helpers and friendly officials. Honduras, though. oh dear. I ended up paying out more than $50, with official receipts for less than $10. But there's little one can do. The hand-written vehicle permit had an alteration where the woman initially wrote the registration number wrongly. I asked for a replacement "clean" permit. That would cost $100. I don't think so. She did at least change the P to a B, but there should be a J instead of a Y. I risked it.
Naturally, at one of the police checkpoints they decided to check everything (thank heavens they couldn't find the engine number because, of course, it's now wrong). And they didn't like the alterations on the permit. I suddenly lost all my Spanish and lapsed into Spanglish. I told a sorry tale of being ripped off for $100 at the border, and how the officials refused to let me be with the bike while they did the paperwork, and so on and so forth. The guy obviously wanted his palm crossed with a wad of greenbacks, but I just wasn't going to do it. Eventually he gave up - a couple of overladen trucks came along and they probably afforded richer pickings.
Once in Honduras everything was fine - the usual friendly locals, decent roads, all that stuff. After Tegucigalpa I pottered along to Copán Ruinas and the Mayan city, just inside the border with Guatemala. The place was entirely full, it being Independence Day weekend, which wasn't too much of a problem for me as this charming cobbled colonial town was a nightmare to ride through. In common with most of the Spanish towns, the cobbles are big, rounded, and shiny, the hills are steep, and wrestling 300kg of bike on the narrow streets at very slow speeds behind incompetent Chelsea tractor drivers is very high risk indeed. Every time you have to stop the ground's in a different place, on the hills you start slithering either backwards or forwards with both wheels locked because there's 'gerall traction, you get the picture. So I headed back out of town to a posh sort of place full of the richer sort of locals, where they could accommodate me for one night (I really wanted two, but there you go).
So, up at sparrow's to take the hotel shuttle to the ruins and back to the hotel in time for the noon checkout. Eight miles to the border, knowing I'm going to get hassle and anticipating a fraught afternoon.
Not a bit of it. All very friendly and sensible. I noted that on the Honduran side there was posted a list of legitimate fees for people and vehicles entering the country (in English as well as Spanish), and a phone number and address to contact in the case of corruption attempts. All very different from Los Manos where I entered. And the Guatemalan side was just as nice, and the customs man indicated to his minions that I needn't be searched (thus allowing me to pass the queue of Chelsea Tractors being turned inside out). Good result.
Today I'm in Quetzaltenango, doing laundry, tightening bolts, all that sort of thing, and tomorrow I'll head for Mexico. Probably.
Riding around the Yucatán peninsula has been interesting, and not only for the Mayan ruins at places like Palenque and Chichen Itza.
The province of Chiapas is Zapatista territory (motto "The Government Obeys Us") and there are warnings of 'trouble' even on the main road. Once in Quintana Roo the local police display big handpainted billboards showing which roads are in good, OK and bad condition, which is helpful although so far the roads have been uniformly pretty good.
I had a lovely swim in a cenote at the foot of a cascade, called Misol-Ha; this is where they filmed Predator and is very jungly (and noisy due to the howler monkeys).
In the interests of completeness, and my curiosity, I decided to pay a visit to one of Britain's erstwhile far-flung Imperial outposts, to whit, Belize (formerly British Honduras).
What a sweet little country it is too, about the size of Wales or Lebanon. Although Belmopan is theoretically the capital, just about everyone ignores it in favour of Belize City, which is around the size of Newbury but without the tall buildings. They've been busy celebrating 25 years of independence so it all looks quite festive, and the whole place is rather jolly.
I've been talking to locals because I wanted to find out what they really think about Michael Ashcroft, who still owns about 20% of the place (including the telecoms company, the main bank, and the hotel I'm in). I was pleasantly surprised to find they quite like him - apparently he does a lot of good stuff and doesn't throw his weight around. In fact, I missed him by a day as he was here opening a new orphanage he's financed.
The official language is English, and the banknotes bear a picture of Her Majesty. And it was such a treat at the border not to have to decode my V5 for the bike import documents once I'd convinced the customs chap I really was English and not German (they get a lot of Germans on bikes here), and to have all the signs in English first. It's quite difficult to remember to use English instead of Spanish, although inevitably many of the people speak some Spanish as well.
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