Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico
“Inspirational”. It’s a funny word when we think about it. ‘To inspire’ is to motivate people to seek change. It is the whole purpose of ‘motivational speakers’ as they stride platforms all over the world ‘inspiring’ people to change their behaviours, attitudes or beliefs. The overwhelming message they send you is of the possibility to do ‘something different’ with your life. Sometimes you just need the opening, a crack in a doorway which calls you through the entryway to another place. In many ways it was one of the purposes of the journey, to show that many things are possible.
When we try to write about it people who do not know us may think it is pompous or self-important to talk of such things. To us it is not. We know we are lucky. We had the opportunity; all the planets lined up, all of the ducks were in a row. It became possible to set off despite the hundreds of barriers in our way. We wanted people to know many of the possibilities if they believe and have the courage to step through the doorway. Sometimes it is only this final step that people lack the will to take. All the opportunities in the world mean nothing without the courage to grab them.
Sometimes we have this aim affirmed as whispering traces reach across the world to where you sit. It was brought home to us when we hear of an Australian who talks to a fellow passenger on a train to Liverpool.
Mike tells of how he was sitting in Australia reading about a blind woman going around the world on a motorcycle. The next day he went to the bank and withdrew 3000 dollars, bought a backpack and got on a plane thinking “If a blind woman can do it……..” He used the word ‘inspirational’ to his fellow passenger much as the media of that vast country did when we arrived.
Meanwhile on the train the fellow passenger listened and smiled as it rattled its way onwards. Eventually Mike’s companion confided he knew the two people concerned in this mad adventure as he was father to one of them. Of all the people on the train Mike could have sat beside he chose the seat next to Bernard’s dad. Sometimes the word ‘coincidence’ does not sum up the odds of such an event. The world can be a very small place as we sat pondering this curious twist of fate.
Against this backdrop Panama appeared gripped in the paranoia of Swine-Flu which is sweeping the world. Face masks issue muffled voices as we make our way through the airport. Presenting ourselves to the immigration department we are asked.
“How long do you stay in Panama?”
“About a week” comes Bernard’s reply.
“I will give you three months” the smiling Immigration Officers says “you may like Panama for more than one week!”
The thump of the stamp signals our official entry in Central America.
Twenty eight minutes after landing we are walking into our hotel after a bus ride. After spending two hours trying to escape Perth Airport weeks earlier, the Australians could learn a great deal by shipping their officials to Panama. Here they could learn about airport procedures involving more than two people thumping passports while the waiting queue stretches from Perth to Moscow.
Our room at the hotel is cool due to the constant hum of the Air conditioner as Bernard falls asleep in seconds while I listen to the final chapters of the Da Vinci code by Dan Browne. My eyelids follow his soon afterwards.
It was so good to wake up and just rest.
No packing and repacking the bike, no playing the “where am I going to find space for this” game. No sorting through roads and routes while trying to find if there is tarmac ahead. These things can wait for another day or so. After leaving Tumbes in Peru, crossing Ecuador and Colombia in six days it is a relief to lie still and just listen to the hum of the air conditioning. The days have taken their toll and we are both tired after mountain passes and pock marked roads with holes big enough to swallow Bertha. With a leisurely day ahead of us we relax until Bernard can contain himself no longer, maybe 39 heartbeats after waking up. A phone call discovers Bertha has landed and we can pick her up tomorrow.
The next morning arrives and we oversleep despite two alarms being set, a brass band playing and world war three breaking out. It’s not that we are tired you understand. It’s worse than that. Much worse. Somebody has stolen our will. They must have sneaked up during the night and made off with it. Lethargy is the new name for ‘energy’. The both have a somewhat similar ending to the word but we are content to wallow in the former rather than the later.
Gradually we rouse our self into action and find our way to the cargo office where Carmen takes us under her wing. She has been telling everybody, when she stops laughing and smiling, of our immanent arrival. The whole office stop work to watch the arrival of ‘”The Blind English Woman on the big motorbike”. Her English is excellent and she loves our “authentic” voices as she calls colleagues so they too can come and listen to a “real English accent.” We are not sure what they made of our Lancashire (me) and vaguely Liverpool (Bernard) accent but they all seemed to enjoy everything we said immensely. If they understood us at all that is. Waving cheerily to us, Carmen gives us instructions of where to go to get the various bits of paper stamped she passes over.
As we walk back in the heat to the front gate where our first stamp is achieved, we practice our very finest English until ‘The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the British Isles’ sounds convincing. An officer at the gate realises my blindness and issues orders in staccato, machine gun like Spanish. Within seconds we are bundled like sardines into a four-by-four with Bernard straddling the gear lever. He nervously twitches every time a gear change is required but manfully refuses to admit it. His voice, however gives it away as it drops several octaves whenever he spoke.
Arriving at the police hut, officers wear their shields on lanyards around their neck like the best American export movie characters. One of them tries to engage us in Spanish before shifting to halting English which Bernard compliments while apologising in terrible Spanish about his own poor Spanish. The officer is obviously pleased with the compliment and he knows of the arrival of “The English Moto”. We have heard the term all through the compound and even when we arrive at the gates the guards had said “Ahhh, la moto Englaise”. Bertha’s fame precedes us as always.
The two officers come to a rapid realisation about my blindness. It seems to have become connected with my legs without me realising it. Orders are shouted, and another four-by-four is summoned to chauffer us back to the cargo offices due to my sudden inability to walk. Fortunately Bernard is not required to perform the splits across the centre consol and so his voice remains normal during the drive.
Carmen is stunned at our speedy entrance with everything completed. Her puzzlement drops away as Bernard explains the lovely customs and police insisted on driving us everywhere. Then he finished off with a rousing chorus of “We love Panama”. The office staff smile as he says this. Flatterer.
People hold doors and step out of the way as we hand over the $25 dollar fee (compared to $400 in Pakistan) before walking the short distance to the warehouse. There she is “Bertha the Boxer”, “Bertha the (semi) Invincible” – resplendent in Ecuadorian and Colombian dust and muck – but looking great, at least to Bernard.
Due to the mad exit from Colombia and the ineffectual agent, Franklin-the-probably-wifeless by now, we have not disconnected the battery nor completely drained the petrol. A few swift pumps on the Nepali hand pump and the tyres are inflated fully. She fires up and exits the warehouse where all work has stopped; people appear from all over the compound to watch events.
The Colombian drug search has left our gear all over the place – like Bernard let loose in a Hotel room for several days – so we decide to bung most of it – along with me – in a taxi back to the hotel while Bernard follows on the bike. A manager over hears the taxi driver ask for $15 dollars and he pounces on him with rapid Spanish. “Pay him no more than $10, and even this is too much for the journey.” It confirmed our view the $15 we paid to get here from the airport was indeed excessive.
Whenever a new country appears on the horizon we have found it very helpful, at least for the locals, to reach into the left pannier and rummage around until we find the rubber stamp marked ‘mug’. We then apply it firmly to our foreheads. We have found this avoids any confusion for the locals who may not recognise a huge red motorcycle baring gifts. They all run off sometimes searching the undergrowth and looking for Rudolph as, obviously Santa has ridden into town.
So it is we struggle to understand relative values for a few days as the sound of sleigh bells echo around us. We play catch up and then feel fools when we come to understand how much things really are. Hindsight is always a wonderful tool as early days involve getting stung several times before you acclimatise.
When we arrive back at the hotel parking Bertha in a disabled bay (she has the sticker) everything changes – no longer are we two anonymous guests. Suddenly, as always, we are something different, something exotic, something unique. The same attendants who have watched our coming and goings suddenly come over to talk. Bell-boys who smiled now stand looking at Bertha. We are no longer invisible as we repack the bike in preparation for departure tomorrow.
In and out of the hotel we wander throughout the afternoon as all the various oils are checked and bits of this and bits of that are tightened down. A massive crack in the windshield from the recent shipment is glued together after Bernard convinces a very nervous hotel caretaker it is ok to drill a hole through the Perspex. This, he assures me, should stop the crack continuing its, inevitable, route upwards like a snail’s meandering trail. The poor man is nervous at what he is being asked to do despite being urged on by my companion! The glue is liberally splashed all over the wide crack after the necessary dental activity. The Black and Decker drill is consigned back into the hotel as is the 100 foot lead carrying the power across the entrance where people gathered to watch.
Colombian, Ecuador and Panama stickers find homes on the luggage boxes, tire pressures are checked and the afternoon disappears before Bernard pronounces himself satisfied. People wander over and ask if they can take our pictures while others snap away as we work throughout the afternoon.
We relax and wash clothes while reflecting on how funny it is that for the previous nights nobody connected with us. Now, with Bertha outside, Americans come over and say things like “Good to see two people having a good time” along with the ‘inspirational’ message which many people have attached to us. Often the Americans then go onto tell us about their motorcycles sitting at home and how they would love to do such a journey.
Sitting at breakfast hands gently appear on my shoulder and American accents wish me ‘Good morning’ as Bernard loads up a tray from the self-service array of offerings. It is so nice and the whole experience of Panama seems to be very, very aware of Visual Impairment. Perhaps it is the influence of the USA with the many holiday and business people who frequent from the lands of the north? Waving to the assembled staff collecting at the front door we pull away.
We stop for our first petrol of Panama and it costs 2USD (£1.30) for a gallon and again we are reminded of the £1 per litre of England where draconian taxes are levied making petrol 400% dearer than anywhere. It is a sobering experience to realise how petrol has become the cash cow of all British Governments as we have travelled the world within landlocked, none oil producing, countries at a fraction of the cost.
Toll booths come and go as we wind our way across the long causeway which cuts across the muddy bay towards the city itself. Panama is a city of sky scrapers as is the way of all small countries where buildings go upwards reaching into the sky due to the premium commodity called ‘land’.
It is hot sweaty stuff even at 8.45am and the road is missing huge drain covers big enough to swallow the whole front wheel without even a burp. Cars dive left and right to miss the subterranean entrances to the Panamanian underworld while we weave around in the same manner. Some of the holes are so big people probably go fishing in them during the rainy season according to my ever-faithful, and exaggerating, companion.
Getting hopelessly lost in the city we drive round and round looking for some indication of the Pan American before blasting across the Panama canal on a bridge full of signs declaring dire consequences if you stop to take photographs. Huge signs declare this fact and Bernard notes the size of the signs are related to the seriousness of the penalty for ignoring them.
The roads outside the city are good compared to our recent experiences in South America and the suspension easily absorbs the rough surface. Progress is made along the C1 as towns drift past and we start to clock up the mileage towards the Costa Rica border which stands 350 miles away. Penonome (94 miles) changes to Santiago (at 155) before Tole appears at 218. Our speed climbs as good stretches allow Bertha to stretch her legs as the landscape changes from flat fields full of cattle, horses and goats to jungle which closes in on the single lane road.
Bertha’s ‘leg-stretching’ rises to such a point a very nice Panamanian Police Officer introduced himself to us – along with his very shiny new radar gun – by the side of the road on a particularly beautiful sweeping downhill left hand bend.
In the ensuing conversation – conducted, as always, in Spangalese – he maintains we are doing 120kph in a 100 zone. Bernard punches buttons on the dash board and shows the recorded 107 top speed on the satellite navigation system. The police man laughs and agrees with the speed – recorded on his own offending item – before license and ticket are both discussed. Needless to say there is no paperwork involved for the 20USD ‘fine’. The crisp single note is passed over for the return of the International Driving Licence. He then reinforces the speed limit before giving us the run down on the road ahead, the speed traps, the Drug Enforcement Agency road blocks, bad bends, dangerous places, petrol stations and where the Martians abduct locals along the route.
In many ways it was money well spent as we find there is no petrol for 100kms after a town called David.
He was a really nice man and philosophically we accept if you do not pay people enough money then they will supplement their income somehow – it is the way of the world. We can just imagine him talking to his wife – yes he was married with two children – that night.
“I met a lovely English couple today”
“Did you love?” she responds as she prepares dinner.
“Yes, they were really nice, she was blind and they were both on a big motorcycle. Huge thing it was. They were both very happy people and even thanked me after I fined them. Shook hands with them and it was all laughing and joking. I do like the English. They are always so polite. By-the-way, here’s twenty dollars towards the kids new school uniforms”.
So it is Bernard has now fallen foul (twice) of the Turkish Police, The Thai Police (twice), the Australian Police (once) and now the Panamanians; all in the name of charity, if you catch my double-edged drift.
Ah well. Such is life or as the French say “C’est La Vie”.
Waving to our new found – and slightly richer – friend we set off again and discuss how Bernard actually prefers this than the silly system in England where marginal infractions can lead to three points on a license. Three strikes later and you’re out! Even draconian fines would get the thumbs up from my friend in front as he always maintains it is just so easy to make a ‘simple’ mistake while driving. This mistake always, inevitably, attracts our friends in blue, or green, or black depending on what country you are in.
It starts to rain as we enter David and we shelter under trees and wait for the torrent to pass with the gauge showing 30+ degrees. It is too hot to climb into ‘boil in the bag’ waterproofs. Eventually we push on to Conception and find a small hotel. Just as we arrive the heavens open in a tropical monsoon which turns the roads into rivers and pyrotechnic patterns are traced in the sky as Thor the Norse God of Thunder strikes his hammer in the heavens.
Water cascades down roofs , trees and everything else as we unfold our umbrella from Bertha and splash our way to the café where enormous mountainous meals, wines, beer and coffee is consumed for the price of one gallon of petrol in England.
All the time the rain beats a staccato pounding rhythm on the roof causing voices to be raised as water rushes down in gushing streams outside the windows with a loud ‘whooshing’ sound. Four hours it rained in such a way as we sat, watched, talked and listened. All the beautiful green landscapes now made sense as the waitress explains it will rain for three to four hours like this and then stop. Thor must have been listening to her as four hours later it stopped; like a tap being turned off. One minute buckets of water falling from the sky and the next minute nothing at all. Based on Bernard’s description of the stern faced woman who explained Panamanian weather to us Thor must be a very sensible God not to make her out to be wrong.
Walking back up to our room it has rained so heavily we find a family of large frogs sheltering on our porch. They hop out of our way as we cautiously navigate without disturbing them as they wait for the torrent to stop sweeping down the paths. I can imagine them talking to each other in a vaguely anthropomorphic manner as they stare disconsolately at the sky:
“God it’s lashing down” the wife comments in a Northern Panamanian accent.
“Ai lass” her dutiful husband responds.
“Not fit to be out in” she goes on hoping for a conversation with her snoozing partner.
“Ai lass” he mumbles from beneath heavy eye lids.
“Is that all you’re going to say?” she prompts
Her eyes scan the horizon as she wanders where it all went wrong. Perhaps.
Bernard offers to retrieve one of them for me as he swears they are as big as his foot but I thank him for his offer while declining. As I fall asleep with heavy eyes I can hear them talking to each other outside our door and the last thing I think I heard was “Ai lass”. At least that’s what it sounded like to me.
The morning brings the border between Panama and Costa Rica where we discover we do not have a ‘vital’ Panamanian document for Bertha to be allowed out of the country. Various people make that dreaded ‘sucking in air’ noise which represents an insurmountable problem. Huge gales of air are displaced at this missing document. We vaguely recall we should have got it as we were chauffeured around the cargo compound. Meanwhile, there is much huffing and puffing about its lack. Eventually two United States dollars solved the dilemma and everybody is happy. The gales of sucking noises magically disappear.
On the Cost Rica side we begin the three hours of paper shuffling involving photocopies and even more photocopying of documents. They even throw in the obligatory charge for soaking the bike in ‘disinfectant’ in an attempt to bring death and destruction to our recently acquired insectoid – but much splattered and already dead – companions.
Meanwhile all the dead bugs friends and relations merrily fly over the border under their own steam. We laugh as we picture the bugs jumping off saying “We walk from here” while clutching their ‘Equal rights for Panamanian Insects’, and ‘Say No to disinfection’ placards.
Standing in a puddle of sweat in queues – where the white stick does not work its customary magic – people in shorts and tee-shirts fan themselves with papers while we dissolve inside our bike gear. We shuffle forward leaving a soggy trail and 25 minutes later reach the first window where a credit card proves you are solvent and have enough money to be allowed to enter the country. “Ahhh American Express, that’ll do nicely!” Thump goes the stamp. Part one done.
The whole world tilts for my companion as the next window does not want to know about the carnet – despite Costa Rica being indicated on the back of the document. A sheaf of Spanish forms appear from under the opening. It is also obvious several more photocopies are needed as I walk and Bernard stamps back to the photocopy office (again). Twenty minutes later – and several pounds lighter with the heat – we take station back at the window with Bernard still muttering. I point out he should try to imagine a Costa Rican trying to get into England; they would probably need a letter from a divine authority according to people we have met on the road. He relents and agrees I am right.
The forms go under the glass panel, come back at us, more is filled out, backwards and forwards they go in a perpetual game of ping-pong until the young lady is happy. We know we are making progress when she starts entering data and dot matrix printers clatter as pieces of paper spew out of the thirty year old machinery. Three offices later (and another 16USD) the very nice customs officer proclaims herself satisfied with the bike – without even looking at it; definitely not Colombian trained we guessed.
While restocking on vital fluids a waitress asks “Donde?” (where are you from and going?). She stares wistfully at our answers. According to Bernard, her face is full of longing and some regret as she, perhaps, dreams of such a journey while serving tables in the dust bowl of the border.
We set off and manage a whole three hundred yards before we are waved down at a check point where we have to produce all our paperwork. Off we climb, unlock the panniers, get the papers out to be minutely examined before being stowed back into the pannier and off we go again.
After seeing little of police for so long (apart from our school uniform collecting policeman with his new toy) we trundle through police check points every few miles on our way from the border. They wave us through apart from one who simply wants to see our passports.
The roads are a patchwork of tarmac, gravel, sand and soil as we bash our way across the surfaces like true professionals. Coming to a junction we discuss dropping off the Pan-Americana as it seems to go a long way around, climbing some serious heights where we know wagons will be dragging themselves up like inebriated broken legged insects.
Bernard laughs as he asks me which route we should take after explaining what he sees in front of him along with his guesswork. To me the 34 ‘felt’ right rather than the Pan-Am.
“Here I am in Costa Rica taking directions from a blind woman about which road to take!” The sound of laughing comes through the speakers in my helmet. He made the turn and we head down the 34. A blind navigator? A new first? Next stop professional rally navigator?
So it is we drop down onto the 34 and head away towards the coast. Miraculously the road is far, far better than the main highway and it soon becomes obvious why. The coast is full of newly built ‘tourist’ destinations, hotels and houses built where the Pacific Ocean crashes onto the Coast of Riches (Costa Rica) named after the red fertility which the soil represented to the Spanish when they arrived.
Interestingly it is also one of the few countries who do not have an army as the country gave it up in the 1940s. Great idea really as now they spend the money on looking after its people; it’ll never catch on!
Soon we rejoin the Pan-Am and climb into the Cloud Forest where the mist, drizzle and occasional deluge brings cold and wet for hours as we cross the mountains. Visibility is poor as the drizzle sticks to Bernard’s visor which he wipes every few seconds with the realisation the weather is not a passing event; by this time we are soaked all the way through. The road through the mountains twists and turns so much, is so narrow, we do not even stop for a cigarette; it is too dangerous to pull over on such narrow roads.
We know people come from all over the world to see the cloud forest but, to be honest, there is little to see in the big scale of things unless you like grey cloud and sheet rain. Bernard amuses me with his observations that, probably, people are rushing through the forest with their butterfly nets, or photographing some exotic species of something or other while we splash past going “Please God let this end soon”.
Give us both the warmth as we have not been this cold since Erzerum or Peru at 15,000 feet with a closed road. We have not been this wet since the M5 was closed in 2007 due to ‘The Great Flood’ where we slept on a roundabout wrapped up in survival bags as England became one big lake for the ducks to happily play in.
Eventually we drop down into Cartegeno and with the altitude drop we leave the clouds and the rain behind us within the 27% protected land area of Costa Rica. While we laugh and joke about the ‘bug spraying’ operations it all makes perfect sense. The habitats and ecology are all very beautiful in the mountains. It is so worth protecting. Once beauty has disappeared it is gone forever and can never be replaced in the same way. Beauty should be built upon layer by layer and defended to the utmost of our abilities.
As we potter into the outskirts of the town we see the El Guarco Hotel and gratefully climb off the bike after 10 hours and an average speed of 19mph. Sitting in our room we hunt information on Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. They are all coming at us so quickly. By the time we shower, eat, check mileages, write journals, check routes it is 10.30 and eight hours later we start all over again. We wouldn’t change a thing in the world despite the tiredness, aches, pains and the cold which takes hours to shift from our bones.
Bernard is tired the next morning and responding like the proverbial ‘grumpy old man’. His mood is not helped 25 miles later when I quietly tell him I have left my stick at the hotel. The bike pulls over and after several seconds of silence we turn around and travel 25 miles back to find the stick standing patiently waiting for us behind the front door of our room where it had been parked for the night. Twenty five miles later we are back at the same point again. This time however, we find the right road instead of the (un) guided tour of San Jose we had experienced earlier.
We catch a large group of motorcycles following a brightly painted and mural covered pick up truck as they shatter the silence with their open bore exhausts. Handlebars reaching upwards make the riders look like they are raising their arms to the sky in celebration of something. Harley Davidson’s predominate with the chrome glistening in the sunshine. Cut-off denim jackets covered in badges and chapter ‘colours’. We carve our way through the Hell’s Angels cavalcade, picking them off a few at a time until we leave them behind at their sedate 50mph.
Perhaps they are out to cause terror and mayhem in the Costa Rican countryside? Then again, with all the friendly waves, horn blowing, flashing headlights and big thumbs ups coming at us perhaps they are simply out for the inevitable cup of cha. Then they will return home, climb back into their business suites in the morning, pick up their briefcases, kiss their wives and children goodbye before taking the train to work? Who knows? What you see depends on what you are looking for.
The roads narrow into single lanes, trees close in on both sides and over our heads, forming a canopy thus bringing welcome shade from the heat. It is cool and we welcome the change as we blast along for mile after mile towards the Nicaraguan border. Black tarmac stretches in front of us and we hammer along the good surfaces with another large group of motorcycles appearing in our mirrors. Soon they are passing us in ones and twos – mixtures of street machines and semi-chopped bikes all chrome and polish making us look like two tramps in comparison to their sleek leather clad riders.
They dip and dive past the Sunday drivers in the hills we climb and we tuck in behind them to break the monotony of the drive. Bertha dives into corners, up and down the gears as we pass everything on the road; including all of the bikes. We hurtle off into the distance like a V2 bomb on a mission while Bernard’s brain pulses and becomes infused with adrenaline and testosterone. At one point I am sure we have stumbled, accidentally, onto the starting grid of a Grand Prix. After several miles of roaring speeds down leafy lanes with Bertha about to explode every gasket she has – yes they do have leafy lanes in Costa Rica – my errant friend’s blood pressure returned to normal, his brain stops pulsing. He pronounces himself satisfied, honour and ‘credibility’ (on a twenty year old heavily laden bike I pointed out) has been satisfied and a lunch break is called.
Within seconds we are surrounded by people from the roadside café and fifteen year old Ian translates the questions and answers backwards and forwards, becoming firm friends within seconds after Bernard tells him Ian is an English name. Leaving Ian to dream of road trips and large motorcycles we ride on.
Pulling up the border, no sooner has the side-stand dropped than hordes of ‘helpers’ appear all proclaiming the process will take hours to exit Costa Rica. By the nature of their insistent voices it seems we will be stuck here without their help for at least a week. We decline the offer and a very nice fully gold toothed Aduana (customs) officer (the job must pay well) stamps and signs off everything without a Colombian strip search of either Bertha or ourselves.
Slowly crossing the border time goes into reverse in decades as the road suddenly stops, being replaced by gravel and hardcore. Shoddiness radiates all around in the dirty, once white, grey buildings as Costa helpers are replaced by their Nicaraguan brothers. They too proclaim it is harder to get into Nicaragua than into England for an Afghan refugee. Somehow we think they doth protest too much.
Handing over three USD Bertha is drowned in disinfectant (along with everything we posses) and in return we receive a very nice certificate from a very bored looking young lady in a booth.
The word has gone around to every ‘helper’ that there are two naïve ‘gringos’ abroad in their territory. Feeling like the pied piper (or in the heat the ‘fried pipers’) we quite take to one of them and accept his offer (after first checking the price!)
Anado is about forty years old and speaks English very well (always a help) and he gently leads us from pillar to post and from office to window. Health check forms are duly signed declaring that, no, we do not have sore throats, coughs, colds or any other rabid like or death dealing symptoms. Bernard indicates the only sore throats we get are from talking; actually he indicated me much to the amusement of the staff sitting behind their white face masks.
Anado leads us past lines of American bus tourists revisiting Nicaragua openly (unlike some of their military in the past) and we hand over dollars for the cost of stamping a passport, bike insurance (try claiming for anything with it), and a stamp from the customs officer having his shoes shined by a bare footed boy kneeling in the dust.
Meanwhile American tourists are busily snapping away at Bertha and proclaiming “Oh my God, you’ve come all the way from England” as only the Americans can sound. At this point the heavens open and the dust becomes a white mud as we stand under the porch of the health check area sheltering from the sudden onslaught.
We are joined by all the local wise boys who suddenly appear looking for ‘free money’ and as we move from porch to tree and tree to porch they follow us. It seems Nicaragua abounds with free money but especially from white gringos – even if you are not a white (American) gringo. Being English Bernard merely snorted when they demanded one dollar for their help earlier as they had pointed to a building when asked for the ‘Pasaporte’ Office. As they become more insistent Bernard’s snorts get louder and louder. Eventually they give up, if only to save being blown over by the gale coming from beside me.
After guzzling several cold drinks, and packing half a tree of paperwork into the pannier we set off. Maybe five heart beats later we are pulled over for a document check. Perhaps it was ten heart beats but the outcome was the same. Off we climb, unlock the panniers, and retrieve copious amounts of paper. Personally we both think they just want to look at the bike as most of the documents they asked for were in English. With Bernard manfully practicing Spangalese it is obvious English was not their fifth, never mind second language. But they were happy with everything and who are we to deny officials their bit of excitement to liven up the boredom of looking at blowing dust all day?
Heading for Riva twenty two miles away we pull into a ‘resort’ by a lake which nestles under the shadows of volcanoes and a blue heat haze. The armed guards on the gate carry the weapon of preference (pump action shotguns) and wave happily to us as we bounce down the pitted entrance road. The resort is empty with the floors and reception a graveyard of midges. Ankle and elbow deep on every surface they testify to either (a) the diligence of the staff in exterminating them or b) the indolence of ‘bugger it’ by the cleaning staff. We guessed b) was the correct answer as the, eventual, receptionist showed us to a 70USD room.
Every step we take is met with the sounds of Bernard blowing loudly to save ingesting the clouds of midges whom have turned up to welcome us. Despite questioning whether the 70 dollars was actually 7 dollars the receptionist did not take the hint. Since we had left our jungle nets at home (‘we won’t need them’) along with our thermostatically controlled survival suites, we declined her very kind offer to be a meal for the black cloud which followed us everywhere.
Rivas appears and it is a town where poverty shouts from all around as people stare at our passing. The level of the destitution makes Bernard nervous as we ride a Christmas tree full of goodies; as Bertha must look. Lots of men are sitting around sharpening long machetes, standing on street corners with the light glinting off the razor sharpness of their jungle cleavers. Darkness is beckoning and we need to get off the road but end up tiredly driving another 40 miles to a blacked out power poor Jinotepe where we manage to find a nice little room for 25 USD.
Two parrots declare control of their kingdom to all and sundry in the café next door as they wander around the floor while we sit in the dark (midge free) open air munching on Rice, pancakes and other things we can only vaguely recognise. Needless to say Bernard recognises the beer and happily quaffed several cans of, would you believe ‘Heineken’ while noting, with some justification:
“Well it has been really, really hot today. I have gathered a terrible thirst and it needs sorting before I can sleep properly.” Funnily enough, sleep is one of the few things he never has any problem with.
A young boy sneaks up behind us as we eat while keeping out of the sight of staff. He asks for free (gringo) money “For my hunger.” He sits on the floor and repeats the same thing several times as we offer him (untouched) food off our plate. Suddenly his hunger seems cured. Don’t get me wrong. Compared to many unfortunate people we are Father Christmas, the tooth fairy, the leprechauns at the end of the rainbow with a pot of gold and every other bringer of good fortune all rolled into one shiny red metallic parcel which Bertha represents.
It is also true it is hard to say no. It truly is.
Before we even left England Bernard told me it was the way it had to be. Once you start giving there is no end. Every day it is the same. You also have to wonder what distinguishes one person’s poverty from another’s? You can talk about poverty in terms of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ to the end of the world but it doesn’t help when a ten year old boy sits two feet away from you.
Is poverty worse amongst the one billion people in India? Is it worse in a Nicaragua ravaged by conflict for decades leaving a country with few natural resources but many shiny machetes. Why give to one person and not another?
We try, in our own way to ‘overpay’ people at times for something. Sometimes you know you are overpaying and sometimes you do not but often it doesn’t matter. Free money does not exist anywhere in the world. Somebody has to pay somewhere along the line. In terms of this journey the wise young lady behind the Hotel reception in Santiago in Chile noted it had taken Bernard ‘a life time of work’ to get this far. Somewhere along the line life teaches us that nothing is free. Everything costs something to somebody. Eventually the young boy wanders off. He looks back reproachfully.
The morning brings a quick exit as food at 6.30 am is as scarce as free equipment from trans-global bike manufacturers.
The capital, Managua, leads us round and round until we are dizzy and sweating profusely. Hopelessly lost in the dust and potholes of the capital we pass through shanty towns of cardboard and black plastic covering the sides of the road in the same way as India. It is a world away in distance and time but not in appearance or sentiment.
People sit amongst the squalor with empty eyes staring ahead, lost in thought as they focus on the sound of Bertha, locate us and then brightness enters their eyes for a few seconds. They smile. Then we are gone and Bernard wonders if they return to the vacant look they all seemed to share prior to our passing.
Without a map or working satellite system – it has gone functionally Absent Without Leave again – the compass is called into play to find our way forward. Eventually we work our way through the rubbish strewn streets and climb out of the obstacle course our route has taken us back towards the CA1.
Stopping for petrol we fill up with our 3USD per gallon petrol which keeps the roads quiet due to the expense of it in an economy grinding along in desperation. Stray cows and pushbikes on the tarmac keep us alert as we come round corners to find football matches taking place between barefooted players. The game stops to let us pass before Maradonna passes the ball to Rooney who slots it home between the piles of stones which indicate the post. Such is the game played all over the world as people dream for a few seconds, taking themselves to somewhere they would prefer to be.
Exiting from Nicaragua is quick and (financially) painless, quite unlike the entry to Honduras where an hour later we are officially mugged for 45 dollars for this and that and end up with useless (expensive) insurance. Another Brazilian tree is eventually deposited with a hefty thump into the right hand pannier as the bike strains to take the additional weight.
Five times in twenty minutes it all has to be retrieved for road blocks where each and every piece is meticulously examined for the dotted i’s and crossed letter t’s. In the end I clutch all the papers in a plastic zippered wallet as we ride along as, no doubt, around the next bend will be (100 yards away) another road block of bored soldiers or police looking for something to fill their day. We smile and try to make conversation while they just want to stare at everything we represent and carry.
Soon the Villa Margarita appears and we are lured into its bosom by its modern appearance and cheapness. It appears like an oasis in a sea of psychological hopelessness pictured in the dead expressions of the people we pass. Somebody obviously thought it would be a good idea to build the complex close to the border as ‘there will be lots of passing trade’. Obviously.
The swimming pool is meticulously clean and the 5-a-side football pitch is immaculate as are the fourteen three roomed apartments. The whole site rattles with the quietness of the three guests, of which we count for two. Bernard comments it is going to be hard to get a game going on the pristine pitch with one guest and a blind woman. He gives up the idea when I point out we do not carry a ball with a bell inside. My demonstration of the famous ‘shimmy’ and of being a female Michael Owen will have to be put on hold for another day. At least I’ll put off being injured by kicking a ball I cannot see. He ponders about going back to the border and trying to arrange an international between the two neighbours. Eventually he gives up the idea and checks internet maps instead while muttering “I’d love a game of football, I really would”.
Our progress through Central America is now so quick we are running out of information about where we are (sometimes we even forget which country we are in) or where we should be heading for (often we have no real idea without maps).
The next morning we leave the empty site where the staff out number the guests by three to one and suffer six Police check points in 30 miles. Each one involves smiling people asking everything and anything about the bike. Spangalese is now our official language although sometimes Franco-Spangalese slips in. Personally I think Bernard is just showing off as it does not get us any further forward.
We pull over for petrol and Bernard hands over 20USD for the 236 Lempira at an exchange rate of about 20 to the dollar. Forty Lempira appears in change. We wait. The attendant smiles. We still wait. He smiles again and waves us off the pump as cars pull up behind us. Bertha sits impassively ticking as she cools. Eventually another 100 Lempira is pressed into Bernard’s outstretched hand from the smiling attendant as if to say “Well if you don’t try?”
We talk of how tiring it is when everybody seems to be ‘on the make’. It wears you down and makes you distrustful. It is a bad feeling and it happens more in central America than anywhere else. It leaves us feeling tired. Every transaction is fraught with the feeling you are being eaten little by little by Piranhas. Nibbled away a fraction at a time. Nibble, nibble, nibble. Munch, munch, munch.
Pulling up on a deserted road several miles later Bernard lights a cigarette and within seconds a one-legged man on crutches comes out of the jungle. He moves quick for a one legged man on crutches, according to Bernard, as he hones in on us and asks for money by holding his hand out. Nibble, Nibble.
A form of fatigue settles over us during the length of a cigarette.
It is obvious Bernard’s Spanish cuts no ice as he stands and stares at us while repeating over and over again, ‘dollars’. He becomes more and more insistent in his requests, in the end, virtually demanding we give him money. Weariness settles like a pall on our hearts as listen to the mounting aggression in his voice. It unsettles me as we sit on the road side. The voice changes and echoes in my head, changing into Indian voices saying ‘Rupees, rupees’. It feels suffocating and painful. We pull off leaving him standing at the road side with our ‘Buena Suerte’ (good luck) echoing emptily in the brief space of time we occupied with him.
The exit from Honduras is as chaotic a crossing ever encountered as we are surrounded the very instant the bike stops. Money changers and fixers of every size and age appear. I cannot shake the feeling of India now that it has reappeared. There is no space to even climb off the bike or even breath, so close do they press in on us. Everybody wants to ‘help’ Mr and Mrs Santa Claus on their red sleigh. They are, obviously, now expected to distribute goodies to all and sundry.
Bernard refuses to be drawn and he discounts the legions of helpers instantly.
“I’ve done 26 borders so far, thank you” his voice declares to the English speaking ‘fixers’.
I know he is exerting control and bidding his time, seeing how things pan out before CHOOSING somebody rather than being catapulted along by others.
The whole place is chaos as we wander up to the border control and some semblance of ‘assistance’ is forthcoming at the white stick’s appearance. ‘Runners’ are sent to photocopy relevant documents at the most expensive photocopying machine in the world (nibble) and a passport stamp (nibble, nibble) is issued for the bike while a Honduran flag appears it (nibble, nibble, nibble). It is hot, unbelievably so, as we shuffle from place to place while people gather around the bike which Bernard watches warily – for the first time in many months.
We are oozing liquid from every pore as we stand in the mid-day turmoil of sounds and activity all around. After being consumed by all the Honduran nibbling possible we are spat over the bridge onto the El Salvadorian side. A cursory view of our passports and directions towards the Customs post three kilometres away followed. Relieved we set off.
Sometimes life has a wonderful sense of humour. When you think it cannot get any worse, up pops another barrier. The barrier came after the designated three kilometres in the shape of a moustached sun-glass wearing Hitler. Pressing Spanish forms into Bernard’s hands, he wears an evil grin.
“Houston, I think we have a problem” comes the muttered voice beside me as the customs officer rattles on in fast paced Spanish and he cannot be dissuaded. Now we know what the English make people feel like sometimes as he started to shout the instructions at us as if we are both hard of hearing and complete imbeciles. The penny drops he is going to have some fun with us when Bernard replies:
“There is no point in you shouting at me in Spanish and repeating the same thing over and over again, I don’t have a clue what you are saying”.
At this point I had visions of him going red with rage as it was obvious something snapped in him. People all around us start laughing. It is obvious he was having lots of fun at our expense. It didn’t feel funny at all. Far from it. Why is it you can never find a fixer when you need one? Bit like a bus, a policeman or a starter motor in Peru?
With the help of Louis, an El Salvadorian truck driver, we manage to fill out all the Spanish forms (in English) only to have all the answers crossed out by Mr Hitler (we thought if we called him Mister it might help) as he replaced all of our English with Spanish answers – after an hour waiting.
I knew he could speak English. Something told me by watching him he knew precisely what I was saying at first encounter. He was making a point and it was very, very uncomfortable to be around him. The temperature is in the high 30s and the sweat was dripping onto the forms while he found every excuse to avoid dealing with us. He was a real bugger and was exercising every bit of authority and power he had over us as we slowly dissolved in the still airless heat.
People came and went as we waited. Trucks pulled up, huge cavernous trailers are inspected and searched. As we wait they depart while we sit with a motorcycle and three boxes. The puddle of sweat gets larger as we sit on our two plastic chairs. Bernard is despatched up the road several times to gather photocopies before coming back clutching sheaves of paper which he would eventually deem to scan. After two hours we heave a sigh of relief as we depart holding tightly onto new papers only to find, when we pull up at the Police check point, they are the wrong ones.
The Police take pity on us as Bernard tells me they have seen us, and him, going up and down for two hours. They want to wave us through but Bernard refuses to cross as he doesn’t know what will happen when we come to exit El Salvador if we do not have the correct paperwork. So it is we have no choice but to go back and face the mirrored sun-glasses again.
Mr Gestapo is very clearly having a whale of a time when we reappear again. His face lights up with a big smile although he is also clearly aggravated by the phone calls from the Police who, probably, have told him to get his (wrong) form 39-PTFY sorted out from his (correct) 68-HYT.
He descends on us but this time we have out-smarted him.
Paolo our fixer is in tow (who assures us thirty minutes and ten dollars to fix the problem will be all he needs). We feel confident. Nearly. We found Paolo lurking by the police barriers and he seems as genuine as a British Politician’s word.
We settle back onto our seats and wait as a great battle commences between the forces of good and those of evil. Empires rise and fall on the strength of these battles. Universes of meaning are constructed by the intellectual merits of those engaged. In the meantime Bernard pulls his baseball cap over his eyes and says “Wake me if anything happens”.
Three hours later I wake him and tell him the thirty minutes Paolo promised has passed. One hour to exit Honduras and five to enter El Salvador has gone by and we guess Tourism isn’t big on the El Salvadorian political agenda – at least in terms of civilian tourism.
We felt as welcome as leprosy, swine flu, or George Bush in Baghdad. We consoled ourselves with the fact at least we do not need a bullet proof car to go everywhere.
Anyway, a whole country nearly became tainted by the trivial acts of one minute person on a speck of dust on a huge planet. Sometimes it helps to be philosophical about events like this as Bernard commented:
“He probably drives a very big car.”
“What makes you say that?” I ask in all innocence.
“Well you know what they say about people who drive big cars don’t you? It is a compensatory action for inadequacies in other, more physical departments. He must feel the need to drive something really, really big.”
Then he starts laughing.
Actually this is as close as I can get to what he actually did say. It would be impossible for me to record the precise words on a printed page. If this was done then we would fall foul of the print or thought police and so end up on a top shelf somewhere between hard and soft core publications. I’m sure you get the idea of the real words he used.
Before we left Bernard searched him out and waited until he was beside a very, very senior officer who spoke English. He marched over and shook hands with our tormentor saying:
“You are a very, very, naughty man for playing such a long joke on two guests.”
He had smiled standing beside his senior colleague without responding but clearly understanding. As we turned to leave the last word, as is often his wont, came from Bernard:
“By the way, the name is not gringo as you called me earlier. To you, as a public servant, it is always MR Gringo.”
I swear he could not have walked more upright along the loading bay while leading me back to Bertha.
The border guards all applaud as we reappear hours after leaving them and with a flourish they raise the barrier and wave us off onto the road to San Miguel. We find a home for the night surrounded by American voices as the sun falls from the sky while Bertha sits outside in one of the two disabled bays which the staff insist we use.
The frustrations of the day – and previous days – eventually boil over in the evening as tiredness and waves of aggravation sweep through Bernard. He lashes the written journal across the room in a rare show of temper as we sit in bed trying to recount the days through his tired brain and fingers when all we want to do is go to sleep. Ever meticulous in recording details it boils over when neither of seem to be able to recall very much through the fog which seems to have descended on our brains. Fleeting thoughts without substance are the only things which come to us.
I see the book in my mind as it flutters to the floor like a broken butterfly. It sits waiting for him to retrieve it and fix the wings before the story can go on. The story of two people doing, for some have thought, impossible things within an impossible journey.
The simple image of a broken butterfly reflects the self-image I have of us at this point. They are ragged versions worn away with the constant rushing and tensions of multiple borders within short periods of time. Bernard and borders equals stress. There is no getting away from it. He is what he is. In many ways he spent the day not letting it get to him by keeping it bottled up, even feigning sleep to send the message “You cannot get to me.” The act of lashing a book across the room is a form of release of all that pent up pressure I know he feels. He is careful to hide the pressure when it is important to do so, like today.
I wait for the storm to pass as it surely will. He can be no different than the person I fell in love with. It is impossible for him to be anything else.
Silence falls on us for the first time in months as tiredness, irritation and anger flashes across our peaceful world like a hurricane. We both wait for it to subside as it surely will. Neither of us is inclined to be anything else but the people who were attracted to each other so long ago. After listening to the tick of the clock he climbs out of bed and mutters “Damn book has split.” There it is, the opening, the start of normality.
“Probably the wall that did it” I respond.
“Could be” he laughs quietly.
“We’ve got tape haven’t we?” I ask.
“Yep” he climbs back into bed and retrieves his pen.
“It’ll be fine then” my voice assures him as he settles back down.
We start to write about people with big cars and butterflies with broken wings. As the words pile up on the page the last dark cloud fades from our small room; the sound of pen on paper soothes us. The world we now inhabit is one we recognise and are comfortable with because we are both together again. The butterfly no longer has a broken wing. I know we are now ready for another day.
We pull out of the hotel the following morning and head for San Salvador following the CA-1 signs for the Pan American. The traffic settles, if that is the right word, into rush hour London traffic except it keeps moving at more than 6mph. Actually if you put several zeros after the six then you have the approximate speed. People hurtle along like mission pilots on a bombing run over enemy territory. It must be something to do with their history where everybody drove fast to miss the snipers.
Trucks and buses push out dense clouds of black smoke which Bernard needs a knife to cut through so he can see where we are going. I shout helpful thoughts to him like ‘are we having breakfast yet” or “Can I breath now?” after holding my breath for ten minutes as we carve our way through the volcanic like eruptions coming, it seems, from every vehicle. Not to be outdone by the dense smoke and diesel fumes he chirps away cheerfully with all thought of moods which reflect the colour of our faces (black) gone from the previous night.
Inexplicably we lose the CA-1 signs as they become as invisible as maps of this country. Pulling over we ask the petrol attendant which way. After putting on his sunglasses to protect his eyes from the fully gold-toothed smile Bernard heads off in the same direction we had been heading. Ten minutes later he stops and again people wave their arms like windmills which, we think, indicates go backwards although it could be sideways.
Reverting to our ‘follow the wagons’ rule we end up hopelessly lost in San Salvador with not a sign for Santa Ana on the horizon. After the customary cigarette stop in times of severe stress, or not, the compass is called into play and an hour later we find the mythical CA-1 again. This is after hitting the most enormous pothole which suddenly appeared from underneath the wagon in front. Our progress down and into the hole shattered several electronic gizmo attachments in the dashboard. Thank God for Gaffa tape as the dashboard ended up – twenty minutes later – looking like an advert for how not pack a post office parcel. Once my feet returned to the foot pegs after being launched so far up into the air we set off again.
The traffic thins out as Bernard starts to describe the small open pick-up trucks which act as the local taxi / bus / purveyor of the people. Leaping onto the still moving vehicles, hands reach down to grab new passengers so that they are not swept under the vehicles which follow in the ever onward motion.
We pass through small villages and towns as the Pan Americana, or Inter-Americana as many call it, narrows and threads its way past the market stalls selling everything from fruit to tee-shirts. Buses suddenly stop and people leap out of the doors (front, side and rear), falling from windows and leaping off the roof in gymnastic displays which would have judges reaching for their perfect ten score boards. Children wave as we slowly meander past and people turn 100 yards in front as Bertha announces her presence with the distinctive rumble of her engine – “Probably the gear box” according to Bernard, “Something is getting noisier”. A problem for another day we hope and talk louder to overcome the noise.
The road holds good and soon we are climbing the hills through emptiness towards San Cristobal and cutting down the mileage towards the Guatemala border crossing. We hope Mr Gestapo has not been transferred across the country. If he has we vow to turn around and take to the jungle, winching the bike up mountains and down ravines in order to avoid him. Pulling down towards the border we – well Bernard – scans the post for anybody goose-stepping or for any indication of mirrored sunglasses. All he can see are smiling faces and this makes him nervous. The border guards all smile as we pull up and park Bertha. Are they lulling us into a false sense of security?
After handshakes all around we do not find a single goose-stepping guard. One of them even walks us towards a hut where he fills out all the paperwork. Within ten minutes we are done. Bernard sniffs suspiciously (or he is developing man-flu) but it seems it is true. El Salvadorian border guards do not all chew on broken glass. Our faith is restored once again by digging beneath the uniforms and finding people.
Walking down to the Guatemalan border the female officer examines each and every one of our passport stamps; all 27 ins and 27 outs to date. We pull up chairs and prepare to wait as she makes several cups of tea while examining each and every page. Fifty four stamps later a new thump indicates Guatemala is winking at us saying ‘Come on in the jungle’s fine’.
Felipe is a young man who, amongst all the border ‘touts’, stands out. He is thin, smiles in an easy going manner, and seems very gentle. We like him straight away and even more over the next hour and a half as he smoothes the ripples in the Guatemalan paper pond. So it was he led us from office one (Guatemalan Customs) to Office 2 (El Salvador Customs) to Office 3 (Photocopy everything) to Office 1 then office 2 and then office 4 to hand over the 5USD administration fee. Back to office 2 for more paper. And so it goes on as we follow the paper carousel in its endless circle.
At some point an urgent cigarette is needed so we leave Felipe to perform his lonely mission. People may wonder why Bernard gets stressed but I think he just gets dizzy more than anything as we perform the ‘swirling dance of the forest’ – most of the greenness of Brazil has probably disappeared into our panniers at one point or another. Then again, we can be thankful we are not Guatemalan motorcyclists trying to enter the UK. Old age would probably strike us down as we waited.
Rock music blasts from a café nearby as Bernard gives a running ‘I’ll name that artist in one’ game of ‘The Chilli Peppers’ or ‘Led Zeppelin. He sighs loudly when I ask where the Mariah Carey or Celine Dion is. “In lifts all over world” he answers. “May as well ask where the birdie song is” came his dismissive reply. “I like the birdie song” I tease him “It always fills the dance floors”. He puffs on his cigarette in silence and does not deem to answer. “By the way” I add naughtily, “Didn’t Led Zeppelin make a balloon?” I’m sure the heavy exhale of air has swirled the dust on the floor as I picture him shaking his head in mock disgust. Sometimes he is so easy.
Felipe shares a cold drink with us as Brazil has finished suffering for another day while Bertha is proudly displaying a new sticker in her windshield. She is now totally legal and an official tourist bike of some repute, we like to think.
We have 166km to do to reach the capital as we wave to Felipe and pull off into the countryside full of suicidal cows lazily lying in wait for passing motorcycles. On hearing us they amble up onto their feet and wander across the road playing chicken with 350kg of metal. Our old friend the subterranean pothole leading to the centre of the earth also makes a dramatic reappearance.
A powerful motorcycle howls past and Bernard describes how he is straightening and lifting the bike, dropping into the corner, then straightening in a series of jagged movements. “it’s as if he’s frightened of the corner” comes through my helmet. Bernard demonstrates what he is trying to explain. It is so disconcerting to feel the bike move so much in a corner, quite unlike how it feels normally, smooth and measured with no changes in line; unless something suddenly appears in our path.
The undulating and bumpy roads pass us by until the Turicentre Los Esclavos appears after passing through places with little more than cafes, garages, and waving children. We turn around to have a second look after flying past it first time. The rooms are basic and we find it nestles on the side of ravine where the river rushes past several hundred feet below. Three large parrots shout ‘Ola’ as we walk past their open-air cages while lightening flashes in the sky, followed soon after by the rumble of thunder. We sit by the small empty pool sending text messages to people in England and Ireland worrying about us passing through places like El Salvador and Guatemala.
At times like this we know people worry about us and we try to calm their fears through the wonder of technology. This sees messages winging their way up into the sky, around the globe and then landing with a thump, or a blast of song, before burrowing into circuits to be displayed or read on a small screen. Even when we tell them we are having a whale of a time with our one-handed texting (because we are so good), they worry. While we laugh and wing our way through most of the world, they worry. The funny thing is if we nipped to France for a bit of biking they would probably say “Enjoy, bring us back a few bottles of the red stuff.” It is the name of country which triggers fear beyond our own, very real, experiences.
Reading motorcycle books his whole life Bernard tells me how riders often report ‘the dangers’ of riding in countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, the whole of central America and our old friend Pakistan. They fill their books with Foreign Office Advisory notices supporting the view that the road they are about to take from X to Y “is dangerous. Under no circumstances should foreign Nationals drive between X and Z”. The FCO notice then goes on to say if a) you have several truck loads of local militia with you, b) at least two local fixers, and c) your own helicopter doctor then it may downgrade the danger from terminal to critically life threatening.
In order to further reduce the risk we add some further advice:
1. Contact Doctor Who to arrange to borrow his invisibility cloak.
2. Go to Japan and spend two years doing a crash course in Ninja studies. Included in this should be the compulsory option of advanced meditation. In this option you can learn to stop breathing for several months so even the local wildlife cannot hear you as you pass them by.
Often the writers then go on to describe the shootings, kidnappings and barely conceived mayhem they may experience. Needless to say they ride the road and conceal their disappointment as. Nothing happens. Danger sells stories whether it is real or imaginary. The only time we have felt truly frightened was in India. It wasn’t the people, the crushing crowds, the (frighteningly) hot curry or even the head nodding which means yes / no / maybe/ I haven’t got a clue what you just asked me. It was the chaotic and lawless driving culture. If anybody knew the rules of driving they were keeping it such a well guarded secret that even a well trained psychic would struggle to understand them.
Sometimes it is true you can just read too much.
You can plan too much.
If we had read about La Linea (the ferocious mountain climb in Colombia) we would have stressed about it instead of just doing it. The one time we took notice of people we spent hours panicking as we crossed darkened mountains in Ecuador. Sometimes information overload, accurate or not, hides the truth of the people, the road, or the experience it purports to inform about. Sometimes being naïve and open is to be innocent in a guilty sort of way.
“Will the two defendants please rise. How do you plead?”
“Guilty as charged your honour but with mitigating circumstances as we’re both technically insane. Me more than him though your Lordship as I’m supposed to be the sensible one while he’s always been completely loony tunes. He just hid it for years until he paid the mortgage.”
So we send our text messages and call home when we can and hope people do not worry too much. It’s not worth worrying about two people who are often in bed at 7.30 and asleep by 8. Our witching hour has had its clock turned back four hours due to advanced decrepitness and terminal tiredness. Isn’t age a wonderful thing!
As we sit bleary eyed eating breakfast the next morning a gaggle of bikes pull into the courtyard and fifteen bikers stomp into the large open area. It is obvious they are buzzing like a wave or excited bees by the increasing swell of noise which signals their arrival. Immaculate Yamahas, Ducati’s, Kawasaki’s and GS BMW’s adorn the frontage as Bertha is surrounded by bikes and people. As they clump in several of them head for us and one asks a barrage of questions and then translates for his friends. Eyes widen and soft whistles come in harmonies of sound as they talk amongst themselves at the distances we have covered. The level of noise increases even more as the group of ‘growing old disgracefully’ bikers order huge breakfasts and continue with boisterous good humour.
They pull off shortly before we go in the opposite direction as we head for the Mexican border at La Mesilla 250 miles away. An hour after waving farewell to our Guatemalan friends we are approaching Guatemala City. Before you see the sign posts you know you have arrived.
The stench of petro-pollution wafts over the horizon’s hazy dome as buses and every other vehicle seem to belch out black smoke with gay abandon. Reaching for our oxygen masks we plunge into the smoke which should carry Government Health Warnings saying “Do not enter.” It is a good job we did the advanced Ninja course on meditation and (the compulsory) holding breath techniques otherwise we would not have made it through the day. Where is a good Foreign Office Warning notice when you need one?
Apart from both of us holding our breath for at least three bus lengths every 100 yards, the signs hold good and the traffic is more ordered than the usual jungle survival of the fittest. It is well-behaved and the three-laned CA-1 leads us gently up the hills on the other side of the city. Road works come intermittently and our progress slows dramatically as tarmac disappears and becomes hard packed dirt, loose soil or gravel. Road teams are everywhere, flattening soil, laying concrete or even, heaven forbid, spreading tarmac. We slither and slide and the back of the bike slews sideways like a snake as we make our way forward with revs and slipping clutch to keep the bike moving. Sharp twitches of the back remind us at times that the distance between our soft delicate bodies and the hard surface may be shortened at any second. Coming through several such sets of thoughts we come through unscathed and start breathing again.
Continuing climbing the temperature starts to drop as we cross 10,000 feet and up through the clouds before descending the other side with Bertha’s side stand scraping loudly on left hand corners. The recent rise is side-stand scraping seems to have occurred after I promised Bernard he can have a day off riding once we get to Mexico. Scrape, scrape.
Several years ago – or should that be days? – we puttered through Panama on a Friday. Saturday we coasted into Costa Rica, Sunday we briefly visit Nicaragua, on Monday Honduras beckoned, Tuesday we did battle with El Salvador (well with one person anyway, everyone else was lovely), Wednesday we galloped into Guatemala. We think that’s where we are now – at least we’re pretty sure at the moment. Who knows in 5 seconds time we will probably appear confused about which country we are in? The country side is often a blur – well it is to me anyway and Bernard seems no better, worrying as he’s the one with the working eyes.
Speed humps the size of mountains threaten to leave Bertha’s oil spread all over the road amidst the shattered aluminium shiny bits of her engine. At the slightest excuse they appear; cows munching, chickens crossing, a lamp-post or a poster of some politician nailed to a wall. Traffic virtually stops when they appear. Even the regulation four-by-fours crawl slug- like over them on their huge mountain busting tyres. With the road conditions (or lack of them) and thirty speed humps per member of the population, it took us eight hours to roll into La Mesilla’s main street where we dodge the market stalls and duck under the hanging tee-shirts.
The (not so) Gran Hotel appears complete with peeling paint and air conditioning which is turned off at 7.30pm as ‘it is cool now’ according to the receptionist. In the intervening period we leave trails behind us like snails as we slowly liquefy in the heat. After several attempts to explain there will be nothing left of us without something passing as oxygen in our airless box an electric fan is delivered to our windowless room. The satisfying whoosh of the blades moves the hot air around. Throughout the night the fan oscillates in time to the fading power supply before the morning light appears. Rise and shine, go to work on a groan (at least from beside me).
As we decant the contents of our room back to the bike Bertha is retrieved from the barricade of vehicles erected around her. This was deemed necessary in case anybody was brave enough to consider trying to move her without the aid of several years studying an Arnold Swartzenegger keep fit video.
We pull out onto the packed 7.30 am streets completely breakfastless as breakfast in the hotel starts several years after we have probably retired. The street is already packed with people and the tee-shirts have already been hung up again in anticipation of our arrival so that Bertha’s windshield can be cleaned as we pass underneath them. It’s very nice of the Guatemalans to think such nice thoughts about windshield cleaning of a visitor.
Within minutes of arriving several hefty thumps signal Guatemala is no more. We putter onwards as we weave through, and around, what we think is the road. Some of the stall holders may well disagree as our tyres run over some very nice jumpers, posters held down with bricks, along with ‘everything else on the ground one Peso’.
Four kilometres later we enter an oasis of calm where we end up with a Mexican transit Visa for La Frontera Norte (Northern Frontier) along with zillions of various stamps. They kindly appeared after we had (unkindly) decimated another section of forest somewhere in the world on the photocopier. This was located in the shop on the road, over the hill and up the steps on the left. We were there so long Bernard developed an even swarthier tan from the passing white light of the copier. One and a half hours later Mexico welcomes us into its bosom with a warning:
“Don’t put the registration / insurance sticker in the windshield of the bike as it will get stolen” or something like this came our way in the ever forging forward of our new language skills:
Fair enough we said as Bertha’s suspension settles under the weight of the newest Mexican paperwork. This had been largely completed by copying the very helpful El Salvadorian versions which were all in Spanish. Thank you Mr Gestapo, we salute you with a sharp stick in the eye.
We eat cornflakes with cold leche (milk) and bananas as we lose thirty percent between the official exchange rate (1:13) and the unofficial roadside version (1:10) with the USD. As we sit with a satisfied and smug feeling the staff do a spot of domestic cleaning by using a hosepipe and yard brush to wash the toilets. Don’t you just love Cultural difference?
La Trinitaria becomes Comitan before Amatenango appears and is left for San Cristobal which fades into Tuxtla. Along the route the heat changes dramatically as you fry like sausages in the pan of the lowlands before feeling pleasantly cool in the higher ranges of 6000 feet where, at 90kph, the air feels cool. It even feels hotter than the Atacama desert in Chile; hot enough to fry an egg on Bernard’s glasses, not that we tried. But it would have.
If we thought Guatemala had a predilection for speed humps then we retract all previous comments. They are mere ripples, pieces of rope lying on the road, a child’s play thing compared to Mexico. Here grappling hooks and spiked tyres are needed to climb their slopes. Mexico is infested with them along the 190, the major highway. It is the Pan-Americana, the life’s blood route through the country – at least at this point. The humps sit with evil grins on their black faces as we hit them at the speed limit.
The really sneaky ones are those you find lurking in the darkness by the trees. Several heart beats after you are still adjusting to the gloom from the piercing brightness of the Mexican sky you smash into them. Several hours later you find yourself sitting in a tree nearby looking down from a thousand feet up. Reaching for his binoculars Bernard declares “Yep, it was a speed hump in the shade of the trees.”
“Houston, we have lift off” becomes the new warning through my helmet – when he could see them (often too late). They appear by anything and everything.
Many seem homemade and, mysteriously, they appear by road side cafes. Perhaps the owners, in the dead of night – while clutching a torch in their teeth to see their evil deed – think once people slow down they will nip in for a cup of cha? “It’ll be good for business” the owner probably declares as Eiger-like mounds are heaped onto the surface.
At least when there are speed humps there is usually a road as otherwise we resort to the ‘holding the breath’ game as we become enveloped in the white dust clouds and the game of ‘let’s rip off the whole road surface and leave everything for the year 3 million AD before we fix it.” Bernard describes the Skeletons who lean on shovels as we pass road works, so long ago did they remove the surface. We have a sudden pang of homesickness at this thought.
Ahhh the M6 motorway, the never ending traffic cones set down so long ago that generations of spiders have reared their young. The thoughts of home sickness are viciously suppressed with a hefty psychological backhand which sends it tumbling into the dust.
As we drop down to the level of the frying pan again even 100kph does not lead to coolness. We start to worry about whether spontaneous combustion is really possible for people? “We’re British” I chant through the headphones and with another (left-handed) swipe the thought is gone.
Entering Tuxtla Bertha follows a taxi all by herself as we are led to The Maria Eugenia which has parking for her. This she has found out from a passing taxi driver. The hotel came after various prompts to let the driver know her passengers are too old for hammocks, sleeping on concrete floors, or anything remotely likely to add to Bernard’s feeling of getting too old for this journey. Being kind to him (Bernard, not the driver) I agree with Bertha and direct her to find the best she can. I will go along but only to keep him company. Really. Personally a nice cool floor would have sufficed what with the dollar – Peso exchange rate. If you believe that then you will believe anything.
The underground parking soon fills with curious hotel staff as the familiar “La Moto” story circulates through the local grapevine and, not for the first time we wonder if we could charge admission? It would certainly off-set some the costs of the journey.
The evening appears and a very nice red wine is listed on our evening bill at 750 Pesos for the bottle. Hang on a minute. 750 Pesos? That’s 60 Dollars. Quick mental note. That’s £40. Can’t be right that can it? It’s not even a Chateau Asda, or Tesco Merlot.
Bernard; “This cannot be correct.”
Manager: “Yes it is sir, 750 pesos”
Bernard: “We have bought wine in countries where it is illegal and it was half this price!”
Manager: “Yes Sir.”
Bernard: “Is it illegal to sell wine in Mexico?”
Manager: “No Sir.”
Bernard: “Is it illegal to drink wine in Mexico?”
Manager: “No Sir.”
Bernard: “When Jesus changed water in wine he wasn’t in the Holy Land at all, he was in Mexico and he couldn’t afford to buy it.”
The whole restaurant comes to a grinding halt as he insists his precise words are translated to the manager. Several loud laughs echo from other patrons as Jesus is discussed at some length while I suppress my own laughter. He marches forward in full flow. Needless to say the manager capitulated under the twin onslaught of Bernard and God’s favourite son.
Tuxtla turns out to be a city of chemists, opticians and shoe shops, oh and the home of the Zapista Army of National Liberation (ZANL).
We find this out quite by accident one evening as we wander around the place like the two inconspicuous people we are; with Bernard wearing his crocodile Dundee hat and me with my long white cane. It was after we, generally, had stopped all the traffic we thought something was amiss. We also noted Spangalese didn’t seem particularly helpful here, discovering most of the population speak Mayan and tend to kidnap Europeans for a bit of a hobby. This hobby is further aided by the Mexican Army who avoid the area as if there is an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Mass desertions occur when they are about to be posted to the region. Medical Officer’s lists suddenly fill up with soldiers too ill to travel. We hear it is called the Zapista flu or something suchlike.
Meanwhile we merrily wander through the town and learn Mayan so we will at least be able to talk about the weather (me) and football (Bernard) with our, soon to be, kidnappers. Not. Actually the only kidnapping during our three day stay in Tuxtla was to our dirty washing. It was held in the underground bunker beneath the hotel by the Zapista Auxillary National Laundry Scheme.
You see, shortly after our arrival most of the staff had started to wear face masks and we, in our innocence, had assumed it was due to swine-flu sweeping the country. Little did we know it was all caused by our dishevelled and well lived in clothes. They demanded an upfront payment before its return and we surrendered immediately and handed over the money; the thought of Bernard wearing the same socks for days was beyond me even after all this time on the road. His boots resided on the balcony for the full term of our incarceration while passing birds fell from the sky if they came too close to them.
Soon the promised stop is at an end and Bertha has been mollycoddled with a change of all her vital fluids, nuts are tightened down (again) and everything checked.
Leaving Tuxtla the days pass in a blur of white lines and petrol stops as we bash up through this land which is over twice as long as the British Isles. The heat generally builds until you feel you are riding into a furnace with its door wide open. There is nothing on the road as it stretches emptily away into the long distance in front of us. Soon we are crossing a gorgeous set of lakes at Pres Netzahualcoyoti; try saying that quickly. The road weaves between the small islands of red soil sticking out of the water as Bernard describes the sun bouncing off the lakes, drawing pictures for me of them being lit up from underneath with giant floodlights.
Ever North we travel on the 180D until our wheels turn Westwards and place names readily spring off the tongue such as Coatzacoalcos and the lightly easier El Colorado. We take shelter under bridges, trees (when we can find them) and passing bits of paper (when we cannot). Where there is no shade we unfurl the umbrella which we have carried permanently since we left home stretched across the back of the bike; it has been reincarnated several times on the journey, the last time in Malaysia.
“You English and your umbrellas” many people have pointed out and started laughing across the thousands of miles.
Bottles of water get so hot you can drop a tea bag in them and have a nice brew by the next stop. Without tea-bags the water tastes hot and arid.
The ‘D’ system of the road indicates ‘Disgustingly Expensive’ as the tolls mount up and we give up wondering why the highway is empty. Money is handed over to toll booths virtually every hour but we consol ourselves with the fact we are covering mileage quickly and so are saving on accommodation costs. Sometimes other roads appear alongside and trucks and handcarts fight for space as they crawl along while we disappear. In the UK politicians have been resisting the political suicide they will commit if they introduce tolls for roads built on the backs of four thousand taxes already written into what it means to own a vehicle. Many people would willingly pass them the sword to fall on if they introduce tolls. In one day ten amounts are paid and it adds up to about £40 or 60USD. Nibble, nibble becomes a massively loud crunching noise.
Cordoba appears and we decide to call it a day as it has an underground car park which is accessed by a concrete take off ramp which leaves Bernard suffering vertigo as he looks down it. In the morning we unload the panniers before attempting to bring the bike up the ramp. It is so steep he is worried about getting a nose bleed and asks staff if they have any spare corks to stem the red flow. The staff think it is really funny as they stop the traffic and right on cue Bertha explodes out into the daylight. Everybody laughs when Bernard points to the Pizza Hut across the road and explains he thought he was going to end up on its roof as he appeared missile like into the daylight.
We climb into Mexico City with even more pollution and smog. Spaghetti-like systems of roads eats bertha’s gear lever as we grind to a halt. Tools are spread out as traffic thunders past while repairs are made and we can go onwards. Single roads explode into 35 directions at chaotic junctions like fireworks while we miss turns, cut across lanes and generally cause British mayhem by using indicators to let people know where we are aiming for. Sometimes we even get there. It is a relief when we get through the 60 km area the place represents and climb the hills on the other side.
Morelia appears and negotiations occur between the manager of a Quality Inn and Bernard with all the usual “Is that for the year?” over the nightly rates. Eventually he gives in and drops the price by 20% and honour is satisfied for both sides. This hard bargaining from the man who once could not get 10 Nepali Rupees off the 200 a British embroidered flag cost in Pokhara. How times have changed.
We are dog tired, if there is such a thing, and pass out two hours before our old witching hour. There is absolutely no hope for me anymore. My carriage will never have the chance of reverting to a pumpkin. We go to bed far too early for this to happen.
It is at this point we realise, mentally, we are finished. We just want to go home. No matter how many times I backhand the thought, it will not go away.
The final miles until crossing the USA border cannot come quickly enough for either of us as there seems little point in being here if we cannot see anything but white lines and petrol stations. Fantastic archaeological ruins from people long gone flit just out of our reach down roads we cannot take. Our clocks run on a faster time than we are used to and we no longer have the luxury of being calm and sitting still.
Each day is a succession of 600-700 kilometre dashes where we hammer along all day before reaching places we cannot name and where the main highway drops you into maze-like towns. One minute you are on a good highway and then you are driving through the middle of a market place. The same thing happened in India and it took us a long time to realise a lot of countries are not big on bypasses, underpasses, overpasses, or any other form thereof.
Many times we used to think we had taken a wrong turn before retracing our steps to end up at exactly the same place. Mexico is like this. Suddenly after hammering along at 100 you are surrounded by people pushing handcarts across the road, stall holders shout to you in passing while pedestrians outstrip you for speed.
Through the passing miles the roads remain empty and it is not surprising really when two good meals, several beers and many cold drinks will set you back 160 Pesos while you shell out 800 in tolls for the day. We fill up with petrol without ever getting off the bike.
All moaning about tolls stop when we take a wrong turn and end up on the 15 instead of the 15D where we grind along a lunar road surface surrounded by trucks and buses on the ‘libre’ (free) road. Our speed drops from 110 to 60. After 12kms we find our way back to the 15D and gleefully hand over the toll with a wide grin on our faces. We have had enough of riding amongst metal carnage just waiting to happen.
By late afternoon Bernard has a piercing headache with the sun and brightness in his face all day, we have little water left and it tastes foul – even with tea-bags – so we detour to Acaponeta; paying another toll for the privilege of coming off when we have only just paid to come onto it.
We find a small hotel with a central courtyard and eat Mexicana (spicy meat, rice and salad) while heavily armed Police laugh with us outside the nearby police station. Rows of Police bikes going back generations, showing the development of the mighty 150cc engine as they fall into dust, sitting neglected in the sun. Nobody seems to know what to do with them now they have retired and so they sit unhappily on flat tyres as they become home to the local wildlife.
Everyone gets excited as we cross the road causing several Police officers to stop the traffic of three donkey riders and the local bus to let us do so. Long lines of children follow the guitar carrying priest to the white church which dominates the square as we cross. The tolling bells indicate something but we know not what.
When we arrived the whole square had ground to a halt to watch but now people merely smiled and nodded as we wander through small town Mexico; the only Martians in town. Teenagers tease each other and promenade under the watchful gaze of adults sitting under trees which provide shade from the heat and glare. Perhaps later they will steal a kiss with pounding hearts the same as they do all over the world. The whole square is alive with people of all ages as the sun starts to set. A bandstand in the centre is occupied by teenagers who in England would have the older people ‘tut tutting’ as they exchange loud banter, listen to their music and engage in gales of laughter and chasing. We wonder where their life will lead from this innocence as they start the road through it. We hope they will be happy.
The ceiling fan gently turning in our room barely moves the air as the night passes in sweat and humidity as I listen to its gentle propeller like progress. Even when it is set to Chinook helicopter settings (Warp factor nine Mr Sulu) the air is unbelievably hot. The bottle of cold water is now so hot I reach for another tea bag on the bedside table (“Earl Grey Madame?) and at 5am the sound of cars starting welcomes us to another new day. We rise to join the people setting off before the heat reaches magna proportions.
Stopping to pay tolls every five feet over the hours we get lost and it takes two cigarettes and unrolling the prayer mat, finding the compass, and locating Mecca before we eventually pull back onto the 15D. We have decided to change the ‘D’ from Disgracefully or Disgustingly Expensive to ‘Deserted’ but then again, at about 10£ per hundred miles it truly is not surprising.
We consume our water at every opportunity as we blast along all day between 90-128kph. Ten hours soon passes with an average of 75kph as we munch biscuits in-between petrol stops (three) where we meet two other bikes.
Both are from the ‘I’ve just been born into the BMW stable’ and they shine as they recline beside a very battered Bertha; covered with dead Ecuadorian insects and very hard Guatemalan mud. The riders tell us excitedly of how they have read about us in ‘Motorcyclists of America (MOA)’. It just goes to show you think you are invisible, anonymous and just a speck on a road while people are reading about you somewhere. It did cheer us up to find this out as we had left England to a deafening wall of disinterest from manufacturers, the media and even the charities we were collecting for. Wishing us luck, they record the web address on the side of Bertha and then pull off in the opposite direction.
Every few miles we come to barriers and armed people looking for something. When we only declare Bernard’s socks they wave us off happily. You too would be happy to wave off Bernard’s socks I can assure you. They certainly have not improved with age, or the high thirties temperatures which rise to something beyond fusion when his feet have been sitting underneath the two enormous engine cylinders all day.
At one check point he is asked where we have come from and he happily replies ‘Inglaterra’ only to be met with “Este Mañana?” (this morning). “Where have we come from Cath?” he asks.
“No idea” comes my reply as officers wait and the cars build up behind us.
Taking out the map we have recently acquired he tells me his finger is tracing where we think we are and where we have come from. The name ‘Acaponeta’ springs to life. The Police seem happy and wave us on through while they dismantle cars in the bright sunshine.
The whole world has become a blur to us and we reflect at how sad it is we couldn’t even name where we have just been. We console ourselves with our new phrase “Next Time!” We use it now when we realise a whole new world is being lost in warp speed travel involving, ride, petrol, eat, shower, sleep, before the whole thing is replicated day after day.
The wind blows from the West (left) as we ride further North causing the bike to lean crazily to compensate. It reminds us of the Nullarbor in Australia when the afternoon brought hard wind. It is the same here. Our helmets are battered by it. Noise thrums and my neck is constantly under pressure from the force as eardrums hum loudly for hours after we stop. Like an annoying tune you cannot name it sits in your head long after the source is gone.
All the romance (?) of what we are doing is further added to by the aching which starts in your derrier (bum to mortals) before spreading to your back, up your spine and into your shoulders. It is as if there is a dotted line which becomes joined up after 10-12 hours. ‘Good afternoon Mrs Headache’ let me introduce you to Mr Neckache, how are you, my name is Mrs Everything else is hurting as well. Move over please, this body is big enough for us all to exist’.
At this point you walk like you have been riding a horse all day and you need to put a hefty deposit down on a Zimmer Frame. Make mine a Delta Flyer, the one with three wheels and shaped like a stealth bomber. We feel our age. Loud groans occur at every stop as seized knees are flexed back into, something like, normal movement. Loud cracks threaten to cause an earthquake in the local area as people in seismology labs nervously watch their gauges. As the needle twitches across several pages of paper a colleague comes over to look only to pronounce “It’s ok, it’s just those two English Lunatics on the old bike”. They all then settle back down to read the latest issue of ‘Shake, rattle and roll’ which is subscribed to by such people.
At points like this my every faithful companion, my Amigo (my Spanish is getting good now) pronounces “I’m getting to old for this.” In order to protect those of you reading this who suffer from a milder disposition I have missed out several other words he actually uses. Shall we say they are ‘colourful’ and leave it at that.
Considering we left Tumbes in Peru 3 weeks ago, crossed several mountains and distant planets, arranged an airfreight, went mountain climbing in Colombia carrying Bertha on our back, we have not done too bad really. At least not bad for two oldies. Actually make this three oldies as Bertha has to be counted as well although she resists the fact with all she has done so far. She goes on to proclaim loudly:
“Actually these roads are what I was built for you know. I was made to sit sedately doing 100-120kph all day and everyday. I am a mileage eater. Never was it thought you would take me through Pakistan and India (I nearly ate my air filters in them). As I bounced through Nepal, Peru, Ecuador or El Salvador I kept reminding myself that you were both just daft. I was made to destroy German Autobahns mein Fuhrer and to Conquer British Motorways; when they are not closed for road works.”
So it is she mutters her way along while reminding us she is as stable as a rock only much, much prettier. She also she points out, she is running better than ever as if it has taken 50,000 miles to run in properly; as her speedometer now shows. Road crews give her the ‘V’ sign which she now understands to be for ‘Victory’ and she rears up proudly and carries us to Navahoa where we find a hotel for 60% less than we paid in India, although ten times better.
We feel beaten up and tired after covering 753 kilometres in 40 degree heat, drinking eight bottles of water, four bottles of juice. Listening very carefully, not a slosh can be heard from either of us – there is a slight squelching sound but Bernard confirms it is coming from his boots; he promises to leave them outside the door of our room. We reach for the cold drinks in the chiller of the lobby and top up even more before collapsing on our beds.
The impact of America is clearly visible now all around as the streets are wide and littered with billboards advertising this and that ‘must have’ commodity. American cars fill the roads as they pass ‘glitzy’ hotels so unlike small town Mexico. Tomorrow we cross the border with America at Nogales and it feels very strange. We are almost finished. ‘Finished’. A strange word and it leaves us with mixed emotions. Joy, happiness, sadness and relief. The more we think about it, the more it settles into the over-arching feeling of sadness.
Tiredness greets us the next morning and we are quiet as the three thousand or so kilometres of the last five days have suddenly overwhelmed us. A psychological barrier seems to have descended on our normally happy disposition. Each kilometre seems to take forever and we have 600 forever’s to go to cross the border to the USA and the ‘finish line’.
Bottles of water are consumed every hour and we then spend the next ten minutes resisting the urge to urinate. We both know the feeling will pass as we will once again become two dried out husks in an hour which will signal another drinks stop. More cigarette stops than normal are called into play as Bernard wrestles with his feelings as I wrestle with mine. The heat is oppressive as is our mood although we fight our way through it and a new expression has come into play.
At every stop Bernard now asks before pulling off:
“Are you ready?”
In as broad a Lancashire accent as I can muster, which is pretty broad I respond:
“I was born ready!”
Laughing we pull off and the world feels just that little bit better.
As the final miles mount up we talk about our return to work and how the trip has wrought changes in us and to such an extent we think people will be taken aback at our directness. We construct scenarious to cheer ourselves up and to keep us talking. One such picture involves my work on the National Helpline of one of the charities we have been doing the trip for. It involves listening to a very long tale of problems by a telephone caller before I wisely pronounce:
“Sounds like you’re buggered then doesn’t it!”
At this my manager will pull me to one side and, kindly and very nicely inform me:
“Cathy, that was hardly an appropriate response was it?
“Why not” I answer “They are buggered”
“That may well be true” he will gently chide me “But you should not tell them that really”.
Meanwhile Bernard responds to something in his role with:
“God will you stop whinging. Tough? Hard? You have no idea about tough. Try riding a 350kg bike two up, in Ecuador, in the dark, in the fog, on Gravel, 12,000 feet up while watching for Snipers who want to snuff out your miserable life. That’s tough. We are only talking about a missing piece of paper here, it’s not life or death you daft sod.
We begin to wonder how much social security pays these days in England as the miles pass us by and Nogales appears along with the rain.
Bertha is de-stamped out of Mexico, Pesos are exchanged for USD and we head for the USA side of events which bristles with surveillance equipment. There is so much we think they have probably deconstructed our entire physiology and biology, recorded our genetic code, disassembled every molecule and DNA strand as the rain falls. And oh boy does it fall. The last time it rained this heavy Noah did a good line in carpentry. Within seconds we are completely drowned. And we start laughing.
Real, genuine, heart-warming, laughter as the water rushes past our feet. Birds are knocked from the sky and the world disappears in a wall of rain which would shame even Malaysia – they say the Americans do everything bigger. Perhaps that includes the rain as we sit with our boots filling up with water and Bernard unfurls the large umbrella to cover us from the waterfall descending on us.
Car drivers gape and laugh when they see us giggling away under its cover, inching forward three millimetres at a time as the American Border patrol do their American Border Patrol thing.
“Do your worst, we’re British” causes the two of us to rattle Bertha with the laughter.
Bernard talks to the car driver beside us as he comments:
“You two guys must be Brits, only the Brits would carry an umbrella on a motorbike”. The comment leaves us with stitches in our sides as he looks at us completely bemused as if we have escaped from some asylum down the road. Other car drivers take photographs of the same two lunatics, using their mobile phones and cameras as the water rises around Bernard’s feet. People continue to smile and nod (and photograph) as we inch forward to be met by two Border Officials who ask:
“We were just wondering what it sounds like for an English person to speak Spanish?”
“No chance lads” Bernard answered.
“By the way, was it the umbrella which gave away where we are from?”
They laugh and ask where we’ve been (it took a long time to explain) and we’re we are going (a very short time). Bernard declared the only dangerous thing he had with him was me and my stick before adding, we were both the cause of all his troubles.
“I can pull over there officer and you can pull the whole thing apart. Even the Colombians did not find anything and boy did they try. You are more than welcome to give it a go if you want!”
“Naw” they respond “Welcome to America!” waving us through.
Twenty minutes later we have a very nice 90 day Visa waiver (because we are British) stamped into our passports. This occurs after we swop 12 dollars, fingerprints, and black faced photographs with our new found 30th country friends.
Outside we stand watching the rain as Bernard puffs away on a cigarette six inches away from a large ‘No Smoking’ admonishment while looking at another big sign which says “USA this way”. A big arrow indicates the route to America proper. We stand shivering with the cold and soaked to the skin.
It’s funny when you have done something which has taken so long to plan and then struggle to do.
When a dream is finally realised, as it has been for Bernard throughout his whole life, it is hard to process the achievement and what it all means.
The border of America was always our official register on the Richter scale. It was the final doorway we had to pass through before we can say ‘Yes, we have done it’. We stand waiting for the earthquake of our own recognition to strike. Instead the rain continues to fall in noisy splashes as we stand in silence contemplating what it all means.
Lost in my own thoughts a set of arms encircle me and bring me out of my own reverie. A quiet voice whispers in my ear “Well done, you are now officially the first blind person to ever circle the world on a motorbike.” I recognise the arms and feel their gentleness.
They are the same ones that have been with me all along, guiding me through mountains and areas of the world people told us we should not have been, nor should have even attempted to go. They have manhandled a bike and been responsible for repairing the shattered world represented by those long years alone. “If you dare to dream” he told me as my arms encircle him.
We merge into one another, motionless, listening to the rain as we come to realise we have crossed the world.