As we ride into Ecuador the laughter fades as ‘time’ starts to focus our thinking. We have 1000kms (626 miles) to the Colombian border with the same distance to ride to the capital, Bogota. From here we must now fly to Panama. The original plan (slower and cheaper five day boat crossing), has been lost with three weeks sitting still in Peru. From Panama the border of the United States is about 6000 kilometres (3750 miles) away. We work out it will involve 187 miles each and every day; no matter what the roads, weather or conditions. Little did we know, at this time, we would have to travel twice this distance in order to get home.
After riding a meandering motorcycle for 300 days it is a foreign concept to think so rigidly as we appreciate both time and roads are not infinite but must soon end. The pull of reality and the return home is something we resist as it flits in the recesses of our minds. We wonder where each of the 432,000 minutes of our journey has gone? Some countries now feel like distant memories, as if different people rode the roads of Greece or Thailand. The travelling, the whole journey itself, has become something else.
We struggle to put the ‘something else’ into a nice neat bundle.
The only word we settle upon is ‘normal’. It has become ‘normal’ to ride in the barren empty places. It is what we do and what we have become. It is what we are. The words ‘normal’ and ‘alien’ have swopped places for me as I recall how the early part of the trip was ‘alien’; struggling as I did to adapt to what is effortless now. The miles have made the two of us into something else; Gypsies, constantly moving on and looking for the ‘new’. How others see us makes everything different as we view ourselves in the mirror they represent. Our world has become altered through small incremental steps of change.
A whole new set of values emerge where I now wear the same clothes for days on end until I can wash them. Importantly, it does not concern me to be this way as they are simply replaced when worn out. It is so unlike who I once was. At home I put on fresh every single day, opening wardrobes where racks of ‘things’ hang in neat rows, all ironed. I cannot remember the last time I ironed and Bernard laughs at this random thought when I tell him. Now my previous ways have become alien to me. Transition. Change. It is as if we, and the journey, have become something else. It has become ‘a life-style’. We settle on this term as it expresses everything in a nice neat hyphenated word. It feels ‘right. It is a ‘life-style’. We feel well within it.
Under clear blue skies we enter a land where earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes and floods are common; where people tell us it is ‘dangerous’ to travel alone, much as the Peruvian bell-boy who became a person called Hector told us on leaving Tumbes. We do know Ecuador is a major transit zone for cocaine which originates in a country we have just come from (Peru) and a country we are heading towards (Colombia). It is a country where drug traffickers use the dollar economy to launder their booty under weak banking laws and legislation. We head towards the Northern boundaries where drug trafficking and Colombian insurgents both exist. They have fought and shot it out with the Government for 38 years. We ride on.
We still hold onto the thought that everywhere is ‘dangerous’ according to people in the previous country. It is the way it is when people view their neighbours with suspicion without ever having met them.
Black smoke is belched into the air by ancient buses as we cut a swath through far more cars than we are used to. The roads are good however and by 4pm we are a hundred kms off Riobamba; our destination for the night. Thirty kilometres away from our destination lives the highest peak in Ecuador, Chimborazo. With an elevation of 6,268 m it can be seen from 140 km away on the coast. We too can see its snow covered peaks even at this distance. As we ponder distances and time we know the light fades about 6.30 pm and we decide to push on to reach Riobamba.
It will be our first major mistake on the journey.
At El Triunfo we start to climb and soon the road deteriorates as the tarmac disappears. According to our maps the ’60’ is a major highway but the surface soon looks like a lunar landscape and we are back in India, Nepal or parts of Peru. Potholes are so deep, so packed together, we have little choice but to bash through them. Huge channels have been cut in the road surface from left to right. They have been in-filled with loose gravel and sand. Bertha shudders as our average speed drops to 20km. Even this feels too fast. We pull up as the road is closed for repairs while we chew our nails at the delay.
Frustration and worry both start to appear as the sun weakens while Bernard watches the sky nervously. We realise time, and daylight, are slipping away from us as the road reopens. We set off a little quicker but within twenty minutes it is closed again with more crews operating on the sick patient the shattered surfaces represent. Two hours later the light is virtually gone as the sun drops lower and lower; we become increasingly concerned. People have warned us of ‘the bandits’ who operate on these very roads; 12,500 feet up in the dark. The voices of people we have met echo in our heads with the warning “Don’t drive at night”. We ruefully chant rule number one we left home with “Don’t drive at night.” We fret our way through the gathering darkness with Bertha’s headlight and spot lights feebly lighting the way. With fifty kilometers to go night drops completely. We are surrounded by total and utter darkness. The road falls into ‘nothingness’ as it winds itself across the mountain, up through the clouds.
I can tell Bernard is ‘feeling’ his way forward with the bike moving at little more than walking pace, his feet down and dragging along the floor. We ride for a long time with the sound of the engine growling in low gear. I have nothing but the shifting swerving feel of the bike to keep my own anxieties company. The silence of Bernard tells me everything I need to know. We pull over and his voice comes through the intercom. It is heavy with concern. A long time ago, in Pakistan, I heard the same voice when his confidence was nearly shattered in his ability to keep us both safe in the darkness. Worry and tiredness flows from him, feelings he cannot mask.
I can see maybe two feet in front of the bike Cath. The potholes just appear out of the mist and cloud and I can’t miss them – I don’t even know they are there until we hit them. I could be riding straight at a rock or the edge and I wouldn’t know. It’s too dangerous but I cannot see any alternative, we can’t stay here. I need a break to think this through. Give me a minute.
The click of his lighter and inhale comes through the speakers in my helmet as we sit. He ponders. I leave him to think before suggesting:
“Wait for something to pass you and then follow them.”
He laughs quietly, responding: “I was just thinking the same thing myself, India driving; use them as a shield in front to protect us. We’ve been together too long with all these same thoughts!”
So we sit and wait.
Eventually a wagon grinds its way up the mountain and we take station twenty feet off its lights as it passes by slowly.
Bernard feels better as now descriptions come through my helmet as we bounce along. No longer does he ride in his silence; he has warning of what is in front. Our progress is slow but we do not care as huge truck floodlights light the way; if anything comes towards us we now have our barrier, our safety shield; the wagon. Over the next 50 kilometers we traverse the tremendous bangs which shake the bike as the weight hits holes and surfaces for which she was not designed. We are cold with wearing only the thin suites which allow air to pass through the fabric. My hands hold tightly onto the panniers and fingers go numb with both cold and tension.
The time passes slowly and painfully until we pull into Riobamba at nine o’clock at night. As we sit on a street corner it dawns on us it has taken five hours to cover 100km. Five hours of stress. Yes, we have been concerned or worried before when events start to, somehow, go wrong. This was different.
I think it felt like ‘more’ of everything was being thrown at me all in one go. The blackness of night, sheer drops only feet away from our wheels, no barriers, dense mist and cloud, atrocious road conditions, fear, the possibility of mountain bandits, all these things combined to shake my confidence. It felt like every kilometer was being fought for one at a time. Every bone in my body was hurting with the pounding. My hands, wrists and elbows are sore from the jolts coming through the handlebars; shock waves reaching from hand to shoulder, from feet to knee. I was aching from head to foot. It would not be an exaggeration to say total relief flooded through me when we dropped down the mountain into the lights of Riobamba. It was over. I felt we had been given an overwhelming reprieve by coming through it unscathed. It was a very profound experience. It really was. As we sit on a street corner my hands started shaking. It took a while for them to stop. When they did, we set off to find somewhere to sleep for the night.
Lying in bed later on we spend time going over the day. Talking through how we ended up doing something so fundamentally against THE RULES. The same rules which allowed us to cross the world unscathed. The two of us, alone.
Bernard has always been fond of a saying: “The difference between the fool and the intelligent person is one only makes the mistake a single time.”
So it was we spent time disentangled the day, point by point, examining each part of the sequence of events. Even though we are both seriously tired we have to answer the question ‘Why did we do it?”
Yes, we could blame the misleading information on the road maps; ‘major’ highways which dissolved in goat tracks without warning. Yes it is also true the roads had been ‘good’ for most of the way. This also misled us. The closing of the path on three separate occasions also seriously delayed us. We could even lay a finger on our own ineptitude at, for once, not checking the altitude of the route (12,500 feet). All these factors are true. Somehow they are all wide of the truth as a fundamental component of the sequence, or mix, has been left out.
The truth is losing three weeks waiting for parts in Peru we had become dangerously time-urgent. It manifested itself in its full power on this day. We could have stopped at 4pm. This was the ‘break’ point but instead we ‘pushed on’ to cover the ‘extra’ 100kms. This decision, alone, caused our problems. If we had stopped we would have coped with the mountain roads the next day, in daylight; no darkness, no fog and clouds, no searching for a ‘shield’ to protect us in the blackness. No worry about ‘bandits’ who are said to roam the darkness.
It was an error of judgment and it was the most serious one amongst the 16,000 miles or so to date.
Perhaps it is understandable when you put everything together. Perhaps. We both know it was an error we can not afford to repeat. Not now. Not so ‘close’ to getting home unscathed.
We fall asleep determined not to wake up as fools.
Bernard’s night is disturbed as he lives within nightmares instead of simply passing out. I lay awake and wonder where he is in the deepest shadows of his mind as he moves restlessly. He sleeps so peacefully usually but not tonight. I wonder at the contradiction he represents as he tosses and turns. One minute so sure, the next so vulnerable. Contradictions within a person who rides goat tracks in the dark and who crossed Pakistan, India, Peru, and countless other shattered landscapes. I calm him several times in his sleep before the morning appears.
The light appears and all the time we ‘saved’ yesterday is lost as the morning finds us ‘fragile’, with little inclination to rise early. Hours later than planned we stand trying to motivate ourselves to set off as Bertha sits covered in a layer of sand and dust from the night before. A fine drizzle starts to fall as we work up the energy for another day.
The bike is turned around to visit the solitary female attendant who stands forlornly looking around the empty landmark. She welcomes the distraction of our visit as we walk onto the huge circular stone sun-dial dissected with lines. Standing with one foot north and one foot south of the line we talk of a country in danger of becoming a blur; such is the speed of our passing.
It is the first time we have felt such a thing and it is not a good feeling.
Bernard’s voice displays his frustration and I too share it. We cannot ‘feel’ Ecuador like other countries. It slips between our fingers and leaves little impression.
Three hundred and thirty one kilometers later we pull into Ibarra and Bertha sits resplendent in her dust and grime on an immaculately polished wooden floor as the hotel staff wave and open doors for her to gain entrance. We slip a little as wheels move from tarmac to coated wood but the grins of the staff light up the room, fussing, as they do, over the first foreign motorcycle ever to be seen at the hotel. They become even more animated, but gently so, when they realise I cannot see and their hands tenderly guide me as I climb off the bike. Car park attendants, waiters, reception staff and other guests all gather, asking questions we have been asked so many times before. We answer as if it was the first time.
Feeling stiff and sore from our time in the mountains, we rise early the next morning and head towards the Colombian border crossing of Tulcan which is only 160 kms away. Three hours pass on roads which twist and turn upwards as we slog along behind wagons that cover us in black smoke while your mouth goes dry with the taste of diesel. It sticks to your clothes as we accelerate past one only to be confronted with another labouring truck. The bike bobs and weaves as Bernard looks for an opening to over-take, a twist of the accelerator and we are past. The whole process starts again as we drink in the next set of fumes.
Long before the border a line of wagons stretches back for miles. We drive slowly along its length as drivers leap out of their cabs before standing talking in the middle of the road; staring as we pass by them. The cars move quicker and we filter between the lines of stationary wagons and slowly moving vehicles, making progress towards the demarcation line. The transition from one country to another.
A huge building appears announcing itself to be The Ecuadorian Narcotics Agency. It is a VERY large building and we laugh as, mischievously, we wonder why it is so big! Could we be, perhaps, approaching Colombia?
Ecuadorian Police appear on the roadside and every vehicle is stopped. When our turn comes they merely smile and ask “Colombia?” before waving us on towards a bridge which spans the gorge between these two neighbours. We cross the structure while searching for some sign of where the Ecuador ‘exit’ procedures will occur. The bike stops suddenly before a large sign saying “Welcome to Colombia”.”Damn” comes through the helmet. We have crossed a border – again – without any warning. The bike comes to a rapid halt as we clear the bridge itself, climbing off to work out what to do.
Leaving Bertha on the Colombian side we walk back clutching our documents and hoping for the best. Finding the immigration department, we join the long line for exit stamps on our passports. Shuffling forward, a scuffle breaks out ten feet away as the Ecuadorian Police jump on a bare footed man dressed in rags. When he resists an officer kicks his legs out from underneath him. Four others jump on his back and legs when he hits the floor. His face is pushed into the hard surface by hands which grasp his long coiled hair. He is shackled and unceremoniously hauled to his blackened feet before being led off. So sudden and violent was the confrontation it was over in seconds before many had even noted it happening.
We employ a fixer rather than wait for the end of the two hour lunch break which has only just started. He takes us to a group of heavily armed soldiers checking vehicles coming into Ecuador. Exchanges in Spanish occur before they ask the critical question:”Where is the moto (bike)?”
I vaguely wave a direction and their eyes widen as they ask if the bike is in COLOMBIA? The second wave is much more towards ‘our’ side of the border! I tell them it will take ‘two minutes’ to get the bike without mentioning “from Colombia!” To stop any awkward questions I ask if Cathy can sit while I bring the bike? At this the guns are shouldered, the traffic is stopped, and we are chaperoned across the road to their shelter. A chair is rapidly found as the traffic backs up and other guards move sideways to allow Cathy to sit down. Everyone smiles at us. I look around and one of the soldiers assures me Cathy will be safe indicating the six armed guards who sit near her! I run across the bridge to Bertha thinking Cathy is probably safer there than anywhere with me! Pulling around in a tight circle I manage to stop the whole bridge as I wrestle her around – thankfully out of sight of where Cathy and her ‘companions’ sit. Creeping back over the bridge, around the back of the building, I pull up behind all the officials and guards waiting for my return.
Within minutes all the documentation for Bertha is completed without ever looking at her, our fixer gains 10USD, and we pull back across the bridge to Colombia. There the immigration stamp our passports for 60 days, Bertha’s passport (the Carnet) is completed, again, without ever looking at her and all the time Colombian soldiers wearing American equipment and uniforms step out of our way when they see the white cane.
We pull into the first service station once we clear the border and, as usual in this part of the world, there are no road maps. Three stations later we meet the same response. For some reason road maps are scarce or non-existent and we never do find out why. We have crossed whole swathes of South America with little more than compass and good luck but I can feel Bernard’s irritation growing at this ‘unnecessary’ problem. “It’s not England” I chide gently as he mutters under his breath. He goes quiet.At the fourth petrol station they mention a shop in Ipiala and we follow the road signs before spending a fruitless hour trying to find a map. A fifth petrol station has Bernard gnashing his teeth in frustration as the Satellite Navigation system starts to play up before dying completely. After much muttering he takes out an old hand compass and navigates North with a redundant satellite system and no maps.
The road from Ipiala leads onwards to Pasto and it is full of maniacal Colombian drivers who overtake without a care in the world. They hurtle around corners on the wrong side while we absorb more diesel fumes than are good for us. We eat them for lunch and for dinner as the hours go by. The traffic irritates Bernard as he is pushed over by cars that harass him constantly. It seems nobody is driving fast enough for most people; everybody wants to go faster. Some cars are so close I can hear the engine just off our left hand pannier. They hang there constantly, looking for a way past on the snake like roads. As we wait for somewhere to pass the large trucks in front of us the cars overtake and then brake heavily. Either we give way or we will be taken off the bike. Being ever pragmatic, Bernard gives way. There is only one winner in the Car versus Bike challenge and it would not be us.
So it is we are shunted down the pack behind the slow moving wagons as car after car does the same trick. Not for a long time have I heard some of the colourful Anglo-Saxon terms which flow freely through the speakers in my helmet.
I honestly don’t know why I am responding so badly. All the time I try to calm myself down and then, bang, some fool would nearly have us off the bike as they pull across my front wheel. The thing is I know the ‘Latin’ temperament preclude me from demonstrating my displeasure fully. It is not unheard of for people to end up being shot in this part of the world in ‘road rage’ situations. So I boil away inside my helmet and fume impotently as Colombian drivers climb up the ‘bad drivers’ top ten I have constructed across the world. Soon the Colombians are placed at Number two, ahead of the Pakistan, Italian and Serbian drivers. Number one remains unchanged; India.
Pulling into Pasto we pull through a ribboned entrance of a motel and a smiling attendant waves us towards an individually numbered garage. “Looks good Cath” Bernard comments as we pull straight into the garage through the large double doors which close behind us. Bernard waxes lyrically about how our ‘flat’ is upstairs above the bike. “Totally private”, he goes on “our own space and private parking for the bike.”
We climb off and make our way up the stairs from the garage and on opening the front door Bernard goes “Oooops”.
“What do you mean OOOooops?” I ask
“Well……….” he hesitates before going on.
“The ceiling is mirrored”
“Ok, tell me everything else you see” I ask him.
“You don’t want to know!” he replies
“Yes I do, go on”
“There’s a poster on the wall underneath the TV” he pauses for a few seconds as he gathers his thoughts.
“It is a price list” (he finds the words before going on) “of various sex toys. At least everything is priced in two currencies” he goes on helpfully.
I stand still and wonder, once again, at his ability to pull into a country and immediately end up enmeshed in somewhere catering for the sex industry. My fears are confirmed when the first ten TV channels are full of asthmatic ‘performers’ puffing and panting their way through their ‘exercises’.
“My God, that looks painful!” he exclaims as I cut short the description and decide we cannot stay here.
As always, he thinks the advantages outweigh the disadvantages; seclusion and privacy, the personal garage, the whole ‘fact’ we have a self-contained space. He goes down the stairs muttering as I send him off to find out about where we have stopped for the night.
The sounds of banging come up the open stairs as his voice shouts: “Hello, anybody there?”
His calls up to me tell me we are locked in and the banging is met with silence. More furious thumping of the metal doors follows as it transpires there is way in and no way out apart from through the door itself which is locked from the outside. The banging gets louder and eventually the door opens to reveal two Colombian women.
I make my way down the stairs and listen as Bernard starts in English, then Spanish, before switching to French before eventually ending up with Spangalese.
It transpires the price is 22USD which he thinks is entirely reasonable for the facilities. I point out that it will be by the hour, not the day! “Ok” he concedes, “Let’s work on the price” as he launches into negotiating for all he is worth with the two giggling women. His charm offensive is evident as he explains we had ‘misunderstood’ where we had stopped for the night. The girls laugh when they realise our mistake. I pick out his explanation that 22USD an hour is far too much no matter how he would like to be able to claim to need the whole night. They laugh. I step in.
“Never mind negotiating, let’s go”
“But Cath, it’s fine here. The bike is safe, we’re off the road after a frustrating day, the girls seem really helpful. We’ll be fine here. It’s only one night and it’s all very clean”.
I point out a few truths which might persuade him.
“Number one, it’s a brothel or something like. That’s enough in itself to move on but then number two, the girls might be nice but there is nowhere to eat here (confirmed in the conversation). Number three, there is no bar for you to get a beer”. I’m getting sneaky now and leave the coup de gras until the end. “You cannot even get in and out for a cigarette”. I leave the thought hanging. Not to be outdone he ponders and voices his thoughts;” Perhaps I can get them to leave the door unlocked so I can get in and out for a smoke?” I decide to terminate all negotiations with my final “Never mind negotiating, we’re going now.” The sentence ends the matter.
We pull out of the ‘motel’ and he sits outside looking at the entrance through the big rubber streamers.”Motel Eros” he mutters.
“The Greek God of love” he adds for my benefit as we pull away. “I actually quite liked it” he goes on. A gentle punch in his kidney convinces him to drop the conversation.
We pass several such ‘motels’ and the penny continues to drop as we notice their names (‘Cupid’ and ‘Venus’ being two such). Many are painted pink and have huge hearts adorning their walls leading to the gated entrances. There are so many on the hill down to Pasto we know they must indeed be popular.
We wake up in the Hotel Morasurco the next morning and “just another five minutes” can be heard from under the covers. The grumbling comes as my alarm states it is 6.30am. I helpfully remind him that: “You said we need the daylight, we don’t know what the roads are like, we have lost three weeks in Tumbes etc.etc.” Like a petulant child he gets up sluggishly. The amount of sighing and groaning tells me his old frame might be reacting to the constant mountain roads and the pace we are travelling. We breakfast and pay the extorniate bill while the heavily made-up receptionist glares at Bernard when he comments: “I could pay off the Colombian National Debt with the prices you charge for a night. Are you sure this is correct?”
Unlike our previous encounters with hotels, by the time we arrived we are so tired we had stupidly made assumptions it would not be expensive. We query the bill but it proves to be correct. Bernard reflects (loudly) on the fact we seemed to have strayed into the centre of the known universe where only the mighty walk; although the facilities or surroundings did not reflect the level of the bill.
“Should have stayed in the Motel Eros” he mutters as he hands over our precious dollars. I don’t respond but catalogue our error for future reference.
We set off after looking for the autobank which Bernard assures me has a queue which is ‘half way down the country’. I am sure he is exaggerating but decide to let it go. Pulling out of Pasto we have 7000 Pesos in our pocket and a destination of either Cali (400kms) or Popayan (269kms), depending on the roads we encounter.
The road starts to climb immediately and it becomes obvious our 8.30 start is not going to be early enough to reach Cali as the mountains are full of wagons struggling up and down these small corridors. The smell of them comes in waves of burnt brakes. Our speed drops and drops as no sooner are we upright than the bike is tilted over for another sharp corner. All the time homicidal drivers career around bends without bothering if they can see what is coming.
We wonder if Colombian drivers are all, somehow, fatalists who believe if their time is up then it is up. Perhaps many of them will someday meet the end of their life buried in a twisted pill of metal. In this way they will be reduced to one of the small crosses which dot the corners where fatalities have occurred as a permanent reminder of a life needlessly ended. There are a lot of such crosses and we do not wonder why anymore. The road disintegrates and we rattle our way through sections. At least it is daylight we muse with our refreshed caution about setting too rigid a mileage for the day.
Bernard describes the terrain as we pass through, the gorges with mountains folded like pleats in a cloth surface, of the over-whelming greenness of the surroundings. We discover why it is so green as intermittent monsoon like rain descends leaving water dripping off everything; including ourselves. It runs across the road surface as we noisily splash our way through the traffic. Our final 7000 Pesos is eaten by the two gallons dispensed into Bertha’s tank as they will not take the mighty US Dollar. Now we have little local currency at all and we cannot even buy a drink, much less food. We move on and hope.
The road winds through small towns and villages where people sit in the shade watching go by. Bertha’s distinctive engine noise turns heads hundreds of feet before we arrive. People wave and whistle, giving thumbs up or ‘V’ signs as we pass. Supposedly we are on the Pan-American Highway but we wonder if this is so as the road seems little more than a two lane mountain road with permanent (no overtaking) double-yellow lines, which everyone ignores anyway.
More and more check points appear manned by the Colombian army. They all have the regulation sand-bagged posts from within which young soldiers watch every vehicle. The military presence is even heavier where a bridge occurs. Heavily armed and seeming nervous, they peer out from behind their fortifications as we are waved through without hardly ever stopping. As always, Bernard takes to waving to all and sundry as he mutters;
“You never know, we might need them at some point”. I agree and wave enthusiastically when he tells me. Everybody waves back.
Peaje (pay stations) appear where staff wave us towards a tiny little lane by which mopeds go around the station as bikes do not pay. We pull up at the barrier but the attendant demands we use the tiny lane. It is obvious we cannot get through but he insists. At this point Bernard says “Be it on your own head” as he blocks the whole station as Bertha is turned (“Like trying to turn a small battleship in a duck pond”) stopping all the traffic. Lining up for the lane he proceeds to deliberately jam her panniers between two of the wooden posts while the force threatens to rip them out of the soft ground. Furious and frantic waving comes to him from the attendant which, he assumes, means “Desist, stop!”
In the end they give up trying to get us to use the lane. With even greater delight Bernard snarled up the whole Peaje again as he cheerfully manoeuvred Bertha back to the barrier with a big grin while muttering “Told you so”. They lift the barrier. We move on.
After hours of thumping up and down hills at the lightening speed of 20kph we come around a corner in the middle of nowhere to find Andy and Maya with their Triumph motorcycle side-car combination and a Canadian cyclist (Kurt) passing the time of day talking. We too join in the conversation.
Andy and Maya are in the Americas for 18 months we stand for an hour on the side of the road in the mountains with nothing around us. Cars slow down to look as we swop information and maps. We gain a map of Costa Rica and our Peruvian one goes in the opposite direction; a map which started life in Spain with Jaime and Conti, given to us in Chile and now transferred to its new owners in Colombia. Such is the way of travellers when they meet in the middle of nowhere. They think we have come a very long way in such a short time, crossing three quarters of the world while they have eighteen months to explore one corner, i.e., the Americas. We agree with them. Twelve months is nowhere long enough. In many ways we sometimes feel we have gone slowly as 9 weeks of inactivity has completely derailed our timetable; four weeks in Turkey with Iranian Visa problems along with the breakdowns in Malaysia, Australia and Peru costing us another 5 weeks.
For over an hour we stand in the heat of the Colombian sun talking of routes, roads and ‘love shacks’ as the Motel Eros turned out to be; they laughed at our description. We find out that the 22USD price was actually PER HOUR. It was nice to be right (again!) We part with farewells setting off in opposite directions as there are only hours before nightfall to get to our respective destinations.
After 160 miles of shoulder wrenching we pull into Popayan and though the gates of a gorgeous hotel called ‘The Monastery’. The Hotel’s former life began in 1570 as a Franciscan Monastery before being converted 350 years later into its current role, sitting at the back of the imposing Church in the square. An oasis of calm descends on us in this city (founded in 1537) as we settle into a converted monk’s quarters. We find out from staff of how the city was heavily destroyed in the earthquakes of 1983, taking over 20 years to restore many of the gleaming white buildings. It truly is a very beautiful city. We could quite happily stay in Popayan for several days but time is no longer a luxury we have. We sit on the balcony as the light fades, each lost in our own, comfortable, silence. We sleep utterly and completely.
The next morning we detour to a small motorcycle shop where they manage to find the elusive 90 grade gearbox oil Bernard has been searching for since entering Peru. Crossing the whole of that country, along with Ecuador and half of Colombia not a single drop could be found of this elixir for Bertha’s internals. With a triumphant flourish they produce a litre of the liquid. As with the previous evening when we arrived in the city, every motorcycle, pushbike, taxi, pedestrian and dog stop to look at Bertha; sitting in the street amongst the stones and gravel of the road surface.
The previous evening little Honda mopeds and small capacity motorbikes had buzzed around us like flies, not quite believing the size of Bertha as we rumbled along.
“I can imagine them all talking tonight” Bernard had laughed before going on to construct one of his ‘stories of a conversation between all the riders later on.
Hernandez: “I followed an enormous monster of a bike today with two engines, one on each side. I swear it was that big. Monstrous thing it was. I passed him like he was standing still!”
Raimundo: “No never?”
Hernandez: “Yes, ’tis true, passed him no problem. I must have been doing 90!”
After several more glasses of lemonade the speed has risen to 120. Many hours later and in a slurred voice.
Hernandez: “……140 and passed him on the inside of a corner, I just dropped the bike onto the footpeg and blasted past him. Ripped the footpeg clean off the bike but I didn’t care.”
A Sober friend who sits listening for a while longer to the developing tale asks: “You told us last week you pulled the footpeg off when you hit your Dad’s garage door? You remember, you said your Dad was really upset with the damage you did to the door?”
Hernandez: “That was (hic) the old one (hic). I got a special one (hic) imported from a Kawasukiyam dealer to replace (hic) it. Fitted it myself only a few days (hic) ago. Took me a whole afternoon”.
The traffic continues to grind to a halt as dozens of small bikes stop and look as we find a home for the container of oil and we pull off waving to everybody. The destination is Ibaque but we do not know if we will reach there before nightfall. The continuous heavy good vehicles slow everything down. Manic car drivers maintain their impression of lemmings as they launch themselves around the road towards possible oblivion.
“Never drive faster than your Guardian Angel can fly” Bernard mutters into the microphone.
We wonder if, perhaps, Colombian drivers have angels who can fly very fast as no accidents occur. None at all. We don’t know how really. We go on to ponder if there is some genetic link between Colombian and Italian drivers? You never know. Perhaps in some dark past there was a relationship forged which gave both these people’s large right feet and an indefatigable belief in their own immortality when they climb behind a steering wheel.
An hour outside of Popayan we hit the first truly decent roads since Chile and we blast along at 90-100kph. Most of the morning we sit on the 25 and happily watch the miles mount up as we begin to hope the worst is behind us and the road to Bogota will be easy. As always when you start thinking this way something is bound to happen. Soon it does.
We cover the 137kms to Cali despite the wall-to-wall trucks on the route which grind slowly up anything remotely hill-like. As the outskirts of Cali appear we pass hundreds of cyclists, all dressed in brightly coloured lycra suites. They are everywhere and are of all ages and sizes. We pass many small groups similarly dressed who zip along on roller-blades instead of pedaling furiously on two wheels. Bright yellow and dayglo orange colours abound everywhere.
We turn off the 25 and head on to the 40 where the surface starts well. Then, little by little, it all descends into rougher and rougher surfaces the likes of which we had hoped to have left behind. While it is rough, it is nothing we have not done before until we hit the mountains and not just any old mountain but the dreaded ‘La Linea’. This mountain climb is known to be a place where there are more accidents than anywhere else in the whole country. It’s not surprising really.
You start off going slowly as you hit the base of the mountain. Then you go even slower as you climb, climb and then climb even more. We pass statues of the Holy Mary complete with people kneeling and lighting candles. They pray for a safe passage on this corridor before climbing into their vehicles and, taking a deep breath, they begin their journey.
As we grind along behind trucks I feel myself being pushed further back into my seat until we are virtually going straight up in the air. It gets so steep I swear we will soon be riding upside down! The road is so narrow and tight that wagons can only go around the bends one at a time. Local people earn a living by standing on the corners waving to drivers to tell them it is safe to come around, so restricted is the visibility. They stand with their hats out for drivers to throw change in as they pass with thanks for their help. Overheated trucks with water pouring across the road from shattered pipes slow everything down as we all struggle to pass. Many drivers sit by the side of the road while mechanics seek to repair the damage of the climb and it is a good place for a mechanic to earn a living, at least for the time being. The plan, however, is to bore a hole through the mountain for a new tunnel – if it ever gets built. The mechanics will weep if this happens.
As we climb up the 3,200 meter vertical helter-skelter we cover barely 6km in an hour so slow is our progress. Often Bertha moves at little more than walking pace in first and second gear. The camber of the road is difficult as it tilts alarmingly and where we are forced to stop Bernard’s feet come down to find one waving in the breeze due to the adverse slopes. Wagons coming the other way give off their overpowering smell of burned brakes as they suffer the reverse problems of coming down such a steep road. For four hours we travel this way. One-hundred and eighty degree, steep, steep corners ever upwards.
The engine growls as the clutch is slipped to keep us moving forward.
As we climb the sky turns black and we pass through this blackness which is attached to cold but we leave both below us in our ever upwards motion. The smell of burning clutch permeates everything around us. Even Bertha comes out in sympathy as first gear is too low and second is too high, so her clutch is slipped in second to compensate. To stop forward motion is to slide backwards and the front wheel slips several times when we are forced to stop. Bernard scrabbles to find footholds for both feet on the worn surfaces; often only finding one as he strains one-legged to support both bike and ourselves on the road which cants crazily.
Reaching the top was a joy but we couldn’t even take a prized photograph of the spectacular views and the road we had driven as it is just too narrow and too dangerous to stop. We happily settle, however, for the feelings attached to reaching here unscathed. Our own joy at the realization of our own vulnerability and mortality is not matched by other vehicle drivers.
Cresting the top of La Linea started an ensuing chaotic, dangerous, missile-like scramble down the mountain. It was pure lunacy at its best as cars and wagons hurtle like Kamikaze pilots around corners on the wrong side. It is pure uncontrolled driving aggression as everybody takes their frustration of the climb up out on the road down. It was astonishing from the descriptions of the mayhem around us that there were no accidents.
As we try to stay out of trouble on the road down Bernard tells me we have been passed by a man on a small cycle wearing bright yellow wellingtons. I think he is joking but in all seriousness he tells me he is not.
The man is dragging his Wellingtons on the floor to act as brakes while passing wagons, cars and ourselves at 40mph. We start laughing as Bernard tells me that must be what the smell is. It is not burnt clutches and fried brakes but burning wellies from our rapidly disappearing friend. We pass him as he adjusts his coat against the cold (or perhaps he was getting a retread on his wellies?). A few kilometers further on he passes us again and Bernard cannot stop laughing; a Colombian workman, on a bike too small for him, wearing bright yellow wellies, has passed us.
He chortles continuously as he explains the braking technique of our Colombian friend; one foot on the floor for minor braking, two for more serious. Again he wishes he could photograph or video the event but it is impossible to even contemplate. People die on this road in horrific accidents. We didn’t want to be one (or two) of them. So we have to let the event go unrecorded in anything but our memories.
It was so, so, funny and just what we needed as it released all the pressures we were both feeling. The laughing did us good as the day had been long and hard. Walking pace biking on bad cambers up horrendous slopes called ‘a road’ with dizzying drops all around. The day had everything thrown in, including a bit of rain for good measure. It was scary, exhilarating, and fantastic all at the same time. To say it was ‘challenging’ from a biking perspective is to understate how it felt. It’s a climb I will never forget.
We pull into Ibaque and, despite stressing ‘Bueno Hotel’ (good hotel) to the taxi driver we end up in another ‘suspect’ place with a serving hatch in the door of the room. Andy told us yesterday this was a sure sign of a ‘love shack’. The hatch is to place various things through (food, drinks or condiments) so the staff do not have to enter the room. For the heady cost of 30,000 Pesos (about £10) we have a room with sheets (but no blankets) but with piping hot water in the shower. Bernard is mildly amused at how he manages such a feat while describing the two female staff outside who wear nurse-like uniforms.”Must be in case anybody gets hurt?” he innocently states before collapsing laughing. I am not amused, well, maybe just a little. He can only do what he can although it is very frustrating sometimes not being able to take part in the decisions of where to stay. I have to rely on what he can see which, sometimes, isn’t very much for a sighted person!
The road outside the hotel threatens us with industrial deafness from the traffic and the continuous shouting of passing people which penetrates the thin walls. In the end I am convinced to follow Bernard’s lead who, by now, is fast asleep with ear plugs firmly in place. The noise recedes into the distance as I slip my own into place and fall into dreams before being ripped awake by loud voices at 5am. A group of men are talking? Fighting? Arguing? From the din going on I can’t be sure what is happening. It is even loud enough to penetrate Bernard’s ears and he sets off to investigate. He comes back to tell me they are merely sitting on a step outside talking.
It is obvious our sleep is over so we are on the bike at 6.30 and heading through surprisingly busy traffic for early on a Sunday morning as we search for somewhere to have breakfast. Everywhere is closed.
After an hour’s riding we are well away from the town and we pull over to experience the best spicy scrambled eggs on the known planet. There may be better perhaps somewhere, but not by much. Forget the fancy hotels with fancy tables and liveried staff. A grass covered roof, plastic chairs and tablecloths, fantastic people and a good cook are all you need. We eat rice, vegetables and meat which have all been steamed within vine leaves while the cook beams from the kitchen at our obvious delight and Bernard’s thumbs up directed his way. The staff carefully place food in front of me as they realise I cannot see where things are located as we go on to drink four cups of aromatic coffee before Bernard buys three packs of cigarettes; still getting change for everything from £10. Contentment reigns as we wave and set off back onto the road.
Ibaque becomes Gualanday which changes to Chicoral, then Espinal, Flanders follows before we take a wrong turn at Giradot and end up on the ‘scenic’ route. Bernard wonders if we have become adrenaline junkies and need a fix of seriously bad roads as things go from bad to worse over the next miles. We turn back. After five days of mountain roads we need no more fixes, but calm easy roads if they are available. We have had enough adrenaline! We retrace our route and find the ‘highway’ just past the petrol station and down a pot holed side road.
Melgar, Boqueron, Chimanta, Fusagasuga, Silvania and Granada all roll by in a relaxed gentle pace. No traumas, no heart stopping moments as the sun shines and we feel good. Stopping for a few minutes to stretch our legs people appear and our rest is lost answering questions while Bernard’s cigarette burns away. The road takes us onwards and we arrive in Bogota early.
Arriving in a strange city is always a fraught affair and nowhere is it truer than when you are trying to find a specific location. Even then, finding something like an airport should be easy. You just follow the signs. Probably true but not in Bogota where they keep the location of the airport a secret. It is such a well kept secret we drive up and down dual carriageways for nearly two hours. After traversing the infuriating roads which do not allow left turns anywhere we find a banner over the road. It flutters in the breeze and proudly proclaims the mythical area of the airport. At least we now know it actually exists as we begin our hunt for a hotel which is close to, but not ‘in’, the airport; these are far too expensive for us mere mortals. Plan A (follow a taxi) is employed but he leads us to one where Bertha would have to go down a ramp with a slope which would be better described as ‘vertically inclined’. Evel Knieval would have happily used the slope to launch himself across the Grand Canyon so steep! Bernard comments about the nose-bleed he feels just looking at it.
We set off, on our own, and it all starts to go badly wrong as we re-enter Bogota with roads which have been dug up (nearly everywhere) and where we become immersed in streams of traffic travelling at high velocities. An extra gallon of petrol goes into the bike as Bernard eventually works out that to turn left you have to find a set of traffic lights where cars are coming from the right to turn left. Then you turn right, do a ‘U’ turn, and come back to the lights to turn left, if that makes sense? It seems everybody is doing it. As we sit and work this out Bernard muses that while the Colombians are related to the Italians regarding physically driving cars, they may also be related to Australians with their aversion to 50% of turns (in Australia they do not like right turns, in Colombia they do not like left turns). Another gallon goes in the bike as we drive around and around looking for a hotel. Three hours after arriving in Bogota he admits defeat and plan A is called into play again.
We eventually climb off the bike outside a well known – enormously – overpriced hotel chain who should blush at their rates per night. Bernard goes into his whole ‘Is that for the week?” and “You cannot be serious” routine as well liveried reception staff look down their noses at him as he stands shaking dust on the immaculate floor. Even I am astonished at the nightly rates which would keep a Colombian family in essentials for a month. “Surely at that rate the bar is free as well?” gets him nowhere. Eventually we relent and it takes forever to sign in as staff constantly interrupt the process by answering the phone. Bernard eventually kneels down at the desk – while the well heeled patrons of Bogota try not to look at him – as he politely asks “Shall I pull up two chairs while you answer the phone?” This seems to work. We sign in and the phone rings unanswered.
The next morning we set off to the airport cargo offices after Bernard gets a round of applause from all the assembled hotel staff where they have gathered at the top of the ramp which leads to the underground car park; they do build them steep in Bogota! It was like climbing La Linea all over again as I am forced backwards into the back box. He spoiled it a little after stopping to adjust something before setting off with the side-stand still down. We nearly separated from the bike with a massive wobble as the stand dug into the ground. Fortunately nothing was bruised or damaged, apart from his pride.
Over the next five hours at the cargo office we complete numerous pieces of paper which are all necessary for Bertha to leave the country before she is strapped down onto a wooden pallet; which creaks ominously as the fork lift truck hoists her up.
The driver proudly shows us pictures of his wife and four year old daughter as we wait for the loading of the pallet to be completed. His voice is full of pride as he pulls treasured images from within his wallet and shows them to Bernard. He beams happily when he hears that his wife is very beautiful and his daughter has the face of an angel. Learning English from MP3 files at home and as he drives every day for the twelve hours he works, he hopes it will help him get promotion and more money. Only then, he says earnestly, will he be able to give his family everything he wants to provide. Such is the way of people all over the world.
We may well have different languages, different cultures, but at the heart of us all is the same fundamental need. To give our families everything we can. It is one of those universal truths which, rather than separate people, bring us all together into one world. The world of our loved ones.
As we leave the building we are warned about the Colombian Customs inspection in the morning. It will be, they assure us, tough due to the search for drugs. We leave Bertha with few concerns as she now resides inside the warehouse – which is bonded and sealed.
Walking over to the Airport we find tickets for Panama on the flight tomorrow before allowing ourselves to be guided into a waiting minibus for a local small hotel. ‘The Park Way’ turns out to be really nice. Recently refurbished, it is small and much more ‘us’ as it is not a cavernous ‘anonymous’ block of flats with hundreds of – overpriced – rooms off corridors. It is a quarter of the price we paid last night and four times nicer in atmosphere.
The staff provide copious amounts of (free) coffee for Bernard while he sits on a wall in the garden smoking a cigarette and savouring our achievement of the day. We talk of how it still amazes us we can pull into a strange city and arrange the shipping of a motorcycle, along with ourselves, to another country all in one day. Sometimes we cannot believe how easy it really all is. It just takes belief. Anything can be possible.
Bernard always says: “There is always a way we just have to find it”.
In effect, he is saying there is nothing which cannot be solved. A stubborn bolt, a breakdown, an air shipment, they are all the same to him. Sometimes you may have to search for an answer but somewhere there is one. There always is. You just have to know the answers to his golden questions of who, where, when, how? One by one, they are usually answered with patience and perseverance.
We sit in bed later with the laptop trawling the internet for information on Panama. We find our way through distance charts, roads and routes for the next leg across this new country; the start of central America. As we investigate we even manage to book a reasonable hotel near the airport. It’s a wonderful thing technology. It truly is. So many streams of information which, for blind people, remained closed for so many years are now open and never will they be closed again. Falling asleep in the quietness we are satisfied with the day’s achievements and are excited about our next leap into the unknown. It no longer concerns nor worries us to land in a strange environment where little makes sense at the outset. We know it always does by the end.
The next morning we take a taxi through the Colombian Grand Prix rush hour where cars hurtle along like missiles and it reminds Bernard of the famous chariot race in Ben Hur. The only thing missing are the spikes on the wheels to chop off the legs of any peasant who will dare to step out in front of the mighty automobile.
We arrive at the cargo office for 8.55am with our check in time for our flight booked for 3pm. Plenty of time, or so we thought.
An hour and a half, and several cups of coffee later, Bernard spits his dummy out. A be-suited female executive is summoned from the deep recesses of the Cargo Company as Bernard goes to town on her.
We spent five hours here yesterday and, so far today, another hour and a half. In all that time you have managed to strap the bike onto a pallet, which I could have done in under an hour, alone. We have a flight to catch TODAY and still have no customs paperwork, nor have you arranged the police inspection which everyone says is ‘tough’ and can take hours. Can you sort this out now?
Within minutes the person who dealt with us yesterday is leading us from the building to the customs house where a lot of head scratching goes on over the export of a foreign registered motorcycle. Despite having all the correct paperwork nobody knows what to do with us. Eventually a very dusty lever arch file is retrieved from a shelf and copies of previous travelers exiting from Bogota are employed to fill out the new forms while changing registration details etc.
At one point they do not want to complete the Carnet for Bertha (the RAC issued import/export document). I point out it has been signed into the country and needs to be signed out. Our ‘agent’ (Franklin) translates their response which indicates we do not need it. He seems happy. I am not. I repeat numerous times the bike was stamped into the country while pointing out the big official Colombian stamps and signatures. The bike has to be stamped out in the same way. Four separate people gather around the person thoughtfully filling out numerous forms in non-carboned paper. It went on forever. Eventually they relent and my documents are stamped and signed. The signature was a little suspicious with the name “pp Manuel” scrawled on it. Maybe it is just me, but it did seem like nobody wanted to own up to the signature if they were ever asked at a future date?
We set off to the police station across the road for more papers to be completed where Bernard lights a cigarette with a huge aviation fuel tank behind his right shoulder; helpfully pointed out by the furiously waving policemen behind their glass screens. “Should have no smoking signs then shouldn’t they” he casually responds as everybody glares at him while he saunters ten yards away to finish the offending item. Three hours have passed as we walk back across the dual carriageway to where Bertha is stored waiting for the police and narcotics inspection.
Franklin takes another call from his wife; the third so far in an hour.
It is obvious all is not well in the Franklin household. It was the same yesterday. He hangs up after a quietly furious row with his better half. We now find everything is shut for the two hour lunch until 2pm. Bernard splutters with impotence as he tells Franklin this could all have been done yesterday or in the time we sat twiddling our thumbs this morning. He does try apologising but it has a falseness about it, like people saying ‘Have a nice day’ when, really, they could not care if you lived or died. He knows he has seriously messed things up and Bernard lets him know in no uncertain terms. It has taken eight hours to get two pieces of paper filled in and Bertha loaded onto a pallet.
Hardly a stunning performance is it Franklin in terms of efficiency?
Franklin stays quiet. He excuses himself and disappears.
As we wait a car pulls up and on the roof is a large mesh bag which Bernard tells me is moving. It takes Bernard a while to realise it is a large white duck which has been tied onto the roof rack.
The duck is not happy. Come to think of it who would be tied to a roof rack? By the time the car driver comes to untie the poor thing, it is definitely not a happy duckie. It seeks to extract its revenge by biting the owner while, probably, muttering:
“Never in my whole life have I been so scared. You drive like a fool, you fool. When you overtook that truck my whole life flashed before my eyes. I just had to close my eyes, I nearly died of fright.”
It was probably the muttering which led to it being grabbed by the neck before being abruptly shoved into a cardboard box which is tied closed with string. The duck sees its chance to escape as the driver turns his back on the box. The box starts hopping away, making ten yards before the driver notices. The tears run down my face at Bernard’s description of events; complete with voices for both duck and driver. The driver runs over, catches it, and places a brick on top to hold it down. All the while the tears stream down our faces. Another twenty minutes goes by and we are no longer laughing.
There is no sign of Franklin and no sign of the police. Bernard urges the staff in the office “Tiempo.Tiempo, Aeropuerto” (Time, time, airport) and they get on the phone. Ten minutes later the police arrive and they ask Bernard to unpack the bike.
When I say unpack I mean with a capital U. Everything. The whole lot.
The back box is dispossessed of our carefully compressed clothes which are emptied onto the floor. Each and every item is gone through, knickers, socks, bras, trousers, absolutely everything. The tank bag is tipped out and looked at. Before Bernard has a chance to put anything back they completely empty the right hand pannier onto the floor. The warehouse becomes littered with everything we possess as they sniff the air in the tires which they insist Bernard deflates to prove they are not stuffed with drugs.
I frantically repack clothes as Bernard tells me where things are while he continues to empty what ever they point at. They have a torch inside the petrol tank, underneath the bike, up the exhaust while every nook and cranny is examined in minute detail. Under normal circumstances we would not be bothered at all but we have forty minutes to get to the airport. We start to worry as it becomes obvious this no cursory inspection.
Anybody who has packed a bike for any journey of distance knows it is like putting a jig-saw together. It has to be done in a certain way, in a sequence for everything to fit back in. It’s hard to repack when every little container is being pulled apart and the contents spread all over the floor. In the end Bernard is convinced they took pity on us as, we have no doubt, the staff have told them we have a plane to catch and have been here for two days by now.
The officers pointed to the left hand pannier while Cathy frantically tries to repack clothes into the compression sacks. I unlock the pannier and start to get everything out quickly while talking to Cathy about where her hands can find items. One of the officers stops me and points to the bright red medical kit which is unzipped to show the assorted bandages and medicines. He points to another bag and I show him the shoes in the bag. I start to get other things out and he puts his hand on mine and says ‘ is ok’. I think, by this time, it was very obvious to them we would happily take everything out for them. Perhaps they can tell when they need to keep going while at other times they think ‘ok enough, we’ve done our job’. At the end of the day that’s all they are doing, their job. They were not being nasty or even intimidating. They were doing what they have to do due in the world they work in. Fortunately the ‘ok enough’ came with sufficient time for us to run from the warehouse to the airport itself which we reached half an hour late.
In the end the staff at Bogota airport are fantastic as we, breathlessly, arrive in front of their desk. They treat us like Very Important People (VIPs) or should that be Visually Impaired People? Either way, the white cane leads to an express check in through the first class channel. From there we have special treatment all the way through the layers of airport procedures and security. People could not do enough for me and all with kindness, willingness and patience. It makes me feel secure and comfortable with the world that is South America.
As we sit waiting for the short (for us) one-and-a-half hour flight to Panama, we remember sitting in Buenos Aires before catching the flight to Santiago. People had told us that disability is treated with respect in Latin America and we find it is true. This regard, consideration, call it what you will, has happened on numerous occasions on our travels through South America.
In my mental wanderings over the thousands of miles, I have come to the conclusion it doesn’t matter whether the country is a ‘developed’ or a ‘developing’ country. In our travels across this small planet people have responded with nothing but open hearts. Nowhere was this truer than in South America. It began in Chile, continued through Peru, found us through Ecuador and now sees us sitting at Bogota Airport in Colombia after crossing the country. I met it at this airport and I met it at 14000 feet in Peru as we sat in the rain and snow waiting for a road to open. Little kindnesses amongst different peoples spread across vast mileages.
Our next stop is the start of Central America, a land with a long troubled past. Just to mention countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras is to conjure up images of strife and conflict, bloodshed and wars.
The Blind woman and her sighted companion, however, have no such images in their head as they sit waiting for the flight onwards. We have both seen and experienced too much to draw these pictures. We both see different things but, in many ways, we both fundamentally understand the same fact; what we see depends on what we look for. It is the way it is.