06 March, 2007

Kilo Lima Mike. 16,522miles

Lizzie's kindly colleague, Julia, provided an ancient family-heirloom of a battery charger that worked perfectly. Of course I had been worrying over nothing and the bike burst happily into life as soon as its re-charged battery was reconnected. I was very relieved to find that as soon as the new parts arrive, it should be a straightforward swap for the new bits.

Before I left home my family doctor since childhood, Doc Halliday, gave me a thick wad of advice on the types of illnesses I might encounter on the journey. Half of this information was dedicated to the Sudan! Yet, having passed illness-free through the 'dangers' of Africa - places where there was no running water, sanitation or much opportunity for the sort of hygeine we in 'the West' insist on at all times - I was almost immediately laid low by a horrible stomach virus on arrival in the Peruvian capital of Lima. One week of pain and general unpleasantness however, and it was over. All apparently very normal for those unaccustomed to Peruvian bacteria. And, once more, I was fortunate enough to be in the perfect place for such an illness where there was someone to mop my fevered brow (with a real mop!) and prop up pillows. But seriously, I was extremely grateful for the shelter of Lizzie's luxurious flat; books, fridge, cable telly, DVDs, flush-toilet, music, balcony, all the most modern of conveniences.

As a wee aside, and to show it's not only me, I got an e-mail from Namelok, who has just survived living with the Samburu in northern Kenyan for four months without so much as a tickly throat. She got home at last and raided her mum's fridge. (This is fairly understandable given the comparative dietary restrictions of Samburuland.) Sadly, she wasn't paying too much attention to the 'sell-by' dates and promptly ended up in the hospital with salmonella, courtesy of one small tub of hummus. Stay healthy - eat in Africa!

In keeping with the common ex-pat tradition of providing employment for locals, Lizzie has a 'maid', Norma, who comes Monday to Friday, washes the dishes and plays with the cats, among other light-housework activities. I felt as if I was pretty much under her feet! Lizzie needs Norma since she is so rarely home. Up, showered and out at 6.30 then returning after 6pm. She's asleep on her couch in front of the telly by 8.30 and then away to her bed by 10. She only has any kind of a life at the weekends. Such is the pressure of the heidie of 500 kids in a school with fee-paying parents. I admired her applied, disciplined determination, but I couldn't live that way. Too many other interests outside work would surely make me resentful of so few opportunities to enjoy them.

One day that first week I felt well enough to take a wee trip into town. Some pretty and some very interesting architectureand incredible museums. The Museum of the Inquisition was especially scary. It seems this nonsense only stopped in 1820 here in Peru, after a Papal decree of 1813. Very nasty, and all in the name of 'God'. I wouldn't like to be any of these Godly blokes, or any of those others that permitted such horrors, come any kind of Judgement Day, which they all expect. Curious.

Biscuit-tin cavalrymen practised manoeuvres outside the Presidential Palace, protected by policemen in little armoured cars and the big palatial fences. A fair crowd had gathered to watch the fun. A band was involved and some infantrymen goose-stepped around as well. This always provokes me to laughter and wincing. They look very silly and can't be doing their knee-joints any good stomping around like that. It just looks too painful. What is the purpose of such daftness? It seems so unlikely that anyone could ever have been scared by this 'walking'. Maybe I just heard and saw too many jibes poked at the old Nazis during my formative years in the '70s. Nazism is and should be laughable nowadays though, and so it follows that the ridiculous habit of goose-stepping should surely be out of even the geologically speedy military fashion.

This week 'off' gave me valuable time to read and wait for the electrical parts I'd ordered the day I left Illapel. I wasn't panicking back then, or in any big hurry. I knew that it would be some time before I reached Lima, and so when my contact at Motorworks said that Parcelforce were really fine and that the package would be there in about 6 days, I let it pass, knowing I'd be in Lima visiting for at least a week. But a week after my arrival there was still no package.

Motorworks were brilliant, but Parcelforce's 'tracking system' was completely ineffective. It only tells you that they picked the parcel up on the 15th of February, and that it left their 'International Hub' on the 17th. No details of where they'd sent it and no amount of asking got any kind of a reasonable response. I couldn't even tell where the 'International Hub' was! All I got in response to my enquiries were computer-generated e-mails apologising for the inconvenience and asking for details I had already provided! When I phoned in desperation I was told nobody had recorded those details, provided three times! Parcelforce - even the name began to irritate me! How can a company that delivers parcels (or doesn't!) be described as a 'force'? If a few elves, a big chubby bloke in red and some reindeer can do it, without any 'force' . . . 'Farce' more like!

Meanwhile, of course, all the ex-patriots here 'could have told me'. But they weren't in Illapel when I put the order in.

And the lock on one of the panniers has broken, as predicted by the AMH. On the bright side, MotoBins are sending me not one, but two new ones, completely free of charge! They said this hadn't ever happened before. I just have to find someone who can fit them to the actual boxes now. Or borrow a drill and a pop-rivet gun from somewhere. And once more . . . the bike will be good as new! Sadly these were to arrive by standard mail. Maybe a month . . ? It's funny these guys think I have all the time in the world to get round the world! I can just relax and wait around here and there for parts to arrive all in their own good time. I'll just lash up another botch and hope that Lizzie can post them on.

Further good news has emerged however, in the shape of the Good Captain Marcos. He says he'll be quite happy to wrap my bike in clingfilm, lash it to the mast of his 42ft yacht and take to the high seas of the Caribbean from Cartagena, in Columbia, to Colón in Panama. In this way I can avoid the impassable Darien Gap, but I may miss out on visiting Cuba, unless I can get a boat from Mexico or one of the Central American countries. Not impossible, but not convenient. I'd have liked to have said hello to Uncle Fidel, especially now I hear he's on the mend. Mexico, north of the Yucatan, is geographically part of North America. Few people realise this, but any Mexican will put you right.

Another thing not many realise is that Darien is indirectly responsible for the creation of our very own United Kingdom. It was there, in the latter part of the 17th century that a desperate population of Scotland sank most of its wealth in an ill-judged (retrospectively speaking) plan to create a forerunner to the Panama Canal. The idea was to build two ports at either side of the Panamanian Isthmus, with a good road in between. It would be far less trouble for ships between Asia and Europe to unload at one side, and have their goods transported overland to waiting ships on the other. This would save both Atlantic and Pacific ships sailing either all the way round Africa (no Suez Canal at that time) or South America. Good, simple idea, but completely the wrong place! No-one has ever managed to build a road here - not even today. The colonists died of all sorts of horrible diseases and couldn't find too much use at the time for further shiploads from home supplying them with Bibles and thick woolly socks. The whole venture was further scuppered by those baddies in London letting loose their "privateers" (pirates) on Scots shipping to and from the area. So just as Scotland was on the verge of bankruptcy, our southern cousins came charging to the rescue by providing the opportunity of the Union and 'Great Britain' as a convenient escape route. This also co-incidentally secured their northern border against that Auld Scots ally (but ancient English enemy) France. We already shared the same King so why not? Well . . . many, on both sides of the border, were unhappy about it at the time but that's a much longer story!

The PanAmerican Highway from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego simply runs out at Darien, creating the infamous "Darien Gap". A huge, mosquito-infested swamp that separates Colombia from Panama, and South from Central America. It has been like this probably for some few thousands of years. I've heard that when Land Rover developed the Range Rover back in the '70's, a mad bunch of British squaddies drove the new vehicle down the PanAmerican from Alaska to see how it might manage. When they came to Darien of course, being determined British soldiers, and representing Her Maj, they fell into three ranks (chests out, stomachs in, necks in the backs of collars and looking up), gave each other hearty salutes and simply dragged the Range Rovers through it all anyway, just to prove their point. Some days they covered as little as one mile. They made it, of course, but I've no idea how long it took them, and I've never heard of anyone else even attempting it.

Crossing back over the Andes and into Brazil is another very lengthy process that I am sadly going to have to miss out on. There are just no decent (tarmacked) roads over from here and the only other options might have been to go through Bolivia (flooded, bad roads) or return through Chilé and Argentina (too far). Lying in a hammock on a boat down the Amazon sounds lovely but that could take four weeks and cost a small fortune. Also it's lovely until you think of all that heat and the mosquitoes and other beasties and then I'm not at all sure I can be bothered! And then you've to change boats a few times. Only really a matter of time, till something very heavy falls to the bottom of the great river.

Before I got here, I had heard a million scary stories about Lima and its drivers. Matthew Parris hated Lima in his book, Inca Kola, calling it "an atrocity", but that was written 20 years ago. Funny book, but I was surprised to see that he readily reveals his xenophobic Tory tendencies. Lois Pryce, who rode her 225cc Yamaha Serow from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, (flew over the "Gap") seemed to describe riding through a WW2 bombing raid in the AMH. Of course the drivers are highly inconsiderate and very dangerous. Mine is one of only a baby handful of working brake-lights in Lima and nobody seems to have an indicator switch, while everyone has a hazard-warning button which they use in unclear situations and then forget to switch off. Everyone has a car alarm and there seem to be at least two going off at any one time, day or night. All of these sound exactly the same (Lizzie does a good impression) so, of course, no one pays any attention while the cars get pinched. But the actual driving is quite kitten-like in comparison to what I've previously endured. So, if this is the worst South America has to offer . . . Perhaps it's best not to tempt the fates by finishing that sentence!

Everyone seems very helpful but the service ethic hasn't quite reached here yet. Few say "please" or "thank you" as they take your money. They do surround you in any shop. I went into one just to look at postcards and couldn't hide my bafflement when, while looking at a display stand, an assistant approached me with a bundle of postcards to look through. What's the point of looking through a bundle when there's this perfectly useful display thing right here in front of me!?

My package of parts, I've heard from Lizzie's secretary Laura (who seems to regard its recovery as something of a personal challenge) will arrive. I may need to pay an extra $600US to get it out of Customs. No really, six HUNDRED US dollars, or about 300GBP! Mainly I have to pay $32US per day for not picking it up earlier. This comes to $448US for fourteen days. The rest is import taxes which everyone resents but has to pay. I didn't pick it up any earlier because Parcelforce (or some anonymous middle-man - their "agents") didn't supply me either with its location in Peru or the number needed for Peruvian Customs to find out. It's difficult for me to even think about this without my head imploding with frustrated rage. Of course, I couldn't recommend Parcelforce as being useful for anything outside the UK, and I won't be using their "service" again. (Although, to be fair, they are very good within the UK!)

The only even slightly funny part about all of this is that, in the absence of anything else to do, DHL here had to call Motorworks in England to ask for a contact number (I'd supplied this to Parcelforce about three times but for some reason they were keeping it a secret). It had come to DHL and they had to contact me so that I could go to them and organise Customs before getting the parcel. The only contact number Motorworks had for me was at Denend Primary School in Fife where I'd had parts sent some years ago. So the man from DHL Peru phoned Maureen, our excellent secretary there, who then e-mailed me his phone number. Parcelforce and their (secret) "agent" were totally by-passed in this whole operation. Mad. So how did they earn their money!?

I can only claim that "it's all part of the adventure" so often before I start to doubt it. If too much of the "adventure" becomes waiting around for parts during unnecessarily long periods of time, having paid and done everything I can then it won't be living all the way up to expectations. Now before you think; 'serves him right for taking such an ancient piece of junk', all machines need replacement parts now and again - even modern ones. I don't mind that at all. It just shouldn't have to be that so much time is spent waiting for them to arrive. Of the six months I've been away so far, two have been spent waiting for bits! And I'd have to argue that one of those shouldn't have been necessary. On the positive side, it allows time for touristy things.

On a lazy weekend, Lizzie and I visited an ancient pre-Incan site within walking distance of her flat. There was this Peruvian dogIt was bald, and particular to Peru. Its body was roasting hot to touch and it only had this fluffy tail with a Mohican-style hair-do. I couldn't get an answer as to why this dog might have been bred this way. This is how the archaeologists think these "Limanos" chappies might have looked as they went about their daily business.

So, I should be on the road again soon. Hopefully heading up towards Cusco to look at the ancient Inca sites, before heading north.

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