26 April, 2007

Quito to Bogota

Ecuador to the north of Quito was in a far better state than the southern bit. Clean, green scenery, smooth and well-maintained roads. Clean towns with good signposts. We stopped for a quick photo session at the equator but never left the bikes until much later at lunchtime. Lunch was mediocre but edible. Always much the same at any roadside restaurant here - soup with bits of (well-cooked) dead animal in, followed by more meat, rice and chips with a bit of salad, much the same as in Chilé. Costs about 75p and fills you up very well. Hygiene standards wouldn't pass muster at home so you just have to ignore those.

The excellent road and wonderful scenery accompanied us all the way to the border. Leaving Ecuador posed no problems but the Colombians had a funny thing about getting everything photocopied. No real problem but they didn't have a machine themselves. We nipped back into Ecuador with no trouble to use theirs.

This all took more time than we'd hoped and riding after dark in Colombia is not recommended due to the possibility of bandit or paramilitary activities. Colombia currently has two separate civil wars going on. Two different groups control huge areas of the country and often make incursions into the bits they don't completely control. Fortunately for the Colombian government they don't seem to get on too well with each other, and they control areas at some distance.

We found an expensive but comfortable hotel in the first town we came to after the border. That evening three very hungry motorcyclists, at another pizzeria, discovered 'maros' - this translates as blackberry, but it's nothing like the brambles (or blackberries) we get at home. Colombia has lots of indigenous fruits which they don't export.

Motorcyclists in Colombia are obliged to wear funny looking bibs with the numbers from their number plates on them. You are also supposed to get these stencilled onto your helmet but so many we saw hadn't bothered and no-one insisted, so we ignored this, waiting to be told officially. There were soldiers everywhere. At every bridge and some crossings, standing guarding all sorts of infrastructure. They had big signs with them saying "safe journey, your army is on the road". Very comforting.

We were sitting having lunch in another roadside café when three soldiers emerged from the bushes across the road. We decided that not much could be up because they only had on caps, not helmets. They must have been on patrol. Later that day we saw more with helmets, flak jackets and big machine guns behind them. There were trucks with tank turrets on them - more than just armoured cars. We got concerned, but not too worried. They mainly ignored or smiled and waved at us.

Later, we stopped for fuel near a school where they were letting out. Since I was a bit busy trying to fill up, I emitted some teachery growls meaning "go away" but pretty soon Will and James were surrounded by bairns and giving out autographs! Just as I got off my bike to photograph this daftness, those who hadn't heard my original growls came crowding around me as well! It wasn't easy getting out of the throng and I feared for some toes. Bee-Emania in Colombia! All entirely harmless, but funny and daft!

Cali was much bigger than we thought. It took ages to find our way onto the city map in the Shoestring guide. When we did, the place was in upheaval due to all sorts of roadworks. It was hot - very, very hot, I was in front doing the navigation, while negotiating this mad traffic. We weren't far from where we wanted to go, but couldn't get the turn because of all the roadworks. Then it was time to get a taxi. Getting three motorbikes and riders into a taxi is never easy, so the plan was to follow it. Sadly the taxi driver hadn't seen a map of his town before, but he was very excited and happy to see one. In Cali they get around using directions and landmarks. I hadn't any of those because I was fairly new in town. Eventually, just as what there was left of our good humours were beginning to waver, a lady turned up with perfect English. 'I have a motorbike, I know what it is like to travel and I can take you to a good hotel,' she said. We followed her to the very hostel we'd been looking for. But she had to arrange for our bikes to stay at another hostel, because ours didn't have parking. No riding in to the foyer here, as in Chilé or Argentina, and no central courtyards like in Perú. But the people at the place we weren't staying in seemed very happy. We tried to offer them payment but they replied that it was more than enough for them just to know our bikes were safe!

The hostel was friendly but some of the occupants were less so. Why do some people think it's perfectly acceptable to shout at their pals and play their music too loud in public areas, whether others like it or not? An Australian (sorry Aussies but the loud, annoying ones tend to get noticed!) had engrossed an Austrian and an Israeli girl into drinking far too much and then being super-irritating - like they were going for some sort of degree or top award in irritation. Shouting utter nonsense all the time at each other and only eventually shutting up after everyone had moved away from them to the telly and turned the volume away up to counter their noise.

James took a bad turn gastric-wise, necessitating a day off for Will and I while he recovered. A bit odd, as we'd all eaten the same. Only takes one microbe though . . . We had a look around town and enjoyed another excellent meal for next to nothing at what appeared to be a top restaurant. We judged this by the price of the menu, the quality of the food and the arrival of three enormous 4WDs. From two of these emerged some huge blokes with badly fitting suits and dark glasses. They looked exactly as you'd imagine bodyguards to look like. Seen too many Hollywood films. Then 'somebody' got out of the middle one, and sat down for food while they spread out all along the street looking tough and nervous all at the same time. Who could live like that?

Cali was interesting and turned out to have an excellent climate once we'd removed the motorbike gear. Some real history and well-preserved old buildings. We wandered aimlessly through the streets and past some of these buildings. Had a very relaxing day in all. Cannae beat an aimless wander!

Bogota was a very big run from Cali and a late(ish) start the next day meant we were about 70 miles away when we eventually gave up. This was by a river, after coming across a range of Andes in the fog. Massive trucks had happily overtaken into thick fog and blind corners. On the blind hairpins, the government had arranged what looked like students to tell other drivers whether they could use the opposing lane or not, to get round the bend. It's amazing how quickly you get used to seeing huge trucks looming toward you out of the fog on the wrong side of the road. How there wasn't major carnage I've no idea, but it all seemed to work. Maybe the wreckage of a thousand trucks was lost somewhere beneath us in the mist! The trucks were doing about 8mph, which meant first gear, for me, up hills. Eventually I decided that if I came up behind one at some speed and didn't see anything coming down the other lane, I'd just overtake, using my momentum to be passed them in 2-3 seconds, rather than slow down, wait till I could see far enough and then try to accelerate much more slowly passed. If I did it the slow way, I'd be out on the wrong side of the road, in the mist for 10-15 seconds The only other option was to sit behind these things for mile after unbelievably slow mile, breathing their reek and choking on the mist and rain! No chance! The fact that I'm writing this tells you that I got away with it. Traffic was, usually, very light. But sometimes you'd come up behind several trucks chugging slowly uphill after a much slower one. Then I had to do it the slow way. Scary!

Bogota was chaos but Will did pretty well, until eventually we got another taxi. It gets very tiring when there are so few roadsigns. Even taxi drivers struggle though. They don't do as much training like they do in the UK, and it seems they may have done very little map reading at school. They drive into a likely area and then ask people for directions, much like any stranger might.

I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that it should really be some sort of international crime not to properly signpost cities. So many think it's fine just to indicate where other bits of their own city are. They don't even bother to signpost you out of their city, the city itself obviously being such an important centre of their universe. No wonder roads outside of cities are so quiet - nobody can find their way to them.

The morning after our arrival, Will had already arranged by telephone that their two bikes would be taken away at the airport. Off they went to sort this out while I was tasked with finding some accommodation for the coming night. When we eventually got back together they had had a very frustrating day trying to arrange flights for the next day. Lots of waiting around for computers to be switched on and searches of everything several times. But their perseverance had paid off and flights were organised for very early the next morning.

We had a final meal in a posh restaurant where you weren't allowed to take photos and we even had to pay just to get in, it was that posh. Or maybe they thought we were so scruffy we might not pay at all! It was on the 30th floor of a building in the middle of town so there was an excellent view over the city. The food was good but the salad arrived just in time for pudding. Bit odd. At 5am the next morning I waved goodbye to a wee yellow taxi, and went back to my bed. We'll hope to meet up again in Central America or Mexico, where James and Will want to lie on a warm beach and relax for a few days, maybe even as much as a fortnight. Any less than that and we'll just have to meet up back in the UK.

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