27 May, 2007

Central America, up to the Mexican Border.

Off I went into Panama. Rain threatened but nothing serious. Eventually, when it did rain, it rained hard but I decided that it wasn't so bad to get very, very wet and then let the evaporation cool me down afterwards. I made good progress this way on the first day. The only problem was the policeman who stopped me and demanded my passport and original driving licence. Having surrendered these I was then accused of speeding. Of course I hadn't been speeding, I didn't know the roads! But having given him my documents he then went on to tell me how he'd be keeping those, and I'd need to pay $100 dollars to the court in Panama City on Monday to get them back.

Naturally, if only I could spare him $20 now, for diesel for his police car, then we could forget the whole thing immediately, and I could get my precious documents back. I gave this uniformed criminal the extorted $20 dollars, and went grumbling quietly on my way.

Costa Rica cost money to get into, and I was never sure it was worth the entry fee. Things seemed more organised here, and people more wealthy, but this came with some arrogance which I enjoyed less. My get-wet-enjoy-cooling-off strategy fell completely apart as I climbed up into hills and the rain continued. Soon I was soaked through, as well as freezing cold. We must have been over 2000m as the bike began to struggle. I couldn't feel my fingers and eventually had to stop, put on a dry sweatshirt over my soaked t-shirt and then waterproofs over the spongy leather jacket to keep out the wind. Some spare dry gloves were very welcome too. The hotel in San José cost a small fortune too, but I was glad of the warm and dry. I hung all the wet stuff in the cupboard and set up the fan to blow them dry overnight.

My leather jacket was still soggy in the morning and more rain didn't really endear me much further to Costa Rica. Poor signposting kept me in the capital longer than I'd planned. Just after lunch I was stopped by more policemen. I was (not) speeding. There was a speed limit here because of so many accidents. No wonder, this law (breaking) "enforcement" officer had me sitting right in the middle of the road on a bend, with his car on the other side of the road. Everything else had to break really heavily and then crawl around our vehicles. Accidents were waiting to happen. $100 at the court in a few days, but if I could just find $40? No, I couldn't do that (I was raging) "how much you give?" Eventually he settled on $20 - again! He'd have arrested me again if he'd heard what I grumbled at him as I pulled away!

I was becoming quite keen to leave Costa Rica. (But see Ewen's far more informed comment below.) At the border with Nicaragua, it was just getting dark and I was surrounded by potential 'helpers'. Eventually a genuinely helpful one emerged in the form of ten year old Noél. He ran around in front of the bike showing me from office to office. He'd nearly tripped in the dark once too often when I pulled him up onto the back of the bike. He sat happily on top of the tent and I thought he might be coming with me for the rest of the trip as he beamed at his mates with so much glee. But he was very useful, sped up the process and also managed to lighten my mood significantly, so I was happy to part with his $5 consultancy fee, shake his hand, remind him to keep going to school and scoot off into the night.

I was immediately happier to be in Nicaragua. Suddenly, there was no arrogance, and people were obviously more welcoming. It always amazes me what an imaginary line on a map can do to people's moods. Have I mused on this before? Countries create laws which affect their people. Some countries make laws which affect their people in a way which makes them miserable, others in a way which makes them happy or contented. Nicaraguan law-makers appear to be doing better than Costa Rican ones for contentment, although there was clearly much more wealth in Costa Rica. Money does not appear to make people happy. Relaxing and taking things easy seems to have a far better chance of that.

It was too late to make it all the way to John Perry's, another chum put in my way by good friend Chris back home. So I stayed in a hostel just 60miles short of his place, and planned a leisurely next day, looking at the lake and generally bumbling along. John and his lovely wife Abi were excellent hosts. He wanted to speak English while teaching me about housing in the UK and life in Nicaragua, I wanted to learn from him and speak English too. Great for me to have a conversation about something for a change. John works from home (in this case Nicaragua!) by e-mail in the housing sector of the UK. He and Abi live happily in the Quinta Morcito, in a wee bit of the jungle just outside Mayasa (twin town Leicester, England). They've planted lots of trees on their bit of land and are currently helping their neighbours to do the same.

By some complicated familial circumstances, they also care for their grand-nephew. Paolo who is great fun, and not afraid of communicating in sign language, which was very good for me. The fact that I spoke so little of his language and he none of mine, was no barrier whatsoever for us, and he played with my camera, hat, helmet, and gloves for ages! John and Abi aren't on the electrical grid, using 22 solar panels instead, to power their home. These can't always be relied upon and so electricity must be very carefully consumed. As a result, the telly is rarely plugged in, although it was for the UEFA cup final between Liverpool and AC Milan as Abi is a keen Liverpool fan.

The day after I arrived I took Abi into town on the bike because she wanted a wee run. Unfortunately this helped to worsen the injury in her neck that had spelled the end of her own motorcycling career some years ago, and she couldn't come out to play anymore. So John said he'd come with me to visit the nearby volcano. This was very educational and I hope I have enough photos to take home and show P6 for when they study volcanoes at school.
This is a picture of Volcan Masaya from Google Earth, sent to me by John. We climbed to the rim of the crater on the right, the smoking one is to the left.

I hadn't planned to impose myself for too long, but the next day John was keen for me to walk to a friend's restaurant for breakfast, and I was happy to get some exercise. This was only about an hour and a half away but the heat and hills had me producing sweat in patterns I only thought you got in films. I was very pleased when we got to the place and had a delicious Gallo Pinto, the traditional breakfast of rice and kidney beans. Very filling and tasty but in that situation, for me, the cold water was best! By the time we'd eaten, the sun had risen to an oppressive angle and had heated almost all the way up. It wasn't so bad since I knew by some of the landmarks how far there was to go back, and right at the end, not five minutes from the house, we were surprised by an enormous cat about 25m in front of us. It just appeared and then ran a little up the path before disappearing back into the woods. John looked it up in his wild animals book when we got home and found it to be some kind of junior member of the jaguar family. He'd never seen one before either. It was the biggest cat I'd ever seen, about the size of a big golden retriever.

Later that day a friend of Abi's had volunteered to show me where I might change my oil. This hasn't been done since Nairobi, and while it has been constantly topped up, a full transfusion would only be good for it. After buying the oil we got to the place, only to find that the drain plug would not turn. It's an Allen bolt needing a 6mm key but somehow it had rounded. I vaguely remembered Christoph mentioning this. Never mind, I could get it sorted in the US. Then we were going to weld the headlamp bracket, and a broken weld on the pannier racks (Messrs Becker and Hepco, take note!).

The welders were super-confident so I disconnected the battery in preparation and they got started. Suddenly there was smoke coming from the top of the handlebars! Somehow, they had melted the front brake hose and fluid was spilling everywhere! They disconnected and looked sheepish for a bit while I tried to keep my temper. I had no front brake - with these roads and these drivers!! I was raging, but I held my tongue and concentrated on getting the battery reconnected and ready to go. What else was there to do? I could not look any of these guys in the eye - several had gathered round to see what was wrong with the funny-looking motorbike. With great caution I rode away, glad they hadn't asked me for payment, but disappointed I hadn't been offered any kind of an apology.

I've only used welders three times, and each time there's been a disaster. The first time was in Manchester, where I was dispatch riding, and he ruined a flywheel for this bike, whose rivets had come loose. He managed to weld it - after displaying supreme confidence - off-centre so that it was completely useless. I didn't realise this until I tried to fit it. When I took it back to complain he just shrugged his shoulders and went back to his own work. The next time was when I needed a floor panel welded on the ancient camper van at home. It's never worked since! This was the third, and last ever time.

I was fairly distraught, having no idea where to get the part I thought I needed. I reckoned it had melted the wee seal inside the master cylinder's piston. Abi came to the rescue. She's a real pillar of the community in Masaya. Recently, across the road, an army Colonel has bought some land and is building a wee farmhouse. Abi has advised him on which trees to plant and "negotiated" with him about the fair distribution of water within the local community (ie that he shouldn't pinch all of it). After a shaky start to his arrival, they now get on very well.

The Colonel has a small battalion of soldiers helping him out, one of whom is, by chance, a mechanic, named Lester. He came over next morning carrying a worrying selection of adjustable spanners tied up in a rag. My bike hasn't seen these before as they can do very nasty things to nuts and bolts. I was glad I already had everything dismantled. We investigated further and there was pressure in the cylinder's piston. Lester was convinced it had to be the seal on the hose, and after a think, this made sense to me too. We could get a new hose in Managua, the dangerous capital city, 40km up the road. We'd need to get a bus. Lester was happy to get time away from the farm, and being told what to do all day.

I've mentioned my fortunes with public transport before. This was a tiny mini bus, with more seats crammed in than the designers had ever planned for. We were squeezed onto a bench facing backwards, but we had some room. Until, of course, the conductor noticed it, then he crammed somebody else in! I was cramped and in some amount of pain by the time Lester said we were to get off.

He wore his army uniform, explaining to me that although Managua really was very dangerous, nobody would bother us because they respected the uniform. And anyway, the Army had trained him in self defence. He marched around confidently and I did my best to keep up in the crushing heat. When we found the place they said it would take about an hour to fix. Lester and I retreated from the sun into a wee bar for some cool drinks. He'd no English but I understood that he was 28, had four children, the oldest of whom was 8 and he'd been very happily married for ten years to his 24 year old wife.

We picked up the mended hose, and bought some brake fluid. One more thing was when Lester asked something about a "disarmada estrella". I was baffled - "estrella" is "star" in Portuguese, but I couldn't think why we'd want to disarm one. Lester marched off and we walked for some time through some of the most colourful market stalls I'd ever seen, me having no idea where we were going. Eventually we came to a tool shop where Lester asked the old man there some questions. The old man went to dig around in the back and eventually returned, proudly holding a brand new Philips screwdriver. "Have you got one of these?" asked Lester. "Yes," I said. "Right," and then gave the screwdriver back to the dumbfounded and now highly disappointed old man, turned and marched off again! Of course, we'd need what's also known as a "star screwdriver" for removing the top of the brake cylinder's reservoir.

Off we went back to the bus. Lester giggled at me as he took the comfy-looking back seat while my right knee became the fourth pillar for the enormous TV the other three people sitting around me had bought. Knees were interlocked like a human zip in a much less than comfortable way. I stretched and bent myself back into shape when we got off in Masaya.

The pipe reconnected, the bike was as good as new! A shame, because the steel braided hose this rubber one replaced had made the bike better than new! Never mind - the brakes worked and I was well pleased that I could be back on my way the following day.

The road towards the Honduran border was well paved, and I made good progress as the road climbed again and I cooled off. Being at John and Abi's had been extremely pleasant, and the surrounding countryside was amazingly attractive, but the heat was incredible and I don't think I could have lived there for any real length of time!

At the border itself there were four Land Rovers with Spanish number plates travelling round the world. There were two people to each vehicle and, since they were obviously more wealthy than me, I got a fairly clear run through customs and immigration, the 'parasites' paying much more attention to them. However, it still cost a small fortune just to get into Honduras - and the same price for a bike as a car!

More thick pine forests reminded me of Europe again and the well paved road wound through incredible hills towards the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa (Teh-goosey-galpa), a worthy challenger to Ouagadougou for the best named capital city! The sun was just setting as I entered the city. A basic sort of hotel said I could bring the bike through the bar and into the back room. After checking in I returned to my room to find a small, very drunk bloke going through the pockets of my bike jacket! At first I thought he might be working there and doing something perfectly legitimate, but as soon as I realised he had my camera, I had to grab him and shoogle him about a wee bit so's he could become willing to return my stuff (pen-knife, wee shiny stone a friend gave me for luck [thanks Ulrike!], lip-salve). The receptionist also came and we made him wait while I went through my pockets (didn't want to go through his, he smelled pretty bad!) to see if anything else was missing. All having been accounted for, he was asked to leave the premises.

But the room wasn't much better and as I got into bed I noticed the presence of more cockroaches then were going to spell a decent night's sleep. I kept all my clothes on and dozed fitfully.

Heading towards Guatamala in the morning I was thinking how each of the breakdowns so far, had nothing to do with me except that I hadn't checked things afterwards. The first back in Egypt was probably caused by the tyre changers in Italy tightening the spindle too tightly (I should've checked), the second was by that guy crashing into me in Nairobi (look back!), the third, in Chile, was probably just that loose wire, compounded by the diode board getting 'somehow' broken. The fourth one was probably caused by fatigue in the component after so many miles (hasn't been touched in 160,000miles) and was the kind of breakdown I expected. And the last was some numpty welder! All was well now though, and off we were going to Guatamala, the last of the smaller Central American countries and the last before Mexico. Then, just as I was quietly rolling over some cobbles in the town of La Esperanza, the motor stopped. It took a long time to re-start, but off we went again. Round the next corner, it stopped dead. Would not start.

At least I was in a town. This meant things might be available to me. I took out the spark plug - no spark. Oh dear, here we go again . . . A small crowd gathered to watch the daft Gringo. It always does! Most just stare, but eventually one volunteered to go and get the mechanic. I'm pretty nervous of mechanics around here. Most say they can mend things before going on to break something even more expensive. It was beginning to get late though, when the mechanic appeared on his bicycle. I at least needed somewhere to keep the bike safe for the night, and his workshop was an easy push downhill. The battery in my 'magic box' had gone as well and I needed to use his. Oscar was very quiet and quickly admitted to knowing about as much about electrics as me. An honest man! But with only my electrical wit to rely on, this wasn't going to be easy. I changed all the components for those brand new ones I'd sent for from the UK. Still nothing.

I spent the Monday on the net, trying to get further information from people who might know more than me. That was about everyone! On the Tuesday Oak, an electrical genius from Illinois who had contacted me to help the last time, came up with a few ideas that might demonstrate what the problem was. I became confident that things could go well. Oscar wasn't in that day and it poured with rain, so I spent my time wandering around the town and then listening to the radio on the internet to avoid the pelting rain. Very relaxing. On the Wednesday I pulled the bike apart and tried the tests Oak had suggested. They didn't mend the problem but they showed me where it wasn't. I began taking connectors apart, smearing vaseline into them to protect against verdigris and moisture. This amused Oscar, who had stayed to help in his excellent wee workshop. He said that in Honduras they only used vaseline for babies. I tried to explain about the salt on Scottish roads but whatever I was blethering made no sense to either of us! As I took one connection apart, water poured out of it. Curious. I'd been out of the rain for a few days and the bike had been under cover the night before it broke down. More out of curiosity than anything, after cleaning it and applying the vaseline, I tried the motor - "brrrrmmm!!" it went. Cured - another loose connection then. Just finding the right one takes some time!

Not only did Oscar refuse any payment for his help, or even for keeping the bike so safely, he made me a gift of handy wee air pump. What a man!

With the bike running, I slithered up a dirt (mud and goo) road. At times I was down to 5mph, trying not to fall off. I made it to an hotel but hadn't covered too much ground. However, I was in a great position to get to the border in the morning. As I went down to breakfast, there was another Gringo on the couch in the hotel foyer to whom I nodded civilly. "You must be Mick," he said, in a thick Australian accent. By complete chance, a lad with a broken KTM that Will and James had met working in a hostel a few weeks previously, had got it fixed and somehow turned up in the same hotel as me! Will and James had put us in touch so Glen and I had been e-mailing for a while in case we happened to be in the same area at the same time. We were both heading north. Hurrah, a playpal!

Glen and I exchanged stories of Central America as we crossed through the border. He had mainly enjoyed his time there, getting used to the Latin culture and how things worked. I wished I'd had more time. He had been in Panama for a while before buying the KTM there and heading north. It had broken down (see? Not just me!) in Nicaragua and he'd had to wait some time on parts arriving and being fitted. It wasn't the bike he might have chosen but he hoped to sell it in Canada, where he was going to meet his mum, and get something better.

Guatamala was very pretty, although Guatamala City itself was difficult to negotiate in the rain. An off duty policeman kindly went a great deal out of his way to show us the road through town and down to the coast on his wee bike. Eventually, we managed to get into a position where crossing into Mexico in the morning would be easy. Or so we thought . . .

4 Comments:

At 16/06/2007 08:14, Blogger Alf said...

Well, this is a monster post. It really is amazing to read about the contrasts between countries. Obviously, the Costa Rican uniformed thieves do it because they can - probably a result of the rich/poor divide there. When I was there for a work trip, I didn't see many poor Costa Ricans, but they'd have to be there somewhere, keeping the rich ones going...
I'd feel sick giving these guys even $10, but I can see that there are probably few alternatives. Diesel for their police car indeed. Liked the contrast with the Guatemalan off-duty policeman going out of his way for you.

 
At 19/06/2007 09:56, Blogger Ewen said...

Funny, the views emerging of Costa Rica and its inhabitants. Lindsey and myself spent a month travelling around Costa Rica a few years back, and the people we met were some of the most friendly and helpful people we've ever come across. Everywhere we turned, there was a smiling face and someone prepared to go an extra length to help you. They were enthusiastic about their own country as well as enthusiastic to learn about other countries (they already knew about Scotland because they beat us 1-0 in the 1990 World Cup - a national day of celebration apparently!!) Yes, there is a rich/poor divide but because the Costa Rican government disbanded their armed forced many years ago, and concentrated their investment on health, education and the environment instead of silly wars with neighbouring countries, the social integrity of the country appears to be much wealthier than their neighbours. Appearances can be deceptive because even the poor are well educated.... There, that's my defence for the country that is coming out with a poor reputation here(can you tell I have a place in my heart for the Costa Ricans?!)!! If I could give any advice, it would be go and visit, spend time there and get off the beaten track!

Keep up the excellent blogging though, it's been an amazing journey so far.....
Slainthe, Ewen

 
At 19/06/2007 15:50, Blogger Rachel said...

Love the photo of the volcano from the beach. awesome.

X rachel

 
At 19/06/2007 22:10, Blogger Mick said...

Very fair comment Ewen, thanks. I never got off the beaten track, and most of my woes were connected to being on a motorbike (polis, cold, rain!). Normally I wouldn't go by the path more worn, but for once, I have a bit of a deadline! I will go back, (sans moto) for much longer as I've heard some fantastic things about what's hiding off the PanAmericana. This is just what happened to me - and I was only there two days, passing through - others tell me they had a great time.

 

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