A river runs under it

So things have been pretty cool of late. The trip has become more of a vacation and I might even say that it’s been fun. Previously I would have thought that “fun” was one of the least appropriate words to describe this experience…

El Salvador
Let us begin where we left off- in San Salvador. I met up with a friend of a friend and I had the opportunity to be normal for a while. There have been protracted periods during the journey where I haven’t had anyone to talk to (outside ordering food and sorting
accommodation). It’s nice to talk.

After the capital, I stopped at Santa Ana, on my way into the final mountain range. My visit coincided with the town’s annual
celebrations. The main street had been closed off for a huge procession. Floats with beauty pageant winners crawled along, flanked by the police department in their finest dress and banner-toting LGBT activists.

I learned from a guy in the hostel I stayed at that there are certain establishments in El Salvador where beer is sold at cost price (so long as you purchase sufficient quantities). These places make money from the “vomit tax” they charge people who throw up. The price per chunder is listed on the menu, alongside the drinks prices. I learned about this too late in the day and sadly wasn’t able to experience it myself. I can picture the scene clearly, though- the drunk men, fancying themselves modern day cowboys, wearing hats, boots and sporting six-shooters… and brawling. Oh if only I had seen it all.

Guatemala
As I headed into the hills, my little legs went into overdrive. There have been a few days where I’ve just wanted to keep cycling. And this was the case as I cycled into Guatemala. I had planned the stops I was to make on the way, but when it came time to leave the saddle for the day, I pushed on. It’s kinda like playing “just the tip”. I told myself that I would just cycle another 10 miles to the next town… and then ended up ploughing right on through, not stopping for miles after.

The helmet my mum bought just before I left is now somewhere in Guatemala. I cycled off one morning without it. I had gone downhill (some quite decent hills, too) all morning until the moment I realised I didn’t have it on my head. The honest truth is that I couldn’t be bothered to go back and get it, but I guess I’m gonna have to think up something better than that to tell mum. Perhaps I’ll say I wore it all the way to Cancun and then donated it to some poor helmet-less kid in Mexico.

This most recent leg of my journey has been more social than most. I met two guys at Rio Dulce who were travelling together to a town up in the hills- and I was convinced to leave my bike and take a bus for a mini-vacation from cycling. It was pretty nice to travel without effort.

We slept at a place called Lanquin and took a day trip to Semuc Champey (riding in the back of a pick up truck, holding on as it rocked all over the place). The site is a series of pools flowing into one another, with little swim-throughs or waterfalls joining them. These pools form a bridge over a fast flowing white water river. We met a German guy who had been before and returned with a specific purpose: to hot box an underwater cave formed behind a waterfall. It was a pretty cool cave.

Belize
I got dowsed in chemical spray when crossing into Belize. Which was kinda awful.

At border crossings, I generally try and work out how the new country is different from the last. The contrast between Belize and Guatemala is the most pronounced in the region. Everyone in Belize speaks English and the vibe is very solidly Caribbean, even inland. On the ride through the country, I passed a Rasta-coloured wooden house built in the shape of a car (complete with hubcaps nailed to the walls where the wheels were painted on). Prominently displayed outside was a sign reading “Trespassers will be persecuted”. There was also an election campaign poster with the words, “I am coming, I am coming hard!” written underneath a the image of a fist grasping a flag pole. It’s even funnier if you say it with a Jamaican accent.

I arrived at Cayo at the end of my first day cycling in Belize and stopped at a juice stall where a boy was watching one of the early Harry Potter films. The lime juice was quite simply delicious. Little ice crystals evidenced that it was on the verge of freezing, but not quite there. When I paid the kid, he walked away with my money and then came back a minute later saying “I don’t think that you know how it works in this country….” and then went on to explain that the exchange rate was $2 Belizian to $1 USD and that I’d given him too much money. Which was sweet.

That night I went out for a few pre-dinner drinks and was drawn to a shadier-looking bar than most. Before long, my bear-magnet powers had done what they do best and I was talking to 72-year old Marion (known to all and sundry as “Grandpa”). He had a grey beard, whose coverage was patchy at best, and a belly that hung from his shoulders like a whale strung up by its tail. At first I was drinking the local beer, but, as is the way at most dive bars I have spent time in, the drink of choice is really the rum and coke. In New York, I used to watch the old ladies come in to a bar and carefully count out their quarters and dimes, adding up to the price of this drink. So rum and coke was (obviously) what Grandpa was drinking and it was what I quickly moved on to… and I proceeded to get absolutely Slam Dunk Drunk. Which I think I need to do once in a while. One of the barmen was called “Jesus” and Grandpa got a lot of pleasure out of asking random people in the bar if they had seen Jesus… and then introducing them to the barman.

Dive bar conversations are mostly formulaic (in a way that I find comforting). It’s generally the old timer doing most of the talking with me occasionally agreeing or posing questions to keep up the flow. I will learn about family (genius daughters, good-for-nothing sons-in-law, famous brothers) and generally also about time spent in the army or the navy. From time to time there are England-related anecdotes… the time when, in their youth, my drinking companion had been part of a shooting competition at Bisley, etc…

The next day I got up and cycled across the country to the coast and caught a boat to a little island in the Caribbean called Caye Caulker. It seems to be the done thing. I met people from the last hostel I stayed at in Guatemala… I also met a couple who I initially saw in Semuc Champey, and then later met in a Burger King by Tikal. Solidly on the gringo trail here…

The island is very chilled. The snorkeling is good- as is the seafood. I rented a fishing rod and failed to catch anything from the sea. I still had a pretty good time of it all though, as the bait that I had bought made some friends- the local kids. One girl, who must have been about six, claimed to have caught a barracuda using just some fishing line, a small hook and chopped up dead-bait. The sea birds came in and hovered directly above our heads as we cast out the lines. If you threw fish up into the air, the birds would catch it mid-flight, scrabbling and fighting over it. They even swoop and take the food out of your hand. The most plentiful of the sea birds here have sharp, angular wings and look like direct descendents of pterodactyls.

After a morning fishing, I went back to my shack (which is basically a garden shed) and took off my sopping shirt, placing it on top of the power wire for the permanently-spinning fan. I got an electric shock. It took me a second or so to realise what the hell was happening. Then, I decided to prod the shirt off the wire with my rubber flip flop. This was actually also wet- so I was shocked again. Eventually, my guidebook served a purpose and when I emerged from the room I received an inquisitive look from one of the guys sitting outside- for I must have been cursing quite loudly.

In the evenings, most people head down to the bar at the end of the island. One night a local man explained what goes on in the water the sun sets over. He detailed, in confidence, the mating habits of some of the fishes (kiss face to face and then turn around and
boom-boom-boom). The crabs are also said to dance with joy at seeing people in the water. We humans apparently entertain them immensely. The guy did a very convincing crab dance to demonstrate.

Not much longer left really now. I have cycled more than 3,000 miles to get where I am. Tomorrow I head to Mexico… and then I should be in Cancun in a few more days.

xoxo

No iguana soup :-(

Every time I type up one of these entries, I pay for it not only in dollars, but also in blood. I call it the Mosquito Tax. I’m also a total fidgeter now. I feel phantom mosquitoes all the time- so I’m constantly shifting around…

I decided to change my rear tyre in Leon, Nicaragua, feeling fairly confident that I could handle the matter with minimal fuss, but the decision ended up delaying me by several days. Firstly, I had to stay an extra night in order to take my bike to a repair stall (after I failed to fit the tyre myself). I am willing to make this admission of in apparent incompetence only because it took the mechanic over an hour and an half to get the tyre properly seated on the wheel rim- and he only did so by pure chance. So it genuinely was just an awkward tyre to install.

Given that I was staying the extra day anyway, I decided to sort the bike in the morning and then join a group of people set on summitting a nearby volcano in the afternoon. These days I tend to pretty much agree to anything that is proposed to me… And to be honest with you, I didn’t really think about how much effort would be involved in the climb. We began the hike around two o’clock. Within five minutes of setting out, it began to rain and within a further two minutes I was just about as wet as could be. The rain set in and didn’t stop until we got in the van for the return drive around midnight. I’m not making this up. Sometimes I wish I were. To reach the foot of the volcano, we trudged through miles of bean-planted fields before pushing our way through corn crop. Whilst I joked with the others about not wanting to be at the end of the walking line (the murder/velociraptor generally picks off people from the back), I actually made damn sure that I was positioned mid-group for the whole time. Just in case.

This volcano wasn’t as hard to climb as the previous one I attempted and we were entertained on the way by our guide telling us all about which of his cousins he’d slept with and which he regrettably hadn’t been able to. It was still pretty tiring going. The pace was quick and we ended up at the top in a time faster than our guide had ever done before. The weather, as is generally the case, worsened as we ascended and at the top there was very little visibility and we were assaulted by lashings of heavy, cold rain. The driving idea behind the climb had been to gain a view of the glowing lava and this is only possible with the darkness that night brings. Our Herculean efforts on the way up meant that when we reached the crater it was still daylight. So we had to wait.

We sat, huddled together, on the top of the volcano, wind whipping the rain into our faces and lightening falling all around. One of our party had recently survived being struck by lightening and was anxiously following the movement of the storm clouds. The rain could be clearly heard hissing as it fell on the hot rock inside the crater. Steam billowed out of the cone so thick and impenetrable that nothing beyond a couple of meters could be seen. Occasionally the sulphurous vapour from inside the volcano would be blown towards us, bringing with it momentary warmth (and an onslaught of coughs).

Just last month this volcano had erupted, causing the nearby town to be evacuated.

Whilst we waited for the light to fade, all the time secretly doubtful that it would make any real difference to lava visibility, we sipped on cold beers that each person in turn had labouriously lugged up the slope in an ice packed cool bag. What a wonderful idea this had sounded in the heat of the day at ground level and what a lackluster prospect the cans had transformed into now that we, too, were cold and wet… but we drank anyway (with less than anticipated gusto and, I suspect, more to avoid carrying the full cans back down than for any real purpose of pleasure). I struggled to finish my beer as the rainwater worked hard to fill the can at a rate close to that which I was draining it. Fortunately,
borderline-alcoholic-that-I-may-or-may-not-be, I had also bought a bottle of rum with me, which went down better than the beers when it was shared around.

We saw no lava and I vowed that this was to be my last volcano climb on this trip, despite the fact that several others would present themselves en route.

On the descent we were warmed by thoughts of iguana soup promised by our guide (he never came through) and frightened by his deadpan instructions that we must show no fear and throw rocks at any bandits that might materialise. He told us they were unlikely to have many guns. There was no moon. It was really pitch black but for our torches. The trudging through the bean fields felt like it lasted for ever. Lifting your feet high with each step to avoid damaging the plants after all that climbing- it´s as tiring an exercise as any army obstacle course designer could have come up with.

The next day I didn´t do much. Plans of getting up early and continuing on my cycle had been re-thought during the descent from the volcano, so I settled on a day of recovery and spent much time by the pool; laying in the sun and then ultimately watching the clouds close in… with the birds all flying to the trees and taking shelter ahead of the storm front. I waited until the rain began to fall before lighting up a cigarette to have with my coffee. That evening our merry group of volcano climbers re-assembled to drink rum and play poker, the loser of the game being tattooed with temporary transfers which came free with our improvised poker chips (multi-coloured boiled sweets).

It felt good when I finally set off on the road to Honduras and my bags were easier to pack now that I no longer had a spare tyre to carry. I cycled far and stopped for the night at the border, beating the rains by a matter of minutes. When I checked in at the hotel, I saw a fridge and asked the owner if I could have a beer… I think it was the family fridge, though… He offered to procure beer anyway whilst I cleaned up and we settled on a price. It is a wonderful thing indeed to cycle hot and hard and then to have a cold shower and a cold beer. The hotel owner was a bit weird, though. I asked for four beers, which he bought for me and put in the fridge- but when I went to collect the final bottle later that evening, he explained, from his hammock, that he’d drunk it and that the beers were finished. I, slightly confused, explained that I’d asked for (and paid for) four and only drunk three… He agreed with this and looked exceptionally happy with himself. I tried to ask again, hopefully thinking that I may have misunderstood, and he again said that he’d drunk the last beer and that I could go and buy more if I wanted! I mean, some people! It’s pretty damn low to drink another’s beer…

It´s so hot on the road some days. Many of the locals walk under umbrellas for shade and some deftly shelter under one whilst cycling. The road I took through Honduras has been squished and squashed out of shape in the heat of the flatlands. The cars and the trucks have caused it to bulge and ripple, displaced from the areas where tyres commonly tread. So it´s hot, but it also rains every day. It’s pretty insane to see the weather here whilst cycling along. I´ve seen the clouds drop heavy rain over an area of just a few hundred meters- torrents of water fall on a field or two whilst all around is sun and heat. Often when the scenery is hidden from view by trees, I cycle for miles in a semi trance-like state, staring at the path just ahead. Thoughts or words get stuck in my head and become near mantras. For some reason I cycled for the best part of one morning mentally chanting “squished and squashed” not really intentionally… Almost meditatively.

I was only in Honduras for ana short time, but it struck me as a very spirited place. The girls would purse their lips and blow kisses to me whilst the boys shouted “I love you!” mockingly from the sidelines. As I cycled through the towns, EVERY SINGLE CHILD would scream “Gringo!” with such excitement it never ceased to amaze me during my transit through the country. The cries would travel with me as a wave that began ahead and faded away behind me. As I passed one kid, he proffered his hand and as we Hi-Fived he grinned and greeted me, “Muchacho!!!”.

Coke and Pepsi (and some of the national beer companies) appear to give big signs away to businesses for free (with a blank space for the name of the establishment). This results in some rather odd combinations, like “PEPSI Funerals La Paz”. On the matter of strange names, the award so far goes to “Bar y Restaurante Black Power”, where I had a quiet drink a few weeks back. “Bar Drunkard” here in San Salvador is also a pretty good name.

In El Salvador, I fell an ill victim to some kind of stomach bug. I really should have known better… The restaurant I ate at was the only one open that I could find and was completely empty. When I sat down at a table, the girl working there came over, looking more than a little put out by the fact she had to step away from her telenovela, and hopefully and loadedly said (more as a statement than a question), “Just for a drink, yes?”. She was only able to offer me one dining option and it looked like it was actually meant to be her dinner. The next day, sick and moody, I curled up like a polar bear reversed, sheltering in sleep from the heat and sun. I shall not detail the events that transpired during this period in my self-imposed cell, replete with strip light and whirring a/c unit.

After a near week of convalescence in a windowless room with only TV as stimulus, I emerged to a marvelous world. MDMA colours. The market in the town centre was vast and filled with all kinds of interesting oddities. Dried snakes skewered on sharpened sticks and live crab-crawling creatures in water-damped basins were sold at ramshackle stalls, whose improvised roofs overhung the narrow streets, near touching the roofs of the opposite stalls selling knock off Disney merchandise and remote control robots. After a day dedicated to eating and drinking as much as I could in order to take on an energy store for my journey ahead, I made out for San Salvador, breaking the trip up with one overnight stop. I am slightly conscious of not having much time left. There is still quite a bit of ground to cover from here to Cancun- but hopefully all will pan out.

If you are as interested in my legs as I am, here’s what I´ve been doing with them lately. As a throwback to my photography darkroom days, I have decided to create “Test Strip Legs”. For those of you not in the know, test strips are photographic test prints used to determine the correct exposure for a picture… this is done by exposing different sections of the paper to light for varying degrees of time (http://bit.ly/qiIdwu). I am now attempting to recreate this effect on my legs by varying how high I hitch up my shorts each ride.

Lake to lake

Once upon a time there was a vast lake in the Central Americas and in its waters swam man-eating sharks a plenty. And in the middle of this lake was an island formed of two perfectly shaped volcanoes that had risen from the centre of the earth and spread just enough to touch one another. On the larger of the two volcanoes crouched Daniel, scrabbling to keep footing on the gravelous rock face whilst looking back down from where he had come…
______________________________________________________

It was time to move on from La Fortuna and my bearded, pot bellied friends. I felt it. Another day would have been too much and I could happily have left earlier, but didn´t. Instead of going as early as I could rise and pull myself together, I waited and had breakfast with the old timers, saying my farewells. When I left it was sunny and already too hot for my liking, but I told myself that however tough today was, I would have certainly survived tougher days… and I with that thought in mind, I pushed off.

Expectations lead to disappointments. It is much better to go with the flow and try not to plan too much. Leaving La Fortuna, I knew from having previously ridden the road, it was a steep climb up to the lake. I was anticipating this and had come to accept it as the start to my day. I had, however, also reasoned that the rest of the day, cycling around the lake, would be fairly flat. And of course, I couldn´t have been more wrong. It was up and down and up all day long. Push up, coast down. My least favourite kind of riding. Actually worse than the initial climb, which I could grind out in a low gear. No matter how tough, I had promised myself a nice lunch at a German bakery I had been told about. The bakery was also tantalisingly signposted every once in a while with a kilometer countdown… Lunch in 25km, schnitzel and strudel in 15km… perhaps even one beer in 5km to take away the pain of the day… It was a Sunday when I left La Fortuna and it was a Sunday when I arrived in Nuevo Arenal, home to the Famous German Bakery. And on Sundays it appears from the evidence collected, the bakery is shut up tight with not a schnitzel in sight. Dream SHATTERED. One of the only other places open in town had a Philly cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz on the menu, so I had to order it. A massive plate arrived, piled high… and I ate it all, drank a Coke and then drank a mug of pineapple juice to counteract all the dubious foodstuffs I had just consumed. What a mistake did I make that day. It was hot and the going never got easier. I spent the rest of the day carrying that cheesesteak and accompaniments up hill after hill, like a ball of stodge in my little stomach. The worst headache in memory also descended on me, beginning as a heartbeat-paced thump-thump-thump behind my eyes as I climbed and later expanded it´s rhythm to fill my whole head.

One further thing made the day particularly difficult to cope with: I was constantly on the look out for snakes. Early in the ride, I had crossed on to the other side of the road to avoid a meter-long serpent, thinking that it would remain where it was. But instead, as I approached, it coiled and launched itself at me, missing my two feet. I was shocked and scared shitless. I don´t know why, but I really hadn´t been expecting it to do that. To add insult to injury, ten seconds later a tiny crab (so small you wouldn´t even consider boiling it up to eat) turned to face me whilst standing in the middle of the road, and angrily snapped its claws at me as I advanced towards it. I was still so shaken that I freaked out and almost fell off my bike.

This was one of the only rides since my first couple of weeks where I didn´t know how I was going to make it through the day. I was so miserable and I am still in the habit of feeling awfully sorry for myself despite knowing that all this is of my own choosing and my own fault. As I approached my targeted town for the evening, I found a shop selling Panadol and took two with yet another Coke. There was a marginal improvement, but the rest of the journey was hardly pain-free. So in addition to my regular “end of day beer”, I crushed up another Panadol and snorted it through a grotty $20 note, the thinking being that the other two were taking a while to get into my blood due to the vast quantities of food and drink in my belly. I don´t know what worked- the Panadol or the beer, but the pain faded and was forgotten about for the rest of the evening as I lay me down to watch Miss USA on TV. Actually, as an interesting aside, it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that most of the research for the trip I am currently on was conducted on the Miss Universe/Miss World websites.

I went from a nightmare of a day to a beautiful ride the next day. Almost entirely downhill, starting out with the sun rising over my shoulder, casting a light that made the trees and fields glow in Kodachrome 64 colours.

Cycle, cycle, cycle without much incident apart from the day I cycled to a town named Liberia. On the way I left my bike at a shop and took a detour out to a wonderful waterfall, where I met two of the most incredibly hot girls ever (and also their male friend). My plan had originally been to snap a couple of shots of the place and return to the road, but given the circumstances, I decided instead to stay for a while and climb to the top of the waterfall with my three new friends. It was not a well-trodden path. Not sure whether I should wear my shoes or not, I alternated between wearing them and not wearing them, seeming to get each decision wrong. It was a painful and clumsy ascent (for me much more so than the others), but it was very much worth it and the view was lovely.

I sadly parted way with the girls, shoes wet (this time entirely my own doing), clothes muddied, feet bloodied, but glad for the experience. At Liberia I also inadvertently checked into a hostel filled with bicycle tourists.

When I got to my last stop before crossing into Nicaragua, I still had a reasonable amount of Costa Rican currency left in my wallet. So I went to the supermarket and bought beer, orange juice, soda water, ice and a beer glass and tried my best to get through as much of it as I could before heading out to the most expensive restaurant I could find (not that expensive) and ordering the most expensive item on the menu. I felt like Brewster with his millions. Although we aren´t quite talking that kinda money here. I nearly got it perfect.

Almost immediately after the Costa Rica/Nicaragua boarder crossing, Lake Nicaragua appears to the right of the road, two perfect Stromboli-shaped volcanoes rise above muddy brown waters breaking on the muddy brown shore.

On the ferry to the island of Ometepe, I met two other cyclists, Eric and Martin, intent on climbing one of the volcanoes the next day. Although I had mentally designated the next couple of days as being “rest days” I felt that I would kick myself later should I pass the opportunity by. So we went in search of a guide once on the island and found someone willing to take us up at 4:45am.

By way of a deposit, I offer a $20 bill, expecting $10 back in change. The guide flicks through her pocketbook, swiftly skipping over the nice crisp $10 bill until Eric points it out to her… She then, very slowly and evidently reluctantly, parts with the note. This little dance shows how much Nicaraguans like their own currency. Although $1 is quite stably 22 cordobas, $1 will be preferred over 22 cordobas every time.

After making arrangements, we cycle a few miles to a finca that has its own stretch of beach. We´re the only ones there and head to the lake shore for sunset, where we sit sipping Cuban rum from a plastic Sprite bottle and having a smoke whilst fireflies glow in the plant growth behind us and in the air all around.

Getting up at 4am was surprisingly okay. Cycling in the complete dark was less so. I have only used my headlight on a couple of occasions, but each time it has been indispensable. And so it proved that morning. The ride was hairy… even with the torch, it was very difficult to make out much of the road ahead. Packs of dogs barked aggressively, their Eyes of Evil reflecting our lights.

Climbing the volcano was straightforward until we got within a few hundred meters of the top, where the surface turned to sharp, lose gravel and rock. There came a point where we had to stop and have a talk about whether to summit or not. A pause and a discussion.

Once or twice at this point, the cloud cleared and spread out below was the entire island. Yellow-green vegetation encroached upon red-grey scraggy bare rock at lower altitudes… This turned into lush green forest, split with ravines, rivers and fissures… and the forest gave way to agricultural land that was tinted grey-blue by the foggy cloud. The shape of the island was clearly visible and on the far bank of the lake windmills could be seen to turn in the breeze.

We all agreed that the climbing was just about possible… but it was cold and raining, so we turned back. As soon as we began the descent, it became obvious that the decision to turn around had been the correct one. Going down was significantly harder than going up. I fell a lot and cut up my hands and arms. Volcanic rock is particularly nasty as it´s porous and sharp, a bit like coral, I guess.

The next day we left the farm and cycled around the island. I cycled on to another town and Eric and Martin went off in search of mushrooms and another place to stay. The town I headed to, according to my map, had a boat to the mainland, which I wanted to take.

The two locals I asked about the ferry said that it left at midnight and advised that I get to the port around 7pm or 8pm. Two other people I asked told me that the ferry I wanted didn´t exist. So reliable information is pretty hard to come by. Before I had to leave for the boat, two of the people from the cycling hostel in Liberia arrived to meet me and we had a few drinks in a lovely little bar, dark as pitch and lit only with neon lights wrapped around random objects. Rich, brown, dirt floor, bikes and motorbikes keeping us company inside as we drank one litre bottles of beer poured into little water glasses.

Another cycle in PITCH BLACK down to the ferry terminal. Rough dirt track. When I got there, Anaconda was playing on the TV inside the fly filled waiting room. Huge moths erratically circled, causing even locals to take evasive action. It was all a bit much (especially the Anaconda bit- it´s the kind of film you can easily imagine being played on repeat to Guantanamo Bay residents), so I moved outside.

Back home a frog is a frog and a spider is a spider. No matter what your feelings are towards such creatures, they aren´t objectively scary because they won´t do you any harm. Here, I can´t help wondering about the how dangerous every unknown beastie I see is. As I´m sitting on the step underneath the yellow flickering light, a smallish spider approaches. And then a bit later, a little frog. I prod the frog with a green curled leaf and it jumps, although does so looking rather put (out if such a thing is possible in a frog). The spider I leave well alone until it moves alarmingly quickly in my direction and hides under my bag, whereupon I Exit, pursued by a spider.

Now I´m in Granada on the mainland, with a bit of a cold, trying to find where the restaurant that serves “The best baby back ribs in the whole of Central America” has moved to. Because it isn´t where it was in my 2009 guidebook. And it isn´t where tourist information told me at lunchtime, either…

Crabs in the drains / Frogs in the trees

Bocas del Toro, Panama
The weather has been cooperating beautifully of late- cloudy when cycling, sunny when not. For my entire time on the Bocas, it was scorching. I went out to beaches and then realised that beaches are actually pretty boring after a while. I snorkeled and I ate lots.

During my week on the islands, I stayed in a hostel that was basically a frat house. After partying on the first night, feeling awkward throughout really, I proceeded to vomit up my breakfast bagel and banana milkshake the next morning. And whilst I was doing this, or thereabouts, the thought occurred to me that perhaps I felt out of place because I’m getting old. Then I realised that at any age I wouldn’t have fitted in. Just not really my scene. None the less, I had a good time there, but felt like a bit of a loser whilst surrounded by 18 year old surfer dudes.

Beasties were all around. Most far more appealing than blood sucking flies. Crabs in drains ducked out of sight as I walked past. On one occasion I stopped to prod one a bit with a stick to see if I could get it to use its pincers. It wouldn’t. On one island there were tiny little red frogs up in the trees at the fringe of the beach. The local kids would whack the branches and capture the frogs in large wrapped leaves. Not necessarily a practice to condone- but it did allow for up-close-and-personal viewing which would have been difficult otherwise.

I’ve been carrying around several things that I never use… But the island sun gave me an excuse to revisit my only souvenir purchase to date. My once beautiful Panama hat (worn once in Ecuador before being ruinously folded and crushed into my luggage) found new life as a relaxed Caribbean hat. The smart headband has been dispensed with and it now has a certain battered charm.

I have a lot of time for idle thoughts. And heaven knows idle thoughts are preferable to thoughts about more practical matters (such as what to do with myself after this little frolic is over). My mind occupies itself by thinking up a lot of nonsense. I got some nasty mosquito bites a week or so back. One on my right bicep. It swelled up impressively and made me consider whether the strategic application of such bites could be used to my advantage in future body building competitions. I don’t have any intention of entering body building contests. Then another time, I was sitting in Burger King (I put so much salt on the fries that it hurt my teeth). Whilst I was there, watching the Cartoon Network in Spanish and washing down my Whopper with a couple of tinnies that I smuggled in (pure class?), I thought to myself: am I gonna let my kids eat fast food and watch crap TV? I was weighing up the pros and cons and mulling the hypocritical potential of any such ban when I realised that this problem was not an immediate one at all and the whole thought exercise was putting the cart before the horse rather. I still need to figure out how to talk to girls if there is to be any chance of children in the first place.

I find fastfood chains comforting. If I see the golden arches in the distance, my heart sings. Or any other Western chain. Where there is a Pizza Hut, there will be a cash machine and an hotel, guaranteed. These things are, for the modern man, the equivalents of a cave, a fire and a fish-containing stream for a caveman… all that is needed to live a long and happy life. It’s tragic when spelled out like that, but it’s also genuinely how I feel a lot of the time. In Panama there were long, long stretches where there would be nothing. Perhaps a garage for re-treading car tyres… but no hotels. Nowhere to get money. No where to get water. The familiar is comforting. And McDonald’s is familiar and air conditioned.

Costa Rica
A very sorry looking bridge spans the boarder crossing from Panama to Costa Rica, with immigration checkpoints on each side. I wheeled my bike across wooden planks that were half eroded and not fixed to the bridge, dodging the gaps where the wood had fallen away… My bike tried to escape twice and it took a prodigious effort on each occasion to haul it up again.

My first night in Costa Rica was spent in someone elses hotel room. I checked into a place a few miles across the border and then went out to have a look around town. When I came back in the evening, my key broke off in the lock. The manager had gone home and the poor girl who was left in charge was at as much of a loss as me. So she phoned for help… which was promised sometime the next day… and, I had to understand, the next day was a Sunday…. so… you know… who knows what time the guy might show up. The only other room available had another person’s bags in it (but not another person). I don’t quite understand why. So I slept there, resisting the urge to peak inside the suitcases.

Ports aren’t good places, it seems. I stopped to consult my guidebook on the outskirts of Puerto Limon and before I had turned to the correct page, I was hailed by a passing mountain biker. He explained that the area really wasn’t safe and suggested that I ride with him and his buddy into the town centre. Which I did. We then had my first real conversation in Costa Rica and it put me in high spirits. What a great guy my new friend Lincoln was… Costa Rica is a much friendlier place than Panama.

I fear committing this to writing, lest it jinx things, however, since the Bocas, everything has been working out very nicely indeed. The hills are manageable. AND THERE HAVE BEEN NO DOG ATTACKS.

I had my very first puncture and it couldn’t have happened with more perfect timing. About one mile outside my scheduled stop the front tube burst, throwing me, miraculously, off to the grassy side of the road. Not into a truck. Which has been a fear ever present in the back of my mind. So I wheeled my bike along the road and checked into the only hotel in town. Now, I haven’t changed a tyre or a inner tube for half a decade and I had been dreading this moment. Fortunately, the inside of an air conditioned hotel room is a good spot to have a bash at it. Better than by the roadside. Better indeed, as I could mull over the task with beer in hand. It took a little while, but the tyre was levered off, offending metal spike located and removed (with nail scissors), tube replaced and the whole thing put back together. I now feel much happier knowing that should I get another puncture, it’s not all that difficult to remedy. More importantly, I feel more of a man. A real, cycling man with skills. Next thing, I’ll be tinkering with the derailleurs…

The hotel I stayed at before coming to my current spot was great. It rained insanely after I arrived and I spent the afternoon talking to the owner and her son in their porch. The son had a bit of a thing for Victoria Beckham… I countered: Cheryl Cole. And we got along just fine after that. This was my second real conversation in Costa Rica and it made me really happy. Costa Ricans are super nice. Apart from some of the drivers, who aren’t. But on the whole…

Now I’m in a town called La Fortuna. It’s right next to Costa Rica’s most active volcano. Because it was cloudy when I arrived, I had no idea that out of my window is a picture perfect view of the volcano. I woke up yesterday and saw this conical shape outlined on my curtains. When I went to draw them back, there it was, right in my face. I returned to my bed and just lay there, half asleep, looking at it. I WISH there were lava flowing, but apparently it stopped about six months ago.

There’s this crazy old American staying at the same hotel here. Cap’n Billy (the Cap’n bit is self-styled). When I met the guy, it was all I could do to repress the smile I felt, with the thought: “PURE LITERARY GOLD” running through my head… me trying desperately to remember all of the things he said. I mean, if Cap’n Bill needs summing up in one sentence, it’s best to let him speak for himself: “I drink beer, I fuck whores and I smoke A LOT of pot.” I might write more about him later…

CHINDANI BODY UPDATE
Not much thinner. Not much fitter. Arms (for some reason?) seem to have changed the most, now resembling Madonna’s. Legs appear to still be symmetrical, roughly. Tan lines ever worsening.

La Cucaracha

What´s worse than waking up to sopping wet shoes? Waking up to sopping wet shoes plus large cockroach. Lovely. The filthy beast retreated deep inside when it saw me coming and it took me a lot of banging and cursing to remove him. Now every morning I give my footwear an exploratory poke.

——————————

I guess it´s been a while since I wrote anything, so continuing from where I left off in Cartagena:
 
Ten days (too long) were spent mostly very lazily in the old town. My days revolved around meals. I worked my way through lunches and dinners at the best places I could find, making up for a month of rice and beans. There was one outstanding restaurant- a La Cevicheria. I had forgotten how much I like ceviche. I can´t remember having it in London, although a quick google search did reveal that it is available. I drank lots and lay in the sun by the rooftop pool in an attempt to eradicate, or at least minimise my tan lines. And I read a bit to pass the time between meals. That´s about it. Nothing crazy. Just a rather indulgent week and a bit.
 
By the time it came to leave I was more than ready to move on. Previously, I had only stayed a few days here and there… and my feet were getting restless. So I procured a few last minute supplies, gave my bike some much needed TLC and headed for the marina to board the boat to Panama via San Blas.
 
The next few days were the highlight of my trip so far. The seas were calm and the sailing was good, although not technically “sailing” as we were under motor the whole time. Alongside, dolphins playfully shadowed the boat, leaping from the water, until scared away by the ever vigilant watch dog on board. It would take a pretty cold hearted person not to be a little touched by the sight.
 
The beaches on the San Blas Islands were unspoiled, with starfish studded seabeds. One night we slept on what was later christened “Three Tree Island”. As the name suggests, it was a small mound of sand surrounded by ocean, with just enough room for three trees, four people and a fire. That evening, we were sitting, talking and drinking. After a decent amount of rum we heard noises behind us. I reluctantly rose to investigate with torch in hand… only to see a man, floating face down in the sea. I thought it was some unfortunate soul who had fallen overboard. It was scary. Until the body lifted its face from the water and laughed. The captain of our boat and another member of the party had played a very effective joke on us.

As the boat travelled from island to island, we occasionally munched on my latest fruit fetish: longan fruit. Not as good as Lulo, but new to me. Similar to a lychee and fun to eat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longan).

The trip ended in Portobello, Panama. Everyone headed to the City by bus and I spent the night at the port, following the next day by bike. The riding was super hot. I mean, I actually don’t know how I cycled with the sun so strong. Every day I ride, I fear that the skies will be clear. On the upside, after the spot of maintenance in Cartagena, my bike has been running better than at any other stage in the trip. It´s a nice thing to cycle with everything ticking along beautifully.

Panama City wasn´t that interesting. But the canal was. Awe-inspiring is the word, I think. This programme aired on BBC 4 last year (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00scpzn) and is incredible. You can probably find it somewhere on the internet.

Recently, I have considered several Dog Defence Systems. Firstly, I almost bought an air horn. Then I changed my mind whilst in the checkout line, as I had images of the thing exploding in my face under the heat of the sun. Then I bought a broom handle, with the idea that I could be a modern day jouster. When the logistics of attaching it to my bike in a secure, yet readily accessible  position became overwhelming, I gave up. Amazingly, I have had very little trouble with dogs in Panama. Although I did have an unpleasant incident on the first day, where a man waved a gun at me, shouting as I cycled rapidly away… I had employed my tried and tested method of screaming obscenities at a dog that had chased me down. I guess it must have been his dog.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I crashed whilst foolishly trying to undertake a truck. It was raining and I was being stupid. During my maneuver, the hard shoulder ended abruptly and I turned too steeply into the lip where it joined the road. I wish that I could blame the fall on the traffic (which had been horrific out of Panama City… several knuckle grazing incidents having occurred earlier in the day), but the accident was 100 per cent. my fault this time. Just some cuts and bruises. No proper damage to the bike. Up until that point, I’d been thinking about quitting several times a day- it’s just a normal part of my cycling day. Some days I consider it more seriously than others. The day I fell, I came the closest to throwing in the towel since the start. The reasons were less emotive and more rational than usual. Normally I get fed up and tired and hate the whole experience… then I sleep, wake up… and just get on with it. But that evening I sat down, worked my way through a six pack and thought long and hard whether keeping going was viable. The sheer number of near misses I have had since I started is scary. Some of them are my fault. Most actually aren´t. I was very lucky with this fall, as there was nothing on the road behind me when I came off.

But I decided to carry on. But mostly for the wrong reasons. I don´t want to be like everyone else with a backpack and a bus ticket. And I don´t want to face the shame of quitting now. After cycling over 1600 miles. Just to give up… I couldn´t live with myself.

I bought some waterproof overshoes in Cartagena. The day I crashed was their first outing. The fall ripped the left boot and at the end of the day it was filled with water. My right foot wasn´t much drier. So booties in the bin.

The past few days have seen me staying in the worst places yet. The night before last I slept in this “hotel” by the docks in a run down port. It felt like the kind of establishment where the proprietor would turn her head if you were to drag a dead body past her. I´ve been in some pretty divey hotels in my time, but this might be the worst. Nothing in particular that I can put my finger on, I just felt uncomfortable. The town had a few bars. All of which had stumbling drunks making their way in and out. It wasn´t a great place.

The night before, I slept in a box of a room. Windows boarded over. I got viciously assaulted by a mosquito. Bitten a dozen times. Why can´t mosquitoes just choose one site and stick with it? If I´m going to be bitten, then I would prefer that the pest took all the blood it wants from a single location. If only there were a way to communicate and bargain with the things. “Mr. Mosquito, I promise not to kill you on the condition that you have your fill of my alcohol-infused blood from just one place. I nominate my left shoulder.” Or something like that. I awoke to a buzzing in my ear and itching bites half way through the night. Dowsed myself in DEET head to toe and tried to go back to sleep as “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” from the disco next door competed with the computer gaming frogs outside (listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p43sCpAl4a8). Used condoms (not mine) on the floor. Ants marching a twisty path along the walls.

It was impossible to find decent food whilst cycling between Panama City and the Bocas. All food was processed. Juices had added sugar. Meals were fried. All I wanted was orange juice and a chicken Cesar salad. Cycling through the Panamanian interior was an exercise in turning junk food into circular leg movement.

The riding has been scenic. The first stretch from Portobello until the turn off to Panama City was very pretty. The kind of riding I imagined doing before I set out on this adventure. Riding down through the mountains on my way to the Caribbean coast was also good. Little traffic and lush scenery all around. I did manage to set a new speed record (for this trip): 48.5mph. Not quite an all time high, but close.

Now I’m staying on some Caribbean islands close to Costa Rica. It’s a strange mix of laid back and authoritarian. No smoking in public places. And the police stopped me whilst I was walking around this morning. Apparently I need to wear a shirt in town… Errr? This attitude feels strange in a place where in broad day light I am asked if I want drugs on every street corner. And yet I need to wear a shirt? I wasn´t able to establish whether there is a general sartorial code, or if the objection was to my body specifically. HOW AM I EVER TO TAN  EVENLY WITH THESE RULES?!

Several people have asked whether I am enjoying this trip, because it´s not readily apparent from what I have written. It´s a difficult question to answer, because I don´t know myself. The best I can offer is this explanation: day to day I do not enjoy the cycling. It is hard and the conditions are poor. Too hot, or soakingly wet. I go to bed sunburned or sodden at day end, traumatised by traffic, dogs and hills only to know that more of the same is in store the next day. If you were to ask me most days whether I am enjoying the experience I would say “No!”. If asked the same question on a day where I have arrived at a destination stop, I might tell you that all the pains are worth it for the satisfaction of that moment when I sit, chilled beer in hand, having washed and put on clean clothes… more likely, however, I would respond with a lawyerly, “It is an interesting experience.”

To be honest, it doesn´t really matter if I am enjoying it. I am doing it. And that´s that. I know that it´s something I will look back on in years to come and take pride in. “Pain is temporary, glory eternal” and all that…

Columbia (Definitely Maybe)

Colombia has to be the most genuine and friendly country I have visited. You get the sense that people are content and unrushed, which makes conversation natural and easy. No one is too busy to chat for a while- and not in a “What´s your name, where you from, look at this marble miniature of the Taj Mahal” kind of way. It isn´t a country where stress seems to play a large role in people´s lives.

Given my limited Spanish, talking with Colombians isn´t all that easy and usually involves a fair amount of mime and faked understanding (on my part at least). After explaining where I am from and what I´m up to in Colombia, the conversation almost without fail turns to family. I explain that I have a brother and a sister… but this isn´t exactly what the questioner wants to know. They really want to hear about my wife, my girlfriend, my children… When I explain that I don´t have any of the above, people are quite surprised. It´s almost like they take a mental step back and try to work out what´s wrong with me for this to be the case- and then they go ahead and ask “Why not?”. My standard response is to say that I can´t figure out why not either. This isn´t particularly funny when I say it back home under similar circumstances, but in Colombia it doesn´t even register as a joke and I am met with a slightly confused expression.

The kindness that people have shown is incredible. I have been treated well everywhere. I get free food with my Coke when I stop and talk to shopkeepers about my journey. Old women ply me with glass upon glass of mango juice as I get eaten alive by mosquitoes…

My Routine So Far
Most cycling days I set off without breakfast. I wake up around 6am and leave before seven. I´ve never been one to eat breakfast too soon after getting out of bed (unless it´s the afternoon). Around 9am I will try and stop for food which will, without fail, consist of scrambled eggs, rice and an arepa or some fried plantains. Fried plantains are too dry. I don´t see how they can be eaten without sauce, so I often leave most of them.

Lunch, again, is a mostly predictable affair, with the standard meal being chicken soup with coriander, followed by rice, beans, token salad and fried chicken/grilled beef. As I progressed through the country, fried plantains became an more frequent accompaniment, also. A cup of limonade natural is provided to wash it all down with and it´s rather good- just lemon/lime juice with water and panela as a sweetener.

During the day, I´m obviously cycling or pushing my bike. Old men in jeans and wellies overtake me, barely breaking a sweat as they pass on their $50 mountain bikes and boys with fat, flat tyred BMXs speed past on the descents. It´s embarrassing. At least the roads have generally been smooth, although the absence of road signs pointing the way can be concerning. There are plenty of signs for crossing cows, schools, dangerous turns, etc. Sometimes speed limits signs can be laughed at, speeding downhill, overtaking traffic on mountainous curves, praying that nothing is coming the other way. Sometimes the speed limits laugh at me, mocking me with their 80kph restrictions as I huff and puff towards the heavens. It mostly balances out, I suppose.

In the evenings, after a shower and change of clothes I set out in search of sustenance. Dinner is the same as lunch. If I´ve had chicken for lunch, then I try and mix it up and go for meat and vice versa. In larger towns the selection is a bit better and pizza might be on the cards. Having said that, after initially aiming to stay the night in bigger towns I evolved a preference for stopping at smaller places. If all you are doing is sleeping, it´s much nicer to stop in a village than a mid-sized town. A mid-sized town won´t improve the selection of food on offer- it will simply mean that you have more places to choose where to get your fried chicken dinner from… It will also mean that there´s more noise, pollution and general crapness. So small towns are prefect. Recently I have essentially become a trucker sans truck. Frequently, the places I sleep are next to, or part of, petrol stations. One of the last nights before reaching Cartagena, I was eating dinner looking back across the road to my hotel/gas station- the scene was pure Hopper. It´s all pretty melancholic and lonesome until the parade of heavy goods vehicles shatters the illusion.

After dinner I walk around the town a bit more, perhaps, and then retire to my room. The rooms are generic. Cold water only. Hard mattress. Wall-mounted TV (so high that it almost touches the ceiling and makes watching it from bed more awkward than is ideal). Bare light bulb (often energy saving) positioned in a totally random place. Sometimes a ceiling fan that wobbles disturbingly, but still gets used by me with crossed fingers and toes. I read or watch Dawon´s Creek on TV until I decide it´s time to go to sleep, cringing at the fact that I used to fancy Joey Potter. If I´m feeling wild, I´ll listen to Oasis and play air guitar, lying flat on my back. A lot of the art work in the cheap places I stay is religious. This isn´t always the case, however, as the picture of two tawny owls with upside-down raccoon heads hanging above my bed in Cartagena will testify.

One of the great things about staying in small towns is that you have the place to yourself. I have never seen another Westerner outside the main cities.

The pitstops I make throughout the day are dictated by thirst more than anything else. They can be very disappointing. If I want a Coke and it´s not ice cold when it arrives, my heart drops more than a little. Same is true if I´ve been craving some fruit juice and all I can get is some awful, artificially sweetened analogue in a bottle. On the other hand, the hit/miss rate is approximately even, which means that when I do get what I want, I´m super grateful and happy. Oh it´s a simple life.

One fruit that I am very excited about is Lulo, which I´d never had before coming to Colombia. It´s sharp and a bit sour and looks very pretty when in a glass (http://bit.ly/lPcfKA). The perfect antidote juice to all the sweet fizzy drinks I find myself consuming. There´s an ice cream parlour in Cartagena that sells a Lulo flavour. It´s a winner through and through.

I´ve been using a combination of guidebooks and maps to plan out my route. I started using the guidebook to choose places to eat/stay and then gave up. I don´t put any faith in the Lonely Planet reviews. I would like to meet the people who put them together. Some of the statements are so far off the mark. “World class” this, “Unmissable” that. Bollocks. It makes you wonder what kind of of sheltered lives these people have had. There are also random “insights” such as:

“The popularity of mullet haircuts among the young male inhabitants reveals the city´s true nature- an ambitious country town whose ambition masks a great anxiety about its place in the world.”

Errr… What does that even mean?!

CURVAS PELIGROSAS

The route from Medellin to Cartagena descends rapidly out of the Andes. I would have cried if I had to ´cycle´ the road in reverse. I don´t know how I could have coped. The first day after leaving, I pushed on until the evening started to set in and found myself almost at my desired destination, cradled by mountains all around. A layer of cloud cut off the sky and I could see where it met the surrounding peaks, like a Tupperware lid neatly sealing me in. Quite an oppressive feeling. To get to the town, I had to push my bike 5km up the steepest of steep winding roads through the cloud, which I did in the dark, illuminated by streetlights here and there, whilst all around dogs barked angrily. No people at all on the road and barely any traffic for the whole way. It was scary as hell, especially as I was/am convinced that some of the hell hounds are insane. Earlier in the day, one JUMPED in front of me, teeth bared, as I rode downhill at 35mph. Which is pretty suicidal, no? These things aren´t the cleverest of beasts, I tell you.

Once at sea level, I cycled with the smell of mangoes heavy in the air, doing my best to keep a wide berth from the many lorries carrying cargoes of milk or brand new cars. On the way to the coast, I spent a night at a gas station run by a super skinny middle-aged woman. I ate dinner there that night and her super fat son sat directly opposite me (despite the fact that there was no one else in the entire place). The reason became apparent soon enough, when the boy started to get very excited and chant “Me, me, me!”. I didn´t get it at first. Then he broke it down for me and pointed to my food whilst repeating what was more like a threat than a question. He got my fried plantains and was more than welcome to them.

The same evening saw an attempt by dog-kind at a reconciliation. A tiny puppy took to following me around. Admittedly, it did bring me slightly back towards my default, dog-loving position, although may have been more effective still had it not been a rather sad and mangy specimen.

It´s still raining lots. The weather worked hugely to my advantage once I left the mountains. Rain and grey skies are far preferable to the scorching heat. The rain also slows everything down and forces you to take breaks when not cycling. When it´s tipping down, I´m far more inclined to sit in in the courtyard of where I´m staying, mostly blankly staring skywards, interspersed with a little bit of typing this. A few nights back found me trapped inside a straw thatched restaurant in the middle of nowhere. I had only intended to stay for a quick drink, but was caught unprepared and remained there until, four beers later, the heavens lightened. No book, no music. Nothing to do except, ostensibly, watching the rain fall in buckets outside (and in drips through the roof) whilst secretly stealing glances at the hot daughter of the proprietor. On the wall was the exact same clock (with British song birds marking out the hours) that hangs in the hallway of my grandparents´ house. How weird is that?

When I arrived in Cartagena, I was So Pleased with myself. It was a 100 mile day on the back of four other very tiring rides. The contrast between night and day on Friday was stark. I spent much of the morning and afternoon riding over roads so covered in dirt and mud that it was impossible to determine if they were actually paved… then by the time the sun set, I was downing cocktails, staring out to a darker than black sea from the ramparts of Cartagena´s city walls, cigar in hand. A busy street runs along the shoreline, so although there isn´t a beach to look at, I sunk into a semi-meditative/semi-pissed state watching the waves break, the foam being lit up a stark white against an impossibly black void.

I cannot begin to estimate the number of cigar bands that I have secreted away in old wallets and jacket pockets, or used as bookmarks in books that I will not open for many years to come… Each one I think will help me remember the occasion when it was smoked, but there is no realistic way that can ever happen. The Cohiba I had after dinner on Friday was undoubtedly a fake. It was so weak that I could almost inhale it. Still, I hold no grudges, as firstly it was dirt cheap and secondly the cigarette boy showed me that you can use a razor blade to cut the end cap off… Which makes perfect sense, but I would never have thought of it. However, it does beg the question- why are safety razor blades still sold? Who uses them? Not even the old people I know have safety razors. It doesn´t make sense. Shouldn´t they have gone the way of the cassette tape?

Out of all the people at the bar, I was the only one sitting alone. And whilst it was pleasant to be there, I couldn´t help but wonder what all my friends were up to back home on that Friday night.

The Cycling Bug

This week saw some Hard cycling. Leaving Cali, I covered 180 miles in the first two days and then spent a lot of time over the next two pushing my bike up hill. This leg of the journey was a moment that I had been fearing. Looking at a map, it was evident from an early stage that I was cycling into the jaws of the Andes. The western and the central ridges are distinct and separate at Cali and gradually come together as you head north. There isn´t a way around. So the worst bit is that I was voluntarily speeding my way into the mouth of the beast, all the while furtively glancing left and right as the foothills (which taking the analogy further, I started to think of as being the teeth of the mountains) closed in around me.

In typical fashion, the first day cycling saw an entire afternoon of rain. Pablo is long gone, by the way. Colombia is now Willy Wonka´s domain. Rivers of chocolate-coloured mud appear everywhere en route. Even where before no water flowed, in a matter of minutes the landscape can become crisscrossed with fast flowing veins of rain, overspilling the fields and running off down the tarmaced roads. The second day was obviously blindingly hot. Too late I resorted to wearing my pink non-iron Brooks Bros shirt whilst cycling. Needless to say, it will never be quite the same again.

A girl I met in Cali told me that she played games to entertain herself whilst travelling. She did cool stuff like hunt down effeminate dresses to go horse riding in. My main day to day game is much, much more mundane. It basically consists of some variant on me telling myself: “If you cycle to that X without getting off the bike, you can have Y.” X is generally a signpost, a bridge or some random roadkill (a tarantula, say) and Y is almost always a drink of water. Although, several times Y has been a biscuit or a bit of panela (which is a bit like Kendal´s mint cake sans mint,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panela). During the week there was a very nice stage where I spent a while carving downhill through the lovely twists and turns (the twists and turns are “lovely” when I am descending. They are all part of the same bastard hill for the ascents). Such fantastic, varied terrain. Sometimes whooshing through tunnels formed by overarching tree branches, sometimes tight, tight hairpins with tumble down, bolder-strewn vertical banks. Anyways, I was gliding. Flying. And it made me feel like Superman… Aw shucks. Who am I kidding. I wasn´t just thinking Superman thoughts, I stuck out my right arm, fist clenched and started humming out the theme tune. The effect was completed by my pink shirt tails flapping in the wind behind me, cape-like. It amused some passing school children. I stopped after I saw them, although they had clearly seen me first. Not sure whether I was more embarrassed by this, or when I noticed a fellow cyclist riding alongside me whilst I was belting out, “O take it, O take me, O Take it so easy, O make it, O make me, O kneel down and please me, O Lady, O Boy, Show how you want me and do it so everyone sees me…” (it´s a real song). I´m fairly certain the massive grin on his face was just one of Colombian camaraderie between fellow cyclists?

This sounds awfully, awfully cliched but I´m going to roll with it regardless. The road seems to have a way of pushing me to breaking point and then giving back. Twice yesterday, I was screaming out, cursing the hills and the traffic. And twice I was brought back from the brink. Firstly in the form of an old woman who took me in for lunch and mothered me for an hour or so… proffering soothing balm for my INSANELY sunburned arms and legs. Then, in the evening, when I was almost on the brink of retreating a few miles to go back to a hostel I had seen, the road stopped it´s merciless ascent. And it descended. All the way to Medellin. Which was actually a rather long way (although not as far as I had pushed my bike up that day). This is what I did, but in reverse: http://bit.ly/mhCJNh

The last section of the ride into Medellin was beautiful. It was like the ride down the hill at Windsor Park, where you can see the castle in the distance and you just coast smoothly towards it. Except this was better for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the road was a thousand times longer than through Windsor Park. I could see the Medellin skyline from miles and miles away, right at the end of the almost never ending down hill. More importantly, at the end of the road, I promised myself, was a massive bowl of pasta. Incidentally, the flying bugs here are bloody big. I was trying to top 40mph and just as I came up from my tucked position, a hard shelled insect whacked me straight on the nose. Sunburnt nose. Which genuinely hurt and almost made me crash.

So now I´m in Medellin, making the most of the comforts civilisation can offer (mainly food, drink and laundry facilities). When I was not so young, I learned to drink beer in Poland. I´d never been able to get a taste for it back home and yet somehow the addition of sokiem (juice) to the piwo made larger a much more palatable and even appealing prospect. Cervesa michelada, an exclusively Colombian drink I am told, reminds me of a cross over between piwo z sokim and a margarita. It´s ice cold larger served in a glass with a shot of lemon/lime juice in the bottom and a salt rim. To be honest, I´m not sure that I like it that much. But I´m drinking it none the less.

Ta ta for now.

Asymmetry

All change. Since my rather downbeat last post things have been getting better and better. The hills are more rideable and my shoes have been given a chance to dry out. Possibly more importantly, I met a few incredible cyclists after leaving Pasto who inspired me. My little trip seems like a ride in the park in comparison to what so many people are doing and have already done.

Zilvinas and Diana are cycling around the world
(http://vnextstop.com). Zilvinas gave me some good tips on how to handle the beastly dogs and I haven´t had many issues since.

Lorenzo takes things to a whole new level
(http://munduanbarrena.blogspot.com). He has been on the road since 1997- when he set out for a cycle that he thought he would return from a year later. Except he didn´t. He just kept going and going. In the fourteen years that he has been travelling, he has only been back to the Basque Country twice- each time for six months.

The roadside debris has caused me to do a few double takes. The discarded mechanical parts (fan belts, torn tyres and other oddly shaped pieces of plastic and metal) often resemble exotic roadkill. It´s difficult to tell what is animal, vegetable and mineral at times. I think that I might be tripping out occasionally though, as the other day I swear, for a couple of seconds, I thought a tree stump was a giant brown spider of Shelob-like proportion.

I´ve dodged it quite successfully in the past few days, but there´s been an unseasonable amount of rain this year. Apparently. Even for the rainy season. I woke one morning last week to hear that the road behind me had been closed for 1.5km due to a massive landslide. Small landslides happen in many places along the highway- but they are mostly negotiable.

I love the Old Man´s idea in Hemmingway´s book that body parts can have personalities. In my case, I have a traitorous right knee which has led to a rather interesting concern. I am able to prevent Mr. Right Knee from protesting too much if I leave him unhindered by the pedal strap. Fair enough. But I´ve been strapping my left foot in each day I ride as it helps with the hills. The idea of attaching feet to pedals is to allow the legs to pull up as well as push down. But my current arrangement means that my left leg is being worked rather harder than my right, as not only is the left alleviating the burden of the right´s push down stoke, but it´s also not getting any reciprocal assistance. So I´m a little worried that I might return with a substantially bulkier left leg… I´ve been checking regularly and have begun to convince myself that I can already see a difference in size. But that may just be my imagination. This and the reasons below lead me to suspect that I will be wearing trousers and probably long-sleeve shirts for a long time after I get back to England.

Further bodily concerns:

1. Sun tan
My skin is in various stages of burnt (or “pre-tanned” as I like to refer to it). So far I have “tan” lines from my cycling shorts, my socks, my v-neck, my sleeveless vest and my wife beater. My body is like an old fashioned test strip from a photography darkroom. Oh. Most bizarrely of all, my woven gloves have selectively allowed the sun to burn patches over the back of my hands.

2. Back muscles
I have a natural tendency (as probably most cyclists do) to push my bike from the left hand side. Given the amount of pushing that I´ve been doing, I can´t help but wonder if this could result in all sorts of strange irregularities in my back muscles. So when I remember, I make a conscious effort to mix up my pushing side. The extent to which I have been successful in remembering throughout the day can generally be judged by the amount of oil from the chain on my calves.

That´s all for now folks. Gonna hang out in Cali for a few more days and then make a big push north. I don´t think I can make it to Cartagena for my birthday, but there´s a boat sailing from there to Panama in a few weeks that I would very much like to catch.

xoxo

Banana split

I saw a banana split on the menu of a place I chose for dinner yesterday. I can’t remember ever having one before. Not as a childhood treat at TGI Friday or as part of a grown up indulgence at Serendipity III… I had to order it for fear of this being my Come Dine With Me moment of ignorance (you know- where a contestant reads the evening’s menu and exclaims “Oooh, cous cous, I’ve never had that. How exotic to use Japanese ingredients!”). It was dispatched with aplomb after a disappointing arepa (sadly, Colombian arepas are nowhere near as beautiful as those from Venezuela).

Dogs are on my mind. They all seem to hate me. It’s a cycle, also, I fear… now every dog I see, I give a wide and suspicious berth and the beasts sense my trepidation and exploit it. At least several times a day I will be chased. It generally happens when I am at my most venerable, cycling slowly (or more likely, pushing my bike) up hill. The most determined ones tend to be domesticated hounds defending their territory. The ferrel dogs don’t seem to care much about me. In some senses this is comforting, as the pets (most likely to bite) are very unlikely to have rabies. In another sense, these domestic pests should be controlled properly instead of being free to terrorise. I was bitten yesterday (no blood) and had a show down with another dog in the centre of town today which had been previously slumbering on the sidewalk, oblivious to all other passers by.

My voice has marginally returned. I can speak about ten sentences a day (gruffly) until it runs out on me. The funny thing is that most of these ten “sentences” are not really sentences as such. They are streams of expletives screamed at dogs I encounter on the road. Sometimes shouting works to alleviate the harassment.

Aside from dogs, there are other constants in my current existence:

1. Sun and sweat
The days start sunny. So sunny that after my first half day on the road (wearing factor 20), I was more sun burned than I’ve ever been before. It actually looks like my back has been wounded. Covering up is the only thing that makes sense- but it also makes cycling up hill rather hot work.

2. Rain or hail
Rain comes without fail. Every day. Torrential. The other day was particularly cruel. Hail pounding on my tender red arms. The roads are mostly beautiful and smooth, which means when they get wet, they get slippy. The constant precipitation gives rise to my favourite daily dilemma: “My shoes are still wet, so do I bother putting on a nice dry pair of socks? Is there any point?” Imagine, if you will, living with wet feet… It’s not exactly a life of glamour.

3. Heavy traffic
This used to be my number one problem (prior to my realisng just how much I truly hate some dogs). The Panamerican highway is the only route heading in my direction for the first part of the adventure. Mac trucks, buses, antiquidated lorries and a surprising number of Renault 4s compete throughout the day to see who can come closest to clipping me and take it in turns to belch their exhaust fumes in my direction. It’s a phenomenon that is best experienced when I am pushing my bike up a particularly steep hill… the traffic will build up behind some particularly slow behmoth and then a long queue of vehicles wiill parade past, all with their engines struggling, making a terrible noise (which includes the constant sounding of horns). I’ve even started to become a connoisseur of exhausts. Some fumes smell sulphurous, some almost sweet, some like the lawnmower element of “lawnmower and cut grass”. The other day one lorry made me think of this mixture from Hamley’s that you blow up with a straw into bubbles and it sets in shape.

4. Hills
It may sound stupid, but I just didn’t realise quite what I as in for with the hills. They are so steep. and not just that… the whole road is a hill. One massive hill after another. Every down hill is followed (and preceded by) and up hill. All joyous descets are earned in advance or paid for in retrospect. Up and down followed by up. I am either coasting down, wearing through my brake pads, or pushing my bike up. There ain’t much normal pedalling here, folks. Having said all this, yesterday I had the most beautiful run. 25 miles wending my way down through an incredible valley, pushing myself as far as I dared. Seeing how long I could go without braking. Testing how tightly I could take turns, kissing the apex and wondering if the tyres would hold the curve… then doing it it the wet and avoiding the white lines like a slippery plague.

That’s my life on the road so far. It’s been much tougher and much less fun than I hoped, to be completely open with you, dear reader. I’ve given myself a get out clause once I hit 500 miles: if I’m not feeling it at that point, then I shall start catching buses.

Today was Easter Sunday. I almost missed it, for I’ve already begun to lose track of time. Fortunately, it’s rather difficult to aoid Holy Week in Latin America. It’s the only day in the year that I actually enjoy going to Church. Cuckfield has a dawn service, which begins in candle light… and as the sun rises and shines through the eastern stained glass, the candles are no longer necessary.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.