War and La Paz

I left Lake Titicaca and headed for La Paz. The road was at 3000 meters so I knew what that meant – dangerous winding cliff-face roads. But to my surprise it turned out to be a plateau with a beautiful straight highway the entire way to La Paz. I arrived at the outskirts as the sun was setting. Some days on a motorcycle are very hard; some days you breeze through.

As I joined the queue of traffic, a light drizzle coated my visor. I flicked on my electric vest: because why be cold when you can be hot? Over the next hour of inching forward the rain gradually escalated to a torrent – my top half soon felt like it was in a hot tub; while my bottom half was in an ice bath. I pondered for a while on the poor job I had done wiring the vest to the motorcycle battery and weighed the pros of being warm against the cons of being electrocuted. The vest was staying on.

The disembodied voice in my helmet that gives me directions shouted, “Turn left… Battery dying… Goodbye.” I knew I vaguely needed to get across the city to my hostel. I slowly edged through the traffic and turned left up a steep hill. The traffic here was at a complete standstill. Each side of the road was lined with stalls selling everything imaginable: toys, dolls, CDs, DVDs, knives, trinkets… I had expected everyone to be wearing authentic Bolivian ponchos woven from the wool of llamas grazing high in the Andes, but no, everyone was wearing bright plastic ponchos; it looked more like a music festival than a street in La Paz.

Stalls were closing up for the night. The rainwater running down the edge of the road grew and grew until it turned into a small river. It swelled at the stall to my right, edging perilously closer and closer to the cloth dolls on display. The owner stabbed wildly at the blocked drain with a sharp stick. She harpooned trash until finally she came up with a Coke can: her white whale. The waters receeded and her dolls were once again safe. Not having moved for an hour, I decided to cut down the alleyway to the left, even though it was clearly one way in the other direction. There is a tendency in these countries, especially on a motorcycle, to ignore the laws and just get on with it. As I dodged oncoming traffic the rain finally ceased.

I came out onto another highway and again came to a complete stop, moving a car length every few minutes. A Bolivian man with a plastic bag and a knowing smile appeared at the side of the road. He pulled out toilet paper and walked alongside the traffic selling rolls. Entrepreneurialism at its finest. He approached the back of a bus and threw a roll up to the back window. A hand shot out and caught it, coins rained down in response.

I moved another car length. The highway snaked around the steep incline of La Paz. To my left the twinkling city lights spread out down the hill under the crisp post-storm air. I heard a loud thud and then a few more in quick succession. Something touched my foot. I looked down and a fist sized rock was resting against my boot. I looked up; the right side of the road was a dirt cliff-face. Trees lined the top of the ridge with the faint noise of traffic beyond. I thought about the health and safety standards in Bolivia and the possibility of a landslide as I sat in traffic. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk, I turned around looking to find another route. I passed a bus pulled in on the right hand side, 5 Bolivian women were lined up behind the bus, peeing in the street. La Paz was descending into chaos!

I found a small alleyway leading straight down the hill. It was the steepest street I had ever seen. I pulled hard on what was left of my brakes and careened down the slope. It cut back onto the highway further down the hill. I could see the reason for the backup. A mudslide had cut across the road and a truck was stuck in the mud… in the middle of the city. I pulled onto the hard shoulder and shot past the line of traffic. Everything was flowing freely after the mudslide, soon the traffic dissipated and I was alone.

I followed the curves of the eerie street, a car sat on the right hand side of the road with both doors open. A Bolivian couple were standing in front of the car attending to a desheveled Bolivian man sitting on the ground. His shirt ripped open and his head bobbing from side to side. They were clearly concerned. From what I could tell, they had just knocked him down.

The desolate street led to a roundabout that linked to a busier Benavente Road, the street that my hostel was on. My ordeal was nearly over. I joined the queue of traffic coiled around the roundabout. From the corner of my eye I could see a car approaching the roundabout faster than I would have liked. I tooted the horn – generally motorcycles are invisible and have to drive defensively. I heard a loud crack and then I was moving sideways. I had been in Latin America long enough to know how to deal with this. I started screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?’ In a Latin American crash whoever shouts loudest is the winner, even if they were clearly at fault. I continued to hurl obscenities until the other car drove off. Many miles and days later in Uyuni I pulled a chunk of his bumper out of a crack in my side case.

It had taken me four hours to drive across La Paz at night but I finally made it to Tinka Guest House, a Bohemian paradise in the city. I mentioned my marathon odyssey at the front desk and he looked at me confused, ‘Of course it took you that long, this is the Thursday before Carnivale.’ ‘Ah.’ I asked if there would be anywhere open for food at 11. He responded, ‘There was, but it’s midnight now.’ Another hour of my life stolen by the travel Gods, but I had survived the infamous La Paz traffic so I couldn’t really complain!

Advertisements

Peril in Peru

I had been riding the PanAmerican Highway down the length of Peru. Endless desert asphalt where the wind winds up across the entire ocean to punch you right in the side of the head. An unseen force trying to tear your helmet off for hours at a time. After a grueling week it was finally time to turn inland and up the mountains to the magical Macchu Picchu.

33 degrees. As I rose from the desert floor the temperature steadily dropped. 23 degrees. I stopped to add a layer of UnderArmour. 14 degrees. I changed to winter gloves. 10 degrees. A storm cloud rolled in and the temperature plummeted just as I came to the crest of a hill. 4 degrees. Huge hailstones pelted the bike, a layer of ice coating the road. I slowed to a crawl, my boots sliding along the ground on either side of the bike. In Alaska a grizzled motorcycle rider who had just finished his world tour had given me some advice, “When the going gets rough, don’t try to be a hero and stay up – walk your bike through. It’ll be slow but not as slow as finding a mechanic or a hospital.” A horn blared, the only other car on the lonely mountain road rolled past. When you manage to get a horn from the unflappable Peruvian drivers you know things have gone horribly wrong.

I followed two black tyre tracks through the pristine white landscape. They suddenly veered off the road. A tourist jeep sat perched on the rocks as if placed there by some long forgotten mountain giant. Thunder cracked in the distance to round out the terrifying scene in front of me. The driver climbed up to me and spoke in Spanish. I asked “Are you ok? Any injuries?” He gave me a thumbs up. Not being able to speak any Spanish, he lost interest in me so I continued my downhill slide. If the storm had closed in on the way up the hill there was no way I could have kept going. Just past the crashed jeep, the ice started to part and then disappeared. I pulled in at the next toll booth and gesticulated wildly to mime that a car had crashed back up the road. The disinterested man in the toll booth mimed a phone up to his ear, a symbol that he had already called it in.

The temperature lingered at 4 degrees. Just as I was congratulating myself on surviving the icecapades, a police siren wailed behind me. I pulled in and through some broken English, broken Spanish and the international language of mime, the message was conveyed. “Stop at the next town, it is snowing ahead.” In response I mimed a tent. He shook his head, “Stop at the next town.”

I made it to the town of Negro Maya. It was really just a small cluster of stone cottages that looked like they were straight out of 1850s Ireland. The first house I approached had a young woman in full traditional Peruvian dress in the doorway. I asked in my best Spanish if there was a place I could stay. She did not answer. I repeated ‘Hoteles?’ several times with more and more ambitious pronunciation. She looked at me, confused, in deafening silence. She raised her hand and flicked her wrist to shoo me away. It occurred to me much later that she didn’t speak Spanish, only Quechua – the native Peruvian language in the Andes.

The next house had two unquestionably native Peruvians sitting at a bench outside. They looked like they could have been sitting there discussing the events of the day since the fall of the Incan Empire. Thankfully one of them spoke Spanish. I asked again if I could stay. He shook his head and pointed to the road, “30 kilometers.” I told him that the police had told me to stay in this town because it was snowing ahead. He looked up at me starting to lose his patience, “Then drive CAREFULLY.”

I slowly rode towards the next town. Thoughts of how I could have flown to Cusco, or skipped it completely ran through my mind as the setting sun lit up the sky in a dazzling shade of orange. I arrived in the dark, the snow covered mountain peak to the left of the road glinting in the moonlight. This town was a slightly larger version of the previous one. To the right was a barn like structure, in decades old faint writing I could just make out the word ‘Hosteria’. I pulled in.

Inside there was a single large room; on the left side there were shelves that had biscuits and bottle of Coca-Cola (the one universal constant). On the right side there was a table and chairs and a big old television showing soccer: the national obsession. Watching the match was the owner, one glance told me everything I needed to know about him. He was an old bachelor farmer, a wild breed – the same the world over. I asked him if I could stay. He smiled, “10 Soles” (about $3.10) “Come.” He led me out the back door. Chickens ran between my legs and around the back yard. A rickety staircase led up to a three room extension that he had clearly, proudly built himself. Large unfinished wooden beams supported a corrugated steel roof. At the points where the beams intersected with the walls, cracks ran out in every direction. The far side of the yard had a small building with BANOS sprawled in white paint. An outhouse that had three small rooms with a hole in the ground, and each one in a more horrifying state than the last. He cooked up a dinner of fish that he had caught in the river and potatoes that he had grown himself.

The next morning I packed my bags, opened the large metal gate and pulled out onto the highway. As the road rose out of town I heard a deep agricultural ancestral voice in my head, “The chickens will get out…” I turned around, pulled the heavy gates shut as best I could from the outside and headed back into the mountains.

The rest of the road to Cusco was a beautiful twisty winding road with temperatures in the 20s. I checked into my hotel and headed straight out to get tickets to Macchu Picchu to keep my trip on track. I paid $300 and they gave me tickets; I pointed out that my passport number was wrong and they replied with the one line that sums up South America perfectly – “If at least 50% is correct, everything will be fine.”

I waited outside my hotel at 3AM for my tour bus. And waited. At 4AM a woman walked out of the darkness shouting my name. I followed her to a small white car which drove me to the tour bus. The bus was running late and to make up time the driver sped through town and careened around hairpin bends. The only movement he made that was not driving related was to learn over and turn up the radio when Spandau Ballet’s True came on. He overtook two cars on a blind corner. ‘…Always in time, but never in line for dreams…’

He made it to the train station just in time. The platform was swarming with people boarding the train, all of them kitted out in designer gym gear. North Face jackets as far as the eye could see. Except for one hero. A Japanese man with a top knot was dressed in full ceremonial Japanese clothing.

A short train journey later our tour guide was explaining how Hiram Bingham, the explorer, discovered Macchu Picchu – The natives pointed to the top of the mountain and said, “There are ruins up there.” He asked for a guide and they sent a small child to show him around. That was some good exploring. When you enter Macchu Picchu the mountain and ruins are laid out in a magnificent vista. Every picture you’ve ever seen of Macchu Picchu comes to life right in front of you. It is the one tourist attraction that truly does not disappoint.

Montezuma

As I waited at the border the minutes bled into hours. I had perfected my disinterested border zen but this time I had a deadline looming; my hotel check-in was closing at 8pm. I sat on the ground on top of a fine layer of sand and dirt watching my arrival time tick past 8 while I waited for ‘authorization’. When I finally made it through I hoped that some velocital liberties would make up the 30 minute difference.

I sped along the Costa Rican highway, the light slowly fading. Unfamiliar jungle trees flew by on each side. Google Maps was also fading, losing my position every few minutes. I switched to Maps.ME, an offline maps app. It has an adventurous idea of what constitutes a road and had caused me to traverse mountains on dirt roads in both Iran and Albania but it had also saved me a few times in other countries.

I followed the map to the right off the highway. The spine of Costa Rica rises into ridges like some sort of sleeping dinosaur I was trying to clamber over. Almost on queue the road changed from smooth tarmac – to pothole strewn – to a former road that could now be used to film a moon landing. The last of the light was now gone and I was again on top of a mountain on a dirt road at night. Thanks Maps.ME. The only other traffic was small local vans that looked like they would survive Mad Max apocalypse, they were making the trip between tiny villages that clung to the mountainside. I slowly slalomed from the edge of one crater to the next. Winding my way up the mountain, watching my arrival time slide to 9pm. And then 10pm. I decided when I got there I would pitch my tent in the hotel car park, mostly out of spite for having a closing time.

The well worn road dipped left over a small hill, at the crest of the hill I slammed on the brakes. A large river blocked my path. I peered left and right into the darkness, there was no sign of a bridge. I looked down at the map, it clinically showed the road cutting straight across the river. I consulted Google Maps for a second opinion, it had the same prognosis.

I knew I should wade across the river and check the depth, but with the fatigue you get from months on the road and a long day in the saddle, I just couldn’t get off the bike. I could see the tyre tracks of a 4 wheel drive leading out of the river so I convinced myself that it must be a main route around here and couldn’t possibly be that deep. I slowly rode into the river – mercifully it was about one inch deep, relieved, I accelerated. About halfway across it got deeper, suddenly I was up to my knees in 3 feet of water and the engine cut out. My heart sank, along with my boots.

I looked around but I was surrounded by running water, darkness and silence beyond that. Drawing water into my engine was not a situation I was prepared to deal with. I held my breath and gingerly tried the ignition switch. It started up. I twisted the throttle and could hear the engine roar but the bike didn’t move. The silt on the riverbed was sucking the tyres in like quicksand. The bike was fully loaded and it would take a long time to unload everything and drag it out of the river on my own. I slowly rocked the bike back and forth as I gave it a little throttle, more in hope than in expectation. The tyre caught and slowly crawled up the river bank, the engine screaming in protest. I sat triumphantly on the far side of the river and looked back across the rushing torrent, cursing my long dead GoPro.

Around the next bend the tarmac reappeared and the bike charged ahead as if the last few hours had never happened. I rolled into Montezuma at 11pm and thankfully I was met by the hotel security guard who let me into my room. I took my dripping boots off at the door and headed straight for the shower. It only had one tap, not even a pretense of hot water, but it was the best shower I’d had in months.

Montezuma is an idyllic Bohemian village at the end of the Nicoya Peninsula. At the center of the town is a perfect white sandy beach. Stalls selling jewelry line the streets, everyone in town is a backpacker or full blown hippy. Long flowing hair, man buns and tanker shirts are everywhere, not a sleeve in sight. Dense green jungle trails filled with capuchin monkeys lead to 3 spectacular waterfalls. I had truly come through chaos and arrived in paradise.

The Grandmaster

As soon as I got to my hotel, I launched myself out onto the streets. My brother always told me, “The best way to get to know a new city is by walking around and getting lost.” I didn’t even take the time to Google ‘Belize City’; if I had, I would have learned that Belize used to be a colony of Britain and was called British Honduras – or I would have seen the endless warnings to get the hell out of there. An economic downturn coupled with President Trump’s decision to deport illegal immigrants with criminal records had resulted in a lot of people returning to Belize City with no job, no prospects and desperation rising.

I wandered down dark streets, expecting the buildings to rise and to get that familiar imposing city feeling, but the run down housing continued on and on. Belize has the lowest population density in Central America and that is clear from the size of their capital. I eventually found the city center, a large crowd was gathered at an open air concert. As I arrived the last chords rang out and the crowd dispersed within minutes, scattering into dark alleyways. That is the sort of timing you can expecting with long term travel.

I gave up on my wandering tour and decided to head back to my hotel. An old black man with a silver beard glinting in the darkness stepped in front of me.

“I am Leroy. Where you from?”

“Ireland.”

I was used to answering Irelanda from my stay in Mexico, just saying Ireland is too much of a leap for Mexico, they stare at you confused and when you follow up with ‘Irelanda’ their eyes light up and they shout ‘Ahh’ every single time. Belize is English speaking, but with a Caribbean twist that makes it almost unintelligible when they are speaking to each other, and really cool when they are speaking to foreigners.

‘Ahh. Come in and have a drink in my bar.’ He pointed at the Chinese restaurant across the road. The first room contained an imposing five foot tall solid wood bar on the right hand side. A handful of Belizeans crowded around the bar on cheap metal bar stools. We passed through the next door to the Chinese restaurant. Wooden chairs surrounded white folding plastic tables. Belize being a heavily Catholic country, a Madonna figurine looked down protectively over the bar. We sat and watched some random Basketball game on the small old CRT TV. Leroy headed behind the bar and came back with two rum and cokes.

“Let me introduce you to the owner, Liu this guy is from Ireland.” The owner of the bar looked across disinterestedly, ‘Hey.’ The staff had a familiar dynamic with Leroy – I had seen in many times in bars across the world, an acceptance that the local barfly is going to be there anyway so you might as well put him to work. It was an air of tolerance rather than acceptance.

“What are the police like in Belize?” Getting robbed twice by the police in Mexico had made me weary. “Oh the Police?” His head dropped into his hands dramatically. “You understand?” I understood.

Leroy leaned over to me. “I’m famous you know. They call me the Grandmaster. Look it up.” I Googled ‘The Grandmaster Belize’ In the photos a young man shone up at me, a look of hope in his eyes. I looked up at Leroy, the years had taken their toll, a hard life had beaten the light out of his eyes. He was a dub poet who had found success writing poems about life growing up in Belize’s dreaded Majestic Alley. “You see that concert in town tonight?” I nodded. “I was the warm up act.”

“This is a tough place. You see the people behind the bar? All men, you know why?” I shook my head. “When this place goes off, it really goes off.” His voice lowered. “You see those holes in the ceiling? They’re bullet holes. You should not walk back to your hotel from here, you should get a taxi.”

I wondered aloud “If things are so bad, why do you stay here?”

“I am Belize.”

Mexican Standoff

I’ve been stuck in Mexico for so long that I might just give up and live here. It’s not the heat, or the constantly getting robbed by the police, or even the crater size potholes that you wreck your bike in, it’s the lack of friendliness. In America it’s fake and only lasts as long as your transaction, but at least it’s a human connection. When you get far enough into Mexico nobody speaks English and nobody wants to help you, even if you’re standing on the side of the road with a broken down motorcycle. I’m told, ‘Help, my motorcycle has broken down at night’ is a common ploy of the banditry but when a hundred trucks drive past you it just starts to feel personal. Or maybe it’s just missing Ireland, where there is a common unspoken understanding that we’re all fucked, but we’re all in this together.

Sandstorm

I dropped a gear and sped into the Karakum desert, nature’s full fury laid out before me. Lightning flashed to the left and right of the tiny car, the air crackled and sparked.

 

It felt like days before we had been in Ashgabat, instead of hours. Ashgabat is quite possibly the strangest place I have ever been in. The guide book accurately describes the capital of Turkmenistan as a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang. The city has opulent, hulking marble buildings, enormous 50 foot gates and more fountains than Vegas. It stands in contrast to the rest of Turkmenistan, a poor post-Soviet era desert country.

 

Turkmenistan was ruled by an eccentric dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, from 1985 to 2006. He declared himself ‘President for life’ and institued a raft of ridiculous laws. He outlawed lip syncing, ordered everyone to have a clean car at all times and banished dogs from the capital because of their “unappealing odour.” When he quit smoking, he banned smoking in all public places and declared that everyone should chew on bones to strengthen their teeth. Niyazov built a giant gold statue of himself in the middle of the city and had it rotate to follow the Sun. And then announced that the Sun was following him.

 

We headed North from Ashgabat into the Karakum desert. Just as we were leaving the city the wind picked up and started blowing sand across the road in front of us. Marty in the passenger seat said, “If the weather gets too bad we’ll have to turn around.” The wind whipped the sand into small cyclones to the side of the road. A wall of sand moved in from the left and swept across the road, enveloping us. I slowed to a crawl as visibility was down to five feet in front of the car. “We’ll push on for a while.” I suggested hopefully. After a few minutes of driving blind, a large drop of water landed on the windscreen. Followed quickly by a torrential downpour. The sandstorm was immediately replaced by an old fashioned rainstorm. Marty rolled over and went to sleep.

 

After twenty minutes the rainstorm cleared and I roared eagerly into the crisp desert night. I drove on for two hours and the sun set on the perfectly asphalted Turkmenistan highway. I crested a small hill and suddenly in front of me there was a breathtaking sight, a huge sandstorm in the distance to the left of the road, inching closer and closer to the road ahead. It looked like a circular wall of light brown sand, stretching as far as the eye could see, cloaked in darkness and rumbling angrily. I was struck by how much it looked like something out of a movie. It was at least three times larger than the last storm and a smaller version sat off to the right of the road. Thunder rolled and lightning cracked on the edges of each storm. I held my breath, not wanting to make a noise in case Marty woke up and had us turn around.

 

I eased the accelerator to the floor and flew towards the maelstrom ahead. At this point, I had navigated through the chaos of the roads in India, snaked around crumbling one lane mountain roads in Peru with thousand foot drops to the side and edged my way through traffic in Istanbul. I hadn’t felt fear in years, but driving into this abomination of nature I suddenly felt alive again. Our course intersected directly with the path of the large thunder\sandstorm on the left and we were again engulfed, but this time it was less like a belt of sand passing across us and more like we had entered into a new world where instead of oxygen, the air was made up of little sand particles, each one lit up and dancing across the beam of the headlights. I made sure I wasn’t touching any metal part of the car, not knowing if that would help if we took a direct hit of the lighting. Lightning flashed within feet of the car to the left. Just when I was starting to feel like I was the greatest living adventurer in the world and that my name should be immortalized with the likes of Scott and Shackleton, I started to make out a dark object in the storm in front of me. I pulled into the left lane and passed, eventually making out a 125cc motorcycle with a young Turkman of about 18 sitting on top, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. When he saw me passing, he raised his left fist and shouted ‘WOOOHOOOO.’ There is always someone worse off than you. After ten more minutes of fighting through the sand, we came out the other side into the crystal clear night. A stupid grin plastered across my face for days after.

 

Two hours later we arrived at the Door to Hell. In 1971, Soviets started drilling in the Karakum desert looking for oil. The entire oil rig collapsed into the ground, creating a two hundred foot wide crater. It was actually a reserve of gas instead of oil, engineers decided to burn off the gas so as not to poison the nearby town. They threw in a match and lit the gas reserve, expecting it to burn off in a few weeks. It, instead, has been burning for forty years.

 

I had secretly been worried that it would be a let-down and would just be a hole in the ground that was on fire, an oversized fire pit. But arriving at the crater I could feel the majesty of the place. The air was burning against my face. The silence of the desert with the crackling of the giant burning pyre was almost spiritual. ‘This is amazing.’ I turned to Marty. ‘Sure. About to get more amazing.’ He reached into a black bin bag and pulled out two armfuls of fireworks. He launched them into the crater. The urge to throw something in eventually gets the better of everyone that goes there, but Marty had come well prepared. The fireworks landed at the bottom of the crater. And then nothing. We waited for a few minutes but we were left disappointed. His idea had come to nothing.

 

We set up our camping chairs to the cooler side of the crater and sat drinking warm cans of Turkmenistan beer. I had expected the usual crass tourist trapping that you find at every tourist attraction, but there was nothing there, just desert and a big flaming hole. It was refreshing.

 

The sun finally rose, lighting up the sky with glorious reds and blues that you only see in the desert, and those were quickly followed by unnatural greens, oranges, purples, yellows. The fireworks were exploding, painting the sky above the crater with fantastic colours. We were witnesses to a perfect moment. Never to be seen again.

Get out there and travel