LUV, LINKED FENDERS AND LIMA

On one of our earlier nights in Peru we spend the night at what we have come to refer to as a “Luuuuuv” hotel.  This type of accommodation is common everywhere we have been in Latin America and in many of the communities we have visited, it is the only type of accommodation.  In communities where it is common for a dozen family members to share close quarters, these hotels are designed to provide a very private getaway for couples. Each hotel is designed to allow a couple to check in and enjoy their stay without ever needing to see or speak to the staff.  We drive our Ural through a curtain or around a tight corner where it is instantly hidden from view for the duration of our stay, then proceed to an available room where we can communicate with the staff by telephone and leave our payment on a carousel which the staff can access from outside our room without ever seeing us.  All of these hotels have been immaculately clean and most are very tastefully decorated.  This one is quite nice, with plenty of mirrors and beautiful hand-painted murals covering the walls, although the subjects are quite suggestive.  Each hotel has also had satellite television with access to stations unlike anything I have seen at home.  In this particular location, each room faces an open area and the walls are thin, meaning that sounds carry very well.  This allows our fellow guests to provide us with some pretty interesting audio entertainment over the course of the evening.  In keeping with the theme of discretion, I’ll say no more.

The next morning, we are making our way through the town of Chimbote, Miles is in his element. As a race car driver back home, he’s enjoying being surrounded by thousands of mototaxis, engines blasting, each competing for their desired space on the busy roads. The Ural zigs, then zags, speeds up, then slows down.  At one point, road space is particularly tight and we end up hooking fenders with one of the mototaxis. I reach out of the sidecar and give a hard slap to the side of his cab and he now realizes what has happened.  He speeds up, we slow down and disaster is averted.  We are left with a white paint smudge and a subtle dent that leaves the sidecar looking a little more “lived in”.

Once we’re out of town, our scenery becomes truly spectacular. This can’t be real. I feel like I am driving through a water-colour painting.  Mountain, desert, and ocean, seamlessly combine.  The sand dunes, covered in repetitive swirling patterns, are large enough to be mountains. The mountains are covered in sand, making them almost indistinguishable from the massive dunes.

Eventually we leave the scenery behind and head into the sooty, loud, chaotic capital of Lima.  We quickly discover that this is an exceedingly complicated city to get around. When we finally find what looks like a suitable hotel, the Ural is once again swarmed – this time by all of the neighborhood kids.  They climb all over the bike, having a blast.  We give them all Smiles and Miles stickers and try to send them on their way so that we can get the bike into the garage and get settled in our room, but there are a few stragglers who can’t tear themselves away, following us into the garage and excitedly watching us unpack.  One of the girls asks if I will autograph the back of her sticker. It is always nice to feel like a minor celebrity so I oblige and this quickly turns into a major autograph session, particularly when I turn the tables and ask the kids to autograph my journal for me.  They are thrilled and each one takes their turn carefully writing their name in their neatest handwriting, the youngest boy tackling the challenge with such intensity that his name is now embossed through several pages of my journal.  There couldn’t be a more treasured keepsake.

Tracey

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PERU OR AN EPISODE OF MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS?

“Welcome to Peru! I am the professor of trees. Here, have a glass of purple corn drink”. As I examine the business card that has been handed to me, it states exactly that – “professor of trees”. My introduction to chicha morada is just as bizarre. It is a frothy bright pink juice made from purple corn. Hard to describe the flavour, dry yet sweet, corny but fruity. I am not sure I understand it but I like it.

After a lunch of fresh local fish we start heading toward the Northern Desert of Peru. This is the first border we have crossed to find the land looking instantly different. The colours are different, the geology is different, the first river crossing is different.

There is no bridge, just a river flowing across the road. Reason number 846,000 to buy an Ural. Our three wheels let us giggle through a slipping and sliding route across the river with no drama . . . until I look in the rearview mirror. Whump! Stefan is suddenly face-down in the river as his bike drops hard onto the rocks. We stop and run back to help. The river bottom is covered in a layer of slippery goop. Thankfully Stefan is fine, but green algae and scum cover his suit and we are reminded of ‘The Swamp Thing’. The ground is so slick that it takes all three of us to lift the bike. Tracey plants her feet at the downstream side of the tires to keep them from sliding away as Stefan and I lift. As Stefan removes the wet gear from his newly dented pannier to inspect the damage, we are watching a local bike approach.  Suddenly, Zing!  The bike heads towards us and executes a perfect pirouette, tossing a girl off the back to land standing up on dry ground with her school books still in hand. Her boyfriend practices the new ‘Stefan Shuffle’ to climb out from under his motorcycle and join our crowd. Once we help replace the chain on the young man’s bike, we continue on our way to the next town.

A man on the street recommends a hotel on the edge of town where we unload then hop in a tuk-tuk (otherwise known as a mototaxi) for a new form of adventure.  We have seen these zipping around filled with what appears to be entire families but apparently these machines were not built to carry the three of us.  As we make our way to the centre of town with the fenders scraping and smoke streaming from the tires, we are once again providing the evening’s entertainment. Our destination . . . Street Food! We find a market bustling with various bits and pieces. We decide to stick to the staple of fried chicken as it looks great and the woman in charge has decided that Stefan is to be her new boyfriend. It feels a bit voyeuristic to be watching her attempts to put the moves on him, but we are entertained none the less.

 As we sit enjoying our meal, it is as if somebody has just changed the channel and a new show is on. An odd-looking man has arrived, wearing rubber boots, a long overcoat and talking to his friend. Doesn’t sound very interesting until you realize that his friend is actually a dead fish. Somewhere in the discussion the fish has angered him and the man proceeds to slap it a couple of times, then they make up and carry on the talk. This show must be a repeat as several shopkeepers begin throwing handfuls of water on the man and shooing him away. This particular show is now over.

While riding our tuk-tuk back to the hotel, we once again see the fish slapping man. He is sitting on the curb, still talking to his fish. Welcome to Peru.

Miles

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JOURNEY TO THE MIDDLE OF THE EARTH

And beyond…..

”Oops, forgot to watch the GPS and drove right by the equator 10 miles ago”.

After an hour trying to get to the park at the equator, we arrive just as the day is winding down. We take some obligatory photos wobbling on the line painted on the ground and decline the offer to spend 10 bucks to go up a couple of stories to see the line from above.

“Hey, let’s go flush the toilet and see which way the water goes.”  So we do. “Hmmm… I don’t remember which way it goes at home.” Our big experiment in gravity, physics and snake oil is a bust. Stefan furthers the bust by saying “Well it depends how the toilet is made anyway so it’s not the right experiment”.

It’s getting dark so it’s time to find a place to stay. The place to stay ends up being a wonderful little hotel 30 feet from the equator and staffed with a great collection of little old ladies who are so friendly they can’t stop hugging us and getting lipstick all over the place.

Ecuador has been an interesting place so far. We visited Otavalo – a town made famous by its handicraft market. It must be in every guidebook. Tourists outnumber locals and all of the locals magically know enough English to try to sell us something. We emerged unscathed and wandered into the local food market.

The food market was just preparing to open. The stall keepers were having breakfast. After some charades I convinced a lady to make me some breakfast. She returns with what turns out to be the best meal of the trip so far. I received a plate filled with potatoes blended with a collection of roasted vegetables, beans and topped with roasted ‘corn nuts’.  The flavours were fresh and vibrant and the combination was a perfect way to start the day. Oh, and Stefan (the disbeliever) goes and orders up some horrific deep fried gristle, perfect for teasing dogs, not so good for eating. Good thing they have roast chicken next door to the inn where we are staying.

As we leave Otavalo and Quito behind, Ecuador continues to be a treat to drive through. The roads are good and the terrain is constantly changing. We wind along country lanes and minutes later find ourselves at the bottom of rocky valleys. The high mountain passes are as dramatic as any we have seen.

When we pull over for lunch in Ambato, a passenger in a truck hops out and waves us down.  He starts waving a cell phone at us and saying “Here, you must speak to my friend”. Soon we are in a conversation with his English-speaking friend, Julio, who is on the other end of the line.  Julio Velastegui (www.juliovelastegui.com) is another motorbike traveler and when his friend saw us, he knew that we had to meet. After getting our location, Julio quickly heads down to join us.  We once again learn how small our world is when Julio shares the story of meeting another fellow motorbike traveler, Sherri Jo Wilkins (www.sherrijowilkins.com ), while he was on the road in Canada earlier in the year.  Coincidentally, we also spent time with Sherri Jo earlier in the year, both in Canada and in England.   

South of Cuenca we arrive in a small mountain-top village named Catacocha, where every road is being worked on at the same time. After navigating what looks like a war zone, we find a hotel that turns out to be a very clean and very affordable home. We like it enough to stay an extra day.

Tracey’s birthday happens while we are here and we enjoy a night out on the town. Literally, a night out on the town.  While a woman is making us a one-pot dinner, we sit on lawn chairs in the middle of the street with a bare light bulb swinging precariously overhead, the bare wires threatening to electrocute any one of us at any moment.

We use our time in Catacocha to do some maintenance and take care of our trusty steeds. It is during this time that I become part of a scene which will occupy my thoughts forever. An old man is trying to move along the street. He is missing one eye, has a club foot and is barely able to move. He can only shuffle sideways and it takes him a full ten minutes to make a step. After four hours the man has progressed about 100 feet. I don’t know where he is going, but it will clearly take a long time.

The man is proud.

He does not ask for money.

He does not beg.

He does not look for help.

The rest of the people pass by him and go about the day, seemingly unaware of his presence. The sidecar would be a perfect way to get him where he is going but our ability to communicate the desire to help him fails. We leave him to his lonely shuffle and I can’t help but think of how excessive our own world is in comparison. We drive 15,000km with less effort than a stroll in the sun for this man.

I have learned another lesson today.

The image of this man’s trek will stay with me forever.

I use the word trek. For him, simply getting to the end of the block would be an all-day task.

Miles

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Ummmmm…………LUNCH IS LOOKING AT ME

Colombia.

Home of even more great roads.

The Colombian road builders have a great sense of adventure. I can picture the discussion, “Don’t build the road through the valley, let’s see if we can actually make it follow the ridgeline all the way. Twenty pesos says you can’t”.

I’m glad someone took the bet.

The roads are spectacular:  1000 foot drops on each side of the road, pavement twisting along the ridges, fog sweeping up the hillsides increasing the drama of the region. We follow a local semi-truck.  He is pulling a full-size trailer. The road is two lanes with no shoulder. After an hour of trying, we can’t pass him. It isn’t that he is blocking the road.  We can’t pass him because he is flying!

I try my best to keep up by sticking close and following his passes. “If he is going it must be safe, right?” It’s a good thing that the game only lasts an hour.

The tires are squealing,

the brakes are squealing,

the wife is squealing. 

Then we reach the valley floor. A quick fuel fill up and we’re off to repeat this game several times over the course of the day. Any of the passes would see me arrested in our home country but here in Colombia it is how you get it done.

It’s another national holiday. 

Sancocho, one of Colombia’s favourite dishes is on the menu for the special occasion.  So we gotta try it. But what is it? Pollo. Chicken – sounds good. Order up three.

Course one arrives – chicken soup. Looks good. Tastes great. What’s next?  Sausage – sort of.  The next course arrives. Ummmm. Why is my lunch looking at me? It is about 6 inches high, a chicken neck with the head still attached, all the inside removed except the eyes and it is stuffed and standing up on the plate, staring me down.

It is tasty, but I have to eat all three.

Stefan and Tracey decide that it is not for them.

We stop in a village just south of Popayan to find accommodation.  A kind gentleman on a motorbike offers to assist and leads us to a place south of town where we are greeted by a friendly family who shows Tracey a room that is available for the night.  As she checks out the room, she can’t help noticing that it is clearly being occupied.  There are personal items everywhere in the room.  As she looks around, members of the family are hustling around clearing up all evidence of inhabitation.  We accept the accommodation and within minutes the room is readied with fresh bedding and towels.  Shortly afterward, the family piles into two taxis and are gone. 

We never see them again.  Thankfully there is a caretaker on site who locks up for the night and makes a lovely breakfast the next morning, but I can’t help feeling as if our arrival has left the family without a place to stay themselves and picture them bunking with unsuspecting friends in order to make room for us.  Based on the hospitality we have seen so far in Colombia, this wouldn’t surprise me. 

The next day we have a surprise – the best burger I have ever had. We arrive in town in the dark, in the rain, in the cold.

Our hotel room is so small the door catches on the bed. No danger of falling out of bed – there’s not enough room! We are hungry. The restaurant is closed. The desk clerk hands us a take out menu from a local restaurant. Wow, some great local dishes on the menu.

But when we order we hear

“Nope, out of that.

Nope out of that too.

Nope. Nope.” 

We finally get down to “What do you have?”

“Hamburgers” is the reply. Well, I guess we will have burgers. The burgers arrive. They are unbelievable. Fresh chopped beef, a great bun, a slice of ham, cheese, fried onion, avocado, and tomato topped with a mysterious crunchy shred of something. In case that was not enough they put on a chicken breast too.

Chicken is like salt down here, it comes on everything. The burger is amazing, a complex collection of great flavours. I just about stay another day, just to have another one.

Our last stop in Colombia is at Santuario de Las Lajas, a strange but spectacular sight.  The neo-Gothic Santuario is built on a stone bridge spanning a deep gorge.  It’s also a hugely popular destination for pilgrims in need of a miracle.  Pilgrims’ plaques of thanksgiving line the walls of the canyon. They have placed their faith in the Virgin Mary, whose image is believed to have emerged from an enormous vertical rock 45m above the river sometime in the mid-18th century.  The church is directly against the rocky wall of the gorge where the image appeared. The church is a spectacular sight. 

Ecuador beckons – here we come.

Miles

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AHH, THE SMELL OF COFFEE

Eventually, we make it to Medellin, a city that no traveler would have considered passing through fifteen years ago. The city was once known as the murder and violence capital of the world. Thanks to a massive effort by the government and a tremendous amount of local pride, Medellin is now considered a safe city and a great place to visit. The streets are clean and lined with scupltures and local artwork.

Later in the day we head into El Eje Cafetero (the coffee region), home of Colombia’s number-one drink and its biggest (legal) export.  The area is blessed with magnificent mountain scenery and coffee plants covering nearly every slope. In a country where we have seen many spectacular landscapes, this region provides the most beautiful mountain scenery yet. To add to the pleasure, the smell of coffee is strong in the air. I may not be a coffee fan, but there is no denying that the smell is fabulous.  

Our destination for the day is Pereira, the coffee region’s largest city. A chance encounter on our second day in the city leads us to the perfect home-away-from-home. As I stand on the side of the road fielding endless questions from the locals, a beautiful pale yellow Lambretta motor scooter pulls up behind the Ural, and off hops its driver sporting a helmet emblazoned with the Union Jack. I immediately recognize that this is not a typical Colombian. I am about to meet one of the most enthusiastic two and three-wheel motoring enthusiasts we have ever encountered, British expat Alan Gardiner. Our meeting was meant to be.  We learn that Alan has a farm near Pereira which commonly serves as a hostel for motorbikers passing through the area. We take Alan up on his offer of accommodation at Villa Toscana. Alan’s home, with its lovely garden and pool, proves to be the perfect place to take a few days’ break from riding. We also thoroughly enjoy Alan’s company as we share passions for music and motoring. Alan is undoubtedly a wealth of knowledge when it comes to British Northern Soul music and Lambretta scooters. He has several Lambrettas in his collection, including one to which he has added a sidecar.

On one of our afternoons, Alan and his friend Luz organize us a visit to Villa Martha, an active coffee finca (farm). As we are in the midst of the main harvest time, we have an opportunity to go into the rows of small evergreen coffee bushes, seeing the coffee berries in various stages of ripeness. Berries are traditionally selectively picked by hand and we learn how to select berries at their peak of ripeness.  We pick several berries, peel them open to extract the seeds (commonly known as coffee beans) and then follow the beans through the stages of processing. First, the slimy layer of mucilage is removed from the bean, then it is washed to remove any residue. We watch some previously-picked beans finishing the roasting process and being ground and packaged. When we are offered a cup of sweet coffee at the end of our tour, I can’t refuse. Having just been involved in the entire process, I have to sample the final product. 

Tracey

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RIDING WITH JUAN VALDEZ

So here we are in Colombia, once considered the most dangerous country in the world.  Although the country has implemented security improvements that are allowing it to slowly emerge from the extreme violence of past decades, my guard is up.  Although conditions have improved dramatically, Colombia can still be an unpredictable place, with flare-ups between guerilla and paramilitary factions.  But the locals certainly don’t appear to be living in a state of fear.  Most of the population has never before experienced such an era of peace.  Homicide rates in many Colombian cities where they were once among the highest in the world are now similar to some U.S. cities. 

I’ve been reading that the poorest Colombians can barely afford the necessities of life, but here in Cartagena, we are seeing a contradiction to this.  Though I suspect that this is the case in some of the country’s smaller pueblos where there is a lack of jobs, in the area of Cartagena where we are staying, citizens seem to be enjoying a life style of modern amenities, luxury homes, shiny cars, and posh restaurants.

Cartagena is said to have the most impressive old town in the Western Hemisphere so we spend the better part of a day walking through this area, surrounded by 13km of impressive centuries-old colonial stone walls built to protect the city against enemies.  I feel like we are stepping back in time as we are surrounded by colonial-era mansions and churches that are almost perfectly preserved.  Under our feet are streets of cobblestones and above us are tile roofs and rows of ornate balconies dripping with flowers. 

One morning, in search of a road map of the country (something that we had been lacking thus far on our trip), we head off with fellow motorbike travelers, Sarah and Malcolm from Australia, for a walk to the shopping mall.  Along the way, we see Convento de la Popa, sitting on Cartegena’s highest point and we also pass Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the castle built by the Spanish during the colonial era which once dominated approaches to the city by both land and sea.  We are pleased that we had some decent sightseeing on our walk because our search for a roadmap has proven fruitless.  Once again, we will be exploring with no map.

On our last evening in the city, our guest house is visited non-stop, both by Halloween trick-or-treaters and by many of our companions from the Stahlratte stopping by to wish us a continuing safe journey.  It was tough to say goodbye to everyone, not knowing if our paths would cross again.  Fortunately, we didn’t need to bid farewell to Stefan from Germany who will be riding with us for the next leg of our journey. 

Stefan, Miles and I head off from Cartagena, but not without some challenges.  It is All Saints’ Day, and the streets are lined with children and ladies singing, making music with pots and pans, and collecting food for the traditional feast.  Driving through the outer town, we see a very different city from what we had experienced in the historic district.   We were suddenly thrown into heavy traffic and chaos.    

As we head south out of the city, it becomes even more obvious why traffic accidents are so common in Colombia.  Drivers are both aggressive and careless behind the wheel.  They aren’t following street signs or road markings, are passing each other left and right (literally), are towing cyclists who cling to their back bumpers, and are providing rides to pedestrians who jump onto their back bumpers and then hold on for their lives.  On the winding rural roads and high mountain passes, we witness many near-accidents and it feels like my heart is stopping with each one.

Near the end of our first day of driving we see heavy black smoke rising from the road ahead.  I imagine that my fears of a horrific motor accident have become reality.  As we get closer, we see close to a thousand protestors who have built a blockade across the road and set it on fire.  Although we never do understand what they were protesting, they certainly aren’t messing around.  In the end, it proves to be a positive experience as it forces us to do some off-road driving and takes us to a fabulous little village where the locals jump to their feet and cheer on our daring efforts to get around the blockade. 

On the sides of the road, we begin to see men who remind me of Juan Valdez.  I now feel that I have finally arrived in Colombia.  Admittedly, I am a victim of marketing when it comes to Juan.  He’s merely a fictional character used in advertisements to represent the Colombian coffee farmer, but he’s been in the media since before I was born and in my mind he is an icon of Colombia.  I couldn’t help thinking of Juan each time I spotted a farmer meandering down the road on his mule laden with heavy burlap sacks.

The next morning finds us once again driving into the clouds with lovely views of the valleys through filtered sunshine.  Unfortunately we are also facing a flat tire at the highest, coldest part of the road.  We pull off the road next to a house where a young boy is sitting on the veranda.  He quietly watches our entire tire-change process without uttering a word.  As we pack up and prepare to leave, he is joined by some friends and now suddenly has the bravery to come and speak to us and take some photos.  We are so glad that he did. 

Tracey

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