Go to get the bikes from customs. It’s still titting down,the humidity is something like 99.9999% and it’s 30 odd degrees. Even my tongue is sweating. All the usual nonsense ensues. It seems that waiting holidays are taking off here too. I’m going to make a flippin fortune…if I can wait long enough. The bikes have to be fumigated, even though riding behind a ‘red devil’ for 1 minute would achieve exactly the same thing. The locals buy old US school buses then paint them up and run them as huge private taxis. The place is full of them belching out their filth. They’re like the Bamako taxis only bigger and they don’t take any prisoners.
Panama city is quite a big city with an old colonial district full of people populated with people who’s pockets can barely carry all their cash, and a modern concrete and steel heart. The outskirts however are full of hovels and squalor with no go areas aplenty. We’ve got a brothel not 20 yards from the front door. Knock knock, clap clap. The taxi drivers tell us DO NOT walk into that area. Even taxi drivers who see us walking towards the hotel stop to warn us. There is a gang sign on the corner denominating the ownership and there is huge stain of blood on the pavement this morning.
Turn left and your possessions become someone else’s, turn right and you’re fine, the line is that clear. We ride into the city from the airport and as you ride in you approach it over a long causeway. The tide is rushing in just under our wheels, the sky is full with squadrons of pelicans, the approaching skyline is shining chrome, steel and glass. Another priceless memory tucked away. You cannot come to Panama without visiting the Panama Canal. We go down to the visitors centre which has viewing platforms overlooking the locks. That is SERIOUS big styley engineering that is, you just cannot believe your eyes, the scale is absolutely incredible. The dock is full…to within what looks like a inch of each end and each side. Within the doc is sitting a flecking HUGE, heavily laden container ship and in the other doc is what I think is a grain transporter. It just looks wrong when you’re use to seeing barges in little docs on the canals back home. These big buggers sit in the locks and go up and down, pulled into an out of the dock by little (from this distance anyway) vernacular railway engines. The big ships are queued up patiently waiting their turn. $90,000 a trip through. Keeerrrrrching. They charge by water displacement. Someone once swam the canal. They charged him 36 cents. Into the money district for an evening meal. Beautiful old houses with lovely narrow streets woven between them. Sit outside in the heat and and eat. Listen to music blast from a window, watch people dancing in the street and take a gander at the Panama City skyline across the water. Memories are made of this stuff. Beautiful evening.
I’ve bought a new pad today. My thoughts were getting a little cramped in the old book but now they can stretch out and breathe. We parked the bikes in the hotel last night, we’re not sure they’d have survived a night on the streets. AC to non AC in the space of a wooden ramp as we launch out the front door. I feel like a pop tart in a toaster and the jam is beginning to boil. Leathers + 38 degrees + 80% humidity means my pores are pouring again. Drips run off my nose, drips run off my nips, even my ears are sweating, on the inside. Traffic is solid, there has been a ‘taxident’ and the two bent cabs are like a immobile yellow island in the sea of metal. I’m disintegrating, death by dripping. Over the Panama Canal.
How lucky am I? It’s moments like this that that you have little realisations about exactly how lucky you are. You need a very understanding family and a lot of luck to be doing this here and now. I feel a bit weird today though, maybe it was having such a lovely night last night, perhaps it’s the heat, perhaps it’s the latitude and attitude. The locals seem a laid back lot. You can’t hurry. If you push, they push back harder so slow seems the only way to go. I slow down today. Who said ‘speed is the enemy of reflection’? Slow down just a little and my brain has some spare capacity to observe much more. Less time calculating speeds, threats and trajectories gives more time to pull back the blinkers and enjoy the 180 degree experience of motorcycling. Travellers all have their different options .
People pop through the air, home, resort,home, and see very little. Backpackers travel overland but usually in some form of big metal box. Travel by motorcycle is the only way. Travelling by motorbike means the world is your IMAX oyster. Everyone should try it. Slow we go. I flip my head back and see two birds attacking a bird of prey on the wing, probably protecting the youngsters. I see a stack of eagles , masses and masses of them, a huge tube of cruising wings reaching up into the clouds. The eagle airport must be closed. I see decorated bus stops, I see people sleeping off their dinner in hammocks in their gardens, people plaiting oinion stalks in the fields. I’m just happy to track the tarmac. Today the Pan American is just swinging it’s hips, big swings to and fro, beautifully cambered, sexy. Later its being resurfaced, the top has been scratched and looks like a giant vinyl record. I let the bike follow the track and dance to the beat underneath me.
So much of this trip has been hard or frustrating or just plain shit but some has been just incredible. These big journeys always give me my full range of emotions. You can’t have pleasure without pain and today I’ve taken motorcycle medicine No pain, just a weird and happy contented glow as I head for the hotel. Just to finish the day off nicely it’s a stunner, an Eco lodge by a lake. Extremes again, a scary shit hole to a stunning lodge in a couple of days. As I sit and watch the afternoon rain fall I hear the sound of guinea pigs, that high squeaky sound. I’ve been hearing it all day long today. I’m looking for guinea pigs but it seems to be these strange looking birds making the noise. How did that happen? I guess a guinea pigs went out for a drink one night, ended up getting completely plastered and sleeping with an ugly bird. We’ve all seen it happen. This creature seems to be the unfortunate result of their union.
Up early today as we’ve got to get to the Costa Rica border early. As the sun rises the earth steams. For the first hour the Pan American treats me to a magical misty tour. Teasing me with glimpses of mountains and lush greenery. It’s not far to the border, still far enough for someone to get a $150 speeding fine though. As the mist lifts and the Pan American really shows itself. The road is a thinner hipped version of yesterday, still flicking sexy hips left and right, a little quicker and tighter than yesterday. So smooth you want to lean down and run your finger over it as you ride. It’s beautiful, so green, right up to the edge, so…. FAAAAAARK.
Suddenly the little bloke manning the alarm in my brain has jumped up and started shouting. BIG, BLUE, BUS, BLOCKING, BOLLOCKS, BRAKE… Before my consciousness can catch up he’s made the calculations, plotted a course, sent the ‘full stop’ signal to my hands and feet and I’m swerving just round the back of the bus that’s just turned right across the road in front of me. That’s the way it works. My brain goes from relaxed to maxed in the flick of an eye and the autopilot takes over. Once my heart returns to normal size and the taste of adrenaline in my mouth disappears I’ll be fine. I’ll just slow down for a while… Out of Panama in an instant, but into Costa Rica is more difficult. The bike has to be fumigated first, then insurance bought, then import documentation procured. It’s an extremely hot, sultry, patience testing 3 hour process. I’m going to enter ‘the most patient person in the world’ competition. I’m amazed I’ve not actually put fist to face with anyone. Into Costa Rica.
It’s weird how things change so quickly. The constructors for Costa Rica must have gone to the builders merchants and just said ‘give me all you’ve got in green’. This place is so green and verdant, it seems to be growing in front of your very eyes. Hot and very very humid, tropical, dripping. We’ve been warned that they take speeding very seriously with $200-$300 fines being the norm. It’s best to just follow the locals. Sit for lunch in an out of the way hotel and wait for the afternoon rain. It doesn’t disappoint. Down it comes like silver rods. Its not going to stop ay time soon so off we go. Too hot for waterproofs, wet and warm. Very very wet and very very warm. Follow the river, the Pan American meanders along in sync with the water for a while before waving goodbye and heading into the hills and even heavier rain. Take my gloves off at the petrol station and they have that ‘been in the bath for an hour’ look. I wish they flippin had, along with the rest of me. Get to the town reasonably early but it’s Saturday and it’s mostly closed. Probably for the best having seen the state of the place. Nice hotel though, very nice, and with the most beautiful receptionist on the planet at the front desk. On to Nicaragua tomorrow, that should be interesting.
It’s a long way to the border today, 275 slow miles with eyes peeled for the federalise the whole time. First through the mountains in the wet. It felt good this morning, really good – easy. As a motorcyclist you have to tune yourself into wet conditions and this morning it was great. Try to stay smooth, no sudden movements, head up and test the grip. It was just one of those days I guess. I didn’t care about the diesel on the road, the rain, the drops, it was just lovely. There are police everywhere here though. There are more guns than people in this country….speed guns that is. Its Sunday but they’re all out and ready to draw them at a moments notice. the backup driver got a heavy fine for crossing a solid yellow line. They seem to have enough yellow paint to cover the sun twice and they’ve used it solely to paint solid lines down the roads. Overtaking spots are few and far between and 275 miles takes forever. I get split up from the others, then lost, again, right in the middle of San Jose. the signs are all over the place and frequently contradictory.
I spin round and round for 10 minutes like a pigeon let out of a dark box, slowly getting its bearings before I find my way out on a wing and a prayer. Christ this place is green. It’s greener than a grass exhibition, amazing. Out to the Costa Rica border with Nicaragua. We get a fixer and agree a price. This place is knee deep in trucks with miles and miles of them parked up waiting to cross. The signs don’t look good. The fixer jumps the queues and annoys the drivers. They’re used to the angry stares but we’re not. Our fixer has at least 2 obvious knife wounds too, makes you wonder… As we’re about to leave we go to pay the fixer. He wants more money. He starts reneging on his deal telling us the price was only for the passports. He won’t take the money. Fuck him. I’m usually patient and I’m usually scared. Today I’ve got solar powered nerves of steel and I’m fucked off with being fucked about and lied to. I’ve definitely had enough of being lied to.. definitely.
For the first time in my life I just tell him. ‘It’s that or nothing. What are you going to do about it?’ I hope nothing… there are people everywhere and he’s unlikely to get rowdy with the cops around. He quietly walks over and takes the money. Thank goodness for that. On to the Nicaragua side. Now this is an awesome, grade A* time wasting operation on an enormous scale. I’m thinking of making it a one stop, all inclusive resort in my waiting holiday brochure. It is just an incredibly protracted process and you absolutely positively HAVE to be fixed to get through it. It’s 40 degrees and humid, wearing leathers, sweat is dripping off each fingertip. I’m raining, I stink and my feet feel like they’re eating themselves alive. 4 hours, that’s 4 hours to cross the border. How much work am I expected to do in 4 hours? It’s an eye opener for sure. As we eventually leave and ride out into Nicaragua there is a line of trucks 3 miles long parked up waiting to leave.
They have hammocks slung under the trailers to wait the day away in. Girls are selling them food and ‘keeping them company’ the way they do the world over. We immediately ride around the edge of Lake Nicaragua and it’s bloody spectacular in the evening light. It has a line of volcanoes protruding from the water like spikes on the back of a giant Lock Ness monster – its incredible. Life is suddenly more basic here. Lots of people around on foot, life is by the roadside again. There are three wheeled bikes with seats at the front taking people about. A few tuk tuks but mostly quite poor. We suddenly get overtaken…by a brand spanking new Range Rover, the haves rubbing the have not’s faces in it. Get to Granada late to a beautiful hotel in a fantastic square. One of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen lights the way in. Lke a slow motion orange firework if fills the sky with colour for a good 15 minutes before giving way to a spectacular lightening storm. Christ does it rain out here.