As a rule if you are changing countries more often than your underwear then something untoward is going on. Unless, that is, you happen to be biking through Central America where borders flash past and underwear, um, lingers. What follows then is not chronological – just a bunch of balmy and more often than not undesigned adventures and misadventures from the last month whilst I have cycled through five, count them, FIVE whole new countries – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.
Zip-lining in Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Our first job is to sign a form that we all venture a cursory glance at beforehand. I believe it states something a little less succinct but along the lines off – if it all goes to hell, it’s your own stupid fault. I’m soon festooned in an array of loose and flapping pieces of rope and metal that constitute my harness. I watch the others study it between their fingers, no doubt wondering, like I am, whether it should all be loose and flapping. Alongside my friend Jess and with my baby-making equipment now scrunched into a sort of painful bouquet, I shamble off uneasily towards the zip-line demonstration deep in the cloud forest of Costa Rica.
Our instructor begins by feeding us a series of breezy understatements, which under different circumstances I might read as quite endearing, like when a weather man refers to storm force gales as “a little blowy”.
“This (acted-out example) is a bad idea. OK?”
The “bad ideas” include spinning wildly, letting go of the line completely, clutching the wire before the moving pulley, and a suicidal leap into remote foliage. We all nod and trudge off, silent and sure that whoever needs rescue mid line will be us. As we shuffle towards the first canopy platform and zip line Jess petitions the group “Um, why are we doing this?”. The obvious answer – for the kicks, for bragging rights, for the adrenaline infused hell of it – remains unvoiced. Right now, it just doesn’t seem a robust enough reason.
The nerves though soon settle as one by one we glide surely through branches and ready ourselves for the next of the eleven wires ahead. With each one we gather confidence as the lines lengthen, our velocity peaks and the sun sags in the sky steeping the tree tops in a bronze haze. Whilst my faith in the kit and guides is unyielding, my greatest fear is that a small swinging mammal, perhaps a monkey, oblivious to the thrill junkies invading it’s habitat, will attach to my face mid zip line in a fashion not dissimilar to the opening scenes of the first Alien movie.
The last but one is known as “The Superman” because the line is now attached in mysterious fashion to your back and the idea is that you will glide over the trees aka the eponymous superhero. I suppose in a way we all pull off the Superman, but only if Superman was more than a little concerned about actually possessing the ability to fly or survive a thirty metre free fall. The last obstacle to beer and jubilation has the unnerving epithet of ´The Mega Tarzan Swing´ The second hint that I should be taking this seriously is the body that had graced the queue before me, the body which has now stepped off a platform, embraced the vertical and disappeared from view in milliseconds. Can the nomenclature be right? Tarzan would never have attempted such an audacious manoeuvre, and swing? What swing? Soon I am harried to the platform to meet our instructor and a junior who is clearly learning the trade – my nervous eyes fix on the newbie wondering if this is the Adventure Sport equivalent of handing a first year medical student your appendectomy. Before my incipient panic attack takes control of my legs someone throws open a gate and I begin a sentence I will never complete. It starts “What’s going to happen when…”
Pressure on my back is the prelude to a sharp drop and I learn what sound I would make in my final seconds if ever I come to a sudden, untimely death (It’s an effeminate, quivering trill – think front-man of a failed glam rock band). Then all of a sudden I’m swinging (Swinging! No more dropping!) elatedly over forest. For a time I watch from below as the parade of fellow thrill seekers take the plunge and make a cacophony of screams and guttural groans of varying pitch. The most popular is the classic scatological curse word, there are a few cries to The Almighty and of course the silent scream – mouth agape, vocal cords hanging on to the tonsils for dear life. Every so often the guides will shout “No, wait!” as they push someone off the platform, making the faller wonder whether something should have been attached but wasn’t. Being a heartless bastard, it seems, comes with the job. I admire though the tactics of the guides – no doubt the result of actually telling people what to expect only to find that people would capitulate at the last second. No, its better this way, ignorance really is bliss.
We return to the see photos of ourselves “enjoying” the experience. My zip line face is similar to the expression I would pull if I was making love to Salma Heyek – earnest, excited and a little confused. I decline the prints. Jess’ need to get up close and personal with the sensation of imminent death is not satisfied however. Luckily for her a 150 metre high bungee jump awaits the greedy and she signs up. Here’s the evidence…
Old friends and New Year’s
Last month one of my favourite people on planet earth bought an air fare and appeared in Costa Rica in order to celebrate the start of 2013 with me. Jess is, amongst other things, an old friend, a one time flat mate, a raving buddy and a kind of partner in crime. She is also quite funny (both in the haha sense of the word and the whoaaaa! you OK? sense as well) . She can talk me into or out of doing something daring, inadvisable and of questionable legality when drunk. She can tell me with precision when I’m being an asshole, which is refreshing. She knows me, which is even more refreshing, after three years of forming new, ephemeral friendships with people whom I wave goodbye to after a few days. Jess works as a teacher for the British Council and has spent the last years working in Japan and more recently the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Here’s a great post on her blog about the tough task she was levied in Africa.
After our reunion in a hostel in the hippy commune come beach resort come surfers hangout of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica we happily kicked each other in the head for a time whilst swinging in adjacent hammocks and when that got boring we went out to set the town on fire with two Aussie lads, Joel and Ben. The debauchery ended with me face down in the sand being harried awake by a transsexual and Joel losing control of pretty much every normal bodily function and some abnormal ones as well. Mission accomplished then.
Whether biking or bus-ing around a continent, the jolting, uneven cadence of travel is familiar to every drifter. Bikers are active between destinations and retire into sloth and slumber on arrival to them and until the open road calls once more. It’s the antithesis of those wanderers who choose vehicles to get around, who sit bent and rigid for hours until they pile out and into their new destination where upon they erupt into a vigorous hunt for activities and tours, treks and climbs, bungee jumps and energetic sex with strangers.
I left my bike behind in Puerto Veijo and took to four wheels to explore Costa Rica with Jess though I soon discovered bus travel is far from a more relaxing alternative to my bike. In fact buses sap energy and zest probably more effectively than the torture methods employed at Guantanamo Bay and left me wondering how people survive it. Bus travellers in South America are folded up into such preternaturally weird positions for so long that they often leave the vehicle sporting permanent skeletal deformities. I once saw a man step off a bus in Ecuador who seemed at first glance to be closely examining the soles of his shoes whilst simultaneously relieving an itch by rubbing his ear to his shoulder blade and striking a pose with his arms similar to that depicted in ancient Egyptian reliefs. I soon realised that none of this was voluntary and that in the coming months there would most likely be a situation involving a full body brace, an orthopaedic surgeon, a physiotherapist and a simultaneous, fatalistic shrug of the shoulders, possibly accompanied by the words “Sorry Derek, but there’s just nothing more we can do for you now”.
Plus plying these bus routes are devious miscreants who relieve sleeping backpackers of wallets, phones, cameras, pocket change, shoes, gold fillings and supernumerary organs. The drivers usually only grace full consciousness thanks to a pulpy wad of coca leaf under their lip, and all of this unpleasantness occurs amid a humidity several times higher than the Amazon rain forest and a swirling fog of body odour and fart gas. These, by the way, are the long distance coach services, the local buses are an entirely different realm of nightmares. These are so unhealthily packed that I am sure that if one day there is a re-emergence of an ancient plague, long since eradicated, it’s origins will be in the sweating, farting, crushed mash of humanity inside a Peruvian bus. Passengers will just tumble out into the plaza of a small highland market town covered in boils and pustules and expectorating something black and tarry with a vehemence akin to the vomiting child in The Exorcist. The dying will mostly be glad just to be off the bus. Local buses though have one redeeming feature in that they are usually dirt cheap (you pay for the dirt) and a bargain as the price includes several agreeable extras – space for an eighth of a butt cheek to intermittently make contact with the seat, a sexual assault by a stranger and some surprising revelations (namely that there is in fact somewhere more godless than a port-a-loo at Glastonbury Festival).
Its not just the physical war and tear either, the mental dullness I’m burdened with after a bus journey is so pronounced once I disembark that not only do I struggle to recollect my destination or purpose of travel but I also strain to recall the basic series of flexion and extension movements of my limbs required to initiate a normal human gait. The resulting wobble into the unfamiliar terminal resembles a pneumatic drill. Not, I might add, the workman operating a pneumatic drill. An actual pneumatic drill. An actual pneumatic drill operated by a speed freak with palsy.
An unhealthy minority of touring cyclists are, how should I put this tactfully, one fry short of a happy meal. Others still are without several fries, the burger and most of the Pepsi. Which makes me ponder with mucho trepidation the age old question of Cause or Effect – Did cycling vast distances across continents drive them screwy or were they a little unhinged and then decided to go cycling?
When I met up with Jess I got the sense she was simultaneously relieved yet a touch disappointed that I was, more or less, the same Steve she waved goodbye to from outside St Thomas’s hospital three years ago. Or to use her words “Bar the dirt tan and wild beardiness, you haven’t changed a bit“. I quizzed her about her exploits and our mutual friends and felt similar mixed emotions – reassured and a touch miffed. Nobody, it turns out, has been sectioned or incarcerated. Not one has founded a sinister religious cult or is scheduled to appear on Jerry Springer. Everyone is the same gender as when I last saw them. Some have got married, but their partners are probably not bigamists and unlikely to appear on the FBIs Most Wanted List, and the ceremonies were all in churches or registry offices and not Los Vegas Casinos. Nobody has even developed a counter cultural fondness for, lets say, cross-dressing, yodelling or cock-fighting. And I suppose for all that I have to be grateful.
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
I’m third from the right
In 2004 a man with a lot of free time and of questionable sanity lugged a fridge from a hotel minibar 450 metres up the basalt cone of Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro – one of the most active volcanoes on earth. His harebrained scheme involved ‘riding’ the fridge down the near vertical western slope and in doing so hopefully avoiding becoming the newest recipient of the Darwin Awards. I’m not entirely sure which aspect of his plan didn’t go the way it was intended, if indeed there was much in the way of intention other than ‘what the hell, it looks like fun’. Perhaps the fridge wasn’t sturdy enough for high velocity volcano travel and it disintegrated, which is very plausible. Perhaps a fridge’s inherent lack of aerodynamics put a disappointing crawling end to the experiment. Whatever the case volcano fridge-ing hadn’t worked out, but undeterred Australian Daryn Webb experimented with volcano mattress-ing and volcano front door-ing. I’m not making this up. Eventually he designed a board capable of a quite hectic pace and a peak of adrenaline to eclipse any other. That was a decade ago. Volcano boarding was born and Cerro Negro in Nicaragua is the only place in the world you can do it, should you have the cojones, of course.
Our posse of about twenty strong is led by a dread locked smouldering beauty called Jessie from Quebec. As the truck lurches towards the volcano we have a round of – “Say your name, where you’re from and what’s your favourite drink”. The choice of drinks tallies nicely with the attitude of the boarders – the tequilas look like they are set on stealing the all time speed record of 91 kph, the margaritas are trembling with trepidation.
Soon we are all getting thwacked by branches as the open air truck enters a tunnel of tawny scrub. As we duck and dodge branches we glug cold beers – as if sliding down an active volcano wasn’t dangerous enough most of us are upping the ante by getting tipsy to boot. Soon enough the hulking, sooty and irregular cone of Cerro Negro (the black hill) looms up from the crispy surrounds and gulps of apprehension circle the group.
Cerro Negro is a baby in geological terms – the youngest volcano in fact in all of Central America. Since its birth in 1850, it has erupted around 23 times, last in 1999 just before the sport of volcano boarding took hold. Jessie reminds us that The Black Hill is overdue for another eruption and with each rumble, ash cloud and lava spill the shape of the volcano changes leaving me to wonder whether one day an eruption here could bring an end to the prospects of sliding down it’s side altogether.
We grab boards and clamber upwards through a bleak monochrome Mordor, pausing en route to examine the steaming rocks and take stock of the harsh and threatening world that is to be our playground. We walk the spine of rock towards the summit and change into convict-type orange jump suits. To our east rise the peaks of the others in the Los Maribos volcanic chain and beyond there’s the gentle glimmer of the Pacific. A black smudge graces the west side of the mountain – a cooled lava flow from the ’99 eruption, though now well into Nicaragua’s dry season, the rest of the land is a sultry, shimmering, baked expanse. From our vantage point towards the peak the angle of the slope looks too wild to be ridable – Jessie though recounts the tale of one Eric Barone who descended the slope on a bicycle in 2002 achieving a world record (172 kph on gravel) before wiping out and breaking “pretty much everything you can break”. Its not a story that puts me at ease.
As I start out my ass feels perilously close to sliding off the board but I’m committed now so I ignore my perilous predicament. I gather momentum sending a sheet of gravel flying out for under my board in every direction and then it happens – at my terminal velocity of 65 kph (a speed which is confirmed by a guide with a police style speed gun at the bottom) I wipe out in spectacular fashion and tumble for an endless two seconds before I realise that I am not very hurt and can ride the rest at an easier pace. To my delight though I discover my speed is the fastest in the group and I am awarded a paltry orange wrist band, but it’s the prestige that counts.
Now I’m off to surf a pyroclastic flow and swim in some lava. Anyone game?
Looking out over a sprawling long cooled lava flow
Biking through Central America
Christmas in Panama was a washout – I got soaked through in the tail end of the rainy season though a lady noticed my misery and invited me inside for a Christmas lunch – it would be the first in a series of acts of altruism and hospitality the people of these little countries had in store for me. Costa Rica was expensive and the roads full of traffic – not my favourite cycling spot – but when my bottom bracket did a whoopsie and left me scratching my head and panicking a local mechanic came to the rescue. No tools to remove my broken bracket – no problem. In Costa Rica you just beat things extra hard until they come apart.
The countries in Central America have a reputation for violence, in the cities especially, and Honduras and El Salvador are one and two in the world for deaths by homicide, though as foreign nationals have not been actually singled out as targets there are few travel warnings about travelling through this area. In the 1980s, many Salvadorans fleeing civil war emigrated to the United States city of Los Angeles, where gang activity was rampant. Clinging to their own, some formed new gangs. Then, in the 1990s, thousands of undocumented Salvadoran immigrants were deported back to their home country, bringing gang life with them. At the hands of both narco and gang activity, people are dying at a higher rate today in Guatemala and El Salvador than during those countries’ civil wars.
A reminder to be cautious though took the shape of two US cyclists I met on the road in Honduras. Two days before, they explained, on the very same road I was due to ride, they met truckers coming the other direction gesturing wildly for them to turn around. Bemused they continued cautiously only to see armed men surrounding a long distance coach, firing guns into the air and pointing them at the passengers. They were around 50 metres away at the time. Before the week was out I would see violence up close as well.
I’m rushing now – my money is at a palpation inducing low and I plan to make some more in the States – my school talks are planned for April. The inability to spend is getting me down – both because I could do with the odd comfort I cannot afford (a meal that’s not noodles) and because I have realised how money dependent I am and I wish I could be less so. I wish I could relax about being skint, embrace it even, see it as a challenge and not a burden, take pride on living on the absolute minimum like my friend Nyomi from my African ride. The state of my gear is depressing me the most. I am sporting odd sandals – after six repair jobs on my left one I replaced it with one I found on the street. Every zip has faltered. The lid and handle of my saucepan are long gone, making burns a common part of my cooking ordeal. Every pannier attachment has disintegrated – they are attached to the bike with tie wraps and in one case a botched metal clip making it impossible to remove it. Both my remaining bungees are spewing elastic tentacles. I have no map but instead sketch out routes from google maps into a notebook to save money. My clothes are hole-ridden and stained, my spare parts rusted, medicines out of date, dry bags no longer dry and insurance? What insurance.
It was a quick charge through Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador – highlights included cicumnavigating the volcanic island of Ometepe and the coffee growing region of El Salvador around the scenic town of Alegria. Along the way I was donated a bed for the night by a fellow cyclist, a watermelon by a lady in a car, a coffee by a restaurant manager, two cokes by a roadside vendor – and then friends from home lent me money to help until California. I’m chuffed as chips. And the USA is looming. I have entered it’s gravitational field. American businesses have sprung up, those who speak English do so with pronounced American lilt and the countries all accept US dollars. It’s all quite exciting.
Fire ants and fire power
“What?!” I chidethe anonymous wake up caller as my brainworks on where I made last night my home. It has the same task, ever trickier, every morning. But it’s night. What’s going on? That’s right – El Salvador – I camped outside a petrol station. The shouting must be one of the security guards.
“Esteban! Hormigas de fuego!”
Fuego? That’s flame, or fire. Hormigas? I know that one too. What was it? Ants? Ants Fire? FIRE ANTS!
A flailing hand finds my torch. The beam illuminates a pullulating, dripping hive of insects on the roof of my tent, pouring inside. I jump out to discover my tent is one seething mass of ant life. And then the stings start and I brush them off frantically.
Suddenly the night is punctured by a screech of brakes. I look past the security guard and my tent to the station forecourt to see the other security guard chasing down a vehicle on foot which looks to be making a get away. He pauses, levels his shotgun, aims at the rear of the fast departing car and fires off two rounds. Glass shatters as the car hastes away into the night, the petrol thief no doubt then checking that he stills owns his testicles and wondering, quite rightly, whether stealing fuel from gas stations in El Salvador guarded by trigger happy mercenaries is actually worth it.
I shrink back into my tent but have no time to take stock of the movie-esque drama that has just unfurled – the fire ants have commandeered my attention as well as my home. Evacuation is my only option and the security guard shows me to a cupboard like room attached to the station where I can finish the night’s sleeping. I trapse off, lugging my essentials like a refugee evicted from his homeland, slapping my thighs and pouring out curse words into the night as viciously as the ants sting.
There is nothing on earth as wretched and vicious as a nest of fire ants. I have, you see, brushed paths with them once before in Panama. Forget the nuclear deterrent, if a country ever harnesses the fire ant, perhaps say in a device that could be dropped onto the enemy, they will swiftly dominate the world. It’s impossible to adequately demonstrate to you just how irritating and vexatious these creatures are unless I were to actually mail you a clump of them, so perhaps a simile will help. Imagine, if you will, you are gagged, bound and hanging upside down in a lime green room for 27 hours. Now imagine the ambient music is a happy hardcore remix of the 1998 chart buster ‘The Venga Bus is Coming’ (what do the CIA need white noise for?). Now imagine that every hour a parade of the world’s most annoying people (undecided? I offer Richard Hammond, Miley Cyrus, George Bush) stroll into your room, pick up a large, smelly haddock and slap you squarely across the jowls with said fish before snickering in your face. Finally the Venga Boys medley ends and is replaced by the on-hold message you get whenever you urgently need to contact any given financial institution. This is about half as annoying as fire ants in your tent because the little blighters are not done – they travel with you. They crawl out of your tent whilst you’re cycling 30 kph down the highway, slither cunningly under Lycra and deliver a host of stings to each buttock. The next night they emerge from a variety of hiding places and bite you through the night.
So next up for me and my travelling fire ants: Guatemala and all of Mexico. But what of destinations, I’m looking forward to those places in between.
“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Lao Tzu.