Birthpains of a new machine.

The big day came and I peeled my tent from the now properly rotten patch of lawn I’d lived on for the last month and strapped my things to my bike, it had taken last month or so to get this far, the unstoppable research-and-getting-things-done machine that was me was now ready to launch – as soon as my keys would turn up. Rodolfo came around, we found the keys and took the obligatory pre trip photos then he was the first of many who would hopefully sign my bike.

Pre trip snap.

I got directions to the highway and because of the blistering pace I’d got everything packed and done that morning, I reached it by the crack of just 1PM. By 5 past I was getting a feel for the bike with the backpack and tank bag on it, and by a ten past I was certain it was the wrong one for the trip.

It was only a minute or so onto the first truly open kilometers of highway I felt that cough and splutter anyone who’s ever run out of fuel knows – It turned out that after a short time on the highway above 70% throttle the engine would hesitate and surge, it would become worse and worse until it couldn’t hold 5th gear, and it would die any time the engine got close to idle, I knew the symptoms, but it couldn’t be right – had the designers really given the bike a carburettor that drains empty at highway speed?  I told myself off for being so stupid that I had actually bought a bike without test riding it, This is why! See?! You complete idiot! shaking my head. I pulled over to check things out, sure enough the spark plug was showing signs of the engine not getting enough fuel, but soon I found a kink in the fuel line where I’d hastily installed a second fuel filter, I change the hoses around and feel glad no one will ever know about this.

But the designers weren’t off the hook yet, the users’ manual that came with this machine claimed in block letters on the first page that the top speed was 130kph, while here I am feeling a vibrating and asthmatic little engine scream at what the lazy and ever-understating tacho calls about 5,500RPM and the speedo with great generosity points to 80 or 85kph, while the GPS takes about 10-15kph back off that. I remember the reputation of these engines for spontaneous pyrotechnics, so soberly I back off the throttle before the piston gets a chance to come flying through the fuel tank, now having to average a more ‘engine safe’ speed of just 65kph. But it didn’t matter, I was a travelling motorcyclist now, I was all frightening and wild like you see on TV – danger had been given a new name then fitted with knobby tires and yellow fairings. I even have a big protective jacket with a little bit of dirt on the sleeve to prove how dangerous I am! King of the road I decided, yeah! and while climbing a hill two fatties on a scooter whipped past me as if I was stopped, adding the special condition of ‘as long as no one else is around’ to the title.

And it still didn’t matter – see speed’s not what it’s about, the point is that together my bike and I ate up entire kilometers of freedom at a time! though it is true that after only 150 of them we were caught embarrassingly short due to being threatened by the fearsome and unpredictable voyage stopper that is the gently fading light of late afternoon, and dutifully surrendered without question – but in a badass kind of way.

It was time to find somewhere to set up camp, so after an hour of riding around in the sparsely populated spread of a rural town trying to find the most ruthless spot to pitch a tent without getting in trouble, I decided that in lieu of anywhere sufficiently wild or dangerous, the city’s designated camping area was going to have to do, although in keeping with my new unruly biker image I must admit that I pitched my tent almost 50M from the normal camping area on the edge of a field and a small forest (sorry mum). Unfortunately after dark this place also attracted both security guards and young lovers, and the night featured disturbances from both.

The next day I rose very early, I won’t say what time because I am too wild and free to measure my day by such things anymore, but it was so early that there were probably some people who hadn’t even arrived at work yet. I packed the bike and was back on the highway before the sun had even got to its highest point in the sky, by the time it had set I had smashed out another 200KM onto the odometer, and who knows how many metal filings from the inside of the engine. I’d now done less than 400KM in two days, and that was without anything breaking or even having so much as noticed a single corner in the road, I started to have a relapse of the common sense that had left me in Ecuador, and it did not feel good.

It’s fun to write about now that it was a week or so ago, but this was that low point where any logical person, and also myself as well, must come to the conclusion that this is going to take a lot more time, and because of that, money than expected, I started thinking about how much I’d already spent to get here, and scolded myself for having chosen a completely ridiculous bike for this trip, and on top of that, the only other owner of one of these that I’ve spoken to had recently told me that after only 8,000km his engine had completely without explanation melted into an expensive, totally over the top paperweight. This bad idea was already starting to look worse.
I started processing in my head the more likely than not possibility that I’m going to have to sell everything I have for enough cash for a plane ticket back to Australia and enough to live again until I get a job. I also considered the likelihood that my future is going to involve a lot of eating two-minute noodles and also that having to get my sauce for free from other peoples’ unused Mc Donalds sachets is more than just ‘high’
This kind of thing can really start to get a person down, especially if you’re going to be alone for a while, and even more so if you’re might live where they only sell those ‘maggi’ noodles that come in the yellow and red packet, damn they are the worst.

But with all the most well deserved regrets, there was a silver lining. 20 hours later I was enjoying some of the fruits of my stupidity in buying this particular bike when after a 3rd day of boring straight roads I deviated and happened upon a track too good to believe had even been mentioned by my GPS.

This was too perfect to come second to my frontal lobe’s nagging about soon needing eat and a place to stay the night. It was just me, my bike, some things I needed and nothing I didn’t, all on a road so perfect it was probably copied from a computer game. The afternoon sky was lit up sideways from the side by the nearly dormant sun, and was awash with a swirl of dense blues and purples like you see on the faded tie die shirts that the baby boomers wore in the 60’s.

Mammoth clouds rolled over spare spaces in the sky with colour and slowly changing edges like spilled ink on a wet page, and Kings of Leon’s because of the times album in my new fangled noise cancelling headphones, if there was a time I’ve wondered if I might actually be in a music video, this was it.

I scrambled over the very type of rocks, sand and mud that dreams are made of, riding into parts of road made it seemed only of sections of muddy water, whose depth remains unknown until totally committed. Pull back – power on – hope to come out the other side, once diving into a puddle and half disappearing into the water deep enough to kill most bikes’ engines, just for this little moment I emerge victorious and think ‘yeah! that’s why I bought this bike’

It wasn’t long until the bike began dancing beneath me with increasing enthusiasm for life, and indicated by feeling my face make “oops!” and “ooh.. that could have gone either way!” expressions more and more often,  I noticed I was starting to ride closer and closer to the edge of my ability. My pace was cut down to size when I came up behind a dump truck lumbering its way down the one lane track which has now turned to mostly sand and potholes, a perfect opportunity to assess the pace I’d just been making and issue myself a well deserved telling off complete with mandatory 30 second “Chill the f*ck out and think about what you are doing before passing” period.

Up ahead I could see that the sandy track widened from somewhere around just wide enough for the truck up to being pretty much wide enough to pass, ‘especially if he sees me and slows down’ I reassure myself. The extra width appears on the right hand side of the truck and I roll on as much throttle as I feel I can control then let the bike wander to the right and down from the raised centre into what I find to be the somewhat softer sand of the edge of the road. Completely contrary to any input I can give, the front wheel swings like a naughty horse shaking its head left to right as if to say “No! Not down here!” But I’m already committed now and try to act on the tip I read on the internet that time about how you should stand up and give more power while riding a motorcycle on sand because it gives you more control, so in acknowledgement of my insurance situation and out of courtesy to my friends and family back home I rise from my seat and feel good about myself for negating much of the risk I’d have otherwise been taking. The bike straightens up and submits again.

Just an arm’s length away the truck’s heavy wheels thump and shudder through the ruts and holes we share and my relative size and weight are given perspective as the mighty 229cc engine does its best to try and propel me a meter at a time towards that safe zone ahead where I will be past the front of the truck and no longer being next to this shaking and rumbling juggernaut which is likely to not even yet be aware of me. We get almost 3/4 of the way past the truck before I am reminded that In times of risk and excitement there often comes a moment of clarity which forces one to take that step back and say “oh, so that’s what, and this is why” – And in the time of making my decision to pass I had been focused almost entirely on what was directly in front of me and had only given the quickest of glances at this free section of ground I could use to pass to make sure it was long enough, but hadn’t seen one of it’s most important features -it was a drain and was increasing in depth. “Huh, so that’s what this is, and this is why the truck isn’t driving in it”

I chose this point to make use of any power I hadn’t yet employed and notice myself making another silly face as I wondered if it would be enough. The drain would soon deepen and stop abruptly in a soak hole, a point which was now closing in fast.
A small space had begun to open up between the truck’s wheels and the edge of actual usable road surface, now a meter and a bit to my left and at a level roughly in line with the top of my tiny front wheel. So with this decision better made sooner rather than later, I position myself on the bike to climb diagonally up the sandy edge, give everything to the plan, and hit the sand hard.

The impact knocked the wind out of me for just a second but the truck rolled it’s weight right past my helmet with plenty of centimetres to spare and was stopped 20 or 30 meters up the road with the driver leaning out of an open door probably yelling something like “¿todo bien?” I gave him a thumbs up, and quick to prove it was nothing, lifted the bike to remove my leg from beneath the bike, jumped to my feet and dragged the front around by the handlebars to point out of the drain and kicked it alive. The Kings of Leon on keep playing through my headphones, the song is “Camaro” and I let it play on.

The front wheel had ‘washed out’ meaning that it simply didn’t have the grip to do what I’d asked it and instead gave up, dumping the bike there and then. I felt some twisting pressure on ankle and wondered what it might have been like with only the hiking shoes I had originally intended to ride in, I remembered my friends back in Foz Do Iguaçu and wondered if I should give them the satisfaction of knowing they were right about buying these motorbike boots.

With both myself and the truck driver having an increased awareness of my actual riding ability, I was carefully let past second time lucky and the road eventually regained some sensibility then joined with a stretch of tarmac, leading me to a village where I could buy supplies and have an opportunity in peace to tell myself off some more – I was lucky to get away with just a story, and had now to find a way to remember this as something other than ‘a win if there ever was one’ so as to discourage more of the same behaviour in the future.

I was the centre of attention until what looked and sounded like the local primary school dropout turned up, a long-haired 40 something, sporting a flat deck ute and some  concert sized speakers strapped to the back. He was announcing his arrival to the quiet 3 street town by circling the block and blasting us with the most abrasive house music he could figure out how to burn to CD, and once sure everyone had noticed, he pulled up outside the supermarket and went inside to disturb the few people he knew who had jobs, but not before regaining himself some serious street cred by changing the song to Berlin’s 1986 hit “take my breath away” for him to listen to from outside during his visit. An undercover champion if there ever was one.

I took a photo of this eccentric old man standing on the street corner just surveying the scene, the privilege cost me 50c.

I rode off into the now almost finished afternoon breaking almost the last of the commandments I’d set out for myself, ‘Thou shalt never ride at night’ leaving only Don’t crash too badly and don’t die yet to be broken.

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Crash course.

Some important figure once said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again but hoping for a different result, so hoping for a different result I set out for a re-try at what yesterday should have been. It started the normal way, with the ride from Brazil to the beginning of the border bridge being the calm before the storm, then the similarity continued when just seconds onto the Paraguayan side a member of the local Traffic Police and his buddy spotted me on my way towards them and began with their usual waving and pointing me to the sidewalk routine. Then in another reproduction of yesterday’s recital I held the throttle wide and blew past them, wondering how it was me they had to try to stop every time. This is where the day added a dash of extra excitement, when a second after passing the now probably in pursuit traffic cops, unlike previous times where I was able to whisk away into the horizon in a second, I this time only meters past the police post caught up to the underdeveloped world’s only slow motorcyclist. Seconds ticked by like minutes while I waited and expected to feel some police hand wrenching me from my bike while I tailgated fervently almost too nervous to check my mirrors and give away some of the coyness I’d cling to if apprehended. I gave in to temptation and checked, hoping to see they were disappearing uninterested into the background or maybe pulling someone else over, they were nowhere to be seen but now I was out into the wild open street and into the dense cover that is the constant traffic jam that is Cuidad del Este and feeling cautiously optimistic.

And as I made my way from the perceived threat of having to pay a bribe, still on high alert for who might be giving chance I was just 100M up the street when breaking what had almost by now become standard practise, out from behind a parked van popped the helmeted head of the very action and adventure that I’d set out to find – and it was partly hiding the sheepish face of a man who had just pulled out in front of me on his motorbike and was about to be T-boned, which I then proceeded to complete quite thoroughly.

My marshmallow soft front suspension compressed and the front wheel locked, and slid along the asphalt for an unenviably short moment before we produced that sound that in my life so far has become so familiar in different situations that it now almost feels like home. So, like the meeting of helmets in those movies about American football, or an advertisement for slightly better corn flakes, the two entities met together with that always satisfying “CRUNCH”

Given a normal day’s luck, this all seems to fit in well enough with the next discovery of that moment – which was of a stout woman standing on the kerb just a car’s length away witnessing the event. Being the modern man I am, I don’t have any problem with woman being let outside by themselves, but I suspected this one might instead have a problem with me – this was a deduction I had keenly observed while glancing at the badge across her pocket that so menacingly read “Policia”

I’ve watched LA cops enough to know this is usually the part where the apprehendee becomes the apprehended and is invariably rewarded with an on the spot police issue beating, then is cuffed to be better kicked and punched, before being taken to the station perhaps to be beat up, or lawyer dependant, to get a pardoned release – or both, with the last two not necessarily in that order.

There was nothing I could do about it, this just t-boned fellow and I untangled ourselves from each others’ machines and wheeled them to the sidewalk occupied by the one I was sure would issue me my life’s first black eye, but this wasn’t LA and neither was it going to be filmed and narrated, in fact it wasn’t even going to be acknowledged – apparently the camouflage of a motorbike in a 3rd the world city had been enough to separate these two incidences that made up my most recent 30 seconds, and the indifference of the average cop here was enough that “ah, they were pretty much even” will suffice as reason not to react. The Policewoman just stood and watched as these two accident participants, helmets still on, made ‘what were you doing?’ hand gestures at each other until one left, and the other was me with a bike that now refused to respond to any input from the start button. I replied to the problem with a few unsuccessful tries at push starting the bike, but the knobbly dirt tires just skidded on a road made slick by mystery refuse liquids from who-knows-what shady developing country activities. The streets were packed with the traffic and mayhem you’d only see at home if the apocalypse and christmas eve coordinated to happen on the same day,  but eventually I got life to the engine through the never before successful kick starter, in all of it’s wobbly glory, and left the city confines without so much as eye contact from anyone with ideas of extorting any on the spot ‘fines’

While writing this section and still only part way through my trip I had originally posted that the rest of the day took an unrealistic turn for the better, that I’d met Pablo and we went together to the municipal council and I got my licence & ownership papers. The reason I described it as an unrealistic turn is because it wasn’t realistic, and it didn’t happen. We didn’t go to the municipal, I didn’t sit a licence and I didn’t leave Paraguay with any more ownership papers than I’d arrived with. The municipal was closed Pablo told me and as a foreigner there I had little chance I’d be leave with either, let alone both. Instead I committed to defy what even I had written on the subject just weeks before; to set out to ride across this continent without any kind of actual motorcycle licence.

Of the two problems this presented, the much less life ruining threat was of being given un-necessary fines by which ever non-Paraguayan police force might decide to target me in the near future, hardly an actual problem, but to negate this, Pablo, who worked in PR for one of Paraguay’s biggest political parties, guided me to a guy who had contact details for someone that knew a guy who worked with a fellow who could point us in the direction of someone called Ernesto, who forged licences and ownership cards. An hour later and after paying something like $15 I now had a forgery even your average 13 year old basic computing student would be ashamed of. Wrong font, wrong colour, badly laminated and then trimmed into shape perhaps with the lights turned off. More attention needed, Ernesto. C-. 

The more important implication of this licenseless state was that I’d  forfeit any kind of insurance policy – medical or otherwise that I might need if or when hospitalised in an accident. If it ever came to me lying in traction in a hospital bed piling up debt higher each day I might like the luxury of choosing to submit my poorly copied Paraguayan Licence as proof that I was legally entitled to be in this crash, and the last thing you need is some nosy insurance investigator reading a blog writing yourself out of that option. So, sorry Mum.

 

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If you can’t beat ‘em, bribe ‘em.

My last encounter with the cops had been a bit like ‘nearly’ losing control of a car, or ‘nearly’ burning your own house down – and by that I mean that as much fun as it was, being stopped by the cops is still something that I feel should be avoided.

And that was the attitude I took the next time I crossed the bridge back over to Paraguay, This came to a head when just meters from being clear of the single file concrete enforced lanes of the Paraguayan customs side, I saw the brown uniform and the pointing and waving of a man dressed as my frustrated Police friend from a couple of days before. I started on the brakes, but then remembering my new resolution, devoutly twisted the throttle and hunkered down – hardly able to hear their shouting over my exhaust as I passed them, Man that was easy, why doesn’t everyone do this? ‘Sorry guys, love to chat but today I just don’t have time’.

I was on a mission, A guy named Pablo – who is a friend of Rodolfo, had offered to meet me in the municipality to help me get my licence and after how difficult I’d been finding it to get by myself there was no way I was going to be late, especially not for someone who was going to ask to see a licence.

With a couple of minutes to spare, I went to stop by the market place and pick up a cigarette lighter socket to USB adapter so I could make something up to charge the chargeable things using my bike’s 12V supply, but as I finished the end of one too many circles around the block looking for parking, who should come and stand in my way other than another one of what I have now termed ‘The brown army’.
“Documentos” He charged, not even looking at me yet and still completely unaware of the fact that he was unwittingly about to take on the current reigning champion of “me no speaky espanyoles” That won’t be necessary sir, I commentated to myself and began with the once winning combination of head tilting and “huh?”

I’m not sure if my frustrated Police friend’s defeat from a few days before had been so massive and humiliating that it’d been bought up in this morning’s staff meeting, or if this guy had just seen this act before, but what I was now sure about was that he wasn’t really interested in the fact that I didn’t seem to speak any language of use, he was only interested in seeing my documents – especially the ones I didn’t have yet.

On first being stopped I’d given him my international drivers’ licence, the one that’s only good for a car. The biggest problem with an international drivers licence is that it isn’t just in English, and one equally big problem with this policeman was that he could read.

no es por moto” he declared, making it clear enough with his hands that I couldn’t continue pretending not to understand, but like a predator wears out it’s prey, I let us go around in circles of misunderstanding for as long as it seemed possible, then I produced my second card of the game so far – my Western Australian drivers’ licence, also only good for a car. I pointed at this marvelous blue and white card with all its shiny bits and pictures of flowers, then made motorbike noises and held my hands out on imaginary handlebars, while nodding and repeating “moto! moto!” he checked the paperwork again and shook his head while asserting “No es” This was going to be harder, and I had 20 minutes until I had to be somewhere.

Shortly after, I was given the ‘come away from the bike and wait up here’ and was then left alone for a moment while the officers conferred. It was now 15 minutes before I need to be at the Municipal and I began to play with the idea that I might actually have to concede defeat and bribe my way out of this one, either that or really turn on the retard factor. One last try, I had to think like a retard – what do they like? and if I was a better retard, what would I really want right now? The answer stood just across the street under some M shaped golden arches. I did what I thought all good mouth-breathers would have done in a situation like this, I went and got a soft serve.

It was a tasty ice cream, but it wasn’t a very functional one. I looked back and these younger, smarter police-people just waved me back on over, totally unfazed that I’d disappeared without a word for a minute or two to go and get my frozen diabetes inducing snack, they had what I was trying to use as licences and knew I wasn’t going anywhere. This time it was them who had time on their side and not me, and it was going to mean the so far undefeated winner of this game was in serious danger of losing the title.

The match ended with me making more motorbike sounds and the guy letting out a laugh but shaking his head, then with me back on my bike following another officer who had what precious little documents I did have apparently to go the the cop shop, but not before being lost in traffic from this new police officer, who when on his bike displayed no fear of death whatsoever – and in the 10 seconds we were out of contact, I was pulled over and had my documents demanded of me once more. Unfortunately for this would be punter I was a catch who was already caught, and this new no-fear-of-death police officer kindly let him know for me. We ended up in some shady back alley, and swearing black and blue it was all I had, backhanded him a grand total of about $14USD in exchange for my still incomplete paperwork and my freedom. I fled the scene while he took a victory piss in a nearby bush.

I made it to the Municipality with 5 minutes before the arranged time with Pablo, and then begun my nearly 1 and a half hour wait in the carpark before leaving as licenceless as I had come, only to ride around the block and down the street and find you guessed it, another brown uniform with stupid-ass little hat, goofy fluro crosses across his shirt standing in my way and directing me to the sidewalk, unbelievable. 

The routine began as normal, “Documentos” again, and “Huh?” once more, just as rehearsed too many times over the last few rides. Then from out of the shadows appeared a terrifying thing – the smug face of a cop who knew for a fact that I may as well have no paperwork at all on me, it was the guy who had been the first one to successfully stop me this morning and he grinned from ear to ear like a someone who was about to get something. I had been sure this was going to end the bad way again until I had one of those almost annoying thoughts, the ones that are only annoying because you didn’t think of them before, and then not so annoying because it could be a last stab at a round two victory or a draw, depending on the rules that came in the box when you got it.
Below is the fruit of such a thought;


<Left to right> Weird photo of me where I look like somone else, inconveniently placed cop from that morning, new stupid hat cop. 

I pulled out my camera and started taking happy snaps of anything and everything,  Hoping desperately that some guilty conscience might decide to play nice and forget such a thing as bribery for freedom, and soon it turned out that he’d only had his friend stop me because he wanted to play show and tell. ‘Hey, look what I got earlier this morning’ he probably said, and however cruel it was to be reminded of my loss so soon, or humiliating to be displayed as someone’s morning’s catch, I was relieved to be nothing more.

To my amusement I was even kindly given the constellation prize of morning cop telling stupid hat cop “he doesn’t understand a thing” as some kind of ‘hey, your acting skills weren’t bad’ notion.  At least he still believed my guise, – not that my apparent language difficulty was that far from the truth, it’s much like receiving a telemarketing call and making the noise of a fake crackly line when you already have an almost unusable crackly line.

“I’m going to Chile” I announced to them, “He’s going to Chile but he doesn’t understand a word! and he doesn’t have any documents!” they laughed, and this time I confirmed “nope, no entiendo nada!”

After a couple of minutes of chit-chat, and them ascertaining for themselves that I truly am a madman, they lost interest and I took off back to Paraguay and by some miracle avoided the police all the way home.

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Russell.

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To Paraguay, to Brazil! but not to the police station!

The journey to Paraguay was a fairly typical South American affair, involving the usually late busses that smell like urine and have no real fixed price or discernible timetable, the maddening and most often life threatening behavioural problems of every bus driver, And uniquely in this case, the squeezing of a bus onto what until that day I would have previously described as a “bus sized platform”

The platform, or ‘almost barge’ was maybe made from old driftwood the local farmer had collected together and tied together with bailing twine as something for the kids to play on in summer, but it had since been hijacked by bus companies and had an outboard motor strapped to the back for the worthwhile purpose of shortcutting across Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia.

It was a very small bridge.

Immediately on arrival to Paraguay I got on with the long and taxing exercise of wasting the next few days not really doing anything. Unfortunately, the moment where this would come to an end happened to fall on a weekend, so not being one to let a moment go by I hopped on a bus bound for Ciudad Del Este in time for the opening of shops on Monday, after hearing the motorbike dealerships there could provide a slightly less South American buying experience.

Cuidad Del Este is a terrific place. It’s dirty, fast, cheap, totally packed and has a satisfactory level of corruption. On top of that it has an entire section of city that’s tax free and swarming with day trippers from neighbouring city Foz Do Iguaçu in Brasil, making it feel more like South East Asia than some parts of South East Asia. The other bonus of this place it’s easier to get across the border without getting stamped by customs than it is to actually get the stamp, making it super convenient to make what I’ve termed ‘unofficial visits’

Simple as that.

People come over from Brasil for the day to buy their wares tax free then sell them in Brasil for a fair markup. This isn’t without its complications though, since there are men on the Brazilian side of the bridge making sure no one brings anything too valuable in without paying import tax to Brasil, but the more resourceful locals found a simple but quite elegant bypass for this little downfall;

Supply drop, tax free.

On the second day in Ciudad Del Este I called Rodolfo, an unrelentingly helpful Brazilian I got in touch with through the horizonsunlimited.com for some help with buying a bike, he lives in Foz Do Iguaçu so I ducked over to see him, And so much for Paraguay – in total I’ve spent about 80% of my days stamped into Paraguay across the river in Brasil, but right now the plan is to keep that a total secret from my Passport since I’ll need my Paraguayan visa intact to leave with a Paraguayan motorbike.

A quick diversion from the task at hand, since I was now in what I’m told is the region of one of South Americas best attractions, I might as well go and see it. That is the falls, at Foz Do Iguaçu, and they did not disappoint.

Some of the Falls.

Back on topic, one exciting afternoon Rodolfo and I went over to Paraguay for me to test ride the bike I’d been looking at, because that’s what anyone would do before buying a vehicle, right? not here. Each the dealer we asked looked almost as embarrassed as they should have been, as they scratched the backs of their head and looked down when telling me you have to buy a bike before you can ride it a week later, and that nothing on the showroom floor actually runs – ridonculous.

See it looks like the guy who designed the sewage system that can’t flush toilet paper, the electrically heated shower heads with exposed wires, and the busses with leaking toilets must have also written out the buying process for new vehicles, or if it seperate people they at very least they all went to (or skipped?) school together. So whatever I was going to buy, I’d be relying solely on my senses of sight and smell.

So as quickly as Christmas does, the day for motorbike purchasing came.
And just in time to save me from buying some untested, no name, ready-to-break chinese bike, so did Tim, an Aussie traveller who was selling his bike the same week I was buying one. His was a tidy 2008 Kawasaki KLR650 in good condition with all the bells and whistles and all ready for travelling, including all the safety and camping gear and had twice the power I’d need, sure it was heavy and didn’t have cool knobbly tires or look like it was about to eat your face off, but it did have proven japanese reliability and what few weak bits it had were already replaced with strong, shiny bits. It also had a price tag of only $3500, only about $1000 more than I’d probably have ended up spending after I buy my riding gear.

Rodolfo was happy for me, what great luck that Tim and I had both arrived at the same time. The choice was pretty obvious, there was no question which the better choice was.
One problem still remained of course, me.
I didn’t want a 42HP, 200KG, water cooled bike with a GPS heat sensor and a gamma ray spectrometer for every frequency harmonizer I didn’t need, and I didn’t want it’s surface to air missiles or glovebox mounted Swiss accountant either, no matter how reliable. I wanted something I could fix myself and something that had parts available across the continent – albeit disguised under different names to keep foreigners on their feet. So, much to the continuing disgust of a number of people with at least some degree of motorbike experience, I went ahead and put down the $2091 on one of these, a Chinese built ‘Star Amazonas 250′, also called a ‘Ronco Demolition 250′ in Peru.

A week later I had the keys in my hand and some trepidation in my mind. I left the shop and watched the odometer click over its first kilometer, by the 3rd km I could feel the heat on my bare leg, and by the 5th it was so hot I’d pulled over to try to figure out what was wrong. I pulled the spark plug, maybe the fuel to air mixture was set wrong, 20 minutes and 5 impromptu pit stops later I’d made a handful changes that had little effect. This was enough to concern even me, but not enough to concern me past the point of knowing a good time when I see one, so I still took the opportunity to grace a grass verge or two with my presence before arriving back at the hostel, where I would downplay to everyone just how hot I felt the engine was and call it day.

At the “Star” dealership.

Once I read a Lee Child book where the character said ‘the only way to find out if a stove is hot is to touch it’, and while anyone can tell you that’s a pretty stupid notion, in this case the touching of the stove was just too good, and with only a few thoughts ignored, more riding could even be logically warranted, since this heating up thing is probably just part of running in a new engine or something, yeah that sounds good enough to believe.

So the next day after an oil and sparkplug change and a noticeable but still unsatisfactory decrease in engine temperature, I decided ‘near enough’ and geared up in my cool dude motorbike rider suit with all its adequate padding and it’s not so adequate ventilation then headed for an area meant to be for off riding off-road, and ride off-road I did – riding  around teaching myself the ropes and getting confident enough to do some jumps, I managed to bottom the suspension out on landing a few or 5 times. Should I be worried about that? not sure – Better to think about it later.
It was just me, a whole lot of dirt and trees and a motorbike. Some say could say it was dangerous but none could deny it was bliss. I felt like hungry a fat kid with a fist full of big mac vouchers.

The next day was to be more of a ‘bonding’ day between myself and the bike, who given its bi-cultural origins just might end up being named something like “Señor El Chairman Mao 毛泽东”. It was time to play mechanics again, a game sorely missed since leaving my garage in New Zealand a few years ago. Finally I had something dirty, smelly and a bit dangerous again that wasn’t my armpits or undies. I celebrated with the purchase of more cable ties than I hope to ever need, but the purchase should have been spanners, since in another not so reassuring discovery; I found that the ones that came with the bike fit nuts and bolts so loosely that they’d round off the head of any nut or bolt if let within a half meter range of their would-be victim, so another few items for the shopping list.
I tightened the now sagging chain, and curiously loosening spokes, moved electrical wires around, cable tied this, taped that, all the ingredients for a perfect little afternoon, followed by the annoyance, then frustration, fear, grief and feeling pissed off that comes with me losing my wallet and not seeing it again that night. exhausting.

Dirt, grease and cable ties. It was indeed a good day.

This afternoon a new thrill was discovered in Paraguay, the afternoon traffic around the bridge was chaos. Motorbikes have different rules in Paraguay, and it’s all based around just one; ‘If you can go, then go.’ On what feels like a starting grid, Everyone squeezes and jostles for position at walking pace,  the air is full of fumes from abused chinese 125’s, mirrors knock together, footpegs clip exhausts on their way past and curbs are frequently mounted in any attempt not to wait for anything. It’s the pressure, sound and fumes that only the pre-green flag seconds at a racetrack could otherwise provide, mixed with the ridiculous absurdity that can only ever come from the third world, and then they’re off! but it’s not the traffic that was the thrill, I’m the gringo everyone’s overtaking because I value my health and my kneecaps.

The actual excitement began when we were in single file, funnelling through the narrow motorcycle lane of the bridge, a meter or less wide and outlined by the kerb on one side and half meter high concrete blocks on the other. To me the exactly correct way to enter this lane still remains a bit of a mystery, I just kind of ride with the cars and then find a gap in the concrete blocks and switch over, today during the part where I hope no one notices I’m not actually a car, I saw from the corner of my eye some uniform blowing a whistle at me, to be safe I continued on without stopping, ignoring the screeching that was so rudely disturbing my already hectic ride, unfortunately the whistling relayed ahead of me and soon after I rode up the kerb to get into the motorbike lane I was pulled over by another uniform toting whistle-blower standing in the way so I couldn’t get by, I assumed him to be the police.

“Documentos” he grumbled, I knew he was asking for the bike papers I hadn’t gotten around to getting all of yet, and I’m sure there’s some silly old rule about foreigners entering and leaving the country without getting their passport stamped, but I’d seen this once before and I had a new game for him where we would play by my rules – suddenly my spanish took an extreme turn for the worse. “que?” I asked, “what?”
He listed in spanish the bits of paper I needed to be showing him and I recited what I’d been practising for 26 years, I stared blankly.
There was no way he could be allowed to think that I understood him, I paused and nodded “Si” “Licencia!” he demanded. I haven’t actually gotten around to getting one of those just yet either, so I just stared and waited until my refusal to understand nearly looked deliberate, then as if by some coincidence, handed him my international drivers’ licence, only good for a car. “International!” I grinned to him as if I’d told him we’d both just won the lotto, he shook his head and motioned for me to take the helmet off, and being the complaint person I am I obliged immediately, anything to help. He told me that because I didn’t have all my documents I was going to have to pay the police, but the look on my politely smiling face told him “I’m dreadfully sorry sir, but I simply do not understand a word!” It would have been absolutely impossible to have lost my wallet at a more convenient time. I tried to shake his hand but this man would have no such nonsense, Things were going well.
He asked me if I was going to Brazil, and after what I thought would be a suitable pause I nodded violently and announced “Brazil! Brazil! Brazil!” pointing repeatedly to Brazil like one of those egyptian dancers. It was important that this man thinks I am incapable of understanding the gravity of the situation, or better yet, any situation at all – because if I don’t understand him, I can’t bribe him.

About mid-point in this conversation, another motorist ran to him and without saying anything, underhanded a note or two of Paraguayan currency towards my new policeman friend for the return of his own documents, then returned to his bike.

“How much money do you have with you?” and “show me your dollars” he told me. I pointed to the motorbike and said “Paraguay!” “how many dollars you do have here?” he demanded again. “Ummm… nope?” I answered.  A good few minutes went by and around and around we went, rephrasing the question wasn’t going to help, this was one gringo who just wouldn’t get it. Then in an act even surprising to me, he pulled his wallet out and showed me his stack of US dollars, motioning with his hands for me to give some of mine to him, “…yo hablo español” I told him in a fairly solid ‘I don’t speak spanish’ accent and sounding as absolutely pleased with myself as possible for pronouncing it.

The man threw his hands up in the air in frustration, I’d seen this once before – it signalled  his surrender. He shook his head again and irately waved me on to brazil like I was a dirty blow fly that had been buzzing around his face all day.  Credit where credit’s due, it was my front row seat on the back of Tim’s bike where I learned the necessary skills for such an exchange. I had emerged successful and at least by me, no bribes were paid that day.

Thanks for reading, right now I’m preparing the bike for the trip, getting a licence, and finishing that last bit of paperwork I need for the bike ownership, I expect to leave here in 3 or so days so the next entry to this collection of whatever I called it might not be for a while longer and probably won’t be the stunning quality you see above, although I will endeavour to prove myself wrong on both counts. But in the mean time, if you bothered reading all the way down to here, why not like or share this on Facebook or your own blog? the more people that read this the more worthwhile it is to spend the day writing it!

Let’s say 2 weeks until the next one?
Cool, until then.

Russell.

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In the beginning, there was only backpacking.

After travelling Latin America for something like 5 months, something wasn’t right. I pondered and processed all of my thoughts over the months leading up to this and made the observation, or maybe diagnosis that so far there had been a notable lack of challenge, and a total absence of the kind of sheer terror needed to ever have a truly good time.

The situation peaked, or lulled, or something, in Banos – Ecuador, where one beautiful and uncharacteristically irresponsible day I made the best decision of the trip so far; when seriously in lack of real motorcycle experience and without any kind of licence for such a contraption I hired a Honda XR250 Tornado headed up some mountain roads and tracks to explore. What could go even wrong?

Thumbs up was an understatement.

And it was good, very good. The day following I went out for another dose, this time recruiting an Englishman who on hearing how good the first day was, agreed without hesitation before asking “wait.. is it hard to ride a motorbike?” He ended up on a quad.

Carl and I after conquering the world

The two days could easily be described as nothing short of some kind of enlightening experience. Both times after returning the bike to the hire shop I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the quiet streets of the pretty spanish colonial town in the cool Autumn afternoon under-dressed in just my shorts and T-shirt, with nothing between the skin on my feet and the few century old stone cobbles. I felt so good I wondered if there was something in the tap water. I gazed up at the surrounding mountains, who were immediately present in every direction.
I saw beauty in every small thing, I had a general projection that everything would be just fine and wondered if this was similar to what some friends had described parts of an LSD trip to be like. At this stage in the journey I switched to drinking bottled water, at very least to insure against the risk of ever voting for the green party.

But it seemed that the damage was done, after a few weeks of dreams featuring visits from big knobbly dirt tires on dirt roads and roads that turned into tracks that turned into trails that simply had to be ridden, it was apparent that I was in need of professional help, but professional anything is something I can’t afford, or at least bring myself to pay for.
What seemed to be much better value was to self medicate, so I wrote myself a prescription for a full course of motorcycle riding – to be taken in full shortly after breakfast every day until cured or out of money, which on the remainder of this budget looked to be about 3 months if I could be careful.

Being the thrifty individual my mother raised me to be I knew it’d nothing short of financially reckless to hire a motorbike every day for the kind of period this kind of treatment calls for, and considering my fond habit of destroying all things mechanical, I decided I would buy a bike of my own, so I consulted the smartest friend I have – The Internet.

I also had one other minor hitch – no licence. ‘Fine’ some people say, ‘You can bribe the cops for cheap here’ or ‘you can just make fake papers’ they say, “That’s cool, not a problem” I said. But have you ever heard of something called a motorcycle accident? Well they have them here and there is no lack of sheer volume or severity, and if I’m in one and need an airlift and a stay in a hospital bed two things would start happening if I had been riding without a licence; first, my travel insurance company would shrug it’s shoulders and make “sorry, too bad” faces at any claim, and second I would be changing my name to Pedro and moving to Mexico to work the rest of my days in a burrito stand and acting weird when people mention debt collectors.

So contrary to can’t-do attitude of the majority of travellers I met, some of which had given half hearted attempts themselves, I was certain that to buy and register a bike somewhere in this continent was do-able one way or another, that the licence and insurance thing could be fixed too, and I was going to make it happen for sure. I was Bruce Willis in Die Hard, I was Jack Bauer in 24. There was no stopping, persuading, or even reasoning with me, and I was willing to be as ruthless as I needed to be, especially when it comes to getting across those international borders, at least to the full extent of my photoshop abilities anyway.

So after an embarrassing and just slightly disgusting number hours and days on sites like www.horizonsunlimited.com and www.advrider.com I found a glint of light, then a solid ray of hope in what had started to look like a darkening situation, that ray of hope shone from some 5,000KM away in Paraguay, where after a few questionable confirmations I confirmed a foreigner can buy and register a bike, and most importantly get a licence which can legally be used to ride all the countries I’ll be visiting, and I’ll even be able to do the border crossings without any help from adobe photoshop and his naughty old Hewlett-Packard printer friends.

So, with this much research the only thing left to do was to think seriously whether I should actually do this…….ok done, let’s do it. And with that I hightailed it to Paraguay and just a 3 week long blink of an eye later I was flying in to Asuncion, the capital city of Paraguay, once home of the world’s longest running dictatorship. I arrived complete with my recently home-modified ‘return’ ticket, as some reported needing to flash on the way through the airport to get let in. The fabricated return ticket proved unnecessary, but it would have been reckless to have turned up without correct documents, and I just can’t imagine taking a risk like that.

It’s also worth mentioning camping gear I picked up on the way through Bolivia, I bought myself a waterproof tent which without being asked transforms into a self-contained swimming pool at the first sight of light rain, but my personal favourite is my new sleeping bag – who’s label cheerfully lies “Marmmut, -10°C” on the bag. I’ve spent a total of 2 and a half hours repairing and re-enforcing the stitching at the blistering speed of about a meter and a bit per hour to stop the constant outward flow of whole feathers.


The 2 top highlights of this little gem are that the label inside it that claims to be made somewhere called “The People’s republic of USA” and that it’s made from 80% goose down and 100% goose down.


For you mathematically challenged that would be 180% – how absolutely incredible. This proves the theory held by many that the world’s great physicists and mathematicians aren’t dead, but are actually working in a sweat shop somewhere in the P.R.U.S.A.

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