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.
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’
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;
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.
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.
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.
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.