Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Road Less Travelled...

...IS THE ROAD best travelled. I don't often envy people their trips; I'm lucky enough for it to occasionally be the other way around. But I envy Motorbike George his. I'd first met him when we'd dived the Blue Hole in Belize together. It was a disappointing dive, but a good day out. Besides, I made a pretty good mate out of it...so it wasn't all bad.

George is a Greek native, and has worked in the City of London for some time. He's probably one of those bastards responsible for the economic downturn...but if he is, he isn't letting on. He packedall that in in favour of a trip of a lifetime on a BMW 1200 motorbike he bought in Mexico. He's likely going to make it all the way to Patagonia, then get a boat to South Africa and work his way back to Europe and home. Now that is what I call a trip.

We'd followed the same route from Belize into Guatemala, George often a day behind. We traversed a river by ferry together: myself, Kneehead and The Bognorsin a sweaty minibus, George disappearing in a cloud of dusty freedom on the far bank. I could only watch green-eyed as he vanished over the horizon.

I've met a fair few bikers over the course of this trip, and indeed over the course of my last visit to the Americas. Stefano rates his best trip so far as being aboard a BSA across India. You can't match that freedom in a bus. If you shout to the driver "Hey...where does that road go?" as you pass an inviting, tree-lined stretch from a main road, he'll only think you mental. On a bike, you'd be braking and cutting off down it to investigate. I'm going to have to do it myself one of these days, and a short time on the road with George only reinforced that.

We left Suchitoto in the morning and took a back road uphill to another village, a route even the buses don't follow. This is where you really see the country and the people. Circumnavigating the lake, we enjoyed the valley from all possible vistas as we climbed higher on this winding dirt road. Cattle cooled off in the rivers; locals waved; screaming kids chased us as we passed through tiny villages; nervous dogs barked and ran us off their territory, slowing once satisfied we'd been shown who was boss.

Security is an issue with a bike. You're certainly a target on $15K's worth of shiny mechanical wonder in the middle of nowhere; particularly in places like Colombia and Brasil. You need to find hostels with somewhere to get the bike out of sight overnight, too. We'd been through one small puebleo and asked directions, only to find we had a tail a few miles out of the town. Two men on a smaller bike, the pillion hunched behind the rider. I didn't say anything, but saw George double-take in the mirror and accelerate a little. Was he thinking what I was thinking? I'm a nervous enough pillion passenger as it is, so I didn't want to voice my fears and have George put his foot down on these dodgy roads; I'd already seen how cars, buses and trucks could take a racing line in the oncoming lane, drifting over onto our side without a thought for us and our fragility. On the straights, we outpaced the duo. But on the bends, they started catching up. Closer. Closer still. I kept turning around nervously. The passenger was still crouching behind the rider, and he was eyeing me as they began to draw level. What was he holding out of sight? A gun? I pictured them alongside us, an arm with pistol outstretched as they forced us to pull over. They were right next to us now, and the pillion shifted his weight a little as we approached a bend. Shit...he's got a...he's...he's got...a chicken? I had to chuckle at my paranoia as they passed us and the passenger gave me the thumbs-up as he checked the bike out. I smiled and returned it. The chicken just looked at me, nonplussed. We started racing each other for a while, taking turns to recklessly overtake...and he waved again as they took a side-road and disappeared.

We hit the Panamerican Highway and headed east, myself navigating from the folded-up map stuffed inside my hooded top. The wind buffeted me as George accelerated, the road slightly better here. Trees zipped past, and I reflected on how my body would be smashed against one should one of these potholes prove too much for my friend's skill. But I started to relax, and George said he could feel this. I enjoyed the view, nerves disappearing. El Salvador has 18 volcanoes, and I could see four from my vantage point...the scenery was incredible.
I'd done my research on the region we were roaring towards, and George was quite happy to follow my itinerary as he hadn't read up on it. He's a lazy bugger, couldn't even be arsed getting up for the sunrise at Tikal. So we headed for the town of Alegría via Berlin. Here is where the beauty of bike travel really hits home; as we rode around the town square, surveying the groups of suspicious-looking locals with eyes glued to the bike, George tossed over his shoulder "What a shithole!" I laughed and pointed the way out of town. Alegría it was, then...a far more pleasant town of gorgeously-painted murals. Had I been on a bus, I'd have been stuck in Berlin an hour or two, with possible unwanted attention. We were lucky it was a Sunday in Alegría, though...the square was packed with diners; a small band played traditional music as we ate. The next morning the place was dead...not a soul around. So we mounted up, and cleared out...no waiting for public transport.

On the way out we visited a volcanic crater lake, described by the Lonely Paranoid as beautiful, and a great place to swim. It was neither. Underwhelmed after a circuit of it on the bike, we headed for the road out of town. Our next destination was the Morazán province, scene of the heaviest fighting, and the worst atrocities of the civil war.

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