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The Kindness of Strangers

Gazin, Bonito, BrazilI’D VISITED GAZIN five times now. During that time I’d comfortably survived needing no cash. I didn’t need Western Union and their ineffectual, expensive service and so began the cancellation procedure.

 

Banco do Brasil, BonitoNow, where do you go to change currency? I know, Banco do Brazil, money is their business, they’d have some… The receptionist recognises me from before and says “No, no Western Union.” I take out the currency from my fleece pocket and fan it out to underline my need for currency exchange but no. I’m directed across the plaza to a travel agent. The travel agent shakes his head and points up the street. “Hotel Paraiso das Aguas… two blocks”

Hotel Paraiso das Aguas, Bonito, Bolivia.Hotel Paraiso das Aguas is large, spacious and empty apart from a receptionist barely visible on her low seat behind a tall wooden desk. “Senora fala Ingles?” I mimic off my CD course. The receptionist disappears down a corridor, her footsteps echoing off the hard ceramic surfaces, and returns with a young English speaking woman. I explain my plight and show her my currency. She asks me if I have Colombian Pesos and Peruvian solesAmerican Dollars before taking pity on me and phoning her husband to check my selection. She accepts the €50 but rejects the rest. This far from the border, Peruvian and Colombian currency is simply worthless paper, like Monopoly money. Their value is only supported by communal belief and their communities aren’t powerful enough to project their belief this far. I leave the hotel with 185 reais and a heartfelt “Good luck” from the young woman.

The banks back in the UK told me they could only send the cards to my home address. They also told me that they could send emergency cash, “Yay!” But I’d need my debit card to collect it, “Groan!”

Could they send the card to an Embassy? No, they couldn’t. However what they suggested they could do – something that I’d thought of but felt would be laughed all the way out of the messaging system – is change my home address to the hotel I was staying at in Brazil. Fine, do that then…

Something that initially needed ID and a utility bill, and a visit to a branch in the UK now apparently became possible because I was communicating through the online banking secure messaging system.

With the debit cards now supposedly on their way, I could relax and turn my thoughts to other things. I relayed my story to Tim and Guiliana, an American, Brazilian couple on vacation here with their young son. Tim felt so sorry for me, he took the trouble to drop by the tent the evening before departure and donated 50 reais. He had to be at the airport 3am so this was the last chance to see him.

Western Union, Gazin, BonitoClair and Carlos, a German, Brazilian couple – from the Netherlands – on vacation with their family of two daughters and a son offered to take cash out of an ATM in exchange for a bank transfer, which I gratefully accepted. Even paying had become a challenge without a bank card to confirm new payees using the Pin-Sentry security device. An obstacle overcome via my sister as an existing payee and intermediary.

The kindness of strangers exceeds my expectations here. I’ve not even had to ask for help here, It comes as a flood of offers as I share my story. Something that I haven’t experienced for decades back in the UK… you know, back in the times when neighbours used to talk and look after each other…

Lost Wallet

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Protect Your Money Abroad

What To Do If You Lose Your Money Abroad

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All Quiet On The Western Union Front

Western Union, Gazin, BonitoBREAKFAST HERE AT Posada do Peralta became my lifeline. A tasty buffet that set me up for the day and, by making a couple of rolls and tucking them in my jacket pockets, kept me going through dinner time until the next morning. Sometimes I was the only one there and, secure in the knowledge I wouldn’t go hungry,  I quietly planned my day over a few cups of coffee. I could get by with no money but at the same time, I felt vulnerable with none on me.

Despite the optimistic weather forecast, the morning sun was obscured by a grey blanket of cloud and I retreated to the tent with my stolen dinner to see how much foreign currency that I might be able to change.

Camping at Pousada do PeraltaChickens scratched around the lawn for food around my tent while I scratched around inside for cash. I found a wad stashed in a document wallet that I keep all my stray papers: Colombian Pesos and Peruvian Soles. More than was reasonable since it was before I managed to estimate my budget better whenever approaching borders. I folded it best I could inside my passport and zipped it in my fleece pocket.

Rain tapped its arrival on the fabric of the tent. I’d wait until the shower passed before riding into town and checking with the Police Station. The rain continued all day while I sheltered in the tent and so I lost myself in cyberspace instead.

One of my close friends back in the UK called up on WhatsApp and offered to help after I’d put an update on Facebook. She initiated a Western Union transfer, which appeared to be fast and successful. There are three Western union locations listed in Bonito and it was Friday evening. Two were banks and closed at the weekend. Saturday was indicated to be open at Gazin so I was all set for trotting down to the agent at the Gazin store with an optimistic spring in my step.

Gazin, Bonito, BrazilA wet Saturday morning dawned into a muted greyness. I gave up waiting for the rain to stop and ventured out during a drizzle break to ride down to Gazin. Yes, the store was open, no the Western Union desk wasn’t “Come back Monday at 11 am.” was as much Portuguese as I could decipher.

Meanwhile, I nipped to the Police station just around the corner, in hope rather than expectation. An English speaking policeman was a nice surprise and he took some notes and offered to fill in a report for my insurance. No need, I don’t have travel insurance. He said he’d let me know if the wallet turns up…

Policia Militar, BonitoThe weather had killed life in Bonito and Saturday had been drowned on its glistening silver streets. The drizzle had upgraded itself to rain ready for my journey back to Peralta, I returned empty-handed and with a quilted jacket that had gained three times its weight in water along the way.

Sunday. It didn’t matter that the rain had stopped. Bonito is closed on Sundays. “Hang Tough” was a phrase that came to mind. It wasn’t raining but the temperature plunged to the low teens. With nothing to do, it was difficult staying warm. Bonito’s weather resembles one of those cheap showers that you can adjust too hot or too cold but rarely just right for a sustained amount of time.

The shock of losing of the wallet had worn off after the first 24 hours. I had given up shuffling through my belongings mumbling “I don’t believe it.” That attitude clouded my mental vision. Now I could see how much worse this situation could have been. I still had my passport, vaccination certificate and bike documents. Indeed I was lucky that I had lost the wallet where I was currently camping, as the bill for food and lodging is only settled on departure. I had shelter, food, power and WiFi. Three of which I’d be short of out in the wild. Had I been in Bolivia, postage would also have been a concern.

Banco do Brasil, BonitoThe next day, Gazin’s computer system was down. Banco do Brazil was on Western Union’s list as an agent only four blocks away. I went there to try my luck.

I took the ticket from the dispenser from the bank’s machine in the lobby before squeezing the contents of my bag through a transparent flap in the glass partition protecting the main office and passing through a rotating security door. I took a seat. My ticket was ‘A44.’ the screen Bradesco Bank, Bonito, Brasildisplayed A38. Two hours later, ‘ping!’ A44 and was swiftly instructed via Google translate that Banco Do Brazil could only release funds either to their own customers or Brazilian residents, surely I deserved more time than that after a two-hour wait. Bradesco bank told me similar but faster and less security ritual.

I returned to Gazin. Yes, the system was back up. No, I couldn’t have the money. The excuse was lost in translation… and I retreated to regroup for the next day. The battle was lost but the war was still on…

Options then: Keep hacking at the claws of Western Union’s grip on my cash at Gazin; have replacement cards sent to this hostel; settle the bill using Bank Transfer, Paypal or Transferwise and make a run to a border town with more facilities? I still had the currency in my pocket although I hadn’t needed cash so far, even after so many days.

WU EmailChecking my email, my original Western Union transfer had been reviewed by support and cleared. I had a new reference number to play with but, looking closely at the details, the email receipt specified “Bank Account or Mobile Wallet.” What? Cash was omitted from the selection. What was the use of that? Brazil runs on 1. Cash, 2. Card Payments, and I possessed neither.

Running around Bonito, I had attracted a couple of contacts: Isaac, an English teacher, who stepped in on his own initiative when I was struggling with communicating with lobby staff at Banco do Brazil; and Luiz Antonio, a lawyer parked next to me on his BMW R80. He was curious about the little Yamaha with the Peruvian plate and gave me his number should I need help after shooting a short Youtube interview on his phone.

I texted Isaac the very next day, asking if he could meet me at Gazin to translate. Ten minutes later we were at the Western Union desk. Isaac relayed to me that they could only release funds when the sender’s credit card bill had been paid. The thing is, it had been paid using debit card… We all looked at each other and some of us shrugged…

They make it up as they go along, I swear…

 

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A Prisoner of Paradise

Pousada do PeraltaPOUSADA DO PERALTA has good reviews 0n the ioverlander app and seems reasonably priced. Kicking down the side stand and planting it in the gravel, I climb off the bike and introduce myself at reception and given a tour of the tree-shaded grounds, bursting at the seams with coach-sized luxury motorhomes, I give the thumbs up with a smile and given a warm welcome in barely intelligible Portuguese. I get the tone and body language more than I do the words.

Camping at Pousada do PeraltaPitching my tent at a space at the far end near the laundry, the giant motorhomes fill up the rest of the site. They are here for Bonito’s Annual Winter Festival. A pounding beat out of the centre motorhome blankets the peace the rest of us would otherwise enjoy but is thankfully switched off by dusk.

The warm weather encourages me to strip to my t-shirt and jeans and recline into a hammock under the trees before firing up the laptop. Sandflies soon encourage my fleece back on again to gently sweat in the balmy air. When the music dies the husky quacks of Toucans and distant song of mysterious tropical birds come alive.

The WiFi is strong and reliable and I catch up on some neglected writing and sorting through videos, stitching short clips together ready for uploading to Youtube. While I’m learning these crafts, hours get vacuumed into the day and dragged over the horizon with the sun.

One day flowed into another through bright sunny days in the high twenties. The beauty of the Araras’ (Macaws) plumage was offset by their shrill squawks. It was a wise choice to choose the hammocks not directly under their favourite branches…

I ignored the tours proudly shown off on big colourful posters around the office and set about looking for how to generate an income online so I could perhaps stem the leak from my savings and reassure myself I could continue the journey I found myself on.

I considered leaving after day three but the forecast was for rain and thunderstorms for the following couple of days. I hung back but nothing really came of it and the forecast for the next week looked fine.

I eventually packed everything ready to load the bike and leave. Five days here felt long enough. I’d go south of Bonito to one of the sites near the river, then Jardim, then down to Paraguay. That was the plan.

Lost WalletGathering everything together, something was noticeable by its absence. My wallet. Checking pockets, bags and all through the tent. No wallet. I wouldn’t be going anywhere. In the wallet were; R500 ( about £100), my last active bank card, blood donor card, a few sentimental photos, and a photocopy of my passport. Checking my pockets, I had only three coins, 1 Real and 2 Bolivianos.

I didn’t believe it at first, since I’d hardly been anywhere away from the site, and continued looking. Planting my moneyless carcass down in the shade of the tent, I pondered my options. I couldn’t see many through my emotional cloud of disbelief. I couldn’t buy anything… I couldn’t leave because I couldn’t buy fuel. At the same time, I couldn’t just do nothing so I rummaged through every item I owned once again. There’s only so much you can get on a motorbike so that didn’t keep me busy for long. If it were here it would have shown itself by now.

Lost WalletI discovered a similar empty wallet in the bottom of a bag of gifts for family. I had bought two wallets in Cusco, one for me and one for my Dad, something I could wave around to see if anyone would recognise its twin. I had had my wallet last at the Formoso Supermarket the day before and hadn’t been anywhere else since. Lost or Stolen, I couldn’t tell. Whatever the facts, the wallet and its contents remained absent…

Formoso Supermarket, BonitoWhile I had internet access, I typed out the question I wanted to ask at the supermarket via Google Translate and rode around the corner, pronto. Shaking of heads were the only response to the question I was pointing out on the screen. Lost for any more words, I coasted slowly back to Peralta scanning the gutter for stray wallets.

Five hundred Reais is about one hundred pounds, or about 10 days budget for living at the hostel, a fair sized loss. Worse than that though was the loss of the card. Like the sword of Damacles, that last remaining access to my funds had been hanging by a thread for months.  That thread had now snapped, cutting me off from my financial reserves.

I had no backup in place. The convoluted policies of my banks had always put me off whenever I set about dealing with it. Anyway, the expiry date of the card was six months off so I had plenty of time to sort it out.

Western UnionI logged on to Western Union and found I could send cash using a bank transfer. Screen by screen completed, one to another and, Ping! a pop up: “Your money transfer isn’t complete We’re sorry, but we are not able to send your money. If you have any questions, please call customer service at 0808 234 9168”

Using Skype, I contacted support to hear a voice, worn down by the repetition and disdain of a helpdesk environment, which told me to clear browser data: cache, cookies and history from the internet browser. I was instructed to have a nice day before he hung up.  Clearing data didn’t help in either Firefox or Chrome. I was stuck.

If money doesn’t buy you freedom, the absence of money certainly puts bars around it. Bars that can’t be seen but can certainly be felt…

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

How To Protect Your Money While Travelling Abroad

What To Do When Losing Your Money Abroad

 

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Crossing The Pantanal

PantanalPANTANAL? NEVER HEARD of it… An internet search for the word for it brought up “wetlands.” Later, it dawned on me how important and beautiful this National Park is. Toucans, Macaws (Araras), Anteaters, Alligators; all as common as sparrows, magpies and squirrels back in the UK.

BMW R80 BrazilCorumba is an ideal service stop after exiting Bolivia, close enough to the border to address any immigration problems. The further inland you go, the more sparse these offices become and the more difficult it gets to resolve any difficulties. The issue with the camouflaged customs here on the border was a good example and I settled down to prepare for the rest of the journey.

Corumba ATMThe bank ATMs in the centre of Corumba reject my card. The banks here support neither Visa or Mastercard but I later discover a machine, tucked behind a kiosk in a nearby supermarket and another at the Shell fuel station way across town. It occurred to me that having only one Debit Card is a bottleneck for ongoing access for funds. I started off with two cards initially but the first one was lost in Sicily whilst minding Sailing Vessel Pantelisa before the Atlantic crossing to Colombia.

Yellow Fever ClinicSome countries require an international yellow fever vaccine certificate if you’ve visited Brazil. As I’m passing the local hospital, I drop in and ask at reception for any info. They speak no English but understand enough what I’m asking and they mark on my tourists map the clinic a few blocks down the road and direct me there.

Yellow FeverI leave the bike across the road and wander through a crowded waiting room to the small queue at the reception desk. After a short wait, I ask about “Amarillo Fever” pointing to the ‘febre amarila’ poster and they try to guess where I’m from ” Italiano?” “No, Ingles.” I’m invited to make myself comfortable on one of the plastic chairs in the waiting room. Two hours later after sitting in the company of breastfeeding mothers and wailing babies, they call me into a cupboard-sized room, big enough for a couple of chairs, a desk and shelves of basic medical paraphernalia. A couple of questions about nationality and age then Jab, rubber stamp and I’m done. I ask the receptionist if this card was the certificate I needed and she pulls up the address of the Anvisa office on Google and points to it. I snap a photo of the screen with my phone and swing the bike out onto the cobbles homeward to Road Riders.

Anvisa office, the next day, time 14:20. “Where are you from?” It says it in the passport he’s holding. “United Kingdom… Great Britain… Gran Bretagne… England… Inglaterra?” Blank look… his eyes return to the screen and all became quiet between the mouse clicks and the tapping of computer keys. I check the certificate he hands to me. Place of birth: “Georgia.” Close enough, and I  tuck it into my satchel. Tip: if you ever get asked in a Spanish or Portuguese speaking country and need to express Britain as your place of origin, learn to say “Reino Unido.” Also, if you don’t know that, it’s a bugger to find in the list of countries on a computer since it’s nowhere near G or U in an alphabetical drop-down box.

Yamaha YB125After a week at Road Riders, having collected more contacts it was time to move on. The bike had already been prepared the day before and I had everything I needed. Diego gave me a gallon container so I could grab more fuel when I need it between the longer distances across Brazil and Argentina, which would take the stress out of watching the fuel gauge needle plummet toward empty while out in the sticks. I devised a clever loop system so I could release the container without untying the bags. Always thinking…

Manoel NetoI visit Manoel and his wife one more time and he insisted on escorting me to the edge of town for the 350km trip to Bonito. Manoel pulls over on the edge of town at what looks to be an unattended checkpoint, I stop to thank him and give a wave as I pull away toward my first waypoint, the town of Miranda. The day is hazy and surprisingly cold and, on the horizon, rain threatens to dampen my ride. This is the Pantanal, the wetlands of Brazil, the famous national park I’d never heard of before.

Farewell CorumbaThe road to Miranda has a smooth grey surface, dead straight on a raised dyke through a marshy flat landscape bisected by the mighty Paraguay River. Speed cameras line the road at my maximum cruising speed of 80kmh to help protect the wildlife that stray across. I’m told the water level is unusually high for the time of year and I notice the Brahman cattle between the shrubs, ankle deep in water, grazing on whatever vegetation breaks the surface and wonder how many get taken by alligators.

A family of capybara in the middle of the road causes me to stop. They dawdle out of the way while I fumble to retrieve my camera before they slowly disappear into the hedgerow.

CapybaraThe weather had brightened up before I reached Miranda where I was due to turn right to Bonito. I was warmer now as I coasted into the gas station for a top up. The fuel container behind me was replaced by empty space and the rope it was attached to was a loose and wayward loop hanging off the back of the bike. I surmised the container bounced off the seat and worked its way along the rope, over the bag until it hung off the back near the rear light and eventually worked the loop off the peg and escape to join the animals in the Pantanal. My contribution to pollution of the habitat while decreasing my fuel range. Everyone’s a loser.

PantanalWay past lunchtime, I cruise around Miranda looking for a suitable lunch stop. Too many people on the street watching my loaded bike idle by makes me feel self-conscious at a time I’d rather go unnoticed. Uninspired and not hungry enough for what was on offer I instead continue to Bonito down the MS 339 via Bodequena

There’s dramatically less traffic along this route, more undulating, more bends. Some of the countryside reminds me of England in a good summer and I relax and daydream into the scenery.

Vinicio Rodriguez and his Honda 500XA bright light catches the corner of my eye. A motorcycle gaining in my mirrors.  Pure white LED lights, with a paranoid hint of blue, either side of the headlamp. Rider wearing black jacket and fluorescent yellow helmet, flashing his headlight waving me over.. Shit, a cop… this would be my first stop since setting foot on the continent way back in January.

Vin Ro South American AdventurerVinicio Rodriguez is not a cop. He’s a university lecturer from Ecuador on a road trip to visit his son in Campinas, not far from Sao Paulo. His Honda 500X is decked out well for long stretches of tarmac and today we are both bound for Bonito for the night. We chat at the roadside for a few minutes and then partner up for the next hour’s cruise into Bonito. I lead at first on the slower machine until we approach Bonito and then we switch and I follow Vin to his hotel intending to enjoy a drink together. We reach Pousada Ceu de Estrelles not long before dusk. Vinicio checked out the room and invited me to stay. I say thanks but it’s over my budget and I’d be camping at Pousada do Peralta. He tells me that the hotel charges per room and costs the same for one person as it would for two and would be pleased to share my company.  I feel conflicted but accept, offering a contribution to alleviate my feeling. He wouldn’t have it.

Ceu de Estrelas, Bonito, BrazilVinicio’s Spanish is understood by Brazilians far more readily than my English. Marco Velho is a buffet restaurant in the centre of Bonito that comes highly recommended and apparently the most attended throughout Bonito. We make ourselves comfortable and, before we know it, all the tables are swept up by an influx of local inhabitants. Always a good endorsement.

The food was delicious and plentiful and I happily picked up the tab for both of us to help repay his generosity for providing a good company, soft mattress and warm room for the night, which also doused my residual feeling of guilt carried from accepting Vin’s earlier invitation. Feelings eh, what can you do with them?

 

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Hi, Corumba!

YacusesI AWOKE AT dawn but only emerged when the sun had risen a clear hour above the horizon before I packed away. I refuelled at the border town of Puerto Quijarro to use up my remaining Bolivianos and breakfasted on chicken and rice at a locals cafe to work up to engaging with the border agents just down the road.

Bolivian ImmigrationI breezed through Bolivian Migraciones: three people in front of me then: stamp, vamos. Over the road at Aduana Nacional, the gates were firmly closed. A sign indicated Cerrado from 12.30 to 14.30. It was now 12.47. ~ most unexpected. I’d have skipped breakfast if I’d anticipated that.

Carlos BMW Adventure 1200None of the cafes nearby provided WiFi. Wandering around the dusty, sun-baked street, I decided I may as well hang around the Aduana entrance. There was a family already there. Time crawled by as I kicked over the gravel in the car park. More people began to gather from 13.50. I was glad I’d decided to wait here as the queue expanded to about 8 people by the time the bolt was slid across to open the gate.

Sitting at the counter was a young guard, looking not too long out of school. Clad in military olive green, pistol prominent in his holster and tasked with fielding the customers. After an hour watching office workers wandering between desks, sheets of paper clasped between fingers and thumb ( a trick I used to use at an old office job in order to look busy) I’m invited in and told I need two photocopies. “Over there at the photocopier?” No across the road at the shop. “Just these two?” Yes, just those.

Corumba, River Paraguay

City of Corumba

Cristo Redenta, Corumba, Brazil

Corumba’s friendly idol.

I returned and presented the documents to the armed guard at the desk. He said, “You need copies of these two as well.” And I marched, stone-faced, over the road to buy two more copies. I shouldn’t have felt surprised really. The documents disappeared into the back office without explanation. Watching the clock at 16:00, I thought, “Not much longer, the office closes at five.” Eventually, a portly official summoned three of us together and we followed him and his camera downstairs to our vehicles. Me; a young Bolivian, smartly groomed, gaudy jewellery, crucifix, baggy shell suit – common in the 90’s and a clean white car, the thought, drug dealer sprang to mind; and Carlos with his mighty BMW Adventure 1200, badged up with all the countries of the South American continent. The agent snapped pictures of the licence plates, chassis and engine numbers before we obediently filed back upstairs to his office.

16.30 I’m released into freedom, documents in hand ready for tackling Brazilian Migraciones. The Brazilian queue stretched out of the door and about ten metres along the sidewalk. We appeared to not move for some time and then suddenly shuffled forward a handful of metres like a blockage had been cleared. I secured my entry stamp no bother. “Is this all I need?” Yes and, with an impatient wave from the official, I’m out of the office and into Brazil.

The dull, grey, unmarked customs office across the road went unnoticed and I happily sped east away from the border into Corumba. My error was exposed when a couple of German riders, Manuel and Frank arrived at the hostel and I mentioned I only had to get one stamp compared to Bolivia before happily riding into Corumba.

Indoor Camping

Me, at home in Corumba

Road Riders Hostel, Corumba, Brazil

Corumba’s friendly hostel

I returned to the border twice in the next few days: one to pick up the instructions for filling out the import permit form online and again to bring the printed out form into the office. How about setting up a terminal and printer for the purpose of getting it done there and then guys?

Road Riders Hostel is a friendly place and I had the option for pitching the tent in the carport/bar area for half the price of a dorm. I took that. The tradeoff, apart from a thin

Road Riders Hostel, Corumba

Corumba’s friendly Hostel Owner.

mattress on ceramic tiles, was the late night chatter in the bar followed by early morning chatter as the staff cleaned and prepared the hostel for the day. I caught catnaps when I could and found a quiet corner whenever a party sparked up.

Baixinhos Motos, Corumba

Corumba’s friendly moto mechanic

The steering on the Yamaha liked to stick straight ahead and caused me to weave around bends. Diego is a mechanic but recommended Baixinho Motos and I dropped by the very next day. Baixinho spoke no English but understood the problem as I pointed at it and mimed the issues. He also detected worn swing arm bushes by wobbling the rear tyre from side to side, a good fifteen to twenty millimetre of play from side to side. No wonder I was weaving around the bends. I left the bike with him and he fired up a spare moped to drop me across town to the hostel.

Parrot Fashion

Corumba’s friendly wildlife.

The next day, Diego gave me a ride back to the garage. Baixinho pointed out the worn sprockets and chain and I tell him I have new ones back at the hostel. Diego drove me back to the hostel to pick them up. Baixinho said could fit them on the bike within an hour while I waited. He introduced me to his parrots out the back. They were talking to me but I didn’t yet understand Portuguese.

The bike was given a comprehensive service including an oil change. The bill came to around R250 (£55). Manoel, a customer with a Yamaha 250 asked me about my journey on the little 125 and invited me to his home for lunch. With our limited language skills, we could barely communicate but I happily accepted the invitation.

Manoel Neto

Corumba’s friendly residents

The YB125 felt like a new machine: light clutch, stable cornering. Much more secure in its handling. I couldn’t help letting out groans of pleasure inside my helmet. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch and chatted via broken English, Portuguese, Spanish and google translate.

Corumba, Petrobras Fuel Station

Corumba’s friendly fuel station attendants.

Buenos Aires Bakery, in Corumba, serves delicious cappuccino and fresh sandwiches. Whenever I visited, there was only ever a maximum of six people present, mostly waiting at the checkout due to the cashier being so slow. I helped myself to chocolate and juice off the shelves’ holding them up to get the nod from the cafe staff before and returning to my table to wait for the coffee and sandwiches. Later at the checkout, 15 Reals rang up on the till as I presented the empty chocolate wrapper and bottle to the cashier. She forgot to add the coffee and sandwiches from the tab of table 3.

Later, at the supermarket, it dawned on me that the bill came to only about £3 and so I returned to Buenos Aires to pay the balance. They had no clue that the bill was unpaid and we ran through the menu to tot up the missing items.

VIP Barber's, Corumba

Corumba’s friendly Barbers.

Despite the electric fences around people’s houses and the broken bottles cemented into the top of high walls, Bikers leave their bikes unsecured with helmets hanging on their mirrors. Cars are left with doors unlocked. Brazilian people appear to be honest, open and trusting. Probably the friendliest place I’ve been to so far. The sort of world I’d like to live in… Friendly.

 

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Aguas Calientes, Bolivia

Route 4, BoliviaEARLY AFTERNOON IN the wake of England’s second defeat to Belgium in the World Cup and I’m eastbound on Route 4. Estancia Aguas Calientes is only 165km and I take it steady to save fuel. I pass the gas station at Robore with the gauge just over a quarter but gamble on fuel being available at Aguas Calientes 30km further on. “Get it while you can.” Is my fuel mantra since I don’t yet carry reserves. Rarely do I obey it though and start fretting when the needle plummets below the last quarter mark.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaBearing right off the highway onto the red dirt track to launched me into a sand pit and the Yamaha’s narrow tyres fight to stay on the surface. I haven’t mastered riding in deep sand yet. The steering doesn’t work and the rear wheel drifts sideways. Losing momentum results in the rear wheel trying to bury itself as I try to move off. I try to find the firmest looking car tracks and keep moving forward, paddling my feet like a swan trying to take off from a lake.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaI ride into the Miraflores Toucan campsite around 16:30. I spot only two other tents here down in the far corner near the waterside. I select a quiet area near the trees and no other attractions. Quickly pitched, I change into shorts and t-shirt, grab a towel and stroll down to the lake.

Aguas Calientes, Bolivia34C feels surprisingly warm and I wade out, waste deep toward the shimmering surface where the bubbles are breaking the surface, crystal clear water, into the warm humid air. I soak until the sun sets, stirring up the sand and attracting the fish to whatever’s being released by the bubbles. Every now and then, I feel a nip as a fish forages for food. A school of them find the flaking skin between my toes where I’ve contracted athletes foot and nibble away. They can have that

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaOut into the tree-shaded campsite, the moon is a thin crescent, not enough to add to the sparse lighting around the site. I buy a beer from the attendant and ask about fuel during our conversation. “Robore.” he says. I’d seen that fuel station 25Km back from where I came. I laugh and feel I need to explain why. It was the station I had passed way back. He tells me someone in the village sells out bottles for 5bob a litre. I say, “That’s cheap” and he says “No, muy caro” until I explain the international rate of “Ocho por litro!” He shows me on my sat nav app where to go in the village. The main thing is I don’t have to backtrack for 8bob a litre.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaThe dawn paints in a rose petal sky as I enter the warm clear waters of the lake. I consider going in naked since it’s early and not many people are around. I play safe and keep my briefs on, followed, ten minutes later, by a family of three.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaI decamp and pack away slowly to scoot the bike along the sandy track toward the fuel bottles in the village. After asking a couple of stores, I found a private cabana on the corner. “Seis!” he tells me and I ask for six litres without haggling the sixty pence difference. He looks like he needs it more than I do. Six litres tops me up just perfectly.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaThe sat nav indicates a restaurant perched on the bypass around the village but it doesn’t seem to exist in my physical reality. The time was 10:50 and the World Cup Final between France and Croatia was kicking off at 11. I hang a U-turn at the junction and cruise back into the village to the store across from the fuel vendor that I noticed packed with people settled in plastic patio chairs.

I thread myself between the crowd and the stacks of fruit and veg and order a cold Coke and ask if I can watch the match. The seats are all taken and I prop myself against his fridge for a two-hour stint on my feet but the shopkeeper brings a stool out and invites me to sit next to his potatoes.

Everyone appears to be cheering for Croatia. Seems, we all like the underdog… The breeze through the store takes the stickiness out of the tropical humidity and the open-sided shade of the store was the perfect place in the World for watching a World Cup Final.

Yacuces, BoliviaShortly after midday, the little Yamaha was humming its way eastwards toward the Brazilian border, 210km away. I wanted a break before tackling the bureaucrats, so my target was to be a wild camping site near Yucuces, 165km away, which would leave about 45km to the border the next morning. Today though, a fast but leisurely journey on these straight and level roads. Time enough for Sunday lunch in El Carmen Rivero Torrez,

Turning of the El Carmen bypass, the hexagon paving blocks are cute to look at but rough to ride on and they deliver me to a bare looking Plaza surrounded by market stalls and booming PA speakers. I find a food stall just off the Plaza and face the customary plate of chicken and rice. A cold beer helps both relax and revive me. I check the sat nav for my destination.

The wild campsite on the sat nav gives no clue to landmarks to look out for and I add the distance of the junction that leads off the main road to the milometer and count down the miles along route 4. There aren’t that many junctions and the turning I finally take is the only candidate for miles. A loose gravel track leads north away from the main road for five kilometres. Tall dry pampas half obscures a pair of laybys that combine to make a turning circle with a six-metre radius. Nothing here but tall grass, gravel and telltale signs of campers. Litter remains scattered over the floor: blister packs for tablets, cotton buds, food wrappers, used batteries, tissues. Man tracks…

Yacuces CampEarly evening brings out the flies, dancing before my eyes, distracting me as I pitch the tent in the edge of the pampas, flattening the grass for creating a softer sleeping base over the underlying gravel. I wheel the bike close to the tent and, from the track, I’m almost invisible. Passing traffic would have to look 90 degrees to notice me. Nobody passes, day or night.

The only sounds in the night are of nature, birds I’d never heard before, no traffic or booming music. The black sky scattered with stars and the pale belt of the milky way directly overhead. In the day, an uninspiring laser straight country lane. By night a magical alien soundscape and a firmament so clear and bright and close enough to almost reach with outstretched arms.

A creature sounding about the size of a small dog brushes past the tent. I lay quiet and it disappears as fast and silently as it came…

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San Jose de Chiquitos

Jesuit Misiione of San Jose de Chiquitos300KM… IT LOOKED A tall order to start with and now it was officially afternoon and I’ve only knocked off 25km. Whatever… If I have to sleep in a field then so be it.

1 pm on the ring road. The traffic is busy enough to be stop-start. The midday sun is on my left shoulder as I head east. I estimate that when my shadow is in front of me then it’s time to look for the junction for route 4 east.

San Jose de Chiquitos MissionAt the traffic lights, I notice a horse and cart at the curb and think “How quaint.” The lights change and the truck moves off and I almost run into the back of it when it slams on its brakes to avoid the quaint horse and cart merrily trotting across the dual carriageway.

My shadow moves ahead of me and I stop to check the sat nav. Route 4 is 200metres ahead. Eastbound on the ring road, the traffic begins to thin and pick up speed. The cityscape takes a long time to dissolve into the countryside. So slow that I don’t notice when the buildings have all gone, replaced by fertile green fields on plains reaching far beyond the flat horizon.

Flat plains foster straight roads and I was maintaining a steady 80kmh at ¾ throttle.

I reach behind to check for my water bottle. Gone! It must have jumped out of its tethering when I hit the speed hump that I noticed far too late in the last town. 180Km, my neck is getting stiff, I notice the fuel gauge at 2/3. 120Km to go. The gauge lies. I know the needle starts to plummet below the bottom half.

The straight level road has been paved all the way with very little traffic. I’ve kept the speed below 90km and watched the kilometres roll away at a rate unknown in the mountains. 60Km to go and the gauge is below a quarter. The best range from this level, I’ve managed so far, is 40km. The last town was 20km behind me and I’m concerned now. All I can do is watch the needle drop and count down the kilometres. “El Certo 8,” a sign tells me. The village is either hidden or so small I miss it. Another sign, “Quimome 10km”

Hotel Villa Chiquitana, San JoseI pull over in Quimome and ask at the store about ‘Gasolina’ he points to the turning I’d just passed on my right but don’t understand what he’s saying. I notice the water bottle hanging by the left-hand pannier and refresh myself with a long slug of water before I go to three more locations in the general direction of the fuel, venturing away from the main road along a dirt track, into the village. A small handwritten sign hangs from the porch of a cabana on the corner of the street. I strike gold with four 2 litre bottles of petrol at 10bob a bottle.

I stand the bike upright off the side stand to squeeze in the last of the 8 litres and weave my way around the potholes back to route 4, thanking the people that helped along the way with a hoot and a wave. So I now have a rough range of a tank on a straight level road about 280km guessing the last bit of needle on the gauge. I leave my jacket unzipped for the air to help dry the sweat down my back. I’ve noticed the temperature rising, the further east I go, even with the cooling effect of the airstream.

I roll into San Jose de Chiquitos just before sunset. I didn’t expect this kind of progress. My average speed must have been about 65km/h, way above the usual 40 or 50.

San Jose, CristoHotel Villa Chiquitana has rave reviews on iOverlander. The lobby is immaculately clean and the place looks a cut above the usual standard I’m used to. Jerome the owner, tells me they no longer accept tents, as they have caused so much trouble, and directs me to Balneario el Quebracho. “You can’t miss it, there’s a giant white Jesus in the middle of the road, it’s just past that…”

Balneario de Quebracho, San Jose de ChiquitosI set up and rest in the tent until dark before taking the 1km stroll into the Plaza. On the eastern side, the Jesuit mission is warmly illuminated in a sepia orange glow, rekindling romantic memories with my fiance when we visited the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas… an age has passed since then… another life ago.

The plaza is a beautiful expanse of tree-shaded openness, crying out for a perimeter of quality cafes and restaurants. Instead, a single side to the south boasts budget fast food of the usual chicken, rice and pizza. Set away from the strip on the western side is La Tortilla, serving Tacos, Burritos and Nachos.

Settling down in the tent, the night is comfortably warm. I’m too tired to read and I lay back to listen to the serenade of the chirrups of the creatures of the night, plus the bugle sounding a plaintive post from the military base just down the road. A distant dog howls its own response out of the darkness.

Toucan, San Jose de ChiquitosI awake just before dawn, not because of the cold but due to a menagerie of animal noises, cockerels by the busload, the caw of a toucan, unknown tropical songs together with collective shouts from the infantrymen on the training ground. Just after the sun casts leafy shadows over my tent, I open the door and see the mosquitos dance up and down the fly screen. A horse trots by, untethered and unencumbered by harness or saddle. A circular saw screams in the near distance. It’s clear in the warm tropical light of day that this place is undergoing a refurbishment. I appear to be the only guest. I don’t mind. I promptly pay for an extra night…

Once washed and dressed, I pack my laptop in the satchel and walk up to the plaza in mosquito armour of fleece and jeans under the midday sun. I feel the sweat trickle down my spine. The mosquitos seem to avoid the street but I don’t take the trouble to take my fleece off, instead moving from shade to shade along the street up to the central plaza.

Hotel Villa ChiquitanaI’m looking for a place suitable for uploading a blog and the plaza isn’t it. I walk an extra kilometre down to the hotel I visited yesterday. Hotel Villa Chiquetana. Electric, Wifi and decent coffee. I choose the corner table in the restaurant next to a mains socket. Windows border both sides a view to the patio area of the restaurant and the other looking out across the lawn toward the pool. Indoors being only marginally cooler than outdoors became a haven of solitude and productivity for the rest of the day.

Hotel Villa ChiquitanaMy second visit to La Tortilla for Mexican fare cemented a good friendship with the proprietors. I think they don’t see a lone gringo on a motorcycle stop by very often.

I’m up at eight the next morning and pack away well in time for the 10 am England Belgium 3rd place playoffs at the Hotel Villa Chiquitana. I secure an early seat. No-one else joins me. The patio is mine and the cashier’s, who occupies herself sweeping the breakfast crumbs from under the tables. I take advantage of the WiFi and comfort until 14:00. Kilometres need vacuuming up fast to make my Bolivian visa deadline at the Brazilian border by the 17th of July. Today’s the 14th plenty of time in hand…

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Tangerine Dreams.

Porongo Tangarines, Morgante Nature and FoodI LAY IN bed imagining the distance of the fuel gauge from needle to empty and distance from Porongo to fuel stations on my Android apps. The nearest were 6km in La Guardia fording the river. The nearest over the bridge was 26km. I wasn’t sure I’d make it that far, the speed the needle drops on the lower half of the gauge. The thought was debilitating but there was nothing to do until it came to moving anyway.

The next morning, after fruitlessly cycling thoughts through the fuel conundrum, I emerge out of the tent into the cool shade of the tangerine trees, breakfasting on their generous fruit off the leafy floor, I set off walking to take a Porongo Fordlook at the river crossing. 2km, the GPS told me until I’d already walked a kilometre into Porongo, which by then had changed to 4km. Sticky humid air under an overcast sky stuck the t-shirt to my back, reminding me of my work in the sweaty oil fields of East Texas back in 1982. The round trip would now be 8km instead of 4. Still, I had all day.

The block paving of the Porongo streets merged into the rust-red sand, at the edge of the village, deeply rutted in places by the tyres of heavy trucks. Walking was easy but dull on the dead straight dirt track. Eventually, I reached a ford, a stream about two metres across and 5 centimetres deep. The GPS app put me on a river bank at least a hundred metres wide. It didn’t tally with the amount of water I saw yesterday at the crossing further upstream or what was on the screen. I scratched my head and turned round to go back. I didn’t know at the time but two hundred metres further on would be the ford across the river 30cm deep and about 80 metres across.

I noticed a sign in Porongo hanging on a bungalow “Hay Gasolina.” My saviour. I could fill up here and thus relaxed into village life and watched Belgium beat Brazil in the world cup quarterfinals at the local restaurant while feasting on yet more chicken, rice and fried banana. It seems whatever I order, it consists of chicken, rice and fried banana. How about some fish and chips or burritos?

Porongo to La Guardia FordStripping all the straps and remaining luggage off the bike the next morning I set off to the river after Giulio told me I must have been at the small river, not the main one. He was right. I fought with the loose sand along the track and the bare riverbed and sat at the water’s edge to watch traffic cross. I waited a while and saw only a lone cyclist push his bike across the knee-deep flow.

I turned round to visit the bungalow with the ‘Gasolina’ sign. “No! No gasolina!” There seems to be a common habit of displaying signs for non-existent goods and services. I can see the logic for cafes advertising WiFi for attracting disappointed customers but a bungalow that has nothing else for sale? How about taking the sign indoors. Eventually, I found a motorcycle repair shop around the corner from the restaurant that had petrol in two-litre mineral water bottles. I was saved and celebrated with another meal at the restaurant They didn’t have what I ordered yesterday so I ordered something else and got chicken, rice and fried banana with a different sauce on the side while watching The Simpsons dubbed in Spanish.

Instead of El Simpsons, I watch the policeman at the crossroads trying to work out why he was posted there diverting traffic from entering the empty plaza via a full-width road with no traffic passing either direction. I guessed the stretch was a one-way street… with hardly any traffic… why? The following night I ride to the store to buy some water and do a u-turn in the Plaza on the journey back. A local flapped his arms frantically trying to get me, the only vehicle moving within a quarter of a mile to turn round. I returned to the campsite without passing another vehicle.

Santa Cruz de la SierraRefuelling gave me the freedom to run in and out to Santa Cruz and explore the city centre. I got to know which streets weren’t amputated with an improvised dead end or disempowered by a “no left turn.” Many of the crossroads looked like four-way stop junctions but without the stop signs. Seems to be that the bravest goes first. The best strategy for me seemed to be, keep a good rolling pace slow Santa Cruz de la Sierraenough for an emergency stop but fast enough that I could gun it through and be clear pronto once I was sure there was no traffic within striking distance. I memorised the easiest route to the central plaza and found the customary Irish Pub that seems to sprout not far from South American Cathedrals and Plazas.

Many travellers have spoken of visiting Santa Cruz but, being here, I haven’t seen any. Probably the least touristy city I’ve been to so far. I like it here even when the cold snap arrived extinguishing the pleasant balmy t-shirt climate. The wind came out of the south, I imagined from the cold plains of Argentina, and threw the bike weaving from centre to verge along the road to Santa Cruz. It was cold now, I had to break out my padded coat from my improvised pillowcase in the tent then empty the pockets and stuff it back in come bedtime.

Giulio, the host is a good friend now. He gave me a tour of his new land purchase near the national park where he plans to build tree houses to let out. There is evidence of growth and development in the area and when they build the new bridges across the river, land prices here will soar. I got to hang out with his friends in Santa Cruz, as we cheered on Belgium against France in the World cup Semifinal.

Samta Cruz del la Sierra Skyline

The wind dropped and the sky cleared but it was still cold. I stay one night in the appropriately tangerine coloured VW Combi, which was more comfortable and not quite as chilly. I decide to stay for the England semi-final leave the next day eastbound 750km toward Brazil: a three or four-day trip before my Bolivian visa runs out.

VW Combi, Bolivia9am, I meet the landlord’s elderly father entering the gate come to feed the pigs with the scraps from the restaurant he runs in the village. A cheerful man wishing me “Buena dia.” they knock the s of the greeting here. I warm myself on the chair on the porch receiving the full beam of the morning sun, while peeling a third tangerine still spitting the pips out from the second before riding into Santa Cruz for breakfast and watch Croatia beat England in the world cup semifinal. The other plans I had for being online evaporated along with England’s 1966 dreams.

The cold snap passed and the wind dropped to a calm comfortable evening and I ride back to Porongo with the sun kissing the mountain tops on the lilac dusted horizon. It’s rush hour in Porongo and I pass one Mazda pickup and one Ox-drawn cart of tangerines as I ride to the moto repair shop to refuel with three 2 litre bottles of petrol. Returning to base camp, the host is away, which means no access to the shower since it’s locked away in his home. I would quite like internet access now I’m refuelled and relaxed. There’s no access to it anywhere I know of in Porongo and it’s not worth the 25km ride back to Santa Cruz.

I browse through the maps on the phone. The destination I select as my next target is Hotel Villa Chiquitana in San Jose de Chiquitos, 300km away. The reviews tell of this four-star hotel permitting tents pitching on the extensive lawn down by the swimming pool. If I make it in one jaunt it will be the furthest I’ve ridden in one day in South America, or ever on a motorcycle under 900cc. Weather shouldn’t be a problem and the road is as straight as anything I’ve seen on the flat plains on the altiplano but then again, I expected an easy day of Samaipata to Santa Cruz.

I’m often reluctant to get moving. I get to know a place and end up liking it then I have to give up all that investment and step into the unknown once again. It rarely feels exciting. It takes a good couple of hours to pack away, I’ve left everything to the last minute as usual, due to my dislike of packing. I promised myself one last breakfast at the AME cafe twenty-odd kilometres away in Santa Cruz and it was already 11.20. I’d yet to roll the tent up into its bag. 11.30 and I’m hammering along the road to Santa Cruz. I’ve got to know every bump and bend in the last 5 days and lean the fully loaded Yamaha over as far as I dare around each bend and try to counter fear induced stiffening of my arms and upsetting the balance of the bike. 11.55 I stroll into the AME Cafe and get my order in for an Americano, chicken and banana free breakfast before the noon deadline…

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A Bridge Too Far

Cuevas Falls, Samaipata.LAS CUEVAS IS only 20km away from Samaipata but a visit to the waterfalls had been recommended. The campsite across the road wedges itself in the elbow of the hairpin as the road crosses the river. I pitched the tent as far from the roadside as I could, then wandered across to visit the falls.

Small and pretty, freshly cut grass and clearly marked paths to the red sandy beaches of the falls. The falls are all within half a kilometre (there are no caves.)

Las Cuevas, Samaipata, BoliviaA few people were enjoying the sun and the water. It was a pleasant enough visit but I would have preferred staying at Serena in hindsight. Sometimes a visit is worthwhile to extinguish the curiosity that is carried if ever an opportunity is missed.Las Cuevas Camping, Samaipata, Bolivia

After the road crosses the river, it scales the hillsides on either side. There is no escaping the noise of the overnight truck’s bellowing exhaust brakes on the descent and the chugging and roaring gearshifts on the ascent.

I waited for the morning sun to dry the dew off the tent before packing away. Santa Cruz is less than 100km east, and my planned camp at Porongo lies at least 10km closer. I should make it in less than three hours, even on dirt tracks.

In the pale yellow light of a warm sunny day, I rattled over rocky dirt roads and rolled over dusty grey asphalt. Signs warned me of speed humps that were sometimes there, sometimes not. And speed humps sometimes produced themselves unannounced with their paint long worn away by tyres, sun and rain, and camouflaged in trail dust. I’d become wary of villages long ago as they almost guaranteed speed humps.

La Guardia hosted my junction to turn left toward Porongo, which happened to be the unsigned street thirty metres ahead of me from where I had stopped to check the maps.me satnav app. Perfecto.

Porongo to La Guardia FordSurprise! The river crossing wasn’t what I imagined… no bridge. A wide ford across a shallow river over a rust-coloured sandy bed. The water flowed at a good jogging pace and the ripples suggested depths over knee deep. The distance across must have been at least a hundred metres and the chances of a deep channel along the way were greater than I was willing to risk with my laptop in the bags, phone in my pocket and my low slung exhaust pipe about a 30cm off the ground.

One of the things on my wishlist for buying a motorcycle was a high exhaust and air intake. In reality, even if I had that I still wouldn’t cross. Among all else, I didn’t want to get my feet wet.

Examining the map more closely, I could see the roads were coloured slightly duller on the handful of river crossings all the way down the river toward a single bridge, the Puente del Urubo, that linked Urubo to Santa Cruz. Porongo was less than 10km from where I sat on the river bank. I hung a U-turn and rejoined route 7, 25km to Santa Cruz. I’d get to see the city centre sooner than planned.

As is the way of cities, the traffic got heavier and slower the closer I got to the centre. Suddenly, a barricade of plastic drums across the road. I could see the dual carriageway continue toward the centre but all the minibuses were looping back to one of the inner ring roads. This time it was no blockade. It appeared to be a makeshift pedestrianised zone. Traffic lights were here managing the flow from the side street near the hairpin and the buses were looping and jostling across the outbound traffic to get to an extended bus stop parade. Obviously, there is no clue of this on the app and I picked up the diversion on one of the middle ring roads.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra Map, BoliviaIf you imagine the city’s road plan as a giant spider web of four concentric rings, and spokes radiating out from the centre, that’s roughly it with grid sections cut and pasted here and there. The result is, the longer you stay on a road, the less likely you are of knowing where you are and which direction you are facing. The Sun had moved my shadow from left to right. Stopping to check the map, I found I’d gone from the 9 o’clock position to the 4 o’ clock position already. I was travelling anticlockwise around the second to inner road and wanted to turn left across the traffic. Junction after junction was signed “no left turn” and I gave up trying to see the centre and, instead, aimed for the bridge back at about the 10 o’clock position to Santa Cruz. I was tired of the urban battle with the taxis and buses, it was getting late and I hadn’t yet established my campsite.

I guessed correctly, between the thickening traffic, the anonymous-looking, unsigned turning to the bridge and had joyfully overcome the mighty shallows of the Rio Pirai. Legend has it that the bridge was built privately by an Santa Cruz Bridge to Uruboentrepreneur who set up toll gates to recoupe the ten million US dollars he had invested. Apparently, the government told him he couldn’t do that and the crossing had to be free of charge. As a result, the man killed himself and the remains of the toll gates lay inactive, becoming his personal tragic memorial each time I passed. Even more bizarre is the number of government tollgates along the half-built highways across Bolivia. The logic of Latin bureaucracy eludes me…

Another confident route mapped out on the maps.me app took me on a cross-country scar between gigantic commercial sites along a rutted grassland strip, littered with tyres and fly-tipped rubbish. But from then on it was plain sailing along a smooth white concrete ribbon into Porongo.

Morgante boasted Italian food on iOverlander and the only clue to its location in this physical world was a wooden ‘Pizza’ sign hanging near the gate. In this respect, Maps.me had the location pinpointed. The owner’s name was Giulio but he wasn’t there. His landlord was though, harvesting tangerines from the orchard shading the site from the sun. Jose, the landlord, knew nothing of Morgante and could not understand my poor Spanish but he recognised Giulio’s name in the iOverlander app I was waving around in sign language. and he gave him a call.

Giulio explained he was closed due to recent heavy rain and wasn’t taking guests. My fuel gauge was now nudging empty from the unexpected extra mileage. I explained I only wanted to pitch a tent and then was happy to let me stay, for free. One of the attractions here was WiFi but there was none.

Porongo Tangarines, Morgante Nature and FoodToday was meant to be an easy jaunt but turned out to be an unexpectedly tough battle on unfamiliar city web of streets with unpredictable traffic, with a 60km detour that took my fuel gauge down to E. I selected a flat area beneath the tangerine trees to put up the tent. The sun was somewhere near the horizon, out of sight behind the tree-tops and I was glad I didn’t have to search for another campsite using what was left of the day and my fuel.

Morgante Nature and Food, Porongo

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The Circus Hippies of Samaipata

Samaipata morningsTHE MORNING BROUGHT the eastern sun to project the shadow of the bike on the tent wall and I was gently warmed out of my sleeping bag. The night had been chilly but nowhere near as cold as the Altiplano. I drank water but ate no breakfast then decamped at leisure, making sure I left nothing hidden in the leafy undergrowth and hit the road shortly before ten. I only made a hundred km yesterday an I had two hundred and fifty to do today to make Samaipata. It could well mean another night out in the sticks.

There’s a dilemma with catching up a slower bus or truck. Either hang back out of the rooster tail dust cloud being whipped up where rubber meets dust or plunge right in and hope there is an overtaking opportunity pronto. There was a good mix of asphalt and dirt track between the intermittent road works so hanging back until the surfaced roads was my adopted strategy, confining dust between sweaty-neck and laundered collar.

Motorcycling BoliviaI made good progress and my lengthening shadow led the way into Samaipata shortly before sunset. El Jardin is its name: the camp-ground recommended by Marwa at Samay. She said it was up the hill from Jaguar Azul, which is 0ne possible description of where I was, looking at the map for its location. A guy on a motorbike pulled alongside and spoke some Spanish and I recognised the words Jaguar Azul. “No, El Jardin,” I replied. He thought for a minute and indicated to follow him and so was led to the gate of El Jardin Hostel.

El Jardin Hostel, SamaipataEl Jardin has a rustic self-sufficiency feel about it. Cobb walls with bottles inset to make multicoloured windows. The young volunteer booked me in for two nights and introduced herself. “That’s a nice name. Easy to remember” I said, and forgot what it was by the next morning. It wasn’t a problem as I never saw her again.
The crazy-paved steps, strategically spaced for giants of a 97cm stride, led down to the dorms and the lawn where half a dozen tents were already pitched. An assortment of dreadlocked circus hippies were juggling and warbling along to a El Jardin Campsite, Samaipata, Boliviaguitar. I picked a spot as far to the end of the lawn as possible not noticing that the French couple next to me had a dog that would favour laying in the shade of my tent during the day and chew a bone not far from my ears in the middle of the night. “Bonjour,” I said as I was pitching the tent. After a glance at me for a second, they turned away, silent.

The campground nestles in a small valley with a dirt track curling around the north and east perimeter as it fords the stream that also runs through the site then over the track. The incline meant that all the plentiful motorcycles that passed in the night would open up their throttles to climb the hill and give us the benefit of their musical engine notes.

In the peaceful interludes, chirrups of treefrogs and croaking from bullfrogs sang me to sleep, accompanied by random percussive dog-tooth on bone rhythm.

Rain woke me up at dawn. I emerged from the tent to a damp cheerless grey sky, reminiscent of a British October. The intermittent showers and the unbroken clouds kept the blanket of gloom throughout the day.

England v ColombiaSamaipata is about the same size as Coroico but has readily available WiFi – and is without the steep streets. Breakfast at La Chakana on the main plaza quickly became my regular treat. Round the corner at Tierra Libre, they were showing the World Cup games. Tomorrow would be England v Colombia. Normally, they are closed Tuesdays but the wife of the owner is Colombian and they would be opening for the match.

13:55pm the next day, and Tierra Libre’s doors still sports its big brass padlock. Across the road is Gyros bar and nightclub. I can hear the sports commentary booming through the half-open doors at a volume that creates a pressure wave to prevent entry. A minute later, the owner and his family turn up and the Colombia supporters milling around the street, and me, gravitate toward the opened door and jostle around the restaurant to face the screen.

A tall European man introduces himself to me. His name’s Bert from Holland who married a Bolivian woman and opened the Serena hostel up the lane from El Jardin. He invites me to drop in for a cup of tea.

El Jardin Hostel, SamaipataThe circus hippies at the El Jardin are as warm and welcoming as a fish pond in February. I approach a Woman wearing a floral dress sitting in a deckchair slurping soup from a spoon and attempt to break the ice. “Hi, where are you from?” She turns to face me. The face is in its late forties or late fifties with a cotton pad taped over one eye and answers in a deep German accent “Where are any of us from?” and I notice the two or three-day stubble on his/her face. The question was intended as an introduction: an extended greeting, not an existential inquiry. I wish him/her Bon appetite and climb the oversize crazy paved steps in suitably long strides towards La Chakana.

A warm and bright afternoon becomes the perfect opportunity for a ride out to the Ruinas del Fuerte, an ancient fort on a hill about 10km away. I turn off the main road and begin the winding ascent into the hills and the bike jerks as I’m leaning into a left-hand hairpin and I lose drive. It felt like I’d leaned over with the side stand down but I’d been around too many bends already for that to be a possibility. No drive, I coasted to a halt then glanced at the rear sprocket. The chain had come off but appeared to still be connected to the concealed drive sprocket and so was easy to put back on. I adjusted the tension to the full extent of its travel. It’s time for replacement really but I’ll run it a bit longer and squeeze some more life out of it.

The time was 3.30 by the time I got to the fort. The ticket seller checked her watch as I made the purchase and I guessed I still had time to wander around the circuit. Two men were playing cards and one asks if I need a guide. I said no. Mini-Machu Pichu, someone described it. Not how I would describe it though. The treasure of this place is in its history. I guess I needed a guide. Deb would have loved this. Ideal National Trust territory, but without the drizzle…

The Gates at El Jardin Hostel, Samaipata, BoliviaI get back and book a third night at Samaipata and feel it’s enough, I’m done and I’m happy to leave the circus hippies in the garden. One more breakfast at La Chakana with the loaded bike parked where I can see it from my table and then ride to Hostel Serena for the promised tea. I meet Bert coming down the lane on his 250 motorcycle and he tells me to let myself in at Samaipata Cafehis hostel, he’ll only be 15 minutes. Hostel Serena is an immaculate place with views over the Samaipata rooftops. Camping here costs twice El Jardin but includes breakfast. Adding El Jardin to La Chakana brings it on a par… The place feels like a retreat for unwinding. I was tempted to stay but reluctant to unpack the bike again and so I stuck with my plan toward Las Cuevas on the way to Santa Cruz.

Samaipata town, Bolivia

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