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La Pandamia: Puerto Madryn

24th MARCH 2020: I AWAKENED TO the pre-sunrise pale coolness of the Patagonian dawn. I had snatched some sleep from the long grinding night of rumbling trucks. I could tell by the light hangover feeling brought by restlessness instead of alcohol.

Checking all the responses to yesterday’s calls for help took me the rest of the morning An overly successful result, and I decided to set a deadline for 2PM before heading North to whatever my fate might be at the provincial border with Rio Negro. It might be OK, it might not…. 50/50? Part of the “Might not.” could include deportation and I wasn’t finished here in South America just yet.

At 1.30pm, a swarthy looking biker dude wearing a piss-pot helmet on a cruiser with what looked like an old Honda 250 Superdream engine rolled up and introduced himself as El Mendo. I’m used to casual encounters at gas stations, so thought nothing of the encounter, but he communicated that he saw my messages and signalled me to follow, so I followed. We rode toward Puerto Madryn and turned off into a dusty neighbourhood outside the city limits to a secluded farmhouse and tells me I can stay there and he will come to check on me. Out of sight, out of mind… it would only be for two weeks, after all.

A few days later, I’m told an earth barrier had been built at the junction to cut off Puerto Madryn from Ruta 3. How temporary does that sound? No reports of local Covid cases but horrific scenes on the news channels from Buenos Aires. To my suspicious mind, they looked too staged to be genuine since there was so much happening in such a small area – like a B movie – but I wasn’t really sure, having no other sources to check on.

The house had been built by El Mendo’s own hands. It had cold but clean running water sourced from a municipal tank that is topped up twice a week via trucks. Two 40 gallon drums stood in the bathroom as a reserve.

Electricity was from a generator at the end of a long cable housed in one of the outhouses. I ran it for an hour a day to charge my laptop. The laptop charged faster than the phone so, to save fuel, I used the generator to charge the laptop, and laptop hibernated solely for charging the phone through its live USB port.

The warm days were being robbed daily by the cooling evenings as they marched toward Autumn. The cool and the dark encouraged me into my sleeping bag not long after sunset. I had a cell signal and had worked out how to top up the SIM credit via debit card as traditionally cash and voucher so I was able to keep up to date with interesting developments around the world.

Two weeks became three as President Fernandez kicked the lockdown can down the road. Two further weeks. food delivery started to become a problem, since my new friends had to repeatedly pass through a police checkpoint and arise suspicions of possible illegal activity.

A kind family offered me a place at their home inside the city limits on a comfortable mattress in their converted garage. I gratefully accepted and hurriedly packed away my things ready to be collected since the presence of the checkpoint prevented me from riding the few kilometres. Crouching low in the backseat of the car, we slipped quietly through the Police checkpoint, Oniwan Kenobi style, to my new base.

I now had hot water, WiFi and electricity but had to lie low as I’d heard that some people had been deported and, after the broken agreements, I revoked what slim trust I had in local authorities and held on to whatever travels would be possible with Big Brother’s promise of ‘The New Normal.’

Discretion was the keyword. I had to hide whenever a visitor arrived, No problem lying low in the garage but a couple of times I had been caught in the bathroom and had to sit there until they left. I soon learned to take my phone with me.

The Winter slowly passed while the quarantine deadline continually being kicked down the road. I had all I needed: food, shelter and the warm hospitality of my hosts, despite my limited Spanish language skills.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to study but it turns out I’m not good at languages, or that keen on conversation for that matter, and found the effort uninspiring and progress slow enough to become burdensome and demoralising, so I plodded along with the basics on Duolingo.

There’s time enough to catch up on my blog but my lack of freedom became depressing so I abandoned it, in preference for trying to find out what was really going on in the world scouring the internet for reliable independent news.

A few months later, the restrictions eased and I was able to go out occasionally. I spent my birthday and the birthdays of the family here… then Christmas and New Year.

The internet access meant I could keep in touch with my family and I spoke to my Mum once or twice a month. My sons don’t seem too bothered and rarely respond to messages or calls so I gave up. It’s less disappointing just to remain quiet but leave the door open. Maybe one day they might call back.

I love travelling South America and the people are really friendly and generous – including the Police when they don’t have ridiculous orders from their overlords.

7th MAY 2021: Meanwhile, I continue to keep a low profile. I don’t have to hide from visitors anymore but it still feels like I’m in hiding even if I’m able to walk down the beach and enjoy an occasional beer. My only crime being a traveller exercising the dwindling rights of freedom while it’s still legal. If the aim was for practical social isolation, camping at Dolavon fit me just perfectly. Now that I’m confined to a city, forced closer to many more people, it all seems to be more about control than health.

It’s been a year now and still, the restrictions continue with no definite end in sight which means they either never will unless either you accept more government controls or a global, people’s revolution takes place. As it stands, it looks like travelling days are long gone, but while there is still hope, I’ll carry on waiting. If I could escape Puerto Madryn then I’d only be caught at a national or international checkpoint. We truly are on a prison planet.

I’m one year into a two-week stretch… think about that for a minute…

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La Pandemia: Rawson

Driving into Rawson about midnight, the streets were dead quiet. it looked like a movie set. We cruised the dormant streets for a while, apparently lost. I didn’t mind since it was more comfortable than the windowless Police Station I had sat in for an hour previously. I looked out of the window at the street lit emptiness until the driver stopped to ask for directions from a solitary police officer guarding a corner and directed to Hotel Deportivo just a few blocks away.

The masked receptionists asked some of the same questions I’d already answered earlier and booked me into a 6 bed dorm, bright and clean. I chose the bed nearest the window. Peering through the gap in the curtain and the diamond pattern of a protective grill, a fence topped with barbed wire 20 meters and a guard pacing along the perimeter. I imagined it would take 6 weeks to tunnel far enough past the fence and choose a moonless night to emerge in the sports field beyond…

Next door to my right a couple from Mexico, to my left, a solo Colombian traveller, we were to stand in our doorways, whenever we needed to communicate and ordered not to approach each other at all…

I felt annoyed that the two weeks “quarantine” had been reset but my cell was clean and comfortable and would be fine for two weeks. 

Two people entered dressed as medical personnel, wearing hooded blue paper overalls and masks took my temperature with a traditional thermometer and examined my breathing making notes on a clipboard. There was some discussion about my passport. I’d been in Patagonia for a year in and out of Chile and Argentina as the routes took me along the Andes to Ushuaia. 

The ridiculous situation of being forced through Chile immigration for the sole purpose of  crossing the Magellan Straits back to mainland Argentina meant that my Passport reflected only a month in Argentina, ignoring the bulk of the Summer I’d spent in Tierra del Fuego.

Day 1.. Not much happened. I read for a while until a knock at the door revealed a plate of spaghetti bolognese for lunch left on the floor outside my door. 9pm, a knock on the door I was instructed to pack up my things now ready to be moved – they didn’t say where but it had to be now. The Mexicans next door told me that they were moving in with friends they knew in Rawson but my fate was unclear. As usual it was night time. I packed up and sat on the edge of the bed for half an hour, waiting for further instructions before giving up and climbing under the covers.

Day 2. 9 AM a knock at the door “We have to go now.” They didn’t say where… they stood impatiently while I gathered all my things together and carried them to the patrol car to enjoy another mystery tour.

We pulled up at the Police Control north of Trelew and waited. 30 minutes later, I saw my bike arrive in the back of red a Police pickup. They started to unload it but after a short discussion, they strapped it down again and told me I was to be driven to Puerto Madryn where I was to continue to Arroyo Verde in the neighbouring province of Rio Negro where presumably i would be another authority’s problem.

“What will happen when I get there?” I asked.
“We don’t know.” he replied.
“Do I need some documents?”
“You have your medical certificate from Rawson?”
“No.”

A quick phone call returned a photo of the document via Whatsapp which “should” be OK… yes, well, forgive my suspicious mind from the two recent betrayals but my trust in the authorities had already been eroded.

Ruta 3 had hardly any traffic and we soon arrived at YPF Puerto Madryn Ruta 3 where we dropped the fully loaded bike off the back of the pickup before the driver wished me Bien Viaje and span his wheels in the gravel to return south to Trelew.

I decided to stay put, until I discovered more about what was actually going on and not gamble on my fate at the provincial border. This YPF station is a big busy truck stop. The shop staff are neither friendly or helpful, much like the motorway services back in the UK. I connected to the WiFi and Social Media to spend the day replying to messages and building new contacts. This plan became overwhelmingly effective and replies came flooding in. Someone arranged for the Policía Federal to come and help me out.

Three friendly officers in PFA jackets arrive and dial some numbers. After a phone call, they told me Puerto Madryn is closed and the Fiscal will not permit entry. 

Instead, they issued me a 3 page travel document before leaving and wishing me luck. 

Local Police swung by while I was replying to messages and I explained that 1. I am forbidden to travel and 2. I am forbidden to stay in Chubut.  I ask “what should I do?” They drove away leaving me with the unsolvable puzzle… and I retreated to the back of the building out of direct line of sight.

Around the back of the service station, I discovered  an electric socket for charging my phone and I set up my camping mattress in the corner. 5 meters away, a bearded dishevelled looking man, the colour of a desert road with a backpack silently dozed forming an uncomfortable looking heap. 

Midnight, more Police. I was probably reported by the unfriendly attendants in the shop, since I was tucked away out of sight. I climbed out of my sleeping bag and I repeated my story and added that I would be gone in the morning. Their response was sympathetic and reasonable and probably worked out that by tomorrow this particular problem would have solved itself. And I went back to sleep to the distant rattle of shunting trailers.

Spots of rain woke me up and I lay still for a moment while I formed a contingency plan but the clouds took pity on me, held back their load and rolled on by and left me to close my eyes, if not my ears. The sound of trucks coming and going kept me on the border of a vivid dragon-filled dreamscape and the granite grey reality of heavy juggernauts creeping over gravel, grinding away the hours.

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La Pandemia: Dolavon

Lights sweeping across the tent wall woke me up, it’s only 10.30pm but the lack of lighting in Dolovan’s Camping Municipal puts me to bed shortly after dark. Unzipping the door, I see two Police cars and four officers. “You must come with us.” I manage to translate. It’s dark, I never pack away in the dark. “Why?” I ask. Orders from “El Jefe.” 

Something had changed since my arrival 5 days ago. Up until now, the Police occasionally passed through the camp site with a friendly wave. It wasn’t my plan to stay here long. I was heading for Los Altares along Ruta 25 since noticing the Checkpoint spring up overnight on the southern edge of Trelew on Ruta 3. 

I had seen the Covid scare on the TV and decided to stay as far away from big cities as possible. I already wondered what was really going on since so many countries were reacting the same way at the same time in apparent lockstep.

I was the only camper here, intending to stay only one night. My first encounter with the Police, they told me I should stay there for 14 days. “Quarantine.” I agreed. If checkpoints were national then there was nowhere to escape anyway. Here, I had water and a Kiosco across the road. I could stay as long as the Kiosco remained open.

So now, 5 days later, I’m packing away in the streaked shadows of the Police car’s headlights and follow the patrol car to the Police station to surrender my liberties to the bureaucratic process. 

Apparently, el Jefe says I must quarantine in Rawson 60km east. I was disappointed about that because on my way north from Ushuaia up Ruta 3, I’d already visited Rawson, Puerto Piramides, Puerto Madryn, Punta Ninfas and Trelew and my plan was to turn West along the Chubut valley and North along Ruta 40 to the tropics for Winter.

The Police told me I had to follow them to Rawson but then agreed to store my bike in Dolavon Police Station after I told them I never ride in the dark due to dim lights and old eyes.

I climbed into the back of the car beside one of the Officers, another two in the front – it seemed a bit like overkill to me – I’m not a criminal. We joined Ruta 25 and headed east. Silence, nobody spoke.

10 minutes down the road the car began to slow and turned right off the road down a gravel trail, headlamps forming a tunnel of light in the darkness. This wasn’t the way to Rawson… I was familiar enough with the map of the area by now.

I’d been fascinated by the Museums about Pinochet in Chile and Stroessner in Paraguay and how they dealt with problems with their interpretations of ‘final-solutions’… people disappeared without trace. History often repeats itself and peaceful times can evaporate in an instant and, with that possibly and this detour down Memory Lane, I might not even make it to Rawson at all. My pulse had risen slightly with a heavier beat. Was my life going to be worth the paperwork? What would be at the end of this road: a communal hole in the ground or the depths of the Rio Chubut? There were loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t just die like just ending a story mid-sentence. I had few assets or liabilities so really there wasn’t much to take care of… mainly things left unsaid to those left behind. There wasn’t much I could do against three armed officers so I kept quiet and just hoped there wouldn’t be any pain.

An eternal minute later, we pulled up outside a small house and the officer beside me got out and said “Gracias, Hasta Manaña.” we were just dropping her off at home. We turned around and returned to ruta 25. It was an interesting few minute’s immersion into what might have turned out to be my final moments in this story and strangely I’d felt OK with it… A line from the “Bridge of Spies” movie came to me: “You don’t seem worried by this…” “Would it help?”

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Mercedes

22nd MAY 2019: I loved my time at Playa la Agraciada. Out of season, it was a tranquil break after city-time. In the back of my mind was the rendezvous with the forthcoming Solar Eclipse in 6 weeks time and I had places to see on the way, so I didn’t want to waste too much time and then rush to catch it.

Even though Burnt-toast had been an annoying presence at times, I felt a pang of sadness watching her in my mirror chasing me out of the park. I felt she would miss me too. She stopped at the gate while I accelerated on my way

At the junction facing my familiar local store with the led sign lit “Abierto,” I turned left onto Ruta 21.

There’s a character named Delores in the Westworld series that I’d just started watching. Dolores is also the name of a city 40km north of here so I thought I’d check it out in case it was a message from the universe: perhaps an important clue in the Great Game of Life.

Plan A

Plan A appeared to be a promising-looking peninsular on the Rio San Salvador that skirts Dolores’ northern boundary before it flows slowly into the Rio Uruguay.

Circulating the perimeter, past the fishermen and walkers, the level of public activity and feeling of exposure felt similar to Carmelo except that here it was also flooded, the swirling river surface barely a foot below this squelchy plateau. The high water that threatened Playa la Agraciada had been victorious in its invasion here before retreating to leave a marsh-like field, and I cruised into Dolores to the Dolce Gusto Cafe on Plaza Constitucion to assess my options over a hot coffee.

Plan B

Villa Soriano nestles on the bank of the next tributary upstream on the Rio Uruguay; the Rio Negro and now seemed a slim hope as a viable site. There were good reviews on Ioverlander but from the accounts, it seemed prone to flooding. I’d go anyway and look out for options along the way.

Riding through the centre of Villa Soriano, the fully-loaded little red bike drew glances from the locals. A “Stranger in town” kind of look. Maybe because Villa Soriano is not on the way to anywhere else and is what people in the US might call a Hick Town. The road ran through the town and out the other side and terminated a half a kilometre upstream at a small park on the river bank. I coasted through to the promised paradise and rounded a bend to be met by a flood. Trees and picnic tables poked periscope-like out of the expanse of water encroaching over the river bank the border between land and river. I had seen no other options on the way so I backtracked to Ruta 95.

Plan C

I hadn’t accounted for any time pursuing Plan C since I felt confident A or B would work out and now the light was fading fast. Mercedes lay 55km northeast. That’s an hour in daylight. I had only a few rules, 2 of which were “Never ride in the dark” and “Never arrive in a city at night” One of those would have to be broken as the sun had already set and the hedgerows were receding into the darkness beyond the edges of the yellow beam of my the bike’s 35-watt headlamp.

A dark space between some bushes caught my eye as I passed it and I doubled back to discover a rustic entrance to a recessed field gate leading to a grassy nook between the fence and the bushes out of sight of the road. I would not be obstructing the entrance and be 90% out of sight from the road. It would have to do, and I pitched in the dark. The road was quiet and I enjoyed a night of chirping crickets.

I awoke at first light and peered out. A cool, damp fog blanketed the field and I tucked up warm again to wait for the Sun to rise and do its magic and warm up the interior.

A slam of a car door and “Hola!” woke me up. 9.30 am “Damn, the farmer,” I thought and unzipped the tent, but no, a Police car and two officers. I pulled on my trousers and stumbled out barefoot into the cool damp grass. One of them spoke English better than I could speak Spanish and asked me where I was going, what I was doing and if I was moving on. I stepped toward the bike pointing to the Peru plate impaling my foot on a thorny twig. One of the officers steadied me by the arm while I wobbled on one leg and prised off the twig nailed to the bottom of my foot. I told them I was on my way to Ushuaia and after they checked my documents (no insurance) they shook my hand and wished me luck before reversing out of the gateway and driving off. Friendly blokes… but I’d have to think about looking into buying some insurance.

Mercedes lay a short 20km hop northeast and I packed away to join the quiet byway continuing northwards. Less than halfway there stood the Parque de la Admirable Alarma and Grito de Asencio monument, which would have made a perfect overnight campsite, either hidden behind the extended monument or way back in the trees. Still, my spot had turned out just fine.

I’d soon arrived in Mercedes ready for breakfast but first, a quick scout of the municipal camping site on the Isla del Puerto, just off the Rambla waterfront at Mercedes.
The Rambla at Mercedes along the Rio Negro is one of the widest streets I’ve seen anywhere, a grand promenade that came dressed for the ocean but arrived at a creek, and after a brief reconnaissance to the eastern end and back, I crossed the concrete causeway to the island.

I didn’t like it. Not too much flooding but a very busy place and a little run down with no stealth camping opportunities. Even the Municipal Camping Site was on public view through its chainlink fencing. I could see a couple of guys sitting outside reception as I rode by. I didn’t even bother asking how much it would be. Even free-gratis would have turned out to be poor value for what I was looking for.

At the end of the island stood an abandoned house, a monument to dashed dreams like an ever hopeful bride left standing at the altar. Once in virgin white splendour, now tattooed with urban graffiti and torn apart inside, strewn with bottles and cans as if it was the house itself that drank to forget its misfortune. The burnt trash and casual campfires suggested this was still well used by locals. This island would be no sanctuary for me so I scratched it off my list and retreated for brunch at Martiniano on the mainland.

I stopped by at the Tourist Information to ask about alternative campsites. Casa Quinta was recommended just outside of town. I’d seen it on Google Maps so it was a nice confirmation. The friendly staff kept me chatting a while and I complained about having to return to Montevideo to collect my new passport what with there being no DHL or FedEx nearby. They told me to get it sent by bus. It’s cheap and secure and all I had to do was take some ID to the Bus Terminal to collect it. Turns out bus lines are a common courier service as well as for public conveyance.

I expected some resistance from the Embassy but they were pleasantly cooperative after making it clear any loss wouldn’t be their responsibility, common to all government representatives. It would be here Saturday, the day after tomorrow. Saving a 600km round trip.

A pair of bungalows stand remotely in the countryside 6km south of Mercedes. Casa Quinta, so anonymous-looking that I mistakenly approach the neighbour’s house first. A brass bell hangs outside the door and a gentle ring summoned a pretty young lady who indicated me to drive through the gate and park at the end of the drive near the back garden. Her father, Julio, appeared and showed me around the hostel building that was in disarray while maintenance was carried out during the offseason. He offered to set up one of the beds but I wanted to camp so he showed me onto the back lawn and where I could pitch my tent. Chickens and a ñandu (Emu) alerted me to look out for unsavoury, organic mines and I pitched on a clean patch of lawn within an extension cable’s distance of a power socket.

Friday 24th May and I had the day to explore Mercedes. It’s a functional town that could be anywhere in the world, only its Latin grid structure of streets and majestic promenade giving it away. Coffee and WiFi at the Plaza Independencia and a late lunch at Cafe del Sol on the Rambla used up part of the day and there wasn’t much else to do except chill out back at Casa Quinta.

The next day’s mission was to collect my passport from Agencia Central bus station which turned out to be a smooth, cheap and pain-free experience. Handing over about £3.00 and the receipt number and I was fully furnished with another 10 years of global liberty courtesy of the Queen… “liberty” because freedom doesn’t require a document.

Sunday was Julio’s birthday so the house and garden buzzed with guests so I stayed in my tent after returning from town. I thought Julio might appreciate the privacy but he expected me to join them.

I was having some problems with an aggressive chicken in the garden. It would attack whenever my back was turned so I had to face it whenever possible and be forever vigilant.

Returning with food, the ñando would crane its neck around my body like some weird arm and raid my bag, like Rod Hull’s Emu famous from the 70s. It wasn’t shy at all but outrageously audacious.

Monday I bought some oil, fueled up at the Ancap fuel station and serviced the bike back at Casa Quinta ready for departure the next day. Mission accomplished, passport in hand, I felt happy not to have to backtrack to Montevideo and be free to explore the western part of Uruguay.

Tomorrow I would head northeast to Fray Bentos, a name I’d only ever seen on pie tins back in the UK. This was no coincidence since it was the base of the Anglo meat processing plant where 4000 cattle a day marched into the factory and exited in tins loaded directly onto ships at its docks and shipped to the British Empire.

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Playa la Agraciada

TUESDAY 14TH MAY The Autumnal air chills my fingers as I cruise out of Colonia del Sacramento north along the not-quite-coastal Ruta 21. I’d picked out a promising-sounding wild camping spot on the Ioverlander app up at Carmelo 80km away, so the crisp, sunlit jaunt promised to be short and sweet

The sun shone brightly but the Rio de la Plata air stole its warmth, chilling my bones all the way to snappily named Parque de Pinos Eduardo María Arbeleche Ércoli camping spot. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t too busy, but it was far too open and public for camping. Ioverlander reviews tend to cater for motorhomes and this place would have been fine for that. But a tent here? Nah! It reminded me of an out-of-season Billing Aquadrome back in Northampton.

I rode to the end of the peninsular to basque in the sun to warm up, lizard-like, for a while and just observe the local activity. Cars drifted in, sniffing around like sharks before leaving again and I soon saw how this would be one of those spots that low cars with loud exhausts and music systems would like to hang out.

Early afternoon, I was hungry and needed stomach fuel since the sun wasn’t penetrating past skin deep. I trickled out of the park in second gear wondering whether the effort of searching for another spot was worth more than a peaceful night. It was still early so it would be a long wait anyway and I joined the main road to follow a bus across the river into the city grid of Carmelo.

Lo de Pepe is a Mediterranean-looking pastel-pink restaurant with large Latin-looking arches and I could see that the sun angled its beams through to warm the window tables inside. I sat next to a window in full sun and ordered a Chivito with a Cafe con Leche then hooked on to their WiFi to scan what the map revealed north of here. I was still without GPS since my phone drowned in Urubici back in Brazil all those months ago, so navigation relied on memorising place names and road numbers while scanning for signposts.

Not many options appeared on Ioverlander except one 35km north at Playa Agraciada. The review said that off-season it was free, but not all reviews are accurate – sometimes people slip by unnoticed, and after lunch I rode Northwest, squinting into the descending afternoon sun.

Nueva Palmira, I took an uninspiring detour off the bypass toward the centre, which appears to be a dedicated port town, nothing touristy or inspiring about it and I turned north to the campsite without bothering to stopping for fuel since I still had over a quarter of a tank on the gauge.

With no GPS to tell me “In 300 metres, turn left,” I almost missed the unassuming-looking, unsigned junction towards the campsite. Confirming the odometer reading, I turned left off the vacant ruta 21, noticing a handy-looking store set back off the road opposite. I rode on making a mental note for when I got hungry.

It’s 6km to the campsite along a straight and generously surfaced road, which I had expected to be the usual dirt track.

Arriving to the fanfare of barking from a quartet of motley-looking dogs that chase the bike through the gate past the sign that read “Prohibido Ingresar con Perros.” I parked the bike at the monument next to the river to admire the wide watery border to Argentina. I’d already glimpsed Buenos Aires distantly over the Rio d la Plata from the lighthouse in Colonia and admired the skyline of Posadas across the Paraná River from Encarnacion in Paraguay. This time, a couple of km away, I could see nothing but the rough silhouette of shrubs.

To my right, a couple of unoccupied caravans in the trees with ramshackle shelters cobbled around them. No sign of anyone between here and all the way from the tranquilo main road.

I walked up to the house in the woods near the gate and knocked on the door. He might be the caretaker, I’m not sure, and he waves me away pointing with a sweeping motion of his arm over the site with what sounds like affirmative tones.

I took to the woods, far away from the caravans and the shower block, erected the tent next to an electric point. Two dogs galloped from the house and bowled into my legs, the lighter coloured dog looked more laid back but easily led and the burnt-toast-coloured one had a puppy-like exuberance set to annoy. Any affection was returned with jumping and pawing so I learned that to ignore was the best strategy.

I struck the hammock up between two pines and slumped back to watch the sunset over the mighty Rio Uruguay. So much better than the park back at Carmelo. This would do nicely!

Uruguay in Autumn isn’t what you would call warm, especially on the waterfront in the mornings. About 60F or 16C. I’d say it’s on a par with October in the UK, and after the sun went down I tucked up early into my sleeping bag for a peaceful night with just the sound of a breeze through the pines and the occasional thud of a pine cone falling to the pine carpeted sand.

I woke up uninspired and made it worse by sleeping in until midday and burnt-toast laying on the tent caving in one wall. I unloaded the rest of the luggage stashing it in the tent and took a run out to the store back at the junction.

The isolated store reminded me of a Frontier post. It didn’t have a lot but what it had consisted of a little bit of everything. A short, stocky late middle-aged woman patiently negotiated our language barrier. I bought food and a carton of wine so cheap that I thought I hadn’t been charged for it. I wanted some charcoal for cooking but I couldn’t make myself understood and was offered a range of objects from a cut of steak to a cigarette lighter. I took the lighter and gave up on the charcoal.

I didn’t go anywhere the next couple of days but collected what little twigs and logs that were available for cooking for when the bread and wine had been consumed. The wine tasted OK but gave me a hangover after about an hour. I didn’t have to wait until morning.

Come the weekend 5 days later, I decided it was time to take a shower. The heavy grey sky threatened rain and chilled the atmosphere. Inside, the block itself was cold, dark and grubby; the dim lightbulb struggling to illuminate the dark dank walls. But I pleasantly discovered luxurious hot running water. A hot shower after 5 days feels like an orgasmic pleasure for the senses no matter the state of the decor. I beat the thunderstorm back to the tent and fended off the annoying dog from forcing its way inside before it retreated back through the rain back to its house and I settled down to watch a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones.

Sunday 19th May. I never feel it’s worth going anywhere Sundays. Shops often stay closed unless it’s a big city. Recreational sites also bustle with families, so I tend to hunker down. As I would today. Perhaps half a dozen families came and went during the day; busy by recent standards and it even looked as if the site restaurant was open although I stayed put to light the grill before transferring a large smouldering log by me to warm me in the hammock.

The little ferrying I did 6km to the store and back sipped the dregs of my fuel and the needle hovered over E. The next gas station was 40km North at Dolores, my range was less than 20 which necessitated a retreat south to Nueva Palmira. I hate backtracking and regretted not stopping for fuel on my way just because “I wasn’t in the mood.” Still, it was an excuse to find a cafe and check my messages as I hadn’t been online for nearly a week.

The low grey clouds were pregnant with rain. I probably didn’t have enough fuel for an extra trip to the store and back plus the distance to Neuva Palmira for gas so the choices were to stay hungry or race the weather into town.

I found the petrol station without trying too hard and cruised down to the waterfront. All was quiet and grey with a single freighter moored up at the pier. I cruised around the quiet streets until the clouds delivered on their promise and raindrops began spattering on my visor.

A couple of blocks back, I stumbled upon Cafe Laskina and I settled at a window table opened my laptop and ordered coffee and tostados to while away a few hours while the Uruguayan weather tapped on the window pane. An email from the British Embassy announced my new passport had arrived. What to do about that… I was far from Montevideo and not even halfway around my excursion. Should I go back or carry on. I’d think about it…

Meanwhile, I post on Social Media:
“I’d stopped for an overnight camp… I’ve been here a week now as it’s so nice. Free camping, free electricity and hot showers. No wifi so I thought I better come into Nueva Palmira and check to see who misses me. Turns out nobody apart from internet marketers and the Embassy, which has now received my passport. Last Facebook notification 5 days ago. It just reminds me of how quickly we’re forgotten once we’re dead.
Where email acts like a dam when unread emails stack up over time. Social media is like a bucket of water: once you take your hands out the ripples on the surface quickly fade to a flat calm.
Rainy day here in Nueva Palmira, Uruguay. Just like a British autumn: Gloomy grey sky, 15C, and coarse drizzle. Waiting for a break in the weather so I can make the 15km run home.
Have I been using the time to catch up on writing and work? Have I ‘eck. I’ve spent my time watching the ships on the river, collecting pine cones for the fire, dozing in the hammock, daydreaming and watching Game of Thrones, and my newly discovered series of Westworld.
A town named the same as a Westworld character lies 35km to the northeast. Could that be a clue in the big adventure game called life? I’ll head up to ‘Dolores’ and find out when the weather brightens up.
Rain is forecast for the next few days so I’m hanging around a while longer. I’ll be offline for a few days more.”

I’d caught up on all my messages and the News of the World but the weather had anchored itself to this port town until further notice. I made my escape as soon as the rain eased to a spatter only to open up again just a few blocks away. I sheltered at a store and sat under the awning after buying some supplies, and watched the torrent of water in the gutter wash over the tyres and through the spokes of my wheels.

An hour later, the rain eased again and I set off: mission accomplished with full tank and supplies. 5kmfrom home, the heavens opened again and I arrived back just as water penetrated my final layer of clothing. Peeling off my clothes in favour of a dry layer, I tucked up in the sleeping bag with a glass of wine and snacks to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones. The conclusion of that episode left me feeling like that was the end of an adventure but here I was, still on my own.

Burnt-toast had hung around all night, disturbing my sleep by shuffling around on the side of the tent she made for her bed. The cool grey morning hung suspended under spent clouds. The river had risen up to the steps of the monument, threatening to breach the low bank and flood the woods.

I estimated it had risen a couple of feet and had a couple more to go. I would monitor the weather to try to avert potential disaster.

Meanwhile, I dedicated the day to a hot shower and laundry, hanging it out to dry in the cool river breeze.

Wednesday 22nd May, I liked it here and considered staying one more night but Burnt-toast had won, she’d frayed my last nerve by bowling into my legs and abusing my tent. Time to move on… and I started to pack away.

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Colonia del Sacramento

Streaks of sun flashed through the pine canopy at El Calabres beach. My Camera screen told me it was Wednesday 8th May 2019. Bright sun in a clear blue sky with a cool sea breeze off the Rio de la Plata. Disappointed to find my GoPro battery dead. I’d bought it with the bike but my single battery held little charge and would die in its sleep. I wanted to video my track back to the road so after packing, I strapped my compact Lumix to the handlebars instead. It was better than nothing.

I guessed my way back through the bushes without any drama. Colonia lay only 5km west and I coasted into the city down to the ferry terminal and bearing right along the coast to the old town. The leafy dappled cobbled avenues led me along the one way street of Manuel Lobo, past the Tourist Information Office and through a gap in the wall next to the old city gate and into a cobbled square and gardens. A glimpse of old Europe through the looking glass.

The red parasols on the patio of Don Pedro fluttered the hems of their skirts to seduce me into forgetting about my budget. A whisper on the breeze. “Hey amigo, rest in the sunshine and enjoy a little bit of paradise while you scan the internet for accommodation. You know you want to…”

The voice of Don Pedro had lied, pimping out the promise of what lay beneath those parasols: there was no WiFi or power sockets, plus my laptop battery was dead. The staff kindly took my laptop to recharge behind the counter while I stepped out into the leafy shade of the patio to absorb the historic vibes of Colonia over a latte. The sun high in the sky told me I had more time left in the day that I had expected and to relax a little. Without internet, my plan would be to retreat to the Tourist Information Office next to the time gate to get here, get some local tourist info and suck on their WiFi for a while. Meanwhile, in that moment, I could have been in 18th Century Spain on the Mediterranean. A million and five kilometers and an age from last night’s camping in the pines for sure.

Trevelling solo, there aren’t that many times I wish for companionship but this was one. Moments like this are meant for sharing. Without the PC or phone as a distraction, I imagined Deb sitting silently beside me – perhaps she was now really there conjured out of the ether just outside the visible electromagnetic frequency.

Don Pedro wasn’t cheap so dining solo means a hefty saving in places like this. Buenos Aires is a 40km ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata so a popular destination for weekenders for fertilising the local coffers. I loved sitting in the dappled shade of Don Pedro and would have stayed longer if I could have browsed the internet a while. As it was, I settled the bill, collected my laptop and departed homeless and without lodgings. It’s a different feeling sightseeing when all my worldly belongings are strapped to my motorcycle instead of tucked away in a hostel. Not worried though, I seemed to have this Jedi like power of invisibility for me and my steed but not quite enough to eliminate all doubt.

Old Colonia is pretty compact… pretty and compact, perched on a hook of a peninsular looking out across the River to Buenos Aires. From the lighthouse, you can just make out its skyline through the haze.

At the Tourist Information Office, a group of 5 tourists filled the whole width of the single bench seat I’d imagined myself commandeering, forcing me to sit, vagabond-like, on the floor. I logged onto ioverlander and booking.com typing in the WiFi code written on one of the attraction’s leaflets I’d collected out of the office. 

The nearest camping area was a municipal site next to an old Bull Ring almost as far away as the woods at El Calabres beach where I’d spent last night but was still well within the urban area of Colonia. I wanted to stay close to the centre and not have to worry about leaving everything in my publicly exposed tent during excursions. The golden nugget of Toca Madera surfaced in my panning through local hostels online. About £6 a night and only a block away from where I was sitting. Perfecto!

Toca Madera is wedged almost invisbly between a restaurant and a private house. It doesn’t have a frontage, only a forbidding looking steel side gate about a metre wide, thus no secure parking for my bike. I chained the bike to a post at the motorcycle parking across the road. It was a busy location on the corner of the main drag but the vibe felt good and every other neighbouring bike wasn’t locked. Some with helmets left perched loosely on mirrors.

The boxy 6 bed dorm seemed taller than it was side with glass patio doors opening one end into a square courtyard with no soundproofing. Compact and Bijou would be the ideal marketing blurb: small to you and me. Social Chatter from the cozy courtyard filtering through the glass doors into restless dreamscapes preventing sound sleep.  

Inside, my sole roommate didn’t speak and kept quiet… and I respected his silence by keeping my movements soft and quiet. It turned out he was deaf…

Thursday 9th I spent the day laid on the bunk catching up on the internet. It’s a nice contrast after a week in the woods. I appreciate the comfort more… everything in moderation as the 2020 plandemic lockdown would teach me later; comfort is overrated.

Nati Jones from New Orleans joined us. She was easy to talk to. Garrulous, is the word.  In the morning she told me that I grind my teeth in my sleep. Really? At 57 years old you’d think I would have heard about it before now.

Rain arrived by the evening but I went out anyway to Mercosur the restaurant on the corner. There’s an automatic VAT refund for foreigners paying by card, 18% at the time of writing. Easily missed if you pay with cash. Plus this restaurant had a kind of happy hour rate before a certain time which wasn’t too late for me but perhaps was for locals that customarily have their dinner nudge into the realms of a midnight feast.

The rain kept the streets quiet but it was still warm enough to sit out on the pavement under the awning. It’s common for restaurants to claim part of the thoroughfare and give the impression of walking through the restaurant without leaving the street,

Another restless night and I heard the guy across from me grinding his teeth. I guess Nati mistook me for him.

10th Cosy continental breakfast in a cosy kitchen and patio. Not too compressed together but close enough to maintain a more discrete silence than common at the larger hostels. I strolled down to the ferry terminal and checked the prices for a ticket to Buenos Aires for when my passport was ready. Between £50 and £70 depending on the day and time. Not bad. I wouldn’t have minded a day trip as a pedestrian but alas, I had no passport.

I rode around the city and up the coast to check out the camping spot up near the bullring I’d spotted on the map. There was a tent pitched amongst the trees and parillas (barbque grills). There were no fences and no facilities nearby but lots of houses around the perimeter. It had the worst of all worlds. OK for an over nighter but not as a base.

11th In the morning, My laptop quit charging and eventually died. The staff pointed me down the road to a repair shop about 6 blocks down by 2 across.

“Cerrado” (closed) said the sign but the door opened under pressure of a frustrated shove disturbing a customer already being served “Abierto?” “Si.” I left the laptop receiving the instruction to return at 2 pm and I went to an internet cafe to check messages before lunch at a cafe just up the road. Returning at 2, Dalrus said it wasn’t ready yet and to return at 4 so off I went for a wander. 

4pm “Abierto” (open) said the sign but door firmly locked with no-one inside. I waited for an hour and nobody returned. Back at the hostel Anika and Tino, a fraulein from Germany and hombre from Colombia were good company and we shared wine and stories.

The next morning, Dalrus had my laptop fixed and I came away with a new power cable and Euro style adapter. The plug for the laptop socket was a bit mangled but it worked so I didn’t mind and was relieved the worry and expense of purchasing a new computer..

Back at the hostel, a petite Japanese girl sitting on the floor tinkering with a lock. I booted up the PC but was intrigued by what she was doing and conceded to my curiosity after 5 minutes. Haruka was her name, meaning “Spring Song” Her combination lock wouldn’t open, thinking that maybe she had accidentally reset the combination. With a sensitive touch on the poorer locks, you can sometimes feel the resistance change on each tumbler. I gave it a go and after about 20 minutes, the lock popped open on the original number. She was grateful for my help even though it felt like nothing much to me. She made an origami bird and we shared a bottle of wine for the evening and exchanged travel tales..

Toca Madera is the smallest hostel I’ve stayed in. The two bathrooms were immaculately clean but hard to get into in the morning as everyone jostled for a shower.

Monday 13th I decided it was museum day. One ticket covers 7 of the dozen or so around the town. Monday seems like a second Sunday in Colonia and a couple of incliive museums were closed so I skipped them.

Colonia is a beautiful town but there’s not much to do so 5 days is more than plenty for a visit. I wanted to see some more of Uruguay before my passport arrived back from London so decided to take off up along the Uruguay river that marks the the western border with Argentina

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Boca del Cufré

Montevideo

THURSDAY 2nd MAY. Passport on its way to London. Me westbound on Ruta 1 out of Montevideo toward Colonia del Sacramento. I had over a month to kill before having to return to collect my new passport, so there was no rush to go anywhere in particular.

Colonia lies about 170km west but my eyes scanned the countryside when the buildings dissolved into rural green farmland. Scanning for quiet nooks and crannies for pitching a tent for a quiet couple of nights. I had no plan.

New dual carriageway contrasting with Google’s street view of 2015 which displayed a fairly barren single carriageway. Partly cloudy, the sun failed to provide much warmth during its appearances, the onshore breeze winning each dual. I had no GPS since my phone drowned in Brazil I’d been an hour and a half on Ruta 1, which would put me around halfway to Colonia, A sign to Boca del Cufré looked promising, taking me off the main drag towards the coast, I turned left across the vacant carriageway and 15km down to Boca del Cufré.

The wooded area of Rincon de Francisco offered a promising Plan B, just in case nothing was suitable for camping in the village, and I passed beneath the impressive welcome gantry before turning right along the riverside. I paused at the Municipal Mirador for a few minutes to admire the river and to consider the possibility to camp there. Even though the place possessed a post-apocalyptic tranquillity with not a soul in view, it was too exposed and I cruised down the riverside, past dormant houses, passing the Club Nautico to park at the Jetty where the river meets the sea.

Checking the time on the screen on the back of my camera. it had gone 6pm and the sun hung behind distant cloud low on the horizon. Everything looked closed and deserted. Slotting a pebble under the side stand of the Yamaha to stop it toppling over, I meandered lazily down the jetty.

Jetty

The first few minutes arriving at somewhere new are valuable moments of discovery. I’d got a feel of the layout of the village already and this moment along the jetty gave me the opportunity for a broader overview. Looking back to shore I saw no activity and dawdled back picking up pieces of litter, dropping them into the trash cans along the way. To my left, the river Arroyo Cufré to my right, the beach.

Boca del Cufre

I clambered down the boulders to the sand and picked up a stray plastic bag continuing along the shore filling it with cans, wrappers, bottles and caps. When it was full I cut across the beach to the car park and left the bag next to the overflowing trash can.

Limpio

Remounting the Yamaha, I exited the car park and cruised along the seafront, only a couple of basic looking stores shuttered up and lifeless. To my right, a scenic but deserted tree-lined beach with picnic areas, public toilets and showers. Checking the doors… closed.

Boca del Cofre

Cruising back to Club Nautico y Pesca Yacht Club, there’re pinewoods opposite. This was the campsite set on an unfenced block of land surrounded by streets. The lifeless looking office displayed no opening times amongst the bus timetable and notices in the window.

Boca del Cufre

A tired, converted bus next door looked abandoned. I tapped on the door anyway. No answer. Circling the office, the bathrooms and faucets that protruded through the walls were padlocked. I’d seen nobody since turning off Ruta 1 over an hour ago. Bliss!

Boca del Cufre

I remounted and turned slowly off the road and into the trees opening the throttle for the extra energy needed for riding over the soft, pine-needle carpeted sand and pitched my tent amongst the scattered plastic bottles and cans. Power points dotted about offered false promises of electricity but they were dead. A stray dog trotted up to say hello, sniffed around and trotted off. It had a clairvoyant skill to sense when food was out and would return as soon as it was.

Boca del Cufre

Friday 3rd.The late morning sun painting shadows over the carpet of pine needles. I walked across the road to Club Nautico y Pesca. The door was ajar but the TV on in the corner of the empty restaurant suggested life. “Hola?” A young woman responded by her appearance and confirmed they were open for business and I ordered lunch and coffee, took a seat at one of the tables along the front windows. Since I was alone here, I had no worries about leaving my laptop booting up while I took advantage of the only bathroom facilities available to me.

A child rattled toys on the floor near the counter while children’s TV echoed off the ceramic floor tiles and giant window panes. It seemed the family lived here and I felt almost like I was intruding. I was mystified how they made a living with nobody about. I spent the afternoon on the internet waving flies away and scooping the skin off the surface of my cooling cafe con leche. One other person entered while I was there, a friend of the family. No customers.

The next morning, depressing the handle and leaning on the door, the yacht club was locked. Abierto, the sign beamed in its red and blue LEDs. Means nothing in South America, and I strolled through the trees to the store just 50 metres North of my tent to buy some bread and jam for breakfast. The campsite is an eyesore, a real mess with trash strewn around and I set about tidying it up, starting by dividing the site into 9 zones in a noughts and crosses pattern. Left centre and right – top middle and bottom and set about working one zone at a time: big stuff then little stuff.

Once you get started, Eyes home in on smaller and smaller debris like bottle tops and cigarette ends like I was working down a trashy mandelbrot fractal. The impression I had with my nose to the ground was of making no progress until I stood up and looked back. One of the neighbours walking home along the eastern street noticed me, waved and said Gracias, which spurred me on for a few more minutes.

Late afternoon, I returned to Club Nautico. The door popped open out of its binding frame with a gentle rattle after a more insistent nudge, so Club Nautica might have been open all along. I recharged the laptop over coffee and internet, later returning to the woods to discover a couple of hikers pitched camp maybe 30 metres away. They were focussed on themselves so they never noticed me waiting to give them a wave. I collected wood for preparing a fire for cooking.

Late afternoon, I returned to Club Nautico. The door popped open out of its binding frame with a gentle rattle after a more insistent nudge, so Club Nautica might have been open all along. I recharged the laptop over coffee and internet, later returning to the woods to discover a couple of hikers pitched camp maybe 30 metres away. They were focussed on themselves so they never noticed me waiting to give them a wave. I collected wood for preparing a fire for cooking.

Evenings were gradually developing a chilly bite and I lit the fire near a felled tree trunk so I could sit comfortably and warm myself watching the pasta soften. Eyes watered with the smoke that seemed to find me wherever I sat. My neighbours had formed a circle with logs and camping equipment and sat quietly around their own fire with the clairvoyant dog now orbiting their camp. No meat in my pasta.

Boca del Cufre

Sunday 5th May. Raindrops pattering on the flysheet. Thunderstorms circulated the sky and I stayed hunkered down in the tent. Club Nautico was closed for the day but the store was open. They kindly charged up my laptop so at least I’d be able to watch a movie later.  The showers came and went and I dedicated another spell of collecting trash close by my neighbours in order to perhaps inspire them by osmosis to help out. It didn’t work and was ignored. I stopped for a chat anyway, the guy was alone now and told me his partner departed for Montevideo to get a flight home while he would continue his travel. He seemed happy to remain alone and there was no invitation to share food, wine or company so I continued collecting trash leaving him and the stray dog to whatever they were doing.

Colonia Valdense

Monday. I liked it here in the woods at Boca del Cufré but I would need a shower soon. That would be the main motivator. I struck camp and left to withdraw cash at Colonia Valdense 35km away. No joy. The ATMs were small domestic terminals at small stores and didn’t cater for international cards. Instead, I retreated to Che Paco restaurant for contemplation.

C0oloni  Valdense

Lunch at Che Paco provided the opportunity to search for the next campsite. IOverlander listed somewhere with hot showers that might be free of charge out of season. Only 7km away. it would make for a short day’s travel so I cruised past the tiny village of La Paz to its small rustic yacht club next to the Rio Rosario.

A couple of fishermen stood looking at a boat on the grass either contemplating a launch into the water or loading it on their trailer. Next to the building, a guy turned a handle on a mincing device filling sausage skins. I orbited the clubhouse and into the deserted campsite. Nobody here, so I coasted back to the sausage maker who asked how long I wanted to stay and I replied just one night and he waved his hand saying no problem I could stay for free-gratis. I settled down early enjoying the electricity on the laptop for watching movies until the novelty wore off about 3am.

Tuesday morning, waking to clouds of breath at La Paz freezing cold and humid. I dressed then filled a bowl from the faucet to shaved at the picnic table near my tent. The showers are heated via an open fire but since there were no other people here, there was no fire either. The choice was either a cold shower or nothing. I emerged clean and buzzing, quickly drying and getting dressed.

Seeings I had said I would only stay one night I thought I should pack away and move on, else I would have stayed one more night. I diverted off the main road the 9km to Rosario for cash. No. I tried four banks that had the same network. waste of time but it wasn’t that far off the main road. Lunch at Casa Vecchia. Santa Ana came up with rave reviews as a camping place and had four sites marked. Plan A, B, C and D. 

Santa Ana, picturesque on the coast, consisted mostly of locked up holiday homes. Disappointingly, all the mapped campsite were too exposed, displaying no camping signs.

I probably wouldn’t have had too much of a problem but didn’t want to be so exposed, so I cruised around Santa Ana to enjoy the view before taking off to investigate El Calabrés Beach near Colonia del Sacramento.

The cold wind cut across a bright blue sky and I turned toward the coast before Colonia to arrive at a disappointing car park. These reviews for wild campsites looked all good for motorhomes but poor for tents. A couple of parked cars suggested people fishing off the beach. Probably off the long pier a few hundred metres to the east.

To my left, a couple of hundred meters, a pine forest over a suggestion of a hill. If I could make it through the shrubs, it should be secluded spot and sheltered from the cool wind.

Vague tracks led through the weeds and faded away. I propped the bike on its side stand and trampled a path through the undergrowth and up the slope to the trees. Perfect, If the bike could make it over the soft sand between the shrubs then this spot would be ideal.

I ploughed along a path between bushes and opened the throttle through the soft sand lifting my feet so as to not get snagged by the weeds.

Now sheltered from the low sun warmed my back as I pitched the tent and strung out the hammock. In the distance, to the east toward the sea, the growl of a dirt bike churning through the dunes hacksawed through the tranquillity. The sound ebbed and flowed on the wind as I expected to see it roar through the trees at any minute but never did. I remained perfectly undiscovered.

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Montevideo

FRIDAY 26TH APRIL After packing away on the banks of Arroyo Solis, route 1B effortlessly led me along a muted water-colour painted landscape beneath a mackerel sky toward Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, claimed online as a “relaxed, vintage version of Buenos Aires.” I was looking forward to arrival, although the cool, colourless air dampened its tacit welcome.

The traffic built, as it does when approaching a major city, and I turned left towards the coast as soon as I sensed the vague outer limits of the city. The indistinct urban boundary, the traffic density and the time it took to crawl short distances from signal to signal made Montevideo feel expansive. Along the coast, the low rise waterfront gradually grew into a metropolitan sea-wall of tower blocks along the low-level shoreline, as charmless looking as it was long. Kilometres of endless Rambla awash with city traffic.

Finally, as the grey atmosphere began condensing into tangible drizzle, the city centre passed behind my right shoulder and I curled 180 degrees around the Ciudad Vieja (old city) at the tip of the harbour peninsular, past the old Mercado del Puerto, and turned right flowing inland with busses hissing over glossy tail-light streaked pavement to the Plaza Independencia. This could easily be Manchester or Liverpool back home. The mechanical tide drifted around the Plaza to gather at the red light at its junction with the Montevideo’s busy Ave 18th Julio.

Huddled with the cars and buses on the edge of the plaza impatiently waiting for the green light, I lifted my dripping visor to notice the warm glow of cafe lights beneath the dark brow of a colonnade on the plaza across the junction. Additionally, a gaggle of motorcycles parked outside suggested convenient, semi-secure motorcycle parking. Timely, since – although not yet soaked through – I had been slowly losing body heat during the trip.

Swinging open the glass door into the loud Spanish chatter of the crowded cafe, I spotted a vacant corner table displaying the remains of a lunch like it had undergone an autopsy. I stacked the plates across the table to make space for the laptop and plugged it into the nearby socket. A vegeburger and coffee would serve as rent for my stay as well as fuel for my body while I settled down to contact my prospective host.

Juarez Sousa, whom I’d met just over the border in Brazil travelling the opposite direction back to Sao Paulo at a Cafe in Brazil had put me in touch with Kapy Hbl and the Motoratones Motorcycle Group who offered me shelter if I were to visit Montevideo. And here I was: visiting.

I connected to the WiFi and received a reply within minutes. Kapy wouldn’t be there until 5pm so I sat back for a while sipping coffee and enjoying Praga’s post-lunch cosy hospitality.

Still not yet 4pm and Motoratones being 18km away, I set off east on an exploratory urban dawdle, calling in at the viewing platform at the City Hall for casting an eye over the urban panorama. I wasn’t too worried about leaving my fully loaded bike out front of the plaza; I could see it a dozen stories below me across the square but what could I do from the top of a tower if I saw someone unpacking the bike?

20 minutes later I was back on the streets jostling with the traffic and guessing my way northeast to Motoratones. One-way streets and ‘No Left Turns’ made staying on course impossible and morphed into a series of mini mystery-tours.

Out of the city centre, staying on Ruta 8 became easier with the final challenge of which was the last turning to take off the main road being the last obstacle. I guessed correctly turning along the dirt road to Motoratones, and then past it all the way to the Campeón del Siglo stadium at the Ruta 102 junction at the other end, confirming that at least I had been on the right road.

Lack of signage made the anonymous-looking tin hut difficult to identify. Checking the number painted on the front against the one on my laptop, I poked my head inside the door. Manuel had been expecting my arrival and warmly greeted me. His English was thinner than my Spanish but Kapy joined us after about an hour and between his better English and Google Translator we were able to communicate. I told Kapy I might need the British Embassy while I was here and he confirmed my obvious thought that it would be closed until Monday but it would be fine to stay at Motoratones as long as I needed.

Motoratones’ Club House is a large corrugated iron single-story building that looks like a workshop from the outside but contains all the comforts of a house inside. The double doors opened to allow entry for my motorcycle over the concrete floor and next to the pool table. Kapy showed me my comfortable double mattress in a bedroom and around all the amenities before he and Manuel left to go home. I had the place to myself. I’m OK with that. My own pad in the Montevideo suburbs.

27th April, thinking cities are typically busy on Saturdays, I stayed in: alone. I had food with me so spent most of the day hunkered down on the internet. My passport had a few months left on it but was becoming a bit of a concern on how to renew it. Montevideo, being a Capital City, had an Embassy. Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata had one too, but I didn’t know how long processing would take and wanted to be away from there in time for the Total Solar Eclipse of July 2nd. I couldn’t do much about it over the weekend, except finding out the location and renewal instructions so stayed in and researched as much as I could. There were two locations listed. Only one would be current and it was difficult to discern which.

Sunday 28th. I’d noticed Sundays are commonly a quiet day by passing through the Uruguayan cities along the way so today offered a perfect opportunity to go sight-seeing along the uncongested streets.

A cool and dry day under another grey sky became windier as I drew nearer the coast. The lighthouse loomed across the Rambla on my left as the buildings along Bulevar General Artigas parted at the coastal junction.

The road forced me to turn right, so I went with the flow to cruise along the seafront for a few kilometres before hanging a u-turn back.

The attendant at the lighthouse offered to keep my helmet on his desk while I looked around. Without any other visitors, I was left to roam freely around the exhibits and up the stairs to admire the view and indulge a private game of spot the manufacturer: often one of the Victorian, Industrial cities of Great Britain. I guessed Liverpool but no, Birmingham.

Now hungry, the La Estacada, next door, is a pricey restaurant, cosy but posh enough for me to feel conspicuous. I stepped in, spotted the serviettes and wine glasses and stepped out again before the door swung closed behind me. Cloth serviettes are red-flags to me, warning of high prices.

I pulled up outside Isadora Libros, a bookshop a little way up the coast from the lighthouse with this idea to buy a book in Spanish to spur me on for learning the language. Sunday: it was closed but I noticed Costa Azul Cafeteria at the end of the road was open. Sheltering there from the sea-breeze with a coffee and chivito.

The Monday Mission, now that businesses were open for the week: solve the mystery of passport renewal. Blue sky and bright sunshine being a good omen, off to the Embassy I rode to ask about the process face to face with a human. I parked on the sidewalk under the dappled leafy shade of a tree, half expecting to be at the wrong location of the two listed on the internet. Fifty-fifty. My lucky day, I rang the buzzer on the gate.

Funny how Embassy security employees never seem to speak English. Karina, the Consular Officer, instructed the guard to let me in and helped with their limited services. They can’t do much and were keen to state it after each enquiry, but what they can do they do reasonably well. I’s arrived with the impression that an Embassy could process a passport in-house, not necessarily while you wait but within a week or so. No, centrally processed online including all the risks and delays associated with international postage.

Karina kindly printed out the instructions I needed for applying online and emailed me authorisation, for printing out and including with the application, that I use the Embassy’s address for delivery. That was about all we could do, the rest would have to be dealt with anywhere that had an internet connection.

I continued with my hare-brained idea of buying a favourite book in Spanish so I could read it and learn the language and cruised up to the wonderful Escaramuza Libros bookshop and bought a copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions. I had already read it in English, twice, and sat in Esaramuza’s cafe courtyard to enjoy coffee and cake while flicking through the book’s pages in bewilderment.

Calling it a day, I retreated back to Motoratones, now familiar with the virtual labyrinth of prohibited turnings and handy rat-runs to get me onto Ruta 8.

There’s a Supermarket on the main road just past my turning not far from Motoratones. Handy for nabbing some snacks and a bottle of wine on the way for oiling the wheels of government administration.

Back at base, I filled in the online passport application and wrestled with the photo requirement rejections for an hour until the lighting and background suddenly and mysteriously accepted a photo I’m now lumbered with for 10 years. I saved the documents into pdf files on a USB stick ready for printing out later somewhere in the city for sending together with the old passport back to London.

Tuesday 30th I rode into the old town to buy an envelope, print off and sign my forms ready for sending over a coffee at another nice bookshop called Librería Más Puro Verso. Tomorrow, the plan was to pack up, call in at DHL then head West toward Colonia del Sacramento while waiting for the new passport, instead of drumming my fingers at Montevideo.

1st May I casually packed away, planning to find somewhere to camp on the coast about an hour west of Montevideo. I had all day so there was no rush. When I got to DHL it was closed. Today was Labour Day: celebrated by closing up and suspending labour for the day.

That was that then. I parked up at Plaza Matriz to connect to the free Municipal WiFi and determine my options. I discovered no couriers outside of Montevideo that would be on my route so would have to remain here until tomorrow and so fired up Booking.com to discover Punto Berro Ciudad Vieja just half a block away and only a block from DHL.

Punto Berro Ciudad Vieja is a cute old City-Centre Hostel, that doesn’t look much from the outside, run by a family from India that served home-cooked Indian food for dinner after the usual argument that I had already paid for the option on Booking.com’s website plus ‘Good Breakfast’ having to show my email receipt on the laptop screen as evidence, a lesson I had still not yet learned with Booking.com. They had no secure parking but I was calmly reassured, with the confidence that the absence of personal risk provides, that my bike would be safe in the street, especially as the holiday had emptied the neighbourhood for the holiday.

As this was my last afternoon in Montevideo, I cruised around the old city centre. The famous Port Market was closed but families were out in the street barbecuing to the thump of their reggaeton throbbing boomboxes. There wasn’t much to do or see, to be honest, and I soon drifted back to the Hostel to relax.

My dorm on the first floor faced the street, reassuringly able to monitor my motorcycle chained up next to the skip across the road outside Cafe Brasilero. I was surprised to find my roommates were three guys of African descent, only noticing because I’d only encountered Caucasian and Indigenous people over the last few months of travelling and it highlighted how less cosmopolitan Southern Brazil and Uruguay appeared to be compared to the UK. We didn’t share a common language but I think they were here for work since the Port was just a few blocks away.

Dinner tasted delicious, and the night passed peacefully in the quiet, street-facing dorm.

Thursday 2nd of May, I packed away and strolled around the corner to DHL and stunned to discover their US$105 mailing fee for a featherweight envelope no bigger than a birthday card. I said I’d think about it and retreated to Cafe Brasilera across the road from the Hostel for brunch and WiFi to discover that FedEx was no cheaper. I couldn’t risk domestic mail… they had me over a barrel. With all the fees, Passport renewal totalled over US$280. How Governments take away a right and sell it back to you.

I resentfully returned to DHL, coughed up the fee and sent the package off, setting my timer to wait “up to five weeks” for processing plus however long for shipping. Meanwhile, I couldn’t leave the country until receiving my new passport and planned to kick over the gravel around the undiscovered western fringes of Uruguay.

Starting the engine, I caught my reflection in the window opposite which reminded me I was still on a big adventure faking a picture to remind myself to not get distracted by daily problems and set off around the harbour, stopping only to buy a feeler gauge for adjusting my own valves, which hadn’t been checked since Asuncion in Paraguay. I hit the road around Montevideo Bay and out to Ruta 1 for Colonia, happy to escape the city, looking forward to camping out beneath sky and leaves once again.

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Punta Del Este

The Fingers of Punta Del Este

TUESDAY 23RD APRIL, I awoke indoors blanketed in a comfortable bed for a change. The spartan breakfast in the cool alfresco space of the RocaMar courtyard let a little air out of my buoyant start. The thing about Booking.com is that you have to understand it’s written in marketing English as opposed to regular English. The “Good” in “Good Breakfast” isn’t an adjective, it’s part of Booking.com’s extended noun for the common term of “Breakfast,” which could equally mean “bad” or “hardly-any,” 

Good Breakfast

“Ask about our optional extended menu.” boasted a sign on the counter.

“No tengo!” came the reply, which means how it sounds. 

The optional menu was applicable only for high season, and the sign was left out for low season purely for decoration.

I mistook two of the staff for guests, halving the true occupancy, the hotel being virtually empty.

Rocamar Hostel

Marketing trick No.2: During online booking, an alert often pops up “Last one available,” designed to nudge you toward clicking the “Confirm” button, bearing no relation to the stark emptiness regularly discovered upon arrival, and confirmation by the sparse selection of tableware set out for the morning’s “Good Breakfast.”

I soon downed my bread and orange squash and retreated to the dorm to revel in warmth and comfort to blog all day and browse the internet. This otherwise boring activity became a contrasting treat due to the scarcity of electricity, communications, and comfort out on the road.

The next morning, wandering out of my sanctuary for the promise of more good-breakfast. The treat of the day was my first shower since Quebraba a week ago. It’s not as bad as it might sound since Uruguay, being temperate and dry, isn’t the sweaty tropics and we are entering Autumn. The first shower in a while feels almost orgasmic, groaning with pleasure from within the cloud of steam, and the deluge pounding my scalp and rinsing away the dust and odours of the road like the first rains at the end of a long dry summer. 

Punta del Este Flag

I used to shower every day back in civilisation and suffered from dry skin. Not any more. I think my body has found a natural equilibrium now. Although seemingly a less sanitary lifestyle, it feels a lot more healthy.

Without the luggage, the bike feels light and responsive and I wobbled and darted my way along the empty sea-front into the city in search of cash and information. Few things are as satisfying as replenishing your wallet from an ATM except perhaps a good meal.

Rotary Restaurant

The hombre at the empty Tourist Information office warmly welcomed me and listed the top attractions to see around the city. He recommended the rotary restaurant across the road, which I could see if I stuck my head out the door and looked upwards. Eager to please, he telephoned for the opening times. It was closed because of a holiday or maintenance or something so I started my wanderings with a stop off at the harbour just 2km down the road to visit the pampered sea-lions. Fat and lazy through easy pickings – becoming a tourist attraction in their own right for their keep – they burped their fishy breath shunning the fisherman’s excess offcuts being waved at arm’s length by the visitors. I’d never been this close to them before and it felt like being near pets than wild animals.

Sea Lions Feeding

Lunch at the cheapest cafe I could find: “The Family” next door to the more cosy looking “Rustic,” cheaper but which still boasts European level prices. I cruised a lap of the peninsular before committing to visit Casapueblo at Punta Ballena, 14km west. I didn’t feel like riding much but ample time spread before me able to be wasted. I looked across the water for ten or fifteen minutes, in contemplation.

Punta Del Este Restaurants

Punta del Este marks the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata, which seems odd since its still 220km across its mouth and the opposite shore cannot be seen. Juan Diaz de Solis explored the Rio de la Plata in 1516 in his search for a route to the Pacific which would remain undiscovered until Magellan’s voyage in 1520. Rio de la Plata is the confluence of two mighty rivers: The Paraña and The Uruguay. Much history and, almost unbelievably, I was here now: an ordinary bloke from Northampton on a small motorcycle.

Rio de la Plata

The straight and empty coastal dual carriageway felt further than 14km perhaps because of the lack of visual features and the cold steady wind blowing across the Rio de la Plata urging my mind for cravings of warmth and shelter.

Carlos Paez Vilaro

Casapueblo was the residence of the famous artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, who’s son was featured in the true story Alive when flight 571 carrying a Uruguayan Rugby team to Chile crashed in the Andes. The search was called off after a week but the survivors endured for 72 days until the weather warmed enough for two of the party to hike the 35km across the mountains and get help. Carlos would have been here for two months believing his son to have died.

Carlos Paez Vilaro

What a great house, built by this artist and inspired by nature. There’s not a straight line anywhere on it. The place was busy but not crowded, artworks tastefully lit and displayed throughout the rooms. Coffee and cake on the cafe’s patio was a real delight and worth the stretch of my budget.

I sipped frothy cappuccino looking out across the patios and the sea imagining what it would be like to live there. Tranquil but lonely if it were just me… like a monk in a cave. I’d have to run an AirBnB or something but for today I simply loved the moment, and stayed until dusk before returning to RocaMar.

RocaMar

Thursday the 25th, I considered staying one more day but WiFi died in the night, so no, if I’m going out for WiFi, I’m moving on altogether…  

Expecting La Vista Restaurante Giratorio to be open, it looked firmly closed and I rattled the sliding doors to check. I’d parked my fully loaded bike in the empty car park across the road next to the Tourist Information office and sat amongst the Transformer sculptures on the forecourt, counting down to the noon opening time. After ten minutes, the doors slid open and I walked up to the desk to be greeted by a US$10 entry fee… even before the opportunity of ordering a coffee.

Nah, “Muy caro” I said, span on my heels and walked back across the road, mounted up and hit Ruta 10 along the, now familiar, Baie de Maldonado sea-front, past Casapueblo turning left off the main road as soon as I could diverting along the quieter coastal route through the tranquil resort towns of Punta Colorada and Piriápolis.

Montevideo is only about 135km from Punta del Este: Three hours, easy. but I wanted to savour as much of the coast as possible since it was unlikely I’d ever be coming back this way, so reminded myself that I had plenty of time before the July Solar Eclipse in Argentina and to follow the road less travelled as much as I could. A constant battle with the hangover from the culture I’d grown up with of saving time, I guess.

The wilds were long-gone now, well behind me to the east. This coast was more commercial. Bought, paid for, and fenced off: stained by civilisation. I passed through sleepy Punta Colorada and Piriápolis. Entering Piriápolis reminded me of an English seaside town and I rolled on through without even putting my feet down. Nice enough but holiday resorts aren’t my thing.

15 KM further west, Solis, a couple of promising looking campsites pinned on iOverlander. A quaint, quiet village of mainly locked up holiday homes punctuated by barking dogs in the yards of the few interspersed permanent residents. The camping spots I had looked forward to proved disappointing in reality and exposed too much to local eyes. A dog growled through a wire fence as I dismounted and explored on foot, and a young motorcyclist sitting on a barrier next to the river eyed my meandering reconnoiter, so I retreated inland to the “Ahora Si” cafe for a long afternoon lunch and to latch onto WiFi for forming a Plan B.

Just across the river, Jaureguiberry hides quietly in the trees. A sleepy neighbourhood of narrow lanes cutting between woods and scattered rustic homes.  The camp marked close to the bridge wasn’t marked; I added that later.

Probing the riverside accesses, I discovered a grassy area behind some trees next to the river. The usual evidence of humans: trash and bonfire marks. One man fishing at the riverside didn’t seem to notice me and I didn’t advertise myself. I dismounted and kicked around the grass collecting litter while searching for a flat and level pitch sheltered from the wind eventually settling down in long grass amongst some bushes as the sun began to set.

A catamaran drifting at anchor in the river mouth cast my mind back to my time in the Caribbean. I felt just as happy in the bushes. Over the rustle of leaves in the breeze, as darkness crept over, all I could hear was the light hum of the occasional car crossing the bridge. 

Although not a picturesque camp, it felt snug and private. As I’d imagine a chick snuggling under a bird’s wing for the night.

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El Caracol

San Antonio Beach

FEELING PRETTY LAZY upon awakening. Friday 19th April – Good Friday. I laid in for a while before getting up to stroll along the deserted beach. The sun not yet strong enough to blunt the edge of the chilly morning breeze. I harvested the inevitable discarded bottles, cans and plastic waste that I encountered along the way, which seems to be a universal constant wherever I go in the world.

This week is Easter week, and I hadn’t really noticed since I’d been away from the big towns. It probably explained why the Fort had been so busy on the Tuesday just gone. I was only 120km from Punta Del Este, a city with a reputation as a holiday and party centre for the ‘well to do’ of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Not my scene, which meant I had four days to make half a day’s journey. I had four days to kick over the sand somewhere along the coast.

El Caracol, Uruguay

Years ago I’d daydreamed of places to escape the congested British rat race. Ambitions of being a tax-exile if only I could earn enough money, so somewhere cheap without too much government intrusion and somewhere at a warmer latitude.

Uruguay

My mouse cursor hovered over Asuncion and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay then towards the Uruguayan coast: Punta del Este and Montevideo. I’d already visited Asuncion and Ciudad del Este and here I was now a short ride away from Punta del Este. I never thought I’d actually tread these parts with my own boots half a world and half a lifetime away.

San Antonio Stealth Camp

I packed away my stealth camp from behind the bushes between the empty villas and rode into La Pedrera for brunch at a rather nice cafe I’ve now forgotten the name of. I had an abundance of time to be able to afford to waste and I finally left at three to ride into La Paloma for fuel and to photograph the lighthouse prominent in the Google Maps pages. 

The town was busy with urban bustle with a rough edge that gave me an uneasy feeling. Noisy hot hatches and beat-up cars cruised the streets, booming Reggaeton spilling through the windows.  I wouldn’t be staying.

La Paloma

I photographed the lighthouse and bought some supplies before taking off into the countryside.

On the map, it looked doubtful whether I could cross the Laguna de Rocha inlet along the gravel coast road. No bridge on the map and no ferry on the street view, and I opted for certainty by travelling back inland to the Ruta 9 at the junction at Rocha and skirting the Lagoon.

My mission along the way was to look for a quiet sanctuary close to a store which seemed a tall order passing miles of fields and greenery. Ruta 9 was too busy with traffic and rejoining Ruta 10 south of the Lagoon was quiet enough but still little sign of civilisation.

El Caracol

Puente Laguna Garzón looked promising on the map but, upon arrival, it was busy with visitors. In 80km I had spotted no decent site and the best options here felt too exposed with too many tyre tracks in and out of the spindly bushes.  Further along, the trees had completely disappeared from the landscape and left only bare dunes exposed to eyes from the road and wind from the sea. I retreated up the coast to where Ruta 10 deviated inland and a wedge of forest bisected the road and the beach. Five miles back, a sandy track led from the road to the spearhead of woods on the beach and I was able to plough through the soft pine needle covered sand into the trees.

El Caracol Woods Access

I rode through to the edge of the woods bordering the open beach. Perfect. I pitched the tent and strung up the hammock and tucked into my bread and wine. I wished I had bought enough to last me until Monday because I hadn’t seen another store since La Paloma. And in the 8km between Puente Laguna Garzón and here, all I’d seen was two or three cars on the beach. 

I heard a distant squeal, the sound of children playing and I walked to the end of the woods along the beach to see a family picnicking. They didn’t see me and I retreated into the trees and back to my hammock.

20th April Saturday. The family had gone by the time I got up and I explored the network of surrounding tracks. It looked like the site had been prepared for development as it was laid out in a basic grid of sandy tracks with some pipes crossing for drainage. The area made for a secluded coastal camp spot and I wasn’t surprised to see a couple of fishermen come and go over the weekend. 

I’d pigged out in my paradise last night and needed more food. The traffic had been almost non-existent on the road so I had no worries about leaving all my belongings zipped up in my tent while I rode back to Puente Laguna Garzón in search of supplies.

Puente Laguna Garzón

Puente Laguna Garzón has a peculiar circular bridge. A giant 100-metre diameter ring set above the water. I found a couple of restaurants but no store. 8km further on lies the village of Jose Ignacio and, with time on my hands, I continued on. 

Devoto Express

Next door to the Ancap gas station on the main road at Jose Ignacio is a terrace of stores plus a bench next to a power socket out front of Devoto supermarket where I could sit connected to their WiFi, sipping coffee.

I returned to the woods late afternoon along the deserted coastal road and, scanning up and down the way, slipped unseen into the trees, the camp was as I’d left it, undiscovered and undisturbed. The wind had strengthened off the sea and carried with it a sharp Atlantic chill making lounging in the hammock unappealing. I struck camp and retreated about a hundred metres into the trees to pitch at the side of the woods away from the wind but closer to the road. 

Although the scenery wasn’t so nice, the slowed breeze felt less cold. The late afternoon sun stretched its fingers between the trees to warm my face as I lounged in the hammock sipping red wine. It was one of those rare moments that feel better shared rather than squandered on a solo social castaway. 

El Caracol Dinner

My sunset dinner consisted of wine, bread, salami and nuts. I don’t like to cook in pine forests when it’s dry and windy. I don’t really like to cook at all, and only do so when the craving of a hot meal overcomes cooking’s inconvenience.

I noticed the usual trash scattered here and there and invested some time for contribution to my species by wandering about the woods collecting wrappers and bottles. One of the three motor oil bottles I’d picked up dripped oil on my trousers and I resented that as an unfair punishment in return for doing a good deed.

Sunday. What to do… The day stretches out too far ahead for wasting it laying in a hammock. I bagged up the trash I’d collected and set off to Jose Ignacio, dumping the trash bag in an overflowing bin along the way. 

Jose Ignacio Lighthouse

Jose Ignacio is a beautiful village graced with a scenic beach and crowned by an immaculate lighthouse: a more tranquil and refined location than La Poloma. I happened upon Soho Cafe on the corner of a plaza, a couple of blocks inland, serving sumptuous cakes and coffee. A bit expensive but a luxurious location for spending a few hours working online for a while. I think the prices kept the riffraff away… except for me.

Monday 22nd. Easter now officially over, I casually packed up camp, powered through the soft sand to the road turning left on the long straight Ruta 10 and stopped off at the Jose Ignacio Ancap and Devoto for coffee and a recharge. Logging onto Booking.com, I discovered a cheap hostel at Punta del Este now a mere 33km away. I held off booking to leave room for the opportunity of finding a wild camp along the way and set off southwest along the coast.

Lionel Viera Bridge La Barra

Ruta 10 was completely bare of trees now, wild sand and sea to my left, the occasional Villa and fenced-off field to the right. I scanned the dunes in search of wild camping spots. Too open to the ocean wind. Villas condensed into villages that gradually abutted one another as I drew closer to Punta del Este. Through the seaside town of La Barra and over the quirky undulating Leonel Viera Bridge, left only a breezy 5km run toward the highrise skyline of Punte del Este.

Punta Del Este Skyline

Ignoring the junction to the Rocamar hostel, I carried straight on the extra couple of kilometres into the city centre and through to the western shore of the peninsula. Punta del Este now a virtual ghost town. 

Dismounting at the most southerly point in Uruguay. The wind rattled the flags out full-stretch and its chill urged me onwards to the famous Hand in the Sand sculpture on the beach 2KM further up the eastern shore and pointed back toward Rocamar.

Punta del Este Flag

A bored-looking bus driver leaned against his bus and smoked a cigarette in the car park and a handful of windswept stragglers mingled between the fingers of the monument, too many people in the way for me to take a decent photo and instead I ducked into the beach cafe next door for a coffee and to use the WiFi for booking the room at Rocamar after my unproductive scan for a suitable campsite. I like to use Booking.com as it sometimes gives a cheaper rate and gives builds a discount with use. I’ve had the odd occasion where the over-the-counter rate has been inflated.

The Fingers of Punte del Este

Late enough to turn in for the evening, I coasted back along the empty shore, the southeasterly wind blowing hard and cold off the Atlantic under a steel grey sky. I turned left off the deserted dual carriageway a few hundred metres into a sleepy residential suburb. Had it not been painted bright red, I would have passed the hostel, mistaking it for a private villa. Rocamar is an unlikely looking single-story bungalow nestling quietly out of the way of the world in a residential subdivision.

Rocamar Hostel

They had no secure parking but their sleepy location suggested safety in its residential anonymity. Ferrying my luggage into the room, I slumped back on the bunk, alone in the cosy dormitory, listening to the wind rattle the loose gate latch outside my door and the lawn sprinkler tapping lightly on the window every ten seconds and savouring the homely luxury of four walls and a roof.

Exploration of the City could wait until tomorrow…

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Going Coastal

Ruta 14

ROADSIDE CAMPS AREN’T often the best, but this one turned out to be perfect. A clear night sky, the breeze whispering through the eucalyptus leaves and fireflies dancing in the wooded darkness below. The dormant Ruta 14 ignored by the distant traffic on the coast road on the horizon to the east promised tranquillity. Only two vehicles passed during the night, me nestling invisibly behind the undergrowth on the verge.

Ruta 14

The Sun climbed out of the east and tamed the cool air migrating inland from the nearby Atlantic coast. Pitched conspicuously on the roadside without the cover of darkness doesn’t feel appealing, so I started packing as soon as I awoke. 

A short 3km ride brought me to the asphalt of Ruta 9, which seems to double as a landing strip along a certain stretch. Instead of turning south, hunger directed me north to nearby La Coronilla in search of breakfast.

Tuesday 16th April. Turning right in La Coronilla, coasting over the speed humps to the beach revealed a village locked up and still asleep. We were now in the off-season but I discovered a small bakery with a bench in the sun where I could sit and eat pastries washed down with cafe con leche bathing in the bright morning warmth.

Still early, I needed WiFi for a heads up on my new mission along the coast. Quaint La Coronilla offered no substitute to distract me from retreating to the Ancap fuel station back at the junction with Ruta 9. 

Adjoining the fuel station sits a modern-looking prefabricated cafe, glass-fronted resembling an office you sometimes find at new housing developments in the UK. I skipped refueling as I still had a third of a tank. The east-facing windows allowed the sun to stream inside and provide a sultry warmth to the morning. I took a seat next to a mains outlet and obtained the wifi code together with a few more pastries and coffee. 

Fortaleza Santa Teresa sits on the coast just 10km south. I had all day to get there so I remained at the cafe enjoying the sun’s warmth while the shadows shortened towards noon. 

The smooth fast Ruta 9 follows the coast from the Brazil border at Chuy to the capital of Montevideo so it is a more lively route than I’ve recently been used to. Fast traffic overtakes me at my top speed of 80kmh. I watch my mirrors almost as much as looking ahead. No less stressful than riding along gravel.

Fortaleza Santa Teresa is a National Park operated by the military. From the gatehouse I was directed to a separate ticket office, a large shed set about 100 metres left of the entrance. Returning to the gatehouse with my ticket and map, I submit the piece of paper and set about exploring the park. It’s a family holiday park really, many of the stores and vendors now closed until next season. A few campers and families remain, scattered throughout the site. A nice enough place but not my cup of tea, what with having no family.

The fort itself is an impressive attraction that lies outside the park boundary, packed with visitors, I meandered around the interior looking at the photographs explained with foreign text. I got a feel for the place if not the history. I treated myself to a late afternoon lunch at the fort’s cafe adjoining the car park, paying tourist prices since nothing seemed open inside the park.

Choosing my moment carefully I started back to the park and into a torrential thunder shower beating me back to the cafe for shelter and enjoy another beer while watching the storm pass. 

The guard on the gate waved me through so I didn’t have to stop and retrieve my soggy ticket out of my pocket. I scanned through the scattered campers to pitch in a vacant area in some pine woods. Water points confirming a permitted area but nobody else here so it almost felt like wild camping. A restful night within earshot of the Atlantic surf crashing on the beach.

After striking camp mid-morning,  the following day felt empty and purposeless. I filled the time by cruising around getting my money’s worth out of the entrance fee to the park. I discovered a restaurant near the Playa La Moza that was open and enjoyed coffee and pastries for breakfast.

I came across a camping site next to the northern entrance that had power sockets. I strung up the hammock only for the afternoon as I didn’t want to pay for another night. There was no WiFi so i updated my journal while charging the laptop and camera. Punta del Diablo lay only 10km south, so I planned to find a wild camp spot between here and there. 

I set off late afternoon for Punta del Diablo, a characterful fishing village, rich with souvenir shops and tourism, bustling with visitors even now in low season. Exploring the sandy streets of Punta del Diablo for wild camp spots drew a blank adding to the disappointment of not finding any candidates along Ruta 9. Seafront fish, chips, and beer soothed the pain.

As nice as Punta del Diablo is, it is a tourist trap incompatible with wild camping and I decided to backtrack to Fortaleza de Santa Teresa to a quiet lane I’d noticed near the junction and parallel to Ruta 9. In the dark, I lost my way back to the main road and ended up in the rural outskirts of Punta del Diablo on a network of sand tracks. I stopped to ask a local:

“Donde esta ruta nueve, por favor?”

“No entiendo.” came the reply and I repeated my question. 

“No entiendo.” 

“Necisito salir.” I added

“Ah! R-r-r-uta nueve!” making that machine gun “r” sound that the Spanish language has. It sounds the same to me with a normal “r,” I thought, as he pointed out the directions.

Pitching the tent by head torch, trees shielding my position to the traffic and the muffling the tire noise from the busy road helped provide a cheap and fairly restful night.

I awoke the following morning uninspired. I hadn’t really thought much further than Punta del Diablo and from the recommendations, felt mild disappointment from my visit. Entirely due to elevated expectations. Beyond Punta del Diablo, the road faded into the fog of my imagination. Follow the coast was my basic plan, so I didn’t need to think too much about it. I circulated Punta del Diablo once more for the benefit of the GoPro after charging its flat battery from the USB port on the bike. I didn’t stop to put my feet down and rejoined the main road after just one orbit.

25km south lies La Esmeralda. Running around Santa Teresa and Punta del Diablo added up to a fair distance not accommodate in my fuel calculations, and the needle was now about an 8th: probably not enough to get to the next fuel station 40km away and I was reluctant to backtrack 20km to La Coronilla.  Maybe there was a fuel station not marked on the map which happens occasionally. And if not… well, nursing the throttle might get me within a short push of a gas station at Castillos.

Trusting providence, I entered La Esmeralda with the needle touching empty. Esmeralda isn’t so much a village as a grid of dirt tracks through tangled woods dotted with houses. No fuel station. I stopped at a store and asked if they sold “Gasolina.”  I was pointed down the road a little to the next shop. The woman on the till went to fetch her husband who brought out two 1.5 litre coke bottles. I stocked up on supplies while I was there and in the resultant good mood.

Continuing on to Castillos, Ruta 9 veers inland presumably to avoid the inlets and lagoons along this stretch of the coast. I turned right to enter the town, topped up the tank at the first gas station I found, and returned to the junction to cross Ruta 9 onto the less busy coastal Ruta 10 to Aguas Dulces. 

Aguas Dulces is another quaint seaside village. Well spread out with plenty of stores and eateries down near the coast. Barba Negra boasted Wifi, Cafe con Leche and a mains socket. Stayed until 3 checking out camp spots before resuming my journey south.

Cabo Polonio… I’d read a bit about it and an interesting-looking camping candidate. Cabo Polonio has no roads leading to it and is located about 7 km from Ruta 10. It is accessible by either walking through the dunes or by 4×4 vehicles. The village has no electricity or running water for the few houses there, and wind power and a few generators are used to power some of the posadas and its grocery store. Residents collect water from nearby water wells or from rainwater. 

I pulled into the Plaza full of parked vehicles, a bit like a ‘Park and Ride’ system for the village where people can either walk or take the shuttle to the coast. I didn’t fancy either leaving my bike parked or bother asking if I could ride down to the coast, I circled the car park eyeing the souvenir shops before pulling back out onto the road and continuing on. Too touristy looking for me, but I will never know firsthand.

30km further on. Late afternoon, a sign for a beach down a sandy track looked worth checking out. San Antonio. It looked anonymous enough. Between small villages, the scenery was rural enough to be almost barren. Dunes, fields and trees mile after mile. 

I turned down the track towards the sea. Eucalyptus trees to the right, pasture to the left, warm sun on my back. A grassy trail branched off the main track before the beach. I didn’t notice at first but this was the entrance to a house, Casa Dunas de San Antonio. I quietly pitched camp behind some bushes so I was not easy to notice from the road. Across the way, a red ‘Prohibido Acampar’ sign. It seemed quiet enough here and a only a short walk to the deserted beach.

My cautiousness wasn’t necessary. I checked it out on AirBnB a few days later. It turned out the property was a holiday let. Being out of season, it was deserted. As were all the other nearby holiday homes. I saw only one car arrive, turn around and drive back the way they came. I had the place to myself. As tranquil as you can get… just me and the sound of grasshoppers and the Atlantic surf…

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Hell or High Water

Posta del Chuy

WEDNESDAY 10th APRIL. A bright and sunny day for leaving Balneario Ipora for Melo. Joining Ruta 26 east, the landscape spread out from distant horizon to distant horizon. A sea of agriculture over a gentle swell. The scenery struggled to hold my attention, but the scarce traffic and warm dry weather made up for that lack. No junctions to miss through daydreaming made for a lazy 200KM run to Melo. There had been no rush, but I made it by 1700.

Barrio Parque Rivera, a large municipal camping site highlighted on ioverlander as a favourable campsite, appeared disappointingly exposed to the city and exceedingly popular with the locals. Ignoring the entrance and coasting by, across the river into Melo, I now needed WiFi for unearthing a quieter camping spot.

Another unfamiliar city but for the familiar grid layout, eyes peeled for one way signs and cafes. You can pretty much bet that Latin cities will possess a Plaza de Armas or Plaza Independencia, bordered by a cathedral, monuments of war-mongers or liberators, banks and cafes. Even without a Cathedral Tower visible, it isn’t particularly difficult to guess your way to the centre. Central plazas often possess free municipal WiFi but deploying a laptop on a park bench often attracts the attention beggars and is used as a last resort.

Macanudo on the corner of Plaza Independencia satisfied all my immediate needs, cheap coffee, food and WiFi. Camping spots listed on ioverlander are limited to two close to town, one being a truck stop, and three more by extending the radius 15KM. I opted for some dubious sounding woodland 8km south on Ruta 8, due to the fact there’s a gate on the entrance but the onset of evening made it a “beggars – choosers” situation. It was further out of town than I wanted, but I felt better about it than the urban municipal site I’d passed.

I pulled up Google maps and Streetview to try to get an idea of what the gateway looked like. Without a satnav it’s difficult locating an entrance along a lengthy roadside frontage of forest.

I passed lots of gaps in the trees that kind of looked like the gate I was looking for, but not quite. Finally, I recognized it… although not so expansive as the fisheye photograph on Google, plus the gate was open sporting no chain or lock.

Turning left, through the gate the track ran past a disused concrete hut, a possibility for seclusion but too close to the entrance for comfort. A couple of hundred metres further, the track narrowed and descended and a lane branched off to the right. Propping the bike on the stand, I walked down the lane to look for access into the trees, well hidden, the bushes were spaced well enough to allow easy access into the interior. The only obstacle being severed branches lying across the junction.

Coaxing the bike over and through the branches wasn’t too bad with some engine revs and commitment and I soon arrived at a level clearing hidden from the view from any path. I could faintly hear passing trucks on Ruta 8 through the trees. Other than that leaves whispered in the breeze and birds sang unfamiliar songs… a campsite exceeding my expectations from the meagre pickings seen on ioverlander.

The next day I packed away between the warm spears of sunlight between the trees and returned to Macanudo to email Gabriela that I was in Melo for the weekend. I thought today was Friday but discovered it was still only Thursday, inadvertently committing myself to a long weekend. No matter, I hung around Melo for the day and returned to forest camp thinking if I knew what day it was then I could have left the camp pitched for the day… or would I have instead left for the coast?

Friday afternoon, Gabriela arrived early at Macanudo Cafe, approaching my upstairs table before I even looked up from my screen. We shared a coffee and a chat but there was no mention of the weekend invitation to join her husband and friends camping, previously mentioned at Balneario Ipora, and I didn’t mention it either, perhaps to avoid an awkward moment. It wasn’t that important. It was simply an expectation.

We settled for a pleasant twelve block stroll to the river and back leaving the loaded bike parked outside the Cafe. Through our conversation, I learned a lot about health and nutrition as we talked about lifestyle along with my unusual way of life. It heartened me to hear that, out of the two, lifestyle was more powerful than nutrition for health, due to the bad chemicals that psychology dumps into your body. There’s no use living on lettuce if you’re stressed. You’re better off relaxing with a burger.

We returned to the cafe and parted company, leaving my weekend plans adrift as I had expected to follow Gabriela to where she was joining her friends.

Posto del Chuy, a historic toll bridge and inn, now museum, is marked on the map some 15km east of Melo on Ruta 26. I set off just before sunset scanning with hope for wild camping along the way… Nothing.

Arriving at Posta del Chuy, the sun now on the horizon, I could have been in Cornwall. A stone building and bridge across a small river. The bridge was barricaded to stop traffic, but the far side looked ideal for camping. A man next t a building on the edge of the site just before the parking area was watching me so I was reluctant to sneak past the barricade and over the bridge to camp on the grassland over the other side.

Posta del Chuy

A senora was locking the museum door and told me it would open at 9 the next morning so I prepared to U-turn and look for a wild camp back along the road I had come. The man that had been watching me waved and beckoned me over to his gate. Jorge Martinez didn’t speak English, but we managed basic communication. He invited me to pitch my tent in his garden. He was the caretaker for the museum and he and his colleague took it in turns manning the site 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts.

I pitched the tent in the garden and chatted as much as possible, exerting great effort in translation until the shift changed and the replacement withdrew indoors.

Packing away in the morning and bidding farewell to my new friends, I visited the museum. A capstan inside the main building would tension a great chain across the cobbled road at the end of the stone bridge and collect tolls on this road between Melo and Rio Branco (then called Villa Artigas) on the Brazilian border. It’s a fine museum and free too.

The whole scene reminded me of something from a Daphne de Maurier novel, a smuggler’s inn on the moors. It would have been fun to stay the night in the old dormitory if it were permitted.

Gabriela had recommended visiting Quebrada de los Cuervos National Park and late morning I took off back past Melo, past the gate to my recent camp forest camp, and south to the junction to Quebrada de los Cuervos a couple of hours later.

Turning off Ruta 8 presented 23km of gravel riddled with the harshest washboard I had ever encountered. A phenomenon of ridges so evenly spaced you’d think they were machined into the road but actually caused by speeding traffic over badly graded roads. I called it “The Devils Washboard” in a facebook post and it rattled me down to a tardy 5KMH in order to stop the bike shaking itself to death. That with the occasional speeding car or truck whipping up a choking dust cloud made for a miserable hour, rattling along to the park.

The entrance fee was double since Easter week was upon us. Hard to argue after the last hour of murderous washboard. Consequently, the site buzzed with activity but not packed sardine-style like it would be in the UK. The bonus was, food stalls and restaurants had set up for the holidays. Otherwise, it would have remained just an ordinary field with an office and shower block. I pitched between some bushes for somewhere to hang the hammock and cracked open a bottle of wine to enjoy the sunset.

Quebrada de los Cuervos is well known for its canyon hike so in the morning I rode to the car park and clambering down to the river and back up the other side along with a steady flow of families.

Two nights was plenty of time for me to spend here and I packed away at 10am bracing myself for the hour-long 23KM trip across devils washboard back to Ruta 8 followed by the twenty-minute 28KM jaunt south to Trenta y Tres (a city named “33”).

Espacio Dulce lies on the northwest corner of Plaza 19 de Abril, a quaint bakery-cafe with WiFi and electricity. Just the place for searching for the next camping possibilities and memorise my route. Still only midday, I sipped Cafe con Leche and grazed on sandwiches and cakes at leisure. Sitting in a cafe working online is one of my favourite pastimes. My handy paper map of Uruguay showed a clear route south down Ruta 8 to Jose P Varela then east on Ruta 14 through Loscano. It looked simple enough with not much to memorise and I set off fully recharged with fuel, coffee and electricity at 1530,

A long delay at some road works had me itching to get off. Ten minutes later leading a convoy of traffic across the long works over the causeway bridge crossing Rio Olimar Grande towards my ultimate goal of Fortaleza de Santa Teresa, resting on the coast just north of Punta del Diablo, another recommendation by Gabriela. Usually following traffic pressures me to speed up but i don’t know what happened as I had the road to myself from then on.

Ruta 14
Ruta 14 Junction

I could hardly miss the giant rotunda on the Ruta 14 junction half an hour later and sailed around it eastwards into the wind. Passing the Ancap fuel station at Lascano, I somehow missed the junction to Ruta 14 as it quietly morphed into Ruta 15. The overcast sky obscured navigation by the sun but I sensed the wind was now from my left and after 5km I doubled back in search of Ruta 14 turning right at AgroCentro along a country track hoping to rejoin Ruta 14 east, instead of returning all the way to Lascano.

AgroCenter

At a dog legged T junction, a broad gravel road presented a route straight on northeast to Lascano or right turn southeast unsigned so I turned southeast in search of Ruta 14. Wide gravel surface and fast moving trucks raced between the huge fenced off industrial farms of giant grain silos but I could see no signs offering clues of route or destination.

This is where I miss having a phone for navigation. I pulled into a farm coasting past the parked grain trucks queueing up to the security gate and asked the guard
“Donde esta Ruta catorce para Punta del Diablo, por favor?”
I don’t know what he said but he pointed the direction I had been travelling. I assumed it must be further on. At least I was heading in the right direction.

Out of the farm, turning right down the road, rounding a left-hand bend brought me face to the wind. If it was still blowing from the same direction, I was now travelling east so I kept going, trusting that time would eventually bring me to the coast.

The Wide straight gravel road was free of the bone-shaking washboard ridges of yesterday and easy to keep up momentum. On and on, my speed gradually climbing above 70KMH over rust-colored compacted dirt and loose gravel, the front end lost its grip then over-corrected to the other before settling straight and upright again, easing back to 60. It was a close call that upped my heart rate, level of concentration and caution. Even so, 60KMH was a reasonable pace.

With the sky overcast, twilight came early, and still trusting the direction of the wind I finally reached a sign: Ruta 16 right and Ruta 14 straight on. Checking the map, I had been on 14 ever since the dog-legged T junction, even on the section where I stopped at the farm to ask the way. In fact, the only stretch that wasn’t had been the 2KM link turning off Ruta 15 to look for it.

I hadn’t been lost at all, I just expected Ruta 14 to be the same asphalt surface all the way since the colour of the route on the map didn’t change with the surface type. From here, there was only 30km to Forteleza de Santa Teresa, but the lost time at the bridge and missing the turning to Ruta 14 meant I wouldn’t make it before dark.

Ruta 14, hemmed in by fences, presented few opportunities for wild camping until 20KM further east when encountering a slight bend over a gentle crest. The verge widened over shrubs to knee-high grass leading to eucalyptus trees and a gate to a field providing an area that appearing hidden from view. I pulled onto the verge and rode behind the shrubs as far as I could. The state of the grass suggested the gate entrance was seldom used. A perfect stealth spot for both me and the bike.

The tent was up just before dark and, looking to the east, red and white lights twinkled along the horizon. The Ruta 9 coast road, I estimated less than a couple of KM away. Perfect, and I settled down, pouring myself a glass of wine and boot up the laptop to watch the fabulous movie “Hell or Highwater”…

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Uruguay

Balneario Ipora

28th MARCH 2019. After three nights at Hotel Ermitage in Sant’ana do Livramento, I check out and head for the Receipta Federal building at the unmarked border on Plaza Internacional, changing my mind about skipping customs with my severely expired Temporary Import Permit.

Hotel Ermitage
Plaza Independencia

Inside, the office echoed its ceramic emptiness save for one non-english-speaking official that retreated to seek assistance after wrestling with my initial inquiry in spangtugueselish. The amiable reinforcement casually scanned the document for a moment then said “No problem, we’ll just change the date on the computer,” instantly rinsing away all those concerns brought up by the internet search warning of accruing and exorbitant expiry fines. A striking contrast in friendliness to the stern attitude of the Customs officer that took so long to produce the said document at Foz do Iguaçu 3 months earlier. 

Aduana

Fully legal, I happily hopped on the bike and cruised south out of Rivera on Ruta 5, eyes peeled for the Uruguayan customs as soon as the remnants of Rivera city dissolved into balmy countryside.

There’s a buzz about crossing a border into a country for the first time by motorcycle. It’s difficult to explain but the feeling of adventure increases in proportion to the level of uncertainty and unfamiliarity of currency, culture, and customs. 

Speaking of customs, Uruguayan Aduanas is a small white hut to the right of the road in the middle of nowhere 15km south of the border. Cones down the centre of the road together with presumably a collection of confiscated vehicles across the way that could be mistaken for a scrap yard alerted me to the unmistakable presence of government and eased my worry of accidentally cruising past.

In the office’s cool shade, I produced my documents to wait patiently for the Temporary Import Permit. I was the only customer and chatted with the trio of border officers. A tap on my arm, a cold bottle of mineral water offered and gratefully received. A pleasant interlude on a hot dry start to the journey.  I received the document asking
“Cuanto dias?”
“Un ano.” came the reply.
That’s more like it, although I only needed three months.

Uruguay

Short on bank funds, neglecting to change Reals for Pesos and failing to top up fuel in Brazil. Aduanas told me 30km to the next fuel station and my gauge was already below a quarter.
“I should make it” I kept thinking for the following half-hour…
and I do, with the needle nudging E.

Presenting my visa card with crossed fingers, staring over the shoulder of the pump attendant at the LCD screen of the card terminal, pockets empty of cash seemed to lengthen the wait.
Finally… Beep! ‘Aprobado’ …
“Get-in”.

I noticed the fuel is more expensive in Uruguay and berate myself for not topping up in Sant’ana do Livramento before setting off, as much to save the worry of making it to the station, and having the ability to pay, as much as for saving cold, hard Pesos.

The smooth asphalt undulates southwards over rolling green fields, between aromatic eucalyptus and pine plantations. A bright sunny day warmed into  mid-20s/70s C and F, as you please. The silver-grey asphalt rises and falls over the sage-green landscape tinged at the edges with an afternoon yellow under the cloudless powder blue sky. 

Without a satnav, I rely on a memory vulnerable to daydreaming. I had my eye on some free camping marked at Tranqueras. No ATM is indicated and I wonder about my lack of cash for food, although I can always resort to my emergency stash of pasta and peanuts.

Tranqueras lies only about 50 or 60km south of Sant’ana to make for a short day but I’d daydreamed my way past the junction and soon after realising, created a plan B taking a turn east up the dusty ripio 29 towards some enticing looking Cerros on the way to Minas de Corrales. ten minutes of dusty and fenced off verges prompted me to turn back toward Ruta 5 continuing toward Tacuarembo.

Relentless fences began to limit my hopes for wild camping. I suppose because Uruguay is a smaller country, there is less spare to leave for nature. Just a guess as some areas of Brazil had similarly been claimed and fenced off too.

Crossing the bridge into the Tacuarembo. I receive a toot and a thumbs up from a following pickup as the driver noticed my Peru plate, reminding me how far from Peru I have come, and I weave around the warp and weft of the low rise urban landscape, guessing who should give way while searching for a bank. Bingo, cash at Itau from only the second ATM I queue at, then onward to continue in search of WiFi. 

What I thought was a small town soon expanded into shops, restaurants and bank lined plazas the further into the grid I ventured.

La Sombrilla

I discovered the Sombrilla Confiteria with WiFi on the corner of Plaza 19 de Abril and prop the bike on its stand outside to take a seat in order to scan the area for camping over coffee and cake. 

Balneario Ipora

Balneario Ipora lies just 6KM north, Free camping by a lake. I sit back, releasing the tension that rising uncertainty sometimes brings as afternoons wear on, and now fully enjoy my coffee and cake. 

6KM no rush. The sun was still two or three hand widths off the horizon.

Balneario Ipora is a virtually deserted natural recreation park. Only a handful of people here. It looks too small to be a national park although complete with woods, lake, camping, and restaurants. I circled the lake, riding in and out of the woods spoiled for choice for ample free camping spots complete with BBQ pits. My laptop was low on charge so I scanned the picnic spots for electric sockets. Nothing…

Just up the hill from the lake, nestling in some tall trees, perches a campground complete with a swimming pool, showers, a combination store/cafe with patio. Everything seems pretty much closed for the season, although the camping and store are open. A one-off £5 for the tent and then about £1.50 a day per person meant I could stay a week for under £15 and wait for some funds to hit my bank account. Perfect choice. The restaurant accepts visa and I make myself at home.

Balneario Ipora

I booked one night, then three more, and then three more, etc. The showers at the bottom of the hill were a bit beaten up but offered limitless hot water. Just beyond the shower block in the trees lies a ramshackle tent of giant tarpaulins over a wooden frame, littered with kids’ toys, drying clothes, and various items you normally see tucked away in your garage at home. It looked like someone had made a home here for quite some time. Why not? Hidden in the pines, surrounded by nature… I was curious but resisted approaching, leaving the occupants in peace.

Patio

I establish a routine of breakfast on the store’s patio followed by some writing. A pack of 5 dogs barked at me each time I passed the office but soon got used to my presence, one shaggy dog occasionally burrowing into my tent’s vestibule to sleep for the night. I don’t like them invading my space, but they were friendly and harmless.

Washing

I was often the only person camping, except the weekend when the regular boom, boom music crowd invaded from the nearby city.  This was easy and cheap living but not really what I’m here for. Rent was due in from my tenant, so I decided to coincide my move with that hitting my account, which would make my total stay 12 days. My next big target was the Total Eclipse of July 2nd so I had almost three more months in hand.

April 9th tapping away on the PC with the afternoon sun slanting into the patio outside the store, a woman’s voice “Do you live here?” She had seen me on previous days before her evening walks around the lake. 

Dressed in leggings and trainers, Gabriella and Anna invited me and my walking boots along. Gabriela speaks fluent English but Anna doesn’t. Gabriella is a scientist at the local University so English language comes with the territory. 

Perro

Shaggy dog tags along with me and I tell them it’s not mine. Anna told me that dogs are attracted to people who, I thought she was going to say something like – people who are kind-hearted or spiritual, but she said: “…people who need looking after.” An anticlimax and moment of deflation.

Ipora Lago

Gabriella asked where I was going next and I told her eastwards toward the coast. She said she was meeting friends near Melo for a weekend camping on private ground if I would like to join. Melo is en route, so I said I would head there and send a message if I’m still around at the weekend and so with my short-term plans coloured in a little, I reluctantly packed up to head 200 km along Ruta 26 towards Melo the very next day… it felt like I was leaving home.

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Happy Port

Porto Alegre

After a final Buffet Livre with Peter, I set about leaving upon returning to his house. As much as I like company, I tend to feel confined by expectation and convention. Rolling toward Porto Alegre, I felt liberated again, even as the buildings and urban landscape gradually closed in around me.

The absence of signs to “Porto Alegre” or “Centro” led to an irritating mystery tour across the unfamiliar signposted districts punctuated by a stop or two to check the map on the laptop. The urban traffic and multitude of traffic signals conspired to make the journey a long one.

Cuidade Baixo

Somehow I ended up at Cuidade Baixo which I’d recognised from peering at google maps and stopped at Boteca Cotiporã cafe for juice and internet in order to locate the hostel I’d selected from iOverlander. Villa Sophia Hostel turned out to be around the corner, although accessed via a convoluted circuit out to Parque Farroupilha (Redenção) and back.

Villa Sophia Hostal

Villa Sophia Hostel is an anonymous-looking magnolia coloured semi-detached house having no signage and looks like any other private home along the street. I clapped my hands for attention, as I had learned in Paraguay and a short Brazilian woman clutching a cellphone let me in and opened the gate to the drive, allowing me to seclude the bike round the back next to the BBQ pit. 

Juan and Rodrigo gave me a friendly and amiable welcome and spoke a comfortable vocabulary of English. Rodrigo had taken refuge here while dealing with a heartbreaking separation similar to my own over a decade earlier. He’d recently found sanctuary in the hostel.

Me and Rodrigo

I recalled the pain of separation and it brought back my memories of despair and emptiness before it slowly condensed into the launchpad of my life into ultimate freedom. I’d written a book about it years ago but abandoned it during editing since that part was expensive. Technically, I’m an unpublished author.

Through all that memory and introspection, I knew there wasn’t anything I could really do to help apart from to listen and simply connect. It’s a path that one has to tread alone, with or without help available in the wings.

There’s a Decathlon camping store a couple of KM away and I wandered out via the river taking in the scenery to see if I could find replacement poles for my constantly breaking Coleman Rainforest Tent. No, none in the correct size. I noticed the same Quechua Quick Hiker as I’d found in Cânion das Laranjeiras listed for £180 so I didn’t feel too bad about the unproductive hike to the store. 

Sauntering back to the city centre empty-handed beneath the baking southern sky, I wandered around in tourist mode, ageing shins aching through the recent city mileage. There’s a famous central market within a palatial looking colonial building, full of colour and bustle. A charming place to sit and enjoy chicken and chips, cool in the shade for watching people go about their daily business.

Four nights in the six-bed dorm of Villa Sophia. I always closed the windows before bed for keeping out the city noise and mosquitos, despite the warm weather. I’d awake to find them wide open again after people crept to bed in the early hours. 

All six bunks were occupied. Souls sharing a space of trust during excursions away from our physical bodies into the land of nod. A man snoring like a charging bull woke us all, one by one. It was so bad, one of us almost said something. I got up and went downstairs for some respite and a refreshing midnight glass of water for company.  Rodrigo was already downstairs agitated by the disturbance ensuing upstairs. How can someone snore so loudly without waking themselves up? Our discussion drew a blank. Thankfully, the oblivious guest checked out the next day…

African Grass Rash

Both my arms were inflamed with agonising rashes from the weeding of rampant invasive African grass at Peter’s. The steroid cream I´d bought at the Farmacia had no remedial effect but the mechanical action of applying stimulated an eye-watering itch. An excuse to rub the cream in harder until the pain could get no worse. An allergy, most probably. Different to the Poison Ivy episode I’d suffered from the mountains of Sint Maarten.

Sunday, 24th March. Four nights in Porto Alegre was enough for me. As much as I enjoy the contrast of city, after the rigours of nature,  it becomes soporific for the soul. The Boiling-Frog syndrome where the comforts of civilisation boils away the zest for living.

BR290

Leaving to head west along Peter’s recommended route of the BR290, the route out of town was easy to memorise as I’d already ridden along it in the opposite direction and all I needed to do was to take the exit ramp that curled west over the highway and marshes feeding the River Guiaba and into the afternoon sun.

Caçapava do Sul was a speedy 260km away, boasting the only entry for a campsite on iOverlander of the rural ‘Chacara do Forte’ campsite. 20km of that was a perpendicular detour off my route. The town looked nothing special but I wouldn’t be staying long enough to judge properly.

Camp Site

Entering the campsite, barking dogs followed the bike past the throng of locals enjoying the Sunday sunset view and into the woods, leaving me in peace to pitch camp as soon as the engine stopped.

Their cunning plan appeared to be to retreat until the middle of the night before creeping up and pissing on the tent. I’d awoken in the dark to the unmistakable patter of drops on fabric and got up to rinse it straight away to avoid toting the persistent aroma of dog-piss around Brazil.

Puffy Eyes

I awoke mid-morning, cold in the shade of the woods and dozed tucked up in my sleeping bag until gone 12. the rash on arms not so irritating but now I was sporting swollen, itchy eyes. all I could do was wait out this kind of allergy.

Forte Pedro II

I Rode out with the barking dogs chasing me to the cattle grid and stopped briefly to visit the monumental Fort Pedro II. Basically, a giant broken-walled lawn.  retracing my route back through the town, I pressed on westwards.

Lying-in shortens the day somewhat. Late afternoon I stopped at Churrascaria Ungaratho near Villa Novo do Sul for fuel and refreshment. Peering at my screen through puffy eyelids, over lace tablecloths and hot coffee, a few people drifted in and out noticing the Peru plate on the bike parked next to the door, stimulating conversation.  Juarez Souza – a man in his early 20s, riding a beautiful green Honda Trans Alp, introduced himself taking a break here himself on his way back to his home in Sao Paulo. He said he’d give me contacts in Montevideo Uruguay when I got there.

I think back to when I was his age, I wasn’t courageous enough to take mammoth solo tours back then… what with the illusion of having too much to lose and putting at risk an imaginary future… 

Stealth Camp

The hour approached five before I got going again. Topping up the tank with Shell’s finest distillation and accelerating westward into the blinding setting sun for an hour brought me halfway to the Uruguayan border somewhere between São Gabriel and Rosário do Sul before discovering a likely-looking hideout for the night: a farm track off a layby doubling back into fenced-off fields, finding a recessed gateway to field, hidden by tall grass. I pitched at sundown and settled inside the tent cradled by a comfortable tractor tyre rut for the night.

Stealth Camp

Resurfacing into a bright, dew-soaked morning, an unseen truck rattled past and down the lane as I slowly packed away. I was away by 10am.

45km brought me to Rosario do Sul. The lack of detail on the paper map sucking me into the heart of the speed humped town in search of the southerly final leg to Uruguay. The junction I needed turned out to lie a few kilometres out of town, not apparent on my photo of Peter’s paper map.

Cafe

I stopped for brunch a small nondescript cafe on BR158 south of Rosario. The vendor folded his arms and pretended not to understand my attempts at Portuguese but took my order after I pointed at another customers plate and I suspected overcharged me. After a brief exchange with two more bikers outside the cafe, I left but they quickly caught and left me in their wake.

Twenty minutes later, two bikes on the shoulder in the distance. Coasting up, they were repairing the top box that had broken free of its mountings and hurtled down the road into the undergrowth on the verge. It looked a sorry state, being held together by bungee cords and string.

Entering Sant’ana do Livramento, I didn’t know where I was going or even where I was going to stay. In my mirrors, the two riders still followed. I adopted a strategy of choosing the busiest direction at junctions before finally stopping at a likely looking central plaza, the two bikers finally passed with a wave.

Plaza Internacional

Cruising around closer to the centre, I soon noticed all the buses had Uruguayan licence plates. I’d wandered too far south so turned back North ending up at the Plaza Internacional, bisected by an open border, similar to the cities of Ponto Pora and Pedro Juan Caballero on the Brazil and Paraguay border, instead flying the flags of both Brazil and Uruguay.

Plaza Internacional, Sant'ana do Livramento

I settled for coffee at Restaurant Don Caggiani on the Brazilian side of the joined cities of Sant’ana do Livramento and Rivera: one urban mass bridging two countries.

Hotel Ermitage

Hotel Ermitage is indicated just down the road. Short of hostels, it appeared to be the cheapest option for a few days in the city. Marcia, on reception, gave me a friendly welcome ‘sem ingles.’ A big private room, secure parking, nice breakfast… I booked 3 nights and, after dark, wandered to a mini-market for some medicinal Cachaça for taming my itchy eyes through which I could watch a movie.

Cachaca

The second day in Sant’ana, I checked out where immigration was located and noticed the customs at Foz do Iguaçu had given me only 30 days Temporary Import Permit on the Bike whereas I had been granted 90 days on the Passport… and I started to worry about what the penalty would be.

Aduana

The immigration office here is separate from customs. The map gives both an old and a new location. Brazil and Uruguay immigration is now located in a shared building but Brazil customs is the police office on Plaza Internacional with the Uruguayan Customs is some 15km south of the border on Ruta 5…

I decided to take a flyer on the Brazilian Permit and skip customs when I leave…

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Itapúa

Camping Praia das Pombas, Itapua

A DRY WEDNESDAY 13th March had me packing away as happily as I could summon for this burdensome task, high with the risk of losing small and useful items. Last call at the Tenda do Umbu for breakfast and an internet fix before humming south down the Rota Romantica.

The air felt heavy with moisture and soon enough, condensed into tangible droplets of drizzle. Before passing through Novo Hamburgo and the borderless industrial scenery merging into Sao Leopoldo and Canoas.

Porto Alegre

Approaching Porto Alegre, the stream of traffic expanded into a 5 lane estuary along the coastal arterial 290 flowing toward central Porto Alegre.

Porto Alegre


Past the colosseum-like Arena do Gremio, one of two gladiatorial Soccer bases for fierce local rivals Gremio and Internacional. Too busy to stop, I was busy with my own personal chariot race, checking mirrors and signs as the throng pushed me into the city, the priority for survival rather than to steer a predictable course. Consequently, I couldn’t swear on my route around the lanes and underpasses that brought be into the colonial interior of European looking statues and monuments of Porto Alegre.

Steering into a side street to check the GPS, It felt like central London, busy with activity, cafe’s swelling with social activity. The map told me that In theory, following the river would bring me to Peter’s house. Peter had been a neighbour of dear departed Debbie in Northampton whom I’d also met years ago just before he put his house up for sale talking of maybe growing avocados in Brazil. No concept at the time I would ever get anywhere near South America. The other coincidence being the guy who bought my Rocket Red, Triumph Sprint ST upon his return from Australia turned out to be Peter’s son. Small world, as they say… at least until you try riding around it.

The route to exit southern Porto Alegre proved no easier than the northern route in. The River Guaiba soon disappeared from view while the streets funnelled me from traffic light to traffic light providing a labyrinthine mystery tour. Towards the river roads morphed into dirt track cul de sacs and to find my way out I followed the routes sporting speed humps.

In the days before GPS, I learned from my truck driving days that Speed Humps were a reliable giveaway of a rat run for traffic between key destinations. Installed to deter through traffic, they inadvertently became a valuable clue for a way out of a city planner’s maze. And so,
I trickled south through the Porto Alegre suburbs of Tristeza and Ipanema.

Itapua

Bright, warm and sunny when I finally arrived at the address, provided by Peter’s son but no answer to the bell at the gate, apart from a trio of barking dogs, prompting me to return to the rustic cafe ‘Bar Cris’ about a mile back. After sipping a beer and returning to the gate, a couple pulled up in an old white Renault. They didn’t recognize the name I offered and I turned around to consider now where to stay.

Cris Bar

Opposite the Bar Cris, I’d been admiring the huge sign to Hotel Caminhas de Nazare set in vast grounds barely visible from the road over green fields. I coasted along the narrow drive with the intention of using the WiFi at the Hotel Restaurant and ordered a Coffee to neutralise the soporific effect of the earlier beer.

Hotel Nazare Sign

The proprietor refused payment and insisted I enjoy the coffee for free. Sending messages over the WiFi brought no prompt responses and I called it a day and booked a room at the empty hotel for a reasonable tenner. Well worth the sanctuary plus the luxury of a shower after my Ben Hur ride through Porto Alegre.

Hotel Nazare

Breakfast: Table for one in a restaurant for one. No further information drifting out of the ether had me bid farewell to the friendly proprietor and pause at Peter’s gate for one last try. No answer, and I took off to visit the lighthouse I’d spotted on the map near Itapua.

Nazare Proprietors

The Officials at the gate told me it was a government installation and wasn’t open to the public but I could see it by boat… for a small fee naturally. A pickup pulled up and offered camping at his site of Camping Praia das Bombas. I followed along a bumpy remote dirt track to a deserted campsite. It was neither expensive or cheap. It was just OK, and I pitched under a shelter with the wind whipping over the expansive Guaiba River.

Camping Praia das Pombas

3am, Adrianne, the partner of the owner woke me from a deep slumber and sat on the sand outside my tent nursing a glass of wine while keen on talking. Politeness prevented me from sending her away, an attractive young lady if a little inebriated. Eventually, the conversation fizzled out and I escorted her back to her home at the gate and left her hammering on the door of her house to be let in while I retreated through the shadows of the trees back to my tent.

15th March, I awoke at 11 in the morning after the night’s rude awaking. Nobody about. Robinson Crusoe-esque… A deserted leaf-dappled site with a couple of wrecked boats in the trees. I left a note at the gatehouse together with half a packet of cigarettes I’d found outside my tent, and set off back towards Porto Alegre, abandoning the intended rendezvous with Peter.

Checking messages near Lami 10km North, there were a few downloaded complete with directions. It turns out that the address I had been given was wrong. Peter had left that one after three months of arrival in Brazil and the new directions put him closer to Itapua, not too far away.

Returning south, the route took me to the yellow bus shelter given in the directions, and then between fields and up an overgrown track to a forested escarpment. A white-haired old man appeared from a shack and I surprised myself by recognising him from our brief encounter those years back.

Peter's

Across the yard stood a grand building built from the red eucalyptus grown in the grounds and he showed me the mezzanine floor where I could sleep complete with a mattress and bug net. Minimalist and spacious. A lot of work had gone into the construction using felled trees from his land taken to a local sawmill.

House

I embarked on a guided tour. Hiking up the hill, it wasn’t easy to match this man’s energy. I tottered up behind him to witness the remains of a granite quarry that suddenly ceased operating because of government intervention to preserve the area. Reputedly these are the oldest hills in South America. The tracks and excavations are now swamped with rampant vegetation.

Saturday 16th March. Peter made me muesli with fresh fruit which became a daily treat, and then on to meet his friends at the Marina in Itapua. Peter has a sailing background and has friends with small yachts in the shallow harbour. The Guaiba River has sandbanks so mainly shallow draught craft here. They invited me for a sail next weekend but I wasn’t planning on staying that long. We enjoyed BBQ and beer before returning home.

Itapua Marina

The following day it rained, and I spent time in the hammock sheltered on the veranda writing and sharing space with the big hairy spider that caught my eye wandering past.

Spider

We spent the following days collecting firewood from fields down the lane, battling the incessant ants undermining the buildings and carving up a fallen red eucalyptus in the garden.

Wood Gathering

I left on the 20th becoming paranoid that overstaying my welcome might become an issue. One more Buffet Livre together. Cheap and good food at the local restaurant. And then I set off, after photographing a map of the region to help with my lack of GPS. Peter recommended the route To Santana de Livramento on the Uruguay Border, instead of the more obvious route to Jaguarao and Rio Blanco. And with that being my plan, I returned north to Porto Alegre.

Peter and Me
Map
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Three Crowns

Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, Canela

FROM CANELA IT’S a short jaunt southwest to Tres Coroas. Passing through Gramado, I took a detour around the Lago Negro at Gramado, both touted as a “place to see.” I’d already visited the centre one afternoon and enjoyed a costly latte in an expensive bookshop. The town is very germanic and mainly geared up for tourism. Fine if you like that sort of thing but it’s not my cup of latte…

Pdalinho, Lago Negro, Gramado

Skirting the deserted lake through the surrounding trees, glancing at the white swan-shaped pedaloes huddled on the shore of the black water reflecting a marbled silver sky reminded me of a long past family holiday in Scarborough back in the UK, reminding myself that I am alone here far from family and a generation from those happy times…

I guessed my way back, weaving through the suburbs returning to the RS115 south.

Away from the urban limits of Gramado, the sky began to brighten revealing patches of cobalt blue and intermittent bursts of sunshine while smooth curves swept down gentle slopes. On GoogleMaps, I’d memorised the shape of the junction I needed as the road entered Tres Coroas before setting off but they all look the same on the ground and never how I imagine.

Trickling around Tres Coroas’ gridded intersections and backtracking along the 115, I found myself crossing the same junctions from different directions.

Finally recognising a storefront on a corner of some traffic lights that marked the junction I needed from Google Streetview, I only had to select the road that had the view of the distant mountains and cruise west noting any gate numbers that may be present.

Overall, the journey should have been easier but had finished with irritation of looking for the street and now an illusive house-number. Like one of those dreams I occasionally have where the closer I get to something the harder it gets to achieve.

To my left on a gate was the number I thought I needed but the house sat, still and stoic behind high-security fencing. I paused for a few moments but nothing moved. I unpacked the laptop to double-check the address. As the screen yawned its way into life, movement in my mirrors caught my eye. A group of schoolgirls approaching along the path. Lara and Olivia were among them, different from how I remembered them back at Princesa dos Campos. They recognised me first and offered a welcoming smile before passing through the high-security gate into the sanctuary of the garden.

I stashed the laptop and looped a 270 degree U-turn across the width of the road into the gate behind me as it responded to the press of a remote button somewhere, riding up the drive and pushed the bike into the garage after dismounting for greetings.

The reason the house appeared dormant was that Lis and Filipe had been next door at Filipe’s mother’s house wrestling a roof tent off the top of their Renault. Even with four of us, 70kg is heavy to manoeuvre, shuddering arms stretched out above shoulder height, desperate for the steel brackets not to make contact with the car’s gleaming roof.

I was showed upstairs and offered a room with apologies about the pink decor since this was Lara’s. I smiled as the contrast between what I usually make do with doesn’t reach the criteria of colour scheme. Simply being indoors is a luxury. I’m usually happy to find a patch of land level, without rocks or thorns and raised just enough not to form puddles in a storm.

Filipe’s Brother in law, Edison, arrived that evening curious about my journey. Fluent English made for easy conversation and the evening passed rather too quickly.

I’m treated to two nights of good company, easy conversation, watching movies and sharing Chimarrao (Mate). I’ve yet to learn the skill of drinking through the metal straw without scolding my tongue…

Filipe has a home business making custom wooden flowers for souvenir shops. A workshop in the back garden means a good degree of self-sufficiency and freedom from ’employment’ slavery. Something I’d held as a dream for a long time in my working days.

I never really fully relax as a guest – maybe about 80% to start with. Oversensitive etiquette issues get in the way… different people have different customs and I worry too much on getting them wrong. Best not to worry about it since worrying doesn’t help any. Second-guessing is no better than just relaxing. Still, getting a slap as a kid for putting elbows on the table leaves a lasting imprint.

Friday the first of March and I’m up, breakfasted then away after helping the family pack the car for their weekend trip. Filipe recommended Parque Laranjeiras (or Orange Park, according to Google Maps translating what it wants,) a short distance up a dirt track halfway back towards Gramado. Filipe insists on guiding me to the junction as I follow the car.

Shaking hands and bidding a cheery Tchau, I’m pointed up a lane before Filipe swings back to the road and I rattle over the dirt track 15km through the rustic village of Linha Café Baixa and along through the gate of Parque das Laraneiras. No-one about, I pause at the kiosk for a moment, the house next door remains silent so I pass through and cruise around the site… deserted apart from a couple of white water rafting coaches parked next to three separate tour offices. An empty stage over a soccer pitch sized expanse of grass hints at busy events.

Parking under a tree for a few moments, a rubber-gloved man emerges from the toilet block a hundred yards away, discards, mop, bucket and gloves approaches and welcome me. He lives at the house next to the entrance and appears to look after the Parque Laranjeiras single-handed. I book a couple of nights and exchange some cash for a page torn from his receipt book. The first night includes a one-off charge for the tent, subsequent nights are just per person.

Parque Laranjeiras

There’s power here but no WiFi except at the restaurant. I pitch up next to a socket so I’m able watch a movie in the night. An exploratory wander around the site brings me to the restaurant at the far end of the sports field. The door is ajar. In the hallway, excursion leaflets on a table, to the right a doorway labelled hostel. To the left, the restaurant open and empty, barring a woman at the table closest to the door with a stack of papers and a calculator. Hacking away at Portuguese I manage to ask if the restaurant is are open for food. I think the answer was “depends what you want.” and I settle for a coffee, toasted cheese sandwich and the WiFi password. That would do me until the morning if need be.

The next morning, Saturday, The restaurant opens for breakfast and I work online for a bit. Claire from the middle tour company of the three offices across the way detects I’m an English speaker as she settles her bill, and recommends the white-water rafting. “The red one next to Ecotours, over there.” The river flows around the park in a horseshoe shape with a nationally-known competition kayak course along the northern stretch but the trip starts a few km north at the dam. It wasn’t too expensive but I eventually decided I’d rather have the money. The restaurant is on the toe of the horseshoe facing west with no view of the river: only of the tour offices across the field.

Parque Laranjeiras campsite.

Later on, cars start trickling and pretty soon the site’s buzzing with the conflicting mix of awful Reggaeton beats and mouth-watering churrasco (BBQ) aromas.

Dome tents pop up and tarps are strung between trees. The store opens up and the whole site becomes alive with noise and activity. I soon inherit some neighbours in intimate proximity, close enough for boisterous kids to repeatedly trip over my tent lines and uproot the pegs.

River Paranhana

Carlos and his family notice my bike and invite me for churrasco. He works in a hospital hence his English is good. After lunch, he lends me some swim shorts we all amble down to the river. The riverside bustles with families. People sunning themselves and leaping into the water off the rocky bank. We swim down the top part of the rapids between the occasional inflatable rafts drifting around the corner and on down the kayak course. I only brushed the rocks on the way down but Carlos hit them hard and limped ashore before retiring. The obvious hazard is the fast flow down between the rocks but if you don’t panic and keep your wits it’s easy enough to swim to the side into one of the many slowly stirred pools. The not so obvious hazards are hidden by the turulent rapids.

Sunday morning the crowd thickened but by the evening had quickly evaporated. Shutters were up at the stores and restaurant. Only Clair and another girl remained before kitting up to both leave on a single motorcycle. Rain is forecast and they were keen to get off despite being the last ones there. Apparently, today was the end of the season and the park would be closed for a few months now although still available for camping if you don’t mind the solitude.

Monday morning, the restaurant remains closed but the store opens for a short spell and I buy some chicken, cheese and bread. Only a motley crew of young white-water rafters appear and amble down the lane into the only open tour office, emerge in red floatation attire and sing the bus and its trailer of rafts away up the lane and out to the dam to be rinsed back down the river an hour or so later. My own private adventure suits me just fine. all that whooping and cheering is not my thing.

Yesterday’s rain arrives a day late. I strip the hammock from the trees sling it between the rafters of a picnic shelter above the table. The breeze wafts its damp chill across me and I wander through the woods to warm up and gather firewood. Some of it kindly left stacked next to extinguished campfires by the weekend’s campers.

The firepit in the shelter happened to lay directly under a stream of water channelled over a broken section of the roof so I cleared the ground and built one a fire there warming myself crouched on the ground while cooking the chicken.

7th of March makes it 6 days at Orange Park and I up sticks for the weekend bound for Nova Petropolis, a scenic Germanic town of tourist attractions but no suitable camping opportunities I could make out. The best and closest option on iOverlander seemed to be Tenda do Umbu 20km out the way of the next destination of Bento Goncalves. Edison, at Tres Coroas, had told me about Tenda do Umbu which is a popular biker’s hangout, a bonus feature only 300 metres up the road from the camp spot.

Chagdud Gonpa Brazil Buddhist Temple

But first I take the detour to Chagdud Gonpa Brazil Buddhist Temple. Somewhat incongruous in Brazil but secluded enough in the hills to reduce the contrast in cultures.

Barriers over ant runs I found amusing. Not that I willingly step on them but I reckon casualties are minor without going to this trouble.

The hot and bright afternoon soon turned cool and dark, as I left, with a cloudburst just as I pass a wooden hut offering coffee and artisan cakes. The shower conveniently lasted as long as it took to enjoy the refreshments and off I set, backtracking to Gramado and on towards Nova Petropolis.

Nova Petropolis

An easy road with busy traffic, I soon breeze through Nova Petropolis’ welcoming arch and skim the town’s scenery. I’d come back for a closer look later. The 235 emerges west of the town and merges with the 116 north to Caxias do Sul and south to Novo Hamburgo. Southbound is the default and I flow with it down towards the village of Picada Café. The afternoon cools and darkens. Clouds become pregnant with rain but they hold back exhaling only a breath of drizzle.

Down, down on sweeping bends, road surface damp beneath the tree-canopy prevents a full fast lean but does nothing for slowing the enthusiastic cars that race past me at their earliest opportunity. Picada Café offers a welcoming arch to the left but dusk and rain still threaten and I’m keen to make camp in the dry and so speed past sparing the briefest glance.

Ruta Romantica

The scenery along the 116 is beautiful and enchanting. Without being aware, I’d been on the Rota Romantica since San Francisco da Paula but this had been the most beautiful stretch so far. It looked more like Germany than Brazil.

Down across the river at the valley floor then, up and up. A relatively gentle twisting slope but long and persistent. Throttle fully open for the tiny engine to haul its load up the inclines and around the bends trying to not lose speed that I could never get back once lost.

Six kilometres later, a sweep over a crest and down beneath the trees to a left-hand bend and I crane my neck right as I pass the Picada Café Mirante. A layby extending up through some trees to a small hill crowned by a hidden electricity pylon hidden overlooking the green valley. Only one truck parked there.

Pleased about finding it without any problems, or coasting past without noticing, I gently slowed on the remaining straight to Tenda do Umbu: an oasis of souvenir shops, a café and a Petrol station. It’s late. Twilight already creeping over the thick cloud cover that was now almost close enough to touch. All is closed apart from the Petrobras Fuel Station. Dinner tonight would have to be beer, crisps and chocolate. That would do: a guilty pleasure if anything, plus I probably had enough battery charge to watch a movie too for completing an evening of relative decadence.

Pylon

Back at the layby, almost dark, the truck had gone leaving the site pleasantly deserted and I set about scouting around for a good pitch. A track led up each side of a tree-lined plateau of picnic tables up and beyond another rise hosting an electricity pylon. There wasn’t much level ground up there and I certainly wasn’t going to camp on the flat area inside the electricity pylon and bathe in its Electro Magnetic Field.

Mirante Picada Café

Down to the left, half-hidden in the trees, lay a roofless, dilapidated concrete hut or house, litter and leaves scattered over the floor in a cold soupy atmosphere. I wasn’t paranoid enough to hide out in those dank, depressing shadows. Up on the vacant picnic plateau, I chose a spot on the edge beneath the trees where I couldn’t easily see passing traffic, which meant I’d be reasonably well hidden right there… and I wouldn’t expect company at this time of day and in this weather.

Mirante Picada Café

I peaked through the tent flap as a single car followed ists headlamps up past me around the pylon and down the other side, probably not noticing me. The night was beautifully quiet and anonymous with only the of the occasional passing car’s distant swish whispering up the hill and through the trees. I liked it here. So much so I decided to stay an extra night, free of charge, not counting the electricity pylon although a socket on it would be handy.

Mrante Picada Café

I welcomed the grey dew-soaked morning for making it less appealing for passers-by to intrude. Gathering up my laptop and bag, I zipped up the tent, left the bike propped next to it and set off to the café. Glancing back, it looked like someone was home. I marched up the road to Tenda do Umbu, a café displaying a wall of biker stickers. I didn’t have a sticker of my own to add. Never got round to it… even after learning about them. If you are planning a trip, I’d recommend you get some stickers printed. They are a simple gift, perfectly portable. Locals like mementoes. Get your country’s flag on the emblem too. Even if you’re not a big fan of nationalism, people like to know where you hail from. People just love them.

Planting myself in the corner. Café com Leite and breakfast to recharge me and 220V for the laptop. I wasn’t worried about the tent or bike and stayed a few hours writing and messaging.

Ruta 116 Tenda do Umbu

Strolling back to the tent, the weather had brightened up. The sun had dried out the grey air and cast dancing leafy shadows over the Rota Romantica.

My camp remained how it was left: in tranquil solitude. Breaking out the hammock underlined the warm dry afternoon. Preserving the PC battery for the evening’s entertainment, there isn’t actually much left to do so lounging in the hammock, reading under the dappled shade could be fully enjoyed without temptation or distraction of cyberspace…

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Canela

Canela

I PACKED SLOWLY and reluctantly at Cachoeira Princesa dos Campos. I loved it here but I have to urge myself to move on before roots get too deep and bid farewell to my hosts. Exiting the gate, the RS476 to the right is the more direct route but is an unsurfaced rough, stony 40 miles or so. I opted for the longer but fast, smooth asphalt via Tainhas, and perhaps stop to wander around Sao Francisco da Paula to see if it is as nice as its name.

Bright and warm with the sun at my back, the motorcycle’s windstream brought on the chill of the air, I rode as far as I could bear before submitting and unpacking my Jacket. I’d also forgotten a last-minute recap of the route but my memory jogged from sign to sign.

Two weeks in one place brings familiarity and feeling of homeliness. the thought of moving on brings resistance on having to discover my way around a new town, sure I like adventure but the paradox is I’m not too attracted to the initial feeling of unfamiliarity with new towns and cities. Riding around a city for the first time is perilous. Locals know the layout and zip along at a good pace. Without local knowledge, eyes sweep the vista for endless signs that are both there and maybe missing. Unsigned one-way streets are checked by the direction of parked cars. Impatient drivers race by and cut across. Lane changing needs 360-degree observation first and junctions are often missed in flowing congestion.

Safely through Tainhas, thanks to light traffic and Canela being well signposted, a couple of drivers flashed and waved as they overtook me and I returned a friendly wave back before stopping to check the bike and realised they were trying to alert me I was trailing about 2 metres of line along the road, probably ever since stopping to retrieve my jacket from the panniers. The luggage remained secure, luckily. Idling along, craning my neck, for signs of directions and danger plus recalling my orientation from yesterday’s glance at GoogleMaps, kept my mind busy.

Sao Francisco de Paula: nice name, not so nice view up the hill from the road. A forked junction presented the way into town. I opted for the bypass as the shacks perching on the hillside made the town looked foreboding. Sometimes there’s a feeling in the gut that says “Nah!” Providence tells me that obeying it is for my own good. It either saved my life by avoiding a potentially mortal situation or I’d missed a quaint Latin Plaza. I’d never know for sure.

Gregg Buyskes taught me about Providence and had drafted a book about it. Gregg was my neighbour in the lagoon back in Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten, when I lived on Sailing Vessel Glee before Hurricane Irma wrecked our boats. He’d built his himself and named it ‘Providence’ and lived his life by its philosophy.

The example he gave was: “Say you got the inexplicable urge to buy a lottery ticket and you pop into a store and buy one.. The ticket doesn’t win but the few minutes delay that it caused on your way meant that you didn’t cross that road just as that truck careered over the pedestrian crossing the driver was checking his texts. Two minutes earlier you could have been splattered over the asphalt, but now the danger has passed. In a way, that lottery ticket turned out to be your winner but you are none the wiser.” Something like that anyway. Sailing Vessel Providence was last seen wrecked on the causeway after Irma and Glee discovered sunk half a mile from her mooring 4 months later. Cest la vie.

And so, I harkened to my intuition (or fear) and gave Sao Francisco da Paula a wide berth.

Canela presented the usual grid of one-way streets and quaint cobbled side roads. I followed the traffic flow guessing my way to the centre until I arrived at fantastic gothic-looking church sporting large letter’s CANELA in front of it so you don’t have to photoshop it in your photographs later. I encircled its island plaza a couple of times and pulled up opposite at the “Chocolateria e Bistro das Hortensias” for a luxurious sandwich and coffee after my austere diet at Princesa, but more importantly, there was WiFi for discovering a camp spot.

7km away promised a remote mirante up in the forest, Morro Pelado. iOverlander told me where it was but I didn’t zoom in far enough for the road to it to be displayed and the review only described a wide track that terminates at the view. GoogleMaps

filled in the blanks guiding me past Alpen Park ominously ‘down’ a typical single-width unsurfaced track. On the GPS I had arrived. On the ground here was no access to any Mirante towering above me. In fact I was in a valley with a 60-degree cliff. Google wanted me to park the bike and climb the mountain. I decided to continue along the track and see what was around the next corner and the next and the next.

Passing a barren area of deforested land, making a mental note as a landmark and possible plan B, continuing on to see if the road wound it’s away back into the south of Canela. A right turn took me up a series of hairpins. Isolated families gawped at my fully loaded bike bobbling along the lanes. The incline dragged my fuel gauge to empty and I hoped it wouldn’t be too far and that I either had enough fuel to get to where I was going or it would be all downhill for coasting.

The angle of the afternoon sun told me I was heading in the right direction, swinging back from the south northwards and uphill. not to the mirante but back into Canela itself. I’d taken a screenshot of google maps for the mirante but not of the route to the alternative site in the pines to the north. Anyway, I was ready now ready to turn in, which tends to extend the limits of my budget when searching for accommodation.

Parque do Sesi has a good write up in iOverlander, its tab was still open in the browser. Plus I noticed tourist signs to it along the way to Mirante Morro Pelado. Providence was nudging me that way…

I closed the laptop and retraced the route along which I’d seen the sign up then followed it to the Parque. 30R is just on budget, spacious and secure with good facilities. Best of all, I seemed to be the only person here and pitched on the lawn under the trees next to a power outlet and settled down for the night with some sandwiches, Cachaça and a movie.

The day dawned and with my curiosity about the mirante still buzzing around my brain-cell, I unloaded the bike and ventured along the nearby trails through the forest in the afternoon and came upon it easily this time to a stupendous view. It’s more popular than I imagined with old fires and litter scattered across the place. This place wasn’t secure and I’d have to pack away daily if I wanted to go into town. Over the plains toward Porto Alegre, I noticed streaks of squalls under black cloud drifting my way. A sorry looking black dog emerged from the forest and sauntered up to me. I still had some dog food I’d bought for the little Chihuahua that I never saw again and promised the dog I would be back the next day and hurried away to beat the rain glancing at the unhappy dog in my mirrors.

I lost the race against the squall and the cold rain was just penetrating my base layer as I arrived back at the tent. The following day, I rattled along the track back to the mirante and sounded my horn but the dog didn’t appear. A Brazilian family was enjoying the view and we exchanged a few words but after their car crunched its way back to town over the loose stones, I had the place too myself. I picked up some litter and tied the bag to my bike and when I was ready to go, dished the dog food up on a rock and left to explore the forest some more and discovered two more good camping sites but decided I was settled closer to town…

The supermarket that was open last night was closed tonight but the Security guard at Sesi directed me to SuperBom about a mile away. SuperBom is a family-run supermarket open until 11pm 7 days a week. I picked up some beer, nuts and chips and returned to Sesi for the evening movie, leaving a beer at the vacant sentry hut for the Security guard. The nigh here is quiet and still barring the standard-issue distant barking of dogs.

Stopping in for some bread at SuperBom. Geraldo asks me about the Peru plate via Google Translate. Looking at the bike parked forward toward the window, the plate is out to the street so he must have noticed it last night. I respond in my best Portuguese and sign language. Geraldo invites me to lunch the next day and I accept. Geraldo has a Suzuki VStrom and likes to travel whenever his 7 day a week job managing the store allows him. Meanwhile, Geraldo beckons me across the road and speaks to Marcos at the Moto garage and we book the bike in for the next day to check the carburettor. The bike stalls if I suddenly yank open the throttle. The internet tells me it’s a rich fuel/air mixture but I haven’t found its adjustment screw yet.

Venturing out in the dark for a hot meal, I turn a cobbled corner to the Gothic spectacle of the Paróquia Nossa Senhora de Lourdes (Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes). Illuminated like it’s Christmas eve together with the clouds drifting across the face of a full moon, the whole scene is spooky but majestic. What planet is this? It’s not a world with which I’m familiar.

At lunch, the following day, I discovered a little more of Geraldo’s world. He has the security that’s lacking in my life and I have the freedom lacking in his. He tells me of an Englishman that drops in on Thursdays and I should come at about 6. Since Geraldo seems permanently at work, friends come and hang out at the storefront. Socialising is punctuated by customer sales and assistance.

Over the road, Marcos gave the bike a thorough check and oil change. the throttle response is much improved and I’ve located the adjustment screw but not found a screwdriver small enough to turn it. Later, I don’t really need it now. It will be a while before I negotiate higher altitudes and adjust the fuel-air mixture. I offer to pay but Marcos vehemently refused, stating he was happy to be a small part in my grand adventure.

Marcos

Thursday evening I roll up on the forecourt of SuperBom and introduced to Roderick. His southern English accent is music to my ears. A stream of comprehension flows through my ears reminding me of how much effort it is for communicating in a foreign language. Roderick’s Son inlaw owns the Viking bar in Canela and I’m invited to their Rotary Club event on Sunday.

Already, a week has passed in Canela. I’m already a regular at SuperBom and Geraldo is a good friend. I stick his motorcycle club sticker over the old Russian flag emblem glued to the front of the fuel tank. The bike looks more ‘stateless’ now.

Returning to the tent, one of the poles had given up the ghost and snapped clean through. I’d fixed these breakages before but this was it, no more. I unpacked the Quechua ultralight I’d found in Bom Jesus and retired the Coleman Rainforest for good. I’d donate it for spares or repair later in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Broken Tent

I spent the following few days visiting a few sites like the Mirante do Lage de Pedra Av., for a view almost as good as Morro Pelado, Gramado, an expensive Germanic tourist town and the beautiful park at Cascata do Caracol, begrudgingly paying an entrance fee and discovering it was worth every centavo.

Sunday heralded a silver blanketed sky of scattered showers. I took a punt on a clear spell, mounted the bike and cut through the thick cool air as the tyres hissed over the gleaming asphalt toward the Viking Bar. I was halfway there before the next squall and the cold wet fingers of the weather worked their way through the threads of my clothes.

At the Viking Bar, Artesanal beer gazebos were up and I was directed to a desk that sold tokens. Money wasn’t accepted directly at the stalls. Roderick wasn’t there so I drifted around anonymously as if I had stumbled into someone’s wedding. He appeared half an hour later and introduced me to his wife, a Brazilian who speaks impeccable English. She told me not to bother to learn Portuguese as most Brazilians understand Spanish. By then, it was too late. Portuguese had already contaminated the Spanish I had begun to learn and hampered progress.

A pretty young girl approached us announcing she was about to get up and sing with the band and skipped off to prepare. Roderick said, “I didn’t know she could sing, she’s a teacher at the local primary school.” It turned out she couldn’t sing after all. the band were tight and punchy beneath the shrill out of tune vocals. I applauded at the end of each song, more for her bravery rather than talent. The band continued for a while and I stood silently next to Roderick unable to compete with the volume of the heavy metal din through the Viking Bar. I’d imagine modern Vikings would hang out at places like this for an aperitif before a Sunday afternoon’s raping and pillaging..

I can only take party time and mingling in short stretches so when the band took a break I made my excuses and crept away.

Leaving Wednesday would make my stay a full ten days at Canela. Long enough to feel like I was leaving home again after getting to know the town and its people.

My plan was to make for Nova Petropolis and then down to Tres Coroas to visit Filipe Rosenthal and his family whom I’d met at Princesa dos Campos but he told me they would be going away the coming weekend so I made Tres Coroas the next destination.

I packed late, since Tres Coroas is only 20 miles away, and stopped in at SuperBom to thank my good friend Geraldo and hoped to see him sometime whenever or if ever I’m near Canela again and cruised through Canela and out the other side toward Tres Coroas.

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Princesa dos Campos

Bom Jesus CafeI AWOKE EARLY with the stale, oily air of the garage filling my nostrils and cool breeze ruffling the tent. Eager to avoid becoming a conspicuous obstruction to the day’s business. I’d packed away well before the 8AM opening time and wrestled the loaded bike out to the road to prop it on its stand close to the cafe door.

Bom Jesus CafeThe empanada and milky instant coffee breakfast was but a sticking plaster on the my rumbling stomach. Expressing my gratitude to everyone at the cafe and the garage, I accelerated the couple of hundred metres to the gas station on the edge of town to discover a gleaming modern cafe wafting the irresistible fragrance of fresh ground coffee. When ordering, I forgot to say “Cafe com lieche sem asucre” – without sugar. The default seems to be served with plenty of it. Odd because it’s easier to add than remove.

F1 PostsA woman with her family of three daughters at a table near the window eyed me with curiosity. Not many English people or Peruvian vehicles pass through Bom Jesus. The young girls spoke fairly good English and translated for their mother. The infrequency of these kinds of encounters in my journey tasted even sweeter than the coffee. Without interactions like this, punctuating long periods of solitude, I sometimes forget I even exist. Not that I think about it rather it’s the absence of thinking about it that gives the sensation. They left before I’d finished my syrupy coffee. The pump attendant topped up the fuel tank, and I waved a rolling goodbye across the forecourt and joined the quiet RS110 southward.

Back on the road, the cool morning air was gently stirred by the warm spokes of the sun rotating through the lazy, drifting cumulus as I cruised cheerfully around the undulating Rio Grande do Sul bends in and out of the shadows of the leaves dancing on the asphalt, 43km down to Princesa dos Campos, south of Jaquirana.

Princesa dos CamposI caught sight of a small sign away from the road pointing off to the right, down an unlikely looking stony track past a non-descript restaurant sporting plastic patio chairs and tables on the porch. Spinning a U-turn back to the junction and 3km of gravel, dust and stone later I coasted over the dry tyre-worn tracks across the spartan lawn to park at the plastic chain drooped across the entrance of Princesa dos Campos.

Princesa dos CamposA crazy dog leapt in a barking frenzy around his earthen circle scuffed out underneath a tree, jerking his neck against a thick iron chain secured to the trunk by a frayed rope. A slender middle-aged woman strolled across the lawn to the gate to fail to comprehend my best Portuguese and retreated to find her husband.

Princesa dos CamposThe price was R$30 a night but I offered R$100 for 4 nights and was booked in before noon, pitching my tent down close to the waterfall. I appeared to be the only guest here. Surprising for such an idyllic and well-kept site. There was work to do, a lot of blog editing to catch up on. This felt like the ideal retreat for working over a few days.

Princesa dos CamposI strung the hammock up between the trees next to an electric socket, perfect for both writing and relaxing. On the third day, I was laid in the hammock pondering how to get more food – the store being 30km away – and noticed the man from the cabana up the hill and with his four boys approach to invited me for lunch. “Sim, Obrigado” and I followed them up to the cabana.

Princesa dos CamposThe boys spoke better English than the parents and we communicated quite well. From Caixas do Sul, they had arrived a couple of nights before for a short break exploring the nearby woods and swimming in the river.

Family from CaixasThis was their last day. the boys had collected the spiny brown leaves from under the Araucaria tree and lit them in the grill. Flames roared up the chimney, smoke billowing back in the house.

AruacariaThis was an enthusiastic kindling material never to be found again after leaving Brazil. We enjoyed a tasty barbecue with plenty of beer. After lunch, they started to pack ready to fo home, leaving me all the leftover food, bagged up with a couple of pans of pasta and potato stacked in the fridge. I had more food to hand now than I could remember since taking to the road.

Their leaving left me suddenly in solitude, the contrast stimulating a feeling of empty sadness. It was just me again and I grounded myself reclining in the hammock with a movie on the Laptop, “Into the Wild.”

LunchThe next morning, I retrieved the pan of mashed potato from the fridge in the Cabana and wrapped it in a black plastic bag in the sun hidden behind a rock across the river to avoid its discovery and possible disposal while I spent a few hours writing.

Early afternoon, I paddled across the river to gently feel the metal of the pan through the polythene, almost too hot to the touch and I picked up the bag not noticing the small black ants over the black plastic. They started to bite my hands before I could put the pan down and rinse them off in the river. Looking inside the pan, there were maybe still a dozen ants over the potato but most had been over outside of the bag. I stirred them into the mashed potato sat down by the rippling water to eat while basking in the dazzling yellow sunlight. It was a delicious moment for all my senses.

Meanwhile, another family had arrived and come down to bathe in the warm, shallow water and I gave them a wave as I waded back across and toward the tent. My hammock was draped across the sole access to their tent and so I tied it in the trees of the vacant picnic area on the lower level closer to the river before returning to the reception to upload my blog via their tardy narrow connection and to book another four nights.

Princesa dos CamposWhile I was busy in the restaurant another camper had arrived, pitching their trailer tent next to mine and making space shuffling my bike closer to my tent so I felt compressed into a corner.

Something I’ve noticed all over South America, people don’t seem to bother about proximity to others. I could be the only tent at the end of a field and a car could turn up and park next to me with its booming stereo instead of parking at the far end as I would.

Princesa dos CamposPretty soon the rest of the site had filled up for the weekend forcing my hammock to be relocated next to my tent, between trees on the edge of our level, overhanging the drop to the lower level. Although it was a perfect hang and comfortable, the illusion of being suspended high in the trees was unnerving at first.

Philipe and Lis, the family that arrived during my ant and potato feast, speak good English and invited me for dinner with their daughters Lana and Olivia, and to share chimarrão together. Chimarrão or Maté is a local green tea, often shared through passing a cup of chopped leaves with hot water and sipping through a metal straw with a filter, in a similar fashion to the old pipe-of-peace scenes in old Cowboy and Indian movies.

Princesa dos CamposSharing food, chimarrão and chocolate cake with the family felt almost like Christmas. My own family was thousands of miles away but to be included in this one reminded me of the importance of connection and community. I tried not to overstay my welcome and retired to the hammock in the balmy darkness for half an hour before another two cars invaded the lower camping area, setting up tents, tarps and lights to rival a modest music festival. I quickly packed away the hammock and retreated to the tent.

Food selection here at the restaurant was limited and I had already consumed my survival stash of peanuts. The menu seemed to only extend as far as ham and cheese toasted sandwiches. They were OK but quickly became boring. My language skills were limited too, which didn’t help with exploring food options and the proprietors hardly understood any of my attempts at Portuguese. Philipe said that he had experienced a similar problem, even though he lives only sixty miles away. They told Philipe “There is a man here from Peru, we don’t understand what he says. Maybe he leaves tomorrow or the day after, we don’t know…”

During the days that the site was busy, I sought sanctuary in the spacious and deserted restaurant. Another family arrived from Porto Alegre curious about the bike from Peru, Paulo and his wife didn’t speak English but Diego, the son, was pleased to be able to translate and practise his English since he needs it for his studies to become a doctor. they invited me to dinner, sharing barbeque, beer and conversation into the night. I enjoyed the company and conversation and promised to catch them before the left the next day and to visit when I got to Porto Alegre. The following morning, I awoke with a migraine and, by the time I’d surfaced, they’d gone. I never saw them again. Storms crept over the horizon that day and the first raindrops quickly saw off the handful of remaining families and I had the place to myself again well before dusk.

Down to my last 9 Real, I felt restless and desperate for cash. Jaquirana is 20km away, 30 if you want to avoid the rough, rocky route. I took the longer easier route. Exploring Jaquiarana revealed no ATM compatible with my cards so it was onward to Bom Jesus and back to the Bradesco Bank Lobby. Bom Jesus; a local town for local people. Nothing here for travellers but the Bradesco ATM.

Bom JesusNow flush with cash, I took lunch at a basic Comedor and buffet, plates of fresh food covered with clingfilm. I was sat down, fussed over and welcomed like long-lost family. Plain but fresh food served with love and generosity.

Outside, the sky grew dark and curled with grey. The heavy clouds unloaded their watery cargo over Bom Jesus, rinsing the town’s dusty film into the guzzling gutters. Meanwhile, staff and customers became transfixed to the TV screen by a news report. A helicopter had crashed onto a busy road in Sao Paulo killing a high profile TV reporter. Even without knowing who he was, the scenes looked dramatic, and unlucky for a truck driver who emerged from under a bridge to find find a helicopter suddenly plunge out of the sky directly in front of him.

The storm left as quickly as it arrived leaving the sky white and the air washed clean. Although damp, the air wasn’t cold and the tropical earth soon chased away the moisture, patch by patch along the road. By the time I got back, the sun shone brightly in a cobalt sky of candy floss cloud.

The next few days were invested knocking a dent into the blog trying to bring it up to date, which becomes a hard slog after the initial burst of inspiration and creativity evaporates. Time-consuming; working for love in sporadic bursts instead of the enduring incentive of a subsistent income.

I hung around for an extra week or so, the dog barking and leaping at his chain whenever he saw me commute between tent and restaurant; every time as if each was our first ever encounter.

Nature, Princesa dos CamposA couple of random days, the owners told me they were visiting family and locked me in the site until they returned. I didn’t mind. I had nature as my companion, a valley of deep woods and shallow rivers. Down the side of the hill, overgrown, dappled sunlit trails weaved between the trees and streams. The warm, still air beaded warm perspiration that trickled down my spine and the sense of shaded seclusion encouraged me to strip off and bathe in the crystal babbling waters; a timeless experience. Invisible from above the valley, this was God’s secret garden. All I was lacking was a woman, an apple and a snake…

Apart from my clothing on the bank, there was nothing here to offer a clue as to what century or millennium this could be. This was a snapshot of a moment in eternity, a world now disappearing into an abyss of all-consuming, man-made industrial wealth and suffocating plastic. This sickness generously labelled  ‘civilisation…’

Leavingwelve days after my arrival, it felt time to move on. Conscious of the date on the rubber stamp in the passport, now halfway through my three-month visa allowance in Brazil, I still had a lot to see before I needed to run for the border and I reluctantly loaded the bike and, instead of turning south on the more direct and rugged-looking 70km trail of the RS476 southwest to Canela via Lajeado Grande, turned northeast to join the RS110 and the paved route in a wide arc via São Francisco de Paula to the south because I liked its name…

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São José da Redenção

Boca da SerraTHE VERANDA OF Cafe Boca do Serra was an ideal haven for drying out a few items of clothing and would mean the tent would be dry to pack away in the morning too. The road was surprisingly busy during the night, trucks grinding their way up the stony hill but I slept well without minding too much.

Cafe Boca da Serra signI was up and packed away before the cafe opened. I didn’t need to plot my route. I already knew the way back to Sao José dos Ausentes and after coffee and breakfast, I rattled over the stones back towards to check on the dog I had abandoned a few days ago. The way I had left her sat uncomfortably with me and I wanted to settle my mind more than anything else.

Sao Jose dos AusentesAlong the dusty RS020, stones popping out from under my tyres, a group of offroad motorcyclists spread out over the track all dressed in bright motocross racing gear chatting amongst themselves. I stopped to say hello exchanging a few words in random broken languages. I bade them “Tchau” and continued north at a leisurely pace before they raced past ten minutes later, hare and tortoise fashion with me with my home on my back. I stopped briefly at where I camped in the pines where the dog originally appeared to see if she had returned but the place was deserted and quiet apart from the sound of my horn as I cruised down the track. No point in hanging around, I’d be back to camp here later anyway.

Woods and rain5km of Asphalt brought me back to the Sao José dosAusentes I thought I’d never see again and pulled into the petrol station to meet the Waving and cheering Rideout group again. they fussed over my Peru plate and jostled for a group photo around the bike. I should have taken a picture but I was keen to get down to the cafe to see if the dog was there. Saturday, the town was quiet. Ordering a coffee and sitting at a table I said: “No little dog today?” The proprietor recounted to her assistant about the dog that orbited me around the table three days ago but no mention of seeing it since.

I felt disappointed about not seeing how it turned out for her but it’s my own fault. Sao José is a fine little town full of friendly people, children and dogs. I think it’s likely she found a good home. Meanwhile, I was struggling to find WiFi or get money out of the ATM. The proprietor at Casa Cesa said the internet was down as I attempted to pay for my coffee with a series of rejected cards and advised to try again later. Cash was evaporating fast and my wallet becoming slim.

Casa Cesa RestauranteWhile I drank my coffee and enjoyed some cake, the afternoon clouds rolled in and unloaded their heavy burden via streaming silver rods that shattered themselves on the cobbles. I ordered another coffee and sipped its milky warmth while looking out of the window. After the rain stopped. I strapped on my helmet and swung the bike back up the hill against the streams of water bubbling down the edges of the street, onto the main road turning back to the woods. The air was cold through my fleece and more rain felt imminent from the grey sky. The rocky slope down to the woods looked perilously slick. I stopped the engine and rolled down the slope using the clutch as a rear brake so I could release my foot from the rear brake pedal and steady myself using both legs. I slid from side to side over the rocks but did not fall. My tyres cut a tell-tale trail in the mud along the track and into the woods. My tent was up just before a heavy shower. Returning to the trail to disguise my track I’d found the weather had wiped it for me and I unpacked what I needed for the night.

Tent view bikeIt rained for two whole days and nights. No phone, kindle, power or wifi. All I had were my thoughts and the rain fizzing on the tent between the drumming drips from the branches of the pines; the longest continuous spell of rain I’ve known in South America, cold too and I huddled down in my jacket and sleeping bag.

On the third day, The clouds crept away and the morning sun cast shadows on the tent through the trees. Let there be light, and hopefully warmth. My cheapo Chinese sleeping bag couldn’t hold its own against these cooler temperatures… I was fed up hanging around in these woods and quickly packed away to spend an afternoon at Casa Cesa in my new role as a pet detective. No sign of any dog. If fate meant us to meet again it would have happened by now but at least I had made peace with myself. My concern now was the depleted cash and inability to withdraw any from the ATMs. So I set off on the 45km trip to Bom Jesus to shift this financial logjam.

The 285 westward was fast and smooth asphalt with no traffic but moving through the bright clear afternoon caused the cool air to penetrate my clothes. A break in the cloud released some spears of sunlight to the ground and I stopped at the roadside for 5 minutes in the transient sunbeam to break from the cold and warm my soul. The next leg, short enough to ignore the cold saw me into the centre of Bom Jesus.

Cruising around the town, I discover a Bradesco Bank, almost with a halo of salvation around its physical presence. Feelings of elation accompanied me out through the glass door clutching a fistful of paper notes, relieved to have extracted some cash from its ATM.

Bom Jesus CafeI set about looking for a new camping spot. Bom Jesus is busier than San José. No pitching opportunities before entering the town from the north and nothing after exiting the town to the south; more fences, less open land or accessible woods. I swung a U-turn back north and 2 km to Bom Jesus and stopped at a small cafe and asked for food. Either Cheese Pasty or Meat Pasty was as far as the menu extended washed down with some instant coffee.

Bom Jesus CafeA man walked in after noticing my Peruvian plate and shook my hand, talking excitedly in Portuguese about his bike and his own travels. He lived not far away and worked in the town so I asked if he knew where I could camp. He said one moment and disappeared through the back door of the cafe. He returned telling me that the owner of the garage next door said I could sleep in his sheltered work-space and showed me an oily panel of wood on the earth floor. Perfect I said and set up the tent. The owner’s wife unlocked the bathroom for the night and locked up the main workshop before leaving me to my own devices.

Bom Jesus CafeThe wifi I had from the Cafe was still strong here and I had an electric socket within extension lead distance. The cold wind wafted the smell of engine oil and rattled the unsecured fabric of the tent due to the inability to use tent pegs.

Bom Jesus Cafe

If I wasn’t inside, it might have blown away…

Bom Jesus Cafe

Cambara to Bom Jesus

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Cambara do Sul

Timbre do SulCASA CESA LANCHERIA, Sao Jose dos Ausentes. I was ready to go and busied to pack up the bike. The dog scuttled around my feet but when I finished and looked around she had gone. I took that as my cue to leave avoiding an awkward moment and then felt an unexpected sense of guilt and loss as I exited the city.

Casa Cesa RestauranteI never saw her again and experienced pangs of regret riding away all that day but it was mission accomplished, in a practical sense.

I cruised along the BR285 to the RS020 junction to Cambara do Sul. On the map, the major route follows the RS020 but, on the planet, the better road surface continues to the woods where I camped, which explained why I was confused about how I ended up at my recent camping location.

RS020, Santa CatarinaI found the stony track difficult to exceed 15km/h and rattled along the dusty trail for hours in the white-hot sunlight. I met a hiking couple and no matter that I announce “Falo poco Portugues,” they continued talking anyway and I picked out what I could understand.

Sign to CambaraStopping to rest next to a river at the end of a bridge, Adriano, a rider from Santa Maria on a Suzuki Vstrom pulls up next to me and we chat a while before he hands me one of his stickers and rumbles off over the stones. I follow his dusty wake a minute later. A sign to Cambara indicates a hairpin junction and I turn right, 180 degrees and down the hill. 5km further on, I meet Adriano coming the other way on his Vstrom telling me Cambara is straight on at the hairpin. We both got caught by the half-obscured sign. I wondered how far he actually got as I shuffled a three-point turn on the gravel track.

Reaching asphalt again felt almost orgasmic. “Oh, yes!” Silky smooth progress. I clicked up through the day’s unused higher gears and gained some momentum, no longer wrestling the handlebars fighting the marble-like stones from trying to slide the bike from beneath me. The upgraded wind stream through my clothes cooled the sweat on my skin and I ticked off the last 15km to soon arrive in Cambara.

CafeThe Tourist Information office gave me a leaflet of a local campsite that looked far too expensive. Tourist Information here had no WiFi so I left to find a cafe in the town. With Wifi, I could see that the canyons weren’t too far away and felt sure there would be camping opportunities along the way to one of them. I chose Fortaleza then paid for my coffee…

As usual, the road surface reverted to ‘terra’ after a few kilometres and I rattled my unsteady way over a blend of gravel and loose cricket ball sized rocks. a man in a pickup waved me down and said the park was closed for the day. Asking where I could camp, he said back at the ‘asfalto’ a few km back which tacitly marks the edge of the park. I bounced my way back and took a left turn and up over a ridge of a logging track within sight of the asphalt and into some felled forest.

Deforested CampI judged myself to be close enough, out of sight of the road and the track looked as if it only services logging traffic. The sun had just sunk behind the treetops on the western ridge but I had ample time to break out the tent I’d found at Bom Jardim da Serra and work out how to pitch it.

Fortaleza The tent was soaked through but clean, free of mould and in good condition. My mattress kept me from wetting the sleeping bag on the groundsheet. Twilight fell and the logged forest became deathly silent in the darkness except for a single witch-like scream of an unknown creature that had the sent an involuntary shudder down my spine. Earlier, I’d seen a small wolf-like creature cross the road. I wondered if it were that.

I took longer than usual to get to sleep. I thought about the little dog again and wondered how she was fairing back in Sao Jose dos Ausentes. The convenient parting without a proper farewell hadn’t sat well with me and felt the urge to return to make amends – even along the rocky unappealing RS020. Maybe she was still there, maybe not, but if I presented myself it gave ‘fate’ a chance to offer redemption and peace of mind. Sometimes practicality isn’t the ultimate aim when feelings are involved.

Fortaleza CampThe dew soaked morning awaited the sun to climb over the eastern tree line to dry out the world. I wanted the tent one dry before packing it away but I had time to wait and so emerged from the damp interior into the cool, dewy air to bathe and shave in the nearby stream. the water looked clean, and healthy looking plants appeared to confirm it but whatever minerals the water carried prevented the soap from lathering.

Fortaleza CanyonFrom the car park, Fortaleza Canyon is a fair hike along a rough stony path that winds its way up to a summit to the Northeast – may be a kilometre and a half. It’s the best place to start as you can see all the other paths that follow the rim and back to the car park. Looking at it turned out more rewarding to the walk. There was nothing to better that view.

Fortaleza CanyonBack at the car park, a family from Rio de Janeiro had noticed my Peru plate and approach me as I’m about to leave. They follow my account of where I’d been with interest and then part with a firm handshake. I take off before them but they soon overtake me with a honk and a wave, leaving me in a cloud of dust hanging all along the trail. A few km further on I see their car stopped with a pile of luggage on the verge. A puncture from one of the large pointed rocks. I stop to help and offer some problem-solving assistance for assembling the peculiar jack and some grunt to slacken the wheel nuts. I don’t feel I actually did a lot but they’re excessively thankful.

ItaimbezinhoI followed them into Cambara and passed them as they pulled into the tyre shop and I took the next bend to the cafe I’d found yesterday to recharge the laptop and upload some pictures. Checking the map, Itaimbezinho Canyon was just 20km south, so I checked the route out of the city and tried my luck at arriving before 5pm closing. It was only 3.30 but the state of yesterday’s track left some uncertainty in the timing. Exiting the city I was disappointed to see the end of the asphalt right on the city limit. Fortaleza had the decency to offer a few km into the countryside, at least to the edge of the park.

ItaimbezinhoItaimbezinho was different. a long stretch of undulating ‘terra’ although offering a finer surface than the rocky road to Fortaleza. At the gate to the park, 2km of opulent asphalt leading to a modern and spacious visitor centre. I had cheated the angry thunderclouds all the way from Cambara to the gatehouse but not between the gatehouse and the visitor centre when they released their heavy load. I walked into the building just as the water was starting to penetrate my base layer and browsed the visitor exhibits indoors while the shower passed.

ItaimbezinhoItaimbezinho is a more compact site, better organized than Fortaleza and more picturesque. The rain had eased off as I walked the trail but the Storm was pushing clouds through the canyon and rumbling away in the distance. The next downpour held off until I returned to the Visitor Centre and I joined the staff indoors waiting for a break in the torrent so they could close up and go home. the storm eased off enough that they could make it to their car and one of them gave me a disposable rain mac to encourage me on my way. It wasn’t raining hard but enough to soak through my jeans again within half a kilometre. Visibility was difficult too. With the rain on my visor, I couldn’t see the stones too well but the potholes illuminated themselves with reflections of the silver sky.

ItaimbezinhoMy mind set about working out where I was going to camp. I remembered passing a cafe on the way that had a grassy patch in their car park. Perhaps they’d let me use that. I pulled in and waddled to a table like John Wayne in an attempt to keep the wet denim off my skin. After warming up with a couple of Coffees and a sandwich, I asked if I could possibly pitch my tent in the car park on their patch of green grass. 30 reals was the short answer but if I didn’t need the shower or WiFi, it would be free if just to ‘pose’ for the night.

Cafe Boca da SerraI explained that I didn’t need WiFi or a Shower. Technically, I had just had one, but I would buy breakfast in the morning. The rain hammered down again. Daniela told me it would be better to pitch in the porch because it was so wet and safer from the roaming cows and horses. Her husband cleared a table away to make room. I ordered a beer to round off the day and the cafe closed behind me as I stepped out to pitch the tent.

Boca da SerraThe tent was up before dark and I had no WiFi so I had plenty of time to ruminate, meditate and finally nod off…

Itaimbezinho Cambara Rainbow Cafe Boca da Serra sign

 

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São José dos Ausentes

RS020 BridgeCAMBARA DO SUL. A very innocent looking 165km blue squiggle on Google Maps. I planned to pick up the RS020 40km away at São Joaquim. I reached São Joaquim quickly over the silky smooth road surface between the alien looking araucária trees.

Araucária Trees

Araucária TreesThereon, without GPS, the direction to the RS020 out of the other side of the city became vague at best. I pulled in to the Tourist Information office just as it started to rain so I made use of the Wifi and shelter to try to memorise the route on google maps. The rain was slow to pass and eased just enough for me to surrender to my impatience and took to riding in the passing shower’s drizzly tail.

GPS SignsTwo blocks northeast and a right turn looked straight forward on the screen. But riding on it didn’t look like a route to anywhere. The centre line of the road out of the city slowly dissolved into the wet asphalt and the road surface gradually blended into the surface of the earth. A stony track like this wasn’t my idea of a road that deserved a designated route number and, until I could see a signpost, I was uncertain I was on the right road.

Rough tracks make for slow unsteady progress. The rain and clouds gradually evaporated into the blue sky of a bright, Brazilian afternoon and the kilometres slowly rattled away with the stones beneath the tyres. If I could make 40km/h I was doing well. Sometimes 25km/h was kinder to the suspension.

The road wound through the rural valley and I stopped at a shack and barrier to ask directions. I’m glad I did because the direction was through a barrier that looked like an entrance to private property.

Sao Jose dos Ausentes Waypoint.I had no idea why it was there but I passed through it with the advice to follow the river, not that I could see it from the road along the way.

GPS SignsAt a junction, a sign pointed left to Monte Negro, recommended to visit but I wasn’t in the mood for the extended 20km battering there and back again over stone and gravel. My stomach was complaining about missing lunch and I paused across the river bridge into Silveira to see if Google maps was still open on my laptop and check for location and the proximity of cafes. The laptop had slipped out of standby. It sometimes does that when the battery shakes loose. This means that a full restart loses the cached web pages that were open and instead shows the little dinosaur and reports “There is no Internet connection.”

Folding away the laptop, I noticed a black and brown dog laying in the ditch next to me. It looked like it was sleeping, only it was suspiciously motionless in full sun… so perhaps recently dead. I kept my distance in case it was either dead and diseased or alive and vicious.

SilveiraTo my left, a young mother with her baby daughter laughing and splashing in the shallow rapids of the river beneath the shade of a broken umbrella. Life to the left, death to the right. Bookmarks on an existential moment in an uncertain journey… a reminder for gratitude for what I have while I have it, perhaps…

Up the hill and through the sun-baked cobbled streets of the sleepy village, a restaurant with open windows, net curtains swaying in the breeze. There’s a new stranger in town, boots clumping over the floorboards. Me, the only customer, eating too much food for too much money.

My stomach changed the nature of its complaint while I tended to more pressing matter, searching for my relative location using the local WiFi. I was still 21km from São José dos Ausentes and Cambara do Sul was 75km. I wouldn’t make Cambara before dark, even at higher speeds over smoother roads. It’s late already and my estimated speed put São José still an hour away.

As the afternoon wore on, I started thinking about where to camp and scanned the pine forests at the side of the road. I spotted an open gate but a chain and padlock hung loosely on it. Yes, I could camp, but I didn’t want to wake up in the morning locked in, however, small the risk. Puddled potholes down the logging tracks mirrored the dank sky and the soft wet tracks looked a poor invitation into the trees but I kept on looking along the way.

Sao Jose dos AusentesThe late afternoon storm clouds start to thicken, right on time, as if by guarantee in this part of the world and I arrive at glorious asphalt at São José dos Ausentes under a matching grey sky.  I accelerate over the rotunda and left along the BR285. The race becomes against the weather instead of the fading light. If I could make Vale De Trutas or the Mirante near Timbre do Sul I’d be happy but the rain beat me to it. The asphalt ends suddenly at a sharp right dogleg that degrades into dirt track and the choices are: up, following the muddy track or down over the rubble, into a gateway to follow a wide rocky track bisecting a pine forest. I opt for the rocky entrance and hope for shelter in the trees.

CampThis track had been banked, carved and levelled of the undulating landscape, making entering the woods difficult as there is either ditch or embankment at the edge of the track. A gate suggests this is a driveway to farmland and encourages a U-turn but I finally notice a level section where the land rises to the level of the road to be able to turn off the track and into the trees. With the rumble of thunder and spattering of rain, I’m eager to pitch the tent so I power through the deep carpet of pine needles as far as possible into the woods until the ground slopes steeply down to a wire fence.

The tent is up before the water starts dripping through the canopy of the forest and I’m soon comfortably pitched on a bed of pine needles, sheltered from the pattering raindrops.

Woods and rainI’m about 60 metres in and I trot over to the track to see how visible I am. My mirrors reflect the sky so I put my gloves over them but otherwise, I can only be seen if I look directly into the woods when the straight line of pine trunks line up. These trees are planted in ranks. It’s likely I’m trespassing so I’ll stay low key for as long as I need to.

Tent view bikeAlthough it’s only about 6pm the rain and shade make for a gloomy light in the tent. without the Kindle, there isn’t much to do and I lay back and daydream until it gets dark and I eventually fall into real dreams.

Tent view bike sunThe warm fingers of the morning creep across the orange carpet of pine needles and massaging me out of my slumber, I string up the hammock wearing loose boots and loose clothing and decide to spend a day here with the thought that if I’m not spending money on travel or lodging then I’m extending my budget toward the next payday from my letting agent. I have a stash of peanuts to graze on if I don’t fancy a day’s fasting.

ChihuahuaLying in the hammock basking in the natural ambience, I hear a rustling from the tent and raise my head to see a rusty orange coloured chihuahua rummaging through my things. I lift it out and drop it onto the matching carpet of pine needles and it scuttles around me wagging its tail with excitement before turning onto its back. I step out of the way because my dad’s chihuahua starts to piss on you when it does that but I notice this one’s female and doesn’t come with the same feature.

Chihuahua HammockThe dog’s presence is a puzzle since there’re no houses close by and the dog doesn’t want to leave. A couple of cars pass along the lane during the day and the little dog sits up and whimpers. I half expected someone to appear as is common with dog walkers in the UK but dogs appear to roam free in South America, Owned or stray…

What to do? Pet-friendly accommodation, dog food, travel on the bike. Weighing up the liabilities. What was she doing here? There was no-one about. two cars passed during the day and she would perk up and cry so I guessed she was likely lost or abandoned. I had no food so none to give her but I shared my last half litre of water. We walked down the lane but she gave no sign of acknowledgement of the farmhouse up on the hill and followed me back to the tent.

Chihuahua TentShe spent a quiet night in my tent snuggled down on the bundled up hammock, quiet as a mouse and not that much bigger.

It felt good having some company, however small, but I couldn’t take her with me. The next morning, She ran around while I packed away and wondered if she thought she was being abandoned. It was hard work powering the rough the deep pine needles and out to the track with a cold engine and A truck passed down the lane when I was about 15 metres from the edge of the forest and I wondered if he’d seen my headlight but he carried on without stopping. I emerged with the little dog scuttling behind. The track was rough with a steep rocky slope and I had to commit to at least 4000 revs in first gear if I wasn’t to stall and fall back. I barely stayed on the bucking saddle of the bike but made the top with the little dog still following close.

At the top of the slope was the bend and the road back to São José dos Ausentes so I stopped the bike on the asphalt where the ground was more even and lifted the little dog onto the petrol tank and gently pulled away lifting my legs at the same time to give her some stability. We sped along at 70km/h over the smooth dry road and turned left into the village to look for a cafe for breakfast. I spied a Mercado, a possible source of dog food for later.

Casa Cesa RestauranteI pulled up outside Casa Cesa Lancheria &Bazar and lowered the dog to the floor before dismounting and pulling out my laptop to recharge and connect to the WiFi. There was no wifi but I ordered some food and coffee. The dog followed me in unnoticed. and orbited my table. I ignored her. the owners soon noticed the dog and shooed the dog outside and I ignored her. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain the whole tale so it seemed easier to pretend she wasn’t mine which was true anyway. She came back in a few times and I gave her some of my food while no-one was looking. the little girl tempted the dog out with some pastries as well.

When I was ready to go I busied to pack the bike. The dog ran around my feet but when I finished and looked down, she had disappeared from view. I took that as my cue to leave avoiding an awkward moment and quickly left, harbouring an unexpected feeling or loss and guilt for abandoning her. That was to be the last I ever saw of her.

On the surface, this seemed mission accomplished but underneath I was left with the unexpected feeling that I had somehow betrayed the trust of a living soul. At best she was out of the woods and now in a place where she could find food and a new home. At worst, she was now far away from her owner, wherever that was, but I would have felt far worse leaving her behind in the woods to possibly starve and carry the memory of the little dog in my mirrors chasing my bike as I went on my way…

Pousad do Papagaios to Sao Jose dos Ausentes

 

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Serra Do Rio Do Rastro

Serra do Rio do RastroCHECKING OUT OF Motogaragem and bidding a reluctant farewell. I packed away and joined the SC110 south for the Trilha da Cascata do Avencal, only 10km down the road.

Two cars parked in the shade of the trees at the trailhead, a remote enough place that I wasn’t worried about leaving my worldly belongings strapped to the bike unattended.

Cachoeira do AvancalMore a clamber up a drying rocky river bed than a hike, the view and cooling spray of the tall slender waterfall was worth the fifteen-minute ramble over perilous slick boulders. The sun beat down hot on my head but the fine mist cooled my body and revealed its perpetual rainbow.

Cachoeira Avancal75km isn’t far on immaculate asphalt and sweeping through the bends in sparse traffic, bathed in Santa Catarina’s golden sunlight. The warmth of the Brazilian air blew the disappointment of the loss of the phone out of my bones into my wake on the SC110.

Turning left onto the SC390 didn’t present many opportunities for refreshment and I took lunch at a small non-descript Cafe that had a limited selection of flavourless food presented with indifferent service. Even so, it was a welcome break.

Serra do Rio do RastrosLate afternoon, the sky began to darken in the east, bringing with it a damp and penetrating chill. I thought about stopping to unpack my coat but I had already passed through Bom Jardim da Serra which is just 10 minutes from Serra do Rio do Rastro. I just gritted my chattering teeth and shivered out the last handful of kilometres.

Mirante do Serra do Rio do RastroThe Mirante da Serra do Rio do Rastro perches on the lip of the canyon that descends quickly to the lowlands and I coast into the spacious car park to join the numerous bikes parked at the viewpoint in the corner. I dismount, remove my helmet and peer over the railing at the serpentine route down the mountainside. Just before it disappears from view in a haze of cloud ascending the mountainside. Was that going to be it?

My Peruvian plate on the Pequeno moto attracts the attention of the other bikers and my ego enjoys the social interaction before rain starts to spatter on the paving of the lookout. “Give it 10 minutes and it will pass.” one of the brotherhood of bikers tells me. I stroll purposefully toward the restaurant across the car park for shelter, warmth and a coffee while the rain passed over for the next half hour.

CoatiBack at the railing, with the sky now blue and clear, the view extends all the way to the town of Laura Muller and beyond, 15km away. Two audacious coaties roam the viewpoint and boldly mug anyone holding a snack. A little girl squeals and tries to run away to no avail, a coati gives chase and swipes her bag of chips, leaving her mother to mop up the little girl’s tears.

A couple approach and tell me they have a Pousada in Bom Jardim 60R$ including breakfast opposite the College. I promise them I’ll see them later. Since I’ve seen no secluded camping spot along the way and the air here is cool and damp, I settle for the Pousada. Feeling cold and tired tends to nudge my budget limits upward.

Pousada do PapagaiosLooking for Pousada Do Papagaios I now notice how many pousadas in Bom Jardim there are, many more than I noticed the first time through but I stick with my promise pausing near a man outside a church to ask where the college was. He points to a building about a block away next to the Police Station and my wheels soon crackle over the loose black stones chips of the driveway to the warm welcome of Pousada Do Papagaios. I’m instructed to park the bike inside the cafeteria which is open to the driveway via double garage-sized doors and I settle at the table next to my bike and enjoy a hot coffee.

Pousada do Papagaios CantinaTelmo ignites the barbecue by launching a match into the gasoline-soaked pit and a ball of flame blows itself out of the fireplace and up the chimney of the Barbecue. Anna makes me another coffee before showing me my double sized ensuite room. The building is built of bare wood suggesting any time frame of the last few hundred years. I could be on the set of a Western. The planks are without soundproofing so noise travels easily between the rooms. despite that, the place has a rustic charm complimented by the warm friendliness of Telmo and Anna.

Pousad do Papagaios RoomI surf the net for a while before two bikes roll in. Two couples that I’d bumped into at the Mirante with their partners. “Ah Ingles!” One of the women says. They sit at the table across from me and I abandoned by the animated Portuguese chatter. I’m half present while I’m online checking messages and posting updates, getting fed barbecue buffet which appears to be complimentary.

I turn in about 10.00 and lay in bed waiting for the noise in the cantina to die down before quickly falling asleep before it finished.

I pack up and load the bike to leave for Laura Muller straight after breakfast, a warm and sunny day brightening the view and turning up the colour on the Mirante. Shortly after setting off down the road to the pass, I notice Canyon Rondo and take a detour to that 4km rattling over loose gravel to stroll along the ridge and among the wind turbines. I might have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so eager to ride the Serra.

Serra do Rio do RastroThe Serra is a pleasure to ride but you need the neck of a Giraffe to enjoy a good view over the parapets. The road runs wet where the water continually spills off the mountain so I cautiously lean around the bends. The town of Laura Muller is deserted. Sunday, maybe people are at church and I roll up to a cafe for lunch as the only customer to check the map. From here I want to go to Cambara do Sul, which is back up the Serra.

I ride back up to the Serra unsuccessfully looking for camping spots There was a campsite near Canyon Rondo but I didn’t fancy riding 4km over rugged terrain again. I decided to return to Pousada Do Papagaios unpacked and settled back in my old room.

Telmo suggested I go to see Canyon Laranjeiras and drew me a map. 12KM north into the countryside past the end of a dead-end track. I booked another night so I didn’t have to cart my luggage along.

TrailThe next morning, Telmo drove me to the start of the trail with me following on the bike, since that was easier than trying to explain where it was. I waved and headed up the dusty trail. I passed a sign scanning it for places beginning with L, nothing so continued. At the 12KM mark there was no sign of the farm at the end of the track that is the start of the trail or a hint that the trail would end soon. I double back and notice at the sign that I missed “aranjeiras” The missing L of Laranjeiras threw me but if I’d have stopped to check the map, I would have avoided the 16 KM detour.

Canyon Laranjeiras FarmerI paid my 10R$ to the farmer, he inspected Telmos map to make sure I didn’t need a guide and pointed to the start of the trail up an escarpment that disappeared into woods. The sun beat down between the trees making the 2KM hike thirsty work. I carried a one-litre bottle and had finished it before arriving at a crystal clear stream near the lip of the canyon. The water tasted cool and clean, babbling over sun-bleached rocks before continuing down the gulley to dramatically spill over the rim into the canyon.

Canyon LaranjerasThe edge of the canyon was sharp a 90-degree angle over the rock to the sheer face of the canyon. I lay on my stomach, white knuckles over the ledge and pulled myself to peer over the edge at the terrifying 200-metre drop below. I’m not great with heights so sat back from the edge for taking photos at arm’s length. I had the place to myself.

The canyon stretched to the left around a bend behind some trees out of sight and the right disappearing into some distant woodland. I turned to the right and followed the edge as far as a waterfall and river too wide to cross. Not wanting to backtrack over familiar ground, I followed the river bank and decided to take a shortcut over the field. The lush looking pasture turned out to conceal soggy marsh and I tried hopping across the clumps of course grass for keeping my feet dry.

This shortcut felt like a mistake. Progress was slow and difficult and I’d crossed five separate sections before I could see the path at the stream where I filled my bottle. Catching my eye, a silver coloured bundle nestling in the long damp grass. Picking it up, a Quechua Quick Hiker Ultralight Tent… Quality kit. someone had waded across here before and were likely very disappointed later on to discover themselves homeless without their tent. The grey bag had been bleached silver by the sun and easy to tear. I picked it up and the grass beneath was brown and dead. Clearly, it had lain here for some time, maybe months. I clipped the straps around my satchel and continued to path at the stream.

StreamReaching the stream, I kicked off my boots and stripped off for a refreshing bathe then sat on a rock eating Anna’s packed lunch drying off in the warm breeze and yellow sunshine.

Bom JardimCresting a rise on the trail, the view of Bom Jardim on my return is a homely and welcoming sight. Telmo and Anna feel like family despite our language barrier. Enjoying the lunch near the stream made by Anna augmented that feeling and felt even more precious than the stunning view of the canyon itself.

While beautiful locations can be pursued and admired, its the social encounters that bring them life and meaning…

Serra do Rio do Rastro

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MotoGaragem

MotoGaragemRUBBING MY EYES and peering under the flap into the low, grey misty cloud at the side of the road on the Morro da Igreja, I could be anywhere in the world. There would be no checking the GPS, telling the time or anything phone related. I zip up the flap again and lay back in my sleeping bag recalling the last images of the map. Urubici wasn’t far away. It was my waypoint for turning south to wherever next. Without the GPS and all the other phone apps, The game had changed.

Gateway CampI heard a couple of trucks go by but not much else. All seemed still and quiet on the side of the mountain road. Thinking wasn’t helping me much. I flipped up the lid on the laptop, the screen flickering out of standby into life: “Wednesday 23rd January 8:47am” and I closed the lid again putting it back to sleep. The feeling of boredom finally exceeded the resistance to packing away and I wriggled out of the sleeping bag.

Gateway campThe tent was soaked with dew and my socks and boots had made no attempt to dry out in the damp mountain air overnight and I retrieved a pair of dry socks from a bag so as to ease the discomfort of slipping on wet boots. The tent was rolled away into a soggy roll and the bags strapped back to the bike. After yesterday’s expedition, the bike posed on its stand showing off its adventurous new mud livery, sure it looked a mess but it added to the story of its own life.

Without the phone, I couldn’t measure time. Without the odometer, I couldn’t measure distance. In my favour, Urubici was the first town with an intersection across the 370, no more than 30km away at a guess. In fact, it turned out to be the first town west of me at all.

SC370 led me to the cobbled intersection a Urubici’s only traffic light within the hour and I turned south to look for a cafe for breakfast. I reached a Plaza south of the town without finding anywhere open and parked up to bask in the warmth of the sunlit park, kicking off my boots draping my socks over the handlebars to dry off.

Biblioteca UrubiciAcross the road stood a reluctant looking Biblioteca and I crossed intending to use the Wifi. Inside presented no recognizable library. but a collection of offices and what appeared to resemble a primary school classroom. I asked for WiFi in my best Portuguese and was led and pointed toward the toilets. I thanked the kind lady, washed my hands and face and exited.

Vo Maris PanaderiaMounting the bike, I coasted slowly back northward over the cobbles to finally discover a bakery that was open. Coffee and cake for breakfast and, more importantly, WiFi and electricity for my laptop. I wanted to check iOverlander.com and Google maps on the PC for somewhere to stay and to plot my onward route. Life feels a little bit more fragmented without the cellphone but the PC is able to paste over those cracks.

I recalled my truck driving days in the era before GPS. I had developed navigation skills and the spacial awareness that got me out to unfamiliar destinations and back daily. Rekindling those abilities became a refreshing way to ride, extending my perception and experience of my environment. A couple of comments over Facebook suggested putting the phone in a bag of rice to dry it out.

Felipe Miranda, MotoGaragemYesterday’s excursion had worked up a hunger, which the cakes and pastries slowly turned to a sweet, nauseating feeling of excess. I was on my third coffee when Filipe Miranda introduced himself, letting go of one of his crutches to shake my hand. He was curious about the little Yamaha with Peruvian plate and recommended a hostel called MotoGaragem just two blocks away. He said something about closed in the afternoon but I couldn’t work out when. Was it before 4pm or after 4pm?

After a couple of hours in the bakery, I rode to the supermarket to buy some rice, slicing open the bag at the checkout to insert the phone before exiting to continue to MotoGaragem.

MotoGaragem was closed and deserted, although the gate was unlocked. I let myself in, parked and spread my wet things across a bench in the Sun before resting back in a yellow plastic chair beneath the shade of a gazebo in the drive. To the right of the driveway, were what resembled secure storage units and beyond the gazebo stood a two-story chalet with balcony on the top floor.

There was nothing I needed to do and there was nothing available for me to do either. No kindle to read since the phone took a dive but I was happy enough just sitting there, waiting, watching my boots dry while the phone sunbathed in its jacket of rice.

Forty minutes later, A young woman walked through the gate, clearly aware that there was a hostel customer waiting. Filipe must have called her. She unlocked the upstairs floor of the chalet and showed me the double rooms and a bathroom. 70R$ she said. Luxury! I felt I’d earned that after recent events and I put my thumbs up in the universal language of accord. I was the only guest so I felt like I had an apartment to myself.

Drying Socks, MotoGaragem StyleMaria hurried away and I retrieved my socks, boots and bag of rice with phone to spread around the balcony, then spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on the blog.

The room had an air conditioner but with the doors open, a dry breeze kept the temperature a comfortable subtropical level while I sat back on the bed tapping away on the keyboard.

Blogging is a delicate balance between physical travel and using time to create edit so that I have actual material to publish. It feels like a full-time job but for no pay, really. Of course, money isn’t everything but I have to think of how to replace things like drowned phones and continually provide for food and shelter. I feel that the work I do should sustain me but it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s the value that other’s place on my output that determines the return.

Thinking about all that gets too depressing so best to wind it all back to one question: “Do I enjoy keeping the blog?” and the answer is “Yes,… mostly.” Blogging is more than just writing. Administration, collating images and notes takes a lot of time and organisation. All that stuff is not so much fun. Underneath everything, blogging adds a feeling of purpose otherwise absent in simply wandering the Earth.

Later on, I hear voices downstairs, I slip on sun-dried socks and amble into the reception. Filipe is there. It turns out he’s the owner of the hostel. Also, Rebeca Bonel the speed-walker in black I had passed yesterday up on Morrow da Igreja I ask her how she speaks English so well. “Movies.” She’s not the first I met that has learned English via movies – complete with American accent.

Yesterday, Rebeca had wondered where I’d gone after I’d passed her and noticed my bike and tent in the gateway further down the road on her walk. Rebeca translated for Filipe since his English and my Portuguese were so limited.

Filipe leaned heavily on his crutches taking the pressure off his leg. A few months before, he T-boned a car as it suddenly Uturned on the SC 370 breaking his leg in seven places and wrecking his Suzuki V-Strom. He was to be on crutches nine more months. Meanwhile, he runs a graphic design and T’shirt business together with MotoGaragem hostel.

MotoGaragem RoomThe next day, Filipe offered to move me downstairs to one of the units that hosts a double bed plus space to park the motorcycle. I’m not fussed but accept and make room in the chalet for a trio of bikers from Sao Paulo, which I think is the real motivation. It felt strange sharing a room with the bike but I liked it. A proper man-cave and I sat back on the bed surfing the internet while the bike rested on its main stand in preparation for removing the front wheel for troubleshooting the speedo fault.

Man CaveThe speedo cable is the weak spot but I had already replaced that in Asuncion. Even so, I disconnected it to check to feel the inner spin at both ends and as I span the front wheel. The wheel would spin but the gear wouldn’t turn. the washer that connected the wheel to the gear had bent outward so the flat edges wouldn’t lock onto the cam. This washer was secured with a circlip which needed a circlip tool to remove.

SESCFilipe appeared and invited me to lunch at Sesc, a cafeteria packed with locals enjoying a great value buffet. I’d just removed the wheel, so recently that I was still scrubbing the grease off my hands when Filipe was shouting Vamos through the door hurrying me up for driving around the corner to the restaurant. Over lunch, he recommended I take the wheel hub to a moto mechanic named Edson who runs the Moto shop near the traffic lights.

Edson Moto MechanicEdson could understand me far easier than most Brazilians because he was deaf and so didn’t get confused by my Portuguese pronunciation. He’d watch body language and listen to intention, taking the whole scene into account. He abandoned his work on a Honda elevated on a jack and set about dismantling the speedo gear with circlip pliers, greasing and tapping the washer back into shape. All resolved in two or three minutes. He didn’t want anything for it but I gave him 10R$ and heartfelt expressions of gratitude.

I liked MotoGaragem but it was a bit above my budget at what turned out to be 75R$ but I treated myself to three nights.

UrubiciDuring my retreat at MotoGaragem, I took the bike up the hill that overlooks Urubici at Filipe’s suggestion. My first off-road stint since my failed search for the waterfall and at least the bike was unladen with my luggage back at the hostel. I felt a pang of pleasure seeing the speedo needle respond to motion and the odometer click up the digits as I scaled the steep track. After relaxing on the peak, admiring the spectacular view over the town, I descended for another Sesc buffet before venturing 10km west, at Rebeca’s suggestion, to Morro do Campestre.

Morro de CampestreRiding around on an unloaded bike for pleasure is different from the continuous journey I find myself on. I ferry different thoughts with me and relax with no other agenda than to be “out for the day.”

The Sao Paulo dudes were drinking beer under the Gazebo when I returned. I spoke with them for a little while but retired to my room because I found the language barrier too wearing. I didn’t know Rebeca had turned up later so I’d missed her visit.

I’d settled for Social Media in place of real company before drifting to sleep to the sound of muted Portuguese conversation outside my door.

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The Eagle Has Landed

Gas StationTHE FUEL STATION had been a rejuvenating haven for the last hour. My mind had been on the fuel gauge nudging empty most of the way climbing out of Braço do Norte toward Serra do Corvo Branco, which took a little shine out of the experience.

Serra HairpinRiding over the Serra had been a real treat and I failed to get the best photographs of it by not knowing the relatively short length of the pass. By the time I’d got my GoPro out it was nearly over and I caught the last hairpin before reaching the crest. It reminded me of El Camino de la Muerte in Bolivia although that was almost 60km long. This was what,  maybe 6…?

Serra do Corvo Branco PassAlmost mid-afternoon. Too early to retire to a hostel. A huge chunk of day waits to be carved out of the bright Santa Catarina afternoon. Maps.me shows a selection of about eight waterfalls clustered on its map not far northeast of Urubici, most of the route planners return “inaccessible” so I embark on an expedition to the most ‘accessible’ looking waterfall on the app… and perhaps I won’t need a hostel if I pitch my tent there. After all, 28km isn’t far and shouldn’t take long.

Bike and body fully refuelled and refreshed, I memorise the next few junctions of the route and accelerate out of the fuels station to retrace the last half mile to the junction for the trail toward this imagined Eden.

A pale dusty trail between fields to a right hand dogleg that tracks me along the Rio Canoas and a left-hand bend to a wooden bridge from which children are laughing and jumping into the river, entertained by the pequeno Yamaha from Peru rattling over the loose planks.

The next way point? A sharp right away from the river and second right junction with a bend to the left to reach the next bridge across another river. I remembered the route well but the scenery never matches my imagination.

Rriver bedThe road degrades into what looks like farm access and down a stony dirt slope then smooth large pebbles descending to the river. The trail leading into the water suggests a ford but there appears to be no exit on the other bank.

River  BedChecking Maps.me and zooming in, my marker is off the route. The bridge should be 20 or 30 metres back. I abandon the bike and clamber up the stony lane. There is indeed a bridge but it’s through a narrow gate to a rickety suspension footbridge less than a metre wide. Even if it were wide enough for a motorcycle, the wire structure looked incapable of enduring our combined weight. Maps.me showed this as a drivable route.

Suspension bridgeZooming out on the app, I notice another crossing not far further north. Backtracking past the farmhouses of imagined occupants looking out of the window bemused by foreign traffic along this almost impassible route, I reach the t-junction, turn right along the narrow lane and squeeze past trucks loading crates of fruit harvested from the neighbouring fields and soon cross bridge number two on the GPS: a concrete single width structure of little beauty but herculean looking strength, starkly contrasting the spindly footbridge upstream.

Second BridgeThe dry pale track slowly morphs from dusty to alternately rocky and grassy. The further I travel, the less evidence there appears of recent traffic. Maps.me reassuringly puts my location firmly over the projected route. I’m still on track all right, so give a mental shrug and carry on, powering up the rocky inclines crouching on the pegs to allow the bike to bounce over the rough terrain without my torso adding to the inertia.

The route climbs steadily into the hills in and out of woodland Drinking in the clean Brazilian air, laced with aromas of pine and eucalyptus, I’m rewarded to panoramic views over the emerald green Santa Catarina landscape bathed in golden sunlight.

Further and higher, the lane terminates at a gate to a field. In the distance, I spot an off-road motorcycle bounce its way over a ridge and disappear leaving only the sound of its engine fading into the distance and decide to follow. That was the last I saw of it but the GPS still pinned me firmly tracking its route. Distant cows and horses turn their heads as my wheels join up the vague and intermittent wheel tracks across their undulating green pasture from one gate to the next.

These gates are typical barbed wire and post affairs held taught by a loop of wire top and bottom of the gatepost. Some take a lot of grunting to get that last 2mm of wire to slip over the top of the post but are more an annoyance than a problem: dismount, drop gate, push bike through, grunt wire loop back on post, re-mount, repeat at next field.

The trail disappears again and I stop in the middle of green pasture and inspect the map. Nearly two hours of rugged torture over rocky slopes tempts me to abandon the expedition but, according to the app, my holy grail is now only 6km away. Eighty per cent there…

Guessing the path of least resistance over the pasture takes me over a grassy ridge to pick up defined wheel tracks again. The tyre tracks become more pronounced and disappear into a wide puddle through boggy ground. This vague trench seems to reveal itself by longer grass than the rest of the field as it traverses its way each side of the track in a tentative ambition to perhaps one day become a river. The water in the wheel tracks obscures its depth and the nature of the underlying ground and I try to follow the shallow edge before I’m hub deep in peaty mud.

Peat BogMaybe this is a clue that I should turn back but quitting after coming 80% distant doesn’t really inspire. No need to put the stand down, the bike remains upright as I dismount and squelch the few paces back to firm ground and take a photo.

Staring at the bike, I rue the prospect of untying those bags and then reloading so I kick the gears into neutral and heave on the bar that crosses the back wheel bracing the two sides of the luggage rack. With enough grunting and desperation of avoiding unloading the bike, it begins to move and I stagger back until it topples over to the right releasing the wheels from the mire and I fall back into half dry ruts.

Washing my hands and boots a little in the muddy puddle, I remount the bike and commit myself to a watery wheel track with enough speed to either plant me firmly in the centre of the bog, if that is my fate, or to hurtle out the other side and along the track toward whatever further obstacle awaits. Beneath the surface, the bed is firm and shallow and I cross the water smoothly without drama.

The pasture and scenery become like Exmoor back in the UK, scrubby bushes and short grass. The trail dips into boggy ground again but I notice faint wheel tracks veering away over the short grass over a ridge behind some bushes I follow those over a crest to rejoin the trail thirty metres further on. I enjoy a pleasant sensation from the minor victory of bypassing another hazard.

Random buildings in fields reinforce the feeling I’ve strayed into someone’s farm. And I continue checking the GPS for reassurance.

The trail has been rough and rocky most of the way, testing my off-road skills to the limit. The Yamaha doesn’t have low enough gearing to maintain torque and revs at low speed so I have to commit to maintaining momentum over punishing terrain if I am to make it up these inclines at all. It’s a wonder the bike holds together at all with the weight of the baggage strapped across it. And how does Maps.me know about this route as it’s barely recognisable as a trail in reality?

FordThe trail disappears into yet more water. This time, a bonafide ford, a narrow stream but with a stony bed. I don’t know how deep it is but I can see mango-sized pebbles in the shallows before the reflection of the sky on the water obscures the view halfway across. It looks harmless enough though. It’s not wide enough to be deep and also a ford.

fordingI hesitate and consider turning around but the GPS tells me my destination is now only 2km away. So close! I have hammered out 26km of rocky trail already, more than ninety per cent distance. If I can make the last 2km then I can pitch the tent and watch the sun go down from the hammock and maybe bathe in the crystal waters of the waterfall.

I spare a thought for the laptop and chargers in the bags but reassure myself that they are packed near the top of the bags and all it takes to cross is a little confidence and I’ll be through with no problem.

The bed of the stream proves rough but firm and I rattle across toward the far bank before the front wheel suddenly lurches to one side wedging itself between two boulders and I plunge my feet into the water to stop the bike from tipping over. The water is halfway up my calf and I keep the revs up unsure whether the bike’s exhaust is underwater or not. Now upright, I slowly dismount and, under its own power, walk the bike out of the stream feeling relieved that I didn’t drop the whole thing.

I’m clear of the stream and back on dry land wet trousers clinging to my calves and boots brim-full of water. I remount and continue to the next gate perhaps 200 metres away and gaze across another green, blank field. The trail clearly passes through this gate but after that, I see no evidence of its path across the grass. Horses pause their grazing to stare at me as if to ask me “What now?” A farmhouse perched on the far side of the field hints at a descent into the valley beyond where must surely nestle the elusive paradise of the waterfall.

I put my hand in my pocket to retrieve the phone and check the route on the GPS, only to find heart-stopping emptiness. I check my other pockets. No phone. Well, it couldn’t be far away since I’d checked this unbelievable route before the ford. The prime suspect was the site of the wrestling match to keep the bike falling into the water and I race back to the ford hoping to catch a glimpse of the phone on the grass.

In the murky black depths of the stream, spotting a black smartphone is impossible, but not so the coil of the white USB cable still connected to it… exactly the spot where the bike wedged itself between the boulders. I rolled up my sleeve and waded in to fish it out hoping for the best. Unplugging the USB cable prompted the screen to display “Powering Down” as if this was its dying breath, the last time I ever saw it alive… RIP GPS… RIP: Internet, Translator, Whatsapp, Kindle, Camera, Clock, Banking Authentication. Goodbye connection to the wider world…

Well what now…, 2km from my imagined paradise past a suspected farmhouse assumed to be near an undefined trail to an unconfirmed waterfall with no aid for navigation or communication? The nature of my journey had changed from one of spiritual reward to one of material loss. That feeling of loss put me out of the mood to continue altogether.

That’s it. This was enough adventure for one day…

It could be worse. The sun was still high in the sky and I still had 2 or 3 hours daylight. All I had to do was retrace the 26km back to the main road and maybe find the Morro I’d seen signposted earlier off the 370, when I was looking for a fuel station, and camp there.

Would I remember the way? It only takes one wrong turn. Yes, it was a concern but the other thought was, “So what? If it gets dark pitch your tent. No-one is coming here tonight.” Apart from one remote motorcycle and some farm trucks loading crops down in the valley I hadn’t seen any other traffic. So what? It doesn’t matter. It was only uncertainty that was causing the discomfort.

Stashing my waterlogged phone, pouring the water out of my boots and wringing out my socks, I check over the bike and prepare to rejoin civilisation. I choose the alternative wheel track across the ford to find it far smoother and cross easily without incident. Small waves of relief and regret ebbed then flowed on the shore of my consciousness. Relief that I crossed, this time, without effort and regret that this wasn’t the wheel track I’d chosen in the first place.

I move faster now, knowing the nature of the terrain ahead, gravity on my side, relying on brakes to regulate momentum rather than power, standing on the footpegs to allow the bike to move beneath me. I look for forks in the trail across the fields bypass the bogs and I plough through soft ground fast enough to cut through and reach the other side before the mud can grab my wheels.

Yet another fork in the track leads left toward a defined trail and right to an equally defined trail. I’m not certain but I take the one to the right only because I see a gate further on that has the trail continue through to the other side. It’s fifty-fifty. Time will tell.

I check the odometer for progress and notice the speedo and odometer are no longer working. Great, no GPS plus now no facility for measuring distance or speed. Even time had been measured using the phone.

I would just have to estimate time and direction by the sun and estimate distance by a function of estimated time against estimated momentum: not much better than a guess.

The sun was low enough in the sky to point the way west and high enough that I still had a couple of hours of daylight. A hand’s width on an outstretched arm between horizon and the sun equates to about an hour and one finger width to about fifteen minutes. Wisps of misty cloud shrouding these hilltops threaten fog to obscure the sun adding to the Exmoor-like experience but thankfully begins to thin out at the lower altitudes and are soon behind me.

House waypointFairly soon, I arrive at a landmark I remember, a house at a junction that I had stopped to photograph on the way. The reassurance boosts my morale and I press on down the trail.

Thighs burning from the extended crouching position riding over rough ground, I slowed a little so I could sit down over the not so rough terrain.

The trail gradually smooths out and my tyres are eventually whipping up the chalky dust between the fields at the valley floor. Pausing at an unfamiliar junction, engine burbling calmly in neutral, there’s a river on my right that should be on my left. I had already passed a turning across a bridge so that must have been the one I’d originally crossed. Doubling back the 200m I’m back on the familiar route where the trucks had been loading, the fruit trucks had now gone and the descending sun paints the dark shadows of the trees over the track and into the fields. Passing the junction leading to the suspension bridge then onto the riverside and rattling over the planks of the wooden bridge echoing the laughter of the absent children, I reach the silky smooth asphalt of the SC370 and pause at the junction to savour the warm satisfaction of my return to civilisation. “The Eagle has landed…” Not that it felt like I had been to the moon and back but that my adventure had been lost in the space of persistent uncertainty…

Turning left I estimated the Morro I had seen was maybe 10km away, maybe 15… I had no odometer anyway so I’d guess for 15 minutes with the rev counter at 6000 in top gear, as the phone’s death left me no clock and the speedometer needle was dormant at zero.

The sun was still above the horizon, barely. The return trip from the ill-fated waterfall excursion had been a lot quicker than the outward leg.. It was downhill for a start, plus I didn’t have to keep stopping to check the GPS since I no longer had one.

Morro de IgrejaAbout 15 minutes along the SC370, the sign to “Morro de Igreja” and followed it right, south along the road that zigzagged up the mountain, past construction crews resurfacing it, and through the low cloud base in and out of grey mist. It was late enough now that I already had my eyes open for “Plan B” camping sites. Spindly woods along a dubious looking lane was one, a green area in front of a farm gate was another until I finally reached the site that iOverlander indicated had a waterfall with a restaurant that allowed its reviewer to camp there.

Turning into the entrance and down the drive, a girl wearing black leggings, trainers and earphones was marching toward the road with purpose and I said Hola rolling on by, eager to pitch camp.

I coasted in past a booth displaying a “Fechado” sign and was met by a man emphasising “No, closed. Come back tomorrow.” He summoned his son who could speak a little English. He told me “No, closed, come back tomorrow.” I asked about somewhere to camp hoping he would say, “How about here on our ample grounds” but no, he said somewhere on the main road near a hump. “My sister speaks good English but she’s just gone for a walk”

I exited demoralised and passed the girl now at the road without bothering to stop to speak other than say “Tchau.” as I rode toward my “Plan B”.

Dusk was upon me and I was starting to feel cold. Checking out the dubious lane with spindly woods didn’t inspire confidence. I felt I’d be trespassing on a family estate if there is such a thing in Brazil. I continued down the road to the farm gate.

Gateway CampThere was nothing but a field entrance here. Visible from the road, being right next to it, wasn’t ideal but there was very little traffic. It was time. The sun had set, I was cold and tired. I pitched the tent in the rough grass, flattening the groundsheet over the springy weeds best I could, stripped the insoles out of my boots and draped my socks to dry over the handlebars of the bike.

Gateway campMy cold, white feet looked like dead fish due to their few hours of marinating in soaking boots. No phone, a broken speedometer, wet boots. The whole excursion to the waterfall had been a disaster but thinking about it, I was both amazed and grateful that the bike didn’t break its back over the terrain.

And wow, what an adventure, now that it was all over and its memory cemented into the certainty of the past…

Adventure and uncertainty: seems one doesn’t exist without the other…

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East of Eden

ALREADY  SWEATING AFTER packing away in the oppressive morning heat, I rolled out of the campsite and cruised along the sandy track wearing a t-shirt to the local beach thinking that was the location of the Santa Marta Lighthouse.

Police at IbiraqueraParking up next to a small caravan that serves as a Police station, I stroll across the boardwalks to check the beaches. Nothing there so I return to the bike. Two Police officers with a couple of locals stand around the bike chatting. I join in best I can and the Police tell me the lighthouse is 40km further south near Laguna. Curious about my journey from Peru, I tell them about the whole trip from Turkey in a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, English and mime. I bid them ‘ate logo’ and they offer a cold bottle of water. I’m already parched and down it in a dozen gulps before riding off.

Attempting to withdraw cash from the local supermarket, The check out girl pointed south to the Ferju retail outlet at Nova Brasilia. She was kind enough to write it on a piece of paper. Nova Brasilia is only 8km down the BR101 and the outlet is visible from the road only after the exit ramp. Luckily I had guessed the junction correctly and was already slowing down along the service road. Ferju is in a popular and busy retail park and a parking attendant directed me to squeeze my bike between two cars parked on a corner making a wedge-shaped space. Best of all, the cash machines were successful and I quickly became flush with cash again.

Restaurante e ChurrascariaThe restaurant tempted me inside but was too busy for my patience so I pulled into the Restaurante e Churrascaria Boi Preto not far down the BR101 just southwest of Imbituba where, according to the proprietor’s son, is the hometown of his friend Jorginho who plays for Chelsea. The buffet was delicious and cheap too. I’ve forgotten this guy’s name now but he said if I ever pass again, I can stay at his house. I can ask Jorginho what his name is if I see him kicking a ball about in the UK.

Mirante Morro da Gloria, LagunaThe turnoff to Laguna, 25km further down the BR101, came with the usual sense of relief and I could relax look around more while riding into Laguna without focussing so much on my mirrors. I spotted the Mirante Morro da Gloria on the skyline with its statue of Christ, arms in the air, and I weaved my way through the one-way system and up the hill.

Mirante Morro da Gloria, Wild CampThere’s a picnic area in some woods that looked good for camping but it was far too early to turn in. The statue attracts a regular flow of visitors. Sure, it was quiet but also too public. I could see a long way down the coast from here. Reminiscent of South Padre in Texas: a strip of land tapering off into the distance: Ocean one side, lagoon the other but I could see no lighthouse…

Following the signs to the Ferry, I pick up the tail of a bus winding through the streets toward the terminal. Arriving there, a ferry had already closed its gates ready to leave. Noticing the arrival of the bus it opens its gates again and I roll on as the passengers drift out of the bus and stroll onto the ferry.

Over the other side, the bank looks bare and rural, save for the queue of cars at the terminal waiting for the ferry back to Laguna. There are a few holiday chalets on the waterside but mainly, from here, it’s a straight road down the coast lined by farms on the right and dunes on the left.Laguna ferry

Laguna ferryAfter a few kilometres, I spot the lighthouse in the distance and by the time I reach the junction, it seems like I’m well past it. enough to question whether I had missed it a few kilometres back. Santa Marta is a quaint little town huddled over a hilly promontory into the Atlantic, popular with tourists. It reminding me of an old Cornish fishing village back home. Coverack, perhaps on the Lizard peninsula.

Farol Santa MartaI park the bike perpendicular to the curb to squeeze into the last metre of space between the line of parked cars and the red painted curb indicating the ‘no parking’ area at the entrance to the lighthouse then wander up the hill.

Venomous SnakesA sign warning of the danger of venomous snakes in the rough grass reminds me this isn’t Cornwall. This town looks compact and probably expensive for accommodation. Riding along the seafront up to the hiking trail, there is a small grassy car park scorched by a campfire. It’s perfectly level for a tent but quite exposed to public eyes so I decide to wait until dark and ride back down to the promenade and retreat to a cafe for a beer and WiFi.

Farol Santa Marta DayIt’s amazing how one beer can affect your sense of balance. I felt totally sober but my balance wasn’t as sharp as normal and I carefully wobbled over the bumps and troughs along the track back to the trailhead at dusk to watch the waves and the day melt into night.

Farol Santa Marta NightI walk back to the car park in the dark to pitch the tent. Along the way, I stumble down a hole in some thick weeds, instantly hoping there aren’t any snakes down there, as I scrabble out the other side, maybe tick off one of my nine lives on that one. While securing the poles, the beam of a flashlight sweeps across me, a local guy out jogging with his dogs. I just wave a greeting “Boa Noite” and he jogs along the cliff path out of sight.

Camp Santa MartaI struck camp at dawn for the purpose remaining invisible, the dew still fresh on the tent, while most people were still in bed. I had a peaceful and tranquil night here and being free of charge made my rest feel all the sweeter. I sat at the promenade in front of the closed cafe hoping for breakfast and used their wifi to check my route.

I could just as easily have breakfast in Tubarãu and took off toward Braço do Norte and then hopefully onto Serro do Corvo Branco. Google maps the SC370 down as closed, giving me a 100-mile diversion via Laura Muller. I ignored it and stopped at Tubarãu for WiFi and breakfast. I headed south from Santa Marta around the lagoon which meant riding north on the BR101 for a while. It felt like I was backtracking.

Serra do Corvo BrancoThe SC370 out of Braço do Norte looks like virgin asphalt, smooth, wide and sweeping. My fuel gauge was half way which should be plenty for Urubici 70km away. The uphill incline tips the fuel to the back of the tank lowering the float sensor of the gauge at the front moving the needle to show near Empty and I start to wonder about fuel consumption on this persistent and winding incline. The misleading gauge taunts me, asking me why I  didn’t take a moment to pop into that fuel station in Braço do Norte. Distances certainly feel further on the ground than they look on a map.

Serra do Corvo BrancoThe absence of traffic also gets me wondering about Google’s alleged road closure. I’ve seen only two vehicles along this road, and I’m riding one of them. It’s not worth thinking about as I’m already committed. Rounding a bend, I see my lane has collapsed down the hillside. A great chunk about seven metres long like a great monster has taken a giant bite out of the road as far as the centre line. The hazard is taped off across metal rods and I swing over to the opposite lane to keep my momentum up the hill. The SC370 is a motorcyclists dream of smooth dry sweeping curves through alpine-like scenery – until suddenly it isn’t…

TolkienUp ahead is a Tolkien-like landscape and the SC370 becomes single lane unpaved track as If I’d strayed through a farm gate without noticing. The difference is enough for me to stop and check behind me and interrogate the GPS. There’s nothing to suggest I’d made a wrong turning. Checking Google street view later clarifies things. the images from 2011 have the SC370 as a dirt track so the upgrade to immaculate asphalt is very recent and ignore the difficulties of the mountain pass.

Serra do Corvo Branco TruckIn the distance, a white car becomes visible on the side of a mountain and disappears behind the vegetation again. The track continues up the mountainsides in the style of Peru and Bolivia and soon I arrive at a series of hairpins and stop to get the GoPro out… just in time for the last bend. I park at the top to admire the view back across the gorge and the cleft where the road crosses the peak behind me. I see a truck with pallets of bricks grinding its way up the lane. Below me, it disappears from view but hear it change down a gear for a steep corner followed by a loud metallic rumble. When he reappears, one of the pallets is a heap of rubble on the back of his truck and the truck continues the climb and crawls past the last turn past me over the peak.

Serra HairpinThe Peak of Serra do Corvo BrancoAfter a few moments, I follow over the peak, my mind is at ease. I coast down the wide gravel track on a closed throttle and the fuel sensor rises on the fuel flowing to the front of the tank and the gauge settles at a quarter. Coasting downhill uses almost no fuel but  Maps.me puts a fuel station 30km away and I rejoin immaculate asphalt gently cruise along the sunlit valley toward Urubici, ignoring the tempting detours to morros and waterfalls.

Abandoned Gas StationI arrive at the expected fuel station only to find a rusting canopy sheltering an old bus and wrecked fuel pumps. Like a scene out of a John Steinbeck novel. The Gas Station of Wrath. Thankful for not deviating to the viewpoints, I continue to the BR station 9km further on. Snacks, drink and WiFi keep me there a good hour revising my plans. Too early for retiring for the day, I browse the seven or eight waterfalls on maps.me not far away, most of which come back as inaccessible. There’s one that is 28km away and I decide to check it out, picturing myself enjoying a refreshing natural shower and perhaps camping for the night in an Eden-like paradise…

Gas StationMap Arroio to Urubici

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Waypoint 101: Florianópolis

FlorianopolisFlorianopolis: a major waypoint in my consciousness ever since my meanderings took me east of La Paz in Bolivia nine months ago – changing my plans of returning to  Colombia via Peru and Ecuador.  The big picture in my imagination saw a straight line east across Bolivia and Brazil and then a sharp right southward. Of course, life doesn’t unfold along straight lines. Losing my wallet in Bonito, Brazil took a two-month bite out of my three-month passport stamp prompting me to duck into Paraguay and re-enter Brazil at Foz Do Iguazu three months later. sometimes the silver-linings are bigger than the clouds that bring them, such was the joy of my time in Paraguay

FlorianopolisThis waypoint looks and feels different close to. I’m already at the coast and Florianópolis now lies less than 50 km south. The first waypoint in the big plan, such as plans go. Porto Alegre would be the next, comparatively only just down the road.

Meanwhile, at brunch here on the edge of BR101 after a restful night in the woods near Mirante do Encanto, I Imagined that finding accommodation would be a greater challenge, with prices reflecting demand now that we were in the height of holiday season.

I could find no reasonably priced sites or hostels on the internet, even in the more downmarket town of San Jose on the mainland opposite Florianopolis. Ah well, I’d have to just live with the uncertainty for the day and see where I’d end up – just like yesterday.

Exiting the ramp of the busy BR101, I inserted myself along the queue along 282 across the bridge into Florianópolis. Across the bridge on the island, the traffic interchanges become fast and confusing. The city is to my left and the signs for “Centro” point right. Reading the signs full of unfamiliar Portuguese words and quickly change lane becomes the new challenge. The exit could be either side as roads loop around over and under bridges. These are dual carriageways with no u-turns. there’s no telling where a wrong turn would land me.

Florianópolis is a high rise city full of one-way streets and forbidden turnings. It makes exploration frustrating. I need some cash but have seen no banks as yet. This is an unpleasant experience in paradisical scenery: a picture perfect labyrinth… like I’m stuck in a video game.

On the northern coastal perimeter, the wide dual carriageway separates the city from the shore. A beautiful seafront promenade that’s difficult to stop and enjoy because of the fast flowing traffic. I turn right toward the city again hoping to find a road junction that will allow me back to the shore to cross to the opposite carriageway. No right turn. Onto the next traffic light. Right then left, and another right to the traffic lights and I finally unlock the side of the perimeter now that takes me anticlockwise toward the bridge and access to the south of the island, the interchanges shouldn’t be too bad since I’ve already traversed them, so I take a break at a seaside cafe on the promenade.

Promenade FlorianopolisChecking the app on the phone, there is mention of a camping spot at a trailhead at the south of the island some 35km away. there was no rush. I finished a couple of ice cold juices and joined the perimeter to exit the city southwards.

GarageThe interchange wasn’t too much of a problem and I  happily cruised south. I saw the squall early, sweeping over the southwestern mountains on the mainland and across the strait. The rain had already started to fall when I spotted a gas station up ahead and pulled into its lean-to cafe shelter to buy a coke and hide from the storm. The wind drove the lighter rain horizontally over the seats and tables and I sought out the least affected spot while the warmth and light of the day slowly blew away.

The wind and rain eased a little so I rode next door to wander around the Hypermarket for something to do, and use their WiFi for Skype calls home in the covered car park until the rain stopped.

After an hour, the rain still hadn’t stopped but it became light enough that the ride would be less of a sufferance than waiting for an uncertain period in a supermarket car park, and I splashed along the glossy black roads through the soggy grey air.

StraitContinuing down the quiet undulating coast road under the cold grey sky, the weather along with the proximity of mainland Brazil across the strait reminded me of driving along the banks of loch ness in Scotland. It was hard to believe this was a strait and not an inland lake.

Bus Shelter -Plan BThe rain never really stopped. The air was still heavy with water and sporadic outbreaks of drizzle drove me into bus shelters so I could thoroughly examine the sky upwind. Along the way, I discovered a “plan B tent-pitch” behind a bus shelter, overhung by tall bamboo trees, hinting at an element of seclusion. Not ideal, as there were houses across the street but felt adequately safe in case of an emergency.

The diverse trees lining the route gave a distinctive selection of fresh aromas in the moist air. I shivered my way the last 5km in my drizzle-transparent fleece before reaching the end of the road where the buses stop then return to the city This was a cul de sac with a small rotunda and small bus shelter. The place seemed deserted, a lane disappeared down to sleepy cottages down by the sea. It felt like a Cornish fishing village in midwinter at about 4pm just before dark. If there had been a cosy pub here, I’d be inside warming by the fireside, sipping a pint of ale…

I sat in the bus shelter surveying the scene for a few minutes. Opposite, a car park at the foot of a hill that hardly resembled the description on iOverlander.com but there was nowhere else remotely like it. A white Renault arrived and paused at a gate. A family peered through the windows at the stranger in the bus shelter next to the overloaded bike while an electronic pulse signalled a gate to slid open before the car spun some gravel under its wheels and climbed the drive to a hideaway lodge further up the hill in the woods.

Camping FlorianopolisI walked across to the Car park. Three cars parked on the inclined plane of half gravel and grass. A wooden office shack on the far side from the road with Portuguese notices about litter and with directions to the banheiros was locked and silent. Behind the office were the banheiros. Above and beyond that, a level plateau of grass for further parking hosting only a ford transit minibus. Thumbs up, in my mind. I trotted back down the hill to retrieve the bike, crossed the lower incline of the car park and powered up the steep rocky rack to the level grassy plateau to pitch the tent in the fading daylight.

I felt relieved to get shelter. Even though the rain had stopped, the air still felt cold. Across the miniature valley in the trees, I could see the family that drove by in the Renault relaxing on their porch and gave them a wave before settling down for the night. I was damp from the drizzle but only in my top layer. Despite the colder evening, I felt warm in the still air of the tent’s interior.

Awakening to the sound of over-animated Portuguese chatter, I poke my head out of the tent, a dozen or so young people congregate around the Ford Transit, I’d noticed yesterday, in preparation for a hike. I might as well get up and pack and go… On the way out I meet the car park attendant and pay the 5R$ camping fee, about £1. what a find in the height of the season. Muito tranquilo and fully refreshed.

Parking AttendantsSunday 20th January, replaying the reverse series of aromas of the trees as I retraced my journey north. The morning quickly warming up as I edge east toward Campeche on the Atlantic coast of the island.

Campeche BeachThe beach at Campeche was already busy and I chatted with the parking attendants for a few minutes. I stayed just long enough to enjoy an Ice cream near the beach before riding off back to Florianopolis. To the north of the city, I heard is where the wealthy reside. There’d be nothing there for me so I return to the city itself, this time via Lagoa and Itacorubi.

FlorianopolisI was looking for a cafe and spotted one through the trees on a service road and backtracked to the junction. When I finally parked, it turned out to be a Gelateria, an ice cream shop. Despondent and about to ride off, I noticed that next door was the unassuming looking cafe D’lara. Electricity for the laptop, Wifi, Coffee and Cake. Perfect. Ralph spoke English well and Veronica baked moist, rich cakes. I bathed in the warmth of their company. Solitude helps me appreciate these moments along the way.

D'Lara CafeDlara CoffeeI needed cash and tried to navigate to the ATMs I’d found on internet maps. The junctions are complex and funnel around loops often in the opposite direction to where the location I want. the one-way system means negotiating driving around blocks and finding an elusive parking space is difficult even for a small motorcycle. Banco do Brasil had closed down, another ATM, I could find no trace of. I gave up and set off for the ATM in San Jose over the bridge and down the BR101.

D'Lara CafeI found the ATM but it didn’t service foreign banks. Failed! Short of cash and getting late, I set off to find a campsite for the night and deal with the finances later.

Camping Do Quintino90km to Alto Arroio and it’s a relief to get off the fast and furious BR101. Not far away,  I discover the campsite, Camping Do Quintino, next to a lagoon. A compact, leafy, rustic site. The woman who received me didn’t speak English but we managed to communicate well enough to check in. There was only one other camper, a Mercedes Sprinter, whereupon I met Paulo Lazier. He gave me a list of places to visit including Farol de Santa Marta, Serro Corvo Branco, Serra do Rio do Rastro, Cambara do Sul, Canela and Bento Goncalves. A big deviation from the monotonous BR101 hammering its way south along the coast… riding along the BR101 is no way to experience Brazil. It may be efficient but it has no soul… and soul is what I’m looking for.Florianopolis Map

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Le Petit Chérie

Pomerode, Santa CatarinaThe road approaching Blumenau stacks with crawling traffic and I traverse a busy roundabout to stop in the shade of some trees just past the junction to see whether that was the one for the centre. A Honda with a young man and woman on the pillion, Bautista and Maria, pulls up alongside and we chat about my journey and their trip to Ushuaia. They disappear into the traffic and after a couple of minutes return to hand me a 20R$ note. I feel very moved by that gesture.

I tuck away the note in my wallet and U-turn to join the traffic queuing for the roundabout and turn south across the river toward the centre. It’s the usual introduction to a city’s one-way system. Never the most enjoyable experience. eyes are needed all over the head to watch for signs, junctions, the direction of parked cars – indicating the likelyhood I’m about to drive up a one-way street- traffic ahead and traffic behind.

Akaiaka to Le Petit Cherie,BlumenauUsually, locals know these roads well and drive at the maximum speed leaving little quarter for newcomers feeling their way around.

It’s Monday. Monday is like ‘Sunday Lite,’ in South America but this one is also a holiday. There’s a beer museum next to the restaurant I want to go into. The museum is closed and the parking bays are all empty but the signs expressly forbid motorcycle parking. It’s difficult to find a cafe where I can keep an eye on the bike until I pass Vila Germanica to find Fritz Saudavel opposite the Ramiro Ruediger Park.

Fritz Saudavel, BlumenauTapping into the WiFi, I scour the internet for accommodation that fits my budget. There would be no camping in a city this large. I locate a sweet sounding pousada back over the river on the northern perimeter of Blumenau, Le Petit Cherie. I fight my way out of the one-way system and cross the river to the busy route 470 and cruise along the commercial zone bursting with car dealers to find a steep slope that is the “Rua Walter Erich Obenhaus” leading to the pousada.

I found the road easy enough but the pin in the map for Le Petit Chérie is wild woodland in reality. Around the bend at the top of the hill is a neighbourhood of a dozen or more houses and there is no sign indicating a hostel or pousada.

Halfway down the steep slope is a possible candidate, tucked in the woods but with a firmly closed security gate. I cruise up and down the hill a few times before stopping to gaze at the house in the trees again. It’s the only house on the same side of the road as the pin but it doesn’t look like a pousada.

Across the road and behind me is a scrap metal merchant and someone comes out to find out what I’m doing. I explain and show the young man the map and he doesn’t know of any hostel. All the staff here are curious now and chattering and shrugging with each other. The young man offers to help and gets his motorcycle to ride up the hill. We don’t find anything but he asks someone in their garden and they say something in Portuguese pointing to the corner at the top of the hill. We park at a big white gate at what looks to be a private secure house, opposite and just around the corner to where the pin is on the map.

A man opens the door, says something and shuts the door again. Not sure whether he said he didn’t know where it was or not and retreated indoors, I waited with my guide and Roberto reappears a moment later fully dressed welcoming me to Le Petit Chérie. I shake my guide’s hand before he rolls down the hill back to work.

Roberto works for Civil Defence, mostly at night so we probably disturbed his sleep. I get shown a dorm opposite the house and Roberto says 25R$ a night. I tell him Booking.com had it at 27 and gave him that intending to stay for one night.

Pousada, Le Petite CherieCompact but clean and perfect. It’s always a relief to find a new sanctuary in an unfamiliar area. It’s a four berth dorm but I’m the only guest so it’s as good as a hotel ensuite. The temperature is a lot warmer than it has been since Foz do Iguaçu. I unpack the bike and strip down to t-shirt and underwear and sit back on the bed in the stream of cool air from the fan plugged in next to the bed patiently working with the patchy, lethargic internet

The warm humidity gives way to the welcoming cool of a thunderstorm. Relief for me but not for Roberto, as flooding takes him off his vacation and back into Blumenau for work overnight.

The next day is bright and warm and I decide to stay another night and take a ride down the road to see if I can find some faster internet for updating my blog.

Norte Shopping Mall on Ruta 470 is a giant characterless edifice in the style of the Malls I’ve seen in Texas. It’s air conditioning and food hall make for a good working environment though and I catch up on a few hours of editing, publishing and uploading photos.

Pomerode, Santa CatarinaAfter dark, Roberto and Sonia invited me into their house to try the local beer. their English is good which makes for an easy night for me and I revel in their warm and friendly company. Receiving tips for visiting Pomerode and its delights prompt me to stay another night.

Ponmerode, Santa CatarinaI’m still there four days later, having visited Pomerode and various excursions to the giant mall for working online.

Le Petit CherieIn the evening a tap on the door reveals Sonia offering me coffee and chocolate biscuits, we chat briefly before she retreats across the garden to her heme. Roberto is busy with Civil Defense. Recent storms have funnelled down the valley sides and flooded the river that runs through the city. Since storms appear nightly, he works all hours. Officially, Roberto and Sonia are on vacation but the reality is that they can’t go anywhere since Roberto is also on standby. All hands are needed in Blumenau during stormy weather.

Sonia told me about the building of the pousada and the trouble with local builders pushing up the price and their delays. It was a very stressful period and I glad they survived it. Their location is tucked behind a commercial zone but you wouldn’t know it when you’re there. Up the hill, it’s quiet and surrounded by trees. People are slowly clearing the woods to build houses so I hope that stops soon to retain the tranquil feeling of the area.

Morro near PomerodeThere’s always a temptation to stay one more night at places like this. My three day trip to Florianopolis is already well past a week and I force myself back on the road. Sonia packed me some chocolate biscuits I didn’t know that she made them herself and they had been a real treat in the evening with the coffee. She also gave me a bottle of fresh açai juice from the fruit in the garden.

AcaiIt’s not far from Blumenau to Itajai, 60km or an hour’s ride. Itajai is a major port north of Florianopolis. I resisted the urge to explore the city and take the bypass south to Balneário Camboriú. BR101 is a major artery down the coast. Fast and aggressive dual carriageway. Sure I could make Uruguay in short time but what would be the value in that?

January is holiday season in South America and I peel off down the ramp of the free-flowing artery of 101 into the clogged veins of Balneário’s streets. Bizarrely, the coast road is one way from south to north so I painfully creep down the gridlocked city centre, bike too fat with luggage to filter between the lanes, and turn left to the promenade and idle up the beach road, hugged by high rise buildings on the left and crowded golden beach on the right.

I felt like I was on holiday myself and stopped for an ice cream. Girls walked down the street wearing skimpy bikinis and thongs adding to the exotic ambience of the resort. Apart from the occasional signs in cafes requiring t-shirts, people carry on without being offended by semi-nakedness. It makes the UK look like it’s still in Victorian times.

Mirante do EncantoFinishing the ice cream, I decided I’d seen all I need of this pretty tourist trap, flick up the side stand and filter through the gridlocked streets southward. Sonia recommended the coast road of Avenida Interpraias and I weave my way to that, a scenic undulating coastal route linking idyllic Atlantic beaches. I didn’t stop except to check the map and plan where to stay for the night. There’s a Mirante not too far away at Itapema. Mirante do Encanto. I visualised it as a tranquil grassy mountain peak with perhaps a small monument. But no, I spotted its silhouette on the skyline from the BR101, a huge tower on a hill complete with a viewing platform.

Camping SpotUp on the viewpoint is a picture postcard view of the bay to the south but I scanned the woods for camping opportunities and spotted some trash near a dirt track and traced a line made by a gap in the treetops to the likely entrance to the trail and returned down the stairs to the bike to go and investigate.

Along the trail are gates to private residences. I pass a house under construction plus the trash I saw from the Mirante to a forbidding looking slope of mud tracks. I slither down and power up the next rise to find a fairly secluded spot to pitch the tent. Any tyre tracks that were here had been washed away by rain so I shouldn’t expect any traffic tonight.

Camping Mirante do EncantoI had a peaceful night apart from the rain drumming on the tent and I thought about the return up the already slick slope I had slid down. The lane continued in the other direction to an excavation. I explored as far as I could but there was no way out and I returned to the slope riding up it as fast as I dared. I needed grip both for traction and for steering and I had little of either. I reached two metres from the top before I came to a halt and stalled the engine to stop it rolling back down. I dismounted pushing the bike with engine revving and rear wheel spinning carving a groove in the clay, but I made it to the top without having to unpack the bike. Even on the now level trail, it was difficult staying upright and I wobbled down the trail with my feet off the pegs to the junction with the asphalt continuing down the hill on the road from the Mirante.

BR101 BrazilStopping to check the map, cyclists stop to chat and take pictures of the bike and number plate and peddled away. The BR101 is close by and I join the everlasting stream of traffic south, pausing for brunch at one of the cheap and cheerful BR101 transport cafes along the way…

Blumenau to Mirante do Encanto

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A Place in the Pines

CacadorI awaken to sun filtering through tall pines, scattering luminous yellow patches dancing across the fabric of the tent. I lay there for a while, listening to the sound of the distant traffic ebb and flow. Unzipping the door reveals a picture perfect woodland morning and after a few handfuls of peanuts for breakfast, I’m up and out for the tedious task of packing away.

CacadorIn the distance toward the road, I see two men on the trail near the edge of the woods but they don’t look my way. I don’t know what they are doing but they are gone by the time I’m ready and wobble through the channel through the undergrowth. Engine still cold and underpowered, I have to gun it up the slope to the road and I just have enough power to make the grade and just enough grip to stay upright along the slick muddy incline out of the woodland shade and into the sunlight.

CacadorThrough the gap in the long grass, I have to stop my front wheel on the edge of the asphalt and bend over the handlebars for a clear view of the road, nothing is coming and I lean left towards Caçador and give the engine a burst of throttle.

I’m feeling buoyant in the dry warm sunlight and weave around the pale grey asphalt in a joyful 70 km/h slalom around the potholes. It’s 250 km to Rio do Sul and I settle down into the saddle with the harmonious hum of the Yamaha motor and flow with the intermittent traffic in the warm Santa Catarina sunshine.

I probably had lunch along the way, I don’t remember. Most of the day was a dreamlike drift in the sun, mostly on autopilot while my mind wandering elsewhere left my body to handle the controls of the bike.

Early afternoon, I notice brown Turismo signs, “Vale Europeu” and the route tips the balance to more tourism than agriculture. The traffic thickens along with the number of properties lining the road and I arrive at Rio do Sul failing to notice any camping opportunities between the fences along the way.

Harry Hobus Park, Rio do SulHarry Hobus Park is highlighted on iOverlander and after falling foul of the one-way system sending me south of the river over the bridge directly over the park, around a loop, back over the bridge into the other loops on the northern bank, I finally coast under the elevated causeway into the car park tailing a police car on patrol which circles the car park like a shark cruising for easy pickings before swimming away again…

The car park is huge and, now past 5 pm, the park bustles with people. As described on iOverlander, there are toilets, showers, bar and restaurant nearby but nowhere obvious to pitch a tent without becoming an instant celebrity.

I park the bike amongst the local scooters at the entrance to the car park and walk around the central area where the showers, seats and teenagers on phones huddle in the shade of the bridge. I dawdle around the perimeter looking for a crack in the scenery to hide a tent for the night. A jogger stops to ask me about the bike. I’m amazed, the bike is now 200 metres across the park from us. I’m more noticeable than I anticipated. I doubt whether he ran around the track especially to talk to me but he obviously noticed my arrival. We talk for a few pleasant minutes before he jogs away. I consider whether I have the audacity to camp on the soccer field. The park is teeming with urban life, cyclist, joggers, dogs and families. Camping in the car park with a motorhome? Perfect. Tent on the field? Asking for trouble. iOverlander, after all, caters for motorhomes. I travel on its coattails.

Disappointed, I wander into the bar for a consolation cold beer and emergency WiFi, scrolling around iOverlander on my laptop working out where to pitch for the night. Akaiaka is 9km northeast near Lontras… perhaps I’d find somewhere on the way otherwise it’s an unwelcome dent in my meagre budget on my way to the coast.

I reluctantly press the starter while hanging on to the mood to kick back and relax. These times are dangerous for motorcycling. the beer didn’t help, but I maintained conscious awareness and patience. There is no rush and the impatience is a rogue emotion.

Rejoining the 470 is no easy task. Unable to reach the elevated eastern carriageway through lack of a ramp and passing under the bridge, forbidden to cross the traffic to join the westbound ramp forces me North to a U-turn a few hundred metres further up and on the way back I miss the turning west and get trapped in the Harry Hobus one way system once again. The second lap I get it and I’m westbound in the wrong direction but at least on the right road. I notice a sign “Returno 2km.” 2km in the wrong direction is a long way: 2km there and 2km back: double trouble. I scan fore and aft for traffic. Nothing is coming and swing a U-turn between the raised lane dividers and resume my heading east.

Vale Europeu continues much the same, a suburban alley of pines, advertising hoardings and private property channelling prospective customers along a gulley of recreation-based commerce. It seems every millimetre of land is bought and paid for, either private or reserved for paying customers. Without any hint of squeezing in a solo camping opportunity.

AkaiakaI spot the Recanto Akaiaka sign on the left well before the turning and pull over to the hard shoulder on the right to examine the entrance and wait for a gap in the traffic.

There’s a Cafe up the gravel drive not far from the road and I cross the highway through the gap in the traffic to crunch my way up the gravel slope and pull up in front of two young guys sitting outside the cafe on the customary Latino plastic patio chairs. A little English is cheerfully spoken and I’m directed up to the main Restaurant near a copse of pines. Karin and Mauricio come out to meet me and wrestle with google translate for a couple of minutes before calling their son, Tiago and his wife, Danusa, from the house further up the hill.

Akaiaka CabanaTiago speaks fluent English, although rusty with disuse, and says I can use one of the cabanas. I say I’m fine camping, but my hosts insist and raise their hands with fingers pointing down in the universal sign for rain. “Chuva” they say. and they say for free when I ask how much. The condition is that I eat in the restaurant. It’s a fair deal. I’m hungry after my recent diet of peanuts and rolling countryside.

Akaiaka RestaurantAkaiaka is a popular restaurant and I can taste in the food the reason why. This is luxury living, especially compared to recent days. Finishing the meal and catching up on messages, I retire to the cabana. A nice soft mattress, electricity, and shelter from the storm that rattles its chuva all over the roof. I flick off the light and watch the square of the stroboscopic window flashing from the storm behind the curtain. Thunderbolts and lightning… and I fall asleep with Bohemian Rhapsody on a loop tape inside my head.

Akaiaka Canbana, Rio do SulSunday morning brings sunshine and I ask if I could stay another night if I buy another meal. The restaurant is closed so I offer to pay but they won’t have it. I feel like family and humbly grateful. The son’s cafe near the road is open until 7pm, so I eat there instead and get to know Marcelo and Laura who seem keen to learn English.

Sunday 13th January, I breakfast at Marcelo and Laura’s cafe until late morning and then lounge in the hammock. I’m invited to join Karin and Mauricio for beer in the afternoon down at the Cafe after they finished the cleanup at the restaurant. Sunday dinner was a blockbuster with over 200 people. I wasn’t surprised by watching all the cars coming and going between snoozes in my hammock.

Neno Motos, Rio do SulOver a beer, I meet Neno. Neno owns the Yamaha dealer in Rio do Sul and Blumenau, a successful motocross racer, having ridden to Alaska and back. He doesn’t speak English but was translated for asking if I needed anything sorted on the bike. I couldn’t think of anything and forgot to ask where the mixture air-fuel mixture pilot screw was on the carburettor. And the main stand is bent leaving both wheels on the ground… It doesn’t matter. The bike is running fine.

I’m promised a tour of the dealership the next morning. Something I look forward to and gratefully acknowledge.

Rio do SulIn the morning Mauricio takes me to breakfast in Rio do Sul. It seems everyone knows everyone and I listen to the Portuguese bounce around the cafe, kind of knowing the tune but not the lyrics. Then to Neno’s dealership and onto the grand church of Rio do Sul then the waterfalls on the way back as well. I’ve had the VIP treatment. I like it here and it’s hard to leave.

WaterfallAfter a fond farewell, I’m directed to Blumenau and weave down the gravel track to the road and blend into Monday’s eastward flow of traffic along the Vale Europeu…

Cacador to Rio do Sul

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The Road Less Travelled

IguazuIguaçu Falls had been one of the major milestones along my meandering path across South America. It was also responsible for my northerly track in Paraguay from Encarnación into Brazil instead of continuing south to Argentina. Thus, there was no longer a reason to keep me here in Foz do Iguaçu. I’d been here 5 nights and I have to beware of the smothering beast of ‘comfort’ sneaking up on me. Familiarisation of a location encourages roots of habit probing fertile ground for establishing a new home. The beast tells me “Stay here, life gets easier.” but what it does is use its cosy blanket to try to suffocate my spirit.

Mandala Garden,Foz do IguazuThis morning was born hot and airless, whipping up a lingering sweat from the lethargic effort of packing and loading. I had one more rest in the hammock to cool down and gather my thoughts before taking off. “I’ll have to get one of these…” I thought to myself. Especially after the lack of places to rest at Tati Yupi. I’d short-changed myself by not buying a hammock sooner.

Foz do IguazuOn my way to Ruta 277, I discovered the kiosks where the hostel receptionist said I should look. Cheap. Only about £15, and I double strapped it, still in its black bag, on top of the luggage on the back of the bike.

At the junction to 277; down the road to the left lay the border with Paraguay. I glanced that way beyond the traffic one more time before turning the page into a brand new chapter, turned right toward the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

Florianópolis on the coast was the next big box to be ticked and that was about three days away. Two if I was desperate: 930km via Curitiba.

Much of 277 is fast smooth dual carriageway necessitating a constant watch in the mirrors for tired truck drivers roaring up behind me. Over a long period, it becomes tiring and numbingly tedious.

The further from Foz I got, thinner the traffic became and two hours saw me about 150 kilometres away with dark clouds looming over the horizon ahead of me. Right then, a convenient cafe appeared around a bend.in the countryside. Just the job… an oasis of relief from monotony and foul weather. My waterproofs had blown away somewhere between Cuidad Del Este and Tati Yupi so my revised tactic was to dive for shelter before encountering rain and wait for it to pass.

I’m ready for a break after two or three hours and I use this opportunity to enjoy a coffee during the shower and search the web for somewhere to stop for the night along the way. A lakeside wild camp spot at picnic area pops up on iOverlander.com, just to the south of Ruta 277 at Rio Bonito do Iguaçu, 300km from Foz. Another three hours and I would be there. After about an hour and a half enjoying the coffee and peaceful ambience while watching the showers come and go, the weather noticeably brightens up and I hit the road,

 

After the rain, the air feels surprisingly cold in contrast to the sweaty heat of Foz and I stop to retrieve the orange mountain jacket from the pannier.

ShelterA couple of hours longer in the saddle, I’m cold and tired and had already ducked into bus shelters during brief showers and a false alarms by the time rain started to fall consistently at Nova Laranjeiras.

 

I swung into a supermarket to buy some peanuts and beer for later but I sat on the sheltered seat outside the supermarket grazing on the nuts, keen to move on but reluctant to get wet, listening to the car tyres hiss on the shimmering asphalt as they drove by.

I set off as the rain eased but before it had spent its last few drops, and by the time I reached the junction for Rio Bonito I felt chilled to the core. Just before the junction, there’s a terrace of shops set back in a large layby including what looks like a trucker’s cafe. I doubled back the fifty metres or so, and pulled in to warm up with a hot coffee and meal. The sky threatened rain but the clouds appeared to slowly creep away and I felt certain the sky brightened a little despite the looming dusk dragging the afternoon westward into night time.

Rodovia, Lanjeiras do SulI’d had enough of the fast and aggressive Ruta 277. What use is travel if it’s only about saving time? Where will that saved time be spent?  It’s not that I didn’t like the road, it was the attention that the fast traffic took from me. I wanted to enjoy the scenery and the journey here and now. I plotted the following day’s escape on the GPS searching for “The Road Less Travelled,”

Rerouting along the more southerly Ruta 280 toward the smaller town of Caçador instead of Curitiba looked the part. Perhaps longer, certainly slower. This put Rio Bonito en route which made me feel better about that particular detour. I didn’t even care if the road turned out to be dirt track, as long as it was warm, peaceful and scenic. Somebody showed me a picture of a sinuous mountain road in the state of Santa Catarina. I was in that state now but had no idea where the pass was. A simple question in a Facebook group returned dozens of sarcastic and unhumourous replies but, later,  also the single answer revealed. Further south, I would visit Serra do Rio do Rastro in the weeks to come.

I only had 15km to the camp spot which I estimated half an hour if the trail was typically rugged cobbles or earth. I wanted to be there by dark so paid the bill and bid my farewell to the friendly proprietor of Lanchonette Rodovia and traverse the huge layby back to the road.

I pull out onto the last few hundred metres of the 277 before the junction with Ruta 158, turn south on the dim and chilly asphalt to Rio Bonito do Iguaçu and then rattle along the cobbled track in twilight down to the Rio Iguaçu lagoon, its presence betraying the likely existence of a hydroelectric dam somewhere in the valley.

I had been travelling east all day but this route southwest now drives me into the clutches of a squall which starts to pummel me in earnest only about a kilometre from my destination. I locate the site, squinting through wet, misty spectacles in the gloom, and ride directly into the picnic area past the “Veículos Proibidos” sign and pitch the tent as fast as possible.

By now the downpour is established with the wind is driving the rain at a shallow slant soaking through my coat to my back as I wrestle and pin the tent to the ground. My eagerness for shelter seems to put every movement into slow motion but finally, I get the rainfly fastened over the dome and dive inside into 1cm deep puddles. The vulnerability of the design of this tent means that the waterproof groundsheet becomes a paddling pool while setting up in the rain, The rainfly can only be added after the inner is securely up.

Kneeling in water, I use my microfibre towel to sponge out and dry the interior the best I can. My clothes and bags are wet but the bag’s contents are dry and I do my best to keep them separated from the wet items.

Almost dark, I decide to turn in, stripping off my wet clothes but keeping on my t-shirt and underwear hoping that my body heat will dry them out while I sleep.

It works I awake dry and warm but the clothes I took off are still soaking and I get dressed cringing like I’m wading into a cold pond.

Rio Bonito do IguazuThe warm morning sun dries out the tent while I’m packing and I’m away by 10.30. I feel content in the dry warm air under a blue sky marbled with white cloud. It should be a good day for drying out in the airstream on the bike. People sit in the cabana about 60 metres away and I give them a wave wondering whether I should offer to pay for camping. I decide to coast out of the park slow enough that they can approach me if they want to. Nobody moves and I retrace the trail back to Ruta 158 and turn on my revised route south.

The warmth of the sun, the rustic roads and the chill of the air reminds me of Anglesey where the wind blows steadily off the Irish Sea before being thrust upwards over Snowdonia condensing the moist air into thick dark clouds. These quiet country roads of rustic asphalt become a more agreeable platform for absorbing Brazil’s natural ambience as its grass verges rush by to the hum of the Yamaha motor.

By lunchtime, the sun burns strong from overhead, branding thoughts of refreshment and urging me to park the bike in the shade at the side of an inviting looking roadside restaurant nestling behind a gas station.

Walking in and picking a table near the window, I order lunch and orange juice and relaxed and gazed out over the white-hot expanse of dust and gravel to the road about 100 meters away watching the world going about its business in, out and past the gas station here on the edge of town.

“Do my friends and family miss me?” I wonder. Nobody really knows where I am… I barely know where I am myself “What town is this?” I check and then later forget. What difference does it make what others think? Here and now is all we really have and it’s what we, ourselves, think about it that’s important…

I finish my second cup of coffee, pay and step out into the car park. The sun has moved far enough so the bike is no longer in the shade and everything feels hot to the touch. The air stream that dried my clothes earlier now only has to keep me cool.

I stash the dried jacket back in the pannier and ride in my fleece and t-shirt since it lets the air through to cool me and protects me from sunburn at the same time. The arm and leg shields in the bag have never been used. Correction, they were used once on the mountainside stretch between Santa Teresa and Santa Maria returning from Machu Picchu, Peru but they wouldn’t have helped the 100-metre plunge off the trackside cliffs and I got a sweat rash under the straps. They are too uncomfortable to wear. I need to get rid of them. I ride as I first started on my first bike in 1979: plain clothes. I just have to make sure I don’t come off… it could hurt more.

The shadow stretching out ahead of me tells me the afternoon is wearing thin. Up ahead dark clouds gather but seem to be moving in the same direction as me. I’m 40km from Caçador before I hit cold air and wet road. The sun is still bright in the azure sky behind me but the storm has already visited here not too long ago and I’m gaining on it. I didn’t want the same experience as yesterday so started looking for somewhere to camp, but where? Most places along the road are fenced off and there is nothing shown on the map between me and Caçador.

CacadorOut of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a gap in the grass bank to the left and double back for a closer look. Tractor tracks carving their way into the woods. I follow the muddy tracks into the wet undergrowth of a pine forest, no gates, no fences. This could be a logging track judging by all the trucks I’ve seen along the roads fully laden with stripped and cut pine trunks.

CacadorDown a slick muddy slope, I turn right onto wet grass and pine needles to discover another narrow track traversing a ridge. High ground is what I need if it’s going to rain again. Over the ridge and down the slope is a beautiful pond. The water looks too green to drink and the ground is too low to ensure dry camping so I return up the slope to the crest of the ridge. I can see traffic on the road from here about 100 metres away but they can’t see me this far into the woods and I pitch the tent on the crest of the ridge directly on the trail. I expect no traffic due to the established plant growth all the way along it.

CacadorThe trees dampen the noise of the passing trucks and cloak me in a blanket of silence. The last of the day’s sun paints tiger stripes through the trees across the orange carpet of pine needles and picks out the pale emerald raindrops hanging on the ferns and leaves of the verdant undergrowth. Cool and colourful: literally and metaphorically.

I attempt to string up the hammock using the straps off the bike. They aren’t long enough for the diameter of the trees, it’s not warm enough, it’s too wet and a few mosquitos persuade me to retreat to the tent.

CacadorThere’s an understated life force here in the peace of the forest, without boundary restriction or regulation. This is what we are born to, the gift of life, why should my first thought be “Am I doing wrong by simply being here?” The answer is, it shouldn’t and perhaps even asking the question is a form of insanity induced by the conditioning by and for civilisation. A civilisation that keeps us chained to the treadmill of work, money and sleep blindly trying to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of modern life at the expense of our innate humanity. Where does all this paper authority and artificial restriction come from?

Best not think about it, I settle back on the sleeping bag and read a Kindle book and graze on peanuts until darkness falls and my eyes begin to close with fatigue and contentment…

Foz do Iguazu to Rio Bonito do Iguazu

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Across the Rio Paraná

Cuidad del Este BackstreetsEnding the fast and leaving Tati Yupi felt as if it were my first day out of prison, Reintroduced to society with freedom to roam again. I enjoyed Tati Yupi but I had been keen to escape my self imposed austerity. The meal at Hernandarias had been an anticlimax: functional food with little enjoyment.

ITAIPU BinacionalI cruised the few short kilometres and parked my fully loaded bike in the ITAIPU Binacional Car park and signed up for the tour. I bought a hat from the gift shop to protect me from the sun but I didn’t need it. There was little walking between the buses and the viewpoints so I just looked like a dam tourist.

The ITAIPU site is immaculate. Air-conditioned buses drive a circuitous route to the viewpoint and along the dam. Everything apart from the English subtitles of the film in the immaculate cinema was in Spanish. The tour from the Paraguayan side is free but the Brazilain side is paid but you get the privilege of seeing inside.

Back in the city, many hotels appeared to be closed for refurbishment. The ones that were open were more expensive than their equivalents further out of the city. All I wanted was a few nights on a soft mattress and some air conditioning. The Hummingbird hostel came up cheap, air-conditioned and not far from the centre. The people were very welcoming although the place looked a little tatty around the edges. Sylvia gave me some sheets and showed me the last available bed in a four berth dorm.

It was basic but clean and comfortable. The Dutch guy next to me didn’t say much and left early the next morning backpacking southeast toward Argentina. The two Korean girls were friendly and chatted happily in English. They also left, leaving me in solitude for the second night.

The dorm was hot in the late afternoons. The air conditioner didn’t come on until dusk and the single skinned walls shared the hot rays of the afternoon sun with the dark interior.

I discovered the Wunderli Cafe as an alternative haven just down the road. I could hang out there in cool, air-conditioned comfort. Both the hostel and cafe bordered a large tranquil park that seemed to be left with a wild but tranquil edge. I was close to the city but far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the markets and malls to experience the calm of nature.

I’d describe Cuidad Del Este as a commercial hub. It has little charm or tourist appeal but I liked it. I felt like I lived on the edge of another world, which it is since it looks east across the Paraná at the vastness of Brazil.

This is somewhere I could live easily long-term on short-term tourist visas, border hopping to Argentina or Brazil to refresh the rubber stamps in the passport. Cuidad Del Este doesn’t try to be anything other than itself.

Hummingbird HostelI had booked into Hummingbird for two nights and would have liked to have stayed longer but they had already been fully booked for the weekend. Instead of looking for somewhere else in Cuidad Del Este, I decided I’d cross into Brazil and find somewhere to stay in Foz do Iguaçu. It knocks down a barrier for thinking further ahead for my continuation to the Atlantic coast.

Brazilian BorderThe border offices are at each ends of the bridge. Migraciones was straightforward. Stamp, vamos. Paraguay’s Aduanas offices were hard to find and turned out to be the little blue kiosks between the carriageways. They looked like toll booths. I handed in my blue form and was waved away without any receipt or acknowledgement.

The bike lane across the bridge was barely wide enough for my loaded bike. And I’d feel the bags brush the concrete barrier where the lane narrowed by displaced blocks. Not all the traffic stops at the border offices. There’s a steady stream across the bridge in both directions.

A helpful young girl at the Brazilian side spoke English and spared the time to guide me to the correct desks. The Aduanas office was like a warehouse despatch depot. A steady stream of people were ferrying boxes of goods out of Paraguay and into Brazil via the rubber stamps of the Aduanas customs officials. From the road, the border looked so busy that I expected to spend the day there. I was through within an hour. Seems most of the traffic drives straight over the border without stopping.

Mnadala Hostel, Foz Do IguacuMandala Hostel came up cheap and close to the centre of Foz do Iguaçu on booking.com and I booked 5 nights, straight off, via Hummingbird’s WiFi. It’s always a risk committing to a long stay but I wanted a secure base for exploring the falls and catch up on some work.

The hostel looked like a large converted bungalow. A Hammock in the front garden and big rooms full of bunks. Two bunks in my room were doubles so they alone would take 8 people. The other four were single bunk beds so that was another 8. At most, there were 13 of us overnight and it was interesting to observe that all of them were engrossed in their smartphone screen, even the group of friends that settled in that day. I smiled to myself and returned to my facebook app.

Madala DormFoz do Iguaçu is the second most visited tourist site in Brazil. Consequently, backpackers would come and go at all hours. Russel and Zippy weren’t shy about living amongst people. Russel would fumble through his various plastic bags and Zippy would search through every compartment of her rucksack unzipping and zipping them up one by one as she went and repeating the process until whatever item was eventually found, often under the light of an Iphone LED light that could rival a small star so as not to disturb anyone by flipping on the light.

Uninterrupted sleep was hard to come by…

Around the town, Foz is a contrast to Cuidad del Este. Pretty avenues and clean smoothly paved streets of quality shops and cafes. More expensive too, and seemingly not so busy. January and February are ‘high’ season for vacations but Foz still felt tranquil and laid back. Perhaps all the people were busy harvesting the tax-free fruits of Chinese slave labour over the river in Cuidad Del Este.

With a supermarket and cafe so close to the hostel, I hardly needed to take the bike out which remained in the garden until taking the trip to Iguaçu Falls

On the third day, I set off for the falls on the Yamaha. It was an easy ride. Turn right on Avenida das Cataratas and continue along the Avenida until you come to the Cataratas. The visitor centre is set well away from the falls, about 10km, which means parking the bike at the car park at ‘car’ prices (no discount for having fewer wheels or taking up half as much space), queueing to buy a ticket and then queuing in the airport-sized queue for a bus to the falls.

Foz do Iguacu bus terminalThe bus terminal was packed. I’d got there early so as to beat the rush along with everyone else in Brazil having the same thought. Once on the bus, driving through the forest cooled and refreshed me ready for the stroll along the river.

Selfie warsWe all evacuated the bus at the first viewpoint to jostle for a good view and photo opportunity of the falls before we drifted down the path in a herd.  The mammoth falls roar through the valley parallel to the trail. Selfie sticks and arms stretch out across the trail to obstruct the dense flow of tourists along the narrow path. Even the most leisurely of paces is forced down to an energy-sapping dawdle.

Selfie warsSuccess in passing one group allowed a brief few paces before being blocked by another. I told myself there was no rush and to go with what there was of the flow. this was a strategy difficult to enjoy. Ducking under selfie sticks felt far more progressive and engaging whatever the result.

IguazuI’d finished the snaking trail that links the succession of viewpoints within a couple of hours and had returned to the visitor centre by lunchtime. The queues had now all evaporated into the mist of the waterfalls. There was nobody left waiting in the departure hall. Arriving at Noon is a far better choice.

Triple FrontierOn the way back to the Mandala, I took a detour to see the triple frontier from the Brazilian viewpoint. In contrast to the Paraguayan side, which you can see in the picture, this view to the triple frontier had been fenced off and sentried by a ticket office. Restricted to paying customers only. Artificial scarcity is a great business strategy: take what’s already free and sell it back to people. I’d already seen the frontier from Paraguay anyway and I could see Paraguay from the car park for free so I looked across the river thinking about tomorrow’s visit to the Argentinian side of Iguaçu Falls.

Iguazu

IguazuThere’s no denying that the Iguaçu Falls is an impressive experience but the density of tourists helped me decide that I wouldn’t bother going the following day, especially with the added inconvenience of Immigration and Currency Exchange. I’d be better off helping ease the density for everyone else by staying away. I don’t mind doing my bit to ease other’s suffering… Instead, I decided to visit the Parque Do Aves (Avery, or bird zoo) that I’d passed earlier on my way back from the falls…

Scarlet Ibis

Foz do Iguacu

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Seven Ghosts

Tati YupiTurning north onto the supercarretera from Ruta 7, the airstream blew the edge off the heat of the afternoon sun, I reflected on the enjoyable day and its variety that emerged from another step into the unknown and the unplanned. I’d coasted around Cuidad Del Este, killing time I would have called it in the past.

Triple FrontierThe Triple Frontier: there’s nothing to see apart from a couple of lookout points that look out over imaginary lines from a different direction, almost like the tale of “The King’s New Clothes” Man-made lines drawn on a map that exist in reality only by collective belief and then define which set of rules apply to which people that live on whichever side of the river. The trees and plants look the same. The bird that flies over my head across the river to Brazil has more freedom that we do. Where’s its passport? I take a photo over the river anyway. Invisible walls that are used to imprison ourselves using our own minds. It’s brilliant.

Triple FrontierI realised I’d been daydreaming and couldn’t tell how long ~I’d been travelling or how far I’ve gone and pulled over to check the GPS. I’d passed it 8km back, quite a way considering the original distance was only 17km. I doubled back to an entrance with a sign the size I can’t believe I missed.

Tati Yupi EntranceTwo guards asked me for my permit. I didn’t understand what they wanted and handed them my passport so they phoned Juan at the visitor centre who instructed them to send me in. They point along the track. “7km,” they say.

 

I clipped my helmet to the rack and notice my hat and waterproofs have worked their way loose and escaped somewhere between here and Cuidad del Este. I rode ‘hatless’ along the track.

Mud TyreThere had been rain recently, within the last day or two judging by the thin dry crust concealing the underlying slick and sticky terracotta. The clay coagulated on the tyres, eliminating what little grip I had and I slithered along the road trying to follow the dryest looking tyre tracks to stay upright.

I reached the reception within about twenty minutes or half an hour. The second set of guards asked me for the permit which I didn’t have. Juan came out of the visitor centre and waved them away. Apparently, the person who authorises the permits isn’t at the ITAIPU Reception where I should have visited first. I remember seeing their huge entrance a few km south of here.

Juan's note.The Parque is closed to visitors for the next two days. I felt fairly privileged and I wasn’t really expecting to gain entry so easily else I would have thought about buying some food on the way. With the guards on the gates and the long slick driveway, it was enough of a deterrent for going back out for groceries.

Plan B: was to ride to Hernandarias to a campsite there if I couldn’t enter Tati Yupi. Plan C: I’d been meaning to try a three day fast for a while so here was the perfect opportunity. Plenty of time, no food. Two birds, one stone and all that.

ITAIPU LagoonThe staff left the office for the new year holiday and would be back in a couple of days. There was just me, a couple of guards on the gate and the drowned ghosts of the river Paraná. I was 7km from the road so could hear no traffic and there were no fireworks or boom boom music. Apart from food, the only thing I missed was somewhere comfortable to sit. Wooden benches were all there were. WiFi was out of range of the power sockets so a relay between the two sets of hard benches was necessary. I found it hard to concentrate, having no comfortable workspace.

I wandered down to the river, or lake such is the immensity of it. The thin line of the Itaipu dam protruding above the waterline gave a hint as to the impact of the building of the dam. The flooding of the river buried the most powerful waterfalls in the world making Iguazu the successor.

Carlos Drummond de AndradeThe water was lower than maximum revealing the sharp mussel shells on the dry beach of cracked mud. Enough to turn me back to the soft grassy bank from where I embarked barefoot to the water for a swim.

Tati YupiI’d done 24-hour fasts before but this experiment was different.

Day 1. Nothing to report. I’d done 24 hours before regularly. Edited some video and walked along the river Parana lagoon shore above ITAIPU Dam.

Day 2. Heavy limbs, listless, no energy for anything except reading, no capacity for study or thought. Forget blogging or video editing. Looking forward to forum reports of ‘feeling amazing Day 3.’ The consoling thought that I was now two thirds through and only a day to go.

Day 3. The ‘feeling amazing’ feeling never appeared. Heavy limbs, nausea, ‘never-again’ feeling, I was tempted to abandon the experiment, even so close to the end. A passing thunderstorm took the heat out of the day and made the tent bearable and helped me sleep through the day and night.

Day 4. The 72 hours finished late in the morning. I still felt weak and didn’t feel like cooking or eating but I cooked up the pasta and ate half of it. I had to exit Tati Yupi the following morning so I had a full day for recovery. It took an hour or two after eating before I started feeling better. Then I finished off the rest of the pasta and spent the rest of the day reading and finished a couple of half-read kindle books.

Day 5. I felt almost back to normal and happily packed and loaded the bike. I rode into Hernandarias to search for a ‘comedor’ for breakfast.  The best I could find served a plate of a segment of sawn-off leg, rice and creamy sauce with a vegetable salsa plus a litre of apple juice and soya. It was the best they had, barring chips and coke. I could only finish a third of it. It looked like I’d just stirred it with my fork and left it but I was full and keen to go to the ITAIPU-Dam tour, just down the road. Evening meal was a small chicken lomito (shwarma wrap) with a couple of glasses of Mango juice. Starter size, but I was full.

Day 6. Breakfast at the Hummingbird Hostal was a jam sandwich, a cup of coffee and orange squash. Enough to see me through to Chicken burritos and Peach juice in the evening.

ButterflyIt was hard to tell if there was any benefit for the fasting. True, I felt good now but I didn’t really feel bad before. And how do you gauge a healthy immune system without the illnesses that reveal its weakness? It reminded me of the preventative Y2K work that was done in 1999 and bosses complaining about wasting the money on it since nothing bad seemed to happen when the year 2000 clicked over in the digital universe… As it was, I’d only been ill twice in the year I’d been here in South America. Once through dehydration and once as a side effect of the Yellow Fever jab: both self-inflicted.

ITAIPU BinacionalFors:

Cheap; Solved the problem of arriving at Tati Yupi without food for four days; Cooler body temperature for sleeping in the hot climate; Constipation for 5 days (handy for being out and about later); No longer craved food; Gone off beer in favour of fruit juice; Smaller appetite; Smaller stomach; Broke lifelong conditioning for clearing my plate because “There are people starving in Africa”… i.e. less pressure to finish off a plate of food since I feel full sooner and finishing is a bigger stretch (literally); Feeling more energetic (2 days after); Feeling more contented for no identifiable reason (2 days after). Preference for more fresh food and less junk.

Against:

Limbs feel twice as heavy (Day 2 and 3); Bored; Depressed; Chronic discomfort standing, sitting or laying down; Unable to exercise; Unable to think or write; Chronic back-ache; Nausea; Unwilling to move; all these during the fast.

Lessons:

Have food ready for the end before you start. Luckily, I carry a jar of pasta sauce and bag of pasta in my kit for emergencies. Have someone close for support – it’s a hard haul on your own.

Notes:

If you have a medical condition don’t do a three day fast without medical advice, as your blood sugar might go haywire. I made my own choice and accepted the risks I was aware of as well as any I wasn’t.

Have someone with you for support. If food is to hand it’s harder to resist the worst of it but have something prepared ready for completion. If there were crisps or ice-cream about I might have failed. The nearest store was 10km away and I had to pass two guard posts for the refuge to get there – enough incentive to stay put.

Drink lots of water even when you’re sick of it. It will help. I could have drunk more but often I didn’t care much during the lowest feeling moments. This is where moral support helps.

Would I do it again? In the same circumstances… only if I had a hammock or a comfortable bed… the discomfort of camping felt a lot worse during the fast… and facilities to make tea. I had developed a backache that was slow to fade afterwards.

Also, I’d look for a group for mutual support and a more controlled environment, like at a retreat. Plus, I might research it a bit more along the way.

The main thing was, I had survived New Year in peace and tranquillity, just what I wanted. I set foot into a new year, cleansed by a three day fast, poised to cross the Rio Paraná into Brazil.

Although the Itaipu dam destroyed one habitat, it also created a new one. Refugio Tati Yupi on the banks of the bloated Rio Paraná. A tranquil habitat that helps provide 90% of Paraguay’s electricity and 15% of Brazil’s.  Clouds with Silver Linings. Even so, I take one last look over the water and spare a quiet moment for the silenced voices of the Seven Ghosts of the Guaira Falls 

Guaira Falls

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Triple Frontiers

Manantial YamahaON THE THIRD morning, I packed away, at Parque Manantial, and was away from Hohenau, through Obligado and Bella Vista northwards on the 250KM jaunt along Ruta 6. Within a couple of hours, black clouds closed in and I raced the storm to the next petrol station 3 km up the road and only losing the race by about 500 metres, enough to get wet but without getting soaked through, and sheltered under the canopy of the fuel station licking an ice cream over the twenty minutes of rain.

Natural TunnelI resumed my journey, drying out in the cool post-storm air. Ruta 6 is fast and busy but not half as much as Ruta 7 running east into Cuidad del Este. High-speed dual-carriageway thick with trucks and buses. I could use another 20km/h to feel safer but don’t want to rev the engine that high, even if it could reach that speed.

It’s early evening as I settle into the last few kilometres down the dual carriageway toward Cuidad del Este. I get a thumbs up from a rider joining Ruta 7 from the slip-road and I give him a wave before he speeds away.

Cuidad del Este Entering the city, I take the service road with its speed humps so I can slow down and look around more. Ruta 7 ploughs on through the heart of the city and eventually over the Rio Parana bridge on the Brazilian border.

In the west, we have motorway junctions with elevated roundabouts and on off ramps. Not here. We are on the same plane. A roundabout with a dual carriageway bisecting it. Speedhumps regulate traffic so if you doze at the wheel, you’ll be launched into the air but not high enough to clear the crossing traffic. It’s all negotiated by trust, eyes open or closed. Give way to those braver than you or those you can see aren’t looking your way.

Pousada del MondayI find my way south through the city to Pousada Del Monday, counting the junctions on Maps.me as I go. Pousada del Monday is a farm on the suburban edge south of the city next to the Saltos del Monday park (Monday Falls.) Mario finds it hilarious that I say in English Monday means “Lunes.” It’s a Guarani name and not the day of the week.

TentAfter pitching the tent, in the field, I stroll up the shop to buy a beer as a substitute for dinner and return. The deposit on the bottle is as much as the beer. therefore, you see no glass beer bottles littering the street… just plastic. There’s not a whisper of a breeze and my tent feels like a sauna so I wander across the field down to the picnic shelter to enjoy the beer while watching the sunset. Darkness slowly descends and I return to the tent and zip myself into the muggy interior. Saturday night music blares from over the treetops in the near distance. Fireworks pop and bang. Predictable, even though it’s only 29th December, it’s still Saturday night.

The noise and a rogue mosquito make for a long miserable night. When it wasn’t biting me it was whining in my ear.

Morning creeps around and I walk up the drive in anticipation towards a favourably reviewed vegetarian restaurant just up the road to find its under major refurbishment and closed for two weeks and I carry on past to drop off the bottle and collect my deposit.

If there was any doubt whether I should move on that morning, this tipped the balance. I decide to pack up and head up to the Tati Yupi refuge, a nature park above the Itaipu Dam. The plan B was a Christian Campsite at Hernandarias not far from there.

I dripped sweat packing away it was already so hot. I removed my fleece and put it on the chair next to the tent with my bike key on top of as I packed away. What could possibly go wrong, there was no-one about. I turned around to discover a cow chewing the sleeve of the fleece and, as I lurched toward it to grab it, it took off across the field with my fleece, dropping the key in the grass. The cow dropped the fleece in a small stream as it jumped across. I retrieved it and retraced my steps to find the key. I found it fairly easily but vowed to always keep the key clipped to my belt as I usually do. Somewhere else in the field lies the charge cable for the GoPro that was in the fleece pocket.

Salto del MondayPulling out of the gate, I ignore Saltos del Monday Park since foreigners are charged five times more than locals for entry, at $10US, and settle for a photograph of it from the road. I was hungry so the priority was to hunt for a cafe for breakfast that’s open on a Sunday.

I cruise northward to the City centre and end up taking a tour around it with still half an eye out for cafes, observing the bustle of busy glass-fronted malls surrounded by terraced market stalls along the streets, stacks of flattened cardboard boxes and the sound of packing tape being ripped off reels and wound around newly purchased electronics and old cardboard.

This is a mad place. Hoards of Brazilians flock across the border to save a fortune in Brazilian sales taxes. Paraguayans import cheap (and fake) goods from China to capitalise on the opportunity while customs officials are kept busy with documents and rubber stamps, panning for fees and penalties like gold prospectors.

Of course, not all goods are fake but it’s up to you to tell the difference and I’m sure you can find what you want if you know where to look. I needed a GoPro cable and came across a street vendor that finally had one. Yes, it fitted, No it didn’t work. It’s hard to tell whether there is any actual wire in it.

Triple FrontierTriple FrontierI rode back down to the Triple Frontera with Brazil. Argentina and Paraguay. I should have gone there first as it’s not far from Pousada del Monday but I had been thinking of food at the time and was even now still on the lookout. I’d read about the triple frontier years ago, about it being a hotbed of smuggling but I don’t see how unless the guards are in on it as you can see in all directions of the river. The way I see it, Ponta Pora and Pedro Juan Caballero is the place to go since there’s no river or fence separating the two countries.

The Triple Frontier was quiet. No cars were waiting on the ramp, no ferries were running and I looked east across the river at the Brazilian Viewpoint to the left and the Argentine Viewpoint to the right. The place was quiet enough for a camping spot but there’s nothing much to do, especially on a Sunday.

On the way back, I finally discovered the restaurant that seemed to be the only one open, busy with local customers (always a good sign) and nestling in the cheaper suburbs. I parked the bike under the awning of the closed store next door to keep it out of the searing heat of the midday sun.

Chicken and noodles with mandioca and a coke. Basic food, dirt cheap. Body refuelled, I returned to the city and explored the streets around the glass-fronted malls on the main roads again. Maybe I could get a new battery for my Hero3 GoPro. No, Hero4 is the oldest they cater for. I’m obsolete already. Not even a cheap Chinese knock-off to be had.

Cuidad del Este BackstreetsRound the back of the impressive high rise glass facades and flashing LED signs luring customers from among the shoals of shoppers, people in rags cook skewers of meat on homemade grills at the sides broken concrete streets while paper and plastic trash tumble in the breeze. A city with a facade as false as the brands it is peddling hiding the harsh lives that many people face. ‘Money makes the world go round’ so they say. It’s more like, the lack of money stops the world for those that don’t have it.

“Me? Just looking, not buying, thanks.” There is something very much “buyer beware” here and I can’t imagine any after-sales dispute being settled easily. Stores started closing at 4pm and the traffic soon built up to plug the only route back to Brazil, the single bridge across the Rio Parana to Foz do Iguazu.

The whole situation is crazy when you think about it. A whole ecology manufactured out of the artificial scarcity that bank-money creates. People trying to save their earnings from exploitative taxes in Brazil, people trying to make money from the differential of the price differential of local sales prices and the minuscule wage of Chinese workers and whatever’s left over from corporate profits. All this impacts quality and abundance. When I look around this continent, it is abundant in natural resources and manpower and it all seems ultimately choked by who controls the money. It’s a banker’s world and they are making a hash of it.

As the shutters start coming down, I turn west to the junction to the Supercarretera and it’s a straight run North past Itaipu to Tati Yupi. 17Km, straight on, you can’t miss it…

Manantial to Saltos del Monday Map

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Hohenau

Parque ManantialBOXING DAY, PACKING to leave the Maui Waui International Hostel in Encarnación, I notice the new back tyre is flat and cursed the Chacomer fitter back in Asunción. The bike is now fully loaded and I give the tyre a splashy kick to confirm its soft appearance. I don’t want to deal with it now so I inflate it and hope for the best. The pressure holds without any noticeable drop in the 5 minutes I finish tying up the loose ends. I smear a film of spit over the valve and its bubble remains flat. The leak isn’t at the valve.

My objective today is Hohenau, not far past Trinidad maybe only forty kilometres all told. A camping spot indicated on iOverlander as pleasant and cheap, two of my main criteria. The flat tyre is a distraction but I’m soon buzzing my way north out of my way out of Encarnación northward back towards the two missions of Trinidad and Jesus de Travarangue,

Hohenau. Stopping at the first set of traffic lights to check maps.me for the exact location, there it is on the screen, a km back: Camping Manantial. I pull into Parque Manantial mistaking it for a cheaper place the other side of town not realising until I pay for 3 nights at G50,000 per night. The woman on the gate speaks only German or Spanish, as do the owners.
“Sprechen ze Duetsch?” “Nein, lo siento. Ingles?” “Nein.” so it goes.

edge of the woodsI pitch my tent on the edge of the woods and the grass field furthest from the swimming pool. Good thing too as the usual bass rich music starts pumping out of a speaker down near the restaurant.

Tyre RepairParque Manantial is a well-presented place in woodland and fields over enormous grounds, hosting a popular swimming pool and smart restaurant. The location I had chosen to camp was far enough away to feel private. There are power sockets and I am at the limit of a WiFi signal but I’d go to the Restaurant for better reception.

PunctureThe buffet breakfast is delicious and the air conditioner in the Restaurant makes for luxurious relief in the muggy heat. Back at the tent, I break out the spares and tools and replace the inner tube of the back tyre and discover a hair’s width piece of wire in the back tyre, penetrating the inner tube.

ToolsMy suspicions about Chacomer were unfounded. In any case, I had taken a week to get to Encarnación without any problem. I took it all back forgiving my suspicious nature and apologising quietly to my innocent victim. I need some tyre levers to make the job easier. Bendy spoons and pliers make hard work of the task.

Victor Hugo BenitezVictor Hugo Benitez approaches me in the restaurant on the second morning. He’s the Chacomer Yamaha area supervisor for the whole of Paraguay and invites me to a barbeque at one of the dealers that is exhibiting the latest Yamaha bikes in Hohenau and I gratefully accept.

I ride up to Hohenau at 7.30 and meet half a dozen bikers already chatting together and over the next half hour, more bikers come rolling in from the north of the town. I sit and talk to Doda and his wife. They grew up in Asunción but their families moved up to Bella Vista 6km up the road to escape Stroessner’s curfews and hard rule years ago. Doda’s wife told me that Josef Mengele worked as a doctor in Obligado, in the next village, after the war and did a lot of good for the people here. Bad in war, good in peace.

Hohenau YamahaApparently, Hitler also lived for a time in the basement of a Hotel in Asunción. This was something that seemed to be commonly accepted knowledge in Paraguay. When I think back to my own spoon-fed history, I was told by my state-run institutions that Hitler shot himself in his bunker but I never questioned the lack of evidence. And why bother lying about it? And what else do they lie to me about? When I think back to how I was promised life would turn out if I went to school and worked hard, it was mostly lies for getting me to participate in a post-industrial compliant workforce. And getting robbed of my life’s gains by the Mortgage securities fuelled credit crunch in 2008 was the final straw. Never again…

Toward the end of the evening, a speech was given to round things off and I was honoured with a round of applause for my trip from Peru on the little Yamaha YB125, the smallest bike at the meet.

Encarnacion to Hohenau map

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Misiones: Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue

Jesus de Tavarangue MissionSTRIKING CAMP AT San Cosme, I retraced my way back through the grassy network back up to the Observatory on the Plaza.

San Cosme CampingThen took the ludicrous decision to head for the Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue missions only because I already had 2 days left of a 3-day ticket in my hand. These were 40km further on from Encarnación and I would pass them later anyway on the way to Cuidad Del Este. For the sake of £2.50, buying another ticket made much more sense, if only I had spared the thought.

Grassy LanesAnother short leg of 125km meant I could set off late and look around the San Cosme Mission between combing the surface of the sun for sunspots and pushing on for Encarnación along the solar heated asphalt.

San cosme yDamian Mission, ParaguayUnesco denied issuing a world heritage certificate to the San Cosme y Damian mission as it had been restored too much. Unesco likes things to be a little more ruined. I liked it restored. Besides, there are two less improved ruins not far away and they give a good contrast to a common template: the layouts are basically similar.

Looking at the building here and learning about how they lived I think I might have liked living as a Jesuit if it wasn’t for the threat of the Paulista slave traders raiding the countryside for easy pickings.

Bus StopA hot, bright day made the going tiring. Keeping the pace fast and swinging out of the way of the speeding trucks and buses away from the line of sight of the tired driver’s drooping eye-lids, I stopped to rest in the shade of a bus shelter about 15km from Encarnacion.

I removed my helmet and slumping on the cool concrete seat, under the hot concrete canopy in the warm concrete shade. Across the road, a silhouette of a man under a tree waved at me. I didn’t really want to be disturbed but he beckoned me over the road. The path of least resistance was to join him.

AristedesAristedes is his name and he runs the tyre shop right opposite the tree but there was no-one around to keep him busy. He straightened up a ubiquitous plastic patio chair, the modern emblem of third world living, and asked me about my trip. He showed me his Honda Titan 125 propped next to him, cleaner than mine and probably newer, and talked bikes.

We sat in the shade for a while away from the heat of the day, two parts silence, one part conversation. He rose from his seat and went into the tyre shop saying “Una minuto.” and emerged from the dark doorway carrying a half litre bottle of ice-cold mineral water, sparkling with a sheen of condensation and Aris refusing offers of payment.

He sipped his terere and me my water. “Calor, e?” “Si, mucho!” and we sat in the shade of the tree watching the faint orange wisps of dust drifting down the verge from the passing traffic in the hot breeze.

Encarnacion BeachArriving at Encarnación was as if I were transported to a laid back version of a European resort town with its seafront. Sunshine brilliance. I took a detour, turning right along the costa instead of left, inland towards the missions.

The riverfront opened out into a wide promenade and the sandy beaches reminded me of seaside towns back in the UK on heatwave days, Cleethorpes perhaps, except that it wasn’t Hull visible across the water. On the distant southern shore of the river, silhouetted against the sky stands the tall modern looking Argentinian city of Posadas, far enough away to look immaculate if it isn’t already.

Posadas, ArgentinaI pulled over to the curb, kicked down the side stand and climbed off the bike to walk along a pier and take some photographs before continuing along the promenade following the river. The road followed a long gentle right-hand curve around the contour of the river followed by a long smooth left, banking slightly, a jolt and grinding noise shook me to attention. I’d forgotten to flip up the side stand and had been riding with it down for about a mile and the left-hand bend now brought it into contact with the road lurching me toward the side of the road.

Braking firmly but delicately and keeping the grinding down to a minimum, I managed to stop before the right side of the front wheel met the edge of the curb. I made a mental note to lubricate the stand so if it happened again it might flick up all the way on its own. I’d gone far enough anyway and swung a U-turn and took a route through the city to resume my route toward the Jesuit missions.

Rio TrinidadiOverlander indicated a wild camping spot between Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue. Ideal looking location on paper or screen. I meandered through Trinidad and caught a glimpse of the ruins from the viewpoint on the hill before continuing to the camping spot. The access wasn’t readily apparent and I passed it looking for a more obvious entrance but this was it, a drop off a large step of asphalt onto a steep loose earth lane down a fairly steep slope to a flat area only about 30 metres from the roadside but mostly hidden by the riverside woods.

Rio TrinidadThe bank to the horseshoe-shaped river bend was steep and loose and the water an uninviting coffee coloured turbulence about 8 meters below where I decided to pitch the tent. The amount of litter suggested I was unlikely to remain alone here all night but I was happy with it and it didn’t really matter.

On the map, the road between Trinidad and Jesus looked insignificant but all night there was an unending flow of motorcycle, car and truck traffic invading my dreams and stretching the night out into a semi-awakened dreamscape.

At dawn, three motorcycles arrive and the riders started hacking away at the undergrowth. They walked by my tent and we exchanged greetings and I fielded questions about the Peruvian numberplate before they headed down the bank and started hacking at branches. It wasn’t clear what they were doing since the place looked pretty wild but they were all busy with physical exertion.

Trinidad RuinsToday was Christmas eve and the opening times of the mission at Jesus de Tavarangue was unaffected. Business as usual. It’s a beautiful site but it doesn’t take long to wander around and take pictures. I’d finished within a couple of hours at a gentle meander resting at the viewpoint taking in the vista of trees and green fields. This could easily be Northamptonshire on a hot sunny day. Rolling green hills, stone buildings and fluffy white clouds. If I were there, maybe I’d be heading my family’s way for Christmas… who knows?  Anyway, the sun was climbing high in the sky and reminding me I’m not home in the cold…

Rolling HillsBradt’s guide suggested embarking early to Trinidad since there was not much shade and it gets hot in the afternoon. The heat was already building here but I figured, I’m right here anyway, get it done in the heat and ticked off the list.

PigeaonThe Trinidad mission is more spread out and has less shade. By noon, the midsummer sun was virtually directly overhead, only two or three days off the solstice, so the walls offered not an inch of shade. Halfway round I climbed a fence and rested in the porch of an abandoned church just outside the perimeter to read some more of the guide while pretending to cool down.

Bike in ShadeThe springy lawn felt like I was walking on a mattress. Walking felt energy sapping on every stride, like some authority imposing a tax on each step. There was more ground to cover here but I thought Trinidad lacked the quaint beauty of the mission at Jesus de Tavarangue. Afterwards, I dropped into the hotel near the ticket office for some lunch and refreshment. A woman with a beaming smile walked in. I asked her if she knew any good camping spots here, mainly for conversation but open to changing my plan of returning to Encarnacion. She didn’t know but escorted me to the Mission ticket office where she translated what the ticket office staff told her. I’d already been up to the hill with the viewpoint they were talking about before settling at the riverside woods and it felt too exposed for me. I just said thanks and left with a wave an adios. I wouldn’t see them again anyway.

Mirador, TrinidadTrinidad was closer to Encarnacion than Jesus so the journey back didn’t take long. Cruising the streets, eyes peeled,  I didn’t notice many hostels and there weren’t many listed on my apps, particularly at the budget end. Checking iOverlander, Maui Waui was just a block away around the corner and I pulled up outside. Nobody about so I waited in reception for half an hour on the WiFi until Jorge, the receptionist recovered from a siesta.

I was shown a bunk in a 4-bed dorm and flopped onto the lower bunk and basked in the remnants of the cool breeze of the air conditioning above while chatting to Isaac, a Canadian involved with an ecological project in Paraguay and Brazil.

Another traveller entered the room and stooped to look at me and I was stunned to recognise Martin from the El Jardin in Asuncion from about a week ago. I thought he’d gone to Brazil already. It’s the first time I’d crossed paths twice with a traveller in South America. Big continent, small world.

The next morning was Christmas day and at breakfast, the woman with the beaming smile I’d seen at the Trinidad ruins appeared in the kitchen, Minerva from Colombia who spoke competent English. She asked me about the camping spot she’d divined for me up in Trinidad and I told her that it felt too public and exposed and I decided to come to Encarnacion instead.

Encarnacion is a cute town with tree-shaded streets in the familiar latin grid pattern, spreading up the slope away from the river. Many of the hostels were closed, presumably for Christmas, but one or two shops were open and I got some beers in for the guys.

Maui Waui Hostel, EncarnacionJorge invited me for barbeque but it when I asked when we would eat, it was going to be about 10pm. I don’t like eating that late and declined but stayed up sipping beer while Jorge was cooking. A tall European who spoke impeccable English but chose not to asked us what kind of music we liked. The Doors was one, Creedence Clearwater Revival was another. Classic Rock from way back using real instruments… anything other than thumping bass and electronic crap that drowns out a good time in night-clubs.

I finally turned in at 11.30 and the food was still on the grill, to the beat of the thumping bass speaker and squawking electronics, underpinned with the mute harmonies of rumbling stomachs.

The Maui Waui is all right but not that cheap. All the accommodation in Encarnación is more expensive than everywhere else I had been in Paraguay. On top of that, other than a vacation spot with a great beach, there wasn’t much else to keep me here.  As usual, I was behind with the blog but that didn’t justify the accommodation rates here. Hohenau had WiFi for cheap, according to iOverlander…

Map San Cosme to Trinidad

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Misiones: San Cosme y Damian

Misiones, ParaguayAT BREAKFAST THE next day at the Santa Maria Hotel, the rain eased back to a soaking translucent grey mist and I packed and loaded the bike in the soggy hotel garden. The sky still clung to a thick blanket of cloud but the sun seemed to be quietly slowly burning off the layers above turning them from grey to white and eventually poking through holes of cobalt blue.

Santa Maria Hotel, Santa Maria de Fe.The smooth, dry, yet unspectacular run southeast was punctuated by a detour through a couple of cobbled towns to see what was left of the Jesuits, not too much I have to say but the break from the endless conveyor belt of asphalt and the hum of the little engine broke up the hypnotic state it tends to induce. I passed a sign to San Cosme at a modern junction that looked arrow straight to the south and decently surfaced. Maps.me had routed me out of Coronel Bogado 11km further down the road so I blindly followed that to discover a 24km dirt track recently doused by rainstorms turning it into a long, slick, bruising and laundry hazard. I doubled back to the junction I had passed earlier and enjoyed the straight dry road into San Cosme y Damian, once more, promising my eyes that I would trust them more than the phone app.

Santa Maria de Fe to San Cosme is a relatively short leg of 115km so it was still early afternoon when I arrived. San Cosme had little sign of life on my arrival but the cafe opposite the Observatory on the Plaza was open and had WiFi. iOverlander reviews said that the Observatory no longer permitted camping in their grounds but I crossed the road after lunch and asked anyway. One of the guides pointed over at the Plaza and said it would be OK to camp over there. It seemed a bit public to me with its swings and roundabout but it was a large spread-out area with plenty of trees and not many people. Proportionate enough to be able to remain inconspicuous.

San cosme yDamian Mission, ParaguayI bought a 3-day ticket for G20,000 (about £2.50) that covered the Observatory and mission here plus the other two at Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue. I thought it best to wait until dark for visiting the observatory and followed the staff’s recommendation to return at 8pm.

San Cosme y Damian Picnic AreaHaving 4 hours to kill, or make use of, I decided to ride down to the ocean-sized River Parana. the road led south of the plaza, past the Jesuit Mission, down a gentle slope about 15 blocks to a large riverside park of scattered trees with picnic areas beneath. A few families were relaxing and splashing in the cool blue water. This looked like an ideal camping spot if it wasn’t for the fact it was a Saturday. Saturdays bring out the boom boxes and families that tend to party late into the weekend and this looked a prime venue for that sort of thing so after chilling in the hot shade of the riverside trees, I coasted back inland a block or two to probe the grassy, less-travelled lanes between the fields to the southwest of the town and happened upon a perfectly remote spot a couple of hundred metres down from the marina. I marked it on the GPS to find after the visit to the observatory in the dark.

Camping San Cosme Y DamianI spent the rest of the afternoon in the cool of the cafe catching up on the Wi-Fi and admiring the immaculate looking mission over on the opposite side of the plaza, without the worry of where I was going to comp.

As luck would have it, some Peace Corps members entered the Observatory at the same time as me and offered invaluable translation to the non-English speaking guides. On the other hand, it was a full moon on full beam, drowning out the interstellar backdrop in a cloudless indigo sky so the only constellations I could see were indoors inside the Planetarium and we used the telescope only for looking at the surface of the moon. The guide mentioned if I came back in the morning I could look through a filter in the telescope to look at the sunspots. Looking through at the blood red disk through the filter the next day I said I didn’t see any sunspots and they said it’s because there weren’t any…

San Cosme y Damian is the place that Buenaventura Suárez studied, researched and published The Lunario de un Siglo (1744) predicting the exact times and phases of lunar eclipses. “What a great name,” I thought, I wondered if he would have achieved as much if his name had been Dave or Colin. The observatory is also the place I learned how the indigenous Guarani used the appearance of constellations throughout the seasons as signals for planting and harvesting since they didn’t use man-made calendars. The Guarani call the milky way ‘The Trail of the Tapir.’ Tapirs tread repeated paths until they become visible on the ground. Much more poetic than ‘The Milky Way.’

The full moon illuminated my path along the cobbles, dirt and grass track back to the camping spot and pitching the tent was just as easy as if it were day time. The reflection of the moon danced on the river reminding me of my time on Glee moored in Sint Maarten. The only thing lacking was someone to share this moment with. Lying back staring at the moon framed by the tent door, the lapping of the water on the bank sang me to sleep.

San Cosme Y Damian Wildcamping San Cosme Y Damian Wildcamping San Cosme Y Damian Wildcamping Santa Maria de Fe to San Cosme Y Damian

 

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Santa Maria de Fé

Santa Maria de Fe HotelWEDNESDAY MORNING, 19TH December, I packed away the tent, skipping breakfast and quietly left Villa Florida without seeing a soul on the streets and pressed on to Santa Maria de Fe, which boasts a tree-shaded plaza home to Howler Monkeys.

San Ignacio, ParaguayI took a break at San Ignacio in the shade of the trees in the Plaza, busy with vendors and commercial traffic rumbling along the main road on the northern edge through the town centre. the place was ripe for a bypass but maybe that would impact the traders around the Plaza. I was only here to rest and cool off in the shade and take a few slugs of water out of my bottle.

San IgnacioJohn told me to seek out Margaret Hebblethwaite who runs the only Hotel there on the Plaza. Kicking down the side-stand swinging my bruised thigh over the saddle and limping into reception, stiff from being immobile on the bike, I notice an older white-haired Caucasian and a young Paraguayan man and woman at a table. They were just serving lunch and I ask if they served food since I was hungry and missed breakfast. No, it’s just for them, there is no public restaurant.

Milciades explained in decent English that there was no Margaret here and that he runs the hotel. After going into detail about why I was asking he then said yes there is a Margaret who originally founded this hotel but she lives on the corner over there. Close enough, I thought, and went to interrupt the lunch of another stranger.

Margaret HebblethwaiteThe door opened to a fair-skinned woman about 5’6″ tall with wavey, strawberry blond hair, wearing a friendly smile and a small silver crucifix around her neck. She reminded me of Deb but a little less ginger and a little more Christian. Margaret greeted me with a generous smile and apologised that she had just made lunch and suggested I sit and admire the garden before adding “Have you eaten?” I said yes, as it was more convenient than saying “No but I don’t want to interrupt your lunch and if I joined you, I would feel uncomfortable and so would rather starve, thanks.” I’d only intended to deliver John’s greeting, after all.

Debbie Bulman

Deb

After lunch and sharing a fruit salad. we talked about Paraguay, the Jesuits and the route I was taking on my trip. Margaret added, “Which Holland’s does John belong?” I didn’t really know as I only knew of one family of Hollands so I showed her his photo, which received no flicker of recognition either.

It reminded me of a time my uncle Terry told me to drop in on some relations when Debbie and I were passing Bridport. After inviting us to eat and us declining in preference for a cup of tea, Deb whispered in her plain speaking way, when they retreated to the kitchen. “They don’t know who the f*** you are.” We were on our second cup of tea and piece of cake before they asked who we were causing Deb to splutter tea into her saucer, and I attempted to revive a fairly long branch of the family tree with my father revealed as a rather small twig on the end of it. I think we succeeded at identifying a wedding we had all attended a decade or so previously.

Anyway, I’m sure if John were here, she would have recognised which of the Hollands by his exuberant presence.

Santa Maria de Fe PlazaMargaret suggested I stay at the hotel for the night and join her and two English language students for dinner and a movie. I asked how much would it cost, remembering the plush decor of the Hotel and half anticipating “Oh for free as my guest.” and instead, hearing “100,000 Guarani!” About double my budget but cheap for the quality of the place. Even so, I thought the invitation sounded too enticing to pass up and quickly accepted. One night wouldn’t break the bank and went to check in and unpack at the Hotel. At 7pm I wandered through the domain of the Howler Monkeys in the plaza. “Quiet Monkeys,” I call them. I didn’t see or hear anything of them.

MealThe home cooked food was delicious and being in company softened the callouses on my soul that solitude tends to form. A thunderstorm rumbled overhead during the meal, relieving us of the hot sticky afternoon air and cutting off the electricity in exchange for the favour. There would be no movie but the dinner and conversation over candlelight and abundant good quality wine turned out to be a much better experience. If anybody ever asks, “What would we do without TV?” This was it… starring in your own movie as yourself living your own script: the story of your life…

Maragaret Hebblethwaite, Bradt Guide to ParaguayMargaret is the author of Bradt’s Guide to Paraguay, jam-packed with information; far superior to Lonely Planet or Rough Guide so, in Margaret’s company, I received a lot of well-researched and first-hand knowledge about Paraguay and especially of the Jesuit Reductions. Consequently, I augmented my plan from continuing directly to Encarnacion with a diversion to San Cosme y Damian where there stands a restored Jesuit Mission, Observatory and Planetarium. The evening was well worth going over budget for. Besides, I could camp in the wilderness with water and nuts if I ran out of cash but time cannot be reclaimed in such a way. I returned to the Hotel through the silent order of Jesuit Howler Monkeys feeling happy and content.

Santa Maria de Fe RainMuted light filtered through the window reminiscent of a grey British winter dawn. True to form, Sod’s Law of Budget Travel No 3 kicked in:

“If thou art sheltered in accommodation above thy budget,
it shall rain forty days and forty nights.
Unless thine endure a proper soaking,
thou shalt reflect on thy folly until thy purse becomes barren.”

Winter Light

At breakfast, I checked the forecast on the Sony Xperia.  Rain another four days the screen told me but, as I discovered in Jardim, the forecast in this part of the world is as accurate as a wild guess. I eyed up the white-haired Caucasian man on the next table carefully spreading jam on a piece of french bread and dropping crumbs on the table with each bite. I guessed he was from Germany and researching his Nazi father, who’s nickname was probably ‘The White Angel,’ and discovering his fate escaping to Paraguay after the war. Turned out he was retired Argentinian teacher on vacation from Buenos Aires and didn’t say why he was in Santa Maria. If he did, I don’t remember. We were the only guests here. Both solitary men on their own mysterious path in life.

I stayed another day holed up in the hotel room reading Margaret’s guide to Paraguay. In the grey light barely making it through the window, it gave the lamp and the interior of the room a warm and cosy sepia glow like an old English cottage in the winter. After all, Christmas was only a week away. This was more in keeping than the boiling Capricorn midsummer heat. It was no hardship just to kick back and rest in the tranquillity of it all, and the rain was the perfect excuse to do just that.

GuitarI’d spotted an old guitar leaning against the bookshelves earlier and recorded a couple of my old compositions and uploaded them to Youtube before I eventually forget them.

Villa Florida to Santa Maria de Fe map

 

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Mission

Gloria and Noni I ESCORTED JOHN to the Airport. Not to make sure he left but to savour the friendship of him and the others that he brought to me. another page, another chapter. Thursday, no point in moving until after the weekend. Monday, I’d go on Monday. I honoured the Bruderhof commitment of the Carol service, such fun in good company it was too.

Tucking into the buffet on the patio afterwards, we all got assaulted by tiny mosquitos. I was one of only a small band that retreated indoors and was one of the last to leave promising to attend the morning service the next day. When I woke up, I didn’t really feel like going but I went anyway.

Turning along Mariscal Lopez, already unbelievably hot at 9.20am. The traffic slows and I notice a crowd in the road at a junction with a Policeman taking notes … a bike lies on its side. It looks like a Harley Davidson or similar. The traffic my side of the road compresses together and crawls along. As I idle past I notice a man on his side but face down away from me on the asphalt, no-one at his side. My assumption is that he is either unconscious or dead.

Earlier, I’d received a message that Roy Boughton, who I’d sailed with in the Caribbean, was reported in the national news as missing. It had been a while since I first heard about it but this seemed a confirmation that he was a goner too.

Roy Boughton's Guiding LightRoy had been to a bar for the evening, as he usually does, and heading back in his dinghy to his boat anchored in Rodney Bay, St Lucia… never to be seen again.

TimeI say nothing about it at the service but it reminds me that our time here is temporary and it creeps by whether we are paying attention or not.

Primavera HouseAfter the service and expressing my gratitude of everyone’s generous welcome within the community, I headed for the Anglican church at John’s suggestion and met the Bishop of Buenos Aires. I couldn’t help bringing a chess piece to mind since I’d started playing online that week. I had just caught him at the end of his service as he had to rush off, leaving diagonally across the floor tiles to the door. I spend a few minutes speaking to Tim, his son, savouring the rich English language that knocks my translation brain cell out of gear to coast down communication’s easy path.

Tuesday morning I bid my farewells to Gloria and the current guests in the ever-changing drama of El Jardin. Noni arrived just as I crossed the street for a final photo so I snatched one of Noni and Gloria together with my bike before setting off southeast toward Encarnación.

Nemby Drop ZoneJohn had given me one final mission to drop off some money that Gloria gave me for Petrona’s family in Nemby – kind of on the way. An alternate route and perhaps shortcut the main Ruta 1. I’d visited Petrona’s house before but as a passenger so at that time, I magically emerged from an Aztec Gold Ford Escort on their doorstep without taking much notice of how I got there.

Nemby Drop ZoneMy phone beeped a location link in WhatsApp, but by just looking at it, I knew it was wrong: far too close to the main road. I’d found the neighbourhood but not the house. The proprietors of the local stores and despensas didn’t know who I was talking about if they understood what I was saying at all. All the neighbourhoods looked the same in the repetitive latin gridded cobbled streets and the rattling over the stones on the fully loaded bike was jarring my patience. 2 hours later I found WiFi at a petrol station and expressed my frustration over WhatsApp. John told me not to worry about it and to keep the money and have a beer on him.

Nemby Drop ZoneI didn’t like the associated feeling of failure and a beer would be scant compensation. Even a case of beer wouldn’t help, which this amount would easily cover. I sat for a while looking for a drop zone that wasn’t too obvious but would be easy to locate. I noticed a big yellow brick next to a combination barbecue stall and bus stop in front of the big yellow supermarket and slipped the money under that then WhatsApped a video of where it was before setting off to Villa Florida hoping to make camp before dark.

A wrong turn takes me 10 minutes back toward Asuncion. Swearing echoing in my helmet, I use a pedestrian crossing to u-turn the cities dual carriageway south. These moods can be dangerous on a motorcycle so I elevate my caution and moderate my feeling of impatience but allow permission of the swearing session as a kind of meditation. The swearing stops after I pass the junction another ten minutes later and find myself on the usual unfamiliar territory into the unknown and eventually intersect with Ruta 1.

Playa Paraiso, Villa Florida, ParaguayRuta 1 is fast and tedious and I arrive at Villa Florida with the sun still a hand’s width above the horizon. Crossing the bridge over the Tebicuary River, which marks the northern edge of the village, I notice potential camping spots along the northern bank and beaches. There is a Police checkpoint at the southern end of the bridge and I coast through like Obi-wan Kenobi seemingly unnoticed. I would have liked to have checked out the camping spots back over the bridge on the north bank but didn’t want to chance another possible two passes through the checkpoint so headed down a side street and west along the south bank instead. The track is wide but has patches of deep soft sand and so, with no-one about, I try the Youtube tip of going fast enough to skim the surface like a “skier over water.” The first deep patch triggered a horrendous wobble before the bike plunged to the right and threw me clear. So it was back to paddling along with my feet. The camera in my pocket bruised my thigh when I landed in the sand so this slowly became a painful affair.

Villa Florida TrackAlong the lane, I noticed a gap in the bushes to my right opening out to a grassy area perfect for camping. I pitched the tent around a corner of bushes, invisible from the road and walked down the lane to see where the families were coming from in their bare feet and beach gear.

Playa ParaisoPlaya ParaisoPlaya Paraiso, a park on huge sandy beaches worthy of any seaside beach in the UK. I could have camped here but even though there was a huge area, it was busier. I was happy with my hideaway.

Hideaway, Villa Florida

Villa Florida Camping

Asuncion to Villa Florida Map

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Asunción – Roots and Wings

El Jardin, AsuncionEL JARDIN SAW guests come and go. Backpackers mainly, European and South American, very few North Americans but all in all, not so many travellers compared to the towns and cities like Cusco on the well-trodden Gringo Trail. As days rolled into weeks, I was beginning to feel more akin to the long term ‘residents’ at El Jardin: part of the furniture rather than a guest and I could now see that the people I initially assumed to be joyless volunteers were simply being their authentic selves, going with the flow, forgoing a facade even for the sake of professional hospitality.

Living in a hostel isn’t so different to actually travelling. Travel by proxy, I’d call it. The flow of social contacts is the same even if the scenery remains the same. Throughout the constant flow, I found it easier to gel with some guests than others. Some enjoy social contact while others prefer solitude. Part of the art of going with the flow is to not bother about the level of connection with ‘everybody.’ Social contact is abundant. There is no need to make hard work of it: let the closed shells roll by and release the time for the open hearts…

El Jardin, AsuncionMartin and Nikita arrived at the El Jardin same time; both Dutch but travelling separately. I assumed they were a couple but their simultaneous arrival was pure coincidence. Both were easy for me to relate to and their English was impeccable. I often move invisibly amongst travellers but not so with Martin and Nikita. I’d be on their radar as soon as I was within line of sight. It was an energising and refreshing failure of my invisibility superpower.

Intending to share one beer and the wisdom of Martin, himself a long-term traveller, turned into a relative drinking binge that hung over me like a tempestuous thundercloud the whole of the next sweaty day. That’s not usual for me and was an indicator that I was enjoying good company rather than the alcohol.

Cerro LambareTravel is not only a path of discovery of the world, it is also a path of discovery of the self and the line between the two becomes blurred the further down that path you go. When it comes to ‘education.’ travel shows you your truth from within – you feel it unfiltered bubbling to the surface like the fresh water of a mountain spring from the hidden depths below. Its source isn’t external. It comes naturally from you, stimulated by natural interactions with people, time and action. Schooling, however, brands an external curriculum – the agenda of the state – deep into your soul, conditioning to conform and obey at such an early age that the resulting effects become deeply embedded and difficult to extract and heal the remaining scars. It’s only just now, after almost three years of my journey with Life With Glee that I feel my own scars of conditioning beginning to heal, and travel has had a lot to do with that.

Asuncion Fruit stallJohn’s friends, Debbie and Cedron from the UK. arrived a couple of weeks into my visit and communication without translation felt effortless. That part of the brain I use for translation could be slipped into neutral and I could coast along the communication highway without having to even think about it. Debbie and Cedron were busy with their own affairs most of the time and diverted some of John’s attention but I enjoyed the solitude and opportunity to reflect and write a little plus attend to the increasingly urgent and time-consuming laptop maintenance.

The El Jardin managers, Nonni and Gloria, treated me like family and I felt very much at home, not just in the hostel but at home in the city itself. Asuncion is nothing to write home about as a tourist destination and you could tick the boxes of its attractions in half a day before rushing away for the next tourist hot-spot but that’s not what Asuncion is about. Asuncion still has a feeling of humanity and community that seems long gone in the west and it’s one of the few cities in the world where I feel I could settle down; probably helped by having been absorbed into John’s diverse social circle ranging from families scraping a living in their local communities to Paraguay’s eminent musician, composer and conductor, Luis Szaran. I felt a little intimidated attending dinner as John’s ‘semi invited’ guest at Luis’ house after witnessing his performance and standing ovation after Bizet’s Carmen suite at the Municipal Theatre with the Asunción City Symphonic Orchestra. I have no dress clothes so John donated a smart shirt to make me half decent.

There was no need to worry. There are no class barriers in Paraguay. People are people and interact freely without reservation or pretentiousness. The generosity showed by Luis and his family to me, a total stranger, was heartwarming and underlined my own unconscious class conditioning of growing up in the UK. My history as a Piano Tuner came up in conversation and Luis said there would be a good living to be had in Asuncion. something I hadn’t considered for a long time. Piano Tuning in Asuncion? An interesting career opportunity to look at… I’m not yet ready to abandon the path I’m on.Carmen

Luis SzaranThe Roosevelt Library founded on April 12, 1946 by the Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano (CCPA) 6 blocks away from El Jardin became my cool workspace, since the Air Conditioners would be off at the Hostel during the day even when the temperature was over 100F. I’d commute on foot to the library of a workday, past the plywood shacks that the river flood refugees had erected along the pavements and parks.

RefugeesBack in the UK, the ‘authorities’ would demolish these shelters and kick the refugees down the road, sweeping the problem under the carpet without actually addressing it. Here, the authorities provide water, electric and US Aid portaloos for sanitation. Scattered throughout the city and even around the parliamentary building, these structures provided a stark contrast to the ideas of civilisation, community and humanity at every level.

Asuncion 1537I found it difficult to set a date for moving on from Asuncion since I was enjoying so much being here. John’s three-month visit to Paraguay was coming to an end in December so I set my deadline to leave the Monday after. That gave me time to honour the invitation to the Bruderhof Christmas Carol service and perhaps a final Sunday service.

AsuncionIn the end, the initial 5 days at the El Jardin in Asuncion became 5 Weeks. my roots were growing into the social foundation of the Paraguayan capital and my wings of travel were beginning to wither. But circumstances were signalling it was time to take flight again.

I accompanied John to the airport together with Manuel and a few of his friends. Cristobal Pederson brought along an accordion and gave a public musical send-off in the departure terminal before I returned with Manuel to his house and then rode home to El Jardin on the bike feeling that this was the end of a rich and fulfilling chapter…

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Noah’s Ark

El Jardin, Asuncion

SUNDAY MORNING DAWNED beyond the wooden shutters of my darkened dorm at the El Jardin, and I emerged into retina-searing sunlight for breakfast. A table in the corner presented a selection of items nestling under tea towels to keep the resident quartet of flies from spoiling it. A fan helped keep them away while gently drying out the cakes and crusts of bread. Cornflakes and cold sour coffee assaulted my taste buds. It wasn’t until I tasted the cornflakes that I realised that the anonymous-looking yoghurt was not the same as the anonymous looking milk sitting next to it.

Ford Escort Mk5John picked me up for the church service at the Bruderhof community at Primavera House. Opening the door to the street revealed the unexpected sight of Manuel’s Classic Mk5 Ford Escort in Aztec Gold (or as I call it, metallic beige.) Even so, it’s a generous loan by Manuel that opens up all sorts of options for our stay in the capital. The car’s existence defied Ford’s reputation for limited longevity and this particular model still appeared to be nimble enough to escape the local motor museum or scrap yard. We kangarooed our way across the grid of streets to Primavera House in traditional style…

Primavera HousePrimavera House is the Paraguayan base of the Bruderhof Community now the lands around Itacurubi have been sold off to the Mennonites. Primavera House is the Paraguayan home and place of worship for just over a dozen community members and anyone who wants to attend the services.

Of course, John’s friends are here but I was welcomed just as warmly as a stranger. The people seem as happy here as anybody anywhere, maybe more-so, although I confess I find it difficult to tell whether a salesman’s smile is because he’s genuinely happy or he just has something he wants to off-load for a profit. Still, the warmth and peace I sensed were almost tangible.

The men dressed in modern casual clothes but the women wore long dresses and headscarves that reminded me of how the Amish dress. Back in the days when I considered myself a devout atheist, would have avoided attending at all but that inverted self-righteousness is no excuse for me to remain ignorant. People get what they get from how they interface with life and spiritual matters.

John became an invaluable guide, as Asuncion doesn’t offer much of itself to tourists as a City. Over the following few weeks, I discovered that the beauty of the place isn’t in the landscape or architecture, it is in the hearts of the people. After a couple of weeks of settling in, I felt at home. There was no urgency for sight-seeing. The tacit, cheerless staff seemed to accept me like a stray cat allowed to wander the garden. They weren’t really cheerless, they were just relaxed with who they were.

Time was taken to visit people and John was busy helping friends and a poor family build a house. Sometimes I tagged along, sometimes I found my own entertainment.

I was fascinated by the Museo de las Memorias covering the 35 year period of the Stroessner Dictatorship. I’d never heard of him. Pinochet, yes, Stroessner no. Everything looked as if it had come straight out of the cold war times of Eastern Europe.

We limped around the city in Manuel’s geriatric Ford, meeting new faces from pioneering places and historic times. I get the sense that Paraguay is one of the last places on Earth that still grows through long lost times we look back on in Europe with nostalgia. Family and community are still important and valued here. Back in the UK, we rarely know the name of our neighbour.

John had a lot to do and seemed concerned about abandoning me. I didn’t mind – I got to discover things without any other worries or attachments that being in company brings.

It wasn’t until taking off on my own that I got to imprint the layout of Asuncion’s streets in my consciousness. Being a passenger in tow fosters no sense of direction or location.

To the west of the El Jardin was Downtown Asuncion and to the east were the suburbs including the Chacomer Yamaha Dealer, Primavera House and various air-conditioned shopping malls.

I was surprised at how few people speak English in this capital city but John’s Spanish is good which both took away the pressure of trying to communicate and slowed my learning of the language. When I travel alone, I hardly speak anyway, which should be no excuse.

Chaco-i Water TaxiAcross the river to the west of Asuncion is Chaco-i, a small riverside village. The roaring diesel of the water taxi trying to shake itself off the mountings while beating its high decibel rhythm on our eardrums ferried us across the river and up the shore a little to the boat that Claudio built. John discovered him a few years ago hidden in the woods working away like Noah on his Ark. Claudio spent 10 years building a yacht in the woods of Chaco-i with the dream of eventually sailing it down the might river Paraguay to the sea. “How will you get it to the water?” asked John. There was no easy way to get this Ferro-cement monster through the trees and down the bank but I think his intention was that it would float out on a flood when the time was right.

Chaco-iThe boat was almost complete, laying on its starboard side but still lacking sails. John found some used sails cheap in Panama where vessels refit before continuing along the canal to the Pacific and dragged them through excess baggage rules all the way to Chaco-i to discover Claudio had died of a heart attack working on his boat only a few months previously.

John hardly recognised the route, the River Paraguay being seven or eight metres higher than normal. the small brook that led toward’s Claudio’s boat was now a broad river and John bribed the river taxi to beat its diesel tattoo up the tranquil new tributary to save us possibly wading through the woods.

Claudio's BoatAnd there, through the trees, was Claudio’s legacy before our very eyes. Peacefully floating in the flood water Afloat in the garden wearing the mud stain on the hull like an emblem of unshakable faith. Afloat in the woods, where Claudio had invested the last chapters of his life.

Noah's ArkJohn said he died in the process of his dream and we shouldn’t be sad. Even though I’d never met the legend that was Claudio, I felt real emotion for him.

It’s a metaphor for life, in a way. Apart from those of us that are eaten away slowly by progressive diseases or time itself, few of us are never really finished before we pass. Loose ends are left hanging. messages left unsaid, money left unspent, bills left unpaid, dreams left unlived. Up until now, I just thought this was an interesting story, but seeing this ghost-ship floating in the woods left me with a profound regret that the man was no longer around to meet face to face. The boat, being the symbol that all we leave behind, carries on without us before they too pass in their own time and we ourselves are eventually forgotten…

Noah's Ark

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Primavera

JOHN’S A NATURAL speaker and an interesting guide. My ears sometimes have a hard time keeping up but I’m picking up a lot about Paraguay from John’s upbringing with the Bruderhof Communities and the relationship to the Mennonites.

Paraguay’s War of the Triple Alliance and the Chaco war with Bolivia, allegedly a war fomented by US oil interests, shaped the country in indelible ways. The resulting depletion of the Paraguayan population was probably instrumental in Paraguay granting sanctuary and autonomy to these immigrant groups where other countries were flatly rejecting them. Finally, shaping a society retaining a traditional feel of family, community and sense of freedom much like I remember growing up with during the sixties and seventies in England and Wales.

Two days at Laguna Blanca had been enough rest and recuperation for me and I felt ready to go even though I didn’t get round to walking the trails around the lake.

 

Mechanical problems on John’s Kenton seemed to dog our departure. Kickstarting and pushing was unsuccessful and we checked the fuel and the spark plug before discovering the kill switch on the handlebars was switched off. I was surprised the Kenton had one.

We exited along the sandy track next to the sea of Sunflowers bathing their faces in the morning sun two miles to Route 11. Route 11 was a gentle start to the day and we soon arrived in Nueve Germania, proudly displaying the colours of the German flag painted on bins and signposts. We stopped to top up John’s phone credit and took advantage of the nearby Cafe for a buffet lunch. “Weigh and Pay.” Which means, gram for gram, steak costs the same as rice.

Our objective for the day was Puerto Rosario, the other side of the Mennonite town of Volendam. My first encounter with the Mennonites surprised me. I expected something like the Amish but everyone dressed like modern Europeans. I could have been in Hampshire or Hamburg. The first ones I’d noticed had fair hair and blue eyes sporting unhappy faces.

Two girls sitting outside a store ignored my greeting without a flicker in their expressions. Strikingly different to the native Paraguayans. The incongruity of our race in this environment reminded me of the movie “The Boys From Brazil:” a Nazi experiment gone wrong. This wasn’t reflected in my later visit to Friesland though: friendly Europeans that spoke English and German with the atmosphere reminiscent of a rural village in bygone England.

A late stretch of dirt road had me sweating up a hot thirst by the time we reached Puerto Rosario and we took it in turns to strip off and bathe in the cool waters of the Rio Paraguay beneath the iconic tree, symbolising the Bruderhof’s arrival at Primavera, while one of us kept an eye on the bikes. This tree John helped the town save from the erosion of the bank by the Rio Paraguay and a negligent, idle town Mayor a few years ago. John, a foreigner with no claim to Puerto Rosario. His proposal to pay for shoring up the riverbank to save the tree shamed the local Mayor into doing the job he is paid to do.

Puerto RosarioWe were on John’s historic turf and we stopped by to say hello to a couple of his old friends but (against our tentative hope) discovered nowhere nearby to stay for the night. This meant hitting the road to Itacurubi 25 miles away. Not so bad but it felt a lot further since it had already gone 5pm and I’d thought I’d hit the finish line for the day and was already unwinding.

John’s phone needed a boost so I hooked it under the rubber strap on the handlebars, like I do my own, and plugged it into the USB socket before we set off. Darkness had fallen before we arrived at Itacurubi. Passing under a gantry with the lights of oncoming traffic, Bang! I hit a pothole; hard. The force of the impact jolted the phone out from under the strap and the cable now hanging by the wheel was no longer attached to a phone.

I checked my front wheel which I was relieved still looked round and the tyre was still up and I quickly turned round to find the pothole and scan the road immediately after it. There it was, about 10 meters from the pothole just over the centre line in the opposite lane. Luckily there was no traffic and I quickly bent down to retrieved it without having to dismount the bike. John was waiting at the next roundabout, the turnoff to Itacurubi. We had arrived. Apart from a cracked screen protector, the phone survived and was now at 55% charge.

John knows the owners of HSS Hotel so we got a good deal on a room. One of the cockerels was up all night disturbing the peace and found himself to be the source of dinner the next day. I saw one of the Senoras haul him out of a shed by his feet and neck and never saw him again.

We missed dinner at the hostel that night.

Itacurubi del Rosario is the town near where the Bruderhof established their Primavera community after retreating out of the harsh environment of the Chaco. The Bruderhof are a peace-loving, pacifist Christian community that were helped to settle in Paraguay by the already established Mennonites. The Mennonites share the same Anabaptist faith and some of the national origins of the Bruderhof. The Bruderhof arrived in Paraguay in 1941 first escaping Germany to Britain and then escaping Britain’s racism against Germans during the Second World War.

The Mennonites began to arrive at the turn of the last century. Some of their Canadian colonies left Canada after the government wanted their dominant language taught in schools to be English instead of German. The main differences between the two sects are that the Mennonites maintain the concept of ‘Private Property’ while the Bruderhof give up private belongings in favour of community.

John recounted his upbringing around the woods and rivers of Itacurubi. these days, the trees have been cleared, roads built and tracts of land divided into farms and ranches. For my Westernised eyes, I got a glimpse into the past where life was simple but work was hard. Wood-fired stoves, food growing in the next field or walking around the ranches. the Bruderhof land had long been sold off to the Mennonites but we still had access to the ranch and the river. We took the ranchers horses around the Estancia and later drifted down the river using a tyre and plastic bottles for floats like John used to in bygone times.

We spent a couple of days exploring and hanging out with John’s friends plus the ranchers drinking Terere, a kind of green tea sipped through a metal straw, similar to Mate in Argentina but served cold instead of hot, and passed around like a pipe of peace.

We hit the road to Asuncion late Friday afternoon after a generous lunch by one of John’s old friends he grew up with.

A swampy region obstructs the direct route south so we had to almost double back along the asphalt route east to San Estanislao (aka “Santani”) and then south-west along Ruta 3. I was following John and gradually dropping back. His exhaust was blowing out blue smoke – sometimes in thick clouds and the noxious fumes were becoming nauseating.

Along the way, there lives a family John has helped out in the past and we were expecting a warm welcome due to the firmly established bond. Turning off the main road, We slithered along the sandy ruts to a small plot of land. Apparently, this was one of the brothers that lived nearby. “This guy’s a bit of a wanker.” said John, casually dismounting his bike to approach the gate “Buen’ Dia, Mi Amigo…!” Our friend didn’t crack a smile or even make one step toward us to shake our hands, living up to his reputation.

After a few minutes of obliging pleasantries, we excused ourselves and I followed John’s spluttering bike up the lane to the main house and we both rode through the gate and onto the immaculate lawn. No-one home but the Gardener.

I didn’t understand the exchange coming from the ensuing phone messages but apparently, relations within the family had been soured and, as a result, we were denied access to the vacant house. John was livid after all the money he had donated and the time and energy he’d provided to the family.

Plan B. We would stay in the garden. John borrowed a hammock from the wanker down the lane and I pitched my tent in the garden. The younger brother, Ariel, that lived next door gave us a proper warm Paraguayan welcome.

John’s hammock looked comfortable strung out under the grape vines. I pitched my tent up on the edge of the lawn out of snoring range. Just drifting off to sleep. I was disturbed by a rustling noise. Something was moving under the groundsheet near my head, about as thick as a child’s arm and already about a foot inward. Toads gathered at night to feed on the insects that drop off the street light next to the garden but this didn’t sound or move like a toad. I dropped my hiking boot on it and the creature withdrew. By its movement, I guessed it was a snake but I didn’t want to step out in the dark to find out.

John bought breakfast from the shop the night before so we had a pleasant start to the day. Ariel’s wife brought hot water and milk for tea. Asuncion is not far so there was no rush to leave and after a leisurely farewell, we dicovered that John’s bike would not start, not even with the kill switch off.

Ariel ran it down the lane jumping up and down on it and we watched him disappear down the lane out of view listening for evidence of ignition. He returned after a short while with a mechanic and some tools and they set about dismantling the engine to discover warn piston rings and valves: the cause of all the smoke and oil loss and now not enough compression for starting a cold motor. Four of us drove into town to get the parts. Cheap and readily available, Kenton is a Mennonite company that builds motorcycles out of a mixture of Chinese parts and their own.

Meanwhile, Ariel’s wife brought out a hot lunch for us and we enjoyed the warmth of the family as well as the weather.

The engine is a single cylinder overhead valve with tappets and pushrods. I hadn’t seen tappets since my Mk1 Ford Escort, so simple, it was a joy to observe. Normally you’d use a feeler gauge to set the valve gaps but not in Paraguay. Wiggle the rocker to see if it’s free but not too much. the bike fired up on the first or second kick and would now even start on the button. I’d not seen it start on the button before.

We were on the road by three and soon penetrating the outskirts of Asuncion. I was wearing my fleece to protect from sunburn and although the hot air passes through the fabric freely, it did little for helping me keep cool. Running up a side street, we pulled up outside a luxurious townhouse that reminded me of my dad’s neighbourhood in Houston Tx. The Garage door rose to reveal a couple of cars, motorcycles and a pool table before re-emerging out of the cool shade to the rear patio and swimming pool.

Manuel is a good friend of John’s and after a brief introduction, Manuel disappeared down the road in his car inviting us to cool off in the pool until he returned. John showed me the room he was staying in, which was set out like a plush hotel with ensuite. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be staying there and we were soon duelling with the city traffic as John escorted me to the El Jardin Hostel via a whistlestop tour of the city. It turns out, the tourist attractions in Asuncion are sparse and we’d just about covered them all in about twenty minutes.

As a Capital, the centre of Asuncion is small and finishes abruptly on the banks of Rio Paraguay where it looks across the water to Chaco-i and the Argentine border beyond. The El Jardin is a kilometre from the centre and their small Garden snugly accommodates my bike squeezing through the doorway with half an inch to spare for the luggage rack.

After the ritual hot cup of tea, while standing in the cool swimming pool, John left for the luxury of Manuel’s for the night.

Despite the tranquil green sanctuary of the garden, there was a peculiar atmosphere created by the ‘guests.’ They were not conventional guests but kind of live here, lounging about the furniture, chain-smoking and socialising in their small familiar clique. The atmosphere felt glum and solemn and the regular guests were greeted without a smile or friendly gesture. It’s not that they were unfriendly… first impressions just felt cheerless with a heavy ambience. Still, I was here now. Five days was the answer I gave the registration form but I didn’t yet know.

My six-bed dorm had only a single occupant. A tall tacit dutch guy named ‘Took’ or ‘Tool,’ or something similar, locked to his phone screen and, like most Dutch people, spoke English clearly but, unlike most Dutch people, as little as possible.

Laying on my bunk in the dark, with just the glow of an iPhone screen from the bunk across the room and the rhythmic pulse of the ceiling fan stirring the warm, muggy air, a memory returned.

Decades ago when my future spread out before me as an immense possibility, far further over the horizon than it does now; anything seemed possible. Decades of abundant careers and fortunes waiting to be tapped. Undiscovered fields of dreams and plans waiting to sprout fruit from any choices and actions I might take. Maybe a family, maybe adventure, maybe security or maybe a home in the sun and early retirement to enjoy the rewards and fruits of my labour…

Asuncion, Paraguay. A place I had been curious about more than 30 years ago as a possible future residence since reading WG Hill’s 5 Flags Theory on the creation of a life, wealth and freedom outside the rat race… and how to protect it once you had it…

Primavera: Springtime in Paraguay… I’d arrived at an ancient milestone in a forgotten dream approaching the autumn of my life and, on the face of it, found it disappointing… but somewhere along the way, I had already discovered the freedom I had been dreaming of all along…

Lake Titicaca at Night

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Laguna Blanca

Belen. Stuck LorrySUNDAY IN BELEN is a day for sitting back and doing nothing. Much like any other day except the shops are shut. John and I planned to head south, cross country, to San Pedro the following day so I took my time adjusting the chain and head bearings, topped up the oil and packed away the things I didn’t need overnight. The recent storm produced a rumour that the road to San Pedro was now impassable so we took a ride out to check the first few kilometres ourselves

Just outside the village, a bridge crosses the river and two locals were busy fishing off the middle of it. John asked, “How’s the road to San Pedro?” The young man replied that his sister had taken the bus that direction three days ago and hadn’t been seen since. John asked if there was another bus that could take his wife, leaving them chuckling before we continued down the track.

The dirt road was slippery with scattered puddles of unknown depth but we found it manageable – even fun. A few kilometres down the road, we happened upon a truck in a large puddle, listing with its back wheels submerged deep underwater. The truck looked abandoned but as we dismounted to take a closer look, a man opened the driver’s side door and jumped down at the water’s edge.

Belen LorryJohn spoke with the driver for a while and he and the driver looked at me. John said, “He asked what you think about Jesus… please say something nice.” I replied that Jesus was “The One!” and left it at that, with it not being a topic I like talking about, but my comment seemed to smooth over an awkward moment as he vigorously shook my hand.

The driver had been here living in his truck already five days. A JCB had failed to pull the truck out of the puddle but the trailer and truck’s cargo of cattle had been rescued early on. He told us that the road was not too bad for twenty-five kilometres but the final stretch to San Pedro was impassible and we should turn left after about seven kilometres, northeast toward Tucuati lying directly east of Belen.

Stuck LorryMonday. We set off to Tacuati stopping briefly at the stricken truck to leave the driver some beer for company. Onward we rode over varying surfaces of red, wet and dry dirt track. Having been running around on an unladen bike for a week, my steering now felt heavy and lethargic with the weight of the tent on the front. The bags strapped on the back added some weight but I made good progress bounding over the potholes and slithering through the mud.

A wide puddle bisected the whole track with water and mud. John rode into the mud and got stuck in the middle about twelve feet in and 8 inches deep. I paused behind. Looking at the brown water, the truck tyres seems to enter at a shallow angle so I rode along a tyre track through the water trusting there were no potholes lurking beneath the surface. The water was no more than about 8 inches deep at the centre and I coasted through smoothly to park the bike on the other side. John signalled me for getting a push. The thought of wading through thick claggy mud wasn’t too appealing but there was no other option unless I simply rode off.

The thick, sticky mud gave a little support and my feet only sunk in about four or five inches. Gripping the rear of the frame and standing out of the line of the spinning back wheel, I leaned my weight forward with the bike and helped John creep the bike across to the water with the back wheel ploughing a deep trench in the slime as it dug in looking for grip and not finding any until reaching the water. With John out of the trench and now taking off down the track, I washed as much of the terracotta clumps off my boots as possible and rinsed my hands in the orange puddle, leaving my hands with an earthy fake orange tan.

TacuatiBy the time I remounted the Yamaha, John was out of sight but I continued at my own pace knowing that if there was a junction – or shade – he’d wait. Squirly tracks on the margins of the track showed that we weren’t the only riders struggling to stay upright.

When I caught John up we began riding on increasingly dry surfaces. Even though it became dustier when cars or trucks pass, I felt grateful for it. Following John along some truck-tyre tracks, he moved to the right to make way for an oncoming Lorry and lost control in a sandpit swinging left and right losing front grip before the bike finally went over. I helped lift the bike. Apart from some cuts on his leg, John was OK but his flat battery meant he had to manually kick the engine over a dozen or so times before it rebalanced the drained carburettor and fired into life.

Mennonite OstrichesWe continued over the corrugations, gravel and potholes at a more or less steady 40kmh and I reflected that I’d been on the road for over half a year and, apart from dropping it while stationary, had not come off yet.

The countryside transformed suddenly from wild brush and woods to mega agricultural fields, fenced straight and true, fringed with modern buildings with immaculate lawns. We could have been in Europe or the US. The red road remained dry with deep patches of fine sand and my bike suddenly went into a weave as the front wheel tried to find grip in the sandy depths. At the same time, the rear wheel lost traction and lurched to the side like it no longer wanted to follow the front wheel. The bike fell over to the right and I managed to step off and lift it fully loaded with some grunting and sweating. My first off.

While I was remounting, I  saw a young man on a moped hurtling towards us in the opposite direction at an impressive rate and thought “I have to see this when he hits that stretch of soft sand.” and he hurtled across the top with barely a weave. High speed is the key, I learned later: like water-skiing, but I dared not try it since the loaded steel luggage rack behind my footpegs would probably break my leg if I came off at speed. The good thing about sand bringing me down is that it provides a soft landing. Paddling along in first gear with my feet off the pegs seemed the safest overall strategy; later defined as “four-wheel-drive.”

Riding along the furrows ploughed out of the track by the tyres of the heavy trucks seemed to be the safest strategy. the ground wasn’t so loose but it frequently put me on the wrong side of the road.

I saw a lorry approaching in the distance and moved to the right well in time only to go into another uncontrollable weave and fall, this time to the left pinning my foot under the left pannier. My leg was twisted under the bike so I turned to lie face-down in the sand to relieve the pain and then to work out how I was going to escape.

Apart from the twist, I wasn’t hurt but I couldn’t move my leg out from between the pannier and the sand. Bringing my right leg over and between the bike and the sand, I used the rest of my body to lever the weight of the bike up enough so I could drag my left foot out. Once out, I managed to lift the bike up before the truck arrived and idled slowly past.

Before the day was out I’d fallen twice more to the left and twisted my ankle again but didn’t get trapped. Four falls in one day all in deep dry sand: my new nemesis.

We had two methods of navigation. Me with the Maps.me GPS app and John by asking everyone we met along the way. I gave up looking at the GPS unless there was no-one about. Asking was quicker and more entertaining.

The Mennonite colonies have immaculate lawns and modern agricultural buildings, a contrast to the native Paraguayan’s laid-back, slap-dash way of life. We stopped at a modern looking store. My greeting to a young blonde blue-eyed girl went unacknowledged another sat outside the store wearing a cheerless expression. The scene suggested the legacy of a Nazi experiment, a bit like the movie “The Boys From Brazil.” but that was just in my imagination. The Mennonites are religious pacifists that arrived in Paraguay in the mid-1920s and helped many other people settle and survive the harsh Chaco.

Colonia Manitoba“How many bars have you seen?” asked John while we were sitting under the shade of a tree recovering from my third fall. None! “The Mennonites are workaholics.”  As a result, they drive the majority of the Paraguayan economy. The road through the Mennonite communities remains unpaved with stealthy pockets of sand traps so we took it steady until reaching the junction with the paved trunk road, Route 3, at Estancia Alegria.

The asphalt gave me a break from the 6-hour slog on the dirt tracks and I happily relaxed with the fast traffic flow along the highway 30km to Santa Rosa del Aguary.  Turning left at Santa Rosa, toward Laguna Blanca. we were happy to discover that, despite the map and Google Satellite view still indicating a dirt track, the road to Laguna Blanca had been paved and even extended to the Brazilian border. This meant that we made fast and easy progress the final 30km and arrived at Ecotur at Laguna Blanca before sunset.

Camping EcoturWe were the only guests for the night and I instructed to ‘Camp where you like’. John took an air-conditioned cabana and I pitched my tent under the shade of the trees. Only when the tent was up, did the birds start their divebombing campaign. There must have been a nest nearby. “Too late,” I told them. “I’m not moving, you should have said earlier…”

Rough Guide’s “South America on a budget (2009) says:
“Paraguay’s only true lake, crystal clear LAGUNA BLANCA is named for its white sandy substrate visible even in the deepest parts of the lake. Completely unspoilt (the water is clean enough to drink)”

Laguna Blanca KayakLaguna Verde, I’d call it. The water was now green with algae and visibility poor enough to block the light of the sun if diving more than a couple of feet beneath the surface but it’s still drinkable if you ignore the colour. The water is pumped from the lake to the taps of the campsite.

Ready to goOn the shore of the lake. the team at Ecotur were busy hacking back the grassland, dredging the shore and importing white sand for the creation of beaches. I suspected that Laguna Blanca is not quite the natural habitat it once was. Still, the natural remoteness, the breeze through the trees to keep us cool and the quiet tranquillity of being so far from the road made it a nice place to relax for a couple of days…

 

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Off-Grid at Belen

MY DEFAULT SETTING for invitations is to accept and I found myself riding along Route 5 toward Belen to stay at John’s house for a few nights. A few Kilometers off the right hand turn to Belen, the Tropic of Capricorn is painted across the road, implying it’s continuation looking across the fields east to eventually arrive at the back of my head from the west. It’s not the first time across the tropic since I’d ridden down a dirt track to El Roble near Belen last weekend for Sunday dinner with the family who run Hostel de las Aguas but it’s my first conscious crossing of it.

Before March I hadn’t even crossed the equator so 2018 sees me pushing personal records for southern latitudes almost daily.

Belen. A tranquil village laid out in the familiar Latin grid of hexagonally block-paved streets. Its ambience reminded me of an old cowboy town. My iron horse idled down the street toward the plaza. Porches of plastic chairs occupied by watchful locals returned my wave or nod. I got the feeling word would soon get around that “There’s a new gringo in town.”

I reached John’s house and continued down the mud track toward the river for a quick look before I glanced over my shoulder and noticed Renalda waving from the garden. I decided I’d better turn round. Renalda opened the gate and I rode into the grassless garden under the shade of the trees. John hadn’t arrived yet. Renalda and her two sons spoke only Spanish and Guarani. I settled in one of the chairs in the shade of the porch out of the midday sun and worked hard at communicating as best I could.

John's HouseApologising for the repeated phrases that I failed to grasp took more effort than the mental decoding of the phrases themselves. Sometimes listening gets more tiring than speaking. I was relieved at John’s arrival about an hour later. He likes talking more than I do. Even so, ‘not speaking’ in Spanish is still more effort than ‘not speaking’ in English.

During a tour of the property, the list of little tasks slowly grew. I volunteered to help plant the sack of mandioca. This visit wasn’t going to be as lazy as I had expected but it felt good to contribute something in the offline world.

The next day, locals gathered and were allocated various jobs from clearing and planting to plumbing and wiring. I found myself at work like on a Workaway or Helpx site.

“Gardening in Paraguay is different to the UK,” said John. “You just put something in the ground and it grows.”

Planting Mandioca (Yucca)The next day, I followed the young Paraguayan’s row of shallow holes dug into the ground with a machete, poking in the cuttings and covering them over using my boot. The Mandioca was quickly planted so I helped out with some of the plumbing jobs punctuated by shuttle runs on the bike to the hardware store to exchange various items that didn’t fit properly.

At the end of the day, one of the guys brought over a cooler of beer and we sat back to cool off. When a can was finished it was tossed into the garden. I’ve seen this behaviour all over Paraguay, even whenever there is a bin close by. Someone else either picks it up later – or it is left. John did his nut and the locals retrieved the litter and laughed amongst themselves speaking in Guarani which poured more fuel on the fire. “When you’re on my account you speak Spanish.” instructed John.

A Guarani looking guy in blue sleeveless top kindly offered me a cold beer and I gratefully accepted. After I’d downed the last drop, the international sign for payment came with a rubbing between finger and thumb. Ah, I’d been suckered. Everything seems to have a hidden price here. I pretended not to understand and asked John to translate. He said, “I can never understand what he says” and walked away.

Renalda told me that there’s beer in the fridge if I want it at 10000G each since she says she pays 6000G to get it. It sounds fair until I see at the store they are really 3000G. £1 sterling works out to between 7000 and 8000 Guarani, so we aren’t talking large sums for gringos but probably are so for locals. It was more irritating than anything else as Paraguayans are kind and generouse with their time and energy.

After the workers had gone, we set off on the bikes to visit Christian, a German hermit living in a hut down by the river, pausing to pick up four beers along the way. The earlier storm had left the trails soft and muddy. the bikes slithered around looking for grip wherever they could find it beneath the slick mud and water.

KentonThe trail became wetter and rougher, and the sky was getting darker as the brush closed in around the track with the sun quickly sinking to the horizon. “We’ve gone wrong somewhere.” John announced, “we’d better go back before it gets dark.” Good call. I wouldn’t want this experience in the dark.

John’s bike began misfiring before we got back to town and hard roads. We stopped a few times to work out what to do but it always managed to kick it into life and splutter out another half a mile. We made it to the mechanic John uses and he abandoned his bike there before hopping on the back of mine.

We rode home, pausing to pick up half a cooked chicken for dinner. the food tasted good after the day’s work plus our hard ride over soft ground. We divided up the bill and put the beer in the fridge. John was going to Asuncion that night so I’d look forward to the cold beers the following days. By the time I wanted one, they had all gone, empty cans lying in the garden. Still, not worth trekking up to the plaza when the water here is so clean out of the tap.

The next morning, I was awoken by Renalda’s boys walking through the internal door. I’d forgotten to lock it by looping the rope fastened to a table leg over the handle of the door.

Without a translator, communication was hard work and I felt embarrassed by my lack of ability. Apparently, Renalda liked my company so, despite the urge to escape and progress my journey to Asuncion, I felt obliged to stick around. Young Pablo continually whined and the only remedy was for his mother to present him with a breast for milk. It turned out young Pablo was coming down with a fever.

FishingRenalda encouraged me to socialise and we dug worms from the ground in front of the house in order to go fishing. Her ex (Pablo’s father, Esteban) arrived and helped. I caught sight of a young chicken racing across the garden and heard Renalda shout. A black snake was chasing along the chicken’s track before Estaban picked up an iron bar and killed it. The snake was about 5 feet long, black and grey and apparently poisonous. Even though it was dead on its back, the thick gleaming black body still writhed.

SnakeAt the river, the mosquitos soon congregated to home in on bare skin or thin clothing. Renalda had company in Esteban and the two boys so I made my excuse and told them I was going for a Siesta to find sanctuary in my room to find some solitude and read and leave them fishing in the muddy, opaque river.

Both Pablo and Renalda developed a fever the next day. The following morning,  John called me on Renalda’s phone. She wanted to buy medicine and could I lend her 80000G on his behalf. I had already given Renalda 50000G for the previous two night’s lodging before riding up to the Plaza to change some notes.

After handing out 80000G, Renalda told me that it should be 90000G and I rustle up some small change to make up the difference. I was confused. She already had 130000G now. I became suspicious of the money game here. Generous and giving people but when it comes to hard cash, everybody seems to be on the make for small amounts.

WiFi at BelenIt became hotter than ever outside with no breeze. Even with the fan on full tilt, I was sweating in the room. I took the bike up to the Plaza to see if I could publish a blog I had drafted in my room and to read my emails. The proprietor said “Muy Caloro” and pointed to next door. I took my coke and sat well inside the vacant restaurant, away from the radiant heat of the street, while he plugged in a high-speed fan aiming it in my direction. The fan blasted a stream of warm air across me. It was more drying than cooling but I was still grateful for it.

The Internet connection looked promising for a few minutes before the service collapsed to a small x in the wifi indicator with all its signal strength bars lit up. I’d downloaded the headers for the emails but not the contents. there was one there about my Dad but I had no clue about what. the subject said “Fwd: Hi Dad!” and the line I could see said, “Well, that’s that then…” A WhatsApp message said “What do you think of this?” providing an inaccessible internet link. A Facebook message just indicated “Oops something went wrong!” so I closed the laptop abandoning the blog post to leave it in the same state it was the day before and moved closer to the fan while slowly sipping at the steadily warming bottle of Coca-Cola.

Arriving back at the house, the wind suddenly picked up and became dramatically cooler. I opened the door to my room hot air wafted out feeling like I was retrieving a cake from an oven. The sky was still clear but either rain or storm usually follows such a swing in conditions. I left the door open for a while to help it lose the earlier heat of the day. The bonus here too was there were no flies or mosquitos to fly in from outside since they can’t handle strong wind.

The storm arrived late in the night bringing the usual power cut but leaving the morning cool and fresh. I told Renalda I was going to Concepcion for some good internet and took off on the bike.

My reception at Las Aguas was cool. I didn’t expect a reunion celebration but at least expected a smile and a friendly greeting. I dropped John a message to let him know I was online in Concepcion. He said “I’ve just left Las Aguas. I’m at the Plaza waiting for the bus.”Pop down.” We chatted for a while waiting for the overdue bus. John flagged down a likely candidate bound for ‘Pedro Juan Caballero.’ Wrong bus. The Belen bus passed the stationary Pedro Juan Cabellero bus while John was busy with the driver and disappeared around a left turn. Hopping on the bike clinging onto suitcase and bags propped onto my racks we chase the bus into the Mercado and lose it somewhere in the grid. The bus we eventually caught sight off was the Pedro Juan Cabellero which could drop John on the main road a short taxi ride from Belen.

Victoria HotelFriday night at Las Aguas in the Aquidaban room was noisy and restless. Although it’s a private twin, for me it’s the worst room in the hostel, downstairs next to the kitchen and a bathroom, walls flaking and stained with damp patches. I’m not sensitive to decor but I am to noise. The AC took the muggy edge off the afternoon but I found it difficult to either work or rest and slung together some rough edits into the blog and sifted through some photos to add. The music and loud chatter downstairs in the hostel continued well past 3am and I laid down to hear the 4am chime of the church clock before finally dropping off to sleep. I still like Hostal de las Aguas as it’s cheap, friendly and close to the centre but I’d opt for the dorm upstairs instead of the downstairs room.

The Coffee HouseAfter finishing off the coffee at breakfast, I craved some more so I packed up and took the bike to a coffee shop I’d noticed a week before. The Coffee House wasn’t open until 3pm so I crossed the road to the old Victoria Hotel until it coincidentally closed at 3 and I recrossed the road to finish blogging at The Coffee House.

Stepping out at 5.30, the sky was blackening with angry clouds and the road was already spotting with rain. I had no rain gear but the air was still warm and I rode out of Concepcion a few kilometres to the shelter of a petrol station as it began to pour.

Petrol Station ShelterIn Bonito, chickens would congregate with me in the shelter of the picnic shelters when the rain came. It was the same with the motorcyclists here in this petrol station. there were half a dozen of us looking at each other and at the passing clouds.

Watching the sky, a bright patch slowly came my way and when the rain eased off I followed it east along Route 5 before turning south to Belen. The sky ahead now looked much worse and quickly turning the twilight of evening prematurely dark.

Belen StormThe wind was already up to gale force as I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn marker. Rain was driven under my visor onto my glasses. Visibility was poor and the wind blew me on a weaving course along the road. I knew I wasn’t far from the town and there was nowhere to shelter so pressing on slowing for oncoming headlights was my only option.

Belen was cloaked in darkness. It looked closed for the night but passing the Polleria near the Plaza, I could see silhouettes of people against the fire beneath the racks of spit-roasted chickens as I passed. Belen was experiencing another power-cut. I was the only vehicle on the road but I carefully made my way to the house to dry off and lay down on the bed listening to the storm before falling asleep.

I liked staying at the house but felt it was time to move on. Staying longer, I would have bought a SIM Card for internet but I didn’t want permanent access or I’d be online all the time. I value the solitude and sense of remoteness that being unreachable sometimes brings. Perhaps part of cutting the umbilical cord of Western civilisation…

Mandioca

The Mandioca two weeks later…

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The Aquidaban

The Vessel AquidabanAFTER A FEW days in Concepción, I discover that the magic of this town lies not in the architecture or its quaint echo of antiquity, it’s in the people. Laid back and easy to approach, unlike most western city folk. Walking toward Puerto Concepción, John gives me a tour of the Hotel Victoria. I feel we ought to be wearing white suits and Panama hats and waiting for a telegram of what’s new in the Empire – or some such movie scene. The manager invites us to free breakfast. Apparently, it’s rude to refuse so second breakfast it Hotel Victoriais.

At Puerto Concepción, the Aquidaban is secured to the earthy bank and bridged by gangplanks while individuals manhandle goods aboard. I was going to bring the bike but there is a bus back from Puerto Valle-mi so, Nah!. What would be the point of riding back to Concepcion? It would feel Vessel Aquidabanlike backtracking. There were four of us: Philip the genial young German heading into the Chaco to visit the Mennonite colonies, Matthew the journalist researching the Chaco wars and a charismatic 73-year-old from Swindon with a theatrical presence and sonorant voice that appears irresistible to the local ladies.

Aquidaban CargoThe Aquidaban feels like a post-war film set. A plywood edifice built over a wooden hull, laden with fruit, veg, meat, beer, steel wire, roofing panels, plastic pipes and mysterious sacks and boxes tied down under tarpaulins. Inside on the upper deck are wooden seats occupied with men, women and children and hammocks bulging with men only.

The days are numbered for this boat and its commercial future as the asphalt road Mulherssystems penetrate the remote parts of Paraguay. Trucks and buses can make the journey in a tenth of the time of the boat but there is a magic about this floating community depositing goods and people up the Rio Paraguay that will be replaced by nothing else. This magic will die with the birth of the roads. Like how the railways killed the canals in Britain.

Aquidaban CabinJohn and I share a cabin, while Philip and Matt dangle in the hammocks amongst the all-night drinkers and talkers. The weather is pleasantly overcast with occasional showers, keeping the temperatures from escalating to sweaty highs.

Aquidaban SkiffAlong the way, people are ferried ashore via the skiff that hangs on the starboard davits without the ship having to stop. For depositing cargo, the bow nuzzles the shore and lines hold her stern as close to shore as possible while goods are handballed over the gangplanks.

Barges“Absolutely marvellous!” says John like we are cast in another movie scene of a previous era. John had been here in the 50s as a kid and tells me nothing has changed except that the route that is ever getting shorter. No longer does the service run from Asuncion since the roads have carved their way past Concepción up the western side of the river.

Night on the AquidabanAfter sunset, locals start stretching out on benches and amongst the cargo. The dim sepia lighting encourages lethargy in the balmy still air smothering the river. The canteen is above the stairwell and the engine below. It’s no good asking for a menu. You get what’s ladled out of the pots. If you find a vegetable then it would have accidentally fallen into this scurvy themed fare. Meat and noodle soup or meat and rice for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I turn in after dinner and a couple of beers in the canteen when the noise of the Latin youth starts to win over the roar of the tenacious diesel tirelessly pushing us against the flow of the water.

JohnMy bunk is a sheet covered foam mattress. I kick off my trousers to use as a pillow and to help the air around my legs cool my body and promptly fall asleep. I awake at 1.30 by people moving across loose planks along the gangway outside the cabin. No engine noise and the sensation of mosquitos drilling my bare legs. Looking out of the window, two nuns in white garb beneath the bright light of a makeshift port. A bizarre enough scene to confuse with a dream. Too hot to go back to bed, trousers go back on for mosquito protection and I go downstairs to sit out on deck.

NunsBy then, we were already leaving port and the movement of the boat provided a cooling breeze. Still overcast, the near full moon shone through the silvery clouds illuminating the path of the river in shades of black, blue and indigo. Aquidaban displays no nav lights, only the warm low-voltage glow of the interior.

Breakfast on the AquidabanI awake to the muted rumble of the diesel and the thick watery air of a grey overcast morning drifting through the window. I laid in bed for a while enjoying the comfort before fueling my body via my beef stew breakfast.

At La Victoria, Matt and Philip disembark for the Chaco, A 250 Honda Tornado waits to board, Honda Tornadokitted out for a trip. Gabriel, a Jehovah’s witness from Asuncion on his way to Bahia Negra and into the Chaco. Gabriel asked for a second gangplank so he could walk on one pushing his bike up the other. No, it could be done with one, argued the crew and bystanders so instead of two people lifting a plank in place, four struggle at each end of the bike waddling up a single narrow gangplank as if to prove a difficult but invalid point.

Loading the TornadoAt Puerto Valle-mi, our berth was already taken by a boat being loaded sixpack by sixpack from a lorry load of beer, rugby style along the line thrown from one to the Rugby Beerother and stacked on the deck of the boat bricklayer fashion one on top of the other. The boat moved down the shore and the rugby team adjusted its line accordingly before we docked against the earth bank and rattled our way across the gangplank.

The bus arrived only an hour later, a modern doubledecker coach and I had prime position above the driver with full forward vista of the green flatlands of Paraguay. Two hours later we stopped next to the statue of the Concepcion at the end of the street of the hostel. I felt pretty tired, because of not sleeping well on the boat, and snoozed in the hammock on the patio of the hostel. John and I were supposed to walk into town but when I woke, I was just hungry and fancied a quiet dinner alone. It had gone six according to the church bell and I’d already waited long enough to justify a good enough excuse so off I went…

Puerto Valle-mi Aquidaban Cargo Aquidaban Cargo Aquidaban at La Victoria Aquidaban and Honda Tornado Aquidaban Cargo Aquidaban Galley

From the Left: Philip, John and Matthew

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Concepción

ConcepcionWAKING WELL AFTER dawn at Cerro Cora, nothing had totally dried but felt a little better than last night. The breeze was stirring the luminous sunlit leaves against a backdrop of tropical blue. It was still early, 8am, but already I could feel the heat building. By the time I’d packed away, I was soaking with sweat and sat in the cool Cerro Corashade of a concrete picnic shelter that seemed to channel the breeze and create its own wind tunnel. Even so, I considered staying another night to bask in the peaceful nature of the place. There was electricity here but the water for the showers was off. The river flowed fast and brown and who knows how deep. It would be hot and what would I do all day apart from hide from mosquitos?

Route 5 continues straight and smooth. Most motorcycles coast down the hard shoulder. Riders without helmets tend to travel slower because the wind around the eyes and ears gets violent with speed. I travel on the main highway glancing in the mirrors to dive out of the way of any speeding traffic. Staying on the main highway also means less of a chance of a puncture from loose debris as the car tyres keep the road swept clean. Deep potholes appear every few kilometres, usually on the nearside wheel track, so vigilance is needed for self-preservation.

Police checkpoints are frequent too. Small squads of military looking personnel stationed around road cones and huts. I slow to a jogging pace and give a gringo wave but none of them bother me. I remind myself to hide the bulk of my cash just in case I get stopped further on by a ‘fishing’ officer.

The Paraguayan air thickens with humidity and comes to the boil. I stop to take off my fleece and ride in t-shirt and jeans but there is little improvement. I start to get hungry and had already passed the disappointing looking town of Yby Yau so pressed on to Horqueta. The sky blackens from the north and the temperature begins to plummet. I don my fleece and zip it up to my neck but it doesn’t stop me shivering. Rain looks and feels imminent as I reach Horqueta and turn right to follow the chaotic flow of motorcycles over the cobbles toward the centre looking for a Cafe and avoiding collisions at the same time.

Passing the central plaza, I hang a U-turn thinking I had spotted the only cafe in Town. Raindrops drive me quickly through the glass doors. Ice cream is all they have and the small saloon is packed with teens.

The vendor didn’t understand “Vanilla” so I settled for Mint. It was OK, I was out of the rain that seemed to stop as soon as I stepped through the door. Concepción was only 40km away but the clouds looked pregnant with storm. Checking the map, Hotel e Camping Quinta del Sol was only 7km away. I decided to head for that as an option and leave the decision whether I continued to Concepcion up to the Paraguayan gods.

Hotel e Camping Quinta del SolBack on Route 5, the misty drizzle clouded my visor, blew through my fleece and cooled me to my bones as I moved through the watery air. I stopped to check the map and found I’d already missed the giant sign at the entrance to Quinta del Sol by about a kilometre. I never like turning back but felt too cold to plough onto Concepción. I swung the bike around back to Quinta to call it a day. I couldn’t face the cold damp trip and then have to search for somewhere to stay.

CampingFeliciano showed me around the enormous grounds with well-spaced picnic shelters, a farm, two soccer pitches, pond and woods. I selected the large picnic shelter tucked privately away behind a large tree and pitch my tent inside. The air was still cold and damp. Mizzle drifted in under the shelter necessitating the rain fly over the inner which tends to make the air stuffy inside. even though it’s cold. I skipped the shower and had an early night as soon as it got dark.

I stayed for 5 nights, The site was a haven of tranquillity apart from the weekends when football games were followed by party time at the picnic shelter next to me. Quinta seemed a different reality to me. Alien, Planet insect to start with. Feeling them all the time either walking over my skin or flying into me. The small mosquitos would somehow still bite my knees through my jeans. the weather would be high thirties and then plummet within minutes under a stroboscopic electric sky. the sudden wind would cave the tent in, unsecured due to the concrete base being a barrier for using tent pegs. I removed the rain fly to allow the wind to pass through. It turned out a refreshing strategy and although some moisture would find its way in during a storm, not enough to really soak anything.

Free FoodCommunicating was difficult but Feliciano and Rita were really friendly and generous and brought me food, even if I was hidden away out of sight on my PC. Everyone felt like family and I could hardly tell who were staff and who were guests.

Leaving on the Saturday was hard only because of the late Friday night music booming out of a car converted into a PA system about 50 feet away. I felt tired already and I’d only just had breakfast.

Route 5 again. Straight and repetitive. Police checkpoints, sporadic houses and trees lining the edges. A conveyor belt of monotonous scenery scrolling past deadened senses.

Concepcion, ParaguayAn unspectacular low rise town crept out of the horizon. I recognised the roundabout I’d just crossed by the map I’d checked earlier and I expected the place to be much more ‘City Centre’ like. Described as an old colonial town brought disappointment. Like a dilapidated cowboy town now paved over and the horses traded for scooters. There was traffic but not dense and it was frustratingly slow. No competing for position like most cities. The Streets of Concepciongrid system made for hundreds of crossroad that had no give way signs so the speed of the traffic made sense for life preservation. The bravest went over first and it’s every man form himself. Eye contact is a weakness. Once established, they’ll continue across your path knowing you’ll brake. Use peripheral vision and look straight ahead and the traffic swerves around you like you’re a blind man. The traffic was dominated by scooter style motorcycles. Whole families on one, toddlers on laps, teen girls on others steering with one hand, texting with the other.

StreetsThe city of Concepcion is the biggest small town I’d ever seen. Hexagon slabs give a smoother ride here than Corumba, Brazil but are rucked up and rugged in some places. some suburbs have only dirt road. The main routes keep their smooth and wide asphalt.

HorseI made my way to Hostel Las Aguas., just off the main road but far enough to be away from the traffic noise. Ioverlander had it down as a camping hostel but I was denied that option and instead, took a bunk in the 5-bed Dorm and unloaded the bike stacking the luggage in one corner. Manuel speaks a little English and points out roughly where the centre is in relation to the port on the bank of the River Paraguay, carrying on eastwards to the mercado area. As far as attractions go, there is one museum but that’s closed at the weekend.

Setting off over the grid of the city in the warm morning air revealed not much to look at. Overgrown plazas, rutted cobbled streets, dirt tracks, small stores and family homes.

Puerto ConcepcionThere’s no tourism in Concepcion. The port area on the river looked in ruins although it still shows signs of activity, small ferries taking people across the river. The abandoned commercial building hints at a city in decline but really it’s the effect of the developing national road system Puerto Concepcionstealing the trade from the river.  The people here are cheerful and friendly and the modest looking town bustles with activity and commerce.

Parking my bike at an intersection I walked south and found a huge Hotelhardware store. I dipped in an bought a padlock to replace one lost in Bonito and an extension lead. Returning to my bike I became conscious that all the intersections look the same and I wasn’t sure how far I walked or even certain I was heading in the right direction. The sun was overhead and gave no clue on my orientation. Two blocks further, I spotted it. I had walked further than I thought and realised if I don’t note the street names of the intersection, I’d have big problems locating my bike in the thousands of others parked at hundreds of intersections just like this one.

Hostel de las AguasFlicking on the air conditioner and snuggling down on a soft mattress had been a forgotten luxury after the camping mat and concrete base of Quinta and despite the racket of fireworks and badly played brass band music somewhere out on the streets, celebrating the ousting of a corrupt local official, I slept soundly.

At dawn, the church bells told me what the time was, 6am then five minutes later, 6am again. In case you missed it the first time. The bell strikes a single beat for half past the hour.

ChurchAfter the 9am peel and the snooze reminder 5 minutes later, I went down to breakfast to find a guest at breakfast. “Habla Ingles?” “Si.” A gringo journalist from New York, here in Concepción to research and write about the Chaco war with Bolivia. I asked him about the facilities and topology west of the River. He told me the same as Manuel yesterday. Nothing much there, even at Pozo Colorado. Some call it “the green hell,” the Chaco. Flat humid wetlands stretching to the western horizon with barely an elevation change of half a metre. Sure it would be interesting to see but not hundreds of kilometres of it.

My eyes now look east of the river and southwards to Asunción.

Relaxing in my room one afternoon, There’s a knock at the door. Manuel is there and an  old Englishman is behind him. “Hello, I heard there was an Englishman in Goncepcion arrived on a bike from Peru, I hope you don’t mind me interupting but I’m interested in your story…” His excitement was contagious and it was refreshing to speak with no  language barrier to someone from Swindon, only twenty or thirty miles from my old foreclosed home in Wiltshire.

John, is his name and he grew up in Paraguay in the 50s in one of the Bruderhof communities that settled in the Chaco with help from the Mennonites and later moved to Itacurubi del Rosario. I was as interested in his story as he was in mine. After a cup of tea and a good old fashioned chat, we exchanged WhatsApp numbers and promised to meet again… perhaps take a trip up the river on a supply boat slowly being killed off by the new roads… or perhaps stay a days at his home in the rustic village of Belen…

Streets of Concepcion

MercadoConcepcion Plaza

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Cerro Cora

Cerro Cora, ParaguayTHE STORMY DAY at Pousada Zamora was followed by bright, dry morning sunshine. Young people were at breakfast. Leonardo, Marisa’s grandson took an interest in the bike and my trip. He could speak a little English so I was a little later leaving than I expected. The forecasted thunder looked absent if not late arriving. In the United States, they’d call it “partly cloudy.” And I set off with my rain gear firmly packed away.

Jardim, Brazil.The roads are straight and smooth and farmland stretches to every horizon. Gigantic silos dwarf the Juggernauts waiting to be loaded with whatever’s in them. Villages are few and far between. Vista Alegre looks like a frontier town but presents me with a modern fuel station just at the exit before releasing me onto asphalt bisecting more flat farmland.

Ponta Pora condenses out of a steady accumulation of farm buildings, stores and warehouses so as its hard to notice when you’ve actually crossed the city limits. I pass a couple of hostels along the busy street and dip into Tompell to ask the rate. It’s 80R and not as nice as Zamora. I say I need to go to Migraciones and might be back later.

Tompell Hostel, Ponta PoraI need some WiFi to search for accommodation and soon reach the giant malls that the Brazilians invade for cheap tax-free electronics. The border is simply a line on a map – invisible in this merging of two towns. there is no border control at all and the malls stand with their toes on the border beckoning the overtaxed Brazilians with their quality discount fare from China. Burger King embeds itself in a parade away from where I can watch the bike and McDonalds ideally placed is bulging with impenetrable queues has a strong WiFi signal radiating across the car park, unfortunately, locked down by a password.

I start back to Tompell and find a small local cafe and ask if they have wifi expecting a “Nao” and get a “Sim.” I order what looks like empanadas from the small glass cabinet beneath the orbiting flies and grab a coke from the glass-fronted fridge before logging on sifting the web for other hostels. There’s a campsite 10km north but I want to be closer to town for dealing with the border crossing. I settle for Tompell and make my way back to cough up the 80R.

Bruna speaks no English but is charming and polite. Extras have a price here; parking, towel, snacks stacked in the wardrobe. I just take the parking and ignore the small luxuries. I have a dingy room with a bunk bed and barely functional ensuite. The window looks across a metre and half wide path to the concrete wall of the neighbouring building.

Bruna tells me there is a public holiday today and tomorrow and Migraciones might be closed.

Aduanas BrazilAlthough the hostel is close to the main road, my room is quiet and I get a good night’s sleep. In the morning, I use up all the time before the noon check-out transferring cash between cards ready to withdraw from ATMs in Paraguay. I decide to ignore the holiday warning and head to the first stop Brazilian Immigration at the airport 2km away. a solitary figure in a booth in an empty terminal is the man I’m looking for. Entrada o Saida. Saida… Asuncion. Stamp and I’m off to Aduanas near the Frontier Hotel. We fumble with language a while and I receive an exit document for the bike.

Next Paraguay Migraciones near the China Mall. Stamp Vamos and finally to Paraguay Aduanas to await their Siesta. Apparently, this side of the road, in Paraguay, is an hour ahead so it cuts an hour off my wait.

I follow a stocky cheerless lady upstairs to an office decked with mahogany cupboards like something out of the 50’s, beneath computer equipment like something out of the 80s. She asks how long I intend to stay and reply 60 days showing six fingers and she says no there is a maximum of only three months. I’d stumble on a strategy for getting the maximum allowance, so I say OK and stand quietly while the agent completes the form in blue biro before handing me a carbon copy.

Pedro Juan Caballero

Customs (Aduanas) don’t like dishing out the maximum visa period and sometimes cut back to 30 days. By cheerfully saying 6 months from now on, the agents might still feel a win by telling me “No, you can only have 3 months.”

Pedro Juan CaballeroBy now it’s mid-afternoon in Paraguay and just after lunchtime over the road in Brazil and I settle down for my first lunch in Paraguay, a schwarma on a busy pavement outside a cafe. Cerro Cora is only 40km Southwest. I read about it on ioverlander. A free campsite in a national park. and after lunch, I weave around the grid of Pedro Juan Caballero toward Route 5. Once on the road, I click up to top gear and sit on the straight flat road reeling in the miles toward Concepcion.

Pedro Juan Caballero Gas Station.The clouds to my right loom big and grey but don’t look capable of more than a threat of rain but a few specks drive me into the shelter of a gas station and cafe a minute further down the road for an Empanada and Coke. The threat comes to nothing, the clouds, impotent and silent, pass quietly overhead revealing the fluffy silver blanket at higher altitudes.

Cerro Cora National Park, ParaguayCerro Cora has a visitor centre with a little man that appears out of thin air to attend to anyone wandering in. Naturally, he speaks no English but hinting to my camping arrangement parked outside, he gets me to fill a form and shows me the map of the area. I ask who the portrait of the imposing figure is, dominating the museum wall and he points to the Spanish text beneath. I look at the picture for two seconds then leave.

Cerro Cora, ParaguayThe 4 cyclists I passed on the way in bustle around my bike jabbering in supersonic Spanish. They’ve cycled 40km from Ponta Pora and decided to camp here in the park. We chat a little best we can and they set off along the cobbled track. I pass them on the first campground, which they appear to settle for and take off further into the woods along a narrow toward the river.

Cerro Cora National ParkIt’s near feeding time for the biting insects and I quickly get the tent up in a small glade by the river. I’m glazed with sweat and the humidity prevents cooling by evaporation. My sweat feels more like cooking oil because of it. The shower block is a hundred metres away but do I really want to shower with a thousand alien species from the insect world?

I dive into the tent before dark and spray the interior with insecticide. It makes me cough and can’t be healthy but better in here than being eaten alive outside. I peel off my t-shirt and strip down and lay down to try to keep as cool as possible before quickly falling asleep. The coolness of the early hours wakes me up. My clothes are cold and wet but I put them back on hoping my body heat will dry them out. The fleece blanket beneath me is clammy too but I wrap it around me anyway. I hadn’t bothered unpacking the sleeping bag and use it as a pillow instead, subscribing to neck ache the next morning.

Cerro Cora, Camping

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Rio Tranquilo

Pousada do PeraltaTHE DAY HAD come. Monday, the virtual line I had marked in the imaginary sand. Time to leave. Seventy days might be a record stay for Pousada Do Peralta. My shiny new bank card paid the bill plus booked the Rio Sucuri tour, which I thought was close to Jardim but no, the map put it closer to Bonito, a lot closer. I’d already packed up and Pousado do Peraltaloaded the bike needing another night in Bonito and was loath to unpack again for camping another night so, while I still had WiFi, I combed the booking sites for a hostel. Bingo! Papaya Hostel downtown. And thus, I pulled up outside Papaya Hostel barely warming up the bike enough to put the choke back in. One thing for sure, after riding a bare bike around the town, the tent on the bars disturbs the handling greatly.

Pousada do Peralta“Compact and Bijou” the real estate agents would call Papaya Hostel. Small, in other words. To be fair, I’d seen smaller hostels but this one had so many more facilities compacted into its footprint. The main thing for me was It had my top requirements: secure parking to save me unpacking, power, wifi and free breakfast all for 35R, ten less than Peralta.

Papaya HostelThe Senhora on reception wore a stoic face with a disposition of busy-ness and my attempting to pay for the dorm felt like I was being a minor inconvenience. I only had 50R notes and she needed 35 but had no change so told me to pay tomorrow. the receptionist led to the small courtyard, paused, looked up at the balcony and shouted “Horsey,” making me jump A a stocky woman with a cheerful face emerged from an upstairs doorway and beckoned me up to the rooms. ‘Horsey’ helped me choose a bed and locker in the dorm she was currently cleaning.

I secured the gear that wasn’t already bound to the bike and relaxed in the cafe area connected to the internet while the afternoon rainstorm passed. I wasn’t really doing anything, virtually treading water in cyberspace. When the rain stopped, I wandered into town looking for a bar to toast farewell to Bonito and welcome the next leg of my Sao Jorgejourney after being so long stranded by circumstance. Bonito is surprisingly short of good bars open on a Monday so I found myself back at the Sao Jorge. It looked half closed. The bar shares the long wide entrance to the Hostel and nestled quietly in the shadows at the back of the building. At the entrance, a young guy sat at the desk behind a laptop and a girl was standing next to him. Their faces a reflection of work instead of pleasure.

“Cerveja?” a line I cast out baited only with scant hope. “Nao,” said the Senhora. “Sim,” said the Senhor and returned from the bar with a cold bottle of Stella Artois for a nice round 11R. A young couple with small backpacks had just arrived at the desk and were trying to make themselves understood in English. I squeezed by to the improvised patio on the pavement and brushed the raindrops off the wooden chair around one of the tables to sit down outside in the fresh post-storm air away from the stuffy, dark interior.

The couple struggled to communicate with the concierge before the young man disappeared down the road. I asked “Having trouble?” the young girl said, “Oh my god, it’s so good to hear an English accent, you’re the first we have come across here.” I told her I knew the feeling well. The tour they were on didn’t accept card payments and told them to pay at the hostel afterwards. The hostel couldn’t charge their card either so her partner had just gone to fetch cash from the ATM at Banco do Brazil a block or two away.

Rio SucuriJames and Holly were Aussies only just engaged a week or so back on an earlier leg of their trip and, as it happened, had completed the Rio Sucuri tour that day. When James returned we shared a drink and experiences on the road. The air was cooler after the storm and the couple were still wearing their wet gear from the tour. They were the same age as my sons but felt more like my own peers. Apparently, I shared James’ father’s adventurous spirit.

When they heard I was booked on the same tour, James tentatively brought up an invitation for me to smoke a joint just before floating down the river tomorrow. This felt like a scene from a video game where every odd thing has meaning. For what purpose was that invitation? I didn’t know but I accepted anyway and slipped the nicely rolled joint into my wallet.

After a solid night’s sleep in a soft bed for the first time in months followed by a filling breakfast, I was riding the rough rust-red dirt track to Sucuri. Hot Brazilian air ruffled my t-shirt and should have felt cooling to my bare arms. It’s a slow dusty 20km that makes the journey over stony potholes and loose corrugations feel longer than it should.

VinicioThe Rio Sucuri Farm is beautifully well kept. Vinicio welcomed me warmly in English and directed me to a safe parking spot in the shade for the loaded bike. I was two hours early so I could relax, perhaps take an early lunch, reflect and then smoke James’ joint.

I was about to settle in the hammock under the tree when I was invited to join the tour that was about to leave directly. I suppose I could have declined but I quickly retrieved my lighter, which had only ever seen a candle and a campfire, packed up the loose ends on the bike and lit the joint before walking and puffing across the lawn to join the group. The joint was small in size and mild in its flavour and was finished just before joining the group gathered at the reception. The challenge was fulfilled and I was already feeling lightheaded.

The tour itself was well organised a dozen of us led through the woods wearing wetsuits and crocs. The musical Portuguese words didn’t educate me at all on the flora and fauna around us, although Paulo and Thais occasionally translated. Rather the language blended with the cannabis to lull me into sleepiness.

Rio SucuriWhen we reached the river, there seemed to be no rush to get in. Instead, people were standing around chatting. I’d wait in the shade rather than the water. I wasn’t too hot and I’d start to feel impatient if I was ready to go waiting for the rest of the group.

Rio SucuriDrifting down the river, the water felt cold as it seeped between skin and neoprene and the sun did its best between the dappled shade of the overhanging trees to warm my back through the floatation jacket and wetsuit. the chill was getting to me when we reached the end of the drift

Thais, Paulo and Robbie.Paulo and Thia were unofficial translators on the tour for me and a young scot named Robbie. They told us later that they had just got married and were on their honeymoon. This was a happy revelation and reason to celebrate in good company. We enjoyed lunch together and agreed to meet at Gruta Azul since my GPS route took me back to Bonito before Jardim.

Some of us swam in the swimming pool although Vinicio apologised for the smell because a Tapir had bathed in it the night before. “It’s not dirty, it just smells a bit…”

Rio Sucuri ParkingAfter the bus took away my new friends, I packed up the bike and started back to Bonito as far as a fork in the road sporting large blue signs: left Bonito, Right Jardim! Jardim won the toss and I turned south down the dusty red track. Although it was late in the afternoon, I could feel the radiant sun on my skin, my t-shirt billowing in the breeze as I carved a dusty trail between open fields and farmland. After so long being static, I enjoyed the mixture of sensations between freedom and adventure and the feelings of doubt and anticipation that uncertainty brings. It seems they go hand in hand. If there is no uncertainty, there is no adventure.

The track became steadily more rough and sometimes I was launched into deep sandpits where the bike slew sideways unable to steer. I managed to stay upright as my feet shot of the pegs to scoot myself upright. My training taught me you should put the weight on the pegs to keep your balance but it just didn’t work on deep sand. Planting myself in the saddle and paddling with my feet was proving successful if inelegant. I couldn’t tell from the surface what was solid ground or not but the clue was discovered at the track edge where sand had piled up in long ridges. I could use them as an accurate indicator between which warned of a potential spill.

I joined the main road south of Bonito about half way to Jardim. I’d probably only been forty-five minutes on loose gravel and sand but I already felt weary. Perhaps it was the after effects of the joint too and not being used to riding of late.

The sun was kissing the Western Horizon and I could feel the evening mosquitos hitting my arms and legs in the warm air as I pulled into Jardim, a busy town that showed little evidence of tourism. There were a few hostels online as I recalled but I quickly needed a comfortable bed out of this muggy heat rather than wearily wrestling with tent and mosquitos in imminent darkness.

Baby Lanches restaurant. The proprietor was deploying the patio furniture ready for evening trade. He spoke no English but was suitably impressed by the laden Yamaha from Peru and served me as if I was King of the Incas. The fresh juices were cold, thick and succulent. I downed two pint-sized glasses of watermelon juice, so thirsty I’d become.

Latching onto the WiFi, Booking.com revealed Zamora only 2km away. 80R was above my budget but it had become a beggers, choosers situation. Red text flashed up. Last available, someone currently booking and I quickly entered my details and clicked confirm. I sat back to enjoy the fading twilight and chicken sandwich.

Zamora, tucked away in the nearby suburbs, was an anonymous-looking residence, save from the vinyl advertising on their patio doors. A Senhora cheerfully welcomed me in, as if I was the first ever guest and gave me an over-sweet cup of coffee from a container labelled ‘Cafe sem açucar’ (coffee without sugar.)

WindowHer name’s Marisa and she showed me all the rooms and, after I pointed to the motorcycle, put me in the triple so I could access my baggage through the window. I was the only guest tonight and thought “Nice trick with the ‘last available’ artificial scarcity tactic, Booking.com.”

GoldilocksThe room was hot and humid but the air conditioner soon brought both down in short order. The three single beds reminded me of Goldilocks and the three bears. I chose the bed that was neither too hard or too soft but just right and slept without covers switching off the air conditioner sometime in the early hours when the cold woke me up.

I slept through until 8am. That’s two hours longer than normal. The shutters kept out the silver light of morning but not the sound of the rain and the thunder. Checking the weather at breakfast, four days of thunderstorms. Not what I wanted in an 80R guest house. I decided to stay one more night. Frankly, I still felt wiped out from the tour and the ride to Jardim. I locked myself in the room promising to do some kind of blogging or video work and, instead, felt tired and depressed and surfed aimlessly on the internet.

I rested, read and slept on and off and gave myself permission to kick back and allow the wave of misery to pass with the storm if that’s what my body wanted. I’ve learned that going with the flow is the best way. Fighting feelings only increases resistance, and magnifies and prolongs the struggle. Tomorrow I would be “Right as rain!” and smiled at the irony of the phrase as I listened to the weather overflowing the guttering outside…

Thunderstorm

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Two Moons

Pantanal MoonTODAY WOULD HAVE been my 27th wedding anniversary, 5th October. Where would I be now if my wife hadn’t set me free? Where does the time go? My birthday yesterday too. Anyway, there was no way I would think I would be another year older leaving Bonito but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

The prepaid cards arrived the day before yesterday after a misdelivery to a town toward the Iguazu Falls. My Brazilian Visa expires on the 16th October so I’d already set a deadline to leave Tuesday 9th with or without the package. Giving up seemed to allow the cards to materialise.

Last Piece of the PuzzleLaying in the hammock under the trees, with the final piece of the puzzle in my hands felt instantly liberating. I could now leave when I wanted, but did I really want to? Pousada Do Peralta felt like home now. Roots were beginning to take hold. Everything I need is here and the staff feel like family. In a way, it would be a wrench to leave.

I don’t like travelling at the weekend so Monday, I’ll go Monday. The plan is to ride to Jardim, snorkel down the river and venture somewhere southbound a day or two later. I need a few items. Brazil tends to be expensive so I’ll hold off until Paraguay. Brazilians border hop to Paraguay for duty-free electronics. My Laptop sometimes refuses to start so I need a backup should it fail altogether. One option is a Bluetooth keyboard to connect to the phone. I can happily keep the blog up to date with that. The bonus would be that it can break my addiction to power sockets. The phone can be charged from the USB socket on the bike.

Digital NomadShould the laptops be cheap I could well buy a replacement. What about a camera? what about space on the bike? Yes, it’s a fine balance.

Bonito is noticeably hotter now and stripping off to shorts and t-shirt exposes me to the merciless sandflies and mosquitos. They are so small, I don’t see them around me until its too late so I remain covered as much as possible and suffer the heat.

Last week, the place was heaving with motorcycle groups. I found a wristband on the floor after they had gone so maybe there was a festival in the town. I don’t know, I hardly ever leave the pousada. All I need is right here and the supermarket two blocks away. When the bikers left all was quiet again. I had the place to myself for my birthday. I decided to celebrate for a change but discovered that Vandeia, the groundsman, leaves work at four and it had already gone three so I fired up the bike and cruised down the supermarket to quickly pick up a case of beer.

Three amigos sat on the porch of Peralta reception: Me, Vandeia and Gian. Better earlier with three than later with two, especially with the discomfort of the language barrier. I listened to the musical notes of Portuguese bouncing between the two staff members without understanding the lyrics. Instead, I responded to the birthday wishes on the facebook app instead of smiling blankly in their general direction.

Pousada do Peralta“Chuva” Gian announced with hands up fingers pointing down. That means rain. The sky was still clear but the air felt thick and hot. Vandeia finished his beer and sped off home on his Honda at a quarter past four and Gian returned to the Reception while I stayed racing the dying phone battery to finish my responses. The rain was transported in by heavy black clouds, growling with thunder and washed the heavy air into the ground leaving the evening fresh and clean.

Kix MarshallVery few tents come here but Kix Marshall from Kixmarshall.com arrived a week ago and we exchanged notes and took a ride out to the waterfall not so far away. The hot, dry trail billowed red dust clouds with passing traffic and we needed a swim as much to clean up as cool off.

Waterfall Formosa“Are there any piranha here?” I asked. We just shrugged, we’d soon find out. It’s the River Formosa where most of the tours are so I’d presume the most dangerous thing would be the waterfall to our right. These things can suck you in and tumble you under the water like giant washing machines without a chance of surfacing before you drown.

AustriansWilson and Rose were generous neighbours in a full-sized converted coach, feeding me grand portions of Brazilian cuisine, beer and cachaca. You’d think with names like that they’d be European but no. They hail from Guarulhos, Sao Paulo and travel around with their dog and parrot. They spoke a lot but I understood very little of what was said. Hardly any of the words I hear correspond with what I’ve practised with Pimsleur and Duolingo. I Plod on regardless. Pretty soon I’d be back to wrestling Spanish verbs again.

MacawsI’ve been here in Bonito for over two moons. I’d watched it wax and wane over the Pantanal sky, twice. Monday would make my stay 70 days when it comes to paying the bill. A lot of good people had come and gone in that time: Germans, Swiss, Canadians, Americans, Spanish, Belgians, Dutch, French, French Guianans, Italians, Brits, Austrians, Australians, Paraguayans, Brazilians, Argentinians and a Turk.

AnteaterStaying at Pousada do Peralta was as good as travelling for meeting people from around the world. The experiences here too many to mention for a blog post but I’m grateful for everybody’s company and generosity, and in all that time, I never saw one unhappy face or heard a cross word between people… even married couples…

Okan and Donna

BrutusnastradaMacawToucans

 

 

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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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