Updated: Feb 1
In Baja California, big pants and braces are worn by the men and here ex patriot American escapees are a feather short of wearing confederate caps as their cigars get pulled theatrically from clenched teeth. These bikers, most of whom have not got a bike, have the eyes that say they can never go back home. Like barflies they didn’t belong anywhere until they came here and some don’t belong to no one. World travellers sit next to this mob because we have a sense of feeling that if you’re the only sane one left, you look like the one who isn’t.
I’ve left the USA and am in the Baja peninsula. I see in bars, men with tattoos on their hands, their heads, their faces, inked illustrations that echo comic book characters. The wilderness breeds monsters but equally the face of forgiveness can be just as wild.
Memo the bartender had no teeth but I watched him gum out a wine cork and spit it to the corner before it bounced off a guy called Pete who didn’t flinch. The Yanks were shooting their crap stories over and over, drinking in the afternoon until by tea-time they were drunk. Pete came over and said ‘God Bless’ because I was living the ‘free way’. It was partly true. My bike stood waiting for me, patiently so we could go for another ride.
These men are war vets from Vietnam, Korea and Iraq and they’ve all seen both ends of the barrel of a gun. One tattoo showed Superman and I asked, ‘is that image of Superman to do with the philosopher Nietzsche?’, because he wrote about the Superman, “Nah,” he said, “if you mean is that to do with the Ubermensch,” he cut me off with real knowledge, nah, you mean the one about ‘God is dead’....nooo sir! Likely Marvel film imitators inspired a generation of schoolboys some of whom turned into men who went to fight.
I ride my bike every day. Many people do. When I asked about the great late TT champion Robert Dunlop, what he thought about bike riding I’d heard he said, “I just ride my bike but a bit fast like.” So to paraphrase him “I ride my bike but just a bit far like!” A million kilometres and getting warmed up.
Sometimes on our down days we all look at the world in a bad way. You do stuff to live forever or you die in the attempt, it’s all to do with how you feel in the moment. It’s Heller’s Catch 22; and it’s like this: if it’s actually worth dying for, and I start off every trip thinking this will happen, then some inverse law tells me it’s worth living for too.
The bike itself gets caught in the sand. It's not the fault of the bike. I’m in isolated terrain on the Baja peninsula and it’s wonderful to be so alone. I dig a hole with my rear wheel and there is only me to sort it out. Yet what an incredible machine. I’m loving it.
This is the reason for the journey. That I dream and then I am on the road. The author Kerouac said how surprised at how easy it was leaving. I find staying away far more comfortable because when I move it sparks my life. At every street corner there are people who have missed their revolving door and want a way out of their lives. We are all a thin veneer from messing up. Crushed beyond belief from stuff we shouldn’t do but do anyway. People say ‘Hey you’re that crazy guy?’ and I say I’ve stood next to ‘crazy’ and it doesn’t smell very nice so please don't call me that. Crazy is like someone else has inhabited your body and you've lost the way to your true self. The war vets nodded. They knew. The odour of someone who is mad is the first step to flesh rotting. ‘Buddy, when people call you mad, they’re actually sayin’ it ‘bout themselves, right?’
The sun set and in front, the peaks of the mountains sharpened so intensively you could reach out with your hand and touch the top. I was there looking back down on myself in the middle of this landscape so delicious and how I could eat the world raw. I was riding south to a tiny village called Puerto San Francisquito.When I got there, through the mountains and bluffs, the rocky tracks, the sand, you stop your bike and sit in silence looking at the empty bay, the pelicans sitting on the jetty. You close your eyes and wait for a piece of truth to happen and when it does it shakes you like a shot.
People talk, they tell strangers their secrets. Riding my bike l think how belief is about wanting to think something is true even if it isn’t. I guess truth is all about how much we want to believe in what we think we know. Is that right?
Days later I turned north and started across the southern border of the United States. A travel advisory was issued telling us not to go into the state of Sinaloa. Considered the most lawless areas in the whole Central American continent lying alongside the Gulf of California and below Mexico’s most northerly state, Sonora. Drug sales from the Narco Trade in the whole of the country is estimated to range from $13.6 to $49.4 billion annually with 120,000 people killed up until the end of 2013, an especially bad year for homicides. In 2012 my friend Jim Wolfe was kidnapped during one of my client driven expeditions only to be released unharmed days later. He knows about nearly being killed out here.
Forever on this trip I’d said goodbye to the Starbucks way of life. Starbucks know there is a mathematical logic to purchasing and as long as everything is in an order we understand then that the purchase will be made. The heartbreak happens when the codification of order breaks down. You want to go for a bike ride. You want to do this but that means your order will break down. You have a marriage, a house, a job. To motorcycle around the world you need a lot of planning and you have to break the order, much of which is in the head.
I spent Christmas in Oaxaca and then crossed the border into Guatemala.
A little natural history.
The name ‘Guatemala’ comes from the local Indian Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān, a “place of many trees" and if you think of as jungle being the dense version of such, it was all around. The Colombian author García Márquez, when speaking of the magical quality of Latin American life said in an interview, “you see there are in our countries, rivers which have no names, trees which nobody knows, and birds which nobody has described. It is easier for us to be surrealistic because everything we know is new.”
I couldn't choose between the two countries, El Salvador or Guatemala. Their veins hold the same blood and as a traveller in each country I had fantasies that I could live there.
When I was young my careers master at school did not tell me how exciting my life was going to be or about the great future which lay ahead. He said to us that “half of you have gone as far as you will go, some of you a bit further. Some will marry and get a job, holiday for a week once a year.” He never said I could do this, but now I know it can be done and I will do it again.
There are cars everywhere, like a virus sticking to something organic, proliferating. They get in the way of the view.
What do you think about when you ride your bike? It’s a rhetorical question and it’s probable that one in a thousand get a glimpse of the possible. The riding, the focus, the isolation and the loneliness focuses the brain. That’s why I journey. In a moment of reflection when you are not sitting riding your bike, when not braced against the impact of oncoming traffic, our obsessions as we ride, probe the uncomfortable. It’s a good way to think about such an improbable thought. So a defining logic of travel after 10 circumnavigations (two by bicycle), has always been based on need. A need to earn money. A need to be noticed. A need to try and understand and even help clear up the mess in which I’m in. It's in my head and to think too much can cause a collapse with a curse on your existence but on my bike and then into El Salvador or anywhere is like clear water drunk from a well it cleans you out.
In 1996 I rode through Guatemala on my Daytona 900 as the country recovered from 30 years of civil war. The landscape and people felt dark and dangerous. Now Guatemala was delightful. The people were friendly and the traffic kind. Everywhere the jungle grew down to the road where street vendors would sell you something hot which you could wash down with freshly squeezed orange juice.
The writer Earnest Hemingway said that “all good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
At the El Salvadorian border, entering a country with such a fearful bad ass reputation was, if you thought about it to much might make you want to go right back across the bridge even if it were dark. Gang culture is a problem. There are 25,000 gang members at large in El Salvador with another 9,000 in prison. El Salvador had 66 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, more than triple the rate in Mexico that year. Yet, amazingly, the Global Peace Index rated El Salvador the 51st most dangerous country which compared to Russia in 10th position – a country I’ve travelled across three times without any problem – it’s a veritable kindergarten where big tough gang members help their frail old mums across the road. I’ve seen it done.
The guards shook my hand and wished me well and gave me a small history of the route they suggested I take. El Salvador has hundreds of rivers, mostly small, they said, that the most significant was the Lempa River; rising as rivers do in the mountains of Honduras only to flow south across the central plateau and empty into the Pacific. Volcanic lakes said the man, stamping my entry form, cover the interior, most of them ringed by mountains and in between all of this he said were the traders who will sell me horchatas, rice milk with lacing of cinnamon or fruit syrups in plastic bags of shaved ice. So far so good. I am not actually being hacked to death.
Meanwhile the length of the country is 268 miles so it was an easy crossing during the day and by the time I emerged into Honduras it was possible to ride that short section and onto the border with Nicaragua.
The bike hummed and danced and I’m sure I heard it play a tune.
Apart from the beauty of riding it, there was little to say because it worked precisely the way it did each day, more or less the same. When I ride my bike, this tried and tested Ténéré 700, as well as the repeating sound of the engine and the slap of the pistons that sometimes can be heard when the wind drops away from my ears, I sit on my saddle like a King.
We’ve all had this feeling and had in our heads recurring thoughts that won’t go away. It’s the absorbable magic of a bit of prose that I carry with me wherever I go. With luck you stop quickly enough to write it down before it leaks away and so sometimes makes a sentence. I do this all day until my brain starts to bleed because you see we are a species that needs to know what we want and what we might want to be. Bugs that land on your visor don’t need to think this way, even before they die. Bugs and humans differ at least in this way so I know we are better than that and slowly, wherever your own story starts, it’s up to whoever you want to be to join up words together like beads.
The first million words I wrote should have got no further than the bin.
When I rode my bike and travelled far away, what I wrote, whilst not meaningful in itself gave off like a burning bush some vague account of bits of me. It wasn’t about the place but such is the fertility of chaos you see the way a plant can push through an impermeable surface. I need this like the plant to find a way back to life.
At the base of a secret tree I knew there was a motorbike.
There often is, because the next day I arrived in Granada, the sixth most populous city in Nicaragua and one of its most important and iconic places. With a thriving indigenous population and parked as it is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the world’s twentieth largest lake, the vegetation is a reflection of it’s climatology. Humid and dry forests lie along the base of the Mombacho volcano which exists with only one known eruption in 1570. Higher up the slopes a cloud forest grows characterised by low level cloud cover, and further up a dwarf forest existed in its own ecosystem, kept small due to poor soil. Locals tell of secrets they tell when they climb the mountain. They say around here, in the way myth tells of tall trees holding up the sky, a secret can be kept as long as it’s not known by yourself. They say the biggest secrets can only be told to strangers. People tell me secrets they wouldn’t tell their friends and I’ve told my secrets to the wind and I know the wind tells the trees. On the dwarf slopes higher above the canopy of cloud on a lake in Nicaragua this is also what people say they do. People are secrets too and further away in Panama I found one I really liked.
Hunter the Secret Person
Stephen King said about writing, “f you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” It’s exactly the same about anything, about motorcycling around the world, taking on that first big ride. You have to ride your bike a lot. You have to think about that ride all of the time. About starting a journey it must become a need. You should go. It’s possible. Never say you can’t and if you’re serious enough to start, you will. I knew from the beginning that you can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another but riding a motorcycle is one of the better ways to try.
I left Granada for a short ride to San Juan, riding off-road for much of the way when I realized my satellite navigation was accidently on ‘walking’ mode meaning I was being led in a straight line in a way a horse would follow. Eventually after circling around the town I found lodgings for what I could afford and the next day took the ferry to Ometepe. It was the cutest riveted old tub crammed with the bakers truck and melons piled high on pick-ups. Piles of coconuts were strapped down in baskets and as I paid my seven dollars we set sail and I fell asleep on the deck by my bike, sea spray splashing over the low side. Two hours later we docked in the small and gracious High Street of Altagracia. I stopped at the Cornerhouse Coffee café and ordered delicious eggs Benedict with tomatoes, potatoes and pesto washed down with pineapple juice all followed by the freshest locally grown coffee from the nearby plantations. A few days later I’d crossed Costa Rica mostly at night. In the morning I saw the beach.
I met two new friends, Norman and Hunter not far from the border having crossed into Panama and they shared with me a bit of their story. One man sold up everything he had and changed the way he began to think. From Norman the Cowman to Norman the Bike.
Norman the Bike
The other had stuck firmly to who he knew he was for all of his life. Hunter had the face of a man who had smiled all his life. He had a secret too.