Friday, August 25, 2006


La Cuisine de Provence has been open fifteen years: twelve tables; for decoration, a few engravings, but mostly framed cartoons from the Twenties. The menu is simple: salads, two soups, pasta, steak au poivre, daube, boeuf a le Moroccan and three deserts. Michel is unmistakably French. Six o’clock in the evening and he has been at the stove since midday. Now is his hour of relaxation before the dinner clientele arrive. He sits at the table in front of the small bar. He is fair-haired and chubby - as are most chefs (other than the dieting stars of television). We chat. He offers me a glass of a good red wine from Chile. I feel at home.
I return at 8 p.m. and order the steak au poivre. Michel has taught a local slaughterer the arts of a French butcher and the steak is the first tender cut of beef that I have eaten on this trip. A Spaniard asks to share my table. A salesman in his late twenties, he is Catalan and from Barcelona. He is at the end of a five week vacation. He hates Ecuador. The people see a foreigner, they eat him (slang for overcharging). I reply that I must be privileged in being old, that Latin Americans care for the aged.
The Catalan eats crudely a vast plate of spaghetti, drinks bottled water. I ask for a second glass of wine.
The Catalan calls for the bill - neither Please nor Thank you. The bill comes and he grimaces. “Five dollars for a spaghetti.”
I say, “You can eat at a comidor, a dollar fifty.”
“I can’t eat that shit.” He stuffs his billfold back in his pants pocket and departs.
Two local musicians perform music of the Andes. The atmosphere is friendly, the people good natured. I sip a third glass of wine.
Back on the street, I clean my spectacles. I notice flames way up above the town. Tungurahua is erupting. I replace my spectacles and discover that I am looking in the wrong direction at the wrong volcano. The flames are a crucifix of electric bulbs. Banos remains a dump – it is a very pleasant dump.


Banos is a small town and sits on a ledge near the bottom of a river gorge. The volcanoes that surround it are up close. The tallest and the closest, Tungurahua, has been erupting for the past few months - I pass men clearing pumice and boulders from the road on my descent into town. I have been half-frozen earlier in the day and came close to being killed by an over-testicled truck driver. Now I perceive a dump. Banos has an ugly church and two nondescript squares with nondescript gardens and a rash of mini-hotels. Most buildings are in the process of gaining a new layer or have owners who contemplate a future of further layers. The new layers require vertical steel reinforcing rods. With all this uncloaked reinforcing, you have a metallic porcupine. Most shops are small and sell similar hand-knitted items of indigenous tat. Restaurants are in over abundance, few evidence any taste in décor. Nor am I enthused by whole peeled guinea pigs cooking on sidewalk barbecues. Add scores of tour agencies all advertising on scruffy billboards the same hells: white water rafting, volcano scaling, jungle treks, swami searches, biking, quadra-biking, enduro-biking, horseback ridding and every kind of massage and bath and you have a picture common to such dumps, a picture I could do without.
I find a hotel owned by a Frenchman. The Frenchman hasn’t been in a while. A charming and very pretty receptionist tells me that he is scared of the volcano. She shows me a great room that has a table in a big window. The window gives onto two non-exploding volcanoes (the exploder is to our rear). The room has an ample bathroom. The water is piping hot. I thaw and feel better, more optimistic. I walk the town and am met by a mirage: a small restaurant that serves La Cuisine de Provence. Surely not…


I am ridding gently down hill towards the hot springs resort of Banos when a truck driver nearly kills me. The driver was in a race with another truck. The two trucks were abreast on a road narrowed by a ribbon of fine sand bordering the curb. Brake hard in the sand and the bike will lide. The truck misses me by less than a meter. Son of a bitch…may he die a painful and inglorious death.
Though I am presumptuous in complaining of a solitary near-death experience.
The volcano, Tungurahua, has spent the past few months attempting to kill the citizens of Banos. The volcano has done a fine job in killing the resort’s economy. This is high season and the town is empty bar a few volcano watchers and the usual dimwits who never watch TV news or read a paper. Of which category am I? Make your pick.


Latacunga is cold. A nice pair of cops tell me to park my bike up against theirs in the No Parking zone on the main square. The garden in the centre of the square is beautiful, complex and immaculately maintained. The interior of the cathedral is austere. The colonial mansion of the Marquises of Miraflores is built of grey volcanic stone. The mansion has been restored and opened to the public. The restorers have done a great job. Imagine a down-market theme restaurant for the Party elite in the old Soviet Union.


Ecuador is on the equator. In my subconscious, I equate the equator with sweat, sunburn and mosquitoes. I am ridding towards an erupting volcano spewing white-hot pumice. Definitely warm. I wear a thick shirt, three undershirts and a sweater, long johns and thick chinos, a bright blue rain suit. Reasonable protection?
Not even halfway to reasonable.
I am ridding at 70 Ks an hour into a head wind. My gloves are too short in the wrist to overlap the cuffs of the baby blue jacket. The wind races straight up my sleeves. It is a vicious wind. God knows from whence it blows. Probably off some ice-bound mountain of which Ecuador suffers a surfeit. Ah, yes, and another point: I am crossing a fell with the road peeking at 3400 meters. Take the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, triple it and subtract a smidgen. This is the type of idiotic sum I do in my head to stop dwelling on how cold I am. How cold am I? Freezing.
I am heading for Latacunga, 80 Ks south of Quito.
Latacunga is down a few meters.


Be careful. Guidebooks can wreck a trip with their warnings of danger. So can hotel staff. My advice? Ask a cop.
The cops in the Historic Quarter of Quito mostly come armed with Rottweillers. We were presented with a Rottweiller as protection when living in the Dominican Republic. I warned my son, Jed, aged three at the time, that the Rottweiller was not a play dog. Jed mounted astride the poor beast and bashed it over the head with a coconut. Unsurprisingly, the beast looked stunned.
I recounted this tale to a cop. He grinned and said that, Yes, Rottweillers were in truth big softies.
As to walking after dark, the cop advised, “Not alone and late at night…” a warning applicable to most big cities.
I dined in an upmarket restaurant by the Cathedral ($22) and walked an hour. The food was excellent, a salad of heart of palm, fresh asparagus, avocado and the normal greens and reds. Next came a fat fillet of fish in caper sauce. The manager passed by and asked if everything was alright. I looked down at my plate wiped clean with garlic bread and we both laughed. As to the great churches and monasteries of the city, they are superb and lit brilliantly, domes and spires pure magic against the night sky. The United States inherited nothing of equivalent cultural importance from the Founding Fathers. Even the tale of a few witch burnings appears minor when compared to a friar forced to eat his own eyes. Less you suspect me of being anti the USA, the Founding Fathers were Brits…


I enjoyed female companionship today, an Ecuadorian, a professor of Spanish. She is a mature lady, of my age or more. Dark spectacles protect her eyes and she is neatly dressed in matching woollens and proper shoes. We meet because I hold a church door open for her. Together, we visit two churches and two museums. She asks my nationality and whether I am Catholic. I reply that, Yes, I am Catholic and that I am English. It is an easy answer. The truth is far more complex. In the solitude of this journey, riding a bike day after day through strange territory, often feeling my years, I have thought much of what I am and what I have made of myself. I am a writer – that first and foremost. By culture, I am Catholic, though drawn to the Sufi tradition of Islamic mysticism. I am a European with roots deep in the soil of Worcestershire and Herefordshire, yet I often feel more at ease in the French language. I feel a great affinity with and admiration for the Spain of my Spanish forefathers, the Spain of the Conquest, and I feel at home here in Hispanic America. So there you have it: in every sense, a meztiso


Scrap of conversation overheard when being driven in a cab to the Honda agency:
The speaker is in her early twenties, a natural blond, slender and pretty, North American. She grasps firmly to the arm of a tall handsome Ecuadorian, mid-thirties, dressed in good taste that cost money. “My novio says…” was all we overheard.
“Two novios,” says the cab driver and we break-up laughing.
MOTO ANDES serviced the Honda, oil change, brakes, chain tension, etcetera. The chief mechanic showed me how to set the valves and clean the petrol filter. They billed me $17.


Two days in Quito and I have walked the Historic Quarter, visited half a dozen museums and a dozen churches. Highlights? The Chapel of the Rosary in Santo Domingo. Disappointments? The Jesuit temple. The Chapel of the Rosary is a place of prayer through which tourists tiptoe. The Jesuit temple is a museum in which the rare religious tiptoes amongst the tourists.
The refectory in the monastery of Santo Domingo is another must. The walls are panelled with portraits of friars in their moments of martyrdom. Roasted, beheaded, stabbed, strangled, stretched – it is all up there on the walls, great décor to admire while eating dinner. My favourite is the monk forced to eat his own eyes…
The carved wood ceiling in the choir loft at the church of San Francisco is superb; the ceramics at the Museo Nacional del Banco Central in the New City and the brilliant layout of the museum; the luminosity in some of the ceramics and in the oil painting on alabaster in the Museo de San Francisco.
Ghastly are the paintings in the 1920s mansion of the heiress, Maria Augusta Urrutia. Noted for her charitable works, her weirdest act of charity was in supporting an Ecuadorian artist whose vast paintings are a mix of pre-Raphaelite without talent and worse art nouveau. The architecture is little better (the patios are mean) and the house lacks a single comfortable chair.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I am in Quito, capitol of Ecuador. I have a room with an angled view across the square to the church of Santo Domingo. From my bed I can see a massive statue of the Virgin that watches over Quito from a hill top. The water in the shower is hot and the shower has a shower rose. I have internet in the hotel. Here, as prommised, are the facts of that night off the Colombian coast:

No land in sight and ten foot rollers all afternoon and in to the night as we cross the gulf. Cloud covers the moon and we sail without lights. Tension is thick and heavy as a loaf of wet bread. We spy lights ahead. 3 a.m and we peer into the dark. A deeper blackness gains shape. Rocks and walls rather than trees. Five big open outboard launches speed alongside. Two huge men are the first to board. Twenty black stevedores follow. Side tarpaulins are furled. The tarps off the cargo are yanked clear. The big men stand on truck tyres to conduct the unloading. Everything is labelled. Stevedores shout the name on a bale or carton. MM shouts the launch number. These are pros. They have done this a hundred times or a thousand times. The speed impresses. MM screams for extra care as two big jetskis are manhandled into one launch. Two outboard motors follow - high horsepower by the size of the cartons. This is an upmarket launch, side rails, centre wheel. I watch as it speeds off into the night. The skipper warns us to tell immigration and customs that we came by launch from the Panamanian border.


Monday, August 21
I was up today at 6 a.m., scratching my $4 bug bites. I dragged the clothes back on that I wore yesterday, took my morning pill and fled outside. I want the bike serviced - two hours until the Honda concessionaire opens. I search a breakfast place with doors. Ipialesians, at least the restaurateurs, dislike doors. Maybe doors keep customers out. They might keep the cold out. Perhaps Ipialesians enjoy cold. I eat scrambled eggs and drink coffee in the most crowded restaurant open at that hour - the more people, the more heat. Not in Ipiales. Ipiales is on a one-city campaign to off set global warming. I wait outside the Honda concessionaire until 8:30 before someone tells me the shop is shut for the day - a private fiesta of some kind. So much for Ipiales. I load up and flee for the border. And there, immediately outside town, is that hallmark of Anglo-Italian enterprise: a Forte Travel Lodge! True, I swear to God...
The Colombian customs and Immigration officials are routinely courteous.
I have been warned of Ecuadorian officialdom. I have been told to expect endless delays and endless tiresomness. I draw up at the customs post. The tall uniformed customs man who approaches is a travel fantasist. He wants details of my trip. What had I enjoyed most? What were the disapointments, the scares? We chat. A second uniform joins us. The first accompanies me to a window to have the import papers for the bike done. The inspector shows me where the engine and chassis numbers are on the Honda - something I ought to know. At Immigration I fall in with a group of Ecuadorians heading for a salsa fest in Cali. And with a Scotish couple from Perthshire. He has travelled the Carter Bar and confirms the similarities. I had counted on two hours at the border. I was out in one. My guide book warns of a police post outside the next town and that drivers should have their papers ready. The police post was there. The policeman grinned at me and waved me thru. And something had happened. I was feeling insanely pleased. Insane because a steady drizzle stung my cheeks and I was cold. The road had climbed from the frontier. The hills were cloud topped. Visibility was poor. Why was I feeling pleased? Sure, the hills were familiar. I could show my brother a photograph and he would presume that I had been in the Cheviots. However there was something new, something really cheering. It took me a while, maybe a few Ks. Then suddenly I understood. Ecuador has hedges.


At nearly 3000 meters in altitude, Ipiales is cold. A thin drizzle doesn't help as I consult the guidebook. I pass a hotel and find that it is recommended by some masochistic lunatic. It is a $4 dump. I don't have the energy to search further. I dump the bags on a bed. I don't unpack. I find an internet cafe, do my mail and eat a piece of rubberised bootleather and cold gooey rice in an icy restaurant where all the locals are wearing ponchos and keep their hats on in case their hair freezes. My readers may wonder what there is to do in Ipiales on a Sunday evening. I don't have a clue. I was in bed by 9 p.m. Thank God there were two beds in my room. I transferred the blankets from the spare bed to my bed and huddled down.


The day starts out chill. The road rises a while then drops fast in a series of swooping curves, dairy farms, coffee, everything green with a few splashes of blossom colour, blues, pinks, vivid burganvilla. Big mountains left and right, harsh as they close in on the road and suddenly I am in near desert and the temperature way up in the 30s. The road follows a river with bathing pools advertised and Sunday people in swim clothes carrying towels and a couple of small kids wearing inflated animal rings on the main street, or only street, of a gas-station/bus-stop sort of town.
The valley narrows to a gorge and up we go again, up and down, weaving through mountains scoured of soil and crumpled in a giant´s hand, sharp folds the road takes in hairpin after hairpin. A terrifying bridge over which I dare not look down, then up again on the last long climb. The bike rides oddly. My gut tightens. I ease into the concrete ditch on the side of the road. The rear wheel is punctured. Damn, damn, damn...
On the way up, I had noticed a farm on the left hand side. I ride back slowly, stop at the gate and walk down a concrete ramp to the farmhouse. The farmer meets me at the door, a square, well-muscled man in his forties - a child´s plastic wheely toy out in the yard, no sign of a wife. Sure, he tells me, Of course I can park the bike back of the house. I need anything? A drink? Any help?
I'm fine, I reply, though I am nervous. I last took a wheel off a bike somewhere back in the early sixties. I tell myself that mechanics is logic. I get the tools out and set to work. No problems. The farmer tells me to leave my kit in the house, insists on driving me to the next town to have the tyre fixed and insists on waiting while the tyre is fixed, then drives me back.
Thank you, farmer.
He is a widower with two daughters, the eldest with children of her own (hence the wheely toy in the yard). He farms onions and pigs. The pig manure keeps the soil rich and he grows two crops a year on the terrace by his house and on a couple of terraces lower down the gorge. He has a good house, modern kitchen, modern bathroom. The floors are tiled, the furniture a little formal. He drives a Mitsubishi jeep, ten-years-old and imaculately maintained. He is dressed in clean chinos, clean boots, and a fresh white T-shirt. He notices that I find his Spanish difficult and speaks carefully. He is about as far from the Hollywood version of a Colombian as you could get. He knows the image outsiders have of Colombia and Colombians and it irritates the hell out of him.
To me he is one more typically kind, generous and thoughtful Colombian. I have met none other on my journey through a country everyone warned me against.


I lay in bed early this morning with a depression for company. I felt old and I am very tired. I wanted to give up, go home, sleep in my own bed with Bernadette, talk with my four sons, cuddle my grandchild (the genius, Charlie Bump), drive over the Malvern Hills to see my brother and sister-in-law, cook for everyone, sit amongst my own books, mow the lawn, prune the roses, bore everyone to tears.
I can't give up.
That was the point in riding over that first pass in Mexico.
If I could reach the crest, I could reach Tierra del Fuego.
And riding a bike is far easier than writing a novel.
So I got up and dressed in warm clothes,finished packing for the umpteenth time and carried the bags downstairs, strapped them on the bike and wheeled the bike thru the lobby and out to the road. The staff watched as I lifted the choke on the carb. The bike fired first kick. I felt better. Right, let's do it! 370 Ks to Ipiales, Brmmm, Brmmm, Brmmm.