Friday, February 01, 2008
GRANADA, NICARAGUA: JANUARY 29
I am staying a few days in luxury. Gillian and Joe are my hosts. Gillian is a Brit. Joe is from Texas. They have resurected a colonial house a block from the Cathedral. The house has two patios. The rear patio has a pool. I swim sedate lengths between sips on a gin and tonic.
The gale forced me off the road into La Cruz yesterday evening. This morning I suffer both the gale and continual rain. Great. I arrive soaked at the Nicaraguan frontier. No shelter for the bike. The rain becomes a downpour.
Costa Rican officials are self important and understaffed. Nicaraguan officials are pleasant and understaffed. Transiting a truck across the border wastes twelve hours.
My photocopies go to the man in charge of issuing vehicle import permits. I explain the loss of the originals in Argentina. Lunch hour and two of his staff take a break. The boss processes my paperwork himself, moving from desk to desk. A thirteen-year-old boy carries my briefcase and laptop and crash helmet. An elderly cop behind teases the boy in a kindly manner. Ninety minutes and I have my papers.
I chat with a US biker on a 650 trail bike. He and a band of brothers took the wrong road yesterday, more of a river bed than a track. He came off seven times. Heartening this further confirmation that I am not the only biker who ends on his butt.
Thursday, January 31, 2008
I loathe having trucks on my butt. The wind strengthens all day, finally threatening to shove me off the road, or, worse, under the wheels of oncoming traffic. I stop for coffee in Liberia. A pose of Panamanian bikers on Harleys pulls in. The bikers say Hi in that distant manner rich guys on Harleys reserve for old men riding pizza delivery bikes.
I ride on into the wind.
The wind becomes a gale.
Tomorrow will be better. Why am I persecuting myself. Sensible to turn off prior to the Nicaraguan border at La Cruz.
QUEPES, COSTA RICA: JANUARY 27
Quepes by day is OK. I load the bike, visit the ATM machine, eat breakfast. 8:30 AM and my fellow biker remains in bed. She joined me for dinner last night. She is from Denver, Colorado, and deals in eco power such as commercial wind farms. She is a sportswoman and suffers from too many falls on mountain bikes and skis and whatever. She and my mountainboarder son, Jed, could compare scars. Probably her knee played up in the night and she didn't sleep. What ever, I can't wait. Sad. I want to wish her well. I hope to learn whether she took the Limon/Almirante road out of Costa Rica into Panama. If so, how did she find the United Fruit rail bridges?
QUEPES, COSTA RICA: JANUARY 26
Dusk as I enter Quepes. My eyes are bunged up with dust. I can´t see much. I do spot a small hotel with a courtyard protected by iron gates. The receptionist resembles a late middle-age frog in a straw hat. He hails from the US. He supplies information while entering my details in the guest book. Gringos frequent the bar one block to the left on the sea front: the working girls are safe. Best fish is across the bridge and a further two blocks. The fish interests me.
My room is clean. Towels are big. The shower has hot water. I rinse off sufficient dirt to construct a beach in the shower tray.
Down in the courtyard a woman dismounts from a 650 KTM trail bike. She is fair, late thirties, my height, green eyes, long hair. The KTM dwarfs the Honda. It has aluminium side panniers and a proper biker bag on top of the gas tank. The woman has a proper helmet. She is dressed in a proper biker suit, proper boots (though not Alpinestars).
I feel somewhat inadequate.
"Hi," I say.
She says, "Hi..." A real biker conversation.
She took a fall yesterday and limps a little.
She declines my offer of help in carrying her bag.
Maybe she will catch me later at the fish restaurant two blocks up from the bridge. Or maybe not...
The Pan American Highway follows the coast. Flat land is given over to oil palms and billboards. Hillsides are forest interlaced with billboards and subdivisions. Glimpses of the ocean are small compensation for such cross-cultural horror. I intend sleeping the night in Quepes. The final 47 Ks are dirt. Massive trucks drag dust clouds. Construction machinery looms out of the dust. Rocks kick the front wheel and the rear wheel. Gritt fills my eyes. My butt is numb. My thighs cramp. More dust. A sign appears out of the dust. The sign warns of a bypass round an uncompleted bridge. Miss the sign and you hit a dead drop of twenty feet. This is not fun...
Costa Rica is for sale. The country would be beautiful minus the billboards advertising subdivisions and condominiums, spas and country clubs, serpent farms and butterfly farms, horse ridding, surfing and canopy trails, plus every other type of crap that might gull a tourist into an investment.
I head into the hills a way in hope of escaping. No such luck- and I switch off the engine to make certain that I haven´t run a bearing. The screaching is cicadas protesting at billboard encroachment.
PANAMA/COSTA RICA BORDER: JANUARY 26
Entering Panama from Colombia, I was issued a 30 day visa. Customs gave me a 30 day permit for the bike. I received a fresh visa when returning from the US. Not so the bike. The bike has overstayed. Panamanians are understanding of such small irregularities. The Customs officer at Carpacho glances at the bike documents, stamps them and gives me a grin. The relevant clerk in Costa Rica is a small man, grey wiry hair, half moon spectacles and a power complex. I watch as he revels in exercising his authority over bus and truck drivers. Danes would call him a Counter Pope.
My bike documents are photo copies. I have crossed the length of South America on photocopies. He doesn´t give a damn for South America. I produce originals or I don´t enter Costa Rica.
I sit in an office and wait for the head of Customs. A woman customs clerk glances at me from behind the counter. She is plump and comely, wears a nose stud and smiles frequently. A while passes before she enquires as to my problem. She dissapears for a few minutes, returns and escorts me outside. She grabs one of the touts who seek tips for aiding travelers transit the border. "Get a lawyer´s stamp on an afidavit," she tells me.
The tout conducts me to a kiosk where a young Chinese Panamanian woman types my affidavit and complains that Costa Ricans are a pain in the butt.
A lawyer´s mother runs a dress shop. She charges me a poem for taking the affidavit to her daughter´s office in David.
The daughter charges $20 for a stamp.
The Costa Rican counter pope accepts the affidavit with ill humur.
The comely Customs woman accepts a kiss on both cheeks.
Finally I am on my way. I have been at the border four hours.
PUERTO ARMUELLES: JANUARY 25
Cameron persuaded the Banana directors to go the workers co-operative route in Puerto Armuelles. The job is done. Cameron and his wife are packing. Next stop is Mozambique, Cameron will be overseeing a multi crop agricultural venture. This will be his first visit to Africa. He is in his late fifties. He has made a ten year commitment to the British investers. His enthusiasm is that of a twenty-year-old. He runs me back to the hotel at 2 AM. I have been moved in with one of the young boat captains from the US. He snores gently. I snore loudly. He retreats to a couch in the lounge.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Puerto Armuelles is a typical United Fruit town. Housing is according to Company status. Three small bedrooms and a small yard for clerks and mechanics. Three medium bedrooms in a large garden for engineers and accountants. Offices and the guest house are zoned at the foot of a small hill that overlooks the town and wharf. Management houses are on the hill. The Regent's house is on the crest. 1 AM and I slump in an easy chair in the small sitting-room, drink cold beer and pump the good-natured Cameron for information.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, United Fruit had a near monopoly. They produced for seven cents and sold for seven dollars. They enjoyed the wealth and power now wielded by narcotraficers.
At best they were paternalistic.
At worst, they chose and deposed Presidents and fermented civil wars: the clandestine war that crucified Guatemala for thirty-six years was a United Fruit Company creation.
Cameron is a big florid man in his late fifties. He is a Scot born in the Caribbean. His father was United Fruit. Cameron is Chiquita Banana. Cameron has been king in half a dozen countries. King? Take United Fruit's operation centered at Almirante on Panama's Caribbean coast. United Fruit began shipping fruit at the turn of the 19th century. The road connecting Almirante to the rest of Panama was completed in 1995. Drive from Almirante to Panama City, you had to travel via San Jose, Costa Rica – a four-day journey even in modern times. The bridges into Costa Rica were built by and belonged to United Fruit. Same for the road and railway and the port and the schools and hospital and 90% of the houses in town. King?
OK, Regent. The Company was King.
Here, in Puerto Armuelles, the workers came out on strike.
The King abdicated.
PUERTO ARMUELLES: JANUARY 25
I have never pushed anythng in which I didn't believe. I believe in Hookedonpanama. The new lodge has ten cabins and a club house. The site is superb.
Rex has five boats in the water. Young captains from the US are fanatic fishermen. Marlin fishing is the best in the world. Opening date? March 1st.
Maria will continue to run the Puerto Armuelles guest house for drop-ins.
PUERTO ARMUELLES: JANUARY 25
Rex landed an eight-hundred pound marlin last week. Today he is boat-building in an old United Fruit warehouse. His daughter, Maria runs the hotel and paperwork. His wife landscapes 20 Ks along the shore where they are building a fishing lodge in partnership with two Texan brothers from Maui.
The road is gravel. I hate gravel. A truck pushes me wide. The bike slides into scrub. I struggle out from under and heave the bike back onto the track. My leg is OK. Thank Alpinestars for great boots.
PUERTO ARMUELLES: JANUARY 24
Rex is a Texas boat builder. He, his wife and daughter run a Pacific Coast sports fishing operation at Puerto Armuelles. Puerto Armuelles is a creation of United Fruit/Chiquita Banana. The Company pulled out a couple of years back. A worker's Co-op runs the plantations. The Panamanian Government subsidises the Co-op.
HOOKEDONPANAMA run the Fruit Company's old guest house as a hotel. This is a great building, full of history, romantic, spacious rooms with a/c, splendid bathrooms, excellent chef. I sleep in luxury - recompense for fear,
I am out of Panama City. Nigel took me for shrimp breakfast, then depatched me north to a sports fishing operation close to the frontier with Costa Rica. The Pan American highway crosses hill country with magnificent panoramas of Panama's mountain spine. I descend to the western plains and cruise at 90 KPH. The rear tyre blows. I am on a section of duel carriageway. The bike skitters side to side. Klaxons blare. Tip at this speed - end of journey. I don't dare break. One hundred metres to halt the bike. Push the bike a further two hundred metres up a gradient to a gas station. A boy helps dismount the wheel. A three-inch nail has shreded the inner tube. I carry a spare. I could do with a spare leg and renewed nerves...
I have been Nigeled. Is this a complaint or a boast at having survived. Nigel is a burly Brit more or less resident in Panama. He is a producer for Fox Sport and a fixer. He is happiest when speaking on two cell phones simultaneously – preferably whilst sneeking his car through an invisble rush-hour gap (he carries a reserve of Argentine Malbec on the back seat and steers with his knees).
Nigel is friends with a large portion of Panama's finance, real estate and hotel community. People enjoy his enthusiasm and his generosity. Visit Panama, he is the man to call. I called and was wined and dined and lunched and breakfasted for three days. I met people I hope to meet again, learnt statistics of Panama's property boom, placed a documentary movie project and did a live Spanish language radio broadcast.
President Noriega comandeered Panama's banks. The US invaded Panama and arrested Noriega for drug trafficing and money laundering (and concurrently slaughtered a thousand or so innocent Panamanians – too bad).
Noriega was evil. He was a graduate of the School of the Americas (GOOGLE). He was a one-man band.
Now Panama is an international financial centre. The waterfront is spectacular so are the restaurants. Property prices have quadrupled in five years. So have the number of banks. Many are US subsidaries.
What do the banks do?
Launder drug money?