“Oh, it feels soo good to be back on the bikes, and finally making headway through Central America! Eh, Jase?” Riding carefree at a cruisey 50 miles per hour inching our way out of Costa Rica while her sun caressed our faces, a flash of worry began to flicker inside my head. Why was Pearl susceptible to the odd tremor on the smooth stuff? Her tyres weren’t flat, not even the front one—forging ahead after 23,500 miles—so why the wobbling, missy? Mmmn?
With zero warning, it transpired I’d destroyed the nucleus of my rear wheel. Royally. So royally in fact, that the hideous metallic racket assaulting my ears was the disintegrated bearings, clattering around inside my wheel in smithereens. The damn wheel was practically sliding off! Timeout. Post a test ride, Jason pragmatically urged, “I don’t want you to ride on a mile further, Lise. You’ll be at serious risk of losing that back wheel if you do.” ‘Arrr, right oh—cautiously commonsensical as ever—thank you for the update report,’ I noted wide-eyed at the gravity of the situation. The potential ramifications didn’t bear thinking about.
Despite being duly indebted to Pearl, she was trying her damndest after all, I think on this occasion the pair of us benefitted from some divine intervention: our moto-guardian angel, as well as Jason. The powers at play on Pearl’s back wheel—although far from road-worthy—hadn’t brought either of us to harm and Jase had put paid to that unpleasant prospect. That said, we were the merest of miles from the Nicaraguan border, on to making solid progress after our second city stint.
It felt pointless trying to divine meaning from the latest incident. Stop-start, stop-start; sometimes motorcycle travel is two steps forward, one step back, and fiercely opposing such an inevitability when it happens only makes the blood boil and frustration bubble. It forces you to take unhindered stock, even when you don’t particularly want to.
With just over 100 miles back to those we’d just left—Touratech Costa Rica’s mechanically-minded dream team—we were marooned for a third time by Pearl, who seemed to be expiring like a campfire at dawn of late. If it’s not one thing, it’s your BMW motorcycle. A lance of knowing dread shot through my soul, all too aware of the rescue scenario in which we needed to execute…somehow. Breakdowns for us had become far from extraordinary, no longer as rare as rocking horse manure; hailing down a truck to requisition the driver and his wheels was fast becoming part of normality.
Pearl had permitted us to breakdown next to an industrious set of workmen, tirelessly breaking their backs on improving Costa Rica’s highways. With a fistful of phone change and a handful of hope, I approached the foreman and began outlining our predicament—an urgent need to hire a truck to cart my motorcycle and me back to the capital—while stumbling over the (still) unfamiliar language. He gave me a long, contemplative look, as if he’d just perceived a vague pattern in a tangle of cat’s cradle string. With a little more sketchy embellishment, sound effects and animated gesticulating to just shy of a full blown game of charades, initial attempts of understanding eventually manifested into sympathetic interpretation. His resultant phone calls however proved fruitless; no one he knew was available to make a few bucks in rescuing this moto-damsel-in-a-rear-wheel-snag.
Time to launch the big thumbs-up and all the positive power of Morris persuasion I could summon in compelling someone blasting past to stop. Where’s a magnifying glass when you need one to accentuate the puppy-dog eyes? An hour or so passes by, and all I had to show for my efforts were sunburned shoulders and a sheen of sweat, which continued to bead on the small of my back as the rays penetrated me in a thousand places.
Along came Mr Badilla. The tropical sun and outdoor exposure had deepened and enriched his walnut complexion with a patina of age. He was a portly keg of a man, badged and dressed in blue astride his trusty Yamaha 250cc. Hurrah! Saved by the local police—not for the first time—and we’ll die another day. A fruitful phone call and another laborious wait later, a clapped-out old truck pulled up with its amiably willing driver. Having agreed an affordable price, we thanked Mr Badilla with hugs and handshakes; smacking his leathery hand against mine, which had knuckles like walnut burls. He smiled warmly in recognition of resolving our dilemma. Another good guy. Off we went with Jason following on his bike behind. I loved that a fellow motorcyclist had once again saved my bacon and my bike’s. Back to square one..!
The long ride back in a truck that had seen faster days took us sluggishly but steadily through blinding sunshine until a bolt flashed brightly across the cloud-wrapped sky—cracking the bones of the world with its bellowing roar. Frying white light split eerily, touching the Earth with its guttural thunder. Rumbling clouds pushed across a mulberry sky and the rain plunged down from the sky’s black belly. Enjoying the electric show more than the complementary power shower—Jason’s waterproof liners were in the back of the truck—he could neither see from a scratched visor nor his sunglasses under an already darkened sky. Blinking rivulets of stinging rain out of your eyes when soaked to the skin is as about as fun as a funeral. ‘At least it’s not cold or blowing a hooley, Jase,’ I mused, a Goldilock’s warm and dry inside the truck.
Back to San José for the third time—that old Power of Three rearing its thrice-the-price-of-one head—dispensing us with another tidal wave of city-bound time we cared not to unleash. Not with one we were so close on the brink of leaving, again. While the pair of us soon accepted the prospect of going backwards, Jason couldn’t help feeling smothered by the foreseeable delay; cloaked in a low-level irritation from unknown shipping and customs timescales that persists like Costa Rica’s wicked heat. We’d neither the funds nor consequent inclination to ‘live it up’ either. Game of Go Fish, Jase?
After a pedestrian few days in the hostel, Jason’s resolve was out of tune, sitting miserably in the wrong key and sounded flat as a fart. He’d contracted a serious bout of greener grass fever. Overhead, clots of fluffy white cloud scudded off, formed by the relentless thermals fidgeting beneath Costa Rica’s hot skies. I steepled my hands, clocking that Jason looked as terminally bored as I felt.
“Jase,” I positioned carefully—expecting a little resistance, “I’ve volunteered us both to work at the hostel. But don’t worry, the duties aren’t demanding and we’d only have to put in a few hours a day. Good move, huh!” “You’ve done what?!” he remarked incredulously. Oh no, here comes the heated tête-à-tête, and swallowed a curse. Only the sounds of the hostel filled the pause. But no trace of humour betrayed itself in his firm mouth as he gazed steadily at me, as if suddenly seeing the precipice upon which I walked between sanity and madness.
I ignored Jason bristling quietly—to smooth matters over I grinned encouragingly like a Cheshire cat to overcome any slight distrust and put the boy at ease—sympathising with the ache in his soul from being made to sit still in the same spot. (Perhaps a reference those closest to Jason will better understand.) “Yep! In exchange, we get: free digs, breakfast every morning, coffee on tap and machine-washed, tumble-dried laundry. All I’d like you to do is pancake duty; yours are like fluffy clouds compared to mine,” I pitched with eyes as bright as a chipmunk’s. Jason’s mind would projectile-exit his nose if he didn’t do something constructive with his time, and this seemed like an opportune temporary solution to curb the ants in his pants. Mustering a colossal effort of will Jason sighed, “Go ooon then but as soon as the parts come in, I’m outta here to work on your bike.” Thanks Jase, you’re such a lamb sometimes!
Evan, the manager showed us the ropes in running the hostel, grateful for the unpaid labour and dispatched a flexible rota of shifts to us. I thought he was joking when he handed me the ‘MOO’ to study (this guy had a habit of messing with my head at the best of times). The ex-US Navy Military owner’s Manual of Operations. Complete with binder, organised dividers of neatly labelled sub-sections and as thick as a village phone book. A person never really understands how big an ex-Navy personnel’s manual is until they look at one. Whoa!
My soul withered like a plucked cherry blossom in the sun at the mere thought of digesting it. Evan started eyeing me as one might a small child in a roomful of delicate knick-knacks. Okay so he actually wanted me to read the ruddy thing—my bad—without rolling my eyes, I humoured him. Expecting nothing more than routine inclusions such as: local information, hostel layout, checking-in procedures, the online system, allocation and tariff of rooms plus housekeeping, what I got was much and more. The deeper I delved, one thing became crystal to a gemlike lustre; it wasn’t queerer than imagined, it was queerer than I could ever have imagined.
Highlights amongst the fathomlessly in-depth offering containing countless ‘IAWs’ (In accordance with) included:
- A hierarchical chain of command starting with: Executive Orders from the Owner, appointed Officers as Second-in-Command and staff members. At ease, seaman.
- A glossary of definitions including ‘spare key’, ‘dorm’, ‘twin bed’ and ‘guest’. Really?
- Acceptable nicknames in reference to the room’s full names; e.g. ‘10 Downing’ instead of ‘10 Downing Street’. Presumably, ‘Number 10’ would be downright improper.
- “Disadvantages of long-term guests include less money per room-night compared to short-term guests, a decrease in refrigerator space and a tendency to feel as if they do not have to follow the same rules as short-term guests.” A tad shortsighted on the long-term nerve of said people.
- Staff may discuss “politics, sports, religion, money etc. but if the discussion turns heated the staff member must disengage from the conversation immediately.” A scene from the film ‘Stepford Wives’?
- “Male staff members’ shorts must extend to the knees when in a standing position”. Well, it’s no longer the ‘80s I suppose.
- “Female staff members’ shorts have no restriction in length.” Incredible!
- “At no time shall a staff member conduct any business at the reception wearing only a tank top. [On the upper torso] Por que? It’s up to 40 degrees around here.
- “The wearing of tank tops by male staff members is only permitted transiting to / from a bathroom with the intent to shower.” Well that has redeemed all then.
- No photographs or video shall be taken by staff of any actions that may “be deemed illegal or considered lewd.” A male staff member wearing a tank top en route to reception, perhaps?
- Male staff must ensure their attire around “the sleeves and neck are in the original factory condition and not altered with scissors or another form of serration”. Stay classy.
- “Staff members are required to take one shower / bath in a given 24-hour period or immediately after engaging in activities that produce sweat and odour such as but not limited to running or working out.” Goodness me.
- Beware of Potential Problems e.g. “Men, mostly middle aged and American, travel to Costa Rica for the sex trade”…and not only have a tendency to bring back ‘visitors’ but a “tendency to make the younger, female backpackers feel uncomfortable.” Men sound dangerous, don’t go near one.
- “Staff may engage in fraternisation provided the chain of command remains intact…and no coercion is involved on either side.” Rendered speechless.
A frightening wrongness possessed the manual and therein lay my problem. The author wasn’t slightly chiding, mocking without malice, as if he shared a grand irony with the world. No, his governing views were patronising, procedures anally retentive and methods teetering on lunacy. The hostel owner expounded on various arbitrary subjects beyond all rhyme and reason and I had to suppress more than a quip and a snicker. Bug-eyed, Evan shot me an expectant look and waited for me to opine my full judgment. Defenceless against his penetrating glare, for a moment I stood as though I’d been turned to wood and assumed dead silence that I fought to maintain with every bit of sinew in my body—until an uproarious laughter escaped.
May be the most bizarre 12 minutes of reading of my life by a nearly infinite margin. The odd barb of sarcasm occasionally spilled through the cracks in my reserve like piercing darts dipped in poison from a well deep inside. Oh, the mileage from the MOO would allow me to dine out on it for days. Evan being Evan—the kind of guy who was constantly on the verge of erupting into a big, hearty laugh—yet was serious and professional at the same time. For once, he let his guard down and exploded into a belly-rolling chuckle at my morbid fascination towards the MOO’s farcical absurdity. Pure gold!
Our delay incurred more days than we’d dare to bore you about. Jason rallied and I turned my back on the monotony of our situation and on things out of my control; the rest was just travail and vexation of spirit. Incredibly, imperceptibly I started having fun; I relished ruling the roost when on duty and helped to keep the lodging ship shape and shiny. Jason well, just went along with it…! To be fair, he was preoccupied running around like a headless hen: welding my cracked frame where the swing arm attaches to it (I really should invest in a Kindle rather than stockpiling at least four spare books); replacing all of our bearings bar those for his front wheel; as well as new bearings for the pivot bolt in the swing arm; changing the fork stanchion on my bike and fitting new mirrors to Pearl on top. Is Pearl good enough to be classed as rideable yet because I wanna get going!
We met some interesting backpackers from all walks of life, some sizably more sufferable than others. Admittedly, I felt like an alien on occasion who sees the landscape of human ideas and experiences differently than everybody else. Or may be that was just me compared to today’s youth—some almost 20 years younger than me. And then the silver lining of our circumstances revealed itself. The universe had aligned and paired us up with Daniel Rintz and Josie Flohr from Open-Explorers. Hanging out with these two, after rocking up on their BMW bikes by pure chance at our hostel was a godsend.
Thank goodness for like-minded folks saving us from ourselves, from climbing the walls in San José and the simultaneous act of being forced to learn patience and tolerance while parts were being shipped. Although short but sweet, we picked up where we’d left off with this couple—Jason and Daniel only having briefly met before—and got on like a house on fire.
Cooking, eating and drinking together is really all it takes to set the bond. While Jase and Daniel jabbered on about cameras, Josie and I produced some mouth-watering meals, exchanged stories, ‘Maps for Me’ pins for our opposing directions and our nifty little ‘couldn’t do without’ items in our panniers of tricks. I always adore pouring over bikers’ bits and bobs and was left beyond impressed at Josie’s ensemble of: a beautifully handmade and surprisingly robust ‘Mary Poppins’ style bag containing a condiment, herb and spice for every occasion (one of her panniers was devoted wholly to the ‘kitchen’!), a hand held sewing machine, two corkscrews—one of which I became a proud beneficiary, a knitting project and a GSI Outdoors pressure cooker! Too cool for school this foodie of a lady who had me hanging my nose over her delicious gadgets and goodies like nobody’s business. Incidentally Josie (at a week older than me), had also learned to ride a bike shortly before her big trip; my biking doppelgänger for sure.
And Evan was true to his word—for some moderately light work, we clawed quite a bit back while enduring the month it took to get us both rolling on fully functioning wheels. Perfick.