Saturday, May 20, 2006

Born to Be Not So Wild

AS I mentioned in a previous post, traffic in the jungle cities of Peru is completely dominated by various kinds of motorcycles. I already knew this, as my friend Blanca in Arequipa had painted a romantic picture of her "tierra", of people riding around on motorbikes, hair blowing in the wind. So one of my goals before coming here was always to try and learn to ride some form of motorcycle.

Having expressed this wish to various people on my arrival in Iquitos, I had several offers to give me classes. I took up the invitation of a girl called Glahiss, whom Hugo and I had met with her sister at an open air disco on Sunday evening.

We rented a small motorcycle and headed out of the city to the Quistococha reserve, where there is a stretch of asphalt with no traffic.

Everything was going fine. The motorcycle was stable and easy to handle; I was getting the hang of working through the gears. After making another lap of the short stretch of ashpalt, I slowed up and went to stop. I squeezed the brake; unfortunately in my efforts to concentate on the gear downshifts, I neglected to take my hand off the accelerator, and in fact ended up squeezing it harder.

The result was predictable; the bike careered and skidded about 10 metres, I was thrown off, and the bike rolled onto its side. There pretty much ended the lesson. I escaped with a light graze on my right elbow. The motorcycle, however, received some noticeable scratches around the front wheel and mud guard. Worse, the steering wheel appeared to be twisted, and the bike would no longer go into neutral.

We headed back to Iquitos, going slowly in second, me with some trepidation about what I would have to pay for the damages. About five minutes down the road we were stopped at a police checkpoint. The rented bike had no plates, and they also wanted to see Glahiss' non-existent licence.

Glahiss was called across the road to talk to the more senior policeman. "Where's your licence, señorita?", he asked. "I don't have one, Ramón", she replied. "What? How do you know my name?", asked the policeman. It turned out that she had known the cop when he was much younger and used to come to her mother's store. She had just that moment recognised him.

Meanwhile, I was left with the other policeman. Having explained the gravity of driving an unlicensed vehicle and the need for police vigilance, he took an interest in my piranha necklace. "What else have you done here, bought any other artesanias?", he asked. I told him about our trip to the communities of the Boras and Yahuas tribes. We were let go with a warning.

We struggled on. Just as we were coming into the central part of Iquitos, we had a puncture which completely deflated the front tyre. We stopped a moto taxi, whose driver agreed to "tow" us to a tyre repair shop (meaning the front wheel lifted onto the taxi's baggage space, us holding on). He also managed to straighten the steering column and get the bike going through the gears again.

The puncture took less than ten minutes to fix, and the shop manager was sympathetic about my accident. "Ah, it's the only way to learn", laughed. "When I was twelve, I rode my bicycle directly into a power pole".

We headed off again. Two blocks later, we ran completely out of petrol. The bike stalled and completely refused to start. This time, we got another moto taxi driver to "push" us the few blocks to the nearest petrol station. I rode in the moto taxi; Glahiss sat on the bike, which the traxi driver pushed along with a free foot. This is very Peru - informal, creative improvisation making up for failures in other areas.

We got to the gas station, bought some petrol and headed back to the motorbike rental plae. As soon as we had parked the bike, Glahiss went into flirtatious negotation mode with the young attendant. We had been away two and a half hours, but she was trying to convince him to charge us for only two hours. "Oh come on, make it two hours", she simpered, batting her eyelids.

In this way, the attendant was distracted from checking the condition of the bike and noticing the scratches, which I had convinced myself weren't that bad anyway. He eventually caved in and charged us for two hours, and we walked away, me wanting to hurry to the next block somewhat quicker than Glahiss.

If slices of bad luck do seem to come in threes, at the end of the day we had been favoured by fortune.

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