"Put the two of us in a sack, I don't know which one would crawl out first. Right, sweetie?" Lazy maybe Monday morning in the Hotel Paraiso, and neither Ooh La La nor I are in any hurry to get out from under the mosquito net. She, because it's her once-a-week day off, and me, because, well, I'm scooched up with a 20-year-old Caribbean beauty queen called Ooh La La. What the hell is she doing here? Christ knows, but this ain't the time to get overanalytical. This is the time for a little slap'n'tickle. So pass me a handful of cordobas-I wanna spend a happy hour bouncing coins off that ripe apple arse of yours. Right, sweetie? "Right, sweetie."
Welcome to Big Corn, a Central Park-sized tropical island 50 miles off Nicaragua's wild Atlantic Coast. A British pirate lair turned refuge for escaped and freed Jamaican slaves turned semi-autonomous backwater bolthole in one of Central America's poorest corners, it's now half undiscovered potential paradise and half ramshackle rum slum on a littered beach the U.S. State Department has only just taken off the Don't Go list. One day it could be another Cancun. Right now it feels like a secret. And for the past two months, a thatched cabina on Brig Bay has been where I've called home.
"Morning, lovebirds." Morning, Mike. The Paraiso manager is a disconcertingly handsome Dutch whiz kid who recently swapped his Audis and Monte Carlo weekends for this new, off-the-grid life. He's hovering 'round our eggs and coffee table, hopping with enthusiastic impatience. Last night, he threw me by asking if I wanted to run his beach bar. "I'd only been here three days when I decided to sell the IT business and buy this hotel." He smiles his deal-closing smile. "Why not take the bike and have a think?" I thought you'd never ask. "About the bar?" Nah, geez. About the bike.
The bike-a drum-braked, twin-shocker junkyard knocker, a Honda XL185 of indeterminate age. Like all old peasants, no one's too sure exactly when it was born.
And no one really cares. This is a barely working bike, a hobbled donkey bike that's slumped beyond the standard snotter, rotter or grotter. I know teenage Irish tinkers who'd turn their gluey noses up at this old knacker. But right now, it's perfect. I'm not trying to shave a tenth off a lap of Laguna. I'm just popping out for a ride. "You gonna take me home, sweetie?" Sure, sweetie.
I jump on. The seat falls off and the rusted-through tank stains my shorts. Mike talks me through its idiosyncrasies. "No key, no brakes, and there's a problem with the clutch." It slips? "It slipped off." Oh, I see. Guess I should have spotted the missing lever. "You sure you've ridden a bike before, sweetie?" Yes, sweetie.
Rotter or not, I'm delighted to be back on a bike. Any bike. Three months is too long to be out of the saddle. Even a saddle that needs holding down with duct tape. Rock it into neutral, clatter the spiny kickstart, give it some gas, crunch it into first and whoa, hold on, sweetie, lurch and go.
Out past Irma the cheeky monkey, out past Hildi, Mike's beautiful Hungarian wife, and out onto the beach and its deep, truck and taxi-worn ruts. Ruts that would be a nightmare on any overloaded overlander, but on this light, bright piece of shite are a laugh-out-loud joy. Even when the pack of sandy strays stop tearing chunks out of a turtle shell to snap at heels and wheels. Even when a pack of drunks stops playing Conquistadores and Indians in the reggae palace to wave machetes and whistle catcalls. Even when we pull into Brig Bay.
Brig Bay's the closest this island has to a small town, but it takes more than a cop shop, a customs post and sprawl of rundown homes sandwiched between the swamp and the commercial port to give this place any kind of charm. The bars are aggressive, the cafs unappetizing, the shops Baghdad- empty. The sour-milk stench of a stagnant, too-shallow gene pool clings to the big-eared boys with their feet on backward. It's not my favorite place for a stroll.
But we're not strolling, we're rolling. Walking's too, er, pedestrian; cars always feel like reruns, but there's something special about the rhythm of riding, something special about the tempo of two wheels, that takes the flattest notes and mixes them into the freshest tunes, grabs the grungiest images and edits them into the grooviest road movies, turns grotty Brig Bay into a lively montage of flashing colors, smokey smells and grinning faces. Maybe it does have some charm-just as long as we don't stop. Always easy on a bike with no brakes.
Past the Internet caf that's rarely online, past the radio station playing its curious Creole mix of roots reggae and corny Christian country, and back onto the only-road ring-road. The traffic's light but sometimes heavy. A supersized 4x4 swishes by in a smeared blur of blacked-out windows and buzzing bad bwoy bass. "White lobster fishermen, right, sweetie?"
Right, sweetie. White lobster is the local euphemism for cocaine. These islands are an important staging post for the go-fasts speeding north from Colombia. With the coconut groves wiped out by hurricanes, with the lobsters fished out by greedy foreign giants, who can really blame a poor boy for taking an easy dollar? Once a pirate, always a pirate. And while the U.S. remains the world's biggest consumer of this screeching tension, it's hard to be too judgmental.