"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.
It's also dangerous to be too judgmental. Couple of years ago, the Managua authorities decided to disrupt the smuggling. The response was brutal. Stone-cold cartel killers walked into the police station and cut the throats of five top cops. So now it's don't ask, don't tell-and tax what you can. People 'round here don't dream of winning the lottery. They dream of finding a wash-up. Even the most respectable families have a bale or two of beach-combed coke buried in the yard for a rainy day. Takes a strong man to burn hundreds of thousands of dollars in a country where teachers make less than $100 a month. So much of that gear washes up on these beaches the Colombians have issued a lost and found number. 1-800-I've got your stash. Call and they'll buy it back. Though I'm guessing that could be a fairly tense midnight rendezvous.
"Right here, sweetie." We stop by a sign for Sally Peachy. Sally Peachy? Was your barrio named after a stripper? "You're looking to get a hot slap. Call me at eight." Which eight? "Big eight. Bye, sweetie." Bye, sweetie.
Sally Peachy becomes North End, and the island changes. Brig Bay's mostly Mesquito Indian and mainland Spanish. North End is mainly black. The people here call themselves Islanders and speak Creole, a sometimes sing-song, sometimes sludgy English patois. It's nicer round here. Fresher, cooler and, if not richer, then more comfortable, more established. The centuries-old Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal churches all boast new roofs and towering spires. The houses are well-crafted wood, not crumbling cement, with proud fences and watered lawns. The dogs are on leads, the baseball team has uniforms, and the grannies rule these roots. Fat-thighed old dears sit on high porches with their legs too far apart, daring passers-by to take a peek at the one thing they never want to see. Sometimes I love being shortsighted.
Despite the disturbing distractions, there's still no better place to do some serious thinking than the saddle of a motorcycle. And right now, I have me a big decision. After a weird year of failed plots, lost plans and too much drunken inactivity, I've suddenly been hit with two world-class choices. Ride L.A. to B.A. for Motorcyclist magazine or fulfill another lifelong dream and finally open that barefoot bar in the tropics.
I need a sign. "Queen Hill." That'll do. I wander off-road, heading up the rocky track toward the muddy ghetto. Another potential nightmare on a two-up touring rig that's a sweet dream on this little shitter. Even when a wide-assed woman hitches up her skirt and hitches a bike hike. I say "Yes" only because I can't think of a polite way to say "Don't be ridiculous, love, you're far too large." This is motocross on donuts. But the bike doesn't complain. So neither do I. "What you doing up here, anyway, son?" Me? I'm going to see The Pyramid.
Behind the Children's Park, behind the tangled scribble of noisy kids playing overlapping baseball, football and catapult wars on the same scrappy space, a group of Spanish artists from souloftheworld.com are building a pyramid. And as usual, chief sculptor Rafael, the prophet look-alike with the luminous white clothes, white beard and white ponytail, is struggling to explain why.
Imagine an enormous cube inside the world, a cube sized so that just the tips of its eight (count 'em) points peek through the Earth's surface. Still with me? Rafael reckons there's only one possible way to position this hypothetical cube so that all eight points emerge on land. And his latest, greatest and maybe last project is sculpting pyramids on all these far-flung sites. Why? "It's all about Platonic forms and..." He's interrupted. "I'll tell you what is." Oh, hello again, fat pillion. Go on then. "It's a drug detection device. Right, son?" Wrong, ma.
I run Rafa back down the hill. "I hear you have an important choice to make." Weird news travels fast. "If you decide to ride, let me know. I need someone to scout our next location in southern Chile. It's called El Porvenir." He smiles his messianic smile. "Which means The Future.''
Back at the beach bar, Big Archie's comforting little Anna Banana 'cause her favorite duckling's just been kidnapped by a crab. Little Archie's slapping Littler Archie with a wet fish. Ooh La La's sitting on the bar talking rings'n'tings with her impossibly pretty posse. Pop a cold Victoria and wander down to the seashore, where the red and blacks are a-flapping in the wind and watch teens clamber over a shipwreck climbing frame. I love this easy island where even the sun sets slowly. But it never really was a tough decision. I'm still not ready to give up The Road.
Mike bounces over with his new baby in his arms. "This isn't such a bad place to live, you know." I know, but... "But you're leaving anyway. I understand. Maybe next year?" Maybe next year. Ooh La La dances over, a kinky slinky in a denim mini-skirt and painted-on eyebrows. She squeezes my hand and gives me an amber-eyed wink that makes my nuts crinkle. "I'll miss you for a week. Right, sweetie?" Right, sweetie. Next day I catch the puddle-jumper back to mainland Managua.
Next stop: L.A., baby. Or wherever I can find a new bike. MC