Diary & Travel Reports from the saddle
Medellin, Colombia - 26th May 2003
Simon Milward emails from Medellin, the industrial heart of Colombia, as he commences the South American leg of his motorcycle ride around the world.
He recounts his journey across the Carribean Sea on a pirate ship from Panama, his initial impressions of the genuine and friendly Colombian people and motorcycling. These are the subjects occupying his mind and time along with the stunning beauty of the Colombian women and how to introduce health by motorcycle in Mexico. On the latter he invites a $200 donation from 100 current Millennium Ride supporters, please see the last section of this update
Total costs from entering the port in Colon Panama to becoming legal in Colombia was US$280 for me and the bike, not too bad by most standards but I still think I was overcharged. I've been here now for two weeks, arriving on the 30m Flor Islena on Isla Fuerte just off Colombia's Carribean coast. The crossing, at 7mph with two break downs, took 3 days and four nights. My bike was buried beneath the contraband consisting of truck tyres, textiles, electric ceiling fans and videos. There were cabin beds only for a few, most of the five passengers and crew had to sleep under the scorching sun and lashing rain. My sleeping bag and mat have little grip together, a discovery made half asleep at 4am when a large wave rocked the boat. I was sliding towards the edge but was saved by a sleeping crew member.
Our route followed Panama's coast and I could see the Darien jungle to starboard. We stopped at various San Blas islands daily at 5pm for rest and sleep before continuing at 3am. Panama's indigenous San Blas indians govern themselves and are such a gentle and peaceful people with their straw huts, colourful clothing and motorised but patched dug out canoes used for fishing.
I saw dolphins, a wonderfully gracious sight, in groups of two and three they swam, making a bit of a display for us. The shoal of flying fish (flying) were even more amazing. About sardine size with rapidly flapping silver wings or the mini symbols of a tamborine in butterfly mode.
The Colombian welcome on Isla Fuerte, home to a number of contrabandistas, presumably whose ships are in too bad condition to license or who simply prefer to avoid taxes, was an all night beach bar and music and dancing. My bike was loaded into a launch to reach the mainland. Well, if I am to be illegal in any country on my trip, it has might as well be Colombia right? I had no passport stamp and no bike documents. Officials at the three police and army checkpoints on the road to Cartagena regarded my illegal status as quite normal. They even stepped aside for an interruption by pretty 17 year old Sorneyda on her bicycle "I want to come with you, pick me up on your way south." Well, by that time she had changed her mind. But, generally speaking, Colombian women are stunningly beautiful, outside and inside too.
The lovely colonial Carribean port of Cartagena is a fortress built around natural bays to keep out British and French pirates. It was a staging post for 40 million African slaves arriving for their Spanish masters.
The process of becoming legal here took about 3 hours and after a few days I headed south here to Medellin. Soon I was riding through the mountains, and how glorious they are. I needed several odd things along the way and people are very surprised to see me, helping me in all sorts of ways. I was told that the roadside mango trees were planted by the government so that travellers can eat.
I am enjoying Medellin, elevation 1,500m and about 1,500 km north of the Equator. The red brick buildings are superbly set off against the green mountainsides surrounding the city, often bathed in an evocative mist. It rained so hard two days ago the lower floor of El Colombiano newspaper flooded out. I was amazed at how laid back everybody was about moving the equipment and newspapers out of the water bubbling up through the floor. Perhaps because, in Colombia, people put things in perspective. In countries where are there are political problems all kinds of bullshit seems to be cut out of daily life. This region of Antiochia is the richest of Colombia, and one of the popular pastimes of the poorer Medellinenses is to sit at the end of the airport runway to watch planes taking off and landing. The airport is in the middle of the valley, in the middle of Medellin.
By far the most tourists here are young British and Israelis, attracted by the women and the reputation for drugs. The latter is not at all evident as you might expect, in fact Colombians don´t do drugs much. I have not found anyone munching on coca leaves either. There are alot of other reasons why Colombia is one of my favorite countries.
The bikers, particularly Hector and Carlos at Moto Angel, are helping a great deal. The local favorite drink is Agua Diente, a powerful spěrit that turns you crazy and gives big handovers. I made my presentation for the bikers last week. Unfortunately one rear shock absorber has broken, a second hand item pěcked up in Costa Rica. Progressive Suspension's items were simply not suitable for the type of use they got and I thank them greatly. The issue is my geometry. Along with my new mirrors, Colombian parts will hopefully include new shocks. Come on Suzuki please.
Motorbikes of 100-250c are used as daily transport here, but there is a community of big bike riders. Bike theft is a big problem, owners have the registration plate number engraved on all parts. By law the plate numbers have to be on the clothing and helmets. This is supposed to fight activities of the mafia and robbers, so they are identifiable. It is of course pathetic, a bank robber isn't going to advertise who he is. Buying the compulsory insurance is often very hard only for bikers, who have to pay a bribe on top of the fee unless they wait weeks. There are night bans in some places like Bogota. In Cali, south halfway to Equador where I'm going later, bikers cannot buy fuel after 7pm. Some of these rules may be justified, others are pure prejudice. Some riders justify inactivity on their part because of the political situation, maybe that is a cop out.
There is a fear of riding too far in Colombia because of the guerrillas. The richer end of society is particulary at risk of kidnapping. The political situation is very complicated and it is hard to build a picture. The people are generally pleased with the current president (Uribe) because at least he is providing some leadership. The safety instructions copied to you last time have obviously sunken into my subconcious because I am waking at 6am each day.
Health by motorbike in Mexico
I'm not sure about Colombia yet but I've been thinking about the situation in Mexico. All countries in Central America that have a need, use motorcycles for regular health visits to rural villages. The only exception are the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Why? No-one thought of it. But the medical team in an experimental area wrote a project proposal, the government health worker concerned are willing to pay half the bike cost, and being a firtst in Mexsico is highly innovative.
For $40,000 we can train the people and buy and run a zero breakdown fleet of ten bikes for five years. I would hope that we could get half of this money from Latin American development funds and save some through the manufacturers. So if 100 of you 1,800 curent Millennium Ride adventurers match my personal donation of $200, we can get things moving.
This is a great investment. It's a small fleet but from small seeds ... you know how it goes and intotal they need 400-500 bikes. Travelling is normally a full time job in itself, but if 100 of you are motivated to go for it we will do it.
But I'm not sure. I don't ask questions of you often. What do you think? Would you (or your organization) support it with $200 or more?
Simon Milward, on the road
A solo fundraising round the world ride on a handmade motorcycle.
Supporting Doctors Without Borders and Health For All.
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