Roughstuff´s Guide to Cycling the World´s Dangerous Places

How to ride in areas of substantial political, economic and or civil unrest and still manage to get by intact!

Many of you have written to me while I am on my world tour to ask me to provide helpful information about how to avoid the hassles of the road, including but not limited to, dogs and more serious problems with theft, thieves, perhaps even guerillas.

Below is the scoop, straight and simple as I like it. By the way I draw from over 50,000 kilometers of cycle touring in such places as Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Ireland (yes...ireland has its dangers!), Eastern Europe (in the communist days), Siberia, and the Russian Far East. The stuff on weapons I got from my best badboy friend Robbie and many friends I have in the military, since I teach at US military bases overseas.




Dangers of the Road

The road has always been a dangerous place, not just for bicycles but for all travelers, motorized or otherwise. It is part of the glory and romance of the road itself...think of the colorful caravans on the Silk road being ransacked by marauding bands of Bedouin tribes; think of the indians attacking the westbound Wagon train settlers. Think of the smuggling that goes on, day and night, between the US and Mexico, even at this moment. It is into this miasma that you will step when you go on the road, and its important to acknowledge that it exists and accept it as one of the hazards. Still....i want to discuss those hazards most relevant to cyclists. I´ll get to the problems with PEOPLE soon enough...but before that, let me discuss two others of a different but dangerous species...

DOGS

Exactly what thrills dogs about chasing bicycles escapes me. Part of it I think is that we are a target they can catch, and maybe chew on a bit, unlike trucks and cars, which move faster and are made of metal. But Dogs are not a joke. If they come on you suddenly and you veer into traffic---a natural reaction--you can end up squished as a bug and thats not fun, believe me. A couple pointers helpful here.

First, if the dogs are approaching you from the front, your best bet is to slow down and stop if necessary. You would be surprised how often this stops the threat, as it seems to be your motion which gets them excited and now that no longer is the case. Also, now that you are stopped with both feet planted on the ground, you are more of a threat to them, since your hands and feet are free to kick or throw stones (or pretend to). You couldn´t carry enough rocks to get you thru some doggy prone areas, by the way (ECuador is notorious). Its just as easy to fake a throw. If you are stopped and the dogs continue to approach, you can always get off the bike or reach down and get a few rocks. This makes alot of dogs back off fast, especially in central and south america where the locals have PLENTY of experience throwing rocks at dogs, including their OWN dogs! If they still approach, and there is more than one, get off the bike and keep the bike between you and the pack of the canines. In the country the owner, usually a farmer, will show up pretty quick. In the city or town, the locals will help. DO NOT try and outrun the dogs as they can run really fast in pursuit and you are likely to pay to little attention to the road ahead.

Now, if the dogs approach from the rear--that is they don´t notice you till you are nearly past them--its harder. You can´t see them directly and its harder to appear as a threat. In this case I always IMMEDIATELY get off the bike and turn around to face them down. If you wait to long the dogs can be right on your tail and nip at your nice tasty leg as you try to pedal or try to get off the bike. Again pretend to throw rocks or keep the bike between you and the pack. You should be able, in both cases, to continue walking the bike forward until you are out of the dogs ´territory´. By the way you might try just calling the dogs and making friendly sounds...they assume you are hostile at first and may give up on you if they find you friendly.

IF YOU ARE QUITE SURE YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE BITTEN....the best thing is to hold your foot out and ´hope´ the dog bites your foot. When he does, step on his lower jaw and he´ll give up real fast. This works whether you are walking or riding. Your shoe or sneaker should prevent the bite from breaking the skin.

By the way, a few tricks. If the dogs come from across the road to get at you, you can try and lure them into traffic and let the vehicles take care of them. Readers of my travel chronicles know that I was being chased by three Rottweilers near Chichistina, Alaska when the dogs ran into the road to get at me. One was killed, another one severely injured by an oncoming Winnebago in one of the most spectacular accidents I have ever seen while cycling. If the dogs are chasing you from behind and nipping at your heels, try weaving back and forth as you ride, making them risk getting tangled in your rear wheel...just be careful of the traffic behind you.

In general though it is not effective to try and ´throw´ things at the dogs WHILE you are riding...it throws YOU off balance on the bike, and you just don´t need that.

INSECTS

Ha ha ha....you mean flies and mosquitos and stuff like that?? Nope...I mean bees...perhaps killer bees, which attacked me when I was south of Guadalajara, Mexico. I don´t think this is a major risk, but I can give you some advice that may prove helpful if you find yourself in an angry swarm.

First, unless you are allergic to bees (in which case long distance touring is awful tough to imagine), it is not the STINGS that will get you when you are being attacked. Most bee sting victims/fatalities occur because the victim suffocated! This occurs not because the bees ´clog´your breathing passages, although this does occur...rather it is a reflexive reaction you have to bees swarming about your neck, nose, eyes, face and mouth. And believe me...they DO! Thus, what you must do in this case is get them out of your face so you can breathe.

I carry a pair of women´s nylons and a baseball cap with a big visor, and I have them wrapped and easily reachable on the top of my front pannier rack. If I am attacked again I hope to have the common sense to put the hat on, swat what bees I can away from my face, slip on the nylons, kill the few still left inside, and then deal with wherever else I am being stung. In my attack I was stung dozens of times on the arms and head (I had on long cycling pants so my legs were Ok)...but the only real pain and fear was from the bees crawling all over my cheeks, lips, nose and eyes.

In addition, I carry a signal flare...available at most auto parts stores and such..that you can scratch and use to start a smoky fire. The smoke should help deter and calm down the swarm..at least this is what the folks in Mexico who stopped to help, told me. A signal flare is good to carry for other purposes anyway, and is light and easy to store. The red smoke will attract attention, as well.

You will NOT be able to outbike, or outrun the swarm with the bike by your side. You will need both hands to keep the swarm out of your nose, eyes, and mouth...so, if and when you are attacked, get off the bike, drop it by the side of the road, and get to work on prevention. I must admit i don´t know HOW well this method will work, as I have been attacked by bees only ONCE in all my touring...but with killer bees throughout central and south america, give it some thought.

By the way, if you have access to a can of WD-40, the petroleum product in it will clog the bees breathing passages (turning the tables!!!!) and they´ll leave you alone.

A word about other insects..which can be annoying. First, make sure you have glasses on...a bug in your eye is no joke going down a big hill...and it might not be a small bug, either. Coming down Lincoln notch in Vermont a a hardshelled Junebug hit my left lens so firmly it knocked it out, completely. If you don´t wear glasses, or use contacts, get a pair of sunglasses. Second..underneath your helmet put on a liner so that little bugs that get thru the helmet don´t annoy you. I use a small cycling cap, backwards. The cap absorbs sweat..far more sweat than those stupid foam absorbers helmets have...and if a small insect gets thru I don´t feel it. You can try using a cloth swimming cap, which fits tightly, also. But you WILL want a helmet liner. Do NOT use the type of liner which is OUTSIDE the helmet, as this prevents aeration and makes the helmet warmer than it should be. (Also the lining looks stupid and doesn´t completely block bugs anyway).




PEOPLE


Ok Ok...so you don´t want to hear about dogs and bees, you wanna hear about terrorists, thieves, robbers, and all those other evils of the road of the human variety. Well, this is it. I hope to give you some honest to goodness VALUABLE information about how NOT TO be robbed, how to minimize the risks, as well as mininze the trauma if something DOES happen to you on the road. To aid those cyclists who are going on tours soon and whose concerns are pretty real, I break this section into three parts...Prevention, dealing with an encounter if it occurs, and what to do AFTER an encounter occurs.
Before I do this let me say I have had remarkably few nasty encounters in my over 20 years and 50,000+ kilometers of cycling. Some of my comments are based upon my non-cycling experiences, of which I have a somewhat mongrel past that I shall not go into here. Some of my comments are based upon discussions with military people and police, who are quite familiar with the sort of problems people on the road (alone) encounter and have advice to give about various preventatives. In any case i hope you find the following advice helpful.

Prevention



Preventing yourself from being subject to an attack or the attention of thieves and robbers is the first and most effective method of reducing the risk that it will occur. In this department there is, unfortunately, alof of WORTHLESS advice as well. I shall mention two:
(1)"Look like the locals..keep a low profile...etc..." This advice is absolutely worthless. First of all in most places a cyclist will stand out like a sore thumb and there is no use trying to hide it. During hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, most people were wearing dingy, soaked clothing as they walked along the roads and in the towns during the storm. I come along on a bright, shiny, clean Cannondale bicycle, wearing spandex clothing and Columbia waterproof raingear, and I am supposed to ´look like the locals!!!??´ In small towns you´ll instantly be noticed as a stranger...in bigger cities, where you may be targeted by thieves, your motions and race/ethnicity will give you away. When I was in Mexico kids would yell GRINGO at me, when I was blocks away from them. If its that obvious, there is no sense in hiding it. Instead, use your distinction in your favor (more about this later) by making clear from your actions that you enjoy your current location and you came to this country/county/town for a reason!

(2)"Speak the native language....". This piece of bullshit is big amongst Europeans who think they are rats ass cool that they speak four or five languages, most of which are 95% similar anyway. Don´t get me wrong..learn some basic words and phrases..but your best language is your smile and your sincerity, in any country at any time. For that matter, if you DID get into a nasty scrape with the locals your command of the language priobably wouldn´t be good enough, anyway! Instead, again, use your credibility as a foreigner and long distance traveler to make the most out of communciation with people in shops, on the street, in restaurants, etc. Please, thank you, your welcome, hello, and goodbye are five words most of todays dumbed-down rude boys don´t use enough, anyway.

Ok....brass tacks time. One general overview, which goes back to what I said at the start. The road IS, and always has been, and always WILL be, a dangerous place. ACCEPT that risk, or do NOT go out to begin with! It has nothing to do with size, strength, intelligence, etc. I know a US Marine ´commando´(he isn´t REALLY a commando, but I call all marines commandos) who let his guard down in a restaurant one night, got slipped some burundanga (widely available in Colombia) and woke up naked, penniless and embarassed in a small motel three days later. A similar fate awaited a close friend of mine in Vladivostok, who got locked into his own bathroom for two days before coworkers went looking for him. But these guys are alive and kickin´ and still out on the road, loving it...and you can be too.
(1) First, to minimize the hassle of being robbed, you have to be willing to carry SOME Stuff...some money, papers, etc...on your person. Otherwise, if all of your gear gets stolen, you are just as clueless and penniless as my marine friend was. Carrying stuff on your person increases your risk a LITTLE bit, but need not be serious. I carried my passport, some money, and one of my two credit cards (more later) on my person throughout central america and northern south america. While I moved things around a bit, in general I had the credit card in one shoe (between TWO pairs of socks) and the money (US dollars) in a waterproof plastic pouch which in turn was in a pouch of my jockstrap! I figured this way if I was REALLY robbed, at least I would enjoy it. Neither the credit card nor the money were easily detectable (I tried it out on a couple of australians in Esteli, Nicaragua). Also very useful for hiding things on your person is to use an ace bandage around your lower leg. I was able to carry some ID papers, and some money this way. The ace bandage was dirty and covered with Mercuracrome. I told people I had been bitten by a dog. Most offered to bring me to the hospital, and asked if I had rabies shots! I especially like the ace bandage idea since its so ´obvious´ it doesn´t come to a casual thief´s mind.
Now, I also used the traditional neck strap and money belt kind of stuff...but what I put in those was (mostly) fake. I had two old expired passports, numerous expired cards and things that looked like credit cards (including library cards!), and other official looking bull in these straps and belts. If I was accosted and asked to hand over my stuff, or if it was ´taken´, my hope was that it would look official enough that the thieves would stop looking at that point. I did have some small US bills in there, just to make it look realistic. In fact, deception is your most effective weapon against a non-professional, casual thief or robber, which is the most likely enocunter you will have on a bike. (Professional thieves have more juicy targets than cyclists, though more about this later).

(2) Second, you can deceive people as to who and what you are, as well. I have always toured alone, and have always rode into a town or village alone. But you can always say you are meeting your friend or partner sometime soon...have the name of a major town up ahead in your mind. The key here is to discourage people who figure they can get away with something (including kidnapping, unfortunately) since you may get no help soon. There are limits here, but you´ll sense them pretty easily. If there is only ONE road between towns (such as in Colombia´s Pasto-Popayan region) you are´nt kidding anyone if you say your friend is on the other side of the mountains. But you can be creative. You can also deceive people about your nationality. This is especially true for Americans, as we are targeted more than others since we are supposedly richer and, also, US STATE DEPARTMENT CONSULAR OFFICIALS ARE THE MOST GUTLESS AND USELESS in the world (lots more about this later) and don´t raise a stink about Americans who are robbed, beaten, eaten, killed, or in general hassled. In any case, if you know some french, or spanish, or other languages you use them. When I was in Colombia i often masqueraded as a French Canadien rider, and it was effective. I was riding thru a town and a group of kids started to hop on their bikes, and when I answered in French to their taunts of "give us some money!!" they stopped pretty quickly. It was a very brief encounter, and hard to really judge, but it did work. Again the ruse has limitations, but it can useful in averting further interest in you.
(3) More helpful perhaps is to be streetwise or travel wise, and learn to take the initiative. PEOPLE DO NOT ROB PEOPLE THEY LIKE, RESPECT, OR ADMIRE IN SOME WAY. Thus, try and make sure you establish a positive interaction with the locals as soon as you arrive. Patronize their businesses...cafes, kiosks, restaurants, etc...with an air of confidence and genuine good cheer.
What I mean here is easier to use an example. 99% of the time when you ride into a small town, some guy in a group of locals will catch your attention. Maybe he will smile...or say, in broken English, ´Hello my good friend!´; or in any case his body language will indicate he thinks your arrival is kind of a neat, good thing. THAT PERSON IS YOUR LINK TO A SAFE AND SECURE ENCOUNTER.....I usually ride up to them, say hello, ask them a question (where is food, shelter, etc...) and often stop and have a cup of coffee or snack at that point. By taking the initiative, setting the agenda as it were, you set the tone and make your stay far more pleasant and safe. I did this, literally hundreds of times, and it is just second nature to me. And my command of foreign languages (except French) is very, very limited. Make clear from your words and actions that you are there for a reason, that you like that area, their country, their people.
Patronizing local businesses helps in another way, too. You can´t buy their stuff if you are robbed, or hassled, or annoyed by punks and dweebs in the region. YOUR COMFORT becomes as important to these people as it is to you. For example, if you are unable to leave your bike in front of a store or kiosk because some kids are (perhaps) eyeing to steal your stuff, I make it clear thru my actions and words, as I leave the establishment without patronizing it, exactly what the reason was. Most restaurants and cafes will let you take your bike inside, anyway. DO IT!

(4) Most of the people who try and steal, snatch and grab things from you, or hassle you in some ways, are ´bad boys´ through and through. They are probably punks in the local community, use and/or deal drugs and or tobacco, mess around with prostitutes and may be prostitues themselves, on and on. THESE ARE BASICALLY NIGHTTIME activities and these folks are basically nightime people: they use the cover of darkness for their activities. This means that the early morning hours, they are likely to asleep. Thus, when I was in Colombia and a few other places, I often tried to get alot of riding done in the early morning hours and find a place to stay (motel, residenciale, etc) around 4 PM or so. Almost all the ´roadblocks´(more on these later) I ran into in South America were late in the afternoon after kids came home from school, were bored senseless and went out to have fun/cause trouble.
I might add more positively that people are in a better mood in the morning and going is easier in many ways. This is especially true at border crossings, where it is important to get in and out quickly with minimumn hassle. Late in the day tempers are short, people are tired, and the crossings are busy. Early in the morning it is often quiet and more pleasant.

(5) Fifth, keep track of information on guerilla activity and civil unrest or areas dangerous because of thieves. YOUR BEST SOURCE of this information is from truckers who are on the same road as you...you can talk to them in restaurants and truck stops along the way. They are in EXACTLY the same position as you are, vis a vis thieves, and they have alot more to lose. DO NOT count on information from local police authorities or travel bureaus. It is unrealiable: they will lie to you so that you are not scared to go into their region. Similarly, bulletins from Embassies and the US State Department are often too vague and HOPELESSLY out of date.
For example when I was in Peru I was warned CONSTANTLY by truckers and locals not to ride thru the northern coastal town of Chimbote because of civil unrest. No one in Lima (when I finally got there) had heard ANYTHING about these problems. In any case, the truckers who pass you are among your best friends on the road, even if they do bully you for road space a bit. Many of them honk, wave, and yes, they DO keep an eye on you and talk to one another about your progress as they see you, day after day, move onward. If you ARE robbed and left on the roadside with just your socks and skivvies, it is one of these truckers who probabaly will stop and give ya a ride to the nearest help.

(6) Make sure your finances are in defensive mode before you leave on your trip. I opened a joint account with a friend back in the states...he can track my account on a daily basis thru the bank´s electronic services and investigate any sudden huge withdrawals or attempts to break into the account if one of my cards are stolen. I have BOTH HIS card and MY card...so that if ONE of the cards is stolen (see deception, above) I can still go to an ATM with the other and shift money out of the account, change the passwords, or still have access to cash for other needs.
Finally, I must add, keep all this in perspective. Your bike, your equipment and gear probably would cost a total of $1500, maximum, if stolen and you needed to COMPLETELY replace them. In the contect of a long tour such as mine, a 2 year world trip costing close to 25,000 dollars, thats not all that much. If you budget for this kind of replacement it´ll make it alot easier on you mentally, if it occurs. When I was planning my trip I assumed that, in the worst case, I would have to completely replace all my gear twice! (Am I paranoid or what!) As it turned out, so far I have lost nothing. I came close to losing my bike and stuff while fording a swollen stream during Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua...but thats as close as I have come. With some of the precautions above, you should have the same degree of good fortune.

Dealing with encounters that take place

Well, what if despite all these BRILLIANT ideas you still find yourself in a situation where someone tries to hassle you? Well, if you HAVE budgeted and thought out how to minimize the damage to you, financially, you have one big advantage in that it will help you remain calm. Nothing is worse than a panic about "yikes what if he gets my credit card...or my ..." when you should be thinking about other things.

On my trip so far I have had about 5 or six incidents where a person or group tried to hassle me. I have come thru all six unscathed, if somewhat rattled by some of them. Four of them were on the open road, and two were in towns.

(1) Roadblocks: The most annoying event that I ran into in Central and South America so far is roadblockks caused by children and/or adults stringing a rope (and sometimes a wire) across the road to try and get traffic to stop, briefly, and toss them a coin, some candy, or whatever. For cars, trucks, buses, etc, this really is no problem since they can, and often do, just bust right thru or ease their way thru. The folks drop the rope, and wait for the next car. (PS. NOT ALWAYS..sometimes people stand in the road and stop traffic that way. It REALLY is a hassle in that case, and people come close to getting hurt. Personally I think the only way this behavior will stop is for some truck or bus to just blow by and spaltter someone´s viscera over 25 meters of highway, like that RV did to my friendly Rottweiler in alaska. My attitude toward these roadblocks is they will keep going until someone gets hurt...and I have no intention letting it be ME!) Anyway, for cars its no trouble...but for bicycles it is a NIGHTMARE. If they do not drop the rope, which they don´t in about 10% of the cases, you simply MUST stop...or else you´ll get caught and hauled down like an animal on the serengeti. The problem is once you stop very often (again..not always) you get rushed by one or more kids and yes, adults..who want something. What do they want?? By the time you find out it may be too late. GENERALLY you can tell by the tone and body language of the people whether they just want a coin..or if they want to try and grab what they can.
Lets just deal with the latter case. I was in Nicaragua and many stranded/abandoned vehicles (from hurricane mitch) were being looted for whatever folks could get. Not the best time to be cycling! I come along to one of these roadblocks, and sure enough three or four teendages come running out of the bush into the road. I was instantly (and correctly) convinced they wanted to rip off my stuff.
FIRST..you simply MUST get off the bike in this case. Self defense begins with foot placement..riding a bike, your feet are on the pedals, not on the ground. Self defense continues with arm and fist placement...riding a bike, your hands and arms are linked to the handlebars. Self defense ends with mobility and agility...on a bike, you are going only in one direction. GET OFF THE BIKE and start walking forward..firmly, quickly, and in the middle of the road. IF A CAR IS COMING IN EITHER direction use it as a way to get by the block...this is especially useful if it is coming from behind you...stand in front of the car/truck, and let it ´push you´ thru the roadblock. Once by you can get on the bike and resume riding. Oncoming cars are less helpful but they still must lower the rope to let them by. Thru all this KEEP MOVING...a moving target is harder to surround, and it makes the people around you commit themselves to stopping you if that is their intention...valuable information you must find out quickly.
Thru all of this you should be yelling and making clear you want the folks to leave you alone. Yelling attracts attention, disrupts their ability to communicate with one another, and reduces the built up tension in side of you. 99% of the world understands FUCK OFF, so I say that, no matter what the age group or gender of the person/people are. Most of the time they try and rip off equipment from the back of the bike (sleeping bag, tent, etc) so a few quick backhands may be useful, especially if you hit the folks in the face.

Now..just one moment. If in the course of events its clear this roadblock isn´t that evil, you hardly have to call out the cavalry to get thru it. Some kids come forward and, just with a silly squeeze to the head, off they go, laughing. Like I said...judge quickly by the TONE of events. But to be honest, 99% of the time it will be PERFECTLY clear what their intentions are.

Anyway, back to the war. You are walking thru this block, perhaps swatting at a fellow or two like flies. Exactly what is the point where it gets more serious...that is, where do you draw the line? Again, in the heat of battle it will be more obvious where the point is, but for me the rule is simple. Once contact is made either with my PERSON or with my EQUIPMENT, I am going to try and defend myself to the fullest extent I feel is possible and worth the risks (more about this risk, in a minute). I did not carry any ´weapons,´ but I did carry a horse whip. You can get one from your local dominatrix in the red light district (told you I had a mongrel past!!!). It is hard to see until its too late, inflicts a nasty sting, stays attached to you thru a loop on the handle, is light and easy to whip around, and not easy to take away from you. I can tell you there is one teenage kid in Nicaragua who got a very sharp welt on the forehad as a result of this whip that I had. That is the ONLY time I had to use it directly, although at two other roadblocks (both in Ecuador) I brought it out and whipped it in the air. I was fairly lucky in this sense...the weather was drippy so I had my raingear on, and had the whip up my left sleeve where i could get to it quickly. In fair weather I am not really sure where I would keep it for easy access. In any case...i got through.

These roadblocks were on rural roads and tended to be isolated events, there were not alot of people around to help (me or them!). Thats one reason to wait for a car, if you see one of these roadblocks ahead of you, especially if you are riding uphill. If a car comes up from behind I tend to cut it off and we both ride thru the block together...an oncoming car and I pass rope at the same time. DON´T DON´T DON´T try to ´run´these roadblocks as often the rope, which appears to be ´held´by the folks on each end, is often tied to a tree or a gauradrail on both sides. Like I said....its a joke alot of the time, and they usually just let the rope down. But in some places you run into roadblock after roadblock kilometer after kilometer, and your luck runs out. On the Pasto-Popayan road in Colombia I must have hit fifty raodblocks within ten kilometers of the town of Remolino..and if people see you have trouble at ONE, you´ll have trouble for the whole damn series! I repeat I repeat i repeat...this is NO JOKE.

By the way deception can work here, too. I often had small plastic bags full of paper or garbage lashed onto my rear panniers undedr the bungie cords...they grab that, it comes loose, and off they go. Sometimes I would throw them a coin...usually worthless Mexican centavo coins, which they didn´t recognize until it was too late. If I misread the block and the people were, in fact, nice or humorous, I often tossed them or gave them chocolate eggs or gum I was carrying. But in most cases I rode by, scowling even if the dropped the rope and swearing to high heaven if they did not.

There is some risk involved in your actions but it is not very great. This type of activity is too open (and accepted!) for the folks to be carrying knives or guns. Your worst case is that they fight back, and that has not happened to me yet. This type of thing is done primarily by cowards, so they usually just back off, and maybe throw a rock or two as you leave, which usually misses you.

(2) Local kids on bicycles: Two times I had kids follow me on their bikes, and maybe try and snatch something on the run. Once it was a group of three...the other time a solitary rider. In general I was able to outrun them, even with the weight I was carrying, but again if they are persistent you are better off getting off your bike and walking. My solitary rider just gave up when I left him behind on a hill (I am a strong uphill rider). The other case was very funny by the time it ended. I misjudged their intentions...they were just being friendly...but they were strong riders! We all tore off down the road for about 2 kilometers at the most amazing pace I have ever seen...I was spinning in my highest gear, full of adrenalin, weaving from side to side to try and force them into oncoming traffic aren´t I evil???) DAMN if they didn´t stay with me! Finally I just stopped and congratulated them on their strong riding, we all shook hands, had some broken Spanish conversation, and off they went.

That sums up the incidents I have had with people. I guess I am lucky, but it seems to me I have had my share. From other incidents I have had in Russia and elsewhere (that are NOT bike related, but still helpful) I can offer the following pointers.

(3) Corrupt border officials or other officials. At this point you might be asking...you mean there are still MORE dangers! Yes...and unfortunately they aren´t always wearing the coats of the bad guys. They can be the good guys (cops, customs officials, etc) too. In fact, for many people the prospect of encountering a corrupt official is the most intimidating prospect of traveling in dangerous places, and it is qhat I am constantly asked about since I lived in Russia for two years, where corruption has replaced communism as the new state ideology.

First...the good news. MOST incidents have greatly declined in frequency in recent years in Mexico, central and south America. Tourism is a bigger industry, it is more legitimate, the borders are busier and more openly patrolled, the process if more documented and transparent, and professional. My MOST professional border crossing of ALL...was at the Ipiales crossing between Ecuador and Colombia...where I had every right to expect itto be the worst. I was so stunned and grateful I told the border official right then and there how calm , professional, and courteous they were. (Heh...perhaps I should have slipped him some Colombian pesos??)

I have never heard of a major incident involving cyclists. We are just to vulnerable, easy to track down and capture, and too loveable(!) to do things like carry illegal drugs, contraband, antiquities, or other things that might make border guards suspicious. They can´t realistically PLANT drugs on you and then try and get a bribe, for no one in their right mind would even IMAGINE that a cyclist would have more than just the smallest amount of (marijuana, if anything) on them. Instead, you are more likely to be asked to pay small amounts for things that really should be automatic, or perhaps not even necessary. It is impossible to tell at some of these borders just WHAT stamps you need, where you should go, and what you should pay. Often you are approached by young, but honestly helpful, kids who will help you thru the steps and offices. A guy I met in Costa Rica says these kids are THE BEST WAY of getting across the borders. I recommend doing this if they are around and they don´t appear overly deceitful or eager to help. But...rule number one: DO NOT GET SEPARATED FROM YOUR EQUIPMENT AT ANY TIME. Take your bike and equipment with you to every office you go to, even if it means you have to lug them around a bit. MAKE IT CLEAR THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS to this rule. You may not be able to take your bike into the smaller offices...but keep it in sight. If you are traveling alone this can be a bit tricky, but you´ll be able to manage when ya get the feel of it. Rule number two: LOOK YOUR BEST AT THE BORDER. Shave, shower, have clean clothes on, wipe the grease and oil and junk off your equipment and bike. If you look shady you will arouse suspicion. Don´t wear a hat with a visor that hides your eyes; and look people in the eye (pleasantly) when you deal with them..it helps establish rapport and you can get their mood, as well. In general crossing a border like that to El salvador, Nicaragua, etc, takes between 15 minutes and half an hour. Be brisk, but not impatient, and when your business is done, GET OUT OF THERE. Only bus and train stations rival borders as places for thieves and con artists.

NOW...two pointers that I can offer from experience. First, Register your valuable equipment so that you can prove ownership. I have my bicycle Frame number (usually stamped on the bottom of the bottom bracket) stamped in my pasport...they did this for me at the Nicaraguan border, but you can have them do it elsewhere if ya ask, as a favor...so perhaps have it done before you leave. If you carry a camera, thats not bad either, especially if its one of those expensive video cameras. I say this because, when i was at the Chilean/Peru border, one of the Peruvian drug police started walking off with my bike while I was in one of the offices!! I walked out and grabbed the bike, and for just a moment a tug of war and a war of wills ensued. I finally said, in perfect english...THIS BIKE IS REGISTERED AND IN MY PASSPORT, SIR...in a firm voice...and he let go. Perhaps he didn´t understand a word, but it worked. WHEN SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENS IF IT HAPPENS, concentrate on getting the name of the official involved and register an official complaint as soon as possible. Again, concentrate on getting an accurate version of events instead of getting all riled up or frightened, or angry, which generally does not help. Most border crossings now have a chief (jefe, in Spanish) and this may be your first line of appeal.
Number two: Carry exact and small change...not always easy. If a service costs 6 pesos and you give the official a ten, don´t be surprised if he doesn´t make change for you...it may be baksheesh or it may be a test of your assertiveness, but it will happen. On the other hand, the small change can be used if you feel you DO want to try and expedite matters, though I have never done this. In general, attempts to extort small amounts of money from travelers for small favors, are best met with a patient, silent refusal. The friend of mine in Costa Rica was bringing his cat across the border from Panama. The official said to him, at the end, ´Well, sir...what about the cat??´ while looking away...a sure tip it was a try for a payoff. My friend replied..´oh...its a cat!´ This silly game went on (what about the cat? ...oh, its a cat!) for about 3 minutes...when finally the official just waved him on.

Oddly enough I have a better story. When I entered mexico at the crossing near Big Bend National Park the Mexican officials did NOT STAMP my passport!!! 50 kilometers in, sure enough, I come to the interior police who want to see the stamp. I told them.."Hey, when i was at Ojinaga, they just waved me by! I tried to get the stamp, but they said they were havinhg enough hassle with a trucker, and just get lost!" I could tell instantly..as soon as I said Ojinaga they rolled their eyes...that they were familiar with problems at this crossing. They let me go. A month later, just before the border with Guatemala, a Mexican soldier wanted to see my entrance visa before I could proceed. Of course I still didn´t have it, and he spoke no English, and I certainly couldn´t explain well enough in Spanish, and so.....well, I just talked him to death, and he let me go. To this day, looking at my passport, you´d swear I never went thru Mexico!

(4) Guerillas: I´ll say here that the South American Explorers club ( http://www.samexplo.org ) has a good article about encountering Shining Path guerillas in Peru, on their website, so I can refer you to them. I have no direct experience with Guerillas on my bike or off. I will only extend one piece ofd advice/experience I have had with similar situations (corrupt officials, police roadblocks in Russia).



After an encounter takes place....

If your are robbed, significantly hassled, or disturbed in some way there are several steps you can and should take.

(1) Go to the local police and fill out a denuncia (report) as well as you can. This may be necessary in oder for you to file insurance claims for any valuable equipment, so don´t ignore it. If your passport is stolen you will be given a temprrary ID document till it can be replaced, probably in the country´s capital city. Don´t be surprised if the whole process seems like a joke..it often is, and many cartoonists show police filing denunciae in their local circular file.

(2) Contact your appropriate consulate and consular official and be as specific as possoble as to when and where the incident occurred. Don´t forget to comment on cooperation (or lack thereof) of local authorities. This will help your diplomatic corps raise the issue of their citizen´s security thru appropriate diplomatic channels. THE WAYS OF DIPLOMACY ARE DEVIOUS, DARK, AND LITTLE UNDERSTOOD BY THOSE OF US OUTSIDE THE DIPLOMATIC COMMUNITY...so, while it looks and feels like nothing may be done, its still a good idea to contact these people. An honest aside comment to the Peruvian ambassador at a Christmas cocktail party may be what it takes to start asn investigation into repeated robberies or whatever. Perosnally I think most embassies and ambassadors are totally useless, but, hey, others have told me differently.

(3) Contact the country´s tourist authority--perhaps even thru he internet. Tell them what happened and where, how such an event hurts the country´s image and suitability as a tourist destination, and suggest they do somethg about it. Tourism is big business, even for low budget cyclists; and in todays competitive tourism market a country does not need a black eye.

(4) Finally contact the many (again, ´net based in many cases) organizations that post information about tourism, threats and dangers to tourists such as the South American Explorers Club, or the Thorn Tree from Lonely Planet, etc. This helps them keep theire info up to date, too.




This completes my guide to cycling in dangerous places. I will probably add and refine some of my comments in the future, as I am doing this on the road and off the cuff. If any of you have additional ideas and comments, please send me email and i´ll try and include them in this guide. 1