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I had arrived in São Luis on the Sunday, and ended up staying for 7 nights, which gave me plenty of time to relax, see the historical area and work on my bike. I did two of those. The reason I stayed for so long was because I wanted to meet Wilson’s sister, and she was meant to be coming on the Thursday or Friday and then it became the Saturday. On Saturday evening I heard that she’d be arriving around midnight, and so I waited up until 1am, but fell asleep before she got back.

I’d have loved to have met Wilson’s sister, but I really wanted to leave on the Sunday. It was partly because after a week’s rest, I was wanting to move on again, but also because of the traffic. São Luis is on an island and there is only one road in and out. I had heard terrible things about cycling on that road, so a Sunday morning seemed the best time to leave. If I’d stayed around, it would have meant fighting Monday morning trucks, no thank you.

When I got up, I saw a suitcase, meaning that Wilson’s sister had got back during the night, but even though I dawdled and didn’t leave until 8am, we didn’t meet up. I started riding out, heading south on a road that would be a big C, taking 100km to cover 30km as the crow flies. If only there’d been a boat to get across this part of the bay, but I’d asked a few people about that and they’d all said that it didn’t exist.

I had 50km of main road until I would turn off and start heading east on smaller roads towards the coast, and thanks to being Sunday morning the traffic was definitely much lighter. It did have the downside of more people drinking a beer or two while they drove along, although it seemed less common than in places like Honduras. The first 20km or so wasn’t too bad. The traffic seemed fairly light, and there was a shoulder – although complete with the standard/ridiculous amount of potholes. The main concern was more about my chain, which was so loose that it was starting to slip. I’d had time to work on my bike, but hadn’t taken the opportunity. I had figured I’d ride and see how bad it got. If it wasn’t too bad, I’d fix it either at lunchtime, or when I got to my destination of Morros. I’d need to adjust the bottom bracket and take a link out of the chain, something I’d only had to do once before – back in Cuba when I had Nick’s help. Anyway, as a professional procrastinator, that was for later.

The bad part of the road started, as it went from two lanes and a shoulder in each direction to one lane without a shoulder, while maintaining the same level of traffic. There’s an un-used train line on the right hand side, which would make it hard to widen the road too much. Thanks to my plan to leave on the Sunday, the traffic level wasn’t too bad, but unfortunately when there was traffic in both lanes at the same time, it got very uncomfortable. It was understandable to some extent that the traffic would sometimes be coming behind me and not want to wait, but what really annoyed me was when traffic coming the other way decided to overtake as they saw my lane as empty – ignoring the fact that I was there. There were a couple of times that I had to take evasive action to avoid getting run overMorons. In total it lasted about 20km, before the road widened again. I really wouldn’t want to have ridden it on any other day.

Turning off onto the side roads, I was treated to much less traffic and all was going well. I had forgotten about my chain, as it had stopped slipping, and was making good progress. The headwind that I’d read so much about wasn’t so strong, and I made it to the town of Rosario, about 35km before Morros. I stopped at a petrol station as the sky was getting very dark ahead and sure enough, within 20 minutes the rain was deafeningly hitting the corrugated roof of the petrol station. It lasted for about 45 minutes, enough time for a lady, who had arrived by motorbike, to decide to have a shower standing under a torrent coming from a drain.

When it cleared up, I continued on and before long was on the outskirts of Morros – which literally means hills – and my chain started slipping a lot. I made it to a petrol station at about 5pm and stopped there to fix it. I figured I would either stay there, or go about another 10km to the next little village to stay with my idea of “ride today so you don’t ride it tomorrow”. I ended up staying. I hadn’t had to adjust my bottom bracket for such a long time that it had seized up. To quote the Thorn website ‘If the bottom bracket is allowed to become submerged and active steps are not taken to drain the water out, it is possible that some oxidation will eventually occur… the longer this process is allowed to continue, before any chain adjustment is attempted, the more possible it becomes that seizure may occur.’ I don’t know when it got submerged, but I now had the fun of trying to undo it.

30 minutes of work, which included the trusty ‘hammer-it-with-wood’ option, didn’t seem to do a thing. I’d tried applying some mineral lubricant, but it was well seized. The Thorn website has instructions on how to fix it, but they involved taking the crank apart and I didn’t have the tools to do that. I had to wait until the next day and go to a bike shop for help. I didn’t even have to ask about staying, as Antonio, a worker at the station, not only told me I could put my hammock up, but also pointed out the showers and toilets that I could feel free to use. What a nice man!

I was up around 6:30, when the petrol station started to get busy. Antonio, who had helped me the day before, was there and gave me a cup of coffee to help me wake up. There was also a businessman who had given me shower advice the night before. According to him, the 2nd shower was the best, because it had a bar of soap which I should definitely take. I used that shower. I didn’t take the soap.

I tried removing my bottom bracket, but it still wouldn’t come out, so I needed to get to a bike shop. The next one was about 160km away in Barrinheiras and pedalling there would be horrible, as the chain was slipping about every 10 seconds of pedalling. I therefore took up Antonio’s offer to help me get a ride.

I saw trucks coming in, but Antonio didn’t seem to be asking them anything and then they’d go the other way. But the workers at the petrol station knew their local clients and so all of the trucks that I’d seen as possibilities weren’t worth asking. It made for a wait that seemed to go on forever, but was less frustrating than asking everyone myself. I packed everything up and then sat around in the café to work on my laptop.

It took until about 10am to get a ride. I had considered going to the other petrol station, in the vain hope that I might have better luck there, but it didn’t have wifi and I didn’t already have people trying to help me. At 10, Antonio came running in with a big smile and a thumbs up. He pointed at my ride, a large truck carrying 10 tonnes of bricks. I packed my laptop up quickly and wheeled my bike and bags over. Jose, the driver, was already up on top waiting and Antonio helped me pass my bike up. I threw each of my bags up, after making sure they were securely closed in case rain hit, and we were ready to go.

It took Jose a few minutes to start talking, but when he did he kept going for a while. Sure, I wasn’t going to be biking this 160km, but I was still going to have an interesting experience. It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in being a cycling purist. He has been driving the 400km round trip from Barrinheiras to Rosario every weekday for over 10 years. He was delivering bricks as part of a state government programme to help replace the taipa houses (traditional indigenous style houses, see pictures in previous blog post) with ones made of brick. He explained some reasons and the ones I understood were mosquitoes (they grow well in the walls of taipa houses?) and the heat. The 10 tonnes of bricks on the back of his truck would be enough to build 3 houses. Every community that we went past had at least one pile of bricks waiting by the side of the road for the government workers to come in and rebuild the house.

The other main thing that Jose talked about was the other side of the government. Sure, they were helping with these houses, but other projects? Not so much. He gave examples of several road projects that cost tens of millions of dollars during the trip. The results? The start of a sand track – corruption had meant the rest of the money got pocketed. From Barrinheiras to the next town of Paulino Neves is 40km of sand that’s so soft it’s only passable slowly on a 4×4. Two projects had been arranged to pave a road through, but one of them only had the first kilometre done, and the other didn’t even get that far. I learnt later that the state name of Maranhão is from an indigenous word that means terra de mentiras or land of lying, which seemed quite apt.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I had a host lined up. Someone had made mention of a cyclist in Barrinheiras called Abílio and so I sent him a friend request and told him I’d be arriving in town the next day. He said sure, come visit! So when I got into the rather toasty town – I saw a sign saying it was 41c (106f) – I sent him a message and we met up in the Praça dos Trabalhadores (Plaza of the Workers).

Abílio is 54 and a university professor teaching Chemistry. His whole family is from the state of Maranhão and he seems to know most people in town. We stopped by his place to drop off my bags and so I could get a shower (it’s normal in this area to take 3 or 4 a day), and then went to visit a bike mechanic called Taboca to get my bike working again. It took over an hour to fix. THe reasons included the language barrier, Taboca never having seen an eccentric bottom bracket and some very seized components.

Fixing my bike was definitely something I couldn’t have done by myself. I didn’t have the right tools. To quote one of the main mechanics who designed my bike ‘The design of our eccentric is deliberately crude and simple but well engineered… this makes seizure unlikely in the first place and enables simple, easily sourced, “tools” to be used upon it if necessary.’ Said tools included a couple of wrenches, a tool to remove the bottom bracket and then the two “tools” – a hammer and a very large piece of wood which were basically used to batter the bottom bracket until it came loose. I didn’t get to take any photos of the process because I was busy panicking about possible damage to my bike, before succumbing to hitting it too. It didn’t seem to be working, but eventually it came loose, to great cheers from me. We then cleaned the bracket and applied copious amounts of grease to hopefully stop it seizing again. Even after taking up so much of his time, Tobaco wouldn’t accept any payment, but he did at least let me take his photo.

With a bike that was once again ridable, Abílio showed me round the town. It’s definitely touristy; in the couple of minutes I waited for him in the plaza, a guy came up to me to offer a tour of the main tourist attraction – Lençóis Maranheses, the bedsheets of Maranhão – which is a 1550-sq-km national park jam-packed with sand dunes that, especially during the rainy season, fill with water, creating lakes. Unfortunately, being mid-January, the rain hasn’t started yet and so there’s not much water there. It’s apparently still worth visiting, but nothing like as spectacular as in the best months of June-August. It’s definitely worth a Google image search to see how amazing they can look, especially the aerial view!

English tour guide speaks about the Palace of Lions in São Luis

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