MY MOTORCYCLE DIARY: Jesus, The Leper & St. Kurt

BY JONATHAN VALANIA For the record, I am home safe and sound from my journey through the high plains of the Andes. For some that will be good news, for others, less so (you fall into this latter category if you have ever uttered the words ‘If he writes one more word about being in that mother#$%& Wilco movie, I’ll murdelize him’ — you know who you are.) Anyway, it’s good to be back in the USA — you don’t realize how good we have it until you leave it. I am of course, referring to America’s superior Wi-Fi and blessed excess of Britney Spears news. Well, that and the First Amendment.

Anyway, just to tie up a few loose ends and provide some context to the above slide show, I wanted to share with you some details from our day trip into the capital of Colombia, Bogota. Our official tour guide for the day was my Aunt Stella‘s sister, Ninon (rhymes with ‘Simone’). Not only is Ninon a classy dame, she has also been a downright radical fount of Girl Power over the course of her 80 years on Earth. First a little backstory on the evolving role ofleper.jpg women in Colombian society. They did not get the right to vote until 1957. When Ninon left for college in the early 60s, her father told her she was entitled to an education, but a career was out of the question. Upon graduation, she was to marry and assume her traditional role as wife and mother. End of story. However, when Ninon’s father died of natural causes near the end of her undergrad years, she shuffled off to Georgetown for a Masters Degree and joined Colombia’s Foreign Service, serving ambassadorial roles in Panama, Great Britain and the United Nations. This was back when there were basically NO women in the Foreign Service. Good on ya, Ninon.

Ever the ambassador of goodwill, Ninon was appalled that my mother had her gold necklace ripped from her neck by a thief in the marketplace at Zapiquira and she worries we will go home with the wrong impression about Colombia. “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “I’m gonna tell everyone ‘they robbed us blind from the minute we got off the plane until the minute we left.'” Ninon looks at me apoplectic. Note to self: Sarcasm glazed in absurdist irony does NOT translate into Spanish.

As for the pix, there are a couple of shots of the main square, where the Catholic Church bumps up against the Presidential Palace — and that is no accident. Though the Church’s influence in the political affairs of Colombia is said to have waned, there was a time when, for all intents and purposes, there was NO separation of church and state. Ninon’s sister Lici helped pioneer the opening and operation of birth control clinics in Colombia back in the early 60s, before the Pope came to town and said it was a sin and the government soon shuttered the clinics. Just as aside here: You do know the Church arrested Galileo for heresy for claiming the Earth revolved around the sun, right? Just sayin’.

cobaingun.jpgSpeaking of the church, we visited several grand and gilt-edged cathedrals. The one pictured here had a tabernacle burnished in gold three stories high. Right outside a leper lay prostrate in the middle of the sidewalk, his pants leg rolled up to reveal his disease, a cup for alms in his hand. I took his picture and gave him money. Right across the street was a small park that hosted a flea market. Two adolescent girls ran a stall that sold framed pictures of American celebrities — including Kurt Cobain with a gun in his mouth. Weird.

In a brief fashion aside, I am happy to report that women’s pants in Bogota only seem to come in one size: skintight across the hips and buttocks. Ninon thinks this is ‘terrible’, I tell her I probably wouldn’t use that exact word. We also visited the Botero museum. Now Fernando Botero is one of the last great living masters of figurative post-modern art and great Colombian as well, even though he now lives in Italy. He donated over a 40 pieces to the museum a few years back. To fully appreciate the immensity of that contribution, understand that each Botero would sell for $2-3 million on the open market. Better still, judging by the works on display, Botero seems to have come to the same conclusion that Freddie Mercury and Queen did lo those many years ago: Fat-bottomed girls make the rockin’ world go round. Amen, to the that.

SLIDESHOW: Click To Enlarge


MY MOTORCYCLE DIARY: Or, Seven Days Through The Amazon On The Back Of An Ass


Our own Boss Phawker, man of the world and leader of the local ruling junta, is vacationing down South America way. This is the first of his dispatches.


TABIO, COLOMBIA — Let’s just dispense with the cocaine jokes right now, shall we? Yes we shall. That is NOT why I am down here. As fate would have it, my Uncle William, a retired neurologist, is married to a wonderful woman from Colombia named Stella — that’s Aunt Stella to you and mostly me. And they have built a fairly spectacular Frank Lloyd Wright-ish home in Tabio, a sleepy and picturesque hamlet about an hour north of Bogota, perched on a hillside with a panoramic view of the Andes just across the rolling green pastures and misty hollows below. And they invited us down for a spell.

Tabio is still a largely agrarian community, and most everyone has cows, chickens and sheep, and my aunt and uncle are no exception. Everything we eat was either walking around or growing nearby just a day or two before winding up on our plates. People here are mostly poor by U.S. standards but seemingly content, and they all have sturdy brick bungalows with terra cotta roofs and plots of land for the critters. Nearly everyone is good-looking, trim, stylish, very friendly to us gringos and accepting of our pigeon Spanish.

Yesterday, we took a day trip to nearby Subachoque, where the locals were celebrating one virgin or another (there seems to be an endless supply of venerated virgins in Colombia) with a fete in the town’s square. From there, we set off to go hiking in the “cloud forest” at the peak of nearby El Tablazo mountain. The top of El Tablazo is also the home of a military radar tower, and as we reached the summit we were greeted by three soldiers in knee-high jackboots brandishing M-16s. Apparently all those smiling campesinos waving to us on our way up the mountain stopped smiling after we passed and rang up the authorities.

A little bargaining on the part of my Aunt Stella in the native tongue, and the next thing you know we have three uniformed and heavily-armed guides giving us the nickel tour of the “cloud forest” — which is basically a forest above the cloud line. Strange and beautiful beyond words, the hike damn near killed me, between the altitude (12,000 ft) and the brisk pace set by armed men nearly half my age. At one point, they showed us a cave where a kidnapping victim was kept for nearly three years.

Ah yes, the kidnapping. Snatching high profile political targets and wealthy business types has become a significant source of income and bargaining power for FARC guerrillas (narco-trafficking being the other primary source of funding). At last count, FARC was holding some 180 prisoners. Because the country is so sprawling and the terrain so rugged, the government cannot maintain control over the entirety of Colombia’s considerable square mileage, and as such they have ceded certain regions to guerrilla control — mostly in the south where the Amazon begins, and in the north where the Colombia bumps up against Panama.

My Aunt Stella has been directly effected by La Violencia. Her family used to own a coffee plantation and her brother was killed by the guerillas back in the mid-60s when the insurgency first flared up. Things are much more stable these days, but they don’t mess around here — the cops in Bogota carry submachine guns. Still, as my uncle is quick to point out, you are far more likely to be killed or kidnapped in the USA than in Colombia.

However, you are far more likely to be a victim of petty theft in Colombia than you would be in the US. And this we learned first hand today, but that is a story for our next installment

Adios, for now.

MY MOTORCYCLE DIARY: Or Seven Days Through The Amazon On The Back Of An Ass Part II



ZIPAQUIRA, COLOMBIA — Wednesday morning, I saw the most impressive cow erection I have ever seen. Actually it was the first cow erection I have ever seen, and hopefully it will be the last. The background: We got up at the crack of dawn to attend the livestock market in the nearby town of Zipaquira. Once a week all the area campesinos gather at the fairgrounds to buy, sell and trade cows, pigs and sheep. Being the only gringos in attendance, it is an understatement to say we stuck out like sore and throbbing thumbs.

Just to be clear, this was not quite your average 4-H Club gathering. There is no rhyme or reason, and precious little organization — just a large mass of people, each leading their prized heads of steer and swine around on leashes of knotted rope, dodging the freshly-laid cow patties that dotted the muddy landscape. Looking like moneyed gringos, we must have struck the locals as most desirable buyers, and we got very accomplished at saying “No, gracias” and waving our hands in the universally accepted sign language for “negatory.”

It was in the middle of this scene, with cows mooing and pigs oinking and sheep bah-bah-bah-ing and peddlers selling sweets, belt buckles and cowboy hats, that I saw the aforementioned full-mast bovine phallus. This impressive, pink appendage was connected to a bull that was in the process of mounting an unsuspecting Bessie in a scene that resembled the cover of Aerosmith’s Pump. It must be said that the cocksmanship of this bull left something to be desired, between his bad aim and the intended target mooing the equivalent of “I have a headache,” the Earth never did have a chance to move for our horny bovine friend. And for his trouble he was beaten with sticks by the cow herders trying to shoo him onto the scales to be weighed, unrequited hard-on and all. Once the campesinos figured out that we were here not to buy but to gawk, point and take pictures, they all proudly posed with their prized walking sides of beef.bigpig.jpg We came across a pig farmer who was only too happy to let me photograph five of the cutest little piglets suckling on their mother’s teats. Adorable. He waved me over to his prized Baconator tied the fence and sleeping. He kicked it several times to wake it up, despite me trying to tell him in broken Spanglish that it really wasn’t necessary.Witnessing such scenes of brutal cow sex and porcine cruelty can give a man a powerful appetite, so we headed over to the picnic tables crowded with poncho-clad campesino families and chickens slowly twisting on spits over open flames where breakfast was being served. Sopa is a big part of the local diet, and this morning we dined on chicken soup, fried eggs over white rice and plastic cups of fresh-squeezed jugo de naranja topped with a half an orange.

From there we headed over to the open-air farmer’s market in the Center Square, where melons, berries and bananas were stacked on tables in mini-pyramids, next to slightly-used cell phones and the latest adidas and Pumas. Now, before we go any further, I must tell you that my mother — who accompanied me on this trip, along with my girlfriend (I have been getting a lot of pressure to work her into the narrative) — is a hard-headed maverick who insists on going her own way no matter what the facts on the ground indicate. And yes, I know all about the fruit not falling far from the tree. Despite Mom’s repeated promises that she would listen to all and any advice my aunt and uncle gave us on how to successfully negotiate our way through this strange and foreign land, Mom refused to remove her gold necklace before we left the house. We did manage to get the string of pearls off her neck, but the gold necklace, Chanel purse and Rolex watch were non-negotiable. Mom just doesn’t roll without repping at least a little bling. Your loss, I tried to tell her. And sure enough, about halfway through our stroll through the crowded marketplace, it happened.

I was up ahead, taking pictures of small children peddling fresh-cut cilantro in newspaper cones when I heard my mother let out a scream and turned to see my Uncle William running through the crowd yelling Ladron! Ladron! (Thief! Thief!) and took off after him. The ladron quickly disappeared in the teeming throng, and we soon broke off the chase and returned to the scene of the crime to find my mother being comforted by vegetable-selling crones and sporting a nasty red rope burn where her gold necklace used to be. After calming her down I took no pleasure in pointing out that the necklace was a small price to pay for a valuable lesson learned: When you are the Haves strolling through the land of the Have Nots, don’t be so fucking obvious.

From there, it was on to our final stop of the morning: the Catedral de Sal, or Cathedral Of Salt, situated in an active salt mine dug into the side of mountain high atop Zapaquira. Colombians are a very devout Catholic people, a holdover from the days of Spanish rule, and as a sort of insurance policy against disaster the miners built an elaborate subterranean cathedral out of the dense walls of sodium chloride. This description from CNN says it better than I could:

The Zipaquira Salt Cathedral is built into the walls of a salt mine nearly 600 feet saltminer.jpg into a mountain in this central Colombian town of 120,000 people. Winding tunnels descend into the Roman Catholic temple, passing 14 small chapels representing the stations of the cross, which illustrate the events of Jesus’  last journey. Soft lights outline the chapels, carved with simple yet powerful strokes. Benches at each station appear to be marble but are really salt. Tourists and the devout kneel on the benches, breathing in a soft smell of sulfur as they pray. Moist bits of salt flutter like snowflakes in the distance of the tunnels, while stalactites of the mineral poke out of the white and gray walls.

It took a team of 120 miners working in around-the-clock shifts for four years to complete this awe-inspiring shrine to the earth-moving power of faith. Bathed in eerie blue light and the piped-in pre-recorded sounds of monks singing the Ave Maria, the Catedral de Sal almost made re-believers out of our party of four lapsed Catholics and two non-observant Moravians. I say almost. I could not help myself from cracking wise with the tour guide and asking if it was hard to find miners who could sing on key. She did not think that was funny. I was going to tell her that was at least as funny as watching cows fuck, but, in a rare moment of self-restraint, thought better of it.

About the author: Our own Boss Phawker, man of the world and leader of the local ruling junta, is vacationing down South America way.

My Motorcycle Diary: Tea And Sympathy For The Devil


Keith Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham at the Blue Boar Motorway Cafe, along the M1 between London and Birmingham, 1963. By Philip Townsend; never before published.


BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Today I saw Andrew Loog Oldham standing in his kitchen making me a lovely cup of tea, high above the streets of Bogota’s ritzy financial district in his tastefully upscale bi-level condominium, where he has lived on and off since 1975. If you have to ask who Andrew Loog Oldham is, you’ll never know — unless you click here, go on, we’ll wait. Psych! OK, now that we lost the dorks, let’s back up: A couple days before leaving for Colombia, it was brought to my attention that ALO currently resides in Bogota and broadcasts his daily Sirius show from there. Calling in a favor from friends in high places, I secured his email address and wrote him that I was a music journalist and I would be in Bogata in a couple of days and would love to do an interview. He wrote back, “Fine, but you better learn how to spell Bogota before you get down here.” So much for first impressions.

From there I dashed over to Borders to get a copy of his Stoned, a 1998 total recall of his early days inalo3sepia.jpg pre-Swinging London grooming the stylized thug mythos of the motherfucking Rolling Stones. Turns out the book is out of print and the only copy I knew I could get my hands on before my flight belonged to none other than Philebrity Jones himself, Joey Sweeney. Back before our partnership/friendship went south, Sweeney lent me Stoned with the proviso that I must ABSOLUTELY return it because not only was it one of his favorite books but Andrew Loog Oldham was the coolest thing on two legs to ever walk the Earth, or something along those lines. So I rang him up and, knowing it was me, he answered with a tentative “Hello” delivered in that wary “Is This A Trap” tone you might expect, given the circumstances. I told him I had a modest proposal for him:

ME: Loan me your copy of Stoned and I will get it signed by Andrew Loog Oldham.

SWEENEY: What?!?

ME: I know this sounds like I am putting you on, but I am serious as cancer, Jack. I’m leaving for Bogota, Colombia in the morning and have made arrangements to interview him.

SWEENEY: What? Colombia? Are you serious?

I was going to counter with “Obviously you are not keeping up with your daily Phawker,” but decided getting the goddamn book was more important than winning the latest round of our ongoing snark war.

So fast forward to this morning and I am standing outside ALO’s apartment building trying to figure out how to tell my cab driver to wait for me and that I will be back down in an hour. He speaks no English, and my rudimentary Spanish does not encompass such a relatively complicated exchange. The two door men are laughing at our communication breakdown and I ask them “tu habla ingles?” to which they nod their heads no and go back to laughing. I feel like a stoned.jpgfool with a paper ass, coming to somebody else’s country and expecting them to speak my language. How arrogant and intellectually-lazy, such imperial hubris. Thankfully ALO knows enough Spanish to get my point across, and five minutes later I am standing in his kitchen while he boils water for tea. Since the interview will, god willing, be published elsewhere, I can only give you a teaser of our conversation. Topics covered: heroin, Scientology, cocaine, shock treatment, Her Satanic Majesty’s Request, Sirius, Monterey Pop, Catholicism, mod sex, clinical depression, Martin Scorsese and whether or not his friend Phil Spector is innocent. An exchange:

ME: So is it true that you and Jagger don’t speak to each other?
ALO: We speak. When I last saw him [in 1994] he said “Hello, Andrew” and I said “Hello, Mick,” and then he walked away. See, we talk.
ME: When did you last speak to him prior to that?
ALO: 1968.
ME: What do you make of Keith Richards snorting his dad’s ashes?
ALO: Hey, back in the 60s I used to say I wanted my friends to smoke me when I’m dead.
ME: Phil Spector, innocent or guilty.
ALO: I have no earthly idea, but I must say upfront that Phil wrote me a lovely postcard when my mother died a few years ago. However, 67-year-old men in high heels and wigs should not be out drinking after midnight, especially when they are heavily armed.

Suffice it to say, we got on thick as thieves, in no small part because of the truth in the old maxim that you cannot bullshit a bullshitter — and today that cut both ways.

About the author: Our own Boss Phawker, man of the world and leader of the local ruling junta, is vacationing down South America way. He never told us if he got the goddamn book signed.



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