Before I had even visited the continent I was visited with dreams of wandering lost in the shanty town outskirts of some huge South American city. It is dusk. Above the shacks and in the distance I see the glittering downtown skyscrapers; but there is no way to reach them. My frustration is enormous. Italo Calvino describes Penthesilia:
"Every now and again at the edges of the street a cluster of constructions with shallow facades seems to indicate that from there the city texture will thicken. But you continue and you find instead other vague spaces…and so you continue, passing from outskirts to outskirts, and the times come to leave Penthesilia."
The great pull of the centre, hard to resist. I coax a little fuel into the carburettor; two stabs with the foot and away, the second cylinder initially lazy then breaking into song with the first as I skirt a donkey cart at the corner.
I ease up in the teeth of a giant khaki army lorry slouching on bald tyres down the centre of the road, worn Russian lettering on the bonnet. The traffic thins, the wind in my hair, the heat a welcome burden on my back, the spurt of water from a broken drain on my ankle; thus I bear down on Grand Cairo, preposterously astride an engine bolted to two wheels. As the wide arterial sweeps round the citadel I catch a sideways glimpse of minarets, the silveriest of silhouettes against the heat pale sky. Traffic glitters to the far crest of the road, cars, lorries, buses, motorcycles all gunning into the heart of the city. We rumble through the City of the Dead, to the left wide dusty streets dwindle into the city of tombs. And beyond rises the slow black smoke of the eternal rubbish bonfires, vertically into the heat-stilled sky.
Italy has just beaten Brazil in the World Cup; on a motorcycle in Rome this time, I am caught up in a great phalanx of traffic on the Via Nomentana, all of us thundering in joyful complicity down to Piazza Plebiscito; a riot of steaming banners and squealing brakes and car horns; no escaping the inexorable pull, as if in response to a vast electromagnet, downtown.
Intense too the hectic taxi rides from the airport into downtown Rio, such an incremental thrill, the wide chaotic airport road, the favelas tumbling downhill, speeding past the docks and then the first view of the outrageously sexy topography of the city..