"For me, it's very important to travel," Eladio says, with the same mild earnestness he uses to talk about battling malaria in Suriname, and evading Indians in the Guyana bush. By now he's a celebrity of sorts in Brazil, where he first became famous in 1991 after a two-and-a-half-year motorcycle trip that took him around South America like Che Guevara in the Fifties (though not for the same purpose). News crews and a thundering convoy of big army and cop bikes accompanied the bookstore owner for the first 100 kilometers of his trip.
Irala doesn't seem like a road-worn traveler, though; he's got a hint of gray in his sideburns but otherwise could be a peaceful, happy 25. And this helps for a guy who has to depend on strangers for shelter. To hear him tell it, people come out of the woodwork just to feed him and lend him money: "For Brazilian people, traveling is no problem," he laughs. "Everybody loves Brazil. It must be the soccer!" Eladio's permanent impish grin makes it hard to tell how deep his tongue is planted in his cheek, but his face attests otherwise: He's a dreamer, a real believer in basic human kindness. This is a pretty refreshing thing to encounter on South Beach at 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday in 2002.
In fact his optimism knows no bounds: He expects to find the same goodwill he encountered in Argentina and Oregon in some of the smoking holes of Africa and Asia, his next planned motorcycle nightmare tour. Actually, before he's through, Irala hopes to hit every country on Earth: "Africa is very dangerous," he says, a glint in his eye hinting at the particular madness that drives a man to take on crumbling roads, impossible bureaucracies, tsetse flies, Ebola virus, and mad teenagers toting AK-47s and channeling Salif Keita and Youssou N'Dour tapes -- "It took about four hours to get all my paperwork done getting into Honduras, and three hours to drive through the whole country." ... Then there was the family discord that a ten-month-long absence can bring: "My wife divorced me," Irala says, tongue firmer in cheek than ever. "She didn't like this trip."
Wife Walkiria -- with whom he started the bookstore and has a thirteen-year-old son, Alan -- told Eladio that it was her or the trip. He says it wasn't a hard decision. "For me, the trip is the most important thing."
Irala says he doesn't mind sacrifices -- leaving his business in the hands of his brother, leaving his wife and child behind -- for the sake of adventure. His grin widens when he talks about a harrowing three days pushing his motorcycle up a streambed in Guyana, when the road he was following ended unexpectedly. "Through the night I listened to the Indians" -- Irala imitates the sounds of natives and their drums, whooping and grunting -- "I spent three nights sitting up in my tent scared to death, but I never saw them. I didn't believe there were Indians like that anymore, except in movies."
But he made it out of the jungle, having blazed a new trail for extremely ambitious off-roaders.
The Honda, diminutive by the standards of American bikers (many of whom seem to prefer the La-Z-Boy on wheels model), stands in contrast to Irala's boyishness and Territory Ahead-catalogue wholesomeness. It's blackened with the grime of two continents, and carries every possession that Eladio cares about. Two tents are mounted on the front of the bike, and a metal-frame box is bolted to the back. On the back of the box is a map of the world, visible beneath a scrim of dirt.
The Honda company gives Irala a limited sponsorship, maintaining his motorcycle for free, and that helps finance his trips. He also lives frugally on the road, eating canned food and catching fish. (Eladio admits that maxed-out credit-card damage is another of his survival skills.)
For shelter Irala camps where he can, and stays in hostels and relies on the kindness of strangers elsewhere. A Brazilian couple in Los Angeles noticed him reading a map in Portuguese at a gas station. He wound up staying with them for a month (he actually prolonged his stay in L.A., preferring not to travel during the World Cup).
And they weren't the only ones to take him in. "In Argentina I met one girl I stayed with. And in Uruguay, Peru, Colombia. And in Los Angeles I have one girl! And in Canada!!" No wonder Walkiria walked.
Irala's especially proud of another order of L.A. conquest: cowing Harley-Davidson riders at a motorcycle convention. "They looked at the little bike and they looked at each other and said, 'He's been everywhere on this shitty little bike, and we've got these huge bikes and we don't go nowhere.' They were embarrassed."
L.A. ranks with Miami as Irala's favorite stops in the U.S. "Miami is a very famous city to me," he says. "Miami is similar to Brazil, because the people are free, I think. You can have a drink outside here and the police can see you and they don't care. You can't do that in L.A."
And his good luck found him a place to stay in Miami, as in L.A.:
"He was looking for a way to get to the islands, when he bumped into a Brazilian guy who's a buddy of my neighbor," explains Leonard Riforgiato, a furniture manufacturer and avid motorcyclist who put Irala up and helped him find a way home. "I couldn't believe it when I heard about this guy. I thought it was fabulous. I'm jealous. Most people's idea of motorcycle-traveling around here is to take your bike down to Key West on a trailer and ride around."
Riforgiato wants to take some time off from his own life and accompany Eladio on the European leg of his next trip, although he's less enthusiastic about cruising through Central Asia or Africa. "Maybe when I was younger I could push a bike up a river for three days," laments the middle-aged Len, with a shrug.
Irala, who keeps a daily journal and plans to write a book about his travels, is excited at the prospect of talking soccer with Rwandans. He never traveled as a child in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, with its great grassy spaces between the rain forest and the pampas. His father, who owned a small farm, could afford food and shelter for him and his six siblings, but there was no money to travel. So he developed a fascination with maps.
"I couldn't even dream about traveling as a child," he says. "But when I was eighteen I started a little bit. Every time I went somewhere, I realized it was easy to go just a little bit further."
Eladio describes himself as a good kid ("No drink, no drugs, no smoking"), a high school graduate who worked in a bank and eventually learned the bookstore business from his father-in-law. But the usual accoutrements of responsible adulthood -- wife, kid, time-consuming job -- felt like time served to him. Besides, professional and family obligations left him only one month to travel every year! "That's not enough time to visit anywhere -- if you have only 30 days, you spend 15 traveling and 15 coming back. Is not enough."
The successful bookstore (in Brasilia) gave Irala the wherewithal to take his time, and led to his two-and-a-half-year-long "Che Guevara" trip around South America. He planned his current trip for one year, although he's ending early, because he found the last portion -- traveling by boat and motorcycle through the islands back to Brasil -- just too hard and expensive to arrange. (He plans to fly home.)
Despite this change in plans, Eladio is proud of the trip. He says he's more than a drifter -- "I have a plan and a goal for learning about other cultures and places. I'm not like someone who grabs a backpack and wanders off like a hippie." He smiles romantically. "My home," he says, "is everywhere."