Panama

Pete left me an email. He’s going to be in Las Lajas for a couple days chilling and catching up on some work. I’m never really sure how long it takes to get places….. in Central America, you can count on it being much longer than you think. It doesn’t help that my bike is a 650 and not really designed to go faster than 70mph. I’m still used to my big GS1200 on the highway and always want to goose poor KLaRa. Speed is just not her thing. More about this later.

Here’s some riding video from the last couple weeks! 

I ride smooth fast roads until late afternoon.  Las Lajas is the closest town to where I can comfortably stop for the night. It’s getting dark already, so I choose the first nice-looking hostel. IMG_0824It’s not cheap $35/night and no wifi. This is always a bit of a problem for me. Wifi is important because I try to research my next days stop.. also, I have been using my phone as a GPS. In the morning, I like to map the distance I think I can travel in one day and plot the course with a blue line… if I go off track, I can quickly look and see. Also, since I’m alone, I like keeping my friends and family updated on where I am.

IMG_7464 Las Lajas isn’t big, but Pete’s bike is.. He told me he’d be here, so I figure all I have to do is find that orange and black monster.

I throw my bags in the room, hop back on the bike and with the last light of the day roll around until I find his bike. It takes less than 10 minutes. He’s’s parked at the big resort at the end of town soaking up some good wifi.. and a couple margaritas.

IMG_7441 IMG_7440 I plop myself down next to him at the bar. “Hey!”

“Hey! You found me!”  He’s catching up his blog and working with his manufacturer. I’ve arrived at a good stopping point and join him for dinner. We talk about our rides and after a couple drinks, I tell him about the strange lady at his hostel in Costa Rica… He laughs and tells me she was just jealous.. when she showed him the room, she draped herself on the bed telling him how comfortable it was… inviting him to “try it out”

Eureka!! It makes total sense! I laugh and feel sorry for the poor gal.

I wrap it up early. I am wiped out anyway. We make no plans to meet the following day.

In the morning, I wke before dawn, walk for a couple hours on the beach and take a little ride around town.. just to see what happens here.. It is a local beach, packed on the weekend, but is 12 Kilometers of empty sand, palapa and ocean during the week!!IMG_0817 IMG_0811 IMG_0808 IMG_0807 IMG_0803 IMG_0798 IMG_0796 IMG_0783 IMG_0781IMG_0764 IMG_0763 IMG_0759IMG_0820

After my walk, I decide to change the air filter on my bike. It takes me longer than I think and I’m not ready to roll until 10-ish. As I’m tightening the last bolts, I see Pete roll past on his beast… He’ll make it to Panama City way before me… I smile to myself.. ah well. KLaRa has been a reliable moto and I’m happy with her now.

I click my bags into place and strap my wing to the back.

I ride steadily for the next two and a half hours. I pass a LOT of policia on the road.. Panama must be wealthy, all the cops have radar guns.. good cars, bikes and clean looking uniforms.

As I ride, I notice another cop… who has a bike pulled over.. an orange and black KTM… and he’s not looking thrilled. I wave as I cruise by… just over the speed limit.

I stop for lunch and as per the gas station attendants reccomendation, get a pile of chinese food for cheap. I carry on for about an hour. I am the fastest motorcycle on the road. The locals all ride small  bikes. 150cc’s average.

An hour and a half later, I see a single headlight in my side mirror. It catches up quickly.. only one bike on the road is going to do that. He slows to meet a pace right behind me. We ride for a while but I have to get fuel. I pull in and top off the tank.. I ask him about his ticket.. he laughs it off. “I don’t have a speedomoter!” Grinning… “I thought I’d get behind since you do, and I can’t use another ticket.”1618641_10202455810789356_1632592042_n

He broke his in the wreck he had in Nicaragua.. He must have been really moving, because he thought we were going slow… alas, even with pokey KLaRa, we had been doing more than 20km over the speed limit most of the way.

We ride the rest of the way into Panama.. and get rooms in the same hotel.. It was a good idea, because I can’t find anywhere that has safe parking for the bike… and I’m blazing hot in my full riding gear.

PANAMA CITY:

I try to avoid big cities. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve put myself here. It is by far the busiest city I’ve visited… second only to Mexico City… (which I have vowed never to ride through again.)

The traffic is terrifying. I would rate it as “Place most likely to be squashed on the bike” It is also loud…and a lot of one ways. The beeping is almost a background noise. Everyone beeps. It is impossible to know what exactly they are beeping at. They beep to say “hi!” they beep when they are passing, they beep when they are coming up behind you,  beep the moment before they might be squished, beep a when there is a woman with tight clothes. There are a lot of women with tight clothes. I hit two busses with my luggage… I’m a little too wide to sneak between traffic like everyone else… should have beeped?

The noise in the morning starts early. I was awakened by the beeping and a jackhammer just after dawn. I get on my computer and book a room with AirB&B out in the country for the next few days.IMG_7480

We leave the hotel on foot and find the Fish Market. Ceviche is the star of the show. The front  is row of little ceviche stands.. inside, every day, they sell great piles of fish, clams, shrimp, langosta, octopus and crabs. IMG_7536 IMG_7535Outside, for $2.75 you can get a cup of the ceviche of your choice (shrimp cocktail is my favorite) and for another $1, a beer to wash it down.IMG_7537

IMG_7512 IMG_7511Panama’s unit of currency is the US Dollar. They also call it a Balboa… you can get coins in $1 denomination that are only spendable here in Panama. The rest of the currency is regular ‘ol greenbacks.

I feel clever about my Air B&B reservation in the mountains, but when I arrive, I realize quickly this will be my first AirB&B strikeout. The gate is locked and I wait in the rain for twenty minutes before I ride away and return an hour later. The pool has clearly never been cleaned.. nor the dishes in the kitchen… the sink won’t drain.. there are rodent droppings and some kind of hair in all the pots and pans. There is no wifi. Nothing is as advertised except for the private room. It has a bed, a fan and one thrift store-looking painting hung haphazardly in a corner. That is it. No closet, dresser, stand, seat… nothing.

I tell my host that I won’t be staying with him and want a refund for the remaining nights.

He returns.. “Well, everything is not 100%.” I could not agree more.

I return to the city in the morning to get wifi and research a place to stay.

My new accommodations are not appreciably better, it is a very expensive room in the heart of the barrio, IMG_7639 IMG_7641IMG_7781IMG_7784 IMG_7633IMG_7637 IMG_7635but the internet and AC work.. and the kitchen is clean. It is the best (and only) place where I can find (somewhat) affordable lodging with safe parking for my motorcycle.IMG_7502 IMG_7498 IMG_7503

I spend my days walking around the city (I don’t like riding the moto) Meeting people and taking pics. IMG_7761 IMG_7775 IMG_7777 IMG_7832 IMG_7825 IMG_7824 IMG_7823 IMG_7822 IMG_7833 IMG_7803 IMG_7791 IMG_7789I’m trying to save money and cook for myself IMG_7505OR eating at the street stands… and ceviche.. of course. IMG_7734Panama is a strange juxtaposition between old and new, first and third world.IMG_7550 IMG_7458

IMG_7704 IMG_7657I’ve been following Alison DeLapp’s blog for some time now http://www.alisonswanderland.com/ and have taken some advice from her as well a some great ideas about selling the bike. I get a message on my facebook from her Tuesday and find out she is LIVING in Panama City!! She isn’t nore than 10 minutes from me.IMG_7714

We meet up for ceviche and some excellent bike conversation. I LOVE hanging out with her, it is fantastically refreshing to have riding and maintenance conversations with another serious female rider….  another gal with a sweet smile and nerves of steel. I’ll never get enough of these women.

I’m super sad to say goodnight, but she has to ride her moto home and the traffic doesn’t get any better with more beers.

I met some other adventure riders who are staying at my hotel…a Aussie, four Germans and a Mexican fellow. IMG_7631 IMG_7552 IMG_7630We get together for dinner, and some tourist stuff (the Panama Canal). We discuss our rides, and the passage across the Darien. Two fellows think I can put the bike on a plane but there is some discussion about what the prices are. It is right before Valentines day, so the costs seem to be substantially higher because of the extra volume.

I’ve already booked passage on the Independance…an 85′ steel yacht that sails back and forth between Panama and Cartegena, Colombia. It hasn’t gotten great reviews, but I’m committed now… What I’m really afraid of is missing that sailing and then being forced into an expensive plane fare.

I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with Panama. The people are warm and friendly… except at the stores.. the attitude is a bit helpless and not focused. Especially at the banks. My debit card was cut off this morning because of the Target data breach. It is the day before I get on the ship. I still need $500.

My own bank and I made not less than 50 phone calls to different banks here… not a single live person answered the phone. I spent two futile hours trying to explain what I needed at one bank in person.

Finally, my father hiked out in the snow to the grocery store and wired me the money. Everyone else I knew on the East Coast was totally snowed in.

I had the new card sent to my hostel in Cartegena, and I can pick up my wired cash four hours before I meet my boat at the dock.

Crossing the Darien Next.

Fruit, Friends and Suspicious Eyes.

So, I left out a few observations from my last post. One of which was the fruits from the markets. I had to be discreet about taking photos. There seems to be a strong dislike about photo taking…. that has been everywhere I’ve gone, actually. Can’t blame ’em really, noone likes to be a sideshow.

As me and my four companions cruised the market, there were a lot of things I recognized… papaya, Passionfruit, mangoes, bananas, plantains, and a few that I didn’t. If this was your first trip to the tropics, you’d be astounded by the array of different fruits and vegetables they have here. One of the things that caught me be surprise were the squash… huge piles of squash.. I found the bright orange-yellow chunks in a chicken soup I had a couple days ago and raised my eyebrow at it’s unexpected appearance.

Another I found were palm fruits… I’m not sure if they really are a fruit. Here, they are called Pejibaye.. in Colombia they are Chontaduro. They are dry and starchy.. the golf ball sized reddish orange fruits are first boiled then served with a little salt and mayo. It takes the edge off the dryness.

Choyote… these I have seen in markets everywhere from the US and Southward. But I’ve never had one till now. We boiled some up and put them in a mix with fried breadfruit and yuca. They didn’t have a lot of flavor, light and mild, they were still a welcome addition to the plate. I think you can eat them raw in a salad as well.

The last two we got… a bag of little apples which were crisp with a delicate skin… kind of a plummy, meloney flavor… not what my mouth was expecting from the apple looking thing. And then a Guanabana… called a soursop in other places, it is a giant green prickly thing that looks a lot like a breadfruit but is a fantastic sweet treat. They put it in icecream, mix it with milk… juices, shakes…

The local food… and I mean Local, off the beaten path, out in the dirt backstreets, someones little kitchen kind-of-place is wonderful. The food is all grown right in the back yard. The pork they fry, the yuca, and even the plantains.. as we swilled beer and ate our fantastic pile of lunch (yuca, plantains and pork), our chef walked out to a banana tree, and sliced off a big fresh bunch.. both stems bled a great deal of white milky liquid then stopped abruptly. 

That’s home cookin’.IMG_7358

When I rolled in to Dominical, it seemed like a largely undeveloped paradise…dirt roads, no big hotels, but I noticed one thing immediately. There are a LOT of white people here. They outnumber the locals (Ticos) by a large margin. Tico to me, has been always warm and friendly… I love their relaxed ways, beautiful easy smiles and love of country. “Pura Vida!” they tell you at the gas stations, markets and bars.IMG_7383 IMG_0687

Dominical didn’t feel like that. It was not welcoming or warm. It felt like a closed community. I waited twenty minutes to be acknowledged at the bar while friends of the staff were served immediately all around me. I became curious about this strange behavior and started asking questions…. as it turns out, it’s not just me. The discovery of this warm water surfing paradise caused a great influx of expatriot hippies from Europe, Canada and the US primarily. They do yoga, homeschool their children and surf. In the evenings, they play music, or listen, hang out at the bar and enjoy their tight community. Oddly, tourists are outsiders and not particularly welcome.. I loved flying there and felt very safe… my own little community was warm and delightful.. I would be thrilled to meet them here again…IMG_7363

For a surfing, or tropical vacation other than paragliding, I would choose my old favorite, Mal Pais.

Costa Rica.

I rode the rest of the way through windy Nicaragua.. it was a great ride.. there are a lot of volcanoes and water in Nicaragua… maybe thats where the agua part comes from…The Nicar part is from when the Spanish conquored the nation almost five centuries ago… reportedly, Nicaro was one of the main Chiefs names of the indigenous tribes.

I love the little shacks made of sticks and palm fronds… I guess its not really necessary to have an enclosed house, It is always warm.. Most places anyway…I drove through some cooler parts of Nicaragua earlier.

The border out of Nicaragua is easy. Mostly. After seeing the customs person, I have to go to the policia. There is no sign for the policia. I wander for 20 minutes and ask three people where I can find them everyone points in a different direction. Turns out, they…er.. she, was at the first place I stopped. She’s sitting bunched up together in a seat laughing hysterically with her civilian friend behind an ad for cell phones or something. It is nearly impossible to tell she is an officer…. After standing in front of them for a minute, I have to interrupt their conversation… I’m not sure this is a necessary stop. I can’t tell if I’ve been had.

Getting into Costa Rica is a breeze. Except for the one and only insurance person is out to lunch. I have to wait 45 minutes until she returns.

Liberia Canton is a bumpy ride getting into, but getting closer to the city, it smooths out..

I roll in after a short-ish day and start looking for the hospedaje I had scoped out earlier. After an easy search, I ring the bell and a dark, seriously handsome, thirty-something fellow answers the door.. we roll my moto into the small gated area of Hospedaje Dodero…. Out step three other women. They were just about to go to the Farmers market.. and invite me along!

IMG_7351IMG_7339 IMG_7337I peel off my sweaty clothes, put on a pair of sandals and jump in the car with them.

The rest of the day is great fun… shopping, a couple beers, cooking at the house and finally, a great nights sleep. The temperature in Liberia is a delightful 80-something degrees… in the day. At night it sinks to the high 60’s.

It is clean, safe, friendly and these guys can tell you anything about Liberia.. AND they have Salsa Lessons… AND they will take you to the Farmers Market.. and a bunch of other places (for a fee)

The Wi-fi is very good and even the beds are comfortable… at $14 for a private room, this has been the best bang for my buck in Central America. Get in touch with them www.hospedajedodero@gmail.com

The next day, I roll out early and beeline for Dominical. I am familiar with the road.. I drove this route a couple times when I was here two years ago. Nothing has changed at all. I still love it.

I ride through Jaco for old times sake… and to see if there was anyone flying the ridge above town.

I didn’t stop by crocodile river.. I did last time and threw the crocks some chicken bones, but I’m on a mission today. I need to find a good priced place to stay for me and my bike.

IMG_7379 IMG_7398 I roll in mid-afternoon and with a little asking around, I find Coco’s. They have rooms and great parking for $20/night BUT, I get mine for only $16… Let me tell you why.

When I got to Valle De Bravo a month ago, I told all my new paragliding friends what I was doing. They told me about a couple that is doing something similar.. They are riding their van and trailer from Jackson Hole Wyoming through Central America… they way they make money is by flying people tandem. I was hoping to meet them in Panajachel, but they moved on before I got there.

Becca and Cade (and Rok, their pup) are also doing a blog.. it’s delightful with excellent pics.. it’s funny, we’ve been to many of the same places but our stories are totally different! http://anorthamericanmigration.blogspot.com/ My lowered rate is because Becca and Cade have ingratiated themselves to my host already, by giving some of the staff Tandem paragliding rides!! He is delighted to have more pilots in the area…IMG_0701

I get Becca by email. They’ve got plans for the next day. Which is ok, because I have a second contact here in Costa Rica.

I met Alex in Pennsylvania this past summer when I was trying to get some airtime on the East Coast. He was very excited about this project and put me in touch with Marcus who is a local in CR. Marcus was friendly and welcoming on email and has been excellent about staying in touch with me for flying. I contact him in the evening… we are to meet at a ridge site in the morning.

IMG_7394 I take a cold shower.. in the heat it’s really not too bad… then a walk at the beach.. The water is warm, maybe 80 degrees.. It has been this warm starting (when I noticed) in El Salvador. I’ve thought to swim a bit, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. On my walk back, I take the street.. I pass street vendors selling t-shirts, souveniers, the usual stuff, a couple small restaurants, one of them a bit larger, and loud.. thumping Beyonce from the bar.

IMG_7387I near the last little hostel on the row and see a motorcycle parked in the drive…KTM it is the 990. With an extra large fuel tank. This monster is definitely doing a tour… and it has Washington plates. I want to meet him! (I think it’s a him, the bike is enormous!!)

An uninterested gal sitting at a desk looks like she’s working there..

“Hey! Do you know who is riding this motorcycle?”

“Yes.” with a heavy European accent, she says, “He is riding around the world..”

“So am I.” I lied to avoid a long discussion.

Catty, she clips..“Well maybe you can be really good friends.”

I’m confused and surprised by her curt, almost rude comment, so just I nod and bid her goodbye.

I come back a couple hours later with a note.. I still hope to see the guy (or gal) who is riding the beast. I tuck my note with my Facebook and email address into the top of the seat.

I have dinner at a little restaurant on a back street. I’m disappointed there isn’t much local fare.. it’s mostly white people food… tacos, hamburgers, spaghetti.. I return to my little room and some good internet.

I check my Facebook page. Already, there is a message from Pete (the motorcycle guy). He’d love to meet up! He also included his blog http://moskoblog.wordpress.com/

I wake early in the morning.. I can’t sleep very late. Six at the latest… I have to leave early because it is a two and a half hour ride to the ridge… I walk out to the beach, snap a couple photos.

I check my email one last time… Marcus has left me a message… New plan. We are going to fly a thermal site with a few other local pilots.. It is close, only a 45 minute ride.

Three hours later, I meet them at a gas station in town. I am to follow them to the LZ. It is a 5 minute highway ride and then another twenty on dirt. We get to the dusty meeting point, which is conveniently next to the LZ. I park my bike on someones porch, look at the Landing Zone, load my things into one of the trucks and we ride another ten minutes to the beginning of the hike to launch… Wings unloaded, we start up.IMG_7384

It is steep. Very steep, and very hot. The farmer has cut a path into the hillside. He loves to watch us fly.

The launch is set farther back into the countryside, surrounded by hills and I can only just see the edge of the ocean through a light mist. The local pilots collect some money from everyone to give the farmer a cut for his effort but they won’t accept any money from me. I am a “guest”.

I don’t feel like a guest.. or a tourist. I feel like I’m home. Especially with my paragliding family. I’ve lived in so many places.. when I am with people like these, with people that are warm and able and concerned, even if we don’t speak the same language, I never feel unfamiliar.

We joke a bit at the top.. and I’m nervous. My stomach rolls uncomfortably.. I feel like the time is right, but they have warned me that the launch is tricky, so I’m hoping to see someone else launch before I do. Fortunately, I don’t have long to wait. Three people launch and I jump right in line. I see the trick.. but the only real trick is to wait for a good thermal…. wait for it to come straight up the hill.

I do, and get a great launch. I fget high right away.. high enough to cross over to the next hill. Which cranks me right up to cloudbase. It is beautiful and cool at the bottom of the cloud.. fully fifteen degrees cooler than launch. Very comfortable.

I play in the fat, tropical thermals and fluffy clouds for about an hour and land with two other people in a huge green field. It was a spectacular flight. Finally, the last of us lands and we are all thrilled with our flights. We head to a local bar to celebrate with some food and beers.

The local food is excellent.. as a matter of fact, it is (except for the hostel) the best food I’ve had in Costa Rica. I’m sad when the meal and the day is finally over, but I have to ride the rest of the way back to Dominical.. hopefully before dark.

I return to the hotel and check my mail again. I’m going to meet Pete tomorrow morning and fly with Becca and Cade right after.

The next day, I wander over to Pete’s place. I read his blog last night and know what he looks like.. I also know that his trip has been incredible you’ll have to read about it and his amazing idea at his blog site too!

Pete is tall. And super handsome. I don’t know why I’m surprised at this. I like him immediately and start learning about his trip… he’s returned to Nicaragua (after wrecking and healing a broken leg) to pick up his moto and ride it down to Panama. He is testing a new kind of soft luggage (he designed) for adventure riding! He drags all the bags out of his room and shows me their secrets… I love the design and also found out he will be at Overland Expo this year !! We have a great conversation and part ways warmly.. we’re somewhat on a similar timeline for getting to Panama city, so we exchange e-mails but don’t really say goodbye.

I meet Becca and Cade for lunch, and then a flight. The ridge looks out over the ocean and is a mixture of ridge and thermal flying. Everything is easy. When I launch into the warm air, I don’t get up quickly. I have to fly close along the ridge for a while before I find a piece of lifting air. Finally, I get up above the ridge and soar with my friends.. the jungle is LOUD. Loud with bugs and monkeys.. I notice this almost immediately and throughout my flight.. a constant background ringing that adds yet another dimension to my already magical flight!!

IMG_0683We fly only for a half an hour or so before I feel the wind turn South-ish and decide to push out towards the ocean.. I decide to land in a little soccer field. I was too nervous about the super high tide to push out further and risk an emergency landing… in a tree.

After our banner flight, my new friends pick me up on the road and we head for some lunch.

Dominical has been flyable almost every day for them, but I keep hearing how “technical” this site is… which really means nothing at all to me. I don’t think of flying sites in terms of “technical” or “not technical”. All flying is technical to me. I think more in terms of what level of pilot might easily fly the site. P2.. Beginner-ish, should have an LZ within 5 to 1 glide from launch. P3.. solid intermediate, can navigate moderate thermals and be able to fly terrain features… as well as launch a variety of altitudes and sites. LZ not necessarily visible or within glide P-4+.. can fly nearly anything and has a gob of hours… probably a tandem pilot. There’s not many P-5’s and wherever they are, they have probably made a life out of flying.

Cade is super quiet.. mostly, I think, because he is working furiously on posting, editing pictures and communicating with their sponsors. Becca isn’t a chatty Cathy either but whenever she speaks, there isn’t much fluff.

We have my favorite conversation.. what did you do before?… and how did you get here? Not as in physically, but to arrive in a place of self-fulfillment, freedom and vision.

It isn’t always glamorous.. actually, it seldom is.

Waiting tables to Tandem Pilot.. it’s really not that much of a leap. I think we all do the same thing.

You learn to fly, then you want more, then you find yourself constantly looking out the window…. at the clouds, wind, the birds soaring… the mountains… if you can.

There is a constant gnawing at the back of your brain that cannot be ignored. And then we find ourselves making life plans around it.

Having a “normal” life isn’t an option anymore. Not for them.. not for me.

I’m always curious about accidents too. We’ve (almost) all had one. Some of us more than one.

Her initial statement. “I had an acident.”

We have a longer conversation about competition, and how she regained her confidence after the accident.. (some people never do)

Cade finally interrupts, prompting her to divulge the details… it’s a harrowing tale.

I am speechless.. (almost never happens)

It took me over a year to banish the demons from my own wreck…(not nearly as spectacular)

Meeting this soft spoken, slender lady, one would never suspect the treasure trove of experience and strength lurking behind those calm, blue-green eyes.IMG_0713

We part ways with hugs and smiles, they are some of my new favorite people.. their energy and drive is contagious… I can’t wait to hear more about their adventure too!!BCand me

More about Dominical next…

Grenada

Grenada:

Spanish Colonial. Lots of churches. I got there early enough to roll around for a bit and find a hostel. I choose a brightly painted one… private room $10/night. IMG_7223The staff is a mixed bag of old, local, young, hippie, outlandish and boring…as I check in, a hunched over too-old 60-something fellow keeps making big eyes and grabbing signs at me.. and then the bike. I start getting worried and run out to make sure the bags are at least locked. The young Eastern European hippie chick at the counter is rolling her eyes.. “Some people think everything and everyone is going to get stolen”

I relax a little and finish checking in. I pull the bags off the bike and as per Central American custom, I roll the bike into the Hostel… through the open air lobby, through two hallways, past the kitchen to rest directly in front of my room.

I like this kind of parking!

I put my things in the room and go to the desk to inqure about some good local fare.

A thick lipped local guy with fingers the size of sausages tells me “Beegarong.” I look at him.

“Big a wrong?” He says it again. “BEEEGarong.” I stare dumbly. He grabs a pen.. it is tiny in those giant hamhock hands… and writes it down. V I G A R O N. “eeeets deelicious!” He claims.

Ooooooh! OK! He tells me to order it in the park. Only in the park.

I walk down the busy street, make a couple turns and land smack in the middle of an organized, churchy, European square. There are horse carriages everywhere.. I walk through Europe to a spiced up Gazebo. They have a huge menu board…. at the top is vigaron. I order one and a coke.IMG_7257 IMG_7263

The server looks a bit unhappy and sweaty.. I don’t know why… its crazy busy and hotter than a shorted computer cable (more about that later)

She slides my ginormous green plate in front of me and a coke.. and glass of ice. I debate for a second about using the ice… the server notices my hesitation… and almost grabs it.. but no, I’m going to chance the ice. It is flipping hot out!

I dig into my lunch.. it’s a dish local to Grenada…Served on a banana leaf, the bottom layer is boiled yucca, the next layer is a circle of crunchy chicharron, and the whole thing is topped with a double fist of dressed cabbage and little peppers and a couple finely chopped tomatoes.. and another fruit (or vegetable) I can’t identify… almost a cornichon but not brined.. the whole salad is a little like a slaw, but not as vinegary.. more limey. not overpowering.

Big Lips was right. It is delicious.. I always love good chicharron anyhow… AND it was super cheap. Two or three bucks.. I’m sorry to have eaten the darn thing before I thought to take a picture.

I walk a bit in the city… it doesn’t have the open airy feel of Antigua… or the quaintness of Leon… it feels.. like a tourist trap. I hate to even say that, but it’s stark, the difference between wealth and poverty.. sitting cheek to jowl, the tourists, expats and wealthy hoteliers, and then the rest… the neighborhoods.. not even a full block between WOW! and… wow. I didn’t feel that quite as strongly in Leon.. an even less so in Antigua. I get the impression Grenada is safer than Leon, but that might be just the people I talked to and their own impressions of safety. Hard to say. I haven’t been mugged anywhere.

IMG_7264 IMG_7251 IMG_7252 IMG_7254 IMG_7255 IMG_7229 IMG_7227 IMG_7226 I sort through my gear, write at a table for a couple hours until I’m hungry again and walk out into the street to look for something to drink.. maybe a bar where I can get a $1 beer. Meet some people. I wander for about an hour.. and just about to give up, I run into a girl I was chatting up at the hostel earlier… “Hey! You want to team up for dinner?”

She smiles and says yes… She’s a singer/mail clerk from Portland. We stroll back where I’d just come from and choose a poorly lit place with local menu and a view of the street. It is after 8:00.. later than I usually like to eat.

I order bean soup and a beer.

We have an unremarkable conversation over our meals and are looking for our waitress (the bean soup was excellent) When there is an incredible racket coming from the street… It sounds like a marching band.

Then we see dancing horses..Then the band.. Then more horses.. and a float! With dancing cowgirls! I have to pinch myself for a second because it was a little surreal to be having a horse parade marching past our restaurant at this time of night.

We settle up the tab and make our way out into the now super crowded spectacle… It takes a half hour for all the dressaged, high stepping horses, dancers and bands to go by.. I finally realize they’re doing this at night because it is way too hot for the horses during the day.

At any rate, it is a great way to spice up the evening and when they are done, I’m ready for bed.

Back home, I undo the luggage sized lock they issued me to secure my room. It is large inside, but there is no furniture in it besides the bed… and a single light bulb in the high ceiling… peeling paint and a fan. I sit on the edge of my bed slightly depressed… the room is an echo chamber too, for the dozen boisterous hostel twenty-something crowd that is next door one-upping each other with travel experiences and sex. I read for a couple hours until the little reunion next door breaks up and I finally close my eyes… until I hear something hit my pillow. I thought to ignore it, but WHAT could hit my pillow? I flip on my phone flashlight. It looks like mouse droppings… and.. dirt.

I focus the beam upwards and see a bamboo mat  covering the ceiling.. It is difficult to say what kind of horror it might be covering up.. and in my half-asleep mind, I am probably imagining something far worse than what could be living above me.

It is impossible to find a way to  sleep now, so I grab my hammock and go out to the lobby. I’d seen some hooks earlier and string it up there. I fall asleep quickly in my new accommodations but wake just before dawn. My leg itches. And my right arm.

I scratch my leg for a minute and decide to look at the source of itching..

Again, the phone light.

No less than a hundred little red welts cover my knee and arm. The mozzies have had fantastic meal of pierna and abrazo de Wendy.

I slide out of my hammock and begin packing. I’ll be in Costa Rica this afternoon and hopefully score a better landing spot. Right now, I’m leaving the well fed buggies, hippies and tourists behind. The morning ride is sure to be fantastic in the cooler air anyway.

You like Ron?

I felt bad about blowing through Honduras.. I’m super short on time and I have no good contacts for this country.. as well, it could take a week or more to scare something up if I try to go it alone. So, I’m doing a double border crossing today.

One border crossing is exhausting. Two… is something else. I know what I’m up against, so I leave early in the morning to beat the heat of the first one at least. I have American Dollars.. (that’s what El Salvador uses) and need to get a couple Lempiras for the crossing.

It’s really not too bad a border.. the buildings are all close together and everyone is friendly… I get out and in quickly… thankfully.

The ride through is nondescript. I really can’t tell you anything about the country because all I know is this road.. Its like driving through rural Texas and telling your friends what the US is like… can’t do it. There were some hills, birds, other cars.. a few rickety shacks… nothing to nail the country down.IMG_7115

I find a gas station that has free wireless internet right before I cross to Nicaragua.. I have no idea where I might land so I google border crossings and discover that I may like to go to Leon next. I stay South. I used a Helper. Yes I did. I really didn’t want to spend any extra time wandering about because I knew I had a few hours left ahead of me. I just gave him $5… seemed to make him happy and I know I saved some time.

Nicaragua:

When I left the border crossing, I knew all my exit paperwork was complete but there was a guy in the middle of the road. There are cones and he’s wearing something that looks official-esque. He wants my paperwork… and then he wants a “copia” of something. A crosseyed kid walks up and offers to take my paperwork to make copies for “a fee”. I know I’m getting fleeced I’m frustrated and close to tears because it’s deadly hot in my riding gear… and two borders is already enough mind numbing backwardness for one day.

I remember my bribe bag and reach in. I pull out an airplane bottle of Capitan Morgan “Te gusta Ron?” (do you like rum?) he inspects the bottle carefully..  I am wholly relieved when he says “Ok.” nods.. pushes his lips together and lets me go with an offhanded wave.

The country is clearly poor. There are stick shacks set up on the sides of the road everywhere.. BUT the vibe isn’t down. It is a clear contrast to somber El Salvador. I punched in my destination on my iPhone at the gas station and am following my blue line… but I passed my turn? I don’t remember seeing a road. I reluctantly turn back… most of the reluctance is because there was a police checkpoint I will have to clear again .

When I follow my track, I discover that it is a dirt road… almost 20 miles of it that my phone selected for me… it borders a national park so I decide to just ride it out.IMG_0669

It is one of the prettier rides I’ve had. There are huge farmed fields and volcanoes in the distance… a few people pass me on motorbikes and a couple more walking.. the open fields soon turn to forest and homes. Simple corrugated shacks… there are dogs and chickens and pigs.. a number of times I dodge pigs that wander out onto the road… the road gets worse. Ahead of me I see a truck with people standing in the back.. as I get closer, I see the men are wearing camoflage… and guns. They are not regular military. I ride slowly for a minute and decide to go by with some speed. Being in the military myself doesn’t make me any less wary of people in green uniforms… I’m nervous now that I’ve taken a wrong road, but I’m about halfway through, so I might as well carry on. More pigs, goats, dogs, shacks.. some of them close together in neighborhoods… half a dozen children kick a soccer ball around a dirt yard.

IMG_7162I am stopped twice with livestock being herded directly down the center of the road.. everyone has a gun. Well, anyone riding a horse has a gun… and some folks walking. Shotguns mostly.. a couple rifles.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I finally reach pavement.

Leon is small and I’m in no shape to go looking for cheap hostels. I make a note to have active cellular data on the next trip because exhaustion is expensive. My concentration is lagging, the streets are  busy, one way cobbled affairs. I spend twenty minutes looking for a hotel that may have safe parking for the bike.IMG_7164

IMG_7171I park the moto right in the lobby.IMG_7157

Leon is very… European…. and churchy. The whole town is filled up with churches.  It used to be the Capitol of Nicaragua… then Grenada, then Leon. They went back and forth until the two of them Rochambeaued for it.. They kept playing but every time, ended in a draw, so they gave up and settled on Managua in 1858-ish.IMG_7253 IMG_7256 IMG_7261 IMG_0678 IMG_7156 IMG_0673IMG_0672Tons of terracotta roofs.. mostly the same height.. and more Spanish Baroque. It’s nearing dusk so I put on some shorts and hurry out into the warm evening.  I walk around a bit and snap some photos, hungry now I find a little bar with a pool game going.IMG_7177 IMG_7175I order a beer and a bowl of bean soup. It is delicious…. they have found a way to make beans the most delicious things here in central America!!

Also, the pool game is riveting… especially because they have drawn such a crowd.. one of the players is wearing one of those special gloves and walking very seriously around the table.

I have another beer but now an overly friendly fellow is sitting  too close to me for comfort and telling me how awesome his country is. I have to agree, but the proximity is stifiling, so I make an early but graceful departure.

Tomorrow, Grenada.

El Salvador.. The other half.

IMG_7097I left El Tunco with some advice. I should go to Playas Negras.. I didn’t ask why.. so I charted a course for this beach destination. I hadn’t fueled the bike in El Salvador yet and as I was coming to the beach, I thought to fill up.

I’m not sure if the station is open. I roll to a pump… until I see a sweaty looking fellow with a white t-shirt and a shotgun. To me, that always spells trouble so I make a quick turn.. As I roll into Playas Negras, it is clear that this is not a tourist community, and I chide myself for thinking.. even hoping that it might be. This is really what my ride should be about.. seeing the local culture.

This morning I started off with a headache. I thought it might be caffeine induced but quickly realized that I’d been clenching my teeth. My temples and jaw are sore. I was stressed out because of all the fear that had been handed to me by the folks in town. El Salvadorans are scared… because of the gang killings that color every facet of life here. One of the most violent countries in the world, the number of deaths are on par with that of a civil war. I don’t know anything about this tiny, impoverished beach town. Could it be a gang stronghold?? There are for sale signs everywhere. The streets are terrible and small, some of them dirt, but there are dozens of people out riding bicycles and walking strollers. There isn’t very much traffic at all, since the gas station, I’ve only seen one other car.

I ride up and down the street looking for somewhere suitable to stop for the night but I cant tell what might be a hotel or what. There is one restaurant right on the starkly beautiful beach. I’m the only one there and am not entirely sure if they’re even open.

IMG_7101I park the bike. A man swings in a hammock, one little girl wanders shyly behind the him.  As I walk under the palapa, a middle aged woman comes out and I ask if I can order something.

“Claro, que si!” hands me a menu and disappears into the kitchen. Ten minutes later, she comes back out to see what I would like. I’ll have the grilled chicken breast and a bottle of water… then sit down at a picnic table facing the ocean.

The small beach is surrounded by rocks and the tide is clearly out. Two or three people walk along it, but they have long pants and button down shirts. A pickup truck drives out onto it and the door opens. I hear music, but noone gets out. The waves are low, short rollers.. it does not seem like a surf paradise… it is serene.

Twenty minutes later, my lunch comes out. I eat in silence watching the strange beach, the chicken is well seasoned, with a fresh cabbage salad. I pay my tab and exit the town slowly.. hoping to make it to a gas station without sweaty gun guys.

San Miguel:

Reportedly the third largest city in El Salvador… Its super busy streets seem indifferent to motorcycles, pedestrians… most cars have some kind of white or black smoke pouring out of the tailpipe… A gigantic volcano towers over the town, mimicing the white smoke from its sawed off top… it seems joyless.

As I look for a hotel of some sort, I see a motorcycle shop instead and swerve in quickly to see if one of the hombres can help a sister out. I’ve been having trouble with my front brake lever. It has been sticking somewhat causing me to brake haltingly. I tell the shop girl what is wrong and two handsome, greasy young men start right away on my moto… Another fellow walks over and introduces himself. His English is perfect. He is a taxi driver that got deported a couple years ago. He lived in Texas for twenty years but got into some kind of trouble… hard to say what. He’s super friendly and asks about the bike, my trip, where I’m from and why I’m here. He is not so thrilled to be in El Salvador.. He pines for Texas. I can’t say I blame him as I look out through the thick air and the busy street, my beautiful time in El Tunco all but overwhelmed by this hectic scene. The mechanic (also super nice) finishes up and charges me $3 for the repair. I wish my new taxi driver friend well, shake everyones hand and roll back onto the smoggy street.

I stop at the Best Western.. the shop folks said it was the only place in town “for people like you”..  At $70/night, I realize they were confusing me with someone else and depart post haste.

I spend the night in an Auto Hotel where everyone has a sidearm. It is depressing, has no wifi, hot water or internet. Not even a see through shower to pique my imagination. I hope tomorrow comes quickly. Maybe I should have tried a little harder in Playas Negras.

I emphatically  hope that in my lifetime, I get to see a big change in El Salvador… She really is a beautiful country..  Perhaps because of its unrest, much of  it is still undeveloped and wild. I hope to see the day when they find peace amongst themselves… To me, they were beautiful and warm. I wish the same for each of them to another.

EDIT:

The country is NOT undeveloped or wild. I  had a false impression of this because of my fortune visiting some of the most beautiful parts… and some casual conversations that I drew false conclusions from. The country has in fact been nearly completely cleared of natural growth and replaced with unregulated city sprawl and agriculture. Very little is left natural… there are some areas that have been heavily mined that are being largely left alone but the destruction otherwise is nearly total.

El Salvador.. nuevo flying destination?

I asked my Facebook friends a couple days ago for a paragliding hookup in El Salvador. My friend Kim sent me a message that she was going to be there at almost exactly the same time I was. She had a hostel booked right on the beach in El Tunco and arranged to have a room for me too.

The purpose of her visit was to help a couple fellows that are standing up a paragliding tour business near La Liberdad, El Salvador… they have a lot of experience with flying, but it is nearly impossible for them to be properly rated in that country. Kim is an instructor she will verify and sign off on their ratings.

 The roads into and through El Salvador are alternately horrendous and wonderful. on my way in I found sweet sweepy stretches through gentle hills, the surface seems new-ish, but I can’t get comfortable making turns, zoning out on the rhythm of the ride… every so often a giant pothole will materialize moments before I’m about to hit it… I turn off my music and pay attention to the road. As I get closer, I can tell I am approaching a developed city, the scenic road following the coast begins to have little shacks nestled into the shoulder, soon they turn into clean, painted, open air restaurants that smack of money and tourism. P1010995 P1010987

In the blazing heat, I have to stop two or three times to ask directions for the place. My phone GPS stopped working at the border. For some reason, my little blue dot isn’t moving anymore… I’ve switched to the handheld GPS I bought for the trip but it doesn’t give me an accurate depiction of exactly where I am on the road.

I find it around three in the afternoon.  I’m supposed to meet a guy named JulioIMG_0548 IMG_0546 IMG_0535

It is a white painted beachfront hostel.. more like a hotel, really. The view of the Pacific is obstructed only by the dozen palms scatterd in front. The waves are perfect for surfing. There are dozens of people bobbing around taking full advantage of the excellent break.

IMG_0582Julio isn’t here, so there is a little confusion about what kind of reservations have been made. Kim will be in later this evening.P1010984

Finally I’m settled in and check the weather. The wind is great for surfing but bad for flying. It’s blowing strong from the North… the same wind that had been plaguing the whole region starting from Mexico.

I check Accu Weather for tomorrow and it says South.  All day. Thats good news.

The hostel has a cook that will make you (almost) whatever you want from a small open kitchen. The crew here is a suprising mish mash of friendly, bright, local surfer/entrepreneurs. They are still getting the “hang” of running a hospitality business and are quick to tell me as much.

Dinner is a plate of spaghetti with shrimp. It is delicious and beautiful, well portioned and well plated. You could share this with another person.. for the $6 he charges, it’s a smoking deal.

If you are a sensitive first world person, I would suggest not watching him make it. Just go for a walk or something while the magic happens.

Kim ParagliderKim comes in late and we have a couple drinks and laughs.. it feels surreal to be seeing her here, but I’m delighted with her presence.. She’s gorgeous, a moto rider and amazing Paraglider pilot.. it is a super sweet suprise!

I get to meet Julio a bit more and am impressed with his drive and local involvement. He and his business partner Moshe have pioneered most if not all the sites here in the San Salvador region. I dumbly pointed at one on a map and asked if he had flown the site… this is how I discovered that bit of knowledge.

We make plans to fly Lake Llopango tomorrow.

In the morning, we get together and are joined by Moche. The wind is North though. And strong.

P1010969P1010968Kim and I chuck hopes of flying and go for an excellent motorcycle ride. She’s an old hand at riding pillion, which is awesome because I’m a little afraid to put a passenger on my tall bike.. when she hops on, I can’t even tell she’s behind me!

The wind doesn’t change, so the following day looks good. We keep our fingers crossed. Especially mine, because with all these sites Julio and Moshe have pioneered, I’d love to at least see one.

The next day is promising. The wind is still from the North, but the fury is gone and we are all hoping for a midday switch to South. Julio makes plans for us to go to the lake anyway and do a tour of the site.P1020091 IMG_0601

When we arrive, I’m stunned at its picturesque beauty and how clear the water is… it is perfectly crystalline. IMG_0595The lake is largely undeveloped. Which may be in part due to the political instability of the region… on our way up, we pointed out a number of ranges that looked moderately promising, but the fields (aka landing zones) surrounding the area had been mined during a previous conflict..

Launching is optional, but landing is mandatory… so the saying goes.

Julio takes us around and shows us a couple of the mansions that you can rent for groups of people. They can only be reached by boat. Totally private, with your own launch and access to the golf course.IMG_0637 IMG_0621

The wind is showing signs of promise as we return the boat and we all head up the hill to wait and hope for a wonderwind. It is pushing into late afternoon.

I am cynical about our chances, there is NO wind. Not even a breeze, no thermals, nothing as we hump our gear up the steep path. The view is delightful..  I never mind being in a beautiful place… even if I’m spending a lot of time parawaiting.P1020106

Julio gives us a quick site checkout. He points to a sheer granite ridge that has been created by a mining company. They are blasting the site, so its features will eventually change.. or disappear. But for now, they are what we will fly.photo

As he talks, we feel some gentle puffs of air roll up the slope… and a wind line begins to form on the other side of the lake… from the South! There are a dozen or more vultures circling on the hill above us.

I pull out my wing and start sorting my lines out.

It doesn’t take long for the mountain to turn on. It’s not strong, but it’s workable and there are birds soaring out front now. The sun is on its way down and I am absolutely rabid about getting in the air here. I get myself together quickly and take the first flight. The air is exactly how the birds were making it look! It is glassy and very buyoyant. I don’t even need to turn. I am not going up fast, but steadily… the lake and volcano the granite and the birds and the thick green jungle below all make a postcard picture that I’m flying through!! It is pure magic. I can’t imagine a better flight.P1020123

The conditions are changing quickly though..  Shadows are marching across the beach and I want to make it to the Golf course with enough altitude and South wind to make a good landing, so I leave the delightful scene and land gently on a lakefront tee. The whole flight was dreamlike… just a little turbulence over the clubhouse and jungle but almost bump-free for most of it.

If you are planning a flying vacation and are looking for somewhere new… uncrowded with lots of other things to do, I’m telling you, this is it. World class surfing, kayaking, sailing, resting, riding.. it’s all very inexpensive and easy here in El Tunco in any season.

Find Akwaterra on Facebook and on the internet… This is not a luxury traveler destination. There is no hot water or white tablecloths… It is for adventure travel and a safe, mellow, non city beach experience. You can walk to town, but fortunately, the town does not often walk to you.