Crash! Boom! Whew!

Peru is clearly impoverished. It starts off green with flooded rice fields… and then turns to desert.. Small beach towns line the dry coast… much of it littered with tiny little bamboo shacks .. small fishing villages.  The shacks are made of a bamboo weave paneling… some concrete construction, but only few…IMG_1085

I ride for a couple hours until I reach Tumbes. I book the first hotel I see ..it has excellent bike parking. I feel a little uncomfortable on the road..

IMG_8517Traffic is beyond horrible, here. The worst so far… so I take a Tuk-Tuk into town. It is fun and lively this way. I think I’d be frustrated riding the bike in. IMG_8487They don’t seem to mind being an inch or less away from the vechicle next to them… lanes don’t really seem to matter either. There are three, sometimes four vehicles astride in a two lane road. They don’t maintain speed or distance in this pattern… the drivers swerve all over. I can’t make any sense of it. I’m convinced the hospitals are full to overflowing with driving causalties.

Downtown is full of art, people, busy restaurants, and street food. I’d skip on the restaurants until you get to try a bunch of the “on-a-stick” stuff. This is another town I wished I had more time to visit! ALL of the people I’ve met are sweet and helpful.. in total contrast to their driving. (The square is conspicuously free of traffic)IMG_8508IMG_8498IMG_8513IMG_8495

The next day, I wake early pack and leave.

On the way out of town, I have to make a detour. None of the streets are signed. Neither are the detours. They’ll say “Desvio” but no further directions. That’s for you to figure out. I follow the line of cars, but then it thins and I end up on one of the dirt back streets.. And then the dirt turns to deep, soft sand. I’m a little horrified of it. The bike doesn’t do particularly well.. for two reasons. 1. the weight, 2. the driver… But I have to go through now because turning around might be harder and I don’t want a crowd trying to help me with the bike.. which is the most likely scenario. I can see my road about a hundred and fifty feet in front of me.

IMG_8581It’s a long, hot ride and I fear I might be low on fuel… there are no good stops at certain points.. this is how they do it here… also, they will sometimes bring your gallon of gas in a steel tea pitcher… probably because they don’t like suck-starting the hose thing.IMG_8523

My next stop is Chiclayo. As I roll into town, I’m following a car closely… (if I don’t, three more cars will push their way in front of me… just edging past my front tire) I have my iPhone in its big rubber protective case… it is what I’ve been using as a GPS so far… as I cruise at a comfortable 40 miles an hour, I see the giant pothole… right before I hit it.. Disaster!IMG_8557

In slow motion, the phone flies up into the air and bounces on the blacktop. I see it happen in my side mirror. It is run over almost instantly by the car right behind me. Pieces bounce and skid across the street.

I’m not sure if there is anything left but I am going to pick up the wreckage anyway. I run out into the street ahead of oncoming traffic and and grab the crumpled black case, the windshield and also the piece of white phone that was left… except it wasn’t just a piece. It is the entire phone! A Miracle!! It still works! I rejoice in my astounding luck for a few minutes. I’m grinning and laughing… I shout.. “IT WORKS, IT WORKS!!!” There are several bland-eyed bystanders that are totally unimpressed with the event.

I find a little hostel only a few minutes later… it looks a little scary but I couldn’t find anything else and I’m pretty beat. It turns out to be a comfortable bed and a safe place for the bike… I settle my things and am posting to my Facebook page (from my miraculous phone) .. then the bed started to move in a very interesting way.. it bed makes a wavy, swishy motion.. almost as though I am on a ship… It lasts about 10 seconds. I stand up, pretty sure that was my very first serious earthquake. I go out front to the counter and ask the receptionist about earthquakes …. ask her if she felt it.. ”No,” she says. “It’s just the busses passing”

Just then, a neighbor comes running past the double doors, waving her hands around… “Tembler, Tembler!”                                        

The receptionist looks at me, eyebrows raised.

In the morning I ride South. I have an idea that I’m going to stop in Trujillo for the evening. It’s supposed to be a fun, historic Colonial town, but when I arrive the traffic is again tragic. I decide to park when I find a likely place… as I turn in, a taxi shoots out right beside me, cutting off my spot….dangerously close to hitting me. there is no signal.. the driver does not check first for oncoming traffic…I have to swerve violently to avoid being hit… He still doesn’t stop.. if he was a quarter inch closer, he’d be mashing my luggage… I lay on the horn. Can it be possible he doesn’t see me?? Maybe if he had only one eye and something was in it… is my only guess.

It looks like a nice city, lots of restaurants and beautiful architecture.. but it’s one of those places.. Like most here in Peru that as soon as you leave the well heeled city center, the roads turn to dirt..

The alleys and streets look like a bombed out village just recovering from civil war… Concrete piles and trash everywhere. Another half mile through the city I see a motorcycle turn right.. and drive directly in to a van. The motorcyclist launches out of his seat, his head goes completely through the windshield, then falls back, into the street.

I wing the bike around to help, but as I park my moto, I see him start to crawl around.. and get up. It hasn’t been a whole minute and a police man has already shown up… he does nothing to help the stricken motorist, but he does begin to divert traffic… the accident starts to draw a crowd.. he wobbles back on to his bike.. I don’t need to see anymore. I’m getting out of crazy town..IMG_1102

I head towards Chimbote. I stopped just short in the Coishco District. The hotels look a little scary. The first one I go to is a brown brick building with three floors. I walk in. There is no reception.. just a room with an open door. I clear my throat and a greasy, distracted fellow comes out. He asks what I want.. I get a really bad feeling because he doesn’t look particularly sober either.. and there’s another suspiciously sweaty man in a dark and dirty room right behind him.

I tell him I’ll be right back. On my way out, I notice the little letters next to the Hotel sign… “Romances”. Oh dear. Not my kind of romance, for sure.

I ride another three minutes into the main part of town.

There is almost no traffic and it feels surreal, dogs everywhere, a handful of people walking around.. like it was almost abandoned, but not quite yet. It is surrounded by low hills with lots of rocks painted that spell out the name of the town, and “Jesus Christo, Salvador!”.. “God is King!” And other patently religious things.. The town smells faintly of fish.

I ride around in circles looking for a likely spot. Finally, there is a hostel (they’re all hostels or hospedajes… doesn’t seem to be a difference between the two ’round these parts) named “New Era” I parked the bike but the gates are locked and there doesn’t appear to be anyone home. A large, middle aged woman in a blue print dress motions me from across the street to go to the other side of the building. She tells me to knock… it doesn’t look connected to the hostel at all. A fellow with a round friendly face answers… he looks slightly confused…

a baby plays on the floor behind him. I ask him for a room. He nods, smiles and shows me up a steep flight of stairs to my room. At $6/ a night, it’s a deal… no wifi, but there is some hot water.. and the crew here couldn’t be nicer… and.. did I mention there’s no traffic?

No restaurants are open and I’m very hungry so I walk to the street vendors and buy some pieces of bread and a mango and avocado. I also stop for two bottles of water. Everyone at the shop that I buy my water wants to know what I’m doing in town because I don’t look like I’m supposed to be here… I’m pretty sure.

I spend a quiet night and wake at dawn to get an early start. As I hop on my bike, the shopkeeper from across the street shouts “GOODBYE!!!” she blows kisses… “GOODBYE!! GOODBYE!” The others all wave and smile… I blow kisses back. “GOODBYE!”

I don’t have any breakfast or coffee. I didn’t see anything I wanted to have. I hope there will be a likely spot soon.

The End of Ecuador

Banos. I am loving Banos every day. I’ve ridden KLaRa all around… and even visited some places twice. The tree house is perhaps my favorite.. there is a big swing hanging from the side of it.

IMG_8369The ropes are maybe twenty feet long. You can swing way out over the edge of the ridge. The scenery is a brilliant jade everywhere you look… mountains, rivers, waterfalls… it’s a shame to blink.. you’ll miss something if you do.IMG_8380

 

IMG_8329There’s even a couple sets of hot springs.. These get a bit too busy most of the time..

I’m staying here extra long for a few reasons. First, I have to fix those brakes. Second, I have to fly. I’d really like to get the chance nearer here. The landscape is fantastic and perhaps I’ll even get to see Cotopaxi. Third, I met with an old acquaintence.. he’s on his motorcycle doing an around the world trip. He’s staying here for about a month waiting for the rainy season to pass in Peru. http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/tstories/baillargeon/

I make a run to Ambato. Police here ride KLR’s so, parts are supposed to be easy to come by. Sure enough, there is a great little shop in the city center. Everything is true. Except that the KLR’s the police ride are newer than mine, so the parts have to be ordered from Quito… It’s too late today and I’ll have to come back. There is a quirky little restaurant that I like to visit. It is called “Abuelas”…  there’s a bit of strange art on the wall… and I’m betting Grandma was up to a lot more than slinging drinks… just sayin’IMG_8403

In the mornings, the best place to eat is at the market. The rest of the shops won’t open ’till much later. It is substantial, delicious  and very inexpensive. IMG_8413 IMG_8414

I replace the brakes after breakfast and get in touch with a friend of a friend. He tells me to go see Natural Magic. It’s a paragliding place in town. They are serious pilots…. I hear there are others that are not…

The very next day, we are set to go… of course, flying is weather dependant and it looks iffy, but we’re going to try anyway.

I hop in an SUV with two other pilots and a tandem passenger.

The day is mostly overcast with some small blue holes poking out.. cloudbase is low. Very. It doesn’t look like it’s more than two or three hundred feet over the top of the hill. Sometimes it’s not over the top of the hill even.

My friend seems optimistic, and launches the tandem.

IMG_1065 IMG_1068I take the second launch. It is a very active flight. The air going up is mostly cloudsuck. The rest of it is ridgelift. And strong. I can’t go forward very easily. And it is so turbulent, I’m afraid to use much of my speed bar… not to mention, I’m very close to the ground. I fly in the rodeo for about twenty minutes…. Someone is trying to talk to me on the radio. I can hear them in my pocket, ( they gave me a little line of sight one to use on their frequency) but I don’t want to take my hands off the brakes to answer the Spanish I can’t understand anyway. He’s saying something about top landing… but the ridge is in a huge cloud right now. I’m out in front of it thankfully.. so he’s either telling me to not come in right now… or to plan to come in. So I wait. And when I see the ridge again, I decide to land.

I have to crab in sideways… if I come in too high, I get into the venturi and pushed back over the mountain.. too low, and I’ll have to go out and get back up.

I’ve picked a good line and come in just about right.. but I have to be patient (not one of my better qualities) and swing back and forth across the big LZ for a few minutes. It’s a little too strong to just come in and plant it. So I find a little patience… and put it down perfectly.

Good flight. I’ll not have another one today.. that was enough.

The guy who launched after me is missing. I only see the tandem. Huh.

While I’m packing up, I see him walking over the hill. He says he got sucked up in a cloud and pushed back over the ridge!! He didn’t know where he was, finally discovered he was on the wrong side of the mountain, turned and ran with the wind.. he had a speedy landing, but is safe.

Day done, we all pile back in the SUV and head back.. my new pilot friends are awesome.. I will plan to come back and fly with them again… maybe on a day with less clouds… or higher clouds at least.

In the morning, I leave. I point the bike toward Cuenca. I ride until I get to Riobamba, but the sky is black.. right where I want to go.. I’ve been getting rained on a lot in the last few weeks and here in the high mountains, it is also cold. I have an allergic reaction to the cloud and turn right. I decide I’d rather warm up the beach. The ride turns out to be an epic choice.IMG_8463

I make for Guyaquil, but when I reach the city, I am dismayed by the traffic and just kept going. I end up in a little coast town called Playas… which means “beaches”.. The skies had been getting bluer for a while, but closed back in again to rain on me. Thankfully, It had warmed up to a little higher than room temperature at sea level. It is mellow with light traffic.. a few tuk-tuks here and there..IMG_8470

I found a tourist restaurant… right next to the water.. I order a beer and asked about hotels. My waiter points out some good ones.. and asks the perennial questions.. “Estas sola?” Yes. I am alone. The bike costs $2000. My trip is three months long.IMG_8464

I check in to the only one that has wifi… a big blue place with loud music on the main drag… It’s got a great car park. Easy in, easy out.

I got my things settled and walk to dinner. I passed a likely place earlier. There were a bunch of people sitting there.. looked like a pile of rock crab on the grill…also looked like a pile of clams and rocks next to them.

When I walked in this time, the grill was sporting another item. A bubbling cauldron of something seafoodey.

I don’t know what to get. The guy helping me is old, in a dirty t-shirt and a bunch of missing teeth. I don’t get the impression he’s first string though.. I think he’s somebodys brother or dad running the errand.

Service is always slow.. sometimes painfully. I order a beer and the crab. Then I ask them what the rocks are. .. they’re giant oysters! I can see now, though the shape isn’t that obvious. They’re the size of four of my own fists, gray, covered in places with a furry moss-like texture. I change my mind and order the clams. Then I switch and get the bubbling cauldron. I really wish I was going to be here for a couple days so I could get something else!! I am certain I’m driving them nuts.

The cauldron is about the size of a cereal bowl. They’ve perched it in front of me on a small wooden plank.. just big enough for the bowl and a couple inches of extra. There are a few good sized shrimp half submerged in the still bubbling lava. I’m super glad they don’t do like in the States… “Be careful, it’s hot!” .. drives me to distraction. I eat the thick shrimp stew slowly, trying to avoid a burned palate. It is delicious and goes down great with the beer.

I’m waylaid by a table of friendly locals on my walk back to the hotel.. They want me to drink with them but I have plans of a looooong nap and an early start. I oblige one beer and bid them goodnight.

Into Ecuador

Popoyan to Pasto, Colombia.  Again, a  delightful, green,  windey roll. I stopped at a little street stand… she’s a sweet ol gal.. She wanted me to buy the whole basket, but I explained to her I have a moto… (She could have explained to me that you can fit an entire colombian family on those things.. what’s a little basket of fruit?) I pick out one mango and one of the others… She comes over to my bike and as I’m putting my helmet on, she picks at a couple things on the back.. gives me an extra fruit… and bumps my leg with the back of her arm… She says “chevre”. I have no idea what that means.. and I can’t find the word anywhere. I wave and say good bye..IMG_8180I don’t know what I bought, but I fell in love with these in Puerto Rico.. they’re hard to buy in a store because they ripen… then rot overnight. They are one of my all time favorites.IMG_8248IMG_8245

IMG_8230 IMG_8220 IMG_8209 I brace myself for another city. I have a bopolar relationship with these big cities… The traffic is always awful, but I know I can get affordable lodging with hot water, great food, wifi and safe parking for the bike. The wifi is the thing that is the usual sticking point… I feel adrift in the small towns without it. I ride for a long time in Pasto looking for a hotel. It is pissing down rain by the time I’m all the way in, I haven’t covered my paraglider well and am starting to panic that it’s getting wet.

I pull up at a little row of food vendors. I don’t want to be pushy so I sit down at a bench in front of one. She is making something in a pot… I don’t really know what it is until I ask. IMG_8233She tells me “aguapanela” It’s a hot drink made from sugarcane, a squeeze of lime and some chewey cheese chunks cut into it. I know about this because my friend in Roldanillo had mentioned it… he found a place next to one of the paragliding launches that sells only that.

I was afraid it would be too sweet, but with the lime, it is almost a tea. It’s delicious! and a perfect treat for the weather. It’s only a few cents. I ask about hotels… both her and the guy sitting next to me on the bench point up the street I was on. I had stopped less than a couple hundred yards from the hotels.

I finish my drink and ride to the closest one. I was desperate to get the wing in to a dry room and was prepared to spend a little too much money, but the hotel I find is a score! $12/night… hot water, my own bathroom AND great wifi!

Bike and wing safe, (I pulled everything apart but only the harnes was wet) shower taken, I go for a walk in the gray drizzle to see what the city has.

It’s really not pretty. It is, however, completely plugged up with pedestrian and motor traffic.

IMG_8240It is a shopping frenzy..everyone has something in their hand.. food, bags.. at least a purse. I’m a little hungry and want to look like everyone else and order a little bag of fried pork and maduros. There are toothpicks inside the bag to poke up the chopped fare. I don’t like the look of the cart, but go ahead anyway.. The pork was… unappealing. I’m a fried pork afficionado, for sure, but this pork was mushy, greasy and… not even hot. I left the rest of it in the bag and ate the bananas… they were a little off too. I chucked the rest as soon as I could find a bin. I switched for some fresh potato chips… they peel, slice and fry them while you wait… they’re super good. There’s lots of other street food.. here again, the chontaduros.. arepa pizzas.. lots of sausage.IMG_8241

I’m a little overwhelmed by all the people and grab a cab back to the hotel… I ask the driver what the deal is… He says its almost all tourist traffic… many of them from Ecuador to buy fancy things to take back. Same as Popayan. I don’t see anyone I might peg as American… Me. That’s it..

My entrance into Ecuador was spectacular in two ways. First, it was a breathtaking ride through verdant, deep, rolling canyons and mountains. I took some pictures, but it never seems to do justice to this type of grandeur.IMG_8175 IMG_1019 IMG_8256IMG_1026

The second is that I was getting spectacularly ill. I’d awakened in the morning thinking I’d been a little too adventerous at the street stands the night before… or maybe because I was soaked to the core and riding in the cool mountain air for the last two days.. either way, I was.. under the weather.

I made it pretty far into Ecuador and stopped at a little town called Bolivar. With some interesting art at the entrance.. IMG_8259I wished I’d taken the time for more pictures, but this was as much as I could manage at the moment and the sun was directly behind the installation. It was the most curious part… I think there are some other pics online elsewhere.

Town is very small, colonial and quiet. No clogged streets, no horns, just a little parque with a dozen or so people walking and laughing.. and a big church.IMG_8263I roll around for a while looking for a hotel, but nothing. I finally ask a shopkeeper who pionts down a very steep street. I don’t see anything. She tells me to go around the block and I’ll see it. (it’s a one way the wrong way) So I do. Thankfully, when I was close, she’d walked all the way down and points it out. It is plain and has no sign. Relieved, I park the bike and check in. My host is friendly and cordial. There is another guy sitting on a low couch with a beer. Theres a tense air about him.

We talk about the usual things and he shows me to my room.

I unload the bike and walk to town (half a block away) to take some pictures in the setting sun. It really seems lovely.IMG_8274 IMG_8286

When I return, he asks me if I’d like to eat, I kind of don’t but not to be rude, I tell him I’m not hungry and will only have a little. While they make dinner, I make small talk with the company. The guy with the beer keeps wanting to shake my hand. We have a political discussion about the president and entry visas for foreigners. Beer Guy disappears into his room and returns wearing an oversized suit.

I’m starting to get whats going on… He sits next to me on the couch. Not only do I feel poorly, but the proximity of my now half-drunk friend is a sign that I’m going to be in for a long wait.

He spends the next ten minutes explaining the contents of his wallet.

Finally, dinner saves me and I move to a table, alone. I’m delighted to see that I have a nice chicken soup. At least this part will be easy.

I finish my  soup and escape to my room. Eight minutes pass.. there is a knock. My host wants me to meet his daughter who would like help with her English homework. I oblige the request and sit down with the lovely gal, I think she’s a senior in high school, but she looks a bit older than that.

Homework done, I hurry back to my room and burrow under the covers. I can’t fall asleep. my cold, or food poisioning, or whatever it is.. is working up to a rising pitch. My head is throbbing, my joints ache, I’m in and out of the bathroom (mostly in), I’m sweating and shivering. I know my fever is around 101 because I want to cry. (This and spectacular landscapes are always crying moments for me).. and then I hear something strange.. its not strange, actually. It’s very loud sex. Loud and graphic. In Spanish. Wow. Someone is really having an amazing time! The amazing time goes on and on… I begin to notice something funny. It sounds like she’s… she’s.. Oh. My. Word. Its porn. And it is now playing in a 45 second loop. I can’t be sick here. I have to leave tomorrow. I dig into my bags and swallow an antibiotic. One of the extras from Guatamala. The loop continues for another two hours. I get up to use the washroom and slam my bedroom door. The toilet isn’t working properly.. I have to take off the ceramic back and adjust the stopper. CLANG! I set it down loudly on the porcelain sink.

I settle the bathroom issue, and then WHAM! The bedroom door again. The porn stops.

For a while. Then I hear it.. but just barely. Same loop. It’s close to 3:00 when I finally pass out.

I wake at 6:00 feeling decidedly better. Fever is gone and I’m not worried I might poop myself anymore. I wash my face, pack my bags and exit as quickly as my aching, shaky legs can manage.

Next Stop, Quito. Three hours.

Quito is a super big, modern, super busy city. The traffic is outrageous, but I notice one glaring thing different from other big cities… the biggest difference is from Panama. The horns. Not many people use them. They are much more aware of noise pollution and clearly are being polite when they beep “I’m right next to you” some seem to say.. they don’t beep at random meaningless things. (well, sometimes, but not like in Panama) After a full hour in the crushing traffic and dangerously close to overheating, I find a hotel for $15 and a great parking space. My body is delighted with the early stop and I crawl right back under the covers.

The next day I wake early, roll the bike up and conduct a thorough inspection. I wax the chain and then I notice something. My rear brake pads are gone. Paper thin. What the heck did I do?? I check the rotor.. still smooth. Lucky. The fronts are low, I think I’ve not been using them because I don’t like the way the bike dives down when I do…. and the rears are better in the curves.. the bike sets down rather than shifting the weight to the front.. There have been a lot of curves.

I need to replace them, but the thought of spending more time on the bike in the busy city right now is distasteful.

I’ll figure it out in Banos.

The ride is, again, spectacular. Ecuador keeps delivering. Towering Cotopaxi, she is almost completely clothed in a thick, black cloud that is crackling with thunder and lightning… but she flashes me a little glimpse of whats underneath. A snow capped Volcano with brilliant green skirts! It’s raining on me right now, so, not the best time to admire nature.

Banos

IMG_1038 IMG_1033 IMG_8362I make Banos by early afternoon. It is small, but super-touristey. There are hotels and tour companies on every street and corner.. filling in the spaces are restaurants, shops and rows of taffy makers. They all sell the same things… right out front on shelves.. Cut up sugar cane pieces, candies and fruits. They pull, stretch and slap the giant serpentine chunks of rubbery sugar against a wooden hook right in the doorway of each shop.. The flavors are local.. Tangerine, chocolate, guanabana (my favorite) and others. IMG_8316Saturday is a beehive of activity.. I walk and walk. It feels safe and lively here. There is bungee jumping all day from the bridge next to my hotel.. all day you can hear the scream… and then the hoot when they realise they’re not going to die.

One restaurant sells cuy.. translated: Guinea pig. IMG_8311The damn things look horrific on the grill. The head, feet, everything else are sticking out like a kind of martyr. The face, frozen in a silent scream. I really don’t want to eat one… but I wonder if I’ll regret not having tried, so, I walk in and order a plate. The table I sit at is a community table. There are four people finishing up their own plates. Feet and ribs sticking out everywhere.. I don’t feel very good about my decision.IMG_8342

My plate arrives quickly and I turn to my grisly feast. I try to think of it like a chicken, so I grab the tiny foot and pull. But it doesn’t want to come apart. I twist and pull and wrench on the blessed little thing and…. nothing. It is a sinewey, thin piece of meat… the browned skin over it’s flesh had confused me into thinking it might be chickeney… it is thick and tough… more like a pigskin than a hen.

I didn’t want to create more of a scene, so I put it down and forked into the rice and potatoes surrounding it. Two more people sit at my table. And a child.IMG_8343

They order plates too, and I surreptitiously try to watch the method of consuming the foreign texture. Minutes later, they pick up and move to a private table. No doubt uncomfortable with my not-as-discreet-as-could-be inspection. I still try to see what they’re up to out of the corner of my eye.

The gentleman holds the little foot in his left hand while he spoons spicy ahi sauce onto his plate… he forks up several mouthfuls of rice and potato before biting into his piece. He seems to have no trouble at all.

I gather myself and make a second atempt. I bend the leg around until I find a likely spot and take a bite. I have to violently tear the chewey, tough muscle and I start to laugh because I’m way out of my depth here. Not the least of my problems, is that I keep imagining the Guinea pig someone had in grade school… its soft, white and beige messy fur, the way it would waddle around its terrarium, drink from the bent steel tube with a ball on the bottom.

I couldn’t wrench my mind away from that vision. It wasn’t helping things here at the table.

My host comes over to see if I’m ok.. I tell her I don’t know how to eat it… She gives me a look.. “bite it!”

I don’t want to laugh out loud. I make one last attempt and give up.

I’ve lost this battle. I pay the $4 and try to exit with a little pride.

A Little Help From My Friends..

Medellin to Roldanillo is another great ride… the scenery is only degrees of different… still bucolic, tropical and green. I had to go over some steep passes to get out of town. IMG_8106I realize I have made a small error in judgment..

Let me start by saying one thing… Each and every step of this trip, I have researched. The maintenance, the countries, the borders, the Darien, hotels, money, politics, fuel, repairs, et al..

Here’s the rub. It’ almost impossible to know the truth of ANY of it. No matter who you are, you will have a different view.. you will have researched different things, had different experience, and by the time the next traveler arrives, (even a day or two later) policies, fees, locations and times can be changed. Nothing is concrete in this funny world. Including bike maintenance. Not I (nor anyone else) has all the time to research everything.

EVERYONE wants to give you advice… no matter how little actual experience they might have. Even people with a great deal of time behind the wheel want to throw in some “extras”. In defense of my helpers, I’ve gotten a good deal of excellent advice… but I’ve had to be VERY selective. One of my last things to find out about is the bike chain… I heard I needed to oil it after every ride…. I heard I need to wax, not oil it. I heard to just keep it clean… I heard, I heard, I heard. I did nothing. Until now. (I hear you cringing)

I conducted a complete inspection on the bike. The chain is stiff. I hear that is bad. I really don’t know who or what to trust, because every one wants me to trust THEM. So, this is what I did.

I went to the car wash and sprayed the shit out of the chain. I let it dry. I put clean motor oil on it. I rode.

I stopped at the top of a pass just outside of Medellin. I inspected the chain. Still stiff. I cleaned and re-oiled the chain. Two guys stop to talk to me… they are both delightful locals… one is “training” to do the ride I’m on.. He’s sweaty after running up and down the mountain in preparation… I laugh at him a little… he’s a good sport though. The other is actually on a moto and did a big ride like mine.. he offers his help. I like him right away.. he seems “right.”

Anyhow, I’m still faced with the chain issue. 50% of people say its fine, 50% of people say to switch it. It’s an even debate. I’ll have it professionally cleaned and oiled in Roldo. And see what they say there.

I ride for another hour to the very top of a mountain… which is closed. Except to motorcycles who are squeezing through a tiny little hole the jacknifed trailer has made. A bossy policia tells me I have to turn around. I pretend not to understand and look confused. There is NO other route for me to go around… unless I’d like to take a half a day to do it. He plays charades with me… and gets progressively more frustrated with my dumbness.

Half a dozen local guys come to my rescue…. “can you take off your luggage?”

“YES!”

I remove the oversized bags.. and I have to back up. The wing and my backpack are not balanced now that the bags are off. I wobble backwards for ten meters…. then, boom! I’m down. There is fuel spilling out of my tank… I’ve worn all my gear today, so I bounce right up. The local guys are picking up my bike before I can get out from under it… I smell like fuel.

I’m back on in an instant and they’re pushing me and the bike through the narrow slot. The bike doesn’t fit. I have to lean the mirror UNDER the tractor trailer bed, the other mirror is alternately scraping the side of a panel truck to the right.. and we finally squeeze through!!!

Victory!

The Colombians are cheering!! “Colombia.. Number one!!” they shout. “Colombia!! Number one!… YEAH!!” I shout! They all want pictures with me…. In the mele, I forget to take my own.

They help me put my luggage back on and off I go.  Ten minutes later, I’m still shaken a little and want to stop for a late breakfast. I notice a busy restaurant and park the bike. It is an open structure made of concrete and palapa.. The stove is a large, central fogon. The “fogon” is a wood fire inside a brick enclosure topped with stone that they make all their food on… the hotter parts for boiling/cooking/frying.. the cooler for keeping things warm. There’s no less than a dozen steaming steel cauldrons and pans.IMG_8098

The seating is in a horse shoe around the flat topped kitchen… it is cozy and warm. The locals are friendly and want to know where I’m going.. etc.. one guy spent a year in New York valet parking cars.. It’s a great rest and recharge. I get scrambled eggs, chorizo sausage, black coffee and an arepa with butter. My neighbor had a big bowl of chocolate… something. Every one’s meal looked delicious. I wish I was staying near here for a while.

Seemed like I passed through some bigger towns. They always have approximately the same feel… colorful, concrete, bananas, motorcycle shops, little open restaurants.. busy, a little smoggy. Lots of motorcycles.. I couldn’t decide exactly my route. I went south ’till Pereria, then I cut west into Cartago. South to La Victoria, West to La Union then South again into Roldanillo.IMG_8121

It felt like coming home. My previous trip’s memories are still bright and warm… they may be coloring the way I see Roldo now. Riding in, I see one paraglider in the sky.. I see him carving a big arc over the city… he’s landing in the stadium I think.

I have to stop and get my chain done.  The oil I put on it wasnt making much of a difference.  I’m hoping the bike guy has something better.

The mechanics always come right out of the shop… they drop everything they are working on to help. They aren’t always the best, but they are always chatty and friendly and won’t make you wait.

My guy sprays some magic on the chain and I race off to the stadium to see who landed.

It’s a guy I met in Colorado last year! He’s walking home and he knows the place where I’m staying. Bob has been here flying since Christmas.. more than two months. He says it’s been unseasonably rainy and the conditions are quite different than they’ve been in the past.IMG_8129

Bob Walks me over to my friends place… who’s renting a house full time here and has been generous in lettting me use a hammock to camp in for a few days. He’s a superstar pilot. He just competed in the X-Alps and is looking forward to the X-Pyrenees. He trains every day and looks in amazing shape.

It rains like stink all night.IMG_8142

I’m half sure there won’t be any flying in the morning, but you never know what the weather will do.

I wake with a pool of water under my hammock, but the sky is clearing and the day seems promising. We’re just going to go up and see.IMG_8134

At the top, there are about fifteen or twenty pilots waiting already. A lot of French guys… and two I met in Costa Rica on my last trip! They travel every year together. A few people launch, but it doesn’t look good. Everyone goes right to the ground. One of the pilots finds a weak thermal for a minute though, and my hopes get a little boost.IMG_8135

It’s getting late and I haven’t brought anything to eat, so I decide to launch. I fly directly out front and find a little lifting air… then a little more. In no time, I’m at cloudbase!! I’ve caught a fantastic cycle and it looks like I can get a cross country flight. These are my favorite. I love the challenge of going from place to place it the air. Almost two hours later, I’m on the ground with a huge grin packing up my wing. It has been a glorious flying day!!!IMG_8137

The next day is a wash. Literally. The rain coming down is a deluge that is soaking everything… the roads, the trash, most of all, the flying. I had hoped for one more flight, but I only had this last day to spare. Tomorrow I have to get on the road.

The food is exactly the same as I remembered it… except for the stuffed arepa. I generally don’t like the arepas here.. they’re a little dry and bland. But THIS one is not. They make it on an open grill… an extra-thick, buttery corn flour disk is sliced in half, and stuffed with yuca, chicharron, chicken and sausage.. and cheese. There might be something else in there..  avacado? That and a beer for $4.50. Banner!!IMG_8150

Mostly, I go to the market and buy fruit… or right out on the street.. guanabana, grapes, mangoes… the mangoes here are like eating sunshine… They have a bright flavor I can never find in the US markets.

For dinner, sometimes chicken with beans and rice… If I can get those sweet black bananas.. they call them maduros. Oy. They are good… and an ice cream cone.

Again, I have to pack too quickly and leave another one of my cherished destinations.. Roldanillo, even with its rainy days, has found its way deep into my heart.. the warmth of the people, the great launches and it’s slow pace… I’ll keep coming back here forever.

It’s a long ride to Popayan.. A long pretty ride. I think I’m in the beginning of the Andes range.. the landscape just keeps getting more enchanting.. even in the rain.IMG_8118

IMG_1009 In my mind, I had made Popayan into something..else. I wasn’t prepared for the…. city-ness of it. I’d made it out to be a small place somehow.

It’s a huge, super busy city. The historic inner city is mostly painted white with terra cotta roofs. The streets are cobbled, but not maintained. They are deeply rutted, and potholed but the thick, jostling traffic doesn’t seem to mind.

The only thing that isn’t letting out smoke is the occasional horsecart… it seems like every car, bus and motorcycle is belching some kind of smog. The traffic is so thick, it is like driving in a river… you have to carefully predict when you need to eddy in to your stop… and pay attention to the streams. Most of the streets are one ways.

I stop at a few hotels before I find one that has decent parking for the bike. There is one I missed. It’s name is Hotel San Jeronimo. If you are here with your large bike and want a safe and easy in and out, This is the spot. It’s expensive, but if you want to stay right in the City Center, park easily and walk right out into the action, this the sweet spot.

Parking took me almost 45 minutes. I hung my helmet on my mirror… and then turned the handlebars. My helmet whacks onto the ground. CRACK! The visor pops off. It is not fixable unless I want to glue the thing back into place.. Dammit.

I go in to book my room but in the space of that time, a cab had parked nearly blocking the entrance. It looked like I could maybe get in sideways, so, up on the sidewalk with the front tire… but the new rear kept skidding.. I’m on a 45 degree angle to the sidewalk and every time I goose the engine, the tire skids a little to the left… closer to the cab. Finally, I give up until the driver comes back. Ten minutes. Half a dozen people stop to help, but I’m so close to the cab, I’m worried that the smallest mistake will dent him.

He hops in, drives forward… and hits me. On the rear rack. I go halfway down, but catch the bike and pull it back up… while he reverses. I’m pissed, but there’s nothing I can do.. I roll backward into the street and pop over the sidewalk. In I go, to the skinny lobby. I have to wiggle the handle bars to squeeze it throught the door frame. Not for the first time, I’m glad this is a light bike…. well, lighter than my GS1200. .. and glad he didn’t hit that.

I park right next to Reception, get my room, wash some of the street stress off and go out for a look-see. I’m given the name of a chicken place three blocks down.

They’re friendy and helpful… I eat my delicious chicken asado, rice and lentils and walk till I’m lost for the next couple hours. The city is as busy as it can be.. every shop is open and bright… the sidewalks are full of people.. it seems fairly homogenous… I know there are a lot of tourists here, but I can’t pick them out. Not like in Medellin, Cartegena, or Panajachel.. Leon, Grenada… Here, I don’t see any of the giveaway, light travel clothing. No bad hats, Chacos or Birkenstocks. No big backpacks…

I only hear Spanish as I am swept along in the crowd.

I return to the hotel still early, but exhausted tired, I fall dead asleep.

At dawn I pack. I want to be out before the traffic starts.

Back in the air!

Santa Marta to Bucaramanga was not a pretty ride. It was however, quite long. 8 full hours of riding. I find the Hostel without a lot of drama. It was actually, in Floridablanca.. which is only ten minutes south of the big city. The Hostel is run by Richie..

IMG_0997 Colombia Paragliding. It’s kind of a genius site because it is so close to the launch.. a couple hundred feet away. IMG_7983And the conditions are great year ’round. In the morning, you can work on your thermalling technique, midday gets a bit strong for most people to fly, but the afternoon settles down into a delightful ridge soar and then  glass off that is spectacular for hours. If you just need to get some seat time, this is a perfect spot to do it…. and the view is spectacular.IMG_7977

The Hostel has  a huge, modern kitchen, wide open to the living room, and bright with all the light from the front of the home…all windows. Two small-ish dorma and a couple private rooms… It’s the nicest hostel I’ve ever seen.

I walk over to the ridge. I’m too wiped out to fly from my long ride but I’m never too tired to watch some paragliding. As I make my way onto the launch, I see Graham! Him and Jenny (the English couple) are here from Panajachel! IMG_7961I love these two, they are  a fun and classy pair that I wish I had a summer to hang out and fly with. I’m bummed to hear they’re leaving tomorrow, but just delighted to see their faces again.

Not everyone at the hostel is a pilot, but everyone is good company. We share what we cook up and spend much of the evenings out on the patio learning about each other and talking about our flights. It feels like home. I make a decision to leave after only two days, but my last evening, my new friend from Valle de Bravo shows up! Asti and her boyfriend, Stephan. I can’t help but laugh… some coincidence!! I love their energy and conversation and want to fly with these two dear people again, so two more days on the mountain are really appealing. Besides, I’ll have time to do laundry and change the oil in the bike.

I work on my spot landings and play in the morning thermals..1836944_468093573317374_190573744_oI love being able to launch anytime. It feels like a dream.10015104_468093236650741_932521336_o I especially love landing with Asti and our thoughtful, lively talks.. it is rare to get me giggling like a little girl…my cheeks are always sore after we hang out.

I enjoy it here so much, I start looking at real estate. There is a woman at a little tienda selling some farmland. Her son, a very mature 16 year old, shows me the property. He is a delight to talk with and walk around their piece of farmland. He gives us gifts of fruit he pulls right from his trees and glasses of ice water after our tour.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 1.20.16 AMHe will accept no money for his time. I think I can live here half the year. It is close to some really spectacular moto rides and other flying sites. I mull this constantly while I am here.

With hugs from everyone at the hostel, I roll out of the gates.

It is a full day to Medellin… a long, lovely roll through bucolic, scenic country. IMG_8059 IMG_8058IMG_1009IMG_1006 IMG_8065

Medellin is a large, super modern city that is still beautiful.. Nestled in high, green mountains, the weather is like Spring all year ’round. You can find anything and everything you need. Its a smart place to plan a restocking stop. The hotels and food are priced really well, but if you are shopping at The North Face store, plan to dig a little deeper into your wallet than normal.

It is raining when I get here, but I have no trouble at all finding the place I stayed at last time. The Shamrock.IMG_8070 Al (owner) always has beautiful women working at the bar. Andrew  is an old freind of his who rode for a really long time.. I think maybe seven years.. he’s is an unassuming, kind man who can do (and fix) anything. Al rides moto too and caters to the riding community. They both have excellent advice, great conversation and comfortable rooms to share. At $20/night it is a score.. even though there are less expensive places, the atmosphere and helpfulness here are worth a great deal more. It’s also on the edge of the Zona Rosa.. the hip bar and restaurant district..there might be a hundred or more different ones. And they’re all packed… people  laughing, holding hands, groups of friends and singles looking for company… It’s a vibrant evening out. Every time.

I need new tires. We discuss where is the best place to take the bike and settle on one right around the corner. I get a new set of Metzlers installed and a clutch handle (I broke mine in one of my spills) for under $200 it seems way too low, and I’m still cautious about what might cause this, but it’s an amazing deal.

Al’s place was full the first night so I stay at Casa Kiwi (right around the corner) and the second, the Shamrock.

I flew here two years ago.. there’s a nearby site called San Felix. I had a lovely three hour flight but wrecked, broke a rib and jacked my ankle landing… (Might have broke it.. it still hurts sometimes.) Thats how I met the guys here at the Shamrock.. and Sherry Jo. I was sitting on the patio drinking a beer and a KTM pulls up. The tall rider dismounts and then takes of HER helmet! I flagged her down and begged her to tell me where she’s riding.. “Around the world!” she says.. This is how my trip idea started. Here’s the blog of hers.

http://sherrijosbecauseicanworldtour.blogspot.com/

I wish I had more to tell you, but I’m only making a short stop.. My last visit, I went to the Milla De Oro .. (mile of gold) it’s a super giant shiny and new mall, The Botanic Gardens and The Botero museum. All wonderful and I’d recommend a visit to each. The Metro (train) will take you all across the city for cheap. Cabs are spendy.

My heart is a little heavy leaving this, my favorite city and too soon, my new friends also, as I pack and point the bike towards Roldanillo.

Bikes, Babes and Breakfast

Colombia. Uno.

There’s two things you notice about Colombia right away. Well, three, actually. The very first thing is there are a LOT of motorcycles. The streets are jammed with the small, speedy, aggressive bikes. Scooters too. The second thing is, the people are nice. Third, the women are beautiful. They are legendary for this but really, it is not just their features.. it is everything, their clothes, hair, they must know the power they wield. Clearly, there is strength underneath that lovely exterior… which makes them even more appealing.

Cartegena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in the 1500’s, it was named after the Spanish city, Cartegena. There are heavy, thick stone walls that surround the city, it is essentially a giant fortress. It is quite beautiful.. in the morning. I find the afternoon beeping, jostling crush of humanity to be a bit overwhelming. So, I always like to get up early to explore a city. Evenings to me are for exploring local cuisine, and indulging vices with my barfellows. Or cooking.

I only stay in the city for one night. Mamallenas. It’s a backpacker party hostel.. I kind of hate them but they have room for two or three motos and usually have good information.. and English speakers. 

IMG_7927KLaRa is still having electrical issues but it’s already late afternoon and I need a good nights sleep before I take her out for a bath. I bought a can of WD-40 and doused her electronics..that’s the best I can do for now. It helped a little.

I met two other moto travelers. One Canadian, a middle-aged, hairy chested, leather vest wearing, hippie looking fellow who has a Harley chopper and the other bike is a big Tenere owned by a (mostly) sponsored, clean cut French guy. French Guy makes dinner, but not before we walk together to the market for ingredients. What he makes is simple, but delicious. Pasta with cream, garlic, avocado, and a small loaf of the local bread. I was a little nervous, but a first bite convinces me hes onto something. We also try a couple fruits. My first dragonfruit, and a passionfruit. They are, of course, sweet and delicious.

The next day I woke before dawn, and went wandering. As the city began to breathe, I found a street stand for breakfast. I hang back for a bit and watch what other people get and what they do to their food… I order an empanada. I squirt some ahi on it and have a bite.. The sauce is spicy, it is steaming hot and my chicken empanada is a breakfast winner! It’s cheap too, I think seventy-five cents. I walk for a bit, snap some photos of the morning city and get a little plastic cup of coffee. They sell hot drinks out of a little push cart filled with a dozen or more thermoses. The thermoses have different color tops.IMG_0961 IMG_0966 IMG_0959 IMG_0973 IMG_0967 IMG_0965IMG_0982

IMG_0960                               This vendor has all his thermoses, but no cart..

I got some Pesos at an ATM and spent an hour at the Lavadero with KLaRa. A fellow does all the work for you, with a high pressure washer, he does an intense cleaning that can take up to a half an hour.. and for three dollars, it’s a steal. The bike looks great, but she’s still struggling with starting.

I go back to my room and pack, but not without a little drama. The Canadian helps me out with my bags, setting them close to my bike on the street. Before I could collect it, the cab directly behind us pulls out right onto the luggage. He’s scraping it along as I shout and pound his window. He is completely oblivious to the scene I’m making.. I kick the bag away from his front tire… Thankfully, there is only cosmetic damage. Yesterday when I was checking in, a woman clipped my handlebar with her side mirror.

I start my day off a little shaken, but it resolves itself on my way to Cienaga. I chose that route because I was warned away from the other, a dirt road that not a lot of people use. 

There is a long spit of sand with a very windy (this time of year) road from Barranquilla to Cienaga that seperates the open sea from a large bay. Near the end of the spit, there is a truck stop. On the right hand side, there is a restaurant and hospedaje. I was starving and stopped for dinner.. it was ok, but the view is fantastic.IMG_7932 IMG_7930 I ask about a room. They are $15 but the bike has to be parked in the open. They say there are guards, but I don’t really trust that. So I head to Santa Marta.

It takes until evening to get there. Actually, I could have made it in the daylight, but I stopped at a couple hotels. They were not very nice, had no wifi and wanted $30-$40. Finally after going in circles and racing other motorcycles in the dark, I pulled over at a little restaurant. Exhausted, I sit down, order a beer and ask the waitress if she knows of any hotels nearby. She does! I buy her a beer too. When we finish, she walks me around the corner to a little house with a courtyard. It is a one story family residence. They rent out a room with two beds for $7 a night. Everyone wants to know about my trip.. if I’m traveling alone, how big the bike is, how fast i go, where I came from.. going, if I have any children and if I’m married. Then, always, “Why not?”IMG_7937

There is a water shortage in Santa Marta. They haul two, full five gallon buckets to my bathroom for a ducha (shower). And a bowl.. to scoop the water.

It is a wonderful nights sleep. The first I’ve had in a while without a cacophony of some kind nearby. 

At dawn, with kisses and hugs from the family, I head to Bucaramanga.IMG_7925

The Darien Gap

I’m a little surprised at how many people don’t know about the Darien. It is something I knew little about myself until this trip too.

Panama and Colombia share a land border.Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.23.25 PM

That border is completely covered in old growth jungle… and bad people. It is a super serious business. It has been a narco trafficer stronghold for decades. If you even drive to the southern portion of the state, (the Darien) you are checked in Via your passport and must provide a date and approximate time that you will return. There are no roads that connect the two countries… not even crappy ones. There have been several attempt to cross, but few success stories… and a lot of people that can’t tell stories anymore.

I rode toward the last city after checking in with the guards, but bailed out after 45 minutes on potholed, horribly dusty, dirt road… there is good photo opportunity there… the houses are rustic.. built on stilts, most with palapa roofs, no walls and a lot of hammocks. Apparently, you can vacation there.. I didn’t stay long enough to check out the details.

On the way home, I stopped at a little local place where I got a fantastic thick chicken soup with a plate of rice for $2.50… Do not tip. They think you forgot your money and run after the moto trying to return your change.

There are four main ways to get to Colombia.. the other ways are not smart at all. The first, best, easiest (and most expensive) is to fly it to Bogota via air. Typically with Giro Normally the cost is around $1,000 US plus your own airfare.. ballpark, $500. Around Holidays… and Valentines day, prices go up. You’ll be closer to 2K for the trip. You also have to pay someone to build your shipping crate.

The second (and most typical) for circa $1K is to load it onto a boat and sail across with it. Currently, there are two main boats… The “Stahlratte” Translation: The “Steel Rat” and the Independance. Both boats have varied reviews with the Stahlratte having the better of the two. It, unfortunately wasn’t sailing anytime close to when I was going to need passage.

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Third, is the ferry. It is currently up and running, but there is a lot of confusion around it. Some of it is being generated by the two other moto carriers… some of it is the typical ambiguous info provided by the carrier itself. The Ferry takes a day and a half… no dicking around in the San Blas Islands for three days before your trip gets started… and at half the price for you and your ride, it is the best deal by far. AND the bikes are carried below decks. I’m trying to get a good contact to include here… I know of one fellow at the Shamrock in Medellin who brought his bike across on it in December.

Lastly, you can catch a Cargo ship. This is a bit of a sketchy process. You can scour the docks at Colon and hope to meet with a willing participant, or you can have some inside info (more on that later) The ships have had trouble with bringing people and bikes across in the past, so some of them are charging an exorbitant price for the crossing, but including food and berthing…. which they didn’t normally do before. You will have to meet the Ship at one of the San Blas Islands, there is an issue about loading in Colon. The Cargo and Ferry will both drop you in Turbo, Colombia. These ships break down with some regularity. Your two day dream ride can turn into a two week nightmare. The all male crew also has more than a passing interest in female passengers. Have extra caution.

I have to meet my own little sailboat in Carti. The e-mail was a bit foggy as to where exactly I’m supposed to go and what exactly to do. So, I just head over and, like everything else, will figure it out.

The road to Carti is a stunning, emerald, steep and windey jungle ride. It is narrow and unpaved in a few short sections. It is also very dangerous. The traffic on the road is light, but if someone wants to pass, it will be in a curve. Because it is all curves. And they will be in your lane. There is no shoulder. Nothing. Good luck with that.IMG_7837IMG_7840

I arrive at the terminal… which isn’t really a terminal. It is a couple small open structures that have no signs. With a bunch of pointing and waving, I discover the fellow I need to talk to. He’s a short grumpy guy I don’t care for. He gives me no concrete information. I’m just going to wait till something happens. As I park the bike, I see another moto… a KLR! Almost the same year, I think!IMG_7841

I scan around for a suspect and finding none, park right next to KLaRa’s brother.

I put my hammock up and wait.

But not for long. The KLR guy walks over and introduces himself. He’s a gregarious guy from South Carolina and has an amazing story too!! He’s managed to get into a pile of trouble. Arrested, escorted and robbed, he’s stayed off the beaten path and gone where no Americain dudes should be. He has also found a way to get on a cargo boat. One night at a hostel, he met another guy that knew all the capitains and gave him the inside story.

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He’s getting ready to load his bike on the launch. It costs him $40.IMG_0855IMG_0859

The locals aren’t Panamanians. They are Kuna, they have their own culture and are viciously protective of it and their lands. They own the launches, transport and vending that happens within the San Blas Island group. It is their sole means of income. Not that they need a great deal of money, the climate is delightful year ’round, the fishing is still abundant and the trees that grow on the island yield a number of different fruits and nuts. They have little stands where they sell onions, potatos, carrots, yucca and a few other consumables.

Several dozen young tourists come and go.. they are visiting the Islands.. all the transports are little open motor launches with bench seats. The tourists seem to leave white, and come back pink… sometimes an angry shade of red… they all seem to be eating chips, or sandwiches.. or something. They’re all chewing, anyway.

A middle aged man and a woman (they look German) with bicycles get out of a fancy Toyota 4WD. The bikes are clearly loaded for travel.. I watch as they gather their gear and get settled.IMG_0864

They check in with Grumpy Guy and mill about for a while, talking with people at the dock.

The fellow finally wanders over to me. He asks me if I’m going on the Independance. Yay! “Yes!”

I’m hoping he has more information than me about how to actually get ON the boat.

We’d both booked the “tour” with Mamallena’s in Panama City. It’s a hostel that hosts a pile of activities around the region.

We wait together for two more hours… during this time, I discover that this adventerous team has been riding for ten and three years, respectively. He (Alvaro from Spain) met her (Marti, from Austria) a year and a half ago in Alaska. They’ve been riding together the other half of their three years. He left ten years ago on his bicycle and never went home.

They live on less than $250/month. For everything. They stay in police stations, fire departments, camp (mostly) and every once in a blue moon, a hotel. He has made a documentary of his trip, you can buy the CD on his site, and he does charity work around the world for children.. he gets donations for a clown/juggling routine he does. Yes. He’s carrying his clown suit with him!!

biciclown.com if you want to know more about these two.

Alvaro calls our capitan. We are waiting at the wrong place. The Launch we are supposed to take is 5 minutes away, down a side dirt road, near a river.

I hop on the bike and have a quick ride over.

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There’s no launch. It doesn’t take long to work out that they are coming back soon though.

The bicycle couple comes riding along shortly after I arrive. The launch pulls up to the dirt, grassy bank of the shore and we muscle the moto onto the little wooden boat. It barely fits. And it’s not tied down at all. We load the bicycles and all our bags. It costs me $15 for the motorcycle and myself. Alvaro was the brains of that transaction.IMG_0870

The ride out to the boat is a windy, wavy salty affair. The weather this time of year in Panama is violent and I’m starting to have doubts about the safety of my moto on this boat.

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Fifteen long minutes later, we pull alongside the Independance. They winch up the bicycles, unload bags and winch KLaRa onto the top deck.

We find her a good enough spot and tie her down. I spend a good deal of extra time wrapping her up with tarps. I still don’t have a good feeling.

The first night, we are not allowed to stay on the boat. We have to go to an Island “hotel”

We take the launch over to our accommodations. They are primitive. There is a dirt floor on the lower level. The second floor has two hammocks in a common area and four small rooms. I have a fan. Good thing too, ’cause it’s sweltering.

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The bicycle couple and I get settled, then team up for dinner. We walk through the village and find the restaurant (also a stick hut)…. and the KLR guy! He’s hanging out with a couple local fellows, drinking beers. He has learned a great deal of Spanish in the six months he’s been traveling.

Dinner is simple. Fried fish or chicken, boiled yuca and beans. Two pieces of iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato are the “salad”. Balboa beers. Cans.

We retire early to our beds. My fan quits at 1:00 in the morning. The next day, I walk around town and snap a couple pictures. Breakfast is a loaf of bread with butter, jam and Nutella. Coffee. Nescafe instant.

The locals aren’t too keen on our picture taking and we suspect they called our water taxi and scuttle us off the island quickly.The islands are sinking. That’s what they say anyway. What’s happening, is the sea level is rising and their little islands are disappearing quickly… along with much of their culture and way of life. They will all have to move to the mainland in the next year or two.IMG_0923

One of the things that is striking about these folks, aside from their colorful clothing and facial tattoos, is their reputation for honesty. If you have to leave something with them.. the Moto, your bags, whatever. There is an unspoken understanding nothing will be touched… this is the first time I’ve seen this kind of honor in Central America. If you leave anything out that can be swiped anywhere else, you will probably not see it again.

Other travelers are the only theft hazard… this is not insignificant.

The three days in the San Blas are calm and uneventful. We snorkel, swim, eat and explore the tiny islands. The Kuna find iguana a delicious grilled treat!!

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I have only a passing interest in the young backpackers, although some of them have fantastic stories too. Most of them are in their late twenties, early thirties and almost all seasoned travelers. Some of them travel full time, stop and work when they need money, then carry on

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Finally, it is time to sail. The capitan holds a meeting before he pulls up the anchor. Simple rules. Do not open a window or door if it is closed. The windows are bulletproof glass and will withstand the force of the sea should a large wave hit it. The door is closed to keep the sea out. Do not piss into the wind. The wind will be coming from the port side of the boat. Do not throw up into the wind. Do not complain and do not throw anything into the toilets that wasn’t previously eaten. There are no plumbers at sea.

He tells two stories. One about the guy three days into the trip he didn’t recognize… the fellow had cut off his dreadlocks and stuffed them down the toilet. The rest of the trip was spent with everyone doing their business off the side of the boat.

And the second story of someone with a digestion problem. The unflushable green turd had to be carried with a set of tongs to the side of the boat, and jettisoned. Please notify staff “before leaving nice sorprises”

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The moment we are out of the protected island waters, it is clear the crossing will be rough. Not three hours pass before nearly everyone on the boat is ill. Myself and the capitan are the only two that seem unaffected. A blessing for me, I’ve never gotten seasick. I grew up in New Jersey racing sailboats with my family. I got a little green around the gills one time ten years ago in heavy seas doing a dive job with the Navy.. there was salt water and puke sloshing around the deck with a thick cloud of diesel smoke constantly blowing across our 9 meter Boston Whaler.

The top and first decks look like a disaster relief triage center. There are motionless bodies with pillows and blankets askew on every flat surface. The only person below decks is my roommate, Marti (the female bicyclist). The first three hours of the trip, I saw her sitting stoically on a bench seat next to the capitan fastidiously studying the horizon.IMG_7878

Now, she is in her bunk. Alone. She nearly always turns her head and looks at me when I walk in. She says nothing. Calm, with her curly blond hair and big blue eyes, she neither complains nor greets me. She has a Mona Lisa smile… it is hard to tell if she is smiling, actually. I know she is suffering, but she reveales no secrets. She neither eats nor rises from her supine post for the entire bumpy voyage.

The second night is worse. The seas have increased and are now twenty foot, white capped swells. The wind is gale force.. 44knots. The top deck is soaked as are the people trying to stay above the stifiling cabin.

The Capitan has no chance of keeping his promise of my bike being safe from the salt water. She is taking regular poundings from the ginormous waves, her skirts are blown up from the howling wind and she is clearly soaked to the core. We are making poor time because we are “beating” (going into the waves rather than going with them) and the raging wind is not entirely in our favor.

I stay awake watching the violence until I’m totally exhausted.. the fury of this sea is mesmerizing. The crew is all sick also, so I help a bit in the kitchen.

crawled in my bunk and stuffed my arm under my mattress so I wouldn’t roll out and fell dead asleep.

When I woke, everything was still. I popped out of bed and ran up to check on KLaRa.

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I unwrapped her and took a look. I poured a few buckets of fresh water over her saltier bits and hoped for the best. My neurotic check and recheck of her tie downs paid off, she was still in place.. which wouldn’t have been the case had I not done a final tightening before we set sail into the open sea. Somehow, one side had loosened considerably.

Getting the moto off the boat was simple but stressful. We used the same straps as before to winch the boat down into the tiny dinghy, motored over to a loading ramp and with some effort pushed the bike out onto terra firma.

KLaRa had some trouble starting, but she still ran as we limped through customs and then to our hostel in Cartegena.

If you have more questions about the Darien, or would like to know more about the voyage, please feel free to contact me. I’m no expert, but I’ll do my best.

Tip: Majo, the Capitan’s young, sweet and beautiful fiancee is the backbone of the ship. I’d make sure she was aboard before I booked again. Her cooking is also fantastic.

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