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.

FAQ’s

FAQ’s

1. Are You Having Fun?                                                                                              Give me a moment while I wax philosophical…

While I ride, it’s easy to think… to consider, really. I love this kind of movement through space… It’s actually a little like time travel. IMG_7331I don’t really feel like a tourist.. I don’t care to see the ready made, cookie cutter view of a culture. I want to know who the people are. I like to eat their food,  to walk the streets.IMG_7653 I roll on my two wheels… Across history, weather,IMG_7424 IMG_7833wars, struggle, boredom, to another point in time. Banged up cars, tuk-tuks, burning fields, volcanos, lakes, dirt roads, jungle. elaborately painted homes,IMG_7779 chicken busses, hanging laundry, little shops, dugout canoes, warm smiles, hard work, crumbled or swank architecture, I like to stay in the local places.. Small hotels, hospedajes.. I get to see their everyday…  a piece of them becomes a part of me. IMG_7682 IMG_7664 IMG_7638 IMG_7680

And then to fly above it.. engaged in my flight, fully focused on the task, bathed in cool, buoyant air. I leave time travel behind and become totally present. I’m not concerned with what happened yesterday or if I should change my tires tomorrow. Nothing matters except for this one moment. This one feeling. I AM this moment… totally, wholly, purely me. P1020121

These two ways of seeing a country and culture are the spice of this travel.. It is never boring or mundane, I am active physically and mentally. It takes effort, but it is rewarding. Every day.

“Fun” is a word I would use to describe picking out puppies or shopping at the farmers market. “Soul Recharge” is how I would describe this trip.

I am having fun smoking a Cuban cigar with a fantastic coffee right now though.

2. What is the best bike?

This seems to be the most common question.. And the hardest to answer. I think because there is no “right” answer. Your size, ability, budget and riding style are going to dictate the bike you take. Almost every kind of Moto has made this ride. Hondas, Harleys, enduros, dirt bikes.. Even scooters!

What would I recommend?

My budget and purpose allowed me to take the best “bang for my buck”

Dollar for dollar, the KLR is the best value for money you will get for this ride. The bike is light, has high clearance, is well made, has few but well documented weak points and almost anyone can work on it.. Parts are not hard to find. It isn’t fast, and she’s really not that nimble (fully loaded) but she’ll do whatever you need for a mellow, not violently technical tour.

I’ve been happy to have this bike on several occasions rather than my big Beemer… Many people on the road told me they wished they had my bike… especially Europeans!!

The KTM is a big favorite among the adventure rider crowd. Expensive, fast and nimble, it is a great choice for the non-budget conscious.. It’s a bit harder to find parts for and work on though.

IMG_7450The BMW GS series.. Great bikes, but a couple issues.. Money and parts. A LOT of people have done round the world tours with them.. If you can do your own maintenance, have a reliable parts source and a bit of discretionary cash, it’s not a bad choice. The 1200 is a lot of weight to be slinging around into a little boat. and not as nimble for the rough stuff. It’s a superstar on the highway and I’ve missed it on a number if occasions.. Particularly in Mexico and Colombia. Great roads.. Lots of miles.

Suzuki DRZ.. Another good choice.. Almost identical pros and cons as KLR Cheap, light, a little lower for a shorter rider.. A lot of people love this one for adventure travel also.. I have almost no firsthand info on this bike though.

Husaberg.. Great bike, less common. Looks like a good ride. That’s all I know.

Yamaha Tenere. Beautiful bike.. Price tag to match.. They sell a 650 in Europe… The 1200 has the same issues as the GS. ‘Nuff said.

If I missed a common bike it’s because I know absolutely nothing about it, OR it is an atypical choice, so there you have it.

There are a lot of online forums that discuss this very issue… These are my opinions.. (and some of folks on the road) I hope they help you with your own adventure!!

Whatever bike you choose, it will be the best one… and there will be someone that agrees with you 🙂

3. Aren’t You Scared?

Of course!! But why would I do something that was totally familiar and safe? I’m looking for adventure, not a week on the beach with Mai Tai’s and sunscreen.

You should scare yourself once in a while anyway. It’s good for the heart.

4. You’re by yourself?

Yes.

IMG_7840It’s a bit easier I think… I don’t care if I’m a little smelly,  I laugh at my own jokes, I don’t mind my own bitching too much, I only have one motorcycle to fix, one opinion to deal with and if I’m not doing the right thing, I change what I’m doing. of course, there is a downside but…. isn’t there always?

5. What are you most afraid of?

Honestly, I don’t think much about getting hurt.. Of course, that would be the worst thing to happen. Getting killed is second to that. What keeps me up at night is running out of money. I wish it wasn’t an issue, but for most of us, it is the perennial problem. And parasites. I’m always afraid I got the creepy-crawlies.

6. There are a lot of other questions… Border crossings, the Darien Gap, safety.. I’m trying to cover as much as possible in the blog. The border crossing thing is simple.. Get your documents in order first. Registration, title, drivers license, passport with plenty of pages and time left. Tack weld your license plate on if you can. Yellow fever shot if the country you are going to needs it… On a yellow card. More shots if you are going off Piste.. Discuss that with your doctor.

You can get antibiotics and other otherwise unavaiable drugs over the counter in most countries South of the border (US).  Not narcotics… sorry!

Don’t lose stuff. If the country you just got into gave you some paperwork, put it in a dry, safe place. You’ll probably need it later. Make copies of EVERYTHING and keep a set electronically too. It will be the difference between a 45 minute crossing and an all day affair.

Have medical insurance. This is a no brainer.

Do a little research and ask the locals. They know. Usually.

 

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.

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