Sunday, February 17, 2008
For the past 18 months we’ve all worked hard: we had to buy and prep the bikes, make all kinds of travel arrangements, buy extra parts in case of a break down and complete any inoculations and other travel medicine requirements for travel in the Third World. We had to each in our own way, come to grips with being away from friends and family for over a month as well as making arrangements for the necessary time off from work. If you say it quick it doesn’t sound like much now but at the time it was a huge endeavor and took a lot of our time and energy as we approached our departure date.
I can’t speak for Steve, Brad or Kevan but I was bordering on obsession during the last 90 days. The trip was all I could think about and all I could talk about, and I know there were more than a few people I work with that were very fed up with hearing about it before I left.
And then there was the trip itself. In was much harder and much different than I imagined, and in other ways it was much easier.
I had a leisurely itinerary in my mind before we left, that would see us leaving at 7:00, riding for 400 – 500 klm by 1:00 or 2:00 and then spending our afternoons lounging by the pool or frolicking in the waves at some small beachside resort. I was sure we could complete the trip in 20 days and still have lots of down time for site seeing and relaxing.
The reality was vastly different. Up at 5:30 for a 6:30 start, breakfast at a roadside taco stand or scarf down a donut at a gas station, a quick break for lunch and ride until 3:00 – 5:00, then search madly for a decent hotel with the all important and overriding factor of secure parking. Instead of rum and cokes and playing cards each evening we dealt with whatever maintenance issues rose during the day and collapsed into bed by 8:30. Our average overland speed, including stops, maintenance, fuel and lunch was never any better than 50 KPH and often as slow as 40 KPH. 400 klm meant an 8 – 10 hour day, plus whatever time was lost due to border crossings or the inevitable getting lost while leaving town syndrome.
But in some ways it was easy. Easy in the sense that we all got along well given the circumstances, we had no major mechanical issues, no one got hurt (even Kevan made it home safely), no one got arrested and not one of us, not one single one of us, would have traded it for the world.
It’s had a profound impact on my perspective and it’s affected me more than I thought it would.
I tried to go into work today to catch up on things and I found myself having a very difficult time dealing with all the e-mails and correspondence of the past five weeks. As I caught up on my reading, and learned about the latest sales targets, or newest product offering, I couldn’t help thinking of the past five weeks; and that brought me back to the young girl on the side of a Honduran road, waiving at a surprise parade her grandfather held her aloft to see. Did she sleep in a warn bed last night? Eat a decent meal? Have an opportunity to play or go to school? These things are what’s truly important, not whether or not Walmart chooses Blueray over HDV or how much Canadians can put away in RRSP’s this year.
I had to do some running around to take care of a few things before going back to work and I couldn’t help but overhear people talking to each other and complaining about this or that – all minor stuff in the big scheme of things – and I wanted to grab them and shake them and try to make them understand what I’d just seen and experienced. An act that would only get me arrested rather than imparting any kind of profound enlightenment. So I had to content myself with shaking my head and feeling pity for their limited understanding of a much larger world.
Tomorrow I go back to work and none of this will matter. By 9:00 no one will know I’ve been gone, nor care, and I’ll be right back on the treadmill with the rest of the world. But at least I’ll have a small understanding of what’s really out there and memories to keep me company until I can do it all again.
And for those of you that say I’d love to do something like this, but……
I just completed a 7,000 klm journey on a 26 year old used Honda and a VERY tight budget. You may not go but it’s not because you can’t. It’s because you won’t.
Or, as Johnny Depp would say… Are you a Mexi-can, or a Mexi-can’t?
Tierra del Fuego – only 2 ½ years to go – I’d better start my planning right away
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
We put the word out to some of the taxi drivers here at the hotel that we had two bikes to sell. One immediatly passed on the word to a local Panamanian that was parked nearby because he was picking up a work associate at our hotel.
We started to chat with him and it was an immediate sale. Tito is a Panamanain photo-journalist working for the Associated Press. He´s married to a very nice girl from New York, has a 3 year old son and lives in a lovely new housing developement that was a former US Army Base. It has apartments, four-plexes, duplexes, single homes and large executive homes, all on about 100 acres of green space. Tito and his wife live in a four-plex, and an area of the development that he calls the UN because of the diversity of the residents. Anyway, Tito just sold his previous bike but regrets it because they´re on a budget and the gas bill for his Jeep is kiling them. He´s a devout Christian and he´s convinced me selling him Flurry for $500 out of the blue is a gift from God.
He looked at both bikes with a friend who´s a mechanic but he initially said he only wanted to buy Flurry. I told him it was a package deal so he eventualy brought over his neighbout to look at them too. It turns out his neighbour is his good friend and about the same age. His father had a Silverwing when he was a child and used to take him for rides so he jumped all over the chance to buy Brads´s bike so he can restore it and give it to his dad as a surprise present. Tito had to lend him some money to cement the deal but eventualy, after handshakes and final arrangements we agreed to sell both bikes for $1,000.
Brad and I drove the bikes over to their house last night and met their wives, kids and neighbours and were the talk of the town. We had a brief scare when we received an admonishment from a local Policia Naciaonal to slow down through the development but all´s well that end´s well.
Flurry is happy to be able to live out the rest of her days providing much needed support to a great Panamanaim family and she told me she loves the warmer weather. She never liked having to use her choke to start and says she´s much happier in this climate. She´ll also have Brad´s bike to keep her company and allow her to talk to someone in English whenever she gets homesick.
So, a sad day and a happy day all at once.
Adios old girl - you did good, really really good!
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Day 27, our last travel day, was a day to remember. We left San Jose and arrived in David, the first large city in Panama, the afternoon before. By perservering, and crossing the border late in the day rather than waiting for morning like we usually do, we were able to cut our travel time to the Canal down to two days from three. We forgot about the time zone change though, so we actually started the day at 7:30, not 6:30 like we planed.
The roads in Panama are great and Panama itself is much like Costa Rica with a few differences. The countryside in the western half is as lush, green and beautiful as Costa Rica. There´s no litter to be seen and a noticible lack of tourists. My kind of place! I have friends that have bought property here and I now see the appeal. I certainly had visions of a large Finca for myself - hey, we can all dream.
Our first stop was a little roadside restaurant that we pulled into for breakfast. Parked out front were a dozen different motorcycles of various types and sizes. It turns out this was the Saturday morning ride for the Black Hawks, a local motorcycle club. Before we could even dismount, they were up and out of the restaurant, all wanting to introduce themselves and welcome us to Panama. And unlike Canada, sport bike riders, cruisers, Chinese Harley wannabe´s and everything in between all rode together. It´s the ride that matters, not the motorcycle. We had a great time, exchanged e-mail addresses and made many new friends.
We hit the road again but as we headed east we dropped into the lowlands. The temperature climbed and the countryside became drier. Our next stop was another little roadside place where we pulled into for a Coke. From a distance we saw bikes parked out front and assumed it was our new friends from breakfast. It wasn´t. It was another motorcycle club out for a ride - but the reception was just as as warm and friendly. This time the bikes were bigger, newer and MUCH better than our Silverwings but instead of looking down their noses at us we were immediatley part of the rider fraternity. Thanks Rudy, we loved talking to you and meeting you and your friends. Cheers!
From there it was time to knuckle down, suck it up and put on miles. The temperature was now in the mid 30´s, and we were hot, sweaty and tired, and at the point where we´d normally stop, but with only a few more klm to go we pushed on.
And then it happened: we followed the signage to Panama City and eventually crossed the Bridge of the America´s! It´s a HUGE bridge that spans the bay leading to the Panama Canal and from it´s highest point we could see the Pacific, the Canal, the locks and Panama City itself! We were there! We´d done it! Horns honking, fists raised, eyes blury with manly tears we managed to give each other high fives at 60 KPH without killing ourselves and rode into Panama City!!
Waiting for us were Sheri and Rosi, very much the worse for wear. The poor girls had ridden an overnight bus from Costa Rica in order to meet us at the end. They planned a huge welcome, but like all things Central American, it didn´t go completley as planned. The Hotel I had booked on the internet was an absolute dive! They arrived at 4:30 in the morning, after 12 hours on the bus, only to find a room that was probably rented by the hour and a hotel you would´t put your dog in. So, guide book in hand, they had to scramble to find a room for all of us, with parking, all with no sleep and in 30 degree temperatures. When we eventually arrived at the original hotel though, they were sitting on the road waiting for us! They grabbed a cab and took lots of pictures while we followed them to a MUCH nicer hotel. All´s well that ends well.
The final day was another 448 klm, bringing the total to 6,968! We traveled through eight different countries, crossed difficult borders, dealt with cold, heat, traffic, smoke, smog and wayward animals on the road, and throughout it all WE LOVED IT!
Team Panama 08 made it! And that includes ALL OF US! There was a little piece of Kevan´s spirit in Steve, Brad and I and he as much made this journey happen as any of us.
Congratulations BUFF - you did it!
Team Panama also includes Dad and Carol, for all their help, especially when we arived with the truck in November, and for seeing us off at the outset. And most importantly, Karen, Joyce, Rosi and Sheri - without their love, support and faith none of this would have been possible.
So now it´s done. It´s almost a little sureal and I´m not sure what the future will hold but for now we´ll savour the memories and play tourist for a few final days in Panama. I also have to make final arangements for Flurry :-(
Adios Mi Amigos Y Familia!!
Saturday, February 9, 2008
I write this with very mixed emotions - or more accurately, with emotions I shouldn´t have. I purposely bought Flurry with the intent of leaving her here in Central America. She was cheap, but with an excellent reputation for reliability, and this strategy allowed me the freedom of not having to worry about shipping etc., at completion.
During the last four weeks Flurry has become much more than just a motorcycle. She´s been my closest friend and my biggest supporter. She´s greeted me each morning with a cough and a roar, and filled each day with the purr of a finely tuned engine - even after 26 years. She´s held up well, and has stood up to the abuse of more than 6,000 klm of the worst that Central Amercia could throw at her. The tire problems weren´t her fault and I have forgiven her completley.
In all this time I´ve never asked for more than she had to give and she´s never given any less than all that I´ve asked. And now I have to leave her.
I know she´s ''just'' a motorcycle but she must be more. A grown man wouldn´t cry when it comes time to say good-by to a ''just'' a motorcycle: would he?
When you´re thinking of us on this trip please give a little thought to Flurry too - she deserves it. She´s MUCH more than ''just'' a motorcycle.
Vaya Con Dios Mi Amigo
Friday, February 8, 2008
On Wednesday, Brad, Steve and I, Lonely Planet in hand, set out for a self-guided walking tour of some of the hi-lights of San Jose. We toured some amazing museums and took a guided tour of the Principal Theatre, an amazing place from the 1800's that would put any opera house in Italy to shame. We enjoyed more than a few creveza´s on the main square and I took in a first run movie at a local cinima.
On Thursday we were finally able to hook up with Rosi and Sheri! They´ve been in the country since the 30th but our paths didn´t cross until now. It was a great reunion. We did some shopping, drank even more cerveza and had a lovely dinner out to celebrate the journey thus far. The only low note was the fact that Brad was by himself. He´s in a new relationship and missing his significant other desperately. Having Rosi and Sheri join Steve and I only added to his lonliness and drove home the point that he won´t have this opportunity for a few more days. It was still great nonetheless and gave us all a much needed boost to complete the journey.
I have to say that having Rosi by my side again, even if only for a short while, was exactly what I needed to put things into perspective. She´s much more than my wife. She´s the ying to my yang and all that is good in my world, and doing this without her blessing and involvement just wouldn´t have been possible. Thanks Sweety - I love you so very much.
Today, Friday was one of the best! I say this, choosing to concentrate on the majority of the day and deliberatly not remembering the border crossing into Panama. It was typical; 3 hours of hell. Numerous different clerks, copies of copies, stamps and bribes. Some so blatent that it makes you shake your head in either resignation or disgust. This though, was just a small part of a much larger picture.
The rest of the day - and by far that which outweighs anything else - was the ride out of San Jose. We left at 6:30, our usual early morning start time, and had no issues leaving the city. Immediatley after leaving the city proper the road climbed through incredible scenery high into the mountains dividing the country. San Jose is at roughly 3,600 feet and at our highest point we hit close to 10,000 feet, except this time the road was great, the way was smooth and the sun and wind were at our back, both literally and figuratively. When we started to climb we had to stop and gear up because the temperature dropped quickly. We were also shrouded in thick mist, sometimes so thick visability was down to mere feet. But, as the sun rose and started to burn off the cloud cover, it opened absolutely incredible vista´s as far as the eys could see. We rose through thick jungle, rain forrest, cloud forrest and everything in between. The greens were beyond anything I´ve ever seen and I had to think: if there ever was an Eden, it must have looked like this. If you were to give Michelangelo the greatest, largest box of Crayola Crayons -the biggest box you´d ever see - the one we all wanted but our mum´s would never buy - the box with thousands of different shades and textures of green - and asked him to draw this landscape he wouldn´t be able to do it justice. It´s simply beyond mortal man to capture this beauty. And then, just when I thought it couldn´t get any better, the suns heat started to burn off the cloud cover and created wind currents and convection that moved the clouds up the mountain sides like a torrent of white water unlike anything I´ve ever seen. At one point, as we rounded a corner, the mist spilled up and over the road like a cascading waterfall in reverse, only more beautiful and far more surreal.
From the summit we started down the other side and slowly dropped back to realty - and MUCH hotter weather. Sweeping curves, long straightaways and tightly engineered switchbacks brought us down to the Costa Rica lowlands and a stretch of road that quite litteraly brought tears to my eyes. Up until now we modified our riding pattern to to match the conditions and more importantly , the traffic. We rode with large gaps between each rider in order to give passing cars room to get in and out. This day though, there was no other traffic and we were riding in a tight pattern. I was at the back but in close formation behind Brad and Steve as were leaned into curves so tight our footpegs threatened to drag. On my left was a wide crystal clear tourqoise river, on my right a mountain slope hugging the rode and rising steeply beyond sight. In my ears, Gypsy Kings. As we roared down this perfect stretch of road in tight formation it hit me: this was it. This was the ''the'' day and this was ''the'' moment. On each trip, as it nears completion, I always try to focus on one perfect moment. A moment I can burn into my memory so that I can focus on it later, when I´m back at work or up to my knees in snow. This was that day and this was that moment. Incredible!
As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!!
Mileage, including the border crossing from hell - 435 klm
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
The good news though, is once we left Granada and headed to the border on the morning of Day 22 things changed - dramtically and quickly. It very soon became the Nicaragua I remembered. Smiling faces, a level of civility and calmness unseen in Honduras and Guatemala and a sense of renewal and vibrancy. We chatted with locals when we asked for directions - because once again we got lost trying to leave town - and even had a great conversation with a new member of the Policia Nacional, who only wanted to practice his English. I have to say, it`s still one of my favourite places, Granada excepted, and I`d go back in a minute.
The day continued with a great run to the border.
Ah, the border. My nemisis. This time though it was a little different. Yes, it was chaotic and tested out patience but we were able to make our way through without handles and without bribes or fees. OK, one attempt at a bribe but it back-fired. The first step is to get your passport stamped at immigration but this is a major trans-migration bus route and at any time there are litterly hundreds trying to get through. The process to get out of Nicaragua wasn`t too bad - only an hour or so but when we got to the Costa Rica side the line up was at least 160 people long. Yikes! As we stood there with a WTF look on our faces a handler approached and said for $5.00 each he could get us to the front of the line. What the heck, for $5.00 we were in - but no money would be paid until we were stamped. He proceeded to give us preliminary forms to fill out and then very underhandedly had me collect all three passports and he hussled me to the back of the building where he tried to sneak me into the outgoing line. Of course I got caught by the customs police and had a VERY worried moment but all she did was kick me out of the building making sure that every other person in the place knew who I was and what I`d done. Soooooo, we fired the handler and stood in line for 45 minutes until we received our legitimate entry stamp.
Now here`s the kicker. Costa Rica is just as bad as any other country with the exception that the fees were legitimate and there were no bribes. It still took 2 more hours, numerous different customs agents, piles of paperwork and copies of copies. The irony is the rest of the country is well organized, professional and a bastion of efficiency. All I can figure is they keep the border the way it is in order to maintain their standing in some weird ``Third World`` club.
The rest of the drive was almost surreal after what we`ve seen and done. The road was a silky-smooth velvety black ribbon of perfection that gently caressed our tires with a gentle hum. Narry a pot hole or tope to be seen. The road was overhung with tall thick trees giving everything an ambient glow and the coutryside was clean lush, geen and exceedingly clean.
We passed through two small towns that were clean and well laid out and eventually stopped at the first town of size called Liberia.
It was fantastic. Most of the signs were bi-lingual, everything was clean and organized and
we booked into a Best Western. So how come I wasn`t ecstatic? I should be loving this but I wasn`t. And then that`s when it hit me: Costa Rica isn`t Central America, it`s Central America Lite. It`s what the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce would design in a joint venture with Disney if they were going to design a country for tourists. Liberia looked more like Tempe or Scottsdale than any place else, right down to the strip mall with Churches Chicken, Burger King and Poppa Johns Pizza. I was only out of Nicaragua a day and already I missed it desperately. Is it possible to have two mistresses? Is there room in my heart for more than Mexico. Of course, because after all, this IS Latin America. Viva La Amor!
Mileage 241 - not much but it was still a long day with a border crossing factored in.
Day 23 - Today
Costa Rica lived up to it`s reputation well today and even I have to admit I can certainly see the appeal. First the road: it was excellent the whole way. There were a few times we got stuck behind a transport because there are no passing lanes but nothing worse than the Hope Princeton Hwy. The scenery was beyond fantastic. Cool mountain air, lush greenery, manacured lawns and well kept and organized huge ranches along the way. The gas stations are staffed by clerks that speak some English and we saw lots of tourists in rental cars making their way to one beach resort or another. It may not be my usual thing but I coped as best I could!
We`re now in San Jose for two and a half days of R&R. We`re going to leave the bikes locked up tomorrow and the day after and explore the city on foot. There are some great museums and a couple of day tours we can book right here at the hotel. Viva La Tourista!
Mileage Today - 225
Total Mileage - 6,106
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Day 19 La libertad, El Salvador - Choluteca, Honduas
Honduras is a difficult country to like - and I really tried to like it. But......
The early morning run from La libertad to the border was great. Beautiful sunrise, morning mist, good roads: ah, this is going to go well!
And then we arrived at the border.
Or should I say, a junction about a klm short of the border. Where, as we started to slow down to make the turn, ``handlers´´appeared out of the woodwork and ran up to us and along side of us shouting and waiving quasi-official name tags. (Like we don´t know that a copy machine and a laminator is all you need) They converged on us as if we had a baton to pass in some surreal relay race. What they were really trying to do was beat the rush down the road and hold us to some wordless contract based on eye contact alone, whereby they could claim the prize rather than a handler further along. Like it or not, we finally had to stop as we neared the border, and we were litterally desended on by a shouting mass of in your face, look at my card, I saw you first, pick me, PICK ME, desperate handlers. In it´s own weird way it´s almost humerous, unless of course like me, you have a slight bout of tourista, a pounding headache and you´re sweating like a pig at only 10:00 in the morning. I left this go around to Steve and Brad and anyone that approached me got an earfull of angry gringo using language that would put any self-respecting trucker to shame. This time they soon learned to leave El Loco alone.
We eventually settled on a pair of handlers that claimed to be brothers but at least one spoke English. I can´t stress enough the emotional and physical toll this whole process takes. All along we knew we were being taken, which adds anger to the mix, which is not only useless and pointless but decidedly unhealthy, but there´s quite literally nothing you can do about it. The Honduran system is as chaotic as the rest but also has an added layer of difficulty and seems designed to confuse. At this crossing we had to pay our first bribes (twice) trust our handlers with money, and generally had to be willing to be put our trust in people we absolutley knew to be untrustworthy. It´s compounded by the fact that you just know the officials are in on the action. By keeping you on the defensive and by avoiding any signage or instructions whatsoever they´re able to take advantage of you at every step of the way. Oh yes, I was SUCH a happy camper! But at the end of the day, it really doesn´t matter what a couple of Gringos think. It is what it is - and in this this case it was our first reality check where we were definitely faced with the Third World. All in all it took 3 1/2 hours, $50 each in actual fee´s, $50 each in ´´unofficial´´fee´s and another $20 each in handler fee´s. All to get into a country we were leaving the next day.
Once this whole ordeal was over we were spent. We did our best to put on some miles but we called it a day in Choluteka - total klm = 336
So yes, it´s a difficult place to like.
But, as well left Choluteca the next morning it was like a postcard. Beautiful lush green countryside, children walking to school, dappled sunshine filtering through tree´s completley overhanging the road and farmers hearding goats and cattle on the way to the fields. And then the moment that put it all into perspective. As we came around a corner an old man stood at the side of the road. In his arms was a young girl of no more than 3 or 4 years old. He was
stooped with age but proudly held her aloft with the pride that only a gradfather can feel. And she, dressed in her finest, waived madly at each of us as we passed one at a time. For her it was the parade she seldom sees. And as I waived back I wondered; what will her future hold? Will she get the education she needs to break the cycle of poverty she´s trapped in? Will she be able to get a job that will take raise her above this place? I hoped so - but then I realized. In twenty years she could be the next bitch I have to deal with behind a Honduran customs and immigration counter!
Yes, it´s a VERY difficult place to like - but I tried. I really tried!
Day 20 started out great - especially the young girl waiving as we went past at 90kph. An early start got us to the Honduras-Nicaragua border by 8:00, where we had to pay even more money to the Honduran Govt, to process our exit paperwork. The good news though, other than some street urchin steeling the brand new watch I purchased in San Salvador the day before, was the speed that the Nicaraguan Govt processed our intake documents. The whole crossing this time couldn´t have taken any more than 2 1/2 hours. (hard to believe I´d ever get to a point where a 2 1/2 hour border crossing would be seen as good news)
Once we crossed into the Nicaraguan side our eyses were really opened to just how bad road conditions could get. We were hit with two things at once. First the road - or lack there of - was incredibly bad. In many cases the pot holes were larger than the road itself and just as I said no pavement would be an improvement over this, the pavement ended and we went to dirt track for at least five klm. I was wrong, the pavement, even such as it was, was better than nothing at all. Brad and I had a few very worrisome moments because we were both thinking the same thing: If this was the state of the road we´d NEVER make any progress and, there was no way our Honda´s could take much more of this pounding. Luckily though, this all ended after about ten klm and we hit brand new pavement - part of new highway construction - and the next 100 klm os so were fantastic.
The other interesting thing we however, was a HUGE trafic jam just inside the Nicaraguan border. Trucks of every size and description were jammd into each other at all angles. Imagine a 50 vehicle pile up on a foggy US interstate and you´ll have an idea of the situation, just without the pile up portion. We waited for a bit but no one moved and we couldn´t make out any rhyme nor reason to who or what was going to sort it out. This is where being on a bike paid off. With some help from the locals and different truck drivers we were able to weave our way through the maze and eventually got spit out the other side.
Which brings me to another point about riding vs. driving a car. I´m fairly new to this so I didn´t know what to expect but it´s completly different from driving a car. It´s fanastic! I think it´s best described as organic. You´re one with the environment as opposed to simply passing through it. I now this sounds way to Zen for me but it´s true. On a bike you feel every temperature change, hear every sound and smell every smell. Your field of vision is much better and because you always have to be in the moment you have a much better sense of where you´re at and what you´re doing. In a car you adjust the AC, roll up the windows to keep it quiet and set the cruise control. On a bike you cough when it´s smoky, sweat when it´s hot, shiver when it´s cold and shoot dirty looks at cars that cut you off. Viva La Motorcycle!
Day 20 continued with great roads and good time until we made the mistake of simply ´´popping´´ into a town we passd so we could get some local currency at an ATM. Us and towns don´t mix and five wrong turns later, the last of which lead us directly to the busiest market street in town, we eventually hit the road again a full hour and a half behind schedule.Oh well, we arrived into Granada with lots of daylight to spare. At least a full ten minutes! Yikes!We found a very nice hotel though, and today, day 21 has been a good down day. Cold cervaca, multiple cuba libre´s and some great meals - followed by a well deserved nap as soon as I´m finished here.
Day 20 mileage - 312 klm
Total mileage including stops, starts, short cuts and wrong turns etc = 5,640 klm
Tomorrow the journey continues. I just wish there was some way to enter Costa Rica with out another freak´n border crossing!
Adios Mi Amigos