Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Adv #7 Goes nautical. This is pretty cool....

Okay, this is a rare posting. Live, up to the minute news as I sit here in a hotel room overlooking the Panama Canal. Still haven't posted all the stuff that happened since we've been in the country of Panama, but that can wait. This is good stuff.

Peter's been talking with some of his contacts the past couple of weeks now, trying to get us a good deal on shipping the bikes to Chile. Pricing, scheduling, looking at different ideas, we finally got it boiled down to this plan: This afternoon, we parked our bikes on the pier in Colon, Panama next to the Hamburg-Sud container vessel "Cap Blanche." Tomorrow morning, a crane will help us pick our bikes up onto the deck of this steamship, and Peter and I will board the ship and ride along as passengers for 10 days to Valpraiso, Chile! Let's just say, Peter's "contacts" are not only exceptional, but very, very generous as well.

To most folks, this might not sound like a big deal. But having been in the transportation business myself for 8+ years and having talked around about what we're doing, lets just say we know this is an extremely rare opportunity we get to enjoy. We'll board the ship at about 9am tomorrow, and then start to go through all 3 locks in the Panama Canal starting 2am on Friday morning. What a way to see and learn about such a famous shipping point in this world!

Now I know, Valpraiso/Santiago, Chile is a long way from Central America. Some folks might tease me for skipping so much of this ride (Columbia, Ecuador, Peru) for now, but there are many reasons for doing so. First, riding on the steamship like this is an opportunity I'd be crazy to pass up on (unless I'm about to be seasick for 10 days, then I am the idiot.) Second, we took much longer than anticpated to get to this point, and my ideas of working in Chile/Argentina for a while revolve around being there in early February. (It would take a whole month or so to ship from here and ride through Columbia/Ecuador/Peru.) Lastly, those 3 countries I'm skipping right now will still be there in 10 months, so I can go see them then! Besides, I'll have to wait at this point to finish the ride to the southern-most point of Ushuaia because it starts snowing there in about 5 weeks and it's not likely that I could make it that far before then anyway. So maybe after working in Chile/Argentina through their winter season, I finish the ride to Ushuaia, grab my "End of the World" sticker, and then make it up through the countries I missed. Sound good? Okay. That's just what I'm thinking for now.

Anyway, it's time for bed, as we just got through our 2nd consecutive 9+ hour day of chasing paperwork around Panamanian government buildings. (That's right, it took us over 18 total hours of waiting, copying, printing, walking, and talking to get two motorcycles cleared to leave the country. Unreal!)
As a side note though, I simply could not do this steamship ride without the generosity of my parents and some good friends and tenants back in Atlanta. While I'm on this steamship, Paul and Kelly will be moving out of my house, and Jim and Sheri, the new tenants will move in. I feel ridiculous not being there for this process, but reasons of cost and a potentially lost opportunity have led me to ask everyone to handle this without me flying back to Atlanta. My parents are driving to Atlanta to help empty my house and go through the move-in/move-out with everyone next week. Also offering to help are many friends and neighbors like Marcus, Tim, Emily, Bruce, Sven, and a few other folks on "stand-by." Even the extreme generosity and flexibility of Paul and Kelly should be noted. (Thank you both for making such accomodations!) What a weird case of mixed emotions in that......I want to keep travelling like this and having all these fun experiences, but I also really miss being around such good people that I can count on. Real friends and family in my already great life.

More news when I can....

Friday, January 16, 2009

Adv #7 Continued.....Costa Rica, the German Bakery, and the BMW Rider's Club

On January 6th, it was goodbye Nicaragua, and hello Costa Rica! (And to add some perspective here, I’m finally posting this Costa Rican portion while at our hotel in Santa Clara, Panama on January 18th. I know, I know….I’m way behind on this!)

At the border we once again hired a couple of kids to help us through the paperwork, and getting the passports stamped to leave Nicaragua was quite a chore. Standing there in line talking with a bunch of Americans, I was wondering why the staff was behind the counter but the lights were off in the entire building, and the line was barely moving. After about 45 minutes of standing there and not moving an inch with this huge group of people and nobody to explain what was going on, the lights came on which meant their computers came back on also and we were finally on the way to getting our passports stamped. (Shouldn’t they have back-up power generators or something???)

It was a short drive then to the Costa Rica entrance point, where we faced one of the most incredibly long lines I’ve seen in a while. There had to be 300+ people waiting outside in a line that wrapped around the building and they were moving nowhere in the mid-day sun. Tourist buses were parked all over, officers were answering the nonstop questions people had, and it looked like a real mess.
While parking the bikes, we were approached by a local who claimed that for $20 USD, he could save us from having to stand in that line with everyone else. A little bit of research confirmed for us that he was pretty legitimate, (depending on how you look at that) and we decided to give him a try. Anything to avoid waiting in that line!

Peter took both of our passports and was lead by this “expeditor” guy around the back of one of the offices ignoring the hundreds of people in the front of the office. Peter describes it as being this simple: The expeditor directed Peter to stand alone outside a back entrance to one of the offices. Then the expeditor made a cell phone call from 20 meters away to his contact inside that office. Not a minute later, the Costa Rican officer with the stamp for passports walked out of the door, matched up his description of Peter, and …..Bam, Bam…..two stamps on two passports. No faces to match the pictures…no questions…..nothing. And like that, we were clear to enter the country! Well, we had about 45 minutes of vehicle insurance & importation paperwork to go through, but we probably just cut out 3+ hours of standing around with 20 bucks. You can see our legitimately illegitimate amigo talking with Peter and others in the pictures. Not sure how I would feel as a Costa Rican knowing that such border “insecurity” exists…..but hey…..I’m not a Costa Rican….. : ) I figure he’s getting a handful of those twenties every day from guys like us, and at the end of the day the stamp guy gets some money, the local cops get some… so on, and so forth.
Once we were through all the border mess, it was obvious we were in a different country. The roads have fewer potholes, there’s less trash (almost none) along the shoulder, and Costa Rica just seemed like a cleaner, nicer place to be.

Getting near dark though, we took a long dirt road ride to the coast near La Cruz, as our guidebook suggested there was a camping spot on the beach. Half hour on the rocky road, and we found out it doesn’t exist anymore. So back to La Cruz, and we found a good deal at a family-run hotel called Cabinas Santa Rita.

We wanted to check out some of the volcano areas for riding, as they were higher and cooler, so we spent the next day riding between Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja and Zona Protectora Miravelles. The beautiful riding scenery everywhere showed us the variety of terrain we would find in Costa Rica, and our plans were to meet up with the BMW-Costa Rica Rider’s Club for a two-day ride on Saturday morning so we headed over to Playa de Coco near the meeting point of Liberia.
Well, Playa de Coco is definitely a beach and it’s in Costa Rica, but it didn’t strike us as a premier spot to be in the country. It’s a decent little touristy town with good people, food, little shops, etc. But we knew there had to be better beaches in the country. We spent two nights there thinking it was just a convenient spot for the Saturday morning ride from Liberia, but the January 8th earthquake in Costa Rica had all the BMW riders cancelling the weekend ride plans, so we had stayed at Coco for no real reason. We had fun out at the bars with some of the other tourists and relaxed, but it wasn’t the kind of place either of us went crazy over.
While there at the beach though, I walked into this T-shirt shop not knowing what this guy was doing on his knees digging around with a broomstick and eventually saw that it was an iguana he was after that had gotten into the store. Wow, did that little green guy put up a fight, hissing and clawing at the handler. But the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time was when he tried to “dispose” of the iguana outside. That dark picture barely shows, but he took the iguana to the gap outside between those two buildings and tossed it back there in the dark. I saw the iguana fall to the ground, and then go flying back up in the air again! Why? Because there was some guy sleeping back in that dark spot between the buildings where nobody could see him, and the iguana had been tossed right on top of him! The Iguana found his way up onto the rooftop, the guy swore at us for a minute and then settled back down to continue his slumber, and those of us watching felt like we should have bought a ticket for that show. Could not have been more perfect!

On Friday the 9th, we set out for the Arenal Volcano, hearing that the jungle, canopy tours, camping, and scenery were tough to beat. Just the drive there was incredible enough for me. I was seeing colors (especially greens) that I’d never seen before in nature, and beautiful Costa Rican countryside that is so lush and fertile, it’s tough to concentrate on the road. And windy!

Eventually we made it over the river-crossings and scenery to Lago de Arenal and the town of Arenal where we found a German Bakery owned by a guy named Tom. He’s been running this great little restaurant for about 10 years, and what a nice treat it was to have some good bread, strudel, and desserts finally. And when you put those two Germans together (Tom and Peter) the conversation bounces from food to motorcycles to whatever….and eventually to us being invited to stay at Tom’s spare house that night. We originally wanted to camp in a spot where you can see Arenal erupting at night. But as it turns out, this time of year, it’s basically cloudy and rainy every single night, and they said the chances of seeing the volcanic activity are so slim we’d be better off indoors and out of the rain.

Taking Tom up on his offer, we set the bikes on his front porch and cooked up some weisswurst, sauerkraut, hot mustard, and good hearty bread from the restaurant. Top quality cooking for a couple of motorcycle travelers! We hung out well into the evening with Markus who came over from Germany to bake for Tom, and Carol who took a job there after having just spent 13 months riding her motorcycle around South America. There were plenty of good stories and experiences to share as we took some great long-exposure photos of the clouds rolling over our head past the full moon that night.

There’s a picture above of Tom riding his horse to work the next morning past the house we slept at, and then later that day as we rode past the Arenal Volcano pretty close up. Also, you can see some spots where the road had washed away after the earthquake that week.

After one night in Arenal, we made it to Alajeula just west of San Jose just fine, found a good spot at the Hotel Green Day Inn, and Manuel, the VP of the Rider’s Club picked us up that night for a dinner party at another BMW rider’s new house. This wasn’t just any house though.....far outside the city, he drove us through a deep jungle atmosphere on tiny dirt roads with palm leaves brushing the car, even getting lost at one point. Eventually, we arrived at a beautiful new house in the middle of one of BMW guy’s coffee plantation (his name was Eric, too.) It felt like I was in the Tom Clancy book “Clear and Present Danger”! Great house, great food and drinks, and great people to meet, we settled in for a great night of motorcycle riding stories and laughs about all the funny things that can happen on the road.
The picture below is of Peter, Manuel and I at a club we went to later that night. We had fun at this casino bar while Manuel’s girlfriend, Andrea was kind enough to introduce us to some of the local ladies in the crowd. Which reminds me….I need to keep working on my Spanish….. : )

Even though the original BMW group ride had been cancelled, Manuel, Andrea, Rafa, and Ricardo all got together for a ride with us on Sunday morning. It sure was nice to have some local knowledge helping us find some good off-road with great scenery, plus we finally had another KTM in the group! While looking for a hotel our first night in Alajuela, we met Ricardo Alvarado and his father who also ride the beautiful KTM 950 Adventure just like mine. In an amazing coincidence, his father actually bought his bike at the same KTM dealer (KTM World) as I did near my home in Atlanta. He travels up there for business fairly often I guess, and had a creative way to ship the bike to Costa Rica. Only Ricardo was able to join for the ride, but at least there was finally another bike in the group that could keep up with mine (ooohhh.....more KTM vs. BMW trashtalk!)

We actually ended up going all the way back to Arenal (about 8 hours round-trip) because I had forgotten to give the key back to Tom’s house. It’s nearly impossible to get copies made in such a small Costa Rican town, so it was a perfect reason for a full-day ride, and an excuse for us to enjoy some more treats at Tom’s restaurant. We found some great hill climbs that these big bikes barely made it up due to traction issues, and scenery that is tough to beat anywhere. Plans were to attempt 5 different river crossings, but common sense and a really strong and deep current told us it was best just to take the bridges.

Our last couple of days in Alajeula were spent at the BMW and KTM dealers getting parts and such, one more night out on the town for Ladies Night at an area club, and saying goodbye to such a great group of friends we made in Alajeula. Manuel’s help and attention to showing us a good time will not be forgotten and everyone else helped make us feel so welcome. I feel like I’ve got a great new group of friends in Costa Rica.

So after 3 nights in Alajuela, we set out for Puerto Viejo in search of that perfect Caribbean feeling that neither Peter nor myself had ever really been around. East through the beautiful mountains and jungle setting to Puerto Limon first, we drove south to Viejo in the dark again and rented the back of a guy’s house for a couple of nights.

Puerto Viejo was much better beach than Playa de Coco was on the Pacific side, and it was perfect for my first attempt at surfing! I rented a surfboard, and Peter made his first attempt with a boogie board late in the afternoon on our last day there. Initially, I was concerned about not having enough time to enjoy the surfboard, and thought maybe I would need more than 2 hours to really get my money’s worth. Maybe I’m in worse shape than I think I am, cause after just 1 hour of trying, crashing, trying, and crashing….I was so tired I could barely stand or paddle any more. Of course, inhaling a couple liters of saltwater through my nose sure didn’t help with the way I felt, but even without that, I was physically spent. I’m not sure what the proper points of measurement are for waves, but I’m thinking some of these were about 6 feet. Sure, that’s an overwhelming wave to look at when you’re standing on the sand bar, letting it come at you. It’s an even MORE intimidating feeling when you’re on the surfboard, on top of the crest of the wave, looking DOWN at the sandbar below you! I took a couple of falls that really sucked the life out of me. At first, I was just falling from having my knees on the board, and not really standing. Near the end of the hour though, I was able to get a few short rides in with my feet planted, but still squatting down. Peter also had a bunch of bad crashes off the boogie board, one of them where he nose-planted the board into the sand and his ribcage was impaled on the other end. Complaining of the pain for a few days, pretty badly bruised ribs was the diagnosis in my expert medical opinion.

Now that it’s over, I think surfing is another sport that the guys on TV make look MUCH easier than it is. My time in the past doing some windsurfing and snowboarding didn’t make it quite as simple as I thought it would, but there was some signs of success I guess if I did it a few more times. (Which I will.)
So our next stop would be Panama, crossing the border on January 15th after a great week in Costa Rica.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Adv #7 Continued: Nicaragua on the way to Costa Rica

Finally, a “Welcome To” sign! I can’t believe this was the first one we’d seen like this, entering our 5th country since the U.S. Our sites were set on Granada, Nicaragua having heard and read good things about it from various sources.

Leaving Honduras at El Espino was a 5 minute process (nice improvement over entering the country) and I think we spent another hour and a half entering Nicaragua. The help of our two border expeditors was again worth a few bucks, and the immediate impressions of Nicaragua were much better than El Salvador and Honduras. The roads were better maintained, there’s less garbage along the road, and people just seemed a bit friendlier.

We hustled quite a bit to make it to Granada before dark, but as usual, its taking longer than we expect to get anywhere quickly around here. Eventually arriving on Calle La Calzada (the main tourist hot spot) in the dark, first impressions of this main tourist area were really good. While I was waiting in the street and Peter was checking out a few hotels, I was approached by “Jimmy,” an American who owns a hotel there. He offered a room at his place for a good rate, so we followed him on his Harley back to his hotel and set ourselves up for a two-night stay. A well-deserved shower was next and dinner at Mona Lisa on the sidewalk of La Calzada was actually outstanding as we watched all the tourists walking by.
First thing the next morning, (January 5th) I set out to see this city of Granada. Hmm. Sorry to say it, but it didn’t quite dazzle either of us as much as the first impressions that La Calzada made when we drove in the night before. Those 400 meters of sidewalk dining and upscale tourism on La Calzada are nice, and it’s clean and safe. There’s a couple of cathedrals at either end that give an old world feel to compliment the rest of the area. Unfortunately though, the rest of Granada that I saw seemed like every other city we’d seen thus far and definitely falling under the “dirty” category. On the east end of the town is Lake Nicaragua, and even that was pretty sad looking.Having been international for so long at this point, I was kind of excited to see so many other gringos running around Granada. But it’s almost too much, in that every decent restaurant or coffee shop almost had exclusively gringo customers, and it looked like I was back home at a Starbucks or something. Okay....I guess that's not so bad. I do miss my friends and people back home : )
The locals like Jimmy and a few others I met all concur that Nicaragua is continuing down a very rocky political path. I know a lot of folks have hoped it would be the next Costa Rica, making investments of their time and money in places like Granada, but it just seems that the corruption and greed continue to slide in the wrong direction to make this country stabilize and prosper. Much like I wrote about Honduras and El Salvador, I hate to make such quick judgments of these countries based on a couple of days spent there. Really though, nothing we saw was motivating us to spend more time in Nicaragua. Not like Mexico, where it seemed every person we came across was doing their best to make sure we are enjoying ourselves.

We spent two nights at Jimmy’s hotel, enjoyed his “world famous” Alabama ribs the 2nd night, and then charged for the Costa Rica border first thing on January 6th.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Adv #7 Continued: Honduras. Briefly.

And then there’s Honduras. (We entered Honduras January 3rd, but I’m posting this January 5th at our hotel in Granada, Nicaragua.)

Honduras, I wish I had more good things to say about you. We couldn’t even find a flag/sticker to add to our bikes!

Starting with the border crossing experience at 11am, my first question is: Why does this have to take so long? Okay, we take twice as long because one guy waits and watches the bikes, and the other guy does the paperwork from office to office. But it took us 4 and a half hours to get into your country with no lines of people ahead of us? And about $38 in total charges per person and motorcycle? I thought I was being scammed by a crooked border official, but we’ve read a couple of reports that say it should cost that much.

We utilized the services of a couple more border expeditors, and still had a really long and miserable experience getting into Honduras. “Wait here, show these papers. Now get 2 copies of this, 4 copies of that, and 5 copies of that. Now go back over here and get this signed. Then take those copies…….” On, and on, and on. It’s a joke. And then when you get the final checkpoint….oh… need to drive back and get one more copy of something they forgot!

Anyway, we made it through the border in the steaming heat, but had a pretty weak first impression of Honduras. Instead of even looking for other things to do in the country, or what to go and see, we looked for the fastest route through to Nicaragua, which put is in Choluteca, Honduras for one night. (Plus, we really felt like making up some time on this trip so we could spend more time in Costa Rica.) The roads in Honduras were littered with potholes and plenty of garbage, too. And about every other person we encountered really lacked the basic “friendliness” we’ve encountered every step of the way until this point. Some people (cashiers, clerks, etc.) were downright rude.

These two pictures will show what I mean about the garbage along the roads. First one is a zoomed-in picture of the nice countryside, in the middle of the ride to the Nicaragua border:

But when you zoom-out, you see the same picture with all that garbage at your feet. From what we saw, it seems garbage is everywhere in this country:

Aside from our adorable waitress at the Argentinian restaurant that night, and the guys who fixed my flat tire the next morning, Honduras didn’t show us much worth staying for. Tough to make that conclusion having seen only one piece of highway, one major city, and one small part of the country, but it really didn’t feel like something to stick around for. (Oh, we woke up to my flat tire the next morning. Flat caused by a “pinch,” which happens when you hit a pothole a bit too hard, and the tube pinches inside the tire and rim.)
I’m sure there are finer points in Honduras, but I’ll have to see them later. Off to Nicaragua.