Sunday, February 1, 2009

Adv #7 Continued...Panama, and all the way to the boat!

(The posting of the Panama Story is VERY late, as I’ve just spent 10 days on the Pacific aboard the Cap Blanche on the trip down here to Valparaiso, Chile! No internet access on the boat, so I’ve got a little catch-up to do since we got off the boat about 12 hours ago, but we're finally here in South America! First time south of the equator for me, and I am SO pleased to see that the toilets really do flush the opposite direction.)

Our last border crossing in Central America! Good thing we saved the scariest one for last.

We left Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica on January 16th headed for a unique situation at Sixaola, Panama. Aside from all the paperwork and usual hassle we had to go through at borders, the actual physical part of crossing at Sixaola was also considerable. The bridge you see in the pictures is the only way to get into Panama at that point and it rained briefly about 5 minutes before we started to cross the bridge. That brief rain shower was all that was needed to make the wood on this bridge as slick as wet ice.

Before heading out that morning, we had read that this bridge goes over one of the few rivers in the world where piranhas have been found. (As if the fear of heights combined with slippery wood wasn’t enough.) Our three options for crossing were left, center, and right because there was no way we could cross over the steel rails once we got started. Boards were missing everywhere, but after a careful inspection, it seemed like the right side was the best option.

One of those gaps between the boards actually saved me from dumping my bike a few seconds after I got onto the bridge. We knew we would have to be very, very gentle with the brakes if we used them at all. My first attempt at using the front brake ever so slightly made the front wheel slip out to the right from under me, but the wheel got caught in one of those gaps between two boards and saved me from dropping 600+ pounds of motorcycle and luggage onto the bridge.

After trying to ride the bikes with our feet touching the ground as we move along, we ended up dismounting and walking them one by one all the way across. Each bike took us about 20 minutes of slow and careful footwork to make it across the 200 meters, which meant a tough wait for the truck driver who could not pass until we were out of the way. Had we slipped and dropped one of our bikes, I still can’t figure how we would have picked them up on wood that slick. Not to mention avoid falling through one of the holes waiting there for us. Very slow, and very patient was the only way to play this game.

With our border-expeditor waiting for us on the other end, we eventually made it across the bridge and started what was about 4 hours of sweat and mundane paperwork. (I’ve written too much about paperwork, so let’s just say it was the usual, blah, blah....) They sprayed the bikes for bugs and we drove about 25 minutes to…… another bridge just like the first one! They told us there was no way around this one either, and this time there were traffic lights controlling the amount of time we had to spend crossing. Fortunately, this bridge was not wet, and therefore not as slippery. The gaps between the boards were just as bad or even worse sometimes though, and despite being very careful while riding slowly I came really close to crashing a couple of times trying to make it across.

We thought we’d make it to David, Panama that day, but our first real batch of rain-riding had us stopping too many times. Only made it to the tiny town of Chiriqui Grande on the northern shores of Panama that night and stayed at what was officially the worst hotel room to that point. (Even worse than the dump in El Salvador. This time Peter got half-way through his shower when the water cut off.)

But the ride the next day was absolutely stunning. In many ways, Panama proved to be even more beautiful than what we saw in Costa Rica. The jungle foliage, waterfalls, mountains, flowers and wildlife were just beautiful. We had to be careful cruising along too, as we crossed about 4 different spots where the road had been completely washed away from the incredible amount of rain they get there. Some of that rain persisted during our ride, not to mention the wind that was absolutely the most intense we’ve come across on the trip. No way of showing pictures of course, but at one point I was on a slight sweeping right hand country-road curve and an enormous gust of wind slammed against me from the right. This wind gust was so intense and so sudden it actually knocked my front wheel to the left on the pavement about 8 inches while I was riding. Fortunately only going about 30 miles an hour, I was able to do some quick hand work to recover and avoid “getting off” my bike the hard way. Quite a scare though.

At this point, we’d had confirmation that our best option for shipping the bikes to Chile was a boat leaving the Panama Canal on January 22nd, but all the paperwork involved meant we needed to be in Panama City on the 20th. (This proved to be exactly right. It was over 2 days of paper-chasing!) Working our way along the CA-1 toward Panama City, we stumbled across the nice little beach town of Santa Carla. “Hotel XS Memories” was our sleeping spot for two nights, and hotel certainly worth mentioning. Almost 2 months out of the U.S. at this point, I’d been missing a little bit of that good old American feeling. Run by Dennis and Sheila from Chicago, they have created a hotel/camping spot in Panama complete with a sports bar and playoff football to watch when I walked in the front door! Good food, good company, and a handful of Americans around, it felt good to be around some familiar voices once again.

Conversation was also quite lively with the handful of birds they had scattered around the property. One of them really had me cracked up each morning by saying “hola,” and “como esta?” over and over, louder and louder until I replied. You wanna see a bird make a funny facial expression? Use the video feature on your camera to record the bird talking, and then turn the camera around so the bird can hear and see itself on the camera screen just a few seconds later. His expression changed and his feathers looked like hair and eyebrows that stood straight up on his head when I showed him this. That was some funny stuff. (As if he was thinking “is that really what I sound like? No way….”)

So off to Panama City, we focused on two things: Getting all this shipping paperwork done, and meeting with the local BMW Riders! For the paperwork, it literally took over two full days of sitting around, waiting in line, bouncing from this building to that building all over the city. I spent so much time waiting outside one of the customs buildings that I actually “heard” my first shooting. Yep…I heard what sounded like fireworks, but thought that was strange at 2 in the afternoon on a Monday. Talking with an American that walked by 30 minutes later, he confirmed for me that the police had just gunned down some guy that was running around on the street with a gun. About 3 blocks from where I was standing. Parts of Panama City were okay I guess, but all the municipal buildings we had to hang around were in the nastiest of areas.

The highlight of Panama City was getting to know Axel, Alejandro, Stephen and a bunch of the guys from BMW Club. We had dinner out at Pomodoro the first night and at Hooter’s the second night, confirming that everywhere you go these BMW riders are great guys, like-minded to ourselves. Talks of adventure tours and riding plans help remind me that I’ll always have a group I can meet up with somewhere in the world. (Even though I’m not riding a BMW yet!)

The entire time we were in Panama, we were working back and forth on email for confirmation on the bike-shipping situation. We had pretty much gotten word that our bikes would get put on the January 22nd boat for an incredible deal. The question was, would Peter and I be given the rare opportunity ride along on the vessel to Chile?

To better explain, Peter’s uncle was once a Captain and highly respected business leader within the German shipping company Hamburg-Sud, especially as the company is involved in South America. We had both been contacting people we knew in the business, but the relationship Peter's Uncle had was looking like the best connection for us to move the bikes. It sounded like we'd get the motorcycles shipped for an incredible deal, but we were really hoping for the rare opportunity to ride along on the boat instead of having to fly.

Well, his Uncle's assistance was a huge part of the news we got on the afternoon of Monday January 20th. Yep, that’s when we received confirmation that Peter and I could ride along on the ship to Chile! (See my blog posting from January 21st.) That meant we needed to hustle up to Colon at the northern end of the Panama Canal the next day, meet with Alexei from Hamburg Sud, and dig through another day’s worth of paperwork, checking in, customs inspections, etc.

But wow, was this exciting! Peter had the chance to do this once about 10 years ago, and he’d been describing what it was like to me on the ship he took from Hamburg to Buenos Aires and back on two different 4-week trips back then. Without getting too excited about the good news, we both took the mindset that we’d relax and be happy with the situation once we were actually on board, with our bikes. (You never know what can go wrong when dealing with customs, inspections, immigration, etc. While we were 750+ kilometers into Panama, the customs people almost forced us to go all the way back to the Sixaola/Costa Rica/piranha bridge border crossing because some idiot there failed to type engine identification numbers onto our paperwork!)

So we zipped up to Colon first thing the next morning, and the picture above shows our hero in action after a quick washing of the bikes and the new tire finally put on the back of mine : )

What a great help Alexei from Hamburg Sud turned out to be, helping us get through another day’s worth of paperwork, running from customs, to inspection, to immigration, from this office to that office, and back to each one again. Once you get a copy of this paperwork for customs, then you need to get it stamped at a different office. And then you take it to another building and then another window to have someone make essentially a duplicate of the same form…….on and on, and on. It’s unreal how complicated they have made this process.

Anyway, late in the day on January 21st, we made it through all the final checkpoints and parked our bikes near a storage facility on the pier where the boat was to be loaded. After a one mile backpack-hike back to the Hamburg-Sud office, we caught a ride to Hotel Washington on the shores of Colon after driving through the enormous free trade zone in the city. We spent our last night in Central America with a mix of happiness and concern going through our minds, knowing that we could only relax once we were on the boat with our bikes.

The morning of loading onto the ship became a scramble again, too. Seeking more paperwork help from our sweetheart and friend Laconda from Hamburg Sud, we had to move quickly as news came out that the ship was leaving at noon. Finally having our passports stamped, we took the employee-shuttle out to the Cap Blanche where the crew was waiting for us asking “are you the two motorcycle guys?”

We had made it! The picture above shows a sense of relief from Peter and I because we were finally on the ship with our luggage. But two very important friends of ours remained on the pier, about a kilometer away wrapped up under plastic. We used the shuttle again and hustled down to fetch our motorcycles where security began telling us we needed to "wait for proper escorts before driving them back to the ship."

We waited. And we waited. We waited about 45 minutes for the stupid “escort” to show up, so we could properly make it back to the boat with raising hell in port security. They kept reassuring us “Si, Si, the escort is coming.” Figuring the Cap Blanche was set to sail at noon exactly and that we might have to wait another hour for this idiot to show up, at 11:15 we turned our backs on the security guys and we drove the bikes down the pier to the ship. With a dash of arrogance, I snapped some photos as we drove past all the security guys ignoring their gestures for us to pull over. Eventually at the boat, they caught up with us and immediately started the questioning. It just took a little smooth talking and explanation that our boat was about to leave to help them realize we were out of time, and had no other option.

Which leads us to the next pictures of the two motorcycles, swinging through the air by crane to board the Cap Blanche! Yes, it was a bit tense seeing such an important part of my adventure flying through the air and not knowing if the crane operator really knew what he was doing. First Peter’s bike, and then Yvgene, the 2nd officer in command on the ship helped me pick up my big orange buddy for the ride to Chile. At last…. We were on board with our bikes and only 24 minutes to spare, and just in time to catch our first lunch on board the ship.

My odometer read “28308” as I put my KTM on the boat, making a total of 5,668 miles since crossing the border from Arizona into Mexico 54 days earlier. That’s actually 16,246 miles since I bought it June 12th and started my trip across the U.S. on June 13th of 2008. Four oil changes, a few new tires, two air filters and a set of brake pads later……this bike has been one of the “cream puffs” my buddy Don always assured me was out there. What a great purchase. I could not be happier than I am with my KTM.

As I explained in my previous post, I think I’m going to hold off on finishing the ride through the southern parts of Chile and Patagonia to Ushuaia, Argentina. Since I might have to do that alone, I’d rather stop traveling for a while, learn enough Spanish to make myself a bit more independent, and then see the rest of South America in their springtime in late 2009. I just think I’ll enjoy myself more travelling when I can communicate better with folks I come across.

One of the toughest things I go through on this adventure is wishing so dearly that more of my friends and family could be here to experience it with me. I find myself thinking very often that I wish my Dad could see this, or how much fun it would be to have some of my buddies along for the adventure. Yea, I get to share it with Peter and it’s fun to chum around with people we meet along the way. But I really do miss my friends and family back home.

Hmm. I just remembered. Back in October, I was riding through Oregon near the beginning of “Adventure #7.” I had stopped into a motorcycle shop along the coastal highway just to do a little snooping around, and I got started talking the lady (who I think owned the place) and one of her regular customers. They were, as most folks are, curious about where I was from and what I was doing. We talked about some of the travel they had both done around the world themselves, and they encouraged me to move forward with the approximate international plans I had at that time. (At that point I was thinking maybe I’d fly to Thailand, Australia, or New Zealand and find some kind of work.) When parting, this lady handed me her business card and said how nice it would be if I sent her a post card someday from wherever in the world I ended up. Later that same day, I met Peter for the first time and started talking about riding to South America. Weird.

I’m sure I’ve still got her business card somewhere. I’ll have to dig it up soon.

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