October 27, 2010

The Long and Winding Road

We reached the end of our rope and the end of the road in Panama. First the rope: We found Central America to be a real chore with the constant border crossings, police and military stops, heat and humidity, and poor road conditions. In fairness, we didn't spend much time sightseeing as we had decided to spend the majority of our time and resources in South America. We can come back to Central America some time in the future but it won't be on bikes!
So we were glad to reach Panama where the road ends just south of Panama City and we are flying the bikes over the Darien Gap to Bogota, Columbia. The road from the boarder was excellent and we spent the first night in David eating at a great outdoor patio and watching a torrential rain storm. Panama City is quite 'Americanized' due to the canal and the previous military presence and even uses US currency. Ross was able to replace his stolen New Balance shoes and clothing so I have mine back! It took a full day to get the bikes to the shipper and complete the paper work then book flights for ourselves. We have taken a few days off to explore the city and visit the canal which Ross and I sailed through in 2007.
Some general notes:
Food has been great and no one is suffering from eating salads or drinking ice water. As Wayne says "Hooray for Dukoral!"
Spanish really is an asset to make life easier and interact with people. We are managing pretty well. Steve & RuthAnn lived in Guatemala and have French and Latin and I took Spanish lessons before we left. By using it constantly, we are increasing our vocabulary and improving our grammar. In Nicraragua, we had dinner with a Peruvian philospher and a Cuban lawyer, both Red Cross volunteers.
Gas is about the same price as home with the exception of Mexico where it was a little less.
Tomorrow morning, we're off to the next continent on our airline, Copa Air-really!

Adios CAm

We left the bikes with the shipper (Girag) yesterday and they should be in Bogota; we fly there tomorrow afternoon.  The prices have gone up for shipping and airfare: $901/bike (paid in cash!) and $395/person for the 90 minute flight.  We’ve had several days in Panama City to recharge after the quick run through Central America.  A few thoughts about that…………..

Did you ever wonder where old schools buses go?  They are alive and well in Central America.  One bus we saw in Guatemala was from the Albuquerque school district (they didn’t even bother to remove or paint over the name). Paint a few flames of the hood and sides, add a couple of chrome air horns on the roof and you are in business.  The flashing red and yellow lights still function and gave us all a start when we first saw the buses stop to pick up and drop off passengers.

Potholes are dangerous.  I think we all hit a few of the smaller ones, but there were many that would have ended our trip.  This is where the communicators that we use (Cardo Scala Rider G4) have come in very useful--we can warn each other where the potholes are in the lane and the best way to get around them.  We keep the mikes open so don’t have to use the vox to activate them as the time lag is just too great. 

The road from San Jose to San Isidro would be beautiful on a sunny day,  but we had rain and periods of dense fog as we climbed to nearly 11000’!  It wasn’t just up and over--we ran along at 2500 meters for many miles before slowly climbing to 3000 meters and then “leveling off” again.  RA and I had “big white truck” behind us most of the way; his jake brake and headlights in our mirrors kept us on our toes.

So off to another continent tomorrow, but not before taking a tour of the canal this afternoon. One of my favorite palindromes:  “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.”

For the BMW 650 thumper riders (Evie in particular) I am working on a post detailing what we did to our G650GSs for this trip--stay tuned.

October 23, 2010

Cops & Robbers

We had been warned about crooked cops and their attempts to shake down tourists. The most common scenario was stopping people, asking for their driver's licence and advising them they were being charged and couldn't get their licence back until they paid the fine. To prepare for this possibility, we had photocopied and laminated both our driver's licences and International Driver's Licences and put them in “throw away” wallets filled with plastic cards (Good Sam, Rewards programs, etc.) to be given over if held up. Our first experience came in Honduras when we were stopped by a small group in police uniforms. Steve was leading and they asked him if he had a fire extinguisher on the bike. When he replied in the negative, they pulled out a ticket book and were going to write us all tickets for 100 Limpera (approx. $5.00). None of our protests had any effect until I pulled out my OPP Auxiliary badge and pen and paper and asked to see his ID and speak to his chief. After some hesitation and a nod from their chief, they waved us through. After that, whenever we were stopped, and it happened three more times, I immediately introduced myself as a police officer from Canada and said we were on our way to a police convention in Panama City. This resulted in big smiles and handshakes all around and no more talk of papers or tickets.

Our next experience was in the most unlikely place, Costa Rica. We had heard such good things about this country and our first impressions were very positive. The country-side was cleaner and more prosperous, roads were in relatively good condition, and the people were friendly. All that changed when we arrived in San Isidro for the night. As we were taking things into the hotel, two young boys grabbed Ross' shoes and one of his cubes out of his bag and took off. Calls to the police were fruitless and we spent the next few hours trying to get somebody to do something. A local store worker saw them with the stuff and knew where they lived but said it was “peligros” (dangerous) to go there so we didn't. This presented a real problem because Ross wears a special running shoe that won't be available here. Plus he has lost all his socks and underwear. I can help with sharing socks but I don't think he's going to look good in pink!

The adventure continues.........

October 22, 2010

Borders, Borders, Borders

We are in David, Panama, and if you have been following SPOT, you know that in the past five days we have been in five countries and crossed four international borders.  Potholes in the road and border crossings have slowed our forward progress.  The crossings have taken anywhere from two to four hours and take a big chunk out of the twelve hours of daylight that we have for traveling. 

To enter each country we must import ourselves (immigracion) and our bikes (aduana); the reverse takes place when we depart.  The immigration (passport) usually takes less than 30 minutes while the bike paperwork takes much longer.  Jean and RuthAnn have been tasked with pursuing the paper chase while Ross and I look tough and guard the bikes.  With paperwork in hand (passport, International Driver’s License, bike registration/title, and any other papers issued on entry) the ladies bounce from one office to another getting the proper forms filled out, photocopied, stamped, fees paid, etc.  Eventually the VINs are checked, the bikes fumigated and we are on our way.  There are usually two check points within a few kilometers to check papers or pay a road tax and then we are free to roam until we reach the next border. 

At each border there are “helpers” who say they will expedite the process (for a fee), but we have only paid once (entering Honduras).  Getting four bikes and riders through each border tests our patience, but it eventually is accomplished and we can continue on our way.

The money changers also haunt the borders, and we have used them several times as the banks at the border often will not deal in the local currencies! 

At times it all seems like a bad dream full of petty bureaucrats not doing their jobs very well, but that is what it is and we must smile and be pleasant throughout the process.  The countries in South America are much larger than those here in Central America so the crossings will not be as frequent; 7/8 down, six countries to go before reaching Ushuaia.

October 18, 2010

People, Places and Parties

After leaving Vera Cruz, we headed south east through Mexico enjoying good roads and weather all the way to San Cristobal de las Casas where we stayed at the aptly-named Rossco Backpackers Hostel. Hostels are always fun because you meet fellow travellers in the common area where you can share stories and get tips and information. This one had a Korean, a Kiwi, a Brit and two Irish, all young people who entertained us with their travels and checked out the bikes. Price was right at about $30 for king bed, private bath, balcony, internet, secure courtyard and breakfast!

Crossing out of Mexico and into Guatemala was uneventful and was a home-coming for Steve and Ruth Ann who had lived there in 1977. Here we had our first, and hopefully last, flat. It happened about an hour out and Ross was able to pull off into a small pueblo to do the work. No sooner did he have the tools out then along came all the kids to check out the gringos. So while Ross and Steve worked and Ruth Ann helped, I pulled out Mr. Happy to entertain and keep them out of the way. It was a great opportunity to practice my Spanish, which they thoroughly enjoyed correcting, and to teach them a few words of English. I'm still trying to figure out what conjugation of the verb 'to know' sent them into hysterical laughter and stifled giggles.

Guatemala certainly is full of spectacular scenery with the many volcanoes and beautiful lakes but the roads were horrific due to the recent heavy rains. At one point, the road was washed out and we had to do a river crossing-hopefully the last. The guys were perfect gentlemen and rode our bikes across while we provided moral support.

El Salvador was our next border and again we were able to cross unassisted although we did meet a young man on his way home to Costa Rica who helped expedite the process. And here is where we took some time out of the saddle. First we were invited to visit a former student of Ruth Ann's, Emily Boland, who is a Peace Corps worker here and then the Country Head, Jamie Kuklinski, invited us to his home in San Salvador. Jamie is a fascinating person who has worked all over the world and, as Country Head of El Salvador has 147 Peace Corps workers spread throughout the country. We spent a wonderful evening hearing about the Corps and visiting with Richard and Rosemary, friends of his from Wisconsin!

The next day, we headed north to Emily's pueblo, Neuvo Esparta, in the north east. Our arrival in this small town created quite a stir and we were invited to the Mayor's home for dinner followed by he and his wife serenading us with local music. Everyone loves Emily! Everywhere we go, people stop to chat and kids run up to give her a hug. She's been here two years and has been instrumental in helping the residents incorporate constituencies that will allow them to apply for municipal development incentives and has organized 'food festivals' to draw tourists and raise funds. This morning we had breakfast in the town square comprised of papusas, a tortia filled with beans, cheese and pork, a local speciality. We've been invited to a birthday party this afternoon so Ross is going to have to force himself to drink some local cerveza, just to be polite you understand!

October 14, 2010

Mexico to Guatemala

We had a good ride on a couple of toll roads from Minatitlan to San Cristobal de las Casas with a hot slog through Tuxtla Gutierrez before climbing into the mountains and cooler temps.  The scenery began to change with tall, tree covered mountains making themselves evident.

San Cristobal brought us some luck!  We pulled into a parking lot to talk about finding a hotel when a man on a scooter pulled up.  He was an American who has lived in Guatemala/Mexico for over 20 years and after a little small talk we asked him about a hotel.  He suggested the Backpacker Hostel and offered to lead us there.  It was a good stay with private rooms for each couple and a fire pit and conversations with the younger crowd when we returned from dinner.  We were able to park the bikes in the large garden area of the courtyard along side the resident cats and dogs.

The run to the border on Columbus Day (10-12) was not without incident.  When we entered Comitan, Mexico, we were greeted with a beautiful wide boulevard with a median full of trees, flowers and sculptures.  But something was wrong--no moving traffic on the street and literally hundreds of taxis, buses, and trucks blocking all major intersections and side streets.  We putted along slowly and were able to work our way through the blockages.  No one seemed upset with us, so we just kept going.  Turned out to be a protest against gasoline prices.  At the border we learned that the same thing was happening in some cities in Guatemala and the man we talked to seemed a little surprised that we had been able to get through.

We were a little concerned about crossing the Mexican/Guatemala border on a national holiday, but it actually worked in our favor as we did not have to wait in line at either border post.  We had to check ourselves and bikes out of Mexico, then into Guatemala.  The whole process took about two hours and we were able to do it all by ourselves without hiring anyone to help us.  Two/three down--eleven borders to go!

We spent our first night in Guatemala in Huehuetenango.  The 50 odd miles took us through some beautiful mountain scenery and innumerable land side areas with partially blocked roads with shallow water running across the road at places.  Guatemala experienced very heavy rain fall late in the summer and many were killed by mudslides; some roads were blocked for weeks.

About twenty miles out of Huehue, Ross had a flat tire.  He put some air in it and was able to get a few hundred yards up the road and into a small village where we replaced the tube; we were on our way in about 90 minutes. 

Last night was spent in Panajachel on the shore of beautiful Lago de Atitlan, a beautiful mountain lake guarded by three volcanoes.  Our dinner at a restaurant overlooking the lake was most pleasant and sent us to bed ready for the short ride to Escuintla.

We got totally lost coming out of Panajachel this morning, but saw some beautiful scenery on narrow mountain roads.  We did have a water crossing before finding our way back to a major road and on to Escuintla where we’ve had a chance to catch up on a few things and swim in the hotel pool--temps in the 90s with humidity to match made the pool very inviting.

Tomorrow will bring on  borders #3/4: Guatemala/El Salvador.  We will be visiting one of RuthAnn’s former students who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador while we are in that small Central American country.

October 11, 2010

Mexico Day 3: Topes, Detours, and Hurrricane Karl

Today (10-10-10) was supposed to be an easy 190 mile run, mostly on toll roads, from Veracruz to Minatitlan.  We easily made our way out of Veracruz, but soon discovered that the toll road we wanted to use was closed due to the destructive forces of hurricane Karl which hit the state of Veracruz hard in mid-September.

We soon found ourselves on a two lane road that ran south of and roughly parallel to the toll road.  Even though we did not have to pay a monetary toll, this road soon took its toll in time and energy spent fighting the heavy truck traffic, bouncing over topes (Mexican speed bumps), and learning to pass long lines of truck traffic.  The Mexicans are very good at making a two lane road serve as a three lane road and sometimes even a four lane highway.  This is easily done when slower traffic moves to the edge of the road surface and the faster traffic uses the middle of the road to pass.  This really works well with bikes and allows us to get past the many heavy trucks on the highway,

The evidence of Hurricane Karl was quite obvious today.  Lots of water still standing in fields, river banks sporting high water, the smell of rotting vegetation in the air, and two bridges either damaged or destroyed.  The bridge situation turned into quite an incredible journey.  At our last rest stop (having covered a whopping 55 miles in two hours!) we noticed the traffic starting to back up on the road.  As we joined the line we realized that this was a major and serious problem for us if we wanted to make Minatitlan today. 

The oncoming lane was void of traffic so we pulled out and slowly proceeded along the line of stopped or slowly moving trucks.  Six miles later we came to the reason for the backup:  a bridge was damaged and a temporary  crossing was being alternately used the by the motorists and truckers.  Another bridge and about six miles later we were out of the mess and on our way again.  By our rough estimation there were over 1000 trucks and vehicles in this traffic nightmare and if we hadn’t used the bikes the way we did we would still be out there in line. 

  A long, hard, dusty, hot day in heavy traffic--we deserved a break, right?  Once into our hotel and cleaned up we could not find a restaurant open for dinner within walking distance.  A little hole in the wall taco place (tripe seemed be popular, but we opted for pork) took the edge off--breakfast will taste good in the morning!

October 10, 2010

Buenas Dias Mexico

To everyone's relief, we crossed into Mexico without incident-almost. We were feeling pretty confident about finding Customs (it is not right at the border as in the US and Canada) and getting processed because we had done it several times before on our way to the Mexican National Rally. So imagine our surprise when we found it but the gates were locked and on closer examination, the entire parking lot was under water! This was the first evidence we saw of the recent storms that have flooded the countryside.

So it was off to find another Customs office and we didn't have to go far to find it ten miles east in Phar. The processing went relatively quickly and we were soon on our way south with both bikes and people documented for travel.

Not long after, we came upon our first military checkpoint and found with a woman leading and a cheery “Hola!”, inspections were cursory and quick. At least two were. At the third checkpoint, they lined all the bikes up nose to tail and a soldier held what looked like a 'witching stick' and walked down the line. He did this several times and each time the stick turned and pointed at Ross. The officer who stopped us explained they were searching for ammunition or drugs and I assured him we had neither. Just as I said that, they pulled out Ross' bulging medicine bag so I tried to explain that we had malaria medicine for six months and that Ross was an old, sick man and had other medicines for various aliments in sundry parts of the body which I didn't have Spanish words for so I pointed them out. By this time, they were convinced we were harmless hypochondriacs and waved us on.

We spent the first night in Manuel, at a wonderful hotel recommended by Ken O'Malley and Wayne Dougherty and the second day rode through the countryside in beautiful sunshine to Vera Cruz where we spent Saturday night dinning on the old town square, drinking cervecas and listening to Latino music. This travel business is hard work

October 6, 2010

On the move,,,,,finally!

Now that we are all on he road and not so busy planning and packing, the blog is alive again.  SPOT has plotted our course from Wisconsin to Texas and tomorrow all four of us will meet up  in McAllen to start this new adventure.

RuthAnn and I have had four sunny, but cool, days of travel and arrived in San Antonio this afternoon.  We will have new tires mounted at the local BMW dealer in the morning, then head south. 

The planning and preparation for this trip has far exceeded any other motorcycle journey that we have taken to date.  Hopefully we have covered all of the bases and not forgotten too many things. 

The “cube system” mentioned by Jean in the previous post has served us well for several years now.  The cubes we use are made by Eagle Creek and come in several shapes and sizes and many different colors; two our favorite sources for them are REI and ebags.com.

Packing 101

Ross has told you all about the mechanical considerations for this trip and so I'm going to tell you about the really important stuff-clothes!

This has been an enormous packing challenge as we are dealing with huge temperature extremes from the heat of Central America to the cold of Antarctica. Space is limited because we don't want to have anything that doesn't fit in our locked, aluminium panniers.

We have allocated one pannier each for clothes, shoes, toiletries and other personal things. The pannier bag measures 20" x 12" x 6". Steve and Ruth Ann have taught us their packing system which is based on 'cubes' for each type of clothing such as pants, shirts and underwear and socks. Realistically, three pieces of each type of clothing is sufficient if they are made of fabrics that wash and dry overnight. So we have taken our three pairs of convertible pants (zip off legs) and rolled them tightly and packed them in a cube. A shirt cube contains microfibre t-shirts and first layer long sleeve shirts and the sock cube has socks, underwear and long johns. Toiletries are also in special cubes that can also accommodate medicines, jewellery, sewing kit, etc. The beauty of the cubes is that the clothes don't shift and stay reasonably uncreased. Some cubes are double sided so we have used one to put in a dress shirt for Ross and an outfit for Jean to be worn as the occasions arise such as the New Year's Eve party on the ship to Antarctica or should we be invited to some presidential palace.

The bag also contains a clothes line and bar soap so we can wash out our clothes by hand and be ready to go in the morning. A woman's work is never done! In our other pannier, we have fleece sweaters for the colder climes or to be worn as a first layer when the mornings are cool or the altitude is high. Riding gloves will also double as mittens later on and we have balaclavas and 'cool snakes' (neck ties you wet to stay cool) to deal with changes in temperature.

So we think we've got things covered. With such few things to choose from, it won't take long to decide what to wear!

October 5, 2010

In the beginning....

In the beginning, there were two Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycles-one new (Ross'), one used (Jean's). To prepare them for our journey south we added or adjusted the following:
Progressive Suspension fork springs
Fork braces
Swmotech crash bars
Bash plates (engine guards)
Avon Gripsters tires
Taller windsheilds
Heated grips
Zumo 550 GPS units
Peel and stick headlight protectors
Lowering kit or shorter rear shock
Raised front forks in the triple clamps to lower the front end
Shortened side stand
Bill Mayer seat or another seat
Chain oiler (a Norm Myers custom special) The chain oiler will use whatever oil we are carrying. ( Engine oil ) This eliminates having to carry a can of chainlube.
Jesse bags. Pricey, but seem to be the best COMPROMISE between width and size. Most capacity for the width
Do hickey replacement (primary chain tensioner )
Added a tool tube across the front of the engine made from 4" plumbing pipe.
ABS jackleg to get the rear wheel off the ground.( no center stand )Scala Rider bike to bike communicators
Scala Rider Bluetooth bike-to-bike communicators were installed on our helmets.
Runway Power Sports, Trenton performed some last minute recall work.

In addition, we are carrying the following:
Spare tubes, spare chains,master links,sprockets, levers cables bulbs brake pads patch kits, tire irons, etc. The tubes are the biggest space user. Each bike will carry 2 tubes, 1 front, 1 rear.
Tools, tape.wire, fuses, etc
Electronics, charger for this, charger for that, etc
Lap top computer
Air compressor
Also the ever present spare quart of oil as these bikes use some. Not like the Beemers which don't seem to.

We have managed to get all this into the two Jesse Bags as we did not want to have anything on the bike that was not locked on.
We are going with heavy duty locking bicycle cables to secure helmets and jackets at rest stops.

I have had to re-learn how to do tires since these bikes have tube type tires and we are dealing with the issue of oiling chains.
Jean has opted for a Bill Meyer custom seat as the stock seats are painfull after about 100Km. I on the other hand, I have reached back into my vast store of used BMW junk to find an old, modified Ironbutt seat and have piggybacked it onto the stock seat pan. Not pretty but it works and is about $400 cheaper.
We have done tires all round and oil and filter with the help of Ken at the O'Malley's home in Louisiana. That should take us well down into South America before we need to look at them again. The chain oilers are undergoing a revamp as we progress.