Saturday, November 10, 2012

Panama to Columbia, Caribbean, San Blas Islands

Batty has made it to South America. There is about 35,000 miles on the clock and so far she has enjoyed a pretty much trouble-free couple of months, with the new engine and no attempts to use  veg oil. I am touching wood as I say this, knowing only too well the risk of such statements..

Panama is a fascinating country, spotlighted on the world map by its canal, which is a man-made wonder and amazing to have seen and get the chance to understand its mechanism as it connects the world's trade.

What's more, Panama City is a world class capital, and what with huge ongoing infrastructures, it is  set for greater prominence. I met up with a couple of fellow members of the Entrepreneurs Organisation, Javier and Billy, who kindly spent time explaining what was going on, both politically and commercially. Like everywhere else in the world there are things to celebrate and things to despair. The economic growth is nearly double digits, yet the corruption and some political unrest makes it a pretty edgy environment to do business in.
The 100 year old locks in action. They are building new locks that will enable larger ships to go through...more remarkable engineering.
A Ship takes 30 minutes to go through the lock, and there are 6 sets of locks along the 50 miles it takes to join the Atlantic to the Pacific. This takes about 8 hours to travel.
Panama City from Billy's office
Speaking of environment, everywhere that I have been in the world I have seen the non-stop impact of man on his environment. His consumption far outweighs what the environment he has been given can support. The more I see, the more I fear for the survival of mankind, as he would wish, in the coming generations. My witness of what little I have had the privilege of seeing of the world,  has led to an effort to simplify what we are, in the most part, unwittingly allowing to happen:

Worldwide 2 Olympic swimming pool amounts of oil are being burnt every second, and 3 1/2 football pitches of rainforests are being chopped down every hour, of every day. Say nothing of over fishing our oceans.

The consequences of lost habitats to thousands of species  (and hence their extinction very often, something to be very proud of...), let alone the blatant climatic change that every community I have visited comments upon, is profoundly beginning to affect the human species, but particularly those near where deforestation has been most far. The world's population has doubled in my lifetime and will no doubt triple in what remains of it. 

Politicians are reacting to this just enough to very slowly start a re-balance, however unless the clarity and responsibility for all new and old policies are held up against an absolute date in the near future where man must live in harmony with the environment, we will all be in a lot of trouble. I don't state this as a caricaturist might see me, i.e. tree hugging, left wing revolutionary, but as a pretty dedicated capitalist on the right of centre. There doesn't seem to be a political home for me suddenly, and it is a bit disconcerting. I'm hoping the likes of Zac Goldsmith will begin to help carry  a louder message of what we must do in order to survive and thrive. His book and ideology Constant Economy certainly offers many answers.
 This huge site of mainly plastic garbage fills tens of acres of rainforest in Panama. The difference between a developing country and a so-called developed country is that we can afford to hide our rubbish. These sorts of scenes are depressingly common in Central America.
There are solutions, which can balance man's needs and aspirations along with environmental survival, but it will take more than recycling and hybrid cars etc. We need to demand and require our leaders to steer us along a road that will make us the generation of change and of healing the environment, rather than the generation that did not do enough in time for our descendants.  

 This is a nearly dead coral reef that I saw when diving off the Boca Isle.  My guide pictured here has been doing so for  the last 10 years and has seen a rapid decline. He said it was the water temperature rising and pollution from nearby harbours. It took quite lot of effort to extract this information, as it is  obvious he will soon be out of a job if diving there holds no appeal.  I for one would not go again, nor recommend it unless one is researching the death of an environment. 
 My apologies for the rant, but if a blog is not an opportunity to at least express an opinion or reveal actualities then I don't know where is.

 Panama is a bottleneck for those over-landing to South America, and for me it was the almost strange phenomena of being in the company of over a dozen fellow motorcyclists crossing continents. There are a few vessels that will transport one's motorcycle and oneself  between Panama and Columbia. The reason is quite extraordinary in many senses, as there remain only 100 km of jungle between the 2 countries, connecting North and South America. Known as the Darien Gap, this swampy and environmentally precious slice of land, is the home of many bandits. The number of those who have been able to cross it by land are less than the number who attempt it. I.e. they end up as statistics, lost or kidnapped. Apparently there has never been very strong political conviction to build a road on economic or on drug trafficking grounds.

 The hostel that we were staying in Panama city was also my meeting place with an English couple who I have been following via their blog (fantastically written, with stunning photography) for nearly a year, as they were heading north from Argentina. Chloe and Chris, recently married and on a fantastic bid to see the Americas, took their bike licences, bought bikes and put themselves on a cargo ship to Buenos Aires. It was this ship that caught my attention as a great way to return to Europe, and in fact I am in correspondence with the agent now about arranging it. Unfortunately the 1st port that it appears I can disembark is Le Havre in France, so plans to get off at Dakar seem to be unlikely now. Time will tell.

Their delightful company, along with all the other rich cross-section of fellow bikers has given me a rare opportunity to spend time with like-minded folk, exchanging plans, experiences and stories.

With Chloe and Chris, just as we were about to head off to board the Strahlratte, they were heading north, and I look forward to seeing them back in Britain
On the 2 hour trip to the boat, Batty was challenged by 2 particularly vicious hills. Thankfully my 2 guardians, George and Mathieu, help me push the old girl to the brow. This prompted some amusement amongst the German and Japanese riding audience. The explanation that my adventure was different to the one they all shared, I think was understood, but perhaps not envied.

On the road from Panama City to Carti, where we took the boat. Courtesy of Mathieu
 Roy, Christian and Marjolein on the dockside waiting for loading.
 Batty hoisted on board
 The 1st night was not actually on board, but on an island of the Kuna people. Alfred, George and I, the old men of the trip, were billeted in a straw hut that was evacuated by its family for us tourists. It rained so hard that the mud floor became awash with about 4 inches of rain water.  Luckily not through the roof, just the door.
 Alfred and Georg  the next morning waiting for the boat to collect us, after a rather poor nights sleep....all accusing the others of deafening snores.

This Island of 300 people...originally an escape from the main land from mosquitoes, is one of several islands half a mile or so off the northern coast of Panama. They all wore local dress, but hated being photographed, so only this main street on the island to show.
The Kuna Island we stayed on...luckily very little tide here.
How to pack bikes on board the Strahlratte
Carmen, Arun and Serafina in some sort of role play
Dolphins guiding us.
From a San Blas island where we stayed 2 nights and partied hard on the first, and collapsed on the second before weighing anchor at 6am the next day for a 26 hour crossing to Cartegena, Columbia.
Captain Ludwig making the party swing after the BBQ. As there was only one single girl, and 10 single guys, swing may not be the right word, but a boozy song and a laugh was had.
In a pristine haven. Taken from the crowsnest by Mathieu

We snorkeled all day on very alive corals

Cartegena came into view...not a vista I had associated with Columbia...a very developed modern city with an old town largely preserved over the last 4 centuries.
The Castle protecting the port and all the gold the Spanish horded before shipping to Spain. Francis Drake had a crack at it and made off with many millions...
It seems to rain for an hour or 2 most afternoons very heavily in these parts
2 sensible Swiss Gentlemen, Michal and Georg, and an Englishman luckily found shelter just in time.

One of the Plazas in the old town...cleared by a down pour.

An old town street

Batty coming ashore, with Floyd of the crew on board.
We arrived in Port on the Sunday, and due to a holiday on the Monday, we did not get away till the Wednesday. This is a picture of a rather fed up group of bikers being forced to wait all day at customs on the Tuesday to get the bikes stamped into the country and then insured.
 We all started going our own ways the next day, and it was a sad time. That said we are all independent travelers, forced together by circumstance. Many up sides, however trying to get consensus on a eating, a sight seeing plan or meeting up for a beer is rather like a headless dinosaur fishtailing away with only eventual agreement.

I did have the pleasure of Georg's company unexpectedly the next evening as I headed the 450 miles south to Medellin. I had stopped to take my rain gear off in the mid afternoon, when I heard a hoot and rumble as his BMW1200GS drew up. He headed on to Bogota the next morning. It seems we are all destined to cross each others' paths from now on.

There are loads of Police on the roads and in the town, and it is not just for tourists. There are reports of drug related violence etc, but it seems pretty peaceful and no feeling of threat. I have been pulled over a couple of times so far, but the interest has been in the marvel that Batty is rather than my papers, that got scant inspection. Often the question is if the engine is having a problem...but an explanation that her individual sound is down to her diesel engine only heightens the interest.

The Spanish here has a strong dialect so it is like starting again with the language. It was a struggle before, but now aaargh, back to sign language. I am working my way through another audio learning course, kindly lent to me by Jesper, which will help what I say...not necessarily what I understand.
Batty need a shower, and this fellow made a great job of getting all the salt and grime off her. The salt water and air, have exploded a few rust spots, so that will need a few dabs of rust eater.
The road gave way from the flat and torrid heat of the coast to the mountains as we approached Medellin, lovely scenes, only interrupted by a huge number of lorries, being driven by race fans that had all one's attention.
Tonight I meet up with some of the other shipmates. I will put links to sites of those that have them on this site's link pages. There is a some great commentary going on, including a professional video edition of the foods that Arun and Serafina are enjoying as they's their honeymoon.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama

I'm coming to the end of my time in Central America. I had rather carelessly thought of it as a bridge to South America, which in hindsight was a silly notion. I suppose being brought up in a time when all these countries were lumped together under the banner of Banana Republics, Contras and other various Dictator led terror, I had little understanding of just how gorgeous, friendly and interesting these lands of Mayan Temples and volcanoes have turned out to be. It did not start to well being ripped off at the Guatemalan border, but since then I have really enjoyed it and alas missed out on a huge amount of it from lack of time.

Semuc Champey
I had been promised great delights at Semuc Champey, and although I was there on a cloudy day,  the lime stone pools formed at the base of steep ravines were delightful to see. The authorities had laid on some good local trails, one of which had to had you climbing up  an incredibly steep route  to the viewing platform hundreds of yards above the gently cascading water

  The original plan had been to head further north to Tikal, the most renowned Mayan  remains in Guatemala, but time paranoia and a wrong turning ended up taking me to the Honduras border to the equally well-known and regarded remains of Copan Ruinas.
 The roads were stunning and what you see here was typical of day-long rides
 Copan Ruinas  had one marveling at the ingenuity of historic civilisations. In fact it was built towards the end of the Mayan empire (About 1200 years ago), in a desperate attempt to appease the gods who they believed were punishing them for 10 years of drought. Alas it did not work and the civilisation crumbled with the failing harvests. It is now understood that over the hundreds of years that the Mayans thrived, the whole area, from southern Mexico to Honduras had been heavily deforested for building and crop growing. A poignant example of how deforestation stops the rain from falling, and the consequences there of.

Copan Ruinas
Copan Ruinas
 The next day was a mighty long 12 hour drive, 320 miles, and I almost crossed Honduras in it. A beautiful country, not rich by the look of things but very scenic and worthy of more than my one day. That said I did see 2 accidents soon after they happened. The first was up in central hills where a man lay beside the road, covered in blood with police and medics around him. I did not see his face as I was waved past, but feared the worst for the poor chap. The next one had 2 cars very smashed up with a lot of teary people about the place. The ambulances had just overtaken me. I have dreaded having to use my first aid kit and let alone my very slight first aid knowledge, but these were the closest I have come so far.

It is not really surprising as there is a tendency to overtake on the brow of a hill and on corners.  More than once being a slim bike has been a blessing.

On to Nicaragua and...
This is a surreptitious photograph of the policeman who hauled me over for a perfectly normal road manoeuvre. I did feel somewhat victimised  because every other vehicle was all over the shop. The ensuing conversation had me denying any Spanish, which is almost true, his insistence that I surrender my license, and his final acceptance of $20…. cash.

 I spent a couple of nights in Leon, which I had been excited about, it was written up as a university town and heaped in history. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, but I'm afraid I found it a rather drab place apart from a very good art museum and a massive cathedral, the largest in Central America.
 There was a carnival of sorts going on, and what I initially thought was some insurrection, turned out to be these fellows and launching dozens and dozens of these rockets.
 This man is a former guerrilla  from the days of the Contra. He showed me round the  Museum all about the revolution and did so in a very local dialect. Funnily enough I ended up understanding more as we went along, and here he is pictured on the roof with the cathedral in the background. I am sure he said his mental scars would never heal.

A town I thought just fantastic was Granada. It was beautifully kept, and strictly denied any modern buildings, and just a few more than one storey high. In fact it reminded me of Lang Prabang in Laos, which had been a favourite town on this now has an equal. We had a 1/4ly work meeting there so I upgraded to a starred hotel which made for almost forgotten comforts...air con, room service, breakfast included...the joy.

When I was about 5 miles out, on my way into Granada, I was overtaken by Mark on his Suzuki. We pulled over and chatted...then went for a beer. He semi lives there and was a good friend to me over the next 4 days. 
A view form the Hotel room in Granada

One of the casualties of the bumpier roads was my loss of the kick start pedal...vital when the battery is flat. With Mark's contacts he found a small engineering firm who made a perfect replacement. $30 all told, probably 1/2 the cost of getting one sent out from the UK
One perfectly working kickstart
Batty did another great 2 day marathon across Costa Rica which was almost like a poorer US state, but with much of the trappings. Beautiful all the same, and frustrating to have missed it.

Now In Panama, on the Isle of Boca...doing very little for a day or 2...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Trying Spanish...Volcanos, and lovely locals

San Pedro La Laguna was just about perfect as far as I was  concerned for the very necessary 2 weeks Spanish lessons. I still mangle the language horribly with very little vocabulary and grammar, but can manage a few simple sentences about topics I choose. Vincenta was very tolerant and kept the enjoyable lessons going at a gentle pace. Hopefully more of the language will soak in over the coming months.
A morning's ride by the lake
This shows the stove, and one of the enormous creamy delicious avocados that grow on the tree outside.
A typical hearty lunch. The soup was made of a local leaf, but it just did not translate...until tasted, then it was delicious.
The view from my room across the San Pedro La Laguna
Lessons were one on one in small garden like sheds, right by the lake. Rather heavenly and probably difficult to beat for location let alone value. $120 for 5 days of lessons (4hrs per day) and 7 days full board accommodation with a local family. Probably a month or 2 is what it would take me to have a conversational chance, but there were a few who I met who went from zero to every day newspaper reading and talking  level in just 3-4weeks. Young, fast and absorbent minds, mixed with hard work and necessity for dream jobs seem to be important ingredients. Casa Rosario was my school and seemed to be one of the best there along with a couple of others.
Christian, a fellow student, who I enjoyed a few beers with along with others, who alas I did not snap.
Living with Gloria and Felix was comfortable and enjoyable. The dinner table conversation was a bit of a struggle, but not the delicious and varied fayre Gloria produced. Hardly anything from a packet, nothing frozen and all bought in the market daily or produce from their family farm/patch of land on the lake banks. 
Much of the Guatemalan community life has the gentle backdrop sound of the ladies making tacos in the morning. It is a the 'pat pat pat' of the 4 inch circular unleavened staples being flipped from hand to hand. They are cooked on wood-burning stoves and the job is only done when 10-20 tacos are made per family member. At least an hours work every day. I think that 'pat pat pat' will stay with me for ever as a delightful harmonic sound of continuity and custom in a heavenly place.

My homework had competition from some office issues on various fronts that took quite a lot of time. If truth be told any excuse not to learn irregular future tense verbs was a blessing and my engagement in work issues has always pleased and fascinated my mind more than most other subjects.

A walk up 'Indian Nose' on Sunday with Samual, who had garaged Batty for the 2 weeks. In fact we got a bus up most of it, at his insistence, but the view was breathtaking
Can you see the Indian nose above the town...he is lying down facing the sky
The parcel arrived with the new gearing for Batty and in fact the new sprocket was 16 tooth, 1 less than what I wanted, but as it happened still not enough to get Batty up the super steep hill sides, without running beside her and in the end getting the help of a couple of local policemen, who pushed us up over the brow. I am not sure of their motive. Probably good old fashioned friendly service, but there was talk of bandits robbing tourists in the area, so probably this service had a touch of extra potency.

I planned to exit Guatemala fast via the historic and beautiful single storey town of Antiqua and then on to Honduras, mindful of a booking on the good ship Stahlratte from Panama to Columbia at the end of October.

A great day out from Antigua was the climbing of Volcano Pacaya, with a group of other travelers.
This is Volcano Fuego puffing a can just make out. This is the Volcano that erupted a few weeks back that made the news.
A surreal landscape near the summit
A Lava cave left from the last eruption a couple of years ago.
The obligatory marsh mallow roasting over the small vents to the magma below
We were all set up for these action shots running down the lava dust/ was like a mixture of skiing and walking on the moon....I imagine
Meike, along with Jasmyn below, were fellow Volcanoers, and we hooked up for a drink later in the evening, where Batty was working her charm.

I kept meeting others and overhearing conversations about a couple of delights that to miss would be a crime. So plans changed and decided to spend a few more days here.
As great fortune would have it, the post that I had put on about being ripped off at the border was picked up by Richard Chang who lives in Guatemala City and loves bike adventures and meeting new folk. He made the trip to see me in Antigua and we had a great day chatting about his fine country, bikes and travel.
My tyres were getting a bit worn low, and with Richard's 100% help,  Batty and I went into the city to sort this out. Now with new Pirelli tyres, Batty has unknown confidence on the very abundant and exciting roads of Guatemala.
The hand of friendship did not end at Richard's, for he arranged a number of his pals to show me around the city on the Saturday, and I think Rodrigo, Javier and Dagoberto have to be up there with the best of them at showing off Guatemala City. All the sights, and a delicious breakfast of revoleto, a pig offal stew at the central market.
Rodrigo and Javier in front of the Eiffel tower...a gift from France.

In  perverse way, these slums cascading down the valley in central Guatemala city, caught my imagination more than some of the cities other sites. They were so alive and the hopeful made really quite good houses out of very little.
Our Railway Museum guide, Javier and Dagoberto
Richard and his wife Suzanne, invited me to join them on a ride on Sunday. There is a meeting place on the outskirts of the city that many bikers gather. The community is a alive with variety of background and size of machines, but jelled by the love of bikes and the comradeship that they evoke.  My gratitude to Richard and Susan for their kindness and very good company is profound and I look forward to future crossing of roads.
Suzanne and Richard
From the road they took me along on the way north from Guatemala City
As it happened the ride took me well on the way to Lanquin, the first of my quests and from where I write, before exploring Semuc Champey, the 'most beautiful place in Guatemala, if not the world' I had heard said.....until next time