Thursday, November 29, 2012

Columbia, Ecuador and Galapagos bound.

 The three weeks in Columbia was a bit of a mix. In hindsight I think I should have spent a bit of time in Bogotá and a few places north of it to have got a fuller flavour. At the moment it is the rainy season and that coupled with some quite high altitudes it has made for some rather damp and cool days. By and large the rains come in the afternoon, but this has not always been the case .

I left you last in the town of Medellin, which is a principal city. There were quite a few of my fellow  voyagers from the trip from Panama there at the same time, and we hooked up for a evening of pizza and copious amounts of rum. I had made the mistake of choosing a central hotel, which although close to some of the attractions,  was also home to the wretched and destitute. It meant not only empty streets at night, apart from the prostitutes, winos and addicts, there were very few eating options. Some friendly security guards offering to walk beside me whilst I went to get a bite to eat (chicken is 90% of the menus) on one evening. The other bikers were in a much more fashionable part of town, and I regret not moving there.

 I rather liked the story behind these pictures. Botero's Mother always wanted to go to France and visit Versailles, unfortunately she grew too old to travel and so her son painted Louis and Marie Antoinette visiting Medellin for her.

 I became a fan of Colombia's most famous artist, Botero. He is still alive and well into his 80s,  being a son of Medellín there is much of his work on display both in a gallery dedicated to him (which he gifted over 200 of his originals to) and also in a large piazza, where there must be at least 20 of his bronzes on display.

The next port of call was the town of Salento in the coffee growing territory. A rather lovely simple town, which is catching on to the tourist thingy. Good for local businesses etc, although  the inevitable sameness of that path is beginning to show through, in terms of  things been written in English, menus offering a global  choice and increasing numbers of handicraft shops.

 Each morning we had coffee that has been grown, processed and then brewed within half a mile of the hostel, and this is one of the guys showing us how the process works. A fascinating exposure on the coffee journey.

 Bamboo forests. Did you know that in order to get the best from a bamboo harvest, you have to cut it at night on the full moon. This is because the plant retains water in the same sort of way as the tide comes and goes depending on the size of the moon. The less water at the chop, the longer the bamboo will last.
  I took myself off for a very wet walk in the nearby  Valle de Cocora. I thought 13 km didn't sound too tough, but it was a steep climb and by the top I was stopping every hundred yards struggling for breath. Although not exactly walking fit, the near 3000m height is what really did it.

 This photographer, despite many takes could not get the blur of these Humming birds' wings. Near the top of the hill two ladies live and earn their crust by offering local drinks to tourists, whose exhaustion is quickly forgotten by the hundreds of hummingbirds that they have lured with sugar water.
 This is a deep fried trout which is very much the local staple meat. Although delicious, there seems to be little option other than this form of preparation, sadly.
 Something I'd been looking forward to a great deal was going to the city of Manizales.  In 1922 a cable car system was built between the city and the numerous surrounding valleys. It revolutionized  coffee production and greater prosperity was bought to the area and country. The man responsible for the design and engineering of it was called James Lindsay....the Great Grandfather of my pal Pat. Some videos were made of what little sadly remained of the system, which was at the time the most celebrated engineering feat, using this technology, of the age.
On the way south the plan had been to stay in the town of Cali for a couple of nights....I didn't get there till after dark and having found a place to stay, I wondered outside to try and find some super. It was not a nice atmosphere, and after the third person told me that it was dangerous at night-time and I should really get back to my hotel, I decided to leave first thing in the morning, which I did  and headed on towards the border with Ecuador.

 I met Simon and Chris a couple of times on the road, having first met them when we were all trying to find somewhere to stay on the road to Pasto, which is the last town before the border. Simon had cycled down from Alaska, and had  cycled for a while with another chap I'd met called Rob in Mexico. Chris had started out from Bogota.

 an interesting technique  of keeping one's Turkey from running away.
 When I got to Pasto, I had a message from Chris and Marge (two more of my shipmates)  with the news that they were arriving the next day and also that Jon and Pete (of were in town following a 60 mph crash. It was Pete's bike that somehow found its way into the large rain gutters that the roads here have, and it was the large concrete block that ripped away the bottom of the engine. These guys had started from England in April and having driven across Europe, Russia, Korea, then the Alaska down to Colombia in six months had met with this potentially fatal accident. Luckily Peter had walked away from it, praising his helmet and  the body armour  that he wore. However the bike (Suzuki 400) was a write-off as far as any UK insurance company would have been concerned. As luck would have it they were picked up by the larger-than-life character Ariel, who took the bike to a man he described as the maestro. Amazingly within a week he had the bike going again having welded all sorts of things that would have never been attempted at home.
Jon, the Maestro, 2 other mechanics and Pete

Unfortunately Pasto, is not a very nice town, rather industrial and full of diesel fumes, or so it seemed. By the time we had arrived they were bored stiff, although Pete had managed to find a lovely local girlfriend. I ended up staying an extra day there, as the night work was somewhat debilitating. It was also great to see them back on the road again, and worth waiting for. They are now far ahead of me, as they needed to be back in England by the middle of January, having got down to the bottom of Argentina.

 I played tag with Chris and Marge going down to the Ecuador border , well that sounds like there was a hint of competition, but I can assure you that their BMWs had a lot more whizz than Batty, but we did catch up with them at various points, like the 2 hour border rigmarole.

 Batty needed some service work done, and having done a little research on, I went to find TecniMoto  in Quito, the capital. It very quickly became apparent that this was going to be a good choice of mechanic, as Carlos loves working on British and older European bikes. I have left Batty with him, whilst I go to the Galapagos Islands, to change the front forks, replace the primary chain, solve an oil leak,  and add two LED spotlights. The last items is very long overdue, as the alternator on the diesel engine does not giving out as much electrical chat as I need to run the front light during the day, so I haven't to date. It also means that driving at night is limited to about two hours before the battery is flat. The idea with the LED lights, which take about a fifth of the headlight power, yet are more powerful, will be to get around this problem for the rest of the journey.

As is the way with Batty, I keep meeting people, and in Carlos's shop a fellow client by the name of Carlos (it seems to be an almost de facto name here) appeared. A bit older than me, with a medical practice in the city, he said "let's go" and before I knew it I was on the back of his Africa Twin being taken to lunch, before a tour around the city. Now I, like many other riders, hate going on the back of bikes,  and I told Carlos this, "no problem" he said "I'm the same". 10 minutes later a very wobbly Harry got off the bike at the restaurant. It was here that he  modestly mentioned that he used to do a bit of racing. It subsequently turned out that he has been the national champion on bikes from 350 to 900 cc many times over. Very decently he realised my delicate character and for the rest of the tour took it very easy.

 The central Plaza in old Quito

In the evening we were joined by Carlo, Carlos's brother-in-law, and we went for dinner, followed by an abortive nightclub visit. I was honoured to be included in all this and terribly grateful of course, but this generosity did not stop there. A plan was made for the next day to go up to the top of the local volcano that overlooks the city on a fairly newly opened cable car, to be followed by lunch  with Carlos's ex-wife's.
Carlos, Carlo and H

A few of Carlos's trophies

The view down over Quito from the Cable car
At the funfair at the bottom of the cable car, the 2 Cs wanted to be hurled 300 ft into the air in this capsule. This chicken volunteered to be the photographer.
  Lunch with Silvana and her sister Janet, was a true feast. Carlo's flight back to his home in Italy meant that the three of us had to eat before the others, and we were waited on like kings with mouthwatering delight after delight.

 Janet and Silvana.
  There was a conversation about why my trip was called vegibike etc and quite out of the blue Silvana said "10 years, that's all we've got left before mother nature really turns against us" after we had talked about some of my worries concerning man's out of control consumption and the fragility of the environment. Then she said that her grown up children had told her that they were not going to have children themselves, because the world would be a horrible place for them to live. I was a little taken back by these extreme takes on our future, and I do not share them particularly, being much more optimistic about man's ability to arrests his environmental wrongs, whilst developing technologies to live sustainably. But it was rather enlightening to hear it from professional people on the other side of the world.
 Gargoyles on the side of the cathedral, many of them were of Galapagos inspired.

Oswaldo Guayasamìn is the contemporary art hero in Ecuador, and after a bit of "tuning in"  really 'got it' and delighted in my time surrounded with his work.

 Tomorrow morning I head for the Galapagos Islands. I had been in two minds, not only is it way out of travel budget norms, there was also a concern about being party to the contamination that the islands are suffering because of too many tourists. Research only satisfied me that the very controlled tourism was doing as much to protect the islands as it is harming them. I suppose when I get back I will know if it is been a mistake or not, but I don't suppose I will be coming this way again soon and to see one of life's cradles in overt clarity will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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.