Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Things I like about Colombia

When I travel about, it is usually the little things that give me the most delight. Seeing the sites is cool, but the small interactions with people and places are the ones that keep me motivated to go out and explore. So far, Colombia has been full of them:
-- Due to the fact that in the past, Colombia hasn't been the world's safest place, there is quite a military presence along the roads. Every 10 km or so there will be a checkpoint of sorts. Usually it is a bunch of guys in camo with really big guns sitting around killing time. We just cruise right past them with nothing more than a wave. However, sometimes they decide to wave us down. Rather than look at our papers, they usually just want to chat about the bikes... especially with Megan. I see this as a rather smart way to figure out if we are FARC (one of the militias in Colombia) or not. Anyone can forge papers, but a short conversation can probably discern if we are smuggling drugs.
Here is one such conversation (translated for your convenience):
[Hand comes out for a shake]: How are you doing?
Me: Great, how are you doing?
Him: Where are you going?
Me: Cacasia
Him: [big smile] you mean Caucasia?
Me: Yes
Then we talked about the bikes for a while. Only after I left did I realize the gaff that I had made. There is a difference between CACAsia and CAUCasia. A big difference.

[a really big hamburger]-- It happens in every country where people will come up and ask you if they can help you find something, but it happens a whole lot here. Just yesterday, we were driving around Supia (a small town in the mountains) looking for a place to stay and not having a whole lot of luck. We passed a smiling guy and we exchanged waves. He must have known we were headed for a dead end because he walked up the hill to meet us at the end of the road. He then asked what we were looking for and proceeded to tell us about the three options for lodging in town.

-- Since Panama I have been itching to change the oil in our bikes but the hot weather has reduced my motivation for this. Finally I said enough is enough and when we rolled into the beach town of Tolu (one day south of Cartegena) we found a place to stay where we could work on the bikes. The hotel had a dirt lot next to an abandoned structure which was perfect. We started to take the ladies apart (changing the oil is a bit involved on our bikes) when the son of the owner of the hotel started helping. He didn't know much about bike maintenance, but when I stripped the oil-pan bolt (they are made of super soft metal) we were glad to have him around.
We jumped into a bicycle taxi and drove from hardware store to hardware store looking for a 24mm socket I could use. This is an abnormal size so no one had one. My last hope was to go to a mechanic and borrow a tool. What we got was a mechanic who made a house call. The three of us piled onto the bicycle taxi, went back to the hotel and worked on removing the bolt. This cost me 10 dollars.
As we continued working on the bikes, what I thought was the abandoned building turned out to be a school and night session was about to start. So there we are (Megan was working on her bike at this point), in the dark, with a 16 year old helper, and a classroom surrounding us. Pretty cool.

[public transportation in Medellin]
--The other night we were wandering about the swank neighborhood of Medellin (and it is swank for sure) looking for an affordable place to eat. We walked by a little pasta restaurant and owner invited us to eat there. He did it in a really authentic and friendly way so we decided to stop for a bite. It turns out the owner (Andreas) is from Mendoza, Argentina has travelled the world, used to work in the wine business, and now lives in Medellin. Within minutes we had the phone number of his cousin who runs a winery in Mendoza and by the end of the meal, we had made plans to meet him at 8:30 am the next morning to go for a hike in the hills above Medellin.
We met him the next morning and for a greater part of the day we meandered through steep hills, walked up a river and saw fantastic views of the city. The area that we went is called the Catedral because this is the area where Pablo Escobar (the infamous Cartel leader) built his own jail. He figured that if he every got arrested and thrown in jail, it might as well be a great place with a view. After Escobar was killed, his jail was turned into a catherdral called the Catedral.
After hiking about and eating an enormous Colombian lunch, we went back to Andreas' place and spent some time in the pool. Later, we met up and stayed out until 3 am dancing- a rare occurrence for me.

-- The first mate on the boat (Roli) that we took from Panama to Colombia spent some time traveling about South America on his motorcycle. While doing that, he had met some folks who live just south of Medellin. Expecting only to stop off, say hi, and show some pictures, we looked up his friends Diana and Jairo who run a furniture workshop and produce cheese and yoghurt.
After asking around a bit, we found the shop and met Diana. She instantly started crying and literally jumping for joy when we told her we knew Roli. Within minutes we were seated in her house eating an enormous meal and speaking spanish like I have never before spoken. For the rest of the day, we ended up just walking around with her and attempting to talk about whatever came up. Jairo (her husband) came back in the evening from a 400 km motorcycle ride and we sat around into the night talking some more.
We spent the night at their place and in the morning took off for a ride around the coffee growing mountains of colombia. We stopped every half hour for some "tinto" (what colombians call coffee) and a little chat, then back on the bikes. Of all the days of riding that we have had, this one is in the top 5. Small winding roads through the mountains, coffee everywhere, good food, and with two amazing people. Some of the nicest you can imagine.
Jairo has driven down to Tiera del Fuego on his bike and has travelled around Colombia extensively (even when it wasn't too safe to travel around Colombia). We were able to ask about roads that we wanted to drive and he could say yay or nay as far as safety is concerned. What I basically learned is that there is safety in numbers in Colombia. Most likely nothing will happen, but try to avoid roads where no one else travels.
Jairo has tried twice to get a visa to come to the states and ride his bike around but is always denied. He owns his own very successful business, his father trained in Michigan on dairy manufacture, and he has enough money to not need to work while he is in the states, but still he is denied. He said he will try again next year.

[getting our bikes through customs-the woman in the middle is the customs agent] So that is the report from Colombia. I just want to say that this country and the people are fantastic. Before coming here, I had this idea that it was an incredibly dangerous place. That we would for sure be mugged or worse. As it turn out, it is just a place where lots of people live and they get on with their lives. Sure there are regions that are at war, but we just don't go there. Besides, the smiling military men would let us know.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

much, much better than expected

Ever since our 30 some hours of ferry riding in the Adriatic Sea a few years back, we have been very reluctant to jump on any type of boat for longer than an hour or so. Boats have a unique ability to drive one stir crazy as there is simply no place to go on a vessel. Couple that with varrying conditions, possible rough seas, and the possibility of really not liking the people on the boat and you can sense why I might have some trepidation over an 8 day excursion around the Darien Gap.
For those of you who don't know, there is a section of the Americas that has never quite been tamed by a road. Due in part to dense jungle, very autonomous indigenous peoples, and lawless drug smugglers, the Darien Gap represents a high stakes obstacle for vehicles traveling south like we are. The options are: hire a guide and take your chances through swamps and mosquito infested tracks through the jungle (we just aren't cool enough to do that yet), put your bikes and yourselves on an airplane and fly to Colombia (this costs around $1300 per person), or take a boat around the Gap. We had heard horror stories from friends  about overcrowded boats and incapable captains and wanted to try to avoid this scenario if possible. However, with minimal information out there and no real guidelines to go on, committing to a boat felt a bit like a crapshoot.
So we chose the biggest boat (and one of the most expensive- $900 per bike/ person unit) and decided that you probably get what you pay for. What we ended up with is none other than a classic 110 year old 35 meter dutch schooner captained by a capable, boisterous, and loving German expat and crewed a Swiss woman and Austrian stallion who crew the boat because, well, what else are they going to do?
The Stahlratte really is a pleasurable experience. Even if we weren't driving south, I would consider a trip to Panama/ Colombia just to enjoy the fruits of this wonderful ship. There was plenty of food, they have desalination capabilities on board so there was abundant fresh water, they managed the motos quite well, and being a relatively large boat (and me being somewhat of an introvert), there was always a hammock or lounge chair somewhere on the boat to have a little alone time.
It doesn't really take 8 days to travel from Carti to Cartegena. In fact, I think it could be done in around 30 hours. So what took 8 days? Paradise got in the way.
After loading the bikes onto the Stahlratte (more on that later). We motored for a couple hours over to group of island called Coco Bandera. Some of these islands are 200 meters in diameter and some are a mere 10. They are the perfect "deserted islands" that you think of when you think of being stranded on a deserted island.
The plan was to sail our way along the shore from island to island for 8 days, but after arriving in one particular group, the decision was made to just hang out here for the entirety of the trip. By day we would snorkel the wonderful corrals, or perhaps take the boat out for a sail around the area, or maybe drift by a Kuna indigenous island village, or maybe just nap the afternoons away in a hammock swinging in the ocean breeze. All 17 of us on board got along fabulously and evenings might include singing songs, perhaps a Colombia beach BBQ, or even a rowdy pirate party.
For a guy who likes to fidget quite a bit, it was a nice change to relax for a week and not think about the bikes or about moving about. But all good things must end and when the time came for the 28 hour crossing of the Caribbean Sea to Cartegena, the smooth waters of the islands gave way to the choppy open sea. Some people discover that they don't get sick on boats and are pleasantly surprised at how they handle constant rocking in 2 meter swells. I, on the other hand, found out what it was like to be uncomfortable for a full day and night. Getting out of bed made me sick. Drinking coffee made me sick. Thinking about drinking coffee made me sick. Pissing off the side of the boat made me sick. About the only thing that didn't make me sick was lying completely horizontal and staring straight up at the sky. Once the stars came out, this was actually quite pleasant (I think I saw the southern cross).
After a long, long time, we finally arrived in Cartegena where we now wait for our bikes to clear customs. We arrived on a friday afternoon and the offices are closed on the weekends, so we are passing the time in a the most important port in Colonial America trying just to prevent overheating. It is hot here.

How we got the bikes onto a sail boat

Many have asked how in the world we took our bikes on a sail boat.
The process involved waking up at 4 am in Panama city and driving out on what turned out to not be too bad of a road to Carti. They are in the process of paving the road, so the downpours of rain, didn't make for as muddy a road as I had worried about. The river crossing was pretty mellow after our experiences in the Baja. After Megan got in trouble with a military guy at checkpoint for blasting through the road block because an aggressive dog was chasing her we found the shack by the water where for 26 dollars we loaded our bikes into a canoe. This canoe took us out into the sea and pulled up next to the mighty Stahlratte. They used their square sail boom to lift the bikes off the canoe and securely onto the side of the boat. They were secured and we put our great little Aerostitch covers over the bikes to protect them from the salt water. Apparently, we will load them into the dingy tomorrow and take them onshore. I am working on a video of the whole experience and hope to publish it soon. Stay tuned.

View south america distances in a larger map

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The upside of central america

We really did find paradise. A number of times.
But the most recent time(s) were in Panama. After a week of stifling hot weather we thought we might head up into the mountains before we progressed down to the beach in Panama to meet my childhood friend Dan at a yet unknown surf break called Playa Venao.
[Panamanian food- notice the lack of beer] Our friend in San Cristobal told us about a climbing area on the flanks of the highest mountain in Panama. It is just outside of a town called Boquete and the weather up there is supposed to be "cold." Every Panamanian and Costa Rican that we talked to confirmed this cold aspect because when we told them we were headed to Boquete they smiled and said "fresca" and "frio." Two lovely words for the motorcycle traveller.
It being Semana Santa week (the latin America equivalent of Christmas/ Memorial Day- where everyone packs up and leaves town), we were a little nervous about finding a place to stay, but after a few searches we found a killer hostal just outside of Boquete that was quiet and friendly. We did however miss the memo that they stopped selling alcohol on thursday and wouldn't start until saturday at noon. Do you know hard it is to not have beers after a day of climbing (or doing anything)?
The next day we cruised out to the climbing area and met Cesar, the man responsible for every route in the area. He has a very different business plan regarding climbing than anywhere else I have seen in the world. Lets start with the first part of which I totally agree.
He politely asked us to pay 20 dollars each in order to climb for as many days as we would like. I gladly payed it (as we were going to leave a donation anyway) because developing a climbing area costs a lot of money. He has to pay the mayor of Boquete an annual fee in order to use the area for climbing (which is a bit nutty because the climbing area brings a lot of money to Boquete), and he has to pay for the hardware to develop the routes. It isn't cheap. Even with the cheapest of hardware, it still costs around $50 for one route.
The second interesting thing is that to drum up business, he takes off his shirt (he looks pretty good) and free solos up and down the crag to draw attention from passing cars. When the people jump out and ask if they can do that, he tells them yes and charges them $20 to try (but with ropes). It works!
The climbing was good, with a couple of routes being very stellar and others sometimes missing hardware. However it was refreshing to move the muscles again and meet some climbers.
The next day was spent feeding horses, trying to ride our motorcycles to the top of the mountain (we didn't make it very far on the uber-steep loose gravel road), hiking through the cloud forests, and riding fun twisty roads around coffee plantations.
[getting a surf lesson from Dan] Then we were off for the true paradise. Playa Venao is a recently discovered (by americans) world class surf break. As the story goes, my childhood friend Dan Pasette and his buddy Oliver were traveling the world looking for a spot for a reforestation project. The two criteria were that there needed to be land to reforest and there needed to be a surfbreak. They found it in Venao, Oliver bought the land (350 acres) and started a little resort out there called Eco Venao.
[the view from our cabana] It is still a very sleepy area with a mix of dorm styles accommodations all the way up to luxury cabanas overlooking the beach (we got to stay in the luxury cabanas).

Playa Venao feels like the kind of place that in ten years will be over run with hotels and condos, but for now it is a fantastic area complete with resident yoga instructor and fun waves.

Our schedule for 3 days went like this:
Wake up around 7.
Drink coffee and laze make some breakfast.
At 10, stroll down to the beach for 1.5 hours of powerful yoga.
Go for a swim and body surf for a while.
Go back to the house to make some lunch, drink a few beers and shoot the shit with friends for a while.
At 4 or so, grab a surfboard and thrash about in the waves for two hours.
Enjoy the sunset.
Eat dinner with friends.
Go for a night swim with the luminescent critters.
Go to bed.

Now we are in Panama city getting ready to catch a sail boat to Panama... once we get there (see previous post).

Volcano in Costa Rica. That isn't fog, but rather eruption gasses in the morning. During the day they go in the air.
Fixing a flat in Costa Rica

I'm a 5.9 rider about to onsite a 5.10+

If you don't know what I'm talking about it is a climbing reference.

We wake up tomorrow morning at 4am to drive out the "good road" to Carti to catch the boat. We need to be there by 9:30. 60 km of the road is paved and no problem. But the last 15 km...

Here are some photos that I found online which make me a little nervous, but perhaps the road has been improved since then....

Reading stuff online is never a good idea (except for my blog).

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Snowball effect

We have a Montessori fetish. It seems a strange fetish but it certainly does exist.

One of the goals of this trip was to explore the idea of how to turn a trip like this into an opportunity to network Montessori schools around the world.
If you don't already know Megan is teacher of children aged three to six using a style called Montessori. If you don't know what that is, this might help. Unfortunately our lifestyle is not conducive to teaching on a nine month schedule so she has had to give up traditional classroom teaching. Therefore, Megan has been trying to figure out a way to still work in this realm and allow us to travel for six months a year. She did a little research on the Internets and found a Montessori school in Honduras to visit. The idea being that we would meet the directress of the school and just see what happens. Like my earlier post on climbing communities and how they make the world feel smaller, Montessori communities are the same way.

[the little computer room- they need some old-new computers] Once we knew about which day we would be in Choluteca, Honduras we emailed Maria at the Choluteca Montessori school and asked if we could come by and check it out.

And check it out we did. Maria not only invited us to her school, she came by the night before to our little hotel and spent and hour chatting with us about her crazy life and the sheer will that she has had to exercise to create this little school. She explained how it almost all fell apart 2 years ago but then a small inheritance from her family was just enough to pay the bills and keep it afloat. 
She talked about the tiny apartment that her and her husband used to keep for visiting volunteers but now they have two kids and needed to take it over. She told us that she can't afford the 100 dollars per month scholarship for kids that can't pay but that she doesn't want turn down a kid. Boy, I feel like Sally Struthers here.
Anyway this woman is fantastic, and when we showed up the next day on our motorcycles in the 100 degree heat (and the power had just gone out for what ended up being a two day power outage) our motorcycles instantly turned into a 1 hour lesson on planning and preparing. Then we gave a little slideshow on our trip and the kids took turns sitting on the bikes.

So about the snowball effect. Maria connected us with a woman in Costa Rica named Marcela who is a Montessorian. So when we came to Costa Rica we contacted her and spent a good three hours sitting under a full moon chatting in Spanish (I think she spoke English just fine but being a teacher she spoke only Spanish with us). Marcela has decided to turn her super powers into training people on how to be Montessori directresses. She regularly goes to Colombia in addition to travelling around Costa Rica training locals on the Montessori philosophy and method. Turns out, Costa Rica has a long tradition of Montessori going back to 1936. After a long and inspiring conversation, she connected us with some schools in Colombia. And the snowball effect continues.
If I may, I'd like to return briefly to Megan's idea on how to stay connected. There are lots of Montessori schools all over the world in need of materials and cash. There are lots of Montessori schools in the US with kids who are motivated to raise money and experience another culture through a sister school. What if we could facilitate that? What if we could travel around finding these school, riding the snowball, if you will, and through the magic of skype or somethig else create connections. Montessori was founded on the idea that mixing children from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds and teaching them to be independent learner will eventually create world peace. We all want world peace don't we?

[a lesson on motorcycles]

[This is how you ride it- always with a helmet]
[All they really wanted to do was to meet our stuffed animal- Brownie]

[Just way too cute]

[Hooray for helmets]