Sunday, January 30, 2011

Simply Amazing

On our quest to head from the coast to Huaraz we had to choose one of many roads to take us there. Only one was paved and this was way out of our way. The others range from powdery dirt to under construction and going over a 4200 meter (13000 foot) pass. We chose to follow the Rio Santo from sea level up to Huaraz. In it's voyage to the sea, the river has cut an impressive canyon not too dissimilar to the Grand Canyon. Just look at the google map and see how cool it is.

View Route up the Rio Santo in a larger map
Then watch the video that we made. If this doesn't inspire you to get on a motorcycle and drive to Peru, then I don't know what will.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cuenca in pictures

We spent in a week in lovely Cuenca. My mission while there was to do all the needed maintenance on the bikes, do my taxes for the city, state, and feds, get set up for the Montessori conference in March, and get over my stomach bug. I was able to accomplish all three.
Megan's goals were to hang out with her good friends Kathleen, Fran, and Samuel, create a strong relationship with the montessori school in Cuenca and work on her bike. By the time we left, Megan was satisfied as well.
Big thanks to Kathleen and Fran for making us feel so comfortable in Cuenca and for looking out for us.
At the park with the family.

Getting motorcycle boots repaired

Rabbits are cute

Observing the Montessori School

Showing off the bike to the kids at the Montessori School

Megan wants to raise $1000 for a scholarship for 1 year's tuition at the Montessori School. To do this she is putting together Ecuador baskets to sell at the montessori conference in Chicago in March. She went about Cuenca collecting 50 sets of small things that represent Ecuadorian culture. These are being put together and then mailed to Chicago for us to sell for $40 each. All proceeds from these will go to the scholarship fund.

Getting Beta at the local climbing shop on where to climb around Cuenca.

Very lost and looking for the climbing area near Paute.

Is the climbing here?

We found it and spent an afternoon climbing.

Scary caterpillar on the way to the crag.

Megan and Sam.

Marshall and Sam

6 Cubans arguing politics around a dinner table. As you can imagine, this got very loud.

Megan, Kathleen and Super Sam

Megan took this as we were leaving Cuenca. I had to stop at an ATM and get some more cash (they use US dollars in Ecuador)

A restaurant at 10,000 feet made to look like a western restaurant. Complete with Willie Nelson for music. Two motorcyclists from Cuenca passed us on the road South out of Cuenca and then waited for us here. Javier and Nick waited outside in the rain and flagged us down as we drove by. This place is popular with local motorcycle riders as many more streamed in. 

Nick and Javier (father and son) with BMW 1200GS and KTM 990. Nick (the father) rode from Alaska to Chile two years ago. It took him 4 months. Both these guys work for the big newspaper in Ecuador. Nick is a director. They bought us lunch and we really enjoyed chatting with them for an hour over some fantastic food and coffee. Motorcyclists all over the world are a big happy family. There is something about being out on two wheels and a motor that brings people together. It doesn't happen with 4 wheels and a motor, you need only two.

The Mosquito in the room

As anyone who knows me well knows, Mosquitos love me and I go bezerk with them. I have had episodes of lying in the middle of a trail somewhere in the north cascades, lying in the fetal position and giggling because Mosquitos have gotten the better of me.
This graphic from a brilliant graphic designer, Christoph Niemann (who does some work with the NY times- please go look at his work sleeping, legos, and airplane travel) pretty much describes many nights that I have had with Mosquitos. Substitute the New Yorker with a) and electric tennis racket that I had in thailand or b) finally getting our mosquito net out and setting it up.

We have this little portable mosquito net from Sea to Summit that we have been traveling with. It packs down to the size of a rolled up t-shirt and is cleverly designed to be able to hang in almost every hotel room, either from off of an overhead light or from a picture from behind the bed.
There is something I don't understand at all in places that have mosquitos. Hotel rooms don't give you mosquito nets. In fact the presence of a mosquito net often reminds me of the presence of free wi-fi in hotels in the US. The more you pay for a room, the less likely they will have free wi-fi (or mosquito nets). There is some presumption that the rooms are mosquito proof (they never are) or that mosquitos just don't bother one while sleeping (they always do).
[mosquito net rigged up in Vilcabamba, notice the shoe tied to the edge to keep it down] Well, we have taken care of that by traveling with this pyramid mosquito net thing and I can't recommend enough getting yourself one of these if you are like me and just can't sleep with a mosquito in the room. Megan loves it too because I don't get up in the middle of the night, turn on the lights, and just stare at the ceiling looking for the little trouble maker(s).
Now if only we can always remember to bring this into the room and not leave it out on the bikes.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A perfect day of riding

As per a recommendation from Rudy and Marcelina (the owners of Hakuna Matata) we decided to take a pass over the mountains that pretty much dropped us directly into Cuenca. It's not a big pass on the map, but it looked interesting. We rode south from Hakuna Matata (and megan rode across the suspension bridge for which she was previously scared to ride) on brand new tarmac through twisty roads with no traffic until we reached the town of Mendez. Mendez, although still technically in the Amazon, is right on the edge of the mountains. It is a very quite town with no tourists perched along a river in deep valley.

We left the next morning and heard that due to construction on the road, it was open at some place from only 12:30 until 1. We didn't know where this place was so we sort of had to skidadle.
Up we went. Through incredible terrain with absolutely no traffic. The road was paved in places, broken pavement in others, and completely dirt in other (mostly where it had washed out at some point).
Eventually it turned to all dirt as it clung to the edge of a steep valley dropping several thousand feet to the floor. We hit the construction, but being on motorcycles, they waived us right through and on we went winding up moderately difficult dirt/ mud roads.
The roads had just enough challenge to keep us engaged, but nothing was so technical that we felt like we couldn't do it. Just the kind of stuff we came down here for. Yippee for motorcycle riding in Ecuador.

My stomach, unfortunately, picked up a little friend somewhere in the Amazon and we are currently battling it out in Cuenca. Jorge, as he is known, is defending himself by blowing up a big balloon somewhere in my gut. I, however, have Cipro and I hope that together we can exploit Jorge's weaknesses and force him out of me. It is a battle for which my role generally is that of staying in bed and watching movies.
Never fear, as I have been laid up in bed Megan has entertained herself quite well by hanging out with her college friend Kathleen. Kathleen and her husband, Fran, have a 1 year old who is beyond cute. Just look at the little bugger.

On to Motorcycle maintenance.
Part of the fun of a trip like this is getting in touch with your bike. As I ride along, I am constantly feeling for any changes. Anything that seems out of the usual. Then when I do feel something, I hope that either a) I'm wrong and just never noticed it before or b) it magically fixes itself. But sometimes you have to go to option c) actually diagnose and then fix the thing.
Front Brake: The brake issue from a few days back took route b. I did open up my brakes and give them a good cleaning, but I think what really made them work fine again is that they just broke into the ever-so-slightly new alignment of my front end after the firefighters looked at my steering head bearings.
Water Pump: This is something that I really was hoping was option a from above. This is the fact that sometimes when I ride, I smell a little bit of antifreeze. I sort of had convinced myself that this is normal and that the engine was just hot and therefor gave off a little smell. However, I am now ready to accept that this isn't normal and in fact is most likely an indication of bad water pump seals. It could also be a cracked head, but for now I'm going with the simplest solution which is bad seals. (Thanks to Gary and Jodie at RPM cycles in Ventura for helping me to diagnose this- what a kick ass shop).
I got online to and spent a little time researching what it takes to replace the water pump and whether I really should. After a lot of reading ( is an amazing resource for anyone owning an F650GS single), I now know how simple the water pump on this bike is and that I really should have brought the part down with me. So tomorrow I'm off to try to source the part from Quito and have it flown down to Cuenca.
Fork Seals: Along with that part, I need to get fork seals since my left fork seems to be leaking a little bit. Again, I hope I can find them in Quito as well. [If all else fails, we could go by horse- check us out as cowboys]
Steering Head Bearings: An yes, I finally give up and will replace my steering head bearings as well. Option B from above is just not going to happen. Fortunately, I brought that part down with me.
Valve Shims: As long as I am at it, I am going to check the Valve Shim clearances on both mine and Megan's bikes. For me, this is about a 2-3 hour job per bike, but very gratifying because you have dive deep into the bike to get these puppies. It makes me feel like a real mechanic. I get to play with timing chains and cool things that go click click click. I even have digital calipers to measure the shims.
Spark Plugs: I've been carrying them, I might as well put them in.
Oil and Antifreeze: Although we have only ridden maybe 1000 miles since I last changed the oil, it has been 8 months and it seems worth doing. Especially on my bike which may (and probably does) have antifreeze in the oil.
[our horse back riding guide Fausto teaching us about local plants]

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The end of the rainbow

We found it.
[The obligatory GPS shot at the equator. I couldn't quite get it to zero.]

After leaving Cayembe and stopping at the Equator for a quick visit and some obligatory snap shots, we headed up over the mountains  towards a 13,500 foot pass. At around 12,000 feet the rain kicked in.

We crested the pass in style and then descended towards the Amazon. As one might expect for an 11,000 foot descent into the jungle, the rain kicked in in full force and the fog started to get thick. Fortunately, there was no traffic and the roads were in excellent shape. As we plugged away at 25 mph hugging the white line on the side of the road, I started to seriously doubt our decision to take a detour from the relatively dry mountains of Central Ecuador over to the Oriente (or Jungle) side.
We hit Baeza and the rain started to lift. 10 minutes later, the roads were dry and we road impeccable twisties for a good 100 km through the jungle going over small passes and noticing how the vegetation and landscape changed from area to area.
Deciding at around 3 pm it was time to start looking for a place to stay, we took a gamble and turned off the main road on a small dirt track towards what we hoped would be a cute little place out in the jungle. The signs looked a little old, and it being low season, we didn't know if the place would be open or not. The road was cobbly and in places steep and at this time I would like to make a few comments about riding with your spouse:
I had spotted this little place in the guidebook and decided, without consulting Megan, that this was the place to go. I had a hunch that it would be like Cave Lodge in Thailand (one of my favorite places to visit) and wanted very badly to go check it out. I misunderstood the guidebook in that I thought it was 3.6 km from the last town but still just off the main road. When we got to the turn off, it became apparent that we would have to ride some sort of dirt/ rock track for 3.6 km to get to the place.
It was hot, we were tired, and when we got to the turn off I kind of just went down the road expecting Megan to follow. About a 1 km into the road, I stopped to adjust my suspension, and when Megan pulled up next to me, I just reached over and started adjusting her suspension without asking her. At this point she was pretty upset with me, but really wanting to push on, and being way too hot to stop and talk about things, I just sort of pushed on. BAD IDEA.
After 2 km, we arrive at a sketchy looking suspension bridge which Megan was going to have no part of crossing on her motorcycle. We started to talk about whether it was a good idea to have come down this in the first place, and although it would have been fine under normal circumstances, we had spiraled into a place where communicating wasn't effectively happening and where we both were digging in our heels.
This is usually the crescendo of any argument. At this point, we could a) start listening to each other and understand the other's point of view or b) do the opposite and think that other is unreasonable and just plain wrong. Usually what happens is that option b goes on for a little while longer until one or both of us gets tired of being mad and then we realize what is going on (often by putting food in our mouths) and someone takes the first step towards option a.
We stayed at b for a while longer.
I rode her bike across the bridge. Walked back. Got mine. Road it across the bridge. I figured we were at the point of no return where it would be harder to turn back then to push forward to the unknown lodge. We could just keep going and sort out the emotional stuff later. Another bad idea.
The road was technical and with us upset with each other, it was hard to stay focussed to ride.
After a while we finally pulled up to Hakuna Matata, and as Megan later called it: the end of the rainbow.
There is a third option for what to do when in an argument that I didn't mention above. This is c) arrive at fantasy island aka paradise and be greeted by a soft spoken Belgian who makes everything ok.

We are now the only guests at a perfect resort, with a spring fed palm tree shaped swimming pool, luxurious accommodations, all meals covered, horses to ride, and views out to the rainforest that belong on the Nature Channel. There is a light rain coming down outside as I sit under a thatched roof with light Ecuadorian music playing in the background.
Of course we decided to stay for another night so that we could have a full day here. It is just way too nice.
Back to the couple thing for just another little bit. How could we have handled the situation differently to avoid the grumpiness? I think stopping before we turned off the main road to come up with a plan would have helped. I think making sure that we were both equally invested in coming out here would have put the responsibility of arriving on both of us, rather than just on me. Any advice out there is greatly appreciated.

It's the people, stupid

For us, traveling is more about the people we meet rather than the sites we see. We like to visit places but the true experiences come from interacting with the folks we run into.
The last two days have had some good opportunities for that.

Raul from Venezuela. Imagine our surprise when after returning from dinner in Ipiales, we go out to look at the bikes and there is another F650GS parked right next to ours. The owner quickly found us and it turns out he is from Venezuela and is riding down to Argentina but is riding with the support of his truck with his wife driving the truck. In this fashion he gets to ride a motorcycle that isn't all weighted down and can really indulge in the twists and turns of the roads.
We exchanged emails, and he even may have located a buyer for one of our bikes down in Chile. Hopefully we will run into him again someplace on the road, but he is traveling quickly down to the Southern Tip of the continent in order to beat the cold weather. Maybe we'll see him on his way back up.

Deigo (or Alex) from freakin' New York. Another big surprise in Cayembe. Exhausted from a day of riding we stop at a little coffee shop to get some local baked treats and as we are getting our gear back on we hear: "Washington? No fucking way! I can't believe it." We turn around to see an eager New York City peace corp hick sitting in a truck with an Ecuadorian in the passenger seat. We chat briefly and he invites us out to the dairy farm where he works just north of town. Not ones to turn down an opportunity we find a place to stay (an awesome ranch down a dirt road run by an italian family) unpack our stuff and drive over the farm.
Turns out that Diego is a true Brooklyner who has a bunch of family in Ecuador. His family owns a ton of land in the area including a dairy farm with 130 lovely cows, 3 (or more) dogs, and kittens galore. Diego owns a moving company in Brooklyn and when he gets tired of it, he comes down to Ecuador to work on the farm for a while. This kid has a lust for life that you don't see too often and it was fun hanging out with him for a while.

Sneaking out of Colombia

Drug runners do it. Poor ecuadorians do it on their way up to the US, and we did it on our way out of Colombia.
As I have written about before, owing to their expired papers, our bikes were technically owned by the Colombian government. Although I'm sure they would put the ladies to good use tracking down drug runners and FARC, we weren't quite ready to make such a donation to the newly elected conservative government.
Therefore, we became outlaws...

Problem 1: Every police checkpoint became a source of anxiety. Would they stop us and ask for our papers?
Solution: Look like you are rich, and have no motivation to run drugs or guns and no one will ask for you papers.
Execution: Done with pride.
Problem 2: We needed to exit Colombia and not have the government office (DIAN) see that we were leaving with two motorcycles.
Solution: At the border, park the bikes in a place where the DIAN officials couldn't see the bikes. Change into non-motorycle riding clothes and carry some fake luggage. Go inside to get our passports stamped as leaving the country. Jump back on the bikes and high tail it across the border as fast as we can.
Execution: Flawless (although with a few nerves-a-rattling at the border).

We didn't take any pictures, so enjoy these photos of delicious food in Ecuador. The first one is Bizcochos and a mozzarella like cheese. The second one is at the little Italian owned horse ranch/ guest house/ restaurant in Cayembe, and the third, well that is at the end of the rainbow.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

And off we go

[loaded up with the Muñoz-Gomez family] We loaded up the bikes this morning and gunned south for the border. We had a 200+ mile day (a lot for us) in some stunning terrain. We went from 6000 feet to 2000 feet to 10000 feet to 4000 feet and finished at 8000 feet. We drove past the spot where Megan had crashed the year before, drove through and around 3000 foot deep canyons, and dodged boulders rolling off road cuts.

After having not driven the big bikes for 7 months, and after Megan crashing, we weren't sure how we were going to feel getting back on them. Would we drive 10 mph and overly cautious? Would we consider riding the bikes through South America not worth the risk? How would it feel compared to last year when it was all so fresh and new? How would the girls be after sitting in the rain for 7 months?

[chickens hanging out at the bottom of this xmas tree. Click on the image to see them they are cute.] Obviously, I can't answer all those questions just yet, but something strange did happen when we got back onto them. We felt relaxed. Sitting on the bike with unknown road ahead fell incredibly familiar and within five minutes of being on the road felt like we had never set the ladies down.

[Megan snapped this when I was working on the brakes. She's enjoying the view- the chicken- not megan] Now for technical part. Skip over this if you don't care about motorcycle maintenance. One problem did start to present itself about halfway through the day. My front brake started to feel a bit too "reactive." It was either off or full-on without a middle. Upon further inspection, I realized that it was actually grabbing slightly without being pressed which is sort of a bad thing. Driving with the brakes slightly binding for long periods of time could heat up the rotor, causing it warp which will certainly cause problems down the line. I bled some fluid out of the lines just to make sure there wasn't a back up anywhere, but this didn't help the problem. I pushed the pistons back and had megan pump the brakes. I went through this a few times to see if the pistons were stuck. This seemed to help a little but not completely. I went ahead and drove on them the rest of the day, but will need to take another look tomorrow. I think I will try to clean the pistons. There could be some road grime or corrosion in there that is preventing the pistons from recoiling. Another thought is that last may I had a mechanic take a look at the steering head bearing and perhaps the whole front end didn't get put back together exactly the same as before which could cause the brake to be grabbing the rotor ever so slightly askew. This could work itself out after a few days. However, it is strange that I didn't notice it in the morning but I could certainly attribute that to my excitement of getting on the bikes.

So here we are in Ipiales getting ready to cross the border tomorrow. Technically, our bikes are illegal in Colombia (their paper expired in June) so we are going to have to do some fancy footwork at the border to get us but not our bikes checked out of the country. It is all part of the fun.

Life in Popayan

We arrived safely in Popayan after a classic adventurous bus ride with cowboy-like drivers who stop everytime they see a person hoping to pick said person up. Needless to say it took a while to get to Popayan, but we weren't in a hurry.
[Mariana squirting the shaving cream stuff] We called Henry (the guy whose house our bikes were at) and he met us at the bus station. Our initial plan was to stay a couple of days and then get on the road heading south, but we quickly found out that this wasn't going to happen owning to a festival that goes on for days in the region. There must be some significance in the festival, but as far as we could tell, the reason for this thing is for everyone to

  1. Throw water on each other if water is handy.
  2. Throw flour (like the kind used to make bread) all over this wet or dry person.
  3. Spray high powered shaving cream like stuff on person
  4. Cover this person with colored facial cream
  5. Drink
[megan getting into the groove] It seemed like a bad idea to ride for 200 miles through small villages with countless people throwing water balloons and 1 kilo bags of flour at you.
So rather than ride our bikes, we went out with the Muñoz-Gomez family to indulge in some good old fashioned fun.
[dancing the night away in Henry's house] I will say that it takes quite some time to wash the flour/ water combo out of your hair and clothes but it was well worth it. We drank, played, and danced to salsa.
During this time, we managed to get the bikes in working order: replaced Megan's rear brake, replaced her rear tube which has had a slow leak since Costa Rica, reshaped her boxes after her crash and did some general lube stuff.
We also went out to a waterfall with Henry and the family (Mariana and Enilce) and rappelled off of it, and then went to some hot springs and soaked for a few hours.

[changing the tire by the nativity scene- the only shade we could find] One thing that kept surprising us during our time in Popayan was the absolute generosity of this amazing family. They bent over backwards to make us feel welcome and part of their family. They insisted we sleep in their room while the three of them slept together in Mariana's room. Enilce would cook delicious Colombian meals for us whenever possible. Mariana spent a lot of time talking very slow spanish with us and keeping us entertained. Henry managed to create time between his busy schedule at the Fire Station to get us the tools we needed to work on the bikes and to give us a proper Colombian experience. We now have another family in Colombia and absolutely expect to come back and be part of this amazing culture.
[using the fire fighter's hydraulic press to reform megan's boxes] For anyone afraid to travel to Colombia, I can not stress enough how warm the people in Colombia are. I am sure that anyone who has travelled here will back me up in saying that Colombian culture takes the deed of looking after travelers to the extreme. The people have a mix of curiosity and generosity that makes being here an absolute delight.