You're here for a good time, not for a long time.

You're here for a good time, not a long time.

July 30, 2011

I'm On a Boat!

7/28/2011- First Stack

Finally on the boat, it’s a huge relief to have Central America behind me.  From my house in Lake Stevens, WA to the loading dock in Carti, Panama I covered just over 10,000 miles of unforgiving roads over the last four months.  I’ve lost at least ten pounds out here, all of it muscle.  Monday I went through all my gear for the third time and got rid of another load of unused items.  Among them were some rope, bungee cord, a cup, my broken helmet comm device, and a jar of peanut butter.  The same day I went out and bought a passenger helmet as well as a matching set of bright yellow rubber rain gear.  I’m going to look like a fish sticks spokesperson next time it starts storming overhead, but I am determined to stay dry.  Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru all promise to be just as wet this time of year. 

As for my list of missing spare parts, I bought none of them.  Bright and early Monday morning the boys and I set off for Panama City’s only Suzuki dealer.  I knew we’d be in luck because everywhere you look in Panama there is a DR650 flying by with two heavily armed police officers on top.  The brand new 2011 model sparking on the showroom floor was a good sign as I walked in.  I gave my list of parts to the guy at the computer and he assured me he had all of them.  Overjoyed I asked him to tell me the prices so I could see what I was in for.  He started with the chain: $200.  Then the sprockets: $115 for a front and rear.  At home I can get the all three for $129 shipped to my house.  Brake pads and cables were similarly overpriced.  I balked; I really wanted to take care of this nagging issue, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay such absurd  prices.  I deliberated going back and forth for at least an hour before Alex and Charlie convinced me to sit tight and give it another go when we arrive in Colombia.  As they put it, a country with 45 million people will have a lot more buying power (therefore cheaper prices) than a country with only 3 million.  Here’s hoping. 

I ended up walking out of the dealership with a can of chain lube and a helmet for passengers.  We’ve been giving people short rides around town throughout Central America and very few of them have worn helmets.  It was never ideal, but the helmet store is never there right when you need it either.  Plus there have been no helmet laws the entire way down.  It’s very easy to become complacent with safety after 9,800 miles of smooth sailing.  Nevertheless, I saw the DOT approved half helmet on the shelf and decided it was time.  Panama has a strictly enforced helmet law and I was tired of risking peoples’ lives.  Al and I also had passengers scheduled for a ride to the canal the next morning:  Anna, who caught up with us again in Panama City, and the Dutch girls whom Al promised one more ride to. 

Monday night everyone got together for a big sendoff in the ritzy part of Panama City.  In attendance were myself, Alex, Charlie, Andy, Patrick, Ty, Jill, Anna, Kim, Roberto, Maura, and Chalenka.  We really stirred up the district for a Monday night.  Tuesday morning we loaded up to catch the boat.  Anna and the Dutch girls hopped on the backs of our bikes and we took off for the canal.  This was the first time I had given someone a ride while fully loaded.  My bike was handling it well, but was obviously overloaded. 

We pulled up at the Miraflores Locks twenty minutes later and ran inside to see the attraction.  I wasn’t too excited about seeing the locks until we arrived.  I’ve seen so many sights at this point that a post card is good enough.  The real experiences have proven to be in the streets talking to other travelers or locals and gleaning information off of them.  The locks themselves were not very interesting; just a bunch of Panamanians in hard hats walking around doing their day jobs.  There were no massive tanker ships coming through nor any opening or closing of the locks.  What was amazing was the symbolism that the locks represented once I got up there.  I knew I had made it to Panama, but it wasn’t until I looked down at the canal that I realized how far I’ve come since April 2nd.  The Pacific was to the west and the Atlantic to the east.  The Atlantic Ocean was about fifty feet higher than the Pacific interestingly (hence the locks).  We took a lot of pictures up there celebrating the accomplishment of riding motorcycles through eight different countries down to the bottom of a continent.  For once in the past four months it felt like we had made it somewhere, rather than always being on the way.

Back in the parking lot we said goodbye to the Dutch girls and Patrick.  Monday night we had agreed that Anna would ride out to the dock on my bike since she was catching the same boat.  Andy took her backpack on his bike and Alex took on some extra weight as well.  Helmets on, we pulled out already late for the boat heading towards the Caribbean in a big hurry.  Naturally, we immediately got lost and ended up stuck in traffic for an hour. 

Sitting there sweating in 90F degree heat on top of an overheating engine in stop and go traffic late for the boat, I decided it very fitting that the final leg of such a massive journey be so tortuous.  Eventually though, the traffic let up and we started making better time.  Soon we had wide open road with 70mph cruising and things started looking up.  My bike was doing well with Anna on the back although twice the engine stopped running when I released the throttle at speed.  Both times I pulled over and it started up on the first try with no complaints.  I’m not sure the reason behind the shutdown, but I’m confident it had something to do with the weight or the heat.  If there is a problem developing, I’ll deal with that when it presents itself. 

With fifty miles to go we came to a checkpoint run by the Kunu people.  The Kunu are the locals who live throughout the southern Caribbean coast and the San Blas Islands.  They charged us $6 each to enter their property and we all willingly obliged.  At this point we were on schedule to be half an hour late for the boat.  Charlie and Alex took off in a mad dash into the Kunu territory.  The road was more like a big overdone rollercoaster.  Lots of ups and downs over the course of fifty miles of hairpin turns.  I was not enjoying myself: dehydrated and exhausted with an overloaded bike and a girl’s life at stake.  I remember thinking that it would be quite a feat if we all made it through this last stretch without crashing.  I was about to hit 10,000 with zero incidents.

That’s when I went down.  Not a typical motorcycle crash, this one occurred at about 2mph… in reverse.  Ten miles from the loading dock I wound around a very sharp turn that lead directly into the steepest hill I’ve ever ascended.  I hit the hill hard in second gear thinking I could make it.  Halfway up, though, my engine started bogging down as I fed it more and more gas.  Naturally, I shifted down to first as the power gave out in second gear.  In first gear now, I let out the clutch with the bike losing momentum very quickly.  As soon as the clutch dropped the front wheel popped off the ground and I was riding a wheelie.  I had the throttle closed but the engine’s revs were still coming down when the clutch released.  With all my gear and a girl weighing down the rear wheel, the front end lifted up with no effort at all.  Not about wheelie into a backflip that would crush both of us, I hit the brakes and the front wheel dropped back to Earth slightly to the right at an agle.

As soon as both wheels were on the ground I had my feet on the ground to keeping all 600+ plus pounds of the bike from tipping on the uneven slate.  But it wasn’t over yet.  I watched in terror as the front wheel started skidding down the hill.  The front brake was fully applied and holding the disk, but there was not enough weight up forward to keep the entire bike from slipping backwards.  As I mentioned, the front wheel came down slightly to the right after the wheelie so we started sliding backwards into the oncoming lane (thankfully there was no traffic for miles).  I held on trying to muscle the bike to a stop, but there was no way.  I couldn’t bring my right foot up to hit the rear brake because it was the only thing keeping us upright at that point. 

Eventually the levy broke and I couldn’t keep it up anymore.  I gave it one last ditch effort to dump us towards the uphill side but it was too late.  All the weight went to the downhill side and Anna and I were slammed down into the pavement with the bike taking the brunt of the impact.  It still wasn’t over.  At this point the bike started sliding down the hill with both of us still straddling it with our shoulders digging into the road.  In the midst of the entire ordeal (totaling about five seconds), Andy had come around the corner behind us.  He saw my predicament and knew he’d be in the same one if he tried to stop on the hill behind us.  Andy decided to pass in the other lane while he still had momentum.  Right as he was about to do so is when I backed my overloaded bike into his trajectory and then dropped it on myself.  Andy could do nothing but stop. 

I knew he was there as I slid towards him while listening to my bike grind along the pavement.  We slid right into him.  My head was just to the left of his forks when his front tire took the impact.  Battling the same hill with no other options, Andy dropped his bike as well.  He went down with his bike to the left with his front end landing right on my head.  Then, finally, everything stopped moving.  There was a set of bike forks resting on my helmet, but I was uninjured.  Anna hopped up and said she was fine as well.  Andy got up and immediately lifted his bike enough for me to get my head free.  We all three stood there and looked at each other for a moment, trying to put together what had just happened.  There were two bikes on their sides spread across both lanes on a slope so steep that they were liable to slide down the rest of the way if we weren’t careful.

We got to work right away.  Anna went up the hill to stop any oncoming traffic from running right through the entire wreck.  Andy and I got his bike up first.  Getting it back on its wheels was hard enough, but starting off on the hill was a whole new ordeal.  Neither of us wanted to see the same thing happen again.  At this time Ty and Jill showed up from behind l and saw our condition.  Ty stopped at the bottom of the hill and immediately started skidding backward himself.  Luckily Jill dismounted instantly and Ty was able to keep the V Strom upright as he found traction.  Observing the hill that had destroyed me, he decided to ride up to the top with his own bike and then come down to help us.  He smartly had Jill walk the section as he eased up the hill with all his body weight as far forward as he could get it.

Moments later Ty ran down to me and Andy and helped us position Andy’s bike.  Ty, the most experienced rider, hopped on and took Andy’s Tenere to the top.  Then he came back, helped us lift mine, hopped on, and rode it to the top as well.  Andy and I walked the rest of the way very shaken.  Up top I was glad to see that Anna escaped with just a couple of scratches on her right arm.  Andy’s bike was ok and mine had no real damage other than some gnarly scrapes and a punched in pannier.  My aluminum box on the right side took the impact and caved towards the bike around the steel rack.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The box and the hand guards protected our legs as the bike slid.  Coming out with just a small dent is the least of my worries on this trip. 

Physically everyone was fine.  Emotionally I was rattled.  Andy offered to take Anna the rest of the way and I was happy to take his offer.  My worst nightmare had just come true.  Every time I take a passenger I tell myself that I can’t crash this time.  How awful it felt to be responsible for such a dangerous turn of events.  And I caused Andy to drop his bike too.  And I was hadn’t eaten for eight hours nor had any real means of hydration.  I was wrecked and now I had to hop back on the death machine and finish the fight.

Anna hopped on Andy’s now overloaded bike and we all took off together with me in the lead and Ty in the rear.  Classic of every time I’ve dropped my bike, everything felt wrong when I got back on.  It felt loose, rattily, and unsafe.  It was all in my head though.  Pulling Anna off changed the way it rode and the trauma of the accident had my mind absolutely warped.  I rode it out telling myself that I was just imagining things, which I was.

We rode for another fifteen minutes (nine miles).  I was just starting to calm down and feel comfortable when my engine sputtered and died.  Out of gas.  FML.  There really is no excuse to ever run out of gas, but here is mine.  When Alex and I rode into Panama City on Saturday we filled up at the first gas station we could find.  It was a prepay pump, the first we had used the entire trip.  We each put in $15 and emptied all 3.6 gallons into our tanks.  Then we set our tripometers back to zeros and took off for the hostel with a mental note that we didn’t have a full tank’s range.  Three days went by.  I looked at my tripometer Tuesday morning when everyone else was gassing up and I only had 15 miles on my tank… plenty of gas.  Then I rode about 150 miles burning more gas than I ever have before with the added weight.  Just in case that didn’t suck me dry, the icing on the cake was all the gas that dripped out the tank while my bike lay upside down for fifteen minutes on the road after my crash.

Life sucks and then you have to syphon gas.  Normally I have a spare liter of gas in my panniers but it had been empty since I left Trujillo, Honduras.  It’s one of those things you forget about after a couple days if you can get away with it.  The thought of filling it back up hadn’t crossed my mind in weeks.  Plan C; I grabbed my extra length of fuel hose out of my tool kit as well as my empty liter bottle for gas.  Andy unscrewed his gas cap and I went to work.  I stuck the hose in, brought the other end down below the tank, and sucked hard.  I’ve never huffed gas fumes before and I don’t plan to again.  I inhaled a full hit of the toxin and collapsed as it burned my entire respiratory system.  I tried again and got the same result.  My hose wasn’t long enough.  I went and got more, pulling it off the bike itself. 

This time the hose was long enough and I happily took a mouthful of 95 octane petrol.  The shit burned all around my mouth but I was happy to get two liters out of Andy’s tank.  Anything to get to the boat.  With my face on fire I put everything away, thanked everyone again for all their help, and slumped back into the saddle.  It was quarter mile more before we rounded the final corner and there in front of us bobbing in the water was the Stahlratte.  I carefully navigated some mud puddles and pulled up onto the dock.  I had made it, somehow.

7/29/2011- The Stahlratte

Today is Day 4 on the Stahlratte.  Built in Holland over 100 years ago, this hundred foot long, two hundred ton steel-hulled sailboat has a lot of history.  It was one of the first steel sailboats ever made.  Originally it was a fishing vessel until that market calmed down in the early twentieth century.  Eventually it was passed off to a junkyard until a group of people decided to purchase it and live as a commune aboard sailing around the world.  It’s an amazing idea.  I think at that point the pilot house and propeller were installed.  The commune had a hand in a variety of different jobs along the way; for a while they were even commissioned by Greenpeace.  By the time they got here to the Caribbean, they decided that the only way to keep the boat going was to stay for a while and work the tourist routes.  The Stahlratte normally makes our trip twice a month.  She also has routes scheduled for Cuba every month.  Google the boat and learn more.

Ludwig is our German captain. He’s awake from dawn to dusk all day, usually in his tightie whities.  He’s got a big pot belly and he’s always joking about something.  As for crew, there is Spaniard Donatan, French Floyd, and from Grant’s Pass, Oregon Ruthy.  They all take care of business throughout the day while we rock back and forth in the gentle swell.  The food on board is amazing.  I’ve eaten myself sick just about every meal; there’s so much.  The menu has been mostly seafood with plenty of rice and potatoes.  Last night in particular was a treat: lobster fresh that day out of the ocean.  The boat gets a good rock going through the waves.  Our bikes are strapped up on the sides of the deck; we’ll have to clean the salt off them when we arrive in Colombia tomorrow.  Best of all, when guys need to pee, they are encouraged to send it right over the hand railing. 

Day one we loaded the bikes up onto the boat and then headed out in the harbor to spend the night.  Ludwig tied loops around each bike’s steering column and rear frame.  Then using manpower he raised each bike through a pulley system onto the boat.  Then they were unhooked and then lashed to the deck; pretty simple.  Everyone was pretty tired that night so after a Kunu dinner on the nearest island we all turned in.    

Wednesday was quite a different story.  We were all up early for breakfast and excited to start the voyage.  The boat picked up eleven more passengers and we took off under power for our destination.  The boat offers as much food as you can eat for free.  The drinks are priced cheap ($1  beer/Coke, $10 bottle of rum).  We decided to start the festivities around noon.  Eventually the Stahlratte pulled up between two islands right beside a submerged shipwreck.  The San Blas Islands are truly honeymoon post card material.  There are always so many islands in sight; sometimes so thick you can see four or five in any direction.  They are little lumps of sand with anywhere from one to one hundred palm trees on top.  Those that are inhabited are held by the Kunu people.  They build thatch huts and docks all around the islands and inside is the city. 

Those who were interested grabbed snorkel gear and hopped in the warm turquoise water to check out the shipwreck.  I particularly enjoyed this part.  The deck of the wreck was just feet under the water.  This boat was another steel hull.  I checked out just about every nook and cranny I could identifying at least the engine room.  We all swam over the nearby island and splashed around on the beach for a bit. 

Dinner was on the island over the barbeque that night.  Jerk chicken with a whole lot of potato salad.  I ate it up and then swam back to the boat.  Fantastic night.  Thursday Ludwig fired up the engines early and we set sail for a three hour voyage further south.  Our second destination was similar to the first, but much less inhabited.  We spent the night with several other personal yachts amongst three small uninhabited islands.  During the day we snorkeled a nearby reef and floated around the Stahlratte with the beer cooler.  By nightfall the group was very familiar with each other and the empty rum bottles were piling up.  We have a young average age for passengers so very soon it was a full-blown boat party.  Lots of people singing and dancing on the table.  I had a great time peeing over the edge every twenty minutes. 

Today, Thursday, we are the walking dead.  I don’t feel hangover but I’m extremely tired.  I’ve taken two naps already.  I think four months of adventure and partying caught up with me today; my body is using the boat opportunity to sleep as much as possible.  It is such a drastic change to not be responsible for anything.  No choosing lodging, no worrying about the bike’s condition or vulnerability, no food decisions, no maps, no Spanish.  Just sit back, relax, and let someone else do the work for once.  It’s definitely what I need.  We dropped the sails this morning and started a thirty-hour non-stop voyage to Cartegena, Colombia.  The weather is good and we haven’t encountered much swell.  Tomorrow morning we arrive at port and ride off into a whole new continent.  I can’t believe we’ve comes so far.

7/30/2011- Touchdown!

I’m back on dry land on the other side of the world.  We got off this morning with just our gear; the bikes are delivered on Monday when customs is ready to deal with them.  I can’t walk straight around town because it feels like the whole world is rocking back and fourth after five days on the Stahlratte.  I’m well-fed and well-rested.  I’ll need a couple more days here in Cartegena getting my land legs back.  No matter the price, I will be buying my spare parts here before heading any further south.  I can’t wait to hit the street and check out the town.  From the boat it appeared beautiful and during the brief time I spent getting to the hostel it was alive with a culture like I haven’t seen before.  It feels like a tropical version of the Mediterranean; I could get used to that.  Everyone be sure to check out my latest photo update below!

Fotos VI

Live from South America, here is a photo update.

This is the mud road that led us back into Costa Rica just moments after we got stamped into Panama.  Not a fun day of riding.

Andy enjoying Day 2 of his motorcycle adventure.  He faired well, although wet like the rest of us.

Hanging out with the whole gang at Jack from Ferndale's place in Panama.  Epic garage.

Like the Millennium Falcon, it's still holding together.

Bocas del Toro at dusk.

Andy, Patrick, and Charlie enjoying the balcony at Bocas.

Flavor country.

Riding two-up with my bike in a pickup.  

Just another semi that ran off the road.

Everybody's final night in Panama City.  Lots of mojitos.

Patrick and me savoring the victory of the Panama Canal.

Ty and me in front of the Stahlratte moments after I dropped the bike on a hill and then huffed gas.  I needed a beer.

Winching the bikes aboard. 

Alex finally ran into some people his own age.

Our first night in the San Blas Islands.

The submerged shipwreck I got to explore.

Andy serenading the group with his travel guitar.

A classic San Blas island.  Life was good on the Stahlratte.

July 24, 2011

Final Boarding Call

As romantic as the idea of overland motorcycle travel sounds, there is no part of it that is easy.  It seems fitting that my last three days in North America turned out the way they did.  On the heels of a sleepless weekend at Bocas I have encountered major engine malfunction, severe tropical downpour, and failed to gather together any of the motorcycle parts I desperately need.

The night at Aqualounge at Bocas was exactly what we expected: loud rap music and drunken twenty-somethings jumping into the Caribbean off the dance floor throughout the night.  Even Charlie hopped in because ‘there was this particularly cute brunette’ that dared him to.  We stayed up too late that night and woke up very tired around noon the next day.  I lay around all day regaining my strength and went to bed as soon as I could Thursday night on the eve of a big push towards Panama City.

Friday morning we caught the 6:30am boat off the island back to the mainland.  We arrived at our pay parking lot around 7:00am and started repacking our bike luggage.  It was probably a forty-five minute process in total putting everything back in its place and putting all the gear on.  Finally everyone fired up their bikes; herd is about to start moving.  I popped the key in, put the transmission in neutral, dropped the choke, disengaged the engine killswitch, and hit the ignition.  The starter engine whined like it always does, but the 650cc’s wouldn’t turn over.  I tried different variations of choke and throttle for five minutes convinced the engine was cold.

That didn’t work.  Then I realized I had left my fuel petcock open all weekend.  In the past this has allowed the gas to seep from the engine and flood my carb.  So I drained the carb.  Still wouldn’t start.  Next step: rip off the seat and gas tank.  It started to rain.  I pulled the carburetor all the way off and disassembled it with Charlie’s help.  We checked all the gaskets and moving parts and everything was in order.  Put that back together and remount it.  Check the air filter; it was showing some dirt but no real signs of disorder.   We pulled out the spark plugs; they were charred but not necessarily bad.  I opened my spares and replaced them just in case.  Then we hit the ignition with the plugs out to blast out any gas that had flooded the cylinder.  There was no more gas in any part of the system.  Put it all back together and try again.

Again, nothing and now my battery was getting weaker.  Then someone recommended pulling the plugs out and actually looking for the spark by holding them to the engine block.   Five more minutes of pulling the seat and tank off again and the problem presented itself.  My spark plugs were not putting out any charge.  We knew the symptom, but a diagnosis was much more difficult.  The four other motor masterminds took turns offering more ideas.  We sprayed WD-40 on every connection in case water had seeped in.  We checked every fuse we could find.  We even pulled Alex’s ignition coil off his bike and put it on mine to see if that was the missing link.  My bike simply would not start.  By 9:30am there were multiple tool sets scattered around the parking lot and no answers. 

Time for a professional.  I got nervous.  The boat to Colombia leaves on Tuesday.  Not an ideal time to get stranded in the third world (Panama could very well be second world for all I know).  The saving grace is that we were in Central America and within a half hour the parking lot owners found a friend who was willing to haul my bike across the mountains to the nearest legitimate mechanic in a city called David.  His rate was $160 up front and that was good enough to me.  He pulled up in his little Toyota with a six foot bed.  Uh oh, my bike is at least seven feet long.  With the help of the town drunk we heaved it into the bed only to find out that it wouldn’t fit.  Amidst a lot of screaming and straining we managed not to drop the beast bringing it back down to the ground.

Of course, the Panamanians were not deterred.  They went to Plan B: take the front tire off.  So we did.  And in the midst of the process the drunk leaned on my bike on the kickstand side and the whole thing toppled over and slid into the ditch.  It was still pouring out.  I was soaked at this point.  I had my sleeping bag and pad on my seat at the time it went over.  I remember seeing both of them floating in the muddy ditch with gasoline reflecting all around them.  How did I ever end up here?  No time for philosophy, though; I rescued all my shit from the waterway and raked the bottom with my fingers to find my keys and padlocks.  I was wet anyway.

With the tire off and my hand now bleeding, we successfully hoisted the bike diagonally into the pickup with the front forks in the far corner tied up resting on top of the wheel well.  The driver strapped the whole thing down super tight and then broke some even more distressing news to us: he didn’t have room in the truck for me to ride along.  Al and I would have to ride two-up all the way to David… over the mountains and through the rain.  I still don’t know what I did to deserve any of this.

So moments later I threw my riding gear on over my soaked undergarments and high kicked over Al’s seat to mount up.  Straddling him like a Guatemalan horse, I gave a thumbs up and we took off following the Toyota.  I don’t know Al’s opinion, but the ride wasn’t as bad as I expected.  He didn’t kill us and I got to check out some cool views.  The rain let up for most of the ride and four hours later we pulled into a backyard mechanic’s garage in David.  Oh great, the ‘friend’ recommendation; classic of Central America, our driver had brought us to his buddy’s hole in the wall operation on the outskirts of town.  We unloaded the bike and I started to explain to the head mechanic what we knew about the spark plugs.  I was sure to stress the fact that I was booked on a boat to Colombia in four days.

Tato the mechanic looked at the bike confidently while deciphering my information.  His mind was obviously racing.  I pulled the seat and tank off and let him go to work.  Immediately Tato pulled out a multimeter and started putting it against all the different connections.  He had a worried look on his face.  He tried the same readings on Alex’s bike; while my bike was reading 1800, Al’s was reading 240; not good.  Tato narrowed it down to two possible conclusions.  First he unscrewed the computer off of my bike and plugged into Alex’s.  Al’s bike fired right up.  My bike has a functioning brain!  Dodged one bullet.

At that point the problem was diagnosed: a failed stator linkup.  I didn’t know what that meant, but I was not excited as I saw the next ten minutes unfold.  Tato drained my oil and then pulled out his Swiss Army knife.  He ripped off my left-side engine case as I watched in horror; four days until the boat leaves and my engine is being pulled to pieces… its guts strewn across the ground.  The stator was mounted on the inside of the case and Tato started cutting through the factory gasket so he could get a better look (the whole time reassuring me that he knew what he was doing as he grabbed for his beer).  He found the culprit; it was a little black box mounted on in the case and some component of it had failed.

Tato pulled out a pair of wire cutters and cut the piece right off, again swearing that he could put it back together with a beer in hand.  The stator is a series of wrapped wires that work with a magnet inside the engine to generate power for the bike.  Similar to an alternator on a car.  A new one costs around $300 and cannot be bought here in Panama.  And Tato just chopped mine in half. 

Somehow though his confidence really was reassuring.  I just watched with blind faith the whole time.  If this guy can’t do it, I am screwed.  Would I truck the bike to the boat and fix the problem in Colombia or miss the boat and catch up two weeks from now?  I didn’t want to think that hard.  I just watched him squirrel through all his little boxes of gadgets until he pulled out a similar looking little black box and examine it.  He seemed satisfied.

Then he ripped the bracket off it and started matching it up to the one from my bike.  They did not match.  For the next half hour Tato sat over a grinder and a vice forging a new bracket that would work in my engine case.  At about three beers deep he managed to get it right.  He put it back in my engine case, dialed its position, and soldered the wires back together.  He pulled out he mulitimeter and it measured 269.  Next beer is on me Tato!

Half an hour later he had my engine back in one piece and refilled with high quality oil.  He hit the ignition and to unimaginable delight the bike chugged once and then roared to life.  Back in the game.  This bike is my identity now and I was getting frantic with it out of commission.  This man just saved my trip; the thrill of adventure had never been stronger.  Tato was smiling and so was I.  He had dropped everything he was doing and in three hours diagnosed the problem and built the solution with his bare hands.  I paid him $115 bucks well spent and then we took a big family picture (by this time we were well acquainted with everyone hanging out on in his garage). 

That night Al and I got the first hotel we could find and rested up for Panama City.  We took off early Saturday morning and spent the next eight hours riding through intermittent rain.  It was nothing new; just plain old hell on wet Earth.  My gear did ok this time but I got wet anyway; before I got a chance to zip my jacket up tight, a bus drove through a six-inch deep puddle next to me and fanned a wall of water down my chest.  I was damp the rest of the day.  We got to Panama City and had a hell of a time finding the guys’ hostel.  After an hour of doing circles we finally did though.

The hostel was the first of its kind.  It is built specifically for motorcyclists who are trying to cross from Panama to Colombia.  There was a plethora of information for spare parts, maintenance, and anything else motorcycle-related.  It sounds like heaven, but we only spent one night there because the place was over capacity just with the seven of us staying.  Seven?  Yes, we are seven people strong now that Jill and Ty have caught up.  Last time we saw Jill and Ty was at Zephyr Lodge and they were off to Guatemala City to fly home to care for Ty’s sick mother.  Good news, she is fully recovered and we are all back on the same trail. 

So, after four months on the road, we have all funneled down into Panama at the same time and we’re all catching the same boat into Colombia.  It’s quite a thrill at such a momentous time.  Unfortunately, Patrick won’t be joining us; he is flying off to his native Sweden this week to continue his vacation.  We’ll have to catch up with him further down the road in the next few years; until then, Patrick, you’ll be missed. 

Today was a Sunday so shopping was limited.  We moved closer to downtown to a more comfortable hostel and everyone is resting up for a shopping spree tomorrow.  I still need tires, cables, sprockets, spare brakes, and a chain.  Luckily the police here ride DR650’s so I should be in luck.  Fingers crossed.  If there is time we also want to ride along the canal and take that in for what it’s worth.  I crossed it coming into town and the scale is much bigger than I imagined.  Tuesday we crane the bikes onto the boat and then it is four days of cruising through the San Blas Islands toward Colombia on a 100 year old sailboat.  I am ready for it after the fiasco I’ve been through.  I probably won’t have Wi-Fi for about a week now, so keep reading and thanks to everyone for the comments.  The trip isn’t even halfway in and there is another full continent ahead.  Buckle up!

July 20, 2011

Holding Together


We inevitably spent two nights here in Volcan.  The planned slow start this morning doomed any chance of getting back on the road today.  That said, it was a productive day.

First we gathered all our dirty clothes together and dropped them off to be washed.  I also left my riding gear there to be dried.  I couldn’t bear the thought of slipping into the murky outfit again.  Then I went to the supermarket (nicest I’ve seen since Guatemala City) and picked up some toiletries, ziplocs, garbage bags, and a bunch of snack food.  I spent $20 cash on what would have cost $35 at home.  Panama uses the U.S. dollar as currency.  No joke, all of their bills are the exact same thing we toss around in the states.  They make their own coins, but they are the exact same size and weight as ours.  The one-to-one conversion makes things easy and the prices are far below Costa Rica’s.  This will be a good place to stock up on emergency money.  The dollar is accepted everywhere, so I plan to keep around $400 on me for border crossings, banditos, etc. 

Then as I pulled away from the supermarket I noticed a thwacking sound coming from between my legs intermittently.  It didn’t sound good.  Back at the hostel I had Charlie hop on and he gave me two prognoses: I need a new sprocket or new rear wheel bearings.  There is a third option which involves catastrophic engine work (fingers crossed).  It was 2:00pm at this point and Alex came back from lunch with Patrick.  Alex needed front wheel bearings already.  So we Youtubed how to replace them and took off to the hardware store to buy replacements.  Long story short, we got the right bearings on our second trip there and had a local mechanic replace them.  No one could sell us a new set of bearing seals, so we used our old ones and will have to replace them when we get a chance (probably not for 10,000 miles). 

I had brought my spare front sprocket down from the United States and pulled it out.  I removed the casing to find that the current sprocket had been put on backwards by the previous owner.  It also seemed to be missing a spacer which allowed it about 4mm of play sliding across the drive shaft leading from the engine.  Fantastic.  After at least 9,000 miles in this fashion, I can assume that it’s not the end of the world.  Still, it was unnerving.  I replaced it with my new sprocket put on correctly.  Al randomly had a spare plate to fill the gap on the drive shaft and now the two are securely fastened together. 

My chain was also dry as a bone.  I waxed it up good back at the Hampton but it was all gone 200 miles later.  Al pointed out that I may have let it sit in kerosene too long for the rubber O-rings.  A lot of the joints squeaked when I tested them… time for a new chain.  I thoroughly waxed it again today and will keep an eye on it as we push toward Panama City where I hope to replace it.  We also need an oil change.  Maintenance; I don’t know that we were putting it off before, but it seems to be piling up right now.  Not a problem, I willingly signed up for this trip and then committed a small fortune to it.  It’s still raining out.  Tomorrow we set off for a tourist party zone known as Bocas del Toro.  As five motorcyclists pulling in, we should stir quite a scene.

Finally arrived in Bocas del Toro today.  Yesterday, Sunday, we were gearing up when a guy from Miami wandered by the hostel with his dog and started asking questions.  Within twenty minutes he had called his buddy Julio who rides a Yamaha 250.  Julio and his wife were career adventurers who rode all over Central America writing books documenting their adventures.  Julio showed up, talked to us for a while, and then led the way as we took off towards our next destination Boquete. 

Julio didn’t take us far, but he got us to the main intersection leading to Boquete and told us how to get the rest of the way.  It was as we were saying goodbye to him that Paul and George pulled up.  Paul is 67 years old from Ferndale, WA and he also rides a DR650.  We got along well.  George was born in Venezuela, attended high school in the states, and then college in Colombia.  He rides a BMW Dakar 650.  The two were going in the same direction as we were.  Our gang climbed to seven motorcycles.  Paul had mentioned that he had some angled fuel filters he could sell to Alex and me.  We had been meaning to install them recently since fuel is becoming less reliable and seeing how Paul had already installed one on his DR sparked the idea.

Paul’s house was on the way to Boquete so off we went.  Half an hour later we pulled into his driveway; he had a beautiful view stretching out past the Pacific Ocean, a two story house, and a huge garage.  The view was absolutely spectacular.  Everyone got off their bikes and started poking around and chatting.  Charlie mentioned to Paul that he was having a lot of vibration in his handlebars; Paul pulled out a pair of bar risers with rubber spacers.  Problem solved.  He also sold Al and me our fuel filters and we installed them right there with his tools.  Charlie pulled his bike into the garage and got to work dismantling his bars.  After an hour or so of hanging out watching guys work on motorcycles, Andy and I decided to push on to Boquete and find a hostel for the group.

Boquete was a forty minute ride down the road.  We stayed dry the entire day with the dark clouds looming overhead.  It wasn’t until the last couple miles that we encountered some sprinkles.  Nothing like the last couple hundred miles.  Andy and I found a hostel, parked our bikes where the boys could see them, and promptly went out for drinks.  At the local gringo bar we ran into a Brit named David who had offered us directions earlier when we pulled into town.  He was an old motocross racer and took an interest in our trip.  We stayed at the bar chatting with him well past sunset and parted ways with plans to meet at 10:00am Monday morning so he could guide us through the confusing roads leading to Bocas del Toro.

8:00am the alarm went off and I was on my feet.  It would have been nice t hang around Boquete for a while longer; there is a trail leading up to the top of Volcano Baru that offers a view of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  But this trip is all about sacrifices.  Andy and Alex both sent some camping gear home via private parcel in the morning and with that we hit the road this time with David leading the pack.  He hauled us about an hour on his Yamaha WR450 to the intersection that led directly to Bocas del Toro.  We parted ways and the original five of us made good time moving towards the Caribbean.  By 2:30pm we were at the port city Almirante which connects Bocas del Toro to the rest of the world. 

Bocas is an island oasis, so we had to park our bikes in a secure lot and hop a water taxi out here.  We’re paying $3/day to park the bikes; I left everything in the lot except the contents of a hiking backpack.  We caught the first water taxi we could and by 4:00pm we arrived in Bocas.  That’s where we’re at now; checked in at a clean hostel, resting up for a night out in a tourist town. 

I really like Panama.  There seems to be a lot of expatriates settled here and they have all carved out nice little lives.  There is no income tax and only 7% sales tax.  People drive respectfully.  The stores here offer things that I actually want to buy.  And the U.S. dollar currency makes me feel at home.  Not since Guatemala has a country struck a chord with me like this.  I’d like to come back one day.


Day 3 in Bocas and we’ve been enjoying the heat.  We all hit it pretty hard the first night on the party strip but eventually the day of riding caught up with us and everyone but Al was snoring by 1:00am.  Al managed to stay upright until 4:00am mingling with whoever would listen to him.  Tuesday we had a great surprise as Anna turned up from Costa Rica.  She had left CR early to escape the high prices and the passion developing between Kim and her new friend Roberto.  Those two are catching up tonight and ready for the biggest party in town across the water at Aqualounge.  It’s a $1 water taxi ride to the next island over where Aqualounge is built out over the lagoon on stilts.  Very Caribbean.  The plan is to have one more big night here and then head to Panama City over the next couple days so we can take care of some serious maintenance.  On my agenda: oil change, new chain and rear sprocket, new tires, and any other spare parts I can find.  Throw in an $800 boat ride for myself and my bike on the 27th and I intend to spend a significant portion of my budget in the next week here.  

July 16, 2011

Tropical Storm Tom

Rainy season has started.  It hasn’t stopped since the day we moved to the Hampton.  We ended up spending three nights there the second two everyone sharing beds still on Andy’s dime.  Charlie needed time to recover from a particularly bad three days of food poisoning.  It would appear to have been the J.R.’s rib house meal that triggered it but we all ate that meal and felt fine.  Getting Andy’s bike through customs on Tuesday turned out to be an all-day affair so he didn’t mind having an extra day to put it together out of the cargo container.  Alex and I just hung out, washed our bikes, and enjoyed the A/C.  Thursday at noon we finally got moving.

We finally decided where were going in the parking lot while warming up the bikes.  Our friend Patrick was a day south of San Jose and ready to hit Panama.  Charlie and Andy caught up with Patrick for part of Costa Rica, but Alex and I hadn’t seen him since the first couple nights at Zephyr Lodge.  We pulled out of the parking lot on what was the very beginning of Andy’s motorcycle trip.  Charlie’s GPS led us through San Jose during the afternoon traffic.  Clouds were closing in overhead and twenty minutes in the rain started coming down.  We pulled over for gas soon after and by then I was pretty wet in the shorts and shoulders.  I put my waterproof liners in and mounted up again ready to go.  Everyone else made their adjustments as well and we pulled away from the gas station into the intensifying rain.

Patrick was on the west coast near the border and the only way there was over the mountains.  Our gang climbed up a windy road into the clouds with the rain slapping down the entire way.  Everyone was staying pretty dry but getting cold so we stopped to warm up at a mountain cafĂ©.  Alex and I got out our waterproof insulated gloves.  I threw on a jacket for warmth.  We ended up climbing to 11,000 feet and into fog so thick you couldn’t tell up from down.  Somewhere on the way up I started getting wet.  I wasn’t sure at first since I had been damp since I put the liners in.  But no, my waterproof liners failed.  It started with my pants.  The rain pools at your crotch coming down the chest and off the legs.  I could feel the moment when the seal broke and the water crept in.  Soon after my shorts were soaked and there was water dripping down my leg into my boots.  Then my boots gave in.  The work boots say ‘waterproof’ on the side, but their levy broke too.  At the same time water from my soaked waist was crawling up my tee shirt and insulation jacket nearly to my armpits.  The only part that stayed dry was my shoulders, and they started out damp.  I was soaked and it was 53F degrees out.  I hadn’t had a ride like this since returning from Dave Matthews at the Gorge over North Cascades Highway last fall.  That was even wetter and I was less prepared.  I remember it got me very excited for this trip; strange because it seems like hell now.

That mountain pass was miserable.  It was the first time what we’re doing has seemed dangerous to me.  After having no problems with banditos or bad roads for three months, weather caught me off guard.  I couldn’t feel four of my fingers and shifting gears felt like moving an ice block around on the end of my leg.  I got cold and it was all I could do to focus on the heat in my core and keep my body moving with the bike.  Getting wet caught me off guard too.  I put a lot of faith in this gear when I paid nearly $1,000 hard earned Alaskan on it this spring.  The truth is nothing could have withstood that downpour.  By the end of our ride everyone was leaking. 

We had made it to the coast.  Andy had hit the ground running.  Patrick was still a ways south, but we put in a good effort through an entire day of rain.  No sign of the sun the entire afternoon.  We stayed in an apartment at a hotel for $60 total and laid our wet gear out in front of an arsenal of fans overnight.  We had a tame night eating at a vegetarian restaurant and then shooting some pool for an hour.

Friday morning we woke up at 6:00am determined to beat the rain today.  We were loaded and on the road by 7:30am, just as the rain started to come down.  From 7:30am until 5:30pm we rode through a tropical storm across the Panamanian border.  Fifteen minutes in Charlie and I got separated from Alex and Andy during a gas stop.  We didn’t seem them for about five hours.  Naturally, both teams just kept plodding towards the intended border figuring we’d catch up with each other in the next 24 hours.  My gear was still damp when I put it on and within an hour of riding I was completely soaked again.  It was warmer than in the mountains, but it was still hard to bear for the entire day.  From dawn until dusk all I saw was dark grey skies pouring buckets everywhere. 

Around noon Charlie and I arrived at the no-name border between Costa Rica and Panama.  We got to work on the stamps and paperwork moving from building to building.  Halfway through we heard two big bikes roll by and the group was back together.  In total we probably spent two hours standing around in the pouring rain getting all our important documents soaked.  We finally took care of everything: stamps, insurance, and tire fumigation.

The afternoon was wearing on at this point.  Also every component of every person’s waterproofing had failed at this point.  We were a wreck.  The nearest city was Volcan and that sounded good enough.  We tore off down a newly paved two-lane road.  We were making great time until it turned to mud ruts ten minutes in.  Used to breaks in the road such as this, we pushed forward riding downhill in the mud.  It wasn’t so much riding as it was skiing on my boots keeping a bike upright as it coasted through the slope with the clutch in.  Down at the bottom the road didn’t improve.  We asked directions and somehow we had slipped back into Costa Rica.  Wrong way.

Time to get back up the mud.  It wasn’t easy.  Open the throttle and start playing with the clutch looking for traction.  Eventually it bites and the bike gets moving.  It will always break free though and the rear wheel with all the luggage weight on it will start sliding left or right cutting through the ruts.  As bad as it was, everybody made it up incident-free and we took off in the right direction. 

Forty-five minutes later we finally arrived in Volcan.  The rain kept coming down as we rode through some high mountain roads surrounded by pine trees and sparse vegetation.  There were some great views but all of them were marred by fog.  Finally, with the last of our energy we arrived here in Volcan.  We’re at a hostel for $10 each and we have the entire dormitory to ourselves.  There is wet gear everywhere and four tired bodies.   The rain is pounding the roof.  Tomorrow we’re going to get a slower start hopefully with some drier gear.  It sounds like Patrick might catch up too since we never crossed paths today. 

I’m exhausted.  I need to figure out a plan for this rain; it’s predicted for the next three days and months.  Charlie’s and Andy’s simplest idea seems to work the best.  They just wear rubber pants over their riding gear up to their shoulders.  If I were to do this trip again, there are some things I would do differently.  Trusting waterproof/breathable liners is one of them.

July 13, 2011

Fotos V

Couple shots from the last two weeks.  

Looking out at the water over my Canadian friends at Tranquility Bay.

Don't touch one of these guys.  It was pretty fun windsurfing over them.

The car ferry that got me over the out bridge.

Our pre-rafting river swim.

The river was quite low.

Ed from Vancouver.  Together we held the ship together.

The boats were not that big.

Here is the pet makah at Jungle River Lodge.

Jungle River Lodge from the river.

Looking out over the Nicaraguan mountains before we hit 40 miles of construction.

Some crazy geology near the surf beach at Playa Madera.

Good to be back on the West Coast.

Off to Omotepe.

There's one of the volcanoes.  Remember that is a lake.
The chains before cleaning.

And the noticeable difference afterward.

Again, Alex's before.

My after.

And now a cigar montage starting with Al.

Andy brought them back from Cuba.  They are top notch.

Everybody meet Andy.

That's where we are now.  Andy booked a couple more nights at the Hampton and we are all here battening down the hatches before we take off to Panama.  Charlie's guts are getting better now that we've pumped him full of antibiotics.  If this keeps up, we'll set sail tomorrow.