Argentina One, Part Two: An Introduction to Patagonian Hospitality

I already wrote about the correlation between how nice a car is and how unlikely it is for the driver to stop and pick you up, and now I can see that the same thing is true for how nice a house is and how unlikely it is for the people living in it to allow you to camp on their lawn. We were declined three times, once by a man who explained that he has a young daughter in the house. Statistics, however, does not fail. I mean, it’s hard to believe we could ask one thousand people and get declined by all of them, right? With this encouraging thought I approached the fourth house, and knocked on the door.

The man didn’t know English, the woman did. At first they didn’t understand why we don’t just go to a hotel. This happens a lot in South America. People see you with two nice motorcycles and immediately assume that if you have six grand for a bike surely you have $100 for a hotel. Go explain issues of cash flow versus initial capital to them. Fortunately the woman came through and yelled at him “no tienen plata!” They don’t have money! They said of course we can camp on their lawn. Next they offered us use their shower, to Erika’s delight. After an hour we were both clean and eating pizza on their table, explaining why the wine they are sipping tastes like orange juice. Before dinner was up Ana and Marcelo insisted we sleep in the house (the oldest child, Santiago, was out in Buenos Aires). And then they left for a party, leaving us in a clean nice house with two children and a baby sitter sleeping on a king size bed with the lights of Dumbo flickering on their faces. We felt at home and fell into deep sleep.

Ana and Marcelo, our new frineds. Notice the tent in the background that we never slept in. Erika’s dream come true

From Bariloche, ArgentinaThe next morning we were going to leave. We started to pack hesitantly when we saw the dark clouds above. When Ana and Marcelo said that if we stayed they would throw a parilla (Argentinian Barbecue) in our honor the decision was made for us. Another day it is.

A trip like this depends on the art of balancing many things: Your own will versus your respect for the will of the other, your comfort level versus your expenses, and in this case, your ability to stick to a plan versus your ability to be spontaneous.

Setting Franco on the right path

From Bariloche, Argentina

Sure we had to be in Ushuaia by January 20th (we were meeting our moms), but earlier in the trip we realized that one of the most special thing about it is the different way in which time feels. One aspect related to this is the fact that it is possible for you to live only in the present, without any plans, without any obligations to keep appointments. You are a complete master of your When and Where. On the other hand, you don’t want your When and Where to become a master of you, and lure you into staying in one place for longer than you want just because you can’t be bothered to pack, which on the bike, as we all know, is always a bitch. So, for the sake of balance, we decided to stay in a place more than planned for special occasions.

Spontaneity with a touch of reason.

Though Ana and Marcelo only moved into the house a week before we showed up, one of the first things they had set up was a barbecue pit outside. Marcelo drove to town and came back with a couple of bottles of wine and a couple of kilos of beef. They refused to let us pay. We were having our first taste of Patagonian hospitality. We also had our first taste of the Patagonian Asado, and it was absolutely the best steak both of us had in our lives.

What follows I had written in a different blog entry that protruded into the future (or present), called The Tire Saga, but using the words “the best steak in our lives” deserves some sort of explanation. It all starts with the animals. In the thousands of miles we covered in Argentina the only form in which we saw cows and sheep was out in pastures, roaming freely and happily through the vast lands, never in a cow factory confined to cages, as in the States. This is the only reason I can think of for why the meat here tastes so much better than in the States. Yes, the animals die, and are eaten, but it seems that unlike in the States, they are happy during their lives, and so their happiness must pass into their flesh. Next, the meat is never stuffed into a freezer. The Gauchos sell their cows directly to the butchers, who sell them directly to the people. Finally, when people here fire up the barbecue it always takes a lot of time. No one uses gas barbecues, as they are commonly used in the states, only wood and charcoal. They wait till the coals are ready, remove them all except for a lone coal for every square inch or so, and grill the meat over low for a long time, taking live coals every now and then to replace the dying ones.

discussing the finer points of parilla

From Bariloche, Argentina

yumm

From Bariloche, Argentina

We spent the rest of the day touring around Bariloche with Ana and Marcelo, and their two kids, Franco and Mora, in the car. Our most interesting stop was a chocolate factory / shop owned by their friends. We sipped delicious (I’m tired of saying “the best we had,” but if it wasn’t, it sure came close ) hot chocolate overlooking the Nahuel Huapi Lake. Another stop, less interesting but quite necessary, was the supermarket. That night I made Lasagna—something I make only for special occasions—and Erika made a chard and garlic salad. Both, along with another couple bottles of wine, blew our hosts away. We were finally feeling that we were giving and not just taking.

view from the chocolate factory

From Bariloche, Argentina

Mora after too much sugar

From Bariloche, Argentina

Mora and Franco post-sugar rush

From Bariloche, Argentina

making mokopelet

From Bariloche, Argentina

The next morning Ana made us Milanesa (=schnitzel) sandwiches for the road. After having some left over lasagna and making a bad attempt of leaving “first thing in the morning” we were back on the road again at 2 pm. We felt a real connection with our hosts and in fact left some things in their house as a promise that we will return on our way back north. Saying goodbye was very moving, and both Ana and Marcelo shed tears which revealed how they felt about us. We were glad it was mutual, and were touched by their revelation of emotion.

love you guys

From Bariloche, Argentina

puppy pit-stop

From Bariloche, Argentina
From Bariloche, Argentina

By the afternoon we were in El Bolson, and by early evening we were wasting time internetting in Esquel. We refueled in Trevelin, and continued on a dirt road towards the border crossing with Chile. Had we known that this would be the last time we would see asphalt in many days we would have been less casual with our goodbyes. As the sun was setting we entered a picturesque estancia with an adorable puppy. The welcomed us to camp on their land, and within the hour we were having wine and homemade Limoncello in their home. They left Buenos Aires a year ago in favor of the view that their new land afforded them. We could relate.

we like puppies

From Nearing the Chilean Border and the Careterra Austral

setting up camp

From Nearing the Chilean Border and the Careterra Austral
From Nearing the Chilean Border and the Careterra Austral

mate

From Nearing the Chilean Border and the Careterra Austral

The next morning we reached the border crossing, and the Carretera Austral.

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Argentina One, Part One: Crossing the Andes

After climbing all the way from the Pan-American and Osorno in Chile, and after exiting Chile, we were still climbing with the Argentinian Immigration offices nowhere in sight. For maybe 15 or 20 miles we enjoyed the thought that we don’t exist, at least not legally, anywhere on the planet. As we were climbing into the snowy peaks it also hit me that we were finally entering Patagonia, and with a name like that I was fully prepared to completely fall in love with the region.

From Leaving Chile and Entering Argentina
From Leaving Chile and Entering Argentina

At some point we crossed the pass, and started going down. After thousands of miles of riding on the Western slopes of the Andes we were finally riding on its East. A few miles later we reached the immigration offices.

Crossing into Argentina from Chile is way more pleasant than the other way around. They are not interested in whether or not you are smuggling an apple into their country. I guess this is just another aspect of what a chill people the Argentinians are. 50 km or so lower we rolled into Villa La Angostura.

Patagonia light

From Leaving Chile and Entering Argentina

In our errands of food shopping and looking for a place to stay I discovered that I didn’t understand the people, and they didn’t understand me. If a year ago I would ask how do I get to the “vila” (phonetically), and by now I knew enough to ask how do I get to the “Viya,” I now had to drop everything I learned and say “Visha” if I wanted to be understood. It would take a while.

We later learned that the villa is a summer vacation spot for rich Argentinians. Naturally, then, we could not find a hotel in our budget. We rode through town till we got to a residential area and asked people who were standing next to a house if we could camp on their lawn. They said no. I smiled, said thanks anyway, and started to get back on the bike when they came walking to me and said that of course we could camp on their lawn. I guess that in this situation we have no choice but to approach people as strangers, though if we handle ourselves humanly, by the time we finish asking we are no longer strangers, and the people we ask feel like they know us, even after a short exchange, which allows them to change their minds. We were hoping they would invite us to shower but they didn’t get our gentle hints, and we had to remind ourselves not to be greedy. They offered their lawn to us, which was wonderful. Nobody owes us anything. Whatever we get is an act of generosity, which we always need to remind ourselves not to expect.

dinner

From Leaving Chile and Entering Argentina

home sweet home

From Leaving Chile and Entering Argentina

The next morning we rode into the center of town, to the chocolate shop. We discovered it in the previous evening, but the line was so long that we just sampled the free samples. The same was true in the morning, so we just helped ourselves for some more amazing samples. Erika was in heaven.

Hello beautiful

From Leaving Chile and Entering Argentina

bliss

From Leaving Chile and Entering Argentina

We got on the bikes and started descending towards Bariloche. The road was stunning. We kept riding on the shores of bluish and sometimes turquoise lakes (which were really one big lake masquerading as many) with snowy peaks in the background.
We desperately needed an oil change. We didn’t do it in Santiago because a liter was $16 there. Here, to our delight, though after two or three hours of searching, we found the same oil to be $8 a liter. Five liters meant $40 saved. It’s true that it cost us an entire afternoon, but we are now in a place where we have plenty of time and a limited supply of money, and our trip would not be possible if it wasn’t for these decisions.

From Bariloche, Argentina

After buying the oil we had to change it. This is a process that we’ve done many times, and is really not worth mentioning. In fact the only reason I mention it here is for the sake of Erika’s satisfaction and my humility, for something happened in the process that serves well both. In order to get the old oil out from the bike, one needs, among other things, to remove the sump plug on the bottom of the bike. This plug, at least on the BMW, is a poorly designed 24mm bolt that needs to be tight and yet has a very low profile, so that, if you are on the road and don’t carry a socket wrench you are bound to struggle with a 24 open wrench that will slip off the too-flat bolt. In other words, I couldn’t get the damn thing loose. My wrench, though relatively long, proved to be too short. What I needed was something to bang it with. Seeing no rocks around, I grabbed the only thing in sight that seemed hard enough—a wine bottle we still had from a winery in Chile. You know how an egg is fragile from the sides but strong if you press it from top to bottom? Well, I figured the same was true with bottles of wine—the only way I saw them break in 31 years of seeing them break was from their side. Never from the bottom. So naturally I struck the wrench with the bottom of a nice bottle of wine.

The next thing I knew wine was mixing with grease, everything smelt good, and Erika was laughing so hard that she was barely able to get in the words “you are such an idiot” and “I will always remind you of this whenever you criticize me doing something silly.”
The oil was changed, the sun was setting, and we put everything back on our bikes, including a nice red Chilean Malbec stored in a box of orange juice, and went in search for a camping site we read about.

the scene of the crime

From Bariloche, Argentina

damn you Yaniv

From Bariloche, Argentina


From Bariloche, Argentina

When we finally found it we discovered it hadn’t been a camping site for years, and when we found another one we discovered they wanted $25 per person. We were discouraged, cold, hungry, and desperately in need of a shower (our last one was in Santiago, five or six night ago). We started to ask people outside their homes.

From Bariloche, Argentina
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Drinking and driving in Santa Cruz, Chile

From Santiago we decided to head towards the famous wine growing region. The landscape is gentle and pastoral, lots of green fields and cottonwood trees. The small town of Santa Cruz boasts many famous wineries and we were excited to try them all. Unfortunately, we arrived a little late in the day (story of our trip) so we decided to camp and start drinking the next morning (story of our life). We stopped by a cute little wine store to get a bottle for the night and we also picked up some great local cheese. The owner of the store was very friendly and spoke a little English. We asked him where was a good place to camp and he offered us the land next to a small studio he rents out to tourists. The cabin goes for $100 a night but he said if we had a tent we could stay there for free. We had a porch, a fireplace and a gorgeous view of the vineyards and the hills and the soft golden light that characterizes most wine countries.

our host

From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile

 

From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile
From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile

That morning we woke ready for wine, and headed off for the wineries our host recommended. It felt very romantic to be riding our fully loaded bikes through the vineyards. Very rarely I think about what other people think when they see us. This time I thought we must look pretty freaking cool. Unfortunately for us, the tastings were a little on the expensive side for our budget. We only did two tastings, and decided it was more cost effective to buy bottles.

From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile
From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile
From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile
From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile

ummm, undertones of cherry, dirt and cinnamon? totally man. though maybe you should give me a refill to make sure…

From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile

viewing the world through rose tinted glasses

From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile

post-tasting rest session

From The Central Valley–Wine country south of Santiago, Chile
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Feel the Sunshine – Santiago, Chile / Erika Rowe

Pulling into Santiago was wonderful. It is a beautiful city, very European with lots of fountains and parks and tree lined streets. We couchsurfed with a great American guy named Eric. He lives in a fantastic light-filled apartment in a lively neighborhood called Miraflores. The streets are crammed with bookshops and beautiful graffiti and at night there is live music coming from every bar and restaurant. Best of all, Eric lives right next to a beautiful natural park that is crowned by a beautiful statue of the virgin Mary. We enjoyed a delicious BBQ there with his friends. One thing we have noticed about Chileans is that anytime there is a gathering of more than three somebody starts singing. We ended up going through all of the classic Beach Boy songs with his friends.

Our host Eric and gf Julia. Please, use your imagination to come up with an appropriate heading…

From Santiago

BBQ!

From Santiago

beware

From Santiago

our mobile library. we finally decided to unload and send some books home

From Santiago

lovely couple that mended Yaniv’s sleeping bag and compression sack. It was so refreshing to see people who loved and respected their work and did it well.

From Santiago

Yaniv looking cool with his Pisco Sour

From Santiago

my new scarf, cause every girl deserves a little color

From Santiago

lovely view of the fountain

From Santiago

heading towards the most delicious sandwiches EVER

From Santiago

drool

From Santiago

nice street art next to Pablo Neruda’s house

From Santiago

us and Santiago

From Santiago

the lady herself

From Santiago
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The Atacama Desert and Northern Chile / Erika Rowe

The border crossing into Chile was quick and painless. A little paperwork, a little luggage checking, and we were through.

We rode the few kilometers into Arica and started looking for a hostel. I was in the mood for camping. Chile was already proving to be more expensive than any other country and I knew our budget couldn’t get us much. Yaniv felt like showering, which I can’t blame him for. So we found a little place and maneuvered our bikes through the narrow hallway, practically blocking the whole thing. The room itself was predictably shabby and moldy, with the standard hair on the sheets and DISGUSTING grey blanket that has been following us since Mexico. I think it’s made out of recycled cardboard and the filth that’s left in the bottom of the trashcan when there is a whole in the bag. So we were suitably depressed by our surroundings and decided to go out and walk a bit.

We hiked up a hill towards the Jesus and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the sea and the town. Yaniv took the opportunity to take some photos and I tracked the progress of a line of cars that were driving slowly, blocking traffic and keeping up a steady symphony of honking. They kept this up for over an hour. Personally, I just don’t get it. Is this really how you want to celebrate prom or a wedding? By sitting in a line of cars and honking?

standard Jesus

romantic, no?

Moods lifted by the altitude, we decided to go downtown and buy ingredients for Yaniv’s delicious spaghetti Bolognese. We were rewarded by a glittery parade of dancers dressed up in some sort of traditional costume, taking the street by storm. Unfortunately, by the time we returned to the hostel Yaniv had a headache, so we skipped dinner and called it a night. The fleas, on the other hand, had a merry time of it. To cap everything off, in the morning, we were greeted in the eating area by a stinky pile of dog poo. And they say money can’t buy happiness.

cool costumes, happy men

Desert, desert, and more desert. We had one blissful stop at a small oasis where the air was permeated by the sweet smell of ripe melons. A few melon smoothies and empanadas later we continued our dry descent.

melon heaven

When it started getting dark I insisted on stopping somewhere with wood for a fire. A rough road led over a baked surface to a small stand of trees. The road was so rough I eventually let Yaniv take over and drive the last few meters.

you can’t really see the roughness here, but believe me, it’s there

We lucked out by finding a flat spot sheltered by the scrubby stand. Once the motors were turned off we were surprised by groans and sharp cracking sounds coming from the ground. On closer inspection we realized the vast mud flat surrounding us was actually a very dirty salt flat. The sounds came from the hard salt stones settling against each other and reacting to the heat of the day. That night it was harder than usual to start the campfire, so yaniv decided to use a little of the extra fuel to get it going. We were carrying two liter and a half bottles of gasoline. He took one, poured out a thin stream, then looked on in horror as the fire traveled up the stream and caught the bottle on fire. We both stood transfixed for a few seconds, than he tossed the flaming bottle away. Well, you can just imagine what a disaster this could have been. We are Smokey’s worst nightmare. Luckily for us, we were in the middle of nothing and the flaming bottle of gasoline landed in a salt crater and burned merrily away for the next few hours.

cooking dinner

fun with gasoline

this is a liter and a half of gasoline. on fire.

fire bugs

find the iguana

That day my motorcycle developed a small but distressing hiccup. At about 55 or 60 MPH the engine would turn off for a few seconds. Then it would turn on again. We checked all fluid levels, and everything seemed fine. Also, my chain started skipping. We limped into the city desperate for a mechanic. The next day we found one. He turned out to be a very frustrating man. He spoke English, which was great, but he talked incessantly and divulged way too much information about his bedroom prowess. We tightened the battery screws (duh) which solved the hiccupping and changed the gears, which took a ridiculously long time.

at the mechanic

A few kilometers south of town the impressive “Mano de Desierto” loomed into sight. It was a little shocking to see this well-known (to motorcyclists) landmark grow out of the desert floor. I felt like we had finally got somewhere, like we might actually make it all the way south. We rode on into the moon landscape and camped. The wind was something fierce and I was feeling crummy so Yaniv pampered me by letting me sit cozy in the tent drinking wine while he cooked dinner. Since entering Ecuador camping has been the norm. Generally the beautiful landscapes are preferable to yucky hotels, but every once in a while the whole routine of unpacking the tent, setting it up, inflating the mattresses, zipping the sleeping bags together, setting up the stove, then the reverse the next morning, becomes a little tiresome. On the other hand, the solitude and the silence can’t be beat.

We continued on towards Santiago, encountering along the way the world’s smallest toilet, a suspicious burn site next to an abandoned mine and of course the friendly dogs at our favorite gas station, COPEC. Why do we love Copec? Is it the hot showers, the clean bathrooms, the free internet? Well, naturally, all of the above. Most of all, it’s the free condiments. Every day we could stop and check email while making delicious sandwiches with mustard, mayo and, best of all, guacamole!
 

From Chile: camping in the Atacama desert to Santiago
From Chile: camping in the Atacama desert to Santiago
From Chile: camping in the Atacama desert to Santiago
From Chile: camping in the Atacama desert to Santiago
From Chile: camping in the Atacama desert to Santiago
From Chile: camping in the Atacama desert to Santiago

the less glamorous side of camping…

 

the grey stuff at the mouth of the mine is huge amounts of burned papers, financial documents in fact. not at all suspicious.

the first night of camping on grass in a loooooong time

no tricks here, this is really the smallest toilet I have ever seen

wow, just…wow

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The Tire Saga: Same Week, different view point / Erika Rowe

As I watched Yaniv’s bus dwindle into the vast silence of the surrounding desert I considered my new situation. Alone, 60 miles of dirt road away from the closest town, in a house servicing the road company AGVP workers. Not too shabby. Jose, my host for the time being, was the quiet type, which is fine by me considering my Spanish (or Castellano) is limited to questions about the bike and how much something costs. I spent the evening watching the subtle range of light on the nearby hills and cottonwoods.

bikes in the hangar with new road signs

The next day Jose packed up his few belongings and told me is going to spend some time on his farm with his horse. His replacement, Christian, was a bit chatty for my tastes, but very nice. Since I was already in residence when he arrived, I suddenly had the status of an old-timer, using the kitchen and bathroom at my discretion. He invited me to use one of the beds in the heated dormitory, but I declined. My tent was pretty frosty at night, but afforded me a measure of privacy in a world dominated by men.


Tamel Aike

Tamel Aike is a truly interesting place. For thousands of years, it was used by the indigenous population who valued the sweet spring nestled in its hills. Today you can still see the faint outline of a foot path leading away from a shallow pool that services the wildlife. About a hundred years ago the local government built the building that still exists there. It was used as a police station and jail. One of the local Gauchos showed me some Chilean passports from 1923 that he found there above the ceiling boards. The narrow bathroom stalls in the back were the jail cells. Leonardo, the last man to be manning the station during my 10 day stay there, locks his door at night to protect against the ghosts of all the men executed over the years. Even now, the nicely groomed garden full of delicious red berries and the white-washed exterior are off-set by the multitude of bones and animal parts gracing the grounds. Meat is so abundant here that the dogs and cats are thrown whole rabbits and half a guanaco for dinner.


delicious

The culture of Tamel Aike is tranquil and hospitable. The official mission of the care-taker is to man the short-wave radio and provide help, either mechanical or medical, to road crews that are often 100 miles away from any support. He also fulfills an important social role in an area dominated by isolated Estancias. During the day, almost every third vehicle (on average about two vehicles per hour pass) stops to ask for directions, or to use the bathroom, or to share some mate. The kitchen is always heated and there is always a kettle of water warming. For lunch and dinner large cuts of meat are roasted or stewed with onions and carrots. Whoever happens to be there is invited to eat. Gauchos come by for company and to watch a bit of Gran Hermano (24 hour Big Brother) which everyone watches with intensity.

typical lunch

I was a welcome curiosity there. It was obvious that I was at home in the cozy kitchen, and lumbering men moved delicately around me while I studied Hebrew or typed. I set the table and made salads (nobody eats vegetables if they can help it) and marveled at the unending tide of meat that made its way into the two freezers in the hallway. A couple of young men would come by, eat two pieces of chicken, then go out to their pick-up truck and return with half a sheep to contribute to tomorrows meal. We didn’t save leftover steaks, we just threw them outside to the dogs. When I cut the fat off my meat, someone would invariably ask for it and shovel it in with copious amounts of white bread and butter. I ate more during this week than any other on our entire trip, including our fatty times in Mexico City.

Really, there is not much else to do besides eat. Water the plants, feed the chickens, it doesn’t take up too much time. The cold-spell and 80 kph winds put an end to hill-side tramping. One day I hitchhiked into Gregores to by some supplies and use the internet. Unlike Yaniv, who spent three hours standing next to the road waiting to get picked up, I was rewarded immediately by a ride from a trucker hauling maybe a hundred tightly packed sheep. He drove very slowly, 20 kph, so a supposedly hour and a half ride turned into three and half. He was also very hard of hearing yet insisted on asking me questions like “what is your father’s profession?” Now everyone in my family is a “professor” which is the only shouted word he could understand.

It was getting dark as I left the grocery store and lugged my box (Argentina has a new law limiting shoppers to two grocery bags, good for them) to the gas station to get a ride. It got dark. No cars passed. By nine I was panicking a little. It was very very cold and I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. Finally a truck lumbered up and I jumped in. It took a little bit of stilted conversation to figure out that the driver didn’t really know where he was going, so we drove down the road a bit so he could ask directions. Luckily for me, he needed to go by Tamel Aike. During our fast ride home we jammed to MJ and Madonna and tried to avoid the rabbits, which was pretty futile. Every large bump shut his headlights off which offered a few seconds of thrilling darkness and grinding breaks before they switched on again and we both sighed with relief. It was almost eleven when we arrived. I watched out the kitchen window until almost 2 am and not a single other car passed.

One night Christian looked out the window and said “your boyfriend’s here.” I thought he was joking and refused to look up. I was missing Yaniv terribly and didn’t want to be disappointed. But there he was, red-faced from the cold and exultant with two new tires. The next day I caught a ride into town with Chiquito, an old lonely man who had spent the last three days with us rather than alone on his farm. He dropped me off at the same Gomeria that we visited before. The original guy was not there, which was unfortunate because his replacement was an ill-tempered, impatient young man who knew nothing about changing motorcycle tires. I kept a close eye on him, which pissed him off, but proved to be ridiculously necessary. When trying to break the bead, rather than using the machine they have specifically for that purpose, he threw the tire with the break side down and proceeded to jump on it. I pushed him off and told him, no, that’s not the way to do it. I talked to him in my pidgin Spanish, gesturing until I was sure he understood me. “Look, this arrow needs to go on this side of the rim, and this red spot here needs to go next to the air valve hole.” He assured me he understood. I left to go pee. I returned to find he had neglected my instructions and centered the tire incorrectly. I vacillated for a few moments. Should I make him redo it? Should we redo it? I hate confrontations. I decided to wait until he finished the second tire. For this one I had to keep repositioning the tire, which caused him to turn to his friends and say really nice things about me. He also constantly stopped to drink mate, whistle at girls, and text. Once he had correctly finished the second tire, I picked up the first and pointed out the problem. He spent about a minute throwing tools and saying really wonderful things about me to his friends. But he finished eventually. This time it was tougher getting a ride. I waited for two hours for a car to pass when finally a young man stopped for me. He was a Gaucho getting ready to go north to work on an Estancia shearing sheep. About fifty kilometers into the drive he got a flat. With practiced hands he quickly went to work. Unfortunately, the menacing clouds that had been approaching all afternoon finally caught up with us and quickly drenched us with rain and hail. I got back in the truck as it was soon obvious that he didn’t need any help. By the time we got to Tamel Aike he had another flat. It became clear to me why everyone here carries two spare tires.

Christian left, Leonardo came. He cooked delicious spaghetti Bolognese and taught us how to shoot his rifle and air rifle. I am a crack shot, oddly enough. When we ran out of bullets we threw stones at targets. Later that night he went out and brought back a rabbit. They are an introduced species and driving the ranchers crazy, so it’s fine here to kill them and throw a whole rabbit to a kitten. Speaking of kittens, my stay was made much cozier by a little ginger kitty that liked to share my sleeping bag at night. It was difficult to leave her behind. It was difficult to leave Tamel Aike behind. It’s one of the closest places I’ve had to home for the last seven months. At some point, we both realized that we now take experiences like this for granted. We had hot showers, delicious meals and warm beds for free. I could probably have stayed there for months before anyone official took notice, and I already had standing invitations to stay at any of the estancias nearby. The hospitality of Argentinians has been truly overwhelming and hugely appreciated by us. It is a beautiful country with beautiful traditions and beautiful people that I just can’t get enough of.


my bed mate


I would be so hard core if I could just wipe that silly grin off my face




be patient young paduan

kitty vainly trying to keep us there

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The Tire Saga: Part Two / Yaniv Singer

Next morning I packed a big backpack and walked with Erika to the road. For 3 hours we stood there. Perhaps 10 cars passed but no one stopped. At 4 pm a bus passed. I paid 100 peso and got on. It was filled with tourists. Half Israeli and half not. They all wondered what town I just got on in. When I explained it was but a house they wondered how I got there.

The bus ride to Perito Moreno lasted 5 hours. It was the first time I was on a non-city bus since I commuted to Eilat for my failed thesis in Israel. I realized during this time what I had suspected for 7 months, that traveling by bus is very passive and boring. I felt sorry for all those people trying to take pictures with flash and automatic focus through the windows that won’t open. It is such a shame that the only thing they would remember from the epic route 40 was how hot and bumpy the bus ride was. I felt a touch superior to them. Some argue that bus versus bike is a matter of taste, but I argue that traveling in general is all about having new experiences that one cannot have at home. While people on buses (and I have nothing against them. In all trips before this one I was in fact one of them and I loved it) are stuck in a metal cage in between destinations we breathe in air molecules from any point on the road. While they are destined to talk to other travelers, which are usually the kind of people they could meet at home in a bar, we can and are forced to interact with locals along the way. While many bus takers tend to sleep in hotels near bus terminals when the bus makes a night stop, we sleep out in nature and on the lands of families that, because they are not city people, invite us to spend the night with them. In short, being on that bus I realized that Erika and I encounter daily experiences that travelers by buses don’t even know exist.

The bus pulled into Perito Moreno at 9 pm. All the tourists checked into the hotel where the bus stopped by, while I used the last hour the town would be awake to seek tires and/or knowledge about their whereabouts. No tires here. As for knowledge, it was once again confused and scattered with chunks of bad news.

The bad news was that it was Saturday night, and that on Sunday all is closed, no matter what city I would go to. The worse news was that conveniently, Monday and Tuesday was carnival in Argentina. So really, all tire shops in this great republic, wherever they may dwell, would be closed till Wednesday.

All the motorcyclists I stopped in town told me that the best place for me to go was Comodoro, 400 km east of Perito Moreno. After trying to hitch a ride in the general direction for an hour I went in search for a bed. I found a dormitory in the municipal camping, as well as 3 motorcyclists from Ushuaia. They confirmed that my best shot was Comodoro. I climbed into my bunk bed and spent an hour or two trying to fall asleep but only being able to miss Erika. We hadn’t spent a night apart in over a year.

In the morning I had coffee and media lunas (a very fitting name for croissants), and walked to the edge of town. There was a bus leaving to Comodoro at 4m, so I figured I could use the time to try and catch a ride. In three unsuccessful hours I developed and tested a hypothesis. The fancier the car was, the less likely it was to stop and ask me where do I need a ride to. Looking back at my hitchhiking past, I confirmed that I never got picked up by a Mecedes, a Lexus, a Jaguar, an Audi, or anything fancy like that. Readers who are aware of some statistical theory will note that this is the case because there are less fancy cars out there, and this could be true, but if I consider all brands of nice cars and 15 years of hitching I must confess that it is odd that not a single one stopped. By the way, in 7 months of asking families to camp on their lawns we are noticing the same thing. The nicer the house, the nicer the neighborhood, the nicer the car in the drive way, the more likely we are to be denied. I was finally picked up by a guy in an ’81 Ford Falcon with doors that wouldn’t close all the way.


Mauro


I was lucky. Mauro, the guy who picked me up, was very friendly. We spoke of cars, peak oil, and corruption. He taught me how to make good mate, and throughout the 5 hour ride I prepared this Argentinian drink that we shared from the metal straw. How un-American I thought, looking back at all the times I got dirty looks in the states for wanting to share cutlery or plates or bottles in the US. For the first hour he drove 70 mph, but then we caught up with his truck, driven by a driver that worked for him, and were confined to 40 mph for the rest of the way.

Obsessed with tires, and learning that Mauro rides dirt bikes, I asked him how much he thinks a set of Metzler Tourances would cost here. He guessed around $600, and the daily dilemma that makes you sick on the inside was tossed on my lap. If it was really $600, and I need two sets, that’s $1200. In Chile I remembered seeing a set for $300, so for a difference of $600 I might as well use the two days I have to spend in Comodoro hitchhiking to Chile. Of course, this would not be a dilemma if I knew that this was their price. The problem was that I wouldn’t be able to find out for sure till the shops open on Wednesday. And it was only Saturday. After an hour of thinking in loops I was almost saved. We saw a group of five riders going the opposite direction on big bikes. They were stopped at a checkpoint. I asked Mauro to pull over, and went to talk with them. They had BMWs with Tourances, but unfortunately they were all from Uruguay. One said that the rear tire alone should cost around $300 in Argentina, but he was not sure.

Mauro dropped me off at a hotel he said was cheap, and took off. It was 220 peso a night, so I decided to use the wifi for a while before I search for a different hotel. I used the time to research the Sahara. This is something that I absolutely love about the internet. A consumer with access to it is no longer in the dark. You can make yourself an expert in any specialized field very quickly, and you can read real unbiased reviews for any product under the sun. I knew the Saharas were good, since they are made by Metzeler, but what I found out was that they are really designed for people who do a lot of dirt roads, and that they would be wasted on us, who are about to exit Patagonia with its multitude of dirt roads. Because it designed for dirt, it is softer, and therefore has a range of only 5000 miles or so. As mentioned above, we covered 15,000 miles on ours, and I don’t want to buy more tires before the end of the trip. I decided to go and look for a cheaper hotel, and if I can’t find one, to buy a ticket for the night bus. After walking for a few blocks, however, I spotted Mauro’s car, and peaked into a store front with some kid party going on in it. Mauro saw me, and came out with his wife. She immediately invited me to spend the night, and within 10 minutes they had dropped me off at the house with a pile of beef empanadas from the party and a bottle of coke, upon which they left the house again, telling me they would be back in a few hours.


first night in Comodore

mmm, empanadas

I sat there watching Sherlock Holmes on pirated HBO, munching on the most delicious empanadas I had in my life, thinking about how much I love Argentina and how lucky I was. I thought back of the time when I was travelling through the US, and when I asked some woman in Indiana if I can park my van in her driveway and sleep in it for the night. She said yes and closed the door, but within 10 minutes three police cruisers shined their spotlights on my van. As I stepped out from the car to see what happened they drew their guns and called out from a loud speaker: “Step back into the vehicle and put your hands on the steering wheel, Sir.” I spent the night in a homeless shelter, thinking about the term ‘sir,’ how originally it was used as a sign of respect, and how in my 5 years in the States I seldom heard it used with that intent. How different things are here. Mauro knew me for 5 hours, his wife, Karina, knew me for 5 minutes, and they left me in their home with all of their stuff. When they came back they gave me a mattress and told me I can stay in the living room for as long as I needed to. I fell into deep and uninterrupted sleep.

My three days in Comodoro were spent in sweet idleness. On Sunday night we went out to the butcher and bought 7 kilos of sheep. As I was teaching Mauro to drink wine, he was teaching me the patient way of the Parilla, the Argentinian barbecue. It all starts with the animals. In the thousands of miles we covered in Argentina the only form in which we saw cows and sheep was out in pastures, roaming freely and happily through the vast lands, never in a cow factory confined to cages, as in the States. This is the only reason I can think of for why the meat here tastes so much better than in the States. Yes, the animals die, and are eaten, but it seems that unlike in the States, they are happy during their lives, and so their happiness must pass into their flesh. Next, the meat is never stuffed into a freezer. The Gauchos sell their cows directly to the butchers, who sell them directly to the people. Finally, when people here fire up the barbecue it always takes a lot of time. No one uses gas barbecues, as they are commonly used in the states, only wood and charcoal. They wait till the coals are ready, remove them all except for a lone coal for every square inch or so, and grill the meat over low for a long time, taking live coals every now and then to replace the dying ones. By the time the entire family and I sat to eat it was past midnight. By the time we finished dessert it was past 2 am. Aside from eating to my heart’s delight, I played PlayStation with the kids, saw lots of movies, and almost finished reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, slowing down only because every chapter made me sadder than the one before, and it was really quite overwhelming.


prepare


cook


eat

Wednesday morning finally came, and off I went to the tire shops of Comodoro. Since I decided to avoid the Saharas, I didn’t go to Mauro’s friend’s shop. Instead, I went to the dealers of Yamaha and Honda in town. Honda only had super pricey Michelin tires, but Yamaha had the Metzelers I was looking for, well, at least the rear ones, which was fine, since I decided we can get front ones when we return to Chile. As I was comparing the numbers on the sidewall of the new tires with what we had, I again sunk into a state of disinformation.

Here is the writing on our old tires:
130/80 R 17 M/C 65H Made in Germany Tubeless-for tube type rims use tubes
And here is what was on the new ones:
130/80-17 M/C 65S Made in Brazil For Tube Type rims

In other words, I was missing an R, instead of an H I had an S. The tire salesman did not know the significance of these letters. Their cost was 680 pesos, or $160. He said that he doesn’t stock the made in Germany ones, but that if he did, their price was $350. He admitted that the ones from Germany were better made. As I went to find WiFi to research the significance of the letters I wondered why one tire could be used both with and without a tube, while the other needs a tube. They looked exactly like our tires. I also wondered how a company like Metzeler would allow for two tires to be made, with identical model names, and yet for one to be better than the other. With everything I buy, I’m used to associating certain brands with certain level of quality, without having to read the label of where they were fabricated.

Since it took me quite a while to find information of the significance of the letters and numbers on the sidewall of the tires, I decided to leave out everything that I found there, the addition of this conversation thread would leave people confused. Maybe I’ll post it else where later.

Not having too many options, and still having faith in the brand, I bought two rear Metzeler Tourance tires, and Mauro took me to the bus station. I thought of hitchhiking, but Comodoro was a very big city and I was in the center of it. It would be like trying to hitchhike to Boston from 38th and 5th in Manhattan. I bought a ticket for San Julian, a town down the coast East of G. Gregores, on a bus leaving the following morning. That night Mauro and Karina left for a party, so I volunteered to make dinner for the boys. I recalled my favorite dinner as a child, and made them French fries, fried eggs, hamburgers from beef that was just ground, and a salad to ease my conscience about giving the kid a heart condition. It was simply delicious, and the salad especially was something that they were really impressed by. It was Erika’s salad, but I passed it off as mine. I was glad I was able to give something back to the family that has giving me so much.


hamburger fixin’s


a different kind of view

The bus left at 8:30 AM and arrived in San Julian at 2 PM. It was empty, and I sat on the second floor in the front row, enjoying my last day of passive traveling. San Julian had a bus for Gregores, once a day, at 10 PM. It was Thursday, and I resolved to spend the night with Erika, and since after Gregores I still had to find a way to cover the 100 km west to Tamel Aike, I decided to hitchhike instead of waiting for the bus. One Toyota Hilux took me to the intersection of the paved highway with the dirt road that led to Gregores. I waited there for an hour hiding behind a sign from the fierce wind without a single car passing. The first car that passed was also a Toyota Hilux that took me 150 km towards Gregores. I still had 50 to go. After a half hour or so a third Toyota Hilux with the logo of AGVP, the road company that owned the house where Erika was staying, slid to a halt next to me on the gravel road. Though they were not going to Tamel Aike like I was hoping, they took me to Gregores. At some point they started telling me something about how Tamel Aike has been shut down in the last week. If I knew with certainty that this is what they said I would have panicked. But they all started laughing. They saw the tires, and guessed that I was going back to Erika, whom they either met already or heard of. So they decided to pull my leg. I realized that although Patagonia was enormous, it had so few people that really everyone knew everyone else. They dropped me off at the gas station in Gregores. They were going to Tamel Aike the following morning, but even though it was already 7 pm, I decided to take my chances and hitchhike out of town.


At 7:30 pm a pick-up truck with a strong smell of alcohol leaking through its windows pulled up. In the States I would have not entered such a car, but I was freezing and eager to see Erika, so I got in. Besides, one thing that I learned from our voyage and even from the past week, was to accept whatever comes, and not to worry about it too much. I often wonder at the timing of things. For example, I wonder what my week would have been like had I been picked up by another car and not Mauro’s. Would I be invited to stay 4 nights in their house? Would I have ended up in Chile for another adventure? Would they have an accident? Anyway, off we went into the sunset. The sun was right in our faces, and I couldn’t see anything threw the dirty and cracked windshield. I wonder how the driver saw. They had to stop every 10 or 15 minutes to pee, explaining to me that they just had lots of beer. I was glad that they were honest, but now I knew for sure that both men were drunk, and not only the one sitting between the driver and myself, as I had hoped. I finally understood how the driver was fine driving against the sun in blindness. He was simply too drunk to notice details and knew the road more or less by heart. For a moment there I thought of not accepting whatever comes, and stepping out of the truck, but a few minutes later we were all passing a beer between us, feeling happy with the sun finally gone, leaving only its afterglow.


ummm, salud?


damn, the road was there just a second ago

They arrived at the entrance to their estancia, or farm, which was 10 km away from the dirt road. It was almost completely dark, and suggesting that I won’t find another ride for the remaining 40 km that separated Erika from me, they invited me to spend the night. Under any other circumstances, I would have. But I had been away from Erika for a whole week, and was really aching for her. So I stepped out of the truck, and saw them disappearing into the hills.


encroaching darkness

It was freezing and dark. After a half an hour of walking in circles so as to keep warm and without any sign of a vehicle coming my way I lamented my decision. I should have gone with them. After an hour I used the light of the iphone I had with me to try and find a flat place for me to put my sleeping bag. Erika had the tent. In the darkness and silence of my surrounding I came to accept my fate as a price to pay for an unbelievable love, and instead of complaining to myself that I don’t have food, a flashlight, or a tent, I started to see that I had a warm sleeping bag, an iphone for music, and water, and that everything is still and beautiful and perfect. In this moment of acceptance, I saw a ghost of light in the distance that soon disappeared. Then I saw it come on again for a minute, and again disappear, in the same spot it had before. I didn’t think it was likely that some house that I hadn’t noticed on the way was turning its lights on and off, but on the other hand, if it was a car passing through the hills that were blocking its lights from me every now and then, why is it not moving. Five minutes later it began to show up in different places, and I realized that when I first saw it it was coming straight at me, but from very far away, and that’s why its location hadn’t changed. After another five minutes it was coming up the bend near where I was. I used the iphone application of a strobing light to announce my existence in the night, and thanked my good luck.

It was a 1964 Ford F-100 truck, driven by a local Gaucho who not only knew English, but also knew where Chico, CA was. He dated a girl from the University of Chico, and aside from raising cows on his 300 Hectares he was also running the Argentenian branch of some American law school. I was so happy to finally be able to talk to someone without language constraints. At 11 PM he dropped me off at Tamel Aike, after the truck had run over four hares that surely came to sacrifice themselves for the magical lights that came sailing through the darkness and that they confused for their god. I was finally back home.

The next morning Erika caught a ride with the new tires and the old wheels to Gregores to have them replaced. By the time she came back we decided it was too late to leave, and that we would pack and go tomorrow. We spent the night watching incredible footage from the Japanese Tsunami. The next morning we overslept, and by the time we started packing it was 3 PM. We asked if we could spend another night. The following day at noon, after the bikes spent 10 days in its hanger, we finally left Tamel Aike. I think it took us that long to leave because we really didn’t want to. We’ve gotten used to playing with the cat, eating amazing meat twice a day, and playing with air guns and bigger .22 caliber ones. It felt like we were leaving home to a trip that frankly both of us became kind of sick of.

As we were riding down the road and I was enjoying being in control of my motion again I wondered how long the front tires would last us, especially considering the new fact that I discovered while installing the wheels and that totally blew me away. Our front tires, the ones that were outliving our German-made rear ones, were made in Brazil. I rode the remaining of the day not being able to decide if this was good news or bad news.

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The Tire Saga: Part One / Yaniv Singer

The first time we started to notice the wear on our rear tires was around Santiago, Chile, after roughly twelve thousand miles of riding. Though we saw the tires we needed in more than one place, without even searching for them, we never really considered buying them. First of all, Chile was by far the most expensive country we had visited in the trip, and our logic told us that nothing big should be purchased in it. Second, what we saw was only the beginning of wear. It hardly seemed like a serious issue.

And it wasn’t. After Santiago we still rode three or four thousand miles without any problem all the way down to Ushuaia. By the time we got there, however, the wear on my rear tire was serious enough for me to say to Erika that we should buy new tires if we see them, but typically, not serious enough for me to actually go and actively search for new tires. What I did go searching for, however, was more chain lube. It appears that I take things way more seriously if I am scarred by an unwanted history with them, or in this case, by having the teeth in my rear sprocket become so sharpened by my continually-loosening and degrading chain that they began to chip off and refuse to do the part needed by them for the locomotion of the bike, and having to wait three weeks in Cartagena for new parts to arrive by mail. This relates to the saga, because searching for lube brought me to the only motorcycle shop in town. Even though Ushuaia is surprisingly large size, motorcycles are not very common due to its mere 3 month per year of ride-able weather. In the shop I saw Metzeler Sahara tires. I asked if he held the Tourance, which was the model that brought us thus far, but he answered in the negative. Oh well, we thought, we’ll just buy them later.

What we did not take into account was the fact that from Ushuaia to Bariloche the plan was to travel with our moms and my aunt. The three ladies in a rented car, and us on the bikes. To be more exact, we did take that into account, but we didn’t realize what a pace we’ll have to take in order to keep up with them. We left Ushuaia on the 22nd of February, due to arrive in Bariloche by March 4th (The only date in the calendar that is also a command, by the way). It was, and still is, not a leap year. This left ten days to cover roughly 2000 miles, about a third of which was gravel, and still visit and do activities in Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine, the awesome glacier of Perito Moreno, Fitz Roy in El Chalten, and the caraterra Austral, time permitting. Suddenly we had to wake up at 6:30 AM and ride on some days beyond a point of exhaustion, with minimal breaks. This fashion of motion was alien to us. Up to that point we were accustomed to get out of our sleeping bags only when they became too warm, roughly around 10 AM (on rainy days we wouldn’t bother to leave them at all, except when nature called, though on such days we tried to keep her dormant as well), take multiple breaks while losing track of time, stopping a lot to photograph, and stopping an hour or so before sundown. In this way we would cover sometime only 100 km a day. And now we had multiple days of 500 km and more. Stopping to search for tires and taking the day to install them was out of the question. We decided to just do it in Bariloche.



route 40, in a nutshell


But Bariloche never came. Another side effect of travelling with the ladies was our speed. On dirt roads we were fine, but on asphalt the ladies sometimes drove 95 mph, pressured by time and reassured by the general lack of police in Patagonia. We had to keep up. This wasn’t a problem for our engines, but my tire was getting tired of me completely taking his existence for granted. On the day we left El Chalten, a few miles into route 40, the beginning of our final 2 day long stretch of 1500 km to Bariloche, in a gas station in Tres Lagos, I noticed something peculiar. More amused than concerned, I pointed out the thumb sized hole in my now completely slick rear tire to Erika. Being the one that keeps us in reality, she immediately figured out that what lay beyond the hole was a flat tube. Not counting Erika’s flats, which were caused by her sudden decision to lay her bike down horizontally with the help of a big and sharp boulder in Baja California, this was our first flat tire in seven months and roughly fifteen thousand miles.


camping with the ladies


beautiful morning sky

stopping to pump

adorable Puma attack dogs

That’s a lot of miles to go without a flat, so before I continue the telling of the saga, I would like to give some advice to riders who want to avoid flats. I believe that such a paragraph is warranted because I see and hear about so many people with flats, and I think that our success has little to do with luck, though I admit that generally we are a lucky couple.

We are not tire experts, but here is a list of flat-tire repellents that worked for us, and might work for you:

1. It is important to have good and expensive tires. We chose Metzler Tourance since in my opinion the more something is German the better it is, with obvious exceptions of course. As for people who wonder how aggressive their tires should be for the trip, I can perhaps assure you by the fact that we never had any problems of traction with our 95% road bound Tourance tires, even though we did dirt riding in Baja Califonia, rode down the Caraterra Austral in Chile, and route 40 in Argentina. The advantage of a tire made mostly for road is that it is harder, and will last you longer. Not unless you intend to race in dirt, you don’t need knobbies or even something like the Sahara.

2. Next, and I think many neglect this, if you are riding with tubes, take the effort to replace your tubes with 3 mm heavy duty tubes. Again, go for the good ones.

3. Before your trip put slime in your tubes. Yes, some people say (not to mention the label on the slime bottles) that it would make you unstable at high speeds, but neither of us felt this, so I say go for it.

4. Ride at higher pressures than what is recommended by your bike. People who ride dirt bikes competitively get flats all the time. This is the price they willingly pay for having better traction in the dirt by riding at a lower psi. It also makes the ride more comfortable. You don’t feel each pebble because the tire is soft, and has give. If this is your thing then go for it. If, however, like us, you are riding with a few suitcases on your bike, and care for your bike to reach its destination a few thousand miles away, then riding competitively is not your thing anyway. Our bike recommends 30 psi in dirt and 33 on paved road. We ride at 35 psi everywhere. Yes, the ride is bumpier, but that just means that I won’t be tempted to ride too fast, and that I have less chances of being stranded on a desert road, whether it’s waiting for a spare tube, spare tire, or an ambulance. If I ever need traction in mud or sand I can always deflate it for 20, especially for the occasion.

5. Finally, this relates to the above but people tend to forget it, check your tire pressure every few days. Remember that a warm tire has 10% more pressure than a cold one. I.e., if you want to ride at 35 and you are checking the pressure after a few hours of riding, don’t be shy, go ahead and pump her up to 38. On the same topic, always carry your own pressure indicator. Many places don’t have one, and even if they do, you want to be consistent.

I don’t want to talk about it

The Saga Continues. Panic we did not. We took of my wheel, put it in the trunk of the ladies, and rode to the local gomeria, or tire garage, in the town of Tres Lagos. The guy attending it was young, unimaginative, and without an overwhelming urge to help us. He simply said, “I can’t fix it, sorry,” but without the “sorry.” I insisted. I said let’s start by taking the tire out. Yawning, he went along with my plan, but working as if he was my apprentice, in my shop. I had to initiate everything. Roaming through the shop, I spied with my little eye just what I imagined existed but never really saw before, a tire patch. I held it up to him, grinning and pointing, at which point he took it from my hand and informed me that he has an idea of how to mend the tire. “we can use this patch!” he exclaimed. What a brilliant idea. We patched the tire, then the tube, and returned to my bike who was still waiting at the gas station. “I could have sworn I filled it to 35” I said to Erika as I double checked the pressure and found it at 25. After an hour of riding it was clear. I had a leak and was losing roughly 10 psi per hour, or 10 psiphs, if to use the native unit.


inspecting the damage

That night we camped out near a beautiful lake off route 40. Drinking the last bottles of wine that Erika and I stored in the car, we all decided that since the ladies have a flight from Bariloche on the 5th, and it was already the 3rd, it would be wise if they left us in the morning. We would make a little detour to G. Gregores and buy some tires there (as the hole that so entranced me was beginning to be joined by friends, all tire-holes), and hopefully make it to Bariloche for a final farewell dinner.


camping next to lake

In the morning our moms and my aunt left after we gave them a guilt trip just long enough to make them feel bad but not so long as to make them actually stay. We slowly began to pack our bikes the way they were before the ladies took our weight and left us with wonderfully light and maneuverable bikes. It took us four hours and had the air of familiarity all about it. We started riding on the route 40 dirt road towards G. Gregores, stopping every 30 minutes to inflate my tire. This day alone made the fact that we carried an electric compressor for 7 months worth it.

In Gregores we found no tires at all. We headed to another Gomeria. They put 7 new patches on the tire, and fixed my leak, which by the way came from the place the uninspired guy at Tres Lagos fixed the flat only 20 hours before. This guy, on the other hand, seemed professional. Taking that as a sign from the road gods, we continued merrily with a top speed of 30 mph. 10 miles down the road I got a flat so bad the tire came off the rim, something that took us a whole day and a Volvo to accomplish 7 months earlier. The sun was setting and I hung my head in despair. G. Gregores was the only sizable town in the area (with 7000 inhabitants). The closest town, equally small, was 200 miles away. I knew that this time we had really done it. We would finally have to pay dearly for our mistakes.


attaching patches

That night we camped on the road. The winds were so strong that we couldn’t cook, and had to tie the tent to the bikes in 5 places so that the rain fly wouldn’t flatten the poles on to our noses. We also had to make sure the bikes were parked with the side-stand pointing down from the wind, or they would have been toppled over. It was our first night sleeping alone in almost two weeks. Erika’s reward for being such a sport, reaching Ushuaia, and surviving the intense family time was that I revealed to her that 24 had in fact eight seasons, and not seven, as I led her to believe. Jack Bauer was alive and well. We watched the first two episodes and fell asleep while the tent was whistling all around us.




The next morning we were facing a huge dilemma and finally understood the depth of the river of shit we were stuck in. We had to decide first in which direction I would go to find four new tires, and where Erika would wait with the bikes in the meantime. The nearest big city was Rio Gallegos, 800 km south of us, but if they didn’t have tires I would be stuck, as there is nothing big next to it. Bariloche lay 1300 km north of us, but we figured that if I couldn’t find tires there I can always skip the border to Osorno, Chile, where I knew they existed. North it was. As for Erika, yes the town of Gregores was only 10 miles away, but it would mean she would have to get a hotel and wait in a town that was quite ugly and depressing, if to tell the truth. She decided instead to say in a place called Tamel Aike. Although it is on the map, it is but one house which is owned by the road construction company In Argentina. We camped by the house on our way south, and so we knew that it is a safe place where Erika could stay for free for as much time was needed. Sure it has no method of communications aside from short wave radio, but it had many perks: a hot shower, a stove to cook on, interesting motorists stopping by sharing stories and fresh rabbit road kill, a spring with fresh flowing water, 4 dogs, and one adorable redhead kitten. First of course, we had to get there. It was 60 miles away on the dirt road


in times of stress, eat


desolate hitch hiking

I rode there on Erika’s bike. No one was there. I surprised myself by being able to balance her bike on piece of log I found and remove the rear wheel. As I did I cut myself on small pieces of wire poking out from the rubber. My tire was flat and completely disintegrated, and now I realized that her rear tire was on its death bed as well. I hitchhiked back with the entire wheel to where Erika was waiting, leaving a note on her bike proclaiming that I would be back.

Once I reached Erika, we removed my flat wheel, put hers on, and packed up the tent she was using for shelter from the sun during the 4 hours I was gone. I then rode my bike to Tamel Aike using Erika’s rear tire and going slow, knowing that another flat would make the river a mile deeper. Erika hitch hiked with my flat wheel. By 6 pm we both reached Tamel Tike. This time Jose was there. He listened to our problems and with a warm smile said we could stay as long as we wanted to.





Yaniv looking like a badass riding my bike (he forgot his helmet in Tamel Aike)

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Strange, Long, and Stunning: The Peruvian desert

We didn’t know it at the time, but the surrounding area of Cuenca would be the last time we would see high peaks and lush countryside with scores of white, thin, waterfalls all around you. Instead, the ugliness of Macara would reappear in countless other Peruvian cities, so far, with the exceptions of two cities: Miraflores in Lima, and Arequipa in the south (Although even these are surrounded by desert.

Since we veered of the Pan-Americana north of Cuenca, crossing the border to Peru was easy as pie. No lines, no tourist to scam, no disgruntled state employees. Instead, the border crossing consisted of a small bridge over a river, with small immigration offices on both sides of it, and a mango tree. After changing loose dollars we ended up with 8 soles. We spent 2 on juice and were left with 6. I mention this only because we entered a new reality in Peru. It was a reality of long, windy (moving air, not curving asphalt), remote roads, with a noted scarcity of gas stations. A few miles after the border, we realized we had 100 miles or so before the town of Piura, where the next proper gas station would be. We used our 6 soles to buy low grade gasoline (only a quarter of a tank each) on the way, rode in the wake of buses. We made it in on fumes.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

bye Ecuador. it’s been grand

While in Ecuador we got 70 miles for the gallon (curvy roads dictate low speeds) in Peru we would often get 50 or 52. Moreover, gas here is 6 or 7 dollars a gallon, as opposed to $2 in Ecuador. On the other hand, food here is way cheaper. The roads in villages and cities are lined with competing restaurants, all serving set lunch menus, including juice, a huge portion of soup, and an entrée of your choice, all for under $2. Still on the other hand, it’s hard to find a room under $15. One of these days maybe I will understand why the ratio of prices (eg price of room / price of lunch) differ so much from place to place. For now it is a big mystery.

In Piura we got some cash, and ate ceviche in the street, and hit the road south. The road from the border to Piura was desolate enough, but it was nothing compared with the stillness of the desert between Piura and (my memory is gone – forgive me)-Miles and miles and miles of flat desert on both sides, with the occasional sand dunes, and whipping wind from the west. We had to lean our bikes into the wind if we wanted to go in a straight line. The only time we could straighten them up was when we passed a semi-trailer. You could rest for three seconds, and then the reality of the wind would hit you in the face again as soon as you got out from the shadow of the truck. By the time we got to Chiclayo we were beat. We found a hotel, parked the bikes, went out to Chinese food and zombied out in front of the television for a good 4 hours. At times like these I wonder why Friends became international and Seinfeld did not.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

mmmm…ceviche

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan
From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

we get tired a lot

When I went to take the bikes from the parking lot in the morning, the attendant wanted 12 soles. Roughly $5. The previous night the hotel assured me that parking was included. A few weeks before, we went into a restaurant in Ecuador, did not ask for the price of lunch (it is usually $3), shared one lunch, and wound up being charged $11. I’m not boring you with figures for no reason, bear with me here. After fighting a bit with the woman from Ecuador, I finally gave up, and paid her. I figured that wasting all of this time and energy for a few bucks is simply not worth it. I was wrong. For the next few hours on the bike I couldn’t help but have a shitty taste in my mouth due to the bullshit I was fed by her and the way she scammed me. By now I have learned my lesson, and told the parking guy that he would have to take it up with the hotel. After explain my situation to him reasonably a few times and seeing that nothing is sinking in, I put the bike in gear, and made a gesture to leave. “You are not going to pay?” he asked, quite shocked. “No,” I said. “Then you cannot leave the garage.” Clearly he didn’t know me. I told him I liked him, and that he shouldn’t take it personally, and rode off to the hotel. I also wouldn’t pay him when he followed me there. We packed, and left, leaving the parking guy and the hotel guy fighting between each other. Am I a gringo that makes a fuss over $5 when it’s nothing to him and everything to the locals? Maybe. Did I ride that morning with the taste of shit in my mouth? Only if shit tastes like dulce de leche.

The desert continued, surreal in its endless mud flats. We stopped in the ancient city of Chan Chan and a guide pointed out to us where the king was buried, surrounded of course by all of his slaves, servants, wives and children, because naturally he needed company for that long journey. The city is staggering in its scope, and many of the ancient adornments are truly beautiful. My favorite area was the pond formed by the natural spring. This small oasis made the place come alive for me more than the ancient walls and burial sites.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

sweet nothing

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan
From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

chan chan

We spent the night in a hotel in Trujillo. In the main square were hundreds of people, mostly families, milling around. They had decorated the square with giant Christmas trees, each sponsored by a company with their sign next to the tree. The main activity seemed to be getting your picture taken next to the tree (or with santa) of course always with the subtle marketing in the background. What was strange, and nice for a change, was there were no real vendors there. There were just artists, either singing or painting or telling jokes. The comedians/clowns drew the biggest crowds, and once again I sorely felt the language barrier, since everyone else was laughing so hard they cried. All in all it was a sweet scene.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

direct line

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

The road now followed the coast. The great dunes rolling down into the pacific were truly stunning. For days and days we had beautiful desert all around us. At night, when camping, my favorite game was “find the scorpion,” which was admittedly pretty easy. Just roll over a rock and there one is. I managed to refrain from staging scorpion death matches. There is nothing like camping in the desert. It is so still and so quiet and so isolating. I never before understood how silence could be deafening. You can sit and hear the blood thumping in your ears, then a low buzzing starts, slowly getting louder until you feel like maybe a plane is passing overhead But it is just the silence. Cooking pasta or soup and drinking wine (we usually travel with at least one bottle) while watching the sunset, it’s just too wonderful. We have no cares, no worries. Tomorrow we will do just what we did today. These are the times that I feel most thankful for being able to do this trip.

From Peru: Trujillo to Lima

near Trujillo

From Peru: Trujillo to Lima

love the view

From Peru: Trujillo to Lima
From Peru: Trujillo to Lima
Arriving in Lima takes hours. You reach the outskirts and think “great, we are in the city.” But really you are in one vast surrounding shanty town that encompasses Lima like a giant brooding mass.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

our host caleed them “pixel towns” for obvious reasons

Once in the city proper, we went to the cute neighborhood Miraflores, next to the sea. We drove our motorcycles into the Nomad hostel and were happy to pay $25 for a private room with bathroom. Nothing like a hot shower after a few days in the dirt.

That night, after unsuccessfully looking for an affordable sushi restaurant, we went to the fancy grocery store and bought delicious cheeses, meats, wine and fresh bread. Back at the hostel we set up our picnic outside next to some guys doing a BBQ. It turns out that one of the guys was the manager of the hostel. After exchanging some of our cold cuts for their delicious steak, we became friends. He invited us to go the next morning to the beach with him and his girlfriend’s family. We had been planning on leaving the next morning but this was too good an opportunity to pass. We woke up early and all piled into the hostel van which Jose had appropriated for the day. His girlfriend, Marianna, drove like a madwomen trying to get us out of the city. It was so relaxing to sit as a passenger and watch the world go by rather than being constantly on the alert for the next crazy cab driver or impervious bus. Marianna’s mom kept us all entertained with the constant refrain “que rico” which I insist on translating as “what tasty” in my head.

The beach itself was beautiful, the water freezing. We were stunned by the low prices of beach front property there and were quickly lost in real estate schemes. By the time we started heading for home in the afternoon we were thoroughly exhausted and sunburnt. Jose and Marianna took us to their favorite ceviche restaurant and we loaded up on tangy fish and fried calamari. Stuffed and sandy, it was time for a nap. Even though we were technically “behind schedule” it’s these types of experiences that make travelling wonderful and exciting.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

Soon we were rolling south again, trying to keep awake on the long boring roads. Our next stop was Huacachina, famous for its ginormous sand dunes. The tiny village is a true oasis, glimmering green in the surrounding tracts of sand. We elected to skip the dune buggy ride and instead rented “sand boards.” We left our hostel early in the morning and started hiking up the closest 100 meter dune. It was soooooo hard. We are both incredibly out of shape after months of sitting on our bikes all day. Huffing and puffing up the dune was much more difficult than I anticipated. About half way up I decided this was the one and only time I would be reaching the top, and even that seemed less important every step. After resting a bit on the crest, we admired the view of endless waves of sand, with little Huacachina nestled in among them.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

Next we practiced a bit with the boards. I was extremely ungainly, falling down every foot or so. Yaniv, was better, he even got in a turn. Then it was time for the big downhill. I elected to sit on my board and slide on my butt. The slope was so steep it took me a little time to work up the courage to let go and slide. The next minute and a half are a hazy blur of speed and exhilaration. The board kicked up a steady stream of sand that hit me squarely in the face, so that by the bottom I was completely covered and had to spit out big mouthfuls of grit. Yaniv had less luck going down. His board was defective and he went in starts and stops. When we walked back to the hostel, people pointed and stared at us. I didn’t understand until I saw a mirror and realized how black we were from the sand.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

From Huacachina south to the Nazca lines took only a few hours. The Nazca people created giant animals and lines in the desert that are only fully visible when in an airplane.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

from the top of the mountain

Nobody is completely sure why or how they made these spectacular creatures, but kooky theories abound. I favor alien intervention, because some of the lines really truly resemble landing strips. That being said, the plane ride was too expensive for us. Instead, we pulled off the road and traveled cross country to camp next to some mountains. I fell, naturally. Sand is like a magic sleeping potion for my bike. One little whiff and down she goes.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

typical

We eventually made it to a safe flat place and set up camp as the sun set. Yaniv made a small fire while I made a special fetuccini alfredo dinner.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

after dinner coffee

In the morning we started to climb the mountain next to us. About halfway up Yaniv noticed a “landing strip” that seemed to be leading right to the base of the mountains. Unfortunately jeep tracks had obscured almost half of it.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

As we continued to climb I was struck by the immensity of their undertaking. As if eking out a living in a barren desert isn’t hard enough, they had to go and shove all the rocks around too. From the top we could see the endless lines stretching out across the plain. They all seemed to originate from the base of our mountain, which makes me think that this must have been an important spot for them. It is a humbling experience to stand on a spot that thousands of years ago was (perhaps) sacred to another people, and have no idea really what the significance was to them.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

Another day of desert travelling, another night of camping. This time we found a place that had the beginnings (or remains) of low stone houses. We sheltered in them out of the wind. The next morning the vicious sand flies explained the abandoned state of the area. The riding through this section was really beautiful. We kept dipping into lush valleys then climbing sandy bluffs with views of the ocean.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

KABOOM BLAM WOWZERS

The next night we had a hard time finding a side road to camp on. When we did, it was surrounded by deep sand. I have a deep aversion to deep sand. Perhaps it has an aversion to me as well, because I quickly got stuck and fell. Yaniv had to slog back and finish riding for me. It was the most barren place we have ever camped. Only sand, completely devoid of any visible plant or animal life.

From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes

boo

From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes

watermelon break

It was with some relief that we arrived in the mountainous town of Arrequipa. The road leading to it was pretty extraordinary. It was very curvy with views of shimmering mineral deposits of all different colors. The city itself was beautiful and chilly. We shared a bottle of wine and a nice meal and felt like real people again.

From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes

he’s a little withdrawn for a first date

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Such Great Heights-Ecuador / Erika Rowe & Yaniv Singer

What exactly does the guide book mean when it says “watch out for the moneychangers at the border, they will try to cheat you.” Let me tell you. At the border between Colombia and Ecuador we realized what we should have known all along. Never trust these people. We approached a number of guys, shopping around for a reasonable rate. Soon we found two guys who were willing to give us a significantly lower rate than the others. They asked how much cash we had, then how much change, did the calculation on their calculator, showed us the amount, and moved on. Actually, first they asked us for some Israeli coins, for their “collection.” They walked off, and then Yaniv started to rethink the situation.

See, he can do what I never could. He can do quick calculations in his head. And he quickly realized that we had been cheated. Here’s what went down. One guy asked how much cash we had. The second guy asked how much change. While we were busy counting change, the first guy entered the amount of cash we had, multiplied it by a bad exchange rate, and saved it in the calculator’s memory. Afterwards, while we were watching the calculator, he entered the total amount of cash plus change, multiplied it by the agreed upon exchange rate, then, and here’s the key, instead of hitting enter, he hit memory. I don’t even want to think about how many times this happened before. Luckily, this time, we saved ourselves about $18.

This border crossing, which should have been so quick and easy compared to the others, ended up taking two hours longer than it should have because I inadvertently pissed of the Aduana (customs agent.) When we were done with Colombia (20 minutes, easy) we were directed to the Aduana office. As we arrived, he was walking away with another official and told us to wait there until he returned. Now it was around noon, and our experience is that officials are very likely to disappear for two or more hours around lunchtime. If this was to be the case, we wanted to know so we could go get some lunch too. I asked him how long we needed to wait and he gave me a look of disgust as he stalked off. When he returned, ten minutes later, he lectured Yaniv on how rude I had been. Then he spent the next two hours staring at his computer and chatting with friends before deigning to help us. No matter, he was honest and we got through without paying any money, which is really what matters.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

moment of zen

Night was falling and we drove off into the hills to look for camping. After getting rebuffed at a few houses, we almost gave up and camped next to a dirt road in the open. We were not inclined to do this, for security reasons and because it looked like rain. However, the people we met swore it never rained there. It was almost dark when we decided to ask at one more farm. They graciously allowed us to park our bikes next to their tractor in the garage. As we set up our tent they invited us to come shower (hot water!!) and join them for dinner. Such sweet people. As we finished a delicious fish meal it started pouring.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

asking, and being denied. It’s always for the best though, because every single time we DO get a yes, they turn out to be wonderful wonderful people.

From ecuador bordrer to quito
From ecuador bordrer to quito

our safe haven

From ecuador bordrer to quito

thank you REI, for making our sturdy tent. no thanks to Yaniv, who takes pictures instead of helping me set up

From ecuador bordrer to quito

our host was super-impressed by our heated hand grips. as am I.

The next morning we set out from their house, hoping to reach Quito before the afternoon. The rain had turned the dirt roads into muddy messes, which basically always spells disaster for me. True to form, I promptly lost control and went down. Not a big deal, until we noticed my clutch lever was broken. We never bought a replacement after I used our spare in Baja. Refusing to consider the worst-case scenario (Yaniv driving five hours to Quito while I waited with my bike) we decided to send him off to the nearest village in the hopes of finding some small motorcycle shop. He took off and I settled down with my book for a long wait. It was probably one of the more beautiful places to crash, complete with waterfalls and pastures. And I never mind sitting in the sun for a good read. I was immensely surprised when Yaniv returned twenty minutes later though. As he was riding to the village, he passed another BMW rider. It took him a few seconds to think it through, then he whipped around a raced to catch up with him. Brian, from England, was miraculously riding a BMW F650 GS Dakar as well!. AND he had a spare clutch lever, which he was kind enough to give us. Our problems solved, just like that. After the quick repairs, we were on our way to Quito.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

apparently, when in a muddy rut, one should stay within its confines, and not attempt to exit. especially if one’s name is Erika.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

camping somewhere

From ecuador bordrer to quito

my lovely view

New Years in Quito turned out to be quite dramatic. When leaving our hostel we ran into an Australian/British couple, Mandy and Dave, and decided to join forces with them for the night. The tradition in Ecuador is to make giant puppets (usually of people you don’t like) then burn them in the streets. The resulting scene was smoky and exciting, there’s nothing like a whole city on fire to make a night memorable. While looking for a good party, we noticed one area that had about forty Indians dancing in the street. They were more lively than anyone else, so we stuck around to watch them.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

business people getting in their kicks. probably burning an effigy of their boss

From ecuador bordrer to quito

even adults like to play

From ecuador bordrer to quito

how may I help you?

It was only men dancing, wearing everything from traditional dress to jeans to swanky club outfits. The day before we had eaten a delicious Indian meal in the restaurant in front of which they were gathered. Playing constantly there were music videos, all with one very famous male actor. Prophetically, many of them were stories about a girl rejecting him for drinking too much and making an ass of himself at a party.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

still feeling the love

From ecuador bordrer to quito

he wanted me to make-out with him at midnight. i declined.

At about five minutes to midnight, after more than four hours of dancing and hugging and kissing, the men split into two groups and started to fight. It started with two men pushing each other put quickly degenerated into a brawl the dimensions of which I have never witnessed. The two groups faced off at each other from opposite sides of the road and started to throw beer bottles at each other. Two by fours magically appeared and it started to get really ugly. When a cop car finally showed up they all ran away. In all of the excitement we almost forgot to yell Happy New Years and kiss.

The fires were all smoldering when the two gangs came back. One lone policeman was left holding his hands up between them. He was almost able to keep the peace, but some spectator on a balcony threw a bottle and they clashed again. When the police chased them away the final time we decided it was time for us to leave. Walking down the street with broken glass crunching under our feet and smoke swirling around the corner it felt a little like a post-apocalyptic scene. But a few streets away it was all back to normal, and we fell asleep quickly in the hostel.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

our camera died, so no pictures of the fight

From Quito south the countryside became more and more beautiful. We were soon passing snow clad mountains. The roads are in excellent shape so we made good time. There is no feeling equivalent to the exhilaration of having a full tank of gas, a slight chill in the air and many miles to go. As we rose in elevation we began to don more and more layers. Soon a fog settled in, which was fun for maybe five minutes. Then the fog thickened and the road deteriorated and we began the coldest most miserable ride of the trip so far. For five hours we strained to see ten feet in front of us. It rained intermittently. The road would end, abruptly and carry on for a few kilometers as a bumpy muddy mess. By six pm I was sobbing in my helmet, determined Yaniv wouldn’t know how miserable I was. Then we stopped for gas and I kept crying, so that didn’t work.

From ecuador bordrer to quito
From ecuador bordrer to quito

practicing my off-road riding skills. no falls this time.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

typical Ecuadorian dress

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

the beginning of the fog

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

death on four wheels

We decided to stay in a hotel that night, instead of camping, which immediately made me feel better. I fantasized about scalding hot water as we rode in Cuenca, a pretty little town in the south. We found a hostel and were greeted by the charming and ebullient owner, Esmeralda. The city was quaint but alive, full of beautiful architecture and cheap almuerzos. For USD 1.50 we got some sort of corn appetizer (it reminded me of hominy), lentil soup, rice, salad and meat. Also it was served with a delicious hot sauce.

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

view from our hostel

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

The city was so nice we lolled around until 3 pm, a rather late start, even for us. From Cuenca the descent from cold, lush agricultural land to hot arid desert was quick. One minute we were freezing our booties off and the next we were gasping for air. The riding was superb though, long curves that you could take fast and beautiful views of the mountains. The Ecuadorians that we met were welcoming and kind, and I left with a feeling of regret.

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

coooold and pretty

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

camping somewhere

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

on top of the world

The road from Cuenca towards the Peruvian border was absolutely stunning. Up to some point, the road was in superb condition, made from cement instead of asphalt. No potholes, no oil spills, no construction, and hardly any trucks. The road was constantly curving, but it was wide curves, and you rarely had to shift below 4th gear, although you also rarely went on a straight stretch for more than a few seconds. Heaven for motorcycle riders.

We left Cuenca late, and for the first hour or two we only climbed till we got well into the realm of heavy clouds and frigid temperatures (the plants were covered in frost, and we wore all the layers we had. Then, suddenly, the road started to drop. When the temparatures got warmer again we stopped and set up our tent on the lawn of a beautiful house. The up and down routine continued throughout the next day. In 10 minutes of riding the climate would change from cold (silk liners for the gloves, warm layers under the riding clothes) to hot (stop. Take everything off, continue quick so that your sweat will evaporate. Slowly through the day the highs became less high and the lows became more low. The last two hours of riding were completely in desert hills. By six o’clock we arrived at the border town of Macara, and started to look for a hotel.

Uninspired towns and premature iPhones

It’s funny how you get a sense of a town as soon as you roll into it. Unlike the recent towns of the mountains of Medellin, Cali, Quito, Cunenca, this town was completely uninspiring and depressing. No parks, no trees, no cafés, no galleries, no museums, no nice restaurants, no bookstores, no street art. Nothing but hairdressers and hardware stores, and shoe stores, and ugly buildings. To tell the truth this is really what the vast majority of cities and towns look like so far in Latin America, and it is a big part of the reason why we are camping so much in the trip. The hotels fit the towns perfectly—most of them cater by the hour and usually have names the include the word “cupid.”

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

cute piglets

The people in Macara are even more uninspiring than the town (to say “less inspiring” would wrongfully imply a positive flux of inspiration). People are sitting on the curb doing nothing or watching reality tv in storefronts or playing video games or riding around on their scooters holding babies without helmets. Nobody, for example, is sitting in a café reading a book (something that I don’t remember seeing ever since we crossed the border from California). I hear readers think to themselves “sure. People in these countries are poor and need to work all day long. They don’t have money to buy books, or time to read them!” Although this is true for many of the farmers we met on this trip, it is not at all true for any of the city people that I speak of. People are generally well dressed, well groomed, with touch screen cell phones, and good cars. It’s not about time or money, it’s about a different set of priorities and values, and poor taste. Of course, this is just my own personal judgment. After all, it is hard to objectively say that reading a book is betting than seeing reality television. Still, the priorities that the people of these town display, and in particular the lack of emphasis on education explains a lot why so many of these countries are failing in so many ways.

Sometimes I feel as though electronic technology has reached here too soon. As an example, the existence and popularity of the iphone in the States comes as a kind of outcome to a society that works relatively well (leaving the concept of equality out of this judgment): the infrastructure is good, there are highways, supermarkets, libraries, hospitals, public transportations, schools, and concerts in parks. Art and science have their place in the society-they are respected by people and funded by the government. The police is an institution that the average person trusts and obeys. Etc. etc etc. Not that everything is perfect, but only after all of the above functions in some way can a company like Apple come into existence and start innovating and give us the iphone (leaving aside the questions of if we need it or is it even good for us as individuals or a society). Consequently, when we hold the still futuristic iphone in our hands we feel a sense that things are relatively fine with our society, and moreover, that we must be doing relatively well in it, if we could afford such a machine.

Such machines however, eventually find their ways into cultures and societies that never could have invented them by themselves, precisely because they have still not achieved all of the more basic milestones a society can achieve and that I mentioned above. This could become very debilitating for such a society. For the feeling of accomplishment that an American feels when clutching the iphone is shared too by an Ecuadorean, Panamanian, or Israeli, for that matter (let people not say that I am biased). But in this case, the feeling is an illusion, for all of the infrastructure mentioned above does not exist here, there are no schools, no libraries, no scientific research, no rule of law. The result is that instead of working for these things, the iphone holder instead posts what he had for lunch on facebook. It’s like having whipped cream without the sustaining and healthy meal that should have preceded it.

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border
From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

tiny delicious mangos

__________________

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On The Road Again – Cartagena to Ecuador / Yaniv Singer and Erika Rowe

Our predicament changed way more abruptly than it materialized. One day our local call to Sebastian in the Hilton had a different outcome than all the other days. We were informed that two letter were waiting for us at the front desk. When we came to pick them up we were further informed that they had been there for a week. Our guess was that they suddenly appeared thanks to Erika’s brilliant idea to make a reservation (though at $400 a night even making the reservation made you shudder). Our chains and sprockets, the letters informed, are waiting in Bogota till we pay customs on them. They were held by a company whose name sounded more like an area code, 472. On the way back to the hotel Erika spotted a branch of 472. That was Thursday.

On Friday we went to the branch she saw and were informed that in fact the packages are waiting in Barranquilla (another port town north of Cartagena). Feeling too coy to wonder out loud why wouldn’t they be waiting in Cartagena but still wanting to congratulate the 472 clerk, We acted like Barranquilla made way more sense than Bogota. We rushed to the bank to pay customs knowing all things close at noon, only to discover that this bank was extra special; it was open 9 to 11:30 and 2-4. Almost like the banks in Israel. We came back at 2, paid $90 (26%!!), then took the paper work back to 472, where we were told we can return the following day to pick the package up. To our utter surprise, on Saturday morning the packages were there—the only thing missing was a tiny o-ring for the master link of one of the chains. That same afternoon we found a mechanic to change the chain (The only thing stopping us from doing it ourselves was a stubborn 26mm nut holding the front sprocket in—even he could not open it, and had to go borrow a hammer-drill from some other place). Later that evening we were sipping beer and watching our bikes being cleaned by professional bike cleaners. For $3 they scrubbed and scrubbed each bike for more than a half an hour. Our bikes never looked cleaner.

From cartegena 2

new and old

From cartegena 2

not a pretty sight

From cartegena 2

before

From cartegena 2

after

That night we celebrated our new beginning: fresh oil in both our bikes, new chain for me, new sprockets too, my light fixed, and our bikes shining clean, all fuelled up, ready to go.That night we were both very excited. It felt as though we were embarking on a motorcycle trip, as opposed to continuing one. It’s amazing how quickly we get used to every reality thrown at us, and how we use that reality as the default-standard to whatever might happen next.

On Sunday we finally (re)started our trip. I felt the effect of the new chain as soon as we left the continuous traffic jam of Cartagena. When I rolled on the throttle the bike went like never before, and when I let go of it the engine braked me like never before. It was like I had a new bike. Once again I could feel every curve in my bones, once again my mind entered that state of meditation—focusing on the road and being free from any heavy thoughts, once again I kept catching myself singing to myself. I felt alive and so very fortunate to be doing this trip.

While we were staked out in Cartagena we had seen some news reports about flooding in the surrounding area. This has been the wettest season Colombia experienced in the past 80 years. Watching something on the news doesn’t really prepare you for the reality though. We were lucky that the water had gone down enough that the roads were passable. The people in the towns next to the road weren’t so lucky. The rivers had overflown their banks and spread for miles though the flat countryside. We passed through scenes of hopelessness as whole villages sat in canoes and floated through their houses and down the main streets. There was nothing they could do but wait.

From cartegena 2

always thankful to not be on public transportation

From cartagena to medellin
From cartagena to medellin
From cartagena to medellin

The next day we gratefully started climbing into the mountains. All along the road were hoses set up spraying water at full blast, advertising that trucks could get washed here. Another example of the concentration of goods, miles and miles and miles of truck washes. We saw similar examples throughout latin America: one small town with 50 shoe stores, one block in Mazatlan with 40 women selling shrimp (to be found nowhere else in the city, all the bananas in the market being sold on one section—it’s almost as if people don’t want to get a competitive edge here, really a paradise for shoppers who can bargain.

As night fell we pulled off into a driveway and asked if we could camp on their land. One thing I appreciate about farmers is that they generally treat their animals decently. This farm had, along with the usual cats and dogs, a friendly and talkative parrot. This parrot was desperate for company and would whistle suggestively and holler “hola, como esta?” whenever we started to walk away. The best thing that he said was a rolling, perfectly pitched “ GOOOOOOL de COLOMBIAAAAAAA.”

From cartagena to medellin

hola mamacita!

From cartagena to medellin
From cartagena to medellin

Rolling into Medellin the next day we asked some people for directions to the BMW dealership. One friendly dude on a scooter had us follow him all the way across town to the store, then he even came in and translated for us. We met many, many helpful people, (some who lived most the year in Sacramento and Yuba City) and they directed us towards the great hostel Casa Kiwi. It was clean and modern and decorated beautifully with bamboo and stone and little ponds. Really a treat after the shit holes we had been in. We met a couple other bikers that were wrapping up their trips and got an invitation to go to Australia to ride with Paul on some of his many bikes.
Since it was almost Christmas, the city put on a beautiful light festival next to the river. Almost a mile of water-powered spinning lights graced the river while on the banks people jostled to eat the delicious fried snacks and walk through lit-up wonderlands. We took the very clean and fast metro back to the hotel, loving the European feel of the city. Since there was beer on tap and a pool table, we decided to stay for another day and took the gondola up the mountain to see a view of the city. So far Medellin has been one of our favorite cities, definitely the favorite one in Colombia. I wish we had got stuck there instead of Cartagena.

From cartagena to medellin

Ruta 40 wall of fame

From cartagena to medellin

phunny

From Medellin to the next city Cali was supposed to be a one day drive. Due to the terrible traffic, rotten roads and construction we only ended up covering about 80 miles in six hours. We pulled off into the driveway of a fish restaurant and asked permission to set up camp. It was getting dark as our host walked us up a long, steep muddy road and showed us a flat grassy area next to the fish ponds. The restaurant and surrounding farms were run by one family of eight brothers and four sisters. We set up our tent then ordered a fresh fish dinner, fried to perfection. That night as we were cozily asleep the rain started. For four hours it poured so hard we thought the tent might fail us and flood. One of the brothers kept coming by to check on us and see if we were ok. The thunder and the lightening were right on us but our sturdy tent made it through the night.

From cartagena to medellin

crowd of admirers

From cartagena to medellin

hmmmm

From cartagena to medellin

in the land of the illiterate

The next morning as we started to pack up one of the brothers came to see if we wanted to help milk the goats. We got introduced to his family and their many animals. Two baby goats frolicked on an old tire while yaniv and I mostly unsuccessfully tried to squeeze some milk out of mama’s udders. You have to squeeze HARD. I felt bad about it until I saw the kids basically head-butting the udders trying to get milk. They skimmed the froth off the top then added the milk, still warm, to bowls of hot cane sugar juice. Unbelievably delicious. Yaniv interviewed the dad for a bit while I helped the sister feed the birds. They are all devout Christians, very dedicated to their work and their families. They feel god has blessed them with their farm and work hard to maintain it.

From medellin to cali
From medellin to cali

aggressive little buddy

From medellin to cali

so gosh durned cute

We left them feeling uplifted and happy, and started off towards Cali. Again, since we spent all morning long hanging out with the family we only started riding at around noon, maybe one o’clock (though of course it was totally worth it). A few hours into the ride we realized that we might not make it to Cali, and basically a one day ride will be done in three, but then the windy slow one lane road opened up to a super highway comparable to US interstates. At first we were thoroughly pleased that we can now do 80 mph instead of 30, but then we slowly realized how boring the riding was. Nothing happens on highways—you don’t meet people while waiting for the rain to stop, you don’t see food vendors, you don’t see local living—you just cover 80 miles per every hour. It occurred to me that if the entire way from California to Ushuaia was a super highway the trip would be way less fun and way less adventurous. It’s an interesting thing really, that sometimes progress and adventure play a zero sum game amongst themselves. Doing this trip 50 years ago would have been way more challenging and adventurous, doing it 20 years from now will be way easier and much less adventurous. Maybe the same is true for life in general: everyone wants progress but too much progress leaves people empty inside—I’m guessing for example that there is a positive correlation between standard of living and GDP and depression and suicide rates.


test

test

From medellin to cali

sweet ice grinding machine

When we got in we realized we had lost the directions to Casa Blanca, a biker friendly hostel that had been recommended to us. Driving around a strange city at night, with no clue where you are or where to go strains nerves very quickly. Also, it was Christmas Eve and I was feeling very homesick. Yaniv and I were getting restless when suddenly we saw some big bikes in a garage. As we pulled up a guy came out and yelled “Casa Blanca, that way.” And there we were. Random luck in a huge city. The hostel is run by a Danish guy who is a big biker, and he has one whole wall of pictures of all of the various motorcyclists that have stayed there the past few years. It was exciting to see some familiar faces.

It was a friendly group of people staying there and we quickly made plans to go with a group to the opening ceremony of Ferria, the seven day post-Christmas festival. They were kicking off the celebration with a parade downtown with salsa dancing. As we arrived, we realized that the stands, with seating for maybe 1000 people, were packed. There were maybe 50,000 people in the streets trying to get a look. For some reason, the police had cordoned off the area right next to the parade so really only people in the stands could see. Being the gringos that we are, we pushed ourselves right up to the front of the barrier. Then stepped over it. Now there were just a few mounted policeman between us and the parade. The crowd started getting unruly, pushing each other and yelling “vamos!” Suddenly about a quarter of a mile down the road they broke through the police and surged towards the final barrier between them and the sequined salsa dancers. Like a wave breaking on the shore the crowd reacted. The police immediately in front of us vainly ran off to try to stem the rush, leaving the way clear. An older man next to me started to push me forward but I was stronger and I pushed him out ing front of us. From then on there was no stopping the electric momentum of the mob. I quickly lost Yaniv in the mad crush. Instead, I hung on to a brit from the hostel as we were slammed into the metal barriers lining the street. I know that if I had fallen I would have been trampled. The people behind us were pushing so hard I had to brace my arms against the metal to avoid crushing a little old woman in front of me.

From medellin to cali

at the forefront of the action

From medellin to cali

move aside

From medellin to cali
From medellin to cali

After all of that the parade was a total let down. Just a few sorry floats and some sweating teenagers trying to keep up their energy in the hot afternoon sun. We got tired of waiting for the “good” part of the parade and wiggled our way out of the pack. As exhilarating as the experience was, it was also a cautionary tale for me. I tell myself that I am different than others, not one to follow the crowd, yet there I was completely caught up in something that I had no control over. It wasn’t violent, besides some old women were grabbing the cops butts, but it could have been.
Later that night I went out with some crazy Koreans to check out the festivities. The girl who worked at the hostel told us about a free concert, all seven of us piled into a cab to go downtown. As soon as we got to the stadium it was apparent that another poorly planned event was taking place. Thousands of people were roaming around in search of an entrance to the concert. We joined a crowd that was packed around some policemen. They told us they were still admitting people half a block away. Everyone started running to the gate. We were all holding hands so as not to get lost but someone pushed me and I lost sight of the tiny Koreans. Looking over everyone’s heads I could see that the people closest to the entrance were starting to push past the cops. Then the cops took out their batons and started to beat people away from the gate. I started coughing, as did the people near me, but I didn’t quite understand that I had been tear-gassed until one of the Koreans grabbed my arm and pulled me away from everyone else. There was a violent surge in the crowd as they realized what was happening and we got out of there.

My eyes were streaming as we clambered into a cab and I was ready to call it a night but the crazy Koreans were ready to party. They are mad salsa dancers! The hostel lady nixed the first two clubs they suggested saying “they shut down at four, let’s go to this one, it closes at seven.” Um, yeah. Not my kind of thing but I’m pretty much stuck with them cause I don’t have enough money to take a cab back by myself. In fact, by the time we get to the middle of nowhere club, I barely have enough cash for the cover. We get inside and it is depressingly empty. We are not allowed to sit down unless we order something. I don’t have enough money to even get one beer, which costs USD 5! Finally they allow us to have seats at a bar but our hostel lady is seriously pissed off at us because we won’t go in with her on a bottle of alcohol. I keep trying to explain that I don’t have enough money and the Koreans don’t drink hard A but she doesn’t believe me. The pounding music is not helping our little communication problem. I convince the girls to go out and dance a little bit to the house music, but they will only dance salsa is a man asks them. Seeing as there are ONLY couples at this club, this translates to us sitting bored, for hours, not drinking, at the bar. One cute guy asks me to dance. The smoke machine sets off my already sensitive eyes so that the whole time we are dancing tears are streaming down my face. He understandably beats it once the song is over. I’m beat, and ready to go home, when suddenly the crowd parts for two huge bouncers that are heading straight for out bar. Great, I think, now we are going to get booted for not ordering anything. Then the bouncers bend down and gently pick up two midgets wearing gangster clothes and set them down on the bar in front of us. And they start breakdancing.

Ooookkaaayyyy. This is getting more interesting. Is this why I paid $7 to get in here? Ah, no. That, over there on the ginormous stage that I somehow didn’t see before, that’s why I had to shell out. That amazon stripper shaking her behind while two ripped men play with guns on either side of her. Wait what’s that? Is she giving birth? NO WAY! It’s a midget stripper with giant boobs. And suddenly the night is memorable. As the drunk Irish guy at the hostel said later “midgets? I love midgets! I would pay 20 bucks to see midgets. They’ll do ANYTHING for money. Wait, is that racist?”

By the time we left the hostal in Cali it was 3 pm, and getting out of the city took forever. We only got an hour or two of the panamerican before we stumbled upon one of the best camping experiences in our trip so far. About a kilometer down a dirt road from the highway we saw a family hanging out in their front yard, and we asked if we could camp. Sometimes we need to convince people, since it’s not something they are used to. In fact, the idea that two white people on German motorcycles would ask to sleep on the ground and not check into a Hilton or Sheraton is quite shocking to most people. This family, however, took no convincing. They immediately invited us in, moved things from their porch so that our bikes would be out of the rain, and offered us some cool looking fruit that is red inside and is eaten with a spoon. Once our tent was done they invited us for coffee inside, and we gave them a slide show of Israel on the computer. The mother was very Christian and took extra pleasure in the photos.

Within an hour we were all feasting on dinner that she had prepared, talking about their kids and how quickly the world is changing. After dinner we all saw The Simpsons in Spanish. We always assumed that the bumble bee character in the Simpsons that always appears on the tv and speaks Spanish on the English version would speak English on the Spanish version, but even he speaks Spanish on the Spanish version. No wonder nobody here knows English.

After breakfast in the morning (fried dough and fried pork and hot chocolate) I took the dad and two kids on the bike to the highway. They were going into Cali for a few days. The kids were very excited to be on the motorcycle, so I took them extra fast through the curves of the dirt road. I was pleased that they accepted my offer of a ride. A family member once marveled at the fact that I am willing to ask and accept so much from strangers, that perhaps I am taking advantage of them. So first of all, we do accept no for an answer. Second, we find that people feel proud and happy when they are able to host us, especially in rural areas where there is nothing much happening and they will always be able to talk about the day that those two white people rolled in on huge motorcycles and built a house from things inside their bags. But more importantly, I believe that there is an art in being a good guest, just like the art of being a good hitchhiker—you need to know when to shut up and when to entertain. You need to be willing to give back. Sure, we can’t offer people what they offer us, but there is plenty of other ways that they can benefit from our stay, if they wish to. After the kids and dad were gone the mom put on American Christmas music. We packed and felt home sick. But in a sweet way.

From cali to ecuador
From cali to ecuador
From cali to ecuador

we have so much shit

From cali to ecuador

The road climbed into the mountains and became a bit chilly and foggy. We were getting wet and it was getting dark when we decided to camp again. This time, not so intelligently, we pulled off into a place that also rents cabins. The place looked abandoned and it took 15 minutes to locate any one. The lady quoted us USD35 for one night (waaaay too expensive for us) so we asked if we could camp on the lawn. It was obvious that there had been no customers there for a long time. She was pretty unfriendly but said okay, so we unpacked our bikes and set up the tent. As I was putting together the stove to make dinner she came back and said that she had talked to the boss and it would cost us to camp there. Seeing as she had just stood there for an hour watching us work it seemed pretty shady to me to be suddenly demanding money. Also, she didn’t tell us how much the boss wanted. She asked us how much we would pay. Yaniv and I exchanged a glance and said two dollars. She shook her head and said it wasn’t enough. At this point we began to suspect that she had not talked to her boss and was just trying to skim some money off of us. I have no problem paying someone a few bucks to camp on their land, but this was dishonest and it pissed me off. We told her we would deal with it tomorrow.

It poured all night while we were cozy in our tent. The cloudy morning made it difficult to get back into wet socks and boots but we wanted to make it to the border that day. The girl didn’t have any change so we didn’t give her any money. An hour down the road we stopped to bundle up some more and a bicyclist shouted at us that there was “mucho agua” down the road. I assumed he meant lots of rain. Wrong. Apparently there was a regional tradition that day of throwing water from the side of the road and roofs at passerbys. There was also a big demonstration in the city which meant lots of traffic which meant sitting duck targets for men with hoses and kids with water balloons. Yaniv got smacked and sloshed quite a bit since he was riding in front. I dodged those motherfuckers and stayed dry. It was pretty crazy though. If you watched the road for wet spots you could tell where people were hiding and try to get around them. The people riding in the backs of trucks really got it the worst.

From cali to ecuador

Colombia is freaking gorgeous

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Ship Ahoy- the Stahlratte / Erika Rowe

We got kicked out of the Radisson lobby at about 8am, which was really much better than I expected. All night I anticipated getting the boot and having to drive around scary Colon looking for a different hotel. We were exhausted, but thankfully we had made up our minds to take the sailing ship Stahlratte to Colombia.

The first time we heard about this ship was from a Canadian couple that was staying at our hotel in Panama City. When they told us they were paying $780 per person plus bike, we scoffed and assured ourselves that we were not suckers and would never pay that sort of money. Less than 48 hours later I was on the phone with Captain Ludwig begging to sleep out on the deck if he would only let us on board. How the mighty do fall. Not that we didn’t put up a good fight. We really exhausted all other options.

When we first arrived in Colon we went to the port and started asking around. The official response was “no way” but some dude told us to head down to pier 5 because some cargo ships were leaving from there to Colombia. We drove down through the decrepit flooded downtown and parked in front of the gated pier five. When Yaniv tried to walk through the door towards the buildings he was shoved back by a shouting guard who forced him to look through the bars while asking questions. Eventually we were allowed inside and we waited around for the Aduana officer to find out the deal. The deal was very confusing. Apparently they were willing to take our bikes, but not us. This was clearly not an option. When we insisted that we wanted to travel with the bikes, they said we had to go to a different port to do that. Unfortunately, there was no Aduana at the other port. We asked whether we could just fill out the paperwork here then drive to the other port, but no, then we would be driving illegally. Where else could we do the paperwork? Nowhere else. Would they do the paperwork for us? No. At some point the guard started whispering to Yaniv that we could come back secretly at midnight and they could smuggle us aboard. Would our paperwork be legal then? No.

They eventually told us to drive to the other side of the city and check with the port on that side. As we navigated the city we stopped to ask a cop for directions. A helpful citizen who spoke some English showed his ID to the cop (I guess verifying he wasn’t a criminal?) and cheerfully told us to get out of town as soon as possible, because on our bikes we were just screaming to be robbed. We checked around at a few more piers, got some offers of possible help, but nothing to be sure of until the next day. It was getting dark, and a storm was coming in. We asked whether we could camp next to the port, since there were security guards and it was well lit. We were told that this neighborhood was controlled by a gang that regularly robbed the people getting off the cruise ships. The security guards were useless, as they had no guns. And that’s how we ended up in the lobby of the Radisson.

We had a difficult choice. The Stahlratte was leaving the next afternoon. Ludwig told me that he had already told two Americans that he didn’t have enough space for them. They were flying while their bikes were on the ship. Probably because I begged he said he would try to move people around on board to make space for us. We could suck it up and pay almost $1600 for passage, or hang out in Colon for another day hoping some cargo ship would take pity on us AND charge us less. After pinching pennies for so long it felt like such a waste to spend so much money. However, in the end it was the best possible choice we could have made.

The road to the port of Carti used to be very very bad. Unpaved in fact, and quite a challenge in the rainy season. Luckily for us, in the past year it was paved. It seems as though, bit by bit, piece by piece, this once great adventure to the south is being tamed. I think, in view of our strength and adventuring abilities, that this is a positive change for us, allowing us to see places that we never could have reached otherwise. On the other hand, it’s a bit tragic that what used to take great skill and daring can now be accomplished by any boob on two wheels. One of the last frontiers of wilderness in Central America, the Darien Gap, is in danger of being beaten any day now. A part of me wants to brave that jungle while it’s still there, though the larger part of me values my life and health and won’t set foot near those narrow muddy tracks. What great frontiers are left? The jungles of Brazil, the Sahara, the deep sea. Space.

Anyway, not only was the road to Carti paved, they also built a bridge over the river that previously needed to be crossed by canoe. Now everyone wants a picture of their beast in a canoe, but for me this was one more hassle happily avoided. We managed the steep inclines and declines of the Kuna Autonomous territory (paying the hefty $16 tax to enter) and finally spotted our ship resting at “port”. By port I mean one cement pier jutting out of the sand next to three or four huts. As we negotiated with the “gate keepers” who wanted to charge us $8 dollars each just to reach the boat, I heard a might roar behind me. Turning around I saw not one, not two, not three but nine motorcycles pull up behind us. First our Russian friends on their brand-spanking new spotless BMW 1200 adventure series with matching paint jobs and luggage. The rest were almost all on BMW’s as well, with the exception of one V-strom and one KTM. We all drove down the pier together and happily chatted about the trip ahead of us.

19 Bikes wating to become airborn

From Stahlratte 1

soooo many BMWs

From Stahlratte 1

So far on our trip we have waved to a few bikers going the opposite direction. We stopped once in Costa Rica to say hi to a German couple. We met the Russians at the border of Panama. We met one Canadian couple, on BMW f650GS’s, who also happened to stay at our hotel in Panama. And we met an American couple our last night in Panama City at the BMW dealership, also on a BMW F650 Dakar. Not so many bikers considering how long we have been travelling. Suddenly here we are, about to leave for a 5 day trip along with 19 other bikers! It was surreal. I looked at the boat next to us and tried to imagine a) how do you lift one (let alone 19!) 500 lb machines from the dock onto the ship and b) where are they all going to go? Where were we going to go? At this point I was under the impression that we would be sleeping on the deck. Luckily, somehow, Ludwig managed to set us up with our own double bed in a little curtained berth downstairs. The two Americans who were forced to fly to Colombia were there loading their bikes on and joking about throwing people off the pier so they could get a place on the boat. Did I mention how lucky we are? Lucky.

The answer to my question about loading the bikes suddenly strode up and kissed me on the cheeks. All of 6’7”, heavily muscled, hunky, sweet faced Roland (Roli) who had all of the women’s jaws hitting the floor. He was like a god. With a cute German accent. He tied up all the bikes with a rope attached to the main mast, then, as they were lifted into the air, he used ropes to pull the motorcycle away from the side of the ship until they were high enough to be lowered in. We all watched with trepidation and awe as we saw our babies lifted into unnatural positions, snapping pictures and biting our fingernails. Within a few hours we had all of the bikes and all of the gear safely on board and we set out towards the tropical San Blas Islands.

extremely unnatural

From Stahlratte 1


From Stahlratte 1

for the ladies

From Stahlratte 3

bike about to be lifted from canoe. notice the owner chugging in the background

From Stahlratte 3

A word about the boat. The Stahlratte (=Steel Rat) is a 100 year old German steel ship that about 20 years ago was brought by a collection of young people and run as a collective. Now the boat is circumnavigating the world, making money where it can, all proceeds being put back into the project. What does that mean exactly? Well, if you want to work on the boat, you have to pay about $50 a day. Does that seem extreme to you? We were suspicious at first, but the long-time crew, Captain Ludwig and Roli, assure us that they don’t get paid at all. It is truly an alternative way of life.

the good ship

From Stahlratte 2

On board we had the German crew, four Americans, two Austrians, one Irish, two Canadians, one Israeli, one Swiss, one Britain, one Lithuanian, one Russian, two Mexicans, and one HARD-CORE Japanese dude. We stuck all of our smelly biker gear downstairs and went up for a delicious meal of home-made dark German bread, sausages, cheeses and fruit. It was heaven. We hung out getting to know each other than sailed over to a near-bye island for the night’s entertainment. Our hosts were the Kuna people. They have a red flag with a backwards Swastika (an ancient symbol used here for centuries) and isolationist policies. They have autonomy over their region and try very hard to keep their race pure. The people are very very short with high cheekbones and beautiful almond eyes. The women wear colorful bracelets covering their ankles and wrists and heavy gold nose rings. When they get married they cut their hair short. The tiny islands are packed with thousands of people. When we were navigating through the narrow sandy alleys between huts I found it difficult to imagine living so densely when there were uninhabited islands near bye. They arranged a BBQ and a native dance for us. The young men and women faced each other in different formations and hop shuffled around while the boys played a repetitious but lovely melody on flutes. The children were very fond of the captain and threw themselves on him yelling “cola cola man.” We were told they are considering closing the islands to visitors, in order to preserve their culture. Alcoholism is a very big problem, as well as youngsters leaving for the mainland.

kuna fashion

From Stahlratte 3

traditional dance

From Stahlratte 1

The boat was great. The food was incredible. The people were interesting and fun. As one of three women on board, and the only one under 40, I enjoyed lots of attention from the young men. We went snorkeling and swung off the boat on a long rope. Our second night on the boat they bought fresh lobsters and prepared a mango curry lobster dish with coconut rice. Washed down with plenty of rum, of course. It was divine. Everything was peachy, in fact, until we started heading out to sea. I woke up suddenly at 5 am to the crash of glasses and beer cans rolling across the floor.

BBQ on the beach

From Stahlratte 2
From Stahlratte 2

swinging

From Stahlratte 3

having fun with the boys

From Stahlratte 3

maybe a bit too much fun

From Stahlratte 3

The time of sickness had arrived. Now don’t get me wrong, this happens on all of the small boats doing the crossing. I read endless accounts of other misadventures where the captain was a sociopathic, cocaine-snorting drunk who promised a relaxed tropical cruise with gourmet food but instead provided rotting vegetables, mac and cheese and only 10 gallons of water for 18 people for five days. And they got sea sick too. At least we had adequate space, medicine and water (the ship desalinates its own water via reverse osmosis), as well as a captain who was genuinely concerned about his passengers. We all spent a miserable day regretting the excess of rum the night before, puking over the side and generally bemoaning our fate. I remember at about 6 am dry heaving and thinking to myself if I had to suffer another 24 hours of this I would rather jump over the side and end it all now. Thankfully, the Dramamine kicked in eventually and everyone dozed fitfully through the day and into the night. The next morning we sighted land and sailed through the ancient sea wall into Cartagena.

dinner

From Stahlratte 3

stranded?

From Stahlratte 3

captain LuLu

From Stahlratte 3

We disembarked, the boats stayed on board for the night. The next morning we were supposed to gather at the boat at around nine to collect the bikes and go through customs. Yaniv and I woke up at 8:30, walked to the bank, and it started pouring. We decided to wait out the rain inside. By noon the streets and sidewalks were flooded. Most people were sheltering on high steps and not budging, which made us realize this was not a normal occurrence. Later we would discover that Colombia hasn’t received this much rain throughout recorded history. Regardless, we had to get back to the boat. We rolled our pants up to the knees and braved the sewage filled streets. The rain was still pouring, cars were pushing waves ahead of them and we slogged on. By this time water was lapping at the doors to businesses and when cars opened their doors water flooded out. We were the last ones to get to the boat, last to get our bikes and last to get to customs. Most people had been waiting at customs since 9am. With our usual impeccable timing we arrived for lunch and somehow got our papers done before everyone else, and were among the first to leave. As we collected our stuff back at the boat, I overheard one of the Mexicans say he was going to go stay at the home of his Colombian friend. I quickly asked him (Fernando) if maybe we could set up our tent in his back yard. He smiled and told us that we could, or we could stay in his spare apartment. Score. Fernando took us, the two Mexicans and a stray American that he picked up on the road back to his house, about 20 miles south of Cartagena.

Cartagena

From Cartagena

the deluge

From Cartagena

wet boots

From Cartagena

Why do some people invite strangers into their home? What do they get out of it? Haven’t they heard of thieves, rapists, psychotic cannibals? During our trip we have been consistently awed by the level of trust others have shown us. They are part of a global community that respects friendship and hospitality, that holds out an olive branch of peace in the hope that somehow their actions make the world a better place, an easier place. For the down-trodden traveler like us, these experiences are the highlights. They make us feel human again. They give us a unique insight into the local cultures and people. And we make really good friends. Oscar, Gustavo, Mark, Yaniv and I are treated as a part of Fernando’s family. He cooks for us, takes us into Cartagena to run our monotonous errands, drinks rum with us at night. Right now, we have an indefinite invitation from him to hang out until our spare parts arrive. We have our separate living quarters with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and fridge. We can cook and read and relax about money, at least for this week. We are blessed with kindness from strangers.

our new biker gang

From Cartagena

riding to our most over-priced under-yummy fish meal

From Cartagena

Fernando

From Cartagena

Update: Less than two days after writing this and I need to amend my previous statement. Yes, we are blessed with kindness. But sometimes those strangers turn out to be the crazy neurotic ones. Our host, Fernando, age 50, has a 25 year old girlfriend living with him. She seemed nice, if uninteresting. We had a pretty big language barrier, so not a whole lot of interaction took place. We had been staying with them for a week very comfortably. Anytime I asked Fernando a question (can we do laundry, use the internet, make hot chocolate etc) he would say “Erika, Erika! This is your home! Act as though it is your home!” Nice, right?

So one night Mark, Yaniv and I decide to watch a movie. We ask if anyone wants to join us, open a bottle of wine and share with everyone else in the house, and settle into the living room. We briefly consider going into another room, but think that it may be considered antisocial. I pop into the study and politely ask Isa (the girlfriend) if she would mind turning down her music “poquito”. She smiles and turns it down. We watch the movie.

The next morning Fernando tells me that we have to pack up and leave immediately. Apparently I offended Isa so much she gave the ultimatum that either we leave or she leaves. It’s her house and she can listen to music at whatever volume she wants to. O.K. We pack up and leave, in shock. I kept expecting Fernando to burst in laughing, saying it’s all a big joke. But no, he is quite serious. We ride away from the house upset and hurt. That night lying awake in the hotel bed, I kept running the previous night’s scene through my head. If only we had gone in the other room. If only I had smiled at her more. If only if only if only.
Truthfully, I don’t think I did anything wrong. She freaked out, for whatever reason, and did something that in hindsight will seem silly and neurotic. In the future, I will be more careful of my behavior, become even more calculating, if that is even possible.

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The Panamanian Blues/ Yaniv Singer

This blog entry will be very different from the ones I wrote before. Though maybe not. The truth is that I completely forgot not only the kind of stuff I’ve been writing, but also the kind of frame of mind I’ve been in in other parts of the trip. Things have been very different ever since we left the warmth of Tom’s Bakery and the coolness of hills surrounding it the lake Arenal region. Things have been getting difficult. Tough moments are normal in a trip or in anything else really, but after a tough week we both find ourselves simply wanting to go home. This is our state now, and for the sake of honesty I decided to write about it, rather than just writing blog entries about the good stuff (but here are some pics of the Arenal lake and volcano before I get everybody down).

From Nuevo Arenal

breakfast

From Nuevo Arenal

kitty blissing out while sucking on tail. bizarre, i know.

From Arenal Vlocano

eating these every morning definitely has it’s toll-on our waistlines

From Arenal Vlocano

cute

From Arenal Vlocano

scary

From Arenal Vlocano
From Arenal Vlocano

Hey, why don’t we break apart our army and build some windmills and national parks? Crazy costa ricans…They deserve this

From Manuel Antonio

our incomparable host, Tom

The first thing that started to turn was the weather. Not only once we return to the pacific coast it became hot and humid again, but it also started to rain for a few hours every day. So while it’s true that we had a nice morning in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Our last planned Fun Stop, more than a week ago), I am more in the mood to write about how the weather affects your frame of mind when you ride a bike. When you’re hot, you become sleepy on the bike while riding, and easily agitated while stopping. The combination of hot and humid weather with traffic can especially be hazardous, as you find yourself weaving in between cars to avoid standing in the sun. Rain is different. It has a tremendous potential to wreck your plans, not to mention getting you soaked, miserable, and home sick.

From Manuel Antonio

On the way to Manuel Antonio. That’s not a cigarette butt. It’s a log. This guy is like two meters long

From Manuel Antonio

A typical beach at the Manuel Antonio Park

From Manuel Antonio
From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

everyone’s favorite activity

From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

Yea they look cute but they stole our lunch and laughed at our face

From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

He’s laughing too, but on the inside

On the day we rode south from the park we intended to reach a beach on the Osa Peninsula where we knew we can camp. It was less than 100 miles away. Instead, it started pouring. After a while our under garments were wet, our gloves were drenched, and our feet were sitting in a pool of rain water held in by the soles of our boots. Still, we pushed on, figuring we won’t melt. This area has seen a lot of rain in the past few months, so entire sections of the road were missing. And we had to bypass them in slippery muddy sections. At this point our breathing became hard, and our visors became foggy on the inside. In dry conditions this is fine, as you can simply open your visor and let it clear up, but when it’s pouring you need to ride with the visor or else you feel the drops hitting your eyes like sharp pins. Eventually we just had to stop. Since that day our clothes never got the chance to dry, and getting dressed every morning became a real drag. Since that day we try to stop under bus stops when it’s pouring, and wait usually a half an hour till it stops. Still, after a few days of this our entire wardrobe developed a stink that we are unfortunately still carrying with us.

From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

Two BMWs at the border crossing to Panama. Suddenly people were not so interested taing photos with OUR bikes

These were the circumstances under which we entered Panama. The border crossing used up all of our cash. Not that we could have used it. Once we crossed David there was nothing for miles and miles. As darkness fell we pulled into some ranch and asked if we could spend the night. As usual with locals we ask this of, the answer was affirmative. As usual, all of the kids watched us in silence as we set up our tent. As usual, the grownups were very hospitable. They brought us a basin of water that we could use to wash off, and shooed the kids away when they realized we probably wanted some privacy.

Our first night in Panama. Rural darkness and hundreds of fireflies

From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

The last thing we saw at night and the first thing we saw in the morning

From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

The next morning I fell off the bike while trying to get on. My pannier fell apart, and we spent a good hour trying to put it back together. It took a lot of patience and strength. By the time we put the bike back together we were soaked in sweat and starving, as we didn’t have ingredients to make breakfast, or cash to buy some. After 2 hours of riding we reached some city. It’s fascinating how southeast Costa Rica is so packed whereas Northwest Panama is so barren of towns, gas stations, hotels, or anything else. In the entrance to the city we saw a billboard sign for McDonald’s. It was a huge poster for a whole lot of food for $10.99. We hurried over to the golden arches in excitement. After an hour we wanted to throw up.

Happy, Pappy?

From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

find the differences

From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama
From Manuel Antonio Cont to Panama

Our bad luck continued throughout the day. What finally got us off our butts and made us leave McDonald’s (isn’t that a strange name for a fast food joint, when you stop and think about it) was the view of black sky from the Eastern window (Panama goes east-west. Not north-south. Get used to it. We are still trying to). We decided to out run it, and it was absolutely fabulous. We were hauling down the highway in the cold front that was being pushed by the storm. For a while we felt some drops, and behind us we saw it was pouring. Later we sling shot out of the storm into the warm, humid air. We were thrilled at what the speed of our bikes allowed us to do. So thrilled that we forgot to slow down. We saw a cop try to pull us over, but we were so passed him that we decided to move on. I figured if he started to chase us we’ll just take a right to a dirt road. After 5 minutes I felt like a king for out running a motorcycle cop. After 10 minutes I swallowed my heart as his buddy pulled us over and told us to wait for the first cop. He said he was coming. He said he was pissed.
He was pissed. He said he had to give us two tickets each. One for speeding, the other for escaping. The speeding was $60, the escaping was $200. Oh yea, plus impounding the bike. He showed us his radar gun showing he caught us at 95 kph in a 60 kph zone. I knew it was a lie. First of all, as I passed him I saw he didn’t have his gun out. Second, we were going at least 130 kph at that point. I am wise enough to know, however, that it’s not about the facts, but about what you can make it look like, and how you can use them, whether they are true or false. I tried to reason with him, but he said we have to wait for his chief. The two cops and us were all waiting in a bus stop with our bikes, as it had started to rain again. As we were waiting, Erika and I slowly became worried. Our hopes of solving this by a simple bribe was diminished due to the invitation of the chief to the crime scene. Nobody like to share a bribe, especially not with their boss. The no bribe solution, $520 and a week to wait to get the bikes back, seemed bleak as well.

The rain stopped. I tried to reason with him some more, showing him my wallet with a lonely $20 bill inside of it, explaining that I simply don’t have that kind of cash. We stood there awkwardly. After a while he said that he was going to let us go, but that we had to buy them lunch because they missed it. Something like that. I don’t really speak Spanish you know. I took out my wallet with a smile and he pushed my hand back into my pocket. He said he will stop us again, and then we should give it to him. He took off in our directions. We go dressed, and took off too. After 5 miles he pulled us over, and asked to see our license. I handed him an expired American Express with a 20 behind it. He inspected the plastic, pocketed the paper, and muttered something about the weather and how the highways of Panama were dangerous.

As we rode away I smiled the smile of a gangster who just pulled one over the police. Man, I showed him! Only $20! What suckers. But when you ride you can’t stop thinking. And the more I thought the more I realized that we were the ones who’d been suckered. I realized that those two cops were working together. That he waved us on too late on purpose. That it didn’t matter how fast we were going. That there was no chief. That his presence in the story was meant to make us feel scared, and lucky to get off only with $20. So it’s true we got scammed, but still, $20 is still low. The reason we got away with that is my paranoia. Whenever I take out cash I put one bill in my wallet, and hide the rest (in this case, I had taken out $200 only hours before, opposite the McDonald’s). It could have been way worse. The next day things just kept going downhill. It took us somehow 5 hours to leave the hotel, and 2.3 miles after we left we had to pull over because it had started to pour. In this way, pulling over, waiting, riding, we slowly made our way into Panama City.

The bridge connecting the Americas over the southern tip of the Panama Canal. And us obscuring the view of it

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

We crossed over the Panama Canal as we crossed over hundreds of bridges before, too wet to be feeling apart of any history that so many people think of when they hear the words canal and Panama. We made our way into the hotel section. It was pouring again. I’ve never seen so many hotels before. They were everywhere, and yet, they were the most expensive we’ve seen on our trip. The cheapest ones were all $25. They were gross. The receptionist sits behind a bullet proof glass with a bowl of condoms next to the bowl of soap. Most rent their room for 3 hours max. The city was filled with couples walking the streets, entering and exiting these love shacks. We just couldn’t do it. One price up were all exactly $38.50 which made me think of Microsoft for some reason. We pressed on through the dark streets.

We got lost. No signs and windy streets and avenue will do it every time. At some point we were surrounded by private homes. We stopped to get directions. We asked to camp on their lawn. Our Bad luck persisted. We searched for a few hours more for an elusive backpacker’s hotel only to find out it went out of business. After searching for hotels for 3 hours we finally gave up and checked into one.

We have long discovered that we don’t enjoy traveling in cities. We came to Panama City because I needed a new chain and sprocket. After 16,000 miles, my chain had slowly stretched out. Consequently, it was pulling on the sprocket with the wrong spot on the links, deforming it. This is a positive feedback process: As the chain stretches out, the sprocket’s teeth deform and sharpen, which stretches out the chain even more. I’m now at a point where my sprockets are very sharp and narrow. Eventually they will start snapping off, and the chain will slide on the sprocket, braking teeth instead of pulling on them.

Air filters. Before and After. How hard it is to make these things washable?

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

BMW was closed for the weekend and we of course arrived on Saturday. We used the time to change our air filters. It was about time anyway. On Monday morning we found the agency. They wanted $300 for the chain and sprocket set. In the States this is $150. We should have brought a spare with us. Furthermore, Erika’s bearings in the steering were digging into the ring that supported them, making grooves, and causing the steering to be hard. This could become dangerous. We had to fix that too. We looked for a different shop that would sell us a simple o-ring chain that is not imported from Germany. We couldn’t find any. What we did find was a mechanic’s son who told us to come in the morning and talk to his dad. Yet another day has passed with zero results. As we were informed that there was no other place to get a chain from, we wen t the next day to BMW again to buy the chain. Of course, they didn’t have it. They could order it for us, but it will only arrive in 12 days. Maybe more. The BMW dealerships sits on a city block, but they don’t hold a chain for a motorcycle. As Antonio worked on Erika’s steering, we made phone calls to the states to have the cheaper and better chain and sprocket set shipped to us. Of course, as we were ready to buy it I realized I’ve lost my credit card. Later I found it in the hotel room. It just went on and on like this. We are still trying to figure out where to ship the chain to, and hope my bike survives till there.

Antonio fixing Erika’s bike by demonstrating to the front whee how it must behave

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

As soon as our bike issues were resolved, at least theoretically, we decided to leave our hotel and go camp someplace. 4 nights in Panama City have really taken their toll on us. I hate to bore the reader with financial information, but I feel that this is key to understanding our trip and my frame of mind now. We are funding our daily existence on this trip through rent that I am getting for an apartment that I own. Consequently, our budget is fixed at around $40 a day for the two of us. So far this has not been a problem. On a normal day we pay $15 for gas, and $10 for a hotel, which leaves plenty for food. For the same reason, the $30 a day here was really strangling us. We were only eating food that we were cooking, and watching every dollar. Now we were at the Amador area of the city, where we hoped to find a boat that would take us to Colombia, and a place to camp for the night.
This Area was built by the American’s during their days of running the canal. It is small yet posh. Hotels, yachts, restaurants, the works. It doesn’t feel at all like the rest of Panama. Cooking your own food and not buying anything is fine when you’re outdoor in the woods, but I realized that once you do it in the midst of western society for too long you start feeling disconnected from it. You start feeling like a rat in a fancy restaurant, like a homeless person on 5th avenue. You look at people enviously, waiting to see if they will invite you to their homes, give you a hot meal and a bed. You start feeling sorry for yourself, when of course, there is absolutely no need to, since it is you who decided to embark on this trip. Still, it gets to you. We therefore decided to bring our bottle of wine (always good to have. Anytime. Anywhere. It doesn’t need to be chilled, and it can take a bad night and turn it into a fantastic one), and go into a restaurant. As I was uncorking it Erika confessed why she was pushing for the restaurant. It was the night before thanksgiving, which means it was exactly one year (in last-Thursday-of-the-month type of time) since I proposed to her. That’s right. I was so obsessed in keeping our costs low that I forgot our own engagement anniversary.

One and Counting. Man I’m sick of that shirt.

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

That night was beautiful respite between the bike headache that plagued us till that point and the getting-out-of-Panama headache that would plague us later. Erika looked beautiful, the wine was superb, the food was delicious, and the view of the Panama City’s sky scrapers was enchanting. For desert we got invited to camp on the front lawn of the building of an American couple we met at the restaurant. Everything was perfect. That was yesterday.

Million dollar yachts

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

Erika in front of Panama City

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

After asking around in vain in yacht clubs for a boat leaving for Colombia this morning in Panama city, we headed towards Colon, a city on the Caribbean side, where we were sure we would a cargo ship leaving to Cartagena. For those of you who don’t know, there is a gap in the asphalt between Panama and Colombia. It is called the Darien Gap. It is filled drug traffickers, guerilla fighters, and malaria. Considering we want kids eventually, we decided to pass. Or to be more precise, we decided not to pass through the Darien Gap (I believe that only three riders successfully rode through the gap to this day. One had a 2WD motorcycle). We spent almost all day today going from pier to pier in the port city of Colon. There must be some kind of new policy concerning to regulation of drug control. Not a single boat agreed to take us as passengers, through many agreed to take the bikes (who hear thinks that’s a good idea?). I find this fact fascinating. There are dozens of boats leaving every day to Colombia. We have money. What seems to be the problem? It appears that in terms of the simplicity of travel, our society has gone past its peak. Once it was very hard to find a boat to take you where you wanted to go due to the fact that there were no boats. Slowly it became easier and easier. More boats. More people. More money. In the past few years it has again been getting harder and harder. There are plenty of boats, but now the barriers are social ones. Terrorism threats, drug trafficking, and good old bureaucracy.

The Gods mocking us

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

As our searches produced nothing, it was getting dark, and that familiar black cloud approached from the West. Since everybody told us that Colon is a dangerous place (riding through the alleys today we can confirm this. It’s one big shanty town) to be in, we rode to the port where cruise ships dock, stepped into the lobby of the Raddison, and have been sitting on the couches here since 6 pm. It is now 2 am and nobody kicked us out yet. Erika is sleeping on the couch beside me while I try not to make eye contact with personnel. I can’t wait to get out of this country and hit the open road again.

Now. 2 AM.

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

I know I was rambling and venting during this blog post. Forgive me. I guess I needed to. What can be taken away is that sometimes travelling, especially by motorcycle, and especially under a budget, can be very hard and extremely tiring. We both just want to go home now. It’s thanksgiving night and we’re stuck in the lobby of a hotel, in a city that we don’t know when we’ll have the fortune to leave. In these moments I try to remember something my dad taught me: an adventure is just the past tense for the present form of misery. Wish us luck send your love. I promise the next blog post won’t be as depressing and that it will contain some present adventures, not just experiences that in 20 years will become adventures.

Moon rising over the port of Colon

From Panama City, The Canal, and Colon

__________________

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Post Utila Syndrome and its Costa Rican Cure / Yaniv Singer

It took us a long while to get off the island, even once we decided to do so. Because of the pricing involved, I joined Erika in her Advanced Open Water course, rather than go on individual dives. I think our best dive was the night dive (night dive is the right dive, with my baby and I). At some points we would turn off our flash lights and gaze into the reef and see what could only be described like a distant galaxy in outer space—thousands of light sources, some staring right at us, and some just doing their thing. We could also see corals feed by shining the light on them and waiting for all of the underwater bugs and worms to come by and be pulled into the hungry mouths of the individual polyps. Finally we also met an octopus. He was curious by us, and was attracted to shiny things. Watching him move on the reef was amazing, as his body would extend in eight different directions to engulf an entire brain coral, and change colors as he was doing it.

From more utila

feeling good after a beautiful dive

From more utila

little buddies

From more utila

And then the weather turned and northerly winds started to blow, bringing with them gushes of rain, and high surf. The boat rides to dive site became violent, and we always anticipated going underwater where things were calm again. At the end of each dive we were able to look up, and see the waves and the rain drops breaking the serenity of the surface that we were do used to. The winds also meant that the ferry going back to the mainland twice a day kept being canceled, on account of the port of La Ceiba being closed. In these days Zorro, a local fisherman, kept coming to our dock. We would buy two of whatever he had. He would cut open the fish on his boat and throw the guts into the water where they were promptly grabbed by barracudas. An hour later we would have lunch. The fish never saw the inside of an icebox (not that they would if they were in once anyway).

From more utila

Perhaps on the same subject, one night a local dive shop screened the movie The Cove. It is a documentary feature (that won the academy award for best doc) about a Japanese village whose “industry” is catching dolphins, selling the good ones to dolphinariums and aquariums around the world, and driving the rest to a secret cove where they slaughter them. They kill roughly 23,000 dolphins a year. The main character in the movie is Ric O’Barry, who was the dolphin trainer for the TV show Flipper, and who has since then devoted his life for dolphins in danger around the world. The film is unbelievable, and I highly recommend watching it. I mention it hear in an effort to increase awareness to the issue, so that eventually this could be stopped. The reason why it is senseless to kill these dolphins (even for people who believe that eating animals is okay) has to do with Mercury poisoning. Being on the top of their food chain, dolphin meat has dangerous levels of Mercury. In fact, because of these high levels of the chemical, the meat that comes off the island is often labeled as something else in the markets. One of the issues discussed by the movie is today’s lack of people who devote their lives to environmental and other social equality issues. I agree, and I can expound. In 2006 I volunteered as the head of the “public transportation campaign” for an environmental organization in Israel. We were trying to divert public money from projects that favor private vehicles to ones that favor public transportation. After a year of hard work and zero progress I quit. To fight against the interest of multimillion dollar companies and their cronies in public office seemed hopeless to me. It still does, which is why I’m travelling the world now instead of trying to help it. THAT SAID, Margaret Mead said once “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” and with this I totally agree as well. Indeed, for the time being I am torn between the two views, the one says I am totally insignificant, the other that I can change the world. Maybe this trip is about resolving the two, though personally I doubt it.

From more utila
From more utila
From more utila

We finally got off the island, and returned to our over-priced hotel where our bikes were waiting in their much-deserved and surely-appreciated underground parking. For the second time in La Ceiba we dined at Pizza Hut. In the morning we went to KFC. We normally eat street food. It is cheap, fast, and different from place to place. In Honduras, however, we could not find any street food. Instead we saw American fast food, everywhere, any kind, and in huge numbers. They were also the cheapest we’ve seen them (eg. a Wendy’s burger-fries-coke combo for less than two dollars). Later we understood why. A corrupt yet legal agreement between the government of Honduras and the company that brings American fast food guarantees that these restaurants will not have to pay income tax for 25 years (15 more years to go). It also allows them to have all of their workers on part-time status, and therefore not grant them any benefits. This is why they are so cheap. Ten years into this law the majority of street food vendors simply went out of business. One could guess what will happen in 15 years.

It was hard to leave Utila and return to the mainland. The reason has to do with value differences. Utila is so dependent on Westerners and is so full of them that it retained some of their value. People don’t throw trash in the street, it’s relatively quiet, people don’t pester you, etc. This could also be the effect of the abundance of money on the island. As soon as we arrived in La Ceiba, taxi drivers began to holler at us ‘taxi taxi taxi’ as if we didn’t hear them the first time, or as if, if you wanted a taxi, you wouldn’t hail one. Sometimes it seems they think they can convince you to enter their cab if they say the word ‘taxi’ enough. When you further pay attention, it is apparent that they can’t help it. Saying taxi to a westerner is like a verbal tick to them. You notice this when cabs pass you by at high speeds, and still the cabbie yells taxi in your direction. If if he did manage to convince you, he’s going to fast to hear your reply. Another interesting thing is when you pass a line of cabbies by foot, they will each say taxitaxitaxi to you, as if completely unaware that you declined the guy who’s standing right next to them.

Of course, yelling taxi is just an example. One thing we noticed sitting in cafes in lake Atitlan is the kids walking into the cafes and trying to sell you stuff. They are happy with their buddies outside, laughing, making noise, being kids, but as soon as they approach your table they put on a sad puppy face, begging you to buy from them. At some point you say no enough times and they go away, but 20 minutes later, they are back, as if nothing happened, trying to convince you again. This can happen three or four times, until you leave the restaurant.

Another thing that also got to us in La Ceiba was the garabage everywhere on the street, and the honking of trucks, and the general lack of anything that was intended to be beautiful in the city. Before Utila, we slowly got used to these things, but now it was a shock all over again. It gave both of us a distinct feeling that we wanted to go home.

Part of travelling is learning about other values, and the general thing to do when you encounter them, is not judge them. What do you know, after all. For most values, this is a wise approach. If you take food for example, it will be foolish of you to judge people for liking tacos more than hamburgers. I reserve the right, however, to cast some judgment. I could say with confidence, for example, that clean roads are better than dirty roads. It is therefore okay for me to judge people who throw diapers and soda cans out of their car windows. For some, this goes without saying. For me, I need to justify it, because of the general code of traveling that calls to respect the locals, no matter what. Perhaps I’m just a judgmental person.

We decided to press on and readapt ourselves to the loud and dirty environment. The next day we managed our first supra 200 mile day, and reached Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, by rush hour traffic. As we were congratulating our sense of timing, a fellow BMW rider stopped next to us and asked if we needed help. We asked him where could we find a cheap hotel, and followed him to one. They didn’t have parking, which gave me the excuse to ask him what I wanted to in the first place, if he had a back-yard, and if we could pitch our tent on it. This is the question to ask if you want to be exposed to local culture (and if you want to save on hotels). He didn’t have a back-yard, which is surprising for a BMW owner in Honduras.

new friends

From leaving honduras and entering nicaragua

But his friend did. We therefore waited with the BMW guy and a buddy of his in a café for two hours until their home-owner friend finished his Kung-Fu class. It is sometimes alarming how nice people can be. I don’t use the word as a figure of speech, but as an accurate description of reality. All of our life we are taught to look out for people who are too nice, for they surely want something from us. I received a traveler’s pamphlet from the state department of Israel. Supposedly, I should be very careful from interacting with locals and I should try to hide my Israeli/Jewish identity whenever possible. By no means should I go into a stranger’s car, or follow him to his house. I know Americans are brought up in a similar way. This encouragement of fear is not limited to the travel industry, it is one of the tools governments use to rally citizens behind political causes and military operations. It is very unfortunate, and it is something that if you want to be free of, you must unlearn. Our unlearning process is in full steam—we were following a black man with dreadlocks and a chopper up the dark alleys of Tegucigalpa. So it goes.

Alfonso is a biologist and a psychologist who due to recent developments in the local economy is now cleaning restaurants. He is a Buddhist, and an extremely positive person. He’s the one who told us why KFC is so cheap. He also explained to us what happened in Honduras in summer of 2009, when the president was kidnapped and exiled to San Jose, Costa Rica by the army because he wanted to make a poll asking people if they favor a change in the constitution. Over the past year he has been working in a radio station that was stormed twice by the army for speaking negatively about the government. He also told us several other stories that demonstrate the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in Honduras. In the morning he made us bread and his mom made me coffee. Try to get that from a night at a hotel room.

alfonzo and his mom

In the morning we left for Nicaragua. It took us a while to cross the border, but it was nothing in comparison to what was to follow. We stayed the night in Ocotal. Thankfully, we were back in the land of beer that is sold in one-liter bottles for cheap. We didn’t see that since Mexico. The next day we rode 220 miles to Rivas, in the southern Edge of Nicaragua.
A word about flying through an entire country in one day. A quick word. It is only fitting. I’ve come to see traveling as the art of knowing what to miss. Ignoring mountain and ravines, any country you may visit is undeniably two dimensional. If all goes well on a motorcycle ride, and if the road is not slippery, the route it tends to make is one dimensional, though curved. It can therefore easily be proven that mathematically, even if time were not an issue, there is no way you can see everything. Throw in time considerations, and you will find your route to be a thin slice of whatever a country has to offer. Furthermore, I believe that thinking in terms of countries is misleading. After all, one wants to see different aspects of individual cultures, landscapes, geologies, climates, etc. That being the case, when planning where to make your one dimensional incision you should ask yourself where are the best places in the region to pass. The US and Mexico should be seen as two units, whereas in my mind, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are one and the same unit. If the border wasn’t there, you wouldn’t know you’re in a different country. Of course, I’m sure we missed a lot by flying through Nicaragua on one day. This will allow us to spend more times in other places. The art of knowing what to miss.

From leaving honduras and entering nicaragua

Momotombo Volcano on the coast of Lago De nicaragua

From leaving honduras and entering nicaragua

hopefully the last picture of the beard

We woke up in Rivas early in the morning, and go to the border at 10 am. Though I never had to wait on line with people, it still took us 4 hours to enter Costa Rica. In Nicaragua you pay municipal tax, then urged to make photocopies that you will never us. Then a guard inspects your motorcycle papers. He signs it with a squiggle. You then have to find a place where another police man signs the paper. Then you must go stamp your passport, which costs two dollars. Then you must go and show your stamped passport at another office. This woman also stamps your permit. Then you need to go to another police office. They want to stamp your permit as well. When you leave Nicaragua you hand in your permit, full with five different illegible signatures, to a 18 kid at a gate. He inspects all signatures with the unbelievable skill of knowing whose are they, takes your papers, and you can leave. Air Conditioning was never involved at any stop.
A few meters later you enter Costa Rica. They spray your bike. The sprayer tells you to pay two dollars per bike, but the cashier tells you to get lost. You then get your passport stamped. You then go to the customs office. You are told you need copies, and where to go to get them. Of what? They’ll tell you there. The copy guy is clueless. You guess what you need. You go back to the office, where the agent yells at you for not having the right copies. He mumbles something about what you do need while updating his status on facebook to “Why do people always come to me with the wrong papers?” you go back to the copy room, where you are told you need to buy insurance. Luckily you read about this in the guide book, which is why you put US dollars aside. Of course, you cannot use US dollars, even though every where else on the continent they are glad to receive them. You find a bank and get money. You buy the insurance, make some more copies, and proudly walk back to the customs agent. He is gone. You wait 10 minutes till he comes back into the office to check if anybody commented on his status. He yells at you that he doesn’t need to original insurance. You want to explode at him, to tell him why doesn’t he get his own copy machine, or at least let the copy kid know what he wants. But then you remember reading the report of another rider, who did explode, and was rewarded by a form containing the wrong information, so when he tried to leave Costa Rica he couldn’t. So you explode on the inside, and go make more copies of the insurance. They are small, and the copy kid puts them both on one page. Five minutes later, this enrages the customs agent, who brbs his friends on chat and goes with you to the copy room. They fight for five minutes, arguing about photocopying ethics. You get some satisfaction and try to hide your smile. The custom agent wins. You pay for more copies, and return his office. He hands you a piece of paper, and now you have to copy all of the information from the title of the bike on to it. Your passport information too. He staples everything together with a small piece of paper on top. He signs it. You think you are done, but you are not. You are sent to another office. The women there are busy talking and exchanging pirated DVDs. You get her attention and she decides to do you a solid and take the pieces of papers from you. She copies everything you wrote into her computer, prints it out, and gives it back to you. Lastly, there is a guard that inspects this piece of paper, and opens the gate to Costa Rica.

Through all of this I couldn’t help but feel offended and embarrassed as a human being. Surely a designed system for the trafficking of humans can do a better job. I can understand wanting to control the traffic of people between countries. Though this is what border crossing were meant for, this one completely failed at that (nobody ever saw Erika, who was watching the bikes all along. I just stamped two passports wherever I went. Nobody had a problem with that), and instead mutated into a bureaucrat’s wet dream. Nobody wants the crossing to be this way, not the people working there, and especially not the people going through it, and yet, nobody has any control over it. The monster became too powerful for anyone to slain. Later I found out that we were lucky, because usually there are hundreds of people there and much hotter weather. Four hours, I was assured by locals in Costa Rica, is quick.
These last few days have been hard. We were slowly readjusting to Central American values. We were traveling from morning to night, crossing border where we had to, staying in cheap and dirty hotels, and somehow always ending up eating fried chicken. All of that was going to change.
Half an hour into Costa Rica we met a German couple on a Yamaha Tenere that they shipped from Germany to San Jose. They were going up to Mexico. Both of us were excited enough to turn around and chat a bit. They told us of a German Bakery in Nuevo Arenal, on lake Arenal (the old Arenal is in the lake), and we decided to head there.

From Nuevo Arenal

lake Arenal as seen from Nuevo Arenal (the old one is in the lake)

The first thing you notice about Costa Rica is that the roads are clean. It felt strange after 3 month of travelling by constant rubbish, occasionally on fire. When we got to the lake Arenal area, it stopped feeling like central America altogether. We felt like we were in Italy of France: beautiful roads, in good condition, cutting through stunning landscape with fat cows grazing. We arrived at the bakery and within five minutes Tom, the baker, the owner, told us we were welcome to stay with him. He gave us the room where he used to live, with a stunning view of the lake.

From Nuevo Arenal

squirrel likes the money

After our first hot shower in a long time, we joined Tom for dinner. Nuevo Arenal has a lively community of westerners who decided to settle down here and open businesses. They find that doing it here is way easier than back home due to lack of regulations, building codes, etc. We went to the restaurant of Eyal, a 40 year old Israeli chef who left Israel ten years ago, and built his dream restaurant. Lonely Planet voted it the best in Costa Rica, and for good reason. The food was superb. We dines like we hadn’t in months, and paid a price that we would never imagine dishing out in Central America for food. It was worth it. For weeks now we were skimping on food and lodging. Tonight we lived like kings and queens. We even had the most amazing cheesecake we’ve ever tasted for desert. Contrast makes life tastier. Tri Tip steak is even tastier after you make your own avocado sandwiches on the curb of gas stations. This morning the party continued. After all, we’re in a German bakery, and we have a German host.

From Nuevo Arenal
From Nuevo Arenal
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Guatemala City to Honduras/ Yaniv Singer

It makes sense to pay out of your ass to BMW in the States, but for some reason here it just doesn’t. Everything else here is paperless and unofficial, so when they wanted us to hand to the office the bike papers and our details before the mechanic even looked at Erika’s bent handlebar (which prevented the throttle from springing back into place) I politely declined. Instead, I rode the bike to where the actual mechanic worked, and hoped that some Guatemalessness remained in them. They fixed it in 20 minutes, and I gave them some cash, saving the whole ordeal of going through the office, paying them 10 times as much, and having them pay the actual mechanics nothing more than their meager monthly starving wages. Concerning our tools, we managed to almost completely replace our $120 toolkit for $50 worth of Stanley tools. All of these morning erands left us only a few hours of riding in which we were constantly behind a truck or a school bus from the US that passed its age of legality there. It’s really incredible. 95% of busses in Guatemala and Honduras are school busses from the US. I understand that passed the age of 7 they can no longer be used in the US, and are sold for roughly $1500 to bus companies here, where they run for another 20 years. Riding behind them, however, is guaranteed to leave 2 soot rings around your eyes. We only made 70 miles, and crashed in non-other than the bone-fide Hotel California.

The following morning we were on the road again. I felt like a million bucks. It made a huge difference to be able to wake up and seconds after starting the bike do 60 on the highway, with no other intent than cover as many miles as possible. Though the border between Guatemala and Honduras is said to be horrendous, we got through it under an hour, and pushed on towards San Pedro. While generally things are very simple travelling, sometime the simplest task in the US becomes complicated here in Central America; For example, finding drinking water. Stores kept having just the small, 500 ml, bottles of water. We finally found a place that sold the big 5 gallon jugs. It turns out that it is way cheaper for us to buy one of those and return the jug, even if we only use one-third of it, than buying even the one-gallon bottles, rare as they are.

While we were filling up our CamelBaks two Americans in their 60s rolled in driving a white Chevy pick-up. Within minutes we were setting up our tent on Samuel Adams’ lawn. He bought a few acres down here seven years ago, and has built a house for him to live in, and another one for a Honduran family to live in, rent free, so they could watch his property while he ventures back into Florida. The property was beautiful during the last minutes of day, and magical at night, with hundreds of fireflies hovering over the expanse of land. He said that he loves it down here, because once he bought the land he could do with it whatever he wanted. No building codes. No permits. No engineers. No laws. It sounded pretty good to me as well.

this is the motorcycle shop in Antigua where we first realized our toolkit had been stolen.

From volcano to utila

camping on Sam Adam’s lawn

From volcano to utila

In the morning a Missionary came over. He’s been down here for 33 years. His wife is running a bi-lingual school, and he asked if we minded coming over and speaking with the 200 or so kids about our bikes and our trip. We were happy to. The kids were as sweet as they come. It was something new for them the see a girl on a motorbike, to see a tent, or to hear of the concept that a couple plans when they want to have kids. In many conversations throughout Chiapas, Guatemala, and Honduras, we discovered that girls are married off at the age of 15 and leave their home.

Showing off our tent to a bunch of sweet kids. How are you? I asked, FINE THANK YOU! they yelled back in perfect unison

From volcano to utila
That same day we rode hard, and after 170 miles reached La Ceiba. We found a hotel that had underground parking and agreed to store our bikes for a week. The next morning we hopped on a Ferry to Utila, where I am writing from now (Finally the blog has caught up with the present, the first battle won in a losing war).
Utila is gorgeous. Though only an hour away by boat from Central America, it is very different from it. Everybody speaks English here, as it used to be a British Colony. It is more like a Caribbean country than a part of Central America, thick with Caribbean cooking, rolling accents, and an enveloping aroma of weed.our view from the bed

From volcano to utila

As soon as you get off the ferry people try to lure you to their own dive centers. We chose one of them, and Erika began her SCUBA open water course an hour later. With the course, we get a free room that sits 10 feet from the water. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places we’ve been in since the beginning of our trip. There’s a guy that floats over with his boat, and you can buy extremely fresh fish from him. On our first night here we bought 5 pounds of fresh red tuna meat, and together with the 15 people residing in the dive center, instructors, dive-masters, and all, we got drunk on rum drinks and had a great dinner. The atmosphere here is very chill, and everybody is very nice. I could stay here for days, which is, since Erika is getting her Advanced Open Water Certification here as well, the plan.

From volcano to utila

________________

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Beyond Mexico: Guatemala and Honduras/ Yaniv Singer

It was first in San Cristobal, Mexico, When Time caught up with us. One of the most fabulous things about travelling is the change that takes place in your perception of time. Presumably it moves at the same rate as every*where else, but the lack of schedules, deadlines, news, family dinners, holidays, and other such time-linked shenanigans makes it so that you are less aware of its passage.

We traveled in Mexico going from city to city, staying where we wanted till we felt like leaving, and before we knew it we had been on the road for 2 months, and still in Mexico. We did the math a few days later, on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Assuming we want to get to Patagonia by the end of January so we could spend a week or two hiking (and possibly grab a stand-by seat on a ship to Antarctica?), and assuming we take a week or so to allow Erika to complete her SCUBA certification in Utila, Honduras (we are here now), and assuming it takes us a week to find a boat that will take us across the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, and assuming we can cover about 150 miles a day on these roads, we really don’t have a lot of days in which we don’t have to ride. To be exact, if we ride without resting days through Chile and Peru (countries we’ll have a chance to visit on the way back up), we have 15 non-riding days to be spent somewhere in a half a dozen countries or so. We just have to figure out how we want to spend them.

lake Atitlan

From Mexican Border to Lake Atitaln and Antigua

two Guatemalan women carrying wood

From Mexican Border to Lake Atitaln and Antigua

The first of these days was spent coming up with this thought in Lake Atitaln. We spent the second one in Antigua, climbing an active volcano with the hopes of seeing lava. For this purpose, we signed up for a tour. The first half an hour was a wake-up call to us concerning the travel realities of most travelers. We got picked up by a 15 seat van with loud bad music pouring out of shitty speakers. The van then continued to pick up 12 other tourists from different hotels. Three of these tourists were Israeli. While we met a handful of Israelis who were good people and respectful travelers, I’m sad to admit that these three snugly fit themselves into the mold of the stereotypical Israeli Traveler. Loud, highly judgmental, self-righteous, rude, and, sadly, racist (they thought I was American, and I kept my mouth shut to allow for the anthropological experiment to proceed).

So that I won’t become myself a victim of my last judgment stated above, allow me to offer an explanation for why Israeli travelers tend to behave in the way I described. It’s quite simple. They are, almost invariably, terribly young and fresh out of the army. In the army there is a very clear hierarchy, and immense homogeneity. They (we) are all Israeli, all Jews, all the same age, all speak Hebrew, all following the same orders. Rudeness is built into orders you receive and the way you carry them out. In a regular society you learn not to be rude because of the consequences—the person you’re talking to might just leave the room. But no such danger exists in the Army, so for three years you are reconditioned to a state where rudeness has no consequences. Not only can your commanders be rude to you, and not only can you be rude to the civilians that you might be handling, but you can even be rude to your friends, cause they are stuck in the same goddam place as you. The self-righteousness and racism could very easily be explained by the army as well (admittedly they could be explained by Judaism itself, with a little bit of modern Zionism to fill in the gaps), but I shall spare the reader from further analysis. Hopefully, as Israelis (or anyone for that matter) get older, they become a little more wise and moral.

The volcano hike itself, following the van ride, was fabulous. We climbed past the clouds into the volcano peak and the realm of the sunset. You could feel the heat beneath you as you go up the mountain. Some pockets are so hot, in fact, so we were able to roast marshmallows in them. And guess what? We even got to see the glow of lava. Check.

on the volcano

From volcano to utila

strawberry flavored marshmellow. yuck.

From volcano to utila

spectacular sunset at the top. right before the descent in complete darkness

From volcano to utila

the air coming off this baby was hot enough to singe eyebrows

From volcano to utila

We also met our good friend Gui (Gee. He’s French-Canadian) again. We first met him at a burger king in Mexico, then in San Cristobal, then in lake Atitlan and now again in Antigua. He’s plan was to ride a bike, the pedaling type, from Alaska to Ushuaia. He rode till Mexico, and then started taking the occasional bus (he’s a family man, with a wife and two kids waiting for him back home). Whenever we meet we make lots of pasta and drink lots of wine. He’s a gentle soul.

From San Cristobal

Other than that Guatemala is nothing to write home about. The drivers are atrocious. We got pushed off the road several times by trucks passing other trucks going in the opposite direction. The food is not as good as it is in Mexico, and the people are not as nice. Consequently, we had a mind to cross over to Honduras as soon as we could. However, the night before we left Antigua our tool kit got stolen. Along with a few minor issues with our bikes that became a reason for us to head over to Guatemala City, buy more tools, and go to the BMW dealership.
While we were looking for the dealership, Erika dropped her bike and broke the clutch lever. Luckily we had a spare. We replaced it, found the dealership, discovered how awfully expensive it was, and spent the night in town.

don’t let the bright colors fool you, this is the ENEMY!

From volcano to utila

__________________

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Guadalajara to Mexico City/ Erika Rowe

The ride from Ixtlan Del Rio to Guadalajara just got more and more beautiful. We moved from the dense jungle to corn fields to agave plantations. We stopped in Tequila for a tasting but decided not to do a tour of the factory. Instead we found our way to our new Couchsurfing friend Miguel. Couchsurfing is a bit of a coin flip. People are on it for different reasons and Miguel’s page looked a little bit suspicious to me. He didn’t have any friends and he specified he only wants to host girls. Well. That’s a red flag. Luckily, I have a trusting nature and we decided to meet him before we found a hotel. He’s fantastic. He and his friends dropped everything to hang out with us and show us around. We celebrated Mexico’s Independence Day with them at a bar and toured all around the city. They even cooked us a delicious 2 a.m. BBQ. I helped Miguel rewrite his Couchsurfing profile so he wouldn’t appear so creepy. And now I feel we really have a friend in Guadalajara instead of another night spent in a hotel.

From Guadalajara and the Area
From Guadalajara and the Area

miguel’s sushi

From Guadalajara and the Area

kid playing in the DISGUSTING water of a public fountain

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Mazatlan to Guadalajara/ Erika Rowe

The heat and humidity in Mazatlan were overwhelming after our night at sea so we quickly scouted for a hotel. We ended up right on the beach in a run down, once grand behemoth of a hotel. It covered a whole block but only a few wings were in use. On our side we had a row of creepy abandoned rooms and lots of bats. However the view of the ocean made it worthwhile. I experienced my first tropical storm and got hustled at pool on the same night. Luckily there was no money involved and I even got a free drink out of it, so maybe I was the Hustler after all. Mazatlan is cute, but the humidity was driving Yaniv crazy so we headed out.

There are two roads between Mazatlan and Guadalajara, the Libre (free) and the Cuota (toll). We started out on the toll road because we were told it is much faster. However, soon the costs became too high and we got off as quickly as possible. We ended up paying between 6-700 pesos and weren’t yet half way to Guadalajara. That’s about twice our daily budget. Anyway, the free road was much more interesting and beautiful. We drove through dense jungles and small villages until it started getting dark. Earlier in the day, when we stopped for lunch, a guy told us about a big fiesta in a little town Ixtlan Del Rio. Since we were there anyway we decided to spend the night and check out the party. It turns out this fiesta is a big deal because bands come from all over to play in the little square. There were maybe 30 different bands vying for space and almost all of them were playing at the same time, sometimes only five feet apart. A Mexican family that has been living in the states for the past few years adopted us for the night and even hired a band to play for an hour. This means the entire hour someone from the family would be dancing so the band wouldn’t feel insulted. Our clumsy polka dancing got a lot of laughs.

me losing at pool. the margaritas helped the pain

From Crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan

tropical storm from our hotel window

From Crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan

market in Mazatlan. not a happy butcher

From Crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan

Yaniv´s dream ride

From Guadalajara and the Area

look safe to you?

From Guadalajara and the Area

Tequila tasting in Tequila

From Guadalajara and the Area
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Mulege to Mazatlan/ Erika Rowe

Leaving Bill’s place in Mulege was difficult. The relaxed atmosphere and air conditioning made it hard to go. Also, there is always a little fear of the unknown whenever starting out again after a rest period. The road south was straight and boring and treacherously hot. The stops we made were in non-descript places always on the way to somewhere else. It was with a certain amount of gratitude that we finally made it to La Paz and sought out the ferry.
There are two ferry companies, Baja Ferry and the other one. We were on the other one. This ferry was a cargo ferry and we loaded our bikes along with maybe 40 big rigs. Inside the optimistically named “salon” were rows of seats, a few tvs, showers, and 40 sweaty truckers. Instead of claiming a few seats to spend the night on we decided to camp out on the deck. It was a good choice all around. First of all, the sunset was stunning and the stars were wonderful. Second of all, the truckers started drinking and the tv entertainment switched from bad dubbed movies to bad porn. When we woke up in the morning we were in sight of Mazatlan. The green lush coast was a bit of a surprise to me because I imagined all of Mexico to look more or less like Baja. This however was a tropical paradise.

From Baja California Sur

Still in Baja, Yaniv on our new friends custom built ride

From Baja California Sur

discussing how to fix our bikes

From Baja California Sur

shearing down the screws

From Baja California Sur

waiting in line for some road work. All the truckers were asleep under their trucks in hammocks. luckily we were able to sneak around the construction with out waiting too long

From Baja California Sur

camping between Guerro Negro and La Paz behind a convenience store

From Baja California Sur

bikes before loading them on our ferry

From Crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan

enjoying the ride

From Crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan

stunning sunset

From Crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan

the gentle rolling put us to sleep quickly

From Crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan

getting ready to unload into mazatlan

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First off-road: San Felipe to Route 1, Baja California, Mexico

Since we left San Felipe we had some adventures. We started heading south midday and realized 40 miles down the road that we lost the spare keys to all the locks and my bike. it was a frustrating couple hours of riding back, scouring the road, riding around san felipe again, being unsuccessful and sweaty and grumpy. We gave up eventually and headed out to campo percebu. When we were stopped on the side of the road looking for the keys an american woman stopped and asked us if we needed help. she invited us to come by her house if we needed anything. not exactly an invitation to spend the night, but we decided to interpret it that way. Campo Percebu is about 20 miles south of San Felipe down a two mile sandy road. Driving down it was a bit scary for me because the bike was drifting a bit. when we made it down we were invited to some beers by some americans hanging out in the cantina. they invited us to spend the night with them at a campo a little bit north of Percebu

. We decided to go for it since they had electricity and started driving back down the sandy road as the sun was sinking. I hit some deep sand, hit the gas like i was told but lost control of the bike. Based on the tire marks it looks like my bike skidded sideways, hit some sharp rocks and launched in to the air about four feet. I came down facing the opposite direction on the road. I was totally unhurt but i started crying when i saw how messed up my front rim was and how busted my rear tire was. I really thought our trip was over based on how the rim looked. it got dark while we tried to pump some air into the tires, but it was hopeless. i stayed with the bike while yaniv went back to the camps to look for help. Amazingly, since the place is mostly deserted this time of year, he found Klaus and his daughter Melia watching a movie in front of their garage.

Klaus is a highway patrol officer in San Diego. He’s building up his house in Percebu and used to race in the Baja 1000 (he won some races too). He put us up for the night and took us into town the next morning to have my wheels fixed. it took the tire place about an hour to bang my rim back in and patch up the tube and the tire. we never could have fixed it ourselves. without Klaus’s help i don’t know what we would have done. I think that has been the theme of our trip so far, amazing people coming out just when we need them. the fact that Klaus is also an experienced off-road motorcyclist was really helpful. we left his house that same day and headed for the dirt road south of Puertocitos.

Because of my crash i was a bit nervous on the dirt road but really it was fine. We camped on the hill side with the spectacular mountains behind us and the sea in front. it was a hot uncomfortable night but it was also nice to be alone in the wilderness. We woke up to watch the sunrise and we left early to beat the heat. After that we had another 10 miles to gonzaga bay. we stopped there for fuel and water but it was too hot to camp. we kept heading south another 40 miles on the dirt road and thankfully made it to hwy 1 with no more flat tires. We also stopped at Coco’s corner and checked out the underwear on the wall. he seems like an interesting guy. i loved all the pictures of the hard core bikers

From then on it was a painful two hours to Guerro Negro. I thought my butt would fall off. i was hoping it would fall off so then it would stop hurting. Guerro Negro is a dirty little port town on the pacific side. the only good thing about being there was the cool weather. we stayed in a cheap and smelly hotel (i saw a mouse climb onto the other bed at some point) but we were happy to shower and be off the bike. we had yummy shrimp and scallop tacos, watched a movie and crashed. the next day we drove south east into the heat towards mulege. we arrived in the dark and followed our couchsurfing host’s directions to his little house. it is in the mexican side of town where all the streets are still dirt. Bill is a grumbly old man who curses a lot but he has been a great host. its hard to know when he’s talking to you or himself. we celebrated my birthday by cooking at home because all of the restaurants were closed. last year this week mulege was hit by a devastating hurricane. apparently the locals need another to hit this year because their local economy depends on rebuilding the gringos houses.

I guess I knew how hard this trip would be before we started. actually, i said i knew it would be hard, but my imagination couldn’t comprehend the reality. The ache all over my body after a full day of riding is so intense, do I really want to be doing this for another 9 1/2 months? time will tell

my bike taking it’s “dirt nap”

From baja california norte

you can see the rock i hit and the lack of tire marks allllll the way over to the bush that i partially took out

From baja california norte

our saviors

From baja california norte

camping on the way to gonzaga bay

From baja california norte

yaniv at gonzaga bay. think we have enough shit?

From baja california norte

Coco’s corner

From baja california norte
From baja california norte
From baja california norte

fixing shit

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Adapting to Trip Life: Tel Aviv to Chico to San Diego to Ensenada, Mexico / Yaniv Singer

A couple of weeks. That’s how long it usually takes me to adapt to trip-life. Erika says I have a long aaption period to any change, like getting up in the morning, going to sleep at night, going between Israel and the US, everything. She’s right. I don’t accept change very easily. This is somewhat ironic considering I am always trying to change my life around. I guess this conflict is a potential source of angst in my life.

Yaniv asleep with Charlie
We had a lucky break concerning our adaption to trip life. It was gradual. In the beginning of June Erika quit her job and we left our wonderful home in Moshav Givaat Nili, surrounded by vineyards and orchards. The space our stuff was taking collapsed from a two bedroom apartment to my old room in my mom’s flat. That was a tough period for me. We left our life behind so we could lead a different one that would not start yet. It’s like putting down a good book for what you think is a better one, but having to read Oprah magazines instead. This interim period continued when we left Israel on June 20th on a one way ticket to California. Still the better book remained hidden. After working in a summer camp, we finally bought two bikes (3 really. More about that here), and now we were able to see the book on the shelf. Once we had finished buying all the gear for the trip we could only see the front cover of the book. Even once we left Erika’s hometown, Chico, it was only reading the back cover of the book. We were perhaps getting a hint of what this trip would be like. But you know how unreliable back covers can be. After all, we were still in the States, having the comfort of sipping red wine out of tall glasses and sleeping in fluffy beds, whether it be in Santa Rosa, Berkeley, Los Angeles, or San Diego. We had the comfort of being hosted by people we knew and liked. Aside from good food and readily available washing machines, we also had the comfort of a built in schedule. This is how it is living closely with people you care about. You have coffee with these people, go buy some things with these, have dinner with those, see a movie with the others, etc. people want to do stuff, and stuff is what you do. We would find that some of these characteristics of life will change once we start our trip-life.

With our friend Heidi at her bridal shower. Rancho Palos Verdes, LA, California

On September 1st we crossed into Mexico in Tijuana. We finally opened the book and started reading the first chapter. The border crossing was uneventful. Doing 70 on interstate 5 I suddenly saw the sign “end of highway.” Man, here is this enormous incredible web of interstates connecting with unbelievable efficiency the 4 corners of the united states. You could drive from Miami to Seattle to San Diego to Boston and back again without a single red light, stop sign, or even a traffic circle. What an incredible project! And here we are being spit out of it at Tijuana into heavy traffic of un-obedient drivers at a red light on asphalt filled with potholes. It made me realize that a whole lot of comfort I’ve been taking for granted is about to be jerked from under my feet.

By nightfall it was. We took the toll road from Tijuna to Ensenada. It was filled with uncompleted apartment hotels with signs in English that try to entice rich Americans to buy a suite or property. Many would stay uncompleted. Construction must have started before the big crash of 2008, and now Americans are not so rich anymore. And even if they were, the vast majority of them are so terrified by the “recent” drug wars that they won’t even come near the borders. Talking about this to Mexicans, they all think that American media chose for some reason to exaggerate this issue, because these drug wars have been going on for decades now. It’s hard to know who to believe. We have seen no drug wars with our own eyes, and yet, it is a matter of fact that the mayor of some town got executed a few weeks ago, or that the cartel attended a funeral of a federal cop, then followed his family members home, and executed them. It’s hard for me to imagine what the cartel leaders are thinking. If they have political agendas, they cannot be intact. They employ lots of people and have driven the army out of some towns, wanting to be the social leaders of these towns. Apparently this is beginning to work, and when faced with daily criminals some Mexicans in some areas prefer to go to the cartel families and not to the police to sort things out. But philosophically the cartels are damned. Since all of their money comes from drugs they must think that drugs are valid, at least in some ways. So far so good, many people believe drugs are okay. Not a big deal. But if they are okay shouldn’t they be legalized? And if they are legalized in the US, wouldn’t there be no more need for illegal trafficking of drugs? And if there is no need for trafficking wouldn’t the cartels go broke? It seems to me the cartels are facing quite a dilemma. I wonder if it bothers them as much as it bothers me. The only rational explanation is that the cartels think that drugs are bad, but also think that it’s okay to sell them to Americans. Honestly I don’t know how they face themselves in the mirrors, killing the kids of a soldier just because he’s a soldier. Though I don’t think Mexico is dangerous for tourists, I think it’s in a mess. Whenever a military car stops to fuel up soldiers come out with m16s to secure the gas station. Who exactly are they afraid of? Nobody around but Mexicans, for hundreds of miles in each direction. When a national army needs to protect itself from its own people there is room for discussion whether Mexico is a failed state or not.

But I digress. I was about to describe how I was about to put the new book back on the shelf after reading its first sentence. We arrived in Ensenada in the dark. That’s right. The number one safety rule in Mexico is “don’t travel at night,” and we did just that in our first few hours in the country. We were supposed to stay with somebody from couch surfing that night. But she was in Tijuana, and all we had was the number of her neighbor, who told us ‘ask people where the Red Cross is and call me from there.” You would think by the nature of these instructions that Ensenada is a tiny town. It’s a huge city. We found ourselves in a 7-11 type store, trying to call the neighbor again, with a bunch of young Mexican men dressed gangsta like all staring at our bikes. ‘what are we doing?’ started to think I.

We received more directions. We started driving up a hill, looking for a particular house. The road was getting steeper and steeper. Erika was riding ahead of me. She arrived at a stop sign passed which the asphalt gave way to dirt. She stopped and grabbed the front brake. It did nothing and she nearly fell off the bike. The dirt has slipped down to the pavement, and while the brake held the wheel, and while the wheel held the tire, the tire could not grip the asphalt. She froze up. At this point we were surrounded by 8 or so Chihuahuas, the most annoying dogs invented by men. I tried to park somewhere while Erika slowly rolled back to the curb. Chihuahuas were biting on our pants. The road was so steep, and the bike was so heavy. It took an awful lot of concentration by me to park the bike and get off it without dropping it. We had the right street. The address of the house was four hundred and thirty something. I walked by 396, 404, 420 and I was feeling rather good with myself till I noticed the next house was 817, then 826, and so on. I walked back to Erika and told her I couldn’t find it. The Chihuahuas seemed to be pleased with themselves cause they were extra loud. She went to ask some neighbors while I sat on the curb and noticed people looking at me through windows blasting Mexican hip-hop on the unpaved part of the intersection.

A Chihuahua after eating up a car tire

A ramp going nowhere. I thought for a second that the Mexican gods are talking to me in metaphores

Our First Local street in Mexico

Everybody has ideas. Sometimes they are good ideas but often they are bad ones. For the majority of our lives, there is usually a person to tell you if your idea is bad and stop you from turning your plan into action. This is true from when you dress up as superman for the first time and your mom will assure you that you cannot really fly, and please don’t try it sweetheart, all the way to when you’re sitting in an office and you’re about to storm it and yell at your boss, and your co-worker tells you that you better not do it if you still want a job tomorrow morning buddy. And when people are not around to stop you from doing something stupid financial realities do the trick—executing big ideas often cost a lot of money and require you to take time off from your job.

So, what if this whole Latin America on a motorcycle thing is really a horrible idea, and nobody is telling us? What if it’s a really dumb move but we happen to exist in a financial and familial context where we can crystalize our idea by a mere decision? Did people warn us and we just ignored them? It’s our first night in Mexico, we’re lost, we’re surrounded by devilish Chihuahuas that are just waiting for us to take our protective gear off and Mexican gangstas that are just waiting to stroll down the dirt road and ride our bikes away. Here we are on our first day of a dirt-oriented trip, and the first sign of dirt nearly disables us. Good ol’ San Digeo is only 2 hours away. Why not just admit we had made a terrible mistake, check into the most expensive hotel we can find, and drive back home, where the streets are paved, the addresses stay even on one side and odd on the others, the language is English, and the dogs are chained up?

Erika finally came out of the house with a man. They proceeded to walk up and down the street till they found the house hiding behind a trash can. The man allowed us to lock our bikes in his driveway. Our Mexican host was very gracious and friendly. He was the roommate of the girl who invited us, and he didn’t even know that we were coming (the neighbor was out at the movies). Still, he took us in and offered us a mattress. He made us rice while I went to buy some beer. Within an hour I was calm again, sipping dos equis, enjoying the company, thinking maybe I’ll give the new book one more shot.

With the parking host of our bikes

This is what I mean when I say I take time to adjust to new situations. Over the next two weeks or so, I would alternate up to a few times a day between ‘what the hell are we doing? Let’s go back home now! What’s the point of this?’ and ‘I can’t believe how lucky we are to have the time, money, capability and imagination to go through with this life changing trip.’

The girl who brings me up when I’m down. Really, what choice do I have with that look?

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