Social BookmarksRSSVimeoYoutube

Archive for November, 2010

November 30th, 2010 - The Hunger Games

Cartagena, and in general the Caribbean coast region of Colombia, historically has the highest rate of malnutrition in the country. The problem lies rooted in the severely uneducated and rural life in this region which has many refugees of the internal war between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the federal government which has raged on for many years. The number of displaced refugees is not precisely clear but a short visit out of the touristy town of Cartagena to its surrounding neighborhoods changes anyone’s perception.

To get more acquainted with the problem, we visited a well known local institution, founded by a rich Colombian couple to battle malnutrition and focus on family control education. I can’t personally vouch for this organization as I have my doubts about its administration. It’s not their mission that troubles me; it’s their extravagant administrative expenditures which made me think twice. For example, the new building that they are constructing is a multi-million dollar project, which looks more like the “Mall of America” in Minnesota rather than a humble clinic. I might be overly paranoid, but the fact that tons of cocaine goes through the ports of Cartagena to be shipped to North America every week is enough to justify any profligate show to cover the drug movement. It’s a technique that many organized crimes utilize to smooth out their smuggling efforts. We stayed wary of giving any financial support to this particular foundation, but on the mission level it was eye-opening.

As I walked in one of the classrooms, I was shocked to see many girls in their early teens breast feeding babies. Many ranged from 12 to 15 years old, and their petrified innocent looks were telltale signs of abuse and abandonment by the society. These girls were barely old enough to hang up their nonexistence Barbie dolls, yet they had one or more kids already and were expecting more. They didn’t know any better. Nor had the luxury of finding out how.

To reach them in their “natural habitat,” a short 30 minutes ride out of the touristy Cartagena was enough to enter the heart of the slums that no tourist will ever see and even many locals would not dare to go. No paved roads, no running water, dirt floors, shacks with no roofs and the supermarkets in the area were guarded like jailhouses with bars to prevent the hungry population from raiding them.

These families lived on 40 cents a day a person, which itself was a fortune for them. A full day of work only provided them with handful of beans and some rice to feed five or six mouths, and many went hungry day and night. Catalina (not her real name) was a one of the many. Mother of one young one already and with another one in the oven, she was responsible for her seriously ill husband while taking care of her younger brother and sister at the same time. The dingy door-less shack they lived in was nothing more than a few metal sidings and a tarp overhead, with two beds separating the muddy floor from their bodies. Five people slept on two beds at night, cooked whatever they acquired outside, and the females in the constant fear of being raped bathed behind the shack in the open. The torrential rainwater seeped in from every corner and in the dim rays of sunlight sneaking in; it felt more like a ghost house rather than inhabitable living quarters.

It is hard to accept tea from people who have absolutely nothing, but not accepting is harder on their pride. Sometimes when I pack the bike, I stare at all the stuff I carry with me (which is extremely minimalistic by any American standards), and it troubles me to know that I have more things than many have in their entire house. It sickens me to think of all the money the European and American tourists spend in many countries without the slightest regard or even knowledge of the quality of life just a few miles away from their comfortable hotels.

The cost of one meal in a touristy restaurant in Cartagena could realistically feed an entire family in this village for over a week, but no one seems to notice or care.  We are too occupied with our own egos, our own comfort and well-beings that we forget that there are souls just a few miles away taking their last breath because they didn’t have what we take for granted day after day: food. We travel with our damn mosquito nets, malaria medication, our specialized money belts and safe wire-mesh backpacks to deter the hungry thieves, yet we’re ignorant of the cause of it.

Cynthia passed some money through the jail-like bars of the supermarket which yielded in two 50lb bags of rice, few bags of beans and other provisions to keep five people alive for a little longer. Catalina had tears in her eyes when she heard that she could feed her family that night as they hadn’t had a bite to eat that day because literally they had nothing to eat. Tears kept coming down her face. It was hard to say what feelings they relayed, but whatever feelings they were; it was very alien to me.

Catalina’s family wasn’t the only one we fed in that village. It was unbearable to be in the position of making the call of who gets to eat and who goes hungry, when you can’t feed everyone. We left Cartagena with heavy hearts.

Don’t forget these people. Help us so we can help them. I hope you were thankful for your blessings on this Thanksgiving Day. I am.

Tell us what you think, 3 Comments

November 20th, 2010 - Life in Cartagena, Colombia

Day after day we waited for the bike to arrive, but it never did. And to irritate me more, our website disappeared from the worldwide web because apparently it was causing problems on our sponsored server. When I started this journey, Montana Internet Corporation sponsored the hosting of our website for 5 years which was very generous, but MIC wasn’t really set up to be a host. They provide wireless internet, and they are great at that. However hosting is not their real business so everything was pretty much outdated and couldn’t handle the load of our site. So they shut down our website, and it was time to move servers. Nevertheless, many thanks goes to MIC for putting up with us and giving us a helping hand when it was most needed.

I spent days trying to back-up our stuff with the horrible internet connections and started a quest to find the best host in the world and narrowed it down to one: Inmotion Hosting. My expectation from a good host was to be fast, reliable and up-to-date, and Inmotion fit the bill on every level. To make it even better, it’s a solid American company. They provide 24/7 customer service which is top-notch with no Indian accent like other hosts.

Inmotion hosting joined our sponsor team and now the website is faster, better and never down again. Many thanks to Alyssah Hastings for making this happen despite the difficulty communicating back and forth from Colombia. Inmotion is a great host, and I don’t just say that because they sponsored our hosting; every review on the internet is better than the other when it comes to this company. I like good businesses, and if you have a blog or website that needs a reliable and affordable host, give them a try. They won’t disappoint.

As I was busy with the website ordeal, days went by, and there was no sign of the container anywhere.  I got an email from a fellow rider who had a bad experience with shipping his bike on boats, and he said that his bike was missing for 4 months at one time which didn’t make me feel any better. After 15 days we finally got the news that the container was at the port and it was time to pick it up. The paperwork took 2 full days and when we arrived at the port in the morning, it took us another 16 hours to get the container out. But the GS was safe. No scratch, no water damage, and she started right up.

The SRzero electric car had a little misfortune at the port and caught on fire all by itself. Toby put the fire out quickly and there was no visible damage, but it wouldn’t run. The RGE guys started troubleshooting and it turned out that we were staying in Cartagena for another 5 days so they can fix the car. Now that I had the bike in hand, I could start my routine maintenance before heading out on the road again.

I needed to solder the connections on the signal switch but my butane soldering iron was out of gas. We searched the whole city (I’m not exaggerating) for butane gas and didn’t find any. Either butane is not known to Colombians, or every store we went to was out of stock!!! I ended up buying an electric soldering iron and getting the job done. The electric iron is probably a better choice anyway since I have an inverter on the bike that will run it, but I just don’t like being out of options. The bike being ready and the website done, we used our time to visit clinics, orphanages and poor sections of Cartagena. Stay tuned.

Tell us what you think, 2 Comments

November 17th, 2010 - Stuck in Colombia

First I would like to thank James South, Lynn Minthorne, Gregory Quinn, Rich Jordan and Ahti Peura for their support and generous donations. You guys are part of this expedition as much as I am, and to this day I’ve been amazed by your support and generosity and humbled by your selflessness. Big corporations have not shown us much love, as apparently feeding little kids is not their business idea, so we’ve relied on public support to carry on our mission.

I’ve personally invested everything I had in this non-profit organization, and if I find a penny on side of the road I still put it towards the cause. But one man’s wallet is not big enough to take on a project like this effectively (Bill Gates is a rare breed). Thanksgiving is in a few days and while the times are still tough for many back in United States, you’d be amazed what your spare change could buy for the kids down here. I’m not asking for anything for myself, I’m just asking you to consider making another family in need happy with a spare dollar bill that won’t buy you anything in US. Enough begging now, let’s get to the story.

Tuesday morning found us aboard a short and uneventful flight on the COPA Airlines, from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia. You can either take a boat or fly from Central America to South America. The boat ride is around $250 depends on the captain, and the airfare is somewhere around the neighborhood of $300. Since we were told that the container will get to Cartagena in 3 days, we took the short 40 minutes flight rather than going on a 5 day long ocean journey (big mistake). From the second we came out of the airport, I was relieved to see countless motorcycles, all in the 125cc range whizzing around, because at least I could find bike parts in this town. We settled just across the peninsula from El Centro in the Manga district in an apartment that Claudio rented and were glued to the balcony every night watching the spectacular sunsets across the water.

It soon hit us that our stay in Cartagena wasn’t going to be as short as we thought, as the container never made it on the ship in Panama as scheduled. Cynthia and I had taken just our laptops and one change of clothing each as we had anticipated arriving in Cartagena and getting our things from the boat in a few days. As Claudio likes to say, we were living in hope, and that lasted for 17 days. We were stuck in Cartagena.

Even though we had more time in beautiful Cartagena, we didn’t go around as much as one would think. This is in large part because we aren’t on vacation, but are on a volunteer mission which involves endless hours of work between the two of us, and also, because we simply don’t have the money. We did enjoy walking around the Centro (the historical walled old city) at night a few times, and had a chance to explore the Spanish Castle, the largest standing Spanish fort in South America after asking for a reduced rate to get in. Best of all, I got to do my favorite activity in the world, going all over the city hunting for bike parts.

Since I broke the turn signal switch in Nicaragua, I set out to find another and I lucked out. I bought a new signal-light-horn combo switch from another bike for $12 USD. It has an on/off for the headlight, and it’s built like a tank. The downside was that it had 16 wires coming out of it with no instruction, and it took 2 hours with a multimeter to figure out what was what. I also bought two new marker lights $1.50 each, two spare relays, spare clutch cable (just the cable), two new tubes for the tires and a new H4 lamp for the headlight as the Chinese lamp I bought in Panama was absolute crap. I could do nothing with all this stuff since the bike was still missing somewhere on the Pacific Ocean. So we waited and waited and waited some more.

Tell us what you think, be the first to comment

November 15th, 2010 - Avoiding the Darien Gap

If entering Panama was hard, leaving the country proved to be much harder. Panama was the last Central American country, and only 90 miles from the coast was our new destination: the infamous Columbia. What separates the two countries is one of the most dense and impassable jungles and swamps on earth, called the Darien Gap. Walking the Darien is almost suicide let alone taking a vehicle through it. A group of British guys tried to cross the Darien gap in the 70’s and their average progress was 300 feet a day! In the end they had to be airlifted out.

Needless to say, we had to ship the bike to other side either on an airplane or cargo ship. Since we were sending the SRzero electric car and the support van to the other side as well, we decided to load everything on one container and load it on an ocean freighter. The paperwork for the shipping process started before we even arrived in Panama and lasted five days into our stay. Office to office, we chased our tail with the Panamanian bureaucracy, corruption and laziness on every level. At one office, there was a 10×10 room filled by eight female workers shoulder to shoulder with no air conditioning. Inside of that room was another door and this was the door to the director’s office, and as we entered it, we were shocked. His room was four times bigger than everyone else’s and two air-conditioning units were on full blasts aiming at his desk. Gold chains hanging from his neck and iphone in his hand, he was a fat cat and a rude one at that too.

We also had to get the vehicles inspected at the police station. The police station was in a very dodgy part of town and the police warned us several times not to go across the parking lot to the little store as we might get caught in the middle of a shoot-out. One of the local guys packing some heat, came over from an apartment across the street and cheerily reassured us, “Don’t worry. I have a gun. You’ll be safe!”

After all the paperwork was done, we had to take the vehicles to Colon, a major port on the Caribbean side about 100 miles away, and load everything up into the container. The paperwork went on until the last minute and it took from 6 am to 6 pm to load one container. The three vehicles barely fit into the 40 foot container with bike going in last and sitting sideways. About 8 port-workers strapped everything down and finally sealed the container. Photography and recording videos were strictly prohibited, but we managed to smuggle my small camcorder in to get some shots. All said and done, the only thing left to do was to take a short flight from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia and wait for the container to arrive.

Panama City is a very diverse city with almost every ethnic background from all over the world. From Chinese to Arabs to Germans and Africans, every part of the town is occupied with a distinctive race. It owes its diversity to the famous canal built by the United States army corp of engineers at the instigation and behest of Teddy Roosevelt in early 1900. Roosevelt, despite all protests and oppositions from Latin America, (Panama was part of Colombia at that time) pushed on through with the construction of the canal, and 10 years after its initial start, almost every ship that crossed between the Pacific and Atlantic went through this narrow canal. It changed the map of Central America and created a new country: Panama. Sailors and workers from literally everywhere settled in Panama City and made a one giant international community. Colorful and beautiful, Panama is the most important port in the western hemisphere and a significantly large portion of the country’s income comes from the canal and the shipping industry.

We had the privilege of getting a private tour of the impressive Panama Canal and even walking across the locks. The ships are guided in, strapped on both sides to small trains to keep them from side-to-side movement due to the narrow water way, and in three steps, they cross the canal. In the first lock, they raise the water to float the ship higher, then they open the second lock and so on until the ship floats on the other side. The width of the canal is still the same as what it was when built in 1914 but there are plans to widen the canal in 2012 to ease the passage for more vessels at a time.

We were warned and warned again about Colombia, on the drug cartels, the FARC, and the kidnappings and almost everyone was apprehensive to some extent about Colombia. Let see if it lives up to its myths.

Tell us what you think, 3 Comments

November 9th, 2010 - Reaching The Pacific

San José, the capital of Costa Rica, is a giant city which doesn’t resemble anything of the beautiful Costa Rica. Like any other metropolitan area in the world, San José is made out of very poor neighborhoods to high society mansions.  But they all have one thing in common: no street addresses of any kind. In our voyage to find bike parts and a lens cap for the camera, we learned that directions and addresses in Costa Rica generally run something like: go past the yellow house, turn left after the 2nd post, and right by the mango tree. In fact, the owner of the camera shop we visited assured us that if he were to visit his employee’s house, he would never find it based on the address alone, unless he were with her, or she drew him a detailed map. So needless to say, we had a bit of an adventure going around the city. The GPS was all but useless and good only for the coordinates. We finished off the errands with getting the oil changed on the bike and a much needed wash. Oil is like gold down here. A regular quart size bottle of oil runs about 8 USD, gas was almost $5 a gallon, and a regular meal in the range of 12 USD.

Just as we got back to the hotel, the headlight went out. That sealed the rest of my evening, as I then proceeded to try to figure out the problem and get the necessary parts. The lamp by itself was fine so I suspected the switch. It would come on and go off by itself after cycling between the high and low beam and suddenly not at all. I took the switch apart and that was a big mistake. Six little springs flew in every direction in the dark and complicated the matter. The switch was really corroded and I needed to clean it, but I had no electrical cleaner. I went inside and asked the bartender for a glass of coke. The coke was flat and didn’t do a very good job of cleaning the contacts so I asked the bartender for a few limes. The limes did a better job, but I wasn’t still satisfied. So again, I asked for baking soda and water and that did the trick. The doorman at the hotel was watching me silently the whole time and was amazed at the cleaning cocktail I was making. He couldn’t hold it anymore and came and asked what the hell I was doing as he couldn’t understand why I was feeding my bike coke, lime, and white watery stuff, glass after glass. After all that cleaning, it turned out that the switch was fine and actually the relay was going bad. I could read voltage at the light, but the second I turned it on, there was no amperage. I replaced the relay, and the life was good again, but now I had a broken switch.

The sun hadn’t yet made its appearance when the profane sound of the phone ringing roused me from my slumber. Painfully peeling my eyes open I answered the 4:20 a.m. wake-up call. We were meeting downstairs to load up at 5:00 a.m. for our 240 mile journey to David, Panama. The plan, an early start to make the border crossing in good time and (hopefully) miss the rain. The drive out of San Jose led us through layers of mountains peaking out through mist and clouds as the sun started to shine. We passed bottomless gorges and ravines, and the vegetation on both sides of the road grew more dense and lush as we went on. One river we stopped at yielded a little early morning excitement when we spotted a couple of fat alligators lazing in the muddy river banks, and for the first time, we caught a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. The rest of the way was just one mesmerizing scene after another until we reached a dead stop two kilometer before the border, literally 3-5 lanes of absolute gridlock in both directions.

The rain was coming down in sheets again and the road started to flood. I went ahead on the bike but even on the bike, I could only get about 1 km up the road before I, too, had to stop. After asking around, we were told that it would take about 4-5 hours just to get to the border and that traffic was backed up on both sides. Kevin Augello (the second British camera man who joined us in Guatemala City) was my passenger that day and we decided to pull over under a porch and wait to see what happens. Hours passed and the traffic didn’t move an inch. The rain, our hungry stomachs and the mosquitoes got me up and moving again. I had enough of waiting so there was only one more trick to do. I mounted the blue flashing police light on the bike, turned on the alarm siren and radio in hand, shouted at the cars and trucks to make room for the SRzero and the bike to pass. Truck after truck moved to the side to make a narrow passage for the SRzero and we reached the actual border before the sun went down.

We were regaled by tales of theft, murder and other sundry crimes by the locals who told us that Panama would send their vagrant drug and alcohol users over their border into the no-man’s zone between Panama and Costa Rica so the area we were waiting around in wasn’t particularly a savory one to be in. But we made it out without any incident. We ended up staying in David, Panama about 50 km from the border and promptly hit the hay as the next day was another early start.

Tell us what you think, be the first to comment

November 6th, 2010 - Costa Rica

There is a two-step process to crossing borders in Central America. First you have to “exit” the country you are in. If you are taking a vehicle through the border, that is an extra step. Then once you are free to go, you end up going through the “entry” into the next country just a few feet away and do it all over again.

We hoped to get a quick passage into Costa Rica, however our hopes were dashed as it soon became clear that we would be playing the waiting game for quite a while. We ate some local fare (beans, rice, plantains, meat), and as the waiting went on, we got more bored. While trying some fancy footwork with a soccer ball, I accidentally kicked the ax lashed to the front pannier of the bike, and it cut a deep gash into my combat boot. I franticly took off my boot to check for chopped off toes as my foot was in excruciating pain, but I was relieved to see all my toes intact. I keep this ax religiously sharp, and I only moved it out of the rear box 5 months ago to make more room for Cynthia’s stuff, hence it being mounted on the front box. People always made fun of it and thought that it was dangerous to have an ax exposed right up front, but I always replied: what idiot would possibly hit the ax?! and if it happened, he probably deserved it. That idiot turned out to be me!

The drive from the border to Liberia (not the country) was a nice drive. The roads started to improve and the rain was off and on. We stayed at a little hotel in Liberia and got killed by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes usually don’t like me, but Costa Rican mosquitoes were as friendly as they come. We tried to get some sleep, but the whizzing and the sharp stings didn’t help at all. At 5:30 a.m. another whizzing noise joined the choir. It was Cynthia swatting at mosquitoes while sitting in the bathroom, waving the little hairdryer aimlessly at my jeans, barely making any headway in taking the moisture out. It was time again to get up.

Costa Rica literally means the “Rich Coast,” and rightly so. It is the most expensive Central American country. It has two beautiful coasts, the Pacific Ocean to the west and south and the Caribbean Sea to the east. The middle is covered by some serious jungles, mountains and active volcanoes. We headed out to visit an impressive geothermal power plant in the countryside, next to the Miravalles Volcano. It lies between the two massive volcanoes, Poas and Barva, forming a wall to the north of the valley. Miravalles sits in the Guanacaste Province in the northwest part of the country, and if you can take your eyes off the extremely narrow and twisty road, you can see miles of coffee plantations in each direction on a clear day.

In a nutshell, how the geothermal plants work is that they extract the boiling underground waters and use the steam for running the electric turbines. To give you an idea, it’s kind of like tapping Old Faithful in Yellow Stone National Park to a steam generator. The environmental impact of the plant itself is minimal but building roads and getting there is what causes all the concerns. Since nine out of ten of best geothermal sites in Costa Rica sit in protected forests, there are no more expansions as of yet, but that could change with the next government. It’s interesting to note that the United States is the leader in geothermal electricity production with 3,086 MW of installed capacity from 77 power plants. The largest group of geothermal power plants in the world is located at The Geysers, a geothermal field in California.

We watched a powerpoint presentation and then got to tromp around through the lush vegetation in the rain to the lower hot springs. The water was boiling hot, and the steam that rose from it covered the whole area. In this lush and hot environment, every species has claimed a corner to itself, and they all live in harmony. From giant spiders to monkeys, Costa Rica has something exotic to offer to tourists. With all the advertising and National Geographic ads they put out every year, it’s not surprising to know that it is also the number one destination for tourists in Central America.

We were touring, but we weren’t tourists so we got back on the long road to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The drive through winding one-lane roads on the hilly landscape was made even more challenging as night fell. The visibility was extremely poor, and we were going at about 30mph at best which was no fun.  At one point, we passed massive car-sized boulders in the oncoming lane which had just fallen from the hills above us coming to rest partially on the highway, just at some houses’ doorsteps. Locals told us tragic stories about how people had been buried and never found again in rock avalanches, as well as swept away by the ground giving way from the massive rains. We were glad to make it to a dry place and have dinner before calling it a night.

Tell us what you think, be the first to comment

November 5th, 2010 - The rain in Spain stays mainly…

The Nicaraguan border crossing was somewhat peaceful, but the rain almost closed down the border. The black skies and wind were telling us that something was coming, but what came unleashed was in a league of its own. In less than five minutes, the ground turned into a lake, and 50 gallon garbage cans got filled to the rim with rain water. Everyone at the border huddled under a canopy which was about to collapse. Even the dogs joined us to get out of the rain. After all the rain, we proceeded to the next station to get the bike fumigated. They sprayed the tires and chassis with some sort of chemical which stinks to high heaven and when it hits the hot engine, it makes some nasty fumes and leaves a stain forever. Somehow they believe that the chemicals kill the bugs and keep the noxious weeds from spreading over the border. Maybe they’re not aware that most bugs can also fly or walk right over the border. Well, it’s their way of keeping themselves busy I guess.

It wasn’t really a drive to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, as we almost sailed into the city with the bike tires deep in water. Despite my high-tech rain gear, I was soaked again. When I took off my boots, there was water standing in the bottom, and my pants pocket where filled like fish bowls. Cynthia was dry and happy in the van, but when she opened the van door, her clothes bag fell in the water, and all her stuff got soaked as well.

At the Seminole Hotel in Managua, the night staff adamantly told us that there is no washer/dryer at the hotel. However in the morning, we tried talking to the manager to plead our wet clothes plight. They sent someone to get our wet clothes which we told them we needed by 10 a.m. After breakfast, we asked for the clothes to be brought back as it had been over an hour and we needed to pack. We were told that they dried them, but they were still a little “damp. The clothes weren’t “damp!” They were in the exact same condition we sent them down. No amount of yelling in English at the manager got me anywhere, so with no other choice, we packed up our wet clothes and started out to the border of Costa Rica with the all too familiar police escort again.

The vision I had of Central America quickly turned into the wettest dream of my life. Not only did we not see a thing in Nicaragua, I don’t even remember the currency. Very few bikers ride to Central America during the rainy season, and out of those few, I guarantee you that none will ever travel at night. From the US border to the Panama Canal, I rode pretty much every night, in one of the wettest years in Central America. Many people died in the floods and mudslides, many houses got destroyed as the rivers overflowed into villages, but we kept on pushing on.

Light bulb after light bulb went out on the bike as the water kept finding new ways to get inside the lenses. One headlight relay fried when swimming in the water, and finally I bought a tube of silicone and sealed everything. The seat cover ripped after 29 years of faithful service, and the water kept the foam wet, day and night. Every time I sat on the saddle, there was always a squish. My clothes were wet for at least two weeks and finding a dryer became my number one mission in every town we stopped. At every hotel, we asked for an extra hair dryer, and Cynthia set to work drying our drenched cloths with hair dryers and irons. But it was hot. The temperatures stayed in the high 90’s whether it rained or not. I kept humming the Beatle’s song, “Here comes the sun,” but the sun was nowhere to be found.

Tell us what you think, 4 Comments