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Archive for 2010

December 24th, 2010 - Crossing the Equator

Ecuador is one of the smaller countries in South America, but it was an interesting point in my journey. The equator passes through Ecuador and that means that by reaching the equator, I traveled from the furthest north in Yukon to the center of the earth. Crossing into Ecuador was by far our easiest border crossing in the whole trip as the guy we met in Pasto, Sebastian Moreno, a former Colombian Formula 3 race car driver, accompanied us to make our lives easier.

As we suspected, Ecuador was still in a political chaos from the president kidnapping incident of the week before. This time the president dismantled the police force so it doesn’t happen again. Instead of the regular police, he appointed Special Forces and the military to be in charge of security of the country. These guys were armed to the teeth and were the most formidable looking police force I’ve ever seen outside of the United States. But they turned out to be as menacing as puppies and a lot of fun.

They took it upon themselves to protect and serve us as we drove towards the capital city of Quito, and they never failed to entertain us. Right at the border I made some friends with some of them (distributing American cigarettes never hurts) and in return they took me shoe shopping, opening the way in the busy streets with M-16s. At one point, they pulled over in the countryside and loaded their guns for us to shoot at some plastic bottles while they stopped the traffic for the festivity. As Claudio puts it “It’s always good to make friends with the guys holding big guns.”

Upon reaching Quito, we settled into our hotel with the plan being to leave in 2 days for Peru, but the craziest thing happened (beside another flat in the crappy Pirelli MT66 rear tire.) The RGE team had a press event at the university the next day, but they had partied all night and were still a little tipsy in the morning. The normal presentation involved going really fast and braking hard to demonstrate the amazing braking power of the SRzero electric car, but this time, Nick Sauer, the RGE guy who was driving the car for the demonstration, forgot to brake a little earlier and the SRzero crashed into the wall in front of the TV cameras and the few hundred spectators, just missing Clemens and Claudio. A cheer went up from the crowd, and with that we got stuck in Quito for 5 more days while the guys fixed up the car.

I always thought that Ecuador was a tropical place and since it was on the equator, it was warm. Man, was I wrong. It was mountainous and snow-covered peaks loomed everywhere you looked. It was quite cold, and it rained on and off. I took the time to change the oil on the bike, flushing the brake system with new brake fluid and complete some other due maintenance. Ecuador also turned out to be a really long country as Claudio and I had the longest riding day of the trip trying to get to the border. We left at 6:30 am with only a few hours of sleep and reached the border town at 11 pm, after 17 hours of riding through banana plantations, deserts, mountains and tropical patches.

As we got closer to the Peruvian border, the once nice and clean countryside turned into pile of garbage. There wasn’t a pit stop that we didn’t mention what a shithole it was. If the garbage and the foul smell wasn’t enough, we met our most vicious predators: dogs.

These dogs hunted in packs and somehow they evolved to know that speed bumps are the best place to hunt for innocent motorcyclists. They hung around the giant speed bumps, and as we slowed down to go over the small hill, they attacked us from every side. Claudio and I kept our legs up, and I rolled on the throttle as they lunged at us with bared teeth.

Into Peru

I was really looking forward to seeing Peru, especially western Peru and the magnificent Andes, but as it turned out, our route was going nowhere near the Cordillera. Instead, we hugged the Pacific Coast on the Pan-American Highway and went nonstop through the country. But that didn’t mean that we didn’t like Peru.

In fact, the very first night we got to Peru, Claudio and I stopped for a cup of coffee as the rest of the team were behind at least an hour (the GS850 was unstoppable on the perfect Peruvian highways at sea level and clocking 100 to 110 mph was not uncommon) so we walked in a restaurant to kill some time.

The first thing I saw was a charcoal grill the size of small swimming pool with a giant pig roasting away above the embers. Claudio suggested that we eat there so we walked in to the back where a band was playing. I literally stepped one foot in the room, and I was handed a beer from a semi-drunk guy at the next table. Long story short, we downed 6 bottles of beer (the beer in South America comes in two sizes, the small bottle which is a normal 12oz and the big one is a 40oz like Old English) courtesy of our two new Peruvian friends and settled down for a long conversation which none of us could understand. They spoke only Spanish, and between Claudio and me, we spoke six languages, but none even came close to Spanish.

One thing that they did manage to get across was that we are all brothers no matter where we come from, and they welcomed us to Peru. They were both bikers, and I suppose a loaded motorcycle was enough to bring out the hospitality. We had an amazing welcome to Peru, thanks to our new friends and Crystal, the fine Peruvian social lubricant.

Western Peru is dry. In fact we didn’t see a drop of rain the whole time we were there. Since the climate is so dry, nothing really grows on the coast, and the food staples are chicken and fish. Fish come out of the ocean and the chicken farms are set right on the beaches. In fact, chicken must be the national bird of Peru as it’s served everywhere and is the specialty of the country. One night Claudio, Cynthia and I went out to town for dinner, and we honestly couldn’t find any restaurant that served anything else besides chicken. There are thousands of chicken farms right on the beach as you travel down the coast highway and with every breeze, chicken shit smell filled up the air.

We visited a very poor town and got to hang out with some volunteers and the children that they were working with. After lunch (chicken, of course!) we set out for the town of Huacachina in the Ica region of southwestern Peru, which boasts an actual oasis. The landscape changed from coastal sands to full-fledged desert and it looked much like Sahara. Sand dunes piled up to 1000 feet, and every gust of wind shoved a little more sand into my helmet. The oasis was a fascinating place straight out of Lawrence of Arabia with an emerald green lake surrounded by palm trees sheltered by sand dunes as high as mountains. Cynthia, Claudio and Paul ventured up the biggest dune to take pictures and film while I slept like a baby, glad not to be in the 100 degree heat outside.

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December 19th, 2010 - Farewell Colombia

Cartagena to Medellin

We stayed in Cartagena for so long that it felt like we were living there. For the last few days of our encampment we stayed at Claudio’s friends’ restored colonial home in the old walled city. Because of the owners’ fear of kidnapping and extortion, we can’t publish any pictures of the place nor even say their famous names, but it was an amazing place replete with servants, balconies, zebra skin rugs and a parrot truly worthy of a decorating magazine spread. While there, Paul Jackson, the very talented British editor of the Long Way Down, (the second BBC TV series of the adventures of Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman and Claudio von Planta to Africa on two BMW GS1200) joined us for the rest of the journey to Ushuaia, Argentina. Paul will be editing the footage that Claudio shoots daily for the web episodes and rough cutting them for the upcoming documentary series, broadcasting from BBC World News on January 1st. The group is back to 9 people again, with me and Claudio on the GS850, two guys in the SRzero electric car and the rest in the van heading down the Pan American Highway.

We passed through the tropics of Colombian countryside and with temperatures soaring to the high 90’s, we sweated and cursed at the bad roads. Pothole after pothole started to take their toll on the suspension of the bike, and the awful Pirelli MT66 tires made the experience worse with yet another flat tire. This time the RGE guys stopped to wait for us, and the police escort led us to a tire shop on the side of the road to get the tire fixed. It wasn’t much of a shop, but the shirtless guy was very skilful as he changed, patched and installed the tire in a record time of 15 minutes with the sheen of sweat covering his body. I guess he saw the pretty race car and felt like he was doing a pit stop. The cost: $4.20.

From Monteria the scenery started to change dramatically. The high temperatures slowly cooled off, and the road started to head uphill for as long as I remember. From sea level we climbed to over 7000ft; in that distance, the look of people changed as well. The scenery was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen in my life; it looked like the jungles of Pandora out of the movie Avatar. Claudio and I kept looking at each other in amazement; we couldn’t believe our eyes. This is the place that cocaine is made. Men on horseback traversed the treacherous mountain paths, and every overlook was a scene from the heavens. If I ever settle down anywhere, that’s where it would be.

The weather cooled off to the point that we put on ski gloves to keep us from shivering, and we stopped frequently for the amazing Colombian coffee to warm us up. Colombia, unlike all the other Latin American countries is very motorcycle friendly. Motorcyclists don’t have to pay tolls to enter toll roads (everywhere else we had to pay tolls), and they always have the right of way. We never got stopped by the police or military while most trucks and cars did. And the police are mostly on motorcycle and are as cool as they come.

As we entered Medellin we had a motorcycle police escort and they didn’t leave us alone until we left for Bogota. The shocks had finally given way, and it was time to get the suspension back in shape, so Cynthia and I stayed behind in Medellin while the rest of the group went to Bogota for press events and sponsor duties. Our police escort had nothing else to do but to hang out with us, so we went out on the town to fix the shocks. Stay tuned.

Shock repair and going to Bogotá

Medellin is a peculiar city, but in a good way. It’s built in a valley and extends up into the surrounding mountainsides (literally) so it goes up and down indefinitely. The streets are mostly at 45 degrees angles, and it makes an interesting exercise on a loaded motorcycle when wet, which is all the time. Medellin was a notoriously dangerous place in the late 80’s and the early 90’s, and it was even home to Pablo Escobar, the infamous (or the Robin Hood figure to poor of Medellin) Colombian drug lord. However, in recent years, the city has transformed into a bustling cosmopolitan place which is just as safe as any other major city. It soon became my favorite city in Colombia, as the hospitality of its people was overwhelming.

At 9 am, our police escort was ready for us to go shock hunting and off we went. From the very first shop we went to, we were told that no one has these shocks in Colombia, and we were out of luck. So we settled for plan B, which was finding similar shock absorbers to make them work with this bike.

We dismantled the old shocks and kept the progressive springs to install them on two heavy-duty shocks. These shocks were from a Taiwanese 250cc motorcycle with mono rear suspension system (one shock in middle), and they were unbelievably stiff. We mounted the springs on the new shocks and modified the bushings and heads to fit the GS and installed them on the bike. It’s a pain installing shocks on this bike since I have to remove the boxes in order to get to the shocks and we did this 7 times. The shop that did the shock work was a specialized machine shop that only dealt with motorcycle suspension, so there was no shortage of tools or talents there, but we kept getting stiff shocks. In fact, they were so hard that 3 people couldn’t push the bike down to compress the darn thing. At 6 p.m we stopped after 7 hours of work and left the rest for the next day.

The cure to the stiff shocks came from enlarging the oil valves inside the shock bodies and diluting the oil viscosity by half. To make them even more adjustable, we cut 3 grooves on the outside of the cylinders to able to position the ring pin for the adjuster in 3 different positions 0.75 inches apart.

After many trials and errors we finally settled down on an adjustment that worked. We configured the shocks for two people, the load and the biggest pothole we could imagine. The rear is very stiff now for just one person as I only weigh 150 lbs, and I can barely push it down but fully loaded with Cynthia on it, it’s just right.

The bill for 14 hours of machine shop wages including the shocks came out to $460,000 Colombian Pesos ($250 USD). I can’t imagine how much an American shop would charge for the same job if they even would accept it. I usually ask for a discount, but this time I happily handed the cash over since these guys went above and beyond to help us.

When the shocks were done, we lucked out again and met Diego José Aristizabal who owns a brake shop. Freno Motos is a well stocked brake shop which is one of the best I’ve seen. All they do is brakes, and they are good at it. I needed a set of rear brake pads and from México to Colombia, I searched for a replacement and had no luck but here I found them. Diego donated another set of metallic brake pads to us and after taking some pictures and drinks on the house, we bid them farewell.

We met a MIT graduate named Jorge at the university where the SRzero was being charged and he put us up at his parents’ house for the night. We were amazed at their gracious hospitality towards complete strangers. To thank our friendly police escort, we invited them to dinner and told them that they can eat anywhere they liked. Their eyes opened up and excitedly they said McDonald’s!!!! McDonald’s is apparently a luxury and hip food joint as it is expensive for the locals. A typical dinner for 4 people would normally come out to 12-15 dollars, but McDonald’s prices were the same as United States if not more. So we had Big Macs and chicken sandwiches for the first time since we left US, and I honestly don’t miss it at all. Passing under the golden arches did feel like home though.

Thanks to all the beautiful Colombians who made our experience an unforgettable one. After traveling in many countries, I think I can say that Colombia is officially my favorite country in the world. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, and it’s so diverse in scenery and climate that it never disappoints. I will come back here one day.

Heading for Ecuador

Ever since we left Medellin, the weather stayed glorious: sunny blue skies with temperatures ranging from the 60 to the 70’s. I checked the oil before we left and added some, but somehow I forgot to screw the oil cap back on. 30 miles of curvy mountain roads later we stopped for fuel, and when I looked down, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Cynthia and I were covered in oil up to our knees. No one else was around so I blamed it on Cynthia not reminding me to put the cap back on 🙂

The roads turned out to be great and with one twist after another, it was a joy to ride in the beautiful Colombia. We still had over 600 miles to Ecuador but I secretly wished it would be longer. I guess my prayers were answered as Ecuador closed its borders to Colombia and Peru after its president was kidnapped and held hostage by Ecuadorian police force. Apparently the president took it upon himself to boycott the benefits of the police substantially while offering them different benefits, and that didn’t settle well with them. The president attended the police protest and after a while, he got hot-tempered and opened his shirt and yelled “Why don’t you shoot me?”, and so the police obliged. One thing led to another and they kept the president hostage for their claims. In the middle of all this, we were waiting patiently for the news as when things would calm down and if they ever would.

We set up a couple of visits for malnutrition programs while in Bogota but since the shock ordeal delayed us in Medellin until the weekend we weren’t able to make it to the appointments, so for the first time we went out with Paul and had a day of sightseeing. We visited the world famous Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and the surrounding plazas. While jumping into the air for a picture, I landed wrong and hurt my leg. The pain stayed with me for the remainder of the stay in Bogota. I rode through 2 continents on the bike with no injury, and the only injury came out of my own stupidity of trying to act like a 10 year old kid in a 30 year old body.  We finally headed for Pasto, a small town close to the border of Ecuador. This section as we found out later was a major FARC territory but since we didn’t know, we stopped at every scenic place and walked around like we were on holiday. I even saw a sign for zip lining after one of our stops and I had to do it. Cynthia, Clemens, Alex and I rushed for the line as it was only $5 USD and better yet, it ran from one side of the 3km long valley to the other side. It was by far the longest zip line I’ve ever seen. The one minute run between earth and sky was mesmerizing although we seriously shouldn’t have been there.

Claudio and I stayed back to film a bit more, and that’s when we did all the wrong moves (good thing we didn’t know it at the time). We stopped at a bridge to film a river, and the very same bridge was the scene of a bloody attack on a bus a few days before. We stopped at a non-functioning gas station and chatted with an old man while taking our time putting more layers of clothing and before we knew it, it was dark and the heavy fog settled in. The good roads turned into almost trenches and with detour after detour, we felt like we were on the moon. The look of modern and comfortable Colombia turned into a scene from a war torn country, and it didn’t get better until we caught up with the rest of the guys a few miles before Pasto.

At dinner in Pasto we were told all the horror stories that go on that very same road we took so leisurely, and we shuddered as we heard more. All in all, no one was hurt, and we all made it to safety. It’s just sad because this area had the second most amazing scenery in all Colombia after the road leading to Medellin. The FARC still fights the government and still kidnaps civilians to gain leverage and continue the chaos.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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