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Archive for August, 2010

August 12th, 2010 - Monclova to San Luis Potosi, Mexico

We set the alarm clock to get out of Monclova early in the morning but my body wasn’t cooperating. Cynthia finally managed to drag me out of bed around 10 am, and when I called the guys, it turned out that a shock absorber on the SRzero electric car has broken off and so the team wasn’t leaving until around 2:00 p.m. from Mario’s Inn just outside of Saltillo. We packed up and set off down the road to find the team. Thankfully the weather was milder today but still hot, and the dry deserts of México were giving way to more tropical landscape. 200km later, we found the electric car and RGE guys waiting for us at the hotel. The RGE team is comprised of Claudio Von Planta (documentary filmmaker), Jonathan Richards (cameraman/editor) and the five engineering students from imperial college of London: Toby Schulz, Andy Hadland, Alex Schey, Clemens Lorf, and Nick Sauer. Two guys usually sit in the SRzero, Cynthia and Claudio would take turns riding with me, and the rest would follow in an E-350 Ford Van for support and to haul the rest of the gear and tools. You can see more about the RGE project at www.racinggreenendurance.com

We rode over 3200km from Northern Montana to middle of México to catch up with them and we succeeded at last. Introductions were made all around amidst video cameras filming our arrival, and then we loaded some of our gear into the van to make room for Claudio on back of the bike so he can start filming.

I could call myself an experienced motorcyclists after thousands of miles of riding in virtually any weather and road condition, but I was still quite apprehensive of the task ahead of me: riding an 800 pound motorcycle with 300+lbs of human cargo on it down the not-too motorcycle friendly roads of Latin America. Riding two-up is challenging at best but manageable as long as your pillion is not moving too much and follows the rhythm of the ride.

Riding with Claudio would automatically cancel out all the cardinal rules of riding as he planned to film the SRzero from the bike with a handheld video camera (5lb professional camera) mounted on a tripod. He would be hanging down from the side and back with no prior warning and my job was to ride close to the subject and maintain a steady speed while he filmed. No easy task by any means.

Without further ado, Claudio and I got set up on the bike and the whole convoy headed out for the 467 kilometer long journey to San Luis Potosi in the heart of México.

As I anticipated, riding two up and filming was hard work. I soon realized that I have to counterbalance every move and be ready for anything. It was scary at first seeing Claudio hanging down from the side on the curves but I learned not to look down and keep my eyes on the road. A couple of hours of practicing different methods finally put my mind at ease and the weird configuration soon became a natural rhythm.

The routine practice is that we pass the car and Claudio turns back as I slow down and let the car overtake us. Then I ride as close as possible and let him take the close-up shots on either side. Finally, we set off and leave the car behind to find a high section of the road or a bridge to take some tri-pod shots. Once we get all these shots, we look for interesting landscapes, people, dead animals…

Getting to know Claudio von Planta himself was worth the trip alone. At age 48 Claudio is arguably the most talented and respected adventure (for lack of better words) videographer and documentary filmmaker of our time. Educated in Zurich on Political Science, he has spent over 20 years pursuing his passion, investigative journalism and filming. From the mountains of Afghanistan to tropical rainforests of New Guinea, he has a story with footage to back it up.

He has spent most of his professional life in conflicts zones around the world, bringing hard-to-beat footage to major TV stations including the first ever televised interview with Osama Bin Laden, and producing many award-winning documentaries on global issues such as Rape Trade and Aids. He speaks German, French and English fluently, and other languages such as Brazilian Portuguese. The ever-popular TV series of Long Way Round and Long Way Down are excellent works, but to judge Claudio’s talent and determination based on these two series alone is an underestimation.

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It took us all day to cover the miles and before we knew it, I had the firsthand experience of driving in México after dark. The highways are generally good, but what’s on the highways is the main concern. There are thousands of stray dogs everywhere with nothing better to do than to chase motorcycles. The locals tie up their livestock to the side of the road to graze on the green grass, and it’s not unusual for the cows and donkeys to be crossing the road unattended. Due to these circumstances, driving at night is not advisable, but we had no choice and had to make our destination at San Luis Potosi.

After getting lost a few times in the SLP city center, we finally reunited with the rest of the crew at the hotel. There was a bit of a problem getting the electric car into the parking garage as it didn’t have enough clearance for the grade of the entryway ramp. Despite multiple attempts at makeshift adjustments the car was not able to go down the steep ramp of the garage. Finally they found another parking garage to park in where they could charge the car overnight and we settled in for the night. Next: Journey to Mexico City, the second largest city in the world (at night of course)!

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August 11th, 2010 - Bienvenidos A Mexico

Despite not crossing into the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras until mid-afternoon, we had a remarkably uneventful border crossing. No passport check, no search and a big smile from the border patrol made our day. Wanting to keep things that way, I decided to get out of the border town straight away and do our customs and registration paperwork somewhere else but Cynthia kept yelling out of her full face helmet that we had to stop to do the paperwork in town. She kept on relaying all the information she heard  regarding Mexico and the dangers of travelling there and I was getting annoyed. I was tired, hungry, and had virtually no sleep for 3 days, so I told her she can walk if she doesn’t stay quiet. That did the trick. We rode out of town without stopping for at least 20 miles and stopped to ask some policemen where to go and they joked that we actually came to them instead of them stopping us and gave us directions to La Garita, the custom and vehicle control office to take care of our paperwork.

 Bienvenidos A Mexico

From the very start of our time in Mexico we met friendly and helpful people. At the La Garita, a local, Dr. Luis Farias approached us to ask about our trip. He turned out to be a part of Amoden, one of the largest motorcycle clubs in Northern Mexico and kindly offered to arrange accommodations for us in Saltillo and show us around. We explained that we had to be on the same travel schedule as the rest of the Racing Green Endurance team, but were grateful for such a friendly welcome and his kind offer. We also met Rodolfo Velz and his family who recommended that due to the time, we would do better to shoot for Monclova instead of Saltillo to avoid traveling after dark. They also kindly offered to put us up for the night if we couldn’t find a place. There was no boogie man in México, no gun toting gang and no one who treated us with anything but respect and friendliness.

We knew that the team was planning to stop in Saltillo, Coahuila for the night but that stopping in Monclova by dark would be safer. Besides we were completely spent from being on the go for two days with no sleep and little water. The heat was killing us to boot. Temperatures were in 100’s and we were beyond dripping with sweat. It felt like we were shrink-wrapped and stuck in a sauna. All of our clothes and motorcycle gear were damp and sticking to us. Time to rest.

Mexico is a beautiful country. We decided to go on toll roads (Cuotas) as we were warned that the free roads (Libre) were ungodly dangerous and if we ever dared to go on them, we would suffer an agonizing death! So $8 later, we were cruising along on the toll road to Monclova but one gas stop and a drink later, somehow we ended up on the regular highways of Coahuila. To be frank, the toll roads are no different than the regular roads. They are all excellent and beside, venturing off the toll roads gives the opportunity to see the real México since it goes through the little town and villages along the way.

Speed bumps in México are legendary. They are called Topez and they are a mile high and hard hitting. They are mostly well signed or if there’s no sign, you can see them coming as everyone else slow down to a crawl to go over these giants. The biggest road problem is the potholes and they are not just native to free highways, they are on the toll roads as well with no warning. The Mexican drivers are excellent drivers. And courteous too. I don’t remember a time that a slow moving vehicle didn’t go out of his way to give us room to pass. Even the cars on the other lane would go to the shoulder to make room for us. I’m loving it here.

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At 7:30 pm, we finally reached Monclova and wandered around trying to find a hotel where most importantly the bike would be safe. The first place we encountered was a ritzy hotel that was completely sold out. The manager, Gorge Carballal came out and helped us with some directions. In the meantime, some friendly guests started talking to us and taking pictures. We eventually settled into a hotel around the corner from the main strip which surprisingly had about every American brand store and restaurant you could imagine: Auto Zone, Burger King, Chili’s, you name it, it was there. I was starving and upon the recommendation of the hotel, was pleased to end up with one of the best burgers in my life. They assisted with ordering from one of the few places that was still open, and although I almost never get take-out, was so exhausted from riding for two days on no sleep, that this called for an exception. As I walked out of my room, I saw two Mexican guys hovering around the bike and long story short, we got to talk and drank beer out of a cooler in the back of their truck to cap of the amazing welcome.  We like México. Don’t believe a word you hear on the news, it’s no Baghdad. Next: Monclova to Saltillo and meeting the rest of the gang.

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August 10th, 2010 - Race to the Mexican Border

We eventually had to stop for a few hours of sleep from around 4 to 8 a.m on Monday morning. But this stop did little to refresh us as in an effort to get a cheap deal on a hotel, we ended up in a rather questionable establishment that had apparently never seen a vacuum cleaner. Not only was the floor beyond filthy, we had to spray the bed and ourselves with 100% deet bug spray as we were welcomed by some not too friendly pests. Apparently, we weren’t quick enough on the draw as we managed to acquire some bedbug bites as souvenirs.

 Race to the Mexican Border

As Monday dawned, we knew we were in for near-to iron butts with endless miles looming before us. We started out in a light drizzle and met up with every road construction roadblock possible in the state of Oklahoma which succeeded in delaying us for 30 minutes to an hour with each stop. Eventually we crossed Oklahoma into Texas where the bugs got bigger and the heat magnified.

The hours passed and we knew we had to keep riding on into the night. We were hoping against hope to find a sympathetic truck driver to haul us with him and that we could get a few hours of sleep while still pushing on, but to no avail. I kept taking energy shots and NoDoz until my heart felt like it was going a million beats a minute.

We debated stopping to sleep but knew there was simply no way we’d get to Eagle Pass by Tuesday morning if we stopped. Of course, we already realized that even if we did make it, we’d arrived completely shot due to not sleeping. Despite our massive effort, we only got to Del Rio, Texas by 6:30 a.m. We called Claudio to let him know to go ahead with the border crossing, and that we’d catch up later.

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We decided to push on to Eagle Pass but finally stopped at a picnic table rest stop unable to stay awake anymore. While Cynthia watched the bike and our gear, I took an hour nap. We were out of water, exhausted and out of gas, but somehow we made it to Eagle Pass.

We tried to find a park to crash for a few hours but couldn’t find a spot in the shade without the ubiquitous red and black ants that dominate the Texas soil camping out as well. We figured we could cross the border and then find a place to crash and that would put us closer to the team. However it was late in the afternoon and in theory it is better to do the border crossing early and get away from the border. Our heads and ears had been filled with ominous warnings about the dangers of traveling in Mexico, especially around the border. What to do?! Find out how our border crossing went in the next post.

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August 7th, 2010 - Dash to Ushuaia Argentina

The torrential tropical rain of Honduras abated for the first time in five hours and the pitch black darkness descended for yet another night on the road in Central America. The SRZero electric car was in front and the support van following closely as they decided to pass the semi-truck ahead of us on the continuous yellow line. Passing cars on curves has become our favorite and routine pastime, so we don’t even second guess our actions, but this time turned out to be the inevitable.

The SRZero passed with no problem and the van followed, so I swerved to the left, picking up speed when suddenly, there it was, a giant pot-hole (more like a crevasse, to be honest) the whole width of the lane and 8 to 10 inches deep. There was nowhere to go and as I hit the brakes frantically, we hit the hole with full force. The horrible noise of bottoming out was one thing and the realization that the bike wasn’t able to accelerate anymore because of jammed front brake was another. The low headlight beam went out, the brake jammed and a flat tire capped off the festivity.

Two weeks ago, Cynthia and I made a connection with Claudio Von Planta, the famous documentary filmmaker and producer, popularly known for his work with Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman on BBC television series Long Way Round and Long Way Down, the motorcycle trips around the world on BMW GS’s.

Cynthia had been busy with doing social networking online to get the word out about Transcontinental Humanitarian Expedition and our ride around the world to raise awareness for world hunger. In the process of linking and spreading the word, she ran across the twitter profile for Claudio and within two days of following Claudio on twitter, she saw that he put out a tweet about needing to ride pillion to Mexico. It seemed like a great idea to join forces since we were going the same direction as we could help him out and in return we would benefit from his expertise with international travel and the margin of safety traveling with a group offers. We contacted him via email that night and by late afternoon of the next day, Friday, August 6, had settled that we would join him and a team of young Imperial College engineering students, Racing Green Endurance (or the RGE team for short), traveling from Mexico to Argentina with a Battery Electric Supercar, the SRZero, and filming a documentary series about the record-breaking journey of the electric supercar.

claudio21 Dash to Ushuaia Argentina

The plan was for me to ride the motorcycle while Claudio films the electric car on the back of the bike. Cynthia would ride in the support van and switch to the bike when Claudio isn’t filming and assist with Spanish translation and photography. The team had actually already started their journey on July 4, 2010 in Alaska as their mission is to take the car on the Pan-American Hwy from Alaska to Argentina.

It was such a short notice that I couldn’t even say goodbye to my closest friends in person and in 7 hours, we packed everything for the trip, did some last minute maintenance to the bike and by 6 a.m. Saturday morning, we left for a jaunt of 1800 miles from Helena, MT to the border town of Eagle Pass, TX to join the team in an exhausting two 900 miles days. Within the first five minutes of leaving, the clutch cable broke. As I had previously routed a second cable next to the original just for occasions like this, all I had to do was to connect it and continue on. Thankfully it broke close to my friends and expedition sponsors, Debbie and Tom Matte of Batteries Plus, and they provided the tools to fix the job along with fresh batteries for my camera.

We started our trip down to Mexico on Saturday, August 7 on pretty much no sleep which made the first day a challenge to cover ground as I was seriously sleepy.  I kept having to stop to wake myself up and finally opted to try to get some sleep somewhere in Wyoming around 8 pm instead of pushing on. We were apparently the only motorcycle on the road NOT heading to Sturgis. We must have seen thousands of bikers on the road decked out in their leathers. Every gas station looked like a Harley Davidson showroom.

We were really hoping to make it to Eagle Pass, Texas for the border crossing with the team on Monday morning, but the miles were stretching endlessly before us.  I was relieved when Claudio updated us that they delayed their crossing until Tuesday morning due to some breakdowns. He also assured us that we could meet up with them somewhere on the road in Mexico if we couldn’t make the border crossing, but I still wanted to try my best to cross the border with them.

Sunday morning we headed out on the road, but stopped to get more malaria medication and supplies. I desperately tried to order a set of tires to have an extra set in case of a flat. The tires on the bike already had a lot of miles and would need changing soon anyway. However, despite calling a million places, I had no luck getting anything en route or shipped in time to the border. We stopped before Denver to pick up a new camera for our trip, and then stopped again at Tom and J’Amy Kent’s house in Littleton, CO. Tom was my hero again and supplied me with a spare clutch cable and fed us sandwiches and drinks. We debated spending the night there, but I was still quite awake and knew that we needed to cover more ground. So we bid farewell to our pit-stop lifesavers again and headed towards Oklahoma.

With lightening dancing directly overhead we drove straight into a pouring rainstorm. I had only six hours of sleep in two days and there was nothing I could do to keep myself awake anymore. My eyelids closed every 5 seconds, and I honestly have no recollection of the scenery or the road for that section. My rescue came in the form of caffeine pills called NoDoz. These little pills are godsends as they made me jitter like a monkey on coke and bought us two more hours of riding before crashing like logs in Lamar, on the border of Oklahoma. Coming up next: Lamar, CO to Eagle Pass, TX in a heroic (Stupid if you ask me) push. Stay Tuned…

Here’s the trailer for RGE as a teaser. Visit www.electric-adventures.com for more videos and to pre order the DVD.

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