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Archive for October, 2010

October 30th, 2010 - El Salvador, Most Dangerous Country

I was still in recovery mode so Claudio took on the riding task with Cynthia going as pillion. I got lucky as the second they took off, the monstrous rain started again, and this time it rained so hard that small rivers started forming on the road. We left Guatemala prematurely and headed flying for the border of El Salvador. The border was pretty impressive. One side was Guatemala, other side El Salvador, and a raging river separated the two land masses. The border ordeal was a typical one lasting several hours. A million signatures, 200 copies of every document and at the end getting a license plate number wrong and having to do it all over again.

El Salvador is a different country and you can tell the second you pass over the border. Every house and I mean, literally, every house is protected with a tall fence plus broken glass and barbwire on top. Armed guards are everywhere, from gas stations to even a simple doctor’s office or pharmacy. Our hotel in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, had a guard with a chopped-off shotgun and a Glock, and this was a very good neighborhood to begin with. The capital city looked like an American colony with the only difference being the language. From Wal-Mart to Pizza Hut and Starbucks to Subway, the streets are filled with American brands and American- made cars. The currency is even the US dollar, and the government is rightly accused of being an American puppet.

El Salvador has one of the biggest gang problems in Latin America which is not surprising, and is home to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (the MS-13 gang). It came out of a bloody civil war which took 13 years and left more than 75,000 dead on both sides of the conflict. Many families fled the country and the majority landed in the United States. Many El Salvadorians kids grew up in the US during the war and when they returned home (in most cases deported because of their criminal acts), they had nothing in common with the locals. These very same young men started their own US influenced gangs and started killing each other for lack of better things to do. Most of these gang members speak perfect English with an American accent and not so much Spanish and are covered in fierce tattoos from head to toe.

El Salvador, like Guatemala, struggles with food security and has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in Central America. The problem starts with poverty and combined with a lack of education, creates a horrific result. To compound the situation, Latin Americans are mostly devout Catholic, and one thing the Catholic Church promotes and never condemns is having more babies.

In rural El Salvador the men are typically found passed out on hammocks outside of the shacks, while the women do every hard labor chore imaginable. These very same men take many women, and some have more than 12 children with no income to speak of. Women are forced to raise the kids on their own. The mothers are often malnourished themselves with no breast milk to speak of.  Coffee and tortilla, the only two food staples at hand, are made into a mush to feed the babies. In three weeks, the babies are so sick and skinny that many of them die in the jungles before reaching their first month. The government figures of the fatality rate for children in El Salvador are inaccurate as most of these babies are born without ever having a birth certificate let alone a death certificate.

To make it worse, the malnutrition programs are run by the government and when admitted to the hospitals, eight out of ten babies will never make it out. The governmental hospitals typically only treat the presenting illness but do not treat malnutrition nor provide any education or help to the families.

While in San Salvador, we were hosted by a super nice Salvadorian family and they showed us the utmost hospitality.  Claudia Aguirre and her father run the KMPG office in San Salvador. (KPMG is a global financial institution in a nutshell). They put us up in a hotel and drove us all around the town for our every need. Over the mealtime, when they found out that we are raising awareness for world hunger, they arranged for us to visit their friends who run a malnutrition clinic (the report on this visit will be in the next post). El Salvador is a beautiful country with wonderfully hospitable people. So far on the trip, El Salvador is the place that has felt most like home.

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October 25th, 2010 - Entering Guatemala

We arrived at the Guatemalan border to find out that we should have gone to the customs 40 minutes back in Talachupa to process the cancellation of the Mexican registration/import permit.  Apparently, if you don’t cancel this permit before leaving the country and don’t came back into the country before it expires, you will be charged $500.00, plus a fine if  you try to enter into the Mexico again with a vehicle. We tried to see if we could sort this out by email or phone but were told that no, each car had to go back to La Garita or else potentially be charged $500.00. The RGE guys contacted the British embassy to see how negative the ramifications would be if we didn’t go back. They said it would mostly likely be ok and that they would call the custom for us from the British embassy.

We barely went a few meters out of the border queue and ended up mobbed by a crowd and unable to move. The police were quick to respond, and they guarded us guns in hand and offered to escort us all the way to our destination at Guatemala City. We had a long delay at that juncture as we worked on sorting out the temporary importation status of the vehicles. Apparently, we had gone to a different place to cross the border than where we had originally planned to cross which is partly why things didn’t go as smoothly.

With a throng of people around us, we waited around and made conversations with the locals. All the tropical rain had washed off my shoe polish so I got the best shoeshine of my life from a little boy who worked on my shoes as if I was the president. For one dollar, my combat boots were as shiny as any General’s. A lady gave Cynthia a Rombego (a local fruit) to try for free as we didn’t have any cash, and later a girl approached us and gave us a whole bag of the spiny red fruits. On the inside they look like a large peeled grape and turned out to be succulent and delicious. We shared some with the kids and the police, and the girl invited us to her mother’s store and they gave us a picture to remember our time there and gave Cynthia a keychain. Once again, we have been impressed by the kindness of people to complete strangers.

Finally around 6 p.m, the border ordeal was over, and we started out on the road to Guatemala City. The road was lined by palm trees, banana plants, and many other lush plants. We passed grazing cows, chickens, muddy rivers, and many people walking along the road or riding in bike-cart taxis. After a gas station stop to fuel up for the bike, it was a bit surreal to see how the police with their guns stopped traffic for us to merge back onto our route for no apparent reason other than they could! By now it was dark. Almost immediately we started to encounter potholes of a size and frequency that made me feel like I was trapped in a video game. Trying to avoid them and radio back to the SRZero was quite a feat and took all my concentration. It was pouring as well, naturally. The hours of riding in the rain didn’t help. When we arrived to Guatemala City around 4 a.m., I was more sick, hypothermic, tired and ready for the bed.

Our stay in Guatemala didn’t turn out to be what I envisioned. I wanted to stay at least a month in Guatemala since this country is in the grip of a protracted food insecurity crisis, and the current situation of food insecurity is worsening what is already one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world (affecting 43% of children below five years of age). We highlighted a malnutrition clinic in Guatemala a few post back. While it was our wish to visit this clinic personally, we were disappointed that my illness prevented us from being able to visit there or other clinics. Needless to say, this is a country with tremendous needs.

I also had a few contacts and a motorcycle club I wanted to visit while there which we had to skip as well. We stayed in Guatemala for 2 days and I honestly don’t remember a minute of it. I was down with high fever and the next thing I remember is getting back on the bike heading fast for El Salvador.

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October 17th, 2010 - La Ventosa Wind Farm

Somehow I woke up without an alarm at 8:40 a.m. I jumped in the shower, got dressed, and went downstairs to see if the departure time was still 9 a.m. Knowing that Chris had just gone to sleep at 7:00 am or so and that some of the team was sleeping as well, just Alex, Andy, and I rode in the van to La Ventosa.  Claudio had spent the night at La Ventosa in hopes of getting more sleep by eliminating the commuting time.

I wasn’t exactly sure what made me wake up early and go along but I was interested in the possibility of a tour of the wind farm. Amazingly we got better than that! The staff arranged for us to climb a wind turbine. They asked if we wanted to climb the shorter one or the taller one. We all said the taller one which is 44 meters high. They gave us white jumpsuits to put on over our clothing to protect us from the grease. We went down a dirt road in a truck to the designated turbine. Alex and I got suited up and put on the protective harnesses and got hooked onto the cable running up the turbine. I naively thought that we were going to walk up actual stairs. I gulped when I looked up and realized instead I would be climbing a ladder reaching up to the sky. “Ok, that’s tall,” I thought. “But no sweat, I can do this,” I gave myself a pep talk. The no sweat part wasn’t literal as already with my two feet planted firmly on the ground, I was sweating quite a bit thanks to the full-body jumpsuit and wishing that I had drank more water. I started up the ladder after the engineer who was leading us, and Alex, who was scampering up like a monkey up a tree. I was toting the camera, and by a third of the way up, was thoroughly spent. I should mention that I can’t do a pull-up to save my life as I have always had a pitiful lack of upper-body strength.  I handed off the camera to Alex to carry at the halfway point and dragged myself up the rest of the way. Once at the top, I was hoping I didn’t stupidly pass out as I was hot and dehydrated.

The day was already gorgeous. I’m talking blue skies painted with fluffy white clouds and lush green all around as it is the rainy season. But from the top of a wind turbine, the 360 degree views were absolutely spectacular. I didn’t want to come down at all. Alex and I snapped some photos and then reluctantly headed down.

We went back to the hotel to get the rest of the guys. By the time we got there it was past 3 p.m., and the guys were waiting in the lobby. Poor Chris was feeling very sick. None of us had eaten yet, so we started to eat at a restaurant by the gas station while Chris started to put in a new clutch cable (Many thanks to Tom Kent for that spare cable! That came in handy sooner than expected!). The second he started fixing the cable, surprise, it started pouring again!

We headed out at near dusk for Tapachula, Chiapas, México, our last stop before crossing the border to Guatemala.  We had 180 miles before us and the rain was not going to let us travel unaccompanied. If we were on our own, we would be much more reticent about driving at night as it is safer to travel by day for a number of reasons. However due to unavoidable factors, at times it becomes a necessity. We drove into the night, sadly missing all the scenery on our last night in Mexico. Chris was sick and the rain pretty much put him over the edge of what he could bear. We arrived in Tapachula at 3 am, and we got to bed around 4:00 a.m. We are crossing the border to Guatemala tomorrow morning if everything goes well.

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October 13th, 2010 - Surviving Mexico

Unfortunately all the idling and putting along for hours in the rain the night before didn’t sit well with the bike, and it protested in the form of electrical problems with the brake lights, marker lights and signals being completely out. Originally we were supposed to be on the road early to cover the 305 kilometers to La Ventosa, a wind farm near Juchitan, Oaxaca, but the electric car didn’t get sufficient charge overnight at the hotel. As the car had to be charged longer, this delayed our departure to La Ventosa, which was fortuitous for me as I had a date with the bike.

From about 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. I worked on getting the electrical short sorted out. And it turned out to be a wild goose chase. Voltmeter in hand, I tested every possible connection from rear to front, but the damn short was always one step ahead of me. I finally traced the short to one piece of wire in the after-market marker lights and nailed it down. The wire was fine, no cuts, no kink or any dis-figuration but it was shorted internally. I sent Cynthia out to find fuses (I blew over 10 fuses testing different setups) and some small light bulbs for the dash indicators. Luckily, she had a friendly taxi driver with 30 years experience driving in Oaxaca, and he knew just the right shops to take her to.

As we are traveling with RGE for the time being, we are on a set schedule so depending on how things go, we don’t usually have much time in each area. With the delay, Cynthia was able to walk around the city admiring the beautiful architecture and taking pictures. Oaxaca is a colorful city, rich in indigenous culture and traditions and is declared Humanity’s Cultural Patrimony by UNESCO. Everywhere you look; there is something interesting to see from the architecture to the brightly colored clothing of the local Oaxacians. We have never seen so many bugs (VW bugs) as in México. They are like brightly colored skittles sprinkled on the streets, but one especially made a statement as you can see in the photo. So far, we have enjoyed México immensely. The varied terrain, the culture, the color, the people, the flavors have all made for a very enjoyable experience. Our only wish would be to have more time to soak in the richness of it all.

We finally departed Oaxaca around 8 p.m. for Juchitan de Zaragoza which is a town about 10 km from La Ventosa wind farm. Nearly 10 miles into our journey, I heard a knock when I grabbed the front brake and again when I tried to brake again. I crouched forward to see what was happening and to my horror, the right front brake caliper was hanging by one bolt and flapping in the wind. I stopped the bike under a street light and it happened to be right in front of a mechanic shop. I needed a 10mm bolt and they had one! I couldn’t believe how these bolts came loose as I’m a pretty heavy-handed guy. My buddy Joe always curses at me for over-tightening bolts and nuts, but this time I was puzzled. I put Lock-Tight on all the caliper bolts and got back on the road again. Thank God I needed a metric bolt as finding SAE bolts anywhere outside of US is nearly impossible (Harley Davidson people listen here).

Traveling in the dark prevented us from seeing the scenery, but the road was as twisty as it gets. The van and the SRzero were absolutely hopeless when it came to passing on curves so once again the GS850 proved to be invaluable. Radio in hand, I passed slow trucks on blind double lines and signaled back to the rest of the caravan to pass when it was safe. This went on well into the night as when we came out of the canyon, it was already three in the morning.

Everyone was tired so we split into two groups. One group went to the hotel to get some rest and the other group was supposed to carry on another 40km to the wind farm to put the car on charge. I ended up with the second group as Claudio wanted to film a little bit more. Just barely 10km out of town, the clutch cable broke again! I couldn’t believe my luck. Three breakdowns in less than 24 hours! I had a spare cable with me, but I was so exhausted that I didn’t even bother with changing it there. I put the bike in first gear, pulled in the clutch lever and started the bike. It jerked and rolled for a few seconds and fired right up. For the next hour and half, I rode the bike without clutch and no stopping (mostly going in circles) as we searched for the wind farm. After four dead-end roads, we finally found the place, and I parked the bike next to the car and crashed in the van. We didn’t get to the hotel until 6 a.m., and I started feeling very sick. High fever, runny nose and aching muscles capped off the festivity. Cynthia will take over from here as I got so sick I could barely move. Stay tuned.

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October 12th, 2010 - Drowning in Oaxaca

We departed México City around 6 a.m. trying to beat the city traffic and hoping to arrive early in the afternoon to our destination in Oaxaca, almost 300 miles to the south. Leaving the city, there was an endless sea of concrete homes stretching as far as the eye could see into the hills on either side of the road. As we drove on, the concrete homes gave way into lush green hills blanketed in the cold mist. The sun finally came out and we made our way higher into the mountains on the Pan-American Hwy. The terrain in Mexico is varied. In less than two hours, we traveled through cactus-covered hills to high pine-covered ridges and back into tropical trees.  We were making good time and everyone was in good spirits about covering the 292 miles stretch to Oaxaca with spare time to explore the city.

But it’s been a never missing ritual that every time we get an early start, something goes wrong. We arrived in Oaxaca around 4:00 p.m to find the only road to the town shut down. The local bus companies were on strike and blocked off all the major streets of Oaxaca to protest the low bus fares. No amount of sweet talking and begging would persuade them move the buses, and we had no choice but to wait. Getting around the buses on the motorcycle was manageable, but the electric car and the van couldn’t move an inch. We decided to stay together and wait out the protest. For a long time, people were really civilized but as the rush hour neared, more and more angry voices came out and it got to a point that people were coming out with machetes in their hands and started to throw rocks and kicking the cars.

Things quickly got out of hands and the angry mob started to shake the buses and finally the bus drivers started to move one bus at a time. The tropical rain didn’t fail again, and as we sat somewhat patiently, we got soaked. From 4 o’clock to 7:30, we moved maybe a mile and we were no were near our reserved hotel.

I suggested to the RGE team to forget the Holiday Inn and just settle in a different hotel as all the roads were still closed to the city center, but they decided to push on. Oaxaca is a hilly city and with all the rains, and traffic, it was the last place I wanted to ride at night. At some point with all the rain, something on the bike shorted out and the tail light, brake light and signals went out completely. The constant idling in the traffic heated the motor to a point that shifting gears became almost impossible. I could feel the clutch cable snapping every time I pulled in the clutch, but the RGE team wouldn’t change course. We searched for the elusive Holiday Inn and drove in circles in dark for another 2 hours with no luck.

I had only met the RGE team less than ten days before, but I was so mad and tired that I started shouting at the stupid situation. We had passed many hotels in the past two hours, driving in rain, on 45 degrees hills and sleek cobblestone roads of Oaxaca, but they were determined to stay at the Holiday Inn and no place else. To me, there is a fine line between futility and persistence and we were crossing that line deliberately.

I finally asked for directions and luckily a kid who spoke English led us in his truck to our hotel. I was so pissed that Cynthia stayed a few feet away from me the rest of the night. The last thing I remember is the dinner with Claudio and Cynthia in a little Italian bistro and the rest is out of my conscious memory.

As I write this, it’s worth mentioning that Oaxaca was flooded under water because of the very same torrential rains 10 days after we passed through. Over 40 people died due to the floods and many are without homes now. So when I say it was raining, I don’t mean a drizzle, it was like the showerhead was on.

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October 10th, 2010 - Following Hernan Cortés in México

In two years, from 1519 to 1521, an ambitious, cruel, intelligent, determined and above all, gold hungry Spaniard named Hernan Cortés, took México by storm. Cortés did not only change North American history as we know it, he destroyed and demolished one of the most sophisticated civilizations, the Aztec empire or as I like to call them, the Mexica. (Mexica was the name they called themselves and was used for centuries. The Aztec name was made popular in the 18th century by Jesuit scholar, Francisco Javier Clavijero, and then by the single minded account of the conquest of México by William H. Prescott.)

The phrase that best describes Cortés’ conquest is “audacity”. It contains a hint of imagination, impudence, a capacity to perform the unexpected which differentiates it from mere bravery. He was an ordinary man, from a lesser nobility class, but he was decisive, flexible, quick in talk, skillful, daring in execution and full of threats in war.

The conquest of México is interesting to me not because a small group of adventurers won battles against a large static army. It’s interesting because it was a clash of two empires, equally powerful. They both were imaginative and inventive. Though different, they held many things sacred, they loved ceremonials, and they had conquered others. They both were cruel by any modern standards, but cultivated.

The 15th century Mexicans were well organized, well feared by their neighbors and hated by the same. Old México was very much like a state. Many conquistadors believed that their houses were superior to those of Spain. The upper class wore embroidered cloths. Their jewelry astonished the Europeans for years, and they provided universal education to boys. In the sixteen century, the Spaniards still used the roman system of numbering, but Mexicans used the decimal system. The Mexicans used the vigesimal method, as well as the Zero which made the calculation more accurate than it was possible in Europe. But they had one flaw: they believed in gods and that’s what Cortés used to break them down.

Charles V, the Emperor of Spain, was called the “Most Reliable Sword of Christianity” but as many scholars agree, he wasn’t a true believer, nor was Cortés. He used his Christianity as a tool to climb the ladders of hypocrisy, and he did it very well. He held many sermons and he preached the Lord like he was a chosen one. But he only wanted one thing, gold. The Spaniards had unbounded confidence in their own qualities, in the political wisdom of their imperial mission and spiritual superiority of the Catholic Church.

It is true that the Mexicans practiced in human sacrifices, but to justify the Spaniards actions who called the Mexican barbarians is preposterous. “O what great good fortune for the Indians is the coming of Spaniards,” the historian Cervantes de Salazar would write in 1554, “since they have passed from this unhappiness to their present blessed state.”

By 1521 Teotihuacán, the capital of the magnificent Mexica Empire fell under the sword of Cortés, and México today is as we know it. Yet again, thousands of lives were lost in the name of the good Lord and the fate of Montezuma is known by every school kid in the world.

After the conquest, Cortés sent a model silver canon to Charles V of Spain as a present. He named it “The Phoenix”. On it he had inscribed:

This was born without equal
I am without a second in serving you
You are without an equal in the world.

The visit to these temples was our farewell to México City. We’re leaving tomorrow for Oaxaca on the same road Cortés’ men traveled. Will it look remotely the same as they saw it? I doubt it.

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