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Archive for December, 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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