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Archive for 2010

November 6th, 2010 - Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 4th, 2010 - Potholes in Honduras

We left El Salvador amidst warm farewells from our new friends and with a police escort arranged by KPMG. Before we left, Edgar gave us a blue flashing police light, and I mounted it on the left front box. It’s fascinating to see how the traffic gets out of your way with a $6 light, and no one questions your identity. The rain made its customary appearance for part of the trip but abated by the border. We had made good time and were eager to do the border crossing and get to our destination. However, with all the good border crossings and encounters with police that we had so far, it was only a matter of time before we ran into one unscrupulous border agent. The mention of the word “embassy” (The RGE Team has letters from the British Embassy) didn’t seem to settle well with this guy who proceeded to detain us for 5 hours while everyone else was blithely passing on through.  Of course, as with any stop we make, the SRZero and the bike were immediately surrounded by curious little and big people wanting to know about the car and bike and take pictures with their cell phones and cameras.

While waiting at the border we met some raw-food vegan cyclists from the US who were pushing to get to Panama on single gear bikes! They had no saddlebags, no tent or sleeping bag and what they wore was what they had. They slept at gas stations whenever they couldn’t stay awake to bike anymore and ate nuts and fruits to stay alive. I don’t know how they do it as I would die if I didn’t eat meat for one day. We wish them a safe and successful journey. Cynthia got a warm welcome to Honduras by a zealous bee, and while that sucker stung, the welt it left wasn’t any bigger than that of the monster mosquito bites she had acquired.  In the end the whole delay at the border was solved by a “deal” between our overly friendly, conveniently English-speaking “fixer” and the grumpy border patrol man. Of course this deal involved paying some wads of cash.

We started not liking Honduras from the very start, and it kept getting worse. When we were “allowed” to cross the border, it was already dark and our destination was 200k away. The rain came down lashing again, and the roads turned into Swiss cheese. The potholes got bigger and bigger to the point that it was hard to go any speed higher that 25mph. I radioed back to the SRzero and the van with directions on how to avoid each pothole. We got stuck behind a long truck line, and as I tried to pass, I sped up and entered the other lane and there it was: an abyss as wide as the road. I broke hard, but it wasn’t enough, and we hit the hole with full force. The headlight went black, the front brake caliper jammed and the suspension bottomed out to the point that I heard a crack on my spine.

We limped to our destination about a mile away, and I started assessing the damage. The front rim was bent, sticking out about an inch. The right caliper was jammed, and the brake rotor was almost red from the heat. The headlight was busted, one fog light was out and a marker light lens broken. I started by dumping water on the rotor to cool it off and took the caliper apart. One of the slides was bent from the knock force, and it caused the jam. I hammered the slide back to shape and filed away the burrs, and it worked. The rim was more serious, and it took some precise banging and bending to get back to shape. When I got done with it, it was almost unnoticeable.

We ended up staying at the Lufassa power plant which provides approximately 33% of the Honduran electricity. We were hosted by Juan, the manager of the plant who took us to dinner at a seaside German restaurant. Juan was a very nice guy, and gave us a tour of his power plant which was impressive.

We left early the next morning to get to the Nicaraguan border, but as we entered the town of Choluteca, the rear tire went flat, our first flat of the trip. To my astonishment, the RGE team couldn’t be bothered to wait for us and left us there with no help and continued on to have their lunch and cross into Nicaragua! Thankfully Juan came to our aid and had one of his guys go tube hunting with me. Finding the tube was the easy part, and we proceeded to a tire shop to change the tire. I took the wheel off, and the shop changed the tire for $5 USD. Juan arranged our own motorcycle police escort to the border, and we were home free. I’m still amazed that after helping the RGE guys out so much through these potholes, night after night, in the rain and in the middle of the night, they could just leave us there. I’m not doing this for money, and I can take care of myself just fine, but their lack of consideration made me uneasy. Claudio ended up having to yell at them and stop them at the border to at least wait for us.

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November 1st, 2010 - The Love Link

Is it destiny that makes our course or is it the path that dictates our fate? Many follow their fate, but a few write their own. Sam Hawkins is such a person. Two weeks after we met this incredible man, he had a misfortune and while opening a bottle of chemicals, it exploded in his face and resulted in second degree burns from the neck up. When I received the news I was in shock as to why such a calamity could happen to such a saint-like person.

At age 71, Sam is as young at heart as any child. The twinkle in his eyes, his enthusiasm, his cowboy boots and thick Texan accent set him apart from the Salvadorians, but if that wasn’t enough, at six foot and some change, he stands out in the middle of the short Latin American crowd. Sam and his lovely wife, Julie, came on a church mission trip to El Salvador years ago during the civil war.  But it wasn’t the church mission that changed him; it was a little malnourished baby boy, abandoned in a sugar cane field that made Sam who he is today. Sam and Julie took the boy in, cared for him and after long nights of struggle, he made it. Twenty-two years later, he’s alive and well and residing in Bangor, Maine and is getting married in a few months. They named him Eric.  Since Eric, Sam and Julie made it their life work to open their door to every malnourished child they could find, and they have treated and saved over 1200 malnourished babies to this day. They made El Salvador their home and as Sam puts it, “I’ll never leave El Salvador.”

We met Sam through Claudia Aguirre who arranged the meeting at her office. We met Sam at 8 am and talked for hours before heading for the baby house. Before we left, I took him out on the bike for a ride and he loved it. His eyes were lit up like a little boy, and he hung on to me for the dear life as sped up through the tight streets of San Salvador. He really wants a motorcycle, but his wife Julie is very apprehensive. With a funny/sad face he said “She won’t let me.”

The baby house was incredibly clean and bright. Apparently Sam worked out at the gym next to the richest guy in El Salvador, neither of them knowing what the other person did. They talked about everything and anything but work. The guy finally found out about what Sam did and he donated the current baby house for the cause before he died. We met Julie at the baby house and she had no less enthusiasm than Sam. They are a perfect couple and they work together in perfect harmony. We played with the kids, got the tour and were amazed at their generosity. Over lunch, Sam told me about his other work. He started to visit prisons trying to rehabilitate the Salvadorian gang members. The government just puts more pressure on the gangs, shooting them when they can and treating them brutally when they get their hands on them (and they probably deserve it), but Sam’s way is the love way. The gang members actually listen to him, and no one bothers him. He created this program which he signs out prisoners and brings them back to society. He trains them, gives them the means and opportunity to have a job and education. They make handmade boots which they sell at the market and reinvest the profit back into the program. That’s why Sam is so proud of his boots.

We spent the night at Sam’s house, and after a delicious breakfast with Julie, we bid them farewell and got back on the road. It is heartwarming to see that there are still a few good men left who do everything and expect nothing in return. Get well soon Sam and thank you for being who you are. If you like to help out in his mission, consider making a donation of any amount, and we will forward it right to him. He has a nonprofit organization called the Love Link, but the website is not up to date and is hard to use. If you like to get a hold of him directly, contact me and I’ll provide you with the information.

Thanks to the wonderful KPMG staff, our stay in El Salvador was a memorable one. Salvadorian hospitality is hard to beat and this country will always stay in my memory. I hope I can make it back one day. Next stop: Honduras.

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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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