Monday, October 31, 2005

Hotel Maria Gracia, Quito, Ecuador


The town of Tangua, Colombia is about 7,500 feet in elevation. Cultivated land rises another 2 to 3,000 feet. (I was a little hesitant to take this photo, as there was a school just below me, with many small children out playing. I heard a story of a tourist being assaulted in a small town for taking pictures of children. Supposedly, the townspeople feared foreigners would kidnap their children.)


9:00 p.m.

The daylight was just fading at 6:00, when I arrived on the outskirts of Quito. I thought I’d be smart this time and hire a taxi to lead me to a hotel. I told him “no five star, maybe three, tranquilo y con una vista (quiet and a view)." I felt a bit better when he got lost. We spent 15 or 20 minutes circling neighborhoods, asking pedestrians, trying to find a hotel he knew.

It was a bit isolated (I have no idea what neighborhood I’m in), but it is quiet, secluded, and has a view of city lights rising up the slopes of Pichinchan Volcano to the west. After checking in ($25, breakfast included), I asked about dinner and the proprietor, though she was tired, consented to cook something up for me.

This part of the city is at 8,800 feet, and I noticed it just climbing two flights with my bags: my lungs tight and working harder. I was feeling worn too from riding in chilly air the latter part of the day.

After I sat down to dinner, ten other fellows joined me in the small dining room. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, though I’m pretty sure it was Spanish.

***

Back in Pasto this morning, the city came to life before 6:00. I was amazed how busy and noisy the streets became in just a very short time. (I had awakened about 3:00 a.m. and it was virtually silent outside.) Many people walking by my street-level window, kids off to school very early. I felt a slight guilt (but only slight) lying in bed a bit longer. It was raining. I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of riding out of here in the rain. Hopefully, if I waited long enough, it would stop. I knew I had to go higher into the mountains today. I had no idea if I could potentially run into snow.

My room smelled of exhaust as I slowly packed everything up again. The owner offered me coffee. It was black, very weak, and had too much sugar, but it was a nice gesture, and served in a porcelain cup and saucer!

Loading up the bike on the sidewalk out front, I was drawn into many conversations with pedestrians who stopped to inquire about my travels. It took until 9:00 to actually get on the road.

Up a long ridge to the south and over the top, the green flanks of Volcan Galeras rose up to my right. On the south side of the range, I stopped in Tangua, another small city in a dramatic mountain setting. It's bright goldenrod-colored cathedral contrasted with the gray morning.

I became aware that the spot I had chosen for a photo was right above a school playground. I looked around to see if any townspeople were watching me. (That's all I needed: for them to think I was looking to kidnap a child.) A mother came down the street, carrying her child, who was wearing a cow costume for Halloween. Pretty cute.



It's Halloween in Colombia too!



This cutie deserved two spots in the blog.




Colombia is my kind of place! These "moto" lanes allow free passage past toll booths for bicycles and motorcycles. Note two other features typical of this region: the truck belching smoke and the car broken down at the toll booth.


At a quiet spot in the country, I pulled over to organize my documents for the border crossing. North of Ipiales, I came upon a bonsai nursery. Though in a hurry to get to the border, I stopped to browse the gardens. A school class was touring the grounds. With thousands of potted trees and catalogued gardens, this represented a real labor of love.



Doing laundry on a mountainside



Just north of Ipiales near the Colombia-Ecuador border, there is little ground that is not being put to use. This high country is 5 to 10,000 feet in elevation.


In Ipiales, I drove to the city center to change money. It was here I learned that Ecuador uses dollars. That's a relief! Filled up on gas to use up some of my remaining pesos.

At the Colombia-Ecuador border, I arrived, as some traveler had suggested, just before noon. It’s clean, organized and painless passing through Colombian immigration and customs. I arrived on the Ecuador side just as their aduana office closed for a two-hour lunch. "Crap." I was watching the clouds gather and anticipating the accustomed late afternoon rain. "Nothing I can do about it, I’ll just have to pull out the rain gear if that happens."

Talked with soldiers who stood looking over the parked motorcycle. These were military, but there were also immigration police and national police at the border. Lots of uniforms.

Also waiting outside customs, I noticed a surfer sitting against a wall, backpacks and two covered surfboards next to him.

“Are you American?”

“Yep”

“Where are you from?

“San Francisco.”

“Santa Rosa.”

“Matt” introduced himself. He and his girlfriend (I never learned her name) started in El Salvador and have been heading south, following the surf. She is en route to Quito to do volunteer work, and he hoped to surf Central and South America for a year. But her pack, including passport, camera, and ATM card, had just been stolen. They were riding a bus down to the border, and at a service stop, a young boy who had been riding with them, grabbed the bag and took off. I told Matt I'd check back with them before I left.

At 2:00, offices opened and people crowded to the service windows. I was told to follow a customs officer. I got on the bike and followed him in his pick-up. I figured we were just going a short distance, 100 yards or so. But he led me about five miles into downtown Tulcan. There they have a large aduana office. I have no idea why this couldn’t have been done at the border. The three hour process of getting a motorcycle permit really "threw a wrench into the spokes." From then on, I was focused on just making up time. I didn’t want to give up the goal of reaching Quito today.

From damp 10,000-foot-high mountain valleys to arid, wind-swept canyons, the highway passes through an incredibly varied landscape. Simply awesome. Up and down, from chilly mountain air and communities where people are wearing winter clothes to warm dry valleys, where people wear almost nothing. A day of contrasts.

No toll exemption for motorcycles in Ecuador, but the toll is only 20 cents at each booth, a total of $1.00 for the ride to Quito.

The highways are the best I've seen since the U.S. I got up to 70 mph for many stretches. Riding through the mountains was especially fun because the roads were so good. There were no slides, little debris and well-engineered curves. Only a few surprises, and these came mostly in towns.

I’ve seen almost everything now: On a four lane highway, stopped at a signal. I was in the left lane. When the light turned green the guy in the right lane did a u-turn, crossing right in front of me. Fortunately, I hadn't made my usual rabbit start.

By late afternoon, I was pushing hard to make Quito before nightfall. But it's hard when you're passing through some of the most extraordinary landscape. The urge to stop was ever present. Approaching Quito, the highway climbs thousands of feet to a plateau. This city has to be in the most dramatic setting of any city I’ve seen.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hotel Ritz, San Juan de Pasto, Nariño, Colombia


A typical view along the Colombia-Ecuador frontier


9:00 p.m.

This hotel is on the corner of a busy downtown intersection of this regional capital. The cost, 15,000 pesos, is less than $7.00. Still, I have my own shower, a towel (about the size of a dish cloth) and TV (about the size of a dish cloth.)

Out in the lobby, where all the important conversations take place, I met "Luis", also a resident here. A black fellow in his 30s, he's confined to a wheelchair. He apparently operates heavy equipment at a gold mining operation. (Though he speaks Spanish, it is of a dialect I cannot begin to understand, and often turn to the young desk manager, who knows a bit of English, for a clue.) When it came time for dinner, I asked Luis if he wanted to join me.

We walked (and rolled) about five blocks, downhill to the "El Merced" restaurant. Luis rode in the street alongside the curb, a very treacherous undertaking in this city. The restaurant was packed with families, as a huge Halloween celebration had just ended in the city center. Children dressed in all the familiar costumes, well, except the little nuns were a new one for me (but a favorite in this Roman Catholic country!)

When I told Luis I was buying, he went right for the fresh fish, one of the highest-priced items. I ordered a "piquena" (small) pizza, which was also surprisingly expensive (almost $10). Then I found out why: it could feed three or four people! We didn't talk much, as the environment was pretty noisy, and I couldn't understand him anyway. I told him we'd taxi back up to the hotel. An old woman looking for a handout stepped out into traffic and immediately stopped a taxi for us. I gave her a small tip. We piled in. But the taxi wouldn't start. Dead battery. We piled out. The woman caught us another one.

Back at the hotel, Luis wanted me to give him names of foundations that can help the poor in Colombia. He seemed angry when I couldn’t name any that might help. I told him I thought his search must start with inquiries through the Colombian government. Obviously, not a good answer. I could sense the anger and frustration in his words, even though I couldn't understand a thing he said. Here was a rich American in his presence and he was demanding help - for the naked children in his home community, for the single mothers, for the handicapped like himself. I asked what he wanted from me. "Names!"

I retired to my room, but could still hear his loud voice echoing for an hour as he debated with the owner and her son. I suspect he was still railing on rich America. Over dinner, he had talked about being devoutly religious, even playing some Christian music for me on his old pocket cassette player. But he seemed very bitter and vengeful. Maybe it's possible to be both, when circumstances warrant; I don't know.

("He didn’t even thank me for dinner.")

***

Started with an overcast, drizzling morning. Walked to the ATMs again, trying all three around the plaza; still don’t work. So, I broke down and took a small cash advance, cursing thieving Chase Bank in advance for the charges I'll incur.

Picked up my bike and handed the caretaker 20,000 pesos (about $8). He was puzzled, but may have been thankful (I couldn't really tell.) Before leaving, I felt obliged to have some desayuno (breakfast), since several of the hotel staff asked if I were going to eat. Had some scrambled eggs and coffee (mostly milk). The owner had a few departing words for me: watch out for thieves.

Out of Popayán, the road started winding immediately through a wet landscape and up over a couple ridges topping 5,000 feet. At one curve, a motor scooter had apparently turned too wide and was lying at the rear wheels of a on-coming semi, produce scattered across the road. The rider appeared uninjured.

At the site of a landslide (that had already been cleared away), an old man stood in the road with his shovel, seeking hand-outs from motorists. "See, I'm clearing the road for you!"

I was pulled over at two police checkpoints. Again, it seemed more out of curiosity than official business.

From mountain passes, the highway descended into chaparral, the temperature rising dramatically. In lower elevations, the landscape and warmth reminded me of Northern California in early summer. In the warm dry air, I encountered flying insects again (including butterflies). The last time I really recall noticing them was near Ciudad Victoria in Mexico (before entering the humid tropics.)

Throughout Central America and Colombia, I have passed through towns that appear to share a common craft or product. In this area cane furniture, honey and melons appear to be a source of income for many families. Passing through these communities, I'm painfully aware of what uses this motorcycle (or any First World "recreational vehicle")(not to mention the money and fuel) could be put to. Repeated images drive this home: a young boy carrying a large branch back into his village (for firewood), a person carrying a cripple across the highway on his back, a woman pushing a wheelbarrow of bananas up a mountain slope, elderly standing along the highway trying to wave down a ride, entire families packed onto tiny motor scooters.

Climbed back into the mountains again on my way to Pasto. From lowlands of perhaps 1 or 2,000 feet, back up to about 9,000, the temperature ranged from the mid-90s to the 40s or low 50s.

On a desolate plateau, I passed a new hotel that looked out on a beautiful stark landscape. I should have stopped, but the momentum just carried me on. After a few miles, as I started to enter into more settled areas again, I knew I made the wrong call. But still, I just kept going. Passed new tracts of surprisingly large homes in gated communities.

Crossed a mountain pass and was greeted with a panorama of Pasto, a large city couched in an alpine valley. Surrounding the city on all sides, farms, cultivated sectors and pastured slopes rose high into the clouds. The city was much larger than I anticipated (and again I regretted not stopping at that hotel, now 30 miles behind me.)

Descended into Pasto, and spent the next two hours searching for a hotel – a low point in letting inertia be my guide. In several passes through the city, I noted only two hotels. One, a bit too shabby and another at $60, ridiculous for this region.

Though I was repeatedly told the hotels were in "el centro", I kept missing the district. The bike was really lugging at this altitude (and with the fuel quality) and spending this much time navigating congested city streets was taking its toll on man and machine.

It looked as if every public park and plaza were the site of celebrations today: some sort of city celebration in the main plaza, a carnival, a Halloween festival. Big fiestas! A beautiful setting, but far too many people for my liking.

At last, I chanced into the hotel zone. It only took another hour to make a selection. As I was checking into this hotel, a concerned motorist actually stopped his car and came into the hotel to warn me about people gathered outside around the bike. He told me to move it right in front of the hotel door, or else, and he made a grabbing gesture. Across the street is a 24-hour service station where I was able to park the motorcycle for the night.

Came about 150 miles (185 miles after I was done looking for a hotel.) That's actually a fairly long driving day in this part of the world!

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Popayán, Colombia

Well, I've moved 75 miles (a two-hour drive) down the highway, to the picturesque town of Popayán. Enrique recommended I stop here: "more culture."

Just as I was packed and getting on the motorcycle, he returned from an errand. I was able to thank him for the wonderful hospitality. "Con mucho gusto!" His emphatic reply. (I believe it's "you're very welcome!") He clearly has a big heart, and has created a very special atmosphere at Pensión Stein.

Soon after finding a little hotel, the "Los Portales" the clouds let loose rain and lightning. Good timing. This simple and well-maintained establishment is a bargain at 25,000 pesos, around $11.00 for the night.

After unloading everything in the room, I stepped into the adjacent comedor and asked when they would serve dinner. One of the women, who seemed to be the proprietor, kind of cornered me, and leaning a little bit too close, wanted to know all about my trip. Then she asked about exchange rates and how many pesos I had. ("This is going in a strange direction.") She pulled out $30 in American currency, which at first I thought she was trying to tell me was counterfeit. At length I realized she wanted to exchange the dollars for pesos. She was unable to do it in town. I couldn't help, having only about $5 worth of pesos.

I went out for a walk, and to visit the ATM. On the town square, there are three ATMs, all doing a very brisk business (I assume since the local economy is pretty much based on effectivos, cash, not credit cards.) None of them worked, and at the last, I got a message that the system (the "Star" system?) was down. I have about $5 in pesos left. That won't get me to Ecuador!

Around the corner from my hotel is an internet café, with a 1,000 peso (less than 50 cents) per hour rate. Continued this morning's monologue ("monoblog").

At 6:30, I moved my motorcycle into a compound with brick walls shared with adjoining buildings. A free-standing wall is topped with shards of broken bottles set in concrete, a common security measure seen south of the U.S. border.

The ramshackle dirt compound is guarded by a man, who with his family of four (or more?) live in a tiny shack just inside the gate.

I went back to the hotel comedor and reported I had no luck with the ATM; could I pay in pesos? When the woman asked how many pesos I had, I showed her the 11,000. "Rico!" (Rich.) That is enough for dinner, she said.

I was served a big bowl of a chicken soup, a plate of grilled beef in gravy, rice and something resembling a potato (but not a potato), with an excellent salad, chili and garlic salsa and sweet tea. With a "Pepsi" added, the total was 4,500 pesos, or less than $2. Amazing.

Went for another walk later. This historic downtown district was alive with people out walking, shopping, visiting restaurants and bars. It feels very comfortable. I continue to be surprised how warm and easy-going the Colombian people seem.

The ATMs were still not working for me. I'm back at the internet café, but it's time to wrap it up. I hope to have an early start tomorrow, and get close to the Ecuador border, almost 200 miles south.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Just one more day at Pensión Stein


Enrique Frei, my host at Hotel Pensión Stein


Rain this morning. I'm just not ready to leave anyway. Something, some sense of guilt, tells me I have to push on, but another voice asks "what's the rush?" I've really enjoyed being here, and that's welcome, when there have been so many places I've stayed where I had to grit my teeth and bear it. And I always feel a sense of relief when I have told the receptionist "una dia mas!" One more day.

Had breakfast this morning with the families adopting children. Afterwards we gathered on the porch, and I snapped a few photos. James is returning to Brooklyn today, Soraya staying on another week to finish up the business here.



James and Soraya DiGiorgio of Brooklyn with daughter Gabriella, and Colinda Provily and Henk Arens of Holland with sons Andrés and Manuel



From Holland, Ron and Sylvia De Boer, with sons Miguel and Alejandro. They are currently in the process of adopting little Alejandro. They first came to Colombia four years ago to adopt Miguel.


I'm enjoying getting caught up on news. The Grand Jury is expected to announce indictments today in the investigation of the leak to the press of CIA Agent Valerie Plame's identity.

Watched "Democracy Now"'s webcast. I've been fed CNN and Fox "news" throughout Central America and Colombia, and am disgusted by the lack of content in these network vanity productions. For months, one of Fox's main stories has been the case of the white girl missing in Aruba. It appears that to them, the story is more important than the war in Iraq, the earthquake in Pakistan, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, global warming, etc., etc.

At the hotel here, Fox is the only TV news option (in English), so I've had a chance to see what they parade as news. At the expense of "fair and balanced" journalism, they are blatant defenders of, and apologists for the present Administration. You really have to wonder whether they in fact broadcast from "The West Wing". Touted (by themselves) as "the most powerful news", I'm embarrassed that they represent the United States to the World.

AFTERNOON

Fox appears uncharacteristically humbled by today's indictment of Louis Libby on five counts. This seems to be shocking news to them (and to the country); which is incredible, as legitimate news sources, such as "Democracy Now" have covered this story in some detail for the past two years.

Fox commentators talk as if this is a personal attack and a personal loss: not the sign of objective reporting. They strategize about what "we" can do. Real journalists, not actors, would report the facts, without all the hand-wringing.

***

Meanwhile, back on my favorite subject, food. At every meal here, I find myself asking "what is this?" There's always something new and interesting. Nothing is plain, or ordinary. I'm forced to try new things. Today, a passionfruit, or maraluyá nectar was wonderful. I was also forced to enjoy Corvina in coconut sauce with potatoes au gratin and torte de pan, bread pudding. As is his custom, Enrique comes into the dining room and greets everyone, making certain all is well.

A group of 11 or 12 French seniors has arrived. At lunch, I met Jaime Guarnizo, a young food-packaging engineer from Medellin. It was an interesting chat, because in my (former) job, I worked quite often with packaging engineers.

***

By evening, Fox's coverage is all about putting the best spin on the day's events, discrediting the critics and minimizing the indictment's impact. As they say, today's big news is "Karl Rove was not indicted...a victory for the White House."

But even Bill O'Reilly's commentary seems quite measured and even-handed tonight. I shock myself, agreeing with his uncharacteristically-neutral assessments! "Judge Napolitano", their Senior Legal Analyst seems to be among the most objective voices on the broadcast. He has an understanding of the judicial system where others merely speculate and opine.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Relaxing in Cali


Dinner tonight. This is the life! I think you can forward my mail here.


Using Google Translator (thank you, "Emilio Baig el de Cancun" for recommending this great little tool!) sent off a message to Alvarez Barba BMW in Quito, Ecuador to try and line up new tires before my arrival. E-mail failed, so I transcribed the letter and sent it via fax. (I had tried to call them yesterday, but couldn't navigate their voicemail system.)

Haven't missed a meal yet since arriving here! The food is outstanding. Every meal is a pleasant surprise and includes fresh and interesting ingredients. This is far and away the best hotel cuisine I've found on this trip. The menu is created by Enrique. The atmosphere here is very positive. It feels like a big family. Enrique often invites guests to join him on his trips to the market, to immerse them in a little of the local color, and arranges visits to interesting places in the Cali region.

Taking Jessica's suggestion, looked in on the Santa Rosa "Press Democrat" news site. Nice to check in on the home front. The city of Rohnert Park is proposing a limit to drive-up windows. What a progressive move! Santa Rosa's air pollution has now been cited as increasing at twice the national rate over the past ten years. For those of us who have lived there, this was painfully clear (or smoggy.) In 1989, when I moved there, I didn't see air pollution. By 2005, it had become a regular feature in our skies.

Refreshing too, to watch "Democracy Now" on the internet. A good foil to the rubbish on CNN and Fox.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Different thoughts


In the heart of Cali, Colombia, the "Hotel Pension Stein",
a refuge with a Swiss flair.


At lunch, James and Soraya were dining at another table with Gabriella. I had just written the notes for the previous entry. Looking at this couple, with their adopted daughter, I realize they are actually doing something that in a small, yet significant way addresses the social injustice I cited. They are giving a child, whose prospects in Colombia are grim, a better life.

I shared my thoughts with them and learned a little more about the adoption process they (and other families staying here at Pension Stein) are going through. They are working through the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) and the "Chiquitines" orphanage. After a year-long process, when the time comes to meet their child, the parents come to Colombia and spend roughly a month working with the folks at "Chiquitines" who offer parenting training, counseling, support and guidance. Apparently, Pensión Stein is recommended as a safe, convenient and welcoming place to stay. (So we have three or four families here right now, at different stages of the process.) The final step before heading home is securing a passport and visa for the adopted child.

During this process, they have met with mothers considering giving their children up for adoption. Soraya said that often the mother's motivation is "love"; they want to see their child have a better life than they are capable of providing.

I began to look at this couple, and two other couples I've met from Holland, in a different and much more appreciative light.

***


The "Social Room" at "Hotel Pensión Stein"


One of the lunch treats here is fresh fruit nectars. Today's was papaya-passion fruit. Wonderful!

Since the hotel was still having internet connection problems, I went to a location James and Soraya recommended: the "Cibermatrix" internet cafe at the mall in Chipi Chopi. A fairly up-scale shopping center, this is clearly a popular place to gather, and not just for teens. It is crowded with people of all ages. The internet cafe, on the other hand, was predominantly occupied by young people. It's a large facility, and doing a very big business providing internet and telephone services.

My room is that little one on the ground floor, with the Swiss shield by the door. (Photo: Hotel Stein)


***

Maybe my sense of responsibility to family and other readers will help overcome my reservations about taking photos in uncomfortable situations. A smaller camera for this journey would have been much more practical and inconspicuous.

***

Tonight, as I watch Spanish fishermen express anger at their market being flooded with cheap imports, citing low wages in other countries as the reason they can sell so low. This is such a common refrain. Jobs in First World nations will only continue to disappear as borders become less of an obstacle in this Global Economy.

At some point, if there is indeed a collective conscience, the World will need to establish a Global Minimum Wage, and a basic standard of living to which all people are entitled. Those in the First World will have to make greater concessions, paying a fair price for the products produced in Third World nations. Organizations such as the U.N. and W.T.O. (or other international body) must be empowered to address a new paradigm in corporate greed. (When production costs can be cut by 80% by exporting jobs to the Third World, while retail prices vary only slightly; when environmental, social and ethical standards can be evaded by the same mechanism, First World governments, corporations and citizens are all culpable. It is the same scenario I cited earlier: effluent and pollution flowing downhill, to those who can least defend themselves.)

A different reality

Passing through Central America and Colombia (and I’m sure it will be no different to the south), the stark differences between "haves" and "have-nots" is impossible to ignore, but it's still difficult to appreciate.

In the States, it's so much easier to avoid contact with the poor. We have more effective infrastructures and socio-economic devices to isolate classes: vast distances, which the mobile classes use to advantage, commuting along limited-access corridors; zoning and building codes, demographic-based location of employment opportunities, limited public transportation and public welfare facilities, and, of course, law enforcement (a poor person in an affluent community is likely to draw disproportionate attention.)

Universally, the privileged claim the high ground, as effluent and pollution settles into the lowlands; or they take the seashores, where water and fresh breezes scrub their world clean. (It's not just the "view" that draws them there.) (In cities, the "high ground" is often in hotels and skyscrapers.)

Those who cannot afford homes with filtered air conditioning, bottled water, refrigeration, stoves, who cannot afford cars, who must live and walk alongside the trucks and busses belching toxic fumes, whose sewer and sanitation systems are inadequate; these are the ones who bear the greatest burden, not only from their own waste, but from that of the entire society. The least among us have the fewest defenses.

I suspect, like me, most who live in the “first world” have absolutely no comprehension of what it means to live in poverty. What it means to be surrounded by filth and squalor, drinking dirty water, eating unwholesome food, with access to little or no medical care, living in absolute uncertainty.

Why are some humans so privileged and entitled, while so many more lead desperate lives in which basic survival is the all-consuming preoccupation?

And for me, who has led a comfortable existence: of what help is it to sympathize with the poor? I can do absolutely nothing to aid in their plight. Are we, who are privileged, to be ashamed or miserable at our good fortune? Are we expected to solve the World’s problems (which are truly unsolvable)? How, in good conscience, can one conduct one’s life?

All this obviously creates discomfort, and it would be impossible to bear, were it not for human mechanisms that “buffer” reality; that in fact deceive us into believing that all is well (even if, intellectually we acknowledge there are a few problems out there.)

I can ponder all this, then sit down to a nice meal, or watch television, or go for a drive. I am still in a different reality.

Morning

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Up at 8:00 after a restless night. (During the night, I was startled a couple of times by laundry that I had hung to dry falling; couldn’t get back to sleep. My trunk is covered with bites – not sure which flea-bag hotel is the source, but I can't imagine it's this one.

Last night, I kept to myself at dinner, though there were several English-speaking families in the dining room. When one of the families came to breakfast, I took the initiative to break the silence and ask where they’re form.

At their invitation, I joined James and Soraya DiGiorgio. They’re from Brooklyn and have come to adopt 3-1/2-month-old Colombian, Gabriella. A relief to converse in English, without a second thought. I admit of my guilt staying in this sheltered harbor, insulated from the reality of the streets, but Soraya, who was born in Colombia, says this is quite authentic. I took just a bit of comfort in her assurance.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Over the Andes to Cali, Colombia

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Awoke at 7:00, but it was hard to get up. To leave the comfort of a bed and face the unknown, was not a decision "the animal" was going to make. Something else has to take charge. Declined the offer of breakfast and coffee, and got back out onto the highway at 8:00. The Andes Cordillera Occidente, the taller, western spine of this range, loomed dark and ominous ahead, only the lower slopes visible below a blanket of clouds. Crossing these mountains would just be a warm-up for what's ahead farther south.

Yesterday, as I started to climb into the mountains, I was concerned upon reaching a several-mile-long corridor of small roadside truck washes, for trucks that had made the passage east. Did that mean there was mud (and/or snow) ahead? My map shows no elevations for the mountains and passes in Colombia. The ride was filled with anxiety and excitement, as I had no idea how high this pass would be, nor of road conditions up there.

But as long as traffic is coming from the opposite direction, I am convinced conditions can't be too terrible. In tight looping curves, the highway begins crawling up incredibly steep slopes. The speed limit 18 to 24 mph (30 to 40 Kph) most of the time, and frankly it would be difficult to go any faster. Many small landslides and downed trees partially block lanes. In some cases, local residents have come out to direct traffic around the obstacles. With axes, shovels and wheelbarrows, others work to clear the road.

Despite the precipitous slopes, nearly all the mountainsides in view have been turned to agriculture. Bananas are prominent in lower elevations, but higher up, I start to see vast coffee plantations. These are monocrop plantations; no multi-tier shade-grown coffee. The environmental impact of my caffeine habit is staring me in the face. The land is completely cleared prior to planting the coffee bushes. Passing through Fresno, a city practically defying gravity, light trucks are delivering bales of dried beans to small warehouses.

Deforestation is extensive and alarming (at least from the perspective of this highway.) Trees are being felled all along this corridor, the timber being milled at roadside and planks left amidst the debris, awaiting later collection.

At higher elevations, the terrain becomes even more steep. Yet the road is still lined with small houses that appear to barely cling to the mountain. I get dizzy just looking down. Small children play nonchalantly around the houses, accustomed to the dangers of the busy highway out their front door and the cliff out back.

On a ridgetop west of Fresno, I come to a small town with a police checkpoint. Stopping for gas and a bite to eat, the young policia, clearly bored, gather around the bike. The predictable series of questions: where do you live? Where are you going? How much for the motorcycle? In answering the last question, my BMW is quickly depreciating. I no longer admit that such a bike costs $17,000. With all the miles on it, I can honestly answer it's value is half that (but still a fortune to these people.) One of the men, "Milton" speaks some English, so he calls himself my "friend".

At a small open-air restaurant, that reflects an uncommon refinement and cleanliness, I tell the owner I would like desayuno (breakfast) and let him do the rest. He brings out a plate with chorizo (sausage), arepa, a corn patty, fried platano and "coffee" (which was mostly milk - surprising in the middle of coffee country!)(I later learned that cafe con leche means "milk coffee" in Colombia, something different from other Latin American countries.)

As I prepare to leave, the police again gather round. Milton now has the nerve to ask for money. "For what?" But I give in and hand him a few dollars to share, to buy them all coffee, I tell him. But I have probably just helped promote a very bad habit.

The road keeps climbing, and the temperature dropping. I think I read it drops 6 degrees (Fahrenheit) per 1,000 feet. I'm not sure that my riding suit will provide adequate insulation, but I'm very reluctant to unpack any of the winter gear I had used in Alaska and Canada. I keep monitoring my pocket altimeter: 8,000 feet, 9,000 feet... The engine seems to be "lugging" much more easily in Colombia. I'm not sure if it is fuel quality, elevation, or what. (I have used regular gasoline almost exclusively.) How bad would it get?

The summits are hidden in cloud. I can only see the dark slopes sweeping high up, then fading into white. Incredibly, farms and homes just continue into the clouds. Above, I can see hillsides terraced by long-term grazing. The highway plateaus and I come to a large complex of warehouse-like buildings, their purpose unclear. According to my altimeter, the elevation is 11,519 feet. All the anxiety now subsides. Not the highest I've been on a motorcycle (that was Pike's Peak at 14,110 feet), but it is high enough "for starters". There will be many more higher passes down the road.

Another police checkpoint just east of Manizales. (There are countless checkpoints and it seems arbitrary if you’re asked to stop. They primarily pull over small trucks and buses.)

This time the officers wave me aside. It was clearly curiosity rather than the conduct of official business that prompted the stop. (Though one hard-nosed policeman asks for passport and license, then wants to look at anything else I might have in the way of papers.) They want to talk about the bike (how much?), my riding suit (how much?) as they feel the material. The hard-nosed policeman says he wants to buy the suit. I laugh and tell him I need it more than he does.

He then says "foto!" But I'm not about to pull out my fancy camera in front of these guys. That would only lead to a whole new set of questions (and possible extortion like the last checkpoint!)

From Honda-Tolima to Manizales is about 100 miles. The crossing has taken five hours.

I quickly descend into a valley, welcoming the warmer temperature, a bit of sun and highways where I can get out of second gear. Cali was my goal for the day, but it is another 150 miles. I will have to do a lot better on average speed in order to reach there before nightfall!

In the valleys south of Manizales, sugar cane appears to be the chief crop. Semis are hauling loads of the cane to market.

At length, I connect with Highway 25, a primary north-south corridor, which in places is a luxurious four-lane highway! (In others, mainly in small towns, it can be a rough two-lane street.) Billowing rain clouds to the east and west, yet the highway threads a path between the storms. (I wonder if through the centuries this path was identified as the driest between the mountain ranges?)

It takes only 2-1/2 hours to cover the last 150 miles, and I am entering Cali about 3:30. I am clueless about the city; have no idea whatsoever about the street plan, where hotels are, areas to avoid, etc. But this is nothing new!

I jump in and stumble through the horrendous congestion. Small motorcycles are hugely popular here, and the riders are daredevil. No one sits still for signals or stopped traffic. They're constantly on the move and it seems other drivers expect it. They treat motorcyclists as if they're simply not there. (They know that within moments the motorcycle will move, so they might as well just take the space.) So, my tendency to wait patiently in line at a signal puts me in jeopardy. Drivers just can't understand why I'm still there when they move into my lane.

Unable to escape the traffic flow, I am channeled into a very congested, and very rough part of the city (I later learn it's the area known as "Alameda".) A huge, bustling low-income market area, where pedestrians far outnumber the vehicles. "I shouldn't be here," I keep thinking. With a trace of guilt, but a sense of relief, I finally escape to a more affluent district. I pull into the portico of the "Hotel Intercontinental". I have no intention of staying there, but figure they might steer me to a more modest accommodation. Out of curiosity, I ask the rates: $150 per night, but they're booked into November.

Outside, a "crowd" of hotel staff and taxi drivers has gathered around the motorcycle. One of the taxi drivers recommends the "Pensión Stein" a few blocks away. He says it is very nice and the price is "60". The owner is Swiss. He tells me to look for "the castle".

I easily find the Pensión. It looks great: a towering edifice of Spanish architecture with its back to a steep, wooded slope, high walls with beautiful stone work, a diverse and meticulously-maintained landscape. It's that Swiss "gold-standard" influence.

I am happy to hear that space is available. They offer a variety of room styles, with or without air conditioning. I opt for the most basic habitación económica, without air conditioning. 60,000 pesos, with a 5% discount for cash payment. This amounts to roughly $27.00! I keep running the calculation in my head, because it just doesn't seem right. (A room confortable, with air conditioning runs 100,000 pesos, less than $45.)

An ample room with spotless bath and a teddy bear shower curtain (shampoo included!), breakfast, ethernet wired to each room, a bottled water machine, (good) coffee available 24 hours a day, pool, a small gym, honor bar offering beer and soft drinks, a library and a number of comfortable sofas to settle into. And all in the center of Cali. This place is too good to be true!

The hotel is owned and managed by Enrique Frei, a Peruvian-born Swiss national. He clearly takes a very active role in setting the standards of excellence here. After I arrive, he returns from the marketplace, where twice a week he does the shopping, negotiating with merchants.

The original building was a home built in about 1935. It was converted to a hotel in 1957. The façade is of Colombian "sand marble"; the interior features Colombian black cedar beams and ceilings, and a parquet floor. (See their website: www.hotelstein.com.co)

After 7:00, I sit down to dinner in the comedor (dining room), it's back walls open to shallow tropical gardens, backed by a stone wall and the hillside.

There is no menu. Once you are seated the dishes start arriving: watermelon to begin. A delicious roast beef in caper sauce, French fries and cauliflower follow. Dessert is a wonderful custard.

There are three families dining as well, all with small children. I guess this pension provides a fairly safe and comfortable setting for families.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Refugio Villa Gladhys, Honda-Tolima, Colombia

Monday, October 24, 2005 8:00 p.m.

I think this place is less than $15 per night (30,000 pesos). Dinner a while ago: Carne con salsa. A thin slab of beef, tough as leather. With some good French-fried potatoes and a bit of iceberg lettuce, tomato and onion.

I was moving on past Honda-Tolima, daylight starting to fade at 5:30, with all the voices saying "don’t travel at night in Colombia." Turned around and picked this refugio out from several sketchy-looking hotels scattered along the highway. I seem to be the only guest in this sprawling motel, with an overgrown jungle look.

A little over 100 miles traveled in five hours. It’s not quite like driving in the States.

***

Up after 8:00 this morning. Raining. Not real enthusiastic about meeting the day's challenges. The hotel wanted to charge for shampoo, sodas and water I didn’t use, in addition to 10,000 pesos for internet usage. Nickel and diming me!

Taxied to “Girag” at the air cargo area just outside the airport. At "Girag", a gentleman in a suit said "we've been waiting for you since Saturday."

"My bike was here Saturday?"

When he noticed that this bit of information might have upset me, he back-pedaled a bit.

"Well, I think so..."

Filled out some forms, then I’m instructed to walk over to “DIAN”, the aduana, or customs office, about a half mile away. The 2,600-meter altitude is apparent with a little exertion.

At "DIAN", it was half an hour before anyone would even address me. As at “Girag’s” Panama office, business cannot be allowed to interfere with a personal conversation. I spent two hours in this friggin’ office. There is clearly no hurry, and not much getting done here. (Don't they realize my case is the most important business they have before them?) A TV on over the waiting area draws many of the workers’ attention. People entering the building almost trip over themselves, as their eyes get diverted to some silly TV show. TV has a unique ability to incapacitate people.

Policia and seguridad privat everywhere. I guess it’s one form of employment. I think Colombia gets the prize for the most guns yet.

Finally, an officer says he will meet me back at "Girag".

"Necessito caminando?" (I have to walk?) I was hoping he might offer me a ride across the muddy, flooded grounds.

"Si."

After three hours of bureaucratic bullshit, I’m free to go. A policeman warns me about going to Tierra del Fuego. I tell him many people have warned me about Colombia. Colombia is not "peligroso (dangerous), it’s tranquilo, he tells me! I suit up in my Aerostich outfit (it's first use since Texas?) The air is chilly and it's wet. A “Girag” employee leads me out of the warehouse, out onto the tarmac by the aircraft, back through another warehouse and into the building’s lobby, my engine echoing throughout the offices ("are you sure you want me doing this?") Then I’m facing a flight of 5 or 6 steps down to the parking lot, but he has summoned help. A bunch of office workers about to man-handle the bike down the steps? At the last second, someone arrives with a ramp. "Oh, that’s better." I coast down.

Glad to be free, but now I’m lost. Need gas. At a station, I ask directions to Medellin. That gets me down the highway a few exits, in pouring rain. Then I’m lost again. Next gas station. First hour spent lost. I’m hating this place; "I just want to get out of the friggin city! I don’t care which direction." Then I decide on Cali instead of Medellin; it looks sunnier in that direction (and last night's news reported flooding and slides in the Medellin area.) After about 6 gas stations, I think I’m on the right road, but none of the towns I pass are listed on my map. I'm on "Highway 50 ouest", but that's not even identified on the map. So I’m not sure, but does it really matter? It’s cold and wet, I’m heading west, and it doesn’t look so bad out there.

Everywhere, I draw an uncomfortable amount of attention riding this luxury machine. A cop stops me. He wants to know what size the engine is. (This is so typical!) The toll plazas have a narrow bicycle and moto lane. Maybe two feet wide by 50 yards long, with high curbs on both sides. It’s a bit tricky. But I'm liking the attitude here in Colombia: motorcycles ride the expressways for free!

Out of Bogota, I climb winding mountain roads. Imagine California Highway 1 (for those who know it) as a major trucking route, like Interstate 80. But most of the slides aren’t cleared away, the road is undermined in many places and the trucks may never have had a safety inspection. I don't know. Gorgeous scenery, from mountain forests to tropical valleys. Beautiful, dramatic landscapes. High in the mountains, eucalyptus (which can't be native) is being harvested and milled on the spot. I like the mountain climate. Very refreshing (when I'm not caught behind a lumbering semi.) Trying to sort out what season it feels like. Crisp autumn-like air, but the colors are wrong: it's all green!

At times, I think I’m on a one way highway going the wrong way. It’s common to come around a bend and see on-coming semis in both lanes. So far, there has been enough pavement to squeeze by. Other motorcyclists traveling south of the border have been in accidents in these situations.

Tucked between two spines of the Andes, Honda-Tolima sits in a tropical valley on bluffs overlooking Rio Magdalena, a raging muddy torrent. Approaching the river crossing, I hear whistles and think the police are trying to pull me over, but it’s kids riding bicycles. There are whistles all around. I wander into the thick of town, eliciting lots of calls and whistles. It's a very gritty, impoverished village; lots of shacks, scrap corrugated roofing pieced together to form a roof over entire neighborhoods. I tried to keep my eyes open for a potential room here, but just couldn't raise the courage to stop.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Hotel del Parque, Bogota, Colombia


From Northern Colombia before the year 1,000, a flying fish. Measuring about three inches in length, this was my favorite piece in the Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia.


8:00 p.m.

I awoke in a very strange state. Like a "fish out of water", I felt disoriented and disconnected. But, I had a good sleep, which I needed. Feeling a bit grubby, since I've been wearing (and sleeping in) the same clothes since Friday morning. No toiletries either (not that I use them.)

Nothing to do but get out and see a bit of the city. The hotel manager tried to explain the locations of various points of interest, but my brain was slow to comprehend and stepping outside, I had no sense of direction. "It will get better." With that, I just turned and walked down the street.

A few blocks away is Carrera 7, which on Sundays and holidays is closed to motor vehicles from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. The street becomes a "Ciclovia". Thousands of people of all ages riding their bicycles. There is a refreshing absence of day-glo advertisement-covered lycra riding gear. (There is also an absence, for the most part, of helmets.)

Along this boulevard are weathered office buildings and shops, flea markets, parks, hundreds of beggars, street performers, vendors, fatigue-clad police and thousands of strollers. Outside shops, salesmen use loud speakers to draw customers into stores. Others, without the technology, just use their voices. The hucksters' din is just part of the atmosphere.

I wandered through a couple flea markets, with their strange mix of new merchandise and stuff that had clearly been salvaged from the garbage heap.

Less than a mile away, a steep mountain rampart forms a dramatic backdrop to this downtown area.

In the Parque Santander, an Ecuadorian band was playing. In addition to traditional instruments, they had electric base, keyboards and full drum set. The young woman playing drums was especially fun to watch. Full of energy.

Around the corner, is the “Museo del Oro”, which features a wealth of golden objects from the pre-Colombian era. On Sundays, entry to the museum is free. All the displays are in Spanish, so I could only try to appreciate the objects without really understanding what I was looking at.



Regarding the mask's symbolism, Cathie says: "This mask represents the cat goddess T'marak, sacred to the Cuma tribe of southern Colombia. A Zorcal bird is perched on the cat's nose. Little is known about the cult of T'marak, but it is certain that whoever was chosen to wear this mask occupied the "catbird seat" in the ritual celebrations." (Thanks, Cathie!)



A small mask from the first millennium. Museo del Oro, Bogota



This figure is only a couple inches across



Another from the first millennium



From first century Colombia


A bit reluctantly, since it felt so elitist, I went to the "Café de Museo del Oro" for some lunch. I have to admit enjoying the elegant interior, the crisp uniforms and Bach Violin Concerti playing in the background. I was about to order a “Cobb Salad”, when I stopped and asked the server what she would recommend. She steered me to the lomo, which I had seen on menus, but didn’t know what it was. (It’s beef loin.) It was outstanding.

Emerged from the restaurant as thunderstorms gathered over the city in late afternoon. Walking the sidewalks, I noticed most of the water main valve covers are missing. David George had mentioned that in El Salvador, his motorcycle got stuck in an open manhole. He said people steal the manhole covers for their scrap metal value. Got fairly drenched in the seven- or eight-block walk to the hotel.

Tried to work on the blog, using the hotel's wireless service, but just couldn't get it to respond (though my computer consistently showed good connections.) Found that using the hotel’s Ethernet cable, I was able to get a solid link.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Over the Hump

11:00 p.m.

Hotel del Parque, Bogota, Colombia

During the night, except for security and cleaning crews, I was the only passenger to be seen in this part of the terminal. I searched up and down for a place to sleep. The only chairs were low-backed, intentionally-designed to discourage camping out. I did find numerous airport personnel doing their best to catch a few winks in these seats. Around 2:00 a.m., I finally pulled a coffee table up to one of these chairs and stretched out, while the cleaning woman worked around me. Dozed off for an hour or two.

The "Avianca" counter didn't open until 9:45. I was the first person in line at 9:30, though a "bossy" woman leading a tour group had placed a bag there, which she felt reserved the spot for the entire group. I asked her if I might go ahead since I had been in the airport twenty hours. She took pity and let me go. I was now familiar with the entire "Avianca" staff. They all looked refreshed. ("Bastards!" )(Just kidding.) This time I had boarding pass in hand as I went through security! (It's odd that they let me through yesterday without a pass.)

With over two hours before boarding, my first stop was for some strong coffee. Then I took advantage of the wireless service inside the terminal to check e-mail. Inside the passenger waiting lounges, there are comfortable high-backed chairs. I wish I had one of these last night!

Not real thrilled with "Avianca". This flight was also late in leaving, over half an hour, (not that it mattered much to me.) An old Boeing 727. It has been a while since I've flown one of these, but with seat #9K forward in the plane, it was remarkably smooth and quiet. Only an hour and fifteen minute flight to Bogota, yet they served a small lunch and beverages. Overcast and raining in Panama, it took most of the flight to break free from the thick layers of cloud. When we emerged, the land below was strikingly green and lush, though much of it appeared to be under cultivation (cultivating what?) Many clusters of green houses in rows could be seen, and a wide, muddy river (I assume the Rio Maddalena.) Muddy roads too! Cumulus clouds rose above mountain ranges to the east and west.

No problems with immigration or customs; the agents were quite cordial and in each case welcomed me to Colombia.

Outside the terminal, I walked over to the line of taxis and took the first one. Shortly after, the driver asked if I wasn't afraid of the "monkeys"?

"Monkeys?"

"Guerillas."

I asked if it's a problem here. He said more of a problem towards Cali. (The threat is always down the road, not "here.") Only drive in the daytime, he warned.

The taxi was a Russian Lada, circa 1993, with over 900,000 kilometers according to its owner. Riding along the streets of Bogota, rocking from side to side, it felt uncertain whether it would last another block.

He pointed out the "Girag" building as we passed. Andreas at "Girag" recommended the "Capital Hotel", but the driver said "muy caro", very expensive, $120 per night.

"Cuantos estrellas?" (How many stars?)

"Cinco" (Five)

I didn't entirely trust him yet, so I told him to take me there nonetheless. But, he was right; it was indeed too rich for my budget. Not $120, but over $90.

"Sabe usted un hotel de tres estrellas?" I asked if he knew of a three star hotel.

Of course he did.

He brought me downtown to the "Hotel del Parque", a well-aged establishment that has seen much better days (probably in the early 70s.) But the price was $43, breakfast included, and I was too tired to take the search any further.

The bellman helped me with my one small bag, officially welcoming me to the "Hotel del Parque", showing me how to turn lights on, how the TV works, the proper procedure for turning on hot water (you have to let it run 3 to 5 minutes!)

Freshened up with a shower, then crawled into bed for a nap. Slept about three hours.

I ordered dinner in their dark, quiet restaurant, asking for a "typical" dish. (I admit of being a bit wary about the food in the hotel, since there didn't seem to be much business!) I received a large plate including rice, beans, chorizo, a quarter avocado, a big hunk of pork fat (what am I supposed to do with this?!), some kind of weird tortilla, fried bananas and a fried egg on top! It will take some getting used to the food.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Grounded

I have this knack for finding my way into situations that even the most average of people would have the sense to avoid. I don't quite get it.

I waited at the gate periodically from 3:15 until 6:00. Not a single agent showed up. Then, fifteen minutes before scheduled departure, it was announced there was a gate change. I joined the herd rushing to the opposite end of the airport.

Finally, agents gathered to direct boarding. It looked like a jet had actually arrived. Departure was pushed back 35 minutes. When boarding began, it was in small groups. I think they were being bussed out to the plane. When I reached the gate, the agent said I couldn't board. "You don't have a boarding pass."

"What's this?" I asked as I handed her everything I was given.

"Not a boarding pass. Mañana."

"What? You're telling me I can't get on??? I've been waiting here four hours!"

She told me to go back to the ticket counter to get a boarding pass, "para Mañana."

I was about to lose it. I told her that was not an option. I had to be in Colombia to take my motorcycle out of customs in the morning.

Returning to the ticket counter involved going through immigration and customs, and explaining to each that there was this little ticket problem...and my blood pressure was elevating with each step.

I found a sympathetic "Avianca" agent in the Baggage Claim area and he got on the radio with the gate agent. He told me to go back to the gate; he would try to talk with her in the mean time. At the gate though, the agent pulled me aside as I tried to explain what happened. Boarding continued.

I learned that, I was supposed to have returned at 3:15 today to the ticket counter, not the gate, to check in. Of course, I thought I had checked in at noon! I've never encountered this before, I told her, where you have to return a second time to the ticket counter.

"That's how we do it here."

Meanwhile, there was continued chatter on the radio about my case. She kept referring to mañana. I felt it was a losing battle.

Then she said "I'm sorry. I have three people explaining to me about it. If I had known the correct story, I could have got you on. I'm sorry."

"You can't get me on? Is it full?"

"It's gone."

"Well this sucks! I have to be at Colombian customs in the morning!"

I was livid. She offered to walk me back towards the "Avianca" office, leaving me at the entrance to immigration and customs. (I sensed she truly was sorry for the confusion.)

She suggested I go to "Avianca" and get a refund, then try to get on "Copa" airlines' early morning flight. My only option on "Avianca" is a 12:30 p.m. flight tomorrow.

At the "Avianca" office, everyone was now aware of my "situation". One of the women who works air cargo decided to check with "Girag" on the status of my bike. They wondered, if it hasn't shipped, would I want to pick it up?

I told them I didn't want to interfere in that process. Leave it alone.

But, she found out, that not only had it not shipped, the flight was canceled and it won't arrive in Colombia until Sunday morning. So, I won't be able to retrieve it until Monday!

And my payment was processed with the evening closing, making a refund impossible, or at least difficult. So, I told them to book me on tomorrow's 12:30 flight. I was told (with a smile) to "return to the counter at 9:30 a.m. for my boarding pass. This time I understood.

So, I was now without a boarding pass, which means I have no access to the waiting lounges. I'm stuck between the terminal entrance and ticketed passenger areas, no man's land, until 9:30 a.m.

Of course a more reasonable, and less stubborn person would make the most of it and simply take a taxi to a hotel. But the hotels are a long way, and I don't want to pay, so I'll just "suffer" through.

There is this imaginary line between Central and South America that I'm having the damnedest time trying to cross!

Reluctantly taking to the air...

I'm at Panama's International Airport, awaiting my 6:15 p.m. flight to Bogota, Colombia. I checked in at "Girag" air freight terminal this morning, inquiring as to the procedure for shipping the motorcycle. They're located at the old airport, which, though only about a mile from the international airport "as the crow flies", is reached via a convoluted 20- or 30-minute drive. At "Girag", "Andreas" speaks English and was very helpful. He suggested I purchase my airlines ticket first, then return to drop off the bike. $241 for my ticket to Bogota on "Avianca" airlines. The agent said to return at 3:15 p.m., three hours before the flight!

Back to "Girag" to drop off the bike. They wanted the gas tank drained (at least most of it.) I siphoned off a little over a gallon into a can they had, leaving a little reserve so that I can drive to a gas station at the other end. Disconnected the battery. Packed up my computer, camera, riding jacket and documents to carry with me. I wanted to leave the helmet with the bike, but they told me to take it with me. "We don't know what they'll do in Colombia." Everything else remained on the bike. We then inspected it together, recording any pre-existing damage. It cost $400 to have them ship it. I should be able to pick it up tomorrow morning and take it through Colombian customs. (They're closed Sundays.) Everything was pretty straightforward and painless. Taxied back to the airport. The little Toyota taxi showed over 484,000 kilometers on its odometer; still earning money for the woman driving it.

It's very strange sitting in an airport again. Feeling really lethargic, almost drugged, as if the change of seasons, from summer to autumn, just hit me since arriving at the airport (even though there has been no perceived change of seasons in Central America!)

***

In Colón last night, I went for out a walk around downtown. Not really a comfortable place for a white guy. (I seemed to be the only one around.) I tried to ignore that instinctive fear, and just experience this very different world.

The streets were alive: so many people out walking, gathering in small groups, sitting on their apartment balconies, playing card games on the corners, children playing ball in the dark. A vibrant community; I didn't get the sense that people here sit in front of their TV all evening. I wish I understood the language better: passing between people, all the greetings, remarks, slights, solicitations, propositions. I could only record that there was this whole current of communications at work, but it was mostly beyond my comprehension.

The old crumbling buildings, many having a colonial feel, their surfaces weather-stained, cracked and peeling, are poorly lighted with old incandescent bulbs. In the shadows, I could hear people more than I could see them.

I stood out in front of my hotel for a while, chatting with a cast of characters that gathered. The security guard, a very sympatico black fellow who stood 6-1/2 feet tall, "Minta", a slight Puerto Rican about my age, visiting from Brooklyn; a Chilean taxi driver and a couple other gentlemen who were just out for the evening. Minta and his wife have come to see the "Black Christ". Tomorrow is the festival of "El Christo Negro de Portobelo". They expect 20,000 visitors to the small town. (I had planned to drive out there tomorrow, but now I think I'll avoid the crowds.)

Among the men, there was constant commentary about the passing women. The guard said he could get me whatever I wanted. "You're very kind, but no thanks." Then an attractive woman would pass and he would ask again. He seemed to know them all. "Thanks."

Minta had a "runner" who would retrieve beers for him in exchange for a small tip. He drank the beer, then tossed the cans out in the middle of the street. "It will be gone soon." Within minutes, scavengers carrying plastic bags collected the cans.

After an hour or so, I excused myself and went to my room. Watched Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

The hotel reeked of whatever cleaners they use. I went through the dresser and side table drawers, collecting the moth balls placed in each, flushing them down the toilet. (At the Costa Inn, I had to toss the "air fresheners" - essentially urinal fresheners - out the window. Finally the housekeeper got the hint.)

***

Awoke this morning to an almost startling blue sky! I have seen so little of this in Central America, especially Panama.

Crossing the Isthmus to Panama City again, traffic was very light in my direction, heavy in the Colón-bound lane. (And I barely registered the multitude of billboards, since their backs were facing me. It's funny how, when not distracted by advertising, one actually sees the landscape!) Low hills I passed through were covered with elephant grass and a scattering of trees. I wonder if the grass is naturally-occurring here? (There are no elephants.) The dominant feature in the low-lying areas is dense tropical forest.

Approaching Panama City, the sky was the more customary black: rain on the way.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Colón, Panama

I suspect this will have been a "wild goose chase", coming here to seek a marine connection to Colombia. I left Panama City late this morning and drove the 50 miles of "billboard highway" to Colón. I call it that because I've never seen such a concentration of billboards. And they're virtually all aimed at those driving toward the "Zona Libre" ("Free Zone") in Colón. I had no idea there were so many brands of shoes, clothes and electronics.

According to Mike Young, with whom I had lunch the other day, this zone is a major distribution point for the Americas. It's a city of warehouses right at the Port of Colón. Goods can be purchased here, duty-free. The buyer can then arrange shipping to the desired destination.

Checked into the Hotel Carlton downtown (recommended by Anne Girardin). $30 for a decent room, though the environs are sadly impoverished, even desperate. Unloading my gear, I saw that the corner hanger of the right pannier had already broken its epoxy weld. A redundant metal strap is holding, but clearly under strain. (And this short ride was over fairly good roads.)

Following Mike's suggestion, I went to the Panama Yacht Club. Not much activity there. I posted a small note stating that I 'm looking for a ride. I saw a similar note from a New Zealand couple, posted five days ago. The security guard, an elderly gentleman with a good understanding of English, said the club is dying. Not much activity these days. He suggested I go to Manzanillo, where I'd find many small boats, including Colombian boats.

I bummed around the Manzanillo container terminals and Maersk, Hapag Lloyd, French Line and Evergreen offices, inquiring about ships that carry "loose freight" (not containerized) to Colombia. No leads. And the elusive Colombian boat terminal was not to be found. (Several people warned about Colombian boats, saying, in effect, they're not trustworthy.)

So, it may be the airplane after all...

At the hotel, had some lunch/dinner. It was supposed to be beef, but I'd call it "mystery meat". Let's hope I don't succumb.

Moving on down (or up?) the Canal

I've spent too long licking my wounds here in Panama City. Today I'll move over to Colón and make inquiries about shipping to South America.

My panniers are back on the bike and appear to be serviceable. Luis and his assistant bolted, wired and epoxied the right pannier back together. I followed up epoxying the cosmetic finish pieces back into place. I doubt everything will hold for another 20,000 miles, but I may be surprised.

Checking out of the hotel, I learned that even though using my international calling card to call the U.S. (at a cost of about $0.03/minute), the hotel was billing $0.10 a minute for the local access (and $0.60 per minute for calls to local cell phones!)(Angry face.) Still, the calls "home" from down here using a calling card cost nothing compared to the $200 Working Assets bill I received for calls made from the Maritimes, Brownsville, Texas and Costa Rica.

My handy Petzl headlamp gave up the ghost due to moisture, or perhaps battery leakage. Can't tell. Lots of corrosion inside. That was a valuable tool.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Panama Canal


Enroute to the Pacific, a Maersk Line container ship enters the Miraflores Locks. In the background another container ship sits high in the Pedro Miguel Locks, waiting to be lowered to Miraflores Lake. (The orange tanker has already passed through Pedro Miguel, on its way to Miraflores.)



It only takes about 12 minutes to pump the water out of the lock, lowering the ship to the level of the next lock.



The locomotives, or "mules" are used to keep the ship centered in the lock. In some instances, clearance may be only two feet on each side



The canal fees for passage of the "Nysted Maersk" are $96,726. Costs depend on the ship's size and displacement. But passing through the canal saves an 8,000-mile, two-week voyage around Cape Horn.



The lock in the right foreground is ready to receive the orange ship.



The "Nysted Maersk" cranks it up and heads for the Pacific, just around the bend. It takes roughly 8 to 10 hours to make the 50-mile crossing through the Canal.



The Norwegian chemical carrier "Jo Sypress" entering Miraflores. In the background the container ship is through Pedro Miguel and will use the "other lane" at Miraflores Locks. In the morning, traffic tends to be from Pacific to Caribbean, while afternoon traffic is reversed. The locks operate around the clock. Large vessels transit in the daytime, smaller ones at night.



Moved into the lock, the aft gate has been closed, and water is being pumped out of the lock. It is so fast, you can watch the water level drop.



The lock gate opens allowing the ship to enter the second stage at Miraflores. The Panama Canal locks essentially form a water bridge, lifting ships over an 85-foot "hump" in Central America's spine.



The "Jo Sypress" passes through while another ship is moved into position in the other lane. Roughly 38 ships pass through the canal each day.

Driving in Panama City

This may be the most dangerous city I've yet driven in. It has nothing to do with criminal activity, just with the desperation of drivers. It's so congested that the competition for any open piece of pavement is vigorous. Motorcycles are expected to be constantly on the move, and if they're not, they're likely to get shoved aside. After all, we don't need that entire lane!

Anything and everything must be anticipated and expected. The way to cross an intersection is just going for it, and assuming others will stop. Standard practice. You never assume someone pulling out from a side street is going to stop.

Buses are free to use all three lanes of the thoroughfare, no turn signals required.
(The buses are air-brushed works of art. I'm told that old school buses are purchased in Florida and shipped down here where they get a makeover.)

Horns are so common as to be meaningless. Before the light even changes to green, the taxi driver behind you is blowing his horn.

If there's an accident, no one pulls aside to take care of insurance and reporting matters. It must take place exactly where it happened.

Throw in potholes, tons of pollution, and pedestrians who obey the same rules as drivers (none), it makes for an exciting time.

You have to "psych yourself up" before jumping into the streets in the morning. You don't want to do this feeling groggy.

Maps of the Americas Trip


North American leg of the journey. It's hard to imagine that if you stretched out this squiggly line, it would stretch around the World, but it would! (Maps courtesy of CIA.)



South America leg of the journey. (Well, there's no leg yet!)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Hanging

Monday, October 17, 2005

Met Mike Young for lunch at "TGI Friday's". Mike is an acquaintance of Drew, a former Canal Zone "Zonie" and a Sales Director for Surftec Surfboards. I wanted to explore connections he might have with boats in the area. (One of his businesses is providing a "mother boat" for for small fishing boats up the coast.) He was a "wine guy" for a while in the Santa Cruz area, so it was fun to talk wine again.

Dropped by BMW to see how things were going with my panniers. Luis and his assistant got the telescoping sections straightened out, but the epoxied pannier hanger gave out immediately when we hung the case on the bike. So, now they're going to try bolting the thing together. It's unlikely to provide a long term solution. The pannier will have to be replaced. Hopefully, it will be ready tomorrow a.m.

Got involved in a dialogue on "Adventure Rider"'s website that turned out to be a waste of time and drain of energy. It seems I raised some hackles when I reported the R1200GS may have some serious weaknesses. That let the dogs loose and they tore into me and my website. (Of course it didn't help that I implied that some BMW riders never get out of the suburbs!) They took offense when I said that weekend riding on U.S. highways is not necessarily going to turn up some of the problems I've run into.

But there's no time for pissing matches. My experience is what it is, and theirs is also. It makes me wonder though if it's even worth conveying such information. It's such a sensitive topic!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Awakened by a call at 6:30. Someone speaking Russian. He hung up, after I said "hello".

An hour later, I was awakened again. Same thing.

Finally got up and noticed the rawness in my throat. Was the guy calling because I had been snoring so loudly it was disturbing people in other rooms???

Realized I had not yet cleaned my tent and tarp, so that became a little project for today. That and more blogging, e-mails and some catching up with family.

A nice long chat with Janie and Otto in Las Vegas. It has been months (I think) since we've spoken.

Late lunch/early dinner in the hotel, consisting of "sopa de mariscos" (seafood soup - excellent!) bread and soda. Less than $3.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Finally turned my attention to the damaged panniers (luggage).

Took them over to BMW to see if Luis could do anything with them. (Why didn't I think of this earlier?) I had tried to straighten them out and un-stick the telescoping mechanisms, without any luck.

Luis greeted me as I pulled up and took the bags inside to consult some friends and fellow riders in the coffee shop. They apparently had some expertise in adhesives, and had recommendations on how to repair the shattered plastic. Luis said it will be Monday before he can have them ready.

Luis has another new blue GS in his shop. The driver went off a road in Northwestern Panama, when an oncoming car entered his lane. The front rim and wheel destroyed, right cylinder head decapitated and cylinder head bolts sheared off, tank damaged, headlight smashed. Lots of other stuff. The rider only got a couple scratches.

Met Axel, a UBS Director and fellow rider whom I had spoken with yesterday. He keeps an extra set Michelin Anakee tires in his garage and offered to sell them to me. He claims they are the best tire for the GS.

The daily afternoon rain puts a damper on any sightseeing or other outdoor activities. So, I went back to the mall to take another look at synthetic clothing at the "Timberland" and "Columbia" stores. Still, I couldn't bring myself to spend any more money on clothing.

But I could spend money at "Crepes y Waffles". Made a note to send Jessica a link to their website. We need to start a franchise!

Back at the hotel, a message from "Peter", the Australian skipper of the 65-foot sailboat "Golden Eagle". He's making a run down to Colombia, but not until November 1st or 2nd. Too far off for me, but I told him to hold a place nonetheless.

Much of the day spent "journaling" in the hotel, catching up on the blog.

With their Spanish roots, the hotel owners bring in "Jamon de Serrano" for their restaurant. Tonight, I ordered some with "melón" (cantaloupe), a common pairing in Italy. The gentlemen next to me turned and asked if I were Venezuelan. That's the only place he had every seen that combination. He was quite surprised that it was not unique to that country.

So I met Arturo Calvo and his family. He's a plastic surgeon here in Panama, but he spent many years in the U.S., studying at Northwestern, then practicing in Florida. We talked about the real estate boom in Panama, and he said that currently the government is offering incentives to foreign investors, especially Americans. It's a good time to invest, he said, "but don't wait too long."

He planted the seed for my visiting his favorite places when I return: Volcan, Cerro Punta and Boquete.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Some downtime

Up at 8:30, after five hours' rest. A post to the "Adventure Rider" website about the Darien has led to a series of communications back and forth. That site certainly has a great deal of activity! It kept me busy.

Turned my attention to the "Therma-Rest Pro-Lite 4" air mattress, which developed a serious mildew problem from being blown up so many times over the months, then stuffed back into a little sack. It reeks, seriously. Sent off an e-mail to their customer service department to see if there's anything that can be done to remedy the problem. (It sounds minor, but when it's a key component to your mobile home, it's serious!)

Over a pancake breakfast, I met Carlos Ledo, the Sales Manager (and acting GM) of the Hotel Costa Inn. Learned that his cousins own the hotel and he takes care of much of the daily operations. They're all from Galicia, Spain. They run quite a good establishment that draws travelers from around the world. The restaurant turns out some excellent dishes that keep me from going out to eat! (See their website: Link)

Took the bike over to the "Car Spa" on Ave Brazil to get a high pressure wash. That got most of the Darien mud off. I'm still working on getting it out of the rest of my stuff.

A few blocks away, I found a large BMW dealer. I was surprised to find they have a motorcycle deparment; I don't recall seeing it listed on-line. I met Luis Torrero, the head of the department; a great guy. He took a look at tires and brakes and said everything looks good. He replaced the broken turn signal assembly (at no cost). Then he offered me coffee at their bar. We spent about an hour talking about all the travelers who have passed through Panama, many visiting his shop. Together, we looked at some of the travelers' websites.

I mentioned that I wanted to get tires soon. He called up a fellow biker, Axel Gauster, who keeps an extra set of tires in his home. Axel offered them to me if I need them, but I told him it's a little too soon to replace them. Maybe in Bogota, or Quito.

David George called me at the hotel while I was just finishing dinner. He was in the area and dropped by. He has arranged a boat to Colombia with his Japanese motorcycling friends, leaving tomorrow. Perfect! He was able to spend a day on a tug boat in the canal, arranged by Caesar Viallogos, who we met last week on the Panama City bike ride.

David and I talked until 10:00, mostly about being "out of our element" and how the "animal" (our instinct) tries to compensate for that discomfort, and about our personal missions: why are we out here? That seems to be something we're both still trying to answer.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hotel Costa Inn, Panama City


My legs, from just a few days slogging through Darien mud (and about seven falls). Flesh-eating organisms, or what? Having spent a year in Vietnam, brother Jeff is very familiar with this stuff. After cleaning up and drying out, it's definitely better today than it was.


A day of R&R. The most important task has been the clean-up process, doing laundry, assessing damage. I have taken apart all my gear. This is the first time things have been really dried out in months.

It is luxurious to use a washer and drier, go downstairs and get some food when I want, enjoy the air conditioning and TV. It's so easy!

As far as damage:

Both side panniers are tweaked (the telescoping sections got cocked by impacts and are firmly stuck. The right pannier is shattered along the bottom and its top right mounting hook was nearly ripped off.

The right front turn signal lens broke (but the break-away turn signal mount performed well.)

The mud guard mount broke (again).

Nothing too terrible.

My experience in Darien has me re-thinking the South American leg of this adventure. With the bike performing so poorly in mud, I may have to pass on the plan to cross the Amazon. I understand mud is common along those highways.

***

Called Jesse Luggage in Arizona today to see about getting some of their heavy-duty aluminum panniers shipped down. The cost for shipping alone was quoted at over $800 for two bags! Prohibitive.

Tonight's the bike rally night. I drove out to the causeway and stopped at the motorcycle rental shop to see if the ride was on. Talked to the brother of the fellow I met last week. He assured me they would be coming by around 8:30.

Continued out to the "Kiyuico Restaurant" at the yacht harbor. Sat out on the wooden deck at a corner table right under some large speakers. I wasn't talking with anyone, so it didn't matter. Listened to the music, which included Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" then switched to a live concert recording of popular Mexican vocalist Vicente Fernandez. Enjoyable.

Had some beef brochettes and cerveza and waited, but no motorcyclists showed up.

Reflecting on my latest adventure, it has become quite apparent that I did not take learning the Spanish language seriously enough. I missed so much because of my poor grasp of the language.

Driving back in on the causeway, I passed a group of twenty or so motorcycles parked in front of a different restaurant. "So that's where they went!" But I just kept driving. Down the road, I convinced myself I should go back and at least say "hello" to the people who were so welcoming to me last week. I turned around and went back. But when I drove up on the sidewalk where they were all parked, I saw this was a Harley crowd! "Wrong group." I snuck away.

Back to the "Rey" market for supplies: freezer baggies for water-proofing stuff, cashews, tuna, a new phone card, and a razor (yes, I finally broke down. Well, that hair stylist had done such a crappy job!)

What are these marketing people thinking? Razors with names such as "Mach 3", "Turbo", "G-Force", "Xtreme" and "Champion". We're talking about a friggin' shave, for godsakes! The Mondavi experience really made me sour on marketeers. The business school programs that turn out marketing drones to create demand where there is none should be the first to be axed.

Back at the hotel, I listened to the TV as I puttered around. It struck me how incredibly self-promoting "CNN" is. You're watching their programming and still, much of the airtime is filled with commercials about what a great job CNN does!

I realized the need to get back to listening to "Democracy Now" and "NPR" on the internet.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Retreat to Panama City

11:00 p.m.

What a day! I was set on getting back to Panama City, where I can clean everything and, if necessary, get to a clinic to take care of the flesh-eating organisms.

Up at 5:30, after maybe three hours of rest. José had walked over to the nearby farmhouse with his pack of rolls and was chatting with friends. A little later, he came back, accompanied by a boy carrying mugs of coffee for both of us.

José said he was going to have to turn back and leave me here. He can't go on with his truck. There are no more reos coming. They're all off to market. The only other option was to pay $100 for the tow with the Ford tractor.

So, I had to clarify it with him: if we could arrange it with the owner of the Ford, he would continue on, being towed by the tractor?

"Si."

"No problemo. Yo pago (I'll pay.)"

The tractor was already on its way up the road, loaded with some huge rough-sawn hardwood beams and a few truck tires. The Hefe didn't have much time for us. $100, or $80 if I wanted to load the bike on his small flatbed trailer.

"No. It's best where it is. Will we leave NOW (not after he delivers his load)?"

"Si."

"No problemo."

So, we all moved into gear. The Hefe, a powerful, broad-shouldered fellow, strutted around rooster-like, girded by his black back-support belt, a serious expression on his face. He gave orders to his small team, directing preparations. Once we got underway, he took a seat on the tractor's engine cowling, picking out the best path for the driver to follow. It began to rain and soon everyone on the tractor was drenched, but they showed no signs of it bothering them.

I was even more amazed that a farm tractor had the torque and traction to pull us both through deep mud. The driver was a young man, whose skills were still a bit unpolished. Numerous times he jerked the chain so hard that José was cursing and yelling out his window "soave (smooth)!" The tractor dragged us through the deep ruts, the truck caroming off three-foot (or higher) walls.

We soon came to another roadblock: an oncoming truck stuck in the mud. The tractor unhitched from us and went to the rescue.

Not far beyond, José had to stop the truck. It needed water. We climbed out and he tilted the cab forward to reveal the engine compartment. The engine overheated because the fan was immobilized by mud that had pushed up from underneath the engine. I finally got my hands dirty, pitching in to dig away the clay. It was steaming hot from contact with the radiator and engine block. Once the compartment was cleaned out, and the radiator refilled with stream water, we were able to proceed.

5 mph for hours. The landscape looked completely different going in the opposite direction. I strained to see some familiar landmark that would convince me we were nearing the end of the ordeal (or even that were on the correct road!)

Finally, I saw Cholo playing by the side of the road and excitedly called out through José's open window (my window was inoperable.)("We can't be very far from his house now, and from where I was stuck.") But I still saw nothing familiar (except mud.)

A half hour later, we arrived in a settlement, and the Ford was pulling us to the shoulder to unhitch.

"Que pasa? What's going on?"

José said it's time for the tractor to leave us.

"But there's more lodo (mud) up ahead..."

"The road is better ahead."

"This is where we unload the motorcycle???"

"Si. Este Canglón."


"Este Canglón???"

"Si."


I was delighted we had reached the town, but couldn't understand how I had missed all the landmarks along the way.

Now we needed to find some men to help unload. Just up the street was the home and repair shop of a friend. We stopped in front.

While I unstrapped the BMW and stacked my bags on the tail, his friend gathered several other men, and put a board up against the truck. We easily unloaded it, and the men walked away. I asked José what I should offer his friend and the crew. He suggested $10. No one would except it though. So, I offered my sincere thanks.

Asked José if he wanted to get some lunch. We both needed it. 50 yards away was a thatched-roof hut that serves food. Though I should have waited until after the meal, I asked him what he wanted for his service. I didn't understand his response, but caught him listing the troubles we endured and possible wear and tear on his truck. Then he followed with a comment that whatever price, it must be acceptable to me. I offered $50 and he nodded.

It was raining and all my stuff was piled by the roadside, but I didn't care. It has been in that situation plenty.

A simple lunch of rice, lentils and a piece of chicken, accompanied by a glass of water tasted great! $3.00 for the two of us. I paid the bill.

José stood in the rain, watching while I packed the motorcycle. Then I shook his hand and said farewell. I was wearing my mesh jacket, light pants and summer gloves in the pouring rain. Everything was muddy: I figured the rain would rinse things out. At least it was warm.

The road was still mud, but manageable. "I guess they shouldn't have to do everything for me", I thought as I got back into the routine of picking my way through the ruts.

In a shallow rut, my tires hit a hard slippery clay base and I couldn't stop the bike from falling. (My lug-soled boots were worthless for providing traction in this stuff. All I could do was get out of the way.) I quickly had help getting it up again.

A short time later, the same thing. This time, I was pissed. "Is this how it's going to be? This road is supposed to be better!"

But the rain had turned what a few days earlier had simply been an annoying road into a hazardous one.

What a relief to reach some asphalt! When I hit 40 mph, it was like I was floating! Now my focus turned to potholes, thousands of them, and trying to see in the rain was a challenge. With the jostling, my tank bag kept flopping over to the left, creating an annoying distraction. (The stretchy material that holds the bag taught against the tank is now fatiguing after much use.)

I began to think the pavement was more of a curse than the mud! I came to a small washout where the road jogged right a bit and started to follow tracks into a pothole. I was down in an instant. I was traveling about 20 mph, and from the sound of this fall, I knew it wasn't good this time.

I had to see what happened and stepped into the hole. I sunk to my knee in water, and wasn't even in the center. The right hand pannier was partly shattered and right turn signal broken, but the crash bar had protected the right cylinder head. I stood in the rain next to the bike and waited for help to arrive. It always does out here. It's a way of life. (I didn't want to remove all the gear and do it myself.)

One car stopped and the occupants looked at me, but then moved on. Then, a young fellow stopped and helped me raise the bike, but the hole was so deep, the bike could not pull itself out. The drive shaft was buried in water, and the engine skid plate rested on the rim of the crater. The young man went for help, returning with a tow strap. He pulled me out with his car and I gave him $5 and much gratitude.

I had gone down within feet of the end of this section. "So close!" But there was more ahead. The road was insane. There would be some beautiful strips of fresh asphalt that would suddenly end without warning, dropping you into the worst possible pothole field. "What next?"

Well, then there was hard rock sections, and a grader at work, turning up cobbles. Then the rain turned into a monsoon. Conditions were very similar to what I experienced in Kentucky, just in advance of Hurricane Katrina. Only there, I had good roads! The roads here seemed much worse than just a few days ago.

Passed through Torti finally, the town where I had slept Saturday night. Looked at the Hospedaje, briefly considering a lay-over. But that would only postpone cleanup, laundry and recovery. Kept driving. "It's got to get better!"

Not so fast. There was more in store! Now thunderstorms were moving in (but I couldn't even tell what direction all this stuff was coming from, and whether I was headed in or out of it.)

Of course, the road now starts winding into the hills, forcing me to slow, and the lightning comes on, much too close. At one point, I just screamed out, "I'm not stopping, dammit!" Tucked my head down and pushed on. The rain was so intense, my faceshield was unusable. I had to open it up. At 45 mph, the rain stung my face, but at least I could see a little better.

The thought of landing in a familiar hotel was so appealing, that it made enduring this stuff a little longer worth it. I couldn't wait to get out of wet, stinking clothes.

I could see a band of light on the horizon ahead, but more waves of rain hit. "It is what it is..."

I had come less than 100 miles, but I had been on (and off) my bike over five hours now. Approaching the coast and urban areas, the rain subsided. There was a long congested approach through the impoverished city of Tocumen (but big changes are coming to the area, as a freeway is under construction. "McDonald's" is already open for business in Tocumen.)

I can't believe that I said I hated Panama City. I was very happy to be back! Walked into Hotel Costa Inn in my rain suit, my hands shriveled and stained like india ink from the leather "roper" gloves. I was a mess. Asked for a better rate "as a returning patron." I got a better room at a better rate ($38.50) and breakfast thrown in to boot! I was in heaven.

Didn't even unload my bike. Took the one set of relatively-clean clothes I had up to my room, stripped out of everything in the shower and just let the water rinse me and everything else free of the mud.

Feeling human again, I gradually moved my gear up to the room. Opening up my clothing case, I was greeted with the most amazing ammonia stench rising from my soaked clothes. It filled the room. Anne Girardin is right! Forget carrying any cottons. You should have only light-weight synthetics (especially for the tropics.) You need something inert, that won't support any living organisms.

First order of business was to rinse mud off clothing, pre-wash things in the shower, then get it all downstairs to the laundry. (Last time I was here, I didn't even realize they had washers and driers in the basement.)

Next, I checked in on e-mail, then finally got some dinner: a garlic soup was simple, but tasted wonderful, along with a couple "Panama" beers and some mushroom chicken. I'm back in the lap of luxury!

In the evening, I caught up on some world events, especially the Pakistan earthquake.

Returning to Panama City, I passed this journey's 25,000-mile mark. I figure I'm only about half way through the ride, yet I've driven the equivalent of the Earth's circumference. A total 31,100 miles on this 10-1/2 month old Beemer.