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?


"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)?"


"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???"


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.

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