Saturday, August 26, 2006

Anybody In the House Own A Vessel?

Greetings from Panama City, Panama.
It has been a while since the last update, but know that we are resting comfortably in this grand city on the canal while we await passage for our motorcycles via steamship, zeppelin, or moss-covered, three-handled family credunza to South America.
As I recall, the last post was dispatched from Playa de Coco, Costa Rica. Since that point we drank deeply from the luscious cup that is The Tasty Coast and made our way east to our final destination in Central America: Panama City. I have sought asylum in an Internet cafe while Neubz sits in the hostel drinking his 73rd cup of coffee and now find myself seated two feet away from a 35 year-old man with a shirt too short to cover his paunch that has been listening to the same Latin pop song for twenty minutes running on his miniature boombox.
Costa Rica is a gorgeous country, but in 1948 it made the unfortunate decision to abolish its military. Alas, they´ve been lamenting that choice for the past half-century as they watched their neighbors relish the fruit of police states and the joyous brouhaha of the bi-annual coup. And without a bloated defense budget, they could only look on helplessly while their quality of living soared and their GDP climbed to the upper echelon in Latin America on the wings of industry (such as microchip processing) while their contemporaries down the street sold pineapples to finance the importation of advanced weaponry from first world countries abroad.
Costa Rica also decided to take an approach to land conservation somewhat different than, say, that of its cousin, El Salvador, which at the time of this writing had succeeded in cutting down 98% of its forests. As a result, natural parks abound and wildlife flourishes. That means the country draws a lot of what have come to be known as ecotourists, and that means a lot of Germans. Combine the multitude of beaches with the proclivity of the European male for the minimalist swim suit and a crisp Bavarian tan and you´ve got a reason to head underwater and stay there for a long time. So we went scuba diving.
I´ve only scuba dived once in my life (earlier this year in the Phillipines under the watchful eye of Divemaster Leach) and Neubz had not been in the deep since ´97, so clearly we brought an impressive amount of experience to the ship. But what had brought us to the ship was a posse of mangy beasts turned domesticated animals befriended by the compassionate Dutch lady that ran the diving outfit. If Bob Barker has somehow gotten onto this mailing list, he should know that he should bring his neutering gospel to Central America before the whole place literally goes to the dogs.
The Germans, not content with polluting the beach with their Speedos, had somehow infiltrated the ship as well. One of them was an engineer from Munich who - either by way of congenital defect or freak accident involving a slightly concave anvil - possessed ten very wan, very short toe nails. Had lunch been offered on the ship, I would not have partaken. But once in the water, the Kraut´s toe nails seemed to communicate with all aquatic creatures near and far. Eels, enormous schools of fish that moved in an almost impossible unity, several sharks, sting rays. Even out of the water it continued, as a pair of dolphins swam alongside the ship and a giant sea turtle flapped his paw at us repeatedly, either signaling his salutations or telling us to - please, for the love of Hans Christian Andersen - turn back and find that man a podiatrist.
The sea conquered, we ended up spending a few days in Playa de Coco, more as a result of the forced hand of the rainy season than out of a love for the town. But it was a nice relaxing time replete with a steady supply of sixty cent beers, impromptu soccer games on the beach by the locals, and languishing at night in the stench that radiated from Neubz´s moldy (the origin has now been identified) boots. And in case you´re wondering, yes, my boots smell like lollipops and peppermint.
Our recently betrothed friend, Nick LeRoy, had recommended but one place to visit while in Costa Rica: the mountain village of Monteverde. While his status as a false prophet is well documented, we decided to give creedence to his suggestion. Looking at the map, it seemed straightforward enough: take the main highway, branch off at Cañas, 45 km northeast and you´re there. But in typical Latin style, roads were marked casually - if at all - and we suddenly ended up on what appeared to be some sort of medieval oxen cart trading route with impossible 20 degree grades.
Neubz: ¨This can´t be the way!¨
Me: ¨I think this is it. The signs for Monteverde pointed this way.¨
So we proceeded. The hill was so steep and the quality of the road so poor that putting your feet down for balance did nothing. You needed to use the front and rear brakes and put your left foot to use pushing off the loose stones and weeds. Realizing that Neubz was right and that this was indeed a bad idea, we had no choice to continue to the valley separating the two insane hills in order to turn around. We did so and I was luckily able to scurry up the same hill as the back tire skidded back and forth. Neubz was not so fortunate and went over twice - once while rolling backwards down the steep hill at a decent speed and while exhorting profanities most likely involving my name and probably fit for print only in the most sordid of publications.
Sadly, a steady rain came and thickened the soup further, so even our progress on the real - yet only slightly less impassable - road to Monteverde which we found later had to be aborted. Indeed, we will never know the splendor of that magical town, our white whale.
Defeat in our mouths, we set our sights on another location reputed to be rich in natural beauty: Parque Nacional de Chirripo. But getting there meant spending the night in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. The details there are hardly worth going over, but some of the highlights included:
1.) Nearly witnessing a fracas in a bar between two 65 year-old American retirees stemming from some sort of argument over the services of a young lady working in the place. That melee was abated at the last second by a security guard with a perm.
2.) Neubz putting down his bike for the eighth time while wheeling it out of a hostel. He is in fact one of the smartest people that I know, but for whatever reason he is somewhat like a child that continually burns his hand on the stove when it comes to this game. See the website for a pic of the creepy mask that I have since purchased at a market and attached to his bike with bailing wire. Suffice it to say that the gentleman portrayed in the carving most likely wears a GPS bracelet and is not allowed to live in the vicinity of schools. We call him Ned.
3.) Another shakedown by a Costa Rican cop, whom we were able to talk down from $80/man to $40 total.
Over the course of our travels through Costa Rica, we experienced one other small mechanical problem: my speedometer and odometer ceased to function. Further inspection revealed that the steel-braided cable that connects the instrument panel to the front wheel had somehow snapped in two. Neubz says it was just wear and tear but I know it to be the work of Ned. Truthfully it has no impact on the functioning of the bike. The speed I can gauge by the tachometer and the gear, but distance I cannot. Thus, the only way to gauge how many miles I have travelled and when my cramped legs deserve a break is by way of music.
Of the 7500 songs on my MP3 player, 5256 are Michael Bolton B-sides and bootlegs from his ´94 world tour. So I have concocted the following formula:
Miles travelled = # of time I hear a version of ¨How Can We Be Lovers If We Can´t Be Friends?¨ Divided by how many cats Bolton has (three) Multiplied by # of Platinum Albums Bolton had put out by 1999 (One-hundred and eighteen)
I stop every 160 miles.
The only other problem that we have encountered thus far was Neubz´s flat tire in back in Guatemala. We replaced it with an industrial German tube so thick were it a gasser it could clear out a bowling alley. It has yet to lose one PSI of pressure on bad roads.
We reached Chirripo National Park approximately 25 minutes after its gates closed at 10AM. We pleaded with the ranger to let us in, but he insisted that it would be a good idea to wait until tomorrow. We relented and relaxed at a cheap hotel with fresh fruit juice for the rest of the day.
The hike through the park was 16km (app. 10 miles) long. According to the guy at the hotel, the summit was approximately 1800 meters (6000 feet) up. Since we were already at 5000 feet, this would be a drop in the bucket.
We were wrong.
Again, we were the victims of either poor direction or poor Spanish comprehension. We started out for the summit at 5AM, as we had been told that it would take 6-8 hours to reach the top (a number that we thought we could crush). Once you got there, you could stay in what sounded to be a rustic cabin of sorts (which we paid for in advance) before heading back down the ten mile path in the morning or continuing on to other parts of the park. We knew that there was no food at the cabin, so we had thrown together an assortment of little tasties to fortify us during the ascent while on a brief shopping spree at the very limited hotel store.
We left the hotel at the same time as a German couple. I remember how prepared they were: walking sticks (which we found funny and superfluous), top-of-the-line backpacks stuffed with culinary delights (unnecessary, to be sure), nice sleeping bags, etc. For our own part, we had no gear of any kind, and all we had for bags were rubber marine supply sacks that were slung over our shoulders.
Two kilometers in we knew we were in trouble. Not fit as fiddles when we left the US, our muscles had atrophied further through weeks of disuse on the bikes. Soon we were panting and sweating profusely.
Me: ¨Genghis Khan! I thought the summit was at 6000 feet. This incline is intense.¨
Neubz: ¨It has to level off. It can´t go on like this forever.¨
Oh, but it did. The muddy trail continued upwards unabated through lush, humid rainforest, mile after mile. Bugs emerged from the thick and bombarded our faces, paying special attention to the eyes.
Where were the views? I have never understood marathons, as they seem to be painful and with only the hollow reward of contrived achievment. Hiking, on the other hand, grants you incredible views in exchange for your toil - views that I´m sure are sweetened by exertion. But here there was nothing to see, just more mud and trees. At last we came out of the tree cover and were treated to a ho-hum spectacle of mountains covered with dead trees. By the time we made it to the shelter at the top, it was 1PM and we were exhausted. The real peak was 11,600 feet.
Given, had the payoff at the summit been anything less than a tapdancing Sphinx that could tell me my future while quoting Marx Brothers films, I would have been disappointed. But what we walked into was in the parlance of the the paisan the burlap sack put over the head before the face is smashed repeatedly by a gardening spade. Here was deathly silence, bitter cold, and shoddy contruction. We played Dominos. We read books. But as the light faded and the marine battery-powered lights in the building (think the hotel in ¨The Shining¨ made with a 200 dollar construction budget) failed to come on, our rancour was galvanized and we knew that we had been had. We went to sleep; I by way of pharmaceutical intervention and Neubz by way of lonesome tears.
It was 6:30PM.
Morning came with the 4AM alarm. In truth, we didn´t need our watch alarms, as our sleep was spotty...I´m guesssing on account of the fact that it was freezing up there and the sleeping bags we rented were from the ´60s and paper thin. At least we had breakfast to look forward to. Wait a minute, we had eaten a family size package of cookies and a box of granola bars for lunch...the pasta with salsa and tomato paste we had for dinner...does that mean that all we have left is this can of corn, four slices of bread, and a can of Pringles? Fire up that butane burner, Neubz. I want my corn sandwich piping hot.
At the very least the way down was easier than the way up. My brother Kevin had given me a playlist of movie themes to put on my MP3 player before I left, and it was hard not to scamper at ill-advised speeds down the mountain as the score to ¨Willow¨ raced in my ears. But by the bottom my knees were shot, the strap on the rubber sack had popped a fair amount of blood vessels on my shoulder, and both Neubz and I were forced to lift our weary legs with our hands in order to toss them over the high seats on the bikes.
At last we have made it to Panama City. Panama is a beautiful country, covered in total with green rolling hills and is fairly well developed. In fact, Panama City is extremely advanced, its skyline peppered by towering buildings so tall and modern that they seem better suited to Kuala Lampur than Central America. The Panama Canal is unbelievable in scale, and it is almost impossible to conceive that it is man made and, moreover, was constructed nearly a century ago. Gargantuan shipping vessels lurk like Leviathans off the coast, and each of them will pay somewhere in the vicinity of 30-50 thousand dollars to pass through the canal. Interestingly, a man in the 1930´s by the name of Halliburton paid 39 cents to swim through the canal. Put that in your trivia pipe and smoke it.
This is the end of the road - literally. When I was just finishing high school, some friends and I entertained dreams of driving a school bus from Wisconsin to South America. We bought the bus, but sadly did not realize that there is no road connecting Panama to Colombia. Well, that, and the fact that my sister´s husband ripped off the steering wheel...
So we are faced with the daunting task of getting our bikes over what is known as the Darien Gap, a dense jungle populated by drug smugglers, ne´er-do-wells, and wild beasts. If the bandits don´t get you, dengai fever will.
Our first day here I met a boat captain that offered to take our bikes and us, but he is bound for Colombia. Aside from the fact that 80% of all the kidnappings in the world take place in Colombia, it is a long drive from Cartagena to Ecuador, and the mountain drive would probably nix our chances of hitting the southern tip before Neubz needs to scurry home to speak in highbrow Latin legal terminology in Chicago. So yesterday we headed out to the cargo terminal at the international airport and inked a deal with a harmoniously named company called ´Girag´ to crate our pretty ladies and whisk them away to Ecuador. Customs should be a snap.
That locked away, we find ourselves with couple days to explore Panama City before we and our bikes depart for Ecuador on separate planes come Monday. And that is what I will stop writing this E-mail and go do.
- Tom


Click to see -
Manifest - 8/26/06

Friday, August 18, 2006

Pictures From Latin America

Click for pictures -
Manifest - 8/18/06

Managua Shakedown Party

Hello all from Playa de Coco, Costa Rica!
Today is the first period of relaxation since we departed Antigua several days ago. I am happily sitting in a small room with a cheesy tapestry/bedsheet hanging on the wall. An archaic Lotus fan (with a stars and stripes emblem) is keeping the breeze going. I think for the first time in three days I am not sweating profusely. The last few days have been a virtual sprint on the bikes, and the cold weather that followed us through the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala is long gone. Every hour on the bike seems to be a battle against dehydration, a war that oftentimes I feel like I am losing. And with the sweat comes the stench. And in stench we are flush.
After leaving Antigua, Guatemala, we crossed into El Salvador and sped eastward along the coastal highway. The sunset caught us in mid stride just shy of Honduras, so we were forced to take refuge in the smog-clogged city of San Miguel. The next morning we crossed into Honduras, sprinted two hours to the next border, entered Nicaragua, and holed up with a bunch of backpackers and a seemingly bottomless supply of beer in Leon. After breakfast we bolted out of Leon, had a tasty lunch with chocolate milk in Granada, and crossed into Costa Rica an hour before sunset. The last leg to Coco Beach here was made slowly in darkness, praying that the lightening threatening us on the horizon would not overtake us before we hit the beach. We lucked out.
Back in the day, Central America used to be one big county. However, sometime along the way some people made the decison that this was impractical and split things up, resulting in the geographic borders we know today. I think there were two primary reasons for this. First, it made fighting a lot more efficient. Now every country could have its own civil war and everyone could feel like they were taking part. If your country was one of those that didn't feel like fighting itself, then you could all just sit back, enjoy the sun, and just kick it for awhile.
Now, with the civil wars fading into history, the border's primary function apparantly is to be a pain in the ass for international travellers. The countries in this region have a mindblowing obsession with documents, stamps, and official certifications. Each border crossing requires navigating a maze of offices, windows and lines. The process is so complicated that we have begun hiring local youths (including one sprightly young chap who only had one leg) to usher us through each step. The borders are such a pain because, not only are bringing a person into the county, but we are importing a vehicle as well. Therefore at each border you have to export yourself and your bike, and import the same into the next country. This exercise in tedium goes something like this: fill out some papers, copy them along with your documents, stand in a line in the 106 degree heat, start sweating uncontrollably, get a stamp, wonder why that guy is still staring at you after 20 minutes, wait in another line, watch the official in that line stroll away for a break, make some more copies, check out the guard's combatshotgun, keep sweating, tell the guy that is selling watches that you don't want one for the twentieth time, stand in line, watch the disembodied head working in the window punch a key on the keyboard as the computers all go down, get another stamp, move the bikes 20 meters, get another stamp in another line, make sure you are still sweating.... Then if you are lucky a guy will come out and check the VIN and ask very imporant questions that are crucial to being able to have the bike in that country:
"What size is the bike?" 650.
"What is in these metal boxes?" Gravy. Giblet gravy.
"How heavy is it?" Like a nine year old Spanish stallion, give or take.
"You know you can't sell it here, right?" Damn, I was hoping to use the proceeds to finance a small pig farm here in Honduras.
"Are you guys brothers?" Can we go now?
Then they want your money. They take it in the form of migration taxes, exit taxes, import taxes, permit fees, insurance, copying charges, and probably a scam or two here or there. Honduras cost us $40 a man to get in, $40 to get out. Costa Rica was $50 to get in, and I hear it is $30 to get out. As Tom and I rationalize, this is all payback for the coups, death squads, and other dirty deeds the United States has financed in these parts since WWII. But I digress...
With your patience tested and your wallet thinner, you finally get to hop on your bike and drive it into their country. Our route through El Salvador was a sweet road along the Pacific coast. It had a number of awesome tunnels (the longest was 600 meters). This wouldn't be anything special, except that we had disconnected our headlamps to avoid tipping off the banditos that we were approaching. Therefore as we plunged into these tunnels we were surrounded by complete darkness. Tom was in the lead, and nearly swerved into the tunnel walls several times. Luckily the road was nearly vacant and we could crawl through the tunnel without worrying about any old American school buses with a murals of crucified Jesus flying in at 70 mph and taking both of us out in one fell swoop.
After the nightmarish border crossing into Honduras, and a frigid reception at lunch, we both wrote Honduras off and sped through the country. Nicaragua was a different story. It was a beautiful country with volcanoes dotting the horizon. However, the county also sported the worst roads we had enountered. With all the guns and missles the U.S. gave the Contra rebels here in the 80s, you'd think they could have thrown in a steamroller and a couple bags of asphalt. For the first 17 kilometers, the main road looked like it had been shelled with artillery. As you would dodge one giant pothole, another would present itself to swallow you whole. We attempted to take a more rural route to bypass the sprawling mass of Managua. However, here the road was even worse. There would be good pavement for 100 meters, and then a completely washed out section for an equal length. This went on for miles. It was a good reminder as to why we were driving these KLRs and not some 700 pound chrome monster.
Despite our efforts at bypassing Managua, somehow we took a wrong turn and suddenly found ourselves cruising through the capital city's streets. Traffic was backed up at all the intersections, but occassionally we could gain some time by sneaking around the side and to the front of the line. As we neared the outskirts on the east edge of town, we were stopped at a light, and Tom and I both swerved into the right line to bypass the traffic stacked up in the left. A cabbie pulled up next to us and warned us that this lane was for right turns only. Since when are there traffic laws down here? At green, we bolted straight through the light, and got our answer. A hundred meters down two cops stared wide eyed at us. We were two big juicy turkeys coming straight at them and they had their knife and fork out and ready. "My driver's license? Here you go. That's an infraction? Oh, you can't turn right? Silly me, I must have missed the sign. Oh, there is no sign. So if you give me a ticket you will have to take my license and it will take a month to resolve it. No, surprisingly enough we're not from Managua. Yes, we're going to Costa Rica. Yes, I suppose we will need our license there. Want to ride my motorcycle? Oh come on, give it a try. No? Okay. How about a photo? No I guess that probably isn't a good idea." [All four of us stand there for five minutes scratching our chins and searching for a solution. What could be done?] "I know! How about if we give you some money and you give us our licenses back? Excellent! 200 cordobas a man [$11]? How about $300 total and a ride on my bike? So, 400 it is..."
All in all they were nice guys. We all knew what was going on and we played our roles. We all had a good laugh. One cop even led us for 15 minutes to the proper highway to get out of the city. Its all part of the game down here...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Follow That Mannequin Leg!

Greetings from Antigua, Guatemala.

Those of you who know me well know that when I see a mannequin leg lashed to the top of a moving vehicle, I have no choice but to give chase. Logic and common sense abandon me, and I am enticed - nay! commanded - to follow it, like a lemming summoned to the sweet tunes of the piper.

So there we were, hustling at high speeds in a frenetic attempt to keep apace with a small Toyota pickup laden well beyond recommended capacity with equal parts Guatemalan teenagers and large burlap sacks stuffed to the gills with God knows what and capped by a mysterious pair of grey mannequin legs lashed to its roof as it barreled through mountainous turn after turn through the highlands of Guatemala.

Western Guatemala was essentially eastern Mexico writ large. The mountains were greener and more impressive, the potholes and myriad other road hazzards unannounced and potentially more debilitating, the scenery more intense, the native citizenry more exotic, the women in the towns more attractive, the vehicles more slipshod, the emissions standards more lax, and the cat in the window possessed of a certain level of sophistication never attained by his contemporary on other side of the border. Orange Crush had made a sudden and quite impressive inroad into Coca-Cola territory, and their 1980's style logo hung from almost every store, bar, and restaurant along the road. The people in the cities had a more laissez-faire attitude towards stop signs and traffic signals, more of an ¨as you like it¨ approach. All intersections were subject to the same rule: whichever street is bigger has the right of way and its traffic need not stop. This was fine and dandy in some places, like when you were on the large road and you intersected an obviously lesser thoroughfare. But sometimes the roads seemed of equal significance, and discerning which was which was entirely subjective. In other words, if you weren´t born in the city and didn´t know the secret hierarchy, enjoy.

Getting into Guatemala was fairly easy, albeit unnecessarily obfuscated by a lack of any signs whatsoever. In short, the process is as follows: drive to border, road is blocked by two men holding the ends of a long stick, men with stick direct you down filthy dirt road to the right and under shanties built on stilts a la ¨Waterworld¨ sans Costner to man in all denim, man in denim selling tickets to a parking lot that you have no desire to enter, man in denim directs you back to men with stick and tells you to tell them to let you through, back to main road, men lift stick, shysters in leather cowboy hats try to change your pesos for Guatemalan Quetzal at 60 percent of real rate, try to outsmart shysters by going to bank 100 feet further, man at bank says they don´t change money - you know, like a real bank at a border, back to smiling shysters in hats, then to line at counter to fill out paperwork and calculate fee for importation of motorcycles, back to bank guarded by 5´1¨ man with assault rifle to pay the fee as the guy at counter obviously cannot be counted upon to accept money, too, then go against traffic (mostly refurbished and brightly painted US schoolbuses and throngs of people buying cheap merchandise at stalls along street) until you reach freedom. And it´s 105 degrees and you´re wearing a black motorcycle jacket and pants.

But once you´re in, you are treated to some of the greatest scenery imaginable. Picture a road that meanders along a river through a smaller version of the Rockies that has been festooned in brilliant green in celebration of St. Patrick´s Day and you´ve got an idea.

At this point, we had a total of five Quetzal to our name, not wanting the senores en los sombreros to get the best of us. For those of you following along at home with your currency converters, that´s about 75 cents. Certainly there would be a bank or ATM somewhere. And that´s when I saw the legs.

In all honesty, I wanted to follow a vehicle of some sort, because potholes and large rocks would emerge without warning as you whipped around a corner at sixty. Usually the other drivers were Guatemalans and they knew from experience where all the dangers were, so you just had to keep up and follow the Good Ship Lollypop to safety. So we targeted the legs and proceeded; often that meant proceeding with great haste. It turned out that the driver of the mannqeuin truck was a man that liked to make things happen, and why wouldn´t he? There were only six Guatemalan guys sleeping in contorted positions amongst the burlap sacks in the bed of the truck and all of his tires were either underinflated or under extreme duress...or both, so he had little to lose. Keeping up with him made me feel like I was in a motorcross event, but we stayed within sight at all times and copied his movements - except when one of the guys in the back saw us, reached up, and patted the mannequin legs on the butt. I started laughing during a turn and almost lost it.

Eventually they pulled over at a gas station, so we did, too. I snapped a pic and Neubz joked with them about the mannequin. Just then we looked over and saw that Neubz´s bike had a flat rear tire, so he crouched down for a pic of that, too, which was precisely the moment that his motorcycle collapsed. In a reflex effort to save it, he thrust out a hand, and in doing so grabbed onto and subsequently tore off his cheap Chinese trunk. As the bike hit the ground, the plastic pieces that comprised the hinge system on the trunk scattered across the cement, the largest piece sliding several feet and through a grate that led to a current of murky water a foot and a half down that may or may not have contained sewage. And to add salt to the wound, he had consequently lost the falling bike game yet again, so I´ll be making another trip to the market.

The stage was set for good times at this point. One bike down. Darkness coming. Storm on the horizon. 75 cents in our pocket. Middle of nowhere. It was decided that Neubz would change the tire while I made a Quetzal run, so he busted out the tools while I made off for a bank. Finding a bank was easier said than done, and it took over an hour before I ended up in a town called Quetzaltenango, a damn fine place to find Quetzal if you ask me. Quetzal in hand, I scurried back to the scene of the fall to find Neubz surrounded by a throng of curious onlookers dressed in traditional rural Mayan garb. It turned out that I was too late to witness the Neubz coaxing a guy in a van to run over his tire to break the bead so that he could get it off the rim; that would have been an interesting conversation. Within a few minutes grimy-handed Neubz and I were off again, bound for the only reasonably sized town where we would be able to find a hotel for the night: jolly Quetzaltenango.

Once situated, we set out for food (now being able to afford it for the first time all day) and drink. Upon entering a bar/restaurant, we ordered food and were promptly accosted by two Guatemalan men (they looked 13 but claimed to be 22) who invited us to their table. Pouring what remained of their three 40 oz bottles of Dorado Ice into two dirty glasses besmirched with a mixture of salt and lime juice, they embarked upon Operation Jibberish - a marathon that we would endure for approximately forty five minutes while we waited, starving, for our food to arrive. We understood very little of what they said, but we did understand that they were excited to talk to us - evidenced by the incoherent, loud rambling and the dozen or so times the one who called himself Leonardo de Caprio spat inadvertently in my face while swinging his hand inches from my eyes, that they had consumed a reasonable amount of Doral Ice, that they wanted us to accompany them to a certain establishment where women exchanged certain services for Quetzal, and that they had absolutely no problem taking the food that we had waited so patiently for and eating it before our disbelieving eyes. Hungry, thirsty, and utterly defeated, we took our leave and headed back to the hotel steeped in despair.

The subsequent two days held redemption, as we first met up with the aunt of a girl Neubz went to law school with that lives in an awesome place overlooking Lake Atitlan. I am attaching a picture of the lake that I found on the Internet, as it is one of the most absolutely stunning places that I have ever been and I forgot to bring my card reader to this Internet place. She (Molly) and her well-read husband (Miguel) treated us to a delicious dinner and a great political discussion, put us up in their house (which Neubz kindly decimated with the stench from his boots), and served us a great breakfast early this morning. Fantastic people.

And today a guy named Guillermo pulled over with us to the side of the road while we were looking at a map and trying to figure out where in the heck we were. He had a KLR 650, too, and he had us follow him to the colonial town of Antigua and showed us around. That is where we are now.

Tomorrow we plan to leave early and exit Guatemala, cross El Salvador, and get halfway across Nicaragua. Stay tuned for the next item that Nuebz is forced to lash to his bike (the prospect of a rack of lamb was summarily dismissed, as was a giant plastic horse that an old man in a park was randomly selling), as I'll make sure it won´t cave as easily as the Dora the Explorer piñata. I´ll try to get some pics up on when I get a chance later and a computer more recent than this Commodore 888.

- Tom

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Friday, August 11, 2006

San Cristobal del las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

First off, I think I may have failed to mention to the people on my list that we have a website established to follow the trip. We are uploading pictures and such and is being updated by our friend Alex. The website is The pictures are under the Captains Log, but check the rest out because it is nicely done. Now, onward...

Chiapas is the easternmost state in Mexico before the border with Guatemala. In 1994, an indiginous separatist movement officially known as the EZLN (and popularly known as the Zapatistas) was launched by locals of Indian descent. The movement was based out of the remote highland and jungle regions in the northeast portion of the state. However, the city of San Cristobal de las Casas to the west become important to the movement. Tourists from around the world flocked to the city in order to feel as one with the movement, and possibly to catch a glimpse of Zapatista's popular spokesperson, Subcommandante Marcos. The tourist presence helped give the Zapatistas a heightened image in global pop culture. The Zapatistas and the Mexican authorities have largely been at a péacful standstill for the past years, but Zapatista images still are visible throught the city, and twice I have heard Subcommandante Marcos name mentioned in passing. The city itself is a beautiful colonial city, set 5000 feet above the lush regions that run off to the Pacific coast to the south. We arrived here yesterday after a two-day long journey from Oaxaca. And there is pizza. Real pizza.

The unrest in Oaxaca did not end with the vehicle barracades at the city borders. The majority of the once-beautiful city buildings have been defaced with grafitti, all aimed at bringing about the end of the extreme right-wing administration headed by governor Ulysses Ruiz. Many of the streets are impassable, as makeshift barracades have been constructed out of highway rail guard, trucks, or giant chunks of stone torn out of the streets themselves. The few streets that are still navigable are backed up like Chicago rush hour. The city limit barracades are still intact, and people come and go by means of an abandoned railway line.

In this mess we tried to find our friends. After spending a rainy night in a hotel, we finally got in contact with Gina's friend Tony, who offered us a place to stay at his house. We had wanted to try and get to a market in order to settle up the bet that I had lost because my bike had been the first to go down. But daylight got the best of us, and we went over to Tony's place and met his parents. They had abandoned the house while it was being renovated, but said we could stay there for as long as we liked. While we were talking in the kitchen, my bike took a second dive, as my kickstand sunk into the ground in front of their house. Both of the parents had looks of extreme horror and ran over to the bike. Tom and I both knew the bike would be fine. I started laughing and Tom snapped a picture while singing "We're going to the market! We're going to the market!" I had lost the bet for a second time and I knew Tom would show no mercy. Tony's place was a good place to stay. However, Tom and I were forced to cram into a small full-size bed together. This would have been fine except that the only blanket on the bed was about 4 feet wide. This led to war which left both of us freezing most of the night. Tom finally won by outsmarting me and retrieving another blanket from a different room. I was so cold. From then on, Tony's dad kept a close eye on both of us, clearly convinced that we were doing drugs up in that room or engaging in unspeakable acts of ...well... you get the idea.

We spent the next day doing maintenance on the bikes, and went over to our friend Hugo's place for a BBQ. The night before Tom had jokingly told his mother that I was a vegetarian, so she went out of her way to make me a pepper and corn dish while everyone else ate meatloaf. I felt like an ass. The next morning, Tom and I headed for Chiapas. On the way out of town we finally managed to find a market. While sipping a couple smoothies in plastic bags, Tom perused the goods for an acceptable penalty. The bet had been that whichever bike fell down first, the other person got to pick something out of the market to lash to that person's bike that cost less than $10. It didn't take Tom very long. His eyes got missle lock on a shop selling piñatas. "Is that Dora the Explorer?" he asked. Dora the Explorer is a childrens cross-cultural cartoon heroine. The lady at the shop replied that it was indeed Dora and that she cost $5.50. My hear sunk as Tom's hand moved with lightening speed for his wallet. Laughter followed me out of the market as I lugged the four-foor tall pink Dora over to my bike. I strapped her on as Tom was bent over with laughter. Off we went.

As it turns out, Dora the Explorer is not really cut out for motorcycle travel. The first problem came as I tried to squeeze my bike through a gap between a truck and a sign. The bike made it through, but Dora took a serious shot to the temple, breaking her kneck. Luckily Dora's innards included a rope spinal cord, which kept her head more or less where it is supposed to be. But Dora would have a long road to recovery before she would run and play with the other kids. Outside of Oaxaca, the road twists and turns through the mountiains. Every few miles, crosses are planted at the side of the road to show where someone drove too drunk, too tired, or too fast, and paid the piper by taking the big plunge over the side. The turns were rough on Dora as well. Banking the motorcycle caused Dora's right foot to drag, and after 50 miles her foot came completely off. Dora also was not wearing proper motorcycling clothes, and the high winds began to rip her skin off piece by piece. Finally Dora's head was lost for good, either to a speed bump or a gust of wind from a semi. A sick little párt inside me laughed everytime I saw the look of horror that crossed a passer-bys face as they caught a glimpse of the carnage hanging off the rear of my bike.

The two day drive from Oaxaca to San Cristobal here in Chiapas took us through an amazing route. The road has been a never ending curve, and the KLRs have handled it beautifully. The vegetation has shifted from the more arid style that surrounds Oaxaca to a contunous lush green cover in Chiapas,. The road dives in and out of the clouds, with amazing views opening up in all directions. Tom is fun to drive with as well, as we both have a similar cautious-yet-aggressive style of driving. I trust him to do a good job leading the way whether we are blasting past semis on the highway, skipping lines of cars at topes (speed bumps), or slithering through jumbled traffic in the cities. The few differences in our driving probably stem from the fact that I think Tom puts more faith in the bike and tires than I do, whereas I think I put more faith in gravity than he does. So far he has been right, and maybe gravity is just a scientific theory that needs more study. But I doubt it.

Tomorrow we will be crossing the border into Guatemala. Crime is more widespread on the far side of the line, so we will have to be more careful about everything we do. But the bikes are holding up well after the first 3200+ miles, so hopefully they will get us through without incident. Anyway, hope all is well with everyone and check out if you want for pictures.


Monday, August 7, 2006

How to Jockey With a Military Convoy

I won the rock, paper, scissors contest in the parking lot, so I have been elected to compose the first of our collective E-mails while Nate stands guard in the heat watching the bikes.

A spirited Monday greeting from Oaxaca, Mexico. Having traveled nearly 2800 miles during the past seven days (with around two days off in San Antonio while we waited for our last-minute parcels), we finally arrived here in southern Mexico late last night amidst burned police cars, buses used as roadblocks, and a flash flood that almost prevented us from entering the city...but I´ll get to that in a minute.

We entered Mexico on the evening of the 3rd from Laredo, Texas, being welcomed into the country by perhaps the largest flag I have ever seen in my life. It actually worked out to our favor that we arrived later than we had anticipated due to the delayed arrival of the UPS man and our coveted morsel - at least at first. We dodged what would have assuredly been quite robust lines at the immigration office, something that would have been even more enjoyable on account of the intense heat. As it was, we were required to wait in three separate lines: one for personal immigration and payment for the pleasure of being in Mexico, one where official copies of documents that we already had copies of were made and paid for, and a third where we paid for the right to bring our vehicle into Mexico. For the last, they attempted to extract US $200 per motorcycle, but eventually settled for US $30 since we put it on a credit card. And so commenced the mirth of the Latin world.

From there, Nate received directions from a man in the street that appeared to be dressed for a late night performance in a mariachi band and we were off. Now, prior to leaving the United States, we had set out only one rule for ourselves: do not drive at night. Due to our late start, we promptly decided to break that rule, and we were issued a painful reminder from the powers that be why we had made that rule in the first place (see the Captain´s Log section of the web site for more details). First off, it was hard to see. Our motorcycles, amongst their many other shortfalls in the comfort/amenity, have lackluster headlights. Second, it began to rain - lightly at first, then like it meant it. And third, the quality of the road deteriorated shortly upon crossing the border, meaning that it was probably in your interest to be able to see well in order to dodge potholes and to give shout outs well in advance to livestock on the periphery of the road.

Eventually we wanted to just get a hotel and be done with it. But if only it had been that easy. Rather, we drove on and on, eliciting a couple of false leads for accommodation from people at gas stations and cafes along the road, including a guy in a sweet Stetson hat and a lady of the night with golden shoes. Ah, but the beacon in the night was the Motel Astro at around 3:30 AM. There is a description on the web page that tells of the juicy spiders that Neubz crushed and our plush, four foot wide bed in a flooded room.

Over the next couple of days we boogied south at a frantic pace on the toll roads. These roads are not cheap (it cost us about $100 a piece to get from Monterrey to here), but they are very nicely maintained and you can make haste with cheddar and chives if you so desire. The fact that people would pass doing around 130 while our little wombats were giving their all to do 70-75 was the only difficulty. That and the wind. Having encumbered our bikes with 20 mm ammunition boxes as saddlebags and a Chinese knockoff of a tastefully designed Italian Givi trunk, it was akin to piloting a mizzenmast on wheels once we get into the plains at the foot of the Sierra Madres, and it became physically strenuous to ride listing to the left to battle the wind and stay on the road.

Close to the mountains it began to rain on and off, and we were quite pleased with our decision to purchase Aerostitch riding coats. Naturally we were a little reticent to blow $600 on a coat, but our torsos were all that remained dry as our boots filled with water (and as the rain saturated Nate´s white briefs, the transparent crack of which would nauseate me later in the hotel). Nice, too, will it be when we can plug in the electric liners to the batteries while in the Andes for some much-needed warmth. For anyone that rides a motorcycle, I highly recommend one. If/when we take a spill on this trip, they should minimize the damage to our pasty bodies. Indeed, they are so loaded with Kevlar that we could take two shotgun blasts from Chuck Norris himself and walk away. Of course, they would protect us little when Mr. Norris realized the folly of his weaponry and delivered a roundhouse kick. But that goes without saying.

We eventually deviated from the toll road in an effort to circumnavigate the rotten tentacles of the most populated city in the world, Mexico City. Instead, we took a route recommended by Gina Isherwood (thank you) and her Mexican friends that took us on some country roads towards a city named Pachuca. Try saying it once at work. Louder. It sounds cool, doesn´t it? This route gave us a chance to roll through some smaller towns and gave us a brake from the full throttle riding up until that point. It also introduced us to the land of the doble remolque (or double semi), basically a vehicle conceived with the belief that it would be more efficient to haul two trailers behind a semi than one. They´re probably right, but some of you might be thinking, "Isn´t that a little much to ask of the engine and the brakes in a mountainous country?¨ Yes, my friends, it is. And so began the game of ¨Who Can Make the Most Audacious and Ill-Advised Pass?¨. Double semis would slink along like giant snails in a line up any grade of consequence, but when they reached the peak of the hill or mountain, the gunshot sounded and it was off to the races. These behemoths (and the spattering of cars and our petty cycles) would throw down the hammer and go two - sometimes three - wide in an effort to gain the poll position for the next incline. A crescendo usually came at the bottom of each hill when the guy with the most cojones (or really just the biggest moron) would find himself looking into the eyes of another driver coming in the direction and swerve desperately to get back in his own lane. We never saw an accident; in fact, everyone seemed quite comfortable with the system, and I concede that it made driving very, very fun. Only once did driving with such gusto cause a problem. We didn´t see it happen, but our Columbo instincts tell us that it played out thus: guy in a semi with doors on the sides and filled with bags of powdered concrete takes a corner at the bottom of the hill with some serious speed. Forty thousand pounds of concrete pressed against the side too much to handle. Small Volkswagen coming from the other direction. Concrete excuses itself from the semi. Guy in car casually looks over and takes about 50 eighty-pound bags to the chops. The rest go all over the and the surrounding area (and in Nate´s eyes and mouth). The guy was apparently OK, but his car was not.

The drive through the Sierra Madres was absolutely stunning, though the Mexicans admittedly falter in the "how about we pick up those giant rocks that fell into the road" department. Add to that the return of the rain, and you´ve got a spicy plate of jambalaya - especially if you´re Neubz (no one calls him Nate). Apparently Neubz broke the visor on his helmet while parading around India earlier this year, so he thought it would be no problem to just swing through Latin America during rainy season and bask in the icy droplets. His prescription goggles continually fogged up, something he blames on the fact that he ¨put(s) off a lot of vapor¨. Indeed. So at times he was driving close to blind while concentrating on my brake light. This was a dicey endeavor, as the rocks were plentiful, including one that almost led me to the piper. So at times he would ride without goggles, something enjoyed by the enormous motorcade of military trucks hauling soldiers to Oaxaca that we would pass, then get passed by, and so on and so forth. But what they truly enjoyed was another Neubz moment.

Every fifty miles or so we would stop and pay a toll. Since it was a pain in the butt to take off our gloves, dig into a pocket, and grab some cash, we decided to take turns paying for both. At the last toll before Oaxaca, when we were wet, hungry, exhausted and thinking only of shelter from the rain and a few brewskis, a frustrated Neubz could not get his wet gloves back on after paying. Honorably not wanting to hold up traffic, he stuffed them in the side pocket of his coat and we took off on the final approach. When we arrived at the ¨Welcome to Oaxaca¨ sign, I pulled over to snap a picture of Neubz. I honked for him to turn around for pic, but he searching frantically for something. He got off the bike, took something out of his pocket and spiked it on the ground. Then he kicked his bike. Yes, he had lost a precious glove, so we painfully turned around and drove back to the toll station. The guys with machine guns now had a keen interest in the Neubz. Once he parked his bike in the median and strolled from booth to booth putting out the SOS on the missing glove, their eyes followed him like a cat watching a ping pong ball. They pointed. They lurked. But the glove was no more, so we made off for Oaxaca once again. Suddenly the glove appeared in the street, and a jubilant Neubz snatched it up and shook it at an approaching bus in exaltation. Upon returning to the city, however, a significant traffic jam had built up at the entrance. Figuring that it was an accident that we could scurry around, we moved forward, but it then became clear that cars were stalling in a flash flood as dirty water rushed across six lanes of traffic. Luckily the current did not take us down, and we stuck to the shallower areas. Once in the city, we were confronted with something resembling a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Buses and graffiti-riddled police cars had been assembled to create roadblocks along the route to the city center. Dozens upon dozens of cars were lined along the railroad tracks to prevent anything from getting in. Piles of unrecognisable rubbish lay in burned piles. Our motorcycles were just small enough to slip between gaps in multiple layers of roadblocks, then we hopped some curbs and rode the sidewalks into the clear. And that is where we are now. For more on the protests, check out:

From here we head out for Chiapas, home of the zapatistas, and then to Guatemala.

For those interested in pictures, I´ll try to get some more on the site under Captain´s Log.

- Tom

A side note: while in the US, Neubz and made an agreement that we would put 25 cents in a pot per person per day, and that the first person to take a spill - no matter how minor - would have to pay the other guy the pot. We decided later that the money thing was lame, and we expanded the ¨spill¨ definition to include your bike going over on its own. The punishment became the following: the winner (the guy whose bike does not go down) gets to pick out an item at a market - no matter the size or shape - and the other guy must lash it to his bike until it falls off. Since Neubz´s bike tipped over in a gravel parking lot (in the process bending his brake lever into the shape of a Sultan´s shoe), he has garnered a trip to the market. I attempted to get him to purchase a four-foot tall paper machete statue of Darth Vader that I saw in a store, but he said no. To be fair, it was late, raining, that thing was probably expensive and took a lot of effort to make, and we just wanted to find a hotel, but it would have been sweet. Stay tuned for pics of whatever item we dig up, as well as the end of my smug celebration when I bite it myself.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

And so it begins: San Antonio

Hello everyone! As many of you know, I have set off from Milwaukee on a 3-month motorcycle trip with my friend Tom. The idea of this trip is to ride from Milwaukee, through Mexico and Central America, and see most of the countries in South America. The ultimate goal (time and circumstances willing) is to make it to the southern tip of South America at Tierra del Fuego, and then get myself on a plane and get back to Chicago to start my new job. But that is a ways away. I received a lot of positive comments about the series of emails I sent out during the big motorcyce trip I took around India, so I have planned on doing the same e-mail updates for this trip. So to those of you who were on that list: Welcome back. For those of you new to the realm of 'Nate traveling around the world and doing stupid things', hopefully you will enjoy. And if at any time you no longer want to be on this list, let me know and I will get you off. I don't want to become spam or junk mailed. And also, since Tom and I have a lot of common friends, some of you may get more emails than you want, so I won't be hurt if you want off my list.

This trip has required a monstrous amount of planning and preparation (and $). Countless hours were spent this summer sweating and cursing while working on the bikes in my parents garage. (And my parents deserve a great deal of thanks for quietly allowing us to oil stain their floor, chew up the blacktop on their driveway, and bang up the fridge. I think they made their recent decision to move to Arizona just so they could have a pristine garage again). Most of my summer was spent studying for the bar during the day and cranking a wrench at night. Its been fun, educational, and stressful for both Tom and me. But preparation details are not real interesting...

July 30 was D-Day. The bikes were packed, tanks filled, and good byes said. We headed south from Milwaukee, praying that one of these bikes would not keel over before the state line and put a quick end to the trip. But true to their reputation, the bikes ran strong. The only hiccup occurred about 80 miles out, when Tom's clutch cable shook loose. We pulled over to the side of the highway, cracked out the tools, and were up and running in few minutes. Considering that almost every fastener on these bikes has been removed multiple times over the past months, it is amazing that more things did not shake loose during the initial leg.

We pulled into St. Louis late Sunday night after a 400 mile run. A few pictures were attempted with the Arch, and then we collapsed into a hotel room, our bodies not yet accustomed to the seats and extended driving conditions. The next morning we indulged in some custard (not going to find much of that south of the border) and headed into the Ozarks. The hill driving was beautiful. Then into western Missouri, the hills got smaller and the horizons longer. The thermometer topped out at 104 degrees. On a bike you have a perpetual wind which helps keep cold, but our riding gear is laden with Kevlar and is heavy duty for protection. It is hot and the sweat does not stop. We made the smart investement in 3-liter Camelback packs, which have allowed us to drink while driving, keeping dehydration at bay and allowing us to keep driving on longer legs.

Oklahoma greeted us with a slap upside the head in the form of a vicious head wind. When coupled with the turbulence caused by passing semis, sometimes our light bikes get tossed all over the road. One gust was so severe it blew me into the next lane and caused my bike to shimmy so much I thought I had blown a tire and was forced to pull over. Driving in wind like that is exhausting for distances. After 500 miles on our second day, we rolled into Oklahoma City and stayed with one of Tom's co-worker friends. The next morning we left and headed due south. The wind had not abated, which was a nice 'Good Morning!' from the Plains. Nine hours and 475 miles put us into San Antonio, where we holed up with my sister and her husband (Thank You Erin and Ryan!) and put some last pieces on the bikes and made final preparations for leaving the States. There is always one more thing to do. At 3 a.m. this morning, we were out on my sister's lawn using our headlamps and applying waterproofing to our maps. So much to do... I am currently waiting for one last morsel to arrive by UPS, before we load up and head out for Mexico. Our destination there in a few days is Oaxaca, where we will meet some friends and relax for a couple days before heading to Chiapas and Guatemala.

I know this is getting long, but very quickly I would like to answer three of the most common questions I have received about this trip:

1. What types of bikes are you taking? The motorcycles are a 1993 and a 1994 Kawasaki KLR650, both with around 10,000 miles. We specifically bought these bikes last fall for this trip. They are called thumpers: they have only one big cylinder that thumps away at a variety of speeds. These bikes are called dual sport bikes - they are like giant powerful dirt bikes that are capable of maintaining highway speeds but can also go offroad. I'll attach some pictures. The bikes are known for being ugly (check out the color schemes), uncomfortable, and not exceptionally good at highways or offroad. But most importantly, the bikes are known for being tough and dependable: if you take care of them then they will take care of you. They also are easy(ier) to work on. They are not chrome-laden monsters with inaccessible parts. Rather, they have plastic covers that come off easily and allow you to get at their guts. They could break down at any time, just like any bike. But they have taken us almost 1500 miles so far without complaint, so I have a feeling that they will keep chugging for awhile.
As far as holding our gear, we have attached two large steel 20mm ammo cans to the sides of each bike, mounted to a frame we attached. We each have a detachable top box trunk for the rear, and a 35 liter dry bag that sits between us and the trunk. We can hold a lot of stuff.

2. What happens when you break down? Tom and I have put a lot of time and effort into upgrading and learning about these bikes. We did all the work ourselves, with the couple exceptions of two local Milwaukeeans who showed us how to do one difficult procedure and helped remove some stripped bolts. We have spent $0 at mechanics on these things. We have upgraded the brakes, the suspension, the cables, the air filter, the battery, frame bolts, relocated turn signals, installed protective hardware, etc.. We checked and adjusted the engine valves ourselves and removed, disassembled, and cleaned the carburators. We've done other engine work and stuff I can't really think of. We can change tires on the side of the road in a flash. Blah Blah Blah. In short, we've learned a lot about these bikes and are pretty handy with a wrench these days, so hopefully we can take care of most things that pop up. All that being said, there still is a lot that can go wrong that is beyond us...

3. What do you take on a trip like this? I made a nearly comprehensive packing list for my own sanity. I'll attach that here as a word document if you want to look at it.

Okay, sorry that got so long, but that sums up about a year of trip preparation into a few paragraphs. If you have any questions along the way, feel free to ask and I will do my best to answer. I will also try to attach photos whenever possible, but sometimes third world internet access leaves something to be desired. Anyway, hopefully you will hear from me soon from Oaxaca and everything is going smoothly....


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