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

No comments: