08 May 2018

Whack jobs and nutters...every single one.

Our first pass through Ecuador was pretty quick. As we had taken our time getting through Central America, we were making up time in order to get to Ushuaia in time to meet our friends for the summer. We stayed primarily in the eastern ridge of the Andes on our way through, and passed through Vilcabamba without stopping the day before crossing the border into Peru.

Looking across the Valley of Longevity

That was five months ago. On our way back north, we decided we would stop. For some reason, I remembered thinking I wished we had stopped, and then I thought I recently had read it was a major Incan site. Josh reminded me it is what is known as the Valley of Longevity.

Oh, right! Where the people who lived there lived well into their 100s. Cool! We searched iOverlander for a spot to stay, and there was a campground listed that people loved, including an Australian couple we had spent a few days riding with in Chile. At $5 a person per night, with great hot showers, wi-fi, and an available kitchen, we headed right for it when we got into town.

There was a parade as we rolled into town! I think all the drivers were in their 90s--just ask National Geographic...

We found the Tierra Madre Hotel, then another 50 meters down the road, the black iron gates that opened to the driveway to the campground. It was actually just a piece of property with a number of buildings and some lovely grass area where people could park rigs or throw tents.

We were greeted by Mohan and asked if we were there to camp. Upon hearing him speak (in completely unaccented English) I asked where he was from. Texas. He and his wife Nina had been in Vilcabamba for seven years. She is a life coach, and they were hoping to pick up two or three clients per week and move back to the states. He remarked on how strange it would be to teach his son to drive, when he himself hadn't driven in so long. (Seriously all this in the first two minutes)

Mohan quickly showed us around--the place was really nicely designed, and we knew we'd be comfortable there for a couple nights. While we started unpacking the bikes, we chatted with him.

And that's when things started to get a little weird....

He asked if we went to any of the Incan sites, such as Machu Picchu. We said we had done, as well as a number of sites in Mexico and Central America. Totally normal conversation.

Then he mentioned that there were some weird things there in Vilcabamba. He told us a story of how a local woman, who had walked the same path every day for thirty years, recently found a sinkhole which had opened after a big storm. I waited for him to tell me that buried beneath were some Incan ruins.

Nope. He told me his buddy Bill--described as a really nice, big tall, totally normal guy--went down into the hole with one or two other guys. They found one large, round cavern-like room, with two other smaller round rooms branching off. On the walls were "scoop" marks, as though they had been made by someone scooping the earth away.

I thought, "Huh, maybe pre-Incan. Maybe the people who lived there hundreds of years before made rooms below ground by scooping away material with a tool."

The thoughts of the local Americans who were sharing this news? They were made by humanoid creatures that resemble Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, using their scoop-like claws.

Uh...?

Then he told us the story of how someone else was walking with his girlfriend one night when they saw a group of people off in the distance with flashlights on. They soon realized the lights weren't bouncing around like flashlights do when someone is walking and carrying one, but moving smoothly over the ground. When they got closer, they could see through a fence and some bushes, five "beings" floating above the ground. In the center of each of their chests, a light glowed from within.

And this was seen by not one person, but also verified by his girlfriend. TWO people witnessed this.

At this point, I'm pretty sure I was staring at him in disbelief. Not necessarily disbelief this could have happened, but disbelief that seemingly educated, well-spoken people bought into this stuff!

I said the only thing I could. "Well, if we consider how huge the universe is--how many stars and galaxies exist out there--and we believe we are the only possible intelligent life, we are pretty full of ourselves."

He then reminded me how John Kerry was in Antarctica on the night of the last presidential election. Quite honestly, I can't blame him and I wish I had been there...no electoral college amongst the penguins. Many "people" have theories as to why he was there, but Mohan informed us it was to see the underground civilization.

50,000 years ago (geologists and climatologists of the world, feel free to corroborate this story...) Antarctica had a warm climate. Apparently, there was an incredible freeze--which happened in a matter of seconds--that froze all the animals where they stood. We know this because woolly mammoths were found with "warm climate food" still in their mouths. This tells us there used to be a warm climate, and that the deep freeze happened in seconds. Had it happened in hours or even minutes, the animals would have spit the food out and gone to find a warm place to be....

How the mammoths and an underground civilization are connected, I don't know. We never got there. I just said that we didn't get to see any of that on our trip to Antarctica, and now I wanted my money back.

We finished unpacking, Mohan wandered off, we put up the tent, and I hit the wifi. Why had I wanted to stop in Vilcabamba?? What had seemed so interesting? I googled the town, and instead of finding Incan ruins, I found weirdos. I don't mean strange, eccentric people. I mean conspiracy theorists and the sheep who follow their spouting of "facts."

In the 1960s Johnny Lovewisdom (not his real name, shocker!) arrived in Vilcabamba with his cultish followers. Lovewisdom was a "spiritual guide" and leader of some interesting lifestyles while there. He believed in a raw, fruit-only diet (though he ate yogurt and some other fermented items later in life), water fasting, sun diets (wtf?), and breathanarianism--surviving on nothing but breath and spiritual energy. I'm pretty sure this guy is the reason the face-palm was invented.

In the 1970s, National Geographic, along with a couple other respected sources reported that Vilcabamba had an unusually high number of centenarians, one who was upwards of 134 years old. By 1978, this misinformation was debunked by scientists from Harvard--finding most people thought to be in their 100s were really in their 80s.

But, it seems people (a whole lot from the United States and European countries) still flock there. Despite the truth of the matter, people read what they want and believe what they want. They still search for the Valley of Longevity, long life, and answers to poor health and life's questions. Visitors and tourists come from all over, sometimes paying upwards of $70 a person to participate in a partaking of a hallucinogenic drink, made from a species of local cactus. It typically includes hallucinating and puking--sounds fun! Hmmmm...people were seeing floating beings with lights emanating from their chests....

NONE of this was our reason for being there. In fact, I couldn't even remember why I wanted to be there. Nevertheless, we were, so we made the best of it. Our second day, we caught a cab to a nearby town and did a hike to the local water fall. It was a tough-ish hike of a narrow trail. At one point, we pulled off the trail to allow a large group of European teenagers on horseback with two guides go past us. One of the kids was annoyingly playing music from his phone, loudly enough that everyone had to listen to it. As I huffed and puffed up the trail behind them, I decided I hated those kids, and at the same time wished I had their horses.

On the 7.6 km hike up to the Cascada El Palto there were loads of spiders!
Cascada El Palto--a 30 meter waterfall at the end of a moderate hike. If this 134 year old can do it, so can you!
I think this butterfly was 121 years old!

It was a long walk back down the trail, and we were ready for dinner and a drink when we got back to town. As we walked through town on that Sunday afternoon, I mostly heard English spoken. White people abounded, speaking nothing but English. When I googled the town, I read one traveler's report of talking to an American who had moved there because it was cheap to live there, and he didn't have to learn to speak Spanish.

It is a divided town--local Ecuadorians and the Americans who have moved there for some reason, but don't mix with the long-time residents. Speaking with the owner of the restaurant where we had dinner that evening (in Spanish...) he said a lot of people move there with health problems that they think will be fixed or cured by living in The Valley of Longevity. Students at the local college study why the local inhabitants live happy, healthy lives into their 80s. So far, it seems to boil down to drinking good water from the mountains, eating healthy food, and living lives like most other small-town South Americans.

Many of the stores in town cater to the hippy or hipster clientele by stocking many foods one would find in the United States in health food stores. Many signs state "non-gmo", "no chemicals", etc., and they're stocked right next to the packages of Oreos and off-brand syrup. The whole thing made me roll my eyes.

It also made me angry as I learned more about how violent crime has been on the increase. Americans have bought property, then begun selling it at inflated prices when they either got bored of the place or just wanted something different. Locals can't afford to buy anything anymore, and Americans show up and flaunt their money. We never felt threatened in anyway, but we don't run around flaunting our money. We also speak, or at least attempt to speak, the local language, and get to know the locals.

The second night we were in Vilcabamba, we spent the evening with Mario and Cecilia, two other travelers from Argentina. They had a small truck and and even smaller camper. They had been on the road for almost two years traveling around South America. They were young, interesting, and fun to be around. The town and English-speaking residents there had put me on edge--I was quite happy to not feel like I had to be on my guard while talking with Mario and Cecilia. We spoke mostly Spanish, except when I didn't understand something. Then, Cecilia, in her English (probably on par with my Spanish) would help me out. It was fun. It was the same way I felt with the restaurant owner and cab drivers--they weren't going to bring up aliens and conspiracy theories.

The last morning we were there, we chatted a bit more with Mohan. Honestly, he is a very nice person, as is his wife, Nina. Josh asked Mohan why, after seven years, they had decided to return to the states. He said they were bored. I was floored when I heard this. Of course, it seemed they hadn't tried to do much--earlier in the morning he mentioned they hadn't been to Peru (which is only about 100 miles away) or even to the coast of Ecuador. They don't seem to have a car, but in this part of the world you can get a bus just about anywhere pretty cheaply. He didn't seem to speak any Spanish, and it seemed the only work he did was tidying around the "campground" daily. Ok, I can see why he was bored.

I was packing my bike when the owner of the property, Nathan, came to "settle up." He is an American who seems to be trying to pass himself off as Swiss--the posting he listed on iOverlander states "Swiss designed" and he said he spent some time there as an exchange student and such. It felt like a very awkward conversation. I made a few jokes, and I was really happy when we finally pulled out of that place. I kept going over everything--did I get all my things out of the shower, did I grab everything from the kitchen? I kept feeling like I had left something behind. I told Josh I thought it was a piece of my soul, and he answered it might have been some of my sanity.

One other little interesting thing about how awful this place was. When we walked past the Madre Tierra Hotel on the second day, I said it HAD to be American owned. No Ecuadorian would call a place "Madre Tierra"--it is a very clumsy (literal) translation of "Mother Earth" that would only have been used by an English speaker, for other English speakers. There is a very lovely name which captures the idea of Mother Earth/Mother Nature in South America, and you learn it quickly if you spend any time down here. It is Pachamamá. Sure enough, when I was talking with the owner and paying for our nights, he mentioned that his brother owned it. I'm not certain why, but this cemented my dislike of the place.

I am sure the people who have decided to live there are very nice. I am sure they have lovely intentions of living a happy last thirty years of their lives in a beautiful place. And it is a beautiful place. I just can't help but think they're ruining something beautiful, and that I wish I had just given this place a miss. Then again, if I had, I would never have known why John Kerry was in Antarctica!

 

06 May 2018

The Stahlratte Von Bremen--a real and true review of a moto's best friend in Panama

I was not hating life at the moment. I had just spent the better part of three hours roaming the beach, picking through the tide pools, and lounging in the serene warm water of the beach on which we were camping in Nicaragua. Nicaragua! What a spot. The Mind The Gap Hostel and Camping was our home there for three nights, while we relaxed and took a few days to catch up with life. Bills paid, emails returned, and blog posts underway, Josh surprised me with some news--amazing news.

The Stahlratte was held up in Cartegena, and would have to adjust its schedule accordingly. There was a chance we could make port, and sail with the bikes. He also emailed the captain to find out if there was room for two more--there was!

A few days prior to this, when we entered Nicaragua, we ran into a young woman and her friend traveling from Denver in her Subaru. We chatted as we all had to wait in different lines first in Honduras, and then in Nicaragua. One of the topics of conversation was how we were all planning on getting from Panama to Colombia. If you had a public education like mine, and are not an adventure motorcycle rider, you may not have any idea that although the two countries touch each other (Mom...Colombia's touching me!), there are no roads that will get you from one to the other.

"Really!?!"

That was my reaction when I learned about it a bunch of years ago, though only in my own head so as not to let on to anyone around me that I didn't already know of this. The Darien National Park sits on the land in the east of Panama, and it encompasses a huge area of jungly-swamp, which used to be occupied by guerillas--this was not a place people tried to go. Over the years, a few brave souls have attempted, and even succeeded, to get through, but the stories involved machetes, people carrying motorbikes (I'm no expert, but I think you're doing it wrong...), and no doubt lots of snakes and bugs (Ick...).

So, if you're traveling through the area, how do you go about getting yourself, and potentially a vehicle, from one place to the other? There are a number of ways, and we researched them all. And by "we", I mean Josh. Josh researched them all.

You can fly. And your bike can fly. Not together, but typically within a few days of each other. We looked at this option. It is fairly expensive, and can be a bit of a pain to get your bike to the right place, loaded, and later unloaded. But, it's definitely quick.

Or, you can fly and you can put your bike into a container to be shipped via freighter. This is expensive if you use a full 40' shipping container for only a bike or two. However, if you can find friends with a car or a rig to share the space with, it suddenly begins to get more reasonable. Once again, however, it can be a bit of an ordeal to get your vehicle back. All parties who own something in the container must be there at the exact same time before they will open the container in port--your new friends better be reliable.

Another option, which is still a bit pricey, is to put yourself and your bike onto a sailboat. There are so many reasons why this is an appealing option, one of them being that the bike is always with you, and it's very easy to get it off the boat and back into your own hands. This is NOT an option for cars/trucks/rigs--bicycles and motorbikes only.

There are a number of different sailboats that do this, but the most well-known in the adventure moto community is the Stahlratte. A 38 meter-long ship, she can carry 21 motorcycles and passengers. Over the years of getting ready for this trip, I've seen a few posts here and there of people I "know" on Facebook making this trip. The pics are always fun, and it looks like the riders are all having the time of their lives. However, I was always under the impression that in order to sail on one of these ships with a bike, you had to reserve months in advance. That straps a rider down to having to be in Panama on a very specific date. I just couldn't make that kind of commitment!

But, here was Josh, telling me that not only would we be in Panama at the same time, but there was available space. My immediate reaction was, "Oh, hell yes!" Though he needed to spend a bit more time comparing methods, he eventually came around to wanting to also. We emailed all the info and paperwork for ourselves and our bikes, and sent a deposit off via PayPal.

We would be loading November 3, and sailing November 4. I was stoked!

But then, I started to do a bit more research, and I found out real information on it. I found that I did not have nearly the entire story. Knowing she was a working sailing ship, I assumed that when you booked passage, you also became a working crew member. I figured we'd load the bikes, return the next day to load ourselves, then start three solid days of sailing, doing our share here and there.

I was so wrong!

Here is what the experience is really like...

Heading out from Panama City on the morning of Panama's Independence Day--we flew the Panama flag

Friday, November 3 was Panama's Independence Day. We rode out of the city, heading towards Guna Yala, the port for the formerly-known-as San Blas islands, flying Panamanian flags on our bikes. A few kilometers out of the city, while stuck behind some particularly slow traffic, I noticed a lot of aftermarket lighting behind us--a 1200GS had caught up. Out that way, I remarked that he was probably on his way to the Stahlratte, as it was probably a safe bet. He must have thought the same as us, and when I rolled on the throttle to pass a couple of cars, I looked back to see not only Josh, but the other rider keeping up.

I thought it was fun that we had another rider joining us! A little ways on, we were once again moving very slowly behind what I could see were three or four cars behind a larger truck. As soon as we got to a straight area where I could pass, I very quickly made for the front of the line. I could see for a long way, and knew that all three of us would easily make it if I just hauled ass up there and they followed.

So I did. And so did they. And as I really looked at the car directly behind the bigger truck, I said, "Oh shit! It's a cop..." And as I dropped back into our lane in front of the truck and the other two followed me, I saw the cop's lights flashing.

Me: Oh god, his lights are going.

Josh: Maybe they are always going...

Me: He's not passing the truck yet (though at that moment all the traffic behind us was shuffling to get further ahead in the pack)

Josh: Don't stop...

I'm not going to. Oh crap, I really hope I didn't just get us and the new guy arrested...

And I didn't. I may have passed a cop doing 120km/h in an 80km/h zone, but they didn't seem to care. Later when we had to stop for traffic and Josh hung back and introduced himself to the new guy, I told him to apologize for almost getting him arrested. Our new friend, Benjamin, didn't seem to care--though, as it turned out, he was French, so maybe he just didn't understand--and the three of us rode on to the port.

Twenty-one motorbikes all waiting to be loaded onto the Stahlratte

We met up with the other eighteen bikes and nineteen riders. We all chatted and tried to find shade, while the Stahratte waited off shore. Soon, the captain, Ludwig, came to shore. He introduced himself, gave us some info, and asked us to get the bikes onto the dock and get our luggage off. Josh and I didn't hesitate, and our bikes were first at the end of the dock. Soon, the entire dock was filled with motos shining in the sun, and riders, trading stories and laughing while pulling luggage. We quickly fell into the habit of working together while we handed down the luggage to the small motorboat that made multiple trips to the ship with our gear.

Stripping the bikes of their luggage
So much luggage, and my friend Eckart from Austria--he was riding a KTM 1290
My friend Peter, from Germany, who was riding a R1200GS

When the luggage was safely aboard the Stahlratte, two more boats came to get all of us. We boarded the Stahlratte, and were soon pulling what we would need for the next three days from our luggage, and stowing the rest in a couple of closets below deck. The amount of luggage that came from those bikes was phenomenal, but we were done within about twenty minutes. After a delicious lunch up on the deck, we were on motorboats, headed to Porvenir Island. That is where we would spend the night.

Our first day and night felt seriously action-packed. First were the couple of hours of ride, then meeting twenty new friends. Hauling the luggage around was slightly exhausting, and then flying across the Caribbean to our (nearly) private island for the night. As soon as we arrived, our hosts at the Hotel Porvenir got us all shown to our rooms. We quickly changed, made friends with the hosts while buying beers, and headed for the beautiful white sand beach and into the warm, clear water. Coral and fish abounded, and for a person who really isn't in love with swimming, I spent the better part of the next three hours swimming around, amazed by all I saw.

Relaxing on Porvenir Island after a long, hard day of swimming and walking the beach
Josh wore himself out relaxing, so needed a nap

When Josh and I finally dragged ourselves from the water, we hit the hammocks pretty hard. I'm telling you, it is exhausting spending an entire afternoon on the beach. We drank Panamanian beers, swung lazily in the shade of the island trees, and did nothing more than smile at our new friends, two and three hammocks over. Eventually, we dragged ourselves in to change for dinner, and met up with everyone again.

Dinner was delicious! I mean, really delicious. The fish...oh, gawd it was so good! I. Ate. Everything. After dinner, and another hour or so hanging out on the beach, we headed for bed. The next morning, the sun shone across the water, and we saw the Stahlratte waiting for us. We were gathered in three dinghy-loads of passengers, and deposited on board in time for breakfast. Josh and I, along with an Australian named Paul, had volunteered for clean-up duty after that breakfast--things was the "work" we were asked to contribute. That's it. One meal's worth of dishes, and we were free.

Bunks on the Stahlratte--singles and doubles
Everyone searched for their bunk, waiting with a little label to tell us which was ours. For being 22 people plus 4 crew, the bunks were surprisingly spacious

Josh and I immediately headed to the net below the bowsprit to relax in the sun. And watch dolphins. Dolphins played below us in the bow wave, springing out of the water, bobbing over the top of each other. This was suddenly our vacation from our vacation. It didn't suck.

Dolphins!

We had pulled anchor right after breakfast and began motoring towards the outer edge of the archipelago. Three hours later, we found ourselves dropping anchor and thinking about lunch. In case I forget to mention it at any other time, we did not go hungry. And the food was delicious. And this is coming from a woman who, when not in control of her own food/meals, assumes she will starve because she won't be able to eat enough. This was not an issue.

Vacation from my vacation
Rope swing!

After lunch--and an appropriate amount of time, because we all know what our moms told us about swimming right after eating--we all hopped into the water. We were anchored off a beautiful island, in clear water that was so salty, we just floated. A bunch of people swung off the boat on a rope, some went off to another island to do some snorkeling, and some swam to the shore of the closest island. It was a lazy, fun day in the sun and water. We stayed anchored there as people slowly filtered back on board, rinsing the salt from their hair, and rlaxing on board again.

Dinner came next, though don't be concerned. There had also been afternoon snacks. Anyway, dinner was served, and after clean-up was over, we pulled anchor and made for Cartegena. It would be a solid 18 or so hours of motoring, as the wind was nearly non-existent in the Caribbean at that time. This would be the one big downside for me. Having grown up sailing, and even having done some more in the recent past, I was looking forward to heading across the Caribbean under sail. Sadly, it was not to be.

The next day, people slowly woke up and came above deck. Most of the people on board had a bit, if not quite a bit, of seasickness. I wasn't feeling terribly great after breakfast, so I went back to our bunk, took some Dramamine, and snoozed until it kicked in and my seasickness wore off. I am the only person I know who loves to sail, gets seasick, and just doesn't care. Usually, it only takes a bit of time, or a single dose of some good drugs, to kick my sea legs in and make me feel better.

Our captain, Ludwig

Later in the morning, I joined my shipmates again, and we spent the day chatting, lounging in the sun, and playing dice and card games. Of course, the meals and drinks were ever-present as well. Cokes and other non-alcoholic drinks were all included. Beers ran guests a dollar each, and a bottle of Cuban rum cost $20.

Baz from the Netherlands and Charlie from Toronto/Detroit

As the sun began to set, we spotted land and came into Cartegena with the city's lights blazing in the sky. The city was lovely. We had a final dinner together as a group, including fish and lobsters caught in the waters we were sailing through. We enjoyed the food and each other's company under the night sky, Cartegena's skyline welcoming us as a twinkly backdrop.

That was Sunday night.

Monday was a holiday. Though we would have typically disembarked that morning, taking our bikes and paperwork with us, the holiday made that impossible. We would have the day to ourselves in the city, then reconvene on the dock the following morning. We were picked up and deposited back onto the Stahlratte at 7:00 Tuesday morning, and quickly pulled anchor to head to the pier where we would off-load luggage and bikes.

Spending the day wandering Cartegena's old town, we found a Botero sculpture

We all pitched in to get luggage back above deck and then off the boat. Then, as we were organizing our luggage in the port, the crew along with some local hied help, off loaded the bikes. I felt really excited in a silly way when I got to ride my moto down the pier to my waiting luggage. This was a fun adventure.

Josh was less excited.

As his bike came off the Stahlratte, and he got on and turned it on to ride away, he noticed a sizeable dent in his tank. His bike had been in perfect condition when he left it on the dock in Panama, and now it had a dent that had already, thanks to the salt air we had been sailing through, begun to rust. He was very disappointed. To the captain's credit, when Josh pointed it out to him, he said no problem--send him the bill.

But, that was just the start of the group's problems. Another rider's R1200GS was dropped on the pier as it was being unloaded. I don't believe any real damage was done, other than scratching up some crash bars. But, still...

We all got our luggage put back on, and were instructed to head to the Cartegena Aduana office. Typically, all immigration and customs paperwork is handled by a fixer prior to the Stahlratte arriving in port and unloading. Travelers usually walk off the boat with all the paperwork they need, including the compulsory insurance we had all paid a premium amount for, in order to have this hassle dealt with. Because we arrived on a Sunday night and Monday was a holiday (as it seems every Monday is a holiday in Colombia...) the paperwork was not done. We all sat outside the immigration and Aduana office that morning, waiting for it to come our way.

Around 10:30, the fixer brought us our passports, stamped and ready to go. Yes, we had been running around Cartegena Colombia without having actually been admitted to the country. No biggie....

Now we just had to wait for the customs paperwork and insurance.

We waited...
...and waited...
the awesome women of the Stahlratte. L-R: Andrea, Germany (650GS single), Maryna, South Africa/Australia (700GS), Christine, Canada (700GS), me, Margaret, England (2-up with her son, KLR 650)

It never came. Eventually, we managed to wrangle our customs paperwork from the fixer, but by 4:00 in the afternoon, the insurance still wasn't there. The fixer fed us some line about there being a shortage of the correct motorcycle insurance forms in the city. We would later find out this was untrue.

Four people in our group would have all their paperwork completely done, while the rest of us would be left completely confused and frustrated. To make matters more frustrating, this was all coming down close of business on Tuesday. That left us all having to spend another night in Cartegena, whether we planned to or not (we had NOT planned to, and w pull in fact never make it to the place we had planned to go that night) and having to fix our own problems in the space of one day. We had Wednesday, and Wednesday only. Why?

Starting Thursday, Colombia was celebrating a four day holiday weekend. Apparently Colombia has more holidays than work days. Hell, I say more power to them, but not when I need to get insurance to be riding my motorcycle legally in their country.

Sadly, though we as riders had a whole new group of awesome moto-traveling friends, and though we had had an amazing journey across the Caribbean on a sailing ship more than one hundred years old, seventeen of us were left with a soured taste in our mouths when it came to our experience.

Josh and I, along with a number of other folks left Cartegena and made for Medellin to try and get the insurance issue figured out. Several people from the trip would never purchase it, and several wound up spending an entire day overcoming the obstacle while still in Cartegena.

From what I understand, this was a completely different experience from what other travelers have experienced in the past. This was not what anyone has ever gone through before, nor have I heard of it happening after. Still, it was shitty for us, and that's how the story ends. Boo.

Well, not quite. When we are home from this journey, Josh will get a quote to have his tank replaced and send it to the Stahlratte. We shall see if the captain's word stands true, and they fix what they broke.

Are you confused after reading this as to whether it's is so me thing you should do? Do you wonder if I would do it again?

I would. The on-board experience was fantastic, and I have twenty new friends to keep in touch with around the world. I am finishing this blog six months after we sailed (I started writing it just a couple weeks after, but got sidelined by other things...) and we still, as a group, keep in touch on WhatsApp. The downsides are somewhat considerable--a damaged bike, and we rode through a country for several days without appropriate paperwork--but everything was and is fixable. I think it was worth it, though I am not super precious about my bike, and my fury about the paperwork issue is long in the past.

If you're planning this trip, don't miss this opportunity. There is not anything else quite like it. If you have questions, email me or post them up in the comments. I respond to REAL comments here!

Me, on my pony, on a boat.

 

 

05 May 2018

The (Not So Much) Best Camp Spot

"Uh, Josh, the water is rising!" And so was the pitch of my voice as I realized the moon's reflection on the river was getting closer to us, and not because the moon was moving.

It was our last night in Peru, and all I wanted was to get out of Peru the next day and back into Ecuador. It's not that I didn't love Peru--I did...on days that alternated with ones when I really disliked it. This was a day that started out with a complete mixed bag of feelings about the place, but by late afternoon when we pulled into the wild camp spot we had chosen for the evening, I was smitten again.

For the majority of the month and a half we have spent in Peru, we have stayed in hotels (hostals, hospedajes, etc.) as they tend to be very inexpensive. Our rooms have cost between $18-$70PEN with $1USD=$3.3PEN--so, about $6-22USD and we were in the $22 place only one night. Because there were ample options for inexpensive lodging, usually with secure parking, we only camped three times in Peru. The first time was in El Bosque de las Piedras, the second outside Cajamarca near Cumbemayo, and the last time was our final night in Peru.

We would be leaving Cutervo and heading north, essentially retracing our steps from when we first entered Peru back in November. After a not so stellar night in San Ignacio the very first night we spent in Peru, we knew we wanted to be close to there, but not actually stay in town. IOverlander had the perfect solution. There were two wild camps listed just south of San Ignacio, making a border crossing into Ecuador before officials left for lunch an easy thing the next morning. After reading the descriptions of both and looking at a google map satellite image of each, we chose the option further north. It was described as a perfect place to pitch a tent, "useless for cars...not a problem for motorbikes."

Once we descended below that cloud, the road dried and the temps started to rise.

Leaving Cutervo was a little like a case of Déjà vu, yet not. We had to ride an unpaved mountain road that we had ridden in November, but this time lacked the heavy fog and rain of that first pass. It was a dry, fast road and we descended from Cutervo's high altitude quickly. And then, it wasn't a dry fast road.... The road suddenly looked familiar as we came around a curve smack into a wall of fog, riding through a slick, muddy swamp of a road. Ah, yes, now I recognized it!

This was a great section of road. Most of it was single lane or mud. Or...single lane and mud. Thankfully, there was little traffic.

Luckily for us, the fog (cloud?) thinned quickly, and slick, soupy mud gave way to what was once again a dry, fast dirt road. We continued to descend in altitude, and by the time we hit the valley floor, the temps were in the low 90s and the humidity was in the high 90s.

We made our final left turn onto Peru 5N, and rode a fast, twisty asphalt road for forty-five miles. When we knew we were getting close to our destination, we slowed and looked for a break in what had become dense jungle along the road. We nearly missed the track the first time we rode by, but stopped and turned back. There was a rocky two-track road heading down to the river, that quickly deteriorated into a baby-head boulder single track, ending on the beach.

And it totally was a beach! A wide expanse of sand greeted us, with a rushing wide river and green mountains in the background. It was time to break out the chairs and a bottle of wine, and enjoy what was quickly becoming a great night. As we sat having our first glasses, we surveyed the area, and after deciding where we would put the tent, Josh went after a small rock sticking out of the perfect tent site. As he dug down farther and farther--discovering that the rock had been like an iceberg in that we only saw about ten percent of it--the sand seemed quite wet. Much of the sand looked wet, but it looked in the area like it had rained recently.

The sand closer to the river's edge looked very wet also, and I remember saying something like, "Why does it look like this river has a tide?" Josh said it seemed strange to have all that sand without salt water. It really did look like an ocean beach. The spot we chose for the tent was high on the bank, far from the river's edge, and we got it set up, poured second glasses of wine, and started making dinner. This was a beautiful spot!

Our view across the river. Peru may not have good coffee or beer, but the views are pretty great!

By the time we were finished cooking, the sun had set. Though there were a few wispy clouds above, the stars began to shine in spectacular fashion. We sat for long minutes sipping our wine, heads lying back staring skyward. The Milky Way was making a beautiful showing, and a particularly bright star just above the low mountains across the river was making a path of light across the water.

Out loud, I thanked Peru for giving us a beautiful last night in the country. The following day we would do what we knew would be a pretty easy border crossing, from the mountains of Peru to the mountains of Ecuador. I was feeling pretty content--full of good food and wine, and the beauty of the surrounding area.

I looked again at the trail of light across the river, admiring the star's ability to reach so far, and realized something was a little off. The trail of light seemed to reach closer to where we were sitting. Really close to where we were sitting. I grabbed my headlamp, turned it on full-blast and shone it on what should have been dry sand ten feet from where we were sitting. It was no longer dry sand...it was the rushing river.

In the dark, while we were gazing up, the river level had risen fourteen feet. What the hell!?!

Realizing the wet sand hadn't been left over from a rainstorm, Josh and I sprung into action. We grabbed everything out of the tent except sleeping pads and pillows, and hauled it back out the road we had come in on. I remembered a relatively flat spot that would be just wide enough for the tent, about halfway back up the narrow, rocky road. After depositing the tent's contents out of harm's way, we picked up the tent and moved it up the road.

As we walked it up through the narrow jungle plants and trees, hundreds of bugs flew directly for the headlamps lighting our way. Bugs flew up my nose and fluttered in clouds in front of my eyes. I mentally retched, but kept on with my task. As soon as we got the tent in its spot, I flipped my headlamp from white light to red--good-bye bugs!

After we managed to get all the tent's contents reunited with it, we went back for the bikes. We had left them in slightly tricky parking spots as that is all there was. My plan had been to ride on the beach a little the next morning--that would get me turned around pretty easily, and heading back up hill in the right direction. But now, there was no beach. Josh and I worked together, shoving and pushing my bike in a six-point turn, and he rode it up to the tent. Next, we tackled his bike, pushing it around in what was quickly becoming stifling humidity, the evening's beautiful breeze having died completely away.

We thought we'd be camping on the beach--we ended up with the tent on a jungle "road"

By the time the bikes were squared away, we were hot! But, we still had one task to complete--we had moved the dinner dishes and stove to a safe spot another fifteen feet higher than the new river bank, but we still had to clean up. In the hot, damp, dark, with insects flying into our noses and ears, we cleaned the dishes and packed up what we could. We each grabbed a few things, and with everything taken care of, we headed up the road to where the bikes and tent were.

Josh got about ten feet, stopped, and said, "Uh, there is a river here, now."

What???

In the time it took us to do dishes, a second river--one that ran parallel to the original and had not been there before--had begun flowing between us and the rest of our things.

That was it. That was the limit for me. Now we were being surrounded by water. I felt trapped. We couldn't just pack everything up and ride away. It was dark, the road out was treacherous, narrow, and rocky in the daylight--not something to be tackled at night after a bottle of wine. I got a little panicky. Thankfully, the "new" river was a small stream and I could pick my way across, hopping from rock to rock. Looking back now, it wasn't as horrible as I thought at the time.

I kept asking Josh if he thought we were on high enough ground. He assured me we were--we were so high up compared to where we were before. I agreed but then pointed out that some mysterious river had appeared out of no where! How did he know another wouldn't appear and flow right through where we were? I finally had to just get in the tent and hope we wouldn't drown in it or have all our stuff wash into the jungle. I crawled into the sweltering tent, and began inflating my sleeping pad and rearranging things.

Eventually, after one last trip to the river's (new) edge to make sure we had grabbed everything, Josh joined me. I was a sweaty, panicky, hot mess, and I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep. Just two hours earlier I had looked at the patch of sand thinking how comfortable it would be to lie on it and fall asleep with the river breeze keeping me cool. Now, I was drenched, lying on top of my sleeping bag with a hard lump of a boulder beneath my left shoulder, trying to read and get my mind to turn off. I was also feeling pretty pissed-off at Peru, and pretty glad I was leaving the next day.

And then, it started to rain.

It rained just a little at first, but within a few minutes, it was pouring rain, and I was making a mental inventory of things that we had left out in our haste. Our chairs--well, our first cup of coffee in the morning would result in wet butts. My riding pants--they were mostly covered by my duffel but I couldn't remember if the waistband was sticking out, or the hems. I hoped for the hems. The trash bag--well, it may or may not hold up to the weight of being filled with water. We might be cleaning garbage and a broken wine bottle up the next morning if it gave way.

It was a pretty sleepless night. I woke up a few times needing to rework my sleeping bag up to the top of the tent--the angle we were on was enough to make me slowly slide down. At one point Josh woke violently from a dream involving a monkey and something grabbing his shoulder. It wasn't a pretty night, and it seemed like the sun was blazing in the sky way before I felt rested.

The water rose all the way to the line of driftwood in the picture.

Amazingly enough, though the sun was out enough to wake me, it wasn't out enough for it to not be raining. We waited, reading, until the rain finally let up. Josh got dressed and headed out to make coffee. A few minutes later, I emerged from the tent gazing warily at the sky. It was blue above me, but I was pretty sure I was getting rained on. As I walked down the road to the beach where Josh was making coffee, it began to rain again in earnest, and I ducked under some cane plants for cover. Josh stood, tending coffee in the rain, like the hero he is.

By the time we were able to have a couple cups of coffee, read some more, have breakfast, pan for gold (I'm kind of kidding, kind of not...), pack our bikes, and get on the road, the rain was gone and the sun was out in full force. With everything packed up, the water having receded sometime during the night, and the ceasing of the rain, the camp actually looked pretty good.

Funnily enough, the water stopped rising about three feet from where we had the tent, and the "new" river didn't run into it. Had we just hopped into the tent and gone to sleep, it would have been fine. The bikes would have been lying in water, as a pool had gathered there, and the kickstand would have dug in until they slipped and gave way completely. But, in the midst of frantic running around and panicking, we were still able to appreciate that this is adventure!

 

29 April 2018

San Marcos Mercado

The view of the livestock area of the San Marcos Mercado
This story starts in Huamachuco, Peru. After unloading a few things into the room, we rode the bikes to the other side of the plaza to the secure parking lot the hostal shared with a restaurant. There were already four little bikes in the motos area, so we parked mine and left Josh's bike next to a truck, with a promise to return later in the evening to swap it once the little bikes were gone. As the afternoon wore on, we decided we would just go eat dinner at the restaurant, so we'd already be there when it needed to happen. Great idea, right?

Bad idea. Such a bad idea.

We spent the entire rest of the day in bed with food poisoning, trying to rest and feel a bit better. This was my second time being sick on the trip, and Josh's third--all of which happened in Peru, from nicer restaurants. Screw it, we said, we are going back to eating street food and in tiny restaurants that also sell various, random things.

The next morning, Josh was feeling considerably better, but I was still feeling iffy. As we had no plans we had to follow, I decided I'd stay in bed another day. Somewhere around 8, a stall set up across the road in the plaza, complete with giant speakers, and they began blasting music. And not only were they blasting music, but they started with the Incan flute versions of Simon and Garfunkel songs. I am not kidding.And then it got worse.

Abba.

Not Incan flute Abba, but Abba cover mashups.

I lie in bed, desperately trying to block it out and fall asleep, until I could take it no more.
Josh got back from getting himself coffee and checking on the bikes, and I asked if we could get them out. When he said yes, I told him to pack his crap. We were out of there. The only thing that was going to make my food poisoning feel worse was to suffer through it while listening to that music.
So we rode on, about seventy miles to the town of San Marcos. I don't remember much of the ride, except it started with crappy pavement, dirt, and mud, then between Cajabamba and San Marcos, the last thirty-six miles very wide easy pavement. Though the riding had become easy at that point, I couldn't ride any farther.
Feeling unwell, and extremely weak and dehydrated, we stopped at the one hostal in the area mentioned on iOverlander. I guess there was no one else staying, because we were given a huge, sparkling clean room with an enormous jacuzzi tub. Later that evening I would fill the tub and find that the jets don't work, but I so didn't care. A bath is not a luxury I've had on this trip with the exception of a few hot springs here and there. I was in heaven and spent easily forty-five minutes just sitting in the hot tub, reading my book.
The following morning we woke to a lot of noise in the town. I was surprised a town that small could be so noisy! I finally felt like eating something, so around 8, we headed to the plaza for a cup of coffee. While walking there, I looked further down the street and saw it was market day. We had only coffee, and decided we would grab something to eat within the street market.
If only I knit...
All the ladies hats and all the shiny pots!
We began slowly wandering through the market, taking in the stalls filled with produce, clothing, brightly designed synthetic blankets, and all the beans, peas, and grains you could imagine. As we turned onto other streets, I realized why the town was so noisy that morning. This is THE market for all the neighboring towns on Sunday. Thousands of people had descended upon San Marcos to sell what they grew, find what they need for the week, and of course, the most important thing--socialize.
In Peru they make baskets out of old tires!
We finally came to one end of the market, and as we looked through the stalls where all the señoras were making and selling breakfast, we saw the livestock portion of the market. It was vast, with hundreds of people and more animals. That portion of the market sat down below the street above, and people were lined up along the rail, watching, pointing, deciding, and waving to others they knew down below.
In the yard, cows, calves, burros, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats all waited--sometimes patiently, sometimes not--for where they would be going next. I was fascinated as I watched the movement and listened to the sounds below. I loved the movement, noise, and smells, wandering through the animals giving them discreet little pats or giving a horse a good scratch beneath its itchy halter.
But, I hated seeing the condition some of the animals were in, and the way some of the people treated them. There was a beautiful grey horse, who was acting like a butthole. I stood watching him from above for at least half an hour. He was spirited, and unhappy about having been tied in one spot all day. After watching all the horses for the better part of an hour, he is the one I would have bought. Despite his attitude, as I watched his male owner handle him, it was clear what had turned him into a butthole.
Hie owner untied him at the end of the day, readying him and the other three horses not sold to make the journey home. For the most part, the grey was calm, but would occasionally kick or bite at one of the other horses, make some noise, or stamp hooves. His owner, who had tightly wrapped his lead a third time over the sensitive area just above his nostrils would yank on the lead line when he did that, essentially telling him he was bad. But then, at one point when the grey was standing calmly, his owner swung the end of the lead and hit the grey in the face. This of course made the horse yank his head up and behave badly.
So, the horse had basically just been told that when he acted out, he would be punished, and when he behaved well he would be punished. You know what, I'd be a butthole too if I was treated that way.
This is how they loaded all the animals into the large livestock trucks. They don't believe in ramps, and it was often a big step for the animals into the truck.
This wasn't an isolated incident. It killed me to watch, but I also had to remember that this is not my home and not my culture. I don't have to approve, but I certainly won't be listened to here, either, if I voice my disgust. I am the outsider.
These two kept going at each other in a rather comical way. At any time, either of them could have walked away, but they didn't.
There were naked-necked chickens and frizzles!
We spent almost the whole day--until about three in the afternoon--wandering, eating, catching escaped young chickens and returning them to their pens with a grateful "Gracias" from the owners who were working hard to sell them. At one point, as we were standing above, looking down on the cows, one cow directly below us slipped free, and he began wandering the lot. I scanned the crowd, expecting to see his owner come running to grab him and re-tie him, as there were no fences to keep him there. He wandered for a while and I looked at Josh and asked if he thought I should go grab the cow and take him back. He looked at me like I was insane, then said we should probably move so no one would think the gringos had caused the problem.
This is the escapee cow. He wandered for a good fifteen minutes before someone grabbed him and tied him back up.
This little girl with her bull! He started to walk away at one point, and the girl's mom dragged him back. Then, the little girl promptly demanded his lead be returned to her. This is her cow!
And we were the ONLY gringos there. And with Josh being over six feet tall, and me towering over all the women and a large number of the men, too, we were obvious. People stared. A lot. But, a quick smile and greeting in Spanish usually made them smile right back. We had a great conversation with three young girls and their mom, while Josh ate a bowl of chicharron and choclo--the girls practiced English, Josh practiced Spanish, and I helped them all out.
Chicken soup for breakfast. We shared a bowl and after it was nearly done, the señora came over and re-filled it for us. It was delicious! And cost about $1.33US
This is how they make the BEST soup! She built a fire on the ground and set her pots on bricks.
The day wound up being great! This is not the Chichicastenango market--it isn't in every guide book around, deemed a must see in a foreign place that is now a tourist attraction. This was every Sunday in the small city of San Marcos, in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. It was a beautiful glimpse into the lives of the locals, and a culinary experience! I am so glad Huamachuco played that horrid music and forced me out of their city!