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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

July 18, 2011

The Route Less Travelled

Map picture
We intended to visit San Gil but instead stayed with Jota and his family, thank goodness. We had such a good time hanging out, singing, drinking and eating. The hospitality from this family is first class and they made a good experience great. We camped at their place, visited San Gil and got an exceptional tour. The city is very nice; it is everything the tourist books might suggest. Jota took us to a farmer’s market, or Mercado, where we experienced various fruits, meats and food.
Deya and I make an effort to go to these markets for a couple of reasons: first you get local goods and second they are cheap so it helps us stick to our budget. That means we have visited a lot of markets throughout the Americas and this single market beats them all. The produce is laid out with pride, the meat shop clean, separate from the rest without much smell, the food vendors produce a quality restaurant level food for pennies and the whole place is spotless. Needless to say, impressed!
Near San Gil there is a well known but not highly touristic town called Barichara. This town is quiet, artistic, old and beautiful. Set atop the ridge of a massive valley it’s a place I could spend time, they roll up the side walk around dinner time and you would not find a bar or pub playing loud music in the evening. Likely you might find classical music and some wine in a café or gallery around the town. That’s my preferred speed.
We set off at 6:30 am heading along route 62, a secondary road that would take us to meet our buddy Diego in Puerto Berrio, who would be waiting at a military check point by noon that day. The route would be about 150 kilometres and we were told about 4 hours. Once we met with Diego we would have another 200 kilometres to travel to get to Medellin.
We started off with no maps, loose directions and a GPS with no map and slightly broken. Needless to say we spent the better part of an hour going in the wrong direction. It was a rough but enjoyable warm up for what we were about to find but certainly not a mistake that we needed that day as time would become precious.
When we finally doubled back and found the right route it was very pleasant. The road was good and the 4 hours estimate seemed overstated though I expected the road to worsen and it did. The route took us through several small villages and military checkpoints. We made a special stop to talk to some young soldiers. Many of the police and soldiers look very young but this is reassuring as they play a very important role in their country’s development. The road stayed in good conditions until we came across a heavy equipment hauler that was stuck in a collapsed road. The bikes had no problem with the obstacle but the truck was going to be there a while for sure.
It didn’t seem to matter about the rough road; Deya and I were eating it up. At one point during a stop I complimented Deya on her riding, it wasn’t just fast but very smooth. I told her she was riding like a hungry lion, she responded that she was picking her lines and going for it. It made the riding awesome and fun. I cautioned her not to get over confident though she was doing everything right. It was not long after that things turned ugly.
The road was wet but not difficult and the heat was severe. I was feeling queasy and my stomach had knots. Despite this we were still making good time and riding like a well disciplined team. Then Deya hit a very unassuming and slippery spot, going down hard on the left side. She was standing on the pegs and manoeuvred expertly shifting her weight to the left behind the sliding tire but as the front tire went down on what looked like a flat spot but was actually sloped, the back tire followed. The panniers twisted dramatically and the bike swung around leaving Deya half standing beside the bike. Though muddy and dirty the ground was quite hard, it left Deya with only sore wrists from the twisting fall and impact.
We picked up the pieces and bent the pannier back into shape enough to carry on with very little damage to the equipment despite the speed and impact of the fall. Good stuff! As we carried on Deya’s pace reasonably slowed until we got to a small but active town. Since we started the day without anything to eat we decided to stop for lunch. The lunch was about $3 dollars and came with coffee, croissant, a plate of BBQ’d meat with potatoes, yuca, seasoned rice and a bowl of chicken parts soup, far more than we needed. Of course as we ate there was a crowd gathering around the bikes and plenty of people asking questions. This was not a common route for bikers like us.
Back on the road Deya’s mental block was fully engaged and my physical block was getting worse. She was slowing right down and I felt like puking. As we rode I remember thinking what Deya said about the food giving her gas, I too felt like I was flatulent and the stress of standing and riding through the somewhat rugged road meant that I wasn’t too shy to release the demons if they should arise.
As I rounded a somewhat washed out corner the need to eliminate a little methane was strong and in the heat, with a bit of nausea and frustration at Deya’s now weak riding I didn’t resist much. Mistake! I’m not ashamed, it’s not the first time and won’t be the last but what is difficult about shitting your pants is the realization that a diaper would be better than your shorts and riding pants. The now uncomfortable feeling that is not going to go away for several more hours coupled with other obstacles meant misery. I stopped to tell Deya and puzzle about the problem, it was funny and we had a laugh though I wasn’t feeling well and the difficulty of the situation had not changed. A good ride now seemed, well, the shits.
I was able to stop and clean up a bit in the bush at the side of the road but as you can imagine the damage was done. Deya was now in full retreat due to her accident. As we approached hills and mud Deya would freeze and I would have to ride my bike through the obstacles then walk back to get Deya’s bike and ride it through as well. As you can imagine, I was upset, I was with full armour, boots and helmet at 35 degrees Celsius heat, walking up and down hills and getting on and off bikes. This would go on for an hour or so but this was not the most painful part.
As I’m dripping with sweat I began projectile puking, now imagine this, as old ladies on 125cc bikes with bald tires and packing three children, all without safety equipment slosh through the mud puddles with ease, I’m walking back to ride Deya’s bike through the same apparently impossible mud puddle. I was pissed and while I resented her for it, I disagree with it and think it was pathetic; I would do it again and again until I was dead if I had too.
While I sat pouting and partially defeated I remembered that Deya is a real trooper for even getting to that point and I love her to bits so I’m okay with a little suffering but I won’t hide the fact that it was a hard go, emotionally.
The madness was near an end and Deya started to paddle through the puddles making my life way better. Finally we stopped near a river where water was pouring from a natural stream. I headed for the river to wash my clothes and personals while Deya dunked her head in the fall. It made all the difference, the coolness of the water and the now cleaner wet clothes eased the heat and gave us a better, happier outlook.P7100107
We made it out of the dirt and back onto asphalt getting gas and chatting with some folks in a small village. Since eight o’clock in the morning people had been drinking and we could expect all these people to be driving as well at some point. P7100109The road from there was uneventful until we reached our destination and Diego. By the time we got to Diego we would have been riding for 8 hours. Far greater than the suggested 4 hours the locals, who never travel the route estimated. Having only covered 150 kilometres we still had another 200 to go.
The route to Medellin was easy, though the traffic was still insane. At one point, in the dark, the traffic very heavy, cars were passing on double yellows with many not having headlights. For all the effort to gain a minute or two on their commute there was an accident. It would stop us for about 45 minutes, it would stop a truck, a car and kill two motorcyclists for their impatience. Passing the tragedy I felt only sadness for the poor decision to drive like a retard without any safety equipment. We were told this is very common here, I have no doubts.
Thanks to Diego for bringing us into Hostel Medellin safety, it was an easy route, a good place for motorbikes and reasonably priced. Diego is one of the non retarded drivers in Colombia and we were glad to ride with him. We will spend the next week or two checking out Medellin, one of the more advanced cities in South America.

July 15, 2011

Introducing Colombia

Map picture
We stayed aboard the boat for the night in Cartagena, our destination would eventually be Santa Marta past Barranquilla, North East headed towards Venezuela.

The unload from the boat is not a direct lift onto a solid surface, more of a four man drag up the side of a wet wharf onto an unsure surface. But somehow after all that I’ve seen, it wasn't as stressful as the sling over open water. Regardless, it was a relief to have it done.

We would be heading directly, as is required by law, to the DIAN or Customs to gain clearance. The Captain had already arranged a broker to help clear and we simply needed to show up for the inspection, documentation and clearance. This would end up taking several hours probably longer than needed since the broker was somewhat useless and tended to slow things down. Dan did not have the broker’s assistance and his clearance was actually faster and smoother than ours; of course Deya was present and she has a way of grinding a process whether it wants to move or not.

We learned several things again about the Customs and port process, though it was not knew to me it was a first hand experience.  Our process was somewhat simple but some others who had used containers had very expensive port handling fees and wait times, a caution to those thinking the cost (FOB or CFR Cartagena) of importation and handling over the ships rail is covered.
After spending time sweating at the Customs office we headed to a hotel where the bulk of the passengers were going. We had a very good price compliments to Ludwig’s connections and the place was very nice. It was walking distance to the old quarter and to a large fort. The rest of the folks that joined us on the Stahlratte had moved to a new hostel that was fractionally cheaper and met their needs better.

The city of Cartagena is very nice, and not too difficult to get around. As with any place caution is needed when walking alone and especially at night. The good thing is that there are literally bus loads of police moving around the city, it looks like football teams of cops roaming around and you have a sense of real security. Unlike in other Latin American countries if you have trouble you head for the police or military right away because they actually are the good guys.
The city reminded us of Cuba somewhat and walking down the streets and checking out some of the sights was pleasant.  We were only there for two days but we spent some time wandering with knew friends Kai and Annette from Germany.  They are riding a BMW with sidecar, lovingly modified over the last twelve years of travel by Kai.

P6250032A local artist is famous for his fat people paintings which feature naked fat chicks. You might laugh or be offended at first but there so well done that they inspire form and sophistication and offer a smooth appearance of class.
We never entered the primary Fort because it costs 8 bucks each and we would not have time to explore it so it wasn't worth it, maybe on the way back we thought. We exited Cartagena heading towards Santa Marta with no maps and very little GPS help. The GPS at this point is failing badly due to screen damage and I don't know how to get it fixed while we are on the move. Maps are also hard to find here so we have to ask for direction which is always an adventure. The common answer to directional problems is either ‘Derecho’ (straight) or ‘Izquierda’ (left). The issue is that if the only option is to turn left or right we get ‘Derecho’, if the answer is ‘Izquierda’ then they wave their arms madly to the right. Baffles me every time.

The road led us to Baranquilla, this town is a total dump full of garbage, pollution, exhaust, sketchy folks and amounts to one long traffic jam. The poverty surrounding the city was shocking and Deya was moved by the somewhat hopeless appearance of it. The heat and traffic didn’t help much either and we were in no mind to linger here.

Retarded Colombian Drivers
Please realise I mean no offense to actual retards because they have a legitimate ailment however I mean every offense to the majority of Colombian drivers that have crossed us. Here is how I see it.

In all the Americas that we have travelled from Canada to Colombia we have seen total retards behind the wheel.  The issue is, what percentage of the drivers are retarded?  In Canada, in a big city you will inevitably find 2-5 or less out of every 100 cars that come near your safety bubble to be retards.  As we head South the percentage seems to increase.  In a first aid scenario, statistically speaking, they say for every 100 near misses you can expect 1 medical aid; that means bad news. 

We've been hit by a drunk driver in North Vancouver, road raged on by a Newfoundlander while looking for shelter in a hurricane and bumped at speed by a truck in Guadalajara.  There have been countless numbers of stupid manoeuvres and we dodged bullets through every country. This seems normal and is the greatest danger we face, period.  The trouble in Colombia is that at least 95 of every 100 motorbike, car, truck or transport vehicle does something completely retarded within our danger zone.  Simply Colombians should be ashamed of their nation's driving and it suggests something about the nation's attitude towards its rule of law, social standards and value of human life.  There are many excuses for this and I have the privilege and the right not to accept a single one. Done.

Santa Marta and the Grande Casa
We arrived at our location, hot and sweaty.  Our good friend in Vancouver had hooked us up with his friends here and we had intended to spend a good amount of time on the beach, collecting ourselves, catching up on blogs and generally lounging around.

It was a nice spot and our host Jota and his family are fantastic people.  It was also pretty busy, hot and cautiously dangerous with black flies that were able to brutalize the uncovered tourist.  Despite those natural deficiencies we were able to fully recharge ourselves and prepared for departure. We had learned that a return trip on the Stahlratte would be made in November 2011 to Cuba, this would advance our schedule somewhat and have us leave the beach early. 

P7040024The beach was good to us and we enjoyed the folks we met there, we even attempted a beach oven and made some Irish bread. My masonry however is lacking and the oven never survived long enough to attempt a pizza before we left.

The roller coaster of emotions became evident as we left since every great experience seemed to get trumped by 20 bad driving experiences.  We would stop frequently to swear and curse for a bit before reminding each other not to get sour and keep a positive attitude.  It works, the swearing then remembering to be positive,  helps to appreciate the little wins.
Headed south we stayed in Pailitas

Our first night would be spent in a lovely little town called Pailitas where we would discover some local foods that were fantastic.  The prices are pretty cheap and after a long hot haul it’s difficult not to want a cold shower and a closed door.  We intended to stay in Aguachica but simply could not make it there.
The next stop had intending to be San Gil the following day but as we entered the industrial looking town of Bucaramanga we had a problem.  We stopped for gas but could not get money from the ATM until the following day so needed to use our credit card.  Deya was very clear when she confirmed that they could accept our foreign credit card.  After the gas was pumped the attendant took the card then returned to say the card was rejected, we checked, it wasn't rejected the problem was the station's connection had failed.  They refused to return our card so we could go find money and would not accept us spending the night to get the 12 dollars the next morning.

P7070024In the ensuing commotion the shop's owner across the street muscled through the crowd and gave the gas station bosses hell, then paid for our gas. This is our impression of Colombians, generous and friendly people. It meant that we would spend the night to pay this guy back right away.  The town was expensive and unattractive but the experience was great. The following morning after repaying our champion he also guided us through the labyrinth out of town.

The rest of route was filled with Colombian drivers, though our friend says they hire Mexicans to do the driving for them. As we neared San Gil a random scream came at us that sounded like ‘Mexico!’, we continued, shortly after a car full of screaming people waved by.  Also not uncommon but as we entered the city the car with screaming people had turned around and followed us to a stop.  It was our friend Jota’s wife from Santa Marta.  It was completely random as we had never expected to see them again. Jota had seen us on the road and screamed ‘Mexico!’ and called his wife in town to track us down, we were now in good hands and invited to the family's farm for lunch.
Cartagena, Pailitas, Santa Marta to San Gil

July 11, 2011

Stahlratte – Steel Rat


Panama finished fantastically for us, we were able to enjoy time with the family and have great respect and fondness for them. We watched the cousins play some American football, saw their daily lives and work as well as shared great food and friends. A part of our research was accomplished at a local manufacturer, the tour and questions were very interesting and our host was a real pleasure to meet and get to know. My regards for such a good interview.
It was difficult having to leave, I must admit discovering some relations in Panama was outstanding and the family was just very enjoyable to be around. However, guests are like fish, they begin to smell after a few days so we had to force ourselves out. The family didn’t make it easy for us I might add. We initiated the departure by heading to the Panama Passage ( http://www.panamapassage.com/ ) to tent for the night, this would help cut the cord for us and get us along our journey again. We cleared Customs through a lengthy process and found out that our entry into Panama, though we had the right documents, was never recorded. We had this corrected but it highlights the tip of the iceberg in systemic problems that seem to plague borders.
The route out was easy but would take several hours to reach Carti on the Atlantic coast of Panama, crossing into the province of Darien; the only vehicles you see there are jeeps. Just before we turn off towards Carti we stopped to confirm our directions in a bus stop. As I left the bus stop I made several mistakes that seemed very amateur. First, I stopped at a paved bus stop in Latin America (Oil covered pavement from crappy, unmaintained busses?); second, it was hot and raining lightly but not enough to wash the oil away; third, I accelerated fast to get up to highway speed as I merged. The result was a fast impact on the ground, left side. Deya said I went down like a champ and manoeuvred wildly to try to control the bike but that’s a joke. I went down like a chump, just about broke my leg and left at least three meters of aluminum scrapped into the asphalt as proof. The glory is that Touratech Panniers held like champs and the new hole in the bottom corner drains any water nicely that might get in there during the heavier rains. The Wolfman bags on the front also go a long way to save the bike from any other damage, sweet!
Not deterred by the fall but with a painful leg to remind me I carried on, the road almost totally paved all the way, towards Carti and the Stahlratte. Deya was a little stressed because of the rain and the oil sloshed all over the road from dilapidated trucks and steep hills, though the oil was mostly superficial. This made her experience tough, also because she tends to see me crash when I’m supposed to be the seasoned rider...lol… It was a wild ride and in ideal conditions would be absolutely fantastic with so many twists and turns and mountain vistas. Of course the route is steep and the corners are not engineered to any degree of sense, speed would be hazardous and having 3-4 tonne Land Cruisers cresting hills on your side of the road with no way to see each other is pretty common, so take caution there is no where to run off the road.
After a 9 dollar toll and a 2 dollar entrance fee each we got to a dock where we would load the bikes onto the Stahlratte  (http://www.stahlratte.de/ ). The Stahlratte is a 230 tonne steel hulled motor sail. It was commissioned around 1903 as a fishing vessel and had many modifications since then. It’s owned by a non profit organization and has volunteers on board for several months at a time. The money goes to support the boat’s operation. The Captain, Ludwig, is simply fantastic and inspires confidence. The bikes are safer on board than with any other sailing vessel offering the same voyage from Central to South America. This is because the ship is huge and even in heavier seas bow spray does not soak the bikes with corrosive salt water. After the first day of sitting by the water our break discs were starting to corrode, I can’t image what a single wave of sea water would do to all the other bits and pieces on the bike.
We loaded the bikes and to be honest, unless you’re a sociopath your heart twitches a little to see your bread and butter swinging out over open water. With both bikes aboard the relief was immense.
Loading Deya’s Bike
We would spend the rest of the day on the water in Carti, collecting the rest of the travellers and waiting for Immigration to show up to stamp us out. I understand that the Stahlratte is the only vessel of this type that Immigration makes a special trip to see. In total there was about a dozen passengers plus four crew members.
P6190128We spent the first night on the boat in Carti and a BBQ dinner with the Kuna people that night including a dance on one of the hut filled islands. One of the huts was sporting a Quebec flag and the lady preparing the BBQ was the Kuna wife of a Canadian, this is not common. The next day we loaded more people.
The other biker, Daniel, is worthy of special mention, his bike Natasha is truly a masterpiece, a center of attention and a real draw, pun intended, for the kids as he made special stops to let children in different community draw on his bike. Daniel had made his way to one of the Kuna islands by canoe and was loaded onto the zodiac to transport to the Stahlratte. More interesting than Natasha though is Daniel himself, a well travelled young adventurer with a talent for languages, photography and unexploded ordinance, Daniel has a nice portfolio of stories (http://www.dantpeters.com/) and adventure in various parts of the globe.
The rest of the passengers all had an interesting story to tell, I think typically these trips contain back packers more than anything else. Young, fun and out to explore the world, these folks make for interesting times and a lot of energy.
Once everyone was aboard and accounted for, the Captain laid down the rules, pretty much don’t do anything too stupid, help out in the kitchen, eat, drink and be merry. Awesome.
By early afternoon we were headed to the San Blas Islands under full sail and steam. It was only a few hours before we got to our destination where we would stay for two nights. Simply this is not enough time. P6200170San Blas is Paradise and I almost don’t want to mention it in case the hordes go there and spoil the good stuff. While the sun burns the body the ocean cures and invigorates life in this little gem of the sea. I wish people could do more to protect what we have abused for so long.
Regardless, we got there in good time and parked between a few deserted islands amongst the reefs and clear blue sea.
It was spectacular, the Stahlratte being a huge platform for snorkelling, and jumping off. The evening would be spent on one of the islands having a massive lobster BBQ and listening to Ludwig sing and play guitar.
The Captain sings
I’ve never enjoyed so much the feeling of just dropping your drawersP6200210P6210221and jumping into the water when ever you want, swimming from island to island or cruising the reefs looking at all the oddities, sharks and coral things around.
Following fish
As soon as it got a little hot the routine was to jump in, swim a lap around the boat, climb out, rinse off (fresh water), and wander the deck. Man, what a good time. There where other sail boats around from 35-50 foot in general and I now understand why they show up and just sit there for months at a time. Paradise.
We enjoyed fabulous food, wine and beer, played some games that will crack you up and keep you going well into the night. But as all things must and should, time comes for change and we had to depart.
P6200147Just a squeeze of limeP6210266P6210275P6210280P6210277
Typical dinner
The route out was an early start, I slept in because I had already done my kitchen duty but I got up anyways and headed to the galley to help, pick at food or hang out. It was all good for about an hour when the sea began to move and my land legs struggled to keep me steady. The rest of the day turned to a slow churning chaos of pale faces and wandering ghosts about the rolling vessel.
Nearly all passengers and crew were feeling the drain of the sea. Some of us slept below, other wandered from place to place on deck laying down randomly to find just a moment of peace, but there was little.
Only Ludwig, a Master of the Sea, stood stoically behind the helm, spinning the wheel left and right, shouting something like, “AHHAR, THERE BE MOSNTERS IN THAR SEAS BEYOND!” or something like that, I can’t be sure.
For lunch everyone was trying their best to man up and get to the table and if I had half the wit required I would have had my camera to capture some self defecating photos and scenes like Robin, who could be seen by all, ghastly looking having disappeared into the abyss of the boat all day, crawling on his hands and knees with a stick of bread hanging from his mouth towards the table on the top deck. It was such a funny scene yet nobody was able to laugh and I kicked myself for not having the forethought to capture such an incredible moment, which was sure to materialize, for future enjoyment. Good job Robin!
By day two almost everybody had sea legs and was able to eat and move about the boat. The day was certainly uneasy though despite the new mobility, I felt like I had been punished badly from the inside out and would take a couple more days to recover for sure. By early afternoon we would arrive in Cartagena, Colombia but would have to wait for both Immigration and Customs to clear before we left. The rest of the passengers would go ashore and wait for their passports, Deya and I stayed aboard with the bikes. The following day we would unload the bikes and clear Customs, before venturing into the old fort city and one of Colombia’s most important ports.
Thanks to the Stahlratte, Ludwig and crew for an amazing journey and a safe departure and arrival. We hope to sail with you again.