Sunday, 24 July 2011

Finally, a bike on a bike trip!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A day of firsts

Poor old Charlie had spent the past 36 hours with an unforgiving and relentless stomach bug. It had sapped him of his energy and rendered him useless until finally the cocktail of pharmaceuticals started to take effect. With this window of opportunity to move more than 10m away from the bathroom, Charlie was ready to get the hell out of Costa Rica and make a break for Panama  along with Tom, Alex and I.

We stuffed down another tasty buffet breakfast, packed our bikes, oiled the chains and planned our route towards the smaller Costa Rica/Panama border crossing in Rio Sereno. We had it from good advice that this was a much calmer, more relaxed and less bureaucratic way to exit and enter countries.

This was a bitter sweet moment for me. On one hand, my motorbike adventure was officially about to begin after almost a year of planning; on the other, I was genuinely nervous about what I was getting myself in for. 

As a convoy of 4 bikes, we left our hotel in San Jose and headed towards the Pacific coast. It wasn't long before the heavens opened and sent down a torrential rain storm. Needing gas, we found cover at a local gas station where we also took the opportunity to get our rain gear on. There was talk about waiting out the worst of the storm but it soon became obvious that we would be waiting a long wait. It was now or never.

Soon enough we were in 10,000ft altitude, soaking to the bone and traversing pot hole ridden twisty wet roads whenever we could actually see them through the fog. It didn't take long to start discovering the short-comings of my gear. My helmet in particular was failing spectacularly. Knowing I would only be riding during daylight hours, I bought my tinted visor. Not the best equipment choice when you're high in the mountains and in low light from the dark clouds above sending down thick, heavy rain. Put the visor up and my moments of clear vision were obviously interrupted with intense discomfort as needle like rain peppered my face like a blast from a shotgun. Visor down means an instant fog up and a Ray Charles type perspective of the road ahead. Most of my time was spent alternating between two or three visor positions to find the optimal balance of comfort and visibility. Oh well, you ride, you learn I guess!

About the time I started to lose the feeling in a few of my fingers, I saw Charlie (in the lead) pull over to a small restaurant somewhere high in the mountains. Funnily enough it was called "Charlie's Restaurant". We all followed keen to get escape from these conditions for a moment or two. 

I thought about the past few hours ride and just how mentally exhausting it was. My first day of riding in Costa Rica was also the first day I have ever ridden my bike fully loaded, the first time in fog, rain or altitude and all while on the opposite side of the road accustomed too. To be honest, I didn't have the spare brain power to love it or to hate it. I was just doing my best to continue living from turn to turn. 

Being my first day on the road with these boys, I wasn't in any rush to admit any weakness. These guys had been riding for months, who am I to have a whinge on day one. They however were well entitled to whinge and whinge they did. It wasn't just me finding these conditions challenging after all. We all had a hot drink to warm up, some sugary treats to boost morale and energy before changing gloves and for those that had them; setting our heated hand grips to max. 

We continued on down through the mountains passing a small town who's name escapes me and pushed on towards the coast. After another grueling 50km low vis mountain run, we approached a t-section where I could soon see the Pacific Ocean. It was now pushing on towards 5 or 6pm at this stage so we turned off into a small beach town call Dominical for the night. 

We were all wet, tired and hungry riders and more than ready for a remedy for all three. We found a place to sleep all 4 of us, and promptly set-up an arsenal of fans to try and dry our gear for the following day. While we pretended that would actually work, we found some food, had a beer and hit the sack to prepare for the border crossing the next day.


Tuesday, 19 July 2011

it begins

After 80 days at sea, my bike finally arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica on July 12. I was contacted by the freight agent and told to meet their representative outside the local shopping mall at 8am the following day. I was a happy man. They warned me however that the process of securing a temporary import visa for my bike could take a while so we better get started early.

Leading up to this moment, Charlie and I have been joined by Tom and Alex, two likable characters from Seattle, USA. Both about 24, they have been riding their Suzuki DR650's South from Washington State since April 2nd and had been traveling with Charlie until he had to break off to meet me in Costa Rica a month ago.

With Charlie well out of commission with a super stomach bug, Alex volunteered to help me collect my bike. Apart from a genuinely helpful nature, Alex brings two skills I regretfully lack; fluent Spanish and a sound mechanical knoweldge of motorbikes. They were sure to come in handy with the jungle of paperwork and bike reassembly soon to be ahead of us.

We woke early, helped ourselves to a buffet breakfast and headed out to meet our freight representative. As it turns out, they too had foreseen a linguistic nightmare so they arrived complete with a translator. Jose was a confident, cheeky looking local Costa Rican who spoke fluent American English. I think Jose has lived more in his short 23 years on this planet than most can manage in 2 lifetimes. Over the next 10 hours we learn there is a lot more to Jose than a helpful translator. His resume reads a little differently than most with cocaine dealer and scam share trading being two career highlights to date. Unable to run thanks to only slight use of his right leg after breaking his back on a motorbike, he was robbed of his wallet at knifepoint leaving the local red light district only the week before meeting him. 9 months earlier he crashed his BMW drunk after being dumped by his girlfriend. Despite this and the many more colourful stories he shared, we liked him. He is a man that does push his life to the limit and I still have a eerie feeling that his luck will eventually run out before it should. I hope I'm wrong.

Collecting the motorbike from the depot was a bureaucratic joke. We spent 10 hours jumping from building to building, form to form, suburb to suburb and official to official but finally I had my bike. Finally....

Alex, Jose and I reassembled the bike and after reconnecting the battery, my wonderful machine started first time like I only rode it yesterday.

Alex hopped on the back and we headed to the gas station to fill up. I knew as soon as I pulled out of the driveway that something was up, the bike handled like a pig. 80 days at sea had knocked the wind out of the tyres and left them dangerously low. Easy fix though and in a few moments we were away again. 10 minutes later we were back at the hotel to find Charlie incapacitated with some type of suspected food poisoning.

We weren't going anywhere yet.

Friday, 8 July 2011

the cuban hussle crisis

Costa Rica is a beautiful country but we couldn't see ourselves spending the whole 4 weeks there before my bike arrived. On the 28th Charlie suggested we head to Cuba, we arrived the next day. This type of freedom could become addictive.

After spending the past week exploring Cuba, I can confidently say that I have never been to a more fascinating, beautiful, frustrating and confusing country. Politically, culturally, economically, architectually and even mechanically, Cuba has amazed and baffled me on every level. I think it's pretty safe to say that the more you learn about Cuba, the more you learn how little you know. We only scratched the surface of a deep and complicated country and it doesn't taken long to start changing your opinion of this place between breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day. 

Ok so it's a cliche but arriving in Cuba is like stepping back in time. Support from the former great Soviet Union disappeared overnight and the on-going embargo from the US has left Cuba in what feels like a permanent state of retro.  

Havana Matacon at Sunset

The city is full of classics like this

Old Havana 

Best taxi I've been in

we got through a few cigars in Cuba

sign hanging from La Bodeguita Del Merido where Hemmingway enjoyed his Mojito's

first Mojito and cigar in Cuba

3 songs and their gone. Just long enough to get a tip and find the next lot of tourists

lovely lady at la Bodeguita Del Merido

La Floridita

some guy spent 18 years making this mess

a few streets back and the city was in decay

Che memorial in Santa Clara

Che derailed this armoured car and killed all the ment Batista sent to kill him in 1959. Revolution!

best dude we met in Cuba 

our cigar rolling guru at the tobacco farm

Junior Phillipe shows us his Government issue ration card

our Cuban fixer "Chicky"

Caving in Santa Tomas