Sunday, October 28, 2012

Volcanic Eruptions, Lightning Storms and Gravel Rash - El Salvador and Nicaragua

Ok so it’s been a while, the last two months have been pretty crazy. We will endeavour to be more proactive with this blog and keep it up to date, but sometimes there is so much going on it’s a battle just to keep everything together without a demanding blog to write.

We were in El Salvador on a black sand beach surfing, which apparently we are pretty good at for beginners and life was good. Beer was cheap, you could eat for under 5 dollars a day and the surfing was amazing. We had just got out of the water and decided to get on Facebook and found out there was a Tsunami heading for El Salvador. Gees, what a way to wake up in the morning.  A 7.2 Richter earthquake hit Costa Rica destroying a number of homes and setting the whole region on a Tsunami alert. Apparently, unbeknownst to us, it was supposed to hit while we were in the water, but it turned out it was only a few centimetres high and so we are still alive writing this.

The earthquake hit in central Costa Rica and everybody south of us had stories of where they were when they felt it. We escaped unscathed but the repercussions of the quake set off a number of volcanoes in the region, erupting from the new magma pressure underground and which we were to get a very unnerving first hand account of in the following days.

El Salvador is renowned for its surfing and beaches and we were honestly sad to leave. We found this tiny town called El Zonte right off the tourist route with awesome surf and great locals. The guys running the hostel were all pro surfer level and just ran the hostel to keep an income while they surfed all day. There were washed up Westerners from all over the globe living for 100 dollars a month and surfing their life away on the perfect right hand break. The owner of the hostel is only one of a handful of guys in the world who can stand up on a body board and surf waves. Apparently Kelly Slater came through the town and was incredibly impressed saying that not even he could do what some of the guys there were doing. But alas, there are people to see and places to go and the world, although small in many ways, is still a very big place.

We got on the road for our four hour ride into the west of El Salvador to a small town called Alegria, perched precariously on the summit of an active volcano. The town was beautiful and we walked the narrow streets with amazing views of the valley and forest and lowlands far below us. We hiked up to the crater which, legend has it, has a mermaid living in there which will abduct attractive males and drag them into the depths for three days before letting their lifeless bodies float to the surface. We were game and went for a swim with locals looking on in concern, but for whatever reason she didn’t strike.  Probably because Annette was there. On the walk back down we found the entire town (and much for the surrounding region) in the grips of some manic party. It was the Miss El Salvador beauty pageant final being held that night.  It was so surreal that such an American influence could reach such an unlikely and remote place. The girls were pretty impressive and the party went on well into the night.

We left Alegria the next day for Nicaragua, a ridiculously long way away, over 9 hours ride with two international boarder crossings in it. Maybe we were na├»ve, maybe we were optimistic, but we should have known we were never going to make it. Fellow motorbike traveller, Michael (mentioned in another blog) said those same two borders were some of the worst he crossed in Central America and labelled us masochists for even attempting it. But attempt it we did. We left early, and after two hours hit the border of Honduras, we were met by a massive line of people trying to cross and moving nowhere. We settled in and after an hour and a half, and being sent back once by an official for a police check on the motorbike, eventually crossed into Honduras. We set about riding the 5 hours to Nicaragua but the road was utterly atrocious. Not in a dirt road kind of way, but a bitumen road with potholes so deep you couldn’t see the bottom, and so regular they took up most of the road. The result was one mistake would swallow the front of the bike, snap it in half, and send us over the handle bars. Everybody forgot road rules and just tried to avoid these things, and in some bizarre ritual ensued where everybody forgot everything they had ever learnt about driving and just tried to keep alive. They were so bad that cars and trucks would get instant flat tires if they hit one and have to pull over. If it was bad for them it was Russian roulette for us.

We finally hit the Nicaraguan boarder that afternoon but despite having a Guatemalan bike and still being inside the C4 border where we shouldn’t have had a problem crossing, Nicaragua was having non of that. The border was a joke, spread out and utterly confusing, you could just as easily accidentally cross and then get sent back by angry officials as you could do the right thing. When we finally photocopied and stamped everything in the correct order it was getting late. We crossed at about 4pm and rode into what looked like the apocalypse.

That earthquake in Costa Rica had just sent the biggest volcano in Nicaragua into a violent eruption and we were riding straight into the ash cloud. The storm looked massive from over 50km away and just got bigger and more menacing as we got closer. Just before we hit the sheer vertical face of it we decided to pull over and get our rain jackets on before we inevitably got slammed by what looked like the end of the world. Rain jackets help in apocalyptic scenarios just so you know. As we put them on the wind howled and sent everything that wasn’t tied down flying, then the rain came down in massive torrents. We found ourselves pretty much alone as we rode down the road through this thing, and with great difficultly staying on the road. Then as abruptly as it started it stopped. Then it got weird. We still hadn’t realised this was no ordinary storm, but we did now. There was no rain in the air, and for at least 50km in all directions it was clearish down to about 300m above the ground. But it was replaced by a weird greasy brownish haze smeared across the sky and bolts of truly terrifying lightning coming out of it.

We rode with multiple bolts coming down every second everywhere. You might think it was a good time to pull over, but the road was built for wet seasons so was elevated about 10m above the surrounding country side. There was literally nowhere to pull over that would offer any protection, and there were almost no trees due to the farming land around. This word is bantered around a lot, but this was Epic and truly awesome. Sheets of lightning would smash into everything and everywhere. The dark sky would turn into blinding light like a strobe at a nightclub. Then the most terrifying thing I think we have ever seen from Mother Nature happened.  It was like God (or your chosen deity) had thrown an electric net over the world. The lighting wasn’t coming down anymore, it was everywhere at once in the sky. It was so alarming we slammed on the brakes and got off and crouched on the ground as this electric Frankenstein lit up the world.  Worse, you could see the lightning net tracking through the sky above your head, tearing through the atmosphere with sonic booms and shocking compression waves. We’ve never seen anything like it. Then a massive bolt came down and the world turned into blinding light and sound. It was so close to the bike I thought we had actually been struck by lightening. It was so close and there was so much static electricity in the air that there were static shocks coming off the handle bars of the bike into the metal on the bark busters.
For obvious reasons we didn't want to wave our camera around in the air but it looked a little bit like this, but even more spectacular and terrifying

The time for standing still was well and truly over, and we got back on the bike and rode as fast as we could through the mayhem hoping to just get out of its path. It was adrenaline fueled riding, with continuous bolts and shock waves, at one point we found a truck and pretty much drove under it trying become a lower target and glad for something else to be higher. After about an hour and a half it was still going crazy as we approached the edge of the storm but it was getting dark and we had gone as far as we could feasibly make it that day. We settled for the first hotel we came across, keen to get dry and decompress from what was probably the most awe inspiring natural phenomenon we have ever witnessed.

The hotel was four star and we were very unprepared for the change of pace; from drenched, smelly and almost killed backpacker to lap of luxury table service accompanied by a large pool. Apparently, neither were the staff, who gave us truly wiltering looks at the shabby state of us. It was the most unwelcoming stay we have had anywhere in Central America

We left the stares and uncomfortable comments about our smell and set out for Leon and the nearest laundry. We rocked up an hour later to our hostel and  walked through the bar past backpackers drinking stupid amounts at 10am and past the tiny bath sized pool with turtles swimming in it and were at peace. We were back with people we could understand.
In that vein, the Big Foot hostel ran probably the most outrageous sport known to mankind; Volcano boarding. Picture a plank of ply wood, poorly nailed together, a very large and active volcano, and a bunch of drunk people attempting to slide 700m vertical meters down said volcano. Sounded good to us, so we signed up for the next day and joined the general debauchery at the bar.

We woke up early and climbed into the back of a modified ex army truck and headed towards the volcano. The track there was terrible and it was nice for once not to have to ride through the sand and rubble and let someone else worry about the road conditions. We ducked and dived as the truck smashed through low hanging trees and slid in the deep sand and got our first look and Cerro Negro; a 700m high mountain of volcanic rock that through some quirk of geology and wind throws most of the bigger rocks and lava into a valley while the wind blows the lighter stuff to the other side. The result is a massive mountain of volcanic sand and ash that we were about board down.

The guide handed around beers from a cooler as we all contemplated our life choices while looking up at the summit. Resolutely we necked the last of our beer and started the hour climb to the top. A bit after half way we got a look into the still smoking crater while our guide chatted offhandedly about how it is overdue for an eruption. We have done a lot of ‘extreme sports’, bungy jumping, sky diving etc, but this was something else. The record in 90km and if you come off you get hurdled down the coarse ash at frightening speed for a frighteningly long way. To make matters worse our guide wasn’t boarding down today because he had come off at speed a few days before and showed us some very bad scrapes and gravel rash all over his body. You could cut the tension with a knife as we all looked down the incredibly steep slope and the tiny truck far below us.

A few guys volunteered to go first and took off in a cloud of ash as they flew down the mountain side, there were some sickening accidents and a lot of limping to the bottom. By the time we were up it was hard to hold on through the sweat pouring out of our palms. Then it was time. We slid off and picked up an alarming amount of speed, the trick is to steer with you feet by tapping your heels in to turn, easier said than done. About a third of the way down Jack picked up a lot of speed and started turning; I dug my heels in but the finesse needed was way beyond the amount of adrenaline pumping through my system and I went into a full stack. I tumbled for about 30m, spat out the mouthful of rock, regained my composure and started again. This time I was more successful and held it straight and fast all the way down. Annette’s speed was 37kmh and Jack got a very respectable 56kmh. We were greeted by more cold beers at the bottom and there was a very Victoria Bitter advertisement scene with a bunch of filthy looking people smashing a cold beer after doing something tough. We got back to the hostel and the drinking and tall tales went well into the night.

We picked ourselves up the next day and headed to the capital of Nicaragua, Managua for some much needed repairs on the bike and some electronics that couldn’t fair the dust and humidity. Big cities, especially capital cities have a bad reputation over here and for good reason. The societal cohesion and family ties break down in the cities and they have some of the highest murder and robbery rates in the region. We rode to our hostel through a decidedly dodgy area where kids were burning tires and throwing bottles at the flames. We arrived and managed to find an opulent shopping mall within the city with all the traps and wares from home, including the replacement electronics and hard to find batteries.

The next day we set about putting the bike into a mechanic for a new rear tire and a remedy to the ominous sound coming from the engine. It turned out that it was a national holiday and every single shop was closed. We ended up talking to a guy out the front of the hostel (later found out to be a taxi driver) who assured us that he knew a spot. Jack ended up taking him on the back of the bike through the back streets of Managua to his cries to ‘VAMOS VAMOS! (GO FASTER!)’ (later found out he and everyone else was drunk). Three hours later and a lot of extra fees for people opening up their shops we had resolved most of the problems except for that engine rattle. We found out that the carburettor had come loose from the air intake and that from Honduras to Nicaragua the engine had been sucking in unfiltered air. We must have ridden over 2000km since then including through that volcanic ash storm… But we had a desperately needed new rear tire and for the place we were about to go we were going to need it.

Lonely planet describes it as a ‘fairy tail place’, where two active volcanos have erupted in the middle of a giant freshwater lake and created an island. The two volcanos rise out of the lakes surface to 1300m and 1600m respectively and are covered in jungle and wildlife. Cloud shrouds the peaks of both volcanos giving it a mystical feel and the two islands have been joined by a massive eruption which has left a piece of land between them. The island is called Ometepe in southern Nicaragua, and we had heard so much about the place as we travelled south we had decided to look for work or volunteering there.

We left Managua, stayed a night in Granada and then headed two hours south to Rivas, where you can catch a ferry out to Ometepe.  Once on the island we headed straight for Little Morgan’s hostel, where our friend Ruth was living and of which we had heard fantastic reviews from other travellers.  The hostel is a beautiful lake-front property with uniquely designed wooden buildings and a communal bar area.  The owner, Morgan, is a friendly Irishman and the hostel is named after his 5 year old son, Little Morgan. 

Ruth had mentioned to Morgan that we were interested in working at the hostel, so we were keen to make a good impression.  As it turned out, the interview process consisted of Morgan sitting down next to us and asking ‘are you the Australians?’ followed by a hearty welcome and him listing off all the free things we would get whilst working for him.  Our job consists of checking in guests, serving food and drinks and just generally socialising.  We work 3 days on, 3 days off in return for free accommodation, food, alcohol and a profit share arrangement after the first month. 

Whilst long term travelling is full of excitement, fun and new experiences, after a while you begin to miss some of the comforts of home; a place to unpack your belongings, a steady group of friends surrounding you and the same bed every night.  After only 5 weeks of working there, Little Morgan’s has become that home away from home for us, a place where we feel settled and welcome.  Of course, it certainly hasn’t lacked in fun and excitement, but we’ll leave those stories for next time.  


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our Roller Coaster Ride Through Honduras

Travelling by motorbike can be a bit like riding a roller coaster.  Sometimes you have to put in some hard work.  When you have to fix mechanical problems, or when you’re stuck riding through a torrent of rain, it can be an uphill battle.  But when everything is in place and running smoothly, you get the exhilarating rush of adrenaline that comes with unhindered freedom.  As you fly along winding mountain passes fresh smells assault your senses at every turn.  Trucks honk their horns and excited drivers lean out their window just to say hello.  If you see a road that looks interesting, you take it and invariably find a new, exciting adventure.  When you’re hungry, you stop in a town that never sees tourists and buy a mango for 20 cents.  You are not left at the mercy of overcrowded and unreliable buses.  The world is your oyster. 

Here is the story of our roller coaster ride over the last few weeks:

We were flying. The bike roaring at full throttle to keep pace with the fast moving trucks surroundings us with a death wish. Weaving around pot holes and the cars that just inexplicitly stop in the middle of the road. Then at 120km an hour things started going bad. First the indicators didn’t come on as we passed another struggling car. Then the RPM gauge started to dip into a territory it shouldn’t have been in. Then the temperature gauge died. Then every single thing requiring electrics. 

But the KLR Kawasaki is a tough as nails bike. On most bikes losing all power would have been terminal, given that computers and spark plugs all rely on batteries. Not the KLR, which kept roaring along like nothing had happened. They are built so that the electrics are an optional system to the overall running of the bike. But they’re not an optional system when that includes your front headlight, and most importantly, brake lights; so that 60 ton truck barrelling along directly behind you can see you brake. A dozen times a day we have to slam on the brakes to avoid a horse/dog/car/truck/tree/person/hole in the road and whatever else decides to try and ruin our day and we knew this was going to cause problems.
 We were on a hwy between Rio Dulce Guatemala, and the Honduran border and still had a 5 hour ride ahead of us. The road was good, but the problem with good roads over here is that the only restraint slowing drivers down is the unpredictability of the stuff under your tires. Still, we were making good time and the Honduran border was slowly getting closer. Then all that drama back in Belize came back to haunt us. It turns out that on our last flat tire in Belize City, the mechanics in their haste to get rid of us had stripped the thread on the rear bolt that holds on our rear wheel assembly. The result being that the back tire started sliding to the left and right and working itself looser and looser and looser.

By this time we were only about 50km from the boarder and pretty remote, so we decided to push on. There wasn’t much we could do given that the bolt was stripped and therefore couldn’t be tightened, but we were well aware that the bike was in major struggle town in most areas.

As we approached the border we were prepared for it to be difficult, we had heard about some people having trouble with permits for motorbikes and officials looking for bribes. We found the deserted immigration area, paid a dubious 3 dollars each to the guy sitting behind the desk and then braced ourselves for customs. Given our experience with Belize customs we were waiting for the shit-fight to begin. The guy behind this desk looked like he wanted to run away when he saw us (we were later to find out he had processed two Dutch bikes the day before taking 3 hours) and he looked in pain as he stood up. As he came outside to check our bike we explained it was a Guatemalan bike and the guy looked like he wanted to hug us. He gushed that we could take the bike wherever we liked into Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua without problems. He shook our hands and waved to us excitedly as we drove away. We couldn’t Belize how easy it was, it took less than 10 minutes and we were back on the road.

As we limped the bike into the town of Copan Ruinas it wasn’t a moment to soon. The rear wheel finally lost its battle and the chain flew off. We pulled over and put it back on only to have it come off again as we pulled outside our hostel. We’re pretty sure that if our bike was an animal at this point it would have laid down and died.

We checked in and meet the Dutch couple that had had so much trouble at the border the day before on their massive BMW 1200s. It had cost them over 70 dollars and 3 hours to get through the same border.  We chatted about their route and some of their experiences and set about getting a mechanic to revive ours.

The next day we rolled into a mechanic and left the bike with them with instructions to return in the afternoon. This gave us the chance to explore more of the beautiful colonial town of Copan.  Set close to the Mayan ruins by the same name and with many hiking opportunities, attractions and a backpacker vibe, the town has a lot to offer.  We visited the ruins and were awestruck by the level of detail and craftsmanship shown in the rock carvings displayed there.  While Tikal, in Guatemala, is famous for the height of its temples, Copan is famous for these incredible carvings.  Copan also boasts the longest Mayan hieroglyphic carving in Central America with over 1500 stone runes making up a large staircase.  

When we returned for our bike later that day we were pleasantly surprised.  The mechanic had given her a thorough service including replacing our patchy rear inner tube, replacing the rear bearing, changing the oil and all the light bulbs and fixing up the rear wheel assembly.  The electrics all worked and we rode away feeling confident…until the following morning.  When we were setting about leaving Copan all of our electrics died again. 

We rode the bike back to the mechanic who was surprised to see us again, and showed him the problem.  He discovered that the battery was no longer charging and had run flat again.  Mechanics are good at mechanical things, but electrics can be another matter.  He took us to his mate down the road, an auto-electrician, in the loosest sense of the word, who worked on trucks in his back yard.  He was sure he could fix the problem with a new part and told us to return the following day.  We left him with a working bike with a minor electrical problem.  The next day we returned to find our beautiful bike in dozens of pieces, surrounded by three men shaking their heads because they couldn’t work out how to make it start again. 

We looked on in sheer despair as they tried everything they could think of, to no avail.  As we watched our dream slowly slipping away we both decided that we were resolutely resolved not to give up on it yet.  We are not ready to get back on buses and be hum drum backpackers after the freedom we have experienced by having our own bike.  Not yet.  But the bike was looking like a disaster, you know it’s bad when everyone stops doing anything and just stands around looking at each other and shaking their heads.  The other thing that happens when people get frustrated is that they stop caring and lose their normal patience. They kept trying to kick start it over and over with no result except some explosive backfiring and a lot of yelling and cursing. The end result of this was that we had a bike in pieces with unresolved electrical issues and now they couldn’t even get it to start.  It really did look like that bike was never going to leave that backyard. 

Eventually, three hours later after we had gone home and left them to it, we were called back again.  They had requested assistance from someone who actually knew what he was doing who had gotten the bike working again.  Jack went back to pick it up but was careful to check everything over.  To Jack’s horror, he found dozens of bolts missing, oil spilling out in two different places from cracked gaskets, a loose carburettor, the tank barely connected and the seat not.  By now these guys had been working on the bike for the better part of a day and they were thoroughly fed up with it.  They just wanted to see it gone, in whatever condition.  It took immense restraint from all parties to be civil and get all the problems fixed.  To their credit they did fix all of the problems but only when Jack pointed them out one by one, it was a lesson that when people get frustrated, invariably things fall by the wayside.  The good news was that the new guy had managed to fix the electrics as well and we were ready to hit the road again.

That night, keen to celebrate we went to Copan de Sol, a German brewery that had been highly recommended to us all over Central America.  This quaint little business is what a business should be.  With only two large tables, people are forced to socialise with one another and the bartender serves you drinks and then sits down next to you and chats with everyone.  It was awesome; we had great German beer and food and talked to a large group of people that we would otherwise never have met. When the power went out candles were brought out and one of the guys payed guitar while we drank well into the night. Thomas, the owner, was a great bloke and if you ever make it to Honduras it is well worth a stop. 

The next day we set our sights on Gracias, about a four hour ride away.  The bike was running well and the road was spectacular.  We sped along winding mountain passes with unbelievable views at every turn.  We did quickly learn that driving on the right side of the road in Honduras is completely optional, with both sides of traffic erratically switching sides to avoid pot-holes big enough to gobble up half our bike.  Apart from the odd oncoming truck in our lane, the ride was relatively carefree.  After having the bike, and all the freedom that goes with it, nearly snatched away from us we were doubly appreciative.

Gracias, a small and somewhat dirty town, was our destination because of its proximity to a cloud forest national park.  The building and road standards were vastly different to those in Copan, indicating an economic disparity in different parts of the country.  The following day we rode up a treacherous dirt track that not even four wheel drives attempted to get to the visitor’s centre of the national park.  Everyone else had to get out a couple of kilometre’s early and hike up a steep road so we were smug when we rode past them.  The five hour hike was beautiful, teaming with wildlife and towering pines.  We hiked up to a beautiful waterfall and just generally soaked up the natural ambiance.  We resolved to do more hiking due to its unique ability to show you more remote and natural parts of a country.  

On the way back from the cloud forest we found, to our shock, that our number plate was missing.  We weren’t sure where we had lost it but it had to be sometime that day.  Given that the Guatemalan plate is our ticket to crossing borders it was essential that we found it.  Jack took off on the bike and soon found it lying snapped in half in the mud on the way back down from the cloud forest.  We’d have to get it welded back together before we left the country the next day. 

We left Gracias and headed for the little used Honduras-El Salvador border in southwest of Honduras.  We enjoyed another amazing ride through the mountains (the highest in El Salvador and Honduras), thoroughly enjoying the beautiful Honduran countryside.  We even found a novel way to get up a mountain if you’re on a push bike, simply hold on to the back of a truck with one hand and steer with the other!  

We got the numberplate welded and went to cross the border crossing which was pretty easy. We were starting to think that this whole difficult border crossing thing was a myth (don’t get too cocky …it didn’t last long).  The only issue we had on this occasion was the immigration officer rigorously going through the stamps in our passports and asking us about each one.  We realised that entering and exiting Belize/ Guatemala so many times in a short period might look like we were drug running but they let us through in the end. 

We decided to stay in the small border town of Las Palmas, close to the highest mountain in El Salvador, El Peten.  We found a small hotel and settled in for the night.  But in order to get the bike off the street and out into the back we had to ride her through the lobby and amongst restaurant tables, a bit of a novelty. 

The next morning we rode up an incredibly steep and windy mountain road for about 20km to get to the start of the hike up El Peten.  There were unbelievable views of both countries on the way up, but at the actual summit there was nothing but forest, clouds and two vicious and very angry pit bulls guarding a radio tower.  The top of the peak itself demarcates the border between the two countries so we snapped a few pictures with the marker and headed back down. 

Keen to get to the beach, we set off south that afternoon.  El Salvador has one of the smallest land masses in Central America but is the most densely populated.  While Belize and El Salvador are of a similar size, Belize has a population of 350,000 and El Salvador has 6.2 million.  Therefore, as you might be able to imagine, the roads were completely insane.  Avoiding obstacles was like playing a video game – people wandering across the road, herds of cattle, children playing, trucks overtaking, miscellaneous objects scattered across the road (we nearly hit a rolling pin) and just general mayhem.  The only difference being that if we hit something we can’t simply go back to the beginning and start again.  And to top it off, we were hit by another massive thunderstorm as we were coming down from the mountains. 

We pulled off into a bustling town for a break.  Within 5 minutes of sitting down we had bought two cups of shaved ice, some doughnuts and some croissants from street vendors who happened to be wandering by – all for a total of less than $2.  We also struck up a conversation with a group of 15 year old boys who were interested in our trip and told us very earnestly to take care because people might want to rob us, but that they were very happy to have us in their country.  They gave us directions to the next town and we set off but quickly found ourselves lost again. Road signs seemed to go nowhere and streets would just pettier out. The road we intended to go down was closed with big rocks.  We found ourselves next to a police station so Annette jumped off and approached them saying ‘excuse me’ in Spanish.  All three of them looked up from what they were doing with menacing looks with a hand on their guns; we began to wonder if talking to them was such a good idea.  But once we explained that we only wanted directions their entire demeanour changed, all excitedly rushing to help us out.  One drew a map on a piece of paper and explained how to get out of town while the others admired the bike.

Unfortunately, as we finally pulled out onto the highway after getting lost again we got another flat tire (If you’re sick of reading about them think how sick we must be of getting them!). We had run over a piece of wire only 1mm thick and a few centimetres long and just watched our tire deflate. Randomly about 20 meters away was a tire shop and we had the whole thing fixed within a manic half an hour and for only $2.  We were barely even phased by the whole thing and now consider ourselves pros at handling bad news. 

The next town where we were planning to stay was a huge, undecipherable maize of roads and highways.  We normally use Annette’s iPhone 4 GPS to navigate but we hadn’t had any wifi for a long time so hadn’t been able to download any maps in advance.  It was getting dark and we just wanted to find a hotel, we pulled over and asked multiple people for directions but no-one seemed to know if there even was one in this city.  Eventually we remembered that we belong on the Amazing Race and utilized our resources.  We asked a tuk tuk driver to take us to the nearest hotel, and it turned out that there really was only one in the city.  The tuk tuk weaved through the maize of a city ahead of us while we followed in gathering dark.  When he delivered us at the motel we got out our wallet to pay him but he refused, simply saying ‘buen viaje’, have a good trip. 

All through Central America the people have been friendly and genuine. Even in Guatemala where we had friends robbed and shot at they were a ridiculous small minority of people who were doing this. The average guy is just happy to say hello, help you in whatever way he can and despite poverty not ask for anything in return. Most are fascinated but the novelty of seeing a Gringo in their place of the world. Nowhere has that feeling being stronger than El Salvador, everyone was beyond nice.

But sometimes things get lost in translation, and we found this ‘hotel’ the Tuk Tuk driver had taken us to, a little strange when we got there. For starters the rooms could be bought in time allocations of four hours…. Yep, we were in some seedy as El Salvadorian sex motel. There was a hole in the wall where you could order food or drinks presumably without the person on the other side seeing your face. Plastic mattresses and ample tissue paper by the bed. Apparently they are very common in this part of the world where tradition and conservatism still run deep. Most young people well into their twenties still live at home and these motels act as an acceptable compromise if you’re not married yet.

We set off the next day for the coast. After some busy highways we found the coast road and found it deserted. It was a beautiful road hugging the coast and rising up high on top of some towering cliffs on the headlands. We found a little hostel with a double room and bathroom for 15 dollars a night by the beach and set about chilling out. From Guatemala into Honduras and the mountains of El Salvador, electrical problems and flat tires, ruins and cloud forest, sex motels and beaches, it was a big few weeks when we came to the end of the roller coaster.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Paradise - You Can Check Out But You Can Never Leave

 Paradise is a tropical Island 62km off the coast of Belize, on a coral outcrop of coconut trees, stunning reef and as many hammocks as you can lay in. We found it. We found our paradise on that little island in the middle of the ocean. When you can spearfish for huge lobster 100m from your thatched hut. When you can snorkel amazing reef with sharks and sea turtles. When you can dive with giant Grouper fish and swim through enormous coral forests. When you can spend your days eating coconuts in hammocks overlooking a brilliant turquoise ocean. When the hardest part of your day is deciding what time you should crack out the Belizean rum, you know you’ve got it made.

South East Caye on Glovers atoll in Belize is our definition of Paradise. What more can we say about it? We went for a week and ended up staying 5.

But before we could get back we had to leave the country to renew our visa for Belize. We were sorely tempted just to stay but we were facing a 1000 dollar fine if we overstayed our visa with the bike thanks to those exasperating boarder officials, and we only had one day remaining when we left Caye Caulker for the Guatemalan boarder.

After the series of flat tires we had in Belize we were incredulous when we arrived back in Belize City and saw we had another one. How we have no idea, seeing as the bike was undercover and off the street, but once again we had found ourselves trying to find, and then hobble our bike into, a tire repair shop. We eventually found one but as usual they had no idea how to fix a motorbike rear tire. Normally this wasn’t a big problem as Jack can guide them through it, but today it was. It seemed like the two guys just couldn’t be bothered, it was stinking hot and a brief but heavy thunderstorm soaked us as we were repairing it. For a start they threw the bolts and bits into the dirt, and then couldn’t find them and put the rear wheel assembly back together again. When they eventually found the pieces and were trying in earnest to get rid of us, we found they had put a key component back together wrong. After the initial frustration from both parties subsided, we fixed the problem. But unbeknown to us the damage had already been done and this ‘repair’ would end up causing us significant grief down the road in Honduras… the flow on effects from that tiny little nail were not over yet.  

We ended up leaving Belize city by midday and got going, but today just wasn’t our day. An hour down the road we got hit by an enormous tropical thunderstorm and by the time we pulled over to get out our ponchos we were already soaked to the bone. We decided to just keep going but it got worse and worse and soon the road was a river of water. We passed two accidents where cars had lost control and skidded off into the drainage ditches on either side of the road and were now floating. We pushed on but the final straw came when we tried to pass a car and aquaplaned and nearly went into the ditch ourselves. Our visa ran out at 12am and it was 5pm by the time we made it to Belmopan about 2 hours from the boarder. The rain was still sheeting down and it was nearly dark, so we settled that it wasn’t worth the risk to try for the boarder.

We eventually made it the next morning but Belize charged us 80 dollars to leave and we had to plead with them not to charge us for overstaying our bike visa by about 8 hours. By the time we made it to Flores we were so exhausted by the ride and the drama we were seriously considering never going back to Belize.

But we were back in Guatemala and in our element. We had dinner with our Australian friends Bec and Felicity and said our goodbyes. Bec is off to work in Haiti and Africa so sadly it might have been for the last time.

The next day we booked a tour to see Tikal, the largest and highest Mayan ruins in Central America. Tikal is pretty unique in that it is enormous and almost completely covered in jungle. Its remoteness has protected it from the overdevelopment we saw in Mexico at Chitzen Itza and Tulum. There are truly massive temples here, some as high as 70m and towering above the jungle canopy. With our guide we saw spider monkeys in the trees, marmots, birds, an alligator and countless species of plants.

The temple of the two headed snake at Tikal was until the 1980’s the highest manmade structure in Guatemala. At over eight stories high, and hundreds of thousands of cubic tonnes of hand carried rock, impressive is an understatement. They didn’t even have the invention of the wheel to help and some of the blocks are massive. At its highest point the population was over 90,000 people and encompassed an area greater than 16 square kilometres and 3000 structures. It has been the most impressive and memorable of all the Mayan ruins we have visited.

After our day at Tikal we reached a cross roads. Would we start heading south on the bike or return to Belize. We were so torn that we couldn’t decide. On the one hand we were starting to get itchy feet already and the circus with Belize immigration had left us with a bad taste in our mouths. The difficult 7 hour ride back along the same road where we had gotten two of our three flat tires also wasn’t sitting well. On the other hand Glover’s atoll was the closest we are ever likely to find to paradise. After umming and ahhing for the better part of two days, we decided to toss a coin… We pulled out an Australian 50 cent piece and allocated heads to Glovers and tails to moving on…

As the coin flipped in the air our destiny hung in the balance. We were intensely aware that we were playing with fate and creating two alternate time lines. Maybe in one we would crash, maybe in one we would find a higher state of consciousness and ascend to Nirvana.  As the coin hit the ground it fell through the cracks in the floorboards and down into the basement. Suspense much…  We ran down and found tails. We would go south.

It was a relief to get the question out of the way. We prepared to leave and set about finalising our plans. Then we made a huge mistake. We uploaded photos to Facebook… All the planning and fortitude evaporated as we looked at our amazing photos from Glovers, you couldn’t take a bad photo. Damn it. The coin has previously decided our future when we arrived in London in 2006. We flipped a coin so see if we would work in Edinburgh or Glasgow, Edinburgh came up trumps and it was a really fun time of our lives. But sometimes we ourselves are the coin in the flip of our own destiny, and we decided to go back to our island.

We left the next day and battled our way through Belizean immigration, this time they only gave us a week, and we were faced with a 4 hour drive to Belmopan for some inexplicable reason just to get the month visa. Apparently our visa was still active from our first visit even though we had left the country for a week.  We had to fight to get it extended through some Belizean bureaucracy, but eventually managed to get past the girl playing with her phone to her supervisor and got a full month visa for us and the bike. We even got third party motorbike insurance for the month this time.

We stayed in Hopkins the next day and did a month’s worth of shopping. That’s a lot harder than it sounds when you’re stuck out there and have no fridge, and have to leave anything left over. Also complicated by the fact that most of the items in the shop were years past their use by date. We were about to buy a big wheel of cheese and found a rat had hollowed out one side.

We met Ryan, a fellow motorbiker from Canada at our hostel, who is going around the world on his Triumph. He is one of the few motorbike travellers we have met who has little to no time limit, like us. It is far and away the best way to travel. When a side road can become a wild adventure and take you in a completely different direction. When the journey is better than the destination, because the destination isn’t defined.

We have been constantly struck by the huge size of other people’s motorbikes as they attempt to do the same thing as us. We are literally the smallest, least prepared, least equipped, least concerned and least constricted to time limits of all motorbike travellers in the region that we have met, possibly the universe. Everyone seems to have bikes with the engine capacity of a small car and have brought everything but the kitchen sink.  With radio communication links between bikes, GPS’s coming out of their ears and professional matching riding gear. We met a couple the other day who had brought chairs with them on their two massive BMW 1200cc. Chairs!

Our bike looks like a push bike in comparison, with our back packs strapped on with 2 dollar rope and two people on a 250cc. But we have two major advantages. One, we have a bike that is possible to repair in anything slightly better equipped than the side of the road. If something goes wrong on the BMWs it is game over. Parts are non-existent in this part of the world and the mechanics might as well be trying to fix the space shuttle. They are so complex that we have heard first hand stories of people waiting months for parts to arrive by specialty shipping and then cannot find a mechanic in the country that knows/wants to attempt to connect them.

Second, we have time. Something most of the guys we meet don’t. They look at a map and say I want to be there by this day and so and so the next. That just doesn’t work out when road conditions are so unpredictable, and means more time on mundane highways to make up lost time. Worse, they focus on driving through the region rather than seeing it. They often miss the vibrant and incredibly different nature of each country and its people for the next pit stop. It’s such a shame when people make all the effort and cost to live this dream and then spend so much time afraid or indifferent to the region they are travelling through.

We’re not the bee’s knees by any means; we’ve had our share of problems resulting from buying a second hand bike in Guatemala. But they add up to the totality of what we are trying to accomplish which makes it so amazing and unique. If we break down we spend a week in a funky under explored part of the country and don’t freak out about a schedule. If the bike completely dies on us, we walk away. Something someone with a 20 thousand dollar bike can’t. If we are sick of riding, we stop, for a week or a month, it doesn’t matter. It truly is the most utterly freeing and rewarding way to travel.  

Back to Glovers – we left our bike in Shitty River and jumped aboard the Catamaran for a three hour ride back to Glovers.  Because we were returning guests we were treated like royalty and given our pick of the most luxurious cabins on the whole island for the same price as the dorm.  Because we were staying for a month we even got the fourth week for free, making Belize, unexpectedly, one of the cheaper countries of our trip.  We even bought a small spear gun in Guatemala before we came back so Jack caught fresh fish and lobster most nights.  To complete the Castaway experience, Jack grew his beard into a shaggy mane and Annette cracked coconuts every day straight from the tree. 

Our cabin over the water had everything we needed, a kitchen, two hammocks, a decent sized bed and a deck with a view from paradise.  We can’t really do it justice with words alone so here are a few photos:

At the beginning of our second week, just as we were starting to fully relax, we had a bit more excitement.  We were casually informed by Becky, the owner, that a cyclone was bearing down on the island and heading straight for us.  Cyclone Ernesto was a category one but had a trajectory that would bring it over warmer water before slamming it into the coast of Belize.  Considering that the island is one meter above sea level and the building standards consist of thatched huts and wobbly cabins, this didn’t look good. 

Becky told us that when she was eight she lived on the neighbouring island, Long Caye, through a category four cyclone that destroyed a large proportion of the island and its buildings and the storm surge cut the island in half.  She wasn’t taking any risks this time and made the call to evacuate the whole island.  The three other neighbouring islands also evacuated in the excitement of a pre-apocalyptic scenario.  It was so strange, the ocean was mirror calm with not a breath of wind and it was a beautiful sunny day.  It was hard to imagine the power that was just beyond the horizon. 

We got back on the boat and took a dead calm three hour journey back to Shitty River, a little dismayed to be back on the mainland so soon. In the rush to evacuate we had to leave all of our food, and to our later horror, probably the most important thing we have, our motorbike key. We were filled with dread that the cabin would be destroyed and the key lost forever. Luckily Jay, one of the guests knew how to hot wire the bike so we weren’t totally screwed. To her utmost credit, Becky put us and all the guests up for free in their river front cabins, including all meals, and set about organising activities for us.  We weren’t much up for seeing more of Belize mainland and chose instead to return to our favourite drinking hole in Hopkins, the Funky Dodo.  The Funky Dodo was a hostel run by a slightly mad Latvian expat and we had stayed there and drunk with him quite a few times. 

As it turned out, Ernesto veered north just before Glovers, strengthening and slamming into the north of Belize and south of Mexico.  It pissed down with rain but in the jungle it was so sheltered that it didn’t appear to be much worse than the tropical storms we have seen from where we were. 

The next day Becky took us back out to the island on the catamaran amid enormous swells.  Considering that the cyclone hadn’t even hit the island, we were surprised at the amount of destruction.  A full meter around the circumference of the island had disappeared, coconut trees were fallen down or floating in the shallows and some of the huts looked like a small breath of wind would knock them right over.  You could even see where the storm surge had washed onto the island and had destroyed a few of the walkways out to cabins over the water. But mercifully our cabin and the key was exactly where we left it. Apparently even paradise has to deal with cyclones. 

In total we spent a month chilling out on the beach, reading books, snorkelling, and spear fishing, eating freshly caught lobster, barracuda and grouper and drinking Belizean rum with coconut milk.  It was a tough month. 

When our time was finally up we were ready to get moving.  Even with our generally relaxed, snail paced motto of travel we were starting to get itchy feet.  When we got back to Shitty River we found we had a flat front tire.  Yay, a different tire this time! Fortunately it had just deflated due to sitting idle for a month and we hobbled it into Hopkins where we met Emma, a European woman who owns a motorbike rental company.  She helped us pump up the tire and we chatted about our intended route south, which included putting the motorbike on a boat over to Guatemala.  Even Emma, who has lived there for years didn’t know if it was possible given that the boats are so small. 

We were so sick of the route between Flores, Gautemala and Dangriga, Belize, which we had now traversed four times (including three flat tires, thunder storms and border crossing dramas) that we were willing to give it a go.  We left Hopkins and made the four hour ride down to Punta Gorda, where for the first time in a long time we had an uneventful ride. 

We approached a company called Requena who did the Belize to Guatemala boat ride daily.  Everything was hanging on this moment, including our sanity.  To be told on the last day of our visa that we had to drive all the way back to Flores, 10 hours away, would have been too much.  Fortunately, an old guy came out from behind his desk, looked the bike up and down, looked at our anxious faces and told us that it would be alright. 

The next morning, it took four guys to lift the bike off the dock and down into the small 6m skiff.  It was a challenge and a tight fit but we made it.  Another tip of the hat to the small bike strategy (like we had a choice!).  Having ridden this bike thousands of kilometres it was strange to sit behind it and watch the suspension getting crunched as we bounced over big waves.  It was an unusual sight. 

An hour later we were back in Guatemala at Puerto Barrios.  Compared to our trouble with Belizean immigration, re-entering Guatemala was almost comical.  First, we had to find the immigration office, which was about 500m from the dock and appeared to be optional.  Then, two immigration officers distractedly stamped our passports as they laughed and chatted with one another.  One of them even came outside simply to admire our bike and take a picture with his phone, saying ‘1999 right? That’s a good bike!’  They both waved us off and wished us luck as we drove away. 

Having spent 3 months in Guatemala we were pretty keen not to dawdle, but the Honduran boarder was a big eight hour ride away. We instead rode for two hours to Rio Dulce, the biggest and safest port for vessels escaping bad weather in the Caribbean. We crossed the biggest bridge we have seen in 6 months and saw the opulence of western wealth first hand. Literally hundreds of gleaming sail boats, catamarans and luxury cruisers sitting idle in the bay. If you have a spare few million dollars apparently Rio Dulce is one of the cheapest places to buy second hand boats, either storm damaged or from owners who no longer use them and can’t be bothered sailing them back to the U.S. *Cough Pat*

We stayed in an Australian run hostel only accessible by small skiff in the nearby swamp and planned the next leg of our journey into Honduras and El Salvador. But the impact from those dodgy mechanics in Belize, and a host of other serious problems was about to begin, and what a rollercoaster of an adventure it would turn out to be.