April 2017:  Baja

It took three days to drive from Seattle to Lake Elsinore, covering a distance about the same as I will cover over the following 5 weeks as I bike down to San Jose del Cabo at the tip of the Baja peninsula.

My first day on the bike I cover about 60 miles and get to my aunt and cousin in Encinitas.  I spend a day with my cousin, and on my second morning on the road, set out for Tijuana.  At about 4pm, I’m crossing the border, walking my bike in a river of pedestrians going through the checkpoints.   Biking away from the border is hectic and confusing, but eventually I get my bearings and bike about an hour more to the beaches.  When I get to the hostel at which I’d expected to stay I learn that there is a running water outage for Tijuana and all of the Northwest Baja coast, and as a result, they are not taking any guests.  They allow me use of their WiFi with which I insta-book a dormitory bed in an AirBnB that’s in the process of building out a hostel.  The owner of that place has set up a pump to use water from the swimming pool to use for showering and toilets, so all is well.  I tool around town, then get some well earned sleep.

The next day I bike about 60 more kilometers to Ensenada and book 2 nights at an AirBnB which I assume is the dorm room of a college student who is living with her boyfriend.  It’s a tiny but complete apartment, with hot plate, fridge, microwave, and TV all packed in a room that is about 8ft by 20ft.  On my off day I cycle around town, checking out the regional history museum, the tourist strip (ugh), attempt to see some local beaches, and then the art museum, where I meet Jorge who runs the coffee shop and is planning a 4 day cycle trip via backcountry from La Paz to Ensenada.  He and I end up talking for about an hour about all aspects of bike touring and what I should expect in Baja.  It will be his first extended ride, so I’m able to return the favor of tips on Baja by giving him tips on cycle touring in general.

The next day I’m heading South with no particular destination in mind when I stop in to a roadside cafe and notice another touring rig out front.  Inside, I meet Hartley, a Canadian who has cycled down from his home in Victoria, BC over the last 3 months.  We chat for about an hour and then decide to proceed together.  Other than a friend that joined him for the first couple of weeks, he hasn’t met any other touring cyclists traveling in the same direction, making me his first road-found cycle-mate.

He’s half my age, but has already figured out and thought about a lot of the things that I think are the most important things that I’ve figured out and thought about so far in my life.  We share philosophies on life, travel, and politics, from interpersonal to global.  This is his first bike tour, and so with the many months of touring experience and many more years of living that I have, I have things that I’m able to teach him.  But it quickly becomes clear that he has many things to teach me as well, and it takes some humility for me to embrace that.

In actual fact, Hartley has been instrumental in making this trip what I hoped it would be, and spared it from being quite bad in some key respects, if not somewhat of a disaster.

For one, I did not pack enough warm things to weather the nights here.  With all my clothes on, in my bivvy and my $25 sleeping bag ordered off of Amazon just before I left (not wanting to repeat the mistake of lugging my bulkier sleeping bag through tropical weather), I am barely non-hypothermic at night when the moisture condenses on everything and the cold desert winds blow relentlessly.  Last year, it was a couple of months later when I was this far South.  Whoops.  I suffered through 2 nights before accepting Hartley’s offer to share his tent.  With me inside cheap sleeping bag, inside bivvy, inside tent, I’m comfortable at night.

Second, Hartley, like previous cycle-mates Terry and Carolyn, is a fine road chef.  In fact, he’s an exceptional road chef.  He’s on a shoestring budget (~$5/day?) whereas I’m OK up to $30/day, so I gladly pay for the food that he prepares.  He tells me that he would be happy to split the cost of food and that he’s happy to have someone else to cook for since he enjoys it and it motivates him to prepare a wider variety of fare.

In two weeks, I’ve spent less than $300, including 2 nights paying for accommodation in hotels, and paying for most of the food that Hartley cooks at camp in exchange for him cooking it.  Food is the main expense, and we eat a lot of it, but it is cheap.  In contrast, my rent alone in Seattle, quite inexpensive by Seattle standards, would amount to $400 for those 2 weeks.  So I’m actually saving a bit of money by living on the road.

We’re in Guerrero Negro today, having just spent our second night in a hotel ($22).  We’ve seen and done a whole lot since I last worked on this post, and I’m not inclined to do a play-by-play, but here are some highlights:

  • Riding on hard-pack beach at low-tide, with no guarantee we wouldn’t have to double back on all of it.  When the sand grains got too course, and the pack too soft, we were lucky to find a route off the beach to keep all but the last 500 meters of our southward progress..

  • Insanely beautiful camping spots.  In one of the most spectacular spots, we were greeted by a farmer who was just leaving after having checked on his cows.

  • Trying to bike 100 miles on sandy washboard road with what we hoped would be enough water to get us through, to find out it was not.  While we would almost definitely have been fine accepting gifts of water and/or rides from the 4-6 vehicles that pass per day, we opted to double back and accept defeat rather than rely on the help of passers by.  We did accept 4 cold liters from a family of self-described campensinos (peasants) who passed us going into the desert, asking if we had seen their cows, and who we asked how far until the next water.  When they returned with the cows in the back of the truck, and we were still sprawled out under the same meager shade of a thorny tree, he gave us water and told us about his friend that died of dehydration a ways back the way we’d come.  I told him that I had noticed the memorial.  

  • Stopping to pick up strawberries being thrown over a canvas fence by giggling workers who then gave us a couple of large cartons, branded Driscoli, and told us to andale (get going).

  • Peeling shrimp Hartley had picked up in town, at dusk on a beach bluff, in one of the few times I’ve gotten involved in the food preparation.

  • Frying fish that we had talked some sports fishing dudes out of, in the middle of the road, the evening before we aborted our ill-fated attempt to shortcut through the desert.

  • Frying road-killed rattlesnake on the side of the road.

  • Marveling at Hartley’s immodesty.  A little ways down the road after we were denied being sold water or anything to drink at a family run restaurant, I suggested that it might have something to do with the fact that he had sauntered in wearing not very concealing boxer briefs.  He countered that the “fat poppa” had been wearing basically the same thing, and tried out some hypothetical spanish language insults.  At that moment I was pushing my bike up a sandy embankment back onto the road, and laughed so hard I literally pulled something in my mid-section.

  • Convincing Hartley to collect roadside flip-flops as alternatives to his shoes, which are too hot and getting him down.  He ends up with a pink one for one foot and a baby blue one for the other.  The style is impeccable, but they prove to be impractical for cycling over distance.  Yesterday, after going on a mission (in our largest town since meeting) to find some sandals, he’s found some for about $3.  He also got a badly creaking bottom bracket repaired for $1.50.

  • The safety.  The roads here are narrow, but the motorists are almost invariably happy to slow down as needed to let oncoming traffic pass in order to give us a very wide berth.  I “take” the lane if/as needed, and Hartley has his road noodle.  Ever since we’ve been sticking mostly to the highway (El Rosario onwards), the traffic is very sparse.  Typically 5-10 minute pockets of no cars between clusters of vehicles.  When cars pass, they often have occupants beaming with smiles and waves.

  • Getting off road.  Particularly before branching away from the Pacific coast at El Rosario, we pushed the limits of what our loaded bikes with 700cc x 40mm wheels can get through.  For 4 or 5 days we were riding along the Pacific coast, along cliffs and through dunes, going 5-10K back to highway-side towns to resupply on food and water.  We still look for “short”cut opportunities to get off road, but Hartley’s racks are starting to break, and our bodies have reached their limit of bumpy washboard.  We’re resolved, in future trips, to slim down our gear and beef up our wheels and racks (which will entail getting frames that can accommodate).

  • Slowing down.  Left to my own devices, I tend to feel a need to go as hard as I can.  Hartley does not.  I mean, when we’re going, he’s at least as fast as I am, carrying about 20-30lbs more on his bike.  But when we take breaks, he helps me keep check on my inclination to make them as short as possible.  We’ve actually made a point of getting going earlier in the day so that we can take longer mid-day breaks to wait out more of the high heat.  We haven’t managed to get going that much earlier, but we are doing better at waiting out the heat.  The proprietors of the only roadside stop in 30 miles in either direction don’t seem to find it at all out of the ordinary when we hang out there for 3 hours.

  • Eating well.  Honestly, a lot of the food in Mexico is not that healthy.  There’s no shortage of it, which is good, but a lot of it is high in sugars and fats.  Every few days we’ll indulge in a bakery binge, but Hartley and I are on the same page when it comes to health consciousness, so with food we get to prepare ourselves, we’re eating better than we likely would if depending on ready-to-eat and restaurant-prepared foods…as I would be were I on my own.

  • Riding hard.  We’ve had good luck with the winds, and several 100km+ days, despite 3+ hour mid-day siestas and carrying 10+ liters of water.  He’s a stronger rider than I am, but I’m the only one of us that ever points it out.

That’s everything that comes to mind at the moment.  Hartley and I will be parting ways when we get to La Paz in 7-10 days, from where he’ll take a ferry to the mainland, and I’ll hightail it to get to San Jose del Cabo in time for my flight to Detroit on May 9.  Meeting him by chance at the roadside cafe was clearly a defining event for my tour.  For his, it will be just a few weeks out of 6 months on the road (he’s going for another 2-3 months…until the money runs out).

I’ve only included a main image for this post because the wordpress app never fails to do something terrible when I try to include more images, but for anybody that’s reading this and hasn’t seen them already, I post images publicly (which I hope means you don’t need to have an account) at http://facebook.com/je.calvert .  Update, the wordpress app failed to upload even the single image (falsely reporting success).  I know the problem is not the internet here.  Meh, wp.  Meh.

Thanks for reading!!!


Cuba: Morning routines and departure

In a moment of cycling hubris, I attempt to ride a narrow dirt path up a small embankment, and around a pond spanning the entire width of the dirt road, up onto a cow pasture.  I stall out on the ascent, and when I go to plant my right foot, it’s too far below my wheels, on too mushy of ground to keep me and my bike from toppling over into what turns out to be complete mush.  The mush swallows my right leg up to just above the knee and my right arm up to bicep.  I untangle myself from the bicycle which is in the process of also being swallowed, and in doing so, volunteer my left foot to the mush monster.  I free my arm then push my bike up onto the embankment, giving even more of my sandal laden feet and legs over to the mush.  When I’ve pushed my bike up such that it’s pedals and handlebars are engaged in relatively dry sod, I use it to pull myself upwards in a manner similar to how I’ve read one should free themselves from quicksand.  I slowly pull my left, shallower sunk leg out, barely retaining its sandal.  A lost sandal means going barefoot on metal pedals that would not be kind to an unprotected sole, so as I remove and safely put aside the left sandal I contemplate my options for removing the deeply sunk right leg and sandal.  I re-submerge my left leg, barefoot, and shift all my weight to it while wiggling the right leg, foot, and sandal.  There’s enough suction that it’s clear that the right sandal is not coming out with the right foot, but I’ve loosened up the mush enough around the right leg that it’s ready to come out of both sandal and muck.  The right sandal had already succumbed to a pulled heel strap when fording a creek a few days earlier, and it would be a few more days until I found a cobbler to fix the sandal.  The pair was purchased hastily from a Target in downtown Seattle for $25 just before leaving. I pull my foot up as swiftly as I can manage, and then plunge my right arm into the quickly collapsing hole just in time to get a couple of fingers around a strap on the sandal.  Shoulder deep in muck, I wiggle the sandal and slowly pull it out.

The sorta selfie I took once freed

Either as a result of the wallow in muck, or random food poisoning, I have my only bout illness later that night in Caibarién, a town on the North coast.  I try to outwait the ill, but the ill outwaits me and then empties me completely of calories, from both ends.  The next day, I’m resolved to get to Santa Clara.  Riding while sick, on an empty tank that won’t accept anything but water is not typically well advised, but I feel compelled to get out of the relatively dirty little town, to a larger town where I can hopefully find quieter, cleaner accommodations.

Santa Clara does not disappoint, and after sleeping for nearly 16 hours in a nice, cool, quiet casa run by a welcoming, friendly woman, I enjoy a day of sightseeing standard attractions like Che’s mausoleum and the site of a sabotaged train.  I happen upon the Casa de la Ciudad and get an impromptu tour from a woman working there, for which I‘m asked for a CUC towards the end.  I like the woman and am happy to oblige as she tells me about a acoustic guitar concert happening there in a few hours.  I wander until then, stash my bicycle, and then catch it.

The next morning I’m done my standard morning routing by a little after 7 am, with the casa’s matron up and ready to make breakfast.  

Standard morning routine amounts to packing, sunscreening, eating, then going.  Packing includes water, which needs to be filtered by morning in order to avoid buying water (which I wouldn’t mind did it not entail buying countless disposable bottles), and to not have to rely on the host’s water filter system.  I use a backpacking (sawyer brand) “straw” style water filter with a 3L platypus/camelback-type bladder.  I fill the bladder then hang it from something in the shower and line the bottle up underneath the output nozzle of the water filter.  It takes less than an hour per 1.5 liter bottle, which fit fine in standard bottle cages. Even better is filtering into a widemouth 5L bottle, especially with access to a faucet that allows filling the entire 3L bag.  Eventually the ubiquitous 1.5L or 5L bottles will spring leaks that eventually, if not necessarily immediately, rule out their continued use.  I probably bought 5 days worth of bottles (were I only buying water) over the course of 28 days.  That’s still about a dozen bottles, but could have easily been 5 times that many.

Sunscreening is it’s own standard subroutine because one lapse followed by typically 8 hours in near constant sun all but guarantees a serious burn.  The top half of my standard bike outfit consists usually of a long-sleeve, button up, polyester or nylon kinda disco looking shirt.  I initially brought it on my first tour because I was attending the WTF music festival near Portland, Oregon before flying to Helsinki and I wanted to pack at least one thing with a little bit of flare to it.  It didn’t take long for it to prove itself as the most versatile bike touring shirt a guy could ever want (not to mention the most fashionable).  I don’t recall where I originally got it, but it was many years ago, and since I have no basis for believing it’s particularly good at blocking UV rays, I make a point of applying a ton of sunscreen even if it’s going on over it.  Since I put it on right after applying the sunscreen, and since it rarely gets washed, it’s likely that it ends up with several applications of the sunscreen, effectively applied from the inside.  And since it’s kinda shiny anyways, it doesn’t look nearly as gross as it sounds.

When I started taking seriously the consistent and comprehensive application of sun protection, as a solo cyclist that was solo-jointed, I had the problem of applying it to the area of my back that my hands can’t reach.  On my Central America tour, I improvised with thin plastic trash or shopping bags.  As long as I could tear them so that they made a strip long enough to run between my hands and over my back, I was good.  To use, just apply sunscreen directly to bag and run over back, or apply to shoulders and lower back and spread onto upper back with bag  When not in use, it’s kept in a ziplock bag as it stays sunscreen-y from its first use onward.  In anticipation of this trip, I made a super-deluxe version using a thicker plastic shopping bag, the kind that you have to pay $0.25 for, and reports among its print that it’s been “designed for reuse”.  It was a real luxury to have such a durable, perfectly sized with easy-to-use handles, sunscreen to back application system,  However, I quickly realized that the same ink that reports its design intentions, and the other, random, LuLu-lemon-esque words that at least the Safeway family of grocery stores prints on their bags, is also sunscreen soluble.  So I had to take some care to use only the non-printed side, and to also wipe up or rub in the random blotches of yellow, red, and black sunscreen dissolved ink until with a little extracurricular effort it was completely rubbed off the bag onto toilet paper wads from various Cuban casas (about 2 weeks in).

Sunscreening can be done just before, after, or even while (not recommended), eating breakfast because the packing of toiletries is the final step of packing up the bike because brushing teeth and flossing always comes after eating.

Charging the phone until the last minute is tempting if non-negligible numbers of milliwatts have been consumed over breakfast while, say, reviewing maps and finalizing decisions on where to go that day.  This comes with an increased hazard of leaving the charger and cable behind.  These are already relatively easy things to lose, and they’re light and inexpensive but sometimes difficult to replace, so it’s well worth carrying a spare for each.  I have three different types of USB cables, mini, micro, and C.  I take a single spare of mini (for bike headlamps) and C (for new phone) and three USB micro (backup phone, power packs, kindle), for a total of 7 cables.  But they’re cheap and light, and the whole lot of it fits in a small ziploc along with micro-headlamp, spare phone, spare power pack, spare earbuds, and some rechargeable AAA batteries (for mini bluetooth keyboard to write solid gold such as this).

Every casa particular in Cuba serves a similar breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, cheese, butter, fresh fruit, fruit smoothie, coffee and hot milk for $3-5.  About half the time it will include some meat, but this can be omitted.  It’s not a particularly competitive cost for the amount and quality of calories it provides, but factoring in that it’s available at whatever time you specify the night before, and that this time is almost certainly earlier than you can find anything approaching this variety or quality, I almost always opt for the casa provided breakfast.  In contrast, unless the casa is remote and far from any variety of options, or there’s some other motivation for eating in, I usually opt to go out for dinner rather than to have the casa provided dinner, typically offered at $10.

I’m out the door by 7:30, and in complete contrast to my state on my way into Santa Clara, it feels nothing short of ecstatic to be on my bicycle.  The air is still cool and a little bit misty and/or smoggy, and the town is alive with a bustle of people going to school and work, grabbing tiny but stiff $0.04 coffees from impromptu cafe counters in residential doorways, and greeting each other in a way that still strikes me as enthusiastic, but I’ve come to know as standard in Cuba.  My route out of town takes me around the main plaza, and I’m beaming from ear to ear before it even happens.  I see a kid of maybe 12 years push his bike off the curb, with his hands on the handles of his cruiser style bars, and then with a sequence of 3 fleet footed steps, his feet leave the ground with height, angle, and lack sidase that looks positively cartoonish until you realize that he’s not jumping nearly as much as he’s pushing down and forward on the handlebars that at apex are supporting nearly his full weight and a thorough forward thrust.  You know what about what goes up, so as his legs and hips come down, every bit as slow as his arms and waist can support through the pommel balance that is the front of the bicycle, he simply plops his seat on his seat as effortlessly as he would a from standing to chair on a floor just behind him.  I had a cruiser bike for a short time on which I got just well enough at this kind of leaping mount that I have some idea, first hand, that it feels every bit as beautiful as it looks.  In fact, I can’t think of a single thing more beautiful, in the sense of being artistically functional and a perfection of functional synthesis of person and machine.  The bicycle, the pinnacle of human powered propulsion, and the result of many, disparate, incredible technical breakthroughs (with repercussions far wider reaching than bicycles), and it’s human, taking flight.

Now, I’m not just beaming, but getting chills the way one does when they see something so beautiful it gives them chills.  Then a second kid, same age but noticably bigger runs out, confidently trusting that I’ll adjust slightly to go behind him, and runs up alongside the kid now riding but not yet pedaling.  After about 2 steps the runner gives the rider a quick, decisive tap on the top of the shoulder, and 2 steps later hops directly onto the bike’s top bar and becomes the rider’s passenger.  At this point, I’ve lost it.  I’m hooting as I pass them a second later, head turned, beaming at them, pumping thumbs up, and then getting the same back in unison.  I’d seen side-saddle, top bar passengers and loved to see that piece of functional beauty, but had until then wondered how clumsy it must be when starting.

My spirits couldn’t be higher, and I feel strong in a way that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling again 48 hours earlier.  The sun at my back and from the east is low enough that it’s sunrise’s version of the golden hour, and the harder I pedal, the better I feel, not least because a consistent and fairly stiff westward tail wind is already underway.  I’m loving the excitement of squeezing my way out of the town’s morning commute, in which most of the conditions leave me the fastest thing on the road, eeking out motorized bikes by their reluctance to squeeze between vehicles that I feel plenty nimble enough to clear.  It’s all so perfect that I tell myself to slow down and enjoy the mellow aspects a bit more and hold off on pushing myself physically until I have room enough to do so with more abandon.  I also make a note that I should check that I got on the right road out of town, which I don’t manage to do until 7km from the start when I’m on the open road and about to open up the throttle.  When I do, I see that somehow I’ve gotten on the road going in the opposite direction, 90 degrees from the one I came in on a couple of days ago. I think, well, it figures the morning was too perfect to have not bolted off in the wrong direction.  I double back and then get the phone out again just to verify that I’m on the correct route to the correct route, and now it looks I’m not.  The map is flipped around.  I was on the right route all along and looking at the map using perspective dictated by the phone’s ever-unreliable (somewhat skew) compass.  D’oh!  Between the mistake and the correction, I even thought of the fact that the Sun had seemed to verify my westward trajectory, but reasoned it was coming from the Northeast and I was going Northwest so somehow…well, I don’t know what I was thinking.  But I resolved to make extra sure to lock the map’s ordinal direction before making ordinal-information based decisions, and to think through my pre-digital/celestial navigational reasoning a bit better.

On the open road, I fell like a well tuned machine.  The wind is blowing pretty directly West and the road I’m on is weaving gradually between North West and North West West.  My chain and/or my large front gear is stretched/worn enough so that on the powerful part of my pedal stroke, there’s a purr of roller meeting gear tooth which at my current high speed is only audible because the wind’s speed is matching and there’s an absence of the white noise of air in ear that would otherwise drown it out.  It sounds like a cheetah purring on the exhale with the right leg and on the inhale with the left leg.  I’m in my top gear and getting a full wind assist, and taking pulls from the delightfully scarce vehicles that pass me with wide berth.  For a big truck or a bus, I’ll go out mid-line and get closer to it to maximize the suction and the minute or so I can fly at 40km/h+ with minimal effort and maximum cheetah purr.  On a random pull off of an open bed semi, I hear some hoots as the back of the long bed approaches, and assume it’s some dudes standing up in the back, which would be a little odd for a bed of this length, but not entirely out of the ordinary.  Instead, it’s two guys on bicycles, each one of them holding onto a back corner, neither one of them appearing to be exert any effort or concern about potholes.   But then, this road is remarkably smooth.   The parasitic hitch hiking I’ve done maxes out at 15km/h, and was done as an assist to pedalling going up inclines steep enough that they result in laden semis going that slow.  With the wind-suction pull I get off their truck, I manage for a few joyful seconds to stay between 5 and 10km/hour slower than they, going at about 45km/h while they cheer me on and jokingly encourage​ me to catch up and grab on.

I had planned to stay the night in a town called Colon, that nobody I mentioned it to seemed that familiar with.  I chose it because it is 120km away and the only town between 50 and 180km away that had any accommodations according to Maps.me, but I’m halfway there in just over 2 hours, and had earlier figured that if I had gotten there by noon, and it still felt largely effortless, I should try to make it to Matanza for 200km for the day, which would beat my previous personal distance record by around 40km.

When I get to Colon, it is indeed before noon, and effortless.  So I only need some food and water.  I end up waiting for 15 minutes to buy a 5L bottle of water, in a tienda where a man waits outside watching my bicycle after helping me bypass the group of about 15 women pressed up against the glass of the store, while 5 women inside determine who can come in and shop, in addition to shopping on behalf of orders called out, through the door as it is opened periodically by a door attendant.  A sole woman rings up orders at a rate of, and I’m honestly not exaggerating here, about one per three minutes, interspersing cashier duties with folding and stocking empty cigarette boxes into a display, and diddling on her phone.  Were there not so many people there bearing witness and being subjected to what I can’t see being anything but some kind of cruel joke, only not somehow getting whisked in ahead of a whole bunch of people because I’m white and rich, it was truly a test of my ability to not announce “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!”, and definitely not how I imagined spending my only break that day.  I also bought bananas from some guys with a cart of them, which took a few seconds, and a ham and cheese sandwich and some cookies which also also only took a few seconds (including eating said sandwich) from the Rapido on the edge of town that stocked the same exact 5L bottle for the same exact price where I had just waited 15 minutes.

Back on the road, the heat of the day was in full effect, so I made a point of drinking half a 1.5L bottle and finding some shade to stop in about every 10km.  The road was curving more and more to the North and I experience first hand that in a stiff consistent wind, a few degrees orientation can be the difference between an effortless 30km/h and an effortful 20km/h.  No matter, averaging 20km/h without stops would be no problem in terms of daylight.

With about 20km left, I checked the map at my 10km rest, for no particular reason, and saw a smaller road that was a miniature copy of the current road, in that it starts almost directly West, then swoops up to the North.  I would get to ride the tailwind a bit again, and I would get the East-to-West portion of the remainder done while the sun was still at a higher angle (with all the breaks I’d taken, it was 4:30 pm and the sun was getting low fast).  This was good because riding into a sunset means that you’re very back-lit and hard to see to things coming up from behind you, like cars.  It turned out the road was very smooth and much more lightly trafficked too, bonus wins on top of the all too rare opportunity for a cyclist to tack course according to wind conditions.

With the help of a Dutch couple also touring by bike with which I shared the descent into town, I found a delightful casa run by a darling, diminutive, matronly woman and stayed in the town four days, taking day trips to nearby beaches and and the town’s mountain top cathedral.

From there, I was again whisked by the wind back to Havana, where I spent a couple of nights with day trips, including an impromptu trip to a massive book fair in the historic fortress led by a Mexican/American cycle-tour friend I made in old-town.

And then I flew back to Seattle, with my bike which I decided to keep when the police recovered it from being robbed, packed in a box I managed to find.

Cuba: Theft in Cienfuegos

I was being lazy and was tired of locking up my bike every time I turned my back on it for a few seconds, so I didn’t before I walked a couple meters to pay my 16 cent bill for the pair of egg sandwiches I’d just eaten in the open-air cafe in Cienfuegos. The proprietor made a fuss about the money I was handing him, which may have been, though probably wasn’t, a deliberate distraction for the guy that swiftly mounted my bike and was riding off with it when I turned around about 10 seconds after it left my sight.

The thief was about 30 meters away when in my flash of panic, involuntarily uttering “no no no no”, I spotted and began to run after him. My bicycle, which I’d anyways intended to leave in Cuba at the end of my stay, was only part of my concern. My larger concern was the handlebar bag and its contents that were also now in the thief’s possession. These contents included the entirety of the cash I had for my time in Cuba, my passport, phone, 360° camera, kindle, and several other things that I use on a daily basis and hence keep in that bag.

He was pedaling with a somewhat slow cadence, likely unaware of how to use my integrated shift/brake levers, and so stuck with whatever gear I’d left it in. He was also weaving a bit, so perhaps he was maybe not very practiced with riding bicycles in general, and/or ill-fitted for my particular bike. I gained ground on him for a bit, but when I began shouting to solicit the help of bystanders that he was weaving past, he was alerted to my pursuit and picked up speed. In doing so he seemed flustered, faltered a bit, and nearly fell. At that point I was well within one second behind him at my current clip. Alas, that was as close as I got to catching him.

I shouted to several groups of bystanders, and one group of guys made what seemed to me like a half-hearted effort to impede his escape, but he countered with another weave and then was in the clear. At this point, I had full on sprinted somewhere between 200 and 300 meters, and while adrenaline was still coursing through me, I was spent. I tried to get a bystander to let me use his bicycle, but he just gave me a strange look like “you must be joking”. Still panting, surely looking incredibly anguished, I explained to a motorcyclist in my very limited Spanish what had happened while a group of workers on a nearby rooftop shouted down to us the direction that he was headed. I jumped on the back of the motorcycle and we went in the advised direction, but by then the thief had a good 30 second lead on us, along with a dense neighborhood of turns and streets to choose from. We did a sweep of the area for a few minutes, and then returned to where we had started.

A group that had gathered there tried consoling me while one of them phoned the police, and about 5 minutes later, a patrol car showed up. Defeated and in shock, I answered their questions as best I could given the language barrier, and then got into the back of their dilapidated patrol car which they drove around while stopping to question people on the street. After a few minutes of this, they dropped me off at a gas station near where we had met up, then made a phone call and rushed off, instructing me to wait there for them to return.

After an eternity of 40 minutes, another cop on a motorcycle showed up and took me a few blocks to where there were about 10 officers milling about. I learned that my bike was in a nearby courtyard of a semi-abandoned looking building, with the handlebar bag still attached, but relieved of most of its contents. I’d have to wait a while before looking at it. Also present were a forensics specialist in lab coat and rubber gloves, a man in a soldier’s uniform, and a canine unit. The forensics specialist and the canine unit put a german shepard on the trail of the thief, but it went cold, not surprisingly, as it was by then a couple of hours since the bike was ditched.

After about an hour of waiting there, I was allowed to look at the bike and open the handlebar bag. The key that I had left in the latch attaching the bag to the bike had been broken off, likely in the thief’s attempt to detach the bag. Very thankfully he failed to do so, and so I knew that the bulk of my cash, still in USD, would still be there, well concealed under a flap and undiscovered in the thief’s scramble to ditch the bike and take off with the valuables. Also, in what I can only assume was a small gesture of mercy, he left my passport, which he must have handled as he took the $150 worth of CUC pesos that were along side of it. He made off with just about everything else.

At this point, I had resigned myself to much worse. Now, I realized that with my reserves of US dollars recovered, I had enough cash to last the remainder of my time here. Less than an hour before the incident, I’d used the last of the WiFi access on my WiFi access card to extend from 8 to 15 more days (and quickly post as much on FB). With my passport, I wouldn’t have to incur any additional major hassle. If my bike and these things had not been recovered, I would have surely had to cut my trip short, after some undetermined ordeals to obtain funds, and with the US Embassy over the lost passport.

That night the bike was kept at the police station undergoing further forensics. The proprietors of my guest house were very sweet and sympathetic and I think felt worse about the ordeal when they learned of it than I did by that time. A Dutch cyclist that I’d met and ridden with earlier in the day, staying at the same guest house, helped me file the detailed police report with the lead officer that accompanied me back to it in order to do so.

I have a spare phone to use for navigation and communication. This is the third extended bike trip I’ve taken and the third time I’ve been very grateful to have a spare phone.

The police are ostensibly still looking for the thief, using recordings from surveillance cameras that may have captured identifying images of him, and questioning witnesses.

I would really like to get my stuff back. At the same time, I’m told that the punishment for the thief, if caught, would be 5-7 years prison, which to me seems excessive, and is not something I’d want on my conscience.

In all, the experience left me feeling grateful for how seriously the police are took the matter, and simultaneously grateful and self-conscious about my good fortune, particularly in contrast to the police who have took up my cause so earnestly, each of whom has a total annual salary that is considerably less than the cash that they recovered for me.

I tried on all 3 days that I was in Cienfuegos to obtain another internet access card, to no avail.

Yesterday, I had an amazing, river fording, mountain slogging, small-town festival partaking ride to Trinidad yesterday, and this morning, after a mere 45 minutes queued up in line, I obtained another internet card.

I’ve suspended my Google Fi service in case my primary phone ends up in the hands of someone savvy yet dumb enough to reset the phone and use it. I have 2-phase authetication set up for several things, including Facebook Messenger. I’ve tried to turn it back on long enough to get access to codes to log into Facebook Messenger and Google Device Manager, but I don’t seem to be getting texts. So until I’m back in the states on Feb. 17, e-mail is the most reliable way to get in touch. I’ll only get these when I’m in WiFi hotspots in larger town (so, every few days or so?).

I seem to have a checklist of things without which a cycle adventure can’t be considered complete.

* Riding on a muddy road that necessitates removing fenders

* Taking a well-deserved pull from of a bottle of booze offered by a passer-by (say, at the end of a 30km mud road)

* Spending a night in a humble domicile (shack) thanks to the hospitality of a local (say, just after taking a well-deserved pull)

* Having some non-trivial dealings with law enforcement

* Fording bike through balls-deep water

* Pushing bike up slopes too steep to pedal, for multiple kilometers

* Happening upon a singularly authentic local event where I’m clearly the only foreigner

This trip, these have happened in this order, and the trip from Cienfuegos to Trinidad yesterday was nothing short of amazing.

My momentary lack of judgement aside, (which was definitely not for lack of admonitions from Cubans that I shouldn’t ever take my eye off my bike in certain places), I have to say my luck has been nothing short of spectacular. Sure, I’m out about $1000 worth of money and stuff (and several dozen pictures), but I’ve replayed the incident in my head many, many times. Say I did catch the thief. Witnesses described him to the cops as appearing to be a fuerte trabajador -a strong worker- and he wouldn’t necessarily have fled had I caught up and grabbed onto the bike. I’ll take losing $1000 over a busted face any day. It’s also fortunate that I turned around in time to give him a good enough chase that he ditched the bike and the bag. I’m also glad that I changed my ticket when I did, because I probably wouldn’t have opted to just after the incident, and staying here for 4 weeks instead of 3 is the better choice (and would have been considerably more expensive to do had I waited until I realized this again).

I’ll post pictures and stuff if/as I’m able, and definitely more when I get home. Being largely without any internet has been both challenging and refreshing.

I’m rambling a bit now, but I want to conclude by saying that Cuba really is fantastically amazing and the people are simply delightful. Clearly, there is some crime, but AFAICT, it’s non-violent, and opportunistic, and I (still) feel perfectly safe, if a bit more aware of a need to be vigilant.

Thanks for reading!

Cuba: Arrival

This is actually a photo I took on boarding the plane to leave.  I’ve lost the photos I took during this period.

#laterpost (happened ~6 weeks ago)

It’s 5 pm and a jostly 36 hours since I’ve had any sleep but the kind where the blot of moisture on something your face landed near lets you know it was somewhat solid.  Along with excitement to be in Havana for my first time, and coffees with my last 2 beverage services, this has me buzzing during landing then disembarking down staircase, directly onto tarmac, directly into tiny airport terminal.  The sun is at about 30° off the horizon, casting everything in a retro-gold tone, including the lowest strata of air, owing to the multiple brush and/or garbage fires spotting the vast, flat landscape.

I’ve splurged $50 for the upgrade to a “premium coach” seat because there were no free non-middle seats left,  which happens to be the farthest forward coach class row on the plane, and so I’m among the first off the plane.  This has the happy side benefit of getting me through immigrations in almost no time, leaving me more than enough time to go to the restroom and swap out my jeans for shorts.  I choose a toilet stall and change inside of it.  Reflecting now on this flavor of modesty in Cuba seems somewhat comical.  I’ve since seen a man wipe his mouth on a restaurant table cloth and had a Cuban friend of a few hours hit me up for a page from my spiral bound notebook on his way into a porta-potty, and seen that these and so many things are done in a completely judgment free environment. I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the biggest things one finds to adjust to: this lack of readily available disposable paper products…no just kidding…  I mean, that is a thing to adjust to too, but the biggest is the lack of judgment around people doing whatever they’re doing.  This extends beyond things that might in other places be considered taboo based on hygienic standards.  Drinking, peeing, and prostitution happen in plain sight, with no judgment or even second look.  But, I digress and am getting ahead of myself (headgress?  pregress?).

Back in the bathroom, I manage to change without dropping anything into the yawning maw of the seatless toilet, then find a bench just outside the restroom to sit and pack away the socks and jeans I’ve shedded.  Now in tropics mode, I ask a woman in a uniform “de donde esta caja grande con mi bicicleta” which I hope is understood as “from where is the big box with my bicycle”, and she points to an unlikely conveyor belt saying something fast that I don’t understand at all, but with a smile that tells me to just relax.  Minutes later, it shows up where she’d pointed, which I find a bit surprising since after a short linear run, the belt takes a turn that would surely either eject or crush the box.  I squeeze my way through the crowd and yank it off in time to avoid finding out which.

I carry the box through what I guess is border control: a sole woman in an official looking uniform standing by the street-side airport exit.  She doesn’t even look my way.  Stepping outside, I’m get a blip of chronological cognitive dissonance from the most immediately noticed and hence least interesting observation about Cuba: how many classic cars there are.

The box is my sole checked item, and after finding a spot to set up shop, I pop the few straps of TSA tape still retaining the box’s contents with a ballpoint pen from my carry-on.  I unload the bike, the tools to reassemble it, and the rest of my possessions for the next 4 weeks.  As I reassemble the bike, I notice a passively interested audience of cabbies forming, which I’m grateful to have rather than a torrent of solicitations other tourists are receiving.

Reassembling the bike amounts to remounting the front wheel, reattaching handlebars, re-running generator hub and bike computer cables through stem, reattaching seat, reattaching rear dérailleur, and reinstalling the chain.  I’ve left my front rack and front bags at home this trip, along with camping equipment, and am going with about 40% less stuff than on my last trip, a 5 month ride through Mexico and Central America.

When everything is done, I saddle up and do a quick check of brakes, wheels, and shifting, revealing I’ve forgotten to re-hook the front brake cable.  I tend to it while straddling the bike but the cable is a bit tight.  I’m at it for a couple seconds when a cabbie comes over squats next to me, and without a word gives a helpful pinch of the calipers.  Cable re-hooked, we both return to upright, I smile and thank him, he smiles and gives a thumbs up, and I’m riding off into the sunset and the city.

Cuba is one of the very few of a couple dozen countries I’ve been in the last few years where I don’t have cellular data through Google Fi/T-mobile.  Up until this point, I’ve used Google Maps for navigation while bicycling.  As a quick aside from our story: Maps.me and the open source map data that it uses have honestly amazed me.  It’s unbelievable how much a mere 50MB of data, downloaded once and then used by a elegantly simple map application that requires zero internet, can change everything about how you get around a place.  I didn’t expect to find myself so often searching for and finding new information, over the course of weeks, using an off-line application.

Coming back to our story, I being to realize that I really should have done at least one ride navigating with Maps.me before using it to navigate into central Havana at dusk.  I opt for the bicycling route, which I’d later learn makes routing choices in an attempt to avoid large roads and highways, many of which, at least in Cuba, are the best roads to take by bicycle, with wide shoulders effectively dedicated to bicycles and donkey carts.  It doesn’t take long before the navigation gets fairly involved as I also assume, incorrectly, that the turn-by-turn voice directions do not stop when my phone’s screen turns off.  As a result, I overshoot a few key turns by quite a bit, doubling the hour it should have taken.

In the flat landscape, dusk is quickly followed by dark, and it’s dark by the time I figure out how Maps.me works well enough to ensure that I’m making progress towards my destination, following reroutes of reroutes down tiny, unpaved back roads in the outskirts of town.  Some kids are whipping tops off of strings as I ride by, and I wonder if some of them are being whipped towards my wheels intentionally before deciding they probably aren’t, and even if they are, they’re just being kids.

The most likely hazard of cycling at night in Havana seems to be the many cyclists (and occasional motorcyclist) that are all but invisible in the absence of any illumination whatsoever.  Once you know they’re, and if you have lights yourself, you’re actually kinda protected from the more serious hazard presented by cars in the sense that “you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other hikers” or more particularly “if bears are trying to avoid eating hikers, and other hikers are making themselves delicious, you just have to be less delicious”.

I get to the hostel that I booked when I got my plane ticket.  This is the only advanced booking made before or during the trip.  This is typical for me, to have accommodations arranged for my first night after flying into a new country, but having nothing else prearranged.  Too much itinerary for extended travel is like over packing.

On rolling up to what I think is the right place, I inquire with some guys leaning on a ledge passing around a bottle of Havana Club, showing them an email on my phone.  None of them are affiliated with the hostel, but they tell me that the power is out, then point out that the address says the hostel is on the 10th floor of the building beside us.  I happily accept when one of them then offers to help me carry my bags, as this will get myself and my stuff up in one trip.

I follow him up the narrow, switch-backs of stairs carrying my bicycle in one arm and using my bicycle headlight to illuminate our ascents in otherwise pitch darkness.  He’s pretty tipsy, but managing the uneven, cracking marble stairs with my two saddle bags about as well I can with the bike while pointing the headlight.  Several times I stumble, replacing useful illumination with disorienting splashes of bike wheel shadows, causing my companion to stumble, to which we laugh in confirmation that we’re continuing up the stairs at our current clip.  When we get to the 10th floor and catch our breath, he gives me a wry grin and extends his hand.  I happily oblige, apologizing for the dollar rather than local currency, as he points out which door is the hostel’s and then makes his exit.

It’s a couple hours later than I’d given as my estimated arrival, and Enzo opens the door happy to see I’ve made it. He’s welcoming and speaks English much better than my Spanish.  The power resumes halfway through checking in, after which he gives me a brief tour of the dorm I’ll be staying in on the 9th floor.  Being in a hostel feels pleasantly routine.  I make small talk with an Irish guy and an Austrian girl, then fade out of the conversation by dozing off on top of the still made bed.  Before I do, I overhear:

Guy: “I guess I’d say I’m pretty good with Spanish, you just have to ask them to speak slower”
Girl: “Oh?  So how do you say ‘speak slower’”
Guy: “I, uh, I think it’s ‘alto’”

I wake up maybe 30 minutes later by shouts that sound like “Yeremy”, pretty common among Spanish speaker’s renditions of my name, coming from the elevator lobby door to the apartment in the back of which is the dorm room.  It’s Luis!

[To Be Continued (in subsequent posts?)]

Author Note:  This is being posted in March 2017, but happened on Jan. 20, 2017.  Cuba presented challenges to writing (and uploading) posts.  Better late than never!

As always, thanks for reading!

Seattle to Ellensburg and back

At a month back from my trip through Central America, I decided to try to ride non-stop (or with only very short breaks) to Spokane.  During the Central America tour, I’d fantasized about riding while not laden with a bunch of gear.

A few hours into the first night, I got a little spooked by being on the remote, gravel, John Wayne Pioneer trail with meager illumination in pitch black. I kept picturing being stalked by a mountain lion hunting at night, vaguely recalling that they like to hunt at night, and that bicyclists, travelling at just the right speed, trigger their hunting instinct.  I have no idea if either of those things are true.

So, a little ways past Easton I took an access road to the interstate. I passed under some power lines and learned that the buzzing one can often hear from these things is actually accompanied by arcs of electricity that are visible in the dark.  Riding on the wide shoulder of interstate 90 wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t very fun (or legal) either, so I decided to stay at a motel in Cle Elum.
The next day, a few miles past Ellensburg, while riding and contemplating how to get across the Columbia River (with the trail’s trestle closed and gated), I decided I wasn’t having much fun trying to make it to Spokane in time to catch a train back in time for my Spanish class on Thursday.  So, I doubled back, stayed a second night in Cle Elum, and made my way back on Wednesday, the third day. All in all it was 3 semi-full days of cycling for a total of about 260 miles.
I’m glad to have a data point that high-endurance cycling is not for me.  I’m also glad that I decided to do it, and then just did it, with the gear that I had, not necessarily the gear that I wish that I had had.  I couldn’t find my waterproof booties, so I brought some extra ziploc plastic bags.  I couldn’t find any gloves or mittens, so I brought an extra pair of wool socks and cut thumb holes into them.  Both of these makeshift solutions worked well enough.  I spent more than I wish I had on motels ($60/night for 2 nights in 2 different motels in Cle Elum), but all in all it wasn’t too expensive of an excursion.

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Post mortem/FAQ

​In retrospect, most of what I’ve written about has been focused on the  riding I’ve been doing, and this post isn’t really much different, but instead of being an account of any particular stretch of time or road, it’s a sort of post-mortem/FAQ.

How far did you ride?

10,000km is my estimated distance, based on my bike computer’s lifetime distance reading of 12,432km.  I bought it in Helsinki on my last tour after getting hit by a car and replacing my front wheel and fork and stuff, after which I flew to Budapest and rode with it from Budapest to Athens, at which point I’m pretty sure the distance was 2,400km, give or take.

This is a European thing and in Europe, they use dots in numbers where we use commas, and vice versa.

When I’d calibrate it against distance markers, I’d notice that sometimes it would report that I’d gone 5% further than I actually had.  One possible explanation is that this would happen because my front tire was a little under-inflated.  Possible, but highly improbable (super dubious math redacted…)

But focusing on distance alone really misrepresents the effort involved.  The few kilometers I relayed/carried my bike and bags up steep, rocky, narrow, jungley-ass trail in Guatemala were considerably more difficult and time consuming than flying 80km across a flat stretch of Northern Arizona with a stiff wind at my back.  Topography makes all the difference…so much so that I’ve come to notice that I feel a Pavlovian wave of relief wash over me when I spot a cell phone tower ahead of me on any substantial climb.  For obvious reasons, the people that put them up should tend to place them at local altitude maximum, and at this point I think it’s fair to say that I’ve confirmed this empirically and conclusively.

What was the worst thing?

The honking.  I know, and on some level appreciate, that the majority of drivers mean well when they do it, but if I could have one bike touring related wish granted, it would be to convey to any and all drivers out there that, regardless of the intention behind it, there is nothing less pleasant than having a multi-thousand pound vehicle make a loud startling noise at you as it passes within feet of you while you’re completely unprotected, on a relatively tiny vehicle.  I think this is immediately self-evident to anybody who has been honked at while on a bicycle, but surely, many of the honkers haven’t been on a bicycle in years or decades or perhaps even ever.  Shouts from people in passing vehicles are just as bad, maybe a bit worse in that they’re more startling and hard to receive as well-intentioned, but they are far less frequent.

What was the best thing?

The chills.  I’d get these sort of chills every so often when I got to a nice stretch of something and could lean back and where pedaling felt effortless and good, and just take it all in, knowing I had everything I could possibly need for pretty much any eventuality right there in my bags on my bike.  It’s hard to do justice with words, but it’s like a complete sense of contentment, where my biggest concern was actually that I only had 2-8 more hours before I’d have to find a place to stop for the night, which is really a very tiny concern.

What do you wish you had brought but didn’t?

Nothing, really, which I know is a non-answer.  I will say, I wish I hadn’t lost my micro leatherman, my red blinky, one of my straps for stuff on the top of my back rack, and that I hadn’t gone through 4 pairs of ( < $6) sunglasses quite as fast.  I guess I also wish that my tires didn’t wear out so quickly, but considering how thoroughly I beat my bike and spin out my tires trying to go up stuff that’s too steep, I probably shouldn’t complain.

I wish I hadn’t busted this phone in 3 different ways and I’m glad I can get it replaced for an $80 deductable when I get home.

What did you bring but wish you hadn’t?

So much stuff!  Which is a little ironic given that between my Europe tour that wrapped up this time last year and when I quit my job in April, I gotten rid of almost all of my possessions, including all my furniture, most my clothes, several hundred paper books (all but a dozen), a bunch of electronics (TV and such), and anything that didn’t serve a particular specific purpose about which I felt strongly.  Following this great purge, in preparing for this tour, I felt like I was packing modestly, and I started out with less stuff than I’d brought on my last tour.  But when I got to tropical climates and settled into a rhythm of hand-washing my one and only daily outfit along with myself, facilities permitting, I realized that almost all of my clothes were superfluous.  As was most of my camping gear once I got to places consistently populated and cultivated, and where accommodations were cheap enough and bugs and weather were troublesome enough that it really made more sense to pay for a place to sleep indoors.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have shipped far more stuff back home from Tempe, AZ than I did, probably including a bike bag or two.  I might have even tried shipping stuff home from Mexico.  From the smaller countries, I’m not sure it would have been worth trying, recalling that in early 2014 I shipped a bunch of things to my address in India from Thailand, and instead I should have just saved the $50 in shipping and just given/thrown the box of stuff away.

I don’t plan to become a gram counter, but I do like reading the thoughts and approaches of people on bikepacking.com, where there’s a much sharper focus on packing only what you really REALLY need to not die.  I doubt I will soon ever actually need the carrying capacity of my rig with front and rear bags for myself alone.

I guess it’s time for a new hat. Inset image, hat 2 years (and 2 bike tours) prior. Still, not bad for a $5 purchase from a 7-11 in White Center

Are you sad/glad to be done?

Yes.  I’m sad and glad.  Unlike at the end of my last tour, physically I could keep going indefinitely.  My ass was the weak link on the brink of failing me completely at the end of the last trip, but at 8 of the last 16 months on the saddle for a significant portion of most days, let’s just say it’s not an issue any more.  And once I get a direly needed new pair of bike shorts, I’m really looking forward to seeing how far I can ride per day on a less loaded bike.  I think my one day record this trip was 150 kilometers… not even 100 miles.  I know once I make some basic adjustments and eliminate some of the limiting factors (heat, weight, and topography) that’s only scratching the surface of what I can crank out.

The hole on the nose was much smaller 5 months ago. Now it’s worn down to the plastic core.
Bike shorts. Lycra above crotch padding worn down to transparency. Sexy as it may be, these were always worn under board shorts (which themselves, other than multiple crotch blowouts, seamed with dental floss, have held up remarkably).

Mentally, on the other hand, I’ve pushed my limit on the amount of continuous travel that I can do and still appreciate (close to) to the fullest.  At 5 months, I’m exceeding my previous record for continuous travel (last year’s tour) by 2 months, and tying my record for duration away from Seattle since moving there in ’96.  I think 3 months is, for me, a good amount of time to travel continuously before it might be better to regroup in one location for at least, I dunno, a month?  Which leads to the next and final commonly asked question.

What are you going to do with yourself now?

This is the third year in a row that I’ve been away from Seattle for 3-5 months, so I know in broad strokes how I’ll feel.  For a few weeks, I’ll be nothing but delighted to be back in my inarguably wonderful home town.  Within a few months, a sense of restlessness will start to creep in.  It will be faint at first, but within 6 months it will be substantial.  What’s different this time is that I don’t have a job of many years that I’m returning to, which is both a challenge and an opportunity.  I’ve minimized and driven down expenses and am grateful and fortunate to be able to afford a lack of income for at least a few more months, and now I’ll have substantial time to pursue personal projects that I haven’t had in the non-distant past.  The last time I lived in Seattle, not travelling, and unemployed, was early 2002 to mid 2003.  I’d say this had mixed results, but I think that I have a deeper appreciation of the privilege of not having to earn income for a while than I did back then, along with a little more wisdom, discipline, and inspiration.  So I’m optimistic.  But only time will tell for sure how it goes.  For all I know, I could end up back at a full time 9-5 job before the end of 2016.

Were it not for Luis, my new friend and roadside cobbler from Costa Rica, these would be totally unusable at this point. As it is, they’re still good enough to pedal and shuffle around town. If you look close, you’ll see there’s still a little chunk of contingency credit card tucked away there. 

September 1 – 10: Panama

The border crossing is pretty slow going, taking about an hour in total to work way through 3 different queues. When I get through them, there’s no money changers other than a bank for which there’s a huge queue.  I propose an exchange to some cab drivers that would leave them a couple dollars profit, but they decline.  Weird.  I have less than $20 worth of Colones to unload, so I decide I’ll just give it away to someone travelling to Costa Rica.
The riding is pretty stressful.  There’s no shoulder, and even though there’s 2 lanes per direction and I’m assertively staking a claim to one of them, I’m getting buzzed by every fifth driver or so.  Panama is the first country where I routinely see signs reminding drivers to “respect” cyclists, and it’s seemingly the country where this message is most needed.  I roll into David and check in to the Bambu hostel.  Francisco, a Mexican who works the front desk, rocks an awesome mullet and is a very friendly, warm guy.  He’s repairing a battered old laptop, and after we talk gadgets and stuff for a bit, I offer him the partially functioning bluetooth keyboard which he gladly accepts.

Not very widely applied

The next day I take a day trip to some hot springs in a town named Caldera that are about 30km away.  I follow Google Maps walking directions, expecting that the route is going to entail its challenges.  It does not disappoint.  There are 5 stream crossings, the last of which requires ascending a steep, washed out embankment on the far side, at which point I resolve to not use any short cuts on the return trip.
I get to the springs with only enough time to spend about an hour there before I have to get going to leave myself enough time to get back before dark.  The owner of the land that collects my admission fee is a curious fellow, who is very bemused by my hat.  He tells me that the hot spring water coming out of pipes into the soaking ponds is safe to drink, and that locals come from far and wide to do just that.  I meet a young German couple in the pool shortly before they have to leave in time to catch the last bus back to town, after which I have the place to myself.  I opt to not drink the spring water.

On the way back, I notice that the driving directions entail a short cut that they did not on the way there.  On the way to the springs, the map application chirped out a warning when I was going faster on some downhills that I was using walking directions, but that I seemed to be driving.  Seems possible that the driving routes changed between the trip there and the trip back because Google Maps re-evaluated it’s classification of some of the roads based on my route and speed.  It’s not the same short cut I took, and it promises to be at least a wash, or maybe a bit of an actual advantage over the route that definitely stays on paved roads.  It’s also driving, not walking directions, so the roads involved should be substantially better.  Of course, they’re not.  It seems that anybody using driving directions to get to/from the springs from David will be led down some unpaved, very rough roads requiring stream crossings (and if my guess is correct, have me to partially thank for it).

The shortcut is probably a wash, or maybe a slight loss, in terms of time, and I’m on the main road with still ample time to get back before dark.  It’s a long, gradual descent from there back into town.  It’s odd, but somehow slopes seem more pronounced and longer on the way down, where they’re working to my advantage.  Seems counter-intuitive, but I’m grateful for this perception.

Back at the hostel I meet a couple of women in town on a break from their Peace Corps assignments, and an Italian that’s had a beer to two too many.  I realize that, once again, my break day hasn’t been much of a break, so I end up staying a second full day in David, during which I tool around town picking up odds and ends that I need (earbuds, inner tube patches) and go to a delightfully packed barber shop for a trim, but primarily just lay around eating, reading, napping, and swimming (riveting, isn’t it!?).

The next day, I flow my way out of town with challenging traffic to the highway.  Once I’m out of the David metropolitan area, I find the road is being widened, so while there are two lanes in each direction, both directions are routed to one side of the highway, leaving the other side open, car-free, and free for me to ride.  After the relatively harrowing ride into David, I’m very grateful for this stroke of luck.  There are periodic, torrential downpours, and I quickly learn to waste no time between feeling a drop and getting on the rain shell, as a few seconds determine whether or not you’re already drenched when putting it on.

I find a place about 80km from David called Paradise Inn that has rooms available from a reasonable $20/night, in a town that seems to be very popular among German expats, at least during the regular season.  I check in and then head into town a few km away to seek out some dinner.  Just as I get to the edge of town, the sky opens up.  I neglected to bring my raincoat, or anything to aid in riding in the rain, and I find an awning where a local has already taken shelter.  It’s the front porch of a bar, and when a bartender comes out to say hi, I half jokingly ask if they have any food.  She says they don’t, but a few minutes later she invites me in to the otherwise empty place, and presents me with a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce.  She and another woman working there get plates of their own, from which I realize that they’re sharing their dinner with me.  The bar and the town at large are fairly run down.  There’s not a lot of prosperity going around, and I’m touched by their generosity.  While on the one hand it seems like bad form to give money in exchange for a gift, I leave a $5 bill on the table when I leave.

The rain has been coming down in sheets the entire time, and it’s almost completely dark out, so there’s really no choice but to ride through the deluge.  I like to mentally remind myself at times like this that I’m waterproof, but as I realize riding through rain this thick, that’s not actually 100% true.  I can hardly see, and have to take some precaution against inhaling water.  Back at the hotel, I order a second dinner and then turn in.

The next day, I ride 130km to a town called Santiago, enjoying having the road to myself almost the entire way.  I pass one section of construction where they’re laying down an oily, sticky substance where I’m flagged down by a supervisor who says that I need to go on the regular road.   Of course, as soon as I’m out of sight, I go back to the under-construction section of road, though still avoid the sticky oil stuff.

Google says there’s one hostel in town, and when I find it, there doesn’t seem to be anybody around, and nobody is answering the buzzer.  Earlier on in my trip I think I would have given up on the place at this point, but over time I’ve gotten more persistent with this sort of thing.  I notice a rolling gate is unlocked, so let myself in.  As I’m finding a place to stand up my bike, I hear a friendly “hola” and a woman who looks uncannily like Maya Rudolf will probably look in her mid-60s comes out the front door.  I ask if there’s a bed available, and she explains that the hostel is kinda closed because she’s gotten tired of the work involved and so she is only usually accepting longer-term guests, but given that I’ve let myself in and that I’m travelling by bicycle, she’s willing to make an exception.  The work, as far as I can gather, in running a hostel, consists primarily of cleaning linens and facilities, and orienting new guests, so I’m mindful about not taking too much of her time when settling in, but every time there’s a lull in the conversation, rather than taking her chance to wrap it up, she looks for another subject.  Seems she’s happy for the company.

The next day, I take another break day, riding around Santiago a bit but mostly laying low.  I’m only 250km away from Panama City and when I’m pedaling, the final distance is breezing by.

Hostel kittens

The next day I ride half of that distance to a beach town called El Farallon del Chiru, and again, take a day off.  I get a medium rain on my way back from a 15km grocery run which is actually kinda perfect, makes me realize how pleasant it can be to bike in a mild rain, and reassures me about my decision to get rid of my car and commit to getting around Seattle primarily by bicycle upon my return.

Biking into Panama City is a bit stressful.  There’s the massive “Bridge of the Americas” over the entrance to the Panama Canal to cross to get there, and it has extremely narrow walkways.  There’s barely enough width for my bike with bags.  I have to use my hand on the rail to keep my balance, and I still unavoidably grind to a halt every few dozen meters as my left front bag rubs against the concrete divider separating the walkway from the roadway.  It’s slow going, and then I hear a hiss that can only be air escaping from one of my tubes.  For a few moments I have the ridiculous thought that I can ride the remaining 9km before the tire goes completely flat, but of course with a hiss-sized puncture it takes less than a minute.

I barely have enough room to pull the wheel off and do the repair.  The occasional chicken-type bus honks right next to me, to which I scream a mocking honk in retort, partially out of standard catharsis, partially out of frustration that I’m stuck there for the time being, and partially out of elation, realizing that I have less than ten kilometers remaining in my journey of over ten thousand kilometers.  When I notice the looks of concern this evokes from drivers stuck in stop-and-go traffic in the opposite direction, I resolve to cool it a bit and be a bit less reactionary for the small remainder of the trip.  The hole is so big that I can’t locate it with all the noise of the roadway and my little handpump, but then I figure if there’s ever a time to use a spare tube and defer the patching of the flat tube, this is it.  Just after the repair, the walkway merges into the roadway and I have to take the sole lane going in my direction to finish crossing the bridge.  Thankfully I find a patient driver willing to lose about 30 seconds due to the distance we fall behind the car ahead of me in the time it takes me to finish crossing the bridge.

My decision to become less reactionary is key when I get into the throng of the city itself.  First, when a chicken-type bus co-pilot shouts at me when I walk my bike in front of the bus that has nowhere to move anyways, instead of yelling back at him, I give him a confused expression as if to say “why would you ever want to yell at someone like that?”.  A few moments later as I’m slowly pedaling my bike through an intersection submerged under about 5 inches of water, a car zips by, spraying and drenching me though I’m already drenched in sweat.  The car is stopped a block later at a traffic signal, and I’m glad that I’ve already resolved to take the opportunity to simply give them a sarcastic thumbs up and “muchos gracias” when I’m able to determine that it’s a somewhat befuddled, older woman at the wheel who surely didn’t mean to be driving like an asshole, even if she was.

I get to the hostel I’ve chosen with a bit of light remaining, check in, take a quick rinse in a warm shower and then jump into the pool, where I meet some kids with which I hang out and party for the remainder of the night.

The following day, I ride about 50km around town, checking out the ruins of the first European settlements in Panama (and all of Central America), making arrangements with a bike shop for the preparations necessary for my forthcoming trip home, and visiting the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal.

Fish eye view from cathedral tower

I have a few more days before my flight home to Seattle, and I think I might do one more, postmortem blost, but this, dear reader, is where the day by day blogging account of my cycling comes to an end.

Thank you so much for reading!