El Salvador – Day One

El Salvador.

To survive El Salvador's border crossing I had to pretend I was in an old Humphrey Bogart movie. Black and white. The room where the paper work was being shuffled contained two very old broken down motorcycles and various pieces of dusty artifacts; engine parts, broken typewriters, chairs with three legs, mops, pails and what appeared to be something used for water-boarding. Who knows?

After a great sunrise ride from Guatamala, I got to the border bright and early, ready to take on anything a buracurate could throw at me. But, here's what I didn't understand. 1) They don't get paid by the person and performance or efficiency indicators have yet to be discovered here. So, dealing with one person is a lot easier than dealing with more than one person no matter how many people are waiting. Which is zero incentive to deal with more than one person. 2) The sigh. If you ever see a minor under paid El Salvador paper pusher sigh, just fall to your knees and pray he/she isn't looking at your documents. 3) Documents. I won't go too deep here, but this is an example. After verifying each and every number on each of at least six documents at least three times by at least three people they make you write, by hand with a pen you must find, each and every number of each document then cross check that the official numbers match the numbers you've just transcribed. Then, they enter the numbers you have handwritten into a computer, using one finger. One number, look at screen, look back at number, look back at screen. Repeat. Do the next number – sigh (oh please God) and proceed to the next number.

It took well over three hours. With less effort, a rusty '62 Volkswagon Beetle with no exhaust and a donut spare could drive through El Saladour in about the same length of time. But enough of that, I'm through; next time I'll gladly take the water-board.

Was it worth it? Yep.

The road started out Guatamalan rough, but slowly transformed into one of the best rides of the trip so far. Not a tope to be seen, then it morphs into twisty ocean side splender. Oh yeah, this is why I'm doing this, I'm here at last.

I'm staying at a hostel, first one I've been at since the early seventies (late sixties?). You can smell the pachouli oil and the gentle wiff of the herb. Some things just withstand the test of time. I have Peter Williams to thank for the suggestion, I never would have thought of it myself. Checked into a beach front room, sound of of the Pacific Ocean pounding on the shore, many surfers catching the waves. The rooms, each with a private bathroom, are clean and spacious. Hammocks on the huge front deck, bar downstairs. And, at $25usd, not that expensive. At the moment, life is good. Very good. I'll try to post some pictures, but my drive to capture all this on camera has fizzled.

But, for the record, this one I snapped with the iPad out my bedroom window.

Oh yeah, a nod to Mr. Red Green. I fixed my helmet that was blown off in the wind. From this …

To this. Magic!

 

 

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Guatemala: Is it dark, or is it light?

Guatemala?

I’ve driven through New Mexico twice, both times at night. I don’t think it would be reasonable to claim that the big problem with New Mexico is that’s it’s always dark.

Based on the same reasoning, I’m fairly sure it isn’t fair to say that Guatemala is a hell hole of garbage dumps, junk yards, incomprehensible crumbling infrastructure and pathetic poverty. But, like New Mexico, the dark is all I have yet to experience.

Leaving Mexico to enter Guatemala, I entered through a less busy border; a last second decision. The border itself was quiet, the people helpful. Consistent with 99.9 % of this ride, I was the only English speaking white dude. Leaving Mexico was painless; stamp ya here, stamp ya there.

Entering Guatemala was the usual third world maze of pin-ball bureaucracy. For now, let’s cut the dramatics and say – with a little $$$ here and a little $$$ there – I ran the gauntlet relatively unscathed. Aside from Belize and Panama, the passport is good to go for the other countries in Central America. It’s the bike, for each country, that’s a paper jungle and big cost challenge. The reasoning behind applying torturous disincentives so people won’t use their own vehicle to visit these countries baffles me. Sort of like millions of speed bumps. But, who am I to say? New Mexico in my mind being always dark.

Then the test of all things broken awaited. Road signs? Luxury. Pavement that’s actually smoother than pointy rocks and gravel? None of that. Traffic that actually moves? Ha! Without any exaggeration, there were hundreds of trucks waiting to cross the border; at least seven kilometers worth of slammed shut traffic and exhausted looking drivers. Between the heated confusion, the whole thing was apocalyptic. After struggling to find a way out of the mess, I headed to the first open road. Didn’t care where it went, just wanted out.

Ten minutes later, I was back in. Okay, Mexico has topes (killer speed bumps). Guatemala doesn’t need them. They have wheel eating pot holes and an infinite number of shanty towns. No need for speed bumps if there’s no way to gain speed. Someday, I may rewrite this and identify the routes; be it Hummer, MoPed, motorcycle, by foot or wheelchair, nobody in their right mind wants to use this road. The best part of today’s ride? Two things: first, as usual, the people.

Nope, I can’t think of a second thing.

But the people have been incredibly helpful and friendly. From the police who politely inform me I’m going the wrong way down a one-way street to the gas station attendants who always use so, so, so, so many words to say, “straight ahead.”

The event of the day was perfectly simple. You see, there are hundreds of thousands of children working dirty and sometimes toxic little road-stands selling water, produce, Coke products, fuel and local food. Today, I found myself in one of those stands. I sat down with a little girl and her mother and nurtured a bottle of water and three bananas. I stayed for about an hour. No talk, just musing. Use your imagination; the smell of smoke from an open fire pit, rancid truck fumes and the constant roar of the relentless pounding traffic. Little children on the edge of the blistering hot pavement trying to snag a quick sale for a few cents, pleading for survival but smiling and coping with every rejection with their fellow survivors. I just sat there, in the shade. I was only there for an hour. I am humbled.

How dare I complain about pavement and why my motorcycle isn’t moving smoothly and fast? My challenge is finding a bank so I can make a withdrawal, booking a room that has air conditioning and maybe not so much road noise, making sure the beer is cold enough and the shower hot. Really, what makes it even possible to complain?


Tomorrow, I head towards El Salvador.


PS. As I write this I’m bunkered down in a little road side joint. No wifi, so sorry Glenda – no communication from me today. You’re not here, but you’re always in my thoughts; couldn’t do this without you.

 

 

Sunday, on the run from many things . . .

Bikers on long rides know that, like life, keeping things where they belong is a constant struggle. I'm only sharing the following incident because of the connection to long rides. Plus, I do believe there's a Zen like metaphor buried in the following incident . . . somewhere. I'm just not sure how to unpack it.

So, after a great sleep in a great location for a great price I was refreshed and ready to hit the road at daybreak. As every rider knows, you can misplace almost anything except your keys (at this point, my wife will stop reading). I diligently packed everything and attached my luggage on the bike, all that was left was to lock the bags in place. With a key. Which is necessary. So the bags don't fall off.

No key. Okay it's a small room it must be somewhere. I went back in the room and, as my wife would say, I gave it the man-look. No key. I went outside and looked at the fully packed and almost ready to ride bike and went back inside to look in the room again. No key. So, it must be packed on the bike somewhere, never done that before but there's always a first time. I unpacked the most obvious case, then unpacked all the little bags inside the the obvious case. Nothing. Then I did the same with the other bag. Nothing. I put it all together again (sun has risen now) and searched the room again. Nope.

Okay, I must have missed something, I searched the grounds, all my clothes for a third time, around the bike, the walkway. I even glanced up at the coconut trees. Nothing left to do but unpack everything again (sun keeps doing its thing) and rip everything apart in a a barely controlled rage. Nothing. Back to the room (did they somehow fall in the toilet) back to the bike (under a tire?) the room (on top of the bloody fan?) and back to the bike. Zero.

At this point (sun's blazing hot) I decide that I just have to admit that the key is gone. I rig up a strap so the bag doesn't fall off, look at it and suppress a whimper. But I don't cry, just sweat and sigh and get suited up to go. To put my helmet on I flip off my hat and it happens. The damn keys were in the hat and now they're on top of my freakin' head!


I really have no idea, but surely there is a Zen metaphor there somewhere – keys? A deeper message about life? Needless to say, I ain't wasting my time to figure it out, and you've wasted enough time already reading this …

As for the ride today, it was another mixture of beautiful scenes, and horrendous winds. I once read that the winds of the Sierra Madre de Sur can be unreal, and now I can verify the rumor. A lot of trucks were pulled over and the bike was like a bucking horse. The mountains themselves looked like giant malevolent brilliant red coals hurling heat.


At one point I pulled over and, as habit has it, I secured my helmet on the mirror. It blew off like a peak cap, breaking the side of the visor; I may have to pull a Red Green and “fix it” with duct tape. Once again my fear made me neglect a photo, but then again, wind isn't the easiest thing to snap.


Anyway, I plan to be in Guatemala Monday or early the next day. I have little experience with Central American border crossings And zero experience crossing with a motorcycle. I expect it's not like doing the fast-track at Disney World. Wish me luck . . . .





 

 

Friday, March Merlin and I Part . . .

Long story short, I’m riding alone now.

Merlin had issues with his back and his enjoyment level and decided to head back. I put too much into this to abandon the plan and Merlin said he was okay riding alone. So, Merlin and I shook hands and wished each other well, and I know we both meant it.

Glenda has been a huge support, even with the added cost, time and worry she left the decision to go it alone up to me. I hope I made the right decision; only time will tell. Yikes!

I’m in Acapulco now, the ride here was a mixture of tedium and splendor. Towns with anything over ten thousand people are usually a drag (dangerous traffic, ridiculous speed bumps, pollution and poverty). Little towns are usually interesting, but the connecting roads are twisty and often eye popping beautiful.

So far, the police (and some who pretend to be police?) have been fine. However, it’s always a tad disconcerting to see twenty-something’s with automatic weapons dirty shirts and and desperate eyes.

The big cultural “adventure” today was slipping though what appeared to be a truck road block or hostage or something else. No idea. Seemed like a hundred big rigs going nowhere and all jammed-up in the middle of nowhere. Young men with heavy guns and children running around and ordinary people all hanging around with amused, concerned and confused looks on their faces.

Rather than just settle down and start a new life (people were already sleeping on the ground) I decided to cut off the road and thread the needle through the encampment – just meander through the masses. Somehow they (whoever “they were”) allowed me to pop out the other side. Excuse me, pardon me, yep, just a stupid gringo here mindin’ my own business . . .

After I reached the other side all I could think was “what the £^c(, was that about?!”

Anyway, that’s it for me. Wish both Merlinand I luck!

PS. Somehow the video showing the ride out of Copper Canyon is posted on my Facebook account, but I still can’t get it on the PEI to Panama Blog. Go figure. I’ll keep trying to update the blog when I can find the time, energy and skill – but those things are in short supply at the moment.


Saturday, I’m still “nervous” riding alone, but it’s getting a little more normal.


Today was the hottest weather I’ve ever ridden through, and that includes Baja and a few more hot spots. It was hovering among 40 on my gauge and higher than that in the towns. My socks were wet from the sweat dripping from my armpits. Even in the rare moments when I could twist the throttle between the speed bumps, it was still boiling.

Then the engine made a sound, and not a good sound, sort of like a paint can rattle, buzz clunkya, clunka. Next town I pulled over and started the charades game I usually left for Merlin. Turns out there was a motorcycle mechanic just up the road. Turns out the mechanic was trained in BC, Canada – but couldn’t speak a word of English. However, the boss’s son was a teacher who could and within ten minutes he diagnosed the problem.

Evidently, I had hit one too many topes (speed bumps) and smashed the skid plate up to the exhaust system. He had to remove the skid plate, straighten out the thing (no small task) drill out all rivets, rivet the thing together again and reinstall. It took about an hour and a half. Meanwhile the boss’s son took me around the town explaining the local history. For about twenty dollars Canadian and a few cold beers I tossed in, I was back on the road. Sweating again . . .

As luck would have it, an hour down the road I stumbled into a little place that’s magic. Pool, a few cold ones and a great meal. I know everyday won’t turn out like this, but today, life is good.

Sent from my iPad

PEI to Panama

Saturday, and we’re in Mexico. Soon, Mexico will be in us.

We had a great ride today with minimal mishaps. But, before continuing, I have to say that for a number of reasons, this blog is going to be fragmented. The reasons? I haven’t got a clue how to construct a blog; where we’re riding has limited access to wifi; when I’m through with riding I’m too pooped to post; and the list goes on.

All that aside, so far it’s been a heck of a find-a-way. The drive to Texas was harsh, we drove through the worst weather almost every state on the Eastern seaboard has experienced in decades. We even had a snowplow in front of us as we drove through Dallas. But enough of that . . .

Before I forget, a big thanks to Dan Dickie, he helped us locate a place to leave the truck and also helped me repair my oil filler plug which had mysteriously become stripped. I met Dan a few years ago, he runs a great adventure motorcycle rent business out of Townsend,Tennessee and Big Bend, Texas. Should you need a thorn pulled out of your paw, some advice on where to ride or to buy into a great adventure, be sure to look him up: http://www.gsmmotorent.com/

After we rode some magnificent Texas landscape, we went through the Mexican border. Unfortunately, even after being well informed of my travel plans, CIBC Visa felt it would be helpful to suspend use of the card. This caused no end of trouble. To get a temporary permit to use your vehicle in Mexico, you have to pay a refundable holding fee. By suspending my card, CIBC Visa put me in a hell of a pickle! But again, of what interest could that be to anyone? That is, unless you use your own vehicle to travel to Mexico and depend on a Visa card!

But today (Friday, we think) the ride was unbelievable. We rode the Copper Canyon, which is in the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. It’s been said that Copper Canyon makes The Grand Canyon seem tiny. From what I saw today, this may not be an exaggeration. Riding this area was an experience I’ll never forget. The landscape was eye buldging. The road was the most fabulous (and dangerous) I have ever ridden. Pictures will never communicate the experience, but I’ll post a few anyway. The problem is, when the view was the most outstanding, I was concentrating on the ride (IE: too petrified to stop). The pictures here cannot capture the thousand foot rock formations, the thousand feet of drop offs on both sides of the road or the surreal landscapes. Most of the road is still under construction, so at this point there are very few cars. Once (If?) this road is complete, it will be one of the engineering wonders of the world.

It’s hard to wrap your head around the magnitude of the situation; really, it almost hurts the brain. Where the following picture was taken, to the upper right you can see part of the road. In the middle, you can see where the road meanders down to the river, on a wooden plank bridge, before heading up the mountain again. Actually, the road down to the river and up the other side of the mountain all the way to Batopila isn’t much more than a wide gravel path, much as the entire road used to be only four years ago. However, even on the paved section there is rarely a spot where rocks hadn’t tumbled on the road. They ranged in size from golf balls to soccer balls to boulders much larger than a car. Not hundreds, but tens of thousands of rocks and boulders littered the road. It’s almost as if the mountains are scolding the engineers for scarring their surface. Suffice it to say that to lose concentration here comes at a price.

 

So, here’s the scoop with Batopilas. We arrived here near sunset and found a hotel, no small feat given the town was having a power-outage. A gentlemen had to use lamp light to show us a room. We then cleaned up with a frigid shower. Well, it looked like a shower. Merlin said, “If it wasn’t for gravity you’d have to reach up and pull the water down.” Bikes were also secured in a safe little garden like compound, and even though power was down we took a flashlight and walked the streets in search for a place to eat. Yep, fools go where angels fear to tread.

As we walked along the pitch black streets a gang of young men loaded with artillery jumped out of their truck and charged into a little apartment. A man further down the street yelled at them and frantically pointed towards another apartment in a way that made it quite that clear that the gunmen may have entered into the wrong place. To be fair, we didn’t hear shooting or screams so as far as I know they were just delivering a pizza. I sort of loss my appetite and slunk back to the hotel but a hungry Merlin is a focused Merlin so he searched on until he found a spot.

All that drama aside, in the daylight this little town is quite beautiful. However, the gun weilding youth do put a risky spin on things; Mayberry it ain’t. Perhaps it’s a cultural trait or it’s because of the nature of the local enterprise, but people are not inclined to automatically smile or make eye contact. This is not to suggest people here are unfriendly. However, our habit of gratuitous pleasantries is absent. To be honest, I don’t know how to interpret it so I’ll have to leave it to more experienced travelers to put me in the know.

Interestingly, we were told by locals that it’s the various gangs that hold each other in check and it’s the local “business interests” that stabilizes most of the violence and petty crime. In this, the police appear to be only supporting actors. You’ll notice that the pictures don’t contain people; shooting My camera at gun toting youths would have been an easy target. But, so was I.

At this point I’d like to toss off a thanks to Alan Kohl who helped us secure Mexican insurance. First, he noticed that the Motorcycle registration issued by PEI Motor Bureau was wonky. Actually, it had three errors – how can that even happen? Had he not caught this, our ride through the borders would have been next to impossible. Secondly, Alan has deep rooted experience in this neck of the woods. He has extensively traveled this area nearly 30 years ago when there wasn’t any wifi, or even a telephone line, never mind pavement. It’s hard to imagine what an adventure that would be. So, if you’re reading this Alan, you’ve been a huge help!

 


Tomorrow we head out of town, backtracking through the mountains the same way we came in. Hopefully, things will go well. I’ll try to keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PEI to Panama

This Blog will track our progress from Prince Edward Island, Canada to Panama. Merlin Jay and myself, Walter Wilkins, intend to leave mid February and (hope to) return mid April, 2015. The following pictures and videos are only posted now for test purposes to see if others can access the blog and make comments. Once underway, the intent is to share the good, the bad and the ugly experiences. Hope you can join us!

Short Bios

Walter Wilkins

I’ve been riding for about forty years with over 400 000 kilometers under my belt. While I’m experienced, I’m far from what I would call an expert rider. I’ve ridden from Labrador to Mexico but my destination of choice is The Smoky Mountains; for the last decade or so, I’ve done a perennial ride there – what a wonder. That said, it’s been three years since I’ve ridden Big Bend in Texas and I can’t wait to return.

A few years back, on a lark, I traded in my well used BMW for a new 2009 V-Strom. I liked that bike so much that after two seasons (and 55 000 kms) I bought another. So, for this trip I’ll be riding my 2012 DL 650, Suzuki V-Strom; at this point it also has 55 000 kms on the odo. My motto for the V-Strom is: It’s not a perfect bike, but it’s the perfect bike for me.

I’ll be responsible for this blog, so please join up, follow and feel free to comment – it will encourage me to keep posting. Also, since I know squat about blogs, any advice is welcome. Even more welcome is helpful advice about Mexico, Central America, places to visit or stay or anything related to what this blog offers you.

Under The Tree of Shame @ The Tail of the Dragon
Smokey Mts.

Merlin Jay

Merlin Jay is retired from being an independent long haul trucking operator. As such, he literally has over three million miles of road experience. He’s also a committed biker; although some say he simply should be committed. Presently, he owns and rides Harley’s, a new Ninja 1000 and a Suzuki DR 650 (The Mule) the bike he’s riding on this trip. The Mule has carried Merlin from The Artic Circle in Alaska to The Trans-Lab Highway in Newfoundland/Labrador to Mexico . . . more than once.

What can you say about Merlin? One of his points of pride is that, to this day, you can visit the infamous Coco’s Corner in Baja and see his Teddy Bear hanging amongst the hundreds of pairs of women’s panties. Now, if you’re an experienced adventure rider you’ll likely shake your head and know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re not? Well, there’s not enough room here to explain the honor. Oh yeah, wanna play? Go back to the Coco’s Corner link in this paragraph and let me know if you can find Merlin’s Teddy!

Past adventures and getting ready . . .
Here’s a guy you won’t meet too often; we met him during our last ride through Baja.
Every time I think we’re nuts, I link to his story here . . .
This short video was taken a few years back on Route 66, Arizona.
The front bike is Da Mule, I’m on the ’09 ‘Strom.
Baja, Mexico 2012.
 

More to come . . . Adventures, mishaps and much to see. And, even more you’ll not want to see!


Planning and Packing
Bikes are loaded and ready to head out on Tuesday morning.
A big thanks to Centennial Motors on PEI, for helping us load! It’s great to have a dealership you can trust and they have some of the best prices on motorcycles in Atlantic Canada.
On the way to Texas . . .
Opps, a little delay . . .
Here’s the reason for our departure delay, a record breaking snow fall on Prince Edward Island. Below is a picture of Merlin’s driveway. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. So, Nuff’ said.
 
It that isn’t enough, here’s a picture of some Islanders who had to dig a twenty-five foot tunnel to find their car. See here: They found it by remotely flashing the lights of the car and beeping the horn!

 

An inauspicious start or

a test of our mettle?

To make up lost time because of PEI’s huge storm, we had to dig deep and make The Great Escape; Steve McQueen would have been proud. We drove all night, through sleet and snow and bitter cold.

We made great time through a record breaking cold snap. They say it’s the coldest it’s been here for more than twenty years. Well, at least that’s what Fox News said, so it’s gotta be the truth, eh?

Then, the truck had issues in Virginia. I’m broke Down in Virginia, if that ain’t a C & W song, it should be.

What happened? It went down sorta like this. “Hey Merlin, what’s that noise? Yeah, I hear it too. Sounds like a bad wheel bearing? Yeah, it does sound like a wheel bearing. Let’s find a dealer to see what they think.”

The first Dodge dealership said sure, they could take a look at it . . . next Tuesday. I guess they were so busy they didn’t even know it’s Friday morning? The next dealership wasn’t much better. That is, until Merlin pulled his best Mafioso Boss Face. “Oh sir, would you like to speak to the manager?”

They came around quite nicely, and took the truck in for a little peek. After a “technical analysis” and a $90 “diagnosis charge” they said, yep . . . needs a wheel bearing. However, it’s a two wheel drive so we don’t stock that Dodge part. The best we can do is try to get the part from Michigan, hopefully by Monday.

So, here we sit, in a rather expensive but typical Motel room. Merlin, keeping a stiff upper lip, is stealing himself to deal with a $900.00 bill + delays and added expenses . . . for a wheel bearing.

The adventure continues . . . above is the slightly wounded but totally immobile Dodge outside our motel room; you really don’t want to see the inside of the motel room. With a bit of luck, next Monday the post will be about us in the truck happily back on the road.