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The story of how I saved money, quit my job, sold my possessions, and set off to endlessly travel by bike around the world. My Plan

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Jeff A Go Go
A solo around the world bicycle tour


PAGE 11

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Friday, November 29, 2002 Dateline: Curitiba, Parana, BRAZIL

If you know the movie "If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium . . . " you will have some sense of the recent leg of my trip. Actually, it hasn't been that bad. But after a leisurely EIGHT MONTHS slowly bicycling through the byways of Mexico, in the last six weeks I have spent time in or passed through BELIZE, GUATEMALA, EL SALVADOR, HONDURAS, NICARAGUA, COSTA RICA, PANAMA, and BRAZIL, by bike, bus, boat and plane. As if that weren't quite enough countries, I also arranged for flights from BRAZIL to California, then back down to PERU. But I get ahead of myself.

LEAVING MEXICO

After my last update from San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Chiapas, I hopped on the bike for a two day 125 mile ride downhill from 6500 feet to sea level, to see the Mayan ruins at Palenque. I assumed it would be a leisurely no effort romp. As you can guess, the lower the elevation got, the warmer it got, and, as I was headed towards the Caribbean, it got VERY muggy. The ride was beautiful. Narrow canyons, rushing streams, incredible vistas as I descended into new valleys, all the while watching the scenery change to more palms and banana trees. Unfortunately, after descending INTO the valleys there was a lot more climbing OUT of them to get to the next one, than I expected. On Day 2 of the ride, at mile 120, with the sun beating down, and the temperature well over 90 degrees, my body decided to take a break. First time THAT had happened during the trip. Fortunately, the embarrassment of having to push my bike for three miles to a mini resort by a waterfall was greater than any harm done, but I learned my lesson about dealing with tropical weather.

I arrived in Palenque early the next morning, settled in, and rested for my visit to the ruins the next morning. The ruins are scattered about through the jungle, with trails connecting the various plazas and housing complexes and ball courts and pyramids. There are streams and waterfalls and dense trees and hanging vines, and, I am truly horrified to report that all I kept thinking was: "This looks JUST like the Indiana Jones Ride at Disneyland!" (One would hope that all this travel would have made me a BIT more sophisticated. Ah well.)

>From Palenque, I had planned on heading to the Guatemalan border, taking a four hour boat ride upstream, then to the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala. There are several tour offices in Palenque (as it is one of the major stops on the famed "Gringo Trail," on which you see the same group of backpacking Europeans hitting the sites from Cancun down through Costa Rica). At each office I was told that the road to the Guatemalan border was closed for the weekend due to Zapatista sponsored demonstrations. But, the tour folks were getting daily updates from the federal government and the transportation department about the road status, and expected to re-start van trips any day.

Early one morning at 5:30 a.m. I was in front of my hotel, bags packed, when, on schedule, the van pulled up, we hoisted my bike up into the luggage rack and after picking up about a dozen other travelers, headed for the border. As the sun was rising, and the mists clearing from the valleys, we were all spellbound by the views. After about 75 minutes we come to a group of 50 locals waving tree branches in the middle of the road, where they had deposited two tree logs. They offered to escort us to the NEXT roadblock for either a) a small fee; b) a ride for some of their group; or c) a donation of our vehicle. Of course, at the next roadblock, we would have been responsible for negotiating our own transit through to the third roadblock, and so on. Needless to say, our van driver said "No thanks." So we turned about, and our driver told us we would wait and see if the government would provide an escort for a group of vehicles. They wouldn't.

Unfortunately, NOR could the government tell us exactly WHEN the demonstrations might end (if ever). At this point, the other travelers, (a collection of French, Italian, Dutch, British, and other European types) begin to panic, as they were ALL headed to Tikal and on time limited vacations. Between us, we come up with a plan to ask the van driver if we could hire the van for the day to drive us the 700 kilometers to Chetumal in the Yucatan (Quintana Roo territory), where we could then bus to Belize and transfer to Guatemala. I was elected as tour leader and translator, and after various negotiations, additions from another van from another tour office, and other fun maneuverings we succeeded. We ended the day at the bus station in Chetumal (exhausted, as you can imagine), but with everyone with bus tickets to Cancun or Tikal, and a big group dinner that night to celebrate our success. The next morning, they all bused out, and I VERY GLADLY got on my bike and road across the border into Belize.

BELIZE

After 8 months, it was really strange to NOT be in Mexico. More strange was the fact that English is the official language of the country. My first day I just realized at an upscale (for me) little hotel right across the street from the beach, with a big, clean queen size bed, loads of hot water, and a porch overlooking the sea (run by a former Peace Corps volunteer and her 35 year old daughter from Mill Valley, California).

Northern Belize is an interesting mix descendants of the British colonizers and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and slaves, Mayan refugees from 19th century conflicts on the Yucatan peninsula, a fair number of Chinese immigrants who own numerous grocery stores and restaurants, and a small community of American ex-pats for variety. Sugar cane and tourism are really the only economic activities. (The whole country numbers about 800,000 people, and Belize City only 250,000.)

My second day, I headed south from the border and spent the evening in the small village of Crooked Tree (in the Orange Walk district), where about 150 people live in a Wildlife Sanctuary down a five mile dirt road off the highway. Everyone knows everyone else, and a 6 year old kid on a bike gave me directions to the "hotel" where I stayed for the night. The population is all Creole and spoke English with me, but patois among themselves, about half of which is intelligible to an English speaker. The village was beautiful, and I awoke early the next morning to the sounds of the thousands or millions of birds that live in the lagoons surrounding the village.

The ride down to Belize City, the capital, was fun. En route to Crooked Tree I crossed paths with a young french couple biking north (only the SECOND bikers I had seen since back in San Diego last March). We stopped and chatted for a bit, shared road stories and they told me about a German/Swiss guy out and about biking all over. I encountered him the next day, and we rode into Belize City together.

Although Lonely Planet had warned me that Belize City is something of a large slum, it was a still a bit shocking. Like everything else on the trip though, after a little time, the surprise wears off, and the charm of the place really comes through. I ended up enjoying my few days there, staying in a downscale hostel type place that used to be run by the Quakers. The highlight of my Belize visit was definitely my trip out to the Cayes (pronounced Keys), where I went snorkeling off Caye Caulker. Our guide took us to three different dive spots, at the last of which we swam with a shark (harmless little tiger), and about a dozen and a half sting rays, which are incredibly friendly and intelligent. They don't mind being petted, and their favorite thing is to swim between your legs as you stand on the shallow sand bar floor. Once you get used to the feel of their "wings" scraping against your calves, it is an amazing experience.

GUATEMALA

>From Belize City, (as I knew my December 1 deadline to meet my friend Melissa in Brazil was looming), I bused to Guatemala, (which turned out to be a very prescient decision as a good 40 kms of the way was bumpy gravel road, NOT fun on a bike).

Tikal, in northern Guatemala's Petén department, is one of the most famous Mayan ruin sites, and with good reason. I awoke early on the morning of my 40th birthday for the shuttle ride out to the site. Spread out over several square kilometers are various temple, living and market complexes, again, connected by trails through the dense jungle foliage, with birds and howler monkeys wandering the trees, and cotamundis walking the grounds, begging food from the tourists.

There are two partially reconstructed high temples on the central Main Plaza; the highest temple, Temple IV in the thickest part of the jungle; and my favorite, one pyramid at the center of a section called "The Lost World" which can be climbed. From the top of the pyramid there is a 360 degree view of the tops of the various temples rising above the jungle canopy on all sides, and miles in the distance in all directions a ring of mountains and hills. It is a sight I will never forget, and sitting up there, I could not have imagined a better place to celebrate the big 4-0. It was nice, also, because a lone Italian tourist adopted me first thing in the morning as I was sitting at the museum reading about the site. There had been reports of muggings in the past, and she said she felt safer touring with someone. Although she spoke no English, and I no Italian, we were able to communicate fairly well in Spanish, and had similar sightseeing styles. All in all, a great day.

Back on the bike, heading south, I had another two day, 120 mile adventure from Flores to Rio Dulce. My overnight stop was at Finca Ixobel. (Fincas are plantations or ranches.) Ixobel had been run since the 70's by an American ex-pat and her husband, who was murdered in the early 90's during the civil war. Carol DeVine still manages the Finca which has a campground, tree houses, cabin dorms, single rooms, and luxury suites. I stayed in a single room in one of the wood cabins, attached to a larger dorm room. Our shared shower was out of doors, and the cabin was basically a step up from a big tent. But the Finca is beautiful, with great meals, a beautiful central lodge, hammocks everywhere, monkeys and parrots in a really large fenced enclosure (thirty feet high, 50 by 50 feet wide) on the front lawn, and a pool, trails, etc.

Alas, the monkey and birds weren't the ONLY nature! My second night there I woke, crawled out of my mosquito netting, walked out to the bathroom by moonlight, then back to my room. It had gotten a little chilly, so I went to close the big wooden shutter of the window. As I swung it open, staring at me, 6 inches away, right at eye level was the biggest, hairiest, ugliest tarantula I have ever seen in my life. I dropped my hand from the window, jumped into bed, praying that tarantulas didn't know how to crawl thru mosquito netting, telling myself to calm down, that the thing would crawl away once it got light. Much as I tried to talk myself back to sleep, and brave as I like to think I am, it didn't work. 90 minutes later, at first light, I got up, opened the shutter again, where Mr. Tarantula had started building a web around its body (or as my friend Nancy called it, a hammock), so I grabbed my bags, threw them out of the room, packed up the bike and rode away as fast as I could. (OK, the thing was harmless, I know . . . but still.)

Rio Dulce, my next destination, is another memorable location. About 30 miles up river from the Guatemalan Caribbean coast, international yachties have built everything from simple cabins to luxury mansions on the shores of the two lakes that form part of the Rio Dulce. High speed launches ferry tourists down the river to Livingston, a community of Garifúna and Spanish speaking Afro-Caribs, on the coast. The ride through the river canyon, with steep walls covered in trees, palms, and vines is beautiful. Locals fish with nets, birds dive for dinner, and rain clouds hide the tops of volcanic peaks in the distance. The next day, I walked four kilometers upriver to the old Spanish fort of San Felipe which was built to control the, yes, Pirates of the Caribbean, who regularly raided the Spanish settlements up and down the coast.

>From Rio Dulce, I hopped a bus up to Guatemala City, where I was able to get my Brazilian visa at the consulate, attend Saturday Shabbat services at the Sephardi Synagogue (and even got called for an Aliyah), and took a day trip to Antigua, the old colonial capital before it was destroyed by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and mudslides.

Again, with my December Brazil deadline looming, and not sure exactly HOW I was getting from Central America to meet my bike buddy Melissa in Rio de Janeiro (the Darien Gap in southern Panama, at the Colombian border, is essentially roadless and impassable for several hundred kilometers), I figured it was time to make some distance. I hopped a bus, and with an overnight stop in San Salvador, went through 4 countries in 16 hours. Guatemala City to El Salvador, through Honduras the next day, arriving, eventually in Managua, Nicaragua.

NICARAGUA

Nicaragua has come a long way since the Somoza v. Sandinista era. Things have settled down a lot, and Nicaragua was a fun part of the trip. While downtown Managua on the shore Lake Managua has been essentially abandoned due to earthquake damage, the Area Monumental makes for an interesting day's walking tour. Léon was a bit disappointing, but I spent several relaxing days in Granáda, including a day trip to the top of nearby Volcán Mombacho. While Granáda, at sea level, is humid and hot at about 95 degrees, the climb up Mombacho (on foot, as it turned out I came on a day when the tourist Eco-Mobiles weren't running), takes you up into cloud forest, where it is 50 degrees, visibility is 15 to 20 feet, and it is either raining or near to with the cloud condensation dripping off every tree, rock and vine. Every standing object is covered in plant life, epiphytes, flowers, leaves, etc. There is a well-signed trail around the incredibly steep crater, where one sign brags that there are more species (over 30) living on just ONE tree than in the average European forest.

Granada is on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, which is really beautiful, including a section of 300 small islands near the shore, which are home to everything from small fisherman's shacks to several small private islands owned by wealthy businessman and government officials who build large second homes. It was interesting to learn that during the 1849 gold rush, east-coast Americans would sail south into the Caribbean and up the Rio San Jorge on Cornelius Vanderbilt's steamships into Lake Nicaragua. From there they would disembark, take a 20km Vanderbilt stagecoach ride to the Pacific shore at San Juan del Sur, than sail north up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, for the trip to the gold fields. This route was one of the top contenders considered (along with several other locations on the narrow isthmus) for the transcontinental passage eventually constructed in Panama.

>From Granáda I rode down to San Jorge, for the boat ride in Lake Nicaragua to the twin volcano isle of Ometepe. Unfortunately it was still the rainy off-season with limited island tourist transportation, and given my time crunch, I was not able to climb either of the volcanoes (one of which has a lagoon in its crater), but the island is pretty nonetheless, and made a nice overnight stop on my ride to the Costa Rican border.

COSTA RICA

Costa Rica is well known for its natural beauty, national parks, rain forests, volcanoes, etc. In fact, the town I stopped in my first night in Costa Rica was on a hill about 12 miles from the Pacific with a phenomenal view of the coastline´s rocky bays, islands and small beaches. The riding was pleasant, through "dry tropical forest," with numerous bridges crossing the many rivers. I did make it to one National Park, where I hiked through "semi humid tropical forest" (I swear I am NOT making these categories up: in fact, there are a series of posters that show the flora and fauna of these two forests, along with "rain forest," and "cloud forest") to a turquoise pool at the bottom of a 60 foot waterfall. I swam in the pool, and stood on a rock beneath the falls where the water pounds on you. (Didn´t stand there long though.) The afternoon, I joined three British tourists, and we did a loop trail past volcanic formations, including fumaroles, mud pots, and the like. While I heard monkeys, no sighting that day.

Again, feeling a bit of time pressure, I headed for San Jose, the Costa Rica capital, and relaxed for a few days, visiting the Jade and Gold museums, nearby colonial city of Heredia, and, of course, got my usual city mall and movie fix.

PANAMA

I did a capital city to capital city bus, leaving San Jose at 10:00 p.m. and arriving at the Panama border at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, where we waited an hour for immigration to open. From the border it is another 10 hour drive to Panama City, a bit long, but very pretty, traversing volcanic ranges and tropical lowland.

The END of the journey is really exciting. Though Panama now owns and controls the Canal, the Zone on either side still looks like the U.S. Military Base it used to be (with buildings that gave me flashbacks to my posts in Fort Benning, Georgia and Frankfurt, Germany). After a few miles of army standard, we approached the Canal and the entrance to the Bridge of the Americas, a tall, iron bridge spanning high above the Canal, with a view to the right of the Pacific and the ships lining up for transit, and off to the left, Balboa port and the Canal proper.

Panama was, for me, a fascinating country. The mix of influences and peoples: indigenous, Afro-Carib, Spanish, and the long U.S. military and commercial presence are ALL evident in the people, the buildings, the feel of the place. The history of Columbus´four trips and subsequent Spanish exploration, and Panama´s role as a throughpoint for gold and riches extracted from Spain´s South American colonies is also present. Too, in another Disney reference, I finally "got" the Pirates of the Caribbean. I visited Viejo Panama, the 16th and 17th century ruins of the original city, and also Casco Antigua, the second city, established on a peninsula at the south of the present city, which was bordered on three sides by the Pacific, and on the fourth by a moat, in order to defend against the British, Dutch and other pirates who routinely raided the Spanish settlements. Though Casco had become a slum, the old colonial buildings are being beautifully restored, and the 20 or so blocks have a magical feel to them. I predict in about 10 more years it will be quite a tourist destination.

Of course, the big highlight of the visit for me, was my time at and IN the Canal. From Pacific to Caribbean (because of the geography of the Central American isthmus, that is essentially from SOUTHEAST to NORTHWEST, an oddity that causes the sun to rise over the Pacific and set in the Atlantic/Caribbean), the Canal goes from bay, to Miraflores locks (rising about 30 feet in level), to Miraflores lake (short and narrow), to Pedro Miguel locks (rising another 45 feet), into the Gaillard cut, which slices the continental divide and into Lake Gatún a huge manmade lake that constitutes about half of the Canal´s transit, created between 1910 and 1914 by the damning of the major river. On the far side of Lake Gatún, the Gatún locks lower ships back to sea level for passage into the Caribbean.

In the middle of Lake Gatún is a former hilltop that is now an island: the Isla Barro Colorado, which is home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, created back in the 1920´s as a living biological laboratory. Limited number of tourists are allowed on the island, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket. I woke at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 5:30 a.m. bus to Gamboa, just past the Gaillard cut at the entry to Lake Gatún where the Panama Canal Authority Dredging Operations are headquartered. A one hour boat ride took us from the Dredging Operations docks to the Island. En route, of course, we passed several really REALLY large container ships in transit, quite a sight as they towered above us.

On the island, we visited the research facilities, labs, visitor center and then spent several hours on trails on the island. We really lucked out, seeing a troop of about 30 howler monkeys, and two different troops of red spider monkeys, also with about 30 members each. The spider monkey troops each had half a dozen mothers with babies clinging to them. It was really mesmerizing to watch the monkeys playing, feeding, resting, climbing and swinging, and, of course, watching us watch them. Our guide was a biology researcher specializing in primates (so, obviously informative about the monkeys), but also quite knowledgeable about the other animals on the island (for example, there is a large puma population which is tracked and their eating habits studied), and also knew alot about the various plant life. It was an amazing, informative and tiring day.

I took the bus out to Colon, on the Caribbean side of Panama, to see if I could catch a ride from some "yachtie" past the "Darien Gap." The eastern-most part of Panama that connects to Colombia/South America is essentially unpassable. There are no roads, lots of bandits, and fairly constant guerilla activity. There ARE folks who hike with guides along some coastal trails to say they have "done it," but I have my limits. The only yacht leaving out was already full of 5 travelers with beach gear and a motorcycle, and was headed to Colombia, so I passed.

BRAZIL

My friend Melissa and I had decided to play it by ear as to where exactly in Brazil we would meet. I hadn´t realized it, but Brazil is, umm . . . BIG. In fact, the 5th largest country in the world. Basically a tad larger than the lower 48 United States. Complicating matters was the fact that Melissa has a friend she wanted to meet before we started biking who lives in the North, but had (without telling her) booked a flight to Rio (waaaay down south).

The travel gods once again smiled kindly on me, the cheapest and only direct flight from Panama City was to São Paula, a mere 300 miles from Rio. The only thing left to do was figure out how to get my bike down there. I made a special trip out to the Panama City Airport, where the Copa Air clerk told me to just wheel my bike up to the counter, pay $40, let the air out of the tires, and wrap the bike in plastic. Pretty easy!

In light of my familiarity with Murphy´s Law, I arranged to get to the airport three hours before my flight, and, sure enough, the clerk was wrong. Unfortunately, I had left the bike box I bought back at my hotel (didn´t want to ENCOURAGE Murphy after all), and while I have tools to repair my bike, I don´t have everything needed to break it down. After getting set downstairs to the secure baggage area, and back upstairs, and down and up one more time, two Copa employees came and cut up some large cardboard boxes lying around and we "created" a bike box . . . well, sort of. The thing was really more packing tape and plastic wrap, but, amazingly, the bike made with just a scratch or two, and I reassembled it that night in my São Paulo hotel room. (OK, I haven´t actually RIDDEN it yet, but so far, it checks out, and I remain optimistic.)

Adding to my "largest city" list, started with my visit to Mexico City, São Paula is another megalopolis. 17 million people, and the largest city in South America. Fun, easy to get around, but not really a tourist site, so I decamped after two days, and headed 6 hours south by bus (as Melissa and I will be biking North) here to Curitiba, in the State of Paraná.

Oh, and for you non-Portuguese speakers (like me), that´s pronounced: Koo-hee-chee-ba. Yes, the "r" has an "h" sound, and the "t" and "d" get "ch" sound, to the point where I have NO idea what people are saying and they certainly don´t understand me. On the other hand, besides being an incredibly good looking people, Brazilians are really friendly, so things work out. My favorite "Brazilianism" is the "thumbs up" sign, which means just about everything. I have gotten it when my food was up at a restaurant counter, when I pronounced "muito obrigado" close to properly, and when I asked if the panoramic tower was open for a view of town. Everyone uses it for everything, men, women, kids, all social classes. It´s really pretty endearing.

Today, I took the Curitiba to Paranagúa train which was completed in 1880 and goes from the mountains, here at 3000 feet, down to Paranagúa Bay, at sea level, crossing 60 some bridges, through 13 tunnels, and passing canyons, mountains, waterfalls and beautiful forests. It is a real tourist attraction for Brazilians, who besides being nice, are LOUD. Riding the train was sort of like being at a big frat party, only people weren´t drunk. Everyone clapped and yelled each time we went through a tunnel, then shouted "oooh" when we came out the other side and saw some new view. In between, they shouted jokes and stories at each other.

Tonight, as I finish this off, I am back to the bus station for the night bus (I sprung for a bed in the bus) to Foz de Aguaçu, near the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay borders. The Aguaçu waterfalls (275 cataracts 80 meters high in an area 2 miles wide) are supposed to be worth the detour. While there, I will see if I can go inside the Itaipu damn on the Paraná River, the world´s largest hydroelectric project, then bus on back to São Paulu, head to Rio, meet up with Melissa, and start cycling again.

So that catches you up. Happy Thanksgiving to all. It was kind of funny being in the Show Estaçao (the mall) tonight, with the huge Christmas tree, the local school choir singing Jingle Bell Rock in Portuguese, and it´s 90 degrees out . . . but, ´tis the season.


PAGE 11

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Introduction

Friday, March 15, 2002 Santa Cruz, California Day 3

Friday, April 5, 2002 Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

April 19, 2002, Santa Rosalia, Mexico

April 22, 2002, La Paz, Baja California Sur

Spanish Language School, La Paz, Baja Sur, Mexico

May 14  MDT La Paz, Baja California Sur

June 14, 2002 Back in Mexico

July 3, 2002 Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

October 7, 2002 San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, México

November 29, 2002 Dateline: Curitiba, Paraná, BRAZIL

 

 

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