Monday, November 26, 2012

Colombia, South America, Week 1

I have a friend, Bruno, who was down this way in the early 70's, checking out the scene.  I hope that someone in Tahsis  puts him in front of a computer so that he can see the pics that I am linking to, and also perhaps he will recognize some of the sights.

I have had two solid days of riding between me and the news of Sitha's drowning, and I am not allowing too much time for morbid thoughts or regrets, and I am focussing on the ride, and the new continent that I have landed upon.

I think I saw one of these that had become road kill..



 Or maybe it was one of these guys...


No animals were harmed in the making of this blog: I stole pics from a museum before I was shut down by a shotgun carrying musueo guard..

A week ago today, the riders and backpackers had met and made their spaces on the good ship Stahllratte, and we were all very anxious to sail towards Cartegena.

My notes from the initial days...
Steel Rat
Day 1
I managed to meet up with the rest of the bike travellers just north of the Toumec Airport. While the directions given to us were good, it seems that road construction had made a bit of difference to the tracks described. We agreed that we had the co-ordinates, and headed towards what we thought were the Carti Airport.
After riding for about an hour, we turned east, and began to climb through two different ranges of what Panama considers to be mountains. There was no doubt that the road was very steep and twisty, and in fact there were two different places where trucks had failed to make the grades, and had either tipped over or gone off the road. I was surprised to see the road was paved, and although Blondy chugged along in some cases, she was very happy to be away from any of that red mud that very much resembles the goose shit of central B.C. We did pass through one water crossing, and the mud and much came up higher than I would have liked, getting my freshly cleaned pants good and dirty, not to mention making Blondy look like some sort of tramp.
I think that there were about 8 riders in the group, and it was clear that there were some hot dogs, as well as a couple riding two up on a classy Honda TransAlp that was over 25 years old. The road was very twisty, and narrow in some spots, and while there was not much traffic coming from the coast, it was apparent that each of us had to keep his wits about him, and ride the road.

About 3/4 of the way to the destination, which was the Carti Airport according to the emails from the skipper, the local Indian group had set up a toll station. We knew about this, and the $9 fee to enter their land was entirely reasonable in my mind. They issued a receipt, and waved us on. It was clear that they knew that there was a group of riders coming in to board the Stahlratte, and it was a seamless process.
We arrived at the coast, and very soon afterwards were lined up to have the bikes loaded onto the ship. Crewmembers came onto the dock and adjusted two ropes, around the frame in most cases, and around the triple tree of the bikes. The lifting of the bikes onboard have been have of my concerns about this leg of the journey, the other worry being the offloading of the bikes in Cartegena, which is done into a zodiac. It was clear from the loading of the bikes that the crew and the skipper knew what they were doing, and it was less than 45 minutes all of the bikes had been loaded and stored onboard. The biker all had arrived a day earlier than the other travellers, so the skipper, Ludwig, had made arrangements for us to spend the night on one of the islands that are part of the San Blas chain, as well as occupied by the Kuna tribe.

Our accommodations were simple and worthwhile, and the Kuna put on a meal for us as well. It was interesting to wander around the island, which was no more than 2 feet above high tide, and I would guess no more than 3 acres in area. Apparently there are 365 islands in the San Blas system, and there are over 52,000 of the tribe distributed throughout the islands. Within spitting distance of the island that we were staying on was a larger island, which apparently held 2000 natives, and was complete with a school and a bakery. The kids on the island were kind of funny, and eager to engage with us, and it was clear that the Kuna who had offerred up their houses for us to stay were happy with the arrangement, probably making enough to have a night on the big town. All of the people were very accommodating, and welcoming, and the vibes were pleasant and nice to see for a change. Apparently the Americans had helped the Kuna defeat the Spanish in the early 1920's, when they were being enslaved by the leaders of the day. They apparently remember this support from the Americans, and in this case it was okay to be a gringo. It was clear that the Skipper and crew have made extraordinary efforts to involve the Kuna people in their operation, and they seem to recognize that a form of controlled tourism is of benefit to their nation.
After an early night, we returned to the Stahlratte, and began to get acclimatized to the ship and the crew. Early on, another 8 travellers, mainly backpackers, joined the ship. There was a good mix of folks from all over the place. Myself and another fellow from Langley represented BC in the rider contingent, and there was a woman traveller from Abbotsford, so it was clear that there was going to be an early winter in B.C.

We motored for a couple of hours to a group of islands further south. To no ones' surprise, there were about 3 other private sailboats anchored, including one flying a Canadian flag. The skipper placed the anchor in such a way that the hull of the ship nudged up againt the sand, and so within 20 feet of the boat, one could walk to shore. Within minutes, everybody was in the water, swimming and snorkling around the island. It was truly magical, and without a doubt a highlight of my trip so far. I have dreamed about Caribbean islands, tropical hideaways, and this little islet certainly fit the bill. I snorkled completely around the island, and while there was a slight current, it was manageable and comfortable with snorkle gear and flippers. I remember when my sons and I went snokelling a few years ago in Mexico, and the current was so strong that the skippers had the drift figured out, and planned the swim so that people actually moved along with the current, which I remember as being four or five knots, and definitely not one that you could swim against, even though they had made all of use wear lifejackets.. No, this San Blas islet was perfect.. I managed to find some conch shells, empty and obviously taken by divers before us.

Most of us swam for a few hours, and around dinner time, the skipper and crew set up a barbecue on the island. We had a fantastic meal, and a few gallons of rum were drunk in the process of bonding the group.

We had a full day anchored at the island the next day, and people lazed about, swam, and socialized. It was difinitely worthwhile to relax. I washed my clothes, including my riding gear which was beginning to get a little high with the road sweat and dust of the past months or more. I have been telling myself that it is too hot to wear my gear, and while it is hot, I know that I have to get back into wearing the gear. AGAT. All the Gear, All the Time, for you non-riders... Besides, I spend a couple of hours today trimming down my gear, and I think that by wearing my gear, it will simplify my load as well as lighten things up a bit. I know my friend Garth is thinking that I should have left half the crap at home to begin with, but my thinking is that if I did not have it, I would need it. I am not thinking that I will be looking for a tent by the time I get to Ecuador, and I am glad that I did not sent my sleeping bag home with the tent and stove.
I am going to leave some stuff on the Stahlratte, and I hope that the crew does not get too pissed, as it may be stuff that others can use. I have trimmed back on my clothes, and the ropes and gear that I bought to tie the bike down on the boat are now redundant. There are a couple of guys who are running F800's and they are travelling really light, and I really am wondering why I have this weight and bulk.

On the evening of the second day, we had a wonderful meal of freshly caught fish which the skipper bought from the Kuna, as well as giant crayfish, which I have never had before. While they were not lobster, they certainly tasted wonderful. The meal was really over the top, and all of the guests enjoyed the meal immensly.

The plan for tomorrow is to begin sailing at 6:00 AM. Hopefully the winds will cooperate and we will also be able to sail. I was talking to the captain, and he said that when the winds are right, they can make 12 knots sailing the Stahllratte. It would be very cool to be pushing through the Caribbean undersail. Even though there are no Harleys aboard, I think we could all feel like pirates for a day or so. Apparently the crossing is about 28 hours under power, so we will be arriving outside of Cartegena sometime Monday, if I have my days straight.   


Most of the bikers met, as per instructions, near the Tocumen International Airport, about 2 hours outside of Kuna territory and the embarkation point.  Captain Ludwig had provided the coordinates for the Carti Airport, which is simply a concrete runway on the Caribbean coast, deep in Kuna territory.

A Panama Butterfly added to the pannier..before the mudbath



The ride westward into Kuna territory was interesting and somewhat intimidating.  Their territory is extensive, and borders most of the Caribbean side of the the isthmus.  In the picture below, we are stopped at the Kuna gateway, where we each paid $9 to enter their homeland.  They are a group of people who have never been "on their knees", either to a church or to a crown.  Interestingly, one of the guys on the roadblock was a native Canadian from Ottawa, who apparently is living with the Kuna.




 There were some very steep hills to climb , an a couple of mudholes to wade through, but

The road was paved, which was a bonus, as some of the grades were easily 20%, and Blondy groaned and gripped her way up (and down) the hills and past a few wrecks...



Finally, the Caribbean coast...


This KLR is from Langley...



Tie them knots carefully boys...





This knot better hold, or there will be some crying going on...

Picture perfect: a 100 year old beauty...

A newer F800GS gets raised aboard...


Lucky is happy with the lift...his Tiger was too...

OMG: KTM's near the water!!!





Mike is thinking: this is the beginning, or the end of the trip...



Bikes aboard, and no crying...the crew did an excellent job of loading the bikes in quick order..




 There she lays, ready for another journey...


Looking back towards the Kuna territory, and the Panama mainland...



 The Kuna run a smaller operation...



We were slated to sleep on one of the Kuna islands for the first night.



 This beautiful hardwood was all hand sawn...


 The boys decided to visit another island..An Argentinian steering, and a Brit paddling: cooperation personified...

 The islands are about a foot above high water, and consequently the facilities are designed to go directly to sea...

 The local kids were characters, of course...


This guy was caulking a wooden dugout the old fashioned way....

 Marooned....


 Working on a newer dugout...

 These women were in their traditional dress...



After the island sojurn, we rejoined the ship, and picked up one last bike...
A 1200 bound for Cartegena, solo...









Then, it was time to find an island to play upon...


Modern nav equipment showing heading for an island anchorage...



There are 2000 folks on this island..complete with school and bakery...
 Captains at the helm..

A mixture of bikers and backpackers....hmnn...




 Others were anchored nearby..including a Canuck boat...






















I think I see the bottom...




Huge Barraccuda...(in 20 years)















The skipper anchored her right on the edge of the island: perfecto..
Barbecue time...









 There were a few hangovers....


The Kuna brought these aboard for lunch the next day...




These are the biggest crayfish I have ever seen... and delicious, too.











The cooks did a wonderful job in feeding us...





Getting underway  for Cartegena...




Goodbye Wreck...





















Heading into the weather...




We sailed for awhile, but unfortunately a sail repair did not hold..

Sails worked well for awhile, until one of them ripped open at a recent repair...

Weather coming at us..








It is going to get wet...















 Shower time...(PG) suggested...





 Visibility: not so much...












A New Day...



















 After the storm, a mid trip swim in 3000 meters of water....


















 The port of Cartegena showing on radar...





 My nephew, the pilot, does not fly into clouds that look like animals, and I think that this one is a croc..













After some bunk time overnight, traffic started showing out of Cartegena..























A car carrier out of Europe..










Now for the fun part....








 Easy Blondy, easy....




 A Hurry up and wait process begins....


I'll say....
 A beauty of a TransAlp...


Unloading at Migracion....





 No Pictures, Seneor....

Downtown Cartegena...



















 Hey Chicas...










 As opposed to the unreal Backpackers....
























Old Town Cartegena..








Willy's brother from another Mother....



Suzuki driven...

Cartegena is  a great introduction to Colombia.  The old and the new blend together well, and there is a real positive sense to the people and the country.  I am glad to be on a new continent and ready for the experiences in front of me.