Jan 05

Volcano for New Years

The sun makes it first appearance of 2013 in Panama.

The lead up to New Years

We arrived in Boquete in shambles, I was scraped and bruised and slightly shredded, Tony was in pieces and not worth much more than scrap aluminium.  It was raining.  I checked into Mamallena’s, a hostel in central Boquete that I had been hearing about by word of mouth for months, and before doing anything I went upstairs and got on Skype to make my belated Christmas calls to family.

I felt beat-up, but spirits were still pretty high.  I wasn’t going anywhere until after New Years anyways, there was no bike mechanic in Boquete, and the rain matched my mood perfectly and gave me the excuse I didn’t need to take it easy the rest of the day.

We begin our hike in the final minutes of 2012

The next day, with the help of Miguel, the owner of Mamallena, we drove Tony down to the city of David and submitted him to the care of a mechanic there.  We were going to have to rebuild two wheels, and once that was done and Tony was rolling again, I could have another look at him and see what needed to be taken care of.

We picked him up the next day, and I spent that afternoon cleaning him up and getting him into working order.  He was rolling now, but I also had discovered that the front disc brake was no longer working.  Because of the rim I had on the front wheel, I couldn’t switch to V-brakes like I had in the back, and because my rims are special I couldn’t get a different rim.  In the end I just dismantled the brake telling myself that I could easily do the 40 km ride down to David without it.  Then, perhaps we could get it fixed there.

I got drunk that night.  Very, very drunk.  My indulgence was fueled courtesy of the free rum provided by Miguel, and the next day was a write off as I was bed-ridden with a serious hangover until the late afternoon.  It was more than just your typical hangover though and I woke the day after that to find that I had come down with some sort of illness, sweats and vomiting included.

The rest of the week I did very very little.  I had become a sort-of unofficial volunteer at the hostel, and helped out with driving, translation, and BBQs from time to time in return for the help and favors that Miguel had been giving me.  There wasn’t much to do in the actual town of Boquete, and the wet weather prohibited me from doing what I had come to do: hike.  I was in a lazy mood as well which meant that I spent my time eating, chatting, and watching movies rather than catching up with my blog and finishing the spanish book Cascabel I was half-way through.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I was getting fed up with myself for having sat on my ass for a week.  I wanted to do something to start the year off right.  The day before I had turned down the offer of a ride and free place to stay at Bocas del Toro.  Everyone was heading to Bocas for New Years and what was assured to be a huge party.  I turned the offer down though because I had already had enough of drunken revelry for one year.    That last hangover had been a red-flag for me.  If I looked back at the last couple of months and I could see that I had been drinking much more than usual, and on the days I was drinking, I was drinking much more heavily than normal.  This was less the behaviour of a care-free reveler enjoying life, and more the behaviour of a worn-out traveler drinking to escape.  I knew I needed to keep that poor, tired soul in check.  The very last thing I wanted to do was start the year off with a hangover.

I decided, weather permitting, that I would do the midnight hike up to the top of Volcan Baru, and welcome the first sunrise of the year from the summit.  That, I decided, would be welcoming in the New Year in style.

Waiting for sunrise…

Climbing the Volcano

Volcan Baru, at 3475m (11,400ft) is the highest point in Panama and one of only two mountains in Central America from which you can see both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans (on a clear day).  Climbing the volcano was one the the main reasons I had come to Boquete.  I figured that I had bounced back and forth from Pacific to Atlantic so many times this trip that it would be nice to see them both at the same time.

Fortunately I would not be doing the hike alone and, to my surprise and delight, no less than 10 others from the hostel would be climbing it as well.

A midnight hike on New Years to the top of Volcan Baru is a tough hike to prepare for.  You want to take a nap, but with fireworks going off and New Years

festivities under way, you will be lucky to squeeze in a power nap just before setting out.  You will be hiking at night, so you need to pack torches and headlamps.  At the top of the volcano the temperatures can get down to freezing and the wind chill factor is not something to be under-estimated, so you need to pack a lot or warm clothes.  You are almost guaranteed to get some rain, so pack your rain coat.  Finally, you will be doing hard hiking for about 12 hours, so make sure you pack enough food and water.

It was 23:30 when we got dropped of at the trailhead and started in silence the 13.5 km (1600m (5300 ft) elevation gain) hike to the top.  We had the perfect weather for the hike, which was miraculous considering how bad the weather had been all week, and we hiked in the quiet moonlight leaving our headlamps dangling around our necks.  It was a long slow slog, in part because it was tough going, in part because as we added more layers we needed to stop more often to cool off, and finally because we were in no rush.  Sunrise was at 6am, and to get to the summit early would only mean waiting longer in the cold windy darkness.

We got there just in time.  The last 100 m was an easy scramble up and across a rock formation until you arrived at the top of all of Panama, the summit marked with a large concrete cross covered in graffiti.  We arrived in complete darkness, with an icy cold wet wind whipping over us, and as we stood by the cross we had absolutely no visual confirmation of the vast emptiness that surrounded us on all sides, but by instinct we knew it was there.   We had spent only about ten minutes on the top, posing for in-the-dark photos, when Steffan shouted out, “Hey there is the sunrise!”.  We all turned and looked as one at the eastern horizon and watched as the faint blue smudge slowly widened, lightened, and reddened, gradually filling the sky and beating back the darkness.  Then, in a single moment, the sun came up.  It rose in an explosion of orange and blood-red, reflecting brightly off a patch of pacific coastline and poking up above the cloud layer that was spread out far below us.  We all stood behind a rock that shielded us from the cold wind and bore witness as the first sunlight of 2013 spread out on the land around us and painted the the sky itself orange as waves of fog continued to drift by our perch far above the horizon.

It was a new year now, and anything was possible.  Happy 2013 everyone!

——

For more photos of the Volcano Climb go here

Sources:

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volc%C3%A1n_Bar%C3%BA

 

Jan 05

Third Blood on the Tour

The end of my board shorts after 4 years and over 15 countries…

After Christmas Tony and I left the Lost and Found Hostel and headed off towards Boquete, but we didn’t make it very far before we had the second bike crash of the trip.

We had been going down a fast winding descent on good quality road, when suddenly we came around a corner to find that a large section of road had slid away in a landslide and the part that remained had sunken down tumultuously.  By the time we saw it, it was far too late for us.  I hit the brakes as much as I could before riding down the first hump and then launching off the second hump.  That day I discovered that Tony and I could fly – as fly we did – the landing though… left much to be desired.  When we hit the ground the back wheel broke and locked up and so we came to a rapid and sliding stop.

That going to leave another souvenir for this trip…

It’s interesting the thoughts that go through one’s mind in a moment like this.  One second you realise the danger you are in, and you get scared.  A shock of adrenaline pulses through you body and the words OH SHIT! flash through your mindA micro-second later though, when you know you are well and truly f*cked, you switch to damaged control and your instincts and reflexes calmly take control of the situation and do their best to save your arse.  Finally, when you are slamming into the ground and bouncing and sliding  across the road, you’re entire body – and mind – goes limp as you peacefully accept whatever fate is to be bestowed upon you, whether it be a little bruise, a broken leg, or death.

 

I was fine.  A bit off road-rash up my side and on my arms was – in my view – a small price to pay considering we had probably still been going over 40 kph when we launched into air.  Tony however, had taken the full brunt of the hit and had not fared as well.  The back rim was trashed, as two spokes hadn’t broken but instead had ripped apart the actual rim.  The front tire was also flat and it appeared one of my front disk brake pads were missing.  Because I couldn’t roll the bike, I was impossible for me to judge any further damaged.  In addition to the bike, my board-shorts and my “bluey” (blue singlet), which had survived 12,000 km of riding and sun had been ripped apart to shreds.

The spokes ripped apart the rim.

I was on a very quiet road, and had not seen another car on it yet that day, but I got lucky again.  It had only taken me a few seconds to see that Tony and I would not be going anywhere on foot and that the damage was not something that could be repaired on the road, but just a few minutes later a small camioneta came by.  I waved it down, explained my situation, and they helped me throw my multiple bags and one paralytic bicycle into the back.  They gave me a ride to Gualaca, a small town, and a bit of a transport hub, dropping Tony and I off in front of a Chinese supermarket.

I spent the first half hour in front of that supermarket tending to my wounds and changing out of my shredded clothes.  The board shorts, which I had bought in Cambodia 4 years earlier and which had been my swimming, running, hiking, lounging-around-the-

My leg.

house, and riding companion in over 15 countries, received an unceremonious burial in the rubbish bin out front of the shop.  The bluey, in which I had learned how to rock-climb in Australia and which had traveled with me in 12 countries, was also summarily dismissed in the same manner.  Once I was cleaned up and had repacked my bags to make my stuff easier to transport, I hung out for the next 3 hours trying to hitch a ride to Boquete.

I was unsuccessful hitching, the handful of pickup trucks that stopped at the supermarket were not heading in the right direction, and with all my bags and the useless bike, I couldn’t trek over to the more direct road about 500 m away.  In the end, I walked over to a quiet bus terminal – where there were no buses heading to Boquete – and by chance a pickup truck taxi was parked out front while the driver had lunch.  We negotiated a price, drove over to the supermarket to load up my gear, and drove onwards to Boquete.

—-

Also read:

First Blood: Surviving the Copper Canyon

Second Blood: Volcano Boarding

More photos here

 

Jan 05

Christmas on the road.

Getting festive for the lead up to Christmas.

Pig for Christmas

I put down my book Cascabel by Arturo Arias and got up from my perch which had been carefully positioned to be sheltered from both the rain whipping around the corner and the smoke coming up from the fire.  I moved over to the fire, on top of with was a gigantic iron pot, and carefully removed the piece of sheet metal covering it.  Instantly, I was rewarded as an invisible cloud of delectable aromas leapt up towards me.  Inside the witches-brew style pot were two gigantic hunks of pig, and the smells they were producing put bacon to shame.  I grabbed the large wooden stick and turned each of the hunks before putting the cover back on and pushing a bit more wood into the fire.  Those two hunks alone would be enough to feed over 20 people for our Christmas dinner, and we still had a lot of pig to go.  Christmas would be spent frying up the ribs and huge chunks of fat.

It was Christmas Eve and I was at the Lost and Found, a hike-in Eco Hostal located up in the western cloud forests of Panama about two days ride from Bocas del Toro.  The day before I had come up over the last big hills of Central America, I was tired, wet from the constant rain, and my chain had broken again that day, so when I saw the Indiana Jones style signs on the side of the road, I decided I would cut my day a bit short and go and check it out.

Pig.

If I had known that the hike-in was a hard steep 20 minutes then I might of reconsidered, but I didn’t know, and so I spent the next 50 mins doing one-legged squats up slippery stone steps, lifting, pushing, crying and dragging my heavily loaded bicycle up to the top.  When I finally arrived, I found myself in one of the most unique hostels I have ever stayed at and amongst a great group of interesting travelers.  It wasn’t until I saw Gabriela though, a small Panamanian woman elbows deep and hacking apart a whole quarter of a pig, that I realised that I would be staying for Christmas Dinner.  In retrospect though, I was looking for any excuse to put off taking Tony back down the hill.

 

 

View from the Lost and Found.

Passing the Holidays on the road

For many people, the idea of passing Christmas in a foreign country far from family is a depressing one.  To be sure, most Travelers would agree that Christmas is a time to be spent with family – if feasible – and so many do coordinate their plans around the holidays, starting early enough in the year so that they can end their trip in December and catch a flight home a few days before Christmas.  However, this is not always possible, and so every Christmas, while families all over the world sit down to eat a massive meal together, there are also hostels all over the world that are filled with travelers that couldn’t make it home, sitting down and eating a massive meal together.

I have passed three Christmases traveling away from family, obviously this past year in Panama, but also in Malaysia and the UK, and I can tell you that each time it has been an enjoyable experience.  You aren’t “alone” as many people seem to think, rather you are surrounded by other travelers in the same situation as you.  Christmas Eve is usually spent lounging about, calling home to family, playing boardgames, putting together puzzles, and preparing the big meal.  Once the big meal is served the drinking tends to start in earnest.  Christmas Day is then spent nursing your hangover from the night before, calling home to family, playing boardgames, putting together puzzles, and eating leftovers from day before.  When the 26th comes around (unless you are in the UK*) it’s all over, and people uproot and head off to the nearest big city in anticipation of a big New Year’s bash.

So when the 26th came, Tony and I – with the help of others leaving – lugged our gear down the jungle trail and started off to Boquete, a mere 60 km away.  What we didn’t know was that about 20 km into that ride we would find ourselves crippled and bleeding on the side of the road.

Christmas eve at Lost and found. note the wild monkey in the background.

—–

*In the UK, the 26th is Boxing Day, and you won’t be going anywhere as it is the one day of the year the all trains, busses and other public transport do not run.

We can highly recommended the Lost and Found Hostel for nature and hiking enthusiasts.  Apparently it is already in the Lonely Planet, but I leave you with a link to its website: http://www.lostandfoundlodge.com/lostandfoundlodge.com/Eco_Resort.html

More photos can be found here.

Finally, I would just like to wish everyone who is still reading the blog after over a year on the road a very very merry Christmas.

Dec 27

Hangovers in Paradise

My personal beach on Isla Colon

Power Hour

“So, wait, are you saying that…”  I stopped mid-sentence at hearing Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams cut mid-chord and change to The Proclaimers’ I would walk 500 miles.  Pulling away from yelling into Erin’s ear I grabbed my plastic shot glass full of beer and “clinked” with my Finnish friend Heikki before pouring even more beer into a stomach already full of the finest foam that Panama has to offer.  Heikki went to the bar for more beers, and I managed to sneak in a bite of pizza whilst refilling our tiny cups before I turned my attention back to Erin and our conversation about the “Seattle Freeze”.   I had barely gotten my question out before The Proclaimers were interrupted by Michael Jackson‘s Smooth Criminal.  Heikki raced up to our table and unloaded half a dozen sweaty ice cold bottles of Panama Beer next to the already sizeable collection of empties we’d congregated.  I held out his cup for him and we drained yet another shot together.

We were in a bar in Panama about 40 minutes into “Power Hour” – a shot of beer every minute for 60 minutes – orchestrated by one minute segments of 80s music.  The beach bar was packed full of sun-kissed international revelers sporting fluorescent green headbands in addition to the standard beach-party getup one would expect on one of the biggest party islands in Central America.  Power Hour was just the warm-up session as afterwards the entire bar would migrate to a club on the docks to partake in $1 tequila shots, $1 beer bongs, and outrageous dancing antics.  More than one person would end up drunkenly jumping off the end the club into the warm Caribbean waters before the night’s end.

Welcome to Bocas del Toro.  Easy to get here.  Harder to Leave.

Don’t forget the machete

Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a collection of beautiful tropical islands just off the Caribbean coast of western Panama.  It is known as one of the do-not-miss destinations on the Panamanian Gringo Trail, but to be honest I had almost skipped them entirely.  “Beautiful beaches and $1 beers” struck me as something I had already had enough of this trip and strangely I find that the backpacker beach bum scene often irritates the island boy in me.  In the end though my fear of missing out got the better of me and soon I found myself loading Tony onto the back end of a motor boat.

That was the right decision.

It’s not difficult to find a good beach party in Central America, but Bocas del Toro offers more than just a daily hangover and itchy sand flea bites.  The main town of Bocas on Isla Colon manages to absorb a huge number of travelers without feeling over-developed or overspent and the laid-back locals get on well with the waves of travelers that pass through.  Head one kilometer out of the little town though and the Island gets progressively more quiet and untouched.  The pavement soon turns to dirt, and the dirt soon turns into a muddy jungle track that only 4 wheelers (or mountain bikes) can negotiates.  Next thing you know you are alone on a Crusoe-esque beach hacking into a coconut, starting a campfire and thinking that life couldn’t get any better than this.  You can go even further off track by paying a few dollars for a water-taxi skiff and they will whisk you over to any island you desire and drop you off on the deserted beach of your choosing.  Snorkeling, kayaking, diving, dolphin swimming, bat-cave spelunking, eating, 4-wheeling, surfing, and sport-fishing are just some of the other activities that one can partake in during the day here in Bocas, and all for a reasonable price and without the hassle of needing to pay for an unnecessary guide or tour.

Toilet wisdom

The little things

It’s sometimes the little things that make all the difference.  For example, in Bocas walking around town topless (guys and girls) and drinking on the street is illegal, but walking barefoot is perfectly acceptable.  I think is these little touches of conservative decorum that help to keep the debauchery in check and preserve a measure of mutual respect between locals and foreigners.  Also, the island is largely devoid of the husslers, hasslers and usual riff-raff that one tends to get in this kind of destination, a reflection of both the islands’ relative prosperity and laid back island attitude.

Tony and I mixed it up a bit while we were here, spending our first couple of nights on the island camping on our own private beach on the north side of the island – washing down campfire-cooked Spam with coconut water and wine from a box – before returning to town to spend a few evenings flirting with beautiful women, grooving to the music, and drinking in deep the all pervasive Dionysian spirit.

So just be aware that if you plan on coming to Bocas del Toro for a couple of days you could end up staying all week.  Or, like one lady I met last night, a week could become eleven years.

Dec 14

Don’t hate on Costa Rica

A man sells fruit on the road in Costa Rica in front of one of the country’s 50 McDonald’s restaurants.

Everything in Costa Rica cuesta rica.”   That was Monika’s spanglish catch phrase describing her and Martine’s experience riding through the country.  I had met the two Swiss girls in Baja California, they were cycling north on their way to Canada having already ridden all the way from Argentina, and their negative review of Costa Rica would be the first of many that I would receive along the way.  Costa Rica is expensive, the people aren’t friendly, it’s overdeveloped, it’s too touristy, there are too many american’s there, it’s very materialistic, it’s really expensive, it’s like they don’t want you there, it’s beautiful but pricey, they’ve sold out, it looks like the US with McDonalds and Strip malls, San Jose is an ugly city and on, and on, and on…   In Honduras I met another cyclist that said it was hard to find friendly people to stay with along the road.  In short, the general consensus amongst the budget travel community is that Costa Rica has nothing to offer that you can’t find for half the price elsewhere in the region.  As Tony and I drew nearer and nearer to this little country I began to get desperate for a good review, any good word, about this proud little place.

It wasn’t until Nicaragua that I finally met four people who had been living in Costa Rica, and to my relief they all spoke positively about their experiences – one even raved about it – and so I let my hopes go up just a bit.  My sources after all were extremely reliable; 19 year old young ladies who had hardly any travel experience from (wait for it…) the United States of America.

Day one was a nightmare.

On the tour we are beginning to run short on time, money and travel spirit, and so – in light of the negative reviews – Tony and I decided to “skip” Costa Rica.  By “skip” we of course mean “pass through ‘quickly’ ”.  By “quickly” we of course mean at an average speed of 15 kph.  That’s practically flying.

Our first day in Costa Rica was horrible.  We should have been ready for it, but no, it was truly shocking.  First, we crossed the border quickly and without paying a visa fee, they clearly didn’t care about who I was and even laughed at me when I told them I didn’t have a bus ticket because I was traveling on a bicycle.  Later on the road, Tony and I couldn’t ride in peace because we were constantly being distracted by annoying smiling people giving us the big thumbs-up sign (as if we don’t know what that really means!) and wishing us a “good trip” (sarcasm is so childish).   Stopping at a petrol station we found out that people drink water from the tap here (gross!) and that it’s safe, free and easy available for everyone.  Of course though, “free” isn’t exactly accurate as people in Costa Rica are very nosy and want to talk to you, sometimes for as long as 20-30 minutes, even after they have filled up your bottle!  Then, back on the road, it didn’t take long for the Costa Rican drivers to show their aggressive nature.  If you are planning to cycle through Costa Rica you need to be aware that some drivers and will pull up right along-side you, roll down the window, and then start yelling at you whilst thrusting bananas and other fruit in your face, forcing you to take it.

It was a draining ride, and unfortunately the day ended badly as well.  I ended up camping on a beach – Playa Soley to be specific – near a little police station.  It soon became apparent why it was free to camp there.  A blinding sunset, sand literally everywhere, more free tap water, more free food forced on me, and more time-consuming chit-chat had me gritting my teeth with rage by the time I crawled into my tent to try and get some sleep.  It was far to quiet though and I spent ages listening to the soft lapping of waves and the gentle roar of the ocean before finally pure exhaustion allowed me to unclench my fists and drift of into the sweet escape of my dreams.

How on earth was I going to survive another week in this country?!

It´s really not that bad.

Back on the Caribbean for the first time since belize…

In the end, Tony and I did survive.  We now sit in Puerto Viejo, a small Caribbean beach town less than 50 km from the Panama Border.  Costa Rica has been the eighth country of the Tour de Zack y Tony and we have passed through it very quickly – just 12 days – eager to get down to Panama.

Sitting here in Puerto Viejo though, I look back on my experiences in this country and I fail to find an explanation for the extreme negativity – at times anger and disgust – I had been getting from other travelers when asked about Costa Rica.

It’s true, compared to the rest of the region, Costa Rica is expensive, more developed, and has a tourism industry that caters more towards American tourists on packaged holidays than it does backpackers on a tight budget.  Be prepared for $9 Subway foot-longs and $70 canopy tours.  But, there is still plenty of unbeaten path and with a bit of travel savvy and by keeping away from the tourism vultures it can still be done on the cheap.  $2.20 beers in a bar, $11 hostels, and $4 set lunches really isn’t anything to get uptight about (and those are prices in San José).

San Jose

It is also true that it has “sold out” to America.  By that I mean that the tiny country boasts American-style strip malls and supermarkets along with 50 McDonald’s restaurants, 31 Burger Kings, 13 Wendys’, and a host of other US franchises from Taco Bell to Tony Romas.  And yes, there are a lot more American’s living here, running businesses here, studying and traveling here than in other countries in the region.  The country got something in return though; they are one of the safest, most successful, most stable countries in Central America.  By success, I mean that even the road laborers that I hung out with one evening think that life in Costa Rica is good and easily affordable.

Finally, yes, it is also true that San José is an ugly city.  It´s colonial past is barely perceivable amongst the mess of badly planned infrastructure, hastily built concrete buildings, and tacky advertising.  But then, every capital city in Central America is ugly.  San José though offers so much more than first meets the eye.  There are trendy bars offering quality live music in every genre, small theatres, art galleries, reputable universities, diverse street art, and vibrant public squares.  There is a definite good vibe to be found here… if you can afford it.  Admittedly, its a city better suited for living in rather than visiting.

As for the people.  I´ll admit that at times they have seemed less happy, less friendly, and less welcoming at first glance than in other countries.  They definitely don´t compare to the Mexicans.  However, you just have to make the slightest effort and they instantly open up to you and are eager to have a chat.  For the record: I never had trouble finding a place to camp, I got more free bananas here than in any other country this trip, and people would often go out of their way to help me.

It’s all a conspiracy.

In the end, I am forced to conclude that all those angry, horrible reviews I´ve been getting from other travelers has been a reflection almost entirely of the higher prices.  People find them offensive.  It´s as if the prices in Costa Rica are not subject to free market forces of supply and demand, but rather have been raised intentionally in a brash act of Tico arrogance designed specifically to spite the budget backpacker.  I theorise then, that backpackers rush through the country, stopping in only one or two heavily visited areas, judging them all through some form of poo-tinted sunglasses before popping out on the other side, taking a deep breath of franchise-clean air, and sharing the tale of their horrendous experience in the land of Pura Vida.

My message to budget travelers is this:  If you are short on money or short on time skip Costa Rica because you will find more of what you are looking for in the far cheaper less-developed countries around it.  However, if you do decide to go, take the country for what it is, enjoy the incredible gifts it has to offer,  learn to say “pura vida” after every other sentence, and be prepared to see in its natural environment a species you will struggle to find anywhere else in the world:  Costa Ricans.

Finally, unless you spend a significant amount of time and money getting to know the country… please don’t hate on Costa Rica.

Pura Vida.

 

—–

http://www.nacion.com/2012-12-11/Economia/Mas-franquicias-compiten-en-el-negocio-de-las-hamburguesas.aspx

http://www.anamars-ecotours.com/bella-vista-ranch.html

 

 

 

Dec 09

Fluency: Redefined – Bicycle Spanish – Part 3

“Live Más” Taco Bell uses Spanglish for it’s marketing in Costa Rica.

In Part 3 of Bicycle Spanish Zack looks at his command of the language after 11 months of cycling in Latin America.  With only 2-3 months left before leaving the land of Spanish speakers he asks himself “Am I fluent?”

The Ticos love me.

My stomach spotted the man before my eyes did as I walked down the bustly morning streets of San José.  He was selling bread from a box that hung from around his neck.  On the short-side of the human height spectrum he was dressed in a bright red collared shirt and wore khaki trousers that were too long by several inches.

I stopped beside him and greeted him, “Buenos dias.  Cuanto vale el pan?” Good morning.  How much is the bread worth?

“Buenos Dias…” he started before doing a little hop at seeing a six-foot tall white guy dressed in shorts and flip-flops standing over him try to see inside his bread box.  He recovered smoothly though and in rapid-fire spat out “Buenos Dias! Pura vida! Como estas?! Todo bien?!”

I replied smoothly, “Yes, yes, everything is good, thanks.  I can’t complain.  How ‘bout you?” returning the courtesy whilst repositioning myself to get a better look at the bread he was selling.  I was hungry.  Were these the rolls that had that sweet cheese filling in them?

“I’m all good”, he said with a big smile, as much in his eyes as his mouth.  He was bouncing a bit from foot to foot – like a child needing to pee – trying to peer around me.  I got the impression he was checking to see if I came with others like me.

“Tell me”, I said finally, “How much for the bread?”

“500 colones for a baggie”

“In that case give me one baggie.”

We made the exchange and he began to chit-chat to me as I ripped into the plastic bag and stuffed half a roll into my mouth.  It does have the cheese inside, I thought happily.

“So are you studying at the University here?”  He asked finally, gently pulling my thoughts away from baked goods and back into the conversation at hand.

“No, I don’t study here, I’m just visiting”

“Just visiting huh?  Where are you from?”

“I live in Australia” I answered. It is my standard response when I want to dodge the “Where/what is Guam” conversation.

He considered this for a second and watched me with a quizzical expression while I started on my second roll.

“But you have family here, right?” He asked next.

The man spoke quickly and with a strong Costa Rican accent that I had not been exposed to yet.  I could understand him perfectly, but to do so was like solving one of those Magic Eye puzzles.  You have to focus without focusing.  Or in this case, you had to listen without listening.  Fortunately, a mouth full of bread gives one that extra half second to process out the garble into clean Spanish.

“No, no family here.”  I replied, amused by a question that someone with blue eyes almost never gets in this part of the world.

“So why do you speak such good Spanish then?”.

—-

It’s a question I had already gotten several times in Costa Rica.  Probably, I suppose, a result of there being a lot of Gringos in this land of Pura Vida and their not holding the highest level of Spanish.  Walking through a touristy marketplace the day before I had gotten a wonderful reception and sincere helpfulness from the stall owners, a reception at odds with what I had heard about the “Ticos” from other travelers. I got the sense that they appreciated my Spanish.  Later that same day I got the same question yet again from a woman who started chatting to me on the street and wouldn’t let me leave until she had given me all her favourite “cheap eats” recipes to help make Costa Rica more affordable for me.

That said, in Costa Rica there have still been frustrating moments.

Like the two old guys selling guavas on the side of the highway that just looked at me blankly when I tried to speak to them.  Finally, one of them turned to the other and started translating my Spanish into Spanish for the other and that man then pointed at the juice bag I wanted and held up 5 fingers to indicate the cost rather than telling me “500 colones”.  So I tried to give him 50 just to make a point.

Or, the police officer asking me in Spanglish “Habla Spany yes?” after we’d already been chatting fluidly for 5 minutes.  My response after a long uncomfortable pause was,  ¨Si!  Yoooo haaaablooo ESS-PAAAÑOOOOL¨

When these moments take place, I try not to get angry, and I remind myself of the stories my Argentinian friends Martin and Ceci – who I met in Cancun – told me about similar experiences they had been having in Mexico despite being native Spanish speakers.  It’s not you, it’s not you, it’s not you, I tell myself repeatedly.

But how good or bad is my Spanish really?

Fluency: Redefined

After my first month in Mexico, I wrote Bicycle Spanish Part One and there I clearly defined “fluency” as being able to do the following:

  1. Reading non-intellectual books and the news in spanish
  2. Watching movies in spanish with spanish subtitles
  3. Conversing freely with spanish speakers (with reasonable accents) without butchering the language, and 
  4. Being able to write spanish at the level of a 12 year old.  

Check, check, check, and check.

Mission Accomplished, I am now fluent in Spanish.  Yay.

You will have to forgive me though if my elation seems a bit deflated.  The fact of the matter is that despite my definition of “fluency” above, I have strong reservations against the use of the big F-word to describe my Spanish skills at this point.  I don’t feel “fluent”.  I feel like I have climbed the mountain only to find myself standing on the top of a foothill with the real mountain still towering above me.

As an engineer, this subjectivity frustrates me.  How can I tell I am making progress if I don’t even know where I am?  I want to quantify my linguistic prowess on a simple objective 1-10 scale.  I want an outside institution to validate my level of “Spany”.  I want a piece of paper I can shove into peoples faces and say, “See this here!? This means that YO HABLO ESPAÑOL!”.

Fortunately for me, there is such a piece of paper I can obtain, it’s called the Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera AKA the DELE.  It´s an exam designed to objectively determine a person´s Spanish abilities – the Spanish equivalent of the English IELTS or TOEFL.  For a mere $190 to $340 dollars I can pay to spend several hours of my life sitting an exam to acquire a piece of paper that I may never use but is nonetheless internationally recognized by universities, governments, and the ¨business world¨.  Who am I kidding?  I just want the prestige.  So, I just have to take this exam at the first opportunity available to me (May, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia) and then we shall all know the truth!

But wait, there is a catch.  There always is.  It’s not as simple as taking the exam and being told, “Zack your a… 7!”.  No, no, no.  Instead, DELE have developed six different exams for the six different Diploma Grades (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) and I have to first decide for myself what level I am, pay to take the highest level I dare, and at the end of it receive a simple “Pass” or “No-pass”.  The pass rates often vary considerable by level.  For example in November 2011, 77% of the people taking the A1 exam (the easiest level) passed, but only 24% passed the C2 level (the “I’m badass” level).  Suffice to say, If I were to end up sitting this exam next year, it would have to be for level C2.

Go big or go home baby!

Playa Soley in Costa Rica, near the border of Nicaragua

Just chase skirt.

So fine, exam plans aside, here I am.  I have climbed the foothill only to now see the mountain of fluency towering above me.  Don’t misunderstand me, I am very proud of the progress I have made in the last 11 months whilst traveling on a bicycle, but where do I go from here?  I clearly still have a lot of work to do and a lot of areas to improve on but the trouble is that I am at the level where continuing to improve whilst traveling is becoming very difficult.  I am at the stage where I need to live and work in a Spanish speaking country if I want to keep making leaps and bounds.  I am at the point where I really need to find myself a cute South American girlfriend.

Or, as an Australian friend in El Salvador put it to me: “Mate, you just need to chase some skirt”.

 

 

————–

DELE website: http://diplomas.cervantes.es/

Also read:

Bicycle Spanish Part 1

Drowning in Mexicanismos: Bicycle Spanish Part 2

—–

Podcast Information for those studying Spanish:

Here are the podcasts I have listened to whilst on the bike, all of which are available for free from the iTunes store or their respective websites:

  • Coffee Break Spanish
  • Showtime Spanish (an advanced continuation of Coffee Break)
  • Notes in Spanish Intermediate
  • Notes in Spanish Advanced

I am now currently listening to the Spanish news extracts, provided by SBS news service in Australia.  It is also available for free through iTunes or the SBS website.

Pros: Interesting.  Pertinent to both Australia and the Spanish speaking world.  Covers a wide range of subjects in a wide range of accents.

Cons: Often the “extracts” lack any form of introduction so you are thrown into the middle of an interview without having any idea as to the context of the story.  Difficult to keep up with the lightning-quick news-room delivery.  Sound quality of the interviews can be crackly and poor.

I also just discovered – but have not yet listened to – a daily 30 minute Spanish news podcast put out by Voice of America.  From the five minutes I listened to I think it will be good, but unfortunately it seems to focus almost exclusively on US national news.

Nov 29

Same Same Syndrome

The boat to Isla Ometepe

One of the most inevitable consequences of traveling longterm, particularly if you are traveling in just one region of the world, is what I like to call “Same Same Syndrome”.  It is a variant of Traveler’s Fatigue, but its symptoms do not include exhaustion, depression, or purposelessness, rather its symptom is something that many consider far worse: boredom.

Same Same Syndrome is the sickness that befalls a traveler as the novelty of his travels begins to wear off and everything starts to seem… same same.

Things that at the beginning of your trip would have been incredible and fascinating start to sound distinctly unappealing – especially when compared to a beer and a hammock.  Museums are the first to go; that impressive collection of pre-colombian artifacts is now rows upon rows of pottery shards.  Then, wandering the colonial town looses it’s appeal; How many plaza mayors, central parks, old churches, and marketplaces can a single traveler stomach?  That’s alright, you still have the attractions.  Sadly though, even the great Mayan ruins, the volcano hikes, and the glorious beaches are no match for time, repetition and your own personal inertia.  Soon enough, you will be back in that hammock – beer in hand – wishing the fresh-off-the-plane traveler (FOP) next to you would shut up and stop talking about the f*cking waterfall nearby.

Same same syndrome can be fought off for a long time by mixing up your travel arsenal.  Learn salsa, take spanish lessons, visit a friend, work at a coffee farm, do a home-stay, learn how to make baskets, get your diving licence, do a cooking course, work at a hostel for a while, rent a motor-bike, go ride a horse, become a rum aficionado, go to a different country, or change continents are all great ideas to keep you travels fresh and invigorating.  Eventually though, Same Same Syndrome will catch up to you yet again, along with other forms of Traveler Fatigue, and you find yourself back in that hammock yet again – beer in hand – realising that only things that can motivate you to get up are food, a cutie with a nice pair of legs, being out of beer, and the inconvenient need to pee.

Getting ready to celebrate One Year on the BIKE!

This is more or less the position that I found myself in in Granada, the tourism gem of Nicaragua.  I was in the hammock – coffee in hand- recovering from an amazing One Year on the Bike Anniversary celebration that had involved two excellent bottles of 7-year Flor de Caña Rum, one we-are-already-drunk-so-it doesn’t-matter bottle of 4-year Flor de Caña rum, an endless supply of one litre bottles of Toña beer, a plethora of wonderful travel buddies, and more salsa music then my wounded shoulder could handle.  And so, as my well-deserved hangover began to fade I decided to pull out the Lonely Planet Guide and see if I could find something “productive” to do with myself.  “Colonial buildings… Parque Central… cathedral… Plaza de Independencia… Convento e Iglesia de San Francisco… museum… Iglesia… museo… stunning view…”  I yawned loudly, tossed the book aside, and got up to get myself another cup of coffee before I settled back into the hammock and debated what I should do for breakfast later.

The good thing about Same Same Syndrome is that it just makes you bored, not depressed, so I was actually in a fantastic mood in Granada.  I knew though, that my game was up.  I was suffering from Severe Same Same along with more dangerous variants of Traveler’s Fatigue lurking in the background and traveling by bicycle had long lost it’s novelty factor.  The thing to do now would be to slow down and sniff out those more unique, more rewarding traveling experiences but I had neither the time, the patience, nor the money to do that at this point in my trip.  It was time to make a dash for the finish.

I had had a good run though.  It had been 15 months since I had left Australia, and my spirits were still relatively high.  Now I just had another 6 weeks or so of the Tour left, followed by another couple of months of shenanigans, and then I could settle back into the “normal life”.

So the next day, Tony and I got on a boat to the Island of Ometepe.  Ometepe is a traveler’s dream come true.  It is an island in the middle of a lake formed by two volcanoes, one of which is active, and one of which has a lake.  There are small villages, beaches, waterfalls, hikes, kayaking, farms, incredibly friendly people and lots of hammocks.  It’s the sort of place that I would have easily spent two weeks exploring at the beginning of my trip.

We stayed for just 3 days.

—–

This isn’t the first time I’ve complained about Same Sameness.  Check out this video from over six months ago on my way to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Nov 23

Volcano Boarding.

Climbing along the ridge of Cerro Negro

After Somoto, Tony and I made our way down from the highlands of Nicaragua to the colonial town of Leon, perched near the coast and within striking distance of several Volcanoes.  One of those volcanoes is Cerro Negro, which means “Black hill”.

Cerro Negro is the new kid on the volcanic block, having appeared only 162 years ago, and he is also on of the most active, having erupted 23 times in that period – the last time in 1999.  There is something else that sets Cerro Negro apart though, it is the birthplace of a new extreme sport: Volcano Boarding.

As with most extreme sports, there is a crazy Australian involved, and in this case the man goes by the name Daryn Webb.  It was 2004 and Daryn had just opened Bigfoot Hostel in Leon, when he began to develop the sport.  Here is the history of the sport – ripped from Bigfoot Hostel and Volcano Boarding’s Website:

“Daryn and his crew endured a fair share of trial and error, testing everything from picnic tables to mattresses until they arrived to a sit-down, wooden toboggan, made of metal and Formica-reinforced plywood. The adventure sport was born!

Volcano boarding was a world first. León became the only place in the world you could slide down the side of an active volcano. By 2009, Bigfoot Volcano Boarding sent 10,000 boarders down Cerro Negro. Today, over 15,000 people have sled down its slope at up to 90km/hr!

Volcano boarding quickly gained the attention of international media. The New York Times, BBC and Survivor Nicaragua came to Bigfoot for the tour. CNN named Bigfoot’s Volcano Boarding Tour as #2 on the “Thrill seekers bucket list: 50 things to do before you die”, Reader’s Digest rated the tour #4 on the “10 Death Defying Travel Destinations”. Volcano Boarding and Cerro Negro became celebrities.

In León, Volcano boarding is more than a sport. Volcano boarding has not only given travelers an attention-gripping story to tell, but it’s also become a part of the culture here in León. The tours have resulted in hundreds of jobs available to locals, a popular activity for young people to enjoy, and a way to raise awareness for local projects in the communities.”

—-

First sight of the slope

You now know more about the sport than I did when I booked a trip to the volcano with Bigfoot.  I was going up with a Colombian friend of mine whom I had met several times earlier on the trip, and so we had a few beers the night before and chatted about the adventure in store for us the next day.

“I want to break the record.  I’m going to break the record.”  He told me confidently.

I shook my head at him and replied, “I don’t know man, 90 kph is fast!  And it is down a slope filled with sharp volcanic rock.  I just want to have a good go and get down in one piece.  The last thing I need right now on this bike trip is an injury.”

“You might be right” he conceded, “but I am going to go for it.”

—–

Manuel ready to roll

The next day, about 30 thrill seekers piled into the back of Bigfoot’s truck and we headed for the volcano.  It was a long and uncomfortable ride along a bumpy dirt rode with trees branches slashing at the sides of the open truck, occasionally smacking someone in the back of the head, but eventually the volcano came into view, and we all began to realise the scale of what we were getting ourselves into.

Cerro Negro had been aptly named as it was quite simply, a large black hill.  But what we were all staring at was the long straight track left behind by the thousands of volcano boarders before us.

“It’s a lot longer and steeper than I thought”  Manuel said quietly.

“Yes, yes it is.” I replied back, still staring at the menacing sight before us.  It did look intimidating.

Boards and protection suits were distributed to the group of thrill seekers – who now seemed slightly less confident about their decision to partake in this adventure – and we began the 45 minute hike to the top of the volcano in the extreme Nicaraguan heat.  Didn’t somebody say it was 45 minutes up and less than 45 seconds down?

As we walked along the ridge at the top of the volcano, looking down at bottom, the mood was definitely a bit more subdued.  The large orange truck we had arrived in had been reduced to a tiny, barely identifiable speck parked at the bottom of the mountain, and the slope looked a lot steeper from here than it had on the ground – you couldn’t even see the steepest part of it as dropped out of view about half way down.  I felt my adrenaline kick up a notch.

Richard, our tour guide, walked us through the technique of volcano boarding.  “Sit on the back end here with the board pointing out in front of you.  Grab this rope with you hands to hang on, do not let go of this handle unless you crash.  Your feet don’t go on top of the board, you steer and brake with them, so you hold them up in the air on either side of the board.  Tap left to turn left.  Tap right to turn right.  Tap both to brake.  Don’t over do it.  When you get going fast all it takes is a little tap to turn, any more than that and you’ll be rolling the rest of the way down the hill.  Don’t forget to wear your googles, there is going to be a lots of bits of volcanic rock peppering you face.  And very importantly… don’t open your mouth.”

How do we go fast?  Or how do we go slower without braking?” Someone asked.

“The more you lean back, the more weight will be on the slippery formica on the back end of the board.  So lean back to go faster, lean forward to go a bit slower.  Honestly guys, don’t be shy.  Almost everyone who goes down the slope carefully gets to the bottom wishing they had gone faster.  You only get one shot at this, so make it a good one.  If you lean back good and don’t brake too much you’ll get a good ride going 50 or 60 kph”

“Do people crash a lot?” An American girl asked.

“Oh yeah, I have seen some pretty crazy wipeouts”

“It’s got to hurt when you crash going 60…”  This was me.

“Oh yeah, people go flying.  ALRIGHT! LETS GO TO THE SLOPE!”

I felt a tap at my elbow.  “Hey, que dijo el?”  It was Manuel, whose English was not that great in group situations.

Dijo que tienes que poner tu culo aqui, agarralo con los manos como asi. Frenas y doblas con…”  I ran him through the instructions whilst climbing into the massive one-size-fits-giant protection suit.

OK,” he said when I had finished “Podrias dar me un empujon?” Can you give me a big push?

“You really want to break that record huh?”

“Of course!  But seriously, I want you to give me a push.”

“You’re crazy man.”

—-

Can you spot the truck at the bottom? Eammon sit on his board at the top of the slope, ready to go.

Soon we were all lined up at the top of the slope.  An Irish friend of ours, Eammon was going second, Manuel was third and I was fifth.  The whole group had gone quiet, alone in their nervous thoughts.  I had butterflies in my stomach, a feeling I now almost always associate with jumping out of airplanes, and one that I perversely enjoy with a certain sense of nostalgia.  I was getting excited.

Kara discovers a new meaning to the term “one size fits all”

Richard, our tour guide had walked half-way down the slope – the point where the slope goes from being steep to being almost vertical.  We would be going down one at a time, and because we couldn’t see the bottom of the hill, he would be signaling each rider when it was their turn to go.

First up was another irish lad, he had gone on the tour the day before and had only clocked a speed of 36 kph, so he had come back today at the reduced rate, to give it another go.  He laid his board down and sat down on the back end – careful not to let it slide away without him – before saying goodbye to his girlfriend and lifting his feet off the ground…

It was a surprisingly slow start as the board scraped noisily along the gravelly volcanic ash, but in just a few seconds later he had gained speed.  When he got down to the halfway point though, he suddenly veered to the right and went for a small tumble before getting back on board and starting back down again, all we could see was a trail of dust in the air after he dropped down out of view on the steeper slope.  Later we would find out that he had only clocked 24 kph this time round.

Ready to rock! Ready to …. er …roll?

The speeds were being clocked by our radar-gun wielding driver at the bottom of the hill.

Next up was the Eammon, “See you boys at the bottom!” and he was off, but he too had a slight tumble at the half-way point before disappearing from view.

“I wonder if it’s hesitation that is making people crash at the same place?”  I wondered out loud.

“Yeah, maybe..”  Alyssa, a smoking-hot canadian girl agreed.

It’s was Manuel’s turn.  “You still want a shove?”  I asked him.  “I think form and not crashing are more important than a quick start…”

Manuel speeds down the slope. He would hit 60 kph

“I still want a push” he said.

I handed my board to the german guy who’d be going after me, and braced myself behind him to give him a shove off.

“You givin’ him a push are you? Has the man lost his mind?!” The Irish girlfriend asked.

“He really wants to break the record…” was all I could say, shrugging my shoulders.

Manuel sat down on his board and spent a minute – a minute that felt like it dragged on for hours – rearranging his protection suit and back pack, tightening his shoe-laces, and fiddling with his goggles.  Finally I asked “Listo?” Ready?

Listo!”

And with that, he lifted his feet off the ground and I gave him a good hard shove forward.  He was off, picking up speed faster than the others, just seconds later he was racing down the hill, still gaining speed, and rapidly approaching the halfway point.  “He’s flying!”  The Irish girl exclaimed.

Right then, at the same spot as the others, something when wrong and Manual suddenly swerved to the right and came to a sudden tumbling stop.  “Oh no!” Irish lamented, “He really wanted to get that record… I feel bad for him.”

It was her turn now though, “Show them how it’s done.”  I told her.  She started her slow slide forward, tapping left and right, braking, getting a feel for the “controls” before straightening out and racing down the slope.  We all watched expectantly as she came to the halfway point, but there would be no tumble this time, and the red-head kept getting faster, flying past our guide at full speed before dropping out of our sight.  Behind her a massive trail of cloud drifted away in the wind.  The rest of us remaining on the top of the hill collectively released the breath we hadn’t realised we’d been holding.

Now it was my turn.

I walked over to the start point and did my best to stand nonchalantly with my board while I waited for the wave from our guide.  As I stood there looking down the slope, waiting those interminable seconds, I could feel my heart rate increasing, thumping away in my chest.  The butterflies in my stomach were in a frenzy.  Once again, I was standing on the edge of the void, but this time instead of jumping into open air with a parachute on my back I was about to race down a hill covered with abrasive volcanic rock and any mistake would certainly mean a painful crash.  Don’t worry Zack, just give it a good go, you aren’t trying to break any records here.

The wave from Richard came. and I plopped the board down and sat down on the back end of it.

“Don’t forget your goggles.” The german guy reminded me.

“Oh, yeah.  Thanks for that!” I pulled the goggles down over my eyes, “Right, see you down there…”

I lifted my feet off the ground, leaned back slightly, and started to slide forward.

What came next all happened very quickly.  Like so often happens to me in these situations, my body and mind went into automatic-mode, and soon I had gained a decent amount of speed.  I still hadn’t steered or braked, the board was going the right direction by it’s own volition.  Then suddenly, I was roaring down the hill, volcanic pebbles pelting at my face.  I wanted to whoop or scream or something, but there was no way I was opening my mouth in that hail storm.  I leant further back and saw richard whip by in my peripheral vision.  Oh shit, I remember thinking, here it comes, and the ground suddenly dropped out from under me and I began to plummet to the earth.

Richard gets a picture of me as I fly past.

In some part of my mind I was coolly noting that this was going to be good go – I knew I was flying – but really all I could think about now was trying to keep my feet in the air and avoiding a crash.  I wanted to brake, but at the speed I was going I didn’t dare try and “tap lightly” because I knew that the slightest attempt to touch my foot to the ground was guaranteed to send me tumbling and pirouetting the rest of the way down the slope.  So I was going to have to try and ride it out.

Easier said than done.  I have big, heavy feet and at the rate I was careening downwards my feet were bouncing up and down and all over the place.  It was taking every effort I could manage just to keep them away from the blur of razor sharp rock whizzing by underneath us.  I leant back as far as I could, trying to get them higher off the ground, noting as I did so that my back was now skimming the rocks behind us.

I was hurtling through a veritable vortex of wind, dust and debris.  It was an incredible feeling, like flying in free fall, but with your body plastered to a hard, rocky, extremely solid surface.  Something about it was completely illogical.

Looking past my feet I saw little people appear below me.  I might just pull this off! I thought.  The slope shallowed out a bit underneath me and felt the G-forces pushing me into the ground.  I might actually pull this off!

—-

Free Pumice Treatment?

Eamonn looked up from dusting off the grazes on his leg to see the next person come screaming down the hill.  That’s probably Zack.  He thought.  Holy shit he’s going fast!

He watched as the board and rider came to the end of the slope and hit the more level ground.  The rider’s feet bounced up high and fell back down hard, the right foot catching on the ground.  It all happened in a split second, but Eamonn’s mind saw it in slow motion.  In a cloud of dust, rider and board separated from each other and the limp body of the rider skidded across the ground, spinning once, twice, six times before finally coming to a rest 10 m from where the board lay.

For a moment everyone stood in stunned silence looking at the body lying there facedown in the dust.  Before anyone could react though, the silence was suddenly broken by loud maniacal laughter.

—–

I don’t why I laughed.  Probably I was just happy to have survived the crash.  It didn’t feel like anything was broken either.  I let out another whoop before hopping to my feet.  OUCH!  I stumbled as a sharp pain came shooting from my left arm.  My shoulder was dislocated badly, an anterior dislocation.  I cold see the ball at the top of my humerus bone bulging in a lower part of my shoulder.  I gave me left arm a slow tug with my right… that usually did the trick, but not this time.  I licked my lips in consternation, only to taste blood.

A few people ran up to me to see if I was alright.  “Holy shit dude, look at your face!”  Eamonn exclaimed.  Manuel said something in Spanish that I couldn’t catch.  “I’m alright” I told them, “but I dislocated my shoulder and it’s still out.”

The driver ran up to me, radar gun in hand, all excited.

Ochenta y DOS! Ochenta y DOS!” Eighty Two, Eighty Two!

“Bueno, pero podrias ayudarme con mi hombro?” Great, but can you help me with my shoulder?

Ochenta y DOS! Rapidisimo!”

Manuel was at my side.  “Do you know how to put it” he asked me in english.

“I know the theory”, I said back in Spanish.  “Help me”

I managed to move my forearm into the L shaped butler position and slowly tried to rotate it outwards away from me while holding my shoulder with my right hand.  “Pull here, slowly.”  “Huuuuuhhuhuhuhuhuhuhuh” I whimpered through clenched teeth, as he pulled my arm outwards.  I waited for the satisfying relief of it popping back into place, but it never came.

“Is it in now?” Manuel asked.

I shook my head and we tried again… still no.  I tried pulling down on my arm again… nothing but pain.  Finally, getting desperate,  I lifted my left arm over my head with my right arm, and pulled the left elbow slowly back behind my neck.  This probably isn’t recommended, I thought, but I ignored my thoughts and the wave of pain and kept pulling.  Finally, something shifted and when I released my elbow I felt a huge wave of sweet relief crash over me as my arm popped back into it’s socket and fell to my side.

—-

Third Place! You might be seeing “fifth place” but the top two slots (95 kph) were done on a special %100 formica board with two people sitting on it at the same time. Not exactly the same category.

I had suffered a seriously scraped nose and was bleeding from scrapes on my forehead and lower lip as well.  My left forearm and lower leg had “volcano rash” and I knew my shoulder was going to take a long time to recover.  That day there had been a couple of other big crashes, but surprisingly (or not) there was no first-aid kit on the truck, not even tissue paper, so all they could do was hand us our beers, and a bit of ice water to wash my face off with and tell us to wait until we got back to the hostel.

That day, no one else came close to my speed of 82kph – just 8 kph below the all-time record of 90 – and it was good enough to earn me a 3rd place spot on the Male Record Board (4th place overall).  I wasn’t going to be the only one celebrating that night though.  Alyssa, the Canadian girl, had been the second fastest that day and had earned herself a spot on the Female record board with her speed of 73 kph.

And she had done it without crashing.

——-

I highly recommend Volcano Boarding to anyone and everyone.  For more information check out the Bigfoot website at: http://www.bigfootnicaragua.com/volcanoboarding/

For all photo of this stage – Stage 6 – of the Tour de Zack go here

 

 

Nov 20

This here be cowboy country.

Dragging out the lame bull.

When people think cowboys, they tend to think about old western films like the The Good the Bad and the Ugly.  For most of the world, cowboys are synonymous with the Wild West and the good ol’ USA, people think Texas.

In Latin America though, the cowboy dream also lives on.  On this tour Tony and I have passed through ranch country after ranch country, places where rancheros toting their cowboy hats and straddling their horses are the still the norm.  Places where machismo still thrives in its traditional form and the men are real men and the women are good women.  Places where bar fights are bromance, and belt buckles are badges of honour.

No place on this trip though, has exemplified this tradition more than the northern part of Nicaragua and the area around the small country town of Somoto.

When I passed through Somoto the usually quiet town was bustling with activity as there was a country fair taking place over the weekend.  Big horses being ridden around by 5 year-old girls in braids and flannel shirts mingled with old men weighed down by 5 gallon hats drunkenly stumbling their way to the cock-fight.  The only motorized vehicles were tough looking pickup trucks and shiny crotch-rocket style motorbikes.  Meat was on the menu, and vendors ran all over the place with buckets full of ice cold cans of Toña beer.  Small cigars or cigarettes hung from most of the mens lips as the cinched up the straps on the horses or zipped back up their denim jeans after watering the roadside shrubbery.  Women, with their check shirts tied in a knot at their waist let their skin tight jeans offer a tantalizing view of their posteriors as they strolled down the streets.

Machismo kills, impoverishes, and brutalises.

The centre-piece of the fair though was the bull ring.  A large circular structure made entirely from planks of wood with only one way in our out.  With the fireworks and the smoking, the place was the definition of a firetrap.  Saturday night I lined up with everyone else and filed into the packed bleachers surrounding the ring.  Authentic was the word to describe the atmosphere.  Everyone was there and everyone was in a fantastic mood.  I carefully scanned the stands, confirming that besides me, there were only two other foreigners in the joint.

It took awhile for things to get going, and the beer vendors continued to fuel the crowd, beers cans whizzing past heads as they chucked them up to the top rows, other vendors sold cigarettes, chewing gum, and pop corn.  Everyone seemed to know each other, and despite chatting with the man seated next to me, I felt distinctly out of place.  Should have worn my check shirt, I grumbled to myself.

Somoto, Nicaragua

Finally though ,the bulls were ready.  This was going to be a first for me.  I had never before seen bulling riding or bull fighting before.  The riders were introduced first.  One by one they ambled out into the arena, most of them wearing big leather boots, jeans, a white button shirt with the name of their sponsor printed on the back, and a dusty old baseball cap.  Others though were sporting the cowboy hats and leather chaps.  These were real men.  Two cowboys on beautiful and feisty horses danced their mounts around the edge of the arena, lassoes hung at the ready on their saddles.  Their job would be to rope the bulls after they were worn down.  Another firework was set off and the men cleared back to the bull pens and the crowd went silent.  Suddenly the gate was flung open and a gun shot went off and a very angry bull came bursting out of the pen with a rider perched gamely on top, one hand held high in the air.  It was a dud though.  After just one or two bucks, the beast settled down and slowed to an irritated walk.  The crowd booed.

 

Somoto, NIcaragua

The next couple of bulls though were no duds.  These creatures were angry and how on earth those riders didn’t get thrown is beyond me.  They bucked and ran and shaked their heads, like the frenzied, deranged animals that they were.  They were furious and tough.  It would take only take a few minutes for the bulls to wear themselves out and the riders would then dismount, quickly extracting themselves from the situation in the same manner as man jumping from a burning car would.  The men on horses moved in, lassos swinging in the air above them.  The younger man let his lasso fly first, and to the distinct pleasure of the crowd, the bull ducked his head and lasso slipped uselessly to the ground.  The laughter and chants would be enough to shame any man, but the young man on his beautiful white horse laughed and joked more than any other.  The second man let his lasso fly, and with great success the loop grabbed onto the horns of the fuming giant.

The road to somoto, Nicaragua

Bull number four was another dud, and one that made me feel bad for the brutes for the first time.  He came charging out but after the first buck it was clear something was wrong as massive animal half collapsed and began dragging his rear legs along the ground behind him.  He continued to crawl into the arena, frothing from the mouth and shaking his mighty horns from side to side.  Eventually the bull just collapsed to the ground and sat there looking around at the crowd.  You couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking.

It would take the next half hour for the two horses and six other men to drag the bull along the ground and out of the arena.  Two of the men dragging the bull by the tale.

riding the bull.

I had seen enough, there were still three bulls to go, but I was exhausted, and I began to work my way around the stands to the only exit as the next younger, smaller, and more energetic bull came charging out.  Once again the rider miraculously stayed perched on his back.  Then, when I was about half-way around to the stands, I heard the ladies in the stands let out a collective scream.

There was a drunk man in the ring, and he was running around the arena with the angry bull hot on his trail.  The women screamed again as the bull flicked his head and came and within inches of goring the man’s back with his horn.  The man continued his run around the arena, clearly spooked but also drunkenly loving the attention.  This bull had energy though, and it was only because the bull got distracted by the man with the red banner that the drunkard was able to clamber back up into the stands out of harms way.

Not for long though, to the roaring delight of the spectators, he hoped back down and bravely (stupidly) went up to the beast again and smacked its flank with his baseball cap.

The chase was on.

Cañon de Somoto

 

Cañon de Somoto

first meal in Nica

ON the road to Somoto

Nov 20

Truck Surfing

I caught a tow on this truck a couple of times. Good boys. This was on the road from Mexico City to Puebla.

— DISCLAIMER:  This post describes a sport that is inherently risky.  This post does not condone the practice of Truck Surfing in urban areas or in areas populated with grumpy truck drivers.  This sport should only be attempted by experienced and competent cyclists who understand the risks and the dangers involved.  Always exercise good judgement and caution before attempting this activity. To our knowledge truck surfing is not covered by any life insurance or travel insurance policy.  We at the Tour de Zack y Tony accept no responsibility for the actions of our readers.  Don’t drink and surf.  —

My mindless reverie was broken by the sound of a truck downshifting on the curve below me.  It had been a long steady climb up to the border of Nicaragua and we’d been working on it for it hours. The road rose gently ahead of us though and we could keep up this pace all day if we had to.

The truck behind us downshifted yet again, and my ear, exquisitely trained from riding over 10,000 km without a mirror, instantly registered the low grumbling and converted it into useful information: truck type, distance, speed, and time until passing.  A little alarm bell went off inside my head, bringing my full attention back to the road around me.  It was an alarm that I hadn’t heard in a very long time, not since Chiapas, Mexico:  There was a wave coming.

I glanced back over my should and saw that my suspicions were confirmed.  The truck slowly coming up the hill behind me was an old one, with sides formed from brightly painted wooden slats.  It was probably transporting a heavy load of sand or gravel because it was struggling to keep speed going up the hill.  True, it was gaining on me, but not by much.  It was perfect for surfing.

“Truck surfing” is a sport I first got into in the Mexican state of Nayarit.  It quite simply consists of grabbing onto the back end of a passing truck and letting it tow you and your bicycle up a hill.  I call it truck surfing because I find the technique of catching a truck very similar to catching a wave.  You need to wait for the right one, it needs to be going the right speed, and as it comes up behind you, you need to suddenly put on some speed at just the right instantly such that you are able to grab a hold of part of the tail end and enjoy the ride.   How long you can ride out the wave depends mostly on how good your grip is, and how long before your hand gets tired of dragging you and the heavily loaded bicycle.  The drivers in this part of the world absolutely love it, and at one point in Mexico I could have sworn that drivers were deliberately slowing down for me – probably having talked on the radio with the last truck I had grabbed on to.

Besides being great fun, truck surfing can save you a tremendous amount of time and effort.  A ten minute surf not only saves you from 30 or 40 minutes of hard climbing, but it also lets your legs rest for those 10 minutes.  Unfortunately, opportunities to truck surf are few and far between.  You need to have the perfect conditions: a very heavily loaded and slow truck, a very long steady hill, a half decent shoulder, and something on the truck to grab on to.  In Guatemala, the roads are so steep and tough that every truck in the country has an incredibly powerful engine, meaning that they would pass by me far to quickly.  In Belize, there were no hills.  In Chiapas, there usually wasn’t a shoulder to ride on.  I had gone over four months without a single opportunity, but today we finally had a wave to catch.

The truck was now almost upon me.  I glanced back again and could see now the wooden slat running along the length of the truck that would make for an excellent handle.  I shifted up a couple of gears, and as soon as the truck was about 5 m behind me I stood up and started pumping the more powerful gears.  Tony lurched forward as the truck began to pass us and in another couple of seconds we were matching its speed.  We were now about halfway along the length of the truck, but I couldn’t maintain this speed uphill for very long, so it was now our never.  I eased back just a tad on the pedaling, and let the truck pass me the rest of the way before once again equalizing our speed.  Now I was in the perfect position to grab on and so I eased Tony closer to the truck – ignoring the large whirling truck tires at my feet – and reached out a hand and grabbed on to the wooden slat.  Perfect.  I let my hand take my weight as I eased off the pedaling and soon I was enjoying the effortless ride to the top of the hill.

It’s not quite effortless though.  Not only is it a strain on your left hand, but you also have to steer your heavily loaded front wheel with just your right hand, much harder to do than it sounds because the eccentric force of the tow means a constant effort needs to be made to keep the bike running straight.  It’s even harder when you have a rough shoulder to ride on.  If you can hang on for ten minutes, you caught yourself a pretty good wave.

Eventually though, it’s time for the dismount and this needs to be done while the truck is still going slow for it to be safe.  Tony and I saw the top of the hill approaching – usually the best time to let go – and when the driver put the clutch in to shift up a gear, I took advantage of the brief lapse in speed and let go with my left hand.  As the truck slowly pulled away from us I started pedaling again before looking up and giving the driver a thumbs-up sign through his wing-mirror.  I got a wave back in return and a flash of white teeth before the truck charged down the hill, I put in a couple more pedals myself before I let gravity take over and followed him down.  Maybe I could pass him up and catch him again on the next uphill stretch…

Can’t wait for the next wave.

 

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