Monday, January 31, 2011

Costa Rica Take-Aways

While this was my only my second solo cycle (the first being two days earlier in Aruba) into land not native to my culture, my language, and absent of all communication resources, I remain intrepid, undaunted, but wiser, I hope.

What will I do differently next time?

Having an abundance of spare tubes is definitely on my packing list for future such events.

Clearly the most significant contributor to my stomach gripping angst was my 50 word Spanish vocabulary. Carlos might have been a truly upstanding citizen committed to aiding this damsel in distress. I had only his nonverbals and direction of travel (which was opposite from where I needed to go) to judge his character and my safety.

As soon as we settle in Tucson in October, 2011 I will join the other Rosetta Stone enthusiasts and will become proficient in survival Spanish. Of course, I could find myself in a non-Spanish speaking country at some point, in which case I will be armored with a few survival words and a survival phrase book.

In a word, would I do it again?

Click here for a 3-1/2 minute movie of pictures taken on the Cruise

Lemonade in Limon, Costa Rica

Tilda and I were ready to stretch out again. We were to be in port from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.: plenty of time to get a street map, plan a route, and grab at least 50 miles of sun, surf, and jungle. With a little more fore planning and a 7:30 departure I fantasized it would have been possible to make up that lost Ft. Lauderdale century. But hey, 50 would be great. So, off to Cahuita we headed.

My first observation was that there are no road signs or route markings. I had only to turn left (west) out of the cruise port and left again (south) on to Rt 36 which would take me directly to Cahuita. The gas station at the 2nd left seemed an appropriate place to confirm I was on route. Indeed I was, but the driver who pulled in behind me at the pump encroached my personal space big time finally stopping within 1 inch of Tilda’s rear wheel, a reminder that personal space is, indeed, culturally defined.
Within two miles I was open and free of urbanity and lovin’ it--Mar Caribe on my left and jungle on my right with occasional shanties made of whatever was available at the time of construction. The road was lightly traveled, but the 4-16 wheelers pushed their speed to at least double the posted 60 kph slaloming the many and rugged pot holes across both unmarked lanes. Again, the rules of Chicken engagement prevailed with the contenders of shared space simply waving and maybe giving a “hi neighbor” toot of salute.

The Sloth Sanctuary at 17 miles offered a welcome pit stop, not many of those in North America. A couple miles further, at only the second intersection of any kind, was a gas station replete with bottled water, diet coke, and red bull all of which, after much punching of calculator buttons to convert Colons into dollars, I got for $4.00.
I noted several photo ops I'd take advantage of on my return ride to the ship. Little did I know then that I would not be snagging those pix and that I would revisit this gas station 5 more times in the cab of a pickup truck with Carlos, Tilda banging around in the back bay with no assurance that I would ever make it back to the safety of my ship.

Machetes, Rock Roads, and Deserted Beaches

On my return, after my turn around in Cahuita, between the now famous gas station and the Sloth Sanctuary, whizzzzzzzzzzzzzz, Tilda’s rear wheel flatted, not a blow out, not a slow leak that finally collapsed upon its rim, but rather just a sudden release of all she had. The same wheel had flatted after Aruba, then just the tiniest pin prick from who knows what locatable only by submerging in water and seeing the release of tiny bubbles. The patch didn’t hold so I replaced the tube, now not having any more tubes with me. If the culprit was another pin prick locatable only by submersion, where was I going to find water, other than the ocean? By the sound of the whizzzzzzzzzzz, I feared a much larger unpatchable hole. Walking 20 miles back to ship was not an option: I would miss my ship’s sail away. Best to start walking, I figured, keeping my hitchhiking eye open for a police, ambulance, or service/utility vehicle heading north toward Limon.

A Chaquita banana plantation appeared before any potential transport options. I’d attempt to plead my dilemma with my 50 words of Spanish to the plantation workers who had only an equal number of English words. After many futile words and and an equal number of futile pantomimes, a bilingual appeared on the scene, Andres, who loaded me in the cab and Tilda in the bay of his Chaquita truck and off to the gas station we went to find a local who would be willing to drive me the 20-25 miles back to Limon. There were no official taxis outside of Limon proper, so, if I wanted a SAG lift, I would have to submit to the local rules of hired engagement. Andres negotiated a $30.00 transport charge paid upfront in dollars, seemingly a good deal since I had heard $40 and $50 bandied about.

But here’s the fist catch.

Before taking me to Limon, we had to take this woman home who was already parked in the passenger seat of Carlos’ pick-up truck. Tilda would ride in the truck bay. We quickly established that I knew no Spanish and Carlos knew no English, nor did passenger lady. Passenger lady lived 6 miles NOT in the direction of my needed travel and then yet another two miles deep into the jungle where I never saw a house. The road, such as it was, was made of rocks the size of hard balls, soft balls, and maybe a very few golf balls. In addition there were axle destroying cow-sized divots and serpentine ruts. Along the rock road we stopped to pick up two broad-smiling, edentulous, machete bearing men with knee-high rubber boots. Never learned if the boots were to protect against jungle rot, jungle mud, jungle snakes, or all of the above.

Finally back on the paved road having disgorged passenger lady and the machete men, I breathed a sigh of hopeful anticipation that my ship would soon be in view. But no, we stopped again at the gas station, this time to refuel. I pull out a peanut butter Larabar which, through pantomime, I understand Carlos wanted to share.

Back on the road, we pass the Sloth Sanctuary, and I’m feeling good. Except now Carlos starts honking at everyone we see walking along the road. Not a warning honk, but kind of a “wanna ride” honk. The thought of more rock roads begins to churn my stomach. But, apparently he knows most everyone along Rt 36 and is simply saying “hi”. Ok, that's fine.

Lotta words and even more gesticulations and we’re off road again, this time onto a hard-packed sand, dirt, and equally axle destroying “road” heading south again about 1 1/2 miles (away from Limon and my ship) along the beach, or playa (I do know that word). There is NO hint of civilization anywhere.

The precariousness of my situation grabs my throat, my heart, and my stomach all at the same time. No amount of my fractured Spanish turns his vehicle northward. We get to the very end of the jungle road and stop; he gets out of the car to pee. Great. Am I to be abducted? Ransomed? Raped? Murdered? And I’m still 20 miles from ship and my Spanish has not improved in the last hour. He honks his horn and a 40-something, fit-looking male emerges from under a palm frond. I am now sandwiched between both men straddling the gear shift. Carlos sets the gear in drive, but we’re stuck in sand. Thankfully, between Carlos’ rocking between drive and reverse, and passenger man’s pushing, we’re moving forward once again.

Finally we’re on the paved road once again. Limon?, I ask. “No.” And we head south again for yet another stop at the gas station, this time so passenger man can use the ATM. Passenger man lives another 10 minutes away, via a different hard road. He is finally disgorged and we return to the gas station for what turns out to be the last time. Seems we just buzzed it so he could wave to his buddies there, all of whom have seen me now 6 times in about 3 hours. This doesn’t seem like a good thing.

“Limon now”, I query? Yes, Limon now. Hopefulness doesn’t come easily. He begins to mumble: Tengo hambre, which I know means he’s hungry. That’s all I need is for him to decide to find a place to eat on “my time”.

Then, lots of words, Spanish words, they’re coming fast, with animation and feeling. About what I don’t know, but I sense this is about money. I plead ignorance, “no comprendo”. We stop again this time at a little constellation of commercial shacks, more local people than I’ve seen in 4 hours. Soon, Watson joins Carlos at the car to serve as translator. Seems Carlos made a mistake and the fare is not $30, but he needs $20 more. Much talk through Watson and we settle on $10 more. He doesn’t want Colons, he wants only dollars. I only have a $20 so I and over my $20 and receive my change in Colons. Not sure what I’m going to do with Colons. But, at least Carlos is back in the car and driving in the right direction.

Finally, stepping out of the truck in sight of my ship, my knees weakened and my blood sugar sunk below empty. I didn’t even mind all the hucksters scrambling for the tourist dollar outside the ship’s secure perimeter. It was music to my ears, so much so I bought a coconut with some of my Colons. Never has a comfort beverage tasted so good.

Tilda and I reboarded the ship at 2:45 having been gone for over 5 hours of which I biked only 2 for a total of 31.5 miles. I have no idea how many miles I traveled by car on my return to the ship. All I know is my “shore excursion” is, to date, my most memorable.

There are lessons to be learned from this international adventure. But as I write, my return to safety is still only hours old. It will take a little time for integrated wisdom to prevail.

p.s. Tilda’s flat was a rubber malfunction at the site of the bond where the stem’s attachment patch meets the tube. Big hole. Hope to find a bike shop in Ocho Rios, Jamaica to buy a new tube for my last riding opp on this cruise: not deterred, hopefully smarter, though.

Panama Canal

Colon, Panama is also cycling adverse with its 16 avenues and 5 streets and nary one stop light. The roadways are engorged with vehicles, the larger one filling the lane to the edge of the sidewalk, sometimes encroaching upon ped rights. Right of way is determined by rules of engagement perfected since childhood in the game of Chicken. A little-wheeled, English speaking tourist would not survive.

Our visit to Panama was all about the Canal, not about the bike. After all, experiencing the Panama Canal was what we had come for and it fulfilled all of our expectations and then some. When you come we can recommend David McCollough’s Path Between The Seas as pre-canal reading.

Click here for pix of our passage through the Panama Canal.

Cartagena, Columbia

No riding for Tilda and me in Cartagena. It's a churning metropolis of more than 1 million and definitely is not bike friendly. Check out the pix, though, on Flickr of our walking tour of the Old, Walled City.

Aruba By Tikit

Tilda simply frolicked off the ship in Aruba much like an untrained Dalmatian puppy, her wheels ready to grip the road and explore the 75 square miles of this one happy island. There is really only one main road on the ellipse-shaped Aruba. From the port north to the California Lighthouse, where the paved road ends, is about 8 flat miles. (Nearly 60% of the Island’s perimeter road is unpaved.) Wind can be an issue, as it can be on any island; and it was, but only briefly, given the wind direction du jour. Kirk walked 4 miles to the Cancun-style Hotel Zone where he’d beach to read. We rendezvoused at a pre-arranged check point just to make sure we were both A-OK, and we were.

I rode on to nearly to the terminus of the paved road on the south end of the Island and “buzzed” the Aloe Factory before returning to the ship for a mid-day sail away.

Aruba is definitely bike-friendly: good roads, plenty of service options, enough civilization to feel connected, but not so much as to cramp your wheeling style.

Tilda On Cruise

For at least 6 months I had been looking forward to my January UMCA Century in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

I would arrive one day ahead of Kirk and two days ahead of our Panama Cruise to stretch out my winter legs with a glorious Vitamin D-rich ride from Ft. Lauderdale to West Palm and back. Credit for my route goes to John, owner of several Permanents in South Florida.

But, as it sometimes goes when the success of an event hangs on the perfection of a single day, Monday was full of rain and I succumbed to the whims of air born offenders unleashed by the air conditioning unit in my exclusive Super 8 motel. Tuesday the sun was robust, but I, alas, was not. 100 miles it would not be, however the 36 miles north to Boca Raton and back was sheer, sunny delight.

Tilda did not resist being stowed once again in her suitcase knowing she’d be able to feel the road and stretch her cables in Aruba in just a couple of days.