Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cosmo Central America

While in Panama, we sandwiched in a couple of visits to Panama City. Our first trip was after a couple of days in El Rincón and was all business. We rode the bike into the city (about a 3 hour drive, and before we found out that the charging system was wonky) on the Panamerican and luckily did not learn the hard way that there were cops with speed traps everywhere. Panama City is notorious for being difficult to navigate and we ended up driving around for a good hour once we were in the neighborhood of the hostel. Dana made reservations for us in a hostel right downtown where a lot of other Peace Corps volunteers stay. It was supposedly one of the cheaper places in the city, but was still $30 for the both of us to stay in dorm rooms. Jill tried to arrange the rooms, but the hostel had somehow lost our reservation, so after a confusing 20 minutes, Jill called in Mike to take care of it. Apparently, 2 other gringos had showed up earlier in the day and decided not to stay, so the hostel had arbitrarily decided that the couple was us and crossed us off the list. The hostel had filled since then. Eventually Jill was able to get a dorm room and Mike was able to get a bed in the laundry room for the first night.

The main purpose of the trip was for Jill to get all of her paperwork done for her Peace Corps Response position. Our first stop was the US Embassy, as the Embassy had to send in the documents needed for her to get a second passport that they will put her Suriname visa into. The US Embassy is located in the Canal Zone, which was run by the United States until Panama took posession of the Canal in 1999. The embassy is massive and looks like a military compound. The taxi was not allowed to drive us all the way to the building because of security issues. We passed through a metal detector and took a number. Everyone waits in the same large room for their number to be called. There were about 15-20 windows, most of them servicing Panamanians wanting a US visa. When I was finally called, the person at the window claimed she could not help me at all and that I needed to go to the Peace Corps office, in direct contradiction to the instructions I had. After another long wait, I got to deal with another employee, who knew what was going on and took care of the paperwork right away. I also needed to be fingerprinted and was referred to Erik, a security worker who we have coincidentally been in contact with by email. He rode his motorcycle to his position in Panama from Virginia in two weeks and is a friend of a friend of Dana´s. Erik made sure that I was able to be fingerprinted and we were on our way, after about 3 hours.

Our next mission was to mail the paperwork to Washington DC. We needed to mail the documents through DHL as they were time sensitive. About the time we started trying to find the office, it started downpouring. We jumped in a taxi, who was driving through sometimes door height water in the street (drainage in Panama City is definitely lacking) and he had to ask several times where an office was. Finally we found it. But, we needed a copy of my passport. Whoops, that was back at the hostel. Fortunately, there was a copy shop next door and I had a copy of my passport online. Problem diverted. Back to the DHL office. The total cost to send an envelope to the US - $56. Whoops, we don´t have enough cash and both of our credit cards were at the hostel. The office was closing in 30 minutes and the woman working could not even commit to being there that long. So, we made a mad dash in the rain back to the hostel, grabbed my card and ran back to the office. We made it just in time and were able to send the package before the weekend, as we wanted to go back to El Rincón the next day.

Before leaving the next morning, we went to the Brazillian embassy, as we will pass through a small section of Brazil on our way to Suriname and are required to have a Brazillian visa. The Brazillian Embassy, in harsh contrast to the US Embassy fortress, was on the 2nd floor of an office building, we just needed to sign in and sit in comfortable chairs to wait to be called. There was only one person in line in front of us and the one security guard was about 70 years old. Everything went very smoothly as we had all the paperwork required. We had to go to a nearby bank to pay for the visa, which took about an hour because there was a large line with only one window operating for normal customers, one for VIPs and one for retirees. Finally we paid and back at the embassy, everything was good to go except we had to leave our passport with them to be processed and they needed the passport for at least 2 days. We planned on being in El Rincón for the next week, so the embassy gave us a stamped copy of the passport. This made us a little nervous, but it ended up fine as we never needed to use our passports during the next week.

After a relaxing week in El Rincón, we caught the bus with Dana back into Panama city. This time Jill needed to get all her medical work done. We had been recommened to a doctor at a very nice medical complex. He was able to do the required physical. He referred me to another doctor to get my flu shot and TB test and another doctor to do all my blood work. It was great because I was able to get everything done in one place. The bad part was that Peace Corps only reimbursed $165 to get all that done and it ended up costing me about $280 more than that out of pocket (quite a bit given our travel budget). I would hate to think how much it would cost in the States to do the same. After having to come back in the next day for another blood test they forgot to do the day before, my medical was done and my paperwork was completed.

The next day we went back to the Brazillian embassy to pick up our visa and see how long they had given us in Brazil. Theoretically, US citizens are able to get a visa to Brazil for as long as 5 years for up to 90 days total. We were hoping for at least a year because we will need to enter Brazil again after we leave Suriname and did not want to have to pay $140 each for another visa. Unfortunately, there is some sproadically enforced rule we did not know about that says US citizens getting a visa from outside the US are not able to get a visa for more than 90 days from the date the visa is issued, meaning we only have 3 months from October (date of issue) until the visa expires. Disappointing because we will have to pay again and go through the hassle of going to the embassy again on our way out of Suriname.  Not much we can do about it now, though.

With all of our paperwork and embassy running out of the way, we were able to explore Panama City better. The city really is quite cosmopolitan with a large skyline and big banking district.

(coming in along the Cinta Costera)

The city is right on the water and there are beautiful views of the harbor.

Dana took us to the pier where they have very tasty ceviche (raw fish cooked in various types of acidic sauces) for $1-3.

We also went to Casco Viejo, "Old Helmet" directly translated, where we went to the very informative Panama Canal museum (even more so than the one located at the Miraflores locks).

(In old town specifically, there is a vast contrast in the condition of building from house to house. Many buildings are beautifully restored and some haven´t been touched since they were built. Many residents are now fighting the government, who wants to build a highway through the historic area.The sign says: Priorities Education, Health, not Highway Cinta C3.  "Cinta C3" refers to the extension of the Cinta Costera road that would come through the historic area.)

And of course, no trip to Panama City is complete without a trip to the Panama Canal.

In Panama City, there is access to just about anything (expect motorcycle parts, it seems), including food from all over the world. It is a huge contract to El Rincón and most of the rest of Panama, much of which is still struggling for basic provisions including clean water and sanitation.

After a week of hemorrhaging money in Panama City, we spent the rest of our time in El Rincón, until we made our third trip to the city just before boarding our sailboat to Colombia. Our friend Erik (the security guy from the Embassy) was gracious enough to invite us to his house for the long weekend. He and his wife Beth live in a very nice house in the Canal Zone. Beth is an animal lover and they have two dogs and a cat inside and as many cats as she can feed outside. We were able to relax in an air conditioned house for several days and very much enjoyed Erik and Beth´s stories about embassy life, living in Panama, and how they ended up there. We also enjoyed being able to watch football on cable. Erik took us out to an Italian dinner and we got to meet other Embassy employees and see a Jimmy Buffett knockoff band, equipped with a white guy speaking in a Jamacian Rasta voice wearing a Hawaiian shirt (ahhh...memories of Costa Rica already...).

(Erik, Beth, Rocky, Jill & Mike)

(Erik and Beth´s house. Seriously, how do we luck into meeting such nice people?)

On our last day in the city, Beth drove us to the Peace Corps friend of a friend´s site so we could meet them and see where they live. Sarah and Shaun are friends with both Dana, and Erik and Beth, and involved in similar work that interests us, so meeting them seemed fitting.  Even though it was only an 1.5 hour drive, they have no running water and apparantly just got a street light in the past week or two. Unfortunately, they were not at home, so we were not able to meet them, but there was a dog that Beth has been keeping an eye on because it is so skinny. When we went to check on the dog, he was looking even skinnier and Beth knew she had to take him with us to help him, so we loaded the dog into the truck and got him to the vet that night. The drive was beautiful and we agree that the dog would have died soon if he would not have received help, so the trip was more than worth it.

(Kids were playing baseball in front of the school)

(House where Sarah and Shaun, the Peace Corps volunteers, live)

(Loading ¨Slim¨ into the truck)

Dana's little corner of Panama

After entry to Panama, we headed over to El Rincón, a small town in the province of Herrera. Jill´s friend from grad school, Dana, is in the Peace Corps there. She was originally supposed to be working with an NGO, but that fell through, so now she is mainly helping teach English in the school. We ended up spending about 3 weeks with Dana in El Rincón and really enjoyed ourselves. The people seemed genuinely happy, Dana was very well liked and respected, and the kids were way too cute (even the annoying ones).

(all bikes in Panama have to have a license plate.  Some still don't, of course.)

We didn´t do a whole lot while we were in the community. Mainly just hung out with Dana, ate lots of spaghetti, tuna, and eggs (there were two small "chinos" in town, the name Panamanians give to the small convenience stores since they are almost entirely run by Chinese immigrants), and watched movies and Arrested Development. And we sweat. A lot.  It was supposed to be rainy season, but the first week or two we were there, there was no rain and it was incredibly hot. The kind of heat that makes you incapable of doing anything other than sitting in a chair and sweating. Luckily for us, the weather changed and became a lot cooler during the second half of our stay.

We also tried to motivate to run every morning with Dana. But she wakes up way too early for us, so we usually just slept instead ("snooze....need more snooze...."). The path that she runs goes through several rice fields and you often pass the farmers working or riding on their horses. The path leads to the wetlands reserve. All in all, a pretty beautiful run, if we could just make ourselves wake up.

The World Cup of Baseball was going on in Panama and some of the games were played in Chitré, the nearest big town. We went to the Dominican Republic vs. Cuba game and took Dana´s landlord´s kids. The game was pretty boring, with Cuba winning 3-0, but we had a good time anyway.

(Mike, Jill, Dana and the two kids)

During our stay, another Peace Corps volunteer came and had a meeting with the womens agricultural group about fish ponds. The concept is to raise fish in ponds and use those fish for food or to sell. The women seemed to be very interested and thought it a great idea.  It will be interesting to see what comes of it.

(Klaus discussing the tanks)

(The group attending the meeting)

(The only man in the group also turned 70 the day of the meeting)

One of the definite highlights of our stay was Dana´s dog Tigressa. Dana has effectively become the dog whisperer of the community, leading a spay and neuter campaign in town that led to 140 animals being sterilized. Most dogs are treated fairly poorly, left to fend for themselves for food and are often abused. Dana makes sure the worst ones are fed, and also deworms and demanges the dogs. Unsurprisingly, Tigressa is neither mistreated nor underfed and is a very well behaved puppy.

About a week before we were supposed to go back to the city, we decided to ride into Chitré. When we tried to start the motorcycle, it had no juice whatsoever. So, we took the bus to Chitré to get some materials needed to fix the bike, including a multimeter, a 12V testlight (which we used to have on us, and should have replaced sooner), some extra wire and a cheap soldering iron just in case. Mike quickly discovered that the battery had no charge, as in zero volts.  And the battery was completely dry.  That ain't right.  Especially since it was topped up in San Jose. But we figured adding battery acid and giving it a charge may serve to get moving again.

After learning that there was no battery charger in El Rincón, we caught a ride with the battery to the nearest town with a charger, Santa María. Once there we learned that the battery was not taking a charge, so we needed to buy a new battery.  Back on the bus to the next biggest town that had batteries, Aguadulce. Once in Aguadulce, we found a nice little bike shop, Motores Extremos.  The owners were extremely nice and did everything they could to help us through the process.  Sadly, though, they did not have the right battery, but could order it for us and it should be there that afternoon. So we waited for the battery and walked around town, which was setting up for a streetfair. When we went back in the afternoon, we found out that the battery would not be there until the next day.

On our return to El Rincón, there was a parade going on.

Since we were all feeling so festive, we went with Dana to the bar and we all had probably too good of a time. Mike ended up going back to Aguadulce the next morning for the battery, but the wrong battery came in.  It was an honest mistake.  The size was perfect, the specs all matched, but the poles and vent tube were reversed (this brand's "A" designation was Yuasa's "B" designation...). We then had to wait until Tuesday to get what we hoped was the correct battery. Fortunately, when we went back to Aguadulce on Tuesday, the battery was waiting for us and was in fact the right one.

Back in El Rincón, Mike fixed the TA electrical issues.  It involved undoing most of the work that Luis "the expert" performed in San José.  Mike cut the "temporary" jumper wire giving power to the ignition modules, pulled the direct charging circuit from the regulator to the battery (the TA is basically wired like that anyways so this modification was about useless), and set about troubleshooting the original problem.  All it turned out to be was a fouled connection in a wire connection in the ignition circuit.  About 15 minutes with the multimeter, some WD-40, a good cleaning, and a slight flex to the metal was all it took.   EDIT: (Even though Mike swore 2 days ago that he would stop dwelling on this (see below) he can't.) In fact, one of the major problems with the electrical system was that Luis "the expert" also decided to mess with the accessory relay that Mike had installed to improve the headlight output. Luis took the wire that controls the relay itself from the switched, low amp taillight wire and installed it on an unswitched wire attached directly to the battery positive terminal. Aaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhh!!! At some point, the power draw blew the 30 amp relay before it blew any of the fuses past the relay, and the relay was easy to replace, but still, why the hell did that "fix" happen?!?!?!? END OF EDIT Mike is still furious about the rip off in San José, but has now told enough of the story and will stop dwelling on it.  He swears.

While this was going on, the kids were all fascinated with the bike and enjoyed watching him work on it.

And once it was working again, we had to give rides.

(all rides performed at passengers own risk.  And at very low speed around the block.)

Dana got an idea from the internet to make purses out of potato chip bags. She set up a meeting with the women´s organization to demonstrate how to make the purses on Saturday. We spent the whole week trying to figure the damn things out. In the end, we never were able to make a purse, but not from lack of trying.

(the crown looking thing in the middle of the table gives an idea of what the finished product would be)

On another day, Dana and Jill played basketball at the park. Both Dana and Jill thought they could beat each other, based on their glory days in high school, but in the end they just played street ball with a bunch of 12 year olds.

(picking teams)

All in all, we had a great time at Dana´s, living the Peace Corps life, playing with kids, and getting lots of reading done.  We are grateful to Dana for putting up with us for 3 whole weeks.

Speaking chinese in Bocas del Toro

An easy ride from San José brought us to Puerto Viejo, on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica, which is a backpacker haven - a little seedy, but full of restaurants, bakeries, bars. The small road through the national refuge to Manzanillo passes through a spa, luxury hotel, and elegant restaurant area. Manzanillo is the end of the road, a sleepy little beach town with a couple of small hotels, 3 small eateries, and 1 bustling bar full of locals (maybe just on Fridays, maybe full time...). The beach was in much better shape there than in Puerto Viejo itself, but we didn't take much advantage.  We were on our way to Panama.

(approaching Sixaola, Costa Rica)

As we got to the border, a huge man named Enrique offered to help us across.  As usual, we refused any help and went about the process ourselves.  Checking the bike out was a paper-only process and took about 2 minutes in the air conditioned aduana office.  Migration stamped our passports quickly as well, and across to Panama we went.

(playing chicken with pedestrians. They won. We got some balance practice.)

On the other side we had to accomplish the usual 2 tasks of migración (for us) and aduana (for the bike), as well as change money and buy insurance (required in Panama).  Migración was easy, but the process to get the bike in took some time.  Mostly because we caught the one insurance sales lady on her lunch break.  So we waited.  And waited.  At least there were 2 benches in the shade.  But it was still hot.  Finally, after a longer than necessary paperwork process (and after a longer than necessary lunch break), the final documents were printed...with the wrong VIN number.  The insurance lady was going to print a corrected copy when the printer jammed.  Mike helped get the paper removed and closed the printer back up just before the border helper Enrique dropped in to see what was taking so long.  He was talking to Jill for awhile and realized this was taking waaay too long.  He suggested just using white out and a pen to correct the document, since the correction was complete in the computer system, we just couldn't print it.  Done in less than a minute.  Enrique also helped us get the best exhange rate at the market.  He was a good guy.  We gave him a couple bucks as a tip for the help that he did offer (even though we refused him originally).

Back to the aduana with all the documents in hand, and they were watching Thor on a computer screen in their air conditioned office.  It must have been near the end of the movie, because they did not want to focus on paperwork at all.  Once they started going through the paperwork, they managed to screw that up (I think they actually typed "Thor" for one of the blanks).  The police officer checking the paperwork over caught it.  Thankfully he took the paper back to them to have it corrected, because they seemed to respond faster to him than to me.  So with that, and with a small required local government fee, we were ready to go.

Or so we thought.  That very same police officer then insisted on fully searching our bags.  Opening each of them and digging all the way to the bottom.  This was one of those times that the side-opening saddlebags were a detriment, because everything in them ended up in the dirt.  Finally, he seemed satisfied and went back into his office.  Frustrated and repacking in the heat, we were ready to get out of there after hours at the dusty border.  In our haste to make progress we missed the hard left turn at the bottom of the bridge and ended up in the town of Guabito instead of heading on to El Empalme.  After correcting that mistake, we finally felt like we were in Panama!

Bocas del Toro is the state that we entered, known for its tourism, which is mostly focused on the Caribbean islands.  Even on the mainland, Bocas was absolutely beautiful with forested and jungle covered hills, twisty roads, and a few small towns.

(river view in Bocas del Toro)

(typical house in Bocas)

(rainy afternoon through Bocas)

Pulled into Chiriquí Grande as night fell, amid a pretty good rain, and found a hospedaje on the side of the road.  It seemed fine, but was the first one that we passed and asked in, so we figured we'd head into town to check other options.  Finding a chinese restaurant was a godsend.  Healthy portions of warm food sounded ideal.  That and a beer.  Mike tried to order a Balboa beer, one of Panama's most popular brands, before he knew what it was called. "Balbao" is how it came out, which in Spanish sounds like "bal-bow", but that's what he thought he saw on the label from a distance.  The lady didn't understand him (with good reason, because he was not making sense), so he continued to repeat "Balbao.  BalBAO!  Una cerveza...BALbao.  BALBAO!"  That poor Chinese lady probably thought he was making fun of her, but finally the order got through, and he got to try a Balboa.  It was fine.

While we were eating, the hotelier from the hospedaje found us, saying that he wasn't going back to the hotel, that if we wanted it, we could pay and get the key then.  Having not seen any other decent options (Chiriquí Grande is a crappy little port city) we did it.  Talk about service!

The next morning, an oilman from Houston stationed in Panama stopped his car to talk to us about the Transalp.  He was jealous because he had sold his years ago.  He also had lived in Venezuela for some time, so it was interesting to hear his perceptions of that country.  In fact, he had moved a couple years back because he thought it was becoming too dangerous.  Not what we wanted to hear, but it sounded like a lot of the violence was targeted at people higher up in society than us.  At least that's what we were banking on.

Exploring Bocas del Toro would have been fantastic, but we wanted to get moving to start our paperwork process in Panama City.  Jill has a lot to do for medical and bureaucratic clearances for her position in Suriname.   Also, our next stop was to visit Dana, our friend from Denver who is currently living in El Rincón, near Chitré.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A few things to do in San Jose when your bike is dead

Ivan's place in San José was an absolutely great place to chill.  We were able to get laundry done, hang out and watch movies, read, cook food in a comfortable kitchen, and just have a place that felt like home. Partially because Ivan even moved out of his main bedroom to make room for us, and wouldn't move back in no matter how much we insisted.  It was way too kind of him, but very much appreciated. After being on the road for 5 months, it's nice to have a place that feels like home, even if for only a few days at a time.

San José has a bustling, modern downtown area that doesn't fit with the rest of Central American cities.  There are long pedestrian streets, lots of vendors (some of them are the "hey, that's my camera!" kind), and some prime people watching. 

(downtown area)

We also had the chance to explore some interesting small cafes in the University neighborhood near Ivan's place and really enjoyed meeting some of his friends at a get together full of good food, great mojitos, and even better conversations.  His friend and colleague Cici was especially helpful with anything and everything we needed.

(there are, of course, neighborhoods that feel more Central American)

The next morning after arriving in San José, I went back over to LaMotoAG to check on the work that they did and to ride the bike over to the other mechanic's shop.  With the new Full Bore back tire in place, I followed Luis over to his shop.  Given all of the great reviews of LaMotoAG that I have read, and their direct recommendation to use Luis to troubleshoot the electrical issues on the TA, I felt like I was in good hands.  I should have been more leary...

I dropped the bike off and talked through the outstanding work to be done:  find the original electrical fault that caused the TA to stop running, eliminate the short-term jumper wire fix that was still in place, check the front end out, and change the oil and filter.  I  know that when starting this trip, my intention was to perform most maintenance myself, but I talked myself out of it this time for a few reasons including not having any electrical troubleshooting equipment, my thought that electrical troubleshooting is one of my least favorite activities in the world, not having a garage to use, and wanting to have a pro check out the front end.  Turns out I should have spent money to buy a multimeter instead of paying Luis to look into it...

When we dropped off the bike, Luis talked through what he was going to check in the electrical system.  At this point he seemed to really know what he was talking about, and I thought I was still in good hands.  Luis even suggested eliminating the wiring connectors closest to the voltage regulator-rectifier (VRR) by soldering the wires together for a better connection, which I was convinced by and told him to go ahead and do.  Also, he suggested wiring the VRR directly to the battery (with fuse) for better charging.  Seemed like an easy enough job to me and how he explained it made sense.  We then proceeded to talk about oil selection and what I wanted to run.  It turned into a what-type-of-oil-is-best discussion/lecture/sales pitch that I really didn't want to hear.  But once I got through that conversation I figured all topics were covered and the TA would be tip top by the morning.

That next morning I returned to find out that one electrical issue was a blown diode in the wiring harness.  It fell on my shoulders to find a replacement.  Thankfully a nice guy with a pickup truck had just dropped an airhead off with Luis and was willing to drive me to a couple of dealerships.  The Honda dealership didn't have a diode in stock.  The Yamaha dealership found a diode that looked identical and was only US$4 (instead of the Honda part at US$18).  That errand took almost an hour with the help of a pick up truck for transport.  Without that help this could have easily become one of those all day errands.  When testing the diode back at the shop, it had a lower rating than the original, but should work in the meantime.  With that diode in, more troubleshooting had to take place.

Soo, day 3 rolls around and the bike will still not be ready to go until that afternoon.  That's fine, but when I got down to the shop at 4, Luis still hadn't looked at the front end at all.  I also found out then that instead of troubleshooting the original wiring issue, he just soldered the jumper wire fix in place, bypassing the Stop/Run switch.  Not what we discussed.  He had yet to look at the front end or change the oil.

It took a couple of hours of hanging around and then he finally looked at the front end.  I assumed the bars were bent and wanted to find out what else may be bent.  Instead of looking into it, he just slammed the front tire against a pole to create a neutral hand position.  While this did feel better riding, since my hands were now even, I'm pretty sure that I may have a bigger problem than what I started with - instead of bent bars, the TA is probably now sitting on a bent triple clamp, maybe bent forks, and maybe damaged bearings.  Yikes!

Nevertheless, I was happy to get the TA back, as we were planning on hitting the road the next day.  Well, I was happy until I heard the price for all this "work"- US$160.  Yikes again!  That number is not unreasonable for a lot of good work accomplished, and seemed to be appropriate for the outrageous prices we have found elsewhere in Costa Rica.  Keep in mind, though, that really all that was done was soldering 10 wires together, finding a shot diode, slamming the front wheel around, and changing the oil.  Overcharged.  I felt taken advantage of, but given that everything was running well and that the electrical system should be in good shape now (according to the expert), Jill and I were both ready to hit the road.   My negative sentiments became stronger once I realized how much got screwed up during this 160 dollar hack job...  (Final details of correcting the "fix" in El Rincón, Panama.)