Friday, April 30, 2010

Panama : Panama City

After the madness of Las Tablas' Carnival, it was time to head for the big city.  But first we needed to take care of some important business...
Sam managed to run his rear tire just a little thin...  So we were in a dire situation to locate some new rubber and get it installed for him.

A couple of hours later, we were off for the big city.  The highway was straight and not very inspiring.  But soon we were crossing the Panama Canal and heading into the city.

Panama City was the hotspot to figure out a way around the roadless Darien Gap.  The Darien Gap is the only interruption in the Pan-American highway that runs from Alaska to the tip of South America.  The road stops in Yazviza, Panama and for some 80 miles and creates a logistical hurdle for all overland travel.  It is possible to get a motorcycle through the Darien.  Helge Pedersen, adventure motorcycle guru made the crossing in the '70's.  Using several canoes and lots of sweat and blood, he made it through with the bike intact.  But between natives, drug traffickers, revolutionaries and paramilitaries, not to mention deadly snakes and insects, it wasn't high on my list of things to accomplish on this journey.  So this left two options that I was aware of...  put the bikes on a boat or put them on an airplane.

We checked into a great hostel called Luna's Castle in the Casco Viejo, or old town, area of the city.  The hostel didn't have a secure parking area so we had to lock the bikes down on the sidewalk outside the building.  But they did have a night security guard that kept a close eye on things.  A few other riders came through while we were there as well.

Luna's Castle had a great bar that filled up at night with locals and foreigners alike.  They also had a ping-pong table in the common area, had cook your-own pancakes until noon and endless supplies of coffee.  And the view out the back provided a window of voyeurism into the local lives of the people of Casco Viejo.

It was a fun comfortable place to be hanging out while we sorted through the details of available sailboats and airplanes to get us to Colombia.  

Dan found out that he needed to head back to Canada to work in the high Arctic, so he had logistic hurdle of his own to deal with, namely, where he was going to store his motorcycle until November, when he could return.  We worked on logistics during the day.  And rode around town enjoying our last nights together.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that the easier choice was going to be to put the motorcycles on an air cargo plane and take a flight ourselves.  We'd been getting poor reports of the boat crossings from guys that were ahead of us.  And the soonest boat that was leaving big enough to handle our bikes was still ten days out.  After a week or so of hanging out in Panama City, I was getting anxious.  Sam, who was originally leaning heavy towards a boat crossing, started to think more about the plane option.  Being concerned about my piggish KTM, I was leaning towards the plane from the start.  It was expensive.  Only one company surfaced, which meant no real competition or bargaining.  Girag Air Cargo charged us $901 US Dollars, which for the budgets we were working with, was a ton of money.  But all in all, looking at the time we'd need to stay in Panama and the incidental costs we'd incur, mostly lots of drinking, it was only a couple hundred bucks more than the boats.  Once Daniel left, we made the decision quickly.  Off to the airport we rode.

Our Girag agent was sweet and assured me that my baby would be safe in their hands.  The process took us a bit longer than we'd planned for, which left Sam and I late to the passenger airport.  We missed our flight.  The manager of Aires Air, Christian, pulled some strings for us and got us a plane the next day for no extra cost.  We'd still make it to Colombia at the same time as the bikes.  So we headed to a cheap motel and tried to relax.  The next day we rushed off to the airport.  I was excited.  And for the first time on this huge journey, I found myself in the familiar surroundings of air travel.

We boarded the DASH 8 turbo twin prop, a plane I'm very used to as it is the type of plane that runs the mountain route from Eagle to Denver.  And soon Panama, and Central America were reduced to a fleeting view out the plane window.  Bring on South America!

A short hour later we were getting our first glimpses of Colombia.  I was beside myself in excitement.  Colombia...  So many preconceived notions, fears, concerns...

I thought back to the graffiti that was scribbled on the kitchen wall at Luna's Castle and wished that I'd been eating more during Central America.

When we landed in Bogotá it was raining.  We searched out the Girag offices.  Our bikes had arrived and short of running the paperwork through the customs offices all that was left to do was get the bikes off the 4' loading dock.

With darkness fast approaching, it is hard to describe the excitement and anticipation I was feeling now that we were finally here in Colombia.  A place I'd heard so much of but never had set foot on before.  A whole new adventure was about to unfurl.  A new continent.  In many ways I felt a great sense of accomplishment.  But in others an overwhelming sense of awe...  Thousands of miles ahead of me now and no turning back.  We'd made it to South America!  The adventure continues...

A long way from home.  And seemingly endless exploration ahead...

Panama : Carnival 2010 Las Tablas

The first hurdle in getting to Las Tablas.
But we managed. Dan succeeded in explaining to this officer that even though we were all weaving through traffic, we weren't really going 'that' fast. Somehow he lets us go.
We arrived in Las Tablas on Friday just as things were getting set up for the five days of madness. I'd been to Mardis Gras in New Orleans back in the late 1990's. That was a trip to remember as well... 25 Rugby players, two Winnebago's and a crazy thousand mile road trip from freezing cold Minnesota descending on Bourbon Street for the Fat Tuesday parade. So I had grandiose thoughts in mind as Sam was telling me that this Carnival celebration in Las Tablas, Panama was supposed to be the second biggest in the world after Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
Carnival is big in Latin America. I knew I wanted to end up somewhere good to celebrate. Since Barranquilla, Colombia, another hotspot was out of reach, we decided that Las Tablas would be perfect.
All I really knew at this point was that Dan had a contact for us. Some old friends of his were set to be here with a rented house and a slew of party goers. We were invited to set our tents up out back of the rented house for the week and get our party on. There ended up being a mix of 25 Panamanians and us foreigners. An awesome mix of people and madness.
We had a couple of moments of difficulty finding the house as every road seemed blocked with awaiting parade floats.
Sam managed to break part of a float while trying to slip by along this float. I thought we were going to get strung up somewhere on the outskirts of town, but we made it to the rented house afterall. The rest of the five days is pretty much a blur of dancing behind the floats to live brass bands, drinking cheap beer and cane liquor, eating street food, cramming into outdoor discoteques, blaring music twenty-four hours a day, and fireworks, lots and lots of fireworks...

So unlike Mardis Gras, beads and boobs were not a part of the procession.  Instead the floats and the bands would pass round and round the plaza.  Two factions... Calle Abajo and Calle Arriba duel it out the whole weekend, trying to out do each other.  The princesses and queens of each appear on different floats in different motifs throughout the five day festivity.  And the crowd follows and cheers and dances with the Calle that they support.  During the day, huge water trucks spray river water on everyone and it is a mad spectacle of drinking, dancing and wetness.  And pickpockets love it.  We watched several pro pickpockets attempt their skills on us.  Fortunately we were warned and keen to their intentions.

Some of our crew...

Queen Calle Abajo...

Queen Calle Arriba...

All in all a really fun five days taking in another culture's take on the pre-lent blowout known as Carnival.  I have to say, if given the choice, I'd take the chaos and nudity of Mardis Gras...  But this last photo can be a testament to how much fun I had in Las Tablas...

One last oddity...  Instead of giving out condoms to push the safe sex message, they handed out these bars of soap with the "Use a condom" message printed on it.  Crazy.