6/28/19 – 7/7/19
There is a philosophy with older cars that it is best not to change the oil. You should top it off and change the filter periodically, but some of the particulate matter in older oil actually works its way into and marinates and plugs worn seals. A fresh oil change in an old car can actually cause these plugs to fail and wreak havoc on an engine. I learned this first hand with a 1991 Ford jalopy that I’d bought with romanticized visions of climbing trips through the American Southwest and Mexico. I changed the oil in Albequerque. The truck hadn’t made it 70 miles outside of town when it belched a giant cloud of silver smoke. Head gasket. I had it towed to town and sold it for scrap.
Similarly, when you have an old pair of underwear that fits and doesn’t cause discomfort while riding you should never swap it out for a new pair unless it is absolutely necessary. Mine had begun to look a bit raggedy. They could have lasted thousands of more miles though. But when my brother visited us in Costa Rica I had decided to treat myself to two fresh pairs. The exact same make and model that I had worn since the beginning of the trip, although those had been well broken in prior to the start. With the constant rain, heat, and humidity, I was subjected to a level of chaffing for the following weeks that I had not experienced at any other point in my life. I was constantly making adjustments and some days wondered how I would continue. Copious amounts of baby powder were applied to all affected areas.
Warm night in Playa Palo Seco; didn’t sleep well. Morning swim, but weary of currents that almost sucked me out a few times. Rest day. I cooked dinner under a palapa as it started to pour. Soph was sick, so I ate alone in the rain. Coastal temps don’t drop in a downpour. Tent buttoned down and awoke covered in sweat. Broke camp and ate cereal on the restaurant steps across the street. Owner told us to be careful as there were protests on the streets due to a tax increase. Highway 34 was quiet though. The sun came out and we were almost dry before becoming drenched in sweat.
We reached Playa Dominicalito and made camp just as the rain returned.
“Light you little fucker light.” The flint on the lighter had gotten wet and I couldn’t get a spark to ignite the stove. Hunched under the tarp with the red light of my headlamp which didn’t seem to attract the mosquitos as much as the white. It made rummaging through the food pannier for garlic more difficult though. Eventually the bugs discover me and kamikaze moths begin to pelt my forehead.
The little gasoline reservoir makes a satisfying WHOOF and almost ignites our tarp as I finally get a spark. I braised some cabbage and we sat in our little chairs together with the white noise of the rain all around us, drowning out the waves crashing a few hundred feet away. A sort of idyllic moment with nothing to do and nowhere to be. Soph always goes to bed earlier. I sat and watched the hermit crabs scurry through the sand. The rain let up and it became the first clear night in what felt like months. I wandered down to put my feet in the water and watched the Milky Way.
The last day of June was our last full day in Costa Rica. The day was uneventful, although highway 34 was sizzling. The showers came later and we pulled off the road in Chacarita. There was a little gas station with a dirty shower that we used. We camped in a small soccer stadium. A car pulled in around ten to eight and a few people stood in the parking lot, talking. They never noticed us and left shortly after. A diesel parked around three in the morning and stayed for five minutes. Our tent was just a few feet from the edge of the headlight beam. A cool breeze carried the exhaust through the screen. Nobody discovered us.
The border to Panamá was a mess of people asking us to follow them, us saying no, and them emphatically gesticulating and saying “no problem friend, come come.” To make things more hectic there was a line of semi-trucks over a mile long that had something to do with the protests we’d been warned about. It appeared the citizens were attempting to thwart cross border commerce. We rode in the left lane against traffic. A man named Johnny, who was either incredibly friendly or high, tells us he can get a good rate exchanging currency. We try to tell him we’re ok.
“No problem friend, come come.”
I have no idea why we followed him. There is just something about when a person waves you in a direction that makes you feel like you’re supposed to go that way. He said something about a friend in a wheelchair that could swap our Colones for dollars. He took us to a sour old man, with two perfectly functioning legs, and disappeared. We exchanged our bills and I bought a piece of cake with our left over coins. Panama has its own currency, the Balboa. For years their central bank manipulated the value so it would trade at par with the US dollar. At some point they decided to simply adopt the greenback although they still mint their own coins.
The land opens up a bit in Panama. It was relatively flat and free of signs of people; other than the Pan American Highway. We stopped late in the day at a town called Concepción. On the map it seemed too big to only have a single filthy hourly motel complete with sketchy pimps on the steps outside. We grabbed a quick snack at a fried chicken place with tables covered in crumbs and the crust of spilled milk shakes while toothless homeless men took turns asking for money. The early evening rain came. We rode another 20k and made it to David just before dark. It was slightly less depressing than Concepción.
Our plan had been to take the next day off as it was the one year anniversary of when we’d left Alaska, but there was nothing to celebrate in David. So on the morning of July second, we rode. We almost made it the entire day without getting stuck in a downpour, but within a mile of a small restaurant we got hit. The place looked closed. We took cover under the porch and, still overheating from the coastal riding despite the rain, I took a shower under the gutter and washed my clothes. As I was standing in my underwear ringing out my shirt, Arturo and Roberto greeted us. They seemed unphased by our appearance and showed us around after I put my pants on. There was a two story thatched roof cottage for rent as well as some camping spots. Not looking to set the tent up in the rain, we dropped a Jackson on the bi-level cottage.
We had a belated celebration of a year on the road with a rest. It turned out to be well timed as it rained all of Wednesday. We sat around the cottage looking at maps of Colombia and talking about how we might make the crossing from Panama. Option 1 was simply to fly. I wasn’t particularly interested in this because it meant at least an entire day in Panamá City of trying dealing with the logistics of finding boxes, breaking down and packing our bikes, dragging them to the airport, and then having to put them back together on the other side. The benefit to flying was that we could go directly to Medellin in the center of the country. This would allow us to take our time to Ecuador. Soph’s parents had generously invited us on a trip to the Galapagos so we would need to be in Quito by mid-September.
Option 2 was to take a boat down the Caribbean coast. There were a few charter companies that would drop us in Cartegena, but that made for a long ride to Ecuador in a relatively short period of time. The third option was the famed Darien Gap. There are no official roads between Panamá and Colombia. Supposedly, through a system of jeep trails, foot paths, river boats and skilled navigation you can make it through the hundred miles or so of swamp and jungle. It was rumored to be a popular route for narcos. When I heard that it was possible to cross the gap there was no doubt in my mind that this was the route we needed to take. Knowing Soph would not share my enthusiasm I devised a strategy of gratuitous charm coupled with downplaying the obvious dangers to pitch the idea.
And that was that. We decided we would find a boat.
We were back on the road for the fourth of July. Panama is beautiful. The road is surprisingly quiet. It's hot. The runway width highway absorbs and radiates heat all day. Perhaps one of the best parts was that the road was relatively flat and the wind non-existent. We break in the shadow of a pedestrian bridge and lay on the sidewalk. The concrete is almost unbearably hot under my back but a cool breeze whisks over my front. I stare at the puffball clouds, roll to my side, and tell myself that I'm inspecting my tire, but really I'm just staring at it. Then I accidentally find a piece of wire piercing it and feel validated. I reluctantly pull it with the pliers on my seven dollar multitool, which also makes me feel validated because before this I hadn’t really found a use for them. I half expected to hear the the air whizzing out of my tube as it slid out, but all seemed copacetic.
Panamá appeared to be a bottle neck for touring cyclists. In one day we crossed paths with thirteen; more than we’d seen since the northwest of the United States. There was an Italian couple traveling with their two daughters that were maybe six and nine years old. The husband rode a tandem with a recumbent seat up front for the youngest daughter and a modified recumbent tricycle in the back with the older daughter that could be removed on quieter roads so she could pedal herself. There were four Europeans that were going the same direction as us. We rode together for an hour or so. They’d been travelling in Mexico and bought bikes for a hundred bucks, strapped some gear to the back, and turned south. One of their front tires had completely worn down to the fabric layer that protected the tube. They moved much slower than us so we rode ahead.
We passed a handful of other cyclists going the other direction that we didn’t chat with. Then there was Rose and Cyril. An older French couple that had been on the road for two years. A few of the other cyclists had mentioned them. We caught them just outside Natá. Rose had 4 broken spokes and her rim was a wobbly mess. I was amazed it hadn't collapsed. We invited them to join us at the bomberos. Soph and I grabbed beers and wandered the plaza in front of a five hundred year old church, the oldest in Panamá. We return and Cyril is working on Rose’s bike but it isn’t going well. He’d replaced the spokes but didn’t appear to know how to true the wheel. I did the best I could with the limited tools we had, but as I was working on it I noticed that her brake pads were completely worn. They had a new set. The old pads had to be removed, but the rubber had molded to the metal. I watched as Cyral tried to pry it out with a knife, almost stabbing himself. He chipped out as much as he could and then tried to melt the rest with their stove. He was sitting next to a barrel with a flammable warning on the side. Not wanting to insult the fire department with such acts worthy of a Darwin Award, I politely excused myself.
Over dinner we had the standard conversation about gear. Sometimes I think we carry too much. I give Soph periodic grief about her shampoo and conditioner in my pannier. Then we meet people like Rose and Cyril. They were probably carrying twice as much as us. It seemed to mostly be in clothing, but there were other strange items such as an electrical water heater for making a single cup of coffee. I noticed that it was very clean.
“Have you ever used it?”
“How long have you been carrying it?”
“Do you want it?”
They had kitchen towels, advanced cutlery sets, bowls and plates.
“We have snorkeling gear as well.”
July seventh was a mostly uneventful Sunday. We would arrive in Panamá City. Big shoulders. Traffic picks up as we get closer. Soph wants the short route, which means highway 4. It is horrific. The worst part is crossing over the exit ramps where traffic is cutting you off at 70mph. She almost gets rear ended by a merging taxi. I wished I was pushing up a thousand foot hill. A downpour hits twenty five clicks from town. Traffic was too busy to ride in wet conditions with poor visibility. We take refuge under a bus shelter with a few moped riders. The rest of the ride was downhill and Panamá City was a site. The most modern town we’d seen since Mexico City. Perhaps the economic aorta of Latin America. We cross the Port of Panama on highway 1. Miraflorez Lake and the canal come into view, so does the city skyline. The road winds nearly a mile from shore and bypasses the old downtown in a loop called the Cinta Costera. Men are wandering around in white suits and Panamá hats. The smell of fresh ceviche outside the seafood market. The smell of three hundred billion dollars a year in cargo passing through those locks.
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“And that was that” seems closer to wise than trudging the Darien Gap.