South America 2007
February 15, 2007 GMT
Mexico, Mexico

I crossed the US/Mexican border at Laredo, Tx where I spent the night. The hotel clerk advised me to get there early so I showed up bright and early at 6:00AM only to have to wake up each of the Mexican aduana clerks to obtain the transit papers for the bike. I should clarify that only the male clerks were sleeping and the female clerks were wide awake. I was their only customer.
It was still dark as I pulled onto the road from the border. I got about 50 meters before I was pulled over by the Neuva Laredo police for speeding! It was just a half-hearted attempt at extortion. Although I had told myself I was not going to pay any bribes on this trip, it cost me $20 to ride away after a 20 minute discussion.
Motored down to San Luis Potosi and by chance ended up in a "love" motel on Valentines Day - alone! It was 240 pesos for the night, was spotless and had TV and hot shower. I slept in my sleeping bag liner though.
Next day almost made it to Mexico City before being stopped by the police again - this time for riding a motorcycle on the toll road - it was so laughable the cops couldn´t keep from smiling as I showed my disbelief! Anyway, that cost about $30. My excuse (to myself) for paying again of being hot, tired, and wanting to make it to Cuernavaca before dark was feeble and just made me mad. I´m not going to let this happen again - I´m working on a strategy. If it works, I´ll let you know.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 03:21 AM GMT
February 17, 2007 GMT
Back to School!

I´m starting Spanish School today for 3 weeks. The school (The Cuernavaca Language School) has put me up with a nice Mexican family, Mom, Grandma, and 20 year-old son. I take all my meals at the family table and have been made to feel part of this family. Of course they don´t or won´t speak a word of English around me. I think it is a great way to get "acculturated" to Latin America.
I found a motorcycle shop up the street "Moto Servicio Oliver". I asked to use their shop for an oil change and despite the language barrier Oliver and his amigos watched while I did the service. The discussion was, of course all about motorcycles and an ample supply of old parts helped the language charades greatly. My offer to pay was refused with an offer of a chair and cold beer which was gratefully accepted.
I like Mexico. Note: the oil was very black after 5007km - was this due to running too cold resulting in above average piston blow-by? It was 6 1/2 days of 100 -120kph average speeds (about 5000rpm) which won´t happen again on this trip until I´m back in Mexico. Time will tell and the bike runs well.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 03:24 AM GMT
February 24, 2007 GMT
Too much stuff?

Just noticed that the bike developed a front fork seal leak on the way down. I think I´m responsible for disturbing the seal doing maintenance before I left Canada. Anyway, I did bring a spare seal and will install it as soon as a shop here can order the correct fork oil for me. Next I need to shed a lot of weight, either personally or from my gear. I think it is the best way to prevent suspension problems which is the common repair issue in South America i.e bad roads + too much weight = broken motorcycle.
I cant get rid of any clothes. I only brought one pair of pants and I won`t give up the heaviest stuff, my tools and spare parts they give a (false) sense of security. So it looks like the laptop, the sleeping bag, shoes, travel books (Im not a back-packer anyway), tie-downs etc need to go. Hell, I´ll be living in my motorcycle boots until Brasil and they have lots of cheap clothes there.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 03:27 AM GMT
March 09, 2007 GMT
Time to leave

Well, I have finished my 3 week Spanish course at the Cuernavaca Language School (you can google it for more info) I highly recommend it not because it is a great school with a great staff and they make you feel so much at home but also because of the location. Cuernavaca has beautiful weather all year long, is a safe interesting Mexican City and living with a Mexican family was a fantastic experience - at least for me. Don´t ask what did I learn in just 3 weeks - I´m OK with it.
I fixed the front fork seal leak by doing a trick I learned from a Performance Improvements (Waterloo) tech session. Lift the dust seal and take a slim feeler guage and run it carefully around under the seal trying to lift any dirt particles up and out. After 2 weeks no sign of a leak and I did not need to change the seal.

After going through my gear, I sent my laptop and a few winter clothes back home by FedEx. Cost about Cdn$60.00 and was there the next day.

Tomorrow, I say my farewells and I´m off to Oaxaca. Finally I can get moving again.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 03:39 AM GMT
March 12, 2007 GMT
Oaxaca to Hot!

Today was an awesome ride south on 190 libre. The road was in excellent condition and it crawled through mountian passes for about 400kms to Tehuantepec. The twistys were non-stop. It reminded me of parts of the south island of New Zealand. Some really tight turns and the countless topes (speed bumps) kept my average speed to only 65kph so I didn´t get as far today as I had hoped.
I left Oaxaca at 9:00AM Sunday ( I have to get better organized in the morning because I need to get early starts with no night riding) and arrived here in Arrigara at about 6:00pm with only 450kms covered. I saw, on two occasions, fellow riders - easy to spot with all our gear. The waves were pretty enthusiastic! The local riders don´t wave.
The tempreature has risen dramatically since Oaxaca and now is hot and humid. Since I´m wearing my riding jacket, I tried the trick of soaking my high tech T-shirt with water then doing up the jacket to let the water evaporate slowly. Works great now but maybe when it gets more humid? Also, I managed to sunburn the narrow strip on my wrists between my gloves and jacket sleeves. So today I wore cuffs made of the elastic tops of a pair of socks to protect my wrists.
My GPS seems to be off by a constant distance. Don´t know why because it was spot on until Mexico City. Either that or World Map - will check the Garmin site for ideas.
Found a great hotel hear in Arrigara, the Casa Blanca just off the zocolo (this is a small town). Posted rates are $160 pesos for a modern clean room, TV hot bath and secure parking. Air conditioning $20 pesos extra. They have a restaurant but it is closed Sundays.
The zocolo park is full of people this hot Sunday evening and, of course there is music. Tomorrow to Tapachula and the Guatemala border fun.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 02:47 AM GMT
March 14, 2007 GMT
Guatemala - Bad then Good

The ride to the Guatemalan border near Cuidad Hidalgo (I decided not to go to Tapachula) was a nice combination of mountian and lowland plains with the silhouette of the volcanic mountians ever present. However it was hot, very hot. I arrived a little tired after a stop in Hidalago to do some banking. It was a mistake to go to this border crossing. I was advised by fellow HU membrs to use La Mesilla but I ws not interested in Guatemala City and wanted to take CA2 (southern route through Central America) as I had seen most of he sights many years ago and didn't want to see if they had changed for the worse.
In any case the bordr was almost invisible. Only the immigration guy wore a uniform. The rest of them wore jeans and sneakrs and seemed to have their office in a photocopy shop a few blocks into town- very confusing! To help matters there was no Mexican offfice at the borber so I had to ride 40 minutes each way back to Hidalgo to get the bike cleared and my bond back. Next was to find that I had to clear the bike at another crossing (used by trucks) about 10 km up the road. I would never have found it without help. The "helper" scam here is that for a flat fee ($130US) they will get get you and your bike through the border with a special permit that is honoured by all C.A. countries except Costa Rica and Panama. By insisting that I carry the papers and speak to the officials (who were not about to stop someone from making a buck off a gringo) I manged to escape for about $70 which included an escort to the "hidden" Mexican aduana near Hidalgo. I still don't know what the official fees are. By the time I was finished it was getting dark. As I sped away from the awful border town my head was full of the dire warnings about riding at night especially in Guatemala. So it made perfect sense to stop at the first motel - just happened to be another of those "love motels" that are so popular in Latin America. It was inexpensive, very clean, had hot shower, TV and the private garage were I could do some servicing on the bike. The owner said that is was not safe for me to go out to eat and arranged for food to be brought in.
I was feeling better about Guatemala now. But the ride the next day was amazing and made me feel real good about the country and the people - border officials excepted. Compared to Mexico the vegetation was green and lush. Often the tree formed an arch over the road for kilometers at a time which not only very cool to ride through but also very cool! CA2 was a goood choice for me.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:21 PM GMT
March 17, 2007 GMT
San Salvador, Honduras

I arrived at the San Salvador border town of Hachadura about 3:30PM which made me a little nervous because of the length of time it took at the last border. However, little San Salvador proved to be the easiest crossing of them all. The border offices were well-signed, the officials all wore uniforms and were polite and friendly. To top it off there were no charges for me or the bike! That done, I headed down the road looking for a place to stay the night. The road became very twisty as it climbed over some mountians, the air was cool and I thought nothing could be better until I rounded a curve and a long sandy beach on the Pacific Ocean suddenly came into view. This was my first glimpse of beach on the trip! I would have jumped in but it was about 500 metres below the road. The next hour was spent looking for an ocean-front motel and I stopped at the first one near La Libertad (no recipt and I can't remember the name). It was a bit of a hit on the budget ($35) but was very nice and I was in the water just as the sun was going down.

I was one of three guests and the only one at the bar that evening for dinner. consequently I had a captive audience with the bartender for my lousy Spanish.
The ride the next day was hot and windy as usual with things loooking very dry. I have noticed that poorer countries share some roadside features. first there are fewer private automobiles, especially newer models. a lot of people are living and walking alongside the road carrying wood, water or something to sell. You see more animal-drawn vehicles and the rivers always have people in and around them usually washing clothes. San Salvador from my perspective was very poor.
I arrived at the border about 11:30AM and exited San Salvador near Amatillo with again friendly officials.

I entered Honduras to find a situation similar to Guatemala. It was so hot and there was no shade anywhere. Why don't they put up a few small canopies over he waiting areas? This question was to remain unanswered as I discovered that I did not have enough US currency for the border transactions. I had to make a run back into Santa Rosa, San Salvador to find an ATM. Since I couldn't go back with the bike, a guy (for $5) drove me in an old pickup at breakneck speeds and the Scotiabank ATM gave me the cash. It was a rush because the Nicaraguan border shuts down at 2:00PM for an indefinite siesta period. The border charges for everything ran about $75. I made it in the nick of time (I think there was a special $10 fee for fast service) and hit the road right at 2:00PM. It was brutally hot and dry with scenery to match.

So I stopped a bit early for the night at Choluteca. I took the recommendation from a fellow at a gas station and stayed at the Pierre Hotel - seen better days but everything worked (including the ceiling fan - better than A/C and quieter) for about $7.00. The town was crowed with people, buses, trucks and vendors spilling onto the roads. There seemed to be students in bright white and blue uniforms everywhere looking and acting like students anywhere while hey waited for buses. Had a nice chat with the night manager and a few hangers-on and showed them pictures of the trip. They really liked the snow in Canada.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 12:18 AM GMT
March 18, 2007 GMT
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama

It was only an hour from Choluteca to the Nicaraguan border near San Marcos de Colon. It was a lot easier getting out of Honduras than in and to my surprise Nicaragua was relatively simple. Best of all it all happened in the shade! I met a fellow motorbike traveller, Jacob Sherman (HU member) at the border and we decided to ride together to Granada on Lake Nicaragua. The ride to Granada was uneventful with mainly uninteresting roads. Nicaragua seemed a bit more prosperous than Honduras. Granda was a nice surprise. The historic centre of town has been recently renovated and he waterfront cleaned up to make it more attractive to tourists. And there were lots of tourists mostly backpackers and ex-pats there for the low cost of living (and apparently to a few I spoke to avoiding Canada or he USA and ex-spouses chasing them for support). Jacob planned to stay for a few days so I was off on my own the next morning headed to Costa Rica.
Once I found my way out of Granada, the ride was much more interesting than the previous day. My Garmin World Map must be for some other world because it just doesn't track on the mapped road (always about 500 metres parallel to the road) which makes it useless when you are on city streets and looking for the highway.

I was at the Costa Rican border about 10:00AM where I had to pay only $7 immigration fee and mandatory insurance for about $30. It was a very scenic ride again through smoking volcanic mountian roads and lush green forests (jungles?). I took a little detour to visit the fishing port at Puntarenas. It also has some nice beaches and is a popular holiday spot for people from San Jose. The hotels were very pricey until I found a place off the beach - Lillian's Hotel. It was very comfortable and had secure parking for the bike. I had a great meal and beers for about $4 at a beachfront restaurant full of locals.

Next morning I was in San Jose for an early Saturday morning tour before the traffic picked up. It was very pleasant and prosperous looking and nice to see after many years. Of course I got lost again but with the patient help of locals was back on track - at least for a few kilometers. I got off-track at a high-speed junction and was trying to figure out how to turn around when I spotted a traffic cop. He started to explain but then said "follow me" which started, and I kid you not, a one-half hour ride through city streets and back roads to the highway! I was getting a little suspicious after about ten minutes when we went through some dodgy areas but had no choice but to follow. He never stopped at stops signs or lights so I felt like I was a VIP - it was great.

I pressed on to get to he Panama border before it got too late and was there by 3:30PM. The border crossing was straight forward - no fees! I was warned not to drive at night so I stopped in David about 23kms from the border. The place was jammed with visitors because of an agricultural fair on in town. I was getting worried when I finally found a room at the Panama Rey hotel in the centre of town. The room was terrible but as the manager said "We normally don't rent those rooms as they are scheduled for renovation but there are no more rooms in town" That for $30! I slept in my sleeping bag liner rather than on those sheets.

Next morning off to Panama City. I had my first look at the Panama Canal about 3:00PM (I was impressed) and took a quick tour around Panama City. It seemed an odd collection of high rises and urban blight. They have a grand plan for the waterfront and to widen and lengthen the canal for larger container ships. I headed out to Toucamen Airport to locate Girag, the company that would airlift my bike to Bogota, Columbia and find a hotel nearby. The Riandi Aeropueto fit the bill nicely although it was $66 but it is a luxury hotel and I was celebrating my completion of my ride through Central America.

Next morning I was at Girag's offices at 8:30PM and by 10:30 all the paperwork and payment of $551.13 was done and I left my baby sitting in their warehouse. They gave me a lift to the passenger terminal and I booked a flight to Bogota with COPA for $260 one-way (they happpily did not insist on a return ticket in case I was refused entry to Colombia). Flights were booked solid so I had to wait until 8:00PM to fly out. My bike would follow overnight and be ready for pickup in Bogota the next morning.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 01:19 AM GMT
March 25, 2007 GMT
South America! Colombia!

My flight touched down at Bogota about 10:00PM – I was in South America! A childhood dream fulfilled at last. The Arrivals area was a bit chaotic with very aggressive taxi drivers vying for business. Warned in advance, I went to the taxi kiosk and received a printed slip with I was a little worried as I could not confirm my request for a room at Platypus (a hostel – see Lonely Planet) in the renovated historic La Calandria district. I pressed the buzzer and was let through double locked doors under a security camera. Luckily, I was warmly welcomed by Hermann and a dorm room was available.
Early next morning a bright sun was shining and the streets were full of people – a totally changed city from the night before. Bogota (a least the part I experienced) had a distinct European feel to it. Maybe it was the old Spanish architecture and the cool mountian air but the cafes were crowded early morning and late afternoon with workers and students having coffee and arepa. They appeared to be in deep serious conversations about politics or philosophy but they could have been just talking about last night´s episode of Mulheres Desperados. The modern architecture (I love the brightly coloured buildings) against the mountian background gave the city a sense of drama. The bustle of the downtown business district gave you the feeling the economy was good here although the prices of food and lodging were the least expensive to-date.
I waited until 10:00AM to grab a bus back to the airport to rescue my motorcycle. I found Girag´s office without much difficulty. The bike was there but the paperwork was not – come back at noon. So I walked over to the passenger terminal and used the Telecom internet office before returning. It took about 3 hours as the office was busy and someone was being trained. The bike was on its sidestand looking just as I had left it in Panama. Since the battery was never disconnected and there was reserve fuel in the tank I just started it up and rode through the warehouse and down the front steps to the building and on to the road. Platypus had no parking for motorcycles but there were to secure parking locations within ½ block.
I liked Bogota a lot. Riding was a bit difficult only because of the many narrow one-way streets (why have 3 streets in a row going the same direction?). I was in a bit of a traffic jam and lost when a sport-bike rider pulled alongside. I asked directions and he just said “follow me” and took me on a crazy ride in and out of the stalled cars to my destination. He left me with a stern warning not to ride in the city after dark. I followed his advise.
With temperatures dropping and a forecast of rain, I left Bogota a day earlier than I would have liked and headed toward Cucuta and the Venezuelan border. Not long after leaving the city I was riding through gorgeous scenery on twisty mountian roads. Traffic was light as I followed Hwy 71 (who knows what highway it was as my Garmin World map did not recognize the road , there were no roads signs and my AAA map called it 71) to Tunja. One friendly stop to ask the military police if I my planned route was safe (it was) was the only contact with police or military in Colombia. There were a lot of military positions around bridges and power stations but they were not stopping traffic when I passed.
Just before Tunja was the best riding to date – very tight mountain roads and not many trucks but it made for slow average speeds. Arrived in Tunja in sudden rainstorm and took the 1st hotel I spotted. It was just off the large town square in a centuries old building – the kind with the metre thick stone walls. It was intriguing with only 8 very clean and functional rooms all furnished with antique furniture and the kind of linens my mother saved for special occasions. It was run by an old lady who I surmised was keeping it going as retirement income. It cost about $8US – no receipt so I have forgotten the name – no restaurant just a small bar/reception counter.
The next day was more of the same. Perhaps requiring even more concentration on the spectacular mountain passes. Construction and trucks made for low kilometrage but I arrived at my destination, Bucaramanga in the late afternoon. A medium-sized city, it has a nicely restored historic area. The late afternoon rain started on cue just before I arrived at my hotel. I splurged a bit with the Hotel Ritoque but it was a nice luxury (hot water!) and I felt I earned it for the great ride today.
The next day I thought how can the riding get any better but it did. Hwy 50 led to a long climb through fog/cloud shrouded mountains brought me to a high treeless plain. It was made all the more striking by being unexpected. I really need to get better maps. Just before reaching the plain I passed the striking entrance to Parque Nacional de Chicamocha (see photo). The plain was barren except for a few small villages and no gas stations. Fuel was available roadside from plastic containers but was not required. The plain was such a pleasant change of scenery from mountain riding although the road was terrible in spots. My time in Colombia was coming to an end quickly as I passed Cucuta and reached the border at San Antonio de Tachira. I passed through Colombian customs and immigration quickly and efficiently – no helpers in sight! I will miss Colombia. There is so much more to see.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 06:27 PM GMT
April 03, 2007 GMT
Venezuela

Arrived in Venezuela Saturday noon, cleared immigration only to find customs closed until Monday AM - so I couldn´t clear the bike! Caught between two borders, the National Guard guy said ´just stay in town with the bike`. Taichira is a typical border town but the hotel was friendly, gasoline was $0.15/liter, and there were some local events in the square on Sunday day and evening that were fun to watch. Bad news was none of my credit cards or debit card will work in Venezuela! You need an additional ID code - called Royal Bank collect and they confirmed the problem. I had to lift the seat off the bike and get to my secret cache of US$. Given the volitile currency situation I got great exchange rates on the black market.

I was all ready to leave on Monday and the battery is flat! This takes me to a bike shop and an interesting young owner. While waiting for the charger to do it´s work, we do an oil change and have a friend of his make custom Venezuelan flag stickers for the panniers and look at bike magazines. The ride was through mountians again and I only got as far as San Cristobal. It´s a big city and so I stopped by a motorcycle cop and asked where is the hotel district. Once again it´s `follow me`. It was a 20 minute ride through town with traffic magically making way for us (nobody messes with Ven police) to a nice little Posada that suited me just fine.

Next morning it was raining but soon cleared up. About 11:00AM I was going through one of ridiculous number of police checkpoints in Ven. that include a minimum of 4 speed bumps which trucks and most cars stop before passing over. I was getting impatient and cocky so took advantage of my ability to zip over the bumps and was passing a semi in the inside lane when he suddenly moved into my lane. I started to move over planning on heading off-road into an area with roadside stalls etc when in the blink of an eye I was was down sliding along the pavement. By the time I got my wits together I was surrounded by about 25 people all showing great concern about my health. They shouted don´t move! Don´t take off your helmet! For a moment I was afraid they would start CPR! I was afraid that my trip might be over but a quick inventory revealed some sore muscles and bruises but otherwise Ok. The bike! It had already been picked up and didn´t look too bad.

The police arrived and were encouraging me to get checked by a doctor but now I just wanted the incident to be over and me on my way again. The truck driver was pronounced responsible on the spot and I was asked what the cost of repairs would be. The only real damage to the bike was a broken turn signal and my (expensive) aluminum pannier was scraped and bent. we took off the pannier and the truck driver did a credible job bashing it back into shape. He gave me $10 for the turn signal, we shook hands and he was off. I also banged my head pretty good on the pavement but my helmet did a great job as did my riding suit. As hot and heavy as it is - it really performed that day.

With renewed respect for large trucks and a mental refresher on taking stupid chances, I was on my way again. It also felt good that so many strangers were right there to help when it was needed. The rest of the trip through Ven. was happily uneventful. Some long distances to cover and the scenery was wonderful and boring at times. Not until you head south at Cuidad Bolivar does the landscape and people change dramatically as you enter the region above the Amazonia called the Gran Sabana. Spectacular flat-topped mountian rise vertically from a plain that reminded me a lot od Southern Saskatchewan. I was now heading directly south to the Brasilian border. My last stop in Ven. was at Santa Elena.

Arriving at about 5:30PM it was rapidly getting dark and I wanted to find a hotel. As I headed for `Centro´I heard a voice from an incredibly old jeep pickup say, Canadian eh. At the next light I pulled alongside and it was a 66 year old Dutch- Canadian guy, who lives there and insists on helping me find a hotel. This is nice but people really don´t know much about hotels where they live - for why should they. We find a hotel and I offer to buy him a beer. He accepts but says at my bar - he owns the biggest bar it town. We have a nice visit exchanging life stories and I´m in bed by 10:00PM beat.

Venezuela has a very different feel to it than Colombia. It seems wealthier but there are so many people living in poor conditions. Now I went through the middle of the country which is very rural. Caracas is supposed to be spectacular if you like huge cities. Chavez seems sero=ious about building his social revolution based on a personality cult - his picture is everywhere. Gas is cheap and cars are expensive so there are really old american cars and trucks in unbelievable (poor) condition smoking down the highways leaving a trail of leaking oil at intersections and speed bumps that are dangerous for bikes. The food seemed to lean heavily to deep-fried breakfast, lunch and dinner. Obesity is as much a problem here as it is in Brampton. Often there are no printed prices because of inflation and the fixed currency which gives a feeling of instability. The people I met are nice. The drivers are agressive and there are police everywhere. It was not uncommon to be stopped at checkpoints 10 times per day and abe asked for documents.

Next morning head for the border after making another great currency exchange from Bolivares to Brasilian Reals. Fiscal instability has it´s rewards. Although it was Saturday, both countries border offices are open and I´m processed in good time. It is nice to hear Portugese again. It sounds so soft and friendly after Ven. spanish.However it is almost impossible for me to speak a word that is understandable. I´m going to try the patience of these poor Brasilians.

Almost immediately, the landscape changes into rain forest then we gain some altitude and the Gran Sabana appears again. It also starts to rain and doesn´t stop until I get to Boa Vista, my destination for the day. The roads are in good shape and are mostly straight so I made good time. Feeling tired I took the first hotel I saw which was pretty drab - really drab actually. !ept my flip flops on while in the room. Had a great soup across the street at a Christian mission cafeteria for 3 reals (about $1.50) It helped off-set the high cost of gasoline. I tried to fill my spare gas container before I left Ven. but, you guessed it, the police were at the gas station stopping gas smuggling into Brasil.

A huge rain storm in the early AM and it rained all day except for the last hour to Manaus. I was getting really excited as the road was pressed on both sides by the rainforest and I knew I was approaching Rio Negro a main tributary to the Amazon river. I arrived in Manaus just as it got dark 6:00PM (why does it get dark so early here). On the way stopped and took pictures at the equator - met a guy there with a sister in Montreal. Took lots of pictures but cannot upload them from here.The roads were really awful that day. So many potholes, construction, mud, and always the rain. It was not cold. The first time I have ever ridden for more than an hour in the rain without getting cold - of course it is 30Ç.

Manaus is very interesting. Visited the famous and renovated Opera House built in 1916. Arranged for my boat passage tomorrow. Bought my hammock - hope I can sleep in it over the next 4 days to Belem. My dream of going down the Amazon should be a reality soon. The boat, the Clilin, looks like it has made many, many trips. So just one more safe trip for me please!


Posted by Ross Davidson at 12:11 AM GMT
April 17, 2007 GMT
Brasil - Amanzon River!

I was pretty nervous on Wednesday morning as I packed up and left the hotel in Manaus for the floating dock where the Clivia waited to take us down the Amazon River to Belem. From the day before I knew it was total chaos (well to me, anyway) at the dock and I wasn´t sure how to get to the loading area. How would they load the bike, where would I put my hammock etc?
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So I arrived early at 7:30AM and by 8:30 it was all done - I was the first person to board the boat and it wasn´t leaving until 5:00PM! I did have a hassle with the union longshoremen - they wanted $150US to load the bike after I had paid the official $5.00 fee. We ended up at $25 which was twice the `normal`tip but they did a great job wrangling the bike onto the boat using ropes and muscle power.
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The 4 1/2 day trip cost about $90 for me and $100 for the bike. There are a few cabins but it just seemed anti-social to not join the majority in Hammock Class.

As the day wore on more and more people and freight was loaded. Each time I thought that must be it there´s no more room, another row of hammocks was put up and more bags and boxes shoved underneath. It was all done very smoothly which spoke to the 100 odd years of identical river travel here. The boats, and there are many of them, are like buses to inland people that have roads from one place to another. The river is really the only road along the Amazon and it´s tributaries.
The social organization was fascinating as well. With the hammocks all touching each other and the only food the 2 identical fixed meals (rice, spagetti, meat) plus morning coffee (with bread) served at a common table first come first served, there was no room for class distinctions - we were all in this together - equally uncomfortable. The Brasilians (I was the only gringo for the first 3 days) were admirable. They just got along and before long strangers were in long conversations and singing would break out. Now I couldn´t understand what they were saying but tone of voice and body language seemed to communicate the mood well.
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The river scenery was constant rainforest with very few river shacks or small villages. The dominant image was of the sky - as it is everywhere in Brasil HUGE skys with even larger cumulus clouds constantly moving. Heavy rain then bright sunshine. No wind then too much wind. The only constant was the heat and humidity which I guess was around 30C and 100%.
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No mosquitos or any bugs for that matter which made sleeping a lot easier. So far I think any forest in Canada has more pesky bugs than anywhere I´ve been on this trip.

A routine quickly set on th boat. The noise from the engine and generators was at harmful levels 24/7 anywhere on the boat but I only saw one crew member wearing ear protection (in the engine room). Our only amusment was the frequent stops at little settlements where 100´s of bags of Brasil nuts were loaded. When one broke open we would all scramble to get a handful to eat on the spot. Through sign language and a bit of Portuguese I managed to make a few acquaintances to share the hours of railside silent thoughtfulness.
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The river was a constant brown silty colour. This was also the water we bathed and washed clothes in but there was no alternative and apparently no harm done. I was the only passenger that used bottled water to brush my teeth so I felt the need to be discrete about it.
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For entertainment there were the villagers who would send their 5 -12 year old kids out in dug-out canoes to intercept the boat (which slowed for nothing or no one in it´s path) and ask for hand-outs. Some passengers would throw plastic bags of food, treats, etc to them. A few boats were swamped by the wash and the kids were left to swim back to their boats. A Scotish mariner who boarded the last day was horrified that the captain was not obliged to stop and ensure the kids were safe after swamping theit little boats.
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Some older kids would throw a hook onto our boat and be towed alongside. They would scramble aboard carrying mostly fruit to sell to the passengers. It was equally exciting watching them skillfully unhook their boats and be set free without disastrous consequences. Gives you a whole new perspective on how sheltered and protected our kids are (we drive them to school and still think they are not safe!).

Early Sunday morning, the river widenned and the tall buildings of Belem came into view. By 9:00AM after many long goodbyes and (I think) promises to stay in touch, new friends disappered off the dock and into the city. That left me waiting to get my bike unloaded by my longshoreman friends. As he was headed off the dock, the Captian whispered into my ear `20 reals`and sure enough that got the job done. My experience of a lifetime was over.

An hour later I had found a hotel in the historic district and a parking garage for my bike. I spent 3 nights in Belem and got to like this old, old city more each day. I have never seen such bustling activity, diversity, colour and architecture before - it makes Manhatten seem quiet and slow! Due to the heat and humidity, the Portuguese used colourful tiles on many old buildings and sidewalks. Most of the streets downtown are narrow cobblestone. I was even moved to check out the museum of modern Brasilian art (supposed to be the best collection in Brasil) but it was closed for renovations. I left Belem early Wednesday morning during one of the heaviest downpours to-date but it was 30C and actually felt cool for awhile at least.

It was good to be on the bike again. My time in Manaus and on the river had done a lot to mend my sore bones from the accident in Venezuela. I felt ready for the big distances ahead of me in Brasil.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 10:21 PM GMT
May 12, 2007 GMT
More Brasil - then Canada

The heavy rain as I left Belem (city at mouth of the Amazon), Brasil did not last long but thankfully the clouds remained – it was plenty hot enough without the sun. With the sights, sounds and smells of Belem in my head I headed southeast on BR316 to Teresina “the hottest place in Brasil”.
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The road had been resurfaced recently belying the comment on my map stating it was “precarious”. The poor condition of roads is a common topic of conversation among Brasilians but with a few exceptions the roads I traveled were pretty good.
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Most of the rain forest along the road had long ago been burned away to make pasture for the many cattle ranches but it was still pleasantly green with large shade trees dotting the fields. The good roads seemed to attract donkeys who stubbornly refuse to move for either motorcycles or trucks!
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I stopped in Bacabal for the night and indulged my now serious addiction to Brasilian street food while watching the local youth practice the universal activity of “cruising” around the small town square.
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I had made a decision back in Bogota to change course and head down the East coast of South America in order to meet Maria in Salvador April 21st for a 2 week “vacation” from my trip. Her work schedule dictated the dates. This meant passing from Columbia through Venezuela and Brasil instead of a West coast route through Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, etc. From Teresina it was almost straight run east to the Atlantic coast. Although I would have liked to see the coastal cities of Sao Luis, Fortaleza and Natal – all worthy of a visit - but it would have added thousands of kms to my trip. Brasil is such a huge country – larger than the continental United States – you just can’t see it all.

It was a pleasant three day ride to reach Recife (2044km from Belem) on the Atlantic coast. Lonely Planet described Recife as a large “industrial” city but I found it to be also colourful with some very nice beaches. Nearby Olinda was worth a visit to see its well-preserved and beautiful colonial architecture. It was early Saturday morning, traffic was light so it was easy to cruise around the beach areas and find an ATM that would accept my card. Cash reserves topped up, I headed south along the coast to find a place on the beach.

I managed to navigate my way to a nice beach town called Praia do Frances just south of Maceio and found a Pousada (a bed/breakfast type hotel).
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That night was spent listening to the pounding Atlantic surf. It was off-season so the beach was almost empty and there were only a few guests at my pousada, an Italian, and a few Brasilians. One fellow was quite out-going and had an English vocabulary that included only swear words. He would then greet me with a hello and then a stream of curses that he found very amusing!
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It wasn’t hard to stay there for 3 nights and I also didn’t want to arrive in Salvador before Maria. It’s a great city (I was there for a week last year) and has nice beaches but I preferred a much smaller and quieter place to rest up.

Traveling alone by motorcycle can be lonely but I have discovered that the lone traveler is much easier for people to approach and strike up a conversation. Add to this the fact that Latin Americans and Brasilians especially are generally a very friendly, out-going and generous bunch. They seem to love to talk - often with great volume and grand gestures. They are very proud of their country (especially their home state) and seemed appreciative that a foreigner wanted to visit.
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They also have a great curiosity about other people and are quick to offer help. I benefited from these characteristics. Whether I stopped for gas or a bite to eat I would be quickly approached and asked about my motorcycle and the trip. Soon others in the vicinity (there were always lots of people everywhere in Brasil) would gather around to listen. Since my Portuguese is useless there was a lot of pointing at motorcycle parts and maps. Then the self-appointed spokesperson would tell the others. It was great for me as I enjoyed the human contact. However, other Brasilians have characterized this trait as being unable to mind their own business!

Wanting a change I headed further south through the beautiful port city of Maceio and took the Linha Verde (green line) a newish truck-prohibited highway built to connect the beaches along the coast and develop the area for tourism. I found another quiet beach at Porto do Sauipe. However, it was soon time to head for the Salvador airport to meet Maria.

I arrived early (I didn’t get lost!) and noticed a large Honda motorcycle dealer next to the entrance road, Novotempo Motos. I decided to use the extra time to service the motorcycle. I spent about 3 hours working with a local mechanic who seemed thrilled at the opportunity to work on a strange looking BMW. When we finished I paid for the oil but they refused to accept payment for the mechanic’s labour and sent me off with a “boa viagem” (good trip). How great is that!

After two days with Maria’s nephews in Salvador we sent some of my kit and her luggage by bus to her parent’s home in Vitoria da Conquista (a small city 500km west of Salvador). She then bravely joined me on the bike and we headed off down the coast to take the long ay to Conquista. As we wound our way through heavy Salvador morning traffic an impatient car river pushed into our lane and gave us a good nudge. Fortunately it was raining and the rear tire just slid sideways a bit and we managed to stay upright. There really are some terrible car drivers in this world.

A ferry across “a Bahia de Todos os Santos” (the Bay of All Saints) led us over the trendy beach resort island of Itaparica. We met a fellow biker on the ferry - a teacher who commutes between Salvador and Itaparica.
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We reached the small coastal town of Taperoa that night and a found a very small Pousada with even smaller rooms. The motorcycle was safely parked in the yes- very small restaurant next door although there were still customers seated when I rode up the front steps. Aside from fishing, the other main industry in town was a dende (palm) oil processing plant. It is Dende oil that gives a lot of Bahian food its distinctive taste.

After a second day of riding on twisty roads through lush tropical Atlantic rain forest in balmy temperatures followed by a cold beer and tasty dinner, it was becoming difficult to convince Maria of the hardships of motorcycle travel.

We spent the night in Ilheus, a city beautifully divided by a number of islands and lagoons and the home of the famous Brasilian author Jorge Amado.
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Our ride to Conquista the next day was interrupted by a total closure of a main highway by a landslide. We learned of a detour for motorcycles only that would save about 100km. At the entrance a cowboy on horseback confirmed the route and we embarked on a hilly 40km off-road trail through cow pastures and gravel roads that added a little adventure to the day.
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I spent just over a week being pampered by Maria’s folks in Conquista including having the broken turn signal mounts on my bike repaired skillfully by her father. I also located a pair of Pirelli MD40s (90/90/21 and 140/70/17) with Pirelli tubes for R$605.00 or about US$300 at Magna Moto Pecas, Avenida Alagoas, 139 in the motocycle dealer area of Conquista. This is about 1/2 the price in Canada. I left reluctantly (although I was gaining too much weight!) and headed south again the 1200km to Rio de Janeiro. I stopped for 2 days in Vassouras, a pretty town in the mountains 100km west of Rio as the lucky guest of my Toronto Brasilian friend Liuz’s parents in their 200 year old home that dates back to the day coffee was the major industry here.
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It was with mixed feelings that I left Vassouras and rode towards Rio. I had decided my trip was coming to an end. After over 3 months on the road and 18,500km I was starting to feel a little too detached from my family and home. I still loved the adventure of starting the motorcycle each morning and heading down the road toward the new and unexpected. However, in my next destination, Southern Argentina (Patagonia) it was now almost winter with the risk of snow and freezing temperatures. Also, spring had arrived to my home and garden in Canada – who would do the chores? Finally, Brasil had been such a huge experience that my senses were pretty much overloaded and in need of a rest. I rode straight to the Air Cargo terminal at Rio airport and put my motorcycle on a flight to New York.
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Luckily, I had a friend with relatives in Rio de Janeiro. What an amazing city! The geography alone is striking enough with the spectacular combination of mountains, ocean, lagoons and beaches. Add all the pastel colours (why don’t Canadian buildings come in different colours?), heavily treed and clean streets full of people typical of Brasil and it is almost overwhelming.
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Anyway there is nothing I can add to what is already known about the “most Brasilian city”. My “carioca” (native of Rio) guide made my 3 days in Rio a great way to finish up my visit. Sharing an apartment with an active Rio family also gave me a rare (for a tourist) if brief insight into life in the city.
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You will have noticed a bias for Brasil in my notes – it’s true after 4515km of riding there I love the place and want to see a lot more of it. It’s not all pretty, and it is full of frustrating contradictions. Poverty and crime are real issues. So with mixed feelings I left Rio for an overnight flight to New York City.
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Great service by Varig Air Cargo meant I was on my bike by noon and back at home in Mississauga by early afternoon the next day, Saturday, May 12th.

About traveling by motorcycle. Many people have told me it is just too dangerous in their view. Motorcycle and air travel are similar in my mind. You have to respect the laws of physics at all times. Every time I get on a motorcycle, I make myself consider the risks and plan to manage them – I assume that an airline pilot makes the same evaluation – so at the end of every day of safe riding I congratulate myself for what I did right and review the mistakes/lack of attention that increased the risk. I like to be in control of the risks I take. Of course, you can’t control other road users – the biggest threat - but you can do a lot to mitigate them. It is serious business but the rewards far outweigh the risks. I believe bus travel (the only other travel option in Latin America) is much more dangerous.

I hope to continue my journey by returning to Rio and continuing south to Argentina and up the west coast of South America – the best weather there would be in December. Meantime, I’m trying to adjust to Canada. There is so much about this country that is the best in the world – I think we just need to add some colour and diversity to our urban landscape. Those big box shopping centres, local strip malls, and public buildings that all look exactly the same are so boring!

Thank you to all of you who have shown interest and given support to my little journey. I have benefited from the generosity of many people I met on my trip – from their patience with my poor language skills to opening their homes to me. To my family, friends, neighbours and of course Maria for the many favours. I owe you all. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me.

Posted by Ross Davidson at 10:16 PM GMT
 
 

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