February 15, 2008 GMT
Panama

Heading off to Changunola we stop for a drink and some cash at an ATM. People are very friendly in Panama and one lady passes by telling another passer by (in Spanish) that she has never seen a woman on a motorbike before.


After a stressful half an hour of trying to get on the right road we finally manage to.


It feels great to be finally travelling for the day and we round the bend then stop abruptly as a horrible sight comes into view.
It is another Banana Bridge, this time twice as long and worse than the first one as there are no barriers on the side except the odd metal pole.


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Again we pull over and walk part of it to work out how bad it is. There are no pedestrian pull ins like the first one and the drop is even higher. A new bridge is being built alongside and there are workman everywhere in orange vests.


I had read that there was another bridge, but was not sure if our route would take us over it, well it exists and its in front of us. After riding the bridge at the crossing the thought of riding the "proper banana bridge" now was making me nervous. As Em says, we walked part of it, but the truth is that I am not great with hieghts and after getting halfway I have seen enough - sod it, stop worrying and just ride the bloody thing..



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Darren says I should walk it first and he will ride after me. There is a traffc light system which appears to make it easier for the flow of traffic.


I tuck my gloves into my pocket and carry my lid in one hand and set off. I am not hanging around and you need to watch where you are going especially in clumpy metal toed motorcross boots. I am notoriously clumsy and had images in my head of tripping and falling through the bars to my watery death.


I get a quarter of the way out and start getting heckled by the builders with wolf whistles, cat calls and the usual 'hey baby' remarks. A lot of the builders on the bridge itself are very polite and move out of the way for me. A car comes up behind me, luckily there is a third plank at this point and I step on to the edge alongside a builder doing the same as the car passes. We are both holding onto the scafolding pole which is the 'safety bar' staring down 40ft into murky water.


I continue along as I am now halfway and walking as fast as I can, This bridge is longer than you think it is.
I suddenly become aware that there are cars coming now the other way and I move over as best I can on to the edge of a plank and hold onto the safety bar with my one free hand.
The car drivers are obviously locals and not hanging around. After 5 or 6 pass me by inches I look round and to my horror see a juganaut- not a truck a ruddy great juggernaut with massive metal bolts sticking out on the wheels. Oh shit.


I can't move much further except to step with one foot out onto the saftey bar and lean forward over the water with my one free hand grab the other bar. As the lorry gets nearer the bridge starts to shake badly.
I look up at the driver and our eyes meet. He nods at me as if to say stay where you are. My other foot is on the edge of a strut which starts to shake violently as the lorry passes me revving hard and loudly as it must be 2inches from my toes. I look down into the massive gap that I could easily fall through and start hyperventilating. After 2 mins I burst into tears, utterly terrified.


The lorry passes, then some cars and then a coach.
The coach driver sees my distress and stops the coach, winds down his window and tells me to get on. I am frozen with fear and my spanish escapes me, I cannot think of how to say anything. There are people hanging out of the coach windows all shouting in Spanish, one guy at the back of the coach gets a builders attention.
The builder marches over to me and just grabs my hand, then he leads me alongside all the stopped traffic as we step across the struts on the edges, ducking to avoid wing mirrors every so often.

Finally reaching the other side I thank the builder, he just nods and walks off.


Not aware of Ems traumatic experience, I sit waiting for the lights to go green, again the helmets off and strangely all of a sudden I feel quite calm - I guess I had resigned myself to what will be will be, I just have to trust my skills, choose a line and stick to it.


Beep! The lights are still red but the traffic behind urges me foward, I drop the clutch get on the pegs and move off. Without any traffic in front of me I was able to keep a steady 12mph and all was going to plan. Workman were on the plank ahead that I had chosen and each cheered as I passed and I thanked them for moving shouting "Gracias" loudly.


Looking ahead I saw that the middle plank disappeared, I cant move to the inside plank as theres a gap that would grab the front wheel, instead I move to the outside plank just in time to see both the middle plank and the outside barrier disappear - for a brief moment my peripheral vision just stares down to the water below and space.


Keep calm, look ahead, more cheers from the workman and before I know it I am safely accross and I feel releaved and elated, until I catch site of Em with her head in her hands crying.


We stop for a while and pull ourselves back together, I tell Em just how well she has done and promise her no more scary bridges.


The day then consists of crossing the mountains from north Panama to the south, the views are once again jaw dropping and even the rain can't dampen our spirits.



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Then as we stop to check the map Em spots a potential problem..



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Thankfully the Tourance tires we are using are steel belted and the key had not actually punctured the tire. I wasnt going to remove it though until we reached the hotel.


After a long day of riding and trauma, we reach the town of David and find the most amazing little Hotel in the middle of town. Maybe my expectations are falling but this place was clean, tidy, basic and had a cracking restaurant downstairs with friendly staff, good food and service. Parking was secure and internet available too, all for $26 a night.


Heading on reluctantly from David we head to Panama City. We do 300 miles along the PanAm and reach the airport after 5pm too late to visit the Girag Cargo Offices. Panama City itself is nothing short of a nightmare with terrible traffic jams and signage. The old town is really very rough and rundown- not the place you even want to stop.


There are manholes in the road with no covers on - not what you need to see when on a bike - not funny.


Holeing up in a hotel near to the Airport we do more research that night on hotels in the city. Next day we head out and don't find any of them. We manage to find the Girag Office and get organised for Monday. This is a really laid back affair- basically just turn up with your cash and go.


It was clear that riding around Panama city looking for hotels was not going to be a good day out, so we decide to head back out of town and back to Puento Barcas andout 50 miles down the road. We find a clean nice place in a shoping mall and decide to hang out here for a while as we wait to frieght the bike.


This proves to be a great stop for getting organised with an Internet Cafe, photocopies of all our documents, laundry and stocking up in the 24hr supermarket. However this place is obviously 'the' place to hang out if you are a Panamanian youth with a beaten up car with a loud sound system. Also we put the bike as near to the room as possible but the alarm went off about 3 times a day with people knocking it, or leaning on it. Darren did't get much sleep.



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We head back to Panama City, crossing the Bridge of the Americas once more, before taking a detour to check out the Panama Canal.



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As we stop for pictues and watch the ships pass, we get chatting to some locals who were competing in a relay running race from coast to coast.


Its then that we head back to the obnoxious Riande Airport Hotel on Sunday night for two nights, this time managing to get on the Route South bypass meaning that we avoid the city centre.


The hotel was purley for the purpose of getting us sorted as it is the only hotel near the airport (unless you count the 'love hotels' nearby - dubious stains everywhere apparently, thanks Jeff for the heads up).


Next day we are up early to breakfast before taking the bike over to Girag at Cargo. We meet a great guy at breakfast who is travelling from Mexico on a KLR, he too is heading to Girag. We have a good chat about bikes and travel etc. and none of us can believe that we are the only bike travellers we have met since Mexico.


We get the bike to Girag and meet up with Jeff and his KLR there too. It is a great morning as we all get packed up together- disconnecting batteries and getting paperwork organised.



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Girag are so relaxed they are are horizontal, we pay our cash and hand over our copies, they give us our waybill and a reciept - job done. We stop to pay the cargo guys $5 so that they will shrink wrap the bikes and stop anybody tampering with them.



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Whilst this is all happening Jeff mentions that he is a chiropractor and notices my bad shoulder straight away. Very kindly he offers to fix it for me and having been in pain for 2 years I happily agree.


We have an audience with the cargo guys watching as Jeff checks the problem. Needing somewhere for me to lie down the only thing we find is a few stacked pallets - they'll do.



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Darren is nearly sick as Jeff cracks my back and neck back into place.
I feel better already - thank you Jeff you are a star - it was a pleasure meeting you, hope we can catch up on the road for that acupuncture...

Next day we head for the airport for our flights to Quito, which goes really well until the Immigration Officer notices that I didn't have an entry stamp in my passport to Panama so I technically can't leave. After alot of explanation about bikes etc he lets me on the flight. Phew.
It is only an hour and a half flight. Although Immigration is a nightmare in Quito and takes us 1 hour to get through- give me border crossings any day!


With Central America now completed we are now looking forward to the South American part of the adventure. See you in Equador everybody...


Posted by Darren Homer at February 15, 2008 08:52 PM GMT
 


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