Friday, August 29, 2008

Killing Time.

The city of San Jose, image borrowed from Geo Central America.

Day 172

I just got back from my third and hopefully second to last trip to the doctors office. The good news is that the doctor told me that I am looking fine and that now I just have to wait for my body to heal up the wounds on its own. She also told me that I most likely will not have to hang around for another week after my last appointment as she will give me some medicine that I can apply myself and so long as I do not engage in any overly strenuous activity for a while, I should be fine on my own.

So now I just have to hang tight and keep myself from crawling up the walls while I wait to get the last appointment under my belt and hopefully a bill of good health so I can hit the road again.
Artax, my trusty bicycle, is now en route back to the States. I took him apart, and the great guys at the local DHL helped me to get him into boxes safe and sound. It was weird, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a buddy or something. He was a great bike and I was totally satisfied with his performance. Even under really terrible conditions he kept on trucking like a champ. I look forward to putting him back together in the future and taking him for a spin.

San Jose is a lot nicer than most of the cities I have been to in Central America, but I am staying in a neighborhood that is not exactly the best in town. Its right next to the biggest bus station and their are a lot of shady characters hanging around. Although the hotel is safe, clean and cheap, plus its close to the hospital.

I hate being in places like this for too long as it begins to harden and jade you. Whenever I see somebody spot me and come over to talk to me, I instantly assume they are going to try and hustle me somehow. Nine out of ten times that is the case, as they are either trying to sell you some junk, drugs, advice, etc. or to just flat out beg. You reflexively develop a defense against it, and start to come across as really rude. The down side of that is when you meet someone who is just trying to be nice and then you start off on the wrong foot. I like the country towns because there when people approach you, they are genuinely trying to be friendly and get to know you. You only get about one out of ten that are trying to hustle you.

One guy in particular here has really been getting on my nerves. He spotted me coming back to my hotel a few days ago and started talking to me in American accented English and looked clean so I figured he was another traveler. He asked where I had been and where I was headed, typical traveler questions, and I chatted with him for a bit. He told me about a couple of cool places to visit in Panama and started asking me about American football and such and I figured, this is just a cool guy from the states who saw someone he figured he might be able to talk to, maybe he is going it alone like me.

Then, he asks me if I want to buy any drugs. Great, he is just a clever scumbag from the states using it as leverage on people. I tell him no, then he offer to take me to a casino. No again. How about some prostitutes. No buddy, beat it. How about a cheaper hotel, come on, its just over here, as he tugs on my shirt. No, I am fine here. How about a couple of bucks for helping you out, I showed you some great places to visit in Panama. So, I give him about 50 colones (a couple of cents American) just to get him to get out of my face. He takes it and goes, that's it? I lost it then and told him he should be happy I gave him anything. He then tells me he is coming down off some drugs and needs more money, I tell him to get out of my face.

Two days later he spots me again and comes up to me begging for money, saying he is going through some tough times and I just looked at him and say, too bad, and left.

Guys like that make me sick. He is just a lowlife junky trying to pull on peoples heart strings to get something without working for it. I truly feel bad for people on the streets that don't have anywhere else to go, like the mentally ill who are abandoned by their families. They are there through bad luck alone and it is terrible to see them suffer through no fault of their own. But this guy, reasonably intelligent and able bodied, has no excuse to beg from people. It just blows me away, where is your sense of pride? Or at least shame? I just want to yell at people like that and shake the hell out of them, tell them to clean themselves up and do something with their lives besides waste it and live like a human parasite. He made me so angry at him, I wanted him to not say he was an American to anyone else as it makes the rest of us look bad.

Anyway, sorry for the rant, it was just something that has been bugging me. There are lots of those types around here so you have to stay on your toes a bit, but it is nothing more than an annoyance, I have never felt unsafe at all.

I am going a bit stir crazy though as I am not used to being in one place this long any more, and I can't do much. For the most part I am confined to my room while I heal up. I have found a great second hand book store that has a huge selection of English language books cheap, which has been a godsend. You can also trade in your old books for credit towards new ones, so I have been burning through a book every day or two. And, the nerd in my rejoiced at this, the book store even has English language comic books. Sweet! So I have been hanging out there quite a bit. I love bookstores like that because you never know what you are going to find. I have dug up some real gems as well as some really, really bad books that I have enjoyed reading and laughing at. I like the big bookstore chains too as they have such a great variety and its all so well organized. But, they do lack the charm of the little Mom and Pop bookstores, even when Mom and Pops idea of organization means just having books on the shelf...or in boxes on the floor, or laying in giant stacks with no rhyme or reason. The one annoyance though is when you find a great book to read, but it is the second in a series and they have all but book number one. I hate that! I can not read any books or watch any movies out of order, it drives me nuts.

But, other than that I have been well, I have scoped out all the best and cheapest food joints around me. They LOVE their fried chicken in central America, its everywhere, and its cheap as well. That and beans and rice, the staple foods of the Central American diet it seems to me. I miss Mexican food a lot, they have such a huge variety of really excellent types of food there for reasonable prices. It truly spoils a traveler.

At any rate, this is turning into a random stream of consciousness blog update that does not have a lot of pertinent information so I will cut it short. I plan on hitting the road as soon as the Doc gives me the thumbs up and I get my new gear sent to me from my parents. And Mom, Dad, you guys are awesome for running around getting everything I need. I know its a pain in the butt, but it is a huge help to me and I truly appreciate it! Love you guys!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Changing Gears

I have thought my situation through and have come to a decision as to what I am going to do from here. It was not easy as I had so many conflicting emotions and desires involved in the process, but after a sleepless night I have made up my mind.

My initial reaction to the news the doctor told me was pretty close to panic. Going though this infection and the treatment has been an extremely unenjoyable experience and not something that I want to do again. Sitting around somewhere for weeks being unable to do anything but wait to have a stranger poke around your naked body is not my idea of a fun trip.

I look back at some of the crazy things I have already encountered on this adventure that I just breezed right by, even laughing about them deposit how scary they were at the time. Everything from being chased by dogs in the night, close encounters with crocodiles, Mayan Indians waking me up at 2 in the morning in the middle of the jungle, freezing cold, pouring rain, scalding heat, enormous mosquitoes, and none of it phased me. But this is something I can't see and can't fight off on my own.

Up until now, I have really been enjoying this experience. There have been plenty of negatives involved like homesickness, physical pain and discomfort, feeling like an outsider everywhere I go, but I anticipated those coming into this and while some of them bothered me more than others, the good outweighed the bad.

With this new factor in the equation things have changed. It is not the infection itself that changes my perception of what I am doing, it is the anxiety that I know I will feel constantly while riding and the way it would effect my day to day experience of the journey. I will always be wondering if the pain in my rear end, which is constant, is something worse. Every time I see a river or lake to swim in or sit down on muddy ground after the rain, I will wonder if it will lead to another breakout of this infection because I have been riding too much and have open sores that could become infected. It will always be in the back of my mind, wondering if it will happen when I am somewhere I can't get to a hospital, and if I can, what if that hospital doesn't have the techniques, supplies or knowledge to treat this? I could find myself in a really terrible situation and that knowledge hanging over me all the time would be exhausting.

In order to minimize the threat, I would have to totally change my approach to the trip. I would have to spend a lot more money to cover less ground which would dramatically shorten my journey but increase the cost. I would also have to avoid or move at a snails pace through some of the areas I most wanted to visit. I have already been facing the reality that I was going to have to cut things out of my trip due to time constraints while moving at the pace that I was, and to further be slowed while spending even more money means that I would most likely have to cut out everything but simply circling the globe just so that I could finish.

But the thing that bugged me more than any of these others was having to ride slowly all the time. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I just do not operate that way. I pretty much have two gears: stop, and full speed. Anything I do in life I either go full blast, or I don't do at all. I just don't have it in me to sit around and smell the roses, constantly rubbing cream on my butt and resting all the time. Don't get me wrong, I like to take easy on occasion but when its time to get something done, I want to give it my all and get it done. I love the feeling of pushing myself as hard as I can, watching the miles fly by and getting that workout high at the end of the day. Just rolling along at a slow pace day after day would be torturous for me, and all because I was worried about having another nasty breakout of this skin infection.

The doctor actually encouraged me to keep going, she thought what I was doing was really incredible. She made a good point too, saying that it could be far worse. I could be diabetic, and she made the point that this common disease would be far harder to overcome on my trip. She felt that as long as I was willing to make the sacrifices involved in changing my plans and habits, I could continue, albeit in a completely different fashion than I had originally envisioned. She was correct too; if I was willing to make the sacrifices I could continue. If you want something bad enough you can always find a way.

But the inevitable fact that I kept coming to when I was exploring my honest feelings was this: I am not willing to make these sacrifices. The bottom line is that if I am not enjoying myself, this is not worth it. And doing the things I would have to do in order to avoid another one of these outbreaks, the trip would not be enjoyable for me. I could just ignore what the doctor says and go for it anyway, trusting to luck. I mean, I made it through nearly 4,000 miles of tropical terrain before I had this happen, maybe I could go another 4,000, right? But that is an impossible question to answer. I could go the rest of the trip and get lucky, I could go 100 miles and have it happen again. I can not tell the future. All I can do is make a decision based on the best information I have, and the advice of a doctor on issues of health is the only source of information that has any foundation in statistical and empirical evidence. Anything anyone else says is purely anecdotal and therefore not a reliable source of information when making this type of decision as there are too many variables from individual to individual. It would be different if I were the first man to ride a bike around the world, or if I were nearly done, then it would be worth while to push through it. But I am not even close to the first man (that was done way back in the 1800´s) and I am not even a fifth of the way through my trip, I still have years to go to do all that I wanted to do.

The only reason I would have to continue at this point would be for the sake of my pride. Pride can be a useful tool at times, helping you to push through adversity when you would have otherwise given up. It can also be a hindrance, inhibiting your ability to make intelligent decisions. In this case, two and a half years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars of hard earned money would be a foolishly big sacrifice to place on the alter of my pride. All that to do something that was no longer enjoyable for me, just to be able to say I did it.

When I reached this conclusion, a really weird feeling came over me. I had a simultaneous feeling of depression and elation. I was depressed because it meant for me the adventure was over and I was going to leave a goal unattained. I felt equally as much elated however, because it meant I could see my family and friends and comfort myself in the familiarity of home.

I could just picture coming back to smiling faces and hugs, how happy all my loved ones would be to see me again, how great it would feel to be back in the city I love. I can't lie, I have been pretty homesick. To this point, it was something I was willing to deal with as my enjoyment of the trip outweighed those feelings, but now with a legitimate reason to return I was pretty happy. One of the reasons I have been feeling homesick, which is not normal for me at all, was due to all of this time I have had to myself to think and plan. I am a forward thinking person and have had big plans for my life, but in the hours of solitude on the bike I was able to work out every little detail of how I was going to go about making my life goals a reality and I could envision it all with such clarity that I was excited to get started on it. Plus, I truly love and miss my family, friends and my city and really look forward to the day I can see them again.

But then I thought a little further down the path of going home, past the joyful reunions, past the pleasure of being in a familiar setting. I thought about how things would be once I was settled back into a routine life. I know that at that point when the dust had settled, the only thing I would feel looking back on my trip was regret and a sense of having failed in achieving a dream that I had worked so hard to make a reality. I know myself and I know that that feeling would linger with me for years, if not the rest of my life. I am not getting any younger and in all likelihood, this is the last opportunity I will have to do something like this again before I retire. I plan on starting a family in the not too far future and once that stage of life begins, an adventure around the world with total freedom will be nothing more than a painful memory of a wasted opportunity. Living with the knowledge that at the first encounter with major adversity on my big adventure that my reaction was to fold like a tent and go home with my tail between my legs, was not something I was willing to live with.

At this point, when my two conflicting desires clashed with equal strength in my mind, I became pretty depressed. I dragged myself over the coals most of the night, trying to decide which of the two was going to be the better choice, or in all honesty, the least painful choice.

Then, in one of those flashes of insight we all have from time to time I found a middle ground. While riding my bike, I have had lots of time to day dream, and some of these have been about all different types of adventures I could have in the places I was going. Most of them I had to dismiss because they were just not very practical with the bike. But then I thought to myself, why not leave the bike behind, but continue the trip having lots of different kinds of adventures in all of the places I wanted to see in the first place that I would now not be able to see?

I have been planning and saving for an around the world trip since 2004. It has been a dream of mine since then journey to every continent but Antarctica in a single trip and try to do as many wild and challenging things as I could squeeze in. In 2007 I first read about cycle touring and that is when the idea to go around the world on a bike first came to me and I decided to go for it. Basically, this workaround allowed me to continue on feeling like I was still achieving my original goal, while also avoiding putting myself through the no longer enjoyable experience of traveling by bicycle. It satisfied both of my conflicting desires.

This realization instantly turned my anguish into excitement. All of a sudden ideas were shooting through my mind like sparks from a roman candle. I got up early and despite not having slept more than maybe an hour, I have been researching non stop, trying to determine if all of the things I want to do are feasible. I have been furiously creating time tables, budgets, sketching out ideas for things to do, finding out how much they will cost, how long they will take, etc.
The more I think about this, the more I am starting to feel like this may have been a blessing in disguise. I am now more excited for this trip than I have felt for the past month. Instead of one enormous challenge that in all honesty may have dragged in places and in others I may have been flat out not enjoying myself, I will have lots of smaller but varied adventures, while still going around the world and seeing all that it has to offer.

I have been having some pretty wild ideas too. I am picturing everything from plains, trains, buses, cars, boats, motorcycles, mountain climbing, trekking, sailing, scuba diving, kayaking, horses, Camels, you name it. I have to admit, this has gotten me pretty fired up with all of the possibilities.

So, the new theme of the trip I suppose, is not cycling around the world, but seeking adventure around the world. The goal I have set for myself now, is to find at least one big challenge for myself on every continent that I visit.

In the end will I be able to say that I rode a bicycle around the world? No. That really does suck. But, I will be able to say that I was true to myself, had an amazing time and one hell of an adventure and that I feel, is what matters most. Traveling by bicycle thus far has been a great experience, truly rewarding and personally enriching. I am by no means done with it for life, but for this trip it has become just one of many adventures as I circle the globe. And who knows, maybe I will jump back on a bike at some point in this trip if I find a place I just can't resist riding a few miles through!

So thanks a million to everyone who sent me emails while I was going through this with encouraging words. It meant more to me than I can really express. If anyone no longer wishes to follow along with the journey as it is no longer cycling around the world, I totally understand and want to thank anyone who has been along with my thus far. However, I am going to continue on and if anyone wants to come with me, I would love the company!

Monday, August 25, 2008

I Just got back from the Hospital.

I have just returned from my second trip to the hospital here and have a better idea of what I am dealing with. The doctor´s assumptions were correct and I developed ulcers on my rear, right where the thigh meets my bum. They are the result of riding the bike and they got infected with apparently a few types of bacteria, one of which was breaking down my skin and causing the ulcers to grow and become very painful. This was also the reason for my fatigue and dehydration.

Standing with your pants around your ankles in a room while a stranger (and an attractive young female doctor at that, although I guess that is better than a young male doctor) pokes around your nether regions is not the most comfortable of experiences. The actual treating of the legions is no fun either and neither of these experiences was any better on the second go around, and I am sure wont be any more pleasant on the third and fourth. However, I have to say, the doctor is great, she really helped to make me feel comfortable in a really unpleasant situation.

I talked with the doctor at length about my trip, how I was going about it and what I had to do to prevent things like this from occurring in the future. She was really empathetic, and felt so bad for me that she didn´t even charge me for the second visit which really blew me away. That is not something you would ever expect to happen in the states.

Basically, she told me that to continue, I would have to make some fairly drastic changes. I would have to ride less miles per day, ride at an easier pace, take more frequent and longer breaks and avoid riding in tropical regions as well as applying baby cream to my rear end on hot or humid days to reduce friction. She said I would also have to sleep indoors more often and bathe more frequently, and less often in rivers, lakes, or streams (which obviously I would like to do but camping you don't have a choice). The ulcers are brought on by heat, moisture and friction, and then are infected by bacteria which live in water, especially muddy water, and can be anywhere.

I asked her what the likelihood of experiencing another outbreak of this would be if I continued on the way I had been and she said there was a chance it would not occur again but that was very slim, and that I should assume that it would happen at least once more, possibly several times.

She also stated that I was lucky that it hit me hard in Costa Rica as the medical care here is excellent. She said that here, or in Panama I would have been OK (although she said treatment would have been much more expensive in Panama) but if it were to have hit me in Nicaragua or Honduras, I would have been in deep trouble as they are unable to treat this type of thing.
Considering that the vast majority of my trip goes through tropical areas, I would have to dramatically change things. Basically, I would have to go slower and spend more money per day by quite a bit in order to ensure I don't go through something like this again, possibly in a place where there is no way of treating it. I would also have to try and avoid tropical areas as much as possible, which unfortunately covers most of my trip.

Obviously this is not the best news, so I am going to take a night to sleep on it and weigh all of the factors and make my decision as to what I am going to do tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ground Zero

I just this minute got back from the hospital. I went to the nicest private clinic in San Jose as I felt like this was something that I could not screw around with, and I am glad that I did. It was not cheap but it was an extremely nice hospital and I received top notch treatment, however the news was pretty much abysmal.

I have developed some ulcers on my skin that have become infected with some pretty nasty stuff. They aren't sure exactly what all is in there yet but they did some tests and have got me on some heavy doses of antibiotics. They are fairly sure these are tropical skin ulcers which are pretty terrible from what I have learned. I have had a painful rear end for pretty much the entire trip, and so I figured it was just something that I would have to live with. The pain has gotten a lot worse in Central America sometimes causing me to even cry out while riding at the end of the day, but I accounted that to the heat and humidity, and just thought I would have to push through it until I got to the Andes where I would gain elevation into a cooler, drier climate. I guess you should not ignore pain like that.

I told them what kind of trip I was on and asked them a million questions about how it would affect me and apparently these ulcers are caused by a combination of factors, most importantly are open wounds on the skin that come into contact with contaminated water sources. The infection then breaks down soft tissue, eventually causing the tendons and bones to become exposed and damaged resulting in permanent scaring, further infections, fibrosis, and all kind of other terrible maladies including skin grafts if the ulcers grow too large. Worst of all, if left unchecked it often leads to cancer and possibly death. Apparently it is very rare, but people that are constantly exposed to dirty water, have a lowered immune system due to fatigue or malnutrition, and inadequate hygiene or medical care are most susceptible. I fall into pretty much all of those categories while cycle touring.

I am out of immediate danger, but I have to stay here for two weeks minimum while they continue to monitor me and clean the wounds. They think that since the bacteria causing most of the damage should be killed by the antibiotics, that I should begin healing normally, however they warned me not to even think about a bicycle for the next three weeks minimum as if I try to ride before these ulcers are fully healed I run the risk of a new breakout.

They are pulling my medical files from America apparently and I have to go back on Monday to see what the final results of the tests and what not are.

This is obviously pretty sobering news and I am really just reeling from it right now. I do not know what to think or do, but I am going to hang tight until Monday and see what they have to say then.

I am sorry to everyone reading this, there will be a little bit of a pause here in the action as I try and decide what the best thing for me to do is. I knew coming into this that some sort of disease or infection was a possibility, but the idea and the reality of it are two totally different things.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bad News

I have not been feeling well and these saddle sores that I have been battling have not been getting any better. I have gotten used to riding with the pain of them, but the way I have been feeling so low on energy and fatigued lately has got me a bit worried. So, I decided to finally go to a doctor.

He took one look at the sores on my thighs and rear end and told me I needed to go see a specialist ASAP. He said that they may have been caused by riding or that they could be something else that could be really dangerous. He told me the only place I could get anything done was in San Jose, the capital, as they lacked the facilities to do anything for me here.

I am just trying my best to remain calm until I can get to the capital and see a Dermatologist. As of now I don't know what it is and I am just going to keep my head screwed on straight and get there as fast as I can.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jaco, Costa Rica

Day 161

Miles 150

Ttoal Mileage 7514

Waiting out the rain. You do this a lot in rain forest. Big surprise!

A gorgeous beach with no one on it. I love places like this.

I dicided to jump in one of the many rivers around here to cool off.

I am currently in Jaco, Costa Rica. This is an interesting place, it has a real party atmosphere, and its a little bit on the sleazy side with a lot of drug dealers trying to sell you marijuana or cocaine on the streets, and a lot of prostitutes prowling around but its all right so long as you steer clear of that sort of stuff. There is a lot to do that doesn't involve criminal activity as well though, and I have been enjoying myself. I am staying at a great place, Las Camas Hostel, and have been watching the Olympics non stop (Way to go Phelps!) and hanging out with some really nice travelers. I also got to meet up with Fred again, which was cool, and I also bumped into another traveler from California that I had met in Playa del Coco. It feels good to see familiar faces while you are on the road.

Getting here was a trial though. I don't know what was going on with my body, but riding here from Playa del Coco felt like I had just started my tour. The first day I only was able to ride about 73 miles. Half way through the day my legs started cramping badly and I was having really strong muscle spasms. I was really low on energy as well and it was tough to keep going. I had to call it quits early in the day and camped out. That night was really uncomfortable as it was very hot and humid and my legs were spasming badly. It looked like I had snakes crawling around under my skin, and it didn't stop until after midnight, which made it very difficult to sleep.

The next day was worse, and despite the fact that I only had to go another 72 or so miles, it took me all day to do it. I just didn't have any energy and was constantly having to pull over and rest. It was strange, my fitness level felt very low. I was drinking loads of water but no matter how much fluid I took in, I couldn't stay hydrated. My urine was bright yellowy orange all day.
Just before I got to Jaco, I had to climb a fairly steep hill and I swear, I thought I was going to die going up that thing. I was having tunnel vision and seeing spots badly, and would have to pull over every few hundred meters to take a ten minute break just to get my heart rate down. I have no idea why I hit the wall so badly but I was in a bad way. Half way up this hill, which honestly was not even that big, I just crashed. I had to sit down so that I wouldn't fall over and just hung my head between my legs. It was pouring rain too, but I didn't care. Its funny the things you think when your mind isn't working correctly. I honestly contemplated dragging my bike into a ditch and pulling my rain tarp over it and myself and taking a little nap!

I was so disoriented that I couldn't even make anything to eat, so I just took some honey and drank about a third of a bottle of it. It tasted disgusting but after about ten minutes it got me feeling a little normal and I was able to force myself up and over the hill and get into Jaco. That night I was absolutely ravenous, I ate two massive plates of rice, beans, chicken and friend plantains, with two salads, and then a big giant sandwich and a bowel of soup all in about an hour and a half. My body was dying for some calories.

I honestly don't know what went wrong, I am hoping it was just a fluke. It was very hot and humid in hilly terrain which makes for tough riding, but its nothing I have not done before.
I will be heading south tomorrow and I am fairly certain I will just ride hard all the way to Panama City, as from there I need to find a boat to take me to Colombia and from what I have heard, it is a 5 day sail to get there. For those of you who don't know, there are no roads from Panama to Colombia, just a stretch of totally untamed jungle called the Darrien Gap. So I figure I need to give myself a few days to get to Panama City, and a few days to find a boat willing to take me, and then another 5 to get to Colombia, and as I want to be there by September, I need to get after it sooner than later.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Finally got myself to leave Coco Beach.

Day: 157

Miles: 0

Mileage: 7,364

Busting the pose on the beach. It had to be done!

Busting the pose on the beach. It had to be done!

The locals fish with just a line standing out in the water.

This place is beautiful.

I finally got myself to leave Coco, this place has truly grown on me. Despite the high cost, it is just a really great place. It is very touristy here, but there are still a lot of locals that call this area home and that are very proud of their country and love to share it with people who are willing to learn.

I have been hanging out with some locals that have made this part of my trip really special. I want to thank Ibi, Christine and Angelica, you girls are great and have taught my a lot about Tica culture, pura vida and Guanacaste. Thanks so much for making my time here memorable! They brought me to the best local restaurants, to dinner with their families, and to watch some amazing sunsets from the best beaches in the area.

I have also been hanging out a lot with Fred, the Danish backpacker, who is a great guy. We are going to try and meet up again in a week in southern Costa Rica, and I hope it works out.
This hostel, the Oasis backpackers hostel, is one of the best I have ever stayed at. It feels like being home. Paul, the owner is a great guy and a world traveler himself. He is Peruvian, but after his world wonderings settled in Costa Rica. This hostel is such a beautiful place and it offers everything a traveler weary of the road needs. A kitchen, 150 movies to watch (in English!) bicycles for rent, free internet and tons of hammocks and couches to chill out on and shoot the breeze with fellow travelers. Its such a homey, comfortable place, that I ended up staying for nearly a week when I only planned on 2 days!

I love the slow pace here, the friendly locals, even the boisterous tourists. Its a fun place that really makes traveling easy. After some of the headaches of getting here, it is nice to be in a place that feels close to home.

Tomorrow I am heading south and will stop along the beach somewhere, I have not decided where exactly, and then head further south into Panama.

Hope all is well back home!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Deep thoughts, by Jack Handy.

Well, I wanted to go to a touristy part of Costa Rica to get a small taste of America and I certainly picked the right spot. Last night I went out on the town with a fellow traveler, Fred, a Dane who is backpacking around the world, and we had a great time. The highlight of the night for me though was when the bar around the corner from our hostel had American Football on a big screen! Yes! And, even better it was my team, The Chargers, playing Dallas and they stomped them (well, it is only preseason, but hey, I will take what I can get)! After that we even got to see the fight and George St. Pierre defended his title. My two favorite sports in the same night, my favorite Team, and one of my favorite fighters, it was great. It made me miss my friends a lot though as we would always gather to watch the games or the fights.

I also met a lot of really great people last night, Playa del Coco is chock full of expats and I heard far more English than Spanish. I hate to admit it, but it was nice to feel at least a little bit like I was home. I will not have the chance to experience anything even close to home again for a very long time, so I soaked it up.

However, as I had mentioned I met some great people. A group of Costa Ricans have offered to take me to the local beaches so I can get more of a taste of the lifestyle here. Its funny, I came to indulge a bit in tourist land and the culture comes to me! Funny how these things work out. I will definitely take them up on their offer as they were incredibly friendly and have offered to drive me to a few other places around the area. I talked with one girl in particular about life here and how Costa Ricans feel about the expatriate invasion. It is tough for a lot of them because of the increased cost of living in areas like Playa del Coco which drives the locals out. Obviously there are some hard feelings about this, but the Ticas I talked to also had a very mature point of view about it, saying that they knew the tourists bring in a lot of money but at a cost to them and their lifestyles. They felt that it was a good and bad, as most things in life are.

Gentrification is a strange occurrence, outsiders come to a place because they like the atmosphere but by coming they drive out what they had been attracted to in the first place and in turn end up creating an environment similar to what they had left behind. The same thing is happening in other places I visited in Central America, like Granada and Leon in Nicaragua.
I also wanted to address a question a lot of people have asked me over the course of this trip. People always want to know what I think about while riding. It is a good question as that is the biggest part of my average day: riding for 6 to 10 hours by myself with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company. For most Westerners, this kind of down time is intimidating, we are used to either being constantly busy or entertained. Most people never take time to just exercise their minds, and instead are always occupied with work, or family, or are in front of a TV or the computer.

I have always enjoyed being by myself and taking time to think, but the solitude of the road combined with the rhythmic action of riding the bike provides a truly wonderful environment for contemplation. When I am cycling on a road that does not require a great deal of concentration, my mind is able to go on incredible inward journeys. If there is ever a point in your life when you feel lost or out of touch with yourself, I highly recommend jumping on a bike and hitting the road, because after 5 months of this I feel like I know myself better than at any other point in my life. I have had the chance to explore myself, my goals and dreams in life and what it is that really matters to me, free of any outside influence. I have looked at myself honestly and have addressed those qualities about myself I do not like and have either made plans to change them, or just accepted those things that I can not change and forgiven myself for them.

I feel so much better about myself and so much more at ease with who I am, that I really can't quantify it easily with words. This alone has made this trip worth all of the sacrifice involved with getting here. I feel that even if something catastrophic were to happen and I had to go home now, that this trip has already changed my life.

I honestly feel that I now see my future and my goals with crystal clarity. I know what I want form life, and I have given myself permission to fully pursue my dreams without any thoughts as to if I may fail or succeed, or what others may think or say about it. Before this trip I was an extremely goal oriented person, but now I feel even more resolved to live my life on my terms, and to try to push to be the best man I can be. This trip, and the time and tests it has provided for me have truly galvanized me.

Cycling down a good road out in the open air on a beautiful day with the sun shining down on you, is just a wonderful place to be. You feel free of the shackles of modern life and are able to really see yourself, cutting through the pretense and the lies that most people live with.
I hope that answers the question adequately and without being too esoteric, but it is what occupies my mind most of the time while out on the road. Well, there are always the banal fantasies too, like me leading the Chargers to a superbowl victory with a last second perfect spiral to LT with the crowd going wild and the Charger girls carrying me off the field to the cheers and adulation of my friends and family! But those aren't really so life changing =)
Well, I am off to the beach for some snorkeling, much love to everyone back home.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Playa del Coco, Costa Rica

Day: 153

Mileage: 84

Total Mileage: 7,364

I went from this in Nicaragua....

To this in Costa Rica in just a few miles, the change was dramatic.

I ended up not leaving Isla Ometepe on Wednesday, as apparently, the muscles used in Volcano climbing have nothing to do with the muscles used in cycling. I was so soar the next morning that I could barely walk. I felt like the tin man before Dorothy came and gave him some oil.

So, I decided to stay another day to try and let my legs recover. I spent a nice lazy day in a hammock, napping and reading and eating. Not bad really, but unfortunately it did nothing for my soreness. I should have ridden the bike a little or gone for a short jog to break up the lactic acid in my legs, but the hammock felt so nice and it was such a warm day that I didn't bother.
I took off on Thursday though and wow, that was painful. I was gritting my teeth the entire ride and any time I stopped pedaling to take a drink or what have you, my legs would buckle and it was all I could do to keep from falling down.

The border crossing was slow, but painless. I changed my money out to Costa Rican colones, and the conversion is a pain in the rear, one American dollar is worth about 550 of theirs, so you are constantly dividing huge numbers in your head to figure out what things cost. Its always a bit of a shock when you get a meal and the tab says $4,000! Speaking of which, Costa Rica is incredibly expensive, more so than the states. I was really shocked. Food here costs far more than in America, and homes in nice areas are the same as in California, its crazy. A home near the water goes for $500,000 US, and not a big home either. Condos go for $150,000 to $300,000. The prices are due to all of the expatriates moving to the Costa Rican beaches to retire, although I fail to see the logic in it. If you are moving to a place where the cost of living is higher, why not stay in your home country where you can at least be close to your family, but then, that may be the reason some people leave. I wonder how the locals feel about it, as this has all occured in the last generation. They can not afford the homes anymore, it must be aggrivating. Those I have asked seem OK with it, but Costa Ricans are notroiously nonconfrontational, so I may not be getting the truth of it.

Costa Rica is also very Americanized, which is good and bad in my opinion. It is a bit surreal to see all of the American stores, but it is also a bit nice as it reminds me of home, and I wont be around anything like this again for a very long time. It just makes me chuckle to see surf shops everywhere, just like where I used to live.

Thursday I wanted to make it all the way to Playa del Coco, but I got caught in a huge storm and had to take shelter at a church. They were kind enough to let me stay the night in the back yard. I got to sleep under an awning which was nice, so I wasn't soaking wet all night like usual.
I arrived in Playa del Coco yesterday, and have been relaxing and trying to let my poor legs recoup a bit. I am still stiff as a board and no amount of stretching seems to remedy it. I will stay here till Monday, then head further south.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Day. 149

Miles. 60

Total Miles. 7,280

The cemetary in Granada, I don´t know if the red on the statue´s heart was intended or not, but it made for a striking figure.

Some kids were jumping off of the dock as I waited for the boat to the island. I was just about to join them, as I am and always will be enamered by jumping off of tall objects into water, when the boat pulled up which was a bummer. But, I did get this great action shot which I was really pleased with of one of the guys.

Here is the beast I meant to climb, Volcan Concepcion, as seen from the mainland.

This is Goswin and Johnny, two kids that lived on the island. They rode their bikes to work at the docks every day, 26 kilometers away! They had one bike between them and so I let Johnny ride on my trailer for a while.

I am in a tiny little town called Altagracia on the island Olmetepe. The island is formed by two large volcanoes rising out of Nicaragua´s freshwater lake. What a wonderful place this little island is, I have to say. It is just amazingly beautiful for one thing, and lush beyond description which is really saying something for Central America. Everywhere you look it is covered with flowers, fruit bearing trees, sugar cane and of course, green green everywhere.
It is the people though, that make this place so nice. Where I found a lot of the people in Nicaragua to be a little aloof (a lot of people would not wave back or smile at me when I would do so to them on the mainland) the islanders have been uniformly nice and friendly in my experience. It is a really slow paced place, as islands often are, and it feels like a Norman Rockwell painting, if he would have been born a Latino that is.
I arrived on Sunday and everyone was taking it easy, sitting and chatting to one another on their doorsteps. Outside of the towns, the fields were full of the towns´ baseball teams playing games (Nicaraguans LOVE baseball, it is the national sport) while all of their families cheered them on. Its the kind of place where kids walk to school together (well, the little girls skipped more than walked) without parent supervision, everyone waves at each other and stops to visit. It feels like a really safe place, and a happy place too. There are nearly no cars either, which is good considering the roads on parts of the island are unbelievably bad.
I can see how people come here and do not want to leave, it is just such a beautiful, peaceful place.
I just came back from climbing the larger of the two volcanoes on the island, Volcan Concepcion. I originally wanted to climb the smaller volcano as it has ancient stone pytroglyphs on it and the crater at the top has become a large lake. However, upon arriving and laying eyes on the two volcanoes, the larger of the two just really appealed to me more. It is also an active volcano and just a few days ago burped up a huge smoke ring into the air.
So, being the bigger and more challenging climb, plus being an active volcano, it won me over and I decided to climb it instead.I asked around and the locals told me it was a tough, 10 to 12 hour climb, and that if you were really fast you could get it done in 8 hours. So, thinking that this would be quite the challenge, I brought three liters of water, and a bunch of food to keep my strength up. The only problem is that I do not have a back pack, so I just tossed everything into a cloth sack, threw it over my shoulder and charged it. I must have looked pretty funny carrying a big sack on my back like Santa Claus, but that was all I had to work with so I just went with it. Let me tell you, the inventor of the back pack must have had to carry around his things in a big sack all the time, because it really sucks. Trying to carry it up the side of a volcano on loose, slippery rocks is even worse. I had to carry the stupid thing in my teeth several times and towards the top, where it got so steep I had to go on all fours, I just tossed it under a rock and went on without it (but I got it on the way back down, of course).
It turns out I could have gone without it as I completed the entire climb in 6 hours, which included a lunch break. I didn´t even push it that hard, just kept a steady pace up and down. I was a little disappointed that the climb wasn´t more challenging as I had been really looking forward to it, but all the same it was pretty cool.
It was super windy and cloudy at the top which stunk as I couldn´t see much from the peak, and more annoying, I couldn´t see down into the volcano´s mouth. I was really curious to see what I could see. In a sense though I was lucky it was cloudy and misty as it kept me cool (and dripping wet) and it kept the toxic fumes coming out of the volcano away form me. The wind did stop for one brief second and in that moment I got a huge whiff of sulfur, which dang near knocked me on my rear, it was so overpowering.
I made it back down in good time as I had set off at sunrise and since have been eating loads and relaxing. I found ¨The Hobbit¨ in the book exchange here which was like striking gold as the best English language book I could find at the previous Hostel was a Romance Novel. ¨The Hobbit¨ is one of my all time favorite stories and reading it again before climbing a volcano seemed somehow very fitting.
Tomorrow I head back for the mainland and will make my way into Costa Rica for some quality beach time. I plan on lingering there for a week to just soak up some sun, get in the water and body surf a little before making my way to Panama. It is strange, but I am actually looking forward to the touristy parts of Costa Rica as it will feel a little like home.
Well, one more goal accomplished, on to the next!
The sort of busy streets of the small town of Altagracia.

The path leading to the volcano, nice and flat and broad!

I even had some friendly monkeys to keep my company!

Starting to get a bit wilder...

Now starting to get really wild.

The view from half way up before the wind and clouds came in.

Half way up, not looking to shabby, although I was sweating like a beast.

Looking back down the path, it is getting very very steep, and I am starting to climb above the jungle.

Well up above the jungle now, climbing up loose rocks among these low, tough shrubs, on all fours at times.

View from the top, the last few hundred meters were straight up over very loose rocks with the wind howling past me.

Looking down into the mouth of the volcano, I wish I could have seen more but it was scary looking down into that abyss!

It was so windy at the top, I seriously felt like I would get blown off the top of the Volcano if I was not careful. I think I look particurlarly handsome in this picture!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Granada, Nicaragua

Day: 146

Miles: 149

Total Mileage: 7,220

The beautiful countryside, I really like the views here.

You see a lot of volcanoes around here, and they never cease to impress. They just soar out of the countryside straight up into the sky, and when they smoke like this, it really gives you a sense of how small you are.

Church in Leon.

A typical street vendor, these provide all kinds of cheap goodies, from fruit to tacos to hot dogs. A nice way to get good food at a good price.

This is a common sight in Latin America, in El Salvador, he would have had a flak jacket and a buddy with a Machine Gun.

Not all of the churches here are so well maintained.

The fine highways of Nicaragua. They actually got much worse than this, and this is a major highway in the country.

I am currently in a really relaxing city called Granada, in Nicaragua. This has been a mixed bag of a country and after the chaos of getting in, it nice to have been able to just kick back and catch my breathe for a few days.

Crossing the border was a nightmare. It began as I approached, riding closer to Nicaragua, the people just changed. International borders are nearly always shady, uncomfortable kinds of places but this one was the worst I have encountered.

As I got closer people started yelling things at me, the usual being Gringo, hey Gringo! Now, you get that a lot in Latin American countries, especially in Mexico, but when someone says it to you there, it is nearly always in a joking manner where you both get a laugh, not meant to be an insult.

Here, they use it to be a slur, and it really started to eat at me. Normally I laugh that kind of thing off, and just forget it, but when every other slack jawed moron in an entire village comes running out of his hovel to yell Gringo Gringo and point at you as you ride by, time after time, it starts to eat at you. And its not the word itself, its the way they say it, spitefully, and the laugher. Not a, hey that was a good joke, but the kind of laughter you hear in that dream when you are in the halls of your high school in you underwear. Even that, I could have dealt with, but it got worse.

So, as I approach the border, I am already pretty aggravated by the racial slurs, and a group of idiots that see me riding up all jump out of there seats and point at me jumping up and down, Gringo gringo!, laughing their rear ends off. I was just about to walk into a restaurant to spend my last few Honduran dollars when all of the people inside looked out at me. I could tell they were just about to start laughing too when I just lost it and I wanted to walk over the smash the morons in the face, but I knew that wouldn't help anything so instead I shouted in Spanish, "Girngo girngo gringo, that's all I hear around here!"

That shut the hecklers up and shamed the locals at the restaurant enough that they then bent over backwards to serve me and try and make small talk with me. I normally do not get so upset by this sort of thing, and I kept telling myself, its a different culture, these people are different with different values. But then I thought to myself, wait, I wouldn't tolerate this kind of behavior from myself, from my family or from any of my friends, why should I excuse these people? If a Nicaraguan or a Honduran came riding his bike down the street in a neighborhood back in California and everyone came running out of their house pointing and shouting racial slurs, I would think they were scum and despicably ignorant fools. So if I hold myself and those around me to this moral standard, why should I hold anyone else to anything less? It just really pissed me off, and it makes me that much more aware of treating everyone around me equally and with respect, unless they prove to not deserve it.

After I ate, I went to the border crossing proper and what an absolute disaster of organization it was. As soon as I pulled up on my bike I was swarmed, literally, by about 20 guys waving money in my face trying to change mine for Cordobas (Nicaraguan money), or guide me to the immigration office or sell me some stupid little trinkets, etc. They were all inches from my face pressing in on me, yelling and touching me, calling me friend and amigo (what happened to Gringo, gringo!). I had to push them away from me, I HATE being in a crowd of people, I seriously hate it. The feeling of being crushed in, it makes me flip out. Some guy tried to guide me to the immigration office despite my insisting I didn't need his help. When I got there, he wanted money for his "help" which I refused, and so he got angry, but tough cookies buddy.

I got my passport stamped and then they told me I needed to pay 7 bucks US to get into Nicaragua. I had just stupidly spent my last couple of bucks on a meal so I didn't have the cash. I asked if I could pay with a credit card or check, no and no. Then I asked if there was an ATM at the border crossing. No, there was a bank there, but it didn't change money, give money, or take money....ok. What the hell were they doing there exactly?

The nearest ATM or bank was 40 miles have got to be kidding me. It was a total joke, it would take two seconds to install an ATM there, and anyone who did would make a mint off of everyone needing to pay the border crossing fee.

But no, that is one of the joys of the third world: terrible infrastructure. So, not wanting to waste the entire day riding 80 miles round trip to get to an ATM, paying the fee to my bank to take out money and then having to change money to Cordobas (losing more money in the exchange) I tried to think laterally. My first instinct was just to sneak over the border as the guards are not exactly the model of vigilance. While I honestly think I could have pulled it off, the risk was not worth it. If I were to be caught, I am sure they would have extorted a ton of money out of me, fined me or thrown my butt in the slammer for a few days, all of which were worse than going back to town. A few years ago though, I would not have even thought twice about it and just charged it. I guess I am getting older and maybe a little wiser (although not wise enough to keep a few bucks in my pocket for the border crossing).

My second plan was to talk to fellow travelers crossing the border and explain my situation, see if I could trade something I had for a few bucks, or maybe just follow them over the border and pay them back on the Nicaraguan side at the first ATM. No one had the money unfortunately and a few of them were in the same boat I was. They all tried to help but the various efforts were unsuccessful.

So, I had to borrow money from one of the money changers with the promise to change money with him before I crossed the border. Then I had to take a bus back to the town, then take a cab from the bus station to the bank, back into a cab, back into a bus, back to the border.

The buses here are insane death traps too, by the way. They call them chicken buses and they are operated by clinically insane crews that must have suicidal impulses. They are called chicken buses because they are usually filled with people (obviously), but also with chickens, goats, pigs, and other types of livestock, which are often tied to the roof. But then, people often sit on the roof too when the bus is full. And full they get, to bursting. People will squeeze into these death traps until they are literally hanging out of the doors as the thing rattles and slams down horrible dirt roads through the mountains at break neck speeds.

These buses are old American school buses (painted in all kinds of fantastic paint schemes) that have about a million miles on them and are sold to central American companies to recoup a little of the cost before buying new buses for American school kids.

They are buses that are not safe enough for westerners anymore, but are given a new life in Central American countries. Oh joy.

Not only are they unsafe, but the crews running them are mad men. There are usually three guys, a driver and two helpers to get people, animals and things on and off of the buses. The driver will blare on his horn to let people know he is coming, then he slows down just enough to let people get off (he doesn't actually stop mind you) and then speed off again. If there are people waiting to get on, he stops and then the helpers jump off, one of them throws the new arrivals things up to the top while the other one climbs up and ties them down and tosses the departing passengers things off, and then, as soon as everyone is on the bus, the driver hits the gas and is gone. The helper on the ground has to run to jump into the bus, the helper on the roof has to not fall off then crawl in through the window or the rear emergency door (which is pretty much always open.

It is so totally, blatantly unsafe that I was just flabbergasted. Apparently these things crash quite often and send entire bus loads of people to their deaths, which surprises me not in the least.

So, two and a half hours later back at the border, I am the last guy in the bus and as it pulls in, up swarm the locusts trying to change money with me. They zero in on the gringos like a fat kid on a cupcake. These sharks get on the bus and push their way back to me waving their money in my face. This time, already pissed off because of the delay, the near death experience of riding the bus, the insults, the heat, and everything else, I just start yelling at them and pushing them. I didn't give a rat's behind at that point if I was being rude or not, I just wanted off of the damn bus and these guys out of my face.

After fighting my way back to the immigration office, I found the money changer who lent me the money for the bus, who then proceeded to try and screw me on the exchange. I argued him back to a slightly gentler reaming (he did help me out after all) and then went to get my bike form the police station.

There, a gaggle of the most pitiful looking little kids came running up to me begging for money. The cops just stared at me with completely blank stares, not caring one way or another if I yelled at them, gave them money or what not. Its like they weren't there.

One kid said he had watched my bike and when I checked to make sure everything was there, I gave him my last coin out of my pocket, which turned out to be a bad idea. I felt like I had just taken a handful of raw meat and put it into a pond full of piranhas. All the kids started tugging on my shirt asking for money, yelling, pleading begging, it was terrible. With kids, its different, they are victims and so its not anger I feel but pity. I wanted to help out but I didn't have anything. So, I took out a half used stick of chap stick and went to offer it to one of the little girls and before I could even say, "do you want this" she snatched it form my hand and was spreading a huge smear of it onto her lips.
The other girls looked so disappointed that I felt worse than before. So, I told the girl with the chap stick to share and then took off. I just didn't know what else to do, the poverty here is shocking in some places.

After that debacle, I rode hard for a city as night was coming, at least I tried to ride hard. The roads in Nicaragua are atrocious, just terrible. Road isn't even a word I feel should apply, there needs to a new word made up to describe these things.

After busting my butt I managed to pull into Chinandega, a smallish town near Leon. I managed to find my way through the city in the dark (nearly no streetlights) and got a cheap room for the night.

The next day I hit it early and rode the 20 miles to Leon, one of the Nicaragua's two oldest cities, the other being Granada, both founded in the first years of the 16th century. All I can say is wow, what a change from the country. Usually the cities are not enjoyable compared to the villages, but here it was the opposite. It was a bit dirty and there were as many horse drawn carts as cars, but the city had an air of class that the dirt couldn't disguise. The people were friendly and helpful. It was so nice after the headache of getting there. I stayed at an awesome Hostel, called Lazybones and just sort out a long sigh of relief.

I only stayed for a day however, and the next morning took off for Granada. I had two flats that really slowed me down which was bad as it was a fairly long distance to cover and I wanted to do it in just one day. About 30ish miles out of Granada passing through the outskirts of the capitol, Managua, a cyclist on a nice road bike (the first I have seen in Nicaragua) pulled up next to me and we started chatting. His name was Cesar and he was a super guy.

He was commuting home from work and we rode together the rest of the way. He was a good cyclist and told me he normally rides at about 25 to 30 mph which is really moving. He competes in the bike races here and we had a good time talking bikes. He set a tough pace too, 20 mph which is hard to keep up normally, but on a loaded touring bike at the end of a long ride in hills, its really tough. It felt good though riding hard, I enjoy tough physical challenges very much, and thanks to Cesar I made good time and got into Granada just before full dark.

Granada is a great town, it and Leon are both colonial cities, Leon being traditionally liberal, Granada conservative. The city is full of old stone buildings and churches and sits right on a giant freshwater lake which holds the only fresh water sharks in the world.

I have not been doing much here but eating and sleeping though, just because I needed to rest. I had a bit of a shock yesterday when I weighed myself. I clocked in at a hefty 178!! Ouch, I was 205 before I left! That is nearly 30 lbs gone, even with me eating huge amounts. I should start a weight loss system when I get back. You can eat anything you want and you still lose weight, all you have to do is ride a bike 6 to 10 hours a day!

At any rate, I am going to leave tomorrow and head out to an island in the lake here that is formed by two massive volcanoes. I plan on climbing one of them and camping out at the top, where there is a lake in the caldera, which will be really cool. After that, I will head towards Costa Rica.

All my love, until next time!