Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Paunch Lights Up, My Phone Shuts Off

Another swell landed in Bocas on Friday night. Saturday, dudes were pulling into barrels and coming out with a broken board. Within the first hour 2 guys had turned from surfer to spectator, their boards eaten by Paunch. I had some of my most most hair raising drops and rides since starting surfing 15 years ago. Those rides were equally matched by wipeouts that would have made the “best of” reel. Intense is the best word to describe the day. I simultaneaously wanted to go back to bed and curl up in the fetal position as I craved to ride another locamotive. The speed was intense. Paunch is a left, which for this regular foot, meant more concentration to surf these steam rollers. No cutbacks, just raw speed. My pulse is racing just writing about it 4 days later. Through trial by fire I’ve had to relearn and advance my skills as a surfer. I almost feel as if I belong at that break. Since my last post I’ve gone out everyday, except Sunday, and I’m exhausted physically and mentally.

A bit bigger than this at Paunch

Piling on to my intense Saturday morning surf session, I decided to see if my phone was really water proof. Before we embarked on our gap year/Fuck Trump Tour, I purchased a phone case from a company so confident in their product that they warranty your phone in case of water damage. Good thing, because my phone is now an expensive paper weight. Since then, it is not lost on me how much we depended on that phone for our travels: maps, travel guides, email, photos, Airbnb, booking tours…Luckily it seems case company will make good on my claim and ship a new phone here. I won’t place money on whether the phone arrives intact before we leave for our next destination, but I’m hopeful.
For some less shitty news, I finally got my bike today! You see our Panamanian bike dealer, I’ll call him Mañana, was supposed to get me the bike tomorrow 8 days ago. Everyday since I would show up, he would tell me how busy he’s been, and to come back tomorrow. It started to feel like a routine for me. It’s as if I was the lead character in Groundhog Day. Queue the hopeless trip to the warehouse, queue shaddy Panamanian crew, queue the inevitable rejection. I still had my hooptie loaner, but surely at any time the bike was going to disintegrate beneath my legs. Not today mis amigos. You see yesterday I showed up and acted indignant at his constant deferral. At that point our new friend was now Mañana and asked him name my new bike. He christened it ‘El Negro’. Even though it’s half orange, he could have called it Lady Gaga’s Pink Parade for all I care. Today, I did a victory lap around town. I was sure everyone was eyeing my new ride, green with jealousy. In reality, I’ve never been so excited to get a shitty, but less shitty, bike.

My new ride!
Mañana (¡con dinero!)

Speaking of routines, that’s one of the fun parts of travel. There are the ‘events’ like grande surf or breaking your phone, but the character of this journey is the temporary life you build. For instance, every morning I wake at the crack of dawn, ride my shitty hooptie up the coast in the dark for 25 minutes. By the time I depart this tropical island I’ll have that path memorized. Every pothole and bend, every locale going to work or school, and who the consistent surfers are. As it turns out, mi espousa is a mid-day drinker. After our class in the morning, she’ll come back to our bungalo and crack a beer. Every day our warm and charasmatic host, Etelyn, will cook us breakfast and dinner. Ethlyn is a character. She’s raised 5 children in this house and has a number of grandchildren. 2 of her kids live in the states. She’s not afraid to give it to you straight and has a wonderful sense of humor. Yesterday she died her hair red, but left the dye in too long. Her hair was bright red and she was calling all her friends and clamoring about her hair, poking fun at herself. I’ll remember that as much as any wave.

Ethlyn (wouldn't let us take a pic of her red hair)

Finally, we are in the thick of architecting our tour of Central and South America. We are looking for recommendations for our travels, and so far Adam Haid gets the best recommendation award. So for those of you who tag somebody on Facebook and don’t give anything definitive, your half-assed efforts are better than those who gave nothing, but you need to step up your game! If you’re not on Facebook, we’re likely headed to the following:
  • Patagonia: First 3 weeks of March (We just squeezed this in and have no idea about logistics, where to go…)
  • Galapagos: 3 weeks through mid April
  • Peru: mid April through late May (looking to go to Machu Picchu, the Amazon, and surf between Chiclayo and Trujillo)
  • Columbia: late May - mid June (Medellin and Cartagena)
  • Lisbon: mid June - ?
¡Hasta Luego!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Settling in to Bocas

Learning Spanish by only hearing Spanish is like trying to become smart by holding a book. Everyone keeps telling me that your brain just magically absorbs nonsense thats consitently uttered directly to your face. Like someday suddenly I’ll write beautiful Spanish prose, play the flamenco guitar, and strike a strong resemblance to Javier Bardem. Imagine your in a room full of people and the speaker asks “whats the square root of 1,5678,490?” and everybody looks at you wondering why the fuck you don’t know the answer. It’s like that every morning for 4 hours. Needless to say, I haven’t had an epiphany yet, but I’ll let you know when lightning strikes.

To further our indoctrination into the Panamanian Caribbean life, we are staying with a sweet grandma. She cooks us 2 meals a day and keeps us inline. While eating our tasty pescado last night, she would yell at us to ‘habla espanol’. A phrase has been utered to me in class more than once. As with all things travel, you have to disavow yourself of creature comforts. On the scale of Ritz Carlton to Guantanamo, our casa resembles more modest means. I learned when you touch the top of the shower head (which only dispenses cold water), you get a mild electric shock. See picture below. Yes, thats a giant wire running into a shower head where I’m standing a pool of water.

Electrotherapy Showerhead

Truth be told, I’m loving the nomadic life so far. Yesterday I bartered with the shadiest looking Panamanian in some backwater warehouse for a cheap bike. He pointed to a twisted pack of metal on his shopfloor/scrap yard/place to score drugs and told me that pile of junk would be a bike by tomorrow. I managed to explain that I’d be surfing in the early dawn before class and that I needed a loaner before then, which he abliged for a small down payment. If this loaner was a boat it’d be at the bottom of the ocean. Check it out. On the bright side it has brakes, wheels, and moves in 1 direction. It certainly buys a bit of freedom where the nearest surf break is too far to walk on this island.

Hooptie ride

This morning, I awoke in the dark, snarfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich, grabbed my board and headlamp and made the maiden voyage on this hooptie of a bike. Our class starts at 8 am, so I have to be in the water by 6:30, which is the crack of dawn here, and out by 7:30. With a 20 minute ride each way, I need to ride the first bit in the dark with a headlight to warn me of potholes. I arrived at Paunch this morning and was in the water with just 4 other guys. This break was a cut above what I was hoping to get my surf legs under me. It’s a reef break suited for intermidiate to the advanced surfer. The first section is a pitchy barrel that turns into a solid wall. And today was big. Not like Hawaii big, but big for this Coloradan that counts my number of times surfed per year, not per week like I used to. Some of the sets were 8 - 9 feet that pitched in sweet little barrels. On the bigger sets it seems to suck up a bit. Needless to say, its a big boy drop. After a couple of false entries on my short board I’m still adusting to, I caught a wicked drop and a nice little left. Just enough to dust off the surfing cobwebs and I had to get back. I knew I was running late and but surely I could trust my steed to carry me to the gates of Vahalla and back. Alas, 3 minutes from home, my chain came off which caused a loss of balance with a board in one hand. As I went careening for the dirty street I kept thinking that road rash on this street carries the risk of some undiscovered form of bacteria that would have doctors scratching their heads as to why my leg is a special shade of purple. I ditched my poor board on the asphalt and did my best to stay upright. I managed to scrape up my leg a bit from the peddals locking up. I’m sure some locals got a good laugh, but the good news is my board is OK.

Paunch, same size as today
Paunch, day before

My bike snafu set back my tight schedule.  After some minor first aid and the time lost recombobulating after the crash, I was late to my class.  I felt like Spicoli coming in tardy to Mr Hand's class.  My nostalgia was quickly abated by the instructor speaking what might as well be Swahili.

Now that we are settled in, our days should be mostly rinse and repeat. Hasta luego.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Start of our Extended Travels - Bastimentos, Panama

Bastimentos Bay

Our upcoming focus for the next month is learning Spanish through an immersion program, including 4 hours of class a day, in the Panama Caribbean. We came a few days ahead of time to unwind from upheaval and stress of selling our house in Boulder and packing our life in a to go container. For the first 5 days we are staying in Isla Bastimentos within Bocas Del Toro. Bocas is an archipelago of islands that have a low key island life with a mix of Panamanian and Jamaican influence. A number of immigrants from Jamaica came here to build the Canal railroad and work on banana plantations. Most people on the island speak a hybrid of English and Spanish, called Jamaican Creole.

We booked our short stay here with Airbnb. Our host, Pamela, was helpful at pointing us towards places to go, as this island isn’t very developed. No Yelp reviews here, but there are a few good eats on the island. Chavela is known for their burgers and Mami’s had some tasty local fare. 15 minutes walk to the middle of the island is a unique spot called Up in the Hill. An expat from Scotland has set up a quaint operation growing here own coffee and cocoa. You can get some tasty eats and ice coffee

Casa Pamela (Airbnb)

Bocas has a number of prime surf destinations. The 2nd day we were here I hired a water taxi to take me around to a few of the breaks to get a sense of the crowds and type of break. More crowded than I expected at both Careneros and Paunch. Not alot of American surfers here, it seems Panama is a big international surf destination. Yesterday I walked over to Wizard Beach on the other side of the island. First time I had a break all to myself, albeit a walled up beach break. Ive met a couple of locals and hope to get some better surfint in the coming days.

Casa Pamela (Airbnb)

Today was a bit cloudy, which worked out well for our cave tour. A few years back locals decided to make an rarely explored cave a tourist destination. It still has that feel of uniqueness and an element of discovery. When we first entered there were 100’s of bats on the ceiling and flying around. When walking in the dark, they fly right next to your face! Its a long cave at 2 km, and we turned around after an hour. It was recently discovered that there were ancient shark teeth in the cave. A French archeologist dated the teeth at 12 million years old and we actually found a few! We had quite an adventure with bats, stalagmites, spiders, crabs, caiman, snakes and cave jumping. We met another couple from Colorado who were also big travelers. Together we commiserated over the stranger than fiction political landscape.

Bats
Ancient Shark Teeth

Tomorrow we head back to Bocas town where we’ll be learning Spanish for the next month.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ha Long Bay

We take off for Ha Long Bay early Sunday morning. We decided to book the tour with the Kangaroo Cafe. The tour is more expensive than others, but the company is run by an Australian and boasts that they have the best tour of Ha Long bay. We take a bus to Ha Long City and have lunch. The lunch is one of those meals were you really wonder if this is it- the meal that will send you to the toilet for hours on end. Luckily no one got sick, and after a few beers we forget about lunch. Trent and I also met and enjoyed the company of 3 girls from San Fransisco who just finished taking the bar. We cruise around the bay to a large cave and take a smaller boat to the tourist trap of a cave. The cave is pretty cool, but like everything else, it would be enjoyed more if there weren't masses of people doing the same thing! We get back to the boat and Trent goes for a swim. After watching the sun set on the sundeck, we have an amazing meal.

We get up the next day and the boat takes off for Cat Ba island. Once we get to the island, we venture out to a more remote part of the island and get on another boat to see a cave. In order for the cave to have light our tour guide has to crank a lever to start up the generator- clearly this cave is not as touristy as the cave we visited the previous day. Besides the bats, our group we were the only visitors in the cave. We had another spectacular lunch at the Green Mango on Cat Ba island. Later that afternoon we went to monkey island. Unfortunately, people have been feeding these monkeys so they were quite hungry...so hungry they decided to take matters into their own hands and attack a woman to go through her bag. It was a pretty scary sight, especially since I had a friend at work recently get bit by a monkey- rabies shots don't sound that fun when you are on vacation. Trent helps the couple fend off the rabid monkeys, much to my dismay. After the ambush, we head back to our beautiful hotel room on Cat Ba island.

The boat ride back was really scenic. While drinking beers on the sundeck, we see some amazing limestone outcrops protruding out of the water. We also cruise past a floating village, which is a village built entirely on top of the water. The village is a loosely strung assortment of haphazard decks, cargo nets to farm fish, a zillion dogs, and many boats. It was pretty interesting to see how the people live in such close quarters.

The next morning we are spotted by our guide and he tells us that it is not safe to take the boat back to Ha Long City because of the strong winds from the typhoon. Just a week before a boat sank in Ha Long Bay killing 4 or 5 people (reliable news here is hard to come by since the government restricts news via websites, etc.), so I think our guide was a little weary of the conditions. Instead of a relaxing and beautiful cruise through the limestone outcrops we take a speed boat. This boat was the last means of transportation back to shore as the winds and waves were getting so strong they shut down all transport from the island. As you can imagine, there was a number of people on the boat and the ride back was quite brutal on the portion of the boat that was open to the thrashing waves. Trent positioned himself on the open part of the boat close to the railing "so he could easily jump off if the boat went down," while I tried to huddle inside the covered part of the boat as Vietnamese people pushed me and at one point batted at Trent's bag as it was being passed to me to keep dry.

Travel near the coast of Vietnam seems to be halted while it is being beat up by the typhoon. Luckily we are back in Hanoi at the moment and do not seem to be seeing the impacts of the storm. In all, the tour itself was ok. The boat we were given didn't match that in the pictures. The rooms were nice, but the deck and dinning area were a little lacking. We also weren't aware of how many other tours would be present with us during our first evening's activities. "Secluded" cove means sharing it with 30 other junk boats. One of the highlights was the service by our guide, Thoung, who made every effort to please the crew.

Hanoi

After a horrendous overnight bus ride, we get into Hanoi. Unlike the last overnight bus, this was packed with noisy locals and an awful smell that came from the frequently used toilet. It was on this particular trip I learn that Vietnamese have no sense of an orderly line. Since I decided to protest the bus's bathroom, I waited patiently for our evening stop. As a few of us started a line, these jokers just but in and stand right in front of you. Suddenly, I'd found my biggest petpeve of Vietnam. Not the sidewalks used for parking/driving, or shoddy (resourceful?) craftsmanship of what's considered a "fix" for any number of problems that tend to rise over time, or even the pushy peddlers. There's something wholly nonsensical about the disregard of a first come/first serve queue. End rant.

We arrive early at our hotel, and plan the next four days of traveling. Hanoi is similar to Saigon, but Trent and I seem to prefer Hanoi as it doesn't have the craziness that embodies Saigon. The foods seems to be better here and the Old Quarter, where we are staying, is built around a lovely lake. However, the people don't seem as friendly and there are more people waiting around to rip tourists off. We have been driven in circles may times and truly dread if we have to take a cab to get somewhere!

Our first night in Hanoi, we find the most amazing Indian place called Tandoor. Trent claims his Chicken Jalfraizi is the best Indian food he's had. We met the owner and Trent was so excited about the place he took a picture with him!

The next day, we went on a one-day tour to Tom Coc. We first stop at Ninh Binh, 100km down the South of Hanoi to see Hoa Lu citadel, the first capital of Vietnam in the 10th century and visit 2 temples of the Dinh Kinh and the Le Kinh dynasty. From the temples, we bike about 5km through the beautiful country-side to a restaurant for lunch.

In the afternoon we take a private row boat trip through the flooded landscape and pass through three long and dark tunneled caves, ducking to clear them. The boat ride would have been much more spectacular if there wasn't so many tourists doing the same thing.

As we have previously mentioned, the diving/traffic is quite crazy here- I mean seriously crazy- like fear for your life crazy! Anyway, on our drive to Tom Coc, we saw the front of a tourist bus completely smashed. Funny enough, on the way back to Hanoi that day, we saw the same bus being driven by 3 guys- one guy driving and two guys sticking their heads out of the windows acting like side mirrors...pretty funny sight! Tomorrow we head off to Halong Bay for a 3-day boat trip.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hoi An

After a down day in Na Trang, we take the bus to Hoi An. This route is an overnight bus, filled mostly with tourists and this time we get a more modern bus. One sleeping pill and 12 hours later we arrive at 7 in the morning. Hoi An is a quaint little town on the river not far from the coast. It's known for hundreds of tailor shops and good cuisine. A good bit of rain settled in our first day here and our time was spent lazily shopping and eating.

First thing we do is rent a couple of old beater bikes and ride 4 km to the beach. At the beach, vendors compete with each other and lobby hard for your money. We sit at a local's little beach station, which looks more like a kindergarten patio set. We buy a coconut from him for a little over a dollar and then head back to our hotel, Vinh Huy. This was another place that the bus line was in bed with, and the accommodations are decent. As you would expect, these places are filled with tourists and it's nice to chat with a few others at breakfast.

Carrie gets the bug to start shopping here, which is most unusual for her. Often her trips to mall in the States end in frustrations over money and/or fitting, so I encourage her interest. She gets a tailored formal oriental style satin dress for 30 bucks. Not bad. In our 3 day stay in Hoi An she manages to get 2 shorts, 1 pair of dress pants, a winter coat, and a dress at 3 different shops. I also get a dress shirt for 17 dollars. If you come here, you gotta to get something even if you don't need anything. Most of the shops seem to offer the same prices and the same materials. The clothes aren't made in the shop as we see runners transporting clothes to and from. One thing to note is that the prices at the shops we visited weren't negotiable and these guys seem to have formed some sort of price fixing co-op.

We really enjoyed the food while here. Cafe Des Amis is run by a Vietnamese trained In Europe. He offers a fixed 5 course meal in meat, vegetarian, and fish. Also, The Tropics offer good American and Vietnamese food.

Next stop is Hanoi. We'll catch a couple of buses, one of which is a sleeper that comprises a full day's travel.


-- Posted from my iPhone

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dalat and Cental Highlands

We bought an open bus ticket to travel through Vietnam. A number of tour operators sell these, and we couldn't distinguish among the quality/price from our googling. The open bus seems like a convenient way to travel through the county, as you can get on and off at your leisure, but buses typically only depart once per day. You also have the option to get a "sleeper" ticket for a few bucks more. The sleeper is totally worth having the room to spread out for the longer distances traveled.

To depart for the bus we are told to be at the tour company by 7:30. We are promptly led to the bus line hub, and they help us decipher which bus is ours. In Saigon there are a number of buses leaving for local tours and other destinations. There's a mix of more modern buses and those that look like they've been around since the 70's. We got the latter, and our bus broke down about an hour in. At the stop we start chatting with a nice couple from St. Louis. Its actually nice to meet other Americans here, because you don't see many. One alternator and a new battery later, we're back in action. A couple of hours in, and we're breaking away from the detritus of Saigon civilization and heading into the more scenic countryside. That's when traffic stops while we wait for a fallen tree to be cleared from the road. It was an interesting ride considering the crazy way people drive and everything that happened along the way. It definitely should be experienced.

The ride lasts until 6 when we are dropped off at a hotel. Any ride or tour in Vietnam is in bed with restaurants/hotels, and this was no exception. We resist all the attempts to get us to stay there, but after looking at the room, it seems a decent buy for $10/night. The next day we book a tour with a local company called Easy Riders. At least that's what the hotel said, but we didn't see any logos or otherwise identifying the tour company. For $18 a piece we were taken on a tour through the countryside surrounding Dalat. Totally worth it. Our tour guide was very helpful at describing the local economic condition for the surrounding farming communities. At times almost emphatically promoting the local economy, but interesting nonetheless. We stop and see coffee fields, flower greenhouses, a silk factory, local waterfall, rice winery, and rice noodle makers. We also bought some fresh rice noodles to have as part of our lunch. It seems we finally start eating well now that we have local guides. Every stop was interesting and worth mentioning. The trip was so good, we decided to book a 2 day motorbike tour through the central highlands with the same outfit.

That evening we use a Lonely Planet recommendation for dinner, Trong Dong, and we were very pleased with our meal. Carrie got the Clay Pot Fish, which was excellent, and I had the shrimp in coconut milk which was tasty. All in all one of the better days of the trip.

The next morning we head out to Lak Lake on bike. The first couple of hours are scattered with little farming towns and we make a couple of stops to get off the bike for a bit. After lunch, we head into the mountains and some really spectacular scenery. Another good meal of fish, pork, chicken, more pork, vegetables, soup, and rice. We get into a pretty rural town after a long day of riding. Its raining so we relax a bit before dinner. The place we are sleeping at is what they call a long house. Its like a chicken coupe raised off the ground about 5 feet. Our accommodations are simple beds on the floor with a basic mosquito net.

I wake up at 5 am the next day courtesy of the roosters, barking dogs, tractors, and grunting pigs. I decide to go for a run in the morning around the lake, while everyone else tries to sleep in. That morning I talked Carrie into riding around the lake on an elephant. Just like riding a horse, right? Not really. We get there and this guy has a huge 4 foot stick with 2 spikes on the end. We get on an the "driver" pokes and prods the elephant, one time thwapping it really hard on the head causing Carrie to scream at the guy. He doesn't speak English, but I think he got the point. A pretty disturbing experience, and Carrie and I are both upset about the ordeal. Lesson learned.

After that ordeal, we are anxious to get back on the road. The countryside here is amazing and I'm able to capture quite a few pics of Vietnam life from the bike. Another long day on the bike and we roll into Nah Trang, which is a bit more affluent city by the coast. We eagerly go shower after getting quite dirty on the bikes. One of the tour guides knocks on our door and we get the a sob-faced plea for a tip. Tipping here is not expected, and most locals will agree. These guys laid on the guilt trip thick, and we paid them some pity money. Despite that experience, we enjoyed the journey.