The Last of Central

Hey, it’s Heather here.  I decided Matty was being a bit too lax with the blogging and am taking over this one with a vengeance.   We’ve spent the last few months being in complete awe of South America, unable to even contemplate putting together thoughts on our last month in Central America.  Hopefully the suspense is enough to keep this historical account interesting... That perhaps, and a different perspective from way down here in hindsight…?   Riding into Costa Rica was like entering a completely different world.  Upon crossing the border from Nicaragua, the landscape changed drastically and we were suddenly shaded by big trees lining the highway.  The dry tropical forest had been allowed to grow back after hundreds of years of decimation for various civilized necessities.  We rode through beautiful green valleys dripping with life, were tempted to stop and camp under a waterfall but were desperate to reach the ocean and rinse the hot monsoon sweat from under our riding gear.   IMG_1353   We’d heard various things about Costa Rica, mainly that it was not worth staying too long because it’s overrun with tourists and you will run out of money.  I figured it must have changed since I had last been five years earlier, passing through Central America and also staying for a month on the Nicoya Peninsula, learning to surf.   What we actually found was a green paradise, friendly, open people, and the same prices we’d been experiencing throughout the rest of Central America, if not surprisingly lower.  On the way to becoming one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of environmental policy, they have devised a system of valuation of ecological systems, where farmers and other land-use practitioners are actually rewarded for planting trees and implementing responsible ecosystem management practices.  On top of this, you could see the economic strength in society’s daily life, stemming from the pro-eco policies that this small, progressive country has chosen to implement.   In other news, its people have been repeatedly found to be among the happiest on earth.   We arrived in Playa Dominical in the early evening after a long, hot day spent negotiating steep dirt roads full of loose rocks, turning around at impasses, and getting hit by cars at 80kph.   GOPR0331.MP4.Still001   Matty was flying down a mountain pass when, being overtaken by a pick-up truck going about 100mkh, said truck had to swerve to avoid hitting another oncoming motorcycle, the latter almost driven off the road.  The truck bumped the left Givi pannier, and Matty fishtailed down the hill, somehow keeping rubber to the pavement.  Maybe it was those tough Givi panniers that helped absorb the shock…   Some other adventure riders saw the entire thing, and used some choice Spanish words at the driver, who initially denied the incident and would have driven off if not blocked by the mini biker gang.  Somehow we made it to the mellow beach town of Playa Dominical.   DSC09524   I had a blast surfing there.  After Central America’s massive south swell season - and sometimes just filming Matty scoring big, perfect points with only a few others out in the mayhem - arriving at a peaky beach break while most people were lamenting the lack of swell was the little confidence booster I was hoping for!   DSC09245   That, and deciding whether to fix my gaze on the masses of wet jungle towering behind the one-road town, or the amazing sunsets and lightning happening out to sea.   DSC09526   Our main goal in Costa Rica was to get various spare parts for the bikes, new tires for Matty, and fixing my new-found bike issues.  This took us to the capital of San Jose, me sputtering and attempting to keep my bike from stalling at low revs by keeping the throttle open at all times.  Tricky in city traffic, but we made it.  We stayed in San Jose for far too long, but it’s a nice city with a lovely climate, and beautiful surrounding hills.   IMG_1317 IMG_1308IMG_1226   We’ve mostly found city traffic on the bikes to be annoying, but not overly terrible.  Being able to weave between the jammed mess of honking steel boxes, freely contributing our own horns to mix, is highly stressful but even more satisfying.  We’ve only lost each other seriously once, in Bogota, where Matty got a bit ahead of me and pulled over to wait.  I missed him and kept going. I kept thinking I’d see him around that next truck, until I stopped and contacted him a few hours later.  At 10pm.  Whoopsie!   San Jose was not so bad, except for the grime.  I don’t think I’ll miss the smell of diesel fumes being puffed into my helmet when the trip’s over...  I look like this at the end of every day…   IMG_1203   ….while Matty flips his hair with nary a smudge.   IMG_6188   Between two separate trips to the city (they didn’t fix my bike the first time, so did it for free the second and wished us buen viaje), we rode to a famous national park, where we walked from dawn to dusk in awe of the crazy critters flirting about the canopy and flitting beneath our toes.  We even snuck up on a guided tour and listened to the guide talking about a barely visible, camouflaged bird sitting close, but visually so immersed it was barely detectable even after we found it.   Nyctibius_griseus_471885191_27f931630d_o_Crop   Stick bird, Potoo bird, Nyctibius griseus.  This is a Potoo after realizing that the humans can see him…   potoo-5   …and this is him when… well when… well, something’s definitely happening.   We watched a mama and baby sloth for over an hour, 2 metres away, eating leaves.  Witnessed baby’s first big journey, a perilous 45 minute mission a couple metres across the branch away from his mother, to see what he could see.  I was captivated.   DSC09272   Saw more spider monkeys than we could count; it was definitely baby season.  I don’t know if there’s anything better than a baby monkey.  Or a baby sloth.   IMG_5685 DSC09293 DSC09350   Then we saw more animals, under a bridge on the way to the beach.   DSC09593   We didn’t go surfing.   DSC09606   By this time we were in full-blown rainy season; those fat raindrops punctuated by deafening thunder every night were ushering us south.  Keep moving, things are getting moldy.   DSC09616   Half the days we rode soaked to the bone.  When a good swell loomed on the horizon, we split for Panama.   DSC09637   We got to Panama’s most famous wave right as the swell hit.  Strangely, few people surf it at low tide when it gets shallow and exposes some sharp rocks further down the line, but Mr. Indonesia managed to find the best barrels at this time, all alone but for his stoke and surprise.  I got some fun ones too, lost myself in a long one and ended up in the rocks, escaping untouched.   DSC09782 DSC09687   We also met a nice guy with a boat, who agreed to take us spearfishing into the deep blue.  I thought this might be the stuff of my nightmares, the time when spearfishing finally finds the hole in my bravado and tickles my childhood fears of sharks at the bottom of swimming pools.   But interestingly I found the deep blue to be strangely calming.  The meditation spearfishing allows, or even requires, makes fear secondary to being completely immersed in the search and awe of another world.  We found one spot called Punta Pargo (Snapper Point), it was really deep and when floating on the surface we could only just see the knuckle of the reef through the clear-vis depths.  But as you dove to 10m, 15m and sometimes even 20m the giant bouldered reef loomed with equally giant fish.  Matty caught a couple big ones, a nice Spanish Mackerel that we later ceviche’d to perfection, and a beautiful Snapper from the deep, to be Ikan Bakar’d by Mr. Indonesia himself and shared with friends, how food should be eaten.   DSC09996   I shot one too!  Guess which one!!!   IMG_0407DSC00151   Look at those biceps, I mean fish, I mean barrels!! Where am I?!?   The swell died, coinciding with more of the same troubles with my bike.  Matty also needed to fix his computer, which hadn’t been turning on, so to Panama City we went!  We stayed in the historic district, Casco Viejo, which was rebuilt on a peninsula and surrounded by walls after being destroyed by pirates.  Now, it is being restored, and beautiful people walk around exploring art galleries and gelato shops.   Walking two blocks beyond the restored façades we found poetic graffiti…   IMG_0466   “I spoke of you to the desert, and it rained” Anon.   …And a block beyond that, were confronted by policemen saying we shouldn’t walk any further, it is unsafe.   DSC00269   We turned a corner, thinking the policemen are probably just a bit conservative, and started chatting with some characters sitting on a bench.  They told us that we shouldn’t be walking here with watches on.  People might see them and… (finger moves across throat in a slicing motion).  Hmm, okay, it must be pretty dangerous, but it’s just getting interesting… do we really have to leave?   DSC00236   It’s strange feeling like such an outsider that you can’t even walk around in a certain area.  I haven’t experienced much of that in my travels.  Most of the people are the ones looking out for you, telling you to find another place to walk.  I think it sunk in when the guy above, who looked a bit rough around the edges, chatted with us for a while, then said the same thing that the cops said.  Not before posing for a photo with his dog, who was ‘just a little bit too dangerous to pat.’   Not like this valiant specimen of a street dog below.  The underdog.   DSC00256   We’d had about enough of the hectic city life, so we headed across the isthmus to explore the Caribbean.  In particular, we had heard of some mysterious coconut islands set in crystal clear water, inhabited by a fiercely independent people, the Kuna Yala.  We wanted to learn more about their autonomy from Panama and dive the depths of their beautiful reefs.   DSC00925DSC00342   We arrived on a tiny ‘community island,’ so named for the group of people living on it, rather than the single family islands that make up so many of the over 300 in the archipelago.  There were a couple hundred people living on the islet, their reed houses closely packed, groms splashing around in the turquoise shallows, canoes pulled up to beachfront shacks.   DSC00772   These were clearly a people entirely dependent on the ocean that surrounded them, the same ocean threatening to rise inches and change their world, sinking their everything.  However, their resilience became apparent the longer we hung around.  They only moved to the islands in the last couple of hundred years, when they were little more than mangrove swamps dotted by coconut palms, which had been planted there for use in trade throughout the Caribbean.  The Kuna Yala moved from the war-torn jungles of the mainland to these islands, became fishermen, and used coconuts for currency and trade with passersby, in exchange for vegetables and other goods from Panama and Colombia.  Only recently (and hesitantly) opened up to tourism, coconuts were still used as currency until the 90s.   DSC00757 DSC00691   As some of the only people in the Americas to resist the wave of colonialism beginning in the 1500s, they are still resisting, to an extent, a new colonialism by maintaining control over who enters their territory, regulating tourism within the islands, and not paying taxes to the Panamanian government.   DSC00329   While we were there, a once-every-four-years conference was taking place on our little community island amongst the chiefs of all the different islands, involving discussions of contemporary issues facing communities, cultural knowledge, the passing of their oral history, questions, singing, and walking the island with special spirit sticks from the mainland forests to ward off demons.   We were struck by the independent and almost aloof air of the people we met on these islands.  Perhaps these traits will see them through a surely difficult time ahead of increased tourism, encroachment of Panamanian and corporate interests and rising ocean levels.   DSC01067 DSC00607   One morning, Matty took a stroll around the island and, 20 minutes later, paddled into view in a dugout canoe.   DSC00281   I threw in the spearguns, fins, and masks, hopped in, and we paddled off to a distant reef Matty had been eying.   DSC00540   30 more minutes of paddling and the canoe was anchored, we were swimming through the shallows towards the drop-off.  We dove for a while, admiring the beautiful wall of bright corals and cute fish, mostly amazed by the perfect clarity of the water.  Matty shot a beauty snapper, so we paddled back, satisfied with dinner...   IMG_5760DSC00604IMG_5763   The next day, we took off mid-afternoon.  There were big, dark and rumbling clouds on the horizon when we left the canoe to swim for the reef, but we couldn’t stop thinking about what awaited us in the deep.  It felt alluring.  Swimming, swimming…   Clearing the edge of the drop-off, life burst all around us, engulfed by beauty.  

The calmness of meditating on the deep ocean's surface before a dive. The determination of powering yourself down into the depths further than you've been before. The unknown of an underwater oceanscape, waiting patiently for a dark silhouette. Holding breath. The stillness of taking aim. The appreciation of looking straight into his eyes before taking his life.  The adrenaline of firing and conflict. The short pang to your heart when you're holding the struggling fish and see the fear in its big eyes. The instinctual end to its pain with your knife. The ritual of cleaning. The process of fire-building. The art of cooking.

The reward of a healthy and delicious feast to share with your friends. 

I froze, or rather went limp, as if preparing to dive, unable to move, watching the afternoon light dazzle huge schools of bait, circling down and around us as we dove.  I found it hard to think about finding fish as they were there, everywhere, but I was a mermaid too, part of it.  This is where childhood kicked in, not fears, but dreams.  And into it floated a sea turtle, unaware that anything out of the ordinary could be happening for these strange mer-creatures, flying along the reef, diving down out of sight.   Schools of small tuna, giant torrential rain droplets shattering the surface above, golden lightbeams piercing the depths and illuminating, nourishing - and shooting a beautiful grouper.   Matty came to the surface grinning like a child.  I think I was crying.  I hadn’t gotten over the turtle, and the swirling schools, and the light, and licking sheets of rain from my face as I came up for air.  Building lightning on the horizon thundering closer cued our paddle back, stoked and refreshed and still bursting through underwater light.  The reef came alive during that late afternoon storm; one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced.  The ocean gave us a life, that we barbecued over hot coals and shared with new friends from the island.   DSC00381-Edit DSC00488DSC00494 DSC00475 DSC00295 DSC00356   This is Bernard, a French sailor who has been traveling and living all over the world since he was 19, for the past 40 years.  He was anchored near the community island we stayed on, and has been living there for the past 2 years.   He had some beautiful things to say about a life unbarred by convention, following your dreams, and even age-old pirate wisdom that stuck with us: Back in the day, all pirates wore a gold earring.  Wherever they went they would always have one item that held universal monetary value, that they could sell when times got tough.  Being a modern day pirate, Bernard chooses a Rolex…   Truth was, Bernard is more of a gentleman than a pirate, and if ever you are looking at sailing in the San Blas, we’d suggest getting in touch with him.   _DSC1351-Edit-3   We were now fully inspired to become pirates, and needed to find a way to get to Colombia, as crossing the Darien Gap in the rainy season is not feasible on bikes.   Maybe in a stealth dugout to get you past the jungle sentries and cartels.  Maybe.. but not with our bikes in tow.   We called up the Stahlratte (Steel Rat), and booked our passage on the old Dutch 120ft, 1903 steel-hulled sail training vessel.   DSC00988   The ‘Steel Rat’s’ history ranges from training youth as sailors, use as a sailing fish boat, serving in both World Wars, and use as a Greenpeace vessel.  The historic value (and ability to carry motorcycles!) led to its current use as a non-profit ship, with volunteer crew, to transport hopefuls between continents.  After loading 12 huge bikes onto the decks in a tension-filled afternoon on the mainland of Kuna Yala, we set off through the islets to the first few days’ anchorage, nestled between two remote slices of paradise on the edge of the Kuna Yala archipelago.   DSC00868 DSC00844 DSC00916   It was a hugely positive experience for me to meet other motorcycle adventure riders.  From when I started in Mexico, I was pretty convinced that I would probably die on a motorcycle somewhere in Latin America.  Meeting 10 other people who were doing similar things made my chances seem… at least 10 times better.   DSC00939   After a few days of relaxing in tranquil paradise,   DSC00905   …being fed lovely tropical food,   DSC00965   monkeying around,   DSC00879DSC01085   ...and helping out with ship’s duties now and again, we set off early one morning into the horizon.  We awoke to some pretty rough rocking, and the sounds of last night’s dinner being violently ejected from many stomachs over the side of the ship.  Matty the pirate does not get seasick, and I had brilliantly taken Dramamine, which managed to ward off any nausea I may have experienced.   DSC01091   Thus piratized, we were able to experience the thrill of bouncing up and down in a huge ship, on wilder seas than I’ve ever experienced in a boat other than a ferry, and fall in love with the open ocean.   IMG_5834   At one point, at full sail, engines off, a huge pod of dolphins gathered around the bow and swam with us for about a half an hour.  We guessed there must have been at least 50…   DSC01168   We even got to climb to the crowsnest, and near the end of the voyage Matty espied land!!!!!   IMG_5873 IMG_5885IMG_5895   We’d reached Cartagena, Colombia, and 3 days of customs and immigration procedures, and SOUTH AMERICA!!!!!!!!!!   Chat soon! x

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