10,000 Miles: Episode 3
Mile 2,037*: Panama City, Panama
Yesterday morning I jogged through the streets of the Casco Viejo shirtless. I was happy with relief that I could finally see out of my right eye again. I stopped short in front of the Presidential Palace to look out at the city skyline. Just a few miles past the skyline lay the South American continent. Many a high mountain pass and an empty desert trek lie between me and Ushuaia and I saw them all in my minds eye as I looked out onto the city. I am happy to have come thus far and nervous that I still have a very long way to go.
It was then I was interrupted by a very odd request.
“Put on a sweater**,” Ordered the soldier standing guard at the palace gate.
“Excuse me?” I responded. The sun had barely risen and it was already a humid eighty degrees. Why did I need a sweater?
“Sir, I said put on your sweater.” The soldier took one hand off his machine gun to point to the t-shirt balled up in my hand.
I responded in English, “Why do you got to make this weird, dude?”
I let a moment pass just to see the soupçon of confusion and annoyance play across the soldiers face, before I attempted a non-threatening smile and slipped my t-shirt on. After having a twelve gage shotgun shoved in my face and living to brag about it, aggressive men with big guns do not spook me anymore.
*These are the miles I have cycled, not the total number of miles travelled. I will get into this later on in the blog post.
** Everything in this blog post written in italics is translated Spanish. I assume sweater is a slang term for shirt in this Spanish speaking region of the world. Then again I am definitely far from an expert on the Spanish language. Yesterday I attempted to say, “Could you write that out for me, please?” But instead said, “Write on me!” Prompting the young woman I was speaking with to end our conversation by walking away from me as quickly as possible.
There really is no way to sugar coat it: my first leg of my trip rocked me. I thought my US leg was going to be a pleasant bike ride through easy terrain. But I was so fantastically wrong. By the time I had got to the Austin city limits, I had broken down two dozen times and had my legs were throbbing from riding the hills of East Texas. I had traveled just over 1300 miles in 10 days and the road had almost broken me.
I spent the next ten days in Austin eating incredible tacos and enjoying the company of my girlfriend, Miss Bailey Luke. Aside from nursing my aching knees, blistered butt cheeks and swollen ankles with copious amounts of TLC (Tacos, Love & Care) I had a big decision to make: whether or not to keep biking down into Central America straight through the “Northern Triangle” — the most violent region in the world outside of a war zone — or avoid this region altogether by hopping on a plane.
All of my loved ones have asked me not to travel through Mexico and the Northern Triangle. Initially I dismissed their concern. Hundreds of cyclists have biked through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras without any trouble, enjoying the kindness of strangers and the fresh, sub-tropical cuisine.
But as I was cycling through the US I had an obvious epiphany: traveling thousands of miles on a bike is probably similar to what it was like raising a child. One assumes it will be difficult from the beginning but in reality it is exponentially harder than what you could have possibly imagined and you have devote the entirety of your physical and mental energy, if you want to do it right (thanks Mom!).
I did not want to go out of my way to upset my loved ones by traveling through a region of the world where overt malice*** towards tourists is commonplace, all the while cycling ten hours a day with eighty pounds of gear strapped to my bike, trying to find shelter, food, and potable water.
So I packed my bike into an enormous cardboard box and hopped on a plane.
***Overt Malice: Kidnapping, robbery, rape, chopping up into teenie weenie bits, etc.
I decided I wanted to resume my bike trip from a country that was one level harder than US. A place where I could adjust to speaking Spanish for almost all human interactions, learn to negotiate the lack of bike shops and navigate with a lack wide freshly paved roads.
Avoiding Mexico and the Northern Triangle does not mean I am exempt from danger for the rest of my journey to Ushuaia. There are still plenty of places in South America where the violence is near fever pitch, every police officer is corrupt, and desperate poverty is commonplace. I wanted to try my hand at cycling through a safe foreign country so by the time I bike in the real tough places I will at least feel ready…
And for all these reasons I chose to fly into Liberia, Costa Rica.
Seven months I go, I went to Costa Rica on a family vacation. I went surfing, zip-lining, guided jungle touring — the standard (albeit wonderfully orchestrated and very relaxing, thanks Mom!) Costa Rican vacation. This time, I was doing Costa Rica on a bicycle and on a budget.
“It is a very calm here, but it is very expensive. It is the price we pay for a calm life.” Manuel said as he drove me in his taxi from the Liberia airport to my motel, with my bicycle in an enormous box strapped to the roof of his sedan.
I thought about what Manuel said as I as I plodded up steep mountain roads, watching the hundreds of busses full of pasty tourists whizzing past me. I could not help but see their presence as a sort of Faustian Pact. Costa Rica had given away its most beautiful beaches, jungles, and mountains to tourism in order to have the economic stability its northern neighbors lacked, thereby avoiding the violence that has traumatized most of Central America over the past few decades.
Without a standing army, hospitality has become Costa Rica’s primary defense. Every single Costa Rican I spoke to was polite to a fault. It was not unusual that I was given the completely wrong directions by an enthusiastic, yet ill-informed, local trying their best to help.
My impression of Costa Rica when I left it in December was that everyone spoke English and the food was uninspired****.
But in the Costa Rica I cycled through almost no one spoke English and the food was great — except for the cheese.
Costa Rica, I’m going to be blunt: your cheese is awful. Your cheese tastes like body odor flavored styrofoam. It tastes like salted caulking that has been ingested and then vomited back up and smushed back together as if it were ashen grey play-doh. It tastes like a pallid chunk of pool noodle that I shoved down my bike shorts and then cycled 110 miles in the Texas heat. So please, please, please stop putting your f$%king cheese in every savory food item!
****When I say uninspired, I mean crap.
After assembling my bike, I took a detour into the Costa Rican mountains. If Costa Rica was to be my trail-run country for the rest of my bike tour, I wanted to try my hand at tackling the terrain. In South America, I will have to ascend 10,000+ feet when riding up into the Andes. So I wanted to know what it felt like to actually cycle up mountains with all my gear.
The result: Dante’s brilliant new weight loss plan!
Looking to lose five pounds in less than 72 hours?
I recommend cycling up mountain roads with five full bags of stuff strapped to your bike. The pounds will just fly off you as you wheeze the final pitiful last gasps of air out of your lungs, pleading with any and all possible deities to end the endless onslaught of torture that is every waking moment of your reality.
Really incredible views, though.
After two days of torturous mountain climbing (albeit exquisitely beautiful and life affirming) I pedaled up to Paul and Diana’s permaculture farm. Their farm, the Finca Dos Madres, is tucked away in the central valley near San Jose and boasts the coolest assortment of exotic plants and fruit trees I have ever seen.
Right after I arrived, a dog snapped the neck of one of their chickens, killing the hen instantly. Luckily, butchering a chicken is one of my few survival skills. A few hours later we sat down to an incredible chicken stew, made with seventeen ingredients all harvested from their farm. It was one of the greatest meals I have ever had, and the company was delightful.
Paul and Diana’s stew inundated my legs with energy the next morning as I rode out of the central valley down towards the Pacific coast to catch up with the PanAmerican Highway as it made a b-line along the coast tot the Panamanian frontier.
As I approached the border, I was a bit worried. The Costa Rica/Panama border was my first border crossing on my bike. My Spanish makes basic communication arduous. Coyly offering a bribe to a disgruntled border patrol office is way above my pay grade. But my worries did not come to fruition as I entered the border town. Though there was something very odd about the town on the Costa Rican/Panamanian border.
The streets of the border town, Paso Canoas, which has a population of about 10,000 people, were completely inundated with thousands of black people. At first glance I assumed that Panama, unlike Costa Rica, had a more ubiquitous black population. But as I completed the customary border crossing tasks of exchanging my money, filling out customs forms, etc. I realized that these black people were not speaking Spanish and they seemed to just be milling about.
Curious, I walked up to a rather bored looking black guy who looked about my age and I asked him, “Where are you from?”
He said, “Haiti.”
It would be few days later, when I was back in the world of wifi that I learned about Costa Rica’s migrant crisis. Thousands of migrants are stuck at the Costa Rican border because Nicaragua will not allow them into the country to continue their journey north to the US. Costa Rica does not have enough money to deport them, stranding the refugees who make it to their country. It is a sad situation and yet a narrative lost in a sea of thousands of migrant crisis around the world.
After an odd (and in retrospect very depressing) border crossing, I pedaled into Panama. Which finally brings me to the point in my journey when Charlie pulled a twelve-gage shotgun on me.
I was cycling down the PanAmerican highway, fifty miles from the border into Panama, which is nowhere near anywhere. The sun was starting to set, so I decided to make camp in what I thought was an abandoned construction site just out of view of the highway.
I had stripped down to just my bike shorts and set up camp for the night. All of that bending over to fiddle with my tent poles had given me the urge to poo. I spied a port-a-potty on the other side of the construction site. After I was done doing my thing, I wandered back to my corner of the construction site to find Charlie examining my tent with a shotgun in his hands.
I was about fifty feet away from him when we noticed each other. Charlie turned around and raised the gun towards me and swiftly approached me. As Charlie walked right into my personal space with his gun leveled at my chest, three things happened to me all at once:
- I felt very vulnerable clothed in nothing but shorts that display my genitals for all to see.
- My blood ran cold.
- I slowly raised my hands in the air.
I had tried to rehearse for a moment like this. In my head as I pedal onwards, I often exhaust my limited Spanish vocabulary thinking up what I could say to get me out of a jam. In these scenarios I always imagined making a long impassioned speech about how all I want is peace and love for my fellow human and that everyone is inherently good…
But all those intelligent words failed me. And instead I said, “Please sir, I don’t want nothing from nobody.”
“What are you doing here?” Charlie asked.
“I… I am a cyclist… from the US. May I camp here for the night?”
Charlie laughed, “Of course!”
It turned out that Charlie thought I was attempting to steal the construction equipment. He had not spotted my bike, which I had carefully hidden from view. Charlie is the nightwatchman for the construction site when the workers go home for the day. He is fifty-two years old, has a wife and a twenty-one year old daughter, and loves cigarettes but is trying to quit. He was a sergeant in the army during Manuel Noriega’s regime and fought in the US invasion of Panama.
Charlie was very interested in my adventure. Hetook a picture of me with my bicycle to show to his friends. I wanted to take a picture of him with his gun. He agreed to let me take a picture of him, but he declined to hold his gun. And since he had graciously decided not to shoot me with said gun, I did not feel inclined to argue with him.
The next morning I rose well before sunrise and left quietly as not to disturb the snoring Charlie (Charlie turned out to not be the greatest at his job as he slept through the entirety of his night shift.). Putting in my contacts was unusually painful that morning. And as the sun rose over the Panamanian Cordillera, I realized my right eye had become infected and I could not see out of it. I took my contacts out, and put on my glasses and my sunglasses over my glasses so I would not strain my already compromised eye and pedaled on without depth perception.
When my bike breaks down I calmly fix it, because I foresaw my bike breaking down and I planned for it. But when my body broke down, it took all of my willpower not to panic. I knew I might get a fever or brake my leg in a wreck, but I did not think I would lose my vision. I spent many dozens of miles doing deep breathing exercises trying to assure myself that it would eventually be okay and that it was probably just pink-eye and I was certainly not going blind.
After a couple days of double-bespectacled cycling and constant eye rinsing, my eye slowly healed. I finally pedaled over the Panama canal with my vision intact.
After I got settled into my hostel in Panama City, I went to the pharmacy and bought eye-drops for my eyes incase an infection occurs again and seasickness medication. There is no road connecting Panama and Colombia, so my next border crossing will have to be by boat sailing across the Caribbean.
CYCLING THROUGH CENTRAL AMERICA BY THE NUMBERS:
Miles traveled on bicycle: 2,037
Number of flat tires: 0
Number of meals that solely consisted of rice and beans: 12
Panama Canals crossed: 1
Shirtless Confrontations: 2
Worst meal: I ordered “Tortillas y huevos” at a truck stop cafe, and what I received were stale fried corn cakes the same size and density of hockey pucks and lukewarm boiled eggs. I learned the hard way that the meaning of the word “tortilla” changes every few hundred miles or so.
The prettiest road: The shortcut on Route 142 to Lake Arenal after the town of Angeles before Tilaràn. The small winding road takes you up onto a mountain peak to reveal beautiful views of the Costa Rican highlands with windmills dotting the peaks. But be careful: the unpaved parts of the road are not dirt nor gravel but are enormous slabs of stone as if the road was carved right out of the mountain, which proved to extraordinarily slippery when wet (I fell off my bike twice going down it).
Long-distance cycling tip: If you’re feeling the urge to poo and you don’t have any toilet paper and you’re in a tropical forest where you have no idea which flora is poisonous and which isn’t, flour tortillas make an excellent substitute (I know it’s gross… but it feels absolutely delightful on your bum!).
Well, that’s all I got for now.
Till next time,