Archive for March, 2012

3rd time unlucky

March 10th, 2012 by Ian

And so we do it all over again. For the 3rd time on the trip, my rear wheel has failed and needs to be rebuilt. These seasonal trips to the bike doctor are getting a little frustrating but it does provide time to reassess and really examine the problem.

Last Wednesday, about 20kms south of Liberia, Costa Rica I noticed a strange and regular dull sound coming from the bike. On closer inspection, two 5 inch cracks had appeared in the rim (the metal from which the spokes are attached to the hub at the centre) and a spoke was broken. This is the very same problem that I incurred in San Francisco 4 months ago save the fact that the cracks were now external as opposed to internal before.

My intention had been to cycle to Samara, a beach town on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and take a day off before cycling up to San Jose for my flight to Tajikistan to see my girlfriend Áine. In that sense, it wasn’t the worst timing as I was planning to stop for 2 weeks very soon anyway but the halt in an otherwise great progression from Mexico to here in time for departure was aggravating to say the least. On the bus to San Jose, I felt low as we crept up mountain sides to the capital on a road I would otherwise have cycled myself. It felt like cheating even though I didn’t have a choice but I’ll be getting a lift back the 220kms I’ve missed and do it by human power in a couple of weeks.

The rim can crack for a variety of reasons – a poor model, too much weight on the bike, high tyre pressure etc. It seems that the latter two are the reasons for mine buckling on both occasions as the rims on the bike (Mavic A719 and A217) are sturdy pieces of componentry but perhaps just not enough. In the early days of the journey, my greatest fantasy was imagining all the things I could post home or give away to lighten the load and make those Alaskan and Canadian mountain ascents a little easier. In Whitehorse, Yukon I rid the bike of 2 kg, in Banff, Canada another 5kg and in Portland, Oregon another 4kg. Obviously weight fluctuates depending on the area you’re in and the subsequent need to carry alot of water, food or clothes for the conditions but I really believed that enough was off to avoid serious problems like this again.

Now I have 5 days in the capital to plan for the future. In the coming days I’ll tear the labels off jackets, cut zip tie stocks from 50 to 10 and ensure that only the essentials are there, and then cut them by half! I’ve already been in touch with Peter White Cycles in the USA who are sending me out a Velocity Psycho or Chukker rim on Monday (will research to decide) and Ciclo los Ases in San Jose are going to carefully reconstruct the wheel while I’m away. The new rim will be stronger but I’ll also do my part and make sure to make a greater consideration when adding gear to the panniers.

Apart from those unfortunates, a serious haul of kilometres were cycled in the last week and a half and I passed from El Salvador to Honduras and on through Nicaragua to Costa Rica. I feel I’ve mastered every trick of the trade being pulled at border crossings now and the passport is filling up nicely with decorative Central American stamps.

After the beaches of El Salvador I met up with Andre (www.andre-on-tour.de) , a German touring cyclist who is heading down to Ushuaia from Anchorage, Alaska. It was great to have company once again after the dearth of cyclist encounters in Mexico. That’s the advantage of geography here – Central America gets thinner the further south you move, meaning fewer roads to choose from and chance meetings with cyclists have better odds. I found that having a companion again meant the days passed far quicker too. There is much time to think when cycling alone and the isolation of mind and body on the road sometimes lets time lag with the clock ticking at a slower pace. Andre and myself both travelled similarly having the same cycling speed, always on the lookout for Tiendas to buy a Coke or Gatorade and keeping the same ‘early to bed, early to rise’ hours. Being on the same page like this really helps although I do enjoy dancing to someones elses tune at times. That way you get to see how others experience this type of travel and it’s possible to adopt little things that can make yours more interesting. For example, after cycling Oaxaca with Jorge, I now like the odd avocado and sausage tortilla in the morning. Now, I’m getting addicted to Coca-Cola stops because Andre consumes enough for a small peleton!

Honduras was our first country to cycle across and we aimed border to border in 24 hours. Although it’s unfair to draw conclusions about a place after just one day (and conclusions themselves are up for debate), I wasn’t totally enamoured with the Honduras I experienced. It was slightly hostile; people more aggressive in their actions. On several occasions, children and teenagers would run out and try to shove iguanas in your face as they looked to pedal them to the passing cyclist. ‘Gringo’ was shouted in a different way too. I can’t completely explain what it was but it in Guatemala kids and adults alike would smile and wave as a compliment to the term. On our day, it was said with definite negative undertones and was a little in your face. However, that’s the thing, it was only one day.

Nicaragua however, was an absolute gem. A land of smoking volcanoes and wind hammered lakes, it was a picture book country from the word go. Volcan San Cristobal was our pivot point on day one as we made our way to Leon. Farmers heading to the fields rode beside us making conversation and sugar cane truck drivers stopped just to say ‘Bienvenidos a Nicaragua’ (Welcome to Nicaragua). It felt good. It also felt open and safe and that was probably in part due to the flat terrain and working agricultural landscape we landed in to. Nicaragua has also the best roads I’ve seen since USA and some of the most considerate drivers. A couple of days later we hit Granada for a day off. It’s another colonial town but subtle and less obvious than some in Mexico that are defined by their elaborate architecture and churches with altars of the goldest of gold filigree. In the previous week I had cycled 980km with some 140km days becoming regular. Again, that felt good. Instead of being weary from the push down, I was feeling strong and knew I could do more if needed but it was time to be sensible and Granada was the place to be just that.

About a year ago I received an email from a man named Gerry Webb who was born and raised in Gorey and from a old family business of Main Street, Gorey – my home town. In 2007, Gerry decided to up and travel, selling his home and flying to Panama for an adventure he seemed to crave. He didn’t get very far before Granada but found a house, now called Casa del Agua, and set up Nicaragua’s most highly rated guesthouse. Gerry invited me to stay before I put pedal to the floor in Alaska and to arrive there was surreal in yet another realisation that many miles have passed under my feet since then but it seems only yesterday that I sat at home planning it all. I still remember imagining what the guesthouse would look like and how I would feel like arriving; would I have changed alot, what sort of people would I have met, how many rims would I have cracked? The day off was spent mostly writing emails, organising photos and eating unimaginable amounts of food. The hunger never seems to die! By night I had a couple of pints with Gerry, Andre and Paul (a guest in Casa del Agua) in Tom O’Shea’s Irish pub and the first Guinness in over 3 months was amazing not just because it was the ‘black stuff’ but cause it was on the house. Thanks Tom.

San Jose is a line in the sand for the time being. I have a few days to explore and organise some bicycle things before I fly to Colombia and on to Tajikistan on the 14th. I can’t wait to see Áine after 8 months away and am already giddy with excitement. With the Pamir mountains, ladas and buzkashi to see, I’m dying to get going. Updates in a couple of weeks!

You can watch the latest 350South video diaries here on YouTube and the Setanta Sports TV episodes here

Total mi/km: 9521mi/15,332km

El Salvador

March 3rd, 2012 by Ian

El Salvador is Central America’s smallest country but it packs a lot of goodness into that space. Upon arriving last Wednesday, I headed straight for the beach to hang out with surf bums and take in the first ocean sunset for quite some time.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from El Salvador before I arrived. To be honest I didn’t know too much about the place and all I had heard was that it was still recovering from a Civil War that lasted over 12 years and struggled to an end in 1992. Other stories through the grapevine, as per usual in Central America, were wholly negative. The litany of problems included everything from gang warfare to a growing drugs trade. Learning from past experience I decided to ignore these for the moment and take the local’s advice for anything I would do in my short stay in their country.

Passport stamped, I headed straight for the beach and the increasingly popular Costa del Balsamo. This stunning stretch of coast gets its name from the oil that was historically extracted from balsam trees that littered the hillsides but they’ve long since disappeared as industry proliferated. With some of the most oppressive heat in many months, I trundled through the sticky lowlands of El Salvador and slowly faded just in time to fall off my bike at El Zonte, a quirky surf spot nestled in a large cove between two craggy headlands.

As soon as the panniers hit the ground I raced out to catch the last rays of light. I’ve been missing the ocean and especially their sunsets that were a dime a dozen in the USA but had long disappeared since I travelled inland through Mexico and Guatemala. This one reminded me in a thousand ways what I was missing again and stimulated the weary mind after a tough day in the saddle. It was made all the better for the fact nobody was around except a handful of surfers catching the last waves in what some have described to me as not just El Salvador’s best surf location but perhaps the entire Central American coast.

However, it remains to be seen whether it will remain that way. El Zonte has a peaceful atmosphere to it, almost to the point of downright quiet. If development there follows suit like its sister beaches down the coast, it may risk losing the very tranquil, serene qualities that make it a pretty special haven in what otherwise is a densely populated region. As El Salvador is still returning to normality after the war, the country isn’t yet on many tourists’ radars but that is quickly changing.

The next morning as I rode the remaining 30 miles of the Costa del Balsamo, my view of the ocean was constantly restricted by resort development. For every house that stood finished, another was in development. Roofers were hammering nails, bricklayers were mixing cement and the sounds of waves crashing to the shore were drowned out by pneumatic drills and lorries pulling into future 5-star hotels. But the locals aren’t too worried as this all means a little extra income. Ramon, the owner of a small tienda (food store) in El Zonte told me that every tourist arriving brings more opportunity and the chance to live a little easier. But he did contend that more tourists equals more petty crime and a bad reputation in a country that’s trying to rebuild one.

Almost hesitant to leave the sea breeze, I shot inland again and to the town of Usulutan which marked 2 days and 2 thirds of the journey across the country. Marie, the spritely owner of the Hotel Don Quixote – a hotel crossed with a clinic (someone was being rolled out on a gurney when I entered) – informed me another cyclist was in room 6 and I suspected who the pedaller was. I met Andres (www.andre-on-tour.de), a German touring cyclist in San Cristobal, Mexico a few weeks back and we had been in contact by email since then arranging to cycle some time together. With food poisoning in Guatemala and lack of internet for days, it was almost better to leave up to luck that we’d run into each other again, as is the nature of cycle toruing. Of all the hotels in all the towns, and so forth!

Tomorrow we’ll try cross the entire thin protrusion of Honduras that separates El Salvador and Nicaragua as we’re both on a schedule to catch flights further south and have decided to just pass through Honduras. A country in a day it then. Blink and you’ll miss Central America.

Total miles/km: 9021mi/14,517km

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