Peace out

Peacewheel is putting on the brakes and taking some time out from life on the road. We are currently getting the bikes and gear packed up in order to fly home. Having spent 12 months getting here, the plane will teleport us back in a mere 12 hours. The recent pains of having to pull the bikes apart and sift through the Internet for flights is only bearable due to the excitement of soon being able to spend time with family and friends. There is nothing like being a stranger for a year with limited communication skills to make home seem so precious and welcoming.

Ahhhhhh!

Ahhhhhh!

Wrapping up this leg of the Peacewheel saga and living with a community of monks and nuns has stimulated more than a little reflection. In my experience, the value and impact of a project, or chapter in one’s life, often only becomes apparent in retrospect, when it can be seen in context. Despite this, I’ll have a crack at sharing some of my thoughts because it helps to clarify them and because I still have your attention!

Setting out on this journey was a response to an impulse. At the time, I tried not to think too much about the “why.” Abandoning my life and friends in Victoria was heart wrenching, especially given that it was not demonstrably clear why cycling around with no purpose would be very beneficial, or at least any better than staying in Victoria. However, despite my attachment to my life in Canada, I felt the need to expand my idea of what is possible in life and maybe drop some of my unconsciously appropriated self-expectations and demands. I was inclined to do something a career councilor might not approve of. Something I could not plan, predict, anticipate or even imagine. Something with no tangible objective, no destination, and no “next step.” This was my moment of rebellion from a life of strategic planning.

Downsizing big time

Downsizing big time!

When I created a “Couchsurfing” profile, a truly regrettable endeavor, I had to say something about my aims as a flaky floating freeloader (not the terms used by Couchsurfing). I expressed the pompous desire to explore “what it is to live a good life.” Given that I am not Socrates, it might be better put that I wanted to explore how to be happily content. It’s one of those universal questions, for non-Catholics at least. I find it amazing to think how many expressions the search for happiness has taken, producing such wonders as the porn industry and international warfare. To be fair, it has also produced government and spirituality, although some of their expressions are arguably equally damaging.

We shared some happiness with a Catholic nun

We shared some happiness with a Catholic nun…

We also shared happiness with a Buddhist nun.

and also shared happiness with a Buddhist nun!

For a skeptical guy who doesn’t seem to have much potential as a porn-star or a soldier, happy contentment needs a little consideration. The range of diversity I would encounter while cycling through the Americas seemed like the perfect stimulus. Maybe these encounters would provide some insight into where and how I would find happy contentment?

Ironically, I already had a strong suspicion that happy contentment was likely to elude me much of the time while trying to live on a bicycle. But such a lifestyle would leave me free to explore whatever I wanted without constraints, except for those of having only a bicycle and a budget of around $5 dollars a day. Happily, these conditions propelled me into a richer and broader experience of my relationship to people and nature than I could ever have imagined.

A moment of propulsion.

A moment of propulsion.

It has been the most diverse year of my life! We were invited to stay in a mansion in one the swankiest neighborhoods in the US, but also slept next to a clutch of chickens outside a one-room shack in the Mexican desert. We have discussed Darwin over dinner with geneticists who work in the Galapagos, but also mimed our way into the home of an indigenous family in Guatamala, whose lack of formal education limited their knowledge of Spanish. We have partied with tequila drinking, pleasure seeking, and overly financed students in Mexico, but also prayed with fasting, God seeking, and frighteningly poor nuns in Colombia.

Random and awesome.

Random and awesome.

These experiences demonstrated how the yin and yang of happiness and suffering manifest whether I find myself surrounded by wealth or poverty, eruditeness or ignorance, skepticism or faithfulness. In a sense, this is very good news to me. It removes the pressure of needing to strive for specific things in life in order to be happy. It is liberating to think that there is no next experience I have to have, next place I have to see, next thing I have to get, next person I have to meet, or next goal I have to achieve in order to be happy and content.

This journey has left me freer to simply choose those things that I know are good for me and not to worry about those things that are actually counter productive to happiness but seem to be exulted as vital in society. This freedom has arisen in conjunction with having had a more concrete taste of the brevity, transience, and preciousness of life. From this perspective many previous drivers, such as affirmation, security, and comfort, have become less relevant in my decision-making process. Happiness showed up when I was able to have an open, sensitive, clear, compassionate, and understanding mind. I now have a greater desire than ever before to cultivate these qualities.

...

A heartfelt thank-you to all the guides I have encountered along the way!

Nun fun

The bell rang in hurried strokes from the front of the chapel. The nuns stopped what they were doing: mopping floors, raking leaves, chatting in hushed tones, and rushed to the community room for an impromptu meeting. ‘Sara, venga!’ one sister said to me. ‘The meeting is for you too!’

Once all the nuns were crammed together in the little common room, the Mother Alicia looked around and smiled. ‘There is a surprise for all of you,’ said the Mother. In true Colombian style nuns didn’t wait to hear what the surprise was before erupting into cheers and clapping. After they quieted down the mother began again. ‘On Saturday we’re going on a summer vacation to a farm in the Eje Cafetero.’ The same group of nuns who routinely gather in silence each morning and evening transformed into a raving and rowdy crowd as shouts of joy raucously spread through the room. ‘And Sarah and Jacques are coming with us,’ she finished. The noise grew as their stamping feet joined the cheering.

 

Meeting!

Listen up!

As its name, Coffee Region, suggests, the Eje Cafetero is the main area of coffee production in the country, as well as famed as one of the most beautiful areas of Colombia. The nuns spent the following days packing up warehouse quantities of potato chips, cookies, little chocolate cakes, juices, bread, and hunks of frozen beef. Some of the younger sisters had never been on a ‘paseo’ or vacation before, others were returning to their home lands, and most were just excited to go on an adventure.

 

Coffee country

Coffee country

On Saturday afternoon over 60 nuns (and us) grabbed their packed lunches of plantains, boiled pork and rice, and piled into a 50 passenger bus. Backpacks and mattresses spilled into all available corners and, once the seats ran out, nuns started sitting single file along the aisle as well –with blankets close to hand in case they should need hiding during a surprise police inspection. We were going to the family farm of Brother Daniel, a 10 hour drive away from the monastery. After Brother Daniel started the trip with a prayer and a song, people sank into their seats to watch the scenery grow thicker and more tropical as we wove out of the mountains. Every few minutes someone would yell out ‘Sara! Jacques! Look!’ and point wildly to a mountain, valley or river they didn’t want us to miss on our cross-country tour.

Willy's Jeep is the local transport of choice

Willy’s Jeep is the local transport of choice

At midnight the bus turned off the highway onto a narrow gravel road and stopped. We were at a little bamboo river bridge made that the bus would certainly break if it tried to cross. With typical cheerful style, everyone grabbed their backpacks from the bus and emerged into the humid night air for the 20-minute walk uphill to the family farmhouse. The sky was luminous above a high canopy of tropical trees and the singing, light-flashing bugs that surrounded us gave the sense of having landed in Neverland.

The track up to the finca that we first traversed at night

The track up to the finca that we first traversed at night

At the monastery there are always guests, prayer groups, or visitors wandering around and the nuns are constantly on the move to accommodate them between their own community times and responsibilities. But at the farm they were able to relax, sing, read, wander around, and be completely themselves at all moments. One group would cook on the outside kitchen and fire, another would sweep up, and everyone else would either look around the beautiful and immense landscape that surrounds Daniel’s plantain and banana farm, find a quiet corner to read, or splash in the pool in their ‘nun suits’—leotards of all colours with little swim caps. In the afternoon one of the brothers in the community, Hermano Giovani, who stayed with Jacques for the week in the cottage next door, would come over to say mass and the main open, wall-less front room of the farm-turned-chapel. At night the social rhythm would repeat itself, with most of the community either in the kitchen or the swimming pool, except on the few occasions where frogs infested the pool or bats would find their way into the house (or stuck onto the side of the odd habit-clad sister), in which case the house would turn into a shrieking carnival!

Brother Daniel's family finca

Brother Daniel’s family finca

Not quite succeeding to play pool

Not quite succeeding to play pool

The kitchen and pool

The kitchen and pool

One day we took a group expedition down to the river after breakfast. Jacques and I had explored it the day before, so with twenty nuns in tow, we led the group down the dirt road and to the cliff edge just above the river. I thought it might be a bit dangerous for everyone to climb down the unstable slope but when I asked one of the sisters she said ‘No way, let’s do it!’ and confidently slid down. Soon we had a human ladder formed and were passing nuns safely down one by one. Some of the more cautious or older nuns stayed back, and when everyone had jumped in the water and climbed back up the slope again, the sisters who didn’t go down were waiting with popsicles for us all. The nuns laughed, sang, and chatted as they walked back, and all the villagers unabashedly stoped stared open mouthed at the long row of habit-clad women along the road.

Sarah leads the adventure

Sarah leads the adventure

 

We found a nice spot, but it was too shallow to swim so we continued the search

We found a nice spot, but it was too shallow to swim so we continued the search

We had to form a human chain to get all the nuns safely down the river bank

We had to form a human chain to get all the nuns safely down the river bank

Made it down safely!

Made it down safely!

Modest bathing

Modest bathing

The nuns went a little wild...

The nuns went a little wild…

Heading home for dinner after a successful outing

Heading home for dinner after a successful outing

A serious cause for celebration was a surprise donation by the government and Daniel’s family of 60 tickets to the Parque del Café, a famous amusement park nearby. As the nuns piled out of the bus and into the park they organized themselves into ‘Team Extreme’ or Equipo Extremo—those wanting to go on all the crazy and extreme rides, and Equipo Tranquilo (much fewer) wanting a more relaxed pace to the day. The mother, who apparently enjoyed a bit of speed herself, was whisked off and pushed down the slope on her wheelchair by one of the sisters, while the rest started sprinting to the rides so as not to waste any time in the day!

Pre-show excitement before a coffee-theme dance show

Pre-show excitement before a coffee-theme dance show

The other visitors in the park stopped to stare at groups of young nuns running wildly around the park to each of the rides with their veils flapping in the wind. They lined up several times back-to-back for the roller coasters or the rocket-type ride that shoots one 50 meters into the air, some only stopped momentarily because of quite literally turning green! Even the most reserved and pious screamed until they had no more voice—which in the end took several days to recover.

We warmed up (or rather got wet) on the log ride

We warmed up (or rather got wet) on the log ride

Some moments of ecstasy

Some moments of ecstasy

The nun-coaster

The nun-coaster

This ride left us soaked

This ride left us soaked

A scary amount of repressed road rage emerged the moment I got into my "Batmobile"

A scary amount of repressed road rage emerged the moment I got into my “Batmobile”

...more road rage

…more road rage

By the end of the day the sisters had won the hearts of the staff and fellow park-goers alike, who waved furiously as the nun-bus pulled away, thanking them for making them smile so much.

Nuns have more fun

Nuns have more fun

On the way back we stopped at some natural hot springs replete with its own tropical waterfall. I accompanied Sister Maria-Virginia, the eldest of the nuns, between the different hot pools, and had to feign bravery when she insisted that I accompany her in plunging beneath the icy-cold showers every 5 minutes.

In grand style we finally arrived back at the monastery at 4am after waiting through several Farc (guerrilla rebels) police checks and mining protest roadblocks along the way. The roads in the south of Colombia are especially dangerous to drive at night and many of us nervously held our breath throughout the ride home. Needless to say we were happy to be back in our mountain-monastery hideaway. It was a bizarre, amazing, and slightly surreal holiday, and unimaginably random!

Bonding with the sisterhood

Bonding with the sisterhood

Contemplative walking

Contemplative walking

Cool bug

Cool bug

The senior nuns exercising their benevolent rule

The senior nuns exercising their benevolent rule

The lost boys

The mini van pulled up and Andreas leaned out to shout, “Quick, get in! We’re heading off to my farm.” I ran back to my room to grab a toothbrush and sleeping bag before squeezing into a tiny gap at the back of the heaving van. We set off for the brother’s summer “paseo,” or holiday, which this year was to be in Andreas’ family farm near Cocorna. Only a couple of the more scrupulous brothers were wearing their habits, whereas the rest were sporting their holiday outfits of donated tracksuits. We looked like a football team on tour, with in-house monks for prayer-on-the-go.

Traveling east across the Antioquian hills is like a roller coaster ride, full of steep ascents followed by swooping drops and hair-raising curves. The road occasionally turned into a dirt track littered with potholes and boulders. I was grateful to be wedged between two brothers who absorbed my weight as the van flung me back and forth. We turned onto one such lane that wound along a steep mountainside. Large tropical ferns and palm leaves hung across the red dirt road, and thundering streams could be seen cascading down vertical rock-faces. The lane emerged onto a sharp ridge. Great sweeping valleys filled with dense jungle stretched across to the horizon on both sides. The streams collected into fast flowing rivers that formed silver bands along the valley floor.

The Cocorna valley.

The Cocorna valley.

Little farms sat along the roadside, some beautifully kept while others looked disheveled or burnt down. “Why are so many of the houses abandoned?” I asked. “About eight years ago this region experienced terrible violence,” brother Daniel responded. “The guerilla fighters terrorized communities and many families fled to Medellin for safety. Some have since returned, but many of the farms have been left abandoned.” We came to a stop, an abandoned home to our right and a charming brick farmhouse with lime green woodwork to our left. I was relieved to see all the brothers looking left as Andreas’ uncle emerged to welcome us. After making introductions he disappeared and reemerged clutching a dead chicken. This appeared to be some kind of “Paisa” welcome, as he had just killed two birds so that we could have a feast later that night!

Disembarking.

We have arrived!

 

Chicken for dinner then...

Chicken for dinner then…

Hogar dulce hogar

Hogar dulce hogar

After all of us had claimed a patch of the floor to sleep on we immediately headed off on an expedition down to the river. The farm was perched on the edge of a steep hill used to cultivate plantains. A repetitive challenge throughout the holiday was making it down the hill without sliding half the way down on your bum. En-route to the river we stopped in on a little panela factory owned by another of Andreas’ uncles. Panela is the Colombian term for unrefined blocks of sugar made from a concentrate of pure sugarcane juice. The factory sits hidden in a field of dense sugar cane and smells like a sweet/candy shop. At one end is a machine that crushes the cane to remove the juice, called guarapo. The guarapo passes into the first of around seven large hot copper basins, where it bubbles away until it becomes thick like caramel. The concentrate is emptied into a wooden trough and beaten until it has a smooth fudge-like consistency and then placed into round moulds before it hardens into a solid cake of sugar. Colombians have an impressive appetite for this sweet honey-sugar, using it as the base for most of their drinks. The brothers wasted no time grabbing handfuls of the panela in its fudge-like state and proceeded to consume it in dangerous quantities.

Controlled falling

Controlled falling

They feed the crushed cane into the furnace to boil up the guarapo

They feed the crushed cane into the furnace to boil up the guarapo.

The concentrate cools in these moulds to make the panela sugar cakes

The concentrate cools in these moulds to make the panela sugar cakes.

Energized by practically lethal sugar-highs, the group danced their way down to river and leapt into the rapids. I was both delighted and surprised to find the water refreshingly warm and not the painfully numbing temperature of Canadian rivers. This meant we could, and did, spend all day jumping in and out and sunbathing on the rocks. Looking around at the group of feral young guys exploring without concern made me feel like I had flown to Never-never Land and joined the lost-boys!

We found the river!

We found the river!

A soporific spot to enjoy the river's song.

A soporific spot to enjoy the river’s song.

 

The call of hunger drew us back up the hill to the farm in time for dinner. Meals tended to be large stews of meat, potatoes, plantain, and yucca (called “sancocho”) cooked in a giant pot over the outdoor fire. Stew was the perfect antidote after running about in the midday heat and always sent me into a dozy lethargy.

The kitchen

The kitchen

The brothers had arranged to say a mass in the local church each evening after dinner. I would have to shake off my sancocho-induced coma and try to remain focused for a full hour. Rural life out there was very basic. People tended to live in small concrete homes filled with very few possessions and generally lived a subsistence lifestyle, perhaps making a small income from selling panela or excess produce. As a result, the local village contained only a small school with an attached church and “restaurant,” which was kind of soup kitchen where local families could get free meals. The church was a simple white washed hall with a collection of chairs and an alter at the front. There was no electricity, so we had to light as many candles as we could to illuminate the proceedings, but the only way Fr. Giovanni could read the Mass was if a brother used his mobile phone as a torch. Many in the congregation were related to Br. Andreas, so there was an intimate family atmosphere as we prayed in the candlelight.

Mass... "brought to you by Nokia"

Mass… “brought to you by Nokia”

We stayed on the farm for almost a week. Days were spent exploring, swimming, praying, playing music, and cooking up country stews. On the final day we found a giant waterfall and some of the more crazy brothers jumped into it. The landscape had a magical beauty and was filled an array of exotic insects, amphibians, and birds. It was a truly organic experience. We shared in the simplicity of life of the people, who seemed content riding about on their horses, working in the fields, and having serious contact time with family. The abandoned houses, however, were scars that witnessed to the violence of the previous decade and we had one particular visit during which an older woman shared her grief over loosing three sons and many family members during the fighting. The brothers offered her sincere sympathy and prayers, but it was clear that she and so many others were in the midst of a long process of recovery and healing. As was so often the case in Colombia, the magic and wonder of being in Cocorna was living among these extremes.

The lost boys at play.

The lost boys at play.

We watched a cow giving birth... messy business!

We watched a cow giving birth… messy business!

Kind of a swimming assault course.

Kind of a swimming assault course.

Contemplating nature in a "white-man" kind of way

Contemplating nature in a “white-man” kind of way

Ave Maria… pues!

A potent brew of Jewish, Spanish, and Colombian influences has cooked up the flavorful, friendly, and fervently religious “Paisa” culture. The astonishing warmth and caring of the Paisa people gives the Antiochian hills they inhabit their unique charm and beauty. Thirteen years ago, this cocktail of natural richness and cultural vivacity gave birth to an extraordinary community that we delightedly consider our newly adopted family: “The Sons and Daughters of Fiat.”

Encountering “Ave Maria,” the motherhouse of The Sons and Daughters of Fiat, spelt the beginning of the end of our ride through the Americas. Since disembarking the Gitana III in Cartagena we had felt the weight of profound exhaustion, which was accompanied a diminishing capacity to engage positively and wholeheartedly with each new situation we found ourselves in. This indicated the need for a break from the traveling and a reassessment (after 10 months) of our desire to keep pedaling. We were open to the possibility of either renting a room for a month in one of the mountain towns we were going to pass through or finding a religious community that would be open to having us stay for a while.

Stay in the Colombian Andes...?

Stay in the Colombian Andes…?

A little research into the region around Medellin revealed that a town called La Ceja, a day’s ride out of Medellin, was home to a large cluster of religious communities. So, with open minds as to what we might encounter, we began to pedal along mercifully cool mountain lanes in their direction. The first town we encountered was called El Retiro (literally “The Retreat”). This was a good omen given our quarry. The town is nestled among steep mountains and sits on a healthy incline so that from the central square you can see all the houses spilling down to the river below. Its small size and rustic feel charmed us into enquiring as to any rooms that might be available. We met some locals and visited some homes but drew a blank. It was a half-hearted enquiry, so there was little disappointment as we got back on the bikes to continue.

Just arrived in El Retiro

Just arrived in El Retiro

We decided to take the steeper and shorter route towards La Ceja. Pulling out of the main square, we tried to pick up momentum heading up the steep lane. After 30 seconds, however, I had to stop to catch my breath. Looking around, my eye caught sight of a sign saying “Ave Maria.” Next to it was a schedule advertising when the nuns were able to receive visitors. It happened to be one of those times, so we decided to knock on the door just in case they had any ideas for our retreat.

We did not expect the huge smile, excitement, and enthusiastic welcome that greeted us. Maricella instantly beckoned us in. We looked doubtfully at the bikes laden with all our gear, but this only made her fling the doors wider and help us haul everything into their home. Moments later we were sat around a table, with cookies and juice before us, making introductions with the three nuns who lived there. We explained how we had left Canada 10 months ago on our bicycles and now felt the need to recharge. “Wow, what an incredible story!” exclaimed Maryely the superior of the house, “well, we have the perfect place for you! Our motherhouse is only forty minutes up the road and it’s on a beautiful farm. You can stay as long as you like, don’t worry about cost… the mother is very generous!” It sounded perfect, thank God.

Maricela and Maryely, our bestest-nun-friends

Maricela and Maryely, our bestest-nun-friends

Introductions over cake and juice!

Introductions over cake and juice!

Seeing the state of our bikes, Maricela came running out with a rag to clean them!

Seeing the state of our bikes, Maricela came running out with a rag to clean them!

We pulled up Google maps in order to find a route and scribbled down the directions. A beautiful ride through the hills along winding lanes brought us to the gate of “Ave Maria.” Our welcome was no less exuberant than we experienced in El Retiro, only this time there were 50 nuns! Making a predictable assumption, the first thing they did was feed us. The traditional dish of bean stew, sweet plantain, and avocado they served us was instantly, and has remained, our favorite. With appetites well satisfied we took a tour of the convent and were pointed towards the brother’s house that sits on the opposite side of the valley. The setting was every bit as beautiful as the sisters had made out and the overwhelmingly generous welcome made us feel instantly at ease.

The last hill before we arrived at "Ave Maria"

The last hill before we arrived at “Ave Maria”

The house where some of the sisters live and lower down to the right is the church

The house where some of the sisters live and lower down to the right is the church

The first night in Ave Maria we had the chance to make a proper introduction to the whole community. They wanted to spend the whole evening hearing our story and getting to know us. We discovered that their special charism is singing, dancing, and acting. Having shared a song with us, they looked expectantly at Sarah and I. It was our turn. Sarah bravely broke out into a rendition of Elton John’s “Your song,” while I hid behind my guitar and improvised a couple of tunes. The rest, as they say, is history. We are now like family, not only included in everything, but also given (sometimes embarrassingly) the best of everything they have to offer. Every time we have made plans to leave there have been too many compelling reasons to stay and we have always found ourselves returning.

The monastery from another angle with the novitiate in the bottom left

The monastery from another angle with the novitiate in the bottom left

"Piasa" country... perfect for running!

“Piasa” country… perfect for running!

For the first week the sisters were adamant that we relax and recuperate. All our needs were taken care of and we were not allowed to contribute towards the daily chores. I slept for a few days and then began to run and practice yoga for the first time since we left. I unpacked my things, started reading, communicating with friends and family, and spending time in meditation and prayer. It was exactly what we needed and better than anything we could have imagined. The tranquility you would expect in a convent, however, tended to be reserved for prayers and meals and happily abandoned in between. We had never had such an intense social experience. We made many introductions due to the constant flow of visitors to the convent and had our work cut out trying to get to know all the nuns and brothers. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious. Given half a chance they would plan for us to visit their favorite sites or call their family and friends so that we could go and visit their hometowns. We quickly realized that by being at Ave Maria we would not need to travel so much because Colombia would come to us!

Ten sisters crammed into a car on a visit to a friend's farm

Ten sisters crammed into a car… a common event at Ave Maria.

Sarah's birthday picnic

Sarah’s birthday picnic

They are all about the drama.

They are all about the drama! Dios mio!!!

We have stayed in Ave Maria for around three months in total. Although I wish I could share the experience with you, I don’t know where to begin! It really is one of those things that have to be experienced in order to be fully understood. It has been an immersion into a world that has literally changed who we are and how we see our lives and ourselves. The relationships cultivated among members of the community, especially with the founder and mother superior, Alicia, have been central to us experiencing such a profound shift. The deepening of these relationships, and accompanying self-insight, has made each moment of our stay meaningful and prevented us from being able leave!

We had to visit all the local tourist attractions...

We had to visit all the local tourist attractions…

...join in the Corpus Christi parade...

…join in the Corpus Christi parade…

...celebrate their first ordination in the community...

…celebrate their first ordination in the community…

...soak up the natural beauty...

…soak up the natural beauty…

...swing like a monkey...

…swing like a monkey…

...and share songs, thoughts, and feelings around a massive fire!

…and share songs, thoughts, and feelings around a massive fire!

Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay

Colombia is frighteningly welcoming. The constant flow of invitations to stay and adventure with strangers among the dramatic and varied landscapes has made it feel like a strange magic-realism fantasyland. The need to disregard of all I’d ever learned of social interaction between strangers and ride the wave of Colombian spontaneity and enthusiasm has been exhilarating. This has produced a feeling of magic that has persisted ever since we arrived in Colombia. It is one of the most wonderful places I have ever visited and we are finding it impossible to leave!

The tourist board is spot on for once!

The tourist board is spot on for once!

On setting foot on solid ground in Cartagena’s old harbor, we quickly assembled our bicycles and pedaled into the old fortified city. Cartagena’s colonial sandstone buildings cast the city in golden orange light, giving it an angelic savior feel as we wobbled along in search of an emergency shower and nap. African slaves brought over by Portuguese traders built the city in the mid-1500s.  High walls were quickly built around Cartagena after it’s riches were plundered a few times by sneaky English pirates, and the port more or less safely resumed it’s noble use of shipping gold, precious stones, exotic fruits and other curious objects back to the king of Spain.

Cartagena's city gate

Cartagena’s city gate

Today Cartagena is a mix of Caribbean, African, Portuguese, Spanish, and indigenous Colombians all dressed in colorful outfits and yelling out “Hello my son, my daughter!’’ as people walk by. The buildings in Cartagena are beautiful—windows with painted wooden shutters open out onto balconies covered in wisteria, and if you look closely you can see seashells and coral fossils mixed into their bricks. The people are even more beautiful. Although we couldn’t understand most of what they said due to the confusing coastal habit of dropping the last syllable of each word, they were always quick to share a smile and ask if we needed anything, even to the point of insisting on giving us free drinks when we didn’t have exact change.

A bit like Disney Land

A bit like Disney Land

We stayed in Cartagena for a short two days, which was enough to catch our breath, wash our bikes and clothes, and eat a few too many roadside arepas de queso (thick cheesy tortillas).

On a Saturday morning we loaded our bikes once more and said goodbye to the coast as we headed inland. The sleek city center soon faded into breezeblock buildings and slums, and finally countryside. In interest of self-preservation, we literally dodged cars, trucks, and busses that zig zagged and stopped for passengers in the middle of the road, while traffic rushed by on either side of them. Busses and cars would pull up alongside us and slow down to our speed so that its passengers could get a closer look at the strange phenomenon that we were. It was an exciting and terrifying morning!

At midday we arrived at the dirt-road turn-off for Palenque.  We sat down at the mango stand at the intersection and asked the man working the little town was worth seeing. “Of course it is! I am from Palenque!” he said proudly. Handing us a peeled mango, he called his friend Ambrosio over from the other side of the road, who quickly invited us to stay in his house in exchange for a ´friendly donation´.

Not too keen to continue cycling in the grueling midday heat and curious about what the town was like at the end of the dirt track before us, we accepted Ambrosio’s invitation.  “Just ask anyone in town where Ambrosio’s house is, and they will show you!” He waved us off and continued to his business of driving people from the highway where we were to the village on his little moped.

Palenque, to our surprise, was created as the first haven for freed African slaves a few hundred years ago. To this day only pureblooded Africans are (unofficially) allowed to live there, and everything from the music, to their dress, dancing, and food, tries to stay as true to their Congo roots as possible. Even their language is a dialect that mixes Portuguese, Spanish and African languages, making it a good challenge to communicate. “We aren’t Colombian, we are African!” almost everyone said when they met us. Most people live in mud or adobe huts, and pigs, chickens, and cows freely wander the unpaved roads. Admittedly it was bit of a shock to go from Cartagena to Africa in a morning’s cycle ride, but I suppose that randomness and rarity is what you agree to when you ride into a foreign country without a plan!

Ambrosio’s wife seemed a little suspicious of us when we arrived at his house. But she welcomed us in nonetheless, before returning to the house across the street where the village women were braiding each other’s hair.  We spent the rest of the day trying to stay hydrated and in the shade, and talking to the odd person who wandered our way about the history of their village.

Early the next morning we said goodbye to Ambrosio and Palenque, and rode back down the 5 km dirt track leading to the highway. It was a beautiful morning and the heat finally didn’t feel as oppressive as it had in the last few months. Around 9am we caught up with another cyclist, Don Raúl, who was out for his regular Sunday morning ride. We rode side-by-side along the highway as he told me about his family, village, life history, bicycling competitions, hobbies, and political opinions, while pulling the odd apple or candy out of his pockets to share. Within the first few hours of the day we realized how tired we still were from the sprint through Central America and boat trip to South America. Don Raúl’s energy and enthusiasm inspired us to carry on in good spirits though, and it was nice to have the company of someone else as a change of pace.

A new Peacewheel member, Don Raul!

A new Peacewheel member, Don Raul!

After an hour of cycling together he said “You must come to my house for breakfast and meet my wife! And see my village! And meet my family!” With total eagerness we agreed, and spent another happy 2 hours cycling together. Soon enough we reached his village, and were greeted with an even more enthusiastic welcome from his wife, Silvia. Within a few minutes we were absorbed in cold glasses of fresh juice, and plates heaped with rice, beans, avocados, cheese, chicken, and salad.  Silvia grew up in their village, San Juan, and her mother, who lives next door, wandered in and started stroking my hair and massaging my shoulders as she asked who I was.

We told them we had better get back on our bikes if we were going to make it to the next town by dark, and Don Raúl, Silvia, and Silvia´s mother all exclaimed that it was way too hot and we would have to stay the night in their spare bedroom. Without waiting for an answer, Don Raul hopped up and showed us where to put our things.

After I came out from my bucket shower, I found Jacques tucked into bed, with the curtains drawn, lights out, and the little air conditioner buzzing away. In all the time I’ve known him I have never seen him take a nap, and became quite worried that he was seriously ill. But Silvia, in all her motherly tenderness, had marched in without a word, pulled the covers over him, turned on the cold air, turned off the lights, and, still without a word, firmly closed the door behind her. We got up a few hours later to her bubbling Sancocho soup, a Colombian tradition of chicken or beef stewed with big chunks of potato, yucca, carrots and onion. After another huge and tasty meal, we went out with Don Raul to see the town.

In the village square we met a man with a local type of monkey on his shoulder and Don Raúl waved him over to show us. After the little monkey climbed over us a few times the man invited us back to his house to see his ‘other animals’, and so with Don Raúl, the man, and another boy we had just met in the park, we headed across the town to where his home was.  Sure enough, when we got there we were welcomed in by his wife and children and brought to their ‘animal room’, where monkeys, birds, lizards and cats roamed around.

Rural Colombia: where you can find Jesus on the bus and cows in the street

Rural Colombia: where you can find Jesus on the bus and cows in the street

We woke up early the next morning to carry on our journey to the city of Sincilejo, which was little over 100km from Don Raúl and Doña Silvia’s house. Raúl was going to cycle with us until we reached the first little village, and his wife, neighbors, and mother-in-law gathered on the front porch in the darkness of 5am for coffee and to wave us off.  We were sad to leave Raúl when the time came to part ways. It was a little less than 24 hours since we met him, but he and his family had left such a strong impression on us that in a way it felt like we were leaving family all over again.

Send off party

Send-off party

Our final farewell

Our final farewell

But, as the journey goes, we carried on our way and after another hot and sweaty day riding in tropical heat we reached Sincilejo in the late afternoon. We carefully considered what was before us: hundreds and hundreds more kilometers of tropical heat before reaching the coolness of the Andes. At this point we had lived and cycled in the tropics alone for nearly six months. Heat rashes, blisters, impossible rehydration, dimness of thought, and the occasional heat stroke had been with us for the complete duration, and if we wearing down from anything, it was the infernal sun that chased us wherever we went. In a desperate attempt to escape the unrelenting heat, we decided to board a bus to Medellin, a 10-day cycle ride/10-hour bus ride away. While it was a sadness to leave an un-cycled section of our new favorite country, we felt huge relief at the thought of cooler climates.

Sarah was randomly gifted some enormous avocados

Sarah was randomly gifted some enormous avocados

We traveled overnight and arrived in Medellin in the darkness of the following morning. It was a novelty to be shivering in only shorts and a t-shirt, and took great pleasure in pulling out our fleeces, which had long since been stashed at the bottom of a pannier.

We called Dario, the father of our Victoria yoga teacher’s son-in-law, who lives with his wife and other children in Medellin. He picked us up shortly, and we were soon, to our immense joy, drinking tea and eating croissants in their apartment, cleaner than we had been in months.

Our truely gracious host Dario

Our truely gracious host Dario

In the following few days we met Dario’s and his wife Maria-Teresa’s children and grandchildren, explored the city, enjoyed good food, and, generally tried to recuperate from the previous few months. We had spent the last year sleeping in tents and eating very simply, and so it was a nice change to find that breakfast was cooked and served to us by a maid each morning, and that after we had finished eating and returned to our rooms, our bed was already made and fresh towels were waiting for us in the bathroom. We were experiencing a very different side of Colombia!

Medellin has expanded to fill the valley with a forest of high-rise apartments

Medellin has expanded to fill the valley with a forest of high-rise apartments

In some places the mountains are too steep for roads, so the public transport is a cable metro!

In some places the mountains are too steep for roads, so the public transport is a cable metro!

Central Medellin. Pretty much a permanent fiesta

Central Medellin. Pretty much a permanent fiesta.

Although it was wonderful to have such a welcome rest and be with such kind hosts, Jacques and I both felt it was time for a deeper rest of a week or two before setting our sights on Argentina once more. We heard that there were several monasteries in a little village around 2 hours away, and began to contact them to see if they offered space for people to take retreats. One by one they all responded saying “no” for one reason or another, or else simply didn’t respond. Undeterred, we made plans to simply show up to this village, called ‘La Ceja’ (the eyebrow) and ask around.

We said goodbye to Dario and Maria exactly one week after we cycled out of Cartagena, and started winding up and down Antioquia’s beautiful rolling hills, in search of a little refuge.

Buccaneers, backpacks, and beer

We were off to set sail across the Caribbean! A week aboard a classic sailboat on the glassy surface of the Caribbean was a much more pleasant resolution to the issue of crossing the Darien Gap than I could have imagined. I was really excited about having my first experience on a sailboat, which was only enhanced by the welcome luxury of a whole week free from the usual daily concerns of traveling on a bike.

Another novelty was our little fellowship of wayward travelers composed of: A trio of bronzed Scandinavians with blond hair and perfect English; each came with one pair of miniscule swim shorts and four crates of beer. An endearing Australian brother and sister duo, who had both recently found love in Costa Rica; they were super laid back and spent most of their time lost in romantic daydreams. A lone Scotsman who was striding his way through the Americas before heading home to join a law firm; he brought a welcome sense of irony to the group. And lastly, two French kinsmen; fellow cyclists who had the crazy idea of riding a tandem from Mexico down to South America.

We clambered into a motorboat loaded high with an equal volume of bags and beer and crowned with three enmeshed bicycles madly wrapped with cellophane, like a giant waterborne bicycle picnic. The boat trundled through a channel of murky water lined by thick mangrove trees, which widened and widened until we emerged onto the Caribbean ocean, a thrilling first glimpse of our home for the next week.

Heading out to sea

Heading out to sea

At this point the logistical comedy that had been in play for the last few days decided to resume. Our boat took us out to the local airport; an island just big enough for a little cluster of buildings and a landing strip that ran through the middle. We looked out expectantly across the ocean for our boat as we huddled on the shore under the setting sun, sure in the knowledge that dinner was being prepared and we would soon be feasting in our wood paneled mess deck. As the light disappeared and no news came from our crew we decided to work on the mountain of beer and share stories of how we each ended up marooned on our island. The hours passed. Another five of them. Around midnight we heard the put-put sound of a dinghy and seconds later the gangly frame of Guillem, sporting the Barcelona football strip, bounced into view. He wore a highly apologetic look, but appeared to have no rational for his late appearance. We were all in good cheer so none pressed the question.

Sarah and I were fortunate to be amongst the first transfer to the boat, as the dingy could only accommodate half of the group. Only a few minutes later we were clambering on board the wood deck of the Gitana III and the long suppressed pirate in me finally felt at home. Our hungry group patiently waited for the arrival of the others despite our protesting bellies. Another hour… then another. We knew that the dinghy could get to the island in a matter of minutes, so the delay was worrying. It was pitch black and now two in the morning. Suddenly, out of the darkness Guillem appeared sitting alone in his dinghy, which was tethered to a larger motorboat that had towed him back to us.

Once on board he explained that the outboard engine had cut out on his way to get the others and the current had swept him away from both the island and our boat. The paddles were useless against the current and all he could do was direct himself towards one of the inhabited islands. Striking land, he woke the resident family and had to charter a lift back to us. Having got the dinghy operational again, the rest of the group finally arrived. They had shared our concern over the delay, thinking we had all been swept out to sea. The good humor shared by everyone in the face of extreme hunger and exhaustion bode well for the success of the trip!

With the arrival of morning, only a few hours later, we were afforded our first good look at the Gitana III. The infamous Rothschild family commissioned this classic open-ocean sailboat back in the early 1950’s.  After nearly sinking into a forgotten corner of a Cartagena marina and being nicknamed the Gitanic, Mark, it’s Spanish captain laid eyes on her and fell in love. Guillem and Mark are slowly trying to restore the boat to its former glory. Their efforts to keep it afloat are financed by running tourists between Panama and Colombia.

Gitana III, dilapidated but proud

Gitana III, dilapidated but proud

First-mate Guillem

First-mate Guillem

Sea-worthy bikes

Sea-worthy bikes

For Mark, living on a sailboat-taxi is an extreme lifestyle fueled by passion and the regular need to escape into a marijuana-induced happy-land, which thankfully doesn’t interfere much with his job of drifting around on the Caribbean. His wild eccentricity has earned him a reputation as a Captain to be feared and most approach his boat with caution. To us he was the best entertainment we could have hoped for on our voyage, as his capacity to quickly turn irate was truly comical to observe from the safety of the spectator bench.

This is as close as you can get to Captain Mark with a camera...

This is as close as you can get to Captain Mark with a camera…

Our first three days on board were spent exploring the coastal Islands of the San Blas archipelago. It was something like “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets “The Beach,” minus any physical violence. Our crew set the tone of finding a comfy spot on deck and letting the soporific sway of the boat and gentle sea breeze lull you into a carefree doze. When our energy began to recover, the sandy atolls provided the perfect playground for us to live as castaways. We climbed for coconuts, explored coral reefs, had diving competitions off the boat edge, and made bbq dinners. The locals, who lived in Jungle Book style palm huts, welcomed us to their islands with open arms and big smiles as Mark pays them handsomely in coffee and marijuana. Here’s some pics of where we hung out:

IMG_3703

Flood insurance premiums are high around here

IMG_3710

Sarah looking our for sharks

Hi Sarah!

Hi Sarah!

Just as we were planning to depart for the two-day stretch of open-ocean, during which we would be confined to the boat deck, Mark declared that all the relaxing had worn him out and he wanted another day to rest. This was well received by the fellowship. We were coping well with the hardships of living in paradise. Perhaps our only concern was the occasional call to get out the water when a menacingly large shark would enter our patch of water. This in itself was a fun diversion, especially at night when we would be poised over the deck rails with our flashlights to catch the reflections of their torpedo-like frames.

I could have spent a while here...

I could have spent a while here…

A few waves peaking on the reefs

A few waves peaking on the reefs as we set off for Colombia

Life became much less eventful when we finally moved out into the open-ocean. The forceful rocking of the boat made going anywhere a major challenge and instantly brought on nausea the moment you tried to sit or stand up. We spent as much time as we could splayed out on the deck, the brave trying to read while others slept or listened to music. The worst part was the suffocating, sweaty, stinking, heat inside the cabins, which were sealed shut to prevent any water from spilling in. Meals were eaten in record time as we tried to swallow everything in as few breaths as possible and quickly return to the sanctuary of the deck. Sleep was only achieved by taking enough seasickness pills to knock us out, which made us blissfully oblivious to constantly being slammed into the wall with each pitch and sway of the boat.

On the second morning after departure, the sight of Cartagena’s high-rise skyline began to emerge like a mirage through the early morning haze. The coastal waters were calm and the Gitana III glided us towards our longed for destination. It was a picture of tranquility… for a moment, until a giant cruise ship headed towards us. It expected to have right of way, causing Mark to erupt in a lengthy string of expletives and vulgar gestures. It was a case of “little man” syndrome gone wild. Nothing, even the cleaving of his beloved boat in two by one 500 times bigger, would prevent him staying his course and making his point. The coastguard had to send out a tug to execute an emergency maneuver on the cruise ship. Mark also felt obliged to rage at them too. The best part was watching the smug smirk form around the cigarette in his mouth as we slid into the old harbor while he intentionally ignored the nautical chaos he had instigated unfolding behind us.

The Isthmus of discontent (a.k.a. Panama)

Whenever I have a less than great experience somewhere I try to remember that it has more to do with how I am thinking than the actual objective circumstances. That being said, it may just be the case that Panama is a bit of a dump.

As is the case anywhere one goes, we encountered wonderfully kind and attractive people and people we wished we hadn’t. But the characteristic distinguishing Panama from the rest of Central America was the absence of warmth and friendliness that had become so habitual in our everyday interactions up to this point. This may have been somewhat due to our feeling exhausted while we were there, so we may not have drawn the best out of others. But I also feel it has to do with a lack of cultural identity, so pervasive and rich throughout the rest of the continent. Walking through Panama you will encounter perhaps the greatest ethnic diversity you can find in Central America, but the melting pot containing this diversity has “made in the USA” stamped on it and fails to manifest the best of either North or Central American culture.

Thumbs up for making it past the three hour line up to get into Panama

Thumbs up for making it past the three hour line up to get into Panama

Enough with the ruminating… back to the story! After Costa Rica’s beautiful cycling spell the first few meters of Panama came as a shock. The costal highway turned from a single lane road winding through the jungle into a 6-lane mega-highway pummeling through nothing more than aggressive-looking truck stops and dusty bushes. We looked at our map and saw that the 600km stretch to Panama City was essentially a highway transit lane through the country and didn’t stop by any towns, parks, or any other point of interest along the way. This discovery, and the depressing experience of cycling through the first 50km of the country into David (Panama’s second city) made it easy for us to decide to skip cycling this section and take a bus into the capital.

Pedaling the Pan-american highway

Pedaling the Pan-american highway

We arrived in David dazed, confused, and in serious need of a shower. We stopped outside of a church and asked two young people waiting for the next service whether they knew of anywhere we could pitch a tent for the night. “You can’t do that!” They answered a little more forcefully than was comfortable. The man turned his back to us and revealed a long scar from the top to bottom of his head where he was knifed a few months earlier. “It’s really dangerous here,” he said. “You need to be careful about who you trust.” They conferred with each other in whispers for a moment and turned back to us. “You can sleep on the floor of our house”.

After walking us back to their little house I asked if they were going to return for the service they had been waiting for. “Oh no… I guess we only went to church today to meet you!” In the early hours of the next day we fumbled our way through the city center to the bus terminal. We were extremely grateful for the random kindness of our new friends in David, however, their severe warnings of the town made us glad to make a quick retreat.

The bus journey from David to Panama City was entirely unremarkable, and reinforced our first instincts that the path wasn’t really worth the tears, sweat, and subsequent urge to fling ourselves under a passing truck. This first impression of the country unfavorably characterized it as a vacuum of culture and social niceties. Sadly, we didn’t have the energy to make the necessary side trips down to the coast or up into the mountains where im sure we would have encountered Panama’s cultural riches.

Our experience was somewhat redeemed on arriving in Panama City through a chance meeting with a super kind Panamanian/Canadian couple. They are both biologists who work on population genetics. Going to the Galapagos Islands every year to collect samples, they are continuing the work that Darwin began by observing the process of speciation, albeit at a much finer resolution than he could have imagined. We spent our nights in Panama City camped outside their back door, but enjoyed sharing their company and rich conversation over dinner in the evenings. Some time to get our geek on!

Panama city is a jumble of modern buildings that some find awe-inspiring and others, like us, un-inspiring. There are a number of interesting things to see due to the area’s tumultuous history and emerging present. The Spanish set up a little fort in the bay of Panama in 1519. Before the construction of the canal, this fort was the starting point for the trade route over to the Caribbean coast. Much of the gold and silver pillaged from South America passed through Panama on its way to Spain. As a result, it was an attractive destination for English pirates. One such pirate, Captain Henry Morgan, completely destroyed the city in 1671. The Spanish moved to a more secure spot 8km down the coast and today the remains of the old city sit glumly in a mangrove.

Panama City's downtown is a stunning blend of new buildings failing to look contemporary and new buildings failing to look classical.

Panama City’s downtown is a stunning blend of new buildings failing to look contemporary and new buildings failing to look classical.

The resultant fortified colonial city that now sits on the edge of the modern downtown is an oasis of charm in a veritable desert. Crumbling colonial buildings have a romantic, swept away, and slightly melancholy look. The government is scrambling to have the buildings spruced up as quickly as possible to give Panama more of a cultural dimension and attract romancing tourists, so each street has it’s own symphony of jack-hammers, drills, and cement mixers.

Panama's slice of colonial heritage

Panama’s slice of colonial heritage

Panama City remained small and obscure until the early 20th century when the US successfully connected the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with one of the largest, and perhaps most unattractive, canals ever built. The stream of shipping traffic brought a boom in trade and foreign investment. Africans, Europeans, central and south Americans, Asians and the few indigenous people already living there largely abandoned traditions from home to mingle and create a new culture that was dominated by economic expansion. Infrastructure was laid down by the US, whose sovereignty over the canal seemed to extend throughout the capital. Today the downtown is a rapidly ascending clutter of apartment and office buildings swarmed by car-huddled highways.

When not on the road, Sarah likes maintain her stamina by training in the public park!

When not on the road, Sarah likes maintain her stamina by training in the public park!

Most of our time in the city was spent organizing our passage from Panama to Colombia. The lack of a road across the aptly named Darien Gap has resulted in a flourishing trade of running backpackers in private boats between the two countries. Given that these expeditions include a few days playing castaway on the San Blas archipelago of paradisiacal islands, this option wins the affection of adventurous travelers who would otherwise have to pay an equivalent cost to fly. The challenging part is finding a reliable boat. For many this can be a frustrating process. Captains post their departure date in hostals and hope that enough passengers sign up in time for them to set sail on schedule. Passengers, however, leave it until the last minute to sign up so that they can be sure the boat will leave and can negotiate a good deal. The result is that departure dates invariably slip from a day or two to a week later than intended. Only the flexible and laid back travelers make it onto a boat!

A couple of crazy Belguims who we crossed paths with when visiting the canal (they were also unimpressed!) who had just arrived by boat from Colombia and were heading north. Some fun solidarity was felt while sharing the highs and lows of the pedaling lifestyle.

A couple of crazy Belguims who we crossed paths with when visiting the canal (they were also unimpressed!) who had just arrived by boat from Colombia and were heading north. Some fun solidarity was felt while sharing the highs and lows of the pedaling lifestyle.

We went hunting around the old town knowing we would have a hard time finding a boat with space for our bikes and gear that remained within our budget. In Luna’s Castle, a kind of backpacker’s purgatory where screaming 20-somethings consume beer and other mind altering substances to pass the time while they wait for their passage to salvation, we met Guillem, a Barcelonan designer-come-sea captain. He is the first mate on a geriatric (or classic if you’re a “half-full” type) racing sailboat called the Gitana III. She lived her glory days back in the 1950’s and 60’s, when she crossed the open ocean in record time, but still retains much of her charm (as far as we could glean from the photos). Thinking that character trumps expediency, we signed up.

Meeting Guillem down a back alley the next day to do a hefty cash transaction with a nagging sense that the Gitana III was probably sitting on the bottom of the Mediterranean and that by tomorrow Guillem would have a beard and go by the name of Frederico made me wish I could pull a gangster face. But something about Guillem’s lack of guile and enthusiasm for his long career as a boy scout eased my suspicions. He assured us that we would get the logistical details in an e-mail a few hours later, so we went back home expectant and relieved to be on our way.

My inbox remained empty until the following day when we received the news that the “engine was broken.” Wait another day. Good news! We will be leaving tomorrow, 9am sharp. So we pedal into Panama early and spend five hours waiting for our Jeep… these guys know how to make you nervous! When it finally showed up around 2pm my frustration was engulfed by a wave of euphoria that I would soon be watching Panama slip away.

Rica Costa Rica

For our well-loved friends and family back home and those we’ve met along the trail, sorry for the long pause in writing! Since the last post we’ve traversed the jungles of Costa Rica, crazy highways of Panama, the fun but not necessarily advisable sailing trip across the Caribbean, and have travelled inland from Cartagena to Colombia’s mountains. By the way, today is our ten-month anniversary of being on the road! It’s not a short story to get caught up on but we will try our best to share the wonders and wobbles of the last few months…

To start where we left off:

roadside monkeys

Roadside monkeys

One minute after crossing the border into Costa Rica all signs of human life but the asphalt beneath our wheels disappeared. We cycled deeper into enchantment on a road closed in by thick forest with glimpses of the distant ocean between the trees. Most of our trip through Costa Rica carried on like this; jungle spilled over the highway’s edges where howler monkeys dangled above our heads as we cycled past, and white sand beaches waited at the end of nearly every day on the road. At the risk of sounding like an airport tourist brochure, I can’t say enough times how beautiful (and hot) this country is!

IMG_3608

First night in Costa Rica

First night in Costa Rica

We started by taking a mini-tour around the Guanacaste coast and accidentally ended up on IMG_3616Coco beach, a nearly all-American hangout for honeymooners and yachters. Costa Rica mimics American prices pretty closely, so we combed the heavy tourist scene to see if there was somewhere to camp. Setting our aims a little high, we asked a woman outside of a beautiful mansion if we could set up a tent on her lawn. She genuinely looked disappointed to tell us we couldn’t because she only worked there and the German owners were away, but led us to the beach where her friends live in a bungalow/the community church and have an unofficial tent-spot and toilet for the odd person who discovers it and thinks to ask to use it. Exhausted by a few days without rest, we spent the next day eating papaya with lime and floating in the ocean.

haircut on the go

haircut on the go

IMG_3621

We’re always a little wary of being in built-for-tourist towns, so despite the paradise setting we weren’t too sad to be on our way again. We started a slow journey back inland, still tired from IMG_3626our whirl through Nicaragua and struggling to think and ride strait in the heat. Just before midday we took a break in a little village square and were warned by an old man about the young hoodlums on the bench next to us who like to steal bicycles. Although I think they’d have their work cut out for them in getting away on our bikes quickly, we thanked him for the tip. The nice old man was Santo, who at 73 decided he wanted to learn English and enrolled in a high school class, where the next oldest student was 18. He told us to wait a few more hours until he had his recess, when he would bring us some green mangoes from his garden. We read our books and drank chocolate milk as we waited, and true to his word, he came back 2 hours later with mangoes and a little bag of salt.

He invited us to spend the night at his house, so all three of us hopped on our bicycles and rode through the windy dirt roads leading to his place. As we sat down at the kitchen table he bustled around to get us coffee, samples of all the exotic fruits growing in his garden, and photo albums of his children.

With Santo

With Santo

The next morning we were eating our morning baguette (which they eat with Natilla, a type of

first wild aligator sighting... huge and terrifying!

first wild aligator sighting… huge and terrifying!

sour/cheesy cream) when his school-mate knocked on the door to make their way to class together. Once more, the three of us hopped on our bikes and rode off, saying farewell as we reached the turn off to his class. “Call me when you get home to Canada!” he said, waving and smiling as we rode off.

Since before reaching Costa Rica, the biologist in Jacques jumped at the chance to visit the cloud forest in Monte Verde. So after a few more days making our way out of Guanacaste we cycled to the edge of the road traveling the long way up into the cloud rainforest. We locked our bikes to a very nice woman’s front porch and hitchhiked out of the tropical heat and into the wet and cold mountains.

IMG_3635

Jacques heard about Monte Verde from an ecology professor at the University of Victoria

..best stables in town

..best stables in town

(where we studied) who’s done research at their biology center. Neither of us had actually looked anything up about the area, but we imagined a wild forest wonderland with little lab-huts and a few biologists wandering around. As we wound our way up the narrow gravel road to Monte Verde, our hitchhiking patrons informed us that Monte Verde is the Costa Rican tourist hub and the number 1 recommended tourist activity in Lonely Planet’s travel guide. We weren’t alone in seeking it out! With our hopes dashed of camping on a free patch of lawn we decided on a compromise of camping under a horses stable outside a funky forest lodge. Although it smelled like you’d expect a stable to and the wind shook the tent at odd hours, it was actually quite cozy.

IMG_3656

It was magical relief to be in cold misty weather once more, to give our bodies a break from the IMG_3653unrelenting heat of the tropics and our sunburned skin a chance to rehydrate. The forest was a green force of tangled trees, vines, huge leaved plants and a lot of mud. The main mountain trail was $18 per person, so we decided to stay thrifty and found a labyrinth-like trail hidden above the biology station. We explored the muddy, windy trails for a few blissful hours, accompanied by our new dog-friend ‘Pal’ who seemed to find us every day in a different spot in town.

reeeally muddy

reeeally muddy

Jacques and Pal

Jacques and Pal

After getting our fix of hiking, drinking tea and philosophizing with the lodge’s resident 90- year old poet, we took the bus back down to fetch our bikes, set up our tent in the yard of the nice lady who stored them for us, and get ready for riding away the next morning.

After a few more days heading south we decided to deviate from our coastal route to visit our friend Claudia (the casting director from our Nicaragua beer commercial) who lives in San Jose with her husband and two very cute sons.

Claudia Claudio and Fede dancing to Rikki Martin

Claudia Claudio and Fede dancing to Rikki Martin

Over the phone she welcomed us to rest as long as needed, so the next day we spent 2 hours on

a couple of tourists...

a couple of tourists…

an air-conditioned bus climbing the mountains up to San Jose, which was such a pleasant way to travel that we felt our faithfulness to cycling waver. We spent the next 5 days sleeping, exploring San Jose with Claudia and her husband Claudio, taking mini-bike rides around their neighborhood and singing Justin Bieber with their 8-year old son Federico, and sampling local culinary creations dished up by their cook.

After resting to our fill we said goodbye and headed back to the heat of the coast to continue our trip from where we left off. There was just over 300km of coastline left until we hit the border with Panama. It was so hot that the only practical times to cycle without inviting sure death, or at the very least, full-body paralysis, were between 5-10:30am, and 4-5:30pm. Even then, the heat inspired new meaning to ‘sweating profusely,’ and I will never again use that phrase in vain!

The last few days of Costa Rica were the most beautiful; the highway curved along one surf beach after another, crossed rivers every 5km or so, and wove through little villages full of friendly and curious people. The air became thick with humidity and oppressively hot which I think scared off most tourists and meant that once again two cyclists wandering through a village was somewhat of a novelty.

end of a long day

end of a long day

Bicycles taking a rest

Our happy friends

We arrived at surfing beach called Playa Hermosa one hot and happy afternoon and leaned our bikes against a nice man’s coconut and shrimp stand. His name was Don Orlando, and although he said we could camp on the beach, we were very welcome to come his house. At the end of the day we packed his truck with our belongings and drove 4 km through dirt and a few rivers to deep within the jungle where he lived with his wife and daughter.  Their home was a few rooms surrounded by banana, plantain, guava, coconut, mango, and tamarind trees, with homemade fishponds and hammocks perched on the river’s edge.  They set up little mattresses for us on the floor and told us to lie down and rest while they cooked up Gallo Pinto (rice and beans a la Central America) and oatmeal water (a local favorite). We happily took up their offer to rest an extra day with them, and spent the time fanning ourselves to keep cool and listening to the birds from a semi-conscious heat stroke state.

view from the road

view from the road

Don Orlando embodies the ‘Pura Vida’ lifestyle the Costa Ricans pride themselves on. After having a mechanic’s business in San Jose, he’d had enough of city life and sold everything to move to the coast. Now he spends his days relaxing in his hammock on the beach by his coconut stand, fishing from his pond, spreading happiness through his big smile and genuinely teaching us, just by our observing him, to relax and slow down!

monkeys

monkeys

A few kilometers outside of the Panamanian border we stopped on the grass outside someone’s house to take a little rest before leaving Costa Rica. Within a few minutes, a man bounded out of the house to welcome us, and as a last memento of Costa Rica’s kindness, handed us two hot steak sandwiches and fresh juice. We had been feeding off of stale bread, bananas and peanut butter for the last few days on the road, and joyfully replaced our standard breakfast with the best sandwiches we’d had in a very long time.

Although in Costa Rica I solidified previous hunches that my Northern brain and body turn to mush in intense tropical heat, it was the one of the richest and most beautiful countries to cycle through.  Back home there’s often a lot of pressure to be busy and get things done as quickly as possible, and I learned a lot from the Costa Rican’s very chilled out and happy attitude of taking life one moment at a time and enjoying life’s simple gifts as they present themselves. Even on a bike journey who’s intention is to slow down and take life one day at a time we can get lost in ideas of where to go next, or fixate on escaping from the midday inferno or terrifying insects. Although perhaps there’s good cause for this too, the Costa Riquenos were great teachers in how to show simple kindness to strangers, and that if the details aren’t worried over, life will still turn out just fine!

IMG_3613

Nicaragua… its awesome.

Nicaragua has a painful and tragic recent history, as do many of the countries in Central America. What makes it stand out from its neighbours, however, is the unperturbed warmth of the people and richness of culture that have survived the worst of US imperialism and natural disasters. Given that we crossed into the country feeling exhausted from a relentless push through El Salvador and Honduras, we felt profound relief to be embraced by generous smiles, refreshingly green landscapes, and solid tail wind. The road immediately began to wind around the base of the enormous Volcano San Cristobal, a looming peak of the kind used by villains to house their “secret underground lairs.” It was a pleasure to have such an absorbing horizon to contemplate as we rolled along, making it easier to shift our attention from aching legs and numbing arms.

Hola Nicaragua!

Hola Nicaragua!

Greening up!

Greening up!

Volcano St Cristobal

Volcano St Cristobal

As dusk began to fall we realized that we would not make it to Leon, one of Nicaragua’s largest, oldest, and most colorful cities. Instead, we needed to find a place we could pitch our tent, leaving the last 35km to Leon for the following day. Pushed by the wind and drawn by gravity, we were flying down towards Chinandega. A sign pointing down a small dirt track that read “monestario” caused me to pull hard on my brakes and pull a fast u-turn. A few minutes later we were introducing ourselves to a community of Poor Clair nuns. They must have been a little surprised by our appearance and desire to camp in their gardens, but they indulged us with dinner, a refreshing shower, and comfortable bed. Thank God! Our first impression of Nicaragua left us hopeful of having a relaxed and enjoyable time in the country. Our hopes were far too modest. Nicaragua is country full of surprises!

Evidence left behind by the previous generation

Evidence of the previous generation having arrived first

A slower paced start to the next day brought us to Leon by the early afternoon. We stopped en-route to buy supplies and were asked, “Where have you come from?” by a shop assistant. “Canada,” we replied. “OK,” he nodded casually, and then asked, “Where are you going.” “Today, just to Leon,” we answered. “Leon!!! All the way on your bicycles!” he exclaimed incredulously. And then we realized he didn’t know where Canada was, but was shocked by the idea of cycling 35km down the road, a distance he could relate to. The scale of our journey tends to be difficult to describe to those we meet on the road, who have often never stayed far beyond their village of birth. We list the countries we have passed through and then stress that Canada is a country north of the US and not in the US. Despite this they usually wave and shout “Adios Gringos!”

Leon's grand old cathedral

Leon’s grand old cathedral

Leon, along with its rival, Granada, was one of the first cities created in Central America by the Spanish conquistadors. It became home to the powerful elites on the left side of government, while Granada was the epicenter of the right. Leon became the capital city of the newly independent Nicaragua in 1839. However, constant fighting with the Conservatives in Granada for primacy led to the compromise location of Managua being selected as the capital from 1858 onwards. Although no longer the capital city, the wealth of proud colonial buildings, buzzing streets, and radicalized students makes Leon the most impressive and interesting of all the cities in Nicaragua.

We had time to look around the many hostels that catered to the thriving backpacking culture that had been absent from our route through El Salvador and Honduras. Never satisfied, we kept searching until a man on the street told us to knock on the door of town house a few blocks away. This sounded fun. We found the house, but there was no response to our knocking. We peered through the living room window and caught the attention of two young boys by gesturing madly to the front door. We waited to meet the lady of the house who was amused to see two cyclists, but graciously welcomed us in. She explained that she was not prepared for guests, but offered us the name of a friend who could accommodate us. We were visibly disappointed. The old house in the heart of downtown was such a great find and far more fun than a run-of-the-mill hostel. After applying some of our irresistible charm she decided to clean and prepare a room for us and we were shortly getting to know all the family and stuffing ourselves with freshly fallen mangos that littered the courtyard.

Hanging with grandma and grandson of our new family

Hanging with grandma and grandson of our new family

The family took us around town to point out the best places to eat and we decided that we liked Leon and needed to stay an extra day. While enjoying a full day off the bikes, we planned our route through Nicaragua and contacted Edwin, who warmly welcomed us to stay with him in the hills above Managua, a days ride from Leon. Rather than arriving at Edwin’s home, he suggested we arrive at his restaurant. Given my love for food, I thought this was a great suggestion. What I was not prepared for was the overwhelmingly generous reception we received from all of Edwin’s family, who immediately went out of their way to provide for our every need. Edwin presented a fridge filled with delicious drinks and food and insisted on cooking a gourmet breakfast for us in the morning. Being hosted by a gourmet chef who cut his teeth in Cordon Blue was a luxury that we could never have anticipated and Edwin’s extreme generosity turned our usual struggle for survival on its head.

Edwin took us on a tour of Managua. Having been decimated in a massive earthquake in 1972, the city has a slightly empty feel and lacks the intensity of activity you would expect in a Capital city. Fearing to rebuild in an area that experienced such devastation, a new area of modern style malls has sprung up on the periphery of the old city, away from the lake front. The shell of the old Cathedral still stands as testament to the old heart of Managua, but the wide empty roads we traveled around it failed to evoke any sense how it must have been.

The old cathedral in Managua

The old cathedral in Managua

The famous silhouette of Sandino overlooking Managua

The famous silhouette of Sandino overlooking Managua

Edwin had casually dropped the fact that his family is politically involved into our earlier conversation. Our visit to the Mazmorras, or torture chambers, of the old Somoza regime proved this to be a gross understatement. Even Edwin was taken by surprise to discover a large display of photographs that told the story of Somoza’s assassination in 1956 and the subsequent trial and execution of the conspirators by the National Guard. Chief among those who collaborated to end the oppressive regime was a certain Edwin Castro, grandfather to Edwin Castro Jr. our new friend! Edwin Sr. was a poet, who was committed to revolutionary action and spread his message through the radical student newspaper El Universitario. Although Edwin’s colleague Rigoberto Lopez successfully assassinated Anastasio Somoza, little political change occurred due to the quick action of Somoza’s sons, who assumed the position of president and commander of the National Guard, respectively. Edwin Sr. is therefore best remembered for the poetry he composed while imprisoned before his death at the hands of the guards in 1960, such as “Tomorrow, my child, everything will be different,” an excerpt of which is below.

Tomorrow, my child, everything will be different.

No beatings, no prisons, no rifles

to suppress ideas.

You will walk through the streets of your cities,

hand in hand with your children,

as I cannot do with you now.

Jails will not imprison your young years,

as they have locked away mine;

nor will you die in exile.

Eyes trembling,

longing for my homelands,

where my father died.

Tomorrow, my child, everything will be different.

A photo of Edwin Castro Sr. with his grandson enjoying a "different tomorrow"

A photo of Edwin Castro Sr. with his grandson enjoying a “different tomorrow”

After the heaviness of delving into a dark past at both a personal and national level, we lightened up with a McFlurry and drive into the hills outside the city. Edwin took us to a favorite spot of his that overlooks the city, framed by Lake Managua and a number of volcanoes. As a tourist Managua would seem quite unremarkable, but through Edwin’s eyes it became a profound and beautiful place to experience. Did I forget to also mention tasty?! The day ended with one of the yummiest, and certainly the most sophisticated, meals we have enjoyed on our journey. We dinned at “La Casserole,” a restaurant Edwin created with his family, that garners wide acclaim among Managua’s gentry.

Las touristas

Las touristas

A decadent evening at La Casserole

A decadent evening at La Casserole

Sadly, we could not stay with Edwin forever. Our next stop was to be Granada, the oldest and best-preserved colonial city in Nicaragua, which draws the majority of visitors to the country. The route there was beautiful. We stayed overnight with a very kind family in Masatepe before winding our way down to Granada’s lakeside old town. Unbeknown to us, we were spotted while cycling along the highway by a casting director from Costa Rica. Having enjoyed a day strolling through the city, we quickly made plans to take a boat to the Island of Ometepe. The island is formed from two giant volcanoes that protrude from the middle of Lake Nicaragua, an expanse of water more reminiscent of the ocean. Sarah enjoyed two weeks on Ometepe during a school trip eight years earlier and we were both excited to explore its unique mix of natural beauty and coop fincas (farms).

In Santa Catherina en route to Granada

In Santa Catherina en route to Granada

The main strip in Granada

The main strip in Granada

With our boat tickets and food supplies in hand, we walked down Granada’s main strip en-route to our bikes and the lakeside dock. A lively woman accosted us and asked if we would be willing to work as models in a Tona beer commercial being shot that afternoon. My initial skepticism made me hesitate. “Is this for real?” I asked. “Yes, yes!” she replied and produced a contract outlining the terms and conditions, which included a generous wage for a short afternoons work. I was beginning to feel excited about my impending stardom. “You will be filmed enjoying a meal and toasting with Tona beer,” she explained, “which will be interrupted by a man playing a violin. You will act surprised and laugh and be happy. Then a group of young models will come over to your table and start dancing around you.” I felt I could live with that. “We’re in!” I said. “Great!” she replied, seeming visibly relieved. She introduced herself as Claudia and explained that she was the director of a casting agency based in Costa Rica. When we told her we were on a cycling journey she started laughing and explained that she had seen us riding into Granada and wondered at the time if we might model for the commercial. She told us to return in an hour for wardrobe and makeup. We walked away in disbelief of our good fortune and a slight sense of the surreal.

Preparing the set

Preparing the set

Two hours later we looked the part of two fresh faced and sharply dressed tourists. Painstaking efforts had been made to prepare the perfect looking meal and two “ice cold” Tona beers set out on a restaurant table in the middle of the main tourist strip. An elaborate set up of cameras and lighting equipment all focused in on the little table where we were directed to sit and look “like happy gringos!” Take after take was shot of us toasting, then being interrupted by the violinist, and lastly (my favorite) having a troop of models approach us and start dancing about. As this was happening, 250 extras were being given orders to walk up and down the street in an effort to make the scene look “ordinary.” Bystanders gathered around the set and stared at Sarah and I, poised at the centre of all the commotion. I tried to look the part of an experienced model and not let my sense of spuriousness show through! After a couple of hours the director called a rap and the applause signaled that our work for the day was over. Before we left, Claudia invited us to dinner with the cast. The chance to schmoose with models and eat gourmet pizza appealed to us, so this time there was no hesitation in accepting!

"Look happy!!!" shouts the director

“Look happy!!!” shouts the director

The meal ended with an explosion of confetti

The meal ended with an explosion of confetti

The models... and a couple of misplaced cyclists

The models… and a couple of misplaced cyclists

We were told that the commercial would not be available for a couple of months. So, to give you some idea of the fruits of our work, I have created an “artists (albeit amateur) impression” of the commercial:

No way! A Tona beer!

No way! A Tona beer!

It's smart to drink as much as you can!

It’s smart to drink as much as you can!

Now I feel really cool and happy!

Now I feel really cool and happy!

Our postponed journey to Ometepe commenced the following day. Its promise of tranquility was the perfect antidote to the excitement of the previous one. Ometepe contains small villages dispersed along the narrow lanes that circle the two large volcanoes, forming a figure of eight. On the boat ride over we met two fellow Victorians hanging out in Nicaragua while considering the next step of their lives. It was fun to swap stories. As we cycled around the Island the next day we ran into them again while relaxing on the beach. Small big island. Cycling on an island has the benefit of removing any anxiety about getting somewhere, so we just explored at a lazy pace. We dropped in on farms run by hippy communities, which made me want to stay… for a few seconds. We found a spot on the beach to camp under a troop of howler monkeys as the day turned to night. Ometepe is one of the most relaxing places I have ever visited. When too hot, you simply jump into the lake or a river. When tired, you lounge on the beach. When hungry, you buy a chocobanana. Brilliant! On our last day we took a boat at sunrise back to the mainland and fought against the wind all the way to the Costa Rican boarder.

Sailing to Ometepe

Sailing to Ometepe

More Canadians

More Canadians

Volcano Concepcion

Volcano Concepcion

The stress is palpable

The stress is palpable

Horses coming to the beach for a drink

Horses coming to the beach for a drink

Finka Magdelena

Finka Magdelena

Hiking up the volcano (we didn't reach the top!)

Hiking up the volcano (we didn’t reach the top!)

Setting off for Costa Rica at sunrise

Setting off for Costa Rica at sunrise… Aye aye captain!

Pupusas and Pistols

The combined effect of intestinal parasites and the oppressive heat of tropical lowlands left us both with acute heatstroke. The long awaited thrill of cruising down from Guatemala’s highlands gave way to a dizzy heaviness as the day drew on. By the time we arrived in Guazacapan we were struggling to stand. As sunset edged closer, we dragged our heavy bikes up the steep slip road into the little town. School students swarmed the narrow streets, weaving around hawkers selling fruits and milkshakes. We instantly knew they didn’t get many, if any, foreign visitors in town by the hundreds of eyes that followed our every move as we walked up the main street. The occasional “good morning!” and “thank-you very much!” shouted by a plucky student would cause their cluster of friends to howl with laughter. We were too exhausted to respond. We needed somewhere to spend the night. Our plan was to ask to camp in the back yard of the local police station.

Burning hills on the way down from Antigua

Burning hills on the way down from Antigua

Just as we had finished setting up our tent in a police station that more resembled a junkyard, a young woman holding a large Gingo-looking baby approached us. Cindy introduced herself and her baby, Isaac. She spoke English in a perfect Canadian accent, explaining that her husband was from Kelowna, BC, and she was awaiting papers to join him in Canada. She invited us back to their home with the irresistible offer of a large Canadian style dinner. After hastily packing up our unused tent we headed to Cindy’s house and gratefully tucked into bagels with cherry jam, burgers, and pasta in their living room, which was perched on top of the house under a broad palapa roof. My consciousness was fading fast, however, and I was having trouble keeping up with our conversation with Cindy’s animated father. The opportunity to at last fall asleep came as a great relief.

Our saviours and Isaac the half-gringo baby

Our saviours and Isaac the half-gringo baby

Recovering from heat stroke

Recovering from heat stroke

Sunrise from our outdoor bedroom

Sunrise from our outdoor bedroom

We awoke the next morning with great certainty that there was no way we could continue on our bikes that day. Sarah and I took anti-parasitic medicine, covered ourselves with ice packs, and drank water until our bellies were distended and fit to burst. Cindy and her family kindly let us stay with them another night, although I had a sinking feeling that I would need longer than a day before I could happily cycle again.

We said grateful farewells before setting off towards the El Salvadorian boarder after a slow start the following morning. I was feeling fragile, but figured that the rhythm of cycling would help me recover. I was greatly mistaken. I started to get sharp pains where the “sun doesn’t shine” as I bounced up and down on my saddle along the dirt roads. As we neared the boarder I could no longer bear the pain and almost exploded with frustration. We walked our bikes through the border, which resembled a giant trucker’s rest stop with a small booth in the middle. As we stood in line to receive our stamp of welcome into El Salvador we met Emerson, a large and kindly Salvadorian man who was driving back to his hometown of Zacatecoluca (takes a few tries before it rolls off the tongue) with his girlfriend Rosy. He’s a recent US citizen living in Houston, and seems to share his heart between his original homeland and newly adopted “land of plenty and opportunity.” His palpable love for El Salvador was a great introduction to the country. I was excited, and relieved for my bum, when he offered to take us with him and suggested we stay the night at his house.

It was a pleasant change to enjoy the gentle scenery of the El Salvadorian coast from an air-conditioned truck. We stopped for lunch overlooking the sparkling Pacific and, for the first time in a while, it felt like a relaxing holiday. Emerson was keen to give us a tour of Zacatecoluca. He warmly greeted every other person we passed and I started to feel like an entourage for a local celebrity. The day was drawing on, but Emerson had grand plans. He announced that we would drive to San Salvador so that we would have the chance to see the city without taking the risk of passing through on a bicycle. We stopped en-route to have a coffee at the only Starbucks in El Salvador and walk around the gentrified neighborhoods in the hills above the city where those with the means lived a more U.S. lifestyle. This was where Emerson liked to come and relax. The descent into San Salvador itself was more educational than pleasant. The city regularly experiences severe earthquakes, most recently in 1986. As a result, it tends to have a ramshackle and concrete feel, which is only accentuated by the lack of cleanliness and abundance of shady looking characters. These impressions gleaned from the back seat of Emerson’s truck may be superficial, but the general lack of enthusiasm among El Salvadorians towards the city gave me ample justification to probe no further.

Emerson, his girlfriend, and us enjoying a Starbucks in La Libertad

Emerson, his girlfriend, and us enjoying a Starbucks in La Libertad

Our next stop was the Usulutan town hall, where Valentine’s Day was celebrated with gusto. We asked to spend the night there in our tent. The minister for tourism and the mayor gave us a warm welcome and insisted that we make ourselves at home. The town was crowded and bustling, but had some attractive buildings and a touch of colonial charm. Around sunset, a large crowd of soldiers marched into the central square and spread out to station themselves on each street corner. They were the heavy security for the night’s military concert being staged in front of the church. A large crowd had gathered in the main square to watch the concert and team of men, women, and children were busily scurrying around on the roof of the town hall to set up fireworks for the grand finale. We wandered amongst the locals, enjoying the party atmosphere. As the concert ended, a crescendo of explosions and thick acrid smoke signaled the commencement of a haphazard and lengthy pyrotechnic display. The thick layer of ash and spent fireworks that littered city hall afterwards convinced us to set up our tent inside the building. It was a relief when all the soldiers and pyromaniacs had left and we could get some much-needed rest!

Birds had the same idea as us and settled down for the night in the town hall

Birds had the same idea as us and settled down for the night in the town hall

Our last day of cycling in El Salvador was a long one. We headed east for the Honduran boarder, following long straight flat roads that allowed us to make good time. The scenery was lush and volcanoes on the horizon created a dramatic backdrop. Tall leafy trees extended their branches over the roads, mercifully providing shade from the strong tropical sun for much of the way. The land became drier and more hilly, however, as we approached the border. A thick layer of sweat glistened on our skin and we could feel our bodies begin to overheat.

Sarah pedaling for the border

Sarah pedaling for the border (note the truck of melons, yum!)

One of the many Volcanoes that keep the scenery interesting

One of the many Volcanoes that keep the scenery interesting

Taking a break by a cow

Taking a break by a cow

Thankfully we soon arrived in Santa Rosa de Lima, our rest stop for the night. Our luck with finding somewhere to tent was suspended for the time being, and both the local priest and the police turned down our request to camp in their grounds. As a border town a stone’s throw from Honduras, people were understandably cautious and we realized we needed to find a hotel so we could sleep soundly. After being scared off by the first two hotels charging 50¢ an hour, some men on the side of the road offered to accompany us to a ‘real’ hotel they knew of and led us to an unmarked home on a shady looking street. A girl in her teens responded to our knocking on the door and confirmed that the building was, in fact, a hotel. It was immediately evident that we would be the only guests, and that few if any others had stayed there in recent history. We moved our things in and then had to remove cockroaches from the sink, a toilet seat from the shower, and try to air out the heavy pungent air in the unventilated room. Despite the less pleasant aspects, having a bed for the night was a welcome treat!

Sarah over the dividing line between El Salvador and Honduras

Sarah over the dividing line between El Salvador and Honduras

We set off early the following morning and crossed into Honduras without incident. We pushed our bicycles into the dry, golden, and dusty landscape surrounded by undulating hills that continued into the horizon. There was very little along the roadside to mark our progress or break the monotony of the long ride that took us over halfway towards the boarder with Nicaragua. The aggressive shouts following us as we cycled and the wariness with which we were received in Choluteca convinced us to find a hotel in the unremarkable but well positioned city. We had fun collecting a mix of produce at the market for dinner but discovered that our attempts to communicate in the Spanish we had picked up on our journey so far were seldom understood. We invariably got answers unrelated to the questions we asked and usually gave up after a few minutes of mutual confusion. Honduras felt a little bewildering!

The centre of Choluteca, the only pic we took in Honduras!

The centre of Choluteca, the only pic we took in Honduras!

The rest of the way to Nicaragua was uneventful, apart from the constant need to weave around deep and numerous potholes that littered the highway. This would not have been too dangerous apart from the large trucks and busses that were playing the same game, often leading to a face on confrontation for the only intact piece of road. In addition, any time I lost focus and slipped into a daydream I was abruptly interrupted by the bicycle falling out from under me and slamming into the lip of one of these surprise ditches. I would respond by screaming something obscene, but the road seemed to take no notice.

Nicaragua... yey!

Nicaragua… yey!

We reached the boarder by mid morning, having spent just over 24 hours in Honduras. We spent our last 50 Limpira on a roadside breakfast of beans, eggs, and cheese and approached Nicaragua with full bellies and sense of relief that our dash through the riskier sections of Central America had been relatively peaceful and without misshap!