Saturday, May 22, 2010

Gear and Getting Ready

Costa Rica 1 011
My bike in Lake Ann, Michigan

My planned departure date was October 15 of 2008 and the amount of preparation for this trip was pretty phenomenal. Whether everything I bought or got done would be useful or needed remained to be seen.

I had to first get the bike ready, fortunately my 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 750 (Mr. Spock) was pretty new and didn't require a lot of preparation. This was going to be a long cruise and something to look forward to, its what we were both built for in ways!

New tires and spark plugs, an oil change or two before Mexico and a new battery were about the only things the bike itself needed. Everything else was basically traveling gear; a tank bag for carrying things like maps and credit cards (quick access items that could go right on the gas tank), a new tool bag for the front of the bike, new saddle bags to go along with the three rear luggage bags I already had, extra tail and head light bulbs, a tire repair kit, a new sleeping bag and ground mattress, a hammock, a new lightweight cover for the bike when I wasn't on it, a new Laptop so I could write and store my pictures while waiting to upload them at a hotel or cafe, a new case for the laptop and small things like camera batteries or tail lights that I would want to have before I crossed the border into Mexico (where items are often hard to get or more expensive).

I also ordered maps from a local book store and a place in Vancouver. Its important to get the best maps you can find and unlike in the U.S. where you can get one for a few dollars at any gas station, in Mexico and Central America you often have to go out of your way to find them. And good ones if you can find them are not cheap.

I called ahead to Brownsville Texas to the Kawasaki dealer there and ordered new tires to be put on before going into Mexico. Unfortunately they did not tell me they needed a copy of my credit card before they would order the tires. Because of this the tires would probably not be there on time. Why they didn't tell me this 3 weeks prior when I originally talked to them was the question. So I just ended up having new tires put on before I left Traverse City and put 9,300 miles on them with no problems.

The gas cans, the hammock and the tire repair kit I never needed or used. I also didn't use my camping gear much (maybe twice) because I used hotels a lot for safety, convenience and helping me keep to a schedule. Hopefully on my next trip to Mexico and Central America I'll have more time for touring and involve less hotels and more camping or hostels.
While warm clothing was essential for fall and later winter travel in the states, it was also necessary for the high country in northern Mexico where at some altitudes frost is not uncommon in December. I did not have a lot of high priced techno gear so I went with Carhart bib bottoms for the U.S. part of the trip with an upper coat. I kept the upper coat for Mexico and Central America  and sent the lower half of the Carharts home after I reached Texas. Of course rain gear is needed both as a windbreak in cold weather and for the frequent downpours you run into. From Texas to Costa Rica I had very little rain however, most of what I was to encounter would be in Costa Rica itself.

Along with the seemingly endless list of clothing and equipment I also got all the recommended immunizations; Typhoid, Malaria, Tetanus, Hepatitis A and B shots and a Yellow Fever one for Panama (these were not cheap either, costing $300-$400's from the local public health nurse). I considered getting international health insurance with emergency evacuation coverage for myself for a few hundred dollars (which for someone doing extended travel abroad is often recommended, especially on a motorcycle) while looking into insuring the bike for the whole trip (another couple of thousand dollars perhaps). I decided not to purchase either and saved a lot of money by not doing so, this time anyway.

Most motorcycle travelers I read about didn't carry insurance on their bikes in Latin America (though some countries do require you purchase it at their border). The rule of thumb being; don't get in a accident and if you do get in one settle with the person before the police arrive or you could be considered guilty of causing it and your vehicle could be impounded and you put in jail until its cleared up in court. I have never heard anyone actually going through this scenario though, perhaps this is where the infamous official Central American bribe comes into play.

Before leaving on the trip I had to set up my home stay in Costa Rica with Spanish speaking classes as well as my dental work; the reason I was going to begin with. I also contacted the Record Eagle, a local paper here in Traverse City to see if they would want to do a story on the trip (they did and it was published the Sunday before I left saying I was on the road when I hadn't even left yet!). I had to make copies of my passport, credit cards, credit card contact numbers, vehicle title and registration while getting travelers checks. I also had business cards made up with my blog's address that I could pass out as I traveled for those who wanted to follow the trip or contact me later. Along with this I had to leave an itinerary and a way for others to contact me if needed as I traveled (the wonders of email). The lists seemed endless and had to be double checked and added to as new anticipated needs came up.

I ordered a copy of and started practicing a Rosetta Stone CD on learning Spanish. Something to help me get by at least until I could get to Costa Rica and delve into my Spanish classes. Finding the time to practice didn't come easy though and two years later I'm still getting through all 4 sections. While I think Rosetta Stone is helpful, you really have to spend the time practicing with it or it won't do you a lot of good. I use it now in conjunction with my college Spanish classes and I find it very useful.

The rough outline of the trip was to leave my home near Traverse City around October 15 and drive to Brownsville Texas where I would cross the border into Mexico. I figured the entire ride to Costa Rica and back would be about 10,000 miles, give or take a couple of thousand (It turned out to be about 9300 miles total from Michigan to Costa Rica and then back to Memphis where I loaded up my bike on a U-haul for the last part of the trip). The goal was to reach Costa Rica by the 1st or 2nd of November after having traveled along the Gulf Coast of Mexico and into and through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. (I actually ended up reaching Costa Rica about a week late having spent more time in Texas then planned. I was waiting on weather reports and summoning my courage to cross into Mexico and actually start the trip!).

Having reached Costa Rica I would stay with a family in San Jose, take Spanish lessons for a month and finish my dental implant work. In my spare time the goal was to tour and travel Costa Rica on my motorcycle. While most of this part of the plan was sound what I did not foresee was how my Spanish classes which were Monday thru Friday with my dental appointments squeezed in would not leave me much time to sight see. I was more or less a prisoner of my own schedule, much like I had been earlier that year in July when I went for the initial implant work and ended up spending most of my time in the hotel recovering from surgery. I also did not take into account how difficult (even with maps) getting around San Jose and Costa Rica would be. I eventually learned San Jose and most of Costa Rican roads fairly well, but initially I found it almost impossible to get around (lack of street signs and detailed maps being the main problem). On top of this was the fact that November is a rainy season month when many roads can be washed out or travel can be more difficult. So as in July, I was left frustrated with not much time to travel in a place that deserves a lot of exploration.

After a month in Costa Rica I planned to head south to Panama and the canals hoping to not only see them, but also to drive the last of the Pan American Highway before it ends at the Darien Gap, the stretch between Colombia and Panama that most people ferry around due to the wildness and the drug trafficking that reportedly goes on there. I felt like if I got that far on this trip then perhaps on a subsequent trip I could tour South America without back tracking to the Darien Gap since it is so difficult to cross on the Pan American Highway anyway (this way I would have still done the whole Pan American Highway outside of the gap).

By the second week in December it would be time to head north (as strange as this may sound in the middle of winter) back the way I had come and as far north as the winter weather would allow me. I thought if we had one of those winters where we got a stretch of 40 and 50 degree weather for a few days I could use this window to make it all the way back to Michigan on my bike. And even more ambitious If time permitted I might make New Orleans or visit a friend in Key West Florida before Christmas. I wanted to get back and see my family and dad by Christmas and knew I did not have all the time to do everything I might have liked on the trip. As it was I "over planned" and had to cut out several things I might have done had time permitted.

The three weeks before leaving was a very busy time as I continued to prepare. And during this time I went over to Wisconsin for two weeks to help with harvest on a cranberry marsh that I had worked on in the 90's. Having not worked all summer it seemed a good opportunity to earn some extra money before I left. I'm not sure financially the effort was worth going over for two weeks (especially since I left early to come back) but even if not, northern Wisconsin with its hundreds of lakes and wild forests is still one of the most beautiful areas in our country.

The backdrop to the Central American trip was the fact that just prior to leaving I had a close friend die and I assumed responsibility for much of his burial and estate matters. I had quit my job to handle his estate and also to deal with Plantar Fasciitis (swelled tendons) in my feet. If you have not had this condition before, you are lucky. I had developed it while working at a nursing home where I was often on my feet for long periods of time. It is a condition that for some will go away, with others it may require intensive physical therapy, anti-inflammation shots or even surgery to relieve the pain. I'm afraid I fall into the latter category since two years later it is still can be an issue for me.

As with all inflammation conditions diet also is an important factor. I found out just about everything I eat; from meat, dairy and sugar, to bread, coffee and citrus fruits, all contribute to inflammation in the body. In fact when I looked at it, 80% of the foods many of us eat are considered high inflammation foods.

Added to everything else that was going on was the fact that both my parents needed to move into long term nursing and assisted living homes. This put a tremendous amount of strain on everyone concerned; not least of all them. By the time of the trip my mother had passed on and it was now just my dad who needed help. While I would be in touch most of the trip with his AFC home and his care, it was still a difficult time to leave and there were strains put on me and my sisters relationship because she would be the one doing the bulk of the work while I was gone. In the end I decided to go, hoping the extra month gone would not not be regretted.

Lesson #1 in the Art of Learning to Travel Well: If you can, wait till it feels right in your bones to leave, understanding what you leave undone you may well have to come back and do later.

Lesson #2: Define what your travel goals and objectives are and how you plan to reach them. While its possible to over prepare and plan, for the most part being prepared will go a long way in determining the success and enjoyment of the trip.

I would much rather do my homework and plan a trip around the things that interest me while working within a budget to allow them to happen then being disorganized and perhaps running out of money or rushing from place to place missing out on why I went there to begin with. Trips that turn into an exercise in survival are seldom fun. As general's are prone to say, "battles are won on the drill field, not the battle field". In many ways international travel is no different.

Lesson #3 Through discretion and reason learn to develop your intuition, it will always serve you well.

There is a method of walking called Goat Walking, if I remember right it is modeled after goat herders who simply follow their herds and have no agenda for their hike. No personal choice, no schedule, no itinerary, they just walk and leave it up to the herd to take them where they will. Not unlike following the wind, there is a certain wisdom and freedom here that perhaps could best be described as soul travel. When all personal choices and desires are set aside, when the ego is laid to rest with no self will to rule the day, perhaps then the souls needs can be felt and subsequently met.

Used correctly traveling can help us develop an intuitive response to life. A way to go beyond reason to the many subtle ebbs and currents that effect our surface realities. Our intuition often senses these underlying causes of events before or as they happen and will allow us to respond accordingly, if we listen. At the same time travel can stir up every insecurity and fear we've ever had showing us where many of the blocks to intuitive living lie. The art of travel is not easily mastered.

It has been about a year and a half since I finished the trip and I am now starting the process of going back and re-doing posts, correcting grammar and adding insights and useful information to what has already been written. It is the same trip of course but in ways with a new writer and reader that are now making it. For some it will be your first trip, while others hopefully you will find there is value in visiting a place more than once. I know I usually do.

I hope in some way this blog add's to a process of learning to live and travel well and helps reaffirm the need to have awareness in all we do.

d.k.f........Lake Ann 05-10

Next post: Wisconsin