Friday, November 30, 2012

Brazilian Road Blocks

Veronica and I connected via I posted my itinerary and profile, and she extended an invitation to stay at her family home north of Recife. Inviting a traveler is not typical for Veronica. At best she is very selective and only excepts requests that she likes. My case was unique, a rider navigating South America by motorcycle does not appear on everyday. Veronica rides a motorcycle herself, so the decision was made to invite me. After three days it was hard to leave Recife and the warm home Veronica and her mother have. I wanted to stay longer, but my schedule called and I had to ride south.

Veronica has an assortment of plants and trees in their yard, featuring my favorite fruit, mangoes! I packed as many as I could and got ready to leave.

I think I didn’t get packed and on the road until 1:00 or 2:00 PM. It wasn’t too difficult to get out of town. I rarely remember to ask for the best route out of city and some times the GPS doesn’t select the best route. I had the feeling there was a better way as I left Recife, but managed to get clear of the city after some time.
My new  goal was to get to Salvador in time for lunch the next day with Frederica, a friend of my sister Judy. They knew each other when my sister lived in Italy. Frederica was a teenager when I last saw her, ten years ago. The distance from Recife to Salvador is just over 500 miles, which always take longer than expected. The roads aren’t like ride on an interstate highway in the US, where you can count on traveling 60 miles each hour. In the best conditions it would be over 8 hours. With rest breaks and refueling it takes longer. My route planning software said it would take twelve and a half hours. And then there are the surprises that appear out of no where. Floods, accidents, construction detours are a few examples. In my travels I never had to wait for a land slide to be cleared, knock on wood.
An hour south of Recife, while getting gas a guy on the street was telling me that the road ahead could not be passed. Language barrier strikes again. I smiled and nodded, knowing that there clearly was a road going south. I missed his point. He was trying to tell me there was a trucker strike and they had blocked the road. Not long afterward I encountered a teenager trying to wave me down. I’m not stopping for nothing, especially not a teenager in the middle of nowhere. A mile later I had to slow down because there were trucks parked at rakish angles…blocking the road.
There was a cluster of unhappy men standing around, one was holding a very large stick, like a tribal king. I figured out instantly what they were doing. No need to ask. What to do? I didn’t want to take a detour through the countryside. Pulling up to the cluster of strikers, I lifted the face shield of my helmet. Its a “modular helmet”, so the whole front of the helmet lifts, showing my face. After pausing long enough for the crowd to get a feel what I look like, then I tried to communicate. I might have given a small smile, tilted my head or put my hands together in prayer, more of a “please” gesture than anything else. After a brief moment, branches that were blocking the road were pulled back and I was allowed to thread my way through the jumble of trucks. There were make shift kitchens tucked here and there, evidence that these truckers had been there for some time and were prepared to stay a while longer.
This encounter with strikers would be repeated four more times. Each time a teenager tried to waive down a side road, then I approached the actual road block, paused briefly, then was allowed to pass through. Some times is was challenging to find a large enough space between trucks to get the motorcycle through. Other times the strikers were letting passenger cars through in the other direction, so I had to wait for a chance to squeeze past them. I must have lost an hour or two getting through the five road blocks. Each road block was a stressful, but I was confident their fight was with someone else and they would let me pass.
I pressed on into the night, now beyond the last road block. At some point I would need to get some rest. Near midnight I found a love hotel and checked in for five hours. That would give me enough time to sleep and still make it to Salvador in time for lunch. Frederica had plans to attend a birthday party and only had a short time to meet, so I had to press on. All too quickly the alarm went off and I dragged myself onto the bike and left. Regardless of estimates, I still had four or five hours, and six hours to cover the distance.
As I got closer to Salvador I stopped for gas, coffee and something to eat. A group of Brazilian motorcyclists out for a Sunday ride stopped chatted with me. One helped me straighten out a problem with my food order, then agreed to call Frederica to tell her I would be a few minutes late. Great guys. I can’t remember their names, but hope they see this post sometime.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reaching Recife

Brazil is known for its friendly people, music, soccer, slightly higher gas prices and the large distances to cover when traveling through this leviathan country. The trip from the dunes at Lencois on the Caribbean to Recife on the Atlantic would span 1000 miles. I covered the stretch in two days.
On the second day, I spotted a telephone pole factory by the highway. The visual design of telephones poles fascinated me. Why make telephone poles out of cement? My only guess, its cheaper to manufacture telephone poles from cement, then to source wooden poles. It could be that no one will steal a cement pole for firewood. I really don’t know.
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Another long monster day, riding ~550 miles in the dry north of Brazil, ending with a midnight arrival in Recife.

I had several invitations in or near Recife. All of the hosts had interesting profiles. There was a film maker, a lady who invited me to party in the countryside and Veronica, who rides a motorcycle. The choice was obvious to me. I was in touch with Veronica, letting her know my approximate arrival date and sharing the link to the SPOT satellite tracker, so she could see my location. From her profile I knew she lived with her mother and went to bed early. So, when I hit Recife near midnight, it was too late to show up. Veronica’s house is in the suburbs of Olinda, on the north side of Recife. After trying several “love hotels” (hotels that rent a romantic room by the hour) I settled on one in Olinda and waited until the morning to contact my host.

Olinda Odyssey

I reached the north Atlantic and Recife too late to go to my host's house. I spent the night in a love hotel, pay by the hour properties. In the morning I navigated as close as I could to Veronica’s house in Olinda, a northern suburb of Reife. As with many addresses and sets of directions, actually arriving at a given destination requires interpretation and usually the advice of a local.  A friendly pet shop owner placed a phone call me and moments later Veronica showed up on a bicycle.
Veronica lives with her mother, who has Parkinson's disease. There is a nurse in attendance 24/7 to assist her mother. My Portuguese is worst than my Spanish, but I learned a few words to say to her. Despite her physical challenges, she is a ray of sunshine.

That afternoon Veronica and I jumped on the motorcycle and went to see Francesco Brennard’s ceramics studio, Oficina Brennad.  The studio and gallery are housed in a roofing ceramic tile factory in Varzea the outskirts of Recife. His work is very whimsical, cartoon-like, and powerful. Sadly, my camera battery ran out of juice shortly after arriving. After visiting Brennard's workshop and galleries we went into Recife where we saw more of Brennard's work installed in public sites and visited an art and craft show. Veronica also showed me around the old sections of Recife, so cool

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Screaming Across Northern Brazil

Having toured the dunes at Parque Nacional Dos Lencois, it was time to head east. It would have been nice to see Fortaleza, but sand wrecked that plan. It came down to failing to span the 43 miles from Barreirinhas (where I had taken a tour of the dunes) to the next town along the coast, Tutóia. I rode to the eastern edge of Barreirinhas, turned the corner to find the paved road had turned into deep sand. Far too deep to ride with a large motorcycle, with lots of luggage and less than huge knobby tires. Only at 4 wheel drive vehicle could pass that stretch of road. Taking a hard look at my GPS maps, it was apparent that any road that would keep me near the coast while traveling east would require a four wheel drive vehicle or a completely different motorcycle. All the roads that would provide a “short” detour to Tutóia were secondary roads at best, more likely dirt tracks and at worst sandy routes to hell. Forget traveling on a coastal route, I now would have to back track in a long curving detour…
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Leaving Barreirinhas in the late afternoon I had to head west for three and a half hours before slowly turning south, then east. In total I would clocking 550 miles over the next ten hours, riding into the early morning hours before stopping east of Teresina. In the late evening a country fair appeared on the side of the road. Most of the festivities were over, the band had packed up and many of the booths were closed. The rodeo continued, featuring a cow roping contests.

Brazilian Rodeo

The next morning I checked out of the hotel somewhere near noon. To my surprise, the landscape started to changed. Lush forest turned arid fields and as the miles rolled under my tires the green countryside became desert.
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I was transported to west Texas, complete with mesa plateaus, cactus and dry scrubby bushes.
Dry brazil 03Dry BrazilThe Amazon jungle was now far, far away…FILE0624 Passing a truck loaded down with bananas.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Bridge to No Where: Crossing the Rio Oiapoque

I always want to stay longer and my time with Yannick, Karen and kids, and Sebastian, was no exception. The schedule pushes me down the road and I must go. The plan is to meet Ingrid in southern Patagonia on December 19th for the holidays and perhaps an extended vacation. I am trying to get to the Horizons Unlimited "mini meeting" in northern Argentina, Dec. 7-9th. This leaves a limited amount of time for Brazil and Uruguay. Argentina is very long, which will take time traverse its length...and see the Valdez Peninsula, the home of penguins, seals, turtles and whales...

Failing to secure the required liability insurance, due to poor commercial support, yet clear government regulations. left me uneasy as I traveled to the frontier with Brazil and the inevitable visit with border control officials. Some days I would rather have a root canal than cross from one country to another. Yannick warned me that there would be a police check point, and indeed there was one halfway between Cayenne and the border town of St. George. This was my second police check point in French Guiana. In some countries the police will ask for your proof of insurance at their check points, i.e. Belize, Nicaraguan, Costa Rica. French Guiana police are more laid back in this regard, inspecting only my passport. As far as they were concerned all of my paperwork was in order. It seems the National Police didn't care if I had insurance or not.

I reached St. George just after dark and went a little further south to a point that looked like a bridge. I had been told that I needed to take a ferry or launch to cross the river and arrive in Brazil, but sure enough a shining new bridge appeared before my eyes. Or so it seemed. Yes, there is a beautiful bridge and a newly painted border control center on the French Guiana side of the river, Rio Oyapock.

Unfortunately, the negotiations with the Brazilian government was not complete and the bridge not open for use. I will have to take a boat after getting excited about the bridge. The good news, the night border control officer said it would be Ok to pitch my camp for the night!

In the morning I learned that the officer in charge the night before did not advise the day officer that there was a guest camping on the loading dock, within the secure area. The day officer made a fuss as I was trying to leave. When asked who gave me permission to camp, the day officer would not acknowledge that there was a night officer by that name. When I next saw this joker at the National Police Headquarters, I would learn later that I was not pronouncing the night officer's name with the correct French accent. He was simply giving me a hard time in a classic French form. Ultimately
I made it clear that I was given permission to camp "for one night" and that at this point I was leaving. Asking if you can "camp" is not the phase to use. Ask if you can put up your tent "for one night." Camping can be a long term affair. One month later you might still be camping. With a huff the day officer gave the word, the gate was raise, and I was gone.

A last moment of tension before getting out of French Guiana. I had to be officially stamped out of the country. If you skip this step, it raises flags in the next country as you request an entrance stamp. Ok, now I had to find the National Police HQ and have an exit stamp applied to my passport. While waiting for the passport to be reviewed and exit stamp added, a car rolls up and the day officer from the bridge walks into the building. My lucky day. The officer was actually on good behavior and I took the opportunity to ask his colleagues if there was a night officer by the name I provided earlier in the day. At this point the exit stamp was in my passport, so busted the chops of the day officer for giving me a hard time earlier. I said good day to the helpful officials and left. I was officially out of the country. Of course I didn't bring up the lack of liability insurance.

Now I had to get across the river. I had spoken with a boat captain the night before and arranged passage for me and the motorcycle. At one point I pitted one captain against another to get the best price. I tipped a few guys how helped load the motorcycle a few dollars and I was soon motoring across water and back to Brazil. we motored up the river we passed under the bridge that was "not operational"

Oiapoque is the point of enter on the Brazilian side. The Federal Police station was not difficult to find and their limited hours of visa processing (mid-day only) worked out well. I had kept my temporary motorcycle importation permit open when I left Brazil for Guyana, so all I needed was a entrance stamp in my passport. I was traveling using my Irish passport, so a visa was not required. For those that are traveling with a US passport it is necessary to get a visa at a Brazilian embassy or consulate before reaching the border.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Death and Rockets

The European Space Agency launch their rockets in French Guiana near the coastal town of Kourou. Without great interest in see Devil’s Island, because they don’t let you on the actual island, I decided to ride to the see the rockets. Saturday morning I headed some 40 miles west from Cayenne. First stop, McDonalds and not 100% for comfort food or to use the free wifi. I wanted to see what the French twist would be to the menu. I wasn’t exactly disappointed and a touch amused. A long hamburger on better bread, not bad cheese, lettuce and stone ground mustard. I wish they offered these back in the US.DSCN4640
A short ride from Cayenne I found the space center and a completely empty parking lot by the museum. Huh? It only took a little moment to understand that the museum was closed, but much longer to get over the disbelief that a museum would be closed on Saturday.
The disappoint didn’t stop me from taking a fun picture.
DSCN4693I feel more like an astronaut than a motorcyclist in this photo. With the museum closed the only thing I could do is ride around the edges of the launch sites and see what I could of the space center. High security around the launch pads included high voltage electric and barbed wires.
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There were a few things that could be seen along the road or over fences…
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My final opinion is that the European Space Agency will never be real competition for N.A.S.A. until they stop making radar that looks like it came out of a LEGO set.  =)

Shortly after visiting Kourou I left Cayenne to head for the frontier with Brazil. Stopping to photograph cemeteries around the city.The cemeteries in French Guiana were well maintained and show that their graves were visited regularly.
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The jumping off point for Brazil lay 120 miles southeast of Cayenne in Saint Georges. First I needed to figure out how to cross Rio Oiapopue that separates the two countries. Only one way to figure it out, get on the bike and ride to the eastern end of French Guiana.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Entering French Guiana

Its 89 miles from Paramaribo, Suriname east to the frontier port of Albina. I said goodbye to Alex, my first host and coursed my way through Paramaribo. Across the bridge spanned the Suriname River and I was clear of city.
Along the way I spotted cool public sculptures.
The road east of Paramaribo was patchwork rough, then turned into construction, with long stretches of dust and gravel.
Construction slowed travel and added time to the trip. There is a morning and an afternoon ferry crossing to French Guiana each day. At this point I was going to catch the afternoon ferry. Miss the ferry and your stuck until the next day or you are shopping to hire a boat…
It isn’t as simple as pulling up, buying a ticket and getting on the ferry. First you have to cancel your visa and surrender the motorcycle importation paperwork. I have been through so many frontiers, I was sleep walking through this one. After I found the audana/customs official, I put my passport and importation papers on the desk and tuned out. Getting out of a country usually takes no time at all.
Now the official is asking how long I was in Suriname, did I enter on such and such a date.
Me: “Yeah, yeah.” I replied without really listening.
Official: “You over stayed your motorcycle importation.” That caught my attention.
Me: “What?”
Official: “The importation date was 10/05/2012. It is now 11/15/2012. The importation visa was over stayed.”
Me: ”Wait, no, I came into Suriname on 11/05.”
Official: ”The document is dated 10/05, this is a big problem.”
Me: ”Hmmm, my passport is stamped 11/05…and yes, the motorcycle importation date recorded is 10/05…and we came in together.”
Official: ”This is a big problem.”
Me: “No, this isn’t a problem. This is a typo. When I entered Suriname, the official wrote the “10” instead of “11”, and its not my problem, its your problem. This mistake was made by a Suriname official, not me.”
The next sound was the sweetest sound you can hear on the frontier, the whack of the passport exit stamp. Done, out of Suriname.

Ticket in hand and waiting in line, the ferry arrived on schedule.

Next stop, France and the European Union.

The ferry schedule and price as of November 2012

In Suriname they drive on the left side of the road. Entering French Guiana the sign below reminds drivers to drive on the right side of the road.
I had been trying to get short term liability motorcycle insurance coverage for French Guiana, since entering Guyana. In Paramaribo I spent a day calling and visiting insurance offices seeking insurance for French Guiana, no luck. I even went to the French Embassy in Paramaribo to ask for advice. I left without a solution, but did get a business card from the business development officer. Now I was at the immigration/customs counter, trying to get into the country. Passport, check. Registration, check. Title of Ownership, check. Insurance? Huston, we have a problem.
I listed all of the insurance companies I had contacted trying to buy insurance. Then I produced the business card I collected at the French Embassy in Paramaribo, where I visited to ask for advice... I explained that I tried very hard to buy insurance before entering French Guiana and found it impossible to secure. The official asked, “Did you try the Internet?” My reply, “That is a big place, can you tell me where on the Internet I can buy insurance?” The customs official frowned a lot, made a phone call, and finally, with promises that I would look for insurance in the morning, he stamped my passport. Cool, I am in French Guiana.
There were two guys hanging around watching my struggles to get into the country. They were French ex-pats living in French Guiana. They told the customs officer they would get me to the next town, where hopefully I could get insurance. I’m cool with spending the money, just make it possible. I really would try  to get insurance…
We got clear of frontier and stopped for gas. One of the guys, Yannick, asked if I would be interested riding to Cayenne that night. I had been traveling for about six hours, but had plenty of energy and welcomed following someone across French Guiana. It took three hours from the western town of Saint Laurent to Cayenne, and Yannick wasted no time getting us there. I had to remember my performance turns training, leaning into the turns, laying off the brake. That was the only way I could keep up with Yannick. Its not so bad riding at night on unfamiliar roads, as long as you are following someone who knows the way.
Yannick invited me to stay in Cayenne with his family. He has a carriage house that a friend uses, with plenty of beds, no worries. When we arrived Yannick’s wife laid out a late night spread for us. Cheese, bread, sliced meats and wine. I had been transported magically to France.

DSCN4613 Yannick is an independent/consultant gold prospector. He know where to look for gold and his direction always returns a profit for his customers. Presently he was going through the paperwork to start his own mining operation. One night he detailed his “system”, which was a breakdown of all of the costs associated with a small mining operation. Food, equipment, crew and the government percentage. In the end he had to extract one kilo of gold ore per month to make the operations profitable. As he described his system, I remarked that I was feeling “gold fever.” His deadpan replay, “I don’t have gold fever. Its just work.” He approach was pure business and economics, coupled with a few strategies no listed here to preserve his competitive edge.Yannick showed me a huge nugget, one that was beyond my budget.

There was an assortment of smaller nuggets, one of which was in my budget. Each was priced purely on weight. Unique, small enough to travel with, comes with a story - Ingrid’s Christmas present only needed to be selected and a follow-on trip to the ATM. Done.

I spent three nights in the suburbs of Cayenne, in Yannick’s carriage house with Sebastian, a gold miner that sometimes works with Yannick. Sebastian is a gold miner to the core, well adapted to months in the bush. He speaks the native languages and knows the jungle. I think he could have a career as a model.