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Perfection in Panama

About 6 Pages. Photos can be found at:

May 23, 2010

Salty skin, minor sun burn, waves crashing, ocean view, sore shoulders, recovered legs, gratitude levels are high here on a private surf island called Morro Negrito. It’s hard to focus on typing now as set after set of world class surf rolls in, but one must rest :)
How did I get here, you may ask? What about the ride? Oh, I earned my way here, trust me. Leme take you on a little adventure I call Perfection in Panama.

After 5 months off the bike it was itching to get back on the road. My trip to USA, Europe and Canada were all successful and I set out on May 14th for a 2-month, 6-country adventure of Central America. Having little Luca being born in early August is my reward for what will be a very challenging yet super rewarding final international expedition. And Panama was country one of the tour.

My last night in San Diego was a treat with great friends and our intern crew coming to our farewell dinner. Mamacita and I left at 6AM the next day and caught all 3 flights standby to Panama City. From there we entered the steam room of Central America—high temperatures and humidity are a far cry from cozy spring in Cali. But we caught a cab to our Couchsurfing host John’s place and settled in just fine with a balcony overlooking the old town of Panama City and cold beers waiting for our arrival.

John and I went out for a stroll while Mamacita got ready for bed. Our final stop was a bar called Mojitos sin Mojitos where we met the owner. He informed us that an amazing band was playing the next day so we lucked out to find our first of several live acts to bring unique rhythms to the program. John and I hit it off right away. He’s a Colombian geologist working with the Smithsonian on some very exciting projects regarding the expansion of the Panama Canal. He’s a progressive, gentle, genuine guy who I was really hoping would accept the invitation to ride out of Panama with me.

The next day John took mom and I to catch a bus to the stunning Panama Canal. It was mom’s dream to see the marvel and I was right behind her. After two buses and plenty of hiking we made it. And boy was it a sight to see. I highly recommend a visit to check it out. Mom and I enjoyed a lovely lunch overlooking the canal and we were lovin’ it. We hopped a cab back to town to manage Mamacita’s energy and to have enough time to line up the live music recording at Mojitos and arrived in Panama City just as the sun was going down and casting enchanting colors on all the historic buildings.

That night was nothing short of magical. We ended up meeting several new friends, befriending the bar owner, and bonding in a huge way with Karla and her funky acid jazz band. These guys rocked and you’ll dig it when you watch the Panama episode no doubt! Mamacita and I were up till after 2AM suckin’ in great conversations and tunes, loaded up with gratitude. The next day was national census day so there was no reason to get up early as you had to stay in the house until you were counted or be fined big time.

Sunday was super chill with a late sleep in, followed by a long bike building and gear organization day for myself. John cooked us up a killer brunch with fresh Colombian coffee out on the terrace. It was on the terrace where John accepted the invitation to ride, and was willing to take a sick day to pedal with me out of the city to the beaches. I was pumped! The rest of the day was pretty mellow, doing administrative tasks, checking out the sites, and getting ready to rock the road home.

Monday morning Mamacita was in a cab at 5.15AM heading to Nashville to visit my brother Pete and John and I got on the bike at first light to do some killer filming of the old town before riding north over the bridge crossing the Panama Canal. It may sound romantic and scenic, but it turned out to be one of the most polluted and dangerous city exits I’ve done on my tour. By the time we were riding out there were 1000’s of cars coming in—all stuck in a line that went on for what seemed like an eternity.

We rode 17km of hellacious smoggy riding that was literally churning my stomach. I was simply not enjoying it. I suggested we hop a bus away from the madness and John was quick to agree. About 20 minutes later we were out of the chaos and spinning along the PanAm highway. The PanAm is my least favorite road in Latin America, but John made it actually enjoyable. We had a steady stream of conversation rolling and John had some strong legs that kept us moving along at a nice pace.

About 3PM we made it to a beach town called Santa Clara. We were looking for a cool beach camping spot and one of the locals let us know that was the safest bet and to stay away from some other areas where robberies were more common. He also recommended a killer local restaurant with great meals for about 2 bucks. After lunch we hit the road to the beach and ran the cameras for a rolling interview. John shared his heart very openly, and I appreciated his message to the world which was that you don’t need many material things to be happy, just to be of service and give as much as you can. He admitted that he could have made three times the money he does now as a geologist if he went to work for the oil companies. But he wanted to be happy, and do meaningful work he enjoyed. I appreciated his genuine values and I know we’ll meet again.
Santa Clara beach is truly spectacular. We hit the beach and jumped right into the water like little kids. We set up the tent under a grass palapa, rigged up my hammock, blew up my chair and home sweet home it was. The only downer was that John decided not to camp that night since he knew the crazy traffic we both saw that morning would not allow him to make it to work in time. I was sad to say goodbye to him, but stoked to have lovely night camping to the sound of the waves. The heat was a bit of a challenge since the afternoon rain failed to fall to cool things down. I ended up keeping a wet towel with me to stay cool.

The next morning, after a priceless sunrise, I was on the road by 5.30AM. I had 140km to Santiago, where I would finally be able to catch some country roads and really enjoy cycling touring. I was eager to find some guest riders and hammer my way off the PanAM. However, what I ended up finding was one construction project after another on the PanAM that made travel quite dicey. I was often in pushed into one small lane with semi trucks and buses zipping by with a few inches to spare. This was not idealic conditions for inviting strangers for a bike ride so I opted for my Ipod, a huge sack of bananas, and the biggest cycling challenge of my life.

By the time I pedaled the first 40km to Penonome I was feeling strong and knew I could knock off another 100km. It was only 9AM when I arrived. What I did not anticipate was the afternoon headwind, three rain storms and all the wild construction projects. The last 100km took 10 hours. I arrived by the light of my headlamp, totally exhausted, muddy, but proud. I had a rough night sleep in my 12 dollar a night hotel, with headaches and chills. I knew the next day had to be a rest day after that feat.

By the time 11AM rolled around I was feeling human again. I did not want to ride, but I certainly did not want to stay in Santiago. I opted for a short spin into the countryside to find a rest day home stay. I envisioned a cool family, lots of hammock time, and just being surrounded by life in a typical Panamanian family. About 5km outside of town I ran the cameras and began my search. I was riding along the perfect country road and saw to my right a man working on an animal change. My instincts said “apply brakes”. So I did.

----Time warp…6 hours later and “Domingos Divertidos” are going on, that is, “Fun Sundays”. I leave tomorrow. It’s a goodbye Jamie party and Fun Sunday Party. And somehow I’m trying to finish this newsletter for you with a strong rum in my hand, folks strumming guitars, tropical breeze coming in…you get the picture. I’m going to delay this writing venture. I’ll try to post this sucker from early Costa Rica adventures. Back to Domingos Divertidos. I earned it. Game on----

I’m back. I limited myself to just two rum drinks, unlike my fellow surfers, so feeling pretty chipper this last day in Panama. So, back to applying the brakes.

I pulled my steed into the driveway with full cameras and mics rollin’. I had been doing some commentary as I was driving the winding country roads how I was beat tired and the adventure was on to find a home for the night. So the entire first interaction was fortunately caught on camera, as it was sweet. Basically, two cool cats united this Wednesday morning and within a few minutes I was invited by Cesar to be his guest and rest my tired legs in the hammock. The bike fit perfectly in front of the house and my body crashed in the hammock with a smile on my face. The moment after I landed in the hammock it started to rain. And it did not stop the entire evening—how’s about that for timing!

After eating 17 mini bananas and sipping several liters of water I was feeling great! Little by little I began to meet the family, curious of what this huge bike and who the strange man was in front of the house. I came out of my first nap to meet Miriya, the mother of Cesar’s girlfriend Nayay. She was so sweet and brought me lunch in the hammock, water and big smiles. I then met Nayay’s sister, also Miriya, who was super sweet and adorable. Then, the moment of truth, was the husband of Miriya Nino, who was coming home from work about 4PM. He had no clue I was there. But, just like the other family members, he was extremely welcoming and I felt like part of the family! Phew!

The entire evening was bliss. We were up until midnight sharing their photos, my photos, their favorite dance music, my favorite dance music, eating, cooking, laughing. Cesar cleared his schedule the next day to accompany me to Sana on the bike so we were both super jazzed to pedal together. I was given my own room and bed to sleep in, which they said is always available for me anytime I want to come visit. I had a teddy bear and everything! The car was strategically parked in front of the bike and the dog chained up nearby for extra protection of my gear. We all hit the hay past midnight with a 5.30AM wakeup call for fresh brewed coffee on the menu to start the next day.

One by one, the family left to their daily routines of a typical Thursday. Miriya off to school first, studying to be a nurse. Nino did a lovely interview before heading off to work with the government planning office. He spoke about how he choose not to marry, but has been in a successful partnership for 31 years with Miriya raising two kids and they are madly in love. The next to depart was Cesar and Jamie. I was given gifts by the entire family—an owl by Mamacita, a few handmade bags from Cesar and Nayay, and a lovely embroidered cloth from Miriya. I felt so special.

So off we pedaled! Big smiles and good vibes flowing as the skies threatened to rain. The scenery was nothing short of breathtaking with winding, smooth and grippy roads. Cesar was super strong and the big rest day allowed me to build my strength as well. We were zipping along at 23km/hour as Cesar was a constant tour guide, giving me interesting facts about each pueblo, the nature, farmlands, mountains and more. Just as we began to enter the lush green mountains I stopped to shoot a scenic ride-by shot. Just as I did it started to rain, but we managed to get the shot just before it really opened up. We packed up the cameras and rode into a full dumping of warm, refreshing rain. Usually it rains hard then stops. But today was different. It just rained and rained and rained. But nothing dampened our sprits, nothing.

We made it to Sona and stopped for an early lunch. This was where Cesar was supposed to get off but neither of us had any desire to part ways. Even with the rain it was a blast! We decided to carry on to Santa Maria and this is where the hills really started. Steep, brutal climbs were followed by fast curvy descents by rivers, small villages and pretty farmlands. Finally we rolled into Santa Maria, totally exhausted and soaked to the bone, but grinning ear to ear.

I was sad to say goodbye to Cesar and I knew he would love to pedal further, but the further we went away from Sona the fewer buses there were to take him home. So after a cold celebratory Panama brew, short interview and big hug we parted ways. He took the bus and I pedaled onwards with a destination Puerto Vidal, just about 20km from my final stop near Quebrada de Piedra. The stunning scenery continued, as did the rain, and the hills were pretty constant. By the time I was about 5km outside Puerto Vidal I was dead tired, having ridden about 70km of tough terrain. It was time to find a home in this cute village.

I was having challenges with my cameras fogging so I only ran my basic helmet cam and mic as I started my search. Within 20 seconds of making my decision to call this village home there were four young men walking by. I introduced myself, shared my intention, and was soon invited to a 25 year old man Mathius’ sisters’ home to see if she would host me. We walked the bike through a very rustic thatch house village where kids giggled, indigenous men and woman looked on curiously, and we hit the last house on the street and approached the residents.
I was soaking wet, muddy and clearly exhausted. But I was smiling ear to ear as I knew I had found a home. I met Esperanza first, Mathius’ sister, and explained my request. She said the village had never had a foreign guest but that she was excited to have me. I was told to push the bike into a half-built house behind us and come relax. My bike was parked next to a baby pig and I grabbed some clean duds, soap and a wash cloth to clean up. I got scrubbed up by a bucket shower and it felt so good to have my feet out of the soggy riding shoes and into my sandals!

Once cleaned up I offered to buy some food for dinner. I was escorted to the store to buy a kilo of chicken by a 22 year old boy David. The rain stopped the moment I arrived in the village, as if it was just meant to be. So we were able to meander the village, watching little boys playing with a single tennis ball for entertainment, adorable people chilllin’ in the shade returning smiles, birds and butterflies out and about, and views of the mountains to die for. Life was good.

Back at Esperanza’s I was fed a huge meal of rice, cassava, chicken and empanadas. The locals were coming from all directions to get to know the guest. We enjoyed a few delicious cups of locally made Chicha followed by a cane fermented beverage that has been around for centuries. The hammock was super welcome on the body and great conversations in the dark went on until about 8pm. There was no power but Esperanza had a battery that she allowed to power one light and the TV for a few hours a night before bed. It was sweet, very sweet. But the best part was when I was offered my own queen sized bed to sleep in! Bonus! The rain cooled the temperatures so no fan was needed. I went right to bed!

Well, sleeping in the villages is rarely a real full night sleep. I was in bed by nine, just to be awoken at 11 by a very drunk man next to my bed singing and slurring. Then at 2AM the puppy was under my bed barking for food, so I had to get up and find food in my panniers to shut him up. Then, likely about 4AM, I was dreaming of many mosquitoes on my body. I woke up with bites all over. Back to the bike I went to get the 33% Deet jungle cream to coat my body head to toe with that delicious smelling cream. Then about 5AM the roosters and locals are getting up to start their routine. So, needless to say, I was rested but it was far from a good night’s sleep. But I’ll take this over a B&B any day!

At 6.30AM Mathius made his way over and was eager to get on the bike and accompany me to my final destination of my Panama riding adventures. We suited him up head to toe in Assos gear, took a nice family portrait and printed a copy for Esperanza, set up some cameras for our departure shot, and off we went! The temperature was perfect, scenery lovely, and life was good! The hills continued but Mathius had strong legs so we zipped through Puerto Vidal and were on our way to Quebrada de Piedra. We stopped to film a bridge crossing when the most shocking thing happened on my riding tour in Panama to date.

Just as we were going to cross the bridge with cameras running a pickup truck came rolling up and stopped mysteriously in the middle of the bridge. Then, to my horror, I watched him dump an enormous bag of plastic bottles, diapers and crap into the river! I caught it all on film but ran over to this man furious asking him if he was the owner of the river. He tried to ignore me, but I kept asking him who was the owner of the river. Finally he said, “Este da nada dano”—“this does no harm”. Hummmm.

Mathius and I ran the cameras for a rolling interview and he shared his story with me. He had dropped out of school after 1st year of high school when his brother died. He was now doing odd jobs, working the land, and looking constantly for a way to get by. We discussed him starting an educational project to get the word out to folks about not polluting the rivers. We decided to start a project called “Rio y Mares”—“Rivers and Oceans”. At the end of our ride in Quebrada de Piedra he seemed very excited to get started, but his sister will have to be the one keeping in touch with me from her email account in Santiago and he’ll relay reports to her to give to me. Sounds complicated, but I give him his first tasks and we’ll see if he’s up for the challenge. I promised him free surf lessons if he follows thorugh, as well as a steady stream of income for his work.

Mathius and I had a lovely ride and from Quebrada it was just 2km to the port where I would get my boat to the surf island Morro Negrito. He caught a bus back home and I coasted down to the port, totally stoked about the entire seven day adventure in Panama—it was truly Perfection in Panama :) And now it was about to be even more perfect as I was invited to stay with Morro Negrito Surf Camp for 3 nights and 4 days of surfing. And, if that was not good enough, the swell forecast was for world class conditions. Nice!

I parked the bike at the port, took a shower, and was soon whisked away to an ocean view suite with the waves crashing just a few feet from my balcony. I hopped in the water for my first of about a dozen sessions, each of them in warm water with perfect waves and friendly people. The filming work did not stop on the island as I traded my filming services for my room and board, not to mention my new project of a surf documentary called “Ride the Tides”. But it was the kind of work I like—surfing, filming in the water, getting creative shots, teaching folks to film, and surfing more. The food was epic too, with plenty locally grown veggies, fish, mangoes and more. It was truly bliss!

It’s from here at the camp that I’m signing off now. I leave today by boat/bus to make my way to my starting point of my Costa Rica tour. No, I’m not riding every mile of the trip. Been there, done that. I’m going to try to stay as far away as possible from the PanAm highway too. So I’ll be pedaling my way somewhere in Costa Rica soon enough, and in San Jose by the weekend to record two live concerts for the show. Then I’ll be “riding the tides” down to my good buddy Dave’s surf lodge the Rip Jack Inn in Playa Granda for some more waves, food, fun and filmin’.

Sending big hugs from Paradise!

Live Big. Give Big. Love Big.


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