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Monday, July 28, 2014

All good things...must end

It’s always anticlimactic isn’t it? No ribbon to cross, no band playing, no cheering fans. Just hot, sweaty, and tired as we rolled into our ultimate and final trip destination: Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. We needed a place to land that is within striking distance of the Las Americas airport near Santo Domingo, the DR’s capital. This is as close as you can get, without actually being at the airport. It’s a touristy beach town with the usual touristy chaos, but it has a beach, and we have a nice little place to stay with a pool. Upon landing, it took us a few minutes to realize the significance of the situation. Oh ya, this is it. We’re done! Like, done done! We took the picture...then went for a swim. The lady taking the photo had no idea, and I’m sure thought it was just another couple of cheesy tourists wanting their picture taken.

It was a bit of a slog across the DR’s southern route from the Haitian border. A few long days – longer than we wanted – were required. I’m happy to report that 5 or 6 zip ties successfully held my rear rack together for our final sojourn. It’s the least touristy portion of the DR, and the driest, and perhaps the hottest. As a rain shadow, the lush jungles and palm trees of the northeast are replaced by cacti and scrub. An interesting facet of the route was riding along Lago (lake) Eriquillo, which lies below sea level (-27 m) and is the lowest spot in the Caribbean. With the central mountains off in the distance, and Pico Duarte – the highest peak in the Caribbean (3087 m) – it reminded us of how geographically diverse things are here for a smallish island in the Caribbean – although, Hispaniola is the second largest island in the Caribbean, second only to Cuba.

So the DR. In a nutshell, we love it. Along with Argentina, it’s our fave (don't make us choose). Sure there are the megaresorts and the slimy touristy areas where old overweight white men sit with their underaged chicas perched on their laps. But hey, saying that is the DR, is like saying Canada is Whistler or Vancouver’s downtown eastside. The real DR, the DR you see on a bike, and of course our beloved Las Terrenas, is what we will undoubtedly come back for one day. As a cycling destination, highly recommended. It’s got everything you need and want: good roads, good budget accom, friendly people, latino culture, cold beer, and of course, beaches, beaches, beaches. If you’re looking for a Caribbean cycling destination, DR would be a good choice. Haiti...optional J In an absurd irony, Haiti, while one of the poorest nations on the planet, turned out to be our most expensive country. Something is definitely wrong there.

With yesterday’s 100+ km ride, we clocked in at 985 kms total on Isla Hispaniola, putting the final trip odometer at 8287 kms for S.A. + Hispaniola. Sitting here poolside, drinking good strong DR espresso, and writing about it as a past event, I already miss it. Just what exactly are we going to do back in the real world? Ah, can’t think about that just yet. We still have a few days before we fly out J

So how do we wrap up a year on the road? Eight countries, 8000+ kms, 4 shredded tires, 2 major whipe outs, 30+ flats, 157 accommodation situations, 13 separate flights, 18 passport stamps, 15361 photos, 69 blog posts, 100+ books read, inner tubes with patches on top of patches, broken spokes, twisted wheels, broken camera, worn-out clothes, blown-out flip flops...the list goes on. We’re gonna miss it!

Really, we’re going to miss it...that first beer upon getting to our destination after a long hot ride, warm tropical nights, speaking (trying) Spanish, plato del dia, the Andes, Pacific sunsets, salsa, steak and Argentine wine, empanadas, finding that perfect place and perfect accom setup, biking for a living, taking a day off to relax, palm trees, cool out-of-the-way places, exotic people, cheap beer, tasty street food, waking up to a free breakfast, morning swims, tropical fruits and veggies, the list is endless.

Plato del dia!
However, there are definitely things we won’t miss: getting to a shithole town and shithole accom after a long hot day, getting up at 5:30 am to beat the heat, riding into gale-force headwinds, getting stuck at the border, getting gringoed (i.e., paying the vastly inflated gringo price), rooms without ventilation of any kind, sleepless nights due to latino top-40 blaring into the wee hours of the night, endless car alarms, getting chased by man-eating stray dogs, dead dogs on the road, endless roads through the desert, endless garbage, language barriers, riding through tunnels with no shoulder, not being able to drink the water, the smell of raw sewage...another endless list. Funny how that is. Pros and cons, as they say.

Last evening we splurged on our celebratory last ocean-side dinner. A stunningly beautiful place perched out over the ocean. Lots of elegant white fabrics flowing in the wind. And that tropical evening, we’re going to miss these tropical nights. Then there’s my bike. End of an era. Snapping off a piece of the frame was the final straw. A bike I picked up in 1989 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, it has seen a lot of miles on more than a few continents. Its final resting place will be the DR. The young pool guy here at our hotel will love it until its final death, I’m sure. It’s like saying good bye to an old friend.

So back to reality tomorrow. Santo Domingo, JFK, Salt Lake City, Spokane, Nelson. Well, pseudo-reality. Neither of us has a job, and we have no place to live (Amy’s kinda panicking). In this case it’s not really “back to the grind”, but rather, “return to base”. Then, not entirely sure. But hey, August in the Kootenays...can’t go wrong there.

To those of you loyal followers (all three of you!), thanks for reading. It’s been fun. I will miss getting up early, drinking coffee, watching Latin America wake up, and blogging to you fine folks from our corner of the planet. Hasta la proxima!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Haiti: Part 2 -- cycling Haiti

As I was saying last post, we spent a month in Haiti last week J For those of you map-oriented folks, we entered Haiti in the north, via the Dajabon-Ouanaminthe crossing, then pedalled west stopping in Fort Liberté and Cap-Haitien, then south towards Gonaives (jumped on a bus to get over a short stretch of bad road), Saint-Marc, and Cabaret. From Cabaret we made a break for the border at Jimani (DR), passing through the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. A most interesting, challenging, and eye-opening experience it was!

All in all, the cycling itself was fine. For the most part we had decent paved roads – with the major exception, as alluded to last post, of the final 40 kms to the border at Jimani. For some inexplicable reason, that section, despite being the main highway link between Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo (DR), is the worst stretch of road we have encountered, ever. Basically unrideable without a suspension mountain bike. My circa-1980s no-suspension mountain bike didn’t like it, and a somewhat critical piece of it – the nut where the rear rack attaches to the frame – snapped off. Ah hey, all part of the fun. That’s what duct tape is for!

The real challenge, as budget cycle-tourists, is the virtual absence of infrastructure. Simply finding places to stay and things to eat, becomes epically problematic. Breaking down in the middle of nowhere would have been catastrophically bad. There just isn’t any safety net. Although, maybe one of the U.N. convoys might have had pity on us. Thankfully, we had no major breakdowns (other than my rack issue on the home stretch).

Speaking of the UN, they’re everywhere driving around in their air-conditioned SUVs. Upon reflection, we realized that we had never been anywhere requiring a UN presence. Kind of a statement about the general state of affairs here. Our first night in Haiti, a city called Fort Liberté, we pulled up to our target hotel. It was shut down and boarded up. Of course it was. It couldn’t be that easy! After a conversation in French with a man sitting in the shade nearby, we were told of another hotel. We got the impression that this was the default accom for us blans (blan means “white” in Haitian creole, and is the generic label given to foreigners). It was. And, it was our first experience with the hotel-compound approach to accommodation here in Haiti.

Inside the wire
There is no such thing as a budget hotel in Haiti, where “average Haitians” might stay for the night. You either have money, lots of it, or you don’t. Basic bottom-end hotel rooms start at $60, and are often $80 to $100+ (i.e., U.S. dollars). These are rooms that would cost 15 or 20 bucks anywhere else. This, in a country where food on the street costs pennies, and the average daily wage, if you have a job, is 1 or 2 dollars. Sense? It just doesn’t make any. The concept of budget travel-tourism – where one independently gets to out-of-the-way places and finds budget accommodation on the fly – is as foreign here, and impossible, as outdoor ice hockey. Presumably, the idea is that if you are a blan (U.N., NGOs, etc), then you have money. In that case, you are going to be driven around in an air conditioned car, probably with a driver, and, you will stay at very nice expensive hotels, complete with swimming pools and bars. In a country where a beer at the hotel bar costs more than the average daily wage, hotels are fortresses of security containing more comforts and expenses than the average Haitian can even imagine. The commando-looking guys with the shotguns at the gate keep out the riffraff. Hotel compounds then become islands of relatively outrageous first-world comforts in an ocean of poverty. It’s a bizarre and unknown world to us. We’re usually part of the world outside the wire, not inside! But admittedly, after a chaotic sweaty walk in the streets, getting back inside the wire for a beer and a swim is pretty nice!

Ryan and Stacie Rouse
Two major highlights punctuated our Haiti mission. First, we took a day in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s number-2 city, to venture out to the Citadelle la Ferrière – a gigantic (largest in the Americas) awe-inspiring mountain fortress completed in 1820, and intended as a post-independence base to repel the French in the event of an invasion. As an UNESCO world heritage site, the place is truly impressive, and would be a major tourist center anywhere else in the world. As it is, we had the place to ourselves (if you don’t include the team of Chilian U.N. police). The 900-m climb up the cobblestone pavement combined with views of the ridgetop fortress off in the distance, was remarkably reminiscent of Machu Picchu and the infamous Inka Trail. It was strange to have such an incredible site all to ourselves. Although, perhaps the most exciting part was the 30-minute moto ride (motorcycle “taxis” are the standard here and in the DR) out to the trailhead! Do not let go, do not think about 3 helmetless people going highway speed on a Honda 150 in a country with no public medical system, do not think at all, just enjoy the ride J

The second highlight, and perhaps another trip highlight, was hooking up with Ryan Rouse, a young American Baptist pastor and missionary, and his wife Stacie. The two graciously offered their spare bedroom to us after Amy’s hail-Mary e-mail asking for accommodation advice near the town of Cabaret (there is none). Ryan and Stacie, along with their staff of 90 Haitians, and with the help of missionary teams from the U.S., manage and run an orphanage and school – The Cabaret Baptist Children’s Home – for 50 of Haiti’s endless stream of parentless children.

The work these people are doing is truly incredible. Spending two days and two nights with Ryan and the orphans was indeed a humbling and moving experience. The care and love these kids are getting is unparalleled. Ironically, orphans are typically thought to have gotten a raw deal in life. In this case, they are the lucky ones. Wow, if the world had more Ryan and Stacies, it would be a better place. Selfless to the core, these guys are making us all look bad. If you are looking for a charity, this is it! 100% of donated money goes to the orphans. Not a penny is skimmed – a perpetual problem with many of the overly-bureaucratic NGOs operating around the world. Better yet, come for a visit and see it first-hand as a volunteer – they welcome it. Here’s the website, give generously:

OK, we’re back on the other side of the wire, in the DR! Having a cool Presidente (remember...DR’s main beer label) as I type, and enjoying the surrounding chorus of español. Tomorrow we’re back on the road, and heading east towards the big smoke of Santo Domingo and the airport where we will fly home. It’s the final leg of our journey...sniff. More soon. Hasta luego baby.

Haiti: Part 1 -- the backgrounder

We survived. After exactly one week in Haiti, we limped back over the border into the DR yesterday. Hot, filthy, sweaty, and emotionally drained. Whatever the border officials were asking for, be it 10 bucks, 40 bucks, bribes, tips, whatever, we just handed them the money. Just let us through the wire. The Haitian border, as one can imagine, is not a nice place. If hell has a home, it’s the Haitian border. The final 40 kms was THE worst road we have encountered yet on our year-long journey. It broke my bike. The mission for today is to figure out how to fix it (duct tape and zip ties!), but that’s minor compared to just being back in the DR. Feels like home! We’re taking an off day today, just to relax in the shade, and feel the breeze.

Whew...lots to cover, where to begin...the obvious I suppose, let’s get it out of the way. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere (by a long shot), and within the bottom 20 poorest countries in the world, and considered by some agencies to be within the bottom 10 worst countries in the world to live, and, is generally considered a failed state. Consider this: Sierra Leone is richer than Haiti, and Iraq is considered a better place to live. Let that sink in for a few seconds. Sierra Leone...Iraq...really?

Yep, she’s in pretty rough shape. We won’t sugar coat it. It’s pretty bad. On the whole, there is no public infrastructure. No water system, no sewer system, no garbage collection. Port-au-Prince, the capital, a city of 3 million people, is one of the world’s largest cities without a sewage system. Walking the streets is something you build up the courage for, then need a drink afterwards. It’s the standard news-clip image: a steaming mass of humanity heaving and bobbing amongst an endless putrid chaos of crumbling concrete, diesel-belching traffic, rotting garbage, and raw sewage. Unfortunately, the stereotype is pretty much true in this case. Nuff said about that. The true heroes are the people of Haiti for their amazing resilience and ability to take each day as it comes.

Unbeknownst to most however, it wasn’t always this way. In the early days, Haiti – or St. Domingue as it was known at first (“Haiti” is derived from the indigenous name for the island “ayiti” – land of big mountains) – was on top. It was the jewel of the empire, and the richest colony in the world. When the Euros first landed (see previous posts) the Spanish took the eastern side of the island (i.e., the DR), the French the western side (i.e., Haiti). The French invested heavily in their new colony, the Spanish did not. As a result, Haiti flourished, DR did not (it’s the reverse now though). One of the ensuing facts of history, is that the French imported African slaves...lots of them. Slaves were expensive, and Haiti had lots of money, so they bought them by the boat load. At first, it worked seamlessly and Haiti became immensely rich on the backs of their slaves, who died in untold numbers through the brutality of the practice.

Eventually however, the ratio of African slaves to French grew to 10:1. Gee, guess what happened? The Africans had enough of the whip and revolted and then basically eliminated their “masters”.  To this day, it is the only successful slave revolt in history, and resulted in Haiti becoming the first independent black republic in the world in 1804. A fact proudly enshrined in their history. A fact also that Haitians are essentially displaced Africans living on an island in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, things have kinda gone downhill since independence, and well, now we have the U.N. and NGOs holding things together by their fingernails. Again, sad but true.

Now, language. A fascinating situation. While the French colonized the place, French is the language of the educated upper class and any official documentation. The true language of Haiti is Haitian creole – spoken by 100% of the population, and the only language spoken by the bottom 85%. So French only gets you so far. On the street, it’s all creole. Haitian creole arose out of a need for the French and their African slaves to communicate, and is therefore a mix of French and African dialects. While we did fairly well with anyone who speaks French, there was a serious communication breakdown with the other 85%. But hey, like being in Vietnam or some such place, it just becomes one big game of charades. Point at something, make the symbol for 2, then rub your fingers together making the money gesture. Amazing how that works!

Then there’s the money. Like everything in Haiti, not straight forward, and no doubt specifically designed to confuse foreigners. The official Haitian currency is the Gourde. One U.S. dollar = 45 Gourdes. OK, but, there’s this other thing called the “Haitian dollar”. At one point in the recent past, the Gourde was pegged to the U.S. dollar at 5 Gourdes to the dollar. The Gourde is no longer pegged to the dollar, but the “Haitian dollar” lives on, and is represented as $1, which doesn’t mean 1 dollar, or even 1 Gourde. It means 5 Gourdes.  On the street, if someone says “un” (one) it usually means 1 Haitian dollar, which is 5 Gourdes, unless they are specifically referring to Gourdes. Following that logic, “5” means 25 gourdes. Unless, the person says “vignt-cinq gourdes”, which means 25 gourdes. OK, so why don’t they just drop this Haitian dollar business, and just use their freakin’ currency which is the Gourde, which is what they are using, but you just have to know that 1 means 5, 2 means 10, 3 means 15, and so on, unless they are actually referring to Gourdes? Excellent question.

OK, that’s the backgrounder for context. Our mission was a one-week route taking us through the north along an arc downwards through the centre and south, and back to the DR border. Fun? Not really the word we would use. More like, it was an EXPERIENCE. Details to follow in next post. Stand by.