An American Abroad

Motorcycles & Street Art in Panama City

My two weeks in Panama were not a vacation for me. On weekdays, I stayed close to my hotel or cafes where internet service was available so I could continue working. I took a lot of photos in that immediate vicinity, namely, the El Congrejo neighborhood of Panama City. I took them on my way to and from the cafe where I spent most of my work time. And a lot of them were of motorcycles and street art. In the four years I’ve maintained this blog, I’ve put up many posts about those two interests of mine. I’m combining the two here.

I didn’t get the sense that Panama City has a booming motorcycle culture. Most of the bikes I saw were either fast food delivery vehicles or police cycles. Both tended to be Suzuki 150s.

I also didn’t see a whole lot of street art in this neighborhood, but I loved this piece that was just down the street from my hotel. The branches look something like a crown of laurels.

My favorite neighborhood eatery was the New York Bagel Cafe. One day I saw this beautiful new Vespa parked in front. There’s also a Vespa dealer on one of the more commercial streets in El Cangrejo. I was tempted to buy one and ride it all the way back to the USA.

The streets near the NYBC are lined with apartment towers. It’s a middle- to upper-middle class area, so there wasn’t a lot of tagging to be seen. So I was surprised to come across this.

Perhaps coincidentally, it was near there that I saw one of the only Harleys I laid eyes on here.

One of the most interesting works of unauthorized public art I saw was in an unlikely spot. The park that runs by the waterfront on Avenida Almador near the Bio Museum generally has an upscale feel to it. But right next door there are some modest apartment complexes where I spied this. In Spanish it reads

Somos seres humanos experimentando una forma de pensamiento que caduco hace mucho tiempo y seguimos sufriendo de ello porque tenemos medo a aventurarnos a los recónditos de perdernos cuando en realidad va estamos perdidos.

The best English translation I could come up with (which is admittedly rough) is

We are human beings experiencing a way of thinking that expired a long time ago and we continue to suffer from it because we have the courage to venture into the recesses of losing ourselves when in reality we are lost.

There were also some upscale bikes in Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial part of town. The photo immediately below of the Yamaha is one of the finest motorcycle pix I’ve ever taken.

By Scooter from Willemstad to Westpunt

On Saturday, I picked up a little no-name Vespa-style scooter from NR1 Scooter Rental to bomb around on for a few days.

And so on Sunday, I took advantage of being mobile to get out of Willemstad and see more of Curaçao. I planned a trip to Westpunt, a place locally known for its sea turtles and its laid-back atmosphere. My hotelier told me that it was quite the hippie hangout back in the day. It sounded like my kind of place.

Curaçao is shaped like a bent, misshapen cigar that’s angled northwest to southeast. Willemstad is in the southeastern fifth, while Westpunt is (as its name suggests) at the extreme northwestern end, a distance of about 48 kilometers.

I had traveled about a third of that distance before it started to rain. I’d been in Curaçao for 13 days and hadn’t seen a drop of rain before then. But now the roadway was wet and I was anxiously trying to keep the scooter off the oil stripe that marked the center of my lane.

By the time I got to Westpunt, the front of my shirt and pants was thoroughly soaked. I locked the scooter to a signpost and headed toward a beach called Playa Grandi (big beach) by the mapmakers and Playa Piscado (fish beach) by the locals. I was here:

I followed the sign and walked through some tropical woods toward the sea.

As I approached, I heard jazz echoing from the beach, standards like “Satin Doll” and “One Note Samba.” Until this point, my experience of the Curaçao beach scene was limited to Mambo Beach, a man-made stretch of sand and restaurants about four kilometers east of my hostel in Willemstad. They don’t play jazz there. It’s a very nice place, with lots of mid- to upscale eateries and bars, a Starbucks and a Subway, and little shops selling higher end T-shirts and clothing.

Playa Piscado, however, was not only about as far from Mambo Beach geographically as one can get on Curaçao, but was also as different in terms of atmosphere as one could imagine. It isn’t a beach where the Beautiful People go to see and be seen. It’s a local place, definitely down-home. I fell in love with it immediately.

The big attraction on Playa Piscado are the sea turtles, which swim in the clear waters just a few meters offshore. I walked out on the dock and took a look.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, I saw my first-ever sea turtle in the wild. My girlfriend Lori Seubert, my go-to with all questions about plants and animals, identified it via photos I sent her as a Green Sea Turtle.

I wasn’t the only one looking for turtles.

Then as I was scanning the waters, this unusual bird alighted on the dock beside me. Lori thinks it’s a juvenile Green Heron.

The turtles and the birds are attracted by the bits of fish guts the fishermen throw into the water after cleaning their day’s catch.

Playa Piscado isn’t very sandy; it’s a bed of coral fragments. And there are no fancy restaurants, just local hole-in-the-wall places. Literally: this place was recessed into a shallow cave.

The Beautiful People don’t hang out here. The people who were there on that rainy Sunday came to see the animals and just hang out. That was just fine by me.

Everything I saw–the boats on the clear sea, the relatively modest houses lining the cliffs by the beach, and the chickens bustling about the wreck of an old wooden boat–spoke to me of a calm, unpretentious life here on the less-traveled end of a relatively obscure southern Caribbean island.

By the time my clothes had dried out, it was time to head home. I walked the path back to my scooter, noting the rather alarming signs along the way.

Where the trail joins the road, I was greeted by this installation. Perhaps a remnant of the beach’s hippie heritage?

Since the rain had stopped, more cars were pulling off the road to park. An ice cream truck was just pulling up. I caught a glimpse of its dashboard and decided it would take an entire team of semioticians and pop culture historians at least a decade to work out all the references there.

My scooter was just where I’d left it–and hard to miss with the big blue and white arrow pointing it out.

I hopped on and rode back to Willemstad, singing jazz standards into my helmet as I drove.

Every Moto Tells A Story, Don’t It?

Some of the battered motos of Santo Domingo have been stripped naked of all fairings and upholstery and now are little more than frames with 50cc motors and wheels. Some have suffered the indignity of serving as pack mules. And some still wear their manufacturer’s clothes, even if they’re going thin at the knees and elbows.

It’s tempting to shoot for a big metaphor here, and if I knew the Dominican people better, I might try. But only three days in the DR doesn’t give me much ground to stand on. So I’ll only say that for each bike, there is a story to be told about what it was like when it was new, who all its owners have been, and what its unique circumstances are.

Enduro Madness

“Take your pants off,” said the pretty Thai woman standing in front of me. “Shirt and socks too.”

I don’t have much body modesty, but even so I hesitated for a few seconds before complying. When in Pattaya, do as the Pattayans do, right? So off came the Levis, the T-shirt, the socks, all the way down to my skivvies.

The woman dropped to a squat right in front of me, eye level with my JCPenney briefs. I was only a little miffed that she didn’t have the courtesy to check out my junk. Instead, with the practiced efficiency of a nurse, she strapped knee-and-shin protectors onto my legs. Riding pants were next, followed by a jersey, a back brace, and a complicated mesh jacket with armor at the spine, shoulders, elbows and forearms. She indicated to me to pull on thick wool socks and then fitted my feet into heavy boots with steel soles and toes and more armor around the ankles. She handed me gloves, googles, and a helmet and indicated that I was all set.

Wait, I thought. There’s a vital piece of anatomy unprotected here.

“Um,” I stammered, “a cup?”

The woman looked puzzled.

“You know. A cup,” I repeated stupidly, as if doing so might somehow bring forth a miracle of comprehension.

She stared at me blankly.

Obviously, English wasn’t going to get the message across, so I resorted to charades, reaching down and curving my hand protectively around my privates.

“Cup?” I repeated, hopefully.

The woman shook her head. “No need,” she said.

No need. OK. Did this mean that there is no possible chance of getting genitally maimed doing enduro? Or did it mean that, in her estimation, there was nothing there worth protecting?

As it turned out, like so many millions of guys before me, I was unduly worried about the wrong head.

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The woman repeated the dressing ritual with my fellow rider, a young Israeli named Yoab, who had recently completed his IDF service and was now vagabonding his way around Thailand. We were then led to our machines by our “instructor,” a thickset tattooed Thai guy who spoke no English.

I climbed onto a Kawasaki 250 with knobby tires and fired up the engine. It felt good to be astride a bike again after six months of pedestrian life. I had signed up for three hours of enduro riding with an outfitter appropriately named Enduro Madness. I was here:

With our “instructor” in the lead, we pulled out and rode down the streets of the outskirts of Pattaya. Our “instructor” demonstrated his prowess at popping a wheelie and maintaining it for a quarter mile down the road. Impressive, yes, but neither instructive nor reassuring.

Then, without so much as a warning, we veered off the road and onto a dirt path through some scrub flats near the seashore. This was my first-ever experience at riding off-road. We curved through the trail, which changed from hard dirt to light sand to deep sand. I was riding second, behind the “instructor.” I held onto the vain hope that we were going out to a meeting spot where our real training and practice would begin.

And after about 45 minutes of riding, we did pull into a clearing and stopped under a tree. I had been pretty tense, doing this kind of riding with absolutely no instruction, but now I relaxed. I had made it clear, in words and writing, that I had no experience whatsoever with off-road riding. Yoab was just as inexperienced as I. Now, I thought, we would finally be taught some of the dos and don’ts.

But this did not occur. After about five minutes, the “instructor” went to mount up again.

“Wait,” I called out. “It would be nice if we could get some instruction here. I mean, this is my first time doing this.”

Yoab seconded my motion, which I then reinforced with gestures that I hoped showed my puzzlement at how to ride.

The “instructor” came over to me and indicated that I should sit forward more, keep my knees hugging the gas tank, and keep my elbows out slightly. That was it. Nothing about gearing, breaking, turning, balancing, or anything else. Oh, but as we took off again, the “instructor” did pop another wheelie, just to make sure we knew how cool he was.

For the first two hours, I was very tense, but did OK. We tackled some gulches and hillocks. I knew enough to understand that speed was my friend on these obstacles, and the torquey little Kawa responded well. Jumping over those obstacles felt a lot like horseback jumping, something I haven’t done in decades but apparently still have muscle memory of. It seemed impossible that I would get through some of the gulches, but I goosed the throttle and flew. What a kick.

Far less of a kick, though, was turning. I’d never done much turning on dirt or loose gravel before and had always gone out of my way to avoid it. Each time I felt the Kawa break traction, my body would involuntarily tense up all over, prompting me to tell myself out loud to relax. Deep sand was the worst. Knowing nothing about how much to rev the engine, what gear to be in, or anything else for that matter, I stalled out a few times and had to rock the bike back and forward to get moving again.

We rode along a beach, where the knobby tires did a good job on the wet sand, and then curved around to slightly higher ground where there was a settlement of sorts. There I saw a black village and the cruelest poverty imaginable. There were large rectangular pits dug into the sand, where the people who lived in the settlement were burning wood, presumably to make charcoal. Everything about the settlement was flat black from the smoke, from the houses made of sticks and plastic bags to the people themselves and their children and dogs. The air was thick with woodsmoke, making visibility almost impossible. I felt dirty, more figuratively than literally, joyfully zooming through such a place on a recreational lark.

I was soon to receive my karmic payback.

We climbed away from the shore into the woods. Sometimes the trail was so narrow I feared that the Kawa’s handlebars wouldn’t fit through the gap. I was relieved when the trail widened again.

And then it happened.

I still don’t know why, of all places, I wiped out at that particular spot. There was nothing especially technically difficult about the terrain; it was dirt jungle floor. It was on an incline, a very modest one. There was a slight curve to the trail, which I may have misread. Or maybe after two hours of anxious riding I was fatigued. Or maybe this was just my payback from the black village.

To one side of the trail was a steep slope that led to a ravine maybe fifteen feet below. My front tire somehow slipped over the edge and the Kawa dropped sharply beneath me and came to an abrupt stop as it was grabbed by the jungle undergrowth of vines, saplings and tall grass. I flipped and flew over the handlebars with my feet in the air and dropped down, landing face-first with the full weight of my body behind me. My neck snapped back hard. Well, I thought, THAT’S not good.

Everything stopped.

Yoab stopped his bike on the trail where I’d flown over the edge and was making his way down to me. “Don’t move!” he yelled. I knew that was good advice, but I still experimentally wiggled my fingers and toes. Everything wiggled properly. My neck hurt, but I didn’t sense any grave injuries there. Had I not been wearing a full-face helmet, I would have been a lot worse off. After about two minutes of assessing myself and noting with satisfaction that various parts of me were starting to hurt, I sat up. Nothing drastic happened.

The “instructor” by this time had reversed course and found us. He said nothing to me, but set to work at excavating the bike. With Yoab’s help, they pulled it out of the embankment. The “instructor” set to work unbending the various parts of the bike that were bent. I felt shaky and achy, but was probably on an adrenaline high. I indicated that I wanted to ride on.

I fell two more times in the next ten minutes. I could blame that on the deep sand, but I think more to the point was the fact that I had lost my confidence. No more flying over gulches for me today.

We turned around, slowed the pace, and headed back to the riding facility.

From Ohio to Vietnam, I’ve had some excellent motorcycle instruction in the past. I have gone on tours with outfitters who stressed safety and technique. I guess I’ve been lulled into the assumption that all motorcycle tour companies adhere to those principles. I’m not sure I learned much about enduro in Thailand, other than it is in equal measures terrifying and fun. But I did learn the importance of asking a lot of questions before putting my life in the hands of any old motorcycle outfitter.

Vietnam: Hoi An Motorcycles & Beaches

We engaged the services of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures to lead us on a five-hour ride through the countryside surrounding Hoi An. They provided us with Tony the tour guide and an 80’s-vintage Minsk motorcycle.

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The mighty Minsk has an interesting history. It began as a German design and was produced during the Nazi period. Then, as Wikipedia describes it,

[a]fter World War II the documentation and equipment of the German DKW factory in Zschopau were taken to the USSR as war reparations. Production of the RT 125 model began in Moscow under the M1A brand.

By the Order No.494 of the Ministry of automotive industry of the USSR dated July 12, 1951 the production of M1A was transferred from Moscow to the Minsk Motorcycle and Bicycle Plant (MMVZ, then Motovelo).

M1A became the basis of simple and reliable classic Minsk models, the history of which continues to this day.

This is every motorcycle you’ve ever seen in a World War II movie. It’s similar to the bikes used in the motorcycle chase sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (though those were actually Dneprs, I think). It’s powered by a small two-stroke engine and sounds like a chain saw. One of its quirks is that the kick starter is on the left side, which prompts many (including me) to start it before mounting so the engine can be kicked to life with the right foot as god himself intended. It was a blast to ride.

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One of the most fun parts of the trip was riding across a floating bridge. I was determined not to go over the side and into the drink. With Spencer on the seat behind me, I rode out onto the bridge and felt it bob beneath my weight. I made a conscious effort to keep a steady speed and stay off the brakes and made it across without incident.

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Back at The Saltwater Hostel, I was caught admiring the motorcycles parked by the pool. One was a Minsk, though much older than the one I’d just ridden.

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There was also a 1967 Honda that belonged to the bartender. He saw me admiring it and offered to let me ride it. I jumped at the chance. It has a tiny 50 cc engine that sounded like a model airplane motor. My trip down the road and back felt like riding atop a steel rail with a seat and two wheels. I loved it.

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On my last morning in Hoi An, I went to the beach. The ocean there was warm and clean. When I reluctantly headed for the airport later that day, I thought to myself that this is a place I could have spent much more time in.

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Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 2

[Read Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 1 here.]

There were no tourists at Chau Srey Vibol. None. No ticket booth, no tour guides, site maps or plaques either. It was just an ancient pile of stones about 75 meters behind a Buddhist temple at the end of a badly rutted dirt road. I had the place all to myself, save for a couple of saffron-robe clad shaved-headed monks from the temple who briefly came over to check me out.

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When I was a kid, I used to build cities with Jonathan Poneman in his basement. We’d use cardboard boxes, Lego, Hot Wheels tracks, pieces of wood, erector sets, alphabet blocks, and anything else that struck our fancy. Our metropolises were very elaborate. Then, in a frenzy of joyful destruction, we would kick over all we had so carefully built, scattering blocks and boxes and buildings like angry and capricious gods.

That is what Chau Srey Vibol looked like. There were pediments scattered like Lincoln Logs, window frames strewn about like Lego pieces, enormous stone blocks tossed about as if they were 1,100 year old pieces of styrofoam.

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After taking about 100 photos, I got back on my moto, feeling wonderful. I rode along singing Steeley Dan inside my helmet at the top of my lungs to no one but myself: “Bodhisattva, won’t you take me by the hand?” Children coming home from school, dressed in immaculate blue pants and white shirts waved at me in delight. And I waved back.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2

[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1.]

Further along the canal was a beautiful wooded park with a few pavilion-type buildings.

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There were some temples and shrines there dedicated to a god I couldn’t identify.

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By this time it was mid-afternoon and we were all hungry. We found a lakeside restaurant that was devoid of customers; the tourist season here opens with May Day. The lake was window-clear, though the skies were hazy there due to the numbers of field fires that the local farmers had set to clear their land.

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After a delicious lunch of fish and pork, we saddled up and headed back to Yuxi.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1

I had such a good time last week motorcycling out to Fuxian Lake that I thought I’d do it again.

This time, I narrowly managed to avoid going to the hospital and going to jail.

And I took photos at some of the villages that are built on canals that run into the lake. It was another great day.

My colleagues Paul Rushton and Daniel Dugger accompanied me. Our first stop was a motorcycle supply shop here in Yuxi to get Daniel a helmet. This proved to be a wise investment.

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It was a beautiful windy day. We got out of Yuxi quickly and zig-zagged our way up and down the switchbacks and into the countryside. The villages we passed were alive with people drying straw on the roadways, with families breaking up huge slabs of coal into usable-sized pieces, with farmers tending their fields, and with trucks hauling produce, boulders, coal, building supplies and foodstuffs along the narrow village roads.

We were going through the second village, me driving and Daniel riding bitch, when two trucks converged on us from both directions. I was forced to the side of the road where there was a lot of loose gravel and sand. Once I’d cleared the trucks, I pointed Zippy back toward the center of the road.

At that moment, the rear wheel slipped out from under us and down we went. Daniel jumped clear, landing in a crouching position. I fell onto my right side with the bike on top of me and slid across the gravel, picking up some pretty road rash, a few nice bruises, and a severe blow to my pride.

Daniel was uninjured. (Of course, he’s thirty years younger than me. He bounces.)

Zippy broke a front turn signal and had his crash bars bent a little. We hurriedly remounted, anxious to be away from the big trucks on narrow village streets. We stopped at the next village and I cleaned up my boo-boos with a bandana and a bottle of water and took a few pictures.

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At Fuxian Lake, we got onto the divided highway that runs around its perimeter. We hadn’t gone more than two kilometers when a cop at a police checkpoint motioned us over to the side of the road. There was much discussion about motorcycles not being allowed on this road because it “wasn’t safe.”

We were also concerned about potential and multiple irregularities in our licenses and motorcycle registrations. In such cases, the police have been known to impound motorcycles, which would have been pretty bad for us, being 50 kilometers from home. I found myself wondering if Chinese jails have cable.

After getting a stern talking-to by the head cop about how we were in China now and the rules were different, Paul abruptly changed the subject to lunch (a favorite subject for many Chinese). Suddenly, he and the cop were talking about local restaurants instead of local jails, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. We were let go with a warning and told to get off the divided roadway as soon as we could.

Soon we were riding along a canal that first went through a small village with both a road bridge and a foot bridge over the waterway.

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[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2.]

By Motorcycle to Jiangchuan

On the map, the town of Jiangchuan looks to be only about 20 kilometers east of Yuxi via the Yujiang Expressway.

But when you avoid the expressway and follow the back roads through a dozen villages, ride up and down mountains, and savor the twisties of rural Yunnan, the distance is easily twice that. I rode there yesterday with my Shane English Yuxi colleague and boss Paul Rushton, who after seven years here knows the geography of the region in great detail.

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Zippy struggled up the hills and topped out at 70 km/h on the straightaways (and makes disturbing noises at that speed), but he floated over ruts and potholes and was very sure-footed on sand and loose gravel.

Out in the countryside, farmers worked their land by hand, oxen grazed in the wetlands, and rural graveyards stood silent on the mountainsides.

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In one village we discovered an ancient outdoor theater that’s been converted to a restaurant and junked up by more recent additions — but I can still imagine what it must have looked like back when it was the only source of entertainment for miles around.

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At another hamlet, we were welcomed by a group of older men who here hanging out outside what looked to be an old temple. They were friendly and curious; I doubt they see many laowais (foreigners) there.

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Jiangchaun stands on the shores of Xingyun Lake, a pretty body of water that’s being developed into a tourist area. We skirted Jiangchuan itself and opted instead to loop around the lake. Some of the villages that dot the shore have old canals running through them, with houses built right to the edges.

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We passed by steeply arced stone footbridges faced with dragon gargoyles, but by that time we were headed back to Yuxi for dinner, so we didn’t stop. I hope to explore these at a more leisurely pace next time.

Zippy

Zippy is a 2005 Zipstar LZX 125-6 motorcycle built by what was then called the Chonquing Zongshen Number Two Motorcycle Co., Ltd. and is now called Zongshen PEM Power Systems, Inc.

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Zippy used to belong to my colleague Matt, but since he is returning to Wales for an extended visit home, Zippy now belongs to me!

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Like almost every motorcycle in China, Zippy is small by American standards, with a displacement of just 125cc — less than one-fifth the size of my Kawasaki KLR 650. Larger bikes are very rare here because they are taxed very heavily.

After having a few minor repairs and adjustments made yesterday, I took Zippy for a three-hour ride this morning. We headed northeast out of Yuxi, initially tracking the bicycle route I took last summer. This time, though, I went a lot further. I passed through many small villages where farmers still till their fields with oxen and wood-frame plows. I rode up switchbacks into the mountains. For the most part, the road was smooth concrete, but this occasionally gave way to mud and gravel. Zippy’s light weight made for easy handling even on uncertain surfaces. I did, however, manage to plow through a deep mud puddle which undid the careful cleaning job I’d given Zippy before we left. But it was a fine shakedown trip–the first of many such excursions, I hope.

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