2007 – Year in Review

El Ostional, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.

2007 is a defining year of my life.   I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to embark on an adventure that most people only dream about.  Before the trip I was wondering how or if the trip would change me.  I have changed, but not in the way that I thought.  Before leaving, my worldview was based on what I had been exposed to in the media, which was largely based on fear and frankly ignorance.  The media and even my own government’s travel advisories gave the sense that at any moment I would be robbed, killed, or kidnapped.  I was led to believe that people outside of the first world placed less value on human life.  Based on the media’s portrayal of the non-first world, I thought that maybe the trip would make me cynical of human nature.  I expected to become world-weary and jaded.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Over and over again I experienced warmth, hospitality, and generosity.  Much more so than Canada, where we pride ourselves on being a caring society.  Yes we have a social safety net.  But the effect is that we can walk by a hungry or sick person on the street without guilt because we have the sense that they will be taken care of.  There is no such luxury in many other places in the world.  If you come across a hungry child in a remote area of Peru, for example, he or she may not eat that day if you don’t help them.  The effect is that people seem more willing to directly help those in need, even if they have next to nothing themselves.

This is true even in countries that have experienced devastating civil wars and natural disasters.  Perhaps shared adversity brings people closer together and instills the desire to help your neighbours in times of need.  People have learned not to rely on help from their governments.  Instead they look to their families and communities.  It is absolutely absurd to think that people value human life less outside the first world.  People care about their families and friends just like anywhere else.  They help strangers in need, perhaps even to a greater degree.  They want the same basic things: food, water, shelter, education, and health care.  They want their children to have the chance to enjoy a decent quality of life.

Another surprise for me was discovering just how addictive travelling by motorcycle is.  Yes you experience more than driving or riding a bus.  Yes you get a greater sense of achievement by making yourself vulnerable to the elements.  Yes there is a sense of freedom from choosing your route and your schedule.  There is also the sheer ethereal joy of riding a motorcycle that only bikers would understand.  But you also are forced to live in the moment.  You are forced to directly experience the world.  Your most pressing concerns become where you will have your next meal or where you will spend the night.  Gone are the stresses of your other life.  No longer do you worry about finances, exams, career planning, or whether your life has turned out the way you wanted.  Instead your focus becomes whatever wonder you happen to be riding through.  It is a liberating and therapeutic experience that helps put other aspects of your life in perspective.

The downside is that it is a tough adjustment to come back to your old life after such a fulfilling experience.  The concerns of some of the people around you start to seem petty and inconsequential in the overall picture.  You miss the warmth and hospitality of strangers.  You miss the camaraderie and loyalty that comes from tackling a challenge as part of a team.  The stresses of your old life start to creep back in.  You wonder if the sacrifices you are making are worth it.

For me the answer is yes.  I got a good dose of motivation on this trip.  People are generally good and decent.  I have been gifted with solid confirmation that I have chosen the right profession.  One day I will be able to give back.  I have decided to work overseas as soon as I pay off my loans, probably with an organization like Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders).


Race Against Time

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Volcano on the edge of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni.

The planning for next year’s trip from London, England to Cape Town, South Africa has begun in earnest.  Tom and I have been dreaming of Africa for more than two years now.  Ted had been looking forward to joining us this summer, but his injuries from the last trip may prevent him from coming with us.  I certainly hope he will recover in time for the trip.

My enthusiasm for last summer’s adventure has rubbed off on another friend and classmate though.  Jeremy, a fellow member of the PhD club, has decided to take up motorcycling and join Tom and I on our African adventure.  He recently took a weekend motorcycle course.  He has just bought a 2006 KLR 650.  To make things interesting, most of his pre-trip training will probably have to wait until the spring because winter has arrived in Toronto.  He will literally only have weeks to gain riding experience before attempting some of the harshest most challenging terrain on the planet.

It’s impossible to learn about Africa without becoming engrossed with the HIV pandemic.  There are 40 million people with living with HIV in the world, and 27 million of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

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Jeremy made this graphic showing the prevalence rates of HIV (according to UNAIDS) in the countries we will pass through on our trip.  During the 90 days that it takes us to go from London to Cape Town, over 1.2 million people will become infected with HIV in the world.  We truly are in a race against time.

Only 5-10% of HIV infected people in Africa receive life-saving antiretroviral treatment.  It costs a few dollars to reduce mother to child transmission by 50%, yet only 5-8% of mothers have access to such programs.  A tragedy has been unfolding in Africa and the world has largely been watching indifferently.

This has to change.  Those of us living in priviledged societies must pressure our governments to increase foreign aid.  We must get the word out to as many people as possible that a modern day Holocaust is unfolding before our eyes.  We must support international organizations that are struggling to get treatment and prevention programs to AIDS ravaged areas.

One such organization is Dignitas International, a humanitarian organization that works to increase access to essential HIV/AIDS-related prevention treatment, care, and support, including antiretroviral medications.  Dignitas trains and supports caregivers, coordinating services with governments and grassroots groups to empower communities in their response to AIDS.

The University of Toronto motorcycle gang is raising funds for Dignitas international by selling 2008 calendars featuring pictures from the adventure Ted and I had in Latin America last summer.  We are getting the calendars professionally printed.  They are going to be stunning.  They will make fantastic Christmas presents.  And best of all, 100% of the proceeds will go to Dignitas International.  You can make a difference and have adventure shots from some of the most spectacular places on this planet at the same time.  What could be better?  

Check out the pictures that will be featured in the calendar.

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This picture from the rim of an Ecuadorian volcano is an example of a picture that didn’t make the cut.  Find out which pictures DID make the cut.

An Image from Peru

I witnessed a lot of poverty on this trip.  I spent time in villages where there was no running water or central heating despite the chill of the Andes.  I ate dinner with Bolivian miners who risked their lives everyday to eke out a meager living for themselves and their families, and who talked about the death of their comrades in the mine as if it were just something to be expected.  It was dangerous work and they knew it.

But some mental images are more powerful than others, and keep playing in my mind’s theater over and over again.  A day has not gone by since getting back from South America that I have not been haunted by one such image from Peru.  We had been riding on a dirt/gravel road in a mountainous wilderness region to the southeast of Ayacucho.  We had ridden for many hours without seeing any other vehicles.  There was nothing but dead grass, rocks, and mountain ranges that extended to the horizon on all sides.  We had not passed any huts or farmers.  There had been no sign of human habitation at all.  The road was rough and filled with enormous potholes that could swallow an entire wheel.  It was painful riding (and I didn’t even have a broken wrist).  At one point I nearly rode my motorcycle off the side of a mountain because a section of the road had been washed out.  Clearly, this section of road was seldom travelled.

That’s why it was such a surprise to see a man running towards the road, waving for us to stop.  He was speaking to us quickly in Spanish.  He was gaunt and looked over 60, his unkept beard streaked with white.  His clothes were torn and dirty.  He had sores around his mouth.  Most of his teeth were broken or missing.  He said he was hungry.  He was begging us for food.  

As if out of thin air, a boy of perhaps 9 or 10 suddenly appeared at the old man’s side.  The kid looked absolutely pathetic.  Where had he been hiding?  What were a child and an old man doing in the middle of nowhere?  When had they last eaten a decent meal?  I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach: I knew that we did not have much food with us.  I started going through all my luggage, desperately looking for anything to give them.  I thought we might have some instant noodles left, but I couldn’t find anything other than one small tin of tuna.  “Pescado,” I said, handing it to the man.  He looked at the small tin with obvious disappointment – and rightly so.  It wasn’t enough for a snack, let alone a meal for two hungry people.  I took some soles (Peruvian currency) out of my wallet and tried to hand it to the man.  He waved it away.  He didn’t want money.  He just wanted food.  Money would not help him there.  Still, I insisted, pressing the bills into his hand, more to easy my suffering than his.

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The pictures above were taken in the same area that we encountered the old man and his young companion, on the road between Ayacucho and Ocros.

That night Ted and I stayed in the tiny village of Ocros.  We talked about the old man and the kid.  We wondered if a truck would stop and give them a ride.  We hoped that at the very least they would be able to buy some food.  To this day, I still wonder what happened to them. 

Our room in the back of a convenience store cost us the equivalent of about three Canadian dollars.  There was no running water or showers (cold or hot).  Ted was surely in pain from his injuries.  I was still sick with a bad cold that I had been fighting since Lima.  My nose was dripping, my throat was sore, I coughed non-stop, and my muscles were aching.  Yet I still felt lucky – I had eaten a hot meal and had a bed for the night.  What a luxury.

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Top – You can see the village of Ocros way down in the valley
Bottom – The Village of Ocros, Peru. 

Most spectacular unpaved road

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The ledge of a road that carved its way through the Peruvian Andes between Ayacucho and Abancay was the most gravity-defying stretch of the trip.  The route was too narrow for buses or trucks, which was fantastic.  (We ended up taking a road marked as a thin gray line on our map that ran parallel to the “main” gravel road).  The downside (literally) was that one mistake could send you over the edge and into the abyss.  It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the altitude changes, and the pictures hardly do it justice.  We would switch-back our way up the side of a mountain for hours, gaining dizzying views of narrow valleys beneath us.  Then the road would turn and instead of looking down from above we would be on the floor of a higher valley itself surrounded by towering Andes.  The road seemed to just ascend indefinitely.
It was on this narrow gravel road that we overtook a group of mountain bikers.  I had been starting to feel fatigued from a hard days’ ride, but I realized I had no right to complain when I saw people riding pedal bikes on the same stretch of road.  It turned out it had taken them over 3 days to cover the same distance that we had traversed in just a few hours.  The mountain bikers included a husband and wife, Oliver and Chloe, who were both medical doctors from France.  They had been riding around the world for the past year and a half after having completed their training.  They had started in France and had already crossed Eastern Europe and Southern Asia.  They were now crossing South America from west to east.  Their plan was to then cross to South Africa and return home to France through Africa over the course of the next year.  They planned to be on the road for total of 2.5 years.

I have been following their travels on their website http://www.bicyclettesnomades.com/ and am happy to report that they are now in Brazil.  They have wonderful pictures posted of their trip.  In particular, I recommend looking at their pictures of Peru http://www.bicyclettesnomades.com/photos-perou.asp.

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Left to Right: Oliver, Benjamin (Chloe’s brother, joining the couple for a few weeks), Chloe, and Ricardo (a friend from Peru joining them for a week).  

Most spectacular paved road

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Chicamocha National Park, Colombia.  The highway from San Gil to Bucamaranga was one of  the most spectacular (if not the most spectacular) paved roads I have ever had the pleasure of riding.  The road winds along the top of a mountain range thousands of metres above the Chicamocha canyon.  (You can see Ted rounding a curve in the distance in the top left picture.)  The road then plunges down into the valley, switchbacking its’ way down a steep mountain.  The rapid change in altitude is dizzying.  From above, the curves and switchbacks look almost like a go-kart track (as seen in the picture on the bottom right).  Somehow this avian perspective hides the staggering altitude change between each parallel ribbon of highway.  At the top, the weather is cool, but by the time you are riding beside the river, the heat is suffocating.  If it weren’t for the heavy bus and truck traffic, this would be my all-time favourite section of paved road anywhere. 

Because Chicamocha was so congested, I have also included Copper Canyon, Mexico (below) as a runner-up.  It is not as gravity-defying as Chicamocha, but riding through Copper Canyon is about as much fun as you have riding a motorcycle on a paved road.  The scenery is mind-blowing, and you could easily ride on smooth twisty asphalt for hours without seeing another vehicle.  Unfortunately, I was enjoying the ride through the main canyon so much that I didn’t even stop to take any pictures.  The pictures below were taken in a side canyon shortly before we reached Copper Canyon proper. 
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Near Copper Canyon, Mexico.

My Favourite Colonial Towns (in no particular order)

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Humahuaca, Jujuy, Argentina.  We discovered Humahuaca by accident.  From the highway, it looked like an ordinary dusty town typical of northwestern Argentina.  However, it was lunch time and we were hungry, so we left the highway looking for food.  Suddenly we were riding down cobbled streets through an outdoor craft market with cafes and restaurants all around us.  It was a pleasant surprise.  I ordered Llama, which was delicious. 

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Villa de Leyva, Boyaca, Colombia.  We were lost when we stumbled across Villa de Leyva.  We were trying to find the highway to Bucamaranga from Tunja.  All morning we had been riding through arid mountainous terrain that reminded me, unexpectedly, of New Mexico.  It turned out that we were not on the right road, but it was a lucky mistake because Villa de Leyva was gorgeous.  Its bright white colonial buildings, flowery inner courtyards, and stony streets made me feel like I had travelled backwards in time.  The picture on the right shows the view from our table in the courtyard restaurant where we ate lunch.

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Antigua, Guatemala.  I fell in love with Antigua.  It was a colonial gem surrounded by towering volcanoes, one of which was spewing ash into the sky.  It felt like a scene from a fantasy novel.  The picture on the bottom shows our hotel.  You can see my motorcycle parked safely in the lobby.

Riding through the pain

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“Hi, my name is Ted.  I rode my motorcycle 5,000 km with a broken wrist.  Why?  Because I’m tougher than you.” 

Last Friday Ted had his wrist examined at the Univeristy of Toronto health services centre because of ongoing pain.  Ted had been playing down his pain for weeks.  He had played soccer and ultimate and even attempted lifting weights since his return to Toronto.  This was despite a sore ankle, shoulder, and wrist.  The doctor at the health centre referred Ted to the radiology clinic for X-rays.  The images showed a broken scaphoid, and he was sent to Emergency to get a cast.  In addition, he was referred to Orthopedics for an appointment this past Monday.  After being examined in the Orthopedics clinic, he was able to get a CT scan the same day.  A medical student with a damaged wrist was deemed a serious enough matter to justify an immediate CT scan. 

The CT scan revealed that the two pieces of Ted’s fractured scaphoid were not aligned (the scaphoid connects to the radius at the wrist).  There was also evidence of necrosis (areas where the bone cells had died).  He would require surgery to re-align the two pieces of scaphoid.  Moreover, a chunk of his iliac crest (the top of his pelvis) would be removed and used as a graft.  A screw would be introduced to hold everything together.  He was told that he could begin physiotherapy 3 weeks after the operation.

Ted was perhaps not as up front with the surgeon as he should have been.  The surgeon did learn that the injury had happened 5 weeks prior to Ted seeking medical attention in Canada.  Ted was appropriately chastised for this. The doctor told him that he should have known better as a medical student.  

However, the surgeon did not learn that Ted had ridden his motorcycle more than 5,000 km across some of the most challenging terrain in all of South America with a broken wrist.   Nor did Ted mention that he had repeatedly aggravated his injury by falling off his motorcycle multiple times and landing on his outstretched hand.

The operation was scheduled to last about 2.5 hours.  In the end, Ted was in surgery for more than 5 hours.  The surgeon emerged covered in sweat when it was finally over.  He said it was one of the most difficult operations of that type that he had ever done.  He reported that a large area of bone was “mush”.  Apparently the first screw came out halfway through the operation, and he had to put in a second one.

Ted is recuperating at home.  He is sleeping on the floor, as the girl who sublet his apartment threw out his bed.  Something about bugs.  His friends have been plying him with waffles, cookies, pie, and ice-cream.  He was prescribed a pint-sized bottle of percocet pills and warned that the pain would be excruciating beginning about 12 hours after the operation.  I wonder if it could possibly be any worse than that day in the Bolivian desert when he bailed 3 times and we rode 13 hours before finding shelter for the night.

Get well soon Ted (Tough Bastard) Macher.

If we had disappeared there, no one would have ever known what happened to us

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The road to Nogales, Mexico.

One of the questions that I’ve been asked about the trip is whether there was any point where I feared for my life.  The short answer is yes – but only once.  I did not write a blog entry about the event at the time because I did not want to worry my mom.  Now that I’m safely back in Toronto, I can tell the story.  

We entered Mexico from Arizona the morning of June 13th at Agua Prieta.  Ted and I had no problem getting our entry stamps and temporary import permits for our motorcycles.  The trouble began when Tom tried to get a permit for his bike.  Because I had bought the bike on Tom’s behalf here in Toronto, it was registered in my name.  Unfortunately, you are only allowed to bring one vehicle into Mexico.

We were already across the border.  Border formalities were voluntary.  There was nothing stopping people from driving across the border without doing any paperwork whatsoever.  It was up to you to ensure that you had the proper documentation for the inevitable police and military check points (of which there were many, particularly in the rebellious states of Oaxaca and Chiapas in the south).

Foolishly, we decided that we would ride to the next crossing where I would attempt to get a permit for Tom’s bike as if it was the only one I was bringing into the country.  When we got to Naco (about an hour away), we were told that we had to go to the town of Camanea to get the vehicle registered.  When we got to Camanea and finally found the vehicle registration office, we were dismayed to discover that they had a national internet database showing that I had already brought a vehicle into the country. 

Tom’s bike was there illegally, and could be seized if we were stopped by the police.  The lady helping me informed me that there was a police check point about a half an hour outside of town near the village of San Antonio (which was not on our map).  She said not to ride the bike through the check point under any circumstances because it would be impounded. 

She then said something along the lines that I would have been allowed to take a second vehicle into the country if Tom had been related to me.  I tried saying he was my cousin, but that didn’t work.  They already knew we were amigos.  Thinking that maybe she was fishing for a bribe, I asked if we could pay an extra “administration fee” to get the permit.  The woman looked at me like I was from another planet.  I felt bad – she was not trying to get a bribe; she was genuinely concerned for us and just wanted to help.

The plan at that point was to ride to a third border crossing, Nogales, to try to re-enter the country claiming that Tom was my cousin.  It seemed the only hope of getting a permit for Tom’s bike.  Nogales was to the northwest.  We would be racing against the sinking late-afternoon sun to get there before dark.  

We were making good time until I spotted the police check-point the helpful woman had warned us about.  We pulled off to the side of the road about 100 metres before the booth.  We couldn’t just turn around without arousing suspicion and inviting a possible police chase.  Instead I walked up to the policeman on duty and asked for directions to Agua Prieta, knowing full well it was back the way we had come.  Once the officer gave us directions, we could “legitimately” turn around.  We would look like dumb gringos instead of suspicious gringos who deserved to have their bikes impounded.

On our map there was a thin gray “other” road leading to Nogales from somewhere along the stretch of highway we were on.  A few hundred metres before the police check stop, there had been an unmarked dirt road leading into the hills.  Was this the alternate route to Nogales?  We decided to risk it.

The road was dusty and sandy and very rough in places.  At one point there was a cattle guard missing the entire centre grid.  The big gaping black hole would have easily swallowed a motorbike.  Apart from a few cattle and a couple of ranchers, we saw no one.  The sun was getting low in the sky.  We were running out of daylight, and we didn’t even know if we were on the right road.

Finally we saw signs of a town in the distance.  My feeling of relief quickly vanished when we came around a corner and ran into a makeshift road block.  There were two pickup trucks parked facing each other.  Guys in wife-beater shirts sporting AK-47s were standing in the middle of the road.  No one was in any sort of uniform. 

I was thinking “this is it, we’ve run into banditos and they’ll take our bikes, money, and passports.  We’ll be lucky to get out of this alive.  No one would ever know what happened to us if we were to disappear here.”  There was nothing to do but keep riding.  I was actually surprised when they simply waved us through.  It took a little while for my heart to stop pounding though.  Had the AK-47 guys been guerrillas?  Drug traffickers?  Banditos waiting for a bigger prize?  Or just some guys who liked to hang out on the road with AK-47s?  

We entered Nogales through the most squalid slums I had ever seen.  There was open sewage running in the dirt.  People lived in shanties made of sheet metal and plywood.  We wound our way through the slums of Nogales and eventually found our way back to the main highway (15) and headed north towards the border.  Nogales was a chaotic border town with heavy traffic and a multitude of bars and strip clubs.  It was a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Eventually we fought our way through the traffic to the Mexican aduana.  We parked our bikes in a dirty street across from a strip club.  Ted watched the doorway…er… our bikes while Tom and I went to try and get a permit.  We were told we’d have to go to “km 21” where there was a banjercito.  Tom was ready to head back to the States and fly home from Atlanta.  I convinced him to stick it out until we had tried to get the permit one more time.

It was getting dark as we rode out of Mos Eisley.  We soon found that the km markers were counting down, not up.  Where was the vehicle registration office?  Again Tom wanted to turn around and head for the US on his own.  Again I convinced him to at least stay one night in Mexico.  It was already getting dark.  He finally agreed. 

We set off looking for a motel.  Before we found one, however, we saw a sign saying “temporary vehicle import permits 2 km ahead”.  In the end, it turned out that we could get a permit for Tom’s bike if I signed the title over to him.  Since this was what we had been planning to do anyway before leaving Mexico, I gladly obliged.  It was after 10:00 PM when we finally emerged, permit in hand.

We realized we hadn’t eaten since we had had breakfast at a diner near our campsite near Bisbee, Arizona that morning.  Ted had seen a hotel about a mile back.  We were glad to discover that each room had its own garage, which was perfect for our bikes.  We didn’t realize until later that this was a hallmark feature of the love motels which are so popular throughout Latin America.  Neither did we realize that we would be charged by the hour.  They phoned us at 5:00 AM to tell us that our time had expired.  When we left at 8:30 AM, we had to pay an extra $10 for the extra time we had taken.  Initially I thought they were just trying to fleece the gringos.  The fact is we had only paid for a few hours.&nbsp
; I guess they didn’t expect us to go the whole night. 

Bienvenidos a Mexico.

Back in Toronto

I have to admit that I have experienced a bit of reverse culture shock since returning to Toronto on September 5th.  There is a stark contrast between how most people live in Canada versus most of the countries I have visited during the past three months.  I don’t think most of us realize how many luxuries we take for granted.  There are many places in the world where no one has ever had a hot shower.  Many people go through their daily activities (cooking, washing clothes, going to the bathroom) without running water. 

On the way back from the airport, the cab driver took a detour through a typical middle-class neighborhood.  I couldn’t help but notice all the nice green lawns that were going to waste because they were not being grazed by sheep or cattle or pigs.  There were shiny new cars and sport utility vehicles that seemed extraordinary large.  The houses, although not big by Canadian standards, were still larger than homes I had seen that had housed 4 families.  The only water running in the street was from sprinklers.  It seemed absurd to use perfectly good drinkable water for no practical purpose.  Absent were the dusty roads, garbage, and wastewater.  In their place there was smooth black tarmac, recycle bins, and sidewalks.

Riding my bike back from the airport a few days later was another eye-opening experience.  I found myself amazed at how relaxing it felt to ride on the 401 and 427 freeways.  When I first moved to Toronto I certainly didn’t think there was anything relaxing about 16 lane freeways.  But I couldn’t help but notice how wide the lanes were and how much more predictably the traffic flowed.  If there were 4 lanes marked on the freeway, then you could be pretty sure that there would be a maximum of 4 cars driving in parallel.  This is in contrast to places like Lima where perhaps 8 cars would try to squeeze into the same space.

I also notice a difference in the way people interact here.  For the most part people are polite and outwardly friendly, yet the warmth that I experienced throughout Latin America is lacking.  Kissing people on the cheek in greeting, which had become second nature by the end of the trip, is a habit that I will have to break if I want to avoid strange looks and possible lawsuits.

Day 90 – Buenos Aires, Argentina

I have eaten steak for the past 3 meals in a row.  Supper last night, breakfast this morning, and lunch a little while ago.  When I have another steak for supper tonight, I will have successfully completed the steak trifecta: steak for 3 meals in one day.  I absolutely love the steak in Argentina.  It could quite possibly be the best in the world.  And this is coming from someone who was born and raised in Alberta.

Not only is Argentinian steak second to none, the wine is fantastic as well.  I have already tasted three Malbecs and three Cabernet Sauvignons.  The Mendoza varieties are particularly good.  Once I thought I was ordering a glass because the price was 5 Argentinian pesos (just over $1).  They brought a whole bottle to the table.  Of course I had to finish it.

The modern metropolis of Buenos Aires is a dramatic contrast to the mud-hut villages of Bolivia.  It was a bit of a shock to find myself riding on an 18 lane freeway yesterday.  I had become used to the dusty tracks in Bolivia where you could easily ride for an entire day without encountering another vehicle.

Now that we’re in Buenos Aires, we have officially come to the end of our trip.  With the trip over, it is time to hand out the prizes.  Canada and the US are not included.

Best food: Argentina.  With steaks that melt in your mouth, how could I give it to any other country?  Runner up: Columbia.  The Cuy was delicious, as were the Arepas.

Worst food: Mexico.  I’m sorry, it was just too spicy for me.  Runner up: pretty much any country (most of them) where all you could find to eat was chicken and rice.  For weeks on end.

Best drinks: Guatemala.  The rum was delicious.  Mmmmm Zacapa Centenario.  It also wins for the non-alcoholic fruit licuados and the rice drink hochata.

Most beautiful women: Columbia.  Runner up: Argentina.

Best drivers: Argentina.  People actually stay in their lanes (even when there are 8 of them) and stop at red lights.

Worst drivers: Peru.  Lima was absolute chaos.  But even worse were the smaller cities filled with mototaxis.  There were no rules.

Craziest drivers: Without a doubt it was the truck drivers in Honduras.  Semis would pass each other on blind corners at night.  Multiple times I had to pull the bike off to the side of the road when I rounded a corner on a narrow mountain road only to come face to face with four headlights racing towards me.  It was unbelievable.

Best roads: Argentina

Worst roads: Do there have to actually be roads to qualify for this category?  If not, then Bolivia wins.

Best signage: Argentina.  It seemed like on the corner of every intersection in the country there was a sign pointing the way to Buenos Aires.

Worst signage: Well there were no signs in Bolivia.

Best meal: One morning we stumbled across a bed and breakfast in Costa Rica’s remote Nicoya peninsula.  Officially it was closed, but after talking to the owner about our trip, she offered to cook us breakfast.  It turned out that she was a certified chef from Texas.  She cooked us banana walnut pancakes and omelettes to die for.  Easily the best breakfast, if not meal, of the entire trip.  It didn´t hurt that the setting was absolutely spectacular on top of jungle covered mountain overlooking an idyllic beach.  This Costa Rica breakfast won best meal partly because it was so unexpected and partly because it became part of the lore or our trip.  Weeks later, when we knew damn well that all we were in for was leathery eggs and rice for breakfast (yet again), one of us would inevitably ask the other: do you suppose they serve banana walnut pancakes here? 
Runner up: Argentinian parrilla (barbecue).  Rico!

Worst meal:  Isla Grande, Panama.  We were served overly salted (because there was no refrigeration) deep friend red snapper, skin and head included.  We only choked it down because we did not want to offend the kind woman who had cooked it for us.

Best campsite: Ecuador.  4700 metres high on the slope of volcan Cayambe.  The ground was rocky and it was the coldest, windiest campsite of the entire trip.  But hey, we were camped on the only glacier that exists in the middle of the world.

Worst campsite:  Honduras border.  The temperature was mild and the ground was level, but having to camp at a border crossing was maddening.

Most rain: Guatemala.  We would get hit by a torrential downpour every afternoon, without fail.

Coldest country: Bolivia.  The temperature plunged to minus 20 degrees Celcius every night.  Brrrr.

Best border crossing
: Entering Argentina from Bolivia.  There were no vendors, no helpers, no money changers, and no corrupt officials.  It did not cost us a dime, and was easily the most painless crossing since the Canada-US border (which is excluded from this competition).

Worst border crossing:  Entering Honduras from Guatemala.  How could it possibly take two whole days and require a Honduran to escort us to another office 65 km away (and mucho dinero) to enter a country?  Ridiculous.

Friendliest police: Columbia.  There were so polite and bent over backwards to help us out.

Most corrupt police:  Peru.  Twice we had to bribe the police after being stopped for completely bogus violations.  The first time we were stopped because we didn’t go around a traffic circle properly.  It was such a scam.  The highway went right by the traffic circle.  You had to pull off the highway to go around it “properly”.  The police of course knew it was confusing to anyone not from that particular area and were parked just on the other side, waiting.  Now I know why the locals pointed off to the side of the road as we passed by: they were trying to save us a ticket.  The fine was 640 soles for both of us (320 soles each).  We would have to pay this fine in a nearby town.  Of course the police made no move to actually start writing up this ticket.  They were waiting for the inevitable: “Can we pay it here instead?”  Yes of course we could.  Out came my international student card, which had already been useful in reducing the amount I’ve had to bribe the police in the past (see runner up).  I explained that we were both students and did not have much money.  They asked how much I had.  I said 50 soles.  The officer nodded.  I was just about to hand him the money when he said that the total would be 100 soles in total because there were two of us.  I actually lost it at this point.  I angrily said no, turned my back on the officer, and walked away from the police car.  I was planning on sitting on my bike for the next 5 hours if need be.  Perhaps sensing my resolution, the officer called me back and said that 50 soles was good.  I paid him and we were on our way.

The second time we were stopped in Peru it was for speeding in a “school zone”.  Apparently the posted limit was 30 km/h.  It was a four lane divided highway.  There was no school in sight.  I’m not sure how fast I was going, but Ted said he was going about 40 km/h.  It didn´t matter.  The police had no radar gun. The whole thing was a scam.

Luckily we had in our possession a counterfeit bill.  We had paid for laundry service in advance in the town
of Chimbote.  When we picked up our laundry seven hours later, we were told that we had originally paid with a fake 20 sole bill.  They asked us for another one.  This was suspect in itself, but what could we do?  Ted had the brilliant idea of saving the fake 20 for the police (we had already had to bribe them once and he correctly figured that we would have to do it again).  I put it in my front pocket for just such an occurrence.  What a feeling of satisfaction it was to bribe the police with a counterfeit bill.

Runner up: Costa Rica.  I got pulled over for a bogus speeding ticket.  Apparently I was going 90 in a 50 zone.  There was no 50 zone.  It was an open stretch of highway with nothing but jungle on either side.  While we were stopped, truck after truck whizzed by at easily 110 km/h.  The officer just thought he could get more money from me than the locals.  Originally the officer’s bribe rate was 10,000 colones (about $20).  After I showed him my international student card, he was willing to accept 5,000 colones.

Cheapest country:  Bolivia.  We paid just over two dollars (for both of us) for a hotel that included breakfast.  Runner Up: Honduras.  I challenge anyone to eat $5 worth of food in Honduras.

Most expensive country: Costa Rica.

Hardest place to get a ticket:  Columbia.  We tried everything.  We split lanes against oncoming traffic.  We passed lines of trucks in the emergency lane, right in front of the police.  We went 130 km/h in 30 km/h zones.  Everybody else was doing it, so why not do as the locals?  Early on I developed the theory that it was impossible to get a ticket in Columbia.  When we finally got stopped by some cops with a shiny new radar gun for going 130 in an 80 zone, we just pretended we didn´t understand a word of Spanish.  The officer that stopped us called his partner over for a conference.  He asked how could he explain the violation to us if we didn´t understand Spanish?  The other officer shrugged and they waved us on. 

Friendliest people: Colombians.  Everywhere we stopped we made instant friends.  Sometimes before we even got off our bikes someone would see us looking confused at an intersection and come up to help us.  We were invited into people’s homes.  We ate many a meal with people we had just met that day.  Columbians were so friendly that even Ted made friends.

Most generous people: Peruvians.  We experienced the generosity of the Peruvian people over and over again.  Even people with so little to give gave us so much.  I was touched.