About three months ago, I ordered my new bicycle. When I called the shop a few days ago, they told me they were waiting for parts. This was only two days before departure! The mechanic (Mr. Suzuki) worked all night to finish it. He lives near Tokyo - about 600 km away...
This morning, friends and family came to my house to say goodbye. Four hours before the flight I left my house to go to the airport. Without my bicycle... Mr. Suzuki was on the train from Tokyo...
Three hours before my flight, I met mr. Suzuki at the train station of Osaka. He brought a very big box on the high-speed train. I arrived at the airport 90 minutes before departure. With a big box - there was no time to inspect the contents.
I was very stressed - too stressed to be sad about leaving my family and friends behind.
The plane left Japan at 15:25 (3:35 pm) and arrived in Alaska 9:30 (am). I was sorry I did not start preparing earlier. I had stopped working 6 months before, but I had been relaxing at first. The last few months, all of my friends invited me to their houses. In the end, I had only half an hour left...
It was very strange to leave in the afternoon and arrive in the morning of the same day! It was a 30°C hot day in Osaka (86°F), but now it was only 10°C (50°F). In 11 hours, I went from summer to winter. I saw some small mountains, with snow on them! Alaska is close to the North Pole.
Outside the airport, I could finally open Mr. Suzuki's big box. I found a sky-blue frame and a very shiny luggage rack. I carefully assembled pedals, seat and handlebars. I decided it would be called Daisukebike. I was ready to go!
The wind was very fresh. I feel fresh! I have a new bicycle, I am not used to riding of the right-hand side of the road, I am inexperienced with dollars, I speak only a little English.
The days were very long - the sun set at 23:00 (11:00pm) and rose at 4:00 (am). The summer was short but beautiful and green. The largest bears in world live on Kodiak Island, and it's not far from Anchorage. Mount McKinley was close too: a Japanese adventurer, Mr. Uemura, died here in 1984. I was heading for Fairbanks, to meet Mr. Funatsu to see his dogsleds and the beautiful nature.
I learnt about Mr. Funatsu on the news: he was racing his dogsled from Siberia to Alaska, together with another Japanese. A brewer was sponsoring him. The race was difficult and dangerous. Mr. Ikemoto, the founder of the Japanese Adventure Cyclist Club, gave me Mr. Funatsu's address. I hadn't met him but I was eager: more than 20 years ago, he crossed the Sahara on a sailing bicycle with a friend. He lives 50 km north of Fairbanks, with his wife (and 30 dogs). Their income are prizes of races and the sale of dogs.
The nights are only four hours long in summer. In winter, there is no sun at all! It will be cold, too: -40°C (-40°F); the engines of cars will freeze and cannot be started. Yet children go to school in winter and people do their work.
Mr. Funatsu tells me that sometimes the climate makes life difficult, but the nature is very beautiful. He likes to ride the dogsleds during the winter; shopping can take a whole day. But when the dogs and Mr. Funatsu form a good team, he feels wonderful. During the short summertime, he finds blueberries in the forest and salmons in the rivers. Then, big Mooses cross his path. Flowers bloom. March is his favorite time, even though the temperature is -20°C (-4°F) it's noticably warmer than in winter. In March, the season's first sunrise can be seen as well, which impresses him every year. They love Alaska.
Mr. Funatsu gave me advice: Because July is the end of summer and because August will become colder soon, I should go south quickly. He tells me to ask local people about wild bears. The heigth of summer is mid-June to mid-July. This summer was cold: the maximum temperature at noon was only 10°C (50°F).
For the last two months, I have been travelling and sleeping in my tent everyday. I pitch my tent anywhere, but away from houses. That way, I can sleep undisturbed. I have forgotten about electricity, solid roofs and beds.
I have pedaled 130 km today, just like yesterday. I am tired. I would like to camp on the banks of the lake, but there are houses close. Suddenly, I see a fire and some people, 40-50 year old. Canadian English is still difficult for me, but I accept when they invite me to their barbeque. The fire (and the beer) made us feel very good. We all felt like old friends already. Just before sunset, Mr. and Mrs. King told me that it would be difficult to pitch my tent in the dark. The asked me to stay in their house. They took (me and) my bicycle to town in their car, and invited me for dinner in a pub.
The pub was quite noisy: we could not understand each other very well. After dinner, I danced with Mrs. King. It was my first dance and not a very good one. But we enjoyed it very much!
It was my lucky night: to sleep in a bed, under a roof, in a heated house. I enjoyed the things which I took for granted while in Japan, but which I had forgotten about.
I am in a barren land. There are no cities, no farms for miles here. The land is almost completely flat; there is no protection.
It was windy yesterday evening, so I put up my tent behind a deserted building. During the night, the sky was clear but the wind became stronger and stronger. When I got up, before sunrise, the westerly wind was very strong. I wanted to go east, so I had the wind on my back. I was riding very fast: 32 km/h (20 mph). As the sun got up, I could see a big dark cloud building over the place behind me.
Not one, but two pieces of metal wire punctured my tire. I repaired the leaks very quickly and continued on my way. The cloud behind me was growing bigger and bigger. The wind was getting even stronger. I knew a storm was coming, but going back 10 miles to the place where I had slept was impossible. The next town, Bowie, was still 20 miles away. I pedalled as fast as I could.
Just before I reached Bowie, the sand was lifted from the ground in big whirls. The dust was everywhere - the cloud had reached me. I could not see a thing except for the road beneath me. It was very hard to ride straight because the wind was coming from all directions. Car drivers were going very slow, but I was afraid that one would hit me. I did not want to sit down, because I did not know how long this storm would last. As best as I could, I continued.
After ten minutes, the sand settled. The wind was still very strong and there were huge clouds above me and I could hear thunder. A loaded truck with roadworkers stopped. They told me to hurry and reach the first restaurant in Bowie as quickly as possible. They were sorry they could not take me. The road turned north; the wind was on my side now. I fell over. It was very hard to lift my bicycle, and my hands were getting very tired.
At 50 meters before the restaurant, the people inside could see me. But they were too afraid to get outside and help me. "Only 50 meters", I thought. I pushed myself even further. On my last strenght, I reached the front door. Those were the longest 50 meters ever! The people let me in and took my bicycle inside as well.
A big thunderstorm unloaded. Huge hailstones were falling from the sky. The sky was very angry that day.
The people the restaurant gave me coffee and offered me a shower. My bicycle was cleaned as well.
A few hours later, it was all over. I pedalled on...
Yesterday, I arrived in Cuantitlan. I was looking for a place to sleep, but I could only find expensive hotels of at least 150 Peso per night. I decided to pitch my tent, but I could not find a place without houses. I am close to Mexico City - there are many people here. When I stopped for dinner in a restaurant the waiter told me that I could possibly stay in the police station. I went to the police station to ask.
I found three policemen in a small office of the station, which was behind a church. Sometimes, I feel uneasy about policemen. My suspicion sparked fear. I asked them: "I've been to different hotels in this city, but I cannot find a cheap one. What can I do?" One of the policemen said: "You can stay in the room nextdoor!" They allowed me to stay. My bicycle was put in the office. The chief of police came over and asked me if I was hungry. He said: "Come with me!" He took me to his friend's place en we had a party. "You can eat as much as you want!", he told me.
The next morning, the policemen gave me breakfast. I thanked them and said: "Adios!" and went on my way to Mexico City (8 million people). There were many policemen on the street, many on bicycles. They always helped me when I asked for directions. Sometimes they were more than helpful and took me where I wanted to go. I think that Mexican police officers are very friendly.
I stayed for one night in a Japanese hostel in Mexico City. More than 30 Japanese were there, some were motorcyclists. They all had very bad experiences with the police. That was the opposite of my experience, which surprised me. The warnings of the motorcyclists made me weary of police. But the Mexican police were always friendly to me.
Yucatan (in Mexico) is a tropical land. It is winter and dry season here now, but it is sometimes very hot, and sometimes rainy.
On the road, when I left a big town, I passed poor villages. Some people don't have shoes. People work every day, but their product is not good. They make little money. Their life is very simple.
I stopped at a small village yesterday. Then, one of the poor families invited me. But they received me warmly. The mother made me scrambled egg in the morning. It was only for me. Because egg is expensive for them. They ate frijores (beans) then. But they didn't complain about anything. Then they saw me off warmly in this morning. My heart got very warm.
Belize is the second smallest country in Central America, south of Mexico and east of Guatemala. The population is the smallest in Central-America. Many people, including many Europeans, don't know about this country. It's the only country here where the official language is English. Belmopan is the capital with a population of less than 10,000. The largest city is Belize City, with 50,000 inhabitants. Long ago, indigenous people (Maja) lived here. In 1502, Columbus was here, and the Spanish colonized Belize. In 1862 Great Britain took over, and in 1964 Belize became independent, although the English governer retained power. Honduras and Guatemala still dispute the borders of Belize.
In 1987, Belize and China befriended, and many Chinese came to the country. These Chinese manage shops, restaurants and hotels. In 1989 ties with Taiwan were closer and the Chinese friendship cooled. Then, many Taiwanese came to work in the agricultural industry. The UK still has a military presence.
When I arrived in Belize, I noticed many black people. About 60% of the population are of African origin. It is one of the biggest differences with the other countries. Many of the black people are unemployed - I saw many of them. Most shops are protected by bars, to keep thieves out. Almost all shops close on sundays, even on weekdays most shops are closed by 17:00 (5:00pm). The national newspaper is only published twice per week.
The Chinese owners of restaurants think the black people are lazy and cannot be trusted. There are robbers everywhere. In Mexico City, ther were many policemen, but here there a few. So, people must protect themselves.
Belize is scarcely populated with only 1 inhabitant per square kilometer and it is not very developed. There is (still) a lot of undisturbed jungle. It is the only place where wild Tapirs live.
It was only 100 km from the border of Belize to the Ruins of Tikal. The language changed from English to Spanish, which was bad for me, because I did not speak much Spanish. The people changed as well: they were more friendly. I prefer nice people (even when I cannot understand them).
After 33 kilometers, the hilly asphalt road changed into a path full of big stones. I was afraid I would break something on my bicycle while running down the steep, unpaved roads. I was covered in the dust of passing trucks and busses. I was hungry and tired, and I slowly cycled to the next village. There was no restaurant but only a small shop. I asked for something to eat. While I was eating a snack and drinking some Coca-Cola, many friendly people came to see me. They live in big families with 5 to 6 children each. The children have no shoes. Chickens, turkeys, pigs and dogs are also around the house. The time goes slower there, and I felt comfortable. After another 10 kilometers I was back on asphalt, all the way to Tikal.
In Mexico, I saw the ruins of the Aztecs and the Maya: Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, Tulum, Palenque and Uxmal. Each of them are great and have their own special character. But Tikal is my favorite one. It is a huge Maya city, completely hidden in the jungle. There are five pyramids, all taller than the trees. The jungle convered the ruins.
I went up to the top of one of the pyramids and I enjoyed the spectacular view. I saw mapaches (a kind of raccoon), monkeys and bats while I was there.
While in San Salvador, I visited the offices of JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) outside the centre of the city, in a luxury residential area. I rung the doorbell and I was let in. Inside, Salvodorian and Japanese people were running around being very busy. It was like the Japanese society in this building. It felt very strange - I have been travelling in Central-America for a long time and I am no longer used to this speed.
The JICA helps third world countries by sending technicians or volounteer students to help build the local economy and develop social welfare. Japanese agriculture, education, art professors came to El Salvador to teach. I hope it will help world peace as well!
Mr. Kamishima, member of the Japanese Adventure Cyclists Club and manager of the JICA in El Salvador, came to see me. He invited me to his house, and I stayed a few days.
Everywhere I cycle in Central America, the children will shout at me: "Chino!" or "Gringo!". Chino used to be a bad word for a Chinese person, Gringo was the same for a North-American. But now, it's just like "Hello!".
I was surprised about the quality of the asphalt on the Pan-American Highway in Honduras; in El Salvador the road was bad. Because of that, I doubted that Honduras was the poorest country of Central-America. But soon I found out that the road was the only good thing in Honduras. The houses are shabby, children have no shoes, and there are too many children in very small rooms.
The numerous children would shout "gringo" but they did not smile. They are like dogs - if one starts to shout, many more will also "bark". Older people did not stop the children from shouting. Even though they did not touch me and they threw no stones, I was afraid to stop anywhere.
I do not understand why the children would shout at me this way, or what they wanted to say. It just made me feel uneasy.
In Central America, people celebrate the "Semana Santa", or holy week, which is the week before Easter. All banks, postal offices, many shops and offices for a vacation, towns are quiet. It's a bit inconvenient for travellers.
I arrived into Nicaragua on the saturday before Semana Santa. I could not change travellers checks at the border, nor at any banks, because they were all closed. I had very few US dollars, and a few Colons (from El Salvador) and some Lempiras (from Honduras) left. The border patrol told me that I could change checks in Managua, which was three days away. I changed all the cash I could find.
I arrived in Managua on Tuesday, right in Semana Santa. Wednesday morning, I left the cheap hostel to find an opened bank in the street with all the banks, about 7 kilometers away. It was a busy street.
I heard confusing news. Some said that the banks would be open Monday through Wednesday, others said that they would open each morning. The first to give me reliable information was a security officer: the banks would be open that Wednesday morning, but close for the rest of the week. I quickly found a bank, with a huge line of waiting people.
I stood in line for 30 minutes. When I showed my checks the clerk told me that this bank would not change checks. I quickly went to another bank, with another long line. I waited again. Ten minutes, twenty minutes. "We cannot change your checks". I became desparate. I asked many people and someone told me about the only other place to go. It was already closed. I was disappointed and fed up.
I met another security guard and I explained the problem in my broken Spanish. He told there was another place to change money: in the shopping mall, about 500 meters away. That gave me hope. The door was still open and I thought I made it. But when I tried to go inside, I was stopped. "We closed a few minutes ago for Semana Santa." My hope disappeared.
I had found for about US$ 5.00 in Cordoba's (from Nicaragua) in my luggage - it would be impossible to survive on so little money. I needed US$ 3.00 for the hostel; the rest would pay for one meal, and I hadn't had breakfast yet! I told the guard about my dire situation. He knew another place: 5 kilometers...
I felt it was my last chance. I lost my way, but I reached the shop, which was open! The clerk did not answer my question immediately. He looked at the checks, looked at me. I was very afraid, my heartrate was very high. Fortunately, they accepted.
I was very happy to be able to survive Semana Santa (just two hours before that shop would close as well)!
My guidebook says that Costa Rica is the Switzerland of Central America: many mountains, many tourists and safe. Of course, I always look out for thieves, but I felt more relaxed than in some other countries.
Yesterday, I crossed the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border. They asked me for US$ 3.00 exit tax. The next guard said I needed a bicycle permit. We argued for about 20 minutes, and I got away without paying. Costa Rican immigration cost only US$ 0.30. Entry into Costa Rica was easy.
The roads were potholed and I had to be very careful. There was not much traffic op the Pan Americana in the north of Costa Rica and I was unafraid. The hills and montains make bicycling harder than in Nicaragua. There are many trees on the mountains; it is a little cooler in the forests. The countryside reminded me of Japan: lots of green. The people, especially the children, are not as loud. Costa Rica looked like a comfortable country to me.
Four days ago, I met Mr. Albano in Managua and we have been riding together. We quickly found a small room in a cheap hostel when we arrived in La Cruz. The owner said that is was a safe place and that the bicycles, with the luggage, could be left outside.
When we woke up at sunrise, I was surprised to find the contents of my bags all around my bicycle. I thought a dog would have done it, in search of food. But when I saw that all four bags were opened and the contents was taken out, I knew I was robbed.
I regretted that I was careless because I felt stronger while travelling in a group of two. I also regretted that I believed the owner of the hostal. Anyway, I checked on what had been lost: a headlight, some medicines, some new T-shirts, my new stove, some toilet paper, a mosquito repellent, a training jacket and my Japanese flag that so many friends had signed!
Some things can be replaced, but the jacket which was a present from a friend and the Japanese flag could not be replaced. Never. Mr. Albano was more careful than me: he had put all of his luggage in his small room, and he lost only his tirepump to the thieves.
"We can't help it", the manager said, "maybe it was that family that left very early". Going to the police would not bring our equipment back; so we did not report it. We felt very bad and left the hostal the same morning.
Chichicastenango (a village in Guatemala) is famous among foreign tourists, because it has a big market where all Indian women dress up in their folk custume. They come together in this village to sell beautiful clothes, rare folk-arts and so on. And many tourists visit there to see Indian people and to buy their souvenirs.
The Indian people knows that foreign tourists have a lot of money and they have a better life than them. Foreign tourists spend more money than local customers. (Of course I couldn't buy any souvenirs, because I will do a long trip. I must save my money.)
I visited this village, and I walked around there to see. When I got tired, I found a general shop.
I asked: "Can I have a Coca Cola? How much is it?". The saleswoman said: "Yes of course. 5 Quetzals please." I said: "That's too expensive!" (The market price is 2 Quetzals.) Saleslady: "Foreigners make more money than us! So you must pay more." I said nothing but took the bottle.
I walked some more after I drank the Coke. When I got thirsty again after a few hours, I entered another general store again and asked: "Can I have a Coca Cola, please?". The saleswoman said, "Yes, of course! It is 2 Quetzals!" I asked her: "Is it 2 Quetzals? It was 5 Quetzals in the other shop!"
She answered: "It is the same price, if you are local or not. Because it is the same thing! I sell this Coke at the same price to all customers."
I said: "Muchas gracias!" (Thank you very much!)
My heart feld fine. Many local people are insane about money, because of the many rich tourists who visit this village. I could understand. But I was glad to see the one woman.
2 Quetzals = 0.3 U.S Dollars
Bribri is a small town, surrounded by banana fields, in the eastern part of Costa Rica, close to Panama. I think it has a funny name, because when we say "bribri" in Japan, it means diarrhea.
I am a healthy person. I always was, while in Japan. But now, I in these tropical countries, I get diarrhea too. I did not know that being sick can be so hard.
When I am healthy, I do not think about becoming sick. Only after I have eaten, I start thinking about the risks. I have regretted my food dearly about 5 times now. But regret (afterwards) is not enough to get better again; these times I need medicine.
I feel miserable when I am not healthy. Riding a bicycle is difficult when one has to go to the toilet all the time. Even during the nights, the diarrhea doesn't let me sleep...
In these warm but poor countries it is easy to get sick. Not only the food, but also the many contacts with poor people offer many opportunities to have another case of diarrhea. Bicyclists are always hungry, and often when there not a good place to eat. We have to be very careful...
I thank God for being healthy again (through the help of some medicine).
Panama is a small country with a lot of small towns. It is also richer than other Central-American countries: I see new cars, filled supermarkets. The prices are just as low as in the other countries.
The children don't shout "Gringo" at me - I can travel comfortably here.
I crossed the canal via the big (American) bridge and I was amazed at the dense traffic and the number of people. I could see many tall buildings across the bridge: Panama City, which looks like a very lively, modern city. When I reached the other side, I was in the old centre with many dirty and run-down buildings. It was very different from what I saw from the middle of the bridge. There were many unemployed people in the streets and I was watched by many from the open windows in the old apartment buildings. I wanted to leave the area quickly since the people made me feel uneasy.
When I reached the new centre of the city, I saw many shops, shoppers, businesspeople and tourists. I rode through an office area with many beautiful buildings. It was the city I saw from the bridge.
Many of the streets are one-way, and the drivers are behaving like mad-men. I saw a lot of agression, heard many horns and witnessed a few accidents. Not only the cars and trucks, but also the public buses have no respect for pedestrians (and bicyclists). Sometimes they ignore red lights, so I have to be very careful, even when my light is green. Panama City is the most modern city in Central America, bit it also has the worst drivers.
A cheap hostel costs about US$ 5.00 per night, a cinema ticket is only US$ 1.00, a menu in a restaurant starts at US$ 1.00 (and McDonald costs US$ 3.00 which makes it a middle-class restaurant). The prices are about half of those in the USA.
A cheap menu, "arroz y sopa", a popular dish in Panama, is made of many things, like: yam (a patatoe-like vegetable), chicken (with the bone in) or beef or pork, corn, onion, carrot, pumpkin and bananas. The rice is a little salty. It is quite delicious. In Panama, I mostly drank the chilled tap-water that was served with the soup.
I see no beggars in the centre of the city, they stay in the poor part of the city. The contrast between rich and poor is big. 500,000 People live in Panama City. The economic situation of Panama City is quite good, probably because of the canal, which will be returned to the Panamese at the end of this year (1999). I don't know what will happen then.