Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Jose told me that San Miguel had a few bike shops, and one of them might have the part I needed. He was going into San Miguel on the morning anyhow and could give me a lift. I figured it was worth a shot.
We must have gone to five shops, a few of which had cleats for a different type of pedal, but not mine. One or two shops sold decent bikes, the rest didn't. I was amused at how a couple shops were basically selling K-Mart bikes, but had posters of the latest greatest most expensive road and mountain bikes on the walls, like that's what this shop is all about. I'm guessing they merely got their hands on some bike-related poster and put it up.
Jose's job requires him to make a boatload of stops in a busy, noisy city. For a couple hours, I snuck off and used a cyber cafe while he ran his errands. I also helped at a few places we stopped, and managed to carry a couple 100-pound sacks of sugar or corn. Apparently Jose goes through about 100 of those sacks of corn every week, along with over 8,000 eggs! In only two convenience stores! We wound up getting back to his house about 5:30 PM, having left about 7:00 AM. He would still have to do at least an hour of paperwork that night. He does not get weekends off; this happens every day.
Disappointed about the pedals, but happy to be rested, I did a long day into Honduras. When I got to the border, they wanted $3 American to let me in. Naturally, they only take cash. I had $2.75.
"Please? It's very close!" He shook his head. I let out a sigh. "Where is the ATM?"
"Eight kilometers that way," announced a teenager standing next to me. At borders, lines do not exist.
If they're going to charge people to enter the country, they need to accept cards. This isn't a mom and pop store, this is the federal government. There's no good excuse. And if they're going to live in the 1950s and take cash only, they could at least have an ATM outside. My shoulders sagged. I had no other option. I would have to ride a pointless 16 km in the name of 25 cents.
"Could I have my passport please?" I was already over the bridge and would probably need it to get back into El Salvador. He shook his head. "Why not?"
"You can't have your passport until you have paid."
"I am not going NOWHERE without my passport." He stopped looking at me. I continued standing in front of the window. Someone to my side (no lines, remember) stuck his passport through the window and the guy started helping him.
I was at a loss as to what to do. Obviously this guy won't budge, but I'm not wandering around the border area, including crossing the bridge twice, without my passport. Should I beg? I only needed $0.25. It shouldn't be that hard to find someone who will help me that much. Or maybe it will be, because every time I'm at a border, I get bum-rushed by people who want something from me and won't take no for an answer. Reversing that tide could prove difficult.
Luckily, the next person back was - I kid you not - a nun. Even here in a Catholic country, you don't see one every day.
"Excuse me sister," (I assumed they use that term) "can you help me? I do not have enough, but it is close."
She immediately pulled out a $5 and paid up. I gave her what I had, and also the change, so she only had to pay a quarter. Still, in that situation, it was an important quarter!
"Much thanks, and bless you!" She politely smiled and went on her way.
Both USA-Canada borders I crossed were mostly hassle-free, even though they asked me a few questions. Mexico was the only place that asked me to open a bag, but again, little hassle, everything was professional and well-controlled. Ever since then, the borders are a zoo. On both sides there’s a huge market of people aggressively shouting at you to buy their overpriced whatever-it-is, and you can expect at least four guys on each side of the border to badger you about changing your money with them. They'll rip you off, of course, but unlike the Mexico-USA border, the exchange rate is not posted and there are no small businesses with an office. It's simply some guy in the street who chases you, shouts, and keeps shout-asking until you've said "I don't need it" at least four times.
You'll also be chased around by kids who also yell at you, and some of them are fast enough to keep up with Valeria! I have no idea what they want, because even though I think my Spanish is improving, I still can't understand a single word kids say. It sounds to me like they only shout a bunch of vowels, and at least two-thirds of them are "AAAAAAAA!!!!"
Here are the three Spanish dialects I now recognize:
Someone who makes an effort to communicate:
"Ocho kilometros mas, y al izquierdo."
Someone who doesn't make an effort to communicate:
In any case, I'm getting sick of borders and border towns. I'll be glad to get to larger countries in South America, if only so I don't have to deal with them so often.
I still had a good long way to go into Honduras to get to my intended destination. In the early afternoon, I met a guy named Omar who was pedaling a mountain bike around next to the road, occasionally waving at a truck on a dirt road nearby. It turned out Omar lives in Choluteca and he offered a place to stay and a dinner!
"I want to welcome you to Honduras!" he explained.
He still had to work for a few hours more, but he described an exact location where he would meet me with his truck in Choluteca, between 6:00-6:30 PM.
"If it's 6:30 and I am not there, keep waiting! I will be there."
Sounded like a promise! I gave him a wristband and continued.
A powerful thunderstorm started just as I got to Choluteca. I immediately found our meeting place exactly as Omar had described: a two-story gazebo in a park on the right side of the road, just after the big suspension bridge. Hard to miss or confuse with something else. It was only 4:30 PM and this was a good-sized town. I sought out a few bike shops. The fact that I tried at all, knowing my chances were slim at best, pedaling all over town in the pouring rain, that says something about how bad I wanted cleats again. Predictably, none of them had any. Once more, I was told to visit the capital city.
I made it back to the gazebo at 5:20 PM, easily early enough that I couldn't have missed Omar. I pulled out a book and read.
6:00 PM. He wouldn't be here any earlier than now, and I don't expect him right away. But it was possible.
6:30 PM. Now is more like when I expected him. Still not here though. Maybe he had to work a little later, or there was traffic.
7:00 PM. Still within the range I expected when he told me 6:00-6:30. Still no Omar.
7:30 PM. OK, I know Latin Americans are notorious for underestimating how much time something will take (and generally, just saying whatever you want to hear), but an hour late more than an annoyance. It's rude to be dishonest.
8:00 PM. ...he's not coming.
For the first time, I rode at night. I found the nearest hotel and took it, since I don't like riding at night. $65, the most I've paid. Thanks, Omar!
The hotel did come with a free breakfast buffet. Pancakes, French toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh fruit, fried plantains, yogurt, granola, fine cheese, and a fruit smoothie of your choice. I woke up and eagerly headed down.
"Are you looking for breakfast?" I was stopped by the guy who checked me in last night.
"Yes, it's over there, correct?"
"There's no breakfast on Mondays."
"...Why? Is there a reason?"
"There's no breakfast on Mondays."
"But I paid the same price."
"At 7:30 AM, the boss will be here. Talk to her."
To some credit, he had an apologetic tone.
I had hoped to eat at 6:30 AM, just as breakfast opened, then get on the road about 7:00 AM, before it gets too hot. Now I get to sit around and wait an hour while it keeps getting hotter outside. I'd woken up early for nothing.
7:30 AM rolled around. I went to the office.
"You are the one who wants breakfast?" I was asked sharply by a stern middle-aged woman.
"There's no breakfast on Mondays." I noticed they said this a lot, but never explained why.
"But I paid the same amount. Can I receive a discount?"
She called an employee over, handed him a few bucks, and said something to him quickly. He went out the front door. "He is going to bring you breakfast."
"Wendy's. Go to your room."
15 minutes later, I ate pancakes from Wendy's. They were OK. I was still a little hungry when I finished. As politely as I could, I returned the key and left.
I had to cross yet another border. This time they wanted $12 American. I only had the equivalent of $5. Cash only, as always. But at least there was an ATM right outside.
Rather than change my money at the border lose half my money, I came up with a better idea. I bought a Gatorade at the surrounding market area (passing on everyone who shouted at me, instead buying from someone quiet) and asked for my change in Nicaraguan cash. They happily agreed and even gave me a near-perfect rate! Now I know what to do from now on.
15 km outside of León, I got a flat. I didn't have to look long for the culprit: a 1.5 cm wood screw. No tire is gonna stop that. I even had trouble yanking it out of the tire! It had been a long day, it was getting late, I was almost there. Rather than patch it, I replaced the tube.
As soon as I got into León, I noticed Valeria was handling funny. I looked down. Not again! I had planned on trying to get at least halfway through León before finding a place to stay, but screw it. I rode about 1 km on a flat and stopped at the first place I found. Turned out there were two punctures at once, both due to a piece of that wire you find in steel-belted tires. Flats #4 and #5 in the same day, and one of them was two separate punctures. I am now down to my last patch.
This is why the shoulder needs to be kept in equally good condition when compared to the traffic lane. If the shoulder is not maintained, I'm going to stop riding in it. I’m guessing motorists won't like that. Having a place for bikes helps motorists as much as it helps cyclists.
Starting halfway through El Salvador, I was supposed to have WarmShowers hosts ten out of eleven days. Two responded to say yes. One responded to say no. One of them lied about their location in the first place. The other six haven't responded at all.
After doing a couple big days in a row, it was looking like I could get to Panama City in time to make it to Quito before I fly home to visit family in mid-September. I would need a few more big days. And probably new cleats. My legs weren't happy doing long distances using only a couple muscle groups. That would only get worse in the Andes. If I couldn't find cleats soon, I would slow down and fly home from Panama City. With cleats, tacking on that 1,100 km in Colombia was possible, and would greatly increase my chances of finishing South America in time to spend Christmas at home.
Right off the bat, headwind. My legs were still exhausted from two long days (150+ km) of riding without clips. Traffic built and built as I approached Managua, Nicaragua's capital city. I kept stopping for water breaks, checking my progress on the map every time. Even though I was doing OK in terms of km covered per unit of time, I felt like I was getting nowhere. But I carried on. Today would be the day I get cleats!
More cars. More trucks. More noise. More headwind. Even in proportion to the increased traffic, more honking. Why are people such insufferable noisy pricks? Trucks continued using their engine brakes, even in the city. Now that takes some serious inconsiderate-ness. Driving a large truck on city streets is bad enough and shouldn't be allowed. Using the engine brake in city limits should be a felony.
I had looked up the location of a bike shop in Managua, the only one I could find online. They're a Specialized dealer. That alone sounded promising. And thankfully, they weren't located in the center of the city, so I wouldn't have to deal with that.
With the stakes as high as they were, the chance to get to Quito before flying home for a break, it made me nervous knowing that this was the last chance I'd have to get cleats. And I'm not looking somewhere else. There is no way I'm riding all over a city bigger than San Francisco, asking random people on the street for directions to a bike shop (and trusting anything anyone says here), looking for the one and only store that has cleats. That's not happening.
As I got onto the road where I expected to see the store, a thought occurred: what if the store isn't where it should be? Again, not going into downtown looking for it.
I passed the spot on the map where the shop should be. Nope. I went another full kilometer. Nope again. Time to start asking around...
In the next half hour, I was sent to two stores that don't exist, as well as a road that doesn't exist. Two of the people I asked had the integrity to say "I don't know." Two of the people that fed me bad information were on bikes.
I was standing on the side of the road, about to give up, when a guy went by on a mountain bike. A Cannondale mountain bike (translation: not a K-Mart bike). This guy might know something about a good bike shop.
With quite possibly the strongest 2-minute effort I've made in the last three months, I barely chased him down. Sweating, gasping, panting, my legs now hurting me more than my eardrums have for the last month, I wheezed out between gulps of air,
"Do you know where is a good bike shop?"
He had the courtesy to stop so we could talk. "There are two. The best is back that way," he said, pointing to where I'd come from (having already ridden back and forth several times). I really hoped he didn't mean downtown.
"But I'm going that way."
"Half a kilometer. At the next hill, the first left." That's how you give directions to a foreigner. Simple, short, and don't use street names when no streets are labeled, ever.
"It is not on the principal highway?"
"No, another street. Left at the clothing store, after that, there is a bakery, and after that, bike shop. 100 meters from the highway. The name is Pro Rider Specialized." The one I was looking for! "If you don't find it, ask someone, everyone around here knows where it is and can tell you."
With the help of accurate directions, I found it easily. It was barely around a corner and out of sight; I'd ridden past at least three times now. I stepped inside and recognized this as the kind of bike shop I'm used to. Five minutes later, my shoes had new cleats attached. Colombia, here we come!
Only a couple minutes later, a car slowed down beside me and didn't honk. I looked to my left. It was Corstiaan, the mountain biker! He held up his wrist, displaying the wristband I'd given him.
"Rob! Did you get what you needed?" he asked, in English. I hadn't given him my name before.
"Yeah!" I was already happy about my cleats, and now I couldn't keep a smile off my face.
"Good! I made a request to follow you on Strava!"
So in the last 20-30 minutes, he made it home, immediately looked at my website, remembered my name, found me on Strava (there's a link on my site, but still, he took the time to go there), changed clothes, got in the car, and found me on this hill. I don't know of he was on his way to run an errand anyway, or if he had driven here just to check on me.
Getting away from Managua involved a large hill, but luckily the day got a little easier after that. Except for a downpour, though it was thankfully over quickly. Still have a tough kick ahead to get to Panama City on time, but at least I'm fully equipped again. I'm going for it!