Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mexico: miles and miles of smiles

My bike earned a new badge in the last week, and it came from passing through one of the greatest early surprises of this trip: Mexico

Funny that we originally thought we'd spend about 2 weeks in Mexico. We enjoyed ourselves so much in each place we visited, it was actually about 4 weeks by the time we left (December 27th.)

Plenty of concern preceded my riding through Mexico, and I know there are many examples of people being hurt, robbed, mis-treated, or whatever. Somehow, Peter and I made it through Mexico holding a very high opinion of this country and smiles on our faces. To match us from within, the people we rode past and met along the way leave me with the thought of "smiles" when the name "Mexico" pops in my mind. It was an absolute delight and an experience I will treasure forever.

From the simple smiles and waves from strangers as we rode by to the individuals that took time out of their lives to help us and make us feel welcome, my thanks go out to the many people along the way that made it such a pleasure to ride through this country I've lived so close to but never really knew.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Adv #7 Cont: Oaxaca to Zipolite and the Guatemala Border

Leaving Oaxaca and our new friends in Juan’s circle was bittersweet: Sad to leave them, but excited about moving onto a new chapter in our adventure.

On December 21st, our bikes were pointed due south with the small beach town of Puerto Angel in our sites. Our camping directory suggested there were some good camping options there, and the Playa de Zipolite (Zipolite Beach) was very highly regarded by folks in Oaxaca.
The drive to Puerto Angel, was unbelievable! Okay, I’ve written plenty about winding, twisting roads that are physically exhausting. But this was the first time that the twists and turns were so severe and so frequent that it made both Peter and I motion sick. It was a six-hour ride that felt like about 12, and we actually had to stop a few times to take a break and overcome the feelings of nausea. We weren’t even riding that hard or fast, but so many hairpin turns and ups and downs just sucked the life out of us.

Arriving in Port Angel, the first campground we checked really didn’t motivate us to set up our tents, and it wasn’t even on the beach. Good thing we didn’t set up there, because 10 minutes later a local resident pointed us in the direction of a perfect little paradise, right on Zipolite Beach. (For only $4 per night, keep in mind.)

The pictures might help show what I mean. This little family owned camping & cabana spot was right in the middle of Zipolite (which is only about 1 kilometer long, bordered by cliffs on both ends) and you can see what the view was like when I woke up in the morning in my tent 25 yards from the crashing waves. Along the beach, there were just a handful of restaurants and bars, and none of them with anything that would remind you of a major holiday resort. Zipolite feels like a well-guarded secret at this southern point of Mexico that bulges out into the Pacific Ocean.

In the morning, locals walk through the area selling fresh fish, pastries, and of course arts and crafts. We had just met Elke and Louis from Quebec, and decided we’d enjoy a fish dinner that evening together in their little kitchen on the beach. As we got to know more about them, it turns out Louis has owned a fairly famous restaurant called Café Acadien along the Gaspee Coast in Quebec for 25 years. This restaurant is only open for 2 months every year, but those popular 2 months have allowed Louis to travel the remainder of the year to places like Zipolite and Germany to visit Elke’s family. (They met 12 years ago there on Zipolite and have been married ever since.) What an incredible meal Elke prepared for us that night, showing her talents from working 12 years in the kitchen of Café Acadien. Having eaten nothing but Mexican food for 3 weeks, a French-Canadian fish dinner served on the beach with an ocean breeze was a meal I’ll never forget. And for entertainment, Louis pulled out his harmonica while their typically quiet black lab, “Luna” sat beside him and sang along into the night to some old western songs. Peter and I laughed so hard we were crying, and when the performance was over, Luna walked around to each of us in the audience with a wagging tail as if to ask “did you like it?”

The balance of our two days there were spent throwing the Frisbee, meeting some other travelers like Cory and Megan also from Canada, and doing a little body surfing in some pretty big waves. It would have been really easy to just stay there for another week or two, but it’s going to start getting pretty cold in southern Argentina pretty soon, so we have to keep pressing toward South America and we left after two great days on Zipolite.

Off to Salina Cruz on December 21st, Posada de Jardin had inside parking for our bikes, but nothing much else to keep us there. The biggest story of the day was our first flat tire of the trip. It was easy to see what a lousy job the dealer in Tucson did mounting my new tubes and tires, the way the tube was all crinkled in there. When they do it that way, it’s just a matter of time before the split we could see develops. It’s nice to have an audience along the side of the road, but next time there’s a flat, I hope it’s not in the midday heat of the Mexican sun.

Stayed one night in Cintalapa de Figueroa, which was actually a very nice little city with a great rooftop restaurant and fireworks for the upcoming holiday, but again, it was really just a stopping point. Along the way that day we found Canon de Sumidero definitely worth the stop.
We decided we’d take a day off again for Christmas Eve, and arrived in San Cristobal on the 23rd. From what I saw, this was the nicest, cleanest, most “touristy” city thus far. It was full of activity, fireworks for Christmas, good food, and some pretty upscale shopping everywhere. Would have liked to have seen more of this town, but both of us had our first real bout with some kind of a virus, and most of our two and a half days there were spent in the hotel room. I was really, really sick. No pictures… onto the almost-border town of Comitan de Dominguez where we spent one night before crossing the Guatemala border on Saturday the 27th.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Adv #7 Continued: Vera Cruz, Oaxaca, and that little piece of plastic

After two nights at Playa Norte, we headed further down the gulf coast to Vera Cruz. Nice town much like the others, but all big cities really just kind of seem the same at this point. We’re both most interested in riding, great scenery, and meeting people, but not so much into museums and that stuff. Vera Cruz was nice for the holiday parades and street-side entertainment, but only one night was spent here.

The ruins of Mexico did sound interesting to us, so we set our sites on the Monte Alban ruins west of Oaxaca at the recommendation of our friends. The two-day drive gave us an overnight stay in Tuxtepec, which really didn’t catch our eye too much. But the drive the next day was one to remember. Starting at about 500 feet in altitude, 2 hours into the ride, we were at 9500 feet on one of the more beautiful and twisty rides we’ll ever have. It was also another step into what we would consider “jungle-like” atmosphere, and it was 6 solid hours of riding up and down and around countless turns, leaving me so exhausted at the finish I had to take a quick nap when we finally pulled in Oaxaca. (See pic.) We found a great value at Hotel Florida about a 5-minute walk from the Oaxaca city centre, and really enjoyed the market, main plaza, and the Monte Alban ruins just west of the city. I even did some of my Christmas shopping at the city market which was quite a site.

Just as I was starting to think “not much interesting has happened lately,” that all changed.

We were leaving Oaxaca for the southern coast (Port Angel) when we rode past a motorcycle dealership and I told Peter I wanted to stop in and buy some extra oil. Next thing we knew, the owner of the shop, Juan Cajiga (who everyone calls “Don Juan” out of traditional respect) was chatting with Peter about letting us use his shop to change out a fork seal on Peter’s bike. So they quickly got started on the job, and Juan also said it was okay if I used some tools and space to change my steering bearings I had been meaning to get to. And that’s when it all started…

Not only were we given the space and the tools to work with, but Juan told his employees to work along with us and help where we needed. “The Maestro” as we came to call him was considered the best mechanic in the shop, and he was there for both of us, pulling apart the bikes and getting things going. When we inquired about how much all these services would cost us, Juan pretty much waved off the question explaining that it was all on him. (Pretty good deal!) To further the enormous display of hospitality, every moment I wasn’t touching my bike, Juan had one of his other guys cleaning my bike, polishing my windshield, cleaning parts, or doing something to get us set up for our trip. And if there was a part or lubricant we needed that he didn’t have? Within a minute, the delivery guy was on his way out the door to get it and back right away with the right stuff. We knew we’d get to use a shop somewhere along the trip, but this was hospitality to the fullest. We learned that Juan has a few other businesses in Oaxaca, but you could see that he spent most of his time here at the shop around the cars and motorcycles he loves. In a very rare coincidence, Juan actually rides the KTM Adventure just like I do. (Had not seen another bike like this in 3 weeks on the road in Mexico at that point.)

Juan also alerted the local BMW Riders Club (25 club members in Oaxaca) about Peter from BMW Germany being there, and sure enough, a bunch of guys started showing up on their bikes. Because there is no BMW dealership there in Oaxaca, Peter ended up doing some mini-clinics about their bikes, adjusting this, explaining that, etc. Meanwhile, Juan was talking about quitting work early to have a barbeque so we could meet the rest of the BMW Riders. This was so great!
This is particularly fun for me, cause I still love this kind of shop work. Back in high-school, I was quite crafty when it came to mechanical things, and I always loved working with my hands and fixing stuff. (I even had a mullet : ) So it really feels great again to get to do this kind of work and see things get fixed. I mean, I hadn’t packed a bearing in like 15 years…so as I’m doing so, all sorts of names and faces from the past bounced back into my mind. (Shop teachers, classmates, cars and motorcycles I used to own, etc.) And to think that I got to do this in a Mexican shop, thousands of miles from home. Pretty neat day.

We figured we’d be on our way or ready for a barbeque by early afternoon, but Peter wanted to replace the leaking O-ring around his oil fill cap. Juan was working with Peter pretty much the whole time, talking about bikes, business, helping out where he could. But somehow the they accidentally broke the oil cap trying to put the new O-ring on.

BMW parts are not readily available in Oaxaca, so Juan started making phone calls to the local BMW riders trying to see who had that cap available for Peter to use. We waited around for some riders to show up in that tough traffic, and the wrong cap was brought to us a couple of times, (oops) so eventually The Maestro rigged up some way for the broken cap to still work.

When they tried putting on the broken cap though, a small piece of plastic broke off and fell into the engine. Now, anyone that knows engines knows that is a pretty bad thing to have happen. Such incredible speed, pressure, and heat around moving parts cannot even have something as simple as plastic get in the way. So off came the valve covers, and out came the flashlights, looking for that little piece of plastic. Eventually we were able to see it, buried below the timing chain on the left side of the engine, but getting it out was another task. Tipping the bike to the side, poking at it with tools, trying to flush oil through it…nothing seemed to work. We worked on this until 9 in the evening, when all the employees had gone home and even Juan’s wife had shown up wondering what was going on. I mean, this is quite a decision to make here: Should just run the engine and hope its okay, or dismantle it until we can get that plastic out?
Knowing we’d be there one more night, we decided to grab a late dinner together and work on it some more in the morning. Juan told us to leave our stuff there, and Juan drove us back to the hotel we thought we’d checked out of. (Of course, Juan insisted on paying for dinner. Toughest part of all this is that he felt partially responsible for breaking the cap. It could have happened to anyone though!)

In the shop the next morning, we tried for a couple more hours to flush that plastic out and get ready to go. Eventually though, we decided to fill it up with fresh oil again and hope that the plastic would never become an issue in damaging the engine. Between tying that issue up though, and changing Peter’s rear tire, we figured it was silly to start riding just a few hours before dark, so we decided to stay for our fourth night in Oaxaca. Done with all the work by about 2pm, Juan had ordered some food delivered for us, and the 3 of us sat there in the lobby of the dealership watching motorcycle stunts and Travis Pastrana motorcycle acrobatics on the flatscreen. (Again, being treated like royalty while everyone else around us was working.) We simply had to do something to thank Juan for this ongoing generosity, so that evening, we instisted on buying him dinner and he accepted.

But in his generous nature one more time, we got a phone call from Juan while back at the hotel, saying we were invited to his company’s Christmas party instead of buying him dinner. Wow….I mean, he was really, really making us feel like we’re part of the gang around Oaxaca now, getting to meet his family, serving our third meal in 2 days, etc. We grabbed a taxi from the hotel, and made it to the party just fine. And sure enough, he had one of his employees waiting in the street to pay the cab driver before we could even get out our wallets. You’ve got to be kidding me! Everything short of a red carpet was being put out for us, and the food and drink inside the party was absolutely outstanding to.

I didn’t get any pictures of the party, but since it was there at one of his businesses (a plastic-bag printing company) we ended the night with a beer-in-hand tour of the operation and his car collection out in the garage. You can see a bunch of old classics here, and I’d say my favorite was that VW bus. It is in amazing condition with all original parts.

Sure enough, Juan drove us back to the hotel after the party, and we said we’d stop by one more time on the way out of town in the morning. Peter had the idea of making a couple of photo-collages for The Maestro and Juan to document our few days together, and we brought the gifts with a good bottle of mezcal to the shop in the morning as planned. It was a little sad as we exchanged contact info and reminded each other of the “my house is your house” policy. Juan sure did make the highlight reel in our journey, and his generosity and friendliness will not be forgotten. What a great experience. Thanks, Juan.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Adv #7 Continued: Zacatecas thru Aguascalientes to the Gulf Coast

Next it was south to Aguascalientes, just a day’s drive south of Zacatecas and one of the larger cities we’ve seen thus far. I know this is strange to point out, but for some reason here more than anywhere else, people were amazed to see me. (Sounds weird, I know.) Parked outside the grocery store before heading to the hotel, local folks were coming up to me left and right asking to have their picture taken with me, asking my name, wanting my autograph (yes, seriously) and everyone just seemed amazed by our presence. Okay, I don’t look like everyone else around there, but this was no small city and I can’t figure why I stood out so much here. This head-turning continued noticeably as I went for a jog later in the city. It felt like everything stopped when I jogged by. Pretty weird reactions, but people were full of friendly smiles. (Any longer there and my head would have gotten so big it wouldn´t have fit into my helmet.)

Amongst the crowd at the grocery store was Julieta, (1st picture) working there for Coca-Cola. She would end up meeting Peter and I out later for a couple of drinks and such. Isabel in the 2nd picture worked there also, and Selma at the bottom was such a cutie, working there at her family´s dry cleaning business.
A real highlight of Aguascalientes was the help we received from a local traffic cop as we pulled into town. We were struggling to find a hotel with secure motorcycle parking downtown, and upon realizing this, a policewoman stopped directing traffic in the middle of rush hour to walk around with Peter for about 25 minutes looking for a hotel. Meanwhile, I sat there watching the bikes as the intersection turned into a complete traffic jam. Seriously though….she walked away from directing traffic to help out a couple of motorcycle riders? What a place to visit….
Off the next day, we ended up in a town called Rio Verde for one night, and set up our tents under the grass rooftops at the Media Luna Hotel and Resort. The owner, Saul almost had us talked into staying an extra day to do some SCUBA training and touring of the area, but moving on to warmer southern air sounded more appealing for that. (Still cold here at over 6000 feet above sea level.)
Instead of heading all the way east to Ciudad Valles as the main highways would suggest, we spotted a small rural road unlisted on most maps that started in a town called El Sauz that eventually meets back up with the main highways to Vera Cruz. A few of the locals told us “you don’t want to take that road, its aweful. Not even really a road.” But, we’re learning that such words are a green light for us to take the road anyway. (Take the road less traveled?) That’s what these bikes are built for!
And what a day it turned out to be. Beautiful scenery, an ugly, beat up dirt road running through hilly terrain and small towns that are not even listed on most maps… was one of the best riding days I’ve ever had.

Even back in these totally remote areas, they had little schools like this one. I was a little late on the camera and they had already started coming outside, but if you look closely, you can see some of these kids pressed up against the window trying to get a look at these two strangers rolling through their town. They started coming out soon as their curiosity mounted and Peter asked a local for directions.

Eventually, we made it to a place called “Tanchachin,” where a family offered lunch in what was essentially a restaurant outside their home. Langostino, frijoles, maize tortillas… kind of lunch. It was outstanding! Sad stories came with the lunch though. This town had been completely shut off from all supplies and food earlier this year because the torrential rainfall had washed out the road (part of what made that road fun riding for us.) Also, the cook confided in us that she had not seen her son or daughter for a few years now. The family had saved up $5000 USD to send her children to the U.S. in hopes of finding a better life. Tough thing is…..they don’t have the legal paperwork to come home and visit, and they can’t afford to travel to Orlando and see her kids. Quite a sacrifice many of us will never have to make. But imagine the reunion...

This was an absolute favorite day of riding though. These tiny little towns in the middle of nowhere are full of kids and people with beautiful faces, all running out to the street or stopping what they’re doing as we roll through their town. All waves and smiles, back and forth. I wish they knew how much I was smiling with them beneath my helmet, but I mostly just try to wave when the road permits it. And they seem so surprised sometimes when they realize we are waving at them and recognizing them. One of the greatest things about this trip so far is seeing all the faces and how they change as we move on through different areas of native habitat.

The rural road took us through Aquismon, and eventually had us at a hotel in Tazmunchale for the night. Not much to say about Tazmunchale….from what we saw, it was a beat up looking little city, and we were pretty beat up from a long tough ride as well. Okay, the town center was kind of neat with the holiday celebrations going on.

Next day, we started east again through Tuxpan and Poza Rica, just trying to get to some beachfront campgrounds we had read about. What a fun day to be on the road, cause there was a marathon or something going on between Tazmunchale and Poza Rica. It looked as if each town had sent out multiple runners with torches headed toward each other, and we saw thousands of bicyclists and motorcycle riders crossing toward each other all day long. Turned into a bit of a traffic jam a couple of times along the way, but it was fun to be around and witness. I even dropped my camera from my bike at about 25 mph trying to get a photo of a torch carrier at one point. The young kid running was kind enough to spot my camera and memory stick on the ground and pick It up for me while still running with the torch! I can see it in the newspaper now: “Strange Gringo Hassles Local Athlete.” (Camera still works, by the way.)

Eventually at the Gulf Coast, we stayed at Playa Norte campground, which is really just the backyard of an old couple that lives there on beachfront property. Had the place to ourselves, liked the nearby town a bit, and Peter had a bad stomach, so we stayed two nights there. Nightime photos were an attempt to capture the hammock and moon in the background. Maria was even nice enough to do our laundry for us and let the ocean breeze to the drying the next day. Little things like that sure do put a smile on my face : )