September 2008


img_1241.jpg 

Click here for the full gallery of photos

In the last week we’ve ridden from eastern central Mexico and the state of Hidalgo, down through the low-lying coast of Tabasco. Yesterday, in the middle of miles of empty jungle, we passed under a towering arch and entered the Yucatan. Along the way we visited Olmec and Mayan ruins, swam in clear mountain streams and rode palm groves fronting empty beaches. As we’ve moved south and east everything has changed, but a few underlying themes have persisted.

One constant are “topes”. Tope is Mexican for “speed bump”, and the Mexicans love their speed bumps. They put them everywhere. Entering a town? Yup, speed bumps. Leaving? They have them there too. They’ll have road signs to indicate “tope a 100 m”. Sometimes there’re there, sometimes not. The scary thing is they also put them unmarked in the middle of rural highways. I’ll be riding 70 mph down a road in the middle of nowhere and the next thing I know, I’m airborne. Shannon thinks its all good fun, but I keep waiting for the next thing to break off the bike.

The locals are a resourceful lot and they know that most people have to slow down for the topes, so this where they set up shop, and this is where things change but stay the same. Going through town, at every tope we’re accosted by people selling things in the middle of the street. Some with pineapples, some with flat breads, some with crispy looking things. At one town we’re offered oranges, and at the next it’s shrimp. Each town has the thing they sell, and each is different. To put a meal together of say bread, cheese and fruit, we have to pass through three different towns. We even passed through one area where people brought their crippled family member to side of the road, gave them an umbrella for shade, took up position on top of a tope and shook a can when we slowed down. Even these were grouped like the town specialized in family members with special needs. Sad and garish.

On the motorcycle its hard to buy any of the wares, but I have had the chance to try some unique road-side offerings. In Tajin I bought an orange from a woman for about a penny. She had cut the outside of the peel away, leaving the white part, and after I bought it she cut it in half and sprinkled chile and salt on each half. It was delicious! Since then I’ve also bought mango prepared the same way. I’m bringing that idea home.

As we’ve moved south there’s also been a change in the people. Coming down from the lush jungles around Xlitla and Paplantla the people have gotten shorter and broader. I’m told this due to their being more ethnic mestizo. The states of Tabasco and Campeche have the highest density of indigenous people and the worst poverty. It was here that the Zapitista revolution was born and the Mexican government still only exerts minimal sway. We’ve passed through quite a few military checkpoints in these two states and we usually get flagged in. They really just want to see the bikes and we’re asked a lot of questions about how big they are, how much they cost and where we’ve ridden from. Because my Spanish is a little better than Shannons, they end up talking with me and I have to show passport and license. Shannons never asked for these documents but instead has to show his bike.

The only time on the trip that I’ve felt the least bit threatened or uncomfortable was in Tabasco. We had gone to a town called La Venta to see the “Cabesas Gigatica” or the Giant Heads, ancient Olmec relics. From there our plan was to follow a highway out to the beach and along the gulf to Campeche. A few miles on the beach side of La Venta we came into Sanchez Magallanes. There were very few motorbikes in town and even fewer cars in the street and it was here that the yellow three-wheeled bike made its first appearance. This is a kind of bike with the drive wheel in back and two wheels on either side of a cart in front. The backside of the cart has a bench and the front is open. These are used for everything from work vehicles, carrying firewood and fruit, to taxis. Some have striped awnings over the driver and his fare, and some are strung with curtains on the sides the cart. These aren’t a fun alternative to a regular car, they’re the vehicle of last resort for a very poor population.

It was in Sanchez Magallanes, on a spit of land three blocks wide between the gulf and the estuary that I was struck by the depth of the poverty and despair. These people had been abandoned by hope and opportunity and they had nothing – unpainted block houses with thatch roofs, a few chickens and kids sitting in glass-less window frames. I just wanted to roll through this place. In the muddy dirt of a tight residential street Shannon and I stopped to talk about our most recent wrong turn when two teenagers riding double on a scooter pulled up. They had passed me earlier and I had noticed that the scooter was loud as hell. After the usual “Where you from? How big are your bikes?” We started joking around and talking about all the mods the kid had made to his scooter. He’d made his own muffler, hence the loud “Harley” sound, he’d added green ground effect lights in front and back and had flames on his grips. He’d even painted his name on his tank. Bikers the world over are just the same – even when they can only afford a scooter. They’re very proud of their mods and love to show them off. I let Eric, the passenger on the scooter, get on my bike for a picture (its very heavy and he dropped it, but its been fortified to take much worse) We all laughed and gave him a hard time about it anyway. But I made sure not to laugh too hard…

What I realized as we stood in the street was that I’d been being prejudiced. I had felt scared and threatened without having had a single interaction to base my fear on. These people were so poor and so different that I had assumed they would take from me with a thought. Instead, Jared, Eric, Shannon and I all shared common ground across languages, cultures, education and economics. I had felt fearful and threatened out of ignorance and we were separated more by the circumstances of birth than by anything else. That said, I was still relieved to get the hell out of there. Especially since our little group was growing as kids kept arriving.

Further down this empty beachfront highway, we came to a place where the road disappeared in a ten-foot drop onto the beach. It just ended. No warning, nothing. To the right there was a little track going into the woods and an old man, a boy and a woman sitting next to a rope strung between two coconut palms. For a small “cuoto” or toll we could ride their road about four kilometers until the paved road started again. The boy also said there were a few more families charging cuotos along the way.

The toll road went from packed sand to coconut husks to palm fronds. It occasionally went back up to the old paved highway, but the highway had been reclaimed by the dunes and we had to ride over sand drifts 3 of four feet high. It wound through what amounted to peoples yards. We passed thatch huts with women hanging laundry and kids playing with dogs and chickens. We would wave and get one of two reactions. Either they would light up and wave back, or we’d get the stink-eye. No middle ground for the trespassing space men.

Once on the other side of the wash-out block houses started to reappear and things grew less primitive as we put miles behind us. We spent the night in the beach town of Pariso and from there we followed the coast to the little fishing village of Champoton and from there to the famous ruins of Uxmal. (pronounced oosh-mal)

img_1264.jpg 

These ruins are extensive and we hired a guide to give us some insight. He was full of useful tidbits like “When the Spanish arrived, the Maya thought they chattered like monkeys and made no sense. The Maya word for this is Uxmal and that is why the site was named Uxmal by the Spanish”. A littler later in our walk the guide explained to us that “Uxmal is the Maya word for ‘poem written in stone’ and it is from this that the city derives its name”. We visited the Governors Palace with our guide. The Palace is an elaborately carved building nearly as long as a city block and built like a three-layer cake with the Palace as the top layer. We were told that “the building had been built, then torn down and re-built three times. The Maya word for built three times is Uxmal and this is why the site is called such that it is.” The stories were nice and I enjoyed his sing-song chatter, so who am I to get riled when the truth was abandoned for dramatic effect?

We visited some small towns in the Ruta de Puuk, or hill country of the Yucatan, each with a Cathedral, many of which were built with stones torn from Maya temples, some actually on top of the old temples themselves.  But now we head to Beliez. I’m going to miss these shy, friendly people.

I’ve posted a few photos from Tajin, a Maya site near Paplanta, and from our ride to Paraiso.

img_1175.jpg

The road washed out – but the people on the beach had made a track in the sand with coconut husks and plam fronds. For a cobro, or small toll, we road it through little thatch and stick clusters of houses for miles.

img_1150.jpg

This woman must have done something very wrong because she was cleaning the pyramids with a tooth brush. By herself. Really.

img_1165.jpg

A church on the road to La Venta

Welding

Mexico is rough on the bike and the frame that holds my topcase broke. Damn topes. We had it welded back together and mounted it differently so hopefully it will be stronger. I thought yall might like to see how they do it down here. Is it any wonder that this guy was so blind I had to tell him he missed the break with his weld?

Lucky for me strength isn’t a requirment for the welded piece in the new mounting configuration.

From the high Sierras and the mining town of Real de Catorce we headed to Xilitle. For you kayakers, this is the area around the Micos river. After back-tracking through The Tunnel and down the cobblestone highway we arrived at the equivalent of an interstate. This highway ran straight for miles through the center of a wide, flat valley with mountains rising blue in the distance on both sides. Cactus and low scrub were the only vegetation. Clouds, like jellyfish, with their tentacles of rain hanging down, float across the valley. The road eventually started to rise and small roadside stands selling snake skins began to appear. They were all the same – there would be a rack about 5 feet long and 6 feet tall with the skins hanging in display. Each rack had two or three people squatting beside it. Some had smoking fires. As we got closer to the top of the rise there were more and more of them until, at the peak, we reached the Mad Max Truck Stop.

Mexico is chaos. Roads are about three lanes wide and trucks, cars, motorcycles, people on horseback, people walking, kids playing, chickens, dogs, donkeys, goats, pigs and tarantulas all fit on them as best they can. There seem to be no rules, but very few accidents, considering. Roads aren’t marked. Towns don’t make sense, busses stop for no reason and things just happen. Everything here seems to happen organically without any structure imposed. The Mad Max Truck Stop fit this Aesthetic perfectly.  At the crest of the hill, to the right, was a 10-story high statue of a guy in a cape with his right hand raised toward us. On either side were block buildings, some tire shops, some restaurants and some who-knows-what. Mixed in were, of course, the higher end snakeskin sellers. Parked in no particular order were pick-ups, semi trucks and the ever-popular double semis. People were sitting on curbs, running across the roads and in small groups around smoking barrels. The whole scene was post-apocalyptic. This went on for a ½ mile and then snake skins, and then cactus and scrub for miles.

I haven’t seen a snake skin since.

img_1087.jpg

Click here for the full gallery of photos

img_0948.jpg

click here for the full gallery of photos

I’m a bit behind with the blog and I have so much to tell. I hope I can do justice to our adventure and everyone we’ve met so far. To take a step back, before we left Texas we spent a few days with the Pleasant Acres RV family. Shannon’s parents have traveled extensively in their RV and in the process made friends with Sam and Nancy Bell, Ma and Pa Pleasant Acres. Our plan had been to spend a few days in their park getting ready for the crossing into Mexico and all places foreign. We had sent new tires and last minute internet purchases in anticipation of our final tune-up. When we arrived, John, the resident greeter and bartender was standing the street like he’d been waiting for us all day. He flagged us in with cold beers in hand. It was down hill from there.

Joining him under his awning with Marie and her dog, we introduced ourselves, cracked beer after beer, and chatted until Sam, Nancy, Jim and Yolanda all stopped in. With the gang in full assembly, the frozen margarita machine got going and the party started rolling. They call it Beer-30 and John has a little wooden plaque in his garden that says “It 5:00 somewhere”.

img_0904.jpg

(Don’t let the paint fool ya – the golf cart isn’t John  Deere – Its a Harley!)

They refer to themselves as Winter Texans – meaning that when it’s cold at home they migrate down into the Rio Grand Valley. There’s park after park for their tribe to gather. In Pleasant Acres, they all live like a little family with Sam and Nancy as the parents. They took us in as one of their own, gave us an RV to stay in and even made grilled mojollios. They said is was the sweet breads of the cow and described it as “glands in the neck. I know it doesn’t sound appetizing, but boy was it tasty.

Thanks to them I was able to change my oil, put the new tires on, put a stronger spring on my rear shock and John even welded a big washer onto the foot of my kickstand so it will quit sinking into the dirt. Now I felt ready for Mexico. Yolanda wasn’t so sure though so she made us pan de polvo, little sugar cookies, to give us strength on our way.

After leaving our new family we crossed into Mexico and spent the night in Monterrey. Despite my phone troubles, we were still able to get in touch with Roberto, a Mexican motorcyclist I met on the internet. He came by our hotel in the morning and took us on the most challenging and beautiful ride of our lives.

img_0932.jpg

The city of Monterrey is the third largest in Mexico and the traffic is unbelievable. We got our off-road tune up by sticking close behind our guide and threading traffic like natives. After Tacos and accordion music at Robertos favorite street stand, we rode into Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. Not fifteen minutes from the old city center this park has nearly bare rock mountains that rise from the ground like knife blades. They’re threaded by dirt tracks with horses, cattle and goats grazing unfenced. There were occasional ranches and when I questioned Roberto he explained that there is a kind of homestead law. If someone sets up a home and the owner allows it for ten years, then the property is theirs.

The deeper we got into the park, the more beautiful the scenery and the worse the roads. We rode for miles through deep, soft gravel wash that would grab the tires and throw them every which way. With 150 lbs of gear on the back, it was all we could do to keep control. Sometimes it was more than we could do, and both Shannon and I took some falls.

About half way through the park we stopped at a little town called Pajonal, population 11. We bought cokes from a little brown man in a white cowboy hat and drank them under his bower of pink flowers. He had a fading photo of Pancho Villa hanging from the center post. In the distance a old man was squatting by a donkey, chopping at a tree branch, slowly turning it into a handle for a mattock. Another caballero, twice as old as the others and stone deaf, came into the garden to show us his binoculars. Roberto is from here, and when even he couldn’t figure what Abuelieto wanted, I didn’t feel so bad.

I had a mango and we all shared it, then we walked around the town. All 5 houses and the school. There were no more kids here to attend classes, so occasionally they let tourists stay in the building. Life here hasn’t changed much in 100 years and I couldn’t imagine how these men grew up and grew old in this place forgotten by Progress – nor could I imagine how it was that they all had on clean, pressed shirts.

From here the road got much better – by that I mean no more deep, loose gravel – until we passed a bulldozer heading in our direction. Behind it the dirt and gravel had been torn up to such an extent that it was just as challenging to ride as was the gravel wash. But our skill with the gear on the bikes was getting better, and as the roads improved my spirits rose and we rode the sunset into Satillo.

I’m writing this from our room in Real de Catorce, the town we visited after Saltillo. To get here you have to come up the mountains on nearly 15 miles of cobbled roads to arrive at a tunnel. A mile long and only one-way, you pull up and a man takes 20 pesos (about $2) and you wait. After a while he says “passa le” and you go. I have no idea how he knows that its OK to pass, but this is what he does. We trust him. Its dark, there is gravel and water on the road. Sometimes its so narrow I wonder if the bike will fit. Then all of sudden out of the dark, there is a chapel in homage to the many miners that gave their lives. Built into the wall of the tunnel its so surprising that there’s no time – or place – to stop. And just as quickly, it gone.

img_1005.jpg

Real de Catorce is small and tranquil. It was a silver mining town at the turn of the century, but in the early 1900’s the price of silver dropped and the population went from 40,000 to just a few thousand. It was “rediscovered” in the 80’s and now has some very nice hotels and restaurants, but you’d never know it from the outside. The building are all made of stacked stone and they look to be crumbling before your eyes. Entering through the street door however there are hidden gardens or beautifully restored interiors that preserve the character of the town.

The streets are cobbled in an X pattern with rocks the size of billiard balls. Those running across the mountain aren’t level but are drivable, those that go up or down are a different story. They’re so steep that they occasionally break into steps. Everywhere are kids, chickens and men in cowboy hats on small horses. It’s impossible no to be awed by the sheer human effort it took to build this place.

Another draw to Real de Catorce is the statue of Poncho, one of the priests that presided over the spiritual well being of Real at the turn of the century. It did something miraculous once and now its housed inside the cathedral at the center of town- behind glass and under garish florescent lights.  The devout enter the church and get on their knees. With lit candle in hand they take a step forward with each prayer until they reach Ponchito. There was a small procession in progress while we were visiting. There were quite a few other holy statues around the church and all seemed to be just shy of life-sized with wigs of human hair. There was something very disturbing about it.

There’s a little festival tonight that we’re looking forward to and then tomorrow we’re heading to Xilitle with its waterfalls and free camping.

Every day I love Mexico more.

img_1057.jpg

*On leaving Real de Catorce via the mile long tunnel, we encountered a whole host of incoming traffic – groups of people huddled in places where the cave opened a bit, men on horseback and whole families on one bicycle riding in the dark. Keep in mind that this tunnel is barley wide enough for a car, but has small buses going in and out. They do things differently here.

 Yesterday we crossed from Texas into Mexico at Progresso. At first I was amazed at how easy it was – we just drove right through. Then, when I thought about it, there was something wrong. That was too easy. To be sure we did it right, we pulled around the corner and parked in front of one of the many Dentists offices, pharmacies and plastic surgeons that are packed into the first few blocks beyond customs. I went and tried to sus out what we missed.

I figured out that we had missed a turn and needed to pull the bikes back onto the bridge, do a U turn and then go through the import process. There were kids (Federales) with machine guns all over and one up in a tank watching us as we pulled into the  out-bound lane. I explained to the guy in the toll booth that we had made a mistake and just wanted to go back into customs. He just wanted his money. My understanding of numbers in Spanish isn’t that great – and I was nervous. I heard $23 for each on us. NO WAY! We (I) had made a mistake and I wasn’t going to pay $46 for it. I asked if there was another way. Yes, go back the way we had come.

OK. So, we pulled around the toll booth and up to the “in” lane. There wasn’t much traffic and I explained to the kid with the machine gun what we we wanted to do. He was fine with it and started making hand signals to the guy waving traffic through. This man was older and wearing a pressed white shirt, an obvious sign of seniority. He was having none of it. Now I’m starting to get worked up because this is getting silly. They said go back and pay. I got all bowed up and said “NO!” Then lots more guys with machine guns started to come over to see what was happening.

Shannon said we just needed to eat the fee call it a lesson. OK. We pulled through and what I heard as $23 was really $2.30. Oops.

Now, with our paperwork complete, I tried to call Roberto, a friend in Monterrey. My phone told me that I couldn’t make international calls. What? I had spent whole days in planning getting the phone problem solved. Well, no one told me that I needed to have ATT service for 3 months before I would be granted the privilege of paying$3/min roaming to talk with family and friends. If you thought I was mad before, you should have seen me on the phone now. I’m sure Shannon was laughing at me. As huge trucks rumbled behind us kicking up dust clouds, I was jumping around, arms swinging and yelling at this poor lady. There was nothing I could do but cancel my service. I am truly amazed at how nearly impossible it is to get a phone and service that will work outside the USA.

We hit the road, and after some more stressful dealing with toll booths and traffic we arrived in Monterrey at dark. We found a place to stay and today we are meeting Roberto to ride in the beautiful mountains behind the city.

Day two should be a little more smooth. Or at least have fewer guns-

larry.jpg

The bartender in Port Aransas asked us if we were camping on the beach. We didn’t know we could. She said, “oh yeah, there’s a county park by the pier with showers and a bathroom.” That sounded great to us, so Shannon and I headed down to the beach. Like Daytona, here you can drive on the hard packed sand on the beach. I’ve never ridden on sand, so before checking into the park we rode a few miles along the shore just to get the feel of it. Of course the bike was a little squirley with the bagel back tire and all the weight in the cases, but I was feeling like a little bit cocky, confidently keeping control cruzing at about 25 mph. Then I saw Larry.

He rode in on a fully loaded Honda Goldwing, four fishing poles sticking out of the back, a cooler, and the Doors playing loud on the stereo. For those of you that don’t know, a Goldwing is theRV of the motorcycle world. We are riding light weight, nimble bikes that are made to ride in all kinds of conditions. Larry’s bike is the exact opposite, built for comfort above all else. That machine should not have been able to go where he was taking it.

But don’t tell Larry.

larry_leaving.jpg

A Russian scholar recently found my blog and was intrigued. He sent me an email with the following story:

Long-distance motorcycle couriers were often used in the early years of the USSR – telegraph lines and railroads were cut and blown up almost daily during the Civil War.  You can imagine the distances involved. Just think 11 time zones of unpaved roads. One account (perhaps apocryphal) of these brave men quotes the courier Ivan Zakharov, a Red Army private, as saying, “Hundreds of thousands of kilometers traversed, carrying the documents, the blood of the revolution beneath my coat in a wallet made of rubber. Perhaps the Motherland will soon forget this modest labor of mine.  But, as for me, my hindquarters will never be the same. God grant that it be so, too, with the Motherland!”

img_0892.jpg

Next Page »