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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Final Leg

by Katie

Friends and family, brace yourselves. This could be our last post from Mexico! We have covered a lot of ground since I last wrote from southern Mexico. I'll try to pick up where I left off.

In Puerto Escondido we met up with four friends from Idaho who are making their way south. Paul and Camille, and Chad and Rick are on their way to South America. Good luck! Camille is riding the same bike as me, but a few years older. It was fun to have a little bit of home while on the road.

Katie, Mark, Paul and Camille posing in the sunset.

Goodbye breakfast with Team Idaho.

After leaving Puerto Escondido, Mark and I rode north and inland. Since we have already ridden the whole west coast, we thought we'd see what inland Mexico had to offer. From Zihuatanejo we rode into the mountains to the town of Patzcuaro. In Patzcuaro we learned that February was a great time of year to go see the Monarch Butterflies. The warmer temperatures mean you don't have to hike as far up the mountain to see them, and because December and January are the peak season, we had the forest pretty much to ourselves. Being in a forest where the only sound you hear is millions of butterflies flapping their wings is something I cannot describe. It was both strange and beautiful to see the monarchs covering every surface in sight.

Amazing amazing street food in Patzcuaro.

Butterflies covered every tree in sight.

Butterflies in every direction.

We continued our inland journey to Morelia; perhaps the most beautiful city in Mexico. Unfortunately, I was knocked down by a cold while we were there and so didn't explore much of the city. In fact, I don't think we have one single picture from the city. Which is a shame because their historic centro is so well preserved that UNESCO has declared the whole centro a world heritage site.

After Morelia, Mark was pretty excited to get to tequila country. We stayed in the town of Atotonilco las Altas, home to some of the best tequila in the country. We sampled some local brands and the next day we took a tour of the Jose Cuervo distillery in the town of Tequila. We certainly got an education in tequila! I think my dad would have appreciated the details, the subtlety, and the 60 different aromas that practiced tequila tasters can distinguish in one sip of good tequila.

Fields and fields of blue agave just waiting to be made into tequila.

Before the fateful ferry ride.

Tequila country was the end of our inland tour. It was time to head to the coast--Mazatlan, to catch the ferry to La Paz, Baja. The ferry was...quite an experience. We paid $460 for the two of us and the two bikes--a big chunk of money for our tight budget. Now, I am not totally inexperienced when it comes to travel, but I was caught totally off-guard by this ferry. To start, Baja Ferries, the wonderful company who runs this route, claimed that from Mazatlan to La Paz should take 12 hours. The boat was supposed to leave at 4:00 pm and therefore arrive at 4:00 am in La Paz. Wrong. The ferry left over an hour late, and took nearly 17 hours. Those 17 hours felt like 37 hours. Being an overnight ferry, there were cabins available to purchase for sleeping. At 700 pesos each (about $65 dollars) this was an expense we could not afford after paying for our tickets. We thought we would just claim a couple seats and hole up somewhere for the night. Wrong again. There were no seats. That's right, on a 17-hour ferry ride, there were no chairs, no passenger areas, no nothing. There were a couple benches out on the deck (cold and windy!) and a miniscule cafeteria with a few tables and chairs. Since those of us on motorcycles boarded last, by the time we got to the cafeteria every chair, table, space was quickly claimed with blankets, backpacks, and jackets. Did I mention that 95% of the passengers on this ferry were truckers? And, in case you were wondering, truckers in Mexico are the same breed as truckers in the states. So for everyone who could not afford or reserve a cabin (oh yeah, they were sold out too) the two options for the next 17 hours were a bench out on the deck or a spot in the crowded cafeteria. There you have the scene for our next 17 hours. Over the next couple hours a bad meal was served, and lots of beer was drank. Lots and lots and lots. Lots of beer, lots of men, and very cramped quarters. Can you guess what happened? Yep, fights. Not a fight, fights, two of them. In which punches and chairs were thrown in the cafeteria. Also, some shit-talking, which perhaps led up to the fights. It made for a very uncomfortable situation in the cafeteria. Mark and I alternated between laying on chairs (and trying to sleep) in the cafeteria, and laying on the floor of the deck outside near the exhaust, where it was warm but smelled like diesel.
Like I said, we survived, and even made a friend, Lars, whom we have been traveling the last few days with.

A cold boat ride to go whale watching.

All dressed up and ready to ride the Baja with Lars. Its freaking cold here!

We are about half-way up the Baja now, and planning to hit Arizona early next week. I have an interview scheduled for March 10 in Salt Lake. Talk about taking the fast track back to reality. So, for those of you who are wondering, we will be back in Salt Lake a couple days before March 10. Until then..

Monday, February 7, 2011

"Drugs and Money don't Travel South and KLaiRe turns 15"

by Katie

Well, KLaiRe (that would be my motorcycle) turned 15 this week. 15,000 miles that is. I felt like I should post this useless fact because as we were traveling through the states this summer I had many a laugh, smile, smirk, and question as to whether my decision to ride a 250 on a "trip like this" was truly a smart decision. My answer then, and my answer now: So far so good. A 250 is pretty much the perfect bike for down here, light, lower to the ground, and easy to find parts and tires for. She has been a rockstar, and so has my mechanic (aka my husband) who takes amazing care of her.

Mark giving his bike some love; changing the front brakes.

Since our last post, we have now covered all of Central America and are back in Mexico. It has been kind of fun to come back through a couple places where we stayed on the way down. It's comforting to already know good places to eat, somewhere to get real coffee, a cheap place to stay, etc.

With my favorite little 8-year old friend. Anabela led us on a hike in Honduras.

One thing that has been significantly different than our travels south, is the number of times that we have been stopped at police checkpoints and military checkpoints now that we are headed north. Our personal theory is that drugs and money don't travel south, they travel north, hence all the stops in the northerly direction. Despite all the stops though, every police officer, military officer, and border official has been nothing but polite and pleasant in every interaction. Most often the conversation devolves from "Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Can we look in your bags?" to "How much do these bikes cost? How long have you guys been riding? This is your honey moon? Felicitaciones! Buen viaje!" So, stereotypes be damned, I guess.

We are currently in Puerto Escondido, where we spent Thanksgiving. Heading north again tomorrow. See you soon!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The End of the Road

by Mark

Greetings friends, from San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua. A quaint surfing town with a drug problem (welcome travellers)! I'll catch you up on our travels since Katie's post, and then share some stories.

After our initiation into the EXTREME sport of Volcano boarding (read: contrived and seriously dangerous)we went to the Volcanic island of Ometepe (rhymes with coma frappe). We took our bikes on the ferry and spent a few days goofing around and getting rained on. Mind you, this island is not on the ocean-- it's in lake Nicaragua (the biggest lake in Central Am), and in many places you can't see the shore.

From Ometepe (soma schleppe) it's a short ride to San Juan, where there's a few beaches with good waves. Now while I'm sure my bland prose ('we went here, did that...') has got you glued to your chair, I'm going to split from it for a bit. Maybe I'm just in that kind of mood, or maybe it's the rum-- A few short vignettes to illustrate how incapable a blog is to communicate some of our experiences. I've got a trunkful of stories to choose from:

How can I describe riding into Managua (the capital of Nicaragua), being prepared for a huge, confusing metropolis with famously un-marked streets) and finding that the downtown was the most sparse of all-- it was leveled in 1972 by an earthquake and never rebuilt-- the acting President (Samoza) siphoned off the restoration funds to enhance his personal properties. So now-- almost 40 years later, there's ramshackle "housing" and tents amidst the rubble and a clear skyline where a downtown used to be.

How about the time our tour bus (for the Volcano boarding experience) ran over a local family's pig in the road (and I had to dodge it). Photo is a sample pig photo from a different locale:

On our return trip the irate farmer had drug sticks and trash into the road, and came out with a simple sharpened tree branch-- demanding $30 payment for the dead animal? Our driver, put off by the aggressiveness, drove away. We were told later that they'd eventually pay him, but not $30-- that was way too much.

How about last night, when "the Evangelicals" rented the park next to our hostel, and a man, speaking through a scratchy P.A. system, preached, shouted, cried, shouted more, and begged San Juan del Sur (and the 6 people listening to him) until he was hoarse. The wealthy white tourists (from all over the world) were SO annoyed. (No photo of this-- that would have been annoying too).

How about back on Ometepe (homa-pepe) when we got caught out in the rain, looking for petroglyphs.

After the road developed a greasy mud surface and I dumped my bike, Evan's bike had an electrical issue, and asked to borrow tools from an old man and his family (farmers). He brought us a small box of rusty bicycle parts.

Someone's kid was naked, yet completely unashamed as he watched us.

How about when I found a great new tire (Kenda) for the front wheel of my motorcycle-- I carried the old one until I found a motorcycle shop to hand it off. When I told the guy working there that I didn't want to sell him the tire-- just wanted to give it to him, I thought he was going to hug me. A crowd of his buddies gathered, all llooking at my bike and slapping each other's shoulders in congratulations. I love the mechanical guys down here-- wish I had more words to use with them. The "old" tire:

I'm certain the tire is mounted right now and will be run until the cords are showing. Don't accuse Central Americans of not being "green". They don't throw anything away until it's truly used up... as it should be.

So that's all for now, and as we've reached the end of the road for us (San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua), and we'll turn around now, I can't help but wonder: After all our time on the road, what have we accomplished? Has our meager trip budget (that we've spent most of) improved the lives of anyone down here? What has changed in me? I want our travels to add up to more than just really eccentric entertainment... but some days I'm not sure they haven't. I suppose the answer to this question can be answered differently every day, depending on how well I remember. Remember what, you ask? Well that's a good question, and too involved for this post. I'll ponder over the next few hundred miles, and share sometime soon.

I'll leave you with a video of monkeys. Everybody has to love watching a mommy monkey with a little baby monkey on it's back.

Be well friends. We'll be home soon.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In the absence of snow, why not sled on ash?

by Katie

Is it possible that I have missed an entire country? I noticed that our last blog post was from Guatemala. Currently, we are in Nicaragua. In between those two countries though, we spent three weeks and two major holidays in Honduras. How time flies.

Honduras was pleasantly surprising for us. Negative reports abound about Honduras, the people, the police, the food, the border officials. We, however, had wonderful experiences in Honduras. We started by crossing from Guatemala into Honduras at Copan, which is considered the "Paris" of the Mayan cities due to all of the intricate and artistic carvings. We spent an entire day at the ruins in absolute awe of this ancient city. I highly recommend it.

The ruins of Copan.

Beautiful scarlet macaws that are all over the ruins site.

The all-powerful jaguar that is depicted at all Mayan sites.

Mark studiously reading the guidebook behind a stelae honoring King Rabbit 18.

From Copan we rode north to meet the rest of the Burrito Rollers on Roatan Island for Christmas. For those who don't know, the Burrito Rollers is the name our motorcycle gang was given by a friend who rode with us through Guatemala. The gang consists of myself and Mark, Michael and Alex from Alaska, and Evan from Canada. Along with some other travelers and friends, we rented a house for the whole week of Christmas. Roatan is a dream island for scuba divers. Mark and I don't dive, but we spent plenty of time cooking, relaxing, reading, and hammock swinging. Also, we were offered jobs at an American school on the island (which we turned down), but it was nice to know that we are still employable--if only on a laid-back Caribbean island.

Homemade wrapping paper for the white elephant gift exchange.

The entire Christmas crew at Hole in the Wall restaurant on Roatan Island.

Lago Yajoa piqued our interest as a perfect place to spend New Years since there is a micro-brewery nearby owned and operated by a true Oregonian. That's right, real Oregon micro brews in Honduras for New Years Eve. Okay, so the beer was a little flat, and the flavor a little off, it was still a nice change from the local brews.

Happy New Year 2011 from D & D Brewery, Honduras.

Leaf boat races in the river.

After Lago Yajoa, we crossed into our fourth, and for Mark and I, our final country--Nicaragua. Again, the border process was ridiculously smooth, even with six people and five motos. We went straight to Leon where we spent the next three days with the boys.

Police check point to make sure we had the required insurance for Nicaragua.

Leon is famous for its volcanoes, you can see at least six of them on a clear day from the city. There are loads of activities that enterprising companies offer on the volcanoes: hiking, camping, boarding, and sledding. Yep, sledding down a volcano. It sounds a little crazy, no? I thought so, but I let myself be talked into going. While most of the "tour group" rode in the back of an oversized truck, Mike, Evan and Mark received permission to follow the truck on their bikes. (Any chance to ride a dirt road for these boys, and they start salivating). At the base of Cerro Negro we were given our protective suits and our sleds and told to "start hiking." It was a 45 minute walk to the top, where the sled track started. There were 12 people in the group--5 of them wrecked on the way down. Ugly, rolling, tomahawking wrecks. We asked our guide if its normal for people to wipe out on the way down. He said "yes, but today is particularly bad." Our group of five must be comfortable maneuvering at high speeds, or we had a guardian angel because not one of us wrecked on the fine black gravel of Cerro Negro.

Mark, Evan, and Mike following the truck in a cloud of dust.

Getting close.

Mike, Evan, and Mark in their "protective" suits and goggles.

Evan sledding down the volcano.

The Burrito Rollers summit Cerro Negro.

Now we are in Granada, the colonial city which gave birth to tourism in Nicaragua. It's a little sad to think about turning around in a week. But we've been on the road for seven months, and covered more than 10,000 miles. Home is starting to call us.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guatemala in 3 Weeks (Not Nearly Enough Time)

by Katie

I have noticed that the longer we are on the road, the more time elapses between blog posts. So here we are with our one and only blog post for Guatemala, which by the way, is an absolutely amazing country.

We started our time here by enrolling in a week-long language school in Quetzaltenango (Xela) part of which was a homestay with a local family. Five hour classes for five consecutive days totally jump-started my Spanish, and by the end of the week, my host mother Dona Blanca told me that my Spanish was much more clear and complete. Score! Mark surpassed me though by learning some future and past tense verbage. I only learned present tense and so say things like, "Yesterday I go to the store." In Spanish of course, but usually people get the point. We stayed with Dona Blanca and Don Federico, an older couple with grown children and grand-children, many of whom would stop by randomly for meals so we got a lot of our Spanish practice around the dinner table. We spent that week in Xela with our friend Evan (see previous post about young Evan), Alex and Mike (both riding KLRs and from Alaska), and Grant, also from Canada, and an honorary member of the motorcycle gang affectionately known as The Burrito Rollers.

Loving one-on-one Spanish class. A teacher's dream, right?

With Dona Blanca in her kitchen, and delicious chicken noodle soup. A treat since it was so cold.

I am sort of blog illiterate. So instead of actually being able to post the video that our friend Grant made, I just have the link for you. You should check it out though, he is pretty talented when it comes to putting together the travel videos. (Any advice fellow blog-ites?)

At the end of our week we all (five riders, plus Grant on the back) left for San Pedro la Laguna, a unique little hippie town on the shores of Lake Atitlan. We spent several days there lounging in the laid back atmosphere. Mostly our days were spent on the lake, kayaking, cliff jumping, boating, drinking beers in the sun. The usual lake activities. From San Pedro we all went our separate ways and Mark and I headed north to Semuc Champey. We spent two days in the middle of the jungle playing in an emerald green river, exploring caves (mostly Mark), and relaxing in the hammock on our front porch. To reach our next destination, Rio Dulce, we chose the "shortcut" route which was 100 miles of dirt roads through northeastern Guatemala. By the end even Mark was saying "hmm, a little pavement sounds nice about now." But it was a beautiful way to travel, and did indeed end up being a shortcut, as it took us 8 hours instead of 20 to reach Rio Dulce.

The entirety of the Burrito Rollers, minus Mark. Katie, Alex, Mike, Evan, Grant.

Mark riding across the rickety bridge to Semuc Champey.

"Hiking" in Semuc Champey National Park.

Exploring Quirigua, a little visited Mayan site on our way to Chiqimula.

Now, we are in Chiqimula, a slightly-nicer-than-normal border town. Tomorrow we will cross into Honduras so that we can rendezvous with the rest of the motorcycle gang on Roatan Island for Christmas. It's hard to believe that it's almost time for us to start making our way back north. We probably won't make it all the way to Panama, but that's okay with us. We have seen much less and much more than we expected.
Happy holidays to all our friends and family. Enjoy your times together. We miss you all.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thanksgiving fish, homemade booze, and "the broom of God"

by Mark

Greetings everyone. I'll try to summarize a bit and give you a big dose of photos (here you go, Ron Z)! In general, Katie and I are doing well (still haven't gotten sick!), and God's continuing to provide safe passage (good story about this). We're feeling pretty far from home these days, as the Thanksgiving holiday came and went with no snow or family or turkey.... so thanks to those of you putting in the effort to send an email here and there. Words from our loved ones have become highlights of our day, no matter what "sights" we might have seen. Nonetheless, our proverbial "family" continues to expand. I'll start with thanksgiving day, which we spent in Puerto Escondito, Mexico. We met another couple and chartered a small fishing boat to go look for dolphins, sea turtles, and maybe see a humpback whale.

We didn't end up seeing a whale, which are beginning their migration apparently, but we saw lots of dolphins and sea turtles-- both of which are smart enough to evade human contact. Once we get close in a boat, they dive for cover. My best dolphin shot:

Our guide wanted to fish too, so we threw some lines in and ended up with a handful of Spanish Mackerel and 3 Jackfish, which he was pretty excited about. The Jackfish is the fat one.

We found out later why he was psyched, because after our trip, he suggested that we get our fish filleted and cooked at nearby stations for that purpose. Within an hour, we were seated at a Thanksgiving dinner. The sea shared from its horn of plenty.

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After Puerto Escondito, we headed away from the coast for the first time in a month. Oaxaca is in the mountains more or less, and it is famous for its obsession with chocolate and sweets, and Monte Alban: a high hill in the middle of the Oaxacan valley, where Olmecs set up a habitation sometime around 600 BC. Because of its' strategic location, Zapotec and finally Mixtec people re-invigorated the grounds. These were militaristically brutal folks-- they left behind carvings of neighboring leaders (in contorted poses, penises flayed apart, sometimes beheaded with a Monte Alban leader standing on the head. They were originally referred to as "dancers," but most scholars now consider their contotions a result of torture. I think that Mel Gibson movie was about this crew.

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Leaving Oaxaca to the east, we rode through Mezcal country.

So here's your brief lesson on Mexican booze. Mezcal is made from the Maguey plant, which looks (to me) a whole lot like the Blue Agave plant (Tequila). Mezcal and Tequila are made in a very similar way: The "leaves" of the 8 year old plant are chopped off by machete, leaving the core, or "pina". This bit is split and roasted around a pit fire for 3 days (this is where the liquor picks up its flavor). Later it is mashed, fermented, and distilled. Tequila gets an extra trip through the distillery, which, in my experience, makes it taste a bit less like jet fuel. Apparently the Spaniards helped push the development of Mezcal along (during their invasion and occupation of Mexico), when they ran out of liquor from home. Mexicans drink the stuff in the mornings and any other time they need to put hair on their chests.

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So that brings us up to just a couple of days ago. Oaxaca to Xela, Guatemala took us about 3 days. On day two, we hit a bit of a snag, which in the end, turned out just fine.

I should have known this area would have been windy. "Viento" means "wind" in Spanish, and the next couple of towns on the map were "La Ventosa" and "La Venta". The scene is this: big Sierra Madre mountains to our North, and Pacific Ocean to the south. Heading East meant the wind was coming straight from the side--the worst kind for a motorcyclist. When I saw that the wind turbines weren't even running, I knew we had a problem. I've never experienced anything like it. In the states, I've ridden in wind from a storm, or a localized area (entrance of a canyon, for example). I experienced some similarly gnarly wind on the Grand Teton with Jon and Keith once... But this was something different. I'm going to estimate a consistent 40 mph wind with gusts to 50. Either way, we couldn't do it, and it's not from lack of trying. We rode out from a gas station stop and made it 300 feet before Katie got blown off the road-- which sounds bad I know, but there was a nice flat pullout right where the gust hit her. Don't tell me this was luck, friends. She kept the bike upright, and I eventually removed our windshields (they were acting as sails). Remember, we were probably only riding 20mph. Here she is in the pullout during a calm moment.

We eventually were able to return to the gas station (this probably took 45 minutes) and were told that the wind became more bearable after 10 or 15 miles. The guys running the gas pumps thought we were weak-- "just go slow-- you'll be fine" was their message. (Mezcal drinkers). I told them they could suck it (in english, of course). I wasn't going to watch my wife get blown into the ditch (again). I started asking around-- saying I'd pay someone to haul us and our bikes 30 miles down the road. We eventually got a taker-- so meet our new friend Manuel. He only spoke Spanish but seemed to manage a construction crew or something. He had tattered rope in his truck, and acted like he does this every day. I found this reasonably strong plank of wood in a pile of construction debris behind the gas station (for a ramp).

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Manuel texted on his phone while I frantically tried to tie up the bikes with this tattered piece of trash rope he had laying the back of his truck. We couldn't quite get the tailgate up, so I ended up just sitting the back holding onto both bikes, trying to keep them from rolling out every time he hit the gas. I backed up the rope (once we got up to 60mph or so) with a cam strap. Thank you, Island View!

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We forgot to offer Manuel any payment for his services, and he didn't ask (or seem to care really). Stereotypes be damned! Of course, as exciting as this all was for us, it was no big deal in the world of Mexico. I see people holding onto objects in the backs of trucks all the time. In Guatemala, I noticed that most of the famous "chicken busses" seem to have a teenage boy riding on top, alternately tying things down and dodging tree limbs as they careen through the mountains.

So tomorrow we will move in with a middle-class Guatemalan family and begin 5 hours a day of intensive Spanish study. Wish me luck, as I'm afraid my brain has turned to rice pudding after 6 months on the road. Katie is of course thrilled, and is hoping they give lots of tests and exams so she can get an A+! Which I'm sure she will. Here she is Ace-ing the border crossing:

Until next time...