You've Been Riding that Thing for How Long?

Daisypath Vacation tickers

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.

Posted by Picasa

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.

Posted by Picasa

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.

Posted by Picasa

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).

Posted by Picasa

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!

Posted by Picasa

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...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

by Katie

Today being Thanksgiving (although I did just recall that fact about 30 minutes ago) I thought it appropriate to write about all the things for which I am grateful. It's a top 10 list. I know, I know, a list. It's just my style. Don't worry, there will be pictures too. So to celebrate Thanksgiving 2010, here they are, the top 10 things I am grateful for:

10. The people we have met. Of course lots of locals. But also lots of crazy travelers like ourselves who have decided to take a chance on Mexico. Australians, Canadians, Japanese, British, young, old, retired, hippies, surfers, motocyclists. It's a rag-tag sort of bunch.

Beachside beers in Melaque with Evan.

9. The Grand Mayan. Yep, probably the fanciest resort I have ever and will ever stay at. This was all thanks to my in-laws Cal and Linda who gave us a week at their timeshare in Acapulco. We spent seven days doing nothing but lying on the beach, drinking smoothies and margaritas. Our biggest decision was whether to swim in the ocean or the pool.

The Grand Mayan.

8. Getting to see baby sea turtles. (See previous blog entry).

7. Stray dogs. The street dogs here are nothing like the street dogs in India. And by that I mean, the dogs here are friendly and not starving. I love getting my dog fix without thinking that I may come away with rabies. Although fleas are a real possibility.

6. The ocean. And beaches. And sunsets on the beach. We have spent a month so far on the west coast of Mexico. It always takes me a bit to get my bearings back around the ocean, but then I remember how much I love it. I mean, I'm a mountain girl at heart, but I sure do love the beach.

Playing in the waves with Lacy and Kaeli.

5. Paying someone to do your laundry. I think I washed one pair of underwear in a sink so far. Mostly, I just drop our clothes off one day, and pick them up the next, clean, dry, and folded. All for around $3.

4. No schedules. No alarm clocks. Well, I take that back. Tomorrow we are setting the alarm for 6:45 so we can go out on a boat with some friends to see turtles, dolphins, and whales, and maybe do a little fishing. How am I ever going to re-adjust to the school schedule?

3. The weather. While it is true that I will miss winter weather (and it sounds like it may be a good one this year!) It's pretty hard to complain about 85 degrees and sunny, consistently...for a solid month now. No rain. It's quite beautiful really.

Blues skies by the ocean. What more could you ask for?

2. Getting paid for used oil. Mark changed the oil in our motorcycles while we were in Acapulco. Typically in Salt Lake, it is a minor hassle to get rid of used oil. You have to find an autoparts store that is willing to take it off your hands. They may even charge you for this service. Here in Mexico, we sold our used oil. That's right, someone actually gave us money for our 5 quarts of dirty oil. What a country.

1. My husband. He has worked so hard to make this trip happen, and he continues to work hard to make it enjoyable. He spent two of our days in Acapulco doing maintenance on our bikes, changing oil and filters, checking tires. He goes out of his way to find me a cold drink when I'm hot and cranky after riding all day. He let's me sit in the shade while he walks around new towns looking for a place to stay. He laughs and encourages me to spend money on things like dresses, earrings, and headbands so I can still feel girly even though we are on a motorcycle trip, and then he offers to carry them when I run out of space. Thank you, Mark. I would not be on this trip without you.

Mi amor.

And as a sidenote, for those of you who are wondering, we are currently in Puerto Escondido. A surf mecca. Which is what Mark is out doing now on this lovely Thanksgiving day. Tomorrow we head to Oaxaca City. Love to you all. Enjoy your holiday!

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Mexico is still good."

by Katie

1,800 miles in 18 days. That's how many days we have been in Mexico and how many miles we have traveled. I write this from Zihautenajo where we are rounding out the southern end of Mexico. On Sunday we will head to Acapulco where we will stay in a fancy-pants resort (thanks to Cal and Linda!) for a full week.
I titled this post "Mexico is still good" because of the sentiments we have heard along the way from Mexicans. Every chance I have had along the way I have asked local Mexicans their thoughts on the violence, cartels, drug trafficking, etc. that seems to be plaguing Mexico. They are not naive. They know what is going on in their country. Mostly what they have expressed is sadness. One man, who owned a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, told me that the tourists used to be 80% Americans and 20% Canadians. Now he said it seems to be the opposite: 20% Americans and 80% Canadians. So many people have been so excited to see Mark and me, as Americans, still traveling to Mexico. Another woman asked me, "When you go home, will you tell people that Mexico is still good?" So here is my post, Mexico is still good. There are bad things happening, and of course bad people, but that does not come anywhere close to encompassing the whole of Mexico.
Good things in Mexico:

Little boys all over the world love motorcycles.

A village cemetery the day after Dia de Muertos.

Stands lining the roads selling "Cocos frios." Cold coconut water fresh from the coconut. Pulp included if you like.

The last couple days we have been riding with Evan, who is a very sweet 20-year old from Canmore, Alberta. His Spanish is considerably better than ours since he spent nine months traveling South America last year.

This is Evan, making friends with the parrots at a roadside restaurant.

We had been told at one of our hotels that it was turtle season all down the west coast. As we were riding two days ago we passed a barely noticeable pullout with a rusted sign that said "Conservacion de tortugas." There was a small path leading into the palm trees. We followed it as far as we could on the bikes and when the sand got too soft we got off and walked. We found a small grass-roots conservation group: several local Mexicans and several hippy backpackers, under a grass hut playing cards and looking like they had just woken up (turns out they had). They told us that every night at 9:00 they started their work: walking up and down the 2 kilometer stretch of beach and watching for female black sea turtles to come up on the beach to lay her eggs, until 5:00 am. Of course volunteers are always needed. We were hooked. We drove up the road and found cabanas to stay in and returned at 9:00. The process goes something like this: The female turtles come up to shore to lay their eggs. The volunteers watch as she does so (apparently she is not shy), then proceed to measure the length of her shell, unbury the eggs, count them, put them in a plastic bag and take them over to the turtle nursery (a fenced protected area of the beach), and re-bury them. Meanwhile in the nursery several people are watching for the turtles that are hatching. These little pequenas are collected in a huge bucket and taken out on the beach and released to the ocean.

Mark and Evan helping Alan, our guide unbury some eggs.

I loved the pequenas (the little ones). They are perhaps the most cutest things ever.

We all stayed out there until 2:00 am absolutely entranced. Did I mention there was also phosphorescence so both the sand and the waves were glowing in the moonless night. One of the more amazing experiences of my life.
Mexico has been good to us, and while we continue to remain aware and alert, we are enjoying every moment. We still have another 1,000 miles to the Guatemalan border, who knew Mexico was so huge!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Dark Side

by Mark

Greetings everyone. After spending a couple of nights in the Puerto Vallarta area recouperating, I thought I'd share "the rest of the story". (Paul Harvey's voice works best for that sentence).

First, the set-up:

Those of you who know me will be familiar with my battle with negativity. I get cynical, and I think I'm prone to depression. My thought patterns often conspire against me to interpret events negatively, when really life is producing the same challenges for me as for anyone else. In fact, at one of the hotels we stayed at, I found a book (in English, no less!) by Norman Vincent Peale called, The Power of Positive Thinking. It was first published in 1951, and it's very practical.... I guess I feel like the book "found" me. Useful exercises to change thinking patterns at a time when I can practice easily.

Despite all this, I think there's a time for the down-sides of things. I fear that when Katie and I only relate the best parts about our trip, the blog begins to mis-represent the reality of our day to day experience. I have no intention to cause anyone (who might actually be contributing to the betterment of society) to feel jealous or uncontented with their lives. I've seen this happen-- so let's keep it real, shall we?

For two nights, we got chowed by bedbugs at the Stoner surf camp. It started out with us staying in a thatched-roof bungalow, like this. Innocent enough, eh?

The view was great, and we slept under a bug net. Classic experience, right?

The itching really got better around day 4. Sorry, no pictures of Katie's bites.

The hostel we stayed at a night later closed the group room after we told the owners about our experience. They were amazingly good-natured about having to deep clean the entire place (and 6 mattresses!) after we left.

Our research revealed 2 things: First, that if we had flicked on a headlamp in the midst of the feast, we would have probably been able to see the engorged bedbugs. I'm pretty glad I didn't think to try this. Secondly, bedbugs are extremely rare in Mexico (except in places where U.S. travellers frequent). Yep-- Americans are the vector for the buggers.

Lessons learned? Travelling Mexico (so far) by motorbike has moments of great excitement and fun (see Katie's next post about sea turtles!) ...and the pendulum swings both ways. This is not news to any of you, I'm sure. Just thought I'd put a reminder out there....

Thanks for reading.