Saturday, June 15, 2013

Tales of the Huh What?

It's been like five months now, and I still haven't wrapped up this story? Sorry it's taken so long folks...I've spent a good long while thinking on the end of my tale, and frankly, due to recent developments and a complete breakdown of trust, I am trying to think of the best way to write about the final leg of my journey without sounding enigmatic, or like a bitter curmudgeon...

It's hard to please a thrill seeker, especially when it's time to get back into the real world for a bit and start saving up for the next big trip four or five years down the line. It's too much time for some folks, too much commitment, and like a lot of people out there, if there's an easy way to jump into another adventure, who can blame them for pouncing on the opportunity? The promise of novelty keeps things interesting and exhilarating, but once the initial excitement wears off, there's not much left except the urge to seek out the next big thing, even if it means severing the bonds you've formed along the way.

I don't know...some people just can't pull their head out of the clouds. At least birds know when to come down to rest.

There's lessons to be squeezed from all this besides "don't blindly trust pretty ladies just because they want to bike off into the sunset with you". Give me some time to work on the details and I'll come back to you folks with the last installment of my big bike trip. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Best of Both Worlds (Part II: Time's Arrow Prt I)

Some might say it's a little reckless to invite someone along for a long distance bike journey when you've known a person for less than three hours and you've got five liters of dark Mexican amber brew in the belly, but there was something about this gorgeous tapatia that had me falling head over heels the moment she offered to join me on the road. It didn't take to much convincing on Fernanda's part. Fueled very much by the same impulses that got me started many months ago, the desire travel was strong with this one. Our urge to seek new roads arose from an innate attraction to the novel and a mutual fear of settling down into a routine at an early age without the opportunity to reach into new frontiers and see just how small this blue ball really is. There was no doubt in my mind. Our connection was real.

Two days later (and two days overdue on my original departure date) Fernanda and Mina took me on a bike tour forty km's outside the city towards a set of waterfalls that proved to be much further away than originally thought. The scorching mid-day temperatures and a cloudless sky proved to be no match for my prospective companion. Fernanda rode like a champion, grinding through the unforgiving heat on a solid steel beach cruiser twice the weight of the Dreamcrusher, soldiering on with nothing less than great big smile on her face. We got back to civilization before sundown and just in time grab a healthy portion of booze and fries from our favorite bar and get rightly shithoused. 

I caused so many problems, Bernardo (CEO of Casa Ciclista)
forced Izhak into German exile
The next day, after spending all morning and afternoon trying to wake up from one of the worst hang-overs in my life, I realized Jorge and Izhak's prophecy came to fruition. I was already five days overdue on my original departure date and looking at spending a few more weeks getting the materials together for Fernanda's gear, and while I was not the first stranger to stick around in Casa Ciclista GDL for an extended stay, I was pushing the limits of hospitality. Eight months on the road had taken their toll on my dismal manners. I left a trail of destruction every time I walked through the house, and when I tried to make good on the damage, these hungry hands of mine would find some way to cause more problems. Let's just say I don't know how to get stains out of ceramic tiles, or how to sand a steel frame without flinging chips of paint in every direction, or mop. 

As for Fernanda's bike touring materials, we spent the first week desperately searching for choice gear, and with quality panniers already costing an arm and a leg in the States, buying our way to victory was beyond the budget. We drew inspiration from Volks on Bikes and went the DIY route to the best of our ability. A pair of hard plastic water barrels with the same profile as your standard fully loaded Ortlieb pack set us back only a few dollars. With Bernardo's help, we found a metallurgist across the street who poked some holes in a few flat steel bars. In no time, everything was slapped together and viola! Fernanda had herself some water-tight home-made panniers.

Most of the prep time was dedicated to finding and fixing up a decent ride with the chops to make it all the way to the border. Fernanda's family bike was the first candidate, a name brand I never heard with open wheel hubs and rusty bottom bracket. Even with a major overhaul, the bike might make it past the first 300 km's before something major pooped out and we'd be forced to bus it to the next major city with a good bike shop. As I wracked my brain with logistics, the fellas at Casa Ciclista rolled in a few flatbeds full of old fixer-uppers, including a really decent chromoly Diamondback hybrid frame with a working set of wheels, shifters, brakes...the works. Being too banged up for a prospective German cyclist, I promptly swept it up and dove right into the new project. We spent the majority of the next month swapping parts and repainting the frame (a project I will never do again without the help of a professional). In about two weeks and a half, Fernanda had herself a working, solid touring bike that could withstand just about every obstacle the road ahead threw at it.

There's quite a few major events during my month and a half stay that I'm shamelessly glossing over, like gaining twenty pounds of solid lard on a daily chorizo and refried bean diet (so cheap!) and the whole convincing Fernanda's family I was not a serial killer, which--as a story--deserves it's own article and should be written by the madam herself. At this moment, let's just say the whole situation was drawn out because I made a very poor first impression on her mom due my every day biking attire(filthy board shorts, filthy old t-shirt, filthy bandanna, filthy mustache).

Spending all that time at Casa Ciclista allowed plenty of opportunities to observe the city's many bike activists discuss various reforms to Guadalajara's cycling infrastructure, as well as schedule weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) critical masses across the city. The turnouts for these weekly bike gatherings (called paseos) go up into the high hundreds and are always carried out in an incredibly civil manner. The familial atmosphere is present in just about every paseo, with anywhere from a quarter to the majority of the participants made up of families with children of all ages. The incredible support of these frequent paseos speaks to the effectiveness of bicycle advocates in Guadalajara, specifically those I had the pleasure of meeting on a weekly basis at Casa Ciclista, a no-nonsense organization dedicated to a single cause: making the streets safe for all cyclists in Guadalajara. It really is one of the few bicycle advocacy groups out there that takes individuals from all walks of life and gets them working together towards a common goal, working cohesively not in spite of it's diversity, but because of it's wide spectrum of folks at the helm and their willingness to maintain a central headquarters and free place to stay for cyclists. These were people that really went out of their way to help overcome any issues we had with the mechanics and design of Fernanda's new bike.

It was with a heavy heart that Fernanda and I parted ways with Fernanda's family and Bernardo's family at Casa Ciclista. I know Bernardo's sons--Jorge and Izhak--were sad to see us go. It is said the rain gutters at the intersection of Manuel Acuna and Coronado were inundated with the tears of my hosts for weeks after our departure. Anyway, the DreamCrusher and Fernanda's La Golandrina were on the road together at last, fully loaded and heading west on ruta 15 towards Tequila. We spent our first night on the road camping behind a tequila bar, which turned out to be surprisingly quiet, maybe because it was a Tuesday or something.

We spent barely two hours the next day on a downhill run into the famous town of Tequila (which Fernanda told me means "Beverage of Dreams") where we holed up in a reasonably priced hostel all to ourselves. Not even twenty four hours passed and the whole solitary dynamic of the trip was flipped upside down. I couldn't just sit around and watch Lord of the Rings in espanol like I did in Medellin or Quito. This lady wanted to do some serious exploring as soon as we unpacked our things, and what with the Jose Quervo factory right down the street, good times were just a shot and a dash of salt away. Despite harboring a dangerous affinity for Mexico's national liquor, I did not make a fool of myself and actually learned quite about the process of turning giant pineapples into a hangover.

With the lady along for the ride, I finally had a crystal clear window into a world that for so many months was a bit obscured due to the language barrier. We started connecting with people in a way that really allowed the two of us to really get to know our hosts and their friends. It came as no surprise that just about everyone in Tequila knew a bit about cultivating agave and the fabrication process. Definitely gave me new appreciation for the drink itself and revealed just how much I appreciated the language help from Fernanda. As it turns out, my Spanish was realllllllly shitty. For instance, I'd spend thirty minutes listening to a person before asking various agave related questions, at which point Fernanda would pull me aside and say, "he's trying to tell you about the family dog that just died!" This led me to think about how many times I've woefully misinterpreted someone's words over the course of my trip. Probably thousands.

After two days in Tequila, we continued on our way and hit our first major mountain since Fernanda joined the trek. We were looking at a solid 1300 meter climb up some serious switchbacks, and to make matters worse, a derailleur limiter failure on Fernanda's bike caused a near catastrophic failure when the chain wrapped around a few spokes on the rear wheel, forcing us to stop less than half way up and with the sun slowly sinking. I remember the two of us looking a good 1000 meters up the mountain and seeing haulers weave in an out eyeshot. Fernanda said, "We're not going that high, are we?" I reassured her with a dismissive "no".   Three hours later, we were 1000 meters higher and Fernanda was a few heartbeats shy of a heart attack. We stopped at some point close to the summit to let the lady rest. I'd give her the occasional nudge with my foot to make sure she was still alive. The way she spread herself on the grass made it look like I was standing over a murder scene.

We made the summit before sundown and stopped in a small farming town a few miles east of Ixtlan Rio. The boss of the town hooked us up with a sweet camping location inside the town rodeo, which came complete with amenities such as working faucets and toilets filled with poop eating worms. Fernanda passed out almost immediately, only to be roused an hour later by a pansy ass who soaks his bike shorts every time he hears lightening in the distance. We moved our tent to a safe place under the bleachers and finally got some good shut eye.

Fernanda made a full recovery by sun up, so we were lucky enough to get an early start on the road and grab some hearty breakfast in Ixtlan Rio.  We spent the next two days going up and down valleys and dodging quite a bit of traffic. The scenery alongside the road was incredible. However, the number of towns along the way kept the free road loaded with plenty of cars, trucks, and reckless drivers that couldn't give less of a shit about two highly visible cyclists on the right of the road. We were both getting nervous, so sometime on the second day we merged on the toll road and spent the rest of the day cruising on a wide, safe shoulder all the way into Tepic.

Tepic left us both at a loss for words. I forgot why we spent a whole two days in a town with so little to do. It struck me as one of those cities that's just close enough to all the hot sights on the western Mexican coast without the real estate price of Puerto Vallarta. There's a definite ghost town feeling I had a hard time shaking off. The bars closed around nine and all the dinner joints wrapped up shop around lunch time, and as a man who likes his food, this deceptive practice really pissed me off the most. The bit of interesting history had to do with an important textile shop called Jauju that was razed in the late 19th century by a shady French boss because he refused to pay the locals for their labor.

The two of us were all too eager to get back on the open road. The way out of Tepic was an incredible three hour descent down to the flat lands along the pacific coast. We were on our way to Mazatlan a couple hundred miles to the north. the straight line on the map made the route seem like an easy enough straight shot between the two cities with little to no elevation changes. However, at sea level at the end of summer was like riding through a sauna, not the hottest weather to be sure but definitely the most humid we'd ridden through thus far. Fernanda handled it like a trooper, with me complaining most of the way like a little hungry baby.

It took about three days from Tepic to reach landfall in Mazatlan, the promised land of dreams. Here we planned to catch the next ferry over to Baja California and ride up the peninsula from La Paz. We didn't expect to stay in the city too long, but as it turns out, reservations for the boat ride were relatively hard to come by at such short notice. On my first visit to the boat terminal, I was told the next available spot wasn't available for another week. I was freaking out. What the hell were we going to do in this expensive-ass city for the next seven days?

At this point, the lady took me by the hand and pointed to a stretch of land just across the port. I forget where she heard about it, but apparently Fernanda had heard about an island called Isla de Piedra where folks could get away with camping on the beach without paying a thing. We took a boat over and found a nice ocean side patio restaurant to set up our hammocks and nap for a few hours. Fernanda jumped right into meeting the locals, introducing me to Gabe the bartender, another local from Guadalajara.

Gabe was coming from a bad situation as well. He moved a few months back to Isla de Piedra to work at a hotel, only to have the family that ran the joint refuse to pay him for a months of work. From what I remember, they kicked him out for pushing the issue too much, and with nowhere to go, he approached Nancy, the friendliest neighbor in town, for a place to stay, which she was all too happy to provide. After sharing his story, Gabe disappeared for a few minutes before coming back with an invitation to visit the house of Nancy. It's at this point that another pause is in order, for Nancy--sainted figure as she was--deserves much more than just a passing reference at the end of an article. We will get back to her story at the beginning of the next stay tuned!

Nancy and Fernanda

(The saga of Nancy and onward continued in pt. 2-2)

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Best of Both Worlds (Part I)

Here I am, back in Oakland, trying to figure out what to make of the past year or so on the open road. Can't say I've got an excuse for putting off the final installment of my journey for so long other than good ol' fashion procrastination. There's been a good amount of time to reflect on the past twelve months and try to extract some all-encompassing narrative, yet I'm struggling to find some way to connect it all together into one grand telling. I've been home for a couple of months now, and with my focus tuned back to work and school, I suppose the biggest struggle at the moment is getting back into my nomadic mindset in order to tell this story. I'm curious to see how all this time has affected my ability to recall and interpret the events of the past year. I'm gonna let this play out and see if I can sift the meaning of life out of all this craziness. So, with all that out of the way, let's get back to June 2012...

My last two days in the city of Oaxaca were spent following a few developments in the teacher camps. Urgency is probably the best word to describe the atmosphere at the time, and with national elections slated next for next month (July 1st), educators and their supporters were marching on the city streets in greater numbers, expanding the boundaries of the camp to a few more city blocks. From the safety of my rooftop camp above Luna Hostel, I could see all that transpired below. I think it was Vania or someone else working at the hostel who pointed crew-cut jackboots lining the sidewalks, police officers in plain clothes with pistols stuffed in their belts, looking all too anxious as they watched the teachers take to the streets. As someone else pointed out to me, the last time police officers removed their uniforms was 2006 when officers killed twenty six people over the course of a few months.

As luck would have it, just as the crowds started to swell, the clear blue summer skies turned gray overnight. Heavy rains rolled through the parched valley, putting some hot tempers in check as the summer showers brought a welcome remission from the stifling heat. Protesters sought shelter in their tents while others returned home. The heavy police presence disappeared in turn, and with that, I guess some level of normalcy was restored as a few busy streets opened up to traffic again, though the teachers continued their occupation of the central plaza.

It was time to bail. The skies opened up just long enough for me to roll out on ruta 135, then a sharp turn west into the mountains on a carretera libre towards Nochixtlan, roughly 80km's north of Oaxaca. What should have been a half dray trip stretched out to a day and a half by a steep ascent into the mountains around La Herradura, where I was welcomed by more shitty high-altitude lightening storms and one sleepless night in a staring competition with some base-head losers looking to nab some gear from my camp. The next day was spent speeding downhill for 30 km's before reaching Nochixtlan.

How to describe the next 250 km's...slight climbs, tedious routes on , especially between Huajuapan and Izucar de Matamoros. To be honest, by the time I reached Cuernavaca, I was kind of wishing I'd stuck to the coast. I was skirting along the border of DF and despite staying to the side roads, traffic was a pain in the ass, possibly some of the worst I'd encountered since some of the bigger Central American cities. Other cyclist I met further south insisted a bike trip through Mexico would not be complete without a detour to the Big City itself, but with the southerly approach inundated with fast moving kill machines coming from every angle, it took only a day in Cuernavaca to decide against it. So I cut northwest on a small mountain road towards Huitzilac, followed by a sharp left up some serious switchbackery through Parque Nacional Lagunas de Zempoala, a serpentine route that launched me into high alpine paradise with a dash of mid-summer snow and the occasional ice patch. The road eventually plateaued by noon and from Coyoltepec it was an easy ride on the way to Toluca, a city that sort of crept slowly over the horizon with the setting sun. This was not a bike-friendly city by any means, what with all the four lane traffic and blind merges at every turn. I stuck around long enough for some tacos and slipped out on ruta 15 under cover of darkness, continuing for another twenty kilometers before setting up camp near a moonlit lake.

This guy crashed a funeral service to get me coffee, so
I bought him breakfast
I hit some nice looking mountains pretty early the next morning, nothing nearly as grueling as the road out of Cuernavaca but enough climbing to squeeze some sweat. I'm sure all the volcanic scenery around me would've been absolutely breathtaking if it wasn't for the inveterate rainy season always fucking with my ride. I missed out on some decent tourism, speeding through two ancient towns (Zitacuaro and Ciudad Hidalgo) that each probably merited a day long stay if not for the weather. I was getting fatigued, stinking heavily with the flavor of unwashed towel and trench foot. My frustration with central Mexico's unpredictable climate was hitting a boiling point. I'd been under the impression that the country's infamous heat was bound to be unbearable, yet here I was in the middle of summer in Purepecha territory struggling to stay dry in frigid temperatures, freezing my balls off. To make matters worse, I blew up my alcohol stove and spent an evening digging aluminum shards out of my right foot.  

Morelia was a welcome reprieve from the string of bad weather-luck. The skies immediately opened up as I dropped into the valley. I finally had a chance to warm up and dry off on the roof at Tequila Sunset hostel, where I spent the next three days recuperating and chilling with Damian, getting shithoused, and making a fool of myself in front of a bunch of Argentinian backpackers, all in good fun. Biking around this fair city was a blast, but after three days of checking out the sights and with the weather finally at my side, I jumped on the steed and continued west on ruta 15.

The road was BEAUTIFUL. The big climbs through snow capped mountain were finally behind me. The next three days on the road were spent gently meandering through mountain valleys, lake sides and rolling hills. With the exception of an overturned tour bus a few k's west of Quiroga, the route couldn't be better, yet despite the sights and sounds along the way, I wasn't trying to take any breaks. I had one destination on my mind, one place that seemed to be the talk of the town everywhere in Mexico...

Guadalajara: the Spaniards used to call it "City of Dreams"
Fellow travelers are always eager to share their recommendations for places to go when you're on big trips like these. They'll say things like 'check out the thermal baths at yerba buena', 'go feed the monkeys at Portobello', 'come with us to this ayahuasca ceremony' or 'you gotta check out the brothels in Panama City'. I generally don't take recommendations to well, especially when someone's trying to get me to shell out $200 for a day long leisure hike in some enchanted Olmec forest, at which point I tend to fuck off and do my own thing like a cheap asshole. However, if everyone along the way is pushing me in one direction, I might buckle and hang a right somewhere. Other folks spoke of Guadalajara as if it were the nucleus of any Mexican journey, that I'd be a fool to circumvent it as I had done with so many other cities.

First impressions: this place is biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig! Panama was my last big city navigation. Guadalajara proved to be an entirely different monster, albeit equally challenging to a first time visitor. Centro was easy enough to get to, but finding the elusive casa ciclista tacked another two hours to my trip for the day. I arrived unannounced. The fellas working the shop/bike hostel were perturbed to say the least at this grimy biker riding in at the last minute, speaking terrible spanish and asking for a place to stay, but since turning away strangers goes against the inherent hospitable nature shared by most Mexicans, I was hooked up with a bed, a hot shower and keys to the palace in no time. 

Loyal servants of Bernardo
 I was introduced to Jorge and Izhak, an inseparable pair bound to one another by duty, kinship, and a strong, manly love for bikes and bike tools. How to describe this dynamic duo without delving into their clashing idiosyncrasies? I never  thought a techie DJ Tiesto aficionando could get along so well with a luddite who leaves Glenn Frey's greatest hits on repeat all day long, but there they were, working side by side and answering to no one except Bernardo, the unquestionable superior and boss of Casa Ciclista and all cyclists in Guadalajara. One can see by the way Jorge and Izhak lock eyes that this duo was and will forever remain inseparable. Whenever I witness such a special relationship develop between two individuals, I like to leave the magic a mystery and let others witness the miracle for themselves. I haven't spoken to these two since leaving GDL, but something tells me the sparks are still flying.

Speaking of sparks and love and magical adventures, Izhak warned me the last gringo who stayed at Casa Ciclista ended up sticking around for two months before continuing southward. When I asked how this could happen, he spoke of how a fair maiden from the city held my countrymen captive by lust. I dismissed the anecdote and re-assured my hosts I'd stay for no more than a week. They laughed and forced me to mop the floors, a task I performed flawlessly and much better than Izhak or Jorge. I then proceeded to put three bikes together from scratch while simultaneously developing flawless planning measures to develop new bike corridors in the city by the New Year. Unfortunately Jorge burned my plans in a jealous rage.

Five days went by without incident. I collected replacement parts from around the city, overhauled my wheels, degreased the drive chain and prepared for the next and final leg of the journey up to the border. Just as the fifth day was coming to an end, two ladies--Fernanda and Mina--pull up to the shop with brake problems and asked me (not Jorge or Izhak) to fix it, which I did in no time. In return, I demanded they take me to a bar and not invite Izhak or Jorge. An hour later, I was at a bar without Izhak or Jorge.

The night was off to a good start. These two ladies tolerated a few minutes of shitty Owen Spanish before telling me I suck at their language and made me speak in American. No matter what, with so much cheap beer slammed on our table, I was sure to make an ass of myself sooner or later, no matter what language I was speaking. The conversation eventually segued into my journey and how I came across their fair city. As I got into the details of the trip, Fernanda's eyes did the thing my eyes do anytime I see Neo fly into the sky at the end of the first Matrix. She strategically waited for Mina to use the bathroom before she hit me with it. I don't recall her exact words, but I think it was along the lines of, "Take me with you."

As it turns out, Guadalajara is not only the city of dreams, but also the city of love at first sight. I didn't know this lady at all. I didn't know what she was about, what movies or songs she liked the best or what star sign she was, but after Fernanda hit me with her request, I knew right away I'd be sticking around a lot longer than a week...

To be continued

(Part II coming up in a few days)

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I made it....holy crap. So....I owe all my loyal readers a big gigantic entry for my Oaxaca to California leg of the trip. Stay tuned, it will be up soon...
The Trail Angel and I, just a few miles north of Monterey

Monday, June 4, 2012

The many wonders of corn, or what the locals call "maize"

  There are some people you meet on the road (cyclists I mean) that swear they've been going strong for 2 years when in fact they've been riding for just a couple of months. With each biking hour dragging on like a snagged disc brake, there are certainly plenty of times on especially long desolate stretches of highways where the sun seems to get stuck at the highest point in the sky around eleven in the morning and doesn't budge until the latest hours of the afternoon, at which point you begin a frantic search for shelter before shithoused truck drivers start their eight o clock death race to the next town before their favorite novella comes on. I've counted a solid seven months on the road since departing Cordooboo, and despite the various tricks the mind plays when one spends every waking moment biking for hours on end, it feels like I turned my back on the beautiful folks of Argentina barely two weeks ago. My voyage has delivered me safely into the loving arms of Mexico, arguably the historical heart and soul of North America, and in Mormon mythology, the location where Jesus dyed the first Jewish Mexicans brown from sin, while the chosen white people--pure of heart and pigment--almost certainly perished of skin cancer (long live Satan). At this rate, Mexico's going to fly by in less than a second, which is sad, because I'm a few days into this country and I'm loving this place.

That's two less cranes than the port of Oakland (Panama City)
Sometimes the time warp effect can be a mercy, especially when you're looking at 300 km's of flat, forgettable, Central American highway with little more to offer the needy traveler than the occasional comedor that's out of everything except chicharron, which is awesome. I don't mean to rag on Panama in two consecutive posts, especially since I spent almost a week biking around a pretty big land mass, but with Argentinian hobo cyclists trying to steal my thunder and one of the biggest cities in Central America offering nothing in terms of spare shifter cables or a safe place to bike around, I wasn't looking to spend more time than I had to.
Church of Pretzelquotli (Rio Claro, Costa Rica)
Just as soon as I was getting used to day after day of endless flat, Costa Rica drops on me like a tropical brick out of nowhere and suddenly I found myself weaving through the jungle ride at Disney Land, complete with monkeys and macaws but sans aggressive animatronic hippos and hostile natives. What's not great about this place? Weary foreigners always seem to mention the extravagant prices of everything in this jungle paradise (things cost about the same as they do in the states, and tipping is expected just about everywhere), but come strapped with a tent, a hammock, and a disarming smile, you can get away with staying pretty much anywhere for nothing, and with the amount of prime beachfront camping from north to south, it would be a crime not to exploit what these lands have to offer in terms of prime real estate.
Non photogenic Costa Rican monkeys (what the locals call "maize")
Macaws exhibitting curiosity, a behavior the locals call "maize"
I also had one distinct advantage over other travelers in these parts...with my incredibly vast network of friends and fellow adventurers, it would be nothing short of a cosmic fluke if I did not run across some pals somewhere along the way back to California. It was by sheer luck that I came across fellow high school survivors Will Clark and Matt Hay in Playa Hermosa, the perfect surf town if there ever was one. Within a weeks time, I was finally goaded into jumping into the ocean with a slab of fiberglass beneath me, and while I did not stand, I definitely slid over the surf with the grace of a penguin. Meanwhile, I was put to shame by Will and Matt and fellow surfers who turned tsunami sized mammoths into half pipes in seconds.
Will Clark shredding gnar, a custom locals dub"maize"
Despite all the various American conveniences Costa Rica had to offer, it definitely did not have the best roads for cycling. Shoulders were rare, and with roads just wide enough to accommodate the width of a bus and maybe a jallopy, the danger of clippage was extremely high. If that wasn't enough, some punk ass prison snitch beach bum stole my sweaty three-day-old-ball-and-butt-sweat-soaked shorts and the pouch for my sleeping bag in the port town of Caldera. I cannot describe how strong my thirst for revenge was after that incident, and yet the bastard left nary a clue safe for a few tiny lady like footprints in the sand. Clearly not man enough to face me in waterside combat. 

Roadside howler monkeys
searching branches for maize
After a few more towns and keeping myself relatively intact on the Costa Rican roads (save for a hit and run accident that left me with a crooked fork), it was onto Nicaragua and another mind blowing revelation--I was now in a part of the world where I was passing into new countries in a matter of days. A more dedicated student of anthropology or languages might be able to discern the cultural differences that go into all this central American separation, but for me, the reason was pretty clear. No single country blended seemlessly into the other (with the exception of maybe El Salvador and Guatemala), with each border crossing marked by evident changes in landscape and climate. While Costa Rica was a pretty much a giant rain forest, the west coast of Nicaragua was like Southern Californian hill country in the middle of an especially dry summer. Honduras marked the return of wet jungle lands, and El Salvador served as an small introduction to the dramatic ascents that would define the voyage through Guatemala, but I am getting way ahead of myself.

As far as conveniences go, Nicaragua pretty much had all the same things to offer as Costa Rica, minus the stateside price. The pizza in Jinotepe was pretty decent, as were the folks. Sandinistas rule this land with the same level of malevolence as Canadian mounties in Nova Scotia, and even though popular politics around these parts is firmly alligned against various influences from G8 nations, nobody here holds your nationality against you, so some frank and polite conversations about politics and economics can still be had. However, I was not above in partaking in some classic celebration of good ol' American superhuman supremacy when I went to go see the big new expensive comic movie with Shield Man, Spider Woman, Iron Bloke and Mace Windu. It was but a brief taste of things to come once I crossed that sweet sweet border from Tijuana to San Diego. When the explosions subsided and the good guys in the clear, a kid "mistook" me for Nicholas Furious and asked for an autograph. I told him my people need me and fled the scene.

Birds in El Salvador speak various maize-related phrases
And so in no time, I was in Honduras. And then in a day's time, I was in El Salvador, a country that I'd spent much time building up great expectations for. I think part of this was due to the fact I had watched Oliver Stone's "Salvador" one too many times and thought I might find relics of the civil war just about everywhere.

Maize fields -- El Salvador
That was dopey dumb dumb thinking on my part. The past decade has been marked by relative tranquility and most, if not all folks simply do not want to dedicate a single brain cell to attrocities that occurred less than thirty years ago, resulting in plenty of friendly conversation that were not as educational as I thought they  would be. "Oh well," I thought, "I'm sure the big city of San Salvador will have some cool cultural stuff to see". Another dumb move on my part. Instead of checking out the legendary beaches of this country, I head straight for the big city and was once again met by frustration and dissapointment as I tried and failed multiple times to enter the city from various southern routes. Upon finally succeeding after many many hours, I was greated by a city...and that's about it as far as I can tell you. There were lots of people and lots of places for a hamburger or fried chicken and whatnot, and a big ol white house lookin mansion for El Presidente on the outskirts of the city. Sorry folks, but I was just a little dissapointed by the sights. I mean, this city was once the stop over point for all the Spanish treasure in the New World, but I don't think I saw a single relic of ye olden times during my brief say. And so, I was off. One last stop in a Santa Ana gas station had me shooting glass bottles using shotguns and pistols with drunk security guards pretty much all night long. Another potentially underwhelming voyage across parts unknown saved at the last minute by drunken revelry, and for that reason, El Salvador will remain close to my heart.

And then came Guatemala. By this point in my trip, I had come across maybe 25 cyclists traveling across Mexico and Central America, maybe five of which were doing the whole Alaska to Ushiah trip, none of which reported any problems in this part of the world. Even so, monsignor Clark had previously gifted me with a central American guidebook that made any trek across the Guatemalan frontier seem like a surefire death trap. According to this Lonely Planet guidebook (written in 2009), Guatemala was a land of untamed rogues, scounderals, and gunslingers who wouldn´t hesitate to cap a gringo over some minor disagreement. To pile up on the paranoia roller coaster, a surf shop owner in Costa Rica related to me a story of his first encounter with Guatemalan police who proved to be most unhelpful in his case because they appeared to be  huffing some kind of high powered adhesive. Needless to say, I was expecting the worst.

It´s when one expects the worst that one gets the finest, and the people of this fine central American land treated me with practiced deference. The first Guatemalans I approached to get my bearings were two police officers in a solitary station a few kilometers past the boarder crossing, and much to my needless surprise, they were glue free and able to point me in the right direction, expecting nothing more than a grin and a handshake. Somewhere between the frontera and Villa Canales, I ditched the "guidebook" responsible for weighing down my soul with so much fear and anxiety and continued on my rockin way.

La Merced - Antigua

After so many rumors and heresay, I was begininning to develop the notion that I should just stop listening to people and experience things for myself. Cyclists from ages past warned me about impassible conditions in the mountains. Backpackers and guidebooks forwarned me of sneak thieves and machete-wielding teenagers eager to make an easy buck off the unwary traveler. However, Guatemala was quickly turning out to be the most incident-free country thus far as far as Central American countries go. Despite the numerous nights camping out between towns and gas stations, nobody here was trying to steal my dirty sweaty shorts or random pouches off drylines. And despite what some cyclists had to say a few months back about the road conditions of this great land, Guatemalan roads were nowhere close to as bad as some of the stories some folks had passed down to me along the way. In fact, for two days, many of the major highways I was taking were closed down to traffic due to one of those long-distance carbon fiber spandex races that are reserved exclusively for those that punish their pernium with unforgiving saddles and spend each and every sexless night in hypobaric chambers. God speed to them, and god bless the freshly paved roads of Guatemala.
Earthquake ravaged churches in Antigua (not maize related)
I wasn't trying to take my time either. My crooked front fork had been slowing me down since the accident in Palma Norte, Costa Rica, and I was on a mission to find a replacement. City after town after city, I was met with no such luck and continued to make due with a wheel that was noticeably off tilt until finally reaching the Kabbah box for bike tourists of Central America--Maya Pedal.

San Andres Itzapa - Guatemala
It was here that I managed to slap on a perfect replacement for my bent front fork as well as witness the magic that occurs within the hallowed walls of this world renowned bike shop. Carlos the manager was in the works of fabricating a new pedal-powered corn grinder machine that could potentially sheer an ear of corn maize within seconds with the right pair of legs. This, in addition to pedal powered food processors, laundry machines, and rock tumblers, was but one of the many machinations pioneered by the folks at Maya Pedal over the years, and the folks in San Andres Itzapa appear to be ever greatful for its presence. Local town folk wheelin in with cracked hubs and bent frames have a bike as good as new within a day. As for bike tourists such as myself, the workshop is a cheap place to stay and has all the tools necessary to fix pretty much any problem. It almost has too much stuff to play around with. For example, Carlos made the mistake of showing me how to work the welding tool before he left the shop for the night. I thought I might make my contribution to the friendly folks of San Andres by building a ladder using broken bike frames and rebar, but after going through three of those soddering prongs and two bike frames, I succeeded in making some kind of artistic travesty with the potential to kill a man even if it were used as a door stop, so I tossed the wretched thing and hoped nobody would blame the handywork on me. I bailed the next day to put some distance between me and my creation.

And so it came to pass that Guatemala's rainy season kicked into full swing the same day I departed for Panajachel, and the heavens opened up with buckets of cold water, forcing me once again to dawn wintery gear. Nobody seemed to know exactly how to get to Panajachel...the folks at Maya Pedal gave me a route that was only 73km in distance from the workshop, but when I tried taking these backroads, the locals turned me around back onto the freeway, which added about 100km's to a journey that should've taken a few hours. And what a tourist trap Panajachel turned out to be. Not one moment of peace and harmony was had on the lake front with the amount of boat captains trying to hassle you for a ride to the other side of the lake, or the random thing venders trying to sell things of questionable quality. I needed peace, quiet, and a place to dry my wet clothes, and I wasn't going to get it until I left this terrible place. Unfortunately the rains kept coming and kept me soaked to the bone all the way to the border, at which point calm washed over the lands once more.

Ah sweet Mexico, how good it was to finally meet you. The anticipation has been building since my departure from Argentina, for this country would be the last and longest country on my trip before entering California. This time, what I expected is exactly what I got when I crossed the border--an overwhelming feeling of being closer to home, while simultaneously feeling like I was home. A lot of folks were interested in where I was coming from and where I was going. Most mistook me for a deutchlander or Argentino, but as soon as they found out home was California, the spanish was droppped with a
quick high five and stories were exchanged. Pretty much everyone this far south in Mexico (and Guatemala) has worked in California at some point in their lives, or still has family stateside that they're waiting to see again. Pretty much everyone who's had state side experience on the west coast is eager to get back at some point and settle down permanently in hopes to get that treasured American citizenship (protip: it's not that great. At least you can go around the world with a Mexican passport). It all comes down to having a steady job and stability for the family, something that can be difficult to come by for some folks in this part of the world. With all it's natural beauty, rich history, and antique city centers that put every North American city to shame in terms of eye-candy, it's easy to make the mistake of assuming that all's well and everythings on the up and up in this part of the world, and while the quality of life down here is comfortable, there are plenty of folks left behind.
San Cristobal - maize capital of Chiapas
Passing through the mountains of Chiapas was like finding myself on some back country trail in Truckee in the middle of spring. In other words, a high alpine paradise that I would consider the perfect temperature for a long day on the road. The air stayed cool all the way to San Cristobal de las Casas, and got down right frigid at night (and here I am, trying to do my best with swim trunks and spandex). Stayed at a dual hostel/bikeshop called El Hostalito. Cool stay, cool city, and the Museum of Mayan Medicine is something to see if you always wanted to watch an educational video of a Mayan priestess literally squeezing a baby out of a 14 year old girl with a threadbare tourniquet. Something for everyone. Oh, and I learned Bayern, Pfizer, and other big pharma companies, under the auspices of Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, go into these Mayan villages, "patent" the plants these people have been using for thousands of years, and get the local police to prevent the Mayans from harvesting the very same plants for their own purposes. Total bitch move.

Coastal maize is treasured in Arriaga
 Moving on, my onward voyage towards Oaxaca required a quick trip down to the coast. I learned long ago to dread these mountains-to-coast trips because while one tends to be going downhill, the crippling headwind blowing in from the coast requires frustrating granny gear shifts when I should be flying along at break neck speed. Also, the coast--despite the constant breeze--is home to the hottest weather I've come across since Chamical, Argentina. I got my second case of heat-stroke in my entire trip and had to spend a day resting in Tehuantepec. The climb back up to the mountains was a welcome change as the temperature dropped the higher I climbed. After a quick stop in El Camaron, I finally found myself in the city of Oaxaca.

Maize fuels our travels
While I was aware of the big teachers strike of 2006, and how police had shot and killed a few protesters in cold blood, I had no idea the protests had started up again. Apparently, the agreements made in 2006 were shams. Schools continued to face budget cuts across the board to make way for more private schools (sounds familiar). The teacher killers were not brought to justice, and there were more accusations of extortion and assassinations in the interim. And so, a few months ago, the teachers came back to the city, armed with the same conviction from six years ago, as well as a laundry list of demands for the Oaxacan government.

The scale of this protest puts just about every Occupy protest in the states to shame. Multiple city center streets have effectively closed down to traffic due to the sheer amount of teachers and families camped out in the streets. This has been going on for a few months now, and anytime the police start making a show of force, more teachers flood in from other states in a show of solidarity. Judging by the size and the organization of this particular protest, it looks like this is building up to be another show down on the same par as the previous clash of 06'. We'll see what happens. I wish these folks the best, and I am forever envious of their courage.

Oaxaca remains quite a place to visit. So far, out of all the various cities I've visited in my life, none has an ancient Zapotec temple superstructure sitting at a nearby hilltop and over looking the whole entire valley. This place is flowing with ancient energies I cannot quite put my finger on, but I feel it every morning when my lungs suck in this sweet mountain air (I'm sleeping on a roof at the moment). In fact, I think I'm going to give Monte Alban another bike visit. Too much typing today, not enough sun. I'll tag on some more info later.

Ancient maize-based death ball court, Monte Alban
Alright I'm back from my second quick bike trip to Monte Alban. There's not much I can tell you that hasn't already been said on Wikipedia, but I'll try my best...

Joe Rogan and Ron Paul would have you believe these massive structures were planted in Oaxaca long ago by some ancient race of space monkeys, but it's safe to say judging by some of the more extreme examples of obsessive compulsive disorder depicted on one of the countless runestones found throughout the Monte Alban site (you'll see plenty pictures of Zapotec men cutting off their garbage and offering it up to the gods to keep the world turning), I can't think of a better example of a what we might call a "can do attitude".

Archeologists date some of the oldest temple and tomb sites to 500 BC, which makes this one of the oldest relics of an ancient civilization in the western hemisphere. In it's heydey, the place functioned as the commercial and religious center of the various folks living in the surrounding valleys. Folks would travel for miles and miles, climbing the steep hills along the banks of the temple site with heavy bags of maize and maize related goods strapped to their heads (they used buckets made of maize husks). All this effort just to sell their wares to the warrior elite at the top of the mountain.

For one consecutive epoch after another, the old Zapotecs offered up the blood and organs of their enemies to their pantheon of sociopathic gods until the lands below went dry. One can only imagine how horrible it was to live in these end times when the powers that be demanded body after body to be offered up to whatever rain god who wasn't delivering on his/her promise. Eventually the folks below just got tired of walking up and down the hill every day and stopped delivering the goods, letting all the psycho priests starve and cut each other up till there was nothing left but kibble for stray dogs. Anyway, even though the information plates don't tell you much since nobody knows exactly what went on here (except Joe Rogan and Ron Paul), it's one of the most amazing places you'll see in the world. And you can reenact history and actually walk there!

Discovery Channel Discovery of the Week - Gringos abroad
We're lazy, snobbish, incapable of showing deference to the locals, and always demand a room with a working air conditioner. We don't speak Spanish and get angry when the waiter doesn't understand what "chicken" or "Coors" means. When the TV's on at a bar or a restaurant, we change the channel to Fox News or something else with English. We have countless condos on prime beach front property in Costa Rica and have a Nicaraguan "buddy" that can get you a really good deal on another house on the outskirts of Minagua. We'll have one or two local "girlfriends" in Quito and hang around a bit longer than planned before one of the girls tells you she wants to keep it, at which point you'll quickly pack your bags, catch the next connecting flight to Florida, and pray to satan she doesn't start putting pictures up of a blue-eyed Ecuadorian baby on Facebook and tagging you in the photos. We retire in "paradise" because we hate the States, yet we hate it here because it's not the States. We noisely nap on Incan ruins, go skinny dipping in sacred Mayan lagoons, and pee on cathedrals on the way back from a long Friday night. We are gringos abroad, and we want satisfaction!