Archive for March, 2010

Day 13 (3/31): Frontera to Cardenas

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

The day began with the crossing of another major waterway, the Rio Grijalva.  Though Frontera´s main square and church sit directly next to the river, unexplicably the downtown has no access to the waterfront.  And that´s a shame, because the river is grand and peaceful and would have made a perfect place for cool evening promenades.  The Grijalva brought back fond memories of the Dniester, the river of my childhood.

The vegetation is even lusher and more luxurious than yesterday.  I can see a lot of water everywhere in the form of  marshes and small lakes.  At one point most trees abruptly disappear and I find myself riding in the infinite ocean of golden reeds stretching in all directions.  That´s when the humidity in the air becomes apparent — I can now see the blue mist covering the horizon.  Though the day is increasintly humid and hot, this is not even close to the dreadful steam room that is New York City in June.

Back in 2007 after my NYC to SF bike ride, a black girl in SF told me that I was the darkest white man she had ever seen.  A goal of the current tour is to meet or exceed that high standard.  And I feel like I´m well on the way there.  By the way, check out that trip´s homepage (it too has a detailed blog, lots of photos, and a fully interactive map).

Later in the afternoon, when the sun was no longer so fierce, I took off my shirt.  Decided to do that from now on to get some tan on my torso.  Had been debating it for a few days.  On one hand, the tan lines on my arms from wearing a t-shirt are pretty cool and could be shown off to people.  On the other, my torso was staying shamefully white.  Finally decided to forgo the arm tan lines, since I will still be able to show off the tan lines on my legs!

Mexicans are friendly and curious.  My loaded bike gets a conversation started in a flash.  The conversation is always the same:  Where are you coming from?  From Cancun?  Wow!  And where to?  Alaska?!  WOW!!  You´re joking, right?  Where are you from?  Riding alone?  Etc…  It has been very easy to build rapport with everyone, but especially with the señoras.  The señoritas are usually a little more guarded, unless they are in a group.

Finishing the day in a shabby hotel on the main square of the bustling, dusty town of Cardenas.  Abundant roadside stalls had framed the last several miles of today´s ride, enticing me with ripe local bananas, plantanes, pineapples, mangos, and papayas…

Day 12 (3/30): Ciudad del Carmen to Frontera

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Today I returned from a break in NYC.  Masha´s flying in in a few days and will catch up on a bus.  I was pleased to discover that the bikes were fine where we had left them.  Got to know the lady (the owner of the parking lot) a little more, she´s very nice and moved Masha´s bike inside the house for extra safety.  She sent me off with an escort of two boys on a bicycle to show me the best way to the bridge out of town.

After the Carmen bridge the road turns inland and we won´t see the Gulf  again until right before Veracruz.  The pastel marine landscapes have given way to pastures and ranch land.   The land here is absolutely flat but still very pretty.  Lots of grassy open spaces; lots of man-made ponds; coco palms and big-canopy trees (primarily mangos) stand healthy and tall; dark and mysterious mangrove marshes fringe all this in the distance.  Groups of horses, goats, cows dot the landscape throughout.  Everything is very tidy and, save for all the farm animals, I can´t help comparing this to a golf course.

The roadkill has changed, too.  Raccoons, birds, and frogs have replaced dogs and snakes.

A few stretches of subpar asphalt — coarse, bumpy, or both — have slightly marred today´s ride, but I´m not really complaining… The riding continues to be very enjoyable.

A couple of noteworthy milestones today:  I hit the trip´s 500-mile mark, and hit it almost precisely when crossing into our fourth Mexican state, Tabasco.  The first three were Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche.  The boundary between Tabasco and Campeche lies partly along the San Perdo River and I got a welcome last glimpse of the Gulf when crossing the bridge into Tabasco.

Photo album uploaded: Cancun to Carmen

Friday, March 26th, 2010

We finished our Yucatan Peninsula traverse (Cancun to Ciudad del Carmen).  Here are the photos:

Why we do this

Friday, March 26th, 2010

We’ve been asked why we do this.  We do long-distance cycling for a combination of reasons:

  • We love the outdoors (and cycling is just one of the many outdoor activities that we do);
  • We meet many interesting people and see a ton of interesting places;
  • It’s an excellent workout and we arrive at each daily destination feeling really good!  Plus we get really tanned.
  • It lets us tackle many interesting challenges:  organizational, physical, language.  In a word, it’s an adventure!
  • It promotes awareness of environmentally-friendly travel as well as our chosen charity (in this case, Lance Armstrong Foundation).

Days 8-11: Campeche – Seybaplaya – Sabancuy – Ciudad del Carmen

Friday, March 26th, 2010

The first five days of riding (Cancun to Campeche), the scenery had been plain and at times unpleasant.  All around stretched a flat, endless dry jungle of crooked short trees and tangled bushes, an occasional palm tree sticking out, and dilapidated farmland here and there.  Many patches of land charred by forest fires.  Lots of garbage on the side of the road. Flattened dogs and snakes on the pavement.  Only the villages and towns provided a degree of variety for the hungry eye.  In Campeche for the first time we saw the Gulf of Mexico; it was of an unsightly green-black hue.

After Campeche our route hugs the shore.  The scenery has improved dramatically.  First, the Gulf has changed its color to a magical deep green!  I’ve never seen a green sea, only shades of gray, silver, and blue, so I can’t take my eyes off the Gulf as I’m riding, awe struck.  Most of the trash has disappeared.  The road stretches wide, smooth, and sunlit.  It’s hot.  We stop and swim in the Gulf.  The beach is made not of sand, but of millions of sea shells.  It’s an advantage, since they don’t stick to the skin.

Met Jose, a local businessman and cyclist.  He teaches English to corporate clients (managers at oil companies).  He treated us to dinner of spicy chicken mole in one of the villages and cycles with us to Carmen.

Masha and I need to fly back to NYC for a week to take care of some family business.  Spent a full day exploring Carmen and buying birthday gifts for my mom and a couple of friends.  One of our headaches was where to store the bikes while we’re gone.  Jose offered to help, but we found a parking lot in the city center whose owner agreed to store our bikes — this solution is more convenient location-wise.  We hope the guy is trustworthy.

Days 6-7: Merida – Maxcanu – Campeche

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Day 6 was Masha’s first day of riding, so we took things easy.  Started relatively late, rode in a leisurely fashion, spent a whole hour at a cell phone store trying to resolve our phone issue (more about that below), had a nice dinner at a ranch, followed by a swim in an underground cave (cenote), and ended up doing just 39 miles.

So, the cell phone story…  Masha wanted to get a cell phone so that we could find each other if we got separated.  This seemingly simple task turned into a multi-day adventure.  Bought a used GSM phone (100 pesos) back at our hostel in Merida, then separately a prepaid CelTel chip (150 pesos) at a convenience store.  We thought hooking things up was a simple matter of inserting the chip into the phone.  Nope.  Turns out, in Mexico a new cell phone user must register the phone with the authorities (I guess so they can track your whereabouts).  The chip came with instructions for doing this via a series of text messages where you provide your name, date of birth, and other info using a strictly defined format.  Our phone did not have a period symbol (!), so we couldn’t send these messages.  A guy at the hostel tried to help by inserting our chip into his phone and texting those SMSs using his phone.  Nope, the protocol asked for our “country code”, which we didn’t know.  Masha went to a few phone stores to try to get help, but they didn’t know anything.  We tried to call customer service.  First they were closed; then we got through but our Spanish wasn’t sufficient to achieve anything. But these calls did almost deplete our prepaid minutes.  In one of the towns on the road from Merida we tried our luck in another cell store.  Luckily the owner was very patient and willing to help, so he spent an hour on the phone with customer service and helped us copy and fax my passport to them in lieu of texting the info.  Of course, they couldn’t do the registration on the spot and told us to check the phone in a few hours.   It was not until Campeche that we finally made our first successful call using this phone.

Masha rode a bus from Maxcanu to Campeche so she could get there ahead of me and do some work.  She got us a room at Monkey Hostel, another pleasant, main-square hostel, where young travelers drink beer, watch soccer, prepare meals together, etc.  A guy from Tijuana taught us how to make quesadillas.

Spanish vocabulary

Friday, March 26th, 2010

My pocket Spanish/English-English/Spanish dictionary is my new best friend.  Better friend than road maps.

Though I can already construct basic Spanish phrases, my vocabulary after just two months of studying is still pretty meager.  So I look up and write down a lot of words as we encounter new people and situations.  Perhaps the list collected so far can provide an additional descriptive angle to these travel notes:

servilleta (napkin), cuchara (spoon), tenedor (fork), cuchillo (knife), ducha (shower), jabon (soap), bolsa (bag), jugar (to play), proximo (next), supe/supo/supimos/supieron (the four most useful conjugations of simple past tense of verb “saber” (to know)), acotamiento estrecho (narrow shoulder), cachorro (puppy), dolor (pain), robar (to steal), llave (key), carril (lane), entre/en medio (between), por ejemplo (for example), mismo (same), alrededor de (around), pavo (turkey), culebra (snake), hielo (ice), espejo (mirror), oscuro (dark), claro (light [beer]), se me olvido (I forgot), sentar (sit), pluma (pen), caja (box, case, cash register), cansado (tired), semejante a (similar to), seguro (safe, sure), almacenar (to store), guardar (to keep), tejado (roof), impedir (to prevent), herrumbre (rust), proteger (to protect), en frente de (in front of).

And as I wrote earlier, I’ve ditched the phrase book — hadn’t opened it once.

Days 4-5 (3/14-15): Merida

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Spent two relaxing days exploring Merida´s museums and other sites. Hung out with the hostel crowd at the Zocalo. Everyone´s very laid back. We drink wine and prepare meals together in the spacious open kitchen/terrace of this 18th century colonial mansion.  I have an open invitation from a guy named Jeff to stay at his house in Eugene, Oregon when I pass through there.

Picked up Masha at the airport today. She went through quite an adventure to get here and was delayed by 24 hours.  She´ll fill you in on the story.

Assembled her bike and rode it around — it rides very well, and that´s another weight off my shoulders.  Hurray!  We´re off to Campeche tomorrow early in the morning.

Meanwhile, we drink beer and chill.

Days 2-3 (March 12-13): Chemax – Chichen Itza – Merida

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Two more days of intense heat (high nineties) though I´m surprisingly comfortable, probably because of low humidity.  Or maybe I´m just tough.

A few observations:

  • Dogs.  Masha and I had been warned about dog attacks on cyclists and even bought special dog repellent spray.  What I´m finding on the ground is that indeed there are dogs everywhere, but they seem harmless.  I´ve seen two types so far:  (1) Most dogs are homeless.  They live in/around villages.  They run around minding their business, looking for food, and don´t even notice you.  Most are emaciated, dirty, and seem tame or cautious of humans.  (2) the other kind are bigger, better-fed dogs that live on roadside farms.  These seem to have nothing to do and to be looking to entertain themselves.  I had two or three suddenly jump up and run toward me with loud barking.  What I do is immediately brake and face them; they lose interest and back away.  But in any case, I love all dogs and love interacting with them.
  • Roads.  Took a big stretch of paid superhighway.  First, it turns out that despite ample ¨no bicycles¨ signs, cycling is ok (and free or charge).  Second, ironically, the paid road had worse pavement than free ones.  In general, so far the quality of the roads has been very, very impressive.  On par with, or better than, roads in the U.S.
  • Talked with some Maya road workers.  The Maya seem to be much shorter than whites and mestizos.
  • Weight.  I´m realizing that I don´t need all of the stuff I´m carrying, which currently weighs in at 35 lbs.  Ditched my water bottles and phrasebook and some maps in the room I had rented in Piste near Chichen Itza.  Will get rid of some clothes and other stuff (will mail it home) and probably should not have brought the tent.
  • Passing through a lot of poblados (villages).  Strangely, they remind me of Burning Man.  Same climate, same bicycles and tricicles everywhere, and same flat, white, sunbathed afternoon streets and intersections.
  • Merida.  I took to an immediate liking of this colonial city.  Like the villages, it too gives me a weird sensation that I´ve seen it before.  Upon introspection, I realize that feels like a mix of Florence (Italy) and some of NYC´s neighborhoods.  Very cozy!
  • Slightly worried about my front wheel:  the hub makes a swooshing noise and the tire has developed a small bulge on one side.  But these symptoms have not worsened in a couple days, so I hope it´s nothing major.

Rented a room in Hostal Zocalo.  It´s very charming and has the best location:  next to the Casa de Montejo  in Plaza Central.  The Montejos were 16th century conquistadors and founders of the city.  Also, according to Lonely Planet, Merida´s central square is one of the ¨finest colonial central plazas in all of Mexico¨.  It´s very lively here, music is playing in the plaza, museums all around.  Will stay here an extra day to explore the town and vicinity and wait for Masha.

Day 1 (3/11) Cancun – Chemax

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

I had promised myself to take it easy the first few days (i.e. ride no more than 30-40 mi/day), but the ride felt so good that I ended up doing 82 miles.  Wanted to do another 15 to Valladolid, but my wrists were hurting so I decided to give them a rest.

Very impressed by the quality of the road.  Though no shoulder most of the day, the asphalt surface is smooth as a mirror and drivers give you a full lane when passing, so the ride feels smooth, safe, and comfortable.

Rented a room in a local dueño´s house for US$13, took a long-awaited cold shower (there is no hot water), washed my sweat-drenched clothes, and went exploring the town — refreshed and full or new energy.

When the owner and I were discussing the price of the room, his big selling point was that the room actually had a bed!  I later learned that rooms in Mexico often simply have a hammock that´s hung onto hooks in the walls.

A note on language:  I´m REALLY glad I have been studying a little Spanish (I did the Pimsleur audio course for about 2 months, 30 minutes daily).  It makes things SO much easier around here!  And the locals get much friendlier when you [try to] communicate in their language.  Everyone´s very impressed by my Spanish and I love it!  Actually, my very first surprising revelation in Mexico was that people actually understood what I was saying!  (When you´re learning in front of the computer, you don´t fully believe you´re learning a new language until you actually speak to someone.)

March 10th – a day in Cancun

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

A day of errands in Cancun.  Assembled the bike and rode it around the busy (and a little scary at first) downtown streets.  The bike rides well, phew!

Ran around trying to figure our the phone situation.  Have my old phone unlocked and buy a prepaid chip?  Or buy a local phone and a chip and lug around two phones?  Nobody could unlock my phone and the extra weight of a new phone + charger didn´t appeal to me.  Decided for now to forego a cell phone.  Luckily internet places here are plentiful and have Skype.

Checked out the Zona Hotelera.  It´s the other part of Cancun, where the spring breakers go.  Got to the actual beach when it was dark.  Huge waves.  Red warning flags.  Nobody in sight.  Skinnydipped in the blissful warm water of the Carribean.  After a few beers took a bus back to downtown and went to bed early in preparation for tomorrow´s 6-am wakeup.  Got to leave early to try to beat the heat.  Temperature forecast:  97F.

March 9th – Off to Cancun

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

A pretty seamless day:  off to JFK early; did not get charged the bicycle fee (typically $100!) or even the normal checked baggage fee.  Empty flight with plenty of seats.  Got to Cancun early and passed customs quickly.  Immediately found a cheap airconditioned bus to city center, then a big taxi to get the boxed bike to the hotel.  Spent the rest of the night walking around el Centro drinking beer, eating delicious tacos, and enjoying the quiet nighttime streets (and some loud ones).  Lost two games of pool to a local in a bar on Calle Yaxchilan.  Determined by degustation that my favorite Mexican beer is Bohemia.

As I had secretly hoped, the night air is filled with the same incense of aromatic burning wood (or leaves or something…) that I so loved when I was in Tanzania.

Oh yeah, looked into the box, and the bike seems OK, though there are a couple of dents/holes on the box and one of my handmade cardboard protectors for the read derailleur is slightly squished.  Will find out for sure tomorrow when I fully assemble the bike and test it.