We're still here, in Mexico. Slowly working our way south. Nowhere to be, technically. Language school starts in a few weeks in Guatemala, but we're otherwise taking it day-by-day. This morning we ride out of Oaxaca and into backwoods mezcal territory before climbing 20,000 feet through the coastal range to reach da beach.
Updated with words from Aidan: (Photos below)
The only pattern to the trip so far seems to be a cycle of different segments that begin and end, warping time in a disorienting way. At any given moment it can feel like no time has passed at all or that we've been on the road forever. These segments are wholly consuming and can feel so individual that it's hard to believe they're all connected parts of a much bigger trip. And yet, somehow we're here in Oaxaca and it's nearly 3 months since we left Portland.
Of course, it is simply a matter of perspective. The trip segments stand out from one another as a result of a change in the landscape, a night's sleeping spot, a particular road, just a lunch or even a bus ride.
Meeting up with Scotty and Marissa in Baja was the most defining marker of trip progress. We basically left Portland with only the one semi-set plan on the calendar. A plan, at some point in September, to see our fellow southward traveling friends, somewhere, probably Baja.
As our paths neared, I had visions of popping up over the hill, bikes fully loaded, and rolling into their campsite, victorious and impressively self-sufficient. In actuality, it ended up being a mammoth effort on their part to make it happen. The westernmost, and therefore closest, point on our "route" was Ciudad de Insugentes, a sharp bend in Mexico Hwy 1 and still a healthy 90 miles from where we all planned to stay and surf. Through a serious act of kindness and braving the leftover destruction of Hurricane Newton, the two of them, along with Fang, the newly acclimated RV cat, piled into their vehicle and made the 6 hour roundtrip to pick us up, making good on the plan hatched eons ago in a rainy Northwest winter.
Not to overly dramatize a moment, but seeing good friends in a foreign place after a longish stint melting in the desert sun was really, really nice. Travel brain, primed for new interactions and language barriers, shut off and we were suddenly in easy conversation, comparing Baja notes, and scooting around town taking care of super important errands: fish tacos, groceries, water, and ice cream.
There is an obvious difference between bike touring and living in your vehicle, but they share many similarities. Scotty and Marissa do Baja life really well, even when compared to the others we met as part of the unofficial caravan posse in San Juanico. Even far from Portland, they live intentionally, thoughtfully and their abode is damn cozy. We thoroughly enjoyed the comforts and came away reevaluating how to sort through some of our daily challenges. Plus the surf was good.
We parted ways with a mere 2.5 days worth of riding until La Paz where we would take another break, and a ferry ride to the Mainland. Within a matter of hours back on the bikes, Scorpion Bay, surf and campchairs became such distance past they hardly seemed possible. And then, after two challenging days slogging through the last of Baja we completely switched gears again, staying with an incredible woman, Tuly, who has hosted dozens of cyclists as they finish Baja and wait for the ferry. It just so happened that friends of Tuly's through another traveling connection, Jojo and Nonchan, were crashing in their van out in front of her house. Just back from Japan, they were organizing before heading North to the States. We shared two evenings of poorly translated conversation, volleying between Nonchan, who speaks Japanese and a bit of English, Jojo, who speaks Italian, Spanish, a fair bit of English and nearly no Japanese (as a couple they share only English, and have for the past 3 years of being together) and Tuly and her husband, who speak solely Spanish and basically as much English as we speak Spanish. Getting a complete thought across the dinner table felt like a logic problem where there's a sheep, a wolf, a bag of grain and river to cross. It was surprisingly international two days of errands, ice cream and pseudo rest days, and a complete removal from riding bikes.
Baja as a segment and a state, ended almost exactly as it began. A line to the ferry (no turnstile this time) and a bag inspection that we passed through with the same beautiful there-is-no-rule-for-that-two-wheeled-thing-therefore-there-is-no-rule logic as the Tijuana border. Ushered to the front of the line we pushed the randomized traffic signal button which triggered either a red or green light. We pushed green and rolled right past security, waved on through. These aren't bags, just bikes. Once aboard, we staked out a sleeping zone in the common area and enjoyed some 5 hours of sleep paired with 13 hours of very interesting (though obligatory) conversation with those who shared the space. It was a blur, and a fitting bookend to Baja.
As we started in on Mainland Mexico, I was stuck reciting a co-opted Dorothy-ism, "We're not in Baja anymore". We left behind the stark landscape, the straight roads and the prickly roadside vegetation that had been a constant since leaving the states. This is a landscape I know and like. Hot, sure, but straightforward with hardships well-known. But it was a boat ride behind us now and it was clear we had traded desert for something totally new, the near jungle of Narayit...in rainy season.
The vastness and long sightlines of Baja were replaced by a thick, sticky mass of green. Every conceivable space in the forest containing another plant. The dense, sweet smell of fallen fermenting mangos only increased by the shaded tunnel of foliage that is the road struggling to keep its place. This is a battle the roads are definitely losing. The surrounding forest curling over at its edges. Occasionally, we see groups of men working only with machetes -- labor being cheaper than machine -- hacking at the roadside. Mostly, though, it seems maintaining the road's clear path is a task left to the edges of the largest vehicles hurtling past. In this case, the tour buses headed to Puerto Vallarta at some sixty miles an hour. Without so much as a honk, they pass in an explosive rush, sloshing back the greenery like a boatwake through a canal too narrow. There isn't a whole lot of room for a bike in this scenario and we are left to white knuckle it and wait for the green tunnel to settle back into form before returning to thwapping our way along the bushes on the righthand side of the road.
Being from Maine and Tara from Alaska, our inborn adaptations for enduring discomfort, proud of them as we may be, don't quite fit tropical. I've never sweat through clothing so completely. Though still yet unresolved, I keep asking Tara whether it's better to frantically swat mosquitos and decrease their overall population or sit meditatively still, get chomped and keep the core temp down. The humidity alone is enough to keep things perpetually damp. Rinsed, but not-quite-dried shorts get stuffed back in black panniers, which then cook all day in the sun, only to be opened later smelling very close to a forgotten tupperware's worth of steamed brussel sprouts. Things turn sour, our patience runs thin. We made the decision to swap one set of discomforts for another and rerouted some 7,000 challenging feet into the mountains of Jalisco in search of fewer vehicles and cooler nights. In staying true to a segmented selective memory, when the road from La Estancia to Mascota angled up to something close to a 15 percent grade a few days later, I was back to advocating for the mosquitos and the easy elevations of the coast.
From that first stint in the mountains we crossed into bustling Guadalajara and spent three nights completely removed from the rhythms of daily biking. So far removed, that in leaving we managed to dole out the worst punishment of poor road choice of the trip so far. Basically something close to hightailing down the BQE, with pasajeras (buses/ people carriers) weaving in and around us as they pick people up, wherever and whenever people happen to be present. Defeated after a pitiful 30 something miles, we opted for an $8 hotel room, spent the evening seriously reevaluating trip timelines for the first time since leaving, had coffee with the owner the following morning in her living room/ hotel dining room / ballroom(?), and resolved to stick to the smaller roads, which then, of course, lasted only through the morning before we found the toll highway again. Each moment a little ridiculous and plenty of them, piling on to make a stack of segmented experiences so thick it takes a quiet moment, some street tacos and the two of us to sort out what exactly has happened on any given day.
Away from the coast and essentially any other travelers at all, we've discovered the benefits of going straight to the center of small town action for evening's accommodations. It's a different kind of energy, after the physical push of making kilometers on the road, to turn on the people charm and strike up some of our most hilariously awkward conversations to find our way into sleeping in a comfortable spot. So much can be said of the generosity and kindness of the people of Mexico. Essentially, the only resistance we've felt is in asking those in lesser positions of authority first, a resistance which is then completely unraveled when the Policia commandante is clearing the way toward 24 hours use of their bathroom and a gated camp spot/ lax holding cell.
We did take a bus. It was glorious. After climbing to Patzcuaro, an old colonial town that was built up to be the Spanish capital of Michoacan and still very much looks the part, we made the jump to skip through Mexico City and a whole swath of people, traffic and roads. Also, on account of our hotel-evening-timetabling, we realized we would need to speed up to make the time for the places in Southern Mexico we'd heard so much about and still have time to make our date with a Guatemalan language school Nov 7.
The bus was an enclosed double decker, we rode up top to maximize views and nausea. Both thoroughly achieved. Especially since I spent the better part of the winding road section trying to play Rapidos y Furiosos 7 on the seat-back screen.
(For those keeping score, we were again waved past the metal detectors and bag x-ray entirely. With fully loaded bicycles. Not a bag, no worries.)
Finally, our last stretch to Oaxaca, a glowing goal on the trip itinerary, was beautiful and challenging. I'm guilty of racing toward these trip landmarks and getting irrationally excited for our arrival, only to be left feeling a little deflated once it's apparent things will be basically the same as they were before -- more biking and wondering where we'll sleep. That said, even the ride to Oaxaca delivered on expectations. The small towns en route from Puebla, off-shoots of the generously shouldered autopista, are like so many country towns left behind by major throughways. Most traffic passes them by, making the sweaty gringo tour through town all the more unusual. Our Spanish is improving slowly and the results of even our broken conversations are rewarding. Each town is filled with interesting people and the delicious food we've been unabashedly scarfing. Well worth the slow down stopover for a snack, second breakfast, or a night's stay.
Oaxaca City is a real life bustling city. It's also a serious tourist haven and we spent time enjoying the benefits of both. As a city, it has the feel of a University town, paired with the charm of a strict building adherence to the colonial architecture that defines the old section of the city. I had read Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal earlier in the trip and had an intinerary that was way, way too long for our stay. Another visit is due, for sure, (as is a more complete post about the city in general) but in splitting time between our hotel and staying with our gracious Warm Showers host, Alex, we got a healthy dose of what the city has to offer in our short 3 days. We benefitted greatly from it still being off-season and skipped out on crowds and prices, getting the Zapoteca ruins on Monte Alban nearly entirely to ourselves on our afternoon visit. We also managed to pack in an anniversary date night at an amazing friend-recommended restaurant, which bested the pb and tortillas I had planned and gave us an excuse to taste some of the culinary finery for which the the city is known.
The last notable trip segment that starts, stops and restarts is the divide of country greetings and life in the city. I wouldn't describe myself as outwardly warm but it's been an active effort while riding to greet all those willing to return a wave or a Buenos/as Dias/ Tardes. As a result, I am an arm waving gringo ambassador of greetings and goodwill, often at the expense of the wobble of my bike. Everyone gets a wave. I've spent considerable time while riding trying to learn to smile on demand. Like, while riding, peeling my lip back and exposing teeth. A skill I've apparently never mastered -- substituted instead for the trusty chin nod, sup. The response is impressive. And, certainly in the small towns, you fall right in line with everyone else. We're a whole gang of greeters and well wishers. My maniacal waving and smiling returned warmly by all. It's only when we ride back into the city where people are busy in city life -- Oaxaca being a prime example -- that I look like a schizophrenic bobblehead doll, smiling and buenos diasing to a whole sidewalk's worth of indifferent pedestrians. The adjustment only takes a second but it's just a reminder that we're not way out in the country anymore. And, of course when we roll back out of town, where we're now headed, we dial it right back up.