Mexico


goat and the Chupacabra are on a new, slightly shorter, fat-tired bike adventure. Riding the coast of Baja California (avoiding roads of course) carrying an inflatable surf mat, a surf board, and a lot of drinking water.

In company of Mat Whitehead — Australian born inveterate traveler, surfer, bike enthusiast, and former fat-long-tail bike tourist (the only other one l know of). When we met (other than on the internet) in santa cruz last year we dreamed of joining forces – he and his friend were on an extended surf/bike tour (sandystretch.com)– 3 fattire longtails together would have been something to behold…. Alas it wasn’t ment to be, but our paths crossed again in Canada a year or so later, and we decided the time had come. His bike, Hillbilly, was in Australia and he wanted to try a lighter sportier ride so he downsized to a Surly Pugsly.
We crossed the border into Tijuana today, with lots of detours wrong turns and general strangeness. Hoping to get some waves tomorrow and out into the great unknown (and off the paved track) ASAP. You can follow our adventures in the sand and sea (as goat learns to surf) on bicyclerust.com and afewsketchymoments.tumblr.com.

Rain welcomed our arrival into Chiapas. Mountainsides became waterfalls, every other kilometer we crossed a raging river, and the percipitation was so heavy we had to blow air forcibly from our nostrils to avoid drowning.

It did not deter drivers that the highway lay under a few inches of water, they exercized little extra caution. Struggling to maintain that thin line alloted as a shoulder, I waited for the inevitable hydroplaning auto to swerve, collide, and repeatedly roll over my bike and body as it made its way to the bottom of a ditch. It felt at times that we were no longer biking, but tunneling through a wall which resisted with indefatigable force.

Nobody could really see what was in front of them, not me with my fogged glasses, nor the drivers with their wiperless windshields. When we felt like we had tested our luck long enough, we searched for shelter to wait out the torrential downpour. One day I pulled over to a small grocers stand. It had a tin awning providing shelter for the customers who stood outside and conducted business through a barred window. I was thrilled to escape the monsoon until I realized that the roof was full of holes. A stream of water ran down my neck as I asked for some fresh rolls. An old woman slouched against the ordering counter next to me and smiled; not a drop of water had touched her. Her hair even had that frizzy texture reminiscent of a sun baked desert.

“When do you think the rain will stop?� I asked my fellow stranded companion.
“It´s been like this for three days now, and I don´t think it will let up soon�. She replied, continuing to smile.

Had she been leaning up against the same tienda for the past three days? Was that her secret?
“Well, I´m going to be in Guatemala in a day…â€�
“Ah�. She gasped, “There´s much more water there than here.� She sounded a bit concerned for my wellbeing.

At this point the grocer lady intervened; “Joven (young one) what are you doing riding on this road? You know we have many pretty girls here.¨

The rain seemed to be hiding them; perhaps there were classier tiendas with less leaky awnings upon which they leaned and displayed their voluptuous bodies. Yet now the grocer lady was pointing to a television screen perched on top of her refrigerator, that between intervals of static related a Pan-Latin American dating show.

“Just like them…â€� she wagged her finger at a Honduras girl, thin as a stick and hair dyed guerro style, her potential male suitor was informing her that she just didn´t have the goods. Her heart exploded into flames that ravaged her amber face. “We have girls like them here! And they aren´t in schoolâ€�.

She explained something about the school teacher having fled on an unannounced leave of absence.

At that moment Goat rode by. He was clothed only in board shorts. The rain pounded at him like a sledge hammer. I yelled, but he twisted his head wildly in numerous directions, unable to locate the source of the voice. I was close enough to hit him in the head with my stale pan dulce (sweet bread). Being momentarily removed the process of blind highway cycling allowed me the meditation time to observe just how insanely perverse this whole operation was becoming. What the hell was I doing pedaling down this crazy flooded highway anyway?

A feeling of profundity overwhelmed my soul; I was about to make a life-altering decision here and now. Turning to the match-maker grocer I nodded and murmered, “O.K.� What I meant to say was, “You´ve convinced me lady, lead the way to these idle beauties.� Of course at that essential moment my Spanish failed me. The two old match makers laughed and laughed. It must have been etched into the lines of my face that I was already married, that my heart and soul were invested into a piece of cold steel. After finishing off the grocers basket of stale pan dulce I returned to the slow process of drilling through that impenetrable wall.

In Chiapas, towns, farms, and houses were in close proximity to one another. Unused or unsupervised land was hard to find, hence It was becoming difficult to locate campsites that offered suitable trees to string hammocks from. One night as darkness closed in we decided to hang our hammocks from the beams of a high tension tower, not realizing that we were a few feet from a honey bee farm. When the family of bee keepers noticed our presence they engaged us heatedly, asserting the land underneath the tower was not their own, and that we should not camp there. Goat managed to pacify their concerns with some patient dialogue, and later that night the family presented each of us with a bottle of delicious honey.

The following evening we were again in a fix for a discrete location to camp. Much of the late afternoon had been spent navigating Tapachula, a large sprawling urban disaster with labyrinths of congested one-way streets. Luckily we found a beautiful grove of cocoa trees right outside the city limits, just as night approached. Surprisingly no fence obstructed our entrance into the field. Emboldened by the sight a clear sky, the first in nearly a week, I cycled back to town to pick up some beers. Being only ten kilometers from the Guatemalan border I felt that we had reason to celebrate.

A little after dawn we were awakened by heated shouts. Clumsily I twisted my body around in my wobbling hammock to see the source of commotion; a gang of farmers, armed with machetes had surrounded Goat´s hammock. The oldest among the gang talked in rapid fire bursts but it was clear that he wanted us all out of our cacoons and ready to explain our presence. Some small kid felt that Goat wasn´t acting with enough urgency, and proded at his hammock with a sharpened stick, as if tormenting an animal in a cage.

By the time each of us had dressed and emerged into the chaos, two other men had arrived on the scene. Each was barefoot, clad only in boxer shorts. Wedged as they were in a crowd of dark skinned indeginous farmers their paisty complexions screamed of disparity. Their sweaty brows and paranoid expressions revealed that someone had abruptly woken them with severe news; it wasn´t the threat of mere bandits or robbers, but some kind of godless creatures incubating in hovering green cacoons preparing to overtake the property. When the younger of the two -a thin balding man adorned in boxer shorts decorated by Simpsons characters- saw that we were just weird gringos he embarked on a lengthy tirade. The phrase, “puta madreâ€� was applied in many new fascinating ways. When he attempted to reprimand us, the nasal tone of his voice revealed a kind of childish disappointment, like we had just played with his toy train without permission, and belligerently smashed all model freight cars to pieces. “Next time ask, just ask!â€� he whined. Eventually he pulled his foreman aside and imparted some wisdom, “Next time just ask what they´re doing…â€� -volley of expletives- “before you get me out of bedâ€�.

There had been an older bigger fellow with a stout white mustache and protruding naked belly, but he was already gone. Early on in the reactionary tantrum, he had been silently dwelling in resentment at the unamusing prank of his early morning rousing. He shook his head, like the gringos were just a weird dream to be cast out the ears, and trotted back to his bed.

Among the faces of the armed gang, expressions betrayed disappointment that a lynching would not be taking place. The boss man told them to disperse, but he and his foreman stayed awhile to chat and diffuse the tense situation, and eventually let us be.

We set about cooking up our breakfast, casually eating, resting and digesting. Then suddenly the boss man was back, still clad only his Simpson boxer shorts, accompanied by his machete wielding foreman. Their reappearance put us back on guard. They asked the same exact questions they had asked the first time, mainly who we were, what we were doing. We were a bit worried that we were dealing with an amnesiac man of volatile temperment who may very well allow his armed farmers to hack us to bits. But then he asked us if we wanted to have coffee, maybe something for breakfast. He was vague. He asked his foreman what he could offer us, and before a response was offered he just took off. I could only fathom that his sporadic departures were due to the high volume of vicious mosquitos buzzing about. The near nude boss man must have been accumulating a devastating amount of bites. The quesiton remains; why, if he was going to reconfront us, wouldn´t he at least put on some shoes? As he parted from our company the second time, I feared his absence would be but an ephemeral gesture, that perhaps he was really lurking behind a tree waiting for us to plunder his cocoa fruit and thus have a pretense to nail us. Hastily we removed our hammocks and packed up our things. Leaving our cocoa tree refuge, we encountered a sign designating the place as Finca de la Paz, (Peaceful Plantation).

One day, while having a lunch of cheese, crackers and hot sauce on the side of a small rural road, Jacob made the observation that our tourist visas were near their expiration date. We were about midway through Guerrero at that time, and looking forward to all the dirt roads our map showed, winding through the massive state of Oaxaca. Our discussion that day, as always, was rather brief. We came to the conclusion that we would get on a toll road and blast through the next fifteen hundred kilometres or so of Mexico like lightening. Maybe it was time for a change of pace; we had long since become intimately acquainted with the country. To the point of recognizing all the popular songs, knowing the names of our favourite regional cheeses, and even being able to predict when to hold our breath to avoid the overpoweringly putrescent stench of rotten animal carcass. It is perhaps, best not to get too attached to things held familiar. A nomad has to know when to move on.

So we blasted through the coastlines of Guerrero and Oaxaca, occasionally finding paradise beaches with only a handful of kids from sleepy fishing villages playing in the waves. In Puerto Escondido we were offered beds at a fire station. The firemen treated us to a meal of Armadillo meat and related stories of the supernatural from Oaxacan folklore.

But mainly we just pedalled our bikes. Grinding out the hours on the straight and flat, there was an overabundance of time to think; time to reminisce on fond memories, or hit the repeat button on your mental music collection. I started to feel like a prisoner of my mind. I wished that something would liberate me from the monotony of the Carretera (high way), but all I could do was sprint at the top pace allowed by the knobby treads of mountain bike tires.

Then one day we rolled into a small town all mad with thirst and completely out of water. Lately we had been filling our dromedary bags from twenty-litre jugs of purified water that we would buy from small grocery stores. It was cheaper to buy purified water than to pump it ourselves ‘factoring in the cost of replacement filters’ and it was tastier to drink water untainted by our iodine purifying solution. For some reason, finding water in this town proved to be a bit of a hassle. One market would send us on to the next; merchants would assure us that what we desired did in fact exist, if not at the next door down then certainly at the gas station. Eventually we came to the gas station they too would not sell us water. I decided to fill my Dromedary bag from the restroom tap, but a heavy set man beat me to the entrance and proceeded to take control of the sink. Hanging from one of his hands was a large bucket containing razors, a bar of soap caked in hair and grit, and cigarette butts. As he positioned himself in front of the mirror, I found myself impolitely staring; was he really going to chain smoke during his shave?

Suddenly overcome with nausea I turned my head and went in search of alternative water sources, but none were to be found. An attendant informed me about the existence of a garden hose that was conveniently located at the feet of the man with the bucket full of shaving equipment. I walked back to the restroom trying to gather the courage to ask the man to step aside for a moment. But when I got there, I found the man with his shirt removed and his protruding belly resting upon the edge of the sink I felt an instant drain of will power. We waited nearly half an hour in a thin strip of shade outside the restroom for the man to finish up with the meticulous care of his face.

We fuelled by the budding excitement of entering a new country and starting a new leg of the journey, we couldn’t adhere to our usual tendency of chilling out — it was hot and our adrenaline was high. We would make it to Chiapas by tomorrow morning, possibly this very night, and then Guatemala was only a few more days away. Driven, unconsciously, to preserve the efficiency of our pace, the shaving man incident seemed interminable. I looked up as the man finally took his leave of the mirror. Whatever he had done to clean up the lower part of his face was eclipsed by a thick drooping moustache.

Fully loaded with water, we once again took to the highway. Spinning over flat plains, we could see the road for miles ahead, every foot covered by traffic backed up by a rickety steam-roller. As we weaved our way through the line of stranded cars, we often had to barge into the narrow space between bumpers when an oversized bus or truck made it impossible to pass on the right side. Drivers glared at us as we executed our impertinent manoeuvre; each awaiting their turn to make the dangerous pass into oncoming traffic. When we finally reached the steam-roller, I was shocked to see the “shaving man� unconcernedly piloting the shuddering beast. With the same drooping moustache, his shirt rolled up over his rounded belly, and a cigarette hanging lazily from his lips. Then, as Goat and I sped past, suddenly the machinery made a bold leap forward, accelerating into chase mode. It felt like a cartoon sequence from the Road Runner Show, where the conniving Willie Coyote operates a contraption on the verge of malfunction to catch a bird madly spinning its legs. Had the presence of oddball gringos disturbed the serene atmosphere of ´Tranquillo´s afternoon shave? Would he catch up and pulverize our bike frames and bones into fine dust? Picturing the Roadrunner’s whirling legs which left in their wake a trail of flames I tried to match his intensity with my pedalling. Eventually, having put enough distance between my rear end, and that noisy wheel of immense crushing force, I could relax a bit.

Up ahead I could see a tow truck crew attaching hefty chains to the burned out shell of an exploded tanker truck. The charred remains were upside down in the drainage alongside the road; it appeared unlikely that the tow truck alone would be able to drag the long crumbling skeleton out of its pit. I wanted to hang around to witness the Herculean feat, yet moments after stopping; I could already hear the roar of the mechanical beast catching up from behind. It was time to move!

Due to our fast pace we had endured the record stretch of nearly two weeks without internet connection. So later that day we, when found a Cybercafé in a small town near the Chiapan border our eyes virtually melted into the warm glow of computer monitors. Before any of us could muster the willpower to rally an exit from cyberspace, the real world had become dark.

Toll roads are much too dangerous to ride on at night, even for short amounts of time, so we asked the locals where the best place in town would be to set up our hammocks. One man encouraged us to go to the central park. Another told us we could camp in trees behind a gas station — there we found a guard with a machine gun who forbade us from venturing anywhere near the gas tanks. Finally, we asked the police, and they motioned for us to set up our hammocks from the pillars in front their office right in the centre of downtown. Throughout the night, young people with expensive sound systems drove by our camp blasting their favourite party music. Sometime near the break of dawn the night-shift-police washed their cars and performed random engine maintenance about three feet away from my head. At seven o’clock sharp the megaphone system of a roving street hawker clicked on. We could count on the merchant listing off his whole inventory of goods for the next few hours.

We were well acquainted with these persistent amplified voices — they rarely took breaks for breath, nor altered their script. Every member of town no doubt knew the inventory by heart. After nearly half an hour of trying to ignore this auditory abuse I heard Jacob mumble: “This would be the absolute worst place in the world to nurse a hang-overâ€�.

Later on that morning we crossed into Chiapas, and the terrain transformed from the marsh wetlands of lower Oaxaca to dense tropical foliage of the Sierra foothills. Studying our road map, we gauged the distance we had covered in the past ten days to be roughly eight hundred kilometres. In that time we crossed a land that daily underwent drastic transformation, passing through towns and villages of diverse cultures and history. It all went by like a blur, my mind focusing on instead the random eccentric encounters, and of course that carrot at the end of a stick; Guatemala. We were just three hundred kilometres of toll road away.

            A substantial roundabout between the states of Michoacan and Guerrero wheels the traffic around like a spinning game of fate.   Roads spoke off to all parts of the country, including Acapulco and Mexico City, but without the benefit of any signs, your path can veer off into uncertainty.  We paused to review our map before entering the endless deluge of cars rushing to their future.  Like a steel bearing dropped into a roulette wheel, we spun madly to circle the roundabout with the flow of traffic.                         

            We were flushed out on a road heading towards Mexico City.  The sky was draped over with a hazy layer of clouds delivering a steady drizzle.  We shared the road with both the speeding vehicles and the ever encroaching jungle that formed an impenetrable six foot wall of barbed plants reaching out to snag us.   No…these conditions were not suitable to our desired mode of travel, but we could find no other options and only could hope that the cars on the road could see us through their rain splattered windshields.

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            As the rain picked up, I wiped off my sunglasses and saw Sean talking to some locals resting from the laborious task of clearing a patch of roadside vegetation.  The smell of liquor greeted me as I stopped to chat.  A happy go lucky fella´ with a big machete and even bigger drunken smile made some incomprehensible noises while flailing his arms about in what appeared to be an attempt to communicate.

            “Amigos,� I was able to translate.

            We have had much experience with this apparently universal language of the village borrachos.  They don’t know any English, they’re too drunk to play a proper game of charades or even articulate decipherable Spanish words, and they can’t fathom the gringo speaks Spanish anyways.  This, however, does little to stop them from inventing their own language, which, as far as I can tell only really has one word in it´s vocabulary.  

            “AMIGOS.� 

             “Si, Buenas tardes AMIGO.  ¿Como esta usted?� I said, instantly regretting further engagement in the conversation.

            Again, a wild gesticulation of body movements and boisterous speech was unleashed; this time, he almost lost his balance, nearly floundering into a pile of debris.  But he steadied himself and grinned at his triumph over gravity while his eyes settled in a satisfied, but crooked, uncertain gaze. 

            “Amigos,� We established again.  

            The other guy, 53 years old, had divorced his wife and estranged his family in the United States, to live in Mexico.  He gave no indication that he missed them very much, and seemed quite content with his 16 year old girlfriend.

            “She’s one of about 6 in this village,� he proudly proclaimed in English while the young girl lovingly wrapped her arms around him, attempting to woo him into telling her what he just said.

            “That’s her uncle.� He motioned to the drunk, who was still amusingly staring off into space.  “I just buy this land.� He looked over the lot, nodding his head with satisfaction.  “I bring back a Jeep Grand Cherokee and pay a coyote to smuggle girl into the US and they give me this land.�

            “¿You want to come to my house? Eat authentic Mexican food.  You can stay at my house.” He offered, carefull searching his English Words.

            Helpless to resist the magic phrase, “Free Food,� particularly when accompanied by an invitation to sleep under a roof during a rainstorm, we followed him home.

            Fate works like this in our world.  If we lingered a few minutes longer at that roundabout, we would have spent the night with a tarp as our shelter and the same old meal of rice and beans.  Instead, we feasted on tacos in town and slept inside, only to be awoken by the smell of hot coffee and a traditional Mexican breakfast.   We departed with full bellies and the satisfaction of a good night’s rest.

            Under a sky opened up by the blazing sun, we took to the road through an area called “Tierra Caliente�.  A description for which we could readily vouch as our shirts quickly became saturated with sweat and our gringo skin “tostada�.  Feeling somewhat prematurely exhausted, we set up camp in avocado orchard well before dark.  As we lounged in the shade, we couldn’t help but wonder if something more than the sun was responsible for draining our energy.    

             Our curiosity was soon abated by a collective need to empty our bowels in the middle of the night.  Goat succumbed to a raging fever and passed out en route to the bathroom.  We started the night with a full roll of toilet paper and by the time the sun rose, we were running low.

            The next morning we began eating Imodium AD like candy, to no avail and were forced to camp for two more nights while Goat’s fever broke.  It became apparent that after living on the road with two of your friends for over a year, you run out of things to talk about.

            In an effort seek camaraderie, conversations about bowel movements can become an important bonding experience.  For the next week, discussions about our “stool�  became commonplace and terms like “soft serve� and “explosive� took on whole new meanings.  I wouldn’t let a day go by without knowing the intimate details about their digestive waste.

            Unfortunately, the few days of rest in the avocado orchard did not bring us back to good health; but we had to keep moving.  We each stocked up on toilet paper to keep “at the ready” in our handlebar bags, and continued across the “tierra caliente”. 

            Chronic dehydration plagued my ability to ride, and I sought electrolytes and cold beverages at every possible stop.  But to put it gently, everything just went right through me.  

             In spite of our health, we slowly and not so surely made our way over a sizeable mountain range before dropping into the town of Iguala.  While squatting on top of the pass looking out over the valley, I couldn’t help but think back to that roundabout and wonder, “What if I had left that intersection just ten minutes later?�   

             Prologue: There was pain and anguish in the time of cholera.  It was not until a heavy course of antibiotics were we able to produce anything but “soft serve�.                                                                      

Upon realizing that my tourist visa does not last a lifetime, I checked my visa to discover that its life expires before the end of the month. 

Instead of our most anticipated bike explorations through the regions of Oaxaca and Chiapas, we struggled over the Sierra Madres on a paved road to the much quicker Coastal Route. 

Our life is palm trees, mosquitos, sunshine and terrifying roads with overgrown spikey foliage where the bike lane would be where it to exist (which it doesn´t).  We are looking forward to getting on the unkown dirt roads of Guatemala.

A river crossing.

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An alacran in my bike shorts trying to hitch a ride.

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We´re back on our bikes and headed to the state of Oaxaca after a brief hiatus. Check out the photos from our recent travels and check back soon for updates on this next section.

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A reminder to check out Riding the Spine in WEND Magazine.

We are not a decisive team and often settle into hopeless puddle of apathy until the levee is broken by a serious game of “ro-sham-bo”. “Live and die by the ´sham´” has become a necessary mantra for our lives. Though, (truth be told), it operates more as an oracle than absolute truth. Despite the prophetic implications of the game, we still approach the event with a practiced level of skill and concentration. The “sham”, at times, becomes more important than what we are shamming for.

And so, it was on a bright and sunny day we encountered a fork in the road. To the left, a guaranteed passage across the mountains to Autla and the main freeway. To the right, Tacotan, via “brechitas”(little roads for burros and 4-wheel drive vehicles) promising better riding, but plagued with uncertainty. It was doubly possible that either we would miss the turnoff for a trail to cross the mountain range, or that it did not even exist. Leaving us with a choice of either backtracking or continuing down to the humid coast where relief from tropical sea’level temperatures would be another 5,000-foot climb back into the mountains.

Ro-Sham-Bo… “Damn,” I cursed.

Ro-Sham-Bo… “Shit,” I cursed again.

“I always lose, and you always go for rock… every single time…without fail.. and I still can´t resist.”

“So who was shamming for what?”

“Ehh.. We didn´t say.”

“Head to Tacotan?”

“Sure.”

We had spent a couple days struggling to get back onto the “Spine,” enjoying each laborious pedal stroke knowing we were that much closer to an environment more suitable to mountain-bike touring.

The coast had taken its toll on our morale and motivation. Cars buzzed by us at alarming velocities, on roads that proved aggressively unaccommodating for bicycles. The sweltering heat forced us to wake up early and grumpy, to ride before the temperature consumed us and subjected us to an obligatory siesta. Every abarrotes en route was a veritable oasis, offering the only thing that mattered in my life, a cold drink. Even the shadows of the night failed to bring relief from the heat as we were subjected to the onslaught of biting insects that thrived so well in the humid climate.

And such easy prey we were without proper bug netting for our tent. With chemosensors attuned to carbon dioxide, warmth, lactic acid, and other bodily emanations (last shower, ehh..10 days), insects effortlessly honed in on any exposed morsel of skin. Our flesh would then be penetrated with needles and scalpels, as they employed siphons, and a large stock of pharmaceuticals, including: anaesthetics and anticoagulants, to get at our blood. We were forced to sweat through the nights under our sleeping bags to escape the torment, wishing we were back in the Sierra Madres.

Life in the mountains hit us abruptly. It started with a visible bolt of light, followed exactly 7 seconds later by a crack of thunder. Then 6.

“Uhh. Maybe we should set up camp?”

Then 5. But it was too late. Signalled by another crash of thunder, the rain poured down. We veered onto a small trail leading to a discreet roadside shrine where we camped. Tropical vines stretched to the high branches of the trees, trying desperately to pull them down. Leaves the size of my upper torso deflected the raindrops, and created an audible sound, much like that of a drum. And the water flowed freely, chaotically across the muddy surfaces.

And seeped through my shelter as the thunder tailed the flash of light be a mere 2 seconds. My sheetbag was soggy and I was for the first time in months, cold. My weary eyes pained for rest, my body, yearned for relaxation; but each bolt of lightning flashed through my eyelids and each crash of thunder changed the pattern of my heartbeat.

Then somebody appeared outside my tent. Apparently, there was a group of about 8 other bicycle tourists camped nearby and partying on occasion of the incredible storm. They summoned me to join them for some drinks. I was so excited that I didn’t even bother putting on my sandals and walked through mud, feeling it squish through my toes at each step.

Girls wearing cowboy hats and metallic clothing, danced around in the creek. Guys in fancy suits played hand drums, oblivious to the water cascading over their concentrated faces. They were such a lively and eccentric group that it did not even occur to me what a remarkably serendipitous event this was.

Or a pleasant dream. I woke up, sad that it was only a dream, happy that I had managed to sleep, and sick to my stomach from something I must have eaten. Instead of the party with a community of cyclists, I got to squat out in the rain. Fortunately, or unfortunately; I wasn´t alone, and could see Goat in the same predicament further up the road.

“Nice night, eh?” He said sarcastically.

“I just had the strangest dream,” I replied.

“At least you slept.”

After I had become thoroughly drenched and done my best to rid myself of whatever “animals” had attacked my intestines; I reached for a large lush leaf. The instant I grabbed a hold, it felt as if it were made of fire; my fingertips throbbed with pain from the poisonous spines.

The affliction followed me back to my sleeping pad, where I laid down in my own muddy rainforest hell to wait for the sun to rise, and hope for sleep while the thunder crashed. 6 seconds. At last, the rain eased from a torrential downpour. 7 seconds. 8. 9. Eventually, I found some warmth and rest in my soggy sleeping bag and dreamed of secret mountain brechitas.

            Guided by an unreliable map we pretend to use and the destiny of the “sham”,  we encountered a sign about 7 miles after the pavement ended, with the enigmatic words “Bosque Maples, Ruta Turisticas”.  And behind it was a road that wound straight towards the clouds.

“The `sham´ is infallible,” I boldly thought.

The rest of the day was defined by a grueling regimen of steep uphill riding. Due to the uncertain availability of water and supplies, we were carrying about 5 days worth of food and a full 13 liters of water, which made its presence known with every pedal stroke. My bike computer wouldn’t even acknowledge my painful efforts with a readout. 0.0 Km/H it would chuckle. Then jump to 3.3 and back down to ZERO.

A couple hours later, we had reached the clouds, and entered a misty elfin forest. Visibility was often slim, and ever shifting, morphing with the contours of the mountains. At times our narrow path would cut through a ridgeline, dropping abruptly on both sides, into an abyss of haze. Sharp turns were blinded by the murky air and shrouded the landscape with mystery.

Red mushrooms decorated with white spots, sprouted from the pine needles, and from the mossy roadside surfaces, large brown mushrooms materialized, some reaching 18¨in diameter. A few succulents lived incongruously in this wet forest, where tropical vines and blackberry patches intermingled in the maze of fauna, below the pine and oak trees.

Through the dark and foggy forest a resonating bass sound travelled languorously from above.

“Couldn´t be a puebla on such a steep grade.” I thought.

The rhythms intensified, reassuring me that it was not merely an auditory hallucination. Around a bend there were a few cars and a canopy set up, while a large family sat around laughing and cooking.

“You want a beer? Something to eat?” A man later introduced as Pedro asked. He was wearing a hat with American and Mexican flags intertwined. Within minutes, we had a bowl full of a carne asada, salsa Mexicana and freshly fried fish, recently caught in nets from a nearby lake. The pain of a fishbone lodged in my gums assured me it was not a dream.

As promised by the good’-natured family, about 5 kilometers further up the brecha; the grade tapered off and wound like an undulating ribbon of mud through a few “ranchitas” with corn fields and forgotten plazas. Briefly, we’d fall from the clouds down a steep technical section of rocky muddy trail, and then swiftly climb back up; a rhythm that continued until we passed San Miguel de la Sierra.

At the edge of the bumpy cobblestone “calle” through town, our trail widened into a smooth dirt road and steadily dropped until the impossible range of mountains opened up with a vista of an expansive valley. I was sure I could see Tacotan and it’s nearby lake. The only thing separating us was an hours worth of smooth downhill riding.

Therefore, it came as a surprise when we sped into the town of….

“Autla!” I said with dismay.

“Nahh.. Couldn’t be.” Goat replied after looking at the map.

“Live and die by the sham,” I said sardonically.

We shrugged our shoulders and pedaled on.

“Autla,” I thought to myself, “The ´sham’ works in mysterious ways.”

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UPDATE: WE GOT LOST. WE TOOK A WRONG TURN.

It worked out, just got back onto pavement sooner than we anticipated. These maps are kind of a joke. The concept of a sign in these areas is you finding a person to ask for directions. Which would be one thing if the map gave us the actual names of the ranchitas or towns, but they don´t and when they do, it´s spelled incorrectly and unrecognizable after filtered through by our gringo accents. It was an amazingly beautiful stretch of trails, though, and I will soon update the interactive map with a detailed photographic tour of the section.

Thanks for your support and encouragement.

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That is our planned route (which is NOT recommended by the locals). From Tacambaro de Codallos to Los Currindales and then Montecillo at the bottom right corner of the map. We were hoping for a more “substantial” “brecha(backroad)” to navigate, but just might be lucky enought to get lost on some singletrack.

We are bringing extra food. Wish us luck.

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A brief update on an odd series of events while staying at an English Scool in Uruapan.

 

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Goat viciously attacked by a dog in the night. Gnarly puncture wound that continued to bleed for about 18 hours.

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At a “rave,� I was almost jumped by a gang of 8 teengers claiming to be from the “South Side� of Long Beach.

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We received a test model of the Surly Big Dummy, and while building it up; Sean placed his expensive Fox Vanilla fork in an empty box that was put on the street for garbage pickup. He eventually found his fork at the landfill and had to buy it from a professional dump(ster) diver.

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Back to the Surly Big Dummy. A beautiful machine. Hard to believe it is real and I can touch it. I have a hard time taking my eyes off of the bike, and I think mine is feeling little jealous.

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One of the most exciting and adventurous sections we have encountered yet was crossing the Barrancas del Cobre, in Chihuaha, Mexico. Beginning with very real warnings of bandits and kidnappings, filled with epic mountain biking, and concluding with the military holding us at gunpoint while drug smugglers lurked in the darkness.

The story was not put on our blog, but is being published in the next issue of WEND Magazine. A quarterly publication born from a love of climbing, surfing, cycling and kayaking, Wend is filled with sport, style, creativity and inspiration to fuel your passion for adventure.

Look for it on the shelves the 21st of this month. Until then, check out their website and the opening spread to the article.

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Leaving Zapotiltic later today. We got held up by unexpected circumstances.

I had just told my new friend Juan about how every night in Aticama I would have to kill a couple of scorpions that had set up under my matress. They were everywhere I told him.

Then we went out to check out the horse in the backyard. It was dark. I put my hand on a post, and got stung by something. When the poison traveled up my arm, I knew wasn´t just a bee.

The venom and pain coursed it´s way through my arm, ending at my shoulder. Within thirty minutes, my arm was both asleep and throbbing with pain.

Two days later, the pain is gone, and my arm is awake, but my middle finger is stubbornly numb.

Oddly enough, a day after I got stung; Goat managed to step on one and get his pinky stung. Fortunately, his reaction did not include numbness, just the exquisite pain.

Currently we´re heading to Uruapan and the beautiful surrounding national park. Through more extensive research on Google Earth/Maps and a greater ability to communiate with the locals; we have finally found the off-road routes we´ve been looking for. And continue to find ourselves blissfully lost on the mountain brechas, riding through misty mountain trails.

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The moment I saw the large trailer arrive with the colorful words, ¨Circo,¨ painted plainly on the side; I waited like an eager, impatient child for the amusement to unfold. I was enamored by the endless possibilities my imagination afforded, from acrobatic clowns juggling awkward objects on a highwire, to fire breathers and talking dogs. Only once in my life have I been to a circus and barely managed to catch the final act, crudely titled, ¨The Wolf People.¨

Two sullen individuals wearing black suits staggered into the ring, their steps short and slow as if their legs were shackled with chains. Once in the middle, they stood there small and motionless as the audience observed with an unfaltering gaze; ordained by the cost of admission. Much to my surprise, there was going to be no theatrical undertaking. The performance had already occurred, and the result was exhibited plaintively to the audience staring dumbly at the hair that covered the performer´s face and hands. Soon the bewildered silence of the anti-climactic episode was broken by the melodramatic voice of the announcer, who explained,

¨What you are witnessing is a rare genetic disease known as hypertrichosis, characterized as an excessive growth of hair. This condition is so rare that it affects only 1 out of 10 billion people.¨

His voice droned through the tent, ¨The very first wolf man was diagnosed in 1556 and since then there have only been 40 cases registered worldwide.¨

¨They view their condition as a gift and feel it is their duty to show the world, ¨and concluded the narrative with, “and if you give me 10 bucks, you can take a picture with them, so come on down.¨

Altough, I left without a picture, I did go off with an everlasting curiosity towards those nomadic productions, known enigmatically as a Circus.

As I pedaled past the construction of the colorful tent, a lone camel knelt in a patch of shade, chewing on pieces of grass. A dog barked ceaselessly at the unperturbed foreign creature. I tried to peek into the back of the trailer for hints of other acts, but glimpsed only a shadowy void.

The small seaside town of Aticama is not your typical Lonely Planet attraction, unless, true to its title, the guide sent you to places like this, where there are no tourists (or attractions). San Blas, however, just a centimeter north on the map, does etch a small nook in the archives of Mexico guidebooks, but mostly as an echo of the past. A fishing village with a prominent history, it was to become a tourist Mecca in the 1950´s, reaching the notoriety of cities like Acupulco. President Miguel Aleman of Mexico, arrived for the dedication as the picturesque sunset engorged the sky, much like the promotional pictures that spawned the idea for developing tourism. Something remained unseen in those images, however and began aggressively attacking the procession. ¨Jejenes¨, or ¨no’see’ums¨, a biting fly, as small as fleck of sand, thriving in a marshy habitat nearby ensured the failure of large scale tourism in San Blas. The President and his detail smacked at the invisible enemy, but quickly retreated and left before sun-up.

Once the principle port for Spanish trade and eastern Pacific naval command, boasting a population around 30,000, the town has since shrunk to about 8,000. Why the Spaniards didn´t choose the more protected bays and bug free areas of Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta remains a mystery. Perhaps, General Nuno de Guzman, who first noticed the area in 1530, had a secret obsession with surfing, and noticed at nearby Playa Las Islitas waves that would eventually capture a Guinness Book Record for being the longest in the world, at around 5,700 feet. Today, more courageous travelers equipped with DEET, surfboards, and an irrational love for the sport still visit the coastal region.

Unguided by Lonely Planet, we found ourselves just about the only gringos in the town of Aticama, and began to wish the planet wasn´t so lonely. We were experimenting with a worldwide organization known as WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) where you can get experience on chemical free farms in exchange for room and board. We found ourselves ¨farming¨ in a place dubbed Wally´s World, after the ExPat who who owned it. We learned how to move dirt and more importantly how to mix cement for a road to his property, where we replaced the local labor working at a rate of 8 dollars a day. On another occasion we hacked at some weeds on his coastal property so that the Ejido (community land ownership) doesn´t take it away. The Ejido system is supposed to help prevent people from merely buying the land as an investment and letting it sit there, unused. After a day of ¨fulfilling¨work, we decided to head up to another ExPats house, for the sunset and some drinks.

We were following directions that amounted to a sunburned arm pointing a finger in the direction of the casa. “It´s at the top of the hill, you can´t miss it,¨ Francisco promised candidly with a goofy smile, unmasked by a large mustache and greying beard.

After crossing through a cemetery and over a few barb wire fences, I began to have surge of confidence in my unfailing ability to do just that, miss it completely, (though, truly impossible in the tiny village). I paused a moment near a leafless tree that towered overhead, and indulged in melodramatic thoughts inspired by the hundreds of vultures that were swarming overhead. Slow steps took us up a steep trail which wound through knee high banana trees. Cresting the hill, we saw a car resting under a canopy, sporting a handwelded frame that made it look like a flying machine out of the movie, ¨Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.¨ “Only a gringo would drive something like that down here,¨ I thought and knew we found the right house.

Francisco welcomed us with a beer, while his three long haired children ran out to trap our attention with their quirky dance moves and bicycle stunts. We were quickly introduced to his wife, Wang, a strikingly beautiful Phillipina lady who looked more like his daughter than his legal partner. He later mentioned that he met his 19 year old mail order bride when he was 41.

“All my friends said it wouldn´t last more than 3 months, and it´s been 13 years. And it´s worked out really well.¨

Wang seconded, ¨Yeah, life has been good.¨

Francisco told us about their honeymoon, ¨She first flew into Portland, and since she had lived in a stick house in the humid Phillipines all her life, she wasn´t used to the cold northwest. So we bought a beat’up old Cadillac Limousine and drove down to Mexico. The damn thing broke down half a days drive into the country. The driveshaft was bent and needed to be replaced. So I hitchhiked with this great big long driveshaft.¨ He gestured as if he is holding the part to emphasize its size.

“I got to a mecanico, and showed them the part. They told me that would be impossible to replace. If it was a VW, maybe a different story. But they sent me around the corner, said there´s a gringo there who might be able to help. When I entered his garage, I saw an exquisite machine shop that could make just about anything. I asked him why he has so much equipment, and he said that he used to work for NASA. I showed him the driveshaft and asked if he can fix it.

´No problem,´ he said, ´follow me. We need to get some beer first.´

We came back with a about 18 beers, and I was thinking about my wife sitting in the heat by the side of the road, while I´m getting drunk in a mechanics shop.

He said, ´Okay, now you crack open your beer and drink.´

The man worked for NASA after all, and l couldn´t dispute the wisdom of any body recommending that I drink so I began,¨ he said as he shrugged his shoulders.

¨He set the drive shaft up on a huge lathe, while this Mexican guy slowly heated it with a torch, finally when the whole thing was glowing red, the NASA guy said,

´Okay, now pour your beer on it. Good. Now, pop open another one.´

So we continued this ritual until all 18 beers were consumed and my driveshaft was straight as an arrow. Got back to my wife beside the road and had the limousine running in 15 minutes.¨

During the lull in conversation, I took a moment to look out at the ocean. Their house was perched on top of a cliff so steep that you can look down at the waves crashing below in a small bay filled with history.

Francisco continued his narrative, ¨Yeah, this place used to be an old pirate lookout point. I read about it in some old journals. During the 16th / 17th century, while San Blas was a booming port, Spanish Merchant ships would drop off their goods and send it by caravan towards Mexico city on the Camino del Real, back behind those mountains, where bandits waited for them.” He paused a moment to point to an imaginary road along the mountains, as if he was singling out a tree in a forest miles away.

“And after the ships were reloaded with gold and cargo the pirates would sail from this bay and relieve the galleons of their treasures.¨ He added as we all looked out at the sun twisting into the ocean´s horizon, and began to feel the jejenes making their advance on our exposed skin.

I imagined the stereotypical swashbuckling one’ eyed pirates stationed up here on the lookout, sitting around a fire. Naturally, they were singing pirate songs, drinking, and smacking at the hordes of invisible biting flies. Francisco would make an excellent pirate, I decided.

Francisco´s 11 year old son broke the silence, “At school, there´s a rumor that in a cave not far from here an old priest discovered a treasure, but died trying to get it out. Now his ghost haunts the cave and kills anyone who enters.¨

Francisco lit some coconut skins on fire to ward away the bugs and said, ¨More recently they used this bay for serious drug shipments. And until about two years ago there was no phone service; even if somebody saw something suspicious there was no way to get the authorities here. Electricity came only about 8 years ago.” He paused in contemplation and concluded, “This town has changed a lot in the 20 years I´ve been here.¨

Aticama began with only one telephone and callers were told to call back in 30 minutes. Over a tremendously ¨loudspeaker,¨ calls would be announced to the entire town and the receiving party would go and wait for the call. The owner of the phone relished the opportunity to relay messages to individual parties via the entire town, for example, “Armando, will you please come home, you are breaking your mother´s heart.¨ She still makes announcements, but, because of poor sound quality and my beginning Spanish, they are largely incomprehensible, though, always loud.

There was much competition in Aticama for the precious airtime. The town resembled a jungle of noises, where each bird had to perfect it´s own distinct sound in order to be distinguished from the others. Every morning I awoke to the sound of the camarones guy hailing the freshest shrimp around. The water guy with a short musical chirp, the gas truck bellowed a semi-musical electronic noise. These were the regulars that informed the town every day that their services were still offered. Foreign sounds often entered the endless cacaphony as well, trucks armed with huge megaphones were selling shoes and clothes, others with furniture, and even cars bellowing advertisements, with one about “El Circo,¨ that caught my ear.

I actually enjoyed our time in Aticama, despite my reservations about the moral utility of replacing the local labor (how strange it must have seemed to the locals for us to volunteer to work for even less than 8 dollars a day). We stayed in a small self contained housing unit with a van that had retired from it´s extensive travels across the Americas. One could easily look past the negative aspects of the shower that would routinely electrocute me, scorpions that hid under the mats I slept on each night, or the itchy rash that would inevitably develop from the mangos (same family as poison oak). The plot of land was a veritable tropical paradise with hummingbirds, orchids, and tropical fruit all around, ready to eat. But life on the farm was slow, and failed to offer the excitement of bike touring.

There was a friendly pack of dogs on the property, including a small black mut with a lame rear leg and two huge floppy bat like ears, one of which could stand straight up. The poor hobbling dog had no chance with the elegant and dainty female dogs in heat, but couldn´t resist and pestered them until they eventually snapped back violently. The females had to be separated from all the males inside the beautiful three story house adorned with floral vines, and would peak over the patio to see their potential suitors below, howling songs to serenade them.

For a few days, we got to hang out with Brett and Sean who are driving their beat up sedan nicknamed, ¨Your Mom,¨to the tip of South America. Brett seems to have a way with words (he came up with the moniker, Wally´s World). I´ve heard from them a few times since, with updates like, ¨Sorry to tell you, but Your Mom broke down about 8 hours after we left and cost 850 pesos to fix.¨

A girl named Anna, had been holding down the fort before we arrived at Wally´s World. She was an attractive young college grad enjoying some quiet time on the farm. Until, I suppose, 6 guys arrived and left her with no castle to retreat to. Nevertheless, serenading her with our absence of musical talent would likely be mistaken for a circus sideshow and humiliating for all parties involved. She left rather hastily for Oxoaca. And shortly after, Nate flew back to California and Sean headed for Cabo San Lucas to visit his mom. And life on the farm slowed even more, which is probably why I was so excited about the circus coming to town.

As the sun was about to sizzle the sea, and the jejenes frenzied into formation, ready to take flight; I figured the circus should be in full swing. With a spirited smile I rode my bike to the makeshift venue, only to see the roustabouts no further along in construction than earlier in the day. In fact, they were disassembling the tent altogether.

¨Damnit,¨ I thought, ¨how did I miss it?¨

The camel stood there awkwardly with its spindly legs, bulbous back and clay contorted face, as if it were some sort of cruel punchline to a joke I didn´t understand.

A one camel circus. And I missed it.

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