Monday, May 18, 2009

Had Enough?

If you'd like to see more (better) photos, check out Anthony Musick's photo blog at:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fine, we didn't want to see your stupid ruins anyway! or I rode my bike all the way to Cancun and all I got was this lousy porcine influenza.

Do ever get the feeling that god is mad at you? Not vengeful, strike-you-down-where-you-stand pissed, but just a little upset? Maybe it was that empty bottle you left on the beach in a minute of lazyness and weakness. Maybe it was that time you took a couple bucks from your mom's purse without asking...whatever the cause, I haven't been able to shake this feeling that I'm paying for something, some minor karmatic infraction that has been hounding me for the past week.
The town of Campeche lies sleepy and stoic on the shores of the gulf of Mexico. So sleepy in fact that we were kind of creeped out by the place. Empty streets, closed businesses, an eerie quiet about the place, compunded by the fact that everyone we DID see was wearing a blue medical mask over their mouth and nose, giving the whole scene some strange, cinematic, post-apocaliptic feel. We'd planned a full day off, but after just an afternoon, Campeche quickly lost it's old world charm and became, well....just kind of weird.
Left Campeche and the gulf coast into a howling headwind that would seem to follow us for an entire week. If we were headed east, the wind was from the east, if the road turned north, the wind was from the north. Haunted by this phantom wind, we pushed eastward through the flats of Campeche state. Pushing all day through flat, unchanging roads. Spent the night on a vacant property just outside of the town of Hopelchein, a small, agricultural town, much like others in the area, yet with the unexplicable pressence of lots of white, midwestern-looking farmer types. Mennonites, I think, judging by the way the wowen dressed, but I never did get the full story.
The next day brought more of the same. Headwinds, Long, drawn-out roads. Headwinds. Headwinds. Headwinds. Attempted to stop in at an archeological site to spend some time off the bikes and were greeted by a closed gate and a sign. "Closed indefinitely due the the Influenza epidemic". Now, I'm sure that the media in the United states has blown this whole influenza thing way out of proportion, but it has been pretty prevailent down here for the past couple of weeks. The first sign was when we were in Palenque. We'd been in the museum at 8 am, went to check out the ruins for an hour or so, then returned to find the museum closed. Didn't think much of it at the time, but as the days wore on, the headlines got bigger and the medical masks more prevailent. Now a full closure of all archeological sites in the country. And here we were. Thousands of miles from home. In the Ycatan peninsula for the first time, one of the richest archeological regions in the world, with some of the most beautiful, magical places. All gated up and off limits. Indefinitely. What'd I say. God's a little pissed.
Cinco de Mayo. Mexican Independence day. Not the least indication of it. Rode hard all day, sweating in the unimaginable heat of the tropic lowlands, our only "respite" a howling headwind. The road lined with thick brushy woods for mile after mile, the only thing breaking up the landscape the occasional town and a a stone arch marking our entrance into the state of Yucatan. Arrived in Piste (the tourist town that services the ruins at Chichen Itza) to a campground with a pool and the great news that the ruins would be reopening the next day!
Woke the next morning with a swim in the cenote Ik-kil, a sort of natural pool at the bottom of a deep stone hole in the earth, some of the clearest, purest water I've seen in my life. Swam for several hours, washing every last vestige of dirt and sweat from ourselves, then headed out to see the remains of the center of the Mayan empire. I guess I was a little disapointed that you can no longer actually climb any of the temples at Chichen Itza as you undoubtably once could, and still can at Monte Alban and Palenque. None the less, the place is incredible. Just the scope and size of the place is dizzying, the architectual and engineering mastery displayed phenomenal.
Rode all afternoon and the entire next day into, you guessed it, a howling headwind. Worst yet. A 70 mile slog through more low lying woods, the only change in scenery at the Quintana Roo boarder, where instead of cutting back the brush 10 feet, they'd let it grow right up to the road.
Rolled into Tulum by early afternoon, beaten and weak from the wind. Limped the final 4 k.m. to the beach, finally, to the Carribean sea, and it seemed like the curse of the past five days just washed away. Cristal clear water shining an unworldly blue off shore, talcum-fine, pure white sand. Camped two days on that beach, the near full moon rising over the ocean and shining daylight-bright on the white sands. Woke one morning at sunrise, the sun hanging low, just above the emerald water. Dragged myself out of the tent, bleary eyed and drowsy with sleep. Walked directly for that shining sea and dove in, the water cool and clean and so so clear. Swam out and looked back toward the beach. Palm trees and palapas, the world bright and alive, and down the beach on the distant cliffs, the morning sun reflecting yellow and orange off the ancient stones of the ruins of Tulum.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Highland Nightmares, Gulf Coast Dreams

Our last night in san cristobal found us still awake at 2 a.m. deep in conversation and maybe a little too deep into the booze. Sitting in a little bar in the center of town, not wanting to go to bed, not wanting to say goodbye to such an incredible and beautiful city.
24 hours later I've got my head in the communal toilet of a cheap motel in Oxchuc, Chiapas, Wretching violently and quickly losing every ounce of hydration left in my sore and sleep deprived body.
The day had passed easily enough, with a late start from San Cristobal. Faced with hills, rain, then hail, we were carried through the sour weather, our pounding headaches and wavering stomachs by some of the most beautiful riding yet of the trip. Wide, pastoral vistas reminicent more of the Norweigian countryside or the french alps than of anything you might expect in mexico. Women in traditional dress hearding sheep by the roadside in the rain. Passing through E.Z.L.N. occupied autonomous territories. Fighting of the sickness rising in my belly, passing it off as a self inflicted result of one too many, thinking all I needed was a solid meal and a good nights sleep.
And now this. Kept up all night, diarrea and vomit, vying for the one toilet with the drunken revelers from the room next door. Lying down only to have the sickness rise in my gut once more, sending me scurrying across the parking lot to the bathroom. Hoping to make it in time.
Now, before you point fingers, before you assume that I got what was coming to me, this was no run-of-the-mill-post-night-of-drinking sickness. This was some food or water borne bacteria, something nasty, something my body wanted out. Quick. And out it did come.
Hours pass and the sun is coming up. Completely drained and finally able to lay down for more than five minutes, I nodded off to sleep.
That's when the fireworks started.
I'm not kidding.
For some unknown reason, someone, somewhere, began shooting off large, concussive fireworks very near the motel. At sunrise. I tossed and turned, now dozing now jolted awake by another blast. Now dozing again as the fireworks halted.
Then they started with the powertools.
Yep. powertools.
About 7a.m. they began, for whatever reason, making cabinets in the small parking lot of the motel. At this point I threw up my hands, got up and got dressed. Not sure what I was doing but sure that I couldn't spend another second in that room. Anthony was up and suggested that we try to find something I could stomach, something to start rehydrating me from the long night before.
"Sounds like a plan" I said, struggling even, in my weakened state, to stand up from the bed....."Awwww, FUCK!"
"What is it?" Anthony asked innocently.
"I just shit my pants."

Needless to say, when the first thing you do after waking up is soil yourself, you're not going to have a good day, and this was no exception. Walked out into town, into a bustling open market, where, among the wide-eyed stares and catcalls from the locals (Oxchuc is a purely indigenous city, and we were the only white people in a fifty mile radius), among the rats (both cooked and raw), tamales of dubious variety, and rotting vegetables, I finally found something I thought I could stomache.
A single banana.
It seemed to me that riding would not be an option that day, especially considering that i hadn't slept at all, we were in the mountains, and I couldn't so much as stand up without... well.... you know....
However, getting back to the motel (the only in town) the cabinetry was still in full swing and the thought of lying in that tiny room all day with a power planer running just outside the door became less and less of an option. So we left. I honestly don't remember anything of the day. There were lots of hills, I think, and I stopped a lot. All I remember is that we rode to Ocosingo, got yet another motel (this one with a private bathroom) and I immediately fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Woke the next day feeling bright and well rested. Definitely through the worst of it and on the mend. Got an early start and immediately plunged into what was easily the most beautiful single riding day of the entire trip. One minute riding through a green and lush tropical valley, the air thick with the scent of passionflower and wet grass, then after a short fifteen minute climb, on a wooded mountainside covered in pine. Bombing through jagged, jungled volcanic hills, feeling the exhiliration of riding roads not adhereing to the strictness of american safety standards. Tight, tight corners boardered by sheer rock faces (either straight up or straight down, depending on what side you hit). Steep, steep pitches. Feeling the wheels fly beneath us. temperature rising quickly. Air growing thick and wet.
We arrived at agua-azul falls with plenty of light to spare. Marveling at the bright, opaque, turquoise water rushing over the rocks. Amazed that such an incredible natural phenomenon wasn't fenced of, monopolized, and made off limits. Cooling my still recovering and filthy body in the mineral rich waters of the falls, finally waking up. Finaly feeling human again.
We'd heard that camping at Agua azul wasn't the safest thing, so it was no surprise when the operators of the campground approched our tent in the evening and suggested that we move it closer to a light source, closer to where others might be. It wasn't a surprise when after nightfall we were approched again and told we might be better off renting a room.
We assured them that we were confident that we'd be safe.
"No, you don't understand, it's very dangerous here."
"Oh, no, it's cool. These other kids said we could store the bikes in their room and we're gonna be here, right under the light."
"No, you don't understand, it's VERY dangerous!"
We began to wonder, who was playing who.
"Nah, I think it'll be cool."
"No. I don't think you understand: If you stay out here, there's a good chance that you will be robbed." The only thing missing, it seemed, were some well placed winks and nudges.
We paid for a room.

Bug bitten and sweating, we passed the night in our reluctantly purchased habitation, cursing the local scam but finally lulled to sleep by the falls rushing just meters away from our screenless and wide open window. Woke to a dip in the river and hit the pavement once more. Beautiful riding again. Slowly working our way out of the mountains. Long valleys spread out before us. The same river that feeds agua-azul falls shimmering all bright and pale in the distance working our way to Palenque and the ruins of the Mayan city therein.
Finally crested one last big climb and looked out upon the flats of eastern Chiapas, with Tabasco and Campeche in the distance. Not a single hill in sight so far as the eye could see. Rolled into Palenque right around dark and found a campground near the ruins of the ancient city, all deep and thick jungle. Scorpions (this time full sized) scrurrying across the beam of my headlamp and into the dark. Howler monkeys calling in the depth of the night, a bizarre and unearthly call. Throaty and breathy, like manevolent spirits moving through the trees.
Daybreak had us up and riding to the ruins, hoping to catch the sunrise from the top of a pyramid, but our romantic notions were crushed when we arrived at the gates of the city to find that they wouldn't let us in untill an hour later. Reguardless, sunrise or no, the ruins of Palenque were unbelievable. Too much for words. I spent hours just ambling in the heat of the day, eyes glued at the enormous feats of engineering and mystical knowledge all around me, all scattered along a thickly jungled hillside. Lush and green and impenetrable.

Out into the agricultural flats. Roads that go forever in one direction. Unwavering. Unchanging. Where a hill is an event and a turn is worth celebrating. Past into and out of the state of Tabasco in 15 minutes. Literally. Into Campeche without the slightest indication of change. Set up camp at the edge of a town called Aguacatel, just on the bank of a slow and murky river. At nightfall a man approached us and asked if we planned on camping there.
"Is that a problem?"
"No not really." he said. His face obscured by the dark, "It's just a lot of drunk people come down here at night. You'd be a lot safer staying up at my place."
Carlos and Paty's place was a one room, tin roofed shack that they shared with their two young kids, Angel and Jesus, up above the river bank. There was a small grassy area along the back were we set up for the night and after an hour or so of conversation in our halting spanish, fell asleep for the night. Carlos woke us early with coffee ready to go and invited us inside to sit down. Besides the furniture (a table, two chairs and a bed), and a small electric clothes washer, there was less in that house than I am carrying on my bike. It made me feel small and humbled, experiencing such great and unsolicited hospitality from people who could use every sip of coffee that we took, every cracker that they had offered as breakfast.
We departed Aguacatel amoung smiles, handshakes and promises to return If we ever passed through again. Again through the boredom of a flat and featureless landscape, again into the headwinds that roar across this part of the country. Pushing out the miles through the heat and pressure of a tropical afternoon. Trying to make it to the gulf. Another body of water. Not knowing what to expect, but dreaming of a beach, a swim in the ocean, a new ocean to the both of us. Of white sands and palapas again. Sunshine and cold beer.
4 p.m. rolled around with 60 kilometers still to the gulf. It'd taken us all day to do the first 75. With nothing but the desire to see that water, that unbroken horizon, we put our heads down and pushed our muscles to the point of total exhaustion. Fighting the headwind and the dying of the light. Finally, just as the sun began its final dip into the west, we hit the beach, water glowing red and orange over its deep aquamarine. Stripped off our clothes and ran for the sea, knowing that if we swam due North we'd hit Biloxi, Mississippi. Maybe even New Orleans. Amazed at how far I'd come. Amazed, as always by the vastness of the ocean ahead of me and of the sky above. Thinking about the miles of highway and countless little villages. About Jason and Jessi and where they are now. About Parker and whether he's ever made it up that damned volcano. About how much I'd done so far and how much more there was to come. Then it all jsut stopped.

And I dove in.