Chance encounters

In Oaxaca we decided to book a few tours. It was our way of resting and kicking back awhile. Having a guide explain the history of the sights was a bonus, but little did we expect it would be such an education in human behaviour and for so many strange reasons! We discovered that a bunch of strangers could set out in the morning on a tour and return ‘best of friends’ after spending a day together, rattling around on a bus. We were brought together by shared experiences and we had not bargained for these to be quite so bizarre.

Our tour guide was exceptional, a Zapotec native who animatedly brought to life the Zapotec culture and history at the sites we visited. He was very strict about timing, making sure we knew what time to be back at the bus, after each particular point of interest. I was disappointed to be ushered back to the bus quite so quickly, then perplexed to discover no bus driver in sight! We waited for what seemed a very long time, during which the tour guide went looking for the driver. Eventually the driver came running, half clothed, shoes in hand and with a pitiful explanation of why he was ‘late’. We accepted his story of ‘helping a friend’ but when this happened at each of the following stops we soon concluded with much giggling amongst ourselves that he must have a ‘friend-in-need-nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ at each attraction!

At lunch we were served Mezcal and this may be what turned the situation into something entirely more bizarre…our tour guide became more animated with each passing hour, soon not even caring about the missing driver. His renditions of the sights became increasingly grandiose and flamboyant, his change in behaviour quite insane. The tour ended abruptly with the guide shouting farewell, then jumping out of the bus and leaving, but not before he remembered to collect gratuities prior to leaving us in such style…

As we neared Oaxaca, we noticed tuk-tuks upturned and burned out, the streets becoming clogged with traffic and chaos. Our driver informed us that there was a protest and suggested we get out of the bus for our own safety. Google maps got us safely home on foot, but not before the heavens opened and we were drenched in monsoonal showers! The inadequate drainage was quite something to experience as the streets quickly turned into raging rivers. Dealing with a flooded apartment we discovered our riding gear and helmets were drenched. We eventually got to bed just before midnight but if we thought the day’s events were over, we were in for a surprise…

It was just before midnight and I was reading as Paul dosed off for the night. The bed started shaking and I wondered what Paul was up to. It then sounded like a train was approaching and rattling the room, but within seconds the vibration became violent as the 8 magnitude earthquake struck. Neither of us had experienced an earthquake before, but we quickly realised what was happening. It’s hard to describe the events adequately but I felt such panic as the rumbling grew louder, more violent and seemingly without end. In the days to follow we were humbled to see the devastation and grateful for our safety. We were supposed to be at the coast but had delayed our trip by a day, to meet Peppo in Oaxaca. Had we been in that coastal town who knows what we may have experienced, as it was one of the towns hardest hit. Because of tsunami warnings we changed our travel plans and headed inland towards Chiapas instead.

I spent some time with Peppo, who administers the Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots foundation. It was an inspirational encounter, seeing his passion for his work, meeting some of the children and learning about the remarkable impact of the organisation. It was founded in 1996 by Harold and Jodi Bauman, an American couple. Whilst on vacation in Oaxaca, Jodi was moved by a chance encounter with a child begging in the streets, instead of being in school. She had a vision that giving that child a few pesos would grant care for a moment, whilst giving that child an education would grant care for a lifetime. Initially they supported a family by enrolling their children in school, then each year expanded their support, spending more time in Oaxaca and eventually moving there and starting the Grassroots Organisation. Today the organisation supports around 650 children a year, aged 4 to 25, which means that each year some youngsters are graduating with degrees from University!

As we’ve travelled through Chiappas I have been shocked and deeply disturbed by observing such rampant child labour – children are out on the streets selling tourist keepsakes in towns like San Cristobal, begging or singing for pesos ‘till late at night. It’s obvious they aren’t attending school, because they’re out working. I’d been told of the beauty of Chiappas, but not the plight of its children. It’s confronting to see what appeared to be 10-year old boys digging trenches and young girls of 7 or 8 selling trinkets or begging. As we’ve travelled towards Palenque, the children have appeared more desperate, setting up road blocks to extort money from travellers. Our tour guide explained why these road blocks exist – children out making money instead of being in school is part of the native culture, values which we find hard to understand. Young girls are married off early, ensuring the cycle continues.

It will take some time to process what I believe would be a valuable response to what I’ve seen, but for now I wrestle with mixed emotions of anger, shame and compassion. Having seen what a remarkable difference one woman could make after a chance encounter in Oaxaca, it has certainly got me thinking…

Magnificent Guanajuato!

We met Saya at the University steps on our first Sunday morning in Guanajuato. We were accompanying her on a field visit to one of the sites where The Muskoka Foundation works its magic. As she hailed a taxi she told us not to jump in yet, saying she had to first ask the driver if he was prepared to take us to our destination, explaining that taxis sometimes refused because of the ‘dangerous’ area we’re going through. So many thoughts crowded my mind as we got into the taxi and set off to visit Casa de las Nubes…

The community refer to Casa de las Nubes as “the squatter settlement” as it’s a community built in an unregistered zone. It’s located on top of a mountain overlooking the city, “Casa de las Nubes” literally means “Home in the clouds”. The people living there call their home “Los Angeles” which means ‘the angels’.  Standing amidst the community members gathered for their Sunday meeting, the magnificent view from this mountaintop certainly was that afforded angels. We were aware the irony that in this city, the poorest people had the best view.

It’s a challenging life for the people of ‘Los Angeles’ because of the isolated terrain, lack of access to water and electricity and the impact of poverty. The work of The Muskoka Foundation is born of the belief that every child deserves to succeed at learning, connect positively with others and live in an environment where they are not in danger. That day’s community meeting was addressing topics such as collecting money to fill the water tank and discussing positive tactics for addressing crime being experienced by the community which consisted mainly of women, because their men have to travel to find work.

We greeted people gathered for the meeting in basic Spanish and shared a giggle with children holding puppies. I was sitting in the dust with some children and felt a little arm wrapping around my shoulders in a hug. I looked up at a magnificent grin and soon knew the little boy’s name was Theo and that he was offering me a chance to hold his puppy. I was acutely aware that my basic command of Spanish was limited to expressing my own needs and not exploring the needs of others. I could ask someone their name or order a few beers but was unable to ask the people around me anything about their lives…

The following morning Paul and I woke early for our first day of Spanish school. As we walked the cobbled lanes we were amongst children walking to their first day of school and university students gathered for early morning lectures. The week flew by as we settled into our routine of early morning starts and classes until the afternoon. Paul learned Spanish much faster than I did and soon he was making jokes in Spanish and had the teachers laughing. He was the class larrikin and I was the serious one, fretting over words and phrases which didn’t seem to stick as readily for me in practice. I could read and understand and knew how to construct sentences, but having a conversation or understanding what someone said was something entirely different! Somehow the words I knew didn’t “just come up in every conversation!”

I haven’t been well and struggling with mouth ulcers. It got so bad that I was quite desperate and crying at the drop of a hat. One afternoon I skipped the last 2 lessons of school, because I was just so miserable. I went to a pharmacy to get medication. As Paul was not with me, I had a tough time making myself understood with my limited Spanish. Having to show the pharmacist the inside of my mouth was one thing, but trying to understand what she was saying was another. A man in the queue behind me could speak a bit of English, so he offered to look into my mouth as well and the two of them chatted away in Spanish about what medication I required. I was happy with what seemed to be the right medication, but as I was paying an American couple came into the pharmacy and the husband could speak Spanish. The pharmacist spoke to the American in Spanish and soon he was also asked to look into my mouth and confirm that I had indeed been given the correct medication! I was so embarrassed and close to crying, but the thought which kept me grateful was that at least I did not have a boil on my bum!

Later that day we were out shopping and as I was feeling weak and quite ill, I waited at the shop’s entrance for Paul as he shopped. A security guard came over asking questions and I explained to her in Spanish that I was feeling ill and waiting for my husband. In a caring tone she said something which I didn’t quite understand, but I thanked her as she brought me a chair. Soon after that the store manager arrived, asking me if he should call an ambulance. I obviously declined (with many exclamations of “gracias!”), but started to worry about what I had said in Spanish that had everyone so concerned. When Paul arrived and translated, it transpired that in my limited command of Spanish I had them thinking that I was having a heart attack – hand on my chest I’d said: “I’ve got pain” instead of “I’m unwell”…

Stopping awhile and becoming members of this vibrant community has been incredibly rewarding. Guanajuato is a city built around the mining industry and the university. It’s incredibly hilly and consists of steep cobblestone lanes running in a convoluted maze from the city centre up into the surrounding mountains. We walk everywhere, because the road system is just too complicated. There are tunnels under the city, moving cars where the cobbled lanes can’t. A walk into the city centre is a steep 15 minutes down cobbled lanes, whereas going by bike would be 40 minutes of convoluted driving. Our bikes have not budged since the day we arrived. There’s music and colour everywhere. People are incredibly friendly and the lanes are filled with stalls selling fruit, pastries, flowers, tacos and other eats. On our way to Spanish school we pass people eating taco breakfasts at stalls set up in the lanes, kids buying their lunch or women selling stationary supplies from baskets on the sidewalk. The informal trade is incredible, food stalls are set up outside people’s homes in the mornings and aren’t there in the afternoons.

We have explored most of the city and one day completed >20km on foot! We took the funicular up to the lookout over the city at the Pipila monument, which commemorates an Indian miner who died in a mining revolt. Locals dressed as skeletons and posed with tourists taking photos (at a price) and vendors sold fruit and sweets covered in chilli. We visited the mummy museum which is a macabre display of mummified corpses dug up when families were unable to pay burial taxes. We passed the Callejon Del Beso quite by chance and couldn’t resist posing for a kiss in this narrow alley which is famous for its love story between Carmen and Luis. The Mercado Hildago market is something we only admired from the outside, as shopping is not a priority for us. We walked the very steep cobbled lanes up to the Presa de la Olla dam and enjoyed a few beers whilst watching people paddle little boats. One afternoon we joined class mates from Spanish school on a tour of one of the local mines, then we caught the bus back into the city. Paul has loved putting each day’s lessons to practice: asking directions or striking up conversations, just for fun. We wanted to immerse ourselves, learning Spanish and immersed we certainly are…

We have had a few concerned messages from family about our safety, following the recent American Government alert about Mexico in the media. We have been aware of the incidents reported and were actually in some of the places at the time (Ensenada, La Paz, San Cabo in the Baja and Mazatlan on mainland Mexico.) What I can report is that we have never felt threatened, nor has any place we’ve been to been unsafe. The trouble has been between rival drug cartels and since we haven’t frequented such places, we’ve been okay. We’re not being naive about dangers but we aren’t being paranoid either. Our approach has been to stay informed and to try and understand. As an example: when we were first concerned about the taxi not wanting to go through a ‘dangerous’ place on that first Sunday we had a discussion about the reasons why. We came to understand that taxi’s are soft targets, as they carry a lot of cash and that the road was a dirt track. So taxis were simply taking a sensible approach to the reality of their situation and the possible ‘danger’ for themselves – something which had no bearing on us. We walked home safely later that day and not once did we feel anything untoward. We have chosen a balanced approach – to be aware of the reality of situations through speaking with locals, challenging the media and taking a sensible approach with minimal risk.  We also speak regularly to others who are currently on the road in Mexico and Central America and we have a very good idea of the areas to avoid. It’s pretty much the same approach to safety we’d be taking back home…and Mexico is home for the moment.

Mi casa tu casa

Mexican hospitality can best be described by the words “mi casa tu casa” which means “my house is your house.” The first time we heard these words were in Canada, on the very first day of our trip. We had left Vancouver that morning in the pouring rain and that afternoon sat sheltering in a diner near Whistler. A lady came over to us to ask where we were from. We were quite a curiosity, quite a sight…two drenched bikers riding in Canada’s insane winter weather! It turned out she’s from Mexico and when she heard our travel plans, she said those precious words “mi casa tu casa”, meaning we could stay with her on our way through Mexico!

Mexican people are beautiful – incredibly friendly, open, warm and welcoming. We have been stopped at traffic lights and asked where we’re from and offered help and accommodation when stopped getting fuel. When Miguel Urista offered to host us, we rode back to Etzatlan, just to meet the man we had been corresponding with for about a year. He is affectionately called “doc” by the locals who were quick to help guide us to find his home – when stopped asking for directions, it seemed everyone knew who he was!

Our first evening with Miguel, he took us for an evening stroll and a meal at the town plaza. The town plaza is where people meet in the evenings. For a meal, a laugh, a stroll… or in our case a lesson in cooking tortillas and churros! As we walked around with Miguel, we were warmly greeted and Miguel had fun introducing us as travellers from Australia. The local vendors had fun watching Paul, after inviting him to try his hand at making some of the local fare. Paul’s tortillas were great, but his churros were quite out of shape and there were many jokes about the ‘Churros Australiano’,  how much they might fetch in price and with much glee it was decided that it was Paul’s new nickname!

Miguel is a dentist and visiting his practice was great fun.  His surgery is unique in that it is decorated with motorcycle memorabilia including a ‘bikers’ wall of fame’,  which is a collection of stickers and signatures of overland motorcyclists. Miguel ceremoniously presented us with a ladder which Paul and I climbed to add our sticker and signatures to the ‘bikers’ wall of fame.’

On our second evening with Miguel, he hosted a dinner party in our honour. His courtyard was soon filled with 17 motorcycles as “Chumikys” bike members arrived in droves. There was only 1 person who could speak English, yet somehow we were able to communicate and had an incredibly special evening. ‘Talking’ bikes and travel, drinking tequila and being taught how to cook ‘chorizo con queso’ which is a really delicious treat!

It was sad saying goodbye, however Miguel Urista introduced us to our next hosts in Querataro – the Los Peppes brothers. Bollo and Jose run a restaurant called Los Pepes, with their father, Jose Manuel. All three men go by the name Jose – Jose Miguel (Bollo), Jose Manuel (Snr) and Jose Manuel (Jnr). ‘Pepe’ is the nickname for the name Jose, so their restaurant is called “Los Pepes”, which means “the Pepes”. We were welcomed as family and treated to great food, great company and many laughs. The Pepes men are incredibly full of life and mischief, so Paul was instantly at home with them and we enjoyed their company immensely.

Jose Manuel (Jnr) accompanied us the following day on his motorcycle and guided us to some local sights – Pena Bernal, Ezequiel Montes and Tequisquiapan. Pena Bernal is a ‘Pueblo Magico’ and famous for it’s monolith which is 433m tall and dominates the town’s picturesque scenery. Ezequiel Montes is a beautiful wine region and we visited a winery called Finca Sala Viva, enjoying a lunch of cheese, olives, bread, salami and prosciutto. In Tequisquiapan we walked along the Plaza, visited art studios, chatted about life in Mexico and watched the world go by.

Thanks to Miguel Urista, we’ve been inundated with offers of help and accommodation as we travel through the rest of Mexico, Central and South America. We are immensely grateful for the Mexican tradition of “mi casa tu casa”! Muchos gracias Amigos…

“If I had no fear, what would I just say yes to?”

Some things we lose are easy to replace, some are irreplaceable…I’m absolutely devastated to have lost our precious Tibetan prayer flags. They were part of our wedding ceremony and filled with messages from people who witnessed our marriage or met us along our journey through the Americas.

Paul’s traffic camera captured them falling off my bike at the Guachimontones pyramids. We drove back there in the hope of finding them or that perhaps someone had handed them in to the tourist office lost property. The Mexican people were simply amazing in their quest and energy to help us find them. As I stood sobbing in the carpark people searched and phoned friends or colleagues who had been there on the day, but unfortunately we did not find them… after days of crying into my helmet as we ride or losing sleep over our loss I’m ready to share how I hope to move on …

Tibetan prayer flags promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. The messages written on them are spread by the wind, to bring goodwill and compassion to all.

“Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new prayer flags. This act symbolises a welcoming of life’s changes and an acknowledgement that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.”

In the spirit of accepting life’s changes and moving forward, I’m going to make new prayer flags and I’m asking for contributions from everyone of messages to write on our flags. We all have things we dearly wish for, but fear often stands in our way. Our journey’s motto is “just say yes” and has been about facing our own fears (and prejudices) on the adventure we’ve long dreamt of. It would be wonderful to gather a collection of messages from people who have taken a moment to reflect and answer the question:

“If I had no fear, what would I just say yes to?” Add your age, city, country of residence and name (or indicate if you want to remain anonymous) 

I’m hoping that sharing a collection of these reflections will inspire us all and remind us that we all have similar dreams and fears, that we can encourage each other. Through sharing with honesty we share our collective strength, compassion and wisdom.

Please send your contributions either via private message or email matthewmaryna@gmail.com

Thank you in advance!

Maryna and Paul

G’day Mexico!

You know when you pull candy floss apart and the ends are all wispy and translucent,  little ‘diamonds’ of sugar caught in the wisps? That’s what I was thinking about at 3am as I lay next to a sleeping Paul, on the steel deck of the ship and looking up at the sky…a “candy floss sky”… millions of pin prick diamonds pulled across the galaxy. I was exhausted, uncomfortable, had a pounding head, I was sweaty, dirty …and incredibly content. I was acutely aware and simply in awe of the fact that we’re actually on this wonderful journey we had been planning for over a year! l was feeling immense gratitude for the gift of this time with Paul and for the realisation that ‘sleeping rough’ is just an adventure for us, and not a way of life.

The 16-hour ferry ride from  the Baja to Mainland Mexico was going to be tough, as we weren’t able to secure a cabin, however we were gifted with meeting a great group of fellow travellers and making new friends – a South African couple on a bike, 2 Aussie blokes in a van with their surfboards and a group of Mexican bikers on their way home. That’s the upside of travelling – all the wonderful people we meet. Bonded by the mutual experience of the inferno in the hold as we strapped our bikes secure for the crossing and our uncomfortable night on the ship, we were a scraggly, sweaty, diesel-dust-covered band as we hugged each other goodbye in Mazatlan, hoping to stay in touch.

Arriving from Baja at mainland Mexico is like stepping into another world. Paul said: “Look! There’s those things with long brown bodies and green things growing on top…wait… aren’t those trees!?” We hadn’t seen a tree in 3 weeks, had seen no shade, no reprieve, so riding into the greenery of mainland Mexico was such bliss. We’re loving all the greenery and lush jungle-like conditions, often riding through tunnels of green and past lush fields or verdant plantations of vegetables, fruit and agave plants (which is what tequila is made from). The hills and mountains are beautiful and the riding is so much cooler inland. Another change from Baja is that we haven’t seen any military vehicles or road blocks since arriving on the mainland. We’re unsure if this will be the case further along our travels.

I’ve been wondering how best to describe the insane heat. It’s something I still can’t believe is real, even though we’ve been experiencing it now for literally months, crossing various deserts since Death Valley to Baja. We’ve had days of 49C of dry heat and that is something quite different to 37C and humidity. Have you ever been in a sauna and experienced the hot dry air, the burn in your lungs as you breathe and your skin turning pink? That’s your 49C dry heat day. Have you then added water to the coals and felt the sweat literally break out of every pore on your body as you struggle to breathe? Now you have your humidity at 37C! Imagine doing all of that whilst wearing a KLIM riding suit, thick long socks and boots, gloves and a helmet! We try and beat it by leaving at sunrise and only riding until noon. It’s bearable when we move as the wind cools us down, but getting stuck in traffic is literally like baking in the sun, it’s simply unbearable and dangerously hot. Paul has removed my windshield, which has helped me a lot. It does not help to try and shed clothing, which we discovered by trying that. The KLIM gear actually protects us from the heat, riding without it is so much worse. Trying to get out of our gear is like wrestling ourselves out of straight jackets, the hot fabric sticking to our sweaty skin. Everything goes straight into the shower with us for a wash every day, as the smell is something I will spare you a description of. Our health is suffering now, so we changed plans and started heading inland to cooler weather. Arriving in Tepic today where it was 28C was such an incredible relief. My greatest struggle these past few months has been “feeling held captive by the heat” – unable to do as much or see as much as I would have liked. Hopefully with the cooler weather, that will change.

The little Mexican pueblos (towns) are amazing! We find ourselves riding cobbled roads, past men on horseback, taco vendors smiling on the kerb. Stalls sell pineapples, corn, mangoes, bananas, pecan nuts and figs. Everything is served with sachets of salsa, chilly or paprika. Families ride small motorcycles, often 4-up and wearing no helmets or sometimes it’s just two kids riding along in slip-slops and shorts. Riding the cobbled streets after a rain storm is challenging for me as its slippery, many stones are loose and the potholes are deep. Paul and I were having a giggle at a video we recently saw of a rider in his KLIM gear on his BMW GS gingerly negotiating a cobbled road water crossing, when a few locals just whizzed through on their little bikes, wearing no protective clothing at all!

Today we came to a pueblo where we had to ride up a steep cobbled road and across a railway line which was set high up on the bank. There were no warning lights or boom gates, but we could hear the train coming, so stopped on the steep cobbled camber.  The locals just carried on riding across! The train hooted furiously as it approached, but motorcycles and vehicles just crossed, merely seconds away from disaster. Once the train started passing us, we soon realised why people did the “mad dash”…the train was so long, that we sat there for absolutely ages, watching it chug by, eventually turning our motors off as we sat in the heat and waited it out.

Mexican art is extremely colourful and beautiful. In Canada we visited a First Nations Reserve and met a man collecting glass beads on the beach. He told us about the history and value of these beads and how they were traded by natives along the Pacific coast. To see these beads widely used in Mexican art reminded us of that conversation and we can see why they are so prized. The beads are woven or intricately glued into amazing patterns, each of which conveys significant symbolism or a story.

Our command of Spanish grows with each day and each night’s lessons. We have noticed that the locals speak a slightly different dialect to the ‘textbook’ Spanish we’ve learnt. Paul and I were giggling today, wondering just how we actually sound…imagining someone learning to speak ‘textbook’ English and saying: “Good morning Sir, how are you?” and getting a local Aussie reply: “G’day mate!” We are sure that’s how we must sound… now we just need to learn the local way of saying the Mexican version of “G’day Mexico!”

 

 

Bye bye Baja

Having crossed the Baja Peninsula we reached La Paz, which is where we’ll catch the ferry to mainland Mexico today. We had two chores, which we needed to negotiate in Spanish – getting our temporary import permits for our bikes and tickets for the ferry. Although we’ve come a long way with respect to speaking Spanish, it was evident that we do not speak Spanish well enough to get those two chores done with ease…

The ferry terminal is about a 20km ride out of town. Paul and I weren’t sure about where to get the import permits, but agreed to go out to the ferry terminal first, at least for a look-see. We had heard that’s where the ‘banjercito’ (customs office) is for the import permit and that we could also get our ferry tickets there. On arrival we tried to ask for information about the banjercito and tickets and were ushered to join the queue of vehicles at the entrance. Thankfully Paul realised that the queue was for vehicles boarding the ferry, because we would have been right royally stumped had we found ourselves riding onto the ferry without our paperwork and our personal belongings still at the hotel!

So back to town we went to one of the banjercitos there, only to be told that we had been at the right place at the ferry terminal, in the first instance. Had it not been so incredibly hot, we may have been more cheerful about the news, but we shrugged and realised that it’s all just part of the journey. So we went back to the ferry terminal, this time determined to park up and walk around, trying to find the banjercito with our limited Spanish. The day ended successfully with Gerardo becoming a new friend at the customs office and he kindly offered his contact details, should we need any further help on our journey through Mexico. We have been blessed by so many people going out of their way to be friendly and to help us in so many significant ways. Unfortunately we weren’t able to secure a cabin for our 16-hour ferry crossing, so we anticipate an exhausting trip across to Mazatlan.

La Paz is the capital city of the Baja State of Mexico and home to one of the 3 leading marine biology institutes in Latin America. We visited the whale museum and our experience is one which we can only describe as exceptional, because of our tour guide. Omar is a Mexican school boy in his final year of high school and has been volunteering at the museum during his school breaks for a number of years. His passion for marine life was palpable and his knowledge of the oceans of the world was astounding. Knowing we’re from Australia he gave us such an in-depth account of both countries’ ocean life and wove in personal anecdotes of his experience growing up on the beaches of Baja. We have made another friend, one whom we hold high hopes for as a future renowned marine biologist!

La Paz is pretty deserted during the day time, due to the extreme heat. One lady described the summers here as ‘terrible’, saying “people sleep all day, and party all night.” That has been our experience, as the place certainly comes alive at night! Malecon Road is a 5km strip of bars, restaurants, piers, tourist attractions, a wide sidewalk and cyclist lane. Vendors selling all manner of street food and trinkets appear at sunset and people skateboard, cycle and roller blade amongst the melee of walkers and gawkers. It’s been fascinating to people watch and ‘traffic watch’ as all manner of vehicle makes its way up and down the strip – seemingly just to be seen or to be seen and heard! Cars are lit up, their boots open with music blaring, people dancing through sun roofs, generally partying in the traffic, riding up and down the strip all night. One evening we watched what looked like a 12-year old boy, driving a Baja buggy up and down the strip, his left arm leaning on the window sill, right hand on the steering wheel and a wide grin on his face. Initially he had 2 other very young children in the vehicle with him, but later that evening he was driving around with a young girl beside him. We wondered if he had dropped his siblings at home and now had a girlfriend in tow?

Every now and again military vehicles make their way along the strip, in twos. The occupants have bandanas pulled over their faces as they stand on the back of the vehicles, behind guns mounted on the roof. No-one appears in the least bothered by this. Paul and I got chatting about how uncomfortable we felt and he commented that he would hate being in a situation where there was gunfire. Being caught in gun fire is something foreign to Paul, whereas in South Africa I had experienced a few situations. I remember being woken one night by gun fire in our garden, having to secure my then 12-year old daughter and hide with her in a closet. On another occasion our family and a group of friends travelling in convoy were attacked by 4 men brandishing AK47s, shooting at our convey as part of their hijacking. I shared with Paul how traumatised I was after the hijacking event. Traumatised not so much by the shooting but by the realisation that such a life was being accepted as “normal” by many in South Africa at that time. I have spoken with locals, wanting to understand the reason for the military presence and have been told that they are there to police the movement of drug cartels, which is a huge problem within Mexico. All our dealings at military check points have been very pleasant, even the occasion we were asked to open up our bike panniers for a search.

Leaving early one morning to beat the heat of the day, we did a day trip to Cabo San Lucas. Although it is cited as one of Mexico’s top 5 tourist attractions, it does not feature high on our list of places we enjoyed. After the magnificent beauty and serenity of Conception and Mulege, we simply were spoiled and could not bear the traffic and congested tourist trap we experienced at ‘Cabo.’ We took a water taxi out to view El Arco de Cabo San Lucas, which is a stunning rock formation out in the ocean. That is where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California as the locals prefer to call it, because Cortez is thought of with derision. That too was a congested ‘traffic jam’ of boats and people in the ocean, but I enjoyed being able to see the arches up close and being out on the ocean. Needless to say we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back to La Paz, where we knew we could escape the crowds and sleep off the heat.

My experience with learning Spanish has been that it’s a snowball effect. Each new word I’ve learned has helped me to understand the next and I’m at the point of adding words into sentences, fast expanding what I’m able to understand or communicate! Paul is still streets ahead of me though, which I find frustrating at times, but I have learned to enjoy our evening ‘lessons’ which we do together, and which is now a lot of fun. Being so immersed in learning a new language is something we looked forward to and something we needed to do because next week we start working with the Muskoka Foundation in mainland Mexico.

Yesterday we took a boat trip out to Isla Espiritu Santo and oh man! Heaven on earth! The oceans around the island were so magically clear and pristine. We snorkelled with seals and saw quite a bit of sea life, including a dolphin jumping playfully right out of the ocean like you see at dolphin shows! The history of the pearl trade was fascinating and we were shown how to identify the pearl bearing oysters on the sea bed. Thankfully it is now a Unesco World Heritage site, ensuring the pristine conditions and end to the pillaging.  Mexican pearls were the main pearl source in the world at one stage and we visited the location of the world’s first commercial pearl oyster farm, established by Dr Gaston Vives.  We could see why Ensenada Grande was voted one of the 12 most beautiful beaches in the world and named Mexico’s most beautiful by Travel Magazine. As a beach baby I’m sad to be saying goodbye to Baja…it is simply one of the most magical places ever.

Today has been the best day ever…

El Rosario is famous for two things: Mama Espinoza’s restaurant and the Baja 1000 check point. The Baja checkpoint is at Mama’s restaurant, so you could say it’s famous for one thing – Mama Espinoza! I have just read her autobiography and it’s a humble account of a truly remarkable life, a truly remarkable woman who influenced her community in so many significant ways.

The stretch across the desert from El Rosario to Guerrero Negro is daunting as it’s far and there’s no fuel along the way. It crosses an area called “Valle de los Cirios” which is a protected site in Mexico. I was keen to “find” the Cirio trees, a rare plant which only grows in this part of the world. It looks like an ‘upside down carrot’ and we soon discovered there are ‘forests’ of them all along our route to the 28th Parallel. I was keen to photograph the incredible collection of cactus and my wish was granted over the following two days when due to diarrhoea I came to know the cactus forest intimately! After one particular toilet break I went back to my bike to collect my camera. When Paul saw me heading back into the cactus he was incredulous, asking: “You’re not going to take a photo?!” I laughed and explained that no, I simply wanted to photograph the incredible collection of cactus I had seen ‘back there.’

We carried extra fuel but to break our journey we also decided to cross over to the Eastern shore of Baja and spend a night in Bahia de Los Angeles, on the Sea of Cortez. One night eventually became three after we met an incredible group of guys on a fishing tournament and an American family on vacation. Our journey is made remarkable by people, not places and this group was no exception. They can best be described by words such as ‘mischief, fun, camaraderie and goodwill.’ Their annual tournament is in memory of one of their fathers who “hated fishing, Mexico and golf!” These 32 guys get together every year for fishing and golf in what I’d describe as one of the most magical parts of Mexico! Each year they also play a softball game against the local women’s team and they bring gifts and supplies for the community’s children. The last night of their trip is rounded off with a magical fireworks display on the beach. Our one day became three because of these beautiful people and it was a memorable time of fun, beers and gifting…a gifting of companionship and being part of the local community.

Over a breakfast of ‘huevos Mexicana’ (Mexican scrambled eggs) we met the American family who suggested we share the cost of hiring a boat. So we decided to stay a third night and early the next day were gifted a sea of glass and clear skies. Our day out on the ocean was magical as we made our way amongst the islands, seeing marine wildlife such as turtles, flying fish, sea lion, whales, sting ray, dolphin and a whale shark. We snorkelled in many places, diving for oysters, scallops and clams, which we ate fresh in the water. The highlight of the day was snorkelling with the whale shark. All day I had been nervously awaiting sighting a whale shark. I was secretly petrified of getting into the water with such a giant fish. As the moment arrived I simply jumped in before I could chicken out and it was such magic being within reach of the beautiful giant. Paul has dived in many places in the world, including with whale sharks and he described this as the best experience yet. We were so close and in such magical conditions, a rare combination indeed.

We had a day in Guerrero Negro, which is famous for having the largest salt mine in the world. Being a larger town, it also had hamburgers, which I devoured to try and settle my stomach upset. From there we headed to one of the best locations on the Baja, Mulege and Concepcion.

The humidity and heat is incredibly overwhelming and saps our energy. I experience it as smothering and it’s hard for me to breathe! In Mulege we stayed 3 days, simply to rest. Paul and I end each day saying: “Today has been the best day ever…” and each day we laugh as we say the same thing at the end of the day… each day simply brings new and more wonderful experiences. The beaches near Mulege in Concepcion are spectacular! We bought snorkelling gear in the local village and as they only had one adult set, I took a chance and bought a set for kids aged 6-12. Paul thinks it’s hysterical that it fits me and that I played in the water like a kid. We spent a day camped in a palapa on the beach, snorkelling, sleeping, reading, drinking beer, eating ceviche and prawns.

We are fast learning lessons in ‘relativity’…the cost of travel through Mexico is wonderfully less than it was in Canada and the US. Here’s an example of one of our lessons with respect to ‘relativity’ – a 6-pack of beers in the local village is 50 pesos (AU$3.59 for 6, which is 59 AU cents each) and at our hotel one beer is 30 pesos (AU$2.15), which we now think is “so expensive!” Shock horror…gasp! Our seafood lunch on the beach yesterday was 220 pesos for 4 beers and 3 grilled prawn tacos (AU$15.76) In Bahia de Los Angeles we were paying 20 pesos per fish taco on the beach, which is AU$1.43 but less than the 70 peso per prawn tostada, which is AU$5. Ceviche was 50 pesos on the beach (AU$3.58)

I’ve had way too many “giant fishbowl” sized cocktails each evening by the pool, at 70 pesos (AU$5 each) but no amount of money can buy the wonderful experiences we keep having and each day is a reminder that “Today has been the best day ever…!”…and that “today” is all we’ve got.

Wonderful first few days in Mexico

Our time in the US was really incredible, the natural beauty of the West stunned us on every turn but the most incredible experience was the American people. We were simply blown away at the generosity of spirit of complete strangers… again and again and again. Stopping to ask for directions, information or help we often encountered people unable to help, but automatically picking up the phone to get an answer or going to their computer to google a solution. These were people running businesses, who would stop whatever they were doing to help us. The first time it happened, we thought it was the unique generosity of an individual in a small town, but it happened over and over, so we realised it’s simply “the American way”. People often greeted us with the question: “So how have we been treating you?” – it seems Americans were intent on showing us a good time. For that gift we are most thankful.

The one aspect we really struggled with though was the traffic. Endless, chaotic, insane, scary, frustrating and simply everywhere! At times up to 16 lanes (8 lanes either way) cars and trucks passing us at great speed even though we were riding at the speed limit in the slow lane. What amazed us was that American drivers were incredibly courteous (except for Vegas!) and we never encountered a single road rage incident, despite crazy insane traffic jams. People seemed resigned to the reality of traffic and simply went about their day regardless. We will never again complain of “traffic”, because as Australians we simply do not understand what that really means…

It’s crazy how anxious we get each time we move on to the next country, and Mexico was no exception. With the added complication of limited Spanish, we were pretty wary of how we would cope. We had read so many blogs with advice about the best places to cross into Mexico so were planning on reaching the border at Tecate as most other motorcyclists had done. However, as we passed through San Diego, the traffic chaos simply overcame us and Paul suggested we cross at Tijuana, as it was much closer. I was hesitant, pointing out that most blogs suggested avoiding that route and reasoned there had to be an explanation for that. Long story short, after much debating we chose to risk it and cross at Tijuana. Thankfully it was a breeze, after about a 5 minute ride we were through without a fuss, with only a stop for a photo and negotiating many ‘topes’ (crazy speed bumps which can put you down on a bike if you catch the front wheel at an angle)

Despite anticipating this heightened anxiety, it has really caught us off guard and has forced us to slow down, talk honestly about how we’re feeling and take many deep breaths. Mexico is such a glorious mix of passion, colour, music, noise and people with the most beautiful faces. Ensenada is very touristy and there’s quite a strong American influence with some Mexican people speaking English, so we decided to stay a day longer, just to get our bearings and come to grips with some basic Spanish phrases before we head further South.

The language barrier can be frustrating, yet amusing at times. Paul and I speak a few other languages (German, Afrikaans, Zulu) and found ourselves remembering German or Zulu phrases, as that’s been our prior experience with a foreign language in a foreign country. Sounds silly, but that’s how our brains work, I suppose…grabbing at familiar experiences to make sense of something new and foreign.

Paul is incredibly quick to pick up new languages and Spanish is no exception. I have resorted to telling him he’s “just showing off”, but I’m secretly grateful that at least one of us learns fast! I’m armed with ‘Google Translate’ which is incredible as it works off line and has helped me with a few basic phrases. Paul has mastered more complex phrases like asking for the bill or wifi password. My grasp is way more basic. I eventually got to grips with saying “good morning”, so was very disappointed when I proudly said “Buenas Dias!” to a lady only to have her giggle at me and reply that it’s “Buenos Tardes” as it was by then late in the afternoon! I then practiced saying “tardes” after realising the difference and also started anticipating having to say “Buenos Noches” at night. I got really confident but unfortunately that’s when I came unstuck again. I greeted a man with “Buenos Nachos” which had Paul doubled up in stitches…crying with laughter he explained that I was saying “good chips” (Nachos) instead of good evening (Noches) A small difference in pronunciation, but a significant mistake nevertheless.

But it works both ways. Last night at a drinks stall I greeted a Mexican man (correctly) and quickly asked in my limited Spanish if he spoke any English – he said he did. I asked him to explain the ingredients in a drink called Micheladas, which I saw advertised. He said: “It is a mixture of Clamato juice (tomato juice), ice, lime, chilli, salt, paprika, some sausages and beer.” Paul and I had just had dinner, so Paul said he couldn’t eat any more (sausages), but invited me to go ahead and order a Micheladas. I figured it sounded gross, but was curious as it had been recommended as a great cure for hangovers.  I ordered one and asked Fernando if I may film him preparing the drink. Imagine my confusion when one by one he added the ingredients: tomato juice, paprika, chilli, lime, salt, ice, Maggi sauce, worcester sauce and beer. As he handed it over, I had a moment of confusion, thinking that he had forgotten to add the “sausages”…but then it suddenly dawned on me that he had added the “sauces” after all!

I woke in the middle of the night, giggling at the day’s events and my chuckling woke Paul. When he asked me what was so funny I cracked up again, shouting “buenos nachos!”  and “sausages!” Paul then told me he was so grateful that I had woken him, saying he had been having a terrible nightmare about tomatoes. “Tomatoes?” I asked. “Paul said: “Yes, tomatoes. I dreamt they had taken over the world and were really evil.” I asked him: “Why didn’t you just eat the tomatoes?” Paul replied: “No, they knew what I was thinking…they were really clever like that. They lived in hives and were taking over the world…” It’s obvious all the rich spicy food has messed with our heads…oh what wonderful first few days in Mexico!

Riding in 5 degrees Celsius, wearing only my bikini…

This looks like rattle snake country.” Paul said. “Please be careful…” I looked at the dry, hot, arid surround, scrub and rock… my bike parked at the side of road in the middle of nowhere…and then decided that I didn’t need to pee that badly, after all.

Leaving California, heading West for Death Valley, the terrain slowly changed from brown grassland and hills to an area where it seemed as though a green velvet throw had been gently laid over the hills…jade shimmered with different hues, along the folds in the ‘fabric.’

We started seeing cactus and then a field of literally thousands of wind turbines, hardly turning, as there was no wind. We rode through Mojave and saw an area that appeared to have a lake. As we got closer we realised the lake was actually a ‘sea’ of solar panels in the dry desert valley. We were to see more examples of harnessing the desert’s heat, sun and wind…

Distances between towns became greater and hence the need to fuel up more often and the increasing heat was reason to hydrate more often too. We were riding deeper into desert country and eventually it was so desolate that it felt like we were riding on the moon.

On U.S. Highway 395 we passed a sign that said “Johannesburg” and I couldn’t believe my eyes. When the GPS indicated we take the turn, I was intrigued as I wanted to see what this place was. It turns out it’s a Californian ghost town with a history of prosperous mining. Discovered in the 1800’s it’s located a mile from a place called Randsburg. I could only marvel at the names, which are those of gold mines in South Africa.

We started seeing salt flats, starkly white against the browns, greys, reds and taupes of the surrounding landscape. As we rode through Trona, at Searle’s Lake, the salt flats looked like it had diamonds strewn across the valley floor, as the crystals glistened in the sun.

Our accommodation at Panamint Springs was ‘sheer luxury’ for the desert…no air-conditioning, a very rickety bed, leaking shower, we could hear the neighbours talking through the paper thin walls…but hey, it was shade! We rested in the afternoon and once it had “cooled down” to 31 degrees Celsius, we rode out to watch the sun set over the canyon at Father Power outlook. The rocky landscape was a mix of pinks, greys, browns, ochres, taupes and beige…and turned even more beautiful in the setting sun.

Our alarm was set for 5am the next morning, to avoid the heat of the day. Death Valley was something Paul described as ‘one of his best experiences ever.’ He had never experienced desert or sand dunes before, so it was wonderful to hear him “ooh-ing and ah-ing” and watch him marvel in awe. I had hiked the Fish River Canyon in Namibia so was very familiar with managing the extreme desert heat with early rises and ‘concluding’ your day around 10am, to seek shelter in the shade. This became our routine over the next 10 days, as we explored the deserts of Death Valley, Vegas, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon, Zion and Valley of Fire. What surprised me most was how markedly different each terrain was, despite being so relatively close in proximity.

The heat was something which absolutely floored us, despite being so well prepared with very early morning starts, drinking loads of water and resting up in the shade by mid day. All our focus and energy went towards simply coping with the constant and extreme heat.

The desert mirages were fascinating. As we rode, it often seemed that there were ‘rivers’ running across the road ahead, reflecting the sky or approaching cars. But as we approached these ‘rivers’ they just evaporated, as they were simply mirages, created by the desert heat. I found them captivating and mesmerising to watch…

The day we set off for the Grand Canyon, we left at 4:30 am –  the time zone in Kanab, Utah was an hour ahead of that in Arizona and we needed the extra early start to catch sun rise at the canyon. Even at that early hour the temperature was already 21degrees Celsius, so as was customary I was riding in just my bikini under my Klim riding gear. This strategy had served me extremely well over the previous days, as the heat just climbed steadily throughout the morning and wearing the least amount of clothing was helping me to cope with the heat.

The sunrise was pretty spectacular but what I was ill prepared for was the temperature dropping – which it consistently did, until at one point we were riding in 5 degrees Celsius! I had made the absolute rookie mistake of using the previous weeks’ experience to go by and was thus not prepared, not carrying my cold weather gear, and soon I was freezing. Paul had a jumper and I had a long sleeved T-shirt, which I carried to keep the sun off my arms. We stopped to put these on, but they were no match for the dropping temperatures, and the almost alpine terrain as we got closer to the canyon.

Teeth chattering, I described my predicament to Paul over the Sena intercoms and he was having a laugh at me being freezing, not carrying my cold weather gear – I was riding in 5 degrees celcius, wearing only my bikini – the last thing I imagined as an outcome for our day… Paul stopped to offer me his jumper and that’s when he discovered he had his heated jacket and down jacket in his pannier all along! Boy was I relieved for his offer of help … and I’ve learned a very valuable lesson from that! Always be prepared for any type of weather.

I have just finished reading “Desert of the heart” by Karen Chamberlain. She beautifully describes her life in the desert landscape of the “Four Corners” area in the USA, which is Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Although Paul and I only got a small taste of the harsh, beautiful, vast, magnificent, scary, awe inspiring, unforgiving, powerful, captivating, eternal landscape, it really touched us in so many unexpected ways. My fondest memory on our desert trip is of getting up at 1am, standing outside and looking up at the vast sky …it looked like the sky had a “measles rash” made up of the millions of pin-prick stars, the spectacular milky way was so clear in the dead of the night, with no light to detract from its magnificence.

I had a conversation with a ranger in Zion, who described how many tourists have succumbed to the heat, by not taking it seriously or not understanding the dangers. I’m grateful for the experience and the learning through our desert journey.  It has prepared us well for heading South to Central and South America, where much more desert riding awaits us in countries like Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. I’m also glad the ranger didn’t have ‘yet another crazy tourist’ story to tell…of the girl who died of frost bite because she was riding in 5 degrees Celsius, wearing only her bikini!

Bravely open to new experiences

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” This quote by E.E. Cummings reflects the woman I have come to know, in spending time with my aunt Lynda at her home in California.

I looked forward to reconnecting with people I know, who live abroad along the route of our journey. My aunt Lynda married my mom’s brother, known affectionately as ‘Uncle Pat’ since we were kids. Lynda and I met once when I was about 10 and we had spoken via phone or email over the years, such as at the time of my mom’s death, then more recently when we also lost Uncle Pat. Lynda’s work as an artist is legend in our family, so as a prioirty I wanted to get to know her during our time in California.

As we chatted two themes emerged for me within the story of my aunt’s life – ‘serendipitous encounters with significant people in our lives’ and ‘the incredible value of bravely being open to new experiences’.

At 15 Lynda had to choose an extracurricular class at boarding school. Her choices of car mechanics or casting silver were unavailable to her, so she “begrudgingly settled” on weaving…she fell in love with the craft and art of weaving and over 45 years became known as an accomplished artist, teacher and master weaver with pieces hanging in government buildings, hotels, corporate offices, exhibitions and homes across the world.

I wanted to know what it was about weaving that captivated Lynda. She used words like ‘texture, slow rhythm, meditative, solitude’ and the mechanical and mathematical aspects of creating a piece were challenges she thrived on. She liked that: “You can create a wearable or useful art piece, as opposed to something that merely hangs on a wall. It’s an art form which connects you with history, every culture in the world has weaving.”

Lynda’s initial exposure at school was to Navajo weaving techniques, which are focused on story telling, symbolism through colour and mythical designs. At 18 she spent a year in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico learning tapestry, batik…and also Spanish! Lynda returned to the US and opened a gallery in Aspen, then bought Craft House in New Mexico, expanding her reach.

An invitation to sail in the Cape-to-Rio race was a chance opportunity she did not want to miss, so she set off for Africa, resplendent in an outfit befitting such an ‘Out of Africa’ experience. It was in Cape Town where Lynda met my uncle Pat in the 70’s and she describes her experience as an artist in Apartheid South Africa as “… one of the most creative, artistic places I’ve ever been…” Lynda attributes the racial and gender bias of the time with unleashing such creative energy and describes how art was the perfect medium for human expression both politically and spiritually – art as a form of communication and a means of being in touch with an inner spiritual journey. Lynda firmly believes it was a case of ‘how do we speak through art’ but also of ‘how does art speak to us?’

Lynda’s belief in herself and her openness to new experiences is obvious as she recounts the events in her life which eventually brought her back to the US and expanding her art. Her passion as an art teacher is guiding people how to respond to art through contemplation, reflection and communication. I ask her about people who fear they are not ‘artistic’ or creative and Lynda laughs, responding with: “You don’t create it, it creates you! It’s about welcoming art as an experience and in the finished product you can see your experience…in a way your art piece is a snapshot of your experience.” She adds: “…what you have planned may not work out in the final product. Isn’t life like that?” Her eyes are twinkling as she continues: “Despite our plans, life enfolds. We make mistakes. It’s how we accept that or try and change that which is so akin to art.”

Paul and I are enrolled to attend the next workshop being held at Lynda’s home in the beautiful countryside in Moorpark, California. It’s over the weekend of 24 & 25 June and will teach us multiple techniques, like marbling on fabric, stencilling and batik on fibre. We’re also looking forward to meeting and learning from Indonesian Master Batik Artist, Ferris Nawir who partners Lynda for this particular weekend workshop.

So often we balk at new experiences, for fear or prejudice about what they may bring. Yet research supports the notion of new experiences enriching our lives, inspiring us with confidence and appreciation for what we discover we are capable of, connecting us more deeply with others and ourselves. I’m hoping the art pieces we create as gifts for our respective daughters will become cherished mementos… for them as well as for us…

If you would like to know more or attend a class, contact Lynda Brothers:

805-523-3101

http://www.lyndabrothers.com or Brosart@west.net

http://www.artofakindgallery.com

http://www.ArtWanted.com/nawirart