Central America: Active volcanoes, hurricanes, zika, border crossings …and kindness

There are 7 countries in Central America – Belize, Guatamala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. As with so many aspects about this journey, we had pre-conceived ideas about this part of the world and boy, were we taken by surprise!

It is the poorest region in the Latin Americas and with so much negative news about gang activity, crime and corruption, we were being more alert. Central America is geologically an incredibly active region with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. We were warned to take precautions against contracting Zika virus …and oh, did I mention that it also happened to be “hurricane season” when we crossed? Would you believe me if I told you that despite all this we had the most incredible time and simply the most fun, since our journey began 7 months ago in Canada?!

The active volcanoes were incredibly beautiful and we saw the first one ‘puffing a greeting’ in Guatamala, the day we left Antigua. In Nicaragua we hiked up Cerro Negro volcano and volcano boarded down its 728m black ash slope. We hiked up Telica volcano and spent the night camping there, hearing the volcano roaring and steam all night. A young boy from one of the local villages arrived on horseback in the evening with a warm meal of rice, beans and scrambled egg. He broke out in a huge smile when I called him by his name. I had been told about him and about his dream of learning to speak English, so that one day he could also be a guide. He was incredibly shy that evening, but when I saw Jefferson in his village the next morning, I was able to coax a few English phrases from him, with obvious pride. It was such an insanely awesome experience on so many levels – experiencing the incredible beauty and might of nature and being granted a glimpse into the lives of local people.

Crossing this stretch of land during “hurricane season” was a challenge – Irma, Harvey, Nate and Jose were just some of the ‘names’ we tracked daily, often having to adapt our travel plans, due to the destruction they left in their paths. We were awed at damage to the roads but equally astounded by how quickly the roads were repaired.  The Pan American Highway is basically the only road, so repairs were an obvious priority. In Nicaragua we saw the sheer power and devastation caused by hurricane Nate. Walking along the beach at San Juan del Sur we saw buildings shattered and so many large fishing trawlers and yachts lying tossed ashore like discarded toys…

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and it was the biggest, most pleasant surprise! As we drove across the border from Honduras we immediately saw and felt “wow!”  Seeing the absolutely pristine roads and countryside and receiving the most incredibly warm welcome from its people. Speaking with locals about their economy and politics we soon learned of their scorn for their president, Daniel Ortega and their adoration for his wife, Rosario Murillo who they believed has long been the country’s unofficial co-president. Rosario was recently elected as vice president and essentially runs the government. It is her work and vision which has ensured the improvements within Nicaragua. Once again I was mindful of the lesson that as individuals we can have such an impact on the world.

We have Senna wireless headsets in our helmets so that we can speak to each other as we ride. As we crossed the border into El Salvador Paul said: “El Salvador is the world’s most violent country”… the long silence that followed soon had him apologising: “Why did I just say that?!” he asked. We laughed and acknowledged that Paul was simply voicing what we were both thinking and he simply had a moment of “thinking out aloud”. We had read and heard about the notorious gangs known as ‘maras’ such as M13 and rivals, Barrio 18. It is horrific reading about the extent of their crimes, particularly the ‘machismo’ and ‘misogyny’ which they perpetuate. We had already become familiar with these two terms since Mexico and it appears to be a major problem across Latin America, due to patriarchal attitudes perpetuating violence against women. We avoided major cities and our time in El Salvador was incredibly beautiful. I found myself wishing we could stay longer.

Border crossings! That is what I will remember as most challenging about Central America! A fellow traveler posted on his blog that “Border crossings in Central America are like hangovers: Full of headaches and a bit disorienting.” It is a good description and every overland traveler has also had to negotiate the minefield of “fixers” you encounter at each border. “Fixers” are men offering to ‘help’ you with the confusing bureaucratic process for a fee. Border crossings essentially entail a few basic steps: Entering a country 1. Get stamped into the country. 2. Get a temporary import permit for your motorcycle at customs. 3. Get your bike fumigated. Leaving a country 1. Get stamped out. 2. Cancel your temporary import permit. How hard can it be? As we have a basic command of Spanish and have researched border crossings thoroughly, we decided never to use “fixers”, however we had not considered the devastating impact of ‘human error’ and all too soon the “fixers” also proved themselves capable of scuppering even the best laid plans…

Our first encounter with a “fixer” was at the Guatemalan border with El Salvador. I was waiting for Paul as he exchanged currency when a motorcyclist stopped for a ‘chat.’ I innocently exchanged pleasantries but it soon transpired that he was a “fixer” and by chatting with him he had assumed he’d ‘been contracted to help’! Despite our protests, he would not leave our sides. It’s a bit like trying to ignore a migraine, having a “fixer” stick to your side like glue, whilst you negotiate the border crossing process. He’s waiting for the moment you hesitate or need any help…and it’s bound to happen, as we soon learned.

‘Human error’ can have a disastrous impact, when negotiating borders. We knew to check and double check everything, but when everything’s in Spanish and you’re also not quite 100% sure what you’re checking for, it’s not that simple. Entering Guatemala I asked why we did not have an entry stamp in our passports and was told it’s ‘not necessary.’ This proved incorrect and not having this essential stamp meant that we could not leave the country without returning to Immigration at Guatemala City, paying a fine and sorting it out. Before we left the Immigration offices Paul happened to compare our passports and noticed our stamps were not the same. When he enquired about it the embarrassed immigration employee apologised and corrected her mistake. Without Paul’s acuity we would have found ourselves traveling back to Guatemala City to repeat the process for a third time! This type of ‘human error’ occurred on so many subsequent occasions, it’s a wonder we got as far as we did. Incorrect VIN numbers, passport numbers or the colour of the bike. Small mistakes with dramatic ramifications that also saw fellow bikers having to return many miles to borders to sort mistakes out.

Each border has slight (and often very confusing!) variations with respect to what paperwork is required. Most countries need copies of your original documents, so in preparation we carried plenty of those. Some countries required you to make copies of the new stamp in your passport or required copies of the cancelled import permit from the country you had just left. We were astounded at the bureaucratic maze at each border and came to appreciate how helpful “fixers” could be… but at a price.

At the El Salvador/Honduras border the “fixers” literally swarmed around us as we arrived. Tempers flared and soon they were sent packing. One “fixer” hung around discreetly and once we were through Immigration and Customs he mentioned that we would need 3 copies of our cancelled import permits at the Honduras side. In appreciation, I thanked him with some coin and we headed off but we were sure surprised to see him waiting for us on the Honduras side! True to form he shadowed us and it was quickly evident that there was going to be a major delay as the computers were down and queues grew quickly as bus loads of travellers started arriving. The “fixer” spoke English and his friendly banter was fun. I remember sitting on the concrete floor just watching him ‘work his magic’ with our group of bikers and this what I observed…He pro-actively spoke to officials to ask about the delay. When he knew the computers were down, he suggested a few solutions like standing in the queue for customs on our behalf and getting our vehicle paperwork stamped. Our group agreed to this time saver and handed the necessary $ amount for the permits to be stamped. Our “fixer” walked straight to a money changer, negotiated a better exchange rate and pocketed the difference. He was running backwards and forwards, bringing completed documents as we waited in the queue which had the computer delay. Soon we were thirsty and when one of us went to buy cool drinks our “fixer” was also treated to a beverage, as he was ‘one of us’ by this stage. Someone in our group noticed that the “fixer’s” ID badge had a photograph of someone else. Despite the photograph clearly being of a black man with an afro (which he was not!) he insisted it was an old photo himself and just laughed at us. The next thing I noticed was that our “fixer’s” English started ‘to fail’ … suddenly he could not speak English and ‘summoned a friend to translate’ what he was trying to say. It was all so obvious, that it was quite comical and I could see where this would soon head. A third ‘friend’ was soon recruited to ‘speed up the fumigation process’ which also had a long queue…  long story short, yes you guessed it, at the end of this 4-hour border crossing all these ‘friends’ needed to be paid for their help too! Simply masterful and cunning, it was actually quite entertaining and impressive to watch it all unfold. Through the Central American Integration System, there’s talk of pursuing a common currency and passport, which would make painful border crossings a thing of the past in Central America. As confronting and irritating as the “fixers” could be, my overriding thought was of them as people…desperate people simply trying to eke out a living by any means possible.

Throughout Central America people were wonderfully warm and incredibly generous of spirit. We experienced so many random acts of kindness that it made an incredible impact on us. Throughout the region there were so many examples of how individuals made a difference to our world – a lady offered us her umbrella when it started to rain, a pizza delivery man stopped to ask if we needed help with directions, a lady saw that I had fallen and she brought a first aid kit and bandaged my bleeding knee, a fellow biker stopped in traffic and offered to guide us to our destination, he also advised us of safer routes to travel…there were just so many examples of kindness that this has been our greatest impression of the beautiful Central American people. We have spoken a lot about what this has taught us…about ourselves …about our communities back home in Australia and how we could perpetuate this philosophy of kindness as a living legacy in our lives.

Guatamala… one word: Inspirational!

As we rode out of Mexico into Belize I was surprised to find myself teary…we had so loved our time in Mexico and the kinship we’d built with its people. The experience we’d had with the earthquake and seeing its devastation made me feel guilty for not staying to help in some way…what I did not yet know at that moment, was what a profound impact Guatemala would have on me.

We whizzed through Belize mainland in a day, as we’d already visited its island paradise and our hangovers from that party were still lingering. My main impression of Belize was of it being a very religious country and the many beautiful Brahman cattle and ranches. Billboards saying: “In God we trust” were prominent and we were surprised to see this printed even on the loo paper!

Border crossings are an anxious time for us and Guatemala was no exception. However, as we rode across the bridge into the country we were greeted by officials extending their arms out wide, smiling and greeting us with “Welcome to Guatemala!” On the Belize side of the border I had wanted to pop into the loo quickly, but a stern ‘loo-lady’ blocked me, frowning, demanding rudely that I pay. As we had no peso left by this stage, I was forced to retreat, as she had no mercy for my plight. In Guatemala there were no public banós (toilets), but the officials allowed me to use their private facilities with a smile. This made me think about how as individuals we can have such an impact on others, through simple acts of random kindness.

Our entry into Guatemala was processed quickly and we were pleasantly surprised at both the efficiency and friendliness. I asked why we did not have a stamp in our passports and was told “no es necesario” (it’s not necessary). Our crossing at the border appeared quick and painless, but later I will tell you how it all went so horribly wrong…

Our first stop was Tikal, the ruins of an ancient Maya city. As we left the jungle the following day, we came across a young couple pushing their broken down motorcycle in the heat. We stopped to help them without a second thought and there have been so many moments when I’ve reflected back on that random act of kindness, wondering if in some spiritual sense we had “paid it forward” for the many many many random acts of kindness we would subsequently experience in Guatemala?

Riding to Guatemala City was one of the worst experiences for me, due to the dangerous conditions of the road and the extent of the traffic. Mud, pot holes, sheer cliffs, steep inclines, trucks barreling along, steep camber, buses hooting, road works, head on traffic – and all of this happening at once! As an example, a 7km mountain pass took us just over an hour, due to the demanding riding conditions. Paul loved every minute, however I found the experience daunting, exhausting and simply terrifying! After many exhausting hours of riding, we limped into the city and straight into late afternoon rush hour traffic.

Chicken buses were hooting loudly and trucks jostling across lanes, it was still more of the terrifying riding. A fellow motorcyclist waved to us in the traffic then pulled over, beckoning we do the same. As we got off our bikes he greeted us with a wide smile, saying: “Welcome to my country! How can I help you?” Ricardo was our first Guatemalan ‘angel’ and there turned out to be many…

To this day we do not know why we chose to overnight in Guatemala City, (we always avoid major cities) but it was a blessing in disguise in so many ways. Ricardo guided us along a shortcut to our hotel, but on arrival he recommended we not stay there, as it was not in a safe part of town and the security was not as advertised. He quickly got on his phone and arranged an alternate hotel and guided us there. As we enjoyed a drink with him later he asked about our plans. He gently advised us to make a few changes, as we had chosen locations and roads known by locals as being dangerous. He gave us his contact details and made us promise to call him if we ever needed anything else. We soon discovered that Ricardo’s random act of kindness was not a once-off experience. There were so many moments where complete strangers stopped to ask if we needed help – a pizza delivery man stopped in the traffic asking if we were lost, a lady offered us her umbrella when it started to rain (I kid you not!) and later we were gifted many more acts of kindness in a very dire hour of need.

After a wonderful time exploring this beautiful country, we set off at 5am for our border crossing into El Salvador. We had been ‘warned’ about fixers at the border, so in advance we had agreed not to get conned into paying for their help. A few hundred metres from the border Paul stopped at a bank to exchange currency and I was waiting for him at the side of the road. A man on a motorcycle stopped to “say hello” and as this was nothing new, I exchanged friendly banter. It turns out he was a ‘fixer’ and Paul was furious that I’d inadvertently “engaged his services” by simply returning his greeting! I told him we did not need his help, but these guys are like super glue…you simply cannot get rid of them! He followed us all the way to the border post, lingering as we tried the immigration process unassisted. I soon knew something was wrong when the official asked where we had entered Guatamala, kept paging and paging and paging through my passport, going to see another official and eventually asking to see Paul’s passport…

Long story short, we were very politely told that there is “un pequeńo problema” (a small problem)! That stamp I had asked for as we entered from Belize?…yup, it was essential and we did not have one!

Without that stamp we were illegally in the country (our bikes were not) and we were told that we needed to return to Guatemala City and get it sorted out at Immigration. The look on Paul’s face can only be described as “ashen, shocked and horrified” …the thought of riding back all that way and of facing Guatemala City once again was just too much for us to handle in that moment! This was also the moment that the ‘fixers’ REALLY pounced!

Suddenly the ‘fixers’ were on us like bees to a honey pot, offering us all sorts of help, promising secret contacts who could sort out our predicament, without us having to ride all the way back to Guatemala City. With nothing to lose, we agreed to let them show us what could be done. We were called into the back office of the immigration officials and presented with a lady “who could give us the stamp for a fee of US$400”. Each time the ‘fixer’ turned away from the lady to talk to us, she vigorously shook her head and mouthed “no!” at us, but each time he turned to face her again, she smiled sweetly back at him. Thankful for her discreet warning, we were soon riding back to Guatemala City…

We had booked hotels in El Salvador and would be incurring cancellation costs, so wanted to minimise our delay as much as possible. En route back to the city I noticed a wobble in my steering and called it out to Paul. As the roads were so shonky, I was doubting my judgement about whether it was a problem with my bike or just the road conditions. We booked into our previous hotel, stored the bikes and set off in a cab to try and sort out our immigration challenge first, then deal with assessing the bike. Trying to sort out an immigration challenge in English is daunting enough…we had the challenge of trying to do this in Spanish! By the time we had stood in a few incorrect queues and been sent from pillar to post on various floors, it turned out that we arrived an hour late at the correct immigration counter. VISA applications are only processed in the mornings, so we were told to come back the next day. Absolutely deflated, I tried to explain our predicament in Spanish, asking if there was any other way forward. A young girl in the queue saw our struggle to communicate and offered to translate, as she spoke both English and Spanish.

Soon she had explained our whole story and managed to negotiate an exception, if we were prepared to wait another hour, which we did. Our cab driver had offered to wait and Paul went out for a second time, to let him know not to wait as we would be a couple more hours. He said he would wait for us, without extra charge. The staff at Immigration ended up working after hours to process our VISA application and with many “gracias” we were soon on our way. We were astounded at the willingness of the Guatemalan officials to help us, as it entailed involving people in a few departments, not just one. We made many new friends that day and people were interested in hearing about our journey and how much we’d loved their country. Our cab driver got a handsome tip for his generosity of spirit, making our lives so much easier by waiting for more than 2 hours.

Next we called Ricardo and within 15 minutes he was at our hotel, guiding us to BMW, who he had already made arrangements with to assess my bike (it was now after 5pm). We were told the front brake rotors were damaged and that it would cost US$1000 for parts to repair. As they dismantled the wheel, they also discovered that the wheel bearings had failed. The assumption was made that the bearings had failed, in turn causing the rotors to be damaged. The problem thus became a case for warranty repairs and our delay appeared to now be a matter of days. Shattered from a long, stressful day we had dinner and went to bed early. The next morning we walked over to BMW to receive the wonderful news that on final inspection it was only the wheel bearings that needed replacing, so after paying only about US$15 for parts we were soon on our way!

Looking back, both our trips to Guatemala City were a huge blessing in disguise. Guatemala City is where we met Ricardo and his advice about our route for subsequent travel was invaluable. Earlier this week we met 2 bikers from Canada who took that particular route and unfortunately they were held up at gun point and robbed. The lady’s clothes were cut off her body with a machete and she was extremely traumatised just telling us about their terrible ordeal. Had we not returned a second time to Guatemala City where there is a BMW dealer, we may not have assessed my bike so early, and it would have eventually failed quite dramatically. We would have been stranded with serious bike problems and without a BMW dealer to be found for many countries.

Since I’ve been a young child I’ve always started and ended each day giving thanks. Noticing the things to be thankful for has always come easily. Our journey through Guatemala has been such a powerful lesson in how the simple acts of random kindness by individuals can make such an incredible impact on the lives of others… I asked Paul what word he would use to describe our experience of this in Guatemala. He said: “Inspirational!”

 

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!