Wednesday, September 14, 2011

And So It Ends...

One of my worst fears was played out and as a result, the cycling trip has unfortunately ended.  On September 10th we were about 5km from the Nicaraguan border when two young bandits jumped out from the side of the road with a gun and machete.  They ordered us off the road and to get down so no one would see us.  At first I thought it may be a possible kidnapping but later it was clear they just wanted as much as they could get.  It was obviously one of the worst experiences of my life and I am quite thankful both Trevor and I made it out in one piece alive.  They threatened us many times by pretending they were going to shoot their gun and even gave me a couple of whacks with the machete (only hitting me at the last second with the flat side, not the sharp edge).

We gave them our money, but they continued to take all our cameras, music players and both our front pannier bags.  As a result, I also lost my Netbook.  Luckily they didn't take our Canadian passports but got our Swiss one's.  I am somewhat surprised they didn't take everything.  

They eventually were satisfied and crept back into the bush with our things.  We then jetted off on our bikes towards the Nicaraguan border to seek help.  A few kilometers later we met with the police.  I explained the situation but they were useless.  They kind of laughed it off and said nothing could be done.  This incident totally proved the point you are pretty much on your own when you enter Mexico and head south.  

Since we had no credit or debit cards, we were left in a predicament of how to return home.  Luckily Trevor had some Euros in one of the pannier bags they didn't take.  He also had his laptop.  Major lifesaver.  That night we took a minibus back to Choluteca and spent the night there cancelling our credit and debit cards.

The next morning was frustrating as it was Sunday and nothing was open.  We first needed to exchange more Euro into Honduran Lempira and that took a lot of time and stress.  But eventually I managed to find a place to exchange (Texaco of all places).  From there we took another bus to the international airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital city.  Since we still had the bikes we wanted to know the logistics with shipping them back home.  It again was a frustrating process as no one down there does anything or helps much.  Seemed like we couldn't catch a break anywhere.  To make matters worse I also purchased some chocolate milk at this grocery store nearby and drank a good quarter of it before confirming with others it had gone bad even though it hadn't yet expired.  Ugh.  Luck has definitely not been on my side these past few days.    

After spending a night in a filthy hotel, we cycled to a good bike shop where we finally caught a break.  The owner spoke fluent English and provided us with a ride to the airport once the bikes were disassembled and packaged.

That night I wasn't feeling great again so it was another rough night.  To pass time, however, it was nice watching the men's US Open tennis finals and later the GOP debate on CNN.  

The next morning (Sept 13), the owner of the bike shop kindly drove us to the airport with our packaged bicycles.  We still needed to pay the excess fees as we couldn't pay them online.  This caused another problem and once again added to our ongoing frustration.  The agents made it clear we could only pay the excess fees in cash or by credit card.  When I told them what happened and that we do not have any credit cards they said there was nothing they could do.  We did have a card number but they said they needed to physically see the card.  Money was tight as we still needed to pay the steep airport tax of $37.80USD each (what we were paying for I have no clue because that airport is crap).  I tried to persuade them to make some sort of an exception but got no where.  Time was of the essence as I only had about an hour or so to sort everything before the flight took off.  I then rushed to a nearby HSBC to see if I could exchange more Euro.  Of course, nothing ever goes right when you need it to as they didn't exchange Euro.  I then went to a local bank, same thing.  I finally found a bank that exchanged but they wouldn't accept our 100EUR note as it was not crisp and clean.  I ended up exchanging what I could and then rushed back to the airport.  I was quoted beforehand it would cost us 3,166 Lempira ($168USD) to transport both bikes and returned with that amount and some.  Unfortunately the agent forgot to mention that was just for one bike.  Major frustration as we didn't have enough for the two bicycles.  I was getting real annoyed but was determined to leave that hell hole as I didn't want to stay another night.  The agent suggested calling the credit card company to see if she could work something out.  Trevor had a scan of the card on his laptop and showed it to her.  She then said why didn't we show her this in the first place as that was all she needed to put the transaction through.  Geez, thanks for letting us know that in the first place.  So all that running around turned out to be all for not.

From there we still had a few obstacles to go through as we had a few connections in Atlanta and LA.  All in all it worked out and we are now back in Vancouver with the bikes.  YAY!

Leading up to the robbery, our time in Central America was alright.  We had a great time in Guatemala.  We met a young journalist who works for one of the national newspapers called Prensa and interviewed me about our journey.  It was very cool to do the interview.  We also did a half day in Antigua and climbed up Pacaya Volcano.  I love checking out volcanoes so this was pretty neat.  Unfortunately we didn't see any red hot lava nor did we get to walk around the crater.  

In El Salvador, the roads were smoother to ride on but I had my first punctures since Washington which was strange.  I think it was all that wear and tear on the tire.  On September 9th, the first day of my string of stressful days, we had some problems withdrawing money.  In a town called San Miguel, Trevor tried to withdraw money from an ATM but it ended up eating his card.  We spent the entire morning trying to get it back but in the end it was no use.  It took me ages to get help and when I finally got someone on the phone, they told me we had to go the center and pay some money in order to get it back.  It sounded too complicated so he cancelled the card and we left.    
So all in all, the last 5 days or so have been horrific.  From here, we plan to do what we need to do to get back on our feet and then we will decide what to do next.  Right now, there is talk of continuing to travel around but this time doing it the old-fashioned backpacking way.  Then possibly in the springtime of next year we will hop back on the bikes and cycle the USA and Canada from West to East and circumvent Europe.  Of course these are just thoughts running in my head at the moment.  We'll see though.  At the end of the day one of the main reasons for embarking on this adventure was to see more of the world.  Just have to decide what the next step is to go about doing this.  Stay tuned...        

Here is the small article in the Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa.  
Me on Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

Mexico Done and Dusted

After a month we finally finished Mexico!  Not a whole lot of excitement though in the last two states of Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wahaca’, just like that restaurant bar in Canary Wharf) and Chiapas.  However, we have had a lot of tough times on the mainland so I guess no news is good news. 

I liked the last state, Chiapas, as it had a Mexican feel to it.  Also the terrain was pretty much flat so we were cruising and getting good mileage in.     

It is always exciting entering a new country, with different food, culture, sites and sounds.  We are currently in Coatepeque, Guatemala.  Apparently this town is a major stopover on the Colombia – Mexico drugs ‘n’ guns route.  Oh joy. 

We saw a handful of tarantulas crossing the road, or at least trying to.  Unfortunately this one never made it to the other side.  
Nice stretch of beach in Oaxaca. 
It is unfortunate, but most dogs aren’t looked after very well in Mexico.  This St. Bernard didn’t look so healthy and started to bark at me when I took its photo (maybe he is camera shy).  I must say though, there are far too many stray dogs in Mexico.  Also, it is extremely annoying when domestic dogs start chasing us on our bikes.  They don’t pay attention to the road and just run out into the open oblivious to the oncoming traffic.  No wonder we see so many dogs as road kill.  They aren’t the brightest of species it seems.  
One of many rivers we passed in Chiapas. 
A macaw at the last hotel we stayed at in Mexico. 

Mexico: A Dog’s Life

It sucks to be a dog in Mexico. As a dog you start your life all cute and fuzzy. You get all the attention in the world. The kids won’t stop playing with you. They’ll squish you, punch you, and basically beat you up. While that might not sound like fun at least you’re getting attention. Come the time when you lose your good looks, cuteness and fuzziness then the humans will lose interest in you. You’ll be relegated to the streets to fend for yourself. You’ll spend your days wandering the streets in search of food while at the same time watching out for the other dogs out there that’ll rape you. You’ll do the best you can but you can’t avoid them all and one day you’ll end up pregnant, have your babies and wind up all decrepit looking. Then one day you’ll wake up with your butt attached to another dog’s butt via... I don't know what. How that happened nobody knows (Yes, Kevin and I actually saw two dogs stuck together like this. It was not a pretty sight.) You and the other dog try hopelessly to break free of each other while other dogs attack you and have their way with you. Eventually a big dog comes by and gives you a good walloping causing you to flip over the other dog and break free. Ashamed you and the other dog limp off in separate ways. If you’re lucky in life maybe two cyclists will pass you by and give you the opportunity to chase and bark at them. They come and go and you return to wandering the streets. Eventually your misery ends with a large truck spreading your entrails all over the road.

Meanwhile the humans have gone off to the market in search of a new fuzzy playtoy from the collection of puppies being carted around town in small cages.

Journal Entries - September 3rd, 2011 - Adiós Mexico, Bienvenidos Guatemala

We have been travelling through Mexico for 30 days and it’s time for a change. Today we crossed into Guatemala. Border crossings are exciting and daunting at the same time. It means you need to learn and experience new things: how to cross the border, the customs of the people, a new currency, how to find a place to stay at night, the expected cost of food, how to treat people (are they withdrawn or social), how to deal with traffic, the road conditions, the weather, the terrain, etc… Getting to the border was easy enough. We choose the southern border so we would avoid the highlands in Guatemala which have 3000 meter mountain climbs. The Pacific Coastal region only has 800 meter climbs (though Antigua will take us to 1600 meters). Looking to the east we can see the huge mountains off in the distance. The border crossing went smoothly. We had to pay 1 Peso each to exit Mexico, we didn’t even need to get stamped out on our passport. The visa stamp on the Guatemala side was 10 Quetzals each. Immediately I noticed a difference from Mexico. The border town seemed more lively than its counterpart on the Mexican side. It seems like there’s just more stuff here and more stuff going on and the people just seem happier. So far there aren’t huge distances between towns, and even between towns there’s stuff. Hopefully that’ll continue and we won’t be short on food like we were in Mexico where you could go 50km – 80km and see nothing. As we headed off to the next town (40km down the road) it started to rain (all through Mexico we only experienced rain two or three times while cycling). It seems like the rain always starts around 4pm in Guatemala whereas in Mexico it starts around 8pm. Weird how that change occurred as soon as we crossed the border. Halfway to the town we stopped at a market to pick up dinner. Kevin noticed that the prices in Guatemala were a little higher than in Mexico (which in turn was higher than in the USA). The quality of the produce is lower than in Mexico. The roads are potholed, much like they were in Mexico (though that improved as we headed further south), but the roads are much wider than they were in Mexico. The people seem more social. Two vehicles cruised alongside Kevin talking to him about where we were headed (that only happened twice all throughout Mexico). Within the first 40km of Guatemala we saw the aftermath of three accidents whereas in Mexico we’d see an accident every 600km. Toyota seems to be the vehicle of choice here whereas in Mexico it was Nissan. We also climbed to 500 meters during that first 40km. The grade was very gradual though so we didn’t really notice we were going up to 500 meters. In Mexico the grades were much steeper so you’d know when you were climbing to 500 meters. Hopefully that won’t change but I doubt we’ll be that lucky. The hotel at the end of the day was of the same quality we found in Mexico.

Overall I’m just feeling better in Guatemala than I did in Mexico.

PS: Kevin went to the supermarket in the evening and was really pleased to find a 1 gallon jug of milk reduced from 36.60 Quetzals (~$5.50 US) to 9.65 (~$1.50 US) Quetzals. That made Kevin’s day.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Day in the Life – Episode III: Mexico (Mainland)

Our life on the mainland of Mexico is quite different from our days in Baja so here’s our new life.

***

September 2nd, 2011 – Started in Arriaga

5:50am – Kevin gets up and goes to the washroom.

6:00am – Trevor gets up and uses the laptop that was left on overnight. Kevin prepares his breakfast (corn flakes, oats and milk) and turns on the TV to watch Married With Children (his old favorite).

6:07am – Trevor goes to the washroom.

6:11am – Trevor returns, prepares his breakfast, and uploads the news podcasts he downloaded overnight to his MP3 player.

6:23am – Kevin prepares his 2nd bowl of cereal.

6:27am – Kevin uses Trevor’s laptop to Tweet and check his e-mail.

6:30am – Trevor changes the channel to CNN.

6:33am – Trevor goes to the washroom again.

6:38am – Trevor returns and changes the channel (same crappy CNN interview that was on last night is being rerun).

6:43am – Trevor settles on a Mexican news channel talking about some shooting. Trevor makes his 2nd bowl of cereal.

6:51am – Kevin goes to the washroom again.

6:53am – Kevin returns from the washroom and continues using the laptop.

6:57am – Trevor finishes his 2nd bowl of cereal.

6:59am – Trevor unplugs GPS and MP3 player which were charging overnight.

7:02am – Trevor tops up his rear tire.

7:06am – Kevin prepares his 3rd cereal and changes the channel to CNN (covering Libya).

7:08am – Trevor packs away the Tabasco sauce he used last night for dinner and goes to the washroom for a 3rd time.

7:15am – Trevor returns to have watermelon that Kevin’s already started.

7:23am – Throw away ¾ of the watermelon as we are too full to eat it. Trevor also passes on his third bowl of cereal. Trevor washes his bowl.

7:26am – We both pack our stuff away.

7:30am – Trevor has his remaining milk from breakfast and the apple juice he didn’t finish the night before.

7:32am – Trevor makes one last attempt at updating the blog map. Only successfully uploads 2 tracks (28th and 29th of August).

7:34am – Kevin goes to the washroom for a 3rd time and Trevor packs away the laptop.

7:38am – We head outside.

7:40am (0.00km) – Trevor turns on the GPS and starts listening to the podcasts on his MP3 player.

7:43am – We start cycling.

8:02am (5.26km) – We stop at a gas station (Pemex) so Trevor can go to the washroom for a 4th time.

8:05am – Kevin takes 2 photos.

8:06am – Kevin applies sunscreen.

8:07am – Trevor returns.

8:11am – We start cycling again.

9:35am (36.50km) – Stopped at a military checkpoint. Asked where we’re headed and about the GoPro camera on Kevin’s bike before being waved on.

9:39am (36.90km) – Stop for a drink of water.

9:44am – We start cycling again.

9:51am (38.76km) – Kevin stops to take photos of an iguana he’s spied on the road. It runs off before he can take a photo though. Instead he takes photos of the landscape. Trevor listens to a dog endlessly bark from across the road.

9:54am – Kevin takes a sip of water.

9:55am – We start cycling again.

10:37am (53.57km) – Kevin stops to get rid of a bug in his shirt. Both of us take a sip of water. Trevor puts on some sunscreen.

10:41am – We start cycling again.

11:14am (64.74am) – Stop for a water break.

11:18am – We start cycling again.

1:07pm (102.5km) – We stop at a market for food.

1:15pm – Kevin returns with a 3.78L jug of orange juice, 4 pastries and cereal for tomorrow. Total cost is 48 pesos.

1:26pm – We start cycling again. A guy wasn’t pleased that we parked our bikes on the sidewalk partially blocking pedestrians. Essentially we got kicked out.

1:34pm (104.2km) – We stop to drink more orange juice. Trevor also eats two buns he saved from the day before.

1:42pm – A guy named Rosario comes to talk with us in English. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness and tells us he’s been all over central and eastern USA.

1:45pm – Rosario leaves and Kevin says he thought the guy was going to give us a pamphlet from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

1:46pm – Rosario, now in his car, drives by and hands us a pamphlet.

1:54pm – We start cycling again.

2:24pm (114.0km) – Two guys on a motorbike cruise beside us and talk with Kevin about where we’re going and that the guy has been to the USA.

3:25pm (137.7km) – We stop for a drink of orange juice.

3:35pm – We start cycling again.

3:39pm (138.1km) – Trevor has a flat rear tire and just pumps it back up.

3:41pm – Kevin, doubling back after realising Trevor wasn’t following, returns to Trevor.

3:43pm – We start cycling again.

4:08pm (147.2km) – We stop at OXXO.

4:18pm – Kevin comes out with 1L of milk for himself, 2L of fruity pop for Trevor, and condiments for dinner (toppings for the tortillas). Total cost is 20.10 pesos.

4:30pm – We start cycling again.

5:42pm (176.6km) – We stop to decide where to go. Trevor takes a leak on the side of the road.

5:47pm – Trevor has a sip of pop.

5:49pm – Trevor pumps up his rear tire again.

5:52pm – We start cycling again.

6:16pm (185.0km) – Kevin stops for a leak on the side of the road.

6:17pm – We start cycling again.

6:38pm (191.5km) – We stop at Hotel Lisboa to check the price.

6:43pm – The top floor is 170 pesos but the bikes aren’t allowed up there. The bottom floor is 230 pesos and the bikes are allowed there. Kevin’s not pleased and continues to haggle.

6:47pm – Kevin gives up (the owner was getting annoyed) and gets directed to another hotel.

6:51pm (192.0km) – We find Hotel Narcia.

6:53pm – The hotel is 236 pesos but is closer to the markets so we choose to stay at Hotel Narcia.

7:00pm – Kevin argues that he should have the bed directly under the fan (because, having lived in Singapore, he can’t handle the heat at night like Trevor can—go figure). However, Trevor’s already parked his bike beside that bed and doesn’t want to bother moving his bike. We move our bikes and Kevin takes the bed directly under the fan.

7:04pm – Kevin goes shopping for dinner.

7:06pm – Trevor unpacks bike to patch the tube.

7:16pm – Trevor unpacks his laptop and charges the GPS and MP3 player. Downloads the day’s GPS track.

7:17pm – Trevor starts fixing the flat.

7:38pm – Trevor can’t find a leak in the tube so he puts everything back. Decides to see what happens in the morning. Kevin returns with dinner. Total cost is 75 pesos.

7:45pm – Kevin has a shower.

7:48pm – Trevor starts writing this post.

7:53pm – Kevin finishes his shower.

7:57pm – Trevor has a shower. Kevin unpacks dinner and starts making his tortillas.

8:07pm – Trevor finishes his shower and comes out to find that his rear tire is flat. Why couldn’t that happen before the shower? He’ll eat first and fix it later.

8:10pm – Trevor starts making his tortillas.

9:00pm – Trevor finishes eating and starts unpacking his bicycle to fix the flat.

9:16pm – Kevin finishes eating his tortillas. Both start watching a September 11th show which interviewed George W. Bush.

9:29pm – Trevor finishes fixing the flat (probably due to a shard of metal left over from when he modded the rim to fit a Schrader valve).

9:32pm – Kevin starts making a bowl of cereal (bran flakes, oats, milk) for himself and another for Trevor. Trevor resumes writing this post.

9:43pm – Trevor starts eating his bowl of cereal and Kevin makes himself a second bowl of cereal (chocolate flakes, oats, milk).

9:52pm – Trevor finishes his first bowl and Kevin finishes his second.

9:56pm – Kevin prepares Trevor’s second bowl of cereal.

10:00pm – Kevin changes the channel and settles on 50 First Dates.

10:01pm – Kevin washes his dishes in the sink and watches TV.

10:11pm – Trevor finishes his second bowl and washes his dishes in the sink. Finds he’s still got a flat rear tire. Trevor’s not happy and just lays down on the bed in frustration.

10:15pm – Trevor continues writing this post.

10:55pm – Kevin brushes his teeth and goes to the washroom

11:00pm – Kevin returns and continues watching TV.

11:09pm – Trevor finishes writing this post and starts working on fixing the flat tire once again.

11:16pm – Kevin turns off the TV and goes to sleep.

11:42pm – Trevor finishes fixing the flat tire (decided to replace tube as the hole was near the valve and the patch was leaking).

11:43pm – Trevor brushes his teeth.

11:50pm – Trevor packs away laptop and goes to sleep.

***

For all but three or four days on the mainland we’ve stayed at hotels. It tends to pour overnight and most land is either private or overgrown with vegetation so camping is just too much trouble. Also we have started having large breakfasts and doing longer legs before stopping again for a food break.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Journal Entries – September 1st, 2011 – A Recap: Mexico, The Last Days

Nothing much has happened since our experience in Acapulco until today. Ever since leaving the USA the stomach pains never returned until today. And return they did: with a vengeance. He experienced his worst case of them. After drinking almost a litre of orange juice and eating three buns he didn’t feel good and went off to the washroom. After returned he didn’t look well and was basically immobilized. He complained of a fever, excessive sweating and feeling like he was about to faint. He didn’t even have the energy to dig inside his bags to find the Pepto Bismol. He took the Pepto Bismol and two Tums before he lay down on the ground using my sleeping bag as a pillow. We were in a park and school just let out so a lot of kids were walking past Kevin as he rested on the ground. None of them really paid any attention though as they seemed more focused on their social lives. I just sat on the bench and waited. After 45 minutes or so Kevin eventually rose from his stupor and sat down. Five minutes later he was good as new. He licked the remainder of the Pepto Bismol, cleaned the cup, packed it away and off we went.

In other news I also lost my water bottle a couple of days ago. I think it got knocked out of its holder when my rear tire fell into a grating. I’m not sure as I didn’t notice it was missing until we found our hotel at the end of the day. It was my 750ml water bottle and my favorite water bottle. Sucks, I really liked that water bottle. It had the squirty nozzle and everything.

Other than those two events nothing much else has happened. I guess I’ll just mention that many of the people we see on the road (road workers, people walking/cycling, people in stores on the side of the road, people riding in the back of pickup trucks) just stare at us with a dumbfounded look on their faces. When I get that look I usually give a wave and then they often break out of their blank stares and start hooting, hollering and waving back at us. Sometimes people will initiate the waves, hoots and hollers. One guy in a passing car puckered his lips at me. Not sure how to respond to that one. I just waved back. For the most part though I’d say Mexicans are a little on the shy side. A fifth of the people initiate waves, hoots and hollers; another two fifths give us a dumbfounded look until we wave to them; with the remainder not caring at all about the two cyclists on the road.

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