mexico

Riding in the Hills near San Cristobal in Mexico

Hola!

Come along with us for a couple of minutes on a ride in the hills near San Cristobal in Mexico. We've chosen not to add a GoPro to our bag-o-technology-stuff so Keith somehow managed to remove the camera from his tank bag while underway and take this video.

And now it's time for the videographer to take a well-earned break.

P.S. If you love the music by our amigo Grant Boden, you can click HERE to peruse the entire album.

According To Our Strengths

Written January 9, 2016 

I am sitting on the roof of our hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, three floors above the cobblestone streets.  This is one of those times, as I described to a friend the other day, when I wish I could have all of you with me, just so you could see, and hear, and smell the wonderful scenery that surrounds me now; to hear the softened sounds of scooters and trucks from below, and smell the flowers that surround me in pots and on the tops of the flowering trees that encircle me.  Or it could be the clean laundry on the line just behind me.  In front of me, about 3 blocks away, is the yellow mass of the cathedral “La Merced”, and to my right is the towering mass of Volcan de Agua that dominates the view at 3,776 meters (12,388 feet).  All around the terrain is mountainous, and covered with trees.  On the road in yesterday, we topped out at a chilly 3,030 meters (9,940 feet) over one pass.  I still haven’t become used to seeing pine trees and palms growing together.

Recently, Jalene and I have had up and down moods on this trip.  I haven’t fully thought it out, but it seems that on this trip, as it must be on every long journey, there comes a time when the things coming along at you no longer seem so new and exciting, that change stops coming fast enough to pull you along by curiosity alone.  The goal becomes more long-term.  Perseverance and determination must take over to keep propelling you on your way.  I think we knew early on that this was not going to be a vacation, but instead a new vocation, and now the full realization of that has finally set in.  Our task each day is to do what is necessary to move in a logical direction and achieve the short-term daily goals of seeing interesting nearby places and solving immediate problems of money, bike maintenance, where to eat and sleep, etc.  At the same time, we also need to move toward longer-term goals such as the next country, where to buy crucial “big” items like tires or chains, which may require a capital city with a big motorcycle outlet.  You can quickly see that balancing all of these needs while mapping out the route ahead requires a great deal of planning and work.

We divide the major tasks up according to our strengths.  I take care of all bike maintenance, and do all the navigating on the road.  By the end of the day, I’m often mentally toast but physically fine.  Jalene specializes in planning support, and is a whiz at looking ahead when we are coming into big cities and identifying hotels that might suit us, sometimes booking a reservation before we get there (a huge time and energy saver).  She also takes care of bank accounts and money, as well as kitchen stuff, and it’s so wonderful to have a cup of tea handed to me with some hot oatmeal in the morning.  It makes us that much more independent to be able to say “Okay, we’ll just heat up some noodles and veggies for dinner.”  Also, when she makes sure we eat, we make better choices and decisions.  The opposite of me, she is often physically toast by the end of the day, but mentally sharp for the planning tasks and other things she does so well.  Each of us feels that the other does the majority of the work.

Anyway, back to the up and down moods.  We spent all of our time in Mexico just wandering around.  And that was great, but eventually, after leaving Zipolite, we found our moods falling.  After a while we both admitted that the trip wasn’t much fun anymore, and after talking it out we realized that we no longer had any real goal in mind.  Up until Zipolite, we had been steadily moving south, but now in southernmost Mexico, we were circling the Yucatan, and then Jay’s bike broke down (that story momentarily), taking us even farther back west away from our route south.  We seemed to have lost our rudder, and decided that, while still taking the time to see the many various interesting places along the way, we should pursue a southward goal more steadily.  Maybe if we kept moving along, even at a slow pace, where we could continue to see southward progress, our moods would pick up as we regained our purpose.  Just talking and identifying this helped both of us feel better immediately, and now that we are down in Guatemala, it feels like we have made huge progress and our spirits are rising again.

To pick up the story of our two adventurers again – we had left Escarcega, heading west, leaving the Yucatan Peninsula, and preparing to turn south toward the Guatemala border.  The morning began with rain, but dried up to overcast skies in about an hour.  About lunchtime, I suddenly saw Jalene drop back, and her voice on the intercom told me the bad news.  The motor had lost some power for a few seconds, then died.  By the side of the road, after a brief diagnosis, I was pretty confidant that her fuel pump had failed, so I pulled out two straps and towed her about 10 km to Chable, a little place by the side of the road with food.  At that point, we were about 200 km from Escarcega to the east, and 160 km from Villahermosa to the west.  We had some enchiladas, and a couple of Mexican guys on Triumphs pulled in.  We had waved as we leap-frogged gas stops with them earlier that morning, and now they helped us negotiate with some people with a pickup truck to take the bike to Villahermosa, where we could get a hotel and I could work on the bike.  We took off, Jalene shoehorned into in the Ford Ranger truck with a man and a woman, me talking to her through the helmet intercoms.  Soon it started to rain, and by the time we got to Villahermosa, two hours later, it was pouring and dark.  The road was full of potholes, and I was thankful I simply had to follow the truck.  During the ride in, Jalene booked a hotel room for us on her phone.  When we got to the place, the door was completely blocked by all the taxi-vans, so we unloaded the bike on the next block and walked it back to the secure garage.  Finally, I was able to take off my soggy gear and collapse on the bed.  A very, very long day for both of us.

I got on the web to research F650 fuel pumps.  The website F650.com is worth it’s weight in diamonds for this type of thing.  Turns out that many people have fuel pump problems because the power supply wires to the pump are made just a little too short, and as the pump moves around on its rubber mounts over bumps and potholes, the wires pull tight and break at the connector.  When I removed Jalene’s fuel pump the next morning, that’s exactly what I found.  A taxi took me to the local AutoZone, where I got some wire and crimp connectors (I thought I had packed them, but no) and within two hours everything was fixed, with longer power wires, and the bike was running great.  Whew!  While here in Antigua, I intend to lengthen the wires on mine before they break.

We turned south and followed a great road down to Tuxtla Gutierrez, where we found the sun again, and a nice place to sleep for only 250 pesos (about $16 US).  After a night there, we rode south until just before the Guatemala border, where we found the Hotel River in Paso Hondo, again for only 250 pesos.  We had huge Cubano sandwiches for dinner (mine leaving a mild legacy in my intestines for a couple of days), and in the morning it was off to the border.

We had read so much about Central American borders in general that we took the time and did a little research in the days leading up to this.  We made multiple copies of all our documents, and made sure that we changed some of our pesos to Guatemalan Quetzals before we crossed at the little town of La Mesilla.  We got through Mexican Immigrations and Customs (Aduana) without a hitch, where they stamped our passports and refunded our security deposits for temporary importation of the motorcycles.  We rolled over the border stripe into Guatemala, and were immediately directed into a square on the pavement where they spray the tires and underside of the bike with a pesticide.  Then we rolled another 30 feet to the immigration office, where we filled out a little form and got our passports stamped in, then we went another 50 feet and were taken care of by the Aduana office (Customs).  After paying a total of Q484 (about $63 US) for everything, we were finished, and free to travel in Guatemala with our bikes for the next 90 days.  Very easy and professional all the way around, and the whole process took about two hours total.  Somehow I fear that other borders will not be this easy.

I must tell you about the terrain at the border.  In Mexico, we approached over gently rolling low hills and agricultural land, but right where Guatemala and Mexico meet, so begin the mountains.  At a very sharp break they simply burst up from the ground, steep, high, vertical green mountains with so many peaks packed into them.  At the border, you are literally going up the hill and into the mountains, but first you go through the craziness of the vendor markets that choke the gritty road leading away from the border.  It was a neat trick just threading our motorcycles through - I really felt sorry for the trucker towing a trailer with a helicopter on it.  Very soon after crossing, you find yourself entering a steep-walled, narrow canyon, where coffee plants climb the hillsides, and the fresh-picked beans are spread out along the road to begin dryingdry.  It’s funny, but to me they have a kind of sharp, pungent scent that is not like coffee at all.  The roasting must bring out the smell we think of as “coffee.”

Our first night across the border was spent in Huehuetenango, a really happening city where we found a hotel that was cheap by surrounding standards, but more expensive than we had become used to in Mexico.  Still, it was very nice, and so we were glad to have a landing pad after our big day of border crossing.  Walking around to check on insuring the bikes, we met a guy who owns three independent bike shops, and he repeated what a bank had told us – that bikes aren’t generally insured in Guatemala, at least not for foreigners.  But what to do if we have a wreck?!  “Well, you talk.”  People talk and come to a reasonable agreement.  And so, against our better wishes, we’re carefully riding with no insurance, but we still intend to check it out more fully now that we’re settled in Antigua for a few weeks.  It will be interesting to find out what the local riders do here.

Yesterday we rode through the mountains from Huehuetenango to Antigua, and so here we are.  We start our Spanish school early Monday morning, and we will also meet the Guatemalan family that we will be living with for the next three weeks.  This is going to be interesting, to say the least.  This afternoon I went out in search of a can of WD-40.  Two blocks of walking led me to an English-speaking owner of an independent motorcycle service shop, who was working on a couple of bikes with Ontario, Canada plates.  I left a card on the bikes, and shortly afterward got an email from a Canadian couple who would like to meet up with us for beers this evening.  And the shop had some WD-40.

And so it goes, traveling along, meeting new friends around every corner.  The world is a friendly place, and I am so glad to be seeing it for myself.  It will be even better in a few weeks when I can talk to these nice folks without sounding like a pathetic gringo.

***

See more photos HERE and Jalene's Travel Learning HERE.

Ten Pesos For Both Bikes

Written January 4, 2016

It seems forever since I posted here.  Sorry if anyone is wondering what happened to us.  Where have we been, and what have we seen since the last blog post?  When I last wrote, we were on Zipolite Beach on the south shore of Mexico, and I was recovering from a cold.  At the end of ten days, we left the warm sands and headed east along the coast of the Pacific, spending a night in a gritty town called Juchitan.  Moods the next morning were soured when Jalene discovered one of her custom-made earplugs missing, and no amount of searching turned it up.  Resorting to foam plugs, she donned her helmet and we headed east.  Soon we were in an area forested with wind generators, and a strong crosswind was picking up.  Before long the wind was blowing across the road in the neighborhood of 75 mph, probably gusting higher.  The trucks coming the other way acted as temporary windbreaks that made it even harder to deal with.  This lasted about 30 miles, I’m guessing.  The bikes were sometimes leaned over toward the centerline hard enough to scrub the tires as we fought to stay on the road.  The best speed seemed to be around 25 mph, letting us maneuver at a speed to stay not just in the lane, but on the road at all.  Twice, we came upon semi-trucks that had been blown over and lay across the whole road, and to stop we had to put the sidestands down then pull down hard on that side to keep the bike from blowing over.  If either one of us had gone down (both of us nearly did several times) it would have been impossible to successfully right the bike again.  Rolling along at slow speed was the safest option, and thankfully we were able to do that until we got out of it.  I’ve been riding for about 50 years now, and that was by far the strongest sustained crosswind I’ve ever had to deal with – flat-out scary.  Jalene did great, and I’m pretty confident now that she’ll be okay in Patagonia.

That night found us in San Cristobal, where we took a break and spent two nights.  A beautiful city, we once again ran into a parade which we enjoyed immensely.  It was made up of flatbed trucks, with each one carrying a depiction of one station of the cross – you know, the 3 wise men, the birth, the miracles, the flogging, the crucifixion, etc.  The last truck then had Santa Claus with presents and Christmas carols, which seemed a bit jarring and crassly commercial after the very serious “floats” preceding.  There is no purity in the world anymore.  In between trucks were hundreds of people all dressed up like Halloween, dancing and having a great time.  Jalene and I have learned to just go with it and join in the fun.

A small portion of the Palenque ruins.

After that we turned the bikes north toward Palenque, and the huge Mayan ruins site.  The road north through Ocosingo has a reputation as one where the locals (aka revolutionaries, Zapatistas) often blockade the roads and demand money, and we found them.  The issue is the government mistreatment of the local native Mayan folk.  The technique used is to take a board, drive hundreds of nails through it, then lay it down across the road, one in each lane, with the points up.  Traffic backs up horribly.  If they get what they want, they drag the spiked board out of your way, let you go, and then slide it back.  At the first one we ran into, they had traffic backed up about a half mile.  Policia, we noticed, were allowed to pass right through (but they did nothing!).  We rode up the margin to the head of the line, and the guy asked me for 10 pesos.  I said no.  He said 10 pesos.  I said 10 for both bikes.  Okay.  A coin went into the bucket and we were through.  At the second roadblock we encountered, we rode right up to the front, then glued our front tires to the back of a huge tour bus they had to let through, and so got away for free.  Later that day at Palenque, we ran our friend and fellow traveler Claudia, whom we had met in Oaxaca.  She is German, and drives a righteous Toyota Land Cruiser diesel wagon that has a pop-up camper top, a serious overland vehicle.  They demanded 100 pesos of her, but she refused, finally parting with just 10 and getting through.

We found a campground at Palenque, but the ground was still extremely soggy from drenching weather the previous days.  We took a little casita there instead of pitching the tent, then rode the bikes helmetless and in shorts and t-shirts the two kilometers up to the ruins.  It felt scandalous and terrific.  The Palenque Mayan ruins are a site with over 500 identified structures, but only a couple of dozen have been fully excavated.  We were offered a tour but blanched at the price, and went off to fend for ourselves among the excellent interpretive signage.  This is a site worth visiting!  We were agog at the huge structures, and the details that were still visible etched into the stones.  An especially interesting building was one that they had restored on one side, and left completely untouched on the other.  A lovely pyramid with artful stonework here, but around the corner it’s just a hillside covered with trees.  Ground penetrating radar has helped to reveal hundreds of structures in recent years, indicating a city of vast proportions, with intricate waterworks coming down off the hillsides above.  Apparently, Mayan water managers really knew their stuff, and the city had running water everywhere.

After Palenque, we headed to the northeast and the Yucatan Peninsula.  The ground quickly flattened out, and we dropped to just a few meters above sea level, and we were never higher than about 15 meters for the next week.  We began to see monkey bridges over the highway.  They are made by erecting a pair of “telephone poles” on either side of the road, then stringing ropes between them, and stretching net between the ropes, creating a sort of high suspension bridge over the pavement.  There are five or six ropes leading up from the ground to the tops of the poles on either side, making it easy for monkeys but extremely difficult for any predators.

It was coming on Christmas, and so Jalene found us a place in Tikul, just south of the city of Merida, where we could relax a few days and take a Christmas break with good wifi for FaceTime.  Christmas was a very quiet day for us.  We connected with families, catching up on the latest news back home.  All seems well, which is always a relief.  Maybe even more so for them.

After our Christmas break, we headed up to check out the northern shoreline of the Yucatan, and see if the flamingos there really are pink.  And guess what – they are!  They look just like the plastic ones that were in our neighbors yard when we were kids (they were so exotic).  After a while the road turned to sand, and rather than get ourselves stuck and in trouble with the tide, we turned around and headed back inland to pavement.  That night found us in Tizimin, where we found a fabulous and cheap hotel, and got to see another parade, although this one was over in about three minutes.  Still, they had those huge rockets, which makes any festival great (for me, at least).  The rockets are sticks about 3 feet long, with a rocket tube about two inches in diameter and 8 inches long.  They just hold it upright loosely and light it.  Goes up a variable height, occasionally not at all, and gives a hugely satisfying boom.  They set them off at all hours, and for any or no occasion, which I just love.

The next day we turned southeast and headed for the Caribbean shore.  Our route took us through Tulum, which we had visited in 2007.  Although I recognized the town, I was glad of our GPS to confirm it, because Tulum has noticeably grown in the scant 8 years since.  It’s bigger and busier, but the same flavor still seems to be there.  I did recognize a few restaurants we’d eaten at.  Time moves on, so did we.

We ate our lunch through a downpour a little further along, finally pulling into Bacalar.  We checked out the Green Monkey campground and hostel, but it turned out to be too crowded, and we didn’t want to find out how all those people were going to share two toilets the next morning.  So we looked around and found a wet but comfortable campground a little further north that had simple food and a slight high spot for the tent.  Turns out that high spot was crucial, as it poured buckets again that evening after we turned in.  We heard others arriving back at the campground, and loud consternation over flooded tents and sleeping bags.  Time to put the earplugs in.

We packed up our wet things and went to check out Mahahual, which we’d heard some good things about.  We found a place called Blue Kay, and they let us pitch the tent for really cheap, plus they had laundry service, showers, a restaurant, the works.  New Years Eve was that night, so we signed up for their big party event, too.  Seeing as how Jay and I never make it past about 9 or 9:30, we might have thought that one through a little better.  The dinner served was outstanding, but then we had to soldier on another two hours until midnight, where some really bad (like, undrinkable) wine and champagne was poured for everyone.  We toasted, and then got the hell out of there and climbed into the tent.  Next day we rose early and went for another swim in the Caribbean, then watched the town explode as the three cruise ships that docked during the night disgorged boatloads of people to spend the day in town.  By about 6 that evening, the boat people were all magically gone, and we had a very quiet town again, which led to discovering where the locals ate.  Jalene had excellent crepes, while I found the busiest taqueria.

Finally it was time to leave sleepy Mahahual and head back west to rejoin our route south to Guatemala.  The rain started as we finished packing that morning, and we had a soggy first hour until we got to Chetumal, where it dried out but stayed cloudy.  We gassed up, as we had been told there was no fuel available on the trip across the Yucatan to Escarcega where we would spend the night.  Turns out that information was garbage, there is gas at several points along the way.  Actually, at no point anywhere in Mexico were we ever far from a fuel station.  Pemex stations are very frequent and usually have a convenience store attached.  The day improved as we rode along, and by the time we got to the hotel in Ecscarcega, it was full sun and hot.  I took the opportunity to spread out the tent and camping gear to completely dry.  Dinner was tacos de pastor at our favorite-tacos-so-far taqueria next door, where they mince pineapple into the taco, and the pork is tender and very moist.  You can watch the lady behind the counter make the tortillas as they are needed, and so when you get your food it is steaming hot, much too hot to pick up!

Here I shall stop, as our story takes a sharp twist tomorrow.  Stay tuned to find out how our adventurers fared when we rejoin them by the empty roadside, west of Escarcega.

***

Peruse many more photos HERE and check out Jalene's Travel Learning HERE.

Hazy Blue Beyond

Written December 13, 2015                         

I don’t have anything exciting to tell you.  And that’s fine with me, because after four months of traveling it’s long past time to simply plonk down somewhere and enjoy where we’ve come to.

We left the great volcano Pico de Orizabo behind and rolled along a combination of paved and dirt roads through the desert scrub.  The hills along side us were covered with what looked like long spines or stiff hair growing straight up, sparse at first but then thicker and thicker.  As the road approached the base of the hills we could recognize it as a new kind of cactus, some of them quite tall, like saguaro.  Down along the gullies was another kind, branching strongly like trees, but with all the branches turning to go straight up.  As we continue south, we often come across a new plant or tree that makes for a dramatic change in the landscape, and this new cacti is certainly one of them.  Another example is last month, as we were climbing through the high desert of northern Mexico approaching Zacatecas, we saw Joshua trees, and they became a thick forest that one couldn’t see through.  It made Joshua Tree NP up in the US seem kind of silly by comparison, there were so many of the trees and they were so densely packed.

We made our way up a broad river valley, twisting and rolling along a snake of a road through arid rocks, cactus, and sparse brush.  Eventually we started a long climb over a pass that would take us down into Oaxaca.  We climbed up and up, and we weren’t the only ones going over that pass.  In the desert heat, there were hundreds of people on bicycles accompanying trucks carrying big glass boxes with statues of Jesus or the Virgin Mary or some other religious symbols, all covered with flowers and palm fronds.  The bicyclists were not your racer types, all dressed up in lycra and spandex, no, they were mostly regular people on all sorts of bikes, some in shorts, some in jeans, all sweating in the heat, but all making that climb.  They were strung out on the road over many miles, and support trucks were setting up food stops near the top to feed and refresh the peddling pilgrims.  I admired them all, as I couldn’t imagine doing the same myself in such heat.  The climb up that pass took us up at least 1,000 meters (~3,300’) if not more from the valley floor, to an elevation of around 2,800 meters (~9,200’), then rolled along up and down, up and down, as we rode along the ridge crest southward.

The wee town of Tule is where the "stoutest tree" in the world is located. Learn more here.

We stayed for 5 days in a small town about 12 kilometers east of Oaxaca called Tule.  Calvin and Leann are Canadian transplants, and they own a place called Overland Oasis for travelers such as ourselves.  We pitched the tent in the shade and had great company while we were there, not just from our hosts, but from the many people stopping there in their own travels.  Many were in impressive overland rigs, and from a variety of countries, especially Europe.  Calvin has a nice shop area and tools, so I took advantage of that and adjusted the steering head bearings on both bikes, and did several other little jobs on the list.  Jalene’s bike has been lowered one inch front and rear, so her center stand has always been too long, making it a two-person chore to get it up the stand.  Calvin offered to shorten it, and since he’s done plenty of welding on race car frames, I said okay and we did it.  It really wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d imagined it might be, and now it’s easy to pop her bike up on the center stand again.  Calvin didn’t want to charge us anything for it, so we found a way to kick in for the cold beer supply there - thanks, Calvin!  I must give a plug here – and if you’re travelling through the Oaxaca area by bike or car or truck, you’ll want to stop at Overland Oasis for a break, and if you have repairs to do, it’s the ideal spot.  Find it on iOverlander.

We said goodbye were back on the road south again, but we got a late start after a big group breakfast, and it’s slow packing up when you don’t really want to say goodbye.  But we got on the road about 11, and made it to the foot of the mountains by 2:30, where we stopped after finding a nice, cheap hotel in Miahuatlan to get out of the heat.  I’d eaten a bad shrimp burger the day before and wasn’t feeling 100%, so I was happy to call it a day rather than pushing over the mountains.  Next morning we had a fantastic ride over the range that separates inland Mexico from the Pacific.  It reminded me of Ecuador quite a bit, with continuous twisting two-lane road in various states of repair, and the occasional huge truck swinging around the blind corner at you in both lanes to keep things exciting.  We dropped down out of the cool peaks into more and more humid air, which warmed dramatically as we wound down, down toward the hazy blue beyond which I knew must be the ocean.  Nearing sea level, we were sweating something fierce in the hot, damp air.  We reached the beach, and followed the GPS to La Habana Cuba, a group of nice, simple cabanas right on the beach at Puerto Angel.  We are at the southern tip of where Mexico curves under on the Pacific side.

We are on the Pacific Ocean.  Jalene and I had not seen the Pacific since we left August 10, and I had no idea how much I had missed it until it was in sight again.  Once we were settled in our cabana, I could sit back and listen to the roar.  I realized that the sound of the ocean, which has been a constant all these years, has been gone while we were traveling.  Now that I heard it again I felt somehow restored and complete.  I’ve always loved hearing it while lying in bed drifting off to sleep, and now here it is again.

The beach here runs east-west.  It’s actually somewhat disorienting to someone like me who has lived on a north-south beach for over 20 years.  The sun rises at one end of the beach, and sets on the other end.  At night, since we’re only about 15 degrees off the equator here, the stars come up in the east, travel nearly straight overhead across the sky, and set in the west.  Orion arches over the length of the beach at night for us, so just by looking up I can estimate the time of night.  I’m so used to the stars circling the North Star - I’m having to relearn where things are again.  The North Star is not even visible here, since it’s low enough on the horizon to be hidden by the mountains we rode over to get here.  Soon we will be far enough south to start picking out stars and constellations associated with the southern hemisphere.

Our friend Chris, from Australia, has already pointed out to me how to find the Southern Cross once we get a little farther south.  Some of the stars in Orion form what they call “the frying pan”, and it is a pointer to the Southern Cross in the same way that the Big Dipper points out the North Star.  We met Chris at Overland Oasis in Oaxaca, he also being a traveler by motorcycle, and we shared the tent area.  Chris bought a locally made Dynamit brand 250 for all of about $2,000, and has outfitted it with soft panniers and other good equipment, and has been having a great time exploring Guatemala and Mexico on it.  In Oaxaca he had a local upholstery guy put new foam in the seat, making it taller and more level, and giving it a really nice material for the cover.  A first-class job it looked to me, and for only 350 pesos! (~$22)  With regular oil changes, it’s been running perfectly for him, and he has plans to continue back down into Guatemala to meet up with friends down there.  More proof that the big adventure bikes are often just overkill.  Chris is also here with us in the cabanas, but tomorrow we part ways.  We wish him all the best in future wanderings, and, as with so many we have met along the road, would love to meet up with him again someday.

“Our” beach is only about a half-mile end-to-end, and so one can stroll it at leisure and, once back at the cabana, feel that one has accomplished something after walking the entire shore.  Not much happens here, which is just fine with us, and our 6 days here have flown by.  We’ve spent our time deciding which beach restaurant has the best food, and the winner turns out to be the one only 30 yards away.  The local dogs are a treat to watch, as they all seem to get along just fine, and have a marvelous time visiting each other up and down the beach, engaging in hilarious romps in the sand, and demonstrating for the humans just how life should be lived here.  I’m taking notes.

***

We have no links to photos this time because the wifi at the beach doesn't like uploading them. Sorry. We'll share the links in the next post. Hopefully.

Jalene is sharing the top 10 lessons she's learned from traveling so far. Check them out here.

Music, Art, and Conviviality

Written December 6, 2015

We actually got a pretty good night’s sleep in the dead girl’s room (See the previous blog post.).  I think I slept better than Jalene, but I was a little puzzled at how I could simply not care about the fact that someone was probably murdered right here.  I’ve often thought that the years spent in Alaska in the late 1970’s probably hardened me in ways still undiscovered.  In the commercial crab fishery there, I saw some pretty gruesome things at a young age.

We took off out of Apizaco without finding anywhere open for breakfast.  It only took us about a half-hour to get to our destination that day, Tlaxcala.  On the way, the highway came up and over a rise, and we were treated to our first view of Popocatepetl, the volcano that rises to 5,426 meters (17,802’) over the valley floor.  It was pumping out a massive amount of pure white steam, a grand sight in the still-clear morning air.  Later in the day, the warm rising air tends to form condensation clouds and hide the summit.  Beside it is another volcano, the dormant peak of Iztaccihuatl, its peak covered in snow.

Our home for a week in Tlaxcala with Airbnb hosts Sharon and Jaimie.

We were headed for Quinta Amada, which we’d found on Airbnb.  We planned to take a week-long break from riding and get to know the valley around Puebla, the fourth-largest city in Mexico.  There are many Mayan ruins in the area, as well as the wonderful museums and architecture of Puebla itself.  Tlaxcala is a smaller town outside of Puebla that has a significant history, it being the place where Hernan Cortes made an alliance with the four tribes that enabled the defeat of the Aztecs.  Inside the Palacia de Gobierno in town, there is a remarkable mural that runs up the stairway, illustrating the history of Mexico and the role that Tlaxcala played in it, well worth seeing if you come to this beautiful town.

Our home for the week was a very nice little casita which was part Quinta Amada, a bed and breakfast on a hill just west of Tlaxcala.  We had perfect privacy, a secure parking area for the bikes, and yet had the company of our hosts just a few steps away in the main house.  It’s a short walk down to the main street and food vendors.  The view from our little front door was of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.  I went out early each morning and checked, and Popo was sometimes steaming, sometimes quiet, but always a beautiful sight.  It was much like being back in Tacoma again, with Mt. Rainier an ever-present neighbor.

Funky bathrooms delight me. Need to blot your lipstick? Los Contenedores has just the thing.

One reason we wanted to stay the week in Tlaxcala was that Thanksgiving was coming up, and we wanted to be at a place with reliable internet so we could Skype with our families on the holiday.  Our hosts at Quinta Amada, Sharon and Jaime, an American woman and her Mexican husband, are very gracious people to say the least.  They invited us to have Thanksgiving dinner with them, which was bound to be fun as they were having the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry dressing, the works.  They were also inviting several Mexican friends to join them, so it would be a superb Espaniol session for Jalene and I.  We ended up having a marvelous time, and, like always, it was noisy with laughter and stories told, never mind the language obstacles.  Sharon and I had made apple and pumpkin pies the day before, and they got devoured.  All agreed it was a wonderful evening.

After dinner, one of the invited couples asked if we’d like to go into town and see the bar they owned – sure!  Turns out they had a piece of land along the river, and they wanted to combine music, art, and conviviality.  So they brought in six 20-foot trucking containers, set them down, and turned each container into one component of a nightclub.  One was the bar, one was the restrooms, one was an art gallery, another was a comfortable living room, and the other two held more stuff to be brought out onto the large covered patio to form a wonderful outdoor bar-café.  On top of that, they make delicious artisan beer featuring Frida Kahlo on the label.  The remaining land was covered in grass, where music is played on a regular basis, with outdoor concerts and shows.  When it’s time to close, everything goes back into the containers, the doors are locked shut, and it becomes just another semi-vacant lot beside the road.  It’s kind of like a flower that opens at night, unfolding into chairs and tables, lights and propane heaters, music and fun, and then folding back in on itself to await another day.  If you’re in Tlaxcala, stop in and enjoy a relaxing time at Los Contenedores (The Containers).

Eventually though, it was time to climb onto the bikes and continue exploring Mexico.  We had a three-day weather window at hand that would allow us to visit the “Magico” city of Cuetzalan, back up in the southern end of the Sierra Gorda.  So we headed northeast for a beautiful ride across rich agricultural land.  Popcatepetl faded into the brown haze of pollution to the west (it’s pretty bad some days), but soon we had another big volcano rising on the horizon ahead of us.  This is Pico de Orizaba, also called Citlaltepetl, the highest mountain in Mexico, and third-highest in North America at 5,636 meters (18,491’).  This mountain comes right up out of the plains to the west, making it seem even more spectacular in height.  There is a huge set of glaciers off the north side of the peak, which shone brightly for us in the sun.  The flat fields around were planted with corn, vegetables, and other staple crops, and looked to me like first-class growing land.

Soon we were off the main highway, and taking the little roads up into the mountains toward Cuetzalan.  Twisting and turning, go up, up, up along canyons and rivers, we were treated to spectacular views as we wound through high farms and ranches built on ever-steepening slopes.  It reminded us very much of the farming practices we saw in Ecuador, where they used little or no tilling on the steepest slopes, leaving the last crop to rot back into the soil as the next one sprouted or regenerated.  On somewhat less steep fields, we saw where they tilled with horses, which could traverse the field without tipping over or sliding.  This was the beginning of the dry season, so there was less risk of heavy rains and erosion in the coming months.  The freshly turned soil was dark and rich with promise.

Once in Cuetzalan, we wound up, down, and around in the steep old streets until we found our hotel.  Jalene turned thumbs-down on the room however, disliking the mold on the walls.  As I watched the bikes, she hiked down the hill to another hotel, and pronounced it fit for habitation.  Cuetzalan is a tiny, compact town of steep and slick cobblestone streets, mostly one-way, and so we had to circle through it twice before finding our way back to the hotel only two blocks below us.  Jalene did a great job of negotiating difficult terrain on a packed bike, and at last we parked the bikes in the courtyard.  This area of Mexico is noted for the local ceremony, the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) where four men hang from ropes as they circle and descend from a tall pole.  Here in Cuetzalan, the pole is in the town square, and 30 meters high (about 100’).  A fifth man stands atop the pole, with no safety lines or net, and performs a dance for about 5 minutes before the other four tip backward and swing from four ropes as they unwind from the top of the pole and they slowly descend toward the ground.  Finally they are on the ground, everyone starts to breathe again, and the brightly costumed performers mingle with the gathered crowd like stars.  Look it up on the web, it’s an amazing thing to watch, especially the guy dancing on top of the pole as he arches waaay back at times, looking straight up at the sky.  And of course there was another of those incredible, temporary markets that pop up here in Mexican towns, only to vanish leaving hardly a trace by the next morning.  Anything imaginable is to be found, and it’s so much fun to jostle through and look at shirts and hats, tools and vegetables, pig’s heads and pencils.  But soon we were sleepy after a meal overlooking the cathedral, and we wandered back up to our room and tucked in for a snooze.

We had decided it was now time to start our journey southward to Oaxaca, which would take several days at our pace of travel.  And so back south we rode, down through the canyons and mountains, coming out onto the plains again and approaching the giant Pico de Orizaba.  We spent the day taking photos in the clear air and sun that day, and as we wanted the little roads, we departed the lines of trucks and headed off across the fields toward the big volcano.  Soon we were at its foot, and found a little town called Ciudad de Seran, right at the base of the cone.  We found a nice, inexpensive hotel right in town, and we were able to park the bikes very securely.  Off we went to explore another town, this one with the massive volcano and glaciers always in view directly above us.  Soon we found the cathedral square, and a huge, packed market all set up with music blasting and people all dressed up for some kind of ceremony.  Lots and lots of stuff is happening in the lead-up to the Fiesta of the Virgin of Guadelupe on December 12, when tradition holds that she first appeared on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City in 1531.

We dove right in - adventure!

***

Photos here.

Jalene's sharing the top ten lessons that traveling has taught her so far. Here's the first lesson.

The All-Night Price

Written November 24, 2015

Six days of mountain riding has delivered us to Tlaxcala, where we have booked an Airbnb casita for a week.  We’re finding that after several days of riding, we‘ve moved far enough to seem like we’ve entered a different land, and we need to stop for a few days and get to know the place.  Indeed, since leaving San Miguel de Allende, it’s become more difficult to spell and pronounce the names of towns and cities, as the native culture in the south exerts a stronger influence over everything.  Time to stop and find out what’s going on.

Photos from the narrow "bike" lane can be tricky.

We have spent the last week in the Sierra Gorda range, which lies to the northeast of Mexico City, separating the wet Gulf of Mexico lowlands from the dry interior.  These are tall and high-relief mountains, and we found our elevation to be over 2,800 meters (~9,200’) high.  Crossing and then re-crossing this range over two days, we found ourselves in the thickest fog I’ve ever ridden in at the highest points, and our speeds dipped well below 20 mph for 10-15 miles (jeez, people, turn your lights on!).  Daylight turned to near darkness with the thick fog and trees hanging over the road.  The Sierra Gorda separate desert from jungle rainforest.  Once over the top, the change is quick and dramatic, in the same way that Douglas fir gives way to Ponderosa pine when you cross the top of the Cascades, but the transformation is even more dramatic, as though you’d gone from Burns, Oregon to the Hoh rainforest in one jump.  Vines and banana trees yield to high, thick-canopied pine forest and, as you top the highest pass, the fog instantly clears and you are in brush and cactus in literally seconds.

Another photo from the road.

Pinal de Amoles is high, near the very top of the mountains, and we stopped there on the way east.  A very small town, we found a snug but somewhat dirty room for very cheap, and found out only later that there was no toilet seat.  At that, Jalene offered to take over the duty of selecting a room for us, and I agreed happily.   Some things are better left to her, and we both agreed that with no sign of a woman present, we should have been suspicious of this hotel.  When a woman runs the place, it’s generally a much cleaner and well-managed place to stay.  After a great dinner at the restaurant next door, we wandered through town and found some chocolate flan for dessert.  Yum!  Next day found us over the mountains and down, down, down to Tamazunchale, a super-busy river town about 150 meters above sea level.  It was hot and humid here, and we got lucky and found a nice, cheap hotel in town.  This one was clean and nice.  With the letter missing from one tap handle and the other marked “C,” it was the usual puzzle to find out of it meant Cold or Caliente.  Jump right in and you’ll soon know.

I had my own adventure in town.  I had forgotten to leave the keys with our friends in San Miguel de Allende, and I needed send them back.  After chatting with a police officer and finding out that the post office had been closed down two years prior, I went looking for a padded envelope and found out from the proprietor that there was an “Estafeta”, which sounded like the local UPS equivalent.  Sure enough, the Estafeta office had a scale on the counter and packages piled for pickup, and they were able to deliver my envelope in a couple of days.  While most things here in Mexico are much cheaper than similar US things, this was one that was not, costing 195 pesos, about $12 US.  Ce la vie.  But it was one of those simple tasks that turned into a small, interesting adventure, involving many different people trying to answer the gringo’s halting Spanish questions, and the gringo trying to figure out what he was being told.  Each one ended with a new friend, and a lot of laughter at our mutual efforts to communicate.  I’m smiling as I write, remembering the fun of it.

The forecast called for rain by mid-day, so after sending the keys off, we hit the road.  We crossed back over to the west side of the mountains over an incredible road that twisted and turned, rose and fell without letup for about 150 miles.  We went from near sea level to over 9,500 feet.  On the west side, the land opened up, but the road continued to twist and turn down through canyons and arroyos, up and down and up and down.  The riding became faster as the vegetation disappeared and the sight-lines opened up.  We had terrific fun this day except for the super-thick fog again at the very highest points, but that was just another adventure to have, one which I wish I could have photographed somehow to show you how ridiculously bad the visibility was.  The road became wet and so slick in the fog that I could spin the rear tire just by rolling the throttle open, and on our little loaded 650s, that is seriously slippery pavement.

On our way over the mountains, we briefly talked with a couple from Canada on motorcycles, but we didn’t have a safe place to pull off and talk, and so I gave them a card and hope they see our website and contact us.  They are headed south and seemed like nice folks, and she was riding a 650GS like ours…

The next town was called Ixmiquilpan, a busy highway town, and so we grabbed a reasonable and new-looking concrete box hotel, and were surprised at how nice our room was and how cheap it turned out to be.  Dinner was great, but with the excellent margaritas and slow sipping shot of mezcal approached twice the cost of the room – oops!  Oh, well, we’re having fun, and we can splurge once in awhile.

Onward we rode, and spent a night in Zacatlan, a kind of touristy town in the Puebla Magico, an area promoted as the Magical Mountains and Magical Towns.  Indeed, Zacatlan was very cool, with lots and lots of vendors around the cathedral square, and we also met an English-speaking coffee shop owner, whereas there was no English almost as a rule in the towns we had recently been in.  It started raining as we walked around, causing us to check the weather forecast for where we were going the next day (Cuetzalan).  We saw nothing but rain for a week at least, and so we decided to head southwest instead, where there was nothing worse than partly cloudy forecast.  We booked an Airbnb casita in a town called Tlaxcala, which would give us a break for a week or so, and assure us of a good wifi connection for Thanksgiving Skype sessions back to families in the US.  Such are the things our plans revolve around.

Funny thing about Zacatlan – we had breakfast in a small restaurant just off the square, and there was something about the feel of the place that made you believe you could be in Hood River or Astoria or even Newport.  Friendly, lots of little tables, obviously a local favorite, people coming and going, the staff laughing and smiling, and just a relaxed atmosphere.  Really a nice way to start the day.

The next day was some fairly flat riding, but it had some fun stuff thrown in early in the day as we crossed over a short but high pass and then started a slow slide down, down into the agricultural area which occupies the great valley area of which Puebla and Mexico City are central.  This is fine farming country, and seems to have plenty of water and good soil.  Volcanoes dominate the horizons to the southeast and to the west, contributing to the rich fertile land.  Our Airbnb would not be available until the following day, so we stopped short in Apizago, tired but happy, and found a place to stay for fairly cheap at one of the many “Auto Hotels,” which we had not tried to this point.

An Auto Hotel is a place where one (or more likely two) can drive into a walled compound and rent a room (for a specified time).  Best for motorcycle travelers, each room has a secure, out-of-sight garage where no one can see the vehicle.  We asked for the all-night price (mucho macho!), pulled the bikes into the space below the room and drew the curtain across the garage front.  Jalene Googled the name of the hotel out of curiosity, and confirmed we were in a “kiss-no-tell” hotel, and we chuckled about it until she saw the news article about the girl who was accidently (?) strangled during some rough sex 5 years earlier in OUR ROOM.  We talked about it and when Jay realized I didn’t care, she put it aside and we stayed in the room, feeling we were just getting a little more adventure for our pesos.  Too bad we’d missed the Diaz de Muertes by a couple of weeks.  Aw, screw it, let’s forget it and get some sleep.  (Note from Jalene: I did a fair amount of praying during the night!)

Tomorrow we head down into the crowded valleys below Mt. Popocatepetl, home to the huge metropolises of Puebla and Mexico City.

***

Click HERE for the photos.

A Second System of Arteries

Written November 13, 2015

Today has been kind of a slow, quiet day.  Jalene and I got up, finally, about 9:30, showered, and went outside.  We’re here in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, enjoying time with Grant and Katharine.  The house here is marvelous, with stone walls and dark timbered ceilings.  The courtyard enclosure contains a small pond, and I can hear the bubbling fountain.  Everywhere are flowers of some kind, bougainvillea is one I know, and there are so many others.  Not a riot of color, but a pleasant scattering and grouping.  Bees are at work in the long orange blossoms (trumpet vine) that look just made for the beak of a hummingbird, some flowers having evolved together with their avian pollinator.  We’ve been given the use of a comfortable casita separate from the main house.  Both are enclosed by a high-walled courtyard.  Over us is an open, airy studio where Katharine paints in an abstract style with color and energy.  Ever-present is the music Grant is playing, some of it his own fine work, as he composes and sings some terrific contemporary songs.  The walls are formed with stones of random sizes, and the masonry also includes pieces of tile, old bricks, pottery shards and other objects in a wonderful style that intrigues and holds the eye.  In combination with the vines and flowers growing over everything, a pleasant and continuous flow of color and texture surrounds one in a comfortable embrace.

View from Katharine's art studio. They are both so talented. Take a look at Katharine's art and Grant's music.

We went out on the town for a walk yesterday, but will likely just chill here at the house today.  It’s not a big town, plus there are a lot of foreigners here, so in a way we’ve temporarily left the Mexico we had been travelling through.  There are some very upscale art studios and expensive hotels here.  Yesterday I stood on a corner and watched a Mercedes sedan pull up and park right in the middle of a busy intersection.  The guy got out and just started walking away, but then handed off the keys and, oh – valet parking.  He walked into Hank’s, a posh-looking oyster bar that could be right out of New Orleans.  Hmm.  It really is a cool town, but we’ve kind of seen it, and will move on tomorrow.

Guanajuato, on the other hand, is still real Mexico.  There is a tourist element, though, and so we were often approached by “tourist helpers” who wanted to steer us toward tours or other such fun.  We learned very quickly to just wave them off or ignore them, as we were able to get along just fine on our own.  On occasion we would talk to them, generally just to find out where a certain place was.  This town has a really unique set of streets.  They run both above and below ground.  Years back, as the story I heard goes, the river used to run through and under the city.  With all the hills both within and surrounding the town, it was decided to divert the river, and use the river channel as a roadway, then drill tunnels through the many steep hills dividing sections of the town.  Now, to get to another part of town quickly and easily, you simply turn or descend into the tunnel system, which is like a second system of arteries.  They run mostly one-way, with intersections and roundabouts underground, as well as parking areas carved out of the walls.  Just follow the signs and you’ll pop back out into the sun and can then rejoin the choked surface streets much nearer your destination.  Jalene and I had fun at first, because it was like being slung into a maze.  “Wonder where we’ll end up this time?”

Guanajuato has a lively nightlife.  Jay and I went to see a jazz concert one night and blues the next at the incredible Theatro Juarez, one of the most beautiful theater interiors I’ve ever seen.  First-class shows, the jazz trio was from Toronto, and the blues band from New York.  Both acts used the theaters Steinway piano, and the sound was fantastic in the high theater, with an intimate orchestra level and five levels of balconies, reminding one of La Scala in Italy.  Both concerts were free!  We also went to visit the Museo Diego Rivera, and saw examples of his work from throughout his life, showing the progression of style and thought in a very understandable way.  I would suggest that after seeing all that original Rivera art, you stroll another block down the street and have coffee at Café Conquistadore, where they are roasting the beans right out at the sidewalk.  Another great stop was Café Tal, where we also had a fine and relaxing time of it.  Kind of hard to spot – look for the burlap coffee bags hanging over the window railings.

I find in Mexico I don’t really care what day or what time it is anymore.  Other questions control the day.  Am I hungry?  Is it light?  Does Jalene need something?  Are the bikes running good?  Yes or no to each.  Otherwise I’m just happy to sit back and experience at the world, or write these posts.  There are no impulses that I should be doing something (except maybe work on my Espaniol).  There is no guilt, there is no worry.

When we first crossed into Mexico, I was surrounded by strange sights, strange sounds, colors, textures, crowding.  I was uncomfortable, as everything was strange and new.  As we put distance between ourselves and the border, my discomfort eased.  I became accustomed to my surroundings.  But even now, when I think of the border and that crowded town of Piedras Negras, I feel the uneasiness and I’m glad to be way down south.  But why is that?  Is it that we were told beforehand that the border areas were dangerous, and we should move south out of there as soon as possible?  Maybe, but I think now it was the energy of the place.  Think Mad Max and Bartertown.  At the border, we were busy with changing dollars to pesos, going through Customs and Immigrations, and so on.  Everyone was busy, and there was a frenetic energy to the town.  Moving out of it had the same feeling of relief as leaving an overly crowded nightclub.  Here, further south, I’m comfortable with walking down alleyways and quiet backstreets day or night without too much worry about my safety.  Still, our personal radar is always up, but as we were discussing earlier this morning, the only times we’ve taken action in response to feeling some threat has been while still in the USA…

Next we are heading up into more mountains on our way east toward the Gulf side of the Sierra Gorda.  We are going forward with no plans for where we will be tonight, only a general idea of the direction we’d like to head, weather permitting, with the idea that we’ll be at a destination town of Cuetzalan in a few days.  Back to the exploring way of traveling.

***

Take a look at the photos and at Jalene's video about talking with gremlins.

But wait, there's more! One morning, Keith and I hopped on his bike for a tour above, in, and below the town. My hands were free to capture some video so come along with us...

A Few Basic Questions

Written November 6, 2015

My feet are a little sore.  In the past several days we have walked many a mile, or kilometer, I should say.  But whether straight and level, uphill or down, walking around Zacatecas, Mexico is one of the more rewarding places to stroll I’ve ever been to.  This morning it was off to the Museo de Pedro Coronel, with wonderful art on exhibit from Goya, Dali, Picasso, Calder, Chagall, and of course Pedro Coronel himself.  We’ve been here since last Sunday, and have been having another wonderful break from traveling while exploring an old and historic mining town.

We’re in old Mexico, and everywhere we look is the evidence of age; old weathered stone, chipped stucco revealing brickwork underneath, worn paint, alleyways to nowhere, twisting streets laid out long before grids were ever considered or needed.  We hear a constant roar of buses and trucks, cars old and new, and small motorcycles everywhere.  Everything has a foreign appearance to us, though we’re getting used to the signs crowding in everywhere, street names on the buildings (not corner posts) traffic rules with a rubbery feel to them, and just everything being done a little differently.

We’ve had a few adventures since we got to Zacatecas, but before I share them, let me bring you up to speed on where we’ve been while south of the border.  From Austin, we headed down to the Texas border with Mexico.  We camped one night on the way, at Hill Country State Park, where we were the only campers in this big horse camping area.  A beautiful moon shone down, and a cold morning found us covered in heavy dew.  After hanging the tent over the horse corral to dry a bit, we headed south toward Eagle Pass.  We spent the night at the Motel 6 to get everything ready for the crossing and have a good night’s rest.  We were out of bed, gassed up and fed, and at the border by about 9 am.  We crossed a toll bridge and left the U.S. behind, rolling into the town of Piedras Negras.  A Mexican police officer motioned us into a secure area, and we parked the bikes for inspection.  After a very brief look-see into our side cases, and a few basic questions, passports, etc., we were on our way, with instructions to stop at Customs and Immigrations further down the road.  We didn’t wait in any lines, and we were through in ten minutes.

As we worked our way through Piedras Negras, following the highway leading south, it was like a switch was flipped, and we were either back in time or way, way far from home suddenly.  Everything changed to Mexican, with the crowded business signage, cobbly broken streets, crappy or no road signs, honking, three lanes of cars in two street lanes, everything made of brick and cement, the works.  We loved it.

We just finished with customs and are officially in Mexico. Off we go!

We were supposed to go south to Nava, where we had been told we would find Customs and Immigrations about 1 km south of town.  We threaded our way through town, not wanting to chance missing it, only to find out it’s about 15 km south of town on the highway, and since they stop everyone there, you couldn’t miss it if you wanted to.  We went in with all our paperwork, and again there was no line, just us mostly, and we got our paperwork all done in about 30 minutes.  We paid some fees to get in for 6 months, about 20-some dollars, and then paid a refundable fee to ensure we’d take the bikes back out with us (it can go on a credit card).  My bike only cost $300, since it’s a 2006, but Jalene’s 2007 cost $400.  So if you need to pinch every penny, get something made ’06 or before.

All our border work was done.  We kept on the main highway south to our destination of Monclova.  We got kind of turned around because we missed “One Hotel”, where we wanted to stay, but eventually found it and had a wonderful room for about $45.  Yes, spendy for Mexico, but the goal for the day was to get across the border and complete all the paperwork, so we pushed the easy button on the hotel.  Monclova is a busy industrial town, with lots of north-south traffic, concrete plants, and just general busy-ness.  We crashed after dinner at a local taqueria restaurant, and were out of there the next morning in search of better things.

Parras de la Fuente with bikes parked in front of restaurant where we had dinner.

We found Parras de la Fuentes on the map, and it seemed not too big, not too small, and an easy days ride from Monclova.  We rode the first half on the main highway, but then turned west at Saltillo and took a little road off to the north.  This bypassed the toll road by using the “libre” (free) road, which was mostly used by trucks and those not in such a hurry.  We passed through run-down villages and seeming ghost-towns along the way, and the desert closed in (opened up?) around us.  But soon enough Parras came up, and Jalene had already found a decent hotel using TripAdvisor, which cost us $46 for two nights and a bit of rest.  After fumbling around a bit, we asked at the local convenience store where it might be, and found we were only two blocks away.  Parras is a great town, and we made friends with everyone from the workmen installing the new plumbing at the hotel to a local street vendor, Carlos, selling tunas (prickly pear cactus fruit), and the owner of the local hardware store that sold me a hacksaw (“no, hacksaw, not axe…”).  All great people and it was here that we started getting the idea that the people of Mexico are really friendly.  And that convenience store had big, tasty tubs of strawberry yogurt for breakfast, and real Earl Grey tea.  I was a happy boy.  Jalene tried the push-button machine lattes, and much to my surprise pronounced it excellent.

Keith had a chat with Poncho Villa during our visit to La Blufa, high above the city.

Finally we hit the road and pushed south for one long day to get us to Zacatecas, where we promised ourselves we’d stop for awhile and really start getting to know Mexico.  After a lot of hot, flat riding, we pulled into town without a clue as to where to stay.  It was Saturday night at 5pm, and a guy in a red car asked us what we were looking for (he saw me thumbing the GPS and both our swiveling heads) and we followed him to a nice hotel downtown.  It was kind of expensive, so we did some searching on-line and found nothing available locally, so what the heck, we splurged and stayed one night at the Hotel Merced at about $46.  The free breakfast was outstanding, at least.  Next day we moved to the Airbnb house we are now in, and rented it for $150 for the week.  Secure garage, kitchen, it’s a real house.  Way to go, Jalene!

Wednesday morning I took the bike and headed for the local WalMart.  It’s just like Walmart stateside, only cleaner and with seemingly better clientele.  I picked up supplies for changing the oil in the bikes, then headed to the Farmacia counter to see about refilling a prescription I take daily.  No problem, show your US prescription, buy all you want, no paperwork, no fuss.  And cheap.  I love the simplicity of some things down here.  Later, after changing the oil in the bikes, I was left wondering what to do with the container of used oil.  Suddenly a motorcycle came skidding to a stop, and Luis jumped off and introduced himself.  After an hour of talking over the big Mexico map, he asked if he could have the old oil “…for the trucks.”  Sure!  I wonder if they just use whatever oil they can get.  I have to say, though, that for oil with 6,000 miles on it, it still looked pretty good.  I think the 650 Rotax engines we have are pretty easy on oil, plus we’re not doing too much stop-and-go stuff.

Good news, bad news.  I gave the bikes a good going-over, and other than needing a new headlight bulb in mine, everything looked great.  Except Jalene’s water pump is showing a bit of oiliness at the weep hole.  I’m hoping it’s just the grease I used while installing the seals, but then why is mine completely dry?  I wonder if I’m just hyper-sensitive to this now, and maybe hers has always weeped a tiny bit of oil and it just never registered until this trip.  I’ve decided I’m just going to watch it, and if it isn’t contaminating her coolant, or pumping lots of oil out, I’ll just live with it and call it normal for her bike.

Jalene had an adventure of her own today.  On the way back from the Museo Pedro Coronel, Jalene took a big plunge and went into an Estetica to see about having her hair cut and colored.  She had quite the time of it, and after some discussion and picture-pointing, got across what she wanted and let the shop-owner take over.  I left her in good hands, and wandered off with the camera to find my own way home.  Another woman that spoke good English came in and Jalene made friends with her while the scissors and brush went to work.  Now she’s all coiffed again, with really red hair this time, more like the color she’s wanted for quite awhile.

So now we’re sitting out on the step, looking down the hill toward the Templo de Fatima, and listening to the sounds of the town.  Schools have let out, busses are running around, but it’s a little quieter now than it was nearer noon.  The sun is warm on us, and just a bit of breeze moves the air.  Over the hill, a train blows it’s horn as it moves through the city.  The muted colors of the bricks and stones combine with the glare of the sun in a haze.  Now my head is getting a bit hazy, too. Tomorrow we have no plans except to relax and start thinking about Sunday’s ride to Lagos de Moreno, just a few hours away.  I’m going to put this laptop down now, make some tea, and sit here with nothing to do. 

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We have LOTS of photos to share: Parras de la Fuente, Traveling in Mexico, Zacatecas, and Rafael Coronel Museum at Ex-Convento de San Francisco.

And, here's Jalene talking about what her body has to say so far on this trip.