Monday, August 7, 2006

How to Jockey With a Military Convoy

I won the rock, paper, scissors contest in the parking lot, so I have been elected to compose the first of our collective E-mails while Nate stands guard in the heat watching the bikes.

A spirited Monday greeting from Oaxaca, Mexico. Having traveled nearly 2800 miles during the past seven days (with around two days off in San Antonio while we waited for our last-minute parcels), we finally arrived here in southern Mexico late last night amidst burned police cars, buses used as roadblocks, and a flash flood that almost prevented us from entering the city...but I´ll get to that in a minute.

We entered Mexico on the evening of the 3rd from Laredo, Texas, being welcomed into the country by perhaps the largest flag I have ever seen in my life. It actually worked out to our favor that we arrived later than we had anticipated due to the delayed arrival of the UPS man and our coveted morsel - at least at first. We dodged what would have assuredly been quite robust lines at the immigration office, something that would have been even more enjoyable on account of the intense heat. As it was, we were required to wait in three separate lines: one for personal immigration and payment for the pleasure of being in Mexico, one where official copies of documents that we already had copies of were made and paid for, and a third where we paid for the right to bring our vehicle into Mexico. For the last, they attempted to extract US $200 per motorcycle, but eventually settled for US $30 since we put it on a credit card. And so commenced the mirth of the Latin world.

From there, Nate received directions from a man in the street that appeared to be dressed for a late night performance in a mariachi band and we were off. Now, prior to leaving the United States, we had set out only one rule for ourselves: do not drive at night. Due to our late start, we promptly decided to break that rule, and we were issued a painful reminder from the powers that be why we had made that rule in the first place (see the Captain´s Log section of the web site for more details). First off, it was hard to see. Our motorcycles, amongst their many other shortfalls in the comfort/amenity, have lackluster headlights. Second, it began to rain - lightly at first, then like it meant it. And third, the quality of the road deteriorated shortly upon crossing the border, meaning that it was probably in your interest to be able to see well in order to dodge potholes and to give shout outs well in advance to livestock on the periphery of the road.

Eventually we wanted to just get a hotel and be done with it. But if only it had been that easy. Rather, we drove on and on, eliciting a couple of false leads for accommodation from people at gas stations and cafes along the road, including a guy in a sweet Stetson hat and a lady of the night with golden shoes. Ah, but the beacon in the night was the Motel Astro at around 3:30 AM. There is a description on the web page that tells of the juicy spiders that Neubz crushed and our plush, four foot wide bed in a flooded room.

Over the next couple of days we boogied south at a frantic pace on the toll roads. These roads are not cheap (it cost us about $100 a piece to get from Monterrey to here), but they are very nicely maintained and you can make haste with cheddar and chives if you so desire. The fact that people would pass doing around 130 while our little wombats were giving their all to do 70-75 was the only difficulty. That and the wind. Having encumbered our bikes with 20 mm ammunition boxes as saddlebags and a Chinese knockoff of a tastefully designed Italian Givi trunk, it was akin to piloting a mizzenmast on wheels once we get into the plains at the foot of the Sierra Madres, and it became physically strenuous to ride listing to the left to battle the wind and stay on the road.

Close to the mountains it began to rain on and off, and we were quite pleased with our decision to purchase Aerostitch riding coats. Naturally we were a little reticent to blow $600 on a coat, but our torsos were all that remained dry as our boots filled with water (and as the rain saturated Nate´s white briefs, the transparent crack of which would nauseate me later in the hotel). Nice, too, will it be when we can plug in the electric liners to the batteries while in the Andes for some much-needed warmth. For anyone that rides a motorcycle, I highly recommend one. If/when we take a spill on this trip, they should minimize the damage to our pasty bodies. Indeed, they are so loaded with Kevlar that we could take two shotgun blasts from Chuck Norris himself and walk away. Of course, they would protect us little when Mr. Norris realized the folly of his weaponry and delivered a roundhouse kick. But that goes without saying.

We eventually deviated from the toll road in an effort to circumnavigate the rotten tentacles of the most populated city in the world, Mexico City. Instead, we took a route recommended by Gina Isherwood (thank you) and her Mexican friends that took us on some country roads towards a city named Pachuca. Try saying it once at work. Louder. It sounds cool, doesn´t it? This route gave us a chance to roll through some smaller towns and gave us a brake from the full throttle riding up until that point. It also introduced us to the land of the doble remolque (or double semi), basically a vehicle conceived with the belief that it would be more efficient to haul two trailers behind a semi than one. They´re probably right, but some of you might be thinking, "Isn´t that a little much to ask of the engine and the brakes in a mountainous country?¨ Yes, my friends, it is. And so began the game of ¨Who Can Make the Most Audacious and Ill-Advised Pass?¨. Double semis would slink along like giant snails in a line up any grade of consequence, but when they reached the peak of the hill or mountain, the gunshot sounded and it was off to the races. These behemoths (and the spattering of cars and our petty cycles) would throw down the hammer and go two - sometimes three - wide in an effort to gain the poll position for the next incline. A crescendo usually came at the bottom of each hill when the guy with the most cojones (or really just the biggest moron) would find himself looking into the eyes of another driver coming in the direction and swerve desperately to get back in his own lane. We never saw an accident; in fact, everyone seemed quite comfortable with the system, and I concede that it made driving very, very fun. Only once did driving with such gusto cause a problem. We didn´t see it happen, but our Columbo instincts tell us that it played out thus: guy in a semi with doors on the sides and filled with bags of powdered concrete takes a corner at the bottom of the hill with some serious speed. Forty thousand pounds of concrete pressed against the side too much to handle. Small Volkswagen coming from the other direction. Concrete excuses itself from the semi. Guy in car casually looks over and takes about 50 eighty-pound bags to the chops. The rest go all over the and the surrounding area (and in Nate´s eyes and mouth). The guy was apparently OK, but his car was not.

The drive through the Sierra Madres was absolutely stunning, though the Mexicans admittedly falter in the "how about we pick up those giant rocks that fell into the road" department. Add to that the return of the rain, and you´ve got a spicy plate of jambalaya - especially if you´re Neubz (no one calls him Nate). Apparently Neubz broke the visor on his helmet while parading around India earlier this year, so he thought it would be no problem to just swing through Latin America during rainy season and bask in the icy droplets. His prescription goggles continually fogged up, something he blames on the fact that he ¨put(s) off a lot of vapor¨. Indeed. So at times he was driving close to blind while concentrating on my brake light. This was a dicey endeavor, as the rocks were plentiful, including one that almost led me to the piper. So at times he would ride without goggles, something enjoyed by the enormous motorcade of military trucks hauling soldiers to Oaxaca that we would pass, then get passed by, and so on and so forth. But what they truly enjoyed was another Neubz moment.

Every fifty miles or so we would stop and pay a toll. Since it was a pain in the butt to take off our gloves, dig into a pocket, and grab some cash, we decided to take turns paying for both. At the last toll before Oaxaca, when we were wet, hungry, exhausted and thinking only of shelter from the rain and a few brewskis, a frustrated Neubz could not get his wet gloves back on after paying. Honorably not wanting to hold up traffic, he stuffed them in the side pocket of his coat and we took off on the final approach. When we arrived at the ¨Welcome to Oaxaca¨ sign, I pulled over to snap a picture of Neubz. I honked for him to turn around for pic, but he searching frantically for something. He got off the bike, took something out of his pocket and spiked it on the ground. Then he kicked his bike. Yes, he had lost a precious glove, so we painfully turned around and drove back to the toll station. The guys with machine guns now had a keen interest in the Neubz. Once he parked his bike in the median and strolled from booth to booth putting out the SOS on the missing glove, their eyes followed him like a cat watching a ping pong ball. They pointed. They lurked. But the glove was no more, so we made off for Oaxaca once again. Suddenly the glove appeared in the street, and a jubilant Neubz snatched it up and shook it at an approaching bus in exaltation. Upon returning to the city, however, a significant traffic jam had built up at the entrance. Figuring that it was an accident that we could scurry around, we moved forward, but it then became clear that cars were stalling in a flash flood as dirty water rushed across six lanes of traffic. Luckily the current did not take us down, and we stuck to the shallower areas. Once in the city, we were confronted with something resembling a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Buses and graffiti-riddled police cars had been assembled to create roadblocks along the route to the city center. Dozens upon dozens of cars were lined along the railroad tracks to prevent anything from getting in. Piles of unrecognisable rubbish lay in burned piles. Our motorcycles were just small enough to slip between gaps in multiple layers of roadblocks, then we hopped some curbs and rode the sidewalks into the clear. And that is where we are now. For more on the protests, check out:

From here we head out for Chiapas, home of the zapatistas, and then to Guatemala.

For those interested in pictures, I´ll try to get some more on the site under Captain´s Log.

- Tom

A side note: while in the US, Neubz and made an agreement that we would put 25 cents in a pot per person per day, and that the first person to take a spill - no matter how minor - would have to pay the other guy the pot. We decided later that the money thing was lame, and we expanded the ¨spill¨ definition to include your bike going over on its own. The punishment became the following: the winner (the guy whose bike does not go down) gets to pick out an item at a market - no matter the size or shape - and the other guy must lash it to his bike until it falls off. Since Neubz´s bike tipped over in a gravel parking lot (in the process bending his brake lever into the shape of a Sultan´s shoe), he has garnered a trip to the market. I attempted to get him to purchase a four-foot tall paper machete statue of Darth Vader that I saw in a store, but he said no. To be fair, it was late, raining, that thing was probably expensive and took a lot of effort to make, and we just wanted to find a hotel, but it would have been sweet. Stay tuned for pics of whatever item we dig up, as well as the end of my smug celebration when I bite it myself.

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