Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mexico part 2, Tequila, Morelia, Acapulco, nudists and being ripped off like a good 'un

A new Mexico, from desert to lush tropics....rising up to 10,000ft from the coast
This morning I had my 1st Spanish lesson, 4 hours in the strict but friendly company of Vicenta. I am quite convinced that she is a far better teacher than I a student. In fact I'm writing this having taken a break from my home work which takes the form of over 200 words and phrases that I am encouraged to commit to memory and pronounce by tomorrow….fat chance. It is nearly 30 years since I was troubling a schoolroom and I'm afraid my end of course results may be a little wanting.

The good thing is that I am living with a friendly Spanish speaking family in the middle of this beautiful town called San Pedro La Laguna. I will furnish the blog with more photographs next time round, as it has been a bit cloudy since I arrived yesterday.

My last post had Batty and I arriving on the mainland of Mexico. What a change from the desert and high temperatures of Baja California. Immediately it was lush green and prone to a daily deluge of rain. This seemed to be a fairly predictable occurrence in the afternoon, so a little planning or acceptance of the fact was all that could be done.
An unintended wild camp, a bit off the road. Alas the local hotels were full so it was forced, but always fun and very freeing. However it did not drop below 30 degrees, so not the most comfortable sleep.
A couple of things have happened that have really made me question my competence. Firstly I left my passport on the ferry. It had been the exchange for the cabin door key, and of course when I came to leave, in all the rush and excitement of arriving in Mazatlan, I just left the key with the cleaner who came to my cabin just as I was vacating. The boring thing was that I only discovered it 180 miles down the road, which at Batty speed is 6 hours.
I am afraid that non of my shots of these guys diving 100ft of the famous cliffs in Acapulco worked at night. It was a spectacle that had always captured my imagination. Of course I would not do it, but the water that they dive into is a lot deeper than what I had been lead to believe, so I was not as knocked out by it as perhaps I had supposed.
A view from the harbor fort in Acapulco

The next thing that happened was that I got done over like a good'un at the Talisman, Guatemalan border. Basically I fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book and handed over US$160 to my “fixer" who was helping me through the rather vague import procedure. He asked for this money to buy the permit to drive in Central America. Although I questioned him vigorously, he persuaded me that it was essential to drive any further. Off he toddled to get the form, whilst I was kept occupied by his conniving pal for half an hour. When he got back he had all the paperwork and rushed me through the final gate saying he was about to close. Of course at this stage I was none the wiser, and thanked him profusely giving him a generous tip on top of his US$20 pre-agreed fee. Again it was at the end of the day, after 5 hours of steep mountain roads that I thought I better put all the paper work in the right folders etc. To my horror my more thorough look at the receipt showed that it was 160 Quetzales, about US$20. Of course I was livid, with myself as much as anything, and planned to head back the next day to confront the rascal. After a night's sleep I realise that there was very little proof and the chances of him being there for the next month was highly unlikely, as it amounted to several weeks pay. Why is it that some of the most lovely countries in the world, are so let down by the treatment dished out at Borders. I know it is up to the individual to look out for themselves, but in saying so, it has to be in the interests of the country at large to try and safeguard visitors from robbery, particularly at an easily policeable spot.

The beautiful city of of the first universities in the Americas, and had the feeling of Oxford about it
For some reason I did not seem to take many photos of the town of Tequila...but I enjoyed it. This is the Agave plant that Tequila is made from.

Huge pineapple like fruits are harvested and then left to steam in these great chambers for 2 days, before the juices are distilled.
However there are some situations which one does not anticipate, or a natural tendency to trust, just trips one up. I guess it means greater vigilance and stubbornness in these more poverty stricken countries.
One tries to create as many routines in an ever varying circumstance, to help against forgetfulness etc. For instance I always put the same things in the same pockets, I have a bike packing procedure and a mental check list when leaving a hotel.
A days snorkeling and being toured about in a local guide's boat was an opportunity to try my camera out underwater (it has a 10m limit, so alas not for scuba) success, but fun to try
We were joined in the sea by this chap after octopus, that you can see straped to his waist. he gets about £5 per kilo, about 2 octopuses. We did a bit of fishing of our own and caught a tuna each.
Julian and Violin, my companions on the boat tour, and our lunch of the fish we caught.
Anyway these are just a couple of black moments in what has been a most enjoyable and fulfilling Mexican time. I very much look forward to returning there at some point, as I know the surface has only just been scratched. It hasn't been a particular place for meeting new people, but those I have have been delightful, helpful and entertaining.

I spent a couple of relaxed days in the village of Zipolate. I was somewhat taken aback when this guy walked pasted bollock naked. Enquiry informed me that this was a nudist beach. There seemed to be many more guys showing all than lasses, but a friend of the owner's daughter, where I was staying, more than made up for this inequality. I was not tempted by the idea of scaring the horses, nor did I risk a snap of the said friend.
You only have to mention going to Mexico, and in particular in America, to get an incredible amount of advice about the inevitable dangers that one will encounter. None more so than on the risks of the road. I did not find them to be any worse than anywhere else in particular, and in fact the toll roads which I occasionally took were world-class. The other roads may have had a few more potholed than we're used to in the West, but certainly at the speeds Batty and I go along at, we were not caught out. That said they do have the incredibly effective speed reducing trick which is to have huge speed bumps at every junction and particularly in towns and villages. Known as “Topes", they are not always marked and early on a few times Batty gave me one hell of a buck, that had me airborne and hanging on for dear life. One quickly learns respect and copy the practice of the locals who just very slowly creap over them.

Yesterday was a challenging riding day. By the time I had left Quetzaltengo, where I had stayed and was able to return my Carnet (the sort of international vehicle passport needed in many of the countries I've been to, but not the Americans) by courier to the RAC, it had started raining. Not a problem I thought as it was only about 60 miles to San Pedro. Minute by minute we climbed many thousands of feet up the side of what is a huge volcanic crater (I am assured it is benign, unlike the one blowing its top 100 miles away) on steep twisting roads. It was a lot of 1st and 2nd gear work, but the horror was coming down the stunning road into the crater to the lake and San Pedro where the roads were incredibly steep and twisting. I know for a fact that I won't be able to get out of here. Much to the amusement of others, the only way Batty could make it up the final hill into the town was by offloading all my luggage boxes etc (about 50 kg) into a passing rickshaw.
Gloria, my landlady in San Pedro La Laguna, preparing dinner. A happy family that are most welcoming and home for 2 weeks.
Urgent messages to Henry in England for a smaller front sprocket have been dispatched, and I'm hoping by the time it comes to leaving I will be more appropriately geared for the many mountains to come in South America…and to escape the classroom, armed hopefully with a bit more lingo.

A few Months back I was in touch with Andrew Charnley, who was planning a similar trip to mine and on a diesel Royal Enfield. In fact his plans changed and is taking a Scooter. He is writing a good blog and has interviewed me about the trip, the planning, some technicalities and practicalities. Here it is:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Baja California, Wet feet, Best diving, Loreto, La Paz, Visa run.

At the moment I am waiting in line at the immigration office in La Paz, 800 miles from the US border. I had not got a permit/visa to cross into the main land from Baja, which is not a problem in Northern Baja California, but apparently I have been an illegal alien for the last few days. The perfectly polite official started saying I would have to return to the nearest visa place, which would have been a bit of a 2 day bore, but then said he could give me a 30 day visa here and that would be enough for my plans, so fingers crossed.
Such has been my state of mind since entering Mexico, that the potential slog back up the peninsular to get the visa, presented no great anxiety.

I left you last in San Filipe in 100+ degrees. From there the road south along the coast was very good for the first 70 miles, then it turned to gravel and sand for the last 50. It was also heavily corrugated in places, a very uncomfortable surface. It is tough on the bike and tiring to ride over. I got about half way when I stopped for a break only to notice that there was a crack on the frame that cradled the engine. It was in the same place that it had bust before in India nearly a year ago. It had not completely gone, so I roped it all together and rode at a slower pace, praying it would hold till I hit the tarmac.
This was a brave hitchhiker...he needed a 10 mile lift that took us 30 mins...

The road..a better stretch

Beautiful hot desert all around
The break
It was about 5 pm at that stage and I happened across Coco's Corner. Coco is a great character who came to this remote and pretty hostile patch of land 20 years ago and just stayed. He had just had one leg amputated at the knee as a result of poor circulation. He built a shelter and made a living selling drinks to occasional passers by. 10 years ago the other leg had to go, which held him back not a moment, carrying on evolving this patch of land into a harbour of eccentricity. Defunct TVs painted yellow and put up on poles, loo seats on pans arranged a round a meeting table, tin cans arranged along strings for 100s of yards to name just a few 'sculptures'. It was topped by a staggeringly large collection of ladies' knickers and bras that he had pinned up all over the ceiling. Apparently it has become a custom that these were volunteered and thought an honour to be asked to contribute to the collection. He had his charm for sure.
The bra and knicker trophy ceiling


The night's shelter

  He insisted that I should not risk driving the next 2 hours as the road got rougher before the tarmac, and it was pretty late. He pointed at a bed frame that was under the original shelter. He threw some blankets over the springs, showed me the old caravan that is now the bucket and scoop wash room, and then bid me good night, saying he goes to sleep at night fall and wakes at dawn. I cooked a quick supper and retired. There was a big wind, thunder and lightening all night which had me awake half of it, but the biggest fright was when one of his blooming cats jumped on me just when sleep had finally come. Poor thing probably had just as much a fright as I lashed out in wild and blind defense.

An early start had me at some welders a couple hours later and they saw the frame right and strengthened in an hour or so.
Back to full strength, with an extra plate to strengthen that seemingly vulnerable part
  I pottered about the pacific coast for a couple of days, but it had become overcast, with torrential falls of rain much to my surprise. One of my planned stops had been at San Ignacio, a central peninsular town in a valley of palm trees. There had been a flash flood, and the road was blocked into the centre of town along with the one south that I planned to take the next day. Along with other stranded travellers a local motel enjoyed a bonza evenings trade.
 It did not seem to have rained over night so I went down to the river and saw a few 4x4s crossing ok. So I though I could. A minute later Batty and I were stalled in the middle of the river with water nearly up to the tops of the wheels. It was a silly idea and I should have paid more attention to the route to take, but more importantly I had not anticipated the water been thrown up in such amounts that it filled the too low engine air intake. Luckily there were a couple of chaps wading across and they helped me push her back to the dry. It was good to have entertained the long queues of impatient drivers for a moment. The road to the centre of the town was passable luckily and I spent the day drying out and adjusting the air filter cover so that I could go through 2 feet of water with ease.

Shot by a wet footed photographer
Loreto has turned out to be a bit of a star town for me. Mainly because I had 2 amazing days diving there. It started well as I bumped into the 5 Italian girls that I had met at the flood motel, they are all a bit younger than me and on a 2 week driving holiday in Baja. We had a quick catch up, but they left the next day with promises to meet up further south.
 Dolphin Diving was a little down the road from my guesthouse and by chance I went down there at 8am the next day to see if there were any chance of a dive. Luckily for me Raphael was just loading the boat to take John out, and they hung on 10 minutes so I could join them.

 John has many years diving experience and having retired after a career in environmental journalist, both in Thailand and his native Oregon, now spends a month in Baja each summer, fishing and diving, often with Raphael. His particular quest nowadays is to find different Nudibaranchs, colour full marine snail that are a fascination to him. The good thing about these sorts of missions are what else you see along the way, sea lions, turtles, whales, monster lobster and every fish in the aquarium, just magic.
Pelicans everywhere
Our lunch spot, Daniel (driver), Raphael, and John
These chaps came along for the dive...and showing us what they could do underwater that we could not...I wish I had had a underwater camera to capture their grace and agility.
 The next day the plan was to go to an island, Santa Cantalena, that neither Raphael or John had been to. The reason no one had been there was that it was 4 hours away in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, so we had to leave at 5.30 in the morning. John had a hunch about it for Nudibaranchs. I was just delighted to have been around for the trip. It turned into a fabulous day and a standout on the whole journey. Alas only 1 Nudibaranch was found, but we all had such an exciting time in a beautiful deserted place, that few had been to. For me it was like diving for the first time out of the class room, and when we went into a submerged cave and the wave action suddenly changed picking John up and whisking him out of sight, it certainly had the pulse racing. Then he floated back down to us, upside down, motionless and no bubbles I was fearing the worst. Then he winked and smiled....the brute.
John discussing Nudibaranchs with Rafael at 6am

Sun rising as we set out for Santa Cantalena
This is a huge whale spotting area, but mainly in the winter months...we were lucky and had this companion for a camera was never on when she/he this the best I got
The Island coast line
Hardly anyone ever comes here, and this was thought to be a very fine example of this type of Cactus.
John and I had had supper together the night before and I enjoyed his company a great deal. Because it is very topical, I asked him what his thoughts were on the US presidential elections. I was not expecting it but fascinated to hear him talk about the impossibility of voting for Obama again with Guantánamo Bay still open, the 'execution' of Bin Laden without trial, and the drones controlled by pilots in the US vaporising people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Loreto mission at sunset.
Loreto Centre
On the road to Santa Juarez. I should have seen many more of the abundant cave paintings on Baja, and these are probably the poorest examples.
The mission at Santa Juarez, the first mission in Baja, and a pilgrimage is made every year here from all over Mexico.

It doesn't look it, but behind Batty is a very steep hill, which I had to run along beside her whilst slipping the clutch to get up...first time since the Himalayas

Ended up staying about 4 happy nights at the Hotel Yeneka, La Paz. The owner, Manuel, is a great artist and the hotel is one huge artwork
Dinner at last with my Italian girl friends in La Paz
This is a handshake with Yuri, who helped me a great deal with my visa issues...a fellow biker, who had just come back from a 16000 mile run to Alaska and back. He owns a travel agency called Viaje Perla in La Paz...although he did everything he could to not sell me a plane ticket. A very fine man
Each room in Yeneka...was themed. This one was fun.
Damien, from Brussels, was staying at the hotel and we had a great couple of nights out...very good company

In the end I had to go back to Tijuana on the US border to get the took 5 minutes at the airport....

It seemed like a good idea to get Batty serviced a bit whilst there, and Yuri gave me the name of Gabriell, a Hungarian bike mechanic. Gabriell is a very generous man and went to great lengths to see me right...along with his sister Maria who lives in Miami....we had an open Skype line to improve communications. Also the with Scuzme ('Excuse me' his chat up line that became his nickname) his pal who ran us around the town getting parts and stopping at off licenses to get more beer to keep the heat of the day at bay. I lost count but I think it was about 12 pints in about 4 hours.
Gabriell just before setting off for the ferry to the mainland port of Mazatlan. After oil changes, new fork seals, breakpads, wheel bearings etc.

I met Rob on the ferry. He had ridden across to Japan from York and then to Alaska and now on his way south like me. He left a bit after me last year. His blog is . He wild camps every night and is on a budget of less than £10 a day.....makes me feel very soft core. Good and interesting company. Funnily enough he had been told to look out for me by diver John, who he had bumped into at Loreto.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Good bye Jack, California, Disney, Grand Canyon,

There are places in the Atlas that have sparked one's imagination, and for me the Californian Baja Peninsula has long been one of them. What is apparently the second-largest peninsula in the world that runs 800 miles down beside Mexico, has intrigued me by having both Pacific ocean on one side and inland sea the other.  I am here now and I think my imagination has done a poor job of this extraordinary part of the world. In a couple of weeks time I will have moved over to the mainland and will report on my findings.

Not long after my last post I received the saddest e-mail that I can remember getting. It was from Veronica, Jack's wife, saying that he had very sadly died. It was about a week after I had left their home, which made it all the more unbelievable as he was in such good spirits and about to leave for a US business trip. Jack was a huge star to me and his hand of friendship, know-how, can-do attitude, and great company will remain with me for ever. To others who have known this wonderful man it will be a true blow and my condolences to Veronica and the rest of the family are most profound. Jack was internationally known and respected in the sports fishing world and here is a link to an obituary that I think expresses his contribution and how he will be missed. .
Jack Erskine, RIP my new and godsent friend .
A few weeks on from when I last wrote, I look back and realise that I had worn pretty thin and all the delights that my journey presented were not really being appreciating properly. It's probably perhaps inevitable after a prolonged trip that one goes through stages of inert feelings and questions about carrying on etc. I was lucky because Cass and Jazzy flew over from Edinburgh and over the course of a two-week, 2300 mile Californian road trip I feel fully restored and I'm so looking forward to South America.

However before Californian fun, there was a party in New York State that Arjun and Maxine had...poor picture, sorry, but the bar Arjun is manning hints at the game plan. A real bonus was that Darius and his son Kyan, who had looked after me so well in Hyderabad, were fellow house guests and we enjoyed a very fine night of it.
Cass and her family I have known since childhood and Jazzy is her daughter and my goddaughter. They had left Archie and Harry holding the fort at home whilst the girls came over and joined the adventure. It hadn't been particularly planned, but the notion of a road trip in a camper van had been an idea, so off we struck in a camper van from which is run by a charming Australian called Nick in San Francisco.
As luck would have it I found a travel book from a publisher called Moon, almost exactly describing the trip we had vaguely planned, which made life much simpler and all the more interesting.

I haven't planned to write much about the 2 weeks, as it was a holiday, however Cass is a great photographer and thought it would be appropriate to share a few photos from our travels.

We called it "The Consumption Tour". Not only did we drive a gas gusseler, we ate far too much (which my belt is telling me), we also saw parts of America that typifies human mass consumption beit at Hearst Castle, DisneyLand, LA, or Vegas at it's greatest. We also enjoyed huge amounts of jaw dropping natural beauty on a world class scale, very friendly folk....all amazed that we were not in London for the Olympics.....
Hearst Castle at San Simeon on the 101 road between San Fransisco and LA (photo from their website)

Hearst Castle Pool. David Niven wrote about spending weekends here as a guest of it's owner and builder William Randolph Hearst. It was designed by architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947 for the newspaper magnate, who died in 1951

One of the best guided tours I have been on, showing many of the treasures bought from Spain after WW1
Beautiful coastline
First time behind the wheel...Disneyland

Spot the wimps
Grand Canyon

Las the Hard Rock Cafe
Death Valley, hottest place on earth, 190ft below sea level and 120 degrees

Sierra Nevada range
Over Mono Lake

After a picnic supper by Mono Lake
Back in SF, the end of a very happy and stimulating fortnight.

 Goodbyes can be hell, and waving my 2 companions off was a hard one.

 For many years the idea of having the Olympic Games in my home city, in my lifetime, was a dream. When we won the selection I was when I find myself thousands of miles away watching what has to be one of the finest events ever, and with my fellow countrymen putting on one of the most creative and entertaining opening ceremonies, and furthermore to achieve extraordinary sporting goals, I feel rather dumbfounded by not being there. That said numerous people that we have spoken to have praise what Britain has done and I'm sure that the positive consequences will be profound and long-lasting for the British. I don't think I have ever felt so proud to be in that number, albeit absent.

I biked hard for the next 3 days down to Mexico. I stopped in San Diego to get a couple of spare parts from the great guys at Rocket motorcycles who then kindly helped me tighten up the few bits and pieces on Batty.  I may have made a bit of a mistake crossing into Mexico as I was waved straight through without any passport stamping etc, as was every other vehicle it seemed. I guess I'll find out when I leave.

I have spent a couple of days by the beach in a place called San Felipe on the east coast of the peninsula. It is 100° and too hot really to go out. That said the beer is cold, the tacos tasty and have enjoyed a night out with a fellow camper, Peter, who has an RV (large Recreational Vehicle...more like a 40 foot yacht on wheels).  It has also been an opportunity to do  some more Spanish lessons on my iphone audio thingy. My brain seems to be completely nonabsorbent, and it will take many months before enjoying any form of conversation. I was put on to the idea of taking some Spanish lessons in Guatemala, which I will do for couple of weeks when I get there…… Maybe a pretty Señorita in front of a blackboard will engage my grey cells more?