Saturday, October 2, 2010

Not the first time

cycling the jungles of Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, Fall 1994
When we first announced this mobile adventure, the most common response was "have you ever done anything like this before?"  Two primary groups asked this question: retirees who took a similar sojourn 30-40 years ago or are doing it again, and people our own age who can not imagine what a journey like this entails but are curious.  To both we answered an emphatic "yes."  The commentary that followed differed according to the audience.  With the retirees, there is no need to explain the whys and hows.  Instead we swapped stories of places we had been, people we had encountered, invaluable life lessons we had learned on those earlier adventures.  There is an instant bond among fellow adventure travelers.  Yes, we vy for bragging rights, but the competition is actually quite friendly.  These conversations usually go on for hours, and by the end we have made new lifelong friends, some inviting us to meet up with them later or to boondock on their private property in remote locales.  Fascinating, and this is one tenet of what "living" means to me.

The second group requires a bit more educating.  In most cases, our contemporaries are more focused on stability -- in terms of employment, home, family, hobbies, etc. -- and preparing for retirement.  Most people in this second group have visions of us being independently wealthy, wandering aimlessly around the planet.  They wonder if we lost our home or can't (or won't) find work...or if we are "on the lam."  They have not lived a mobile lifestyle so they are uncertain about amenities, such as showers and toilets, and private matters like potty-training and sexual relations.  None of these questions offends me, let me make that clear.  I only mention it because conversations with the second group are more about explaining the details of the whys and hows of our lifestyle, rather than sharing the unique experiences gathered like wildflowers for our life's bouquet.  Perhaps in a separate post I should address such questions?  Send them all to me, even the most personal ones, and I'll answer them together. 

The first big long-term adventure David and I shared happened in the fall of 1994.  We had been planning a  trip into Mexico when I had this vivid but certainly unexpected dream.  "David, we should travel through Mexico on bicycles!"  I think it was then that he truly fell in love with me -- ha ha ha.  We found a few books about touring on bicycles (Miles from Nowhere, for example, is one of my favorite books).  We discovered Mexico Mike (, a writer and traveler, and an expert on traveling in Mexico.   From Richardson Bike Mart we picked up two touring bicycles, with all the panniers and tools to make repairs along the way.  A few months into our preparations we decided to take a trial run with the bicycles.  Those of you who know David might remember that he is a great bike handler.  He can jump ramps and do tricks, still.  But I...well...I had not been on two wheels since middle school.  No turning back now, I thought.  Our bikes in boxes and boarding passes in hand, we set off on the first leg of our great journey.

We landed in Cozumel energized by the romance of cycling the Yucatan Peninsula.  This was no chartered excursion.  We had no pack of fellow cyclists or sag wagon toting our gear.  Just David, me, our bikes, and tools.  Tools!  The bike shop had forgotten to include them in the boxes with our bicycles.  Frantically, we began asking airport employees for help.  We were passed from person to person, and finally a young man asked us to follow an area behind the airport.  I was fearful, I must confess.  Who wouldn't be in this situation?  Something told me to trust this guy, although I'm not sure why.  Behind the airport were about twenty other young men playing basketball.  They stopped to look at us, almost scowling.  This is it, I thought.  Great, they hate Americans!  They are going to rob us!  Just then, their expressions transformed into smiles.  They were eager to help us once they understood our situation.  As it turned out, they were elated that we were willing to see their country, their people, up-close and as it and they really are.  We were not sitting inside our posh hotel then being whisked away with a group of other terrified Americans on buses with the windows up, keeping the strangeness of a foreign country out.  We were on bicycles, toting a tent, mind you.

The men were so super friendly and gracious, I forgot about my earlier fears.  I swung my leg over and mounted my bicycle for our first big ride together.  We rode away from the airport toward the ferry that would take us across to Playa del Carmen, and later to Tulum to camp at a place called simply Cabanas.  I hear that place is gone, now, and high-rise hotels have replaced the campground that once invited other free-spirited travelers from all over Europe, South America and Australia and New Zealand.  Only one other American was there when we were, and he camped near us...and hung out naked in his hammock all day...

We made quite an impression when we arrived.  Remember that the bike shop forgot to pack our tools?  Well, they forgot our headlights, too.  So, we were still a few miles from Tulum when night fell.  The sky was a thick black with tiny punctures for stars to shine through.  Molasses sky, that's the best way I can describe it.  Riding a bicycle -- or driving or walking, for that matter -- was like ambling around with a blindfold on.  Every now and then a car would pass us on Mex 307, and we would use that blip of light to read signs, quickly, to figure out our location.  Finally, we found the turnoff for Cabanas...or so we thought.  I had to stop for a moment and sob.  My entire body ached from gripping the handlebars and pounding my pedals as hard and fast as I could muster.  Nerve-wracking does not even begin to describe the absolute terror I experienced riding on such a dangerous highway under completely insane conditions.  But I did it.  And after I stopped freaking out, I smiled probably the biggest smile of accomplishment in my life.  We pushed on, hoping a flicker of light would suddenly appear to guide us toward the entrance of Cabanas.

You know those old crime-mystery shows, where the cop flicks on a bright light in a dark room, directly into the eyes of the suspect?  "Where were you on the night of...?"  That sort of blinding, disorienting scene?  Hold that mental we had somehow survived bicycling at night without headlights on Mex 307, a very dangerous highway.  Our nerves were beginning to settle when a flashlight beam nearly knocked me off my bike.  A man's voice began asking questions in Spanish.  I was so startled by the sudden jolt of light that I was not paying attention to what he was saying.  I stepped away from the light for a moment to see who was this stranger in the middle of the molasses-black night, in the jungle, and shouting at me from behind a very bright beam of light.  I hadn't done anything illegal but I felt guilty, anyway.  I stepped back...and oh my...he's carrying a machine gun!!!!  Federal police officer, yep.  In fact, there was an entire squad of these uniformed, gun-toting men.  I was stunned and disoriented.

Like the airport experience, the federales turned out to be really nice men.  They too were thrilled we were exploring their country in such a personal manner.  In fact, they chuckled when we finally were calm enough to understand their questions and explain in broken Spanish who we are and what we were doing there.  They gave us directions to Cabanas and away we rode into the darkness again. 

But because it was so dark we could not see the actual entrance.  We found sandy pathways leading into the jungle and figured they would probably lead us there.  Ha.  Well, they did, but only after we got off our bikes, clawed the backs of our legs with our pedals, then lifted them onto our shoulders and hiked through dense foliage.  Bloody and a bit frazzled from the day's adventures, we heard faint tremors of music emanating from someplace down another sandy path.  The foliage was not as dense so we dropped our bikes and began pushing them along the path.  The music rapidly became louder and louder...we were almost there, I sighed...we emerged from the jungle with bloody legs and pushing touring bicycles and found ourselves in the middle of an open-air bar.  The music of Bob Marley wafted through the festive ambience of travelers.  I swear the music suddenly stopped so that the revelers could drink us in, or maybe that's just the way a writer's mind and memory work.  Sometimes details morph into what makes for the best storytelling.  Either way, to this day whenever I hear "Stir It Up" I am immediately and magically transported back to my first glance at Tulum Cabanas.

That quick four-day trip changed my life forever.  I met people of various cultural and linguistic backgrounds.  I ate authentic food, food that restaurants back home imitate but can never replicate.  I rode my bike through and camped within jungles and on beaches along the Yucatan Peninsula.  Iguanas scurried under me while I tried to sleep in my tent.  I saw nudists scouring the beaches for shells near the ruins of Tulum...and joined them. 

Back home, we contined preparing for our bicycling journey.  Two months later, our departure date finally arrived.  Our friend Todd drove us from Plano to San Antonio.  After two days of merry-making with him, his sister and her medical school chums, Todd dropped us off around Floresville.  And left.  And instantly I knew nothing would ever be the same for me or between David and me.  We biked to Corpus Christi and camped at odd places along the way.  Again, we met incredibly generous people who were more than happy to share their hometown with us.  This time, we were in our own country, but it seemed like being on the other side of the world.  Everything looks new and different when you see it from the seat of a bicycle.

It took us three days to ride from San Antonio to Corpus Christi because we over-packed.  One bit of advice: do not take BOOKS if you are traveling by bike.  (Duh.)  By now, the weather had changed and we had to ditch the bikes.  Plan B was to backpack through Mexico.  So we bought touring backpacks and walked across the border at Matamoros.  We met more wonderful people on buses, some who invited us into their homes and hosted us for up to a week.  I spent my 25th birthday with Fernando and his friends in Cd. Victoria, a most amazing celebration I could never describe.  No pictures exist, either, because something was wrong with our camera.  Or maybe we were overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness.  That part doesn't matter; the important thing is that once again we were embraced as if family by total strangers.

The backpacking part of the Mexico journey lasted nearly two months.  We met a young woman whose father was a high-ranking member of the Zapatistas.  Coincidentally, we were supposed to leave that day for San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, and had decided against it when we read about the showdown between the Zapatistas and the federal government.  That day, federal troops had surrounded the group of indigenous people and were keeping all outsiders away from the skirmish.  At a youth hostel on Isla Mujeres we met an American named Rob -- Rob, if you are reading this, please contact us -- with whom we felt an instant kinship.  Canadian Kyle was great to spend time with, too.  In Mexico City we met two Kiwis, Laurens and Chris, who were taking a break from medical school.  All you guys, send me your contact info!  David and I would love to catch up with you after all these years.

Our last day in Mexico took us from the capital to New York City, just in time for New Year's Eve.  We were spent, traveling between two extremes in terms of climate, culture, language, and more.  For one week we stayed in a youth hostel in Manhattan.  There were numerous travelers from Japan, France and Australia staying in our dorm-style room.  Together, we marked the end of 1994 and an adventure we are still learning from today.  1995 took us back to Plano for two weeks, then on to Seattle where we spent seven months exploring a completely different ecoregion.  More about that in my next post...

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