Number Our Days

2010 March 18
by mer

I have realised that an inordinate amount of my life has been spent thinking about distance. And more specifically, how much distance is left. As a kid in the swimming pool I would calculate over and over in my head how many laps were left to swim before practice would be over. As a kayak guide, one of my main jobs is to decide how much distance will be covered in a day. And now, over the past five months, I have been almost singularly preoccupied by how many curves in the road are between myself and my destination.

Sitting here in Panama at the end, after the final curve in our road, this obsession with counting seems already difficult to remember. However, numbers remain a lens through which to retroactively view the journey. And so, from the end of the road and the sum of all the days, here are some of Nowhere Soon’s numbers:

152 days (October 14 – March 14)
87 days of biking
65 days of no biking

6990 km. total (this is an educated estimate – neither of our odometers functioned without fail for the entire trip)
80km per day average biking distance

9 different countries
3 different bikes
13 different boat rides
6 bus rides (with our bikes)

64 nights of camping
38 nights hosted by friends or family
22 nights in hotels or hostels
18 nights hosted by incredible people through couchsurfing.com or warmshowers.com
9 nights on boats
1 night on a bus

Obviously, numbers are just one way of coming to terms with something. They are one of many ways of breaking something down so that it can be held up to the light and examined. As a whole, sometimes things like this are just too big to lift or too dense to see through.

But then again, there are so many things that can’t be counted, like the feeling at the end of a long day of biking or the satisfaction felt when a free camping spot is located. For these things, numbers don’t work at all. For these, we’ll just keep trying to find words.

mer/panama city

361 katrillion bjillion kilometres to go

2010 March 12
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by mer

Yesterday we crossed the border from Costa Rica into Panama (passport stamps!).
On the one hand, wow. When we started out, we had no idea how far we would or could go. It was only once we had been at it for almost two months that one or the other of us said the words that both of us had been thinking: how about we try and make it to Panama? Even then though, Panama is so far, geographically and psychologically, from California that the words, while epic, did not actually carry much weight. Ok, we said. How about we try and make it to Panama.

And here we are, in Panama – all of that distance (both actual and the figurative) has been acknowledged, traversed and noticed in one way or another.
Almost.

On the other hand, we´re not done yet. The distance marker just down the road from the fire station where we will camp tonight tells us we have 361km remaining. In the face of more than 7000 (which is actually a fairly arbitrary number – we have very little idea of how far we have travelled due to sporadic odometer function), 361 is small potatoes. But in the first few moments of the morning, when I wake up in the tent (still sweating because it hasn´t cooled down at all overnight) and mentally prepare myself for the day, 361 may as well be 361000. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if it is not easier to bike towards an end that is less tangible than one that is relatively ¨close by¨.

Thankfully, the nature of bicycle touring is such that I have hours every day to think about why this is the case.
Over the last few days and 500km I have started to put together a few answers for myself.

1. Compared to 7000km, 361km looks small, short and easy. And sure, in many ways it is much smaller, much shorter and perhaps easier than other riding we have done. However, there is no getting past the fact that it is still an awfully long way. Longer than anything we had ever ridden before we started out on this trip, and farther than most people will ever ride their bikes. In addition to this unavoidable reality is the fact that I now have a very realistic idea of what 361km feels like. I have now ridden exactly that distance many many many times. I am intimately aware of what can come to pass inside that distance and of what is required to make it go away. So, despite the fact that 361km is small, in the day to day way of our lives, it looms large.

2. When a distance marker told us there were 361km remaining to something in California (or whatever the equivalent is in miles), the distance featured merely as a small piece in something that stretched much much further into the distance. At that point, the sign might as well have said 23km or 4000km. It didn´t really matter – when we reached the point being referenced, we knew that we would just keep going. This time though, when we reach the end of the 361km measured by the sign, we won´t just keep going. We´re going to stop. At this point for me, the feelings are a mix between week-before-a-big-exam-feelings and last-week-of-summer-holiday-feelings. Simultaneously, I want to get it over with – anticipation kills me like nothing else – and I am dreading the day it will be done.

With 361km to go, I know I have plenty more time to sort out in my head what else that distance might mean. But really, after more than 7000km, shouldn´t I have thought of something else to think about?

mer/san felix, panama

Spirits and Spokes: Where We’ve Been

2010 March 3
by alex

Dear readers of our blog,

We know we’ve been a bit absent recently. We would like to explain why.

Rewind with us, if you will, to roughly one month ago: the first days of February. After many days spent cycling through the varieties of Mexico, we were finally entering a new country. We crossed the border into Guatemala around mid-day. The whole affair was pretty straight forward: tell Mexico you’re leaving and wave to the Guatemalan doorman on your way in. Or don’t. Passport stamps are optional and you will not find a map. Don’t even try.

Our first night in Guatemala was spent in a town called La Mesilla, a sketchy and bustling little place with an impressive number of shoe stores. Borders are uncomfortable at the best of times and little reassurance comes from being accosted by a team of men who seem to want nothing more passionately than to convert your currency for you.

That first night in Mesilla was spent camping in a parking lot. The parking lot was option number two, presented to us after we turned down option number one: the basketball court in the middle of town.

But this is only back-story. The reasons for our sparse blogging begin shortly hereafter.

It was about a day on from Mesilla that our little-annoying-spoke-issue became our soul-crushing-spoke-catastrophe. Since mid-Mexico both of our bikes had been snapping the occasional spoke. This was frustrating, but usually fixable, only costing us time and a little bit of our buoyancy. But when the thirteenth spoke snapped and it was the side of Mer’s wheel that meant it could not be repaired by us, we lost our patience.

Side of the highway, rural Guatemala, bike that won’t go. (Kids laughing at us.)

Cycle-touring is a rhythmic activity: Having to repair the occasional technical break-down can almost be absorbed into rhythm. You can almost embrace this. Having to repair a broken spoke every day, on the other hand, cannot be absorbed into the rhythm. It messes up the rhythm. And it steals your buoyancy.

So, we flagged a bus, threw our bikes on top and rode to the next town.

In Huehuetenango, a mechanic fixed Mer’s spoke, but we still had no idea why the spokes on both of our bikes kept breaking and could only assume that they would continue to do so. They did, of course. In a desperate attempt to address the root cause of this problem, we had both of our rear wheels completely rebuilt in Guatemala city. This means a brand new set of spokes. Really new and really strong.

At last, we thought, no more chronic break-downs.

But, of course, there were. The spoke issue disappeared with the fortified wheels, but almost as soon as it did we began to get flat tires. Up until about February 15th, we had only had 5 flat tires during our whole trip. Since about February 15th we have at least tripled that score.

A quick run-down: Biking through El Salvador we got about five flat tires. In San Salvador we made a half-hearted attempt to find more inner-tubes because our extras had already been repaired several times. We didn’t find any. On our first day out of El Salvador I accidentally ruined two of our spare tubes while trying to repair a flat. This left us with one spare which I went on to ruin shortly thereafter while trying to repair a subsequent flat. Finally, Mer ruined one of the tubes that was in her tire and we found ourselves officially stranded.

Inner tubes for bicycle tires are really easy to find. Unfortunately, they come in many sizes. Unfortunately, we discovered, our bikes use a size that does not exist in Latin America. Unfortunately, I had to call every bike shop in San Salvador and Managua to figure this out.

On Saturday, we picked up a package in Managua that included six fresh inner tubes, generously donated and mailed by Mer’s parents. (The process of picking up that package could be a lengthy blog post of its own). We had spent a week not cycling, waiting for this package to arrive.

Cycle-touring is a rhythmic activity. Updating a regular blog and producing a podcast are equally so. In the almost-five months that we have been traveling, these creative outlets have become fully part of our rhythm. Certainly we do not blog while we cycle, but it is as if cycling charges our ability to write and produce. In the week that we were stopped, we didn’t write or spend much time working on the podcast. Almost as if we couldn’t. We had a great time relaxing in Granada. But our rhythm was decidedly off.

We have now cycled two days solidly. No broken spokes. No flat tires. At this point, that feels close to miraculous. We can feel our rhythm start to rattle back and we feel energized about the three weeks and two countries left to go.

It’s been a while since my knees have been sore. Likewise, it’s been a while since I have felt the creative impulse to sit down and write. What I realize is that bike-riding obviously feeds blog-writing and even in a lifestyle as improvised as cycle-touring, there is still an important place for rhythm.

/Alex

100 Days: The State of the Union

2010 January 21
by alex

Today is day one hundred of the Nowhere Soon enterprise.  A good a time, as any, I feel, from some critical self-reflection.  In  the case of today, as we marvel at the endurance, patience and perseverance that we have been  able to muster to make it this far, it seems natural to be thinking about how the team is getting along.

So, how is the team getting along?

I should first explain who is included in the team, because it is not only Meredith and myself. Bicheal and Sylvia—our bikes—are also proud, card-carrying members. So we’re four, healthy, happy and proud hundred-dayers.

But like anyone, we all have our moments.

To paint the best portrait of the state of the union, I will reflect on the team dynamics in three categories.

Riders to Bikes: How are Meredith and I getting on with Sylvia and Bichael? To be forward, things have been better.  There is no doubt that Bichael and Sylvia are great bikes with best intentions, but lately they’ve been struggling. Bichael has been making a mysterious clicking noise that he refuses to reveal the source of. He also recently let a spoke break and popped off his own chain for the first time ever.  His shifting is passably, but frankly a little bit lazy and he’s been rattling loose a screw here and there. Sylvia hasn’t exactly been a doll either. Meredith reports that her gear-shifting seems to fluctuate with her mood and her front wheel  has recently begun to warp.  Happily, Meredith and Sylvia recently made some headway in their relationship when Meredith put new handlebar tape on Sylvia. I recently bought new handlebar tape but have made it very clear to Bichael that he must reveal the source of the clicking before he sees an inch of it.

All things considered, things are going pretty well between us and our bikes. We ask a lot of them and they really do usually rise to the challenge. I mean, a week on a sailboat would make any bike a little bit cranky, right? Friendships take work, and we feel lucky to have bikes like Bichael and Sylvia who are willing to go the distance with us.

Riders to Riders:  Meredith and I have now spent one hundred consecutive days together, all day, every day, moving through any number of unforeseen  situations, reacting to new, bizarre and hilarious sets of circumstances. Together.  And we think we make a pretty good team.

That said, we have had to come to terms with some differences in the way we prefer to deal with situations.  The simplest way to put it this is that in stressful or unpleasant moments, Meredith is a vocalizer, an externalizer, a cards-on-the-table type, whereas I tend toward the internalization of nerves, the reservation of judgement and outward neutrality.  Of course, neither of these attitudes is quite pure. For instance,  yesterday we cycled through the  steamy, smelly, scorching city of Acapulco. Meredith said: cuss, cuss, cuss, cuss, cuss, this is the worst ever and we’re going to die, cuss. I responded: yeah, you know, I think it’s going to be fine…but neither of us completely meant it.

It’s taken some time, but Meredith and I have become keenly aware of each others’ thresholds, triggers, and quotidian needs.  I, for instance, usually need a second breakfast around mid-morning.  Mer usually needs a soda break when the sun beats too hard

All this to say: its day one hundred and we still really like each other.

So things are going well.

Bikes to Bikes: How are Bichael and Sylvia getting along? Let’s just say, they‘re like two spokes in a wheel.  Bichael got along fine with Sylvia’s predecessor Leo, but their relationship was cordial at best. With little in common, they politely tolerated time spent together, often struggling to come up with new things to talk about. When Sylvia showed up on the scene (after Leo’s disappearance), it was fireworks from day one. Oh, you’re a steel frame? No way, I’m a steel frame! Do you also like Continental tires? Wow. They can go on like this for hours.

Aside from their shared affinity for snapping spokes, we’re pretty happy to see Bichael and Slyvia getting along so well.  As we have said before, the happier they are the happier we will continue to be.

With about forty days of cycling left, we feel pretty good about the state of the union.  That said, we do have six more countries to experience before we call it a day,  so you can be sure that we’ll be doing our very  best to encourage healthy communication, patience, humour and hydration all around.

/Alex

Two Dead Armadillos Later

2010 January 21
by

Sometimes you have a moment to prepare: take a deep breath, decide whether you’re going to look or not and then, before you know it, you’re past and away.

Other times, perhaps depending on the relationship between wind direction and road direction, the stench of decay comes at you out of nowhere. So then you’re looking around for its source without knowing what you’re getting yourself into. Taking in a week-dead raccoon in Oregon is very different than a week dead donkey in Guerrero, Mexico. The former can be understood as one might understand a science project; after all, when do most of us actually get a good look (albeit ride-by short) inside of recently dead animals? The latter, however, is hard to approach with as much detachment.

On our first night in Mazatlan we walked down a few streets in the old part of the city in search of cerveza and comida and were struck by the contrast to our experiences in Baja California. I had become so used to the feeling of desolation and remoteness that the bustle and noise of a normal weekday evening in a medium sized city felt jubilant and celebratory. In further contrast, the bright, hot sunlight and vibrant tropical hues that had greeted us on our ride into Mazatlan along its formidable malecon were a marked contrast to the baja landscape which, while undeniably magnificent and striking, appeared as if painted with one brush, one palette board and three colours. That land was a study in shadow and angles while this is a fiesta of colour and heat.

Today is our hundredth day. To celebrate, we have spent the day riding a perfect road through perfectly populated and fascinating pueblos. The Mex 200 highway has been the most pleasant surprise. For the most part, the pavement is smooth and even, the traffic is light to moderate and the grades are rolling. Every five or fifteen kilometers we pass through a small pueblo with a few small grocery stores and a restaurant or two. Every fifty we pass through something more substantial, like Marquelia, where we stopped today for our afternoon siesta break. Gone are the feelings of isolation and desertedness that so defined Baja.

We spend our days on the road – we wave to taxi and truck drivers, we take note of newly paved sections, our eyes and ears are peeled for the approach of an unfriendly dog. We also encounter a lot of roadkill. And today, on day one hundred, I felt compelled to reflect on how this too has changed. In Washington, Oregon and California, we saw innumerable raccoons and a deer or two here and there. Through Baja, dogs and cows increased in numbers and frequency. These are all fairly predictable things to come across. Over the last three days though, I have seen dead armadillos, dead tarantulas, a huge spilling bucket of unidentifiable organs and intestines and today, a dead snake that looked like a huge boa constrictor. On top of the exceptional cases, there are also frequently whole dead horses, mules, goats and pigs, as well as the ever present lanky dog. Perhaps it is the heat; the smell of rotting animal is hard to pass by without noticing. Rarely, however, do the animals actually lie in the road, and so apart from the smell they are hardly a consideration. Most people would never choose to mark the changes in their journey by the quality and quantity of the roadkill. For me however, it is yet another way to measure and notice the distance that has been covered – to acknowledge the miles and kilometers we have come. I’ve got my eyes peeled for another snake, and next time, I’m taking a photograph.

Mer /Marquelia

Bajahahaha

2010 January 7
by mer

Some days, it’s easier to take my life more seriously than others. Today is hard. As I write this, I am sitting in the cockpit of a sailboat in a marina in La Paz, BCS. It’s early evening and the sun has lost enough of its power that it now feels pleasant instead of harsh. The wind, which usually builds during the day, has started to back down and is now a gentle breeze that neatly arranges all of the other sailboats anchored in the bay. They face north and in every shroud is hung the white green and red of the Republique de Mexico. Alex has gone below for a nap, and our generous host, Cathy, has taken her book and her drink to her own cabin. It’s an unofficial late siesta.

Our last week of riding covered more than 500km of the southern part of the baja peninsula. While we continued to pedal through sparsely populated land, we left the true desert behind in the north. Instead, we hopped from 0ne small fishing village to another, and then as we moved further south, from one gringo snowbird haven to the next. We spend New Years’ Eve in Loreto and then struck out again to cross La Sierra de los Gigantes, which many describe as a small (small) slice of the Southern US canyon country. The mountains were indeed spectacular, and as we climbed our way slowly through them we had ample time to really appreciate their striking colours and geometry. Once across the mountains, we spent a couple of days blasting through the centre of the peninsula again. While many may think that straight and flat would be ideal for cycling, I have come to conclude quite the opposite. I never thought I would say this, but I would take a day of climbing (and then a few moments of total downward exhileration) over a straight and flat section any day. When the road demands none of your attention, your body and mind slyly jump in to torment you. You can’t seem to stop looking at the odometer, and your seat, which normally feels just fine, has never caused you so much pain. The arrival into La Paz is quite spectacular. From the top of a hill you can see in one direction La Paz and the islands off the coast in the Sea of Cortez. If you turn around, you can just make out the other side of the peninsula. It is the only place on Baja where you can see both sides at the same time.

On our first day in La Paz we jumped with all four feet into the world of the cruceros de la paz. La Paz specifically, and Mexico in general, is a major destination for cruisers on board sailboats. We were hoping that someone would be leaving for the mainland in the next week or so and would be willing to take us along, bikes and all. We started our mission by attending the daily coffee session at the clubhouse. We posted our crewing note and started trawling for tips on boats preparing to leave. We were lucky to find Fred on board his boat Aunt Sur – tomorrow we will cast off with him and make our way to the mainland (at about half the speed we normally cycle at!). We are really looking forward to heading out to sea for a few days – today we went and bought all of our provisions (including some much needed bike parts).

Last night we said goodbye to Romain and Baptiste, two of the cyclists we have been meeting on and off since El Rosario. They will take the ferry tonight to Mazatland and carry on down the coast. Baptiste keeps a blog of his journey, and has posted some photos of the last couple of weeks (including some of us!). Check it out.

Things that are going well:
our bike buckets (we were really pleased with them today as they managed to hold all of our groceries for the next five days of sailing)
Alex’s facial hair – he went from a full beard to a moustache and is now clean shaven for the first time since Victoria. Go Alex.
Our shorts tans. They’re getting really good.

Things that could be better:
We both keep breaking spokes on our back wheels (well, I’ve broken two and Alex has broken three). No thanks.
Shorts tans. Because really, cool, but Not. You know?
The price of peanut butter. (But we hear it will be cheaper on the mainland).

The Desert in Bloom

2009 December 27
by mer

To be completely honest, we had not put that much thought into our route beyond the United States. We knew we wanted to carry on into Mexico, and hopefully onwards to Panama, but the specifics remained very vague until actual decisions had to be made. For us, Baja was never an inevitability, but rather remained a possibility until all of a sudden, there we were.

We spent the first few days eating tacos, dredging up our rusty spanish and getting used to the new shoulderless road/massive truck situation. Three or four days into any Baja ride though, the cyclist must start to confront the reality of what lies in front of her. Between the towns of El Rosario and Guerrero Negro are approximately 250 miles of very very little. By car, you could go to sleep leaving Lazara Cardenas, which sits on the ocean, and not open your eyes until you pull into the gas station at Villa Jesus Maria, about 20 miles north of Guerrero Negro. It would have been a long, but not unmanageable nap. For a cyclist though, there is no hope for a nap through such stretches of inhabitation. Not only are there no people, there is very little full stop. The desert is a different kind of wilderness than the one I am used to navigating on the west coast of Canada. There, the abundance of life and of water give someone comfortable in that environment a safety net. They say: don´t worry, if you run out of water, there are streams. If you run out of food, catch a fish.

The desert, in comparison, while equally vast, is astoundingly silent.

We met two solo cyclists in El Rosario, and with them prepared for a three or four day trek down the centre of the penninsula. Baptiste is from France and is partway through his journey from Alaska to Argentina. Sam started in Newfoundland, and almost by mistake has carried on all the way here. The two sit at opposite ends of the gear scale. Baptiste is prepared for anything, and has a spare bit or a spice for any broken part or bland meal. Sam is riding his racing bike, two panniers on the rear and a backpack on his back. Through the states he would commonly go over a hundred miles a day.

The challenging thing about riding through desert, for me anyhow, is that the road is visible for miles ahead of you. There are very few mind tricks in the book that allow you to pretend that what you are seeing will not eventually have to be ridden. It´s all there laid out in front of you as you come to the top of the next rise. There are no trees to hide what lies around the next corner. While in the forest you can tell yourself it´s all downhill after this next climb (even though it never is), in the desert, you know for certain that it is not.

On our second day in the desert, we woke up to sunshine. Within ten minutes of finishing breakfast, a colder wind began to blow and over the cacti we could see dark clouds billowing in from over the western mountains. Alex, Baptiste and I rode for forty miles leaning into strong sidewinds, sure that any minute the skies were going to open and we were going to be just as we had been in Oregon. But in the desert. No rain came that day however, but we did find Roman, another frenchman on his way to Argentina. He had chosen the less travelled route through northern baja. He had seen one car in the last five days, and we were the first cyclists he had seen in two months.

The next morning brought the rain, but with it came a stiff wind from behind and so what would usually take many hours took less and Guerrero Negro, at 100 miles away, suddenly seemed possible. As we rolled into town that night, the cycle computer hit a century for the first time on our trip! A few beers and tacos later and we were all asleep in the parking lot behind a hotel (mexican city campgrounds).

We had not promised ourselves anything for Christmas. But, with a fun group of people around and an oasis on the (distant) horizon, it was hard not to make ambitious plans. We all agreed over beers and chips in San Ignacio though, that the day had been a struggle. Sure, it had been mostly straight and flat. But the ever present headwind, which built to a formidable backwards push in the last thirty km of climbing, made the ninety mile ride much tougher than the day  before.

After a day off in the oasis, our small troupe disbanded, and Alex and I made our way more slowly to Santa Rosaria. From here, we will carry on southward…beaches and margaritas are somewhere close by, it´s just a matter of finding them.

mer/santa rosalia

Mexico, Aqui Venemos!

2009 December 18
by mer
San Diego sits about fifteen miles from the border. The ride is easy and not particularly scenic, but the hype is exceptional. Throughout our ride – therefore for over two months – we have come to expect a particular kind of reaction when we tell people that we are continuing on into Mexico. For the most part, the reaction came from a place of concern for our safety, and for that we are appreciative. We would often respond to these people with something like ¨well, we have both travelled in Latin America before, on our own, and we speak a little bit of spanish, and so we feel pretty good about navigating whatever situations might arise¨. However, as confident as we can sound, in our approach to the border a couuple of days ago we couldn´t help but feel the collective weight of concern on our shoulders as we rode into what is perhaps the most notorious border crossing in the world.
There are two border points in the Tijuana district, and between them they account for more than 300 000 daily crossings. Tijuana´s population is made up of people from all over Latin America (it is Mexico´s fastest growing city), many of whom come to the city hoping to cross over into the USA. As well, TJ is home to Mexico´s largest Asian population. Who knew? And, with respect to the general concern about Tijuana, it does not appear from thin air. Indeed, wikipedia tells me that in 2008 along, more than 1500 shell casings were found on public streets. The city has a hard rep.
All of that said, our traverse of the city was exceptionally unexceptional. The border travelling from north to south basically does not exist. We showed no one our passports, answered no questions – in short, we were barely noticed. The line going in the other direction, however, stretched for kilometres to the south, and was clearly slow moving.
We knew that there were two roads to choose from in getting from Tijuana to Rosarito. Opinions were mixed as to which road we should take – roll road or free road - and so after long deliberations we decided to just follow signs. As we approached the toll booth on the toll road (after passing perhaps four no bicycle signs) we were told that we could not continue riding. No bikes allowed. At this point the free road was twenty five kilometres behind us, and so we opted for hitchhiking over backtracking. A couple of dudes in a black pickup picked us up, and while we only asked for a ride through the toll booth, they were going all the way to Rosarito, and so we accepted their offer of a ride the whole way. We really enjoy not being purists some days.
 
We are still coming to terms with how dramatic the contrast is between southern California and Northern Baja. After two months of riding, it´s hard to believe that after only two days things can change so drastically. Not just in terms if language, culture, people, food, roads and currency, but also in terms of landscape. We had become so accustomed to riding along roads that hug coastlines, ribboning their way between mountains on the left and the ocean to the right. Today marked a departure from that pattern. Highway 1 (the Mexican 1, not the US 1) left the coast this morning in Ensenada and will not meet it again for another couple of days of riding. Our route today took us through huge mountains, all various shades of brown and beige. It is literally a vast, mountainous desert.
 
Tonight we are camping beside the local police station in San Vicente. The police man who fielded our request for ¨un lugare donde podemos ponder una carpa¨ told us that maybe they saw a couple of cyclists five months ago, but no, no one really comes here. We know, from meeting people along the way in the US, that there are in fact a few people who have made the trek through the town, but I guess no one else has stopped.
Right now, we are using computers in la farmacia, getting ready for a second night of taco touring.
So far, so good, Mexico.
 
Things that are really great about Mexico so far:
Tacos (team count must be somewhere around 40 now)
Sun (it´s really really nice here)
Kilometres (old friends are always nice to hang out with again)
 
Things we could do without:
Mer got stung by a bee today while riding. Not fun.
The roads are pretty narrow, and the big trucks are just as big.
The fact that Alex still has a beard even though the local fashion CLEARLY leans more towards moustache.

Digital Missives

2009 December 16
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by

We thought we would branch out into a new medium.
Hence, a few short adventures  from recent days:

YouTube Preview Image

Outside the dollar store, abouta mile from the Mexican border, we drink a beverage and reflect on our team skills.

Adios USA, and Thank You

2009 December 16
by mer

On Day One, we crossed the first border of our trip. By ferry we left Victoria, BC and when we got off, we were in a new country. Tomorrow, which will be Day Sixty Three, we will cross another, very different border. Borders are fascinating places and institutions, and we are sure that tomorrow’s experience will be especially interesting.

However, we’ll take that as it comes.

For now, we’d like to acknowledge and reflect on some of the highlights of the past two months. As anyone who has traveled for extended periods of time knows, patterns emerge, jokes develop, routines form. We have realised that many of these aspects of our trip are pretty location specific. In other words, we do what we do because of where we are, in the USA. Here are some of the things that have defined our time here:

1. Grocery Stores (mer)
It is not unusual for us to visit two grocery stores in a day. With this kind of frequency, no wonder we feel pretty comfortable with the grocery store routine at this point. There’s a fine balance when you’re bike touring. On the one hand, you need enough food to last you until you get to the next good grocery store. On the other hand, you really don’t want to carry more than you have to. And so grocery stops are not only frequent.They are also strategic. When, where, and how much are all questions addressed as we plan our route for the day. On a typical day of riding, we’ll try to hit our first grocery store at lunch time. It’s nice to be able to buy lunch ingredients and then eat them right away – less packing tomatoes uphill, you know. If there will be no other grocery store that day, then dinner is also decided on, purchased, and packed away.
Not all grocery stores are equal. For too many reasons to outline, Safeway (and its southern Californian equivalent, Vons) comes out way on top. We like being part of the club, we like the fresh sourdough bread, we like their deals on yogurt. But most of all, and perhaps most interestingly, we like knowing Safeway. It’s easy, familiar, and well, Safe. But our affinity for Safeway doesn’t always sit easily with me. I am always aware that by choosing Safeway, we are by default deciding against locally owned businesses and locally sourced food in favour of uniform product and familiar layout. Even more unsettling for us, is our reluctance to pay more for food than the ridiculously low prices offered by large corporations like Safeway. We know that food is worth more, and that the prices in independent stores more accurately reflect the value of the product. The hard question though is whether it makes a difference to buy the same small carton of yogurt for thirty cents more at the independent grocery store. Same yogurt, different price. And so, while we know the answer is in fact quite complicated, at lunchtime in Garberville, California, it appears quite simple. Fifty cents is less than eighty cents, and Safeway has more flavours.

2. State Parks (mer)
So far, we have camped in 21 different state parks through Washington, Oregon and California. And, like grocery stores, not all parks are equal. However, unlike grocery stores, we don’t feel bad preferring some over others. For its free hot showers, picturesque locations, and friendly rangers, Oregon takes the lead. California, on the other hand, is a camping experience we feel less attached to. Most state parks along the pacific coast have sites  designated as Hiker Biker sites. Generally, this means that there is a clearing somewhere in the campsite with a couple of picnic tables around where all the bikers (hikers?) are meant to pitch their tents and be friends. Which is great – it’s cheap, and we like friends. We’re totally on board with that. However, it’s now winter (although most Canadians would scoff at most Californians for calling anything down here winter), and the campgrounds are not exactly fully booked. There are rarely other bikers around (we’ve come across other bikers in campgrounds four or five times). Therefore, when we pedal in past dark and can’t find the small designated clearing, and there’s no one around and no signs either, we would really like some slack in the morning when we are told by the ranger (who, by the way, slept in a bed with a roof over his/her head while it stormed outside) that we’re In The Wrong Place. We know, but is it really a problem? No. All of this said though, we are very impressed by the mere existence of spaces meant especially for us. Canadian parks could do this too, and that would be cool.
Also, ten points go to the State Parks in Northern California for having food lockers. Really great.

3. Mexican Food (alex)
Okay, we know. We’re about to go to Mexico, how can Mexican food be on the list of things that defined our time in the USA? Well it did. Burritos mostly, sometimes tacos, the occasional combination plate and  a chimichanga one time.  Mexican food is special to us, in part because we have consumed a lot of it.  It’s special, in part because it has been the one category of food that has been available almost ubiquitously. It’s special, in part because Alex really wants to be able to pass for Mexican eating the food makes him feel a few inches closer. But the real reason that Mexican food deserves to be mentioned here is that it has served as a ritual of anticipation for us.  Virtually every time that the two of us have sat down to a meal of Mexican food, we have had some variation of this conversation:

ALEX: Hey, Mer.
MER: Yeah Al?
ALEX: Are you pumped for when we’re gonna eat this stuff all the time?
MER: Yeah Al, so much.
ALEX: Me too. Let’s get another round of tacos.

The whole time we have been traveling, Mexico has seemed like a somewhat elusive idea.  Not because we thought we wouldn’t make it, but because we had put so much of our preparatory and imaginative energy into Washington, Oregon, and California. When we were getting ready, there was so much to think about that there just wasn’t much psychological room left for Mexico.

Eating the food has been our way of wrapping our imaginations around the idea of  actually cycling in Mexico. What might have been a daunting and intimidating prospect was thus conveniently portioned into healthy, satisfying, burrito-sized chunks.

4. The Stamina of Our Imaginations (alex)
Traveling the way we travel leaves us with a lot of time to spend entertaining ourselves. Sometimes this is an individual activity (say, when cycling through flat fields).  To pass the time, we often make up solitary mind games. The other day, Mer killed at least an hour of riding time by going through the alphabet, trying to name a place we have been to for each letter. I like to rap to myself about the things I see. Much of the time, however, we have to entertain ourselves as a team. We sit at camp sites, waiting for the water to boil or we laze around on a patch of grass in mid-afternoon sun. These moments demand spunk.  Silent reflection is fine, often necessary. But we wouldn’t be in Mexico if we reflected silently all the time.  So we have developed some team strategies:

1. Voice jamming: a combination of freestyle rapping, percussion, and storytelling–usually about whatever we are doing at that very moment.
2. Anthropomorphizing our gear: Recently, we gathered our ipods, my portable radio, the cell phone and a sales receipt and sat them down. We had a very special sticker that was going to be placed on one of them. We each item make its case for why it felt it deserved the sticker. The radio won us over.
3. Making up cool moves: including chops, in which cheers and props are fused together,  and the one where we put our feet up on our front panniers and pretend we’re riding big motorcycles.

5. Talkers (alex)
Truly, it is as if we wear a big, invisible sign: COME TALK TO US. PLEASE. LIKE, RIGHT NOW. Generally, the sign seems to be most visible in the late afternoon, in moments when the daylight is fleeting and we are packing up dinner supplies outside the grocery store. We love talkers. They make us feel hardcore and impressive. Sometimes talkers give us great tips, share stories, or offer directions, or they offer to take us out or even offer to host us. These people are angels. Other times, talkers show up in the wrong moments: when we’re not in the mood to talk or when we are in a rush to get somewhere. My favourite are the talkers who come over, initiate a conversation–Wow, cooooool. So, where are you guys headed?–and then have virtually nothing else to say. Usually these individuals continue to hover while we pack groceries or polish off lunch. In these cases, we either a) let the whole thing kind of trail off until one of us decides it’s time to go; or b) keep talking, filling the void with whatever Mer or I feel like waxing about. No expects Mexico to let us down in the talker department.

No doubt, Mexico will offer up its own predictable and unforeseen thematic threads. We downloaded Spanish word games to the ipod and have been preparing ourselves physically and emotionally for the sharp increase in taco intake that we are about to experience. We feel more than ready to move into a new landscape and a new culture, but who knows: it might not be long before we miss those chain grocery stores, park rangers and less-than-Mexican (safe-on-your-tummy) Mexican food.

Vamos a ver.

Mer & Alex / Rosarito