Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mexico Part II, by the bloke.

Our week-long trip to Mexico City was lovely. Founded in 1325, and located in a large valley, at an altitude of 2,240 metres, the city (according to wiki) has a population of 21 million people, and 3.5 million vehicles - so a smoggy atmosphere is only to be expected; but the air really wasn't nearly as bad as I had been lead to expect. It was actually waaaay, way better that the air in Beijing, which was a pleasant surprise.

The city is absolutely chockers with heaps of free culture at every turn. And, so says Wiki, became the first jurisdiction in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage. Despite the inconcievably stupid policies relating to taking photos or making notes in exhibition halls, we had a great time in several of the amazing museums, including a great Rene Magritte show, complete with relevent multimedia stuff to boot.

When we were done with many the museums and galleries and stuff, we trawled the city's bike-parts quartier – largely without much luck – for new brake/ gear cables and housings. What we did finally find did the job after all, but really was quite the compromise.

After getting back from Mexico City, and while awaiting some necesary bike parts to arrive from the US, Gaby and I played scrub-clearing, digging and bricklaying to keep fit. The plan was to lay out the foundations for a Casa del Chooks at the bottom of the property. We got the concrete done over a couple of weeks, and James & Karla recently had the recycled steel frame and wire-mesh structure put up. Those chooks ought to really enjoy it.

After leaving James and Karla's place in Cuernavaca, we meandered NE through the stormy hills to the coast, and then SE to Minatitlan.

About 15km E of Cuautla, we stayed with Gustavo – a student of mine back at ELC in Sydney some years ago. It was nice to see him, and enjoy another bout of genuine Mexican hospitality. The house is in a community out in the middle of nowhere, with an inexplicably industrial kitchen, and funky architecture kinda sorta like Antoni Gaudí's La Sagrada Família. From his place we tried to take a shortcut up into the hills – but that was just too steep and tiring to continue so we finally loaded up into the back of a passing truck and backtracked 13km to a motel down at the bottom again, which was a rather a bit disappointing. Though had we not done so, the steep, desolate road wouldn't have been any fun to cycle up through the night. Anyway, from the motel we decided to just take the longer more travelled road and enjoy the less sparce towns on the way.

Soon after we arrived in Cordoba we met a lovely man who works at the Town Hall just across the plaza from where we were resting. Jorge was kind enough to allow us to deposit our bikes in his office over night, and then took us off on an impromptu tour of the town hall, plaza and Cathedral. He was very proud to tell us that it was in that building in August 1821, that the Mexican revolutionary Agustín de Iturbide and the Spanish viceroy Juan de O'Donojú signed the Treaty of Córdoba, ratifying the Plan de Iguala and confirming Mexico's independence.

The following day Jorge caught up with us as we were leaving the hotel, and offered to guide us for the short but tangled way out of town. With him in his car we made it through the old city easily – but forgot to refill the water bottles – so he left us on the side of the road and zipped back into town. When he returned it was with several big bottles of decent Pepsi-brand water, and some food as well. Then his wife and kids pulled up – he was just so proud to have made some foreign friends that he wanted to show us off.

When we parted company a few minutes later on the side of the highway we thought that was the last we'd see of him – but no – about 25 km down the road he was waiting for us with even more water, fruits, candies and pastries ! That's hospitality !

Up through and over the mountains towards Veracruz we often stayed on the larger roads, and had headwinds the entire time, often made even more fun by gravelly shoulders, or no shoulder at all. I should mention here that Gaby really loves hills and headwinds – particularly when the headwinds are so stiff that even cycling downhill is a challenge. Not.

Coming down on the northern side of the mountain range wa definitely one of the most fun bits of all of the cycling to date. The rapid steep decent, ovetaking trucks and zooming through long tunnels was wonderful.
Veracruz should have been a bit more of a pleasure, but my guts were misbehaving terribly, and I felt just so weak for several days that nothing much at all really happened.

From Minatitlan we were forced to look to faster transport so as to make our flight to the US. Had we had more time we certainly would have cycled the remainder of the way to Cancun, but that wasn't to be so we resorted to jumping on a bus. Mexican buses are surprisingly comfy, with decent seats, proper AC, drinks available and - best of all - we just put the bikes straight into the hold without any wrapping or dismantling necessary.

On the way to Cancun, we stopped for a few days in Palenque – a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the seventh century AD, though after its decline was swallowed by the jungle. Much of the ruins have been excavated, but on the whole it's very much somewhere a big imagination is required to make much of it.

Unfortunately it's not even a patch on Cambodia's Angkor Wat, leaving us more than a little disappointed actually. It's nice, sure, but not nearly as impressive or monumental. And Lara Croft thought so too. Much like the cathedral-burnout prevalent in Europe, we were suffering much the same with old temples & rock-piles.

Not including the part involving everything at the airport, the getting out of Mexico was easy enough.

The stupid Mexican Airlines had somehow "misplaced" the payment - after having successfully debited the credit card weeks earlier – so we missed the scheduled early morning flight. After running from surly A to unhelpful B and between Terminals 1 and 2 we established that although we'd booked and paid with Mexican Air, the problem according to them was entirely with American Airlines. The particularly unfriendly and unhelpful Mexicana-bloke's best advice: get a new ticket and claim the money for the first one back ... (As if, from another country and after the date, get back money which they couldn't readily find a reference to in the first place ...) Anyway, the flight left without us and had it not been for a wonderfully helpful American Airlines customer service who spent and hour and a half on the phone with Mexicana Accounts, and then upsiwoopsi (that's Gaby's word) they found our money. The next flight which they were finally willing to put us on left at 3pm, so we eventually got into Miami 8 hours late.

Getting boxes in which to pack the bikes proved really tough, so I bought several broad metres of bubble-wrap, foam packing, plastic sheeting & tape which did the job quite nicely. I'm getting better at bundling up the bikes for transport, but it's only getting more annoying each time I have to endure the whole bloody rigmarole. I had considered getting folding bikes in the run-up to the big trip, but somehow decided against them, however had I known just how shitty it is to dismantle 2 bikes for a flight, repeatedly, perhaps I would have done things differently.

Something like the Bike Friday, or the Gaerlan GoTravel now seem like they might have been ideal in hindsight, but that's the benefit of hindsight isn't it ?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Atlanta to Buffalo, via Washington DC, and the C&O and GAP bike trails

The highlight of the US ride so far - in terms of cycling at least - was the ride between Washington DC and Pittsburgh.
Coming out of DC, there's the tow path beside the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal as far as Cumberland. From there, there's the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) all the way to Pittsburgh, PA.