Sunday, March 28, 2010

how I became part of the problem

Plan a trip to Central America and the first thing that will come up is the issue of the corrupt police/ border officials.
[the open road in Nicaragua- that volcano is smoking!] Spend some time on the motorcycle chatrooms like or and you will soon start to develop paranoia over ever single person in uniform that you will ever encounter.
As we have been heading south on this trip, this myth has slowly started to evaporate from our heads as each and every encounter has been, if not courteous and professional, down right friendly. At first, we used to stick Megan up front to talk to anyone official looking because the very nature of a woman on a motorcycle is surprising and fun for most people. We figured this would break the ice and allow for easy passage through checkpoints. However, we started to realize that this wasn't necessary as everyone we have encountered has been great.
Every police officer helpful. Every border official efficient and happy. Every military captain funny.
[amazing steak tacos] Take for instance Honduras. There are a lot of police checkpoints in Honduras. Every 10-20 miles are a bunch of cops hanging out under a tree randomly pulling over cars. At first I was nervous to be stopped, but for two days we never got pulled over.
On the third day we must have changed the way we looked because we were pulled over at 4 consecutive stops. The officer points a bit aggressively at the side of the road for me to pull over and as I drive by him I hear something about my motorcycle and that he wants it. Oh shit.... I stop the bike, take off my helmet and hear him look at me very straight faced and say: "I want to ride your motorcycle." I nod "no" with a smile. He repeats himself. "I want to ride your motorcycle down there, and back."
[posing with the guy who wanted to ride my bike] I'm not the wittiest guy, but I needed to think of something to say. My first thought was: "O.k. he can ride the bike, but I need some sort of collateral to ensure I get the bike back." I point to his gun and say: "Yo quiero su pistola." No reaction from him. But then his buddy looks at him and the officer starts to crack a gold toothed smile. Ahhhhhhhhh. Problem averted.
So now onto the part about how I became part of the problem. Crossing from Honduras into Nicaragua is notoriously bad. You first have to leave Honduras. This actually went quite well. We changed some money from the money changers, they told us where to go, we got everything stamped, and jumped back on our bikes for the Nicaraguan side.
[negotiating a rate with money changers] This is where things started to go wrong. Nicaragua is the poorest of the Central American countries and the chaos at the border shows it. As far as I could tell there were 4 people working and about 100 tourists and 50 truckers needing to get through. It was my turn to do the border crossing at this one (Megan stayed out in the 95 degree sun and watched the bikes). I managed to get the passports stamped in only about 1/2 hour. I had randomly chosen the proper line to stand in and this really helped out a lot.
The problem was the bikes (the problem is always the bikes). I had to get them registered in Nicaragua but this was the same line that all the truckers were standing in to get their trucks registered. I got in line. Within a few minutes a very nice fellow approached me and asked how I was doing. We conversed in Spanish for a while which I always enjoy. At the end of the conversation, he lowered his voice and asked if I wanted to get through the line "mas rapido." I asked what that would take and in an even lower voice he said he had friends and that 20 dollars would help smooth things out. I politely declined thinking I could just get through this on my own. Hey... it is part of the adventure.
[hordes of people waiting in line] About 45 minutes passes and the line hasn't moved one bit. It is starting to get late and I have no idea what time the office closes. So I start to weigh my options. I could pay this guy and become part of the problem or take the moral high ground and do this with the rest of the commoners. I chose to wait it out.
Another 15 minutes goes by and the line has finally moved up two people.
So I look at my friend who is walking around and do the little eyebrow raise. 10 minutes later and we are on our way to the final checkpoint.
So yeah, I sold out. I fed into the system of bribery and elitism. I cut into the lunch line and made all the other suckers wait it out. And it didn't feel very good. But I honestly think I would still be there if I hadn't.
[kids dressed up as jesus and his helpers for Holy Week] And when we left Nicaragua, it was even crazier. Friday was the start of Semana Santa (Holy Week), the biggest holiday of them all down here. I have never seen a crazier zoo than trying to get out (just exit) Nicaragua. We took one look at all and instantly flagged down a little helper (a guide as they like to call themselves). I don't think that I would have been able to figure out the 4 random guys in the parking lot whose signatures I needed and then which two of the 10 different lines of people I would have needed to get into. This guy knew them all, and had access to the "special line." It still took 2.5 hours, but Megan chatted with people who hadn't hired a guide and had been there for 7 hours and still hadn't finished.
[the perfect way to end a day] Anyway this little video is of me feeling totally beat down by the system. We were at the final checkpoint for entering Nicaragua. You just have to show all the completed paper work to a woman at a kiosk and then you can be on your way. However... she needed a copy of the paperwork. She first told us to go back to the office (where I payed off the guy) but then relented and told me where a copy machine was about 100 meters down the road. In this video, I am running back with copies in hand, about to pass out from dehydration and heat exhaustion (did I mention it was 95-100 degrees) and fully expecting to be denied. When Megan asks me if I am o.k., you can see me nod my head no.

Moral of the story: be careful for Nicaragua, especially on Holy Week.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How I missed the view from the bridge over Agua Dulce

We were in the far eastern part of Guatemala. The goal was to drive from Tikal down into Honduras and spend the night on the Caribbean.
We were about to go over a bridge that would afford us a nice view of the area around Agua Dulce, a popular vacation spot for Guatemalans.
Let me preface this story a bit. I have always been a bit allergic to bees. For me, a bee sting is a lot like a speeding ticket. It isn't the price of the ticket that matters, yeah it sucks, but it is the rise in insurance costs associated with the ticket that really sucks. A bee sting is painful, sure, but for me it is the week of swollen appendages following the sting that I dread. For those of you who know me, you know that I really swell up.
So when the bee flew into my helmet I knew I was in for a good time. I ripped off my sunglasses and was relieved to see the squished bee on the glasses. Ok. So I got the bee out. Now I needed to stop and check out the damage. Driving a motorcycle with sunglasses in one hand, curses flying out of my mouth, and well aware of two giant trucks right behind me is kind of fun.

Well after a salt bath on the sting and a benadryl tablet later we kept on. It really wasn't too bad yesterday, but this morning when I woke up I felt like I had been hit hard in the eye. I just hope this is the worst of it. If my eye swells shut, I don't think I can ride very far in Honduran traffic.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What could go wrong? or musings at a barber shop

As we prepare to leave San Cristobal, I recognize the same patterns in myself that I see every time I have to make a change in my life. A mixture of excitement and apprehension. I think everyone must go through the same thing, which gives me some comfort, but I am who I am, and the butterflies coupled with a slight depression, topped off with anticipation of good times to come is something that, given my lifestyle, I have come to know well.

I love it here in San Cristobal. We have an amazing house, language courses were a total kick in the pants, and the burgeoning local climbing community is fun to participate in. There must be thousands of caves left to explore in this area, climbs to climb, coffee shops to indulge in, people to meet, and barbers to explore. But if I were to do that, then I might miss out on what lies ahead.
But what does lie ahead? Our short term plan is to leave tomorrow (Wednesday the 17th- St Patties Day) for Pelenque, a vast complex of mayan ruins about 150 miles north of here, but in the jungle. Goodbye cool air (SanCris is at 7000 feet), hello Mosquitos. We will spend a day there, then blast across the south part of the Yucatan peninsula to the Belize/ Mexican border. We have to ride a 300 mile day, because on Saturday we will make the first of 6 border crossings in the next 10 days.
Crossing borders down here is a bad idea on Sundays so we need to be positioned to cross first thing Saturday morning.  Then we enter Belize, try to find a reasonable rate for Belize dollars, get the bikes fumigated, purchase liability insurance, and head down the road in a country that speaks some language similar to English. Belize has a reputation as a country littered with caves. I would love to spend some time there, but we need to make tracks south. So we plan on leaving Belize on Monday via the western border with Guatemala. We will drive the short distance to Tikal, another marvel of a ruin (or so I hear), and check them out. After that, we head south along the Belizian, Guatemalan border towards Honduras. Honduras has a reputation…

and this where I will stop with that type of business. As I've written before, this type of travel is a mixture of personal adventure and wanting to know what lays around the next corner. We often try to ask the question of when we should stop using the "guide"- chatrooms, guidebooks, blogs, and start using our noses. If I read enough accounts of any given place, I am sure to find one where someone has a horrible experience with robberies or with bribery, or with a cow. But there are many more where nothing negative occurs. In fact there are stories where people have an amazing time interacting with the locals and exploring the areas. Of course, we need to be careful to not go into truly dangerous areas and for this I try to do a little research. But then the cycle starts all over again and I start to read about crazy shit that happens and then of course I get nervous.

This is where we stand. We've found a wonderful place in SanCris and the unknown road of danger (or not) is out in front of us. What if we can't cross the border without having to pay a huge bribe? What if we get all of our gear stolen at gun point? What if it is hot, and we have to suffer for days on end? But what if all of these things happen, and we get through it and we learn about ourselves and how we react in tough situations. As my buddy Andre says, "What could go wrong?"
Or what if nothing of note happens? Will I be disappointed? Will I feel like I should have taken that slightly smaller road? Who knows? But for now we are off and we have some information at our disposal and there is a lot of world out there that we will just have to figure out how to live in.

So as I sit in a barber shop, waiting my turn and musing over our third major departure of the trip (1. Seattle 2. Ventura, CA 3. San Cris), I feel anxiety over what lays ahead, but damn lucky to have the opportunity to feel it.

While getting my hair cut, I spoke spanish for nearly a half an hour learning that my barber has been cutting hair for 50 years (19 of which are in the building I got mine cut it), his name is Raul Flores. He told me that there is a teachers strike in San Cristobal right now and because of that the teachers have blockaded all of the roads in and out of San Cristobal. Hmmmm, with the roads blocked, how will we leave town?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

More photos on Smugmug

Megan has put a bunch of photos of our mexico section of the trip.
You can go here to look at them.

Up and then really down

You know that feeling. That great feeling you get just before you realize how much you suck at something. It is almost necessary, in fact I might say it is necessary, for the giant sound of sucking to be preceded, if at least extraordinarily briefly by an exhalation of ego. Otherwise how might I know how much I really suck.

Let me explain a bit more in the context of my current situation: learning spanish.

[our little house] Megan and I checked into San Cristobal de las Casas about two weeks ago. The grand plan has always been to make it to San Cristobal and to live here for a month. It is an opportunity to get off the road for a bit, to feel like we are part of a community, and to study spanish like our lives depend on it.
[my language school] Upon arriving in San Cristobal, we found language schools to attend (for reasons of marital bliss, I go to one and Megan goes to another) and very quickly located what has to be the cutest little house in all of southern Mexico. The fully furnished house is cheap- $350 for the month. It has an adequate kitchen which is great because with all the amazing looking ingredients around here, it is fun to cook.
[that's San Cristobal in the background] But back to sucking. For the past two weeks, I have been taking Spanish lessons for 3 hours a day and adding classes whenever I can (Megan has too, but she doesn't suck as much as I do, so I will leave her out of this). I study all the time and I feel like I am getting a jist of the concepts pretty well. My spanish went from not being able to conjugate the verb "to be" to being able to carry on a very simple conversation with parking lot attendants- in present tense- about my motorcycle and our trip. (I measure my spanish ability with units of how well I can talk about my motorcycle).
[our buddy Alejandro on an unnamed 5.10+] After a weekend of climbing last weekend, I came back to school on monday all fired up to learn more. We jumped into some more tenses, I studied my flash cards and I started to feel like some of the words were starting to stick in my head. It was great. On tuesday it really started clicking. I met with a woman, Martha, with whom I do intercambios (1/2 hour of speaking english and 1/2 hour of spanish). I was excited about how much more I could say to her vs. the previous week. I was really getting the hang of this spanish thing.
Then Wednesday hit. I'm not entirely sure when the enormous vacuum cleaner was switched on that caused such an amazing sucking, but I think it was somewhere between the preterite and the indirect object pronoun. However, it was certainly switched on.
All of the sudden I couldn't speak a word of spanish. I'm used to this type of tongue tying with Thai, but normally I could just give it a minute and it would come back. Ok. Drink some coffee and relax. Nope. Now I was just a strung out spanish babbler. Take a little break and drink some water. Nope. Now I just had to go to the bathroom in the middle of class. Relax and envision myself speaking spanish. Impossible. My brain felt like a small mouse had gotten inside there and was in middle of a major rewire job, using scrambled eggs as the solder.
This feeling went on the entire day. I just couldn't recover. We tried in the afternoon to go see Avatar in Spanish, but for some very strange reason Avatar wasn't playing that day. It was playing the day before and the day after, but not that day. I tried to figure out why, but as I have already said, I no longer could speak spanish.
Finally, after a long day, we sat down to an early beer at around 6 o'clock and the world started to improve. Four beers later and I didn't care anymore. I could soon go to bed and the day would be over.
Today was a little bit better. From teacher school, I know that in order for learning to really occur, one needs to slip into that land of sucking (or confusion as it is otherwise known) for at least a little bit. It remotivates and it means that I have gone deep into the yellow zone.
Think about it though. In order to realize sucking, you have to first know what non-sucking feels like. Think of the times in your life you were starting to feel like you were on top of something that you really wanted. I bet it was quickly followed by a hubris crushing realization. However, once you recover from this, the place where you land is somewhere between where you were and where you want to be. Not so bad really. It is better than never having had the opportunity to suck.

So... lets toast to when the world feels like a huge orifice pulling you down as far as possible. I'll drink a few beers to that.
[For those of you who know me well, you also know that another I suck at is posing for the camera. Right Tim?]

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