Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Fighting Fires and Finding the "Garden of Eden"

One of the many great things about bikes is they allow your body to become slowly acclimatized to your surroundings. You can only travel so quickly and so far at once meaning, as the air gets warmer or there's less oxygen while going up mountains, the change is gradual and essentially pleasant. Unless of course you bypass the biking for a bit and take a bus.

Coming out of Puebla, partially to stay on track with miles and partially to appease Jonathan's strong desire to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, we hopped on a bus to Veracruz. Although the tickets were a little more than we would've liked, we were quickly able to learn how simple our lives had become. The amount of excitement we got from a "free" soda, air conditioning, and a personal light above the seat is honestly a little pathetic. But who cares when you feel like you're living in luxury!

Our bus pulled in after dark, so we wandered to find food and quickly tried to sleep. The next morning, spirits were high as we got our first glimpse of the ocean and were able to follow the coast for miles, just watching the endless blue wash in. At the first possible opportunity, we brought the trolls down to the beach a gave them their first taste of the ocean. It wasn't until after that we realized that was probably a terrible idea between the salt and the sand for a mechanical beast. We spent the next number of miles grinding it back out, rolling through the greenest hills yet. We also quickly learned why the vegetation was different down here. The humidity is like a thick summer day in Iowa, and the sun heats everything up to well over 80 degrees by mid day. For three guys used to the cool mountains, we were in for a very sweaty surprise.

That night, we made it to a little town called Alvarado. After asking around for a place to camp and getting directed to a facility with a soccer field and volleyball center, we thought we were set. However, the guard didn't want to let us camp so we had to move along. He recommended the beach, but some men on the street stopped us because they thought the beach was too dangerous. Instead, by their recommendation, we followed a kind man back to the fire station where he worked.

Just as we were getting relaxed watching soccer on tv and about to catch up on sleep by setting up our hammocks, the phone rang. The "firemen" (our friend who walked us down the street and an elderly gentleman) started getting ready. After a few quick glances, I asked our friend if we could help. Surprisingly, he immediately said yes and we started throwing on all the fireman gear: boots, pants, suspenders, coat, and helmet. Gloves would have been nice and the shoes could have been about three sizes larger, but we climbed up on top of the truck and felt pretty awesome parading through town.

We made our way over a bridge, past a long line of stopped traffic, and ended up as the first responders to a semi that had fallen off the road, flipped, and was engulfed in flames. We first set up the hose and sprayed a fire retardant slurry until the tank was dry. It definitely made a difference, but the flames were still substantial so we all grabbed shovels and tried to smother the flames with dirt. Sweating more than I ever thought was possible and wondering if the truck was about to blow, other firefighters began to show up. As we were relieved, we realized there were literal puddles of sweat in our boots so we sat on top of the fire truck another couple hours and watched the action unfold. By the time we returned, were fed a second dinner, and set up camp, we were severely dehydrated and it was after 1am. It was still awesome to play firefighter for a bit (especially since they needed the help) and I have a much greater respect for the physical fitness required and amount of heat you have to withstand in that profession.

The next morning came far too quickly, and the unrelenting sun didn't help our already dehydrated state. We stopped on top of a bridge for breakfast and destroyed an entire box of cereal before continuing on our way. Up to this point on the trip, our offline app hadn't failed us. However, we had seen signs for the "Costa del Oro" or "Golden Coast" since Veracruz and our app didn't have the roads to get there. After asking some locals, looking at the mountains in front of us, and literally debating at the crossroads, we decided to go for it. Naturally, the next part of our trip was winding into green mountains with intense humidity. If the scenery hadn't been so perfectly incredible, we may have regretted our choice. But just as we needed a break, I spotted an orange tree and we cut up one of the tastiest pieces of fruit imaginable. Before long (and a little longer for Jon since he had another flat) we were rewarded for all our hard work with a long beach to ourselves, tropical mountains in the distance, and a sunset to top it all off. Believe me when I tell you we dropped our gear that day and sprinted into the waves, getting tossed by their continuous strength and feeling remotely clean for the first time in days.

Low on sleep, hydration, and energy, we had a very lazy morning complete with a pint each of Neapolitan ice cream and another ocean swim. Although it was supposed to be relaxing, Kai was busier than the rest of us, trying to get a tube in his rear tire that would hold air for more than 10 minutes. Eventually we did leave, and found the actual golden coast beach, just as beautiful as everything surrounding us. We hadn't gone far before we saw a sign for a waterfall and camping. Looking at the steep incline before us since it was headed back inland, we hoped it would be worth the effort.

There ended up being two camp sites. The first was more of the jungle scene, and we climbed down to the river where a 6 foot waterfall doubled as a water slide into a deep, clear pool. After getting our fill of fun, we headed to the other site to sleep since it had a view of the ocean in the distance behind a sloped green pasture. Setting up our hammocks in the protection of some trees, we paid 10 pesos to hike on the trial to a different waterfall. This one ended up being too tall to slide down, peaking at 40 meters and located in a bluff of tropical vegetation. Just when we thought this place couldn't get any better, the owners called us over to point out wild toucans and later drove into town to buy fresh fish for dinner. I don't know what they were, but they were big, red, fried in a lot of butter, and made excellent tacos. The next morning I woke up early to start the water for chai and was forced to journal while watching the stars give way to the sun rising over the ocean with a beautiful cow spotted hillside in between. Combined with the fresh fruit trees, budding flowers, and soft grass surrounding us, we dubbed our little camping spot "the Garden of Eden."

Back on the road and towards civilization again, we got another blast of heat and humidity. Sitting at a restaurant in the shade for lunch, we could actually feel the day getting hotter. It's one of those scenarios where sweat is dripping everywhere, sunglasses are fogged and there's no clean clothes to wipe them, sunscreen is running in your eyes, and the bike jersey is constantly soaked. Top it all off with a nice little 5.5 mile hill of switch-backs in the mountains, and suddenly you're a few pounds lighter! The only saving grace about climbing up so much is you can go down the back side and finally feel a cool breeze from the motion. Ending up in a town called Catemaco, which happened to be on a giant lake with tropical islands, we cooked our dinner on the roof of the hotel and took some time to relax.

The next morning, the heat was the same but we finally got smarter and woke up bright and early to make riding infinitely more enjoyable. The morning still had plenty of hills, but at least they weren't under a scorching sun. Weaving through the climb and watching workers cut the shoulder brush by hand with machetes, we nearly melted by the time we reached the next town. At the front end of town, we noticed a sign that said it was 42 degrees Celsius. Thinking ahead, I had written down some conversions in my journal, but stopped at 40 degrees because I figured 104 Fahrenheit would be enough. Silly Ben.

Feeling the need for some junk food, we went back to an old and familiar meal of mac and cheese with hot dogs, cookies, and popcorn. It felt right to vege out for a day, especially since we were able to find a Sunday football game on tv with Spanish announcers.

This morning we kept our trend of waking up early to beat as much heat as possible. Riding through a decent bit of dust and road construction, we were still able to make great time. However, we had 3 unsolicited comments in under 24 hours saying the place we were in wasn't safe. The first came from a bit of a vulgar man showing us around the city. He had better English than most so we were glad to learn a bit about our surroundings, but he enjoyed whistling at girls and afternoon cervezas. He told us there was some drug trafficking in the area and it wouldn't be safe to go out much without him. Hearing the warning but not thinking much of it, we got another one today from a taxi driver who chatted with us during a break. Similarly, he said the state of Veracruz wasn't safe and recommended we travel carefully. To top it off, a very friendly man who loved the bikes and sold us fruit passed along the same message. Feeling a bit uneasy since these people actually live in the area and don't think it's safe, we looked at the map and realized the following day there would be no cities and only jungle. Although we were feeling strong in terms of riding, we took a blow to our bike pride and turned north towards Coatzacoalcos to catch a bus south. If we needed to be justified, we got it immediately. A guard at one of the toll booths talked to us a minute (with excellent English since he lived in Chicago for a bit) and told us just a few miles down they'd been having problems with bandits stopping cars for money with machetes. Happy to be in the comfort of a bus, we gladly packed our stuff up and headed south. Even the trip was a bit tense though. Every time the bus slowed in the first couple hours to drop people off, the whole bus would perk up and look out the front to see what was happening. Jon and I put in a headphone of Harry Potter in Spanish to pass the time while Kai read a book, and later that night we were safe and sound in Tuxla Gutierrez.

Almost a month in, not a whole lot has drastically changed. Gear is slowly getting lighter as we drop off unnecessary items, but also getting a bit heavier as we build up our spices and essentials like sugar and powdered milk. The legs are definitely getting stronger, but every day is still physically challenging. Some of the excitement has worn down, but each day is different and we're stoked to compare Mexico with other countries. Spirits are still high, views are incredible, and annoyances with each other are short and minimal. Overall, I still can't think of anywhere I'd rather be. Until the next update, thanks for following along!


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