Monthly Archives: May 2016
A Sixteen Minute Read
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” ~ Alan Watts, Philosopher/Writer
What makes you, you? This is one of the most important questions we can ponder on those idle nights. Simply wondering why you are the way you are is deeply therapeutic. We are all influenced by a unique combination of upbringing, culture and circumstance. Throughout our lives hundreds of players have huge impacts on who we are to become. Every day we are told what we should be, how we should act and who we should idolize. These are outside sources influencing us.
However, sitting back for a moment and putting aside the buzz of the world is important. Forget the push and pressures of the modern society. Who do you want to be, right now? What do you want to do, right now? This is something we forget, the right now. We have the power to change ourselves throughout our lives. I know I am a completely different person from when I was as a child, teenager and even at the beginning of this journey. People need to learn to accept that we all change. Don’t let your past define who are today and will be in the future.
The most important part is following what you believe makes you the best you. We need to embrace the beauty of change. We need to embrace ourselves. Personal developmental growth is how we prevent stagnation. This life is a churning river of bends and breaks. Sometimes it is good to follow the ebb and flow. Other times, it is important to break away. Make your own path to new sources of personal discovery. Ask the tough questions of yourself. Make your own path. But most importantly, be you.
“Mexico is a safe, as well as a beautiful and warmly gracious, place to visit.” ~ Margaret Chan, Physician
I crossed into the state of Chiapas, Mexico from Guatemala in the scorch of the early afternoon sun. There was a power failure on the Guatemalan side of the border, but once into Mexico things went quite smoothly. Frontier regions are typically never the most welcoming places, but I felt quite happy to be officially in North America. My Central American journey was behind me with a camera full of pictures and a mind full of great memories.
I spent the rest of the day making my way through a fairly dry landscape to the first city of Tapachula. In comparison to the parts of Guatemala I was riding in, Mexico was much more developed. Food carts and little shops everywhere. Decent roads and gas stations with air conditioning to cool off in. I found a cheap guesthouse, grabbed a Mexican style Torta (sandwich) and did a bit of exploring around my new surroundings. I had been to Mexico many years ago, but this was a completely different situation. The week holiday in the isolated beach towns of Yucatan is not what really defines the hustle, bustle, sights and sounds of the Mexican heartland. I was excited about the road north towards the United States.
“I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.” ~ Anthony Bourdain, Travel Host/Writer
Through slow hilly roads with a crosswind I made my way along the southwestern coast towards the state of Oaxaca. The people along the way were friendly and generally very helpful. As I pedaled onwards, I began the culinary experience that is the beauty of Mexican food. Real Mexican food. I am not talking about burritos and gordita Crunches. I am talking wonderfully simple and flavourful tacos, bursting tortas, spicy salsas and handmade tortillas. The first time I had ‘Tacos Al Pastor’ I was blown away. One of the best things I have eaten on the entire trip. Basically meat done in the style of Arabic Shawarma, with some onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. I was absolutely hooked. In a small town one night I ate twenty Tacos Al Pastor and felt for once my eternal hunger was satiated. For a home recipe of Tacos Al Pastor CLICK HERE.
After a short cut through Oaxaca I turned away from the Pacific coast to cross the mountain pass towards the Atlantic. Throughout Mexico I had many options as far as routes were concerned, however, I intended to avoid a town that was coming up called ‘La Venta’. Literally meaning, ‘The Wind’. It is one of the most consistently windy places on Earth due to the geography of the region. Stories of trucks flipped over and flying debris is no place to intelligently head with a bicycle at this point in my tour. I elected the more difficult, though scenic mountain route to take me forward.
As I climbed up and over the mountains towards the state of Tabasco, I realized that this would be the last real mountain pass of my journey. The satisfaction of looking back from the top of a mountain road that took hours to crawl up is hard to describe. You are always happy that it is over, but the feeling and views are always worth all the sweat and struggle. I caught a roaring tailwind and made my way along through a much greener area up in the mountains. The air was much more comfortable but distances between food stops were longer. I made a poor calculation with food and water after passing the last town for 60 kilometres.
I pushed forward with only one thought on my mind, which was water. After a while nothing appeared and I was becoming dehydrated. I felt angry with myself for making such an easy error. As I pushed forward I was feeling terrible. After a large climb I was feeling weak and slightly dizzy in the sun. At the bottom I saw a police checkpoint and raced down to them. They helped fill my bottles with water and a truck driver gave me the rest of his lunch. I didn’t ask him for it, but happily devoured it like an animal. With this burst of kindness and energy I was able to make it to a camping spot that night outside a truck stop run by a nice family in the spiked green hills of Tabasco. It had been a long time since I allowed myself to be in that type of situation and vowed to be more prepared in the coming days.
After a few strong days of riding I rolled into the province of Veracruz and headed to the capital city. On the way I was drinking a Pepsi at a family shop in the middle of nowhere when the kids living there came out and gave me a big bowl of rice with tortillas and freshly cooked chicken. Throughout Mexico this type of random generosity was almost daily. People would tell me all the time that I didn’t need to pay for my lunch, sometimes hand me a cold drink or invite me to eat with them. It is not the Mexico you hear on the news. That is not the Mexico people want you to know about. But, in my experience it is the Mexico I will always know, remember and love.
I am not going to pretend Mexico isn’t without problems. It was around this time, as I approached the coastal area of the Atlantic, I began to see the armed conveys of military and federal police, working to combat the influx of cartel activity. They patrol the highway in full swat gear in armed pickup trucks with M-50 machine gun mounts and automatic wielding guards. On one morning, a convoy of armored vehicles passed me by on patrol, loaded to the teeth with weapons. It looked as if I was riding into a battle zone. I asked people along the way but all of them assured me that it was normal and there was a base nearby that keep the area safe. Never on my journey north to the United States did anyone make me feel like I was in danger.
I stayed with a nice family in Heroica Veracuz before making my push north along the stunning coast towards the state of Tamaulipas. While I visited with them we ate a large feast of Tacos Al Pastor one night and I listen to the history of the state from my new friend Joaquin. Veracruz was the site where Hernan Cortes landed with the Spanish in 1519 and consequently changed the face of modern Mexico. Read about Cortes HERE.
The route I chose through Mexico was one which was completely off any sort of tourist trail. I had set an original route which would hit all the big sights. But, I realized quickly that Mexico is a place I would like to return to. After two years of seeing sights, I realized that seeing them on my own does not make me any happier. My journey I have found has never been about the sights, they were only simple markers on the map to work towards. I decided to leave parts of Mexico which are famed for tourism to later. It is a long life and will mean more to me later. I would like to see them someday with my wife to be. Two years on the road can leave you a bit saturated and lacking the anticipation that famous sights bring to other tourists. I decided to put my focus on meeting people, exploring culture and you guessed it, eating.
Veracruz was a stunning off the beat and track province. I would recommend it to anyone who has a bit of time and patience. Places like Catemaco highlight the unknown beauty of Mexico. Pretty lakes and rolling green hills make cycling here worth all the while. The landscape slowly changed on route to Tamaulipas. The road was full of trucks carrying freshly picked oranges. Sometimes it smelled sweetly wonderful and other times a whiff of rotting produce would wake me up. I stopped along the way to check out historic churches in little towns and at in roadside stalls. I loved the energetic pump of a Mexican breakfast of eggs, beans, and endless tortillas.
“My sole ambition is to rid Mexico of the class that has oppressed her and given the people a chance to know what real liberty means. And if I could bring that about today by giving up my life, I would do it gladly.” ~ Pancho Villa, Mexican Revolutionary
I was a little bit hesitant with the final state of Tamaulipas. Known mainly for cartel control and corruption. However, people had been nothing but nice so far and I felt that it would continue, even in the less stable regions. In Tampico I was set up with a cousin of my good friends David and Diana whom I used to work with years ago in South Korea. Arriving in Tampico, Pamela and Oscar welcomed me into their home like an old friend. I was privileged to join them for a typical Sunday of family and food. Some of the best sandwiches (tortas) I have ever had on fresh Arabic bread. It was one of my most memorable days in months. I ate my heart out with both sides of their family and enjoyed time walking along the pretty windswept beach. The day finished off with a typical Mexican barbecue, I was stuff and happier than ever.
With my belly full and batteries recharged, I was off for the final push through the wild east of Mexico towards the border town of Matamoros. Along the way my wonderful friend Diana also set me up with her brother in Cuidad Victoria, another city known for all the wrong reasons. David and Diana were waiting for me across the border where they lived in the United Sates in Brownsville. On the way I was able to meet the whole wonderfully welcoming extended family. Diana’s brother Gonzalo let me stay at his home for the night, even though he had only just moved in. We went out for some delicious Mexican food and chatted with some friends of his girlfriend. Everyone was so enthusiastic and excited to help me achieve my goals. I was feeling extremely comfortable and loved by all.
From Victoria I had only two days to the border of the United States. I rode hard and long. On both mornings there was a terrible fog that soaked me in the humidity of the morning. Wild sunflowers grew along the highway with pastures of crops. I crossed green swamps and battled a horrible crosswind for two days. On route the Mayor of San Fernando offered to host me. Though he was busy, his assistants took me out to dinner and made sure I had food for the following day. People were all very excited to help me get through Tamaulipas safely and happily. Though the riding was long and hard the kindness along the way made up for all the work. I always asked the police at checkpoints about the safety of the road ahead and they were usually very friendly giving me the thumbs up. Over the course of my journey I think I have become slightly numb to the heavily armed guards that exist in extreme areas throughout the world.
On a final haul to the border I felt a huge surge of energy along with satisfaction at crossing Mexico. It was well over 2000km of cycling from one end to the other. Along the way I got to experience something few people ever get to see of Mexico. The friends I made along the way are something I will always take with me. It is not a place to be feared. The kindness I experienced here was one of the best I have seen on my trip. Crossing the bridge from Mexico into the United States I entered a different world. One with trimmed lawns and styled suburbs. I looked back across the border once more and felt I would miss the part of the world I had just left behind. A new adventure loomed in the United States. One country separated me from my home back in Canada. I cycled over to the home of David and Diana. I heard a familiar voice call my name and saw friends I hadn’t seen in five years. I was almost home.
*We are now less than $7,500 from the final schoolhouse in Nicaragua. I can’t believe we are almost at the final goal of $50,000 raised during cycling journey around the world. That is incredible! I have to thank all of the people who have made this dream come true for children in struggling communities around the world. Together we are lighting the spark to brighter futures. Thank you so much! CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**I am currently cycling in the state of Ohio, United States. I am less than 350km from crossing the border of Canada and beginning the final road home. Exciting times to come!
***If you are interested in backpacking around Mexico, check out a travel guide for off the beat and track Mexico by my friend the Uncharted Backpacker by clicking http://www.unchartedbackpacker.com/top-5-offbeat-places-in-mexico/
Anthony Bourdain: Tacos in Piedras Negras
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” Pele, Soccer Player
There is a great distinction between luck and hard work. Recently, with cycling in the United States many people I meet have been saying how lucky I am. But, I don’t see it that way at all.
I don’t feel like I suddenly stumbled upon my bicycle ride and was able to see the world. Luck is something that happens by chance, like winning the lottery. You wouldn’t say to a person who worked for years at a job that they are so lucky when they got the promotion they’ve been working towards. You wouldn’t say to a doctor that they are so lucky. No, because they worked for it. It is something they cared enough about to put effort into for long enough to achieve their goal.
Years before I even began my bike ride, I was planning, researching and dreaming. Slowly, I was working towards something that was very important to me, just like those people working on the big promotion. I had a goal and I set my sights on it. I saved, I read and I cared.
In many ways I do not really believe in luck. I believe in hard work. Most of us have the power to change our present circumstance if we do not agree with it. The reason why I am able to do what I do is because I worked hard. I made my bicycle ride the number one priority in my life leading up to the departure date. I live cheap as possible and rely on the kindness of others, which has in turn enhanced my views of our world and helped me grow personally. I realized, for me, what is truly important in life. I will give you a hint, it is definitely not material.
In relation, my charity work with Free the Children is also very important to me. Not all people in the world have equal opportunity to sustainable and positive futures. The sheer fact that you are reading this means you already had a headstart somewhere in life. In Canada, for example, kids just go to school. It isn’t even a thought. In other places, it is a huge struggle for money, access and commitment of the family. This is especially difficult for girls in many parts of the world supported by Free the Children. By building schools in struggling communities, we do not hand them the keys to the future, but at least we show them the door. If nothing else we give them the childhood we all had growing up.
Just yesterday, with the help of schools across Eastern Ontario we surpassed the goal for the community in Shuid, Ecuador, for a total of over $41,000. I cannot express how wonderful this feels. The best part is that it was the youth of Canada helping the youth of Ecuador achieve their childhood. Truly inspiring! We will now begin our push to the final goal of $50,000 and the schoolhouse in Nicaragua. You can CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
So next time you feel like the world has been unfair. That you have somehow been cursed or unlucky. That you are a victim in a game you cannot control. Please try to think of it in a different light. Bad things happen, that is a fact of life. Moving forward to new levels of growth and learning from our experiences is how we can deal with the nasty curveballs of life. Being a victim of circumstance, never solved the heart of any issue.
Throughout my journey I have seen the good throughout the world, but I have also seen the heart wrenching bad. I have felt the hunger, thirst, pain and struggle of the road. Seen the overwhelming depth of poverty and despair of people caught in terrible systems of neglect and abuse. Sometimes it felt hopeless. I have wanted to quit. I have wanted to give it all up and return to a life of comfort. But, that is never what I intended to achieve. Sometimes I need to remind myself that this is never what I wanted.
I have seen the change that is possible in our world. I have seen the difference that motivation and hard work can achieve. The world is a kind place full of hope and opportunity. Don’t wait for luck to find you. While you wait, all that could have been will pass you by.
“Honduras was the original ‘banana republic,’ and its poverty remains extreme.” ~ Elliott Abrams, Diplomat
I bumped on into Honduras across the Nicaraguan border. After receiving a massive stamp in my passport and changing a bit of money from a man on the road, I was off riding through scrubby Honduran landscape. Though Nicaragua is considered a fairly poor country, the frontier of Honduras felt more desolate and rough. The landscape resembled a part of Zimbabwe I rode through that hadn’t seen rain in some time. I felt excited about entering a country most people go out of their way to avoid.
The road was potholed and marked from neglect. Most frontier regions look this way. The road had been so nice through Nicaragua, that I was missing it a bit. No matter, I pushed on through the humid scorch of the day. Temperatures in the forties and endless sweat on my face. Life appeared much tougher here with many ox carts on the road and a lot less infrastructure.
I approached a city called Choluteca. As I pedaled through I saw a Wendy’s for the first time in I have no idea how long. I knew it would be cool inside and I passed the hottest part of the day drinking endless cold sprite until my head exploded. Everyone in Wendy’s was dressed really nicely, some people even in suits holding meetings. It was likely one of the higher establishments in town with Wi-Fi. I felt like a lost tramp in the corner holding on for dear life.
I pedaled out of the city and eventually looked for a place to camp that night. I pulled into a lone shop on the side of the road and bought a bag of water. Water seemed to be always sold this way for really cheap here. I bit the corner off the bag of water and I asked the lady if it would be possible for me to camp near her shop. She seemed amused and happy at the thought. She told me to set up near her home in the back. That night we shared stories about our lives while her family and neighbors enjoyed watching me cook dinner.
These are the types of things that make cycling the world so rewarding. Disproving misconceptions about whole countries and stereotypes ingrained by biased media. The only time you ever hear about Honduras is when something terrible happens. It is villified by the media as a dangerous place and that all people are violent. However, I never met anyone that wasn’t friendly or genuinely interested to meet me.
It was only going to be a short stretch through Honduras to El Salvador, so I took a short detour down a back road the following day. Here, I was able to get a better look into life in rural Honduras. The road ran along a pretty river and people waved from their modest homes. Near the El Salvador border my bike decided to fall apart with two broken spokes and a flat tire all at once. I saw a bike repair shop on the road nearby and had a man patch my tire while I fixed the spokes. With some teamwork I was back on the road in no time at all. Soon after I entered another one of the ‘danger zones’. El Salvador.
“El Salvador is a democracy so it’s not surprising that there are many voices to be heard here. Yet in my conversations with Salvadorans… I have heard a single voice.” ~ Dan Quayle, American Politician
The mood shifted once again, with a friendly border guard greeting me with a tourist map of El Salvador. This is the first time that has ever happened on arrival in a country. He gave me a big smile, no stamp required and I was off. After years of civil war El Salvador is now trying to pick up the pieces and reinvent itself as a place people want to visit. They use the American dollar as their currency and it is relatively very cheap if you live like a local. A land of beautiful volcanoes and natural beauty awaits.
I started off pedaling into an annoying headwind uphill in the late afternoon. I found a cheap place to sleep that night as the heat was too much for another sweat soaked night in the tent. I also got my first taste of the famous pupusas that El Salvador is famous for. Delicious! Truly a cyclists carbohydrate bomb of a dream food. Basically a tortilla stuffed with hot cheese and refried beans, at the most basic. See the recipe for the delicious treasures HERE.
I put in two strong days and made it down to the sun struck coast. I avoided the inland route through the capital San Salvador, because at this point big cities are the last thing I enjoy riding through. I’ve lesrned my lesson. One thing I did notice on my way down to the coast were the abundance of security guards weilding shotguns. Every gas station or restaurant seemed to have a man in charge of security with a very menacing looking firearm. However, most of them were very friendly towards me and often opened the door as I came in to cool off inside or asked politely about my ride. With the civil war in recent history, I think this is a remnant of an uglier past.
The coast around El Tunco was some of the best I have seen on the trip. Stunning sunsets amid picturesque rivers leading to the ocean. I took a day to rest my legs and ate a lot of pupusas. Soon after I shoved off on a winding very steep road along the coast. It was very beautiful but quite tiring in the morning heat. By the evening I had made it to the Guatemalan border and stayed in a cheap lodging on the El Salvadoran side. You guessed it, I ate a pile more pupusas and laughed with locals. Though tourism has increased in El Salvador, it is not what you would call touristic. Therefore, foreigners passing through small towns are still treated with a lot of interest.
I woke early and shoved off towards Guatemala after a quick and painless border crossing. I had been to Guatemala years before on a side trip during an archaeology dig I was doing in Belize during my university undergrad. The most exciting credit of my education. During that time I had the opportunity to explore a bit of eastern Guatemala, such as the magnificent archaeological site of Tikal as well as beautiful Flores. I decided my route would continue along the Pacific coast instead, to see the other side of the country towards Mexico.
It was the beginning of the up and down pattern that is riding a bike in Guatemala. Though I chose one of the easiest routes through the country, it still had me sweating up some of the hills in the stifling humidity. The views of the countryside from the hilltops were beautiful and green through the haze of the morning sun.
Though the sights and archaeological history of Guatemala are stunning, the driving is not so wonderful. Typically it was the buses that roared passed out of control up a winding hill that had me fearing for my life the most. As they passed, black acrid smoke would cover me and the glorified decorated school bus would disappear over the top of the hill. It is the fastest and most dangerous driving I have ever seen performed by a school bus. Also, the people typically could be seen crowded into pickup trucks as a driver whizzed up another hill. Often I saw men sitting on the side of these trucks where a sudden stop could send them flying. There is also nothing worse than huffing up a big hill and a Guatemalan garbage truck passes you.
I made my way along the undulating road towards Mexico with a stop off at the archaeological site of Takalik Abaj. Getting there was the hard part. Up I went on a massive climb into the jungle. I camped out in much cooler climate after some nice men cleared a spot for me. It was already dark and I was exhausted. However, I was extremely excited to camp out right next to Takalik Abaj. It is one of those places where if you close your eyes and with a little imagination you can be transported back to a different age. I could feel the history screaming up from the ground. It was wonderful to reminisce on my five weeks spent digging up the history of the Maya while camped out in the jungle of Belize.
This type of archaeological site is my favourite. The buildings are uncovered and left as they are found. Fire hearths and stele are unwrapped from years hidden in the jungle just as they were. There is not massive reconstruction done and things essentially are left as they are found. Because of this, there are very few tourists who visit sites like this. If you don’t have a genuine interest in archaeology, then your photographs might disappoint. It is the story which interests me. I was the only one there, and got a free private tour included in the small entrance fee. As one of the oldest sites of Maya habitation dating back to the 9th century BC, it is very important for uncovering hidden secrets of their past. You can read about the history of the Maya and Olmec civilizations who inhabited the region once upon a time at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takalik_Abaj.
From the site I descended down a massive hill and was off towards the Mexican border. I spent my remaining Quetzals (Guatemalan money) on a filling meal of eggs, beans, fifteen tortillas and a coke before the heat of the day became too much. It was a much easier ride to the border. The landscape became slightly more dry and the riding much flatter as I approached Mexico. A new adventure lay ahead as one of the final countries on my round the world adventure appeared in the distance. I said ‘adios amigo’ to Central America and was on the road leading home through North America.
*I am now cycling in the United States and on a cruising path towards Canada. With almost two years on the road I look forward to using what I have learned during my time on the road and putting it to use in future aspects of my life. I have crossed the state of Texas and now riding in Arkansas. Track my progress home on the location icon above.
**Please continue to support the school building projects with Free the Children. As I mentioned up top we have just surpassed the goal for the fourth school in Shuid, Ecuador. Details for the final schoolhouse and community in Nicaragua to come soon. This is a very exciting time. Thank you for the support one and all! CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
If the World Were a Village of 100 People
The Beauty of El Salvador