Saturday, January 12, 2013

Intro to Mission Rainbow (!) and cycling the coastline of Mexico´s Colima and Michoacan states

Paradise? Manzanillo, Colima
Introduction: Mission Rainbow 
Arriving to the heartland of the ancient Mayan empire by Dec 20th in time for the "end" of the Mayan calender should not be too difficult, right? After all, a 26 000 year astronomical cycle certainly should have given plenty of time to plan around it, but here I was entering Colima, Mexico with a daunting 1880 km of ground to cover by bicycle with less than 20 days to do so. 

When I mention the 20th of December I am often greeted with highly polarized perspectives from those who are excited for supernatural phenomenon or those who have unwavering skepticism and certain denial that the date has any significance. My opinion and expectations are quite distinct from these opposing views but in my mind this is an extremely important period of time for humanity, perhaps less so the specific date.  

It is extraordinary that the most famous and highly developed ancient calender had predicted a great transition precisely in the same time that today´s scientific community recognizes this as a pivotal time for the human race and all life on Earth. Currently, there is an unequivocal consensus among scientists that humans have changed the composition of the atmosphere and surface of the Earth in a way that the global average mean temperature is warming (UNDP 2007).

The geologic epoch known as the Holocene lasted approximately 8,000 years and it was characterised by a remarkably stable and hospitable climate under which human societies and their agriculture thrived. The Mayans thrived, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, our great grandparents, all prospered from the Holocene´s stable climate, which is now over. Welcome to the Anthropocene. This is a new era where humans are a distinct and driving force of global change. Our transformation of Earth has resulted in an estimated global biodiversity extinction rate of around 27,000 species per year. Over 60% of ecosystems are degraded or at risk of degradation and the depressing statistics go on and on. These are troubling to review but important to recognize now while there is still time. Our great grandchildren would be disappointed to learn that we thought the threat to their potential well being was simply to inconvenient to acknowledge.

I had initially heard about the events taking place in Palenque, Mexico on the 21st of December way back in northern California and then decided it was my priority to participate in the international rainbow gathering taking place after an inspiring dream on Nov 15th while in the middle of the Baja California's Vizcaino Desert. My dream occurred while I was already half awake in the early morning and perhaps because of this I remembered it enough to draw a rejuvenating dose of inspiration and optimism that it is indeed possible to change the world. In the dream I was in debate against a faceless, unmovable force of conservative thought yet I managed to unfold a veritable and respectful argument that somehow resonated with the skeptical audience eroding their dogmatic view.

I was unsure what to do with this enhanced positive energy but the dream along with the timing and coincidental circumstances of my bicycle trip in general made me feel like I was moving in the right direction and then I remembered the rainbow gathering in southern Mexico. I researched it online and must admit it sounded pretty flaky and I was still totally confused as to what a rainbow gathering was, but the timing of my dream and the possibility of arriving on bike suggested it was where I needed to be. It was the next step towards a beclouded summit. It was time for "Mission Rainbow."

Colima state
Looking inland at the El Rio Maruaba,  which separates Colima and Jalisco states 

The grand challenge actually seemed possible as I rolled across a long bridge spanning the Rio Maraba into flat Colima state and away from the gnarly hills of Jalisco. My research via other cycling blogs suggested that the coastal road through Colima state is substantially flatter and safer for cycling then those I battled against in Jalisco but that Colima state is tiny and thus offers only a very short section (about 150 km) of easy riding before hitting into the epically tough mountain terrain of Michoacan state.

After camping free and living on less than 10$ per day for the last week I planned to spring for a night in a hotel in Manzanillo and check out the famous tourist destination. When I arrived to The Bahia de Santiago the sun was low on the Pacific horizon and the sand of the sweeping bay was glowing in golden sun. I was tired after the 110km riding so I pulled over to take in the scene and listen to the breakers. I chatted with a couple senores about accommodation possibilities ahead and they warned me of expensive hotels in the center. Instead they recommended a budget option in the nearby village of Santiago. Two young boys on bicycles enthusiastically offered to lead me there, insisting they wanted nothing in return. Knowing I would be fine to arrive on my own I was skeptical to accept, but eventually agreed and they turned out to be awesome kids just wanting to help out.
Manzanillo, Colima
The hotel was a dive, with both daily or hourly rental deals and my room had a ceiling fan that appeared ready to helicopter off its mount plus a small orange lizard living in the light switch. Nonetheless, I was elated to have a shower and wash my clothes. I cooked a large cheap cheap cheap pot of rice with vegetables in the hotel courtyard, which had good wifi, as the majority of Mexican hotels I've visited on this trip do (Nov 2012).

Manzanillo, Colima
The next day I hit the road just after sunrise, again feeling a sense of culture shock to be on the streets of a random Mexican village and headed into a long unpredictable day of adventure and discovery. I cycled into Manzanillo passing through heavy industry and port yards. Frequently I asked the locals for directions so I could avoid the busy freeway. Manzanillo center was quiet when I arrived and offered little excitement but I had a relaxing cookie break along the scenic harbour that was full of small fishing boats and was glad I made the visit.

Several roads pass this area and I had reluctantly chosen the longest route that passed the center of Manzanillo and then followed the coast south. This was a terrible mistake! After leaving the city center the road was extremely rough but then transformed into a spiffy modern highway. In the distance and off to the left appeared an enormous smoke stack that appeared taller than a redwood and spewed thunderstorm-sized masses of dark orange smog into the sky. More smoke stacks appeared as I neared and dense smog obscured the sun, casting the Earth into a doomsday glow (see pic at top). Guards armed with machine guns stared at me as I passed the main gate after which the highway became conspicuously calm and empty. Only a few cars passed and I wondered what was up.

More heavy industry lined the road and soon no cars were traveling down the four lane highway. I pull out my map to confirm this route is correct, then continue with a strong sense that something is wrong. Not a soul is near to ask directions so I pedal onwards. Finally, a 10m high wall of boulders runs perpendicular to the road, cutting off my route and dirt tracks run in both directions along the wall. A car emerges from one dirt track so I flag it down for questioning. They look at me with sympathy and explain "no hay puente;" there was no bridge. I climb up the boulders to see a 100 m gap of choppy blue ocean separating me from the highway clearly visible on the other side. Blasted!

This was extremely frustrating, mainly because my map produced by the official Mexico department of transportation, the SCT, had failed me and also that no signs had warned me. I reluctantly double back, retracing my route into a light headwind. Fortunately, after talking to some locals I find a small detour that brings me through a tiny village, along the walls of the industrial plant, onto a stony railway path and then over a long half-finished bridge and back to the actual highway. Two hours of fast cycling later I finally reach the other side of the channel where the bridge was out. This was a discouraging start to my day but it could have been worse and the essential travelers advice to "always ask the locals if your not sure," was reinforced in my mind.

From there I cycled hard along the flat four lane highway trying to make up for lost ground and after 80 km on my odometer I stopped at a roadside shop for a cheap and incredibly rejuvenating coconut. Soon after this I was in mid-day heat and stopped for lunch. During lunch I usually write or study Spanish but this time I studied my maps to get an accurate estimate of how far I had left to Palenque and assess if the objective is possible.  

Mecico marijuana production map (various US and
Mexican gov´t departments)
I calculated that from there I had a total of 1800 km to go to Palenque, which made the 40 km lost in the morning seem all the more frustrating. Arriving on the 20th of December was possible but I had promised myself not to push my body too hard right from the onset of the trip. Traveling some more on bus seemed like an attractive alternative. Also, I had been advised by several people including police officers that the Michoacan coast is slightly dangerous with occasional incidences of robbery and conflict between officials and the local drug trade. On the Internet I found a map produced by the CIA showing that the Michoacan coast upto Acapulco is a primary marijuana growing and trafficing region in Mexico and I read one seasoned Michoacan travelers report that the initial section when entering from Colima is particularly risky. I decided to take a short bus trip then cycle the rest.

I rode the final 20 km into Tecoman then boarded a bus for Maruata, Michoacan. Traveling by bus or taking rides is a sticky issue for cycle tourists. Many despise the idea, as I once did, but I had accepted it as a possibility from the beginning of this trip mainly due to my past knee injuries. During my first trip on bicycle I became enlightened to the simple beauty and rich experience of traveling on bicycle. It satisfies my need for physical exercise and enhances interaction with local culture, connection to the landscape and overall sense of place. Because these fundamental motives for travel are so well satisfied while on bicycle I find it very difficult to travel in any other mode; however, there are also enormous challenges, dangers and sometimes great hardships associated with this manner of travel as well as a reduced exposure to some important travel experiences due to exhaustion and for some people the need to cover distance in a nearly perpetual manner.

To optimize my overall well being and travel experience as well as moderate the risks associated with bike travel I am experimenting with accepting rides and traveling by bus. Potential hazards such as traffic, robbery and sickness are present in varying degrees but they can often be identified and the chances of their occurrence reduced through appropriate risk management strategies. In this case I was catching a bus through an area that I had assessed to be particularly hazardous for robbery. And, I was lazy!

Michoacan state

Map showing Michoacan highlighted. Colima is the much
smaller state to the left also located on the coast.
I sat in glee as the bus effortlessly maneuvered us through 90 km of twisting and tumbling mountain terrain. During the ride I made friends with a friendly couple, Manuela from Spain and Victor from Italy, and we got off together and walked through the quiet spread-out village of Maruata to the beach where most accommodation is located. We found a family offering space to camp or sleep in hammocks under their beach palapa for about 2.5$ US. After setting up I jumped into the refreshing waves of the now dark ocean and Victor and Manuela went into town for beer. We sat on the beach for hours chatting in Spanish about our trips, myself with lots to share of my last few days spent alone.

Maruata is just a tiny village on a very sparsely populated coast and the stars here are brilliant. Quite late in the night as we finished our final beers, an orange, nearly full moon peeked over the wall of steep mountains that rimmed the southern edge of the long bay. It was a spectacular moon rise and I felt a really strong sense of vitality and appreciation to have arrived to such a striking setting. To my great relief the temperature dropped steeply during the night until it was fresh and cool, allowing me to sleep comfortably without sweating and sticking to my sleeping mat.

Layed back village of Maruata, Michoacan
The beach had such a peaceful relaxed vibe that I decided to stay another night. This day was spent with my mew friends exploring the several beaches around Maruata, which include the long bay where we camped and sea turtles lay their eggs, and several others that are smaller and more dramatic with sea caves and canyon like walls roaring with crashing waves. Maruata did have a vibe of danger, as noticed for example when our host insisted that we lock all of our valuables inside their house and keep nothing in the tent, but it was still one of the most tranquil and beautiful places I had seen on my entire journey down the Pacific Coast.

The next day I hit the highway just as the glowing red sun appeared over the dry jungly hills. Several locals were waiting for buses at the junction and almost all who noticed stopped what they were doing and curiously stared as I headed away from town into the jungly hills. Almost immediately, I was into a steep hill climb that went on for several kilometers before dropping  into a ravine before commencing another long demanding climb. During one large uphill, I passed by an enormous tarantula crossing the roadway. It was about 12 cm across and had furry orange striped legs. I watched it closely for about 10 minutes knowing it was a peaceful, almost totally harmless creature.
Large tarantula about 12-15 cm across (5-6 inches)

Along many of the steep road banks I saw huge Iguanas some nearly a meter long that always scampered straight uphill when they saw me coming. The area felt like a real jungle and indeed it is so. Inland from the Michoacan coast, only scattered dirt roads penetrate the essentially uninhabited Sierra Madre del Sur marked by 2000m summits in close proximity to the sea. I could only imagine what snakes, cats and spiders inhabited the range but the more imminently dangerous ones, as I was about to find out, were right along the coast.

While passing a restaurant I pulled over to inspect a sweeping view of the coastline but was accosted by a pack of seven frantic dogs. As the posse of barking dogs approached I fearlessly dismounted causing them to back off their chase in fear of what I might be planning. I was ready to grab rocks and defend myself.  They continued to bark and stayed near until I exited via a steep downhill grade. They were unable to catch me but at the bottom of the hill my momentum gradually slowed and I approached a large speed bump. Suddenly an enormous Rottweiler came tearing out from beside a house. I looked back and saw a terror of conspicuously bulging muscles and a gaping evil jaw. He caught up with me in moments and I was helpless to escape with the large speed bump just ahead.

I relaxed and slowed down with the idea that my tranquility might cause him to become disinterested in the chase but I was stupidly wrong. With unwavering momentum he ran up behind me and with jaws wide open sunk his teeth into my rear right pannier. The beast must have weighed nearly 50 kilos because this caused my bike to slow down, swerve and nearly topple into the middle of the road. I was shocked that he had the nerve. He let go, fell back, then ran back up and bit once more into my back pannier. I was furious and adrenalin surged through my veins. I slammed the breaks dismounted and was ready to kill the enormous dog (somehow?). As I did this he ran off satisfied with his bite and perhaps partly scared by my energetic reaction as well as another senor who got to his feet after watching the scene unfold. I looked at my bag to see two big holes in my previously waterproof panniers.

I lost it at this and yelled "F%*{{!!!" Then translated my curse into spanish adding the words "madre" and "perro" in a powerful voice, loud enough so that the whole village could hear. The two señores directly in front of me were shocked, but I am quite sure they understood to some degree my frustration. That was the first time in my whole trip that something really got to me and I felt very bothered and distraught as I rode off determined to never permit another dog to bother me again.

note the sharp spine in this botanical
illustration of a legume plant
(by Britton and Brown)
At first I found a few stones but then tossed the meager weapons aside as I came across a stick made for the job. It was from a shrubby legume plant, yes from the same taxon of ecologically important plants that fix atmospheric nitrogen into soil and produce pod-like fruits that to some degree resemble beans or peas. Apparently, the plants belonging to this group do not just nourish us and our soils but they also produce fantastic “dog sticks.” This one was stiff with excellent whipping power and had a pair of razor sharp, 3 cm long spines sticking out from each leaf axel. I pruned it down a bit and attached it for easy reach to my rear pannier then rode off with a wild smile across my face.

About half an hour later I realize that the stick might be excessive, perhaps capable of actually blinding a dog. Then I started feeling a bit crazy to have this thorny twisted stick hanging off my bike. I descended into a deep and moody state that only eased once I took a mental step back and reminded myself that dogs are a type 2 fun, meaning that while they suck at the time they are fun to laugh about later. Then soon after this a black sedan loaded with a family packed in passed me and an old señora stuck her head out the window and yelled "hello" in an awkward accent. Typically it is only the men who yell “howdy,” “hello,” or some other slightly embarassing salutation so this made me laugh and I thanked her for lifting my spirit. I further regained my composure by reminding myself of the greater mission ahead. I knew it was not supposed to be easy. 

The second half of the day's ride was considerably flatter and I ended my day in the town of Caleta de Campos, where I ran into Manuela and Victor and then stayed in the same hotel as them. Since my rest day in Maruata was so enjoyable and also seemed essential to the greater travel experience I decided I would catch a bus for nearly 300 of the remaining 360 km to Acapulco and then spend at least one day there. This made for an easy morning ride to Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan that was fairly uneventful except for a very enjoyable stop for morning snacks. As I pulled into a tienda for water and bread I was greeted by the most enthusiastic and positive person I think I have ever met. He had spent considerable time in the United States and he was delighted to meet me and sell me bread. While I relaxed and ate my bread he interpreted what all the passing trucks were carrying as he buzzed back and forth across his simple storefront. He told me about the iron mine opened up across the road and how clever he thought the Chinese were to be there mining it. He also introduced me to each customer that came to his store. One construction worker would not believe me that I had travelled on bike from Canada. Finally, I pointed to my beard and he realized it was true. We all laughed. 

 The people in Mexico are so incredibly kind, open and friendly that it makes cycling alone a relatively easy task. Speaking generally from my observation over five months cumulative travel in Mexico, the priority of Mexicans during social interaction is to be easy going and create a positive vibe or “honda” that then spreads out towards the next interaction and greater social community. You notice the importance of sustaining the good vibe when negative "honda" emerges and people become uneasy until it is somehow resolved. It is crazy to think that I would be missing all of this good cheer if I did not speak Spanish. The generosity and enthusiasm of the locals has become a constant and valued stream of inspiration on this trip. It energizes my spirit and helps transform my wild dream into a real adventure. Rainbow gathering here I come! 

Beautiful volcano north west of Manzanillo, Colima
Morning break in Manzanillo, Colima

View from bridge under construction during an unexpected detour near Manzanillo, Colima
Colima state. Note the flatness, which is very rare on Mexico´s Pacific Coast
$2.5 a night. Beats a luxury hotel in my opinion. Maruata, Michoacan 

Maruata, Michoacan

Maruata, Michoacan

Maruata, Michoacan

Ceiba tree, Michoacan. These things get huge!
up and down, up and down. 
huge tree of some kind!

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