I wish I could take photos with my eyes. If I could capture even 5% of what we see from our bike simply by blinking, the feast of images we could share with you would be breathtaking.
Sure, I am hands–free on the front of Falkor and do my best to snap the sights as we ride, but some things just can’t be captured like that. The incredible faces, the laughter, the curious looks from people, horses, cows and dogs as we pass by, these are just a few of my favourite things about this journey.
People going about their normal lives; preening, chatting, preparing meals, travelling long distances with staggering loads and some just waiting and watching. These are constantly changing scenes that fill our days. But even if I did ‘click’ every moment, I don’t think these instances could be accurately portrayed in a still. We see travellers with huge cameras snapping what must be some amazing shots, but for us, the goal is not to document it all in photographs. We came to live it, to take part and to breathe it all in. And sometimes, the moments are so rich, so powerful, and the magnanimity of where we are is so confronting, that my eyes fill with tears over the joy, incredulity, sadness and helplessness of it all. Good and bad, this journey is mesmerizing.
Since the last blog from Cuba, we have indeed ridden 1300km. In that distance we have crossed 4 borders; Mexico, Belize, Guatemala & El Salvador, where I now sit overlooking the Pacific Coast as I type this blog. But I’ll try and break it down into an orderly fashion of brief highlights.
Leaving Mexico from the Chetumal border, I realized I had a stash of post cards still in my bag. All stamped and ready to send, just waiting for a post box. With none around, I decided to test fate and left them with the guard at the exit. If you receive a post card from Mexico, it is truly miraculous! Oh, and has anyone got a postcard from Cuba yet? Also a miraculous feat if they ever arrive at their penned destinations. Take a photo of yourself with your postcard and send it to us through Facebook or the blog. We’d love to know how many actually make it!
We were stung with a $30 exit fee at the Mexican border, which we tried to fight for over an hour. Turns out, it’s a genuine thing, not a scam. Upon arriving in Mexico we were given 6-month visas for $25. But in departing Mexico for Cuba, that visa expired and we were stung with the exit fee. Naturally, we were overjoyed about this.
Entering Belize was a breeze, and we were delighted to enter without any visa fees. It was like being in an 80’s spoof comedy with everyone speaking English in super cool Caribbean accents.
“That is a sick bike mon”
“Hey mon, sweet ride”
“Your bike is awesome mon.” No joke. They really include ‘man’ in every sentence.
A genuine treat to converse easily about our trip and make all our enquiries in English, even though we now naturally begin all our exchanges in Spanish.
But Belize was bloody hot. Once Goober even announced that it was 50 degrees! This was of course as we were stopped on a dusty desert road trying to fix a mudguard for over an hour. It kept rubbing on the front tire with all the massive diverts in the dirt road and as much as we tried, we couldn’t ignore it. A hang over from the pothole incident in Cuba. You can imagine the language Brendon used while attending to this repair.
We camped hassle-free every night, and enjoyed playing with our new camera that finally arrived to us in Chetumal. It was in the package with our Keen cycling shoes that went AWOL for 3 months. But well worth waiting for. Thanks again to the many people around the globe for the parts they played in the success of this package!
Brendon has been trying to get me into cleated riding shoes since day 1. You know the shoes that ‘click’ into the pedals. Well, being at the front of the bike with no control over anything but the power to make the bike go faster, I was less than interested in being attached to the bike by my feet. But having pedaled so far in some pretty extreme terrain and with some pretty intense knee pain, I have come to see the benefits of cleated shoes. Without them, you can only ‘push’ the pedals, but with them you can also ‘pull’ the pedals back, activating different muscles and relieving the knees from constant strain. I am now completely converted, and Brendon wants to kill me for taking 10,000km to come around. What can I say? I like to be really certain before I commit to buying practical shoes. Pretty shoes that hurt and have no purpose but to look cute? Well, I can buy those in a heartbeat!
Have you seen our latest movie from Belize?
Our last day in Belize was a hilariously timed caper that found us doing an interview for National News on the side of the road in San Ignacio.
You can see it here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mkJtWrO8Gg&feature=youtu.be
We have laughed ourselves silly at our own accents. Those of you who have suggested that my Aussie accent has faded, will enjoy the unique quality to my voice that I feel is best described as ‘bogun’.
We rolled over the Belizean border and were stung with another departure fee of $30 (sucked us in with the ‘free entry’ line), but were glad the visa fee for Guatemala was only $2, although we aren’t sure if that was an official charge, we were happy to pay in single digits.
Guatemala was exactly what I expected. Surrounded by a screen of huge mountains, we pedaled for miles on winding highland roads lined with the grinning faces of local people in traditional dress. It was like riding through an issue of National Geographic. Masses of children shouted greetings to us from unseen places and appeared from small roadside shacks to run along the road with us, laughing like lunatics. Having spent 4 months in Mexico always correcting locals that we are not ‘gringos’ but actually ‘Aussies’, it was a difficult adjustment to realize that the shouts of ‘gringo’ were welcoming, and not hostile. But when a gang of 5 year olds are shouting at you while pissing themselves laughing, it’s easy to spot the misinterpretation.
It is strange to think that a word with a historically negative origin like ‘gringo’ can be used as a slate in Mexico, but simply be a reference to a ‘foreigner’ in Guatemala. Like a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, the meaning gets lost somewhere down the line. In fact, it is very un-PC of me to refer to the game as ‘Chinese Whispers’. Having worked at an international school, I believe it is now called ‘Silly Whispers’. So I can see how easy it is to make a cultural faux pax, but was shocked to discover a mass of people being educated in such a way.
Guatemala embraced us from day one. Around sunset on our first night, we found a lake and asked a local family if it would be ok to camp beside their property.
“No, es mui peligrosso” (‘no, it’s very dangerous’) the man of the house told us.
“Por que?” I asked, surprised to hear that there was some danger lurking in this tiny, close-knit village.
“Por que los cocos!” he explained in detail, acting out what would happen to us if a coconut fell on us in the night. And with that, we were escorted into their house and welcomed home as if we belonged there.
What is it about cyclists that makes total strangers feel so secure in inviting 2 smelly, homeless people to stay in their home? Naturally delighted, we threw ourselves into the lake for a scrub and spent the night hanging out with Lupita (3) who taught us a thing or two about correct Spanish.
Our second day in Guatemala saw us cycling to Tikal, the site of Guatemala’s most famous Mayan ruins. We weren’t even sure if we were that bothered about seeing more ruins, having loved our time in Mount Alban and Palenque (both in Mexico). We recognize that we are pretty crap tourists in some respects. Like when we travelled through Europe, we saw a few amazing castles & churches and then the rest kinda lost their gloss. The same can be said about backpacking through Asia for visiting temples and giant Buddha’s. It makes us feel bad to be so blaze about such culturally rich icons so steeped in history, but to be honest, our appreciation has its limits. And now that we had to actually provide the physical energy to ride to visit more ruins……
It ended up being a matter of ‘oh we might as well’, and so we unenthusiastically set off. And we both agree, Tikal was the best surprise we have paid for.
From the minute we cycled through the entry gates, we felt like something special was gonna happen. The Tikal ruins are set inside a well-protected nature reserve. There are signs lining the road, warning drivers to go slowly to protect wildlife.
We were very excited about the prospect of seeing animals that weren’t flat and stinking on the side of the road. Stopping along the way to talk to Ken & Carol from Brisbane, two motorbike travellers who have been on the road for 7 years, we were already stoked to have made the decision to ride out here.
Having travelled a lot through Canada and Africa, we always see exciting road-signs warning us of the big animals we may encounter. But we have learned that you have to be extremely lucky to see any.
Not long after we passed the ‘jaguars crossing’ sign, a jaguar seriously appeared from the jungle and strut across the road right in front of us. Like, maybe 100 metres away. Amazing.
Moments like this have your brain thinking at light speed, while sending delayed reactions to your body. You want to grab your camera, but your eyes don’t want to take their focus off the unbelievable sight. And on a bike, when you have arrived mostly in silence, when that large cat turns to stare right at you, you start to think ‘Crikey! Back pedal, BACK PEDAL!’.
Simply fantastic. Could we provide a better reason to encourage you to do some travel by bicycle? When the van appeared from the other direction, the jaguar spun around and amazingly, crossed back over the road allowing us these extra shots.
Camping at Tikal was awesome. The jungle and its cacophony of sounds surrounded us; Howler monkeys calling out across the treetops threaded with exotic bird song. Hiking through the jungle site, at times totally alone, to discover ruins in various stages of excavation really tickled our non-touristy spot. No one tried to sell us anything and we were left to explore on our own. Our favorite way to be tourists.
Now let me tell you about the hills in Guatemala. My god. I have a special place in my mind filled with dread about climbing the Andes. I should have cordoned off a slice for Guatemala.
From Tikal, we bee-lined to the city of Coban, where we had finally booked our course to study Spanish. We knew the route was mountainous. We rode deep into them and enjoyed some spectacular riding through deep valleys with steep climbs and unbelievable views. And we thought we had gotten away with it.
About 100km before Coban, shit gets real. 10km out of Chisek, Goober told us the gradient turned to 18%. That is really steep. But through sheer force of will, we were able to pedal the bike up it. Loving ourselves sick, we thought if we could keep the beast moving up a hill like this, we were pretty much invincible.
And then it was suddenly 20%.
Now a 2% increase doesn’t seem like much, but let me tell you, it really is. But it is almost imperceptible to the eye, so you are pushing up the 18% and really focusing all your energy and strength into every pedal turn, when suddenly the bike slows down so much and you just can’t get that pedal to crank all the way over. We nearly fell, but Bren managed to get his foot unclipped just in time. This time.
Pushing Falkor up a hill is a sad and desperate act. Without us on her, the bike and gear still weighs 100kg. It was about 40 degrees, with the humidity around 80% on a single mountain road with no shoulder. And the hill was over 1km long. It wasn’t out favourite part of the day. Still, with Brendon’s mantra of ‘each bit as it comes’, with great effort we got there. And we were relieved to be at 18% gradient again and able to ride, albeit it slowly.
People always ask us how far we ride everyday. And we say between 70km-90km on average. But with hills like this, we were doing 40km-60km days. The day we rode into Coban was 40km of climbing with 1500 metres of vertical gain. And that was 7 hours on the road. Long, hot and very hard riding. No surprise we fell into a ditch that day. An actual ditch, not a metaphorical one. We busted a rear view mirror & cracked a bottle cage but with a few scrapes and bruises, we got away with it mostly unscathed.
We arrived in Coban on Tuesday afternoon and rode straight to the Muqbilbe-Spanish-School.
We met the school director Jaime (‘Hai-meh’), and he took us to meet our host-family.
L-R; Maria-Renee, Johana, Rika, Maria-Jose
There is not much that is truly terrible about travelling. But for us, the most awful thing is creating fast bonds with fantastic people, and then having to leave. Staying with our Guatemaltecan familia was one of those wonderful/terrible experiences. We fell in love with them instantly – Johana & Ruben and their three wonderful children, Maria-Jose (14) Maria-Renee (8) and Ricardo (3, AKA Rika). Not to mention Jackie the shitzu who is a dead ringer for our beloved Billee.
We stayed with them for 6 nights while we studied at the school every morning from 8am-12:30. Eating 3 meals a day with the family (who return from work and school for a lunch hour) and only speaking Spanish, it was one of the best times we have enjoyed. They simply welcomed us in and made us at home. In Central America, ‘mi casa es su casa’, is not just a saying. It’s a real thing and they truly mean it. And it feels fantastic. Can you imagine inviting 2 strangers into your family home and honestly not being worried about what they would do, touch or see?
Every morning, after being awoken by a rooster on the tin roof (talk about possum flash-backs), Rika would ride his trike up to our bedroom door and call out ‘Mema’ (my 3 year old Guatemaltekan name). He would promptly enter, followed by the bounding Jackie and they would both lead us into breakfast.
We miss our families and friends all the time when we are travelling, and suddenly having a family like this, made me feel overwhelming loved and home-sick all at the same time.
Our Spanish improved in leaps and bounds that week under the private tutorage of ‘Jaime’ (mi maestro) and ‘Perla’ (Bren’s maestra)
As Coban is high in the mountains at 1000m, it was also a bugless, bite-free experience. And after weeks of camping and being bitten everyday, despite the smotherings of DEET, it was a wonderful relief. A bloody good time all round!
We were also incredibly lucky that our host-dad ‘Ruben’ connected us with a news reporter, and we did an interview – mostly in Spanish – for the Guatemalan news. Does that make us internationally famous?
We couldn’t stick around to see the interview on the news, but the days riding after the broadcast certainly showed us that the locals knew who we were. The honking, waving, whistling and extreme photo taking increased 100%. People were stopping to applaud us and shout congratulatory comments. Smiling out loud indeed.
Saying goodbye was obviously traumatic, so I wont go into that teary episode, but true emotions are a serious hazard of a journey like this and so the opportunity to share them is pretty special. And we got to extend the goodbyes for an extra day as Bren’s teacher, Perla, invited us to stay with her family in a village only 30km down the road. Or I should say ‘up’ the road. The hills of Guatemala.
Very special times.
Did I mention that every second person in Guatemala is carrying a gun? From casual cowboys that we meet with long-range pistols tucked into their jeans, to security guards in front of milk bars with massive assault rifles. They all say the same thing; ‘Guatemala is dangerous’, and yet, we have only ever felt scared in the presence of these dudes and their casually slung weapons. Many people we have met along the way through many of our adventures have warned us of the possible dangers and as such, the need to carry a fire-arm to defend ourselves. But it seems to me, that everyone just has a gun to protect themselves from the other people that have guns. What if no one was allowed to have guns? How many gun related incidents have happened in Australia in the last decade compared to USA? This can of worms I open freely.
Did you know we cycled our 10,000th km in Guatemala! We are officially half way in distance, and time! It fills me with joy and terror all at once. 10,000km down, holy shit, still 10,000km and another 9 months to go! And another 9 countries to ride through!
El Salvador is the 7th TotallyTandem country we are riding, and another little gem of unexpected pleasure. A trouble-free border crossing (no exit fee from Guatemala and no entry free into El Salvador-yay!), we spent our first night camping with 600 Christians, who enticed us in from the hot road with their 3 glimmering swimming pools. I was pretty close to believing in God that day.
The weather is getting hotter the further south we go, necessitating rising at 6am to get riding by 8am. By midday, it’s over 40degrees and the sun too brutal to ride in. When possible, we stop at a fast food chain for a few hours to take advantage of the air con, free Wi-Fi, water & ice refills and banjos complete with toilet seats, toilet paper, real flush action, basins with actual plumbing and often even soap. McDonalds is pretty much a hotel for us. And on many occasions, I use the time and facilities to do our laundry. What can I say? Some times you have to use what you can when you have it….or face wearing dirty knickers.
We’re stoked to be back on the Pacific Ocean with the sea breeze on our shaved heads, and are having a 4-day break in a small village called El Tunco. It’s relatively expensive by our terms (we think that $5 for a burger is too much…is it?) so we are surviving our own ‘Bremma Pizzas’, which are made with 3 cent corn tortillas, frijoles, local cheese, avocado, crushed Doritos (Bren is addicted to MSG) tomato and lime salt (thanks Branjo for that lil tip). We reckon each one costs around 50cents to make. And when you have insatiable hunger like ours, you gots to eat cheap if you want your budget to make the distance.
The next 3 weeks will see us zoom through Honduras (spending 2 days there) then entering Nicaragua for a quick volcano hike, then a meeting with the Tozers’ (who are currently back packing through Central America with 10kg of our stuff, mostly bike parts). We will spend 10 glorious days together living it up in flash accommodation!
They have also been carting around our new adidas gear,(and we can’t thank adidas enough for their continued support) and while the Tozers are surely cursing us now for the added weight in their packs, they will certainly be dancing around the bon fire upon which we cast our current riding gear. In fact, having made the halfway point of the journey, said gear may just dance itself onto the fire. The smell permeates everything. It’s awful. Before we even start the days riding, I can get a waft of my ‘clean clothes’ starting to turn bad. Riding through small villages around shower time, is a glorious aroma of shampoos and clean washing. You can smell aftershave and freshly applied deodorant on those passing by. I shudder to think that they may actually be able to smell us too.
HUGE thanks to you all for continually supporting us. Thanks for reading our blogs, commenting on our FB and twitter updates, for offering us shelter, water and respite from the road. Every action and thought you offer to support us is acknowledged and makes a huge difference to our sanity and determination to keep going. The power of your love is incredible. Thank you all so so much.
Having made it half way on our TotallyTandem calendar, we are almost dollar for kilometre on our fundraising goals. It is truly unbelievable to have raised over $9,000 so far and we are amazed at the generous support we receive for World Bicycle Relief.
If you can think of a way to help us reach our fundraising goals (and we are only $4,292 away from our goal) we would love to hear your ideas! Someone even suggested taking a jar around at their workplace and collecting $1 from their colleagues and making a collective contribution. We love that idea! Do you have more ideas to share with us?
Some more special moments with incredible people