Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The story

The miraculous moto-trio made the paper! Click the link above for the cliff-notes version of our trip. Thanks to Jeff Hall for the photo.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Being back home...

I have finally come to terms with being home. Don't get me wrong - being home is not bad at all. My place on Hidden Valley is awesome, hot water 24/7, new cats, and the Brady's next door always keep suburban life interesting. My bike still runs. My friends still remember me. The mail lady waves. The hot-tub is HOT. What more could I want?

Valerie and I fully came to terms with being home last weekend while we were on our way to the delta for a camping weekend. On the way up we felt like we were on the road again, and it felt so good to be moving, moving towards some unknown place where we would be challenged and face some wicked unknown... But...

Everyone at the campground spoke English (except our Laotian neighbors) and every task from buying fishing bait to weenies and paying for the site was alarmingly simple. It just worked. We all spoke the same language and knew without words what was required.

Easy communication was the hardest part to get used to about being home. We had come to subliminally enjoy the daily struggle to be understood, linguistically and physically; the daily struggle to make friends and tell our stories; The ego-centric joy of being the center of attention in a small village - On our tour of the bay area we were nothing more than a car on the road, bodies in motion in yet another late model green Ford Explorer with dents; monkey-wrenches in cogs.

Our trip to the delta was inspiring, though. It reinforced all of the positive, and, more than I ever expected, "negative" experiences of traveling. Only when I was home, in my "element", was I able to fully appreciate the sweltering heat of Central America and Mexico, the painful struggle to find accommodation and the ever present quest for food that invaded every moment of our journey. When we were on the road it was all work, but in our memories it has transformed into gold. I will never forget anything or any place we have been. It is all inspiration for our next trip.

Thanks to everyone who has been following our journey. Without you it wouldn't have been nearly as memorable or worthwhile.


Monday, October 10, 2005

Valerie and I putting on our gear as night falls, near I-5 and 46. The last leg of our trip.

Val and her grandparents, Arizona.

Sacramento river and my dream-boat...

Camping time! Morgan, Shalisa, Bevan, Valerie and I went up to the delta this weekend to get away from it all. I even managed to catch some fish.

Look at this little kitten! Valerie found it in the parking lot at her school and took it home with her. Valerie has named it "Gretta" although I think my idea of "stinky" is more fitting. This cat is WILD and loves to escape and hide from you.

Our first motorcycle-traveler-visitor! Mauricio, an Argentinean biker we met in Colombia and sailed on the Melody with stopped in Santa Cruz for the night on his way to Alaska. I almost went with him until I found out the average Oct. temp - 42F- No way.

Monday, October 03, 2005

North America and Mexico

After a whole days rest in Oaxaca, we headed north on a firm timeline. Valerie’s father had arranged for us to spend a week at his timeshare in Mazatlan, and we didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

North of Oaxaca the road winds through the mountains towards Mexico City. We reveled in the cool temperatures and high mountain air as we passed through pine and cloud forests before finally dropping down to lower elevations where the temperature rose along with the insect population. I have not mentioned insects on the road in any of the previous posts, but I will say a few words about them now.

There are all types of insects in the tropics. Although I am no entomologist, I have developed an intimate understanding of many insects of the tropics. This understanding was not gained through careful study of books or bug collections, but by the noting type of pain each bug inflicts when they collide with me at high speeds. Dragonflies are the biggest bugs; they feel like hitting a wad of sticks, but don’t really hurt that much. Butterflies come in all shapes sizes and colors, but they all splatter yellow guts when they hit me. Butterflies tend to hit me mainly in the face, and stick to my sunglasses; they hardly smart at all. There are also these little rock hard bugs that feel like someone shot me in the face with a bb-gun when they hit me. These little buggers tend to hit me in the forehead and on my cheeks, creating instant blinding pain, which fortunately, quickly passes. The worst bugs are the bees and hornets, though. My first bee sting occurred on a lonely highway in northern Costa Rica. All of a sudden I felt this intense, throbbing, burning pain on my neck. At first I thought it was a rock, but the intensity of the pain would drop off and come back as we rode along. When we pulled over a few miles later to buy gas, Valerie pulled a huge stinger with poison sack attached out of my jugular. Thanks Val.

It was on the road north from Oaxaca that the next stinging insect got me. We were driving downhill into a turn along a hot, windy, two lane highway suffocated on both sides by tall green brush when I felt the worst pain ever in my face. I immediately freaked out and started thrashing at the pain-zone, pulling out wads of salt and pepper hair along with something angry and crunchy; it was at this moment that I opened my eyes, regained my self control and turned at the last second, saving us from plunging into a ditch. I pulled over to the side of the road and threw helmet flew off, trying desperately to see the sting site in the side mirror, hoping to get the stinger out before it pumped more of its noxious venom into my forehead. We couldn’t see any evidence of the bite until a few hours later when my face had swollen up like someone had punched me and had begun to itch. This was no normal honeybee that stung me, but a big livid wasp.

When we packed up the next day for our ride to Iguala the swelling was even worse and my face itched like I had poison oak, and in an attempt to avoid future run-ins with mad insects capable of inflicting severe damage I raised the windscreen to its highest position, even though it cut down the much needed cooling airflow; I would rather be hot that stung and in a ditch.

Yesterdays insect event were soon forgotten as we turned off onto the side road towards Iguala. This road was my first really poor road since Guatemala, passing through some incredible scenery, and we felt the adventure spirit again as we dodged mud holes and swerved around potholes. We managed to make 125 miles in about 6 hours, the sign of a true back-road. This road also took us by the highest volcano (Volcan Popocatepetl at 18,000 feet) we had seen since Ecuador. When we made it back to the main road we drove on until we were too tired to continue on.

The next day, a typo on our otherwise trusty map quickly exhausted all our back road enthusiasm. The folks at Nelles mistakenly marked a cart track as a highway, and understated its distance by 100 miles. At first the road seemed to be in great shape as we scraped pegs powering through the turns, but our speed rapidly diminished as the roads condition deteriorated. What was supposed to be a nice road through the mountains turned into the most pot-holed road we had encountered in 20,000 miles. We drove for 150 miles at a snails pace, the bike taking terrible punishment when we hit potholes, our patience slowly running out.

There were a few bright spots along the pothole road, though. We were able to ride for hours without seeing another car or human being, and the few people we did see were either shocked or happy to see us, reactions that were common to the point of annoyance in South America but unheard of in Mexico. Out in the middle of nowhere there was an army checkpoint staffed with obviously bored enlistees. You have to stop for the Army because they have collapsible spike strips they can pull out at a moments notice and flatten your tires. We stopped for them and for some reason they demanded to search our luggage. We were shocked, and flatly refused to open our bags for them. Our confidence must have been flowing as they promptly retracted their demand to search our stuff and asked for passports instead. We deftly handed them copies of our passports after reminding them that US citizens do not need a passport to enter Mexico. It was fun to toy with the army guys and they soon let us move on. When we finally made it to the coast, muggy, suffocating heat and mad traffic were our rewards as we wearily realized we had broken a personal on-bike record that day at 14 hours.

It was a test of endurance as we made our way north along the coast. The heat and humidity and biting insects made rest and picture stops unappealing at best, forcing us to stay on the bike for longer than we normally would. We managed to make good time, though, and passed along some incredible coastline along the way. One part of the Mexican coast, south of Puerto Vallarta, features cliffs that at times fall 1,000 feet to the ocean, like north of Santa Cruz on a grander scale. We stopped at a large turnout to admire the view from 1,000 feet up and take some photos. While we were stopped Valerie spied a rock on the other side of the road, and we knew what to do. We put our gloves on and somehow managed to lug the immense stone to the cliffs edge. Unfortunately, the cliff was soft dirt that absorbed the rocks momentum, so we were unable to see the rock take any huge leaps outward, but we were able to see several avalanches caused by the immense rolling stone.

After passing through Puerto Vallarta, the road took a turn inland, passing through the same monotonous brush covered, insect infested hot hills we had been driving through since Chiapas. Topes (speed bumps) were everywhere, typical Mexican government roads that pass through the center of every hamlet along the way. As we got close to Mazatlan, the low fuel light came on. I wanted to try and make it to the resort with as little gas as possible left, as I was hoping to find a body shop that could repair the damaged tank. When we realized we wouldn’t make it to the resort on the gas we hade, we pulled over at the closest Pemex that had a cold coconut dealer out front. While I pumped the gas and answered questions about the bike, Valerie ran off and bought two cold coconuts for us. The coconuts were the biggest we had ever seen and held at least 2 quarts of sweet young coconut water each, the most refreshing drink you can find on a hot day.

As soon as we entered the city of Mazatlan we pulled up next to this guy driving a beautifully restored 70’s Chevy pickup. This was the obvious guy to ask about body work, and after pointing at the tank and asking who could fix it, he led us to a little hole in the wall motorcycle body shop downtown. The body shop owner took one look at the tank and quoted us $120 for the bodywork and paint. Screaming deal! It would have cost $700-$800 for the work at home. He had it done in one day and it turned out much better that I expected.

We were even happier when we pulled into the timeshare Valerie’s dad had booked for us. It was by far the nicest place we had seen in our whole trip. We had the bellboy take our bags up to our ocean view room with kitchen. We immediately emptied the side bags and headed for Wall-Mart where we stocked up on enough groceries for the week. We were able to cook almost all our meals and saved a lot of money.

On our third night at the resort, Valerie was sitting outside watching the waves when she saw a turtle struggling through the surf up to the beach. We both watched it as it climbed up to dry sand, and when it began to lay its eggs, we ran down to the beach and hid, watching. It was almost like something out of National geographic. When the turtle had finished burying her eggs we took a few pictures and disguised her tracks so poachers wouldn’t find the nest. The turtle was oblivious. The next day Valerie told the resort security about the turtle sighting. After an hour the guards found the eggs (even though I had marked them) and had the local aquarium come and take them to be hatched in safety. Valerie ended up saving 62 turtles.

After five days of relaxing it was time to head north through the desert to the US. There is no avoiding the toll-road along the way unless you want to head inland and go through the mountains. We would have taken the mountain road earlier in our trip, but being so close to home we gave into temptation and took the toll road the whole way.

As we neared the border, mexico started to look a lot different. It was as if Mexico and the US melted together at their border to form a place that was not either, but a coagulation of both countries. We started to see Circle-K' markets and all types of American fast food as well as outsourced manufacturing plats that made all kinds of stuff. The worst smelling manufacturing plant we passed was makingt cat cood for Purina. I think they were using all the roadkill they found out on the highway.

We were unsure of what to expect at the border after hearing some nightmare stories from other travellers about trying to get into post-9/11 America. We were also were unsure if we would have to pay the departure fee for Mexico ($20 a head). As we approached the border we came to a line of cars and split lanes to the front. We were approached by a Homeland Security officer who took one look at our passports, asked us if we had more than $10,000 cash on us (yeah right) and said "welcome home". We hapilly snached our passports back and took off, scared he would change his mind and try to search our bags or demand some sort of fine. We made it into the USA!

We took one look at the border town on the US side and decided to head for Tucson, only 60 miles away. We made it in under an hour speeding along the best road we had been on in our whole trip. We managed to find a cheap hotel in the downtown area and ordered celebratory pizza and beer, which promptly made us both sick. You have to watch out for American food...

We did the Mazatlan-Tucson stretch, a distance of 850 miles, in two days. The toll road was definitely worth it, being much faster and safer than the regular government roads, and cost only around $50 for the whole distance. In Tucson, we headed to the Iron Horse BMW dealer where we found a replacement headlight for the bike. Iron Horse is by far the best BMW dealer we have ever been to. They have every kind of accessory you could want IN STOCK and they are alos very helpful. They also confirmed my suspicions that the rear end is going out again, and gave me advice on how to deal with it.

From Tucson, we headed past Phoenix to Buckeye to visit Valerie’s grandparents who were very happy to see us. We spent four days in the desert eating an relaxing, saving our energy for the ride home. I also learned a great new card game called "spite and malice" that we played every night. It was 100 degrees fahrenheit every day there, but it was actually quite pleasant without humidity.

From Buckeye we set out heading west along I-10, listening to the grinding rear drive. I was hoping (praying, acatualy) that we would be able to make it home without having it explode. My backup plan in case it did explode was to drive the bike home in a U-haul van. But, the more I thought about the rear end problem, the more confident I was that the bike would take us home; it would be to crazy and terrible to ride for 20,000 miles and have the bike break on your doorstep; I am not lucky enough for that to happen.

We drove along the same route that my family and I used to take to visit Laughland and Parker Arizona when I was younger. It was fun to ride along the same road on the bike, seeing all the weird stuff strewn along the roadside and passing through all the quirky towns. We made it to Bakersfield by 4PM and decided to push on for home. We made it to Paso Robles by nightfall and rode the next two hours in the dark, happily shivering and cold for the first time in months.

After 770 miles we made it to highway one in Santa Cruz and I got really excited. It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment when the trip finally came full circle and I was riding on the same roads my bike left on in the box seven months before. We pulled up the driveway on Hidden Valley and just stood there for a minute, marveling at the beauty and tranquility around us. Soquel is still the best place in the world. It is good to be home.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Tilling the garden for the Swopes... What is this - wait, I remember, its work!

Welcome to the USA

The turtle.

Val and the reptile

View from the time-share...


Mexican coastline south of Puerto Vallarta.

Cloud forest on pot-hole road.

Mexican highlands.

Where are we?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Don’t miss this...

"They’re Back!"


“It’s Valerie’s Birthday!”


“Sizzling meat, cold drinks and burnt bodies!”

Whatever does it for you, come and celebrate with us. Argentine BBQ, five-star swimming pool, kids, dogs and the venerated master of ceremonies, El Pirate,
invite you to welcome weary travelers home in style. All we ask is an RSVP so
we can supply adequate accoutrements and directions.

RSVP by e-mailing the birthday girl at : valerieswope@gmail.com

We hope to see ALL of you.

The date is set for the 1st of October.


Monday, September 05, 2005

Southern Mexico

Mexico is an immense country, staggering in proportion to its southern neighbors. Mexico is the the largest expanse of land we have encountered since Argentina. I estimate around 3,000 miles from Cancun to the US border. I now realize we saved the biggest and most challenging country for last.

Mexico has different challenges than any of the previous countries have had: There are more cars here than in all the other countries combined, and everyone who has a car drives it like they stole it. We have already witnessed the aftermath of at least a dozen major accidents and seen as many close calls. The cities are big, congested and not far apart with the main highways often running right through the center of them, making traveling a test of patience and endurance. “Topes”, or speed bumps, are everywhere, even on the main highways, and they come in every imaginable shape and size. Sometimes there are signs warning of topes, sometimes there are not, making driving somewhat dangerous, but always slow. In one 100-mile stretch of main highway Valerie counted 73 topes. Mexico is also relatively expensive. Most hotels in the “budget” category cost at least $25 for two people for the same quality of room that cost $10 in Guatemala. It is also terribly hot here.

Enough complaining. The food is awesome and inexpensive. Valerie and I can often find a great Mexican lunch or dinner for fewer than seven dollars for both of us. As we have been living on a steady diet of tacos, tortas and tamales, this is my first time abroad that that I have not craved Mexican food. The road signs are generally excellent and numerous, making navigation easy. The people are friendly and finding parking at hotels has been easy.

We were unable to find tires in Guatemala for the bike and our tires were getting pretty worn down. You forget how tires should look when you have not seen new tires in 10,000 miles. The front tire featured a bald stripe and it wouldn’t hold air, while the back tire was having intermittent problems keeping itself inflated. We decided to try and get new tires in Mexico even though they would cost us a fortune. BMW’s website lists 15 BMW motorcycle dealers in Mexico, complete with address and phone numbers, but this resource proved useless as none of them ever answer their phones. Even though none of the dealerships we called ever answered we still had faith that they existed. We chose the closest dealer to us, which happened to be in Cancun, and made a sprint up the Yucatan (or yuck-a-tan, as those who have been there can testify) in hopes of them having tires in stock, or at least the ability to get them.

As we made our way up the Yucatan the damage from the recent hurricane became evident. All the trees had twisted and broken off, road signs were bent in half, and we even saw this huge cell-phone satellite structure twisted and bent by the roadside. We also saw other equally shocking sights. After six months in Central and South America, the enormity of the tourist industry in Mexico (especially on the so called “Mayan Riviera”) was terrifying. We drove for 100 miles along a new four-lane expressway punctuated every few miles by an interstate size turnoff into some generic mega-resort, with only the size, shape and color of the massive gates and bold lettering differentiating to the passer by any sort of distinction between them. It was all quite new to us. Dont get me wrong, I would have loved to pull into one of the mega-hotel vacation makers and live in luxury for a week, but we had to buy tires instead. It turned out that we could have easily afforded to stay at any resort in utter opulence for a week for the price of the final bill we got at BMW Cancun.

We arrived in Cancun and managed to find the dealership, intact and open, complete with a phone that even seemed to work. Of course they didn’t have GS tires in stock (the GS line is BMW’s number two selling model of all time), but they could have them delivered within a week for us. The thought of spending a week in Cancun didn’t appeal to us at all, so we decided to put off buying tires until Mexico City. We left Cancun and headed straight across the Yucatan towards Merida. We had made it only 100 miles from Cancun when this horrible grinding/moaning noise started. At first we thought the rear tire had gone flat, but the noise persisted even with full tire pressure. We made it to the next closest town, Valladolid, and discovered the rear main bearing had died. This is a known issue for the GS series and any smart rider always carries a spare bearing with them on a long trip. You can guess that I didn’t bring a spare bearing. When the bearing goes bad on the rear differential the wheel had perceptible lateral and vertical movement while shaking it. A bad bearing is not necessarily going to leave you stranded, but you need to fix it fast. The front tire was also flat. While in Valladolid, I tried to have the leaks in the tires repaired, but it turned out that the tires were un-repairable. The tire guy found five leaks in the front tire and five in the rear tire, which, as he explained to me, were grounds for scrapping them. We called the dealer, tails between our legs and ordered new tires and bearing. They told us it would take at least five days to get the items from the warehouse in Mexico City.

We stayed in he small, hot town of Valladolid as long as we could bear, then returned to Cancun to wait. We ended up finding this great hotel with a full kitchen TV and AC. One good thing we found about Cancun is that it has a Wall-Mart (two, actually) where we could stock up on cheap groceries and other necessities. Valerie took full advantage of the kitchen, and on the first night there we had spaghetti and meat sauce, our first home cooked meal in a long time. We both woke up the next morning with stomach cramps, diarrhea, chills and nausea that we attributed to the Wall-Mart hamburger. We were both feeling better soon since we still had powerful antibiotics purchased in Guatemala.

After a few days of hiding from the dreadful heat and ever present mid-westerners gone wild, we got word from the dealer our parts had arrived. It turned out that the dealer ordered us the correct brand, but wrong style of tires. For some reason the dealer thought we wanted off-road mud tires for our trip across Mexico. I explained to them that mud tires would be practically worthless in Mexico and they graciously agreed to change them for the street version off a new bike. They ended up putting on horrible Bridgestones, the worst tires they had, but since the bearing installation went so well I decided to give the tires a try. I hate the Bridgestones. They slide in turns and spin under acceleration. It is also really hard to do wheelies with them, as they spin when Meltzer’s would grip.

After enduring a week in Cancun we decided to get as far away from the city as we could. On our first day with new tires and bearing we did almost 400 miles and ended up in Campeche, a beautiful city on the Gulf of Mexico. The bike ran smoother than it ever has, evidence that the rear bearing had been dying a slow death, with vibration increasing as the miles piled up. The next day we headed for the ruins at Palenque and on the way we met three bikers heading south. It was really cool to meet them and share stories. They had all sorts of questions for us since we had just done the journey they were starting. They reminded me of Valerie and I when we were just hitting the road, full of questions and worries about the journey ahead. We assured them Colombia was no problem, recommended good border crossings and promised them Mexico was the most expensive country they would travel through. We wished them well and as I watched them ride off I thought of the journey they had ahead of them; how long it is, how difficult, dangerous and at times frustrating motorcycle travel can be. Meeting them reminded me of how far we had come, both as travelers and as individuals from the start of our trip; Nothing is impossible.

Palenque’s ruins are beautiful, studded with amazing statuary and frescos, covered walkways and great temples reminiscent of Angkor Wat. After we had been to many of the pyramids and were almost delirious with heat a thunderstorm suddenly materialized and started to dump rain. It was raining so hard the paths and grounds surrounding the ruins started to flood. We ran for the shelter of the ruins and watched it rain until the guards made us leave at closing time. It was still raining, we were soaked and we had a 10-mile ride back to town. We managed to find a plastic bag for the backpack, and to our welcome surprise some generous soul closed the face shield on Valerie’s helmet on the bike. The ride back was actually fun, although we couldn’t go very fast because of the stinging raindrops. I could hear Valerie laughing as we rode down the twisting jungle road, oblivious to her soaked clothes, enjoying the moment.

From Palenque we headed into the mountains where we soaked in the cold temperatures as if we were trying to store them up for the heat ahead. We had two days of riding along the coast through boring landscapes and hammering heat to look forward to before we reached Oaxaca. When we reached Oaxaca I was immediately reminded of Cusco in Peru, high in the mountains and riddled with beautifully preserved buildings. The cool temperatures allowed us to get out and explore the city and our days rest has been great. We even found a cheap hotel.

Here we are.

Welcome to North America. We could smell the Mexican food from here.

Our hotel room in Valladolid. They were doing some cement work while we were there...

Valladolid, Meico. We waited here for three days for our parts eating cheap tacos and sweating.

Thats the bearing that failed. Big, huh? We gave it a burial on the roadside (tossed it from the bike at 90mph - It made some teriffic noises)

Typical truck wreck on a dangerous highway. Thats the tow truck facing the camera. We were unable to find the driver, so I think I will post this on the roadkill blog too.

Where are we, China? If you can pronounce the bottom sign name for us correctly, Valerie will buy you a beer.


It was so hot at the ruins I almost jumped off the tallest pyramid head first. Valerie talked me out of it though.