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On the road . November 2008 . United States (California) and Mexico (Baja)

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La Sirena, Mulegé, Baja California Sur, Mexico, 07-12-08
License to Chill
Jim's place at Laguna Beach not only has a business license attached to the deed, but it's one of those spots that's licensed to chill: no papers required. Listening to Jimmy Buffet, Grateful Dead, The Beatles, The Eagles or even The Stones sends me way back into my teenage years. At times it's almost eerie, but also nice in a warm, fuzzy kind of way. Many, many ghosts come to visit.

There's plenty of great weather and ample time for tan maintenance, but Ali and I are way too busy updating the website and finding out more ways of letting light into Jim's bedroom, which he has generously given up for us while we are there. Only a few bike rides eventuate but that is fine by us, mainly because when we are on the road, that's all we really do. A household gym in the lounge room and Madonna blaring through our newly acquired ipod Shuffle (a gift that Jim had lying around and couldn't get to work) keeps my muscles from completely collapsing into a total jelly state.

One morning I say "Now Jim, let's go surfing" and he gets all spurred up over taking his board to the beach. You can see his obvious ability, though a little rusty, on the Surfer Boy film below. He and I also spend quite a number of hours wandering the streets and many coves of Laguna: chatting about the history of this seaside community.

One of the more touching stories is about Eiler Larson: he was more commonly known as The Greeter of Laguna because he would stand at a couple of his favourite street corners, point and say hello to passers by. Mr Larson, as Jim called him way back in the 50's and 60's, had travelled by foot from Denmark and come to rest in Laguna in 1934. He kept himself busy with the odd gardening job and his avid love of reading. Books as far as he was concerned were meant to be read and then passed on and consequently he gave away all of his collection. Some of his treasures he donated to the Laguna Beach Library.

As The Greeter aged, it became more difficult for him to look after himself and subsequently people and businesses supported him with money and meals and eventually The Laguna Beach Hotel offered Eiler Larson a room until he was finally taken to a nursing home just before passing away in 1975 at the age of 84. Touchingly so, this ambassador of goodwill has become a legend in Laguna and coincidently, Jim bears a striking resemblance to Laguna's well loved eccentric.

The times are a changing
Sadly enough, I can't envisage this sort of good nature occurring much in today's world. At least not on such an individual level, unless of course, you are lucky enough to worm your way onto Oprah's show. But one event that does take place, while we are lapping up the good-life and that certainly reeks of the promise of "change" for the US, is the election of Barack Obama: the first black American President; a man repeatedly saying "Yes, we can", and a man pledging "hope" and "change" for all Americans alike.

Everyone is totally hyped: Jim voted for the first time since 1972 and we have a special barbeque for the grand event. Even Mr Setterholm, Jim's tenant in the front apartment, joins us for dinner and to watch the counts come in with bated breath: predictions are analysed and re-evaluated and further scrutinised by electronic maps flashing red or blue or yellow and portraying the latest voting preferences of the fifty US states. Mr Setterholm leaves a little before McCain's concession speech, but in quite a moving and unforgettable entrance just as it is announced that Obama is victorious, he emerges guitar in hand, aptly singing Dylan's "Times are a changing". Everyone, in this household at least, is head over heals about the decision.

The same can't be said for the email we receive a few days later explaining that we have not been successful for an on-the-road job we applied for a few weeks back. A production company was calling for a couple of cyclists to pedal from Bogota to Ushuaia and document sustainability projects along the way. It seemed so perfect for us, right timing; right subject; and had we got the job, a new camera and a bit of money to help with the tour. We thought we had it in the barrel, but the vessel turned out to be completely chockablock with another 48 cyclists all vying for the same job.

Nothing is quite as it seems
Laguna Beach is quite touristy and somehow, much more than I had envisioned. Cycling in from Dana Point, I was hoping for something really laid back and not so modernly populated, but to be honest that's hardly possible for an adjacent suburb just 88 kilometres from Los Angeles.

Further on the political front, after a short and boastful period in California's history of gay rights, Proposition 8: banning same sex marriages, goes through and sourly taints the idea that liberalised attitudes are prominent here. It becomes a hot dinner table topic where we are staying. But hotter still to come are the bush fires that start in the Mendocito region. Ever so gradually, the election takes second place in the news stalls and in our conversations.

Jim's friend Janice gets priority discussion for a few days as she has major landlady problems and teeters on not being and being evicted from one hour of the day to the next. Brian comes to visit twice, which is great to catch up with him again and digest some of the bizarre and whacky sketches he introduces us to. It is a wonder this video of Arnie in Brazil wasn't used against him during his campaign for governor. With three guys in house it now means the chance that the toilet seat is up, is at a staggering 85%. It's a habitual trait that, as a girl, you don't get to find out about while on the road.

Actually, quite a number of customary details are missed: you'll have to wait for a book from us to find out all those details, but what it actually boils down to is you can't assume a fellowman's travelling persona to be their true identity. Ali and I are not exempt from this either: get us in a house with a wifi connection and television for a few weeks and we turn into complete computer junkies, zombying out at the end of a square-eyed day to back-to-back episodes of Friends or Sex in the City. And we do this without any resistance whatsoever. In full perspective though, this is hardly how we would normally live; it is simply that we have been denied these luxouries for months on end because of our mode of travel.

With every up comes a down
And things aren't quite what they seemed with Jim either. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy to bits and there are definitely a tonne of cool ideas floating around inside that head of his. When cycling down the Oregon and Californian Coast, he was the epitome of the free spirit. At home in Laguna though, some other stuff surfaces and shows that there is a also a different side: an angry with the world side tainted with a particular distaste for women.

Jim kinda hits rock bottom one day and it almost feels as if he hasn’t had enough entertainment in his day or something weird to that effect. Anyway, confronting him only reveals his self-diagnosis of needing medication to help with this mood-swing. As far as I can tell, drugs are the last thing Jim needs. That's the easy way out of trying to cope with life. With every up there has to come a down at some stage. So, when you are up: sure, guzzle it, lie in it and wiggle about as much as you like, but when you are down, realise that that is all it is: the opposite of the high you were just enjoying so much. Thus, go punch a few pillows, play with the waves; just deal with it and get on with life. Face it, you not the only one: either up, down or smack bang in the middle of the roller coaster ride: everybody else has taken the same trip too at some stage.

Sad goodbyes
Laguna Beach to Cardiff by Sea (1 cycle day; 87km; 630m)

Laguna Beach to Cardiff by the Sea (87 km; 630 m)
It's been so easy to fall back into a rhythm of life without pushing loaded bikes up and down the countryside, but in all honesty something is missing. While all the mod cons tempt us for the our three week stay in Laguna, when Ali discovers a single grey hair on his chest we both know it is definitely time to move on.

Hard as it is to say goodbye to Jim, the time finally arrives. A few tear welled eyes, repeated "look after yourselves", kisses and bear hugs later and we are wheeling our bikes down the steep incline to the road. Meeting Jim has been an event that neither of us will forget quickly and we hope he'll keep on remembering us too. But for now, we'd just like to say: Pleased to have met you Mr Abraham. And though probably only you and Brian will understand this one: Excellente!

The trip towards San Diego is easy enough with a bike path nearly the entire journey. Though the route through Camp Pendelton (a military zone) is a good ride, it's not particularly scenic. You must wear a helmet in this area and present your passports at the main gate. The guys on guard only manage to grunt like many soldiers we have encountered in the past until they ask where we started from. Our answer of Holland, gets a "what" with several exclamation marks and a sudden respect. Yes, we too can be heroes!

We met Kelly and Tim in Canada and they offered to put us up if we ended up close to Cardiff-by-the-Sea (87km; 630m). And sure enough, it's the last post in the US for us. Kelly takes us around on the sightseeing tour, which takes us to some of the more affluent areas of this coastal region. Despite the oozing millions atmosphere, it is completely relaxed, though if you are not donned in a wetsuit and sporting a surfboard under your arm, then you do feel a little out of the scene.

Goodbye bagels...hello tortillas
Another border crossing and another wave of warnings about the other side. This happens with every new frontier and we tell the same old story every time, involving the Greeks cautioning us about the Turks; the Turks alerting us about our imminent death in Iran; the Iranians' apprehension for the torturous Turkmen, who in turn have their doubts about the camaraderie of their Uzbek neighbours. Needless to say, everyone that we have spoken to thus far in the US has expressed their concern for us travelling through Tijuana and the northern areas of Mexico. So my mother is not the only one on edge about this voyage. Her panic came from recent documentaries shown in Australia about the drug racketeers and the war against the newly government instated police. Not so long ago the military took over as law and order had almost ceased to exist. Police were in the hands of the drug cartels and basically everything and anything went down.

In light of everyone's anxiousness, we graciously accept Kelly's kind offer of the 40 mile ride to the border. This way, we can cycle straight through Tijuana and get far enough down the coast to be out of the suspect areas. Most people were suggesting that we got as far down as Ensenada, but unfortunately that would really be pushing it on a bike and with the early sunset time of around 5.00pm.

San Ysidro to Guerrero Negro (8 cycle days; 738km; 6118m)

San Ysidro to El Descanso (Mexico) (66 km; 526 m)
El Descanso to Santo Thomás (103 km; 1106 m)
Santo Thomás to Colonia Vicente Guerrero (123 km; 1044 m)
Colonia Vicente to Guerrero El Rosario (83 km;520 m)
El Rosario to San Agustin (88 km; 1290 m)
San Agustin to near El Pedregoso (76 km;787 m)
El Pedregoso to after Punta Prieta (102 km; 440 m)
Punta Prieta to Guerrero Negro (96 km; 405 m)

Crossing the border is problem free except for having to lift the bikes upright onto the back wheel and roll them through the rotating metal gates. This is what the American guard with an overly unfit physic suggests I do to my 45kg+ weighted bike. When I ask him, why he can't help me he replies: "I can't get there". Pretty easy handing out orders from behind a barred entry and what good is security anyway, if they are locked up themselves?

So, in a performance of a lifetime, I grunt my way through that turnstile that makes Monica Selles sound like a total amateur. And there we are: at the underpass with big green, white and red block letters, spelling out MEXICO. The immigration clerk was a happy enough chappy and stamps were in our passports just as soon as we each had filled out the forms, signed on a few dotted lines and each paid the $US22 visa fee.

We get an automatic 6 month permit to stay in the country. But all is not complete in today's bureaucratic process, since the next step is to hand in the green (or white) departure card to US Immigration. If you ever want to return to the land of the stars and stripes, it'll cost you dearly to forget this little step, which is actually a full 200m jaunt across the grey concrete bridge outside the exit of the Mexican Immigration area. I'll digress at this point to let you know that the security guard at this gateway helped me wheel my bike through.

What seems like a completely ludicrous turnabout is you are already off American soil, smelling the Mexican barbeque and preparing yourself for the entourage of touts, when you have to return to US territory to hand in a coloured piece of paperwork. But be warned, if you don't make the effort, and there is no-one to make you walk the bridge, there are no signs to direct you to the right office, no arrows pointing this way to hand in your departure card, it will look as if you never left the US and they will refuse point blank to let you back into the country again.

With all the monotony of border crossings, there is an element of excitement, a slight anticipation that gives a new sense of adventure; another chapter to our travels. And compared to North America, Mexico is definitely a colourful change of pace. In fact, it'll take us a little while to adjust to such an opposite style of living after nearly six months of westernisation.

And with every new frontier, there comes a time to reflect on the last leg of the journey. Contrary to what you read and hear about the USA and its people, it's an amazingly diverse country with places to see that'll blow your mind and bring tears to your eyes all at the same time. That's one pretty good high, I can tell you. Admittedly we were situated on the west side, but the American folk we bumped into all embraced our bike tour with more enthusiasm than we have ever experienced before. Perfect strangers, people that we met along the way, visitors to our website, and other cyclists: they were all hospitable, open, warm and generous. Americans are not afraid to come up and ask where you are going, what you are doing with your life and to share interesting particulars about their country in return. While quite a number didn't really know much about what was going on overseas, they had a wealth of knowledge on their motherland and its history.

A special gratitude to all the Americans who put us up, helped us out or gave us something special to take with us on our tour: Captain Brad, Angie and the boys, Jeffery, Molly, Gregory, the Yosemite Wilderness Centre Rangers, Eric and Cresent, Chris, Jim Abraham, Brian, and Kelly and Tim. Thanks guys!

Who said Baja was flat?
Back on the road, there is a decent couple of kilometres climb out of Tijuana, past the slums and up towards the coast, with 14% grades in some sections, lots of diesel exhaust and really bad roads for most of the way. At the top, we try to take Hwy 1-D to Rosarito, but are stopped by security and told to travel along the beach front, where according to one guy's stunted English and unconvincing hand gestures, we can get back onto the highway. This means travelling back down the highway shoulder and adjoining road on the wrong side until the village: Playas de Tijuana. Of course, there is no entry onto the highway, because they are still building it and after an unnecessarily unscenic tour of the town, we illegally climb up an embankment and join the highway just a kilometre after the toll booth from where we had been turned around. Seems all rather pointless really.

As we close in on each seaside village, a "no bike" sign urges cyclists to take the side road down to the ocean and naturally up again to get back onto the highway. Blow that for a joke, the path is hilly enough as it is, so we just keep on pedalling. Sticking to Hwy 1 now, we are on the lookout for a campsite, but all the places we have had recommended, do not exist anymore, or are absolute dumps, that we move on. Even when a campground sign is shown before a town, like in Cantamar, there is nothing available. We pass a church just outside El Descanso (66km; 526m) with a sign welcoming RV's and campers alike. No sooner have we pulled in and we are haggling the price of $10 down to $5 for a patch of lawn and use of the cold shower and non-flushing toilet block.

The spot is okay for overnight. We are a bit back from the beach and there, the sunset looks wonderfully radiant, but there is too much to do before it gets dark at 5pm. When the alarm goes off 12 hours later, it is still pitch black and everything is saturated, though it hasn't rained at all. So much for an early start. Fourty-five minutes later we rise and two hours after that we are pushing our way up to La Mision. From the point where we leave the coast to tunnel under Hwy 1-D and then plummet down to the village's bridge (its main attraction), there is a further 25 minute and 400 altimetre non-stop climb to the top. A plateau gives the legs a bit of a break for a short while, but soon enough we are crunching those bottom gears once again.

Steep it isn't and a shoulder it hasn't got. It is however, embellished with intervals of three cat-eye clusters on the outer white line, which force you to persistently swerve inwards. There's no chance of moving to the right as it's quite a drop off to gravel, dirt and shrubs from the raised two lane highway. Flat it is also not and we cut the air in a projected yoyo-like path for the entire day. I just wish I had that toy's same spinning momentum in the dell to cradle me back up and over the hill again. Harbouring way too many trucks results in plenty of scary moments too. Though it must be mentioned from the start and I can hardly believe that I'm going to say this: Truck drivers in Mexico are simply the best!

I know, my fervent hatred for this special species of road users has been stifled. I just can't help it. I have to give credit, where credit is due: they take the widest girth possible; they toot very softly and even tunefully to say hello or let you know they are coming; and they wave like crazymen with cheshire cat smiles or give the big thumbs-up from way above in their air-co cabins. And I have saved the best bit till last: these massive lorries laden to the brim with metal or concrete even slow down behind you and crawl along at a cyclists pace until the road is safe to navigate. So, Mr-Oregon-Coast-Logging-Truck-Driver: it can be done! It puts a whole new light on highway bike touring and it is almost impossible to comprehend. You just have to cycle here to believe it.

Putting a little Sol back in my life
While I've gained a new respect for truckies, I haven't for the slovenly attitude towards rubbish dumping. As far as strewn debris is concerned, Mexico is abominably bad, which makes the drab, rural, broken-down countryside even less charming. An overcast sky and cold winds don't add to the appeal of the day and after a long, hard and unexciting 103 kilometres and 1106 altimetres, a stop in Ensenada, which is the only big supply stop for the whole Baja experience, we pull into Santo Thomás just after 4pm. After such a journey, I decide it is time to enjoy my first alcoholic beverage in about a month. Ali purchases a couple of Sol's from the El Palomar Campground grocery store.

They charge 120 pesos for pitching the tent in a quaint little set-up with use of piping hot showers: only catch is you are completely in the dark. Adding to the ambience of this homely affair are a litter of cute playful kittens and a small zoo with rabbits, chickens, geese and sadly enough Tota the lemur, who is by far the special attraction. The cocks that incessantly crow from 3am in the morning to when we are leaving, do not get my vote for animal of the year.

Much the same boring scenery today, but roads are a little quieter, at least until 12pm. They are no less hilly. Though not too steep, we just keep going up and up and up. To top it all off, we have headwinds to further displease us. Barren landscape simply leads to more barren landscape and it's covered with enough litter to draw comparisons to India. After the US, it is truly a shock to the system to see that the life of the people here is so poor: again like India, but the only difference is, in the subcontinent, $US6 gets you and your mate a decent evening's meal and a hotel room with private shower facilities. Accommodation, in any form in Mexico is outrageously expensive compared to the quality. Actually, the word quality can not even enter into describing the the amenities at Meson de Don Pepe campground, just on the outskirts of Colonia Vicente Guerrero (123km; 1044m). The 47 kilometre stretch of road leading from Colonet to here actually has something akin to a shoulder, which we are ever so grateful for, as the afternoon traffic gets to a frightening level of frenzy.

Back at the campsite, which is none other than a plot of earth, where they are trying with a nonchalant attitude to grow grass on, with a couple of disused barbeques, a rusted spring horse and two water taps. The light doesn't work in the womens, so I endeavour to shower in the men's conveniences. Once again, the toilets don't flush and the shower water is far from luke warm. It actually resembles more of an icy cold bath since the drains are blocked and the water can't escape. It rises in the unpainted concrete pit with slimy shower curtains to mid calf. It's at the same level the next morning.

Most of the night is spent in our tent; sent there by the rain just after our dinner at 8pm. It doesn't stop until 7am the next morning. Again, so much for the early start!

A couple of kids join us as we pack up for the morning and their inquisitive nature has them eying off everything we own. Any bag on the self-erected brick and wooden-plank table is deftly opened by swift little hands and rummaged through giving us a quick lesson in Spanish at the same time. Sop for pasta, libro for book, agua for water and so on.

Though there is nothing of real value outside the tent, I still watch them closely. I don't trust them one iota. It's easy enough to warm to their cute but incredibly grubby faces which I'm sure catches a few off guard from time to time. What I can't get used to however, is that they stink of urine. And not just a little bit either. It's more like an old people's home stench; a build up of months, even years of acridness. Children of 10 years and under, shouldn't smell like senior citizens.

The clouds that have been closing in on us all morning bucket down, making the roadway more of a mud-bath. We stop on the outskirts of San Quintin to cover from the tail-end of the downpour. It is still early and Baja is silently sleeping. Nothing really starts happening until around 12pm: traffic included. We pick up some of yesterday's bread and fresh water and push our red-brown earth covered bikes and legs back onto the highway.

Who said the Baja was beautiful?
I've just been reading up about travel writing, in light of our discovery that the money we have is not likely to last the entire length of our proposed trip. One repeated advice is not to use filler words like "beautiful". Gosh my writing is full of that sort of descriptive prose, so I'm in for a bit of practice to curb that habit. The suggestion that these words have a different meaning for each individual actually comes to light while cycling along the neglected coastline.

Another chapter in the writing guide went into detail about choosing your audience and this is why those we spoke to who have been here before, said: "Oh Baja, it's beautiful: you'll have a great time." Our sources being Jim, who judges the Baja solely on his trips back in the seventies, when he confesses to being in an altered state for a large percentage of the time and a few surfers, whose eyes are probably more plausibly peeled for the perfect wave and not the perfect cycling trip. And maybe it is beautiful to them, but it is hardly how I would describe what I am seeing from the saddle: sloppy, messy, grotty, abandoned, ramshackle, maybe. Oh dear all those adjectives in a row: I'm not cutting it as a travel writer just quite yet.

The nuts and bolts of the next four days...
Our shoulder companion disappears immediately after San Quintin and never returns. We leave the beach behind us too and won't see it again until we get to the other side of the peninsula, eight days later. They are still building the steep 230 altimetre uphill grind towards El Rosario (83km; 520m). The drop into town of similar gradients is more pleasant, though exactly how small the town is, comes as quite a shock. There are enough stores to shop in, but a campground doesn't seem to exist. The officers in the police station give us the okay to pitch our tent in the conveniently located municipal park next door. No amenities at all, but comfortable enough, though true to current form, clouds dump thunderstorm rains again throughout the entire evening and well into the next morning.

Leave the muddy pathways of El Rosario along with barrages of enthusiastic truckers. Up and down, up and down with hardly a flat section to speak of. Rains on us for most of the morning: feeling despondent and bored. Seems like no reward at the end of the day for all this slog: no nice beaches, no 99 cent margarita, often no campsite at all. Battle to the top of a 600m+ hill and then like in the Truman show, someone flicks a switch in the control room and the sun comes out, a small shoulder materialises, and the scenery picks up in the form of some pretty amazing cactus fields.

In a cactus garden in the sun
Ask Ali what his favourite cactus is and of all the exotic species to choose from he picks the common old prickly pear. Explains why he chooses Maria biscuits over chocolate chip. San Agustin (88km; 1290m) is a long time coming but at least there is something to look at after we pass Campo Costa Rica. Our evenings trailer park is almost a ghost town and they try to extort 100 pesos for absolutely nothing but hard rock ground. Ali gets it down to 50 peso including a bucket shower each. Toilet facilities are gross!

Cold mornings make it hard to rise on time, so does being woken at 3am by a rooster with a wacky alarm clock. My gears have seized up, so getting on the road takes a little longer than usual. Some more amazing cactus territory heading into Catavina. Good shopping facilities though lacking in the fresh produce. Throughout the last days, I always seem to be pointing way above where we are standing, saying: "we have to go there". Scenery moves from cacti and rock to nothing and rock after the main climb out of Catavina. Pull off on the side of the road near El Pedregoso after (76km; 787m) and hide ourselves amongst...yes, you guessed it...cacti! Does make going to the toilet at night quite interesting: pays to work out your route while the sun is still with you.

Plagued by punctures today, after I roll over a double-gee (tack-weed) prickle patch. Over the next few days we find around 20 holes: I loose count how many times we have to stop to patch the tubes and scour every inch of my tyre with my tweezers. The holes are so fine they are only possible to detect with a bucket of water. By 11am we have only accrued 25 kilometres and we want to do a hundred or so. Flat and downhill stretches follow so we make up for lost time. The wind is coming from the north-east and as we round a bend we are sent flying at 33km/hour all the way to the Bahia De Los Angeles Junction (the first paved cross-roads we have encountered to date on the Baja). Only another 14 kilometers to Punta Prieta with limited supplies and no tortillas to be found anywhere. We head out looking for a spot to camp and find something suitable just after 4pm near Punta Prieta (102km; 440m). It's a drop down and we have to traverse rock and cacti. One jumps out and bites Ali and he has an aching calf muscle for a couple of days following.

Not a lot to get excited about
Sure enough, we wake to another puncture today, which Ali fixes, but it is flat again before we are ready to push up out of the valley. Everything is hard work again today. Traversing up and down on narrow roads with no shoulder leaves absolutely no time for landscape appreciation, not that the uninspiring view really warrants it. We pass through Nueve Rosarito after 37 kilometres and it has a small grocery store with hiked prices, but we now have enough water on board for the rest of the journey. The road leading out is in really bad condition for about 20 kilometres. A quick stop in Villa Jesus Maria for lunch gives us a necessary breather and then we follow the dead straight path on the map that falsely implies flatness but is indeed not. It leads us directly through the military zone in Paralelo 28, another drab and ugly spot and then the rest of the way to Guerrero Negro (96km; 405m). The first decent RV park we see, Malarrimo, we pull into and flop ourselves off the bikes to sit pretty for two days and 3 nights. Cost is $12 per night and the only just semi-decent facilities mean that the only real thing to celebrate at the end of November, is we are 337km short of 30,000km.

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