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On the road . January 2009 . Mexico

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Hotel Morelos, San Blas , Mexico, 31-01-09
Slow start to the New Year

Santiago Ixcuintla to San Blas (1 cycle day; 43km; 39m)

I can't quite put my finger on what it is about mainland Mexico that makes it appealing. Road etiquette and rubbish levels certainly bring about the same daunting sentiment from our India experiences, so it can't be that. But the relaxed tropical feel reminiscent of Thailand; the ruralness of the countryside akin to Nepal; and a hospitality that, up until now, only the Iranians knew how to give, create a melting pot that you can't resist dipping your finger into.

Leaving Motel Lerma on the outskirts of Santiago Ixcuintla, we are amazed to feast our eyes on an exquisite mosaic mural running both lengths of the road. I think we are more surprised that we had not seen this yesterday, when we cycled into town. Just shows you how heavy traffic can distort your perception of things. Today is New Years Day and there is no-one but this intricate piece of artwork to escort us back into the city centre. We turn off onto cobble stone paths leading us through the poorer side of town before gravel tracks send us along canal irrigated farmland and onto minor roads. A host of rickety villages and prawn farms line the road before we eventually arrive in San Blas (43km; 39m). It is just the place to park the bikes for a month.

Sand Blastard Flies
Situated smack in between the Pozo and El Rey estuaries, San Blas is surrounded by a mangrove forest system that serves as a breeding ground for a variety of fish, birds and reptiles. Hurricane Kenna ripped through this area in 2002 and destroyed the majority of the town, but since then it has been rebuilt. Even so, there is nothing remotely developed about San Blas: no condo's or large supermarkets. Instead a slight touristy twinge ups the accommodation price in a predominantly authentic setting. A small central mercado keeps this Mexican village in fresh produce and if you venture down the back streets, Mini Supers with local prices are in abundant supply. There is nothing boring about San Blas either: if whale or bird watching, jungle boat cruises; waterfalls and surf are not enough to keep you entertained then people watching in the town plaza will.

For the first two nights, we camp a few hundred metres from Playa Azul at Los Cocos Trailer Park, but realise pretty quickly that this is not the spot to be. San Blas might be able to big note itself with beaches, expansive wetlands and a magnitude of fauna, but it also has a notoriously large population of bugs. Specifically, the presence of the 'jejene' or sand-fly' is what keeps this Mexican surf spot from being developed on a large scale.

Besides being highly vulnerable to receiving an aggravating itch that lasts for at least 3 days, the campground's beauty is purely superficial. The amenities are old, dirty and poorly maintained and the advertised wifi connection doesn't exist. For the service we pay 150 pesos per night. Closer to town, Hotel Morelos, has bright, clean, fan-cooled rooms with television and the use of a share-kitchen. So, for an extra 50 pesos per day, we get a much better deal, though a little more than we expected to fork out for long term accommodation.

Veg Out
Unlike Baja, the fresh produce in the mainland markets is varied and of an excellent quality. This is of course good news for vegetarians, because apart from quesodillos, cheese omlettes and guacamole, there is very little else on the traditional restaurant menu to eat. Meat is a staple here and seafood devoured by the boat load, hence the concept of being a vegetarian, not really understood. In the supermarket, they dedicate a full refrigeration unit to manteca de cerdo (pork fat) which presents the next problem: many dishes including plain old beans are prepared with lard. All the guide books I have read warn that tortillas are also made with manteca, but from what I've seen so far, this is simply a load of tripe, which by the way is also a Mexican delicacy. Most brands of this staple flat bread is perfectly all right for vegans and ovo-lacto's alike.

Before I left the US, I stocked up on vegetable bullion and although it felt a little ridiculous filling my bags with a years supply of the stuff, I'm certainly glad I did. Apart from a couple of Knorr soup mixes, vegetable stock is impossible to find. Even in the multi-corporate chain stores. All soup varieties available in restaurants will undoubtedly be made with chicken stock.

Shake your bootie
And while we are on the subject of food: judging by the amount of delicious pastries and cakes on sale, I think I can safely say that Mexicans have a real sweet tooth. They are dead cheap at 3 to 5 pesos a piece (18 pesos = 1 euro). The down side is the likelihood that these delectable morsels are the contributing factor to the proportionately large bum size in this country. There are fat bottomed girls shaking their bootie all over the place. According to 2008 statistics, Mexico holds second place for being the most obese nation in the world and at the current rate, it is likely to overtake the US shortly. Ali says its because they eat too much chicken. Admittedly, there is quite often a queue to buy each supermarket's own version of Colonel Sander's fat-laced snack. Somehow, I think a lack of exercise is more likely the reason behind it.

On-going debate
Another issue Ali and I can't quite get to the bottom of is whether Mexico is a second or third world country. Internet resources would have us believe: third and as far as buying single rolls of toilet paper, having the internet connection and electricity randomly drop out, as well as the occasional encounter with a donkey cart, I'd have to agree. On the other hand though, accommodation. and restaurant prices are in comparison, incredibly expensive as is local bus travel. While the average Mexican wage is 209 peso's per day, the minimum wage is 53 peso's and at a guess I'm sure quite a number of people are earning this meagre amount. The cheapest bus trip from San Blas to Mazatlan is 190 pesos: that's a bit less than 4 days work; and a beer is 10 pesos: a fifth of the daily income. It's a good thing you can eat here for next to nothing.

Still, I guess we'll get a better insight once we start pedalling through the fifth largest country in the Americas, measuring nearly 2 million square kilometres. We'll be jaunting down the west coast until just after Tehuantepec where we'll traverse the Continental Divide to head east in the direction of Belize. Owing to the expanse of this country, the journey will take between two and three months after leaving San Blas.

As well as an assorted historic and cultural background, Mexico can blow its own trumpet for being home to 10-12% of the world's bio-diversity. It boasts the most species of reptiles and ranks in the top five countries for its collection of mammals, amphibians and flora. So, for a couple of slow-moving cyclists, that means some pretty exciting viewing.

A whale of a time
And nature sure is in bountiful supply in San Blas: besides slipping down to the beach for a dip in the pleasant water, we treat ourselves to a jungle boat ride. The trip which sends you slinking through the diverse mangrove system, would have to be one of the most agreeable ways to spend two hours of your time. It would also be hard not to break out into a smile as you glide along the shady waterways, keeping your eyes peeled for crocodiles, mud crabs, turtles, iguanas and not to mention the splendid array of feathered friends. I enjoy the tropical green ecosystem so much the first time, that it warrants a visit with Arjen and Jan during their three night stop over in San Blas. It is just as delightful the second time around.

Seeing Arjen again and getting to know Jan is also quite a special event: its the first time that any friends from our non-nomadic past have paid us a visit. And what with the International Bird Migration Festival in full swing there is plenty to celebrate. It is also the season to see whales, so we add the special event of venturing onto oceans beyond San Blas. Doug and Anne, staying in Room 1 have friends down from Canada as well and the eight of us trot down to the port excited at coming close to these gentle giants. I take one look at how small the boat is and know straight away that it will either be one whale of a time or not.

Here's a whale; there's a whale; everywhere a humpback whale...
No sooner have we sped 30 minutes out to sea and we have spotted our first whale. Unfortunately, it is necessary for me at about this time to lie horizontal and close my eyes. So, apart from catching three glimpses of these majestic creatures arching themselves in and out of the water, I spend the rest of the four hour journey trying not to throw up. At least I succeed at that. All is not lost, as Ali takes enough photographs and a short piece of video for me to look at when I have my feet firmly placed on dry ground. Furthermore, Doug catches a very big fish and I get a unique audio version of the events that follow:

"There she blows. Oh my goodness. That was amazing. Wow. They aren't smooth at all. No, but aren't they wonderful? They are so big. Are you taking photo's? Did you get that? Oh no, I didn't. Wow. I'm not taking anymore photo's. I just want to watch. Oooh, they are beautiful. Oh there's one. Look at that. Wauuuooow. If's so close. There's another one. We're surrounded. How special. That must be a baby. Where's the mother? There she is. Look, there's three together. They are incredible. How beautiful. Woh. Amazing. They're certainly holding their breath this time. Where are they? There they are. Oh my. Did you see that? That was fantastic."

Well I guess it was for some.

Two and a half year celebration
The time has come around again to let you all know about one of those on the road milestones. Thirty months of cycling doesn't sound that long, but in reality it means we are closing in on our halfway point. There's still a lot more of the world to see and yet we are already talking about return trips to Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. But first things first, we need to get ourselves through Central and South America before flying to West Africa. That's probably about a year away and a grand total of sixteen countries from now. That does sound like something to celebrate now doesn't it. If you would like to read our 8th newsletter and the summary of our last six months then just click here.

Thanks once again to everyone who is following or in some way adds something to our what a wonderful world tour. We appreciate it like you wouldn't begin to believe...

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