Archive for October, 2009

Big mountains in Mexico

Pico Orizaba from the autopista to Tehuacan

Now that I’m in the vicinity of the highest peak in Mexico, Pico Orizaba, the weather is still quite unstable with rain and isolated thunderstorms. Hence I decided to leave my mountaineering gear in Puebla and for now continue riding past Puebla towards Oaxaca, the next big town to the South-East. From there I plan to ride a bus back to Puebla; I’m hoping that in a week or so the weather will clear and be better suited for the Orizaba climb.

The route from Puebla to Oaxaca leads through some mountaineous terrain. It is a fairly new road and well engineered, with lots of bridges and cut-outs to reduce the impact of the hills. (For some reason they build very few tunnels in Mexico; they’d rather take out an entire hill, which creates huge scars in the landscape…)

Autopista climbing 1100m with many bridges and cut-outs

Yesterday I had a fast ride; after the two travel days and hauling bike and bags by bus it felt great to be on the road pedaling again! I started the day around noon at 2100m ASL, crossing two hills up to 2400m, and ended the day around 6pm after a huge downhill of some 650m. For 10-15 minutes I was cruising along effortlessly at speeds between 40-70 km/h, passing a few trucks going very slow on the way down… It felt good getting back some of the energy I had put in over the last 3 hard days of riding towards Mexico City before my week vacation.

Evening downhill towards Tehuacan

Today I continued downhill into a broad valley which reminded me of coming down the Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps. I left the autopista at the last little village before the long climb to restock on water and some food. Since this is off the beaten path with very few tourists, people stared at me and my bike as if I’d come from a different planet!

Market scene in little village off the autopista

Back on the autopista the road continued downhill and dropped down to almost 1000m ASL where it crosses a narrow valley via a very tall bridge.

Tall bridge at the bottom of the long climb South of Tehuacan; this bridge did save 100m of elevation gain!

From here the road turns abruptly to the West and starts a very long climb over 30km of 1200m up to 2200m ASL! In the midday heat this was very tough. Beautiful landscape, mind you, but extremely tiring nonetheless.

Beautiful landscape to the West of the autopista along the huge climb South of Tehuacan

I was mentally prepared, but it still took me 4 hours with all my weight to get up there. Some of the passing trucks were also going very slow due to their heavy weight; I was tempted a few times to accelerate and hang on for some truck-surfing, but decided not to as it was too dangerous.

Exhaustion and too much sun show in my face near the end of a very long day

At the end of the day I was very tired and happy to find a small place renting rooms and enjoying a hot shower. At least I’m getting some acclimatization out of this riding and sleeping above 2000m. Tomorrow I should reach Oaxaca and on Sunday take a bus back to Puebla. Hopefully the weather will improve some over the next couple of days so that I can do some acclimatization climbs and finally the climb of Pico Orizaba.

5 comments October 31st, 2009

Mexico City and 1 week home in Florida

Typical traffic scene in Mexico City

One of the big obstacles of riding through Mexico is the huge metropolitan area of Mexico City, with over 20 million people the second largest city in the world. I don’t want to ride my bicycle there. Traffic is just chaotic and riding a bicycle here is not advisable, much less with a recumbent and a lot of luggage. Plus there is a considerable risk of theft here in the city; I had been warned by many friends to be extra careful in Mexico City and not ride there or even take the subway at night…

Subway in Mexico City

Last week I got to Toluca (about 40km West of Mexico City) and stayed in a hotel. I left my bicycle there and took a bus to Mexico City. After an interesting half-day / evening in the metropolis and some great chamorro dinner I went to the airport and took a flight back home to Florida.

Dinner in Mexico City prior to flying home to Florida for one week

This last week was very recuperative for me and allowed me to reconnect with my family. I also took care of some logistics and picked up my mountaineering gear for upcoming Pico Orizaba.

Yesterday I retraced my route back from home via car (to West Palm Beach), TriRail (to Miami airport), airplane (to Mexico City airport), metro (to bus terminal), luxury bus (to Toluca) and on foot (to hotel) to get back to the hotel and my bike here in Toluca. What a trip! Rainy / overcast weather provided better air quality and visibility of how vast the Mexico City area is. Amazing!

Today I need to cross Mexico City one more time, now with the bike and all my gear (including the 40 lb mountaineering backpack). This will be quite a challenge, as the buses from the West (Toluca) and to the East (Puebla) end at different terminals. Between those there is either the metro (not an option with my bike and luggage) or taxis. We’ll see how I can navigate the city one more time…

4 comments October 28th, 2009

Big city, big lakes, big hills

Sunset over Lago de Chapala

Crossing Guadalajara by bike was a high-energy activity. One has to be aware of everything around and ride a bit more aggressive to assert oneself in the lane so as to not be squeezed into impossibly small corners. After 2 hours of this I needed to seek refuge in the “sanctuary” of an A/C and quiet hotel lobby. This is not for the timid rider… The biggest city, Mexico City, I won’t try to cross by bike. Instead I plan to ride into and out of it by bus; I think this will be a safer proposition.

Guadalajara city traffic - not for the timid rider

After Guadalajara I reached the first big lake, Lago de Chapala. I stayed at the town of Ocotlan, where I was able to camp right on the lake shore. The folks in a hotel / restaurant took me in for free one night and even invited me for dinner, very generous of them (I donated in their name to my cause).

Camping right next to Lago de Chapala on the hotel premises

Then I continued on the cuota for another 125km or nearly 7h until the sun set. It’s not always easy to fidn a good spot, as sometimes there isn’t an exit for some 40km or so. Yesterday I got to a toll booth and exit, so I rolled into the little town of Panindicuaro. There I found Internet access, some food and a small, quiet and clean hotel room.

Evening mood riding on the Cuota near Panindicuaro

Today I continued on the cuota for another 75km or so – this was one of the toughest head-wind stretches of my entire trip. Also ongoing big hills – I reached 1900m altitude for the first time. The first 40km took 3 hours! That’s tough on your mind. One nice aspect was that I crossed the 10.000km mark here. Ten million meters under pedal power from Alaska to Mexico. Beautiful scenery, though, with clear air at higher elevations and cultivated farmland.

Bike at Lago Cuitzeo

Then I got to the second big lake (Lago Cuitzeo) which was scenic to look at. From there it was another 20 hilly km to Morelia. This town is very attractive, with a large historic center, cathedral, museums, cafes, and just lots of people everywhere. A very immersive, Mexican experience.

Cathedral in the center of Morelia

Only 250km to go to Mexico City, where I will catch a plane next Tuesday back home for 1 week vacation in FL…

1 comment October 16th, 2009

Mexico Mainland

Sunset over the Baja from the ferry leaving La Paz and heading for Mazatlan

I took the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan arriving on the morning of Friday, Oct-9. I spent a much needed rest day in Mazatlan at the lovely Ocean Front Inn Bed & Breakfast hosted by Jim and Candace – a place I can highly recommend. Their hospitality and great location right on the water and near the “centro historico” did wonders to recharge my batteries, which had been depleted after the 2 week nonstop Baja ride…

With Jim and Candace on the patio of their Mazatlan Ocean Front Inn

On Saturday I started riding South towards Guadalajara. It is much more tropical here, with high humidity and temperatures in the mid 90s. It feels just like riding in Florida in the summer! Sweating from the moment you get on the bike until you take a shower at night…

I covered quite some distance in the first two days – nearly 300km to Tepic. I stopped at the occasional little town, usually heading straight for the central plaza, often at the local church with plenty of shops, restaurants and mostly also some form of Internet access.

Centro historico in Acaponeta en route to Tepic

Initially it was all flat, and riding on the cuota (tollroad) is safe (wide shoulder, little traffic) and fast (straight-line, bridges and hilltop-cutouts). That changed yesterday afternoon, when I ran into the hills leading up to Tepic. I had no idea how much climbing was involved to reach this town (at 900m sealevel). So I ran out of daylight (and options to stay), so I had to finish the last hour in the dark, going uphill, with lots of traffic. It was hot, humid, stinky from the trucks, and I was tired after more than 9 hours on the bike. Not a scenario I would want to repeat anytime soon. I stopped at the first small hotel and got some of Ricos tacos next door – too tired to look for anything else.

Dinner at Ricos Tacos after a tiring day to Tepic

But today is another day, and I got caught up on email and Blogging. I’ll probably do a much shorter day today, continuing towards Guadalajara and then Lago de Chapala…

Add comment October 12th, 2009

Enjoyment and Happiness

When you spend many hours on the bicycle every day you have a lot of time to think. Think about why to do a trip like this, what makes it so enjoyable, how it contributes to one’s happiness. Here I offer some of my thoughts on this topic.

One of the recurring themes in happiness literature is the distinction between things which are merely pleasant (mostly sensual pleasures such as good food) vs. things which offer a higher level of enjoyment (for example aesthetics, arts, music, etc.) Indulging in simple sensual pleasures makes us feel good in the short-term; however, the pleasure subsides when the sensual need is satisfied. And after a while the need arises again, so indulging in sensual pleasures can not provide long-lasting happiness.

Humans have the unique ability to forgo simple pleasures in the pursuit of some higher, more rewarding goals. (Animals don’t have this ability.) We tend to create more complex goals for ourselves; their pursuit often requires considerable effort and can in fact require periods of unpleasant activities. (Think about forgoing sleep or other leisure in pursuit of studies toward a university degree.) However, when such a complex goal is reached, it provides a much deeper and long-lasting gratification then sensual pleasures. (The positive psychology concept of Flow points to this distinction. Also the Dalai Lama, who bases his philosophy on the observation that all human beings universally want to be happy and avoid suffering, emphasizes this distinction.)

In that light a project like the Panamerican Peaks can be seen as a much more complex goal which requires a substantial effort along multiple lines. For example it clearly requires physical effort or exposure to the elements which can be unpleasant at times. However, reaching camp after an arduous day in the mountains or on the bike is quite enjoyable and makes one forget the physical discomfort associated with it. And reaching a summit or completing a bike journey through an entire country offers a reward on an even higher level. For example riding down the Baja the last two weeks was hard at times and not always pleasant; now I’m quite happy to have completed it. I can only speculate on the level of enjoyment that the completion of the entire project will bring!

Then there is the charitable aspect. It makes me genuinely happy to see donations in the name of this project to Doctors Without Borders. These donations enable the organization to do very valuable humanitarian work. This goes towards what the Dalai Lama calls compassion and love towards other fellow human beings.

And there is the aspect of simple and pure enjoyment of the activities associated with the adventure. Being out there and being active, doing the things because you can, makes you feel alive. Think about the last time you were just happy to be alive? I mean not just content, but happy as in getting-the-goosebumps-happy! This reminds me of a quote by the famous British climber George Mallory. He organized three expeditions to Mt. Everest in 1920, 1921 and 1923. On the last one he and Irvine famously vanished high on the North Face of Everest. (Mallory’s body was actually found in 1999 after some 76 years on the mountain!) When Mallory toured the country to raise funds for the next expedition, he preempted the question as to “Why” he wanted to climb Everest as follows:

“So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

2 comments October 10th, 2009

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