Saturday, March 21, 2009

Beginning of a Tandem Bike Tour: Oaxaca to Tehuantepec

It's hard to know how things are going to shake out a year down the road. Last year, when I was ironing out details with the Stevens Fellowship Committee to travel and look at trash, I thought that I should go to Latin America in order to both learn Spanish and juxtapose Europe's trash scene with the waste management strategies of developing countries. I also have a somewhat apocalyptic view of the world, and, with the skyrocketing price of fuel, I thought, "If everything gets messed up, I can just walk home from Mexico, Costa Rica, or anywhere in between."

Planes are still flying, and probably will be for a while, but if everything does go to hell in the next few months, I can now get home on a bike. Actually, we can get home on a bike (I love that pronoun).

It's a tandem. It is green. It is made by Bike Friday, a gem of a company in Eugene, Oregon, that specializes in folding bicycles. My partner, Gene and I started talking about the possibility of turning the Central America portion of travel into a bike trip on a beach walk in November 2008. By the time we took a test ride the following month, we were hooked.
  • We are not tied to any bus schedules or routes.
  • Landfills and recycling centers outside of town (not on normal transportation routes) suddenly become accessible.
  • We can stop anywhere.
  • We can go anywhere.
  • Our fitness level increases substantially with each pedal stroke.
So Gene came back from Antarctica and met up with me in Oaxaca, Mexico, with our bike. We went for a couple of test rides. We looked at other bike touring blogs. We talked to lots of people whose reactions ranged from, "You're crazy," to "The roads are steep, curvy, and treacherous," to "How cool!" One of our friends who works at a migrant shelter had some particularly dire accounts of certain roads, border crossings, and regions where people are "preyed" upon. Safety has factored largely in our discussions. There is no way we can blend: Gene is 6'5", I have blond hair, and we are on a bright green tandem. But we are friendly and cautious, and are giving it a whirl.

So far, everything has gone safely and smoothly. We pedaled 283 kilometers from Oaxaca to Tehuantepec over 3.5 days (a slow, but honest start). Our departure was classic -- we overestimated how much we could fit in the trailer and made a last-minute donation to the migrant shelter, as well as sent some stuff home with another friend going to Portland next week (thank you, friends!). We finally pulled out of Oaxaca, Mexico, on Sunday morning to lots of cheering and hollering and well-wishes from our housemates.

The scenery has been fantastic with rolling hills and lush river valleys springing with greens amidst an otherwise arid landscape. We have had some long climbs. We have had some killer sunset descents through very curvy valleys. We are acutely aware of the passing landscape: smells, temperature variations, and especially every incline (we come to a screeching crawl at every uphill, no matter how slight. We'll get there...). I have only done long-distance hiking in my past, and I must say, I quite like how much ground you can cover on a bike.

Everyone has been courteous and friendly. Drivers give us plenty of room when they pass us on the road, often with a wave, smile, or friendly toot. One gas truck driver even stopped to take our picture. (I got crafty and made bright yellow flags to make drivers extra-aware of our presence.) In towns, we get a positive welcome. There is something inherently happy about a tandem bicycle that puts a smile on peoples' faces. Locals come up to talk with us; we're both quite certain that the tandem serves as a gateway to further interactions, like helping this little town (photo: right) unload bricks for their community center.

Except for a couple of tweaks (thank goodness Gene is a bike mechanic), the bike has performed stunningly. Serendipitously we watched a James Bond movie and realized our bike, a "Q" tandem, is probably named after the character "Q" who makes all of the cool gadgets for 007. When we descended to the coast and felt our energy get zapped under a blanket of suffocating heat, we disassembled the bike ("we" here means "Gene") and packed it into the trailer (that cleverly becomes two suitcases).Then, we fit all of our camping gear in the suitcases with the bike (yeah 007), and caught a bus up the steep mountains. We felt slightly guilty as we passed a couple of other bike-touring cyclists on the Pan-America highway... but as we looked out at palm trees blowing in crosswinds, and dogs panting in 100-degree heat, we simply reclined our seats further and took a sip of water. We are now in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, our departure point for Guatemala and points further south.

We're still got work to do. Hydration is a full-time job. Also, I realized my Spanish needs more concentrated effort when I couldn't figure out if a sign was advertising fried coconut or cold coconut. And my "trash research" has been admittedly slow. But it's all coming along, sip by sip, pedal by pedal.

I didn't expect this element of adventure (not to mention wonderful partnership) in my travel plans a year ago, but I sure do like it.


Andrew said...

Eso es un buen viaje escrito. Será divertido ver ustedes en Portland.

Sarah said...

Hi Meredith and Gene,

Thanks for the link to your blog. It is fun to read about your adventures. Espero que han encontrado plátanos fritos, o quizás con el calor, ¡los plátanos frios serían como un refresco!

Con cariño,


Jennie said...

I was just catching up on your blog since I not checked it out in a long while. It sounds like you are having a great adventure and making a difference in people's lives. What an incredibly journey. Enjoy the ride.

Jonathan said...

Bravo Gene and Meredith. Fine style. Have you hucked that baby yet?