Mission description

This is a blog about travel, adventure, charity, and bikes. It's the story of my trip from San Francisco to wherever the road ends.
My goals are:
(1) Get as far as I can south - cycling, hitching, or whatever - before my time and money run out.
(2) Try to understand social inequality in the areas I travel through, and to do what I can to help.
My tools are my trusty bike, Magnum, my thumb, this blog, and the following websites, for which I am an ambassador:
You can follow the adventure right here, and you can see how it all started, and what it's all about, using the tabs above. If you want to be notified of new posts, you can subscribe using the links down on the right, or by liking the Wheels of Fortune Facebook page.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Epilogue: So long and thanks for all the clicks

At the risk of the ridiculous, I thought I would bookend my now not-so-recent adventure by finishing this blog. If I had a therapist, he or she would have encouraged me to do this.

Like many things I have found difficult to finish, it didn't dawn on me until writing that last entry, exactly why I have had so much trouble making myself sit down and write it. It's obvious, of course: it's simply hard to acknowledge that something so singular is over. However, as I look at the dates of that last entry, I realise it relates to almost this time last year. I have been back for the better part of a year, and I have been living in the same place for over three months now - the longest I have been in the one place for over two years. It's a good time to draw a line under this particular chapter.

Just another beach in Mexico
Thank you to everyone I met along the way, and particularly to those who helped me. There were so many people who did so, in ways big and small, and I can never be grateful enough for this. Your help, hospitality, and kindness was moving, and I will not soon forget it.

To the truck drivers of Mexico: thank you for not running me over, and in fact for making way for me on many occasions. To the bus drivers of Mexico: I'm pretty sure you were all trying to kill me, so ha ha, you missed.

Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for coming with me on the adventure. There were times when writing this blog made me feel connected, and in doing so, enormously comforted. I hope you found the blog interesting or entertaining in some way. If you have any thoughts or comments, I'd love to hear about them. If you have something similar in mind, I'd be happy to share experiences, and answer questions.

The previous entry was the end of the bike trip proper, the end of Wheels of Fortune, so I felt it appropriate to end the blog there. After leaving the bike in Guadalajara, I spent a few weeks blowing around with the winds, from the dusty plains in the desert of the central plateau, to the sand on the beaches that border the wild Pacific. From a beach in Oaxaca, it was then as if I was plucked from my reverie, and thrown back to reality, via a series of flights, to D.F., L.A., and then back home to the AU of S.

Once upon a time in Mexico
I had originally planned on writing a few more entries, based on these post-cycling meanderings in Mexico, and on some aspects of the ride that didn't fit neatly into particular dates. However, on current form, I'll get that done by around 2050. We'll all be commuting to work with jetpacks by then, and my blog will be comparatively less interesting.

So don't hold your breath, is what I'm saying. For now I'll leave you with what is as close as I have to a before and after in photographic form. All that's left then, is to say thank you once again, and so long!

From way back at the beginning.
After about 5 months, towards the end of the trip, and the last photo I have with Blue Steel.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The last days of Blue Steel

Tuesday 21st May - Friday 24th May

The last days of Blue Steel were but few. I counted them from the day I decided to hang up my cycling boots - dirty old sneakers in my case - to the day I left Guadalajara on a bus. From that day, my bicycle would cease to be Blue Steel, and go back to being simply an old, blue, steel-framed mountain bike.

One of the big parks in GDL.
I rode the streets of Guadalajara, more than a little pensativo. I wasn't just giving up a bicycle, of course, I was giving up the way of life that came with it. Or at least, the one that had come with it for me. That may sound a little hyperbolic, but bicycle touring, as I hope I have at least partially shown, really is something else. Not just a mode of travel, nor a type of experience, nor adventure alone; it's both much more than these, and hardly these things at all. I think it's better described by where it takes you, and its effect on you, than anything else. Of course, this is also a very individual thing, and so ceases to be a useful description, beyond one's self.... I'm going to stop myself there. You get the idea.

What I was giving up was only half of the equation, and the more self-centred half. What I was leaving behind also bothered me: namely, the supplies I was taking to my chosen charities in Guatemala. This had become a somewhat defining motivation for me; to get the vitamins to Primeros Pasos and the spare parts for Quetzaltrekkers. What was I going to do? Just give that up? It felt a lot like failure. Probably because it was.

Taking my mind off failure with Gothic architecture in Guadalajara
One of the old gates to the city. Say what you want about the Spanish, but they did things with style.
So I did what any self-respecting quitter would do, and rationalised it. It was easier than I thought actually. Basically, it would be quicker, cheaper, and more convenient to simply post the supplies to Guatemala. So why not do that, and buy my ticket home? But that was not the point, I thought to myself. It was a little more symbolic than that, being an AngelMule, and this role had become central to the idea of the ride. And it still did not sit well with me that I had set out to do this thing myself, and I was giving up.

Perhaps it was during the via recreativa, perhaps some other time, I'm not really sure when, but at some point I realised that it mattered less how the gear got to Guate, more just that it did. And it didn't need to be me who delivered it - anything else was just my ego talking. It occurred to me that I was staying with a group of travellers, some of whom were bike tourists, and that I could simply ask someone else to take the gear to Guatemala; someone else to carry the torch. After all, AngelMule and OpenVolunteer were both born of and subsisted on good will. It made sense.

I found that someone else pretty quickly. Christian was an Argentinian guy, and another bike tourist at Casa Ciclista. He had been touring for many years, supporting himself purely by selling arts and crafts that he makes on the road. Amazing that he could do that! Christian readily agreed to take some things to Guatemala. He had plans to stop over at San Cristobal de las Casas in Southern Mexico to wait out the rainy season, but after that he was planning on cycling through Guatemala.

Via recreativa: some of Guadalajara's main roads are closed for a few hours every weekend for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy.
Christian agreed to to carry the torch. This was not his reaction (no cyclist likes extra weight, no matter how little), but I like to imagine it so.
Christian at work. He cycles with all this gear. He makes small pieces of woodwork. 
Having had resolved this dilemma, I felt much more relaxed about it all. In fact, when I thought about the goals I had set out for myself (you can see them above), I realised I had nothing to worry about. I had gotten caught up the details.

Things moved quickly from this point. I gave away my precious cargo, my gear, and my bike, to my fellow travellers and bike fans, and I was ready to leave.

Giving up Blue Steel.
My faithful stove and cooking gear.
From bike tourist...
...to, er, regular tourist? Not much difference really.
I bought a ticket for a bus headed to the mountains of central Mexico, and left the wheels of fortune behind me.

The last known sighting of Blue Steel.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The end of the road

Sunday May 19th - Monday 20th May

The end of the road came suddenly, and unexpectedly. It was in Guadalajara. I think I can even remember the exact moment. I had been recovering on the good vibes, but hard floors, of the Casa Ciclista (Cyclist House) in Guadalajara. I had arrived with the plan of spending a few days there, before charting the next part of my course south towards my goal in Guatemala. It was my third or fourth night there, and I was trying to get comfortable on my excellent, but thin sleeping mat. All of a sudden a curious awareness broke over me, and I sat bolt upright in bed. That was it. I had ridden far enough. I had reached the end of the ride.

A moment of clarity it may have been, but it still took me a few days to understand how I had arrived at this point. I already knew that my time was becoming limited by the approaching rainy season. By June it would be very wet, and by July the rain really would set in, making cycling somewhere between unpleasant and impossible. The road ahead was also a bit tricky. The states of Michoacan and Guerrero had reputations for crime, to the point where even premium and tourist buses were being held up and highway road blocks. Cycling those roads seemed not quite worth the while to me, even if the risks were still lowish. And then there were the distances. I had a long way to ride. Thousands of kilometres still. I was going to have to ride much, much faster than I had been doing, and have many long days in the saddle.

So I was going to have to put my bike on a number of buses, to make up time and distance, and to avoid shadier parts of the road ahead. The parts I did ride were going to have to be quick, and potentially wet. Once I did get to Guatemala, I was then going to have to turn around and bus all the way back up to Mexico city to fly out. I would be spending more time taking buses than riding my bike! And then I understood. The thing I loved about bike touring was taking my time, and enjoying the ride. Being able to go where I wanted, stop where I wanted, for however long I wanted, and do whatever I wanted. Freedom, in a word. And to reach Guatemala, I would have to give that up.

Of course, I had run out of money by that stage, so that was an issue too, but I figure that if the desire is there, you can make almost anything happen. But my desire, more precious a resource than gold (mostly), was exhausted. I had reached the end of the road, and I realised I was already in the last days of Blue Steel.

My 3290th kilometre turned out to be my last

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The end of the world

Friday May 17th - Saturday May 18th

I could be accused of creating a false sense of suspense here, considering this title, the ending to my previous post, and the intervening time until this one. Particularly when the only real villains were a broken spoke and my very own lethargy in updating this blog. In my defence, there were an awful lot of mini-tornadoes in this next part of the ride.

Of course, the logical sequela of my broken spoke, was an out-thrust thumb. At that stage my only real option was to hitch a ride to the nearest bike shop that could fix my wheel, before it was too badly bent out of shape to fix at all. I found a ride after an hour or so, and my brief new friends took me to San Juan de Los Lagos, where I was assured my cyclogical needs could be met. Indeed they were, and for cheap! I think it cost me 35 pesos (about 3 bucks) for the new spoke and the labour. I asked about where a penny-pinching cyclist could rest up for the night, and the cycle guys told me there was a place on top of the hill that cyclists and other travellers used. I struggled up the hill slowly, glad to see the new spoke and a straight rim spinning faithfully again.

The place on the hill turned out to be a refuge run by a church, which catered for anyone on the road or without a home. I was glad for the roof, less so for the cement floor and the ambiance. It was a strange experience, as the place seemed to essentially be a homeless shelter. So my company for the night was a homeless person, and some giant rat thing that scurried around the cement floor, occasionally venturing near enough to me to necessitate me shooing it away.

No muy lujo
"Welcome wandering brother"
The pre-dawn light, a sleepless night, and a bland breakfast in the homeless shelter that next morning were sobering. Whereas such a night would previously not have troubled me much, and made for a good story, that day it simply felt tiring. I remember thinking that if I had had somebody to laugh at it with, perhaps it would have been different.

Nice view though
Up before dawn, feeling like a rool cyclist for once.
Wheels spinning as the sun rose, I set off down the hill with one spoke shining brightly in the sun's early rays, and 71 gleaming only dully. The road stretched out almost uncaringly in front of me, all 130km to Guadalajara. I wasn't sure if I'd make it in one day, but I was going to give it a nudge. After stopping at an Oxxo for water, I lingered at a local tortilleria to enjoy the smell of freshly made tortillas, before tucking the usual half kilo into my panniers, and heading for the highway.

The road was long and straight. What seemed like only moderate undulations in the road were actually long and tiring. The landscape was deceptive through its sheer scale and uniformity.

However, behind every duplicitous horizon there was a smiling face of a local who would ask me what I was doing, and offer me at least encouragement, and often snacks. Mexico being Mexico, they usually offered me beer too.

Goodies from strangers. Thanks Mexico!
After the halfway mark of the day, things began to get strange. Suddenly, mini-tornadoes started popping up either side of the highway. The hot and restless wind working on the loose soil of the plains sent columns of coppery-brown spirals winding often hundreds of metres into the air. They appeared, and disappeared, sometimes spinning on the spot, sometimes rushing across the road in front of me. I had visions of Martian landscapes in my mind for some reason.

The air was thick with heat. SOS boxes, at first reassuring, turned out to be uniformly empty, broken into, and destroyed. Scorched earth bordered the highway in places. What had happened? Where was I? I felt like I was at the end of the world, or some other planet at least.

Surely it wasn't that hot... maybe my bike computer had heatstroke.
Help indeed. These boxes did provide a little welcome shade though.
Scorched earth
And the road stretched on...

My legs pushed back against the strange and heavy atmosphere. I was worried the conditions might end my day early, but for the moment I was feeling ok. In fact, with some musical motivation and Mexican Gatorade on board (no, not beer), I was actually feeling pretty good. If this was the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, I thought, I'd be fine. As long as I had my bike. And a machete maybe. Hm, there might be a movie in that...

Looking up, a moment of peace
Nothin' says class like C-K-L-A-S-S
A particularly classy sign signalled the proximity of a big city. The ride had turned out to be much longer than I had thought - 150km instead of 130km - and I had exhausted my strength to make it to the edge of Guadalajara, in the 11 hours from sunrise to sunset. It was a long last hour, squeezing the last light out of the day, to make my way through the dense outer layers of Guadalajara, towards its soft, creamy centre. At last the lights of the happy home of Casa Ciclista Guadalajara shined on me, and I had reached my destination, and the end of the ride.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Culture bottle (Three states in two days)

Thursday May 16th - Friday May 17th

After chilling in Zacatecas, I hit the road again. One of my favourite ways to travel, on a bike on otherwise, is to decide on the day, what it is I'm going to do that day. And so it was that I woke up on Thursday, not knowing whether I was going to get on my bike, put my bike on a bus, hitch, or... stay another day! The first option won out in the end, and I set out on what looked like a long, but gentle downhill ride to Aguascalientes.

I enjoyed the semi-desert landscape, although after a while it got a little monotonous. I was more preoccupied by a sudden bout of nausea and stomach pain that came on just after having a snack that morning. A similar thing had happened to me on the last of the 5 days ride to Durango. I was beginning to wonder if my stomach was finally feeling the toll of the interesting and varied foods I had been sampling. This would be disappointing, because I had reached the conclusion by that stage in my trip, that I may actually have intestines of steel. I hadn't had more than mild stomach upset from eating anything in the last year and a bit of touring the Americas. I would eat anything, including any kind of street food, only taking caution by drinking filtered/purified water in areas where people didn't drink the tap water.

I unfurrowed my brow, downed a cocktail of ciprofloxacin, omeprazole, and metoclopramide, and continued on, only mildly dismayed at the thought that now my Mexican meals might have to include not only lime, salt, and chili as standard, but also antibiotics.

Don't mind if I do... ("Rest area")
I never got tired of seeing these "prolonged descent" signs
After a while I began to feel a little better, and continued on. I was pretty psyched to hit the 3000km mark of my ride. I had taken my time by most bike touring standards, but damn it if it didn't feel good anyway. I enjoyed some nice prolonged downhills, and racked up the 120km mark for the day on entering Aguascalientes, the capital city of the state of the same name, after leaving the state of Zacatecas earlier in the day. Aguascalientes again blew me away. It was so beautiful. Stunning colonial architecture, ornate gardens, and really cool vibe to the centre and surrounding bars and cafes.

Not bad Aguascalientes, not bad.
Someone actually more heavily loaded than me. Believe it or not there is a motorcycle and a person under all that. (I had to get close to even see them though.)
After chowing down on a meal that included nopales (a type of cactus), I was again reminded of how rich the cultural variety is here in Mexico. Across Mexico, from state to state, and even from city to city within the same state, so much changes. Different words, expressions, and accents colour the language. Food varies in terms of dishes, but also in variations on the same dishes, or even types of tortillas! And of course the people too; attitudes, appearance, ethnic makeup, and dress, all vary greatly.

Perhaps because of this cultural variation, people liked to ask what the comida tipica (typical or local food) is in Australia. I almost cringe when I get asked this now, because the most typical food I can think of is Vegemite and Tim Tams. Our beloved barbecues are certainly not unique, and our meat pies and fish and chips come from our English heritage. Perhaps the most interesting things to eat in Australia are those brought by immigrants, in the form of delicious Italian, Greek, French, Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese food (although the list is of course much longer). I guess all of the above is a reasonable response to the question.

I rode out of Aguascalientes mulling these thoughts, still concerned that there was a uniformity to my own culture that stood in stark contrast to the diversity I saw around me in Mexico. Food, accents, language, clothing, and culture really don't change that much across Australia, I thought, and the variety we do have is all recently imported from other countries. My musings were interrupted by yet more nausea, and I had to stop and rest near a store. My water bottle caught my eye, for no apparent reason, but as I looked closer, I could see disturbing blotches of white, grey, and even green through the semi-transparent blue plastic. I looked inside. Yep, they were definitely inside the bottle. I shook it, and poured the water into a transparent bottle. It was disturbingly cloudy.

It looked harmless enough...
...or was it?
No it was not.
In hospitals, we use bottles filled with culture medium (tasty bacteria food) to grow, isolate, and test antibiotic susceptibility of bacteria. I realised that I probably hadn't washed that bottle properly in almost the whole year I had had it, and was in the habit of keeping an electrolyte solution (which included sugar) in this particular bottle. It would sit there with this liquid in it all the hot day, and some of the night before I refilled it. In that moment I realised I had basically been keeping bacterial culture medium, in ideal conditions, in my beloved blue water bottle. I had been growing, isolating, and ingesting, a small but significant amount of bacteria each day I had cycled since I started using electrolyte solution - somewhere on the road from Mazatlan to Durango. Now the bouts of nausea and abdominal pain made sense. Although perhaps in the tradition of Australian doctors who like research, no-one was going to give me a Nobel Prize for drinking this bacterial solution. I just felt stupid. And a little ill.

I threw the bottle away and rode on. I was still mildly nauseous, and still preoccupied by our lack of cultural diversity. Why was it this way? I wondered...

Cogitation was interrupted when I crossed over to the state of Jalisco, the third state in two short days, and where I was planning on finding a town to stay for the night, somewhere down the road. This planning was further interrupted by my wheel making a strange sound, some time later. After checking the bike, I realised I had broken a spoke. I did not have the tools to fix it, and I was in no-man's-land, between towns, and it was getting late. I could try to ride further, but I had seen what had happened when my friend Greg tried to do the same - it just led to more broken spokes, and a bent rim. I was stuck.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Hitch and ride

Monday May 13th - Wednesday May 15th

After Durango, I had been told some parts of the road south were potentially a little unsafe for a cycling extranjero such as I. People had suggested I hitch or bus through these parts instead, to avoid having to stay the night in a less than ideal spot. Although I wondered if these dangers were overstated, as they often are, I had had fun hitching with Norma and Cynthia, and had no problem skipping even potentially unsafe parts of the road. So when I set off from Villa Union, it was with this plan in mind.

I started cycling that day, largely because I felt like it, figuring I could ride a bit before sticking the thumb out. I was enjoying the ride so much that without realising it, I actually went past the place I had been told was good to hitch from... by about 15km! I was having a rest in an abandoned gas station, when a truck pulled up. I had a chat to the two guys, both called Guillermo,  who told me where I was, and ended up giving me a lift to the next town, Sombrerete.

One of the two Guillermos. Thanks guys!
After lunch and a rest there, I once again put the thumb out. It took a couple of hours, but a friendly dude on his way to Zacatecas stopped and gave me a ride. It was an interesting ride. After we had both had a couple of beers, I began to wonder about the wisdom of being in a vehicle with someone drinking and offering me beer. We drove through a rainstorm, which I was glad not to have to ride through, and my driver stopped drinking by then, so I felt more relaxed. He told me he was a bus driver, and that not long ago, after stopping his bus at a small township nearby, was horrified to see a number of headless bodies, lined up by the side of the road. He said it really shocked him, and that this happens sometimes around there. Although he said it was only people mixed up in the cartels that this happened to, he understood my decision to not ride this part of the road.

We arrived in Zacatecas, where it was cold and a little rainy. I cycled into town and found a hostel, after not having any luck with my (admittedly last minute) Couchsurfing requests. I ended up staying a few days there, being a little sick, but also impressed by how beautiful the place was. It was a stunning old colonial city, and I never thought I would hear myself say something like that!

The street the hostel is on
The main cathedral
Detail of the facade
One of many nice alleyways
One of many nice streets
A statue in one of the many  parks
View from the hostel. Not bad.