United States of America

This is going to be my last post for a while as the time has finally come for me to go home. With no visas to continue the adventure into Asia and my 90 days in USA coming to an end, I am now sat in a friend’s house waiting to go to the airport.

The USA has been awesome and I’ve only achieved a tiny fraction of what I wanted to see an do, but I’ve still done loads and I’ve seen so many amazing places that I didn’t know about before coming here. USA is a vast country, and as such I’ve taken a silly amount of photos to share with you, so its best I shut up and you can have a gander at them using the fancy new layout I’ve only recently realised I can do (what a difference typing the word “rectangular” can make. Although it might cause your browsers to crash!).

I crossed into the border from Mexico at Laredo. It was late in the day and I had a quick scout around to see how much a motel would cost. Prices were high as it was the 4th of July weekend but even the normal prices would take the majority of daily budget. That isn’t really a problem in USA cos if there ever was a place to camp, then this is it! American is hugely into outdoor living, which is obvious when we consider all the amazing American wilderness that there is to enjoy and explore. There are camping sites everywhere, ranging from completely free and basic to highly equipped and expensive although I spent my first week on the road mostly free camping wherever I felt like it, which although is much safer than anywhere I’ve been before, its still illegal with the added danger that land owners can shoot you without warning in certain states (Texas for one) and, according to some American friends, would look forward to doing so! In general though I’ve liked most of the people I’ve met in the US and its been great to be speaking English again, even if not everyone understands what I’m saying and thinks that I sound Australian or Irish.

I spent my first few days in Austin Texas with Andy, another Brit who I had met in Ushuaia over a year ago before riding west to Santa Fe, New Mexico to see my friend Kelly who I had met in Thailand back when I was a young early twenty-something. After the dry scenery of Texas and New Mexico I rode on to the snow capped mountains of Colorado to catch up with Fletch, the rider I had met in Argentina and Chile and I stayed with him and his friends in the ski town of Crested Butte which is a cool place to be with a young crowd who have moved there to enjoy the snow in the winter and the mountains in the summer.

I had a ton of contacts to hang out with in Colorado, as quite a few of bikers I had met in South America had put me in contact with their friends. I stayed in Denver with Charles, a rider I had met while backpacking in 2009 in La Paz Bolivia. His journey in South America ended in disaster when he crashed into a fire engine on the Chilean island of Chiloé. Although hes fine now, he spent several weeks in hospital with broken bones and his bike was completely destroyed as it burst into flames, with the Chilean firemen deciding not to put it out! Also in Denver, I stayed and hung out with Peter, a friend of David who I had met in Cartagena, Colombia. Peter was super-generous and let my use his flat while he was away to host my British friend Richard who kindly came to visit me from Seattle, being the first friend from home I’d seen since seeing Ben in Buenas Aires just after I arrived from Africa. Also thanks to Wheeler for putting me up in Aspen.

As ever I had a whole list of jobs to do on my bike. The drive chain had come off several times and had chewed up the rear sprocket to the point that it had no teeth. This was due to a knackered cush drive bearing and I had replaced this in Crested Butte along with welding up a massive crack in the frame (thanks to Skyhigh Offroad). Amongst other things I changed the fork oil, chain and sprockets, cush drive rubbers, greased the swing arm linkages and changed the swingarm bearings. The swingarm bearing was a bastard of a job and I waited until I was somewhere comfortable to work before doing them. John from Villa Carlos Paz had put me in contact with Lu, who lives in Boulder and I stayed at her place for a week not only fixing up my bike but also fixing up her and John’s little dirt bikes that had been lying idle for quite a while and needed some care.

My bike was feeling like new after all this work and I headed off to Utah to try it out on the trails of Moab. The United States has a great off-road scene and technical trails that rival anything I’d seen on my journey so far. Most of the bad roads I’d ridden elsewhere in the journey were still intended to be roads and in general are transited by vehicles, but the United States has trails that where never intended to be passed by anything more than a horse and cart and are absolute heaven for off-road enthusiasts. There are so many of them too. I would be riding through a place when I would bump into other riders who would recommend more and more trails to be ridden. It was in this way that I ended up riding the ‘Slickrock’ bike trail in Moab. There were only cyclists on it when I was there but I have been told that it was initially set up as a track for dirt bikes. ‘Slickrock’ means smooth sandstone and although I dropped/fell off the bike many times I was having a fantastic time right up until my last crash that broke the clutch lever and smashed the fairing up to the point that I couldn’t steer the bike anymore. I had to take the fairing off and carry it out of the track and retrieve the bike the next day. I ended spending best part of a week in Moab fixing the bike up to make it road legal again.

The bike had been getting quite a lot of attention in USA. The original 600 Ténérés were never imported to USA and loads of riders came over to have a look. Many also asked about he new 660 Ténéré which also isn’t available in USA, so come on Yamaha sort yourself out, people want to buy that bike, just look at how many KLRs Kawasaki sell in USA (Oh, and how about some sponsorship for me?). Most US riders however are Harley riders and they mostly tend to keep to themselves, like its a different sort of vehicle or something. True, heavy large engine bikes with fairings make much more sense on the US roads than my bike does but as Charles said, “they are heavy, underpowered machines that basically convert fuel to noise”! A Harley-riding friend in Austin actually offered to lend me a Harley so we could go riding together. He meant well, but I’ve already got a bike thanks!

After all the fun in Moab (White Rim Trail, Shafer Trail, Long Canyon, Slickrocks), I went off to explore more of Utah. I had been planning to go to Yellowstone and then out east to see more friends before my visa would run out but with the extra delays due to the Slickrock crash and spending a whole month in Denver, it was better to relax and take my time with Utah and it was a decision that I’m very glad I made. Southern Utah is full of cool stuff to do. My friend Joel in Salt lake city described it as ‘a huge outdoor playground’ and I got to see Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and Lake Powell. Joel also told me about ‘The Wave’ a group of mad rock formations in the North Coyote Buttes. Access to the Wave is restricted to twenty people per day, with ten of the places allocated daily through a lottery at the national park office in Kanab and I was jammy enough to win one giving me a truly special experience that I’ll never forget.

I’d been camping for over two weeks when I arrived at Lake Powell and I’d been mostly showering in rivers, or at one point in a waterfall created by a flash flood! so it was nice to bathe in the lukewarm water of the lake and chill out. It was while I at the lake that I found out that my dear friends in UK who run the pub where I had my leaving party in 2011 where moving on to run a new pub elsewhere. I’d been dreaming for 3 years of coming back there to see everyone and it just wouldn’t be the same without them, so I decided to cut my journey short and head for home (I’d only be missing an extra week anyway). What? No Grand Canyon you say? well I saw the Grand Canyon with my family when I was about twelve and although it would have been good to see it again as an adult, flying over it in a light aircraft (as we did) would be pretty hard to beat. Besides, the rest of Utah had given me enough canyon action to last a lifetime. I made it through the hellish deep sand at Lone Rock (see video below) and on to Las Vegas where just one expensive night out was enough to tell me that I couldn’t afford to stay there any longer and once the hangover cleared I rode through Death Valley to California and through Yosemite to San Francisco where I had arranged to leave the bike with Gautam, a rider from India that I met in Moab.

Gautam has been great and its a shame that we wont be hanging out for long before I fly, but obviously I’m coming back for my bike so I can make the most of San Francisco then.

I said that this will be my last post for a while but who knows? I don’t plan to stay in UK for all of the winter. For one I cant afford to! but I’ve been looking at this little break from life on the road as an opportunity to possibly travel without my bike (traveling as a break from life on the road, gotta love my logic!) so maybe there will be other adventures to write about in the meantime.

Still, with continued travel or not, this still feels very much like the end of something huge for me. The end of 3 years on my bike away from home to be precise and I’m totally ready, happy and very emotional to be going home.

Many thanks to everyone who has helped make this journey happen for me so far.

UK people. Anyone fancy a pint?

Mèxico (part one)

So to Mexico. My last Latin country of this trip. I was never going to be able to stay in Mexico for as long as I had wanted. I was already very behind schedule and my two months in Guatemala meant I only really had a month, but Mexico has been a real eye-opener. I had heard good reports from other travelers so I knew it would be good but everything I saw just made me want to see more. Unfortunately my delays meant that I had arrived during the season of bad weather and even my Mexican friends advised me to race up to the United States to make the most of the summer, but I wasn’t really fazed by it all as I totally intend to return. More about that later……..

I crossed into Mexico at the border at La Mesilla, which was super-chilled and without any problems at all. The price to temporary import my bike was a bit steep at 60-odd dollars but was valid for 6 months with multiple entries to the country so wasn’t that bad really. My first impressions were that Mexico was way more developed than Guatemala, but still with very traditional elements. The roads from the border were in great condition and it felt great to be riding along, listening to music after being inactive for so long in Guatemala.

The colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas was my first port of call and I was pleasantly surprised by the city and the reasonable prices. I found some fantastic accommodation well within my budget and stayed for a couple of days to take in the sights. The city is pretty touristy and I saw loads of foreigners walking around although I didn’t really get involved in the night life. San Cristobal is in the state of Chiapas, which has a huge Mayan culture just like Guatemala and is famous for its Zapatista rebels who were able to obtain a level of autonomy from the federal Mexican government through their struggles. I passed through the state capital Tuxlà and rode through the mountains to the southern coast where I stayed at the ‘Boca del Cielo’ coastal village following a recommendation of a friend. I only stayed for two nights. The beach was beautiful and deserted but I was bored after a day and I headed further west to the city of Oaxaca.

In Oaxaca, I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing contact and I had been in contact with him all throughout the day to advise of when I would arrive. I still arrived late though (too many photos) and my contact had to go to work. I parked up outside a restaurant where the friendly owner saw my number plate and invited me in for some food and drink. Many hours passed with me waiting to go somewhere to offload the bike and relax before I gave in and went to find a hostel instead, apologising to my would-be host but it was 11pm and I had been riding for about 8 hours and really needed to crash. The next day I went for breakfast with another CS contact who had a place for me to stay, but she had lots of commitments and we didn’t get to meet up until way later in the evening when I was worse for wear after an afternoon drinking Mezcal with some guys I had met in the street. She still put me up, but probably wasn’t very impressed with my drunkenness! Anyway, I had a laugh in Oaxaca and made some good friends.

I had no idea where I wanted to go next, but the ride up from Chiapas had been great and I wanted more of the same. I elected to ride north through the mountains towards Tuxtepec. The ride started off great but then the heavens opened and it became a taxing ride through the rain and I was completely soaked and tired by the time I arrived. I had much better luck the next day and I road through more beautiful mountain scenery to Puebla. I was now far from the Mayan Chiapas but Mexico is full of indigenous cultures and the villages and towns I passed through looked exactly like those in Peru or Bolivia. Later in Mexico City I would go the anthropological museum which I have to recommend as a must for anyone who wants to travel in Mexico and learn about the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Puebla is another beautiful colonial city although very big and modern too. I only stayed there the night before riding the short journey into Mexico City. Mexico City, known locally as DF (pronounced de-efe, Distrito Federal) is HUGE. Greater Mexico city has a population of over 21 million people and is the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. Its also at over 2000 m above sea level and can be pretty cold in winter, not the image that most of us have of Mexico. I had gone to stay with Ana, my Colombian CS friend who had put me up in Bogotá back in January. I had caught Ana when she was moving to Mexico city but now she lives there with her daughter. She works in TV and is such a workaholic that I hardly saw her in the whole week that I stayed at her place. The weather was awful, raining hard most days and the one opportunity I had to explore was wasted when my GPS sent me on a wild goose chase of metropolitan Mexico City for a few hours. I found my way 2 minutes after turning the bloody thing off and using my head. Then my bike broke down kilometres away from the pyramids at Teotihuacán due to dodgy carburetor internals. It was a Sunday and with limited tools on me and nowhere open to help I was incredibly lucky to get the bike back on the road just in time to get caught in another torrential storm as I road back through the city.

I had a bunch of things to get done in the city, but the main one was to see if I could get a visa to go to Russia. I had planned on getting a visa in the US but the websites of the various Russian consulates in the US are very specific that visas are not granted to non-residents of the USA and I had thought that they might be more ‘lenient’ in Mexico, the website certainly didn’t mention anything about non-residents so I thought it was worth a shot. Andrey, a Russian rider that I met in Patagonia had made an official invitation for me and had sent it to Ana’s office. It took me a few days to get to the embassy when it was open for consular services but when I did I was told that I would have to get my visa in London. I wasn’t as pissed off as I thought I would be, perhaps that had something to do with the Russian lady telling me the bad news being Bond-girl hot, but the more I thought through possible remedies to the problem, the idea of coming home started to appeal to me. It had always been my dream to ride around the world without coming home, without a break and in the many thousands of miles I’ve ridden, the dream of riding back up familiar streets to see all my friends has kept me going from the very beginning and it just wouldn’t be the same to return without my bike. When I left, my plans were to travel for 2 years and I’m now coming up to the end of my 3rd year away and I have to be honest and say that I’m starting to get a little homesick. I love to travel solo but its not always easy. On one hand I’m free to do whatever I want, whenever I want and I have met so many great friends through random events and serendipity, but on the other hand I’ve largely been on my own for 3 years. I’m getting tired and its getting harder and harder to keep moving and I sometimes find myself wanting to stay in places out of laziness instead of enjoyment. When I am having adventures the excitement and adrenaline makes it all worthwhile, but I haven’t been doing anything that adventurous for quite a long time now. Maybe I’ve become so used to life on the road that so much of it seems normal to me now. Who knows? but I shall be flying back to UK in October and I’ll have plenty of time to see how my feelings change. Maybe a ‘Holiday within a Holiday’ will help me focus, maybe being back at home will remind me why I was traveling in the first place, either way I’m very happy and excited to be seeing everyone again. I’m certainly not the first moto-traveler to have misjudged the bureaucracy of visa applications and I wont be the last and to be fair, it would have been impossible to have predicted when I would have been passing through Russia when I was getting ready to leave UK. Its still my plan to complete this around the world trip. I want to make the most of this amazing opportunity that I have to see the world. My funds, although I am way, WAY over budget should still be enough for me to complete the trip, but probably not if I stay in UK for 9 months waiting for June 2015 to arrive. Just as well that I happen to know of so many lovely, cheap places where I can live for practically nothing and planning a place to got to pass the winter is exciting too. I’m such a jammy (lucky) bastard aren’t I!

Anyway back to Mexico. So after a week in Mexico City, which is a place I definitely have to see again as I saw practically none of it and sampled none of the night-life as I was staying out of town where it takes over an hour to get into the center, I left for the nearby town of Metepec. I went to meet up with Sergio, a friend of friend who had also randomly knew me through my blog. The weather was still bad but I had a great week hanging out with Sergio and his Colombian girlfriend Maria-Paola and all their friends and family. The world cup was on and Mexico was still in the game. We went around to a friends house to watch them play against the Netherlands and even though they lost, the party continued well into the night with loads of tequila and Mariachis (Traditional Mexican Musicians).

Sergio advised me to shoot up to USA too, but he urged me to take the main roads and to pass through the north as quickly as possible. Mexico’s reputation for violent drug cartels is well known but as per usual I was wondering how dangerous it would be to the passer-by. I’ve generally always considered gang violence to be between rival gangs with innocent bystanders being in the wrong place at the wrong time, however Sergio and many other Mexicans have told me that this stopped being the case in Mexico a long time ago, and that the gangs are out for any opportunity they can get, be it trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, whatever that pays. I’ve been through many dangerous places on this trip and you can see how the lack of security effects the lives of the normal people. For example, in South Africa people don’t stop at red traffic lights at night in the city because the risk of armed car-jacking is too great, but in Mexico’s Michoacán state, locals have had to take up arms as vigilantes to push the cartels out of their villages. This to me is the point where the division between a ‘dodgy area’ and ‘war zone’ becomes a little blurred. I had been warned while I was in Oaxaca of the disappearance in Mexico of fellow motorbike traveler Harry Devert. His remains were found in Michoacán after I had left Mexico. My thoughts go out to his family.

On leaving Metepec I went to stay in San Miguel de Allende for a few days. My friend John had put me in contact with his friend Linda who lives and works there as a teacher and artist. Just like Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, San Miguel is one of these places that makes it very difficult to think about Mexico’s problems. Its a beautiful colonial city that is very popular with ex-pats and has many bars and restaurants full of foreigners who have chosen San Miguel to be their home. The weather was nice and I relaxed for two days hanging out with Linda before I planned my mad dash through the northern states to the US border at Laredo.

The ride north was strange. I was really expecting to see desert, but instead I saw rolling grasslands with torrential downpours that I could see coming for miles away. Sometimes I dodged them, other times I took a beating from wind and rain only to be dry again minutes after riding out the other side. I was at the junction to turn into the city of Saltillo when through a lack of better judgement I decided to ride the extra 80-odd km to Monterrey. This turned out to be a complete mistake. I rode through a patch of road where fresh tar had just been laid down but hadn’t been marked off and I was lucky to not come off the bike as the wheels slipped around. The road that descended to the city was incredibly windy and the mountains on both sides of the road were channeling the wind from a storm that was raging over the city. Monterrey was flooded when I arrived and I got completely soaked riding through a ‘puddle’ that turned out to be as deep as any river crossing I’d ever done. A few miles down the road I saw a huge Kenworth truck passing through a similar ‘puddle’ that would have completely submerged me and the bike with a wave of water passing off the top of the truck’s engine. Being Mexico’s third largest city, it had been very stupid of me to try to enter the city so late in the day. Visibility was bad with the rain, I had no idea where I was going and traffic was gridlocked at rush hour. I asked several people and police for directions to a cheap hotel but they all just pointed me to a Holiday Inn Express which was way out of my price range but after another hour of messing about I gave in and haggled down their cheapest room, which would have been fantastic luxury for the evening had I not been cleaning tar off the bike for 4 hours in the hotel car park.

All in all, I’ve spent practically nothing in Mexico. True its not as cheap as Guatemala but its still very cheap to travel around although I think the main reasons that I spent nothing was the bad weather preventing me from doing anything and the fantastic hospitality that my Mexican (and Colombian) friends had given me. I got side tracked looking to buy waterproof trousers to replace my now tar-covered ones and ended up staying another night in Monterrey (albiet in a very cheap sex motel) and thereby missing the 4th of July celebrations in USA.

The border at Nuevo Laredo was absolutely rammed and it took me 4 hours to get through, but it was a pleasant surprise to see that there are no customs formalities for my bike so it can stay in USA while I return home.

So yeah, that’s been two years in Latin America. I feel really sorry to haven’t given Mexico much time but I’m coming back real soon (hence the part one in the title!). I’m still hatching plans of where to live through winter and there are many places in Mexico that would be ideal. I’ll give it all more thought while I’m at home but first, on to USA!