Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Yucatán High Life Pt. 1—The Right Group of People

Valladolid

Valladolid

In the last I finished my ride across Mexico and reached beautiful Valladolid. But that was months ago. What was it like living there? Valladolid itself is a small colonial city, but my life there was much wilder than I could have expected. Here’s a first look into that time, and all the people I met.

When I arrived in Valladolid I didn’t have a clear plan. I knew I wanted to live there and write long term. “Long term” meant a few months, a novelty after biking to a new town every few days. But first I needed a place to stay.

For the first few nights I booked a room with Manda, a British fashion designer who came to Mexico to teach design. She ended up hating the job but loving the country. For three years she followed Mexican teenagers photographing their amazing Colombia-inspired fashion. (Her book about the teens is stunning, by the way.) But I knew none of that. I’d chosen her house simply because it was the coolest looking place on AirBnB.

Manda's book

Manda’s book

Soon I made friends with her two dogs, Prince Harry and Chaparro, and her cat Lord Freddy. In the mornings we’d all sit together on the back patio. Manda and I sipped English tea and ate home-made granola (“muesli” in British parlance). In the afternoons I’d work on the computer while Manda made entire dresses or her next piece of home décor. I tried to teach Manda how to make coffee, but with only a pot to heat the water and no filters, I quickly switched back to tea.

I couldn’t dawdle around, though; I needed to find a place of my own. Showing up without a plan is new for me. Not knowing where I’d be living or how long I’d be there was uncomfortable, but strangely relaxing.

Carnival

My arrival in Valla coincided with the height of Mardi Gras season back home. A New Orleans friend told me scoldingly, “I remember someone sitting around my bonfire two years ago and saying he’d never miss another Mardi Gras again.” She called in that oath, and I didn’t need much convincing. Flying was bizarre after so much cycling, and I stared out the window in a trance as we crossed the entire Gulf in hours. Then I hit the Big Easy, saw my friends, and had an amazing Carnival. (Our costume theme was Games, and I went as the Chess Master, with a black-and-white jacket I painted myself.)

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

As a side-effect this trip reset my tourist visa, so when I returned to Mexico I had six more months to play with. And Manda had a lead for me: two Canadian friends were getting ready to fly north for the summer, and needed a house sitter badly.

The Canadian House was jaw-dropping. It’s an entire compound arranged around a central garden with a giant pool and a waterfall. The front house is a palapa (thatched roof cottage) and the back is all modern.  It wasn’t a true house sitting gig—I paid rent to stay there—but it was a good deal. It hit it off with the owners and before long I literally had the keys to paradise in my hand.

Valla Days Feb-June 2015 530_rs

“My” pool.

The Guy with the Pool

Before they left, the owners told me, “You should have guests over. Use the house. Use the pool. Enjoy it.” Manda knew everyone in town and introduced me around. I’d like to think I would have made friends on my own, but it didn’t hurt being the guy with the pool. Valladolid is close-knit and I quickly got to know all the local characters, most of whom had stayed in Canada House at some point.

María José is an environmental consultant who moved from Mexico City because she loves the Yucatecan jungle. She owns a small farm in one of the Maya villages, where she’s learning to raise stingless Mayan bees and helps the villagers build up tourism.

Ariane is the owner of Dutzi boutique, an outspoken German and the “other” fashion designer in town. She and Manda are good friends. I first met Ariane on Manda’s patio, where she burst in the door rebuffing one of Manda’s guests: “Look, I can’t talk about ‘oh what part of Germany are you from,’ I’m not on vacation, I just worked twelve hours!” I liked her immediately.

Other regulars included Pelucas, a Spanish artist who can’t keep a straight face; Mario, a Portuguese chef with a poetic streak who served small plates at his restaurant Naino; and Alejandra, the owner of the town’s best tequila shop. Alejandra is an adventurer in her own right, and taught me how to sound like a tequila expert (I am not one).

A cenote. National Geographic photo.

The Fearless Cenote Hunter

One character I kept hearing about took forever to meet. That is Alberto, better known as the Cenote Hunter. Cenotes are the breathtaking underground lakes that lie hidden everywhere under the Yucatán, most completely sealed from the surface. But sometimes there are openings, making them natural wells and much sought-after swimming holes. Many villages have a communal cenote, for their own use or for tourists; most churches and town centers are built right over one, as they were the original water source; and every resort, tour company and rich foreigner wants to own one. Alberto single-handedly carved out a new industry, talking to Maya locals and hunting out cenotes in the jungle. He buys and sells them, and has inspired many imitators.

No sooner did I meet Alberto than I was invited along on a cenote expedition. Alberto is a whirlwind: you cannot make plans with him, but any given morning he might call you and tell you to be ready in 15 minutes. “Where are we going?” I’d ask. “Come on, there is a beautiful cenote I want to show you! Let’s go!”

Whenever feasible the expeditions are carried on bicycle. I got the call and met Manda at her house. We teamed up with Alberto, all on bikes, with both of Manda’s dogs chasing along behind us. The goal: a cenote named Mukul about 18 km away.

“Are you sure the dogs can run that far?” I asked Manda.

“I brought water for them, they’re tough boys, aren’t you my tough boys?”

About 12 km later one of the tough boys was riding in my bicycle basket and the other one had long since abandoned us.

"Who is the dog, and who is the master?"

“Who is the dog, and who is the master?”

Mukul was beautiful. We left the bikes on the roadside and waked a mile through the jungle to two holes in the ground. “Watch that hole,” Alberto said, pointing to one. He tossed a rock down the other. WHOOSH! About 20 turquoise blue birds exploded out of the depths, spooked by the falling rock, all flying right past my face.

After the bird show we entered the underworld. Mukul’s descent is a mere 100 feet of wobbling ladder, followed by a log staircase that Alberto’s business partner built. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “They almost never collapse.”

The cenote at the bottom was vast. We stood on a natural ledge overlooking it: a cavernous lake extending far into the dark, lit only with a little sunlight from the two holes above. Trails glittered across the black water, caused by mineral dust floating on top. It gave the effect of pathways left by faeries hoping to lure us to their world.

18 km is a short bike ride for me, but in 100 degree weather (with a four-legged passenger) it’s not easy. Plunging into the dark, cool water was like medicine. More friends showed up while we swam, and then the wine bottles were opened.

“I feel like we earned this wine,” Manda said. “It tastes better this way.”

By this time I already knew I had fallen in with a special group of people. I still didn’t know how long I’d be in Valladolid or what I’d do next, but I knew I made the right decision staying there. I just had to make sure I buckled down and got my writing done—but that’s a story for next time.

For more reading before then check out my book Lúnasa Days.

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Adventure, Andre Sólo, Bicycling, Fellowship of the Wheel, Mexico, Road Logs, Spotlight, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Music Video of My Adventure Across Mexico

My friend Pixi made me a music video(!). She assembled it from footage I took cycling across Mexico. I can’t believe it:

Riding 4,700 miles was not easy. Often I would forget the reason I was out there. An adventure can look glorious from the outside but the reality of living it is you’re just trying cope. This video made me smile because I can see how grand my Adventure looks from the outside, even when it seems pretty overwhelming from the inside. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Thanks Pixi! The song is “Adventure” by Be Your Own Pet.

The footage comes from the 100+ video logs I made during the ride. To get full access, become a supporter today.

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Adventure, Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, Travel

Bicycling to Mexico’s Great Pyramids

Last time I explored the city of Mérida, where a 13 year old gave me a lesson in spirituality and a local artist joined me for a bike ride.

Now it’s time to push on—for the final leg of the Mexico ride. With literally thousands of miles behind me, just three more days will take me to my endpoint in Valladolid. And on the way I’ll see some of the most famous pyramids in Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 5 (Day 944 of the Great Adventure)—The Yellow Town

I made a last minute change of plans. A major highway stretches from Mérida all the way to Valladolid, and I had planned to stick to it. But I heard great things about the town of Izamal, supposedly one of Yucatán’s prettiest, and I decided to go out of my way and see it.

I had a late start, around 12:45 in the afternoon. (I took so long getting ready that hotel staff moved my bike back into a storage closet after I’d already wheeled it out.) But with only 40 miles to go, I wasn’t worried about time.

The ride out of town mimicked the route Martín and I took for our joy ride days earlier. I remembered the fresh squeezed orange juice he’d brought along and got a hankering. Luckily Mexico has fruit stands just about everywhere, and soon I had a fresh 1-liter bottle in my rack.

Choosing the path less taken was a good call. Instead of a cuota (freeway) it was a country highway with jungle on both sides. There was a threat of rain but never more than a few drops, and traffic was blissfully light. Along the way I passed through Mayan villages. The people there would either gawk at me in surprise or pretend they didn’t even see me, depending on their mood, but if I waved and said good afternoon they’d always return the greeting.

Izamal is great! The entire town is yellow. Every single building is painted the same shade—thankfully it’s marigold and not, say, butter or lemon color. Other than white trim and some red-tile roofs, you can’t find another color within the city limits. I have a feeling that if a homeowner breaks ranks they face a forcible re-paint.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

There was still plenty of light left, which was good because I had no idea where I was staying. I headed straight for the town center, rattling along on the faux cobble streets, but when I got there hotels were the last thing on my mind.

Instead, I stared up at a yellow and white palace sprawling across the top of a pyramid mound. The was the convento, the monastery at the heart of Izamal. If you can imagine slicing off the top of the Great Pyramid and dropping a medieval church into it, that’s pretty much literally what happened. The old Mayan temple had simply been replaced by a Christian one.

The Convento overlooks two squares, and I circled both and then explored out through the town streets. I found two very low-budget inns that could put me up (one with a nonstop barking dog and one with more mosquitoes than intact bathroom tiles). After that was a hotel that was blatantly vacant but which I was told was “completely full,” and one at the very edge of town that was out of my price range.

Despairing, I decided to take one more pass down the main road to see if I’d missed anything. That was when I found the Posada Ya’ax Ich, and immediately fell in love. The posada is actually a private home, with two guest bedrooms for rent. It was spotlessly clean, incredibly comfortable and had the first strong wi-fi signal I’d seen since Xalapa. I had a great conversation with the owner Elena and her sister Soco while Elena made up my room. Later I would meet her son Andrés as well.

Elena told me which of the three restaurants in town I should go to, and I mounted up one last time. (To be fair, there are actually four real restaurants in town, but one of them is super pricey and set up mainly for receiving tour buses.) My eyes dazzled: with the light of sunset on ochre buildings and polished streets, I thought I’d fallen into a bronze casting of a colonial scene.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

Dinner was tasty, eaten in under the arcade surrounding the main plaza. I had my first taste of dzikil-pak, a Mayan dip made from toasted pumpkin seeds (amazing). It rained for a spell, and I enjoyed the cool air before the last ride back to the posada.

41.0 miles.

Map.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

February 6 (Day 945 of the Great Adventure)

Morning came and I got up early. I had exploring to do. Andrés served a great homemade breakfast and Elena said I could leave my things in the room while I looked around.

Before long I was climbing the steps to the Convento, finding a giant courtyard with arched arcades on all sides. Each of the corners of the courtyard once housed a shrine, and the arcades were built to shelter religious processions from rain as they marched from one to the next. These days the shrines stand empty, for no reason explained at the site.

I didn’t spend long at the Convento, however. I was more interested in something else I discovered during yesterday’s hotel hunt: a giant pyramid right in the middle of a city block.

This one wasn’t cut off halfway to put a church on top. It’s gigantic—200 meters to a side—and rises in multiple levels up to a tiny stone platform stories above the city. Most of Mexico’s pyramids are cordoned off in archaeological parks far away from development, but this one is part of the neighborhood. One on street the lineup is literally: house, oil change shop, restaurant, house, pyramid.

Photo by Andre

First stairs up to the pyramid. Photo by Andre

I found the stone stairs that lead up to it—nestled in a break between yellow homes—and started up. The climb was intense; a series of steps led up to a large plateau, big enough that there were trees growing on it and a local family enjoying it like a park. Just past their picnic the stairs continued up the pyramid proper. I waved to them and up I went.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

According to legend, offerings left at this pyramid were once collected by a red macaw who carried them up to the heavens. I’m not sure if mine will ever be collected, but I paid my respects and placed a few coins as gifts. If not a macaw, perhaps the next kid who climbs up will find a use for them.

Then I gazed out over Izamal, all yellow and white. From here I could see that the town is the original Mayan city, following the same streets as 600 years ago. It was obvious now that the Convento was once a much higher pyramid, looming directly over the town center. It would have been a twin to the one I stood on, and together they made up the heart of a once city-state.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

There were other pyramids, too, according to the map, but each of them is in the center of a city block, houses and shops literally leaning against its stone sides as a convenient foundation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with a pyramid in your backyard. I suppose that like all growings-up it must seem boring at the time.

Jim Morrison and the Road

Soon enough I was back on the road, headed toward Pisté—the nearest town to Chichén Itzá, Mexico’s most famous pyramids. I noticed a cocina economica (tiny restaurant) in the first village along the way. I didn’t stop but it put the idea in my head, and every time I coasted through a village after that I looked around hopefully for another one. No dice.

The hours passed by, listening to music or podcasts or just enjoying the jungle road. I got about three fourths of the way to Izamal before my tummy began rumbling in protest, and at the last real town I turned off the road and hunted around. Sure enough, a doña was willing to serve me some chipotle chicken and rice. I shared the only table in her kitchen with several construction workers, who had matching mustaches and all seemed more interested in football than asking a foreigner any questions.

After that it was a short, sweet ride in the late afternoon air. Golden light cut through the forest. Because my spiritual experience in Mérida had been inspired (indirectly) by Jim Morrison, I had downloaded a few of his albums. Previously I wasn’t really familiar with his music, and it seemed surreal to hear it in the peaceful Mayan jungle. The songs were as trancey as I’d been told, and reminded me of all the things I missed about New Orleans.

But every good buzz has to come to an end, and by late afternoon I crossed the toll road and entered the sprawl of Pisté. Everything that Izamal is, Pisté is not: it’s ugly, noisy, busy (for such a small place) and has no colonial town center that I could find. I suspect it exploded when Chichén Itzá, just a few kilometers down the road, became a major tourist site.

I was headed toward a cheap hotel, but first scouted the road to Chichén, clearly marked and even closer than I thought. After checking in and taking a shower I headed out for dinner, at an outdoor market alongside the busy main road of town.

The night ended peacefully. I had made a pledge to those who backed my journey that I would make offerings for them at the great pyramids. Now, one by one, I unpacked stalks of copal incense carefully bundled in my toolkit, and clipped pieces of red ribbon with my boot knife. As I tied a ribbon around each incense stalk, I said the prayers that had been requested by my friends, binding them to the offerings in knots.

It was a beautiful night.

45.7 miles.

Map.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 7 (Day 946 of the Great Adventure)—The Last Day

Another early start. This hotel owner wasn’t as understanding as Elena, and I had to get all my stuff out of the room before I headed out to see the pyramids. I left it in the owner’s living room, then biked up the road. I wanted to be in the gate as soon as they opened at 8 a.m., and would save breakfast for later.

Even at 8:01, an entire tour bus managed to offload in front of me, but soon enough I had my ticket. I’ve actually been to Chichén once before, ten years ago. It felt good to revisit this place now that I’d come all the way on my own body power. To the various guides at the entrance I was just another tourist though, and I had to endure sales pitches in multiple languages to get through the gate.

Chichén Itzá was the capital of the Itzá people, one of the most powerful Mayan nations in the days before the Conquest. But it wasn’t the Spanish who knocked the Itzá off their throne; they had declined as a civilization long before smallpox or gunpowder. Even so, this city—the one I was walking into—had become such an important ritual center that it remained a destination for pilgrims long after its fall. Supposedly, emissaries from other Mayan civilizations would arrive here in large processions, walking through the ghost city to visit the oracle who still dwelt there.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The main draw of Chichén today is its largest pyramid, nicknamed El Castillo (the Castle). The railings of its staircases are carved stone snakes that run from the top to the bottom, where giant feathered serpent heads leer with gaping stone mouths. The main staircase was made with incredible precision: at the winter solstice, when the run rises, the shadows on the stairs look like serpents wending their way down from above.

That’s not the only engineering marvel. I was surprised to see none of the tourists clapping their hands. Standing in front of the staircase I took out my camera and recorded a short video for my supporters showing what happens when you clap in front of the temple.

“Excuse me,” said a Belgian after the video was done. “What was that you just said?”

“Oh,” I laughed. “Yeah, when you clap your hands here, the echo comes back sounding like the call of a quetzal bird. The quetzal is sacred to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. This pyramid is his temple.”

The Belgian was floored. Soon, he and his girlfriend were clapping as hard as they could, and twee twee twee came the echoes back. I’ve heard recordings of actual quetzal birds played just before the handclaps, and they’re almost indistinguishable. The Maya (with possible help from the Toltecs) knew what they were doing.

This news spread to more tourists, and more, all of them wanting to know why we were clapping. Soon about fifty people were applauding in front of the pyramid and a cacophany of birds answered back. Smiling, I walked away.

El Castillo isn’t the only sight, though. The preserved ruins of Chichén are a Vatican-like city of temples and palaces. It’s bigger than most of the surrounding towns, and you could walk there for hours. Not far from the main pyramid I found a giant platform decorated with thousands of stone skulls, each one representing a sacrificial victim killed at the site. This is the monument that stands out most in my memory from 10 years ago.

I also strolled through the ball court, where warriors once played a soccer-like game with their lives on the line. Standing in the middle of the stadium, one of the tour guides demonstrated the “whisper effect.” A word whispered in the middle of the field echoes down the walls and can be heard everywhere. Then he had about 30 German tourists shout something in unison, and the sound of their cry resounded through the stands. It must have been a hell of a ball game.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

In bygone times, the Chichén Itzá’s cenote (underground lake) was as much of a draw as the pyramids. In fact, the Chichén in the name basically means “well.” The water source was the reason there was a sacred city in the first place, and it was also considered a ritual gateway to the underworld; Maya pilgrims would once have paid at least as much homage to the cenote as they did to the oracle.

These days that sacred pool is at the end of a long trail lined with merchandise vendors. Their stalls crowd both sides and they aren’t afraid to accost you with promises of “Only one dollar!” (none of the merchandise actually costs $1). I thought about it and said my prayers from afar. I’d be making offerings at a different cenote soon in Valladolid, and didn’t really need the extra headache.

That’s not to say the rest of Chichén is vendor-free. Now that the park was filling up the salesmen were out in force, lining all the trails that wander away from the Castillo toward other areas of interest. I decided to do what I’d come for while the doing was good. I found a shady, empty spot around the back of El Castillo, knelt, and said the prayers of my supporters. These were people who had helped make my dream come true, and whose own dreams I had carried with me for 1,700 miles.

As I finished placing the offerings, a call split the sky. An eagle swooped over the pyramid.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

From there on I wandered the ruins with a light heart. Toward the back of the site is a forested area with giant palaces crumbling amidst it; certainly my favorite spot. A different trail takes you to El Caracol (“The Snail”), a spiral-shaped tower once used as an observatory. Near the Caracol is a pyramid that’s a smaller replica of El Castillo, and a gigantic structure that has collapsed just enough to reveal that  its pyramid is largely hollow. All of it is breathtaking.

I didn’t dawdle as much as other tourists, and none of this was new to me. But it still inspired awe. And it marked a major accomplishment on my Adventure, reaching this sacred landmark and also reuniting with the place where I first fell in love with Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The Last Road

By 11:00 I was back in Pisté. I found a small kitchen on the main road where a doña served breakfast in a sunny room. Again, there was no sense of hurry: this was my last morning as an itinerant cyclist, at least for the Mexico trip; why not stop and enjoy it?

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that's Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that’s Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Eventually I got back to the hotel and found the landlady, extracting my things from behind her couch. And just like that, the last day on the road had begun.

The road to Valladolid took me right past Chichén Itzá once again. The jungle is so thick you can only see the entrance; not even the pyramid tops are visible from the road. I turned my eyes forward. Again I had chosen a country road instead of the toll road, though this one had plenty of tour buses to buzz past me.

Time went by. I was in no hurry, and the wind was a little against me. As I approached the halfway point, I noticed a little trail running alongside the highway, tucked away back in the woods. To my surprise the trail was paved, and I quickly switched over. (It turns out Yucatán roads often have a bike/pedestrian path somewhere nearby, though the pavement on this one was remarkably good.)

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The highlight of rolling down this trail was coming upon a small dog who got spooked and fled from me—but had nowhere to go except further down the trail. I ended up basically chasing him for a quarter of a mile. Eventually the path connected with the side streets of a village, and kids stared or waved as I rolled through.

Valladolid!

Valladolid was my home base on my first ever trip to Mexico. At the time it was a quiet, charming town without a lot of tourist buzz: large enough to have things to do, but not so big it was annnoying. As I entered the outskirts I was relieved to see that it hadn’t transformed, hadn’t tripled in size, hadn’t lost its charm. It was a lot like I remembered it, and for some reason that made  me happy.

I reached the town center, a giant central garden with a fountain and trees and iron fences and gates. It was as if I had just left yesterday. The Giant took a victory lap around the central square, then I pulled aside and recorded this video:

I couldn’t believe it. Later that night, riding in the dark just to enjoy the night air, it would suddenly hit me: I rode across Mexico. Everyone told me I would die, and here I was, alive and ready for 4,000 more miles.

But first a rest. I had booked an AirBnB in town based on simple criteria: pick the one with the coolest owner. That happened to be a British fashion designer who had built much of her home of out recycled wood and salvage. Once I got through congratulating myself I headed toward her house, some English tea, and the new adventure: find out where I’d live for the next few months.

28.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 115.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4757.1 miles.

Thank you to everyone who followed along so far. The Mexico leg is over, but the Adventure is not. Next time I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to since Valladolid and what I have planned for the future.

Until then, of course, feel free to peruse past road logs, get yourself a postcard (yes, I’m still in Mexico) or ask me anything about the ride. Anything except, “How does it feel to bike across Mexico?” because the answer is, “Boy are my knees tired.”

Thanks guys!

Thanks guys!

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Sky Opened Up in Mérida

Last time I kicked it in atrocious hotels, while enjoying miles of jungle scenery and small Maya villages. Now it’s time to explore Mérida, the capital of Yucatán—and a place that promises some unexpected experiences.

Saturday, January 31 – Wednesday, February 4 (Days 939 – 943 of the Great Adventure)

My days in Mérida went by fast. Like a few other favorite stops, I stayed longer than I planned. And just as in the others, one of the highlights was the food.

I have an ability to sniff out great places wherever I go. The first one was easy to spot, because of the long lines of locals waiting for a table. It’s called Restaurante La Chaya Maya and offers some of the best Mayan food you’ll ever find. It’s so popular that they had to open a second location two blocks away, and the lines still stretch out the door during comida (the big late afternoon meal). Luckily, I still eat on an American schedule so stopped in around 6:30 one evening, when there was no wait at all. Mayan food consists mainly of pork prepared with a variety of amazing sauces, served in anything from an oversize tamale to a smothering of red onions soaked in lime juice.

(This is also where I first had chaya, a local green sometimes translated as “tree spinach” and delicious when cooked.)

Chaya. Photo via Zoom’s Edible Plants.

Another place caught my eye only because of the atmosphere. I was on a quest for a coffee shop and this place looked more like a diner, but something made me look twice. It turns out Cafetería Pop is a local landmark, the inside dominated by an oversize line drawing of three unhappy men. When I finally went in, it was heaven: the food was good and the silence was golden.

As far as I can tell, Pop is where Mexican men come to read the paper and get away from the world. It could only be more grandpa if it smelled like aftershave. I sank into a seat at one of the orange tables and read over my coffee and huevos, no one speaking to anyone. Blissful.

Image via Cafetería Pop.

(I never did find out what the deal is with the old guys on the wall. I asked twice but my Spanish couldn’t handle the answer. As best I can interpret, I was told, “They’re three disco stars who used to come here to dance.” I’m sure that’s right.)

Café Chocolate. Image via Yelp.

I did find my coffee shop, in spades. The one I liked most is Café Chocolate, where I could sit in overstuffed arm chairs at antique hardwood tables and write in perfect silence. But the one I went to most often—for its convenience and its strong wi-fi—was Café Bolero. This place would have the ambiance of a lesser Starbuck’s except that it has a large outdoor terrace, partly open air and partly covered by a roof high above. It was sort of a mini-plaza squeezed between the cafe and a religious bookstore. It was a good place to do client work for hours on end.

This is where I was sitting when a downpour hit Mérida one evening. I made sure to move under the roof, and continued working. But when I looked up I saw a homeless man stumble out of the rain, into the shelter of the plaza, so soaked he trailed a river behind him. I watched as he went into several stores, probably asking for help, and was driven out by an angry manager. My first thought was (of course): please don’t come talk to me.

And he never did. He looked toward the cafe terrace a few times, but had probably been run off before. So he forsook the shelter of the plaza and stood in the rain on the sidewalk, throwing water at himself and screaming up at the sky.

I became angry at myself, and at my desire that he leave me alone. It suddenly seemed despicable. Abandoning my coffee and computer, I crossed the plaza to talk to him.

“Pardon me,” I said. I had a $200 peso note in my hand, but he didn’t know that yet.

“My watch,” he said. “I’m looking for my watch.”

I nodded as if I understood. I didn’t; I can’t pretend to know whether he was mentally ill or just looking to get attention. And I wasn’t going to get pulled into delusional talk.

“I don’t know where your watch is,” I said. “But I thought this would help.”

I put out my hand, not making the bill obvious, and we shook hands. He discovered the money and his demeanor changed, and for a moment no one was crazy or not crazy. Then he filled one hand with falling rain and pushed it on my head and made the sign of the cross. It was a better blessing than most.

“Thank you,” I said.

He didn’t try to draw me into conversation. I returned to my laptop, the cafe staff watching uncertainly; he sat down under the shelter of the plaza. I was still there when he left. He stepped out into the rain, turned and looked at me, smiled and waved, and then disappeared. I waved back.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Riding with Martín

Every Sunday there’s a large crafts and arts bazaar that spreads in the plaza outside my hotel, and down the street toward the centro. I deftly wove through the crowd as I came and went, avoiding sales pitches and cookie-cutter artesanías. But somehow I caught a glance of the t-shirt vendor—and stopped in my tracks.

T-shirt shops are usually the lowest of the low in tourist goods. In New Orleans they range from “I’m with Stupid” and “Thing 1/Thing 2″ pairs to the truly elegant “I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street,” an essential for any gentleman’s wardrobe.

Mexico’s souvenir t-shirts can be slightly better, featuring sugar skulls and Aztec gods; similarly trite, with yet another Frida Kahlo; or they can be indistinguishable, with the same Homer Simpson faces and frat bro slogans translated into Spanish (or not). But they’re all identical from shop to shop and city to city. I categorically ignore these vendors.

Until I tripped past the one in the Hidalgo Plaza. These t-shirts weren’t cookie cutters. They featured original artwork, with a sort of pop postmodern look to them. You could describe it as Mexican-cultural-heritage-meets-Portland-zine.

The vendor was a young man with dark rimmed round glasses, looking every bit the part of the revolutionary Latin intellectual. I had no doubt he was also the artist, and after passing the stall several times I asked his name.

“Martín,” he said.

Martín and I hit it off. I bought one of his t-shirts (featuring two indigenous shamans in deer headdresses shaking rattles) and he was very interested in my journey. He does some cycling himself, sometimes several hundred kilometers or more to do beach trips with his friends. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride the next day.

“Absolutely,” I said.

Martín's t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

Martín’s t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

The next day we met up, taking a few minutes to look over each other’s rides. The first stop was a public market, where Martín treated me to a liter of fresh squeezed orange juice for the road; then a friend’s house to see if we could pick up a third rider (the friend was out). We crossed a highway and headed toward the outlying villages surrounding Mérida.

Our destination was a trail Martín had only heard of, never ridden on. An older man in the village knew where it was and offered shaky directions. I thought my Spanish just wasn’t up to snuff, but once out of earshot Martín turned to me and said, “Did you get any of that?” We went in the direction he had pointed and intuited the rest, pretty soon finding the trail head.

The trail was a rock and dirt affair through a section of forest. My bike isn’t really made for off-roading, but with high quality tires and no gear to carry he did pretty well. We had no particular destination, just a shared desire to go somewhere we hadn’t been before.

Out in the middle of the woods we stopped for a bit. Martín smoked and I stared at the sun through the leaves. We talked about what creatives talk about: dreams, careers, women, what is art and who can call themselves an artist; and women again. (Martín’s prefers to say he is only a student, and that it will take many years for him to be ready to say he’s an artist. I grinned and asked if he really believed that or if it was just good marketing.)

Martín is originally from Monterrey, and he dislikes it about as much as I did. He came to Mérida to make a career as an artist, because it’s a more cultural city. It’s also cheaper and has a large tourist industry, which has allowed him to make his entire living from his t-shirt sales. He creates the designs himself, starting with historic images and photoshopping them to something eye-popping or whimsical. He also prints them himself, with his own screen printing studio in his apartment.

His girlfriend is Argentinian (“she won’t eat the meat in Mexico, it’s not high quality enough”) and also an artist. Together they’ve been driving to other tourist destinations in Yucatán to suss out shops that can sell his t-shirts.

After our bike ride Martín and I went to another public market and got lunch. He suggested that after I finish the Mexico trip, I should consider living in Mérida, not Valladolid.

“There’s nothing in Valladolid!” he said.

“That’s kind of why I want to go there,” I said.

Still, he had a point. Mérida has more to offer creatives, and now I had a friend there. He promised he could introduce me to more people, and even offered to help me find a place to live.

I have to admit, he got me thinking about it.

(You can find Martín’s t-shirt catalog on Facebook or his whole portfolio here; he hopes to offer international orders soon. If you ever visit Mérida, stop at the Parque Hidalgo during the Sunday Market and check them out in person.)

Listening is the Spiritual Education of Humanity

One evening I got dinner at an open-air cafe on the central plaza. The usual parade of “ambulantes” wandered by: women begging for money, girls selling candy, boys with roses, vendors of every kind hoping to tempt you with an impulse purchase. This can happen in any city in Mexico, but it’s frequent in Mérida and I learned to tune it out.

As I was eating, a boy of about 13 years approached my table. He had an assortment of leather bracelets and cuffs.

“Excuse me—” he started in Spanish.

“No thanks,” I said. I was reading while I ate.

There was a pause. Sometimes you have to say no two or three times before a vendor leaves you alone. But I didn’t expect what came next.

“LISTEN.” It was pronounced in clear, commanding English.

I looked up and blinked. “Excuse me?” I also changed to English, looking the kid up and down.

“Listen to me,” he said. “Because listening is the spiritual education of humankind.”

My mouth fell on the table. As I sat dumbstruck, he proceeded to speak with the voice of Moses coming through him. His English was far from good—he pronounced it slowly, carefully, and didn’t always put the words together right. But his confidence never faltered. In this halting way, he delivered a sermon.

He said, essentially, that I don’t have to buy something from him, but I should listen to him, and look him in the eye, and recognize him as a human being. He said that our problems come from people not listening to one another, and that whoever learns to listen begins creating a better world.

My friend Cole likes to say that sometimes, you meet someone who just might be a god in disguise. I almost looked around to see if anyone else could see this kid.

When his talk was over I asked him to pardon me. Then I asked his name and told him mine. And this was the moment of truth: he had my attention, would he go for the sale again?

No, this kid had dignity. His sermon wasn’t a pitch, it was truth, and he wasn’t going to sour it. We shook hands and he continued on his way.

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: "Turn off the TV, Light up your mind."

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: “Turn off the TV, Light up your mind.”

An Awakening

There is one part of my time in Mérida that I can’t explain. It’s a spiritual breakthrough. There was a moment of revelation that came one night as I sat reading on the rooftop terrace. I can say that the experience involved a polytheist journal and Jim Morrison (and no drugs). It was as if the moon became brighter and a voice spoke from the sky.

I’m not ready to talk in detail about this experience. For days it left me feeling different, moving and acting like a better version of myself, much like my Vodou initiation did. And still, months later, these words are echoing with me:

“In order to Meet the gods, you must Be the gods.”

I intend to write an essay specifically about this experience, and will release it here when it’s ready.

Onward

Mérida was nearly the end of my Mexico journey, but I felt no need to rush on. Even so my time there was too short. Martín invited me to come see his studio and meet his girlfriend and friends, but it never happened; I was too busy with work. I hope to see him again one day.

Next time I’ll saddle up and begin the final few days of riding—the days that will bring me into the heart of Yucatán, to the famous pyramids of Chichén, and to my destination, Valladolid.

Until then consider getting a postcard here or check out past road logs.

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Adventure, Ask Me Anything, Business, The Great Adventure, Travel

How Do You Make Money and Travel Without a Visa?

Photo by Jonathan Blocker

Calluna asks:

It seems to me that getting permission to live/work/travel in foreign countries for long periods (3 months or more) can be silly complicated. How are you navigating these legal issues in your travels?

Answer: by making sure they don’t apply to me.

I’ve never actually asked for a visa in any country, because I’ve intentionally never needed one. The same goes for work permits. Here’s how.

Visas

I’m fortunate in that Mexico actually allows foreigners to visit up to six months with no visa. That’s twice as long as most countries. I’m sure this is a win-win: it encourages Americans to come and stay for long trips, long Spanish courses, and long work assignments, spending money the whole time they’re here.

(Of course, there is a “tourist card” you have to get on entry, and you pay a fee for it on exit. But you don’t need to apply for an actual visa.)

With the six months to play with I’ve never needed a visa. To put it in perspective, the  entire bike ride from one end of Mexico to the other took only 90 days.

Looking ahead, the next countries on my route all have 90 day limits. But these are small Central American nations, and by my math I’ll make it through each one on time even if I walk. That’s including rest breaks in cities.

So I’ve never actually applied for a visa. If you wanted to live here long-term, of course, you might consider it. But even then it could be easier just to make a border run. Leaving the country and re-entering starts the six month period over again. I’ve heard that Mexican customs officials can get cranky if you do this too many times, but having been here five times in three years I’ve never had a problem.

Work Permits

The other issue is permission to work. To get a job in a country as a foreigner you need a permit, which helps that country make sure you’ll pay taxes. Getting these is very hard unless your employer helps you (such as a language school).

Luckily I don’t need one. I’m fully employed—in the United States. I’m a freelancer, which means I may be working on my laptop in Yucatán, but the work I do is for US-based clients, who pay me in US dollars deposited into a US bank account. I spend money in Mexico but, like most tourists, I don’t earn money here.

(And yes, I continue to pay my US taxes every year.)

High Leverage Travel

I don’t believe that one lifestyle is right for everyone, and a lot of people are happy with very different lives than mine—with or without travel. But I will say that there are an insane number of benefits to the kind of lifestyle I’ve chosen, that most people don’t realize. For example:

  • Lower cost of living. In Mexico, rent is laughably cheap and most other stuff costs only 60% what it would in the US. Living abroad saves me money.
  • Strong income. Since I work for US dollars, I have the same income as other Americans in my field. Travelers who work locally don’t get this.
  • Continuous income. I freelance, which means even though I may be off enjoying traveling, I still have money in every month. People who save up to travel have a limited budget.
  • No deadline. Because of the above, there is no time limit on my travels.
  • Less hassle. Since I go from country to country, and do not work locally, I don’t have to worry about visas and work permits. That’s rare. Even friends who work for language schools often can’t get the permits they need.

It’s not a perfect lifestyle. Like any freelancer, sometimes I’m up working till 3 am on a Saturday night. Other times I have to cancel amazing travel adventures because a rush project comes up. But I think it’s one of the best career paths you can choose, especially if you value freedom. So if you’re thinking you’d like to travel, or even just save money, I’d consider freelancing.

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Spotlight

The Generation of the Rainbow Flag

Print available at RedBubble

Print available at RedBubble

I’m writing my post to offer my congratulations, not only to my gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer readers, but to everyone who has worked so hard to fight for GLBTQ rights. That means family members who showed their love and support, friends who stood by their friends, President Barack Obama, and all the politicians and political organizers who took up the cause.

I was 17 years old when I first met someone openly non-straight. He was bisexual, had a hilarious sense of humor, and drove his beat up Ford Aerostar as if it was on a race track. I quickly learned not only that he was a good friend, but that the homophobic ideas I grew up with were completely wrong.

What astonishes me is not that one straight Wisconsin boy could make this realization. It’s that the entire nation seems to have made it at the same time. The people of my generation, who grew up in an era when gay men were punchlines on TV and “fag” was an insult, have somehow become the generation of the rainbow flag. (To put this swing in perspective, even the conservative Supreme Court justices who voted against the decision could not say they were anti-gay. They had to offer procedural quibbles and far-fetched discrimination fears instead.) Seeing change on this scale gives me a great sense of hope for what else my generation can accomplish.

Extending marriage rights to same-sex couples does not fix all the injustice in the United States, of course. It doesn’t even end the ongoing prejudice and bigotry against gays and lesbians or, especially, transgender individuals. But I know that this decision directly affects friends and people I love, and millions of other Americans. It helps bring my struggling home nation one step closer to being a world leader.

So congratulations to everybody involved: the GLBTQ community and all of their supporters and allies. And thank you. Thank you for fighting for nearly 50 years to make this possible.

And to all my regular readers: I realize there has been a long absence in posts here. I am back at the writing desk and will resume regular updates next week.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Palapas and Concrete Beds

Last time around I explored the stunning colonial streets of Campeche. Now I leave behind both the city and the shining Gulf of Mexico, cutting inland toward Mérida. It’s not easy, but I can feel how close I am to the end of the Mexico ride…

Pirates beware! Photo by Andre.

Pirates beware! Photo by Andre.

Wednesday, January 28 (Day 936 of the Great Adventure)—To Hezelchakán

I said goodbye to my now-familiar hotel staff, loaded up the Giant and rolled out of the medieval walls for the last time. I was in no hurry, having a short day ahead and wanting to enjoy the ride. The very first leg ran along the malecón (water walk) and blue waves loaded with seaweed lapped up against the stone wall. Looking north over the sea I could almost picture New Orleans 1,000 miles away, or Veracruz far to the west.

The malecón ended in a string of palapas (thatch roofed buildings) selling seafood. Several waiters waved menus at me, but I was still full from breakfast and pushed on. I made a short palapa video for supporters, music from the restaurants thumping in the background.

Once off the malecón the Gulf disappeared off to the left. It was nothing but highway through jungle and savanna up ahead. I said a final farewell to the water and pushed on.

I continue to learn a lot about how to make a bike ride more fun. For one thing, the shorter mileage days mean less schedule stress and more time to stop and explore. For another, when I see a roadside place that looks attractive, I’ve finally developed the habit of pulling over and checking it out. The spots I find my accident are often much more attractive than the ones I “planned” to stop at, so there’s no reason not to. That’s exactly what I did today, going right past a tiny cafe with a covered front porch, but turning around  quarter mile later and stopping in for a sandwich and a juice.

Lunch stop. Photo by Andre.

Lunch stop. Photo by Andre.

The scenery was pretty, but mostly wide open with a headwind. I spent most of the ride lost in podcasts and pedaling almost robotically forward.

My destination for the day was Hezelchakán, a Mayan town dating back at least to the earliest days of the Colonial period. It was essentially the only town I came through: the villages are located slightly off the highway, so that unless you turn off you never see them.

I didn’t have much of a plan for lodging and was essentially relying on luck and exploration. I had heard rumor of a place called the Hotel Margarita located near the center, but when I rolled in I saw no signs for it and not even anything matching the description (a “yellow building.” As the afternoon slipped toward evening I explored out in a wider radius, looking for any hotel at all. Eventually I spoke to some policía near the main road who had some advice for me. Knowing that there are major resorts in the area (with prices upward of US $1,000 per night) I made clear I wanted something “not too expensive.”

“Ah, a cheap place,” the policeman said. “I know where you need to go.”

He was terrible at giving directions, so I got out a piece of paper and made him write down the names and draw a little map. He pointed me to two places, but emphasized one in particular as “exactly what you want.”

Score.

I rolled into the exactly-right place, a posada consisting of a long row of rooms in a cinder block strip behind someone’s house. A young man opened the door and let me tour one: ripped up mattress on a concrete slab, no pillows, one bare light bulb, and a perfectly functional 40 year old TV set.

“Thank you,” I said. “I have one other place to look at, so I might return in 20 minutes.”

Or, as I thought in my head, please no please no please no.

With fingers crossed I rolled expectantly toward the policeman’s runner-up. Lo and behold, it was a yellow building with Hotel Margarita painted on the front.

The Margarita was no lap of luxury, but compared to the posada it was P.O.S.H. Cracked walls, busted screens and iffy running water were offset by an intact mattress, an actual pillow and enough light to see by. I paid the equivalent of US $11 and checked in.

Fun fact: hotel rooms in Yucatán include rings in the wall where you can sling up your hammock. Many Mayans use hammocks instead of beds.

Also, just because the hotels are a little basic doesn't mean they can't have stylin' bikes.

Also, just because the hotels are a little basic doesn’t mean they can’t have stylin’ bikes.

Not much happens in Hezelchakán. I wandered the centro twice: once in the daylight and once again after sunset, hoping some night life would spring up. (By “night life” here I’d be willing to include even a taquería with a particularly punchy owner.)

Instead I had a hard time even finding food, but eventually settled on a small restaurante in the husk of a colonial house. I peered in the hot window and chose carefully what to order, remembering past problems with meat that’d sat out too long. After dinner there was little else to do but turn in. 36.9 miles.

Map. (Note: The beginning is not exactly accurate—the map follows the closest road to the malecón. Also, I exclude my circular wanderings in Hezelchakán.)

Great scenery. Photo by Andre.

Great scenery. Photo by Andre.

January 29 (Day 937 of the Great Adventure)—To Maxcanú

I slept well in my concrete bed but my romance with Hezelchakán had come to its end. Breakfast was at the same restaurante. Dinner had been lackluster, but today the food was terrific—a testament to the value of arriving early in the day.

Tonight’s destination was another Mayan town, Maxcanú. Instead of getting back on the highway I took a rural road straight to the next village. I noticed that bicycle taxis, which were all over Hezelchakán, were not shy about heading out on the open road and creaking slowly toward the next town, doñas seated tacitly in the back. These Latin pedicabs would be ubiquitous from here onward.

Yucatecan bicycle taxi. Photo via University of Arizona.

I did end up on the highway for a bit, but actually took a longcut to stick to rural roads and good scenery. Along the way I passed some kind of eco resort. Small cabins for rent, nestled in the jungle, a restaurant and a big sign listing their amenities… the temptation was strong to just turn in there and call it a day. But that would leave me a lot of miles the next day, and I was enjoying the ride too much to stop. Onward I went, past limestone caves covered in the roots of giant trees, possibly the entrances to hidden cenotes.

If Hezelchakán had nothing going on, Maxcanú made it look like a cosmopolis. The place was simply dead. I spotted one hotel/restaurant in what looked like a beautiful colonial building, and approached the owner about renting a room. He looked up from watering his roses, pointed at the dark windows of long-shuttered hotel rooms, and went back to his chores. So much for the welcome mat.

The place that turned me away. Photo by Andre.

The place that turned me away. Photo by Andre.

A little asking around—and a lot of bicycling in circles—gave me three lodging options to choose from. One was almost a carbon copy of the concrete longhouse from yesterday. The second, a little posada that doesn’t appear on any version of the internet, offered conditions that were little better but were at least part of an actual home, with grandma herself in charge. At the third one I struck Mayan gold: a legit little hotel with simple but clean rooms, also attached to a home. I grabbed a second floor room, unloaded, and took a shower with sun-warmed water. (The place was called Posada Doña Bety, after the lady in charge.)

The entirety of Maxcanú seemed to be under a technological pall that blocked 3G/4G signal for my phone. The Doña Bety, of course, had no wifi, but I found a small cyber cafe off the main square, reachable only by climbing a metal fire escape staircase that sways in the wind. There, a 14 year old named Sergio allowed me to set up shop and catch up on my work while he played dubstep songs. We were the only ones there except when his brother Pedro popped in, and Sergio took an interest in my adventure. He seemed ready to pull out a bike of his own and join me, but Pedro managed to hold him back.

One thing that stood out was that instead of bicycle cabs Maxcanú seemed to favor moto taxis, which were basically the exact same vehicle but with a motorcycle smashed into the back instead of a bike. This was a step up from the moto taxis in Dominican Republic, which were literally just motorbikes with way too many people piled on them, but I couldn’t help but notice that the people sitting in the front scoop would basically be lauched into the air in the event of a collision.

Motorcycle taxi. Photo by Sun-Ling.

The one highlight of Maxcanú was a terrific taquería at a small public market just a block from the Doña Bety. They took good care of me, never bringing me exactly what I ordered but always making sure I had plenty of it. After dinner there and one more stop at the cyber cafe I headed back to my room and turned in. 36.6 miles.

Map.

Friday, January 30 (Day 938 of the Great Adventure)—To Mérida

In morning, phone still little more than a paperweight, I saw no reason to prolong my stay. Today the road would take me to Mérida, capital of Yucatán and another glimmering colonial city. I ate a quick breakfast with a couple mugs of Nescafé, said goodbye to Doña Bety, and rolled out.

The miles rolled by. For lunch I stopped at a kitchen in one of the villages (Chocholá). The woman here had no change for a $500 peso note and sent me to a grocery that promised to break the bill, but only after a very confusing Spanish conversation that basically translated as, “Bro, you need to buy something.”

Change (and extra water bottle) in hand, I returned to the kitchen where they served me a delicious hot pressed sandwich.

As I got closer to the city, I found myself on a big highway with a strong wind and no shade—but also no traffic, as a long segment of it was closed off to vehicles. This eerie, abandoned stretch came to a head as I passed under an overpass. The cement pillars holding it up were stained black from a fire, a small cross painted nearby. The under-bridge itself reeked of human poop. I struggled to put a reason to this creepy scene: a septic cleaning trunk exploded into a fireball? A hobo camp had a party that got out of hand? I decided to get off the Mad Max set while I could, and turned onto a side road with trees, shade and fresh air.

This course correction added a few more kilometers to my route but also took me through the town of Umán, which I really enjoyed. Traffic was lively but not dangerous, and instead of braving a freeway I rolled past business, parks and plazas. Thanks to traffic lights I moved almost as fast as the cars did, and a guy in the back of a pickup truck kept waving every time leapfrogged past each other. His smile put me in a good mood. The edge of Umán merged seamlessly with the sprawl of Mérida and soon I was in the city proper. I swooped into a city park for a break in the shade.

The last order of business was finding a hotel—this time with plenty of options. I checked out a promising option called the Hotel Reforma, but the rooms were meh and the prices steep even offering me a “discounted” rate. So I coasted onward to the Hotel Caribe, where the faux discount was a bit deeper and the rooms truly sparkled. Soon I was checked into a sunny little number on the top mezzanine overlooking a well-groomed courtyard. It was a gorgeous place to rest.

View from the mezzanine. Photo by Andre.

View from the mezzanine. Photo by Andre.

After a shower I explored the city and investigated dinner options but, as usual on my first day in a big city, I passed up local delicacies and headed straight to the local pizza parlor. 39.7 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg:  113.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4641.5 miles.

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