A Bad Day That Ends Well


I know I’m very lucky to able to do a trip like this. I do what I like, get to see great scenery, have no deadlines, and every day brings new experiences and adventures. But just like in real life some days are better than others.  This was one of the few bad days. In fact, it was probably the worst of the trip so far. It’s easy to write about the fun stuff, but in the interest of “fair and balanced reporting”, I feel I should write up some of the less than fun times on  the road. Read on…

After weeks of idly roaming from beach to beach, I decided to make my way back up to the mountains. One long day’s drive from the coast would bring me to San Cristobal De Las Casas in the state of Chiapas. This route would then lead me to a less trafficked entry point into Guatemala.

I made a superhuman (for me) effort to get up early and succeeded in getting on the road at first light. Great!, I thought, I’ll be in San Cristobal by lunchtime. Well, life sometimes has a way of smashing your plans to smithereens and this was going to be one of those days.

Within an hour of leaving the beach town of Zipolite I came up on a mile long  line of traffic stopped in the road. This being Latin America and me being on a motorbike, I just pulled out on the opposite lane and rode up to the head of the queue to see what was the delay.

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It turns out the locals were protesting a broken election promise of a health clinic and decided to stage a sit-in to shut off the only bridge over the river.

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No Way Through

Well, this is going to put a dent in my progress, I said to myself. I approached who I thought were the ringleaders and I explained I was a tourist visiting their beautiful country and could they let me through? They responded with a laugh that the road would re-open at 8PM and why don’t I relax a while on the side of the road under the burning sun?

Short of a seventy mile backtrack there was no way around. I was fuming over their reply but what could I do? I went to a nearby café to have  breakfast, calm down and try to figure out a better approach.  I certainly empathized with their cause and thought a bit more on the context of the situation: These were very poor people and, illegal as it was,  blocking the road was probably the last resort in getting their voices heard. I realized my request had been a mistake since to them I was a rich gringo touring around for pleasure. In their scheme of things my urgency was arrogant and  insignificant. A little more humility was in order, and after breakfast I went and sat with them for a while chatting about their cause and trying to be as sympathetic as possible. Then they started asking about my trip and what I thought of Mexico. Why, it’s the best country I’ve visited so far!, I told them. The people are great but the government doesn’t seem to care about its people, I added. With that they said ok, I could go through. They made just enough space for my bike and I was on my way across the bridge. Diplomacy wins the day! Well, that and the fact that my riding gear stinks to high heaven at this point so its tough to sit near me when I’m wearing it. I’m sure they were glad to see the back of me.

Although I’d lost almost two hours of travel time, the upside was that the road was empty for the next hundred miles since everyone else was still held up back at the road block so I made good time.

There I was happily racing down the road when a wasp flew under the helmet visor and stung me on the face! I normally keep the visor open to get some ventilation and have had several “near misses” over the past couple of weeks, but this time one wasp was right on target.  I hadn’t been stung since I was a child so my decades long sting-free record was at an end. As soon as I could I pulled over and took a pill for the pain and the swelling and carried on (with the visor down this time). Nothing to do but grin and bear it.

Later that morning I moved away from the coast road and inland across the isthmus of Tehauntepec. This is the part of Mexico where the land mass between the Pacific and the Caribbean is  at its narrowest. That means very strong wind gusts, the one thing I enjoy the least on the bike as it makes it difficult to control, but you still need to keep up with the flow of traffic and try not to get blown off the road. The wind farms were a clear sign of the windy nature of the area.

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Turbulent Times Ahead

Eventually I moved away from the isthmus and its buffeting and started the long ascent up to San Cristobal De Las Casas. In a matter of eighty miles, the road climbed from sea level to over eight thousand feet. Most of the way was fairly ok, gradually climbing from plateau to plateau, but last thirty  miles was  a single, continuous ascent along a ridge up into the clouds, with a sheer drop on my right hand side.

I’ve ridden over mountain ranges like these before with no problems, but this time I was overcome by a serious case of either vertigo or panic attack. I’ve been on higher climbs since then with little problem,  I’m not sure why it happened on this particular day. It was very, very scary. I felt light-headed, heart palpitating, had a vague but overwhelming feeling of dread, and I couldn’t concentrate well. The only way I could deal with it was  to slow down to 35mph, keep my eyes focused on the centerline and whatever I did, NOT look to my right and the drop below me! It was a case of fight or flight. I chose fight. There was really no choice anyway but to continue up the mountains. Turning around meant a long detour back to the coast and no way I could make that before dark.

So, on I went with my heart in my mouth. At one point I stopped for a break and could barely move my feet when I got off the bike. I was so dizzy, numbed and light-headed it took a conscious effort to walk.  The break helped calm me down though, and I pushed on and made it to the summit. Much to my relief, San Cristobal De Las Casas was a short descent from there and I calmed  down enough to stop for a couple of photos.

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Alpine Scenery Near San Cristobal

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First View Of San Cristobal

So all’s well that ends well.  I’m glad I persevered and made it up here. San Cristobal  is a wonderful city. Update on my time there to follow very soon. Here’s a quick preview.

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3 Responses to A Bad Day That Ends Well

  1. Karen Melchar says:

    I’m reading these posts like I’m turning pages as fast as I can . . . I can tell I’m going to have to go back and re-read! Wasp sting sounds so uncomfortable, but I love the diplomacy story!
    Safe travels!

  2. Mary Cogan says:

    What a day! I admire your courage and perseverance. Beautiful photographs, as usual.

  3. Vincent Carmody says:

    Great to see all is well, you must have brought the diplomacy skills from Dan Jim.

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