In February of 2015 Will sat on a hotel balcony in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and wrote a blog post. It was intended to kind of give ourselves a kick in the ass; we were teetering on the cusp of applying for residency in Mexico or doing something dramatically different.
Of course, we went for dramatic. Or at least I think we did. I do have a fondness for flair.
And you all know what happened next. We bought Moby, we bought way too much shit we thought we’d need and didn’t, and hit the road; starry eyed and brimming with confidence, the kind of combination that always means you’re just around the corner from a massive disappointment.
We’ve had several of those disappointments in the nearly two years since we left the United States and set our sights on Ushuaia, Argentina. We were robbed of nearly everything of value in Barranquilla, Colombia; the ubiquitous mañana kept us delayed in uninspiring places for weeks at a time; places we loved bore no resemblance to the way they had fit into our current story; we had to sacrifice a good deal of sightseeing as we were always chasing wifi in order to work.
Disappointment is inevitable when you travel, no matter how you do it. You need a damn selfie stick to get a shitty photo of the Mona Lisa because of the crowds. Your flight is delayed so you miss your connection and the airline graciously gives you a coupon for McDonald’s. A sudden storm means you’re trudging around Chichen Itza with no umbrella and wet shoes. If a trip goes off without at least one hiccup then you’ve got some wizardry on your side.
But it’s every traveler’s nightmare that a trip will be canceled or cut short due to circumstances beyond their control. Circumstances that were never, ever expected.
When It Just Can’t Be Helped
We have met so many different people from so many different places on this journey. Older couples who have a pension and a retirement to piss away however they please. Young people who have saved money and have a small window of time before they have to go back to work. Families who have decided that driving their kids around South America is better than any school. Seriously, you’d be surprised at the many different kinds of people who undertake this trip.
We have a lot of people tell us things like, “I really wish I could do what you do but we have kids.” I think of all the campgrounds we’ve visited that are teeming with kids, finding bath toys in communal showers, and watching superhero moms simultaneously keep one kid from drowning while effortlessly preparing scrambled eggs for five on a propane stove with another wailing kid attached to her leg.
It’s not your kids you need to worry about if you want to take a trip like this; they’ll be fine. In fact, they’ll be more than fine. They’ll be amazing little shits who will grow up to speak four languages and be the problem solvers of the world.
It’s your aging parents that you need to worry about.
My mom’s health has been declining for some time but it’s been gradual and I’ve never really had cause to worry. My daughter was living with her to help her out and everything was fine. I called her about once a week to chat and she always kept up with us on Facebook. I think she took a lot of joy in following along on our journey.
About two months ago I got a message from my daughter. She had recently taken the move to working full time and was out of the house for the majority of the day. She was worried that my mom needed more attention than she could give. She’s also a young woman with a life of her own. Her residence there was never supposed to be permanent; we just never discussed the time when she’d need or want to move out on her own.
The End of the Line
What do you do when you’re somewhere in the middle of a trip of indeterminable length with your partner and one of you has to stop? How do you let go of the goal you plotted out together? This isn’t like a few months backpacking around Asia; one of you can leave and say, “I’ll see you in a month or so!” We have at least a year or more before we can feel comfortable saying that we’re done.
But the truth is that we are not done. I am done.
I leave for the states in 12 days. Will does not. A mutual decision was made; Will is going to finish the trip on his own. Our relationship is as good as it ever was, probably better, and I don’t anticipate that changing.
But I have to go.
I am sad. I am sad that I’ll miss Buenos Aires, one of the cities I was most looking forward to. I’m sad that I won’t go to Easter Island, something we had very seriously considered as part of this journey. I’m sad that I won’t revel in wine country or try my hand at polo in Argentina. I’m sad that I won’t be able to say, “I did it. I drove a damn truck to the southernmost tip of the Americas.”
But most of all I’m sad to be leaving my best friend behind.
The cynic in me tends to turn my nose up at silver linings but I do think there is one here. I’m excited to spend time with my mom. We have not lived close enough to each other for regular visits in years. I like her; she’s a really cool person who is fun to be around. While I don’t really love being in the states it’s been a long time since I’ve spent more than a few weeks there and it could be a lot worse than northern Utah.
But most of all I guess I feel a sense of privilege. We’re all going to get old one day; you, me, and everyone we know. If all of us had a person who said, “I’ll help” when the need arises can you imagine how great would feel? I can help my mom stay in her home. I can help my mom in her garden this summer. I can drive my mom up to Bear Lake for raspberry milkshakes. I can simply be there so she’s not alone.
That’s a privilege.
I’ve learned so much on this trip that I somehow wonder how I survived before. Pieces of my DNA have been fundamentally altered; that’s a given when you throw yourself into a sink or swim situation the size of two continents. I’ve become more brave, I’ve become more compassionate, I’ve become more humble, I’ve become more intelligent, I’ve become more of the type of person I’ve always wanted to be.
That’s a privilege too.
So that’s it. That’s all. That’s how it ends. I leave Rio for Utah and Will leaves Rio for the next place down the line. Where that might be is up to him now I suppose. And just like the moment we began planning this trip, this part too is indeterminable. What happens next lives somewhere in the great wide open.
But that’s how it always is, isn’t it?
On March 31, 2014 an American citizen and former Marine crossed the United States/Mexico border with a truckload of guns and ammunition. He was promptly arrested by Mexican officials; it’s illegal to transport guns of any kind into the country.
The backlash was fierce and Facebook exploded with fiery rhetoric, Change.org petitions, and angry posts calling upon former President Obama to “free our Marine”. One of my Facebook friends was exceptionally outraged by this and her posts rambled on daily. I finally broke my self imposed rule and commented on her post, indicating something along the lines of the fact that he broke the law and what if it were the other way around? What if a Mexican citizen was caught crossing into the United States with a bunch of guns?
It seems that at some point during her tireless mission to get this guy out of Mexican prison she stumbled upon the fact that Mexico charges tourists and foreigners 28 USD as an exit tax. For her, this was the proverbial straw. She might not have invented #boycottmexico but she sure as hell used it a lot. 28 USD was a goddamn travesty, especially since Mexico had “our Marine” in custody.
The Price of Travel
Those of us who travel frequently know what an exit tax is and know that it’s generally included in the cost of airfare. It’s only when crossing by land that one physically hands over cash. It’s normal, all countries do it to some degree, and it’s just part of the way travel works.
Visas, on the other hand, are a different story. These require an application, an embassy visit, and a typically high fee. The amount of this fee is usually the same as the one your native country charges for the other country’s citizens for their visa.
It’s called a reciprocity fee. Many countries around the world don’t charge this fee to holders of specific passports. The countries that do charge this fee include Russia, China, and Azerbaijan. However, whether or not this fee even impacts your travel plans depends on the passport you carry.
Enter blue privilege.
The Power of the Passport
Citizens of the United States can currently visit 174 of the world’s countries with no visa requirements. You simply hand over that mighty blue passport, get your stamp, and go. It’s a privilege that most citizens take for granted; after all, shouldn’t the most powerful country in the world have unfettered access to the rest of the globe?
Well, I hate to break it to you but Germans can enter 177 countries visa free and citizens of the UK can enter 175 countries.
However, despite having nearly unlimited access to the entire world with a US passport in your hand fewer than 40% of US citizens have one. But, oddly enough, Americans rank second amongst the most well traveled people in the world. So those of us who do have passports use them.
But what if all of that changes? What if the powerful might of the blue passport shrivels in the wake of a world that’s becoming more and more wary of the United States?
Many US citizens have absolutely no idea how a visa process works. They don’t need to know; either they don’t travel or they’ve never traveled to a country that required they have one. However, I also shake my head at the fact that few US citizens know how applying for a US visa goes down.
Again, they have no idea. But I do. I’ve seen it in process.
While much of the United States is embroiled in the illegal immigration basket of snakes they try to at least grant a benevolent nod to those who do it “the right way”. Those who follow the proper channels to enter the United States with a proper visa stuck tightly to a page in their passport of another color.
There are many countries that fall under the Visa Waiver Program for the United States. This includes most of Europe and a handful of Asian and South American countries. However, it’s still not as easy as buying a plane ticket to New York City and waltzing through immigration. They still have to apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) which can be denied at the discretion of the US Department of State.
In theory this is the same thing as filling out the tourist card the flight attendant hands you with your last plastic cup of Coke before you land in another country. However, this is mostly viewed as a formality by the country you’re visiting and a nuisance for you. You don’t have a pen and those damn tray tables are textured so your handwriting looks like chicken scratch and if there’s turbulence you might as well wait until you’re in the immigration line.
However, for those people who live in a country that doesn’t take part in the visa waiver program, securing a US visa, even for tourism or to visit family, is a long, difficult, and expensive process. Paperwork, background checks, interviews, and lots and lots of money go into it and there’s still the risk you’ll be denied.
This is What Hope Looks Like
Outside of emergencies and lost passports people rarely have to visit an American embassy when they travel. I, however, have been in embassies in at least three countries for various reasons. However, it was our visit to the embassy in Lima, Peru that really showed me the human side of applying for a US visa.
Embassies are never nice places. They’re office buildings after all and tend to be drab. Lima’s is no different. However, as we left security and headed toward the area for citizen services we walked past an outdoor seating area. The seats were filled and dozens were standing, all clutching their little slip of numbered paper and waiting.
Winters in Lima are cold and dreary and that day was no exception. It was a day that should have been spent in front of a fire, coffee in hand. Yet here they were, the hopeful, dressed in their best clothes, eyes tired from the hours spent on the bus to reach Lima from some far flung Peruvian town, stacks of paperwork perched on restless knees.
There were older couples, perhaps hoping to visit a son or daughter who lucked out and now lives in the United States and maybe to finally meet their grandchild. There were families, maybe hoping for a trip to Disneyland. They’d probably saved for years to pay for it. There were the singles, perhaps defying the odds and receiving an acceptance letter from an American university and the only thing in the way of a brand new life is that precious visa.
Our business was taken care of relatively quickly and as we left they were still there. A few had moved up in the line a bit but not by much. Embassies are not only drab but they’re also notoriously slow and inefficient. Chances were good that some of these people would not get to see an embassy official that day. Chances were good that they’d have to make another appointment and come back and try again.
But they will come back, because they hope.
A lot of confusion and furor has arisen over the EU’s recent vote that wasn’t really a vote to begin requiring US citizens to apply for a visa to visit Europe, simply because the US opted to leave out five EU countries from the visa waiver program. This also made a lot of people think about our passports and what sort of future they have.
It made me think about blue privilege, the feeling we all have about almost literally being able to go anywhere in the world without a second thought. What if that blue privilege is taken away?
I have no way of knowing how the nature of travel will change in the near future. I don’t know how long I can claim blue privilege and use it freely.
But as we head south, with many borders ahead of us, I wonder if we have enough time. Enough time before we find ourselves on the hard plastic seats, clutching a number and a stack of paperwork. Because it could happen.
In today’s world of fear, extreme vetting, and travel bans being slapped down left and right you just never know.
We were leaving the Honduran border series of queues and offices, documents in hand that officially cleared us of any further obligation to the country when it hit me hard.
There was a dog, so thin that the bones of her pelvis were so prominent that they completely obscured her genital area. It was hot, even at 10 am, and she was lapping listlessly at a filthy puddle of something that probably contained very little actual water.
I doubt her little doggie life lasted the rest of that day.
It isn’t like I haven’t seen street dogs hours or days from death before. It’s simply a part of life in much of the world. However, after our time in Guatemala and Honduras it was that little dog that broke me, because we all know that when it comes to the impoverished the privileged of the world often tend to focus more on animals than they do people.
I’ve seen the do-gooders. I know some of the do-gooders. And while some do good things to help people it seems that more of them do things to help animals. Shelters, spay and neuter clinics, airline escorts for Mexican and Central American dogs and cats to go to their cushy new homes in the United States or Canada.
All while people are left to lap from the same dirty puddle.
People from all over the world visit Mexico and Central America all the time. They zip line in Costa Rica, frolic on the white sand beaches of Mexico, and dive in the crystal Caribbean waters of Honduras. But more often than not these trips are carefully constructed, staged by tour operators, and guarded by high resort walls. There’s nothing wrong with this; I truly believe everyone should travel and how they do it is their choice.
But what about the things that live outside those tours and walls? What about the people?
I’ve written about this before. Unless you’re a backpacker or overlanding like we are you rarely come into contact with the people who call your dream vacation destination home. Unless they’re mixing your margarita or scraping the callouses from your feet you don’t see them, you don’t ask about their life, and you don’t do these things because you’re on vacation and you deserve to enjoy yourself.
But also, you don’t want to know.
You don’t want to know that your bartender lives in a one room cinder block house. You don’t want to know that the woman carefully polishing your toenails can’t afford to send her kids to school. You don’t want to know that they too suffer, just like the dogs.
I’m as guilty as anyone of turning a blind eye. The simple fact that we can afford to make this trip put us squarely in the middle of the white privilege circle. But even the dead and dying humans on the sidewalks of New Dehli didn’t prepare me for driving the roads of Central America.
I romanticized this trip way too much right from the start. I envisioned wide open beaches, remote jungle villages, and endless adventure. While much of that has been realized too much more of it has not. This is aside from the realization that this mode of travel is really hard. What’s become so difficult for me is passing through these tiny villages, women toeing the edge of the road trying to sell us sacks of unidentifiable food, the desperation so clear on their face as we approach, then the anger when we don’t slow down.
I’ve taken very few photos over the last two months. My instagram feed is bare. That’s not to say that I haven’t wanted to. The haunted and wary eyes of the children that want me to buy gum are definitely photo worthy. These are the types of photos are meant to make you feel something, like the photo of the ash covered, shell shocked Syrian boy on the chair in the hospital. These photos are supposed to make you care.
But you don’t. Or you do but remind yourself how helpless you are and that you have your own problems or children to care for. These are not invalid excuses; we all have our own shit to deal with but the simple fact that we have the option to look away constitutes that white privileged guilt that, well, we’re all pretty much guilty of.
We don’t have to look if we don’t want to.
But on this trip I’ve had to look. Our windows aren’t blacked out, hell, neither are my eyes. There is simply no way not to see the tin and tarp shacks and the barely dressed toddlers in the dirt surrounded by scrawny chickens and heaps of garbage. It’s there, right in front of everybody.
Everybody who looks, that is.
So if you’ve made it this far you might be asking yourself, “Why the hell is she complaining? Why isn’t she doing something?”
I could ask you that same question but you might want to think carefully about your answers.
Do you tip your bartenders and servers in Mexico? Do you buy your ice cream from the man pushing the street cart or do you pop into whatever resembles the local 7-11? Do you avoid a certain city or country because of perceived violence and moan about how great it was in the old days without thinking of the people who have to live there? Do you slip your extra food to a street dog instead of the child who wants desperately to shine your shoes?
I’m not here to shame anyone. Most of the people I know are good people and some of them go above and beyond to serve communities at home and abroad. I’m also not here to set myself apart. I’ve avoided the old man with his hand held out for money, his head held down in shame. I’ve shouted unkind words in Spanish to street kids whose eyes are hardened as they aggressively tell me to buy tortillas after I’ve declined three times.
I sometimes don’t look out the window anymore as we pass through another rural village slapped together from scrap wood and detritus. I don’t see the dull eyes staring at our shiny American vehicle passing through, but I feel them.
I think I’ll feel them for the rest of my life.
Again, I have no answers. You have no answers. Today’s state of affairs around the world has left so many feeling helpless, even those of us in the guilt circle. But one thing we can say as individuals is that I did not do this.
But someone did. Someone left Honduras poverty stricken, someone left Mexico embroiled in violence, someone committed genocide in Guatemala, and someone reduced Syria to an unimaginable and unforgettable photo.
Let’s not mince words here; money rules our world. Corporations are eager to profit from the desperate and governmental officials turn blind eyes but they can certainly feel the money slipped into their dirty hands. Resources are exploited and people are discarded. It happens everywhere, even in your own backyard.
Yet despite everything I’ve said I see people around the world rising up, using their voices, demanding that something resembling humanity be restored in our world. I’ve met people on this trip who fill extra suitcases with medical supplies and books. I know people who live as expats yet do amazing things in their communities to help the local populations. The human ones.
I know people who realize that all is not lost.
So as sad and as frustrating as this all is I’m looking at you. The do gooders who actually do something good.
As for me, I’m digging deep and trying to uncover the real reason for this trip and my purpose in it. And I think part of that purpose begins with always looking out the window.
No matter how bad it is.
One of the things I was most concerned about before we started this trip was how personal space and overlanding was going to work. Will and I both have written in the past about how much we enjoy our personal space. If you look at the size of the homes we’ve lived in over the last 6+ years you can easily get a sense of just how far away we like to be from each other.
In Taiwan we had a three bedroom, two bath apartment. That’s quite big for Taiwan although I did see some much bigger.
In Peru we had a three bedroom, two bathroom house with a lanai the size of the interior ground floor.
In Abu Dhabi we had a four bedroom, five bathroom home on three levels.
In San Cristobal we had a six bedroom house with six and a half bathrooms.
Of course, all of this was way too much space for two people but either price or circumstances out of our control put us in these ginormous houses and I got used to it.
Now, things are different. I’ve gotten somewhat used to life in a camper. I’ve mastered the turn and twist so one of us can get from the stove to the fridge. I’ve mastered my descent from the bed to the couch to the door if Will is in the aisle. It’s really not so bad.
However, there are those times when I miss those extra bedrooms and bathrooms. Like when I want to stay up til all hours reading and I don’t want to disturb Will. Or when one of us is sick and constant bathroom runs are just easier in another bedroom. Or when we’ve had chili for dinner.
But as I slowly learn that giving up my personal space hasn’t quite been the temper tantrum catastrophe I imagined, there’s now a new personal space and overlanding issue I’ve got to contend with.
From the beginning of this trip we’ve pretty much been the only people at every campground we’ve visited. I’ve lamented about that so frequently that you’d think that as soon as we found a campground with other campers in it I might have cried with joy.
This brings us to our current location, La Habana on Zipolite Beach in Oaxaca. It’s about as idyllic a location as you can get. Cabanas with palapa roofs are perched on stilts overlooking one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever seen, electric outlets are available for campers and you back in toward the cabana, leaving the space underneath as your shady lounge area. There’s a tent camping area further down. There’s a restaurant with cheap and tasty food and the bathrooms are spotless.
So what’s the catch. This place is packed. I mean packed to the point that I’m seriously worried about fire. You know, palapas and fireworks are a recipe for disaster and a lot of our fellow campers are taking advantage of the cheap Mexican fireworks. If a fire did start all we could do is run away on foot. Moby is blocked in from every angle. We’d lose everything.
And then there’s our fellow campers. It seems like most of them have been doing this for a while and their comprehension of personal space and overlanding is very different than mine. The boundaries created at this campground are pretty clear. We pay more for our space with electricity and the little lounge area than the tent campers do. However, the tent campers don’t see much wrong with unplugging truck campers to charge their phones.
Without even really asking.
Who does that?
And there are fairly clear paths to the restaurant, main beach, and bathrooms but not very many people use them. That means that people come strolling through our campsite or, in the case of the kids, streaking through, leaving knocked over beer bottles and general mayhem in their wake.
I don’t travel with young kids but I know a lot of people who have. In my imagination when the family finally parks for the night, especially after a long drive, they’re just like “Run, children! Run until you can’t run anymore then do it again. Mommy and Daddy will be over here drinking wine and questioning again why we took a trip like this with you.”
So here we sit, surrounded by French families and couples on all sides. They’ve all kind of banded together because they’re French, I guess, and we’re just these lone North Americans who don’t speak French and many of them don’t speak Spanish. No one is rude; they’re just kind of cliquey.
It kind of makes me regret that degree in Mandarin I thought would be so useful.
So is it just me, corn fed and raised with the concepts of personal space and boundaries shoved down my throat? Is that why the French parents of the naked baby who is currently wandering through our camp space, dangerously close to bottles and lighters, don’t seem to care or even notice? Look, I’m all for parents traveling the world with their children but amongst the homeschooling and worldschooling activities was the notion of boundaries left out of the curriculum?
Or is personal space and overlanding an idea I should just abandon, like I did with my hairdryer and concept of time?
These are the thoughts I’ll be thinking today as I continue to keep stray babies away from the glass and the ashtrays.
So as I sit here, right behind Moby in my comfy chair gazing out at the Pacific Ocean there is a naked French guy not three feet away from me. In fact, it was just five minutes ago that he approached me to give me a book in English.
I’m sitting. He’s standing. So there I was, eye level with his dick.
Awkward? A little bit, but he’s a pretty good looking French guy and it’s really hard to make eye contact when there’s a friendly cock in your face, but I maintained.
We’re in Zipolite, one of the many, I’m sure, nude beaches in Mexico.
This is not my first naked beach rodeo. When I lived in Hawaii a small beach called Kehena was a haven for nudists. I’ll never forget my first time there, sitting on the sand and talking with my friends when someone tapped my shoulder and asked if he could borrow my lighter. I turned around to a face full of old man junk.
I rarely went to Kehena after that.
I have zero problems with nudists. If you want to literally hang out, go for it. I just don’t know how to act. And after my few visits to Kehena in Hawaii I decided that the people who get naked at nude beaches are generally the people you don’t want to see naked.
I think that’s far from the case at this nude beach in Mexico. We’re staying at a campground/hostel type place very popular with backpackers. Most backpackers, in my opinion, tend to be young and pretty fit. They also seem to have very relaxed attitudes about pretty much everything, so here they’re naked. And frankly, it’s not so bad to see young and beautiful people in the buff, wandering around, eating, just doing normal stuff. I’m only human after all.
Me though? Nope. Can’t do it. Twenty years and twenty pounds ago, maybe. I know that’s just my own insecurity as I know no one would give a shit if I sat here typing this blog post without a stitch of clothing on. People would probably only acknowledge my tattoos and not my 46 year old tummy and a bum that could really be a lot perkier than it is. It’s my hang up, not theirs.
On the other hand, I’m intrigued. Part of this trip for me is about saying “yes” more and learning how to unlearn many of my bad habits and shed my personal hangups. After all, when again will I be on a nude beach in Mexico, surrounded by friendly, naked French people.
So maybe, just maybe, I’ll try it. I’ll try to shed hangups along with some clothes. Maybe tomorrow, but only topless. I might be 46 but I still have a pretty nice rack.
Anyone who knows me knows I love horses. I love everything about horses and now that we’re on this overland journey any opportunity for saddle time or even to see horses is one that I say yes to. After all, we’re actively trying to say yes more on trip and while we’re getting better at it a lot of the yeses are answers to “Do you want another beer?”
Right now we’re staying at the legendary Overlanders Oasis in El Tule, just outside of Oaxaca. As Will and I were out strolling the streets of this little town last Saturday I smelled them before I saw them, and let me tell you that smell is ambrosia to me.
Then we spied the huge horse vans parked on the street. As we got closer I spied a soulful eye and a wavy gray mane, the hallmark of the Andalusian, or the Pura Raza as the breed is called in Spanish. As we walked a bit further I saw the sign for the horse show, taking place that day. My innards went on happy overdrive.
So I went, alone, not sure what to expect. I knew it would be more of a demonstration as opposed to a competition but I was so excited. I bought my ticket, found a seat that would give me good light for photos, and then it began.
Mexico has a long history with horses and fine horsemanship is a valued skill in this country. American Quarter Horses, Andalusians, and Thoroughbreds are the most common breeds found here, but the Azteca is Mexico’s national horse, a beautiful horse bearing all the fine characteristics of the Quarter Horse and the Andalusian. They’re truly magnificent creatures.
So I bought a beer, got my camera setting where I hoped they should be, and the show began. These are just a few of the photos I took on that beautiful afternoon.
This beautiful girl worked her Friesian horse at liberty, using nothing but dressage whips to guide him. It was one of my favorite parts of the Mexican horse show.
This man, also with Friesians, showed some impressive skill as he rode one and drove the other.
This is a classic example of the Azteca horse. Strong, proud, and oh so beautiful.
And this. This is the Marinera. While I didn’t expect to see this at a Mexican horse show as it’s more of a Peruvian tradition I was thrilled. It’s an elegant dance that symbolizes courtship.
Props are often used in la marinera and the scarf is a symbol of their connection.
At the finale, the lady and her suitor bow to each other. It’s such a beautiful thing to watch.
I loved the look of this horse as she was being prepared to work at liberty. Her handler was exceptionally skillful and gentle.
I wasn’t exactly sure what this dance was but it seemed to be Mexican version of the marinera. There were more women dancing with this horse but this woman’s smile and the eye contact she has with the horse felt perfect.
This beauty was standing right by my side of the arena and I couldn’t help but get a shot of his elaborate tack and beautiful mane.
Surprises come in many different forms and my surprise that Saturday was this Mexican horse show. One of the things I love about horses is that horse people speak a common language, a nuanced one of trust, dedication, and strength. I’m really looking forward to more horse connections as we head on down the road.
When I was a kid my mom tended a small thatch of milkweed plants behind our garden. I remember playing with the plants, letting the sticky, white sap ooze over my hands like glue only vaguely aware that these plants were here for a purpose much bigger than my entertainment.
They were for the monarchs.
Oklahoma lies in the direct path of the monarch migration from their winter home in the states of Michoacan and Mexico in south central Mexico. They migrate each spring along specific corridors north through the United States to lay their eggs. While the adult monarch eats nectar from a variety of flowering plants the eggs can only be laid on milkweed and the larvae feed only on this plant until they emerge from their chrysalis as a full fledged orange beauty. Startlingly, up to four generations will live and die during the yearly migration.
I remember seeing the occasional orange flutter behind the garden during Oklahoma springs but it wasn’t until much later that I learned much more about the monarchs, their behavior, and the possibility that they’ll die off due to pesticide use and habitat loss.
“Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver tells the tale of a woman living in rural Tennessee who discovers a colony of monarchs in the high forest of her property. It’s winter and they shouldn’t be there; they should be in Mexico. Barbara Kingsolver weaves together the science of the butterfly migration with the angst of the main character who desperately wants to take action but feels as if she can’t, which reflects almost every aspect of her own life.
I loved the book for the book itself but it also piqued my interest about the monarchs. How do they know where to go? How do they find this certain high section of forest in rural Mexico? What would it look like to see an entire tree covered in clumps of butterflies thousands deep?
I decided to find out.
Our route through Mexico started out as a ragged, back and forth meandering but then we kind of got our groove and decided what we wanted to see and how to manage the drive to accommodate those things. One of my choices was the butterflies.
So as we headed deep into the state of Michoacan and pine forests of the Mexican Volcanic Belt I had no idea what to expect. But as I watched the altimeter on my phone climb higher and higher until we hit 9,400 feet at the visitor’s center I knew one thing for certain; we were in for a cold night.
Early the next morning we were first in line at the hitching post where the horses were waiting, wooly winter coats already in place, vapor coming out of their nostrils. Hiking to the top is also an option but when given the chance to ride, I ride. The scenery was exquisite.
So as we set out up the steep trail it only took the horses about 15 minutes to get to the place where we had to finish on foot. That hike topped us off at 11,000 feet.
It’s hard to describe what it looks like. The sun was just starting to hit the tops of the trees which were covered in brown clumps that could have been leaves. Then as the sun moved higher the clumps began to move, shiver, flashes of orange appeared and then once they were warm enough they flew. The sky filled with monarchs as the heat from the sun continued to increase.
This is literally one of those experiences you have to see to believe. No camera can do this phenomenon justice. And the sound? You simply can’t believe the sound. We were the only ones up there for about 20 minutes and as the butterflies warm up and begin to move their wings you can hear it. It sounds like the delicate rustle of a skirt made from fine fabric whose wearer is trying to move quietly. It’s all around you; you can’t not hear it.
So I just sat there on a cold rock, moving every so often to take a photo. Will and I were quiet, exchanging glances every so often that said, “Can you believe this?”
When the next groups of tourists began to arrive we decided to go, making the hike back to our horses and then rode the rest of the way down the mountain. And just like that it was over. We broke camp and hit the road.
My favorite part of this is the fact that we didn’t plan it. The butterflies are only in this part of Mexico from November until March. Had we been further south on our journey we would have missed it.
Some scientists think that the butterflies navigate by a chemical GPS system based on the position of the sun. Migration is embedded in their DNA.
I think I have some of that DNA too.
One of the things about this trip that has bothered me is that we just don’t seem to do anything. If you saw Will’s latest post and the map that accompanied it it looks like we’re just driving back and forth aimlessly and in a way we were. It was hard but Will had work obligations that kept up restricted to the north central areas and western coast.
While we definitely saw and experienced some incredible things I started to feel lost. I felt like we were just driving this road for the sake of driving it and neglecting the fact that there are so many stupefying things about Mexico that we were missing.
Of course, we can’t see it all, but we did resolve to do a little more planning and a lot more sight seeing. And it turns out that Guanajuato is the perfect place to do that. So what did we choose as our first major sightseeing tour?
The Guanajuato mummies of course.
I love creepy shit. I love macabre history and if there’s evidence of it I’ll pay the entrance fee, no questions asked. But the Guanajuato mummies takes macabre to a whole new level. I’ve seen mummies before; Peru and Egypt are rife with mummies. Even that little mummy found in Peru that many thought to be of alien origin piqued my interest (yeah, I like aliens and haunted stuff too) even though I’ve seen little in the way of credible information to indicate that it was an alien.
But back to the Guanajuato mummies. This case is so fascinating and so weird that I’m surprised everyone in the world doesn’t know about. Hell, even Werner Herzog used some footage from the museum for his film “Nosferatu the Vampyre” and that was back in the1970’s. But the interesting fact about these mummies is that they weren’t intended to be mummies at all. They just died.
By most accounts the cholera outbreak occurred in Guanajuato in the early 1830’s. The dead were buried and no one thought much of it until 1870 when the municipality decided to enact a burial tax, meaning that if you wanted the body of your loved one to stay in the ground you had to pay for it. Obviously, not everyone had that kind of money laying around so the disinterment began.
The workers who were tasked with this grisly job began to notice that many of the bodies were in surprisingly good condition and these specimens were placed in a nearby warehouse. Some scientists believe that the altitude and relatively dry climate of Guanajuato caused the mummification and some say that the bodies were at least partially embalmed. Regardless, many of the Guanajuato mummies still have hair on their heads, I spied a beard, their clothing is relatively intact, and the honor of the world’s smallest mummy goes to the mummified fetus of a pregnant woman who fell to the cholera outbreak.
By the 1900’s the workers began charging people a few pesos to see the bodies and then the museum was officially opened in 1969. If you’re ever in Guanajuato and don’t mind strolling through a building full of dead people, I highly recommend it.
These are some of my favorite photos from our visit.
Scroll down if you dare.
You’ve made it this far! Congratulations! Now head to Mexico and see the Guanajuato mummies for yourself.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a horse lover. In fact, almost half my life has been spent riding, showing, grooming, and just generally taking care of horses. One aspect of this trip that I’ve been focused on is taking advantage of horseback riding opportunities whenever I could. So when I knew we were headed for Mexico’s highlands I also knew that I’d probably die if I didn’t get to go horseback riding in Jalisco.
However, I won’t just ride any horse. The health and well being of the horses offered for hire are things that I’m very aware of and choosing a responsible horse tour is crucial. For non-horsey people it can be hard. You see a string of horses all saddled up and waiting for your sunset ride on the beach. It’s a wonderful experience to have on vacation but how do you know that the horse’s tack fits properly? How do you know if the horse’s feet are properly cared for? How do you know that riding that horse actually causes it pain?
It’s for this reason that I always do my best to ensure that the horses I ride are in good shape and the people that own the horses and run the tours actually give a shit about their animals.
Enter Celena Reynolds at Hacienda de Taos.
Horseback Riding in Jalisco
When we decided to escape the heat of Sayulita we headed for Lake Chapala. Mostly known for its expat community in Ajijic on the north side of the lake, we headed south to the other side of the lake, which is about as rurally Mexican as you can get. The ranch is tucked way back in the bush near one of those little villages that one quickly forgets the name of.
One of the best things about Hacienda de Taos is that it’s not a dude ranch. It’s not a ranch where you’ll ride for a few hours then return to your hotel where colorfully garbed señoritas are waiting for you with a frosty margarita. This is a working ranch and while they do offer simple cabins for accommodation you’re going to get a very real idea of what Mexican ranch life is really about.
Celena’s herd consists mostly of American Quarter horses with the odd addition of an Icelandic pony and a Cob. Not what one would expect but these are all working horses and some can only be claimed by very experienced riders.
Celena and her partner Jose had cleared a spot for Moby and we quickly settled in. Since a couple of horses were already tacked up Celena and I took a short ride around the property and she pointed out some of the different horses and their names. Then she segued into a bit of her life story.
This is the kind of story you hear from a true horsewoman. And I know she’s got a million more.
Not Your Average Horsewoman
She and her ex-husband were living in Guatemala and were trying to cross the border into Mexico with their horses. The Guatemalan border patrol was coming up with every excuse under the sun to deny the horses exit from Guatemala and basically had them on lockdown.
Her ex-husband crossed into Mexico and found a nearby rancher and his staff who were ready to help, but the horses had to get across the border first. Celena was able to free the horses and took them deep into the jungle to hide them. She was confronted, violently at times, by the locals who were not keen to let go of these obviously valuable horses. So, at the end of the day she made a drastic decision to save them. Riding the oldest horse and with a yearling and weanling in tow she encouraged her horse jump into the river separating Mexico and Guatemala and swum them though a heavy current to safety in Mexico. The local rancher was waiting and immediately saddled them and whisked them away. If he was confronted he would say the horses were his. Celena crossed the border, retrieved her family and her horses, and eventually settled in Jalisco.
I just love hearing stories like that; I love hearing how far people will go for their horses, or any animal for that matter.
Not Your Average Trail Ride
So for my horsebacking riding in Jalisco experience I chose a full day ride and then a moonlight ride with a campfire. I was up bright and early and found Pirate, my mount for the day, already tacked and waiting. Celena, Jose, and I then spent about six hours winding our way through farmland, down overgrown dirt paths, and scrambling through rocky creek beds.
This isn’t your average trail ride. This isn’t a nose to tail, no cantering saunter through the meadow. This is a ride with tight squeezes, branches slapping your face, leaning back as your horse slips and slides down a rocky embankment kind of ride. This is the kind of ride that really tests your ability to handle a horse in a tricky environment.
However, horseback riding is the best way to see beautiful Jalisco with the Colima volcano looming overhead. The terrain is lush farmland and it was either corn or cattle no matter which way you looked. And I never thought I’d say this but corn may have saved my life that day.
As we were returning and were about 30 minutes away from home an intense lightning storm hit. We were riding very near to high overhead power lines, I was on a horse with metal shoes, and I’m fucking terrified of lightning. I mean, really, really terrified.
As the bolts struck all around us we found a rudimentary shelter in a corn field. After tying the horses up we waited out the storm, sipping tequila from the flask Celena had brought and chewing on cornstalks (they actually taste pretty good). Once it was safe we headed home drenched and as I hauled myself out of the saddle I knew I’d be sore the next day.
We never did get to do the moonlight ride as the weather didn’t cooperate but we did round out our stay with the promised campfire and Jose’s father was there to serenade us with his guitar. It was one of those moments when you just can’t believe that this life happened today, and this moment was all about Jalisco, Mexico, and perception. I loved it.
Hacienda de Taos offers a number of different rides including multi day camping trips, lessons for beginners, and one in particular that I wish we’d had time for. The also offer cute cabins for guests who want to stay longer, and thanks to us, cleared sites for truck campers. Their wilderness survival course is the same as the multi day camping rides but you go out with nothing. You’ll learn to hunt, clean what you kill, start your own fires, and generally go Bear Grylls with horses.
If any of you readers ever go horseback riding in Jalisco and take that survival course I want to hear all about it.
As for me, I’m looking ahead to more horseback riding adventures as we head south. Argentinian polo ponies, I’m coming for you.
Horseback riding trips in Jalisco with Hacienda de Taos are fully customizable and vary in price. Contact Celena to schedule your horseback adventure. It really is a one of a kind experience.