Category Archives: Mexico

Running Across the Border (Feb. 28, 2009)

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Chiapas State in Southern Mexico, better known by Northerners as a Zapatista rebel zone, is actually quite safe and is a popular tourist destination among Mexicans. A friend recommended that I visit the Lagos de Montebello, a region composed of 2 national parks some 51 lakes all of a different shade of blue and green. Leaving San Cristobal de las Casas, I hopped on a collectivo (a minibus that has no passenger limits), en route to Tsizcao, the only town listed on my map, in hope that it might have a place for me to stay. I struck gold, not only because I found a room nestled on a stunning lake, but also because Tsizcao proved to be a stunning mountain town with no other gringos but me. Perfect

A nice lakeside view from my room in Tsizcao

Lakeside view from my room in Tsizcao

After napping by the lake, I reluctantly mustered the energy for an evening run into the countryside. I jogged by farmers, children, roadworkers, all of whom ceased their activity to watch this awesome site pushing its way up the dirt road. Their stares lasted as long as their sight allowed. Maybe they had never seen a white person before, or perhaps I was the first runner in their village, or maybe it was my naked pail legs that blinded them. I often wonder if running in these indigenous villages invokes bad cultural karma, but now I justify my hobby by acknowledging these people´s interests, smiling upon every encounter, and knowing that I was providing a story at the dinner table that evening.

I crested a small hill and encountered a deep blue lake with a village of about 30 homes. Again I met the interest of the natives, and in particular a curious twelve year-old boy who stood at the only crossroads in town. This time, I stopped to say hello. He informed me that I was looking at Lago Internacional. Hmmm. Interesting name. I knew I was in the South of Mexico, but didn´t quite comprehend how far south. ¨Where is the border?¨ I asked him, and he pointed to a stone monument behind me. I was shocked. I interrogated him once more, ¨and where are you from?¨

Intimidating border marked by a buoy line across Lago Internacional
Intimidating border marked by a buoy line across Lago Internacional

¨Guatemala!¨ he replied, smiling because he could sense my confusion. They call this a border? I had literally just run from Mexico to Guatemala with no passport, no police, no barb-wired fences, and I wasn´t planning to stop. I giggled, thanked the boy, and continued running through the green hills of Guatemala. Forgetting that such a low latitude yields hasty sunsets, I was soon benighted and had to return home, navigating the endless potholes by moonlight. I showered and sat by the dock, reflecting the whole time about my international run.

There are few roads that traverse the Mexico-Guatemala Border and this was one of them. I thought if I were an illegal immigrant, what a gem this would be! But I later found out that Guatemalans and Mexicans are permitted to freely cross the border, as there exists a legal trade zone that dissipates hundreds of kilometers from the formal map boundary. This experience was quite different from a run I had 3 months ago around Niagra Falls. Hoping to see the falls from the other side (AKA Canada) I ran to the border, again at twilight. But this time I was welcomed with 10-foot high cement walls, covered in a shards of glass, and a feeling that I might be electrocuted as I came within meters of the border. If only our borders could be as simple as that of Tziscao…

Climbing Pico De Orizaba (Feb. 20-22, 2009)

Orizaba (18,500 feet) as seen from the South

Orizaba (18,500 feet) as seen from the South

Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico, is one that I’ve been wanting to climb for a long time.  With no technical routes of any interest, it’s a glaciated peak that I could easily do solo, and to be on a glacier 5700 meters above sea level next to Mexico’s capital was quite luring.  So on February 20, I departed from my friend Val in Mexico City, and took a series of rural buses to the small town of Tlachicucha, where I had my first impressive view of Orizaba.  I arrived without a clue of how to access the mountain.  Most climbers attempt Orizaba with a guide who supplies transportation to the base camp hut in a jeep, and I didn’t want to have any of that.  I figured I could locate the road that takes you to base camp, and if I could not hitch a ride, the 13-mile walk would serve as a nice acclimatization.  Luck was on my side though, and within 10 minutes I saw a jeep with Alaskan plates; surely they were in this remote town for the same reason I was.

Sean and Kelly's jeep at basecamp, 14,000 feet

Sean and Kelly's jeep at basecamp, 14,000 feet

Sean and Kelly were there names and they too were climbers on a long road trip through Central America.  Although it was a tight squeeze in the back with a dog and a cooler on my lap, they kindly took me along to base camp.  In just a few hours, we ascended past the highest town in North America, going from 7,000 to 14,000 feet, and despite all the water I was slurping, I knew my head would be aching that night.  We arrived at base camp, met up with the other climbers and guided clients, and by evening there were only five of us left on the mountain.  I had the fortune of meeting another solo traveler, Chris, a true United Statesan adventurer, who was beginning his journey around the world by motorcycle.  My initial impression was that I couldn’t believe how much shit he was carrying!  I soon learned why.  Chris wasn’t just biking around the world; he was flying around the world.  The bulk of his kit was dedicated to paragliding and his intent was to fly the most impressive heights of several continents.  Chris is truly living the life (check out his blog at http://www.thelongestfriday.com), and I look forward to having more adventures with him.

Chris and his bad-ass ride

Chris and his bad-ass ride

I was traveling in a much different way from Sean, Kelly and Chris.  Because I limited myself to a daypack for my travels, I couldn’t afford the luxury off carrying all the comforts of climbing and camping equipment.  However I located some cardboard boxes coupled with Kelly’s yoga mat to make a nice sleeping platform.  As I had no stove and very little time to purchase anything, all I brought for food was tortillas, granola bars, and strawberries for the next three days.  Furthermore, I didn’t have any hiking/mountaineering boots to climb the glacier (I hate carrying boots, and wearing them for that matter!); instead I had a more backpacker-friendly system.  Prior to my trip, I had devised a crampon-compatible salsa shoe set up.  I bought some nice $20 black shoes at Payless, waterproofed them, and attached loops that would connect to my flexible aluminum crampons.  To prevent snow from penetrating my shoes I placed newspaper plastic bags over my socks.  The other climbers got a kick out of my setup but I thought it was quite adequate to climb Pico!

My crampon setup

My crampon setup

I awoke late the next morning to the sound of Chris ascending back toward base camp.  He had just paraglided off the lower glacier and landed several thousand feet below.  Impressive.  I joined him for an acclimatization and scouting hike up to the Labrynth, a maze of boulders and cliffs that complicate access to the glacier to locate his misplaced camera.  Upon our return, we parted ways, and he descended down to the oxygen-laden countryside to refocus his travels south.  Just moments later, a furious lightning storm came through, and with it came a half-foot of ice, sleet, and snow in just a few hours.  The next day’s summit attempt would make for a nice test for my shoe set up:)

The upper snow-covered glacier of Pico, post-storm

The upper snow-covered glacier of Pico, post-storm

I awoke to my alarm at 2 a.m. only to see that the storm was lingering.  This was not the time to climb, but I set my alarm for 2 hours later, just in case the weather cleared.  It did.  At 4:30, we were blessed with a clear starry sky, so Sean and I joined forces as we ascended to the Labrynth.  Sean had stored a cache of water, food, and crampons just below the glacier but he couldn’t find it.  After searching for 20 minutes, I decided to head up solo as we were hiking at different paces anyhow.  The recent snow had masked the easiest route through the Labrynth, and in my confusion I was soloing up short sections of 5.4-5.6, not quite what I had in mind for this climb, but fun nonetheless.  Mounting the glacier I was now above the clouds, in perfect time for a sweet alpine sunrise.  The morning sun freed me and I pushed on at a speedy pace toward the summit.  Pushing to fast, I was now feeling the altitude.  Plunging through the snow was becoming a more arduous task, and I confessed to myself what I already knew, that my acclimatization journey from Mexico City was a bit rushed.  Having experienced my altitude limits before, I knew that this feeling was not yet a dangerous one, and I pushed on to the highest bit of the glacier.

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Sunrise on the glacier

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I chose the most direct route to the summit, via a steep headwall in the glacier.  It was steep enough that I was frontpointing, and unsurprisingly my flexible crampons kept popping of my dancing shoes.  I crested the headwall, with one crampon dangling, gazed above, and saw the summit all the way on the other side of the crater, still far away.  Had I looked at a route description for Pico, I would have known that the faster access was actually via the other side of the glacier, and a much gentler slope.  At 5500 meters the altitude was getting to me and all I wanted was to sleep.  Given my poor acclimatization, I knew the best thing was to get down fast, so I  quickly traversed the cloud-filled crater to the summit, and soon had the best view in Mexico all to myself.

Lonely view from the summit

Lonely view from the summit

Thanks to the fresh snow, I could glissade down the glacier and downclimb to base camp in just a few hours.  All in all, it was just a 7 hour day, but I rejoiced in the rest and the oxygen at 14,000 feet.  Sean arrived just a few hours later, with a successful summit bid himself, and together we happily cruised down to Tlachichupa in his Cherokee.  I was in the oxygen-rich metropolis of Puebla that evening, but I opted not to partake in a celebratory beer, as I was still on a high from the summit.

Mountain Town Basketball

Like most of the world, soccer is the national sport in Mexico.  But there are unique situations, such as in the mountain towns that surround Oaxaca, where geography restricts the ability to support a soccer field, and other past times tend to dominate.  In Ixtlan and Pueblos Mancomunados basketball is the regional sport, and they take their hoops seriously.  Arrive in whatever town, and you will likely see a large court on display in the center plaza, second in importance to the main cathedral.
Seven years ago, I trekked to the Oaxacan pueblos of Latuvi and Lachatao, and this was my first introduction to mountain town basketball.  Both towns were equally excited about the game and the local kids would dribble the lit courts until their parents called them home for bedtime.  As an avid basketball player in my past I was eager to share a game with the locals.  I didn’t speak Spanish at the time but sport is an easy language for me.  I approached some kids on the court in Lachatao and involved myself in a shoot around.  We played some one-on-three and they were absolutely enthralled with my dribbling (I used to have some skills).  They apparently hadn’t seen many dribbling tricks before, and by the end of the game, my translating travel partner told me that the kids and their parents wanted me to stay an extra night to teach a clinic.  Delivering to the moment, I said yes without hesitation, and the villagers fed and housed my partner and I for the evening.
That evening, seven local kids showed up.  We practiced drills and played games for an hour, but at the time I didn’t realize that this was merely a warm-up for the exhibition match against the neighboring town.  Apparently, word had gotten out that there was a gringo basketball player in town, playing for Lachatao, and the adjacent village wanted to show up their Northern neighbor.  Our friend and guide, eight-year-old Neptali did the announcing for the game, and his friends took turns throwing quarter-sized bugs at our opponent’s faces when they went in for lay-ups.  I have no idea who won the match, but at its conclusion, a mother asked if I would stay and coach the kids in the upcoming Benito Juarez Cup.  Sadly, their proposed salary (housing and endless tortillas) couldn’t match what I was making at home, and I had to depart the next day.
On my travels this time around, I took the opportunity to explore two other Oaxacan mountain towns, and I was relieved to see that basketball was their mainstay as well.        , the biggest town had some serious courts, and after a game of one-on-ten with the local eight-year-olds I saw some impressively run practices.  Now, 5 months later in my travels, returning to Oaxaca and coaching a local team for a season is still on my mind.

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Like most of the world, soccer is the national sport in Mexico.  But there are unique situations, such as in the mountain towns that surround Oaxaca, where geography restricts the ability to support a soccer field, and other past times tend to dominate.  In Ixtlan and Pueblos Mancomunados basketball is the regional sport, and they take their hoops seriously.  Arrive in whatever town, and you will likely see a large court on display in the center plaza, second in importance to the main cathedral.

Seven years ago, I trekked to the Oaxacan pueblos of Latuvi and Lachatao, and this was my first introduction to mountain town basketball.  Both towns were equally excited about the game and the local kids would dribble the lit courts until their parents called them home for bedtime.  As an avid basketball player in my past I was eager to share a game with the locals.  I didn’t speak Spanish at the time but sport is an easy language for me.  I approached some kids on the court in Lachatao and involved myself in a shoot around.  We played some one-on-three and they were absolutely enthralled with my dribbling (I used to have some skills).  They apparently hadn’t seen many dribbling tricks before, and by the end of the game, my translating travel partner told me that the kids and their parents wanted me to stay an extra night to teach a clinic.  Delivering to the moment, I said yes without hesitation, and the villagers fed and housed my partner and I for the evening.

Warming up for practice

Warming up for practice

That evening, seven local kids showed up.  We practiced drills and played games for an hour, but at the time I didn’t realize that this was merely a warm-up for the exhibition match against the neighboring town.  Apparently, word had gotten out that there was a gringo basketball player in town, playing for Lachatao, and the adjacent village wanted to show up their Northern neighbor.  Our friend and guide, eight-year-old Neptali did the announcing for the game, and his friends took turns throwing quarter-sized bugs at our opponent’s faces when they went in for lay-ups.  I have no idea who won the match, but at its conclusion, a mother asked if I would stay and coach the kids in the upcoming Benito Juarez Cup.  Sadly, their proposed salary (housing and endless tortillas) couldn’t match what I was making at home, and I had to depart the next day.

On my travels this time around, I took the opportunity to explore two other Oaxacan mountain towns, and I was relieved to see that basketball was their mainstay as well.  Ixtlan, the biggest town, had some serious courts, and after a game of one-on-ten with the local eight-year-olds I saw some impressively run practices.  Now, 5 months later in my travels, returning to Oaxaca and coaching a local team for a season is still on my mind.

As a town of just 2500 habitants, Ixtlan has two of these outdoor basketball facilities.  You can tell where their values are!

As a town of just 2500 habitants, Ixtlan has two of these outdoor basketball facilities. You can tell where their values are!

A view of Ixtlan from above

A view of Ixtlan from above

Arriving to Mexico – Travels with Valeria (Feb. 10 – 26, 2009)

Hitching out to Texticlan

Hitching out to Texticlan

In the days leading up to my trip, I was getting cold feet.  I had just spent the last 6 weeks reconnecting with my parents, which was absolutely wonderful, something I hadn’t done in a long time.  But this experience, along with all the love I got in Corvallis, Oregon, reminded that I was leaving a lot behind in the States. I wondered if I was going to be a bit lonely in my arrival to Mexico.  Fortunately, I had an invitation from Valeria, a wonderful Mexican friend from Oregon State University, to come visit her family in Oaxaca as soon as I arrived in Mexico City.  After 14 hours of travel, and two sleepless nights, there we were, sipping beers in a quaint Oaxacan bar, and I felt like I was still at home.  My visit with Val would serve as the perfect transition from living with the fam and traveling solo.

First day in Oaxaca with Val and new friends, sipping beer with chiles

First day in Oaxaca with Val and new friends, sipping beer with chiles

Oaxaca is a gorgeous colonial city.  It's quite easy to get stuck there.

Oaxaca is a gorgeous colonial city. It's quite easy to get stuck here.

I spent the next 15 days with Valeria, traipsing around Oaxaca, helping her with her research, sharing meals with her family, and getting to know the Oaxacan way of life.  Valeria is in the process of completing her Masters research in Wood Science, and her work, largely sociological, aims to solve the mysteries of sustainable practices in furniture construction and marketing in the Oaxaca region.  We bussed and hitchhiked to rural and mountainside factories, interviewed factory managers, and made an important business visit to the capital.  However random, the experience was great and the best part was that Val opened up her life to me, and I learned a lot about her culture.  Connecting with the locals, staying with families, seeing the less touristy parts of a country, and “delivering to the experience” … I had found the mode in which I want to travel.