Days 21, 22 and 23, May 22 - 24, 2001.
I push hard up through the southern half of Mexico, through Oaxaca, Matamoros, Toluca, Mexico City, and pueblos with names like Huajuapan de Leon and Acatlan de Osorio, hoping for two nights in Guadalajara. It's been two full weeks since my seven-day wait for the voltage regulator at the Hampton Inn in Costa Rica, the last time that I have not packed and unpacked the Guzzi each day, a laborious task which takes at least fifteen minutes at night and another thirty in morning. I am getting weary from the continual traveling, and am looking for a place to hang my hat for at least two consecutive nights. I also need to do laundry, a task that is difficult to complete except at hotels when riding almost from sunup to sundown. I last did laundry in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, and although I wash some basics at night as I go along, it is well passed time.
We haven't talked much about the bike or what it carries, so perhaps a description is in order, and then I can put this laundry situation, a most mundane task under normal circumstances, in better perspective.
The bike is a Moto Guzzi Quota, an Italian-made dual sport design (an industry designation that the bike is suitable for both on and off-road use) that has been available in the States since about January 2000, although for three years more in a similar configuration in Europe. Moto Guzzi, although little known outside the biking fraternity, has for 75 years been building motorcycles with legendary reliability. For long distance riders like me, that is a huge consideration.
My Quota is an 1100cc, air-cooled, transversely mounted twin-cylinder bike, with fuel injection, shaft-drive, disk brakes, and a 5-speed transmission. The bike sits tall and accommodates my 6' 4" frame. It has excellent acceleration and a top speed of about 120, although I've personally never had it over 95 mph. It will cruise all day in its "sweet spot" at about 75mph in 5th gear at 4,250 RPM. In my opinion it would be the perfect long distance touring bike with another 10 mpg (43 instead of 33) and a gas tank that's two gallons larger.
For storage I have equipped it with a pair of German-made Hepco and Becker hard bags (for you non-riders, essentially very small suitcases that attach one to each side of, and slightly above, the middle of the rear wheel,) a set of black Aerostich panniers that strap across the gas tank, a Wolfman Explorer tank bag (again for you non-riders, a biker's version of a combination wallet, purse and backpack) and to the tail rack for this trip I've attached a duffel bag, two spare tires and a sleeping bag. I know it must seem like a lot of space, but by the time you pack in two cameras, gloves, two or three liters of water, snacks, a quart of oil, film, two notebooks, maps, reference books, tools and spare parts, just to name a few items, there is very little space left over for clothes. Space is at an absolute premium on a bike, and clothes get what room is left over. There's not much left over on this trip.
My wardrobe consists of three changes of underclothing, two pairs of slacks (and although it wasn't planned this way, one of which I only use when I'm not riding,) two tee-shirts and a long-sleeved white tee-shirt to keep the sun at bay, the latter, along with a pair of black Levi's, my standard attire. In addition to the two tee shirts I also carry two cotton dress shirts, but notice that one is never used, and the other used rarely. While I ride I wear heavy-duty, black, leather riding boots, and I have a pair of tennis shoes as a change, but for safety's sake I never wear them when I ride. I also carry a pair or walking shorts and a swimming suit. As I try each morning, and after the various police searches, to push each clothing article into its unique spot in the hard bags, I remember the traveler's lament - "bring half as many clothes and twice as much money."
Strangely, with limited space availability, I have four pairs of gloves. My leather work gloves are the most comfortable, but they don't have a gauntlet that fastens, so since my long sleeve tee-shirt is always working its way up over my elbows in the 70 mph wind, I usually wear my black leather Olympic motorcycle gloves with the gauntlet fastened firmly around the sleeve to ensure the sun is kept at bay. White cotton glove inserts are packed away in case it gets real cold, and I have over-gloves for the rain, since neither set of leather gloves is water-proof.
My light-weight rain gear (a jacket and slacks) is tightly rolled and stashed in my right hand pannier to ensure quick access, and a Gerbing-model, heavy duty, 500-Cordura-nylon motorcycle jacket and matching slacks (the high-tech substitute for motorcycle leathers) is in my duffel bag. The only time I've worn the raingear on this trip was in Guatemala, and it was so hot that I got wetter inside from the condensation than I would have from the rain. I quickly grasp that if it's hot, it needs to be raining pretty hard before I stop to put them on. The crash jacket and slacks, which I purchased specifically for this trip, are absolutely stifling in the 80 and 90 degree weather of Central America and Mexico, and so have been buried in the duffel, under both the spare tires and the sleeping bag, for the past two weeks. So, along with the leather riding boots, gloves and a helmet, I mostly ride in the long-sleeved, white tee shirt and black Levis.
Back to laundry. I note that it's been six days and two countries since I last did laundry in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and even with washing a few things out each night, it is an immediate need. But it's getting late, and as I complete my day-long ride across Mexico's fertile central plain my more immediate need upon entering Guadalajara is a place to stay.
A fellow traveler has given me directions to a Crowne Plaza Hotel on Avenida Lopez Mateos, and while I find it without any problem, their only availability is a suite on the north side of $150 a night. I balk at the price, three to four times what I've been paying on this trip. Secretly I'm guessing that other rooms might be available, but given my filthy jeans and previously white tee shirt, it's the suite or nothing. I ask the clerk to check availability in the immediate area, and after several phone calls she reports there is nothing. However, she suggests the American Motor Hotel just down the road, and dismisses me with the most rudimentary directions. By her tone I can tell it is beneath her to phone them. I don't ask, but being a red-blooded American I immediately contemplate a lawsuit for dirty clothes discrimination as I'm sure the outcome would have been far different in a sports jacket and dress slacks with my platinum American Express card on the counter, quickly contemplate the unlikely possibility of winning in the Mexican court system, so drag my filthy jeans out of their unblemished lobby, and throw big, black boots over the seat of my very dirty, red Guzzi.
Hoping the bellman won't notice and sneer in derision, I turn the bike in the direction of the American Motor Hotel, find it with a minimum of difficulty, and based on the early-1970s furniture in the lobby, I decide they will have a room for me. They do. "Do you have laundry service?" I ask. They don't, but after looking at my tee shirt the desk clerk says in broken English that she will see if anything can be worked out. Well, it can wait until morning.
I'm shown my room. It isn't the Crowne Plaza but it meets my other requirements for a Latin hotel. The bike can be directly in front of the door and the parking is secure with fences, a gate, and an armed guard at the entrance. The bed is firm. And the price is right at less than $50, no mean feat in expensive Guadalajara.
The maid is finishing up my room as I return from breakfast the following morning. I attempt a conversation in my limited Spanish, being mostly interested to know how she will wash my laundry, but she clearly doesn't understand me. You know the drill - in by 9 am and out by 4 pm, or something similar. It's already after 9 am and I'm less than thrilled about many more days of dirty clothes, so I head for the front desk.
"I'll see what I can do," says the clerk, and indicates that she will send someone over to deal with the problem. "Gracias," I reply, and head back to the room just in time to meet a young lady, who from her dress and bearing is a supervisor, dropping by, maid in tow. I reiterate my problem using what Time Magazine recently referred to as "Spanglish," that odd mix of two languages used in a single sentence or conversation, and it cited the sentence "como se llamo your dog?" Well its name is Fido, but how did you get there? The earnest young supervisor and I have two-dozen words in common, virtually all in the first person and present tense (e.g. I need, I have, I drive, etc.) but she grasps both the issue and the urgency.
"Stay here," she says, and hurries off, maid still in tow ("is she in gringo laundry training?" I wonder) but returns in just a very few minutes with a resolution. "Maria will wash your clothes in the hotel laundry facilities, but you will have to pay her directly," she says. "That's fine," I reply, not questioning either who Maria is or why the hotel doesn't want its cut, and I start my short list of what needs laundered while she provides a price for each item. I surmise that Maria doesn't read English so as I write up the list, we all laugh as a sample of each item is held up, in turn, so the young supervisor can provide the Spanish translation. The bill comes to $110 Mexican Pesos, roughly $12US. She lets me know it will not be finished until 6 pm and that Maria will bring the clothes directly to the room. I should pay her then. Inappropriately, I try to tip the young lady her for all her time, but embarrassed she protests in rudimentary English, smiles broadly and declines. I chuckle to myself over how much time it has taken to turn in seventeen pieces of laundry, and believing it is safely under control, I mount the Guzzi and head out in mid-morning traffic for Lake Chapala, the North American enclave, some thirty miles east of Guadalajara.
According to my guidebooks it is home to between twenty and thirty thousand American and Canadian retirees, who come to enjoy the mild weather, the low prices, the laid-back lifestyle, or perhaps all three. As I ride through the villages of Chapala, Ajijic and Jocetepec, the car license plates from Minnesota, Alberta, Montana and British Columbia confirm the large gringo population. A local English-language newspaper lists a 3-bedroom, 2-bath lakeside condominium for $85,000, certainly a good price in Seattle, but much higher than I expect.
I pull up to Restaurante Mariscos for lunch, advertised as right on the lake shore, and while I contemplate the menu, notice an enormous expanse of white sand, in many places overgrown with grass, small shrubs, and with cows and horses grazing, extending at least two miles from my "lakefront" table. In the distance, squinting mightily against brilliant sunshine and the expanse of white sand, I see a thin line of blue lake. I am under whelmed. Forty-mile-long Lake Chapala, it turns out, due both to several years of near-draught conditions, and many more years of poor water management practices I am told, has shrunk considerably. So the $85,000 "lake front" condo, which should more properly be termed "lake-bed front" is actually a full two miles from the water. I run the Guzzi out on the lakebed as far as I can, but the soft, deep sand beats me back towards pavement, still at least a mile from the water's edge. Add to the shrinking lake a nasty haze that obscures all but the closest peaks of what would be the magnificent Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, and I vow to look elsewhere for my retirement home. But I'll give them this - the weather, in the low 80's with sunshine and very low humidity, is world-class.
Riding back to the hotel in the heavy afternoon traffic, I notice many high tech plants, Hewlett Packard, Intel and Motorola among them, part of the economic engine, fueled both by low wages and an abundant and increasingly well-skilled labor force, that makes Guadalajara a powerhouse in propelling Mexico into the 21st Century.
My laundry is not ready when I return to the hotel at 6 pm. I'm quite concerned, since I've observed the stature of the Mexican male population and I'm guessing that there is a severe shortage of 3XXXTALL shirts in Guadalajara. But the desk clerk tells me that Maria says the long-sleeved tee shirt won't come clean, and she has taken it home. I am both amazed and humbled as this is not normal American hotel service. By this time I've already decided to stay in Guadalajara one more day, so tomorrow morning at 9am will be fine.
I'm back from breakfast just in time to hear a sharp knock at the door. "Una momenta," I say, as I walk to the door, and I swing it open to reveal a lady of indeterminable, but likely late middle age, less than five feet tall, skin deeply bronzed and seemingly worn from many years of hard physical labor, her sharp features matching many of Mexico's indigenous people, and with sparkling brown eyes and a smile as big as a mile. She has a package in her hands that's wrapped in light brown paper. It is Maria with my laundry.
"Buenos dias," she says and I reply in kind as she walks into the room and lays her package on the bed. Although we have few words in common, Maria speaks in Spanish with great animation, her hands and arms flying excitedly, as she unwraps the package to reveal my laundry, each piece preposterously clean, sharply pressed and folded, right down to the handkerchiefs and jockey shorts. The long-sleeved white tee shirt, so filthy just the night before last, is so perfectly white that I wonder if she has dyed it, but of course she has not. "Muy bien," is all I manage to stammer as I survey my laundry in amazement. "Gracias, muchas gracias," I continue, and even though my small Spanish vocabulary curtails my expression of thanks, I do want her to know how much I appreciate all her hard work.
I promptly find the $120 Mexican pesos I have agreed to pay, and as I gently place it in her hand I notice that I have three one-dollar bills in my pocket, and lay those in her hand as well, almost an afterthought. "Muchas gracias," I say again, in a feeble attempt to express my appreciation, as I shake her hand. "Da nada," she replies with a big smile, the Mexican version of "you're welcome," and then "gracias, gracias, muchas gracias!," as she apparently notices the $3 tip. Well her eyes light up and her smile, large to start with, becomes as wide as the Grand Canyon. And with another burst of rapid-fire Spanish, and her dark eyes sparkling, she backs towards the door and bids me a good day. I was left to contemplate Maria's lesson of hard work, a job done not just to the very best of her ability, but done correctly and completely as well, and the value of $3 - lessons I fear I have long forgotten. And I was very happy to finally have clean laundry.
With a smile still on my face from the experience, I turn the Guzzi loose on Guadalaja's morning rush-hour traffic, first north on Avenida Lopez Mateos and then east on Avenida Ninos Heroes on my way to Plaza de la Liberacion, and the heart of downtown Guadalajara. Shed of its heavy load that is still back in the hotel room, the bike is nimble and quick, splitting lanes, weaving through stalled traffic and moving to the front of the line at all red lights, my personal favorite motorcycle rule in Latin America. I follow the signs to an underground parking garage beneath the central plaza. My good mood turns dark as I observe numerous cars circling the garage looking for an empty stall, but as I stop to retrieve my automated ticket a policeman indicates that no ticket is necessary and that I can park on the sidewalk, adjacent to the tollbooth. I express my appreciation to the officer and contemplate the joy of traveling on two wheels.
It is eighty degrees and sunshine, just another day in paradise, as I walk the tree-lined, cobblestone streets surrounding Guadalajara's central plaza. I tread on flagstone worn smooth from ten million passing feet, and pass burbling fountains as I make my way west across the plaza to marvel at the main cathedral, whose 200 foot-tall twin spires are a city landmark, and on which construction began in 1561. Quietly, and with restraint and respect I traverse the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres (the Rotunda of Illustrious Men) and appreciate a pictorial history of the city when I visit the Regional Museum of Guadalajara. I enjoy the sudden drop in temperature, and the ensuing cool relief from the midday sun, as I pass through the thick, stone walls of Government House, completed in 1643. It was here, in 1810, some fifty years before we addressed the issue in the United States' Civil War, that Miguel Hidalgo signed the decree abolishing slavery in Mexico.
For an hour or perhaps two I wander the shopping areas just off Plaza Tapatia and Plaza de Armas. When I stumble across three stores in a row, each selling countless styles of straw hats, I chuckle and contemplate a purchase, but on a bike where I can only fit three changes of clothes, there is certainly no more room, so reluctantly I walk on. A sidewalk vendor calls on me to buy a watch, another to buy a turquoise ring, and a third to buy a leather billfold, all "locally made and at the very best price" I am assured. I smile, explain for the hundredth time that I really don't speak much Spanish, and move on. Shoe-shine boys are closing up shop, businessmen head home for the day, the plazas are almost deserted and the early evening sun casts long shadows from the cathedral and surrounding buildings by the time I mount the Guzzi and head back to the hotel. I note that it's back on the road tomorrow, headed for Tucson, about as fast as I can get there.
Early Friday morning, feeling slightly self-conscious in my crisp, spotless clothes I pack the bike, easier now that I've finally mailed the sleeping bag to Seattle, and settle up with the hotel. The doorman has just released the security gate and I prepare to leave the grounds and merge into early morning traffic, when I hear a cheerful voice call out "Buenos dias, Senor Hunter," and I glance over to notice Maria, eyes still sparkling and a huge smile still firmly in place, walking up the driveway for her shift. I smile broadly and greet her. Then in my best Spanish, "manejo a Mazatlan y Nogales," I explain that I'm headed north to Mazatlan and Nogales. In a singular expression of affection not for me I believe, but for all mankind, and on tiptoes to reach me astride the tall bike, she wraps her arms around me and gives me a huge hug. "Vaya con Dios," she says - literally, God be with you - as I turn the Guzzi north towards Mazatlan and the final 2,700 miles of this adventure. I am inspired.
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