A whirlwind tour of Amsterdam and Berlin

Once again, I didn’t give myself nearly enough time to get to know, understand, and enjoy Amsterdam or Berlin. I should have spent at least one week in each. Instead, I was left knowing the thin shells of the cities. Fortunately, I was able to explore Amsterdam with Steve and Matt, both of whom I met in the Paris hostel. As for photos, there was never any sun to be seen, just an overcast, gray sky. With skies like that, black and white seems to capture the view the best. I tried to manage the best I could with color, though..
What I got from Amsterdam is that it is a major tourist destination, something like the Las Vegas of Europe, and it seems that a decent chunk of its economy is entirely based on tourism. Many of the Mexican towns that I visited were also tourist towns, and were suffering immensely. The Dutch seem to have been able to create a good balance between tourism and the rest of the economy, as even though it is now winter and not the peak of the season, and the economy is surely suffering some in Europe, everything is still running like a well-oiled machine, unlike Mexico.
Berlin is just massive—entirely too massive to spend only 2 days here. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t able to meet anyone at the hostel with which to sight-see. I did meet some nice people, but there is a massive bar & club scene and everyone I met was really into it. It’s can be a lot of fun, but there’s a tendency to party until the wee hours of the morning, sleep-in halfway through the day, and then repeat. Being winter here, that doesn’t leave much, if any, daylight to enjoy the city. I found myself touring the city by myself, but really enjoyed it. I didn’t even visit any museums, just wandered around for 2 days, and still had tons left to see.
Probably the single-most impressive aspect of Berlin to me was the Berlin Wall. I remember as a kid watching the live t.v. broadcasts of the fall of the Wall. In history class as well, we learned about its collapse, but the depth of its impact didn’t really sink in until I came here. The construction of it more-or-less arbitrarily divided the city and country for nearly 30 years. Coming from the U.S., it’s really hard to imagine how something like that could happen.
My next stop is Prague. Once again, I’ve only allowed myself 2 days to explore this Bohemian city. I’m sure it won’t be enough time.


I landed on Paris on Saturday morning, went through immigration without saying a word, and then didn’t even have to go through customs.  What a difference from traveling within the U.S!

The Paris metro was really easy to figure out, so I jumped on the train, changed at a few stations, and ended up at my hostel.  The change in temperature from Mexico to Paris didn’t really hit me until I exited the metro.  The temperature here was hovering right around the freezing point.

I arrived too early to check in to the hostel, but they allowed me to drop off my luggage.  I wandered around a bit, and soon realized that the hostel is just around the corner from the Moulin Rouge.

After coming back to the hostel, I checked in and met my new hostel mates.  I ended up hanging out for the next few days with a few of them; Steve from Leeds, Murray from Perth, and Matt from Melbourne.  When I was living here in Europe while in college, I never made it to Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin.  These are some of the key cities I wanted to see, which is why I’m spending some time in each while here for Rally Sweden.

I tried to get in all the key sights; the Louve museum, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, St. Germain, the Seine River, the Pére Lachaise cemetary, Notre Dame, and many others in between, such as a vertical Citroen dealership.

Tonight I’m off to Amsterdam on the overnight bus.  I’ll arrive at 6:30, drop my luggage off at the hostel, and then wander around the city.

Lie, Lie, Lie… [to US border patrol]

Lie, Lie, Lie…

Or how telling the truth to US Customs & Border Patrol is worse than a lie

My trip was going really well… I replaced the thermostat, had my oil changed, and arrived in Mexico, D.F., parked my car, and met up with my friend Rodolfo and his girlfriend Concha for dinner.  We had some typical Mexican seafood cuisine as my final meal this time in Mexico.

But, unfortunately, once again, I was detained by U.S. Customs & Border Protection for approximately an hour, my luggage searched, and my story seriously questioned… this time as I passed through Atlanta headed to Paris.

My honesty while answering their questioning seems to be the problem. As an example:

CBP: Where are you coming from?

Me: Mexico City

CBP: How long were you there and what were you doing?

Me: About 2 weeks, just travling

CBP: What do you do for a living?

Me: I am taking the year off to travel.

At this point, I can already see that the conversation is going downhill quickly.

CBP: Where are you getting money?

Me: I worked for 6 years and saved up.

CBP: Where will you be staying in the U.S.?

Me: I have a flight to Paris in a few hours, I am not entering the U.S.

CBP: Please write ‘transit to Paris’ in the blank. How did you get to Mexico?

Me: I drove my car. It is parked in Mexico. I am returning in one month.

At this point, the agent marks a big ‘B’ on my customs document. I know this is a bad thing.

So, as sure as I will face this same scrutiny in one month when I return, my plan is to Lie!

While this may at first sound completely illogical, I’ve thought about it in the past, pertaining especially to DUI checkpoints. If I were to get stopped after consuming one beer, I think there are 2 options

1-Tell the truth. Cop will think, ‘yeah right, this guy thinks I was born last night—this guy’s probably just finished a 6-pack along with a few mixed drinks—he’s so drunk he lost count!’

2-Lie. Either the cop will accuse me of lying or will concede that I haven’t had anything.

In this case, what’s the harm in option 2? He can’t arrest me for lying. He can call my bluff and give me a breathalyzer, which he will have done for option 1 anyhow. So no harm done.

My plan upon returning to the U.S. (to lie)

Unfortunately, in some cases, telling the truth to a public official is worse than a lie.

So next round through Atlanta, here’s how I see it going:

CBP: Where are you coming from?

Me: Paris

CBP: How long were you there and what were you doing?

Me: 1 month, traveling on personal vacation. (no mention of the Rally, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, or anything else)

CBP: What do you do for a living?

Me: I am a mechanical engineer in Phoenix. (if they ask, I’ll tell them I work for Toyota)

CBP: Welcome back!

Bottom line–I won’t mention Mexico, not being employed, my car parked in Mexico D.F., nor any of the truth. It just doesn’t pay to be honest.

The moral justification…

And yes, I do have morals, but my moral justification for lying to CBP is that I know that I am not trafficking drugs, money, or any other contraband. Lying to them and getting me out of the spotlight frees the agents to stop actual criminals.

Mazatlán to Guadalajara

After spending some more time in Mazatlan, I hit the road on my way to Mexico D.F.  I spent a few hours on the beach on the way in Teacapan, drinking some coconut water from one I picked up in the supermercado.

The road to San Blas definitely reminded me that I am now in the tropics.  There were palms, bright flowers, colorful birds, banana plants, cocoa plantations, and I think I saw a dead monkey on the side of the road. The road signs around San Blas seem to be in need of saving from being overrun by the jungle.

I arrived in San Blas just in time for the sunset.  After enjoying it, I found a cheap hotel, cooked a quesadilla, and then wandered around the town.  There was a migratory bird festival going on, which happened to feature a really bad ‘rock’ band from Guadalajara.

In the morning, I wandered around the beach and then hit the road out of town to see the mangroves and other beaches.  I decided to take a boat tour through the mangroves to see birds, crocodiles, and a spring.  When we arrived at the spring, I saw that it was actually a place to swim–it even was fenced off to prevent crocodiles from entering.  I didn’t bring my bathing suit, but I couldn’t resist the crystal clear water…. and rope swing.  I decided to go for it and just swim in my boxers.  It was definitely worth it.

After the boat trip, I wandered around a different beach and decided to go for one last swim in the ocean–probably won’t be able to do it in Europe for the next month or so.  After my swim, I found out that my watch isn’t really waterproof to 50 meters–not even to 5 centimeters.

After drying off, I hit the road and soon found a 3rd great road.  So far, I’ve enjoyed driving from the redwoods to the ocean in California, driving through the desert oasis in Baja, and now driving through the jungle in Nayarit.  The road was in great shape and had plenty of great views and amazing vegetation.  In the middle of my enjoyment, it dumped me into the middle of a small town. Only in Mexico!

The corrupt policeman at the anti corrupción checkpoint in Tepic.

On the way to Guadalajara, I came across yet another police checkpoint.  This one was called anti corrupción.  Funny, because this was the first time any police officer tried to hustle me into paying a bribe.  The reason?  My windows are tinted.  Apparently, it is prohibited.  He gave me two options; remove the film or pay a big fine.  But he acted very strange, so I knew that there was a third ‘option’-pay him off.  I played along and told him that it is required in Arizona because of the intense sun, and that if I were to remove it here in Nayarit, I would be required to re-install it once I return to Arizona.  I could tell he didn’t like my answer or my unwillingness to pay him off.  After about 5 minutes of back and forth ‘discussion,’ he let me go, I could tell he was frustrated that I didn’t pay him off.

I started toward Guadalajara on the ‘free’ road, as opposed to the toll road.  I haven’t had any bad experience on the free roads, but this one was different–we went through lots of hills and often times I was barely doing 40mph.  At that rate, I wouldn’t make it to Guadalajara until well into the night.  At the next opportunity, I took the toll road.  I got there quicker, but it was costly.  I paid about 250 pesos in fares.


Leaving Baja was tough.  I told myself that I would have plenty of time to relax and enjoy myself during the trip.  No schedules, no need to look at a calendar, know what day it is, or even what time it is….. you get the picture…. none of the worries of a ‘normal’ life.  However, I went ahead and created my own constraints by deciding to work the WRC events in Sweden and Mexico.  My flight leaves on Friday, which means I have to make it to Mexico D.F. by Thursday, figure out what I will do about leaving my car for a month, and then head for a detour to Europe.  I would have enjoyed staying for another week in Baja.  I was really starting to enjoy the place, the people, and the relaxed way of life.  For every downside, there’s an upside.  In this case, Baja is relatively close to the ‘States, so I will probably / definitely make a return trip.

After bidding farewell to Baja, I took the overnight ferry from La Paz to Mazatlán. It was a bit pricey, at $2,830 pesos / $230 USD, but I probably would have spent at least that much on gas and hotels if I would have driven.

The trip was pretty uneventful, with two tasty but simple meals served.  I was woken at about 5am by the foghorn blasting as the captain warned other boats of our presence in the thick fog.

So, I arrived in Mazatlan bright and early this morning and wandered around… to the market, cathedral, and then along the malecón.  When I got back to my car, I drove the route and found out that it was about 7 miles.  I had a decent meal of smoked marlin tacos to refuel my body.  I then checked into my $8 hotel…. clean but definitely not fancy.

My plan is to spend a day or two here before heading to Mex D.F.  Oh yeah, and the roads in Baja claimed the muffler on my car.  It sounds completely riced out and the incessant drone at highway speeds have convinced me to replace it.  One more thing to add to the list of things to accomplish….

A great ending to Baja!

After leaving La Paz, I headed south to the town of Todos Santos. It was recommended to me as a nice place to visit. It was pretty touristy with all sorts of shops catering to art and jewelery. I wandered around, had some great tacos, went to a cafe and talked to the owner about places to camp. He suggested the fisherman’s beach on the south side of town. I headed there, and spent the night. With the exception of one permanent resident (and his pack of dogs), I was the only one on the beach.

In the morning, I spotted some grey whales swimming very close to shore. I watched them for a while and then spotted some craziness with the fishermen. They bring their boats back on shore by riding the surf. I made a short video capturing the feat.

I hit the road for Cabo San Lucas, out of curiosity I suppose. Once there, it had all the trappings of a touristy resort town. Lots of shops, bars, and beaches crowded with vendors selling all sorts of things, from jewelery, Cuban cigars, marijuana, excursions for diving, parasaling, etc, and time shares. In the photo, everyone wearing a white shirt is a vendor—the covered the beach like fiddler crabs.

Hitting the road to find a better place to hang out, I went to the Cabo San Lucas public beach. It was small, quieter, much nicer, and best of all, I wasn’t hounded by anyone wanting gringo dollars.

A local named Carlos recommended my next stop, Los Barriles. Once I arrived, it also had many of the signs of a touristy place, with signs referring to East Cape everywhere. I wandered around a bit and came to the kite surfers’ beach. I talked with a few and they said that the entire beach is free for camping, so I set up camp. That night, my final night in Baja, the stars were spectacular. After gazing for a few hours, the moon slowly rose out of the water. After a little trial and error, I finally figured out how to take nice night shots with my camera, but by then the moon had risen a bit.

I had to make it to La Paz to take the ferry to Mazatlan. I decided to take the back road, since I had time to kill. After about 10 miles of typical secondary roads – lined with potholes and cows, the road turned to washboardy dirt. After a few miles traveling at no more than 30mph, the road started getting worse and worse. It finally turned into a 4×4 trail, impassable in my car. At that point, I had to turn around and punish my car again on the same roads.

On the main highway, I found what is probably tied for the best road of the trip; around the town of San Antonio. The other road is Hwy 1 in California from Leggett to the ocean. What made it so nice was there were no potholes, hardly any straight sections, and great scenery.

Ensenada to La Paz….. in no hurry

In Ensenada, I experienced my first round of travel illness (I’m fairly sure it was the ceviche I ate at a road-side stand, that or the fish tacos…. I can’t be certain, though). I’m certain that this won’t be the last time something does battle with my digestive system!

Location Unknown…..

After a pretty rough night, I was pretty anxious to get out of the hustle and bustle of the touristy border town of Ensenada, located about 1.5 hours from San Diego. I headed south keeping an eye out for a decent camping spot. I saw a sign, called the number on it, and found out they charge $3/night. So I turned off the highway and followed a dirt road. I never found the place I called, but I came upon a cantina on a bluff. I asked about camping and they said I could camp for free anywhere along the bluff, so I did. There was a large ramp carved into the bluff to allow fishermen down to the water. I walked down and talked with a few. They had some pretty nasty fish so I asked them what they do with it and they said carnitas—basically chopped up into tiny bits to use in ceviche or miscellaneous seafood dishes. That probably explains my food illness.

I enjoyed the sunset over the Pacific and was awoken by the sunrise over the Pacific….. the position of the bluff and the time of the year was right so that the sun both rose and set in the southern sky over the ocean.

Stuck in the Sand

I hit the road again headed south. Once again, I looked for a nice place to camp close to the ocean. In a small town, I asked about camping and they said that any of the land is public and I can camp anywhere I want. I found a decent looking dirt road headed off the main road and headed towards the ocean. I was doing fine until I came upon a small crest. The road turned to soft sand and the front end sunk in ‘to the frame’. I tried in vain to dig the car out, put the floormats under the sand, but it was no use. I decided the best course of action was to set up camp there, open a beer, and enjoy the sunset.

That night, I heard screeching brakes and then that terrible crunch of metal signifying a wreck. The next morning, I cooked breakfast, packed everything up, laced up my hiking boots, and made the 10km trek to the closest town.  As I was walking down the road, I saw the scene of the crash — someone slammed into a cow, probably the biggest hazard I’ve seen while driving, even worse at night with a dark, slow-moving cow in the middle of the road.

When I got to town, I looked around for someone with a Toyota 4×4 to pull me out. The first guy I asked said sure, we went to get his buddies, and then back to my car. It took a few tugs to get it out, but it came free. They followed me out to the main road.

I hit the road again and dug out my ‘Lonely Planet — Mexico’ guide book that I’ve used on past trips. It mentioned the town of San Ignacio, so I headed there. Its a really quaint town lined with palm trees, pretty much a desert oasis. I checked out the sights and then looked for a place to camp. All I found were dirt lots with owners that wanted $12 -$15/night to camp. I politely refused and hit the road looking for a better option.

Most expensive food I’ve ever eaten (and probably ever will)

Driving along, I came up to a wildlife refuge, so I pulled off and looked for a place to camp. I came up to a building, so I drove up and asked about a place to camp. They offered me a place to put my tent. After setting up my tent, I went back to thank them as they were setting up a bar-b-que. There were some guys there from Wyoming who, as it turns out, just finished hunting desert bighorn sheep. They offered me a taste of the sheep, so I easily agreed.

After talking with the locals and the Wyoming hunters, I found out that this was no ordinary hunt—the desert bighorn sheep, borrego, is the most expensive animal in the world to hunt because its numbers are so few. About $50,000.00 was paid for the privilege. According to the staff, they have a very limited number of hunts each year that basically pay for the preservation of the animals. The money is used to maintain a staff to keep alert for poachers, maintain the property, and improve habitat. As the food came off the grill, I was invited to dinner, so I agreed. The dish was tacos de borrego. It was very tasty. Probably the most expensive food I have eaten or will get to eat. The entire staff of the Ejido Alfredo V. Bonfil was very friendly and made me feel like family.

Crystal Clear Water

The next morning, I thanked everyone and hit the road again. I once again enjoyed the twisty roads as they wound their way back to the Sea of Cortez. When I first saw the water, I was amazed. It was the first time during the trip that the water was crystal clear with a deep aquamarine hue. The views from the highway were breathtaking. I drove through the town of Loreto, but was not really impressed. The beach was so-so and I nothing was easy to find, such as bread.

I talked to some locals and found a beach where I could camp. I set up my tent and enjoyed the evening. The next morning I awoke to the sunrise over the super-calm water. I broke camp and was going to hit the road when I decided to go back to Loreto to see if I could rent a kayak to explore the beautiful waters. The first shop didn’t have any, but after talking for a while, the owner pointed me to another locale. I visited them and they provided me with a kayak, equipment, and transportation. I loaded up the kayak with my camping gear and headed out. Fortunately there wasn’t much wind so the paddling was very easy.

Kayaking to my own private island

I headed to Isla Coronada, off the coast of Loreto. It’s a desert island, part of a national park, about 4 miles offshore. Once I arrived, I realized that I was the only person on the island. I really wish I had brought my good camera–I only brought my cheap-o waterproof one.  There were many pristine beaches, calm waters, and beautiful weather—the only thing one could ask for would be fresh water. I set up camp on a beach, enjoyed the sunset, and then ate dinner. After dark, the full moon came out, so I decided to do some night paddling. I brought my flashlight and used it to illuminate the crystal clear water. There were all sorts of fish and sea critters, just like being in an aquarium. I could hear the blowholes of marine mammals, but I could not see them. After about an hour, I returned to camp, pulled the kayak completely on the beach, and went to sleep.

Where did my kayak go?!?!

I woke up to the sunrise in the morning again and as I looked outside, I had two surprises… the tide came up pretty close to the tent and my kayak was nowhere to be seen. I got out of the tent and looked for it. I found it floating in the middle of the bay! The water was barely warm enough the previous afternoon to splash around in the shallow waters of the beach, but not in the morning. I was facing a tough swim in really cold, deep water. As soon as I jumped in, the cold hit me. I kept swimming, hoping the activity would warm me up—it didn’t. I finally reached the kayak and scrambled on top. Fortunately I had secured the paddle and lifejacket to the kayak, so I didn’t have to go searching for them too. I paddled back to shore, glad I didn’t have to tow the kayak by swimming. I stood in the sun for a while trying to warm back up.

After eating some breakfast, I packed up and paddled around the island and then back to the mainland. I was pretty worn out from all the exertion. I was picked up by the kayak rental company, and then loaded up my car and hit the road.

I drove to La Paz, stayed at a hotel that claimed to have hot water, but in reality did not, uploaded this blog, and am planning to hit the road to Los Cabos today.

San Felipe to Ensenada

(sounds like the subtitle to a Baja 500 race)

I hit the Baja peninsula yesterday afternoon after spending 2 days in Puerto Peñasco.  As I hit the road and went through several small towns, I had some tough road choices to make.  Here was my first choice; follow the sign and turn right and go to San Louis Rio Colorado or follow the sign and go straight to go to San Louis Rio Colorado?  And the maps I had were of little help, as they didn’t even show this intersection in the road.  Neither of the roads was labeled with a number or name.  Needless to say, I got there.

My first night was spent in San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez coast.  I really wanted to try out my new tent, so I went to the first campground and they wanted $15 USD to camp.  I laughed, as the previous night’s stay in a hotel with a roof, hot water, bed, clean-ish linens, etc., etc., only cost $20 USD.  I went to the next campground and soon found that $15 is the norm in San Felipe.  So I found another $20 hotel that featured a roof, bed, clean linens, and a portable stovetop.  I forgot to ask if hot water was included, which it was not.  My shower was pretty refreshing.

After spending the night and fixing breakfast, I hit the road to Ensenada.  Along the way, I was stopped at 3 different military checkpoints–definitely reminded me that this is a country at war …with cartels.  Each treated me way better than the US Customs & Border Protection agents.   Once in Ensenada, I ran into some Canadians on the beach and they recommended their accommodation, the Sahara Motel.  I would prefer to camp, but I arrived at about 3pm and wanted to enjoy the 5pm sunset instead of driving looking for a campground.  Plus the motel has internet and allows me to update my blog.

Tomorrow I plan to relax and find a nice place to camp along the Pacific coast.

What if they built a tourist destination and nobody came?

Well, my first two nights in Mexico were spent in what could almost be described as a ghost town, Puerto Peñasco.  Some describe it as Arizona’s beach, and from what I’ve seen, it’s better described as Arizona’s shuttered private beach.  When the cliché ‘tough economic times’ hit the US, the reverberations appear to have been catastrophic here–that along with the phobia of cartel violence everywhere in Mexico.
All around one can find signs of tourism and the past boom times–on every corner there are discount pharmacies, bars, restaurants, clubs, strip clubs, motels, etc., and all feature English signage.  Many of these are shuttered.. and nobody really seems to know for how long.

To make the best of it, I wandered and drove around, exploring the town.  From what I could see, the most activity was around the fishing docks, although I’m not sure to whom they’re selling the fish.  Even the fish stands selling mariscos and camarones were notably vacant of customers.  The sunsets were beautiful, as would be expected.  If you look close at the photo, you can see mountains of the Baja Peninsula poking out of the Sea of Cortez.

I suspect the boom times attracted many people from throughout Mexico who came here hoping to earn a better living.  Many of them were used to just getting by and probably they’re just getting by here instead of where they’re from.

Customs & Border Protection Goons

Earlier this afternoon, I entered into the Lukeville border crossing on the way into Mexico headed to Rocky Point. As I pulled up to the agent, he asked the basic questions that I’ve faced each time in the past. This time however, was much different–he asked me to pull over.

They detained me and escorted me to the office building and instructed me to sit in a specific seat. When I asked ‘on what grounds are you detaining me,’ the agent said something along the lines of ‘we are not detaining you, if you were being detained, you would be in handcuffs.’ Interestingly enough, the first definition of detain by Webster’s is “to hold or keep in or as if in custody <detained by the police for questioning>.” I could barely see the agents digging through every opening of my car. What I couldn’t see was what I was most concerned about and what I didn’t find out about until after they were finished. While I was not being detained, I chatted with some of the agents in the office. They said that there is a comment card that I can fill out if I want. I said sure. One of the questions ask if I requested to speak to a CBP supervisor. I thought that maybe it would be a good idea. I did and he explained that I was being detained so that I do not run away if they find something. He also said that they are doing this to protect my family.

About 30 minutes later, the agents came to me with a bunch of my business paperwork and questioned me about about the parts that I am currently working on as an independent mechanical design engineer. I had to explain all my sketches and notes to the agents. Then came the most upsetting question “Where do you have that gun that you have the picture of in your camera?” What possible motive do the agents have for going through my digital camera? Let alone looking at pictures from months ago? Yeah… I own a gun. I took pictures of it and posted them on the internet to try and sell it. I told them that the gun was in Georgia.  And that’s why this entry features a gun, as opposed to the beautiful scenery of my past posts.

When I got back to my car, it was completely disheveled. Everything had been tossed. You name it, they went through it…. food, travel medication, backpacks, first aid kit, tool box, everything.

So enough rambling, but I feel completely violated. I’d like to know how going through my digital camera and engineering documents can possibly be protecting my family? I call it harassment.

Maybe it’s befitting that I’m spending the night in La Posada la Roca, one of the hangouts of Al Capone!