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Coming Full Cycle through Mexico, Texas


© St. Petersburg Times

The afternoon sun made it too hot for bicycling on the narrow road; we baked from above and below. In a small Mexican village, we pulled off the road, not only to consult our map but to discuss our sanity.

"Quieres agua?" excitedly shouted a tiny woman standing in front of a thatch-roofed house.

Her invitation to sit underneath a shade tree and drink cool water sounded heavenly.

"Gracias," we both exclaimed and followed her toward the two men seated in old wooden chairs.

Demetria was her name. Spanish flew from her as she rapidly motioned at us and our loaded touring bicycles. A bit overwhelmed, I blurted out that I spoke little Spanish.

She grinned and began speaking slowly and with large, sweeping gestures.

Thus was the start of a one-of-a-kind overnight visit spent learning about the real Mexico. It had its difficulties. Demetria and the two men at the house, her husband, Jose, and brother, Toma, spoke no English. We kept our English/Spanish phrase book handy. Conversations were simple, but that didn't stop the understanding from seeping through.

We had expected to cook our own meal on our small camp stove and to tent on their front lawn. Not a chance! Demetria sat us in her modest but clean kitchen and fed us fried river fish (complete with head), black beans and fresh, hand-pounded tortillas. Sleeping arrangements had us on the main room floor tucked under mosquito netting, enjoying the breeze from the only portable electric fan. We felt thoroughly spoiled.

Upon leaving the following morning, we hugged our new friends as if they were family. Mexico, like all the other 36 countries we had previously bicycle-toured through, was proving to be full of kind and generous people.

Our "south-of-the-border" bike excursion had begun on April 28 in Cancun, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Other than the tropical temperature and the turquoise-blue Caribbean Sea, this tourist mecca had no appeal for us. Wall-to-wall along the white sand beaches were large hotels, condominiums and restaurants, all advertising for customers in English, with prices posted in dollars. Non-Mexicans were everywhere, searching desperately for a suntan. Fortunately, our initial disappointment was not a true representation of the Mexico to come.

In those first few days of pedaling, it was the small villages and their people that provided the flavor of Mexico we had hoped to experience. The modern-day Mayans of the Yucatan lived in simple homes set amid the jungle, where time seemed to stand still and possessions were few. Life for many consisted of a basic grass or stick hut for shelter; fruit trees, planted vegetables and small farm animals provided food.

Each day we would travel the main thoroughfares through village after village, absorbing new sights and smells. Open-air food stalls lured us in for cold sodas and local comida (food). Black bean soft tacos, light on the chiles, were our favorite.

And just like everyone else, come mid-afternoon when the intense sun became severe, we'd stop in a village park for our daily siesta. Under huge shade trees, we'd sit on park benches and just take in the relaxing afternoon town life. During these hours, our learning of Spanish progressed immensely as many of the Mexicans worked up the courage to approach us -- occasionally to practice their English.

For approximately 2,000 years, the Mayan people have been residing in the Yucatan region, leaving magnificent ruins. We took the time to marvel at the stone palaces, relief carvings and the huge pyramids dominating the landscape.

For the first two weeks of our Mexico tour, the back roads were pleasantly free from traffic. For us it was so nice to ride side by side for long periods, enjoying the silence of the surrounding jungle. The road surfaces were amazingly smooth, the terrain flat. We easily cruised 60 to 70 miles each day.

Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for cycling lessened the farther north we pedaled along the Mexican Gulf Coast. Much to our dismay, all roads turned into main roads and the truck traffic increased ten-fold. To ride in such a flurry of vehicles was unbearable and unsafe. After three hair-raising incidents, we reluctantly began to pay a few pesos to hop on local buses (bikes stowed underneath) through the worst sections.

We did our best to keep our attitudes positive. Mexico, off the roads, had much to offer. Instead of tenting as we had done originally on this around-the-world trip, we opted for cheaply priced hotels in the city centers. We had downtown markets to browse, painted Catholic churches to admire and a wide choice of restaurants to sample. Of course, our inexpensive rooms seemed always to be on the third floor, so we had to lug our 80-plus pounds of bike and gear up multiple flights of stairs. Our reward ... cold showers and a ceiling fan.

Crossing over the Rio Grande River and into Texas was welcome. We gladly changed our mind-set from Spanish to English and looked forward to discovering the Lone Star State. Texas greeted us with shouldered roads, Tex-Mex restaurants and an air-conditioned Wal-Mart on every corner.

We had returned to the land of plenty. We appreciated the occasional M&M Blizzards at the local Dairy Queens. All Texans seemed to drive big pickup trucks, had big ranches with big cattle and seemed to spend most of the days mowing their big lawns.

However, the abundance of wildlife within the bayous of Louisiana impressed us even more. We chanced upon countless alligators, wading shorebirds, deer, raccoons and nutrias (rodents imported from South America), and we even saw three pink flamingos flying overhead. On two occasions we nearly ran over rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the road.

"May we pitch a tent in your yard for one night?" we asked the Alabama man working in his front yard. The initial look of shock on his face was not unusual.

"Sure, I guess that would be okay," came his reply.

Since returning to the United States, the idea of asking homeowners for a spot of yard became common practice because of the lack of public camping areas along our Gulf Coast route. We found Southerners to be more than willing to accommodate our few needs, offering long conversations about their culture and customs, and often treating us to cold drinks, hot showers and sometimes a cooked breakfast.

Truly it's the people and not the scenery that have made our trip so worthwhile.

On June 21, we entered our home state of Florida for the second time on our three-year journey. Less than a week from today, we will have come around the globe. Largo will be where we let go of this life of bicycling and move on toward a different direction. What will be in store, we are not sure. However, we do know that we aren't the same people we were when we started this trip in Fairbanks, Alaska, in June 1994.

Our minds have become more open to the beauty of our Earth and its incredible diversity. We have become sensitive to the conflicts, poverty and racial discrimination that are happening daily in parts of the world. And, most importantly, our hearts have been forever touched by the unconditional kindness and generosity that have been provided us.

Our world is a wonderful and exciting place, and it is our hope that the lessons which we have learned will not only benefit us but also benefit others we will come to know.

Beth and Pete Sutch intend to finish their tour in Largo along the Pinellas Trail on July 4. They will be available for a limited number of free slide presentations to area groups interested in their world adventure; call 584-6632 for information or to schedule a presentation. SC: PG: 1E AT: trip CR: Photo courtesy of Pete Sutch; Photo courtesy of Pete Sutch CU: Beth and Pete Sutch pose by their bicycles. CU: Demetria made fresh, hand-pounded tortillas to serve with her Mexican meal of fried river fish and black beans.

HD: Reviewing the Lap of Luxury BY: ROBERT N. JENKINS DATE: 6/29/97 DL: SUN VALLEY, Idaho More than 25,000 times a year, people who don't know Andrew Harper send him postcards from the road. They are eager to share their opinions about their travel, and Harper is happy to receive them.

He is the editor and publisher of the upscale Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report newsletter; the name is a pseudonym. When Harper travels, to further assure anonymity, he books rooms using his wife's maiden name. Thus, his reviews in the monthly newsletter are based on the same experiences his well-to-do readers are likely to find.

This month marks the 18th year of the Hideaway Report. In that time, the eight-page monthly, printed on pale-yellow stock, has become one of the foremost resources in the niche market targeting the world's wealthiest travelers. In a readership survey last September, 82 percent of subscribers said they earned at least $200,000. The editor/publisher accepts no advertising and limits the circulation to 25,000 subscribers, who pay a hefty $125 a year.

Solidly built and quiet-spoken, the man called Harper thinks he is much like his readers:

"I'm now 54, and as I grow older, they are aging with me ... I pretty much have them down because they are myself. I'm focused on what I like. I've been married 31 years and haven't the faintest idea what's it's like for a single traveler ... I like it low-key; I don't like it glitzy." He added, somewhat unnecessarily, that he has never been to Las Vegas.

His readers mail this former congressional aide pre-stamped comment cards, critiquing their own travel and pointing him toward their preferred regions -- Hawaii, Europe, the Caribbean. When he chooses a place to go from their comments, he says, "I'd rather go to a place getting mixed reviews . . ."

Harper spends an average of 4" months a year away from his home near Sun Valley. He and his wife, Michelle, who usually travels with him, typically spend about 48 hours at a destination -- "I want to see it in operation across a 24-hour cycle." However, they once did a 48-day, round-the-world trip, stopping in 39 hotels.

He prefers shorter trips because "after two or three weeks on the road, you don't feel refreshed when arriving" even at a luxury resort.

Once in a hotel or resort, Harper snoops.

"Maids love to talk -- they will tell you the best rooms to stay in. And I always talk to the other guests in a small hotel: While you may think it is wonderful, you may have missed something" the others know about.

"I use the concierge desk and request things from housekeeping -- I tell them I had a button come off my shirt or I that I am looking for a certain book" to check their capability.

"I test room service. A good breakfast from room service is hard to find. I might just settle for a bagel and cream cheese. But I remember a breakfast in the Lanesborough in London -- a compote of prunes and figs, freshly squeezed juice, eggs. My wife had a bowl of fresh berries -- in winter! The breads were fresh. It was sumptuous and beautifully presented."

He also likes to "wander the lobby. I like to listen while people are checking in and out, hear the complaints and the service offered. Hotels would be improved so quickly if the managers would hide behind a potted palm" in the lobby.

Yet he hesitates to write about disappointing lodgings. "I generally don't like to do negative reviews. The newsletter is only eight pages; why waste the space (rejecting a destination) unless the place was already known and was receiving positive publicity" elsewhere.

In an interview earlier this year, Harper told me, "I never thought about having a definitive checklist" of what features a top-notch place should have. "My reviews are more subjective. I try to capture the ambience of a place." His typically glowing prose ranges from the general to the specific:

On the Rockies institution, The Broadmoor: "Occasionally even hideaway aficionados like ourselves enjoy being pampered at grandly styled resorts offering every conceivable amenity in a memorable self-contained environment ... (In newer units) exquisite coordinating fabrics/wall-coverings and mahogany furnishings accent the tastefully decorated rooms, all with spacious and luxuriously accoutered double-vanity marble baths, separate dressing areas, walk-in closets and sitting alcoves ..."

On two of his favorite destinations: "Wondrous scenery and unpretentiously friendly people epitomize this easygoing corner of Ireland (County Kerry), where good fellowship with visitors is a natural way of life." And, "About two hours northwest of London, the bucolic Cotswolds shelter a wealth of endearing medieval villages among gently wooded valleys, many punctuated by stately little churches, lordly manors and cozy cottages."

Less frequently, Harper skewers a place:

On Cancun, Mexico: "Tropical resort destinations possess an inevitable pattern of life. How fast the cycle proceeds from Paradise Found to Paradise Lost is generally dependent on the foolishness of governmental authorities (who) grow near-sighted, bow to the demands of developers and throw any notion of environmental sensitivity and responsible zoning right out the window."

On resorts on the Big Island of Hawaii: "Four Seasons Hualalai (was) a disappointing and distant third, (resembling) nothing more than a well-landscaped garden apartment complex. Worse yet, the resort fronts a virtually unswimmable beach!"

And each quarter the Hideaway Report summarizes the critiques of readers when a significant number have commented upon a place:

Little Palm Island, just north of Key West: "Nice spot, but many feel it's overpriced for value received."

On The Plaza hotel, New York City: "No longer your father's hotel, this grande dame is fading fast."

Though he professes no checklist, Harper does know what he wants to find in the best hideaway.

"Service is the key -- the staff is the heart and soul. If they aren't caring or attentive, there's no reason to go back."

The region consistently best in this facet is also now the trendiest destination: "Any worthy Asian hotel has a ratio of three staff workers to each guest. They can afford that because of the relatively low wages. (But) in Asian countries, the workers tend to see these as careers, not just jobs, and that shows.

"In too many places," he noted, "they forget it is called the "hospitality industry.' "

So with his subscribers paying for him to enjoy the globe and report back, where does Andrew Harper most like to be?

"When we get back here to Sun Valley, this is our vacation." Circulation for the Andrew Harper Hideaway Report is limited to 25,000; for more information, write to Harper Associates Inc., P.O. Box 50, Sun Valley, ID 83353.

Originally published June 29, 1997

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