MEXICO, 9th – 13th January 2019
The route ahead of us felt too daunting. Too many mountains between us and Oaxaca, then more to get to Guatemala, then even more in Guatemala. Mexico felt impossibly big, and it was all so very hard that we looked for a way out. We even looked to try and find a way by boat down the Mexican coast, a ridiculous and ultimately futile fantasy. For a while it felt impossible, but I knew that the southeast part of Mexico was flat, and, if we let go of the idea of visiting Oaxaca, it was possible to get there by cutting directly east across the country. That would take us across the central plateau, high up and a long way from being flat, but not as daunting as the mountain range we were currently following up and down. I began to try and plot a new route on mapmyride.com and I was able to find small roads the whole way through this new route. To make things easier I broke the journey east to the flat land into three sections, each of about 350 kilometres, with a town where we could stop and take a rest between each of them. There was still some 5,000 metres of climbing in each section, but breaking it down into these three week-long rides made it seem so much more manageable. By the time I was done plotting out the route we were both feeling much more positive and optimistic about cycling in Mexico again.
We went out in Tapalpa to celebrate our new plan the way we always like to celebrate our new plans – with pizza. And it certainly felt as if our fortunes had taken a positive turn when we enjoyed a surprisingly good and surprisingly cheap meal overlooking the central square. As afternoon turned to evening it felt as if something was happening in town, the atmosphere was building, there were lots of people gathering, and we could see a couple of guys building a tower-like construction out of what looked like giant matchsticks. We decided to stick around and see what would happen. For a long time nothing much did happen, but still it seemed like something was going to happen, for there was a band and a group of people in Indian dress milling with the crowds, and through the doors of the big church we could see a service taking place, the pews filled with people.
At nine o’clock our patience was rewarded when the church service ended, and as the people poured out into the square the party could begin. Three different musical events began simultaneously, with something like line dancing taking place closest to the church, while in the middle those in Indian dress started dancing to a beating drum, and further down at a pagoda a band began to play. All this different music mingled and competed for people’s attention, a sign of the Mexican love of loud things, exemplified further by the loud bangs of more fireworks going off right above the church itself. Dea and I, after admiring each of the three acts, elected to sit and listen to the band down at the pagoda. We took a seat on some steps and spent the rest of the evening people watching, a very fine activity in Mexico, and especially so at a Mexican festival. There were families and little kids, old folks and everything in between. A young girl of five or six was running around and around the pagoda, being chased by a little boy who ran after her continuously, but always stopped short, uncertain of what to do, whenever he got close enough to actually catch her. One day they might grow up to be like the young couple sitting nervously talking, as if on a first date, or perhaps the established couples dancing to the music, not worrying about the crowds of watching eyes. Older children ran around setting off firecrackers, while a group of young cowboys stood off to the side, too cool in their matching wide brimmed hats to do anything but stand and talk, their backs to the music, unlike the middle-aged men and women who sat and listened, smiling with contentment.
The music stopped, and the grand finale of the evening began. The tower-like structure we’d seen being built earlier was now being lit, it was being set on fire. On its sides resided fireworks on wheels, that cracked and popped and whizzed around, sending sparks flying down below. The kids that had been setting off the firecrackers now ran freely through the shower of sparks in yet another act of defiance against health and safety. It was a hell of a show, and the culmination of it all came with the top of the tower being lit, one final spinning firework wheel flying off up into the night sky, the kids running after it madly, presumably to try and be the lucky one to get hit on the head. This, a woman next to us revealed, was a festival to celebrate the Virgin Mary, yet it seemed much more than that. It seemed like a festival of Mexico, a festival of people, a celebration of life.
The next morning we began the first section of our eastward ride across Mexico with some climbing on a nice quiet gravel road which was followed by a long, freewheeling descent. Late afternoon saw us arrive in the town of Atoyac, and a sign for a 250 peso hotel was too tempting to ignore. There was no festival taking place this evening, but it was still a memorable one, for we sat in the town square and ate delicious fresh fruit salads from a food stand, and watched a group of kids playing football. As with so many places in Mexico the town square was bustling with life, and we were mostly completely ignored, free to sit and eat, and engage in that always fun pastime of people watching.
The next day was, according to the elevation profiles, the toughest day of this section, as we climbed once again into mountainous terrain. On the way out of Atoyac we met an English-speaking man named Oscar who told us he loved to mountain bike. He lived in the United States, but he loved coming back here and riding in the mountains we were heading for. It was a reminder to appreciate where we were, how lucky we were to be free to ride in this beautiful country. And despite all the climbing it turned out to be a great day, spent on quiet roads that left behind civilization and passed through sections of real wild forest. We were even able to properly wild camp, something that isn’t always easy to do in Mexico. It certainly wasn’t the following evening. We’d returned to civilization and farmland, and fences that lined the road made wild camping impossible. There didn’t even seem to be anyone around to ask and we kept on cycling on and on, until eventually, with darkness about to envelop us, we spotted a man up at a farm who we were able to call out to.
The man, a young man, came down to find out what it was that we wanted. We asked if we could camp on the nice flat grass just inside the fence. He seemed puzzled as to why we should want to do such a thing, but he called and asked his father, and then told us that we could do so if we really wished. He let us in, and we soon understood why he thought it a strange place to sleep, for there was rather a lot of cow pats around. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and this was going to have to do us for the night. We put up the tent, and got inside. After a while the young man left, telling us that his father would be back soon. Not long after he’d gone, three dogs came down from the house and began barking rather viciously at us. We hunkered down for the night, and hoped they wouldn’t see fit to attack.
We awoke in the smelly field and packed up. The father was back, we could see him walking around up on the farm, in amongst dozens of big black and white cows. He had on a white apron and a surgical mask that, from a distance at least, made him look like a character from a horror movie. I feared he was going to butcher us and fancied a quick getaway, but when he called out to ask us if we wanted coffee my British politeness had me saying yes all the same. We followed him up through what appeared at first glance to be a muddy field but turned out to be a concrete yard covered in cow sh!t, and into a yard full of chickens and cats and the three dogs who were thankfully now placid, friendly, and no doubt nursing sore throats. Herman was the name of the farmer, and he showed us to a rickety table and indicated that we should put in as much coffee and sugar as we wanted into two waiting mugs. The fact that he had actually asked us if we wanted leche con cafe, milk with coffee, rather than the other way around now had us wondering suspiciously. “Do you think? No, surely not.”
Herman picked up the two mugs and marched off with them back out of the yard and across the sh!tty concrete and into the milking barn. In here the cows were being led and systematically milked by a series of milking machines, under the guidance of several young workers. Our suspicions were soon confirmed, as Herman jumped down into the pit behind the cows and thrust each mug in turn beneath a waiting udder. With his free hand he proceeded to coax out our breakfast. Moments later he returned to us with two fresh beverages, two mugs of warm and extremely frothy cappuccinos.
It was a wonderful experience, a unique, once-in-a-lifetime sort of morning, made all the more special by the look on Herman’s face, which was one that said that he couldn’t understand how this was anything other than absolutely perfectly normal. Dea and I sat on a bench in the yard and watched the animals, and here we drank our incredibly fresh milk, which really didn’t taste at all bad, so long as you didn’t think too much about where it had come from. Then Herman’s wife insisted on cooking us some eggs, fresh from the chickens that were pecking about in the yard, and by the time we got back on our bikes and left we had a much better appreciation of where it is that our food comes from.
Our morning with Herman was not destined to be our only fun interaction with people on this day. By midday we were riding on a dirt road through flat farmland when we passed through a little hamlet. There were a few people, and a few small dogs about, but we passed through quickly. Just on the other side of it, however, we were stopped by an old man, who wondered where it was we were going on our bikes, and what we were doing in such a remote place. Jose could only speak Spanish, but we understood his invitation to come to his house in the hamlet to visit and to eat something, and we decided to say yes. We walked the short distance with Jose back to his home, which turned out to be the one with all the small dogs. There we were suddenly the centre of attention, with lots of people saying hello. The most memorable of these was Nicole, the teenage granddaughter of Jose. Her parents had moved to Texas and they were all now back home visiting for the holiday season, and as such Nicole spoke in clear English, with a strong American accent, most notable in the way she asked things like, “So, where’re y’all from?”
Inside we were offered lunch, our second helping of locally-manufactured eggs of the day, and we talked more with Nicole. It was interesting to hear her draw comparisons between her life in Texas and what it was like for her to come and live with her family in this little settlement in the Mexican countryside. It was particularly interesting to hear her say that she preferred it here. “I like to come here to de-stress,” she said. “There’s no WiFi, no internet. Just… horses… and things.”
We understood exactly what she meant,
that living life entirely in the real world, away from screens, is
often a much simpler, and more enjoyable, existence. No Facebook,
Twitter, or Instagram. Just horses, and things. Real things. And it
was those horses that we were invited to come and see, and perhaps
even ride, after lunch. The horses were back at a barn where we’d
first met Jose, and now we were led back there by Nicole, her younger
brother Angel, a couple of other kids, and a small army of dogs. We
got to the barbed wire gate, opened it, and then walked around one
side of the barn to see the horses. As we approached the two animals
trotted off around the opposite side of the barn, straight out of the
gate that nobody had bothered to close, and off they went down the
street. It looked like we weren’t going to be riding any horses
today after all.
“Where did they go?” I asked Nicole as we began wandering back to the house.
“I dunno,” she shrugged. Such things weren’t anything to worry too much about around here.
The horses, in case you’re worried, were waiting for us back at the house, under the control of Jose. We thanked everyone and moved on, for there was still so much more to see. Some time later we descended towards a larger town, where we stopped and listened, fascinated by the variety of sounds emanating from the town. The blend of music and engines, roosters and barking dogs, was quite something. As we listened a man on a scooter stopped and spoke to us, inviting us to come for a drink with his friends, and before we knew it we were sitting on a side street outside of a little shop, enjoying more time with more Mexicans. We were even invited to stay the night at the home of the man, but we’d only ridden 30 kilometres, and we declined the offer in favour of more progress, and with a hunch that this day would bring us more great experiences yet.
Our hunch was not wrong, for at the end
of the day we arrived into another small village, hoping to find
somebody to ask if we could camp, and a boy of ten years old called
out to us, “Can you speak English?!”
“Yes, we can,” we said, a little surprised.
“Finally!” he said emphatically.
He told us he lived in Pennsylvania, and was another of the many American-born young generation of Mexicans presently back for the holiday season. He was quite the little character, with a rather silly haircut, a flat mop of hair on top, shaved short on the sides. We’d just passed a fenced-off football pitch that looked like a good place to camp, so we asked him if we could pitch our tent there for the night. We thought this might prompt him to ask a responsible adult, but instead he just furrowed his brow and then said in his slightly annoying American accent, “No, I don’t think it’s going to be possible. We need both the goals.”
We weren’t going to be denied by a ten-year-old, though, and so I told him we would ask in the shop that was positioned just next to the football pitch. “That’s not a shop,” he wailed, as if I had just said something unbelievably stupid, “that’s a store.”
The shopkeeper was very friendly, and we soon had a crowd of people around us, most of them English-speaking American-born Mexican children. All of them were of the opinion that us camping on the football pitch was an excellent idea, and the original boy now changed his tune, as if the whole thing had been his idea, telling us that we could camp in one goal and they would just play in the other.
Of course we didn’t actually need to camp in either goal, and in fact put up our tent on the grass next to the pitch. It was also next to a field with a donkey in it, something we didn’t really think through. But before a restless, braying-filled night, there was still the excitement of the football game. As a collection of American Mexican kids assembled on the pitch I went over and asked if I could join in. To my delight I was allowed. To my surprise the game really would be involving both of the goals. It was a full-size, 11-a-side pitch, and we would be taking part in a game of 4-a-side on it, with seven of the eight players being children.
This was, let’s be honest, a silly idea, with everyone getting very tired very quickly. The highlight, or perhaps lowlight, of the game, came when an eight-year-old took a pee in the penalty area. Not yet old enough to understand the irony, this immediately reminded him to tell me that there was an outhouse 50 metres away we could use, in the donkey field, should we ourselves feel the need to go to the toilet.
Despite fading light my team did manage
to win 7-0, perhaps because of my ability to hoof the ball up the
pitch much better than any of my short-legged companions. I felt very
little remorse about this, for the annoying silly-haircutted kid was
on the other team, and it had been his idea to play on the whole
pitch in the first place. It was nice to put him in his place,
although I did feel a little bad to have judged him so harshly when
he engaged me in conversation at the final whistle. Warming to him, I
decided to ask him a little more about himself too.
“So are you just here on holiday?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, once again with the tone of someone addressing an imbecile, “I’m on vacation!”