MEXICO, 27th January – 5th February 2019
We took our customary rest day before tackling the third and final leg of our cross-Mexico ride, and had the company of Paul and Kelli, a couple we’d made friends with while cycling in the US. They’d been riding the Great Divide at the same time as us and we’d cycled together for quite a while, their love of games ensuring we’d got along very well. Now they’d swapped their bikes for their usual form a travel, a van they’d converted to live in that they’d been travelling in for a couple of years. They especially liked travelling in Mexico, using the van to get between climbing spots. It was of course great to see them again, and we spent most of our time together playing games in a quiet town square, my only disappointment being that Paul was still able to beat me at absolutely everything.
The good thing about this third section of our cross-Mexico ride was that it involved a lot less climbing than the previous two, and it would ultimately end with a tremendous long downhill off the Central Mexican plateau down to sea level. And after saying farewell to Paul and Kelli for the next few days we rode along very merrily on our now relatively flat back roads, wild camping in fields, our happy progress disturbed only occasionally when we accidentally ended up on sand roads. The reason for so much fine sand everywhere was probably something to do with the nearby volcano, Pico de Orizaba, which dominated our views for days, its snowy cone providing the backdrop to many a photo during these days.
The stage culminated with a day of climbing on the flanks of Pico de Orizaba, the road eventually peaking at 2,700 metres above sea level. At the top of the pass there was a small village, where we sat on a grass bank and looked down at the start of the great descent. I had foolishly imagined we might be able to see all the way to the sea, the Gulf of Mexico, but instead all we saw were clouds. They filled the valley beneath us, rising up to the mountain ridge we sat upon, but going no further. The clear blue skies we’d had all day ended here, as did the dry, sandy landscape we’d been in. No sooner had we begun to roll downhill than we entered a different world. Everything was so much more lush and green, benefiting from the moisture. And what a descent it was, what an astonishing descent. We zipped downhill, on a road that wound around the leafy mountainside, passing constantly through little villages populated with people on the less wealthy side of Mexican life, the wooden shacks and the lush landscape making me feel like I’d arrived somehow in Laos or the south of China.
At the end of this descent we got a shock arriving in the big town of Orizaba. The busy narrow streets felt claustrophobic and dangerous and we found ourselves missing the plateau immediately. But we checked into a hotel for the night, and the following morning we were reunited once again with Ciaran, who had successfully acquired a new back wheel in Mexico City, and was keen to cycle with us again.
Team Mates cycled on out of Orizaba, and a dizzyingly steep series of switchbacks brought us down into the flat eastern plains of Mexico. Initially we were amazed by the green forests and clear running streams – an absolute paradise of a place – although it wasn’t long before these natural wonders gave way to fields of sugar cane. We navigated these on, yes, you’ve guessed it, small back roads, which were a pleasure to cycle on, other than the time when we got stuck behind a slow moving sugar cane truck.
We passed through a small village, El Moral, in the afternoon and noticed three teenagers, a guy and two girls, kicking a football around on a pitch. Ciaran loves football, as do I, and so we decided to stop and see if they fancied a match, three on three, Europe versus Mexico. They agreed immediately, although strangely Ciaran decided this was the moment to eat some sandwiches, and so for a little while Dea and I just joined in with the game the three young Mexicans had been playing before we got there, which was just practicing passing the ball to one another.
Once Ciaran was ready breeze blocks were placed as posts to make a small pitch and the game could get underway. The Mexicans had a lot of possession of the ball early on, passing it back and forth between them with the skill of people who spend most of their time practicing passing the ball to one another. They were pretty good, but when we managed to get the ball off them Ciaran and I led some swift counter-attacks. It was a pretty even game, us edging ahead, them pegging us back. For a long time the scores were close, but they wore us down with their passing game eventually, and the male member of their team began to take advantage of our tiring legs, foregoing the passing game to simply take the ball around us with his considerable skill and pace. At one point he even flicked the ball up between his feet, rainbow-kicking the ball over my head and running around me to slot the ball past Dea, and I knew the game was up. Mexico ran out deserved winners. “When we tell people about this,” I said as I trudged off next to Ciaran, “we’ll just say that we lost to three very talented Mexican teenagers, okay? We won’t mention that two of them were girls in pink slippers.”
Meanwhile Dea was in conversation with a local man, asking if it would be okay for us to camp next to the full-size football pitch. He was friendly and spoke no English, but Dea’s Spanish was improving much faster than mine, and soon the man who was in charge of the pitch had been alerted. He was a real character, a true Mexican with a very wide grey moustache and only a few teeth left in his mouth, and buttons left on his shirt. He spoke very fast and we understood very little, though this did not deter him. He showed us where we could camp, in the area next to the pitch where the most trash was, and then showed us around his own property. He showed us the chickens, the dogs, the donkey, the cows in the bottom field, the coffee plants, the fruit trees, and his two wells, one of which might have been 350 years old and contained fish. He then left us to go and make camp, although we ignored his suggestion and camped in the far corner away from the trash. Not long after it got dark we were joined by a collection of local youths, four girls aged between 12 and 22. They sat with us on the grass and chatted away in Spanish as we cooked our dinner. The most confident was a very white girl with big earrings and thick eyebrows, who did her best to persuade Ciaran to dance with her to music that was coming from the village, without success. The football must have worn him out.
The following morning we awoke to the noises of birds, roosters, and a donkey. Everything here was ever so green compared to the dry plateau, it was humid and there was a mist hanging over the volcanoes that surrounded us. Our moustachioed host soon appeared too. There was a big football match taking place later on, and it was his job to prepare the pitch, first by putting up the nets and some sticks for corner flags, and then by running along with a pot of paint, dabbing out a little with each pace, to make the lines. This method resulted in some dotted and not-very-straight pitch markings, and a six-yard box that was at least ten yards deep, but thanks to his efforts the game would go ahead. After borrowing the toilet of a fat middle-aged man who asked me if I like cocaine, who said he would be taking part in this big match, we decided it probably wasn’t going to be a game worth hanging around to watch, and we set off cycling.
A couple of days later we were on another back road through sugar cane fields, now heading south, sweating buckets in the heat and humidity, when we came across three incredibly cute puppies. They came running out of the undergrowth at the side of the road, bounding towards us and yapping excitedly, as if they had been waiting for us to come and save them. They were on a pretty remote stretch, certainly it looked like they didn’t belong to anybody and there was no sign of any mother protecting them. They had the appearance and tone of puppies that were desperate to be rescued, and in this case they had chosen their saviours wisely, for Dea and I have experience in the puppy rescue business. In fact, only a couple of days before we’d got a message from Tohir in Tajikistan, the man who had taken ownership of Harry, the puppy we’d saved while we were cycling through that region. The message had contained a photo and video of Harry, or Herry as Tohir insists on writing it, now all grown up, healthy, happy, and slipping on the ice and snow that was apparently covering the Tajik mountains. It reassured us that we’d done the right thing by taking Harry with us, finding him a loving home, and consequently it didn’t take us long to decide that doing a similar thing for these three lost pups was the right thing to do.
Actually we didn’t have a lot of choice, they ran after us without any encouragement anyway. After they’d done that I decided to feed them a little, and then there was no getting rid of them. They were tiny little things, absolutely adorable. One of them had one weird blue eye and one dark, and pointy ears. “He looks like a devil,” Dea said, “ a cheeky devil,” and so we called him Cheeky. Another was similarly tiny, and was grey and ridiculously cute, ridiculously cute. I called him Buddy. The third was a little bigger than the others, and at first reminded us of Harry, though he turned out not to have quite the same loveable character, and didn’t immediately earn a name.
The bigger one could run along at our pace okay, but the two smaller ones really struggled to run for long in the heat. I knew just what to do. I scooped them up and put them in my basket. They were so small that I could fit them both in. But I don’t think they had ever ridden in a basket before, and before long Cheeky panicked and leapt out. Buddy tried too, but I caught him. They couldn’t keep up running though, panting so much, yapping pathetically. We began to wonder if we’d bitten off more than we could chew with three puppies.
After just a few kilometres we came to a village, and we decided that one way or another we would probably have to offload the puppies here. So we began going door-to-door offering up the puppies. We got a little interest. At one house a woman with a young girl came out and seemed keen on taking one of them. I wasn’t sure, I thought the pups should stick together, even as the mum asked the daughter which one she would like. But then the grandma came out and, as the elder women have the final say in such households, called the whole thing off.
We weren’t having much luck, with a few big dogs in the village coming out and barking viciously at our young crew, and everyone saying no thanks. Then we came to the very last house in the village. I called in through the open door and a woman came out. She looked at the puppies and smiled. She spoke in Spanish that we couldn’t understand, but she seemed to actually recognise the puppies, knew who they belonged to, or where they should be, or something. She seemed to know what would be best for them, certainly she was in a better position to help them than we were. We asked if she could take them, and she nodded her head and beckoned them in through her gate into the safety of her yard. She bent down and petted them in a loving way, and we were happy. Another successfully completed puppy rescue!