La Ultima Subida en Mexico

    The wind whipped in through the narrowly opened sliding glass window in the back of the colectivo van as we raced along narrow, winding mountain roads that climbed ever higher into the mountains of Chiapas.  I had neared the threshold of exhaustion during my earlier ride through the steep initial ascent in over one hundred degree temperatures on bicycle, and had therefore, after several torturous hours, decided on alternate transport.  I was still a long way from San Cristobal de las Casas, and since I had told Erendira’s newphew, Geovanni, that I would be arriving that evening, I knew that this was also the only mode that would deliver me to the fabled mountain city in time.

    Only a few minutes earlier, I had stood on the roadside at the turn for Misol-Ha, the late afternoon sun blazing down upon me, soaking me in my own sweat and ever increasing my conviction that a colectivo was my wisest alternative.  A friendly Chiapas native ambled up in his indigo collared shirt and black denim pants tucked in to high top rubber boots.  As we waited, he told me that he had a parcel of land here near Misol-Ha, but lived in a nearby town down the road.  Before planting a new field of corn, they would raze a portion of their parcel to clear the land and leave them with fertile soil in which to grow their crops – which explained all the smoldering fields I had passed by earlier in the day.  We continued conversing for the next half an hour, but when the colectivo still did not arrive, he decided that he would just walk the remaining distance back to his village.  So, I continued waiting, and hoping that with my transport would come relief from the stagnant heat.  Then finally, I saw it, a long van with a sign for Ocosingo in the front window, careening down the road in my direction.  I flagged it down and the driver smiled and nodded as he pulled over.  I had disassembled my cargo from my bicycle and before he had even opened his door, was already lifting my bike up above my head and heaving it onto the roof rack of the vehicle.   A moment later he had come around to help me and climbed up the narrow ladder on the back of the van while I hoisted my remaining panniers and duffle up to his waiting hands.  He lashed all of my luggage on tightly and a few moments later we were off.

    At first, when the fan had stopped and I had prepared to board, I wondered if there was indeed any seat available for me.  Through the windows, all I could see was shoulder to shoulder men, women and children.  But the driver assured me that we could all squeeze in, and as I flung open the heavy sliding door and leaned in to look for my seat, I still felt somewhat perplexed.  But then I noticed that in the fourth row, all the way in the back, there was a slight gap between two of the four boys that were sitting there.  I realized that this was my only option and began literally climbing over bodies and seats to get to the back of the van.  However, in this part of the world, just because somebody hasn’t found their seat yet doesn’t mean that the bus doesn’t start driving, and as I was writhing through the second row, the van pulled in to gear and I was almost sent rolling in to the lap of a nursing young mother next to me, who clearly didn’t need another big baby sitting in her lap.  But I quickly regained my balanced and continued back to my spot, somehow managing to spin my body around and maneuver myself down onto the seat, my hips sides of my waist firmly up against either gentleman next to me.  Ironically, after riding through blistering waves of heat and living in a perpetual sheen of sticky humidity, this was like luxury to me, and the feel of the gusting air passing through the opened window brought me the most satisfying form of relief.

    As we continued on, the van made periodic stops along the roadside, and whereas I had thought that it was completely impossible for us to take on any more passengers, it seemed that no one was getting off any time soon.  New arrivals embarked, by the singles and by the family.  There were soon children leaning up against the side windows of the van and almost sitting on my lap.  A woman with a cardboard box containing a chicken joined us, and a man clutching a bundle of palm fronds to his chest.  Other ladies in brightly colored dresses and tunics had loaded their large, blanket covered baskets onto the rooftop with the aid of the driver, and all in all, we had become quite an efficient little convoy, speeding ever higher towards the clouds.  And clouds there were, it seemed that whereas I had ridden through nothing but clear, blue, relentless skies, now the horizon before us had grown into a hazy, orangish dark grey behind the silhouettes of the wavy mountain ridges which surrounded us.  Thunder crashed and it seemed as if the whole earth around us trembled in its wake.  Then suddenly, the premonition came alive.  Almost as though a dam way above us had been split wide open, the waters poured forth.  Fat, splattering raindrops thudded down against the top of the van and outside the roadsides were soon flooding and brown waves of muddy water washed across the street.  Surprisingly, whereas this sudden change in weather might have appeared daunting and inconvenient to others, I hadn’t seen real rain in months, and I was reveling in the cleansing that it was bring to my soul.  Yet, I didn’t realize that this was the beginning of a new and overwhelming chapter of my voyage, and as the following days would unfold  I would find myself feeling less and less fondly towards this new climate.

    But for now, I was content.  I had always loved this brash, unpredictable tropical-esque storms and as the canopy surrounding the highway thrashed about, and waterfalls were born, spewing waves of water down from the mountainside high above, I could only stare out in awe.  A number of times we rocked to an almost complete halt as the driver would spot a downed tree in the road just ahead and uninhibitedly weave around it, dipping down into the shoulder of the soft roadside.  The torrents of rain came in alternating waves, and inbetween these waves, thick, cloud-like fog would rise up from the road below and completely obscure the path before us in the darkening night.  We continued on like this for the next couple of hours, and finally, at long last, began to see the sporadic lights of civilization in a valley ahead and far below us.  As we approached and began to enter Ocosingo, the rains again raged ever harder and in the midst of it, our colectivo was pulling in to the bus station.  Fortunately, there was a narrow overhang of corrugated steel above where we had parked, but one or two paces away from the van was a steadily soaking sheet of rainwater pouring down from the canopy above.  The back of the van stuck out from the shelter, and unfortunately, so did part of my luggage and bicycle on the roof above.  I asked the driver if he could reposition the van, reversing out of the space and then backing in, so as to offer me shelter while I climbed atop to get my things.  And thankfully, he did.  As I waited, another driver pestered me – “San Cristobal? San Cristobal?.”  Yes for crying out loud!  But I need my damn bags first, buddy.  Eventually, the panniers, duffle, bike and all was down and I was sprinting through the rain towards another shuttle, the driver hauling my other bags and finally we were stuffing it all in to his van.  Of course, as I would soon discover, colectivos and vans are always all too happy to not only have a gringo on board, but especially one with a particularly awkward piece of luggage for which they could charge an additional fee.  But at this point, I really didn’t care any more.  I paid, I got in, and we departed for the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, only a few short hours away.

    I had called Geovanni on the way up, and when I arrived in San Cristobal, he had informed me to meet him in the town plaza, as he was nearby and his mother had a stand along the side of the plaza selling typical sweets of the Chiapas region during a festival that was going on that weekend.  When I stepped out of the van in the high mountains of the town, the first thing that immediately struck me was the temperature  It was freezing!!  Here I was coming from unbearable heat and wearing only a sleeveless shirt and synthetic shorts, and now I was standing in the freezing cold beneath the incessant rain.  Fortunately for me, the rain wasn’t anywhere near as heavy now as it had been earlier, and right there in the bus station parking lot I opened up my bags and began pulling out warmer clothes to wear.  Once I had layered myself with another pair of thicker shorts and a long sleeved shirt, I was ready to begin moving and hoped that as I cycled along my body temperature would also rise.  I turned on to the bumpy cobblestone streets towards the town center and after a few blocks had arrived and gave Geovanni a quick call.  From a few feet away someone called my name, and as I looked up, there was Geovanni, with a pretty young lady named Sayram, his sweet and friendly girlfriend.  We greeted one another and then began walking towards the kiosk which Geo’s mother was attending to alongside the plaza.  It was fantastic, within only a few moments of arriving, I was already meeting half of the family and being welcomed in with open arms.  Geo’s father was also there, and between the two boisterous and off the cuff parents, I knew that I was in good hands as Geo told me that I would be staying in their house a couple of blocks from his place.  After we had all gotten acquainted, we headed towards their home a short distance northeast of the plaza to drop off my bike and belongings before we headed out to enjoy a Saturday night in San Cristobal.

    Geo and Say are the type of people who will listen intently to everything that you have to say and always seem to have either wonderful insight or a comical interjection to complete the thought.  They were perfect company after a day of bicycle and colectivo commuting, and for our evening entertainment we headed out to hit a few local and quite bohemian bars.  I quickly discovered that San Cristobal was quite a hippy/rasta haven and after a few entertaining bars and enough Bob Marley and Manu Chau to last me a week, we were out on the street near the square eating some post beer tacos – I love Mexico.  And what a fantastic week I spent in this little city in the clouds with my new friends.  Although it rained every day, sometimes almost all day, and although I found myself setting bowls all over my little room to catch the raindrops during the flooding downpours, somewhat reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh, I absolutely adored the company of my new friends.  Geo had a pizza joint just down the street from the gorgeous Templo de Santo Domingo, and when we weren’t hanging out there eating free pizza and subs, Say I and were out exploring the museum of mayan medicine, climbing the Cerro de San Cristobal, or roaming around the city in search of a steaming cup of local Chiapas mountain coffee.  All in all, it was a phenomenal stay, and on my last full day before my departure, Say, Geo, his mother, and I, all headed out to the much rumored village of San Juan Chamula nearby – which was also where my new title was born, San Pablo Chamula de la Posh (I’ll explain that in a moment).

    So off we went, and amazingly, a deliciously blue sky pocked with marshmellowy white clouds greeted us as we set off for the market to sample some local chalupas before catching a colectivo to San Juan Chamula.  The chalupas were yummy, real yummy.  Little tostadas layers with pulled roast chicken, shaved veggies, and dark, rich beet on top.  Then we found the vans and loaded up, of course, as I was now becoming accustomed to, alongside a throng of friendly, brightly clothed and leathery skinned indigenous folks.  It was only a short twenty minute voyage up to the town, and we were dropped on the outskirts, with the civilization in the bowl like valley beyond.  We strolled down towards the central plaza, stopping in little stores along the way to peruse their wares and try on local outfits that looked quite amusing on non-natives.  And eventually, yes, we made it to the town center.  For hundreds of meters, all the way across, the plaza was stuffed with stands and kiosks selling all sorts of local handicrafts and fresh produce.  We meandered towards the church on the far side, the main allure for almost all who come to discover the town of San Juan Chamula.  Yes, this was the church where ancient mayan worship and christianity came together, and of course, as is always the trend here, there was a cover charge.  But no biggie, I covered the expenses for my little group of friends who had come only to accompany me and to provide wonderful company, and shortly thereafter we were within the church.  All around us, thousands of candles burned, native men and women kneeled on the floor which was covered in a carpet o fresh pine straw, praying to saints which flanked the walls.  Some had bottles of Coca-Cola (sadly, a part of their religious rituals) and also the potent local sugar alcohol of posh.  We explored the premises for a time and Geo even questioned one of the priests as to some of the traditions which he had never himself known of or understood.  We left the church pensive and satisfied – and also ready to try some posh!  And so we did. Just outside of the wall which surrounded the church courtyard was one gentleman with a little stand where he was selling locally brewed posh, and we were more than happy to support his endeavors.  First we sipped on pure posh, but I quickly decided that this wasn’t for me and opted for posh with nanciye, a local fruit, of which I don’t know the english translation.  Then finally, after a few little cups to brighten our day, we headed towards the vans and back towards San Cristobal.

    The next day was bittersweet, as I spent my last few hours with Say and Geo, shopping at the artesian markets by the Templo de Santo Domingo in the morning, but knowing that by afternoon I would be on my way closer to the Guatemala border and leaving my wonderful friends behind.  But alas, so is the life of a hobo like myself, and after yet another goodbye, I was off, cycling out towards the main road to Comitan and to my new friend Anna’s home, where later that evening we would be dining on sumptuous italian cuisine and embarking on what was to become an outlandish week-long birthday celebration.


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