Take Me to Tampico

    When I awoke on that final morning in Gomez Farias, my body was stiff and sore.  Yet I knew that it was time for Tampico, and I hoped eagerly that as I drew nearer to the coast, the landscape would become a lush green paradise.  Well, unfortunately, this was wishful thinking, and once I had finished rolling down the eight mile hill coming down from Gomez Farias, I was quickly welcomed back to the stiflingly hot, arid world that I had left behind.

    The road ahead led through long, flat fields with nothing to break the wind which pushed across at an angle.  The first leg of the journey to Tampico was a southward highway to Ciudad Mante, at which point I would head East to Gonzalez, and then cut southeast for the final stretch to the coast.  Although it was rather gusty, I managed to keep up a steady pace for those first few hours, at one point passing through a rather lush little town along a coffee colored river called the Rio Frio.  But I had quickly flown through and was back out in the fields, only hoping that Ciudad Mante would come soon and the winds along the eastward portion of the journey would be less harrowing.  Eventually, off in the distance I saw great smokestacks with billowing plumes of black smoke rising into the air, and as I had read that Mante was an industrial town, I knew that I must be close.  As I pushed ahead, the highway began to curve around the city and the dust from the barren roadside whirled through the air with the heavy winds.  Finally, I saw the signs for my turnoff towards Tampico and was moments later making a left and passing along the outskirts of the not so scenic city.

    Much to my dismay, as left the urban zone of Ciudad Mante, the scene around me not only began to grow far windier (and now it was directly in my face) but also incredibly dry and sandy.  Oh woe is me, how much longer must this go on?  But this was the wrong question to ask, as apparently this was just the beginning.  Now, even small towns and civilization began to grow so sparse that I could go for what felt like hours without seeing even one house or tienda.  At one point, I had drained almost all of my water bottles and what was left was just a few boiling drops that now tasted like the plastic as it simmered in the sun.  I felt parched and yearned for a place to find respite, but every muscle in my body was moaning that it couldn’t go on and my skin was a shiny mess of layer after layer of sweat melting with sunscreen.  All around me, only desolate fields and dusty sand stretched endlessly out to the horizon, the road just a straight, glimmering ribbon ahead.  This went on for hour after hour after hour, until I could barely take it anymore.  At one point, the hazy outline of a lone rock mountain rose way off in the distance and taunted me as it never appeared to grow any nearer or farther away as I rode along.

    Well, you needn’t hear me gripe endlessly, suffice it to say that this turned into one of my least favorite days of riding so far, and by nightfall I was just reaching Gonzales.  I stopped for a quick bite to eat and had soon thereafter found a very cheap motel along the highway, as I could barely stand the thought of crawling into my sleeping bag as filthy and achy as I was at the time.  When I awoke the next morning, it was a rather uneventful ride to Tampico, although fortunately the wind had died down somewhat.  I stopped at one point for a slice of sandia (watermelon) at a roadside stand and bought a pair of mangos to strap onto my cargo for later.  Several hours later I began to see signs for Altamira, Ciudad Madero, and Tampico, which formed the metropolitan cluster along the southern Tamaulipas coast.  The traffic quickly exacerbated and I was battling tooth and nail to claim my spot on the edge of the road.  Also, since they don’t much believe in traffic lights here, I was also bouncing endlessly over massive, jagged speed bumps and desperately vying to avoid being pushed into the deep craters in the pavement.  I raced along through the obstacle course, drawing on my last surges of adrenaline that kept reminding me that Tampico was surely just around the bend.  But the bumper to bumper traffic stretched onward and wound through tightly packed tiendas, houses, and larger shopping districts that loomed around the main road.

    Finally, the traffic seemed to all divert off on side roads along the way, and what was once highway 180 was now Hidalgo Street, leading towards the downtown district.  After stopping to ask for a quick reference towards the Plaza de la Libertad, I was moments later at the Hotel Plaza.  As I rolled my bike up onto the sidewalk and lumbered towards the front entrance, I heard someone talking to me in English from behind.  I turned to see who it was and a gentleman greeted me, exclaiming that he was surprised to see me back.  I replied that he must have me mistaken with someone else and I quickly discovered that there was a dutch traveler with a bicycle that had passed through some months earlier that he had met.  We chatted for a while and he introduced himself as Cesar, he worked at the Hotel Colonial a few doors down.  He told me that although he could not get me a great rate at the Colonial (since it was a slightly more upscale hotel) he could talk to the people at the plaza and help me out.  So we went in and a few minutes later he had haggled them down to twenty bucks per night, which for a haggard traveler who just wanted to unpack, rinse off and have a base-camp in Mexico, didn’t sound too bad.  As I checked in, Cesar informed me that he was usually out front of the Colonial and that I should look for him after I was all settled in.

    When I entered the hotel room on the second floor of the building, I was overjoyed to see that it was a spacious area with two queen sized beds, huge windows, and a desk at which I could sit and work from.  As always, I immediately found my cleanest outfit, hopped into the little shower stall, and less than an hour was headed out to explore the city and discover new and affordable cuisine.  Cesar had mentioned the Centro Gastronomico and I had also read about it in my Lonely Planet guidebook, so I thought what better place to start.  After wading through the little tents of street merchants selling touristy knick-knacks, I found a small stall on the corner of one of market buildings and sidled up onto the tiny stool at the tightly packed bar-top with the comely women in the kitchen industriously working away only two feet in front.  I order some sort of chicken broth soup with what looked like egg noodles and an unidentified, cooked-down chicken part in it.  I also had a chicken mole type dish and when I ran low on tortillas, the gruff, overly attentive girl sitting next to me handed me some of hers while constantly rambling on in a muttered tone that I couldn’t understand and seemingly coming on to me.  I finished my meal quite promptly, and once I had gotten to the point of feeling somewhat more than slightly uncomfortable, I cheerily said goodbye and made a quick pace deep into the windy markets, hoping that she wouldn’t give chase.

    I meandered around the markets for a while, more so enjoying the cultural experience and newness of it than searching for anything in particular.  Once I had had my fill, I found a little stairway that wound up into a wall and climbed far above.  I was back up on the higher street level and stopped into a large hotel to exploit their free wi-fi and catch up with the online world that I had been away from since Ciudad Victoria.  Early in the evening, I found myself quite exhausted and headed back to the hotel to call it an early evening.  The rest of the weekend passed in much the same fashion, me exploring the city, running several errands, trying as much new cuisine as I could get my hands on, and on Saturday afternoon taking the colectivo out to the beach in Ciudad Madero, about seven or eight miles away (a colectivo is like a taxi but waits until it is full with passengers and in this case only charged five pesos per person – thats about fifty cents!).  The beautiful azure beach turned out to be a lively place with endless thatched cabanas along the shore and numerous merchants roaming along the sandy coastline selling everything from hammocks and boiled corn to fried animal parts that most people probably wouldn’t eat in the US.  However, the beach wasn’t really the type of place for a lone tourist to hang out for long, as it was filled with vacationing families and everyone sat under cabanas rather than laying on towels in the sand.  Because of this, I felt that it might be slightly awkward for me to be the lone person laying on the sand working on my tan and instead opted to sit under one of the straw roofed cabanas and read for a while (therefore also avoiding being trampled by the constant merchant traffic roaming along the beachfront).  After a couple of hours, the novelty of the beach wore off and I decided that I was ready to be back in the city and had a few chores to take care of that evening.  

    When I returned, as I walked by the Hotel Colonial, I again ran into Cesar.  Cesar was the type of guy who had lived all over the place, gotten into all kinds of strange and unusual situations, and loved to tell people all about it.  Although I had wanted to practice my spanish a bit more, it was quite a relief to talk in English for a change.  Towards the end of our conversation Cesar invited me to enjoy a Sunday barbecue with his family the following day and I readily accepted, anxious for an opportunity to dip into some local culture.  The next day saw me up bright and early and moments after I was toweling off from my morning shower, Cesar was ringing me on the hotel room phone from the lobby down below.  I descended to meet him and as we headed to the local HEB grocery for some steaks and whatnot, Cesar was more than happy to show me his aggressive driving habits on the chaotic little streets of Tampico.  We weaved treacherously through traffic and only got pulled over once, which unlike in the US, turned out to be hardly an inconvenience, as Cesar concocted a simple excuse and less than two minutes later was speeding away sans ticket or citation.

    When we reached Cesar’s cinder block home on the North end of town, his wife Rosa and two children, Hector and Ana, greeted us at the door.  Rosa was a pleasantly languid and portly housewife who was well into her third pregnancy and spoke in a casually rapid, rolling dialect of which I only understood about one of every ten words.  The two children were a stark contrast with their endless boisterousness and energy, Hector always quick to perform his antics while Ana was shier but sweet and adorable.  It turned out to be a wonderfully relaxed day, just enjoying the company of the family, grilling outside the back door, drinking a few Coronas, and watching the kids do flips into the shallow kiddy pool on the pavement driveway.  We feasted on succulently marinated fajita steaks in mozzarella melted tortillas with a phenomenal homemade salsa, some of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had (with sliced onions, cilantro, and a variety of other ingredients mixed in), roasted potatoes, and small roasted onions (cooked in tin foil and eaten with just a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt).  All in all, it was just what the doctor had ordered for a weary traveler going through social withdrawal in a foreign land.

    That Sunday was my final day in Tampico and the following day I knew that my journey south into the state of Veracruz would begin.  And honestly, I was quite ready.  I had had quite my fill of dry desert landscapes and with the exception of Cesar’s family and a few others along the way, had not found the people of Tamaulipas to be particularly welcoming, friendly, or cheerful people.  However, I did enjoy the communal aspect of Mexico which I was quickly discovering.  It was as though it was the opposite of the United States, and rather than promoting the individual destiny of a person, it fostered community and interdependence.  People here relied on one another for basic survival, and it seemed to me that what they might not otherwise have access to, the community provided.  The Plaza de la Libertad was constantly  bursting with music and performances both day and night, the city had implemented a wireless internet network within the central zone (although I did have trouble accessing it, it just seemed so much more practical in such a tightly populated area), and people spent their days just strolling the streets and enjoying reasonably priced cuisine and other treats around every corner, very unlike the exorbitantly hiked prices of US cities.  I had thus far only had a small taste of Mexican life, and although I hadn’t quite found complete satisfaction here, I was optimistic for what the coming weeks would bring and what other enticing promises the country might hold.


1 Response to “Take Me to Tampico”

  1. July 27, 2013 at 4:22 am

    Hello, I enjoy reading all of your article. I
    wanted to write a little comment to support you.

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