Archive for the 'Mexico' Category

09
Nov
08

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.

09
Nov
08

Discovering Tabasco

    The morning after touring the cane fields of Lerdo de Tejada, Goyo had insisted on giving me a ride up to the hilly Tuxtlas, because of the treacherous and windy roads ahead.  The ride wasn’t long, and we departed from Lerdo at eight in the morning, arriving in San Andres Tuxtla about forty minutes later.  It was chilly, foggy and damp as Goyo helped me to remove my bicycle and equipment from the back of his SUV.  I sincerely thanked him for his time and hospitality, and once again set off into the mists, riding up the hills into obscurity.  Yet it was a rather pleasant and relaxing journey, and I knew that not long ahead I would arrive in the lakeside resort town of Catemaco, where I could find some breakfast before continuing along on my journey.  As I entered the modestly sized town, I headed for the centro, hoping to find absorb a bit of the culture during my short stay.  I found a hotel along the Zocalo which was serving breakfast, had wifi, and had a wide veranda on which to dine and decided that this was as good a spot as any.  As I enjoyed my breakfast of chiliquiles (spelled something like that), the young lady sitting at the next table and I struck up a conversation.  Her name was Ana and she was on assignment in Catemaco working with the parks and natural reserved in the area, although living in Mexico City.  We chatted as we finished up her breakfast, and she let me know that she would be traveling to South America within the next several months, and that perhaps if we were in the same area at the same time we might meet up.  With this we exchanged e-mail addresses and then she was on her way to a meeting.

    I finished not long after, made a quick stroll down to the lakefront to do some sightseeing, and then wanting to take advantage of my early morning start and cover as much distance as possible, soon after set off to continue on towards the next state of Tabasco.  The ride that day was gorgeous, at first hauling up large uphill stretches in the morning mists through the moist forests.  Then, as the afternoon approached, the mists began to burn away and I found myself racing through primitive little roadside villages nestled into the foliage.  At this point the road ahead had turned into a nice, steady downhill stretch and I took full advantage of the reprieve.  After some time the landscape flattened out into gentle rolling hills and the temperatures began to rise until everything around me seemed to waver in the afternoon heat.  Nonetheless, I was covering a fantastic amount of ground and was hoping that by the end of the day I could reach the town of Minititlan in the southern tip of Veracruz.  But as the afternoon wore on, the dusty heat and hundreds of topes (speed-bumps) began to aggravate and tire me.  As I pedaled along through bumper to bumper traffic on the one lane highway, slowly idling over the endless topes, I saw one particularly craggy and protruding one just ahead, but as my tire hit it the bicycle bounced upward quickly and then back down with a shudder.  My pannier holding all of my possessions had popped off the of the rear rack, smashed into the ground behind, and was now rolling along the highway towards incoming car tires.  Argh!  I didn’t need this right now!  I was exhausted, frustrated, and just wanted my shower and to rest.  I pulled the bike over, laid it on the ground and sprinted back for the bag on the edge of the roadway.  After another ten minutes and much struggling, I finally managed to re-secure my equipment and continued on towards Minititlan.  Then, finally, after one incredibly long, sweaty day of riding, I entered the town, found a hotel near the center, and decided to call it a day.

    For breakfast the following morning I hunted down a panaderia for some fresh baked bread and only a few blocks farther down found a large container of assorted, sliced tropical fruit and fresh squeezed orange juice for only a dollar each.  Once I had replenished my energy it was back to the road, and whereas the beginning of the trip was filled with beautifully lush hills, the latter part of the day turned into flat plains of marsh and farmland.  Again, the sun beat down against my skin, and although I made a valiant effort to reach Villahermosa that day, as the sun began to sink and I found no place suitable to camp, I though it best to search for some assistance.  I was only a few miles away from the city and managed to flag down a pickup to bring me in the final stretch, since my body ached and I thought it better than riding in the darkness.  Although I didn’t have a place lined up in which to stay in Villahermosa, I decided that I would find a place to use the internet and search for a cheap hostel or hotel.  My driver dropped me off at a Sanborn’s cafe on the West side of town and as I was just finishing getting my things out of the back of the pickup and out onto the sidewalk, a friendly voice greeted me.  Her name was Erendira, and when she saw the bicycle and all of the equipment her curiosity had peaked.  Her friend Carlos also came out to join us and we all chatted for a while in the humid evening heat.  I told her about my trip and she asked me where I was staying that evening.  When they discovered that I was searching for a place to stay, they offered to let me stay at Carlos’ apartment nearby and after a few minutes we began piling my things into the back of his little coupe and I was riding my bicycle behind them to the apartment.

    The next few days were spent with my wonderful new friends, heading to the bowling alley to watch Carlos and his family’s team compete, sleeping in an air-conditioned room (which was almost a necessity in Villahermosa), and exploring the city.  One day we went and got dinner at a little seafood restaurant in the Malecon neighborhood, which only a few months earlier had been completely flooded during the torrential downpours of the rainy season.  However, now, most of the area head been somewhat repaired, and we sat down to enjoy camarrones empanizadas and camarrone empanadas (which yes, are quite different – one is fried shrimp and the other is shrimp in empanadas).  It was all quite delicious, and during dinner we had decided to take a trip in a pochimovi, the Villahermosa term for a tuktuk.  We raced around the small streets nearby and along the sandbagged riverfront, dodging and weaving through other pochimovis as we passed.  Once the ride was over, we migrated towards the other side of the river to explore the zona centro of the city, pausing at frequent intervals for campy photo ops.  After that, Erendira had to head to her salsa class, although on the way we stopped from some eskinos, somewhat similar to a strawberry milkshake, and a Villahermosa trademark.  Carlos and I decided to join Erendira for the salsa class, but only as observers, watching the class as the instructor counted “cuatro, cinco, seis… uno, dos, tres,” over and over again.  Carlos and I had thought that Erendira would be exhausted after her class, but instead she insisted that we head to the other side of town to try some marquesitas, another Villahermosa treat.  At this point I was quite full since we had stopped several times to forage for food, but I thought that I should at least try the marquesitas now that we were there.  They turned out to be very yummy, essentially freshly prepared crepes with the toppings of your choice, rolled into a cylinder, and cooling off to a nice crispy texture.  All in all it was quite a full day, and since Erendira had lost her keys, we retired to Carlos’ apartment for a few more hours, chatting and waiting for Erendira’s sister to return with her keys.

    The next day I slept in (although Carlos had to get up for work at six, after only a few very short hours of sleep), and when Carlos returned around lunchtime, he said that he had gotten the rest of the day off to go watch the football game that day (although maybe it was because his grandmother was sick… I can’t remember for certain).  So we headed down to a local pub filled with big-screen T.V.s on the main strip in town.  However, I had plans to meet up with my friend Daniel from CouchSurfing for lunch, so during the first half of the game I dipped out and headed a few blocks away to Daniel’s printing business to meet he and his wife Lorena.  The two turned out to be incredibly pleasant and outgoing, showing me around the workshop first and then Daniel and I heading out to a restaurant nearby for some typical cuisine of Villahermosa.  Afterwards, we headed over to Lorena’s family’s house to meet her sisters and mother.  When we arrived, the house was right in the middle of town and abuzz with the teenage children coming and going, the sisters and mother sitting on the front porch chatting, and friends coming to visit.  They all welcomed me warmly and I sat to join in the conversation and soon felt like family.  They insisted that I come to stay at their place that evening and the following morning Daniel would take me and another young lady who was coming to visit, out to a beautiful place near Tapijulapa, in the Southern hills of Tabasco.  Not long after, we were headed over to Carlos’ place in Daniel’s van with half of the family coming along for company, where I went up and lugged all of my things down the four flights of stairs, making plans to meet up with Carlos the following day for dinner.  When we returned to the other house, Lorena’s sisters Cecilia and Louisa took me out to a local taco restauran which was one of the best in town.  As we sat and enjoyed our gringas, al pastor tacos, and jamaica, I got to know them a little better and we were all laughing like old friends.  Afterwards, we headed back to the house and retired to our rooms for the evening.

    When I awoke in the morning, Lorena’s mother had prepared me a fantastic breakfast of fresh papaya juice with chorizo scrambled eggs and steaming tortillas.  Not long after, Lorena arrived to take me down the print-shop to meet up with Daniel for the trip to Tapijulapa.  She also brought ReDeat with her, a sweet girl from Ethiopia who had been living in Pennsylvania for most of her life.  ReDeat had already been out to the area near Tapijulapa and fallen in love with it – this time she wanted to go back and look for a job there for the rest of the summer.  So that morning, Daniel, ReDeat and I made the hour long drive out to the countryside and as we began to ascend into the rolling hills near the northern border of Chiapas, the landscape became thicker and leafier.  When we finally arrived, we disembarked and walked down to a river at the bottom of the hill to await a lancha (longboat), that would come to pick us up and carry us down the river to the jungle resort where ReDeat was seeking employment.  It was a beautifully blue skied day, and only a few minutes after embarking on the lancha and speeding down the river the motor died and our captain used a long wooden pole to push the boat downstream through the shallow riverbed.  Not long after, we arrived at the docks and hopped off, making our way up the hill and through little wooden plank fjorded rivers, low hanging canopies, and finally out into an open grassy courtyard, filled with small cabanas and green tie-dyed tropical foliage.  We went in to the main office and sat for a while during ReDeat’s interview, and after some coaxing, it looked like she had landed the job.  Afterwards, we decided to tour the vast property, strolling down little trails through the woods, spotting peacocks, and then hiking out to the nearby waterfalls for a dip.  We stripped down to our bathing suits underneath the cascading crystal waters of the falls and bathed for a few hours in the cool river waters beneath the thick treetops above.  Of course, it didn’t take long for me to get hungry and suggest that we go find lunch, so again we packed up our things and made our way back to the van, this time utilizing a treacherous looking Indiana Jones style rope bridge over the river, which I couldn’t resist rocking precipitously back and forth to tease ReDeat as we crossed the brown waters from a hundred feet above.  For lunch we made our way to the town of Tapijulapa, which was a sleepy little red and white painted village with terra-cotta roofed cottages.  We ate empanadas and tortas to quench our hunger, and when we had finished, embarked on the journey back to the city.

    That evening, Cecilia, Carlos and I met up for a quick dinner out at the taco stands near Carlos’ apartment and for me to say goodbye to Carlos, as I would be heading out the following morning.  We sat out on the street-side in plastic lawn chairs as we ate and once we had finished Carlos drove us back across town to Cecilia’s house where we said goodnight.  Cecilia and I sat up chatting in the living room for a short while and I was so glad to have met such a wonderfully fun and witty person as her during my time in Villahermosa.  In the morning, Louisa took me to search for a bicycle store for some parts for my ride, but unfortunately these parts don’t seem to be very common south of the U.S. border.  After a fruitless search, she dropped me off on the outskirts of town and I continued my journey towards Palenque.  After cycling for some time, then taking a short ride across a vast, dusty construction zone, I eventually made it to the turn off for Palenque and knew that I was in the final stretch.  I rode through the lush green fields for some time and then finally arrived in the town of Palenque, found a hostel and called it a night.

    When morning dawned I carried my bike down the stairs to the street and hopped on to make the short voyage out to the ruins of Palenque, about a half an hour away.  It was a hilly little road, with the mountains of Chiapas looming off to the left side as I pedaled along.  The last stretch was a steep uphill climb, and as I pulled into a clearing at the top, I saw the tourist vans and indigena kiosks scattered around the parking lot.  I purchased a ticket for the ruins, a bottle of water, and headed in to explore my second set of ruins in Mexico, but this time, Mayan.  It was a beautiful site, with temples built into the mountainside, throughout the fields, overlooking the plains below, and tucked into the dense jungle nearby.  However, my plan was to tour the ruins and still be back at the hotel by checkout time, so after a few hours I checked my watch and decided that it was time to return to the town.  Once I arrived, I repacked my things and prepared for the daunting task of riding up in to the mountains of Chiapas.  For several hours I rode, straight uphill on windy roads cut alongside the steep mountains, in scalding, intolerable heat.  I forged on, but know that under these conditions I could not continue for much longer.  When I saw the sign for the waterfalls of Misol-Ha, I didn’t even hesitate as I turned the handlebars in the direction of the side road, thinking only of cold, delicious water.  At the entrance to the falls, I asked a security guard if he would watch my mount and almost ran down to the waterfall at the end of the road, peeled my sweat soaked clothes off and dove in to the refreshing mountain pool at the bottom of the crashing waters.  I swam around for some time, trying to decide what my next move would be, and when I met a few other travelers basking in the sun on the huge rocks beside the pool, they told me that the colectivo shuttles stop on the sides of the main road and run to Ocosingo, then to San Cristobal de las Casas.  Before leaving, I joined them to explore the pitch black caves below the waterfall which were filled with the roar of yet another unseen waterfall inside the mountainside.  Then finally, it was time to go, and I returned to my bike to ride back out to the main road and pray for a colectivo to deliver me from the skin melting heat to the chilly fabled highlands of San Cristobal.

09
Nov
08

Reaching a Slow Boil

    The first change that I noticed as I flew swiftly down from the highlands of Xalapa was the dramatic rise in temperature.  Whereas the morning had dawned cool and overcast in Xalapa, as I approached the low coastal plains I could almost feel my skin melting as the blinding sunlight pervaded the landscape.  However, it was my first day back on my chariot in over two weeks and I was well rested and anxious to arrive in the Port of Veracruz, my next destination.  And only one flat tire and a short five and a half hour ride later, I was there.  After taking one wrong turn on a road which had apparently been detoured, I redirected and was passing quickly in to the town center.  Fortunately, Aldo had gifted me a map of Veracruz before I left Xalapa and as I neared Paulina’s neighborhood, only a few blocks southeast of the centro, I consulted the map to check my cross streets.  At this point in time I wasn’t quite familiar with the word callejon, but as I rode the last two blocks to her apartment, I quickly realized that it meant alleyway, by the tiny little street that was wedged in between the clustered two story buildings on both sides – and only a half a block from the boardwalk along the ocean.

    When I arrived and called Paulina from downstairs, she told me that she would be right out, and after waiting at the foot of the stairs beneath her second story apartment, a sweet, and welcoming voice called down to me.  Finally, Paulina, the girl that I had been corresponding with online for the past several weeks and couldn’t wait to meet!  And she was even more adorable and sweet in person than I could have imagined.  Paulina worked as an announcer for one of the popular radio stations in Veracruz and listening to her deliciously witty and smooth words was a pleasure unto itself.  Once I had made the three trips up the stairs to lug first my equipment, and then the bike up, Paulina and I quickly got acquainted.  We had plans to head to the Zocalo that evening, so I didn’t waste any time in finding the shower (as you can probably imagine the state I was in after riding all day in that heat) and about an hour after I had arrived we were already hopping into her car and headed for the center of town.  When we arrived, we found a table amidst the rows of outdoor seating, surrounded by live musicians in every direction, playing all varieties of Mexican music.  It was a Saturday night and quite a lively atmosphere, and only moments after we sat down, her friends began to arrive, one by one.  By the time we were all assembled, there were five of us in all, and although they had all eaten, they were happy to sit and enjoy a beer with me while I tried one of the tortas which Paulina recommended (which quickly became my favorite dish – like a huge improvement on what americans call a sandwich, and even usually made with fresh baked bread).  I had soon assimilated into the group of friends, who apparently all worked for the radio station, and after we finished our drinks we headed out to hit the bars.  That night found us dancing and rolling in laughter around a table with two bottles of rum where Carlos and I quickly took a liking to one another’s senses’ of humor.

    For the next several days, I lounged around Veracruz in the stifling heat, just relaxing and not really having the motivation to do absolutely anything as the temperatures crossed the boiling point, the winds died to a dull stillness, and the humidity soaked through every new outfit as it touched my skin.  And although Paulina was both working all day and taking classes in the evening, Carlos’ schedule was much more open, as he was only taking a few classes and working sporadically.  Consequently, we managed to laze around the city together, heading to the beach one day, out to his friend Marling’s house on another, me tagging along to a birthday party that Carlos was singing at, drinking Micheladas (beer with salsa-like spices and a type of tomato juice) at a pool on the boardwalk by Paulina’s apartment, and heading to the movie theater at the Plaza de las Americas in Boca del Rio on my last day there.  All in all it was quite a languid, and although unbearably hot, nevertheless pleasant week spent in Veracruz.  But as the days rolled by all that I could think about was relief, and that meant getting out of the fire.

    So, finally, I left.  On my last morning there, Carlos came by and we sliced up cantaloupe, apples, bananas and pears, and breakfasted on them alongside some delicious sweet breads (no, not that kind of sweet bread).  Then we said our goodbyes and I was back on the road and sweatin’ it out.  But, the one relief of riding is that you create your own wind as you go, plus, you’re so completely soaked in sweat that hygiene seems like less of an issue – oh joy.  It wasn’t far to my first destination, and after a five hour ride I was arriving in the tiny little port town of Alvarado nestled alongside a high ridge which was wedged between the ocean and a wide open bay.  I hadn’t originally planned to spend the night there in Alvarado, but as this town was the first of three in a string of contacts which my mother’s friend Maria had helped to put me in touch with, and after a feeling the my skin smoldering in the bright afternoon sun for most of the day, I was ready for relief.  When I arrived at the town hall and found Maria’s friend, we chatted briefly, and although he was in the middle of his work-day, he was able to point me towards a nearby budget hotel.  And although this was around four in the afternoon, there wasn’t really much more of a story to Alvarado – I arrived in the hotel room, showered, and basically collapsed on the bed from heat exhaustion.  And with the exception of waking briefly after a few hours to find dinner and a bottle of ice cold water (no, of course the hotel didn’t have air conditioning!), it was back to sleep again until the following morning.

    When I awoke the next morning, I had only one task to complete before leaving town, and that was to find a local laboratorio and see if they couldn’t tell me just what exactly it was that had kept me in and out of sickness for the past several weeks (which I’ve mostly omitted from this journal, as they haven’t particularly been pleasant experiences and I think I do enough complaining about the part where I’m on a bicycle in the hot sun anyway).  Well, so there I went with my little sample in a lab cup, walking down the street of a little Mexican port town in search of the lab.  Didn’t take too long though, and fortunately the kindly lady who owned the lab told me that she could have my results for me in just a few hours.  When I returned I discovered that I had not one, but two little friends living inside of me and couple of days later, after consulting my references, I began a new regiment of medication.

    That afternoon I rode onward, and although it was not on my route, Tlacotalpan was a little town only a few miles inland from the coast which had come highly recommended to me, and in which I would find the second friend in my human scavenger hunt.  And what a pleasure it was to head towards Tlacotalpan.  After I crossed the high bridge which turned away from the coastal ridge at a right angle and gently sloped down to the coastal plains amidst endless fields and a wide river on the horizon, I was greeted by a perfectly flat, gracefully curving road.  The road ran along the deliciously sparkling, azure blue river, flanked by palm fronds and low, grassy, spring-green vegetation on all sides.  As I drew towards the end of the eight mile stretch in to Tlacotalpan, I began to see the brightly painted little structures of the town beyond a short stretch of palm stands.  The town appeared perfectly relaxed and sleepy, and again, although I had only planned to make a side excursion for the day and then return to my route, I found myself quite enchanted and in the mood to pass away the afternoon in leisure and had soon decided to stay a while.  It didn’t take me long to find “Paleta Pepe,” a kindly older gentleman whom I chatted with for a while in the shade of his paleteria on the corner of the lovely little town zocalo.  As we chatted, I enjoyed the lime paleta (like what american’s call a popsicle, but hand made, and yes, more delicious haha) which he had offered me, and as we finished our conversation he was able to point me in the direction of a nearby guest-house, which I would never have been able to find on my own, and which turned out to be quite a boon as the town’s hotel prices were highly overinflated (and the guest-house was wonderfully comfortable, and gave me yet another opportunity to practice my spanish with the sweet and inquisitive family with whom I spent the night).  The afternoon found me reading beneath the umbrella of a quaint little arched veranda cafe alongside the town plaza, sipping coffee and hand-squeezed lemonade well into the evening.  Once I had also finished off a yummy pierna torta, I strolled back through the dim and tranquil little streets to my home for the night, amidst the rolling squeaks of hundreds of tiny geckos which clung to the sides of the shadowed pastel houses.

    I awoke refreshed and ready for my ride the next day and after finding a fantastic little spot only a few blocks away for my breakfast (which was apparently quite popular with the locals), I was headed back towards the coastal highway and the road to Lerdo de Tejada.  By now I had grown quite accustomed to the heat, and although there had been a wonderful breeze in Tlacotalpan, I didn’t seem to mind the humid haze as I cheerfully road along the ridge, with the view of the gentle river way down below off to my right.  After a few hours I had descended down into a wide, flat field region and was making wonderful progress.  By early afternoon I had already reached Lerdo and began the hunt for the third and final member of my search.  Finally, after searching with some difficulty, I located the hotel which “Goyo” ran and was greeted with a warm welcome, as he had been expecting me for some weeks.  After a few minutes of getting acquainted, we were joined by his wife and I parked my bike inside as we boarded their car to head for a nearby seafood restaurant.  And what a restaurant it was!  I had the most fantastic ensalada de camarones (shrimp salad), not like a leafy green salad, but instead a dish of heaps of tiny little river shrimp in a creamy dressing with tortilla chips – yummm, I can still taste them now.  After lunch we headed back to drop of Goyo’s wife and then out to Maria’s family’s farm for a tour of the fields.  And a terrific tour it was.  After off-roading for several miles through the hilly green fields, we began to drive through high sugar cane fields, some still green and lush, others scorched and harvested.  Goyo explained the harvesting process to me and then we drove around to another side of the rancho where healthy cows grazed in verdant fields alongside a wide, beautiful lake at the foot of a low hillside.  We chatted for a while and then headed back towards town.  But on the way we spotted a makeshift outdoor bar, perched atop the pinnacle of a steep hill, made from just a few suspended tarps and slanted corrugated steel strips perched atop wooden pillars, and with bougainvillea and other shrubs for the walls.  Ah yes, this was the perfect bar, like a Corona ad, miles away from the ordinary, and with a leisurely view out across the rolling, tree lined fields off to the horizon.  As we continued our conversation at the little bar and enjoyed mini bottles of Sol, chickens pecked about in the loose sand around our feet and a group of three field workers laughed jovially at one of the only two other table on the hilltop.  The ambience and the beverages had put us in a delightfully relaxed state, and as we hopped back into the pickup and bumped along through the fields I felt glad to have made yet another friend in a far away place and was grateful for yet another one of the new worlds which I had been given the opportunity to peer into.

09
Nov
08

The Return to Veracruz

    After returning from my stroll through Coyoacan, I was greeted by David at his apartment.  It was early evening and he had a friend named Lydia who would be arriving at the bus station shortly, coming from Acapulco.  We just had enough time for a quick beer before heading out to meet her at the Toscaña station on the South side of the city.  When we pulled up to the station, the traffic was swarming around the front entrance, so David pulled his car up along the sidewalk further down the street and I hopped out to go find Lydia.  After only a few minutes of searching, I quickly found the only tall blond girl in the building and yelled out her name across the crowd.  From the first moment of meeting, we began conversation as if we had known one another for years.  Lydia was living in Brooklyn, New York, and had come down to Mexico with her friends for a break from the city and, like me, had found a view into another amazing world.  She had a completely laid back and comical aura about her, and although I had been enjoying mingling with the people of Mexico City, it was refreshing to have someone from back in my old town to cut up with, and so we did.

    We headed for Lydia’s hotel on the Northeast side of the city, near Condesa, and after she had settled in and changed for the evening, we headed out to search for some entertainment.  Unfortunately, as it was a Sunday night, and the night before Cinco de Mayo, downtown was a bit of a ghost-town, so we thought we would check out the Zona Rosa.  As we navigated through the little streets of the normally busy neighborhood, we soon found that it was the same story here.  However, as we walked down the quiet streets, we heard the thumping sound of fast paced salsa music floating down from the second story of corner building nearby.  Ready for a drink and not too optimistic about our options, we readily redirected in the direction of the music and were soon upstairs, sipping incredibly weak cocktails (which turned out to just be pineapple juice) and subsequently opening Pandora’s Box – tequila shots.  After a few drinks and raucous laughter, it was time for some dancing, and as the little rainbow of disco lights wheeled about the dance floor in the dark bar, Lydia made her best effort at showing me her Dirty Dancing moves.  And indeed, we were quite a spectacle as we both struggled to lead and bounced along to the quickly increasing tempo of the kitchy latin music blaring around us.  Another few hours of this and it was time to head out and get some sleep.  Fortunately, I hadn’t hit it too hard with the alcohol, and not long after, I was back at the apartment and out for the count.

    When I awoke the following morning, bright sunlight streamed in through the sheer white curtains draped in front of the wide glass windows of the fourth floor apartment.  I heard conversation in the living room and assumed that, as had become the custom since arriving in the D.F., it was probably somewhere around noon.  Feeling somewhat groggy and ready for a shower, I grabbed a change of clothes and headed out to the bathroom.  When I opened the door to the living room, I was greeted by two new faces, Couchsurfing friends who had come in from Guatemala that morning.  Genevieve and Mateo had been traveling together for the past two months and were returning to Mexico City after their voyage before heading home.  Although I wasn’t quite ready for conversation this abruptly after waking up, we all introduced ourselves and I continued on to the shower, hoping that a good rinse would wake me up and put me more in the mood for socializing.  Fortunately, I was right, and after I had cleaned up and dressed, I sat in the living room with the new arrivals and we began to get acquainted.  Genevieve had been living in San Francisco for the past several years and had a genuinely lively personality, conversation flowing flowing forth from her without inhibition.  And the somewhat quieter Mateo was from Quebec, but had been traveling for the past three years.  He maintained a wizened silence a great deal of the time, but was completely amicable and walked the streets of Mexico City without shoes for the entirety of his stay.  By the time we had all gotten to know one another, the afternoon was already begin to dwindle away, and as David had some errands to run, the other three of us prepared for our day’s excursion.

    First we headed for the markets near downtown to search for leather and fabrics for Genevieve’s burgeoning purse making career.  We pushed through the bustling street, crowded with tented kiosks, wheeled vendor carts, and throngs of locals, ducking into side alleys behind the tents to discover covert fabric stores.  After a few hours of searching and battling crowds, we decided for a change of scenery and headed for the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (after a brief stop to search for a Skype microphone, making the metro connections somewhat of a hassle).  When we emerged from the metro station on the north side of the city, an eerily still and quiet park greeted us ahead, not particularly pleasing to the eye, and complemented by a somber pale gray sky looming beyond.  After asking for directions to the Plaza, it was only a few minutes longer before we found the intersection we were looking for.  As we crossed the elevate pedestrian bridge over a major thoroughfare, the Plaza came in to view on the other side – and although filled with history, somewhat aesthetically less appealing than I had expected.  We roamed around the site for the next hour or so, passing along the periphery of the ancient pre-hispanic ruins, slowly pacing through the old gothic cathedral, commenting on the rather dull, late 20th century architecture, and finally making our way back towards the metro station after a stop for some vegetarian pizza.  That evening, when we returned to the apartment, David and Lydia were there to greet us and we lolled around, chatting, listening to music, and occasionally breaking into dance when the right beat struck us.  As we grew weary, we planned to meet up to head to the witch’s market of Sonora the next day, and wrapped up our long day of exploration.

    About an hour after waking up we were already arriving at Sonora that following morning, as both Lydia and Genevieve had to catch their flights back home that afternoon.  Our little party of travelers ducked and weaved through the narrow market alleyways, spotting skulls, mystic herbs, candles, and eery undead statues around every corner.  However, it was a quick visit, and although we had intended to find some tasty insects to sample, we had apparently come to the wrong part of the market and were already heading back to catch the metro before accomplishing our goal.  Soon thereafter we were saying our goodbyes to Lydia at the station, and already planning the next time that we would meet – hopefully in South America in the next few months.  Genevieve, Mateo, and I headed back to the apartment where Genevieve finished packing before Mateo escorted her out to the airport.  Feeling a wave of exhaustion sweep over me, I deemed this a perfect opportunity to take a quick nap in the relaxing afternoon warmth and amber haze of Mexico City.  When I awoke several hours later, it was to the sound of Mateo’s voice out on the street several floors below, asking if I could let him in to the building.  We decided to cook at home that evening, and took a stroll out to the nearby markets, buying heaps of fresh produce, baked breads, and stopping for a quick paleta on the way back.  The menu for the evening was a delicious vege-pasta, and as we sliced tomatoes, zucchinis, and carrots, we had ample time to catch up on one another’s lives – where we had come from, the crossroads of our lives, and where we saw ourselves down the road.  As we finished cooking dinner and the pasta sat steaming away in a large bowl on the living room table, David returned and we sat to enjoy dinner together.  Afterwards, I headed out to meet up with Rafael and catch up on the news from his out of town trip over the weekend, as well as some unusually comical conversation.

    On Wednesday I figured I would stroll around Condesa and Roma by day, so as to enjoy the picturesque streets by sunlight.  Several hours and a number of shops later, I was ready for a change of scenery and found myself meandering down Paseo de la Reforma to Chapultepec Forest, the Central Park of Mexico City.  I mingled with crowds of tourists making their way down the cobblestoned paths to the zoo in the hot afternoon air, admiring the view of the city over the emerald colored lagoons on my way.  As I spotted the Castle of Chapultepec up on the hill nearby, I decided to make that my next destination.  Not long after, I was chugging along up the spiral walkway that wound up the hill to the summit.  When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the gorgeously intricate detail-work of the magnificent castle, and the black and white checkerboard courtyards that wrapped around the structure.  The views from the balconies over the city wrapped around in every direction and helped me to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of neighborhoods that I was now finally starting to become familiar with.  By now the afternoon sun had left me feeling rather sticky and with a thin layer of perspiration soaking through my clothes, and as I made my way back to the metro station, I chatted with a new friend that I had made while exploring the castle.  Unfortunately, some of the trains in the D.F. haven’t quite discovered the beauty of air conditioning in public transit, and it was quite a sweaty and crowded ride back to Portales.  By the time I had climbed up the four flights of stairs to the apartment, I was quite ready for a shower and started to get ready before heading out for some drinks and dinner in Condesa that evening.

    When I met up with Rafael several hours later, we both agreed that a few sips of mezcal would be a fun way to start out the night.  We took a stroll down to the nearby mezcal bar which we had visited the week before and, once the potent little liquor had painted big smiles on our faces, we headed to a nearby restaurant to meet up with some friends for dinner.  Unfortunately, by this time I had started to feel a little under the weather, and as I tried to focus to piece together some of the fast paced conversation at dinner, I hoped that my stomach would soon start to feel better and allow me to enjoy the rest of my evening.  But alas, it was not to be, and when we headed out for a few drinks at a bar shortly thereafter, my clock began ticking before the point that I knew it was most definitely time to go.  That night and the next day were spent almost completely bedridden, as I battled yet another bout of unfortunate stomach issues, and began yet another regimen of meds in the hopes of finally solving the issue.  Fortunately, Rafael’s maid was in that day and was more than gracious enough to take care of me, cooking a light lunch and making sure that I was attended to.  That evening was spent lazing around Rafael’s apartment, troubleshooting a cantankerous Apple TV installation, and passing away the hours with several episodes of Nip Tuck.

    The next morning it was finally time for me to get myself in gear and get out of the D.F., and after Rafael headed to the airport for Cancun, I made my way to the TAPO bus station to catch my ride back to Xalapa.  By early afternoon I was on an ADO bus back to the highlands of Veracruz, and six and a half hours later was finally disembarking the bus in the chilly evening air.  I headed down to the Palacio Municipal by the Xalapa Zocalo to meet up with Aldo, who was still at work, and pick up a set of keys for the apartment from him.  We briefly caught up on the events of the past two weeks as we stood in the Palacio courtyard, the live music of a Friday night wafting across the Zocalo towards us.  Then I headed back to the apartment, where I began packing for my departure the following morning.  

    As usual, the next day saw me taking much longer to get my bike loaded up and ready to head of town than I had planned, but around midday I was bidding farewell to Aldo, thanking him sincerely for his wonderful hospitality, and then pedalling towards the highway to the Port of Veracruz.  As I sped along the hours of downhill roadway towards the coast, I though back over the incredible past two and a half weeks that I had spent in Xalapa and Mexico City and felt that I was finally beginning to understand and be welcomed into Mexican Culture.  What I had seen so far and the fascinating and eclectic friends that I had made had whet my appetite for adventure and new social encounters, and as I neared the hot and humid coast I could only hope that life would bring another wave of sights and unusual characters into my world.

09
Nov
08

Maravilloso Mexico

    Alright, so if you must know, life is absolutely amazing right now.  Of all of the decisions that I could have made with my life right now, I couldn’t have chosen one that gives me more satisfaction, excitement, and beauty every single day.  Although at times I do struggle mercilessly with the arduous riding and oppressive heat, and although I have encountered moments of solitude and loneliness, it is all far better than the dissatisfaction and frustration that I felt with the society and and American life before I left for my journey.  If this is the third world, then maybe being first is very overrated.

    So, were to begin?  Right where I left off, I suppose.  After descending from the hills of Papantla and reaching Costa Esmeralda in Northern Veracruz, I encountered two gentlemen on the beach who had passed in their truck while I was riding along on the highway.  I had spent several days riding incessantly and through some rather sweltering weather, and when they offered me a ride up into the high hills of Xalapa, I eagerly accepted.  Moments later I was in the back of their pickup with my bicycle and speeding off to the cool higher altitude.  The day after I arrived in Xalapa the sun was shining and the air felt fresh and pure.  I met with my new friend Aldo, from CouchSurfing, who proved to be a fantastic host and ambassador to the city.  Aldo truly loves his town and made himself completely available to show me everything that he could in the time that I was there.  I quickly took to his scrupulous nature and playful manner, and before long we were joking like old friends and putting forth our best effort at trading languages.  He invited me to lunch with his friends at the home of Doña Vicky, who cooked us an amazing four course meal and took me on a tour of her beautiful backyard, filled with various types of exotic flowers and flora.  We walked the city, meandering through beautiful and lush parks at dusk, tasting chicharrones, elotes, mole, and other delicious Mexican dishes.  We hiked our way through the thick green canopy to the top of a hill beside the city, passing recreations of Aztec statues, visiting the tiny natural museum, seeing hawks falcons, and finally arriving at the summit to enjoy a magnificent view of the city spread out around us far below in the mist.  Although one of my days there was spent completely bedridden due to an unfortunate illness, Aldo attentively took care of me, cooking a delicious chicken soup, serving me fresh fruit, and making sure that I took my medications on time.  And when I found myself alone while Aldo was at work, I found satisfaction in roaming the quaint streets of Xalapa, winding up the colorful and bustling Diamond Alley, and wiling away the hours in local cafes.  By the time I was finally planning to head to Mexico City, it was difficult to say goodbye, although I knew that I would see him once I returned to Xalapa.

    I had opted to catch a bus to Mexico City, rather than ride my bike, because almost everyone I had encountered had warned me of the treacherous traffic and insidious crime that permeated the city.  Although I never did find the city to be at all dangerous (at least not in any of the places that I went), it seem to turn out to be the right decision to leave the bike behind, although it would have been heaps of fun to ride through the pinball machine streets of the D.F. (Distrito Federal, what everyone here calls Mexico City).  I had really only intended to visit Mexico City for four days, but after falling completely in love with its many faces and never seeming to find enough time to see all of its gorgeous and fascinating faces, I found myself lingering on for much longer.

    Upon arriving in the D.F., I caught the Metro (train) to the apartment of my host, David.  David lived in an area of the city called Portales, a few kilometers south of downtown.  The neighborhood was lively and had all of the amenities that any visitor could ask for within a block or two – groceries, taco and torta stands, fruterias, bakeries, etc. (umm, yes, all of the amenities that Paul ever needs generally have to do with food…).  David himself turned out to be an amazingly welcoming and outgoing person, not only sacrificing his time to help me find a place to fix my camera within a few moments of meeting him, but also sharing an entire world of experience, language, and travel with me.  We instantly became very comfortable around one another and complemented each other well in our desires to learn one anothers’ languages.  I also met David’s cousin Rodrigo, with whom he lived, and his romantic interest, Samantha, whom had come from Australia to visit Mexico City and had found herself staying for several months.  That evening I also met beautiful Cecilia, the girl with the smile that could make anyone feel welcomed, and surrounded by my new and wonderful friends we headed out for a night of laughter, cochinada tacos, gringas, and salsa dancing at at a ridiculously fun and sleazy salsa bar called Barbazul.  

    The following day I found myself tagging along with Rodrigo and Samantha for a delicious breakfast (of which I think the dishes were called chancles, or some other synonym for sandal in Spanish) and to the overwhelmingly abundant Jaimaica Market, while we searched for gifts and props for Rodrigo’s sister’s birthday.  The market was filled with endlessly bright colors, millions of flowers, enough fresh fruit to put Whole Foods to shame, candy, piñatas, freshly butchered meats, and endless other goods.  We wandered around for several hours, and then headed to the historic district to search for silver wire, with which Samantha intended to design a set of entwined amber earrings for Rodrigo’s sister.  As we drove through the little streets surrounding the zona central, I was absolutely enchanted with the lovely myriad of old European architecture which stretched throughout the area and looked forward to the next few days when I would return to stroll the streets at a more leisurely pace.  When we returned to the apartment, the two had plans of their own and I was ready for a little relaxation and decided to stick around the apartment and do some reading.

    Later that evening, I headed out to meet a new friend for the first time, Rafael.  Showering and putting on a fresh outfit (thanks to Aldo’s washing machine!), I walked the ten blocks down the tranquil evening streets of Portales to the metro station.  After of course missing a train right as I was entering the station, I waited several minutes and was soon headed towards Condesa and yet another side of the city which I had not yet seen.  When I emerged from the Patriotismo metro station I was slightly disoriented (as one often is when in a foreign city), but after walking a few blocks Rafael came out to meet me on the street and we made our way towards some local bars for a little taste of D.F. nightlife.  Although Lady Luck didn’t seem to be on our side at first, as the first two spots that we headed to were just closing, and the next two were completely inundated due to the Dia de los Niños (a national holiday in Mexico, where it seems most of the city was off work the next day), the streets of Condesa were delightfully serene and lovely, and Rafael proved to be a witty and intellectually stimulating character to converse with (especially for a traveller who had experienced social withdrawal after spending far too much time in Tamaulipas).  After several strikes, we finally found a hip and glitzy little bar with dark stained wood paneling and stylish victorian furniture where we were able to weasel our way in.  For the next several hours we laughed, sipped some rather novel cocktails, and I met a few of Rafael’s somewhat colorful friends.  All in all the evening was declared a complete success.

    The following morning I headed out to explore the historic district at my own pace, and after strolling the streets around the Zocalo, admiring the lavish architecture, I was met by Rafael, who showed me a fantastic little downtown cafe for lunch.  Afterwards we headed for the Torre Latinoamericana for panoramic a panoramic view over Mexico City.  Once we had descended and lingered about the Alameda to enjoy the scenery, we returned to Condesa for the evening.  After relaxing at Rafael’s apartment briefly, we decided that a taste of mezcal would be a fun diversion and soon thereafter were in a tiny and vibrant mezcal bar, sipping the potent little shots alongside a few cervezas and Oaxaca cheeses.  We had plans to meet some of Rafael’s friends at a restaurant a few blocks away, and once we had boosted our mood with a few drinks, we headed that way.  Once we arrived, we were greeted by a lively and deliciously entertaining group of companions for fantastic conversation and a glimpse into the wonderful circle of friends which Rafael had accumulated.  The next several hours were spent dining amidst vivacious laughter at a sidewalk table out in the relaxingly mellow evening atmosphere of Condesa.

    The following morning Rafael left for a weekend trip to Miami and I found myself once again searching for diversion amidst the massively intimidating options of Mexico City.  I decided to head back to the Alameda where we had left off and to visit the Palacio de las Bellas Artes.  The building itself was an architectural masterpiece, and although I only spent a brief while within its galleries, exploring the historic national video exhibit and murals, I was quite content to marvel at the building’s design.  Afterwards I found myself leisurely ambling past the fountains and courtyards of the Alameda in the direction of Paseo de la Reforma.  Once on the wide avenue, I stopped into a few artisan markets and took care of a few overdue errands, while stopping to photograph the tasteful monuments which decorated the central islands of the street.  After a few hours I had stumbled into the Zona Rosa and enjoyed its colorful pedestrian walkways, passing my innumerable restaurants, edgy clothing stores, and raucously blaring bars.  The day had begun to turn to dusk and I began to feel the pangs social longing as people passed by me amidst friends and jovial conversation, and I hoped that David would soon be returning from his day’s tasks so that we could meet up for an evening of diversion.  Upon calling him, he informed me that he would head my way in an hour to pick me up and search for some excitement.  I found a quiet restaurant tucked away in an alley off the street and decided to stop in for a beer and some reading while I waited.

    When David pulled up along Calle Londres, we decided to head downtown to a hipster hangout called Patrick Miller.  We stopped for a quick bite at a restaurant around the corner first, and moments later were standing in line outside of the popular urban venue amidst a rather eclectic crowd.  At last, we reached the front of the line and headed inside where David and I grabbed a few beers and joined the crowds in a voyeuristic circle amongst locals watching pairs of club-goers dance to 80’s electro remixes.  Once we had had our fill of cheap beer and laser lights, we decided to head to another spot to meet with David’s friend Valeria and her companion.  We arrived at the hole in the wall bar where high energy Mexican jams spilled out onto the sidewalk, and were soon inside the shoulder to shoulder crowd ordering buckets of beer and bouncing to the wild music as I pretended to hear what my group of friends were saying as I nodded my head and laughed whenever it seemed appropriate.  Finally, circa four in the morning and completely exhausted, we headed back to the apartment where I soon passed out after my long day of adventure.

    Needless to say, I awoke some time in the afternoon the next day, and lacking the motivation to explore far from the apartment, I decided relax for a while.  David had gone to pick up a friend of his from San Francisco who was soon planning to move to Cuernavaca, and when they returned we decided that we would head out to pick up David’s little brother on the North side of the city and then drive to the canals of Xochimilco on the South end.  Well, this plan was all good and well, but after battling Mexico City traffic for several hours, the day was already beginning to dwindle away as we headed back south, and when we neared Portales, our appetites had grown and we opted to pass back by the apartment to cook dinner before heading anywhere else.  David prepared a fantastic vegetable penne which his friend from Italy had shown him while visiting, and we all sat at the table in the living room as dusk descended upon the endless city in hazy hues of pink and pale cobalt outside of the wide glass windows of David’s fifth floor apartment.  After dinner the rest of my company decided to head to the cinema to watch Iron Man, but not being much of a movie buff myself I was content to stay at the apartment and do some reading.  However, as is typical with me, after several hours the party had not returned and I was growing restless.  So of course, being a Saturday night in an alluring foreign city, I decided to get myself cleaned up and go look for some trouble.

    I emerged from the Insurgentes metro station unsure of where exactly I was going or what the night had in store for me, but honestly believing that I would show up at some bar, wander around alone for twenty minutes, get bored, and then head back to the apartment – having satisfied my curiosity.  But after discovering a somewhat happening looking bar, waiting in line for almost a half an hour, and paying a cover charge reminiscent of Manhattan, I had no choice but to stay and live it up.  Fortunately, once I had acquired a cocktail and wandered up to the third floor rooftop deck, I soon met with two hilarious young ladies from a city just north of Mexico and found myself lost in conversation and out on the dance floor until the early hours of the morning.  

    When I awoke the next day, right around lunchtime (Mexican lunchtime) I mentally checked my list of places that I had yet to visit in the D.F. and decided that the bohemian neighborhood of Coyoacan would be just the ticket for some Sunday afternoon leisure.  Finding myself in no hurry and no direct metro route to Coyoacan, I began walking southwest, and about half an hour later I had stumbled upon Frida Kahlo’s famous blue house.  I popped into the now converted museum to enjoy the ample art and history, stopping especially extensively to admire my favorite piece, a timeline of Mexican history through Frida Kahlo’s eyes.  Upon completing my tour and passing out of the tranquil blue courtyard, I followed the adjacent street south towards the heart of Coyoacan and found a cozy cafe, where I felt it was only prudent to stop in and sample some of the renowned coffee which the neighborhood is famous for.  Fortunately, the cafe was also equipped with wireless and I was able to while away a few hours catching up on the inevitabilities of life.  When I finally packed up and continued my tour of the quaint city streets, a somber sunset had bathed the rooftops in dull, fiery tones and the long shadows of the buildings clustered close to the street set a languid mood in the early evening.  I waded through a crowd gathered around a rock performance by the Zocalo and made my way a few more blocks south, peeking into warmly lit cafes and restaurants before ducking down peaceful tree-lined alleyways and then making my way back to the apartment.  It was an entirely romantic evening, and although I only had myself for company, the sense of timelessness and endless distance from the world that I had left behind was enough to bring me pure contentment.

09
Nov
08

El Tajin to la Costa Esmeralda

    The morning dawned pale and humid in the wide, grassy field outside of el Tajin.  I felt sticky and lethargic, and as I knew that the ruins would not be open to visitors until nine in the morning, I felt no particular rush to sit upright and begin packing my equipment.  However, only a few minutes after I had awoken and lay there in my half daze, staring up at the misty sky, the sound of a loud motor began to grow nearer to my site.  As I leaned towards one of the clear screen windows of the tent, I saw that a huge tour bus was pulling up and reversing to park only several hundred feet from my tent.  Oh great, this was just what I needed, like having an audience to watch me as I drag myself out of my tent in my not so glamorous morning state.  Well, at least I had shaved my head before I left the US.

    As several more tour busses began to pull up and park parallel to the first, nearer and nearer to my tent, it became somewhat less enjoyable to continue lying in my tent as the hundreds of tourists pouring out of the busses loitered around staring at my odd little casita.  So it was up and at em, and shortly I had dressed and packed my things.  Since I would be exploring the ruins, I opted to wear cotton clothing rather than my “sporty” synthetic cycling outfit, so as to not look too out of place.  I rolled my bike towards the front gates shortly before nine and found a security guard to ask where I could safely leave my bike.  He pointed to a spot nearby and told me that he would keep his eye on it, and as he brandished his ominous rifle, I felt that the bike would probably be safe here.  I squeezed through massive groups of school children and waited patiently in line for the ticket booth.  Once I had my little ticket stub, I headed over to the gates just as they were allowing visitors and passed through.  At first, I waded amongst the hundreds of children as a tour guide barely in earshot rambled on about something or other about the park, but then I decided that rather than stand here and desperately attempt to understand what he was saying, I would go off on my own.

    I skirted the side of the tour group and passed forward towards the ruins, strolling farther into the hazy, muted silence beyond the guide.  Up ahead, the grounds were deserted and I rather enjoyed the solitude and the opportunity to truly admire the ancient structures surrounding me and stare pensively as I dreamed of the ancient civilizations and how this place might once have been.  The ruins were quite expansive and I found myself wandering around for quite some time, always searching for the perfect picture angle and taking the time to bask in the inspiration around me.  The next two hours dwindled away there in el Tajin, but at last I had looped through the compound and saw that it was almost time for the Voladores show out by the front gates.  Although I wasn’t sure exactly what the show was, I knew that it had something to do with men in traditional garb performing some kind of acrobatics from atop a pole several hundred feet high.  When neared the performance area, I passed by a small tourist information stand and the young ladies there told me that the show wasn’t actually for another half an hour.  The two girls turned out to be incredibly helpful and I enjoyed spending some time recounting my journey to them, of which they were quite fascinated.  Then, before the show started, I figured that I would head over to one of the nearby food kiosks for a quick meal and found a little canopied area and some tacos.  As I sat and ate, a cute little niña who looked like she was possessed, writhed around on the floor near my feet, dramatically muttering something in spanish over and over again, in between glances over to me to see if I was paying attention.  I rather enjoyed the diversion as I sat and ate, and too be honest with you, it was more entertaining than the show which I was to see thereafter.  

    When I finished my lunch, I returned to the Voladore spectator area just as the show was beginning.  Five men in bright tunics with little fringed caps perched high atop the edges of a tiny platform at the top of the towering pole while one of them stood hunched in the center playing a small, faerie-like flute.  I gathered amongst all of the other tourists to wait and see what incredible spectacle was to come, and as I did, another man in one of the tunics passed through the crowd collecting donations.  Like a responsible viewer, I threw several pesos into the hat and waited for the show to get fully underway.  As I sat and waited and waited, the sweat soaking through my shirt in the balmy noonday heat, I hoped that the performance would soon commence so that I could begin making some progress for the day, at least enough to hopefully reach Xalapa on the following evening.  Finally, after about twenty minutes, the man collecting donations had approached everyone and the show began.  The Voladores atop the platform gently slipped backwards from their tower, feet coiled in a long yellow rope, arms outstretched to their sides, and slowly spun ever lower around the pole.  I waited for the acrobatics to begin and some kind of breathtaking climax… but it never came.  The four men just continued to slip towards the ground torturously slowly while the one atop the platform continued playing his flute.  Finally, the reached the floor below, and that was it, the show was over.  Hunh, I think I just got swindled…

    So anyway, as you can see, I don’t particularly recommend the show, a bit overrated in my opinion.  Anyway, it was time to go, so I went and grabbed my bike and headed for the road.  I decided that since Papantla appeared to be only a few short miles away on the map, I would just keep my cotton clothing on until I reached the town and then change once there.  Unfortunately, this turned out to be a big mistake, as I soon saw a massive hill rising to my left, and a moment later spotted a sign with an arrow pointing directly towards it in the direction of Papantla.  I thought to myself, perhaps the road will simply skirt around the hill, but no, it insisted on going straight up.  I plodded along, seriously struggling, and literally pouring down sweat, my shirt completely saturated and stuck to my skin.  Alright, so wearing those clothes was a big mistake, and I was going to have to find a place to wash my only two outfits very quickly once I reached Xalapa.  Oh, how arduous was that hill, and finally, as I thought that I was approaching the halfway point of the climb (although I wasn’t sure since the road snaked around the summit) I could take no more!  I dismounted from the bicycle and pathetically pushed it up the steep incline.  Wow, now I really realized just how ridiculously heavy the beast was.  It was actually almost more difficult to leverage all my weight into pushing the bike than it was to just pedal.  But my legs were sore and my knees needed a break in order to continue riding farther that day.  So on I went.  And yes, as you’ve probably suspected, once I rounded one of the side winding loops of the hill, I saw that the road was actually carved through the summit of the current hill and continued ever higher into an adjacent hill which had been concealed from below.  Up ahead I spotted a sign and thought to myself, at last, I must be near Papantla!  But once I got near enough to read it, I saw that it in fact had the names of two completely different towns and pointed towards the only route ahead.  I began to panic – what if I had come al this way up for nothing!  What if I had read the sign back at the foothills incorrectly and Papantla had been straight ahead!  In the smoldering afternoon waves of heat it was difficult to be sure of anything any more, and I simply longed to see the little town and be done with the miserable hill.  I saw a motorcycle approaching around the bend before me and flagged him down to ask whether this was the right way or not.  As he stopped and I questioned him, he indeed agreed that I was headed in the right direction and I breathed a sigh of relief.

    Much to my satisfaction, the town really was just over that last crest, and once I had managed to reach the other side, the road began to descend gently and I began to see the little houses at the periphery of the village.  A few moments later I was riding down tiny, windy streets with bright buildings build almost right up to the pot-hole pocked pavement.  I careened along slowly, looking for the signs that would most certainly point me in the direction of the Centro and finally spotted one.  Sadly, it pointed up a hill to my right, after I had already been crusining downwards.  And these were no ordinary hills, the town was cozily perched into the steep mountainsides, and I opted to again dismount and instead push the bike through town, especially since the narrow passes were not quite so accommodating for both a wide-load bicycle and an automobile.  But I was almost there and felt slightly more relaxed now that I was in the urban center.  As I neared the busier section of the town, I stopped dead in my tracks.  What was that I smelled?  A bakery, my weakness!  And not just any ol’ bakery, as there are tons in Mexico, but one which exuded an especially sumptuous aroma.  I found myself irresistibly drawn in and moments later had leaned up my bike and was inside with my little metal tray and tongs, heaping all kinds of little buns, cookies, and other baked goods onto the tray.  Once I was satisfied, I headed over to the register, payed the mere thirty pesos for the massive bag and returned to the street.  I pushed myself further up the hill and at the crest, I saw another street off to my left, and down below, the zocalo.  Yay!  I had made it!

    And what a fantastic place it was, like a relaxing, social oasis of indulgence.  People strolled about casually, ice cream carts with little bells pushed along the streets, and brightly colored tiendas wrapped around the square.  A high terra cotta colored church loomed off to the side of the square while wide, leafy trees within the plaza provided amble shade and small bands of musicians turned out pleasing tunes to complete the atmosphere.  Yes, this was a welcome sight after the past few days of arduous riding and not particularly lively towns that I had passed through.  Unfortunately, I had already set my goal for the day and had to be halfway down the Costa Esmeralda by nightfall.  So I sat, enjoyed my bread, had a small cup of ice cream and a bottle of water, then reluctantly began to lead my bike back to the street out of town.  After asking a few different people along the way for directions out to the main road, I finally found it and began to journey back to the coast.  Fortunately, since I had climbed to such a high elevation over the past few days, the remainder of the journey was mostly downhill.  However, not all downhill.  At times the road would suddenly skyrocket upwards and weary legs would just spin incessantly as I put the bike into low gear and tugged along.  At one point I reached the peak of one such hill and stopped for a large, chilled bottle of water.  The quaint restaurant was empty at that hour of the early afternoon, but as I walked in, I saw that there were no walls on three sides and the dining room looked out over the entire wide open verdant valley down below, almost to the coast.  A cool, floating breeze wafter by, cooling me as I sat briefly to recuperate.

    When I returned to my bike, I forged ahead over hills and under forested canopies.  Yet, not long after, I saw a sign for Gutierrez Zamora and knew that it would not be long now.  I reached the outskirts of the town and continued riding, not wanted to stop and lose my momentum.  After crossing the wide rive on the far side of the town, the road ahead began to flatten out and I hoped that this was the beginning of the coastal plain leading out to Costa Esmeralda.  I passed over several more small bridges fording tiny creeks, and after some time I began to spot sporadic stands of tall palms.  This particular form of flora had a distinctive coastal look to it and I quickened my pace in anticipation.  At long last, the palms went from a sporadic sighting to a long endless string stretched along the horizon.  No doubt this was it.  I saw the sign off to my side welcoming me to Costa Esmeralda and ached to see the ocean and stop for a real meal.  At the first turn off towards the water I pulled off the main road and only several hundred feet ahead saw the white sandy beaches.  I pushed the bike through the impeding sands until I was at the top of the dune and then laid it up against a small wall.  The mystically delicious azure blue waves in front of my lapped gently against the beach and disappeared endlessly off in the distance.  Ah, paradise!

    As I practically dragged my bedraggled carcass towards the sparkling waters, like a desperado towards a oasis mirage, I was hailed by two smiling gentlemen not far down the beach.  One appeared to be somewhat older while the other, about my age.  I began chatting with them and they told me that they had seen me riding earlier in the day.  I told them about my trip and that I was headed to Xalapa.  They told me that they too would be headed that way on business, and offered me a ride in the back of their truck!  Oh what sweet sweet temptation!  I knew that the road to Xalapa would be an incessantly hilly and steep route and considered it for a moment.  Then finally, rationality and the desire to reach civilization (and a shower and washing machine) conquered my pride and I accepted.  A few moments later we were headed to a small roadside restaurant along the beach strip for a quick bite.  Afterwards, they helped me load my bicycle into the back of their spacious wooden fenced truck bed, laid out some blankets for me, and we were off!  I can’t even begin to describe how incredible it felt to lay back there, with the tarp canopy over the railing pulled back halfway, rustling in the wind as we sped towards the cool hills of Xalapa.  Yes, this was the way to travel, Mexican’s have got it figured out.  You can save the boxed in, oppressively air-conditioned, smooth riding luxury cars for the US – I’d rather be alive and out in the open air, on the way to new and enchanting places.

09
Nov
08

Deeper into the Aztec World

    As I rode over the high arch of the Puente Tampico, I looked back across my right shoulder at the expanse of the chaotic little city that spilled out to the edges of the Panuco River on the near horizon.  I knew that the gently flowing water far below marked the border between the southern edge of Tamaulipas and the northern tip of the long Caribbean state of Veracruz, and as I turned ahead once again I felt the irrepressible optimism that a world of beauty, excitement, and mystery lay beyond approaching riverbank.

    The day had begun as a somber, steamy day, but as time wore on the sun began to burn away the hazy mist and light streamed out across the road.  As though crossing some invisible climatic frontier, the land around me almost instantly burst into rolling, verdant hills.  Finally, I was leaving behind desert-like Tamaulipas and entering into the more inviting the region of the central Caribbean coast of Mexico.  Although a few weeks earlier I might have found the near hundred degree temperatures to be intolerable, my temperance for heat had grown as I rode yet nearer towards the equatorial Americas.  Alongside the road small stands selling watermelons enticed me and, as is often the case, I passed several, but when the time was right I felt my bicycle gravitating towards the near side of the road.  A petite and sweetly soft spoken old woman greeted me once I had leaned up my bike and strolled over.  She sliced a generous wedge of the bright red and green melon for me and asked if I’d like cayenne pepper on it.  Well, of course I’d never had it this way, but as is the entire purpose of such a voyage, I surely wanted to try.  The sensation was quite refreshing as I bit into the juicy wedge and the spices  tickled my palette.  A few other gentlemen pulled over to join us and we chatted for the next several minutes.

    After the brief break from the midday sun, I thanked the old woman, compensated her generously (especially since she her amiable nature was such a departure from the reception I had usually met in Tamaulipas) and was once again gliding along the wavy road south.  The day passed quite uneventfully, but as my altitude gently climbed and I rode along the crests of the hills, I found myself bristling with satisfaction while I gently laughed and smiled to myself at the beautiful landscapes that stretched out before me (this happens to me sometimes when my serotonin levels get too high – some kind of chemical imbalance ;).  Then, as I teetered along the edge of the roadway while a convoy of trucks whizzed by, I spotted a tangled, rusty wire lolling out of the bushes.  But I was too late, instantly it snagged my foot and a moment later, like a coiled snake, the wire was pulling out of the underbrush and had a metallic clicking sound followed my back tire.  I looked down and the tangled wire had begun winding itself around my gears, chain, and rear spokes.  Although the traffic was still pouring past, I had no choice but to tighten my grip on the break levers and abruptly stop my bike right there on the edge of the road.  I could feel the rushes of warm air as huge truck beds roared past me and waited until the line of traffic had moved beyond.  With no near shoulder to move to and the bike at this point incapacitated, I climbed off of the bike, turned around, and straddled it for balance, and faced the rear tire.  The wire had managed to work itself into every nook and crevice of the back end of the bike, even wedging tightly in between the break pads and tire.  I knew that I wouldn’t have much time before the next wave of traffic, so I rapidly unzipped the pouch hanging from my bike frame and dug for my multi-tool.  Once I had it opened and ready for action I aimed it for the nearest protruding loop of wire and began chopping away at the tangled mess with my wire cutters as fast as I could.  I felt like I was trimming a unruly rose hedge and after over a dozen slices and pulling the smaller segments out from the bicycle apparati, I finally began to make some headway.  Several cars zoomed by me and I could feel their scorn as they surely thought to themselves how foolish I was for just stopping my bike right there on the roadway.  But after a frustrating drawn out battle, I had eventually freed my steed from the rusty serpent.

    I turned, jumped back into the saddle and soon after was rolling along as usual.   It wasn’t long thereafter that I again began to feel the brunt of the early afternoon sun and decided that lunch under the shade of a roadside taqueria was in order.  After stopping at one, which appeared to be abandoned once I walked inside, and then another, with a cook snoring away in a chair on the far end of the little open air dining room, I looked to the other side of the street and saw a canopied comedor (small restaurant) with several cars parked out  front.  I pushed my bike across the road and leaned it against one of the restaurant’s pillars.  A nearby empty table beckoned to me, and as I slumped down into the chair I mentally begged the waitress to come over and offer me something to drink.  A few moments later my wish came true and I was gulping down a massive, chilled, and perspiring bottle of Ciel water.  As the cool droplets dropped down onto my knee I languidly glanced at my skin and saw that I was coated in a glistening layer of tropically induced moisture.  I reclined lazily in the plastic chair and not long later was working my way through a meal of lightly fried sliced chicken breast and moist, thick cut french fries (not really what I had wanted, but hey, these types of communication errors happen sometimes in places with no menus).  As I finished and asked for the bill, I discovered that I was five pesos short apologized profusely to the waitress.  I offered to go to an ATM to get cash, but she told me that the nearest one was at least thirty miles away in Naranjos and that what I had would be enough (to be honest with you, the meal was way overpriced in my opinion, and I wouldn’t have stopped there if I’d known).  Now cashless and with a piece of plastic that was all but useless outside of the sporadic larger towns that lay hours apart from one another, I knew that I would need to reach Naranjos by nightfall – at least if I wanted anything else to drink that day (wretched, wretched Paul, why did you let yourself finish all the water?).  So Naranjos it was and, fortunately freshly hydrated, I embarked on the long haul ahead, hoping that I could make it my nightfall.

    The rest of the day melted away and I was soon quite parched and ready to reach the town and hopefully find a place to rinse off.  As I neared Naranjos, I stopped at a couple of gas stations to inquire about showers and at the second one they were able to tell me that the Pemex on the near border of the town had one.  The sun had now begun to burn orange as it approached the nearby hills and I crested the last hill and found myself rolling down into the village.  I pulled over to the Pemex which immediately greeted me and after fielding the questions of the several gas station attendants and security guard (who, as with most of the military and security personnel, brandished a large rifle across his chest), they told me that it was fifteen pesos to use the shower.  Well, of course, wouldn’t ya have it, I was still broke and there wasn’t no ATM in this joint.  They pointed me in the direction of the local bus station a mile down the road and I begrudgingly rode away down the hill towards town – constantly thinking to myself that I would be riding back up this hill again in just a few minutes, which at the end of a long day is far more daunting.  But so was life, so I arrived at the bus station, got my cash, crossed the street to buy a few small snacks for dinner and breakfast, and slowly made my way back to the Pemex station.  Once there I was anxious to relinquish myself of my sheen of grease and rolled my bike around to the rear of the building to jump in the shower and clean up.  Afterwards I asked the security guard where I could put my tent and quickly thereafter was erecting my small tent on a plot adjacent to the station.  The guard turned out to be quite a friendly fellow and informed me that he would keep an eye on my tent while I slept and also offered to draw me a small map of the shortcut to get to Poza Rica in the morning.  I then sat on a log alongside my tent, prepared my feast of peanut butter and jelly tortilla rolls and finally crawled into my tent, popped in my ear-plugs to drown out the noise of the nearby road and was drifting away.

    The following morning I was up bright and early and as I lay on my back looking up at the lightly cloudy but bright morning sky I heard someone whistle outside of my tent.  It was the guard and his shift was about to end at seven A.M. so I hopped up and listened as he explained my route to me.  Although I decided that his directions were slightly off, I got the jist of it and once I was packed and ready to go I ambled back out onto the roadway and rode swiftly through the town.  It took my body some time to loosen up from the morning soreness of the previous day’s long ride but I was eventually making good headway and I was again winding up little hillside roads and looking out across small valleys clustered with brightly painted little concrete box houses wedged into the foothills.  As the path ahead began to flatten out, I fortunately noticed the subtle sign for my turn off to the short cut and, after a short stretch, a roadside vendor was holding up some tightly packed plastic bags and beckoning to me.  Naturally, I had no idea what he was selling, but I was hungry and ready for some reprieve from my morning’s exertion so I pulled over and decided to sample his wares.  It turned out to be fresh cheeses and I bought one of the little vacuum packed pouches and sat down under the little palm canopy stand to snack on the mozzarella-like cheese (which was deliciously “al dente”).  After the snack, some light conversation, and a bottle of water I was soon riding through endless rows of stout, glossy leafed orange trees.  Looking to the hills in the distance, the trees spiraled around in thick, poetic strips.  It was a lovely backdrop for a ride, and not long later I was passing yet another one of the many military checkpoints of Mexico and emerging into the lush little village of Alamos, apparently the orange capital of those parts (and not, in fact, Naranjos, as I would have expected).  I stopped in the town for a light lunch of a chicken burger and lemonade – not really one of my favorite meals so far, but I didn’t want to spend too long searching around for a place to eat if I was going to reach Poza Rica in good time.  

    When I pedaled towards the outskirts of the South side of town, orange trucks piled high with the bright fruit tugged by and young orange pickers sitting around the rear rails yelled jokes and encouragement to me as they passed.  In those moments I laughingly thought to myself that the light and boisterous attitude of the Veracruzanos was surely one that I was quickly beginning to love and was such a refreshing and welcome change after emerging from my almost two weeks of isolation in Tamaulipas.  The vistas along the road were also charmingly choreographed, with the curved groves of orange trees lined up alongside those of banana trees and then corn stalks, crawling up the hillsides.  It was all the better that I had such good feeling to surge me forward, as the ride quickly turned into slalom-like uphill stints.  I frequently found myself in my lowest gear, sitting upright and spinning my legs quickly in order to slowly ascend the looming hills ahead.  But I was making quite satisfactory progress and before long I had moved past the rows of tiny banana tents that flanked the road and was emerging onto the wider, busier roads of Poza Rica.  I had considered staying in the city for the evening, but as it was still relatively early and el Tajin was not far, I decided that I would make the ruins my final destination for the evening – especially since I had read that it was an industrial town and not particularly appealing.  Once I had battled the traffic passing the city, which actually wasn’t too terribly bad, I saw an large and clean Oxxo station and thought I might investigate the shower situation before I grew too far from urban civilization.  As it were, I had a spot of luck, and not only did they have showers, but it was a wonderfully clean private bathroom near the back of the large gas station, tucked away behind a little leafy courtyard.  The cool water felt divine against my skin as I washed off and then had a quick shave to alleviate the rather scruffy look that I had developed (I’ve discovered that strangers are far more receptive to a traveler with a presentable appearance than otherwise).

    Clean, freshly clothed, and restocked on water for the evening, I hopped back on my faithful mule and made for el Tajin.  I had asked around while passing Poza Rica and been told that there was ample camping available outside the ruins, and that although they closed to visitors at five in the afternoon, they would reopen at nine in the morning.  A few miles down the road I took a wrong turn down a side road and ended up in a tiny neighborhood off the main way and decided that I would stop here and grab a quick bite to eat.  Much to my pleasure, I found a perfect little open air patio taqueria with a delicious spit of el pastor roasting out front and decided that this would be the perfect spot.  Moments later I was smiling on the inside as I chowed down on un orden (generally four, sometimes five) of el pastor tacos.  After dinner I was back on the road and spotted a fruit stand with some rather ripe looking options and again pulled aside for some snacks.  A sizable bunch of juicy red grapes and two soft, plump pears seemed to be just the ticket, so I strapped the bags of fruit to the top of my cargo and was off again.  I had again managed to underestimate the distance to my destination, and although it wasn’t too far, it was up some pretty sizeable hills.  Not that this would have otherwise been a problem, but I was just about ready to call it a day, and on top of that, with the thick humidity and still ninety something degree temperatures as the amber evening wore on, I soon found myself sweaty and sticky again after my recent shower.  Oh well, c’est la vie!

    Eventually, however, I saw the gates for el Tajin looming to my left and turned to pass through.  A short ride down the entryway and I began to pass numerous tents and open air stands which had all closed down for the night and were covered over with tarps.  I found one gentleman finishing up packing his kiosk and asked him where I might camp and he directed me to a field behind the little stores.  It was a huge field and, of course, it looked like I was going to be the only gringo setting up camp there for the evening.  So I did, and when I was done, I sat down outside my tent to enjoy a yummy pear and the bunch of grapes, spitting the seeds out into the smoldering heat of the night after each grape.  Life felt good, real good, and I knew that over the past two days I had closed one chapter of my journey and just begun to turn the first page of a wonderfully lush new and exciting chapter – beginning tomorrow with the fabled ruins of el Tajin.