Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It's All Downhill From Here.

It's 2 p.m. and we're holed up in the shade of a small grocery. El Camaron, Oaxaca. It's 2 p.m. and the temperature in the shade is creeping up on a hundred. Out in the sun, out on the blacktop of the highway, its 41 degrees c.. Damn near 106 farenheit. Needless to say it's hot.
Damn it's hot.
Anthony is in conversation with the proprietess and I'm nursing a lukewarm coke, eyes closed, dreading the road before us.
"Don't worry, joven," I overhear, "the road's a little bit curvy just ahead, but it's all downhill from here!"
Ten minutes later we're sweating through out meager, dirty clothes. Panting and sunblind. 3 k. into what would turn out to be a sweltering, steep, 15 kilometer climb.

But rewind a little bit. Leaving ciudad Oaxaca we passed through a long, flat valley surrounded by distant peaks. Dry agricultural land marked by acres of agave and small dusty towns. We'd passed El Arbol de Tule, "the largest tree in the world" according to some, a 2000 year old mountain of a tree which made up for it's lack of altitude in sheer volume. Over 60 by 25 feet at it's base and rising from a churchyard, all but blocking out the sky above. We'd passed through Mitatlan, Mezcal capital of the world, stopping occasionally in antiquated distilleries big and small. Sampling (against out better judgement) Mezcal after Mezcal, still made in small batches using the same tried and true methods centuries old. Some burning down the throat like piss and turpentine, some melting on the palette like warm caramel.
There were short climbs and long, wind-swept descents. We'd watched the landscape change again. A return to the desert, to cactus and sage, to empty river gultches and scorching, dry heat. Passed a night on the rocky bank of a small river, sweating through our sleeping bags, dreaming of the morning and a dip in the cool clear water that rushed by our squatters camp.

But remember now, we're still climbing.

Cursing that woman and her infernal (though well meaning) advice. About Halfway up the hill, 7 kilometers in, we ran into two other bike tourers, the first I've seen since Baja. A man and a woman, from spain and chile respectively, riding all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of the Americas. 8 months in and 15 to go. We exchanged pleasantries and stories. Glad to take a moment in the shade. Glad to know we weren't alone in our suffering. We say our goodbyes, our goodlucks, and move on into the afternoon.
Finally, a peak, a descent and as much needed meal in the shade of a small restaurant. Minutes after sitting down, a pickup pulls up and one of the cyclist we just met piles out and joins us in the shade.
"I ran out of water on the climb and those guys gave me a ride." she said. "they work in the area and they said it's all downhill from here to the coast."
I should have been skeptical, but she was right, these guys drove this road all the time. If anyone knew, these would be the guys to ask. We were sure of it. An exchange of smiles. A long collective sigh of relief.

And yet, more climbing. Sure there was SOME downhill, but for every descent there seemed to be a climb of equal or greater length and height. I was beginning to get the feeling that we were the butt of some cruel joke. Some local tradition of telling all passers through exactly what they wanted to hear.
With night falling we climbed into a small village to purchase water and food for the night. Always vigilant about our intake and need (especially with water, especially in the desert) we asked once more for the distance to the next town.
"Oh, it's about 12 kilometers down the road, but don't worry, it's all downhill from here!"
I kid you not.
It was all we could do to suppress the laughter rising in our guts.

The next day brought us, miraculously, some steady and gradual downhill followed by miles of perfectly straight, flat road, and a steady tailwind. Blazed through marshlands and tropical flats. Passing town after town, village after village. Stopping only occasionally for water or food. The air heavy and damp on our skin again. The mountains and the heat had taken its toll on us however, and by mid afternoon we were both dead in the saddle. Limped into Juchitan, chafed and saddle sore, and sought out a meal (Iguana tamales!), a beer, a shower and a bed. Fell into an early and deep sleep. Oblivious to the unwavering heat and blaring noise of a friday night in the city.
Rose with the sun and rode out into another blistering day. Some one would later tell us that April and May were the hottest months in this part of the country and I would later ask myself just what the hell I was doing here. Still, the miles flew and it felt good to let the legs spin, to feel the kilometers dropping off behind us minute by minute, hour by hour. Swam along side a heard of cattle in a murky yet refreshing river. Pushed our bodies and bikes hard until nightfall. Squatted an unfinished concrete building in a mango grove just outside of San Pedro Tapanatepec, the whole town ripe and fermenting, the smell of unpicked mangos rotting on the ground for acres all around us.
Back into the mountains. Before the road turned eastward and upward, we passed a military checkpoint and for the first time since entering Mexico I was searched and questioned at length. After explaining my knife/multi-tool (which they described as a concealed weapon, but ultimately didn't confiscate) and the requisite quieries and denials, the young man questioning me made a motion toward my beard.
"Are you Bin Laden's brother?"
"Actually, Sir," the snappy retort rushed through my brain, "I am Bin Laden. I'm also Ted Kazinski, Fidel Castro and Subcommandante Marcos. I'm the ghost of Che Guevarra, Karl Marx and Emilliano Zapata! There's an 800 billion peso price on my head, and congratulations, Sir, you have captured me!"

Instead I just shook my head, did my best to look amused and said:

Climbing. Once again. 25 kilometers into the foothills of the Sierra Atravesada. Crossed into Chiapas with jagged mountains shooting from the earth, threatening to rip holes in the sky and send the heavens tumbling all around us. Emerged in an immense, flat highland plain. More straight and rolling highway. More howling wind at our backs. Heavy traffic and an inordinate amount of roadside memorials keeping us on our toes all day. Passing cars coming within inches of our handlebars. Camped the night at the edge of a steep ravine and in the morning decended 713 stairs (I counted) to a series of cascades literally pouring from the lush and jagged cliffs. The pure and mineral rich waters of an underground river falling a hundred fifty feet to the valley floor. Bathed our sore and sunburnt bodies in that magical place, crawling in and out of caves dug into the rock by hundreds upon thousands of years of punishment from the waters falling from above.
One more day on the highland plains. Toward Tuxla Gutierrez. A giant, sprawling metropolis at the foot of the Seirras. Eyeing the mountains in the distance, knowing we'd soon have to turn upward for the final 80 Kilometer push towards San Cristobal.
And turn upwards we did. With dark falling fast, short on water and nearly out of food, we began the first part of what would ultimately be a 12 hour long ascent into the mountains of Chiapas. Climbed for about and hour and a half, putting a ten Kilometer dent in our next days ride. Just before total darkness, freaked out and cursing ourselves for not stocking up on supplies, we stumbled upon a construction site and begged a liter and a half of water from an old man who was working late. With fingers crossed and spirits renewed we managed several more switchbacks before finding camp for the night. A small cut on the downhill side of a turn, hidden from the road by and embankment and overlooking the sprawling lights of Tuxla Gutierrez shimmering in the valley below. Home for the night. The only drawback a mysterious layer of black wood ash on the ground that whipped into billowing clouds of choking black dust in the blustery night.
Rode out early in the morning into a cool and misty sunrise, the temperature already noticably cooler and the sun blocked by overcast skies. A strange feeling. What was it? Something I haven't felt in months now.
I was cold.

The road stretched up and up. Winding through foggy switchbacks peaks appearing suddenly out of the mist only to fall out of site again. Slogging kilometer after kilometer with no respite from the ascent. Four figures appear out of the mist before us. Four women in native dress, all bright blues and deep purples. Rugged, resilient, beautiful women, headed to work in the fields armed with long, curved cane knives and smiles like God's light.
The climb lasts for hours. Legs burning, screaming for rest. For a descent. Just for a minute. The air keeps getting colder and colder, though I'm still sweating in a t-shirt and shorts. Small villages begin to appear at the roadside, their residents staring at us like they would mischevious ghosts gliding through the fog.
Finally, a decent, a short, last burst of climbing, and we reach San Crisatobal de las Casas. City in the clouds, a strange mix of modern and ancient, a city European in architecture and purely Mexican in population, many still maintaining the Native clothing and language that's been in these parts for hundreds upon hundreds of years. A few days off. A lumpy bed. Too much excellent coffee for my own good and a chance to wind down from the past few days. Finally wearing the hooded sweatshirt and jeans that I've been hauling around since Baja. Finally cold at night after so many weeks.
Tomorrow we leave, no doubt into the mountains for a while then the long decent into Palenque and beyond. Afterall, we're at 6000 feet and Cancun is at sea level.
I mean, it's all downhill from here. Right?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Pilgrimage

I guess you could say that my pilgrimage began several weeks ago. Spaced-out and exhausted after a long ride and examining the intricacies of a small, blue, twenty peso bill. On the backside was a picture of a flat topped mountain, covered in ruins. The tagline, Monte Alban, Oaxaca.
Monte Alban, why did that seem familiar.? I seemed to remember my grandfather talking about it. The long trecherous road to the top. The mystical city itself. It was decided. I would go. By hell or highwater I would stand on that mountain and feel its energy. Its magical alignment with the universe.
Turns out Monte Alban lies just above the city of Oaxaca, which Anthony claimed to be "the best city in Mexico", so when I suggested the detour from the coast, his enthusiasm was limitless. It was settled. We were going.
Leaving Pinotepa National drew us through a series of long climbs and decents. Due to a huge blank spot on my map (i still don't know why an entire highway was left out) we missed the direct route into the mountains that we'd hoped to take and ended up in the coastal lowlands of Oaxaca state. Long, flat stretches of agricultural flat. Mostly grazing land for Brhama cattle, goats, poultry farms.
In the heat of the day we stopped in at a cantina in the small town of San Jose del Progresso for a beer. The cantina was nothing more than a small concrete room with several plastic chairs. The "bar" was protected by a mesh of chickenwire and consisted of a cooler and several bags of various snacks. Had to literally step over a man passed out face down on the floor to enter the building. No one seemed to mind his presence or position. He'd groan occasionally and roll over, fall back asleep and continue his afternoon nap. After two beers each and some conversation, we left San Jose with the full bar in attendance. waving goodbye and wishing us luck.
Spent ONE LAST night on the beach at Cerro de Hermosa, a gorgeous small beach at the head of a long lagoon. Bathed in the sea one last time knowing that we faced at least several long and dusty days ahead.

We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

The next morining brought us to the crossroads for Oaxaca. Stopped in at a small roadside stand for water where an old woman gifted me three of the most delicious mangos I've ever eaten. Noon brought us inland to a small stream where we stopped for two hours bathing and relaxing in the shade, the crystal clear water and small rapids re-energizing and so cool. Had to fight to draw ourselves away and back into the afternoon sun. Climbing out of the river valley, we began to taste the mountains for real. The road became curvier at first, then steeper, before I knew it I was grinding up tight switchbacks in my lowest gear (24x30. For those of you who cant picture it, that's really, REALLY, low). It was like climbing a spiral staircase and nearly as slow...for 20 miles. Grasslands then tropical plants began to give way to pinetrees. The air begins to cool and waterseeps begin flowing from the hillside. The road steepens yet again (a concept I found impossible) then turns to a semi-paved, semi-dirt construction zone, then turns to nothing more than a small dirt jeep trail. Constantly climbing. Up and up and wondering finally if it will ever end. Bikes are dismounted and pushed. Streams are forded, shoes get soaked.
Spent the night in a small forrested cut just off the road. I'm not really a proponent of fence jumping or gate passing, but darkness was setting in and we were forced to cross a barbed wire fence to make our camp, with no traffic save for the occasional construstion vehicle passing in the night.
Woke the next morning to a short climb and finally a peak of sorts. Looking down into a vast, steep valley, we could just see the town of Santa Catarina de Juquila at the valley floor, the church, like in many small mexican towns taking center stage, dwarfing the smaller buildings surrounding. Dropped into Juquila on a four mile dirt and sand hill-bomb to find the small town absolutely overrun with people. We could barely ride the streets for the pedestrian traffic. The entire central square and churchyard was a market which spread for blocks in any direction. What we didn't know, could not have known, was that we had stumbled upon an annual pilgrimage to Juquila. In honor of it's virgin, Santa Catarina.
After a short visit and some quick lunch, we left Juquila to another brutally steep climb, back out of the valley we had only just recently entered. Aty this point the Pilgrimage became evident in all it's force and glory. Heavy, heavy traffic in the opposite direction. Cars Busses, pick-ups all filled to the brim with people, loaded to the gills with camping gear, food, blankets, furniture, anything you could imagine. All with a picture of The virgin of Juquila roped to the front grill. Passed a crew of cyclists, 50 strong, making the ride from Toluca, Estado Mexico (about 400 mkiles away). Cheered them on and they cheered us, each going our own direction, each on our own pilgrimage.
Continuing the climb, I passed a group of men parked at the roadside and resting in the shade. As I passed I heard a comment shot in my direction. It wasn't spanish....what was it that he said?
Then it hit me.
"Bin Laden." That man called me Bin Laden.

I gotta do something about this beard.

Another climb, another decent. With a small town in the distance, the thought of a cold beverage racing through my mind, and nothing between me and that goal but a steep downhill, I heard a disconcerting snapping noise, then moments later a loud rubbing sound and a feeling of strong resistance to my downward progress. Stopped to take stock and found that the left side rack eyelet of my frame (the part where the cargo rack attaches to the back of the bike) had snapped clean off, causing the rack, with all my gear to cant off to the left and rub on my rear tire.
This is not good.
Walked my bike the last 500 Meters into town where Anthony immediately sought out a beer and I immediately set about finding a welder, a mechanic, a hardware store, anyone or anything to hopefully resecure the rack to the frame. To spare me the 100 mile walk to Oaxaca city. All I could find was small, disorganized garage. Tried to explain my needs, a welder, a hoseclamp. Got a twist of bailing wire to hold the rack to the seat stay. Bike repair, mexican style. By any means neccessary. I love it.
When I got back to the center of town (if you could call it that), Anthony deep in conversation with an entire family outside of a small grocery store. They were all standing around drinking, and the patron of the family, the father, handed me an ice cold Corona. More Pilgrims, on their way to Juquila. Spent about two hours there in the shade with them. Maybe seven people in all. Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren. More beers were purchaced and given to us. Toasts were made. They gave us some tortillas and fruit. I had to dump some weight on account of the broken frame, so I gave them my tent.
Next two days are more of the same. Climbing to peaks decending to valleys. Constantly up and down. Passing pilgrims all the way. Slept in a dry riverbed and in the morning stopped at what we thought to be a roadside foodstand. Turned out to be a mobile kitchen for a group of 100 pilgrims on foot, walking nine days from Tehuacan, nearly 300 miles away. Potato rolled tacos, eggs, juice and coca-cola. Served to us for free from the hands of strangers by the grace of god. Amen. Buying locally produced Mezcal from a roadside stand. The proprietor serving it into plastic liter bottles fom a murky looking glass carboy. Camping just off the road on a graded drit platform overlooking a small valley. Churchbells at six a.m. dragging us out of our much needed slumber. Finally finding a welder who spent about half an hour working on my bike, welding it back together, and asked for nothing, saying: "I'm a machinist, not a welder".
Finally, Oaxaca city. Beautiful, bustling town surrounded by mountains. Evening thunderstorms. Walking the streets late at night and watching the lightning dance in the distance. Mole negro and the best chocolate you'll ever taste in your life. Deep fried crickets by the bag (actually, half a bag was plenty for me).
Sunday Morning, Easter sunday. Skipped mass and headed for the hills. Finally. The end of my Pilgrimage. Monte Alban. Stood at the top of the tallest temple and whispered my thanks to the cardinal directions. Stood on a sacrificial altar. The exact spot where hundreds of human souls had left their earthly bodies. Despite the crowds, the vendors, the comercialization that unfortunately pervades even some of the most sacred places, standing on that mystical site, I shut my eyes and for a moment, a brief fleeting second, I was the center of the universe.

Going Slow to Go Fast.

Well, he made it! After several long weeks of waiting and hoping for pipe dreams to become a reality, I'm now on the road with my brother, Anthony. Jason is back in Alaska and actually enjoying the cold and the snow and the dark (somedays I don't blame him, it's been brutally hot the past week). Parker packed up a backpack, left his bike in safe hands and took off hitch-hiking, ultimately trying to make his way to the summit of Izta, an 1800 foot Volcano outside of Mexico City. I was tempted, but the arrival of my brother and a desire to continue Southeast and see as much of Mexico as possible compelled me to keep the bike and continue on the highways.
The ride from Zihuatenejo was an excercise in patience, knowing I had more than enough time to cover the ground to meet up at the Acapulco airport. Passing the days slowly, getting up in no rush, stopping often, gennerally passing the time and taking in the scenery. Spent each night on a different beach, sometimes walled in by Palapas, sometimes with nothing and no one in sight. Spent my 29th birthday just as I had envisioned, on a completely solitary beach in the middle of nowhere. El Carrazal. I took a long dip in the Pacific, toasted the sky with a lukewarm Victoria (beer) and built myself a simple cake out of sand and watched the ocean swallow it whole. Made some pasta, started eating just as the sun went down and was immediately set upon by a swarm of mosquitos the likes of which I've never seen (must've been the swamp just opposite the beach). Gathered my things and ran for the shelter of my tent, but not before receiveing no less than sixty mosquito bites on my exposed legs and feet. Only other thing I got for my birthday was a flat tire.
Next day, March 30th I saw two pigs killed in cold blood, each more gruesome than the next. First, passing through a small village, hearing a commotion at the side of the road, I looked to my right. A pitbull had grabed a rather large pig by the neck and was flapping the thing around like a seal on sharkweek. The sight made me shutter, but hell, it's a dog. A pitbull none the less. That's just what they do. Later however, taking a detour along the coast along beautiful, cool palmlined roads and sporatic little villages, I witnessed a large pickup with "Jesus es mi seƱor" plastered over the top of the windshield, swerve with intention and hit a small piglet in the middle of the road. Passing the dying piglet, twitching and gasping in the throes of death, I could only think one thing: "Fucking rednecks". It's the same everywhere. I just hope that one day when that man reaches the pearly gates, St. Peter opens his big book and goes:
"Hmmm....everything looks in order, except this one thing.....looks like you're gonna have to spend some time in that other place."
And I`m not talking about purgatory.

Later, on the same road, I reached a large uncrossable river, and for the second time on the trip had to pay to be taken safely across a body of water. This time on a tiny, handmade, fiberglass bottomed boat, piloted by a young mother and her even younger son. The trip took about three minutes, cost about 15 pesos and left me in Pie De La Cuesta. Just several miles North of Acapulco. Seached out the beaches for nearly an hour and finally found a dirty patch of private property to call home for the night.
Acapulco is another huge, bustling port town focused mainly on gringo tourism, yet maintains more of a "mexican" big city feel than say, Puerto Villarta or Cabo San Lucas. Cabs everywhere, all blue and white VW bugs, passing, speeding and generally wreaking havoc all throughout the city like a swarm of angry bees. Only slightly worse are the busses, which all bear their own (often hilarious) names over the front windshields. Some of my favorites were "Amour Prohibido", "Resident Evil" (yes, like the video game), and even better, "Poison" (yes, like the band).
Being that I was a day early to meet Anthony, despite my efforts to keep things really slow, I broke down and got a hotel in the outskirts of Acapulco, as far as i could from the large gringo hotels and resorts. Exhausted from the heat, smog, and general anarchy of the acapulco streets, I more or less holed up for the day, napping and reading, fan on full blast, leaving only to grab the occasional bite to eat or another cold beer.
Finally the day came and I made the short, but brutally steep climb out of Acapulco and toward the airport. The reunion went off without a hitch, only a short delay in landing, and Anthony stepped off the plane into the tropical afternoon, just hours after boarding in San Francisco (it's taken me how long?). Needless to say, it was good to see him, good to know that for the next six weeks or so I'd have one of my closest friends and dearest family joining me in the fun. Unpacking, rebuilding and setting up the bike (oh yeah, he brought me a new wheel too!) too some time, and we barely had time to get away from the airport and to the beach before dark. Ended up camped on the future site of a large hotel, where a very friendly security guard insisted we camp for our own safety, where he could keep an eye on us. Not exactly the ideal for his first night in Mexico, but when pressured, we do what we must.
Fortunately, the next days long ride brought us to a beautiful wide, sweeping beach and the shade of a Palapa overhead. Playa Ventura (aka Juan Alvarez). One of the prettiest beaches I've been on so far. Happy that Anthony could finally breathe in the salt air and realize "I am here". Camped below a family restaurant and generally lived the good life for a day and a half. Catching up with each others lives, drinking beer, eating fish that the proprietor had pulled from the ocean that very day, the waves just yards from our tent in the event that the day got too hot. I didn't want to leave, and after two nights it was like pulling teeth to drag ourselves back onto the hot and sweaty highway.
Spent last night and the day here in Pinotepa National after a long and grueling ride through the flats of the Guerrero Oaxaca border and the foothils of the Seirra Madre. Tomorrow we turn east. Into the mountains for (five or more) days of steady climbing (according to my map we'll just barely skirt a 8990 ft. peak!). Toward Ciudad Oaxaca and the ruins at Monte Alban!