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?

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