‘El Capricho’ Km. 52 Cattle Inspection Station to Luis Espinoza, Chiapas
Trucks clatter and squeal me awake to a fetid trailer, rank with a pungent miasma. We roll our bikes out onto the concrete slab under a steely sky. Adam had told us the night before that he had been trying to learn to read English, but currently had no books. He also had timidly asked if either of us had a one dollar bill from the United States that we could give him as a memento from his time spent there. We give him ‘The Time Machine’ by Orson Wells and a crisp dollar bookmark; he hands us two manila mangos.
Riding on the highway changes the way that I think, I don’t notice it immediately. Highways are designed for going from point a to point b, the signage tells me so. I don’t know where either of those places are located, so I arbitrarily choose certain towns and meticulously watch the kilometers laboriously decline. I whir through a wasteland of barbed wire that protects rolling green slash-and-burn-scapes. I could ride a highway anywhere in the world and likely have the same experience. I long for the rural roads where chickens run rampant, where dogs rambunctiously chase with no mal intent, where snatches of shouted English resound from hammocks, where our passing is enough to give rise to smiles and laughter.
We turn off near Raudales towards Tecpatan and sigh in relief as a chicken struts across the road to the bellowing of a hackled cur. Land slides frequently spill into the road. Everywhere water falls and then runs, the final arbiter on existence and form, necrotizing sizable sections of concrete. We luxuriantly weave across the road, traffic almost nonexistent. We drop into Luis Espinoza and are greeted profusely as we enter town; we find ourselves perpetually descending, to our dismay, in search of the municipal building. We pull up filthy and sweaty and begin shaking hands.
‘Can we stay here?’ I ask some man indolently lazing in front of the municipal building, a man who could be a drunk or the mayor, it is difficult to tells sometimes without our culture of opulent ostententatious fetters.
‘Yeah sure! You can stay here, right in front of the municipal building on the steps.’ He confidently responds.
In the next half hour we meet all of the political heavyweights in Luis Espinoza political arena before finally receiving formal permission to spend the night. We are offered use of the showers, a very privileged and coveted service, and round the clock police protection. I answer endless questions on the front steps and pose for dozens of pictures on camera phones where I likely appear as some sort of hairy white blob. The police usher us into the municipal building to offer us a reprieve from the masses of adoring rubes. They grant us the use of their stove as well, but they continue questioning us with genuine interest.
‘I am going to try and get my mom to come see you guys, she has never seen anyone with blue eyes before.’ One of the police tells us bashfully. I always wonder if anyone is confused why all of the characters in my writing speak English and speak in strangely bland paraphrases.
‘Everyone is really excited for you to be here. Foreigners don’t come here, but most of us will never have the opportunity to travel like you do, so it is really interesting to talk to you… To find out about you and your lives.’ We sit around showing them photos and compare our respective pueblos. It is beautiful. I talk about poverty in America, food stamps, my childhood home being taken by the bank because my family was ineffectually avaricious. I cannot unfortunately paint my peregrinations out to have resulted from some sort of tragedy akin to the atmosphere stealing all of my topsoil and blotting out the sun. I am filled with rage at the inability of society to offer me martyrdom or elect me as an archetype of a generation.
Luis Espinoza, Chiapas to Chocasen, Chiapas
We met a dentist the night before who invited us to eat breakfast with him. He runs an icecream parlor that is a facsimile of an American malt shop, which happens to be attached to his dentist’s office. Damien and I roar laughing at the concept.
‘Would you guys care for some cokes?’ We politely decline at 7am and chortle.
‘What do you guys want to eat? Cheeseburgers?’
‘Oh any type of breakfast food sounds good.’
‘Make a few cheeseburgers for these guys!’
We leave, but we are not full. We are riding in search of food, our eye scanning for billowing smoke and our finely tuned noses aggressively flaring in pursuit of any trace of meat at any temperature above 45 degrees Celsius. A set of stairs strangely juts out into the street. Damien rams into it and topples to the ground in laughter. Two women come out of the door that leads to the stairs that he hit and cover their mouths as they laugh at him writhing on the ground. They then invite us inside to eat breakfast.
We climb most of the morning before a steep descent into Tecpatan where a few locals from Luiz Espinoza yell at us and stop to chat. The golden nectar of mango runs down my face and coats my hands; there is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of a mango binge. I cut up a mango for a few kids who watch me eat in amusement.
My mind is clear, my thoughts incisive and collected. I am not sure if I can ever lead a meaningfully happy life as a component of what I see developing around me. This morning it is clear, the disparate pieces are being assembled in my mind. The increasing stranglehold of a political, culture and economic system rooted in the diffusion of responsibility, in the faceless degradation of humanity to the level of groveling imbeciles subservient to an incomprehensibly complex, unsustainable system of material production with a nebulous purpose, yet deadly serious modus operandi. I try to understand it as merely a manifestation of our humanity, something that could only be different insofar as we are different. Sometimes my mind is gripped; fragments previously irreconcilable coalesce and find coherence through a perspective that painfully dominates my consciousness like a billowing black cloud enveloping me; my mind retreating into the synaptic orgy occurring in some strange corner of my brain indefinitely until I see some sort of colorful bird trace a streak through my unwavering vision in deft flight or I hit a pothole that gives me a prostate exam, then I realize that it all is and that it all isn’t.
We pass Copainala, dropping down to Chicoasen and the bottom of the river valley. We climb the narrow inclined streets to the police station in search of a place to stay, but are directed towards a boarding house. We walk in, dirty and disheveled (I am not sure why I keep stating this description, I should probably just preface most of my writing with the concept that I am perpetually filthy and pungent in an endearing way that most women find incredibly alluring and irresistible.)
I do not have the disarming apparatus of my bicycle to defuse the proprietress’s incredibly agitated pheromone receptors.
‘Good afternoon! We are looking for a place to stay, the police told us that you had rooms for rent.’ Looking back on it this is not a good introduction. She stares harshly at us before sternly and suggestively muttering:
‘You won’t like it here.’
‘Look, we just need a place to sleep for one night.’ I explain in confusion.
‘Here is what a room looks like.’ She glares at me in a menacing way, threatening me with what I remember as bared teeth. There is one lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, enough room for a bed and no window.
‘Perfect! Thanks, we’ll go grab our stuff from outside!’ I decide to melt her icy demeanor with my warm, boyish charm.
As soon as I load my stuff into the room, I sit down to eat peanuts. I have both fists completely full of them as she approaches.
‘Are you going to pay?’ She mutters in geriatric suspicion.
‘Both of my hands are full,’ I show her my hands, ‘I can’t right now.’ Small pieces of peanut spray out of my mouth as I laugh. Damien hears the conversation and comes out to pay her.
We walk around the small town and eat some street food as the elderly stroll, teenagers giggle and ride bike,s and adults rest from the day on benches.
We return to our lodging and I sit up for an hour or two talking with the proprietor as he rubs his belly and tells me about the indigenous tribe in Lacandon. A tribe of pure Mayan blood left untouched in the depths of the Chiapan jungle until the early 20th century. The sky breaks and I can see the stars for the first time in a week.
Chicoasen, Chiapas to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas
The street we take to leave Chicoasen is the steepest that I have ever seen in my life. My arms strain and burn as I push my bike upwards. I finally summit and straddle my bike to set out towards Soyalo; the road in various states of decomposition. We follow a roaring river before switchbacking our way up to San Francisco Sarabia. A hundred meter waterfall casts rainbows as it pour off the cliff on which the town is perched. Old men with belt slung machetes amble towards the field, dispensing sage advice as I stop to sweat and pant. I don’t remember any of the sage advice.
As we keep climbing to Soyalo I curse the genial old men who gave me spurious information about the route, imagining each of their faces as I belittle their navigation and perception skills. Dark clouds overtake us in Soyalo. A chilly winter breeze sweeps across the fields, giving lift to both trash and vultures. I pour sweat and mash my pedals on an increasingly steep section of climbing. I eat fruit by the kilo, I don’t deal in grams or ounces anymore. The road planes out and leads us into Ixtapa.
I pull up next to a few men that greet me with sated post prandial stares and state, ‘We want to go to Chamula. How do we get there?’
‘It’s easy. You just go straight and then climb into the clouds.’ He points towards the clouds that have swallowed the mountains in the distance.
We ride out of town and the smooth pavement gives way to rough dirt that begins a precipitous descent into a canyon. We follow a clear river that boils white water over black rocks. I can hear nothing but the rush of water and the crunch of gravel under my tires. Strange abandoned buildings appear out of the growth, slowly being claimed by the jungle. We leave the river and ride through towering fields of criollo maize with the sierra still looming distant.
We pass through an indigenous village, several people peering out of doors and windows as we pass. The faces noticeable darker, contrasted with bright, resplendent traditional dress. We pass over another river and then look upwards towards the road incised at a daunting angle into the mountainside; I ocularly trace it until it disappears into the clouds. My back tire spins on steep sections. The afternoon passes quickly amidst frequently breaks as our weeks of consecutive riding begin to call in payment.
I ride ahead of Damien, my mind drifting in frustration with nothing in particular. Neither of us speak for a bit. I want to get there. Get where? Before dark? Why? We are out of water…so? I am just tired, so tired. And? I reach a moment where everything seems inconsequential. Nothing can touch me, nothing can take anything away from me. All the worrying, planning and fighting are all for naught. All the speculation and hypothetical situations are pointless. I can fight my way through the rest of the way to San Cristobal with no difference in outcome or I can embrace the trajectory that we are on.
We ride slowly, enjoying ourselves in acceptance of the reality that we will be spending a significant amount of time riding in the dark this evening. We arrive in a small town as the golden light before sunset strikes. We pass a bottle of honey back and forth, gulping it down as we look up at the climb ahead. Quite a few people gather in front of their homes and discuss us in Tsotsil and laugh at us as we chug honey. The road once again disappears into the clouds. I catch the glint of a guardrail in the distance; pavement ahead.
The final climb requires exacting concentration and effort, every time that I push downwards my legs quiver in protest. I grit my teeth and inhale voluminous breaths. I push myself to the edge of my limits and hold it. I fight, time a meaningless abstraction to me. I arrive at the summit and look back on the spine of the sierra and the floor of clouds below painted by the disappearing sun. My mind is vacant of internal ruminations as I feel my chest expand and contract. Everything is brilliant, gilded with light as I have never seen before in my life. Everything is perfect, I see myself, my life and the world in one brilliant clairvoyant oneness. I feel the energy and richness of life and every moment running through my veins. It all erupts and explodes within my head, beatitude burns within me. Everything is insignificant when compared to the crimson edge smeared across the sheared clouds by an exploding ball of gas that is the basis for all life or to the cold wind luxuriantly prickling my skin.
I ride down from this point in elation, my perspective changed. The day is done; in twilight we climb upwards until a gunshot rings out. I flinch, quickly swerve and look around. Damien hops off his bike and I see his front tire is flat. We examine the tire and the tube has exploded and the tire is completely worn through in several spots. After making the questionable decision to continue on this tire a week ago, it fails within spitting distance of San Cristobal at a rather inauspicious hour and location. We sit in the darkness on the roadside, the cold breeze pouring down of the mountain summits. We cut up the tube and reinforce the tire with this and ducttape amidst much laughter, laughter of abandon. We inflate his new tube and the tire bulges at this spot without any structure to constrain the internal pressure. Our headlamps pan the darkness, emerald animal eyes occasionally glowing and silently moving through the darkness.
We arrive in a small village and see the light of a small store. We pull over, haggard and delirious in the way that a day like this can make you, the world only gaining in absurdity. The residents are in an adjacent house, their faces glowing through a screen of smoke as they warm themselves around a fire. An old man cautiously emerges and is amused as we devour anything that he offers us. Women wearing luxurious black wool skirts gather in the room quietly whispering in Tsotsil with babies swaddled in robozos on their backs. Everyone is uncertain what to make of these gringos stumbling in out of the darkness on bicycles, but they find nearly everything that we do amusing. We sit under the porch light repairing Damien’s tire with more ducttape in front of an audience. Little boys retrieve their bicycles from their houses and ride in excited circles. Old ladies cautiously peer from afar. The little girls are incredibly cute miniature replicas of their mothers, they stare at everything we do and hide if I smile at them.
The light pollution of San Cristobal lights the clouds in the distance. We ride past a few small villages, the dogs barking through town as soon as one hears us rattling past at this hour. They charge us aggressively, but never bite. Rain starts gently falling on us. San Juan Chamula covers a mountainside and we pass through the outskirts on our descent into San Cristobal. Traffic flies past us with our dim lights, the road surface is variable and treacherous in the darkness. Damien and I quietly revel in our luck at having made it this far on the Macgivered tire, but I ride worrying about a blowout on the quick descent.
Not dying on this descent requires mustering every bit of focus that I have left; my mind is in a dangerous haze of exhaustion.
Another gunshot rings out and I look back as Damien hops off his bike on the outskirts of San Cristobal. There is no fix; our riding for the day is over. A rock is impaled through the tire and tube at the very hole that we strove to fix previously. We stand two kilometers from the city center in the cold drizzle, so close.
I decide to be proactive and flag down a family in a pickup and explain our situation; they seem to pick up on the exhausted, desperate edge of my voice.
‘Toss your bike in back and we will go find your friend. Where do you guys want go to?’
The world provides. I am filled with gratitude. Every day through actions like this, the world is made livable, held together.
We walk down Real de Guadalupe, or Gringo Alley with Damien carrying his bags on his shoulders and lifting the front tire of his bike. Tourists pass in chic, flowing clothes that declaim their leisure through their impracticality; British accents loudly shriek from the front of the London pub; Argentines busk and Americans peruse storefronts. The eco tour operators. The boutique wine shop. The seriousness of all of this, the gravity and importance placed on anything and everything. It is laughable. A joke. Night clubs? Televisions? Fashion? Trash dumps? Fiscal cliffs? Retirement? My pretentiousness?
I eat dinner and curl up in a ball. I have a dream where I am riding my bike uphill for what seems like days. I finally summit in a perfect village, radiant in noontime sun under an immaculate sky. I let my hubs gradually gain velocity as I roll over the highpoint of the parabola. I let gravity pull me through the wavering mirage rising off of the obsidian tarmac. I stare out over verdant valleys and towering craggy spines. The beauty overcomes me as I peer off the precipice to the left; my velocity is incredible. The feeling of effortless speed suddenly shatters as I hit an anomaly in the perfection that sends me hurtling through the air towards the mesmerizing view. I hit the glassy obsidian slick and begin sliding. I grasp with my hands, using my skin as a friction brake to avoid learning what flying feels like. I stop teetering on the edge with the feeling of being unable to move without falling.
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas
I read, wander and cook what I find in my wanderings. I run across old friends. I get parasites and empty myself out. I don’t eat for four days. I drink a lot of tea and sleep. I take antibiotics. I read about and watch documentaries on the Zapatista revolution. Two weeks pass.
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas to Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas
I start to feel the sun of the tropics, the sun of the coming spring. We ride past military bases teeming with feverish activity with no clear purpose and then through the autonomous Zapatista towns that they are meant to oppress. The towns look lifeless except for the signature colorful murals across the sides of the buildings. The riding is remarkable, but both Damien and I are quite ill. As we near Comitan, I see a haggard man climbing upwards on a bicycle nearly devoid of gear, apart from a few spare parts; the first other cyclist that I have crossed paths with while en route. I swerve across the highway. He tells me that he is riding for peace out of his exasperation with the escalating violence in Mexico, visiting every state in the republic to speak out in favor of action.
Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas to Cuidad de Cuahtemoc, Chiapas
Damien is too ill to continue. After riding several weeks with one another, something that bring people together in a way that few other things can in life, we solemnly part ways. I worry about turning him loose, letting him fly solo. My options are limited though, it is either this or brutally clipping his wings. I decide after much consternation not to cripple him.
I ride under a vacant sky towards the end of Mexico, slowly sliding down a continuous downgrade, the heat growing as I descend into a hazy valley surrounded by rugged mountains. I come upon a roadblock, where cars and trucks stand motionless as a mob mills. I carefully approach, uncertain of my reception at this function as a denizen of a nation widely viewed as some sort of evil empire bent on world destruction using our very species as complicit slaves in the process. All eyes are focused on me, I look around and weigh my options. I lay my bike down on its side and something unexpected happens: they erupt in cheers. I am handed a manifesto expounding the abuses of the Mexican government and its corporate handlers. I sit on the pavement and read it before expressing my sincerest condolences.
‘Would it be a problem if I continued riding?’ I ask anxiously.
‘Not at all!’ The ringleader jovially responds.
‘Continue fighting!’ I shout to much cheers and applause.
I see another cyclist coming, we are both wearing huge grins as we cross paths. Javier began in the South of Argentina. We talk about our trips briefly, take a photo and part ways. I had always imagined this moment differently: The other rider would emerge from a sun scorched mirage as the wind swept sand and detritus across the road. Our pedal strokes both slowing as we size one another up. A hawk lets out a shrill screech from above. Her perfectly matched hand slides into mine, there is no ring. I look into her gentle eyes and something passes between us, I feel a jolt, not just between my legs, but somewhere deeper. On the right side of my body. My heart. I don’t let go of her hand, using it to pull her into a sweaty, heartwarming embrace. It turns out that we are soul mates, both of our mothers still cut up our Eggo Waffles, as they know how to do it best. We both used to dress our pet chickens up in clothes left over from our childhood. We both write blogs that nobody reads because they are rambling pretentious musings or too uncomfortably weird to read. We both adhere to a terrible strain of romantic philosophy that leads to a myopic focus on self-development and rejection of anything that does not accentuate our grandiose self-image. We laugh, we cry, we make love on the roadside with reckless abandon. I take a job training birds of prey to protect malnourished children from vulture attacks and teaching yoga to quadriplegics. She works for a social enterprise that offers subsidized ice cubes and teaches indigenous African languages to Guatemalan refugees. We hyphenate our last names. We have children that are so intelligent that everyone believes that they are borderline autistic. We are bequeathed an estate from a bitter widow who manages to secure her place in the afterlife through this last gesture of benevolence towards a family that could not be more deserving.
I feel elated and wallow in my greatness as I reach the Mexican immigration booth at Ciudad Cuahtemoc. It is strange the effect that accomplishing this goal can have on a person. The strife, the doubt, the suffering all fade, my success takes primacy. All of the luck and generous people along the way are utterly insignificant in contrast against the scintillating force of my will. I did this myself, look at me. Nobody does though, so I will write about it.
I sit eat on the Mexican side and sit across from a man with a small backpack and a machete. He eats with relish and purpose.
‘Where are you going?’ I ask him, knowing the answer.
‘Mexico, Mexico City.’ He cautiously answers.
We talk for a while about Guatemala and he seems to relax.
‘Is the border crossing hard?’ He asks me timidly. I explain the sad and dangerous realities of crossing as best I can.
‘Where will you cross?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Where are you going in America?’
‘I don’t know where I am going either.’
He leaves quickly with his machete, off to work in America. I sit sadly thinking about the tough road ahead of him beset on all sides by people who are going to take advantage of him, including at his final destination.
I sit in a strange lounge chair that faces the border inspection station and watch for a few hours.
Ciudad de Cuahtemoc, Chiapas, Mexico to Huehuetenango, Quiche, Guatemala
The climb begins. I pass a trash dump that separates the two nations, several people climb on the smoldering stain that spreads across the landscape. Anti-littering signs abound, they seem to actually be anchored in trash. Vultures circle in the acrid air of burning plastic.
At the Guatemalan immigration station I am processed by the same agent that has been there the previous two times that I have passed. He is the best border patrol official I have ever seen, a paragon of efficiency with an air of politeness that is borderline reverent. I have deduced from these three border crossings that he is deaf and mute. He never says a word to me as I pass through, he simply stamps my passport and sends me on my way each time.
4100km exactly to this point. Immediately upon crossing the chaos of Guatemala begins; the chaos that I have come to love. People yell at me, kids run alongside, chickens crispin in vats of oil, stereos compete outside small stores, buses bellow and ayudantes shout.
I thought that the topes, reductores de velocidad, vibradores, speed bumps would disappear as I cross, that this balderdash would be seen as ridiculous by the practical Guatemalans not gripped by a tope-industrial complex. I see a sign warning the approach of something called a ‘Tumulo’ on a steep downhill. Hmmm.. that sounds pleasant and non-three dimensional. I think nothing of it until I am rudely jolted, my speed forcefully reduced. No, it can’t be! I repeat this process several more times until my disillusionment is complete.
I ride with the wind and shouts of ‘Gringo!’ at my back. I never researched this section. The scenery slowly changes and the air cools until I reach a high plain. As I ride I invent my own radio station, ‘Uno!….Cero!…..Cinco!….Puntoooo! Dos!….Tha Mixxxx!’ I yell this over and over again in my best rendition of a Mexican DJ/the guy who seems to do the voice for ever commercial in Mexico. The station consists of my unconstrained and oft non-sensical thoughts, a steam of consciousness monologue that vomits forth and occasionally carries a tune. I am pretty sure that I have lost my mind, lost it to my own personal radio station. I tune in and out. This blogpost is a transcript of the radio stations first broadcast.
I sleep in Huehuetenango and set out early. I drink coconuts and orange juice with raw eggs on the roadside as I perpetually climb towards Xela, my radio stations #1 hit becomes me yelling ‘Xela…Xela….XELAAAAAA!’ like one of the ayudantes on the old American school buses that traverse the highlands.
How did I got here, to Xela, Guatemala, is a question that is far more vast than pertains to me or you. On the surface, I took one stroke with my left leg, then one with my right and then I kept going. An infinite sum of pieces, each infinitesimally small, comprises a whole.
I crossed vast vacant expanses. The wind blew, rain fell, I got sick, I got lost and sometimes I forgot what I was doing this in the first place. Then I took another stroke. Night after night I laid looking up at an ocular symphony in awe, in terrified awe of the reality of this inexplicable anomaly. The life will leave my body one day and I will have understood so little through eyes that are inherently mine and are only open for a brief period of time.
I will never know the answers to the questions that loom over us omnipresent and radiant like the sun. We can stare at the sun, stare at these unanswerable questions until we are blind and wander desperately groping for an explanation or a purpose. Our only other option is to let it illuminate our path, to continue walking with our eyes humbly downcast.
I pass a few days in contemplation before passing a sleepless night under Volcan Santiaguito as it roars and vomits forth a cascade of sanguine rock. I sit anticipating each hourly explosion and the accompanying raucous rasp; it is primal and riveting; it is terrifying and perspective altering. The ever salient question: what do I want to do with my fleeting time? Ash rains down on me. I decide that I should do something different, chase the loose ends that tantalizingly dangle in front of my face. The needle on my compass is not pointing North, it is spinning capriciously. I am not returning home.
I look back at all of this, well everything, in bewilderment and mirth. All of it an infinite sum, a discontinuous function if any piece of it were to be missing. I am still in Xela.