Cloud Chasing Levity

‘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.

IMG_2969We 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.

IMG_2971We 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.

IMG_2973My 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.

IMG_2974We 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

IMG_2978The 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.

IMG_2979As 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.

IMG_2982We 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.

IMG_2985We 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.

IMG_2986I 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.

IMG_2992The 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.

IMG_2996I 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 IMG_3000location. 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

IMG_3105I 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

IMG_3115I 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 IMG_3117haggard 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

IMG_3122Damien 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 IMG_3126focused 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. IMG_3128Our 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, IMG_3119we 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

IMG_3129The 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.

IMG_31324100km 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.

IMG_3133I 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.

IMG_3139I 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.

IMG_3141I 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.

IMG_3145I ride into Xela with a feeling of levity, the future boundless and my life as pure potential.

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.

IMG_3208I 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.

‘El Capricho’ Km. 52 Cattle Inspection Station

La Horqueta/Poblado 12, Veracruz to Cerro Nanchital, Veracruz

As I lay in bed, a crisp dawn never comes, only a gradual lightening. I only get out of bed as a baby cries and pots clang in the kitchen that is separated from my head by several inches of thin wall. I lugubriously eat, struggling to lift my spoon to my mouth. Damien feeds his leftover cereal to the chickens that graze around out feet.

IMG_2930We retrace our route a few hundred meters to get to the bridge over the Rio Uxpanapa  to continue towards Poblado 13. The parting words from the grandma’s frowning mouth are, ‘You are going to get rained on today.’ Thanks for that. The clouds are low and they start spitting on us as soon as we leave. We gradually climb and weave on a road pockmarked by potholes engorged with opaque water.

The rain finally comes after looming ahead for quite a while, always just a bit ahead in the mountains the tower over us. It comes in wavering sheets, green parrots scatter as we stop to rainproof our bikes. We enter a town and a strong gust sweeps IMG_2932down on us before the sky unleashes a deluge. We ride laughing as it pelts us; it isn’t much of a rainforest if you don’t get rained on. We duck for cover under a shanty on the roadside, the sound of the rain pelting the roof is deafening. We sit silently listening to the pitterpatter as we spoon out the inside of a cantaloupe.

IMG_2933The rain slows to a drizzle and we set out. The terrain becomes steeper and more rugged as we climb further into the mountains. I lock up my brakes and skid to a stop outside the mouth of a cave, stalactites looking like teeth as we climb enter. We descend down into the darkness and are greeted with the sound of running water echoing off the walls. A shaft of life illuminates a small river that runs through IMG_2944the bottom. I dip my hand into the current and am surprised by warm water. I shine my headlamp around examining a pool, a bat panics and screams past my face. I hold my breathe like I do near packs of pigeons, assuming that even the air that comes off of their wings could give me some sort of disease.

IMG_2934Motorcycles pass us every half hour or so, but we see no cars. The reason for this becomes apparent as we begin climbing the steepest section of road surfaced with limestone ledges, rounded river cobble and slick clay. I pedal hard and try to snake my way upwards before finding myself getting bucked off my bike and walking until a suitable spot where I try again. I repeat this a half dozens times until I have walked most of the climb. I reach the top where I cross paths with two guys on a motorcycle dragging an emaciated hound dog with a nylon rope cutting into its neck.

‘Where are you guys going?’ I ask while suspiciously eyeing the dying dog.

‘To Matias Romero.’ A city at least 100 kilometers from here.

‘With that dog?’ I ask with a cringe.

‘Yes?’

‘Is he sick?’ Trying to suggest that maybe the dog doesn’t look too good.

‘No, he’s fine.’ I look at him and am pretty confident that he will die today.

‘Incredible, simply incredible. See you later.’

IMG_2931The downhill is equally treacherous, my rear tire frequently sliding off rocks and my front tire wildly careening off obstacles. Suddenly the road smooths out and the dense jungle opens up into green pasture. The riding is easy as we build momentum and pedal hard. The entirety of this trip we have received answers of degree of diversity regarding the distance to Cerro Nanchital. The wind blows hard and we are soaked to the bone. Powerlines? check. Trash? check. Cars? check.

We ride across the Rio Nanchital and arrive into a town where an elephant would seem less of a spectacle than a couple of gringos riding around on bicycles. Everyone stares as we ride the main drag eating several lunches at several different eating establishments. A kid dangles his hand out the window and makes eye contact with me, I instinctively stick mine out and we have a serendipitous highfive without a word exchanged.

My bike is a muddy mess with a flat tire that doesn’t want to shift . We are in shambles and I am amazed when a woman allows us to roll our bikes into a hotel room and soil it permanently with heaps of damp gear. Afterwards we roam town asking the least rubeish citizens about the roads out of town. The answers are highly varied. We find an internet cafe where a group of boys outside passes half an hour yelling, ‘Fuck!’ and ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ I guess this sums up what our media culture imparts on the rest of the world.

We head out into the pouring rain in search of dinner. We sit at a restaurant staffed by five young girls who giggle whenever we say anything and huddle around the glow of a television with flickering images of immaculately groomed and painted milkfed stars bathing in sumptuous wealth and hemorrhaging sexual energy. The commercials flaunt flat screen televisions, makeup, processed food, cars. You need it, you will be happeier with it. Buy it. If you aren’t happier then there is something wrong with you, luckily we have a product for that as well. What do they think about this?

‘Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.
No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.’ – Walt Whitman

Cerro Nanchital, Veracruz

It is still raining, day three of rain. A cold front has swept over Mexico bringing snow to the North. We decide to try our luck and continue riding in the direction of a small town/ranch called El Desengaño, or the Disappointment. I debate dumping white gas all over the hotel room and burning its forever tarnished interior to the ground, but we will need that white gas for the coming days. Two locals draw us maps of the route and detail how we can get a boatride across the Malpaso Dam where the road ends. We ride out under a gray sky, sheeted in low clouds. The rain falls gently and consistently. We are prominent local figures at this point, our exit something of an occasion.

We take a righthand fork roughly a kilometer outside of town where the road has been recently graded. The slick red slurry starts spraying. My legs are painted in red, my bike slathered in it after ten minutes. A man, a foreboding figure, approaches us on his motorcycle with his entire frontside painted in copper mud, the whites of his eyes bold against this backdrop. My brakes start grinding, my shifts skipping. I look back and Damien is missing. I stop and wait as the rain soaks deeper into my clothing. He reaches the top of the climb looking dismayed. We talk briefly about our bikes that have been rendered useless in only a few minutes in this quagmire. We reach Disappointment without having to ride the 50km we were expecting.

We ride back to Cerro Nanchital in defeat. We find shelter under the awning of a building, flip our bikes over and shiver as we clean every component of our bicycles.

A man’s head pops out of a window nearby:

‘How much does your bike cost?’ I mumble something in response, his head disappears back inside.

I spend the next four hours getting my bike into a semblance of working order until a man pulls up in his car.

‘Do you guys need a mechanic?’ He amiably asks.

‘Do you work on bikes?’

‘Yes, a bit.’ He says this in a way that leads me to believe that he might know something about bikes.

I show him how my shifting is getting slightly hung up and I cannot get the adjustment right. He grabs my hex keys and screwdriver and works quickly. He turns screws, loosens the cables, shifts through the gears. He is extremely efficient at undoing all of the work that I have done and worsening the condition of my bike. I watch in horror as metal grinds, the chain binds, screws are wildly wound in different directions and his brow furrows in confusion.

‘Something is wrong with your bike, but I need to get to work. Good luck.’ I am deliriously incensed, laughing as a pace and curse the chummy clodhopper.

My tire is flat again as I try to head back to the hotel in confusion. My derailleur binds and snaps. I patch my tube once, put it back on the rim, another leak develops, I patch it. I start to pump it up and the tube bursts. I put in a brand new tube and it has already been punctured. I patch it and then find another leak. I patch it. I pump it up and the tube bursts irreparably. One tube left: a Chinese made tube bought from a greasy little bike shop in Amecameca. It holds. The rain pours day and night, steadily audible from our windowless room.

Cerro Nanchital, Veracrus to ‘El Capricho’ Km. 52 Cattle Inspection Station

The sound of rain buffeting the roof has abated and we walk out into sunshine. I ride my bike around to test it out and stop to talk to a cute girl that works at one of the restaurants. An old man emerges from the house to contribute to the conversation:

‘Where are you from?’

‘How much does that bike cost?’

‘What’s in those bags?’

‘Do you have any cocaine?’

‘Do you have any weed?’

IMG_2949We ride past the hogswallow that leads to Disappointment, it is a somber moment. Signs threatening dangerous climb and descent as I ponder slash and burn landscapes. The topes and the dogs are aggressive on this stretch. I taunt the dogs, howling and barking as I pass to stir them up. It is even better when Damien is still behind to draw their wrath. The roads and bridges here were build by PEMEX for oil and gas exploration according to plaques on the roadside.

We ride 50km without stopping, eventually merging onto a highway where we eat at a restaurant managed by a taciturn woman, terrorized by a half dozen children and presided over by an old cowboy. The kids scream and laugh; the husband quickly stands up and shoulders a rifle that somehow manages to shatter the preexistant raucous chaos with several shots. He walks into the forest to retrieve his bounty.

After we finish eating they show us their collection of jungle pets/living food stockpile. They lift the boxes off a few tepesquintles that peer at us in terror with  nocturnal saucer eyes.

We ride out in search of a camp after buying aIMG_2951 bunch of vegetables out of the back of a pickup truck. The road is lined with barbed wire guarding open pastures that would be unpleasant sleeping grounds. Not fit for someone of my position in society. But we come across a more befitting local in the drizzlely afternoon: the State of Veracruz Cattle Assessment station, managed by Adam who greets us in perfect English as we pull up. I explain our trip quickly and then get to the point:

IMG_2954‘Can we sleep here somewhere? Out there in the field or something? We have everything we need to camp?’ I ask as politely and pitifully as I can.

‘Sure, anywhere. You guys can sleep in that trailer over there if you want.’ He seems ecstatic to have visitors.

IMG_2956‘Are you sure?’ Damien asks.

‘Yeah. It is full of soda from a Coke truck that crashed near here last week, but you can just move that aside.’

So we set up camp in an old camper with the floor rotting out and collapsing. It is partly burnt down and sits on the manure covered concrete slab of a 24 hour livestock inspection station. We move IMG_2958hundreds of cans and bottles of soda to one side. There is used toilet paper inside the trailer and some poop in the corner. I kick the toilet paper into the corner with the poop and then move a file cabinet on top of all of it.

We cook dinner in the kitchen of the cattle inspection station with Adam and the security guard Johnny. Adam occasionally runs off when a truck full of chickens pulls up clucking or a silver cattle trailer arrives sluicing manure out of its slats. Adam  reminisces about America before showing us pictures of his kids and his ranch. We talk 1990’s baseball and I nostalgically recollect some of my cards.

IMG_2962Strange bugs flit and dart around the humming white lights, beautifully knocking themselves senseless. Metallic beatles, particolored moths, something that terrifyingly looks like a flying scorpion.

Damien looks at one of the particularly brilliant moths and exclaims:

‘This one looks like my grandma made it!’

No, I Don’t Want to Buy a Jaguar Cub or Cocaine.

Puxmetacan, Oaxaca to La Mixtequita, Oaxaca

I toss and turn, the night too warm for anything beyond the clothes that I wear to keep the mosquitoes off of me. The town comes alive with the rising of the sun, its rays piercing the clouds that fill the valley and buffet the mountains. A rooster’s talons click on the zinc roof as it struts and crows. An orange trees blooms and stirs outside the window; hummingbirds dart and stab the pungent pistils. I somnambulistically descend a foottrail down the steep mountainside to buy fruit from a woman’s living room. Here a man teaches me how to greet in Mixe, phonetically it is pronounced ‘mi-gep-ay.’

‘Puro Mixe.’ He repeats over and over again with a  smile on his face.

We disrupt some festivities as we leave town, parting the crowd as we walk our bikes through. After giving a brief speech thanking everyone for their hospitality, I awkwardly wait for the tickertape to rain down upon us before realizing that it is Sunday and the stock market is closed.

I sound like a dumb infant as I leave town, perpetually saying the same word over and over again. Mi-gep-ay! Everyone loves it though. We begin a general descent, with frequent interspersed climbs. The jungle is thick and the air stagnant. I dodge treacherous patches of marble sized rocks with Damien on my side doing the same, leading to several near disastrous incidents as we race into turns. Several pickup trucks loaded with passengers pass, dozens of eyes inquisitively fixed upon us from the bed.

The forest filled with strange bird calls and rustling bushes gives way to land co-opted for cattle. The approach of civilization is always apparent. I eat bananas, mangos, mandarins, guayabas, peanuts and chocolate as the next town remains ever elusive. It doesn’t exist on our map, only as a rumor. I ride in a ravenous haze in the early afternoon.

Scale in Service. For Sale: Semen and Insemination. Restaurant and Supermarket. Toilets. Ice.
Scale in Service.
For Sale: Semen and Insemination.
Restaurant and Supermarket.
Pens. Spring. Ice.

Then I hit pavement and give out a loud whoop and pump my fist as a few bewildered locals timidly gaze from the back of a truck. The pavement is so smooth, so easy…so unsatisfying. We limp into a roadside restaurant where I collapse into a chair and sip on a glass of agua de tamarindo.

‘Hey man, what’s up man?’ I hear in heavily accented, drunkenly slurred English. Fuck. I wince and slowly turn my head towards a nearby table.

‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I slowly respond.

‘Yo man, you from the United States?’ I am convinced that most immigrants learn their English from early 1990’s action films. Maybe Scarface?

‘Yeah….from Utah.’ He doesn’t pick up on my exasperation.

‘Oh yeah, Utah! I was a drug dealer in Indianapolis for four years. Mucho cocaina man. Haha!’ He is glassy eyed, stoned drunk. I hope this stops soon.

‘….until they deported me for no papers. I am going to go back soon. Fuck them man! I have fucking money man, those are my fucking papers! Hahaha!’ Would an immigrant to any other country than America proudly tell a citizen that they came there illegally, dealt drugs for a living, got deported and plan to return? How am I supposed to respond to this? I don’t say anything.

‘How much do you make man?’ He asks aggressively, his bloodshot eyes bulging forth.

‘Not much.’

‘How much does that fucking bici cost man?’

‘Enough.’ Damien and I try to maintain a steady conversation amongst ourselves to put an end to this.

‘See you later man! Hahaha!’ He stumbles out the door and hops into the driver’s seat of his taxi.

The waitress intentionally overcharges us. Trucks thunder past, vexing my delicate senses with dust. Children stare vacantly at a television. These people are materially richer than the people in the mountains, but infinitely poorer in another way. I want to go back to the mountains.

IMG_2920We arrive in La Mixtequita at dusk, interrupting a futbol game as we ride up. I ask about a place to stay and am told to talk to the police who are on duty for the night. We ride down the road to a restaurant with a hilarious old lady, her drunk illterate son, a 3.5 kilo rooster and a drunk midget who insists on speaking in English that I cannot understand. We stay for a while in good company. The head of the local police hears about our arrival and comes over to talk, offering us permission to stay in the town’s municipal building.

IMG_2918We stop to get snacks and a girl disappears for a moment before returning carrying her five year old sister who is fighting in terror.

‘They aren’t going to eat you!’ She declares amidst laughter, holding her sister out towards us before setting her down. She takes off running.

Nobody ever arrives to open the municipal building for us, so we sleep behind it, under a metal roof.

La Mixtequita, Oaxaca to Palomares, Oaxaca

A cow bellows in the corral attached to the municipal building long before first light. A group of men are already working on a pickup truck and howling in laughter. As we pack up they come over to talk. We quickly move from our trip to more pressing matters.

‘Haha… Look at the Australian’s bike, he is so poor that he cannot afford disc brakes!’

‘Why didn’t you bring down a white girl? You know? A little thing.’ He makes an obscene gesture with his hands that is appears to be universal amongst Latin American men.

‘You should come to San Juan Mazatlan in the mountains, where we are from. There are waterfalls and beautiful mountains and lots of wildlife. We caught a baby tiger up there the other day.’ He says casually.

‘A tiger?’ I play it cool as well.

‘Yeah, a baby jaguar.’ He holds his palm about 30cm off the ground to show me the size of the cat.

‘How did you catch it”‘

‘Oh we used a trap. Do you want to buy it?’

‘How much do you want for it?’

‘One hundred dollars. It’s  cheap. There is a guy coming down here from Chicago to take a look at it in the next few days.’

‘Oh….’ This jaguar is as good as dead and I cannot think of a way to change this outcome. In the next few weeks I tell several government officials and police officers about this exchange. Here is a typical conversation:

‘That is definitely illegal.’

‘Is there anything you can do about it?’

‘Oh, well somebody should. It isn’t my job though.’

We ride 20km of rolling hills into Palomares. We cross paths with the chief of police from La Mixtequita at a restaurant with a few friends. One of them lived in America for a while, so we have a fruitful dialogue about cocaine, banging white girls, getting drunk and eating at buffets. Somehow in the course of all of this he managed to get a DUI and was deported.

‘You guys want to buy some cocaine? Only one hundred pesos.’ He leers at us.

‘No. I am trying to lead a healthy life.’ I try to tactfully decline amidst rising frustration with conversations like this.

Cocaine and jaguars. Welcome to the Isthmus.

Palomares, Oaxaca to Poblado Doce/La Horqueta, Veracruz

IMG_2925One of Damien’s tires looks like it has leprosy with several sores and missing chunks. There is nowhere to get a spare that will not cost us several days, so we switch the front tire with the back and hope for the best. We stock up on supplies before heading out into the unknown. The entrance into the Ishtmus of Tehuantepec is called La Boca del Monte or The Mouth of the Wild. The road on my map is shown as nothing but dirt as it snakes through several small towns named Poblado 1-14 or Population 1-14. There is nothing in this region on our maps other than what lies along this small road until one reaches one of the two coasts.

The road stays paved as we pass through the final frontier town that  bustles with activity from the natural resource exploitation beyond. I receive varying and conflicting answers regarding the road ahead, but almost universally we are told that we should turn around and head to the coast. The air is filled with a miasma of decaying organic matter, cow shit and dead animals. Development?

We continue on a concrete road through pasture. Where is the adventure and rugged country? The swarthy savages clothed in loincloths that jump out of trees onto animals backs to stab them to death? The jaguars barking at us? The monkeys flinging shit at us?

What is it like to live in a town called Population 2? There is a sign out front built out of scrap metal with the village name spray painted over rust. Orange trees overburdened with fruit line the road.

IMG_2923We cross into Veracruz and are questioned by curious assault rifle wielding police. I keep my answers concise and we are sent on our way. The jungle slowly thickens, swollen beautiful rivers whisper to us from below bridges. In Plan de Arroyo we are flagged down by a local and I stop in confusion. He points at some vibrant orange and green iguanas tanning their scales in the sun. The town’s name either translates to River Plan or Gutter Plan, I prefer Gutter Plan.

IMG_2926We resupply in one of the populations between 5-8. Our map shows a town called Las Carolinas where we plan to spend the night and resupply on water. We are tired from the heat and the day loses its luster. We ride hard through interminable rows of rubber trees. The remote mountains of the Chimalapas lie to our right as we pass their flanks. I flag down a truck in frustration, the driver never having heard of a town called Las Carolinas. Over the clang of the diesel engine he tells us that we are only a few kilometers out from La Horqueta/Poblado Doce. We cross paths with a man on horseback a bit later who directs us to keep riding a bit further, town invisible in the incipient darkness. 117km later.

I ask for a place to stay at a small store, a woman who’s mouth has corners perpetually downturned into a frown offers to rent us her son’s room for the night. We spend an hour laying out all of our different maps on a concrete slab in front of the store for dozens of locals that encircle us under a dangling, dim lightbulb. I talk about our trip, waiting for the woman to show us to our room.

We eventually carry all of our gear through the living room, the rest of the family quietly taking stock of us. I quickly head out back and bath myself with bucketloads of water. We pass the evening chatting with the family about our trip and the area before cooking dinner on my small stove out back. They give us cilantro, oranges, chiles and plantains to add to our dinner. Our evening here is incredible, despite the matriarch’s defect of frowning at all of my jokes. The walls of the house are lined with dozens of photos of frowning family members. I want to make a joke about this, but I know how it will be received.

unknown road to unknown road

IMG_2730[2]The year previous the front of the municipal building in Oaxaca de Juarez was occupied by an indigenous group called the Triquis. I added this pigs head to draw you in and get you to read an otherwise biased and rambling rant about another repressed indigenous group. I am not sure why I am writing about this, other than the fact that I passionately told the Triquis that I would do so. I remember walking past and not thinking very much of the shanty town in front of the government building, my Spanish likely insufficient to understand anyways. I choose to stop this time as I walk past and figure out what is going on. I am quickly drawn in and told a harrowing tale. Many simply look on as I speak with one of the leaders as they do not speak Spanish. The group initially drew the ire of the Mexican government and the state of Oaxaca by declaring their desire to live autonomous from the state, in accordance with their customs. A demand similar to that of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, where several indigenous villages have lived independent of the Mexican government since the revolution in the mid-1990’s. This declaration made San Juan Copala politically unpalatable and divisive, but the Mexican government had a response derived from the Zapatista rebellion: use paramilitaries instead of actual government forces to wage a proxy war. Through promises of land, political power, weapons and money the government convinced members of another nearby village to form a paramilitary group called MULT to assail the village. Dozens were murdered in cold blood, their bodies littering the bullet riddled town square. The population of the village was forced to flee, seeking refuge in the city center of Oaxaca de Juarez with the hopes of seeking justice and recovering their village. Both state and federal governments have conveniently turned a blind eye.

Several military and police assaults have attempted to violently evict the blight that the occupiers pose. The night before Christmas Eve police forces descended upon the makeshift slum with force, literally beating the hundreds of homeless people away in preparation for the celebrations in the square. After another year they still huddle on a sidestreet during the cold nights, pictures of bloodied corpses taped to the plastic tarps flapping in the wind.

Oaxaca de Jaurez, Oaxaca to outside Cerro Pelon, Oaxaca

We set out in the morning to a flurry of goodbyes, it is strange when you get to a place and all the right people come together. Energy builds rather than dissipating. After two weeks in the city, a diaspora sets out: April and Chelsea on their bikes towards Palenque, Kyleen and Chris towards San Cristobal. The feelings of doubt and exhaustion have lead me to reevaluate my approach to riding, to eschew goal oriented thinking and focus on simply being mindful. To honor the piece of me that revels in connecting with people, of staring in wonder at the world that abound in life and beauty, to commit myself deeper into this trip than before, to lose myself in it. GO.

I do some research on the hypothetical route that I have seen only vaguely traced in my map through towns with names like Poblado 1-14. There is not much to be found, beautiful. The other options are riding either on the Carribean or Pacific coast highways, either of which sounds like a boorish slog. Damien and I set out together planning to ride the following route through the Sierra Mixe, through the center of the Isthmus de Tehauntepec and on backroads into San Cristobal. Google titles the map: Unknown Road to Unknown Road. We don’t discuss it too much, we simply agree to leave one morning.

We will try to follow the faint lines that wander through the jungle, not overly concerned about where it leads us. Turns are subjectively judged wrong only by certain premises, viewed with a different perspective they are whatever you want them to be. Pay attention. Confused readers or family members begrudgingly wading through my musings through some sort of obligation stemming from your desire to avoid awkward Skype phone calls: in all of my writing I am trying to share a philosophy that does not simply apply to cycling or traveling, it applies to every facet of life. It is my life’s work.

The city characteristically challenges our egress through traffic spilling uncontrolled and violent from arteries radiating from the city center in a blur of glass and steel. We ride shoulder to shoulder to continue conversations that seamlessly sweep from Noam Chomsky, finding meaningful happiness, economics, topes, Spinoza, agriculture, cycling, indigenous rights, environmental degradation, inequality, interconnectedness, mining, literature, our feces, globalization, the impossibility and undesirability of unconstrained growth, Wittgenstein. The challenges of our generation. Damien unselfconsciously unleashes a contagious roaring laugh at the world as he passes through it, whether canoeing through the Yukon Territories, walking the Pacific Crest Trail or cycling through the Americas. Cars narrowly pass with Doppler shifted horns wailing, protesting our egregious occupation of an exorbitant extension of the thoroughfare. This leads to more laughter.

IMG_2853 I lead us to a mescal factory, called El Espadin, outside of Mitla. A mule tows a massive stonewheel in circles which grinds roasted maguey over a stone slab, the juice is collected for fermentation. We knock back a few sample shots that give the morning a strange texture. The walls are lined with jars of mescal with snakes neatly coiled inside, scorpions arching in a final death throe and tarantulas preserved in poise.

‘We need to shake it mate!’ Damien exclaims with a grin. (I am going to give Damien a more Australian accent for my own amusement.)

‘Why?’

‘I reckon if I stay here any longer I will wake up here in 20 years with an ungrateful wife and a half dozen children that I struggle to support with a corn farm in the desert. Mescal will give you roos loose in the top paddock.’ He roars.

This mescal factory served as the starting point for several adventures the previous year. I am riding a nostalgic road, one that lead to one of the stranger experiences that I have had on the road: a predawn gringo hunt in the woods outside of a small town called Cerro Pelon that lead to some sort of loose imprisonment for the night.

As we eat a woodfire cooked chicken on the roadside we laugh as a big white dog with something stuck in its foot prances instead of walking, all the while viciously lashing out at other dogs on the street.

Deciduous trees dot the mountainside of the Sierra Mixe, smearing brilliant reds and yellows across the landscape. Water cascades in waterfalls, trickles from cracks and slowly rolls off the points of leaves of grass. The chaos of the valley fades behind and below.

IMG_2855We crest a pass and are sent on a precipitous, curvaceous downhill marred with irregular deep potholes. I am nearly bucked off my bike several times, holding my breath as it miraculously does not explode on impact with the unavoidable. I keep my eyes on the road, reading the map of the surface. A driver approaches doing the same, she swerves completely into my lane as I silently approach at 45km/hr. I cut hard right and nail the brakes, adrenaline instantly coursing through my veins as I struggle to regain control of the bike.

After 15 minutes we are ejected into a small town that appears to grow nothing besides tomatoes. I harass the driver of a potato chip truck about the route forward. Coca-Cola, Frito Lay and beer penetrate into every crevice and niche of this country, and likely the world, that is accessible by bike. This is the reality of our world, making the drivers are a valuable resource. He draws a detailed map for us of the road ahead, far more detailed than the blurry, discontinuous lines on Google Maps.

We begin climbing again. The afternoon heat radiates off the pavement, each breath seeming to heat my body further, stoking me like a furnace. Pines dominate the landscape.

IMG_2860I find myself once again outside of Cerro Pelon with the night closing in upon us. I debate boldly entering town with a smile on my face and asking the head of the agency if we can stay in the cell where I slept last time. We ride on until spotting a small trail cutting up into a canyon. We pass the bikes over a guardrail before cooking one of my signature questionable dinners cobbled together from random items we bought on the roadside. Sardines, beans in a bag, rice, butter, bullion cubes full of MSG, chiles…..

Outside Cerro Pelon, Oaxaca to Santa Maria Alotepec, Oaxaca

IMG_2864I awake to a sky filled with shifting and rising clouds, the sun occasionally winking through. We hit the steep gradient as soon as we pass the bikes over the rail. We reach San Pedro and San Pablo Ayutla where we restock and eat breakfast above the gaping chasm that the city is anchored above. I seek out deep yellow handmade criollo tortillas, my journey leading me to a small lady at the end of an alley. She claps out tortillas in a smokey room so small that you couldn’t spin a cat by the tail without hitting one of the fire-darkened walls. She cackles as we talk about tortillas, her face hovering over the comal as the corn rises on the heat of the red embers.

IMG_2868We take a right hand turn on the outside of town that cuts steeply upwards. The towns water is supplied by pipes that funnel water pouring off of a sizable waterfall, as it should be.

I paperboy up the precipice that leads to Tierra Blanca. Chickens and turkeys disproportionately react to my incredibly slow approach, scattering in a racket. I build a map of the cloud shrouded sierra as my tires traverse the serpentine jagged spine: it looks like a mad tangle of yarn with little to no order. A man seems to be climbing a cliff with corn growing out of it, I gasp as he risks loosing his handhold on the surface as he waves.

IMG_2875We ride a road that is simply a gash cut into the mountainside by machinery, the road littered with rocks and debris from above. A town looms ahead on the spine, its sky blue church catches my eye first. We roll into Ascencion Cacalotepec where we lunch in a small shack that hangs over a cliff, we look down through cracks in the irregularly planed wooden floor to see clouds below.

IMG_2873A little girl of eight brazenly and uncharacteristically approaches us while her mother heats tortillas for us. She has never spoken to any foreigners before and asks us about what it is like where we live and why we are riding our bicycles.
She hands us some fruit as we set out, the whole family coming out to wish us the best.

IMG_2878A descent begins here that is strewn with potholes, landscape debris, animals and all manners of hazards that we navigate as we pedal and lean through the turns. What lies ahead is unknown. The mountains here are the most rugged and steep that I have encountered yet. There are gradients that deceptively lead into medieval tope traps. We cross a saddle that is just wide enough for the road, sheer drops on either side. I frequently brake and stop to take in the rugged landscape with bold outposts of civilization dotting the flanks. I am far away.

IMG_2880We pass San Isidro Huayapan, drop towards Estancia de Morelos in the river bottom below before winding our around the mountainside to Alotepec. A man who has returned home after 15 years in the United States chats with as for a bit at a fork in the road.

‘It is great since I have been back here. You have to pay for everything in America. Freedom to me is owning your own land, having free water, producing your own food, owning your time.’ He passionately explains. I vehemently nod my head in agreement.

The landscape at the river bottom is comprised of coffee and banana fields. Flowers waver around the small homes with coffee drying out front.

IMG_2886We pass men and women returning from the fields, wrestling loaded bags  of coffee with machetes dangling by their side. Laughter emanates from the rows of coffee trees. This sierra represents a surreal paradise to me. On the final climb into Alotepec I am pursued by a burro burdened with wood, I struggle to keep ahead. Several men emerge from the trees on the roadside carrying rifles, giving me a little bit of anxiety as they stand in the roadside and stare out at us from behind blank faces hardened by life here in the mountains. At one point more than half of the road has been consumed by the cliff that it dangles over, a gaping hole into nothingness. The white church of Alotepec stands like a beacon in the distance.

I ride into the town square and make a few circles in front of the municipal building, before sitting down sweatsoaked to shiver and wait for Damien. The sun has been lost in the gray sky.

‘Where can we sleep?’ I ask a few men sitting on the steps of the municipal building.

‘Anywhere? Over there?’ An old man in a cowboy hat points to some steps in front of the municipal building.

Friday night unfolds in a cacophony of dog barking, music, giggling teenagers as we cook dinner and relax. People stare at us and talk amongst themselves in Mixe. I feel like an exhibition, a representation for gringos in general. What rumors will start about gringos based upon my behavior? What if I ate an onion like an apple? What if I Damien and I did headstands and carried on a conversation for a while? What if I sacrificed something? Or build a shrine to an inanimate object?

IMG_2889They move us into the police station as night falls, the police sleep by our side waiting for….. I am not sure. We sleep under a mural with a quote from Benito Juarez that says the following: ‘Damn those who defend the town with their words, but betray it with their actions.’

Alotepec, Oaxaca to Puxmetecan, Oaxaca

IMG_2891Someone pounds on the door until the policemen wake up, which disconcertingly takes a few minutes. I stroll out to have a leak and am greeted with a luminous blue sky. The towering cliffs that back the town are illuminated. I stand transfixed with genitals in hand. I spend the next hour or two answering questions about how expensive my bike is and doing alternating impressions of the billowing loudspeaker that presides over town. The quality is mediocre and the Mixe sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Here is a rough translation from what I could gather, ‘The white devils have arrived and have arisen to drink the blood of the pure. We must eliminate them before the ball of fire in the sky reaches its apex. Assemble in the town square for the reckoning. There will be free flan courtesy of Mrs. Martinez. Juan, your mother called to notify us that you left your sack lunch at home.’

Turkeys and chickens peck the square.

IMG_2895I look at Cotzocon in the distance in sheer bewilderment, unable to discern a way. There are several ridges and valleys separating us. We start with a descent down a loose rock filled road, my hands cramping from perpetual braking. In Cotzocon we stop in front of a school to ask directions, the small schoolhouse empties rapidly. Dozens of children stare at us, refusing to answer any of our questions.

IMG_2900Over lunch I try and learn some Mixe words from the locals, they fade from my memory within minutes. Wizened old men burdened with coffee beans and firewood smile as we pass. We dismount and walk past packs of wary donkeys.

The road is wet red clay that sends us sliding occasionally. Damien falls to the ground several times on one descent, laughing the entire time. We rattle over solid limestone slabs in dark verdant tunnels. The air is fragrant with flowers and the smells of the jungle.

IMG_2905We reach our nadir for the day, Rio Puxmetecan. We peer off the bridge as a few men walk upstream in their underwear wielding spears. We ride down to the river and swim in the cool water of the river, white flowers dangle over its surface and drop petals. The young men show me a bag of fish they speared. A truck crosses the bridge, a rare bit of traffic on this stretch of road. Everyone starts screaming and running in their underwear up the river bank after the truck.

‘Watch out for the crocodiles!’ One of them shouts as he takes off. They catch a ride back to town.

IMG_2906We make our final approach as the sun cuts horizontally through the trees, slogging upwards towards Puxmetacan on a distantly near ridge. The sun sets as we ridge into town. I set a group of girls hysterically laughing by merely saying ‘hola.’ The gringo payaso.

2000 miles.
2000 miles.

We ride up to the municipal building drenched in sweat and delirious. I take off my bandana and comb my hair with my hand. I straighten the shirt that is stuck to my skin. I suavely explain to a group of men who we are and that we need a place to stay. I am told that I need to speak with the authorities.

I am ushered upstairs in a very formal manner, where I am told that I have to wait until the authorities are ready to see me. I am given a plastic lawn chair. I wait a minute before I am brought into a nice office with four men sitting behind hardwood desks with stacks of paper on them. They wear collared shirts like me, a sign that we are all respectable and trustworthy. I greet them and then give my story, being as polite as possible. They say that they have a spot for us and that we can wait below until we are notified that it is ready. I thank them and say a few kind words about the village.

‘Also, a kid told me that there were crocodiles in the river while I was swimming, are there?’ I ask hesitatingly.

‘No.’ They all laugh at me in a way that says hopeless gringo.

IMG_2910We wait on the municipal steps and watch young and old play futbol, basketball and light of fireworks. The futbol pitch overlooks a steep drop, it is the centerpiece of town. We are lead to a freshly cleaned house with matresses  laid out for us. We cook dinner and make hot chocolate, we accept many visitors who we regale with tales of our distant lands.

‘I am from America, but he is from Australia. The other side of the world! There are kangaroos there and women three meters tall. There are more toads and sheep than people and there president can’t read.’ This is generally how I shift conversations over to Damien so that I can write or read after a long day of riding.

The town, like most Mixe villages, operates relatively democratically. Land is communally held through the ejidal system, there is no buying or selling. It is given with the explicit agreement that one will serve a year working for the municipality for one year out of every two or three performing a variety of different functions that are randomly given. Although the nature of the job rotates, one stature or rank within the municipality increases over the years. The townspeople work together constructing houses, planting and harvesting. All community gatherings work like potlucks, with everyone contributing. It is hard not to idealize this place.

‘Can I live here?’

‘If you agree to work we would give you land.’ One of the village leaders sincerely tells me.

Massive moths circle the room and a gecko clicks on the ceiling. The PA here is preceeded by a futuristic sound effect, which is where most of its authority is derived from. The monotone Mixe message that follows seems inconsequential after such a regal introduction. Damien rolls around on the ground laughing everytime. I think about accepting the free land, but the PA system really lowers real estate values.

the whirl is why i wander

Tehuacan, Puebla to 30km outside Teotitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca

IMG_2807It is raining when I wake up, something that inevitably slows me down. I am run down, I am sick. I meditate for awhile, again watching my mind wander to changing my plan, rather than letting myself be and letting each day come as it may. I stand up with some sort of vague decision to let myself be free and revel in the moment. As I write this and think about my previous writing, I feel like some sort of directionless, depressed, single, jobless, middle aged man desperately reaffirming himself and his life through vague and alternative mediums as his life is a failure in the objective measures of society. I am not middle aged. I stand on an old brass scale in the courtyard of a hotel in Tehuacan, grunting and cradling my bike as befuddled diners stare. I am probably sweating already for some unclear reason.

Me: 72.5 kilograms (150 pounds)
My bike: 53 kilograms (127 pounds)

This is the weight of my bike with 8 litres of water and a days worth of food. I have absolutely zero clue how the weight of the bike got this out of control. I solemnly vow to mail my slingshot home against my own best instincts.

IMG_2811I struggle down a gradual slope towards Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca: the mezcal, chapulin and mole negro capital of the world. My mind and digestive tract have conflicting opinions on this region of Mexico. I crane my head to check out the cactus lined mountains that are shrouded in a patchwork of clouds and vegetated limestone cliffs. I cover 95 kilometers in six hours with at least an hour and a half spent procrestinating (avoiding something with the ostensible purpose of resting).

30km outside Teotitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca to San Francisco Telixtahuaca, Oaxaca

The night passes strangely as a chestnut mare and her foal traipse the rocky hillsides, we mutually spook one another several times.I sleep fitfully and am awakened by a fourwheeler passing by the grassy ditch where I sleep partially obscured by a trees. I pack quickly in panic that he wants to steal my slingshot or bicycle like a childhood nemesis

Horses and donkeys clomp down the pavement, the old Mexico.  Banana trees promise heat. I arrive in a town called El Chilar, a small town where I spent a night the year before as I hitchhiked through.

IMG_2813As I park my bike and awkwardly approach a house that evokes blurry memories, from the year before, of  drinking home made moonshine called mata ratas, or rat poison, out of coconuts with a man who was collectively referred to as Bill Clinton due to his, albeit swarthy, uncanny resemblance to the former president. The evening is also notable as the second time that I got drunk with an on-duty police officer in a one week period. Ever yells MATA RATAS! and grins as I amble closer. We both crack up laughing. We do some catching up, Bill Clinton is well…

IMG_2814Over the past few days the palms of drivers have gushed sweat as they recounted their experiences climbing from here to Oaxaca; prediabetic families collectively shudder and let tortilla masa tumble from the corners of their mouths as they speculate about the climb. UNA BICICLETA?

IMG_2815As I start climbing from Dominguillo I see an old, banner covered truck loaded with people and a bunch of spandex clad cyclists scattered about the shoulder. I stop to find out that they are on a cycling pilgrimage from San Migel Ocotenco on bicycle to visit La Virgen de Juquila in Juquila, Oaxaca. Juquilita is a 30cm tall statue was brought to Amialtepec, Oaxaca from Spain in the 16th century. In the 17th century Amialtepec was destroyed by a fire, along with the church where Juquila 2278313291_757d9708d1_zresided. She rose from the ashes, her skin darkened to the color of her devote indigenous following by the fire, to perform countless miracles. We don’t know what kind of miracles she performed, but the fact that she did so is not in doubt. She was then moved to gilded surroundings in Juquila that are befitting a statue that is, ounce for ounce, the most benevolent, charismatic and compassionate that the world has ever seen. You might find yourself asking: Has she ever been stolen only to return? Yes, countless times.

IMG_2816I leave the pilgrims in my wake. At least until they pass me, one by one, under their own power or holding onto the rope of a motorcycle. I begin to feel the climb, the mountains seem to reach endlessly into the sky as I look upwards through sweat stung eyes. Eight kilometers an hour means 7.5 minutes per kilometer. The key to suffering is to just keep doing it. I arrive last to the first break and am greeted with a mountain of mandarins, watermelon and questions. I walk around like a drunk, red faced and delirious. I am feeling the climb and look downwards into a canyon that doesn’t seem very far below. I ride off first, only to be passed by a peloton of cyclists in the next few minutes.

IMG_2818The profound thoughts that resonate through my incomprehensibly complex mind capable of infinite combinatorial thought: Yes! The top! Oh, No. Yes. Maybe. Wait….no. All the other cyclists have left when I arrive at the next break point, the truck starts its engine and the passengers shout for me to keep riding. I pedal past the only place eating establishment for many kilometers, skipping lunch. Plants grow in stature, become more verdant. A brilliant caterpillar crosses the road. I wince as a car nearly runs it over and then move him to the side of the road. I ride away worrying that he will walk out into traffic again, filled with genuine concern for some reason. I decide that he is a sentient being and it is his prerogative to commit suicide.

IMG_2823I stop and stare at the rockwall where the road gashes the landscape. A cactus guarded in intricate whispy spines crowned with brilliant flowers grows from a crack in the otherwise dismally grey wall. I am almost hit by a car as I wander out into the road to look at some flowers waving to me in the wind. Am I unconsciously taking an uncharacteristic interest in the flora and fauna solely to take breaks?

IMG_2826Up. Up. Up. I have sweated out all of my vinegar from the smell of it and there certainly hasn’t been any piss for quite a few hours. Clouds overtake me, the air takes on a chill. I desperately need a break, but I worry that the other riders are waiting for me. I find everyone shivering near a false summit, huddled in a Juquila shrine.

We ride with the dying of the day, under orange rays creeping out from under the cloud blanket, on a ridgeline at the top of the Oaxacan Sierra that fades out into the horizon. I mark the top at 47 kilometers of climbing. I lament my exhaustion as I seem to float down the backside of the sierra in a pothole hitting daze.

IMG_2836In San Francisco Telixtahuaca I stand shivering in the dark, in a state of exhaustion that I have never reached before in my life, as several men try to find a new clutch for the truck. After an hour of waiting we follow the truck to a large church courtyard where I will sleep with the pilgrims. I eat a few snacks and lift my spirits a bit. I talk about my trip and juggle. Several women compete for my company, so I graciously eat several dinners.

I pull a bag of cookies out that I bought for everyone in town and pass another strange night under the Oaxacan sky. I wake up at some point in the night in the midst of a strange dream where I am dying and the halogen floodlight that shines down on the courtyard calls me onward.

San Francisco Telixtahuaca, Oaxaca to Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca

I wake up to women mixing up atole under starlight. I pack my things and am ready to leave at 5am as we had planned the night before; we leave in typical Mexican fashion at 6:30am in the dark. My breathe is visible in the headlights of cars as they pass. My whole body shakes from a profound exhaustion, my vision starts to close in from the sides and I worry about falling unconscious into traffic, snot freely runs down my face and it isn’t even funny to me.

IMG_2837The sun glows behind the mountains before warming hitting me directly and seeming to finally wake me. I wish everyone my best as I ride into a city that stands as a massive mental milestone.

Stress has insidiously crept upon me, physically and mentally. I am on the verge of complete and utter breakdown. I am cerebral and disconnected. This trip has become too goal oriented. I imagined myself months ago tipping my helmet to mounted cowboys on tranquil cactus lined country roads before stopping to swing in hammocks and write as the day’s heat fades in the lonely desert expanse.

Our minds are strange; my mind projects into the future a labyrinth of forking paths, each turn beset with consequences, implications and rewards. The labyrinth is constructed from our personal experience and our unique perception of the world. We set about living as if this mentally constructed labyrinth were reality, only to for the entire edifice to change at the first turn, only to be reconstructed infinitely. We often wander in confusion, unable to connect our choices to their outcomes.

I had many expectations about this trip and it has gone very differently.  I am not enjoying myself at this moment, but learning is very rarely pleasant.

This is hard to perceive this without slowing down for a minute.

I lay exhausted on my bed and then begin to write.

the sea vibrates.
an energy coursing through its uncharted depths, its origin unbeknownst.
as it takes form and swells, pelicans float on the air rising off the surface,
it winks in the sun as it morphs and races forward,
the concave face inevitably collapsing.
white froth pours across the fathomless plain of sand
that is swept continually by a breeze similarly emergent out of boundless chaos.

trees and grass stir in the breeze,
imperceptibly growing; their colors gradually changing
as we orbit the sun and the seasons change.
greens turn to browns, buds turn to flowers,
flowers wilt in the cracks of rocks that crumble.

we are carried by a whirling frenzy,
our direction is unclear, our compass spinning as we float onward
carried by a force that lacks purpose or intent.
we try to navigate by philosophies, ideologies, religions,
all failing to guide us toward any end.
words ring hollow.

the means become the end.
we turn our eyes from the blinding sky toward the ground.
we build towers of steel, ensnare the world’s surface
with a net of wires and pavement.
we frantically cut, dig, level, extract, refine, replace, buy, sell, exhaust.
the scale ever grander, ever more complex.

a steadily rising tide, a gust, a phantom wave.
events occur and post hoc explanations come forth.
individual particles colliding, careening, amassing.
we are steadily whirling,
confusing having an explanation with having control.
knowing that we are spinning clockwise does not mean that we can stop it.

watch the world around you.
watch the ceaseless undirected activity.
watch the moments slipping by,
passing through your mind like sand through your splayed fingers.

feel the air passing into your lungs.
the water coursing through your body.
relish the flavors that wash across your tongue.
warm yourself by the rays of the perfectly distant sun.
watch the birds dancing on winds of chaotic birth.
live conscious of the vast world vibrant with life.

a beautiful serendipity in the universe.
as i look into your eyes i know you as i know myself, what it is to be human under the vast sky.
i judge not and forgive all.

I feel like I am flying, sometimes.

After a couple of weeks off the bike, I dread getting back on. Cycling is like many other things in life, you need to just get back in the saddle and go.

IMG_2743[1]The riding is initially not too bad as I make my way out of Mexico City’s boundless sprawl. I get fresh pollution straight from the source as I ride an eight lane highway out of town, none of the stale particulate matter that fills the rest of the air hovering over the city. I say ‘an eight lane highway’ as I am sure that this is not the only one. I am working my way towards Amecameca where I will ride my bike through Paso de Cortez between Itzataccihautl and Popocatèpetl, some of the highest volcanoes on Earth at 5230m and 5426m respectively.

As I pick my way through the artificial landscape I realize that I am free from this point on. I am going to abandon any goals that I had as far as destinations or time. It makes no sense to me to push onwards towards a distant and meaningless destination. No more timelines, no more destinations. No definitive goals. I will just keep rolling until I stop rolling.

Amecameca, Puebla to Paso de Cortez, Puebla

IMG_2751[1]I am on a new schedule: I spend the morning reading and juggling. The saddle of the pass lies 23km away, nestled between the two volcanoes. I approach through fields of cornfields with the remnants of the corn harvest neatly stacked into golden cones as animal fodder for the winter. Popocatèpetl emits a steady stream of smoke from its black conical form; Itzataccihuatl lies long, its form jagged and colorful. I enter a pine forest that provides glorious shade and obstructs my view of the daunting climb ahead; I settle into low gear and make my way upwards.

IMG_2754[1]I ride my bike around the saddle, a common stopping point for tourists, and feel like Cortez on his iron horse, my thrist for gold and blood only slightly less than his. I think I can safely blame my thirst on the altitude though. La Malinche and Pico de Orizaba are visible on this perfectly clear day. The black icy flanks of Popocatèpetl glisten in the sun.

‘Is the volcano more active than last year?’ I ask one of the park rangers.

‘Ever since Peñanieto (the current president) was elected, it has been angrier than normal.’

IMG_2758[1]I devour fruit and peanut butter as the day passes, finally setting out down a sandy road that sends me swerving until I find a gate on the right side of the road. I pass my panniers and bike over once more and disappear into the forest. I set up camp in a meadow below a stand of pines on the flank of Popo. I set up my tent for the first time this trip and stretch under a full moon as the pines sway in the breeze overhead.

Paso de Cortez, Puebla to Cholula, Puebla

IMG_2761[1]The sun shines on me through the octogonal porthole of my tent. It looks like morning, but I am not dumb enough to fall for it. I worm my sleeping bag back onto the pad and sleep for another hour.

I feel like I am flying IMG_2759[1]sometimes, it is a feeling of freedom and weightlessness that has nothing to do with wings. I fly this morning, my bike leaving a trail of dust behind me as my panniers rattle, my hands ache and I fishtail on a steep sandy stretch; almost laying my bike down. I am not sure if flying like a bird is more interesting out of the freedom to travel with the wind or in the physical sensation of flying for most people, for me it is the former. Chainsaws hum and shift pitch in the distance.

IMG_2760[1]I hit San Nicolas de los Ranchos where I eat a sandwich loaded with the following: pig leg, breaded chicken, hotdog, chorizo, egg, avocado and cheese. It isn’t impressive due to the number of animals involved in its production, as a hotdog covers all three itself, but rather in the sheer diversity of ingredients.

I ride into Cholula, passing many of the 365 churches to which the city proudly lays claim. There are exactly 365 too many for me. I find a cheap hostel called Hostal Cholula that smells of cigarettes and mildew; the receptionist eyes me suspiciously as she moves other peoples luggage out of the room to make space for me.

As I roll my bike into the room, I notice that a screw rattled loose from one of my panniers. I set about finding a duplicate, a task that proves impossible. I eventually find myself fabricating screws in an aluminum window frame shop run by a man named Antonio. We devise a solution and then I stumble into the market in search of food. Smoke dims the interior, blenders resonate in every direction, knives cleave against wooden blocks, sellers shout out prices. I find a piece of fruit that I have never seen before called chiramoye.

Our language is severely deficient in words to describe flavors.

Sometimes I feel like I am dying, that my soul is weighed down. This is the antithesis of the sensation of flying. It is the feeling of acquiescing to things that one stands against. The fight gone out of the dog. I want to be inspired and want to inspire.

Cholula, Puebla to Outside San Juan Atzompan

IMG_2768[1]I have a mental map of how to exit Cholula and skirt around Puebla in my head, but I end up spending two hours navigating unmarked roads that lead me into the concrete labyrinth of Puebla. The physical map that I have doesn’t even remotely correspond to reality. I cross several rivers that burbles and bubbles with a frothy deep brown mixture of raw sewage and chemical waste that looks incompatible with life. As I pass the river Tepanene there is a sign with a skull and crossbones saying that drinking the water will cause harm or death. (I hope in twenty years I can look back on this writing and this will be laughable.)

IMG_2773[1]I get out my map frequently to get directions and no one is able to point out where we are without my assistance. I ride through rolling foothills of cactus until I reach a fork in the road, where I diverge towards the city of Tepanene. As I stop to take a photo of a tope, a man named Hector sidles up and we spend half an hour talking over apricot juice. About America, about Oaxaca, about life.

IMG_2774[1]I ride out of town on a dirt road that begins to climb into a towering forest of Joshua Trees and lush desert vegetation. The road is devoid of cars, people and barbed wire fences. Paradise. The vegetation grows more varied, trees of the sort that I associate with African savanna appear. I slowly climb and then coast downhill, lost in the landscape. I don’t look at my computer, I don’t think. I finally arrive in a small town, where two guys wrestling a large piece of plateglass in the wind give me directions to San Juan Atzompan. I hang a left at the fork to La Magdalena and then climb some steep dirt sections that leave me gasping.

IMG_2780[1]Towering cactus appear, flowers line the roadsides, agave are scattered across a landscape cut with several small clear creeks. I buy tostadas in a small village from a woman who asks me the following:

“Are you a Catholic or a Christian?” Fuck this sounds like a trick question. Think fast…Oh god… she is either a rabid Christian or a vicious Catholic, but wait Catholics are Christians.

‘Uh…Christian?’ Brilliant!

‘The Evangelicals here say that the Catholics are not Christians.’ She bursts forth.

‘Uh….well… Catholics are Christians.’ I try and defuse this one, it just shifts her tangent.

‘We welcome you here with open arms and will help you along your way, yet if a Mexican goes to America he will be arrested and thrown out. Why don’t you want us in your country?’ I am not sure if this conversation quite constitutes welcoming me with open arms.

‘Blah blah blah. Diplomatic rhetoric. Blah blah.’

IMG_2783[1]I ride out of town on the hunt for a place to sleep, many men are still in the fields working. I see a beaten double track winding into the hills of cornfields and dense desert scrub. I push my bike uphill and take a few forks to help disappear myself. I set up camp in a small grassy spot next to a corn field. I hang my clothes on the thorny acacia tree to dry, clear the ground of things that want to penetrate me and sit down to rest in the golden afternoon light.

I sit in the darkness writing under the tree as wind whips the pages of my notebook. The lights of the scattered villages shimmer in the distance, the stars wink and the crickets sing. I sit thinking what often comes to mind, why am I not at home with my family and friends? Secure, indoors, good food… The answer is manifold, but one thing that comes to mind as I sit with my thoughts about being robbed, killed and then posthumously violated tonight, is that I feel alive right now. Taking risks for something you love is living. Whatever fate befalls me, at least I know that I chose it explicitly.

Outside San Juan Atzompa to Outside San Juan Ixcaquixtla

I hang all of my dew soaked gear out to dry and juggle to stay warm. Wind builds early and scours the rocky ground. As I shift direction, it somehow seems to do the same. Grass is laid horizontal and trees sway at the trunk. I find one slight downhill where the wind is blowing so hard that I am forced to pedal my way down.

I ride into San Juan Atzompan during Sunday morning mass that is broadcast throughout town on a shrill PA that makes the preacher sound incredibly angry. I have an American aversion to loudspeakers, who decides who gets to rant? We all want to rant deep down inside. The preacher boils over as I sit casually sipping atole de maiz leaning against the church fence. The town police chief comes over to talk and then goes to tell my story to the mayor. The mayor radios down from an office 20 feet away to wish me luck and notify me that the town is at my service. I radio back and thank him with the mirth I get from remembering childhood when we I had walkietalkies that we used to communicate over equally ridiculous distances.

I climb against the wind out of town at 7km/hr. I ride over a river outside of town on a bridge called the Bridge of God.

‘Don’t drink the water from the river.’

‘Don’t worry, I won’t’ As I look down at the filthy frothy flow.

‘Local devil worshippers go up to that mountain over there to make offerings to the devil.’ He points at a mountain in the distance.

‘Have you ever been there?’

‘No.’

I overeat in Molcaxa and then stop at a small roadside store to charge my Kindle. What a weird world?

On a big climb a spandex-clad roadbiker strains and passes me without saying a word as he jams out to his Ipod. He spends the next twenty minutes off the seat of his 9kg bike, constantly looking over his shoulder to gauge his distance from me. The only thing that allows him to gain any distance may be the air that I lose laughing.

I crest the climb and ride out into open plains lined with rows of corn. I stop at an incredibly nice hotel in the middle of nowhere, a very Mexican concept, for directions. The owner is blind drunk and rambles on frankly about life. The wind howls outside, so I sit down on a couch and the contagious laughter of this drunk spreads over to me. Everything in the world is suddenly amusing.

I ride out of town, quickly give up and lay down under an acacia tree.

Outside San Juan Ixcaquixtla, Puebla to Tehuacan, Puebla

IMG_2787[1] IMG_2789[1] IMG_2791[1] IMG_2788[1]  A terrible night sleep, precipitated by the glare of a full moon, the incessant traffic and the disgusting dinner that I made and was unable to finish. I am scatterbrained as I pack in the morning, moving things from one place to another and then back. I breakfast in Atexcal, a city with proper buildings and streets, but completely devoid of cars this morning. It is serene as bikes click past and gravel crunches under feet.

I pass an unknown town, a few idle men near the entrance peer out from under their hats as I pass. I enter a surreal micro ecosystem unlike anything I have ever seen before with forking cactus, massive drooping bulbous cactus and Joshua Trees flanking the road. The splendor fades after a few hundred meters.

I am accustomed to the omnipresent wind here. I pant over a ridgeline and the glaciated conical form of Orizaba looms in the distance as a mirage radiates off of the sweltering pavement.

Suddenly I am in Tehuacan, a cosmopolitan city booming with New Years Eve fireworks.

Tehuacan, Puebla

I wake up feeling a little rough and decide not to leave. There are two churches IMG_2794[1]nearby, both sharing the same Catholic belief system. They are unable to agree on the time though, consistently ringing their bells several minutes apart.

I take my shirt off and lay down on a towel on the cold tile floor. I let my thoughts rise, observe them and let them pass. My mind is filled with thoughts about doing, yet no matter how much I accomplish in a day, my mind is always there with more. The taste, smell, feel, color and energy of this very moment is all that I will ever have, can ever have. It is one thing to understand this concept and it is something wholly other to embody it. It means nothing other than experiencing. It is exceedingly difficult, yet infinitely easier. I may be the person who understands this idea the best, yet spectacularly fails in practice as I rush to and fro in search of something that I know only resides within myself.

IMG_2800[1]Inhale, exhale. Every part, every molecule of my body is tingling as if I am vibrating from head to toe. I can feel every part of my body at the same time, a feeling pleasantly overwhelming. It increases steadily, I am purely focused on feeling every nerve in my body and breathing as if air is pouring in and out of every pore of my body. The feeling is electric. My focus is broken by the thought that I might have a seizure. I start shivering in a way as the energy courses through my body, but I feel almost paralyzed. I feel like I am just watching. It peaks with every inbreath and falls on outbreath, but each time higher than a moment before. I feel the blood coursing through my veins, the air filling my body. My closed eyes see the reddish glow that builds behind your eyes normally, but it builds into a glaring consistent white light with a reddish tinge that fills the entirety of my vision behind my eyelids.

I am mesmerized in this state. I hold it for a while and then it is strange. I take an inhale that seems to last an eternity. My ears ring. I swallow and it echoes through my head. I feel every muscle and organ in my body as I let air out for another eternity. My heart thumps slowly. All of these sensations are happening at the exact same moment, they cannot be ranked or separated.

Then I open my eyes and I sit catatonic in a way. My mind is completely blank. I feel everything, yet continue to feel paralyzed as I stare out. This goes on for a while and then I decide to sit up.

I stare at the intricate stains on my pants, I hadn’t realized they were so dirty. My stomach looks strange and I am amazed as I watch it fill with air and deflate. I notice the texture and stains on the walls for the first time. I see the hand prints of the workers who built this room in the plaster. I smell the mandarin rinds in the trash. I look at my bag of dirty clothes, it is purple and the surface consists of complex folds and shadows. I see how the door was constructed from multiple pieces.

I eat at a stall in the market where a few women sit talking. An wrinkled and wizened old lady listens on as I tell my story to the woman serving up my mole. She suddenly turns on her stool and looks me in the eye.

‘Why are you traveling?’

‘To see the world and learn.’

‘Yes, but what are you looking for?’

‘Uhm… I am not sure.’

‘Then you will never find it.’

Someone can say the same thing in a different moment and its impact is completely different. I had this same conversation a year before and had a definite answer: there is nothing to look for, it is all equal, I am just watching the world go by. Today I know that this is not true. We talk for the next hour, profoundly about life. She says the following about her son who set out on his own for the United States and has never come home.

‘What does he want other than his family, food and a roof over his head?’

‘Good question. What more do any of us need?’

As I get up to leave she says the following with tears in her eyes:

‘I am a mother of a son like you. A mother is a mother to all sons. I wish you the best on your journey and may good be with you every step of the way. Don’t forget your family and take care of yourself.’

She hugs me, as does her daughter and granddaughter. The granddaughter blushes as she is forced to hug some strange sentimental gringo.

Guns, Germs and Topes

The culmination of months of work, my photojournalism project documenting the abhorrent lack of freedom endured by Mexico’s people as reflected in the continued prevalence of a colonial vestige: el tope.

Mexico suffers from an epidemic so pervasive that most residents are unaware of its pernicious effects and unendemic origins. The concept was initially brought from Europe during the Spanish conquest of the Americas and was tradionally used for psychological warfare, harassment in a sense. It was initially seen in very primitive and crude forms, of which artifacts have scarcely survived. The years that ensued after the arrival of the Spanish, and for the entirety of their presence in Mexico, were marked by fierce resistance on the part of indigenous peoples and a lack of cohesion amongst the colony. This lead to the development of an institutionalized form known as a Tùmulo, a named still used in Guatemala despite its brutal etymology, that translates to ‘tomb’ or ‘burial mound.’

Mexico, ever since its emancipation from the dominion of the crown, has been nothing but an aristocracy cloaked in the pleasing rhetoric of democracy. The need for oppression to assure order has never dissapated and neither has the existence of Tùmulos. In fact, they have proliferated since independence under a multitude of different names and physical forms intended to obscure the device’s origin: vibradore, tope, reductor and through signs adopting Mayan glyphs that are universally intelligible in the linguistically diverse nation.

Although stripped of their previously potent form and only seen in muted representations, their existence is a reminder of where power lies. The aristocracy has consolidated power and managed to create a market within this country, through legislation, for something seen as an oppressive burden on citizens and commerce in almost every other part of the world. The tope construction industry has come to consume to an estimated 25%-27% of the GDP of the 13th largest economy in the world. Tope related industires, such as car repair and tope maintenance contribute an additional 7% to this number.

I set out on my bicycle from the United States three and a half months ago to document this sad phenomenon.I was forced to go through the motions of being an abhorrent Western tourist in order to gain access to several tense tope terretories: pretending that I am interested in churches, Chinese-made trinkets, finding good coffee and eating pizza. I was forced to discuss ‘how incredibly cheap everything is!’ and which is the best party beach. All of this time I had only one thing on my mind, one major bump to me enjoying myself: topes. I felt the jar of the topes in my body and in the components of my bicycle. I watched families on their way to picnics grinding the bottom of their vehicles across a dozens of topes in a row serving no purpose other than antagonization. I have flown down dozens of mountains in elation only to have my smile fade as I am repeatedly warned by signs that this cannot continue, losing all of the momentum that I built up over hours of climbing. I have seen the localized resistance, the valiant guerrillas fighting against a faceless industrial enemy with their barehands, taking to the streets wielding sledgehammers and picks to create safe passage for their compadres.

I was quiet about my cause, only was stopped once and questioned by the military as I took pictures of a tope near a checkpoint, where I was forced to lie, telling them that I wasn’t taking pictures of the tope, just documenting their communications equipment and technology for publication on the internet. To avoid responding to too many emails I have the following to say to you: You are welcome. Here is what I found:

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Estado de Michoacan: Threat of tope installation.
Estado de Michoacan: Threat of tope installation.
Distrito Federal. Half ellipse. Faded white/yellow stripes on Asphlant. Obscure on approach.
Distrito Federal. Half ellipse. Faded white/yellow stripes on Asphlant. Obscure on approach.
Estado de Puebla: Steep approach, half ellipse. Brilliant red/white striped Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: Steep approach, half ellipse. Brilliant red/white striped Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: False form. White/yellow.
Estado de Puebla: False form. White/yellow.
Estado de Puebla: Reverse tope. Loose soil/gravel on Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: Reverse tope. Loose soil/gravel on Asphalt.
Amecameca, Puebla: Half ellipse. Asphalt.
Amecameca, Puebla: Half ellipse. Asphalt.
Cholula, Puebla: Lengthy trapezoid. Cobblestone.
Cholula, Puebla: Lengthy trapezoid. Cobblestone.
Patria Nueva, Puebla: Densely clustered domes. Yellow on steel.
Patria Nueva, Puebla: Densely clustered domes. Yellow on steel. Man holding rooster on roadside.
San Nicolas Huajuapan, Puebla: Half ellipse. Dirt.
San Nicolas Huajuapan, Puebla: Half ellipse. Dirt.
San Juan Atzompa, Puebla: Triangular. Brick underlaid with concrete (presumably).
San Juan Atzompa, Puebla: Triangular. Brick underlaid with concrete (presumably).
Tepexi Rodriguez, Puebla: Trapezoidal with ridges. Concrete.
Tepexi Rodriguez, Puebla: Trapezoidal with ridges. Concrete.
Outskirts of Oaxaca de Juarèz, Oaxaca: A formation of domes. Yellow on steel.
Outskirts of Oaxaca de Juarèz, Oaxaca: A formation of domes. Yellow on steel.
Asunciòn Cacalotepec, Oaxaca: Used tire tread.
Asunciòn Cacalotepec, Oaxaca: Used tire tread.
San Juan Cotzocon, Oaxaca: Half ellipse. Wood reinforced with gravel.
San Juan Cotzocon, Oaxaca: Half ellipse. Wood reinforced with gravel.
Poblado Cinco, Veracruz: Three domed ridges. Concrete.
Poblado Cinco, Veracruz: Three domed ridges. Concrete.
Outside Copainala, Chiapas: Long trapezoid. Brick core with concete approach.
Outside Copainala, Chiapas: Long trapezoid. Brick core with concete approach.
Copainala, Chiapas: Formation of trapezoidal reflectors. Plastic.
Copainala, Chiapas: Formation of trapezoidal reflectors. Plastic.
Outside Soyalò, Chiapas: Formation of half ellipses. Asphalt.
Outside Soyalò, Chiapas: Formation of half ellipses. Asphalt.
San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular multimedium. Concrete with river cobble inlay.
San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular multimedium. Concrete with river cobble inlay.
Outside San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular. Plastic with steel anchors.
Outside San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular. Plastic with steel anchors.
Outside Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas: Round. Rope.
Outside Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas: Round. Rope.
Outside Huehuetenango, Quichè, Guatemala: Natural.
Outside Huehuetenango, Quichè, Guatemala: Natural.

Auctioneer/Professional Boxer

Guanajuato, Guanajuato to Celaya, Guanajuato

IMG_2607[1]Breakfast: one can beans, four eggs, two tomatoes, one potato, one bag of salsa… All of it sauteed in a disgusting amount of oil. Preemption. I climb the cobblestones and exit the city through a dark tunnel that resounds with the roar of cars and chokes with putrid exhaust.

I ride by myself, at my own pace and rhythm. I gained a bit of weight with Brin’s departure and it makes itself known. I ride slower than previously, while still stopping regularly to eat fruit, but my breaks are never any longer than a minute or two as I climb towards Juventino Rosas.

I stop for lunch and eat with men painting lines on the road. They have built a fire and alternate heating beans and tortillas on the comal.

Juventino Rosas sits in a valley hazy with smog. I drink a bottomless glass of pineapple juice at a roadside stand and I am sent on my way with a gift of Mandarines and a ton of advice.  Celaya defies my expectations of an industrial hellhole strewn with powerlines and clogged with traffic. I effortlessly cruise into the city center where I eat several dinners.

I am not relaxed as I ride, I feel like I am lacking confidence in the world. I fight away the day, my mind constantly thinking about food, water, how many, what time, where, never thinking that it will all turn out alright and that I have limited control. The day seems lost to me.

Celaya, Guanajuato to Maravatìo, Michoacan
I awaken in a strange place that I occupy for only a few hours. Everything I do these days has a surreal quality, a detached feeling. I lose myself in thought frequently, apart from where I currently am. I am riding my bike on rural backroads of Mexico, crisscrossing the sierra. It seems like more of a concept than a reality. I don’t know how I got here, what I am doing, why I am doing it, where I am going…. I am not sure if I can answer any of these questions for anything in my life. I could give you a contrived answer. I thought I wanted time to think, time by myself?

Letting my mind free can be dangerous, there seems to be very little that it cannot deconstruct and bring into doubt.

I head once more again into the fray. I hope to beat some of the morning traffic as I have to ride on the highway for 20km to Apaseo el Alto. I have no such luck. I refuse to eat breakfast until I get off of this nightmarish stretch.

IMG_2615[1]The road to Jerècuaro weaves through town and then begins to climb steadily, the theme for the day. Cliffs tower in either direction and the landscape is filled with cactus and wiry trees. Drivers on this road are vicious as there is no sholder, I am run off the road several times. A bus goes flying past me within inches, not an ounce of recognition.

A long straightaway climbs into the distance, I shift my hands to my drop bars and put my head down. Why do Mexican businesses cluster together? On the highway before Apaseo El Alto there was a 10km stretch of businesses selling caramel, hundreds upon hundreds right next to one another selling caramel at the same price. Aftwards came the pallet district, 4-5 kilometers of businesses buying and selling pallets. How does this….Holy fuck! An oncoming Coke truck wakes me from this reverie as it passes another truck and misses me by inches, the gust of wind almost knocking me over. Adrenaline courses through my veins.

I sing songs as I ride, parodies of Mexican banda music that invariably include the following lyrical constants: beso, labios, corazon, madrugada, alma, amor, cariño. I ride and sing with pride, regardless of my audience.

A Monarch Butterfly flits past me, dancing across the road. Maybe they are migrating right now? I ask around and I am told that the butterflies are around and to ride in the direction of Melchor Ocampo. After eating a half chicken in Jerècuaro, I set out in the direction of mountains and the town of Puro Agüita.

A man with a table full of coconuts? I slam on my breaks. I start to feel far away from home as I recline on the roadside and sip a coconut after the top is hacked off with a machete.

My cadence is roughly 80rpm, an average day is five hours at an average speed of 20km/hr. 80 x 60 x 5 = 24000 rotations. Sweat pours down my face as I climb in my highest gears. I ride into Maravatìo and feel like quite a spectacle as I ride around in search of lodging. I resist the recommendations to head out to the bus station, semen spraying rendezvous come to mind. The hotel turns out to be alright.

‘Hey, what’s up man?’ I hear from a guy examining the engine of a semi truck as I walk towards the city center.

Antonio tells me his story in perfect English: He moved to Santa Ana, California from Mexico 20 years ago since there were no jobs and too much corruption. He married another illegal immigrant and had two kids that were natural born citizens. Two years ago while driving his kids to school he was pulled over and obviously had no license. He was shipped back to Mexico with his family following soon after. He talks about each of his kids, enumerating their hopes and dreams. It is heart rending to hear these stories, to put a face to the ‘immigrant problem’ in America. The immigrant problem in America that consists of people who are in a sense more American than many natural born citizens, immigrants who want a better life and are willing to leave everything they have to pursue it.

The windows of my room rattle from fireworks and strobe from Christmas lights strung in the trees outside. High heels click down the hallway all night long.

Maravatìo, Michoacan to Melchor Ocampo, Michoacan

IMG_2623[1]The champurrado that I drink on the roadside makes me breath steam in the cold air. I come across Antonio again as I am leaving town and we wish another well. I receive several distance estimates to Irimbo that are all various shades of wrong. As I climb out of the hazy valley where Maravatìo lies , the landscape moorphs as the mountains become steeper and their flanks are lined with pines. I know I am nearing my destination when every business, confusingly, is prefaced by the word Monarch. Irimbo is a strange town that gives me the impression of being on a slant, but a slant relative to the ground. Tilted in a way that makes no sense.

The mountains tower in the distance  as the road wraps around their flanks, beams of light cut through the air as they energize particulate matter. The trees are thick and lush, water runs off the mountainside. I find myself in Ocampo, check into a placed called the Hotel San Carlos and catch a collectivo  to the butterfly sanctuary.

IMG_2639[1]At the sanctuary I am forced to take a man with me from a pack of loitering shiftless ‘guides,’ after 15 minutes of arguing. His claims of having attended school to learn about the area are dubious. The trail is cordoned off by ropes along its entire length, making it virtually impossible for even a person destitute of vision to get lost.

IMG_2643[1]‘Why did you tell me that people get lost here regularly? Who could possibly get lost? The idiots from Mexico City that have never seen a forest before?’ I ask in befuddlement and irritation.

‘Yes! It is always people from Mexico City.’ We share a good laugh.

We get to their….roosting grounds?…. The air is filled with butterflies, they cover the abundant Oyamel Pines and every other extant surface. The
sanctuary exists within old growth trees that are virtually nonexistent in a country whose existence has been perpetuated by the hemorrhaging of natural resources. The trees vibrate with life, their branches grow and shape shift. The only audible sound is the fluttering of their wings as they flutter through the air and jitter on the branches that sag under their weight. They gather together in the afternoon to cluster together through the night and conserve warmth. They take flight in the morning at a time adjusted to the temperature and strength of the sun. A Monarch while migrating can cover roughly 120km on a clear, warm day and as little as 60km on a cloudy, cold day. A pattern very similar to my riding patterns.

IMG_2644[1]As a couple of other tourists depart, I am left with one crazy Canadian named Dev. Dev is from British Columbia and is on his way to the End of the World Rainbow Gathering in Palenque, an event I will discuss later. The guides drop the rope and allow us to walk through the colorful trees, we walk mindfully to avoid killing any of the thousands of butterflies that litter the ground.

Have I ever seen millions of an individual thing at once before? I am
not sure if I can think of an instance, but it is impressive. Bark is barely visible on several trees. One lands in my hair and gently flaps its wins as I walk.

IMG_2645[1]I catch a ride back to Ocampo with Dev and we grab some food in town. We walk through the central square in town and suddenly find ourselves running for cover as a group of kids rain fireworks down upon us. As I run from the square I ask one kid where I can buy fireworks and I spent every last cent that I have on fireworks, immediately a strategy comes to mind: Shock and Awe.

We light a mortar, in the middle of the square, which tips over and fires a horizontal fusillade of red. An all out war breaks out on in the plaza, resistance is more fierce than anticipated. The kids shout anti-American propoganda and are funded by shadowy figures on the periphery. Their small stature adds to their agility and ability to conceal themselves. They employ unorthodox tactics, such as running into stores, that lead to munitions lighting a towel on fire. Smoke and screams fill the plaza. I am the first to be injured, suffering blisters on my hands from letting the fuses burn down on entire fistfuls of fireworks, as I try to minimize my opponents ability to dodge  them. In the end we clear the plaza and hold it until a group of well armed adults appear and we are forced to retire.

Fireworks are incredibly self-promotional.

Melchor Ocampo, Michoacan to  Toluca de Lerdo, Estado de Mexico

I set out in my warmest clothes at 2500m. A relatively even landscape drops off into Zitàcuaro on switchback turns. I replicate the Doppler Shift to give pathetic peripetetics an even greater impression of my velocity. I slam on my breaks going downhill as I see a sign for Atole de Galletas, a soupy blend of crunched up cookies and milk that is everything its name promises. A modern day spin on a drink with thousands of years of history.

I always seem to find myself riding the wrong way in cities, something that bothers me far less than police and motorists. I hop onto the tollroad, weaving around the tollbooths with unstoppable confidence. I hope I get pulled over.

As I tackle an 18km, 1000m climb sweat cascades down my face. I aim it off the end of my nose into a crevice on my framebag, creating a small pool.

Michoacan is notable for the following reasons:

-A remarkably diverse number of dead animals on theroadside, their bloated bodies befouling the air to such a degree that I have come to associate the smell of rotting flesh with this state in particular. I try to study the smells, believing that I can honestly identify the scent of a dead dog before seeing its rigid carcass.

-Amazing food.

-Stunning scenery. This portion of the Sierra Madre has not been as deforested as in other areas. Rugged mountains rise over 3300m in all directions.

Climbing…climbing…climb…  I reach the summit and the border between the two states. I see a 55 gallon drum billowing smoke with chicken carcasses splayed out across the top. I pull over and start shivering uncontrollably as soon as I get off my bike. The lady notices and invites me inside where she builds a fire. I change my clothes and savagely tear at the half of a chicken she places in front of me.

All ascents must come to an end at some point and after I eat I descend and hit a new highspeed at 73.6km/hr. I am run off the road at 45km/hr by a semi truck and narrowly maintain control in the loose rocks with my feet on the ground.

As I continue downhill a pickup truck follows behind me with its lights flashing, I ignore it. Eventually the driver pulls around me and then stops his truck to block my advance. I am flagged down and told that I am breaking the law, that bicycles are not allowed on the tollroad.

‘Sir, you a breaking the law. Bicycles are not allowed on the highway. It is too dangerous.’

‘Actually they are allowed on the highway. There is no other way for me to get to Toluca.’ I have no basis for this claim.

‘No they are not, it is too dangerous.’

‘I have never had a problem before, everyone has told me it is completely fine.’ A complete lie.

‘Sir, put your bike in the back of the pickup. We will give you a ride to Toluca.’

‘No thanks.’

‘Put your bike in the bed, please.’

‘No thanks.’ I absolutely love confidently asserting what I want, making it clear that I am immovable. What are you going to do? Taze me bro?

‘I am going to get my boss out of the truck, hold on.’ I take this moment to refine my obstinancy and argument, I will throw in a romantic twist to my appeal.

‘Sir, what is the problem here?’

‘Look, I am riding to Mexico City to meet up with my girlfriend. I rode 2200km to get here on my bicycle, using my own power. I am absolutely certain that I will not get into your pickup. Thanks for your concern over my safety, but I can assure you that I am more concerned with my safety than you.’

They speak amongst themselves for a minute.

‘We aren’t going to call anyone else about this, but we cannot tell you that you are not going to have problems further on.’

‘That is fine. Thank you. See you later!’

I get my wish of being pulled over.

I find myself in the hellish sprawling madness of Toluca. I veer wildly around buses, taxis and cars. Car doors open, cars back out, buses  merge, taxis stop. I run red lights, I swerve, I yell, I hit my brakes, I stand on my pedals, I spray black sootsnot out of my nose.

I eat ice cream and look at my map; I am going to center punch Mexico City on the 15. The main highway.

Toluca de Lerdo, Estado de Mexico to El Distrito Federal

I sleep like shit as Christmas lights, exterior to my room, cast their annoying glare upon my precious and fragile self. The liter of ice cream that I ate before bed is likely the actual culprit. I just can’t hold my choices or ice cream responsible for my restlessness. I cough up something black into the sink and leave it there. It tastes acrid with carbon and chemicals. The smog is so dense that I never see the 4700m volcano Nevado de Toluca.

As I nimbly weave through the rush hour traffic, I give in. I didn’t think it would ever come to this, it just wasn’t supposed to be this type of trip. My mom warned me though, and I adhered to her advice out of my respect for elders and family structure. Conditions change, your perspective must mature and aquiesce to the capriciousness of life. Life simply cannot just be about looking good as you valiantly cut through blunt machines manufactured for murder without a modicum of protection. I don my construction worker’s vest. Neon orange stripped with neon yellow reflective material.

I drink an orange juice blended with raw Quail’s eggs. Vamanos!

Speed is your friend in congestion. I feel like an auctioneer that is also a professional boxer. I am ducking and fluttering, confusing my opponents by shouting utter nonsense. I begin my climb into the mountains that cradle Mexico city.

I am passed by a road biker who looks like a factorymade  chorizo in synthetic casing. He doesn’t wave at me or say anything as he barely manages to pass me on his carbon fiber bike. He is constantly looking back at me as he pedals hard, judging himself against someone on a bike that weighs 62kg.

I race a truck that is belching carbon, a more fair opponent. I stand up and pedal hard and put some distance between us. I finally slow from exhaustion, hooting and shouting pour out of the truck cab.

IMG_2654[1]I reach the summit. I made it. I sit in disbelief and eat fruit as cars stream past. The real fruit though is the 10km descent into the city, I take over an entire lane with complete disregard for the angry muppets who pass me. The city suddenly expands in all directions, smoldering in its own effluence. Several potholes have metasticized to entire sections of the road and I am nearly airborne.

IMG_2658[1]I split lanes. I diverge off the thoroughfare and find myself in the leafy neighborhoods of La Condesa.

At the hostel I bore the living shit out of some unsuspecting backpackers with stories of my travels and my self importance.

Matching Slingshots!

8km outside Loreto, Aguascalientes to a few kilometers before Ojuelos de Jalisco, Jalisco.

We are dew soaked in the state of Aguascalientes, I see a portent in the wind already stirring the branches. We wait for the sun to rise before we set out, but it is dimmed by a veil of clouds. I pack everything up wet. In Cienega Grande we eat at one of the most Mexican of Mexican places: a combination butcher shop, burrito stand, chicharron/lard factory and restaurant. I rub my cold hands together over a steaming vat of pig organs, ears and skin boiling in what will become lard. A fat greasy man stirs disinterestedly with a shovel. We amusingly waste time asking people for their opinion on the route we want to take, receiving answers of equal confidence and vast discordance. A smile inadvertently rises on my face during conversations like these.

IMG_2568[1]We enter the small bustling town of Los Campos, which is divided into three parts by Zacatecas, Jalisco and Aguascalientes. Upon exiting the road surface turns to dirt and the hustle disappears as we snake our way through a craggy landscape full of Prickly Pear Cactus and towering Seussian Joshua Trees.

IMG_2573[1]As we pass through a town called San Juan de Letras, the road turns into ancient cobblestone that is a vestige from the prosperous colonial silver mining days in the 16th and 17th century. My teeth chatter and I worry for the welfare of my bike. The townspeople all seem to line the one street that runs through town, idly staring in wonder as we pass. The travel becomes more arduous as the road begins to climb and we are walking our bikes within a few minutes for their sake. Brin is forced to start riding due to ankle pain and I watch him ride towards an old cowboy tending his cattle near a small spring. We stop and chat with Geraro, his skin furrowed, dark and weathered from a life spent outside. He beams a smile without his two front teeth as we talk. He holds a slingshot in his hand.

‘Do you use that to herd the cows?’ I ask as it point to it in his hand.

‘No, it is for hunting rabbits.’ He picks up a small rock and hits a shattered yogurt container 7 meters away to demonstrate.

IMG_2580[1]A few other old men on bikes stop by to join in on the conversation. A car stops as well, a man calls us over and talks to us briefly about the history of the area from inside the cab before turning off the engine and getting out to the dismay of his wife and son. They seem accustomed to these lectures and sit in the cab. He introduces himself as Rodolfo Rodriguez from Encenillas.

‘The silver moved through this area on carts with big iron wheels pulled by mules. It was a dangerous section as this area was difficult for the Spanish to subdue. The indigenous population here was very strong and knew the terrain. They left many artifacts scattered all over the desert here, I have a collection. There are many small sites where they lived and hid from the Spanish for many years.’ He gesticulates and points as he speaks with animation.

He writes out an illegible note on the hood of his car to his son Fernando asking him to feed us and show us his collection of artifacts when we arrive in Encenillas. He quickly pulls Prickly Pear fruit from the bed of his truck and exposes their red flesh with his knife. He peels them as fast as we can eat them, their insides succulent and delicious. Rodolfo and his family leave to visit a friend in the hospital and we get back to the matters at hand.

IMG_2581[1]Pedro, another gregarious old man get his slingshot out of his back pocket and lays his rusty Benotto bicycle on the ground. They line up glass bottles and cans that they alternate shattering and toppling with perfect accuracy from 7-10 meters with slingshots carved by hand from a single piece of wood, strung with surgical rubber and a leather crotch. I have never seen anything like it.

After their demonstration they set up targets for us and keep us supplied with stones that ricochet and kick up dust all around the targets, seeming only to hit targets as required by probability. As we shoot we talk about the country.

‘The people in the cities here in Mexico are weary of strangers because they live with violent crime. They run around too fast to actually enjoy themselves. Here in the country people want to talk out of friendship and not for gain. I am thankful to live here. It is tranquil and the food is better. The animals are healthy and strong, they aren’t filled with chemicals. The corn here is real corn.’ Geraro explains as I watch his watery old eyes.

My mind drifts to my suburban childhood that I spent living in terror, in terror of a menace so furtive and menacing that few other children had ever heard of it: gypsies. Filthy, theiving gypsies swaddled in smelly clothing that play music from the Orient. Luckily I received straightforward guidance from my grandmother early on in life exhorting me against not flushing the toilet, releasing live animals in my house, not cleaning my room or spraying my siblings with the hose from around corners….as gypsies seek out children who behave poorly to kidnap and add to their seedy ranks.

‘Yes! Exactly! Exactly!’ I am riveted by the wisdom of this old man.

‘Almost nobody here has a gun, the law out here in the country is that you look out for yourself and defend what is yours.’ The short Geraro, with his clothes hanging off his bones, begins karate chopping and kicking the air as we all crack up and he grins.

We alternate shooting and chatting as time slips away. As we stand our bikes up and get set to leave Brin asks the two old timers between drags on their cigarettes,

‘Where can we get some slingshots like those?’

‘You can go to the next town and find them in the market if you ask around, you want ones like these though. See how the rubber is attached? And the wood? You want good wood, hard wood. It is difficult to find.’ Geraro passionately explains.

‘It was nice to meet you guys. Take care of yourselves!’ We shout as we throw our legs over the bikes.

‘Do you want our slingshots? We can make more.’

‘Seriously?’ I hesitate. I see the grip of Pedro’s slingshot worn with time from his hand and don’t want to deprive him of something that he needs.

‘Of course. Here take them.’

We thank them profusely and we join the ranks of the armed with slingshots. Matching slingshots!

We follow vague directions to Rodolfo’s house, which turns out to be an old hacienda with a dilapidated village around it. There are several expansive arched storehouses and a resevoir enclosed by a wall of impressive stonework.

IMG_2583[1]I hand the note over to Fernando from his father and he shrugs before leading us inside the courtyard of the home through an ancient wooden door. He churns out stacks of quesadillas and talks about his attempt to cross the US border, near Júarez, where he was spotted by a helicopter after two days without food and water. His niece shyly looks on in wonder as we gorge ourselves.

We go into his father’s office where he brings several boxes full of intricately carved arrowheads, stone animal figurines, ancient coins, pipes, needles….. a vast collection of artifacts. I gently finger them in awe. Afterwards he tours us around the grounds of the property where they currently cultivate quite a few hectares of Pickly Pear to use as feed for cattle and goats.

IMG_2587[1]We leave riding our bikes across the stonework encompassing the resevoir before hitting a dirt road marred by washboards and menaced by wind. We don’t spend long weaving from side to side on the road in avoidance of hazards before hitting pavement and the town of Matancillas. Toughs dressed like they are from Los Angeles circa 1992 lean against their trucks with beer bottles dangling in their hands, music booming from inside. I feel like I am on the set of some horrible music video. A few drunks stumble the streets and yell at us as we try to leave this prideless shithole as quick as possible on broken roads.

IMG_2589[1]We fight the wind on an actual uphill battle before finishing the day off a few kilometers outside of Ojuelos de Jalisco as we pull off into a stone walled fallow field. It was nice to simply let the day take us whereever it may, to not fight to make miles.

A few kilometers outside Ojuelos de Jalisco, Jalisco to Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato.

IMG_2592[1]The wind blows throughout the night and persists in the morning to our dismay. We pack up before the sun has risen. The day seems to pass in a blur as we ride hard and glutinously eat. The wind offers a challenge and I push back. It is relentless, unwavering. I stop, gasping for air, to inhale water and food as my legs burn. We reach the top of an ascent and a guy pushing a wheelbarrow full of firewood up the hill stops to rant with us as his captive exhausted audience.

‘¡Chinga las madres de esos hijos de putas! ¡Cabrones! ¡Pendejos!¡Todos son pendejos! ¡El mundo esta jodido! ¡Pinche gobierno! ¡Pinches camiones! ¡Pinche viento!’ It continues like this for roughly half an hour as he chainsmokes and spits on the ground for emphasis.

‘!Todas las mujeres son putas! ¿Pero necesitamos un lugar para poner la verga, no?’ He makes a diamond by putting his two thumbs and his two index fingers together, a gesture that inevitably comes out in every discussion with a Mexican male at some point.

We ride needlessly hard with the intent of reaching Dolores Hidalgo. A factory on the outskirts lets all of its workers out and they leave on their bikes, a few race us up a hill outside of town.

After finding a place to stay we go out into the dark streets to fill our stomachs and come across a bar and enter through its swinging wooden doors. A urinal in the corner and a prostitute leaning against the bar let us know we are in the right place. A cantina over 100 years old. We sample the local mescal and wash it down with beers that are slid down the bar in rapid succession. A man exchanges work, on the spot in the form of dish washing and sweeping, for shots of liquor. The television plays a show dedicated to violent assaults caught on tape! We watch humanity attack itself with belts, hammers, chairs, fists and vehicles. Absolute chaos. The bar luckily closes at 10pm along with all of the other bars in town.

Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato to Guanajuato, Guanajuato

My head hurts in the morning, instead of just my body as I am accustomed. We have been profusely warned about the upcoming climb, it looms over us physically and mentally. We climb slowly, Brin suffering every stroke of the way. We yell obscenities at cars and buses that pass too close on the shoulderless road.

Green scrub and cactus cover mountains with rocky cliffs jutting out from their faces. As we eat tortas from a roadside stand, the young woman working there shows us dozens of 15-20 second clips of sports cars passing her house. You hear the sound of a motor approaching for the first 15 seconds as the hand holding the camera phone quivers in anticipation of the 1 second blur that passes. We huddle around the 1 inch screen with building amusement. She gives us free candy to eat when we get to the summit.

‘The summit is only three kilometers away.’ She assures us.

Interesting roadkill is always a good excuse to stop.
Interesting roadkill is always a good excuse to stop.

After six kilometers of climbing we are cursing her and after ten kilometers we debate returning to extoll revenge. We could raze her grandmothers house to the ground and then salt the land… It would requiring going back though. Suddenly the road disappears ahead of us into a blue abyss. We stop amidst the pine trees and enjoy a beer. We recount the day and laugh about it, a continuation of a trip that has consisted of weeks spent laughing at the world around us, this ridiculous and strange place. We get quiet for a minute.

‘Guanajuato is the end of the line for me. My ankle is done and I have to get back to my life in Colorado.’ Brin lets out.

‘I figured it might be, but I hate to hear it man.’

IMG_2605[1]We straddle our bikes and begin by rolling, no pedaling. The colorful canyon of Guanajuato lies below. The road switchbacks down the mountainside into Guanajuato, surreally sinuous. I lean into them and fly, howling as I pass houses and pedestrians. My mind is nowhere but here, processing the cars that I dodge, the dogs running in the street, the feel of my fingers on the brake levers, the particolored city below, the trees blurring past. 290 pounds hurtling downhill.

I look in my mirror and have lost Brin. I stop to wait and he pulls up a little amped after a car pulled out in front of him with another one in the oncoming lane, requiring a last minute jerk of his handlebars to avoid sure dismemberment. I hit cobblestones in the city and let their friction slow me.

Guanajuato is the most beautiful city that I have ever visited, composed of rough stone blocks cemented together centuries ago, exhibiting the oppulence of the silver mines that once supplied over half the world’s silver. Centuries of architecture and arts have left their mark. The nights are alive here, full of youth and energy. The streets echo with music shouts and fireworks well past the hour that hidden rooftop roosters begin to crow.

A fact about Mexico: If you turn your hazards on while driving your car, you have effectively declared yourself a wildcard and are therefore exempt from all laws and rules of etiquette; other drivers are expected, no, required to respect your declaration. Holding a matress onto the roof of your car out the driverside window? Walking your dog on its leash from your car in the rain? Need to park your car for a few minutes in the middle of the road? The bed of your truck is so overloaded with livestock that they are trampling one another and blood is dripping out? Need to go the wrong way down a one way? Hazards!

We watch an urban downhill race that descends a treacherous, stairfilled alley called ‘El Callejón de Beso.’ So narrow that two torrid, yet forbidden, lovers were able to kiss one another from opposing balconies over the alley, giving it the badass name: Kissing Alley. The course ends with a jump that is eerily similar to dangerous contraptions I would build with stolen construction materials as a kid. Practice is delayed as a live powerline is in the flightpath of the riders as they leave the jump. Dog shit, vomit and geriatrics hostile to extreme sports serve as more permanent obstacles. We mostly make fun of the riders as there are not as many severe injuries as we had hoped.

And then I am on my own.

The Ineluctable March of History or How We Clogged a Toilet in Zacatecas

Atotonilco, Zacatecas to Zacatecas, Zacatecas

IMG_2540[1]It is one of the coldest mornings of our trip and my 28th birthday. I am slow getting out of bed as we agreed the night before not to push on to Zacatecas. We vow to move slower, take it easy and enjoy ourselves. We ride hard anyways, the miles clicking by as we glide past the Tropic of Cancer. The toucans and banana trees are strangely absent.

IMG_2543[1]Most of our conversations on the bikes are related to the landscape and signs, but occasionally an exceptional piece of trash or uniquely mangled animal draws our attention. The road stretches out before us, we are flying. Tarantulas lurch across the pavement, Mormon Crickets rape and canabalize one another. Rediculous construction projects abound and astound: a pedestrian walkway in the middle of nowhere, concrete posts line the highway that have all fallen over. All of it constructed by highway crews that impressively appear more indolent than their American counterparts. A truck painting lines on the road drives on the wrong side of the road as it twists and turns through the mountains, without advanced notice. A man slumps behind the wheel of his car looking dead with all of the doors wide open. Deep red blood is smeared across the road for extraordinary distances in places. Animal carcasses are flattened by traffic and baked into the pavement, their teeth and bones made planar with the road surface. A man sits on the side of the highway after an accident, all of the skin missing from his forehead leading to blood cascading down his face. Police and paramedics stand by him talking. Billboards constantly remind us of the money the government has spent on automotive infrastructure improvements so that Mexicans can ‘Vivir Mejor.’

We find ourselves in Fresnillo for lunch, cursing the topes and traffic after the sumptuous country. Over lunch we sit quietly eating until one of us brings up the possibility of making it to Zacatecas today, we speak as if we are two superstitious pitchers trying not to jinx ourselves.

IMG_2545[1]We set out from Fresnillo riding hard, averaging 25-30km/hr for over an hour, drafting and pushing with slow strokes. We take a quick break on the side of the highway to consume food with purpose, not relish. Clouds build to the Southwest, rolling across the plains in a torrent of flashes and columns of rain. It is late and we are exhausted, Zacatecas is still quite a few kilometers out. The rain starts falling on us, a sign says ‘Zacatecas 20km.’ Two kilometers down the road there is another sign saying ‘Zacatecas 20km.’ The mileage markers on the roadside skip down to 20km from 22km, then there are two 21km signs, then another saying 20km.

I think about all that the world has given me and how little I give back. I am not sure how I am still alive nor how I have the fortune to live as I do. I no longer have the option of dying young, of burning out rather than fading away. I tried. Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson and Jim Morrison couldn’t hack it.  I live during a time on earth of incredible tranquility and freedom, only by virtue of our own ignorance do we believe otherwise. The world is not perfect, nor is my life, yet if either were devoid of ugliness or suffering they would equally be devoid of beauty and happiness. The strange journey continues. Fuck! A tope!

As we arrive into town the rain starts falling harder, serendipitously timed with our descent down the incredibly steep cobblestone streets of Zacatecas. The city center is marked by colonial buildings of roughly hewn stones and intricately worked iron in a beautiful state of decay. We check into a hotel and I quickly put on a tequila blanket to warm myself and celebrate my birthday. The bottle of tequila is nearly empty as we set out.

The night comes on strange. We are standing on the street drinking beer when a guy pulls up in a pickup and rolls down his window.

‘It is a bad idea to drink in the street.’

‘Oh. That guy over there told us it is fine.’

‘Well he is an idiot. Where are you guys from?’

He invites us to take a ride with him around the city as he throws his empty beer cans into the back of the truck and moves his cold beer to make room for us in true Mexican fashion. He speaks broken English that brings a smile to my face.

‘I hate blacks, they steal and don’t work hard like Latinos.’ He proclaims proudly.

‘But there aren’t any here.’ Brin says, neither of us not touching the subject any further.

‘Good! Let’s keep it that way!’

We toss cans into the bed as we drive along.

‘Do the cops ever stop you here for drinking and driving?’

‘As long as the car is moving you are fine, if you are standing somewhere or your car is stopped they will hassle you.’

We blare Paradise City and You Could be Mine by Guns and Roses before he aggressively switches gears to Avril Lavigne. I do most of my laughing in my head, just three drunk men riding around in a pickup blaring teenbop pop. We learn how to piss in public with minimal risk of a police confrontation: we pull the truck over, lift the hood and stand contemplating a nonexistant problem as urine splashes onto the pavement.

We arrive at a karaoke bar where I promptly sign myself up for several songs in a row. I sing the first song with the Dj, one that I stumble through as I have never   heard it before. Afterwards I scream and shout myself through I Feel Good by James Brown. I wait for the shepard’s crook that never comes, the audience reverently maintains their quiet. After the song ends I refuse to relinquish control of the microphone, instead giving a riviting and eloquent speech introducing myself, explaining the circumstances of the day and expounding upon my travels in Mexico. Everyone is so engrossed, hanging on my every word as they wish for my oration to continue without end, that they forget to clap.

Brin and I step up to the stage together, I can feel the Mexican crowd’s demand for something nostalgic and heartwarming. A piece of the old America. I choose You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling by The Righteous Brothers. Our velvety vocals lead to swooning and frustrated boyfriends. I deliver a final monologue so prolix that its contents are lost to me forever. I decide to leave on this high note, Brin stays for a bit longer.

I am awoken toBrin spraying me with water and dumping peanut shells upon me. I obstinately refuse to go on the hunt for streetfood with him. I wake fifteen minutes later as a cheeseburger slaps the side of my face from the other side of the room. I eat it and go back to sleep.

Zacatecas, Zacatecas

I prematurely leave breakfast in spine tingling, sweating horror. I cannot run or I will have the runs. As I sit on the toilet looking at the map, which I am wont to do, I take stock of Mexican town names: Pie de Gallo, KM 59, Delicias, Poblado 1, Poblado 14, Santa Rosa Matagallinas, Nombre de Dios, Agua de Puerco, Ojo de Puerco, Cantuna, Los Mexicanos, 6 de Enero, 15 de Septiembre, Nuevo Casas Grandes, towns with the same name only a few kilometers apart…towns named after individuals like General Rodrigo M. Quevedo, Oscar Soto Maynes. I see Comitan de Dominguez and am reminded of what is still referred to as the Comitan de Dominguez Incident by everyone involved. The memories clog my mind as I sit on my bed and hear a second incomplete flush as Brin uses the bathroom.

‘Remember what happened in Comitan?’ Brin asks as he exits the bathroom with a look of worry on his face.

‘I have never forgotten compadre, will never forget.’

An event seared into both our memory, the worrying and guilt never having left us. After a similar night of drinking last year, we awoke to stirring and churning at the same time, leading to a rapid assault on the toilet. No flush would dislodge the heavy dike constructed of tacos, burritos and low grade meat left to ferment overnight in a mix of mescal and several liters of beer hemorraged out in an inhuman form that resembled none of its constituents. The room was befouled with a permeating miasma of shit. We descended the stairs to the front desk with our bags packed, moving quickly with the hope of being well clear before the discovery was made. Images run through our heads as we walked away from the hotel looking over our shoulders: The maid entering the room before the appointed time, alerted by the scent. Something is wrong, very wrong. Screams echo through the courtyard as she gazes in transfixed horror at the brimming brown bowl. A mob armed with broken plungers and mops rendered into trash combing the streets in search of two conspicuous gringos guilty of a crime so heinous the women are at a loss as they try to explain to the media.

IMG_2547[1]As we are walking out the door to change hotels, after the dike has remained in place for over four hours, we hear the sucking sound of the bowl vacating. We change hotels anyways, the bathroom has run its course. Our new hotel still has a flapper flush valve, not a flushometer or pressure assist, but a larger sized drainage pipe and higher capacity water tank with a more forceful flush increase the stool capacity of the toilet. There is a balcony overlooking one of the main streets of the city; an elderly female musician serenades me from below, playing one cord on her broken guitar incessantly for over an hour.

Zacatecas, Zacatecas to 8km outside Loreto, Aguascalientes

IMG_2549[1]As we sip fruit juice blended with raw quail’s eggs, Brin disappears in search of a public restroom. I sit idly sippling my drink and pondering the 30m Christmas tree sprayed with fake snow and covered in Coca Cola ornaments.

‘That was a disaster.’ Brin informs me upon his return. I ask no further questions as I assume that the outcome was therefore normal. He starts giggling as he sips his drink.

‘What is it?’

‘I forgot toilet paper.’ He grins.

‘Uhm.. so what did you do?’

‘I wiped with my hand.’

‘Ugh.. did you wash it?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘What the hell do you mean?’

‘First I looked in the used toilet paper basket for something reasonably clean, but there was nothing, then I thought about the nice sinks I saw on entry, all Sloan stainless. I couldn’t button or zip up my pants with just one hand so I came out with my pants undone to realize that none of the sinks were connected. I suddenly understood all of the shit smeared on the wall. I did the same. I managed to get my pants part way zipped up and then washed my hand in the fountain over there by the Coke tree.’

‘That is rock bottom.’

IMG_2565[1]We ride a treacherous highway to Guadalupe engorged with traffic. As we ride a rural highway and make a few stops we are refreshed by the friendly and gregarious people that joke around with us and toss us fruit. Outside of Luis Moya we hit 1610km or 1000 miles, we take some pointless photos. Loreto appears to be a rough town as it is patrolled by a multitude of police, military wearing black balaklavas in humvees and an armored personnel carrier. A tatooed drunk tests my patience by stroking our bikes while telling us to go fuck ourselves as we eat tacos.

IMG_2563[1]As the sun sets we ride quickly out of town, a full chicken stuffed in my pannier. The concrete rectilinear sprawl of the city stretches further than expected. We keep pushing at our limits until an open pasture appears to our right. Two men are working in the adjacent field, a fire dances and colors their figures. Fireworks irregularly explode above us, more sound than noise. Ancient ruins lie within a few hundred meters of us as an outcropping in what is otherwise farmland.

We play cards in the dark. The men in the nearby field continue slashing corn stalks with their machetes for cattle feed. We hear a man spit nearby and we both freeze and turn our lights out. We get up and shine our lights in the direction of the sound, but see nothing. We go back to our cards before the sound of a machete chinking through corn or brush approaches us. We hear footsteps. I see a silhouette under the full moon coming our way with a machete dangling by its side and a sombrero on top.

I have been in this situation several times in my life, twice with Brin. The air is pregnant with tension. Who is this? What does he want? Why? These are probably the same questions he is asking himself. The only option is to quickly defuse the situation, to exude tranquility.

‘Buenas noches.’ (Good night.) I announce as we slowly walk towards one another, measuring each other up. The moonlit man with the machete stops dead in his tracks as we near, his face is cloaked in moonshadow from his hat.

‘……Buenas noches.’  He replies with weariness in his voice.

‘¿Todo bien? ¿Todo esta bien?’  (Everything good? Everything is good?) I venture, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

‘¿Quienes son?’ (Who are you?)

‘Somos viajeros…….’ (We are travelers……) I give our whole story rapidly, my adrenaline spewing it out. I tell him that darkness overtook us and we needed to rest somewhere.

‘You are just here to camp?’ I can hear a change in his voice, he has relaxed.

‘Yes, nothing more.’

‘I needed to come see who you are after seeing your lights. Many people steal animals here, so we stay late to guard them.’

‘We are good people. Is it safe here?’

‘Yes.’

‘As long as we aren’t animals, right?’ I try to inject some humor, only I laugh.

‘You will be safe here. I hope you rest well.’

I introduce myself and almost forcibly shake his hand, something that I see as indespensible in self preservation: being seen as a person. We bid him goodnight.

Brin falls asleep quickly, his breathing slowing. I lie awake as the random explosions continue. Thumping basslines layered in horns resound from at least two different locales. I am still slightly worried about being hacked to death with a machete, but not overly.