Friday, 25 February 2011

62. Mexican tales

Leaving Chiapas

A couple of Saturday nights ago we'd just descended from another scenically stunning and physically demanding day´s climbing in the mountains of Oaxaca. Out of water and nearing sunset we had to keep heading for the next settlement, the town of El Cimarron, rather than wildcamp in the hills. Our fast descent into the valley below was paused briefly when we met Yannick and Shirley climbing up in the opposite direction and heading south on their transcontinental triathlon. As it was dark when we got into town we decided to try our luck asking at the municipal buildings, where a friendly truckdriver had suggested we might be able to camp earlier in the day.

Camping beside the prison cells in El Cimmaron

Outside the municipal buildings we were greeted with the nightshift beat of Mexico's finest. Your average Mexican policeman more closely resembles a cross between Robocop and a Special Forces soldier than your regular bobby on the beat. The four officers who greeted us with big smiles and hellos while holding their large machine guns muzzle downward, insisted that crime was an unheard of phenomenon in this small rural town and everything was very tranquillo. They pointed to a covered area under the municipal buildings and said we could camp there no problem. Normally avoiding such exposed areas in urban locations, we cautiously set about cooking dinner and getting the tent up, whilst wondering who the steady stream of visitors to a barred door across the patio were visiting. Gradually it dawned on us that we were camped beside the local drunk tank, a couple of cells where the police could put the overly intoxicated for the remainder of the evening. Soon additional inmates began to arrive, some coming meekly and others less excited about being locked up for the night. One fellow was particularly aggreived and made his mind up to keep the rest of El Cimarron´s citizens awake for the night with his relentless banging. Another fierce looking individual with full body tattoos began singing gently while his Mum and girlfriend came with a homecooked meal and a duvet to keep him warm on the cell floor for the night. As the cell was left unattended when the police went off on patrol, visitors could come and ago as they pleased and by midnight the inmates had acquired a saw from a passing friend. Meanwhile we had lain in the tent, numb with tiredness and from the incessant banging the prisoners were making, but unable to tell anyone about it. Only on one occasion had the abuse been directed towards our tent and after receiving no replies as to whether we were Gringos or Germans, the abuse stopped. Shortly after midnight the sawing began in earnest and at 12.20 the prisoners cut through the lock and shuffled quickly away to freedom, holding up their laceless shoes and beltless trousers and allowing us a chance to get some sleep too.

Police prepare for the President's arrival in Oaxaca city. Riots later broke out between the police and members of the teacher's unions.

Carvings at the Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban

As usual, we've met with many daily acts of generosity and kindness, from people letting us sleep in their gardens to a skopkeeper who drove after us once we'd left town to give us bottles of Gatorade. Last Sunday morning, just after Canadian cyclist Tyson had pedaled on ahead after cycling with us for a couple of days, Ellie and I stopped at a comedor for what has become a midmorning ritual of beans, eggs and tortillas. As portions are often large and tortillas are on tap, we often share a breakfast between us. Antonio, however, insisted on giving us each our own plates and began with a starters of nachos and chilli sauce. Afterwards he wouldn´t take any money from us at all and at 11am on a Sunday morning insisted I join him over a bottle of Victoria lager before we headed back into the heat and up the hills. Antonio was 38 years old and had spent over 20 years in the US, working in many different states before settling in New York and raising a family. His spritely, grey haired 75 year old mother sat eating her breakfast beside us, making sure her customers were being taken cared of. Her son was fifteen when he first crossed illegally to the US. He managed to qualify in later years for naturalization under the asylum programme but in the end a divorce, the economic downturn and the cold weather drove him back south where he has remarried and has a couple of young children. Already he plans to return for seasonal work in the construction industry. Antonio was very curious about the trip, how could such things be paid for and the countries we'd come through and as I declined another beer he promised us a place to pitch our tents and as many tortillas as we could eat. As we left I couldn´t help wondering if a teenage Jeremy Clarkson had ever been in the position of having to leave family behind and cross illegally into another country in search of work. I doubt it.

Cuernavaca, Mexico
Trip distance: 41,752 km

Sunday, 6 February 2011

61. Across the Cuchumatanes

Westbound on Highway 7

After crossing the River Motagua and leaving behind the busy east-west highway that links the western Guatemalan metropolis' with the east of the country and the Caribbean, we began climbing into the Verapaces. The department of Alta Verapaz has been making the news recently when the Guatemalan government gave extensive powers to the police and military there a couple of months ago to combat the influx of the Mexican Los Zetas drugs cartel, who have been infiltrating the department to establish new smuggling routes from central America into Mexico. We didn't see much signs of this extra activity, nor did we see the resplendent quetzal, the region's famed bird that lends its name to the national currency.

Crossing the River Chixoy

The further we entered the highlands, in fact, the less shotgun toting security guards we came across and instead found quiet mountain towns where indigenous languages still predominate, and traditional costumes still worn daily as a symbol of the highlander's independence and determination to preserve their culture. Many of the highland areas in El Quiche and Huehuetenango departments suffered terribly at the hands of State forces and paramilitaries during the civil war in the 1980s and early 90s, with over 450 villages being destroyed and 200,000 people killed. These days there's little sign of the past conflicts as farmers harvest their potatos and maize crops.

Market day in Todos Santos

Pedaling through the highlands involved some of the hardest cycling conditions encountered since Bolivia and the high Andean passes with relentless, inhuman grades and rough tracks that are regularly obliterated by landslides. Most days involved a gain in altitude of about 1200 metres as the roads weaved their way up to over 3300 metres and back down to several hundred metres when crossing rivers. While the going was slow,  we enjoyed the friendly villages and towns where we passed through and as well as countless cups of arroz con leche (hot milk and rice) and enough beans to make a sizeable contribution to the region's greenhouse gas emissions quota.

Market day in Todos Santos

Following a couple of day's off in the chilly highland town of Todos Santos, we bumped our way slowly down out of the Cuchumatanes onto the relatively flatter limestone plateau that stretches northwards from the base of the mountains and marks the border with Mexico. The recent establishment of additional official border posts along many parts of the Guatemala/Mexico border has ensured that small towns such as Gracias a Dios, from where we crossed into Chiapas province in southern Mexico, are booming from the resulting trade. Our two-year old map was already out-of-date and the horrendous dirt roads that I was expecting materialised into newly paved roads.

Heading for Mexico

We changed the last of our quetzales and some dollars into Mexican pesos in Gracias a Dios, under the watchful eye of the scar-faced chubby moneychanger who eventually agreed to give us eleven pesos to the dollar. His friend leant against the hood of a pimped pickup and sported a ivory-handled revolver out of the front of his jeans. Crossing the border we were greeted by friendly Mexican officials who carefully examined our passports before giving us a very generous 180-day tourist visa as well as directions to the national park at Montebello lakes. We spent our first night at the lakes, camped inside the kitchen of the park guards and listening to the rain all night. The following morning we donned the wet gear and piled on the plastic bags and visited the disappointingly cold and misty lakes before heading up to Comitan de Dominguez. The following day we rode the 95 kilometres and 1200 metre climb up to San Cristobal de las Casas, where we've just taken a week off the bikes, visiting the city and surrounding area and catching up with my Scottish friend Kirsty with whom I'd cycled across northern Spain in 2008. 

Last Tuesday we were all sitting up at one of the viewpoints looking down on the city and wondering why two Humvee loads of soldiers had chosen the same spot to take some air. Later we found out that the high profile security was for President Felipe Calderon, who had been visiting the city to pay his respects to the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who had died the previous week and who had played an important part in the peace process between Zapatista paramilitaries and the Government in the mid-1990s.

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico
Pedalled: 40,650 km