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

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