Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 3—The Twelve Hour Breakfast

Last time I offered a little glimpse of what days and nights were like during my time in Valladolid. But as time went on, they seemed to get wilder.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Party at Seven

Mario, our local chef-cum-poet extraordinaire, has a knack for creating great parties. Generally, if Mario was planning something everyone wanted in. But one plan seemed to go too far:

A breakfast party.

“Picture this,” Mario said. “We start at dawn. I cook. At seven sharp there is an amazing breakfast laid on the table. And together we share it, and the party starts.”

This proposal earned no shortage of groans. For the banda I ran with, it was just too early of a start. But Mario was relentless. Originally the idea was an overnight party—in one of Alberto’s cenotes, no less—with breakfast cooked over a fire the following dawn. Alberto ruled that it was too complicated, and the idea foundered.

At first I didn’t like the idea of an early wake up, either. But in New Orleans we start our Mardi Gras at 5 a.m. Friends force themselves out of bed to meet for a hasty breakfast and the assembly of the costumes. The great holiday ends at midnight, so by 7 a.m. the Faubourg Marigny is alive with revelers. It’s worth the bleary eyes.

Thinking of this, I asked Mario why he wanted a breakfast party so bad. And why so early?

“For the experience! Think of it, Andre: the sun is barely up, the day is not yet hot, the streets are silent. It’s a time we always miss, bunch of drunks that we are, but this one day we’ll get to see it, to experience it, and we’ll celebrate being alive.”

(Mario actually talks like that.)

I was in. “I don’t have a cenote,” I said. “But I have a pool. And an outdoor kitchen. Choose a day.”

And so the breakfast began.

Mario and I had a week to campaign our friends to actually wake up on time. No one wanted to, and almost no one gave a firm commitment. Mario promised to bring enough food for 12 people, and joked that we’d have to eat it all ourselves. Meanwhile, my contribution was a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream for the coffee, which I discovered was kept behind protective glass at the supermarket and required a secret code to purchase.

We shouldn’t have worried. On the day of the party, the guests tumbled in half-asleep and miserable, but quickly perked up at the smell of food. They brought with them fresh juice, treats, and the ingredients for morning cocktails. “Is there milk for the coffee?” someone asked. I slid them the Bailey’s.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

By 8:00 the seats were full, and people came and went all day. After breakfast we sat in bliss and chatted; after chatting we swam. The conversation ranged from philosophy and fate to sex, which to Mario are faces of a coin. When the debate got too intense I cooled it down by pushing Alejandra in the pool. But it was good, easygoing conversation. A party under the sun is just more humane than a party at night.

Swim, snack, chat, swim snack. Eventually someone gathered up ingredients and fixed another meal, and others made beer runs. “Get your glasses!” called Mario. “Get ready for the countdown!”

“What countdown?”

“We started at seven,” he grinned. “It’s about to be seven again.”

The assembled company murmured in disbelief. It was the twelve hour mark of our breakfast. Mario counted down the seconds and we toasted on the hour.

The party continued even longer, but when the sun went down the mood changed. Not for the worse or the better. It just changed.

I decided to rest, but the pool party got wilder. At one point I stepped inside for a call from a friend back home. I guess the guests missed their host, because a few lined up by the window and taunted me with full moons. The guilty parties will of course remain nameless.

By nine or ten, the moment was lost. People found their reasons to make an exit. Many weren’t tired out but were just ready for a new venue. For my part, I closed the door and relaxed, happy.

The Last Supper

The breakfast was far from the only party Mario threw. The greatest was also the last: the closing of his restaurant Naino. He was tired of not making a profit, and the tourist season was over. While everyone else thought it was a tragedy, Mario responded with his usual fatalism. It wasn’t meant to be; there was no point in fighting it; the only thing left to do was go out in glory. And so began the Last Supper.

I figured the name was just a joke, but it quickly became clear that this would be a thoroughly Biblical event. Mario was to play the part of our Lord and Savior. Per his invitation text:

“The next day Naino shall be crucified. Three days later it will make a brief reappearance and then ascend to the heavens, at the right hand of Mario.”

Costumes were encouraged, particularly togas and robes. I didn’t have a toga but I did have a checkerboard cape from my Chess Master costume at Mardi Gras. Striding across town in this outfit got a lot of Mayan double-takes.

The admission fee to the dinner was supposed to be $150 pesos, but Mario neglected to collect it, leaving Manda and me to be his muscle. I also tithed a fair selection of wine, as our messiah had thus far failed to turn water into a liquor license.

The Last Supper by da Vinci

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Holy Cross

Despite the good times, I often abstained from parties. Once, when Naino’s kitchen closed and the tables were slid aside for the dancing to begin, I made my way to the door amidst booing and pleading from my compatriots. I believe in living in the moment, but the truth is I do precious little of it. I live more in my plans and my dreams, and a hangover does not help me accomplish them.

Still, I was anything but a wallflower during those months. There are more Valladolid stories than I can possibly tell. At one point I was invited to give a talk on my Adventure to the local community, complete with a Spanish translator. I made friends I haven’t even mentioned here: Denis, the jolly hotel owner and local maven; Allan, the quiet old genius who lives outside of town; and Harriet. Harriet approaches life as a puzzle that can be figured out. She tornadoes into a room with the charm of a New England ladies’ club and the booming voice of a naval commander. Once, at a fundraising breakfast she organized, I teasingly complained about the long speeches. “You know what, Andre?” she cheerfully replied. “Fuck off and die.”

At the end of my Valladolid time, I still had one mission left to accomplish. For 1,700 miles of cycling across Mexico I carried a card inscribed with the names of all the supporters who made the trip possible. (“Follow that Dream,” the card read.) I had pledged to leave it at a shrine of Guadalupe in Valladolid. The problem? There were none. I could spot household shrines through doors and behind gates, but no public ones.

My last week in Valla, I rode the Giant out to the villages. On the  city outskirts I spotted one of the ritual crosses of the Maya. A hundred years ago, when the Maya rose up against Mexican landowners, they formed their own Christian cult around a holy cross that could speak and issue commands to its followers. Even today, the villages have simple wooden crosses dressed in beautiful hand-embroidered garments as if the cross itself were a person.

I stopped at this particular holy cross, its pediment crowded with candles. Leaving the bike aside, I knelt down.

All the candles were of Guadalupe.

Reverently, I kissed the ground and offered the card. “Follow that Dream,” it still said, just barely, the words blurred by moisture and sun and months of riding in a bike bag. I set the card behind the candles, in this place where Mayan, Mexican and European tradition come together.

As I stood I saw a local mother and her two kids on the trail behind me. She held them back to let me do my devotion in peace. But when I met her gaze, she smiled warmly. So did I.

I had finished my mission of riding across Mexico. In the future, I’ll pick up at the same place and head farther south—through countries even more dangerous, on roads even more busted, with even less idea of what I’m doing.

But for now, I focus on my career. At the end of May, a friend from the US came down to visit. I left the Canada House and Valladolid in early June, and we spent some time on the beach before I headed to Xalapa to write.

So where am I now? That’s a story for next time.

For more reading, check out my book Lúnasa Days.

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Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Review of the SNS Academy Intro to Atheist Spirituality

Photo by Caleb Roenigk

Several months ago I wrote about helping test a new course on spirituality for atheists. By “spirituality for atheists” I mean a path of personal growth using tools from spirituality (like meditation) with no supernatural elements. The course could also be used by people who are agnostic or humanistic and simply want a spirituality based on evidence.

The course is produced by the Spiritual Naturalist Society, a humanist organization. They took feedback from myself and other testers, improved the course, and have now officially opened it to the public. This is my review of the course.

(Disclosure: I know one of the course designers personally. I do not receive compensation for this review nor for readers enrolling in the course.)

Course Overview

The course is a 4-week, online, mostly self-guided experience. I say “mostly” because you’re expected to complete certain modules each week. Within the week, you can go at your own pace and on your own schedule.

The face of the course is humanist author BT Newberg. While I know BT in real life, I’ve never seen him teach before and he does so with a gentle, confident delivery that makes him easy to absorb. It’s clear he’s someone who meditates extensively in his own life, and when he talks about the practices he’s speaking from experience.

The format has three parts:

  • Videos. Each module begins with a video. Most videos are about 10 minutes long (there are transcripts if you prefer to read). The videos introduce core concepts and the practices that you’ll be asked to do. Most feature the voice of BT Newberg, with plenty of images and illustrations to break up the visuals. Several modules use audio guidance by Dr. Helen Weng, a meditation researcher, instead of videos. I thought the videos were well done, insightful and to the point.
  • Self-guided Q&A. After each module is a short Q&A or quiz. There is no grade on this—the course is quite gentle if you get an answer wrong, showing you the correct one and an explanation of why. The questions are about concepts from the video and help make sure you’re following the reasoning of how to do a practice or how it will help. I personally did not get a lot out of doing the Q&A, but I understand it helps with learning retention and some people like it.
  • Forums. There is a private online forum for course students. This is a great touch, as it allows you to speak to other like-minded individuals. Small talk is optional, but each week has a prompt for discussion in the forums that led to, in my opinion, very high quality conversations.

Altogether, the total time commitment is about 3 hours/week.

What You Learn

This course is officially Spiritual Naturalism 101, an intro to naturalistic spirituality. The curriculum is ambitious—they really set out to give you a complete, hands on spiritual path. The course covers everything from understanding emotion to finding peace and fulfillment to facing death without an afterlife. It would have been easy for the course to go off the rails, but they kept it practical by anchoring each module in a specific practice.

If I had to name a main theme of the course, I would say “self mastery.” Several sections are dedicated to emotions, how they arise, and how to manage them. Clearly, awareness meditation is a major part of this, but so are lots of other, less well known practices. BT comes back often to the idea of “broadening,” or simply taking a moment to look at the larger context of a situation, in order to defuse stress, anxiety or negative emotions. That’s a shortcut a Buddhist wouldn’t take, which underscores that this course is all about what works and not just sticking to an age-old practice.

Not everything is about emotion. The course delves into what it means to live in a naturalistic universe. One module addresses suffering as a natural part of our world, and strategies for accepting that. Another deals with the anguish of knowing that death is final, and how to create meaning in a meaningless world. If you’re seeing a broad range of influences here, both Eastern and Western, you’re exactly right.

The most fascinating section dealt with myths, religion and mysticism. Maybe surprisingly, it didn’t disparage them. The SNS is very clear that it believes in none of this stuff—but it believes it can be useful anyway. BT describes his experience making offerings at the shrine of a deity he is 100% sure does not exist, and why that practice was valuable. He suggests that myth and mysticism fill a certain need in the human psyche, and can do their job even when taken as purely symbolic. “Dive deep” into the ocean of myth, he says, “And let naturalism be your lifeguard.”

Of course, this won’t appeal equally to every student. No section will—I found some highly valuable and others less so. But no section gets pushy. The course only asks you to understand the concepts and try each practice once; which ones you end up using on your own is an entirely your decision.

Criticism

So far my comments have been mostly positive. I think it’s a good course. But are there downsides? Potentially:

  • I would have liked to see a female face in the course. Make no mistake, BT is very approachable and SNS has a lot to offer all genders. But in a world of male gurus it would be nice to see a woman leading a spiritual class, especially a highly intellectual one. Perhaps a future version of the course could trade off videos between BT and a female instructor.
  • What you get out of the course will depend a lot on your existing view toward religion. It might be too “let’s use stuff from religion” for strong atheists and too “but not believe in it” for others. Whether that’s a pro or a con will depend on your point of view.

All in all, I was very happy with the course. It’s a great tool for anyone who wants to explore their personal development and “spiritual” worldview without going down a faith-based path.

The first SNS 101 course begins Sunday, September 6th. Cost is $100, or $50 for SNS supporting members (you do not have to be a member to join). Space is limited to the first 10 students to sign up. Get more details or enroll here.

Next time I’ll get back to stories from Valladolid. If you’re hungry for stories now, check out my book.

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 2—Yucatán Nights

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Valladolid looks quiet but there’s a lot going on. Last time I introduced the crazy cast of characters I managed to fall in with. Now it’s time for some misadventures.

Writers Are Boring

Most days were tame. Writers are boring artists: we don’t hop around stage and cast spells like musicians or actors. We don’t even put on a show of furious brush strokes. Furious laptopping just looks like you’re unbalanced, too angry over someone’s comment on Youtube. I spent many days quietly typing at home.

But I felt out of place in the Canada House. There were four bedrooms and just one of me. I mostly lived in the back building, but I preferred to work up front in the outdoor kitchen, surrounded by nature. As a result I spent a lot of time walking back and forth. It felt odd having such a huge place to myself.

I wrote four stories I had dreamed up crossing Mexico. The first is about a woman in Laredo, who needs money for her son. She seeks out a magic man that lives in the desert, braving the threat of drug traffickers to find him—only to find out he’s in with the narcos, and requires a sacrifice.

The second one was conceived amidst the ghost towns of Real de Catorce. It follows a desert pilgrimage to the sacred mind-altering peyote. And a third tells of an old woman, an herbalist, who leaves her village and her adult children to seek her fortune in the big city. The big city, unfortunately, does not want her.

The last is a tale set in Xalapa, but it’s not done yet. It also doesn’t fit. While the others are all magical realism, this one is about love.

I wrote other things besides. I started to sit on the street, like an artist with a sketchbook, and write about what I saw.

One road in grabbed my attention. It’s a tiny lane off a major city street, but you’d think you’re in the country. It has trees, a low stone wall built by hand, a thatch roofed cottage, chickens. I mentioned my infatuation to Manda and she lit up. “Do you mean the street off Calzada de los Frailes? Second corner from Alberto’s, isn’t it? It’s rather like a storybook.” Artists think alike.

While I was writing, one of the street’s residents came up and introduced himself. Soon he brought two cups of coffee from his house and got bread from a passing vendor, and we practically had a picnic. He told me he’s a recovering alcoholic. He said he’s gone sober to win back his wife. Later, he confided that his coffee mug contained beer.

The paradox of writing is that to do it well you need to be reclusive, but sitting in your home alone deprives you of fresh material. Everyday I went out and walked around. I observed and made notes. But, deep in my inner world of ideas, I hardly talked to anyone. I ate alone and preferred restaurants where I knew no one. As the wait staff became friendlier I wouldn’t want to return. This hermitage may sound rude or lonely, but it only improved the quality of my work and, most days, my happiness.

Yucatán Nights

In the evenings I was more social. By day Yucatán’s an oven, but after dark there are cool breezes. It’s a joy to sit outside a cafe or bar. Some nights we would go to Alberto’s—his Valladolid residence is a shuttered bakery—and we sat in folding chairs on the plaza outside his door. Families gathered in the plaza at night, and some upstanding citizen had donated a circus carousel for the kids (it was almost election time).

“Wow, what a nice gift to the city,” I said.

“Come on!” yelled Alberto. “Do you know that music plays all night? I’m taking out a hit on that thing!”

We also got a new arrival. Arianna, a professional musician from California, had fallen in love with Valladolid. Now she was scouting possible places to live. Arianna is a person who can talk to anyone, and she relishes doing so (she also has game with both men and women).

She really widened our friend circle. Mexico is a country of clear class divisions, and foreigners are automatically slotted into the upper caste. I can easily make friends with locals who are business owners, hold college degrees and know English. Working class Mexicans, however, sometimes view me with suspicion. Not so when Arianna walks up flashing her smile.

It was through her that I met Rosalía, a 30 year old Maya woman who is unmarried, works 10 hours a day and lives with her family. Unmarried at 30 is unusual in Mexico; no kids is even less common. Both are conscious choices she has made so she can save up money and open a business with her brothers. She is both a dreamer and a hard worker, a dangerous combination.

Soon she invited us to dinner at her house. We shared beer and pizza while her brothers grilled us about life in the US. Arianna’s Spanish made mine look good, but we managed to trade stories in a mix of languages. Slowly they seemed to accept that, although we have more money, we are basically not that different—and we’re at least not stuck up about it. It was the first time they’d ever had a foreigner in their home.

The next day Rosalía apologized fiercely.

“Why?” I said.

“Because we drank so much! You must think we’re drunks!”

I smiled and thought of the pool parties at Canada House.

The Fatal Chef

Valladolid has some good restaurants. There’s Fallo’s Seafood, where the 5-foot tall owner leaves his shirt open to show off his chest hair while making shrimp cocktails. There’s Yerbabuena, which serves the best breakfast in town, and where my waiter Carlos struggled to accept that he could speak to me in Spanish instead of using his perfectly practiced English. A hundred steps from my front door was Family Restaurant Oasis, more like a bar with a full menu, where the food is awful but the botanas (free snacks if you order beer) are worth the stop. In the evenings I would go to Conato for great food and solitude; Casa Italia, for great food and the risk of running into people; or the most fabled eatery of them all, Naino.

Naino was the restaurant of our Portuguese poet-chef, Mario. Originally he ran it like a standard restaurant with a menu. “I got bored,” Mario told me. “And I had customers get rude if we were out of something. So I took their menu away.” His eyes glittered.

The new deal was simple: you paid 120 pesos and Mario brought you three courses (sometimes four) of whatever he felt like. It was a hit, and rocketed him to the most popular restaurant in Valla. But that didn’t make it profitable. For one thing, 120 pesos is a low price for the kind of fine dining he provided. For another, the city resolutely refused to give him an alcohol license. (Valladolid is controlled by twelve ancient families and is notoriously conservative.) Undeterred, Mario launched a “bring your own” policy with no corking fee and frequently sold illegal cuagamas (40 ounce beers). But every wine bottle brought from the corner store was 150 pesos in missed revenue.

For Mario, the fun wasn’t in making money. It was in creating experiences where people truly let go and enjoyed themselves. There are many terms I could use to describe the man: a fatalist, a sensualist. But I think the best description is that he’s Mario. And Mario came up with ever more extravagant ideas for parties.

One of those ideas was the twelve hour breakfast. But that’s a story for next time.

Until then, check out my book or show your support. Thank you as always for reading.

 

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 1—The Right Group of People

Valladolid

Valladolid

In the last entry I finished my ride across Mexico and reached beautiful Valladolid. But that was months ago. What was it like living there? Valladolid itself is a small colonial city, but my life there was much wilder than I could have expected. Here’s a first look into that time, and all the people I met.

When I arrived in Valladolid I didn’t have a clear plan. I knew I wanted to live there and write long term. “Long term” meant a few months, a novelty after biking to a new town every few days. But first I needed a place to stay.

For the first few nights I booked a room with Manda, a British fashion designer who came to Mexico to teach design. She ended up hating the job but loving the country. For three years she followed Mexican teenagers photographing their amazing Colombia-inspired fashion. (Her book about the teens is stunning, by the way.) But I knew none of that. I’d chosen her house simply because it was the coolest looking place on AirBnB.

Manda's book

Manda’s book

Soon I made friends with her two dogs, Prince Harry and Chaparro, and her cat Lord Freddy. In the mornings we’d all sit together on the back patio. Manda and I sipped English tea and ate home-made granola (“muesli” in British parlance). In the afternoons I’d work on the computer while Manda made entire dresses or her next piece of home décor. I tried to teach Manda how to make coffee, but with only a pot to heat the water and no filters, I quickly switched back to tea.

I couldn’t dawdle around, though; I needed to find a place of my own. Showing up without a plan is new for me. Not knowing where I’d be living or how long I’d be there was uncomfortable, but strangely relaxing.

Carnival

My arrival in Valla coincided with the height of Mardi Gras season back home. A New Orleans friend told me scoldingly, “I remember someone sitting around my bonfire two years ago and saying he’d never miss another Mardi Gras again.” She called in that oath, and I didn’t need much convincing. Flying was bizarre after so much cycling, and I stared out the window in a trance as we crossed the entire Gulf in hours. Then I hit the Big Easy, saw my friends, and had an amazing Carnival. (Our costume theme was Games, and I went as the Chess Master, with a black-and-white jacket I painted myself.)

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

As a side-effect this trip reset my tourist visa, so when I returned to Mexico I had six more months to play with. Meanwhile Manda had a lead for me: two Canadian friends were getting ready to fly north for the summer, and needed a house sitter badly.

The Canadian House was jaw-dropping. It’s an entire compound arranged around a central garden with a giant pool and a waterfall. The front house is a palapa (thatched roof cottage) and the back is all modern.  It wasn’t a true house sitting gig—I paid rent to stay there—but it was a good deal. It hit it off with the owners and before long I literally had the keys to paradise in my hand.

Valla Days Feb-June 2015 530_rs

“My” pool.

The Guy with the Pool

Before they left, the owners told me, “You should have guests over. Use the house. Use the pool. Enjoy it.” Manda knew everyone in town and introduced me around. I’d like to think I would have made friends on my own, but it didn’t hurt being the guy with the pool. Valladolid is close-knit and I quickly got to know all the local characters, most of whom had stayed in Canada House at some point.

María José is an environmental consultant who moved from Mexico City because she loves the Yucatecan jungle. She owns a small farm in one of the Maya villages, where she’s learning to raise stingless Mayan bees and helps the villagers build up tourism.

Ariane is the owner of Dutzi boutique, an outspoken German and the “other” fashion designer in town. She and Manda are good friends. I first met Ariane on Manda’s patio, where she burst in the door rebuffing one of Manda’s guests: “Look, I can’t talk about ‘oh what part of Germany are you from,’ I’m not on vacation, I just worked twelve hours!” I liked her immediately.

Other regulars included Pelucas, a Spanish artist who can’t keep a straight face; Mario, a Portuguese chef with a poetic streak who served small plates at his restaurant Naino; and Alejandra, the owner of the town’s best tequila shop. Alejandra is an adventurer in her own right, and taught me how to sound like a tequila expert (I am not one).

A cenote. National Geographic photo.

The Fearless Cenote Hunter

One character I kept hearing about took forever to meet. That is Alberto, better known as the Cenote Hunter. Cenotes are the breathtaking underground lakes that lie hidden everywhere under the Yucatán, most completely sealed from the surface. But sometimes there are openings, making them natural wells and much sought-after swimming holes. Many villages have a communal cenote, for their own use or for tourists; most churches and town centers are built right over one, as they were the original water source; and every resort, tour company and rich foreigner wants to own one. Alberto single-handedly carved out a new industry, talking to Maya locals and hunting out cenotes in the jungle. He buys and sells them, and has inspired many imitators.

No sooner did I meet Alberto than I was invited along on a cenote expedition. Alberto is a whirlwind: you cannot make plans with him, but any given morning he might call you and tell you to be ready in 15 minutes. “Where are we going?” I’d ask. “Come on, there is a beautiful cenote I want to show you! Let’s go!”

Whenever feasible the expeditions are carried on bicycle. I got the call and met Manda at her house. We teamed up with Alberto, all on bikes, with both of Manda’s dogs chasing along behind us. The goal: a cenote named Mukul about 18 km away.

“Are you sure the dogs can run that far?” I asked Manda.

“I brought water for them, they’re tough boys, aren’t you my tough boys?”

About 12 km later one of the tough boys was riding in my bicycle basket and the other one had long since abandoned us.

"Who is the dog, and who is the master?"

“Who is the dog, and who is the master?”

Mukul was beautiful. We left the bikes on the roadside and waked a mile through the jungle to two holes in the ground. “Watch that hole,” Alberto said, pointing. He tossed a rock down the other. WHOOSH! About 20 turquoise blue birds exploded out of the depths, spooked by the falling rock, all flying right past my face.

After the bird show we entered the underworld. Mukul’s descent is a mere 100 feet of wobbling ladder, followed by a log staircase that Alberto’s business partner built. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “They almost never collapse.”

The cenote at the bottom was vast. We stood on a natural ledge overlooking it: a cavernous lake extending far into the dark, lit only with a little sunlight from the two holes above. Trails glittered across the black water, caused by mineral dust floating on top. It gave the effect of pathways left by faeries hoping to lure us to their world.

18 km is a short bike ride for me, but in 100 degree weather (with a four-legged passenger) it’s not easy. Plunging into the dark, cool water was like medicine. More friends showed up while we swam, and then the wine bottles were opened.

“I feel like we earned this wine,” Manda said. “It tastes better this way.”

By this time I already knew I had fallen in with a special group of people. I still didn’t know how long I’d be in Valladolid or what I’d do next, but I knew I made the right decision staying there. I just had to make sure I buckled down and got my writing done—but that’s a story for next time.

For more reading check out my book Lúnasa Days.

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Adventure, Andre Sólo, Bicycling, Fellowship of the Wheel, Mexico, Road Logs, Spotlight, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Music Video of My Adventure Across Mexico

My friend Pixi made me a music video(!). She assembled it from footage I took cycling across Mexico. I can’t believe it:

Riding 4,700 miles was not easy. Often I would forget the reason I was out there. An adventure can look glorious from the outside but the reality of living it is you’re just trying cope. This video made me smile because I can see how grand my Adventure looks from the outside, even when it seems pretty overwhelming from the inside. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Thanks Pixi! The song is “Adventure” by Be Your Own Pet.

The footage comes from the 100+ video logs I made during the ride. To get full access, become a supporter today.

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Adventure, Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, Travel

Bicycling to Mexico’s Great Pyramids

Last time I explored the city of Mérida, where a 13 year old gave me a lesson in spirituality and a local artist joined me for a bike ride.

Now it’s time to push on—for the final leg of the Mexico ride. With literally thousands of miles behind me, just three more days will take me to my endpoint in Valladolid. And on the way I’ll see some of the most famous pyramids in Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 5 (Day 944 of the Great Adventure)—The Yellow Town

I made a last minute change of plans. A major highway stretches from Mérida all the way to Valladolid, and I had planned to stick to it. But I heard great things about the town of Izamal, supposedly one of Yucatán’s prettiest, and I decided to go out of my way and see it.

I had a late start, around 12:45 in the afternoon. (I took so long getting ready that hotel staff moved my bike back into a storage closet after I’d already wheeled it out.) But with only 40 miles to go, I wasn’t worried about time.

The ride out of town mimicked the route Martín and I took for our joy ride days earlier. I remembered the fresh squeezed orange juice he’d brought along and got a hankering. Luckily Mexico has fruit stands just about everywhere, and soon I had a fresh 1-liter bottle in my rack.

Choosing the path less taken was a good call. Instead of a cuota (freeway) it was a country highway with jungle on both sides. There was a threat of rain but never more than a few drops, and traffic was blissfully light. Along the way I passed through Mayan villages. The people there would either gawk at me in surprise or pretend they didn’t even see me, depending on their mood, but if I waved and said good afternoon they’d always return the greeting.

Izamal is great! The entire town is yellow. Every single building is painted the same shade—thankfully it’s marigold and not, say, butter or lemon color. Other than white trim and some red-tile roofs, you can’t find another color within the city limits. I have a feeling that if a homeowner breaks ranks they face a forcible re-paint.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

There was still plenty of light left, which was good because I had no idea where I was staying. I headed straight for the town center, rattling along on the faux cobble streets, but when I got there hotels were the last thing on my mind.

Instead, I stared up at a yellow and white palace sprawling across the top of a pyramid mound. The was the convento, the monastery at the heart of Izamal. If you can imagine slicing off the top of the Great Pyramid and dropping a medieval church into it, that’s pretty much literally what happened. The old Mayan temple had simply been replaced by a Christian one.

The Convento overlooks two squares, and I circled both and then explored out through the town streets. I found two very low-budget inns that could put me up (one with a nonstop barking dog and one with more mosquitoes than intact bathroom tiles). After that was a hotel that was blatantly vacant but which I was told was “completely full,” and one at the very edge of town that was out of my price range.

Despairing, I decided to take one more pass down the main road to see if I’d missed anything. That was when I found the Posada Ya’ax Ich, and immediately fell in love. The posada is actually a private home, with two guest bedrooms for rent. It was spotlessly clean, incredibly comfortable and had the first strong wi-fi signal I’d seen since Xalapa. I had a great conversation with the owner Elena and her sister Soco while Elena made up my room. Later I would meet her son Andrés as well.

Elena told me which of the three restaurants in town I should go to, and I mounted up one last time. (To be fair, there are actually four real restaurants in town, but one of them is super pricey and set up mainly for receiving tour buses.) My eyes dazzled: with the light of sunset on ochre buildings and polished streets, I thought I’d fallen into a bronze casting of a colonial scene.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

Dinner was tasty, eaten in under the arcade surrounding the main plaza. I had my first taste of dzikil-pak, a Mayan dip made from toasted pumpkin seeds (amazing). It rained for a spell, and I enjoyed the cool air before the last ride back to the posada.

41.0 miles.

Map.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

February 6 (Day 945 of the Great Adventure)

Morning came and I got up early. I had exploring to do. Andrés served a great homemade breakfast and Elena said I could leave my things in the room while I looked around.

Before long I was climbing the steps to the Convento, finding a giant courtyard with arched arcades on all sides. Each of the corners of the courtyard once housed a shrine, and the arcades were built to shelter religious processions from rain as they marched from one to the next. These days the shrines stand empty, for no reason explained at the site.

I didn’t spend long at the Convento, however. I was more interested in something else I discovered during yesterday’s hotel hunt: a giant pyramid right in the middle of a city block.

This one wasn’t cut off halfway to put a church on top. It’s gigantic—200 meters to a side—and rises in multiple levels up to a tiny stone platform stories above the city. Most of Mexico’s pyramids are cordoned off in archaeological parks far away from development, but this one is part of the neighborhood. One on street the lineup is literally: house, oil change shop, restaurant, house, pyramid.

Photo by Andre

First stairs up to the pyramid. Photo by Andre

I found the stone stairs that lead up to it—nestled in a break between yellow homes—and started up. The climb was intense; a series of steps led up to a large plateau, big enough that there were trees growing on it and a local family enjoying it like a park. Just past their picnic the stairs continued up the pyramid proper. I waved to them and up I went.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

According to legend, offerings left at this pyramid were once collected by a red macaw who carried them up to the heavens. I’m not sure if mine will ever be collected, but I paid my respects and placed a few coins as gifts. If not a macaw, perhaps the next kid who climbs up will find a use for them.

Then I gazed out over Izamal, all yellow and white. From here I could see that the town is the original Mayan city, following the same streets as 600 years ago. It was obvious now that the Convento was once a much higher pyramid, looming directly over the town center. It would have been a twin to the one I stood on, and together they made up the heart of a once city-state.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

There were other pyramids, too, according to the map, but each of them is in the center of a city block, houses and shops literally leaning against its stone sides as a convenient foundation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with a pyramid in your backyard. I suppose that like all growings-up it must seem boring at the time.

Jim Morrison and the Road

Soon enough I was back on the road, headed toward Pisté—the nearest town to Chichén Itzá, Mexico’s most famous pyramids. I noticed a cocina economica (tiny restaurant) in the first village along the way. I didn’t stop but it put the idea in my head, and every time I coasted through a village after that I looked around hopefully for another one. No dice.

The hours passed by, listening to music or podcasts or just enjoying the jungle road. I got about three fourths of the way to Izamal before my tummy began rumbling in protest, and at the last real town I turned off the road and hunted around. Sure enough, a doña was willing to serve me some chipotle chicken and rice. I shared the only table in her kitchen with several construction workers, who had matching mustaches and all seemed more interested in football than asking a foreigner any questions.

After that it was a short, sweet ride in the late afternoon air. Golden light cut through the forest. Because my spiritual experience in Mérida had been inspired (indirectly) by Jim Morrison, I had downloaded a few of his albums. Previously I wasn’t really familiar with his music, and it seemed surreal to hear it in the peaceful Mayan jungle. The songs were as trancey as I’d been told, and reminded me of all the things I missed about New Orleans.

But every good buzz has to come to an end, and by late afternoon I crossed the toll road and entered the sprawl of Pisté. Everything that Izamal is, Pisté is not: it’s ugly, noisy, busy (for such a small place) and has no colonial town center that I could find. I suspect it exploded when Chichén Itzá, just a few kilometers down the road, became a major tourist site.

I was headed toward a cheap hotel, but first scouted the road to Chichén, clearly marked and even closer than I thought. After checking in and taking a shower I headed out for dinner, at an outdoor market alongside the busy main road of town.

The night ended peacefully. I had made a pledge to those who backed my journey that I would make offerings for them at the great pyramids. Now, one by one, I unpacked stalks of copal incense carefully bundled in my toolkit, and clipped pieces of red ribbon with my boot knife. As I tied a ribbon around each incense stalk, I said the prayers that had been requested by my friends, binding them to the offerings in knots.

It was a beautiful night.

45.7 miles.

Map.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 7 (Day 946 of the Great Adventure)—The Last Day

Another early start. This hotel owner wasn’t as understanding as Elena, and I had to get all my stuff out of the room before I headed out to see the pyramids. I left it in the owner’s living room, then biked up the road. I wanted to be in the gate as soon as they opened at 8 a.m., and would save breakfast for later.

Even at 8:01, an entire tour bus managed to offload in front of me, but soon enough I had my ticket. I’ve actually been to Chichén once before, ten years ago. It felt good to revisit this place now that I’d come all the way on my own body power. To the various guides at the entrance I was just another tourist though, and I had to endure sales pitches in multiple languages to get through the gate.

Chichén Itzá was the capital of the Itzá people, one of the most powerful Mayan nations in the days before the Conquest. But it wasn’t the Spanish who knocked the Itzá off their throne; they had declined as a civilization long before smallpox or gunpowder. Even so, this city—the one I was walking into—had become such an important ritual center that it remained a destination for pilgrims long after its fall. Supposedly, emissaries from other Mayan civilizations would arrive here in large processions, walking through the ghost city to visit the oracle who still dwelt there.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The main draw of Chichén today is its largest pyramid, nicknamed El Castillo (the Castle). The railings of its staircases are carved stone snakes that run from the top to the bottom, where giant feathered serpent heads leer with gaping stone mouths. The main staircase was made with incredible precision: at the winter solstice, when the run rises, the shadows on the stairs look like serpents wending their way down from above.

That’s not the only engineering marvel. I was surprised to see none of the tourists clapping their hands. Standing in front of the staircase I took out my camera and recorded a short video for my supporters showing what happens when you clap in front of the temple.

“Excuse me,” said a Belgian after the video was done. “What was that you just said?”

“Oh,” I laughed. “Yeah, when you clap your hands here, the echo comes back sounding like the call of a quetzal bird. The quetzal is sacred to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. This pyramid is his temple.”

The Belgian was floored. Soon, he and his girlfriend were clapping as hard as they could, and twee twee twee came the echoes back. I’ve heard recordings of actual quetzal birds played just before the handclaps, and they’re almost indistinguishable. The Maya (with possible help from the Toltecs) knew what they were doing.

This news spread to more tourists, and more, all of them wanting to know why we were clapping. Soon about fifty people were applauding in front of the pyramid and a cacophany of birds answered back. Smiling, I walked away.

El Castillo isn’t the only sight, though. The preserved ruins of Chichén are a Vatican-like city of temples and palaces. It’s bigger than most of the surrounding towns, and you could walk there for hours. Not far from the main pyramid I found a giant platform decorated with thousands of stone skulls, each one representing a sacrificial victim killed at the site. This is the monument that stands out most in my memory from 10 years ago.

I also strolled through the ball court, where warriors once played a soccer-like game with their lives on the line. Standing in the middle of the stadium, one of the tour guides demonstrated the “whisper effect.” A word whispered in the middle of the field echoes down the walls and can be heard everywhere. Then he had about 30 German tourists shout something in unison, and the sound of their cry resounded through the stands. It must have been a hell of a ball game.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

In bygone times, the Chichén Itzá’s cenote (underground lake) was as much of a draw as the pyramids. In fact, the Chichén in the name basically means “well.” The water source was the reason there was a sacred city in the first place, and it was also considered a ritual gateway to the underworld; Maya pilgrims would once have paid at least as much homage to the cenote as they did to the oracle.

These days that sacred pool is at the end of a long trail lined with merchandise vendors. Their stalls crowd both sides and they aren’t afraid to accost you with promises of “Only one dollar!” (none of the merchandise actually costs $1). I thought about it and said my prayers from afar. I’d be making offerings at a different cenote soon in Valladolid, and didn’t really need the extra headache.

That’s not to say the rest of Chichén is vendor-free. Now that the park was filling up the salesmen were out in force, lining all the trails that wander away from the Castillo toward other areas of interest. I decided to do what I’d come for while the doing was good. I found a shady, empty spot around the back of El Castillo, knelt, and said the prayers of my supporters. These were people who had helped make my dream come true, and whose own dreams I had carried with me for 1,700 miles.

As I finished placing the offerings, a call split the sky. An eagle swooped over the pyramid.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

From there on I wandered the ruins with a light heart. Toward the back of the site is a forested area with giant palaces crumbling amidst it; certainly my favorite spot. A different trail takes you to El Caracol (“The Snail”), a spiral-shaped tower once used as an observatory. Near the Caracol is a pyramid that’s a smaller replica of El Castillo, and a gigantic structure that has collapsed just enough to reveal that  its pyramid is largely hollow. All of it is breathtaking.

I didn’t dawdle as much as other tourists, and none of this was new to me. But it still inspired awe. And it marked a major accomplishment on my Adventure, reaching this sacred landmark and also reuniting with the place where I first fell in love with Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The Last Road

By 11:00 I was back in Pisté. I found a small kitchen on the main road where a doña served breakfast in a sunny room. Again, there was no sense of hurry: this was my last morning as an itinerant cyclist, at least for the Mexico trip; why not stop and enjoy it?

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that's Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that’s Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Eventually I got back to the hotel and found the landlady, extracting my things from behind her couch. And just like that, the last day on the road had begun.

The road to Valladolid took me right past Chichén Itzá once again. The jungle is so thick you can only see the entrance; not even the pyramid tops are visible from the road. I turned my eyes forward. Again I had chosen a country road instead of the toll road, though this one had plenty of tour buses to buzz past me.

Time went by. I was in no hurry, and the wind was a little against me. As I approached the halfway point, I noticed a little trail running alongside the highway, tucked away back in the woods. To my surprise the trail was paved, and I quickly switched over. (It turns out Yucatán roads often have a bike/pedestrian path somewhere nearby, though the pavement on this one was remarkably good.)

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The highlight of rolling down this trail was coming upon a small dog who got spooked and fled from me—but had nowhere to go except further down the trail. I ended up basically chasing him for a quarter of a mile. Eventually the path connected with the side streets of a village, and kids stared or waved as I rolled through.

Valladolid!

Valladolid was my home base on my first ever trip to Mexico. At the time it was a quiet, charming town without a lot of tourist buzz: large enough to have things to do, but not so big it was annnoying. As I entered the outskirts I was relieved to see that it hadn’t transformed, hadn’t tripled in size, hadn’t lost its charm. It was a lot like I remembered it, and for some reason that made  me happy.

I reached the town center, a giant central garden with a fountain and trees and iron fences and gates. It was as if I had just left yesterday. The Giant took a victory lap around the central square, then I pulled aside and recorded this video:

I couldn’t believe it. Later that night, riding in the dark just to enjoy the night air, it would suddenly hit me: I rode across Mexico. Everyone told me I would die, and here I was, alive and ready for 4,000 more miles.

But first a rest. I had booked an AirBnB in town based on simple criteria: pick the one with the coolest owner. That happened to be a British fashion designer who had built much of her home of out recycled wood and salvage. Once I got through congratulating myself I headed toward her house, some English tea, and the new adventure: find out where I’d live for the next few months.

28.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 115.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4757.1 miles.

Thank you to everyone who followed along so far. The Mexico leg is over, but the Adventure is not. Next time I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to since Valladolid and what I have planned for the future.

Until then, of course, feel free to peruse past road logs, get yourself a postcard (yes, I’m still in Mexico) or ask me anything about the ride. Anything except, “How does it feel to bike across Mexico?” because the answer is, “Boy are my knees tired.”

Thanks guys!

Thanks guys!

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Sky Opened Up in Mérida

Last time I kicked it in atrocious hotels, while enjoying miles of jungle scenery and small Maya villages. Now it’s time to explore Mérida, the capital of Yucatán—and a place that promises some unexpected experiences.

Saturday, January 31 – Wednesday, February 4 (Days 939 – 943 of the Great Adventure)

My days in Mérida went by fast. Like a few other favorite stops, I stayed longer than I planned. And just as in the others, one of the highlights was the food.

I have an ability to sniff out great places wherever I go. The first one was easy to spot, because of the long lines of locals waiting for a table. It’s called Restaurante La Chaya Maya and offers some of the best Mayan food you’ll ever find. It’s so popular that they had to open a second location two blocks away, and the lines still stretch out the door during comida (the big late afternoon meal). Luckily, I still eat on an American schedule so stopped in around 6:30 one evening, when there was no wait at all. Mayan food consists mainly of pork prepared with a variety of amazing sauces, served in anything from an oversize tamale to a smothering of red onions soaked in lime juice.

(This is also where I first had chaya, a local green sometimes translated as “tree spinach” and delicious when cooked.)

Chaya. Photo via Zoom’s Edible Plants.

Another place caught my eye only because of the atmosphere. I was on a quest for a coffee shop and this place looked more like a diner, but something made me look twice. It turns out Cafetería Pop is a local landmark, the inside dominated by an oversize line drawing of three unhappy men. When I finally went in, it was heaven: the food was good and the silence was golden.

As far as I can tell, Pop is where Mexican men come to read the paper and get away from the world. It could only be more grandpa if it smelled like aftershave. I sank into a seat at one of the orange tables and read over my coffee and huevos, no one speaking to anyone. Blissful.

Image via Cafetería Pop.

(I never did find out what the deal is with the old guys on the wall. I asked twice but my Spanish couldn’t handle the answer. As best I can interpret, I was told, “They’re three disco stars who used to come here to dance.” I’m sure that’s right.)

Café Chocolate. Image via Yelp.

I did find my coffee shop, in spades. The one I liked most is Café Chocolate, where I could sit in overstuffed arm chairs at antique hardwood tables and write in perfect silence. But the one I went to most often—for its convenience and its strong wi-fi—was Café Bolero. This place would have the ambiance of a lesser Starbuck’s except that it has a large outdoor terrace, partly open air and partly covered by a roof high above. It was sort of a mini-plaza squeezed between the cafe and a religious bookstore. It was a good place to do client work for hours on end.

This is where I was sitting when a downpour hit Mérida one evening. I made sure to move under the roof, and continued working. But when I looked up I saw a homeless man stumble out of the rain, into the shelter of the plaza, so soaked he trailed a river behind him. I watched as he went into several stores, probably asking for help, and was driven out by an angry manager. My first thought was (of course): please don’t come talk to me.

And he never did. He looked toward the cafe terrace a few times, but had probably been run off before. So he forsook the shelter of the plaza and stood in the rain on the sidewalk, throwing water at himself and screaming up at the sky.

I became angry at myself, and at my desire that he leave me alone. It suddenly seemed despicable. Abandoning my coffee and computer, I crossed the plaza to talk to him.

“Pardon me,” I said. I had a $200 peso note in my hand, but he didn’t know that yet.

“My watch,” he said. “I’m looking for my watch.”

I nodded as if I understood. I didn’t; I can’t pretend to know whether he was mentally ill or just looking to get attention. And I wasn’t going to get pulled into delusional talk.

“I don’t know where your watch is,” I said. “But I thought this would help.”

I put out my hand, not making the bill obvious, and we shook hands. He discovered the money and his demeanor changed, and for a moment no one was crazy or not crazy. Then he filled one hand with falling rain and pushed it on my head and made the sign of the cross. It was a better blessing than most.

“Thank you,” I said.

He didn’t try to draw me into conversation. I returned to my laptop, the cafe staff watching uncertainly; he sat down under the shelter of the plaza. I was still there when he left. He stepped out into the rain, turned and looked at me, smiled and waved, and then disappeared. I waved back.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Riding with Martín

Every Sunday there’s a large crafts and arts bazaar that spreads in the plaza outside my hotel, and down the street toward the centro. I deftly wove through the crowd as I came and went, avoiding sales pitches and cookie-cutter artesanías. But somehow I caught a glance of the t-shirt vendor—and stopped in my tracks.

T-shirt shops are usually the lowest of the low in tourist goods. In New Orleans they range from “I’m with Stupid” and “Thing 1/Thing 2” pairs to the truly elegant “I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street,” an essential for any gentleman’s wardrobe.

Mexico’s souvenir t-shirts can be slightly better, featuring sugar skulls and Aztec gods; similarly trite, with yet another Frida Kahlo; or they can be indistinguishable, with the same Homer Simpson faces and frat bro slogans translated into Spanish (or not). But they’re all identical from shop to shop and city to city. I categorically ignore these vendors.

Until I tripped past the one in the Hidalgo Plaza. These t-shirts weren’t cookie cutters. They featured original artwork, with a sort of pop postmodern look to them. You could describe it as Mexican-cultural-heritage-meets-Portland-zine.

The vendor was a young man with dark rimmed round glasses, looking every bit the part of the revolutionary Latin intellectual. I had no doubt he was also the artist, and after passing the stall several times I asked his name.

“Martín,” he said.

Martín and I hit it off. I bought one of his t-shirts (featuring two indigenous shamans in deer headdresses shaking rattles) and he was very interested in my journey. He does some cycling himself, sometimes several hundred kilometers or more to do beach trips with his friends. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride the next day.

“Absolutely,” I said.

Martín's t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

Martín’s t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

The next day we met up, taking a few minutes to look over each other’s rides. The first stop was a public market, where Martín treated me to a liter of fresh squeezed orange juice for the road; then a friend’s house to see if we could pick up a third rider (the friend was out). We crossed a highway and headed toward the outlying villages surrounding Mérida.

Our destination was a trail Martín had only heard of, never ridden on. An older man in the village knew where it was and offered shaky directions. I thought my Spanish just wasn’t up to snuff, but once out of earshot Martín turned to me and said, “Did you get any of that?” We went in the direction he had pointed and intuited the rest, pretty soon finding the trail head.

The trail was a rock and dirt affair through a section of forest. My bike isn’t really made for off-roading, but with high quality tires and no gear to carry he did pretty well. We had no particular destination, just a shared desire to go somewhere we hadn’t been before.

Out in the middle of the woods we stopped for a bit. Martín smoked and I stared at the sun through the leaves. We talked about what creatives talk about: dreams, careers, women, what is art and who can call themselves an artist; and women again. (Martín’s prefers to say he is only a student, and that it will take many years for him to be ready to say he’s an artist. I grinned and asked if he really believed that or if it was just good marketing.)

Martín is originally from Monterrey, and he dislikes it about as much as I did. He came to Mérida to make a career as an artist, because it’s a more cultural city. It’s also cheaper and has a large tourist industry, which has allowed him to make his entire living from his t-shirt sales. He creates the designs himself, starting with historic images and photoshopping them to something eye-popping or whimsical. He also prints them himself, with his own screen printing studio in his apartment.

His girlfriend is Argentinian (“she won’t eat the meat in Mexico, it’s not high quality enough”) and also an artist. Together they’ve been driving to other tourist destinations in Yucatán to suss out shops that can sell his t-shirts.

After our bike ride Martín and I went to another public market and got lunch. He suggested that after I finish the Mexico trip, I should consider living in Mérida, not Valladolid.

“There’s nothing in Valladolid!” he said.

“That’s kind of why I want to go there,” I said.

Still, he had a point. Mérida has more to offer creatives, and now I had a friend there. He promised he could introduce me to more people, and even offered to help me find a place to live.

I have to admit, he got me thinking about it.

(You can find Martín’s t-shirt catalog on Facebook or his whole portfolio here; he hopes to offer international orders soon. If you ever visit Mérida, stop at the Parque Hidalgo during the Sunday Market and check them out in person.)

Listening is the Spiritual Education of Humanity

One evening I got dinner at an open-air cafe on the central plaza. The usual parade of “ambulantes” wandered by: women begging for money, girls selling candy, boys with roses, vendors of every kind hoping to tempt you with an impulse purchase. This can happen in any city in Mexico, but it’s frequent in Mérida and I learned to tune it out.

As I was eating, a boy of about 13 years approached my table. He had an assortment of leather bracelets and cuffs.

“Excuse me—” he started in Spanish.

“No thanks,” I said. I was reading while I ate.

There was a pause. Sometimes you have to say no two or three times before a vendor leaves you alone. But I didn’t expect what came next.

“LISTEN.” It was pronounced in clear, commanding English.

I looked up and blinked. “Excuse me?” I also changed to English, looking the kid up and down.

“Listen to me,” he said. “Because listening is the spiritual education of humankind.”

My mouth fell on the table. As I sat dumbstruck, he proceeded to speak with the voice of Moses coming through him. His English was far from good—he pronounced it slowly, carefully, and didn’t always put the words together right. But his confidence never faltered. In this halting way, he delivered a sermon.

He said, essentially, that I don’t have to buy something from him, but I should listen to him, and look him in the eye, and recognize him as a human being. He said that our problems come from people not listening to one another, and that whoever learns to listen begins creating a better world.

My friend Cole likes to say that sometimes, you meet someone who just might be a god in disguise. I almost looked around to see if anyone else could see this kid.

When his talk was over I asked him to pardon me. Then I asked his name and told him mine. And this was the moment of truth: he had my attention, would he go for the sale again?

No, this kid had dignity. His sermon wasn’t a pitch, it was truth, and he wasn’t going to sour it. We shook hands and he continued on his way.

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: "Turn off the TV, Light up your mind."

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: “Turn off the TV, Light up your mind.”

An Awakening

There is one part of my time in Mérida that I can’t explain. It’s a spiritual breakthrough. There was a moment of revelation that came one night as I sat reading on the rooftop terrace. I can say that the experience involved a polytheist journal and Jim Morrison (and no drugs). It was as if the moon became brighter and a voice spoke from the sky.

I’m not ready to talk in detail about this experience. For days it left me feeling different, moving and acting like a better version of myself, much like my Vodou initiation did. And still, months later, these words are echoing with me:

“In order to Meet the gods, you must Be the gods.”

I intend to write an essay specifically about this experience, and will release it here when it’s ready.

Onward

Mérida was nearly the end of my Mexico journey, but I felt no need to rush on. Even so my time there was too short. Martín invited me to come see his studio and meet his girlfriend and friends, but it never happened; I was too busy with work. I hope to see him again one day.

Next time I’ll saddle up and begin the final few days of riding—the days that will bring me into the heart of Yucatán, to the famous pyramids of Chichén, and to my destination, Valladolid.

Until then consider getting a postcard here or check out past road logs.

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