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

A Tornado in the Desert

When last we left off, I had been through a harrowing ride through a desert on a nearly-broken bicycle, on the verge of being stranded out in the cold. I’d managed to reach a town, repair my bicycle by working through the night, and wobble exhausted to the dead little burg of Moctezuma, SLP. After a day of rest there, I was ready to depart the “Corridor of Oases” and strike off into desert once more…

Photo by Kevin Schraer

Wednesday, November 26 (Day 873 of the Great Adventure)—The  Road Least Traveled

Mexico’s waiters are not fleet of foot. A few very high end places defy the rule and recruit almost obsessive servers. They accost you for your convenience between each mouthful, so eager to clear your dishes that they snatch them away half full. Most places, however, from casual streetside taco stands to mainline restaurants, sit at the other end of the spectrum. The cultural expectation is not that they will come check on you in case you need something. The expectation is that they will visit you only when they must drop off your order, and otherwise stay far away. If you need your waiter, it is acceptable to call loudly from across the room.

The breakfast I had my last morning in Moctezuma pushed this standard to new lows. A server may do many things while pointedly not looking in your direction: they may chat with friends, check their phone or mop. My server opted for the latter approach—but not in the restaurant. Instead she left and swept an alley behind it, as if she had a grave duty to avoid the actual dining area where I sat, menu in hand, wanting food.

And the alley required a lot of attention. It wasn’t just the sweeping, it was caring for the flower pots and sprinkling water to hold down the dust. I assume a boyfriend was meeting her back there, and I accept that her teenage loins take precedence over my chilaquiles.

I don’t know what a Mexican customer would have done. Maybe they would’ve gone in the alley and placed their order, or yelled so loud that she could hear them from outside. There were no other customers to learn from. In any case I’m from the U.S.; I don’t chase down waiters. I sit quietly at my table hoping to catch someone’s eye, and I get annoyed.

Eventually, I heard shuffling in the kitchen. Sensing a doña, I strolled over to the order-up window.

“Hi there,” I said. “Could I order some red chilaquiles with fried eggs?”

“Sure,” she said.

Then she went outside, got the waitress (presumably in flagrante delicto) and sent her over to my table. I then gave my order a second time.

This is how the entire meal went: if I wanted something I got the doña’s attention, but instead of handing me whatever it was she summoned the waitress. At one point, the doña fetched the waitress so I could ask for more coffee; the waitress repeated this to the doña, who poured it herself. By the end of the meal I wasn’t sure if I should short the tip or double it.

Eventually I got on the bike. I headed back across the bridge to the outskirts, smashing over a hidden tope (speed bump) on the way and destroying my plastic toolbox. I picked its contents off the road and shoved them into a bag. I wondered what else Fortuna could have in store for me on such a lovely day.

My route turned off the Corridor of Oases. Where I had been heading south, I now swung east. The plan was to go completely around the city of San Luis Potosí, the state capital. There were a few reasons for this:

  • Biking through big cities is terrible.
  • I’ve already seen this city, and actually lived there for 6 weeks or so (pictures, stories).
  • I was too late to meet up with my friend who lives there, who had just left on a business trip for several weeks.

Instead, I planned to strike out for the town of Villa de Arista, then turn south and cut across some desert north of the city, turning away at the last minute on one of the highways that runs around it. I’d seek out a roadside hotel or lodging in a small outlying town. Alberto, a gentleman I’d spoken with while hitting a laundry in Moctezuma, was confident I’d find hotels in those towns. It was a medium-long bike ride for one day, but far from my longest.

There was one downside to skipping San Luis Potosí: bike shops. As a major metropolis it presumably had good ones, and there was a chance I replace my damaged tire—or even fix my wheel wobble. But the tire seemed to be doing fine and I was already in contact with a bike mechanic farther up ahead.

So I put my back to the wind and pedaled on.

The first part of the trip went well. I made a quick stop in Villa de Arista for a snack and Gatorade. One of the locals, another Alberto, saw the bike and made small talk. I learned the word for “scarf” from him (bufanda). I also asked him about the road ahead. He assumed I meant a freeway many miles east of the town, a major route toward San Luis Potosí. That wasn’t the highway I meant at all. I planned to turn south right here in Villa. I’d eventually cut over to the same highway he meant, but save many miles by taking a country road.

Alberto shook his head and told me something I couldn’t translate, which may or may not have been a warning. I politely thanked him and went on my way, sticking to my plan. After all, I had Google.

Heading south meant no more tailwind. The terrain also quickly went from green cropland back to desert. The sun grew hot. I noticed that some of the roads I passed, marked as major ones on the map, were just gravel trails. For some reason that didn’t give me pause.

Finally I reached a tiny village known as Rincon de Leijas (if anyone can tell me what Leijas means you win a bicycle shaped cookie). This was where I needed to hang a right onto a new road. But as I cruised into town, the only right-hand turn was an old gravel mule track. “That’s weird,” I thought, and figured it was a bit farther up ahead. But all I found was a residential street and a dead end.

The mule track was my right-hand turn.

I harrumphed. Going back to Villa meant nearly two hours wasted, plus having to take the longer route Alberto recommended. On the other hand, this mule track was a very short segment on the map. It just jogged over to another more major highway. With no cell signal in the desert I couldn’t get a fix on the exact distance, but I eyeballed it as maybe 2 miles. That’s less than an hour of walking.

Gallantly, I wheeled my bike toward the trail and strode off the paved highway into the desert. Farm families watched me in silence as I departed their fair burg, and I kept my head up as if this was exactly what I’d intended to do. Who doesn’t want a quick constitutional in the wasteland?

Two vehicles passed me as I left Rincon de Leijas: one mule (with a rider) and one tractor (with a rider with a parasol). Both returned my head nod and neither asked any potentially embarrassing questions.

The mule track went over a rocky ridge, so I couldn’t actually see my destination up ahead. But I was confident that the hour wasted walking the bike would still be shorter than backtracking.

The hour passed. Atop the ridge I surveyed the land before me. I couldn’t clearly see the other highway I was supposed to meet. Then again, in a rocky rolling scrubland that wasn’t surprising. My mule trail curved left up ahead, which was exactly what it was supposed to do before merging. Perfect.

It took me a long time to admit that the highway didn’t exist. Not just that it too was unpaved: I never saw any other track at all.

I considered my options. The mule trail continued in the correct direction, the direction the “highway” was supposed to run. It pointed south, where sooner or later there would be towns and San Luis Potosí. I’d get there eventually. On the other hand, the cost of backtracking had grown by another hour and a half. And what’s the worst thing that could happen wandering alone in a desert?

So, fuck it. I kept walking the bike.

I was also highly conscious of my supplies. I had the camping gear to survive a night in the desert, cold as it would be. As for food, surviving on Cliff Bars is far from haute cuisine but it’ll do the job. Water was the real issue. Expecting to be able to stop at roadside stores, I had only a liter and a half on me. I could ration half of it for today/tonight and save half for tomorrow. That ought to get me to civilization.

So I walked through the desert. Once, a truck passed me; I didn’t think about flagging him down and he didn’t think about stopping. You might think of a truck as a reassuring sign, a symbol that I really was headed toward civilization, but he could have been a rancher. There was every possibility that the mule trail would just dead end.

The afternoon wore on. I felt oddly calm. My main problem was the stones that kept getting in my shoes. I stopped bothering to empty them out. The surroundings were beautiful, and I felt at home there.

At one point the trail dipped down to cross a dry stream bed. I entered the low area, and my view of the countryside ahead was cut off just for a moment.

Then I started up the far bank, looking up. And I froze.

Towering over me, straight ahead, was a tornado.

I’ve never seen a tornado except in movies  and news footage. But there was no mistaking it. And this sucker was huge. It was a giant vertical column ripping up the beige dust around me. It moved directly over the trail. And it was close.

My mouth dropped open. Parts of me were already spinning, spooling up, plotting my survival. I had to do something other than stand there and take it.

And then it was gone. As quick as it had appeared, the tornado fell to pieces and swirled itself out into nothing. Mouth still open I started laughing, loud, hard.

It wasn’t a tornado. It was a dust devil.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a giant fucking dust devil. This isn’t one of those swirls of leaves you see in autumn. This bad boy reached to the heavens. But it was nothing to be afraid of, just a bit of dirt caught in a swirl of the wind. Even if it had run right over me, the worst I would’ve suffered was a mouthful of grit.

Still, it had my hackles up. The tornado itself wasn’t even what got me. It was the way it appeared out of nowhere, with no warning. And then seeing it disappear just as quick. “Devil” seemed right: it was conjured and banished as quickly as a sorcerer’s pet.

Still smiling, I pushed on. I walked right through the spot where it had been and everything was at peace.

Much later, a huge truck passed me. This one stopped up ahead. I squinted as various people got off. The truck drove on, leaving them there, and they stayed by the side of the road. Were they waiting for me? What did they want?

As I got closer, I realized they had tools and were digging. And then I realized something much more important, but much harder to see: the road next to them was paved.

A mere three or four hours after nodding my head to a cowboy with a parasol, I had reached the fabled paved road. It was bikable.

As soon as I touched pavement I mounted up. I surveyed the workers, head again held high. They all stopped working and stared at me like I was insane.

I’m pretty used to that look.

“Buenas tardes,” I said, nodded, and pedaled down the road.

 —

The road soon led to a village (called Nuevo Tanque, “New Tank,” which I imagine has a corporate story behind it). It had an abarrotes shop and I went in for water. From the look on the doña’s face they didn’t get a lot of gueros in these parts, and even less crawling out of the desert. A gentleman there wanted to get chatty but, now four hours behind schedule, I had to keep going.

The rest of the afternoon was increasingly green land and occasional villages, all uphill. I had a difficult choice to make. There was absolutely no question that I’d be bicycling after dark, so should I stick to the original plan, or divert and head into the city? One option meant blindly searching for lodging after sunset, and the other was a shit show of bad biking conditions.

It was tough. I really, really didn’t want to go into the city. But searching hotels on Google showed them clustered in the metro, and nothing on the freeway. That didn’t mean there weren’t any highway hotels, but holding out hope in the freezing dark on a 6-lane freeway is a rough way to spend an evening.

At the final fork in the road, right before sunset, I made the call: we’re going to SLP.

There were two more towns before hitting the big city, and I held onto at least a small hope that one of them would have an inn. Neither did, and it was at this time that my back wheel chose to resume scuffing the against the frame. I stopped twice, once in each town, and threw my saddlebags roadside to turn the Giant upside down and adjust his back wheel. The second time, I cranked those lugnuts hard. And as quick as I had stopped, I pushed on.

Outside San Luis Potosí, the boundary between country and city is so precise it looks like a video game. An overpass formed a simple border: on one side was pristine green-gold farmland, on the other was smog-stained industrial slum. Straddling the divide was a giant gas station. It had a sign for showers but none for a hotel. Shrugging, I crossed the line.

That was about the same moment the sun fell behind the mountains, and the effect was pronounced. I remember my friend the Wandering Dragon, my host when I lived in SLP, warning me there were certain parts of town you just don’t go into. The road I was on went all the way across one.

The first problem was pavement. It was such a crater field I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear artillery shells. I urged the Giant to be strong, but it wasn’t just his life that was in danger.

The neighborhood itself was a mix of slummy residential structures with metal shops, warehouses and the odd taco stand. At first it was mostly deserted, and the few faces I saw tracked me with interest. Then it got darker. They couldn’t see that I had professional saddle bags rather than a crate of produce.

Additionally, it became denser and more residential. Trash fires lined the streets. People milled about, traffic increased, other bicycles passed me. I kept my head down, hoping to blend in, and I made a point to never speak. In the dark, I wasn’t a guero unless I opened my mouth.

The ride was nerve wracking, but no worse than the bad neighborhoods I’d gone through in south Memphis or Saint Louis—and marginally better than the street party in Baton Rouge. Early on, I made an agreement with myself that if things got any worse I would just turn it around and go back to the freeway, and figure out a backup plan. I never thought of that option again. (Which may indicate how skewed my judgment is, because not much later I went past a large-scale police bust in progress.)

By the time I reached a part of town that might be considered halfway respectable, I had also reached intense traffic conditions. The road turned from asphalt to large rectangular paving stones, a pain to ride on. I remember the Dragon complaining about these and me saying they’re pretty. Eff you, past André.

To make things more interesting, it became one-way and I faced a wall of traffic. I refused to reroute to the correct-way street, but did take to the sidewalk for several blocks.

Finally, the street spat me out somewhere I recognized. I had reached a park in the Central Historic district, a perfectly safe and peaceful place to stop. These transitions don’t even feel weird anymore: guarding my life one minute, sitting on a park bench perusing my iPhone the next. I identified several hotels within blocks and set out for one that, based on the reviews, sounded affordable but nice.

A few minutes later I rolled the bike up to the Hotel Maria Cristina. Its grand staircase looked both elegant, and difficult to haul a bike up. Most of all it looked expensive. I leaned against the wall, checking my phone for the other hotels in the area.

At that point some random guy walked up to me. “Mande,” he said.

Now I know that mande means “excuse me.” At the time I didn’t know that word. So I looked up and said, essentially, “What?”

The man hesitated. He had thought I was Mexican until I spoke. (I find this happens not infrequently: remember, Latinos don’t actually come in any one skin or hair color, and have their fair share of blondies.) While he stuttered to reorient himself, I lost my patience. I had spent the last hour trying to repel potential troublemakers, and strangers usually only approach you in big cities to ask for money. Basically, my defenses were up.

“Que quiere?” I snapped, which translates as a fairly brisk whaddya want.

He hesitated but went on. “I just think your bike is beautiful,” he said in English.

Immediately my heart softened, and so did my demeanor. He could still be hustling me for all I knew, but he sure had a creative way of doing it.

We started talking about bikes and my trip. He loves old road bikes and wanted to know what kind the Giant is (a Miyata, for those interested). He owns a Raleigh not unlike the one I’d just helped a friend in New Orleans sell. He desperately wants to do long distance biking, but hasn’t had a chance yet.

“Where do you want to bike?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said. We laughed.

Finally I asked him if he could do me a favor. “I need to run in and see how much this hotel costs,” I said. “Will you watch my bike?”

He hesitated. “How long?” he asked. [Andre’s note: if you want to steal someone’s bike, this is a great tactic. As soon as he was reluctant I was 100% sure I’d found a trustworthy person to watch it.]

I assured him it would just be a minute and he agreed. The hotel turned out to be something like 500 pesos, more than I usually spend but not so much more that I was going to keep wandering the streets looking for a bargain. I came outside and told my new friend the good news.

I also asked if he lived in San Luis Potosí, thinking maybe we’d get dinner together or something. He actually doesn’t, but he’s there often for work. He told me he lives in Rioverde. Now it was my turn to light up: Rioverde is one of the area’s more pristine tourist destinations, famous for a crescent moon shaped lake. He confirmed that the lake is divinely beautiful and asked if my trip would take me that way.

“I don’t know,” I said. As I recalled, it was east of the city and well off my route.

“Well if you do, you have a place to stay,” he told me. He introduced himself by his full name—four names long—and told me that anyone in town would know him and point out his house to me. I committed all four names to memory and promised my friend I would stop by if I went that way. (Unfortunately I was right; it’s pretty far off my route.)

After that the night was a wind-down. The hotel actually had a parking garage, and encouraged me to just roll the bike in there. I chained him up and U-locked him to a railing near the motorcycle parking. The attendant nodded approvingly. “Very smart,” he said in Spanish. Bike locks don’t seem real common in Mexico.

A bellboy (bellman?) brought the rest of my stuff upstairs. The place came with free water, more nonfunctional wi-fi, and not a single outlet to be found in my room. Seeking to avoid the high prices of a hotel restaurant, I went to a cafe around the block. They handed me what could have been a carbon copy of the hotel menu. Same dishes, same prices.

My waiter, at least, was a source of familiar comfort. He may not have had an alley to retreat to, but he subscribed to the exact school of service as the girl who brought me breakfast. 59.6 miles.

Map 1. 26.3 miles

Map 2. 5.5 miles walking

Map 3. 27.8 miles.

Total traveled this leg: 59.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3540.3 miles.

Next time the biking gets easier and the hotels get a whole lot worse. Until then, here are all my road logs.

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Adventure, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: Weird Moments and a Boat

It’s been a while since we did a Photo Friday so I’ve got a few pictures for you this time. I honestly don’t remember which pictures I promised to post in my video logs for supporters, so if you’re a supporter and one is missing just email me and I’ll include it next week. (If you’re not yet a supporter but you’d like to get these video logs, you can grab them here. They show a lot of the coolest places I’ve discovered… although some of them are just me talking to the camera about what’s going on in my life on this adventure. Full disclosure.)

First off, here’s a shot of the Gulf when I finally reached the beach after more than a thousand miles of desert:

Photo by André

Photo by André

The next few are not high photography but show some of the weirder moments along my trip. This one is the world’s worst design for a wheelchair accessibility ramp:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Good luck, wheelchairs!

This next one caught my eye as I cruised through a small village on the coast. It’s the sign on a snow cone shop:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That banner reads, effectively,

Blonde guy! Blonde girl! Come on inside!

The only authentic one with the registered trademark

I’m not really sure why they’re marketing themselves to blonde people. It definitely wasn’t the kind of tourist town that gets a lot of foreigners. Despite fitting the description, I declined to go inside.

This one is just cruel:

Photo by André

Photo by André

At first I thought it was one of those want-a-book-take-a-book libraries that some cities have. That got me super excited, both on a general “knowledge is good” level and on a personal “I’d like a new book to read in Spanish” level. But that’s not what this thing is at all.

Instead, it’s just a display of books. It’s completely sealed, with no way to open it and no way to get one of the books. This clear side faces a major plaza and the reverse side is a locked steel door. I guess it’s supposed to be an ad for some place where you can get books, but to me it’s like putting a chocolate cake in a jail cell and giving no one the key. Also it’s kind of a waste of readable books, right?

Photo by André

Photo by André

This is the menu at The Monkeys Cafeteria in Alvarado, Veracruz. Apparently their mascot is a monkey with a beer belly wearing a shirt that says YES… and giving the thumbs up. (They had a Santa version of him for their Christmas display as well.) The best part is where the menu reads, as if it’s a bragging point, “100% Mono Gil” or 100%% Gil Monkey. I guess that refers to the ingredients? If so this place is macabre as hell.

Last photo! This one is more “photo of the week” material. This is a boat in the town of Catemaco. It sits on the beach of the magical lake, renowned for its mystical powers and the source of the local tradition of sorcery. It looked so lonely and perfect sitting there:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Oh Mexico, te quiero mucho. Thanks for following along everybody. I have one more piece to finish up the series on inspiration as heroism, and then next week I’ll start posting road logs again.

Adventure on…

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Adventure, Bicycling, Travel

Inventory Management

A view in Veracruz.  Photo by André.

A view in Veracruz. Photo by André.

A quick break from posts about heroism to talk about what a weird day this has been. It’s one of those days where I accomplished a lot, but only because a lot went wrong.

I’ve been experiencing some knee pain lately, a scary thing on a bicycle. It came to a head as I rolled into Coatzalcoalcos, Veracruz. Longtime readers will know something similar happened on the ride down the Mississippi, and that time I ditched some gear and adjusted my seat. I decided to do the same thing this time.

I carry a lot of weight on the bicycle, and a big chunk of it is camping gear. But I haven’t camped out even once on this trip. So why am I hauling it around? My knees pump that extra weight on every pedal stroke, up every hill.

But I can’t just throw away the gear. It’s a few hundred dollars worth of equipment, and I’d like to have it for the future. So I decided to send it someone for safekeeping. The problem was where to send it.

If I sent it to the US, I wouldn’t have access to any of it after reaching the Yucatán. But I don’t know anyone in Yucatán to hold onto it for me, and if I send it care of Lista de Correos (General Delivery), they’ll throw it out in two weeks—probably before I arrive there to claim it. And all of these options suffer from the fatal flaw of Mexico’s postal system: a bad habit of making valuable-looking packages disappear.

So today was a Problem Solving Rollercoaster. I had to find a box (hint: don’t go to any of the places that people assure you will sell boxes), make my stuff fit into it, locate a post office, and figure out where all this was going. Ultimately I decided on just sending it stateside, which means I had to choose very carefully which items I’ll need for the duration of my stay in Mexico.

All this nonsense was oddly satisfying. I started the day tense and uncertain then solved my problems one by one. And I had to wander around town to figure this stuff out, meeting more people and speaking more Spanish than I have in the past three days of regular biking.

All in all, a good day. And one that illustrates that real-life adventure has at least one thing in common with fantasy adventure:

Inventory management sucks.

 

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

The Corridor of Oases

Last time I crossed a desert with an injured bicycle and made after-midnight repairs. This time, we see how well I actually fixed the Giant.

Bike repairs at the Hotel Malacate. Photo by André Solo.

Bike repairs at the Hotel Malacate. Photo by André Solo.

Monday, November 24 (Day 871 of the Great Adventure)—Short Ride to Moctezuma

As exhausted as I was, I got up at a reasonable hour to continue the Adventure. But that doesn’t mean I moved fast. After petering around loading up my bike bags I went across the street to the same restaurant where I’d had pozole the night before. The breakfast didn’t disappoint, and I took my time with coffee and online reading as the sun warmed the thin air.

At long last I rolled my bike down from my room and loaded up my bags. I was not well rested; at the counter I tried to give the clerk my bicycle keys instead of the room keys.

It was a late start, but for once that didn’t matter. I planned to go only 27 miles to the town of Moctezuma, named for the Aztec emperor. This meant I wouldn’t be able to make San Luis Potosí in time to catch my friend the Wandering Dragon before he left, but it was worth it. I had no desire to put my amateur bicycle repairs to the test, nor my body after such a rough day in the desert. A short ride, with plenty of buffer time in case of a breakdown, was the perfect plan.

Cycleroute.org told me that most of the way would be gentle terrain. I faced some initial hills leaving town, then found myself on a beautiful and mostly level highway. Signs provided by the state tourism campaign (“San Luis Potosí: the Reliquary of Legends!”) christened this road the Corridor of Oases. I could see why. The name Charcas translates as “Pools” (or Puddles) and the town is known as the site of a natural spring where the Huichol begin their annual pilgrimage into the desert I’d just ridden through. The Wandering Dragon had suggested I look for it and make offerings, but the offerings are traditionally made at sunrise. Given the night I had, I felt justified taking a pass on this particular holy site.

The road ahead promised many more charcas. Within the first hour I crossed over at least one real running stream, and the terrain changed visibly. It was still arid but now green dominated over burnt yellow. Dark-leafed trees were common. I truly was on a corridor of oases through the desert.

Less than two hours out I reached the town of Venado. I had planned to roll right through, but was quickly captivated by one of the prettiest and most inviting towns I had yet encountered. Halfway through I found myself on an ancient stone arch bridge over a deep river gully. “Ojo de Agua,” read a sign (“Eyeball of Water”). I pulled over without hesitation and leaned my bike against the wall of the bridge. Taking to foot, I explored the trail that ran along the tree-covered gully. Perhaps it was the shade or the water after so much desert, perhaps it was the magic of the place, or perhaps it was my fondness for a certain river spirit of the Vodou pantheon. The place called to me.

Leaning on the stone wall and looking down at the river, I was torn. I could just stay here. I had plenty of time to look for a hotel, the whole town was beautiful, and I could take the afternoon to explore the Ojo. My chances of finding a bike mechanic probably weren’t any different here than they would be in the next town.

But I also felt restless. I had mentally geared myself for a longer day, and going only 12 miles is pretty disappointing. Plus, I had already taken extra time to see Real de Catorce. If I stagnated in central Mexico only three legs into my trip, I wouldn’t really enjoy the down time.

This is where meditation training comes in handy. There’s no real right answer except the one you’ll enjoy more. I cleared my head and asked myself what I’d enjoy: staying or going. A few minutes later I was back on the bicycle.

The bridge where I parked my bike. Photo by André Solo.

The bridge where I parked my bike. Photo by André Solo.

I made a mental note that this is a town I’d love to visit again, especially to walk all the way down the trail and see the Ojo (which I assume is a waterfall or spring, but could be a whirlpool or underground river entrance for all I know). Cruising through the town’s Centro I spotted a nice hotel and lots of eateries. I consoled myself in the fact that the Corridor is a tourist route, and that Moctezuma could easily be just as delightful as Venado looked.

The second half of the ride took longer than the first. This was partly because of an increase in hills and partly because my energy flagged after such a long day yesterday. I evaluated the bike’s performance as we went. The back wheel still wobbled like crazy, but not enough to rub against the frame. But that could change at any moment. Additionally, there was still a noise on every revolution, which I narrowed down to the tread of the tire scuffing through the brake caliper on each wobble. This was a very light scuff and didn’t seem to be eating through the tread—it might have been just a hum of air on each revolution as the tread squeaked by.

So my bike was functioning but could relapse easily. And the back tire had sustained serious sidewall damage from all the rubbing yesterday. It didn’t bulge, but I didn’t trust it and wanted to replace it if possible. All of these factors contributed to my restlessness.

Eventually I rolled into the outskirts of Moctezuma. Circling around a deserted plaza and an old parish church, I endured steely stares from the few locals who happened to be out and about. This did not seem as inviting as the Venaderos. I actually considered going back.

This was just the outskirts, however. Taking the road into town, I crossed a (less cute) stream on a (far less cute) bridge and cursed in several languages at the creative variety of unmarked speed bumps. Finally I came up a long avenue decorated with festival pennants and made my way to the larger parish church of the town Centro. This plaza, at least, had people in it; I looked around in for a cute hotel like the one in Venado’s center. There were zero hotels of any cuteness level. But I spotted an older couple walking arm in arm across the plaza and, putting on my best adventurer smile, I waved at them.

“Pardon me. Are there any hotels around here?”

“Any what?”

“Hotels?”

“Whats?”

“Um… any hotels or hostels. Motels. Guest houses?”

“Are you looking for a hotel?”

I nodded gratefully. “Yes!”

“No, I don’t think so. Honey, do you know of any hotels around here?”

His wife shook her head. “Not that I know of.”

I was stunned. Moctezuma is no metropolis, but it’s far from a burg. No hotels? I was skeptical. I fully intended to either ask someone else, look around, or both. I started to thank them for their time.

“Wait!” said the woman. “What about….” she conferred in whispers with her husband. His eyes lit up with a eureka moment.

“That’s right,” he said. “There’s one three blocks from here.”

They kindly offered to take me to the correct side street and point out the way. At this point the husband told me he speaks English and switched over. I want to say his English was atrocious, but it really wasn’t: he just pronounced the (correct) words so weirdly that I could barely grasp his meaning. I realized with horror that that’s how heavy my accent is when I speak in Spanish—hence our exchange about hotels, hostels and guest houses just a moment ago.

Once I had directions, I thanked the couple and continued on my way. Three blocks later, in exactly the place they had said, I spotted Hotel “Topher.” It didn’t look too promising on the outside, and knowing I had at least one sure option gave me more confidence about finding others. I mentally marked the spot and cruised around the town some more, eyes peeled for hotel signs.

About 20 minutes later I was back.

Topher was a good enough place to rest your head. The rooms were clean, comfortable, warm in the daytime and freezing like the Devil’s toilet seat at night. The wi-fi was worthless. The 16 year old behind the counter was not highly interested in any of my questions or needs, but the rotating stable of friends, siblings or cousins who kept her company in the lobby were much more helpful. And the price was right.

All I really wanted to do after ditching my stuff in the Topher was to eat and nap, in any order. But it was still early afternoon, and the smart move was to seek out a bike shop before they closed.

“Excuse me,” I asked the 16 year old. I didn’t really know the word, so… “Is there around here a mechanic or a workshop which makes repairs to bicycles?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Like a bike shop?”

I nodded, excited that she understood. “Yes! Exactly.”

She shrugged. “I don’t really know.”

Oh.

A different girl sat on a couch in the lobby (actually, the only couch in the lobby) doing homework. “You’re looking for a bike shop?”

She not only knew of one, she gave me extremely specific directions to get to it. I thanked her and took the Giant to go find it.

The bike shop owner alternately couldn’t have been more helpful, and couldn’t have been less helpful. It was this make-or-break moment that told me my Spanish is actually far better than I thought. Buried somewhere below my conscious mind is a nascent Español muscle that’s just starting to twitch. Before leaving the hotel I had looked up some important terms like “wheel” and “spoke” but by all rights I was woefully unprepared for this interaction. Yet we conducted five to ten minutes of highly technical conversation about the problem I was experiencing (the wheel wobble) and its possible cause. I knew close to 0% of the words he used, yet through some occult miracle of communication I understood nearly all of it.

It came down to something like this:

“How much weight do you pile on this back rack?”

“On the rack? Not much. Just my sleeping bag. But my saddlebags are pretty heavy.”

“Yeah, that’s your problem. The weight is pushing down on the rack, which is mounted to the brake bracket, which is why the brake caliper is scuffing your tire.”

“I don’t know…”

“Here, I’ll prove it.”

With all of his might, he simply pulled upward on the rack, perhaps bending the metal a millimeter or two away from the wheel. He spun the wheel again. The noise had stopped.

“Okay,” I said. I admit I was impressed. “But look at the wheel. It’s still wobbling.” (I didn’t so much say this as point at the wheel, say the word for wheel, and then mime wobbling with my whole upper body.)

“Sure, but that’s no big deal,” he said, or something like that. “It’s wobbling but it’s not scuffing it anymore. It was just the weight pushing down on it.”

We talked a little more, him suggesting that if I wanted a permanent fix I could just get a different back rack, but that basically it was ready to roll. I was both relieved—at least there was now zero scuff happening—and unsatisfied. I wasn’t just riding this puppy around the streets of Moctezuma: to me, a wobbling wheel is not acceptable. If the wobble gets loose or a bearing fails or whatever, it could be while I’m going 35 mph down a mountain with a semi truck behind me. It could be 50 miles from a bike shop. It could be a repeat of yesterday or worse.

But that’s just not the kind of bike shop he runs. He had troubleshot and fixed my problem, and I thanked him and rolled the Giant back to the Topher. (I really was grateful, and loved the guy’s attitude. I even returned later to see if by chance he sold the high-quality road tires I used, so that I could replace the damaged one, but no luck.)

After the bike shop visit I walked to a local restaurant for a late lunch, noting the locations of numerous other eateries. About five hours later—maybe 8 p.m.—I wanted dinner and went to each of these locations in turn, finding every single one of them closed. I canvassed a large area. There were simply no options for dinner out at all, except for a bakery. I bought myself a sack of cookies and pastries and a half gallon of milk and retired to the Toph. 28.0 miles.

Map.

Parish church in Mocetzuma. Photo by André.

Parish church in Mocetzuma. Photo by André.

Tuesday, November 25 (Day 872 of the Great Adventure)—WiFi Woes

When I woke up I instantly confirmed a plan I had toyed with the night before: stay an extra day in Moctezuma. I had lots of writing to do, and I was less anxious about moving on now that my bike was at least partly fixed. Besides, it was clear from a map that I wasn’t going to get all the way to San Luis Potosí in time to meet the Dragon, and my body was still pretty beat.

I paid for a second night and spent much of the day working. I also did some basic errands, however, such as trying to renew my phone’s internet plan. I’d put 3 GB of data on it at the start of the trip which had seemed about perfect when I had wi-fi connections at hotels. I thought it might get me through a whole month.

But hotel wi-fi connections are nebulous things in Mexico. They’re more something put on hotel billboards than something that really delivers. The entire time I was in Cedral and Real de Catorce I used my phone as my computer’s main internet connection, and the same was true here in Moctezuma. The 3 GB was almost gone.

I had made (I thought) careful notes on my internet plan when I first signed up at a main Telcel office. It is different than just buying general prepaid cell phone credit (“air time”), which can be used for internet but at an exorbitant rate. My plan (plan “Alta” or the high-usage plan) can’t be used for talking or texting, but it gives you a lot more internet for your peso. I wanted the same plan again.

So I figured I would ask for internet plan Alta.

I was wrong. I walked to a kiosk at the centro that said they recharged Telcel plans. The lady shook her head at the first mention of an internet package. She didn’t do that stuff. I couldn’t imagine why an authorized Telcel vendor would handle one kind of prepaid phone plan and not another [André’s note: they don’t. This was the first of my many misunderstandings.] But she directed me to a different vendor, and I wasn’t too worried.

That vendor was glad to help me but we had communication problems of our own. He knew the Alta plan I was talking about and brought it up on his computer screen. The price was 400 pesos, just as I remembered. I made sure it was the right plan and told him that was the one I wanted.

“Great,” he said, and went to the next screen. “Now what amount do you want to put on the phone?”

I was confused. It was $400. Why was he asking me for an amount and showing me options like $50, $200 and $500? As far as I could tell he was trying to sell me an extra, or get me to pay for air time on top of the internet plan. No way José.

[André’s note: Again, I was completely wrong.]

We went back and forth on this for a while, and I even started to worry he was saying he couldn’t do the Alta plan. Those supernatural communication powers seemed to be failing me. But after I grew adamant that I only wanted the Alta plan, he relented. He charged me the $400 and got to work setting it up.

Now, there is a very specific way that these Telcel prepaid plans are activated. After you pay the vendor the money, they put your phone number into the computer. Then you get a text from Telcel verifying the money you put on your account—but it’s not active yet. You have to text them a specific code, “Alta30” in my case, and then your plan is active. Easy, right?

I got the thank you text from Telcel and sent them the Alta30 code. Last time I did this, weeks ago, I got a text right away confirming the plan is active. This time I got a different message. It said, more or less:
“You should wait till you use up the data on your previous plan before you activate the new one.”

No problem, I figured. I thanked the (extremely patient) vendor and left the store.

At this point I had done basically everything wrong. I wouldn’t find that out for many days, but instead of stretching this out to another post, here’s the deal:

  • No one goes around asking for Internet packages from Telcel vendors. The first vendor I talked to, the one who turned me away, likely thought I was asking her to install wifi in my home. So would dozens of other Telcel vendors who all turned me away a few days later, even though any one of them could have helped me… if I knew what I was asking for.
  • There’s really no difference between paying for air time and paying for an internet package. That’s why no one asks Telcel vendors for internet packages: because all they do is put X pesos on your account for you, and which Telcel packages you activate with that credit is up to you.
  • Because of the above, there was no way for my vendor to tell the computer, “Give this guy the $400 Alta plan.” All he could do was put money on my account for me. That’s why he kept asking me for an amount after he already knew which plan I wanted—because he didn’t know my current credit balance, how much credit I needed to get up to $400, or if I wanted to pay more than $400 so I could also text and talk.
  • When he finally relented and agreed to just put the Alta plan on my phone, he was basically humoring me.
  • None of this mattered because, as the confirmation text said, you can’t actually activate one Alta plan till you finish the previous one. HOWEVER…
  • When you finish an Alta plan, your internet doesn’t just cut out. It continues letting you use the internet, and deducts that usage from your remaining account credit at the normal, exorbitant rate.

Now, even with all my misunderstandings, this is truly a terrible system on Telcel’s part. It basically means that you cannot put $400 on your phone for your next Alta plan until you completely run out of internet. Because if you do, you risk depleting all $400 of credit when the first plan runs out. You’ll burn through it in a few hours or a few days, not even realizing your Alta plan expired.

That’s exactly what would happen to me. My first Alta plan would run out, but I wouldn’t know that and wouldn’t text “Alta30” to activate the second one. So I’d use up all $400 in just a couple hours and then my internet would fail—late at night, in a shitty hotel, while trying to finish client work. At that time I would think my first Alta plan was done and I would try texting Alta30 to activate the new one, only to find out I had no credit left. And wonder if I’d been tricked.

Anyway, at the time I knew none of this and thought I had just successfully extended the internet plan on my phone. It was a pretty good afternoon, actually, and I even managed to time my meals so that I would get a dinner in before the restaurants closed for the night. And I had pastries left over for a late night snack.

Total traveled this leg: 28 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3480.7 miles.

Next time I leave the oases behind… and experience the dangers of the desert firsthand. Until then, here are more road logs.

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Adventure, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: The Mastur-Bar and the Toltec Empire

The first photo this week is not actually a great picture, but I absolutely love it:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Yes, that sign says it’s a MASTUR-BAR. But not just any mastur-bar! This one has ambiente familiar—in other words, a family environment.

I don’t know what kind of family goes to a mastur-bar together, but I support this concept and I’m glad it exists. Who among us hasn’t ever gone into a bar and just wished we could rub one out? Preferably with siblings and cousins in attendance? I literally made a U-turn when I saw this sign to make sure I got a picture.

The only explanation I can come up with is that this is a bit of Spanglish. Businesses in Mexico often use English words to seem hip, and they don’t always nail the spelling. Maybe this is supposed to the the Master-Bar, which sounds somewhat more appealing and a whole lot cleaner.

The best part is it’s just as bad in Spanish. The word for “to masturbate” is masturbarse. So this has to look just as ridiculous to every Mexican driving past as it does to me. That makes me wonder what kind of clientele they get, and how family-friendly it really is.

Okay, let’s clean it up guys. On to something a bit more spiritual:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That’s the view of one pyramid from on top of another pyramid at the Tula de Allende Archaeological Site. (Tula is the same town with the mastur-bar, by the way.) This is one of the more stunning pyramid sites in Mexico. It’s not as famous as the great pyramids of Chichén-Itzá, which I’ll bike past toward the end of my journey. But the two sites are very similar, so much so that archaeologists suspect the Toltecs from Tula influenced the Mayans who built Chichén-Itzá.

The most famous part of Tula’s pyramids is the Atlantes, however:

Photo by André

Photo by André

The Atlantes are giant warrior statues atop the more important of the two pyramids—the one I took the first picture from. This pyramid is believed to be dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important Toltec deities who went on to be worshiped by the Aztecs (and the Mayans, under a different name).

You can see what the Atlantes look like without silhouette here.

Although most people come for the Atlantes, I was taken with a different part of the pyramid. The wall around it is decorated with carvings, and they’re pretty incredible:

Photo by André

Photo by André

In case you can’t tell, those are skeletons being devoured by rattlesnakes. There’s a similar motif on the walls at Chichén-Itzá, but they’re not nearly as well preserved. Besides being incredibly badass, the carvings represent the ritual of human sacrifice, which was a Big Deal to the Toltecs.

Fortunately, I’m not Toltec. I offered plain ol’ incense to Quetzalcoatl. As the smoke rose up to the heavens, the trill of a traditional flute pierced the air. The source? A peddler hoping to sell me a traditional flute.

Some things are the same the world over.

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

Breakdown in the Wirikuta Desert

Last time I explored ghost towns and silver mines. This time, I get back on the bicycle for the next leg—across a wide empty desert.

The Giant getting ready for the trek.

The Giant getting ready for the trek. Photo by André

Sunday, November 23, 2014 (Day 870 of the Great Adventure)—To Charcas

My departure from Cedral brought a certain sense of relief. While the side trip to Catorce was one of the highlights of my trip, Cedral itself was humdrum. I had become too settled in routine my little apartment. I was eager to be back on the road.

This segment seemed particularly promising. My route would take me west and south, essentially going around the rectangular block of mountains I had just ascended to visit Real. It was a total of 75 miles of desert, aiming toward the distant city of Charcas. It would be open, desolate territory with stunning mountain views, and I got on the bike eagerly.

For some reason I decided to leave town by a main street, past the market and the town square, instead of heading right for the highway. This proved fateful. Not 150 meters into my 75 mile ride, I rolled over a row of metal topes (speed bumps) a little too fast. My toolkit jumped in my front basket and, unknown to me, something gave in my back wheel. Minutes later I heard a faint noise I couldn’t diagnose and, much much later, it would come to a head in the desert.

I left this toy from a Kinder egg hanging where the niño's would find it.

I left this toy from a Kinder egg hanging where the niños would find it. Photo by André.

The way out of town was hard for other reasons. Once on the highway the wind was against me, cold on the skin and rough on the lips, making the pedaling very hard. I knew it was only for 12 miles or so—after that I’d be able to “turn the corner” around the block of mountains and head south, the wind coming from my side. But it was a long 12 miles and slow going.

After the corner I took a moment to catch my breath in the town of Vanegas. From here onward, a set of train tracks ran along the road the whole way south. Mountains, desert, empty town, rails: it made for the perfect desert scene. It’s startling how the mountains of the Wirikuta rise so suddenly out of an otherwise flat desert, no foothills or rolling terrain leading up to them. I was grateful for it though, as flat land is a biker’s friend.

That thin white ribbon? That's the road I originally planned to take.

That thin white ribbon? That’s the road I originally planned to take.

My pace improved on the next leg, but something was wrong. I didn’t like the noise coming from my bicycle. For the time being I couldn’t identify the cause, but the back wheel was wobbling. That wobble got worse as the hours wore on.

There are a few towns along the Wirikuta road/rail, and at first it seemed like a reasonably well traveled route. The most substantial of them is Estacion de Catorce, or Catorce Station, so named because it’s the closest train stop to the road to Real de Catorce. (The back road, not the tour bus road through the tunnel.) I had toyed with the idea of stopping there for the night instead of Charca. Once I reached the town, however, I really just wanted to keep going. There was a lot of daylight left, plus if I could move quickly I’d be able to catch the Wandering Dragon in the city of San Luis Potosí.

So on I went.

Just outside of Estacion I came around a bend in the road and did a double take. There on the roadside, standing near the train crossing, were two gueros. I was a little stunned to see other people of my own race—I was definitely an oddity in Cedral. I was so stunned that I didn’t really pull together any words to say hi as I whisked by, but I flashed them a smile and they waved as I went. It occurred to me that the area is a big draw for hippies, what with the Huichol shamans and the peyote pilgrimage. (Indeed, earlier at another bend three people with a large drum were waiting at a train or bus stop. When they spotted me one began playing and two began chanting. It was a nice little sendoff.) I supposed that my two pale-skinned comrades were either waiting to go up the mountains or had just come back down, and I thought no more of it.

It was around that time that my bike problems got serious. The noise got louder, and I could now see the wheel wobble. The side of the tire rubbed against the frame on every rotation. That’s a big problem, one which can rub right through the tire and ultimately destroy it.

This led to a series of attempted maintenance stops. One was under the shade of a mesquite tree near the driveway entrance to a ranch. I took all the bags off the Giant and turned him upside down hoping to diagnose the problem. I barely noticed that a pickup truck turned off the road onto the ranch drive and then stopped. People got in or out, most likely ranch workers. I focused on my machine.

“Ach, it leuks like he’s go’ a problem.”

The accent vaguely resembled Scrooge McDuck’s Scottish ancestor on Duck Tales. My ears perked up nonetheless; it was the first strain of fluent English that hadn’t come from me or one of my friends in two weeks.

Walking over from the pickup truck at the ranch drive were the two gueros I’d seen earlier. The faux-Scot voice was the man of the couple, actually from Belgium; the woman was his Canadian girlfriend. As they walked toward me I had a brief hope that perhaps one of them was a talented bike mechanic. Neither was.

Still, it didn’t hurt to have company. While I spun my wheel and looked for the source of the problem, they told me they were hitchhikers. They teach yoga somewhere in the Baja, but were on walkabout (rideabout) for a few weeks. The woman spoke of the “desert energy,” (as in “the desert energy is much stronger here”) while the man tried to figure out what the next nearest town was. Their Spanish was a hair better than mine and they were able to sustain a sort of conversation with several drunk ranch workers who wandered over. Seeing the hitchhikers up close, I actually realized I had seen them—just for a moment—in the public market of Cedral several days earlier.

While we chatted I made a decision on the bike wheel. This decision involved several factors:

  • I did not know the exact problem, or how to fix it.
  • The symptoms were similar to when my rear axle broke about a year earlier. When that had happened, the bike ran grudgingly until I tried taking the axle out; after that I was grounded. Thus, I didn’t exactly want to take the wheel apart to confirm or refute my guess.
  • I had a lot of miles to cover. Sitting around tinkering would mean not reaching Charcas today.
  • There were no more hotels before Charcas.
  • The desert night would be dangerously cold to camp in.

So I improvised. Without giving a technical explanation, I essentially rigged the wheel so that it was still wobbling but wasn’t quite hitting the frame.

The drunk ranchworkers offered us all beer, but none of us accepted. I posed briefly for them to snap a picture, and laughed along with some Bourbon Street talk once they heard I’m from New Orleans, then said my goodbyes and went on my way. I have to admit a little envy, and a lot of admiration, for the hippies and their hitchhiking. While my way of traveling involves a lot of freedom and is rewarding physically, theirs is clearly easier. They seemed quite calm and comfortable getting dropped at a ranch entrance and waiting for another car in any direction to any town. They had no mechanical issues, less physical strain and less gear to carry with them. I’d like to do a trip by hitchhiking sometime, especially with a partner.

Once I was underway the day became long and hard. My “fix” of the wheel didn’t last more than an hour before it was rubbing again. I made the tough choice to push on: if the tire failed, I would definitely not reach Charcas, but the alternative was to stop pedaling and not reach Charcas. It didn’t seem like a bad gamble.

I did try to mitigate the rubbing, however. I stopped several times to readjust the back wheel and even poured lubricant on it to reduce how badly it wore against the frame. But, determined, I got back on the seat every time.

By mid-afternoon it was clear I wouldn’t make Charcas before dark. I only passed through one more pueblo after that, and it was so small that I didn’t stop. I’m sure I could have spent a night there, huddled in my tent, but what would I do the next day? I’d be back in the same predicament.

During this period I crossed the Tropic of Cancer:

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

As the sun sank low in the sky, I finally reached an intersection in the desert highway. Turning right would take me to Charcas. There was no way I’d make it by nightfall, but it was only two hours off: with my lights on I could continue after dark.

I looked at my back tire. It was damn worn.

Sigh.

Glancing over to my right, I noticed a shrine. We weren’t near a church or a town or even a house; someone had just seen fit to erect a shrine by the roadside. I leaned my bike on its side and approached.

A narrow cement walkway led over a ditch to the front of the shrine. I froze. There under the little roof was a statue of St. Francis. The whole place was dedicated to him.

With one hand I dug up the pilgrim pendant I had gotten from his statue in Real de Catorce. I was so tired—and in such a hurry to reach Charcas—that I didn’t even look for an offertory. I threw the pendant over his statue into the back of the shine.

Respect the gods but do not ask for their help, said the philosopher in me.

“Saint Francis…” said my lips. “All I want is to reach Charcas safely tonight and not damage my bike too bad. Please help me.”

Then I put my hand over my heart, saluted, and was gone.

The sun indeed set on me. I froze in shorts and a t-shirt, wondering which of the lights on the distant hills was Charcas. Of course, there was a giant uphill slog before I reached it.

But I did reach it. Then I had only a maze of side streets between me and the Centro. One by one, I crossed them till I reached a street with several hotels on it. I vetted two of them, which were holes, before walking into the Malacate. Though it also looked like a hole from a distance, it was warm inside, clean, with working bathrooms and free water and coffee—and I’m not talking Nescafé. Even the wi-fi worked.

I was so exhausted I could have fallen asleep without dinner, but my day was far from over. First I showered and scrubbed the bike chain oil off my hands. Then I crossed the street to a little restaurant where I devoured a bowl of pozole:

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

This really, really hit the spot… along with an order of guacamole.

During dinner my body took on a leaden weight, insistent it needed to sleep. But I couldn’t allow it. I had to go back to the bicycle, now safe in my room at the Malacate, and get to work.

Dissecting the back wheel, I determined several things:

  • A spoke had broken. I don’t know if this happened on the initial speed bump or later on.
  • The entire back gear assembly was loose, giving the wheel a lot of play.

I determined I could fix both these problems. Tightening the gear assembly was fairly easy, and made me angry I hadn’t done it sooner. The spoke was another issue. I had a spare—four of them, to be exact—and thank the gods that it wasn’t on the side of the back wheel that would require removing the gears, since I never invested in that tool. But I had never changed a spoke before.

Youtube helped me out. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of steps and lots of things to be taken off. The entire tire has to be removed, for example, and in this case I had to remove a second spoke in order to access the first one.

Once the spoke was changed—which went pretty well if I do say so myself—there was still the matter of truing the back wheel. This is done by tightening or loosening various spokes as if tuning a musical instrument. I have no experience at this, and did at best a mediocre job.

Still, I now had a working wheel with reduced wheel wobble. I had to install it somewhat off center in order to counteract the remaining wobble, the cause of which I couldn’t determine. But once it was installed it spun smoothly. I didn’t know how it would hold up under weight but it appeared to be temporarily fixed.

Scrubbing the oil from my hands, I glanced at my phone. It was well after midnight. I planned to keep riding tomorrow, still in the vague hope I’d make San Luis Potosí before the Dragon left.

Lips chapped, face sunburned, body cold, hands cut and dirty, I threw myself under the covers at long last and slept for a few precious hours. 75.8 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 75.8 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3452.7 miles.

Next time I embark on the “Corridor of Oases” wondering if my back wheel will fail me. Until then, check out other road logs.

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

The Ghost Towns of Real de Catorce

Last time I labored over a mountain pass and crossed a desert, setting a new record for the most miles traveled in one day. This time begins my second rest stop in the town of Cedral, SLP.

Sunday, November 16 – Tuesday, November 18, 2014—Rest and Work

Although I had come a long way and arrived early (by the official itinerary), I couldn’t slack off. I had plenty of client work to do and started my time in Cedral by diving right into it.

That doesn’t mean I got no rest. My first morning, I slept till almost 9—my compensation for the early mornings preceding. But as I stirred, wearing only my briefs, I was surprised to see a face at my window: Doña Blanca was there, bringing me breakfast in bed!

She had originally invited me to dine downstairs, but since I was a late riser she brought my breakfast up to the apartment. I threw on my pants and opened the door, accepting the breakfast with my limited Spanish. It was no paltry meal:

Doña Blanca's breakfast. Photo by André.

Doña Blanca’s breakfast. Photo by André.

I spent most of the next two days working. There were occasional forays to the Centro for food (Blanca provided only one meal a day), and I made it a point to explore despite all the looks I got biking around town.

One thing I wanted to learn was where I could catch a bus to Real de Catorce, the nearby tourist destination/near ghost town/gateway to Huichol sacred land. When I asked about this in Abarrotes Conche, the corner store attached to the house, the woman behind the counter asked a 13 year old boy if he would show me the way. Thus began the first serious challenge to my Spanish speaking skills.

Juan, as my friend was called, was very friendly. We made chit chat as we walked toward the bus stop, as best we could with my limited Spanish. I tried to convey concepts much too complicated for my language proficiency, as I’m wont to do, but unlike adults he would question and question and question until we had a moment of communication. At one point, laughing, he told me, “Your Spanish is really bad.”

Later: “You need to learn more words.”

With that sage advice in mind we reached the bus stop, more an unmarked area where buses pause in their journeys than an official station. Juan rustled up Jorge Luis, Cedral’s bus fixer, who told me that I could catch a ride to Real every half hour for just $60 pesos. That was all I really needed to know; with the mission accomplished, I planned to return to working.

Juan had other ideas. “Where are we going now?” he asked.

Deciding to make the most of our time together, I thought about the other chores on my back burner. Blanca had been vague about what I should do for water: over the coming days, I would sometimes get free liters from her, sometimes need to pay for them, and sometimes simply go to other stores where I could get water cheaper.

“I need to get a galón,” I said, referring to a jug that actually holds several gallons. “At the Super. Want to come?”

Juan was game, but he wanted to show me his bike—and see mine. I agreed to wait a few moments while he ran home for the bici, and we saddled up.

As we cruised toward the Super, I pointed at his back rack. “I like your….. thing,” I said in Spanish.

“The grill?” (Helpful bike term: a rack is a parilla.)

“Yeah.”

“I use it when I work for my grandpa,” he said. “He grows onions and cilantro and I take them to market. But he lives 3 kilometers outside of town. It’s very far.”

I cracked up laughing. After Juan rode me all morning about my Spanish, here was something where I finally dominated.

“Very far!” I taunted. “Two days ago I rode 175 km in one day.”

Once Juan confirmed the numbers, I had finally won his respect. We entered the supermarket and left our bikes unlocked outside. I had seen many locals do this, but had always locked mine up regardless; now I left it up to Fortuna, as if my association with this 13-year-old don would protect my property.

Inside, we found galónes. I already wondered how I was supposed to tip my friend—he had helped me, and by Mexican logic I should tip him in some way. But I didn’t know how much, or when, or if it could be perceived as an insult (what if he was just being friendly?). Thankfully he made it easy for me: as we walked toward the checkout he asked, “Can I get some juice?” There was no doubt who was paying for it, and I agreed: at 6 pesos, it seemed like a low price. He’ll learn eventually.

On the way home Juan tried to convince me that I should try a nieve (snow cone), which I couldn’t explain to him pales in comparison to the snowballs of New Orleans. I perceived this as an attempt at another free treat and, since I really did have work to do, I passed on the offer.

Being a writer, not a photographer, I failed to snap Juan’s picture. We parted on friendly terms, but I wouldn’t see him again for the remainder of my stay.

Also during these two days I did some laundry with the help of some niños. It turned out pretty well.

But the real excitement of these days was what would come next. One of my traveler friends who happened to be in Mexico heard that my cycling companions had evaporated, and offered to come up to Cedral for a few days so we could go to Real de Catorce together. (That was actually a big part of why I headed to Cedral rather than Matehuala: my friend had spotted Doña Blanca’s place on AirBnB.)

Monday night I watched as a hired car rolled up the street to Abarrotes Concha, my friend sitting inside. After dropping off bags we headed to the only late night taquería in town. Getting some English-language conversation was divine, and not being the only guero in town didn’t hurt either. I was finally part of a small group again, rather than a lone oddity.

On Tuesday we both finished work for our respective clients and finalized our plans for Real.

Wednesday, November 19 (Day 866 of the Great Adventure)—Real de Catorce

Wednesday morning found us huddled in the cold desert wind just after breakfast under Jorge Luis’ watchful gaze. His full parilla of gold teeth gleamed as he reassured us we would love Real. Soon enough we were ushered aboard a (thankfully) warm bus and took our seats.

My friend opted to catch a final nap despite the blaring Will Smith action movie that suddenly lit up screens all around the bus. I preferred to gaze out the window, taking in a surreal cloud-covered landscape that got higher and steeper as we made our way to progressively less paved roads. Goat herders and an abandoned pueblo drifted out of the mist, the only sign of civilization until we reached the final approach: a cobblestone road curving up a mountain to a height of about 9,000 feet.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

That was only the first course, however. At the top of the road we stopped and the few other passengers on board simply got up and left. With no explanation in either Spanish or English, we shrugged followed. All of us huddled around a faux colonial plaza, deserted except for a lone candy seller. We knew what came next—the Tunnel, which loomed at the edge of the plaza—but not exactly what the procedure was.

We didn’t have to wait long. A smaller bus rattled out of the mist and opened its door. Hopping aboard, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was the same driver wearing a different hat. The tiny group of travelers spread out on hard plastic seats and we rumbled toward the hole in the mountain.

There’s only one road in or out of Real de Catorce, and instead of going over one of the tallest mountains in Mexico it opts to go through it. The Ogarrio Tunnel is one part mine shaft, one part public works project, and one part tourist attraction. It’s also so narrow that it barely has just one lane; traffic takes turns coming in and going out. (“Taking turns” may be an overstatement, however, since at least on weekdays there was no real traffic waiting at either side.)

I was eager to see the Tunnel, because at one point I had considered bicycling through it. By that plan I would have biked up the mountain and through the Ogarrio to get into Real, then depart by a sort of goat trail to continue the Adventure. I nixed the idea because the first road is paved with tire-busting cobbles. I had also heard rumors that vehicle exhaust inside the Tunnel makes it virtually impossible to cross unless sealed inside a car or bus.

The rumors weren’t exaggerated. In the black of the tunnel I spotted a carved stone doorway, a branching mine shaft and, within a minute or two, clouds of haze choking out the yellow lamps overhead. With over a mile to go, the bus itself began to smell of exhaust.

Yes, we rode a bus through this. Photo via Mexico Desconocido

At length we spilled out into daylight and a mostly empty plaza. The other travelers seemed to know where they were going, and we vaguely followed. Soon we found ourselves mostly alone except for occasional hustlers hoping to sell us everything from breakfast or guidebooks to hallucinogenic cacti.

Our first mission was to find a hotel. We looked at several and settled on Hotel Corral de Conde, a mid-level choice with beautiful interiors but no heaters and wi-fi only in the lobby. Along the way we got the story on the “Catorce” (fourteen) the town is named after, from an old man outside the tourist office:

“There’re different versions. It can be fourteen anything. Fourteen bandits, fourteen Spanish soldiers, fourteen miners, fourteen Huicholes. It depends on who’s telling it.”

With our things deposited at the Corral we set out for the first objective of our stay: an ancient cemetery and chapel outside of town. Travel websites make it sound like it’s miles away, so that you’ll hire a horse (or a bike or a jeep) to get there, but it’s really about an 8 minute walk—at least once you get directions. The few locals on the street wore tourist blinders and had little interest in telling us the way, but we found a sun-faded and vine-covered map on a placard by the centro that gave us the right general bearing.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

The walk may have been short, but it wasn’t easy. At 9,000 feet every breath of air is a lucha match. Add in a steep hill or three on every street in town and we understood why horse rides are so popular.

The view was worth it, however. At the edge of town we caught our first glimpse of what I’ll call the Cloud Desert, the Huichol sacred land straddled by the mountains that surround Real. It was one solid expanse of white below us, a fog-covered lowland where you can die of thirst while soaked with dew.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

The cemetery before the chapel was crowded with old graves, many bearing fresh offerings. The chapel was built 300 years ago by a small mining community, and yet it’s more impressive than most cathedrals in the US. Even so, centuries of wear left the murals inside peeled and faded, looking more like Pollock paintings than pictures of angels.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

Inside the Chapel. That's Guadalupe on  the  left.

Inside the Chapel. That’s Guadalupe on the left.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Flanking the chapel entrance are two holy images, Guadalupe on the left and St. Francis on the right. I had brought candles for both. I approached Guadalupe first. Lighting her candle was a struggle in the drafty mountain temple. Eventually, candle lit, I knelt before her and prayed. Guadalupe is a miraculous virgin who has been sainted by the Church, but whom many believe corresponds to an earlier Aztec goddess. Kneeling there, I understood that she was the female presence that had appeared to me on top of the mountain pass.

I also offered to St. Francis, although the town’s main image of him is actually kept in the parish church, not out here in the roadside chapel.

Afterward we sought out a late lunch. We settled on the restaurant at the high end Hotel Meson de la Abundancia, as much because it was warm inside as because of what was on the menu. The food was incredible, however, and this became our eatery for the next 24 hours.

While my friend checked in on client work, I ran some errands (like buying us water) and stopped by the parish church. It has the most unique floor I’ve ever seen. It seems to be made out of old mining pallets rather than planks, arranged like giant hardwood tiles. Each board of each pallet is rounded smooth from centuries of feet. They sounded hollow under my footsteps.

The parish church  with the great floors. Photo by André.

The parish church with the great floors. Photo by André.

I was there mainly to see the other image of St. Francis, however:

St. Francis. Photo by André.

St. Francis. Photo by André.

This one is reputed to be miraculous and is the object of a long annual pilgrimage. The people of Real apparently are quite attached to St. Francis and have various local nicknames for him. I made offerings to him for my mother, who has always held him especially close to her heart, and then took a small pilgrim pin from a jar of them beside the statue. (I’m actually not clear whether you’re supposed to pick one up when you pray there, or wear one on your pilgrimage and deposit it in the jar at the end; in any case St. Francis said to go ahead and take one if I wanted.)

By this time it was nearly dark and the chill intensified. I explored a bit more before heading back to the hotel. We both caught up on work and grabbed an evening snack at the Meson before heading to bed.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Thursday, November 20 (Day 867 of the Great Adventure)—El Pueblo Phantasmo

Our alarm went off long before dawn. There was something else we had to see before leaving Real, and the hike there and back would take all morning.

Real de Catorce itself is often called a ghost town, but the truth is it was only mostly deserted after the silver industry collapsed in the early 1900s. By now it’s made a resurgence and has plenty of year-round residents. Other communities in the area, however, were truly abandoned; whole villages sit around forgotten mineshafts in the hills. I had spent a good part of the previous afternoon rustling up exact directions to one. “Exact” might be an overstatement, but I was confident I could at least find the trail head.

The morning started with a cold breakfast in the dark. We had pestered the hotel clerk the day before with a million variants of the same question: is there a free breakfast? A paid breakfast? Coffee at least? Is there somewhere else we can go for breakfast?

No, she explained between sighs. There is nothing.

So we had pastries I’d bought from a local vendor the night before, and washed them down with cold water. Then we put on every layer of clothing we had and opened the door to the freezing mountain wind.

We made our way through the abandoned cobble streets. At the edge of town we were surprised to see one tiny kitchen that was actually open, run by the world’s grumpiest doña. She offered us go cups of Nescafé at Starbucks prices. We used them alternately as beverages and hand warmers as we continued on our way.

To the left of the Ogarrio tunnel entrance we found a gravel road up out of town. Soon we were in the mountains, the sky barely grey and the town shrinking in the darkened valley.

The sun rose somewhere between the mountaintops above us. The endless white of the Cloud Desert flared into being below, and then the rooftops of Real. The tolling of the church bell came to us on the wind.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

This was no beginner’s hike. The trail was steep and the wind wasn’t just cold, it was also low on oxygen. We gulped for breath and sniffled, walking along the mountainsides.

This is what we found:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

It’s a bro on a burro. Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

The first set of ruins clustered around the opening to a vertical mineshaft, a pit in the earth twenty feet across. It was half-heartedly covered with wire mesh to discourage accidental skydiving. Dropping a rock through the mesh, we listened in silence. We never heard it hit bottom.

There were other, more diagonal mine shafts as well. I would have gladly explored the underground palace if we’d had more time and a bit of chalk. Responsible adventurer that I am, I contented myself with entering the foyer for now.

Wandering the ruins left us with many questions. Were any of these big stone buildings bunkhouses, or did the men sleep in tents? Did the men have wives and families out here, or just prostitutes? Did they leave their camp town and its chapel to go on leave in Real, or did they live up in the hills all the time? What happened to a man who took sick and couldn’t work?

Supposedly, the miners were paid a share of the monthly silver yield, which made it a lucrative job. I don’t imagine it was a safe one. I wonder how many of those men planned to do it only a little while, save up, and quit; and how many succeeded.

By the time we came down the mountain the sun was high in the sky. We collected our empty coffee cups from the branches where we’d stuck them on the way up. Unlike the miners, we left no sign that we’d ever been there.

Now everything in town was open. We had a late breakfast at the Meson, then rounded up our things at the Corral. We caught the noon bus just as it pulled into the tunnel, and began the trip back down. We’d had very little time in Real, but I’d already decided I needed to come back. It’s somewhere I’d like to rent a room for a few weeks and do a proper writing retreat. I’d also like to put on a backpack and hike the desert.

The tunnel and mountain road were less mystical now. We’d learned at least a few of their secrets, and the mist had begun to thin. In just an hour we were back in the ordinary world. We spent the rest of the day working, hanging out or looking for better food options around Cedral. We didn’t find many.

Friday, November 21 – Saturday, Novvember 22—Work and Planning

The next morning we once again rose before dawn. My friend had an early bus to catch, and we walked together to Jorge Luis’ bus stop. Afterward, alone again, I made my way home for one of Doña Blanca’s breakfasts and more work. I spent my last two days in Cedral writing, with afternoon and late evening forays to get food. There wasn’t much else to do in this sleepy little town, except plan my route onward.

Next time, I take off across the desert… which is the worst place to break down. Until then, here are the rest of the road logs.

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