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

Fleeing Down the Federal Highway

Last time I found myself tripping down pyramids in Tula de Allende. This time I saddle up to get back on the road again—but not if the highway patrol has anything to say about it.

Other cyclists getting a friendly police escort on the toll highway. Photo via Ginger Ninjas.

Wednesday, December 17 (Day 894 of the Great Adventure)—To Sahagun City

Before departing there had to be a photo shoot. Roberto, the friendly hotel owner, didn’t think it was enough to just give me a free breakfast and a free extra night’s stay; now that I was finally going he also wanted my picture for his personal hall of fame. (Ezra had requested the same thing at the Brazilian restaurant. I was starting to feel like a bona fide celebrity.)

For a true Mexican marketing shot there had to be ladies. He recruited two of his female employees and soon they were posed to either side of me, my arms around them. I don’t envy them: I had just slipped into my bicycling shirt with all the pit stains and B.O. that implies. If they caught a whiff, however, they didn’t show it. After the last photo Roberto and I shook hands and I mounted up. I raised my fist in a final salute and whooshed off from the Cuellar for the last time.

Straightaway I turned against traffic on the main one-way road, plowing past vehicles and singing Vodou songs as I went. The policía noticed me but didn’t care: like posing with adoring women, breaking traffic rules is simply part of the Mexican way.

Gate Crashin’

Thanks to my trip to the pyramids, I knew that the way ahead included a giant hill—basically climbing out of the river gorge the downtown is in—and I didn’t even try to bike it. Pushing the giant up the slope added a fresh layer of sweat to my bike shirt, but once at the top I figured it’d be smooth sailing. (This was also when I saw the Mastur-Bar.)

Smooth sailing it was not. Not far out of town I turned to get back on the Arco Norte, the cuota (federal toll road) that would take me east out of the highlands. You may recall that when I arrived in Tula, the guard at the toll gate made a show of waving me through (and that I was a touch ungrateful). Apparently they put all the nice guys on the night shift, however, because the cabrón at the gate was not there to welcome me.

“Buenos dias,” I called as I moved to bike around him.

“(Bunch of stuff in Spanish!)” he said. He waved for me to pull over. Aw hell.

He explained to me that bikes aren’t allowed on the toll road, a fact of which I was well aware—though this is rarely enforced. I pretended I didn’t understand; sometimes that helps.

Not this time.

He repeated his point with detestable patience.

I adopted a mournful look. “But… I need to get to Tepeapulco.”

This was the pragmatic approach. Tepeapulco is a day’s ride away, with no other roads heading there besides the cuota. Perhaps if it seemed like the only way—

“Too bad,” he said. “You’ll have to apply for permission.”

What?

“Head over to the main office and request permission. If you get a pass, you can use the cuota.”

Oh shit. This was worse than being turned away. Worse than being arrested. He was using bureaucracy.

I considered my options: try to bribe him, or look for another way. I got the sense that he was just the sort of jerk who wouldn’t accept a bribe. He was doing things by the book. No, this is the kind of guy who wears tighty whiteys.

Another plan took form, however. “Where’s the office?” I asked.

He pointed across the freeway. Basically, the situation was this:

Biking on Cuota Problem

I thanked him and turned the bike around, never directly saying I’d head to the office. I had no intention of doing so. If you understand how Mexican bureaucracy works, you know I have a better chance of being elected presidente than getting approved for a cuota pass. Even if I did get approved—which would hinge entirely on some official taking a shine to me—I’d be there for hours. More likely it’d be a waste of a whole day.

Under the overpass I went. The office and its turnoff loomed on my left. I passed them both. A glance over my shoulder confirmed it: I was now out of view of the toll goat.

And here, on the other side of the freeway, was the other on-ramp.

I went up the ramp and slowed my pace. There was, of course, another toll gate. I had no idea if the various gate guards were in radio contact, or if a rogue bicyclist was the kind of thing they’d report to one another. But I wasn’t taking chances. This time, I needed subterfuge.

It didn’t take long. A semi chugged up the ramp behind me. As soon as he passed I fell in behind him, veering over on his left side away from the gatehouse. He slowed for the toll and I had no trouble keeping up.

Thus hidden on the blind side of the truck, the gate agents never saw me coming. But they sure would see me crossing. As the semi braked, I hit the pedals with all the muscles the mountains had given me. Third gear… fourth gear… get those sinews firing.

Vrap-ap-ap-ap! I hit the first vibration strip approaching the gate house. The semi stopped. Vrap-ap-ap-ap! A water bottle leapt out of the front basket. Intimate parts of me begged for mercy.

Head down, eyes forward, crank those legs. And… whoosh! I popped out from beside the semi, cannonballing the gate.

In my peripheral I saw the person inside the gatehouse. They didn’t immediately charge out at me, and I didn’t acknowledge them in any way. Somebody yelled something. It might have been an angry halt! or a friendly adios! or just whoa! in surprise. I told myself there was no way a gate guard was gonna come running after a cyclist, and plunged forward.

I swerved around the gate arm and careened past. Never even slowed. Then I was through and up the on-ramp I chugged. There was no more yelling (and no gunshots), but I kept cranking those pedals like the devil was on me.

One problem: I needed to go east, and this onramp was for westbound traffic. At the top I sliced left. Soon I was barreling down the freeway shoulder… going the wrong way.

Wrong-way cycling isn’t unusual. Some readers have suggested it’s actually safer, and most of the Mexican cyclists I pass seem to agree. But it was my first time, and seeing that first 75 mph semi coming at me was a thrill.

Of course, now that I was up on the freeway there was a chance the original cabrón would spot me as I passed his on-ramp. But I figured, (a) there was a lot of stuff between us, (b) he was probably looking the other way, at traffic pulling into his gate, and (c) bite me.

Basically I’d pulled one of these numbers:

Biking on Cuota Solution

I kept up the speed for the first half mile or so. No squad of motorcycle cops appeared in my mirror. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked to the road ahead.

Traffic was light, and after a couple miles I crossed to the grassy median, then over to the proper side where I normally ride. I was pretty pleased to have crashed the gate, but there was no guarantee I was in the clear. If the guards really cared they could call the policía. It could be 20 minutes or three hours before they picked me up; I wasn’t hard to miss.

But there was nothing for it. I had rogued my way onto this freeway and if need be I’d just rogue my way off of it.

[André’s note: I don’t field the slightest bit bad about this maneuver, and will try to explain a little more of how road rules work in Mexico in a future post.]

The scenery was pleasant. It seemed flat to me, even though it was hilly terrain that passed over occasional mountain ridges. It was certainly nothing compared to the 9,000 foot monster I’d struggled over previously.

A couple hours later there was an exit/entrance with a gatehouse. I wasn’t exiting, so I didn’t need to go through. But as I went past one of the  guards turned toward me.

I did what I always do with authority figures in Mexico, which is say hi and act friendly. I threw him a wave and a buenas tardes, hoping to cruise past. But that wasn’t enough. He waved for me to stop.

My Spanish had come a long way, but there are a lot of accents and dialects in Mexico. I had a hard time understanding this guy. Whatever the first thing was that he said, I legitimately didn’t understand it. He pointed at the freeway and repeated it, saying something about safety. So, maybe: you can’t ride out there, it isn’t safe?

I begged to differ. “No, it’s very safe,” I insisted. “There’s a big shoulder.”

He then said something about the gate and exit beside him. Perhaps telling me to exit and get the heck off this freeway. I asked him to repeat this too. He did, but simply said something else about my safety.

He didn’t seem angry and wasn’t giving me an order. I decided to thank him for being concerned about my safety. This seemed to satisfy him. I thanked him again, waved and got on the bike.

He didn’t move to stop me.

So, more confused than ever, I bicycled away. The gate guard watched me go.

This whole thing is still a mystery to me. I suppose the most likely story is he got a call over the radio about a bicyclist on the freeway and he figured he’d give me a little lecture. But this is so strange. For one thing, no one ever cared before when I biked on the cuotas—I’d stopped and talked with police on them. And if he got a call about me, you’d think he’d detain me or order me off. My main takeaway from the whole affair was a fleeting nostalgia for the “good old days” in the border zone where my only worry was being murdered.

Hotels By the Hour

My destination for the night was either Sahagun City or Tepeapulco, depending on which map you consulted. They’re actually two small cities that smashed together as they grew. Sahagun City was slightly closer, and after 60 miles I figured that was the best choice.

What’s interesting is that it’s called Sahagun City on all the maps, with the English word city. I’m not sure if this is a translation issue (like how we translate Mexico City) or has a historical reason. But I’ve only once seen it called Ciudad Sahagún.

The exit for Sahagun City didn’t look like an exit at all. It was rolling green and gold land all around, with no signs of a city. Mountains hemmed the highway on both sides, and from my phone it looked like Sahagun must lie beyond them. The valley itself was completely abandoned.

But there was a gate house at the exit, of course. This time I neither greeted nor waved, just barreled through. I did get a glimpse of some surprised looking gate guards but they didn’t come out of the booth. I was back on free roads again—where bicycles are as welcome as the tourist dollars they bear—and headed toward the invisible city.

That last jaunt in the countryside was pleasant. It reminded me of rural Wisconsin (except not flat). Soon it became industrial, however; turns out Sahagun City is built on gravel pits, fabrication plants and other large industry. As the green-gold disappeared behind me, clouds of dust and diesel exhaust hemmed in.

The place didn’t look too happy. The ride in showed a lot of unhappy faces coming to or from a lot of low paying jobs. I followed the signs for a hotel, located on a side street of gated condos. While more upscale, this didn’t make me feel any more at home, and neither did the hotel prices: $1,300 pesos a night, three to four times what I normally pay. I laughed when the woman told me the number, and she smiled good naturedly—not a hint of disdain for this filthy bicyclist before her. I really appreciated that.

The search continued. I went through a truly depressing park and finally found a street with food stalls, shops and foot and car traffic. It also had two hotels. At the first, I rolled the Giant into the parking garage (completely empty except for a couple old box springs), timing my entrance carefully between the bottle rockets local kids were shooting into it. In the lobby, I found a 16 year old girl behind a plate glass window.

“Can I see a room?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

Wow.

After some back and forth I understood the reason. She was the only one there. I can’t fault her for not going upstairs with a man she doesn’t know, though it seems like bad hotel policy. I kept my money and walked back out the door (and back out of the parking garage, still under barrage.)

The next hotel was more promising, situated right next to a pleasant pedestrians-only alley with a restaurant and shops. But the door, semi-hidden, was crowned with a big sign:

Special! $100/hour

I left.

At this point the sun was setting. I was hungry and tired. I turned onto another major street, starting to wonder if I’d need to go up the hill to Tepeapulco after all.

That’s when I passed a hotel named Tulipanes (Tulips) painted in bright, pretty colors. I nearly screeched to a halt and did a U-turn to dive into its parking area.

Neither the parking area nor the stairway up into the building were much to look at. Inside, there was no lobby; the owner’s office was in one of the hotel rooms, and he led me up to the third floor to show me a room.

“It’s only you?” he asked.

“Just me.”

“I only have rooms with two beds.”

“Is the price the same?”

“Yes, but you have to promise to only use one bed.”

Wow.

“I promise,” I said.

He showed me to a very clean room with a brand new bathroom and big, sunny windows. It was perfect.

“I’ll take it.”

“Okay, but it’s not available until 7:00.”

I thought I didn’t hear him right, but he repeated himself.

I looked around.

“Why not?”

“Someone else has it rented but it will be available in a few hours.”

I looked around the spotless, uninhabited room. “But there are no suitcases,” I said. I felt like I was being conned.

He could sense my frustration and reassured me. “Don’t worry, I have a different room.”

“And it’s available now?”

“Yes!”

I mentally translated Well why didn’t you show me that one first? but let it pass. The other room was similar, spotless and new, a little less sunny. “I’ll take it.”

We went through a seemingly interminable process in his office/bedroom until, eventually, I had the key. I brought my bags up, but not the Giant (third floor, remember?) which I locked to a cement mixer in the parking area. The manager returned to my door several times with more information for me (the water heater is new, here’s the remote for your TV, etc.). At first I thought he was looking over my shoulder but, in retrospect, I think he was nervous about whether or not I would like the place. It was obviously a fairly new hotel.

And I made full use of that fairly new shower. I kept thinking about how he said to use just one bed: was he going to double up a second guest in my room? Putting the thought out of my mind, I went out for a dinner of pozole, picked up some water and hurried back. The freezing highland night had set in.

Exhausted, I snuggled under the covers and read till I fell asleep. Rocky first impression notwithstanding, the Tulipanes kept me warm and I slept with joy.

63.2 miles

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 63.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 3847.6

Next time I make an unplanned stop at one of Mexico’s “Magic Cities.” Until then you can check out all my road logs.

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

On Reaching the End of Mexico

Photo by André

Photo by André

So, here is an overdue but very exciting update: on the afternoon of Saturday, February 7 I rolled out of Pisté, Mexico, past the great pyramids of Chichen Itza, and some 40 miles to the town of Valladolid. When I reached the Valladolid’s central plaza I had officially reached the end point of the Fellowship of the Wheel ride across Mexico.

To say it felt incredible is an understatement. I’ve reflected a lot on this journey: how exciting it was to see others eager to join, how painful it was when it became a fellowship of one, and how many discoveries, mysteries and new friends I’ve found along the way.

Most of all I’m in awe that this journey has become every much the way I dreamed it would be. I think I’ve come of age as an adventurer, so to speak. I finally know how to make everything come together on the road and truly enjoy my time doing it. There were setbacks and challenges, but for the most part these ninety days of bicycling were happy ones. They proved to me that adventure really does have the power to transform lives.

There’s a lot I still need to write about this trip, but I didn’t want to put off at least announcing the finish any longer. The rest of the road logs will appear in the coming weeks. And yes, after a lengthy stop for writing, I will eventually continue on across Central and South America, always on the quest to meet the gods.

Thank you everyone who has supported the journey. I’m eternally grateful to have you with me.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Last Mark of the Toltec Empire

Last time I went over a 9,000 foot mountain to reach the city of Tula de Allende. Now it’s time to rest and explore the city—and its ancient pyramids.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

December 13-16 (Days 890-893 of the Great Adventure)—Tula Days

Tula still felt “different” from other cities in Mexico. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was one of the nicest centros of any city I’d been to, with the main square surrounded entirely by walking malls. But that wasn’t it.

I pondered as I wandered around looking for a lunch spot. The city reminded me a lot of Thailand. But why? What gave me the same vibe in both places?

At the end of one walking mall was a torta shop (sandwich shop) that I knew I had to go into. It was on the second floor, with a tiny street level door and no advertising, yet the balcony had plenty of customers. Local secret? I squeezed in under their only sign: “Suba Ud.” Come upstairs, please.

Their Cuban sandwich didn’t disappoint, except that it was twice the size of my head and way too much to eat alone. The view from the balcony, once I managed to snag a table there, wasn’t bad either. And it was there that I realized what made Tula so different from other Mexican towns.

Everything was new.

I mean, not new new. It definitely had its share of run-down buildings. But none looked older than the 1960s, and many more recent than that. Concrete and steel buildings rose from wide, well paved streets with real sidewalks. They weren’t skyscrapers, and rarely even high rises, but they were markedly different from the colonial or plaster structures dominating most Mexico downtowns.

(And that was a big part of why it seemed so Chiang Mai-esque to me, along with the weather we were experiencing that week.)

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

Despite its size and modernity there was relatively little to do. I found two cafes worth visiting, one of without wifi and the other rarely open. Oddly, I could never pick up a Telcel signal in the centro proper, as if the whole area was jammed by the Soviets. As a result I had to work mainly at the hotel or, one afternoon, at a second story bar with dubstep music and its own wifi. In the evenings only a few sit-down restaurants were open. Maybe it was just the adjustment from San Miguel, where there was so much to do and I had friends to talk to, but I found myself feeling lonely and uncomfortable.

I went back to the Brazilian restaurant twice during my stay. Once to try out their breakfast menu, which was good, and once to experience the famed grilled meat parade. Ezra was excited for me to try it, and served me personally. He brought over sword after sword of flame-touched meats: salted beef, tender filet, succulent pork loin, chistorra, and a dozen others each more delicious than the last. Each of these is fire-roasted on the sword just seconds before serving and sliced paper-thin onto your plate. In between rounds he brought over skewers of roasted pineapple.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

I’ve only experienced this kind of Brazilian grill once before, and I have to say Ezra’s was better. Maybe it was just that I knew how to pace myself better, or maybe it was that he didn’t try to fill me up on starters first. But at the end of the meal, instead of slow and heavy, I felt satisfied and mildly euphoric. Thanks, Ezra.

(Incidentally, the restaurant also served a great sopa Azteca. It’s a uniquely Mexican dish that involves a creamy red soup with bits of meat, ropes of melted white cheese, and freshly fried tortilla strips in it, plus fresh avocado. Ironically, this non-Aztec couple made the best Aztec soup I’ve ever had. I would go back for that alone.)

Meanwhile, the owner of the Hotel Cuellar, Roberto, also made my stay more memorable. He was really interested in my bike ride, even more so after I told him I’m a writer. I’ve become well versed at explaining in Spanish what Lúnasa Days is about, but I always apologize because it’s only available in English (yet). That didn’t phase him. His English is about as good as my Spanish, and he asked if I would autograph a copy if he ordered it. I agreed, although we both knew it wouldn’t arrive in time for me to do so.

My second evening there he told me that I was getting free breakfast the next day. I was a bit wowed and thanked him warmly. After the exchange, though, I wondered if I’d understood correctly. Maybe I was getting too cocky in my Spanish skills? But sure enough, the next morning at the hotel cafe the doña who runs the kitchen came out and showed me the menu for their “desayuno ejecutivo” (executive breakfast) and told me there’d be no charge.

The third day was pyramid day. It’s funny… I’ve gone to such great lengths to see all these ancient sites. Yet on that day all I really wanted to do was hang out in the hotel room and read. Just get some R&R. I would’ve been perfectly to miss out on one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the Americas, the former capital of the Toltec empire.

But what kind of Adventure would that be? I set down the book and hopped on the Giant. You can take a city bus to the pyramids, but I liked the idea of cycling across town. The Tula Archaeological Site is located just a few kilometers from the current city center, surrounded by neighborhoods on two sides. After confirming directions I set off.

The route crossed the river and immediately went up a giant hill, the opposite side of the gorge I’d descended a few days before. Barely able to breathe at the top, I made a mental note not to try pedaling up it when the Giant was fully loaded with gear.

After that the ride was easy. 10 minutes later I coasted into the Tula National Park, home of the Archaeological Site. It had a landscaped entry and vast parking areas, all almost empty. Maybe it was because it was a Monday, but Mexico’s archaeological museums always seem drastically under-attended to me.

As I wondered where to chain up the bike, a security guard suggested I walk it right up to the front door of the museum and lock it to a tree. That done, I paid my entrance and spotted a sign near the entrance. It kindly informed me that I could report any complaints “or insults” by phone, mail, email or in person. I wondered how many insults I should expect.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

The Tula archaeological site consists of three main areas: first the indoor museum, with replicas of many of the artifacts and the usual informational panels. Then a long outdoor walk from the museum to the pyramids themselves. (I suppose they couldn’t break ground for the museum building too close to the archaeological site). Finally, the remains of ancient Tula’s downtown, which have been painstakingly unearthed by archaeologists.

I wasn’t too interested in the museum, not because I dislike them (I love them) but because I was eager to see the real deal. But I’m glad I walked through. I got a lot of interesting background information on the culture and the art that I’d see. And the three dimensional model of the site would help me orient myself once I got out there.

The walk out was surreal. Sometime I think Mexican museums have self esteem issues. I’m not sure they believe people will really come just to see pyramids and amazing artifacts. There’s always some kind of side attraction, a sort of “AND you get to see…” to sweeten the deal. In Tula’s case it’s this desert version of a hedge maze. White rocks and cacti sprawl along winding, tangled pathways. I stuck to the outside, skirting past the labyrinth and heading for the Toltec ruins.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

I wasn’t there yet, though. The path is a zig-zag, making right angle turns that nearly double your walking time. This has two effects: you can’t directly see the pyramids until you turn the final corner (kind of cool), and you’re forced to walk through repeated encampments of vendors hawking their wares (moan). I assured row after row of peddlers that I needed neither a jaguar statue, nor a traditional flute, nor even a handmade rosary. Ironically, if any of them had just offered me a bottle of ice cold water I would’ve thrown pesos at them.

(I actually had water with me—I have learned a couple of tricks on this Adventure—but this is a hike through a shadeless desert. I mean come on.)

Finally I reached the pyramids themselves. My first view was from the end of the trail, with the main pyramid framed perfectly by a lone shade tree and a little bench at the trail head (image at top). Fluffy clouds filtered the desert sun and the whole place looked serene and magical. I was happy I’d come.

To one side was the remains of the ball court. I think we all know about the Mesoamerican soccer-like game where the losing team was sacrificed, so I won’t go into that. What struck me was how profoundly practical the structure was. It wasn’t that different from a stadium today, and was optimized for handling a giant amount of people. I could picture a family tripping up the stairs with kids in tow, trying to pull the niños away from vendors at the entrance (probably selling jaguar statues). The fact that lives hung in the balance was as prosaic as an NFL player pulling a hamstring.

Next I went to the main pyramid, dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The trail approached from the rear. On the far side was the central plaza of ancient Tula, surrounded by the remains of dozens of public buildings. There was nothing I wanted to do more than run up to the top of that pyramid, but I took my time, wandering around the back first and looking at the carvings in the reconstructed perimeter wall. I was glad I did—these are things I wouldn’t have taken the time for after I’d already been to the top, and they were stunning.

Finally I made my way around front. Hundreds of white columns rose from the ruins of an old palace to my right, but I focused on the pyramid. A few other groups of visitors milled about, some on top, some around the bottom and one pair coming down. I sized up the steps and began the ascent.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

I remember that when I climbed the steps of Chichén Itzá I was terribly winded. But I was in worse shape back then, and I took this pyramid with ease. Even so, coming up eye level with the top was a powerful experience, one that made you feel as if suddenly you couldn’t go on.

I found myself looking up at the Atlantes, the 12-foot tall stone warriors that hold watch over the temple’s top. I placed my hand over my heard in a discreet salute and stepped up.

The Atlantes. Photo by André

The Atlantes. Photo by André

It’s hard to write about standing atop the pyramid. It’s like this is where I’m supposed to say something deep, because I’m looking for the gods, right? But I feel like I said everything I had to say in the video log I sent my supporters. The truth is I felt conflicted. It’s this spiritual place, but it’s also a museum. I was surrounded by other tourists each having their own experiences. The top of the pyramid seemed to be a concrete slab, which made me wonder how it had been reconstructed and whether the Atlantes were even in the right places. I think the most profound spiritual experiences happen in places of solitude; and this temple is now a place of learning and selfies, not so much a place of prayer.

But there was an undeniable majesty looking out over the old city forum, vaster than some towns itself and now completely empty; the palaces and temples and the other pyramid, in worse condition, not far off from this one. All of it haunted by the specter of the sacrifices that once took place there. How can you look down from that spot, picture the city as it once was, and not imagine the knife coming down?

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

(If you want to see this place for yourself, supporters get full access to the video log I made.)

As I stood contemplating this a young Colombian couple asked if I’d take their picture. We conversed in Spanish (I’m on a roll!) but they seemed eager to be off. I watched them make their descent on the giant stone steps.

The sound of a flute drifted over the site, played by an enterprising vendor who’d eschewed the merch stalls to wander with his wares. It was right to hear that plaintive trill over this empty place. And it was time to make my offering.

I accepted that other tourists would watch me do this, including a group led by someone with the air of an anthropologist. But they kept a respectful distance, and the incense lit easily. I  tucked it into a crack at the top of the steps, in view of the Atlantes.

Oh, Quetzalcoatl, I prayed:

This incense comes not from me, but from my friend Sky and from Guadalupe, whom you know by another name. Today is her holy day, and she sent this for you. I hope the scent will please you.

The smoke curled up to the sky and the flute broke the silence. Does Quetzalcoatl miss the taste of human sacrifice? Or was it something he never wanted in the first place?

I descended. On the way out I took off-road footpaths used by the vendors (they sure weren’t walking at right angles after a long shift). This saved time and evaded most of the sales pitches. After the final jaunt across the labyrinth it was back to the museum, the Giant, and the road home.

When I got there the hotel owner had another present for me. “Are you staying another day tomorrow?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I admitted. I didn’t really feel like moving on just yet, but this was my last planned day in Tula. “I was thinking of leaving in the morning.”

He nodded. “Well if you decide to stay, I’d like to give you a night for free.”

That took me back. This time I confirmed that I’d understood correctly. It seemed like too much: a free breakfast is one thing, but comping me $500 pesos (really $600) is big. I wondered what the catch could be. But in a situation like this, all I have to go on is my sense of people, and my sense of Roberto is that he’s a friendly, kind person. I felt humbled by the offer and gratefully accepted.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

That extra day allowed me to work ahead on client projects and explore the town some more. Discoveries included rope bridges crossing the river in the center of town (not decorative or for play—these were functional rope bridges used as pedestrian thoroughfares). They anchored to a cute neighborhood on one side and a sort of mini park on the other, and helped connect the two halves of town. Unfortunately, the river smelled like an open sewer and I didn’t spend much time in the park.

Tula marked a turning point in my Adventure. It was the first time ever that I’ve had good enough Spanish to make friends and be social without the “in” of a local acquaintance or a language school. Even though I’d felt lonely and isolated when I showed up, I managed to experience moments of warmth with people I’d never met before and will likely never see again. For that, I’m grateful.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Next time, I leave Tula and get back on the highway—but I have to crash a gate to do it. Until then, check out my other road logs.

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

Bringing Gifts for Guadalupe

Last time I got cozy with my Mexican host family and received some amazing kindness in San Miguel de Allende (plus picked up a nasty cough). This time I leave the shelter of the Expat City and get back on the road.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. Photo by André.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. I adore that it’s a hangar made of old tarps. Photo by André.

Thursday, December 11 (Day 888 of the Great Adventure)—to San Juan del Río

My departure from San Miguel de Allende began with cobble streets so steep I had to get off and walk the bike. I had become settled in San Miguel, with its many cafes and conveniences, and yet unsettled at the same time. I didn’t feel at home with the colonization vibe of my fellow Anglo-Americans—or how they reflected on me. And yet I knew there was a good chance I’d be back; renting a room from Fay for a month or two sounds appealing, and the Spanish language school was just that good.

Eventually I made it up to the high road out of town. The first section of highway wasn’t as steep as I expected, but it ran through lesser mountain ranges that were anything but small.

I started to suffer pretty badly. In San Miguel I had thought seriously about getting rid of some of my equipment—it’s too much weight on the bike. I hadn’t camped once yet on the Mexico trip, and losing that gear would be a blessing. It would also involve the dubious process of trying to mail it somewhere, an endeavor that all my friends, local and ex-pat alike, warn me is a gamble. Packages have a habit of disappearing in the Mexican post office, particularly things that look valuable.

Ultimately I kept the gear, more for the assurance of being able to camp than out of fear of mail sorters. I had been lucky finding hotels so far, but some nights had been close calls and I liked the security of being able to sleep anywhere.

But that extra weight really added up in the mountains out of San Miguel. I could feel the strain in my knees now, and with my lingering chest cold sometimes had coughing fits on the uphills. It was a rough day.

So when I finally reached San Juan del Río, my destination for the night, I was more than ready to quit. The town is build along a river. That means that entering town is a downhill, but going across town is uphill again–going down one river bank and up the other. I didn’t even try to bike in; as soon as I got off the highway I spotted a corporate looking hotel and got a room. It was a bit pricier than I was used to, but nice.

After a shower it was almost sunset. I was hungry, and I generally avoid hotel restaurants. I saddled up the Giant once again, this time without all his heavy gear on him, and rode into town.

The way couldn’t have been flatter. After crossing an old stone bridge I was on a main road toward the Centro. I quickly ran into a variety of roadblocks: backed up traffic, a traffic cop turning away cars, and then balloons, crowds of children and families.

It was December 11, the eve of the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. I knew this holiday would be a big deal but didn’t realize there’d be a parade the night before.

I biked floats and bands getting ready for the march, as far as the Parroquia (parish church), the parade’s destination. I spotted two eateries along the route, one directly across from the other, and decided to check them out.

The first one had a convenient wrought iron fence around the patio tables, the perfect place to lock my bike. But inside it turned out to be more a bar than a restaurant. A too-friendly drunk greeted me warmly and went for an abrazo that I deftly dodged. Stumbling between English and Spanish, he told me he was buying me a drink.

I exchanged looks with the bartender and said I needed to eat before I could drink. I didn’t exactly promise to come back after, but the drunkard took it that way and stopped protesting. I checked out.

Across the street was a taquería that smelled divine. They didn’t have a bar, thankfully, but they had a giant grill and a big selection of alambres. I sat down and ordered some ludicrous combination of grilled meats and veggies. My table was positioned at the open end of the restaurant, directly facing the parade route (and my bike).

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Mexican parades come in many shapes and flavors, but they have some common elements. There’s always people chasing other people with bull-whips, and cracking the whips loudly on the ground. There’s a contingent of dancers in full Aztec regalia (or other indigenous style). There are religious floats put together from colored paper in careful and incredible detail. And there people in what seem like totally random costumes: a devil, a Bart Simpson, a Batman.

All of this and more was present in Guadalupe’s parade. I have to admit that the marching phalanxes of kids were pretty cool, and some of them had great music going. I caught some of the Aztec dancers on video, which you can see by becoming a supporter. (Also in the videos: I catch the taco stand waiter dancing like an Egyptian.)

The parade ended not long after dark. I retrieved my bike without running into my drunk friend and crossed the bridge back to the hotel—a bit hairier of a run in the dark with post-parade traffic. The hotel offered wi-fi only in the lobby, not in the rooms, so I took a seat on a couch to work on my computer and ordered a chocolate malt. It’s good for the concentration. 63.7 miles.

Map.

Note: The route leaving San Miguel de Allende isn’t quite right due to one-ways. I knocked 0.1 miles off the listed mileage to compensate.

Tula's centro. Photo by André.

Tula’s centro. Photo by André.

Friday, December 12 (Day 889 of the Great Adventure)—to Tula de Allende

Morning came all too soon. I ordered breakfast from the hotel room service, wanting to get on the road with minimal delay. What arrived was a heaping dish of soggy, lukewarm chilaquiles. I’d feel vaguely queasy for much of the day.

The route was difficult. I headed back toward the same stone bridge as before but, instead of crossing it, turned onto a cross street toward the highway out of town. That highway was nothing but miles and miles of endless uphill, so steep I kept stopping just to breathe. Add in a headwind and sections of freeway with no shoulder and it was an inauspicious start to the day.

It was also slow going. It took about two hours just to get out of the San Juan metro area, simply from the conditions. Once free the scenery got better but the road didn’t change much. The next 35 miles of my ride were all uphill, crossing a mountain range and ascending to a height of 9,000 feet. That’s nine thousand.

To be fair, I wasn’t starting out from a height of zero. More like 5,000 feet. But climbing to 9k is still a ton and this was the highest elevation I’d ever achieved by bike. To put it in perspective, I announced I was starting this 35 mile section on Twitter at 11:15 am and tweeted from the top at 4:24 pm. That’s an average of seven grueling miles per hour with, as I recall, no real breaks.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

At the summit and I took a brief pause for water, panting and admiring the view below. As I started to roll downhill, I saw a sign:

NO BICYCLES

Covered with sweat and hardly able to breathe, I raised my hand and gave the sign a one-finger salute. I couldn’t get a picture of this, obviously, but I sure hope a few Mexicans in passing cars saw the gesture and got a good laugh.

Soon the wind was rushing past my face and I needed both hands on the steed. A plummeting bicycle is an amazing piece of equipment. A twitch of the hips is enough to change direction; at speed you’re just the fin on the missile.

Those downhill miles went by quickly but, alas, it wouldn’t be all bullet time. To reach Tula de Allende I needed to turn off onto a cuota, a toll road. That road ran through a series of miniature mountains, effectively the foothills of the range I’d just crossed, and my progress ground to a crawl once again. By this time the sun was setting and I felt pretty done for the day, with miles still to go.

I crossed a series of three yawning gorges, each seemingly a mile deep below me. My eyes flickered between the road ahead, the traffic behind me and the view under my feet.

Between gorges and curves I saw the lights of Tula in the distance. Or so I thought. It was actually the city’s massive oil refinery: a glittering forest of tower lights reminiscent of the Emerald City.

At dusk I reached the toll road turn-off. It looked totally deserted. I made my assault on the gate, hoping to swerve right around it, but a uniformed man ran out and waved his arms. Weary, I braked.

“Buenas tardes,” I called. I figured he was going to hassle me about biking on the cuota, or tell me I couldn’t go through. But he was in a good mood—in fact he seemed excited to see a cyclist. He warmly offered for me to swerve around the gate (as I was going to do anyway). I appreciated his attitude, but was so tired I kind of wished he just stayed in the booth—I gave up all my speed to talk to him.

Entering town involved an incredibly steep descent into a gorge. I thought I was going to pitch right over my handlebars. At the bottom I crossed two bridges and rolled into the Centro.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Tula immediately felt different from other Mexican towns. At the moment I was too beat to figure out why. I aimed for one of the hotels I saw on Google, the Hotel Cuellar. It was right across from the parroquia in the heart of the Centro. It was already dark when I rolled into its long, narrow entrance.

Though weary I had to go through the formalities. This includes finding out the price, looking at the room, checking for bed bugs and making sure there’s wi-fi. In this case, the process stopped at the price.

“How much is a habitation for one person?” I asked.

“$600,” replied the owner.

I raised my eyebrows. “$600?”

That’s about US $50, more than I usually pay ($350 is a common rate). I didn’t really want to go somewhere else—but I also had a budget. And I knew there were three more hotels within a few blocks.

The owner looked me up and down. He had seen me come in on the bike. “For you,” he said. “I can offer $500.”

Deal. I thanked him, checked the room and quickly concluded our transaction. He asked me about my travels. To my surprise, I found I could follow the conversation and give good answers. The Spanish classes appeared to be working.

Soon I was upstairs and showering, but without my bike. Usually I take the Giant into my hotel room with me, but here there were a lot of stairs. I chained up the bike outside—to a palm tree.

This wasn’t quite the end of the day’s adventure, however. I still had two objectives:

  • Offer incense to Guadalupe. It was her day, after all.
  • Eat eat eat eat eat

First to the church. The parroquia, a former monastery, occupied high ground in the middle of town and was surrounded with a fortified stone wall. I ascended through its portcullis expecting a giant Guadalupe shrine. There wasn’t one; just a nativity scene, food vendors, and a jam packed church. I decided to keep exploring.

Waking around downtown yielded no shrines but plenty of restaurants. Twice I walked past a sign pointing down an alley:

Espadas de Brasil 

“Swords of Brazil.” I wasn’t in the mood for a meat-heavy dinner at the moment, but I got a good feeling about the place. I turned down the alley…

…and was blown away. The restaurant had two parts: a cozy inside dining room with a bar, and a large outside courtyard with soft music playing. It was chilly so I chose the inside. And the menu offered much more than just grilled meats. Soon I had a huge platter in front of me.

When I finished eating I caught up on some reading on my iPhone, as one does. The owner approached me. We started to chit-chat in Spanish, which is always hell. I just get lost so easily or don’t know enough words and…

…and this time it was different.

As the conversation went on I relaxed. I understood almost everything he said. Occasionally he threw out some words in English to help me, but we basically stuck to Spanish. For ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty. It became the longest Spanish conversation I’d had with someone who wasn’t paid to help me.

And I liked him. Ezra was from Brasil and running this restaurant was his dream. Previously he had been a chef at Fogo de Chão, a Brazilian chain famous enough that I knew of it (but had never eaten at one). He also introduced his wife, Kayla. She didn’t speak much Spanish so she would shyly murmur in Portuguese and he translated. All told we talked a half hour or more.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

He asked me the purpose of my bicycle trip. I smiled. “It’s sort of a spiritual quest,” I said, using the English phrase spiritual quest. Then in Spanish: “I hope to meet the gods.”

He pointed at his heart.

“The gods within?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know if the gods are inside us only, or if they are also in the world. I want to find out.”

He seemed to understand. After a bit more conversation, he mentioned that there was an old Aztec statue in his courtyard.

“It’s a goddess,” he said. He tilted his head. “What’s the English word for goddess?”

I told him. He nodded, and went on.

“It’s very old. This building is ancient and old the statue has been here for hundreds of years. Do you want to see?”

I agreed and the three of us walked into the courtyard. At the far end was a statue of a goddess I’d seen before. If my knowledge of Mexican mythology is accurate, she’s the exact one that Guadalupe is believed to be based on. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Ezra,” I said. “I’d like to make an offering to her for you. is that alright?”

He agreed.

I took out the incense. In my heart, Guadalupe told me to offer only one stick, not two as I’d planned; save the other one for the pyramid. I lit the incense and placed it in the earth before the goddess, praying over it.

Ezra and Kayla had a movie projector set up in the courtyard. It was past closing time and they were getting ready for a movie night together. We said farewell and I promised I would come back during my next few days in Tula.

I wandered a bit more then made my way back to the Cuellar for some sleep. 59.6 miles. 

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 123.3

Total traveled since Day 1: 3784.4 miles

Next time you’ll get to see Tula’s famous pyramids—and we’ll fine out why this town feels so different. Until then, more road logs are available here.

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Bicycling, Mexico, Spotlight, Travel

Thank You Bici Burro

Me at Bici Burro. Viva la bicicleta!

Me at Bici Burro. Viva la bicicleta!

Last time I covered my week in San Miguel de Allende: beautiful buildings, an incredible homestay family, and the most formal Spanish training I’ve ever had. But before I move on to the next leg of the journey, I wanted to take a moment to call out a particularly amazing act of kindness.

As ongoing readers know, my bicycle had suffered some unfortunate problems earlier in the Adventure. I’d fixed some of them, but the back wheel still wasn’t true and had a dangerous wobble. I wasn’t going to leave San Miguel without fixing it.

Enter Alberto Martínez, aka Beto. Beto is the owner of Bici Burro, a combination bicycle repair shop/tour company. Bici Burro literally means “Bike Mule” which sounds a lot better in Spanish. I’ve met several people who’ve taken his tours, tough but breathtaking jaunts on mountain bikes into the surrounding villages, often on cobblestone streets.

One of these, a traveler friend, had recommended I meet Beto when I reach San Miguel. Naturally, he came to mind after my near-breakdown in the desert. I found Beto’s his website and emailed him in Spanish; he replied in English. I was hoping he might have a replacement tire for me—I still wasn’t sure if the damaged one was any good—and sadly he did not. But he offered suggestions and put up with my repeated questions, and I could tell he was a real professional.

So once I reached San Miguel I made it a point to visit the Burro and ask him for a tune up. I figured he could true the wheel, diagnose any deeper causes of the wobble, and make the needed repairs.

I showed up one afternoon during comida, the late-afternoon meal break. Some shops close during this period and I was dismayed to see the door of Bici Burro shut tight. Timidly, I knocked on its ancient timbers.

I didn’t realize at first that the man who opened the door was Beto, nor did he realize I was the guy who’d emailed him about 28 times. But he looked over the bike while I struggled to figure out a phrase that might mean “tune-up”. He got the idea and offered the word revista (“a review”). He was happy to help. He told me to come back the next day—just not during comida.

I respected the horario and returned during non-meal hours. Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, the Giant was ready. Beto and his gigantic but sweet-tempered dog walked me around to the shop entrance.

With the Giant up on the cradle, Beto spun the wheel to show me how true it was and adjusted the brakes to my liking. What a relief.

I asked him how much I owed him. He hadn’t committed to a firm price beforehand because it depended on what the problem was. I hadn’t pushed, and frankly I expected to overpay. This guy had the skills I needed, making him one in a thousand in the refaccionerías of Mexico. I didn’t have any other options for bringing my bike back up to professional standards.

But asked the price, Beto demurred a moment longer. Then, in Spanish:

“This is something I want to do for you as a gift.”

I blinked, and made sure I’d heard him correctly.

“Yes, it’s a gift,” he repeated, then switched to English. “Because you are following a dream.”

I was humbled. I thanked Beto, who downplayed it (“For me, this is what I enjoy doing. It’s like playing around.”) I tried to think of something I could do in return, but there was nothing. It was an act of generosity and solidarity. Thank you, Beto.

In the moment, I totally forgot to ask if I could snap his picture, so I hope he won’t mind if I borrow one from his site:

Bici Burro.

If you ever find yourself in San Miguel de Allende, consider renting a bike from Beto. All of his machines are in the best of shape and I believe he’ll take good care of you. And if you do meet him, tell him the dream is still alive.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: The Shrine in the Marsh

Better late than never for more photos, right? I have two for you this week. The first one is a small roadside shrine near the Tabasco/Campeche border:

Photo by André

Photo by André

I’ve seen a lot of roadside shrines—probably one per kilometer on average—but literally none that look like this, before or since. It’s just so perfectly a folk shrine made of local materials and handcrafted elements. Inside the shrine, Jesus on the crucifix is dressed in hand sewn white garments tied with a purple ribbon in place of a belt. There’s also a shelf for votives and a number of fresh flowers indicating it’s been recently tended. Notably, Jesus is black. I cannot tell if that’s a racial choice or simply reflects the choice of a dark wood, or both. This shrine is surrounded by coastal marsh on all sides. There are occasional ranches with houses on solid land, but the cattle spend a lot of their time wading through shallow water. A few days later I reached the town of Sabancuy, protected from the Gulf by a barrier island. The only way to reach it is across five bridges. Here’s the view from beside the last bridge at sunset:

Photo by André

Photo by André

And yes, you can see both the moon and the evening star there. (Or possibly the International Space Station. I don’t really know my stars so good.)

Meanwhile, I just reached Mérida today which means the Mexico ride is so close to over! I’ll spend a few days here working, then a few more days on the final segment to my destination of Valladolid, Yucatán. I realize I have a lot of road logs to post (many of them are already written) and I’m going to try to catch them up to me around the time I reach Valladolid.

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

My Spanish Immersion in San Miguel de Allende

Last time I weathered a rough night in Villa de Reyes and found greener pastures in historic Dolores Hidalgo. This time I set off with my next rest stop, the popular San Miguel de Allende, in sight.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Sunday, November 30 (Day 877 of the Great Adventure)—to San Miguel de Allende

For once I had absolutely no reason to hurry. San Miguel was only a short distance away, a few hours’ ride, and I knew I’d enjoy it more if I got all my client work done before I set out. I had breakfast at the V Zone and then camped out in the hotel courtyard to do some writing. The hotel staff allowed me to remain there typing for several hours after my checkout, and by early afternoon my docket was clear.

The ride out of Dolores involved a couple steep cobblestone streets that meant walking the bike. Once underway the road was hilly but gentle and pretty. As I got closer to San Miguel de Allende I saw all the telltale signs of a tourist town that had been colonized first by foreign expats and then by the Mexican upper class. Health spas, fancy restaurants and white-walled condo developments appeared in breaks between the rich green hills.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

I approached San Miguel just before sunset. There was one final mountain and as I came over it I could see the city twinkling before me. There really is no more welcome or inspiring site after a day on the road.

For lodging I had booked an AirBnB that a friend recommended. It was in the city but far from the Centro, in a quiet middle class neighborhood. I turned off the highway on a downhill, cruising at speed toward the artery that would take me to the house. It turned out to be cobbled, and I clung to the Giant like a rodeo rider as he lurched and rattled to a stop. I walked him the last few blocks, coming up a gold-lit cobbled lane just at sunset and knocking on the big metal gate of my host’s home.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

Fay is Irish by birth, raised mostly in the US, and a longtime London resident. Nowadays she lives year round in Mexico with her two dogs, one cat, and one long-term lodger who’s rarely home. The remaining bedroom is rented out to travelers like me. The place had come recommended both because Fay herself  is great and because she had set up the room with a good work desk, good wi-fi and everything a location independent freelancer needs.

No sooner had I rolled through the gate than she squeezed me a glass of mandarina juice and put supper on. I hadn’t expected to be invited to dine and enjoyed a very healthy meal of soup and salad with her.

Fay.

The conversation was amazing. Fay is a fellow writer, mostly of poetry but also just about everything else. Her latest book rewrites the 12 steps of alcoholism treatment as a road to eventually recovering and being able to enjoy drinking in moderation. A self-described recovered alcoholic, Fay refocuses the traditional steps on creating healthy change in your life overall. You can find it here: The Steps.

Fay’s book. I’m jealous of the design and production value.

I told Fay I was thinking of going out for tacos. She needed to run to the corner store and offered to give me a mini tour of the neighborhood, including pointing the way to a hidden restaurant. I eagerly tagged along and she showed me a few landmarks plus introduced me to the store clerk. Her Spanish was highly functional, something I would soon come to appreciate made her stand out significantly from all the other retiree expats in town. She knew her neighbors and she could hold real conversations. This is really just the most basic dignity you can express to your neighbors when you move to a foreign country, but it’s one that most expats don’t really bother with.

Faye was done for the night so I went to the hidden restaurant on my own. Hidden indeed. Outside were just a few tables with parasols, the kind of place that could easily be another open air street food booth. But as I pushed open the door I caught my breath. I stepped into one of the most opulent and gorgeous dining spaces I’d ever seen—the first of several, with each room deeper into the home done up in flawless classical style complete with hardwood, marble and tile.

Photo by André

Photo by André

A waiter showed me to a table and turned the menu over with a flourish, to the English side. He spoke flawless English of his own, but that wasn’t what stood out. What stood out was how warm he was, never expressing impatience with my Spanish, not switching to English to show off or to treat me like a child but just to be cordial. I hadn’t realized how rare that was till he walked away with my order.

The place was pricier than my typical road meals but, for such a high end place, not really expensive. The food was excellent, including the free antojitos they brought out to woo me, and everything about the place was delightful except one thing: the company.

The other diners in the house were primarily expats. It was clear that the restaurant was one of those “best kept secrets” of the local foreigner enclave, which trends older and wealthier. Based on the dinner conversation they also trend shittier. A woman at one all-blanco table propounded on why Mexicans don’t make good employees—loudly, in front of the all-Mexican, all-bilingual wait staff. Another table featured two old, lackluster Caucasian men and one young, flamboyant Mexican man, their friendship hinting at the power of money to unzip trousers. The their great credit the wait staff endured all of this with poise and warmth.

Thankfully the place was far from crowded. I was far away from most of my countrymen, and soon a Mexican family arrived for a birthday celebration at the table next to mine. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Feliz Cumpleaños song drowned out the other diners.

24.1 miles

Map.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 1-2 (Day 878-879 of the Great Adventure)—Work Days

I had planned to spend two nights at Fay’s place, giving me a full work day. I quickly extended this to three nights and two work days. At the same time I was looking online at Spanish schools in San Miguel, thinking I might take a few days to sharpen my conversational skills.

The first day went very well, split evenly between writing and exploring the city. San Miguel is kind of an oddity in Mexico, a city taken over by and propped up by expats. Mexico has lots of cities with tourist economies, but these cater mainly to short-term visits. Enclaves of foreign residents are less numerous and, arguably, none are as influential as San Miguel’s.

To hear my Chilango friend tell it, it started with a single wandering American sixty years ago. He happened to find San Miguel de Allende quite charming, even thought it was a dusty and impoverished silver town at the time.

“How much to buy a house?” he asked.

“60 bucks,” came the answer. He bought it and told all his friends how cheap the real estate was. The next house sold for $70, then $80 and so on.

To hear the expats tell it isn’t much different. Fay said that when she first came to San Miguel decades ago there weren’t even phones in the houses. You had to go to a store in the centro and wait your turn to use the line. “If you bought a Coke you had to drink it before leaving the store,” she told me. “They needed the bottle.”

As the place became more popular, all the trappings of expat luxury began to crop up: coffee shops, high end restaurants, boutiques, wifi, even real working telephones. San Miguel is now one of Mexico’s most affluent cities, with an economy propped up by lavish foreign spending habits. (I felt a strange disconnect there, hearing people talk about how “cheap” everything was, when I’d been paying less in every other town.)

There’s no doubt I was quite taken by San Miguel that first Monday evening wandering around. As everyone had promised me, the city center is strikingly beautiful. There’s good food everywhere, with cuisine of all kinds. (There’s even a “New Orleans Style Oyster Bar” which I didn’t dare enter.) Despite the allure, over my time there I would become less enamored. It’s got a lot of convenience, but it’s not my kind of place.

Tuesday morning I arranged to sit in on a class at a local language school, Habla Hispana. The structure was great: four hours a day total, broken into 90 minutes of formal classroom (learning grammar, etc.), followed by a short coffee and snack break, an hour of semi-structured Spanish conversation and then an hour of reading and vocabulary practice. There were three separate classes for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. You had the same classroom teacher everyday, but the teachers rotated who was leading each conversation table so you got exposure to different personalities and styles. In other words it’s pretty much perfect.

I decided to enroll in a week of classes. Habla Hispana also offers a homestay program, and I signed up to move into one of the houses after class the next day.

I expected to have the afternoon to write, but the rear derailleur broke on my bicycle. I spent most of the afternoon trying to fix it before finally hauling it down to a bike store and having a new one put on. This was a huge waste of an afternoon but, honestly, I’m grateful that it happened in a city with bike shops instead of somewhere out on the road. The entire cost with parts and labor was $40 pesos or about US $3.00, which didn’t leave me feeling too good about the quality of the part. But I was able to bike back up the hill to Fay’s house and change gears without incident.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 3-10 (Day 880-887 of the Great Adventure)—Spanish Immersion

Fay gave me permission to leave my belongings at her place till I’d seen the homestay house. Bleary eyed, I rushed to the school and arrived only a few minutes “late” for class; but this is Mexico and class didn’t actually begin till 15 minutes after the scheduled start time. (This is a really effective system, by the way: all the problems with people being late kind of go away if we just agree to start late in the first place.)

The previous day I had chosen to sit in on the Intermediate class, which I thought might be over-ambitious, but it was a perfect fit. There were times over the week when I would actually think I might be better off in Advanced, but there were also big holes in my Spanish knowledge. At one point the teacher, Enrique, as astounded that I didn’t know the past tense version of the word for to have.

“Isn’t it irregular?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “How did you know (some other much more obscure word) in the preterite but you don’t know the preterite of tener?”

I shrugged apologetically. “I dunno.”

But actually, I do know. I’ve had almost no formal Spanish instruction. Most of my progress was fueled by living in Spanish speaking countries, using online tools or reading books. The past tense of to have just isn’t a word I needed in taco stands.

Afterwards my classmate Sky offered to walk me over to the homestay house—we were both staying at the same one. She’d been there several days and spoke highly of the house and the host family. Sky herself is a painter who just closed her gallery in Hawaii in order to be able to travel and live a freer life. She was excited when she found out I’m a writer and even more excited when I described my first novella as a work of magical realism.

“My last gallery show was entitled Magical Realism!” she exclaimed. (You can see Sky’s great work here.)

Maria and Alejandro’s house was indeed quite nice. Located on a privada just a few blocks from the school, it was laid out like a Roman villa with all rooms opening on a central courtyard. The story is that it was build by a family with eight children, and accordingly there are eight extra bedrooms, half upstairs and half down. Some, like Sky’s, have their own bathroom. I was given the one closest to the front, which Maria described as the “warmest” in the cold desert nights (my door opened to the foyer, not directly to the open air courtyard). She chose it for me because it had the strongest wifi signal, and the school had told her I needed wifi to do my work.

Maria and Alejandro’s children are grown, but the day I arrived happened to be Maria’s birthday. Their daughter, son in law and grandson were all there for the occasion, plus Sky and me. For reasons I never understood they had not one but seven separate cakes, of which two featured chocolate. Their grandson, Santiago, took it upon himself to cut and serve the chocolate mousse cake, which at age 5 consisted mostly of him licking the serving utensils.

The other member of the household, Ana, was kept busy through the whole meal. Ana is the hired housekeeper and kitchen assistant, doing a good amount of the cooking and most of the daily chores under Maria. She doesn’t live in the house but arrives early in the morning and sticks around till dinner time every day.

(You can meet Maria, Sky and Ana in the video logs for supporters.)

After the giant meal I biked back up to Fay’s house, got my belongings, and said goodbye. I was excited about learning better Spanish but I also knew I was leaving pretty much the ideal workplace. There’s no roommate in the world who understands the solitude a writer needs better than a fellow writer.

Once installed in the homestay house I had to adjust to a Mexican schedule. I had never really gotten into the rhythm of the huge mid-afternoon meal and tiny dinner. To eat with my host family—and get in all the Spanish conversation I could—I had to be ready for comida starting at 2:00, involving multiple dishes and often lasting till 4. Dinner was at 7 and involved leftovers or something small. A couple times there was no dinner at all. It may seem odd, given that I was now supposed to talk exclusively in a language I barely knew, but the hardest part of the week was probably the meal schedule.

Besides classes, Habla Hispana offers various cultural events that are free for students. I had missed the Monday afternoon tour of San Miguel, but Sky and I walked back to the school Wednesday evening to do a Spanish singalong. It was far more in-depth than we expected, and Enrique gave detailed information on which syllables and vowels are stressed in Spanish and why. This one hour of extra-curricular learning may have done more for my Spanish pronunciation than the past two years of practice.

Afterward, Sky and I swung over to a local dance school for Salsa lessons. This caused us to miss dinner, such as it is, and I headed out for a late night burger on my own.

Thursday and Friday more or less followed this pattern, except that by Friday it was clear I was getting sick. A nasty chest cold was making its way through Mexico, and I managed to catch it somewhere in SMA. (Sky suspects once of our dance partners, who went on to infect her the next day.) I managed to do a second dance lesson—this time Cumbia, which Sky and I found much easier—but after that had to spend a lot more time in my bedroom, coughing so hard it gave me a headache.

On the weekend there were no language classes. I used the time to explore (while coughing), write in cafes (coughing away from the other patrons) or sleep (followed by a coughing fit upon waking). I started to feel better by the time the next week rolled around, but I knew the cough would be a problem: rapid breathing, tough uphill stretches and thin mountain air are a bad combination. I did everything I could to get myself in shape before my departure, prioritizing rest over a number of cultural activities I could’ve done.

Class continued to go well and so did conversation around the house. I couldn’t believe my progress with Spanish. These seven days were probably the biggest period of growth in my Spanish since my first tutor in Mexico City.

During this period I also wrote El Gato Morado y el Pez Dorado.

My last day of class was Tuesday, but I decided to do one more day of homestay on Wednesday. The extra day let me finish all my client work before again hitting the windy road.

0.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 25 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3661.1 miles

More road logs are available here.

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