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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