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

Too Dirty for Her Bed By Far

The last few weeks had been the low point of the trip, with a serious knee injury, food poisoning, and some not-so-welcoming towns. I was done exploring Villahermosa and wondered if the road ahead would be different. It should be all beaches and islands as I followed the coast to Campeche. Even the rain had stopped. I felt a new sense of hope and turned north.

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

Sunday, January 18 (Day 926 of the Great Adventure)—To the Coast

Early morning found me in the parking lot of Choco’s Hotel, still covered in puddles. I frowned. Despite my thorough cleaning of the Giant’s gears and chains, he wouldn’t shift right. I had 50 miles ahead, and was eager to get moving, but it was six days to Campeche. If the derailleur (gear shifter) needed replacing, this was the time to do it.

But first things first. I ate breakfast at the hotel, emptied my room and loaded everything on the bike. Google showed only two bike shops in town, one of them a mere four blocks away. Off I went.

The mechanic at the shop immediately put my fears to rest. Neither of us understood any of the words the other one used, but we communicated perfectly. He said the problem would be solved if we just shortened the chain, and I strongly disagreed. (As always happens when I disagree with a Mexican bike mechanic, he quickly proved me wrong.)

Four minutes and a few pesos later I had a shorter chain and gears that shifted perfectly. As he worked he made small talk about famous racing cyclists, none of whom I recognized. (I even missed Lance Armstrong, though that was due to his accent.) My lack of racing trivia made him skeptical that I would reach South America.

Back on the streets I wove through heavy traffic, counting off the blocks so I’d know when to turn. A white-skinned guy with filthy blond hair spotted me and gave out a massive victory roar. I held my fist up and soared on. It’s weird, but he really picked me up. I guess it was just nice to know that someone else in this corner of Mexico understood the drive for adventure. White people are messed up.

The ride itself was a dream. 50 miles and no knee pain to speak of, plus the surroundings were sublime. Lush savanna gave way to coastal marshes, dotted with pockets of tropical forest. It was so green and the air smelled so fresh that I pulled over just to bask in it. The day was sunny and very warm, but I carried plenty of water.

Today’s destination was Frontera, a coastal town near the Tabasco/Campeche state line (frontera means “border” in Spanish). It’s situated at the mouth of a river, and I crossed the water on a high bridge just before sunset, again awed by the beauty of nature.

It was still light when I rolled into town and I picked out the least shabby of three hotels. There was no way to bring the Giant up the steep, narrow staircase to the hotel, but the owner promised me they had parking “just around the corner.” She grabbed the key and offered to show me the way.

Around the corner meant go two blocks, hang a left, and go another block. She unlocked a door big enough to admit a Caterpillar; beyond was a walled yard that could have easily housed an outdoor Wal-Mart. A few parking spots to one side had a roof, so I chained the Giant up there and made sure I had everything I needed. Clearly I wasn’t coming back till morning.

I followed the sound of music to a small pizza/burger place on the square (also on the second story—is this a thing?). I enjoyed a “Texas Burger,” which has all the fixings that we’d call a “South of the Border” burger in the States, and some deep-fried mozzarella sticks, a sight that brought tears to my eyes.

I got back to the hotel room early and put myself to bed. 51.1 miles.

Map.

Breakfast in Frontera. I'm hooked on motuleños.

Breakfast in Frontera. I’m hooked on motuleños.

January 19 (Day 927 of the Great Adventure)—The Island City

It turns out Frontera is an oil town, and morning brought a surge of oil workers in bright orange uniforms, probably finishing up some shore leave and getting ready to go back to a platform. Travel hint: if all the oil workers in town go to the same cafe for breakfast, try that cafe.

The road out of was beautiful again, though hotter and more miles than yesterday. I crossed the state border in late morning and discovered a one of a kind roadside shrine on a strip of highway flanked by marsh. Sometimes I would hear a horrendous sloshing in the marsh, and discovered that cattle ranching is just as big on the coast as it is in the desert—you just let the cattle waddle through the swamp to graze. Once, even a horse came splashing through the foliage.

Later I turned into the small town of Nuevo Progreso looking for lunch. This was not a town that usually gets visitors, and I couldn’t go 50 meters without someone yelling “GUERRO! GUERRO!”

The main street had no eateries but I discovered Gisela’s, an open air kiosk in a park. It’s the kind of place with no menu, just one plate of the day. Gisela apologized because today’s was chicken with a spicy sauce, and she was surprised when I excitedly ordered it. The real treat was fresh “agua de piña” (ice cold pineapple juice). I drank a liter.

After lunch I asked Gisela if she had a bathroom.

“Ah,” she said. “Here’s what you do. See that fruit stand over there? You go ask that lady for the key. Then you go into that collapsed warehouse and just walk on through. Don’t worry, just go all the way through. On the other side you look for the public market, and inside the market there’s a locked bathroom.”

I started in disbelief and she repeated the directions. I’m pretty sure the fruit stand lady had to repeat them as well. From the smell inside the collapsed warehouse, that’s as far as most hombres get, but I followed the treasure map and eventually did my business in a real porcelain toilet (sans flush).

Gisela at her kiosk in Nuevo Progreso, Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Gisela at her kiosk in Nuevo Progreso, Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Late afternoon brought cooler temperatures and I whisked on at high speed—much faster than the cars and buses, which were backed up in a traffic jam stretching for miles. This seemed odd out in the country, but eventually I found the cause. A rally was happening at the small town of Atasta, and had fully blocked the road.

I try to steer clear of political events in foreign countries. Rather than crossing the picket line I dismounted and walked around the edge of the crowd. When I was nearly to the other side, I finally caught someone’s attention.

“GUERRO! GUERRO!” he yelled.

The cry spread. Several hundred protesting Mexicans turned their eyes on me. I did what any savvy traveler would do: I put on a giant friendly grin.

Someone in the crowd let out a resounding, “VIVA MEXICO!”

I struck a pose, raising a fist in victory salute to the patriotic cry. Everyone in the crowd laughed and I got out of there.

After that the roads were clear. It was forest on both sides with a sparkling lake just past the forest. The pine trees and lake reminded me of Michigan.

It was basically dusk when I reached the shore of the Gulf, the first time I’d seen it in weeks. Out in the water were the twinkling lights of Ciudad del Carmen, a city on an island. A long bridge stretches from mainland to city, and I crossed that bridge in the dark, pausing to hear the gentle lapping waters and thinking of my night landing by kayak.

In town I had set my rights on a hotel that looked good online. I rolled the bicycle into the lobby and approached a painted young lady behind the counter (protected by elegant iron bars). I asked to see a room.

“I can’t show you one,” she said.

“Are you out of rooms?”

“No, we have plenty.”

“Then…?”

At first I thought the issue was that she was alone, and didn’t go alone to rooms with strange men. That’s a fair consideration. But after some back and forth, I think what she was telling me was this:

“To me, you look dirty, and if I let you go into a room you might dirty it up.”

Son of a.

I very carefully chose some Spanish words about how she looked, but bit them back. Instead I politely told her that I would look for another hotel. I then stretched out on one of the upholstered lobby chairs and pulled out my iphone, going through Google reviews and checking the location of each one on my map. She was visibly uncomfortable that I was there. I took my time.

Eventually I did find a better place, with much friendlier lobby staff. Ciudad del Carmen is a real city, if a small one, and has a beautiful centro. The thing about island cities is that they’re never spawled out, and are almost always better for it. I spent the evening exploring and had a burger at a local pub. 62.5 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 113.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4391.1 miles.

Next time it’s iguanas, beaches, and the sweetest little stretch of road of the whole trip. Until then check out my past road logs or become a supporter.

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

Photo of the Week: Villahermosa’s Wrong-Way Boulevards

Last week I wrote up my wanderings in Villahermosa, but I realized I left one thing out. Villahermosa is the only city I’ve ever seen with divided boulevards… where both sides go the same way.

Here’s proof:

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

I’ve wracked my head about this and can’t imagine any advantages to this setup. Anybody have an idea?

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

This Is Why I Love Xalapa

Last time I ascended a stunning mountain road and then rocketed down the slope to the jungle city of Xalapa. This time, I fall promptly in love with the place—even as I feel more alone than ever.

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

December 22-25 (Days 899-902 of the Great Adventure)—To Veracruz

There was something thrilling about being in a real city again. A few of my stops were big-ish, like San Miguel, and Tula’s downtown certainly looks like it belongs in a sprawling metropolis, but Xalapa is a whole different caliber. As an example, my first night there I struggled to choose between three sushi places.

(Solution: I didn’t choose; I restaurant hopped.)

A street in the Centro area. Skateboarders loved this spot.

A street in the Centro area. Skateboarders loved this spot.

But I would soon discover that Xalapa isn’t just a big city. It’s a beautiful big city. It’s as if someone took the best climate, the best architecture, the best food and the best culture scene from all the other cool places and put them together. It’s hard to explain what’s so great about Xalapa, but I’ll try:

  • The climate is perfect. It’s in an area that’s warm and humid, but it’s situated 5,000 feet up a mountain so it never gets uncomfortably hot. It’s surrounded by cloud forest, so the air is fresh, clean and cool. Flowers and trees are everywhere
  • There are more public parks, and better ones, than I’ve seen anywhere in Mexico. These range from small statue gardens to typical Mexican squares to sprawling nature walks. Many streets are divided boulevards with landscaping in the middle. And you feel like you’re in the forest at all times (because, well, you are) with trees providing canopy between buildings.
  • Xalapa is known as the Athens of Mexico. It’s one of the oldest cities and had some of the first schools of the Colonial period. It has continued to be a hub of higher learning, the arts, and music through today. Even just the street musicians are a caliber above the rest of Mexico, much like those of New Orleans compared to the rest of the US.
  • As far as I can tell there are more coffee shops per capita than any city in the world. I even saw multiple tea houses, a rarity in Mexico.
An outdoor kitchen that makes fantastic breakfasts.

An outdoor kitchen that makes fantastic breakfasts.

There are probably some downsides to Xalapa, but I had a hard time finding them. Getting around might be tough: it’s as hilly as you’d expect for a mountain city, with lots of narrow winding roads. That could also make biking difficult, and I didn’t try out the public transportation. On the other hand, taxis were abundant and cheap.

Similarly, as with any city it’s probably only as nice as your wallet allows. But that’s what struck me: I wandered far and wide and never found a slum. I’m sure one exists, but it seems to have less poverty than most Mexican cities. Plus prices seemed overall reasonable. I was able to get plenty of cheap meals at nice little restaurants, including a Japanese noodle shop and an Italian kitchen.

Two women chatting at my favorite Italian restaurant in Xalapa, Trattoria Giovanni.

Two women chatting at my favorite Italian restaurant in Xalapa, Trattoria Giovanni.

Art & Literature

One thing I noticed the first day, Monday 12/22, was that I was treated like a normal human being. In much of Mexico, foreigners are treated like something of an oddity. We’re either an annoyance to be dealt with or we’re just a walking bag of money. Here, I was regarded as one more face in the crowd. I didn’t get any special treatment, which is how I like it.

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

This attitude also extended to the local art scene. I walked past a building full of art studios, and paused as I realized these were actual studios, where artists work on their fine art—not tourist shops. I strolled past adverts for classes in sculpture, painting and drawing. There seems to be a true arts scene in Xalapa.

Likewise I could hardly choose a street to go down without tripping over a book store. Bookstores themselves aren’t unusual, but this many of them is. Once I found myself on a street where no less than three used bookstores occupied the same block as a second-floor bar called Bar de Poesía. Strong literary scene? I’m guessing yes.

Bar de Poesía.

Bar de Poesía.

What really struck me was how the arts were woven into everything. They weren’t confined to one neighborhood, but seeded throughout the city. On the second floor of one old house I spotted a coffee shop that also offered economy breakfasts, pizzas in the evening, and dance classes twice a week.

This is the cafe, "Casa Nadie." The name is a reference to a famous Mexican novel.

This is the cafe/cultural center, “Casa Nadie.” The name is a reference to a famous Mexican novel.

It might seem strange not to go to a museum in a city like this, but I didn’t have to. Everywhere I went I felt the pulse and hum of living art. This is something very few cities can lay claim to. New Orleans certainly can. I’m told Paris can, too. Xalapa is in some good company.

(Oddly, there were very few other foreigners in the city and from what I’ve read it doesn’t have a big ex-pat community. So if you’re looking for a “hidden gem” or “the next big thing,” get there before Lonely Planet does.)

The tree in the Centro.

The tree in the Centro.

The Christmas Scene

Part of the romance of my stay was undoubtedly the Hotel Salmones. It’s not an expensive hotel but it has a historic building and I loved my room. With a carpeted floor, white walls and dark wood trim, it looked like somewhere a writer would live in the 1930s. It had an actual writing desk, hard to find on this journey. To complete the air of faded luxury, there was even a burn mark from an iron in the floor.

This hotel put me just one street over from the centro. There, a giant cathedral loomed over a small square facing a government palace. The square was taken over by a towering Christmas tree, an expansive nativity scene, and a small night market. American Christmas carols blared over one loudspeaker while cumbia blared over another.

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

I passed this scene many times a day, and I’ll admit some loneliness. At one point, probably on Christmas Eve, I saw doñas carrying big covered platters on every side street, undoubtedly hurrying to dinner with their families. The holiday came and went, and I was far from everybody I love.

Fun Facts

I also learned some cool trivia about Xalapa. For instance:

  • It’s sometimes spelled Jalapa. Either way the initial sound is an H as in Harry.
  • Jalapeño peppers come from Xalapa. They were first cultivated here, and the name jalapeño literally just means “from Xalapa/Jalapa.”
  • People from this city are also called Jalapeños!
  • Despite being over an hour from the coast, Xalapa is the capital of Veracruz. You’d think the city called Veracruz would be, but no, that’s just a big dirty port town.

This is also one of the first places I saw Yucateco (Yucatán style) restaurants, which made me feel a lot closer to the end than I was, and one of the first stops where I could easily order wine at most restaurants (beer is much more common), which made for a couple of long lazy evenings.

A public park in Xalapa.

A public park in Xalapa.

A trail in the same public park.

A trail in the same public park.

A hut in the same park. Yes, open to the public.

A hut in the same park. Yes, open to the public.

A Future Home

I truly hope to return to Xalapa someday. After the Mexico bicycle ride I plan to do a writing sabbatical, and I’d intended to spend it in the Yucatán. But I’d only been in Xalapa two days or so before I started contemplating coming back instead. Even if I don’t do that, I can’t imagine that I won’t live in this city at some point in the future. Only time will tell when that might be.

A playground in Xalapa. Yes, the dragon is a slide. Its tail winds through the whole playground and eventually becomes a jungle gym.

A playground in Xalapa. Yes, the dragon is a slide. Its tail winds through the whole playground and eventually becomes a jungle gym.

Instead of the three days I planned, I extended my stay to four because of how it lined up with the holidays (at least, that’s what I told myself). I’d much rather be in my familiar room at the Salmones for Christmas than out on the road somewhere.

That road is calling, however, and next time I’ll set back out for the city of Veracruz, the glimmer of the Gulf of Mexico, and everything beyond. Until then, become a supporter and get a post card or check out my other road logs.

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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, 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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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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