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

Escaping SLP

Last time, one of my patented “shortcuts” became a hardscrabble mule track in the desert and brought me face to face with a funnel cloud. I managed to wobble into the city of San Luis Potosí, an unplanned stop, hours after dark. Now we pick up in the city and try to get this ride back on track.

Photo by André

View in San Luis Potosí. Photo by André

Thursday, November 27 (Day 874 of the Great Adventure)—From the Lord’s House to the King’s

Hotel restaurants know they have a captive audience. Either the prices are high, the food is meh or both. But when I woke up in San Luis Potosí all I wanted was to eat quickly and get on with my day. 10% discount coupon in hand, I headed to the Hotel Maria Cristina’s in-house comedor. It became clear quickly that they weren’t interested in serving a foreigner. This wasn’t just the usual slow service. Table after table of Mexican families were seated, placed their orders, and saw their food come while I sat ignored. The server carefully kept her back to me at all times. I had two choices: waste even more time looking for another restaurant, or step up. I looked around, identified the manager (also with her back to me) and stood up from my table. “DISCÚLPE,” I half-yelled. Conversations stopped and all eyes fixed on the guero. The manager had no choice but to turn my way. I raised my hands, my eyebrows and my shoulders in the classic American gesture of “WTF.” She muttered the equivalent of “right away” and went to harass one of her servers, as if it was that person’s fault. I watched, still standing until the manager came in person. I ordered my food and conversations resumed around us. (Mom, if you’re reading this: thanks for teaching me how to be a problem customer.) The delay bothered me because I had a full morning ahead. As long as I was in a major city I figured I should hit the local bike shops and try to find a replacement for my damaged tire. Four local bike shops all referred me to one famed master: Bicicletas Villaseñor. I arrived twenty minutes before they opened, waiting outside his green door. A collection of hardcore cyclists gathered in the street. Three of them rode low-rider stunt bikes, complete with fat tires and front/back pegs. The fourth, an upper class kid with the air of a scholar, perched on a tall road bike—the space-age descendant of my own Miyata. His ultralight frame, pencil-thin tires and pro sports wear indicated he was a racer. The street bikes showed off some amazing stunts that the road bike wasn’t built to match, but El Académico had a few tricks of his own. Occasionally one of these urban badasses would glance my way as if wondering what my story was, but mostly they were engrossed in popping flips and wheelies.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

At no point was I tempted to show off my own stunts. For one thing, that’s not the kind of bike I rock and for another, doing tricks on a damaged tire seems like a poor choice. But mostly, I just have a different talent set: I don’t ride along curbs on just one wheel, but I can go 175 km in on day. That’s impressive enough by cyclist standards. Finally the inevitable older, Obi-Wan-looking store owner showed up and opened the door. I followed the stuntsters through the narrow opening. They all gathered around me and Obi Wan introduced himself. “A su orden,” he offered. But my wait was for nothing. He checked his inventory and had no sturdy, long-road-trip-worthy 27″ tires in stock. It’s just not a common thing in Mexico. (Cheap crummy 27″ tires or high quality 26″-ers, sure.) I thanked him and left the Villa behind This is really where I should’ve given up—if he didn’t have them, nobody would. But I’m not good at giving up. I went to a few more stores in the area, all of which referred me back to Villaseñor. I figured I would try a different neighborhood on the way out of town. Most of the day’s frustrations aren’t worth detailing. Suffice it to say that I rode through ghettos, freeway bridges and exurbs to hit two more bike suppliers. One didn’t exist except on Apple Maps (which sucks) and the other was a warehouse, not a store at all. They probably had exactly what I needed on the shelves inside, but coudn’t sell it to me. Of the two security guards at the warehouse, one wanted to shoot me for daring to walk in the office door and the other warmly drew me a map to a store that sold their products. After trying to find it twice I determined that it was either nowhere near where he thought it was or it had closed long ago. Sometime after 1 p.m. I finally shrugged off the quest and hopped on the freeway. And I was stung. Maybe it was the urgency of getting out of a big dirty city or maybe I just needed to work off some frustration. I dug my feet into the Giant’s pedals like never before and cannonballed the interstate. I covered two hours’ worth of distance in one, then turned toward Villa de Reyes on a road signposted as the “Ruta de Haciendas Potosinas” (Route of Potosian Plantations). You can see what the surroundings looked like here. At that turn a tailwind billowed up behind me. I kicked into the pedals with new muscles built strong on the mountains. The gears clicked up into second-highest. It’s an insane setting for long distance cruising, but it synced my body with the wind. We soared. Around 4:00 I came out of my trance and realized I was in some sort of town. It was Villa de Reyes. I rolled to a stop and looked around in confusion: my legs couldn’t understand why they weren’t still moving, and the rest of me couldn’t believe I was here so soon. It was two hours till sunset, and if the pace held out I could reach the larger town of San Felipe by dark. It would surely have a better selection of hotels. On the other hand, stopping here was the safe bet—if there was anywhere to stay. A cruise down the equivalent of Main Street convinced me to stay. I could only locate two hotels, one that looked like a complete hole and the other that looked delightful. (They were two different entrances to the same place.) I rolled my bike inside and got a room. I thought my troubles might be over. Villa de Reyes is a charming town, with a stream/canal running through it and houses built on bridges over the canal. But I wasn’t in for the best night. The hotel boasted internet and hot water, neither of which worked; the room was freezing; and when I asked for a receipt I was told it would cost extra (uh?). The beds were made of rocks and my only lightbulb exploded in the middle of the night. The one enjoyable part of my evening was finding a crazy good cocina economica, where the doña kept candles on a Guadalupe shrine over her brick oven. After dinner, both my mobile internet and the hotel internet failed, and I turned in for a fitful night of sleep. 33.3 miles.

Map.

Friday, November 28 (Day 875 of the Great Adventure)—Oh Dolores

I had client work to finish, so I awoke early hoping for a 4G signal. It still wasn’t there, and I had to adjourn to the freezing hotel courtyard to pick up wi-fi. Wrapped in a blanket, I typed away as the sun came up. For those of you keeping score, this was when I finally ran out of prepaid internet thanks to some earlier bungling. I spent the morning variously shivering, looking for somewhere that would serve me breakfast, asking Telcel kiosks all the wrong questions, or wandering more than a mile to an Oxxo station to get a giant cup of real coffee. Finally I found a doña who could help. She ran a little electronics shop and tried to explain everything I didn’t understand about my Telcel account. Another $400 pesos later I had the internet back. It was another very late start, departing after noon. I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to Villa de Reyes and I looked forward to covering some mileage. The easy target would be San Felipe, but all signs pointed to a farther town, Dolores Hidalgo, being prettier and well worth a visit. I decided to go 60 miles and reach it, late start or no. The day was mostly uneventful. I turned onto the wrong highway as I left town, which meant narrow lanes and no shoulder. One semi truck ran me off the road, and you can see my feelings on that in the video logs if you’re a supporter. I turned a corner at a bypass road around San Felipe. The land after that made everything better. More narrow rural roads but the traffic was light. Vast hilly surroundings, green instead of brown, and I had crossed the border into gorgeous Guanajuato state. In setting like this my creative side returns. I recorded two long voice memos to myself as I pedaled, one of which became The Birth of a New Heroism. The Giant rolled into Dolores Hidalgo exactly at sunset. It was indeed a gorgeous, welcoming and thriving town—the opposite of Villa de Reyes. The second hotel I walked into, Hotel CasaMia, was pretty much the perfect place: friendly staff, beautiful space and affordable prices. After taking a hot shower I basked in the presence of two working internet signals. I was drained. I wandered around town a little bit, taking in one of the prettiest and most active Centros I’ve seen. I passed on the fancy cafes off the central jardín and found a place with a college vibe that served pizza, tacos and burgers. I chose a platter of alambre (meat and fixings supposedly roasted on skewers, but usually just grilled) that consisted of steak, bacon, mushrooms, pineapples and cheese. This I rolled up into tacos until I was so full I couldn’t eat another bite. An early night in a comfortable (if cold) room awaited me. 62.5 miles.

Map.

Saturday, November 29 (Day 876 of the Great Adventure)—Rest Day

By the time I’d gone to sleep I pretty much knew I’d be taking an unplanned rest day in Dolores Hidalgo. I didn’t really need more rest so much as I was enchanted by the town and the chance to explore it. The way I travel, working while I’m on the road, has its downsides, but this is definitely an upside. I can stop in pretty much any place I fancy. After breakfast at a corner cafe I canvassed out from the Centro. Dolores Hidalgo, like Villa de Reyes, had a central canal. But instead of building over it they turned it into an attractive green riverfront. I also had something of a mission. I saw lots of artesanías (handmade craft shops) and decided to pick up a small lightweight shoulder bag. Men carry these a lot more commonly in Mexico, and it would be handy for taking my laptop or a book when I went out. Check out the result:

My bag. Photo by André.

My bag. Photo by André.

I was surprised to find a place called Zona “V” (the V Zone, meaning the Green Zone) in the local public market. They had salads, green smoothies, natural juices, vegetarian and gluten free food, and other healthy stuff. I wanted a regular unhealthy Cuban sandwich, which they were happy to make, but I washed it down with a terrific mix of grapefruit and orange juice. Much of the day was dedicated to writing, which I did in the CasaMia’s courtyard. Dolores Hidalgo is the city where the Mexican Revolution began, and I shot a video at the historic church where the cry for independence was raised. (I got every single one of my Mexican history facts wrong, however, and had to film a do-over the next morning.) For dinner I went back to the same college-atmosphere cocina and this time tentatively tried their pizza, which was actually really good. I worked late into the night and got ready for tomorrow’s ride, which would take me to San Miguel de Allende—the halfway point in the ride across Mexico.

Total traveled this leg: 95.8 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3636.1 miles.

Next time I strike toward San Miguel and my first every Spanish immersion homestay. Until then, check out all my road logs or become a supporter and get the video logs.

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

A Tornado in the Desert

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

Photo by Kevin Schraer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mule track was my right-hand turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, fuck it. I kept walking the bike.

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

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

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

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

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

Towering over me, straight ahead, was a tornado.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m pretty used to that look.

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

 —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where do you want to bike?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said. We laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map 1. 26.3 miles

Map 2. 5.5 miles walking

Map 3. 27.8 miles.

Total traveled this leg: 59.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3540.3 miles.

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

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

Photo Friday: The Man in the Mirror

This is the view of the Templo de Carmen from the seventh floor of the Hotel Maria Cristina in San Luis, Potosí:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Since snapping this, I’ve taken a one week break to enroll in a Spanish immersion school including a homestay with a local host family. It’s challenging but very well structured and that makes learning the language a lot less difficult than you might think. It also takes virtually all of my time, which means I’m falling behind on road logs—but I do hope to have more up soon.

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Adventure, Mexico, Photographs, Travel

Photo Friday: Wirikuta and Festival Street

Since I managed to miss Photo Friday last week, this week there’s a double shot. First up:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That’s the view from the chapel of Guadalupe outside Real de Catorce. That white stuff beyond the mountains? That’s the top of endless miles of cloud covering the desert below.

Real de Catorce was formerly a silver mining town, and became a ghost town for many years. It’s also the gateway to the Wirikuta (Huiricuta), the sacred land of the Huichol. Each year they make a pilgrimage to this land, and to the sacred mountain far out in the desert, to collect the magic peyote cactus.

Here’s a different shot of the edge of the cloud bank as we ascended toward Real:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That shot, however, is on the outside of the cluster of mountains that surround the sacred land. You can see that the mist is thinner here and drifts freely. In the first shot, over the sacred desert, the thick cloud bank is essentially trapped by the mountains—it covered the whole desert the entire time we were there.

The other shot is from the town of Moctezuma (!), part of the “Corridor of Oases” that leads from the desert to the lush heartland of San Luis Potosí:

Photo by André

Photo by André

This is the main road into town, leading from a small parish church in an outlying village across the river to the centro and main parish church in town (I rode in via this street). The decorations are from a Catholic festival, in which people processed from the outlying church to the central one. When I asked a local which saint the festival and decorations were for, he scrunched his face.

“There are so many,” he said. “How can I remember?”

He also pointed out that although Guadalupe’s feast day isn’t until December 12, people start celebrating it weeks earlier; one of the recent processions could be for her.

“If the saint days are only a few weeks apart, people just leave up the same decorations the whole time,” he added.

Here is the same street by full daylight. I love the shadows that the decorations make:

Photo by André

Photo by André

More soon!

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

Boulevard Rio Santiago (Photo Tale)

This week I was sure my Photo of the Week would be of Rio Santiago. My friend Cintain told me about it the week I arrived here. Rio Santiago is an old river that once ran through San Luis Potosí, but at some point its riverbed was turned into a road. It was a practical choice: the river course offered a smooth, clear path through mountainous terrain, and I suppose in the desert atmosphere it was dry most of the time anyway. So a road was born, and as the city expanded it became Boulevard Rio Santiago.

That sounded amazing to me. I pictured a winding, steep-sided road with houses built up along the banks. Cintain told me that it still floods when it rains, and I wondered if the houses were on stilts. I promised myself to take my camera, walk to the north side of town and find out.

Unfortunately, reality is sometimes not nearly as strange as fiction. “Boulevard” Rio Santiago turns out to look like this:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Yeah, it’s just a freeway. I was deeply disappointed. But I wondered if maybe it became more of a city street closer to the town center, so I decided to follow it a little ways—using the surface streets behind retainer walls in the neighborhoods to either side.

It never got much prettier, although I did find this old bridge:

Photo by André

Photo by André

I’m no expert, but the construction of this bridge does not look Colonial era to me. But it is old(ish), and I wonder if it was originally a bridge over the waters of the river. It’s wide enough for horses, bicycles or people, but probably not wagons.

Photo by André

Photo by André

I did get a little adventure out of it. The far side is covered in graffiti and garbage, and leads to a gravel alleyway through a little neighborhood I never would have visited otherwise. I took my leave of the Rio and wandered back southward.

I love this kind of exploration day, even if the thing you wanted to see turns out to fizzle. You always find some spot worth remembering. This little corner market, on an empty street, represents San Luis Potosí a lot better than colonial vistas or old riverbeds:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Later, a little research showed me that the giant gross boulevard does eventually end. In fact, there’s a total dead end where the highway stops and the river suddenly starts again. You can see it for yourself.

Anyway, since the river road turned out to be so ugly, I’ve got something better.

Have you ever noticed how many cafés have a print of Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night”? It seems sort of sad to see it hanging in a café, as if that somehow makes the space more like the one in the picture. You can’t make an incredible, moody café by hanging pictures of moody cafés on the wall, but you can choose + create a space that has personality. That’s the whole reason Van Gogh painted the one on Place du Forum in the first place—because someone had taken the time to give it character, and it inspired him. He could’ve put those stars anywhere.

On a callejon (alley) off Avenida Carranza, someone has taken the time to make a café with character. Walking up to it is more magical than any painting. And that’s why it gets Photo of the Week:

Photo by André

Photo by André

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Mexico, The Great Adventure, Travel

What Has Life in Mexico Been Like?

When I first started my journey I always thought it would be a single, long trip with no breaks. I didn’t expect to bus back to New Orleans to visit people, even for a few weeks. I definitely didn’t think I would take months-long scouting runs ahead of my bike route.

But that’s exactly what I did after leaving Texas. I decided to bus ahead to central Mexico to improve my Spanish and plan a bicycle route through Narco territory. While it may not be exactly how I envisioned tackling this leg of the trip, I do like the idea of being alive and happy at the end of it.

So far life in Mexico has been calm. I moved into a spare room at my friend Cintain’s house. He’s Mexican by birth, but his years in Canada and abroad mean that his English is better than most native speakers. He gave up translation work a long time ago to focus on building his dream business, a clinic of Chinese medicine.

Like most travelers his time away from home has also given him perspective on his own native country. It’s so weird for me to hear him list everything he hates about Mexico: to me it’s a dream come true. There was a time he would have gladly left it behind forever to live in Canada or even the United States, a country that often makes my skin crawl. Now he’s made his peace with his home, and has established a beautiful house and consultory in San Luis Potosí.

SLP is a nice city. It’s very relaxed compared to Mexico City or, honestly, almost anywhere I’ve been in Mexico. I’ve seen small rural towns, big cities, and beachside tourist centers and they usually have a sense of mild chaos. But the one word I use to describe SLP over and over is tranquilo, tranquil, chill.

But last week the owner of my favorite bar introduced me to a neighbor of his, a 2o-something studying to become a plastic surgeon. He leaned in and asked me, “Don’t you think San Luis Potosí is a little… boring?”

I paused, then answered truthfully. “Yeah, I do.”

That doesn’t mean I haven’t had fun. In the afternoons when I’m done writing I like to walk about 25 minutes to the central historic district. In the old colonial part of town there’s a public market called Tangamanga. I can pick up bundles of chopped veggies for soup, bunches of fresh bananas and a candle or two from the little spiritual shop. Some of the market ladies know me now and recognize me when I come in.

When I need something closer to home I go to a store called Super Frutty [sic]. Most Mexican corner stores sell abarrotes, a gas-station-style selection of soda and junk food. But Super Frutty is more in the style of a Brooklyn corner grocery. The owner, Leonardo, always smiles and is one of the first people who suffered through making conversation with me in Spanish. He has abarrotes but also fresh fruits and veggies, cheese and milk, fresh eggs and locally made tortillas. Even granola! Leonardo works six days a week but he looks happy all the time. He just seems to enjoy life.

Many nights I make my own dinner, but if I feel lazy I’m likely to go to Tequis, the local park, where street food outposts open up as the sun goes down. The back corner of the park is where you can find the absolute best enchiladas potosinas, the signature local dish. They’re just tortillas folded over a bit of pungent cheese, fried and then painted with red sauce. Tacos rojos are their other dish, my favorite, which are more like tacquitos heaped high with a mixture of fresh toppings. Either dish is served with a side of root vegetables and, optionally, molotes: little mystery balls stuffed with fillings like cheese or pepper slices, depending on the night.

The wait can be 40 minutes or longer at peak times so I try to go early.

I haven’t explored only on my own, however. A few weeks after I arrived I got a visit from my friend Ernest White II, aka the Fly Brother. Ernest and I have been friends for a while online and talked a number of times, but all our previous attempts to meet up managed to fall through. This time he made it happen, finagling two days in San Luis Potosí amidst his intercontinental lifestyle.

Fly Brother and André.

Fly Brother and André.

Rather than running out to tourist spots Ernest and I spent most of our time having excited conversations about travel, spirituality, Vodou, race, writing and adventure. He also introduced me to what is probably the best Disney movie ever made:

Probably the most surreal (and oddly entertaining) part of the stay, however, was when Ernest shared with me his obsessive love of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Surprisingly good show, actually.

The one thing I’ve spent the most time on is writing. Cintain is often away for a week or more at a time on his own travels, leaving me with the solitude I crave to get work done. I’ve mostly been focused on my upcoming fiction series about demons and knights in medieval Spain, a painful process of research, outlining and character sketching which has so far yielded less than 10,000 words of actual book draft.

My time in SLP grows short. This coming Wednesday night/Thursday morning is Beltaine, and after I celebrate that I’ll hop a bus and head on to Guanajuato, which is where I’ll spend the rest of my Spanish immersion sabbatical—this time in a place that’s completely my own.

I’m excited to move on and explore a new city but I’ll also miss my brother here in SLP. I wonder if I’ll make more friends as good as Cintain and the small band of spiritual seekers that I call my tribe. I also wonder how my Spanish will develop and whether I’ll ever be as fluent as I want to be.

 

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Mexico, Photographs, Religion, Travel

Procesión del Silencio (A Photo Tale)

For once in my travels my timing is perfect, as I happened to be here in San Luis Potosí for their renowned Holy Week celebration, the Procession of Silence. (Actually my timing is doubly good, as I’ll also get to experience 5 de Mayo in two weeks.)

Holy Week is the week leading up to Easter and it’s a big deal everywhere in Mexico (and throughout the Catholic world). But the Procession of Silence is definitely an SLP specialty. Have you ever seen a parade that’s totally silent? How about one where the parade-goers are barefoot and bound in chains?

I never had either until last week on Good Friday.

There are other Processions in Silence in Mexico, but SLP’s is the biggest and most well known. Literally thousands of penitents march in it, wearing hoods to cover their sinful faces and carrying out the hours-long march to expiate their sins.

Be warned, fellow Americans, the hooded figures in this parade are not part of the organization you think they are:

Photo by André.

Penitents in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

The hoods are called capirotes and are a longstanding part of Catholic tradition. The entire Procession is modeled on one from Seville, Spain. Not everyone wears the hoods—and even less have chains on them—but everyone in the procession observes total silence. The only sound is the beating of drums and occasional fanfare of horns.

Well, that and all the spectators saying how cool it is.

Photo by André.

Women in the Procession. Photo by André.

Each group in the procession has its own take on the uniform. Some men wear red hoods, some wear black, some wear white. Some women dangle a rosary from one hand, others clutch a Bible to their breast. But while each group is different, the people within the group have practiced to military perfection. Every woman dangles the rosary exactly the same way. Everyone marches in step.

Some groups have a large corps of children preceding them. They, too, have drilled to lockstep precision. I can’t imagine how unpleasant the months of rehearsals must have been.

Each of the floats is carried by hand:

Float in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Float in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Coming from New Orleans, I have a lot of experience with parades. We take a lot of pride in our floats and costumes in the Big Easy. I was struck, however, by how much better (gasp) the Potosinos’ were. New Orleans floats can be complex and artistic, but they look like what they are: cheap decorative materials assembled by inebriated volunteers in their off hours. For the penitents in the Procession, these floats are their religion. No half measures. Every inch of every float is carefully handcrafted work of artisanship, without exception.

The costumes are also higher caliber, perfectly uniform across all members of a particular group and clearly meant for careful re-use year after year. It really was more like a uniformed army than a costume party.

Stations of the Cross. Photo by André.

Stations of the Cross. Photo by André.

I will say, however, all that religious fervor fails to beat out New Orleans in one crucial regard: the horns. After every two or three groups go by there’s a brass band in formation, trying to play solemn fanfares to echo across the march. They were terrible.

I don’t just mean “doesn’t live up to New Orleans standards.” That’s a pretty tough hill to climb. I mean, “Out of tune and out of sync.” There’s nothing like a dozen tinny trumpets hitting a flat note and stumbling over each other to do it, to really drive home that Jesus suffered for your sins.

I’m not really sure what went wrong with the horn section. It wasn’t just me; most spectators suppressed snarky comments while my local host gave me a look. Somehow, the Procession planners mananged to get 4,000 people to march in perfect lockstep for three hours, in flawless hand sewn medieval garb with gilded and rose-covered treasures lifted on their backs. But nobody drilled the brass sections in an actual march.

Anyway, it was still an amazing event and a breathtaking thing to behold. Our Temple used to organize large-scale public ceremonies and processions, which is rare in the highly individualistic polytheist community. I find something magical and powerful about people wearing the same uniform and doing the same thing together. Sometimes it means more to give up the sense of self and contribute to a group celebration.

Every so many drum beats the procession would halt. I got a chance to see many of the women’s faces (why is it the male sinners get to hide their faces but the women have to show theirs?). Not everyone looked happy. It must be hard doing what they were doing. But ultimately, the long hours over many months of rehearsal—and even the act itself—isn’t for them. You don’t join for your own gratification. You’re doing it for everybody else.

That’s how you beat your sins in Catholicism. Polytheists don’t have “sin” but I think we could learn from that.

Photo of the Week:

Jesus. Photo by André.

Jesus. Photo by André.

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