Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Mexico and north

Yep, I’m waayyyyy behind again, but that’s nothing new. It’s about time I tried to get caught up though, so here goes.

Forgive me for skipping fairly rapidly through Guatemala and Belize on the way north, but I really feel like that’s all we did on this occasion. Leaving Honduras was tough and I think this affected our feelings about Guatemala when we returned. It was Easter weekend when we arrived back in Rio Dulce and we were both starting to feel a little burnt out. It was not therefore a great time to realise that the chances of finding somewhere to stay without having booked a year in advance were slim to none. We rode back and forth along the main drag, or rather crawled owing to the customary heavy traffic, stopping in a couple of places to ask if they had a room. Of course the answer was no and eventually we settled for camping under the bridge – noisy, not particularly cheap and with a bunch of chauvinistic ex-pats (and thick swarms of mayflies) for neighbours. Still, it was a place to sleep and we ended up staying a couple of nights.

It’s interesting, having spent some time in Honduras, the shortcomings of Guatemala suddenly seemed more prominent than ever. The dirt, the litter, the noise and the resignation of so many Guatemalan’s to their situation. A mother allowed her child to lie across a sidewalk in front of us so as to make us walk in the road. A twenty-something year old girl opened her car door, threw out all her fast food wrappers on to the floor and then drove off. It frustrated us and we decided that we didn’t feel the need to spend any more time than necessary there. We headed quickly back through into Belize on Easter Monday, arriving back in Hopkins of course in the early evening.

Again we headed to our usual haunt, only to find that things here had changed a little. The hostel is under new ownership, but we still managed to arrange camping again in our usual spot. Over the course of about a week we caught up with friends, ate Tina’s wonderful food, explored a derelict sugar mill, went kayaking at night to witness the mind-blowing bioluminescence on the lagoon and swapped our bikes for little dirt bikes for a day and rode out to the jaguar preserve. In was hot, humid and plagued with biting bugs though, so after a week we felt again that it was time to move on.

For the past few weeks we’d been aware of the ever growing sense that our most logical plan was to return to Canada as soon as the weather allowed to maximise our earning ability over the summer, and perhaps more importantly to minimise our potential debt to start off with. It’s hard sometimes to balance the intense feeling that you don’t want the trip to end with the knowing that it has to and that sooner rather than later is the right way to do it. With this in mind we left Belize and headed back to Mexico, first through Chetumal and then up to Merida in the centre of the Yucatan.

Now, as I think I’ve talked about before, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Mexico. I’ve been there several times and had some wonderful experiences, but I’ve always failed to connect with the country as so many people seem to do. Throughout our travels I’ve lost count of the number of times people claim Mexico to be their favourite place in Central America and I’ve never really got it. Until this time.

Merida isn’t like the rest of Mexico. It’s a city with an extremely laid back, cosmopolitan feel to it. If you didn’t know where you were then you probably wouldn’t guess it was in Mexico at all. This is probably because of the high numbers of ex-pats and tourists and it’s easy to see why it attracts so many. For the first couple of nights we stayed in a very nice and very cheap hotel right near the main square. After this we were lucky enough to be invited to stay with a friend of mine, Linda, who was housesitting in the city. We spent our days wandering the streets and galleries and market and visited the local railway museum, in the evening we watched the people dancing in the square and sampled the multitude of street food offerings. It was nice to relax. Then in the heat of the afternoon we retreated to the swimming pool at the house and cooled off.

One of my favourite places in the city was the Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce Mackay. Free to enter, there were several interesting exhibits on display. One in particular resonated with me, a sculpture by Gabriel Niquete called ‘Disconnected Colectivo’. It comprised of a series of roughly sculpted human figures, all going about everyday tasks – walking the dog, cooking dinner, sitting around the dining table, etc – but each person was connected by a long funnel to their smart device held in front of their face. There were dozens of these little white clay people in different situations and it really hit home just how embroiled people have become with social media and technology. Interestingly, where animals featured in the scenes, the animal figures were smooth and well finished with clear features in stark contrast to the people who were rough and unfinished. It was an amusing, but thought provoking piece that we spent quite some time pondering.

Evan had been keen to get a wisdom tooth pulled before we crossed back into the US and so on the recommendation of my friend he made an appointment to go and see a local dentist the following day. The next morning started a chain of events that would prove just how wrong stereotypes can be. When he left to house to go to his appointment he discovered that the parking light on his bike had been on all night and that the battery was dead. Now late and in a hurry, he took my bike instead. Against better judgement and with me making it clear I thought it was a stupid idea (in hindsight this probably made him even more determined to do it), he decided not to wear his helmet. He also failed to pick up the bike documents that were in my top box on the bedroom floor.

Now I should divert a little here and say that whenever anyone mentions Central America the first thing people do is comment on how corrupt the law enforcement is in all of these countries. ‘Oh, you’ll be paying bribes every few miles, they’ll stop you all the time and make up infractions!’ Well, we didn’t and they didn’t. In fact we were stopped only twice on this trip by the police. The first time was in New Mexico for speeding. We were speeding, it was a fair cop. Nevertheless the officer was very nice, warned us not to do it again and let us go without citation. The second time was in Honduras. The cop asked where we were from and where we were going before patting Evan on the back, telling us we had nice bikes and welcoming us to Honduras. No phony offences, no bribe requests, nothing. And it’s not like we didn’t elicit some sort of response. We did our fair share of riding a little too fast and we may have overtaken on solid lines on occasion.

So Evan left for his appointment sans helmet and papers on a bike that wasn’t his. Shortly after there was a knock on the door and when I opened it there was a policeman standing on the doorstep. It’s funny, my immediate thought wasn’t that there had been an accident, only that he was clearly in trouble for not wearing his helmet. The officer was extremely polite and after apologising for disturbing me he asked if I could please give him Evan’s helmet and the papers for the bike. Without thinking that handing over the original ownership papers might not be a good idea, I gave him what he asked for and the officer left. Fully expecting him to return any minute when he discovered the bike belonged to me, I began to get dressed, ready to go and collect my bike from wherever they had taken it. There was no need though. Ten minutes later Evan walked through the door looking a little sheepish. As it turned out, he had gathered quite a collection of police officers by the time his helmet was delivered to him and after having a conference among themselves the police decided that a stern warning not to ride without a helmet in future was all that was required and bade him farewell. No charges, no impounding of the bike, no fine, no mordida.

From Merida we visited the stunning Ik Kil cenote near Chitchen Itza. Its deep cavern and eerie blue water at the bottom of the sink hole are otherworldly. We also rode up to the northern Yucatan coast, an area famous for its flamingo population. It turned out the road was being replaced along a long stretch of the coast so we fought our way through the freshly ploughed dirt, stopping to explore a derelict hotel and for the most disappointing and overpriced fish lunch of the trip in Progresso.

Eventually it came time to leave Merida and we started to head north along the Gulf of Mexico. It was from here on that I really started to understand what so many people see in Mexico. I realised that I what I previously interpreted as borderline rude behaviour of many Mexicans is actually just them being totally non-plussed about most things. They’re just extremely laid-back people. On the whole they mind their own business, and don’t really give a shit who that person riding their big bike through town is. Now I know there are plenty of people who would point out here that Merida isn’t really typical of Mexico, but the further north we travelled, the more our appreciation of Mexico grew. Someone on the ride report commented that we seemed to have really settled into the trip and I think they were right. It became normal to sleep somewhere different each night and never to know where that would be. It became like a comfortable pair of old PJ’s or a well-worn and slightly threadbare jumper. Familiar, comfortable and felt like it would last forever.

At this point we’d travelled through ten countries and the inevitable ‘which country was your favourite?’ conversation came round a few times. We came to the conclusion that it was very hard to pick an outright winner, but that unanimously, Honduras was probably it. What was more interesting was how our feelings about each country changed the longer we spent there. They also changed between our first and subsequent visits. On the way south we were very much on the fence about Mexico, liked Guatemala (apart from the noise), loved Belize, very much liked El Salvador and Panama and equally disliked a lot of things about Costa Rica. Heading back through these countries though our opinions changed a quite a bit. The biggest change was how much less enamoured we were with both Guatemala and Belize. Hopkins still holds a special place in our hearts of course, but really that is the only place we ever really spend any time there.

With money dwindling and the thought that we were heading into the last phase of the trip (for now) weighing ever more heavily on our minds, it became increasingly difficult at times to think of our passage north as anything more than a route home. We did our best to fend off this notion and made the effort to see as much as we could along the way. Heading progressively further north we traced the contour of the coast, stopping in Paraiso with its gaudy church before riding through the sand where the road used to be to Tlacotalpan with its brightly coloured buildings, then up to Veracruz where we visited the Naval Museum and wandered around the city, now sad and decayed, but obviously once beloved by tourists.

From here we continued through the mountains with their breath-taking scenery to the weird and wonderful gardens of Edward James, an eccentric Brit who spent a large part of his life building a Dali-esque wonderland, mostly out of concrete, deep in the Mexican jungle. Evan was more than a little pessimistic about the detour we took to get there, partly because gardens really aren’t his thing, but mostly because the roads we had to ride to get there were some of the most tope-infested we’d experienced on the whole trip.

By the time we got there I think we were both hoping that the place was worth it and we weren’t disappointed. The sculptures are set amongst the jungle canopy over many, many acres and paths snake around the site, popping out suddenly into clearings that look like something lifted from a Tim Burton movie. It’s like a playground for adults, like walking around in an Escher painting. We wandered for several hours and still didn’t see even half of the place, but conscious that we wanted to make it to Ciudad Victoria before dark we reluctantly dragged ourselves away and continued on our way.

Ciudad Victoria is often treated as the last frontier before entering the area of no man’s land considered by many to be the most risky area of Mexico. It’s actually a fairly ordinary Mexican town, nothing to write home about. We found a cheap but comfortable motel to stay in for the few days it took to sort out our US insurance. Ironic really that for Mexico this takes two mouse clicks and the policy documents appear in your inbox, but to buy US cover it took us nearly three days of constant emails, clarifying and re-clarifying things before we could even get a quote. That’s what they call progress, apparently.

Despite constant warnings from the moment we entered Mexico to be very careful in the border regions, our plan was to cross back into the US somewhere along the Texas border and continue to follow the Gulf of Mexico east, riding through Tamaulipas. The decision we had to make was where to cross. From Ciudad Victoria the logical and most direct route was to follow highway 101 up to Matamoros. The concern with this was that this is considered to be an extremely dangerous road to travel without some form of escort. In 2011, halfway along this route, just before the junction of 101 and 97 is San Fernando, the site of a massacre of 193 people by the infamous Los Zetas cartel. The bodies recovered included multiple missing persons, including travellers and kidnapping victims, all of whom it appears had little to connect them to cartel activity but still met gruesome ends. 

Whilst we’d been hesitant to let too many of the stories frequently told weigh on our minds, after some discussion we decided that it just wasn’t worth the risk. Although there is evidence that many hundreds of people have passed along that route with no incident, the area is clearly cartel controlled and lawless and it just didn’t feel right to tempt fate. We had been told that the police run a high speed caravan from Ciudad Victoria every morning at 7am, not stopping until the border and although we considered this option just for the experience of doing it, we eventually decided that we didn’t want to have to be up and out that early or have to ride non-stop for three hours in a line of other traffic. It did however reinforce to us that there must indeed be some risk involved if the Mexican authoroties felt the need to provide this and have done every day for the past four years.

Eventually, insurance finally obtained, we headed out of town up highway 95 before cutting across to the east on 40D at China. Destination, Reynosa. All day we rode through wasteland, complete nothingness for miles. Occasionally a little building would pop up on the horizon, but as we approached it would turn out to be a closed business, a derelict house or a ruin. At one point, way out in the middle of nowhere we passed a ‘safe’ gas station. The only occupants were at least six vans full of heavily armed marines posted around the perimeter of the site, a reminder that the windswept beauty of this place hid dark and disturbing secrets. There was no sign of life anywhere, bar the beautiful coloured butterflies that constantly crossed our path. It was really spooky, both stunningly beautiful and incredibly sad. 

We reached Reynosa well before nightfall and spent the night, despite the warnings, in what turned out to be a nice, friendly and very safe-feeling town, nothing like the wasteland we’d ridden through all day. We wandered around the town, had dinner and sadly drank our last proper Jamaica of the trip from a little Michoacána store, aware that the following day we would be crossing back into a very different world.

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