Snapshots of Mexico

Welcome to dirt road riding, Mexican styleWelcome to dirt road riding, Mexican style

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Welcome to dirt road riding, Mexican style

 

Mexico will slowly drift into the attic of my memories when we enter Guatemala in a few days time. It has been a month of cycling, sitting, and seeing; and, although my visit was limited primarily to the Yucatan, I have a new view of Mexico. As with all big countries, Mexico is diverse in its landscapes, people and culture. Nathan has spent 7+ months and close to 5,000 miles exploring and discovering the nuances spread across Mexico. My views are shaped by the uniquely desperate relations between the rural Yucatan life and the urban tourist meccas. The Yucatan that we know has been shaped largely by the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean, resulting in 300% growth rates up and down the Caribbean coast. In an aside, it was after the embargo and boycott of Cuba in the late 50’s, our original Caribbean resort destination, that we discovered and set in motion the development of Cancun and the coast. Here are snapshot of Mexico that have stood out to me in the past month.

People:

In a few words: tranquil, friendly, humorous, happy. News of Mexico would make me believe the opposite: mean, angry, dangerous. I don’t want to say it too often on this journey, but a preconception has been falsified. No-one better represents the good natured people of Mexico than Cesar, our gracious friend in Cancun. Cesar just signed up for Warmshowers in preparation for a cycle-tour of a part of the east coast of the US. We lunged at him wishing to find a place to store some extra luggage while we toured Cuba. He obliged and then some. Cesar is an air-traffic controller at the Cancun airport, and loves his job. During our rides to and from the airport and a few shared meals, we learned a good deal about the growth that the Yucatan, and Cancun in particular, is experiencing. He represents the other side of Mexico, often ignored, that is full of hard working people. Mexico is a part of the western industrialized world as much as Texas or Arizona. To sweepingly portray them as destitute and desperate immigrants is to ignore the 98% of their population that is happy and content to be here. Somehow the US gets characterized by the 2% of rich people that make everyone dream of the Donald Trump or Kardashian life, and Mexico gets characterized by the 2% that are running drugs or trying to immigrate to the US. Things may not be all beer and tequilla in Mexico, but neither are things all peaches and cream in the states. There is a struggling populace the world over, and perhaps it would do everyone a bit more justice if we looked at each end of the spectrum before casting characterizations and stereotypes.

A smile is often the best defense, icebreaker, and in our case, conversation. On occasion it will branch into laughs. What we witnessed in Cuba was a culture without humor; few smiles, no laughing and poking fun. What I have seen here is the direct opposite. Everyone laughs at us, all in good fun, and everyone is forthcoming with a friendly smile. In that smile is an unbelievable sharing of respect for each-other, or for us in all our unusual glory. Their relationships form the backbone of a thriving social community.

Food:

I have been introduced to the largest avocados in the world (yet been told they get bigger). Soon enough they will be the size of watermelons and very hard to finish over a simple lunch of fresh corn tortilla quesadillas (made with stringy Oaxacan cheese). I have developed an unhealthy addiction to Coke, which I blame on the heat. Mexicans are proud to be either the number one or number two biggest consumer of Coke in the world. A race they are battling out with Americans. I think the prize stays north of the border with 48oz big gulps and unlimited refills, because here it is still sold by the bottle (sometimes 3 ltr bottles). And on that note, Coke in reusable glass bottles, made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup, quite possibly is the best thing in the world outside of a good Hopzone IPA. I plan to kick the habit when the weather calms or my wallet runs dry, but by then Coke will have ensnared me in the noose that they are slowly wrapping around the whole world. I see two possible outcomes: I kick the habit and look back fondly on my Coke fueled cycling days, or I have to keep cycling around the world for the rest of my life and replace all my teeth.

It may come as a shock that I am not reveling in the delights of Mexican cuisine, but we have primarily been cooking for ourselves. Pasta, rice, lentils, and sometimes chili, keeps us on a budget and fueled for the road. A few times I have splurged on Ceviche, which still remains one of my favorite food groups in the world. I can’t decipher where this love of raw fish has come from, I grew up in Colorado.

History:

CampecheCampeche

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Campeche

 

A history of the Yucatan is largely a history of the Mayans followed by the tales of the Spanish Conquest. The classic period of most prevalence for the Maya was between about 300 and 900 ad. This was the period where the greatest achievements in art and architecture were seen alongside astounding advances in astronomy and mathematics. The Yucatan region was the center of the great Mayan empire, with power situated primarily around Calakmul (in southern Yucatan) and Tikal (in northern Guatemala, and our next destination). Alliances amongst surrounding city/states tended to drift into one of these two larger allegiences. Chichen Itza is a prime example of the Puuc style of northern Yucatan, and culminates with the construction of El Castillo, the primary pyramid, which helps explain the Mayan astrological calendar.

El Palacio, PalenqueEl Palacio, Palenque

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El Palacio, Palenque

 

Palenque, on the other hand, is known for its dramatic hillside jungle setting and its architectural splendor. Only a few buildings have been fully uncovered and explored, resulting in 1953 in the discovery of the tomb and sarcophagus of Pakal, the cities dominant ruler and figure. The large city spreads out over 15 sq km of jungle covered mountains. After a bit of spite spun out last time towards Chichen Itza, Palenque was a breathe of fresh air. Everything about the place felt more interconnected. The space between structures seemed as important as the buildings. The architects worked in constant connection with the topography and landscape of the surrounding hills and streams. What Chichen Itza felt like to me, was a series of grand ideas (buildings) that were plopped onto a clear-cut site. Palenque had a dialogue with its surroundings, even after over a thousand years of being swallowed up by the jungle.

Templo de la Cruz, PalenqueTemplo de la Cruz, Palenque

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Templo de la Cruz, Palenque

 

Smells:

On a few occasions, as we rode into the wind, a smell would work its way into your nostrils and down into the pit of your stomach long before you would encounter the source; rotting flesh. Be it the heat and humidity, or an act of devilish deeds, the road-kill and other carcases lining the road bleed off a stench so powerful it makes your stomach convulse. In reality, the smell is so intense it becomes a taste in the back of your throat that sticks with you long after the smell has dissipated. It would be nice to have documentation of such encounters, but to linger in its presence would take a stronger person than myself. The most memorable of these came as were riding in Tabasco, on our way to Palenque, and involves the remains of a cow. The vultures and other forces had turned it into a cattle skin rug splayed across the road with only the tail remaining. There were no signs of flesh or bone, just skin and tail, yet the smell remained. Chances are this experience will not end when we leave Mexico, and slightly tarnishes the experience I have had here of good roads and clean cities. A less than pleasant result to our mode of transport, but it goes well with peanut butter and sweat.

Sounds:

Another notable discovery about life in Mexico, one backed up by the very unscientific use of my ears, is that the better part of their electricity usage is pumped loudly and without taste through all available speakers. The marketing scheme for every store, from a pharmacy to a hardware store, is to blast the newest Jennifer Lopez song at full volume from the front of the store. It requires the purchase of large concert venue size speakers, and occasionally dancers to sway their hips out front. Sometimes it is annoying, but usually it is just worth a shrug and a laugh. However, if I hear Jennifer Lopez singing about leaving it all on the floor one more time, it will most likely be forever locked into my head as the soundtrack to this trip.

Take-aways:

20 liters of water lasts about 24 hrs, and somehow we can fit it all on the bikes.20 liters of water lasts about 24 hrs, and somehow we can fit it all on the bikes.

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20 liters of water lasts about 24 hrs, and somehow we can fit it all on the bikes.

 

This short month in Mexico has shown me much of the warmth and hospitality that Mexicans is known for, and makes me desire a longer visit. The calm demeanor and laid-back attitudes is comforting for a place so famous for crime and drugs. I don’t feel a particular connection to the flat, boring, and humid landscapes of the Yucatan, but have been enticed by the rising hills around Palenque. A few delicious meals also have me wishing for a bit more culinary exploration of this diverse country. It is not a threatening enemy across our border, but a welcoming neighbor I hope to become more acquainted with in the future.

2 Responses to “Snapshots of Mexico”

  1. Martha says:

    Love the way that you categorized that last entry. It’s good to hear your positive thoughts on Mexico. I have always thought the same, but I have family there, which I thought may have skewed my perception. Looking forward to your next country.

  2. Brian says:

    “I have developed an unhealthy addiction to Coke……”

    “Mexicans are proud to be either the number one or number two biggest consumer of Coke in the world.”

    I thought you said that drugs weren’t as prevalent as Mexico’s reputation would suggest. And now you’re apparently participating. We’re worried about you Justin…..

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