Oaxaca is adorned with colourful colonial buildings and exquisite ornate churches. And it’s streets are full of life and atmosphere. Shoe shiners and paper stalls, burger bars and taco stands. A boy selling sweets, a lady selling flowers. Buskers, brass bands and protest banners. Cafe’s and bars. Museums and markets. This is a town full of energy, which cannot be contained within the colonial facade or catholic church.
If there is one thing I miss about Africa (there are lots), it is that living is done outdoors. People live, breathe and eat on the streets. That is Africa’s rhythm and heartbeat. It’s about community, friendship, interaction. It’s not about a wave over the garden fence or formal ‘morning’ when out walking the dog. Oaxaca’s streets flowed with life and the zocalo was it’s heart. A rhythmic pulse that never stops beating. Here was Mexico. With all it’s colourful history proudly displayed through it’s people. It also reminded me of the many Latin American towns I have passed through on other journeys and why I kept returning to that southern continent in my younger years.
But I am running short on time and so cycle on it was. Two new tyres for my bike. And another puncture as leaving town. Progress was slow. Past fields of agave and Mezcal factories. But it wasn’t potent alcohol that ruined my stomach that night. That I blame on the giant taco from a street stand.
The hills grew larger on the horizon until we were slowly ascending once more. And the top came as a relief. The new land spread out ahead, rising and falling in waves until we we quickly descended through one of the valleys. A valley with flowering cacti reminiscent of Baja. The road would eventually lead us back toward the coast. But it was not down all the way.
More slow climbs winding around the hillsides. And fast descents to the next river and village. Our camp that night was on a sand bank beside the Rio Quiechapa. A river running turquoise around the pink and purple rocks. A lovely spot if you ignored the sandflies. Which you can’t, because they won’t ignore you.
Some days are uneventful. I seem to have had a lot of them recently. The cycling and wild-camping are so routine now, that rarely does the unexpected arise. Mexico is an easy place to cycle tour. Never far from good food or a water supply. Plenty of people to help if needed and excellent roads (if not such good drivers). But now and then, there’s a little fun. The pub lunch escape from the office for the cycle tourer in hilly terrain is provided by the digger. A digger that happens to be passing just as you’ve reached the bottom of the hill and are readying to slog up the other side. It was perfect timing to put in a few strong pedals to catch it up, grab the back firmly and wait for the arm to take the strain rather than the legs for a change. I was attracted to it like mosquitoes to me and I clung there like a limpet. Lars is more of a proper cycle tourer than me, and cycles every inch. Not content if there is a break in the ride. But seeing me move away with ease, he didn’t hesitate long and was soon stuck fast to the other side. Still on the bike you see. The digger wound round the hillside slowly and steady. But significantly faster than you can cycle. But to say it’s a free ride would be a mistake. The muscles in your forearm strain under the weight and after a few minutes Lars let go thinking he would rather pedal. Gradually he dropped further back as I continued unrelentingly onward. But his legs realised the mistake and with a concerted effort he was soon once again leeching a lift.
In South Africa, I slept in tunnels under the road on several occasions. They are one of the safest places to camp. Unseen and protected from the elements. Usually you get a good view down the valley of the washed out river bed too. Same goes in Mexico. Except when in the evening as the sun is setting and you are trying to stop sweating. For what should be a passive activity, it is surprisingly hard work. Even if the last ten kilometres have been free-wheeling downhill, with the cool wind drying you out, as soon as you stop you begin sweating again. So by the time you have found your place for the night, cleared a spot of ground, pitched your tent, tried to remove as much grime from your filthy body and changed into clothes marginally less stinking than your bike stuff, you will be sweating freely again. Now begins the slow process of cooling down. When any slight movement or muscular effort will start you sweating again, this takes considerable willpower. Lying motionless is not easy when the brain is still on overdrive from the day’s exertions. So there you are, trying not to sweat. Slowly letting your mind slow down to the pace of tent life. Let your mind drift slowly until there is peace and calm and as you open your mind and close your eyes, you gradually become aware of the gentle breeze and the sound of crickets in the dry grass. A low hum of a distant car, with the engine straining up the hill. And then the sound of tyre on gravel, a cut engine and doors slamming shut. Footsteps and muffled voices. Lie very still. Will I be found? In Mexico, the answer is usually, yes. Friend of foe? Everywhere in the world, the answer is usually, friend. You strain to listen as the voices come closer. Do you go and introduce yourself and explain you are just a lowly cyclist who needed a place to rest their head? And as you are pondering your plan of action… BANG! The soundwaves of a shotgun blast through you so in a skipped heartbeat every muscle in your body contracts. What the hell! But before you can conjure logical thought beyond drug cartels and a body in the car boot , two more blasts shatter the silence. Way to close for comfort. We don’t want to be shot, accidently or otherwise. Since the shots are most likely coming from a hunter of animals than a killer of men, we agree one of us should go and introduce ourselves. Lars does the manly thing and volunteers. I suggest he goes via the road, rather than emerging through the bush like a rabbit from a hole. I plan my move in case I hear another shot and no return of Lars. But I soon hear laughter and can relax. Just wealthy Mexicans who are testing a newly purchased gun, and very apologetic for surprising us.
After that, peace returns and it is a quiet night. Until the rooster calls and donkey brays signalling the start of a new day. A day that takes us up past cactus-filled hills through pine trees and then down to the coast filled with palm trees. And a blasting headwind. Stronger even than the Santa Ana winds of southern California. So we stop the crawl and find a great tunnel under the road. Out of the wind. And no guns this time either.
The wind is still blasting the next day. But as we round the coast, it becomes a cross-wind. Impossible to cycle in a straight line, we grapple with the gusts. Lars ends up a heap on the floor. I narrowly avoid being upended. But as the day wears on we eventually turn another bend and now the wind is with us. For now, the fight is over.
We are now in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. Another lovely colonial town of churches and colourful streets. A few too many shops selling arts and crafts and handmade traditional clothing for tourists. But charming nonetheless.
From here, we pedal on to Palenque. And with any luck, I shall be roaming Maya ruins for my 31st. As memorable as the dunes at Sossusvlei in Namibia last year and paddling the Niger river in Guinea the year before that? Quite possibly.