Mexico is a confusing country for many. On
the one hand, it’s a land of sun and sand and cheap beach
vacations. On the other hand, it’s the poor neighbor south of the
border whose citizens sneak across the Rio Grande to take up work as
gardeners and dishwashers, maids and nannies.
After having biked more than 2,500 kilometers across this vast country, I now have even more incompatible images of Mexico and its people.
Mexico’s physical variations are striking—from freezing temperatures and semi-desert in the far north, where we crossed the border at Piedras Negras, to the steamy jungle climate we’re now enjoying on the Yucatan Peninsula.
But what most intrigues me about Mexico is the different worlds that co-exist side by side within the same country.
A Comfortable Life
In oil rich Villahermosa, with its glitzy malls and modern suburbs, we were the pampered guests of a middle class family. We relaxed on the king-sized bed in our private air-conditioned room, surfed the internet through a WIFI connection and beckoned the live-in maid for tall glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice and help with the laundry.
Reality for the Rest
As we rode out of town on congested highway 186, the rapid succession of villages slowly gave way to flooded fields of sugarcane and rice. Campesinos with weathered skin, bulging biceps and menacing machetes hacked at the dense vegetation. In tiny shacks by the side of the road harried looking women whipped up tacos, empanadas, and quesadillas.
Towns became scruffier. Each pueblo was heralded by a set of topes,--speed bumps designed to slowdown the rush of buses and trucks. There were even signs threatening motorists with the installation of even more topes if the failed to obey speed limits. Topes were a symbol of control and power over the population. We quickly tired of the annoying kuthump--kuthump—kuthump of the topes as we bumped our way into town.
The towns themselves were a tangle of concrete block houses topped by rusty tin roofs, tiny shops with dusty shelves and a sprinkling of proud wooden churches. It appeared the Catholics were fast loosing ground in the more remote parts of the country. The Adventists and the Apostolic faiths were staking claims in any collection of more than a hundred homes.
At times the jungle threatened to strangle the road. Since there were few hotels in the area and wild camping in the wetlands hardly seemed practical, we often sought shelter in one of the tiny pueblos we passed. In the quiet town of Nueva Esperanza, we pitched the tent inside a thatched roof hut next to a colorful shrine devoted to Saint Guadelupe. The kind señora who welcomed us explained that she often hosted passing Guatemalans heading north.
Outside of shabby Escargega, with its CD shops inflicting deafening folk music on the town’s entire population, we camped at a chicken farm. A rather stinky spot to ring in the New Year depending on which way the wind was blowing.
In a tiny hamlet with the uninspiring name of ‘Kilometer 120’, the town leaders welcomed us to pass the night in the community center. And the next day, just down the road in Francisco Villa, I fell ill.
The Inevitable Strikes
It’s inevitable that one falls ill when biking through the developing world. I accept this as part of the adventure. But why can’t illness strike when there are flush toilets and fresh sheets at hand?
A lovely family from the Adventist Church had taken us in for the night. We’d pitched our tent among the banana and mango trees beside the narrow path leading to the latrine.
the morning, I woke up with a fever and aches and pains that told me it
would be futile to attempt the ride toJaziel and his kind parents.
All day I lay in the tent covered in sweat, gazing out at the pack of pigs routing in a pile of rubbish. The squawking chickens gave me no rest. And the thought of a trip to the latrine sent shudders up my spine. It was the worst I’d seen since Ethiopia.
A few widely spaced planks over a pool of fetid excrement. The precarious structure was sure to collapse in the very near future and I didn’t want to be the one sinking into a pool of human waste. Better to squat behind the garbage dump than risk a swim in the shit-hole.
Gringos or Guerros?
Eric spent the day entertaining Jaziel, the precocious 8-year old of the family. On a trip to the corner shop, Jaziel reported that two young men passing on motorbike had been mocking Eric. They’d called out in Spanish something like “Hey, look at that stupid foreigner walking.”
Only they hadn’t used the word ‘gringo.’ They’d called Eric a ‘guerro.’
“Gringos,” Jaziel explained, “drive cars. They visit the ruins. They go to Cancun to drink tequila on the beach with pretty girls.”
“Gringos are rich. They don’t ride bicycles,” he continued. “You. You are guerros, not gringos.”
Fortunately, our hosts quickly nursed me back to health with the help of a delicious herbal tea known for its curative effects. The next morning we set off for Chetumal and within a few hours we had landed in another world.
Mc Donald’s, Burger King, Office Depot, Wal-Mart--American chain stores and fast food outlets lined the streets. Fashionable women in short skirts and tight jeans strutted around town on tiny high heels. Locals cast disapproving glances at our worn tee-shirts and filthy sneakers. I felt like I’d been zapped back to an America where everyone had miraculously lost weight and gained new sense of fashion.
That’s a glimpse of the two very different Mexico’s we have encountered over the past month.
And next it’s on to Belize and a short reprieve from flubbing up my Spanish. More news from our round the world bike adventure coming soon.
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