May 6, 2008

Oops Mountains… 06/04/08
The moment we left Puerto-Escondido we started climbing. We started at sea level, from the beach, climbed through the city and then through hills. We passed a few small villages and before we noticed it was late afternoon, the hills changed to mountains and we had a big climb ahead of us. There wasn’t any water around nor flat areas for camping. We knew of a village after the pass, but it was too far away. It’s been a long time (since Baja) since we had the stress of finding a camp ground. We finally saw a woman – a sign of life. Her house was far away, but there is a rancho up ahead, she said. We reached Ranch “Los Tucanes”. An old man with few teeth was building it, cutting into the mountains to create flat areas. There was no electricity, barely any running water (up near the road, Rami had to hide from passing cars, while fighting the soap), but a serenity, knowing the whole valley was ours. Every now and then, the smooth sound of a descending truck shook the whole valley. There was no moon, Rami was asleep, and Gal enjoyed the quiet and the fireflies keeping her company. That night we slept at an altitude of 850m.

Going down to the Rancho...
A huge mango, a gift from our host.

The next morning we quickly crossed the pass. Everything was greener. We descended to the village and climbed another 1,250m. So close to the dry coast (and we thought it was green over there) and so different. Everything was wet and green. We finally saw rivers. We learned from yesterday’s mistake to ask locals what’s ahead of us. At noon time we were told there is a big climb ahead of us. In the middle of the climb, when we hoped it was the end, we stopped near a beautiful cliff to rest and eat. By luck (bad and good), we were attacked by a small storm. In a matter of 5 minutes the weather changed from blue sunny sky to pouring rain and hail. Our bikes were parked, so we quickly hid under our beloved blue tarp. The next 45 minutes we were laughing at our situation and picking out at the moving storm.
As the storm left us we had the most amazing view: the fog disappeared, the air was “crystal clear” and the surrounding mountains, with the clouds locked below, in their valleys, looked like eggs sitting in a sea of cotton.
The sun set to this scenery, with us enjoying it and at the same time thinking of where the hell we will camp! No flat areas…
It was totally dark and we were still climbing, when we stopped a truck. We could see he was excited for us according to his body language: “just around the corner, less than 200m away is a village. Here, 200m…”
Each of the 4 houses invited us, so we camped in the house with a roofed area, perfect for camping without the rain cover of the tent (Gal enjoys the air…), only the mosquito net.
For breakfast we ate Mole (spicy chocolate paste) the traditional Oaxacan ‘Humus’), which reminded us we first tasted it a Mikes place in La-Paz in Baja California. We started cycling and saw the other side of the pass; the village was situated exactly on the pass. The other side was totally dry. We enjoyed a 1,100m downhill and continued through dry valleys till Oaxaca.

Finally, greener!
Hiding from the storm.

The two sides of the pass.
A turkey attacking Gal.

Do you have a cow? 10/04/08
Rami spotted a wealthy rancho, just after Zimatlan, 40 km before Oaxaca. Gal reminded Rami that ‘rich people’ are not as hospitable (they have more to loose?) and that 2 days ago he was disappointed after being refused. But we gave it a chance. The butler/handyman took our story to the house owner and she came out to say hello and invited us to sleep in the ‘chapel’. We were given a 5 gallon tank of purified water, a table, chairs, orange juice, fruits and coffee. It was fun to be taken care of.
This wasn’t the standard rancho, with a cow, a few chickens running around, a decaying dog, a parrot (???) and a toothless owner. They had a horse and a pony, 2 beautiful Golden Retrievers, 2 cats and a beautifully decorated house. When the daughters offered us coffee and asked if we wanted milk, Gal immediately asked, excited: “do you have a cow?”
Later Rami thought of the cycle tourists, camping in the house of his parents, at Raanana (the pearl of the Sharon), a suburb of Tel-Aviv, and when she offers the cyclist milk with his morning coffee, he jumps and asks: “do you have a cow?”

Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Oaxaca! 11/04/08
There is nothing more rewarding than arriving to a big important historic city, after a long journey. We barely had small villages and ranchos on our way and we’ve just entered the zocalo, the main plaza, surrounded with churches and buildings over 300 years old.
We knew we’ll want to stay a few days, and that Mexico is expensive, so we searched for over 2 hours for a comfortable and cheap hotel, within the old quarter. It’s tiring (and it was hot), but it is worth it (we stayed 5 days). We also a quick tour in town. Obviously, the recommended backpackers place, from our travel book was expensive and crap. It also stank!
We finally found almost what we were looking for: a simple room on the third floor, just near a perfect roof, toilets and showers on the first floor (unfortunately). The place was almost empty, the upper part for ourselves. We loved the roof! We brought chairs so we could enjoy the pleasant scenery. The big city (over a million) sprawled on the surrounding hills, here and there a huge 300-400 year old church peeking and the clouds, making the weather fresco (fresh) and giving the wide valley a beautiful colors and texture during the sunset. One night we invited our second floor neighbors for Pasta Bolognese and chai. The Chilean/Argentinean young couple was making and selling jewelries to cover their travel expenses.
The old quarter was beautiful. It wasn’t only the architecture; it was a lively modern young city, living within these old impressive colonial buildings. On the weekend nights you could see teenagers hanging around the clubs, sitting in the plaza across the street, near this magnificent church, expensive restaurants and people everywhere.
Sunday after noon was the peak: while wandering, we saw dancing lessons in a quiet street corner sand later we stumbled on a Salsa dancing competition at the plaza of one of the oldest churches in the city. We sat for over 2 hours with the crowds, enjoying the elegant dancing, the live band, but especially the couples, who were dancing in between.
We took our bikes to Pedro, the owner of Bicicletas Pedro Martinez, for some maintenance. He turned out to be an exquisite mechanic, very pedant, and he put a lot of love in the bikes, as if they were his own. It was the first time we worked on one of our trailers, after a year and a bit of intensive usage. Pedro totally dismantled its’ sealed-bearing hub, which was filthy, and fixed its’ shaking and wobbling.
Pedro convinced us take the mountain road north, which would add at least a week to our ‘Mexico’ chapter, but we loved Mexico, so we didn’t care about it. He said the climbs are very steep, but the scenery is even more spectacular than in the road we came from.

Chillies in the market.
Beers on the roof.

In Pedro's workshop.

Folk dances in the street.

Oops Mountains… again...
We left Oaxaca, our favorite city in Mexico. We immediately started a very steep 1,200m climb, way over the classic 5%, many parts over 10%! We climbed to 2,600m and then down to 1,200m, a fantastic 1,400m descend! We passed from dry landscape to Pine forest and back to dry land.

The dog attacked our blue tarp.

The next day we climbed to 2,800m. Again, beautiful pine forests all around. We camped near a comedor, a small restaurant, and enjoyed a good fire to warm us.

The next day we climbed to 3,000m, our highest pass, and had an incredible 2,800m downhill! Just as Pedro told us, the flora changed from Pine trees to wild jungle. The tropical-mountainous jungle was just amazing! Everything was wet and green, green growing everywhere.

Looking down at our road on the ridge.

We found ourselves almost at sea level, hot & humid, still tropical green, many banana trees, a big river next to the road and a different air to the people – a Caribbean happiness! Music was playing everywhere and people were resting in their hammocks. We camped in a house near the river. We were sent to the river to shower. It was the first time we showered in a river, on this trip, in the warm weather. In Asia, up in the Tibetan plateau, we washed our intimate parts as seldom as possible, the water was ice-cold and it was freezing outside. Here it was fun! The moon was almost full and we could only hear the river.

Our shower for tonight.

Exhausting days 18/04/08
We reached the outskirts of Tuxtepec, a semi-big city. The traffic was heavier than before. The road we wanted to take seemed very crowded, so Gal wanted to take a bus. After an hour, in which the buses refused to take us (the luggage), we cycled, and soon we left the city behind us and the traffic calmed. Then we reached the REAL main road; thousands of huge trailers speeding like mad in this 2-lane small road. We decided to stop for the day. The first rancho we asked couldn’t accept us; the owner was in Tuxtepec. We had no choice but to head back. The next rancho didn’t really accept us and sent us to camp near the entrance. We decided to cycle back the 3km to the last village we passed, there was nothing on the way…
We stopped next to a house and asked about camping. Wile talking we were attacked by the ‘sunset mosquito club’. That place didn’t work as well. Tired and mosquito bit, we went to the local liquor-shop/bar and drank a freezing-cold Ballena (“Whale” – a 1 litre beer bottle. Sometimes the fat Mexican women are referred to as ‘Ballenas’ as well). One of the guys invited us to sleep at his house.
The long day was over, but we still had a mosquito infested night. Gal barely got any sleep.
We woke-up after a bad nights sleep, with the main road on our mind. The daughter of our host cooked fried platanos (bananas, but different) for us and we cycled back to the main road. A friendly truck driver took us to Isla, 15km from the nearest enterance to the autopista (expressway). It was
10:30am and we were exhausted! We decided not to cycle and rest there. This small town was strange, as if everybody has worked in the US, or a family member, and brought a bit of the Mexican-American lifestyle. Strange.
We bought 2 silk hammock, to be sent to
Israel; gifts, if they ever arrive. During our 3 months here (lowlands and beaches) we found out that hammocks are a major part of the Mexican culture.
In the evening we searched for birth-control pills for Gal; her supply was running short. We befriended with a 19 year old ‘punk’, who was excited of having foreigners in his small town. He joined us for the search. Later we went to his place and met his girlfriend and a 14 year old (the girlfriend of the brother), petit, fragile and 7 months pregnant! Pregnancy at a young age is very common in these countries.
As the couple walked us to our hotel, they told us, proudly, that they aren’t using a condom and that what disturbed them about the young mother-to-be was that she’s too skinny to be pregnant!

The Gulf of Mexico 20/04/08
The next morning we entered the autopista. It was our first expressway. The road was almost perfect: well paved, 2 lanes to each direction + wide shoulders and barely any traffic (toll road). The problem was the lack of people, villages and character. The only people we saw were kids selling pineapple juice, sitting under a bridge, every 40km. Nothing else, only the heat.
After 50km we decided to hitch. It was a hopeless waste of time and we were lingering too much in our beloved
Mexico already. A friendly man took us, too fast, in his pickup truck, 150km east, a bit too east. We found ourselves in the middle of Coatzacoalcos, a huge port city with no reason at all for any sort of tourist to visit. The guy invited us to sleep at his house, if we don’t find a cheap hotel.
It was near sunset, and we realized we were less than 1km from the beach, the
Gulf of Mexico. We reached a mature decision, first to enjoy the sunset and only later find a place to sleep.
The beach was a bit disappointing, but we expected that, being in a big industrial city. People all around were very friendly and Gal was excited of encountering a new sea – almost like

A nice evening
People told us it’ll be impossible to find a cheap hotel. Rami decided to save the hassle of searching for one in the dark so we headed back to our ‘hitch’. On the way Rami spotted a ‘white man’; a blond white man! Rami was intrigued and approached. We helped him to invite us over, even though his beautiful small daughter was intimidated by the strange strangers. Hilde & Bart, a Dutch couple living here for a few years (Bart works in the shipping industry), invited us to stay the night We reached a normal house, with air-conditioning and internet connection, just like back home. They made us feel very comfortable and we were drinking beer and chatting into the night, exactly like back home.

The Gulf of Mexico.

Showers in the river 21/04/08
We left Coatzacoalcos and took a new toll road, which was not on our map, towards Chiapas. It was a fantastic road, in beautiful green scenery, but again, not to many ‘things’ like villages, shops, food or water. We camped in a big cattle farm, which was very tranquil and comfortable. A passing pickup truck was the local shop, so we could buy tortillas & cheese. Gals huge supply of “Knor” soups (we add pasta) did the rest. The next morning the workers showed us 2 lions, caged for 20 years; they were brought as calf and spent all their lives in these 2 small cages. It was too sad to take a picture.

The autopista to Chiapas.

The following day we passed through more beautiful scenery. The only interesting incident was Gal loosing her trailer flag, just before sunset. We were short in time, searching for a place to camp, but we quickly found it, a short distance behind.
We reached a house on a river bank, which invited us to camp. It doubled as the local beer shop, with its ups (we bought beer) and downs (others came to buy beer). We were sent to the river to shower and enjoyed it more that any normal shower, especially after a hot day.

A shower.

The next day a truck driver recommended we leave the highway and take the old road: slower, more climbs, but more people and much more beautiful. We took his recommendation. That night we camped in another house near a small river and, again, enjoyed showering in the river.
The following morning, the family of the house took us to waterfalls nearby. They invited us to stay, but it was time to continue, and we heard there’s a fair in a nearby town.

One of our hosts, giving us fruit.
The waterfall.

A million bird nests.

We reached Tecpatan, a small town dominated by beautiful ruins of a monastery. That night would be the peak of the festivities and the town was packed. A woman invited us to open our tent in her yard. It was strange, camping in the middle of this town, but it was very comfortable, and there was a big festival after all! We went for a short walk to the river, for a shower with the local women. One of them, a teacher, invited us for dinner, platanos, and we had great conversations. Later, we saw folk dance in the ruins. At night a famous band from the Dominican Republic played to a crowd of many thousands.

Leaving Tecpatan.
The ruins, still visible.

The next evening we slept in a house just before Sumidero Canyon. Again, we were sent to shower in the huge river of the canyon. It was totally dark and our host warned us of the current. Later we saw him and his wife go to the river to shower. Gal woke up and found a leach. We pulled it off and recalled the time when we found a leach on Rami, in north India, during the wet season – how disgusting!
It will be a while till our next shower in a river…

Sumidero Canyon 26/04/08
We reached Sumidero Canyon from its west side. We had the option of continuing with the road, a 1,000m climb with only few viewpoints to the canyon, or take a tourist boat through the canyon. The locals insisted on the boat ride. Half an hour of resting instead of 2 days of climbing in the heat…
We arrived to the port/restaurant at
10:30. A tourist boat was there (waiting for us) with exactly 2 spare seats. 100 Pesos ($10) each, a bit of help from the surprised Mexican tourists and we were off. 40 minutes of a boat ride in incredible scenery. The boat went a bit too fast for Gal – what’s new?

Looking down from the dam.
Towards sunset, the night before.
Everybody - smile!

Gal, not relaxed.
Too fast.
A million mangoes in our guest house garden, Chiapa de Corzo.
Huge toads.
Rain caught on the bike - a small storm.

Indigenous 27/04/08
It was
18:00, about 1 more hour of light, up in the mountains. We’ve climbed already 1,200m, to 1,600m, leaving us about 800m for tomorrow to our last destination in Mexico - San Cristóbal de las Casas.
A red pickup truck stopped next to us and a smiling young Chiapas Mexican (we’re in
Chiapas, the most southern state of Mexico) asked us in English (with a heavy American-Mexican accent) where are we going. Rami answered that we’re looking for a place to camp, hopefully near a house. The guy said it’s not going to be easy – “people here are very traditional”.
It was true. Since we passed the first big mountain pass, all the people we saw (not too many) were, as written in our guidebook: “traditional indigenous”. Meanwhile, we mainly saw people in blue – traditional clothes, colored blue, probably from the days of the gag-wars, like the ”Reds” in east LA. They seemed not as open, warm and friendly as the Mexicans we’ve encountered till now, laughing, smiling, asking, talking, encouraging, welcoming… these guys had their arm twisted till they replayed a cold hello. And the women were even worse.
“Travelers could risk assault” and “photography is resisted… the camera steals their souls” are only a few of the quotes in our guidebook.
The guy said he’ll ask his father in law, in the village ahead, if we can crash-in. We continued climbing slowly and in 5 minutes he returned and said we’re invited.
We entered the house, which was situated in a tiny colonia (tiny village) on a mountain ridge. We were introduced, the ladies all dressed in traditional blue. Marcus, the young guy, who has worked 4 years in
Nevada, helped us and made us comfortable. He asked if we have full camping gear and if the roof will do. It was perfect – the best scenery we could ask for!
It was cold. Not a problem in the tent, with the sleeping bags. What we mean is that it was not too hot to go to sleep! It was cold in a good way. Well, the cold shower was not so fun, not like the showers in all the rivers in the last week, but, it’s important for us to shower when we can. And, we were offered to shower, so let’s see how ‘blue’ people shower… it was the same as in other places ;-)
We worked on dinner, in the ‘kitchen area’, using their old stove, working on fire-wood; Knor soup with pasta and beans from a can. One of the women gave us tortillas (hand made, obviously), fresh and tasty. We were chatting with them in Spanish, with Marcus in English, among ourselves in Hebrew and they were talking Zizich (or something like that), their mother tongue.
Later we prepared for bed. The father invited us to sleep in the house. We were touched by the offer – they accepted us as people and not just saw us as Gringos, who’ve been taking advantage of them for centuries. But, we were all set in the roof, with our privacy, the fresh air and the coming sunrise.
We woke up not too early and lazily packed. We knew we have a short day; only 600m in 30km should be easy. Obviously, Rami is never too relaxed on arriving to a big city with a million options – the waste of time & energy of finding a comfortable hotel which we like – this one doesn’t have a roof-top, that ones toilets are disgusting, etc. Cheap was not a problem. We heard there are many budget places around and we even contacted a guy from Couch-Surfing.

Back to the Indians, sorry –“indigenous”… wait a second, why sorry? Isn’t “Indigenous” a name for the local minorities, the non-Caucasian, the lowest of the food-chain and I’m holding myself not to write about the color of the skin? Did you know that in
Canada they don’t have any more “Indigenous”? Probably due to the things written above. Now they have “first people”! So what about the old law of the jungle, where the ‘first man’ to sit in front of the TV chooses the channel? It’s not like that in Canada! Till I see an ‘equal’ or ‘fair’ example, for me they’re all INDIANS! Actually these guys are “Zizich” and the neighbor tribe is “Chukakos” or another name I invented just now, but not “Indigenous”, but I’m a shallow elitist and I hate the word “Indigenous”!!!

We fixed breakfast. The family ate next to us. We swapped all sorts of food: yesterday’s cheese (our stomachs became immune to anything), tortillas, fresh beans and the huge sardine can we’ve been carrying since Nexpa beach, a month & a half ago. “They took what was left of last night’s red salsa to their omelet”, Gal remarked sadly, but they gave us an onion for our eggs, so we called it even. Oh – there were no onions in the 3 shops we encountered during yesterdays climb!
The family was interested in our MSR gasoline stove. They had a gas stove, but it was hid behind and they cooked over a fire. Gal’s morning coffee would have taken an hour to boil!
We were finally ready to go. The mother came with a bag with 3 huge mangoes – beautiful, but still green. We told her it’s too heavy and not ripe – we can’t carry it for 4-5 days, but she insisted. As we were about to leave, Rami asked, as gently as possible (using basic Spanish & hand language) if we can take a picture, so we’ll remember this night. The daughter accepted and called the mother to join. Leaving, Rami shook the hands of the ladies. Gal came to shake the mothers’ hands, but, surprisingly, received a hug and kiss on the cheek.
We mounted our bikes and started climbing towards
San Cristóbal de las Casas, through beautiful scenery and funny local blue Smurfs. Rami was playing with the thought of printing the picture of these 2 “indigenous individuals”, stabbing the picture with a needle and then burning it – teach them a lesson not to mess with white-men (and especially Jew-boys)!

P.S. – centuries ago the Conquistadors (Spanish conquerors) made each tribe wear a different color, for ease of recognizing and distinguishing. It gives a less ‘romantic’ feeling to the “beautiful traditional clothes”.

The colonia on the ridge.
A perfect roof-top.
Our hosts.
passion fruit.

San Cristóbal de las Casas 28/04/08
San Cristóbal was a target for us. It’s been 10 days since Oaxaca, our previous target. We’ve been hearing lots about it, people praising it for its beauty, tranquility and cheap accommodation. Rami was a bit worried about too many westerners, “gringo-nising” the place, but still, expectations were high.
We were a bit disappointed, especially after Oaxaca. The city was not as beautiful as we have expected and didn’t have a lively, Spanish colonial atmosphere. It was like a colonial village, and the architecture was far from stunning, especially the churches.
But we still stayed there for 8 days, thanks to Kate & Mac.

The Israeli connection...
Colonial narrow streets.
And style.
Narrower streets!

Kate & Mac
We reached the center in search of cheap accommodation. While asking directions, a “Gringo” helped, both him and Rami mixing English & Spanish, and offered we stay at his house, he rents cheap rooms every now & then. The room didn’t have toilets (spoiled us), but we immediately loved the house and the ice between us and Mac quickly melted. Later Kate, his girlfriend, arrived and joined us.
They made us feel very much at home. We enjoyed using their kitchen and especially watching good (and bad) movies.
The house was always alive, filled with friends: Gringos, British, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombians and more, never a dull moment.
We planned on staying not more than 3 days, but got ‘stuck’ for 8 days.
Mac & Kate – waiting to see you again!

Kate & Mac, in the garden.
Cooking (and drinking a Ballena).
More guests!
And everybody feeling comfortable.
And even more guests!