Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

San Cristobal de la Casas, Chis to Ciudad Juarez, Chih

Back Home Up

 

Copyright (c) 1997 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Chapter 38 - Mar. 27 to Apr. 24, 1997 San Cristobal de la Casas, Chis to Ciudad Juarez, Chih 23,945 KM (14,846y MI) cumulative

After a 3 hour bus ride that turned into 8, we finally arrived at the mountain town of San Cristobal de las Cases. San Cristobal is truly a colonial town with a real European atmosphere. Buildings in "row house" style filled with restaurants, shops, and hotels line the narrow streets. The main plaza is lined with the usual church on one side, municipal building with its arched walkway on another, tourist office, and old colonial hotel on the others. The central square was filled with the usual concrete sidewalks, neatly squared off spaces for trees and plants, a central gazbo used for a small restaurant, and Mayan women dressed in their colorful huipils, faldas, and fajas. Many of these women had a most unusual and colorful hairstyle. They'd let their straight, shiny, black hair grow down to about their butts. Taking huge, satin ribbon about 6 inches wide and maybe 12 ft long, they'd double it over several times. They'd then create two long braids at the back of their heads with this ribbon intertwined within it. At the top of each braid are the folded ends of the ribbon all bunched to look like big bows or ribbon flowers. Some were so large I got the impression of many colorful sets of Mickey Mouse ears. Add to this a bright red blanket covered with fancy floral embroidery draped across their shoulder and plain black faldas and you've got the picture of these particular Mayan women. To add more to the colorful families, even the men got dressed in bright red tunics, covered with fancy embroidery, and tassles hanging down the side. A family gathered together in the square attracted much attention from the tourist gringos who all tried to unobtrusively catch a photo or two. Don't get too bold, or as one rather rude woman learned, you will quickly be rebuffed. I don't blame them We've been in similar situations and it really is rather rude to take a photo of someone without asking. You feel a bit used.

Churches of all styles are scattered all over town and, naturally, we toured each and every one. I think we finally counted 7 in just the historic downtown area. Add to this all the other small churches throughout town and you've got an enormous number. We couldn't help but wonder how a town of just over 89,000 inhabitants could afford to maintain so many Catholic churches. But they do. The oldest church dates from the 1500s. With its simple exterior and interior, uneven well worn floors, and clearly ancient gold painted wood alters we were much reminded of the old mission churches of California and Texas. Other churches, although dating from the early 1900s, had carefully maintained exteriors painted in such wild colors as white with blue, pink, or green trim, or a bright yellow. As we can tell from the incredible colors of the native people's costumes there is certainly a love of brilliant colors. In many churchs the interior was just a fairly plain white stucco with spectacularly gold painted alters providing a supporting place for the various elaborate images of Christ, Mary, and other saints. Most also had a beautifully finished, wood ceiling with carvings of flowers and vines. One church, Santo Dominigo, had perhaps the most incredible interior of all. The carved interior walls and pulpet were all painted in gold. With the dozens of candles and overhead lights all ignighted for Semana Santa the entire interior simply glowed in gold.

It just happened that we arrived just in time for one of the biggest religious festivals for all of Mexico, Semana Santa, the week before Easter. So there were various festivals and processions happening throughout the city and surrounding towns. In San Cristobal Holy Thursday evening seemed to start with a tour of the various churches. People filed from chruch to church, stood in a long line so they could kneel at and kiss the robes of that church's particular representation of Christ either on the cross of lying in a deathly pose, and drop a few coins in the waiting basket. Maybe this is how they support so many churches, they all give money to all of them. Of more interest to us was the Cofradia de Assuncion's representation of the last supper and Chrst's prayer in the orchard. A Cofradia is a religious organization controled and run by men. They were originally created by the Spanish to promote the acceptance of the Catholic religion among the natives. It seems that the natives really went in for these society type things with all their pomp and circumstance. They still exist and they now plan, execute, and pay for all these religious events. Assuncion's represention of the last supper was played by live actors with the music and discussion coming over a loud speaker. They included everything from the supper, washing the apostle's feet, offering the cup in the orchard, Christ's arrest, Peter's denial, Judas' hanging, and Christ's imprisonment. It was interesting, but long and drawn out. Pauses between each prepared line was so long, clearly beyond the length needed. But what can I say, they're trying their best.

The next morning they had the sentancing of Christ, which we missed, and a long procession with the actor playing Christ carrying a lightweight version of the cross through the streets of the town. He was to return to the church later in the day where he would be properly crusified, the actor would live, Christ would die. This was the most realistic procession held in town. Other processions held at various times throughout the day included only statue representatives of Christ, Mary, and other saints. Each cofradia associated with each chruch held their own procession, which meant lots and lots of processions.

We had heard that the Semana Santa processions up in the small Mayan town of San Juan Chamula were something to behold. So we hopped aboard one of their collectivos, van transport, to have a look. When visiting the small Mayan villages surrounding San Cristobal one needs to first recognize that they don't necessarily enjoy the influx of tourists. They like the influx of tourist money to some extent, but not the nosey tourist snapping photos at every opportunity. So, picture taking is often forbidden and the reception one gets is often a bit cold. Also, the towns are not really locations where people live. As in the ancient Mayan times, town cnters are primarily centers for their markets and religious ceremonies. The people typically live in small houses in the hills surrounding town. Consequently apart from the main square and a few comedors and houses for the few people who live in town, there's not much there. Chamula was no exception. You see the church and plaza, look at the few weaving and textile handicrafts for sale, and leave.

On this day, however, there was a bit more. We arrived just when the Semana Santa procession was about to begin. Making our way to the center of the plaza we were in good position to view the proceedings. For a while people milled about and only the sound of mumbling voices could be heard, Suddenly there was a rattling sound emenating from the bell tower of the church. It was made by boys shaking a board with a drawer handle screwed on it. The noise of the drawer handles banging back and forth on the board created an erie bone rattling sound that could be heard throught the plaza. Next, men carrying baskets filled with greens and candles filed out of the the brightly painted church door. As they progressed, green pine needles and leaves were strewn along their path making for a green road surrounding the plaza. These were followed by some dozen richly atired statues of Christ, Mary, and various saints ported on the shoulders of 6 or 8 white wool tunic dressed men. Half went one way around the plaza, and half the other. As the groups met on the opposite side of the plaza the statues were made to bow to each other several times. With the slow progress of the procession and the many bows it made for one long, kinda boring ceremony. And all during this the boys kept up tbeir banging din from their drawer handle boards.

It was during this procession that we got to experience a bit of the local's disdain for tourists. Standing in the plaza, just watching the procedings, suddenly on of the many men dressed in the typical fuzzy white tunic came running up to me, grabbed my hat, looked me in the eye with a look of killing anger, and threw it on the ground. We were thoroughly confused and had no idea why he would do this. Finally he said, "quita por favor", take it off please. At which Brian immediatly removed his hat. I think our look of confusion made him realize we weren't being disrespectful on purpose, we just had no idea that hats were supposed to be off at this point. As we looked around we realized that the sea of white hats that previously flooded the square was no more. Hats were now in hands or hanging off belts. The next person he approached he at least took the hat off and handed it to her. I think if he had known we didn't know the ritual he wouldn't have been quite so rough. Brian just thinks he didn't like my hat. Granted it's not a great hat, but.

One thing that surprised us the most about Chamula was the trash. In most Mexican towns we find the central plazas and market areas are reasonable clean. The plazas especially seem to be swept up every night and people dispose of their litter in proper resepticles. It's only outside town, along the roads that litter abounds. But here in Chamula, trash was everywhere, in the plaza, on the streets, in front of the comedors. Women in their bare feet walked across rotting orange and banana peels, discarded plastic bolsitas (bags) used to hold those ever present refrescos (sodas), plastic bottles, papers, just stuff. Families sat on stairs covered in trash, their bare feet resting in even more trash. Eat a piece of fruit, throw the peel or pit on the ground. Eat corn in the cob, and where do you think the left over cob goes. We see it over and over again throughout Mexico and one has to begin to wonder, when does the amount of trash become too much to bear. When do people finally begin to realize the only thing they see outside of their homes is piles and piles of garbage. How can someone become so blind to it. For those of us who've been raised during the generation in the US where people decided littering wasn't such a good idea, this nonchalont disposal of litter is quite unsettling. But, it is a problem for Mexico to solve someday and it's not currently high on their list of priorities.

The day after the solemn ceremonies of Semana Santa the town came alive with its Feria de Primavera y de la Paz (faire of spring and peace). What a contrast. Processions of silent morning turned into colorful parades of jubilation overnight. A pretty beauty contest winner with very Spanish looking heritage, light brown hair, in a long flowing silky light green gown was pronounced Queen of the feria and crowned with one of those gawdy 12 inch tall bead crowns the Mexicans seem so fond of. Then, as the crowd waited for the parade to start, a private plane circled overhead tossing small packages attached to colorful little parachutes. This got the crowd all excited, but they totally misguessed the winds. Some got caught in up drafts and headed for Villahermosa (a town some 100 miles east), most landed in trees or on building roofs. Only a few flew straight and were caught. I assume the packages contained candy, but we never found out for sure.

Finally the parade started. I just love to compare these Mexican parades with small town parades in the US. Let's see, a typical US parade has lots of marching bands marching allong in pseudo precise formation playing some good Soussa song, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Explorers, Volunteers, and numerous other organizations march along in neat rows spaced approximately 3 ft apart, expensive cars bearing the parade queen, her court, and, of course, the local polititions, Maybe a home made float or two towed by a John Deere, and fire engines, antique cars, and police squads. Well, this particular parade did have its share of classic cars, at the very end, and several motorcycles that were to be competing in the international motocross the next weekend. But it started with a one wood flute/12 drum band beating out lively Mayan tunes that got the crowd clapping and stomping. Amazingly even though the flute was so out numbered it was easily heard above the druming. Next came dancers dressed in those long fancily embroidered dresses adopted by Chiapas from the Spanish, a group of male dancers wearing wood masks and long flowing ribbons, and then the one and only marching band. Most of the rest of the parade consisted of float after float bearing queens for different towns, events, businesses. Nice floats too, almost professional. But so many. The princpal job of each queen and her court, apart from looking pretty, was to toss flowers, confetti, or candy to the crowd. That's it. Quite different from a US parade.

We took a one day bus trip to visit one of Mexico's most popular National Parks, Canon de Sumidero. A high speed boat whisked us along the length of the canyon making occasional stops to point out unique features. Due to the construction of a hydroelectric damn, the original 3000 meters of canyon depth has been cut to just 1200 at is maximum depth. Being in the lowlands around Tuxtla, the vegetation on the canyon walls cinsists of dry brown shubbery. Here and there are some rather interesting rock formations that appeared to be created from seapage of water through the rock. It reminded us a lot of the canyons formed by the Rio Grande. Unfortunately like so many commercial tours the information imparted by our guide was sorely lacking. Canyon height, water depth, and only a bit of information about the damn was all we got. Oh and isn't this an unusual formation looking like a Christmas tree, and here's a crocodile, there's one of the overlook points. I wanted to know type of rock, age of the canyon, why the strange rock formations are made, how much power is generated by the damn, how many crocodiles and how are they faring with the damn in place. Not in the cards for this tour.

We did learn that Chiapa de Corzo and similarly Tuztla Gutierrez are hot, hot towns and we had to ride through them. San Cristobal is located at an altitude of around 2100 meters making for comfortable days and chilly nights. But in the 50 mile ride to Tuxtla we cruised down with nary a turn of the pedal for a good 60 KM when we bottomed out at 500 meters at Chiapas. We felt as though we were descending into the bowels of a firery volcano as our thermometers exceeded 40 degrees C. A fan cooled room with a shower never looked so good.

We came to Tuxtla with the purpose of seeing their zoo, reputed to be the best in all Central America. It was beautiful. Set up much like the san Diego zoo with large natural enclosures for the animals and large cages for the birds. Walkways wound around the hills surrounded by dense jungles while monkeys clambered through the tree tops. Smart monkeys probably found the safest place they could be. The zoo features only animals, reptiles, birds, and insects native to the Chiapas state. Jaguars, pumas, coral snakes, their non venomous scorpion, terantuals, wild boars, parrots, and tucans to name a few. They even had a live quetzal, sitting in a tree its long irridescent green tail feathers reaching a good 2 ft below it. They only had one, which is good as they have not been successfully bred in captivity. Since they are endangered having as many in the wild as possible is best. The most spectacular, yet sad, item was an Arpia eagle. This is the largest eagle in the world, and I do mean the single largest. Arpia eagles are so rare the last one spotted in the wild was back in the 70s. It's thought this may be the last of its kind. A sad legacy of extinction. It is enormous and strong. Its gray baggy looking head gives it the appearance of an old old creature. It's a good 4 ft tall and the sign says it eats monkeys for lunch. Rabbits are just a snack. It will be a sad day when this magnificant bird is gone.

Time to make some serious moves back toward the north. So once again onto the bus for another marathon ride to Mexico DF, this time aboard a good first class bus, no standing in the aisles, no 3 persons per seat, and air conditioning. Luxery.

Mexico DF has the unfortunate distinction of being the most populated metropolitan area in the world. With some 30 million inhabitants it can be described as nothing less than one huge sprawling city. It has the usual narrow, crowded streets and sidewalks, tall buildings, tons of street vendors selling everything from replacement blender parts to stuffed animals, and a begger or two on every block. But, it also is home to some of the best museums and cultural items Mexico has to offer, such as the world renowned Museo National de Anthropologia, the second largest open plublic meeting plaza in the world (Red Square in Mosocw is the largest), modern stores, a wide variety of cheap hotels and restaurants, and one very nice, large, wooded park. We came to Mexico with our primary goal of seeing all the museums we could handle in this one shot. We normally don't like to visit large cities and we intend this to be our one and only visit to Mexico DF.

The city of Mexico has an interesting past. It was founded by a group of natives whose origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery. They may have come from the US southwest or Florida. They were a band of rag-tag peoples, the Mexicas, who were kicked out of one place after another. Finally they came to the large valley of Mexico which held a huge, shallow lake with a few undesirable islands. The local people already established in the region let them settle on this island, in exchange for tributes of course, as they had no use for it. Mexica legend has it that they were searching for a homeland blessed by the gods and the sign they had found it was an eagle, perched on a cactus, with a snake in its beak, the current symbol on the Mexican flag. Somehow I think the first story is more accurate as who would establish a homeland on an isolated, not particularly agricultural worthy island.

The Mexicas went to work transforming this island into a religious center of tall stone pyramids and temples surrounded by floating gardens called chinampas. They started with rafts covered in dirt anchored in intervals around the center island. Eventually the plants took root and the rafts became small islands themselves. Large causways were built connecting the center of temples to the mainland for foot traffic. But much traffic was by boat through the spaces between the floating islands. By the time the Mexicas had reached this final stage of development their military strength had grown such that they overthrew their preious overlords and conquered several other neighboring cities. They were a strong empire. Outside the main cathedral near the open plaza, called zocala, is a model of the Aztec city at its peak. It must have been quite impressive to the Spaniards when they arrived.

In 1521 the Aztec empire was to come tumbling down with the Spanish conquest. Hernan Cortez appeared on the scene and, very wisely, approached the leaders of communities who the Aztecs had been harassing for centuries. These leaders, very unwisely, agreed to help. What they hadn't realized was that Cortez thought no more of his allies as his enemies. All were savages to be enslaved and converted. So they all went off to the Mexica capital where Cortez and his Spanish soldiers were greeted, entertained, and imprisoned. That wasn't to last as Moctezuma, believing the Spaniards were gods, hesitated in killing them and the Spaniards took him prisoner instead. Despite Moctezuma's assurances that he was there willingly, the towns people rioted, partly because of Moctezuma but also because the Spaniards were destroyng their religious idols. While giving a speech in the plaza in an attempt to quell the riot, Moctezuma was killed, either from a projectile thrown by the crowd or by the Spaniards, history is unclear on that point. The riot got worse and the Spaniads were forced to flee. THey retreated to the city of their indian allies where they could regroup and reinforce. They returned not much later in force, 900 Spaniards and over 100,000 indians and after a 75 day siege in which they raised building after building of the Aztec capital, the Aztecs finally surrendered on August 13, 1821. Unfortunately by this time the Aztec population has been severly dimished by both the war and an epidemic of small pox. The centuries old empire was completely shattered in a mere 2 years.

Cortez lost no time in movign in and taking over. Quickly a new colonial city rose right on top of the old Aztec temples. Buildings were often constructed from the rubble of the former Aztec temples. Over the years the lake was gradually filled in and large cathedrals, government buildings, houses, shops, etc were built on the fill. Because of this city's unusual start as a lake, the historic center with it's grand colonial buildings has some odd problems. As you walk down the street grand churches with lofty bell towers lean helter skelter. They're sinking, rather unevenly, into the soft former lake bottom. Walking inside one of these buildings gives one an unsettling sense of vertigo. Your inner ear says your walking upright, but your visual senses and your feet say otherwise. Lofty columns that are not quite vertical stretch to the ceiling overhead. Chandeliers hang off center from their upper attachment. Plumb bobs positioned at various locations around and in each structure show the offset. To fix the buildings would require digging underneath to bedrock and then filling in with new, solid, footings. An expensive proposition to say the least. So most buildings are left to continue tilting until they must either be fixed or dismantled.

One building that is being repaird is the huge cathedral just north of the zocalo. Inside is a forest of green scafolding used to support the roof structure and distribute the weight over a larger area than the original columns. Meanwhile outside a deep ditch is dug along the sides and new footings built. It will be a good thing, eventually, in that the church will be saved. However, this construction has been going on for years and during this time the inside scafolding certainly detracts from the beauty of the building itself.

We spent several days touring around the main city visiting its museums, monuments, parks, and streets. One day trip away from the city involved going out to the ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan was a preaztec city located about one hour north of Mexico DF. It was started in about 400 BC, reached its apex at around 500 AD, and declined into obscurity by around 750 AD. At its peak it encompased about 32 square km, housed around 250,000 people, and had trade links with cities as far as both coasts and Tikal. Various reasons drove it into decline so that by the time the Spaniards showed up it was no more than a legend.

The construction was remarkably different from anything we'd seen to date. The buildings of this city were not constructed of carefully cut blocks of stones. They used vocanic rock taken directy from the ground with only a little shaping in the corners. These were piled upon a base of dirt and rock, cemented together using the mortor and chink method, lots of plaster between rocks with little rocks to shoved into the plaster to give it added strength. This made for actually a quite lumpy building. All was covered over with a 6 inch thick layer of stucco that was painted with fabulous paintings of birds, animals, plants, stars, and people in lots of red. Its symmetry and organization makes it obvious this was a well planned city from the very start giving it the distinction of being Mesoamerica's first planned urban area. A long, wide road extends north to south, called the avenue of the dead. Walls with temples placed in nearly symmetrical locations on top line each side. To the north the road ends in a wide plaza surrounded by 12 symmetrically placed temple platforms and the huge temple of the moon, a large pyramid. Not to be outdone, to the south located off to one side is the huge temple of the sun. This is the third largest temple in the world as measured by base area. Cholula near Puebla, Mx and Egypt's Cheops are larger. Its base is 222 meters square, it's 70 meters high, and was built from some 3 million tons of stone, brick, and rubble. Imagine moving all this with little more than stick like tools and sledges. No machinery, no horses, no wheels.

Further south is a plaza that contains what appears to have been residential areas for the ruling class and a temple to Quetzalcoatl. Of all the structures this is the only one containing a significant amount of carved stone work. The other buildings were a plain construction technique called slope and panel, sloping walls for part and vertical walls for the rest. But the Quetzalcoatl temple was covered on all sides with carved masks of Tlolac, the god of water, serpents with heads coming out of flowers, the undulating bodies of the serpents, shells, and geometrical patterns. Somewhere along the line the front facade of the temple was covered with a larger temple having the more typical slope and panel design. Consequently the face with the carved stone work was nicely preserved underneath. Even a few of the shell carvings are still covered in their white painted stucco giving one some feel of how colorful the exterior must have been.

The visit to Teotihuacan was quite interesting and would have made for a perfect day, excpt for one small factor. Unlike the other archeological sites we've visited, the guards here allow roaming vendors on the site. Walking from one end to the other required running a gauntlet of obsidian statue, fake silver bracelet, necklace, tablecloth toting vendors all exclaiming how they've got a "good price" for their particular piece of junk. We must have had to say "no we don't want any" more than 20 times before we left. Had we come on a weekend when the ruins would have been more crowded perhaps we wouldn't have been harassed so much. But, then again, there may also be proportionally more vendors trying to get money out of proportionally more tourists. We did not enjoy this intrusion into our visit one bit and are quite annoyed that INAH, the Mexican organization in charge of all the archeological sites in Mexico, allows it.

One comes to Mexico City to see museums and we certainly did that. There was the Museum of Cultures which contains items from various cultures around the world, a museum built specifically for one mural painted by Diego Rivera, a museum of Aztec artifacts and the Templo Mayor located just north of the Zocalo, and others. But the most impressive is the National Museo de Anthropologia. This huge building of well over 20,000 sq. ft. houses all those pieces they dug out of the ruins we've been visiting over the past few months. It's a huge rectangular building with a central courtyard. Half of the courtyard is covered with a huge rectangular "umbrella" roof supported by a single column. A fountain rains water down all around the central post which is insribed with figures representing Mexico's history, from prehispanic days to Cortez. On the wall of the courtyard facing the entrance of the museum, above the doors is an inscription in marbel duplicating the Aztec codices that tell the story of their creation and journey to their promised island. Some of the glyphs are almost readable, four human characters carrying bundles with footprints going away indicate times when the band traveled. Footprints forking away indicate a group that split off. A lake in the beginning with one man and one womnan on an island shows the begining of humans, their creation. Other glyphs are understandable only to the trained eye. The remaining half of the courtyard is filled with a shallow pond with plants and ferns and occasionaly flames burning from torches. This represents all that was sacred to the native people of Mexico, air, earth, water, and fire.

Surrounding the courtyard are two story rooms filled with artifacts. The displays start with a discussion of what anthropology is. It then proceeds to an overview of the early mesoamerica cultures, a discussion of the current theories of how man migrated to the americas, how he domesticated animals and learned agriculture which lead to the establishment of the first settlements, and the creation of the first mesoamerica city, Teotihuacan. From there rooms covered each of the cultures of Mexico, Toltecs, Olmecs, Mayans, Mexicas or Aztecs as we know them, and the north and west indians. We saw case after case of some of the most spectacular pieces of pottery, obsidian tools, jade masks, marbel figurines, clay minitures of people used for offerings, models and photos of important cities. It went on and on and we quickly began to feel a bit of overload. We were trying to see in one day what could take a month. Most striking to me were a full sized replica of part of the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacan with all the colors and carvings, a replica of the headdress of Moctezuma II (the original was procured by Cortez and now lies in a museum in Vienna), and the Aztec calander stone which is actually a carving to the sun god and not a calander.

Upstairs are more displays showing indigenous peoples in the corresponding areas as they live today. Models of houses, their costumes, musical instruments, tools, and crafts are shown. What we found so remarkable was the shear number of small groups of indigenous people who are still up in the mountains living as they have for centuries. They make a life for themselves combining what they will of modern technology with their traditional ways. These people fled to the mountains when the Spaniards came for safety and the government has basically left them alone all these years. They weren't rounded up, thrown into reservations, or massacered as in the U.S. This has lead to a rich diversity of cultures that does not exist in the U.S.

After walking until our legs were numb and feet sore we headed over to the high rent district of Zona Rosa (pink zone) to meet one of our keypals for dinner. Several minutes past our appointed hour up runs a breathless, tiny lady with long strawberry blond hair, pretty light skin with just a touch of gold, sunny smile, sparkling eyes, and bubbely personality. Rosa, was to provide us with an excellent evening of talk and information. This was one of the few opportunities we'd had to learn more about why things work the way they do in Mexico and for Rosa to learn a bit more of why the U.S. is the way it is. Rosa is in a most unusual profession for a woman, especially in a society that is just beginning to feel the effects of a woman's liberation movement. She's a journalist who reports on car racing. The world of news reporting is so foreign to us we just had dozens of questions like How does one get assignments?, How do you get into a field like that?, or Just how much auto racing is there in Mexico? The conversation went from there on to other more worldy matters like: How more well-to-do Mexicans deal with all the street beggars?, How does a Mexican woman deal with the different type of begger one finds in L.A., The pluses and minuses of illegal immigration in the U.S., We went on and on for hours, but finally exhaustion overtook us and we were all too tired to continue. Had it not been for the time I'm sure we could have gone for several more hours. We had to stop. So we saw Rosa safely to her street and headed back for one final night in Mexico City.

One thing we learned when w first arrived in Mexico City is you don't try to take a taxi when you have a loaded touring bike. They will try to rip you off so fast. At the bus terminal there are kiosks selling tickets for "authorized" taxis that are supposed to be valid for up to 4 people plus luggage. The tickets vary in price depending upon what zone in the city you're going to. For instance, to go from the bus terminal named "TAPO" to the zocalo is supposed to be 14 pesos for 4 people. Well, not if you have a bike. We rolled out and asked at the kiosk what the cost would be with our bikes. We were told we'd have to negotiate directly with the taxi driver. So much for fixed, authorized prices. From the taxi drivers we got quotes of 80 and 100 pesos. Now that's to go a distance of less than 3 km. We were shocked. After all if they have 4 people with 4 large suitcases the total load is virtually identical to us with our bikes. Both would need a larger car, possibly a station wagon. Yet the 4 people would get charged 14 and us 100. No way. Brian gave the driver such a laugh of total disgust it was worth it to see the look on the driver's face. We decided to walk. So we pushed our bikes down the street and with the help of a very nice baggage handler managed to find the zocalo. When it was time to head out to terminal Norte we didn't even bother trying taxis. We just hopped on our bikes, headed out Ave. Lazario Cadenez, and with only one wrong turn easily made our way to the terminal. Those taxi driver thieves can take their outlandish fares and put them "where the sun don't shine".

A five hour bus ride past some beautiful farm country found us in the quaint, colonial town of Morelia in the state of Michoacan. What a wonderful place. Morelia is clearly one of the more affluent towns we've seen in Mexico. It's got upscale hotels, restaurants, and stores, impecibly clean and well maintained streets and parks, is home to a liberal arts University, and has several very good museums. Two of the museums gave the hhistory of the region and the state. Of particular interest was the Mexican's interpretation of the Mexican/American war of 1845. To the Mexican point of view this was just another display of the immoral and unethical land grabbing policy of the U.S. government of that time. There was absolutely no mention of Santa Anna's escapades in Texas which kind of precipitated this whole thing. Santa Anna put the screws to Texas, Texas rebeled and declared its freedom and a few years later joined the U.S. Mexico never recognized Texas's independance. The U.S. then decided it wanted this recognition as well as the additional territories of Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Consequently, war broke out with the U.S. being the victor.

We also found it rather interesting how much discussion there is about how bad the Spaniards were in their treatment towards the natives. But, if you look at the treatment of the natives to each other there's not much difference. The Aztecs went around conquering their neighbors, demanding tributes of gold and other valuables, taking slaves and prisoners for their ritual sacrifices. In fact for the dedication of the final phase of Templo Mayor the priests sacrificed 20,000 prisoners of war by cutting out their hearts. There's not much difference between their ruthless behavior toward their conquered subjects as there was with the Spanish toward the Aztecs. I can think of only two major differences. 1. The Spanish forced the natives to take on a totally new religion, language, and lifestyle. Since previously the culture of the Aztecs was so similar to their neighbors they had little reason or desire to force any changes. However, the Spanish culture was so different they needed to change the Indians to what they considered comfortable. 2. Perhaps the worst devastation the Europeans brought to the Americas were the diseases. Now in the U.S. where the saying "the only good injun is a dead injun" tended to prevail I think there were few people who cared whether the Indians lived or died. But, in Mexico the Indians were considered a good source of cheap labor. So I doubt the Spanish leaders wanted or liked the epidemics that killed nearly 95% of the indigenous population. Had they known they'd bring such diseases to an unprepared population I doubt they would have stopped their invasion. But I suspect had they known how to prevent so many deaths they would have done what they could. Anyway, during the conquest the Spaniards were doing no more than what had been done by conquering nations on both sides of the ocean for thousands of years, no more no less. Only because they were the most recent and because humanity has finally begun to realize that this type of behavior is unacceptable in a civilized society have they been so thoroughly berated.

If you're in Mexico for any length of time you're bound to wind up seeing a festival or more. In Morelia we happened on perhaps our 4th, Morelia's 39th anniversary of the ballet folklorico. Naturally, the city provided an abundant of free nightly entertainment for us to enjoy. One night we were treated to a free "ballet folklorico" with dances from all regions of the country. For 2 1/2 hours we watched men dressed in all white suits topped with straw sombreros or black mariache uniforms stomp, tap, twist, and twirl across the stage. They were joined by women dressed in full, colorful dresses held out to the sides and twirled around giving a dizzying, dazzeling appearance of a moving rainbow. All to the very typical Mexican style music of guitars, violins, and trumpets. Naturally the show ended with the traditional hat dance we gringos are so familiar with. I particularly liked one dance where the lights were turned down, a spotlight mimicing the moon shown on the rear screen, and girls in full white dresses skillfully balancing lit candles on their heads danced under black lights giving the appearance of feathery white butterflies flitting about under silvery moonlight. There were also dances that looked much like country western in the U.S. with cowboys and cowgirls doing the doseydoe and a couple very Aztec like dances stomped out to the rythmic beat of a drum. Costumes seemed to continually give the dancers problems, hats, aprons, shoulder blankets, bells, and shawls were falling off in every dance. Even one girl's white boots came untied and I had to wonder how she managed to keep on tapping without ending up barefoot. Despite these problems, it was a good show, well worth the price of admission.

The next night was a 1 1/2 hour show of mariaches and another 1 1/2 hour of more traditional/religious dancing. Mariache music must be an acquired taste, sort of like country western in the U.S. If you've grown up with it, know all the words you'll probably like it. Otherwise you probably won't. To me, each mariache song sounds the same as the last. They all seem to have the same beat, same rythem, same key. Only the words change. Yet, people here really enjoy it. There are radio stations that play nothing but mariache and the final singer at Sunday night's show was besieged with folks asking for his autograph and buying his tape. Ah well, "different strokes" as they say. We were more interested in the dances to follow.

The most interesting of the second half dances were those involving masked dancers. Long before the Spanish arrived the indigenous people were using masks in their religious dances and rites to represent gods, animals, people, plants, or esoteric things like the wind and sun. When the Spanish arrived the natives naturally started making up masked dances to poke fun at or to try to evoke gods to get rid of them. The first masked dance was the Danza de los Negritos (dance of the negros). Out from behind a screen comes a man dressed in white pants with several rows of jingle bells sewn on the bottom, a colorful red shirt, a green cape with pretty sequin birds on the back, and a mask of an old white Spaniard with long flowing shiny ribbons going down his back. He carried a homemade scepter with long silver ribbons at the top. He was followed by a figure in black dress, red apron with sequin flowers, floral print shirt, mask of an old white woman having the same type of long ribbons down her back. She (or he as the dancer may have been male) carfully carried a bright yellow purse over one arm and some multicolored woven ribbon in both hands. They were followed by 6 dancers wearing white pants, black forked knee length aprons with various sequin designs, white shirt, and black colored masks with the usual rear ribbons. The men figures all wore sandle with three piece wood bases that allowed for walking. As they filed out onto the stage they stomped their wood sandles on the wood stage making a din that sounded much like a thousand log drums beaten in unison. They filed around the stage, stomping all the way. Then the black masked dancers lined up 3 to a side, the white man was at the end of one line and the lady backstage, center. Then, at a wave of the white mask's wand, the black masks would two at a time approach and bow to the lady, turn to the audience and start their own stomping dance exibition. This continued until all three pairs had repeated the same set of steps. Next the lady and white masked man did their own separate dances and then a dance together. The lady, not having wood sandles, danced with a swayng back and forth motion always carefully holding her ribbon and yellow purse. The man did the usual stomping rendition. Meanwhile the black masks would occasionally add their own stomps or take their handkerchiefs to sweep the floor in front of the white masked dancers. We aren't really sure what the symbolism is, but we suspect it may have been the indigenous people's mockery of the Spaniard's use of negros for slaves and servents.

The second and last masked dance we saw was the Danza de los Viejos (dance of the old men). Once again this a dance to mock the Spaniards who the local Tarascans thought aged rapidly. Out stomped 8 male dancers wearing white pants and shirts, colorful shawls, and masks of old men's faces complete with gray beards and moustaches and long, stringy gray hair. Each carried a cane and danced in a stoooped position with one hand on their backs in the "old man with a sore back' type pose. The pose of the upper body amusingly contrasted with the lively stomping step of the legs. They danced around a girl dressed in the indigenous dress of long dark skirt, colorful apron and blouse, and long shawl for her head. We couldn't help but think of a bunch of dirty old men flirting with a local Indian beauty, which is probably what the dancers had in mind.

Other dances included a strange procession of traditionally clad girls carrying a platter of candles and a cross made from paper flowers. It was one solemn (and boring) "dance" as the girls slowly walked out on stage, nelt with their candles and paper cross, then got up and filed off again, all to the recorded sound of morneful tolling bells. The only excitment was when one girl's paper flowers caught on fire which she frantically beat on th stage to put them out. The next dance, which traditionally would happen the next day, was the offering of bread. More upbeat, the women and men danced and stomped around holding little loaves of bread with brightly colored flags stuck in each. It is the dance of rejoicing after a morneful night.

Heading northwest out of Morelia for our last week of Mexican riding we rode through some of the prettiest Mexican countryside we'd seen so far. This is what they call lake country. The road passes through tall, green volcano cones, beside pretty green lakes, and past pastoral farms and ranches. It rolls up and down over hills covered with pine forests and then drops several thousand feet to an area that looks much like the southrn California farmlands, brown scrub covered hills surrounding green fertile valleys. The road is the old "king's highway" built by the Spanish and is lined by ancient euculyptus trees near most towns. The roadsides are the most trash free we've seen in Mexico and the local population accepts our passage with little more than a smile and wave, no odd comments or laughter. Although as we approached closer and closer to the Chapala area the whistles, shouts, and waves became more pronounced as more and more people tried to capture our attention for a second or two. Drivers are as courteous as ever, giving us plenty of room on the shoulder and occasionaly a quiet honk to make sure we know they're there. Temperatures were perfect and like Camelot it would rain only in the late afternoon long after we'd settled in for the day.

Towns we passed were generally pretty little Mexican farming villages with few outstanding characteristics. All have their large, fancy church at the center surrounded buildings in conditions ranging from quite nice to very dilapidated. Sometimes local crafts are displayed at the roadside. In Quiroga it was things made of wood. Store after store line the street with boxes full of small wooden toys, whistles, dolls, furniture, decorator items, and guitars in sizes large, medium and small. Somehow a wood representation of one of the characters in the Danza de los Viejos found its way into my pannier. Further on it was pottery, ugly, heavy brown pottery painted with crude representations of flowers or occasionally covered with mirrors to give it more "distinction". It wasn't too hard to keep rolling past these. Although, one very nice hotel owner tried to give us an ashtray made in this brown pottery. Thinking quickly, I told her it would probably break so I couldn't take it.

The town of Zamora had one notable difference. In the middle of a huge open plaza was the also giant Catedral de Inconcluso. An odd cathedral with an odd history. As its name implies, it's not quite finished. Started back in the 1500s, construction continued in fits and spurts until 1910 when it stopped for one of Mexico's many wars. And there it sat, walls and central pillars, no roof for decades. Finally in 1985 a commitee formed to finish it and finish it they are, at a slow pace as money becomes available. As a result the architecture is a patchwork of different styles and quality. Would-have-been doors are filled in with a rough wall of brick, the new section of ceiling gleems white while the old looks worn and moldy in spots, concrete provides support structure in new areas, old brick and stone work others. The inside is decidedly lacking in the usual elaborate alters that grace most Mexican churces making for a cavernous interior. Sounds echo from all corners, unfilterd light shines in through the plane glass windows as no stained glass has been bought as yet, birds flew down from their high perches. I suppose in 20 or 30 years the now truncated towers may be completed, but I suspect it may be many more decades til it reaches the decorative state of its cousins. We wondred if some of the character is being lost. Our guide book mentions how unique it was to see the towering pillars reaching up to the blue sky. They seemed to feel this was the only sight worth seeing in Zamora. When it's finished it'll just be another one of many cathedrals, no longer unique.

After loosing about 1300 ft altitude, we spent our final day riding around the largest natural lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala. It's a pretty gem ringed with ancient volcanoes and only a few small towns. Unfortunately the river that fed the lake has been diverted to feed a thirsty Guadalajara. So the lake is rapidly shrinking. Add to that all the fertilizer run-off from local farms, the waters are being choked with hibiscus, cat tails, and other swamp loving plants turning the shores into no more than a marsh land. Old piers and sea-walls in the town of Chapala give only a hint of what the water level used to be. I expect before too many more decades are through there may be no more lake, another sad testement to human needs overwhelming nature. But, California has done precisely the same thing. Many lakes were bled dry feeding the thirst of Los Angeles and the farmers growing water loving plants in the desert. People will only learn when there's no more clean water sources left.

Taking a bus from Chapala to Guadalajara and settling in for our last few days in Mexico we decided to simply see town. Playing tourist for 4 months, seeing one museum, ancient ruin, temple, cathedral, monument after another grows wearisome. We were overloaded and felt a desire to retreat to some quite mountain campground, no tourists, no tourist sites, no tourist trinket shops. So we did what we enjoy most in these Mexican towns, found benches in the town plazas and people watched. We'll be back to Guadalajara and other areas of Mexico next year. So we can do more museums at that time. Enough for now.

One last 24 hour bus ride took us to Cuidad Juarez and El Paso, Texas ending our our Mexican and Central America bike adventure. As I reflect on all that we've seen, heard, and experienced there are things we will miss and others we won't. The vibrant town markets and plazas, downtown shopping districts that are still crowded with people, the evening food stalls that line the streets feeding the nightly parade of strollers, the excellent food at cheap prices, the cheap hotels, the colonial architecture, paletas and liquados (delicious fruit concoctions), and the friendly waves and smiles from locals. We won't miss the high levels of litter along the streets, the daily encounter with beggars of all types placing open hands in front of our faces, the very agressive salesmanship of taxi, restaurant, and tourist trinket shop owners, the continual uncertainty about theft, pickpockets and such, and the noise. A vibrant Mexican lifestyle also means there are few places you can go to find silence. But these issues are minor when compared to the benefits of the overall travel experience. We will come away from these four months with many a fond memory.

Appendix A - Route
  

Mexico

Rt 190 San Cristobal de la Casas to Tuxtla, bus to Mexico, bus to Morelia, Rt 15 to Chapala But to Guadalajara and Cuidad Juarez

Appendix B - Campsites and hotels
  

Mexico Hotel Posada Vallarte in San Cristobal 5 nights ($), Hotel Casablanca in Tuxtla 2 nights ($), Hotel Principal in Mexico DF 9 nights ($), Hotel Del Mattador in Morelia ($), Hotel San Jorge in Morelia 2 nights ($), hotel Quiroga in Quiroga ($), Hotel Morelos in Zacapu ($), Hotel National in Zamora ($), Hotel Latino in Sahuaya ($), Hotel Del Lago in Ajijic 2 nights ($), Hotel Parador in Guadalajara 2 nights ($)

($) indicates fee camping

 

Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Acknowledgements

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We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.

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Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site, http://outthereliving.com


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