On the road to Huehue

After leaving Jacaltenango I had a stopover back in La Democracia, where I comforted myself in a decent hotel with wifi. Such are a traveller’s needs!

From there I knew I’d have an uphill ride to Huehuetenango (Huehue), the regional capital. It was a spectacular ride and although I gained a lot of elevation, overall the gradient of the road was very friendly (particularly compared to my experience getting to Jacaltenango) and I was able to get a decent rhythm for most of the ride.

I steadily climbed through some outstanding scenery – towering, green slopes to each side with steep canyon-like sides and the river winding its way through below. But a couple of hours into the ride I encountered an arresting site that made me pause for reflection. Police by the roadside, parked ambulances, and a number of people wandering around. I stopped where most people seemed to be, and it was pretty clear that someone bad had happened.

I spent a few minutes there and got the general idea of what had happened. Three days earlier a car/pickup had gone over the side of the road into the ravine below. No doubt it was overcrowded as there were nine people in it. No one survived. On first seeing the commotion by the road I assumed something had happenered earlier that morning, so I was surprised to see so many people gathered three days later. However, it still made me pause for reflection on what I’m doing and at times how isolated I can feel, being out here on my own on a bicycle. This was the first time I’d really felt like I’d come close to witnessing an accident and I reflected on how far away I am from my family and friends. It made me question the whole purpose of my trip.

It was a sombre and poignant scene, made more so by one lady who sang a prayer or lamentation for those who lost their lives. I didn’t know if she was a relative of friend of any of the people.

Naturally I couldn’t linger too long and I had to make my way to Huehue. After a few more minutes with many thoughts going through my head my mind began to ease up as I had to focus on the road ahead and get myself to Huehue. I don’t know the statistics for road accidents in Guatemala, Mexico etc., but it seems obvious to me that people take their lives into their own hands with the overcrowding, not using safety belts and sometimes just the road conditions. Perhaps that’s the philosophy of people here and its an ‘accepted reality’, as harsh as that sounds. I’m thankful I’ve made it this far and hope that this continues through the rest of my ride. It made my debates with friends about wearing my helmet seem incredibly frivolous.

A few hours later I rolled into Huehue, tired and grateful.

Bimbo: Mexico’s breadmaker mafia

If you were reading this blog a few months ago, you’ll know about the fun I had trying to escape the tentacles of the Franz breadmaker mafia. Luckily Franz is a regional player, albeit with a lot more reach than I bargained for.

However, for bread in Mexico there’s just no getting away from Bimbo (pronounced Beem-bo). I can’t fathom the reasons for the name, but obviously it’s not the same in Spanish. The cuddly bear mascot reminded me of Mr Stay-Puft from Ghostbusters, and it’s an appropriate comparison given the size of the Bimbo company. Occasionally when I feel like a change from tortillas I check out the Bimbo offerings.

A breadmaker mafia this size clearly has far-reaching tentacles and Bimbo are huge. Grupo Bimbo turns out to be one of the biggest food manufacturers in the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grupo_Bimbo). They’re only the 4th largest food company in the world behind Unilever, Kraft and Nestle and were the world’s largest bread manufacturer in 2010. Stick that up your pipe and smoke it, Franz! So there’s no getting away from them (except in San Cristobal where I found a number of great independent bakeries).

I really know nothing more about Bimbo’s ethics – though I guess it operates in much the same way as any other huge multinational – but the bread I’ve found so far is vegan friendly. No random milk ingredients or sneaky dairy has been added (though plenty of other ‘un-natural’ ingredients are thrown in there), but I do get to ingest a wide range of interesting-sounding chemicals that are typical within modern bread that never goes stale.

The other fun thing is seeing all the Bimbo bread vans careering around the towns and villages. I think this is where Postman Pat came after the Royal Mail gave him his P45 all those years ago.

Mexico’s magic roads

I’ve travelled a long way in Mexico and one thing I really appreciate are the km markers that I see along the way. Each main road shows distances between major road junctions. It always feels good to see them counting down to each day’s destination.

One other thing along the road are the signs with distances to towns and cities. Sometimes there are lots and sometimes just a few. And in Mexico the roads must have had some magic dust sprinkled on them.

For example, take my day’s ride from Cintalapa to Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas earlier in October. Tuxtla Gutierrez is a major city, so you’d think someone had a pretty good idea of the correct distance, but that must have been when Merlin showed up and pointed his magic hat at all the distance signs. Google measured the total distance at around 80km.

Here’s what I saw along the route, starting in Cintalapa. Distance to Tuxtla Gutierrez in km, as I rode through the morning:

79, 75, 74, 56, 63, 44, 42, 45, 26,16, 26…

As well as some signs showing I was getting further away, most of the distances between markers were completely wrong as well. Trying to fit 10km into 2km is stretching things a little…I know there is an official ‘Magic Road’ in South Korea, but Mexico is the draw if you want to get the experience every day…

Welcome to Oaxaca…

I was happy to get out of Guerrero as it seems to be one the provinces that’s a little higher risk than most. Acapulco was the most obvious sign of that with police frequently rumbling around in their pick-up trucks toting guns of various sizes. Oaxaca seemed to be a lot more appealing. It’s where the population is more indigenous and seemingly more ‘authentic’ (though I’m not really sure about what that says about the rest of Mexico I’d seen – it was hardly a US theme-park version of Mexico…). Perhaps it’s just where older cultures and customs prevail and are more obvious. In any case, I was looking forward to getting there.

The sign said Welcome to Oaxaca and I raised my arm in salute as I passed under it. Riding on a little happier, it was only a few minutes later when I noticed a long line of traffic ahead. An accident perhaps?

As it turns out it was a roadblock. Perhaps this is ‘authentic’ Mexico. Some local farmers (campesinos) were protesting about not being paid by the government for their work. According to one chap he said the money is being used to stop drug trafficking instead. Whatever the reason, it was quite a sight. They were on their third day of protest and nothing was getting through during the daytime. They intended to keep it up for the ‘working week’, only removing themselves in the evenings.

As I rolled my bike through the people and parked vehicles I was a little worried they wouldn’t let me through. Luckily I was greeted in a friendly way by everyone and a couple of people asked me what I was doing. I could only offer sympathy for their predicament, take some pictures, and move on.

Amazingly it was all very peaceful. The police looked on without any concern. People were able to get through using a chain of taxi vans at each end of the block, and the ‘protesters’ were chatting under various canopies they’d set up. It was all very civilised. I only hope someone in government was paying attention to their protest, though I’m doubtful it would achieve any lasting impact.

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Zihuatenejo bike shop

During my wandering about Zihuatenejo I happened upon the bike shop “Bi-zihuanas”. I decided it was probably worth getting Edna a service while I was here (she deserved it), and I’m really happy I did. The owner, Alejandro, is a very friendly bloke and Edna came out afterwards looking in great shape like she was up for a night on the town. Alejandro and I talked a bit with a mix of Spanish and English, and just about got to understand each other. Lots of typical nodding, at least from me. Alejandro and his friend Ricardo (whom I met the previous day) are bike enthusiasts; Alejandro having spent some holidays cycling in France on many of le tour routes.

I highly recommend this shop whether you need supplies (good quality stuff there) or repairs or just want to drop by for a bicycle-related chat.




Alejandro and his "Bi-zihuanas" bike shop
Alejandro shows Edna at her best. Though I was almost tempted to trade for one of those yellow bikes on the left

Calle Cuahetemoc No. 39 Col. Centro, Zihuatenejo Gro, Mexico

mexican raves

After my last post I reflected and didn’t want to make people think I haven’t enjoyed some things here. So to point out some things I’ve found funny, interesting or just uplifting, here’s a few of my observations:

  • Fresh tortillas – fresh and hot from the tortilleria, they are inexpensive and tasty, particularly for my peanut butter and banana ‘quesadillas’. As well as looking out for them along the street, I can often find one by listening for the cranking of the machine that churns these things out. Amazingly they are everywhere and huge packages of them are wrapped up into plastic coolboxes that are carted around on noisy mopeds delivered to the local mini-markets and corner shops
  • The people seem to be hard-working, or at least work long hours. Little shops are open early and close late, though a lot of them rarely look busy. Also people like to set up stands or just out of their own home, perhaps with some home cooking too. In Zihuatenejo I bought some clothes from what turned out to be someone’s house. After I’d tried on a pair of shorts I was getting the money together when the lady of the house popped out of her kitchen with some cheese and promptly offered me a piece. No vegan Daiya here though, I’m afraid
  • Most people are sociable and genuinely friendly. More so than in the US I would say
  • I love the fact there are a lot of small cars on the road, particularly the ones that I see in the UK – Ford Ka, Fiesta, GM “Corsa”, VW types, even Seat. I’m not a big car enthusiast but it makes me wonder if Mexicans can drive these, why can’t those further north do the same!
  • The local markets are always interesting, whether just for comparing hygiene, the kinds of things available, or just the type of ‘stuff’ that’s on sale
  • Traffic light jugglers. Vancouver has the ‘squeegy’ kids but here I’ve seen drivers get ‘entertained’ by juggling and handstands. Truly bizarre
  • I don’t understand what they’re saying but it’s a common sight (and sound) to hear announcements or advertising wares by way of loudspeakers precariously attached to the their roofs
  • One shout in my direction I’ve noticed is being called guerro (pronounced goo-erro as the u has an umlaut), which means ‘blonde’. I assume it’s a friendly greeting rather than an insult. I always smile back though
  • And strangely the day after I posted my previous entry it felt like I had the most friendly shouts and encouragement on the road of all my days so far. I don’t know if it’s just a more friendly region or just the luck of the day, but it was nice all the same





mexican waves

I’ve been following the Pacific coast for the last while, sometimes right next to it and sometimes inland through the hills (that feel like mountains on most days). There is some spectacular coastline to be seen, especially in the province of Michoacan, that I’ve just left. Plenty of small beaches tucked away here and there and little in the way of people and towns. The coastline reminded me of Oregon. The views were sporadic, often due to the plentiful growth of trees and bushes around the roads. But when I did catch glimpses of the water I often saw some big, big waves. They were to me anyway, but I’m not a surfer so I rarely get to see or appreciate the bigger ones.

These kinds of waves I appreciate. I’d like to see more of another kind of mexican wave and that’s from the people. I’m not expecting that kind of mexican wave (Mexico 86 and too many sporting events since), but what I encounter almost every day is the complete look of indifference as I pass the locals. Sometimes it’s a big stare, sometimes a look of incomprehension, sometimes just a ‘what-the-f…’ kind of look. I get ignored too, which is fine – I am just a guy on a bike – but it feels disconcerting to get stared at like this so often. It’s not a stare of wonderment or amazement.

So I usually try for a friendly wave, perhaps a ‘hola’ or ‘buenos dias’ and more often than not I’ll get a friendly response back, but not always. Perhaps the people are just guarded or baffled, but it can be a little off-putting. I realise I’m not entitled to any special treatment, and I rarely get any outright hostility, so I just have to get on, keep positive and keep waving and smiling as best I can.

As well as the luscious roadside growth and greenery, there are plenty of animals I’m encountering on the road (dead and alive). There is plenty of roadkill and a few live animals too. Strangely I’ve encountered cows and donkeys and tiny red crabs on hillsides, and plenty of dead snakes, armadillos (sadly their ‘armour’ is no match for tonnes of fast-moving metal and tyres), dogs, frogs, butterflies, crickets/chicadas, more crabs…and every day I encounter the arresting smell of some recent animal death.

Still, it’s not all morbid. There are plenty of people who wave, cheer and say hello. A lot of drivers have these kind of ‘car alarm’ horns that they push when driving past. I haven’t got to used to it yet as it’s such a strange sound that I tend to associate with annoying car alarms back home, but it’s generally a positive sign to me from whoever’s driving.

Another roadside feature are the ‘hombres’ by the roadside toting their machetes. It might sound bad but really they are just workers, whom I often see chopping at the roadside vegetation or walking back from their harvesting work. I’m not really sure why they do the roadside chopping (do they get paid? who pays them? is there something special about the green stuff they’re chopping?) but it’s such a common sight I don’t raise an eyebrow when cycling or walking past these guys.

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