The Calm Before the Swarm

In the interest of avoiding traffic-induced death, we made the easy decision to bypass Mexico City and instead reroute to nearby Puebla. This part of central Mexico is choked with highways and suburbs, and despite our efforts to avoid busy roads the way into Puebla was one of our more nerve wracking days on the bike, with heavy truck traffic and a conspicuously absent shoulder. At least the adrenaline rush helped us make good time and, unlike the road in, the city itself was a joyous surprise.

We began our stay with a beeline to the nearest bike shop, which turned out to be a slam dunk. Due to some jostling of the bikes at the border and really unfortunate rivet placement, Alex’s Brooks saddle had been causing persistent pain in the booty area ever since we entered Mexico. Four months later, we were still looking for a solution and Alex’s patience was wearing thin. As a portent of good things to come, we only had to consult two bike shops in Puebla before we finally found her a new saddle! The winning bike shop was a breath of fresh air in that it carried several brands of bike gear, whereas most Mexican bike shops have a relationship with a single manufacturer. The owner was incredibly helpful and spoke enough English that we could muddle through explanations of butt pain and seat rail length with minimal pantomiming. He insisted on taking a photo with us after we bought the saddle, and promised to help us with any other issues that came up free of charge.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no market for used Brooks saddles in Mexico.

With Alex excited to embrace a new era of pain-free riding, we headed for the city center to soak in the scenery. By this point we’re used to getting funny looks wherever we go – we’ve started referring to ourselves as “the freak show” – but Puebla had a little something different in store. Not five minutes after we sat down in the shady plaza, a group of Boy Scouts on bikes approached us and requested an interview for their weekly radio show. Alex took the last interview and wanted to see me struggle, so she told me that this one was all me. Turns out the Boy Scouts of Puebla are pretty nice to tall hairy Germans with rudimentary Spanish. Alex ended up translating most of what I said into passable Spanish for the radio, and one of the Scouts cut a badge off of his shirt and gave it to us as a sign of lifelong Boy Scout friendship. Two hours in and we’ve solved the bike seat problem and made friends with the Boy Scouts! Puebla is a winner.

Still going strong!

A parting shot with our new friends.

When night fell we met up with Alma, our WarmShowers host. Alma is a nurse in training and without a doubt one of the most welcoming people we’ve met on our trip so far. In addition to hosting us in her little two bedroom apartment, she also provided space for Audelia, a fellow student in her nursing program; Markus, a couchsurfer from Switzerland; Niña, a Napoleonic chihuahua; and Boris, a strangely named female street dog recovering from a broken leg. Though space was tight, our days with Alma positively flew by. To celebrate our first night in Puebla, she took us out to a friend’s house party, where we quickly felt very old after learning that most of the peole there were still in their late teens. However, the awkwardness dissipated when they introduced us to the questionable pour-rum-in-your-mouth-and-set-it-on-fire game. To preserve our respective reputations we won’t get into too many details there… But oh boy, those kinds of drinking games were more than reminiscent of freshman and sophomore year in college. And wouldn’t you know it, having a fiery rum-filled mouth is only half as bad as it sounds.

When Tom met Niña.

Over the course of the next week, Alma showed us around Puebla and its neighboring towns. Under the influence of Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Puebla and several other Mexican metropolises were redeveloped in the image of Europe. Today the streets are narrow, cobbled, and pedestrian-oriented, and imposing buildings with ornate wooden doors and wrought iron balconies rise high on either side to shade the walkers below. There is an abundance of green space and a puzzling lack of traffic. The result is a beautiful, quiet, mellow city totally unlike any other that we’ve visited in Mexico. We spent our first couple of days walking around and marvelling at the sights, exploring the cavernous 16th century cathedral, and eating, of course. (For more on our love story with Puebla’s food, check out our last post.)

In case you forgot, you’re still in Mexico.

The imposing cathedral from the outside…

…and the inside.

A few days in, Alma took us on a road trip to the nearby town of Atlixco, famous for its flowers but memorable to us for its food. After poking around the market and trying a few chapulines, we set our sights on the beckoning hilltop church perched high above the city. We’re not ones to resist the best view in town, so we persuaded Alma to tackle the climb with us. Reaching the top was a milestone for Alma, and she protested that she never would have gone up there without our insistence and would never go up again either. However, once at the top we were glad to have climbed all those stairs, with views of Atlixco spread out below us and a mighty volcano in the distance.

Alma taught us many things, including that there is a virginal altar in every self-respecting Mexican mercado.

La iglesia from afar.

Triumphant and breathless at the top of Atlixco.

Volcán Iztaccihuatl slumbering in the distance.

The view from on high.

Another highlight of our stay was a visit to the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Historically, Cholula was an indigenous stronghold poised alongside a rapidly expanding colonial Puebla. As Puebla grew and threatened to engulf Cholula, the indigenous population rose up and demanded autonomy in order to preserve their culture and systems of government. With the passage of the centuries the cities have gradually remingled and today Cholula is once again a reluctant outpost of Puebla, and a mild tourist trap at that. The city’s complicated history is best evidenced in its mighty tourist attraction: the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

The pyramid and the Toltec/Olmeca peoples that built it flourished in prehispanic times, so much so that today the pyramid stands as the largest in the world (bested in height, but not volume, by the Pyramid of Giza). The structure itself was expanded six times over the centuries by bulding a new layer on top of the old one. The layers correspond with construction styles of nearby Teotihuacan and suggest that Cholula was a similarly important center for trade and religious worship. Then, in a gesture almost comically representative of the Spanish conquest, the Spaniards came along in 1594 and built a Catholic church right on top of it. Today the pyramid is completely overgrown and resembles a giant hill, but you can still climb up to the church, admire the view to nearby volcanoes, and explore the pyramid’s remains via a labyrinth of underground tunnels. Creeping along the narrow paths inside made us feel like Indiana Jones in his glory days (aka before The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

The spoils of conquest.

It’s kind of lame to post a photo from inside a museum, but this is the best way to see how the whole church on top of a pyramid on top of a pyramid scheme works.

Doing our best Indiana Jones. We need a whip, and that hat.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula: not built for Germans.

We could have spent a long time in Puebla, and we’re sure that we’ll be back someday. But after almost a week the road was calling, so we stuffed ourselves full with a hearty breakfast of potatoes and eggs, bid “hasta luego!” to Alma, Niña, and Boris, and hopped on our bikes to roll out of town. And roll we did. Surprisingly enough, getting out of the city was relatively stress-free, with empty streets and a gentle slope that let us just enjoy the scenery. Unfortunately, we got our hopes up earlier than we should have. The nice easy roll that we were so looking forward to turned out to be a dusty construction site stretched out before us for twenty kilometers. There are three roads south out of Puebla, and we chose the one that had just been ripped to shreds and was crawling with bulldozers and backhoes. A gusty headwind made sure we enjoyed the ride even more by throwing up little dust storms every couple of minutes. After two hours of battling the dust and wind, we were about one anger management issue away from throwing in the towel early for that day. Finally, the dirt gave way to asphalt and took a 90 degree turn towards the south. Dust, gone. Headwind, adios! Even better, we passed a few street vendors eager to prove the sweetness of their fruit with free samples. We rolled away with panniers full of pitaya, which I hadn’t eaten since Beijing’s Olympic Games in 2008, and a brownish fig-like fruit unknown to both of us but incredibly juicy and sweet.

Enjoying a last laugh with our new friend Alma. Hasta pronto!

The pitaya lady, brimming with enthusiasm.

Every Mexican town erects a festive arch in honor if its an annual fair (feria).

We brought a much-needed end to our dusty day when we spotted an abandoned balneario (public pool) slash petting zoo on the side of the road. The balneario looked like it had been deserted for some time and there were no pettable critters in sight. This place was just waiting for to be used as the backdrop for a horror movie. Half-empty liquor bottles littered the ground, and we found a strange little room with baby cow legs and dog skulls hanging from the ceiling. Fearing that we might get some unwanted visitors in the night, we set up our tent in a big stone palapa right next to a statue of Jesus. Because if anything will help us it will be Jesus, right?

Camping with little baby Jesus.

Lucky for us, we woke up the next morning alive and with all four limbs still fully attached. The light of day helped to give the place a slightly less sinister air. Before we left, we decided to release our inner children with a ride on the carousel and a stroll around the petting zoo.

Failed attempt at a carousel selfie.

Sadly, Alejandra the horse had long since departed.

After that little bit of fun, we pushed on further south to face the day’s climb. By mid-morning we had reached a vast high plain, with strong gusts of wind and seemingly endless road ahead of us. Believe me, when you have to ride like that for hours on end, you’re more than grateful to have your iPod and a good podcast handy! The monotony eventually gave way to a long and winding descent marked by steadily worsening road conditions. The road was scarred with wide, gaping potholes that jumped out in front of us every twenty feet or so. In typical fashion, Alex was busy admiring the view and looking for the next photo op when she slammed right into a big one, sending her panniers flying off the bike. Somewhat miraculously, she managed to stay upright – that could have been a trip-ending fall. We finally reached the bottom of the descent with sore hands and rattled nerves, and decided to call it a day. After much searching, we found an old unused dirt track that wound its way up into the cactus fields. We didn’t know where it ended, but it was so overgrown that we figured it had been awhile since anyone used it. Perfect for a much-needed rest and a view of the sunset.

Some cacti look like needles…

…others look like candelabras.

Emerging from our stealthy camping spot with only a few scratches to give us away.

The following morning, we crept back down through the cacti to celebrate our six month bikeiversary with a new challenge. After a little bit of riding we hopped off the highway to avoid a lengthy reroute of almost 100 kilometers. Instead, we took a short cut that looked promising, at least on Google Maps. Problem was, after the first couple of kilometers, that shortcut turned into breed of offroad experience that we had yet to encounter. Massive potholes, large rocks, a mixture of loose and packed dirt, randomly scattered gravel. In short, a nightmare on heavily loaded bikes. A 4×4 would have been more appropriate. But we were too far in to turn back at that point, so we powered on and told ourselves that after six months on the road, we could handle this.

Success! Where dirt gives way to asphalt.

The going became slow, and the environment completely returned to nature largely untouched by human hands. Hawks and eagles circled above our heads, ready to swoop down to get a piece of us while we struggled ahead on our trusty Long Haul Truckers. Throughout the entire twenty kilometers, only one car passed us, and they weren’t making much better time than we were. After two hours of jangling bones and straining muscles we finally reached Petlalcingo, the town that would reconnect us to the main road. Our tired legs pedaled us straight to the local market, where we dropped down at the counter of the nearest market granny for a massive lunch of mole, rice and beans. After we both wolfed down our portions in a few minutes, we put on our best begging faces and timidly asked for more. Maybe it was our lucky day, or maybe she just felt bad for us, but that market granny heaped two more full servings on our plates and didn’t charge us an extra peso. We then limped over to Petlalcingo’s one and only hotel and decided to top off our six months with a hot shower and no more riding. As soon as we reached our room Alex promptly fell asleep, not to awake for another three hours.

The next couple of days were fairly uneventful in terms of riding. We did cross from Puebla state into Oaxaca state, which made us feel like we were actually making some progress, but other than that the scenery was fairly drab and the weather wasn’t helping. Puebla must have more money in the public works budget than Oaxaca, because right when we crossed the state line the road turned from okay asphalt to barely better than gravel. Things picked up a few days later as we were climbing our way out of Huajuapan de Leon. The skies were clearing, and we had both remarked on how nice the riding was despite its vertical inclination. However, things took a turn for the worse when we had our first serious encounter with the animal kingdom.

Oaxaca, land of questionable roads and evil bees.

Blissfully ignorant of what is about to occur. The cow going by in the background is pretty standard Mexico.

As we slowly wound our way up the mountain roads, a pickup truck lumbered towards us. In the back of the pickup was a man in full beekeeper regalia, hood and all. The pickup passed and we didn’t think too much of it… until a few bees started to zip by our ears. Within seconds a loud buzzing was all around us, coming from dozens of honey bees out for blood. As soon as the first one stung me I started flailing wildly with one arm and then the other, trying to maintain control of my handlebars, bike faster uphill, and not meet the fate of little Macaulay Culkin in My Girl. This probably made the bees even angrier and I started feeling more and more stings. That’s when panic set in.

I yelled ahead to Alex, who at thirty feet ahead of me had managed to outbike the worst of the swarm. She screamed at me to get off the bike and run, which probably made sense because I could run up that hill faster than I could bike it. After a good minute of running I was finally out of their reach. I was breathing heavily and pretty rattled, and my bike lay discarded way down the hill. Alex, who miraculously wasn’t stung at all, helped me remove the stingers embedded all over me – in my hands, my legs, my back, one even in the side of my head. Believe me when I tell you, those stings really hurt. I tried to make my way back to my bike but got swarmed again, so we decided to sit tight for awhile at the top of the bend and wait until the bees flew far, far away. By that point, a couple who had passed in a car as I was flailing up the hill had turned around to make sure we were okay (we were, sort of). Once we were finally able to retrieve the bike, we doused ourselves in bug spray and got the hell out of there.

Needless to say, we were exhausted after that little bout of animalistic viciousness. With flagging energies we made the questionable decison to set up camp on a stretch of communal land on the side of the road, where it looked like the locals ran their goats. As soon as we got the tent up it started to rain, so we didn’t think too hard about it and settled in for a much needed rest. However, being dry during the night didn’t save us from facing the results of the rain in the morning. The rain had turned the ground into a sticky mish-mash that can only really be described as Clay-Doh. Our shoes immediately accumulated a thick underlayer of mud, as did our bike wheels as we tried to roll those beasts back out to the road. Our tires and fenders were completely clogged by the time we made it back to pavement. I had to take off both of my wheels to get rid of the clods of solidifying mud.

Campsite, post-bees and pre-mud.

As a result, we were both tired out before our butts had even touched the saddles that day. Unsurprisingly, progress was slow. By midday, after slogging through miles and miles of more muddy roads under construction, we reached the town of Asuncion Nochixtlan. We ducked into a food stand for a quick lunch of quesadillas and Fanta to power us up for the rest of the day, and were about to get on the road again when a massive downpour announced itself. This was the worst rain we had seen since the beginning of the rainy season in La Paz. The streets were soon running with water three inches deep, and it was streaming in thick sheets off of every awning. We looked at one another and shook our heads. What can you do? Lucky for the owners of the nearest hotel, we tromped in soggy and defeated and gave them their only customers of the whole night.

Other strange sightings on the road: an upside down candelabra cactus…

…and an homage to a Mexican Pepsi truck driver with a really unfortunate namesake.

The following day brought sunshine and blue skies, and with gusto we rejoined the cuota for a much-needed stretch of good riding. Finally! Little traffic and lots of downhills made it incredibly fun and easy for us to reach the faraway town of Oaxaca. We were both feeling excited about Oaxaca, and maybe we were too excited, because before long the city left us feeling underwhelmed. The first disappointment came when we realized that hostel and hotel prices were outrageously high compared to what we were used to. Every place we tried seemed to offer the same nightly rate: 500 pesos. This is only about $40, but we had grown accustomed to getting the same quality for around $15-$20 per night. We grudgingly took a room at Posada Don Mario, whose receptionist offered us a 50 peso per night discount if we stayed for four days. The posada also offered free breakfast, which we were assured was “muy rico!” Turns out that the free breakfast was so tiny that it was more like a breakfast appetizer, and we usually had to go find second breakfast afterwards.

The prices were a bummer, but after we laid down the cash we accepted it and settled into what we thought would be a fun time off the bikes. Again, we were let down. Unlike most other cities we’ve visited, Oaxaca seemed to be lacking a distinct sense of identity. This is at least partially attributable to its aggressive tourist industry. Most of the stores in the downtown area were catered to gringos in the most unflattering ways, and there was a stark divide between tourists and locals. We made our way outside of the touristy downtown center to escape the inflated prices and take care of some market shopping, and were met with some of the least friendly people we have met in Mexico. That being said, they were about on par with any stranger you would meet in the US or Germany, but we have gotten so used to the kindness of strangers in Mexico that this sudden standoffishness was jarring. To cement our declining moods, food poisoning knocked me out for almost the entirety of the rest of our four-day stay. Laying in bed all day and feeling like crap is definitely not what I had in mind for Oaxaca.

Old man Tom wishing he could un-eat that 26th piece of chocolate.

Despite the bumps, it wasn’t all bad. The city itself was beautiful. There were at least three cafes selling real coffee. One night we encountered a colorful parade set to cheerful music, made up of hundreds of people in traditional dress whirling and twirling down the street while carrying what can only be called giant piñata puppets. The next day we were walking to the market when our path was blocked by yet another enormous congregation of people, this time a leftist political rally. Tens of thousands of people had been bussed in from towns all over Oaxaca state, and they were marching down the street waving banners, chanting slogans about the power of the people, and protesting the government’s perceived complicity in the disappearance of 43 Mexican students. My old socialist heart leapt at the beautiful sight of all those engaged Oaxacans. To top it off, the sunsets from the roof of our hotel were pretty great.

The faces of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa.

Crossing the street was out of the question.

Storm clouds roll in as we roll out.

All of these experiences left us with a mixed impression of Oaxaca. Partially, I think we both really resented being forced into the box of “gringo tourist.” Our difficult week of rain, mud, hills, bee attacks, and digestive mishaps certainly played into it as well. In any case, when day four rolled around we were more than ready to get out of town. Who knows, maybe we’ll return sometime in the future and give the city another try. But for now we’re ready to get out of the mountains and back to our dear old friend the Pacific Ocean.


2 thoughts on “The Calm Before the Swarm

  1. Hi Tom and Alex,
    Happy Thanksgiving! Thanks for the updates. The bees sound scary, but the food sounds good.
    I’ll think of you two tomorrow when I ride around West Seattle,
    Tom of The Bridgman , Koepnick people.

  2. Thanks Tom! I managed to scrape together some pretty passable mashed potatoes to celebrate the event – the best we could do with a camp stove. I hope that the Bridgman/Koepnick clan had a happy Thanksgiving too! Big hugs to all of you.

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