Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
WarmShowers Makes a Comeback
It's normal to take a few breaks during the day on a bike tour. Every so often, you need to eat something, drink a little water, and get out of the saddle. Maybe stay in the shade and cool down. Let your legs rest. When things aren't going so well, a quick 30 minutes off the bike can get you going again.
On Texas 4,000, we took a break every 30 km, and many people sat around at each one for an hour or more. On my previous long-distance solo tour, I took a break every 50 km or so, usually 20-30 minutes. I've been doing something like that on this tour, but in the last month or so, I've found myself going longer and longer distances between them.
Today I took none. I stopped and drank water or checked the map a couple times, went to the bathroom once. That was it. Nothing longer than two minutes. Probably less than ten minutes total. Didn't even eat anything.
It wasn't a short or easy day, either! 140 km and rolling hills most of the time. No wind one way or the other. Hot, as usual. But sometimes it's just goin' good.
I'm paying more for cheap hotels more often than I'd like to, but soon I enter the land of more frequent WarmShowers hosts and cheaper hostels. I'm still under budget, or ahead of pace in that regard. I think the finances will work out in the end.
Wind hasn't been a major factor in Mexico one way or another; it's never strong here. So I was surprised when I started a descent out of the mountains and was nearly blown off Valeria. The wind was coming down off the mountains in a big way, and on the plains below were endless rows of windmills. So this happens often.
When I reached the bottom was where I made a turn to the east, putting me in a strong cross wind. Everywhere I looked, there were windmills. I hadn't dealt with any particularly forceful winds in at least a couple weeks, from any direction. At least it wasn't headwind, but this was still nasty. Forceful and gusty, it sent me several meters across the road more than once.
Just four hours, or more, like this. Alright...
As I went, the wind gradually died down until there was almost none at all. The land was flat. I was riding easy by the end.
I had to ride around San Cristobal for a while before I found my host. Outside a big white house, I saw a young pretty woman.
"You are looking for Rodrigo?"
"Yes. This is his house?"
She nodded and gestured to the gate around the corner. I left Valeria on the porch and started taking off my helmet and gloves. The young woman said something else about Rodrigo, then wordlessly led me through a courtyard-like area between several smaller buildings. When we got to a field behind everything, she pointed.
I walked across a flat dirt area and introduced myself to Rodrigo. He explained that he was turning this area behind his house into a small soccer field. He led me back towards his house and showed me around: where there was water, where I could shower, where I'd be sleeping.
We went and sat on his porch and he grabbed a yellow coconut and a machete. With a couple deft strokes, he lopped off just enough of the shell to leave a coin-sized hole. He gulped down the milk inside and chopped another, then handed it to me.
Folks, if you've never tried it, it's fantastic. And I don't even like coconut. Apparently they have three varieties here; I'm only used to the brown ones.
Rodrigo told me that there were a couple other cyclists coming and we'd have dinner in an hour or so, once they got here. I took a shower in the meantime, then killed some time and talked to Rodrigo. He had gone to Texas State, where I went to grad school, to study English. It only lasted eight months though, and he decided being close to family was more important. He now lives back in his homeland, and his extended family lives in the buildings on the same property. Now he teaches English.
The other cyclists were taking a while to show up, so we had some dinner, early, right in the middle of the afternoon. Salad, fresh-made guacamole, black beans, and an entire fish. The head and tail were still on it. So were the scales. I waited and watched to see what Rodrigo did. He cut off the head and tail and ate the rest, skin and all. OK, easy enough!
Rio, a half-Brazilian hippie from L.A. was the first to show up. He'd started in San Francisco about a month before I'd started in Alaska. He likes taking time off. From what I could tell, he had spent about as many days riding as not.
Tom, from England, arrived about an hour later. He had a bike with a colossal amount of luggage on it, probably outweighing Valeria by 12-15 kg (30-35 pounds). He had started in San Francisco as well, but later than Rio.
It was funny how none of us had seen each other on the road, but wound up at the same place. When the other two found out when I'd started and how fast I cover ground, they were first surprised, then almost critical, using phrases like "You're not going to see anything" or "You don't like cities, do you?" To each his own; it was strange to be on trial for doing more. If you take weeks or months off at a time - regularly - it makes me second-guess whether you even enjoy the ride. I wonder if some people would rather go on a road trip, but dragging a bike along is a way they know they can get people to help them.
Rodrigo had Rio, Tom, and myself help him erect the goalposts on his field, then later walked us to the town festival. I mean carnival rides and everything! Apparently each town in Mexico has a patron saint, and today happened to be the correct saint's day. Afterward, we had another dinner, which I can best describe as quesadillas with baloney and queso fresco on the inside. It worked!
Over dinner, Tom asked Rodrigo why he hosts touring cyclists when he isn't a cyclist himself (Rodrigo has hosted well over 100 cyclists). Rodrigo explained that he likes helping people, and there is no point to having wealth or even happiness if it's not shared. He likes getting a chance to practice his English and he gets to meet interesting people from all over the world, to the point that he feels like he travels all the time without even leaving the house.
Rio decided to stay at Rodrigo's for a few days (to do what?), so after a satisfying breakfast of eggs and beans, Tom and I headed out together. Tom holds almost the exact same pace I do, and on a heavier bike, only using sandals and platform pedals!
We left awfully late, close to 11:00 AM. About the latest I ever have, and in a hot area. This might not be fun. But it was close to Tom's normal schedule, and I was happy to ride with him because he agreed to show me the ins and outs of stealth camping in Mexico. Maybe I could finally stop paying for hotels!
Tom's modus operandi is to ride until about 7:00 PM and start looking for a place. He often favors camping under bridges, both for cover and access to water. At other times, he asks people standing outside their house, if they give a friendly response to a wave. But most of the time, he camps somewhere for free!
An hour or two into the day, we were cruising right along at a good clip when we both noticed a small patch of color on the side of the road. We hit our brakes hard. Mangos! Piles of them! We sorted through to find the ones without a break in the skin and loaded up our panniers. I must have taken about a dozen.
In mid-afternoon we stopped in a small town to take a break and had lunch at a cafe. I opened my pannier to get some water out of my bladder. It was just about empty. I immediately knew why: it had a tear. I picked up my pannier and poured out the two liters of water that was now resting in the bottom of the bag (these panniers are genuinely waterproof if they can hold water for hours without even dripping). I would have to buy some more water later today, and I would need a new water container. I went ahead and got a 2.5 liter strawberry soda, mostly for the bottle. I drank half of it right then and there. So maybe I also wanted strawberry soda. I miss the wide mouth my bladder had, and its flexibility for fitting it inside the pannier, but I like the durability of the bottle.
Tom and I stealth camped under a bridge, next to a river just deep enough in one spot for swimming. Almost as good as a shower. I could see myself doing this more often, but I had a hard time sleeping to the noise of trucks all night, and the uneven ground didn't help either.
Tom and I rode together again, this time to a WarmShowers host. Less than 100 km today, and time passes quickly when you've got a partner to talk to. Tom is one of the only people I've extensively spoken English with in weeks, so I think his accent or dialect may have started rubbing off after a time.
We were supposed to be going to a WarmShowers host, a popular one that Rodrigo (our host two days ago) knew personally. Rodrigo had called before we left his place to let Noé know we were coming. We were told that Noé wouldn't be there, but to go to his hotel, which is next to a cyber cafe, and they would know we were coming. Did that mean a free room? I let myself get my hopes up.
After a short day, we arrived in Mapastepec in mid-afternoon. We hadn't realized that it was a big enough town that finding the hotel next to a cyber cafe wouldn't be so obvious. After several kilometers down the main road, and having passed numerous hotels, we were about to ask around, even though in a town this size, not everyone is going to know Noé. Then I saw a hotel next to a cyber cafe. Jackpot!
When we went inside, we were told to go to the travel agency across the street. OK, I guess. There, we were told that Noé is not around. We went back to the hotel and explained our situation more fully, then asked, is this Noé's hotel? Are we supposed to stay here? They said they didn't know we were coming and directed us to the travel agency again. Time for Plan B.
We had Noé's phone number and tried calling him. No luck. I called Rodrigo and asked him to try calling Noé for us. Ten minutes later, Rodrigo told us to go into the cyber cafe and ask where we could find the English school where Richard teaches. The guy in the cafe knows Richard and could point us there. Then go to the school and hang out there, and Noé will be in town tonight and meet us there. A little strange that Noé wouldn't meet us at his hotel, but I was happy to know where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do next.
We got to Richard's school and were promptly greeted by Richard, an American who had now been teaching English in Mexico for six years. Richard had done his share of bike touring in the past and welcomed us inside with open arms. Class was still in session, but he was happy to have us sit in so the students could hear from a few more English speakers.
After class was out in the late afternoon, a few developments: Noé would not be back in town until tomorrow morning, and a couple Italian hitchhikers showed up unexpectedly. Feeling for all of us, Richard took us all in and allowed us to sleep on his floor (the one-room school is also Richard's house). On top of that, he whipped up a heaping plate of delicious pasta, complete with homemade cheese and tomato sauce made from scratch!
The Italians had been on the road for nine years now, mostly hitchhiking, though at one point they stole a sailboat in the Canary Islands and haphazardly sailed across the Atlantic with it. The full story, which I'll spare for now, had us in stitches for a good 15 minutes.
Richard later told us that nearly everyone in Mapastepec, which is almost as far away from the USA border as possible, has at least one family member in the United States, and at least 90% of them are there illegally. I wonder sometimes, though, what the big draw is. From my experience, Mexico's not so bad! Sure, even minimum wage in the United States would be an improvement for many people, but everything costs so much more (especially housing), I don't know if it makes a difference. Maybe people get sick of the car horns and barking dogs. I know I do.
Two Italians, an Englishman, and an American all stretched out on the tile floor together. With the fan on, a good night of sleep. In the morning, Richard whipped up a bunch of eggs and beans, with tortillas and fruit on the side. For the most part, that's breakfast tacos! I felt right at home.
Tom wasn't going as far as I was today, but we decided we'd ride together for at least a while until Tom decided to hang back. When we got out to the highway, the Italians were already out there waving at cars, trying to find a ride up the coast.
After Tom split off, I was back on my own again, just me and Valeria for the first time in a few days. I'd forgotten how often I talk to myself aloud when no one's around.
I was supposed to have a WarmShowers host in a town just shy of the Guatemala border, but after giving a quick response over a week ago, he fell silent. I still had his address though, so I figured showing up at his place might work.
I stopped in town and asked three people at a bus stop where the address was, or if they knew Samuel Alvarez Flores.
Why do Mexican people answer questions by repeating the noun in my question like a statement? This is not the first time.
Once they appeared to understand my question, two of them would go a mile a minute while the other tried to ask me another question. At no point were less than three people talking. I waited so I could at least try to address one person at a time. It didn't work.
A guy on a mountain bike pulled up and asked what I needed. Same question, did he know this address or Samuel?
"I know Samuel. Come with me!"
I was led straight to Samuel's house, not far away. The dude was super friendly, a real positive attitude, and he spoke a little English.
When we got to Samuel's, he wasn't there. His brother was, and we'd woken him up from a nap. He somewhat reluctantly opened the gate and let me in. Sensing this might not be the warmest host, I asked the mountain biker if he wanted to have dinner later, because I wanted to celebrate my last night in Mexico. He eagerly agreed and said he'd come by at 8:00 PM.
As soon as I got inside, the host became a lot more inviting, showed me around the place and warmed up a chile relleno and some tortillas for me. I guess I should've been more understanding with regards to his just-woken-up demeanor.
As it turns out, Samuel lives with his two brothers, but he himself was in Colorado at the moment. Salmy (I think that's his name), the older brother, came home a little later. He also spoke a little English, and later took me to his family's "ranch," a patch of fruit-bearing trees a block away. His grandparents still live on the property.
After eating a few dozen rambutans and gathering as many more, we headed back. Before we left, though, we stopped to talk to the young men's grandfather. Before they even told me, I could tell he was now blind. His eyes were cloudy and they never pointed at anything. When I introduced myself, he stuck his hand out in the air and smiled. I smiled back and shook it. As it turns out, he used to be a Baptist minister. Unusual in these parts.
8:00 PM came and went, no mountain bike guy. Hungry, I ate another chile relleno and was about to go with Salmy's entire extended family to watch his younger brother's soccer game. Just before we left, a little before 9:00, the mountain biker showed up with a friend of his. Salmy told me I oughta go ahead and have fun with them.
I was driven to the town square, only a few blocks away anyway, where we met up with a few teenagers who'd ridden here from the next town over just to hang out with me. What an honor! Turns out there's a local mountain bike team, and by now, all thirty members had heard about me.
We went and got some empanadas and took them to the mountain biker's (I forgot his name) beautiful home, where we chowed down and had a couple beers. I spent a lot of time talking about my ride. I think my Spanish is getting a little better. After I explained how I found Samuel on WarmShowers, at least two people signed up. Looks like there will be more hosts for the next guy! Much like Benjamin in Tajin, by the time we parted, we felt like good friends.
In 11 weeks, I've only been in three countries, three of the largest ones I'll visit. It will probably seem strange when I'm in a new country every 3-4 days.
My time in Mexico coming to a close, my final verdict is a thumbs up. The people here, for the most part, are the biggest part of my good impression. And Mexico's not a desert y'all, it's more jungle than anything! If they could ever learn to stop honking their horn (and a few other loud/confrontational behaviors), I could see myself living here one day. But only if I can't afford Texas Hill Country.