*Authors note: It has been brought to my attention that sometimes I make sweeping generalizations about large swaths of people and that this is often considered offensive. This is going to be one of those posts. I would like to point out that I make a conscious effort to indiscriminately insult people. If you were born between 1946 and 1964, are a truck driver, a municipal transportation department employee, a finance guy or gal, an elected official, a juggalo, or postal worker I simply ask that you remember this as well as the fact that sometimes we need to laugh at ourselves a bit. That is all.
I stood in the emerald green tiled bathroom. Twisting my underwear. Trying to ring out every last drop of water. I stared at a few broken wall tiles and at the porcelain dish before me that was detaching from the wall a bit. Fer and Triz had a massive plate of chicken and noodles ready for me when I rolled in. They turned the hot water on to let it warm while we ate. This is customary here as most houses purchase a tank of gas or propane intermittently as opposed to having a constant supply piped into their home. The water heaters are only about 20 gallons. It doesn’t last long, but it is hard to understate how good a scolding hot wash feels after a week or two of rinsing in sinks or pouring bottles of water over your head.
Later we go for a walking tour of town and tacos. I do my best to pay, but they won’t let me and I lack the linguistic capacity to explain to the waiter why he should take my money. I think about that sink falling off the wall and thank them. I had only planned on spending a single night there, but after my best attempts to tell jokes and stories in Spanish they’re laughing (although it could be directed at my poor conversational skills) and they insist that I take a day off to see the town.
The next day I wander the plaza and notice a notably abnormal ratio of shoe shiners to passersby. As one would expect from such an imbalance, all the boots in town were impeccably burnished. I look at my raggedy grey shoes with rubber soles worn flat, threads missing, once slick blue laces now fuzzy…… Then there were the exemplary cowboy hats, belt buckles, and mustaches. My floppy hat; made surely of some petroleum based product, sweat stains around the brim. My beard; completely unkempt. I should have been the one spitting on the rag, but who would trust a man with scuffed sneakers to buff a brogan?
I head for the hills. The town is set in a valley. All of the peaks and ridge lines around it are speckled with what feels like an asexual self-perpetuating array of holy crosses. I’m told that it has something to do with keeping the Devil out of town, although others speculate the plot backfired and the bastard is actually trapped inside. Everyone here is Catholic. I explain that I was waterboarded by a priest as a child and we bond a bit.
After a lunch of shrimp and lager, for which I managed to pay by excusing myself to the bathroom and then flagging down the waiter, Fer suggests we take a four-wheeler to the top of the mountain outside of town. He wanders off as I walk back to their house and returns a few minutes later with the machine. Soon we are on the outskirts of Sombrerete, climbing washed out roads and rolling over cacti. I watch as we destroy what I understand to be an invaluable carpet of micro fungi which play a vital role in slowing the erosion of the desert. Hymns of Ray Bradbury circling my mind as we round boulders and slip through forests of cacti. We come to a few technical sections and Fabi and I jump off so Fer can navigate them.
There are a few dead coyotes with their legs inexplicably cut off, then a small clearing with what seems to be shrapnel from a burst cow. It is desert, but it is lush. After stopping at a lagoon to skip stones we make the final push for the top. The last hundred meters or so are a footpath up boulders and scrub. There is a massive cross on top with a three hundred and sixty degree view. To the North are brown, red, and green patches of farm land, to the South is Sombrerete, the stretch of tarmac I rode in on to the East and West. All of it encased in mountains.
On the way down we get lost and are unable to find the trail as the sun sets. Fer sits in the driver’s seat with little Fabi between us. He is comfortable enough that he is now riding with no hands, laying back in my lap, staring at the moon and the stars that are beginning to punch through the early evening sky.
When we get back, Triz has a massive clay pot of hot coco made along with sweet breads. We sit around and talk politics. It is explained to me that Mexicans don’t hate Americans, “We just don’t know what your problem is. Why are they all so angry and why do they shoot each other?” I didn’t have much of an answer in English, let alone in Spanish. They also seem confused by our obdurate commitment to careers. “I could move to America, but I don’t like the lifestyle. Everyone works all the time. How do they ever relax and see their kids?” Both Fer and Triz come from large families and explain to me that it is because their parents had to find creative ways to entertain themselves as TV was not as popular back then. They asked me if I was ever uncomfortable staying in the homes of strangers and I asked if they were uncomfortable letting strange foreigners into their home with their child.
On the 18th I make a move for Fresnillo. Triz was showering as I was looking to brush my teeth so Fer told me to use the other bathroom. It was immaculately tiled and I was perplexed as to why the other was primarily used. Then I flushed the toilet. I watched the sewage creep up through the floor drain, powerless.
“Fer,” I said with my head sunk, “Tengo una problema.”
He patted me on the back and said it was an old house and he was going to be fixing that this week. I offered to clean it up, but he said it was fine. He gave me a hat with his cycling team’s logo, we took a few pictures, and I left.
On the road, a faint smell of smoke from brush fires mixed with the sweet steam of compost piles in the middle of wheat fields that appeared so truly golden under the morning sun that I cursed a bit at how my life was just a ceaseless cliché of beautiful scenery. Then I remembered the shit coming up from the drain that morning.
My host in Fresnillo is a woman named Suzy. It was ninety kilometers from Sombrerete. I remember it as a cool day with the wind at my back, although I am told that this is how I generally sugarcoat my past. Contrary to my memory, it appears that my notes from this day state that on the edge of town a strong gust came from the side and almost knocked me into a semi-truck and there was a brief moment in which I actually feared death.
Suzy was not yet finished with work so I sat at her office pretending to read a book while watching physical therapy patients work their way between the curb and the front door. Upon entering, an old man says, “Buenos tardes,” and everyone responds with their own greeting. Everyone except for me that is as I am still operating from the observational deck when it comes to what I consider to be a transcendental level of manners in this country.
I rode with Suzy back to her house, showered, and then we went to get groceries with a detour for ice cream. While walking around the market she explained to me that, “Fresnillo is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, you should not walk around here after dark.” I noted that the sun had set about two hours before she said this and, rather than get stressed, I convinced myself that they must turn the street lights off at some point and this would then be considered “after dark.”
“People probably wouldn’t try to do something bad to you, but sometimes you get stuck between two people when they start shooting and this is bad.”
I made our standard spinach curry back at her house, although there was no spinach so I substituted Swiss chard. Still, it was a hit. Her boyfriend Mario joined us. While we were eating he got a news alert on his phone. Apparently Mexico has deeply rooted corruption in PeMex, the state owned oil company. So deeply rooted that they estimate that three to four billion US dollars of gasoline were stolen last year from highly organized criminals (Politicians and Pemex executives) tapping into the pipelines to reroute gasoline to their own stations. The president was trying to crack down on this and it had caused some shortages. In a small rebellion some folks had decided to tap into a running pipeline. This caused a geyser that was twenty feet tall or so. It turned into a bit of a party as people got drunk, stole gasoline, and danced in a showering homogeneous mixture of small, relatively lightweight chains of carbon encircled by atoms of hydrogen with between 4 and 12 carbon atoms per molecule. The whole event resembled The Gathering. Then somebody lit a cigarette and the hydrocarbons broke apart to recombine with the air. This reaction produced two chemical byproducts: water and carbon. It also produced a great deal of heat.
“I think you will find that Mexico is an interesting country,” Mario said to me as I stared at a photo on his phone of a tower of flames and little shadowy figures fleeing for their lives. The next morning the papers reported that over 60 people had been killed.
Zacatecas is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico. The streets on the outskirts of town are some of the most hectic however. Four lanes of no shoulder and improvised traffic rules. Semi-trucks and city buses. It is a universal truth that there is nothing more frightening to a cyclist than a city bus. The explanation behind this is simple economics. There are three types of vehicles that fall into the category of “quite large” that you will generally encounter. These are, in no particular order; trucks, RV’s, and buses. Truck drivers have been through some kind of safety training, deal with asshole car drivers all day, and make just enough money that killing a cyclist would ruin what they consider to be a pretty good deal for a guy with a GED. An RV driver would love nothing more than to end a man clad in lycra. These are the baby boomers. They’ve waited their “whole goddamned life” to sell the house, hit the open road, get that national parks pass, maybe take the old camper to Lake Havasu and have three o’clock Manhattans with the Smith’s. The good news is that they are educated and wealthy, but also a bit cheap and lazy. They have enough greenbacks and smarts that they realize at the very least there will be an enormous amount of paper work should they cause a fatality. Assets worth suing for coupled with the fact that they did not spend the extra time or money to shield said loot with LLCs, trusts, offshore accounts, etc. is what keeps the upper crusters on the level. They might nudge you against a guard rail, but they have too much at stake to finish the job.
But city bus drivers. They are the municipal version of a postal worker just waiting to light somebody up for walking in at ten to five with a pile of unaddressed garbage that they sold on Ebay the day before Thanksgiving. They’re paid shit and they know that at any moment the finance guys might bogart their pension to pay the legal tab of the mayor who allegedly had a working girl dropped in the river after she overdosed at his “casual get together” because he felt that taking her to the hospital could damage his chances for reelection. City bus drivers have absolutely nothing to lose. You get stuck in the fumes behind their constant stop and go. If you try to pass they immediately pull away from the curb and push you into the center lanes. If there is a puddle they are going to juice you. And if you are in front of them, they are going to play a tormenting game of cat and mouse in which they push those flat front ends to within inches of your rear tire. In Mexico this is all the more insulting as they will have a picture of Jesus on the dash and rosary beads hanging from the rear view.
I arrived at Paty’s house in Zacatecas covered in bus soot, trembling, and unsure as to whether or not I had soiled myself. After I showered, she immediately put me to work chopping vegetables for a nopales (cactus) salad that she was making for a child’s birthday party. I tagged along, stuffed myself with standard Mexican potluck fare, and entertained myself by engaging others at the party in a game of trabalenguas (tongue twisters). “Peter picked a pickled pepper” was no match for “Estoy en paranguaricutirimicuaro y me quiero desparanguaricutirimicuarizar”
The twentieth was my last day of traveling alone. I went for a hike with Paty, rode the cable car over town, explored the abstract art museum and Museo Pedro Colonel, and had drinks while watching the earth pass between the sun and the moon over the backdrop of a four hundred and fifty year old colonial town.