(Note: I’m starting to run out of clever titles for these things so I’m falling back on location. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m done learning over-arching life lessons from each segment. But at least it will be very easy to go back and figure out where I was.)
The Oaxaca road block set me back a day but I still had plenty of time. I made my way from Salina Cruz to Tuxtla with plans to explore San Cristobal de las Casas a bit. I could have made it all the way to San Cristobal at dark. But I decided to just stay in Tuxtla for the night and relax.
I have a guilty pleasure confession – City Express hotels. I can get them for $38 on booking.com – which really comes to $47 or so and is definitely above my budget. But they’re so clean, with comfy beds and good AC. And I’m feeling lazy that 1pm checkout time is kinda a sweet. But I have to kick this habit!
San Cristobal de las Casas
I made my way to San Cristobal the next day and found a nice very cheap hotel – much more inline with my budget – and explored as much as my heel would allow. I ended up getting pizza for the first time on the trip, which wasn’t too bad. Some scenes from San Cristobal:
The next day I was up early for the long drive through the mountains to Palenque.
Oh yeah – I almost left my pillow in the room – AGAIN. I knew people in high school who were very smart but seemed to freeze up on standardized tests for some reason. Well that’s me when leaving a hotel room. I go into a blind panic for some reason. In this case I was clutching my pillow tightly specifically not to forget it – as I will never find a pillow that works for me like this in Mexico – and I need it when I camp. Nope, still managed to set it on the bed while I wrestled with something else and walked right out of the room. The hotel guy came racing out with it as I started to drive off. ARGHHH.
I need a neon pink or chartreuse pillowcase for it so I notice it when I scan the hotel room. I have literally started buying everything I can in flashy colors so I will be less likely to leave it behind. But for some reason this pillow from Costco, which actually works for my head (rare), is too big for any known pillowcase you can buy in the US. So I had to order one online – which of course is tan – the perfect “ignore me” color. So forget about finding a new pillowcase in Mexico, much less one with crazy colors.
I swear this stuff only happens to me. Try to explain to someone why losing a pillow is cause for panic or buying a pillowcase is next to impossible. Or how you couldn’t find a blanket in Mexico. Most people just walk into a store and buy a pillowcase. For me any kind of bedding purchase turns into an epic quest of heartache and failure. If I had left that pillow behind I would still be mad about it.
Anyway – pillow disaster averted – I was on the road. It was this drive that I almost didn’t do because someone had posted a bad experience on the Pan-American Traveler forum with a roadblock. But it sounded like they tried to run it without paying, and I had since read about plenty of people doing this drive with no problems.
The drive was amazing, easily the most scenic yet on the Mexico mainlaind. As I started to approach the town of Oxchuc, about halfway between San Christobal and Palenque. I came across this burnt out Bimbo truck (Bimbo is like Wonder Bread down here) and a lot of activity.
Uh oh – please not another roadblock. Happily – this one turned out to be the 100 peso variety, not the *sit for 8 hours* variety. The guy I finally talked to about it couldn’t be more friendly or apologetic. I gave him a 500 peso note and he ran off to get my change – lol.I’d guess if you wanted to pull over and try to bargain them down that would probably work.
There seemed to be some kind of a town committee set up with a PA system and a lock box for collecting the illegal tolls. I get that this would anger a lot some people when traveling. But personally I much prefer paying 100 pesos to sitting around for 7 hours as I did in Oaxaca where there was no option to pay. Just sit.
Maybe not all road blocks are as friendly. But my advice is to just smile and be polite and be prepared to pay something. Even if the main roadblock looks runnable – don’t even think about it. There are tons more partial roadblocks after the main one – where they will stop you and things will get ugly.
I did see some armed guys with masks in a truck labeled “policia regional” heading toward the front of the roadblock (where the burned out truck was). Guessing actual cops don’t want to tangle with them. In the Oaxaca roadblock I saw a truck full of marines drive up to the front and then drive back a bit later. No idea what happened there. In any case the bottom line is I’m sure the cops know about this and tolerate it.
Now the string across the road people. They piss me off. Basically someone on each side pulls up a string with stuff on it, and dares you to drive through it. I run those if I think I can do it w/o endangering any little kids. After the illegal toolbooth, I ran into two groups of string people – first of the trip. The first one was adult women and they were really pushy. I bought some bananas from them and they still wanted more. The string lady was demanding to be paid for the service of holding up the string. That really annoyed me. I just rolled up my window and slowly moved forward until the string either broke or they let go of it. I got past the kids because they were too slow to pick up the string after the car in front of me. Hah – snooze you lose kids. Apparently there aren’t many of these left on my trip until South America – but then they get bad again in some rural areas.
Even with the roadblock and string people – I got to Palenque with enough time to tour the ruins. I got the local tour even though it probably wasn’t worth $25 for 30 minutes. But hearing the guides speak Mayan to each other and learning a few things was worth it for me. Then I had some time to find a quiet perch and and just soak in the energy of the place. You can really feel that this is a magical place in the world. I could easily spend a day exploring this and the jungle. I guess the excavated buildings are only 1-2% of the whole complex – which is still engulfed by jungle.
Afterwards I found a place very close by for $22. You never know what to expect for that cheap – but this place turned out to be my favorite of the whole trip so far. The place – Casa Guacamaya – was in a nice building off from the main grounds. I had a whole wall of screened-in windows to enjoy the view and sounds of the jungle. Also the dinners and breakfasts ($3-4) were quite tasty. Such a surprise and honestly one reason I’m glad I’m not doing just pure overlander style where I sleep in my rig every night. Yes I would not be getting sucked into the CityExpress trap. But at the same time I’d be missing out on a wonderful jungle hideaway.
Sounds of the jungle – the chirping is geckos
The next day I decided to check out a nearby animal sanctuary that I had seen many signs for. The place was much bigger and packed with interesting animals than I expected. Some of the cats looked pretty bored, which was sad. I assume (hope) that they’re better off than whatever they were rescued from. I guess by supporting them hopefully they can get the cats a bigger enclosure and more enrichment activities. Or maybe the whole thing is just a zoo that they call a sanctuary. I hope not.
It’s hard to describe how impressive it is being up close to a big stocky cat like this – 3rd biggest cat after lions and tigers.
Getting the job done
I also made a new friend, Nils from Holland, while we were both watching the tortoises court then complete the deed. Nils was visiting the sanctuary alone because his girlfriend was sick.
Tortoise courtship apparently – the male walks circles around the female for a few minutes
Nils and I hung out for the rest of the sanctuary then checked out a really neat local waterfall afterwards – Miso Ha (which my French friend on the beach had also talked up). The highest falls I’ve ever swam in for sure.
The next day I headed to Merida, where I planned to get my foot looked at and run some other errands. I found a place on booking.com called Quinta Real – which looked like a hotel for $19/night. I was literally parked in front of CityExpress (except this was a CityExpress Jr. – lol branding). But I said – you know what maybe this is a cheaper chain or something interesting. I’ve learned everything I can from CityExpress – let’s give it a try.
Well it turned out to be someone’s house with a bedroom and a private bath. I think they were gaming booking.com somehow. But they were a nice enough couple, and gave me some advice about Merida. So for half the price – sure totally worth it. I should look for rooms like this more often – if nothing else than to get local knowledge.
The next day I went to Star Medica – which came highly recommend as the best hospital in Merida – which is one of the richest cities in Mexico. According to my Spanish teacher Scott – at one time (in the 1800s I think) Merida had more millionaires than any other city in the world. I found my way to the urgent care (which I guess is like emergency room?) line and told them about my foot. They quickly checked me in and did the blood pressure thing. Withing about 30 minutes I saw a doctor who took my story and agreed an x-ray would be a good idea. About 30 minutes later they x-rayed my foot. Then about 30 minutes later the doctor talked to me again.
Turns out I have a bone spur in my left heel. Me and Trump are in this together lol. The doctor gave me a prescription for muscle relaxers, a non-narcotic pain med, and Icy Hot and gave me some calf-stretching exercises to do. He did not recommend I tape it, as I had been doing. All in all I was in and out in 2 hours and the whole thing cost me 2000 pesos – about $100. In USA #1 BEST HEALTHCARE SYSTEM – I probably would have sat around the ER for 8 hours, or been told to make an appointment for next month – and it would have cost $1200 minimum if I didn’t have insurance.
Later I went and looked online for bone spurs and it pretty much matched what he told me – try this stuff, then maybe a cortisol shot down the road if nothing helps, then surgery as a last resort after 9-12 months. So I stopped taping my heel. Maybe that was even contributing to the problem – who knows. If you think about it – the idea of the tape was to ball up my heel more to give more cushion against a bone bruise. But if there’s a bone spur poking into my heel pad – maybe pulling the heel up into that isn’t the best idea. I’ve been taking the muscle relaxers, which really REALLY mellow me out. Like I could easily sleep all day. They might be helping a bit, it’s hard to tell. But at least I know what’s wrong – which makes me feel better. (Unfortunately the Patagonia hiking trip is out – as I am writing this a month later and nothing has improved.)
I had set aside all day for the hospital but found myself free by 11. So I got my first oil change of the trip, got my car washed and still had some time to kill.
For some reason (maybe the muscle relaxers) Burger King really appealed to me. So I got set for some American fast food, immediately followed by the inevitable self-loathing.
Since Burger King was next to a mall, I wandered over to see if they had an ATM. Somehow the air-conditioning of the mall beckoned me in and I found myself wandering the huge mall in a muscle-relaxer daze. I got a DQ Blizzard just to finish off the unhealthy outburst. If you’re wondering what’s different about a gigantic mall in Mexico than the US – I would say absolutely nothing. Except – there was a Radio Shack and an Aeropostale – neither of which exist in the US anymore – I think. So think a US mall in the early 2000s I guess.
I went out that night in Merida – which is an absolutely beautiful city at night:
The next day I said goodbye to my nice family at the “Quinta Real” and headed to Cancun, where I was to pick up my friend in Shauna in 2 days. Like Mazatlan, no one seems to have anything good to say about Cancun – except for totally different reasons. Mazatlan I guess is kind of dangerous and gritty. Cancun is a built up American tourist mecca like Cabo. I got a room at the Ramada Inn because the price wasn’t too bad and they had pictures of a really nice gym on their booking.com entry. Heh – turns out that was nothing close to the actual gym – which is very close to a CityExpress gym. Eh – I found a great gym just down the street for $3 for a day use. So I finally got to get in a good leg day for the first time in 2 months.
Later I headed to Isla Mujeres (Women Island – not sure why it’s named that) since walking around Cancun didn’t seem all that fun – it’s basically a hotel zone with resorts and a downtown part with restaurants but not much else. I actually really like Isla Mujeres. A ton of great beaches with music, food/bar, and the nicest sand in Mexico. Also the weather on this side of the Yucatan peninsula is just gorgeous. Low 80s, nice breeze. It’s amazing for me the difference between low 80s and high 80s. I found a deal on 2 pairs of sunglasses – since I left my primary pair behind at Capi’s.
I took the ferry back to Cancun and the next day I just have to kill some time until mi amiga arrives – then it’s on to the next phase of the adventure – traveling with other humans!
I rolled into Oaxaca City after dark. Eager to find a place to stay I found a hotel on iOverlander that was super cheap. The neighborhood looked a bit dodgy, but I figured iOverlander wouldn’t steer me wrong. The hotel was probably the sketchiest yet, from the inside – yet not the cheapest.
But the host was friendly and directed me to some tasty local food – down a very dark blocks. On the walk I thought about how Matt from the beginning of the trip would have been a lot more freaked out by the look of this neighborhood at night. But month-into-the-trip Matt trusted my hotel host not to send me into a bad neighborhood. When I got to the place, which looked like a big outdoor kitchen, I was rewarded with a very tasty quesadilla thing. Later I found some more Noche Buena!
The next day I drove through Oaxaca City – which had a nice old town as expected. Never that fun to drive through or find parking. I wanted to secure my lodging for the next few days, so I drove out to Overlander Oasis in El Tule (I guess officially known as Santa Maria del Tule). Driving by – I realized was actually quite small – not what I was expecting at all for the hub of overlanders coming through Mexico. They were pretty clear that you should call first, so I drove out to Oaxaca Campground just to see what that was about. It was much bigger but only had a couple lots filled with RVers. I gave Overlander Oasis a call and they had a spot for me. I met Calvin and Leann at the gate and they instantly made me feel at home. They gave me a long run down on things to do in the area.
I’m starting to figure out the things I want to seek out on this trip. One of them is places like Overlander Oasis where you have a little temporary family built in. Being a solo traveler can get a bit lonely at times. It’s nice to have people to share experiences with. Also I was still pretty out of sorts thinking about the horrible tragedy my friends were going through. I had expected to be part of a 4-person group at this point. So I felt a little lost as to my next steps.
After setting up my tent I walked into El Tule – a lovely little laid back down with a big wide open square and plenty of great food and shopping options. A nice contrast to the crush of the city in Oaxaca a few mile away. Of all the places I’ve seen so far on my trip – if I was going to settle in one it would probably be El Tule.
I managed to find a nice very reasonably priced bottle of Mezcal, and stumble my way into ordering a Oaxaca delicacy called a tlayuda – a kind of thin-crust pizza thing with avocado, meat, frijoles and that incredible Oaxaca cheese. Amazing.
I shot this video of El Tule restaurants getting ready for dinner and firing up their comals (flat griddle things over a wood fire). I think it gives a good sense and feel of life in the town – which like much of Oaxaca seems to revolve around food.
I hobbled back to the campground on my sore heel and met some new arrivals – Stretch and Lucinda. When Stretch heard about the tragedy he offered a shot of Mezcal as a toast to Brian. The Oaxacans have a saying I’ve heard many times now: “For everything good, Mezcal. For everything bad, Mezcal.” Stretch is a 6’7” retired tugboat captain who was trying to do the full Pan-Am drive a couple years ago when he contracted some kind of viral heart infection. He’s been recovering ever since and is now traveling with his partner Lucinda. We had dinner together and another mezcal nightcap – with lots of stimulating conversation to go along.
The next day I biked into Oaxaca along a bike path that’s been built over an old railroad grade. The bike ride was some good exercise – and good news – doesn’t hurt my heel at all! Biking in the actual city with cobblestones and big intersections and juggling google maps with one hand on the handlebars was interesting. At the big intersections I just tried to shadow a car and make sure I was shielded from the other cars while crossing. I found a place to park my bike and explored the Zocalo and surrounding town. I also managed to find a tour company that would pick me up in El Tule the next day for the standard Tule – Mitla tour that they all do. Arranging that on the internet wasn’t working. Everything happens face to face in Latin America.
The bike ride back was pretty good exercise. I fell asleep pretty early.
The next day I met up with my tour by the giant tree in El Tule.
We had a pretty fun group on our tour – half Spanish speakers and half English speakers. I like the van tours sometimes when I’m traveling solo – as long as there isn’t too much onerous driving (avoid van tours that start at 5am, they also won’t get back until late). There were two shopping excursions – first was rug-weaving. It was pretty interesting and I bought a few things.
Then we went to a mescaleria and learned how mescal is made. Never have I been more amped up for a shopping stop on a tour.
The next stop was Mitla – a small but very interesting looking ancient Mayan site with some occupation from as early as 900BC.
Our last place was a really cool water feature that apparently only exists in two places in the world. I actually brought my swimming suit – but by this time it was about 45 degrees with 40 mph winds lol. No swimming today.
We got back from the tour about 7pm. Turns out Overlander Oasis was having a little get together. We all hung out and drank mescal for an hour or so. I did my best to impress a couple people of the wonders of mescal Not sure I won any converts, but the camaraderie was great. As a solo traveler it’s great to feel like part of a family for a few days.
We turned in pretty early. But it was Saturday night, and we had the joy of a wedding about a half block away that kept going HARD until 2:30am or so. Cest la vie.
The next day I got up and said goodbyes to everyone. Before leaving El Tule – I was determined to buy a hunk of Oaxaca cheese. Usually you find this shredded on all kinds of dishes. But I was really curious what it was like to just eat straight. I asked around and was directed to a “queseria” a little off the main square – where I purchased a half-kilo of cheese. It was delicious! Kind of reminds me of string cheese that shows up in kids’ lunchboxes in the US – but saltier, richer and better in every conceivable way. I pretty much just nibbled on that hunk of cheese as my primary source of sustenance for the day.
After a bit of shopping I went to check out Monte Alban on my way out of town. Monte Alban was the capital of the Zapotec world for over 1000 years. The first part was built in 500 BC – which makes it the oldest planned city in the Americas.
After Monte Alban I got going on the highway – with plans to see how far I could get before finding a place to spend the night.
I wound up in the town of Miahuatlan just before the road started winding up into the mountains. There were a couple weird-looking auto motels that didn’t even seem to have anyone home. I decided to skip those and found a big place in town – cheapest hotel yet – 170 pesos = $8.50. The place wasn’t too bad. Even had a hot shower in the morning to my surprise – something lacking in my $88 hotel in Mexico City.
The next day I made it through the mountains. It was a nice scenic drive and I’m always fascinated to get glimpses of how mountain people live. It seems like such a precarious existence – clung to the side of the road – where if you drop one thing it might wind up 500′ below you before it stops.
I stopped in the town of Santa Maria de Hualtec (?) which was most of the way out of the mountains and my first taste of heat and humidity since Los Cabos.
I walked around a bit – the only gringo in this part of town. Just finding a baño was a bit of an adventure, but I got to see the town. I got some tacos and was entertained by the two little kids of the proprietor fighting over who got to serve the big pele rojo gringo.
From there I made my way straight to the beach. I had seen a little spur of beach on the map, surrounded by a national park. And from google maps I could tell it had a few restaurants to chill at. Whenever I see something like that I gotta go. I pulled up on a little spit to this amazing view:
Then I headed over to the developed side and was quickly waved in to a parking spot by an older gentleman. I had a few beers, eventually some fish tacos (which disappointingly were more like fried fish taquitos – good fish tacos outside of Baja have proven hard to find).
I wound up getting a cabana at the same place for pretty cheap. My biggest regret though is I wasn’t ready with my tripod when the still full moon came up (this was one day after the super blood moon eclispe or whatever). It would have been an amazing shot. You have to be ready with that though because you only have a minute or so where the ambient light is still good enough to get surrounding detail and moon detail in the same shot.
The next day I drove down to the other end of the beach and realized this is where most overlanders are going to wind up (also one of the places showed up on the iOverlander app). I drove up to look at the place on the very end of the beach and was greeted by a nice kid who said it was 50 pesos/night to camp – super cheap. Then I looked at the place next door which showed up on iOverlander. I was greeted by a very spry Dutch man in his 60s or so who said this is the only place with wifi. 100 pesos/night. Sold. But I knew I wanted to check out some spots further east – so I told him I’d be back.
I had previously picked Puerto Escondido out on the map as the Western end of my explorations, so I drove that way. I also drove through a few towns on a detour road that went along the beach. Some looked built up. One town – Mazunta had tons of dreadlocked hippies running around – and looked fun. I stopped in Porto Escondido for a bit and found a very crowded beach to hang out on. Again no fish tacos, so I had shrimp. I saw the oyster guys coming out of the water with a fresh catch – looks like hard work. So I decided to reward them by getting a half-dozen oysters as well
I didn’t feel like driving all the way back to Playa San Augustin that night, so I found a cheap place in Mazunta on booking.com. The convenience store next door had parking. While parking my car I managed to hook my bumper over a tree (first crunch), then in my haste to back up I pulled the bumper partially off (second crunch/snap/pop – not good sounds).
From the car I was really hoping it was just the little silver spur piece that popped off (show pic). But from the look on the kid’s face who was guiding me in to the spot, I could tell it was probably worse than that. Yep, car is drivable but the bumper isn’t really attached on one side. Not good. No way it survives like that for 15k more miles over bumpy roads. That’s just asking for trouble. We got it shoved back in as good as possible.
The guy at the hotel next door had seen the whole thing. He told me about a body wizard guy named Munentec – just a mile or so away. Apparently the hardest part was finding Mununtec’s shop as it’s barely marked. But I got all kinds of pointers to go find it the next day. I went out and checked out the beach. It was pretty nice. Unbeknownst to me there was a clothing optional beach a few hops down the beach that a lot of the hippies were probably going to. Oh yeah I forgot to mention these were all very attractive hippies (hipsters, dread-people, whatever). So it makes sense they’d flock to a nude beach. But then again some people told me it was just middle-aged men letting it all hang out on the beach. Then a local I meant said this beach is a very sacred place like Palenque. Hmmm.
In any case I was still pretty pre-occupied with getting my bumper fixed so not really in the mood to go out on the town. I always run through every possible worst case scenario in my mind. Which I guess for this would be getting stuck in some city for a week or more while a Toyota dealership waits for parts. That or having to actually drive back to the US to get it fixed. I don’t think my worst-case scenario obsession is healthy or optimal for my trip. But sometimes I can’t help myself.
I had some dinner and met a very nice couple from Wales who obviously didn’t really fit in with the dreadlocked crowd either.
The next morning I got even more detailed directions on how to find Munentec and was on my way. I was also warned that there were some people further down the road from Mununtec – who will claim to be Mununtec if you ask them – but then proceed to screw up your car because they aren’t good mechanics. Great! Still it took me driving by 4 or 5 times to finally triangulate on Munentec. I saw a woman walking nearby who confirmed this was Mununtec, but also confirmed he hadn’t really risen yet at 10am. So I should try back in an hour or so. Problem? No problem, I went and had a delicious breakfast – with my favorite chilaquiles.
After breakfast I pulled up about 11 and Munentec was there. He and his buddy quickly got to work dissembling my bumper and figuring out the problem. I showed him a broken bracket piece that had fallen off when we were shoving the bumper back into place (thank goodness I noticed it).
At one point he matched the broken piece I showed him to a small piece that was still clinging to one screw. He took that off and lined up the two pieces. This is the point I was afraid of. Oh we’re gonna have to order that. Better hang out for a few days. But I looked at him, he looked at me, I said “superglue?”. He replied “superglue”. YES!
He had not just any superglue but black tar looking stuff that came out of a caulking gun. While he was fixing my bracket and applying a heat-dryer to it, his protege fixed my other parking mishap – the chunk I had taken out of my mirror in San Miguel de Allende. Same magic superglue. God bless that stuff.
Once the bracket was fixed and reattached – the rest of the bumper came together nice and tight. But there were a lot of counter-intuitive things about the process and order that I would never have known how to do. It’s obvious this guy knew his stuff.
All told fixing everything took about an hour. I asked Munentec how much it would cost. He thought for a bit and said 500 pesos (~$25) – for a fix that would have cost me $1200 in the US. He could have said 5000 pesos and I’d have been glad to pay it. Here’s the thing though – I never even asked him price until it was fixed because I knew he wouldn’t rip me off. I don’t think the average American can really understand that until they’re down here for a while. Almost every local I’ve dealt with on anything has been trusting and honest – almost to a fault. It’s just such a shame to me that cartel violence, which is largely fueled by America’s drug habits, drowns out all the positive cultural experiences to be had down here for most Americans.
Anyway if I had written down my dream scenario of how time consuming and costly it would be to fix my bumper, it couldn’t have gone any better. This was officially trail magic #2. Also both car issues have been due to my own lack of attention and carelessness while parking around trees. I feel like I know the boundaries of my car really well at this point. But trees have a way of jutting out at odd angles that you don’t expect. I have resolved to me more careful, go slower, and if I hear a crunch stop immediately and assess the situation before doing anything else.
I headed back to Playa San Augstin in a positively capital mood at getting my bumper fixed. When I got to Capi’s, only Capi and his family were there. Frans, the Dutch gentleman I had met two days earlier, and his wife (who I cannot remember her name for the life of me – I’m sorry – if you ever read this please forgive me) were out shopping or something. I mentioned to Capi that I had met Frans the previous morning “Oh amigos with Frans – ok!”. Well not quite amigos but sure.
I got my tent set up and decided to swim and get a little sun. The plan was to force myself to sit on the beach for 4 days and barely walk – to see if that could start the healing process on my heel.
Yes I am aware that I am a redhead and burn easily. Thanks to you and just about everyone else I’ve met for the last 2 weeks for letting me know though. 😉 I had a plan I swear. And I am a quarter Italian dammit.
My face and arms have had plenty of sun. But my body was still white as notebook paper. Rather than just slather sunblock on and delay the inevitable first burn, the plan was just to get it out of the way by laying 30 minutes or so on each side – basically until a tiny bit of pink starts to show – then done. Keeping my head covered the whole time of course – no need for more sun there.
Well I didn’t bring my phone or a watch. So that made 30 mintues/side a little trickier. I decided the big waves were coming about 10 seconds apart. So I’d count those. But my ADHD quickly got tired of that. All in all I think I did an ok job of laying on front and back. But then I realized that because of the angle of the sun and beach my left side had gotten zero sun. So I laid on my side for another (?) minutes.
At this point Capi came out and said he was taking off. Apparently I was in charge of the whole camp now – including Frans’ wide open camper. Good thing we’re close amigos!
I decided I had gotten enough sun, and maybe overdone it just a tad when I quickly got quite pink. I still had a nice white stripe down one side though that looked like a Neapolitan ice cream sandwich – except two strawberry sections and one vanilla in the middle.
At this point I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, but just said well maybe I’ll make this my fasting day. I drank some vodka/OJ I had in the cooler and managed to get quite buzzed with no food in my stomach. So I’m sure Frans must have been a little surprised to return to some drunk guy in his camp who was overly excited to see him.
But Frans and his wife were super friendly to me, and we stayed up all night swapping traveler stories. Over several days of this I have decided to dub Frans “the real most interesting man in the world”. He speaks about 20 languages it seems (his wife just as many) and has crazy stories about riding in the Dakar rally, or taking 20 motorcycles on a crazy mountain drive for an audience with the Dalai Lama. I really enjoyed my time at Capi’s hanging out with Frans and other travelers who came by.
That first and second night was a bit painful due to too much sun. By the 3rd night my skin was starting to feel better, but I managed to get sick from something. I threw up a couple times that night. Wasn’t fun but I’ve had much worse. The next day I was still pretty under the weather, so I decided to just chill under a palapa and recover. The big palapa seemed to have some sand fleas in places that nip at your ankles. So I parked myself under one of the small palapas closer to the beach. The palapa had a few holes, which I tried to position myself to avoid as much as possible.
Towards late afternoon I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. Have I been getting more sun? And about that time I realized my skin was hurting again. Argh. Apparently those little holes add up when you’re getting them all day long. Either that or the ambient light around there reflecting off the sand under a small palapa was enough.
So after that I put a shirt on and made sure I was covered. When I went to get up from my chair – I heard my favorite sound – crunch-SNAP. Oh man. I burned myself, still sick, and managed to break one of Capi’s nice beach chairs. Great day.
When Frans’ wife got back to camp she took one look at me and immediately scolded “Did you get more sun!”. It was an accident I swear! For some reason it was kind of comforting to be scolded by my stern temporary Dutch mother. Oh yeah – Frans and wife had a dog named Taco who would escape the camp perimiter or get into some other mischief about 20 times/day – prompting Frans or his wife to chase after him and yell “TACO! TACO!” in Dutch accent that never failed to crack me up.
That night at the behest of several guests and Frans’ wife – I slathered on about a half-gallon of aloe vera gel – which seemed to instantly absorb into my skin each time. I was still feeling pretty under the weather and in no mood to drink, so I lasted until about 9pm then turned in.
When I got to my tent, a guy who was also staying at the camp for a few days, approached me. We hadn’t so much as said hi to this point, although we’d seen each other for a few days. I thought he was originally American even though he spoke Spanish with his wife and 2 kids. To be honest I had made up an entire back story that he was some ex-meth-dealer from Long Beach on the run from the law in Mexico. He was tatted up and just had that look like the LA dirtbag quasi-criminals I had in my DUI classes. Also Frans didn’t like him because he was letting stray dogs into the camp, which caused problems with Taco.
Well it turns out he had some industrial-strength burn cream for actual burn victims. that he wanted to share. Lol I really must have been neon-broadcasting a need for help across the campground. I don’t know if it was that or the aloe, but I sure was in a lot less pain the next day than I expected. The previous sunburn didn’t peak in terms of pain until 2 days later.
Anyway I made a point of sincerely thanking the guy a couple times before I left and a vow to myself to not judge a book by its cover the rest of this trip. It’s fun to make up back-stories and people watch at all. But it’s also easy to slip into judginess and close myself off to new experiences and people.
The next day I ordered my usual breakfast. For some reason never fails to crack up CAPI and his family when I say “chilaquiles”. After I said my goodbyes to another wonderful temporary family and headed Northeast – with no real plan except I had to be in Cancun in in a week.
Which was good because the locals had a plan for the rest of the afternoon. My first roadblock – woo hoo!
Some background: apparently the locals in Oaxaca and Chiapas are notorious for shutting down local 2-lane highways (or 4-lane in extreme cases) to protest some lack of funding or other transgression they feel has been imposted on them by the federal government. A possible contributing factor to this is there are no state or local taxes in Mexico. Everything goes to the federal government, which is then divvied back to the states, who then divvy it to municipalities (from what I am told anyway).
I hit this about 36km West of Salina Cruz on MEX 200 – just before Morro de Mazatlan. When I got there at 2pm the line of cars was already pretty long. Tons of vendors were selling stuff and lots of activity of people getting out of buses and collectivos (group taxis), which would go as far as they could down the wrong lane before unloading passengers. Then the passengers would walk across (presumably to catch buses/taxis on the other side). So many confusing driving maneuvers to me. And people who I thought were going one way would then hop a bus going the other way.
As I have come to find out, there are a couple kinds of roadblocks. The first, and the kind I was in now, is where the road is just shut to auto traffic (but foot traffic, bicycles and maybe motorcycles can pass). The second is where they ask for what basically amounts to an illegal toll. 100 pesos ($5) seems standard. I think some negotiation is possible on these. More on these kinds of roadblocks later.
For some reason some people in the states get freaked out when you tell them about these roadblocks. I just view them as a practical matter – like any other travel hassle. At no point did I feel remotely threatened. However the roadblocks are set up such that if you try to run them you’re going around or over barricades at some speed and near lots of people. So the locals somewhat understandably get mad at people who try to run them and have been known to pull people from their cars, or hit the cars with hammers or something. Also just because you can run the main roadblock doesn’t mean you’re away scot-free. There are plenty of partial roadblocks before and after the main one where you can easily be stopped. Just don’t do it basically.
So anyway, back to the Oaxaca roadblock: I never knew for sure if I was in a roadblock or some kind of construction or wreck situation. I saw people walking to the front including some frustrated looking gringos. Then I saw them go back and sit in their car. So I assumed whatever they found out it wasn’t going to help them get through it any faster. I decided with the heat and need to avoid wear and tear on my heel – to just cool myself in my car.
At first I cursed my fortunes a bit because I happened to be stopped right in front of a little gravel side street that the local vendors were using as a staging area as well as all kinds of other activity. This would make it a lot harder for me to pee on the side of my car. But over time I came to be entertained by all the interactions. It was obvious whatever was happening here was not a surprise to the locals – which in my mind eliminated accident and pointed to either a roadblock or planned construction.
I had to pee so bad I stopped being a voyeur and interacted with my observation subjects. I got out and walked up the gravel road – asking a local “Bano alli?” (bathroom over there?). He laughed and said “Si, muchos banos alli”. Hah – I can joke in Spanish. Bathroom humor is the universal language.
After peeing, I tried to ask the Semen guy what was happening. We weren’t able to communicate well enough to establish that. But he did think it was over at 5:30pm – in about an hour. Well 5:30 came and went. It got dark and the vendors went away, which ended my entertainment. At some point all the lights came on and everyone raced around getting into line. And then we sat. And the lights went back on. False alarm or something.
Finally about 7:30 – maybe 6 hours after I got there – we started to move. I was hoping to see some kind of obvious construction or sign as to what was going on. But all I saw were a couple buses stopped on the same side of the road – and a ton of locals guiding traffic around one of them. There may have been 75 people on each side of the street. They looked like a cross-section of men and women between 20 and 60. Also the second bus was parked at a perfect pinch point over a stream – so there was no way around. And judging by the completely different looking taxis lined up on the other side – this must be some municipal boundary. I decided it was probably some kind of roadblock and the buses were used to block the road.
When I got to my hotel in Salina Cruz, I asked the guy what it was. We ascertained that yes it was a roadblock. When I asked him the cause he replied “It’s Oaxaca.” Ok then.
I spent a couple weeks in Puebla, learning Spanish with the great teachers at livitspanish. I also managed to fit in a few excursions. But mostly I just tried a ton of delicious food. Everything in Puebla is tasty. It’s immediately obvious this is a town that takes food very seriously. I compare it to the way Kansas Citians feel about BBQ. Everyone seems to have favorite restaurants, favorite recipes, even particular about how you eat the food. IE – why would you order two large tacos if one is just going to get cold? Order one, then order the next so they’re both served fresh.
On Sunday my first night in town, after getting my parking for the week sorted out, I wandered across the street into a big market that was closing down for the day. A bunch of food places were still open, serving all the other people who were packing up their stalls. I almost got a couple tacos from a place with no line. But then I noticed a long line out the door for one place which also had about 20 employees buzzing around in a very efficient and fast moving assembly line. I figured I better try this place to see what the fuss is about. When traveling I always look for the line (except LA where people like to wait in line when there’s a 95% as good option a block away).
Note, this is not a torta – it’s a cemita – the locals I talked to were very adamant about that. Apparently it’s about the bread used. Cemita bread is more like a french roll, whereas torta bread is more like a soft bun (I think). All I know for sure is holy cow was it good.
They chastised me for taking pics and pointed me to a sign that says no fotos. But I snuck a bunch more anyway. I think they just don’t want people holding up the line.
I somehow managed to order the one with pork milanese and jamon. Oh yeah it’s 35 pesos (about $1.75 – WTF). I don’t go on and on about prices here because yeah, it’s Mexico, things are cheap. But that’s insane for a huge sandwich with avocado, cheese and multiple kinds of meat.
For the next two weeks I had Spanish class from 9-1, then lunch with everyone at the school (either out or at the school), then either hanging out with a guide talking Spanish, or going on an excursion on Thursday.
That night some of the other students at the school (there were several classes) wanted to go see Mexican wrestling – Lucha Libre. I went along for the experience, and wound up having way more fun than I expected. We sat down on the floor where the guys were flying all over the place. Booing the bad guys and getting into the act a bit was a blast. Also the sheer spectacle of the way these guys throw their bodies around was pretty impressive. You could feel them hit the wooden floor – which can’t have felt very good.
The next day for lunch we went out and had something called a taco placero – a thin strip of beef, with potatoes, onions and avocado. The meat was so tender – you could barely even tell you were biting through it. And fresh cooked hand-made tortillas of course.
After class, I had the owner of the school – Scott as my guide. Which was great because I learned a ton about the history of Puebla – and life in Mexico in general. Fun tidbit: apparently notaries in Mexico make more than doctors on average. Nothing gets done without a notary. Scott and I also managed to sneak in a few alcoholic beverages – in the interests of learning Spanish of course.
That night I had to try mole poblano – the signature dish of the region. I wanted until 6pm but I will still the only one in the restaurant. I was too hungry to wait any longer so I took the plunge.
Unlike Oaxaca-style mole negro, mole poblano comes with sesame seeds. Also the sauce is made with roasted ancho chiles. I found the flavor to be more subtle and less heady than my Oaxaca-style mole negro experiences. Both are delicious though imo.
On Thursday we went for an excursion to the Chautla Hacienda a short drive from Puebla. The grounds consist of a very old colonial building, and a newer chalet (the square building below) that the governor of Puebla used for entertaining esteemed political or business guests.
Another unique cuisine to Puebla is something called “Tacos Arabes”. A while back – Lebanese Christians moved here and naturally started selling versions of their home cuisine – sometimes modified and adapted for local customs. Some may be aware al pastor is Middle Eastern in origin. This is prepared the same way (also as gyros) – layers of meat on a spit – slow cooked then shaved off as they become done. The twist here is because these are Lebanese Christians – pork is allowed. So this meat is a mix of pork, beef and lamb apparently. Also the wrapper is something of a cross between a tortilla and a pita – they call it grande pan – at least at this place.
Maybe it’s just because I’d eaten so much Mexican food now that a change of cuisine really hit the spot, but this was one of my favorite meals so far in Mexico. So perfect and delicious. I love the unique bread. I ate 4 and could easily have done more. Also the proprietor was so sweet and nice to me. I felt like I had a new Lebanese-Mexican mama by the end.
About 2am Saturday morning I got the terrible news about Brian Johnson – one of the motorcycle riders who were supposed to meet up with my in Puebla. I was crushed thinking about what they must be going through. I’ve been somewhat out of sorts and disoriented since then, as I didn’t expect my trip to go on alone.
Saturday I found a gym and got some exercise in, but mostly just sat around. My friend Nicholas randomly happened to be in Mexico City and wanted me to come up – about a 2.5 hour drive from Puebla. But I didn’t really have nice pants or shoes, and wasn’t in much mood to hit the town – especially walking around on my heel in dress shoes. Also there’s some weird requirement about license plate numbers and you can get a pretty hefty ticket – which is effect on weekdays and Saturdays. So I passed.
On Saturday night, I heard from Bruno – the angel traveler who still had my front plate that he retrieved from San Miguel de Allende. Turns out they were having car problems and weren’t sure when they could get to Puebla. So I decided to drive up Sunday, when I wouldn’t have to worry about the plate issue, Mexico City traffic, or dressing up too much. I could see Nicholas and get my plate.
So I drove up Sunday and met up with Nicholas at a house in a very nice neighborhood of Mexico City. Nicholas was staying there with his girlfriend Camila – who lives in NYC, but was born and raised in this house. Nicholas had earlier described the house as “like a museum”, which I kind of laughed off at the time. But holy cow – that was a good description. As Camila graciously gave me a tour of her beautiful home, and described the history of some of the furniture and paintings, I felt like I should be behind a velvet rope.
Nicholas had to play bad guy and cut the house tour short because we were due to meet up with Bruno and his partner Moira nearby. We went to a local place which had a bunch of food options, where I got another take on tacos arabe.
Bruno and Moira turned out to be extremely down to earth and a lot of fun (which I pretty much expected seeing how amazingly cool they were to retrieve my plate). Everyone seemed to hit it off very well, so after lunch, we went to a cool market that I had actually been to a few years earlier on a trip to Mexico City, Copper Canyon and Cabo. We got to watch some hilarious gender-role reversal as Camila tried to restrain Nicholas’ shopaholic tendencies. Nicholas is a world class knick-knack shopper and gift giver – probably a big reason he has so many friends around the world.
After Nicholas’ shopping fix – we went to a very nice area of Mexico city and saw some pretty cool art.
Finally the night wound up at a beer bar that had hot wings. And mezcal. Bruno and Moira are from Argentina and share a mutual interest in art and anthropology with Camila. So every now and then they’d slip into Spanish and me and Nicholas would catch up.
And thus concludes one of the more random get togethers I’ve ever had. Needless to say I got a hotel room in Mexico City and did not try to drive back to Puebla at night after that. Bruno and Moira – thank you again from the bottom of my heart. I hope you get as lucky as I did with random kindness when you need it. Nicholas it was great seeing you buddy. Camila it was wonderful to meet you and thank you for being such a gracious host to show me your house and home town.
The second week of school was kind of a last minute decision by me. So apparently there were no extra guides to show me around, which left me free to run errands and wander Puebla in my afternoons.
On Thursday we had our second class excursion – this time to a real farmers’ market (real as in – for farmers, by farmers – not like LA farmers’ markets).
Then we went to an old church and convent from the something ridiculous like 1570 – El ExConvento de San Andrés Calpan.
After we got back I decided to wear my fancy new jeans to a fancy restaurant that my proffey, Maru had suggested earlier. She particularly liked the mole tamal (not “tamale” – I’m not sure if there’s a difference). It was incredible.
Then I got a mole verde (which at least rounds out my moles in Puebla – Poblano, rojo, verde). It was quite tasty with some kind of fish which I didn’t realize I was ordering.
After dinner, I walked by a bar and heard some English. In my first instinct and natural introvertedness I passed it up and headed back to my room. But I said nope, and turned around. And whaddyaknow – I made some new friends – serious hardcore Mezcal experts.
You know it’s good by the blurry picture. I learned about all the variables and processes that go in the giving mezcal such incredible dynamic range of flavor. Absolutely fascinating. Mezcal has been my favorite liquor for a while. The guy on the left runs a non-profit that buys super small-batch agave and repatriates all the profits back to the local distillers. http://sacredagave.org Very cool.
The next day I had my last day of class and bid a sad farewell to everyone at the school. It was kinda nice to have my little family there for a couple weeks – especially with the devastating tragedy and nightmare my friends were going through weighing on my mind. But with a heavy heart my journey continues – on to Oaxaca.