The land of Piñas and Topes

Piñas at roadside stall just off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Piñas at a roadside stall just off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

One of the tidbits of knowledge that Ceasar (Alex’s cousin) passed onto us, well mostly for me, was that the country between Tuxtepec and Villahermosa could be considered the Land of Pineapple’s.  Through Alex’s translation for me, he said something akin to “pineapples as far as the eyes can see” with a motion of the arms encompassing a wide circle.

Once we had chosen the northern road out of Oaxaca, it was predetermined for us that we would pass through the land of piñas (where you could get a bottle of fresh squeezed juice for a $1.00).  Getting a later start than normal to the morning, we headed out of Tuxtepec, at fifteen miles an hour.

$15 pesos of Piña juice at a roadside stall off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

$15 pesos of Piña juice at a roadside stall off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Tuxtepec is not the center of the universe in Mexico, and once you get on the back country roads and highways of Mexico, they run right through towns, literally. The way that they ensure the safety of the people in those towns is to construct topes (speed bumps) of varying sizes and inclines. Alex hit one of these going out of Oaxaca hard enough to make her think that she might throw-up.  Anyway, going along to Villahermosa was filled with tope after tope, which makes for tiring driving as you never really get up to cruising speed for long (plus if you don’t see the tope, it can make for a jarring experience).

After stopping for some breakfast/lunch, Alex had me lead for a while and gave me instructions to stop at a pineapple stand that looked good.  We got about fifty miles down the road, and I started sweating thinking I had missed the last one, when all of the sudden, like an oasis in the desert, a stand appeared in the distance with more pineapples than you can fathom.

Women stood in the road selling bottles of sweet, golden nectar while an older husband and wife stood in a shack on the side of the road crushing pineapples.  I knew this was the place, the land of the piñas, and we pulled over, took our jackets off and picked up a bottle of fresh pineapple juice for a mere $15 pesos.

Imagine being able to stick a straw into a pineapple and drink the juice straight out of it. That is what it tasted like.  Alex commented:

“You may never have pineapple juice this fresh ever again.”

It made the moment even more poignant.  Sitting in the shade, the sun high in the sky and burning, the juice was as sweet and tangy as I had hoped, and it fueled us better then any Gatoraid could have (I am sure it had more sugar then two cokes together, but it was delicious).

One of the Piña vendors we talked to along Highway 145. They juice it, bottle it, ice it and sell it the same day. Photo: Alex Washburn

Portrait of a Piña vendor along Highway 145. They juice it, bottle it, ice it and sell it the same day. Photo: Alex Washburn

With our thirst quenched, we continued on toward our goal of Villahermosa.  About fours hours into the riding of the day, the tope spotted landscape gave way to toll roads of US quality freeway status and we started to gain some distance.

We stopped for gas about an hour out of Villahermosa, and as we started to exit the Pemex (which I think are the only real gas stations in Mexico) I saw the sheen of water on the freeway.  Not thinking too much of it, we both continued over it, and that is when I grasped our mistake.  Alex made it across but as soon as my front tire hit the liquid, I began to skid and to my horror realized that the substance was oil.

As in all life situations where you brush against true adrenaline producing moments, time slowed down and I remember thinking clearly that I wasn’t going to be able to keep the bike up, that I was going down.  The next thing I knew I was on the ground, and then I was up again, my muscles moved faster then I could think, and I was trying to lift my bike up, slipping in oil that covered a wide expanse of pavement.

It was a river.

Nathaniel does a systems check on his bike (and himself) after a car accessories vendor helped him to an oil free stretch of pavement. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel does a systems check on his bike (and himself) after a car accessories vendor helped him to an oil free stretch of pavement. Photo: Alex Washburn

Luckily for me a guy came running up and offered a hand to get the bike up (Alex was able to stay upright, but couldn’t park her bike in the mess) and helped me get it over to the side of the road ahead of Alex.  I thanked him as he ran off, maybe he was a guardian angel because he was gone even as quickly as he had shown up, and I assessed the damage.  Other then some new scrapes to the panniers and my handle bar protecters, the bike was no worse for the wear.

Even a couple days removed, my heart still starts pumping when I think about this, but thankfully we were both going slow, and there hasn’t been any lasting damage to the bike (it fired right up once we got the situation under control). Furthermore, there was no bodily damage, I was completely protected by my equipment, I wasn’t trapped under the bike (thanks to the panniers), and the riding gear has paid off in my opinion. I now know what riding in oil is like, and I avoid substances on the road, even if they look like water just to be safe.

On the outskirts of San Mateo Yetla on Highway 175 out of Oaxaca. Photo: Alex Washburn

On the outskirts of San Mateo Yetla on Highway 175 out of Oaxaca. Photo: Alex Washburn

We barely made it to Villahermosa in the last lingerings of the day, and with heavy traffic leading into the city, pulled off at the first decent looking roadside motel for the night.  If it wasn’t for the piña juice I might not have made it.

The next day was more riding, heading north, I distinctly remember getting the smell of salt in my nostrils and knowing that the ocean was near.  I grew up in Santa Cruz, and while I may not have appreciated it then, the sea has a claiming effect on me that makes everything feel right with the world.

“How can things be bad if your by the ocean?”

We rode the whole day, along coasts lined with palm trees and fisherman.  The final rays of the sun were fading over the water as we rode into Campache.  It is the capital of the state and you can feel the forced jubilance it emulates for tourists in its historic district.  For us it was just a hotel room, a warm shower, and a place to hang our helmets for the night.  I am sure it is an amazing town, but we wont know on this trip.

Our days in Mexico are numbered, tonight we are sleeping in Merida and we plan Chichen-itza and a cenote (sinkhole) in the coming days, more adventures to come.

Days of the Dead

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as the residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance party on November 2, 2013.

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as residents The residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance part on November 2, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

Alex did a pretty good job of filling everyone in on what was going on in Oaxaca for day of the dead (in fact there are multiple days of the dead, with one big celebration at the beginning for All Hallows’ Eve). It begs to be mentioned that for every flash happy maverick we saw in the cemeteries, there were plenty of tourists being respectful of the families and celebration (though there were a crushing amount of tourists).

On Friday afternoon we got back from Tule cemetery and having been out late the night before, going to three cemeteries for Day of the Dead, we thought we’d just spend the night in. However, someone was going around the hostel promoting a cemetery tour that night that would go to a couple of cemeteries we hadn’t been too.

We said yes and signed up, and only after did I find out it didn’t start till 8:30 and was a five to six hour tour (you read that right) meaning it wouldn’t be over till one or two in the morning. I almost ducked out at the last minute before the tour started, and after what was to come, I wish I had.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The tour was the worst both Alex and I had ever been on for a multitude of reasons. The person conducting the tour (asshat) hadn’t done any research and half of the cemeteries we went to ended up being closed for the night by the time we got there. Of the two we did visit, one was Tule (where we had just been earlier in the day) and the other was the main cemetery in Oaxaca (where we had been the night before). While touring the two cemeteries we did go to, the guide didn’t offer any insight or knowledge of what was going on and I honestly think Alex and I know more about Day of the Dead than he did.

After leaving the main cemetery at 11pm, we then proceeded to be dragged from closed cemetery to closed cemetery until finally at 1am, the tour asked for the guide to just take us back to the hostel (where he informed us he wanted to take us to one more place that was supposed to be happening, we didn’t bite). Once returned, he offered us a free tour the next night, but we all declined citing other plans. I could think of nothing worse then to have to relive that experience again. I would pay money to not have to go a second time.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

We spent the last night touring the celebrations in Tule and Oaxaca, which is where I met a posse of drag queens and was escorted around town. The next morning it was time to pack all the gear, load the bikes and head on out to the gulf coast.

Alex’s cousin (who is a truck driver) told us that there were three options out of Oaxaca: 1) was a pleasant, but relatively boring back-track, 2) was over 200 miles of hairpins going kind of the wrong direction, and 3) (the one we picked) was just over 100 miles of s-turns with gorgeous views and a nature reserve.

Heading out of Oaxaca and into the mountains, it was all climb for the first two hours of the ride. What had started as a warm, muggy day in the valley quickly turned into a chilling, foggy climb where at one point we broke through the fog (yes literally climbed above the clouds),

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

before descending once more into the mist. However, about right at the halfway point, the road circled the mountain and started heading down and we were suddenly in the middle of the nature reserve complete with roadside waterfalls.

If you are ever in the Oaxaca region with your bike, you have to take the road from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca (hwy-175). Make sure your bike can handle the mountain terrain, but the views you get will be some of the best anywhere. We finally made our final descent, and rode on to Tuxtepec for the night.

Oaxaca

Martin Santiago Lopez plants marigolds for day of the dead on the tomb of his grandfather as his mother watches in the cemetery of Santa Maria del Tule, Mexico. Most of their family buried in the cemetery and since the family trade is landscaping they use a lot of plants in their Dia De Los Muertos decorations. Photo: Alex Washburn

Martin Santiago Lopez plants marigolds for day of the dead on the tomb of his grandfather as his mother watches in the cemetery of Santa Maria del Tule, Mexico. Most of their family buried in the cemetery and since the family trade is landscaping they use a lot of plants in their Dia De Los Muertos decorations.Photo: Alex Washburn

Oaxaca is a fantastic city. It’s known for so much I might pity its advertisers when they need to select what to highlight for the city and state. Do you gush and rave about the food? The diversity of languages and cultures? The handicrafts? The scenery? The architecture?

In the months leading up to October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd most of the hype seems to be about the Dia De los Muertos celebrations that the city and surrounding areas immerse themselves in. But, I’ve noticed a shift in the atmosphere in the three years since I last visited Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.

More tourists and more Halloween.

As someone recently told Miriam Jordan for the Wall Street Journal:

It’s not mexican halloween.

But as awareness of Day of the Dead spreads through the United States and beyond I believe we are going to see more and more candy corn and Jack-o-Lanterns creeping into the holiday.

People walk past graffiti protesting the Halloween-ization of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

People walk past graffiti protesting the Halloween-ization of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

I’m not directly irritated by Dia De Los Muertos celebrations spreading in the United States, but it has the affect of getting tourists to throw down their plastic and crowd cemeteries as REAL people try and observe traditions their family has more or less followed longer than they’ve been speaking spanish.

Day of the dead is something even the Spaniards couldn’t destroy but how will it fare against Disney?

As I feel my anger building on the subject I have one memory playing over and over in my mind. A little old woman hunched over in the Xoxocotlan cemetery surrounded by a half dozen people popping flashes at her. One woman (who told Nathaniel she was a hobbyist being escorted through the Dia De Los Muertos festivities by a National Geographic photographer) had a remote flash that she worked that little old woman over with for at least 30 minutes. And I don’t mean one shot every few minutes – I mean celebrity style motordrive shooting at times. At one point she even placed the flash on the grave the woman was mourning over.

I asked the woman’s family member (I assume daughter) if the photographer had asked to take her photo and she said no. I asked her if the old woman was bothered by it and she said yes and explained that was why the woman had stood up and turned away from the cameras for a while. I offered to intervene for them because the photographer didn’t speak spanish but she said it was okay and thanked me anyway.

We stood and watched horrified by it… we think she was with a Photo Xpeditions Tour .

The hobbyist photographer was certainly more aggressive than most but at times it seemed there were more tourists and TV crews present than locals.

Four photographers focus on one woman in the old cemetery of Xoxocotlan. The photographer to the far left used a remote flash on her for at least 30 minutes. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Four photographers focus on one woman in the old cemetery of Xoxocotlan. The photographer to the far left used a remote flash on her for at least 30 minutes. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

I might be a hypocrite for allocating so much space to complain about the effects of tourism when I myself am a tourist. But, I think people need to use more common sense when they try and absorb the traditions of other countries.

How would that photographer feel if someone she didn’t know accosted her the same way? Someone she couldn’t talk to and was maybe a little afraid of?

Every photo you see in this blog post of someone in a cemetery I either had a very lengthy conversation with (see photo at the top of the post) or a short exchange with to assess wether or not they were okay with my camera and I being present (see photo below).


A young boy lights candles with his sister and grandfather in the main cemetery of Xoxocotlan Mexico in observance of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

A young boy lights candles with his sister and grandfather in the main cemetery of Xoxocotlan Mexico in observance of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our first day out for Dia De Los Muertos Nathaniel and I went to three different cemeteries – one of which was during the day for both of us and another I visited during the day alone and took Nathaniel back to later at night.

For me – the sweetest memory so far has been standing in the cemetery of Tule with Martin Santiago Lopez and his mother and learning from them about their town’s history and the people they loved that are now buried there. I was hesitant to speak to them at first, but when I saw them openly engaging with some other daytime visitors I approached to strike up a conversation.

They were incredibly welcoming to me (and my camera) and told Nathaniel and I to come back to Tule today (Saturday) for their town’s big party in the afternoon, which we intend to do.

The photos do not have the soft romantic glow of like the other images I took later in the night but they are authentic images of wonderful people freely giving permission to be photographed by the only camera in the cemetery, which to me is more ideal than candles and a solitary figure hunched over hoping I will go away.

The second night we decided to take a tour and see if it was surprisingly insightful or as terrible as we feared, but Nathaniel will tell you more about that tomorrow.

A woman carries marigolds traditionally used for Dia De Los Muertos decorations through the town of Xoxocotlan Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

A woman carries marigolds traditionally used for Dia De Los Muertos decorations through the town of Xoxocotlan Mexico on October 31, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

Huamantla

My cousin Cesar sprinkles water on our Abuelita's grave in preparation for Dia De Lose Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

My cousin Cesar sprinkles water on our Abuelita’s grave in preparation for Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

What kept me motivated in the 11 hour ride from Guadalajara to Huamantla was that I knew once we arrived we’d have nothing to worry about. We’d be able to roll the motorcycles into a locked patio, a comfy full size bed heaped with blankets would be ready for us and my Aunt Sylvia would feed us something hot and delicious before we crawled into it.

These expectations were fully met when we rolled into town an hour or so after dark and after parking our motorcycles we were whisked off to my Uncle Andres and Aunty Sylvia’s home to be fed and make plans for the few days we would be in town.

The first round of guests sits down to plates of carnitas at a Huichan family party. Photo: Alex Washburn

The first rounds of gets sits down to plates of carnitas at a Huichan family party. Photo: Alex Washburn

My Mom was really awesome to organize a pig feed for the family (with help from my cousin Cesar) and so the next day and half was spent doing little errands around town preparing for it.The biggest errand however was picking up the pig and having it butchered 24 hours before the party. (Nathaniel declined to watch the slaughter of the pig.)

As the time for the party approached on Tuesday things got busy around the house and then relatives started to trickle in… and they kept coming for hours. I think Nathaniel had to say ‘Mucho Gusto’ at least 100 times so it’s a good thing I made it one of the phrases he learned before we left California.

By the end of the night the 103 lb. pig was more or less gone and most people left in some state of dizzying food coma brought on by copious amounts of fried pork, tortillas, candy, rice, refrescos and beer.

During the party several of my relatives asked to take photos with Nathaniel (and by relatives I mean young females). I thought it was hilarious and Nathaniel fully embraced his role at the family gathering as ‘el güerro’.

To disturb the neighbors as little as possible the butchers decided to kill the pig in a field a few blocks from the house. Photo: Alex Washburn

To disturb the neighbors as little as possible the butchers decided to kill the pig in a field a few blocks from the house. Photo: Alex Washburn

My Spanish got the biggest work out of the trip (even tougher than dealing with immigration) as a bro-mance began to form between Cesar and Nathaniel. They used me to make jokes at each other back and forth for days and I told them I was glad they couldn’t directly talk to each other because then we would all be in trouble.

Boys herding sheep on the edge of town. Photo: Alex Washburn

Boys herding sheep on the edge of town. Photo: Alex Washburn

After a few days of puttering around Huamantla and visiting my Grandmother’s grave we finally had to leave yesterday morning and push onward (to Oaxaca). In true Mexican fashion we had a contingent of people saying goodbye to us at 7:30 in the morning and a car carrying my Mom, Cesar, Uncle Andres and other cousin Mavy drove with us for the first 10 miles and said goodbye to us on the edge of the carretera.

Although we did a lot of family stuff I was really glad Nathaniel got to experience Huamantla and meet all the people he’s heard me talk so much about. It was fun yet exhausting and now we are looking forward to some low key adventures surrounding day of the dead.

For all you motorcyclists out there – the drive from Puebla to Oaxaca city is about 5 hours long and the last 2-3 hours are gorgeous well paved and wide mountain roads.

***Note: Nathaniel would like me to add a footnote that he does not agree with me using the photo of the pig slaughter in this post and he is afraid of it offending our viewership.

Bye Bye Baja

Eva and Rick are the lovely people who own Baja Backpackers in La Paz Mexico. Because of the problems with our paperwork we ended up staying at their hostel for over a week and Alex created a new web site for their business.

Eva and Rick are the lovely people who own Baja Backpackers in La Paz Mexico. Because of the problems with our paperwork we ended up staying at their hostel for over a week and Alex created a new web site for their business. Photo: Alex Washburn

After a week of being in a holding pattern in La Paz, Alex received her documents in the mail via DHL (thank you Val!) and by Wednesday we had everything we needed to board the ferry on Thursday.  We got up early, did a little maintenance on Alex’s bike (which involved taking the gas tank completely off), packed all of the gear (which took longer due to a week of rust) and headed off to Pichilingue to get our importation documents for the motorcycles and board the ferry.

Several hours later, we boarded the ferry without any problems (it’s amazing how fast bureaucracy works when you have all the right paperwork!). Waiting to board the ferry, a fellow motorcyclist pulled up and helped us while away the time with good conversation.  Jim was riding a BMW down from Seattle to his second home in Mazatlan.  He had great stories of family, and his own adventures riding through Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.

After securing the bikes on the ferry (which consisted of tying them down with rope) we headed to our seats, which were pretty comfortable and proceeded to watch some movies and sleep for the next 16 hours. Untied the bikes, and disembarked in Mazatlan without any instances, though while on board Alex had determined that we were going to have to ride 700 miles in two days to reach her family in Huamantla.

The first day we left Mazatlan at 11am and rode all day aside from a gas stop, and two tip overs, one by me and the other by Alex, into a car (count is 4-2 with two dinged cars), until dusk to reach Guadalajara setting a new one day record of 300 miles. The country between Mazatlan and Guadalajara is some of the best I have seen, and one name I thought of for this post was going to be ‘The Road of Butterflies’ as there were sections of road with hundreds of butterflies on either side (and sometimes in the middle).

We pulled into a nice looking hotel in Guadalajara and intended to check into it until Alex saw a more "cost efficient" business across the street.  The room was about $24 USD but it had hot water and was clean. Photo: Alex Washburn

We pulled into a nice looking hotel in Guadalajara and intended to check into it until Alex saw a more “cost efficient” business across the street. The room was about $24 USD but it had hot water and was clean. Photo: Alex Washburn

Less than 12-hours later it was back on the bikes as ‘Alex the whip’ drove us on to Huamantla. From Guadalajara to Huamantla was going to be over 400 miles, my reaction the night before was:

“I don’t think we can do it, but fuck let’s give it a shot.”

We left just after sunrise and made it to Santiago de Querétaro by 2:30pm with only one stop for gas and food in between. That is when the things got really tough.

What some that haven’t rode a motorcycle or haven’t gone long distances don’t understand is that there is a slow deterioration of the feeling in one’s gluteus maximus as the day goes on. In the morning you’re fine, smelling fresh flowers and grass, listening to the roar of the engine and the wind past your helmet, meditating in your own world as the country passes you by. But as the day goes on you begin to loose feeling in your posterior, the smell of flowers is replaced by truck fumes, and the wind becomes a relentless howling echoed only by the constant drone of the hell-beast that is your horse trampling down any resemblance of a thought in your head.

At 4:00pm we stopped for gas (again), with rain clouds on the horizon of Mexico City D.F. my spirits were low, reflected in the idling of my engine, that had lowered as well, due to the altitude we had climbed that day. Alex insisted we could make it, and I had to channel a new inner level of zen to sally forth past the thoughts of doubt that continued to haunt me during the ride.

Our route from Mazatlan to Huamantla

Our route from Mazatlan to Huamantla

A few minutes later, we were back on the road, that fortuitously turned to the east, bypassing most of the clouds (and rain) and took us on a route to Huamantla skirting Mexico City (which everyone under the sun told us to avoid driving in as it is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere).

A couple of drops of rain, some heavy wind, and another 100 miles brought us to the doorstep of Alex’s house in Mexico, in a little town named Huamantla that sits in the shadow of a mountain called ‘La Malinche’. A new record setting day of 432 miles came to an end with empty stomachs (and gas tanks) and sore bottoms. It was all made worth it when we were welcomed by family, given a hot meal, and a warm bed to collapse into.

You always reach your destination, even if it wasn’t where you planned.