Saturday, May 20, 2006


The road down from the pass was equally twisting. As I braked, I had to remind myself to sit back and not put all my weight on my hands or my fingers cramped. The valley into which I descended was dry and dusty, the trees scrappy and the greens less full of bounce.
The road signs are immaculate and the black curves must be hand painted on the yellow background. Each sign is an attempt to portray the road ahead. Common is a broad squiggle rising to a strong arrowhead. There is the tight bend and the right angle bend and sometimes a double rightangle. Most serious is the written warning of a dangerous curve - a curve tighter than right angle, that turns back on its self. The Boys on the Bikes would have a ball!
I stop midway down at a cafe opposit a school and drink fresh orange juice and chat with the owners. They have a son in the USA. The road rises agin over the next, but lower, pass.
Finally I arive in Oaxaca. I have ridden 230 Ks. Apart from the first short stretch and the immediate approach to the city. I have encountered no more that two straight stretches of road of even two hundred metres.
My intendeded hotel has disapeared since the publication of my guidebook. I find another, shower and find a shoemaker to replace the leather soles on my only shoes. I sit in the shop and chat to the woman owner for an hour and a half. I then stroll in reshod splendour to the Zocaro (central square in front of the cathedral). On the way I spot the Hotel Central on Independencia, posessor of a charming patio, and book a room for the following night: $18.50. A the zocaro, I sit at a cafe table, order a cold beer and chat to my neighbors at the next table. Rain spatters the square and I delay leaving. The rain only strengthens. Suddenly very tired, I walk the few blocks in the rain to my hotel. It isn´t there. The stores are closing. Everything looks different in the light of the few street lamps. I walk and circle and retrace my steps and begin again. The rain has become a torrent. I can´t see thru my spectacles. My feet hurt. Everything hurts. I spot, thru and open doorway, an obvious foreigner, a blond young woman, at a computer doing her mail. I circle the block once more, the rain ever heavier. I return to the young woman, an American, explain my predicament (that I can´t find my hotel and don´t recall its name) and ask if she had a guidebook. She had the Lonely Planet. My hotel isn´t listed. I try one last time to find it, then return to the Hotel Central and take a second room.

Looking back, I guess I was simply tired and a little confused. I found the hotel immediately in the morning. It was where I knew it was. Hence my decision to take an entire day off and do little other than leave the bike at the local Honda agent for its first service...


Cortes first saw what is now Mexico city from the head of a mountain pass at 3,000 metres. Ahead of me lies a pass of 2,900 metres. Cortes road a horse. I ride a 125 cc bike. Cortes was the boss and could commandier a fresh horse from his companions. I can´t change bikes. Cortes went on to conquer Mexico. Reach the top and I will have conquered much of my fear of this trip and may go on to reach Tierra del Fuego. This is not so grand an ambition but I am not a great man. I am merely a writer of novels of medium repute.
Tuxtepec is 30 metres above sea level. I leave at 6 a.m. The first 60 Ks is over rolling hills of sugar cane and follows a river. The mountains ahead are hidden in cloud and the valley closes in. I top up the gas tank at Petromex and put on a long sleeve shirt.
Up, Up, Up. The road is carved out of the steep mountainside. Rainforest blankets the almost vertical mountain face. The road twist and turns and twists, some bends turning back on themselves. UP, the sun hidden behind cloud and mountain, up into chill mountain air and I stop again, putting on a thermal vest and second sports shirt beneath the long sleeved shirt.
UP. The climb is endless. I overtake a bus. I pass an abandoned pick-up truck. I am in second gear, sometimes in first. Fear for the bike is paramount, for the engine. UP.
I have a pain in the right side of my chest that could be a muscle twinge. It could be my heart. I am scared that I won´t make it. I think that it is extreemly foolish of an old Brit to be on a tiny bike on a Mexican mountain pass. I take deep chill drags into my lungs, testing the air for oxygen. My fingers are numb (cold or tension?). I stop and wave my arms around to restore the circulation and put on a third sports shirt. I can see, thru a gap in the undergrowth, the clouds way below. I take photographs. I mount the bike again and turn down hill and freewheel to start the engine. UP.
First a lone pine appears amonst the broad leaf canopy. A further five kilomtres and the pines have the victory, the road twisting up through an open forest carpeted with small feathery ferns. I catch futher glimpses of cloud below. Previously I have only looked down on cloud from an aeroplane. The cramp in my left side is fractionly more intense - or is this pain the product of a fiction writer´s over-vivid immagination?
UP. The sun hits the pines and I inhale the familiar tar scent of childhood Scottish summers. The trees thin. The summit must be close. The road follows a ridge and I see down to my left for the first time on the climb. I stop in the sun to take a photograph. The bus that I had overtaken earlier creeps by and stops. The driver and another man jump down to ask if I need help.
I want to ask how far it is to the top. Instead, I play British and say that I am just fine.
Up the last few hundred metres, then over the brow and stop at a cafe on the right side of the road. My legs shake as I dismount. The driver and few passengers from the bus gather round. One of them asks, "Hey, grandfather, how old are you?"
I tell him and another asks where I am going.
"Argentina," I say. "Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego..." For the first time, I truly believe that I can make it.
The woman of the cafe brings me a coffee and I sit with my back to the wall and absorb the sun while the bus passengers ask questions as to my true intention and where I come from and what does my wife think of my travels and how many children do I have and what do my children think.
I answer with what has become my standard reply: "What should I do with the last years of my life? Sit in front of the TV?"
"No," They all agree. "It is a good thing to travel, to meet different people."
In the background I hear the woman of the cafe shouting at her daughter to check the hens for fresh eggs. I eat the eggs scrambled with chorizo, a side serving of refried beans and warm tortillas. The fresh orange juice is perfect. The coffee is the usual disaster. For once I don´t give a damn. I have climbed 2,900 metres. The sun is warm. Ahead lies that queen of Mexican cities, Oaxaca. Beyond lies country after country, pathways to the romance of exploration and experience...



I am sitting in an internet cafe without the coffee and a connection that takes forever. In San Andres Tuxlas I spent an hour trying to get photographs thru to Blogger. No hope. Oaxaca is as bad. And the mice have a habit of sticking. I took yesterday as a rest day so have a great deal to write. Let me start with Wednesday, May 17.
Up at 6 a.m. and rode south over beautiful green hills to a magnificent lake set against a backdrop of mountains. The Medicine Man with Shaun Connery was filmed in the nearby eco-reserve. I ate breakfast amongst old friends of the flower and bird kingdom on a lake-side terrace. Bourganvilla shaded the terrace, orchids and bromiliads, eagrets, herons, cormorants, and a bad tempered road runner up a palm tree. One bird insistently called weeah weeah weeah; another, peepee peepee, while a third imitated a cat´s meow! Men were diving from their row boats for tegogolos (a type of crab?). Sun breaking over the water, distant mountains smoky blue, cool breeze off the water, bliss! Except for the coffee - watery wishwash.

Rode back thru San Andres to San Salvador Tuxlas. Charming and very clean small town of low, single story buildings set on a river. Central to the town square is the largest stone Olmac head yet discovered. The head sits in a small temple. The sculpture depicts a deeply depressed gentleman - probably having received his tax bill in the morning post. I will post a photograph once I find a connection with sufficient speed. The museum on the square houses some superb ceramics. Charming curator said, "The English invented football."
"No," I replied, "We invented rules."
A horseman with a bridle and sadle of true Mexican finery rode by as I kicked the bike alive. Gorgeous horse. In fact saw nothing but fat horses for the next fifty miles, the road following the river thru rolling hills, farms changing from predominantly grass paddock to big fields of pineapple. Hitting Federal highway 175, I turned north to Tuxtepeca, convoys of big trailer trucks thundering pass but all giving me plenty of space. The country drier, fields of pineapple, clumps of big trees. I stopped at a fruit juice stand run by a plump, goodlooking single woman in her early thirties. The whole pineapple went into a press operated by a five-foot long length of pipe on which she put all her weight. I drank juice to the Beattles (Lucy in the sky with Diamonds) while the woman related her dream of living in Canada and marriage to a different type of man: "Mexican men are too machisto." Departed to Yellow Submarine and reached Tuxtepec at 4 p.m., modern agro-industrial city of no great interest. However I found a good folding knife for $5, a spoon and a small plastic bowl to cut my own fruit salad. Enormous grapes, a mango, crisp apple. I have completed 470 kilometres since Veracruz on 13 litres of gas, or roughly 100 miles to the British gallon. More important is the freedom of being on a bike, taking what ever road I wish, stopping where I want and for as long as I want. Tomorrow is the biggy...

Friday, May 19, 2006


San Andres is mostly modern and OK, though not worth a detour. I found a hotel that could have had charm with a minimum of thought. Kind if someone had offered to help lug my bags up. The plus was a beard trim at a unisex barber. A woman was in the chair: her friend, also a woman, shared a sofa with two men. One of the men was giving advice to the other on collecting a debt.
"Go when you know he's not there. His mother-in-law is always home. Give her the impression that what ever is between you and her son-in-law is a secret. Say you'll come back the following evening. She'll have a whole night to get out of him what you want. You know what she's like, a real demon. She'll make life hellish for him. He'll be happy to pay."
This same man, small, dark, enthused on the subject of Veracruz cuisine, me in the chair, he listing dishes, his friend and the barber discussing each dish's merits. Great, except that San Andres restaurants close by 7 p.m. We ate at an open front booth run by a very plump grandma, four plastic tables with chairs, walls and floor tiled in white, three gas burners, a fridge. We ate sopa de mariscos and it was as good a soup as I've eaten: prawns, shrimp, octopus, crab, and spicy.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


As a departure gift, I treated myself to an early breakfast at the swish aircon cafe frequented by the business elite. A tall man entered, early fifties, perfectly groomed, an all encompassing smile of good will to all men. He was a pleasure to watch as he circled the cafe, a soft squeze of the shoulders for those he knew, a word here, a word there, each gilded with such absolute sincerity. I have seen Blair perform in exactly that way - though Blair has never managed to appear elegant nor, even, decently dressed. It is the way Blair walks, elbows out. Bush has the same walk. You know? Hey, I'm a real man's man.
I imagined, watching this gentleman in the cafe, that his sincerity would lose its grip and slide down his perfectly creased trousers to form a little puddle round his immaculately polished shoes.
Mexican elections are on June 2. A truck with a speaker sytem drew up alongside me at a traffic light on the way out of town. The speakers were blaring a chant of Vote for Vote for Vote for to a sell-soap-powder jingle. A poster on the side of the truck showed the candidate: the gentleman in the cafe. Nice to be right...

Judged by the speed they drive, drivers of short hall buses are either paid by the kilometre or are holidaying race drivers.

Picked up warranty and stuff at Honda and headed South. Why South? Because I hope to reach Tierra del Fuego which is South - and after all the discussions I've had with Mexicans over the past few days, South was sensible. A man I was talking with late yesterday analysed my situation: At seventy-three, it is not sensible to be riding in the oposite direction to your destination. As Anya's mother pointed out while I was in New York. Yes, well...

The road runs along the coast. A blustery wind off the sea made riding a light bike interesting. The engine has settled or I am more confident: we cruised at 80 kph on the flat. My hands were loose, no cramps. The only suffering was a numb bum. At first the road ran across flat ranch land: cowboys pushing cattle into a compound. Further south the road runs over what were the dividing dunes between sea and a vast lagoon but are now grass covered. I was following a truck up a blind hill marked with double yellow lines when a white Chevy Surbuban hurtled past. Federales waved us down on the next down-slope. The wind had tipped a lorry piled high with sugarcane. The truck was sprawled three-quaters of the way across the road. The Suburban's driver may have needed to change his pants. Good...

The road climbs into the hills of Los Tuxtlas. Guide book refers to them as the Switzerland of Mexico. Why? Because the hills are steep and green? The only similarities - and that fat cows graze the paddocks. Here the trees are far more beautiful. I reached San Andres at 2:30 p.m., the best part of two hundred Ks for my first day is enough. The luggage system works. I dumped some clothes with the cleaner at the hotel. What I have left should do me a while...

Monday, May 15, 2006


Watched a charming program of 1930s dancing in the Plaza. Happy people back from the beach in shorts and short skirts. Then attended a sung mass at the cathedral, full with a mixture of the sedate and holidaymakers - many young and much the same number of men as women. Lit by chandeliers, the cathedral was beautiful and the faces of Communicants is the same world wide.
Had a long conversation with two businessmen and a recent Cuban emigre whose dream was to be reborn English, German - or American as a third choice. One of the Mexicans, small, intense, and with a habit of leaning into you when he talks, brought up the Falklands/Malvinas war. How could I defend Britain's Colonial seizure of Argentine territory the far side of the world? To which I could only answer by asking how he could defend permitting a bunch of particularly unpleasant Fascist Generals a military success that would have kept them in power a further ten years. Would that have been preferable for Argentinians?
The Cuban was vague as to the location of the Malvinas. He gave as his reasons for wishing to live in England or Germany: that he wanted to live somewhere where everyone is white-skinned, has blue eyes and blond hair. Imagine his surprise!!!
The second Mexican preferred discussing food. So do I. I have no wish to be the spokesman for British foreign policy. The Iraq war is universally unpopular here. Oil isbelieved to be the reason for the war. Britain is believed to do what the Americans tell us to do (in return, the US helps us in Big Brother/Little Brother fashion - the Falklands).


Up early. No problem starting bike. Rode out to Honda/Diez and collected stuff I had left on Saturday. Gave the suitcase to the mechanic who expressed delight. I had been directed the previous evening to an area of metal craftsman. Turned out to be an alley, difficult to find, twenty or so small, open-fronted workshops. Half an hour of drawings and consultations ended with my getting exactly what I wanted: a plate each side of the rear mudgaurd to keep bags out of the wheel - cost $25 plus two bags and a light backback at a further $32. Any solution from a bike shop would have cost double, so well pleased. The word spread in the alley of my trip and we ended with a dozen onlookers all voicing opinions of the work and the trip and why I shoudn't or should take a particular road. I shall miss the unfailing frindliness of the Veracruz people...and the food!!!

Sunday, May 14, 2006


The Toad is mobile. As with all bikes, there is a knack to starting them first thing in the morning. I failed, only to be helped by a young guy down from the capital who has the same bike back home. I headed out of the city on the freeway, easy, confident. Then spotted, at the last moment, a metre square hole two feet deep right ahead. The hole would have done for me. The secret is never to drive in the inside lane - if forced to do so, ride with extreem care and attention. The freeway took me out thru a rolling countryside of paddocks and clumps of big trees - reminiscent of the fincas inland from the Rio Dulce on the road to Morales, though not so tidily farmed. I took the turn off to Antigua - where Cortes originally sited Veracruz a couple of miles up river. This is a toll road and bikes and cars pay the same charge. $3.50!!! Seems exhorbitant for twenty kilometres. I must concentrate on keeping my hands loose on the controls and regualrly exercise my fingers as both hand were cramping by the time I reached the village. Antigua is cobbled streets tall trees, a few ruins, a few houses that look destined for ruin, the rest best described as scruffy. The ruin of Cortes' house has roots growing over the walls and an unlikely canon posted at the corner. The church is charming from the outside, and central to the community with its entrance opening to a plaza with swings and slides for the children. The inside is wrecked by some seriously gruesom saints. One laid out on his back in a glass case would give a normal kid nightmares for a year. AND THE FLOWERS WERE PLASTIC within spitting distance of flamboyant tree and frangapani.
Launches were taking Sunday trippers down the river(a hundred yards wide, slow moving brown water). I watched a fisherman land his catch and followed him to a restaurant. The kitchen was indoors one side of a dirt road, chairs and tables aranged on a concrete floor under an thatch roof on the river front. I was mobile and celebrated with a shrimp cocktail and one of the fisherman´s fish fried in a wafer thin crisp cornflower batter and covered in a green chile sauce (a la Antigua). Add two large glasses of frsh orange juice and this was most expensive meal yet: $10. A three piece marimba band set up: two men playing and an 11 year old on drums. One musician might have been a minor official in real life, blue shirt, pressed jeans, specatacles. The other had a girth problem valiantly covered by a flowered shirt. Americans get fat all over. Mexicans appear to restrict their fat to the belly. Why?
I am watching them as I write. The kid has a Tin Tin quif and seems embarassed at being here - replacement for an uncle who got drunkl last night? The belly musician is a latent anarchist. Every few tunes he make a run for it, breaking out of the routine dadedaddada with a fast riff and intricate flourishes, only to surrender to the reality of a hot midday Sunday on a river bank with an audience of six only one of whom is listening - me.
The musicians join my table inbetween sets and I discover that the gourd thee kid scratches and taps is called a guiro. Mostly I sit and finish a book Anya gave me, a wonderful first novel by a Mexican writer. I feel on familiar territory. I recognise the trees and the humidity and the scents and the people taking their time at doing whatever they are doing. I´ve never enjoyed cities much . London, we lived out in Kew which is a village in atmosphere. Cuba, we lived fifteen kilometres out from Central Havana in Santa Fe. And our home in England is the perfect village setting, garden backing on to two cricket fields with not a house in sight beyond.
So I rode back reluctantly to Veracruz. Keepeing my fingers loose worked - no cramps. 60 to 70 kph is a comfortable cruising speed. I will need to stop every three-quaters of an hour. I can't see riding much more than 200 Ks in a day. Maybe 250. How far is Tierra del Fuego?
Had a long talk this evening with a Mexican in his late forties. Owner of a big luggage store, he had visited Europe a few times and was amused at the envy for other people´s lives that made so many Northen Europeans move to the Mediteranean countries. He loathes the term Latin America, preferring Hiberican America. His jaundiced view of the US was typical of most Mexicans to whom I have talked so far.
I quoted Don to him: "Everyone is trying to get here..."
"No one with any choice," the Mexican shot back. As to his own people, "Everyone of us is a mixture: Indian, Black, Spanish. We are all meztisos."