Thursday, March 20, 2014

Highways and dirt roads

Highways are boring. Long stretches of perfectly formed asphalt that take you through a landscape with the same feeling of adventure as sitting in the train. The views are usually about as interesting as watching TV while the only excitement of the day comes in the form of toilet stops. It just doesn't do it for me. It feels like a weird kind of virtual reality. So why was I riding on a highway past Mexico City?

Simply put, to make up some time. If we wanted to finish this trip to Argentina before my pension check arrived, then we'd better start moving. We had enjoyed our time in Mexico more than I could have possibly imagined, which is part of the reason why we had stayed so long. Another reason for the sudden rush was that both Jeanette and Mike's birthdays were coming up and the aim was to have them in Palenque. There was some reason in the madness, but after another 300 km on Mexico's Autopistas, I had well and truly had enough of them. Not as boring as the German Autobahn perhaps but still sleep inducing.

The only relief came from the many potholes and roadworks, ridiculously overloaded trucks and trying to dodge falling cargo. For the pleasure they also want payment and lots of it. Mexican Autopistas are expensive and, on this side of Mexico city, poorly maintained. The only point of interest was the descent from the central plateau, which came with a dramatic change in scenery. A much needed change in order to keep me awake.

When we finally left the highway and turned onto the local roads, we finally saw the Mexico we like so much once again. Dodging holes in the roads, stumbling over topes and avoiding dogs was so much more real than mind numbing humming along over an asphalt ribbon. To keep my brain awake I started wondering why, with all the stray dogs in Mexico, Hot Dogs are actually an American invention.
The last two hours of the day were the best of them all. We had started early, wasted time and money on a breakfast that was supposed to be healthy but turned out to be somewhat out of date (unless they grow lettuce and tomatoes that are black in this part of Mexico) and then plunged into the traffic chaos of Puebla, trying to get out of it.

For some reason we saw more stranded trucks by the side of the road today than in the 4 months before. Over the past months we've seen that here isn't much that can't be replaced by the side of the road in Mexico, they are a resourceful lot here, but seeing a truck differential being rebuild on the emergency lane was new for me too. Lots of stranded cars as well. One that caught my eye was an old VW Beetle, the air-cooled variety. I didn't know they actually do break down, as it turned out it hadn't, the bumper had just fallen off… 
Leaving Puebla with all it's industry and relative wealth behind, we found ourselves riding past farmers that still work with horses and donkeys to make a living. We've all heard about the generation gap but here it's a money gap. On the asphalt ribbon are the rich zooming past in expensive cars, next to it are people who can't afford the most basic one. Whole families work in the fields using the same tools and methods as their great-great grandfathers were using. Trying to make a living the hard way. I looked at the friendly faces and wondered what they would be thinking of us… 

As if the toll wasn't expensive enough, Jeanette noticed that they systematically tried to short change us. Maybe it's their way of making a couple of extra pesos, especially from what they think are a bunch of gringos. Jeanette is sharp enough though and didn't give in, even with armed guards next to her she kept adamant that they didn't gave her the required change!

What followed after the toll roads was 70 km that took almost 2 hrs. A beautiful road in terrible condition that wound it's way through beautiful Mexican villages like you can see in the picture books.
The 3 campgrounds that were supposed to be around the lake were all closed, the result of the US scare campaign against Mexico. The one we found open is struggling. It used to be a resort style RV park but the diminished income can't cover the most basic maintenance anymore. Still, they are nice people and it's a good place to stay for a mere 150 pesos for 3.

What we didn't know is that Catamaco is a witch-town…! Not the witches that put on a show for the tourist but the real ones. They had a kind of meeting while we were there too. Hmmm. It had been a long and tiring day and we basically just wanted to go to sleep, so when the campground owner told us the whole thing was tomorrow night as well we decided to have a look tomorrow. A couple of semi-hippies in a VW van went to the meeting and thought it was kind of interesting… until they started to do real offerings! According to the campground owner the town had been trying for years to make some sort of festival out of it for tourists but the witches don't want to have anything to do with that. The witches apparently don't have the witchcraft to settle the issue once and for all.

After Catamaco we had one more highway to take, to Villahermosa, where Mike celebrated his 18th birthday (see the post 'Sweet Eighteen') and rode on to Palenque, as you can see in the movie below.