As I move farther and farther south, the land gets greener and thicker and more overgrown every day. In some places it still looks like south Texas, and at other times, it looks like Hawaii.
After two days of mostly surprisingly good pavement, I got a variety. Smooth-as-ice asphalt, good chip seal, bad chip seal, sporadic cracks, potholes too numerous to avoid, and occasional loss of pavement. This is more like what I expected from Central America. I'm only on a state highway, and I'll be spending the majority of my time on federal highways, so I suppose I can typically expect it to be good!
On top of that, I've seen a lot of construction crews. Looks like even though the highway is sometimes in bad shape, it's getting better.
One particular construction crew did more than just wave, their reaction made me think they were about to burst into applause. For whatever reason, I stopped to talk to them. One of them spoke good English, but I steered us to Spanish anyway. I could use the practice.
He told me I should be careful.
"It's not safe here?"
"This road is bad."
"You believe it's dangerous?"
"Yes. There is a lot of construction!"
I managed to stifle a laugh and explained that construction was the least of my worries. I told him I was more concerned about banditos.
"Oh, you should not be nervous. They wouldn't bother you."
That sounds like good news to me!
Before I left, he gave me a cold Coke. Perfect on a hot day!
I stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom, and for whatever reason, there were at least 20 fully armed policemen there, bulletproof vests and assault rifles. When I came out and walked back to Valeria, eight of them were looking at her.
Once I explained what I was doing, they asked where I was going today and where I was staying tonight. When I told them I was going to Aldama and didn't know where I was staying, they told me I should visit the police station and gave me directions. Then they told me they themselves would be there this afternoon. Maybe they meant for me to stay there? That could work!
I arrived at the police station about three hours later, having been passed by four trucks full of police officers. None of them were there. There were two people inside working at desks. I explained my situation and they guided me to a safe hotel in town. A/C and WiFi, two things you don't always get in Mexico, and still pretty cheap. Even so, I can't do this ALL the time. A little farther south and WarmShowers hosts kick in again. Can't wait!
When I got to Tampico, it didn't take long before I decided to keep going. Somehow I managed to forget how much I hate riding through big cities, and how I don't care for them in general. Too many people, too expensive, and LOUD. I know a lot of people live in such places, many by choice, but I don't understand why. I’m still searching for even one redeeming factor of such a lifestyle.
I have a lot of the same questions about having kids.
Tampico was worse than normal, because of one factor: horns. Mexico is a culture where honking the horn is not just for emergencies, it's for, well, everything. It's for near-accidents, for cautiously announcing your presence, to express own anger, and it's also used to say hello. I don't mind so much out on the rural highway; every ten minutes or so, someone honks a horn, sometimes just to get my attention and wave. A small annoyance, but no big deal. In Tampico, by the time one horn ended, another began. There were no gaps. For about two hours, I listened to nothing but rumbling engines and car horns.
I'm curious what the difference in culture is, what gives people the mindset that this is acceptable or normal behavior. I guess you see (or hear) everyone else doing it, so you think it's normal. But people don't consider it impolite? Rude? Annoying? Just too damn LOUD?
Some people used their car alarms in place of a horn. Wow.
The hotels in Tampico cost three times what I had been paying, and I'd probably have to listen to traffic and horns all night. No thanks. I pedaled through a city not unsimilar from San Francisco - overpriced, overcrowded, another stoplight every 50 meters - and breathed a sigh of relief when I crossed the bridge that took me out of town.
Knowing there wasn't another city for several kilometers south, I decided I'd ask around about a safe hotel next chance I got. It came almost immediately: I found a group of police officers at a checkpoint on the other side of the bridge. One of them directed me to a small village where he said there was a good hotel. It was off the highway by a couple kilometers and I thought there would probably be a small hotel on the highway if I kept going, but it's better to go with a sure thing.
It wound up being the most expensive hotel I've stayed at in Mexico (about $40), but also the nicest. It even had a pool and a restaurant! I hadn't eaten out or had a beer yet to celebrate my arrival in Mexico, and now that I was out of the more dangerous area, I thought it was time.
After a dinner at the hotel, I walked across the street to a bar that was playing music loud enough that I could hear it just as well in my hotel room. Figured if I’m going to be forced to listen to the music, I might as well try and enjoy it! I wound up meeting an English speaker there, Jorge, who used to be an award-winning chef in North Carolina. Family reasons had moved him back to Mexico, and he now has a cafe here in town. He bought a couple beers and invited me to breakfast the next morning.
Eager to try Jorge's breakfast, I got up at my normal early hour despite staying up a little late. I found Jorge's cafe. It was closed. A guy sitting on a bench in the plaza told me it opens at 7:00 AM, more or less. It was 6:45. I could wait.
I wound up sitting next to this guy on the bench, Francisco, and talked with him for over an hour. He later would tell me that Jorge's cafe opens between 7:00 and 8:00, and still later, 8:00, more or less.
Francisco told me about the town, where I could get good tortas, where I could get good fruit. He told me how he makes shrimp empanadas every day. He told me all the places he thought were better than Jorge's.
"It's shit," he said bluntly. "Over there, it is more rich," pointing to his favorite taco stand.
For whatever reason, I stayed loyal to Jorge's and waited it out. He arrived around 8:30 AM and began opening shop.
"I could make you empanadas if you want," said Francisco. "At my house, i make them for you."
"Your food is better than Jorge's?" He gave me a solid Are you kidding me look and nodded. "In some minutes? I want to talk to Jorge first."
"It is good. Ask for 'Chino.' Ask for Francisco and no one knows, but Chino, everyone knows. And look for my bicycle out front."
He hopped on his bicycle, complete with upside-down drop bars, and rode off. I went to Jorge's.
Jorge and his daughter were still getting a few things going, cutting the meat and firing up the stove. Jorge told me how his favorite type of food is barbecue, dry rub only. He has a dream of moving to Alaska or Canada and opening the first place to serve barbecue moose made in the Mexican style of barbecue. I for one would love to try that. And he certainly wouldn't have much competition!
Jorge whipped up a barbacoa sandwich with pico de gallo, avocado, and a homemade sauce. Honest to goodness, best thing I've eaten in weeks, despite Francisco's candid review. Jorge sent me off with strawberry soda and a plastic bottle of caña, homemade liquor. I think it may make a good bribe if I ever get mugged on the highway.
Never one to turn down free food, I went to Francisco's as well. He explained his normal day: wake up at 4:00 AM, go run an errand when the market opens, cook empanadas. By 10:00 AM, his day is done. He listens to classical music the rest of the day and relaxes.
"Every day, every day, make shrimp empanadas, listen to music. I am lazy and I don't want to work any more. It is not a rich life, but a good life. I am tranquil."
I can't disagree.
"Do you sell empanadas?"
"Oh yes, five to seven a day. For ten pesos (about one dollar)."
"It is enough?"
"It is enough."
He offered me all the empanadas I wanted. I had three. They were tasty and simple, basically great street food. If you don't have complex tastes, I can see how you wouldn't appreciate Jorge's masterpiece. These were also good, in the way "Louie Louie" is a good song.
After I had my fill, Francisco wanted me to have more. He put three empanadas in a plastic bag and sent me on my way, announcing that his house is for everyone. Mexicans have hearts of gold.
Just before I arrived in Naranjos, a family waved me over to where they were sitting outside their house. It looked like it could be a condemned building. I asked about a place to stay in Naranjos, and they told me to go to a church. Before I left, they gave me some clean water.
I had been thinking about pressing on to Cerro Azul instead, only another 23 km. But when I know there is a good place to stay, I try to go with a sure thing. Naranjos it is.
Entering Naranjos, there were a ton of signs for the church, or otherwise with some kind of religious message. This church must be large or famous, or at least culturally important or influential.
When I went to the church, the Padre wasn't there. Another priest, with difficulty, explained that he would be here later and I could talk to him then. It was Sunday. They probably had an evening mass. I decided to sit and wait in the sanctuary.
A young man named Rafael, about my age, started talking to me. Gradually, he was able to slow down to my level of Spanish and we could understand each other. He mostly wanted to talk about the Catholic church, which meant I didn't understand a lot of the vocabulary he was using. There wasn't a chapter about religion in the high school textbook I skimmed.
During our conversation, a homeless man walked into the church and approached us.
"Do you have money?" Rafael shook his head. I answered,
"I don't have money, but I have food and clean water."
"No, I need money."
"One more time, I don't have cash, but I have food and water, if you need." I pulled out the bag of Francisco's three shrimp empanadas. "Do you want an empanada?"
He hesitated, staring for a few seconds. Without a word, he took the entire bag and walked out of the church. I wanted at least one for dinner, but oh well. He probably needed it more than me, and I already had some for breakfast.
"He wanted money for cerveza," said Rafael. Yeah, I know.
After at least an hour, he took me into a Bible study class in another room in the church. I understood it even less, if I understood anything at all. At the end, Rafael had me stand up and tell the class what I was doing. Immediately, the subject turned to whether I was Catholic or not. I did my best to explain that I wasn't, but that I think our differences are small, and the important things are the same. Most people seemed to react positively to that.
One woman continued,
"Where is your family from?"
"Most of my family lives in Texas and California."
"There are Catholics there. What church is your family?"
When I said more than one, no one liked that.
"You are wanting to be Catholic?"
"No, I am wanting to learn from everyone and everything. From the whole world as I travel. I have questions and I want to not have questions."
That got a reaction, and not a good one. People took turns giving their two cents. I couldn't understand everything, but I'm pretty sure I heard "false prophet" more than once. I don't think they were calling me that, but warning me about them. What I noticed more than anything was that Catholicism was being referred to as "our religion."
The priest leading the class cut in and said something quickly, and everyone started smiling and clapping. I guess he said something positive. At least I was well-received in the end.
After class, mass was about to start, and the Padre had arrived at long last. I had been at the church for over three hours now. Rafael went to talk to him on my behalf. I thought that was a good idea; Rafael had been in my corner this whole time and could probably communicate better than me.
A couple minutes later, Rafael came back and told me I couldn’t stay here.
"Because I am not Catholic?"
"What do I do now?"
"Go." He waved as if to follow him and started walking.
"You don't want to go to church?"
"It is more important that I do what God wants me to do."
Years ago, my parents paid me a visit while I was in college. For lunch one day, we walked from my apartment to a cafe about a block away, then walked back afterwards. I was carrying leftovers that would be my lunch tomorrow.
A homeless-by-choice young man (at UT, we called these "drag rats") called out, "Hey, could you give me some food?" While I can appreciate asking specifically for only what you need, at the time, I lived almost exclusively on PBJs, oatmeal, and rice and beans. I only ate a "real" meal when my parents came to visit, and having microwaved leftovers tomorrow was still going to be my second-best meal of the semester. So I kept it. The drag rat muttered something; I didn’t catch it.
Only about five seconds later, I dropped my to-go box. The drag rat started laughing,
"That's what you get, asshole!"
Why do I relate this story? I hope I'm not becoming that guy. I'm doing this by choice and asking for help frequently. But I hope I never expect it. And when people say no, I hope I accept that with grace.
Rafael led me to a cheap hotel, explaining that he thinks if I am looking for answers and Catholics shut me out, then it is impossible that my answer would be Catholicism. On the way, we ran into the family that had directed me to the church in the first place. They had hitched a ride into town to buy tomatoes. Rafael said something to them and they looked shocked. They gave me five pesos (about 45 cents) and half a Coke. Aside from the tomatoes they had just bought, it may have been all they had.
The hotel didn't have WiFi or air conditioning, but had a powerful fan and the first genuinely hot shower I’ve had in Mexico. Not that cool showers are so bad when it's hot and humid all day...and all night.