Cycling in Mexico

by Sam Hawkes


I was once employed as the cook at a bed and breakfast in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was owned and operated by my energetic sister-in- law, Linda, who was an avid cyclist. One Sunday, without guests, we made plans  to go on a forty mile ride from Oaxaca to Ocotlan over a highly trafficked main road connecting the two cities.

I had a simple goal to take some pictures of a family owned Mezcal operation. Ocotlan was a twenty-mile ride and one well worth making as the market there was a true Mexican sight to behold. I had no idea what the route would be but Linda was an old hand cycling in Mexico, and I figured I’d just follow her.

Linda didn’t devote the same attention to adverse consequences as I did, perhaps due to my training as an engineer exploring all possible scenarios in order to gauge the success of a project. Linda focused on the goal and dealt with problems as they arose.  She often rolled her eyes and castigated me by saying, “The problem with you is you worry too much,” when I tried to bring up disturbing "what-if" scenarios. So I went with the flow knowing it was Linda’s show and wondering where I would eventually end up. I was eager to photograph a Mezcal operation and I was sure, with her vast knowledge of local lore, she would be able to lead me to one. 

I used to be the stronger rider, but Linda’s hours at the gym had given her an advantage I no longer possessed. I worried about her getting ahead of me on strange roads, losing sight of her at intersections, and taking the roads less traveled by mistake. Getting lost in the Mexican countryside with visions of interceptions, kidnappings, and beheadings roaming through my fertile imagination didn’t make for a particularly relaxing beginning to this minor foray into the unknown. The steel door to the casa compound closed behind us, and, sure enough, as soon as Linda had maneuvered her bike through the narrow opening, she threw it into high gear and headed down the mountain road as fast as she could peddle. I had never in all my days riding, ever, gone as fast down this road. One reason being the roads in and around Oaxaca are famous for their “topes” (toe-pays), speed bumps that, if hit too fast, can rattle a papaya out of a well-packed saddlebag as I knew from experience. I took it easy, but she was soon out of sight. Fortunately I knew the way out of Oaxaca and soon saw her half a mile head of me
on the main highway to Ocatlan.

We made it without incident, but I was out of breath most of the time due to the pace. The world around us was filled with so many fascinating sights, sights that required a bit of time and reflection to appreciate fully. Vegetable stalls were piled head-high with blazing pyramids of colored produce; barbecue stalls were loaded with spatchcocked chickens tied to wooden spits slowly roasting over charcoal fires; and folk art stalls fairly burst with black pottery, hand embroidered vests, and phantasmagoric carved animals. They all went by in a blur of form and color as I did my best to keep up with her.  I was frustrated. My bicycle was newer than hers, lighter than hers, and required far less energy to drive at the same speed as hers, yet I still couldn’t keep up with Linda.

Destination Ocotlan, however, was well worth the angst of being out-pedaled on an older, smaller, slower bike. The market was a communal setting of free enterprise. The basic unit consisted of a stall measuring roughly fifteen feet square, independently owned and operated by entrepreneurs who often employed their whole families to help out. Each stall displayed a specialty, so in effect, the market was one huge department store, often with several stalls competing with each other to move the same products. You name it; you could probably find it from hand made leather sandals and rabbit carcasses to pirated DVDs and every type of chili known to humankind. Frieda ran a restaurant stall along with a dozen other restaurant stalls all in one area, and we stopped there for a lunch of mango juice, chile rellenos, and black beans. We sat around a communal picnic table where a mother and daughter struck up a conversation with us. Mexican families are very close, and young people, helping elders, is a common, tender sight.

After lunch, Linda initiated a lively conversation in Spanish with Frieda. I couldn’t understand, but knew that it ended with generous, pleasing nods of heads. Evidently, Linda had asked Frieda where the nearest factory was to witness the local production of Mezcal. When I asked her where it was located, the only response I could squeeze out of her was, “Close, let’s go.” It seems the ‘factory’ location provided by Freida was in Santa Catarena Minas, a mere five kilometers outside Ocotlan, so we headed out. It was afternoon, the skies had cleared, and sun was delivering a steady dose of heat. We also noted the wind had started to come up, not unusual for a Oaxacan afternoon, but unusual for the direction from which it was blowing. It was coming off the mountains, and it was carrying dust blown off the prairies surrounding the Oaxacan valley.  It was much more difficult to keep up with Linda now with the wind in my face, and it irked me that it didn’t seem to bother Linda at all. At one point,before we had gotten out of town, she stopped a young girl on a bicycle to ask directions to Santa Catarena Minas, and we wound up following this young girl on her bicycle for a while. It was the only time during the entire ride I could remember staying up with Linda. When the young girl turned off, Linda charged ahead and beat me to Santa Catarena Minas by fifteen minutes. I was slowed by the head wind now blowing steadily in the direction we were going, affecting me, and not my sister-in-law. When I finally arrived in Santa Catarena Minas, I found Linda outside a small market talking to several men promoting an upcoming music festival in San Baltazar Chichicapam. It seems there weren’t any Mezcal factories in Minas, and she was asking where there were some we could visit. At last there was another uniform nodding of heads, a common sign of general agreement in Mexico, and Linda emerged from the group offering only, “OK, we have a plan”.

With that, she jumped on her bike and sped off into the blowing dust and gathering heat. I did not have a clue what had just taken place, but was willing to follow her stride, not interested in spending the rest of my life in Santa Catarena Minas. Off I went in hot, dusty pursuit wondering with a wry irony who she had in mind when she said, “We’ve.” Was the ‘we’ she and her bike? She and all the men she was talking to? Was I included? It wasn’t really that I didn’t trust her sense of clear-eyed direction, only that she didn’t feel any compunction to talk to me about what this plan might entail. Clearly it was her plan, she had no intentions of being talked out of it, and no desire to have it discussed. She knew what needed to be done, and she was off to do it unimpeded by spurious and irrelevant input from anyone. “Alright,” I thought, “here we go again.”

I plunged after her sucking in great lungs full of hot, dusty desert air that made my nose run, my eyes burn, and my skin crawl. I saw a sign indicating San Miguel Tilquiapam was coming up in a few kilometers and thought that must be the planned destination. As we drew up on the town I saw the most beautiful white church with twin bell towers sitting on top of a knoll. The sun’s rays were reflecting a serene loveliness from this monument to peace and hope, and I was caught up in
the spirit of the reflection, sensing relief this would be our next stop. A large whitewashed arch, richly festooned with ceramic angels and a sanguine reminder that Jesus suffered for mankind’s sin, framed the turnoff to San Miguel. I anticipated a brief ride through a town of streets paved in cobblestone, immaculate storefronts, and strategically positioned Mezcal operations. She passed without even a backward glance to see if I might have taken the turnoff by mistake. The wind was not just blowing briskly, it was howling, a warm howl that made a bicyclist’s life miserable. There were enough hills and dales along the route to make the surface wind direction unpredictable. It swirled around, came at us first from one side, eventually shifting to the front, and suddenly hitting us from the opposite side. In addition to the dangers of being thrown off balance, the wind was blowing with such force that we had to pedal strenuously while going downhill. We biked ahead at ever diminishing velocities pedaling up and down the hills into the teeth of Mother Nature. I was beginning to get the idea she not only didn’t know where she was going, but she didn’t know where she was either. My sense of direction wasn’t at all bad, and according to my inherent ability to dead reckon, we were biking further and further from Oaxaca with every revolution of the crank mechanism.

It happened slowly, but I was sure she was slowing down, not much at first, but I seemed to be closing the gap between us. At first I was vaguely aware of a change, but as we went kilometer after kilometer, I knew I was catching up. Then, as I crested a hill, I saw Linda at the top of the next rise standing with legs on either side of the bike and holding her head in her hands. As I approached, she looked up with a distressed and painful aspect, “I don’t know where we are, “ she allowed. “Those men told me there was a Mezcal factory just down the road, and we couldn’t miss it. I think we’re coming up on San Dionisio, a town seventy kilometers from Oaxaca, and I know there aren’t any Mezcal factories there. The road from San Dionisio to Oaxaca goes through Matatlan where I know there are Mezcal operations, but there is no way I can make it. I’m
exhausted. My legs are dead.”

I could see ahead an intersection with a convenience store at the corner and suggested we try and get to this intersection, restock our diminished resources of water, and ask a local where we might be and where we might be headed. Her look of resignation having to listen to suggestions from me, regardless how much sense they made, was sad to behold in someone so determined to be on top of every situation. To make matters ever so much more interesting, the sun was fast headed to the horizon and we were totally unprepared to ride in the dark. The only alternatives that existed were a hotel in San Dionisio, still 20 kilometers distant, or some form of hired transportation back to Oaxaca. I said nothing about how late it was getting, but from the frequency with which she was looking at her watch, I knew she was bothered by the same realization.

Together, we pedaled to the convenience store where I downed a liter of orange juice followed by a liter of Gatorade. She didn’t drink anything and let me know she still had plenty of water in her water bottle. It suddenly dawned on me why she might be so low on energy for being such a strong woman. She had spent three hours in the hot sun and had only consumed half a liter of water. The recommendation from “Bicycling” magazine is at least a liter an hour whether a rider feels thirsty or not. I shook my head in resigned acknowledgement that this very strong woman was going to do whatever she wanted no matter what the experts might say. I too had a systemic thirst delay that didn’t register any need for liquids until long after I had sweated them out of my body. 

As I was finishing my drinks, Linda was inquiring about the best place to hail a cab or catch a bus into Oaxaca. The discussion went on for some time, after which she said it appeared there was a town not too distant, a San Pablo Guila, where we would find a taxi station. Whether the taxis would take us all the way to Oaxaca was an open question as taxis in Mexico are territorial and aren’t licensed to carry people outside their restricted areas. As we were about to get back on our bikes for the few kilometers to San Pablo Guila, she walked over to me and put her head on my shoulder, an indication she was willing to see me, not only as an equal, but an understanding companion in a time of personal distress. The overture lasted only a minute, but I hoped it might signal a new acceptance of the importance planning and communication played in the successful outcome of daily activities. I could only wait and see.

Sure enough, most taxis working in and around the area weren’t authorized to enter Oaxaca. She hailed taxi after taxi only to be told they had no interest in violating their license when, finally, a taxi that looked just like all the other taxis stopped and, after a prolonged negotiation, she gave me a high sign that all was OK. It took half an hour to prepare the bikes to go in the trunk of the taxi with front wheels coming off, head scarves tied to the frames, and empty plastic coke bottles wedged between points of contact to prevent abrasion. Off we went with the trunk lid gently
bouncing up and down on a Viva Mexico headband every time a topé was hit. The ride back took several hours, as the taxi price negotiation included two unscheduledstops at Mezcal operations for me to take pictures. Eventually, during a trip conducted mostly in silence, we two were delivered to the Dueña’s B&B in the pitch dark of an overcast, high tropics evening sky. Linda paid the driver a generous tip, and, without another word, retreated into her office to read emails.