12 March 2007
A long, undulating searing hot strip of tarmac, flanked on either side by coconut and banana plantations, and the occasional herd of goats or cows, accompanied usually by a man and boy quietly sucking their teeth to let the beasts know not to stray. The road is dotted with men, some on old bicycles destined for the plantations, others on foot, perhaps carrying a tight bundle of dry palm fronds, roofing material for their dwelling.
All of these men and boys carry big, 25 inch working knives or machetes, that with two deft and relaxed strokes, easily fell a banana plant or a sapling. many of these men bear the scars of a lifetime working with such tools.
Sometimes, on saturdays in this region, it seems that a social ‘brush clearing’ crew is organised, and troops of women line the road, armed with rakes and chatting fiercely with their neighbours while the men hack and burn the surrounding vegetation.
Coca Cola has done an amazing job of buying out the people here. Every tiny shack, every little stand one may find between pueblitos, perhaps selling coconuts, is likely to sell coke as well. Not water, just Coke. This Multinational has gone a step further though. Want a sign for your store or village? Coke would be happy to oblige, providing half the sign is made up with the beautiful company name. Soon, perhaps, the Mexican government will enter into a lucrative business deal with the soft drinks manufacturer. I can picture it now…large amounts of financial aid in return for renaming the country….”Mexico – the Coca Cola Nation”…..seems like a good idea to me! This capitalist approach to business is not all bad for me however. In the never ending heat, my body craves the sugars and salts in this tasty carbonated beverage.
While these people continue to tend to their crops and livestock, I continue my journey south. Our lives cross briefly for a few moments. A brief wave, whistle, or nod of the head and all is again normal for them, and their heavily calloused hand returns to the handle of their machete.
This last two weeks has been much more undulating for me than the road would suggest. Three things have happened that have educated me a great deal in one way or another.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin….
The sun was shining on my back,
shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
my skin all red and tight
…so anyway, it was hot, as per usual. The road was straight, and fairly tranquil. I was in ‘the zone’ staring at the road, thinking a myriad of thoughts as is my way in these long hot sometimes monotonous days. The brim of my hat allowed me to see maybe eight or ten feet ahead on the black road surface, and I was cruising nicely at 26 km per hour. I know that that was exactly the speed I was travelling, because the last thing I saw was my speedometer, before the bike stopped abruptly, and I sailed not so gracefully through the air, the music from my headphones growing faint as they were ripped from my ears. I landed 7 feet away in a ditch full of dry grass. I writhed around in pain and shock for a few moments, and assessing the situation in a split second, I figure my shoulder was perhaps broken. Five minutes later, I found that I was intact, unbroken, and able to stand, walk and do everything else. Yup, that’s right, I had hit a stationary truck full tilt. How embarrassing. Miraculously, the camera mount on the front of my bike did perhaps the most useful thing its done so far….act as a crumple zone and almost completely save the bike from any damage! The worst thing I suffered was a bruised shoulder and the maddening itch of dry grass and sweat mixed together as I struggled in the heat to dismantle the twisted camera mount and make my bike operational once more….
Anecdote number two: I lost my wallet. Again, how embarrassing. Maybe it serves me write for turning soft and getting a hotel room where I carefully left my wallet under my pillow. A very safe place for it while I was sleeping indeed, but not after I’d vacated the hotel the next morning. A good deal of kilometres later I tried to rectify the situation and returned rapidly in a taxi while kindly folk looked after my bike…..but as you’d expect in any country, the wallet was no longer there, and I had no-one to blame but myself!!
This event led to some interesting experiences. For example, it taught me that it is possible to survive on 15 pesos a day if you only eat bananas and dry biscuits…..but only just. It confirmed my beliefs that those that have little to offer in terms of wealth will gladly give you nearly all of what they have. An elderly man on the side of the road gave me 10 pesos, doubling my spending power that day with money that would probably have kept him in food for a couple of days. My discomforts, however, were short lived due to the kindness of people such as this old mexican gentleman, and the wonders of western unions in the smallest villages on earth.
And now for the third and final story.
After the wallet ordeal, but before I had access to more funds, I arrived in a village in the mountains, which marked the end of ascent and beginning of the descent down to the sea again. It was a village largely composed of Mixtecas, the indigenous people in this area, some of which speak no spanish at all, and many of which have a line of gold embedded into one of their front teeth.
Tired and hungry, I stopped next to an old man untangling a fishing line on the street, and enquired as to the whereabouts as a reasonably safe place to camp in the village. The man disappeared into the yard and came back with his compardre, another man of a similar age, whose house it was. He happily invited me to stay in his yard and gave me access to his wash tub for a much needed shower of sorts. For the next half an hour I chatted with the two lovely old guys, while at the same time playing with their grand children, one of which, at only three years old, was able to sing me the entire Mexican National Anthem. Jeez! I can’t even remember the second verse of mine!
It was a lovely experience, similar to two or three others I have had in the last two weeks, surrounded by extended indigenous families, that are pleasantly curious about every last detail of both my journey and my being, while they share their little house with me, and, just for a night, i am a member of the family.
Things changed when an old VW beetle pulled up in the driveway. Antonio, the old man exclaimed ‘oh, mi hijo’, on seeing his son had returned home. The young man got out of his car and sidled over with a friend. Like many young mexican men, he had a certain amount of machismo attached to him. Music blaring out of his car, greased back hair, nothing unusual….
He greeted me stony faced and after a few minutes talking with his father, ushered me over and offered to pay for a hotel for me. he was fairly persistent, and though my spanish is now passable, I did not pick up on the hidden meanings in his words. Slowly, his persistence, aided by his relative drunkenness, became aggression, and it quickly became obvious he did not want me there. Antonio came over, apologised profusely and said it would be better if I went. On rounding the side of the car to retrieve my bike, I saw that the old man’s son was now holding a machete he had retrieved from the back seat while talking to friends on the phone about the ‘gringo’ who wouldn’t leave his house. By now, I understood fully the gravity of the situation, and left as hurriedly as my heavily laden bike would allow, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck prick with fight or flight adrenaline.
This left me in a tricky situation. Fifteen US dollars a kindly soldier had given me was to last me perhaps three days, and now I had to stay in a hotel, which cost thirteen dollars……needless to say, everything worked out fine. I am here now, a little wiser, not missing any limbs, but slightly sad that this attitude exists amongst a handful of untrusting rural people, just because the colour of ones skin. As a white man, being threatened because of my skin colour is not something I have had to come to terms with in the past. A lesson that is perhaps useful to learn.
For 24 hours, the walls of my rapidly growing trust in humanity were being threatened, and the mortar loosened, just for a moment. For a fleeting moment, the world turns against you….until you realise, it was one drunk man, who didn’t see eye to eye with his family let alone many other people.
As I sit here in the more un-surfer-filled end of Puerto Escondido, listening to the pressure valve´s steam whistle from the fried banana vendor outside, and to the thunder of the powerful waves, I am once again sailing on an even keel, and my mental frame has been reinforced a great deal.
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” Gandhi.
Take care everyone and please do keep in touch!