Days 19, 20 and 21, May 20 - 22, 2001.
More of Guadalajara, Mexico
The bad. Southern Mexico. When I left wonderful Guatemala, I was both a little behind schedule, and also hoping to squeeze in a couple of full days of rest and sight-seeing in Guadalajara. I decided I would push straight through and complete the roughly 1,100 miles in three days. I knew that culturally there was not much going on down here (excepting the great Mayan sites on the Yucutan, which I would not have time to visit) and the terrain didn't look too interesting from what I had read. So it was time to push the Guzzi north to Guadalajara.
At the border you leave the nicely paved roads and cultivated fields of Guatemala behind, and in minutes are in the sparsely populated quasi-desert of southern Mexico. I never understand why such disparities occur at national borders. As an aside, I've noticed the same phenomenon on the Canada/North Dakota border. The Canadian side is sprawling, prosperous wheat farms and clean, tidy villages. The Dakota side looks like everyone left and forgot to clean up after themselves. What causes that?
Read the guidebooks about Mexico and Central America and a common notation is unwarranted police attention. That was most true, paradoxically, in peaceful, liberal Costa Rica. Speed checks and police stops were frequent although I was always moved through with a wave and a big smile. Not once was I stopped either in Costa Rica, Nicarauga, Honduras or Guatemala. Not once, other than at the borders, which of course is expected.
Perhaps the problem in Mexico is Chiapas, the renegade state where Subcommandante Marcos has spent the past twenty years either inciting revolution, or in desperately trying to force the Mexican government to provide better conditions for his peasant following, depending on your point of view. Just two months ago Marcos morphed into the Gerry Adams of Mexican politics, a guerilla turned politician, as with faces masked to avoid detection and possible subsequent detention, he and a trusted band of lieutenants toured Mexico, and with the acquiesence of President Vincente Fox eventually addressed the National Assembly. So I choose to avoid the northern route through his stronghold of Tuxtla Gutierrez, and instead opt to stay close to the Pacific Coast, and so hopefully well out of the action. I also figured things had quieted down a bit with the recent barn-storm tour. Wrong.
Against such a background perhaps the Federal Policia are justified in some show of force as they attempt to maintain civil order. But twenty police checkpoints in the four hundred miles between Tapachula and Oaxaca? Give me a break.
OK, so three are for Customs. Once to get in from Guatemala and to be given a form that I need to stop in twenty kilometers and buy a tourist pass for the bike. I do. Twenty kilometers later, another Customs stop to make sure I bought the pass and got my passport stamped. Yes, I did.
Sprinkle in a couple of stops to make sure that I am not importing illegal fruits, vegetables or animimals. OK, we do that in and out of California. But on a bike? How many animals could I carry that aren't visible? OK, maybe a mango or two, I'll give them that.
That leaves fifteen more stops - all by the Federal Policia, ostensibly to determine if I am carrying guns or drugs ...or maybe if I am counter-intelligence for Subcommandante Marcos. (Even as I type this in Guadalajara I'm looking over my shoulder.) Well, I wasn't singled out (everyone was stopped,) and my luggage was only searched four times, so since all the stops were about the same, I'll only fill you in on the details of the last one, some thirty miles past Tehuantepec, on the road to Oaxaca, a road that should have a sign posted at the beginning: "continuous dangerous curves, topes (large, serious speed bumps that I'll cover in a later post) and military police searches for the next 160 miles. My AAA guidebook said 250Km (150miles) and 3hr and 48min to Oaxaca. I grin, knowing the Guzzi will easily eat up 150 miles in 2 1/2 hours, even in the worst of conditions.
I'm up early, leaving not long after sun-up at around 7:30. The road is deserted at this hour, save for an occasional bus and truck headed north on Mexico Route 190, the main road through southern Mexico to Oaxaca and on to Mexico City. It is cool in the early morning, the sun is shining and as I leave Tehuantepec I notice the vegetation thins out as does the population. The road surface worsens, to potholes and patches joined together by occasional pavement, but the Guzzi is nimble and I dodge the worst of them, generally maintaining at least 50 mph. Ahh. I recognize the signs. This will be number fifteen coming up.
Red flags on thin black poles mark the center of the road. Two military jeeps sit by each lane. A young Federal Police office in camouflage fatigues, automatic weapon at the ready, signals that I should stop. I gear the Guzzi down and roll to a stop. As I look around, there is a gaggle (normally 10 -15) of similarly-dressed young men, this time with a noticeable leader a little older than the rest (there is not always a visible leader present, a scarier situation, I think,) with collectively enough fire power to invade Granada. In fact, I believe we did it with less, during the Regan years. At a minimum, each man has either a pistol or an automatic weapon.
The leader approaches me. "Where are you going," he says in rapid-fire Spanish. I first offer my usual line, hoping for a lighter mood, perhaps. "Hablo muy pocito español," I answer, explaining that I speak very little Spanish, and then say that I'm headed home to the USA. "Where are you coming from?" he asks. I explain that I have ridden the bike from Costa Rica through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and am heading to Mexico City, Guadalajara, Mazatlan and Nogales, hoping to toss in some touist destinations to soften him up. He doesn't soften. Not a hint of a smile. He looks at the tourist pass visible on the Guzzi's windshield. "Where did you get that?" he asks. "In Tapachula," I explain, omitting that the silly little sticker took me three stops and cost $22US. "Are you carrying any guns?" "No," I reply. "How about drugs?" he asks. Sorry, its "no" again, although with no attitude, as I glance at the remaining fourteen troops, hands too close to their triggers for my liking. "Where are you going?" he asks again. I repeat my story. "We will search you bags," he announces. Well .....thanks for asking.
At this point, a civilian with a government badge steps forward. He speaks English. We start the drill again. "Guns." "No." "Drugs." "No." "You said you were in Costa Rica," he pauses, "were you also in Columbia." "God, no," I reply. "I shipped the bike into Costa Rica for this trip." His look of disbelief says, "yea, right." Two of his non-English-speaking sidekicks begin the search.
Now, in my mind I'm thinking that a bike is pretty small and as a gun or drug-running vehicle it hits me as a real poor choice. Going as fast as you can, it is at least two or three weeks from Panama to the United States. I mean how many kilos could you stash in your saddlebags and still have room for clothes? Hotels aren't cheap, you know, and gas is generally $3 to $4 a gallon. I mean how do the economics of this deal work anyway? But I keep the economic dissertation to myself.
I remove clothes, tools and spare parts as ordered. The second soldier pokes into my first aid kit and thankfully misses the $200 I have stashed. (By the way, I was never shaken down or asked for money at any of these stops.) He pulls out the strange-shaped aluminum cannister. "What's this," he asks. "A fuel filter," I reply. He puts it aside. Next it's on to the front pannier bags, containing only two liters of bottled water, a quart of oil and some octane booster. The first soldier fingers the seat. Oh, crap, I think. This is a first and it's a $450 seat, custom-made for my custom behind, and pretty worthless if the leather is ripped up. Thankfully he moves on. Neither finds anything, of course. The assembled gaggle continues to stare at me and the Guzzi, since we're the only show in town right now. No other vehicle shows up.
It finally comes, it always does. "How much did the motorcycle cost?" the civilian asks. "It's not new," I explain, and lie that it is only worth about $2,000US. When I started this game fourteen stops ago, I quickly realized that the new price as equiped last year of around $12,000US was about three or four years annual wages for these guys, even though this is a very inexpensive bike by US standards. So, I dropped first to $6,000 and now to $2,000. There is a collective murmur from the crowd. "So where are you going, again." I explain once more. This has gone on for about twenty minutes and it only seems like three days.
I repack and mount the bike. There is total silence from the group with the automatic weapons. Nobody says anything. "Am I free to go," I ask. "Yes." "Gracias," I reply.
Well, trust me, I'm out of here .....pronto. Around continual curves, bouncing over topes and dodging both potholes and the occasional donkey or cow. AAA must have known. It take me four hours to reach Oaxaca.
The ugly . I am out of time and have three days of hard riding in front of me to reach Tucson, so this will be very brief, and likely my last post for at least a few days.
Mexico City is argueably the world's largest city, and the traffic is way past abysmal. I really tried to avoid it, Jan and I having been there several years ago. I didn't need the hassle, having seen it before, and trying to make some time. Well, if you look at a map, it's virtually impossible to get from Oaxaca to Guadalajara without going through Mexico City, unless you have an extra two days. I didn't. To make a long story short, I got lost like I've never gotten lost in my entire life. Reading infrequent Spanish road signs directing me to places that don't show up on my map, at as I whiz by in Los Angeles-level traffic at 60mph was more than I could handle. In short order, I stop to ask a motorcycle cop who speaks no English but gives me a name that I should look for (this is not the guy who helped me) and says follow us. He and his pillion buddy head out lane-splitting at about 30mph faster than the fully-loaded and top-heavy Guzzi will allow. I catch up in a couple of minutes just as they take an off-ramp. I follow. Thirty feet into the off-ramp the pillion rider waves frantically that I should stay on the freeway. Luckily the traffic has slowed to a rolling stop. I have two options: 1) follow them into the heart of Mexico City and be lost for ever, or 2) jump the six-inch curb and get back on the freeway. I opt for the freeway. Bad choice. I miss the angle on the curb, an easy maneuver with the right approach, and at almost a dead stop the top-heavy Guzzi tumbles on it's right side in, my foot trapped under the engine guard. Three men lift the bike, I jump up, and with nothing more than wounded pride I dust off my ego and head into the bowels of Mexico City. The motorcycle cops are long gone. I spend two hours getting out of Mexico City and on my way to Guadalajara. By the way, both the bike and me are fine.
The beautiful. That would be the central valley of Mexico between the capital and Guadalajara. Just five hours to complete 300 miles on four-lane paved freeway, with prosperous farms and small-holdings built up into the surrounding hills. At over 5,000 feet is cool and sunny, and I enjoy my two days of R & R in Guadalajara.
This has been a real trip.
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