Part I: Mountain
Our little caravan is in a tiny village in the middle of the southern mountain range near Oaxaca. There is no cell signal, running water or internet. Phil and Jayne ran into a guy they had met earlier on in their Mexican travels, who then invited us to spend some time in his grandparent’s home in the mountains. We had the famed beaches of Oaxaca in our sights, but could not pass up the opportunity to not only pass through, but stay in an old Zapotec village.
Ricardo’s grandparents lived on one of the slopes of the surrounding mountains. Their property consisted of a few huts, surrounded by small patches of field where they grow a little coffee, corn, lemons and anything else they can manage in a given year. One of the huts is their home, so Ricardo and his 3 friends crowded inside another hut, while Jayne, Phil, Ida and I pitched our tents to the side.
What a little piece of heaven! Surrounded by ridges of tropical forest covered mountains, a creek rushing off to a waterfall nearby, the fresh air, the unbearably starry nights which slowly get washed away by a gently rising moon, peace… But like so many other villages, Santa Maria stands in the depths of poverty, unemployment and is nearly empty of men. The women, children and older men stay to attempt to manage the villages. Kids as early as 5 learn how to help their mothers wash clothes, clean house, cook and look after younger siblings. It is our heaven only because we can leave it.
Of course we are never made to feel as intruders, never out of place. We met many villagers, and spoke with them about local herbs and flowers, how the farms are faring, and their dreams of the mysterious world beyond their valley. We shared a simple but delicious dinner with Ricardo’s other grandmother, then spent the following day hiking through the valley and swimming in a perfectly temperate waterfall. The days could not have been more perfect…
Then I started feeling oozy in the stomach, and the clouds quickly gathered around my head, trumpeted on by donkeys, turkeys, roosters and dogs, who had not been silent for more than 5 minutes going on 3 days. I drank a coke and a bit of Mezcal and felt better. But then at night it came back with a vengeance and I spent most of the evening in agony trying to take and drink anything I could get my hands on. I wanted to throw up but I couldn’t, and nothing was helping. Finally I smoked a joint, which made things worse at first, but after about half an hour it kicked in full gear and I passed out. The next day I was still a little sick and very weak from the night before. And as Phil and Jayne packed their steeds to move onto Mazunte on the coast, I was left unsure as to whether I would be able to ride. The following day though I was back in the saddle, and Ida began her multi bus trek to meet me at the famed Pacific beaches of the Mexican Coast.
Part II: Circus
Mazunte welcomed us with idyllic, hammocked beaches with light sand, an endless horizon painted daily with the suns full palate, a luscious coastline with cliffs and rich jungle vegetation… and a circus performance festival!
Acrobats, jugglers, fire spinners… each act more incredible than the last. The whole world made serene and vibrant with the help of local mushrooms. I was lost in a sea of sensation, and everything I saw brought me joy. Until of course I was in the actual sea and almost drowned, twice, after swimming too soon after a massage. All of a sudden the light of day became stark, and with every coughing release of the water trapped in my lungs, I felt my body shutting down. Finally I had made it to the beaches I’ve read about, seen in films, and dreamed for so long of visiting, and my paradise gets invaded with an infection which ran from my throat to the deepest reaches of my bowels.
I was gripped by a constant, painful cough, a runny nose, nausea and it’s inevitable travelling companion, lack of appetite and such a weakness that I could barely make it from the hammock to the bathroom. There was no pharmacy in town, and I kept praying that all the natural remedies I was trying would eventually heal me, or at the very least give me the strength to ride to the next town. But all the ginger and citrus in the world can’t kill the bacteria that was ravaging me. It turned out that a few people had caught this as a result of the road work they were doing at the time (on the only road in the god damn village). I was stuck in the very environment that was making me sick.
This gave me a few more days to observe the culture which has heretofore been quite foreign to me – the hostel. I rarely stay in a hostel (or hotel), I prefer, for many reasons, to stay with locals wherever I am. But now I was trapped and was able to observe what before was only piecemeal memories from hostels past. In almost any hostel, anywhere in the world, there are certain patterns which inevitably emerge. There is usually a representative or contingency of a few types of people, and their associated behaviors. There’s the overly sensitive about everything type – usually a white woman who will look for things that are offensive just to be offended. There are the leeches who always show up when you are cooking something, but rarely cook or buy food themselves; the hippies, the stoners, the musicians (my favorite), the yuppies “slumming” it; and the person who brings their fucking child along – who inevitably cries and ruins everyone’s day. Conversations too generally revolve around the same topics: where you are from, how long have you been on the road, what you’ve seen, your future plans, Israel vs. Palestine, the role of the U.S in the world, what your views are of locals, arguments over views of locals, religion, and jam sessions – the only conversation I listen to if I can help it.
Though the greater part of the hippies and circus folk had departed, leaving the beach town smelling a little better, sadly the hammock has not been washed in a while so every once in a while there is a waft of someone’s resistance to “The Man”. And after 5 days of things getting only worse I could no longer take the smell or the chance that time would heal me, and I decided to move on. I thought at first that I only needed to leave the environment for my body to recover, so I aimed for finding a virgin beach somewhere just up the coast. It took so much strength and energy just to pack Georgia that I was afraid I would not be able to ride for more than 10 minutes. But I bid Ida farewell, somehow mounted my steed, and somehow made it to that virgin beach without crashing.
Part III: Sea Turtles
Playa Grande doesn’t exist on any map, in fact the only sign you will ever see of its existence stands by the side of the dirt road where it meets the coastal highway, and which reads Playa Grande, 7km è. 7 clicks down a sandy dirt road will bring you to a tiny village of 60 souls. There is no store, there is no anything, it is not a place for visitors, Mexican or otherwise. And because of this the fine sandy beaches stretch to the horizon in both directions, and are home to sea turtle egg deposits. In fact every man in town takes his turn guarding the eggs (from dogs and people who wish to sell them at market).
I rode my bike right up to the sand line, where there was a convenient gazebo of sorts with a thatched palm roof. I acknowledged the gaggle of kids which instantly surrounded me, promised I would play later, hung up my hammock and passed out. That drive of just a couple of hours was more than I imagined my body was capable of.
I had found that virgin beach I was looking for, but all I could do was lie in my hammock. 6 days so far of coughing and weakness and 3 days of diarrhea. Orcas, dolphins, sharks and sea turtles in the water, endless miles of virgin coast, and all I can do is lay there. I picked up a book for the first time in a week, before I had not the energy to concentrate on reading. 24 hours out of the poisonous air of Mazunte and I was no better. I needed to find a place in a town where I can have access to a bathroom , as well as food and water and a shower, and maybe even a doctor if this continues.
The cough and weakness prevented me with playing with the kids who continue to gather around me every few hours. I promising them I would play later, or the next day, thinking I would start to feel even a little better, but I would disappoint them again and again.
If it’s one thing you can do when so debilitated, it’s reflect, and the bi-polar extremes of Oaxaca is a perfect subject. The nicest people I have met in Mexico, who are also the poorest. Some of the best riding, but by far the worst roads and some of the worst drivers. Excellent coffee beans, but no decent cup of coffee. Every kind of landscape you can imagine: from cloud forest, to tropical coast and mountains, to pine forest and temperate mountain to rich valleys and arid plains… the beaches are gorgeous, the water intense and warm. I wanted to spend so much more time there, I wanted to learn to surf and enjoy endless days in a hammock, but being sick and with Phil and Jayne egging me on from Chiapas, I am forced to move on before I’m ready.
The few days on the beach were not completely wasted however. As I lay awake in my hammock around 5am, I suddenly heard man doing something in a shed nearby. I couldn’t sleep anyways, so I got up to see what he was up to. And as I got around the little dune that separated us, I beheld a beach full of tiny sea turtles hatchlings crawling their way to the ocean. I was bearing witness to the birth of 55 creatures who would possibly live to be more than 150 years old. And then out of nowhere a dog ran onto the beach and snatched of little sea turtles. I can’t explain why that made me so upset, but it did, and I caught the dog and pried the baby turtle out of its mouth. As I held the turtle against the blooming morning sky, it began trying to swim through the air. No matter what it had survived, its goal was the big ole blue and it would stop trying to reach its home only with its last breath. It was such a beautiful moment – one of my favorites of the entire journey.
It was the perfect end to my stay on the beach. I couldn’t stand being sick any longer, I needed a doctor, and I needed fresh water and a bathroom. So I wearily packed my bags, and with a prayer and cough mounted Georgia… who proceeded to sink into the sand. Already exhausted, I dismounted, unpacked her, dragged her out of the sand with the help of some kids, repacked her, and somehow did not pass out. Then made it to Huchitan, many hours later, somehow.
I went to the doctor right away, who, as everyone suspected, prescribed cipro (a broad spectrum antibiotic). It’s something I should have had for traveler’s diarrhea anyway. And though I hate anti-biotics, 8 days of sick is just a bit too much to keep hoping garlic and honey will work. My general feeling of weakness was also scary – I was actually sleeping during the day! I don’t remember the last time I took a napped.
After a couple of days on the anti-biotic and I was feeling 80% better. My ass stopped leaking, and the prednisone suppressed cough was also started to calm. Being able to sit on a toiled, take a shower, and sleep in a bed helped as well. It also gave me a few days to check out yet another incredible market of Oaxaca. So many colors, so many kinds of food and art… I could try sea turtle egg, stewed iguana or grilled armadillo, then shop for a hand carved mask, or lovely stone and gem jewelry, or locally weaved clothes…
A few days with a kind family and I was strong enough to ride again. I still had a few days to go, but mounting my steed did not make me want to pass out, and that was a start. I couldn’t wait to catch up with Phil and Jayne, and to see the other of everyone’s two favorite states: Chiapas.
It took a long ride through mountains, and wind farms with gusts so strong I was thrown from one side of the road to the other, sometimes into trees and others into oncoming trucks, and I was dead when I arrived, but I finally made it to San Cristobal de las Casa, in the middle of Zapatista country and, for the first time, traditional Mayan land.