April 10, 2005

Mexico: The Paso de Cortez


I peeled my eyes open, licked my pasty mouth and let out a lioness yawn before I was aware that our lunchtime picnic in Tepeaca, Mexico had turned into a media blitz.

Gwendal was being interviewed by our Swedish/Chilean Documentarists as well as the Tepeaca local newspaper. For 4 days, Lise Kalen and Sandra Lagherdahl from Sweden flew from Val Paraiso, Chile to produce a radio documentary for Swedish Radio Station Piteá FM as well as their multimedia school, Escuela Nordica , that they are attending in Chile. Both Lise and Sandra have been busing to our lunch stops and to the towns we have spent the night in. That day in Tepeaca, while some of us took the time to have well deserved siestas, we had drawn quite a bit of attention, so much so, we were spotted by two local reporters for SINTESIS, Tepeaca's local newspaper.

We had decided that we would follow the historical route the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez took to conquer Mexico City formerly known as Tenochtitlán in November of 1519.

While we feasted on refried beans, avocados and yoghurt in Tepeaca, Cortez spent 2 years gathering troops to attack the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Earlier that year Cortez had entered Mexico quickly conquering native groups throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and the Tabasco region. There he was told of the great fortunes that were held in the centre of the country, specifically Tenochtitlan. Making his way over the mountains, continually amassing the help of those he conquered. About 150 km south east of Mexico City, lies Cholula a small town that is the home of 365 churches, all built over one of the 400 Aztec monuments that Cortez found here. Cortez had vowed to raise a church for every monument he had found in Cholula. Each church takes a turn in the year having a celebratory fiesta complete with fireworks. This means that there is a fiesta every day of the year when you come to visit Cholula.

Our last day with Lise and Sandra was the day of our climb up the Paso de Cortez. Cortez arrived at the top of the saddle that sits betweent the litarally breathtaking Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl 3685m high to a spectacular view of what was Tenochtitlan an impressive cauldron. One of the largest cities in the World in its time with 150,000 inhabitants. Cortez was surprisingly greeted ceremoniosly by the reigning ruler Moctezuma II. Aztec legends reveal that that year they were awaiting Quetzalcoátl, a bearded, fair-skinned Toltec ruler-god, that was to return from the east to reclaim his kingdom. Cortez held Moctezuma hostage until troops were sent by the Governor of Cuba, Diego Valesquez, ordering the capture of Cortez. Troops moved into the valley of Mexico City and the Aztecs began to revolt. In attempts to calm the people, Cortez released Moctezuma to speak to his people but in doing so, was stoned to death. In 1521, the Spanish finally conquered the city of Mexico. On March 29th, 2005 we descended upon the Districto Federal of Mexico. The last kilometers of countryside plentiful of nopal farms (cacti used for consumption).

Arriving into Mexico City we expected crazy traffic and a concrete jungle but to our surprise cycling through the city was a ride in the park. With numerous parks, tree topped boulevards, wide high occupancy vehicle lanes, we had room to ride and shade to cover us all the way to the center all the while admiring the magnificent colonial architecture. On one of the main arterials that spans 28.8 km from the north end to the south end of the city, Avenida Insurgentes, a light rail line was being built. To further help move the 20 million people that inhabit the capital city. I was reminded of my last visit to Paris. We have been told that during the turn of the century, Mexico City and Paris had an architectual rivalry which would explain the many similarities. Even the metro system is the same one used in Paris. The downtown area is built upon ruins of the Aztec Empire which was built over 5 lakes. What was once a small island grew over the lakes creating rich soil for agricultural production. When the spanish conquered the capital city, they drained the lakes to create less obstacles for transportation and by the 16th century Mexico city was one complete dry land. Around the 1950´s the city's pospulation had grown to 3.2 million inhabitants causing the city to drill wells to supply enough water. This caused the subsoil to sink upto 18 inches per year. When we made a visit to the city centre to visit the Diego Rivera Museum, the Palace of Belles Artes, the Cathedral, the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the Zocolo (the main plaza) we were not surprised to see that all the buildings, built close to each other are leaning in all different directions.

While in Mexico City we were put up by the wonderful Patricia, a magnificent anthropologist, and mother of childhood friends of Gwendal and Armel, who gave us a great tour of the city's oldest ruins Cuicuilco and great insider insight on how to navigate throughout the city. When it came to to leave Mexico City we were had to say good-bye to our other canuck cyclists, Maria, Marcel and Dominic who cycled with us for the past 3 weeks. But with much anticipation we are ready for the second half of this incredible country that lured the likes of Cortez.

Posted by tania at 03:13 PM | Comments (0)

Mexico: A Chiapas Encounter, Mexico.

On the road at our speed, we hear of many others doing similar trips on bikes as well. Gwendal started over a year ago in Ushuaia two weeks after this speedy spaniard and it wasn't until Cartagena, Colombia that we met him for the first time. Most often, the chance encounters happen as we cross another cyclo-tourist(s) going the opposite direction. This usually entailes some happy smiles at the parallel world we can immediately relate to even with a complete stranger. A few curious stares at their rig (bike and baggage systems) and we're off as the hours are short when there's a destination to be had before sunset. This one particular early morning leaving Tuxtla Guiterrez to avoid the heat, we were met by some police officers excitedly warning us of three cyclists a half an hour before us, heading in the same direction.

Feeling weary from Gwendal's sun allergies, my quadricep aching and the recent chiapan hills, we thought it improbable to catch this intrepid group probably 10kms ahead of us. They even got up before we did! To our surprise they waved us down a few turns later at the Pemex (gas station).

The six of us rode two-by-two switching conversing partners after every break for the next few weeks. As we found out, it takes many stories to catch up to over a year on the road. Gwendal had briefly met Marcel and Maria on the Carreterra Austral in Chile over 10,000 kms ago but only for a short 20min visit (they were going opposite directions then). Dominic, their third and newest member, had recently joined them in Guatemala city hoping to make it to Mexico city for his one-month hiatus from BC's strange winter/spring.

Much more experienced world-cyclers, we were able to gain many useful, and subtle to the untrained eye, tips such as eating cold oats in the morning. A trick which speeds up the routine by at least 17 minutes. All minutes and especially grams are counted and shed in order to make the most of the treasured hours off the saddle. We did acquire their mirrors and found some kick-stands that somehow had eluded us until now. Safety is always first, especially on the highways when the buses seem to sneek up on us as their engines are at the back. You can't hear them until they are streaking by your left shoulder sending a rush of tense adrenaline through your remaining senses. We were able to show them a trick or two ourselves, like keeping waterbottles cooler with wet socks and the virtues of carrying a pressure cooker at altitude.

We rode the swealtering southern pacific lowlands down from the Chiapas together, we braved the hills and the mezcal of the Oaxaca province stopping only to oblige in the yearly festivities of the little town San Jose de Gracia and dancing the whole night through. Our next big challenge was to enter the ominous capital of Mexico, Mexico DF. We chose the "Paso de Cortes", the pass that snakes up the col between the two legendary volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl reaching an altitude of 3700m. Avoiding the hazy traffic and the potentially dangerous slums, we reached our goal, Patricia's appartement, safe and sound. No better way to celebrate our new found camaraderie than with a reunion with an old friend, Patricia, and her stash of french wine and real camambert.

Sadly, as quickly as we harnessed the energies yielded from meeting fellow canuck cyclists on the road, we had to say goodbye in Mexico DF, 1000 kilometers later. Maria was eagerly awaited for her only sibling's wedding preparations. Dominic couldn't justify being away from his Susan, also on a parallel Mazatlan, Mexico trip. He also has dozens of Saint-Michael's University students waiting to be guided along the rocky paths of adolescence. Marcel is bolting his way to Brownsville, Texas, squeezing the last two weeks of cycle freedom as he to is needed for the marrital festivities. Secretly we hope their lives as they find them back in British Columbia remains very open and flexible, that way we might convince them to get back on our band wagon all the way up to Inuvik by summer's end.

*Also worthy of note, is how we managed to coordinate meeting two swedish friends we had met in Cali, Colombia on the road into Mexico city. They made the trip up from Chile where they are studying radio and video documentary making. We can say nothing less than expressing the sincere honour felt at the idea and actually effectuating it was a wonderful experience.

Posted by armel at 01:53 PM | Comments (2)

Mexico: Water Supply

Watering the flowers on the Division del Norte in Mexico City.


I can't exactly remember the first time I experienced it, maybe it was in Paraguay or maybe it was even earlier in Argentina. But I do remember that it was a small shock to go to the washroom in the evening and find that I could not flush because there was no running water. It was not too much of a suprise if I was camping in a far off corner of the countryside to find that there was no running water and it needed to be found at a well. But to find yourself in a fairly large city with modern ameneties such as Trujillo in north western Peru and find that water had to be cut off for 8-12 hours a day was shocking.
The shape of your home changes as you now need to build large cisterns on your roof to stockpile water. Many houses have big basins and barrels next to washing stations and toilets so that once the water stops flowing you can still flush the toilet and wash your clothes.

Toilets can have a capacity to flush between 10 to 5 litres of water at a time depending on the model and the water conservation laws of the country. Imagine that there used to be 5 gallon toilets in the US (now illegal).

Oaxaca, Oaxaca state, Mexico.

In central america and especially Guatemala the water shortages again became very apparent. In mexico we were suprised to find that Oaxaca had major water problems. The small hotel we stayed in needed to have a cistern truck pump in its water into large tanks twice a week. If you needed a shower, flush the toilet or even wash your hands, the water had to be pumped up to the tank on the roof to have water pressure. I did some investigating and found that the entire block did not have city supplied water, and many other parts of the city were dependent on trucked in water.

I started thinking just how lucky we are in Canada with the worlds largest supply of fresh water. To think that since leaving Panama city we have only been rained on while riding three times and those were all in Panama.

While cycling between Oaxaca and Mexico city I brewed over these thoughts about water usage awareness. Just cutting off your water for two hours can make you feel totally stranded. While cycling under the hot mexican sun, we drink a minimum of 6 litres a day and can often drink as much as 10 litres of fluids.

Mexico city has one of the largest water supply aquaduct systems in the world.
Currently some 600 wells feed the DF's 10 million-plus inhabitants, which encompasses most of Mexico City as well as some rural areas to the south.
The Metropolitan Zone in 1996 had 17 million people living in an 870 square mile area which is getting larger everyday.

Because of this rapid growth, the city needed to increase its water supply. Almost seventy-two percent of the city's water supply comes from the Mexico City Aquifer which lies below the city. In order to do this, they drilled wells which caused the subsoil to sink. In 1948 rates of sinkage up to 18 inches per year were recorded in the Mexico City Historic Center. This subsidence has lowered the city center area by an average of 7.5 meters, and exacerbates the flood-prone conditions of the city and has damaged the infrastructure-including water and sewer lines. When they discovered the Tecnochitlan ruins in 1972 right next to the Zocalo they were underground. But if you go to see them now, because of isostatic rebound they have floated up and are easily 2-4 metres above street level in some parts.

The good news for Mexico City is that the population growth rates in the Mexico City Metropolitan Zone had dimished significantly over the past 10 years, standing now at about 2% a year. The population of the Districto Federal or the D.F. is growing at a rate of .5% a year. (source: http://www.macalester.edu/courses/geog61/jpalmer/index.html and http://www1.lanic.utexas.edu/la/Mexico/water/book.html)

Never the less Mexico City is looking further and further afield to find new sources of water to meet its needs. One book I read recently while staying with Patricia in Mexico city had a very interesting suggestion. "La Ciudad y Sus Lagos" (Instituto de Cultura de la Ciudad de Mexico) To decrease and even possibly balance the current supply water deficit in the Mexico city aquifer mexico needs to allow many of its lost or severly shrunken lakes such as lago Texcoco to return. What a change that would be for a city that was born as an island in the lakes to once again find itself amongst big lakes again.

We are now in Zacatecas and things are not getting any wetter. We are moving into more and more arid parts of Mexico as we ride north. Every day I am amazed to see that we are still seeing farmers till their fields and plant their corn in anticipation of a soon to come rainy season.

Posted by gwendal at 11:27 AM | Comments (0)

April 02, 2005

Central America: the Statistics

Mexico DF (Districto Federal), the second most populated megapolis on the planet estimated at about 22 million people! Surprisingly a clean and peaceful place as we've enjoyed a much needed rest with our archeologist friend Patricia Carot. On par with physical rest is past reflection; it already feels like an adventure away, but thinking back on our adventures across the fascinating coutries in Central America has yielded some interesting statistics that will hopefully answer some questions about this type of travel:

In 50 days, 12 of which were to rest or to fix a hindering problem (usually involving a bike or three!), we have managed to:

-bike 2500kms, at an average of 50km/day (including rest days) or 70kms/day (excluding rest days)

-averaging 27,000 pedal strokes per day per person, that's roughly 1 million pedal strokes in Central America!!!

-have 21 pincturas (punctured tires) between the six (tires) of us, and 5 broken spokes (all gwendal's rear wheel)

-go through half a litre of sunscreen

-stay in 23 hostels/hotels/motels/hospetajes/posados, at 3 previously known friend's houses living in Central America, 9 fire-fighting stations, 2 police stations and camp 11 times

-cross paths with 4 other cyclo-tourists, one czeck, one spanish, and two seperate germans

-eat 65 ice-creams

-spend a cumulative 84 hours on the computer

-drink 119L of pop, keeping in mind we hardly ever touch the stuff in our other life

-drink almost a metric ton of water

-eat 76 tacos as they've only become available since Guatemala.

-get 3 colds all overlapping

-take 5 buses as sometimes one or two of us were too sick to consider it fun to continue.

-cycle through 22 languages in Guatemala alone

-carry over one hundred individual things in my panniers, and these are tropical and subtropical parts. I can't imagine how heavy they'll be with cold weather gear!

-Find 9 things (including: 20 perfectly edible plums on the side of the road),
be given 25 things (including: 7 sandwiches handed to me from a moving flatbed semi trailer)
and lose/have stolen 21 (both tania and armel's bike gloves, a lucky canadian penny, part "b" of pristine water purification drops in a "Pain Perdu" recipe, thinking it was the salt shaker.

-we've taken measurements of our bodies early on and again in mexico: results seems to indicate a steady reduction in numbers except in our Glutius Maximus (bum) regions (obviously a cycling muscle) and our lower Quadricept muscles. Other than that, we are proud to announce we are keeping the stereotype of a large cycling diet alive. Frog bodies! We've tried to include a push-up dose with a betting dice game but that hasn't changed much.

Posted by armel at 04:33 PM | Comments (3)