May 10, 2005

Mexico: Run for the border.

Leaving Mexico city was a touch harder than coming in. We did not have a country road virtually leading to the gates of the city. North of Mexico we were stuck following the highway for three days. Luckly once we finally got off the highway on our way to San Miguel de Allende we never had to go near anything like it again in Mexico. Minutes after leaving the highway we ran into two other cyclists going the other way. It was a classic cycle touring moment, where with so much in common and so many stories to share you talk as much as possible before time catches up to you. This time however our new cycling friends were two retired american women, one of which was a teacher who would "bring geography to life" in Santa Cruz classrooms by showing and talking about the places she has cycled! Definately a inspirational moment for both of us. They were the last cycletourist we met in Mexico.

From San Miguel de Allende we followed the "camino real" which is a trail that the spanish used to move all the silver and gold they mined in the central mexican plateau all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Such cities as Dolores Hidalgo and Zacatecas look like they should be in Spain and not in the new world.

In Zacatecas we met four Hopi Natives on a research project see USA: Don't Worry, Be Hopi!
What Did not mention was that the hotel we found them at used to be the Spanish treasury and half of the building had been bombed by Pancho Villa and his troops during the revolution between 1936-1939.

As we left Zacatecas we passed the tropic of Cancer (23.7 deg. North) headed for the state of Durango. One night we stayed in the small town of El Baluarte. We had just ridden in and the first person we asked if there was a place to camp invited us to his house. There we were greeted with great enthusiasm by the grandfather and Patriarch of the family. When we asked to go to the washroom we learned that they did not have any toilets and that the best place to "go" is behind the bushes at the end of the yard! After a really cold and spectacularly starry night we prepared to set off. But "el Abuelo" grandfather and his brother next door had other plans. We were treated to see how they make adobe bricks. Which when commissioned sell for 1.25 pesos each.
I was only too happy to give the video camera to Armel and try my hand or foot at stomping mud mixed with horse manure and dry muched corn stalks.
Then pouring the mixture into a mould and removing the mould to then let the bricks dry.

Later we passed by Pancho Villas birthplace San Juan del Rio (b. 1878) The sun was setting, but we had some local knowlege of a local hot spring only a few kilometers away. We turned left and started down an un signed dusty road to a river. There was a small parking lot and a fenced in pool. At the entrance a old man charged us 1 peso to enter and told us we would be able to camp on the grass inside the fence. At one end of the pool there was a small conduit leading to a smaller pool where the hot liquid elixir that makes hotsprings so wonderful was pouring out of a 1/2' pipe. This was one of our favourite camping experiences of the trip. Since Guatemala, with only an occasional drop, we have been staying at over 2000m elevation in Mexico. In the south this was a concious decision to stay away from the heat, but north of Mexico city the nights started to become much colder than expected.

Just north of the Durango state is the largest and last Mexican state we visited made famous for its little dogs: Chihuahua.
The geography started to change as we left the high plateau of central Mexico for a more varied elevation, generally one small plain followed by a small mountain range, followed by another plain etc...

Untill we arrived in Hidalgo de Parral, where the infamous revolutionary and local hero Francisco "Pancho" Villa died. Before arriving in town we met three "roadies" road cyclists on a training ride 60km out from the city having a bite at a small taco stand. One of them Alonzo (who does not look a day older than his 17 year old companions but is actually 29) invited us to pass by his house on our way into town. They took off, much too fast for us to follow with our heavy bikes.
But as we were entering Parral, we smelled the smoke from a barbeque (parrillada) and were waved over by Alonzo and his family. Soon we getting fed and having a tour of the city organized.

Our next stop was the Tarahumara Range in western Chihuahua. We left the high plains behind and entered the land of ups and downs and giant canyons.
The desert lansdcape gave way to pine trees and even colder nights. The ranchers gave way to logging trucks of every size and shape. We noticed that in the much less indegenous northern mexico, the Tarahumara range is a sanctuary for the Tarahumara Indians, whose culture remains vibrant and strong. We also visited the Sinforosa, Urique and Copper canyons.

Just before arriving in Creel, we visited the Arts and Crafts shop called "La Sociedad de Solidaria Kari Igomani Niwara" which means house of the women in the Raramuri dialect of Trarahumara. These women of the Raramuri villaged have organized and created a collective to improve the conditions of their families. They collectively work to make crafts to sell in the shop. The projects they fund are increadible as they try to reduce illiteracy, infant mortality better social and economic development of their community.

They buy goods in bulk to provide them cheaply to the community, Own a four hundred hen, house to provide eggs. They run a private school, that allows them to controll the curriculum and teach their native language and culture.
They have also built a community health centre with the help of their husbands.

Posted by gwendal at 11:18 PM | Comments (0)

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: and

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)

March 23, 2005

Mexico: Sun Weary

Wednesday morning, March 9th in a small hostel in the very beautiful city of San Cristobal de las Casas, I woke up and did not feel it right away but once I sat up I realized that my neck, arms, legs and face were a little itchy. After a shower and some thorough self examination I found that I had small hives everywhere my skin had been exposed to the sun. At first I though it was just a bad case of prickly heat and it would go away with a good wash, but soon it became evident that it was not going to be the case, I had some sort of allergic reaction.

I ran around the city looking for calamine lotion to relieve the itch. The next morning the rash had intensified and for the first time on this trip I decided that I was sick enough that it warranted a visit to a doctor.
Unfortunately the dermatologist was only in San Cristobal Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So I went to see a GP, who really reminded me of a Doctor straight out of a Pee Wee Herman episode. He spent more time playing with his toys: Electro Cardiogram, Ultrasound, Microphone, Blood Pressure Monitor, etc... than looking at my skin. Evidently he uses these fancy technological items to wow and awe most of his campesino patients. All I learned was that I had an allergic reaction and I should take antihistamines (which I already knew). He prescribed me an injectable antihistamine and a pill antihistamine and an SPF 80 sunblock which I think makes me loose pigmentation in my skin.

The itch was so bad that I was driven to try the drugs he had given me. So with my courage in hand, along with a sterile syringe that I had carried since the begining of my trip, I spent 20 minutes trying and finally succeding in injecting myself with the antihistamine in my right bum cheek.

Friday, still very itchy and almost feeling worse we decided to take the bus to Tuxla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, to find the Dermatologist. After a confusing half hour trying to figure out that "poniente" is the opposite of "oriente" in Spanish and means west, we managed to find the doctor's office.

This time there was no fancy quackery. Instead the dermatologist went on a detective reconstruction of my diet leading up to the reaction. The first suspect was antibiotics which frequently can cause sun sensitivity, but I had not taken any. Then he identified a few other suspects, garlic and Ibuprophen. Both have been documented to increace sun sensitivity in certain people. I apparently may have something in comon with vampires lately, garlic and sunlight is not too pleasent.

It is the worst kind of prescription for a cycle tourist, but my dermatologist prescribed me to stay in the shade, rest and moisturize my rash and eventually it will go away. We waited two days and then I decided that I would rather cycle in long sleeves and pants than go stirr crazy in the 35 degree heat.

Monday March 14th nice and early in the morning we were back on the road.
Since that return to the road with almost no part of my body exposed to the sun I have been slowly recovering. Now the rash is gone and I am almost totally better. However the fear of the sun is still with me, and I don't plan to cycle in short sleeves again for a while. I am happy however to find that it is possible to cycle all dressed up. I don't have the sticky sunscreen mixed with sweat, dust and dirt on me at the end of the day. I am also starting to see the wisdom in the local indegenous and traditional dress which is strategically designed not to expose much to the sun at all.

Posted by gwendal at 01:52 PM | Comments (4)

March 12, 2005

Mexico: King Corn: a side tangent looking at our dependencies on ZEA MAYS.

We find ourselves in the land of corn; inescapable and so far welcome. We see it everywhere, we eat it in tacos, quesadillas, chips, raw, but i never guessed how much more an impact this crop actually has. I've mainly unearthed information about the always excessive and exaggerated society to our current north, the USA.

Corn fields covers 80 million acres (32 million hectares) of US soil. Like the tulip, apple and potato, zea mays (botanical name for all types of corn) has evolved over the 10,000 years as humans cajole its domestification. Zea Mays produces plentifully in exchange for more habitat, the spread of its genes all over the world and changes to the land to best accomodate it (cutting down forests, plowing, protection from corn enemy).

Christopher Columbus noticed the tasty plant and started its spread from the New World to Europe and beyond.

It's now the most widely planted cereal crop in the world.

Humans have helped the corn crop out so much (mostly in North America) it has become part of the landscape, food system and federal budget!

US president Bush in 2002, signed the farm bill for $190 billion over 10 years. This bill saw farmers paid $4 billion a year to grow more corn even though a bushel (56lbs. or 25kilos) sells for $2 yet costs around $3 to grow. Congress' subsidy by the bushel, insures corn has dominion over its 320,000 square kilometer American habitat and that it go unchallenged.

Sounding like a simple handout for the trapped farmers, this is actually welfare for the plant itself and the economic interests that PROFIT from it's overproduction. Zea Mays is not only indispensable for the farmers (whom it is swiftly and surely bankrupting) but also for the processors, factory farms, soft drinks and snack makers such as the Archer Daniels Midlands, Tysons and Coca-Colas of the world.

Foodsystems "cornification" has been going on unoticed. Unlike Latin Americans, who have had a century old diet revolving around corn, the US's transition to a corn-heavy diet is much newer. In North America, the corn is an invisible part of the consumption, due to the heavily processing or having passed through food animals before it reaches our plates. In the case of cattle, they evolved to eat grass and are fed antibiotics to stave off illness caused by the new unatural diet. Corn is even being made tolerated by farmed salmon! Why? It's the cheapest feed around (federal subsidies). Profit margin? Profit for whom/what?

More than half of all 10million bushels anually are being fed to animals, and with the collosal surpluses, companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra are ingeniously creating methods to use it up. Corn is being turned into ethanol, Vitamin C, and biodegradable plastics. But the most exhaustive initiative to keep corn in big business, is the development of high-fructose corn syrop. Apparently all but substituting sugar in our diet. Most soft-drink and snack companies are using corn sweetners instead of sugar. Estimates of 10% of all calories eaten by US adults are from the infamous Zea Mays, up to 20% for children. Between all the indirect corn in our diet (via animals), regular corn as corn (chips, sweet corn etc...) and sweetners in junk food, we are witnessing one of nature's greatest success stories, turning us (and the other unwitting species) into an expanding race of corn eaters.

Should we begrudge this phenomenal corn success? Isn't this domestication at its best?

With corn, we are sacrificing our bodies and the environment by eating and growing so much of it. Only now are we starting to understand all the health effects of our super-cornified diet. Some people suggest it is no coincidence that the wholesale switch to corn sweetners in the 1980's marked the beginnning of the epidemic of obesity, and type two diabetes in the US. Instead of lowering their prices, soft-drink makers "super-sized" their portions and marketing budgets. New snacks were plentiful as were soaring fructose levels.

Some preliminary research shows fructose is differently metabolized by humans than other sugars, making it potentially more hazardous. Little is still known about the health effects of eating corn-fed animals, but in the case of cattle, researchers have found that this beef is higher in saturated fats than grass-fed beef.

Environmental health is more objective: serious and lasting damage. Modern corn hybrids are the greediest of plants, needing more nitrogen fertilizers than any other crop. It requires more pesticides than any other food crop. All these chemicals translates to being carried off as runoff or ending up in the groundwater. In the midwest corn-belt, the Mississippi River has decimated marine life in a 30,000 square kilometer area in the Gulf of Mexico. Irrigated Oklahoma corn keeps its stomata wide open, transpiring so much water vapor that the virtual temperature fluctuations create significant turbulence as you fly across a boundary between native prairie grass and hybrid corn.

Oil and Natural gas are used to produce the chemicals we applied to the corn fields. Nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas and pesticides from oil. A US corn crop is more than producing food, it is also a huge inefficient, polluting machine that guzzles fossil fuels - 2 Liters for every bushel.

So it seems corn has become king. Americans have given it more land than any other plant - over twice the size of New York state! To keep it happy and fed and safe from predators, chemical are doused and they poison the water and further deepen the soceity's dependence on oil. Corn is so plentiful, it is eaten as fast as possible in as many ways as technologically can be made - turning the fat of the land into, well fat! One has to wonder whether corn hasn't at last succeeded in domesticating us.

Credit for this article to one of my new favourite scientist/researcher and author, Micheal Pollan

Posted by armel at 05:26 PM | Comments (0)