Passing by Tranquillo

One day, while having a lunch of cheese, crackers and hot sauce on the side of a small rural road, Jacob made the observation that our tourist visas were near their expiration date. We were about midway through Guerrero at that time, and looking forward to all the dirt roads our map showed, winding through the massive state of Oaxaca. Our discussion that day, as always, was rather brief. We came to the conclusion that we would get on a toll road and blast through the next fifteen hundred kilometres or so of Mexico like lightening. Maybe it was time for a change of pace; we had long since become intimately acquainted with the country. To the point of recognizing all the popular songs, knowing the names of our favourite regional cheeses, and even being able to predict when to hold our breath to avoid the overpoweringly putrescent stench of rotten animal carcass. It is perhaps, best not to get too attached to things held familiar. A nomad has to know when to move on.

So we blasted through the coastlines of Guerrero and Oaxaca, occasionally finding paradise beaches with only a handful of kids from sleepy fishing villages playing in the waves. In Puerto Escondido we were offered beds at a fire station. The firemen treated us to a meal of Armadillo meat and related stories of the supernatural from Oaxacan folklore.

But mainly we just pedalled our bikes. Grinding out the hours on the straight and flat, there was an overabundance of time to think; time to reminisce on fond memories, or hit the repeat button on your mental music collection. I started to feel like a prisoner of my mind. I wished that something would liberate me from the monotony of the Carretera (high way), but all I could do was sprint at the top pace allowed by the knobby treads of mountain bike tires.

Then one day we rolled into a small town all mad with thirst and completely out of water. Lately we had been filling our dromedary bags from twenty-litre jugs of purified water that we would buy from small grocery stores. It was cheaper to buy purified water than to pump it ourselves ‘factoring in the cost of replacement filters’ and it was tastier to drink water untainted by our iodine purifying solution. For some reason, finding water in this town proved to be a bit of a hassle. One market would send us on to the next; merchants would assure us that what we desired did in fact exist, if not at the next door down then certainly at the gas station. Eventually we came to the gas station they too would not sell us water. I decided to fill my Dromedary bag from the restroom tap, but a heavy set man beat me to the entrance and proceeded to take control of the sink. Hanging from one of his hands was a large bucket containing razors, a bar of soap caked in hair and grit, and cigarette butts. As he positioned himself in front of the mirror, I found myself impolitely staring; was he really going to chain smoke during his shave?

Suddenly overcome with nausea I turned my head and went in search of alternative water sources, but none were to be found. An attendant informed me about the existence of a garden hose that was conveniently located at the feet of the man with the bucket full of shaving equipment. I walked back to the restroom trying to gather the courage to ask the man to step aside for a moment. But when I got there, I found the man with his shirt removed and his protruding belly resting upon the edge of the sink I felt an instant drain of will power. We waited nearly half an hour in a thin strip of shade outside the restroom for the man to finish up with the meticulous care of his face.

We fuelled by the budding excitement of entering a new country and starting a new leg of the journey, we couldn’t adhere to our usual tendency of chilling out — it was hot and our adrenaline was high. We would make it to Chiapas by tomorrow morning, possibly this very night, and then Guatemala was only a few more days away. Driven, unconsciously, to preserve the efficiency of our pace, the shaving man incident seemed interminable. I looked up as the man finally took his leave of the mirror. Whatever he had done to clean up the lower part of his face was eclipsed by a thick drooping moustache.

Fully loaded with water, we once again took to the highway. Spinning over flat plains, we could see the road for miles ahead, every foot covered by traffic backed up by a rickety steam-roller. As we weaved our way through the line of stranded cars, we often had to barge into the narrow space between bumpers when an oversized bus or truck made it impossible to pass on the right side. Drivers glared at us as we executed our impertinent manoeuvre; each awaiting their turn to make the dangerous pass into oncoming traffic. When we finally reached the steam-roller, I was shocked to see the “shaving man� unconcernedly piloting the shuddering beast. With the same drooping moustache, his shirt rolled up over his rounded belly, and a cigarette hanging lazily from his lips. Then, as Goat and I sped past, suddenly the machinery made a bold leap forward, accelerating into chase mode. It felt like a cartoon sequence from the Road Runner Show, where the conniving Willie Coyote operates a contraption on the verge of malfunction to catch a bird madly spinning its legs. Had the presence of oddball gringos disturbed the serene atmosphere of ´Tranquillo´s afternoon shave? Would he catch up and pulverize our bike frames and bones into fine dust? Picturing the Roadrunner’s whirling legs which left in their wake a trail of flames I tried to match his intensity with my pedalling. Eventually, having put enough distance between my rear end, and that noisy wheel of immense crushing force, I could relax a bit.

Up ahead I could see a tow truck crew attaching hefty chains to the burned out shell of an exploded tanker truck. The charred remains were upside down in the drainage alongside the road; it appeared unlikely that the tow truck alone would be able to drag the long crumbling skeleton out of its pit. I wanted to hang around to witness the Herculean feat, yet moments after stopping; I could already hear the roar of the mechanical beast catching up from behind. It was time to move!

Due to our fast pace we had endured the record stretch of nearly two weeks without internet connection. So later that day we, when found a Cybercafé in a small town near the Chiapan border our eyes virtually melted into the warm glow of computer monitors. Before any of us could muster the willpower to rally an exit from cyberspace, the real world had become dark.

Toll roads are much too dangerous to ride on at night, even for short amounts of time, so we asked the locals where the best place in town would be to set up our hammocks. One man encouraged us to go to the central park. Another told us we could camp in trees behind a gas station — there we found a guard with a machine gun who forbade us from venturing anywhere near the gas tanks. Finally, we asked the police, and they motioned for us to set up our hammocks from the pillars in front their office right in the centre of downtown. Throughout the night, young people with expensive sound systems drove by our camp blasting their favourite party music. Sometime near the break of dawn the night-shift-police washed their cars and performed random engine maintenance about three feet away from my head. At seven o’clock sharp the megaphone system of a roving street hawker clicked on. We could count on the merchant listing off his whole inventory of goods for the next few hours.

We were well acquainted with these persistent amplified voices — they rarely took breaks for breath, nor altered their script. Every member of town no doubt knew the inventory by heart. After nearly half an hour of trying to ignore this auditory abuse I heard Jacob mumble: “This would be the absolute worst place in the world to nurse a hang-overâ€�.

Later on that morning we crossed into Chiapas, and the terrain transformed from the marsh wetlands of lower Oaxaca to dense tropical foliage of the Sierra foothills. Studying our road map, we gauged the distance we had covered in the past ten days to be roughly eight hundred kilometres. In that time we crossed a land that daily underwent drastic transformation, passing through towns and villages of diverse cultures and history. It all went by like a blur, my mind focusing on instead the random eccentric encounters, and of course that carrot at the end of a stick; Guatemala. We were just three hundred kilometres of toll road away.