May 18, 2021
While I have not yet returned to touring. With the pandemic waning, I know it will not be long now. Meanwhile since December I have been holed up in Chiapas, Mexico preparing myself for the new adventures ahead.
I have learned a bit about the culture here. My Spanish language skills have improved some; but the more I learn, the more I understand how little I actually know.
I chose Chiapas because the Covid level here is extremely low and luckily has been staying that way for the duration of my time here. My plan was to find a temporary home where I could fully return to fitness, continue learning Spanish, and find a partner to join me in my world tour. I really lucked out. Chiapas is a great place to live. It has a low cost of living and it’s a great place to explore.
My first stop was Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. It is a city of 200K+ population, with shopping malls, fine hotels and bike shops. In December, the climate is reasonable for a gringo. I stayed for a month, which is long enough. Tuxtla would be quite warm for me in the Summer. I was already using the air conditioner at times in December and January.
In Tuxtla, I met Debora. But because she is a mother of a 3 year old girl, she was not about to join me on a world bike tour. However, she was interested in helping me meet my goals and has proven to be a trustworthy person. She speaks only Spanish, which is a plus for me. She has nicknamed me ‘Gringosaurio’, combination of Gringo and Dinosaurio, the Spanish word for dinosaur. I take no offense at this.
Her three year old daughter, Africa is a fearless ball of energy, who is currently taking English lessons and loves dinosaurs. The three of us have gone on great adventures together, which sometimes include other members of Debora’s family.
One of the first things I needed to get was a car. I tried unsuccessfully to rent one in Tuxtla. Apparently the tourist industry had quite collapsed there. I was able to make a reservation using Expedia, only to find at the address listed for the dealership, an empty store front. This happened twice before I decided it might be better to simply buy a car.
I spoke to my Cousin Rob Woudenberg, an auto mechanic. He convinced me the best vehicle for my needs was a Dodge Caravan or equivalent. With help from Debora, I bought a 2008 Chrysler Town and Country with a 4L engine, with 100,000 km (62,000 miles), for $5000. It has been a great investment. Though it does burn a lot of gas ~7km/L (20 mi/gal). Debora and I call it ‘Cerdo-San’. Cerdo is the Spanish word for pig.
Debora helped me register the car and patiently taught me the Mexican way of driving, which looks quite chaotic until you understand the rules. Some of the roads are quite skinny. One advantage of owning the vehicle is that there is no fee for putting a scratch in it.
I did clobber the right rear view mirror on a telephone pole in the first week. We got a body shop to repair it for under $25. No replacement parts needed. The guy just bent it back into shape using a cold chisel. Almost good as new.
With a minivan at our disposal, we explored. Chiapas has tropical jungles with wild monkeys, jaguars, and crocodiles. It has Mayan ruins. It has limestone caves, underground rivers, volcanoes, and indigenous tribal villages where they speak one of three or four different tribal languages. It has beautiful beaches on the Pacific Ocean with wild coconut palms everywhere.
San Cristobal de las Casas
In January, Debora introduced me to the town of San Cristobal de las Casas which is nestled over 2200m (7300 ft) above sea level. It’s 50km east of Tuxtla. There are several indigenous villages nearby. In fact this place became famous in the 1980s as part of the Zapatista rebellion.
I moved to San Cristobal in January and have been living here ever since. Back in January the weather was quite cool at night <10C (50F), and comfortable 20C (70F) in the day. One of the places I stayed had a fireplace which was a good way to keep it warm at night.
Being ever curious about life in Mexico, Debora lines up an opportunity for me to do some cooking with her mother, Flor. Flor is well known for her ability to make chicheron, deep fried pig skin. You may know this as pork rind, but the homemade stuff is way better than anything you may have had elsewhere.
I figured we’d make a small batch on the kitchen stove, I had no idea what was coming. Flor makes this on a large scale, and sells it to her neighbors.
First we went to the butcher shop and got half a pig skin (20kg). Then Flor lit a wood fire under the caldron and poured many liters of lard into it. She trained me on salting and cutting the skin.
The important thing is to rub salt into the flesh before cooking, and the lard needs to be the right temperature. Freshly made chicharon and beer is wonderful. Flor gave me first dibs on the batch. I took a kilogram home to share with my friends. The parts with some meat clinging to the flesh are clearly the best.
As we were cleaning up, the neighbors began queuing at the door. They could smell chicharon in the making and were wanting to buy some. The cool thing about chicharon is that it will be good for a week or so without any need of refrigeration. Since this, I have bought chicharon in the market a few times. It never comes close to Flor’s.
I think commercial chicharon starts with pig skin which has been meticulously cleaned of any fat or meat. This is a mistake.
Scott and Gillian
Gillian and Scott are from Portland OR. I met them in San Cristobal where they were renting an adjacent apartment to mine. We shared a balcony there. Over time we became friends, we went on expeditions together in Chiapas.
We have plans of meeting up in Paris this September and cycling out to Bretagne (Brittany) along the Paris-Brest Randonneuring route. It will take us a week to cover the same route that the randonneurs would do in the first day.
Once we get to Rennes, we will meet up with my good friends Joël and Irène, who will take us on a tour of Bretagne.
Debora introduced me to her friend Mirjam, who was just returning from Stuttgart Germany where she was working as a physician to fight Covid-19. Together the three of us went to Oaxaca for a long weekend on the Atlantic beach. It gets pretty warm in July at sea level. But the water is cool. While there I met Nicole, a Swiss tourist who was also learning Spanish.
Faustino and Friends
Mirjam introduced me to her friend Faustino in San Cristobal. He teaches Tai Chi, and is also an avid biker. He lead many of us on an expedition to Chiconal, an active volcano in Chiapas.
We hiked down in to the lake in the volcano. There were vents under the lake which heated the water to near body temperature. We were thinking about swimming, but found it difficult to walk in the shallows without stepping on one of the many vents which were hot enough to cook an egg.
Together with Faustino, I have been on three bike trips near San Cristóbal. Each of them very special. Once I took my recumbent on a technical mountain bike trail. By luck, I managed to keep it upright.
My brother Ron
During my last week in Mexico, Ron came to visit. I got to play tour guide. Ron is not really my brother. He and I are Arden’s two grandfathers. It is much easier to just say brother, and it felt good to call him that.
Together with Debora, we went to visit the Mayan ruins and the jungle in Palenque. We visited San Juan Chamula, a town that has its own government, unconnected to Mexico. Ron and I also toured San Cristobal with Orestes, and learned about the Zapatista culture.
We had a bilingual wine and cheese party at Ron’s Airbnb. We sang and told stories. Ron even ate a roasted grasshopper. It was a fitting farewell to Chiapas.
On to Switzerland, and back to touring
Finally after more than a year off from touring, I have returned to the road. It feels good to be back. I am still in shape. The new hip is doing very well.
I started near the western border in Zurich and I am slowly progressing to the eastern border in Geneva. This is where Nicole lives, the woman I met on the beach in Oaxaca.
Wish me luck.