You're stealing my heart away
I've been here a week and I keep getting that joyful, open, swelling feeling in my chest. For so many reasons! The people smile at my terrible attempts at Spanish, and laugh easily. Food is everywhere; cheap, tasty and vegetarian. The towns are a palette of lemon yellows, lime greens, deep terracotta reds and pastel pinks; of cobbled streets and narrow alleys; crumbling colonial architecture, roof terraces, a jumble of life. And always music in the plazas and bars. People don't leave home without an instrument. Buses are comfy, reasonable and head for everywhere at all times of day and night. And, crowning it all, the countryside! Today I walked along a mountain ridge three thousand metres above sea level, the cactus and desert flowers blooming in their steep, arid, rocky landscape, and I felt deeply happy and alive.
Eulogy over. Lets get down to the cold hard storytelling business of facts. In present tense, to make it that much more exciting.
I arrive at the border where Laredo, Texas becomes Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in the middle of the afternoon. The wall of heat that strikes me as I descend from the bus punctures my daze. It's a stark contrast to the ice on the troughs at Grey Rock Farm in upstate New York where I was a few days before.
A sluggish brown river crossed by a utilitarian bridge divides the two countries, concrete customs posts on either side hang limp flags. I think I can see Josh Brolin wearing his hospital gown in No Country for Old Men staggering along by the high fenced rail, but that could be the effect of two days straight riding the 'hound, definitely the worst bus line I've ever encountered. A grim official stamps my passport and I exchange my few remaining dollars for pesos.
And I am straight out of the badlands of the border to Monterrey, Mexico's third largest city, where at dusk the bustling bus station is a small world of its own. I don't have enough money for another ticket, and want to take another step south to Zacatecas, one of Mexico's silver cities nestled two thousand metres up on the highlands. Down here in Monterrey it's 10pm and still 30 degrees. But I suddenly feel vulnerable and trepidatious. Tired, burdened with my big bag, unable to speak Spanish, on the unglamorous outskirts of a large city, I must venture into poorly lit streets to find a cash point.
Context: when I've mentioned to Americans that I'm planning on going to Mexico, almost everyone has pulled a long face, regaled me with horror-stories, and told me not to. Their media reports on the cartels, the murders, the human trafficking and the corruption daily. It is described as a war, the border a war zone. To hear people talk you'd think the country was on the edge of a social and political breakdown, only a step away from chaos.
Now, I know that the media do not give us a balanced, rounded picture of situations around the world, tending only to show the worst. And I know that humans, wherever they're from, are normally kind, trustworthy and helpful - society can only function if that's the case. But the unknown intimidates me, and while I marvel at this primitive instinct and try to rationalise it away, I cannot completely shift my cautiousness. I'm angry with myself that the stories have affected me and that I feel nervous as I take my first steps from the well lit bus station.
It was fine, obviously. Back at the bus station, the number of bus companies and destinations is daunting. Finally I approach a winsome woman representing Autobuses Expreso Futura; the time travelling potential their name offers singles them out. With pointing at the map, use of the 'I want an earlier bus than that' mime, much smiling and a bit of laughing, I get the ticket I want. And I remember that travelling in countries where you don't speak the language is easy as long as you don't get embarrassed, I rediscover that kind people are everywhere (about 5 help me find said bus), and I know everything is going to be just fine.
I'm not saying there aren't problems here. The Guardian today reports on a mass grave found just outside Monterrey, and last week there were four journalists murdered in Verecruz where they'd been asking too many questions about gangs and corruption. There's a visible armed presence on the streets and regular military checkpoints control the highways. Even in small towns processions of 4x4s with machine-gun wielding balaclava'd police patrol, or put on a show of force. Where the conflict touches it is brutal and tragic, and the exploitation by the people smugglers is horrific. But perspective, please. Life for most Mexicans, in most of Mexico, is the same as it is the world over. And certainly as a traveller here, the chances of contact with any of this violence are tiny.
The mountains around Zacatecas once produced twenty percent of the New World's silver, after the Spanish had completed the gruesome task of enslaving the resilient local population and forcing them to work. As many as five labourers a day died here. There is not much mining now, but the hills are dotted with the gaping maws of old pits, black dots pinned to the rocky hillsides. The town is beautiful, it's grim heritage behind it. A fine pink sandstone cathedral and an incredible number of museums showcasing modern and traditional art are amongst the narrow streets that wind up and down the hillsides. A Victorian style arcade, reminiscent of Buxton or Bath sits in the centre, and an old aqueduct runs towards the hills. A cable car is strung across the valley, crossing the old town and swaying in the wind.
It's the first time I've been in a backpackers hostel in years. My last memory of this global phenomenon was when Andy and I arrived in Budapest and were looking for an apartment. How similar they are whether it's Thailand, Turkey or Mexico. I'm shown into a small dorm room and meet Eldad, a dreadlocked Israeli who I warm to immediately and invites me for brunch. We sit at a counter in the market and I get a huge plate of beans, rice, enchiladas and salad for one pound fifty. Yum and yum. Eldad shares vege eating tips for Mexico and we talk about meditation and the art of living, of travel. It's a pleasure to meet someone I share a lot with having only just arrived.
I'd forgotten that when you're on the Lonely Planet trail, each place you go has a ready made social group you can opt into. Hostel life has a transient communality to it; drinking in the evening up on the terrace, cooking together in the shared kitchen, a thousand of the same questions to ask each other. “Where are you from?” “where have you been?” “what drugs do you do?” and endless, sometimes tedious cultural comparison. The other travellers are really friendly and welcoming, and I participate, but I suddenly feel a bit older and realise I'm not so interested in sitting round and shooting the shit for the sake of it. Eldad keeps himself to himself and I understand that; I want to find a more sincere, meaningful connection or keep following my own path, not just get swept along in the current. Much of the company is good though; I go drinking with Andolie, and we visit a museum and ride the cable car, and despite the quest for space I've been on – space to write, to think, to feel comfortable alone and be content in myself, I can't deny that mammals like company and that communication is fun. Nonetheless, my next step is off the trail, to the beautiful pueblo magico of Jerez, where I am alone with my thoughts again and entirely captivated by its simple charm.
Jerez, the town with a thousand wandering musicians, a beautiful plaza, stunning old streets, and lots of sombrero shops. It would be very easy to live here. Cowboys ride through the centre and leave their horses outside the saloons which genuinely do have half sized, slated swing doors. Shops simply paint above the door what they sell; there's little garish advertising. I find a wonderful cheap hotel with the two crucial (and so often absent) necessities: a bedside light and a writing desk. I don't come across any other gringos in the town as I wander through its streets. I head out to a bar one evening, hoping to get chatting to some locals but no-one speaks English and after I've asked someone's name and how they are, my Spanish comes to an end. I listen to some of the music in the square, then return to the hotel and curl up with a book.
My Spanish is improving slowly, with the help of homemade flashcards and an mp3 course I downloaded. Unfortunately, while it's enabling me to communicate my needs, I have absolutely no comprehension of any responses people give me. Gesture is still an essential tool.
After soaking up the gentle beauty of Jerez for a few days, I decide to go somewhere even more remote. I head to the Sierra de Catorce high on the Mexican plateau. A 27 kilometre cobbled road leaves the highway that crosses the plain, and steepens and winds round the contours of the mountains. We pass through tiny dusty hamlets before being deposited at the mouth of a 2.3 kilometre tunnel blasted through the rock. I transfer to a smaller bus (that can actually fit into the tunnel) and a few minutes later it sets me down on the other side of the mountain, in the 'ghost town' of Real.
Real de Catorce also has its history in precious metals, once boasting a bull ring, a mint, and fifteen thousand inhabitants. Then in 1905 the price of silver plummeted and Real was deserted, its fine buildings abandoned and gone to ruin, no livelihood to be made. The population fell to just a few hundred. There are ruins everywhere, from houses to huge workings, the extent of which offer a window into the past. One hundred years ago the town was a place of real substance, an incredible contrast to now.
In the last twenty years Real has undergone a kind of revival with tourism at the centre. There's an annual pilgrimage in September when one hundred and fifty thousand people flood the streets to visit the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, which regularly delivers miracles that many can attest to. A couple of western style cafes have opened, and there's an almost cosmopolitan atmosphere as cheap living and inspiring scenery combine to draw artists here. The stalls selling plastic catholic iconography, indigenous art and hippy jewellery create a Totnes vibe that feels artificial juxtaposed against the ruins and the hillsides, but its shabby enough not to be too off-putting.
The valley of Catorce is a sacred spot for the indigenous Huichol who travel here from hundreds of miles around to collect peyote and leave religious offerings. There's a small stream of western tourists who come for the 'spiritual energy', which I guess is an excuse to get toasted in the desert. While I've never understood the impulse to try and buy into the spiritual practices of a society I necessarily can't know or truly relate to, I do understand the beauty of the town and it's stark environs, the joy of inhaling the cool air and being in the silence of this remote spot.
For me, the allure is the mountains. The gulleys and peaks fold like a cupped, misshapen downturned hand, high knuckles stretching above deep ravines that run down to the desert plain below. I find myself chortling “there's gold in them thar hills” and doing my best Bogart impression quite unconsciously. Walking up the steep slopes it's quick to leave the town behind and be in a wilderness of cactus, little desert flowers, and a low, heathery plant that gives off a beautiful aromatic smell. I think even at this height the air is a little thinner, and have to gulp it down after a climb. Yesterday I walked up the highest mountain of the range, getting an incredible panoramic view with the desert stretching off below me to the west, distant mountain ranges showing on the horizon, and surrounded by all the peaks and troughs of the Sierra de Catorce.
So, in my simple hotel I can write while looking out at an incredible view, I can walk out easily in the morning or evening, meditate a little up on the roof terrace and live quite happily on a diet of bananas and avocados.
I can't believe how much of this country there is, such a range of ecologies and breadth of history. A year would hardly be sufficient to take it in, and I've only a month! I'll hide out a few more days here, walking and writing, before heading south to explore tropical Mexico and the ancient ruins of those incredible bloodthirsty Mesoamerican civilisations.
Or at least I hope that's what I'll do. Yesterday the tiny standalone bank machine ate my card, and I'm optimistically hoping the men who come to fill the machine will give it back. For security reasons, no one can tell me when they come - “about once a week” - so it's basically a stake out, an ambush. Luckily the plaza is visible from my balcony. I knew I was going to get all wild west at some point.