Friday, December 2, 2011

On the road again...

My name is Mikey and I have just spent a month travelling with Benji. I met him and Raphael at the COP 16 in Cancún in November 2010 and kept in touch with Benji, sharing Ecodepa and Klimaxforum adventures throughout the year. I decided to give up using money for a month and join Benji on a trip hitch hiking through the notorious northern deserts of Mexico to a 10 day meditation retreat in total silence. What follows is a description of that trip.

We were in a town called Mixquic for the symbolic celebration of the “Day of the Dead”. Benji and I sat with our friend Xavier in silence, high upon the wall of the cemetery, contemplating the ocean of candles below us. Once a year millions of Mexicans light candles around the tombs of loved ones and spend an evening together with their family. It´s an incredible display and represents an admirable acceptance and celebration of death which is in stark contrast to the fear and solemnity it is treated with in Europe.

However, on the other side of that very same wall was the embodiment of the aggressive consumerism characteristic of life in Mexico; the street is swamped with street vendors and one particularly obnoxious man is yelling into a microphone about how cheap and wonderful his rugs are. That´s right, rugs. Thousands of tourists come to Mixquic for this day and the whole centre of the town is geared to sell them heaps of junk food, junk souvenirs and just plain junk (…rugs?). Personally I feel pretty ashamed to have contributed to this desecration of such a wonderful and spiritual event by attracting all this tacky shite, and I tell myself if I am in Mexico for this celebration some other year, I will slink of to a remote village somewhere and appreciate it with more respect.

For us it was also marked the end of a chapter; for me the end of my life in Mexico, the start of something new, and the return to the road. After a year here I had taken the decision to go back to Europe, to my family, to old friends and new adventures. We were to leave the day after. We didn´t know exactly where to, or when we would arrive, but we were leaving. I knew the next month was going to be one of the biggest of my life; hitch hiking with absolutely no money through an area internationally renound for its violence, and then spending 10 days meditating in total silence. The reports of drug related violence were daily in the region – executions, decapitations, dismemberments, massacres… but in our year in the country we had seen not even a trace of this. Absolutely nothing. We wanted to talk to the people who were living it.

And what better way than to do it than without any money. Travelling without money forces you talk to everyone, to get anything. From the people who give you rides, to the market stall owners who feed you, to the people who invite you to sleep at theirs, to the other homeless street people… each a glimpse into a foreign reality.

What I have in common with Benji is the thirst for new, strange and intense experiences. I had been travelling in Mexico for the past year, at times in trying circumstances, but I was drawn to the idea of cutting loose the safety net of money and surrendering totally to the motion of the road. Just to see if I could.

We were joined by Marissa, a friend native to Northern Mexico who had hosted us at her place in Mexico City for a few weeks. She wants to make documentary about freeganism and spent a lot of time not-so-secretly filming our trials and tribulations. Over the weeks she became a close friend.

We left Mexico City on the 4th of November, and only after the long walk out of the city and the first couple of rides did we look at the map to see where we were going. We realized that on the route to Morelia, where Marissa had family, we could stop by Ocampo which was host to the famous migration of the Monarch butterfly which was just about starting. Over the winter months thousands of orange and black butterflies head from Canada to the same spot to die, and it´s famous for being one of the natural wonders of the world. And by chance it was right on our route.

A kindly driver took us all the way up the windy roads to the highest village on the mountain where we slept in a house under construction. In the morning we agreed to translate some signs in the sanctuary in exchange for entrance. After an hours walk further up the mountain, our guide stopped and told us we had arrived. Arrived where? The depths of the forest? After a few seconds I realised that the leaves on the massive pines towering above us weren´t leaves. They were butterflies. And the tree next to it. And the tree next to that one. And the one next to that. All of the trees covered in sleeping butterflies. He told us that they would wake up when the sunlight warmed them up; we were going to see the waking of the monarchs. So we waited. And waited and waited. And the bloody clouds wouldn´t let up. Occasionally a ray of sunlight would poke through, hitting a couple of trees and the sky would start buzzing then it would disappear sending a few butterflies to the ground. Eventually a gap in the clouds formed and it really began. The butterflies started filling the sky, then the whole forest, and then just falling all over us. They danced and weaved around us in an almost choreographed chaos. It was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.

The same day we made it out to Morelia to stay with a friend, Andrés. We rested, recycled food and went to the cinema in the charming colonial city. We had come just in time for the state elections and the whole centre was full of podiums, balloons and loudspeakers. The PRI had been in power, through electoral fraud, for 70 years up until a few years ago when the centre right party PAN were elected. Now the PRI were looking to get back in, and it seemed as though it was working. One of our lifts gave us his perspective “Yea the PRI stole, but at least they let us steal too”.

Soon we headed to the nearby lake of Patzcuaro. You come to read roads quite well when you´ve been hitching for a while and we could sense the fear of the motorists as they drove by. Michoacan is one of the most high profile states in terms of drug related violence and we felt it that day. It took us the whole day to travel the 60km to Patzcuaro. The famous cartel that governs Michoacan is called “La Familia”, and is known for its protection of the residents of the state. We heard about how they helped reduce petty crime, they operated out of churches with some kind of code of honour, sent the community Christmas cards and even invested in building hospitals and schools.

After all the conversations we had regarding the war on drugs, what I can gather is this; the rival cartels and the government had for years found a balance with each other. When the PAN came in, they shifted the power balance, trying to secure the business the PRI had been doing for all those years by backing different cartels and double dealing with them. So the war on drugs is not so much a war on drugs, as much as the PANs war on certain cartels. The PAN came into power on a weak footing, and by declaring this war funneled money into the military securing its support. The anti war movement focuses on social solutions to the problem; people turn to the drugs trade because of a lack of alternative opportunities to earn a dignified living – education and employment are key. The further north we went, the more we heard of the Zetas who supposedly contribute the most to the insecurity of the country. They were the armed guard of one of the main cartels, made up mainly of ex-military men, which broke off and now is involved in extortion, people trafficking, kidnapping.

The people of Michoacan are extremely generous and friendly. We never really had problems recycling and plenty of time we were invited to dinner. Together we developed a spiel that we went on to repeat a thousand times in all the restaurants, bakeries and markets on the way; “…we are travellers from France, Britain and Chihuaha, and our trip is a bit different in that we don´t use money at all, which is a kind of experiment in order to get to know local people and culture better and push our limits; we do it by hitch-hiking everywhere, camping and recycling food. We were wondering if you had any left overs, dry bread or bruised fruit that you weren´t able to sell that you could give to us…”

We got to the coast in time for sunset and slept on the beach in the warm climate of the pacific. The following day we made it to a little place off the beaten track called Maruata which was a beautiful cove punctuated with various cliffs and stacks, where we stayed in the turtle sanctuary with the stoner wardens. Incredibly, they let us stay in exchange for helping them liberate 450 baby sea turtles and so we did just that as the sun rose the following morning. In reality most of them got eaten in their first few hours in the sea, so really our liberations was something of a massacre, but it felt special anyway. The strength in their little legs was incredible.

We headed northwards towards a town called Bucearias where an old friend of Marissa was waiting for us. On the way we copped a lot of sun in the back of pick ups and were picked up by a very hyperactive and friendly American chap who was right on our wavelength… it felt like we had our own car. It was here in Bucearias where I made the ground breaking discovery that ice cream parlours often had squished ice lollies and broken cones that they would give us. Our sugar intake doubled.

We said goodbye to the beach for the final time and headed inland to the city of Guadalajara. It’s the capital of the state of Jalisco and one of the biggest cities in Mexico in terms of population where we found refuge with Marissas sister. We took a walk through the centre where we found a rock and roll band jamming out in the central plaza, complete with amps, who had amazing chemistry and energy. We also swung by the small but determined “Occupy Guadalajara” camp in the same place. We were joined by Paulina, an activist from Merida benji and I met in Cancun, who was keen to try the experience with us. She brought a good dynamic to our little team and went through perhaps one of the hardest legs of the trip.

Leaving the city we made a handful of questionable hitching decisions that left us in a village somewhere in the country, which by chance was having the closing ceremony of their annual festival. The musical chaos of a dozen or so brass bands all playing different things at the same time at first was a source of amusement but soon became exasperating and we had to leave. But not before being offered a free vegan pizza in an American style diner. We slept comfortably in another building in construction owned by the guy who gave us a lift in to that town.

Leaving the next day became a nightmare as we were in the middle of nowhere, but we eventually found our way to Guanajuato. We stayed with an aunt of Paulinas on the outskirts of a city in an incredible colonial house... after the country building site we suddenly felt like aristocracy. That night we walked to town. Not using money means not using public transport. We were tired and we walked a really long way. And on the way back we also walked a really long way. For me this experience of walking was definitive of the trip; reaching a point of exhaustion and passing it, out of necessity. Every time I surprised myself at my own resilience. Guanajuato is famous for its delicate colonial architecture and we weren´t disappointed, we meandered through its labyrinth of quaint side streets and tunnels for hours before heading back. We took a day to recover from the walk and eat properly.

Then we took on the ambitious prospect of getting to the desert of San Luis Potosi in just one day and we made it in the nick of time arriving in time for sunset. For the first time on the trip, we stayed at the fire station for a night. It was awesome. We had showers, a kitchen, good company, and could leave our stuff to go out. I love the firemen. The day after we arrived in the famous Real de Catorce, an old mining town up in the mountains. Having lost track of the date and day, we arrived at the beginning of a long weekend and the town was heaving with tourists. It was a cute place, but we were really put off by the throng so we left pretty soon to another place nearby. We crossed one of the few remaining train lines in Mexico where trains several kilometres long pass continually. It is famed as the popular but dangerous option for immigrants heading north to the USA. It was a quite a bizarre night as we slept in the desert but could still her each train honking as it passed. It was semi-arid so had plenty of bush, but still the sand, colours and stillness were stunning.

Travelling as a foursome wasn´t hard as we could always fit in the back of a pick up truck and we were always fed by generous Mexicans, even when there was nothing to recycle. We lived off of bread, fruit and tortillas. Paulina and Marissa left us to go back to Mexico city; the weeks we had passed with the girls had been some of the best in my life and so I was sad to see them leave. But it was the beginning of something else. We were now just two white bearded men alone, thoroughly in the heart of the notorious North, which changed not only our prospects for safety but significantly reduced our chances at getting a lift. It was going to be interesting.

More pictures here: link

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