Yesterday, I was invited cycling with my new friends again. This time, Ernesto’s entire family would be heading into the mountains outside of town for a biennial picnic. Cycling on this trip was optional, but I never turn down an opportunity to get on a bike, especially here.
When I arrived at the house at 9AM, everyone was packing the pickup trucks for the trip: an enormous amount of Mexican food, four bikes, two dogs and every family member living at the house. I tried to help Ernesto get the bikes tied into his truck, but ended up just watching the master at work. Here are three of our four bikes loaded onto the back door.
By the end, all four bikes had been tied down against a special rail Ernesto has designed for just such a use.
While we waited for everyone to be ready, Ernesto and I fed the rabbits. The brown one followed me around and would stand quietly (can a rabbit do anything else, I wonder?) behind me waiting to be petted.
We then played catch with the two boxers for awhile. The brindled female loves to snuggle with me and often becomes jealous of the other female when it tries to get my attention.
Once everyone was loaded (mother, father, son, two daughters, three aunts, a son-in-law, two dogs and me!) we headed into the mountains, about 45 minutes away. The climb was breath-takingly beautiful but also a little nauseating. The roads are narrow and people come up on you fast, so I was sometimes faced with wondering whether we’d hurtle over the edge of the mountain or just smash into oncoming traffic. Alberto is an excellent driver, but you always feel a little nervous of your chances on these roads. I haven’t felt carsick since I was nine years old!
Alberto, my triathlete friend who introduced me to his spectacularly kind family a couple of weeks ago, shared many things about his life with me on the trip. He and his wonderful Dutch girlfriend Ekie are both athletes and they both enjoy cycling. In June, they are travelling to Europe to watch some of the Tour de France, so he was very excited to hear about my interview with Michael Barry, a hero of Alberto’s. Alberto and I encouraged each other’s language skills, from both the teacher and the student perspectives. We both feel insecure at our abilities but his grasp of English is delightful and imaginative and my Spanish is expanding.
On arrival at “la laguna” (a small lake nestled between the mountains) we unpacked the bikes at once and headed out. The scene made me a little weepy, since I haven’t been near a body of water since I arrived in Mexico five weeks ago.
“How far are we riding today?” I asked dubiously.
“About an hour and a half,” Alberto assured me. I wondered whether he meant at his speed or at mine. “We are going to the top of a mountain, across from which you will see a live volcano!”
The volcanoes in the area still release steam, but never any lava. It would be a really interesting adventure and not at all dangerous, apart from the hard cycling.
The first ten minutes we followed a chalk road, and then were underneath a stand of the most aromatic pine trees imagineable. I felt home, nearly. Forty minutes and a heck of a climb later, Alberto smiled sympathetically at my attempts. I had had to get off the bike a few times because the altitude was really getting to me.
“We are halfway there,” he said. “That is the good news! The bad news is that the rest of the climb is more challenging.” I clenched my jaw. Only a few minutes before, I had realized I’d left something at home: the hemlock. This ride was a lot harder than last weekend’s, and I was beginning to wonder if we would ever reach the pinnacle. Even walking was becoming difficult. Taking hemlock seemed the sensible thing to do now.
Back on the bikes, Ernesto, ever the gentleman, brought up the rear to encourage me. I could hear his laboured breathing behind me. And then, I heard his gears click down two. DOWN. Heck, I’d been riding even the flats (the few we actually saw) in my lowest gear, and here he was still gearing down, and mid-climb at that.
“Screw the hemlock!” I thought. “I want whatever’s in his waterbottle!”
A few minutes later, I looked across the valley to the next mountain. There, scrabbling slowly up the side of the mountain along the roadway were Ekie and Alberto. They appeared to be hundreds of kilometres ahead of us. Ernesto pointed giddily across at them.
“Si!” I smiled, wanting to vomit. At this point, we were cycling into the clouds. The temperature had dropped and the view was becoming obscured.
Not terribly long afterward, Ernesto and I were climbing the same ascent. It didn’t seem possible, but we had travelled across the range. Ahead, Alberto was waiting with more news for me.
“We are at 2700 metres,” he said. “We have only about 300 metres left to ascend. It should take no more than 20 minutes.”
“Thank godzilla,” was all I could manage between pants.
Twenty minutes later, we had reached the top of the mountain. Pointing through the clouds I could see another mountain top but could not make out that it was a volcano, sadly. Still, the climb had been a terrific challenge and I was very proud of myself. Alberto had a gadget on his wrist that, in a rather sexy female voice, kept barking orders at him. He showed me some of the statistics it had collected. We had ridden 40 kilometres in one hour and 21 minutes (faster than he’d hope we would travel!) It also told us that we had burned off 1,000 calories. I argued determinedly that I personally had burned off a great deal more than that in stress, and they laughed.
The cycle back downhill was as jarring and gut-wrenching as last weekend’s but a lot faster. Luckily, I was now an experienced Mexican cyclist and took many of the gravel sections and turns with some daring-do.
And at the bottom, we were met by the family, and series of wild dogs.
Here is a photo of my favourite dog, a small black and white bitch. She frequently came for pets and laid with me for several minutes until another meal offered itself. These dogs are extremely poorly nourished but are extremely friendly, and very egalitarian in their approach to sharing food. We think some (or all) are pregnant. Alberto’s entire family were very generous with them, as you’d expect of a family that included two veterinarians (and a soft-hearted Canadian)
After an incredibly hearty and delicious meal put on by Alberto’s mother and his aunts from the back of one of the trucks, we all laid in the grass for a rest. Ekie and I spent a few moments in each other’s company.
“Ekie,” I asked quietly, “Tell me about the woman seated on the truck’s tailgate.” It was one of Alberto’s aunts. She was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, and had suffered mental challenges her entire life. Her name was Lola.
“Why, that was my grandmother’s name!” I said.
Lola had been cared for by her parents until they died, at which time they begged Ernesto to take her into their home rather than place her in an institution. Institutions are very rare in Mexico: families automatically care for all members unquestioningly. There had never been any doubt about Lola’s coming to live with this family. I was very touched by this.
Here are two shots of Alberto and Ekie, resting with one of the boxers.
Idyllic, no? And when we arrived home later that afternoon, Alberto and Ekie presented me with the bike I had been riding all day. I was to take it home with me to use for the duration of my time in Tehuacan. I have named it Lola, as a tribute to a woman who has been allowed to contribute her valued piece to her family, just as the bike will give to me as I attempt to share my few talents with this beloved country.