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Published: August 8th 2008
Skeggie donkey on holiday
It's good to get away from that bloke with the pipe who's always whistling!
From Chiapa De Corzo we dropped down from the hills into a vast and hot frying pan of a plain to an overnight stop in Cintalapa. A gentle climb out into the hills the next morning was topped off with a gorgeous downhill roll through protected forestland with glimpses of the Pacific Ocean far below. We emerged in Oaxaca state, on a coastal plain, and took a bus to avoid a stiffling slog along a flat and busy road. The following day saw us back on the bikes and heading for the hills once again. As we climbed, the woodland was changing; thinning and drying out - tall, thin candelabra cactus spiked the hillside and later, crops of agave cactus crept into the scenery. We passed mezcal factories - at first just a few wooden vats beside the road but, by the time we dropped down into Oaxaca city, we were at the centre of the mezcal universe and agave cactus and mezcal plants lined the route.
Oaxaca is a wonderful city; colonial in style with beautiful churches, convents and leafy plazas. The alleys are alive with street vendors, and tourists sip beers and coffees in pavement cafes. The narrow
aisles of the markets are jammed with jostling shoppers and lookers, shuffling along between stalls piled high with a hundred types of chilli or with the sweet, rich bread of the region. From the market foodstalls, the women call out their dishes, the appearance of browsing shoppers sending them into a competitive frenzy. We squeezed onto the benches, beside people tucking into tlayudas - huge pizza-like tortillas topped with meat, cheese and spices - and ate corn dough tamales, stuffed spicy peppers and chicken in rich, dark brown mole sauce.
We looked around the gorgeous Santo Domingo temple. It is decorated in a rich, colourful, but strictly european, baroque style. Twenty-three carat gold adorns the columns, carvings and wall paintings. A huge, colourful family tree spreads its branches across the ceiling, with the dominicans who founded the church, spanish noblemen and clergy looking out from amongst leaves and fruit. Only in the later-built Rosario Chapel are the local people acknowledged, with the appearance of brown faces amongst the saints and on Christ himself.
The convent next door houses the city museum - an absorbing display of objects from Mexico through the ages. It brings to life the pre-historic
past with goods and funeral offerings from the nearby Monte Alban Zapotec city ruins, portrays the rich indigenous heritage and illustrates the changes wrought by the spanish conquistadors.
That evening the Mexican National Youth Orchestra were giving a concert in the historical Macedonio Alcala Theatre and along we went. The theatre is cosy; dreamy figures of muses look down from the walls and ceilings and private boxes line the balconies. The programme of music was varied - a Wagner overture, two movements from Beethoven´s Fifth Symphony and a modern piece, which had a little too much slap and tickle amongst the strings for my taste, making up the first part. After the interval, we were treated to an exciting fusion of classical orchestra and mexican and cuban dance elements. The orchestra were talented, energetic and enthusiastic. There was much shimmying to the rythmns and twirling of violins, violas and cellos, and the audience loved it. Relaxed though the audience were, I noticed that any mobile phone or chattering intrusion was reprimanded with a pointed, collective ssshhhhh.
We went out early the following morning to visit the ruins at Monte Alban. What a fabulous location; the buildings are set
around a vast square on a hilltop with spectacular vistas all round. Climbing the steep steps of the temples gives a bird´s eye view of the city layout. The precise alignment of each of the buildings can be seen. Only the astronomical observatory strays from the norm - a square or oblong form aligned with the cardinal points of the compass - and has five walls, the pointed fifth corner aligned precisiely with the winter solstice. I don´t think it was a coincidence.
That evening we went to another concert in the Macedonio Acala Theatre. This time, three international virtuosos of piano, violin and viola. The first piano piece was by Messiaen, two of the Twenty Views of the Infant Jesus. It is a crashing, discordant modern piece, and I fear it would have given the Infant Jesus an attack of colic. Afterwards followed some rather more harmonious and genteel pieces by Brahms, Schubert and Haydn. We heard the echoes of our previous life.
And so, after a fabulous weekend of culture - old, new, mexican and international - it was time to push our pedals north-westwards. We rode on through Oaxaca state and strayed briefly into Puebla.
More like the Mexico I was expecting
We stayed in the highlands, the road dipping and rising with the contours, all around fabulous vistas of wooded hillsides. As we journeyed, we noticed subtle changes in the landscape; here pine trees, there cacti, elsewhere rocky earth with low, scrubby trees. As the scenery, so the food: the same essential ingredients, merely combined in a subtly different way with each passing mile. In Telixtlahuaca we were offered the scrumptious and lip-tingling molcajete de cantina; a rich delight of beef, chorizo sausage and cheese in a thick soup-sauce of green chilis, avocado and coriander with roasted whole shallots. It is remarkable how quickly we have become accustomed to improbable combinations of flavours and chili-rich sauces at every meal. Even the unlikely, and unlikeable, sounding eggs rancheros - fried eggs in green chili sauce with beans, a sprinkling of cheese and a pile of tortillas - soon slips down with relish - even for breakfast.
The small towns we stayed in were lively and friendly. At their heart was the church, usually of monumental proportions and often with beautifully sculpted or painted facades. Nearby, the main square, where people strolled, or simply sat, and vendors sold their wares: food snacks
such as tacos - tortillas piled with meats and spicy sauce - or fruit drinks of fresh papaya, pineapple, watermelon or guayaba. Hidden nearby would be the labyrinth-like market.
Finally, we dropped down onto the level, agricultural plain that led us to the city of Cuernavaca in Morelos. This bustling, prosperous place has its full complement of shops, street sellers, markets and traffic jams but, in amongst the noise and hustle are beautiful churches - oases of cool tranquility and peace. We sit awhile and watch the continual stream of visitors, each snatching a few moments of quiet reflection away from the busyness of life outside. The city is also blessed with several public gardens, and we visit one, the Barda garden. Like the church we visited earlier, it has an atmosphere of cool serenity and prompts quiet reflexion. Again, we sit, watching terrapins swimming in the lake and contemplating the nearing end of our trip. Our old life is beckoning, but lets not get maudling; it´s Richard´s birthday tomorrow and so we splash out an early birthday lunch - three courses, a couple of beers and a sticky bun - it´s not quite Darley´s, but then neither is
the price - I think we spent nearly eight pounds.
Next, the home straight to Guadalajara, a thousand kilometers and three weeks away. You've stayed with us so far, can we make it to the finishing line together?
Meanwhile, can anyone think of any meaningful, or even meaningless, employment for two slightly worn cyclists?
Tot: 0.106s; Tpl: 0.012s; cc: 19; qc: 67; dbt: 0.0664s; 1; m:domysql w:travelblog (10.17.0.13); sld: 1;
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