|James and I training knife defense before the trip under the tutelage of combat specialist Thomas Lynch|
Thursday, January 5, 2012
“So here it comes,” I thought as the three gunmen strutted down the embankment to our right, positioning themselves directly in our path. They looked at each other and smiled, cradling automatic rifles in their arms, pistols hanging off their waists. I’d been braced for this moment and, frankly, it was a long time coming. I thought we’d get it right across the border in Nogales. Though it doesn’t have the rep of say a Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican bordertown is a place of crooked authority, drug runners, and desperados. In my last three trips through Tijuana I’d been rolled twice, both times by the police. The last one left me returning to U.S. soil without the 60$ I’d had in my wallet or the nice watch I’d been wearing on my wrist. This was before things had officially turned really ugly. Before narcos started rolling decapitated heads across discothèque floors and dumping piles of dead bodies onto freeways from overpasses.
So why was I going to Mexico despite warnings from friends, the United States government, and about every stranger who got wind of the plan? I could reference the old travelers aphorism that what you hear in the news is always worse than the reality, or claim a higher level of testosterone and daring-do than your average viajero; but the reality is that I was simply unprepared. My traveling compadre, James, and I had previously devised a grand plan over an afternoon of several margaritas and idealistic musing. We were to organize, within two months, a thrilling rally down to Panama comprised of 10 teams and as many used cars. Time quickly closed down on us, other money making enterprises took precedence, and we found ourselves, a week away from our departure date, with two solid commitments (He and I) and about 5 “maybes” (which are as good as “no”s when it comes to travel preparations). Unwilling to throw in the towel and admit defeat, and with no plan B in place for the holiday season, we chucked everything but the kitchen sink in the back of James’ old Jeep Cherokee and hit the road. Climbing gear, surfboards, mountainbikes, and hiking/camping equipment were loaded in our recreational vehicle like bullets in a revolver. We may not have a clear target, but by God we were going to pull the trigger. Well, that or a bandito gang would fleece us just over the border and send me slinking back to REI, credit card bracing for some serious abuse.
We stopped in Nogales, Arizona to spend the night. There was only an hour of sunlight left and the only thing worse than driving a loaded SUV through a Mexican bordertown is driving a loaded SUV through a Mexican bordertown at night. This is apparently, among ex-pats in the know, the #1 rule about travel in Mexico: Don’t drive at night. To test this theory I asked several locals over the course of our trip if it would be OK to scoot down the road just a bit in the dark. They all shook their heads and suggested we better not. “Hay gente mala,” said one old timer on the fringes of Los Alamos, running a weathered finger across his neck to emphasize the point.
Gazing both to the south and north from a hilltop in Arizona you didn’t need to be an educated fellow to figure out in which direction sat Mexico. The neat, squared off fields and uniform, cookie cutter subdivisions of Arizona immediately and dramatically gave way to a hodgepodge, ramshackle assortment of homes and buildings surrounded by a labyrinth of potholed streets. There was no architect gazing down at a big sheet on paper before this was thrown together. No top down master plan. But what it lacked in organization, I would later gather, it made up for in intimacy, community, and personality; three qualities of which first world tract housing projects are completely void and empty. But at that first moment, gazing over the big iron fence below us, it looked like danger. We hustled back to our hotel and gave the camping stove a test run, cooking up cup of noodle by the outdoor pool as we went over maps and tried to formulate a last minute plan.
Over 1,000 miles of driving, web-browsing, and guidebook reading later we found our plan coming together in the colonial style town of El Fuerte, named after a fort the Spanish had built to protect themselves from indigenous tribes unsettled by the conquistadors’ agenda. The old part of town, around the zócalo, was truly a romantic gem. The kind of place that makes you yearn suddenly for a particular lover, wishing she could walk down the cobblestone streets holding your hand, losing yourselves in romantic exploration as the faint sounds of Latin rhythms echoed through the air and festive string light cast a soft glow over her beautiful face. Surely we were a bit out of place strolling through the streets in grubby fleece jackets in search of a taco stand, passing by well-dressed lovers furtively eyeballing us from park benches and dark corners. We’d come from a restless night of sleep on the beach of San Carlos and were in need of a good hot shower and a shave.
Just outside of El Fuerte passed the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, a powerhouse old-school train that would carry us up into the far edge of the Barranca del Cobre, passing over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels as it chugged up the canyon. The Copper Canyon is reputedly six times the size of the Grand Canyon, deeper, and much less explored and documented. Fifty years ago the tourist industry didn’t even know it existed. You wouldn’t find a single mention in a guidebook. It was essentially an Atlantis, the size of Costa Rica, sitting right in the middle of Mexico. If you want to figure out how to get from A to B when you’re inside one of the 20 canyons or 200 interlocking gorges in its expanse your only recourse is to hope you’ll run across someone in that remote land, and then hope they know what they’re talking about when they give you directions. The few maps available are laughably oversimplified and inaccurate. The one and only true authority inside those massive cliff walls would be the Tarahumara native tribespeople. Known in the running world for being able to crush even the best of the best ultra-marathoners (wearing leather sandals), they are also famously reclusive. You’d be a lucky man to have one go out of their way to appear from their cliffside dwellings to guide you out of a tough spot deep in a slot. More likely you’d run into a narco-trafficker whose gang was utilizing the more remote sections of the canyon to grow weed for the U.S. market. A traveler who happened to stumble across a crop was as good as fertilizer. They would vanish without a trace. Another victim of a land with a long history of swallowing people entirely.
Our newly minted, long-time-coming plan was to jump off the train at a town called Creel, 266 kilometers out and 2,300 meters up, and ride our mountainbikes back down to El Fuerte, exploring the canyon and it’s remote pueblos along the way. It was a great idea, and we felt the euphoria of a trip coming together, right up until the locals burst our little balloon with some very unfortunate news.
“No se puede llevar los bicis en el tren,” said the hotel clerk. You can’t bring bicycles on the train. Three years ago yes, but they changed the policy. One by one, everybody we asked in town agreed that this would be impossible. They weren’t happy about it either as they could no longer haul bigger cargo up to friends and relatives living further down the line. A dread set over us. Thousands of miles down the road and we hit a complete dead end. “Could we drive up from here,” we’d ask. “No creo,” would say some. “No es recommendable,” said others. I don’t believe so. I wouldn’t recommend it. We’d get lost and run out of gas. The roads that would be barely passable in our 4x4, if we could find them, would also be trafficked by narcos. Get caught out there in the dark and it’s goodnight Irene. What could we do? After an hour or so of moping, bellyaching, and feeling sorry for ourselves we decided to go to the train station anyhow in the morning and hope that through luck or guile things would work out. We bucked up each other’s spirits with positive thinking mantras (“You never know unless you try!”) and went to bed slightly less troubled.
Matias, a big, headstrong German man was there ahead of us, waiting with his bicycle. From the moment he opened his mouth it was evident that this man was determined and also one beer short of a sixpack.
“Zee ticket agent promised me, so I think it is alright,” he assured us, conflicting with the opinion of the Mexicans waiting by the track who did not believe we’d have a chance. When the train arrived, Matias was like a pitbull off the chain, pushing past the conductor who was trying to politely explain in Spanish that his bike was not allowed. He got on anyhow. Security was called in and they removed his bike and bags. He scooped them up, walked over a few meters, and got on a different car. They removed him again and he jumped on another one. While this amusing show went on I decided to hit them with another tact. Saddling up next to one of the trains attendants I began an appeal to his personal gain.
“Surely there must be some kind of extra fee the railway could accept for the extra baggage”
“The thing is I don’t really know what to tell you. It’s a difficult one. I’m not really the guy in charge here,” he said.
I could see a little wheel beginning to grind behind his eyes, but his posture was one of the powerless. He had little pull. I stepped away to grab my camera. The German was being extricated yet again and I had a feeling he was truly going to blow. I had to get that on film. Another train employee strolled up to witness the struggle.
“The ticket agent promised him he could take a bike on,” I explained.
“She just said that to sell the ticket,” he said, “the reality is that we are in charge.”
“Is there some kind of way we can make this happen.. maybe a special fee to the railway?” I asked, angling for the bribe again.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, and then strolled off.
I raised my camera to catch the German being pulled off yet one more time. Then in the frame, the security guard looked to the side and pointed. I lowered the camera and saw the crew waving us to the front of the train. Things were suddenly looking up.
Until they came to the dining car, I wasn’t really sure what had caused the change of heart. Well polished, German engineered insistence; or slick American deal making? In the front of the train, however, it started to come together. I was trying hard to comprehend the conductor’s mumbled Mexican Spanish as we sat on top of a huge chugging motor and blasted through a series of tunnels. Our bikes hung loose just to my side, tied slipshod to the side of the engine.
“You know we let you..” Rumble Rumble “..next guys might be difficult” Rumble Rumble “maybe work something out but don’t know what you want to do.”
I was 90% sure he was angling for the bribe, but 100% sure I didn’t want to start talking figures until he did. So we went around and around for about 15 minutes. He’d drop the vague spiel and I’d say, “What do you recommend?” Then he’d drop the same spiel again. Finally he brought up money. Since he wanted me to throw out the first numbers I lowballed the price, and we came up with 6 to 7 dollars a head (down from his 60$ a head), to be handed over in the next to last station if we wanted to continue all the way. He’d explained that, although he let us on out of the kindness of his heart, the crew would change there, one stop away from our destination. In order to press on he’d have to convince the next conductor to let our bikes slide. It was a good pitch, casting himself as an altruistic man who needed us to help him help us. Well played. I climbed out of the engine car, stepped over the gap, and slid back into the passenger portion of the train to break the news to my Anglo-Saxon contingent.
“No, ve do not have to pay!” said Matias raising a finger into the air with jubilance. “Zeh is a bus to Creel from dis station!”
I had to hand it to him, like a master chess player he knew right then, several moves ahead, that we’d already won. By making the second to last stop the negotiation point the conductor had inadvertently moved himself into a checkmate position. I would have paid the bribe, but I prefered not too. It would have slid us through, but also began to set a precedent that fellow travelers would have to suffer.
“You’re leaving?!” the conductor asked as we unloaded our bikes.
“Yeah, we didn’t want to bother you with the hassle,” I said, staying in character.
“Thanks for your trouble,” said James, whipping out a 100 peso note. He hadn’t noticed, but just behind him the new crew was walking up. A loose bill in these situations attracts eyeballs like a naked woman at a strip club. It was a masterful, though inadvertent play, offering the bribe in front of all the man’s peers. He naturally demurred.
“Thanks again,” I said as we parted ways
“You’re welcome.. que le vaya bien,” he replied. But his eyes said, “Sonofabich…”
So how should one react when armed men swing out in front of you, blocking your path? This was not my first rodeo. A decade ago, in the forests north of Bogota, Colombia I had split with a hiking group intent on blazing a different path to the pueblo that was our destination. I scaled up a steep hill and came up over the lip to find myself in a small clearing. Surrounding the open space were 6 guys in full camo. One had a grenade launcher and the others carried automatic rifles, apparently in the middle of a little siesta until I emerged, walking right into the center of their circle. Running into armed men in a Colombian jungle, especially in that era, was a little bit of a crapshoot with poor odds. If they were the guerillas (FARC, ELN) I was as good as kidnapped. I could look forward to a year or so of being led around the backcountry in chains while the group tried to extort money from my family in exchange for my life. The money not necessarily guaranteeing my release, because, if the goose lays a golden egg, why not try to get another one out of her? If these guys were narco-traffickers I was probably going to be quickly executed. If they were paramilitary (not to be confused with military), I would either be killed or kidnapped, but perhaps left alone. My only solid hope is that they belonged to the Colombian army.
“Hola amigos! Que tal? Que mas? Que hay de Nuevo?” I exclaimed with as much buddy-buddy inflection as possible. What’s up guys? How’s it going? What’s new? My goal was to convey that I was relaxed and a super fun, cool guy. Not the type at all that you’d want to kill or slap chains on. I cracked a few jokes and generally danced like a monkey until the crowd was good and warmed up. Then I got around to the nuts and bolts.
“So.. enough about me. What are you guys doing up here?”
Lucky 7 baby. Colombian army tracking the guerillas on a kill mission. Said they had passed by that way just recently.
So here I was 10 years later in that old familiar spot. James and I had just ground out a steep climb from the river valley below. The past three days had been like that. Technically, since the train climbed the entire journey, we were going downhill headed back to El Fuerte, but it sure didn’t seem like it. My bicycles middle gears were as virginal as an early years Britney Spears. There were no gentle slopes or even grades. Rather it was either a long steep, brake searing drop down to the canyon bottom, or a lowest of the low gears muli-hour grind thousands of meters up so you could drop back down to the river again. Rinse, wash, repeat. At this point of the ride, when the gunmen stopped us, we were deep in that zone that a long and steady climb requires. If you think about how slow you are progressing, how high you have yet to go, and how much your legs hurt and your lungs are burning you’ll eventually crack and step off your pedals, suffering a small moral defeat. No mountain biker wants to be seen walking their bike unless the conditions are outright impassable. So you drop into a place in your mind much like the daydreams explored in gradeschool history classes. You think about women you love or have loved. You ponder your future plans and ambitions. You fantasize about foods you will consume and drinks you will gulp down when given the next opportunity. So when men with guns step into your path, it takes a minute to snap out of your state and come around to this new harsh reality. You’re caught so off guard that you’re almost whimsical about the situation, as if it were somehow as ephemeral as your thoughts. Nonetheless, we came off our pedals and put our feet down.
A beat passed as we all stared at each other as if in a high noon shootout. Just a tick before it started to get awkward, I dropped it in gear.
“Hola amigos! Que tal? Que mas? Que hay de Nuevo?”
I smiled wide and continued with the routine, smoother and more nuanced the second time around.
“Somos viajeros. Vimos de Creel con nada menos nuestros bicis y una carpa. El camino es dificil, pero muy lindo su pais!” We’re travelers with nothing but bikes and a tent.. it’s a hard journey but your country is so beautiful! I paused for a second to see how well I managed to convey poverty and appreciation without hammering the points too hard.
“So you came by bicycle,” said the big one, “that’s pretty cool.” “Say did you ever hear the one of the guy who rode his bike to the store?”
I shook my head no. I figured 50% chance this was a joke, 50% chance it was a parable about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffering the consequences.
“He wants to buy a bra for his wife, but he doesn’t know her size,” he continued.
The shopkeeper asks, “Well are they like watermelons.”
“No way!” says the guy letting out a laugh.
“Well are they like cantaloupes?”
“No, no. Much smaller.”
“Like… eggs?” the shopkeeper tentatively ventures.
“Yes!” says the man, “but fried!”
All four men let out a roar of laughter, machine guns swinging on straps as they buckled over. James looked at me with upright eyebrows.
“I’m not quite sure. Some kind of joke about tits,” I mumbled between hearty guffaws. I hadn’t quite caught it at that point, but when a man with an automatic rifle tells a joke, you laugh at that joke.
“So you must be strong guys, riding those bikes like that,” Said the young skinny guy with a peach fuzz mustache.
‘Here it comes,’ I thought, ‘He’s leading this to some kind of challenge.’ It’s always the small guys who like to pipe up and act tough when they’ve got their posse around.
“Nah. Today I’m dragging. Didn’t have my coffee,” I said.
“You want some coffee?” chipped in the guy with a crew cut and wrap around sunglasses.
“Uh…” I looked back at James, who was eager for an update. “I think they are offering us coffee.”
“Ustedes quieren café? Hay café! Vamonos!” young and skinny said waving us up the embankment.
Sure enough, on a big pile of ashes and embers, sat a well-worn iron pot full of java. We were in what appeared to be an encampment where the guys had spent the night. I held out my canteen as the big one, the jokester filled it with steaming hot, pitch-black coffee.
“Quieren crema? Tenemos azucar tambien,” offered crew cut holding up little plastic bags full of powdered creamer and sugar packs.
This was either the most congenial mugging of all time or things were not as they appeared.
“So, we can head up this road and get to Tubares?” I asked, which was really a way of asking “So you’re just gonna let us march out of here after this coffee?” masquerading as a request for directions.
“Si…. Quieres comer algo?” Skinny guy said. Yes.. Do you want to eat something? Crew cut was back from rummaging in a bag with two pastries in his hand.
“I don’t want to eat your breakfast,” I said.
“No, no.. esta bien. We already ate,” Skinny assured us.
Big guy cracked another joke I didn’t get as James and I divvied up a cinnamon bun and a roll with pink jelly in the center, washing it town with the bold and slightly metallic flavored brew.
“So that was great,” said James a few minutes later, standing up, “but I think we have to go now.” It was a brave, assertive move spoken slowly in his friendly, crisp British accent.
“No-no,” said big guy holding his arms up in a ‘stay right there’ kind of gesture. He looked over to skinny to do the talking.
“You have to… uh… wait,” he said in English before dropping back into a deliberate and simple Spanish.
“You have to wait for an escort.”
“Si. An escort to take you through the mine property.”
“Oh. This is a mine! Up ahead a mine?”
“Yes. A gold mine. Canadian. We called the supervisor and he should be on his way.”
Two hours later we had both bikes stuffed into the back of an old Ford bronco and were driving past monstrously large machinery and the biggest tractors I’d ever seen.
“Those are nothing,” said the supervisor at the wheel, “We’ve got ones twice that size.”
We were dumped off on the other end of the property and a large metal fence swung shut behind us.
“Ain’t life all how you frame things?” mused James
“How do you mean?”
“Well that started off as a scare. Then it became an inconvenience cause I wanted to get on with the ride. Now, looking back, that time we sat talking with those guys, drinking coffee, swapping stories, showing pictures out of our wallets… we’re going to look back at that as a highlight of the trip.”
What amounted to the last leg of our ride came at the end of three days of grueling ascents but unbeatable vistas. We finally rolled into a town called Tubares. Judging from what I’d gathered from a couple campesinos the day before, Tubares would have a nice little posada where we could get a shower and a clean bed, and a couple restaurants. We pondered our order at great length on that final stretch into town. A couple asada tacos and a big glass of hibiscus juice to wash it down? No, we would eat at least three tacos apiece. Maybe make them quesadillas, getting a handful of cheese thrown in with the meat. Then stuff them out with the guacamole sauce, salsa, and chopped onions the restaurant would place on our table. Maybe have a cold bottle of coke first, then the hibiscus drink when the food came out. Or if they offered some kind of pineapple agua, like the restaurant in El Fuerte, we’d definitely take that over the hibiscus.
Picture us rolling into town and asking a crowd of kids in ratty shirts where the nearest restaurant is. Now picture our countenance drop when they respond “No hay restaurante aqui.” There was no restaurant in Tubares. There was, however, a small tienda, a general store, down by the church. We rode over there in silence. Each man coming to grips with his juicy beef taco becoming a bag of crackers. His cold pinapple juice, ice cubes cool on the lips, becoming a room temperature soda.
At the counter, simultaneously shoveling spicy red chips and brittle chocolate chip cookies into our mouths we struck up a conversation with the shopkeep.
“So El Fuerte is pretty close to here?” I asked.
“No. Not close. Far.”
“But it’s fairly level.. not a lot of up and down?” We were at the river basin. El Fuerte was at the river. It made sense.
“No senior. Mucha subida y bajada.” A lot of climbs and descents.
“Ay yay yay..” I exclaimed leaning hard and heavy on the counter. I was over it. I was so over it I wanted everyone to known I was over it. James, a stronger rider than I, was undoubtedly up to the task, but I believe he too had had his fill. Climbing up and down that canyon was a bit like eating pancakes: It’s quite a treat, but you reach your limit abruptly, and when you do the thought of one more bite is repulsive.
“This guy is going to El Fuerte.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“This guy is going to El Fuerte,” said the shopkeep again pointing to a man who was suddenly standing beside me.
“You’re going to El Fuerte?” I asked.
“Si. We are all going to El Fuerte,” said the mustachioed fellow matter of factly as he gestured grandly behind him.
I turned around to see a fleet of silver pickup trucks that had rolled into the dusty square while I was soaking in my pity party, oblivious. Each one had a bright seal stamped on the side. CHIHUAHUA STATE DEPT. OF HEALTH
An improbable turn of events got us on the train, beginning our adventure into the Barranca del Cobre. A right place at the right time stroke of luck ended it. Five minutes earlier or later to that little shop and we would have missed the only ride out of town. The caravan, which had just spent three weeks in the region distributing anti-malarials, was wrapping things up and stopped on a whim to grab a few snacks for the ride home. With our bikes in the back of a new F-150, we reclined deep into a couch that had been installed in the bed and watched 2 more days of hard riding whisk by. A cool afternoon breeze blew over the land while it slowly transformed itself from shade to shade as the setting sun coaxed different colors out of the canyon walls.
It turns out fate does occasionally open up some doors for the unprepared. It’s probably fair to say there are more doors out there, on the road and in the unknown, than we tend to imagine. And those doors lead to some pretty interesting places. Occasionally you’ll go through the wrong one, but usually, even if it’s not what you had planned, it’s the right one. But you have to knock. You have to knock.