Having survived “The Windy” I continued into the Chiapas region in southernmost Mexico. Chiapas seems like Mexico’s West Virginia. It’s mountainous, beautiful, sparsely populated, rich in natural resources, and poor in virtually everything else. Many of its people, accounting for only 3% of Mexico’s population, live in insular mountain villages where they speak languages derived from Mayan dialects, farm seemingly inarably steep mountainside slopes, wear very distinct and colorful dress, suffer from mal-nutrition, and beat their wives and children. I was told to avoid the section of Highway 190 between Tuxtla and San Cristobal. “Take the main road. The road through the mountains is to twisty, too dangerous and isolated, “ someone in Tuxtla told me. I’m glad I didn’t listen.
This section of road was brilliant. It rose steadily through the mountains until it reached the ridgeline where it ran below only the blue sky itself. The air here was cool and crisp. I flipped open my helmet visor and let it wash in. The purest air I’d ever tasted seemed to flow directly from wherever it is that air is created. From this vantage point the landscape rose and fell for miles below me. Clumps of small houses dotted those peaks connected by frail dusty roads. Women in brilliant colored dresses hauled bundles of four-foot long wooden stakes tied with twine up narrow little trails clinging to the mountain’s edge. Together with wire, these stakes are used to build acres of trellises attached to amazingly steep slopes . I have no idea what they grew in their trellises.
Four men sitting at a dirty plastic table on the porch of a concrete block store stocked only with a dented refrigerator of beer and a small wire rack of chips seemed shocked when I stopped. They didn’t take their eyes off of me as I walked confidently up to the front door and asked for a beer. When I told the men in Spanish that I was en route by motorcycle to Panama, they immediately started speaking Japanese. This was when I noticed slight Asian facial lines and features hiding quietly beneath their dark brown skin. I wondered what circumstances brought people of Japanese descent so far from home to such a remote place where they still talked in their mother tongue. I finished my beer and set the empty can on the table in front of them. “Domo arigato,” I said with a big smile. They laughed. Thank you Dennis DeYoung.
Further along the twisty road I found a home sitting on the outside of a wide bend. Hanging clothes formed a band of rich blues and purples along the second floor faded wooden porch railing. I stopped for a closer look. The people who lived here seemed happy to have a visitor and potential customer. I talked with the husband in broken Spanish enough to learn that he too only spoke a little bit of Spanish. Fortunately, we seemed to know most of the same words. His wife, daughter, and two sons soon appeared. They seemed interested in where I was from and where I was going. They took down one of the cloaks for me to try on – a bright blue and green piece ornately adorned with tassels. I’d seen men along the roadside wearing these same garments. I took it off and thanked them. I then removed my Joe Rocket motorcycle jacket and offered it to the man. He smiled and put it on. I pointed out the protective padding in the shoulders, elbows, and back. His wife began striking him across the back with a stick, laughing. One of the little boys liked my bike and climbed onto the seat. We all clapped as he sat there with a huge grin. His little brother was too afraid to follow suit. They took me upstairs to the open deck where they not only made the shirts and cloaks but slowly fabricated by hand the material from which they were made. I was awestruck by how labor-intensive this whole process must be. The littlest daughter kept her distance sitting on the deck floor swimming in a black and orange dress a few sizes too large and wearing a plastic bowl on her head. I bought two garments and later mailed them home.
Stopping at a fruit stand of meticulously arrayed peaches, apricots, avocados, and watermelons I noticed a pickup truck parked nearby – the bed filled with children. They watched as I bought a bag of small peaches, sat on my bike, and ate a few. I waved hello, but they just stared. I’m sure I looked as strange and foreign to them as they did to me. Before leaving, I bought two more bags of peaches, approached the driver of the truck, and asked him if I could give the peaches to the kids. At first the kids were hesitant, but I smiled and spoke softly. The littlest one went first and soon the others followed suit – pulling a peach out of the bag while I held it and walked around the truck bed. They smiled and giggled at me and my poor Spanish. I set the bag and remaining peaches in the truck bed. I wanted the kids to remember someone who looked, dressed, and talked nothing like them but did something kind nonetheless.
I spent the night in San Cristobal, a town which seems to be the historical, architectural, and cultural gem of the Chiapas region. In the morning I rode for the Guatemala border.