Chapultepec retrospectivo: part one

Personal recollections of Méxican adventures and near misses.

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I remember the first time I flew into Ciudad de México (CDMX). Five am, September 2010.  Below me all I could see were the stars and scattered patches of pueblos, slowly merging like frayed fabric into one single blanket of light, smothering the vast valle de México. And later in the yellow glow of afternoon sun, I was held close within the swirl and sway of a smokey Norteño in the heart of Alameda Central… I was smitten. I had fallen in love with this place. A love affair that would make me call its faded edificios ‘my home’.

Ciclovia

I’d arrived with transport, my old Kona ’93. I knew that ‘to survive one needed to move’, and they were very prophetic words on more than one occasion. CDMX is vast and equally congested. Daily I needed to commute from apartment to office, a distance of eight km via that great formal avenue Paseo de la Reforma to Lomas de Chapultepec up on the ridgeline.

Racing a life and death slalom through three lanes of coaches, cars and chaos. Everyday living a very everyday life, with all its colour and unpredictable drama. I recall numerous times where I ended up either at the wrong end of a bus or worse, a gun barrel, but that was normal back then.

There wasn’t much in the way of cycling culture, but Ecobici (CDMX sponsored bike sharing programme) and Ciclovia changed all that. As every Sunday (since 2011) a network of major inner city avenidas are closed to traffic, so that Chilangos (CDMX natives) can ‘retake the streets’ on a bike, or on foot.

Over those few years I lived there, the expansion of Ciclovia was nothing short of explosive, where getting out amongst it on a Sunday became almost religious.

Any given Sunday

There’s waking with that fuming raw claw of last nights mescal and malboro, followed by a rolling morning tear as I stumble round and around stairs out into the world. That familiar ‘shlack shicker shicker’ of steal gate snapping closed behind me as I stare out into the warm mustard light of Plaza Luis Cabrerra . It’s said if you want to talk with God you speak Spanish. Well today is Sunday, Domingo, God’s chosen day.

I ride streets and passeos, a cross stitch of side roads and secret ways to where the formality of Reforma bows before the majesty of Bosque de Chapultepec.  It’s there I join the rough river of Chilangos making their way down the broad avenida under a gentle rain of jacaranda flowers. The gutters awash in mauve, gently filled by the slow swoosh swoosh of barrenderos at broom.

It’s hard to describe Mexico City, you have to live it. Be taken and swollowed whole by it. Accept you are a mere flicker of flame for the briefest moment of time within its timelessness. You hate to love it, but you do.

You are drawn into the flow down to centro where old meets the very old. Where asphalt seal gives way to weathered cobble that have been worn huarache smooth over a millennia and more. Where congestion of the new is replaced with congestion of old – car with bike for bike with Trejo. All competing for space and relevance within the narrows of La Merced.

I stop at a corner and lean lazy against a sun warmed wall, setting light to another cigarette. It’s bright glow and ever so slight crackle audible above my first deep inhalation.

I’m alone, well beyond the boarder land where Emiliano Zapata meets Jesús María, down deep within the cacophony of the barrio. Where the street vendors banda competes with the bored beige clad organilleros leaning hard against their high-pitched and mildly mistuned street organs. And away beyond the Jesús in a rising smoulder of ashen covered corn I watch as one Zapoteco woman openly argues as the other eats the days profits.

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I shove off in a haze of blue smoke towards the Iglisia of La Santisima and Calle Alhóndiga in search of fresh tamales. Jostling as I go through a thicket of small semi-coiffured indigenous woman fresh from the Callejón de los milagros beauty market towards my chosen tienda. Where inside an old matriarch leans out at me over her bottle ended horn rims, expectantly rubbing thumb against fingers. I nervously place an order and in a whip of street spanish and cuss, three generations rapidly replace my pesos for plastic plate and steaming corn husks.

I nod and slowly back off, making my way to the concrete partition between her and the world where I pull up a red plastic stool within a swarm of niños to unwrap my steaming tamale pollo con mole.

Stuffed full, it’s time I negotiate the mercados and rejoin the city peloton. It’s ‘los siete puentes’ or seven bridges (overpasses) on this given Sunday and a 40km inner city circuit. I make good my freedom and escape to the Avenidas.

We took back the streets. We the people flow with all the hydrological science of a river in flood. At times still, running deep and slow. Others like a rough wash of white water scouring through the narrows. And at its edge people bump, jostle and bruise in spiralling whirlpools against smokey Sunday street vendors.

The streams and lakes of old now replaced by these great rivers of humanity as they flow around the valle through Coyoacán to return again to the city’s colonial heart. And nothing seems to beat beating a gringo. As machismo boys not yet men throw provocative sideways glances and whip past me at pace. Ever so close I can clearly whiff their brill creamed quiffs. “Puta madre!” I mutter under my breath and gripping hard at my handles I give chase – the race has begun.

Two, three and at times four of us contesting the northbound of the Circuito Interior. I’m feeling like Gene Hackman in the French connection, as we whoop and weave our way through the mayhem of bicicletas, racing the three lanes and risking all to get through the intersections before the signals change. Sometimes successful and others not.

I pull up at one red light slightly ahead of one heavily panting bandito. He looks at me grinning, mouth agape and gulping down more polluted O2 from the thin city air. In the change we are both racing again, mad, mad, mad with winning. Then in the briefest of moments I loose him. He cuts a break and takes his chances, to squeeze through the apprehension of a yellow light and is gone. I see him away up in the dusty distance, twisting high in the saddle of his battered Benotto, peering back with that grin and an arm raised in triumph.

Finally we make Avenida Mazatlan in Colonia Condessa. Dismounting at Nevería Roxy, I lean into that familiar formica counter and order a single mandarin sorbet in a cone, then push my way east along sun cracked sidewalks towards where Avenida Tamaulipas meets Michoacán.

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“Otra mas por favour”

With a screech I drag a stool across the floor and pivot back against a weathered wall, before setting alight another cigarette. This local mescalaría supplies my favourite tribute as I spend the rest of Sunday, Gods day, making my offering. I drink mescal from vasos veladoras, or the glass of a disused church candle with its distinct base a reminder of my own mortality. Every sip preceded with a whisper of a prayer “gracias Jesús” and with it my soul is slowly intoxicated within its distinct and earthly aroma.

For me another Sundays circuito receives closure. “Otra mas por favour”.

 

Away beyond the Wawa

It took us a day and a half to get to new. That’s always the challenge when you set out from the same trailhead time after time, it takes a while to branch onto uncharted terrain, to find the new. For us the new was just east of Tirau at a place somewhere, yet nowhere called Okoroire. A place of good grub, tall tales and even better, a steaming thermal hot pool.

Night was descending quickly as we slipped below the surface, I watched the stall and swoop of fantails through the punga and mist, as it gradually clawed its way up from the Waihou river falls below. Eventually arriving, greeting my chin with its chill fingers as I dove lower into the earthy warmth of the waters. It was definitely autumn and this was a definitely a very New Zealand kind of place.

Following a good meal I lay back thinking of months past. Well planned intentions and destinations not visited. Now feeling wearysome, fat and unfit, I drifted off to the roar of white water. It’s tumble, foam and swirl forcing fading memories into the deeper fissures of my mind. Ride tomorrow.

The Wawa

It wasn’t the first time we’d seen that sign that particular day, ‘Private road, no entry!’

Horse and I had made good from Okoroire, passing through Tirau and the back roads, sliding slippery in the cool fog over the rolling green south through Putaruru and onward to Tokaroa. Taking shelter from the cold drizzle under a slender canopy of the local two dollar shop where we silently squaffed down our pies.

Then passing Kinleith and the long decent to the Kopakorahi stream to that damned sign – ‘ye shall not pass’. We pulled up as the road continued on into the deep of the forest ahead. It was a wide road, a paved and beautiful road, a lost road, lost forever as just another national chattel surrendered in the sale of now private forest ownership.

Surly, I straddled my bike scouring sites for solutions when Horse quietly muttered a Lebowski under his breath: “oh fuck it!” and pushed on down the road and into the Wawa. I watched him disappear into the deep, soon following.

I missed this. Where the only sensible barriers are the natural not the human. I’ve missed the silence that comes with travelling in company and the trust that comes with it. And I’ve missed the paths untravelled, I’ve missed the new.

So as we rode on we considered our excuses if caught. Horse suggested I swear in broken Spanish, I responded that he may want to invoke tino rangatiratanga and claim his sovereign rights over the Wawa. We eventually settled on sensibility and pressed on through the endless even formation of plantation forest. With its creeping suffocating silence that lays dormant in its still.

We slowly weaved our way up the ravine the top of the Wawa, which then gently fell away in a seamless decent down Flavell Road to the Waikato river. Away up river was raw tooth of rock that is the ‘Pohaturoa’ rising near vertically from the river valley.

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Horse took point and led the way through the remaining hill country to Mokai. My legs were tiring as was my mood. I was spent and Horse knew it. Encouragement from Horse is a bit like getting encouragement from a fist full of warm gravel, its blunt, brief and raw. But it had its effect, as I climbed the last wall prior to Oruanui, then on into the fading glow of twilights passing to Taupo.

“Pub?” said Horse. And the man abides.

Through pine

With a light crust of dry dirt with equally dry joints, we headed south into the hills. It had been some time since we rode together, Horse and I.

In the beginning was Hunua and the climb up Moumoukai Road. Then the drop in a scramble of single track to Mangatawhiri, the Waterline and on into ‘the forbidden’.

It felt tamed, the forbidden. But that’s the thing about a plantation, there is order in unwilding pine. That and the suffocating silence that comes with it.

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It was Reminiscent of another place, another time, where I climbed up out of Mexico City’s endless rivers of traffic in search of space – Desierto de los Leones high above the city in the Sierra de las Cruces to the west. Its ridges and gully’s of wild pine, fir and oak pierced by flickers of light within. Nature’s palisade from the inescapable fire and rumble of the city beyond.

“Nobody here, will ever find me, I’ll always be around, just like the songs I leave behind me, I’m going to live forever now…
…and when this old world has blown asunder, and all the stars fall from the sky, just remember, someone really loves you, we’ll live together, forever, both you and I,
I’m going to live forever, I’m going to cross that river, I’m going to live forever now.”

Onward we rode, eventually screaming down the gravel winding to Ness valley and Clevedon below. And so it is. Like Mexico of old, we were back in the world.

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Epilogue

I sat in the back. Window seat. Melancholic, flying over the indescribable beauty of Central Otago as I peered out of window and surveyed old worn trails and weathered landscapes.

My decision to ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff took me two years with six weeks of that in the saddle. In the past I have tried to articulate my reason for riding. The simple answer is no more complex than ‘because I could’.

So as I cut north, I repeated to myself that continuous inner question… “is that all there is?” And it isn’t. There is always more. Lost Pilgrims are good like that. They keep wandering in search of meaning, because they can.

I slumped back from the window, the seat swallowing my skeletal honey toasted frame as I reimagined wandering. Trails not paths – there is a difference, as Robert Moor eloquently states.

A path is predetermined, civilised, extending forward in time, linked to a destination. Whereas a trail extends backwards, an endless string of signals, aimless and mythical that need interpretation and sure footing.

You may think there is a danger in trails, but that’s a matter of faith and interpretation… ‘what would you rather be doing, laying in the path of an elephant or in its trail?’

And Horse got that. As soon as he made Wellington he was back in the saddle, heading north to round out his tour. I didn’t see him for another three weeks. He was on his own personal journey, vicariously accompanied by me.

Well done Horse, there is nothing better than to ride together alone.

So let’s raise a glass to solitary pilgrims, aimless trails and the warmth that comes from greeting strangers as soon to be old friends.

It’s time to reimagine wandering.

Wyndham to Bluff

Day nineteen – to the end of the road

We were well past Edendale by 7am, riding rim and rush south to lands end. Horse was going like the clappers, with me in pursuit, averaging in the high twenties across the great Southland plains for Invercargill. Breakfast had been ordered by nine as we sat in the early sun skimming the paper.

“Last ride Horse.” I said. Him nodding in response as he tucked into his last trail breakfast.

Old Town

We pushed on south down Dee Street to where our destination showed itself – Motupōhue Maunga. Today was special and needed to be taken slow, if is was to be savoured.

Back on the bikes we rode under high cloud that looked to have been set to a slow simmering boil. Then turning wheels west towards Omaui, following the low road that skimmed barely above the marsh on its long arch around the harbour. On over the old rail bridge to Green point, Tikore Island with its memory of foundered sea-wreaks, and in that grey distance, grey and flat against a grey sea was old town – Bluff.

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Bluff – close to my heart. I’ve spent a good amount of time living and working here alongside the locals. It’s a colonial seaport, one of the oldest permanent settlements in New Zealand’s modest history, forged in the bond between wahine and whaler from 1823.

It’s the very epitome of what makes it world famous here in New Zealand – its oysters. For all appearances Bluff is tough and gruff on the outside, but when you get beneath, well, there lies a tenderness.

Of all the small towns strewn along this long land, Bluff is the one I’d choose to settle. Living high on the lee, I’d spend my days looking out for the old weathered fishers and iron-bellies making port, before ambling down to the Anchorage to trade a share in a jug for a good wayfaring tale.

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The end of the road

As two dusty trail men, we rolled quietly on. Passing tussock and ruin at Ocean Beach, old Joe (Sir Joseph Ward), the Eagle to the very end – Stirling point.

There you will find a great silver chain rolling over rock and surf down into a deep pool of kelp. This place is known as the prow of the great canoe Te Waka a Māui (or Te Waipounamu – the South Island). Away in the distance is Te Punga a Maui (the island of Rakiura – Stewart island) which serves as the great anchor stone of Maui’s canoe – the place where the great silver chain resurfaces. For us this chain marks the end of the road, or as Bluffies like to call it: ‘where the road begins’.

As I straddled the bike, arms at their rest on the handles bars, gazing south towards Rakiura, Horse wandered over. He didn’t say anything, he just grabbed me by the shoulders and hongi’d.

The end.

Todays’ top track: Horse called this one: Sting – All this time “All this time, the river flows, endlessly, to sea…”