This was sent by Ann and Kent on Wednesday 14 January 1998. Also, Ann mentions that their dispatch from Baja California is scheduled to appear in the Travel section of the Contra Costa Times and West County Times on Sunday 1 February 1998. [Actually, it appeared on Sunday 15 February 1998.]
Hi friends and family! We have made it to Puebla and are excited about what we've experienced in Mexico - this is a wonderful country! We hope you are all doing well and had a terrific Christmas and New Year's. We missed our friends during this time, but there is always next year! This dispatch covers the following route:
Mazatlán - Durango - Zacatecas - Aguascalientes - Leon - Guanajuato - San Juan del Río - Pachuca - Puebla
We will be leaving Puebla tomorrow (the 13th) and heading to: Oaxaca - San Cristóbal de las Casas - Guatemala where Kent's parents will meet us. Hope you enjoy the dispatch!
What is a Mexican prison really like? In our American minds, an aura of violence and hopelessness surrounds even the thought of one. Even if we have not heard stories, we know that once you are in a Mexican prison, they throw away the key; we know that there is nothing to eat unless you have food brought in for you; we know that guards regularly threaten and beat prisoners. Well, at least, we thought some of these things might be true. So when Gene Armendson, a pastor whose personal mission is to bring back Prohibition, asked Kent to join him as interpreter on a visit to the prison near Mazatlán, we leapt at the chance. I got to go along as, well, as interpreter's wife. What we saw on our short visit was different than many of our preconceived notions.
Gene led us in and we were all searched and given a "tattoo" on our forearms (the stamp of approval, I guess). We spoke to one of the officials and learned that the prison strongly wanted Gene's message of abstinence from liquor to be heard. They had gathered all the women in their quarters and set up a meeting with the leaders of the various prisoner groups.
The prison itself consisted of a high concrete wall with watch towers at the four corners surrounding a huge field. There were several buildings inside including "housing" units but most of it was open to the sun. As we walked towards the women's area, we were surprised at how relaxed it seemed. Prisoners, guards, and visitors mixed freely, lounging, laughing, working on projects and even playing soccer. A series of chain-link fences guided us to the women's quarters where twenty or so prisoners awaited us at tables set in a courtyard. They listened politely to Gene's message, asking questions, nodding in agreement with his assertions that alcohol caused many problems in their families. As Kent interpreted, I watched the prisoners' faces, their children who ran around and the clothes drying in the breeze. Some of the women seemed very hard but most simply looked like careworn housewives you would see on the street, not in a prison. I also talked with Linda, a lovely African American woman who with her boyfriend was "in" for four years for having drugs in their car. She and Alison, another American also imprisoned on drug charges, were buddies, running a small food store together in order to make money for their own meals and needs. Both were warm vivacious leaders, hoping to come home soon.
After leaving the women, we walked to another section of the prison to meet with the men's leaders. Here, the atmosphere was a little less inviting. To these men, Gene's message was less appealing. I shivered as I looked around the room at unimpressed smirks and cold countenances. "Why should we listen to you? Most prisoners can't even get alcohol; it's too expensive." Gene asked them if liquor had had any influence on their lives, maybe even somehow leading them to prison. A few responded with begrudging nods that in no way implied a willingness to change. I sympathized with Gene - a hard crowd. Then, through the room walked Alison who had changed into a cute shorts outfit, curled her hair and put on makeup. As the men's attention swung to her, they lost all interest in listening about how they should give up alcohol. I felt even worse for Gene.
But what kind of prison was this where women could freely walk over to the men's side? Was this really the scary Mexican prison I had thought? Apparently not. Oh, there is plenty of corruption and easy access to marijuana, but it surely was not the prison of our nightmares. Even so, Kent and I were both glad for our freedom.
The next day, we left Mazatlán. It was hot and sunny as we began to climb into the mountains towards the city of Durango. I even picked flowers alongside the road to press for our family Christmas cards, tucking them into our heavy guidebook. What an incredible view we soon enjoyed! And we earned every bit of it, for over the next three days we climbed from zero feet to over 9,000. The second day, we rode in our tiniest gears all day, climbing 6,200 feet. I thought to myself, however, that this was nothing compared to what we would encounter in the Andes of South America later in our trip. Regardless of the climbing, it was absolutely beautiful - pine trees, dramatic drop-offs, huge stone outcrops, clouds rolling away from under us towards the ocean we had left. We rode over the "Spine of the Devil" through isolated country finally making it to Durango. We found a decent enough hotel, crashed and woke up in the morning to: SNOW!!! Drifting silently down past the window, the white flakes soon coated the sidewalks, the roads and the bundled people who were enjoying the sensation, throwing snowballs at each other. We pulled on all of our several layers of clothes to go out in the cold and join the locals.
Because of the snow and ice, we decided to stay awhile. We wanted to avoided the careening cars of Mexicans who had never driven on ice before! What we did not count on, however, was our freezing hotel room. Over the next few days, the temperature in our room plummeted to 45 degrees; the combination of cold tile floors, lack of hot water and any kind of heater made sure we kept our long johns and pile jackets on whenever we returned from strolling around. But we enjoyed being outside watching the fun in the central plaza where a skinny Santa Claus was trying to make kids laugh.
It turns out that northern Mexico was experiencing, depending on who you talked to, a 30 or 100 year cold spell. And here we were, right in the middle of it! When we finally left, two days later, it was still cold - below freezing, in fact. We each wore two biking shirts, jackets, tights, balaclavas over our faces, long-fingered gloves and overmitts. The wind of our passage froze our faces and hands in spite of their coverings - at a military checkpoint, Kent joined the soldiers warming up their hands over a burning tire. But the sky was a brilliant blue, the sun shone warmly on us when we stopped and over the next few days, though we had to search for hotels whose water pipes had not broken in the cold, we loved riding.
It was not until we arrived in Guanajuato that we really warmed up. And what a beautiful place to warm up in! Beautiful colonial architecture, sophisticated happy people filling the streets and history dating back to the 1500's made us appreciate being there. Mexico has many such graceful old cities, cities whose actual history sometimes predates Christ. Guanajuato in the early 1800's was one of the most important cities in Mexico, its silver mines producing unbelievable amounts of the precious metal. Because the city was built in the hills near the mines, its streets climbed crazily up steep inclines and through tunnels dug underneath the city itself. Just try to bike through such a place!
The Christmas season was in full swing and though Guanajuato was an enchanting place, we wanted to spend the holiday with friends, so we left our bike and took a bus to Mexico City where missionary friends had invited us. On the way, we stopped at another colonial city, San Miguel de Allende, and stayed at the home of Luella Hotsenpillar, an expatriate who had lived there for over 25 years. She was over 80 years old, a character whose life was reflected in her home, a sprawling house filled with antiques, strange artifacts, weavings and paintings. Even though she was in bed sick with an infection in her lungs, she still shared her interesting life and experiences as we sat with her. Even after living in Mexico for 25 years, her Spanish was quite poor and this was a result of living mostly with North Americans. Approximately 2,000 North Americans live in San Miguel, making up a community that is quite independent of the Mexican culture surrounding it. Many artists and retired people come to live here, bringing with them the desire for chic stores and hip bars. So in this way, San Miguel is unique among Mexican cities.
After spending some time with Luella, we walked through the crisp evening air to the central plaza of the city, and it seemed that everyone was out - the spirit of revelry was infectious. We joined a Los Posadas procession following huge walking papier-mâché puppets of Mary and Joseph as they searched for an "inn" to stay in. The traditional music of trumpets and strings and the singing voices of children accompanied the throng as it wound through the streets. We ended up at a beautiful church, lit up for the occasion, its bells joyously ringing welcome to the crowd.
The following day we made our way to Mexico City and our friends, the Mark family. What a fun Christmas we had with them, celebrating in Christian and American tradition the birth of the baby Jesus. Our parents had sent many gifts from home, gifts of M&M's, cookies and other tasty treats which we devoured with relish. I had been craving M&M's for weeks and had to hold myself back! We finally left to return to Guanajuato, several pounds heavier from all the lazing around and delicious food we had eaten.
The Marks dropped us off at the Metro which we would take to the bus station. After hugs and smiles they left to take their daughter to the airport for her return flight to California. We climbed the steps to the Metro and decided to get our favorite Mexican food - hot dogs - before leaving. I reached for my fanny pack which contained all our money, credit cards and camera only to discover it was gone! Oh no! Unbelievable. Then I remembered I had left it in the Marks' van. So there we were - stuck; the Marks would not return home until hours later but maybe they would see the fanny pack and drive back to where they dropped us off. So we sat waiting on the curb for almost seven hours - no Marks. At least we had books to read and chocolates to eat even if we had no money for hot dogs. Finally figuring the Marks would be home I delegated Kent to go beg for pesos or someone's phone card to call. "¡Peso, peso, por favor un peso. . .!" He asked the right person, a woman tending a little store who took pity on the poor North American and let him use her phone. So the Marks drove out with our fanny pack, admonishing us to separate our money (we know, we know!) and we were on our way.
After a week of studying Spanish in Guanajuato we were on the bike again, headed east to avoid Mexico City and then south to Puebla. We were happy to be back on the road, I especially because my brain was tired from studying. This time we were able to stay on lightly trafficked secondary roads - a biker's dream - until we reached Queretaro. From there it was potential nightmare - a four-lane 70-mph highway with no shoulder. I was thinking, "This is definitely the time to hitchhike; I don't want to end up as human roadkill!" However, we were blessed. A new road was being built parallel to the old one and for the next 20 miles we had our own private road!
When we arrived in San Juan del Río, we found the family we had arranged to meet through SERVAS, a peace organization that we are members of. And what a treasure they were! We walked in the front door and were immediately offered water, a shower, dinner, a bedroom, candies, .... Kent and I looked at each other and smelled ourselves; yes, a shower was definitely the primary need of the moment. We spent two days with Maria Resendez Leal, her mother and two sisters. A livelier group of women may not exist. They are all passionate about what they believe in - Mexico, teaching, family, justice in Chiapas and more - colorful conversations ensued.
We left left San Juan del Río and continued riding through the mountains towards Pachuca. We stopped at a crossroads for lunch and before we knew it, a judicial policeman in plain clothes, with his pistol prominently tucked into his waistband paid for our lunches and offered to call his sister in Pachuca to see if we could stay there. Poof - just like that! We rode the rest of the day on a high; the wind was at our backs, we were warmed by our new acquaintances and we had some fun downhill which we flew down at speeds reaching 50 mph.
The next day as we approached Pachuca, toiling up a long hill, a Volkswagen pulled in front of us. A middle-aged man got out, walked back to where we had stopped and asked us if we were the French couple he had seen on TV the other day. The French couple? "Yes, they are riding their bikes from Alaska to Argentina and have their baby with them." As we obviously did not have a baby on our bike, he asked us where we were from, what we were doing and where we were going (the same place as the French!). He then invited us to stay at his house - in Pachuca. Uh-oh. Two invitations to Pachuca - what do we do? Jaime was pretty persuasive: "Come to my house and call your other contact from there. You will like it so much you will want to stay with us. We have a tennis court, you know." Well, I guess that takes care of that! We loooooooove to play tennis after a long day's riding! We decided to call our first contact from the first pay phone we reached in town and as we approached, who should be waiting for us but Jaime! "Come on, what are you waiting for?!" Guess we are going to Jaime's house.
Jaime's wife Martha greeted us by asking us what we would like for dinner. "How about some hamburgers, ... and french fries, ... and Coke, ... and vegetables?" Hmmmm, maybe we will stay here! And as no one responded to our calls to the policeman's sister, we stayed. Later the next night, Martha and I split a bottle of wine and Kent and Jaime drank rum and cokes while we watched the current soap opera that is the rage in all of Mexico: "Mirada de Mujer." The wine helped the soap opera go down a little easier! And as Jaime tried to convince us that Green Bay was going to beat the 49ers to go to the Super Bowl, I vehemently told him that in no way could a bunch of ne'er-do-wells beat the awesome Red and Gold. I promised to call him after the 49ers won. Needless to say, I did not call!
We arrived in Puebla, excited to meet another missionary couple whom our Mexico City friends had called, arranging for us to stay with them. Vicky Love greeted us with great big hugs and the members of their church surrounded us with smiles of greeting. What a great place to be! And as we continue south, headed for Oaxaca and then Chiapas, we look forward to meeting more wonderful people and seeing more beautiful sights.