South America Backpacking
Eight Months On The Road
By David Rice
Backpacking In South America Eight Months On The Road
The first leg of the trip was a 22 hour bus ride from my hometown of Springfield, Missouri to the Mexican border at McAllen, Texas.
In Springfield, I hefted my backpack into the luggage bay beneath the leaping Greyhound and was happy to shed the pack's fifty pounds. Taking my seat, I couldn't help but wonder if I had forgotten anything: one change of clothes, three pairs of cotton socks, a linen shirt, Basque hiking boots, walking shoes, North Face tent, a sleeping bag, and pad. Over my shoulder, I had a small carry bag with a heavy flannel shirt that would save me from the cold mountain passes and the frigid air conditioning systems aboard the buses, a serious problem it turned out in Venezuela and Brazil.
Day or night it doesn't matter to me, I can doze on the bus and as long as I get out and stretch at each stop I can tolerate a long bus ride. The ride gives me time to read my lonely Planet Guide and plan the trip, although for me backpacking is quiet flexible and linear; I go from stop to stop, bus to bus, until I get to an interesting city or village.
For some the long bus rides on a backpacking trip would be a hell of self- doubt: all that time to ruminate over past mistakes and what ifs and should haves. A teacher once told me that too much of that and you would be shoulding on yourself and I believe it. Life is short and meant to be lived in the moment, not in the past; day spaces as one writer called it.
I reached the border at McAllen, Texas without incident and left the bus to walk through the checkpoint where I filled out the visa forms for my entry into Mexico. Now in Reynosa, Mexico, I boarded a long-haul bus that would follow the Pan American Highway paralleling the coast and making stops at Tampico, Poza Rica and a few other places as it wound south down the coast to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. From Veracruz I caught an ADO bus bound inland over the mountains for Oaxaca, in total a 26-hour trip from the Texas border.
I knew we were closing in on Oaxaca when we passed volcanic Mount Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico at 5610 meters (18,400 feet) and the third highest in North America. My guidebook noted that the nearby city of Cordoba was the place were coffee first came to the new world, a crop now ubiquitous in Mexico but native to Africa.
I thought back to my visit to the village of Pluma Hidalgo in the mountains of Oaxaca and the coffee plantation where I once stayed. Elio Marin had shown me how he hangs by a hemp rope on the edge of a steep slope in his coffee groves as he twists off the ripe fruit by hand. His white burro Rayos waits as Elio fills his saddlebags with berries from the thirty thousand plants on his ranch. He would soak the berries in water until they swelled enough to make the skin crack and then he would dry them in the sun. After using a mortar and pestle made from a tree stump to remove the outer shell he would be left with two grey green beans from each berry. When he had enough of those he would load them onto Rayos and trudge down the mountain to the coffee collective in the village where he would have the beans roasted in a gas-fired oven.
I waited with him one day at the collective as the smell of roasting coffee filled the little village and the beans turned from pale green to rich brown. Elio bagged up the roasted beans and we delivered them to the buyer for shipment to Pochutla on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.
Elio’s simple life made him a happy guy in spite of all this hard work. He took what each day gave him and made all he could of the life he shared with his dad and his wife and children at their house on the top of a mountain where they had a view of Zipolite on the Pacific coast. He was like so many of the people of Oaxaca that, regardless of difficult conditions, always have a smile and like to share with visitors.
Elio served me fresh coffee and he served eggs from the chickens that roamed through his groves; the best I have ever had , served by a humble man who knows how to live for each day.
These reminiscences had me looking forward to life’s simple pleasures, particularly a cup of strong Oaxacan coffee at the El Jardin Zocalo café in Oaxaca.
Little did I know as Nochixtlan came into view that this year Oaxaca’s coffee would not taste so sweet.
After nearly 48 hours on various buses, I finally reached Oaxaca where I would put in for a few weeks rest. I shouldered my backpack and walked in Oaxaca’s dazzling morning sunshine to the pedestrian-only street, the Alcala. Walking between green stone buildings built in the 1600s I heading south for the center of town and the plaza called the zocalo.
Something had gone wrong in Oaxaca, however, I would soon notice. There was graffiti and political slogans everywhere on the old colonial buildings and thick black smoke rose from the center of the city. Road blocks appeared and I never reached the Zocalo for my long awaited cup of El Jardin coffee.
There was trouble in the streets of the city and roadblocks on every corner where thugs demanded money from passing cars. I detoured at the Santo Domingo church and headed west a few blocks and then booked a room at the Santa Isabel Hostel, a place near the Soledad Church and a place familiar to me. There I would stay for a while to rest and gather information from travelers coming up from South America heading north.
Although I had planned an extended stay in Oaxaca, since I have many acquaintances there, the trouble in the streets turned out to be an unruly teachers strike that developed into a riot and drove me out of town in a hurry. According to the local papers, bands of revolutionaries, anarchists, communists, brigands, and hoodlums had joined a few thousand striking teachers and were battling police for control of downtown Oaxaca. Roadblocks with overturned vehicles and burning buses were a nuisance at first but when clubs started flying and peoples started getting hurt I slipped out of town on an ADO bus from the first class bus station and headed for San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico’s southern most state, Chiapas. While no stranger to revolutionary activity, Chiapas had settled down a few years back and I planned to stay a few days.
Once on the road again I rechecked my possessions: ATM card, travelers checks amounting to $500, US $500 in 100-dollar bills, (easy to carry), and a Visa credit card. I spread this stash in several places on my person, hidden as best I could within inside pockets. In my front pocket where I could reach it easily, I carried small bills in Pesos and some US dollars. I felt now like I was on my way, Oaxaca being friendly turf, usually, fell far behind. I looked back at the hills ringing the colonial city and hoped that soon the trouble would end and I could visit Elio’s coffee plantation on the mountainside in Pluma Hidalgo for a cup of his dark coffee and a plate of eggs from his wild chickens. For now though I would take what the day gave me and go where the highway would lead me.
For now I would join several other backpackers and settle in on a bus going south on highway 190 through the southern mountains of Oaxaca headed for new adventures.
Oaxaca, David Rice Photo