Days 82-90 – San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico to Naucalpán, Estado de México – 13,326 km
First, the three matadors enter the arena as the plaza de toros (‘bullring’) fills with the lively melodies of classical pasos dobles (‘double-steps’) played by the orchestra that sits arranged in the balcony. The matadors enter surrounded by their cuadrillas (‘teams of bullfighters’) and they parade within the circle of the bullring, waving and casting salutes to the applauding crowd and the presiding dignitaries. Each torero (‘bullfighter’) wears an ornate, colorful outfit inspired by the style of dress of 17th century Andalusia, Spain, but the costumes of the three matadors – their trajes de luces (‘suits of light’) – are most decorative as first their status.
Once the bullfighters and their complements complete the paseíllo (‘parade’), the toreros of the matador Rafael Ortega arrange themselves around the ring and the name, breeder, and weight of the toro (‘bull’) is presented on a placard. Then the bull is released into the ring to the roar of an eager crowd. In his fear and his anger, the bull charges the toreros, making passes with his horns, as they and the matador instigate him with the large pink capes, called capotes. When the bull draws close and they do not trust their cape and skill, then they leap behind the protection of the wooden barriers that are built into the arena. During this opening stage of the first tercio (‘third’) of the bullfight, the cuadrilla is draining the freshness from the bull and learning his movements and preferences so they will know best how to face him.
When the bull’s chest is heaving from the exertion, two picadores enter the arena mounted on large, blindfolded and heavily padded horses. Each carries a vara (‘lance’) and, with the help of the cuadrilla, he who is closest entices the bull to charge him. When the bull charges, he goes in head down and horns raised, colliding brutally into the flank of the horse, knocking it backwards with all the force of its weight and inertia. As the horse struggles not to buckle, the picador lances the bull with his pike to draw the first blood of the corrida (‘bullfight’). The loss of blood and the weakening of the neck muscles will cause the bull to hold his head lower during the rest of the fight so that he will be less dangerous to the matador. When the picadores leave the ring, the orchestra announces with a flourish that the first tercio of the fight has ended.
The second tercio begins upon the conclusion of the first when the first of three banderilleros enter the ring. Sometimes the matador performs the roll of the banderillero and this is the case with Rafael Ortega and also with Juan José Padilla, who will follow Rafael to confront the second of the six bulls we will see tonight. Ortega studies the bull, straining to read him and to hold his attention amidst the distractions of the crowd and the other toreros. It is now when the bullfighter experiences the first connection, or intimacy, which the bull does not know or would not care about if he did. When he is ready to perform his maneuvers, Ortega raises the banderillas (‘little flags’ with sharp spikes at one end) in a pronounced, lofty posture. Although he does not have the height of the tall Spaniard Padilla who is naturally graceful, Ortega does much with what he has. He raises himself on tiptoes and, as the bull begins to charge, he ranges to one side slowly at first and then more quickly and, at the last instant, he drives the banderillas into the bull where the back converges with the already bleeding neck. Ortega performs this maneuver twice more so that, as the second tercio of the fight ends, six long, flag-like objects dangle from the bull’s hide and Ortega leaves him heaving and bleeding more profusely than before.
By now the bull is weakened and nearly all of his early vigor and fury has been drained from him. This is when the third tercio – the Tercio of the Death – begins. Ortega, the matador, enters the arena alone with the weakened bull and approaches slowly, cautiously as the bull watches him and struggles to regain its strength and breath. As he approaches, Ortega carries a muleta (‘small red cape’) and a false estoque (‘sword’) of aluminum. Using the muleta to antagonize the bull who is colorblind and so cares nothing about the color, Ortega performs a series of passes, called tandas, during which he attempts to maintain control while presenting the appearance of danger. The bull is very weak now and it is with some effort that Ortega can entice him to charge. After each tanda, Ortega detaches himself from the bull with a flourish of head, cape, and sword and, recognizing the queue, the crowd erupts into applause.
I watch the bull rather than Ortega. Heat is rising from his hide, blood and sweat are streaming from his flanks, and mucus is oozing from his nostrils. Ortega continues the faena, which is the name given to this series of interactions with the bull, for about 10 minutes, which feels like an eternity to me and certainly is one to the bull. Finally, Ortega has decided that the bull has given all that it has to him and to the fight and to the audience. He approaches the barrier and exchanges his false estoque for the real one made of steel then the he returns to the bull in several graceful strides. Ortega engages the bull in one last tanda and then finally the moment of the death is come. Ortega assumes a posture that appears at the same time graceful and contorted. Ortega sights the bull along the line of the sword. The entire bullring quiets to whispers and held breath.
Ortega charges. The bull charges. There is an instant when anything can happen. Will he be gored? Then the sword penetrates deeply into the neck between the shoulder blades. Ortega raises his arms in triumph. The audience roars. The bull staggers. He is surrounded by the matador and toreros and, when he falls, one among the number quickly approaches and inserts a puntillero (‘dagger’) into the neck. This severs the spinal cord and brings the bull finally to its death.
For his skill and showmanship, the president awards Ortega an ear and a tail – this is the grandest award of the corrida. The peon cuts these from the corpse of the bull and presents them to Ortega. Ortega parades around the ring, holding his trophies in his upraises hand. People from the crowd throw hats and sweaters and wineskins into the ring as Ortega passes slowly before them. Ortega picks nothing from the ground – his peons do that for him – and he or they throw the symbolic tributes back to their owners within the adoring crowd.
We stay for the whole corrida – the death of six bulls – and by the end our hearts are heavy. Most of the spectators began leaving at the moment of the final estocada (‘strike of the estoque’) but I insisted that we stay to watch as the last bull is dragged out of the arena.
‘It’s the least we can do to see it out of the ring,’ I say. ‘Like some kind of show of respect to the bull who has died here.’
‘I feel bad for the bull,’ Jess says.
‘I remember there being more grace to it when I first saw a bullfight in Spain,’ I say. ‘Maybe it’s because I wasn’t sitting so close that time or maybe it’s because I was different then, but this time it just felt ugly and brutal.’
‘Once was enough,’ Jess say. ‘I don’t want to do this again.’
It was a Sunday bullfight at the Plaza de Toros in the Distrito Federal (‘Federal District’), which is what the Mexicans call Mexico City, because, like our Washington, D.C., it does not belong to any of the 31 states of Mexico. We had arrived the previous evening after a circuitous two-day route from San Miguel de Allende. I had missed out when a week earlier several guys from the San Miguel motorcycle club had organized to do the ‘Mil Cumbres’ ride. Jess had discovered the motorcycle club while searching the Internet for information about where to get dual sport motorcycle tires in Mexico City and we had visited the club the previous Wednesday at the Longhorn Smokehouse for their weekly meeting. The club president had sent me an invitation to join the message group but I had failed to sign up early enough to receive the email that went out about the ride. At the following meeting, George had shared a glowing report on the ride and later after the formal meeting had ended I picked him over for details about the route and the roads.
From San Miguel we had taken Carretera 51 south through Celaya and then to Salvatierra. Here we veered onto Carretera 52 and took it to Yuriria, which is a surprisingly lovely town that is located beside a lagoon of the same name and was holding a Feria de los Cuentos (‘Short Stories Fair’) in the central plaza during our short visit. From Yuriria we continued south on Carretera 43, traversed the marsh-like Lake Cuitzeo, then skirted the city of Morelia – another of Mexico’s numerous UNESCO Heritage Sites, and picked up the Morelia-Toluca Carretera 15 going east.
Shortly outside of Morelia, Carretera 15 begins a winding ascent into the nearby mountains. This 70 km stretch of mountain road from outside Morelia to shortly before Ciudad Hidalgo is the route commonly referred to as Mil Cumbres because it is supposed that you can glimpse a ‘thousand peaks’ during this traverse of the mountain range. For us, the Mil Cumbres route was fun but actually a bit underwhelming perhaps for the expectations we had built.
‘I didn’t see a thousand peaks,’ Jess said when we stopped at the mirador (‘lookout’) at the climax of the ride.
‘It certainly wasn’t the Devil’s Backbone,’ I said.
The Devil’s Backbone was the jaw-dropping traverse of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range from Mazatlán to Durango along Carretera 40 that had caught us by surprise upon our arrival on the Mexican mainland about one month before.
That evening we found accommodations in Ciudad Hidalgo and the next morning we left Carretera X for a northerly detour to the monarch butterfly sanctuary at Angangeo. Each year between November and March, the monarch butterflies migrate south to the temperate climes of Michoacán state in Mexico. When I first heard of the natural butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico, I let myself imagine standing amidst a swarm of butterflies as I raised my arms heavenwards like the classic scene after his escape in The Shawshank Redemption. During my first motorcycle trip in 2009, I had tried three times to visit the butterflies at various locations and each time I was thwarted by fickle weather. Visiting the monarch butterflies was like a book left open during the several intervening years.
At Angangeo, we followed the locals’ directions until we veered onto a rough stone paved road into the forested hills outside of the village. When we arrived at the village adjacent to the Santuario de las Mariposas Monarcas El Rosario we paid an entrance fee and then again we paid to enter the sanctuary itself. Inside the sanctuary, it was a 45-minute ascent through the dense forest until we reached our objective. At first we saw no butterflies. About 30 minutes in we saw one and then a few minutes later we saw a few more. Then they appeared in droves. When we reached our destination, which was a small clearing amidst the tall trees, monarch butterflies swarmed overhead and all around us. They were so dense in the trees that the branches looked to be alive and the sky was dotted with fluttering wings of orange, yellow, and black colors.
We took photos and then I stood as close as I could get without trespassing from the clearing. The butterflies came fluttering and swooping all around me and I held my hands out as and let myself believe for a time that this swarm of butterflies had been brought down from heaven as a sign just for me.
After the butterfly sanctuary, we retraced our route down the paving stone path into Angangeo and from there south again back to Carretera 15. At a petrol station back on the main highway, we reviewed the map and made calculations. We were close enough to reach Naucalpán, which is beside Mexico City and where I have a good friend whom I met on my first visit. For the first time on the trip we took the paid highways – the autopistas de cuota. We made good time and, except for a few isolated cases at tollbooths and junctions, we largely avoided the infamous Mexico City traffic.
Four years before during my first trip to Mexico, when I had finally left Erssel in San Miguel it was with my motorcycle anchored to the flatbed of a pickup truck destined for the motorcycle repair shop of Motoservicio Garrido. Guillermo (Memo) Garrido, the owner of the shop, had traveled the four hours to San Miguel de Allende with his late adolescent son who was then a novice mechanic to collect my bike when it was badly ailing. The hacks at a local shop had, after only a little listening to the engine and no diagnostics, tried to convince me that my forward cylinder need replacing. I had called Memo’s shop near Mexico City because it had been referred to me by the Yahama headquarters in Mexico City.
Over the phone Memo had asked me a series of questions, collecting information to diagnose the condition like a physician performing telemedicine.
‘No deje que se toque el motor,’ he concluded. ‘Don’t let that they touch your motor.’
He then offered to drive out and collect me and the motorcycle for USD 100. I considered this a steal and within 24 hours from that phone call, my bike was in the shop, I was set up in a hotel, and I was on my way to forming a very special friendship.
I had spoken to Memo by phone a couple weeks before to tell him that we would be coming but now that we were approaching I decided that it would be best to surprise him. Unfortunately, when we reached the motorcycle taller (‘workshop’) it was past sunset, the twilight was quickly fading into night, and the shop was deserted.
‘Let’s find a hotel,’ I said to Jess over the idle of our engines outside the workshop in the fading light. ‘We’ll go to the bullfight tomorrow and then we surprise them here on Monday.’
Monday after the bullfight we arrived at the workshop in the late morning and we were welcomed by the faces of all the friends I had made during the month I had stayed in Naucalpán four years before. There was Julio and José – Memo’s younger and older brothers, respectively – and Marcos, his nephew, and Fabiola (Fabi), his wife who manages the accounts and places the orders for parts, and Uriel who is not related but is a good person and a hard worker and later explained to me that he is very serious about his new girlfriend. Only Lalo was missing – Lalo who always wore motorcycle pants and boots and a bandana as he worked on fixing bikes – and Josue, Memo’s son, was also absent.
‘Now he is a mechanic at another workshop,’ Memo explained when I asked after his son. ‘I wanted him to go back to school and I offered to pay but he likes what he does. He just bought himself a new sports bike.’
‘And now he works for the competition,’ I said. ‘But probably you get along better as father and son and not employee and employer.’
‘Yes, it is much better this way and they pay him better than I did,’ Memo said.
In fact, Memo was not at the shop that Monday because he had engaged the workshop on a job assembling, painting, and equipping 2,000 motorbikes for one of Mexico’s largest logistics and shipping companies.
‘It was a three-month job,’ he explained when we finally connected at the workshop the next day. ‘We worked night and day and we only just finished the last of it yesterday.’
‘Well, I’m glad it’s over and especially since your timing worked out very well for us,’ I said.
That day I had drained the oil from both our motorbikes, replaced the filters, and arranged with Fabi to order several liters of new motor oil for delivery the following day. At the end of the workday, Memo took Jess and I out for steaks and beer.
‘He is kindhearted and generous and just a very good person,’ I had explained to Jess some weeks back when we talked about coming to Naucalpán.
During the conversation over dinner I think she came to understand what I had said about Memo and it was very important to me when that evening she said, ‘Yes, I understand what you were saying and I like him very much.’
After dinner, Memo took us to another place for Micheladas, which are a kind of beer mixed with other flavoring, chili, salt, and lime. After Jess ordered a wine spritzer and Memo ordered a straight beer, I felt the pressure to order a proper Michelada.
‘Try this,’ Memo said as I took the first sips of my beer.
It was pickled pigskin.
Jess crinkled her nose and then she said, ‘Yeah, love, try it!’
I obliged and ate the whole piece and then washed it down with the Michelada. It tasted ok but the texture was disconcerting and the Michelada was no better than I remember it from four years before even though this time I knew enough to order it without salt.
‘Where did the Mexicans come up with the crazy idea to add salt to beer?’ I said to Jess when Memo excused himself to the restroom.
We had a very nice evening, talking about motorcycles and our trip and about many things unrelated. When Memo drove us to our hotel it was after 10 pm and the traffic on the main boulevard was horrendous.
‘Really, thank you for dinner and for the beer and for the ride home,’ I said to Memo as we exited the car. ‘We will see you at the workshop tomorrow. If you go there now and do not stop at home you might just arrive in time to open tomorrow.’
All during the evening my stomach felt off and, during the last couple hours after eating the pigskin and making an effort to drink the Michelada, it felt increasingly bad. When finally we reached the hotel room, my nerves were broken. I was in and out of the bathroom all night and most of the next day.
‘We’ll go by the shop in the afternoon. I’m just not ready yet,’ I said to Jess late in the morning the next day but we never made it out of the hotel room.
The next morning when we arrived at the workshop, Memo greeted us at the entrance and then he turned and shouted to the mechanics who were busy at work, ‘Keep this space clear in case he has to run to the bathroom!’
That day Jess and I poured in the new motor oil and then we washed our bikes and Memo instructed me on adjusting the chain and on a few other points of general maintenance. He also had one of his mechanics grease the clutch cables and replace the air in our tires with nitrogen.
‘It costs almost nothing and it gives a smoother ride because the gas stays constant with temperature and pressure,’ Memo explained.
The next morning, we packed up as Memo and my friends at the workshop watched and awaited the opportunity for a group photo. When it was time to say goodbye to Memo, the words stuck in my throat a little because I had a very heavy heart.