The Cause of this Sequester
Days 88-92 – Naucalpán de Juárez, Estado de México, México to Loma Bonita, Estado de Oaxaca – 13,584 km
‘They had just put the clothes in when I got there,’ I said.
‘They were supposed to do it last night,’ Jess said.
‘They said the city turned the water off last night and it only came back on this morning.’
‘So how long do we have to wait?’ she said.
‘Two hours,’ I said.
It had drizzled last night but early in the morning it stopped and now it had started again. I was flecked with droplets when I got back from the lavandería (‘laundromat’) so I took my riding pants off and hung them in the hotel room while we waited.
We had been ready early that morning because we expected to collect the laundry and make an early start. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and there was a lot of road to cover if we wanted to be somewhere nice like maybe Palenque or San Cristobal de las Casas. In order to avoid a notoriously windy 150 km stretch of Carretera 190, we opted for a wide detour north and then east along the Gulf coast instead of going directly east from Oaxaca. Now the weather report showed a massive storm system pushing inland from the Gulf and then spreading across our entire route for the next two days.
We had left my friend Memo and his motorcycle shop in Naucalpán de Juárez three days before. We rode through the Distrito Federal, which is what the Mexicans call Mexico City, and then we went southeast on Carretera 115 to Cuautla and then east on Carretera 160. It was a good feeling when, after 50 km or so of traversing one satellite city after another, we left the urban sprawl around Mexico City and we were once again in the familiar Mexican countryside of desert hills and rocky scrubland. We stayed that night in Izúcar de Matamoros where we took an evening stroll among the market stalls that lined the central plaza. Each was dedicated to variations on the same theme: figurines and backdrops to decorate your family’s nativity scene.
The next day we continued riding through a beautiful countryside of rocky, bush-covered hillsides as we left Puebla state and entered Oaxaca. In the evening we reached our destination of Oaxaca de Juárez shortly before sunset. The mountainous region around Oaxaca had been under settlement for thousands of years when the Spanish founded a military outpost there in 1521. They came because Moctezuma II had told the conquistador Cortés that it was the source of the Aztec’s gold. The churches and buildings are a beautiful example of colonial architecture and now, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Oaxaca is one of the gems of Mexican tourism.
In the evening, we left our bikes at the hotel and we went out on foot to visit the lovely, lively main plaza where we took dinner and drinks at one of the courtyard restaurants, listened to mariachis, and then watched a wedding procession. In the morning I ran a careful circuit along the cobblestone streets to visit the several noteworthy churches and then, after a pleasant breakfast in the plaza, we loaded the bikes and set off.
We left Oaxaca going north on Carretera 175 and we spent the better part of the day weaving through one series of twisties after another as we traversed the heart of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range. It was a gorgeous day to be riding and the scenery was every bit equal to the weather. On the southern side of the
range the mountains were beautifully
rocky, dry, and desert-like. Then as we reached the northern portion of the range, the mountains became lushly green, vibrant, and densely forested. For a few dozen kilometers of snaking highway, this was among the best, most spectacular riding we had encountered anywhere. When finally we reached San Juan Bautista Valle Nacional about 50 km short of Tuxtepec it was after 5pm and we were ready to settle in for the night – and to find a laundromat.
After hanging about the hotel for a couple hours and then hopping on our bikes and riding to the laundromat, it was just passed 11 when we had our clothes still hot from the dryer stuffed into our panniers. Leaving Valle Nacional, we took Carretera 175 north with the expectation of a quick 50 km into Tuxtepec and then a hook eastwards to hopefully reach Sayula de Alemán or Minatitlán with still the better part of the day before us.
But this was not to be.
Less than a kilometer outside of the town proper, we came upon a line of vehicles that were stopped in the outbound lane of the highway. With the idea that, being on two wheels and being narrower than a car despite our side cases, we edged into the opposing lane and proceeded slowly towards the source of the delay. A few dozen meters ahead, we reached it. Here at a narrow point in the highway, several stones and logs were thrown haphazardly but sufficiently across the highway to form a complete roadblock. Several villagers stood beside the roadblock and nearby there were various of the drivers who had emerged from their vehicles to discover the cause of this sequester.
As we neared the makeshift barrier, I raised my helmet visor and spoke to the villager nearest to me.
‘Es una huelga?’ I said. ‘Is this a strike?’
‘No,’ he said.
‘Yeah, Ok,’ I said. ‘Can we pass? We are not from here.’
The man shrugged and said nothing but in his look he said, ‘I will take no responsibility for what you do.’
We are fortunately that this one is weak in his commitment, I thought. I slipped between two of the large rocks and, when I saw that Jess had followed me through, I pulled hard on the accelerator. Just in case one of the more committed ones appears and wants to create an incident, I thought.
We passed a bend in the highway and at the straightaway I noticed two things. First, the ground sloped steeply away on both sides of the highway with a creek on the left hand and a densely forested hill on the right. Second, I saw several more parked cars, which were empty as though abandoned by their drivers. Passing these cars I then saw that we had not escaped. We were in the no man’s land between the two sides of the roadblock. They are smart to separate the opposing traffic and especially with a blind corner, I though. Probably this is not their first time.
‘No se puede,’ said a woman who stood along the second barrier before I had raised my helmet visor. ‘No you cannot.’
She was young, short, and stout, and she had an intelligent look about her. The stern expression she wore looked like it was from the circumstances and not from her character. Under different circumstances she probably would have invited us into her home for a cold horchata (‘rice milk drink’) but now there was this of the roadblock and she was playing her part well.
‘Es esta una huelga?’ I asked as I had before. ‘Is this a strike?’
‘This is not a strike,’ she said. ‘It is a manifestation against the municipal government for the failure to fulfill a commitment to the people of the village.’
‘Ok,’ I said.
I did not want to ask for further details because I did not want to be on a side. I thought, if they explain it to me and I still try to break the roadblock, they might take it personally and then it might get ugly.
‘You can see that we are foreigners and so you understand that we have no vote or involvement in this,’ I said.
‘We welcome you here and we appreciate your support by waiting with us for a while,’ she said.
Her colleagues who stood beside her were mostly older but it was clear that she was the leader and the most committed. I made a few more attempts to get us through but her companions gained confidence from her obstinacy and soon I had no hope for success. I pressed my kill engine switch, flipped the kickstand out, removed my helmet, and walked back to Jess.
‘Why are they blocking the road?’ she said.
‘They have a complaint against the municipal government,’ I said.
‘I didn’t ask,’ I said.
‘Ask,’ she said.
‘I will when I’m certain that we are stuck here,’ I said.
It had been ‘spitting’, as Jess says, when we left with our laundry but now it was drizzling again so we retreated under the shelter of a large tree beside the highway. Jess was wearing the waterproof lining inside her riding pants, which made them retain her body heat even with the vents open. She also wore a rain shell over her summer weight mesh, riding jacket and the shell was also trapping in the heat and humidity. My riding suit had the waterproof layer baked in and larger vents, which better expelled the heat, but still they were plenty uncomfortable in the rain and humidity without the airflow from riding to cool me down.
Jess’s mood was became unpleasant because of this discomfort and because of this second delay to our itinerary in the lead up to Christmas Eve. We stood under the poor shelter of the tree not saying anything and we both watched the villagers and the events of the roadblock.
‘There are all these drivers stuck here with us – they who have jobs and responsibilities that are put on hold – and I am realizing how maybe it is arrogant that I am thinking we should be exempted from the roadblock,’ I said.
‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘but they are all thinking of ways to get passed it too.’
We continued to watch the scene and to make calculations. The opposing lane was blocked by several large stones, which were too tall and too close together to ride over or between. Across our lane there was a wooden pole about six inches in diameter laid against a square timber – like the roof beam from someone’s house – that was a little bit thicker.
‘Could we jump the pole with our bikes?’ Jess said.
‘Sure our bikes could,’ I said. ‘It’s good that the pole is in front of the beam so it would be like going over a big tope(‘speed bump’). But we’d have to power hard to get the front wheel over it and then keep powering until the rear was over it too. I think I’d manage to jump it but then you might come up too slowly and get caught there. Then your would probably get rushed by a horde of angry villagers and I would have to decided whether to run back to save you or to ride off while I have the chance.’
We had a good laugh at the thought that developed of Jess being pulled down from her bike and torn apart by a crazed swarm of zombie-like villagers. This and the remembering that our timetable was not ours to control helped to lighten our moods so that soon we were joking and laughing again.
Eventually I spoke to one among the villagers who was cool-headed and apologetic about the delay. He had no authority to let us pass – or maybe it was no desire to countermand the stern-faced young woman who seemed to be the comandante (‘commander’) of the group – but he did explain the cause for the demonstration. The now outgoing municipal president, or mayor, had promised to fund the construction of a school for this pueblo at the northern outskirts of Valle Nacional. Among the several points, the school was agreed to include a specific number of classrooms, girls’ and boys’ bathrooms, and a septic tank.
‘The school that was eventually built,’ the young man from the village explained, ‘has neither the agreed number of classrooms, nor separate bathrooms for the sexes, nor the septic tank as promised.’
He paused while I filled in the parts that Jess did not catch in Spanish and then he continued.
‘Our village representative – the one who you see talking to that group there – went with some others this morning to the palacio municipal (‘city hall’) but the offices were closed and there was no one to receive them.’
‘But today is Monday,’ I said.
‘They didn’t show up for work because they didn’t want to deal with it,’ I said.
He nodded again.
After the young man from the village had excused himself to return to his colleagues at the barricade, I said to Jess, ‘See, isn’t it harder to think about jumping the barrier when you know they have a valid complaint.’
Then I turned to listen to one of the drivers who was delayed on his trip from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca.
‘Look, I’m on your side,’ he said to several villagers grouped beside the barrier. ‘The government representatives will not present themselves – cowards! But you don’t want to hold the traffic up forever or you will have bigger problems.’
He was a good talker and his timing was right to catch their attention. Almost three hours had passed since they had laid siege to the public highway and they were becoming weary just as we were becoming very impatient.
‘What you need to do is to end this in a way that continues to cause trouble for the municipal government,’ he said. ‘Permit me to suggest that what you should do is to collect a small tribute from each vehicle that wishes to pass.’
Quickly this idea circulated amongst the villagers and, eventually, it is what they decided to do. It took them some time to organize themselves but soon they had set up a makeshift tollbooth beside the roadblock. Jess and I were at the front of the line and I quickly offered 40 pesos, or about 4 dollars, which was the amount that the smooth-talking driver had suggested and is about what two motorcyclists would expect to pay for a short stretch on an autopista de cuota (‘toll highway’).
‘Son 100,’ the stern-faced young woman said, refusing the bills I was offering. ‘It’s 100 pesos.’
‘No, that’s too much,’ I said, thrusting the two 20-peso notes again towards the cardboard box that was their cash register.
‘Son 100 cada uno,’ her older colleague replied. ‘It’s 100 pesos each.’
‘Venga ya!’ I said. ‘Come now! 100 is too much. I will pay a tribute to support the cause and so that we may pass. But this is not legal what you are doing and 100 each is too much to ask.’
‘Fine. Then move the motorbike aside for the others who will pay,’ the older one said.
‘No. I am offering you 40 pesos to pass on this, which is a public highway. 40 pesos is a good amount and it is fair considering that this that you are doing is not legal.’
We went back and forth a few times and I grew angry and my anger showed in my voice because 200 pesos, which is almost 20 dollars, seemed to be much more than a symbolic tribute to their cause. With our two bikes fanned across the outbound lane, Jess and I were now acting as our own roadblock against the villagers who now wanted to open the road. Despite my anger over the 200 pesos, I was amused to think about the irony of this reversal. My amusement vanished instantly, however, when the old one tried to move me by pushing on my motorbike. It was a silly attempt because I had only to clench the brake lever but the man’s hands on my bike infuriated me and I cursed at him.
‘Joder, coño! Quítese las putas manos de mi moto!’ I said. ‘Mother fucker! Remove your fucking hands from my motorcycle!’
He jumped back in surprise and then tried to calm me.
‘Tranquilo, tranquilo,’ he said but I would have none of it.
‘Please move out of the road and we may talk,’ he said.
I did not move but soon I paid the 200 pesos and he immediately stepped aside. Damp from the persistent drizzle, 200 pesos poorer, and now five hours delayed, we were anxious to bolt passed the roadblock and carve out at least some of our intended route with what remained of the day.
But first there was one more delay.
On the other side of the roadblock we quickly discovered that the three hours of pile-up had created a massive bottleneck. The curious and impatient drivers of sedans, trucks, and buses had advanced forward into the outbound lane of the highway. Now it was a long, infuriating process as these vehicles attempted to retreat one after another until they could merge back into the inbound lane and the traffic in our direction was free to advance. It was another half-hour of impatiently idling, inching forward, and wherever possible squeezing motorbike and side cases between tightly packed cars until we were finally free and traveling briskly away under a persistent drizzle.
‘I was concerned that you were going to stick to your principles and you weren’t going to pay,’ Jess said later that evening over dinner in Loma Bonita only about 80 km from where we began the day.
‘No, I had no principles involved in it,’ I said. ‘From the start I had every intention to pay whatever it would take to finally get us of there. But, come on, after three hours of waiting I wasn’t going to part with 20 bucks without giving them some fucking grief when I finally had the chance.’