It was getting late in the day and we had been looking for a camp spot for a while. The area is pretty populated and the road winds its way along the hillsides, not providing many camping options. We decided to follow an unused road off the highway, it ended after about 200 m. There seemed to be a trail but we didn't think it was used anymore as there was nothing out there. It wasn't an ideal spot but better than being on the road in the dark. So we set up our 'kitchen' and started making dinner.
Turned out the unused trail is in fact pretty well traveled as we had about eight people walk by in the first half an hour of being there. Not great. One guy asked us what we were doing and I tried to explain our situation, I don't think he trusted us. Nope, he didn't. Right at the time when we started eating our lentil-curry (we found curry powder!), about nine men walked down the road towards us. Over the next 30 min or so, more groups of guys arrived until there was 18 men standing in a half circle around us. They spoke their native language to each other so for a while we had no idea what the hell was going on. Just felt like an animal in the zoo really. Their 'leader' asked us a few questions in Spanish about who we are and what were are doing so I explained our situation as best as I could. We had already decided to leave this popular trail and continue on the road to find a better camp spot before they even showed up. The guy who questioned us earlier was with them, he gathered his amigos to investigate the gringos.
Well, the group continued discussing what to do with us (in their language) and we continued eating our dinner (we offered them some, but they probably didn't trust the yellow stuff in our bowls). It was really quite a scene. There was us, sitting in our chairs eating our lentil curry and 18 men standing around watching us. I started getting a bit irritated and asked if they had some more questions for us or what the problem was. They also kept touching our panniers, maybe hoping there is gold or money in them? I grew tired of it and opened my bags to show them my dirty socks and camping gear. They really couldn't understand why the hell we are travelling on bikes and not on the bus or in a car. I guess they just have such a different life here and it seemed like none of them could wrap their head around the idea of us wanting to travel slow on bike because we enjoy cycling. A very foreign concept to them, I get that.
So by the time we finished eating and packing up our kitchen, they finally decided what to do. Their boss explained that because we left the road (200 m) that we entered their
"ejido" (settlement) and now have to pay a fine of $M 1000 (about $CAN 66). And once we do that, everyone will be happy and we can leave. Ya, I wasn't going to do that. So their leader and I (in my very basic Spanish) argued forth and back. I asked what would happen if we don't pay and he said they would call the police and they would be forced to take us and all of our stuff to jail. I told him, I would like to talk to the police/ authorities about this and I am happy to pay if we have done something wrong. But I would not pay him. I'll pay the police or some municipal authority. I think I called his bluff as from then on the negotiation was down to giving them some coca-cola or money to buy beer. Ya, no. He asked me a few more times if we are really not going to pay and I assured him that this was the case. So it all ended in us apologizing for unknowingly entering some apparently restricted area (no signs or nothing, we didn't jump a fence/ gate, just followed an old road but I guess the laws are different here) and then, to my surprise their leader apologized to me. Then most of the other men wanted to shake hands with us. Such an awkward situation. They waited back at the road until we left. We were both very glad to be out of there. The bad thing was that we now had to find another place to camp in the dark. Luckily there was a roadside shop a few km down the road and the family there let us camp in their backyard. Happy ending.
At no point did I feel unsafe, we didn't see any knives or guns nor did they seem drunk. They were intimidating as there was 18 (every age from 35 - 60) of them. I feel like they just wanted to make some quick cash from us gringos to then go and buy their booze. There was definitely a bit of adrenaline going through my body when we were cycling away.
Nyle noted that they were probably also a little irritated to be told 'no' by this blond gringo chic. Never thought of that at the time, but sadly it is true, Mexico does have quite a 'Machismo' culture.
The next day we biked the remaining 50 km into Ocosingo. It was a though ride, lots of up and down but the scenery was pretty with jungle mountains and lots of little villages.
Many kids waved at us or shouted 'Gringo' (=term for a white person). I really dislike having someone yell "gringo/a" at me (it has a very racist connotation to it although I don't think most people mean it in a bad way). I better get used to it now as I am sure we get a lot more of it in Central America.
We decided to stay in Ocosingo for a few days and explore some of the surrounding Maya ruins, Tonina and Palenque. It was pretty straight forward to use the the local mode of transportation, the colectivos, to get there. The collectivos are mainly vans or a pick up trucks (with benches in the back). They pick up and drop off people anywhere on the road. Most people here don't own cars so the frequent and cheap colectivos are great and efficient. However, the local colectivo drivers fly along the winding and bumpy (endless amount of speed bumps, called topes) roads in a nerve-wrecking speed. During the three hour ride to Palenque I was glad we took some anti-motion sickness pills. I try to tell myself that the drivers know the roads in and out and just hope for the best... Although I don't ever want to be on my bike in the wrong spot when they come flying around some corner.
I had read about road blockades that can happen anytime between Ocosingo and Palenque. Apparently these are due to tensions between the indigenous population and the government as well as the Zapatista rebel movement. On our way back to Ocosingo we ran into one. Hundreds of vehicles were backed up on both sides of the blockade - which consisted of a few boards with rusty nails put across the road and some guys standing around. The driver of our colectivo drove passed the many lined up vehicles and let us out close to the blockade, telling us it was no problem to walk across. A little worried about how much attention a couple of gringo tourists would draw (not too many white people here), we followed some locals who were walking across as well. We got through with no problems and walked the remaining 2 or 3 km back to Ocosingo.
I was later talking to a women in our hotel and she confirmed that these blockades happen often and can last from a few hours up to two weeks! She said the government wasn't doing anything. Just crazy to think that a few people can hold up hundreds of trucks, buses and cars and probably thousands of people whenever they want to and nothing is being done. Seems like some very complicated and deeply rooted conflicts between the indigenous population, the rebels and the government here.
Roadside flora and fauna:
After all the ruin running around we felt the need to recover from that and stayed another night in Ocosingo. And I got sick again, the whole package with throwing up and diarrhea. Not sure from what this time (not that I ever know). The next day, Nyle got sick. It is really quite a bad pattern that once I get sick, he joins me a day later. Then we are both useless for a few days and just hope we don't run out of water.
Well, so we might be stuck here in Ocosingo for a few more days until we both recover. Good thing there is a construction site right outside our window and the hotel is doing renovations above us, the hammering starts at 7 am.
Cycle touring is full of good times, but also a lot of challenges.