Strong headwinds were making a normally easy downhill into Ciudad Insurgentes feel like a steady battle. We pull into town around 11:30 and are already sweating profusely from the heat, ready for a break.
After a quick ride up and down the main road running through town we slip into a large supermercado, both to enjoy the air conditioning and to pick up some cold juice and fruit for lunch. A few minutes later we park our bikes against a building in a densely shaded area alongside the main drag, unfold our walk-stools and settle in for a slow lunch. As we eat we watch people drive up and down the streets, honking at each other and occasionally pulling up under shade trees to ramble out to shake hands, exchange hugs or kisses and to chat. A variety of cars, vans and motorcycles with PA systems precariously attached to their hoods or handlebars slowly troll the area, making loud announcements about their ice cream, pulled pork, sweets or the latest sales. By 1:30 a handful of young men share our shade spot, their heads down and focused on their cell phones.
Around 3:30 we finally garner enough energy to continue on to Ciudad Constitucion where we intend to stay the night. About 10 miles into the 20 there I really hit the wall and feel pretty horrible. The heat of the last couple of days has taken its toll on me. We hobble in to the city and find an ice cream shop. After a spoonful of sugar I felt a little better.
We settle in to Hotel Oasis to weigh in on some important issues being discussed back home (Fighting F35′s from being based in Vermont, Kai’s My Turn Letter about the Incompleteness of Vermont’s Ban on Fracking) and to allow me to recover. We enjoy the first city in Baja that doesn’t feel like a tourist area and we explore roadside restaurants and small mercados. Evening walks take us down dirt roads through residential areas.
We leave Ciudad Constitucion for La Paz, which will be our last stop in Baja before heading over to mainland Mexico. With the G20 meeting happening in Los Cabos this week, activists and civil society organizers are holding the People’s Summit in La Paz. We hope to make the trip in two days, to arrive in La Paz on my birthday so that we can get up early the next morning to witness the People’s Summit march.
The first day out we make a good run for it, cycling our longest day yet at 102 kilometers. It is another hot day in Baja, climbing up toward 35C (95F). Afternoon breaks have become imperative to our maintaining our health so just as we begin to feel like we’ll melt we ride up to a small home that serves breakfast and coffee. Although they are closed for breakfast we ask if we can buy a coffee and sit under their small shaded patio to rest and eat our lunch. Francisco, owner of the home, tells us to have a seat and make ourselves comfortable. He serves up a hot cup of strong, black coffee, just like I used to drink it (before I gave it up for tea).
From there we continue on to Las Pocitas, a mid-sized town just off Highway 1. We are beat and the sun is quickly setting. Should we continue on in hopes of finding a wild camp off the road or head toward the towering church steeple we could clearly see from the road? Previous cyclists had mentioned the pastor at the church was nice and that they had a garden that they allowed cyclists to camp in. We had seen little in way of wild camping opportunities over the last few miles, barbed wire fencing lined both sides of the road, and the church would likely have water we could use for cleaning up before hitting the sack (a huge benefit after a day of sweating profusely).
Bells are tolling as we pull in to the dirt parking lot and people are streaming in through the gates and in to the church. We hesitate. We clearly hear a guitar and people’s voices rising and falling in song. A woman going through the gate sees us from afar and stops, beckoning us to come closer. We quietly make our way forward and park our bicycles against a stone wall beside the church. What now? Wait till the pastor is done and ask if we can stay? Just as we are deciding to make dinner in the parking lot (we are both starving) while we wait out the mass, a woman comes out and tells us it will most likely be fine if we want to sleep there and that she will ask the “padre” if it is okay after mass. With that, she motions for us to join the services.
We both look at each other. She smiles and goes in as we begin discussing what to do.
I, for one, am not overly enthusiastic about sitting through a Catholic mass. As a recovering Catholic, these days, the only time I set foot in a church is for an extreme family event, like a wedding or a death, and even then it’s hard for me to accept anything about the dynamics of the Catholic church, or any church for that matter. Since, historically speaking, many religious institutions uphold wars and criminal or inhumane behavior in the name of a god, make profits and own lands without paying into the commonwealth tax system, indoctrinate people through outreach or missionary programs (often rejecting or overriding indigenous cultures and traditions) and are usually intolerant of women, gay/transgender people and anyone who questions a patriarchal authoritative system, I’m not a big fan of most organized religions. Add in that I’m a strong supporter of womens rights (most churches aren’t) and that I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest (and subsequently, a survivor of the church’s psychological abuse after having gone public with said abuse), well….you can understand my hesitancy.
For all those who don’t know me personally, and before I alienate any of our readers or cause a hailstorm of defensive or conversion-minded commentary, you should know that I always try to be very respectful of another person’s traditions and right to practice as they wish. Religious organizations are an important part of many of my family and friends’ lives, and although I may not agree with their views or respect their religious leaders, I don’t try to talk them out of being members of their church. It’s their personal choice & I’m not in to proselytizing to people who are perfectly happy with their current spiritual state of being. I expect others, in turn, to be equally respectful of me and my spiritual inclinations. When it comes down to it, I don’t care what religion you subscribe to or what spiritual tenets you believe in or don’t believe in. I also don’t care what your title is, how much money you make, what level of education you have achieved, who you know, or how well you can talk the good talk. What matters to me is action, what a person does on a daily basis and how they treat the earth and other people. Actions that are life-giving, inclusive, non-harming, love-based, and sustainable for everyone and every thing earn my respect.
So, anyway, here we are, Kai & I, murmuring amongst ourselves outside the church doors, discussing my comfort level and weighing our options. I’m, surprisingly, feeling ok with the whole scenario, and it sort of feels like an anthropological study to me. We’ve both always been open to studying religions and a part of us considers this an opportunity to get to know the people of this small town a little better and to observe an interesting, intimate, ceremony. When will we have another chance to be a part of something like this? So, despite that we’re starving we decide to go in, sit and respectfully be present.
Had we known the mass would last almost TWO HOURS we most likely would have opted to make and eat dinner first. I did actually leave several times to get something to drink, to move our bicycles within sight range and to film part of the ceremony. The cool thing is that it seems to be a very flexible environment and people come and go as they please. At one point, a little boy about 3 years old runs in to the church and down the aisle, frantically looking around for his father. His father makes big waving motions till his son sees him then they take each others hands and walk out together. A couple of young girls run outside and play for awhile then run back in and sit for awhile. Eventually, they make their way to the bench across from us, where they sit and stare at us. Each time I glance their way they smile hugely and raise their eyebrows. At one point an older and extremely smelly man (even more smelly than us!) wearing very tattered clothes comes in and sits a couple of benches behind us. He continues to shout out phrases and people turn and smile, nod at him in approval, or they snicker and turn to wag their fingers at him. The entire ceremony, of course, is in Spanish, so we don’t understand a single word except for the occasional “Dios” (God) and “Amen”. Even though there are less than 20 people in the building and the natural acoustics would have allowed for using the natural voice, a very loud sound system is being used for the ceremony, microphone being passed from pastor to parishioner as needed. The pastor likes to sing so every song is taken through many verses. People alternate between standing and kneeling (on hard wood kneelers) and that seems to vary according to personal preference. Of course, a basket is passed around to collect people’s money. But my favorite part is the “Sign of Peace” when everyone greets each other with a literal sign of peace. People leave their benches and meander up and down the main aisle, shaking each others hands but also occasionally hugging and kissing each other, until every single person in the room has exchanged a sign of peace. While we shake hands, people ask us questions. Do you know someone here? What is your name? Where are you from? I feel sorry for the one brave woman who not only shakes our hands but also kisses our cheeks….she probably got a salt overdose!
Eventually the mass ends and after we answer as many questions as we can we find ourselves setting up the tent and beginning to make dinner at a very late 10:30 p.m.! In a sweet gesture of welcoming, the pastor brings us a huge slice of watermelon and then, later, as if that weren’t enough of a gift, brings us a handful of mangoes! When we finally crawl on to our sleeping mats and look at the time it is 12:30! Anxious to get a head start the next morning, to make a go at the over 70 hilly miles to La Paz, we try to fall asleep but it is for naught. If one dog in town discovers a reason to bark, it gives another dog a reason to bark, which sets off the entire town’s population of dogs’ barking. Just when we think they have settled down for the night the town’s roosters decide to start crowing, a little early at 2 a.m. in the morning! About an hour later the dripping begins, condensation coming off the metal roof just over one edge of our tent. The drip…..drip…..drip…dripping just as effective as dogs barking. Around 5 a.m. it was the pastors turn to make noise, opening up the doors and windows of the church. Soon after, women cackling away in Spanish come through the gates, gather in the church, and start intoning prayers. Around 6 a.m. we give up on sleep entirely, when a truck driving through town stops before every other house and lays upon their very loud horn for extended periods of time. Drive-by wake up call? Not sure what that is all about but it is very effective.
Exhausted and grouchy we start packing it up. We decide to leave as quickly as possible, to pick up a quick breakfast in town and to put some miles under us before we crash in the mid-day heat but the pastor has another idea for us. Just as we are rolling our bicycles out of the lot, he indicates he has something for us. What follows is two hours of eating cookies, chatting, singing (the Pastor singing along with the CD he made of himself singing), meeting Manual (a sweet man who drove the pastor around) and having the Pastor draw our portraits as a parting gift to us. We are finally able to escape this onslaught of generosity and attention after accepting two plastic rosaries and a CD of Father Antonio singing church hymns.
Stopping at the first mini-market we see, we down our juice and breakfast consisting of Bimbo cakes and canned fruit in between bouts of exhausted laughter. So much for a good night’s sleep and an early start! At least we aren’t carrying a CD with us in our already over-laden panniers, Kai informs me. He had stealthily slipped it back on to the pastor’s desk before leaving. But, alas, Antonio is on to us! As we cycle out of Las Pocitas we are run down by Manual, the driver, who under the Pastor’s orders had been driving around looking for us, to hand off the CD we had “accidentally” left behind! Guess we’ll be carrying that around until we can give it to someone on our travels that actually has a CD player, or until we can send it home to my parents, both devout Catholics.
Today is my birthday and we are off to a slow start. I am extremely grouchy from lack of sleep and the sun is already burning through my skin, only a couple of hours in to riding. The day gets a little better when Kai finds two oranges on the side of the road (one for each of us – perfect!) but it is feeling like a somewhat torturous day. My body is definitely telling me loudly and clearly I need to sleep to allow for recovery, or maybe that is just my body telling me I am forty-one years old now! Regardless of how hard we push up and over and up and over the never ending rollers we only make it half of our goal-distance for the day before settling in to a wild camping spot just off the highway.
I am disappointed that we won’t make it to La Paz to see the People’s march but we will, at the very least, be there for the next evening’s events. Besides, I am happy to be in the desert, enjoying the solitude of our last wild camp in Baja. And after I will my body to pitch the tent and set up our bedding, after I wipe away most of the grime of the day with a wet cloth, after we scarf down a dinner of rice, beans and zucchini tacos, and after we wash dishes, I sit on my walk-stool, watching the sun sink beneath the horizon. I am completely and utterly exhausted, yet undeniably content. Not a bad way to end a birthday. Not a bad way at all.