Pan-American Trails part 5

Unworried by time, Jose Porta enjoys to the utmost a great adventure

By Jose Porta, Photography by Jose Porta

Working against great odds of weather and rough country he pushes on with Central America as his objective

Mexico City would be my next stop, but I had no idea of how or when I would get there. There is a road that connects these two cities and during the dry season it is possible for a good driver to make the trip in three days, although the going is very rough and inconvenient. But now I was in the midst of the rainy season and this road had been closed to all traffic. Who-ever wanted to go to Mexico City had to take the train.

It was raining when I left Guadalajara and with my motor all covered up and well protected from the water I ventured over the great Mexican Plateau. I would occasionally meet a rough and steep hill but most of the road was level, which made it harder for me on account of the pools of water and mud that I had to cross.

I rode twenty-five miles out of town on a good hard surfaced road, which suddenly came to an end, giving place to a soft bed of mud and slime. It was the beginning of hell! Once again, as on the Pacific Coast, I had to use my wits against the work of man and against the demolishing powers of the elements.

I said I had to fight against the work of man because when the road between Guadalajara and Mexico City is closed it is realty closed in the full sense of the word. I met more than one place where the road was dammed so that the water could be collected and used to irrigate the adjoining fields. Such dams would transform the road into canals miles in length, which made it impossible for me to proceed. I had to take to the hills and follow narrow, steep and uneven burro paths which would eventually lead me to where I wanted to go. It was slow and arduous traveling. I had to walk first to find my way, then I had to drive through with the motorcycle, under a drizzling, maddening rain that would never stop. I was falling and sliding, riding in low every inch of the way, wondering how far I could get and then again wondering how I ever got that far.

I finally gave up hope and left the valley altogether and took to the mountains. The water had settled on the plateau and the only dry land was to be found on the sides of the hills. I tackled those hills with all the power of my battered but ever faithful motorcycle. I drove incessantly until I was stopped by a stone wall, six feet high and built of stones piled one on top of the other.

I knew I was entering private property but that wasn’t the time for me to be too particular. I set to work and one by one I removed all the stones until I made a gap wide enough for the motorcycle to go through. After I reached the opposite side I repaired the damage and rebuilt the wall. The whole process took me over one hour.

I was now in a cornfield with the plants way above my head. I drove through the furrows for miles upon miles until finally I met another and similar wall. That was beginning to get on my nerves. Still I had learned by that time to take things as they came and I wasn’t surprised any more when, after a while, I met a third wall, then a fourth.

I was losing a lot of time building and rebuilding those walls, yet I was not in a hurry and I didn’t care as to where night would find me. The only advantage about this part of the country was that it was very thickly populated and I never lacked food or shelter.

Only sixteen per cent of the population of Mexico is white, the rest being composed of pure Indians and half breeds, with a few Chinese on the Pacific Coast. The white folk are mostly settled in Mexico City and other large towns and the Indians and half breeds are left to take care of themselves in their small towns and villages. The official tongue of course is Spanish but the traveler in Mexico meets with Indians speaking scores of different dialects, there being hundreds of different tribes of Indians with a different language for every tribe.

One hears of such languages as Zapoteco, Chinanteco, Maya, Totonaco, Tarasco, Otomi, Mexican (which is different from Spanish), Mixteco and many others.

I even learned to speak a few words of Zapoteco, but then by the time I learned that I reached people who spoke a different language and I gave up.

After traveling a few days east of Guadalajara I found myself among the Tarasco Indians. A friendly and hospitable people, with childlike curiosity they watched every move I made. I had a hard time inquiring about my way as I couldn’t find anybody who could understand Spanish. At my questions, they would chuckle and grin and finally run away and tell their friends about what had happened.

I soon had a flock of them around me, mostly children, who followed me from village to village. It was easier for them to walk than it was for me to ride as I kept sliding and falling down under that everlasting rain. I soon managed to train those kids so that they would help me lift the motor whenever it fell, but the minute I started the motor they would run away and keep at a safe distance.

I reached at last, Los Once Pueblos, which, as the name implies, are eleven villages all built in a row, one next to the other. And I had to cross them all.

What a riot! My followers grew at every village until I had a lineup behind me two or three blocks in length. With boisterous laughter they would pass their comments in their own tongue. All those villages were built on hills and the roads were never level, most of them being turned into raging torrents of water.

One by one I passed them all until I reached Carapan, the last of the eleven villages. I saw a schoolhouse and I stopped there. The schoolmaster came to receive me and asked me to stay for the night.

I was also well treated by the Tarasco Indians and I wanted to know why no white man was to be found among them, since they were so kind and hospitable, but I was told by the schoolteacher, himself not a Tarasco, that they treated me well because I was something new to them, but if I had to stay there a few more days they would soon show their hostility and force me to make myself scarce.

I thanked him for the tip and after a night’s sleep on the benches of the schoolroom I left the Tarascos and The Eleven Villages behind me.

I wasn’t gone an hour when I was confronted by one of those famous stone walls and a few miles later another one because they always came in pairs.

I reached Purepero and from then on I had to travel over flat country, which meant a lot of mud. There was no way of getting out of it. It was the worst mud I had encountered so far and at every step I despaired to ever gain one more inch. The motor was pulling and screeching and I was standing on my feet and pushing with all my might. Inch by inch I proceeded towards the next village, Zacapu. If I could get there I would be safe, I thought. I always had an idea that ahead of me the road would be better. I couldn’t possibly imagine it to be any worse.

Zacapu couldn’t come to me so I had to go to Zacapu. I reached it by night and I slept there.

The market place has always been the main attraction for me whenever I reached a village. There I could see food displayed all around me and I could feast my eyes on those luscious fruits in delightful anticipation. Fruits that I never tasted before, fruits that I never heard of in Northern countries. There were chabacones, zapotes, zacatos, chirimoyas, uikumos, mangoes, changungas, and many others too numerous to mention. I acquired a weakness for mangoes and I would buy them by the score and eat them all and lick my fingers.

I also learned to enjoy the highly-seasoned chile con carne, the real Mexican kind, I mean, which is not like what you get in Texas. The first spoonful would irritate my throat and burn my stomach and affect my nose and eyes. Yet it tasted good and I would eat some more. With tears running down my eyes I would swallow spoonful after spoonful of chile.

I would then move to the next stand and try new delicacies. I ate tamales and tacos and chalupas and carnitas and quesadillas and God knows what else. I even ate a plate of worms, Gusanos de Maguey, they call them, and they are considered a delicacy.

Since I started on the subject of gastronomy I might as well check up on the Mexican diet. While the natives live mainly on maize and beans, they seem to manage to set their hands and teeth on anything they can find. In the deserts of Northern Mexico I partook of a meal made out of a rattlesnake and it was good. In the jungles of Southern Mexico I tasted the iguana, a genus of lizard one or two feet long, which is also not so bad, and be it said en passant, it lays the most delicious eggs that I ever tasted.

I met many a peon on the road with a tenate full of tortillas, a live iguana wrapped around his neck, and a bunch of nopal leaves skewered on a stick. The nopal leaves made a refreshing salad, the small and tender ones being used only. The whole meal didn’t cost him a cent and it made a well balanced diet, consisting of meat, vegetables and grains.

The Mexican people are not meat eaters, and when they partake of it, they usually eat birrio, which are long strips of sun-dried salted meat. Fresh meat is only to be found in the largest towns. In the small villages or ranches I was lucky if I could get a few strips of birrio. In some villages of three or four hundred people I couldn’t even get that. They just had tortillas and dried cheese and beans, and maybe a few eggs. Birrio is very cheap, and after it is dried it lasts a long time. They make it out of anything: steers, cows, mutton, lambs, and somebody told me they make it out of dog meat, too, although I can’t vouch for that.

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By Jose Porta
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