In the heat of the day, the fruit vendors who had set up shop along the main highway were the ones with whom I engaged in banter, though with my limited Spanish vocabulary.
Some were selling watermelons and oranges and some just coconuts. I would halt often for a few minutes to refresh myself with a fresh slice of watermelon and coconut water. Piña, or pineapples, were also my favourite. Pottery wares, hats and local crafts shops were also very popular with the Mexican tourist traveller as these were situated near most of the loncherías along the highway. The loncherías served up delicious ensalada de carnes, which was basically meat in a salad of avocado and tomato with French fries, hugely popular in Mexico.
The locals would often want to know where I slept at night and how far I travelled in a day. When I would say that I often camped in the fields or behind a bush along the highway, they would warn me not to and tell me it was very dangerous to do so. “Do not cycle after it is dark or past 6 pm. There is drug control type of violence going on between gangs. They will not recognise you as one from the area; so they will think you are a member from another territory and they will shoot you,” explained a Mexican motorcyclist who met me at an Oxxo convenience store. After spending a night at Ixtlán de Rio I made my way to Magdalena after visiting a prehistoric ruin from the Neolithic Age going back to 2000 BCE. The earliest settlers, after crossing the Bering Strait, had migrated south to this land now called the province of Nayarit and occupied it. They worshipped the sea and developed the first settlements with sea shells and were called the Los Concheros.
The 62 kilometres to Magdalena in Jalisco province was tough. Highway 15 ran parallel to Federal Highway 15D, which was a toll road on which cyclists were not allowed, and while the broader highway cut through mountains, the road I was on had a steeper grade and twisted and turned through the dusky mountains. At Ixtlán del Rio I had refilled water but I had only 3 litres. The reason I did not refill up to 5 litres was because I was used to coming across loncherías along the way and did not feel the need to carry additional weight. On a bicycle, each and every gram needs to fight its way to be a part of the journey. But this was a serious error of judgement on this day as there were no services between the two towns and by 2 pm I was out of water and struggling to pedal as thirst overcame me. Most vehicles took the toll road. It was almost as if the road I was riding on had been abandoned, save for the odd passenger bus or tractor, and none of these stopped when I waved out with an empty water bottle in my hand. It was only in the middle of the scorching afternoon that I rode into a small, sparsely populated and rather sleepy village called Plan de Barrancas. It had a tiny grocery store and I was relieved to see that they had basic provisions, including bottled water, coke and chips.
Rehydrated and rested I pedalled on, riding through a landscape strewn with black volcanic rocks, remnants of a volcanic eruption of the Magdalena Peak hundreds of years ago. Nearby, I saw trees of a species I could not identify. It had conical shaped, grey fruit that did not hang but grew upright. No one I met on the way could identify it correctly, as when I would verify the information on the internet, I would find that it was not the same tree. The bright red flowers of the Poinciana tree made the ordeal in the afternoon something to feel cheerful about! The day ended with a night on the busy streets of Magdalena, another small town on a very famous route in Mexico.
After loading my bike and gear I ate at a quiet café attached to a small motel called Hotel Real Qinta Minas serving great enchiladas verdes with rice, refried beans, chicken and sour cream. My staple diet on the highways at mid-day was carne asada which was charred meat in tortas (flatbread), refried beans, guacamole with salad. Typically, that would cost me 6-10 pesos (0.50 US dollars). It was usually the signature dish of all truck stops, and appeared right on top of the menu. Often when I was unsure of the quality of the meat I would simply ask for rice and refried beans. My main emphasis was on carbohydrates during the day that would provide energy for the day’s ride. I consumed meats because it provided me with sustenance and ensured muscle recovery. In the last few months I had developed a true empathy for animals and meat eating filled me with guilt. After each meal I reinforced my decision to stop eating meat once the journey was over. I could not bear to be part of a system that perpetuated animal suffering. If I were to stay true to my beliefs in a gentler and more compassionate world, I realised I would have to live it too.
I supplemented salt loss from the body with potato wafers and a sodium tablet that I consumed once or twice a day depending on the extent of sweating. If I felt I was getting cramps I would immediately pop a pill and drink more water. In Mexico, the stores stocked Gatorade but there was a much better electrolyte drink available in the chemists called Electrolit. It was effective at combating dehydration in the dry Mexican winter. At night my meals would be pasta and dried meat, which I would cook on my stove. When staying in a motel I had found a way of saving valuable denatured alcohol by buying a small-sized immersion rod to heat water to make boiled eggs and coffee. This worked really well for me and saved me a lot of time and money.
In the morning many exit roads out of Magdalena were blocked and I soon discovered the reason for it. There was a vintage car race on. I was startled to see colourful models from the 1950s and 1960s zoom past me, livening up the brown landscape. Many were American models but I also spotted a few Volkswagens. An hour later I descended a few hundred metres to a valley at 1,219 metres lined with small distillery complexes comprising of tanks and chimneys, spewing out odourless and light smoke into the sky. It was obvious that I was approaching the home of one of the worlds’ most recognisable and iconic spirits, tequila. The blue agave plant, which resembles a cacti, takes root in the red volcanic soil of the region and is grown and harvested in the millions each year. The plant flourishes at altitudes of 914 metres and above, and has large spiky leaves that can go up as high as 2 metres. The flowers of the agave plant are pollinated by bats. Tequila is produced from the heart of the plant called the piña and these can weigh anything between 40-90 kilograms. Mexican laws control the growth of the blue agave plant and mandate that tequila can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and in limited quantities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. However, I could not help wondering if there was an opportunity in growing the agave plant in India.
It was noon and a sculpture of a farmer harvesting an agave plant met me at the fork in the road that led into the town of Tequila. Behind it was a tall brick tower that had served as the chimney of the first distillery in Tequila in the seventeenth century. I felt excited and happy to be in such an interesting and historic part of Mexico and considered myself fortunate to be in the town that manufactured the potent and mysterious drink. This was the stuff of drinking legends and right now I was in the heart of this famous beverage.
Extracted from Dhruv Bogra’s Grit, Gravel and Gear: Four hundred days on a bicycle from the Arctic to the Andes (The Write Place; INR 499)