Manuel* completely changed my stance on what I previously called ‘disposable friends’**: the people I met in hostels and wondered why on earth they wanted to add me on Facebook to “keep in touch”, when it was quite obvious we wouldn’t meet again. None of these people I have since met up with (apart from a drunken chance meeting in Sheffield), and some have either culled me from their ‘friend’ list or vice versa. But every year for the last 4, I’ve had at least one message from Manuel asking if this is the year I visit Mexico, and 2016 was the year I could reply, “Si!”
*Manuel and I met in Berlin (photo below) whilst we both interrailed our way around central Europe in 2012, and spent a day and a half exploring the city as a three with a friend from home, listening to his infectious laugh and verifying Mexican stereotypes. He didn’t wear a sombrero, but he did eat a lot of tacos.
** I doubt I’ll consistently speak to people I meet on this trip via social media when I return home, but I won’t ‘cull’ any from a Facebook friend list knowing now how good it is to have a base in a new country; and seeing how happy Manuel was to show us around his city made us think how good it would be to show him London- we’ve already started an itinerary. Jon and Annette’s hospitality also added to this lesson.
It was a 24 hour Greyhound ride from Austin to Durango via Nuevo Laredo, and despite being 2 hours later than expected, Manuel was there as promised to greet us off the bus. Riding in his truck with his friend Poncho (the “baddest man in Durango”), they gave us a brief tour of their city en route to pick up a rental quadbike. Manuel lives in a small(ish) colonial city in North-Central Mexico within a state of the same name. Around 300 miles away is the Pacific coast of Mazatlan, and only 150 miles in the same direction are the Sierras del Durango.
The quadbike came into its own once we drove the distance into the Sierras, arriving at a small hamlet called Mexiquillo. Here, we would stay in a handmade wood cabin with Poncho and Manuel, and meet his girlfriend, Hazzel, as well as another couple, Cesar and Sonia. We ragged the quad over the rock garden of Mexiquillo and drove it for miles down a dirt track through kilometre-long tunnels. Cesar told us how they were supposed to link up to form a scenic railway line, but were left unfinished and are now left for hikers and adrenaline-junkies on dirtbikes, quads and sand buggies. Each night, the five Mexicans put on a fine feast of grilled steak tacos, made from scratch in front of us, cooking everything on an A3-paper sized grill. We drank tequila and Texan whisky until we passed out on the sofas; later waking up to start over: hiking, quadbiking and cooking our way through the weekend.
Food will definitely be a high point when I look back on our time in Durango. Manuel owns 4 restaurants and counting (he is looking to start an international franchise for his taco business), and the first that we visited was the original Tacos Banados for breakfast- eggs, beans, chicken and spicy salsa. We stopped off at his food truck, Lechonmania, which sits proudly in a site dedicated to food served out of converted trucks, trailers and caravans. We ate here on a Friday night with a live band accompanying a pork-themed menu before heading out to Black Pork nightclub. Twice we visited his newly-opened Tacos Banadas, which sits in a bustling part of Durango’s Liverpool mall, sampling the enchiladas and ‘pina banados’, a non-alcoholic imitation of the popular beachside cocktail. We were close to being roped in to working here for a day after some employees didn’t turn up for work (it would be a true test of our newly learnt Spanish!). And finally, we refuelled at his ‘cafe corner’ after workouts at Hazzel’s parent’s gym.
We were also taken around other restaurants, usually tacos or burritos, although we ate at a seafood bar as well as trying a Durango delicacy, mesquito-soaked scorpion.
The most social meal was the final part of the Day of the Dead, where we ate in a crowded living room surrounded by Hazzel’s parents, aunties, uncles and cousins. Dias de los Muertos was the first date that we penned into our diary and worked around (the second being the start of our Central American G-Adventures tour), and I had wanted to go since meeting Manuel in Berlin over four years ago. Western Halloween costumes had sold me a lie, as I expected everyone to have sugar skulls painted on their faces- you have to visit Mexico City for that. For the rest of Mexico, it is a respectful day for families to visit their deceased graves, clean and polish the tombstone and leave flowers. Locals believe that November 2nd is the one day of the year that the distance between heaven and earth is at its shortest, and their dead relative’s spirits come down to Earth for the day/evening. Traditional bands are on hand to play the deceased’s favourite song next to their tombstone for them, and many families bring food to eat with their loved ones. For Manuel, Hazzel and her family; we went to her grandmother’s house to eat while looking at photos of her.
The other (apparent) myth about Mexico was it’s place on the ‘most dangerous countries to visit’ list. The man who I sat next to on the Greyhound told me of “severed heads on poles” and of “travellers burnt alive in car trunks”. Utter rubbish. The border crossing was made simpler by being on the bus (we saw multiple SUV’s and vans being torn apart by the DEA), but even the ‘big, bad’ Mexican customs officials joked with us and tested our Spanish to see if we could order a beer confidently. Poles apart from the nightmare of the US official who took 45 minutes to allow us into his country. Even on the eve of Dias de los Muertos, we felt completely safe walking back to Manuel’s house without him alongside us (although 3 separate people did take it upon themselves to flick the V’s and shout “GRINGOOOS!” at us). We were given a tour of the dodgier parts of Durango from the safety of the truck, where Manuel told us, “Here, they will rob you of your wallet and kill you anyway”, as well as only visiting the cities main graveyard in the daytime, as apparently “bad, bad people… not killers, but bad people” loiter around there once the sun has gone down (we later rubbed shoulders with a narco in a nightclub and went back to his house for an ‘after-party’ before hastily leaving, a picture exists somewhere on someone’s phone of us challenging him to a drinking competition). On the whole though, Mexico seems stable for the meantime. “The change of government causes the most trouble,” Manuel told us, “the new president has to re-negotiate deals with the narcos and cartels.” During these periods, killings on the streets and burning trucks on the highways are common, and partly the reason that Manuel dreams of a getaway home in Canada for his family.
Here’s hoping that it stays stable for our next destinations in this beautiful country; Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
A huge thank you to Manuel and Hazzel, who put us up for a week in their home, showed us the best places to eat, taught us hundreds of Spanish words/phrases and helped us plan our itinerary; Hazzel’s parents, for letting us use their gym and boxing facilities (as well as delicious cake and handmade bracelets); Cesar and Sonia for letting us practice our Spanish on them; Poncho for introducing me to Mexican hip-hop (the soundtrack for the GoPro footage); and 3-year old Varenka for giving up her room so that we could sleep on her floor -we hope your giant cuddly panda, Inglis, is payment enough. If any of you are in England, hit me up and your kindness will be repaid. I look forward to showing you around my country.