Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Journal from Oaxaca, Mexico, BBB Archive 2/20/06

Symbol of Oaxacan Cycling Martinez, In Hospital with Crushed Leg
The scene at the IMSS, workers’ social security hospital (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social), on February 7, the day after the state holiday, was chaos. Families packed the waiting room waiting for their one-at-a-time chance to visit a sick relative. A surly guard at the door ignored me, and finally after waiting 30 minutes, I asked her just how long she was going to make me wait. She kept mentioning a “signora” who had to come back, and what I did not understand was that she was referring to Pedro Martinez’s sister, Erika, who was upstairs in the room, and I would not be allowed up until she came down. Finally the guard let me up, minus the gorgeous bouquet of flowers I had carefully picked out at the market (see photo left), that were summarily donated to the front desk.
Martinez did not look well. He was pale and had a fever from an infection started from the cement of the road scraping along his bones. His right femur was broken in half, and his tibula fractured into three pieces: all was put back together again with a succession of nails and steel tubes placed inside the length of his bones. His jaw had been broken into multiple fractures and pieced back together with internal sutures. He could barely speak.
Erika, a bright, good-looking 28-year-old chemist who works as an analyzer of the quality of Mezcal, a locally-grown liquor, showed me Pedro’s X-rays. The points where they had been patched looked flojo to me, which in slang means crooked, not straight, basically loose and not well put together. It’s a word that also applies to people when they don’t try very hard, or are relentless failures.
We talked for a long time, and Pedro related parts of the accident. I learned more later, but in essence, he was driving about 70 kph (about 50 mph) along the Oaxaca-Mitla road on his motorcycle with a female friend on the back. The next thing he knew, he was in the hospital.
I later learned that Pedro had been hit by a truck or bus exiting a Pemex gas station on a hillside between Abasolo, the basket-weaving town about 10 kilometers east of Oaxaca, and Tlacochahuaya, home of former monastery of St. Jerome, patron of hermits.
Eventually, this crime will be solved, because everyone in Oaxaca knows someone else. Word had it in the carpet-weaving town Teotitlan del Valle another 7 kilometers down the road that a bus driver with a busload of patrons headed for the town was known to have hit a motorcyclist and to have fled, leaving all his belongings behind around the same day of the accident, about one month ago now.
Nevertheless, every day that I read the newspaper in Oaxaca, regardless of whether it was Las Noticias, or any other paper, the last five pages norrmally contained brutally straightforward photographs of road accident victims. People were mowed down in the middle of the day and night, as they walked across highways, stood on the side of a road, or rode their bikes. The drivers almost always escaped from the scene, presumably never to be seen again.
We thought we had problems here in New York. In Oaxaca state, there is no requirement for local, state or federal police to establish an accident scene that triggers an investigation after a bad or fatal motorist accident. In the case of the majority of motorist accidents in Oaxaca, therefore, no witnesses are interviewed, and the driver or drivers responsible for the accident flee, sometimes leaving their car behind. The owner of the car, whether the driver or another person, is also not held responsible. A crime cannot be substantiated without the victim (or in the case that they are dead, the family) initiating a “denuncia” or a lawsuit, often expensive and difficult because of the “trouble” that ensues for the family, said Martinez.
There is no criminal investigation, there is no criminal action, and thus there is no crime.
Furthermore, the owner of the car can and do say that they were not driving the car and that it had been stolen or used without their permission, thereby evading responsibility for the accident.
In other words, try not to be hit by a vehicle while in Mexico.
What alarmed me was that this driver was still on the loose, with the possibility that Pedro and his friend were not the only victims of his carelessness. For all we knew, the driver had hit and maimed or killed scores of other victims, but was still driving.
On Wednesday, February 9, I went in search of reporters at Las Noticias to see if they would do a story on Martinez. To me, he is a symbol of the soul of Oaxaca—a young boy who grew up in the country, tended to the family goats, and walked an hour and a half to and from school every day. He then grew up to be a cycling champion riding alongside such greats as Raul Alcala, and helped the Mexican National Team win the 1987 international championships against Andy Hampsten and the 7/11 Team.
But there he lay, broken in a hospital, the essence of his soul, his leg, broken in three pieces, perhaps only to walk again.
How indeed could the authorities not recognize and investigate this case? It was a crime against society, the essence of all that Oaxaca stood for.
So I went in search of Las Noticias, and found, that like many Oaxacan institutions, they were on strike. (The university was also on strike—more on that in another blog). I found out through a series of conversations taking place in the local abarrote (deli) that the paper was being printed out of a central location, and I headed for the zócalo.
As I entered the makeshift offices, I recognized the receptionist who used to sit at the front desk of their headquarters, going through a stack of papers on her lap next to a desk that she shared with another person situated in a poorly lit stairwell. She recognized me as well, and unlike the past when I was made to wait for the editor to receive me and for locked doors to be buzzed open, I was waved upstairs.
I climbed over wires and tubes snaking across the floors to accommodate the computers that had been hurriedly set up some 430 days ago.
According to reports by Oaxaquenos, Las Noticias was closed down with a workers' strike through back-door machinations by the recent governor-elect, Ulises Ruiz, offended that the paper did not support him in his election. On the top left hand corner of the paper is printed the number of days of “impunity” since the paper was shuttered, now over 450.
I walked into the editor’s office only to encounter by happenstance, the young, slight, and handsome Jaime Rodriquez, their sports reporter. One of the editors I met in 2004, Luiz Lagunas was also there. It turned out that Rodriguez was aware of the accident and was well versed in Pedro’s cycling history, though both of us were missing the details.
A lively and very cynical but realistic conversation about Martinez and the laws of Oaxaca that do not protect accident victims, and the role of reporters in helping change societal conditions ensued. Rodriguez agreed to do an interview with the cyclist, and that night I went back to the hospital armed with a pile of American bike jerseys, a red hat from the city of New York’s failed quest for the 2012 Olympics, and the number to Pedro’s room—apparently a prerequisite to admittance, and this time the guards let me in.
Pedro told me the history of his successes, which I pointed out, should really be on his website for the bicycle touring business he now runs. Due to modesty, only one sentence refers to his four years on the Mexico National Team, six-time winner of Benito Juarez Classic, one of the toughest mountain road races in all Mexico, and second in the Vuelta of Mexico right behind Raul Alcala, a race on level with the Tour de France, la Vuelta de Espana, and el Giro De Italia according to Rodriguez. He also helped the team win the Vuelta de Baja California Norte, an international level race against European teams in 1987.
In 1989, tired of the busy schedule and juggling a new marriage and young family, Pedro hung up his road bike. But he did not retire then, and immediately began to race again in duathalons and on a mountain bike, and in 1991 he won the world masters duathalon championship.
The next morning Thursday, I met Rodriguez at the hospital, and we were told with some certainty by the same curmudgeonly guards—that our entry would not be permitted because Rodriguez worked for a newspaper, and I was wearing shorts. After going back and forth between two hospital entrances, and after some negotiation in which we assured them that my shorts were not offensive because they were longer and more blousey than elephant pants, and Rodriguez did not carry a camera or tape recorder (I offered the female guard that she could tap him down, which she politely refused, a good thing, because he did have a tiny tape recorder in his pocket), they let us in. Surprisingly the guards (who referred to me as la gringa-guerra extranjera quien esta en la habitación con tu esposa when Pedro’s ex-wife Elsa showed up on Monday night) had notified Elsa, and she appeared on the scene as if by magic to assist us in the negotiations.
Rodriguez brought Martinez to tears when he asked him what he was thankful for: He talked about his daughter Laura, his son, Jose Michel, and his ex-wife Elsa who was caring for him and would likely take over much of his care after he left the hospital.
The interview, so beautifully written by Rodriguez and to be published in the next few days, is much better read on its own than through a re-hashing by me. In it he quotes Martinez saying that he would not have survived the accident if he hadn’t be a healthy cyclist, because he had lost so much blood.
Martinez’s cycling saved him, but the state did not. Nothing has been done to change the laws regarding government responsibility after a bad or fatal road accident; the linking of vehicle registrations with their drivers; and the assignment of responsibility to car, bus and truck owners for the negligence of the drivers.
And for this glaring inaction by the principle authorities, no great Mexican cyclist, or any other person who gets hit by a car in Mexico, will find protection from the government against traffic crime. My only parting optimism lay in the fact that on my last visit to the hospital, I exchanged hugs with the hospital guards, and Rodriguez and his colleagues at Las Noticias continue to print the words that protect the rights of Oaxaqueños, despite being shut down by a governor intent on silencing its critics.
It is also my sincere hope that Pedro will get his wish, to be able to ride again.

Journal from Oaxaca, Mexico
el 7 febrero, 2006
If you are wondering what a good cyclist would be doing in Mexico at this time of year, wonder no more. I don´t mean a good cyclist as in well-performing: I am using the word in the same way that we refer to good Christians. I`ve come to train, which maybe is what you should be doing. But why Mexico? Most people think of beaches and cervezas and dips in the pool surrounded by heaps of food in tall hotels. But Oaxaca is a mountainous region about five hours south of Mexico City that has relatively cool, dry weather mixed with the warmth of the sun. So it has excellent training weather.
It also has a long tradition of cycling, with many very talented Mexican cyclists orignally from this region, including some national champions. One of the reasons is the very challenging climbs surrounding the city. And if you come here to train, you`ll also find a very active bike-racing community that will allow you to race without the formalities of a license or a club. The races take place on the weekends, and with each weekend more, they become longer, with steeper climbs, and in worse heat as we approach the summer. Of course if you race and train here, it`s at your own risk, because as you will quickly learn, the Mexican way is not the American way. In one 50 kilometre mountain event I raced in two years ago,after one mile in a mass start the group ahead of me suddenly parted--to go around a dead dog literally embedded in the hot cement.
Before I arrived here, I learned that one of the most talented cyclists living in Oaxaca, Pedro Martinez, several times winner of the national mountain championship in Mexico, was in a motorcycle accident 26 days ago. He survived with a fractured femur and fractured shin. But his condition although improving is also not so great. I visited him in the hospital, a bureaucratic ordeal worthy of a novel, and met his sister Erica and his ex-wife Elsa. While this may not mean much to you, the point is, like cyclists, he was not safe in traffic.
Pedro Martinez has a business in Oaxaca guiding people on mountainbiking trips. The mountain biking here is tremedous. In the many localities where the government can`t afford (or won`t) build roads, there are many pathways, byways, and roads made of dirt that can take you circuitously through the back way, from Oaxaca to many of the outlying small towns. What makes it all the more worthwhile is that most of these towns specialize in making specific handmade goods, ranging from chocolate, to baskets, to woven rugs and carved, handpainted animal figures.
It is easy to do a day or half day trip, get your exercise, but also see interesting towns and beautiful objects. Since there were no groups planned yet for this week, instead of lugging my road bike here from New York, I rented a mountain bike for a week for a discounted rate of $85--less than the cost of renting a car for a day. I brought my own pedals to fit my shoes, which they changed at the shop, and off I went!
Yesterday, February 6, I had a late start and climbed to the ancient ruins of Monte Alban. Because it was early afternoon, I was hot, but also a little unnerved by the twisted turns,and the giant buses passing me in the opposite direction. I knew they were being careful, but one mistake on either part, and down we would go into the precipice.As I neared the ruins, because I had already seen them two years ago, I rode past the entrance towards the the town of Arrazola, down vertiginous, orange dirt roads.
After passing a herder and his bleating goats, I saw a 12-year-old riding his bike the opposite way and asked him the way to Zaachila, my final destination. He turned around and accompanied me part of the way, and even came to get me when I took a wrong turn. In Arrazola, I looked into several wood carvers, and the best I found was Mr. Susano Morales whose magnificently carved animals were painted in beautiful bright colors. He had a pair of cocks with attitude, a cougar catching a fish, and many other real and mythical creatures. Since I had a late start, I took the main road back which is filthy, filled with trucks, and even more dangerous than I remember.
Today, Tuesday, I got up a little earlier and headed off towards el Tule, one of the oldest trees in the world. Unfortunately I did not get out early enough, because traffic was maddening, and the rising sun was in my eyes. On a mountain bike my reaction time and speed was slower, so I was not comfortable until I reached a major intersection, site of the Monumento Benito Juarez. This happens also to be the spot where many of the Sunday mountain races begin (Saturday is for crits), and if you turn left instead of going straight along el Camino Nacional, you`ll be heading for Tuxtepec. The climb towards Ixtpec, the first town on top of the mountain about 15 kilometres away, is maddening and impossible for many, and one of the most challenging places to train. It`s also miserable in the hot sun, so it`s best to do it with a 6:30 a.m.start.
Onwards towards Tule, I went straight through the town, narrowly avoiding the rath of the bus drivers, and taxistas, crazy taxi drivers along the way. I rode through Tule and took a right after the Pemex headquarters, heading towards a grouping of towns near Abasolo, a basket-weaving town.
Here, riding a mountain bike was a real advantage because several villages are linked by dirt roads and pathways used by the farmers in their horse and mule-driven wagons. So you can have a blast riding through the many byways around the towns, meeting only ocasionally a famer. Which I did, and we had a wonderful conversation about alfafa, horses and land. He said his life is hard but it`s secure because of the land. These hard-working, sun-bitten people are sweet, friendly, and very generous with their time.
After a small ride-through in Abasolo, I started back along as many dirt roads as I could. I saw a rider some 100 feet in front of me, and I saw him take a shortcut off the main road. On a whim, I figured he must be going somewhere, I hoped back to Oaxaca. I soon caught up with him, and without a word we rode along these paths, as I watched the main road, which we call "feo" for ugly because of the cars and their speed, slipping by on my right. Sure enough, he guided me back to El Tule on back dirt roads and paths. When we got there I thanked him for guiding me, and he said he would ride with me back to Oaxaca. About a quarter mile from the statue of Benito Juarez, he told me I could take a new via bici (bike route) into town. It was then that I realized that Francisco Ecesarte whom I had met two years ago, who was then trying to convince the government to convert old train lines to bike paths, had succeeded in converting some of them.
The bike path was very well marked and maintained, but the closer I got to the center of Oaxaca, the more riffraff I had to deal with--people meandering across without looking, large tricycles traveling two abreast in both lanes, wandering drunks, crazy Mexican style home-boys screaming and deliberately standing in front of me, and cars stuck in the turns in the intersections blocking the path. This is Mexico, I thought to myself, and even more so when I reached the end of the converted ferrocarril: it ended at one of the worst eight-way, four-lane intersections in the entire city, with absolutely no safe turn to make. Getting back into the historic center (read: tourist center) from there was a pain in the butt. Fortunately, I knew the way. That`s it for today folks! WIll post again soon.

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