It was an eerie experience leaving Mexico City in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, March 8; we cruised through the vast metropolis at 5AM, while it was still dark and while some of the mariachi bands were still playing. All but the late-late-night joints had closed up shop and there was a forlorn sense of tired stillness and bygone vibrancy. In front of us lay the rest of Mexico in long, isolated stretches of supposed unrest which we were to pass through by bus over the course of 2 days, to arrive safely at our home country. Leaving Mexico City had the feeling of leaving the great adventure, the challenge of language and spicy foods, the boundless Latino warmth. As we stared out the bus windows, the world flowed by at superhuman speed. We could not stop to smell the wild new roses, only dream about the familiar flowers to which we would return just across the Rio Grande.
But thankfully, Mexico had just one more treat for us in store. We decided to take an extra day to stay with some Mennonites living near the Gonzalez municipality in the state of Tamaulipas, halfway from Mexico City to the border. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Elwen Kauenhofen, who had graciously invited us into his home. That evening and the coming day, Mr. Kauenhofen introduced us to the Kleine Gemeinde Community to which he belongs. The dedicated, agrarian community reminded us of Spanish Lookout in Belize, with copious amounts of delicious food and sense of education and entrepreneurialism.
We timed our stay to coincide with Sunday morning worship, where we were able to sing 4-part hymns in the Spanish language for the first time since Costa Rica. Sermons and worship leading was all in Low German, which was also consisted with the Belizean Kleine Gemeinde. Every time we enter a setting like this, we feel the comfort and familiarity of shared faith and tradition. After church, the youth met at Walter and Ernie’s house to hang out, play volleyball, crack some knacksoat (sunflower seeds), and eat faspa, the Russian Mennonite light Sunday meal.
Mr. Kauenhofen was keen on reading, teaching, and knowing history. He told us about the Sommerfelder origins of the Gonzalez Mennonites, the shifting agriculture markets, and about other social and spiritual changes over the years. Nowadays, the community makes sure their youth can speak Low German, High German, English, and Spanish. Mr. Kauenhofen’s great joy was to show us an old Kroeger Clock, which are considered some of the most precious antiques from the Mennonites who lived in the Ukraine during the 19th Century.
On March 10, we were about to set out on our final bus leg when we caught wind that Mr. Franz “Pancho,” who lived nearby, was heading up that morning to McAllen with his family, which included our friends Walter and Ernie. Franz, his wife, and three children met us with their trailer at the Kauenhofens where we loaded the bikes and went together northward. On the way, we went by several military outposts and saw countless federal police patrolling. The dark masks, armored vehicles, kevlar vests and gun turrets were a very clear reminder that organized crime and drug trafficking in northern Mexico is a reality. It also re-affirmed the decision we had made to forgo the border-area biking.
We waited an hour on the Reynosa-Hildalgo bridge, and without too much trouble passed onto United States soil. Franz and his family bought some equipment at a Tractor Supply Company store and then treated us all to a night at the Golden Corral buffet, where the three of us piled up plates of gravy, mashed potatoes, salads, lasagna, and meatloaf—all the US foods we had been hankering for. We found our way to Hidalgo Border Missions that night, where we parted ways with our fantastic Mennonite friends and bunked down, breathing deep, and giving an extra prayer of thanks that God had brought us to that place.
The next day we biked 110 miles through a strangely familiar land. The roads were wide, the pickup trucks were big, the grass was green, the toilets were powerful, and pure, drinkable water trickled from the taps of free, public bathrooms. Steaming forth with a gentle tailwind, we had lunch by the US Post Office in a small town, where a Puerto Rican woman gave us pizza and tamales. Later down the road we got our first taste of Spanglish when we bought tangelos from a vendor who said that Riviera was “treinta y six” miles down the road.
Entering Keith Weiss’s house in Riviera, South Texas was an experience in itself. Eleven dogs came to greet us, and then we were whisked out back to where Keith’s friend Diego was grilling up steak, pork chops, sausage, chicken, cheesy jalapeño potatoes, and an entire rack of ribs. Hello, Texas! Keith is actually a Canadian expat, but he loves the tranquil life on his beautiful land and house where he rescues dogs and houses cyclists through Warmshowers.org. From our time in Riviera with Keith we will not forget the mesquite BBQ, the conversations about old longhorn ranching, and the epic lazy morning of cereal, milk and internet time as the dogs quietly chomped on milk bones around us.
After Rivera we pushed onward on the giant highways and byways in the great nation of Texas. One night we slept in a gazebo and drank some dumpster-dived Coca-Cola (tastes better in Mexico). Another night we found ourselves in the small town of Blessing. After unsuccessfully trying to sleep at a church, we inquired at a quilt store, where a friendly woman suggested we go to the Historic Traveler’s Inn across the street. She sent us off with pizza. We rolled out our mats in the lobby, for there was no room in the inn. In the morning, the matriarchal manager, Helen, “fixed us up right” with biscuits, gravy, eggs, bacon, and a couple of cups of warm coffee before we hit the rainy, dreary 98-mile road.
Houston was a blast. We rode in a bike lane right past the NASA Space Center on NASA Route 1, with businesses named NASA Vision in the NASA Shopping Plaza before we crossed Saturn Avenue and passed under the NASA bypass into Seabrook. We had a stellar reception at the Blanco home, where Amelia and Raul raise an out-of-this-world line-up of kids, Christian, Abigail and Gabriel. Aunt and uncle of Michael’s girlfriend, Lydia Yoder, Amelia and Raul (leader in the space suit division at NASA) are serious about staying fit, nutritious and active. They routinely have people over to work out in their recently constructed backyard exercise palapa, and not a day goes by when one of the Blancos aren’t out lifting weights or scampering up the climbing rope, Gabriel’s favorite. As “tired bikers,” we were able to enjoy the abundant fresh fruits and vegetables at the Blanco paleo-diet table without even working up a sweat at the pull-up bar out back or completing one of the rigorous homeschool assignments Amelia has laid out for the kids. Our good friend Gwendolyn Matias-Ryan, studying viola at Baylor University, came down for a delightful night of string music, church in the morning, and a Texas brisket barbecue lunch afterward. The last time we “saw” Gwendolyn was through Skype in Oaxaca, where we visited her family. It was great to see her and share that time with the Blanco family.