Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The word tope best translates to 'speed bump' in English.

Topes may seem like a strange subject for a blog entry, but they actually played quite a large part in my recent trip back to Oaxaca's Pacific Coast (you'll recall my inaugural trip to the beach, a kinda drugged-out adventure, back in November).

The pace of life down along the coast -- a string of beaches called Zipolite, Mazunte, San Agustinillo and Puerto Angel -- is slow and relaxed (and, thus, somewhat analogous to a giant speed bump in our oft-hurried lives). The beaches are connected by dirt roads that are best traveled in the back of a truck. They're dotted with ramshackle beach huts and restaurants that serve super-fresh fish straight from the sea and super-cold beer straight from the bottle. And they're home to a somewhat international community of hippie-dippie, mota-lovin', half-naked beach bums that have come in search of a tope (some temporary, some permanent) in their daily grind.

And this is where my personal experience with topes begins. We -- a group of Huajuapeño friends that spent last week on the coast in celebration of the New Year -- met a guy who embraced this coastal lifestyle so fully that he actually changed his name to Tope.


Tope is a local legend, a sunburnt gringo who whiles away his days at a beach-front bar. Tope can't seem to recall his real name or how long he's been in Zipolite. Tope moseys -- he doesn't walk -- when he heads up to the bar to order yet another bottle of beer. Tope speaks Spanish (and English) so slowly that listening to him tests your patience.

Tope, clearly, is living the dream.

I thought a lot about Tope on our way back home from the beach this weekend -- and not just because I was jealous that he got to stay in 'speed bump' paradise and we had to head back to the reality of work. Rather, Tope (the guy) was top of mind because literally hundreds of topes (the things) dotted the two-lane highway that connects the coast to our mountain-top home.

These topes made a 500-kilometer journey (about 300 miles) take 10 hours. For real.

Now, where I come from, a 300-mile journey would take an easy five-ish hours. If that. But where I come from, roads are flat, well-paved, and often of the six-lane variety. In Oaxaca, the (sometimes) two-lane "highway" is a glorified mix of uneven pavement, rock and dirt that winds its way along the coast, up through the mountains, and through tiny villages. The views from the car would have been spectacular (deep blue ocean, lush green forests, bright orange sunset -- the stuff of legendary road trips) if the damn journey hadn't taken half a day and induced vomiting.

(Our dosage of Vomisin, the magic motion sickness medicine that was so helpful during my last trip to the beach, wore off about halfway through this killer journey.)

And let's talk about the topes. Every time we approached one of these damned little speed bumps, we had to slow to a stop, creep our way across, and cringe as the bottom of my friend's car scraped across the surface (my buddy's poor little Spanish-made Seat was a bit overloaded with three gringos, two Mexicans, a couple of coconuts, and all of our beach gear).

Now, part of me respects the tope: I get that safety is important, that speeding is dangerous, and that topes are cheaper than stoplights. But c'mon people. While we didn't keep count (I will next time -- if there is a next time), I'd swear that there were like 587 topes planted (like little misery-inducing mines) along that 500-km stretch of highway. And even by the most generous estimates, I doubt that 587 people call that same stretch of lonely highway home. So perhaps a tope every 2 kilometers is a bit excessive. Just sayin'.

Anyway, we pulled away from the beach -- happy and sunkissed (see the picture above) -- at about 2 pm, and we arrived -- groggy and carsick (no pictures taken for fear of mutiny from my grouchy car mates) -- at our destination just before midnight.

Damn you, Tope, for being able to live the dream.

Damn you, topes, for making that dream so inaccessible for the rest of us.

1 comment:

Quinto Sol said...

Topes are also "the bumping of foreheads among friends."

I know. Mexico.