They say the grass is always greener on the other side and in the case of the Sea of Cortez they’re spot on. Crossing from the desert landscape of the Baja Peninsula to the lush, tropical coast of the Mexican mainland was a remarkable transition and it was clear the next leg of cycling was destined to be a sweaty one…
Before launching my jungle assault though, I still had some more ‘off-the-bike’ time to savor with my friend from home and we headed up into the mountains to explore the magnificent Copper Canyon. At the mercy of public transport, our endeavors were typified in no small part by some very weary journeys, with the most notable being the film worthy ‘Escape from Batopilas’. With Kurt Russell staring as me, the synopsis would read something like:
“Stranded in a small village on New Years Eve due to a washed out road, two friends desperately try to make it to civilization for a midnight beer, but events conspire against their every move…“
Huddled like hobos outside the village church, the day started at 3am waiting for a bus that never came and was followed by a period of unsuccessful hitching (thwarted somewhat by the complete absence of traffic!). By around midday we’d just about resigned to the fact that we were stuck there, when, by the grace of god, an old US school bus trundled towards us. Having spent the night stuck in the mud, an understandably exhausted bus driver beckoned us on board to a crescendo of screaming babies and finally we were on our way. We still didn’t rate our chances of actually making it for New Years though and it wasn’t long before the steep, muddy switchback climbs caused problems for the bus. You couldn’t script the sagas that followed, with James and I almost spending more time rolling around under the belly of this beast of burden than actually in it, desperately trying to attach and re-attach broken sets of snow chains to the tyres. After getting stuck numerous times, the driver, by the power of Tequila, somehow managed to get us through and we arrived in town some eleven hours later, exhausted and covered in mud, but just in time for midnight. In the UK I’d normally mutter a quick “cheers” to the driver upon stepping off, but on this occasion it felt like we’d just fought a war together and I almost shook his hand off!
Following our mountain exploits it was time to part ways and for me to start spinning southwards along the Pacific Coast. Getting back on the bike after these little hiatuses is rarely easy and this time it was especially tough. Whilst it was good to return to the reassuringly simple routine of “eat, ride, sleep, repeat”, I was now officially in the Tropics and compared to the cool mountain air I found the heat and humidity quite overbearing. For the first time in my life I was actually grateful for a headwind! Throw in an insanely hilly few hundred kilometers of road, requiring almost sole us of the ‘granny ring’, and you’ve got the ingredients for a real sweat-fest. Replenishing lost salts fast enough became a losing battle and I felt completely devoid of energy after the first couple of days. With these kind of trips there’s a fine line between adventure and masochistic misery, and camped out at a petrol station one night I struggled to convince myself that this was anything more than the latter. Ultimately it’s all a mind game and for the first time of the trip so far I was starting to lose.
With motivation sinking dangerously low I pushed onto the state of Michoacán, one that I’d been warned about countless times as offering an appealing combination of steep hills and dangerous people. They weren’t joking about the topography, but the closest I came to any trouble was a rope draped across the road being whisked up in front me by a couple of villagers, who then held out a collection tin. Slightly confused and thinking to myself “if this is a Mexican ambush, it’s going pretty well so far”, it transpired that they were simply collecting for a church fiesta. To their credit it was quite an innovative way of stopping passing traffic, albeit slightly hazardous, especially for a semi-conscious cyclist. As it turned out everyone I met was extremely friendly, continuing to support my theory that people’s perceptions of their neighboring countries or states, are largely based on invariably negative media stories rather than actual experience. Mexican media especially, thrives on gruesome accounts of ‘narco’ killings and whilst these are very real, they are far removed from the lives of most ordinary people and indeed tourists.
Michoacán, for all it’s hills, actually marked somewhat of a turning point for me and I regained some much needed focus. Since restarting the cycling, I’d been pouring whatever spare energy I had into mastering Spanish, both on and off the bike, and it was starting to come to fruition. Whether at a village taco stall or spending the evening camped in a family’s garden, I was finding I could now sustain meaningful conversations. Whilst probably still only on a par with a Mexican five year old (albeit with a greater vocabulary of expletives) this was a big step forward and a real game changer. Suddenly, not only could I actually talk to people and get a genuine insight into their lives, but I also had something tangible to focus on; mastering a new language. As the days passed I was improving noticeably, easily surpassing the level of GSCE French I’d ever reached at school. Although this possibly says more about the UK’s rather reluctant stance to learning anyone else’s language – a country where “uno beero for me and the wifo please” is classed as a linguistic achievement for most us.
Now that I can actually explain my trip properly to people, I often find myself telling a few white lies to scale down the extent of it, generally to that of just Mexico or even just their state. Otherwise, in the more isolated villages especially, people simply can’t get their heads round it and the conversation suddenly becomes quite awkward: “What do your wife and children think about all this?” “How can you possibly afford it?”. Whilst I generally don’t understand everything they say, you can guarantee ‘loco’ and ‘peligroso’ will feature somewhere (crazy and dangerous)!
It’s also interesting to hear people’s perceptions of ‘Great England’, with depictions generally revolving around the royal family and big castles (thankfully not binge drinking and X Factor). You have to wonder if everyone was shown the same portrayal of England in a school textbook, on the page next to the Eiffel Tower with a chap sporting a striped shirt and a string of onions round his neck. The royal family is a point of great interest and I’m often met with a barrage of questions; “You say you also have a president, so what does the king do??”. A tricky one at the best of times and as tempting as it was to say ‘nada’, feeling somewhat ambassadorial, I generally did my best to fumble together some sort of explanation. No doubt I’ve left a trail of completely confused people in my wake though, all thinking the royal family just hangs around schools and goes on holiday a lot.
Another inescapable topic of conversation is that of Mexico’s neighbour looming large to the North. Whilst Mexico is very much its own country in everyway, the influence of the USA is undeniable and percolates through at many levels; from being the primary market of the high profile drug trade to the more visible influx of fast food chains and Wal-Marts. Migrant labour is obviously another pertinent issue and I’ve heard countless stories from people who’ve made the crossing. In the villages, often unable to obtain the necessary permits, most are forced to cross illegally, employing the services of a ‘coyote’, with costs rocketing to $3000 in recent years due the heightened level of border security. It’s a sad state of affairs when a family saves up for years to send their eldest son across, in the hope that it will pay dividends, only for him to be caught in the process. When you have two nations sharing a border however, with each offering such disparate salaries, these types of occurrences are destined to continue.
One of my more random encounters occurred shortly after leaving the city of Acapulco, when I was flagged down on a sweaty climb and asked if like to have lunch with a local cycling club in the next town. Never one to turn down a free meal I obviously said I’d stop by. Expecting a ‘pint and crisps’ type affair like back home, I was somewhat taken aback when I later arrived at a 5 star luxury resort, feeling quite out of place in my salt encrusted, hole strewn clothes. Nevertheless, I introduced myself to all, gave the usual explanation of what I was up to (this group looked like they could ‘handle the truth’) and joined the table. I’ll admit it’d been a while since I’d last washed, and feeling a bit like a homeless person who’d just been taken in off the street I was slightly embarrassed when, shortly after, I was presented with a big fluffy towel and some shampoo! With the air literally cleared, it was great to be able to chat with some fellow cyclists and I ended up spending the whole afternoon with them, even giving a little slideshow on the trip so far. When the time came to leave I was eyeing up the beach camping potential when one of the group, who happened to own the place, insisted I stay the night in one of the luxury cabins – amazing! At around twenty times the cost of the insect ridden prison cells I normally frequent, it’s fair to say it was a bit of a step up from usual. Muchas gracias Fernando y todos de Acamontaños Mtb!
An unfaltering continuum of this trip has been the incredible people I’ve met along the way and the, albeit brief, windows I’ve been afforded into their lives. Cycling is just cycling – it’s the people that make this trip special.
Unfortunately the animals aren’t quite so hospitable and now that my broken tent zippers have been replaced, my chief concern has shifted from waking up beside a big hairy spider, to fending off attacks of the canine variety. Mexico appears to have missed the memo on puppies not just being for Christmas and wild dogs are endemic. With an apparently deep-seated animosity toward passing gringo cyclists I’ve had more than one close call, leaving me with a half destroyed pannier (Exhibit A) and bloody thankful that I coughed up for those rabies jabs. Hats off to the guys at Ortlieb though, who have taken pity on me and sent out a replacement pair of panniers – thanks! On the topic of gear failures, my tent has also been a source of much angst of late, with poles snapping in increasingly inconvenient locations. The number of broken poles now totals four, a pretty dire situation, which I fear is now beyond my ‘bodging’ ability. The wonder of duck tape unfortunately has its limits and I’m considering buying a cheap hammock to tide me over until my next ‘aid shipment’ in a month’s time.
The last three weeks making my way down the Pacific coast have been a real rollercoaster and I’m now taking some well needed time off to ‘re-group’ and plan my next move. Whilst I’m only a few days ride from the Guatemala border, I’m not ready to conclude the Mexico chapter just yet, and intend to embark on a rather lengthy detour inland and across to the far eastern tip. Mexico continues to surprise me and with largely indigenous populations, masked revolutionaries and remnants of the Mayan Empire, the next leg promises more of the same. Stay tuned….!