Kilometres: Ten thousand-ish
Times we cooked with pool water: 2
Times Simon reminded us we cooked with pool water on his second night on the road: 242
Well, once more I’ve left it far too long to write. When I left you all I was still in big bad Mexico City.
Cities, I’ve realised, do not want cycle tourists. Portland erected a series of six-lane highways and bypasses that proved impossible to navigate without a combustion engine and a GPS. San Francisco sent a rainstorm to soak my shoes and steep hills to sap knotted leg muscles. San Diego threw up the Santa Anna Mountains, a rainstorm and an almighty headwind. Guadalajara sweated us out on a big climb out of a canyon into the outskirts. Not to be outdone, Mexico City started with a downpour and followed with a shoulder-less six-lane highway. We thought it was all over when we found a train station, but of course they don’t allow bicycles. Then there was more rain to flood the streets to our knees in places, and all this on the first Friday night after payday in a city that is home to about as many people as all of Australia. We were sodden and frozen when we staggered into our warmshowers host Alejandra’s apartment around 9pm, but she made us very comfortable and was the definition of a gracious host with two, then three, then four cyclists camped in her living room.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I might as well get it out: Now, I know we’re supposed to believe that the conquistadors who discovered, explored and conquered Mexico for Spain were human beings. We take it for granted that they were. But in my limited experience there is nothing recognisably human in their actions, or indeed those of anyone involved in European colonialism. European exploration of the outside world was an unmatched opportunity to trade resources and ideas for mutual benefit, but all that these violent, dimwitted Spaniards, French, English, Portuguese and Dutch explorers could come up with was to destroy the cultures they found and leave a Christian god as a consolation prize.
Tenochtitlan was the Aztec capital and largest city in the world at the time of the Spanish conquest. Mexico City was built on its ruins, but this is what it looked like according to Diego Rivera’s murals in the Mexican parliament:
How can you come across a sight like that and decide the best thing for it is to destroy it?
I can’t imagine Cortes giving his pregame pep talk – “Alright boys, the plan is to betray Moctezuma, murder as many Aztecs as we can, enslave the rest and plunder the city” – and there not being a few raised eyebrows. I refuse to believe that there wasn’t at least one of them who thought that was a bad idea.
“How about this for something different,” this theoretical conquistador would’ve said. “Have you guys tasted those weird avocado things they grow around here? I bet they’d go well on a sandwich, or in a salad. Maybe we could take a few boxes of those home and in return we could, I dunno, teach them to build big ships like ours or something?”
I take all this very personally. Not because I suffered for it – I’m a beneficiary from all this barbarism. No, I’m offended by colonialism because it means I will never get to visit the Aztec Empire. I can’t couchsurf with a guy who lives and studies in downtown Machu Picchu. I will never land in Bogota and get my passport stamped for entering Muisca Republic. I will never discuss the conditions of my safe passage from Cheyenne land into a Sioux commonwealth. I will never roadtrip from Brisbane to Sydney and note the differences as I pass from Yuggera land into that of the Bundjalungs and then negotiate a border crossing with the Nganyaywana authorities if I want to cut inland. No-one will. What an unspeakable shame.
Bike Festivals and Alley Cats
We became a proper bike gang here. Jamie landed a day before we rolled into town and, to celebrate his arrival, he wasted no time in contracting gastroenteritis. A few days later Robbie’s brother Simon landed fresh from his latest month working on an oil drilling project in Papua New Guinea, which he diplomatically refers to as “jail”. Our main job was to find a bicycle for Simon and a tent for Jamie, an especially urgent task after all the harrowing tales of his bouts with the gastro monster.
Our stay coincided with a Bicycle Film Festival, and this one in particular got us all hot and bothered to get on the road once more. There was also an alley cat race as part of the festival, which Jamie and I went to check out while the others crisscrossed the city looking for a suitable steed for Simon.
The alley cat started in a park, where we were given a grainy map of the city scattered with checkpoints. Each of the fifteen checkpoints has a points value attached to it, based on how difficult it is to reach from the starting line. We had 80 minutes to find as many of the checkpoints as possible and then return to the finish line.
So we lined up by the grass and when the word was given, chaos erupted as everyone ran everywhere, picking up bicycles and scattering off through the park in every conceivable direction. The following 80 minutes where the craziest I’ve had on a bicycle, and return to me now only as a series of images captured in an adrenaline frenzy. A few of those:
– A group of four cyclists runs a red light up ahead. The last one hits a taxi that pulls out in front of him and he flies over the roof. Though very pale, he says he’s okay when I draw alongside to check on him.
– A checkpoint is spotted but it’s on the other side of a chain link fence. We stream through a hole in it one by one, ducking low to avoid the barbs.
– We pull in at a checkpoint and have our manifests stamped. I’ve lost mine so somebody stamps my arm instead. Julian, a Colombian cycle tourist who we first met in Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur, and I are riding together and he hops on his steed and sprints off behind a group that scatters as they reach the road. “A quien sigamos?!” – “Who do we follow?!” – he yells.
– We’re following a group of lycra-clad men and their teenage sons on a busy road. One hangs behind the rest, pedaling away at his fixie at 30 km/hr while both hands work away at a maps app on his phone. Every now and then he shouts directions ahead to his friends. He never touches the handlebars.
– A light turns red and nobody even touches the brakes. The first guy whistles at the oncoming cars and the rest of us take it up, evidently to let motorists know we have no intention of waiting for the light. Julian yells “Gracias” as he sails through.
– Our Warm Showers host Alejandra is stamping manifests at one of the checkpoints. “How fun is it!” she yells at me and I shriek something incoherent.
– A few of our lycra boys get snarled in a crush of colectivo vans and the cry goes up: “Contraflujo! Contraflujo!” – “Against the flow!” – and over we go, about six of us, into the oncoming lane.
– Going the wrong way up a six-lane one-way avenue, we take refuge in a bus lane separated from the rest by metal bowls at three metre intervals. A bus hurtles towards me so I hop into the next lane, and scream as it and a taxi whoosh by with no more than a metre and a half to fit in between. I can’t stop laughing.
– On a cobbled street in the city centre we find a cyclist sprawled in a slick of water. Other cyclists are accusing some large pedestrians of throwing making the road slippery on purpose and a fight almost breaks out.
There are plenty of cyclists out there who abide by traffic rules, stick to bike lanes and are model advocates for cycling as a safe, green alternative form of transport. Lots of them hate the alley cats and I can see why. We endangered pedestrians, motorists and most of all, ourselves in that race. But holy crap was it fun.
The finish line
The Bike Gang Rides
Two weeks was more than enough time in Mexico City. After the valleys in La Huasteca and wide plains further north it’s weird to have your horizons scrunched down into narrow streets and alleys and I couldn’t shake the claustrophobia. A week or so before Robbie caught me referring to setting up my tent of an evening as “getting home”. It feels like I’m becoming institutionalised.
So it was that we bid Alejandra, goodbye and went off in search of the highway once more. Twenty metres down the road Simon popped a wheelie on his new bicycle, christened Sex on Toast (“I’m Sex and the bike is Toast”) and fell flat on his back, right in front of the cute girl working at an internet cafe on the corner. It was a fitting start. Mexico City is over 2000 metres above sea level and is surrounded on all sides by mountains much higher still. We struggled up and away from the city and Jamie, whose gastro had attacked again just a couple of nights before, spent a good portion of the ride sprawled in the dirt beside his steed, Patrick, dropped in the dirt or emptying his guts in the bushes. The ever-smiling Simon could be heard whooping to himself from quite a way off: “Woo! Oh yeah! Give me some of that!” and so on. The altitude, the smog, the lack of fitness and, yes, the cigarettes were all taking their toll. We made the very edge of the city and a man named Agustin let us camp behind his family’s home, overlooking the city’s galaxy of lights pooled in the low places between the dark peaks. It’s only from this kind of height that you can truly appreciate the capital’s enormity.
The bike gang assembles
Just part of the view from behind Agustin’s place
Nopal fields at the edge of Mexico City
Agustin is one of many people we met in the next few weeks who had travelled to the United States illegally in search of work. He has a pretty amazing story and you can read it here.
It took another day and a bit to find proper sunshine unfiltered by the cloud of smog that hangs permanently over the Distrito Federal and the confusingly-named state of Mexico. For months now Robbie and I had been salivating over rumours and whispers of beach paradises on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, and this was now our goal. Starting 2000 metres above sea level had us confident that the road south to the beach would be relatively cruisy, with plenty of big old downhill runs to get the newbies all excited.
The pleasure and the pain of having a physio aboard
And that was how it started. Jamie is something of a Power Rangers fan and later, once we reached the coast, the prospect of summoning Dragon Zord and the havoc he would wreak became a popular topic of conversation. We did try to summon him a few times but to little avail. One evening we debated how long it would take Dragon Zord (who is “about as tall as a medium-sized sky scraper,” as Jamie solemnly informed us) to reach Mexico City from the coast. Well, he’ll find a few giant ledges where valleys from the mountains spill into wide flatlands in northern Morelos and over into Puebla. They might be annoying obstacles for a humungous metal dragon, but for four Australian cyclists headed they other way they were sources of untold fun. Jamie is a tall, solid man and this makes for slow going on the uphills compared to my shorter, wiry frame. But the tables turn when you get him on a downhill. He flies. Simon took every opportunity to let go of his ungainly handlebars and lean back, hands in the air or behind his head.
The Simcard flaps his wings
Spend four months cycle touring with anyone and you get to a weird sort of place with that person. By the time we reached Mexico City Robbie and I could spend an entire morning cooking breakfast, packing up camp and loading up the bikes with just a few words exchanged. I can confidently judge how Rob’s feeling based just on his body language and he can do the same for me. He’ll usually take over the chopping of garlic at dinner because he knows I hate doing it. I know he likes to sleep with people close by and he knows that sometimes I need to be by myself with some music for a while. We don’t need to talk about these things, they just happen instinctively.
But nothing reinvigorates things like a bit of variety and having two new companions to tell my stories to was fun. Poor Rob has heard all my tales over and over by now. Jamie brought passionate discussion of everything cultural, from the oft-overlooked merits of Coldplay to the thematic intricacies of Adventure Time. Simon brought political debate and an array of fantastic stories that would inevitably begin with the phrase “My mate Reefjet/Franko/Reddog/Greenpants”. We giggled over ridiculously overloaded trucks, talked about what we wanted the world to look like, despaired at our helplessness to change it and giggled again at the gobbling of turkeys as we pedalled by.
One night we camped on a basketball court in a village in the folds of a jungled Oaxacan valley. After dinner we sat talking about love, using words like “compatibility” and “probability” that sound so perverse when you’re talking about matters of the heart. Numbers and percentages were being invented and compared. “How do you know when you’re in love?” Simon was asking and we sat around trying to fit his question into some sort of equation. In the midst of all this an elderly man ambled over and handed out bottled water as a gift. Someone offered him a cigarette and he sat down, a serene expression on his relaxed face, comfortable in the sudden silence. He had a small piece of land out of town and had been growing fruit on it for most of his life.
“Ask him about love,” said Simon and I did so.
“First, you have to be around 18 to 20 years old,” he began slowly. “Then you have to meet a girl. You have to think she’s pretty and you have to like her, and she should feel the same way about you. You date for a while, and perhaps make a little party,” and he winked. “After a while you ask her to marry you and she says yes, and you start having children.” He had 13 children, two of which had died in infancy. “The real secret is when you’ve been married for 50 years, you get married again. Except this time, the children pay for it.” He sat back, satisfied.
I pressed him. Surely that wasn’t all.
“Sometimes it’s tough,” he agreed. “Sometimes it rains a lot and the river floods. Sometimes it doesn’t rain at all.”
I was disappointed and I think the others were too. Where was the secret formula? Where was the drop of clarity? But maybe it is that simple. Maybe we privileged first-worlders with our time and money to roam the world simply have too much time on our hands to overthink these things. Or maybe not. Who knows? Not me.
Simon flashes his “American smile”
We spend so much time hanging around roadsides.
Hilltop camping was a theme through Puebla and northern Oaxaca
Rob-dog leaves Puebla…
…and sprints into Mexican state #16/32!
More hilltop camping.
The photos above don’t really paint an accurate picture of our ride to the coast. We were riding through these places at the very end of the dry season, and for days and days we saw naught but low hills cut by twisting gullies. It is a burned, barren place of dead, bare trees and bushes that throw no shadow to the baking road. Every ten kilometres or so Robbie and I would stop in the shade of a shop or the one type of tree that seems to thrive year round, a huge, heaven-sent species with brown seed pods whose name escapes me now. The others would trickle in with time and we’d sit panting and shellshocked, sucking down water and sugary drinks. Respite came from the rivers and we would always swim, even when we were sure the floaties cruising by were probably human poop. Well-meaning people in the small towns would promise us “pura bajada hasta la costa” – “nothing but downhill until the coast” around every corner and atop every climb and we came to hate them for it. It probably does feel like “pura bajada” when you’re in a car and we can’t justifiably blame them, but we did anyway. Mountain ranges popped up as we neared the coast, with the valleys in between swathed in jungle and plantations.
At one point, on a suitably nondescript patch of highway just metres inside the state of Puebla, my odometer clicked into five digits. We celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony that a 10,000th kilometre deserves: big beer, cigars and the ritual smashing of empty beer bottles in the scrub by the roadside. There was a long, sweaty uphill just around the corner and I was lightheaded as a primary school kid working on a glue-heavy art project.
Feeling like a bad arse, looking like a maniac.
There are many, many things I like about travelling by bicycle and I have to admit that the pure, uncut bad-arsery you feel as you hurtle down off a mountain range or roll into a town is one of them. I remember pedalling into Williams, Arizona on my way to the Grand Canyon. I rolled slowly down the picturesque main drag, exaggerating how relaxed I was astride Baxter with one hand on the handlbars, the other busy adjusting my bags, my sunglasses or just hanging by my side. I sought eye contact with the strolling families and roadtrippers, relishing how wild and dirty and rugged I thought I looked. I know it’s shameless ego stroking but I’m not going to lie: I get a kick out of it. I’ve met so many cyclists and other travellers whose trips make mine look like a Sunday afternoon ride down Brisbane’s South Bank but hey, when I get the chance, I’m going to milk that sucker for all it’s worth.
Well then, imagine flying down a twisting, bucking mountain road with three other dirty wild-looking men on loaded touring bicycles. We’re descending so fast our cowboy/gringo hats have flown off and the shoestring chinstraps are tugging at our throats. We bunch together on the flats, a metre or less between us at 40 kilometres per hour, each one daring the others to touch their brakes before sliding into single file to cut around a corner, as close to the inside line as possible or into the oncoming lane if we can see the other side free of traffic. It’s not quite a race but it definitely is. Cars of yuppies with Distrito Federal number plates go by and the faces stare.
This isn’t something we can ever quite bring ourselves to express directly. If we did it would sound like “We look so cool right now!” Of course, the reality is that we’re a bunch of gringos in ridiculous hats and padded pants who are too dirty and smelly to spend more than a couple of minutes indoors without leaving an odour that will never truly be scrubbed away. We stand posing in sandals around our conspicuously-placed bikes in the central plazas of little towns and we think we’re the coolest kids out. And you might laugh, as many small-town Mexicans do, but I feel like Chuck Norris and Bear Grylls’ love child in my padded pants, gringo hat, stringlet and pedo sunnies and no crowd of chuckling señoras will ever take that away from me.
Bad arse photo #1: rolling off the mountain
Bad arse photo #2: climbing the mountain. Bonus points if you can find Jamie in there.
Bad arse photo #3: rolling through town
Bad arse photo #4: Robbie hits 5000km and looks damn fine doing it.
Bad arse photo #5: throwing rocks at cans on top of a big hill
The New Hope – a town of Star Wars fans?
And then just like that, after what felt like forever but was really just a couple of weeks, we saw the ocean again. We shrieked like kids, fell asleep on the beach to the thrashing of waves on the sandbar, and then rode off along a gloriously flat coast to Puerto Escondido, which was a concrete resort jungle full of Australian surfers throwing themselves into 10 foot waves and piles of cocaine with equal abandon. We were there to “Party with Simon” and send the elder Black brother back to jail, and just like that we were three. The Simcard has done a lot of travelling in his time and I wonder what he thinks of doing it on a bicycle?
For once it actually was downhill all the way to the coast.
Another update coming in the next couple of weeks, I’ve been lazy and am a bit behind.