Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bienvenido a Mexico

Not unlike a similar phenomenon in my younger days, one which pertained to job interviews, I've found that I frequently begin bike tours with a hangover. Why? Perhaps it has to do with leaving town, with the fact that I'm often not just taking a trip, but finishing one life chapter, in order to begin another. And a sense of closure sometimes calls for a little going away party. Admittedly, it's a lousy way to crack the proverbial spine before digging in, and tends to make the inevitable setbacks, which seem to mark the first day of any tour, that much harder.
I arrived at the Encinitas commuter train station at 7:30 am, and immediately heard over the intercom that, due to a freight train derailment, my ride would only go as far as Sorrento Valley. SV is just that, a deep valley lined with hideous business parks, so it looked as if my day's ride would begin sooner than expected. Aching and bleary-eyed, I rode up and out of the valley, through the UCSD campus, where only the more studious seemed to be awake, down and around Mission Bay to Old Town, where I finally caught the trolley to San Ysidro. Apparently, there was once a bike path, which now leads into a fence, so to cross the border you get to ride on the freeway! Once over, I hit immigraciòn to get my tourist card, only to find that there's a $30 fee and, like a dumbass, I had no cash. Conveniently, the nearest ATM was downtown, so my second detour of the day took me to Avenida Revoluciòn and back, where I finally got my official stamps. Getting out of Tijuana wasn't as bad as I thought it would be - like riding in NYC, with worse streets - but the ruta libre (free road, the one cyclists have to take) climbs and climbs out of the city. By noon, the day's heat, exacerbated by the heat of thousands of passing cars and trucks, was kind of brutal. Construction workers and pedestrians alike sought shade wherever possible - in the shadow of a bulldozer, under the stairs of a pedestrian overpass - while I ground my teeth on the headwind sand and sweat out the remnants of my hangover. As the laws of physics will command, what goes up must come down (usually), and the descent into Rosarito was incredible. At some point the wind shifted, becoming a benevolent tailwind, and I don't think I've ever gone that fast on a bike. I awarded myself with an amazing plate of fish tacos, at a small taqueria on the outskirts on Rosarito.
Upon seeing the sign that Ensenada was still 80 km away (about 50 miles), I felt a bit discouraged, but decided to push on. The road between Rosarito and Ensenada is beautiful (with the exception of the sparsely placed, yet monolithic, jail-like hotels), and I got lost in memories of past surfing and camping adventures along that coastline. I had made a decision to seek out a cheap motel in La Misiòn, about halfway to Ensenada, but upon rolling into the small town, I approached a local and heard some bad news.
"There's nothing here, and all the hotels back near La Fonda are quite expensive. You could find something in Ensenada but it's far, and it's a lot of climbing." (He kept repeating "subir", or "climb", which I quickly added to my vocabulary.)
Well, shucks. What choice did I have? I encouraged my already exhausted body up La Misiòn grade, ending up on a plateau of sorts, which extended a staggeringly beautiful, yet indeed very hilly, twenty miles before finally, finally dropping back down to the coast. Mind over matter - the body keeps repeating, "Stop. Please, just stop!", while the will says, "Not yet. Not yet. Eventually," Fortunately, I encountered another cyclist on the descent. Carlos talked my ear off while we pedaled together to Ensenada, and while I only understood every third word, it was encouraging to have company, so I just kept laughing and repeating, "Si, si, claro..."
We rolled into Ensenada just as the sun was setting, and said our goodbyes. I stopped for a dinner plate of sopes, too tired to be amazed at what a long day it had been. One of those days that feels like three, at least. Without further ado, I got a room at the first hotel economico I encountered, and went to bed, lulled into deep sleep by the distant sound of a Norteño band. Bienvenido a Mexico, viajero cansado.

Pinches Perros

Dogs. Everyone in Mexico seems to have one, or five. It can't simply be the bicycle that agitates them, as there are plenty of others on bikes, so I can only assume it's the foreign, colorfully dressed, white stranger on the weird, fully-loaded rig that freaks them out. Can't say I blame them, but still, it really sucks to be unable to make it through a town without a pack of dogs nipping at your heels, or worse. I've tried just about defensive tactic: Riding faster, stopping, a water bottle spray to the face, a far less compassionate kick to the face, even getting all New Age and visualizing myself as a bear, or wolf, and letting out a feral roar as they close in. Some tactics work better than others (the kick and roar being the most effective, especially when used in combination), but regardless, it's a drag. Nonetheless, it was such an encounter which led to one of my better nights, thus far.
I anticipated a short day after Lazaro Cardenas. It was only about 25 miles to El Consuelo, a beach my brother had recommended for camping, as it was the last chance to be on the ocean, before heading into the desert. Unfortunately, I came unprepared; rather, the distance snuck upon me, and I found myself at the uninhabited beach without food or water. El Rosario seemed a short distance on my map, so I opted instead to get provisions there, then return. What I couldn't tell was that there was a tremendous climb and descent between the two places, so by the time I hit town, I nixed that idea. Instead, I decided to try the dirt road to Punta Baja, and soon found myself slogging through a sandy river, rerouted by landslides and, of course, tracked by gangs of angry dogs. (Bright ideas: My cup runneth over with them.) Upon reaching the small pueblo of El Rosario de Abajo, I took another wrong turn, only to find myself face to snarling face with a particularly vicious bulldog.
"Ah, fuuuuck," I thought, more weary of the scene than fearful. Okay, I was scared shitless.
Fortunately, a loud whistle, followed by a shower of stones, chased the beast back to it's rightful home. A gentleman stood across the street, in another yard, beckoning me over.
"¿Adonde vas?" he asked.
"Ojala a la playa," I replied.
"Well, cut through my yard. The road's over there, but the beach is still pretty far... Do you want to stay on the beach?"
"Because you could camp behind my house instead."
Hell yes. Just the invitation I'd been waiting for.
Lucio lived in a small house with his wife and four children. He'd never lived anywhere but El Rosario de Abajo, and when I naively asked why, he simply replied, "Why would I? I have everything I need. It's a tranquil life."
I admired his grounded acceptance: Such a contrast to my constant moving around the country, my constant struggle between the wish for a peaceful life, and the wish for one full of action. Lucio's was indeed tranquil, and as I lay in my tent, drifting off and looking at the infinite night sky, I had to thank my good fortune and, albeit reluctantly, the pinche perro who had served as the catalyst.

It's a week later, and a lot has happened, but there aren't so many computers out in the Baja desert. I'll write again soon.

¡Orale, Vata!

In Ayurvedic medical theory, I'm said to have a Vata, or Wind, constitution. Would that mean I'm completely in my element, riding against the roaring headwinds of Baja? No more than a Pitta would be, riding through Fire, I suppose. Because really, there's nothing more difficult about bike touring . Strong headwinds take one to a different world, one reduced to extreme physical exertion and infernal noise. Sure, it's a simple world, but not one I ever wish to inhabit for long.
Unfortunately, I had little choice, in the Northern desert stretch from El Rosario to El Progreso. The kilometers passed by slowly as I struggled into the wild wind, further and further from civilization. About 40K in, I stopped, exhausted and kind of frustrated with my battle against the elemental forces of nature. You certainly can't win - just gotta keep on riding...
I walked into the hills a short distance, when an incredible and slightly intimidating feeling hit me. To be deep into a massive desert on a bicycle, and/or on foot, is to observe nothing but a seemingly endless expanse of sand, rock, desert flora - gnarled shrubs, towering cacti, wild grasses - in all directions. There's a single road - the only one that could've got you in, and the only one that'll get you out - disappearing into the horizon. The only sounds are wind in your ears, songs of birds, buzzing of insects and, once every five minutes, a passing vehicle (lose even this, if you dare walk out far enough). It could be similar, I imagine, to being in the middle of an ocean, on a small boat. The closest thing I've felt to complete solitude, and freedom, in years. Though I couldn't revel in it for long. A pesky voice in my head kept asking if I'd brought enough water. It was time to move on.
Maybe another 30K, and I came upon a sign of human life - a small roadside restaurant. A sign read "Cerrado desde Junio", "Closed until June", but I heard voices from indoors and chose to investigate. Well, the sun chose for me - it was going down. A room full of weary, filthy workers all sat around plastic tables, laughing and drinking beer. They all turned as I walked through the door.
"Can we help you with something?", one asked.
"I need some water for the night," I replied, "And I'll gladly pay for one of those Tecates, if you can spare it." Beer was looking really good.
"Sure, amigo, here you go," he said, pulling a warm can from a shrink-wrapped cardboard pallet on the table. "Sit down, take a load off!"
"Thanks! Don't mind if I do."
The group of eight men turned out to be miners, from all over Mexico, come to work the season in the nearby copper mines. Their work schedule sounded brutal - twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for a calender quarter - but, supposedly, the money was good. Their tenacity astounded me; They had spent the previous night partying in Ensenada. That meant: Working twelve hours in a copper mine, driving four hours north, partying for four, driving back four (presumably drunk - this is why you stay off the Hwy.1 at night), then going straight back to a twelve hour day in the mine - no sleep, just back-breaking hard labor, drinking and driving, for thirty-six hours. My God, it made the hardest-working/hardest-partying days of my own absolutely pale in comparison. They were still in good spirits, but one by one, they disappeared off to bed. I spent a few hours chatting and drinking warm Tecates with Consuelo, the one who had wisely declined the previous night's exploit. I was fed by the resident cook, care-taker and, perhaps, unofficial motivator - a tough, funny and gregarious woman named Silvia - and I gladly accepted when asked if I'd like to camp behind the restaurant.
In the morning, the men were all gone to work, but Silvia offered me a substantial breakfast of chilaquiles and coffee. She staunchly refused when I offered to pay for anything and everything they had given me. Generosity and human kindness are huge down here. Viva el gente de Mexico.
I hit the road again - well fed, well rested and happy: There was a good tailwind.

Now we are two. Or three, or four, or five.

I had no intention of joining another cyclist on this tour. I imagined and anticipated weeks, if not months of relative solitude, speaking only casual Spanish to the multitudes of mini-super clerks, soldiers at ubiquitous military checkpoints, restaurant owners, and occasional curious strangers. But, things almost always pan out differently than expected, and to quote Lao Tzu, "A good traveler has no fixed plans..."
After eight days of solo travel through Mexico, two of those through the Parque Natural de Desierto Central de Baja California, it came as a welcome surprise when a tall, skinny, relatively pale and red-haired gentleman approached me outside of an abarrotes (mini-market) in Cataviña.
"Where are you headed?" came the standard bike-tourist greeting, asked in perfect-yet-German-accented English.
Pascal was touring, alone and with an open-ended schedule, after having completed studies in Germany. He was staying at a small campsite just South, so I joined him for the evening. We shared beers and small talk and a few songs on my little travel guitar (the one military checkpoint personnel always assume is a rifle). It was good to have company.
In the morning, he was much faster breaking down camp, so we bid each other farewell. There's only one main highway down the Baja peninsula, so the likelihood of encountering another, traveling at more or less the same speed, is very high. We met up again that evening, and the following, under similarly casual circumstances.
"Hey, buddy! Good to run into you again, I figured I'd lost you. Well, maybe see ya down the road?"
In many ways, it's an ideal traveling partnership. No falling back, no waiting up, no expectation, stress or argument. Just the possibility of meeting up later on, for a couple beers and some great conversation. Or maybe not. But the road seems to make happen what should.
Anyway, it's a week later and I'm lounging in a hammock strung between two palms, next to a cool river in the desert oasis of San Ignacio. It's idyllic, and one of the few-and-far-between yet totally crucial days of rest and escape from the sweltering desert tarmac. In my company are Pascal and three other touring cyclists who arrived last night, two from Alaska and one from Tijuana. It's our little tribe, and it feels uplifting. We may all leave tomorrow, some of us may not, but it's all okay. Sometimes it feels good not to know.

Semana Santa

If I previously harboured illusions about Baja being relatively uninhabited and austere, and if I previously held hopes of meditation and solitude, these notions were laid to waste with the arrival of Semana Santa. Semana Santa, or Holy Week (read all about it here: is an extended holiday for most of Mexico, indeed for most of the Catholic world. Under the pretense of worship, there are some heavy religious movements (such as the peregrinacion, or pilgrimage, to the holy city of Juquila, which my brother and I witnessed last year), but seemingly not here in Baja, where most people just hit the beach and party super hard.
The hoards of Good Catholics and I arrived on the Baja East coast at the exact same time, on Thursday, the beginning of the busiest and craziest weekend of the year. After a full day of riding, I finally encountered the gorgeous azure waters of the Sea of Cortez, the unbelievable natural beauty of Bahia de Concepcion, and pick-up trucks, SUVs and party tents set three-rows-deep upon every yard of beach. Fantastic! Well, I couldn't rightfully complain. No way. For a lot of people this is one out of maybe two weeks per year (other being Christmas) where leisure reigns supreme. They earned this party, and as some gringo taking a few months of (my own version of) vacation, I wasn't about to even mentally bitch about it. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, eh? I bought a caguama of Tecate, stowed it in my pannier and made for the fiesta.
Needless to say, there wasn't ten-square-feet available on the beach for even my modest tent. Furthermore, as I approached the central gathering point, I spied a massive inflatable Pacifico can, flanked by block-party-sized speakers. I began to think the better of my plan: I had just pedaled 100 KM! I couldn't keep up. I needed rest. Contrary to popular belief, bike touring and partying don't really mix well. I turned around and headed to the other end of the beach, as far as I could. Past a thousand cars and a hundred tents. I crossed a row of palm trees, signed "Propedad Privada". A man stood on the porch of a huge, luxurious beachfront home, languidly smoking a cigarette.
"Orale amigo, do you mind if I put my tent in the corner here? There's just... Well, y'know how it is down there..."
"No te preocupes," was his reply, "Don't worry about it!"
"Mucha gracias!"
I took a much needed swim in the perfect, cool and clear waters of the Gulf. Set up my tent and cooked an amazing quesadilla dinner (everything is the "best meal ever" on a tour). I cracked open my still-cold caguama, dug my toes in the sand and looked up at the quiet, peaceful night sky.
That's right about when the blasting Norteno music began: Not from the party-zone, far down the beach, but from the camp right next to mine, my neighbors.
Oh well. Felix Semana Santa a todos!

Out of the Fire and Into the Frying Pan

I'm thoroughly enjoying a plate of chilaquiles and a cup of Nescafe in the shade of an outdoor restaurant in Ciudad Constitcion. The heat is tolerable, yet warming, and the wind is favorable, yet turning. Solo Dios sabe what this day may bring. I left the relative tranquility of the Sea of Cortez yesterday; I'll see it again in about two or three days, depending on how fast I ride. Then I'm done with Baja! But I digress, there's a bit more of a story to be told here.
My traveling partners and I spent one night at a small RV park (the Mexican version of campground) in San Lucas, just south of Santa Rosalia. It was a good evening, despite dragging my foot across a submerged broken bottle, while attempting to scare off stingrays with my shuffling. You're damned if ya do and damned if ya don't, I guess. Anyway, there we met Chuck - a grizzled, gray pony-tailed old man, who assured us of the route from coast to valley, "You gotta climb this BIG mountain, but then it's this gradual 50 km slight downhill, all the way to Ciudad Insurgentes!" I've wisely learned to take any and all advice from non-cyclists with a grain of salt (Read my brother's story, "It's All Downhill From Here":, but something about this old guy felt legit, maybe it was the tall morning glass of Viva Villa! (dirt-cheap cane liquor) he was nursing. I'm not always the best judge of character.
Just like I'd eventually anticipated, my companions and I split up. Nothing personal: They simply wanted to relax and I wanted to forge on ahead. I spent a few more nights on the Gulf shore, waiting out Semana Santa weekend, then headed for the hills. The old man was right - the climb out of Ligui was pretty harsh, especially with the Semana departure traffic. A word to motorists: I know you're just being friendly, but when you lay on your horn while speeding up from behind me, it's far more likely to elicit a middle finger than a casual wave. Sorry, it's just my reaction when I'm scared shitless. A tiny tap will suffice, or even an "AAAAYYYYYEEEEE, GUERO!!!". Just go easy on the horn, por favor.
After the initial climb, there's a long plateau one must cross. And it was hot - uncomfortably, almost painfully hot. But I had a 50 km descent to look forward to, right? Well, yes and no. After a final challenging ascent, the Valle Santo Domindo lay below, in all of it's enormous, flat and arid magesty - not unlike California's Central Valley. The road began it's gradual descent, just as Chuck had promised which, much to my good fortune, was synchronized with an ever-increasing, ever-more-direct headwind. Aaarrrggghhh! You again?! With a vengeance.
The following potentially-awesome thirty miles were thus about as awesome as another huge mountain climb. Do you realize how much it sucks to be seeing downhill yet feeling uphill? It does awful things to the mind. Try as I might to maintain a calm, Buddha-like demeanor, a larger gust would occasionally send me over the proverbial edge, unleashing a string of expletives into the void. At whom, or what? Nature? God? The Elements? Life, the Universe and Everything. As I've said before: A bad headwind brings madness, and I must have certainly appeared a madman, yelling furiously into nothing, had there been anyone around to see me.
Yet, as all things pass, this did too. I rolled into Ciudad Insurgentes with the sunset - dirty, sunburned, sore and exhausted, bruised but not broken. There was nary a motel to be found in the small town, yet I struck up conversation with a kind man who offered me an empty storefront of his, for the modest sum of about three dollars. The upshot to all of this self-imposed suffering? The sleep of baby angels....