Photos at the bottom. After the words. Lots of words.
Our official entrance into Mexico was somewhat emblematic of the international portion of our trip thus far; a skosh scattered. And butterfingered. As my bicycle and I stood helplessly wedged in the revolving carousel door/gate/fence designed specifically for pedestrians, I grew a bit flustered at my inability to "play it cool" and "just blend in." Lumbering gringo with oversized object is stuck, please use other door. Only able to steer my fully-loaded rig to and fro a few inches at a time, a seriously exhausting 16 or 17-point turn resulted. All while trying to appreciate the humor in not actually knowing which country I was (technically) loitering in, feeling officially out of my element and slightly bafoonish as Aidan snapped prohibited photos from afar. WELCOME TO MEXICO. BIENVENIDOS!
To describe our border crossing and ride through Tijuana as anything less than nerve wracking would be a disservice to the number of high speed (emission test-less) vehicles, confusing signage and poor road conditions. It was intimidating. You read about these experiences beforehand in hopes of giving yourself a leg up, but online accounts never adequately prepare you for the real deal. And just like that, post revolving door snafu, finally headed the right direction (down) the highway, the trip had legitimately begun.
Anyways, we absolutely got into the car with a stranger on day one. Why waste valuable time heeding the sensible advice of so many caring, cautious folks? To be fair, our choice to defy common sense allowed us to bypass roughly 10 kilometers worth of an infamously dangerous stretch of shoulderless border-town highway. And the stranger, although indeed strange, was a lovely, if not certifiably crazy woman in a minivan with CAUTION tape loosely adhered to and whapping from her rear bumper. Armed with a cheap emergency flashlight in broad daylight, our highway hero was hauling her elderly mother and lanky dog, Bombo, to the grocery store for shampoo and biscuits. Hardly threatening. It is worth noting, however, that we were not hitchhiking and the ride was not our idea, nor our choice, technically. The driver/stranger pulled over, thus blockading our sketchy side-of-the-road-quasi-route and frantically exited the CAUTION-mobile, armed with the aforementioned I-mean-business-flashlight, and ordered us into the van. Her motherly yet maniacal tone was just familiar enough to be effective. We obeyed almost without considering our options. Or consequences. Before we even had time to unbuckle our helmets, seats were collapsed, cargo reorganized and our lives jammed into any available nook and/or van cranny. And off we went. Within mere moments, the CAUTION tape trailing behind the vehicle seemed hilariously fitting. And helmets not such a ridiculous thing to (still be) wearing. The woman's paranoid-stricken, horn-abusing style of driving that she'd later (generously) refer to as "spirited, yet defensive" was indeed white knuckle worthy. The first words out of her mouth once everyone and everything was (sorta) safely secured in the vehicle were to "Never get into the car with people you don't know in Mexico, it's dangerous." She rattled conservative, cautionary tales for the duration of the drive, accusing us of everything short of sheer stupidity. She wasn't wrong per se, but also didn't quite have us figured out. Although a bit clueless, we weren't entering a foreign country in a complete state of ignorance. Were we? After dropping us off in a mini mart parking lot, she snapped a few photos for the Facebook and went on her way. An entirely selfless, although unnecessarily dramatic act. Aidan and I exchanged glances from our parking space drop zone, encircled by the panniers we had feverishly removed from our bicycles in order to load the strange van as quickly as possible as to be anywhere but the side of the screaming, unfamiliar highway. Glances that said a thousand panicked words. The experience, although well-intentioned was a real rattling entrance into our first of many foreign countries.
And we've basically just been winging it ever since.
No shortage of compromising and/or unexpected situations.
For starters, it's both hot season aaaaand hurricane season. Simultaneously. A twofer. In my complete disregard for responsible pre-trip reading, I never once came across this useful information. People tend to avoid the entire peninsula May-November. "Too hot" the locals explain. Oh señor, you don't gotta tell me dat it's hot. I know it's hot. Evidenced largely by the midday stars occupying my line of vision and the fact that I've cried six times today. As if the salty water cascading off the rest of my body was simply not enough excretion. Internal panic alarm sounding off. Dogs love to lick/kiss this salty treat though. In my completely fatigued, delusional mind, the pup and I are actually having a sincere moment. Leading to conversation(s) with Aidan about how "this one" really feels like the right dog for us. Brain too cooked to realize I'm being taking advantage of for my sodium content. I am, however, growing increasingly nervous for the carnivorous birds continuously circling above our bicycles. Is all they see a slow-moving slab of well-done, salty meat? There have been hills where I've thought, "Just do it all already, get it over with, lift me up by your freaky little talons and lets go for a breezy ride." As if all of this isn't enough to entice folks to change their Baja bound flights, I've got news for everyone arriving in a few months, you can keep your tolerable temps because we are smack dab in the middle of mango season. All you planner types are missing mango season. And. The. Mangos. Are. Delicious.
We've endured a slough of other compromising situations, most of which, when regurgitated, sound more like complaints than stories, especially given our recent ride through the wake of a seriously destructive, perspective-forcing hurricane. Know that the complications and gooey details are compounding though, layering upon themselves, guaranteed to result in gringo gold eventually.
Difficulties aside, our days are largely filled with infectious smiles, memorable interactions and completely unexpected sources of delight. So, in the spirit of keeping it (mostly) positive, I confess:
When Aidan reveals after a seriously-swampy-desert-heat-dungeon-80-miler that he's had his padded shorts on backwards all day, I'm overwhelmed with a completely refreshing sense of comic relief. I needed that. "I really needed that," I thought while battling the thorny, rocky, inhospitable surface for a good tent spot. Sorry about your bum though. Among other things.
Or learning that "call" in Spanish is llamada (pronounced ya-mah-da). Call ya mada. Anyone?
Or being completely caught off guard when our Warmshowers host who, after housing, laundering and feeding us out of the goodness of his heart, appeared out of nowhere near the edge of town, post morning-after driveway farewells, with a block of cheese hanging out his driver side window...the block of cheese we'd accidentally left in his fridge. The man fed us homemade tamales, rice, veggies, dessert, breakfast smoothies and packed our panniers with homegrown garden bounty. None of this prevented him from heroically returning the chilled snack block to its rightful owner. Aidan and I, shocked at his ability to further out-do himself, agreed that if someone had left cheese in our fridge we'd greet the situation with a warm, but matter of fact too-bad-so-sad-where-the-crackers-at-?
Or shouting Spanish-isms back and forth to one another amidst a long day in the saddle. Phrasebook open atop Aidan's handlebar bag. Pocket dictionary wedged under my sports bra strap for lack of any actual pockets. Often just responding with an enthusiastic, yet clueless, "Siiiiiiii" when I don't know what else to say. Or simply don't want to play anymore.
Or riding through what most deem "Dr. Seuss-like landscapes" because there's simply no other way to describe the fantastically wacky backdrop.
Or getting lost in nonsensical math problems involving kilometers, pesos and roughly what percentage of your current BMI is comprised solely of a tasty corn/flour combo. You can literally wrap anything in a tortilla and it will taste good. Anything.
Or falling asleep, gazing through the roof of your fly-less tent at what can only be quantified as a gazillion twinkling stars.
Or celebrating desert dookie's delightful alliteration.
Or cracking into a fresh bottle of homemade horchata made with love and LOTS of sugar.
Or cracking into a fresh jar of peanut butte------but you saw that one coming.
These are the tidbits and moments that keep the pedals moving. Even when you feel like the flesh might actually be evaporating off your bones. Or when the thought of one more thick chug of hot water from your sun-blasted bottle makes you physically shudder. These simple, yet joyous moments have a powerful tendency to erase the unpleasant ones.
And now, we're here, "taking a day" in the touristy (yet currently abandoned) town of Loreto. Vacant no doubt due to mango season. Hiding inside an air-conditioned room with the shades drawn. Don't jump to down-and-out conclusions. I, Alaskan by blood, raised in recreational snow caves and Aidan of equally arctic backwoods Maine descent, simply need a day to lower our core temps before proceeding south.
9 miles-per-hour is pretty accurate. 8 may be more so, but it's a little depressing and, although 10 makes the math easier, it generally encourages overly optimistic dinner times. I'll stick with 9 mph as our average pace.
For perspective, if we do a day of 70 miles -- like yesterday, say, when it was 100 degrees -- it's a fair guess that it will take 8 hours of pedaling. That's not how long we are out on the road, that can always vary. Yesterday took closer to 12 including luncheria stops, desperate shade seeking and cold bev breaks. But to go the distance, it takes 8 hours of butt-on-seat pedaling -- like a workday's worth of Bikram spin class, if such a thing existed.
Of course now that we've joined the rest of the metric world, our pace is irrationally warped. We are definitely speedier chasing km's in Baja. We pass more of them more often, which equals faster.
Whatever it works out to, it is a near perfect speed to watch the world go by. Just fast enough to cover some real ground and slow enough to get a good long look, a snippet of conversation, or a hefty waft of someone else's dinner which, by my estimate, we should have been eating hours ago.
That's not to say we can take it all in at cruising speed on a bicycle. My friend James Mammele, our host in Stinson Beach, called it out best. Recognizing the similarity of some of our 9 mph observations to his own bicycle tour, he commented how one tiny event or observation can shape your experience of an entire town, city, day, etc. It's embarrassing how accurate this is. Monterrey? No good, too many sketchy people (one). Stewart's Point, just above the Sonoma Coast, perfect, largely due to a sticky bun. Or, more broadly, all the towns on the afternoon of Aug 30, total crap, too tired.
I realize it's basic human nature, when armed with a dangerously small bit of knowledge, to form an opinion about something (or somewhere.) I know this because we hear it all day long from all sorts of people. Tell anyone you're on a trip like ours and you'll likely get the one random news bite they carry with them in regards to the 12k miles and dozen countries through which we plan to ride. It's almost encouraging when all of the warnings start to sound the same, almost.
Side note: approaching bike-helmeted strangers in a grocery store parking lot and telling them the scariest story you've ever heard about Mexico is a pretty strange habit to be in, imho.
The challenge is to ignore the hype, give it a second look, slow down a bit, or wait to see it by the light of day and come away with a better understanding. It's come up so many times already, it's damn near thematic for the trip. Crossing into Mexico, and having things really begin has provided all sorts of chances to disprove what we've been warned against. It's also shed light and perspective on experiences from earlier in the trip.
California was easy. Sure, we did a few days of long miles and a few times ended them in campsites that looked like trash piles but we felt comfortable and at home on the road. Big Sur was probably our best Baja preview. Goofily narrow roads, plenty of traffic, and, of course, the Sobrenas Wild Fire that threatened the area and changed the dynamic of our presence on the road. We'd been warned further North that we'd have to end our ride in Monterrey or take a bus all the way around. There was apparently no way through. More than that, to go through would be irresponsible and disrespectful. It is difficult not to overthink these kinds of warnings, especially with 8 hours of head spinning pedaling per day. And although I may be a tad notorious for said overthinking, it did force the question of what it means to travel through a place where "staying out of the way" is a priority.
My rationale: of course we're enjoying one of the most scenic places in the country, too, but we are definitely not the ambling rental minivans and droptop Mustangs plugging the highway for the fire crews. Like, so not them. HWY 1 was necessary to complete a larger goal. Our presence on the road was about connecting points A and B, a subtly lost on the justifiably angry local who caught us gawking at ridgeline smoke just outside the town of Big Sur and joined the list of those who have instructed us to "go the fuck home". Going home isn't really an option, was one thought. And the other, we get it. No one wants to have their very real life treated as spectacle. I imagined trying to explain how we're not like the others. At least we didn't feel like them. How could we be as we felt that slightly inflated sense of entitlement that comes when you've hiked to the top of a mountain others have driven to. Or, later, still on HWY 1, when suddenly we were the spectacle. Tourists pointing their cameras at the sweaty additions to the odd-Disney-style-zoo experience that is the Big Sur coast -- the fact that we were devouring bananas and pulling the odd insect from each other's hair not withstanding.
In Mexico we are definitely outsiders. A spectacle to say the least. Gringos on parade rolling by at 9 mph, biking a weird line between tourist and traveler, trying our best to blend in while wearing orange safety vests.
The struggle began pretty much immediately at the San Ysidro/ Tijuana border crossing. Tara's bike needed to be shoved through the pedestrian carousel - a mechanism designed for humans at the controlled rate of one-at-a-time rather than a full-on Austin Power's parking struggle. Sure of what was most important, I stood back with the camera to document. We had also yet to practice explaining where we were headed in Spanish. After some stammering about Guatamala, a fee and a stamp, the conversation ended in "listo," which I recognized enough to start pushing the bike toward the baggage x-Ray operator, who, seeing my bicycle was technically not a bag and therefore didn't need to be x-rayed, waved us through. Listo!
Beyond not knowing the language or how to use doors, two other oversights have added to our experience thus far: the first, it's hot. So hot that we're two of only a few currently biking Baja -- a solid three months before others start showing up -- so some are a bit surprised to see us. The second is that it's hurricane season. A fact that was brought to our attention when I received a text message from Scotty and Marissa further down the peninsula suggesting we "Might wanna board up the windows of your tent." Whatever that means.
The following days brought every version of advice from locals, non-locals and of course, digital weather watching outsiders. We ended up making a very savvy call on our accommodations. Camped behind a hotel owned by a wonderful family, we were told in a surprisingly clear storm-pantomimed-conversation that "it would probably rain most in the mountains," "do what we thought best, but use logíco." My absolute favorite kind of advice. We stayed in the desert with them and were treated to dark clouds, a bit of wind and a double rainbow at the storm's finale.
Of course, not all are so level headed, and two days later as we crossed from San Ignacio toward Santa Rosalia, a gringa lady stopped in the opposite lane (with a car coming behind her) to inform us that there was a hurricane where we were going, with mud, destruction, dead people, and to not go! And, after Tara thanked her for the advice, and the woman saw it wasn't sticking she yelled an additional "Turn around!", before eventually speeding off. Stomachs on the pavement we looked at each other without a clue as to what that was, or what we should do. There really wasn't a 'turn around' option. And, again, we were on our way through, not just tourists looking for the beach. But to be in the way or hinder a cleanup was just about the last thing we could imagine doing. She all but ruined the ride to Santa Rosalia where we found, yes, mud washing through a number of roads, the tragedy of damaged property and a serious clean up effort underway, but also by and large a population of perfectly friendly people going about their lives and clean up effort, totally indifferent to bicyclists making their way through town. There were definitely no dead people. I later checked the news to find that three people had died down where the storm hit hardest 8 hours south in Cabo San Lucas and two more out at sea. Her own agenda, her own experience, whatever it was that compelled her to scare the crap out of some people doing something she didn't fully understand. It felt especially good to slow cruise through Santa Rosalia and see the city doing well through our own experience, at our own pace.