Each time I’m on the spot to explain why I’m doing this, I find myself giving a slightly different answer – and nothing I say, once it’s hanging in the air, ever sounds to me like it’s more than 20% of something complete and accurate. Anything that actually explains why I’m about to leave behind everything and everyone I know, all to spend the next year of my life riding my bicycle alone to the far and uncertain reaches of the Earth – from my hometown of Seattle, to Tierra Del Fuego. Read more
When I first found myself in the understory of this buzzing forest of glass and steel, I thought maybe I would feel at home here in a way I haven’t since I crossed into Tijuana; since I rolled into lands where the cities are all spread flat, and even the most ambitious buildings stake no serious claims on the sky. Instead, Panama City feels strange in ways I can’t fully articulate to myself. As if this skyline comes from an alternate reality where the laws of urban physics operate differently, or as if the fabric of spacetime could be ruffled by the interstitial turbulence of the first and third worlds rubbing against each other.
I’ve taken a few walks straight into the heart of all those towers, always reflexively expecting to find their ground levels choked with human business, a flow of feet, sidewalks speckled with flattened chewing gum, all the other seemingly inherent qualities of an urban core — yet there are none of these things. I’ll follow those streets as they twist up and over hills in the balmy shadows of all those incredibly tall and narrow buildings, and I’ll be the only human being in sight. There are small patches of jungle in there. The few doors stand heavy with security and lead into blank lobbies. What looks from any distance like a swarming downtown is really just an unusually tall residential neighborhood; the offices and stores are all apparently short and consigned to the fringes, where I never found them. It feels like a city turned inside out.
When you get close to those skyscrapers, you also realize that they are all peeling a little or laced with networks of painted-over cracks. Many are unfinished and show no sign that anyone expects to go back to work on them. They stand as the fossilized remains of a gigantic economic boom, flash-frozen by the downturn, and nobody even went through the trouble of boarding up their ground floors or hauling away the rubble. But on a vacant patch of rock and grass, caught tight between those looming palaces and the sea below, you have a rare chance to stare up into everything forever from within a space with no label, no chainlink fences, no assumptions about who should be there or to what end. If I had more time here, I might never leave that spot. As long as I stare out at this city, it still fills me with a sense of having never seen a city before that moment.
That little bottle of scotch proved more necessary than I ever knew. Naturally, I have a swirling cauldron of feelings about the plane to Seattle — by which, perhaps, I will arrive where I started and know the place for the first time. Rejoining the flow of grounded life will be a perilous adventure, and I’m going out to face it with a consciousness so changed by this voyage that even I can tell the difference. I wish I could study charts of my own brainwaves, before and after. My attention span seems longer and deeper now; I feel much more plugged into everything I do and see. I’ve lost much of my tolerance for stupid violence on cheap hotel cable TV. This will all take getting used to, even if the return to city life reverses and evaporates a lot of it in time. I’ll have to figure out who I am, all over again. But if you ask me, that could be the point of everything, forever.
My dear kith, kin and strangers, whose enthusiastic support and interest has filled my sails: I hope it disappoints none of you too much that the time has come for me — for now — to wash myself off, put on human clothes, and try now to rejoin the society I left six months ago. I am coming home.
There have been deeply withering stretches out here, and moments of indescribable splendor and elation, and times of small revelation that have broadened my mind and soul in many tiny increments. For all the times I doubted I’d make it even to the milestone of the Panama Canal — all the ambivalence in that video when I scratch at my eye and peer across the Sea of Cortez — my certainty is now crystalline that I needed to go this far. I had to see this much, and give this much blood and grease to the journey, and to be changed this much at least, however much that turns out to be.
On the one hand, although the bike and I are both a bit scuffed and some of our parts have started to make grating noises, I have the steam to make it a long way yet. I yearn for the next continent. Pedaling, navigating, crossing borders, avoiding grisly death, finding sustenance, trying with varying success to converse with people: all of this is work and difficulty that I love. If it could fill all of my time, I might end up like Ian Hibbell or Heinz Stücke and roll the earth forever.
But in the shadow of all this is something I didn’t properly consider when I set out: the fact that I have ended most every day of the past several months alone in a different cheap hotel room some thousands of miles from anyone with whom I could have a full human interaction.
For all that isolation, I’ve lost surprisingly few of my marbles. In fact it’s probably done me a lot of good, in the right dosage. Yet I still have to ask myself, and answer honestly, even in the face of all the forces that still drive me on, whether it’s the life I want to lead for another year. Whether I can put myself to some better use. Whether South America is best saved for another time in my life, maybe when I have more and eviller demons than the ones I’ve slain on this ride.
There’s something else that pulls me back to the land I sprang from, too: at some point it dawned on me that there is actually more challenge, mortal peril, craziness, and potential glory in every day in the mundane city life, than there is out here. I have more control over my life as long as I ride these highways. Surely it’s good to pull back and get your bearings for a while — but in the end, we belong where we’re most challenged.
As long as I remember anything, I’ll remember the first bike tour I ever took, back in the Summer of 2006, across the meager thousand miles between Port Townsend and San Francisco. I started that trip a writhing vortex of conflict and uncertainty, and when I came back I got life as right as I may have ever gotten it. Without my even perceiving it at the time, some change must have come from within. Here’s hoping the trick still works.
I will see some of you soon, and we will drink ale. But first I owe you all my final report on Panama City.
So it was that, at 6:30 yesterday evening, 168 days after loading up my bicycle and shoving off from the doorstep of the house where I was raised, I squinted apprehensively along the arched concrete back of the Bridge of the Americas, thanked the fates for the stalled taxi that left one lane clear of traffic almost all the way to the crest, and hauled myself wearily up and high over the mouth of the Panama Canal. Giant colorful freight ships passed under my churning feet, and the monolithic skyscrapers of the city peaked between the green ridges still ahead, their bony white geometries tinged with gold in the dying light. Then I fixed my eyes forward and shot down at lunatic speed into a burnt-out neon wonderland of snarled dirty overpasses and boarded-up blocks, all crawling along under the looming, luminous towers and a thunderous bombardment of fireworks for the last night of Carnaval.
In the past I’ve had a lot of luck in stumbling into places just as they’re in the throes of some fantastic annual celebration I knew nothing about, but all I’ve experienced of Carnaval in Panama has been an ominous preponderance of paramilitary squads and large white glaciers of soggy trash. In the afternoon some children stood along the side of the road and threw surprise cups of water onto me as I passed, shouting ¡Carnaval! — which offended me for a moment before I remembered that it was insanely hot.
The friendliness of people aside, Panama might be the most difficult environment in which I have ever bike toured. Most of the one road across the country is a screaming, belligerent morass of speeding traffic. The shoulders are wide, but full of inch-long drywall screws, and they regularly degenerate into loose gravel or just vanish altogether. The land undulates interminably without ever going very high. The towns along this road seem to come in two varieties: tiny clusters of houses surrounding one store where you can buy white bread and “orange flavored drink” — and big, weird pieces of urban sprawl that don’t seem to have any real city attached to them. Out of the empty rolling hills will rise golden arches, the windowless ten-story walls of big box stores, multi-tiered strip malls, vast and tightly-packed gridworks containing thousands of clonal homes, and then it all disappears into empty grass again.
The chronic adrenaline of the day’s ride is worsenned by the fact that all lodging in Panama is separated by unusually gigantic distances anywhere West of Penonomé, while anywhere East of Santiago it’s all hilariously overpriced. I ended up riding 320 miles over the past four days simply because it’s taken me well into each night to find anywhere to lay my bones. In some stretches the country seems ripe enough for stealth camping, or for asking to borrow a patch of somebody’s yard for the night, but I tend to be squeamish about these options. Now I see how the wages of being squeamish is getting to Panama City three days faster than I had planned, and getting there more deeply tired in joint and tendon than I have been in a long time.
But rolling along out there after dark with no certain destination, no way to measure distance or even see my clock — especially in the sparser Western stretches of the road where there are no street lamps or late traffic, where nothing could be seen at all except the pavement in my headlight and the stars above the trees — set me thinking about other times I have been in that place. My misadventure four months back on the Lost Coast. A night six summers ago when I had to walk barefoot between Olympia and Evergreen. Larger situations that resemble the same thing metaphorically. It sometimes seems that I am, by nature, somebody who unexpectedly finds himself needing to travel an unknown distance through a pitch black night. So first I kick myself for whatever put me there, like not stopping at the last town way back when the day seemed too young. Then I think hell, how far can it really be?, but the minutes turn to sweaty hours. Then I think this is kind of awful, but it will make a good story — but this rings false, because then sometimes there is deep dread that seeps out of that inky all-surrounding void; there’s an indistinct fear that makes me want to flag down any passing car, really just hoping to hear from someone that there is any next town at all — as if craving reassurance that this night ride is not a special purgatory commeasurate with my deeds in life. But in the end, the deeper I roll down into that black pit of unsigned road, the less it seems to matter how far I have left to go. I just get hungrier and hungrier for the other side until I don’t even care if it ends up being dawn.
The border crossing from Nicaragua had one perilous moment. Unlike any of its neighbors to the North, this country requires foreigners to show their onward bus or plane tickets at the entrance to prove they aren’t going to stick around too long. The visa guy gave me a long look up and down and ten seconds of scrutinizing eye contact when I told him my mode of travel. He flipped through the pages of my passport a second time, and the smudged ink of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras testified for me that I was as crazy as I claimed to be — but none of those stamps was so aglow with the sweetness of vindication as the one he finally added with a dull thud. I had gotten this chilly authority figure to believe I could cross his country.
From the moment I entered Costa Rica, I could see the extra money in everything. It’s hard to explain or offer concrete examples. The towns and cities, sure, are verifiably devoid of mud huts or clapboard shacks or unfinished cinderblock skeletons; the buildings tend to have more than one story, and finishing touches, and the shop windows are full of fancy things unknown to Nicaraguan commerce. But somehow you can feel the Rica in Costa Rica even when you’re alone on the road, far from any town or truck stop. Even the pure towering jungle looks somehow laden with money. Maybe I can’t see that jungle without the subliminal knowledge that in a poorer country it would long ago have been made into somebody’s trash-strewn front yard and meager subsistence. (My favorite philosopher, Baudrillard, would have much to say about this.)
Now I’m sitting out a while, waiting on a package, in a ten dollar surfer hostel in the otherwise tremendously expensive beach town of Jaco. I’ve spent plenty of time in tourist bubbles, but this is on another level. It feels like a place where Americans who are already on vacation in Costa Rica go to take vacations from their vacations. The sunset over the ocean looks like something that was airbrushed in the early 90s; the colors are too bright, the cloud wisps too soft and carefully placed. I sit on the beach and watch fat drops of sweat swell and fall perpetually from the undersides of my arms while I drink my melted ice cream and idly ponder the hard questions of my existence, and my searing hatred of shipping bureaucracy.
I knew going in that all of these countries are poor, but I keep finding that the poverty of a nation is not at all straightforward to see or appraise. For example, Guatemala’s per-capita GDP is less than a third of Mexico’s, but Guatemala always felt much richer than Mexico, whether in the country or the cities. The cheapest of everything was better quality. People seemed very generally happier and more at ease. From the busses to the native clothing style, I was always surrounded by vividly beautiful unnecessary flourishes. And yet in El Salvador and Honduras, two countires with similar per-capita GDPs to Guatemala, things turned spartan again and an aura of desperate poverty hung thicker on the muggy air than anywhere I’d been before. From the road I saw families living in twenty-by-twenty-foot houses made of sagging mud. In some sections of the highway people simply stood on the hillsides shouting “Money!” at anyone or anything that passed.
Nicaragua feels a lot more like Guatemala again, even if many would-be truck owners are riding horse-drawn carts down the highway shoulders. The people I’ve seen and talked to do not act as if they are not getting by. I know I’m in a poor country, but I can travel a long way without it jumping out at me. So what changed between here and Honduras, between there and Guatemala and Mexico? The presence or absence of social safety nets? Different distributions of wealth? Different cultural values? Are my perceptions simply skewed or mistaken because of the narrow range of places I passed through, the kinds of interactions I have with locals, etc.? There’s too much going on for me to know what I’m really seeing, and I am no economist, but I wonder constantly what forces may be at work here. What helps or hurts everyone on such a grand scale. What makes an extremely low GDP relevant or irrelevant to the frequency of happiness and human warmth.
In Honduras my huge red beard got me called Osama Bin Laden; but walking around the old colonial streets of Granada today, I was identified by locals variously as Rasputin and Forrest Gump, to my endless gratification. In fact, I’ve been repeatedly likened to Forrest Gump wherever I’ve had to explain myself and my ridiculous bicycle voyage to someone — a comparison that I sometimes feel expresses my motives more clearly than any of my own words so far.
It seems Honduras sees very few tourists, and fewer like me. All the way from the border I was called out by people along the road. Not by the usual small fraction of people who saw me — I mean by almost every person.
Then there was the police checkpoint.
It’s rare that I ever get stopped at checkpoints, but whatever. So I pull over, and the cop who flagged me down starts the questioning by shaking my hand. Weird, I think, but hey. Then there are three cops shaking my hand. Then the first cop points behind me and says “Here is the boss. Aqui esta El Gran Jefe.”
The boss of the cops is a bit older, grinning like his men. He, too, shakes my hand warmly. Then he grabs onto my beard.
This is two different kinds of upsetting, I think, but I just sort of hold still. Better not to go against the Gran Jefe. He lets go. Then he grabs it again and says “¡Como Osama Bin Laden!” I think: This is three different kinds of upsetting. So I disengage the gloved hand from my facial hair as politely as I can. The boss seems satisfied with his inspection, shakes my hand again and leaves.
“Prohibido,” the first cop says solemnly, indicating my beard again, and his comrades nod agreement. “¿Next checkpoint? Trouble.”
“¿Es un chiste, verdad?” I say. That’s a joke, right?
The cop stares me down and replies, in a voice of icy stoicism, “Yes.”
Suddenly, 24 hours seems like the right amount of time to stay in this country.
Yesterday I passed the 5,000 mile point of this journey. My cycle computer marked the occasion by gradually dying; from here on I won’t be able to track any distances. But like many things that have happened on this road, it brings to mind a certain song by Modest Mouse. “Well the dashboard melted but we still got the radio.” The radio being the music in my head, since my iPod disappeared in Oaxaca state.
Border crossing days are always anxious days. First there is the border itself: anything could happen there. My passage could be denied for unknowable reasons. Something could be confiscated. Whatever. So far it’s all been easy — but then there comes the second dread: passing all over again into a different culture, with whole new range of unspoken rules and chances for faux pas. (In Guatemala, it was the revelation that no store has change. The hundred-Quetzal note — the only thing the ATMs spit out, equivalent to a 12 dollar bill — is functionally worthless and will get you sighed at.)
The biggest difference crossing the border into El Salvador was that my Spanish became useless again. The accent here is intense, fast and slurred and heavy on strange lingo. When people shout gringo, it sounds like “¡Gorrinko!” And these are perhaps the friendliest, most outgoing people I have yet met. Everywhere I go in El Salvador, somebody really wants to engage me in a long conversation, and I cannot understand a single word anybody says.
Then there are the guns. Back in Guatemala, all the cops and soldiers carried AK-47 variants. Now, the AK is a simple and effective killing machine: it can be cheaply and easily manufactured anywhere, with even the crudest third world industrial infrastructure. It is the default gun. That a nation uses AK-47s says next to nothing about that nation, except that it is budget-conscious about death and intimidation. But as soon as I crossed the border into El Salvador, every single rifle I saw was suddenly an M-16 — an expensive, sophisticated, conspicuously American arm, full of implications, as in: are these the very guns that Reagan poured into this country?
Besides the rifles, El Salvador uses the American dollar as its currency. For me it is handy if a bit surreal — and it made me realize that money has always been a medium of nationalstic pride. Bills are tiny flags, statues, history lessons. How does it feel to these people to live within the paper gazes of Lincoln and Washington and Jackson, weird old Anglo-Saxons with no relevance to their own fatherland? I would ask, if they could understand me.
I’ve alreay shot most of the way through this country, finding nowhere I wanted to stay a day. It must be different farther inland near the capitol, but out here on the CA-2 the towns look like only small villages sliced through with the highway — just lines of small houses where people do all their cooking over a pile of burning sticks, and the smoke blackens my sweat and fogs the street lights while I roll on and on into the night, searching for any hotel that doesn’t charge by the hour.
The coast was the most sinuous I ever saw, lined with beaches of trash and dark volcanic sand, the winding road passing through many long tunnels with no lights inside, maybe the most enjoyably spooky experience I ever had on a bicycle. Just like Half Life 2. Then onward to long flat roads in the shadows of giant volcanoes. Roads full of cows. Deliciously wide shoulders full of other bikers. Men riding with a wife and two children on their handlebars.
Within three days I expect to cross two more borders and plunge into Nicaragua. I partly wish I were going to see more than a sliver of Honduras, but the road pulls me on. The bike seems to pedal itself through these baking hot days and nights, as if I were only there to feed and groom it.
Bike travel has many strengths and weaknesses. One strength is that you have to stop in many places that aren’t mentioned in any tourist book; you see everything you didn’t know was there to see at all, and arguably you know the country more authentically. One downside is that it’s prohibitively hard to visit anything that’s very far off your route. So I cheated this once and caught a plane to Tikal.
It’s truly enough a jungle that I’ve been riding through since I dropped down out of the dry hills of Oaxaca, but the other side of Guatemala is jungle of an deeper kind. The air in there is as blood-warm and about as thick, full of the sweat of plants and the white noise of insects. The ruins seem to barely float in the middle of this vast green ocean, at least 30km from the nearest living town; though once the core of a huge city, the place sat abandoned for a thousand years while the jungle washed over it all like a tide, weathering into nonexistence anything not made of megalithic stone, more slowly devouring everything that was. Before the excavations, all these looming temples were laden with moss and trees, prying the bricks apart with their roots.
Maybe that’s why I found it conspicuously hard to imagine what these spaces would have been like when they were still part of a living empire. At Monte Alban you look down on the city of Oaxaca just as the original rulers must once have done; at Tikal every structure is separated from the others by a ten minute walk through pure jungle. You see nothing of ‘Man in there; just hot sun through big green leaves, funny wild pygmy goats, loud birds that look like a flying penguins, the sinuous roots of giant trees. Nothing about that jungle admits that it must once have been a huge flat space full of human life and construction, the Manhattan of its time and place.
What does remain is incredible to behold. The temples are tall and steep enough that all the good ones are roped off, or scaleable only by wooden stairs, on account of tourists falling imaginably to their deaths. Just as at Monte Alban, the steps are weirdly gigantic, making me wonder constantly whether the original Maya might actually have been a race of extraordinarilly tall people. They were about the perfect size for me to walk right up — but, then again, I still had to duck to half my height to enter any passageway. There must have been some secret knack for ascending these buildings, now forgotten for a millennium.
The tallest of the jungle grows to about ten feet below the height of Temple IV; from the steps at the top, the crown jewel of the complex, you can look out over the entire ocean of canopy and see forever — and from somewhere a long way out in that luminous green tide you can hear the howler monkeys, like some deep Satanic groan welled up from the inferno.
“¡Pura subida!” two boys in a rusty pickup yelled, grinning at my craziness, when I told them where I was headed. I didn’t know for sure what it meant at the time, but it wasn’t hard to guess it right. That day, between the towns of San Pablo and San Marcos, I crawled into the sky by way of 40 kilometers of non-stop, merciless, unrelenting uphill. There was not one flat meter, not one coasting moment. I was in my granny gear from morning to late afternoon with salty sweat pooling in my eyebrows and raining off my arms, glittering in the jungle sun. As if Mexico were heavier, as if gravity had been stronger there and the erosive forces more intense, or as if the height of mountains were controlled by nationalistic sentiments or cultural flavor, I crossed the border straight into a world of pure slope. Most every place I have seen in this country has been on the edge of some cliff, overlooking an abyss of blue sky and churning white clouds.
Today me and three other guys decided to seek out the hot springs that sit high up on one of the neighboring volcanic peaks. The bus ride to the town at the foot of that mountain was an adrenaline-splashed roller coaster in its own right — but the way up to the spring itself was less like riding in the back of a pickup truck than like clinging to the wing of a small aircraft that is executing stunt maneuvers high above a landscape so verdant and vertical that it looks like some imaginary planet. Surely not the Earth I thought I knew.
In three days of riding I’ve only managed to dig myself 120 km into Guatemala, but aside from the punishing ascents it’s been beautiful. The landscape inspires awe at every turn, and the people seem much friendlier here than they were through most of Oaxaca and Chiapas. I am as weird to them as ever, but they seem slightly more amused by it and slightly less disturbed. My Spanish seems to work much better here too. People speak loudly and clearly — perhaps because they must always be talking up and down such steep cliffsides.
- The banana has switched gender from female to male. It is now El Banano. What it was ever doing being female, I don’t know.
- The churches are seldom anything as grand and elaborate as their kin to the north — sometimes they’re just concrete bunkers — but on Sunday they ring with music and singing.
- The buses here are repurposed American school buses, but they’re all painted with the wildest and most beautiful color schemes: feather patterns in red/orange/green, flames lining the windows, big chrome side panels. They are glorious.
Two more hard days’ ride followed Oaxaca, snaking wildly through a considerable pile of dry mountains and chilly shadows, making me wonder whether cactus land would ever end. There was no memorable downslope out of those hills. At some point I just looked up and suddenly eveything was flat and green, and the air was thick. I tried to clean my sunglasses and my breath wouldn’t eaporate from the lenses. In every cheap hotel the bed came with only one thin sheet, and the front desk people gave me the stink eye if I asked whether there was hot water in the shower. Such a thing was unthinkable.
The dialect changed again as much as the air and the land. People have become unintelligable all over again, but mostly they understand me less than ever. The informal second person has vanished without a trace, no matter how friendly the conversation. Also, bystanders are less into whistling really loud to get my attention, and more into just shouting “¡Gringo! ¡Gringo!” My sense is that this is not intended to be offensive, but I don’t care to respond to it either. As an American maybe I have trouble grasping the idea of a “mildly” perjorative racial epithet.
The highway followed parallel to the coast the whole way here, but was religious about never going within 10 kilometers of it. From Tonala I decided I missed the ocean enough to spend that extra distance, but the shore I reached was only a narrow rock ledge, and the water out to the horizon was inky brown-black, opaque, and breathing sour fumes into the streets of a small town where there was nowhere to stay anyway. I won’t see the Pacific again until El Salvador should I get that far.
The sparse trees lining the road grew up into a verdant jungle as I went East along the Chiapas coast, full of the chatter of loud birds and the white noise of thousands of insects. Everything is blistering hot and glowing green, greener even than the place I come from, sometimes greener than I knew a color could be.
I feel the same way now as I did in San Diego: like for all the distance I’ve come already, it will only become real on the other side of the border I’ll finally cross tomorrow. I am immensely curious to know what Guatemala is like, and I have little idea. And if I don’t like it, I can get all the way through it in a week on the force of my curiosity about the next country. But as always, we’ll see.
There’s a city of pyramids at the flattened peak of a mountain above Oaxaca, where a ruling class of holy astronomers once looked down from the top of the world and exerted their control over a society unlike anything that exists today, largely unknowable to us. These old naked stones were once bright with color, charged with meaning and power, laden with gold-adorned people who could kill with a word. This was the seat of a civilization for a thousand years.
A thousand odd years later, we mere common folk scrape our flip flops across the palaces and tombs of divine kings, and wonder:
In one more millennium, what like this will be the left over from us?
There were no apparent clocks in the big square, no countdown chanted by the gathered crowd, no sharp line between years. Within some range of midnight the pace and intensity of high-explosive firecrackers increased, shaking the ground under us and setting our ears ringing. People scattered laughing as the hand-grenade-sized things rolled among our feet and detonated, flinging warm paper shrapnel at our ankles — and then the cans of white foam were collectively unleashed, filling the night air with surreal snow. People wandered around completely covered, nebulously disfigured, like the casualties of some strange new type of warfare. I was glad I made it here for the occasion.
The road to Oaxaca was hard, beset by pestillences: first in the form of flat tires, sometimes eight punctures in a single day. Whatever malevolent force was responsible left no trace of itself at all, and the holes were so small that I often couldn’t find them even by submerging the entire tube in water and looking for bubbles. It could only be trashed.
Then in 2011′s last week, for equally unknowable reasons, I embarked upon the traveler’s time-honored rite of passage, constrained for three days to a cheap rural hotel room while my internal organs descended into a protracted and gruesome civil war. On the fourth day it made me sicker to think of staying there than of pedaling onward, and that day became like a weird retelling of the movie Speed; I found that as long as I was in motion I was okay, but if I ever slowed down or stopped I felt the swelling of a boundless inner violence.
As a bike tourer, especially one who believes in lycra, you fairly quickly get used to people staring at you — but somewhere between Cuernavaca and here, it became something more. People working near the road stop whatever they’re doing and track me from the moment I appear to the moment I’m out of sight, and it is not a blank stare. They stare as if I have just delivered a piece of terrible news — something that doesn’t concern them too directly, but which is nonetheless so unexpected that they have no idea how to respond. “That cousin you barely knew was just killed in a bloody car accident.” In the smaller towns people stare this way even when I am off my bike and wearing normal clothes. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s because I increasingly resemble, more than anyone else there, the vision of a Scottish-looking Jesus that blankets this country.
For every coldness there is still friendliness. I stopped somewhere at a roadside junk food store and chatted almost decently with a half dozen guys getting ripped on tequila in the early afternoon. They poured me a couple of shots into a plastic cup and laughed at how the sun had bleached all my body hair platinum blonde. They seemed to say they envied the color of my skin. I told them I envied theirs and tried to assure them that my pasty, radiation-burned cancer factory of a complexion was no good at all. For what it was worth.
Morale has been low this week, but something always comes along to stir up the embers. Last night over numerous beers and Cuban food, a newly made friend said (to the best of my understanding and paraphrasing): “When you die — and, I mean, not soon I hope, but some day — when you die, what will you take with you? That backpack? The sunglasses? Money? No. The memory. The experience. You must keep going.” A cousin to my own thoughts.
Apparently I have been very high up lately. After Guadalajara I kept making the mistake of thinking this country had to flatten out eventually. Four days later, pedaling out of Morelia, I noticed that the sky spent all day turning suspiciously deeper and deeper shades of blue. The sunlight got hotter while the shadows turned frigid. My ears kept popping on the downhill. I stayed last night in Toluca, about 8,000 feet up, and must have crossed the 10k line this afternoon on my way here.
The altitude has made everything surreally familiar. For days the land felt like it could have walked out of Washington state. Deciduous trees mixed with needled evergeens, big plains of dry grass, forested mountains with the same geometries of erosion as the ones I know so well.
When I finally crossed today’s high point, I shot downward for miles on roads just like the ones around Mt. Rainier. Finally some rooftops and back yards flew up to meet me and I rejoiced, thinking I was here… but from the narrow streets I looked out at where the horizon should have been, into a light blue abyss like a hazy ocean, and realized it was the sprawl of Cuernavaca still thousands of feet below. It occurred to me that in some ways an uphill is better than a downhill; when you climb you have control. Today’s last leg was like dropping from orbit. There weren’t even switchbacks. All I could do was blink the water out of my wind-peeled eye sockets, ignore the smell of my brake pads melting against rims too hot to touch, and inwardly hold onto my ass as the rushing air turned tangibly ever thicker and thicker around me.
How can I say this? It seems as if written information is not reliable here. All written information. I feel bad to level such a sweeping critique, but lately I’m having to adapt to it. A store has five separate OPEN signs hanging in its windows, but it’s closed until next week. Four consecutive hotels have giant banners outside advertising a cost per night, but their cheapest room is three times that price. The distance signs on the highway to Guadalajara were sometimes off by thirty kilometers or more, sometimes counting by random increments in the wrong direction; the city just kept getting farther and farther away as I approached. What can you do? Learn to roll with it, never let it give you bile, accept that you can only get the truth from a human being. It’s not so wrong once you think of it that way.
In general I’ve found this travel to be humbling. Not only because I am small and at the mercy of my surroundings, but because I don’t feel like I need to judge anyone here. In my own city and country, as a citizen, it was my duty to shout at horrible drivers, as surely as voting. So as to contribute to the discourse. To enforce the social contract as it pertains to turn signals. But because I am not a citizen here, if someone steps on my toes, I feel liberated from judgment, free to do nothing, as I never have before.
Yesterday in this beautiful and enchanting city, I was awed to discover a writhing vortex of consumerism the likes of which I have never in my life beheld. The market is built in the concrete and brick style of Pike Place Market, but it’s the size and shape of Key Arena, and its interior space is a multi-tiered claustrophobic labyrinth of thousands of closet-sized stalls, each one as packed with stuff as seems geometrically possible. Each one contains a sales person buried up to their neck in the shoes or jeans or plastic toys or gadgets or bootlegged DVDs. The corridors between them are three feet wide and only a few inches taller than my head. Haystacks of leather goods. Glittering oceans of makeup. Mountains of meat and entrails. It was sort of terrible and insane, but it all delighted me too. Here was the manifested destruction of the world as surely as any Wal Mart, yet it was not faceless and sterile, but deeply human.
Later I was riding a bus to nowhere when a man climbed aboard with a speaker system strapped to his chest. He stood at the front of the bus through five straight stops, blasting Looney Tunes theme music and shouting at us about how we needed to buy a portable DVD player like the one he held before us. No one so much as looked at him, but his resolve was unshakeable. I began to see how I was mistaken if I thought that Mexico is just echoing America’s globalized style. In many respects, Mexico is more truly American than America.
It’s perpetually sunny and 80 degrees out, but the trees here are all shedding brown leaves, and people are walking around in wool coats. It gives me a surreal twinge of homesickness as I try to well up some celebratory impulse for my first hundred days on this road.
You may reach a point in any given day at which you are too totally beaten to go on. You may look at your map and know the name of the next town, but you know you couldn’t pedal one more meter toward it if you tried. It’s impossible. Your every cell tells you this. … So you sleep. Ideally in a safe and cozy place, but if necessary in a place where headlights strafe your eyelids and stray dogs come down from the mountains in the night to sniff your face and gaze into your tired soul. … Then you wake up, and hop on, and reach the place that was impossible to reach. Every day you do what was viscerally unthinkable only the day before. It is as intoxicating as all the endorphins: the luxury of feeling, in the higher moments, as if everything in life could be this way. And then sometime you finally haul yourself up a rise with only blue sky over the other side, and you fly downward for miles, losing more altitude than you knew you ever had, until you have no idea what could be left for you to be going down into; the earth just seems to unfold around you with surreal geometry, every valley opening up to reveal another valley, like something out of a fever dream.
Here’s my current inventory, totaling roughly 65 pounds (30 kg) by my reckoning. These are boring mundane details, yet potentially interesting in that they make up the entirety of my earthly possessions for the duration of the voyage. Some overkill may be apparent. Read more
It’s now been three months since I left Seattle and a month since I crossed into Mexico, and more than three thousand miles of pavement have passed under my feet. For five days I’ve been enthralled to find out the mainland is a whole other thing. Every breath is unwieldy with humidity. Every town is a real place, full of people, laden with soul, rooted deep with history. And everything is green. Vast and flowing mountains upon verdant mountains of delicious living green.
The sides of the roads are full of wild lizards, the shattered remains of armadillos like pieces of pottery, an endless succession of butterflies the size of hands, no two wearing the same colors. On the Baja penninsula a small town is ten single-serving bags of potato chips in a cinderblock shed; here it’s thousands of people who have whole lives that have nothing to do with selling junk food to tourists; living in hundreds of buildings centered around a church that is always impressive, always the tallest thing anywhere in sight.
The forested hills of Nayarit are all baking in the sunlight and wreathed in the smoke of slash and burn. Out here I can go through two gallons of water per day without ever peeing; hour by hour I watch my arms, permanently greased with sweat, slowly accumulate a visible crust of dry human salt. Every 10 km an overpass comes along with a shadow I can fit inside. Standing still there for a moment, rapidly stuffing my face with a sodium source, I enjoy the unique pleasures of heat-drunkenness; how it makes it inexplicably hilarious and hypnotic to wiggle your fingers in front of your face.
Something is always burning somewhere. Once I paused under an overpass and looked ahead to where the road disappeared into a ball of tan smoke and little tufts of dancing fire. Cars and trucks faded in and out of existence as they passed. So I knitted my brows in apprehension, tied my bandanna over my nose, and ran the 50-yard gauntlet of combusting foliage, opening my eyes only for short moments, never breathing. My sunburns glowed with new pain while the mileposts stood melting languidly in the heat. Then I emerged again, my salty skin lightly dusted with ash — wondering whether all that burning grass smelled like tequila, or whether tequila always tasted to me like burning shrubs and I’d just never thought about it like that.
One day, down to my last few fingers of water and pretty well sun-baked, I rolled into the town of Rosamorada. There was only one hotel in town, a hundred pesos per night, right by the main square. Unbeknownst to me, this was the night of the festival for La Patrona. I went out after dark in search of tortas and found a stage setting up to play live music, lots of trampolines, carts dispensing thousands of tiny plastic toys and carnival food. I got myself a fried banana and sat down on a bench to eat it. A young boy walked by, staring at me. I said hola. Soon another boy appeared, and then another… until within minutes there was a crowd of roughly a dozen 12-to-15-year-olds gathered around, standing over me, staring with large eyes. They stayed there for perhaps an hour, in which I felt both excited and extremely awkward. They asked me questions — about where I’d come from and by what means, about my bike, about me. They asked to know what “Halo” means, then what “Grand Theft Auto” means. They wanted to know the English words for “death” and “penis”. They were patient with my Spanish and didn’t mind repeating themselves. But I don’t really understand what made me so interesting; they had all seen many gringos before. A trio of long-term bike travelers had passed through the town only a few months ago. Some of the boys had even been to Seattle.
And therein lies the biggest social revelation of this journey so far. I wrote before that crossing the border into Mexico had the seeming, in my sense of the American mass consciousness, like falling out the bottom of the world. Like mirrored sunglasses facing North, the clear image only came to me from this side. The boys had visited Seattle. In another town, someone else told me about his many friends working and living in Pasco, WA. Someone else offered me a free ride in his truck all the way back to Omak. Someone else showed me photos of his parents’ house in L.A. Someone else hasn’t seen her children in the USA in eleven years. People have flagged me down in the street to ask whether I was Estadounidense, to list the places they’d been, to smile at me with what seemed like a kind of appreciation, sometimes almost a twinge of admiration, about which I felt a little weird — people who wanted to go to the USA and people who had lived there for many years and never wanted to go back. Everywhere I’m seeing how this continent is not two separate universes at all. Everything North and South is so profoundly intertwined that the heavily armored frontier seems increasingly arbitrary, seems more and more like just a scam designed to extort visa money.
A couple of days ago in Tepic (a city ringed by steep green peaks where you feel as if you’re at the top of the world) I was able to chat almost decently in Spanish with someone who had her own hopes of traveling across this country and beyond. We talked about how much there is to see here. “It’s a big country,” I said. She said “It used to be bigger.” We both laughed. The best kind of laughter. The kind that is tinged with awful truth.
That lost look that crosses my features in the video is the moment in which it dawns on me that I was silly if I expected some kind of world beyond Wal Mart. In this time in history, you can never truly be more than a few miles from The United States. Little colonies seed every land mass — in the form of soda pop, bluejeans, the resounding ghost of Michael Jackson, and the odd ten-year expat who still stubbornly refuses to ever learn the local language. But there are little incongruities, like the mall cops with assault shotguns — and diving a little further beneath the surface or off the main streets, you see the Mexico that is doing its own thing with no regard for the Pop from the North, or which at least transforms it by degrees into something beautiful and different.
Sometimes when I see that Mexico, I have a revelation not about it but about my homeland. It dawned on me that Americans honk their horns exclusively to emulate profanity. It roughly translates to: “Because you forced me to brake just now, you are a terrible person and I hope you die in a fire.” But here in La Paz, though there are many bold traffic maneuvers and many chances for the hate-honk, I have almost never witnessed it. Here people honk to say hello and make polite requests of the traffic around them. They use it in combination with waving and smiling to prove that the honk was not in anger. They all seem to grasp the essential human truth that in this world we are always in somebody’s way, just as somebody else is always in ours, and it’s no big deal. (Can we please appropriate this or something?)
The for sale signs here say “se vende”. It translates more directly to “it is sold”. But, as I understand it, a still rawer translation would be “it sells itself”. And one day I saw a wanted poster in a police station, with the title “Se Busca” — or “He searches for himself”. I wondered if that was why he looked so upset in the photo.
I’m told it usually rains here only once a year, only during a hurricane, but it came down for a few tranquil hours the other morning. The dry ground seems almost totally impermeable and the whole main drag was four inches submerged long after the rain stopped, spewing over everything in the traffic — but in its placid moments, when the sun broke free, it was like riding through a huge blue sky.
Tomorrow I finally cross the sea. I hope my thoughts will be less scattered once I get rolling again on the mainland.
While I still have access to an actual computer, I updated the header images with photos from the road. (The old ones were from my first trip down the coast in 2006.) Here are the uncropped versions:
You will be reassured to know that my cranium is as grand and shiny as ever. Pardon the wind in the mic etc. etc.