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.