BACK TO THE US
Leaving Mexico City, Chris and I began the long, two day ride north to the border.
Mexico City is bordered by a long mountain range of steep mountains that were completely unexpected. The geography looked like what I would have expected to find in Austria, not central Mexico. There are no interstates in this direction, and our route followed a small, slow two-lane road that hugged the range. Sure to Mexican form, there are few guard rails to protect you from the consequences of running off the road. It made for spectacular riding.
The houses in this area hang suspended on the mountains like multi-colored specks of paint, splattered on a wall. There is little level ground to be found. In one of the many small mountain towns we passed through in the region, an airport had been carved into the mountain. The approach seems horrendous. With one end of the airport blocked in by a steep wall of mountains, take off and landing is only possible in one direction - no matter what the wind conditions, with a drop off measuring in the hundreds of feet within yards of the end of the runway. Incredible. We ended the day cruising into the flat land and on the coast in Tampico, where we celebrated the end of our trip by drinking rum from coconuts, the only tourists in town.
Waking up early, we put in another long day - nearly 400 miles - that finished at the border. After a hot wait in line, we made it through to the United States again. Of course, the story wouldn’t be complete without one last hiccup. We’d forgotten to cancel out Vehicle Import Permits and Visas. So first thing yesterday morning, we woke up, went BACK to Mexico for an hour to cancel our permits and visas, enjoy another hot wait in at the border in 104 degree weather, and immediately follow the all of the above with a 300 mile ride to Houston.
Three months after leaving on the most incredible journey I have ever taken, this is where me and Chris will split up and head in different directions. He will be staying in Houston for a while before leaving for his home state of Maine and I will be taking the road back to Atlanta.
Mexico is a wild place. It’s what I imagine travel in the 1940’s must have been like, before reliable maps, cell coverage, signage and heavily enforced traffic laws made travel exceptionally easy. Road rules there are pretty much just suggestions and completely unenforced. Aggressive driving is the name of the game, which, in turn, makes you drive aggressively defensive. It’s not uncommon to see an 18 wheeler pass another semi on a double yellow line in a blind corner. We must have seen it happen 50 times in fact. In many towns, conveniences America takes for granted - phones, air conditioning, wifi, credit cards - do not exist. Especially in Baja. In Bahia de Los Angeles, on the Sea of Cortez coast of Baja, they still do not have a land line connecting their town to civilization. Every bit of electricity consumed in the town is produced by solar panels, which makes electricity a scarce commodity.
Much of Mexico also experiences a level of poverty unheard of in the United States. Most cities outside of the biggest ones - Mexico City, Guadalajara, Leon - may only have one paved road and its not uncommon to see full families living in 3-walled, roofless cinder block houses, or hovels in the ground covered in sticks. This is especially true in the rural areas.
Eating and drinking in Mexico can be the greatest and the worst at the same time. Walking through a Mexican open air market is one of the biggest sensory experiences I’ve had. Fresh fruits and vegetables, most of which I’ve never seen, are being hocked to you by kids and the whole place is a general madhouse of people talking, laughing, and eating. It’s like a giant dinner table for the town. In every town square there are carts that will cook up the best taco’s or burrito’s you’ve ever tasted right in front of you. 3 tacos and a coke will usually run you about $3. Unfortunately, none of the faucet water is potable and we successfully stayed away from stomach bugs coming from it. But this also leads to another problem - it’s incredibly difficult to eat healthy in Mexico on the go. All water must be bought bottled at the convenience store, where soft drinks are sold at generally the same prices. Low calorie, low sugar drinks are non-existent. As appalling as many facts about American diet can be, I’ve come to appreciate having access to a salad and a non-sugared drink.
There was always the question about how safe travel is in Mexico. We never had a single problem - not a one. That said, we were very smart and conservative travelers. The one rule of Mexico is to not travel at night. This is not to say that the streets become instantly crowded with thieves and criminals when the sun goes down, but as tourists with an incomplete knowledge of the language and area, it’s nearly impossible to tell by dark what is, and is not, a good area since Mexico is generally without streetlights. It would be too easy to end up lost, not knowing the language, and possibly in a bad situation. By day it’s very easy to identify the good parts of town and stay out of the bad.
Of course, there ARE bad parts of Mexico. We got advice from locals and expats at every chance and were told to not even touch the state of Michiacon - where some of the worst violence is. One hallmark of Mexican travel are the military patrols. As you near the US border, there are military checkpoints on all of the roads, where they will ask where you’ve come from, where you’re going, and will sometimes poke through your gear. On the highways, it’s common to see a half dozen military convoys in a day with humvee mounted machine guns and a man with his trigger finger ready. We saw a number of humvees pockmarked with bullet dents.
I came away with a huge sense of sadness for Mexico. They are full of potential and possibilities, but are hobbled by the drug war. Not only has the war killed tens of thousands of people, but it has destroyed a massive part of their economy. From our conversations with expats living there and locals, Mexico was booming meteorically before the drug war devastated their tourism industry and brought construction to a halt. Everywhere there are buildings standing two stories high, with the first floor uninhabited, the second floor left unfinished and derelict, and the rebar for a planned third level sticking 10 feet out if the concrete - as far as they got when the money stopped. Tens of millions of people are having their lives, livelihoods, and futures hobbled by this war.
Mexico is a phenomenal place, filled with wonderful people. Everyone we met was curious and more than eager to help. When my poor Spanish skills broke down, it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone to go far out of your way and walk us where we needed to go to make sure we got there. On our last day in Mexico, we needed to cancel our visas and Vehicle Import Passes. My Spanish failing me, a customs agent motioned that he was going to get on my bike with and get us where we needed to be. On my bike, already loaded with gear, we rode through the customs buildings, with him pointing left and right until we got to the right buildings. We found incredible generosity in Mexico everywhere we went.