Where did everyone go?
March 18, 2023 Comments Off on Where did everyone go?
The first thing I noticed is how quiet everything is. There are no people outside. Everyone is inside a car, a building, a house. Whatever activity they are engaging in, they’re doing in secret.
I miss the noise, but most of all I miss the sight of people. Seeing other humans is very refreshing; they are infinitely interesting, unpredictable, comforting. Yet the quiet is nice, too. I never, ever thought that I would return to Los Angeles and consider it a silent place. Compared to Tijuana, it’s a graveyard.
The second thing I noticed was the space. Bicycling in Mexico requires A-level skills and awareness. The roads are just wide enough for cars and trucks. Not one extra inch has been devoted to bicycles. You’d think this makes for deadly riding, it doesn’t. What it makes for, in conjunction with uneven and often damaged surfaces, is careful drivers. Not a single angry or impatient honk in three weeks even when, at one point, I was holding up about a hundred cars as I labored over a bridge.
I wondered about this, and concluded that Mexican drivers spend so much time paying scrupulous attention to all the things that can cause a crash, a flat, tear off the front end of a car, snap an axle, puncture an oil pan, smash a transmission, that bicycles are only one more obstacle, part of the road environment to avoid. No one expects to drive unimpeded at 60 mph, or at any speed, therefore no one is angry at you.
Another kind of consideration I experienced when it rained: cars intentionally avoided splashing you, even when they had to change lanes or wait behind until clear of the massive puddles.
Still, the space on our side is liberating after the narrowness and the constant intense awareness of every aspect of the environment. Even close passes, the few that occurred, felt distant and completely safe. Whether they were or not is a different question.
I got up this morning for a few quick minutes of jump rope. No cars, no people, just the sound of the plastic cord as it beat the pavement.
There and back again
March 15, 2023 Comments Off on There and back again
Is the grass greener on the other side? You won’t know until you go look.
What’s inside you? You won’t know until you dig.
Does anything ever change? You won’t know until you measure.
Here’s what I saw when I went and looked: the grass is no greener, and in fact there’s a lot less of it, but if you’re in the right place at the right time it’s graced by one of the most beautiful creatures on earth, the vermilion flycatcher. Google it!
Here’s what I found when I dug: snips, snails, puppydog tails, and the courage to quit looking back and turn, finally, to face what lies ahead.
Here’s what I found when I measured: a dog’s love is, after the speed of light, nature’s other only constant.
The real urban riding
March 15, 2023 Comments Off on The real urban riding
I found my motel after a lot of hunting. Shortly after the search began, the rain came. Big brown rivers rolled through the streets; sewer lids boiled around the edges with freshly aromatic offerings, pungent humanity.
Everyone with a roof got under it. Everyone without found an overhang, a tarp, a metal cover overarching a pedestrian walkway. Men seated on woollen blankets, unshaven and hungry, looked at me with hollow eyes fully alert, multitudes that reproached me as I passed, never saying a word. I passed a huge dog crammed into a cage so small he couldn’t stand, gnawing his tail and moaning the song of the dead, the insane.
My crisp white motel sheets strangled me to sleep.
March 14, 2023 Comments Off on Styrofoam coffee
I woke up and walked over to the restaurant for breakfast. It was closed. I asked a man watering the trees where I might find breakfast. “About two kilometers over there,” he pointed.
I started walking, then picked up a couple of rocks in case I got chased by dogs. After about two miles there was a sign in front of an open area that said “breakfast.”
An old man was in the kitchen. “Can I get breakfast?” I asked.
“But of course!”
He brought me coffee in a styrofoam cup. It was boiling hot, and instantly warmed me. It was bitter and black and it tasted good. I thought about all the coffee fetishes I’d experienced in my life. The cost, the crazy names, the Molotovian mixtures, the ornate cups, the cards that recorded all my data and occasionally returned the favor with a “free” drink.
The old man was seventy. His name was Manuel. “You look very young,” I said.
“Yes, I play baseball or softball every weekend. It is my passion since I was a boy.”
“Do you remember Cesar Cedeno?”
“Oh yes, the star center fielder for the Astros. He was very good.”
“My dad used to take us to watch him play.”
Manuel nodded. “He was very good. It is cold today! How is the coffee?”
“It is very good,” I said.
March 13, 2023 Comments Off on Dog-gone it!
Somewhere after Ensenada, I started worrying about dogs. I hadn’t been chased but it seemed inevitable. It has been decades since I rode in Texas, when dog-sprinting was just a part of riding in the country.
Now there was no question of sprinting, loaded down with bags and age as I am, so I started thinking strategically. If you’ve ever tried to kick a dog while riding, that doesn’t work. It causes you to wobble badly and the dog sees it coming, avoids the kick, and then you’ve slowed down a lot and he’s got you.
But what if you simply stopped pedaling on the upstroke, slowed, let him get in snapping range, then landed a solid kick to the snout? “Hmmm,” I thought. “That might work.”
So each day I practiced my dog kick, five or six time with each leg. At first it was hard, but it got better and better until I could kick really hard without going off my line at all.
Two days ago I got my first try. Two dogs gave chase, one fell off, and the other kept charging until he was a couple of feet from my right foot. I stopped pedaling with my right foot on the upstroke, the bike slowed, and as he started to snap I kicked him hard on the snout. He hadn’t seen it coming, yelped, and quit chasing.
You can imagine how empowered I felt.
This morning I started in heavy fog. The two-lane highway was incredibly narrow, cars passing within a couple of feet. Off to the left a pair of dogs saw me. “They’ll never cross the highway in front of all these cars,” I thought.
The biggest one immediately sprinted across the highway in front of all those cars. The road was wet and the five cars, all tailgating each other, somehow braked without sliding or crashing. The dog made a beeline for my right leg.
Then, he got spooked by an oncoming semi, skidded, and dashed in front of the braking truck back to his side of the street, missing the front wheel by inches. Needles to say, the collateral damage of any traffic collision would have been me. I held my line and the scene melted away behind me.
At day’s end I approached my campsite. A dog on the right side of the dirt road made a run at me. I kicked him on the nose and learned a lesson: kick as hard as you can; otherwise it just pisses them off, and you only get one kick. He took the kick, backed off, realized it hadn’t hurt, and made a second run, this time snapping the rubber heel of my shoe.
I pedaled on.
March 12, 2023 Comments Off on Hoover
I used to avoid strange people when I traveled. They scared me, especially the overly friendly ones. “What does he want?” I’d wonder. “Nothing good.”
But not anymore. They can’t be any stranger than I am.
I was about to enter the little shop for a quart of milk when a man exited. He was short, had a big black mustache, and was wearing a sweatshirt that said “Martha’s Vineyard.”
“Hey!” he said. “Where you from?”
“What you doing here?”
He had a point. The little town’s streets were all dirt and it was hardly a travel Mecca. “Just passing through.”
“What you shopping for?”
He spun on his heel and walked back in. “Veronica! Get him some milk!”
“You work here?” I asked.
“No, but I’m friends with everybody.”
Veronica smiled. “We don’t have any milk left.”
“That’s okay!” my friend said. “We’ll go find some!”
Off we marched, him leading the way. “My name is Hoover. Like the President and the vacuum cleaner. And the barrio in Los Angeles. You know it?”
“How old are you?”
“I’m fifty-eight! How long you staying?”
“Just one night.”
We chatted and walked for a long way. Then we came to a grocery store and went in. I got milk and two packages of Kit-Kats. “You want anything?” I asked him.
“Sure!” We walked around the store and he got a cup of instant ramen, some orange juice, and a bag of chips.
At the turnoff to my motel we parted company. “See you!” He said with a smile and a wave.
The friendly people
March 11, 2023 Comments Off on The friendly people
Have you seen any good ads for prosthetic legs lately? I sure have, and I stopped to document it. Judging from the model they do full bionic (old skool), though it looks like you may have to bring your own muffler.
Across the street was a cafe, so I ducked in for a very good cup of coffee and was served by a scowling lady. Which got me to thinking.
“The people in Blahblahstan were friendly.”
“The people in Blahblahstan weren’t very friendly.”
“It’s not a very friendly country.”
“Everyone is so friendly!”
It’s funny how we expect some places to be friendly and others not. The friendly English? The warm and fuzzy Germans?
It’s all in your head. Large swaths of people are not friendly or unfriendly, though individuals certainly can be. With respect to strangers, friendliness is often a function of money and power. Service people are not friendly, they are working, and they do it with a smile or not.
Although I can’t speak to the friendly English, I was treated with extraordinary warmth and kindness by the Germans I became friends with in 1989-1990. Because in fact friendliness, and its counterpart, hostility, are everywhere.
It would be easy and wrong to say that when you behave the way people expect, they’re friendlier. Victims of racial stereotyping know better.
But why is it that when people travel for pleasure they hope to be treated with friendliness? Everyone knows that tourists are nothing more than a buck. People working in the tourist trade aren’t seeking magical moments and deep friendships with the yappy lady (or scruffy cyclist) from LA. And local residents already have all the friends they need, thanks.
The traveler offers nothing but money. Yet we hope that this financial transaction will be accompanied by friendliness, which is bizarre. Who expects friendliness at Wal-Mart? And if the barista at your local Starbucks is smiling, surely you know she doesn’t care about you at all. It’s her job, man.
True friendliness is an overture that is necessary but insufficient for forming real friendship. Friendship only happens when there is a personality match bonded by mutual, if often unequal, need. Expecting that to happen while ordering street tacos? Really?
And then as a cyclist there are those anomalies, the friendly drivers. They wave, toot their horns, hang their heads out the window, and best of all give you a wide berth.
I’m really not sure why. But I know I like it.
March 10, 2023 Comments Off on Overreaching
My Garmin watch showed a new, alarming fitness status a couple of days ago, a bright red warning that said, “Overreaching.” It advised me to take it easy and recover.
It’s so weird to have a watch that knows you better than you do. My supposedly overreaching day involved 52 miles of riding over several hours with a loaded bike and pack. Sure, I was tired, but overreaching? And needing two days of recovery?
Rather than sneer and keep pushing, I headed for a motel and holed up for two days. I’m old. Four days of touring after four months of being relatively inactive is a massive shock to the system, and it doesn’t do any good to tell yourself “It’s not that hard” or “A couple of years ago this would have been NOTHIN’!”
I’ve seen lots of people try to ride themselves into shape on tour, and generally it either results in total failure or you overreach and spend the entire trip trying to recover from the first few days.
This morning my coach-watch-babysitter said I was ready to go. And right on cue, I feel totally fresh and recovered, champing at the bit for a beautiful ride down the azure coast. Technology is always right, I mean look: it says right there on my watch that I’ve already walked a thousand steps before getting out of bed.
The power of good morning
March 9, 2023 Comments Off on The power of good morning
I said, in a small and diffident voice, “Good morning.”
Her lips peeled back in a giant smile to show brilliant white teeth. “Good morning, sir!”
I sat down at the counter. Shortly, four young workmen entered. “Good morning!” they roared. And I do mean roared.
“Good morning!” the cook yelled from back in the kitchen. And I do mean yelled.
I recalled the years I lived in Japan, where a fundamental mark of politeness was the morning greeting, said not timidly but with power and conviction. Whence comes this morning hello?
Doubtless there was a time when morning meant foremost this: you were still alive. And life? It was good! And what better way to declaim on the bounty of your miraculous good, no, great fortune, the great fortune of survival, than to shout it joyously and with vigor to those you meet who, by definition, are just as lottery-ticket-lucky as you?
To begin your day with an utterance of joy? Spoken from the heart, shared with the world?
Good morning to you, too!
March 7, 2023 Comments Off on Strange streets
They are walking, talking, smoking cigarettes, joking, making food, eating, drinking, lounging, sitting on curbs, cutting flowers, pressing tortillas, lifting heavy steel shutters, sidestepping potholes, slamming down hoods, rolling tires, pedaling bicycles, pushing strollers, laughing, yelling, cursing, working on cars, holding hands, ducking into shops, carrying bags, climbing ladders, walking dogs, checking their phones, snapping pictures, hailing cabs, swinging sledgehammers, digging trenches, standing in groups, standing singly, singing, playing guitar, listening to music, counting out change, leaning out of windows, hanging laundry, pushing mops and brooms, knocking on doors, playing in playgrounds, kicking soccer balls, nursing infants, bantering, life.