Cycling the Americas VII: South of the Border
The sun is setting over the Pacific and lights are appearing in windows of the buildings that peer over the fence. Headlights stream down a hilltop boulevard on the other side of the wall, but Tijuana’s noise doesn’t reach us here in the marshland on the American side.
I notice that my tent seems to be glowing and Robbie gestures at the helicopter circling above, its spotlight trained on our campsite. We wave.
At that moment a border patrol officer steps out of the bushes to tell us camping isn’t permitted.
“You realise that’s Mexico over there?” he huffs, thrusting a finger at Mexico.
We thrust our own fingers at the sunset’s afterglow. Is he really going to make us go looking for another place to sleep in the dark? He considers this for a moment, unsure as the helicopter thwups overhead.
“I hate to do this, but I am a border patrol officer. Can I see your passports?” The spotlight is still on us.
“I’m going to ask my boss if you can stay,” he says. “If I don’t come back, you can assume you can stay”.
Having watched me survive three months cycling through Canada and the United States, Robbie went and found himself a bicycle, quit his job and jumped on a plane to find me in San Diego. That afternoon we’d ridden as far south as possible without actually entering Mexico, so as to cross the border early and make the beach at Rosarito by the evening. This is our first night on the road together, and the helicopter returns three times as we sit cooking, eating and chatting in the darkness. Border Fields State Park is not camper friendly, we find, but more of a tactical no-man’s land between Tijuana and San Diego full of state of the art surveillance equipment and kitted-out border patrol officers. We imagine ourselves as a heat signal on radar screens, commanders being briefed about our presence and orders being given. We debate whether a camera on the officer’s uniform registered our passport details and if our social media and browsing history are being scrutinised. We talk about our school principals being interviewed and PowerPoint presentations about our family, friends and “known associates”. We joke about cocaine and Guatemalan families hiding in our panniers for the benefit of microphones laid in the bushes. It was a very weird night.
The next day we emerge from a warren of offices and hallways through the border into the baking, swirling centre of Tijuana. Rubbish and the wails of ranchero singers tumble through the streets and exhaust fumes blend with smoke from the taquerias. Highway One climbs ten kilometres out of town and then descends to the coast at Rosarito, where we pull over for fish and prawn tacos to celebrate a new country. The seafood comes fried on small corn tortillas, topped with chopped vegetables and a bit of mayonnaise. There are at least seven different types of hot sauce, plus two bowls of salsa made in-house. The sun is out, the sea breeze feels as fresh as the beer and the men sitting across the bar wear cowboy hats and thick moustaches. It’s here that I realise I’m going to like Mexico.
At some point in their history, Latinos got so excited about Christmas they simply couldn’t wait and started celebrating it on the night of December 24th. We’re staying with Jorge for Christmas, a 19-year-old civil engineering student in Ensenada who, to the bemusement of his parents, has started hosting cycle tourists through warmshowers.org. We arrive at his grandmother’s place around 9pm and when she gives the word, the assault begins at 10:30. Christmas in northern Baja California tastes like prawns cooked in smoky mole, shredded turkey in a creamy sauce, a fruit salad floating in juices with marshmallows and piles of tamales. The flavours are all strange and new and delicious. The eating goes on until midnight, when everyone gets up to hug, kiss and wish each other “Feliz navidad”. Grandma breaks out the alfoil and assures us we’ll be back in the morning for “el recalentado” – leftovers.
At midday we go in for the second wave, gorging for a good hour or so until even we starving cyclists are belching and rubbing bulging bellies. The afternoon is whiled away quietly chatting and digesting on couches. New family members trickle in and are quickly recruited for leftover duty, taking a shift at the table hunched over menudo soup and piles of creamed turkey.
At Jorge’s we meet Tommy, a Washingtonian on his way to Cabo San Lucas, and the three of us team up for the ride down into Baja. He introduces us to his theory of a spectrum with “cycle tourist” at one end and “bum” at the other, and in the desert wilderness south of Ensenada we start sliding inexorably along toward the “bum” end of things. We sleep in an abandoned church surrounded by old bones and a nameless grave on a lonely stretch of coast. Several nights later we crash in an abandoned building off the highway. We light a fire in a room out back that has no roof and apparently makes a good toilet for passing motorists.
“This is probably the most bummy thing I’ve ever done,” says Robbie. Exactly two weeks earlier he’d been a lawyer for a community legal aid organisation, wearing collared shirts to work in a Brisbane office.
Baja California is the Mexican outback. The young men who work on the ranches wear farmers’ vests and elaborately decorated, high-heeled leather boots. We regularly have to fill our bags with one or two days’ worth of food and water and when we hit town, we decimate any supermarket or taqueria lucky enough to catch our eye. At night the silence is total and there are no glowing points on the horizon to designate distant towns like most American deserts. The landscape alternatives between a cactus garden and a wasteland. We shiver through the nights and drool over stories of perfect beaches and palm trees down at the tip of the peninsula, still 770 kilometres away. The Baja California peninsula is deceptively huge.
Americans did their best to scare me about Mexico. At least thirty different people told me with unsettling specificity that “they’re going to chop your head off down there”. But so far Mexico seems a far easier place to travel than the United States. Where queries about camping in the U.S. were often met with noncommittal vagueness, Baja ranchers, policemen and abalone fishermen simply smile, gesture out back and expect no payment for the effort. Food and beer is cheap, the camping is easy and the locals are an inexorably happy, generous bunch. Mexico smiles on the travelling bum.
Previously: Cycling the Americas VI – Into the Desert
Quinten Dol is riding his bicycle from Vancouver, Canada, to Ushuaia, Argentina, to raise money for the Australian Cancer Council’s Research Fund. Like any scummy hobo, he’s scraping a bit off the top to feed himself. Throw him a bone by making a donation here.