Cycling the Americas X: The Interview
Travel abroad with a pack on your back or a bicycle under your bum and you’re going get used to The Interview mighty quickly. You know the questions: “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “How long have you been away?” and, especially uncomfortable in rubbish-strewn villages, “Where did you get the money to do this?”
It gets monotonous. Fellow travellers in the hostel, locals in the street and couchsurfing hosts all want to know these things and usually it’s straight away.
As an unshowered whitey who rolls into Mexican villages astride a bicycle on a daily basis, I get interviewed by curious townsfolk at least three or four times per day. In the abarrotes where we buy food, the plazas where we eat lunch and the petrol stations where we shit there are always people to ask the same questions, and we recite the answers like a script. “Yes, it’s a long way.” “Yes, I get tired.” “Yes, we eat kangaroos in Australia.”
How can we possibly blame them? We’re strange creatures who’ve roamed into their line of sight and we might just be the most interesting thing they’ve seen all day. Between the Acapulcos and Puerto Escondidos and Cancuns there are literally thousands of towns that have absolutely nothing of interest for the traveller and are quite rightly ignored by foreigners with limited time and funds. Still, after six months of answering questions and posing for photos with strangers in little towns between Vancouver and Mexico City, I’m finding myself more and more tempted to cut the small talk and ask the elderly vaquero who wants to know “how many days have you been on the road?” about his first sexual experience.
I suppose it sounds like I’m complaining. The truth is that The Interview often leads takes strange turns and whether it’s a good or a bad experience, at least it’s something different.
For example, in the Sierra de los Organos we met a group of religious pilgrims who, for some reason or another, were walking some 1300 kilometres between Mexico City and Mazatlan. They offered food first – a sure way to any traveller’s heart – and after a brief Interview followed up with blunts the size of carrots, which seemed an odd dessert choice for Catholic pilgrims.
The Sierra de los Organos gets its name from columns of red rock that look like the pipes of some humungous organ. As they lit the blunts and replaced the barrump of norteño music with throbbing techno beats, the pilgrims began hooting and pointing at the nearest cluster of rock towers. About halfway up the mountain we spotted the white shirt of a pilgrim, twisting about as its wearer scaled the sheer cliff face.
“Does he have any ropes?” I asked and the pilgrims laughed.
“He’s going to fall guey!” replied one and they all laughed some more. About 50 metres up the climber reached an overhang and found himself unable to advance any further. He looked down and realised descending was also going to be nigh on impossible. The hilarity on the ground reached new heights and we left, unwilling to watch a stoned man fall to his death while his friends giggled below.
Outside the excellently-named town of Yahualica de Gonzalez Gallo we stopped for an afternoon beer and started chatting with an elderly man named Jesus. He was 82 and, in the way of elderly folk, was only mildly interested in Interviewing us. Instead he told us about crossing the U.S. border in the 1950’s and hopping trains all the way to San Francisco.
“Tijuana had only two streets and Los Angeles was no more than a town in those days,” he said. “There were barely any roads in Baja California, just donkey tracks, and the whole coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco was mostly uninhabited.” He lived most of his life in Oakland, California but knew only a few words of English.
“All my children and grandchildren live there and I still visit often,” he went on. “But in the end we always return to where we were born.” It took us a while to understand the subtext, that he’d come back to die and be buried in the soil of his birthplace.
I carry a huge roadmap of Mexico in my handlebar bag and it is the perfect instrument to cut through the usual Interview. People love maps as a general rule, and especially when they’re being asked by a foreigner for advice about their home. They will always have recommendations and there is usually a decent story to go with them. The map is full of scribbles in all sorts of handwriting that indicate beaches, towns, lakes and forests.
At one point we noticed a concentration of scribbles centred on La Huasteca, a region named for the indigenous people who still live there and in very isolated patches, still speak their own language. We detoured almost all the way across the country to get there and were not disappointed. The Huastecs are distinct from the Aztecs and the Mayans who lived further south, and their features and culture are discernible in the faces, language and food that you find there. It feels like another country altogether, a place of where condensation pours up from the jungled valleys and climbs mountain ranges scribbled with dirt roads. Villages litter the mountainsides and though the people are friendly, they keep to themselves and are careful not to be caught staring.
Aside from the pitching landscapes there are specific “destinations” dotted throughout La Huasteca that are worth your attention – the surrealist garden of Edward James in Xilitla, a 500-metre deep hole in the ground called the Sotano de las Golondrinas, thermal pools overlooking a canyon at the Grutas Tolantongo and peyote ceremonies in the arid northern reaches. We may never have found these places without the Interview.
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.