Cycling the Americas XI: Real Life Adventure Time!
It’s late afternoon on the Oaxacan coast, when the day’s heat fades just enough for the lazy breeze to push it away. I’m pedalling my way up a low hill, waiting for the road to level out beneath my wheels. Robbie’s not far behind, and ahead we spot our favourite Mexican road sign: a car rolling downhill. We celebrate with the usual hoots and ringing of bells, and Rob shouts something that I don’t quite catch. I look for him over my shoulder, and instead catch a glimpse of a man sitting in a large gutter, a few metres below the road to the right. Now, any given stretch of Mexican highway is usually full of people swinging machetes or herding livestock, so a guy sitting in the bushes is nothing special. But this man seems more slumped than seated and when I look again I catch a flash of red on his face.
I’m a little ashamed to admit a moment of hesitation here. It’s getting late and I’m out of water. We’re hungry and sweaty and tired and we need to find some food for dinner before sundown, as well as a place to camp. “Do we really need to stop?” I think for a moment.
I point out to Rob that “there’s a guy in the bushes”, and after dropping the bikes, we pick our way towards him. The breeze and traffic have disappeared and there are no birds in the scrub around us, stiff and leafless at the end of the dry season. We can hear him shuffling around in the gutter.
Upon closer inspection we find he’s more a kid than a man. His right eye is shut with purple swelling and his right arm is covered in cuts, road rash and bruises. The hand on that arm appears broken. Blood trickles from his mess of a mouth and drips into a dark patch gathered in the crotch of his torn jeans. There’s also blood in his hair and on his face and shirt.
I swear for a while before gathering myself to ask his name, where he’s from, what’s happened and if he wants water. Rob warns not to get too close to him. He groans and sighs. He rocks back and forth and tries to stand up and when he does so, his pale right leg sticks out at a weird angle and he falls back into the gutter. There’s a single shoe in there among the sticks and dirt and old Coke bottles, and he keeps slipping it on and off his foot. Jamie and Alejandra roll up, and Alejandra takes over the questioning.
“What’s your name?” she asks and then, more softly, “Where’s your family?” He rocks and groans.
Jamie is a physiotherapist and therefore has more medical knowledge than the rest of us put together. He says our new friend’s inability to answer basic questions – his name and age, for example – might indicate swelling in the brain.
“He needs to go to the hospital right away or he risks some kind of mental injury,” he says.
This stirs us to action. There is no phone signal so, as the Spanish speakers in the group, Alejandra and I make our way up the road to try and flag down the intermittent cars. We stand on the road waving handkerchiefs and the approaching cars flash their headlights. Not all of them stop, and none of the shiny expensive ones. We ask those that do to call an ambulance when they find phone service and beg the truck and ute and colectivo drivers to take our new friend with them. Their passengers stare with dark eyes. Several women pray.
But nobody wants him. What’s more, a couple of people in one colectivo say they’ve seen him in the same place earlier in the day. No one sent help.
“If the police get involved, I don’t want any problems for myself,” says one man.
Robbie finds our mate’s other shoe and a dried puddle of blood up the road. Did he fall from the back of a truck? Was he hit by a car? Why has no one stopped to help him?
The traffic has died off again, and we’ve decided to wait half an hour for an ambulance before going ourselves for help. We stand around and don’t talk. Before long our mate goes quiet, and Jamie catches him with his good eye closed and toppling to the side.
“He’s going to sleep,” he says. This is apparently very dangerous in his condition.
Things become frantic again. We decide that Robbie and I, the fitter cyclists, should ride on ahead with Alejandra’s phone to look for a signal while Jamie, the medical professional, and Alejandra stay with our mate.
“Quédate vivo” – “Stay alive” – I yell as we roll away and it’s only half a joke.
Rob and I sprint across the flatlands behind a beach and climb a range beyond. The road flattens out beneath our wheels once more as we cross a saddleback, and in the dying light the beaches and steep headlands below glow under an orange sky. Somewhere along the way I ride my 11,000th kilometre since Vancouver, Canada, and there is no time for a beer. For the first time I’m riding for something more than my own happy desire to roam and explore.
“It’s a real life adventure,” I think to myself. “This is actually important. Someone might die.”
We find a turnoff where Rob stays to wait for the others while I bump down the dirt road into the village of Zonjal. I explain myself to a stern señora and she calls the police, who will call the ambulance.
So I buy a big bag of snacks and two bottles of Coke and I pedal slowly back to the highway. Rob and I sit a while, watching not one, but two ambulances fly past. Twenty minutes later they fly back the other way, and a paramedic appears to be working on our mate in the back of one of them.
It’s dark by the time Jamie and Alejandra roll down off the hills, and with the permission of the señora we make camp on the basketball court at Zonjal’s school. We sip beers to belatedly celebrate another thousand kilometres. We go to bed early and lay sweating in our tents, waiting for the cock’s crow to wake us so we can eat, pack up, and ride again.
Previously – Cycling the Americas Part X: The Interview