A few years ago on a motorcycle trip to Maine, I took my picture by a road sign that read “Welcome to Mexico”. With all the negative information that I’ve read or heard through various forms of media, I would have never imagined that someday I’d ride south of the border.
Mexico has a long list of hazards that await the casual traveler, starting with the popular “agua situation”. I was warned repeatedly not to drink the water unless I budgeted for industrial strength depends. The unsanitary conditions of food at markets and restaurants were also a concern.
Next, I was told of rampant petty thievery that existed in most every town and the corrupt police. The local law liked to exercise what is commonly known as “La-Mordida” which means the bite. While tourists known as “Gringos” typically have more money than most so they’re more frequently stopped for laws that exist only in the minds of the imaginative officers. There’s nothing here that can’t be overlooked if you make a large enough contribution to their income.
Another hazard is the kidnapping of tourists and business travelers for a moderate ransom. Kidnapping/Negotiation/Extraction insurance can be purchased before entry so it’s an acknowledged problem, not one that’s exaggerated or easily solved. All of these factors would be a definite deterrent to most sensible travelers, but for some reason I would end up riding 2500 miles within this perceived no man’s land.
Since the very beginning of my trip in May of 2001, it was both a fear and an enticement to someday ride over the border. As the months went by, I polled other travelers on their experiences in Mexico hoping to narrow down what was fact and what was fiction. I spent the first 2 months in Eastern Canada and the Great Lakes Region and it was seldom I found anyone who had traveled in Mexico. However, most everyone I spoke with did their best to dissuade me with their fears.
As more time passed, I found myself in the Southwestern states and I got the chance to speak with and observe Mexican people. I found them to be hard working, family orientated people who were just as curious about me as I was about them. I speak very little Spanish, but with sign language and patience, we were able to learn about each other. Unfortunately, my mime skills developed more rapidly than my Spanish. Based on these new personal experiences, I started to foster hope of a more positive trip in Mexico, but still I continued on with my inquiries, hoping to find more people who could alleviate my subtle anxiety.
Around Thanksgiving, I received from home all the certificates that would allow my dog into Mexico. I was doing the legwork for an organized entry, but still my gut feeling was not completely clear. The turning point in my decision came around Christmas when I was in the mountains of the Mojave National Preserve in California. As I was riding along the snow-covered dirt roads that led into Nevada, I ran down a mental list of where I could go to stay warm in the U.S. I had been to Yuma, AZ, and it didn’t exceed 65 degrees. San Diego was about the same, but according to weather reports, Mexico was a consistent 75 degrees. My instincts to stay warm seem to override my common sense concerning the dangers ahead.
I left Las Vegas on Christmas day and spent the next four days winding along back roads to the West Coast. It had been June since I last saw the ocean and my resolve to stay in the U.S. was melting away. Through rose-colored glasses, I saw visions of white sand beaches and palm trees that awaited me to the South. I gathered enough tires and miscellaneous equipment to last a few months while in the San Diego area, and on New Year’s Day, I crossed into Mexico at Tecate. Because of the holiday, there were lax conditions of security. The Mexican border officials waved me through like it was a routine stop at a road construction site. Now it was time to gather my own experiences. I was perplexed why they didn’t single me out for an intrusive search after all this is what I was used to at all the other border crossings. I was to learn that this was just the first of many fears that would gradually dissolve as I rode along.
Within one day of entry, I needed to get more water and found that filtered water was readily available. A few days later my food supply was low, and so I started to visit the small town markets that appeared along the roadside. Most markets didn’t have refrigeration or lights and the doors were always wide open so that the thick clouds of dust that were kicked up by big trucks settled over everything inside. All sales were calculated on paper with a pencil because the dust had chocked the life out of the electric cash registers. Eventually, I found things I could eat, but unless more modern markets came along, I would be starting an involuntary diet. I visited small towns that had restaurants, but the atmosphere of free roaming chickens and the prospect of having to defend my food from flies that circled in attack formation kept me on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich kick.
On many occasions the local and federal police drove by in the opposite direction. I acknowledged their presence with a wave and surprisingly they would smile and wave back. Again, I expected ammunition clad, cigar smoking, Pancho Villa types that muttered phrases like “we don’t need no stinking bahchez” to immediately pull me over and shake me down, but they let me be.
I started to feel more secure as I met fellow travelers from the U.S. and Canada. They gave me many helpful suggestions concerning food, fuel, safe areas to camp and places to avoid. I was 4 days into the journey when I discovered what the real danger was in Mexico. I believe that rather than being kidnapped, robbed, extorted or sickened from food or water, your more likely to meet your demise attempting to drive on the peanut brittle surfaces of the main highway with the insane antics of the local drivers. The first few days, I must have been preoccupied with the newness of my surroundings to notice, but it quickly came to my attention as if a bright light were flicked on.
It’s a well-kept secret, but Baja, CA has the world’s longest graveyard, it’s 1059 miles long and runs continuously alongside of Mexico’s Rt. #1. Grave markers and memorials seem to outnumber the guardrail posts. The burnt, wrecked, carcasses of autos resting alongside the road are as common as the kilometer markers, but nobody seems to heed these morbid reminders. Cars and trucks pass one another as if a blind corner or the crest of a hill were an added challenge to the already undersized lanes. Here, it’s completely normal to see a car that looks like a used pinyata go whizzing by that would appear to be participating in some college stunt, where a prize is won for the most people stuffed inside. In addition to bad drivers, there are mammoth potholes, free roaming cattle and large portions of road that have been washed out. I saw road signs that read “Curra Peligrosa”, and either it means dangerous curve or family plot. It’s sad to see that in a country where there’s no rush to do anything, so many people die rushing to do nothing.
All in all, Mexico suffers the same social illnesses and criminal activities as other countries. To have never explored it would have been to rob myself. Here, I’ve discovered people who smile and continue on through staggering poverty, corruption and with the knowledge that the situation won’t be changing anytime soon. In Mexico, I got a chance to confront my fears and gather my own experiences, and in the process develop a new appreciation for the everyday things that I have taken for granted. Today I feel a new sense of gratitude when I call myself an American.
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