Mexico to the USA (February 2004)
Mexico and the United States
“50% of it was for the cancer community… 25% of it was for myself and the team and my family… and the other 25% was for the people who never believed.”
—Lance Armstrong on his motivation after the Tour de France 1999
Si quieres sentir la emocion, tiene que tomar el riesgo.
If you want to feel the emotion, you have to take the risk.
Second helpings are what happiness is all about.
—Winnie the Pooh
“Espero que un dia los estados unidos se vuelvan a ser un parte de America, nada mas, nada menos.”
The first impression of Mexico City is of it’s utter vastness. The seething
wildebeest migration of the Serengeti resembles a few chums gathered for a
quiet game of bridge when compared to the concrete sprawl of one of
mankind’s largest gatherings. 23 million people have squeezed themselves
into a shallow valley like a giant version of those “how many people can we
fit into a telephone box” challenges. Two hour long commutes, grid-locked
traffic and arm-waving, horn-honking Latino impatience. A shroud of smog, an
impending water crisis on a colossal scale and the astonishing sight of
large buildings literally sinking, slowly but surely, meter by meter, into
the earth. Mexico City is a fine example of how effectively we are
succeeding in destroying the Earth (‘Endangered Mexico‘ by Joel Simon is a
good book on this theme).
Yet I enjoyed Mexico City. With so many people living their lives at typical
Latino high volume there is tremendous energy to the city and inexhaustible
variety. With so many bars and barrios, lifestyles and stories you can never
truly know Mexico City. The enormous central Zocalo (plaza) is a rare focus
point in the out-of-control growth and evolution of the uncontrollable beast
that is Mexico City. In the center of the world’s second largest plaza* flies a Mexican flag, as large as a football field, undulating slowly in the
hazy sky. The Mexicans are inordinately proud of their national flag, as
well as anything traditionally and uniquely Mexican (Mariachi bands, the
food, Tequila, drunk men with huge moustaches and sombreros falling from
their donkeys onto very prickly cacti). Surrounding the flag are hundreds of
meters of open space; a rare treat in the city and a welcome respite for
On one side of the Zocalo is the National Palace where Diego Rivera’s superb
murals depict the history of Mexico (see the movie ‘Frida‘). Rivera’s Social
Realism is harshly clear, with evil looking conquistadors and benevolent
Aztecs; fat, fornicating Catholic clergy and corrupt politicians. On another
side of the Zocalo is the cathedral, a mighty beast crammed with the lavish
gold and the icons of miracles and martyrdom that characterize Latin
American Catholicism. The whole structure has visibly sunk several feet
below ground level and walking inside is like being at sea with a rolling
floor and unhorizontal horizons. The religion that the Spanish conquistadors
imposed upon Mexico is epitomized by the cathedral, built on top of the very
heart of the Aztec sacred city of Tenochtitlan. But now, in a bitter twist
of ironic symbolism, as the cathedral sinks slowly the ancient pyramids that
were buried are actually rising out of the earth beside the cathedral once
I hate tourist-brochure-speak and so refuse to say that Mexico is A Land Of
Contrasts. But as I rode into Mexico City I passed enormous rubbish dumps
where people were living a grim life as scavengers, with shelters built out
of trash and their existence depending upon what they could salvage from all
that the rest of society had discarded. And then that weekend I was at a
party in a penthouse suite designed with an ostentatious extravagance
difficult to find in Europe. The library of the apartment was crammed from
floor to ceiling with books, all of which had been bought brand new and
never read. On a plinth was a life-sized bronze bust of the girl who owned
the pad in a classic pose with her hair flowing in an imaginary breeze and
two very silly little dogs clutched to her chest.
Over the past year I have noticed amongst the wealthy of Latin America that
they tend to accept the status quo of their society. The discrepancy of
wealth and lifestyles between the rich and the poor in Latin America is
greater than I have seen anywhere else in the world, but I met few people
who seemed troubled by this or who wondered what they could do about it. In
Africa I became uneasy about the impact foreign aid was having on society.
In Latin America I began to question how much Europe and the US should
involve themselves when there is such potential within their own society to
help themselves. Martin Luther King, Jr said that by passively accepting
something, you are as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.
Accepting something without protesting against it is really cooperating with
it. All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
It was hard to leave Mexico City after two weeks of normality: making
friends and party nights taste extra sweet these days. The fact that I had
been spoiled rotten made it harder too: I slept in pajamas for the first
time since the age of about twelve and when Sofia, my host, had to go away
for a few days she left me with a list of girls’ telephone numbers, each of
whom had been briefed to entertain me over the weekend! One guy I met even
asked if he could buy the list from me.
Leaving Guadalajara was difficult too. There I was reminded of what an
adventure life as a family is. The challenges, risks, hardships and rewards
of marriage and of raising children left me feeling that, in comparison, my
own adventure is trivial, shallow and selfish.
The only country in the Americas where I have had to apply for a visa to
enter is the United States (a painful world record $100 fee too). British
passport holders are allowed a visa-free visit of 90 days to the USA, but
unlike any other country I have visited, that period is non-extendable and
non-renewable. In this era of “you’re either with us or you’re against us”
the attitude seems to be that “even if you’re with us, you still might be
against us”. On top of that, if you try to phone the American Embassy in
Mexico for some information you have to pay a special extra fee for the
privilege of making that phone call. It was not good PR for the United
States. Labi Siffre sang that “the higher you build your barriers, the
taller I become”. The paranoid siege mentality that does wonders for the
President’s re-election prospects only serves to further global resentment
and anti-US sentiment, paradoxically making the situation worse.
But my feelings over the visa mellowed when I arrived at the Mexican
Consulate and saw a queue more than a hundred meters long stretching round
the block. More than a thousand miles south of the US border large road
signs began pointing the way towards Nogales and Tijuana and the road north
was a constant stream of crowded buses and pick-up trucks loaded with
possessions and headed for the border. You can see it as a dream ticket, an
escape route or as a pressure valve for the Mexican economy, but however you
want to interpret the vast numbers of people trying to leave Mexico, you
have to understand the position the USA is in. If they opened the borders
fully then several billion people would immediately want to enter the
country from all over the world. And I mean several billion people
Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s most prominent Presidents once said “Poor
Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States.” Yet, despite a
hefty dose of unfair treatment over the years from their big brash neighbor,
Mexico benefits tremendously from the USA. For example, Mexico’s number one
income, greater even than oil or tourism, is the money sent back home by
Mexicans working in the USA. The USA can also provide a stern reminder to
Mexico of what she could become with hard work and organization, without
corruption, with efficient taxation and without Catholicism (simply far too
many babies in Mexico!).
When I left Ushuaia exactly one year ago I had two targets for myself
regarding learning Spanish: to write on my website in Spanish and to give a
presentation in Spanish. The first failed dismally. But before leaving
Mexico I gave a television interview in Spanish and I gave a talk at a youth
prison for drug addicts who had committed crimes. It wasn’t exactly poetic,
but I was happy to have reached that level. Learning Spanish added so much
to my experience of Latin America. It is a fun language, described by Bob
Dylan as “… the loving tongue, soft as music, light as spray”. I am now
about to begin trying to learn Mandarin Chinese: I fear it may be a little
more tricky! If I learned my Swahili through watching The Lion King, then my
Chinese is limited to “Chop Suey and Special Fried Rice, please”.
I enjoyed riding through the villages of Mexico. The dusty, dim stores that
sell the same things the world over – dusty packs of pasta, cans of sardines
spotted with rust, colorful warm fizzy drinks and stale biscuits. In the
plazas old men sit still in the white sunlight, their faces carved with
shadows beneath wide-brimmed sombreros. Curious old ladies stare at me
unblinking. Preconceptions are generally made to be broken, but I was
delighted to see that, in the best tradition of Speedy Gonzalez, rural
Mexican men really do wear very large sombreros and say “andale! andale!” a
I had planned to detour via the Copper Canyon, a spectacle few Mexicans
seemed to have visited, yet reputed to be grander than the Grand Canyon
itself. However, that detour would have meant me missing seeing a friend in
Los Angeles. For two and a half years I have stayed exclusively with
strangers. It is a wonderful learning experience, but the prospect of
staying with someone with ‘zero degrees of separation’ from me proved more
enticing than some spectacular scenery so I stayed on the quick coastal road
instead. I am really looking forward to having the door answered by somebody
who recognizes me, and being able to say “Do you remember that time when
we…..” (To which, knowing Foges, she will probably reply “no, because I was
very, very drunk at the time”)
An alien riding north through Mexico would feel that the world was fizzling
out as the cacti multiply and towns become fewer. What a shock the alien
would receive upon reaching Nogales and crossing the border into the USA!
“How ever did this all happen?” it would ask. The nights in the Sonora
desert of northern Mexico were beautiful; toasting tortillas on small
campfires amongst the tall cacti with the moon growing larger at every camp.
But it was cold and, though I was lugging six books around with me, I had
only a few t-shirts to wear. So the nights were long and sunrise always a
relief. One evening I sat by the fire dismantling a seized pedal. I had no
idea how to fix it so I simply removed all the ball bearings and then put
the rest of it back together. Now it works fine! But surely those ball
bearings had some sort of purpose? I pondered this, and the impressive
versatility of my Leatherman tool: stripping pedals one minute, grinding
pepper corns for my soup the next.
On February 15th 2004 I wrote this in my diary:
“…It’s early and the sun
still slants sideways through the sky. Nogales, Mexico. The border with the
United States of America. It’s cold and ice rattles in my water bottles.
Smoke from a thousand wood stoves blankets blue over the town. Stars of
white sunlight burst from a thousand corrugated iron roofs on the shacks of
the rough settlements on the hillsides. It’s Sunday morning so all is quiet.
It’s quiet but dogs bark and the inevitable Developing World rooster crows.
Piles of rubbish spill down slopes, lying where it was dumped by the people
in the shacks. Smoke smolders from a few half-hearted attempts to burn the
rubbish. Thin dogs slink amongst the mess. My toes are cold but my back is
warm and I’m making excuses to linger. In just a few more minutes Latin
America will be behind me and I am reluctant to let go.”
Some aspects of life in Latin America are certainly annoying: nothing ever,
ever happens even vaguely on time (Ecuador has begun a National Punctuality
Campaign [honestly]. The President turned up several hours late for the
inauguration), people at times talk more than they listen, the acceptance of
poverty and corruption. But the tightness and importance of families, the
love of life, the culture and landscapes, the huge meals and the parties and
the warmth of the people more than compensate. When the time comes for me to
stop wandering and to get a proper job, I am fairly sure that it is to Latin
America I will turn. As the recently elected Governor of California once
said, “I’ll be back.”
I rode on to the border. The American customs officer studied my passport,
looked up at me and said, “Sir, would you mind coming into the office,
please?” in a tone that suggested neither ‘Sir’ nor ‘please’. In his office
he asked me “Sir, could you tell me please why you have a visa for Iran in
your passport? … and Sudan? Syria? Lebanon? Pakistan? etc, etc”. As he spoke
I had a brainwave business idea; all these countries are incredible places,
with such depths of history and culture, beauty, food and wonderful
inhabitants. They are superb countries, so what do you reckon to
“Axis-of-Evil Holidays plc.”?
But it was not a big deal and fifteen minutes later my passport was stamped
and I was in. Burgers and blond girls here I come…!
* Red Square, Moscow in case you were wondering
I have conceded defeat in the battle against the American spell-checker on
the computer: so it will be the ‘colors’ and ‘odors’ I tell you about for
the next few months.
After kindly sponsoring me my bicycle, Specialized
have decided that they no longer wish to continue supporting my project. The
USA was the one place where I could have guaranteed them regular TV, radio
and other media coverage so I was a little surprised by the decision.
Basically though, I now need to find a bike company or a chain of bike shops
who would be willing to help re-fit 25,000 miles worth of trashed bike in
return for some regular and eye-catching media coverage. Any ideas would be
Thanks for all the feedback from my American Dream article: I received all
sorts of advice on where the best burgers are (In-and-Out), the biggest
milkshakes (an extraordinary 2.1 liters at Dairy Queen) and I even got an
email from a George Bush voter.
I am delighted to say that Tom Fremantle’s latest slightly insane expedition
(by canoe to Timbuktu) will also be in aid of Hope and Homes for Children.
Tom is the author of two books; Johnny Ginger’s Last Ride (UK to Oz by bike)
and The Moonshine Mule (Mexico to US with a mule). Check out his website: www.mini-mule.co.uk
A superb text message from a friend of mine, Will Richmond, in Iraq with the Army: “am sat on top of Saddam’s palace smoking a fag and having a mug of tea”.
Approximate Timings and Route for North America
ride Northwards up the coast
ride Northwards up the coast
100km per cycling day
2 weeks spent in each major city
4 days spent at other stops (however, I have no idea how many they may be!)
NB – all dates and routes are extremely approximate and subject to change (excepting the major cities)!