“I would bring guns if I were you guys.”
Everywhere that we have traveled we have inevitably received this advice. Upon hearing that we intend to bike south of the border, many tend to cringe before launching into a rant about the perils of “cartel country.” A significant percentage of the people we talked to on a daily basis were weary, to say the least, of Mexico.
Today, we ride our first miles outside the familiar confines of the United States. My mind is cluttered with the many voices of warning.
I have no idea what to expect.
An enormous red, white, and green Mexican flag flies triumphantly on the other side of the fence. We push our heavily loaded bicycles through giant metal turn-styles under daunting block letters that read: MEXICO. My heart is beating faster now. Moving with the flow of pedestrians, a concrete maze guides us to our first view of the country. In the foreground is an army man slung with a semi-automatic weapon, in the background a children’s choir group harmonizing a welcoming song. Although we have only crossed an imaginary line, it is clear that we have entered an entirely new world.
I am consumed by thought.
Lost somewhere within mass media reports that fuel outside perceptions, is the fact that Mexico is not just an idea. This is a real place. Mountains, beaches, deserts and jungle sprawl out intertwined between thousands of miles of coastline. It seems that this diverse country is reduced through negative images and stories. We are left only to imagine a place troubled by drug violence and poverty. The “vibe” or perception assigned to this place is built solely from observations. If the source of our observations is limited to world news reports and snippets from friends of friends we increasingly undermine the credibility of our own perceptions.
The commotion here demands focus. We begin to pedal.
The road is surrounded by bright billboards covered in Spanish catch phrases that I don’t understand. A huge vertical skewer of roasting pork spins slowly, filling the street with a delicious aroma. Children are darting in and out through street-side stands. Music of all genres blasts in front of tiendas of all sorts. The air here is fully alive. Vendors selling anything and everything line the streets. There is shouting, waving and laughing. At each stop sign we are confronted by curious on-lookers. Everyone is asking, “de dónde son?” (where are you from?). We reply proudly, “Somos de Alaska” (we are from Alaska). Pedaling again they yell after us, “y a dónde van?” (where are you going?). “Argentina!” we answer back. Escorted by honks and cheers we eventually rise over a crest into the outskirts of the city. Our procession of six bicycles is just a traveling act in the on-going circus that is Tijuana.
Again, I return to my thoughts.
In the modern world of fast information we often skim headlines. Short phrases replace long articles, text messages replace conversations. We are left to sum up issues with only a few words. The context is lost. This can lead us to organize complex topics within false dichotomies. For example, we might call a particular food “healthy” or “unhealthy”, we may even go so far as to label an entire country as either “safe” or “dangerous”. Our perceptions are pushed to the extremes. It seems to me that there are, in fact, very few things that should fall into distinct polar categories. Instead we must accept that most truths lie somewhere within the vast spectrum between good and bad.
The sun is dipping into the ocean; we stop for the night.
Tonight we are hosted by a man we met through “warm showers” a website that is the touring-cyclists equivalent of couch surfing. His name is Nick and he has lived in Mexico for the past 12 years. Relaxing in his surf bum shack, we share stories and discuss the American view of Mexico.
He laughs as he shares his outlook.
“People just know nothing about this country. They hear that bad stuff is happening in Guadalajara so they don’t want to come to Tijuana. It would be like hearing that there has been recent gang violence in LA so you don’t go out at night in Seattle. It just doesn’t make sense,” he says.
Drifting to sleep on the sofa, I cannot help but question how best to reshape the Mexico perception.
I want to share what I have taken in through my eyes, ears, nose and nerves as well as the thoughts that have been riding along with me. Through sharing true experiences, we can arm ourselves with knowledge rather than weapons. Only then can we hope to avoid falling victim to sensationalist driven media and those who blindly repeat what they have heard. If we take a genuine interest in our neighbors to the south, I believe that we will find more to be excited about than scared of. Free from the restraints of fear; we are now immersed in Mexico.
The world is not black and white; I am more than happy to wade through the grey.
• Chris Hinkley is a member of A Trip South. For more information about the trip please visit www.atripsouth.com.