“Tecate to Ojos Negros.”
It’s still early in the morning; we ride up to the Mexico port of entry in Tecate, California, and pull off at the last little shopping strip closest to the immigration building for entering Mexico. Every store has a sign that reads “no baños”. Neon gets comfortable on a bench and unpacks his food bag. Hmm, looks like we’re going to be here for a while, I think. I start feeling anxious. There are no bathrooms, and I’m thinking that it could be quite a hassle crossing the border, getting our tourist visas, and maybe they’ll fuss and search the bikes too. I pace back and forth for a minute. Neon gives me that look. I snap a little, and then wander to the side of the building looking for a place to pee. It’s all fenced off. I walk back and ask the lady in the minimart, “where is there a public restroom?” She points across the street at the immigration building for those entering into the U.S. She says, “just go inside and wait for someone coming out of the second door to get in. The bathroom is just inside the second door.” Hmm, I think, just go in a door I’m not supposed to… I walk across the street, enter the building, and try the second door. It’s locked. I stand around for a minute. A guy with a little girl opens the door. He holds it open for me. I see the restroom, and people waiting in line at a counter. I go straight to the restroom. No one seems to notice. I go back across the street. Neon asks where the restroom is. I tell him how to get in. He looks at me, but decides not to go. We snap at each other a couple of more times before wrapping everything up. We’re both anxious about crossing the border. Not the actual border crossing, we’ve done that many times near home, but about the next part of the journey, riding bikes through Mexico (and beyond), but mostly about riding through the border region.
We head to the port of entry, and ride into one of the lanes for cars; a guy says something in Spanish and motions for us to go into the building on the right. We lock our bikes to the railing, and go into a little room where we’re supposed to get a tourist visa. The guy opens his desk drawer, and says, “you like honey, or hot sauce …or both?” Um, we’d like a tourist visa. “You don’t like hot sauce”, he replies.” Is it really hot, I ask. “Ah, you like hot sauce. Ok, one hot sauce, or two?” He checks our passports and hands us each a form to fill out for the tourist visas. He sends us back outside to pay for the tourist visas. Another guy checks our passports. We hand him twenty eight dollars, each, for a six month tourist visa; then he sends us back inside the building to give the forms back to the immigration officer. The immigration officer stamps our forms, and our passports, then staples the forms to another piece of paper, and hands them back to us. “Hot or mild”, he says. Neon and I look at each other. He says, “the hot is good on fish, and the mild is really good on eggs in the morning.” Neon looks at me, and then says, “hot”. I nod my head in agreement. The guy smiles, puts one bottle of “hot” hot sauce in a little black bag, and says “that’s $2”. Neon hands him $2 and the guy smiles. And I’m happy too because I notice the “hot” hot sauce says “Chiltepin” on the label, which are the same little hot peppers that grow wild in southern Arizona.
We go back outside, unlock our bikes, and head into another door, where pedestrians cross the border. It’s a double door, but the doors are very narrow. Neon goes in first. He struggles a bit, trying to open one of the doors with one hand while maneuvering his bike through the narrow opening. He gets in. I go next. It’s not really working, opening the door and pushing my bike through, which is wider than the door. How’d he do this, I wonder. A guy comes up behind me and holds the second door open for me while I push my bike through. “Gracias”, I say. He nods. There’s an X-ray machine inside, like the ones at the airport. Do we need to take our bags off, I ask Neon. He looks around, but continues walking past the X-ray machine to the exit. There’s a turnstile for pedestrians, and a locked gate. Neon goes back inside and asks the lady to unlock the gate. We push our bikes through, and Neon says, “We’re in Mexico! We’re really doing this thing now, riding our bikes to Argentina.” Now what, I reply. We consult our maps and head down the big road.
We pull off at a bank and get cash, relieved that our cards work. Then he goes across the street and exchanges the last of his U.S. dollars for pesos. We ride a little further, and then stop at little shop to get Mexican SIM cards for our phones. We look for hotels on google maps. Neon turns a corner and stops and the first hotel sign we see. “Looks like it will be cheap. Ask about wifi, and a room on the ground floor”, I say. He comes back out and says, “it has wifi, but we have to push our bikes up to the first floor. “Ok, how much is it?”, I reply. About $18 U.S., he says. I smile and say, “let’s get two nights.”
We roll our bikes through the ground floor garage. It’s bumpy. No concrete. It’s blacktop like a paved road, but lumpy like they just laid the gravel and tar and oil down over the natural ground surface without leveling it first. Neon pushes his bike up the steps at the back of the garage. I can see he’s struggling with it. The stairs are steep and not evenly spaced. I get my bike up a couple of steps, but they’re too steep for me with the heavy bike. I’m just about to lower my bike back down and remove the bags when Neon comes back down the steps. We push my bike up together.
The room is stark, but clean. A bright yellow patterned bedspread gives the room some warmth. There is a mirror on the wall. A frame, of different size and not fitted to the mirror, is screwed to the wall around the mirror. The room has a low ceiling, a big bathroom, and lots of windows. “I like it”, I say. “Let’s go get tacos!” After a round of our first ceviche tacos in Baja, we return to the room, with snacks and Tecate. We open the Tecate and pull out a big map of Baja to review our route. We stay for two days in Tecate, only leaving our room a couple of times. It’s quiet and secure. We study our route, and get comfortable with the idea of just being here, in Mexico. There is something about international travel that leaves, even the simplest tasks, feeling completely unfamiliar to me. Everything requires me to process more. It’s not just the language. It’s everything. The colors are different, the signs, the smiles on people’s faces… it’s all beautiful, and foreign. My autopilot has no choice but to switch off, making me feel like a little girl, relearning the world around her.
We pack up and leave early on the last morning, hoping to make it well south of Tecate before camping. We’re nervous about riding through the border region. The ride out of Tecate passes through different neighborhoods, alternating between old dilapidated places with lots of trash, newer construction, and more wild empty spaces. We eventually pop out onto a busy highway, MEX-3, with a long climb to the last minimart before leaving the highway. This is our last place to buy water for the next sixty-five mile waterless stretch. Neon lays his bike down, and asks, “you’ll wait with the bikes while I go in first?” I snap at him, “fine, but don’t take too long.” I’m feeling anxious again because we’re just a few kilometers away from Cañon Manteca, a place where a Baja cyclist was robbed in the past.
I wait outside, pacing back and forth, looking in the window of the store for Neon. There is a truck parked near the dumpster on the other side of our bikes. A guy steps over Neon’s bike. A few minutes later a different guy says something, part of it in English and part in Spanish. He wants to pick up Neon’s bike and lean it against the store. I tell him no. He starts to do it anyway. He has an annoying grin on his face. I’m close to him now, telling him no, and I know that “no” is the same in Spanish as English, so he must understand me. He turns his back to me and stands Neon’s bike up. “Oh, that’s so dismissive, I think. I hate that.” I gruff something at him, but he looks pleased with himself. The guy mumbles and motions, something like he wants to put the bike in the truck. Really?, I think, what, does he think we need a ride or something, or is he asking permission to steal our bikes. I glare at him. The guy in the truck says something to him, then waves his hands down low, perhaps like motioning for him to stop, or wait, or something? Their body language is confusing me. Are they drunk? Are they messing with me? Was he really just trying to be helpful by standing the bike up to get it out of the way of passing pedestrians. He has a stupid grin, but his eyes look mean. Not mean like the guy we met in Baltimore, Maryland; that guy had a gleam of hate so deep in his eyes I thought he could kill me with his stare. These guys just seem annoying, more like unruly children, trying to elicit a reaction, just for fun. Neon comes out of the store. I tell him the guy stood his bike up, and that I told him not to, but he just completely ignored me. I don’t wait for his reply, I announce that I’m going in, to pee, and I walk away.
When I return, I see Neon crouched in front of his bike. The guys are still there. Neon looks at the guy and tells him to leave. Neon stands up. The guy points to his wallet, and says to give him money. I say to Neon, let’s move to the front door. We start moving our bikes, just a couple of feet, to the front of the building, and the guy jumps in the pickup and they take off in a hurry. That was sudden; I guess they really DON’T want to be seen, but it’s not like we were hidden here. I go in and quickly get my water. We’re both snippy, but mostly quiet now. We look around, up and down the highway, we don’t see the truck. We cross the highway, looking around again, still no truck. We head down a dirt road into Rancho San Francisco. We pass several residences, looking behind us occasionally to make sure we’re not being followed.
We stop to check our maps, then start climbing slightly up hill when I see the truck, coming downhill, from the direction we’re heading. That’s them, that’s them, I holler at Neon. They’ve looped around from the highway on a different road. They must have known where we’re heading. Neon continues uphill. I yell at him, “I can’t pedal that fast, I’m going to turn around and head back to the highway.” He turns and looks at me. The truck stops. The guy with the stupid grin, and mean eyes, gets out of the truck. I think, I’m actually taller than this guy, but he looks strong. He directs his eyes at Neon, and says, “give us the money (pointing to his chest where Neon’s neck wallet had been while we were at the store) or we will kill you.” I’m not sure what I heard. But I turn around, back toward the highway, and yell at Neon to follow. Neon looks at me and turns around slowly, glaring at the guy, then pedals, slowly, back toward the highway. I’m pedaling so fast now that my bike shimmies a bit, fishtailing. I look back and scream at Neon to “come”. He is still pedaling slowly. The pickup is following right behind him, slowly, matching his speed. God, these guys are like annoying flies that just won’t go away, I think. No matter, obviously Neon has his own plan. But I don’t have the luxury of strength to calculate such slow movement. These guys have already demonstrated, at the store, that they don’t want to be seen by others, so I start hollering as loudly as I can, “telephoné the policia”, hoping to draw people out of their homes. I look back. The pickup is close on Neon’s tail. Just then I see a big water truck, coming down the road, from in front of me. I start yelling for him to stop. I’m not sure he really gets it, so I start barreling right toward the front of the truck, waving, and pointy behind me at the other pickup. He has no choice but to stop, or he’ll run me over. Neon catches up to me and stops. The little pickup races by us. I glare at the guy with the stupid grin, and yell a bunch of profanities in English at him as they pass, and think, I really need to learn some Spanish profanities. They stop for a minute when they reach the highway, looking, but we’re still with the water truck, so they leave.
After the water truck leaves, we wait around for a while, eventually talking with several locals. I get to hear Neon’s version of it all. Jeez, I think, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t understand everything the guys said. The locals are all surprised by what had happened. One rancher offers to let us ride through his land, and camp there for the evening, and he helps us phone in a report of the incident with the local police. After about an hour, it seems like we have the whole ranch area out in the road, for what probably looks like a neighborhood watch meeting. We hang out with the locals for a while, then decide to continue on with our route. We ride for a couple of hours, looking over our shoulders at every turn. We stop for a minute. Neon turns to me, and says “lista”. What?, I reply. That’s “ready” in Spanish, he says. “Oh, ci, lista,” I say.
We meet a couple of motorcyclists, from California. One of them had lived in Columbia for a year, and the other one had spent an entire year bicycle touring around Africa when he was twenty four. We tell them about our thru-hikes, the banditos at the mini-mart, and our plans to ride to Tierra del Fuego. One of them comments, “Well, just be thankful you two found each other, so you can do all this crazy stuff together.”
After parting ways with the motorcyclists, we find a place to camp, out of sight, in the bushes, up on a rise. We relax, taking deep breaths to let go of the day, as we watch the sun set under the Mexican sky. I hold up a little painting I’ve been working on, and take its picture. The clouds glow pink, as the big yellow ball disappears below the horizon. I toss and turn a lot in the night, twitching at the sound of every passing vehicle. At one point, I wake to the sound of a loud vehicle, with a very bright search light, swinging around, lighting up the hillsides. Neon says, “maybe that’s the police, out making their rounds to keep the ranch area safe.” Maybe, I reply, but I’m not going to look to find out.
We get an early start the next day. Up hill, then down hill. At the start of another climb, Neon turns to me and says, “lista?” I reply, “Lista, trabaja. Is that right?”, I ask. He says, “lista para tabajar, is what I think you want. Ready to work, well actually, it means ‘ready for to work’.” Hmm, I say. That makes no sense to me. You’re either ready “to work” or ready “for work.” But what ever, “lista para trabajar,” I stumble with the pronunciation, and begin pedaling up the hill.
There are more motorcyclists. and dune buggies, out riding than the day before. They slow down, and wave, when they pass. Different than the U.S., where I tend to be annoyed by stinky, loud, off-roaders, I take refuge in their presence here, feeling more secure when they are around. Our hackles lower, and moods continue to rise as the day goes on. We feel more and more at ease as we get further away from the outskirts of Tecate. We ride past ranches, up over rolling hills, and down through washes where the oak trees get big, and lush, and green. The bouldery hillsides turn more mountainous, with solid slabs of granite on the ridges and summits. After a long day of climbing we find a nice place to camp, out of sight, in a grove of tall pine trees.
The night is cold, and we get a late start into the next day. After a gentle climb, through an extended burned area, there is an easy downhill, all the way to Ojos Negros. We ride past agricultural fields. There is a sweet fermented smell in the air. What is that smell, I wonder. I see a pickup in the road, and a few guys nearby in the field putting something into big black trash bags. I stop to take a closer look. Now I can see that there are broken watermelons in the field, cracked open like eggs. The guys are gleaning the leftover good watermelons. We continue past the edge of town. There are more fields, with people, hunched over, doing something in the rows. We ride through the middle of town, past shops and eateries, then turn and ride to a cute little hotel on the north side of town. There is a grocery store, and a school, across the street. It feels homey here, I think, and I wonder if they’ll have local watermelon in the store.
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Arriving in Mexico…
Heading out of Tecate…
Relaxing & watching our first sunset in Mexico…
Camp, night two…
Feeling strong at the highpoint on the Baja Divide…
Descending down to Ojos Negros…
Fields of broken watermelons….