Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Stevey Gonzales

Admiring a salt lake on the Baja peninsula of Mexico
Contrary to popular belief football is not Mexico's national sport. It's sweeping. Mexico's women are more intensely devoted to sweeping than a gap toothed, tattoo-branded, wailing Milwall fan is to football. Sweeping in Mexico begins before sunrise and continues well into the night. The same floors and spaces are swept more than a dozen times a day, I know, I've watched this happen. Every so often I am evicted from restaurants - 'you're closing?' I ask, 'Si Señor. For sweeping.'

If they don't demand your immediate vacation then my advice is to have a chair handy so that when the inevitable, indomitable, broom-wielding, wild-eyed, sweeping addict ploughs through you can rescue your feet, or else you risk being swept out of the building and onto the pavement, where upon another fearsome sweeper may sweep you then into the road or gutter, they are everywhere. It's a debilitating and pathological compulsion, one that has destroyed many lives in Latin America. Some seek specialist help...

Hello everyone. My name is Maria, I'm 34 years old, and I'm a sweeper.

Ripple of applause

It started when I was a teenager, I used to sweep with my sisters after school. By 18 I was on my 9th broom and I had a criminal record for stealing dustpans from the supermercado. Later I hid brooms around the house and I lost my driving license for sweeping the foot well whilst doing 120 kph on the highway. Soon I was homeless after the eroded kitchen floor collapsed into my basement, so I hung out with other sweepers in dusty places around town. Eventually my children were taken into care - the school nurse found friction burns on my son Pedro's head, they said I had forced him to get a perm and had been using him to sweep by holding his ankles, I honestly can't remember if I did, I have these black outs. When I come to I am lying on a shiny floor with blistered hands and back ache and I know I've been on another sweeping bender. Today my hands are calloused and I have a permanent stoop, but I haven't swept for a year and three days. Sweeping ruined my life.

I gawped at my map in the kind of shock that comes when you discover that the first Mexican state you will bike through has an area equal to that of Scotland, and that there's eight more states to ride until the US border. Mexico would claim the next two months of my life.

The Sierra Madre to my east stood bold and imposing under a wide sky as I wheezed ever northward, an inspection of my map after each day's riding confirmed I had travelled a couple of millimetres. After almost a fortnight I made it to hippy central, Zipolite, and for three days I camped on the beach watching a parade of beautiful people saunter past, drinking beer with new friends and body surfing in the rolling waters of the Pacific. I take my days off seriously. Then onward once more, at pace, on a road loosely tethered to the coastline, splurging on tacos to keep my legs turning and calling my IPOD into service to tackle the boring stretches.

My bedroom vista
Men and women in Mexico disagree about what is the most mysterious quirk of the bearded gringo in the village with a bicycle. Men have decided it's the money. 'Three years!' they exclaim 'who is paying you?' No, no... I'm just a tourist, I try to explain. "What's your job?", "Well I was a doctor...", "AHHH a rich doctor!" they joke, now satisfied, though what they don't know is that that money ran out ages ago.

Women are harder to appease - they want to know why I have no wife and children. In Mexico I'm far too old not to have these essentials and they prowl around me, hunting for an explanation.
How old are you?
I'm 32
32! Are you gay? They enquire brazenly. Before I get to answer the other lady is nodding vigorously. That must be it, she has decided.
No.

Their studious eyes examine for a clue, looking for some physical deformity, checking for the stench of stale alcohol, a patch of a disfiguring skin condition, anything to explain away my status as a strange over-the-hill singleton. I tell them that in the UK we have kids a bit later on average than Mexicans, and families are smaller. Four is a lot of kids. 'Four!' they shriek. 'I'm one of 167 and that's small!'


I pedal through Mexico in a turbulent time in the country's history, one in which the crack down of the previous president on the drug cartels led to a surge in violence. By the road there are huge signs with the faces of four wanted men, descriptions and aliases, and an offer of 30 million pesos for help in their capture. Every sign I have seen has been vandalised, the images of the men scraped off the metal. One looked to have been burnt. The Mexican mafia has a long reach. There are military check points and regular roadside searches, I try not to wave at the soldiers in case one absent mindedly returns the gesture and is misinterpreted by his comrades as issuing an order to open fire on the gringo.


My next stop was Truncones, a more upmarket beach town for families and pensioners, mainly American. As I set up camp on the beach an elderly man who was dining in the nearby restaurant stood up, but only to a stoop, and hobbled over to shake my hand and offer to buy me dinner. Whilst munching away on red snapper he explained that his wife has died two years ago. He offered then to let me crash in his holiday home, we would share his king size bed, but I turned him down having already set up camp.

He looked disappointed and then at the end of the meal his questions turned more personal, culminating with...

'So what do you do for sex?'
'Well I light some candles, put on some Marvin Gaye, kiss her handlebars, remove the seat post...'
I think my sense of humour was lost on him, worryingly though he pursued his line of questioning.
'So... you only interested in girls?' he wanted to know, leaning forward, his eyes wide and excited. The Mexican women were right then, I'm giving off gay vibes.

Mexico is not a land I associated with incredible wildlife, but check out these photos of the animals I came across en route and decide for yourself...


This Iguana was maybe 3 foot in length. It's very rare to get so close, usually they run off at a furious pace, but on this occasion the iguana had descended a near vertical verge and couldn't go back up. Instead of running he relied on camouflage and stayed perfectly still and I could get to within a metre or so from him

A Crested Caracara

A rattle snake - one of the few live snakes I got pretty close to. As I approached he coiled up ready to strike so I stayed around 2 metres away to take the photo, just out of his range. It was a heart stopping moment!

A Great Horned Owl


An Osprey - there are man made nesting platforms for these magnificent birds all across the Baja peninsula

I passed through a few beaches where the more serious surfers hang out and who drift up and down the coast hunting swells and getting stoned in hammocks when there's no joy. Again, I'm the odd one out. The 'bicycle dude'. I just nod sagely when they moan about 'crumbly' waves and 'half-assed swells'. It's the same when I reach mountains others are there to scale, when I swing past reefs and don't plan to get my PADI, when I'd rather a beer and not the 200 metre bungee jump. I heard a few surfers chatting about Karl Bushby - it was a name I instantly recognised. Who the hell was he? Then I remembered - an ex-paratrooper who set out more than 15 years ago to walk home to the UK from Patagonia. And who, astonishingly, is still going. And who I learnt is based in a town a little further north on the Mexican coast.

I set out to find him, to hunt him down, a legend on the back of a myth, like Stanley searching for Livingstone or that soldier trying to find that mental guy in Apocalypse Now. Except I wouldn't have to brave think jungle to reach Karl, I just had to find the right cafe where he hangs out on the Pacific coast town of Maleque.

It didn't take long - Karl, understandably, is a well known resident. We chatted about his epic journey which began in southern Chile and continued as Karl nonchalantly strolled (well, not quite) the length of South America before things got really serious. He is one of the few people to have ever traversed the Darien Gap (a guerrilla-controlled, mosquito-ridden tract of dense jungle frequented only by the ruling drug cartels and the occasional loping jaguar) which he managed by floating down rivers and scrambling around dressed in camouflage or impersonating a roaming Colombian vagabond. Karl pushed north through Central and North America using a big trolley he called 'The Beast' and for a short time a donkey which according to Karl 'just wanted to eat and rape everything'. Having decided that he wanted to walk every inch back to the UK there was no choice but to trek, swim and use floating sea ice to cross the Bering Straits. Which he did. When he arrived at a remote Russian outpost he was swiftly thrown in jail where he spent 50 days under interrogation. After some high level political wrangling he managed to get a 90 day VISA for Russia, but here the story gets very complicated indeed, and after years of doing sections of the route and returning to his base in Mexico he has been given a five year ban from Russia, he's down, but not yet defeated.

I liked Karl immediately and it was good to see that he didn't have the stormy eyes, the countenance of resolve or speak in the abrupt tones you might expect from a serviceman turned seasoned explorer. He made his separation from a Colombian girl he fell in love with, and the time he met a son he barely knows, sound a world more challenging than facing off polar bears or staring down the wrong end of a rifle in the Darien. When I imparted a choice cut or two from my comparatively tame adventure Karl's eyes sparkled, his face alight, and it's clear that he's a man who's ravenous for adventure.

One thing Karl said to me struck a particular chord - 'The world really is a big place' - he told me. Up until the age of seven I lived in a small village near Nottingham. Twenty two years later I returned to find the vast, sprawling garden of my memory was just a small patch of land, the towering trees I scrambled up and got stuck in were merely average-sized and the grand house where as a little person I ran, rolled and jumped around, a lowly bungalow. Perspective, I learnt, is everything. People who journey everywhere with the aid of fuel and engines may sit and muse that's it's a small world but after 45,000 km by bicycle I know different, and Karl knows it even more than I do. When I think about the narrow corridor I have biked and all those other roads I had no time, desire or reason to ride, all those next valleys, all those distant mountains off my route, all those places with no roads at all, then I see how utterly humongous this world really is. The places I will never venture on my bike easily outrank the places I will and when people study my map and say "wow, you really are cycling the whole world!" I think No, just a little piece of it.

My mum wouldn't like me hanging out with people like Karl. They give me ideas, ill advised ones. I get a stab of envy when I hear of people doing things I don't have the heart, nouse or talent to pull off. The night after I met Karl I returned to my campsite, opened my journey and scribbled "Swim from Australia to New Zealand ...possible???" Cheers Karl. Look what you made me do.

Disclaimer - it is not possible, I checked. Though another big swim might be, watch this space.


I had planned to crew a yacht across the Sea of Cortez to the Baja peninsula but it seemed that strong and determined northerlies would make any chance of a lift unlikely. In the end I crewed a yacht from Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta (against 'The Bash' - a sailor's term for riding into the prevailing wind) and then the ferry to the famous Baja peninsula. I sailed with Patrick (taciturn) and Kenny (garrulous), two burly Americans, as proud of their life on the seas as they were of their arcing paunches. Kenny liked to show me off to his mates in the marina 'Hey guys you gotta meet Steve, he's cycling round the damn world! Been riding through Africa, and Peru and all them places where folks wear them damn turbans and shit!'

We sailed with the wind 'on the nose' whilst whales breached and turtles glided past. Then the ferry and soon the low, dusty, empty ridges of the Baja came into view and I thought about all the long days and fast miles that the landscape might afford me. I was wrong, of course.

Day after day of headwinds and broken spokes turned all those glorious fast miles into lumbering, dragging ones. I got off the main road in search of adventure but took the wrong turn and ended up pushing my bike through thick sand in a desert where I hadn't seen another vehicle in more than 24 hours. I had no working bike pump and a puncture out here would have meant a 20 mile walk without water. Punishing roads have consequences beyond the mental anguish, namely a saddle sore arse. The serenity of the desert night was pierced by my girly screams as I rotated buttocks whilst cooking pasta in my tent. In the end I had to photograph my own behind so I could assess the damage, what greeted me in the camera's viewfinder was slightly puzzling. My arse had become a perfect replica, on a larger scale, of a sea anemone. A glistening, swollen, scarlet, alien thing. I wish I had taken more care of my saddle, I might post the photo of my sea anemone arse on line with the caption - 'look after your Brooks saddle, or this could be yours' .




Peninsula - it should be a long and thin thing, right? Well yes, but its relative, the Baja is long, thin and massive. More miles than Land's End to John O'Groats and so a lot of sand and cacti between me and the States. Dusty towns came and went, their resident chihuahuas yapping and chasing my wheels. The roads, stubborn and unwavering, sliced the desert into two identical cacti-sprinkled plains. My mind became a butterfly, floating around old memories in the air of the past, and I practised the presentation I plan to give in schools in California, the notes held in my transparent map case on my handlebar bag. My legs spinning on autopilot, my mind spinning too but tiring of the same half-thoughts and musings, always too vivid. Night skies were thick with stars, as they twinkled the heat of the departed sun rose up towards them and mornings were a time for foggy breath and shivering.

Over the last three years I have regressed into childhood and many of the things I used to think of as normal parts of life are greeted with a child-like rush of awe and excitement. Watching a DVD for example, on one of the rare occasions I decide I need a hostel, is like going to the cinema when you're eight years old. After weeks of washing in rivers the first warm shower is nirvana. A bed, cheese, a conversation that doesn't involve telling someone how many miles I ride per day, all these things I have learnt to appreciate. For three years I have owned no mobile phone, no computer, no TV,  no jeans, no deodorant. With the obvious exception of the last, I haven't really needed any of them. Lesson 354: don't take things for granted.

Cacti on the Baja



As I near the States, now just a stone's throw, I am musing about all there is to miss about Latin America, the language for a start. In Argentina I was doing impressions of strawberries to confused shop keepers and a pack of giggling locals, by Mexico I was chatting up chicas, talking politics with disenfranchised farmers and making bad dad jokes. I still make gaping mistakes though - most recently by requesting a 'siete arriba' only to induce mass hysteria and shrieks of delight from the other customers. You learn though, and I now know that a 7up is a 7up in any language. What I won't miss - the NOISE, the dogs, the cockerels, the stares, Americans who arrive in campsites and shout 'Hey you! Do you speak AMERICAN!', getting chilli sauce in my eye, getting chilli sauce on my face whilst recovering from chilli sauce in my eye, signless roads.



So - Two dates for your diaries people - If you live in Los Angeles, or have friends who do, then come down to one of my public presentations...

The Explorer's Club (Southern California Chapter),
When:  Sunday April 14th
Time:   4-6pm
Where: G2 Gallery 1503 Abbott Kinney Boulevard, Venice.

REI Tustin
When: Tuesday 23rd of April
Time: 7 - 8.30 pm 
Where: 2962 El Camino Real, Tustin, CA 92782



Both events are FREE so no excuses. I will be selling photography at the end of each.

USA - here I come

7 comments:

  1. As ever, you make me laugh and laugh--and then you balance it with wonderful reflection and cultural details that make me wish you were a student in one of my writing classes...but then I feel sorry for you because there's no sadder fate for a seasoned bicycle adventurer than having to enroll in a community college in northern Minnesota and take community college writing classes...

    so then I decide to package my reaction to you differently. Here's what I think: we readers all get to fall just a bit in love with you with every post. And that's incredibly fun.

    Do you have enough U.S. contacts yet? (I know you've mailed packages to one San Diego friend) Let me know if you need some more support while in our bizarre but hospitable country. I can promise you we're fairly negligent with the sweeping.

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  2. Brilliant. I'm jealous. Although, I've just got back to the UK and eaten real cheddar cheese, which makes up for a lot.

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  3. Was thrilled to read about your adventure via Jocelyn. Many moons ago I led a bike trip adventure with 13 teens across the U.S (with Jocelyn's now husband). It was my second crossing of the US by bike and I feel quite compelled to pay it forward and offer a space in our home if you happen to be passing through the Denver Metro area. There were so many wonderful friendly strangers opening up their homes to me on both trips and now as I've settled down into a comfortable suburban life without much biking it is fun to read about your adventures and live vicariously through it. Your reflections are very interesting and make it so much more than a bike trip from point A to point B.

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  4. Such an amazing pictures you have. i am sure you loved this adventurous trip.

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  5. Great blog - especially the sweeping, which made me snort a lot. Happy memories of our time cycling through Mexico. Looking forward to your take on the USA...

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  6. I spent some time in Baja - really spot on description of a place that seems like a distant memory to me now! Thanks for the reminder :)

    Abby (Jazzbo's girlfriend)

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  7. Just spent a whole week reading your excellent blog from the 'Beginning' to this last post. Can't wait for the book at the end of your journey. Hope Belinda receives some TLC in the USA sounds like she needs it?
    Keep the not so plain english coming (with the help of Google definitions)I am learning so much.

    Stay safe

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