2008 Contest Shortlist

Escape From Mexico

Having cycled from Canada to Mexico, this crazy gringo now tries to hitchhike back.

Mexico. A land of sunshine and señoritas, cold cervezas and tequila, cheap drugs and beaches…good times and bad times. I was 18. I was no freshie to travel at this point, having bicycled there from my native Canada and I had seen my share of good days and bad days, mostly traffic and weather related. The bike trip came to a premature end with an epic breakdown in the jungle and the subsequent rickety ride into the nearest city.

“Can you fix it,” I asked the bike shop kid, he was younger than me. My frame had busted at the back forks.

“No man, it’s killed.” So that was that, the cycling was over. 20,000 km and 14 months in, my toils were done…or so I thought.

I set about relaxing and rejuvenating in true Mexican style, a gringo king in his own personal kingdom. I had money, but chose to use it frugally, spending only so much on beer and never taking taxis. I bought a cheap, new bike, but soon gave it to a friendly mexican as I realized I now possessed no further inclination to bicycle at this point.

So, I stuck out my thumb. I ditched the big city after a few weeks and headed to a more bohemian vibe in the mountains, a smaller city called Xalapa (Ha-la-pa). I had heard good things, and was soon involved in the mexican street life, the people called Artisanos, you know, the ones who make funky hemp jewellery and what not. I liked them, they liked me and we got along. One day I was invited to a beach party on the coast so I hitched there with a group of friends. Everything was going down smooth on the second night of thumping music at the private cabanas we rented until we saw the Storm.

The Storm intrigued us in our extrasensory world of loud music and flashing colors. The lightning was spectacular so we decided to jump into the ocean and wallow in the calm before the storm. Then the wave came. As we swam around naked, about 10 us, we felt the current suddenly sucking us out with great force, none of us could swim against it and just as quickly a massive wave loomed over our heads, crashing down with pummelling force and washing way up onto the beach. The storm swells were here and with them came wind and thunder unlike anything I can remember.

The ocean was angry. We all made it out, bruised and shaken and considerably more sober than before, only to find our clothes were all missing, swept to sea by the rogue waves that now pounded the shoreline. The rain started falling like bullets, creating painful welts all over our naked bodies so we abandoned the search for our pants and resumed the festivities in a slightly more naked style. Then a sharp realization dawned on me. My pants were in the ocean…and in my pants had been my wallet!

All access to money was now floating somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. The party ended a few days later and we dispersed back to Xalapa. I had a sinking feeling inside of me that the next while was going to be tougher than any of the miles I had put on previously. No money meant no food, no more cheap hotels, no more beer, no way home.

This was a hellish time for me. I was slightly distraught, scared, virtually alone in a foreign country with only a mediocre handle on the language. I knew I needed to head back to Canada and I knew thumbing it was my only way. In hindsight, despite the toils that followed, this was one of the best learning experiences possible. How to keep your head up in the face of adversity 101. I was learning.

I sold some of my gear, it didn’t amount to much in Mexican currency, but I was desperate to lessen my load and get some cash. I packed a cheap and uncomfortable backpack and walked out of town. I was accompanied by 2 mexican girls, friends of mine who were hitching to find work on the west coast. That was where I needed to be, so I tagged along.

We made it flawlessly in 24 hours of constant hitching, 4 rides to do 1200 KM. I remember hitchhiking to be extremely easy in Mexico. I had thought of the coast as being my monetary salvation in a way, having the Artisano skills to make jewellery, but it turned out to be a dead end at the sea. There was no selling to be done here, just working on my tan waiting for touristas. No dice.

Without a peso in my pocket I struck out alone this time, heading north. I managed to make Acapulco within a few days and spent 2 weeks bumming around the street there, selling bracelets here and there to passersby on the beach. The money was anything but lucrative, and so was food. I was still alive though.

One night at about 4 am after being kicked off the strip by a security guard, I was making my way back to a friend’s house where I knew there was a hammock. Suddenly a black and white police truck rolled passed, then stopped and backed up to me. 6 cops, armed with M16’s jumped out of the back to the truck and told me to stop. They put me on the ground, handcuffed me and demanded a baggage search, all the while interrogating me as to what I was doing and where I was from. I remember very distinctly the feeling of hard rubber on my neck pressing my face into the cement, and the cold hard steel of a gun barrel to the back of my head. Needless to say I was shitting my pants, but still trying to stay cool. They took my small hand bag however, and left soon after with my digital camera and my wallet with the money I had managed to scrape together, along with all my wares for sale.

I left Acapulco soon after that experience, hell bent on making it back to Canada. I had no money at all, and I knew that it wouldn’t take long for me to reach the American border, where the inevitable baggage checks would ensue, and they would definitely ask me if I had money to support myself. Wouldn’t want me workin’ in their fine country, ya know.

I was plagued by some bad storms that managed to soak my bags through making them obscenely heavy. As I stood waiting on the road I could see a storm brewing in the distance in the form of a low lying, black cloud. The road was a straight line to the north and I could see it filling with water. I knew I had to catch a ride soon.

With a minimum of traffic I set to work preparing for the worst. I pulled some large, flat rocks from the ditch and piled them up so I could put my bag on top of it, then secured my rain poncho over it and set stones on its edges to keep it in place. This proved to be useless. The storm hit, inevitably, and the bamboo forest that surrounded me bowed in submission to the heavy winds that came with it. The rain came and soon the road and the ditch were a fast flowing torrent of water. My bags were quickly soaked. Finally someone stopped. They pulled up in a large, black truck. I ran to the window, leaving my bag on the road behind me; it was too heavy to lift.

“Donde vas? Where are you going?” I asked, looking like a drowned rat.

“Mexicali!” the driver, a robust mexican, exclaimed, “To the border!”

My Salvation had arrived. I lugged my soaking bag to the truck and struggled to lift it into the high box of the truck, then crawled in with it. As soon as we started moving the rain abated and the sun peeked out. The drive would take 2 days to get to the American border, but first we had to endure the Sonora desert. With the sun came the heat. The box of the black truck was rough and black, piled with luggage. The sun beat down all day, the blast furnace wind offering no relief.

We stopped only once for water, and I was forced to fill up a gallon jug from a tap of seemingly clear water. I had no choice, drink or die. I was so dehydrated, so sun burnt and so hot after only a few hours. My saving grace was the blanket I carried with me. I managed to create a small tent around me with my knees and head, wedged between luggage in an uncomfortable position. The tent had an opening at the end, allowing wind to rush in and cool me off. The water was used primarily as a sweat substitute that steamed off quickly.

We stopped for the night at a drive in motel, but I was told to sleep in the back of the truck. It rained later in the night, cooling my sunburn, and I was forced to crawl under the truck to escape after too long. I asked if I could ride in the cab the next morning as the sun was rising, but he told me no. No room. I set up my tent and endured the heat for another 12 hours. We arrived in Mexicali that night around 1 AM and I slept in the back of the truck again.

My trip across the border was interesting enough, but I am going to leave that for the installment. I made it across and made it home in an adventure filled 2 weeks. I showed up at my house in Canada, surprising my mom. Needless to say she was excited to see me after almost 2 years on the road.

Like I said, the trip was hellish enough, but in hindsight I learned so much about how to live with nothing, and how to humble myself. I haven’t used money for travel since in fact, as frugality has been engrained in me. Life is good. Keep your rubber on the road and never stop moving.

Follow more of Steve’s insane bike trip

Steve Fox