29th January (Tequisquiapan)
30th January (Tequisquiapan – Tula) (100km)
31st January (Tula – Mexico City) (120km)
The working title for this post was, “Why cars are shit and mini-van drivers have unnatural relations with dogs”. My editor, ever mindful of losing readership prior to the release of my forthcoming series of travel books, advised against this title. Admittedly, there is a case for such a title being construed (justifiably) as being an affront to dogs.
In performing myriad feats of daring-do on a daily basis during this trip, I have on occasion (half-jokingly) awarded myself the epithet ‘hard-core’. Now, having just ridden a bicycle south into the heart of Mexico City, I can safely place all inverted commas and false modesty to one side and declare myself, without a hint of a blush, truly, categorically and unequivocally HARDCORE! The ruin site of Teotihuacan to the north of Mexico City is named ‘the place where men become gods’. I would posit the view that the weaving around buses, mini-vans, trucks and cars in the midst of four lanes of rabidly insane traffic coming into Mexico City during a thunderstorm is the place where touring cyclists become demi-gods.
Quite a ride! Not satisfied with merely blasting through the manic traffic generated by 22 million people (about a million of whose cars, buses, mini-vans, tractors, mopeds and trucks having just passed within a foot of your palpitating correspondent), I decided to add 0.5 to the level of difficulty by wading through a series of thunderstorms, dodging great bolts of lightning that had me scrambling for cover on more than a few occasions. Great shafts of electricity struck straight to earth giving rise to the very real fear that the previous morose blog post might very well be the last for buff3ysbicyclingblog. Then this truly hardened former Boy Scout decided to crank up the challenge a further notch by getting himself hopelessly lost twice (adding almost 20km to the ride!). That meant that my arrival went way beyond dark. Sodden and stressed, I was so tired and wrecked from the road that on finally reaching the centre of the city and the safe haven of the Amigos Hostel at around 8pm, I shot a video and managed to chop my head out of the picture. Pure genius.
I’m told that the total number of automobiles in Mexico City is now 10 million, almost double the number of the year 2000 (geo-mexico.com). That is almost one car for every two people (man, woman and child). According to the Mexican Center for Sustainable Transport (CTS) for every birth in Mexico City, two new cars enter the city’s vehicle fleet – 300,000 in total (National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics). Adriana Lobo (Director CTS) notes the following, “To make more roads to solve the transit problem is like proposing to solve the problem of obesity by buying bigger pants.” [Treehugger.com]
Regrettably, the implementation of the heralded ‘Green Plan’ for Mexico City which reportedly includes miles of dedicated bicycle track will come too late for this demi-god correspondent. Regardless, the planners of such bike tracks inevitably fail to appreciate that a bicycle is a form of transport (for actually getting from point A to B) in addition to being a way to get a bit of exercise and fresh air. The tracks, when they do eventuate, therefore tend to amble around the place, and terminate abruptly at little loops where one is supposedly to merrily treadle back from whence one came.
But I digress. Cars are indeed categorically and fundamentally shit, particularly in an urban setting. Sitting in a traffic jam in a car must be one of the more soul destroying and mind-numbingly stupid activities available in modern life. As a former taxi driver I can attest to how life-negating traffic can be with some authority. It must qualify as one of the most stupid ways to waste a perfectly good life, along with participation in organised religion [with the obvious exceptions of those where you get free wine or lots of nakedness], synchronized swimming, curling [especially being a broom guy] and learning to play the sousaphone.
Advocates for public transport will point out that more light-rail is the answer. However, it is a sore point with my social planning theorist friends (of whom I have none*), that like it or not, people really like having access to a personalized pod of some sort for which they can determine the direction. Additionally, not everyone likes to mix with the great unwashed, and with reason.
In terms of road construction, the Chinese had it right for a while in that the major cities would have the outer third of the road space devoted to pedestrians, the next third to bicycles and the centre third to cars etc. 17 years ago I toured southern/central China on a bike and had the pleasure of riding through Kunming and Cheng Du on these wonderful roads slipping into the graceful flow of gently gliding humanity as we slowly pedaled about our daily business. Sadly, with the burgeoning middle class need to express new-found wealth through sitting in traffic jams in tin pods, these excellent roads are rapidly disappearing, replaced by lane upon lane of stationary tin pod. Sad really. I would hate to try that ride again.
The number of people living here in Mexico City is a truly staggering thing to comprehend. Whilst I pedaling to the centre (so heroically) I was pondering that I was passing 11 million souls: all planning, eating, farting, plooking, going into debt, buying stuff they don’t need, getting fat, working at jobs they are don’t like or playing the sousaphone. Given the sheer mass and frenetic flow of the merely superficially orderly traffic of Mexico City I was hoping that the city would somehow echo this madness and I could write things like, “a megalopolis packed with a teeming writhing maelstrom of sweating lustful humanity jostling and elbowing for their very survival”. Regrettably, however, the impression from the brief time that I have been here in the Centro, the reality doesn’t quite match this image. People determinedly chug along the footpaths with real intent fixed in their gazes yet the place is generally disappointingly orderly and sophisticated.
In my rambling I came across a plaza full of mariarchis (sharing tales of daring escape from Jurassic pursuit). You can hire them out by the song, the hour, or the night. They mill about like musical hookers.
The La Opera Bar is close by and a charming old bar for a beer so a cold Leon Negro will do nicely. The ornate ceilings and huge wall mirrors are all perfectly period. It is a little known fact that the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa once rode his bicycle into this place and shot a hole in the ceiling. What is even less known is why. The bar was actually owned by a then mini-van company operator and Pancho was demonstrating his displeasure at the way the mini-vans constantly cut him off in traffic. Fully justified me thinks.
At the hostel I’m feeling apart from non-cyclists in a way that is silly yet today inescapable. There is a ‘relativity’ to forms of travel which today just refuses to be denied. Yet by the same token it should not be dwelt upon for too long as it can lead to just this feeling of bike-elitism and makes you a bore. Who did it tougher? Who went further ‘out there’? Today, however, there is just no contest. Others did just buy tickets and land or were transported passively to emerge from buses or trains etc. I earned this place. I pedaled my arse off and suffered for it; dodged lightening for it; sweated miles over hill and through valley for it; ran the gauntlet of seemingly endless traffic for it. I deserve this city in a special way and will take full toll. Off to the Mexican wrestling, a football match, and sampling of the local tequila. On on.
[*after Tom Leherer]
[**Mini-van drivers do in fact take it from dogs]