Xmas in San Diego - New year in Mexico

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December 22nd 2015
Published: April 1st 2017
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That first day with LA in my rear view I cycled through a steady stream of cool beach towns hugging the coastline. I ventured into one clothing shop that had a closing down sale, the guy behind the counter had started the business with a friend who had designed the art displayed on the array of t-shirts and hoodies. I bought one for $10 and he told me in his voice that was a lot like one of the singers from Blink 182, the one that sings "turn all the lights down now", that he had another business renting bicycles and wasn't too worried about the close, though he did seem a little sad.

We chatted about life for a little while and he thought what I was doing was awesome, but advised me not to go through Mexico. His ignorance put bullet holes in my view of him when he started getting straight up racist talking about Mexicans.

Further on I had a fan of what I was doing come up and ask me a bunch of questions, he seemed like he needed just a bit of inspiration to push him into doing a cycle trip himself, hopefully my answers inspired him.

Going through these areas definitely highlighted the ways I could be enjoying this trip that my budget didn't allow for. I passed countless restaurants, hotels, bars that looked like just cool places to be. This was a big downside to just pedaling continuously through places worth actually experiencing. I felt like I was missing out on the social aspect of my adventure. People probably make all kinds of excuses when they travel, to keep them in line with doing what they think they want to do. I think the trick is to find meaningful, unique experience with having a good time. I was earning everything I was seeing but I think a bike tour is more suited to rugged landscapes than party towns.

I slept at another campsite only 30km from San Diego that was expensive but very charming, right on the coast. The sites had stopped being cheap north of LA, too many homeless people coming in and taking the $5 spots meant for travelers meant I had to pay the $20 full price, which after conversion was probably over $25. Not a big deal for a
short trip but when traveling over a 4 month period these expenses just to pitch a tent were unwelcome. On the way to San Diego I routed past a giant Navy base that I knew would be incredibly interesting to get a tour of. I had been to quite a few American bases before and took for granted how much easier it was coming in on a ship, I rolled up to the entrance on my bicycle and flashed my still valid ID card. The mix of contract and military security told me that I would have to have pre-authorisation from the security officer of the base or know someone on the base who could vouch for me. These bases have Navy Exchange stores that have food, alcohol, clothing at super cheap prices. I asked one of the guys parked outside the base in a pickup truck if he could let me in, he said sure. So we loaded up my bike into the tray and we rolled up to the entrance, I thought it would be OK if he was there to accompany me, it would have been if I had not just tried to get through. They firmly
My first night in Mexico with Alex my hostMy first night in Mexico with Alex my hostMy first night in Mexico with Alex my host

Alex was a great guy and he even taught me some Spanish before I left
this time told me no and he got into trouble for trying to let me in knowing I was an outsider. I was disappointed that they couldn't let an Allied Sailor in, a country like America has so many security issues only because of the ones that they create. A peaceful country would have had no problem letting me in.

I had an easy, flat ride into San Diego and it was hard to tell where the actual city began, it was so spread out with no distinct downtown area that I could yet see that I found myself to within 5km of my hostel and still didn't feel like I was in a huge city. I asked a older cyclist for directions and he pointed me out the best way to get where I needed to go, we chatted for a little while and he was amiable enough. I got to the hostel close to the Ocean and booked a few nights there, after conversion it was close to $60 a night or more. The cost of hostels is ridiculous in my opinion, you have to share a room with sometimes up to 8 people and
put up with noisy, cramped conditions. Yet they still try and charge the maximum amount possible, gone now are the days when these places were set up for travelers, they are all about the business now, profit. The place was cool though and I chatted to some pretty open people there.

Wondering what the hell I was going to do on Christmas day scared me into looking for things going on in the city, the only thing I could find was an Orphan bike ride around the whole of San Diego starting in the morning hosted by the San Diego bicycle club, I thought that sounded pretty good so I rolled up the next day and the first person I spotted standing outside the group was the older guy I'd gotten directions off the day before. He hadn't even mentioned it to me, but he was happy to see me there. These guys were professional cyclists but there was one guy who had his full touring set up for the ride who looked rugged as hell. He told me he'd spent years cycling South America and Mexico and I guess out of habit he'd decided to keep
his Machete fixed to his back rack permanently now. I thought it better not ask about it. I got a bit of advice about my trip going into Mexico but it was more his lack of fear regarding talking about it that reassured me, he was basically saying that there was nothing I really need to know. At this point I'd had a ton of people already advise me not to go across the border because of the violence so I was getting nervous being so close now.

We had some snacks and I chatted with a few of the guys who were interested in my trip, some of them had cycled through Australia and done some interesting things. We started riding at around 8am and the whole actual downtown area was empty, almost no cars at all. It was great to travel in such a big group but once we got going I had to constantly push myself to keep up with these guys. They were all on expensive carbon road bikes and already super fit so I was never in a state of comfortable cycling, not to mention an incredibly strong headwind for about an hour kept me having to almost double my effort just to keep up. We stopped for coffee, caught a ferry across the harbor and cycled the rest of the distance which circled the entire city, around 20 miles.

I went back to the hostel and found a group of guys about to go out drinking on the beach who I tagged along with. We all ended up getting pretty drunk after just a few beers and one guy I was talking with opened right up to me emotionally about all the pain and loss he was feeling in his life, I didn't feel anything and felt awful for just staring at him blankly. His pain just washed off me and I realized that it was Christmas day, none of us were with our families and where we were supposed to be. I didn't know these people and I couldn't relate to their humor. I wanted to be somewhere familiar. I wandered off from the group as I was busting to pee and there was nowhere at all around to go. I ended up ducking down to a rocky area underneath the walking path and was surprised when
I saw a lady scaling across the rocky ledge, seeing if she could traverse the difficult gap of about ten meters. Her name was Melanie, she was an embodiment of what men think of Californian women. Blonde, fit, very friendly and fun. She let me watch her try and defeat the wall probably aware that I would be checking out her body in the barely anything she was wearing. She told me after her hands got too sore that she gave up a career in Finance, even after going to school for years and runs a humble yoga studio down the road. She told me I was welcome to come in for a free class the next day and how much happier she was in this much humbler position.

I made my way back to the hostel and just spent the afternoon chatting with the other social strays, it wasn't so bad. There was shops open, including the liquor store. It was really just another day. The entire hostel made their way to the beach where we had a bonfire and the token hostel guitar playing guy started strumming and singing some popular tunes. It was nice.
One guy came up and gave me edible chocolate weed that I forgot I ate until I started getting sleepy. The biggest disappointment about that day had been the lack of communication from Matt, the guy from Alaska who I had traveled with for 3 weeks close to the start of my trip. He had stopped communicating with me completely a few days before and he had been telling me that we would meet in San Diego and spend Christmas with some of his family down there. Plus he still owed me $300. I knew in my heart he had betrayed me and forsaken our friendship. How someone could take a friends money with no intention of paying them back or seeing them again is not something I can understand, but I knew I would never see him again.

I went back to the hostel and was so baked that I slept immediately. When I woke I had some breakfast and walked over to Melanie's Yoga studio. She was all smiles when she saw me and treated me like one of her paying customers. I did the hour long routine which was very challenging in the crowded
little room that contained a mix of men and women, said farewell and left. I spent the rest of that day exploring San Diego and trying to get a feel for the place. I began mapping out my trip to the border the following day and decided I would bus from Tijuana to Ensedada, as I heard the road there is chaotic, dangerous and covered in broken glass.

I fare-welled a few people the next day that also had a few months of travel in front of them and I started making my way to the border crossing. For some reason it was more confusing than it should have been and I found myself behind another cyclist who was trying to cross the border who got himself and me lost down some side road. It added extra time to my trip and by the time I reached the traffic build up, got yelled at by a border guard to find my way into the pedestrian line, got through the checkpoint and into the town it was probably mid afternoon. I had a few spots marked on my phone map where buses are meant to leave every hour
or so to Enseneda, not knowing that I probably passed the main one just as I was leaving the border I made my way to the spot marked and was told by the man inside the dimly lit, empty looking business that he had stopped running the buses and there was no other ones in the town that were in business. He told me he could arrange a taxi for $130 American which I just calmly rejected and I began finding my way to where a bus would be. In America, there is free Wi-Fi everywhere. Even small businesses have it, I tried everywhere just to get a crappy signal but everything was locked out. After some serious trouble finding people who spoke English that could give me directions, that were always incorrect I eventually after some more trouble found a phone shop that could link me up with a sim card for my phone. They barely spoke English but it was just enough. I got connectivity on my phone, tried to investigate other buses running out Tijuana but to no avail.

At that point I had met nothing but friendly people, but just being in the
town was making me nervous, the pavement was cracked in many places, there were a lot of poor looking people everywhere and I had heard some nasty stories about the town itself at night. I had about 1 hour before sun set and I wanted to get out of there. I ran into a taxi driver who said he could take me there for $80, I kept his number. After some more searching and a ton of bad directions I sucked it up and called the guy. He picked me up in his van and in his broken English chatted with me on the long, rainy drive there. I was so grateful to be in this van and to not have had to cycle the road, it was chaos. He seemed to take turn after turn, no straight road and it was incredibly busy. It took well over an hour to arrive.

The day before I had arranged to be hosted by a young guy living with his parents named Alex, he told me to call him once I got to the Walmart in town. My driver didn't want my cash until he knew I was safe,
he waited there for me. Once Alex arrived with his friend they greeted me warmly and spoke in pretty good English. They chatted with my driver in Spanish who then drove me up the seriously steep hill to Alex's place. He was a genuine guy and he had earned the $80 after probably having worked all day then being late getting home to his family. I overpaid him our agreed amount and he even gave me back the equivalent of about $10. I parked my bike behind Alex's place and met his Mum and Dad inside, they only spoke a tiny bit of English but came across as very warm. I felt weird being inside a home so far from my own, I realized that Alex's family would be considered well off despite some structural work needing to be done to the home. Alex was studying business and was around 20, we jumped in his car, picked up his other friend who had greeted us at the Walmart and headed out to the town. It was a very groovy little town, his friend Jorge pronounced George with the J's being silent in Spanish had to take off to do some
homework so he left Alex and I to wander the town, order Tacos and drink beer. We went to a bar that had $1 US bills pinned on every available surface in the place. I wished I had the time to stay there until New Years it seemed like a great party town. We went back and I slept on the floor in Alex's room on a mattress just made up of multiple blankets. I don't know what it was but I had a fantastic sleep there, something to do with being inside a family home and not another hostel I'm sure. When we woke up his father made us breakfast while Alex sat me down and taught me some Spanish. I felt kind of ignorant not having learned any of the language up to that point, but my memory is awful and it's not until I'm in a situation where I need something that I seem to be able to remember it. After the lesson I said Goodbye to him and his parents feeling profoundly grateful to have been welcomed into their home on my first night and I took off. It's amazing how similar the city looked to
what would be in any developed country but once I began cycling the back roads to get to the main street I could see that there were huge differences. Dilapidated homes, huge holes in the roads and pavement and trash strewn onto the gutters. From this point onward there was no need for a GPS, no need to worry about too much at all except for my safety and staying healthy. This highway was the only road I would be on until I made it to La Paz, where I would Ferry across to the mainland of Mexico, a town called Mazatlan.

Getting out of Ensenada was a little chaotic, whenever I could I'd ride on the dirt but there was tons of cars until I rode about 20km out of town. My biggest concern was the trucks, they were constant. I felt like a total hindrance to what looked like a well established traffic system. Plus the sun was very hot that day. After some clearing of the road I came to a giant section of uphill that I'll never forget, it looked like it just ran up to one corner then would begin to flatten out at the peak of the hill. Each time I reached one corner, another would come into sight. The absolute worst part was the block in sound and vision with what was coming behind me. Trucks trying to get momentum up the hill frantically blared their horns at me quite a few times as I felt like I would be hit if I didn't completely get off the road onto the shoulder that was not possible to cycle on. They came within seconds of danger to me on that stretch of road at least 3 times, looking back it stands out as one of the most dangerous parts of my trip. After probably two hours I reached the top of the hill and there was no more deceptions to it's height, I followed on through some small dusty towns with a few businesses and a gas station and I started to get a little bit worried about how late it was getting and how low my energy levels were. I saw that there was fenced off land on either side of the highway so camping on public land was out of the question. Desperation can bring clarity sometimes, normally I wouldn't go wandering up to someones home and ask in disgustingly bad Spanish to camp on their property but I knew it was the right thing to do. I asked this woman who seemed to have a small business on the property selling soap if I could set up my tent, she pointed to the back. The whole property was filled with junked cars and there was this dog...Tied up to a stake in the ground that became frantic and from that moment until sometime in the late morning did not stop barking. I was so tired that I managed to sleep but I was acutely aware somehow that the dog just liked to bark, all the time, relentlessly. I got up at dawn, had a quick breakfast, and just watched the dog angrily as it posed against the sunrise quietly. As I looked at the beast I could see that the junkyard, the circle he had flattened out around the stake and the people were all he knew. I imagined the whole timeline of the dogs life as though watching it recorded on video and put on fast forward. The dog didn't contain any sadness or happiness with his situation, he just was.

I left the place just as the lady was getting up, I thanked her and she smiled at me. I didn't have any more large hills that day and I had intended on making about 100km but after doing 80 I saw a sign advertising a hotel with campsites. I rode another few km down a bumpy dirt road to a campground next to a hotel. It was completely empty and it took about 10 minutes for someone to come out and serve me. Despite it being empty she overcharged me about 20 pesos and sent me to a specific spot that wasn't even a patch of grass, just dirt. I set my tent up and trusted that leaving everything there would be OK. I walked over to the hotel bar Opposite for what I thought would be one quiet beer and chatted with the bartender for a while. I don't know what it was, probably the cycling of the past few days, but that beer and even the one after were I can honestly say the best I've ever had. It was fresh, tasted amazing, was the perfect temperature and the best part, cheap. $3 for what was over a pint of this golden stuff. The bartender introduced me to an older German couple on the other side of the bar after I asked him for some advice about the area, he told me these people had been coming here for years.

I was kind of nervous at first talking to these guys, they were probably in their mid 50's and I wondered how a flow on conversation would go if I changed my seating but we ended up getting into a great conversation. They were both working as Molecular Biologists in San Diego and they told me never traveled to anywhere else in Mexico except the Baja in all the fifteen years they'd been coming here. Nor they told me amusingly, learned any Spanish. I can't remember their names, but we ordered beer after beer as they enthusiastically showed me the map and where I should and shouldn't go. They had just upgraded to a proper off road vehicle they told me and were now able to get to nearly every part of Baja California. Some places were so rugged that they could barely be called roads but they would just pull up somewhere beautiful and stay there for a week they told me. I just loved the fact that these people, so highly intelligent, were so enthusiastic about this place, the giant Cacti, the openness, the people. After a while they called it a night and picked up my tab refusing to let me pay and the man gave me a farewell handshake so warm I felt it in my bones. He just grabbed my hand and it was almost like he was transferring his enthusiasm for life into me with what felt like such an appreciation for my company that I left with a huge smile. I had to climb over the gate of the now shut camp site, glad to find my tent untouched. I went to sleep in that lonely place, woke up the next day with still nobody around and after grabbing a shower in the dingy bathroom continued on.

I felt pretty confident after seeing Ensenada that I would be coming across some pretty cool towns, and with new years eve coming I predicted that I would be spending it in some town called El Rosario, which was the last real stop before a 360 kilometer stretch of desert. It was the 29th of December and I decided that I would cycle within reasonable distance to the town to make it an easy ride the next day. I didn't want to spend the new years in the desert alone. That morning as I began somewhat early to beat the midday heat a older, poor looking man and his son were sitting on the banks of some barren looking farmland off the highway. Aside from a gentle breeze and the noise of my bike and breathing it was quiet, they just stared at me and in response to my smile the man said in English "good luck". Those words and that moment resonated with me all day, each connection with a human being however brief was like a sound coming into a deprivation chamber. I started seeing some of the giant Cacti the German couple mentioned, some of which were around 7 or 8 meters tall.

For the fourth time and on my fourth day cycling, I got chased by dogs that were roaming the side of the streets. This time I nearly shit myself. There was from what I could see two types of dogs in Mexico, wild and uninterested in the outside world, wandering aimlessly, or wild and actively traveling in groups, looking for mates being social, these ones generally hated people on bicycles. The first day riding out of Ensenada I got chased by one very small but aggressive dog while his owner frantically tried to call him back, the next day it was two dogs, third it was a pair of dogs and then a single one, on this day it was a group of four of them all at once. I was so scared I literally cycled into the opposite lane without even looking at oncoming traffic and this was enough to deter the whole group who had probably seen their friends get hit before. I made it past them and onto a downhill that I used to get my speed up, I was incredibly lucky to have had a gap in traffic. I found an OK spot to make camp in the desert, reasonably hidden from traffic. There was a two foot piece of round wood from some discarded junk that I decided I would keep with me from that point onward, strapped to my front rack in case any more hungry canines wanted some of this cycling desert machine.

The next day I had probably the easiest ride of my whole trip, I basically just let the wind and the huge section of downward hill take me into El Rosario. There's a point for me when continuously downhill ceases to be fun, it feels like blowing your whole paycheck in an hour of gambling. Plus I knew that by the end of that section of road I would be close to sea level and there was nowhere to go but up. I was starting to get fit now though, able to fearlessly take on some pretty big hills without stopping so I wasn't scared anymore, not even of the upcoming stretch of nothingness for 4-5 days. I stopped at a grocery store on the way in and completely loaded up for the upcoming ride, what would have cost $40 in the states only ran me about $8. I went down to the very bottom of the road leading into the town and saw that it consisted basically of one restaurant/bar, two hotels and another grocery store. I grabbed a hotel room for $20 that had Wi-Fi and ordered some fish tacos from the restaurant. There was framed pictures and memorabilia showing all the previous years the town had been involved with an annual desert race called the Baja 500. This town prided itself on being the first checkpoint for the race, I guess the spot where drivers of the sand buggies and other off road vehicles made repairs and refueled. I was pretty disappointed to be spending my new years celebrations there though really, 2015 by my account had been my best year and it would have been great to top it off with a good party. I ended up just grabbing a few beers from the store and sitting by a fire next to the bar that consisted of some other westerners. There was a group of 3 middle aged Canadians dirtbiking through to La Paz, they had huge respect for what I was doing and admitted that the noise of the engine became too much sometimes when traveling through such a peaceful place. One of these guys had participated in a Baja 500 a few years earlier and told me how dangerous and exhausting it was. In the earlier days of the race nearly every year a score of Mexicans were killed usually by an out of control vehicle while they were on the sidelines. I thought about some people I knew in Australia who would love to participate in something as crazy as this.

I retired before midnight even came and after listening to a few of the hand sized fireworks getting thrown around the town, probably by the 3 Canadians, I went to sleep and said farewell to 2015.


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