Of Motorcycles, Police, Wild Camping, and Cockroaches
The moon was high in the sky, a small yellow orb in the distance, matching the yellow lights that shone on the opposite shore. I could hear the sound of the waves crashing below as I descended the steep concrete staircase from my apartment overlooking the water to the narrow path below. It was such a beautiful night, the heat finally stifled by the arrival of darkness, the faint sound of mariachi emanating from the small town in the distance.
The narrow path below followed the perimeter of the bay, and I expected to find it empty, but it wasn’t. It was filled with couples, perched on every available space— tucked into the shadows of steep rocks, on the benches and small bridges dotting the path as the waves crashed beneath them. They held hands and strolled in arguably one of the most romantic spots I’d every stayed, and I felt self-conscious walking among them, the only single tourist in the town it seemed.
The driving force of my walk was to get another strawberry popsicle from a tienda on the main street in town— they were absolutely delicious, and in the 24 or so hours I’d been in town I’d already eaten 3. So it was that I had to walk back and forth through the couples lining the path, eating my popsicle, alone, licking the juice from my arm and trying to look cool even though I’m sure I only achieved a degree of awkward.
* * *
This week was defined by feeling solitary, maybe it was being in bigger cities rather than small towns, but instead of feeling invested in the people or places I was staying I felt like I was orbiting around their centers, drifting through the crowds like I was less a part of them and more akin to a pigeon pecking at the ground— I was there, but I didn’t quite belong.
It wasn’t as if I wasn’t meeting people or being invited places— I was. One gorgeous German redhead asked, “We should go out tonight,” then a beautiful man from Mexico City wanted to meet up for dinner. I was serenaded one night in a public square, invited to dance, grab a few beers— I received so much attention anywhere I went on the motorcycle, I was constantly having conversations with people about the weather, the trip, whatever city I was in. I felt like the Universe was telling me to dive in and I was pulling away. I had no reason to refuse an offer to dance, to go out, to meet a beautiful man for dinner, but I was refusing everything— like there was a part of me that knew I needed to dive in, to offer far more to this journey than I was, to step out from behind the camera and the woman on the motorcycle and the businesswoman to find more of myself in the heart of Mexico— but I hadn’t yet.
“Standing on the fringes of life… offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.”― Stephen Chbosky
* * *
The heat was so intense, my thick canvas jacket was soaked within 10 minutes of riding through town to leave.
I planned on wild camping that night— it would be dark before I could make Acapulco, a three hour ride to the south, and I had been dying to sleep on the beach under the stars along the pristine coastline I had been following for days. Just 40 miles outside Zihuatanejo, I drove by a small, sandy road descending to the beach in the distance. The first 10 feet of the road included a steep descent, with a deep rut down the middle, all made of loosely packed, gravely sand. I eyed the left and right side of the road, and the long stretch of seemingly deserted beach on the distance, giant barrels of waves crashing near the shore. I decided to attempt the right side of the path. I eased out the front brake lever slowly, and started descending the steep road. A little too slowly, I found out— without enough forward momentum, the rear wheel started to slide to the left down the giant rut in the middle of the road, forcing the front tire into another rut. I leaped off the bike, my right foot catching a little as the bike slid and then came to a stop. My bike was on its side, horizontal across the road, the front wheel pointed down the steep road.
Without missing a beat, I unhooked my cargo net covered my backpack and saddlebag on the rear of the bike, and unloaded several bags. The greatest thing about the Giant Loop saddlebag on the back is that it protects the bike on either side as well as holding all my gear. The bike was sitting a top of the right saddlebag, on a pile of my clothes inside.
With some of the weight off, I grabbed the back of the frame just in front of the rear tire, and pulled it toward me. It was now hovering off the ground, a food above the steep rut in the road where I now stood. I walked to the front of the bike, grabbed the front handlebars, and leveraging the weight of the bike over the rut, I threw all my weight back and pulled the bike up off the ground.
“Ahhhhh success!” I shrieked. I threw my right leg over the seat, and leaving the heavier bags on the side of the road to come back to, continued down the road.
Headlights swept past my tent. I didn’t move, thinking it was just another bike, someone else wanting to check out the beach and they’d drive on by. I saw the shadows of legs as someone walked in front the the light, then around my tent.
“Buenas noches,” I heard a man say, and then I looked out. There wasn’t one person outside, there were 10 enormous men, all dressed in the heavy black military uniform with guns slung over their shoulders. What I thought was a bike was actually two military trucks. They had surrounded my tent, shining flashlights over my motorcycle and tent.
“Buenas noches,” I replied cooly, staying in my tent.
“What are you doing here?” one man asked, in a thick accent.
“I wanted to camp on the beach.”
I could see the rest of the group of men behind me shifting around, looking at my bike and the surrounding area. The men looked enormous wearing their thick black jackets and helmets, the headlights from the trucks illuminating them like a scene from an arty film. I decided to stay in my tent.
“It would be better to stay in a hotel. There is one 15 minutes from here. Bad men come here sometimes, it’s not safe. I can give you our phone number to call if you have a problem.”
I pretended to write the number down, asking him to repeat it, although I didn’t have a functioning phone I wasn’t about to let on I was alone on the beach without any way to contact anyone.
“Are you alone?”
I thought briefly about lying, that was usually what I did when asked this question, but since he was kind and non-threatening, I told him I was traveling from Washington to Patagonia alone, and that I had stopped here for the night instead of riding to Acapulco in the dark.
One of the other men started chatting in Spanish to the man I was speaking with, telling him about another beach that was much more beautiful for camping. My heart melted a little at that.
“Where we are staying, 15 minutes away, the beach is much more beautiful, you can follow us.”
I was used to people telling me areas weren’t safe, usually for the sole reason I was traveling alone, but I was only 150 miles outside Acapulco in the state of Guerrero— the most notorious area in the entire country for drug trafficking, and I had been passing through multiple military checkpoints for days. Since I was obviously a tourist, it wasn’t a problem for me, and the men I had encountered in the military were always polite and professional. That was different, however, from encountering drug smugglers on a deserted beach in the middle of the night.
With that, I decided to pack up and leave. I didn’t know the area, and the vacant buildings on a deserted beach near a highway did seem like an ideal spot for drug trafficking.
“It’ll take about 15 minutes for me to pack up.”
He nodded, and pointed down the beach. “We’ll be down there.” I thanked him, and with that, they piled into the back of the two pickup trucks, and retreated into the darkness. Maybe I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. Standing there in the moonlight on the edge of the sea, packing my things on my bike in the light of my headlamp, I felt strangely exhilarated.
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” ― Michelle Obama
* * *
The MSF (the Motorcycle Safety Foundation) Rider Handbook has a section that talks about how to handle curves riding a motorcycle. “If you cannot see the exit, predict the curve radius tightens and hold entry speed farther into the curve.”
It struck me at the time, and now on the road, that handling curves on a motorcycle was a metaphor for my life. That most of the time I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I went into it with a good entry speed, held the curve, looking as far ahead as I could and held my speed.
None of us will ever know what lies ahead, but a lot of us won’t chance going into the curve. We’ll take the safer, less mountainous road, or the straight predictable path— the one we can see for hundreds of miles ahead. But in doing so, we’ll never be rewarded by the sinewy mountain roads that open up to a view of the crashing waves in the distance, or giant mountains towering over the road. We’ll never know what it’s like to camp on a beach alone, nothing but the moon and the waves and a great expanse of sand in either direction.
In that moment, in the dark on the beach after being surrounded by the Mexican military, I realized for the second time this trip how little fear is part of my life.
“If you cannot see the exit, predict the curve radius tightens and hold entry speed farther into the curve.” —Motorcycle Safety Foundation
* * *
I rode in along the dark highway for 20 miles after gunning my motorcycle up the steep roading leading to the beach— this time making it up and over onto the paved road in seconds— feeling empowered by the night riding, the wind cool and the air clean, the road unfolding before me illuminated by my headlight. Bugs slapped at my arms— I was too hot at the beach to put on my riding jacket, so I rode along the roads bare armed, the motorcycle growling over speed bumps, only the occasional sweep of headlights crossing my path.
I thought about riding all the way to Acapulco in the dark, but the experience on the beach had put a little darkness in my heart, so I stopped at the first hotel I spotted off the small two lane road. A tiny older man sat at the reception desk, the glow of a solitary light behind him. The reception desk was in the middle of a vast dining area, and what looked like an empty pool with a swim up bar in the corner.
I followed him to a room, hoping that, as expensive the price was, the room would be nice and I could take a shower. He opened the door, turned on the light, and I spotted cockroaches scuttling over the sink in the back along the sink. He discreetly tried to kill them, flushing their carcasses down the sink drain, then walking into the separate shower stall presumably to do the same. He showed me how to turn on the AC with a breaker switch, then smiling kindly, left the room. I was now alone to contemplate the horrors of where the cockroaches were coming from and if they would be in the bed at night. After a brief look into the shower stall and realizing one enormous cockroach remained, I decided to sleep in my bikini sans shower and leave at dawn.
* * *
“…the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a shit what happens to us— not the collective idea of sentient life but each of us, as individuals.” —John Green
* * *
I was on the road by 6 AM, dark clouds in the distance threatening rain. I could feel the chill air even through my thick canvas riding jacket, the air getting cooler and cooler the longer I road. I rode though the last big town until Acapulco, which was 80 miles away. I had just started down an empty stretch of highway when it started to rain, and then, it started to pour. I could barely see the road in front of me, and every few minutes I let go of the clutch lever to wipe the beads of water from my face-shield.
Great bolts of lighting struck in the distance, and in an instant, enormous puddles collected on the roadway. All of a sudden, I was no longer alone— 18 wheelers and buses and small vans were passing me, or stopped on the side of the road in the torrential downpour. I stopped for a few moments underneath a concrete bus shelter and re-check my bags to make sure no water was getting in. The was a 1′ wide strip underneath the roof in the bus shelter that wasn’t soaked, and I stood there, removing the interior part of my face-shield that was continually fogging.
I couldn’t go back, but it seemed like I couldn’t keep going either. I kept going.
I rode out the downpour, and arrived two hours later in Acapulco, completely soaked but victorious.
* * *
The hotel which assured me had wifi did not, so after a quick shower, I spent the rest of the day in the Woolworth restaurant working. Acapulco, a city I had heard so much about, was noisy and dirty and overwhelming, and even though I loved it for all those things in the short time I spent there, I was ready to leave the next morning. I woke up at 4:45, packed up my bike outside, chatting with one of the many military men who occupied Acapulco— their military vehicles parked at almost every intersection— and left the city in the dark. I wanted to make Mexico City in time to work West Coast hours, 245 miles away.
* * *
I had heard so much about Mexico City from other travelers— CDMX it was referred to, the cool acronym reflecting how great the city was itself. Mexico City is like the Colombia of South America— anyone who has been knows how amazing it is and shares their experiences with like-minded travelers— anyone who hasn’t defers to the reputation of the place, which in the US (surprise, surprise) isn’t good.
I stayed for 3 days at the spectacular CDMX Hostel and Art Gallery on the swanky Paseo de la Reforma, surrounded by amazing street food, and giant buses sporting ‘CDMX’ racing around the giant roundabouts filled with trees and statues and fountains. I locked my motorcycle up outside the hostel on the metal framing in front of the windows, and didn’t ride for two straight days. I did laundry, ran errands, shipped packages, ran every morning through the parks lining the main street, and ate lunch every day at a vegetarian cafe down the street.
I left Mexico City Sunday morning, and made the incredible drive through the mountains to Oaxaca in what seemed like no time at all, but was really 5 hours.
I blew through mountain roads, rolling around curves that opened up to enormous views of the enormous mountains in the distance. I road across desert after desert, riding through oddly shaped red hills, carved with small canyons that looked like anthills. I rode through a downpour and dodged falling rocks from the cliffs lining the road, an ambulance stopped on the side for a car that had been hit by rocks. I rode with other motorcyclists and passed gangs of them going the opposite way, everyone out riding on that beautiful Sunday.
I passed the strangest things— a smear of green across the highway that ended in two giant heads of broccoli on the shoulder, a hat perfectly positioned in the roadway as I came across it, the word ‘FUCK’ embroidered loosely in great, sprawling loops on the front, a red plastic bag floating high, so high up in the sky it drifted like a small red cloud.
And so it was I ended another week on the road, rolling through curve after curve after curve, holding the entry speed, and ready for whatever appeared in the distance.