For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
Yesterday I turned 31 and on paper am now apparently 2 years older than I was when I started the tour. I’ve never really been one to take a great deal of notice of birthdays, neither in celebration nor pondernace of their significance. My desire to party seems to be shrinking in correlation to the miles I make south, to the extent that now I would likely pass up a single beer and not even consider a couple, even on my birthday. Free from the mental obstructions of ‘ordinary’ life and its corresponding commitments I am getting off on an internal clarity and sharpness of being that is one consequence of my current freedoms I certainly never forecast. That said, I am also sure that if I chanced upon an establishment with a non-chilled dark and rich English Ale on tap and bottles of fine single malt whiskey lining the walls, I would almost consider it my duty to build a head ache. I really don’t care so much for the fizzy pop that passes for Mexican beers… you can put as much lime in it as you please, it’ll still taste characterless.
My birthday present has undoubtedly been my time here in Mexico City, a world apart from the other Mexico I have experienced. Here history, culture and the common working man/woman are steeped in a more obviously European influenced yet unmistakably North American world. Mexico City is a land that was once lake and therefore literally built on a juxtaposition that continues through the themes of money, luxury and choice. Here the veneer common with all international cities rests on a rich mestizo culture and society that prevent it ever straying from being quintessentially Mexican; tacos sold from street stands in front of the McDonald’s and indigenous Mexica temples underpinning streets named after the events of independence and revolution and literally sagging under the weight of colonialism. The city also delivers an unmistakably urban vanity; a young population punctured with piercings and the dapper patter of the professional classes. A huge urban expanse crawling with vehicles, Mexico City quickens the pace of the rest of the country but still manages to maintain a facade of relaxation and typically Mexican ‘mañana mañana‘ attitude.
I don’t know if it is possible to grasp the magnitude of this City, it is enormous. A collection of towns that over the last one hundred years have been stitched together in a patchwork of urbanity by a seemingly endless thread of growth and ‘development’. Old snuggles meekly beside the new and shiny in a land of architectural confusion. A culture seemingly custom-built for postmodernity appears void of amalgamation, instead jumping unashamedly from colonial to modern and back again. The population jostles beneath a citywide canopy of trees, filling the full sprawling spectrum of economic niches before stretching out in its surprising array of ‘open’ spaces. There is a particularly urban energy here that is at once inspiring and tiring. I readily admit to a genuine affection for the Distrito Federal but concurrently cannot escape the feeling that all the hustle and bustle, competition and vanity is more than a little pointless. Here the essence of humanity comes close to being smothered beneath supposedly more pressing concerns and a mans freedom detained by the physical and psychological walls that repeat mile after mile with predictable monotony before eventually being stubbed out by the natural might of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes.
I have been here for over two weeks and will likely be here for another couple. Having this amount of time frees me to explore the city without being pressured into frantically tramping the tourist track. I am not oblivious to the fact that whenever I need time I am incredibly fortunate to find myself with people who can deliver just that. It happened a year ago in Fairbanks, Alaska when Phyllis, Chase and Nanne provided the shelter that enabled me to heal and start the trail south. Then in Vancouver, Canada when I needed time to await new parts and rebuild my accident ravaged bike, I fell into the unique fold of the Gatsby household. I found fortune again in Flagstaff, Arizona when Taylor and Tierra, then Vanessa welcomed me in out of the cold and gave me the time I needed to recover my mental faculties after the Grand Canyon. And now it has happened here with Denise as I once again find myself awaiting parts to fix up my poor ailing Shermy. I am not sure what I have done to deserve the kindness of these souls but my tour would have thus far been a much tougher proposition without them and likely not really started at all.
Being a visitor to a city is a markedly different proposition given lodgings with a local than having to stay couped up with the other tourists. My time here has been busy, the days packed with exploration of a kind particular to my situation. I have not just entered the life of Denise, but also been invited into that of her family. The daughter of a proud Argentine mother and patriotic Mexican father I have been afforded a unique insight into family life, Mexico City style. They have been unbelievably hospitable and generous, carting me around showing off their city and feeding me in their home and restaurants on numerous occasions. I only half joke when I say that I am being treated like a king. But this should come as no surprise in a country where I have received nothing but warmth and welcome.
So what have I been doing with my time? Well, in between watching the Dallas Mavericks take the NBA crown, spending time at home with Denise, her dog Emma and cat, Catito, and researching the best way to fix up Shermy, I’ve been out and about in the city and beyond. I spent the best part of a day enraptured by the National Anthropology Museum, strolled around Coyoacan, explored downtown, learnt the ins and outs of 200 years of Mexican independence and marveled at the stunning Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio Nacional, took in the iconic Catedral Metropolitana and was blown away by the Templo Mayor. This final attraction was built and enlarged several times by the Aztecs on the spot they considered the centre of the universe. The site was excavated after its initial discovery by utilities workers in 1978 and is still a vibrant hub of archeological activity. I arrived at the attraction early to avoid the crowds and was quite overcome by the knowledge that I was actually strolling around the main Aztec temple. Having studied the Mexica and Mexico whilst at university, it was quite a big moment for me and just by being what it is where it is, fulfilled all my expectations.
I have been fortunate to spend time with Denise’s father, Gaston. Having lived in the city his entire life and now in his late 60’s, Gaston has some fascinating first-hand knowledge of how the place has grown to be the monster it is today. A true gent, he has also introduced me to a world very close to his heart, that of the Charro. Charros are traditional Mexican horsemen who rule over a macho world of extravagant dress and compete in at times brutal Mexican style rodeos. I was gifted an insider’s view, touring the stables before getting to witness an exhibition. The traditions on display could not escape my admiration, I also appreciate the skills and showmanship, however I come from a different world and as such struggled with the treatment of some of the animals. Still, an intriguing window into a Mexican tradition.
Denise is involved in the world of permaculture, sustainability and nutrition, traveling around in various capacities under this umbrella. Tagging along with her has given me a chance to get out of the city, meet more interesting people and expand my knowledge in this increasingly significant area. We’ve traveled up to the beautiful colonial city of Queretaro with Carolina of the urban agriculture organisation Sembradores Urbanos. Here we visited Javier in the downtown colonial house he and others have transformed along the principles of permaculture , they operate under the name Ruta Ahimsa. On another occasion we ventured south-west up into the hills and to a new permaculture camp in a picturesque canyon just outside the stunning little town of Chalma. From here it was only a short hop by car to visit the intriguing Aztec temple that sits high in the hills overlooking the increasingly popular town of Malinalco.
I’ve been busy and will no doubt continue to be until my new bike parts arrive and I am able to peddle out of the city. You may well be wondering what I’m waiting for, so I shall explain. Regular readers will know that a crack opened in my rear rim while I was on my way across the Copper Canyon, Chihuahua. This episode cost me a tire and I have been riding since then without a rear brake. The crack really opened up just outside Mexico City so I cannot go on without replacing it. My problem has been finding a rim strong enough to trust carrying my load over aggressive roads down into South America. I had figured I’d get a stronger readily available rim such as a Mavic XM719 put that on the front and put the ultra strong Rigida Andra on the back where the weight is. This turned out to be more complicated than envisaged as I ride 32 hole hubs which I now know to be rare in Mexico. So it quickly became apparent that I needed to get hold of a rim strong enough to take its place around my Rohloff. The options for reliable ultra strong and readily available touring rims are the Velocity Cliff Hanger or Psycho, the Sun Rhyno, or one of the Rigida rims like the hefty Andra 30 I’ve been riding. I also wanted to get my hands on a couple of new Schwalbe Marathon XR’s which are now out of production and increasingly hard to find. After thorough investigation it turned out that the best option was to get the guys at SJS Cycles in the UK to send over a new Andra 30 and the tires. No one retailer in the US carried both a rim I trusted and Marathon XR’s so I would have had to have paid shipping twice. It is proving an expensive exercise but along with the new Phil Wood bottom bracket I have on order through a Mexico City bike shop this investment should carry me over for the next 20,000 miles or so. Fingers crossed!