An air-conditioned room in Cancun is about as far removed from my cycle touring ideal as I could ever imagine… it’s bloody comfortable though. I have spent the last few days meandering my way east from Merida on a generally featureless course that’s taken me down a string of deserted rural roads. There is very little to report on the numerous generic small towns and villages that have flown by, nor the sleepy fishing town of Dzilam de Bravo and my introduction to the Golfo de Mexico. A night in the pleasant but largely generic centre of Tizimin and another in the functional but forgettable town of Kantunilkin also failed to bring anything to the blogging table. But it was all pleasant enough and really just a means to an end; that end being the comforts of Cancun via a couple of days ‘vacation’ on the sandy Isla Holbox.
Holbox is quite the treat but one that would probably become tiresome after a few days. A long thin strip of an island at 30km by 2km, this sandy little paradise provides a distinctly unMexican feeling home for numerous nationalities and many more species of bird. With most vehicles outlawed on the island, the sand roads are the exclusive home of bicycles, mopeds and golf carts. Every sort of tourist is catered for: Those who enjoy luxuriating on package deals can relax in one of the low-rise and rustic hotels spreading out east from the main plaza, hire golf carts at 100 pesos an hour and charter boats to neighboring islands. Penny pinching cycle tourists can have just as rewarding experience staying in the immaculate and ultra friendly Tribu Hostel (who offer a 25% discount for cycle tourists), wandering the miles of sandy beach, watching the Flamingos and soaking up the positivity of the village. It has become the norm for me to be in places out of season, here this meant many hotels, hostels and restaurants being closed, something that doesn’t affect me as much as the lack of other visitors, which just happens to be my preference. I did miss the Whale Sharks though, they congregate in unprecedented numbers around the island during the summer months and prove to be one of the major tourist attractions. My two days on the island served the purpose that took me there; I had plenty of time to think about a new dawn for me, my tour and someone else…
When I set out on this journey one of my principal motivators was a search for freedom; the freedom to go where I want when I want and as quickly as I want. Having been on the road long enough now to be certain I am not running from anything, nor attracted towards any other particularly tangible reward, I am at peace with my wanderers existence. On a superficial level I feel freer than I could ever have imagined, my trip is proving a success and I really couldn’t or haven’t been happier. Yet as I pedal through this world I am seeing and feeling things that bring into question my understanding and approach to this thing I’ve called ‘freedom’: There is much more to the concept and my relationship to it than I previously imagined. And as I learn, I also evolve.
Acknowledgment of the need for evolution has steered me towards changing the set up of my tour in a major way, one that has obvious advantages and disadvantages, but will hopefully encourage further personal growth and understanding. When in Oaxaca I reached out to Justin, my surprise traveling companion through Alaska and Canada and asked whether he’d be interested in renewing our alliance. The response was overwhelmingly positive and over the last few weeks we have been cooking up plans that are now coming to fruition. A couple of days ago we met up again here in Cancun and shall be continuing on as a team: ‘I’ has just become ‘we’, ‘me’ from now on will be ‘us’.
Reread the first sentence of the third paragraph and what strikes you? What jumps out at me is ‘I, I , I, I’, it’s all about me. I have never shied away from the inherent selfishness of this journey, it is after all my attempt to learn about and improve myself, not the world, me. I am happy with how this development has progressed and by lifestyle adjustment have worked out how to eliminate some of my less admirable character traits. But I do not feel that my life is real right now, it lacks altruistic purpose, deep and valuable friendships and the resultant responsibilities. The only confirmation I have of my own existence is writing on these pages. The phrase that spins round and around my head is ‘do I exist if not in the eyes of others?’. I have no fear of death but should it come tomorrow my adventures will die with me, all my efforts essentially coming to nothing, my legacy just words on a computer screen. Does that make those efforts pointless, no I don’t think so, but I do think some of my western guilt could be alleviated by additional reasons to travel. A riding partner may just be that additional reason.
‘Where is your friend?’ is probably the question I get asked more that any other. People in the U.S. were surprised that I’d elected to take this journey alone, but with a bit of thought could just about grasp my motives. Folks down here in Mexico and the parts of Central America I’ve been lucky enough to visit thus far have been frankly shocked by my solo antics. I’m met with looks that betray thoughts of pity and concern. They usually go on to warn me about how dangerous the place is that I’m heading to, then often quiz me on the unrelated matter of my thoughts on the native women (about which I am always overly complimentary). Although the Mexican people are undoubtedly a very sociable race, it is also the case that usually when they see crazy gringos on bikes they are in pairs. This comes as a surprise to me as the other cycle tourists that interest me have generally been soloists, but maybe this has been because I have always been a lonesome rider. To the people of these countries it makes no sense to go out alone, just as the idea of riding with a partner always seemed too restrictive to me, an unwelcome curb on my freedoms. I had never even thought about, or wished to cycle with another until fate handed me a riding partner in the most unlikely of places, the Dalton Highway, deep in the northern wilderness of Alaska.
Meeting the people of Latin America has bought me into contact with many of the other stark differences between my views, experiences, opportunities and theirs. Over the last few months I’ve come to realize just how privileged I am to hold citizenship in a country that grants me the chance to indulge in this cycling flight of fancy. Freedom is important to me and the reason why I am not married, tied to job or committed to mortgage payments, yet when I pass through the life of rural Guatemalans and Mexicans a paradox has been revealed within my thinking; for them freedom is gained by being married, having a house and reliable livelihood. These people live rawer, more sustainable and perhaps more realistic lives than me. I am a product of western capitalist dominance, my comfort and survival float on a cloud of digital numbers, a created and abstract wealth born the sickly bastard child of growth and greed. It’s long been fashionable to knock the capitalist system but without it I’d never have been able to entertain this dream of freedom, let alone pursue it like I am.
During these past six months in Latin America I feel I’ve humbled to the point that now I can recognize a former arrogance and ego. These unenviable traits grew from the perceived achievement of covering miles, climbing big hills and generally doing things I thought other people were unable to do. It is now obvious to me that it’s not that others are unable to do them, it is more that their decisions have precluded doing them. All people from free societies can generally make (or should make) their own individual choices, decisions that they will live with just as I live with mine. As my movement through countries and cultures serves to reinforce the fact that family is everything and with it my yearning for the love of a dog and woman grows, I can understand more than ever what drives the ‘grey people’ towards choosing a ‘normal’ life. I am not ready for that, those that chose it and have no regrets about doing so, obviously were and I envy them as much as many of them envy my perceived freedoms. The only difference being that I still have the power to choose to ‘settle down’ where as those who are already entrenched in that direction would struggle (but are not unable) to follow my course and take the selfish option.
Observing from afar through blogs and emails, it looked to me as if Justin had become dislocated from his choices. Having got to know him last year it was clear that like myself, he is not yet ready to give in to convention, a reluctance partially driven by the unsatisfied desire to understand himself and his world. What I saw was circumstance taking a hold on his free will and beginning to wrestle him unwillingly into the whirlpool of pay checks, rent checks and ultimately a life check; waters that have drowned too many others hopes and dreams. When I thought about both of our circumstances it made a kind of sense to team up; it will reintroduce a dynamic that will hopefully help work through my solitary purpose confusion while simultaneously bringing Justin back into command of his life choices. It will be a gamble for both of us, but in theory there is no reason why everybody can’t win.
When I weave all these strands of thought together the message becomes so clear: freedom is an essentially subjective concept that I may still be rather naive to. Eighteen months ago I understood freedom to be my ability to make my own decisions without the interference of others, now I’m starting to think that we may need others to be truly free. Justin can help me discover the truth in this. It will undoubtedly be hard for me to give up solo travel, I love it and think it suits me. I could quite easily continue as a solo cyclist down to Argentina and beyond and no doubt extend the great time I’ve been enjoying over the last year, but sometimes it’s valuable just to try something else. We have the power to shape our own future, it’s important to avoid letting our ‘destiny’ mold us. Pragmatism is king and from what I can see after 31 years, the key to mine and maybe all happiness.
So as Justin an I prepare to board our flight to Cuba we do so on the cusp of a new start, the re-invigoration of a well versed routine. Most of our kit, including computer, will be staying in Mexico so there won’t be any updates for a month or so. I, or should I say we, will be back.