Being so close to the border, again, was too tempting an opportunity to pass up for the second time. I met a local journalist in a Starbucks in Calexico, and he offered to connect me with a member of the Mexicali cycling club MXLI Bici. How could I resist?
I quickly researched and found a hotel that allowed dogs, checked that I had the dogs’ rabies certificates in order, and off we went. Crossing into Mexico was a breeze. The border agent asked a few questions about what was in my panniers and inspected the dogs’ rabies certificates.
It felt electric to be back in Mexico, with the buzz of the streets, the smells, and colorful signs and storefronts. I asked two policemen for directions to the hotel and gratefully my Spanish was solid enough that we understood each other. Later on, that evening however, the waitress didn’t understand me when I tried to order sparkling water. My Spanish is hit or miss; I never know when my wonky brain is going to cooperate.
The hotel was comfortable; it was heavenly to shower after several hot days in the desert. I fed and walked the dogs and tucked them in for the evening.
I met up with Danahi Valdez, the MXLI Bici contact, a mover and shaker in the cycling movement in Mexicali. Denahi is trying to popularize cycling within Mexicali as well as making it safer.
I learned a lot from cycling with her; she is cat-like on her track bike; it doesn’t have brakes or gears. Denahi made eye contact with drivers at stop signs and corners, used gestures, whistles, and a lot of common sense. It was a good reminder that it doesn’t matter if you have the right of way if someone doesn’t see you or will not yield.
We went on a condensed tour of the center of the city and had dinner at Jalisco, a traditional Mexican restaurant. In retrospect I feel a bit silly; when asked what kind of food I’d like to eat, I said Mexican. That’s as vague as a guest in the USA saying they want American food. She had to call a friend to get a recommendation; she explained that “Normally I like Sushi, Chinese or…”
It was exhilarating riding around in the warm air, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of Mexico. Delicious smells wafted out from the taco stands, music from homes, cafes and bars, and the vibrant colors of the buildings, signs and murals. Magical.
I ran out of steam and had to call it a night, missing out on going to the local craft beer tasting. I was disappointed, but it’s essential I pace myself, Houston (my brain’s nickname) can be unforgiving if his limitations aren’t respected.
Denahi suggested I consider staying another night and join the MXLI Bici “Paseo de disfraces,” a Halloween costume ride, with refreshments and a costume contest they were sponsoring.
I couldn’t pass up that opportunity and decided to stay. The next day I explored the city by bike, took the dogs for several walks, and hung out at Starbucks enjoying their a/c and wifi once the temperature started soaring. After cooling off, I went shopping for Halloween decorations for the bike and caboose.
I was a tad nervous riding through the city that night on my own to get to the starting point and got lost despite Google’s map and audio cues. Houston was not cooperating. I stopped and asked a man on a bike heading home from work for directions. He realized the instructions were too complicated and happily took off calling over his shoulder “sigueme!”, “follow me.”
We wound through the city for at least 20 minutes. Occasionally he would turn to check I was still following, and flash me a big smile. I was relieved to see helping me wasn’t a burden, and he was getting a kick out of it. When we arrived at the University Plaza, where the cyclists were staging for the ride, we parted company with a formal handshake and thank you’s.
The crowd was diverse, all walks of life, ages, bicycle types, it was fantastic. It started after dark and was lead by two motorcycle police, and a police car at the back of the pack, lights, and sirens. More magic.
It was a beautiful but starless night. Street lighting was scarce, as we cycled people would call out “hoyo!” as they came upon potholes or obstacles to alert cyclists. We moved in a tight formation; it was like cycling in a school of fish through the city. I wasn’t able to get an accurate count, but I estimate there were over 50 cyclists. An impressive showing considering they were competing with a salsa dance and a protest march.
The people I rode with were warm and friendly; there was an instant kinship. There was even a couple traveling with their dog in a trailer. The experience was so positive it has me itching to tour Mexico.
I’m glad I crossed into Mexico and didn’t get caught up on the less than glowing portrayals of border towns in the USA media.
It was hard to leave the next morning, I felt a strong pull to stay in Mexico, and bounced around scenarios of touring further south towards the coast. I reigned myself in and bookmarked the idea for another trip when I could properly plan.
At my pre-morning border crossing coffee at Starbucks, I met Daniel, another customer waiting for the cafe to open. We had a great chat about the gray ribbon that I wear (gray ribbons are for brain tumor awareness) and the bike tour. Daniel, it turned out, had someone in his family who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. I hope he found our conversation helpful.
I was deeply moved by how warmly welcomed and encouraged I was by Daniel and the other the Mexicans I met. They were kind, enthusiastic, and supportive. Since my visit, the stats on my Facebook page “Silver Hooligan” show that the majority of people who have liked and are following the page are from Mexicali. I’m glad the connection was mutual.
After a good-bye selfie request by Daniel, I headed for the border crossing. I was stunned by how long the lines were to cross over; it wasn’t even 8 a.m. when I arrived. I was grateful to be on a bicycle, which allowed me to ride carefully between the rows of idling cars until I was waved into the empty “medical lane.”
An incredulous Border Patrol agent questioned me for several minutes; she was more concerned about my temporary passport that was issued at the American Embassy in Uruguay, than about the dogs. When an agent came by with his working dog, sniffing cars, I was relieved that Bodhi and Dory sat calmly and just watched him with curiosity rather than greeting him with excited barking.
It was a pleasant surprise how easy it was to cross over on a bicycle with dogs. Mexico has been one of the highlights of the trip so far, and it’s planted the seed to come back and do a proper tour.