Benjamín Hill, SON

I wake up and look at the clock, 7:53.  What?  I’ve been getting up consistently at 7:30 give or take 5 minutes without an alarm clock for several weeks now.  I attribute the extra sleep to the 60 mostly uphill miles from Tucson to Patagonia the day before.  I camped out a few miles out of town in the Coronado National Forest.  After inquiring what road to take out there, several folks let me know that there is a lot of smuggling and “illegals” in the area so be careful.  But it is a quiet night and no one bugs me.

It is 29°F on my thermometer, I decide to stay in my sleeping bag 15 more minutes.  I know I should get going as the border awaits, but for some reason don’t feel terribly hurried.  Eventually I get up and put several layers on just to be comfortable for breakfast, knowing that I won’t need them in an hour and probably not again for many weeks.

Then I remember, the clock I had in the tent is an hour ahead, so really I’ve woken up much earlier than usual.  I take my time putting together the usual breakfast I’ve eaten just about every morning on the trip.  Raisins, a packet of flavored instant oatmeal with some plain (bulk, cheaper) oats to make it stretch, and coffee in a little filter in my mug.  Then the boiling water into each.  And when the water is done, I toast a bagel in my skillet.  By the time the bagel is toasted the oatmeal and coffee are cool enough to drink.

I pack up, head back into town and stop by the post office to send out a bunch of postcards.  There I meet Janie, all smiles, who is moping the floor.  She is enthusiastic about my trip, and also reassuring about the safety south of the border.  I’ll be fine, the protection I need surrounds me, she says.  She recently moved to Patagonia and already knows the area well enough to be doing real estate.  She confides (SSHHH don’t tell anyone) that the cleaning job at the post office is a great place to network and hand out business cards.

The 20 miles to Nogales are quick.  On the outskirts, I stop at a gas station in search for an ATM.  None to be found but I talk to the employee who is helpful and answers my questions about crossing the border.  Then into the city and I decide to eat a McDonalds lunch before crossing the border.  I sit inside with a view of my bike and ponder my proximity to Mexico.  I realize that within plain view, following the contour of the hills, is the wall that divides the two countries.

I ride down the lane of traffic signed “Mexico”.  I go into a little office and get my passport stamped.  Then I continue down the street for a little.  Everything seems chaotic.  It seems as though the streets turns into a sidewalk, and the sidewalks into a drainage canals, and vice versa, with no rhyme or reason.  I’ve got to keep an eye on the road.

I sit stupidly behind a truck for a couple minutes before realizing that there indeed is no driver in it and that the street is really full of parked cars.  The crowd isn’t standing by the side of the road waiting for the ambulance to go by.  Law enforcement cars, ambulances and motorcycle gangs revving their engines are all part of a parade today.

I go up to a man and ask what is being celebrated.  The 20th of November he says.  I’m a little confused, as its the 16th of November.  The 20th marks the Revolution of 1910, but I’ve forgotten this important date.  Lo hicieron de puente he says, roughly, we’re just observing it a little early out of convenience.

The parade is an obstacle but I’m told to just head one block east to continue south.  The four lanes of this road are usually the north-bound traffic, but everyone seems to know that traffic is being redirected, and thus two lanes are for south bound traffic today.

On my way out of Nogales, I get lots of waves, thumbs up, whistles, applause and cheers.  This gets to my head quickly and soon I’m waving to everyone that even just looks at me.

Everywhere the smells seem different.  Cars belch out black smoke, storefronts smell of that very Mexican smelling cleaning solution, and the many food puestos smell of that very Mexican smelling charcoal.

I know there is a town, Ímuris, 40 miles south of the border and that is my goal for the day.  I’m excited to be in Mexico, I’m envisioning sitting in the public square, the zocalo that evening.  But the reality of where I am soon sets in.  From what I can tell Ímuris is mostly all on the highway, including the first hotel I see.  There is no zocalo.  I ask someone, is there a hotel more removed from the highway, but this is stupid as the majority of my nights have been spent by highways anyway.

I roll my bike into the hotel room and shower, the water is barely lukewarm.  A little cable TV and then back out to the highway where one block in either direction is open air eateries.  I walk up and down the block, as if I knew how to spot the best one.  So I pick one at random and take a seat.

What can we offer you?  Is there a menu, I ask.  No, just say what you want, del uno al cien, from one to a hundred, we’ve got it.  So I get five quesadillas with meat, and a Coke.  The food is served on plastic plates covered in a thin plastic bag.  Is this to assure the customer of high sanitary standards, or to make cleanup easier?  Both probably.

I head back to the room and get sucked in by the cable TV.  I end up watching Friends for a little.  I normally find this show unbearable but the subtitles make it entertaining.  Sometimes it seems as though the translators understand the idioms and translate them true to their meaning, then other times they seem to have completely missed the joke.  A couple hours of channel surfing.  I sing my heart out along with Hombres G.

I wake up and head to the OXXO convenience store.  I’m sure I’ve already seen a dozen along the highway, and it has only been 40 miles.  That is comforting in a way, I’ll always have somewhere to buy snacks.  I buy a liter of milk and some Bimbo buñuelos. I ask to use their phone booth, as the night before I had been unsuccessful in using the payphone to call my parents.  The cashier informs me that to call the US I dial 001520 and then the number.  This doesn’t work, and it dawns on me that she’s assumed I’m calling the 520 area code which is southern Arizona, including Tucson.

A slow morning as I’ve set my sights on a town only 52 miles away.  I bike for 2 hours and then stop for lunch.  Quesadillas with meat again, then over to the OXXO (there is also one across the street) for water and donuts.  Another application of sunscreen.  It is warm out, not very humid though, and so biking isn’t terribly uncomfortable.  But I’m still at about 2,500′, and it is only going to get warmer as I head south and down to sea level.

I’m focused on my steering.  The highway is divided, two lanes in each direction.  More often than not there is not a shoulder.  This keeps me alert as cars and especially trucks have a hard time driving side by side, the lanes are just too narrow.  Not enough room for a cyclist, so most people pull over and give me enough space.

After another hour of cycling I decide to take a break, I’ve got plenty of daylight and want to take it easy.  I pull just off the highway and find some shade from a huge abandoned corrugated metal roof, but I’m not actually in the building.  I’m staring at my Mexico highway map, thoughts wandering, and notice a man with a huge beer belly walking, waddling, slowly across the vacant space.  He looks over very briefly and I say buenas tardes, but he doesn’t acknowledge me.  He continues walking and turns his back and stares out into the open field for a moment.  Then he walks over in my direction, and stops right where the roof and the cement floor end.  Hola, que tal I say as politely as I can.  He just stands there though, ten feet away, with a blank look on his face.  He is not threatening in the least, but the awkwardness of the situation is.  I decide I don’t want to be watched like this while I drink my water, and decide to just keep going.  I’ve already tried twice with small talk but it obviously is a lost cause.

The main town of Benjamín Hill is a kilometer off the highway, but my brain is too fried to check it out so I go to inquire at the hotel at the turn-off.  Even more expensive than the night before.  Both times I’ve asked for a cyclist’s discount but none exists.  I’ve lost any ability to bargain.

Some TV, then I check for an internet signal but it is password protected.  I wander around the courtyard, don’t seen any employees, and head back to my room when a man from the 2nd floor office says Diga, Can I help you.  From the first floor I say Yes, quick question, I noticed there was a wireless internet signal and wanted to know if guests can use it.  He didn’t catch that, so I repeat myself, and he responds something about medicine for the kidneys.  I am about to give up, assuming he knows nothing of the internet.  I say no, not kidney medicine, Internet.  Oh, internet?  Yes, I didn’t understand what you were saying, he says, you’ve got to speak up and not mumble.  He goes into the first floor office while I wait outside.  Well do you want the password or not, come in!  He then mentions several more times that I was asking the question wrong and was mumbling, but is happy nonetheless to give me the password.

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