20 August, 2012

Day 46, 780km: Am I in Thailand?

Today was going to be a long day. Almost 800km to reach the lake of Bacalar, near the city of Chetumal.
The night before wasn't as relaxing and comfortable as I expected. Turned out there was an open-air nightclub just across the street in front of the hotel. They played loud Mexican electronic music until 3 in the morning. The window of my hotel room didn't attenuate the noise at all so I enjoyed all of it, especially the DJ who was regularly shouting something that probably meant "Let's get the party started mujere y hombre!!!".

Still, I woke up in time for the breakfast, and it was much needed. I think I got a cold the other day on the volcano of Toluca and hot coffee helped with the sore throat.

Xena disc lock, strong stuff
 Well it seems I should have taken more coffee. This above is what I found hanging from my front wheel at my first gas stop, 2H after leaving Coatzacoalcos. It's a disc lock, I use it when parking the bike overnight to add a level of protection. The thing attaches on the braking disc and comes with a bright orange leash to remind me that I have to take it off before I can drive (right, Alex? ;)).

So anyway, this morning I unlocked the thing from the braking disc but left it hanging from its leash. Then I completely forgot about it and the poor thing spent 2H of driving banging on my tire and braking disc. Luckily there was no damage done to the bike (as far as I can see).
And what is really impressive is that the thing still works perfectly even though it took a serious beating. So I can safely say that Xena makes really strong stuff. Even the integrated alarm still works (and I think it's now more sensitive).

800km is a long way on 2 lanes roads
Now 800km on a bike is a long day in itself. However when on a 2 lanes road it becomes even longer. I'll try to describe what it is driving a motorcycle, especially in a country like Mexico.

First, you're outside on a motorcycle. I do not mean that one feels a connection to the nature and will talk gently to birds and trees along the way. What I mean is that you'll feel the weather and the place as you would walking, with an added intensity that speed and all your gear brings. If it's hot you'll try your best to get some wind to cool you down. If it's humid you'll be opening every single vent on your gear hoping to create some kind of venturi effect to suck out the moist you feel accumulating on your body. If it's cold you'll shelter behind your windshield, grip the heated handlebar with all your strength and stick your legs onto the scalding hot engine and frame, turning them into improvised heaters.

You'll know where you are simply by smelling. The iodine smell of the sea shores will announce their presence long before you see them, the acre smell of rivers, the dryness of asphalt, the lovely smell of freshly cut grass. And of course the fear-inducing petrichor, harbinger of torment.

You will also taste, sometimes. Mosquitoes, flies, butterflies and dragonflies will crash on your helmet at the sustained rate of one per kilometer. Eventually one will crash in the chin vent, sending a mist of guts and blood towards your unprepared mouth. You'll learn the difference between flies and dragonflies simply by the taste of their guts.

You will hear the nearby cars, the activity in the city you're crossing. The loud exhaust of that truck you're passing. The quick whoosh of that pickup truck passing you at 160kph, giving you a short glimpse of its "Jesus es my salvador" bumper sticker. The hissing noise or your own brakes as you're trying to make that encounter with the pothole ahead as smooth as you can.

You will feel the smallest bump in the road, coming up your front wheel into your arms shortly before shaking your feet and bottom. Your motorcycle will talk to you as well, vibrating madly when you're nearing the red line, telling you it's time to shift. She will plunge forward if you use your front brake with too much vigor. She will resist leaning into curves but joyfully bite them once given a firm order. She will shake and slide on her own when leaving the pavement.

And certainly most importantly, you will see. And will constantly be looking. The landscape first, and its inviting, sometimes intriguing colors and shapes. The people and places will disappear as fast as they appeared, leaving you a short moment that will sometimes be enough to create unforgettable impressions.
You will constantly scan the road, looking for bumps, potholes, leaves, dust, gravel or anything that could put you at risk. You will scan the cars as well, creating a short lived mental image of each and every car that comes your way. Where is the car from? Where is she likely to turn? Will she brake hard when obstacles are on the way? Is she going to avoid this pothole from the left or from the right? Will the car that's coming towards me pass the truck?
When on a bike you have to consider yourself invisible. Cars coming towards you or passing you simply can see you. You'll be scanning your mirrors constantly looking for danger coming your way.
And lastly your bike is talking to you. Monitor your speed, your gas, your GPS instructions.
You'll be looking and scanning so much in fact that after a while you will notice it is faster for your eyes to reduce the focal distance than to increase it. You will use this to your advantage and scan far ahead first, then directly in front of your bike, then into your mirrors.

Overwhelmed by these sensations, the road conditions, the traffic near you and the random thoughts that happen to be in your mind at that time, your job will be to process it all as fast as you can and take appropriate decisions to ensure your own safety, the safety of others and that you'll be going in your intended direction at your intended speed.

It is a very thought intensive process. If you start daydreaming the road and the traffic will quickly remind you that your full attention is requested at all times. Driving is intense, if you want to drive safely. So intense in fact that you will see your brain will remain in "full throttle" even when the driving becomes easier. You'll start thinking about all sorts of thing.

The thrill of the drive combined with the intense exercise performed by your brain muscle will lead you into all sorts of crazy, intriguing, insightful and sometimes outright stupid thoughts.
Believe me, you'll love it.

The road switched constantly between 2 and 4 lanes, with lots of construction going on as above
And even though your full attention is being given to driving, you will be surprised. I was surprised shortly after lunch and I have to thank BMW engineers.
Mexican cities and villages are often announced by bumpers across the road. They serve their purpose well and people effectively reduce their speed in town and crossing villages. They aren't always announced however. Nor are they always the same size. Some of them are outright huge and would damage any car careless enough to go across them at speed.
Mexican drivers know that very well and brake heavily at the sight of a road bump.

Being on a bike, with larger wheels, I'm able to drive over the road bumps at a higher speed. So I often pass cars when they are braking before the bump. To do that, I sometime drive on the opposite lane for a short moment, to keep a safe distance when passing the cars.

Well this morning I happened to cross a small village on my way to Bacalar. Bumpers at the entrance, no big deal. I go across two of them, pass a few cars. Then comes the village exist, with its own series of bumpers. Again I take-over a few cars and find myself in the opposite line when doing so.
This bumper happened to be particularly high and rough edged. I braked and was still braking when I saw what I though was a pond right on the other side of the bumper.
I drove directly into it and realized that it probably wasn't water, it being 35 degrees C and sunny. It was in fact a massive engine oil pond, and I was already into it.

Now this is where I want to thank BMW engineers.

The ABS kicked in immediately, releasing my front brake. The front wheel didn't lock and continued on its way as if that was nothing. So what would be a certain fall was avoided. Thanks.
I toyed with the ABS before just to see what was amount of braking was needed to get it to kick-in but this was the first time it directly prevented a fall.

One more lesson learned. Be extra careful with big bumpers, someone might have destroyed their oil carter on it, leaving behind a oh-so-slippery oil pond.

The landscape reminded me of Thailand all day long
There were few tollways that day. I prepared 800 pesos, thinking the state of Veracruz' rate of 1 peso / km would still apply. It didn't. That got me thinking about tollways themselves.

I didn't encounter a single tollway in US or Canada. Roads are free, even the biggest and newest interstate.
People there probably assume that if there's one thing the government has to do that's to provide good quality roads for free. That reminded me how prices in the US always excluded taxes, and several discussions with US citizens. The general idea was that the least amount of government there is, the better.
That is slightly but oh-so-importantly different from the European view where the government is a necessary evil. On one hand, you assume that what makes your country successful is its people and that the government mostly hinders their success. On the other hand, you assume that what makes your country successful is the combination of the public and private sectors in place, the "system".

I'm digressing already quite far but I want to continue and make a point that most likely will be absurd. However I was thinking about this a week ago and haven't got the chance to write it down until now.

The US has been for the last what, 60 years (20 certainly) the uncontested economical, military and diplomatic leader of the world. I remember learning about the word "superpower" and how it was invented (by US citizens probably) to describe the USA. Now if I imagine myself a US citizen, it would make sense to assume that this success is due to fellow US citizen. It would be harder I guess to imagine that a combination of historical context, clever government and brilliant people led my country where it is today. Europe gives us a different viewpoint. There has been for a very long time strong rivalries between kingdoms,  then countries, then republics. The history we're taught in France always explains our country's failures through circumstances and historical context. It's not complicated for any student to understand that our country's successes were generated in the same way.

So and to conclude because I'm gone really far in this anecdote, I think that the rejection of the regulation and government I could feel in some American people is partly triggered by a biased understanding of what made the country the world's superpower in the first place.

End of the digression!

There were a few long stretches across the jungle
As the day went on, more and more of what I was seeing reminded me of Thailand. Same climate, same landscape, same flora, same villages built along the highways. Same jobs, with lots of farms and the few supporting businesses in villages.

At some point I was crossing another village and neared its exit. There was a farm on the right side of the road and, driving slowly across the village, I observed a couple men working in the field in front of their home. The home itself wasn't much more than a hut and you could tell that these people were obviously living in dire poverty. I'm not trying to depict a "third world" picture of Mexico here, but to make another entirely different point. So as I observed these men, I thought that one of them could very well be Thai. Same height, same skin color and same clothing with his bare torso. As I passed him, he turned around and I could see his face for a very brief moment.

That's when it hit me. He had a Spanish/European/Caucasian face. I was overwhelmed with pity for the guy and the conditions he lived in. I started feeling sad for the poor man. Which is, and I hate to admit it, very different from what I feel when in Thailand's countryside. When confronted with poverty in Thailand I find myself constantly switching between two arguments "it's a developing country, things will get better" and "what a remarkable and traditional way of living". Both are rather shameful but I have no reason not to be honest.

When poverty wears your own face, it hits your guts.

I'm sure there must be something physiological in this, where we evolved to care for the people of our tribe, people that look like us. That hypothetical evolution would have been beneficial for the individual and for the tribe, ensuring it became a trait passed between generations.

That got me thinking about the way people are "categorized" based on the color of their skins in Thailand for example. White is traditionally attached to the elite, wealthy people while darker skin is attached to farmers and generally the working class. I'm not saying that everyone holds this opinion, rather than it is striking for us European where (Caucasian) people aren't judged by the tone of their skin.
So anyway. I always assumed that people made that distinction in Thailand because it's been like this for generations and that it was part of a larger culture of beauty.

Going back to my previous point and how troubling it is to see poverty wearing your own face, I believe that the distinction between smooth skinned and dark skinned has very much to do with one's way of shielding himself from the surrounding poverty.

End of the digression! (I realize this update is only a series of digression but if you've red this far you probably won't mind.)

A corruption arch
When you're driving 780km, you'll cross numerous villages. Crossing them, you'll start noticing patterns. The bumpers and the entrance and the exit. The one or two roads crossing the highway. The gas station at the entrance, the one at the exit. The convenience store at the corner of the road crossing the highway.

Another pattern is what I call the "corruption arches". These are supposed to help people cross the highway safely, avoiding traffic. That is all very good, assuming of course they are located where people actually need to cross, for instance nearby the convenience store. You'll find however that most are located outside the villages centers, like the one above.
Precisely where they serve absolutely no purpose and I don't think anyone would use them. Also the people who'd need safe crossing would arguably be those with limited mobility (handicapped, elders) and I'm not sure two flights of stairs is the most appropriate for them.

So along the way there were probably a hundred of these, always the same model as the one pictured above. I'm sure that a very generous deal was made between whatever department of transport made the purchase and the company who received the order. It would drive me crazy living in one of these villages and crossing the corruption arches every single day.

Although I'm sure there are similar "arches" in every single country. They are probably slightly less noticeable in France so people don't mind.

Nearing Bacalar, last hours across the jungle
By now you've probably realized that it was an intense day of ... thinking! Well as I was lost in my thoughts, I had an encounter with one of the locals. That wasn't a Mexican citizen however, I'm still struggling to do small talk in Spanish, although there is some progress.

Rather my encounter was with a member of the local fauna, a bird. I was doing 120 or 140kph on a long stretch of road similar to the one pictured above and felt something hit the left hand-guard (plastic thing in front of the handlebar that protects the hands from wind, branches and ... birds, apparently) and my left hand. It took me a few seconds to realize that a bird crossed right in front of the bike and that I hit it. I didn't even see the thing, merely a black shadow. The thing was probably the size of a pigeon, judging from the shock.
I stopped and turned around, assuming the poor thing would either be dead or that it would be better to put an end to its pain. There was blood all over the hand-guard. But I couldn't find it, which isn't surprising considering the poor thing took a 130kph smash. It probably landed very far from the pavement. I hope it didn't suffer.

Shortly after this incident I entered the state of Quintina Roo, my destination for the day. There was a military checkpoint and (this isn't common) they were stopping every single car.
The previous time I was stopped at a checkpoint was in Baja California and I couldn't understand what the soldier told me, simply replied Frances and waited for him to signal me to leave.
Well this time I'm proud to say that I was able to understand what the soldier told me and to give answers in (broken) Spanish! The only thing I couldn't answer was "what's in this luggage?" as he pointed my tool case. So I told him "Es los tools por la moto senor". And that was it.
Very little victory, but victory nonetheless.

An hour after I was in Bacalar, just before the sunset. I started my search for a hotel. The place was hot and moist so I hoped I would find something quickly.
Well I didn't. I had some notes with names of hotels found on Trip Advisor. The first two were full, the third one didn't have internet, the fourth had a noisy bar downstairs (already suffered that the night before so that was a deal breaker). Finally after 90 minutes and going through every single road in the city (city which has no city center strangely enough) I found a room with air-con. It was 8.30pm, that'd be the end of my day.

I realize that this is a very long post, probably the longest so far. You'll understand that being unable to speak beyond "Soi Frances, maneje desde Canada hasta Brasil" with most people I meet there were thoughts I had to get off! Hope you won't mind.

Cheers,
Guillaume

1 comment:

  1. Hope you realize you wrote twice "End of the digression!" ...?
    It seems a very sensual journey at the moment...
    For the bumpers, I was also impressed in Brazil earlier this month, on motorways, how people speed and break just before bumpers - I mean they accelerate like hell even though it's mentioned there is another one 1km father, just to enjoy breaking in front of the next one... I suppose it's the local driving style.
    You're doing great with soldiers... I could only reply: "Frances, feria, familia"!

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