May 2, 1997
Mazatlan to Mexico City - PART 1
2nd May - 1997 - ... a darkened hotel room in the depths of Mexico City - a step up from the one in Mazatlan in so much as there's a window with a view of a green(ish) tree and the predominant odor is of mild disinfectant rather than excrement. I'm lying on the bed listening to the hum of the largest city on the surface of the earth wafting in and out of the room like a swarm of hungry bees searching for honey - well its not exactly honey they're after, more like money with a capital "M". These bees are like the worker-bees in London, New York or any other megatropolis - thought, action and deed spurred on by the need to financially and psychologically survive an urban jungle where no one makes eye contact in the streets or on the metro for fear of accidentally cultivating unhealthy acquaintances. I've met more people during 20 minutes fixing a flat tyre on route 50 in the Nevada desert than I have in the past three days surrounded by 20 million. Weird - I've forgotten since San Francisco how dedicated modern cities are to serving the money God - and how lonely and alien they can feel as a result. Strange places - at times lonelier than oceans.
Having said that - as cities go it's steamin'. If taken in small doses like any other high-grade fuel. Walking around the Tacubaya district for half an hour on my first evening - with its screaming chaos of worker-bees wrestling out of the metro to get home to their families, sweltering taco-chefs working their grill-pans like Tecno DJ's spinning rave to acid-teens, drunks vomiting a potent blend of tequila and tacos at/on my feet, children hawking one peso candy in pre-pubescent monotone shrills that cut through the head like a razor - and I felt like I'd been sucked in and spat out by an industrial washer-dryer; well chewed-up but exhilarated. Reminded me of Naples, Italy - a dynamic jumble of humanity teetering on the brink of its destiny and nearly re-writing it in the process. People living - and I mean really living - squeezing the last few drops out of it all until there's only pips and peel left.
The video and stills cameras are all out with students from three local secondary schools filming for the second of the two Mexican VEP films (Video Exchange Program) and the new Internet Photo Program which will see personal potrayals of life in Mexico - from the perspective of students using plastic 35 mm cameras we carry with us on the bikes - scanned onto the expedition web-site. That leaves me to crack out this update, rest up from the hard mountain ride from Mazatlan and work my way through 75 eggs which were on special offer at the local market (a move which seemed good at the time but one that I am subsequently regretting on account of knowing only three cooking methods - boiling, frying and scrambling).
At the end of the last update I mentioned the need to 'detox' from the railroad schedule of the expedition, take a step back from it all and re-assess why? - why am I doing this - do I want to be here or am I just going through the motions out of habit? Well, a day out from Mazatlan on the road to Tepic, a chain of events was initiated that resulted in a fresh energy and focus to my traveling - a rebirth of sorts that I was badly needing.
I was entering the small town of Palmillas (3,000 pop) at the end of the first day out from the coast. I passed some commercially grown palm-trees a little ways off the road - one of which was under siege by a cartoon-like tower of five or six small boys standing one on top of the other's shoulders stealing coconuts. Fascinated by this fearless act of acrobatic lunacy, I stopped to enjoy the free entertainment at the same time taking the opportunity to rest my weary legs. After a few minutes the inevitable happened and the whole lot came crashing down like a pack of cards. Out from beneath a cursing pile of arms and legs squeezed the smallest of the bunch - clutching a coconut tight to his chest like a scrum-half smuggling a rugger-ball out from beneath a scrum - setting off at high speed in my direction with the others in hot pursuit.
Seeing that he was about to be out-run, the wretched child launched the thing in my direction as he raced past - hoping no doubt to lessen the terrible repercussions that would inevitably be incurred were he to hang onto it. Now here's a problem. I'm left holding a 'hot' piece of property above my head and five angry killer-bees swarming at my legs trying to get to it. Thing is if I give it to one - I'm dead meat from the others. Also the largest of them is waving a hefty looking machete in my direction. Training from my old Karate days kicks in and I act automatically without thinking - I give the coconut to the one with the machete...
12 - 1.cam ...which turns out to be the right move - the hot potato is now with the guy who asks questions not gives answers. The others, realising negotiations are over, jabber something in Spanish to Senor Machete and after a brief pause (during which I fear the worst), he lops the top off the nut with a couple of deft flicks of the blade and hands it to me for first draw - watching my face intently for the response. I feel a bit like 'The Man from Del Monte' as the milk - or agua (water) as they call it in Mexico - runs down the back of my parched throat like molten honey. The 'Man from Del Monte' can't even nod his head let alone say YES!!! - 'cos he's got his eyes closed dreaming of south pacific islands and corny Bacardi ads. However the little savages get the gist that it's a positive response and smiles break out all round as I confirm this with an appreciative belch and pass the coconut onto the next in line.
12 - 2.cam I'm really touched by their spontaneous generosity, and before too long we have forged a curious friendship without much of a clue as to what the other is saying - a friendship that was to grow over the next ten days spent in Palmillas shooting the first of the Latin American films for the Video Exchange Program - many of the film-makers that participated seen here in the picture.
12 - 3.cam I ended up taking up an offer from Nata - seen here third from the right - to spend the night at his Uncle's house in town. The next day I left the Raleigh and all my gear in the backyard and set off into the mountains for what was to be a three day meditation and fast to re-assess where I was going with the expedition. Part 2 of this update talks more about this experience for those interested. Suffice to say here that during the course of those 80 hours of basically doing nothing - in which I rediscovered a sense of self and purpose previously lost in the cogs of the expedition-machine since getting off the boat in Miami - it also occurred to me what a great group of friends these kids would be to make the first Mexican film for the VEP.
It was originally planned to do the first film at the American Foundation School in Guadalajara - two hundred miles to the south. But the feel was right with these kids and their town, and I'm a great believer in the personal link when creating anything in life where 'quality' is intended.
For those not familiar, the Video Exchange Program (VEP) is designed to provide a channel of communication between young people from different cultures - using cheap domestic video camcorders to make short films translated into different languages and distributed to other countries. The aim is to disseminate very real and candid portraits of how people live around the world as an alternative to the more distorted versions currently on offer from financially and politically motivated global media. Light entertainment soaps such as 'Beverly Hills 90210' and 'Baywatch' are considered by Mexican kids to be the way teenagers in the US look and act in real life; girls are basically paranoid bimbos, boys chisel-chinned cheese-cakes. It really does filter through; biking down the Baja peninsular earlier in the trip, Carol, Jenny and Theresa never had a moments peace from guys who assumed that being 'gringas' (American girls) they were looser than Mexican girls.
The screen has been mightier than the pen for quite a few years now, washing through minds like embalming fluid. The truth is more often than not left out in the cold - not conducive to increasing viewing figures and subsequent advertising revenue.
Every part of the VEP film process including the filming itself, translation into other languages and editing is executed by youngsters themselves - with the minimum of adult supervision. The film-makers are asked to try and capture the essence of their lives and local environment with as much spontaneity and natural flow as the cameras allow - imagining themselves in the shoes of someone in another country and filming what they might find interesting. It could be as simple as differences in eating habits; for example in Mexico people use maize tortillas to transfer food from plate to mouth, as opposed to more westernized countries that use cutlery. Often more interesting however are the similarities - such as the fact that 16 year old girls in Mexico spend a great deal of time discussing boys - the same as they do in most other countries, or that a lot of time and effort is invested by teenagers into illegally procuring 'cerveza' (beer) to get buzzed. The language tends to be confusing at first - and some of the surface 'labels' - but underneath Mexican youngsters are really no different to youngsters in any other country in my opinion.
Perhaps seeing through these cultural differences to the similarities that lie beneath (by seeing VEP films from other countries) will help youngsters break individual cycles of racism and general intolerance of differences in others that get passed down from parent to child, generation after generation. Intolerance is a multi-pronged word covering a variety of conditions dependent upon the individual concerned, and it would be wrong to make sweeping generalizations and propose a 'one remedy cures all' based on 'objective' truth. There do seem however to be two strong themes worth mentioning here - the first being relevant to VEP; that of a person's fear of 'perceived differences' in others and the threat these perceived differences pose to existing patterns of familiarity and security in that person's life (try riding something as unfamiliar as a bicycle past a dog in rural Mexico and you get the same result). The second is directly related to the first and could almost be said to be the root cause in many cases - that of the fear of what lies within - the dark, uncharted headwaters of the inner-self that are easier avoided than confronted; self-esteem normally paying the price of this neglect. I know for myself that fear of perceived differences in others only reflect fear of perceived differences in myself. I remember on the Atlantic - when my self-esteem and mood were low I became hyper-critical of Steve and his actions. When I was 'up' however he could be doing the most bloody annoying thing in the world (don't worry Steve - I won't tell anybody) and it wouldn't bother me. So the problem was with me and my self-esteem, not him.
Most importantly of all the films are fun to make - for me and for the kids who produce them. The moment they cease to be so is the time to knock it on the head like with anything in life, however noble the cause (something expedition film-maker Kenny Brown once told me). If its fun - chances are the films will turn out good. In addition the film-makers get to create something that is exhibited to a diverse international audience and aside from how much effect the films have on this audience, the creative process of seeing a project through to its fruition is great for building self-esteem for all involved (and we all need a bit of that).
I try and be as self-critical as possible with the educational activities I'm involved in. If there's one thing that I'm paranoid of - its self-righteous do-gooding that meddles with other people's lives in the name of 'saving the world'; man basically playing at God. I freely admit that for me its primarily all about having a laugh (I feel more comfortable very often with the candid honesty of under 18 yr. olds), and fulfilling a need to create something. Both purely selfish motives I'm afraid.
"...Live and trust by your heart's deepest desires, and change the world by example from the inside out..."
If you would like more information on the VEP you can refer to the 'School's Section' on this web-site. You might be into doing a video of your own from whichever country you're from - all you need to do is send in the raw footage and we'll organize the rest. To get involved please E-Mail April Mann
Also we are in pressing need of financial sponsors to help cover the cost of producing the Latin American films. We have an V.H.S. off-line edit suite and we are hoping Tandem Computers will be able to provide the on-line services - so the major costs are covered. But we still need funding for tapes, distribution etc. If you like the idea of the program and would like make a voluntary contribution of whatever you can afford, we'll send you copies of the films produced. Checks payable to "April Mann c/o The Expedition" - mail address as above.
12 - 4.cam Palmillas; this is one of the film-makers shooting a traditional Mexican sugarcane harvest dance called El Epicotas (from the Tamaulipas region in the north) being rehearsed for the local dance festival in a few days time...
12 - 5.cam ...and the performance itself, costumes and all.
12 - 6.cam The leader of the above dance-troupe is Angel - seen here behind brother Chon the Uncle of Nata. The pair kindly put me up in their house for the ten days I stayed in Palmillas. They are both gay and very open about it - even in public; something I initially assumed would be hard to sustain in such an overtly machismo country like Mexico (not exactly San Francisco). However I was surprised to observe how accepting and non-judgmental the local townsfolk were, even though the gossip for the first few days was that Chon had a new English boyfriend - kept us both amused for a while!
Like I mentioned in the last update with reference to the way of the individual when biking on the roads in Mexico, treatment of minority groups - such as gays - seems to boil down to the unwritten code of conduct in Mexican culture that you accept the free choice of individuals around you without question - so long as it doesn't adversely affect the physical health of yourself or others. Personal opinion about the 'right' or 'wrong' way to behave doesn't count for much here - an attitude I have to admit I find highly refreshing from the self-righteousness of Europe and to lesser degree the US. I reckon gays get more genuine tolerance here than they do in a lot of PC communities in Europe and the US.
12 - 7.cam This is Sergio, standing with his eyes closed (my fault - bad photo) outside Chon and Angel's house. He is 13 years old, a keen long-distance runner, very bright and thoroughly motivated as far as what he wants to do in life (gave me a few ideas). We made plans for him to come out to England in three years time when he reaches 16, and run the last 70 miles to Greenwich to finish the expedition with us; the pattern of the expedition seeming to suggest that if we say something is going to happen - even if we haven't got the foggiest how - somehow it comes together. Its a great game - turning dreams and ideas into reality by just talking about them like they're destined to happened; much of this magic lying in that blind faith in the people-power phenomenon that keeps the expedition chugging along from one hurdle to the next.
Sergio is interested in making links with people in other countries - see his pen-pal letter on the new PEN -PAL section of web-site if you'd like to write to him.
And if you are an individual or school interested in making connections in other countries, you can send in your own letter by electronic mail to
12 - 8.cam Palmillas has two main sources of economic revenue - chilis and shrimp. The chilis are grown in the foothills of the 'Cerro del Muerto' (dead man) mountains, dried on the roofs of the houses in the town (as in the photo) and then sold in local towns and more distant markets such as Guadalajara.
12 - 9.cam 80% of the men from the town work on 'canoas' - 15 foot open dug-outs used to harvest shrimp from the local 'Marisma' - a maze-like network of saltwater lakes and rivers that stretch for hundreds of square miles inland to the north, west and south. The canoas are individually owned by the people who operate them. There are no companies or controlling monopolies. If you don't feel like working one day - or you feel a 'sickie' coming on - there's no boss to call up and have to lie to.
No one in the town subsequently seems to make a lot of money, and if you came out with lines like 'maintaining monthly profit margins' - no-one would know what the hell you're on about. But I'll be honest - of all the countries I've been to over the past eleven years, I've never met a bunch of happier people than those living in Palmillas. If they're not working (which isn't much of the time), they're either eating, sitting around each others houses laughing at stupid jokes or sleeping. Most noticeable of all they're always smiling and hardly ever argue. They don't need healthcare plans and insurance policies because if someone can't work or needs an operation - everyone chips in and helps out. They don't need mortgages because there are no building codes or land taxes and friends just get together and build you a house - and you trade with whatever skills or limited funds as and when you can. All business is conducted on a trust basis (just like in the old days). People just look after each other here like we're all meant to; 'what comes around goes around' is their version of a Blue Cross Health Insurance policy.
The root of the community in Palmillas lies in family, friends and a basic respect for other human beings - even if you don't know them from Adam. Instead of climbing the career ladder, making loads of dosh and buying the latest whatever being advertised on the tube, people value each other; their resource in times of necessity being the folk living next door rather than a bank account in a city hundreds of miles away. When parents grow old they know they'll be looked after by flesh and blood rather than shipped off to a $1000 a week granny-farm by their grown-up children who just don't have the time to do it themselves because of 'work pressures' and the need to meet the monthly payments.
As well as making me stop and consider what's really important in my life, the Palmillas community taught me ...
12 - 10.cam ...how to make chicken and pineapple tamales - courtesy of Joanna here.
12 - 11.cam ...how to make bread with Alberto who prefers to make all his bread by hand because according to him "it tastes better". The town can tell whether he's having a good or a bad day, whether his wife is beating him up etc. because it's reflected in how the bread tastes.
"My bread is part of me - my personality," he informed me with a broad grin. "There's more love and laughter in this bread than bread made by a machine".
He was right - the bread straight from his oven tasted pretty damn good - but there again it might have been because we are all laughing so much - who knows...
So my time in Palmillas was truly special. Not least because of the degree of acceptance and hospitality that was extended to me by every person I met during my stay - even the town drunks. When you're traveling you only 'know' people for a few days at a time -sometimes only for a few minutes and then its back on the road again. After a while this can really get to you as I was beginning to find out in Mazatlan. For the first time since leaving the US I felt part of a family and a community rather than just an outsider tourist-object to be potentially exploited. Thanks Palmillas - one of the few places I reckon I could live after this expedition finishes.
And if you like fresh shrimp - and you're traveling on a shoestring through Mexico. Stop in Palmillas - its shrimp-tastic!
The road to Tepic proved nightmareishly narrow as I had been warned by Jan Fossgard, whose wheel ruts I am currently following in on the road south. Jan did a similar bike-trip some years ago and kindly E-mailed me from England with local advice and contacts for each country I'll be passing through - one of the perks of lugging a laptop along.
12 - 12.cam After Guadalajara, Jan's promise of wider roads and breath-taking mountain scenery turned out good - this photo taken with the digital camera just outside Maravatio de Ocampo, 150 kms west of Mexico City. There's no such thing as a free lunch though, and much of my time during these mountain episodes was spent standing up in the Raleigh's stirrups, grinding away in first gear (only 3 to choose from) and staring at the road directly ahead, cursing my cotton-wool headed notions of taking a 30 year old fully-laden antique weighing in at 160 lb to Peru.
12 - 13.cam The road did flatten out for a couple of miles on day three along side of this lake - 'laguna de Cuitzeo'. Very beautiful high sierra as you can tell by the picture - spoilt I'm afraid by a gorilla that managed to get its head in the way at the last minute.
12 - 14.cam Roadside cheese for sale. Someone once told me that you'll never starve in Mexico. That's true - food is everywhere, and very cheap. I hardly need to carry any stores with me as chances are I'll run into a roadside taco-stand sooner or later. A full meal comes out to around 15 pesos - $2. Subsequently I am currently getting by on around $4-5 per day while on the move.
The only slightly perturbing experience in an otherwise peaceful ride was a rather ferocious attack by a stray dog early in the morning on my way out of Guadalajara. One look at its salivating chops as it hurled itself at me and the Raleigh and RABIES bells started ringing through my head. I've had rabies pre-exposure vaccines which are supposed to give you a stay of execution for a few days until you can get to clinic for more shots, but I wasn't keen on testing this theory. Leaping from the saddle I swiftly disengaged the long-handled tyre pump from its housing on the frame and with one hand steadying the bike took an 'en guard' stance in anticipation of the attack...
I was never much good at 'foil' or 'epee' during my brief fencing career at school - too dainty and girlie for my pre-historic gait. I much preferred the bludgeoning strokes of the saber that felt far more satisfying and required far less skill (or at least seemed to). Now however was not the time to reflect on the past. Now was now - time to get stuck in! As many times as the rabid mutt lunged at me though the frame of the Raleigh, I neatly countered with stiff ripostes to its glistening snout - the pump proving itself to be a most excellent weapon having the added bonus of a telescopic extension. Round and round the Raleigh we twirled for what seemed like a bloody long time; man, beast and bicycle locked in the eternity of the moment that only mortal combat can bring (OK - I agree that's a bit O.T.T.). Our performance was brought abruptly to a close however by a passing security guard cum policeman (can't really tell in Mexico as everyone seems to carry a gun), who dispatched the animal with his shotgun.
I'd heard stories of tourists being charged hundreds of dollars for running over stray dogs that suddenly become beloved family pets after the accident, so I was keen to leave the traumatic scene asap. However, even a trace of saliva from a rabid animal is enough to be a problem, so I agreed to wait around until a local lab did tests on the animal - a process that apparently would take only a few hours. Five hours later there was still no word from the clinic in Guadalajara when I called - indeed the body had never even arrived. Sensing a typical Mexican 'manana' deal here (I'd just spent two days battling with customs at the airport in Guadalajara for the release of one of the VEP cameras sent from the States), I decided to do some detective work starting at the police station. It transpired the animal had never made it any further than the kitchen, indeed most of the carcass had already been dismembered for the freezer by the time I arrived (dog being considered very edible in Mexico). Only the head remained which I persuaded the sergeant to send pronto to the clinic - even though I was assured by the boys in blue there was "Nothing whatsoever wrong with it".
"In fact you should try some - its really very good," said the sergeant waving a hind leg at me.
"I'm sure" I muttered under my breath as I pretended not to fully understand his halting English, preferring instead to make my excuses without seeming too rude and making a hasty exit to the parking lot and the fresh air it offered.
Turned out the next day the police were right - the dog was clear. I still couldn't bring myself to take the sergeant up on his offer though. I guess that's two things in life I'll never try.
12 - 15.cam The ride from Toluca - a satellite town 60 km to the west of Mexico City - over the mountains into Mexico City was the predictable cattle-drive I was anticipating. I was expecting the pollution to be overwhelming having heard second-hand horror stories back in the States - but in reality it's no worse here than any other big city I've been in. Actually its pretty clean for a city - the streets are brushed on a regular basis and the metro is spotless and very efficient.
Far more hazardous to my health turned out to be the customer service I received while walking into a supermarket minutes after taking this photo - stupidly still wearing the smog-mask. I was half way across to the checkout desk when I was grabbed from behind and rammed up against the wall with a shot-gun thrust into the small of my back. Attempting to explain in horrible Spanish smothered by a smog-mask that I was only wanting to ask directions and that I was not intent on robbing the store proved to be a major challenge. By the time I was ejected from whence I came by a disappointed teen-age security guard with chronic acne - who was itching to reenact the final scenes of 'Cobra' starring Sylvester Stallone in which Sly manages to take out an entire LA drugs cartel in the Seven-Eleven without taking his sunglasses off - I felt well initiated into the delicate in's and out's of Mexico City customer service.
So that brings me up to the now. In a few days time when the VEP film is completed I will continue south towards Oaxaca and then Chiapas - beating out as many miles into Guatemala before the rains start in June. The mosquitoes will be my traveling companions from now on; I need to go out now and change the 'malaria' tablets I bought a couple of days ago from the local pharmacy where no spoke a word of English - turns out I've been taking birth control pills for the past 48 hours. Still - at least there's no chance of getting pregnant from now on till Peru - I'm lugging enough weight up the hills as it is.
Jenny is apparently catching up from Mazatlan having been traveling Baja for the past few weeks since going her separate way in San Francisquito prior to the kayak crossing of the Sea of Cortez. It'll be good to catch up on her adventures. Also Steve and Eilbhe are back in the States - so look out for an update from them. So till next time from out here on the road - Suerte! - and us some feedback if you'd like - firstname.lastname@example.org
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PART 2 - Detoxing in the mountains. Palmillas.
I decided to do a pretty hard-core fast typical of Native American cultures - without water, food or sleep. The reason for this being that I not only needed to flush out my gut, but also my head. I find its when a point of severe fatigue is reached - physically, mentally and spiritually - that I finally let go of many of the day to day matters of consequence my mind builds up to be so cast-iron in importance - and realise they're no more fixed and imposing than a dream. It's in this state of surrender to the universe that the truth comes out. Its rather like a re-birth - or resurrection of true self. The answers I seek come welling up from within and everything becomes clear and definable - as if a damp rag has been wiped across the dirty wind-shield in front of me. Suddenly the road ahead becomes obvious - hindrances such as broken down vehicles and debris littering the road that I would normally collide with are easily avoided.
(N.B. - the reason why I am using so much reference to the first person here is because I believe generalizing objectively on matters of the mind is a dangerous business; I feel more comfortable assuming the theoretical probability that I am the only person to have witnessed a particular phenomenon or thought - (even though I may suspect otherwise - else why would I be bothering to write this and you taking the trouble to read it?). I think it is up to each individual reader to make a personal connection to the topic being aired - editing out what is of specific interest (if anything) to them. Even if it turns out that the subject in question is an objective truth applicable to every single person in the world - it is still not my prerogative to assume so by using the proverbial "you", "one" or "we". That is a privilege to be exercised out of personal choice by the reader only. Please then excuse the "me, me, me - I, I, I" language, but it's for good reason.)
I find a mountain an excellent venue to 'flush the mind'. For one there is minimal distraction from external stimuli. Second there is the feeling of looking down on the world below and my life that is inter-twined within it. It gives some have perspective on 'problems' and it's easier for me to make the definition between them and myself.
Before setting out I chose a rocky outcrop near the peak of the 'Cerra de Muerto' mountain as a good isolated spot with a clear view to the west. It took me a good five to six hours to climb to the outcrop - far longer than I anticipated due largely to the steep ravines and thick forest vegetation that impeded my progress. By the time I pulled myself over the upper-most lip of the crag onto the summit, darkness was setting in. I stripped off all my clothes (unwanted external stimuli) and squatted down by a rather dilapidated cactus that looked like it was ready to hand the look-out duties to me for a while. I picked off the ticks that were scrambling up my legs having climbed on board from the hike and settled down to just doing nothing except waiting for however long it took to free the log-jam. I had no idea in what form it would manifest itself - suffice to say I assumed I would know when (and if) it showed.
The first night was the hardest of the three. My mind was fidgety and unfocused from being in 'corporate America' mode for so long and not having mediated for well over a year. I thought back to the last time I spent a full day on my own - and I had a vague recollection of such an event nearly two years previous just before I was hit in Colorado on my skates. A lot of personal energy in Miami, Colorado and San Francisco has been directed outwards dealing with expedition 'stuff'. Very little of it focused inwards to dealing with 'self' - like I was able to do on the Atlantic crossing. Not that one is more important than the other; rather the balance between the two.
By the end of the second day, 'Time' - or at least the man-made version of hours, minutes and seconds was beginning to loosen its hold on my attention. My meditation bouts became longer and less laborious and the only concept of 'Time' I had was the passage of the sun across the sky during the day, and the moon across the sky at night. Thirst was never the problem I was expecting it to be during the 80 hours I was out there - certainly food wasn't. I fell asleep a couple times on the first two nights - something that was not to be an issue on the third because of the rain...
Early on the third evening the wind gradually picked up from the south and spots of rain began to gently tap my back in gathering rhythm and tempo. I knew I had to move from my spot to avoid getting drenched and the overhang underneath the crag I was sitting on seemed the best bet. Perched on a short lip, huddled into a slim crevice in the side of the rock-wall provided sufficient shelter until later in the night when the wind veered to the east and the rain threatened to move me on once again.
I had three options - to make a move now and try and find a better overhang or ideally a cave in the rock-face nearby; to stay put and hope hypothermia didn't set in by the morning; or try and make it back to town. The latter option I dismissed at once - it had taken me a good six hours in daylight to make it up here, it would probably take double the time in the dark - and although the movement would keep hypothermia at bay, negotiating the steep ravines with no moonlight to assist (due to cloud cover) might prove lethal. The only sensible thing was to move while I was still warm and look for alternative shelter close by.
In the pitch black I slid into the ravine - hanging onto wet creepers when I could grab a hand-hold - most of the time skidding on my backside. Each shadowy rock-face that potentially promised respite from the rain turning out on closer inspection to be as exposed as the last. After half an hour of blundering though the rain and darkness I was beginning to panic. I'm normally pretty good at keeping a clear head, but I was seriously beginning to doubt my sanity for coming up here in the first place with no food, water or protection from the elements. Who the hell did I think I was? - some kind of Zen Wanna-Be impervious to nature - what arrogance!
I came to rest at the bottom of the ravine. I had reached 'the wall' both geographically and psychologically - time to do some praying I thought to myself. There's not much else to be done when all the cards are played out. Sitting hunched in with my legs up to my knees to conserve heat, my eyes rested on a pile of boulders a little ways up to my left. One more effort I persuaded myself, - just one more - go the extra mile...
As has happened an uncanny number of times in the past - keeping the faith and going the extra mile when the end of the tether has been reached produces the result I need. One of the rocks provided an overhang of sorts with enough room to stretch out away from the wet. Not exactly the Hilton I thought to myself, but it certainly felt like a palace relative to my situation two minutes ago. Sharp rocks digging into my back kept me awake all night - a blessing in disguise as my forced movements had the dual effect of producing heat and keeping me warm.
At first light the rain cleared and I was able to make a move. The climb back up the ravine was painfully slow - by now I was 70 hours into the fast and all power had been drained from my muscles. Each step necessitated a conscious mental decision - like the mentality required for climbing long, steep hills on a bike; mind persuading matter to keep going.
By the time I heaved myself back over the lip of the overhang for the second time in three days it was midday and I was completely exhausted. I had no energy to meditate, no energy to move - save for lying outstretched in the morning sun and trying to regain some semblance of strength. It occurred to me that I was not in the greatest of shape to make it back down the mountain safely whenever that time should come. I was still determined to wait until whatever I had come up here to find showed itself, but the longer I waited the more dangerous the hike back would be. Even thinking logically like this required energy - and I didn't have any left. Instead I sank back into the rock like cheese melting on toast - and let the universe come to me for a change - rinsing through mind and body like a cleansing tide of fresh mountain stream water...
I lay watching eagles rising and falling on the thermals, using existing power to get where they wanted to go, rather than fighting this power with the limited power of their wings. I learnt from them...
I lay watching parties of paradise birds swooping from tree to tree, screaming with laughter as only a group in high spirits can, each feeding off the energy of the others. And I learnt from them...
I lay feeling bare rock beneath my naked body and how it had protected me from the rain - the frailty of a human frame lost in the storm with no shelter, gradually succumbing to the elements. I had been reminded of my humility and I learnt from rock also...
I lay remembering rainwater, how it flowed around rock, adapting and assuming whatever shape necessary to keep going where it needed to go to fulfill its ultimate destiny - the sea. And I learnt from water...
I lay marveling at the rainbow made by sun and rain combining to create a magical third entity - but without losing their own individual identities. And I learnt from them too...
It was during the afternoon on the third day while I was contemplating these lessons that nature had to offer, that I was rewarded with a freeing of log-jam that was the reason for me being up there in the first place. It wasn't a sudden enlightenment or blinding flash of vision into the future. Rather it was a reminder of something I already knew but had forgotten. It was a state of mind I had achieved and managed to sustain while pedaling across the Atlantic but had somehow lost since being on dry land; that of living in the eye of the moment and using the future only as a yardstick to refer to for perspective every now and then. I remembered part of a poem I had penned at the time - sometime around day 80 into the voyage...
" Out here it is simple, we live for the day,
No frills or distractions to pull us away...
From the heart of the moment, the crux of the deed,
That celebrates nothing but satisfies need..."
During the course of the 111 day voyage getting to Miami was always the primary concern, (otherwise we might still be out there!). But to facilitate this objective, I paradoxically found it more effective to forget about getting to the other side and concentrate instead on the detail of living in the here and now - doing each little thing one at time as if it was the last thing on earth I was destined to do. Even my pedaling shifts became wholly absorbing which had the indirect effect of increased performance and more miles a day covered.
"Its good to have an end to journey towards,
But it's the journey that matters in the end..."
I find the future and the present are like a double edged sword - moving forward smoothly on a finely balanced knife-edge that is hard to achieve let alone maintain. Throwing a grappling iron onto the ramparts of the castle wall is necessary in order to get to the top - but it's the feel of the rope between the fingers, the searching for footholds in the crevices of the wall, the steady rhythm of muscles flexing and releasing from one milli-second to the next that's where its at. The present is real, the future is fantasy waiting to become present and real. They need to be in balanced unison with each other for 'flow' to occur - the positive feedback cycle in nature in which one phenomenon feeds off the momentum of another until a state of 'self-perpetuation' is reached - with minimal external energy required for sustained performance.
"Nothing exists outside the moment - the future is just illusion..."
Until the time when future becomes present it is completely changeable and open to revision. To think future is any more real than this - for example because of the expectations of others - will topple the balance and undermine the eternity of the moment. It's very similar to the balance between realism and idealism. Too much emphasis on realism and stagnation occurs - for example getting stuck in a 'rut' after leaving university. Too much idealism - future plans and dreams - and nothing ever gets done; just lots of dynamic ideas that never get leave the drawing board. In both cases forward-flow is thwarted; thought without action being useless - the same as action without thought. Its like riding a horse - squeeze with only one or other leg and the animal will only go sideways. Squeeze with both at the same time like squeezing a tube of toothpaste and it will go forward.
Progress = Static Reality (realism)
Dynamic Imagination (idealism)
I had lost this balance since arriving back into the world of men in Miami - as I suspected I would while still out on the water. That's why I was half dreading getting off the boat - I knew the bubble would burst and I'd get sucked back into the mediocrity of 20th century 'civilized' living where there's more emphasis on where to chuck the grappling iron next than actually climbing the wall. Trouble is I've always found it hard not to be affected by what everyone else around me is doing.
I realised that I should forget about getting to Peru in a certain time-frame, indeed forget about getting around the world altogether. Just refer to it every now and then like poking a yard-stick out into the swirling current ahead of me if I needed to. If my way is not to end up in Peru or not to finish the expedition, it'll become obvious to me if and when the time comes, so long as I live by the eye of the heart and not just the mind. Should this time come I will no doubt be presented with making a seemingly 'arbitrary' choice to take another path - paradoxically (I believe) a path already set by 'destiny'; the trick to making 'right' choices and fulfilling this 'destiny' being devotion to the heart's deepest desires. Don't try and play too much at being 'God', I told myself. Rest assured that the continuous carpet of whatever is meant to be is unraveling exactly as heaven has planned it - even the stuff that seems really bad.
I was ready to return once again to the crazy world of men - and start working on re-incorporating this new/old way back into my life. I knew it wouldn't be a magical flick of the switch thing though - I'm really lazy at kicking bad habits and I have to constantly work at myself like maintaining any other piece of machinery made in the UK.
My next dilemma I thought to myself was how to get down from the mountain in my weakened state. "IDIOT!! " - I caught myself just in time, - "Had I forgotten already!?"
I realised getting down the mountain was to be my first application of this new way. My awareness (with the eye of the heart) of every step I was taking became greatly heightened; I savoured the picking up of the heel first, then the ball, then the transfer of weight to the other foot and most importantly the placing of the air-borne foot on a suitable piece of ground in front of me in the reverse order that it was picked up. Each step a meditation - as unique an individual in its creation and existence as any human being on this planet - but part of a collective whole that together forms unified flow benefiting all participants; like individual steps strung together to create the continuity of walking.
If I started to think too much about each step (with the eye of the mind) - flow would be interrupted and I'd fall. Just witnessing and being aware of the process was enough; the rest took care of itself. I realised that a big part of the reason for coming up here was to be doing what I was doing right now - walking like a jungle panther on velvet pads through the forest - re-learning the way of resonance within myself and with the universe like it was the last thing on earth I was destined to ever do...
By the time I reached the outskirts of town I was in a hypnotic trance in tune with each step. I realised that several hours must have passed since setting out - but I had no recollection of them - they had never existed for me. Time had ceased to hold any meaning during that period - at least the man-made version of hours, minutes and seconds. Like future, time ceases to hold a recognizable value in the eye of the moment - that's the neat thing about 'quality' thoughts, actions and deeds (if I can sustained them). Time is removed from consciousness like a windbreak - allowing freeflow living. A bit bloody scary I think to myself while floating through the streets back to Chon and Angel's house - that theoretically I could live a lifetime in less than it takes a hummingbird to beat its wings once.
Posted on May 2, 1997 5:08 AM