Pantomimed Culture Shock:

We were proceeding with a bold new experiment: rising with the dawn then cooking and eating rapidly to avoid biking in the ferocious sun. The first day worked out well; in just three and a half hours we rode the paved highway eighty kilometers through the flatlands between Choix and El Fuerte; by comparison we had averaged about twenty five to thirty kilometers a day on the rugged dirt roads between Batopilas and Choix. Situated along the banks of the Rio El Fuerte (The strong River) the climate of the town was humid sub-tropical. Laden with towering palm trees, several water fountains, and a lush garden, the central plaza was the most decadent of any city we had visited. I quickly fell in love with Agua Frio de Melon o Sandia (incredibly refreshing chilled drinks made from puréed cantaloupe or watermelon) that were sold along with Horchata and Pina Colada in the many nieverias throughout the town.

Jacob set to work updating the website at an internet café, Nate and Goat contented themselves with their books under the shade of the plaza’s Gazebo. Surmounted by the increasingly oppressive heat, I ventured off to find the best swimming spot in the river. Taking a dirt road down through the city outskirts, I passed a pleasant neighborhood –where older ladies watered their lush gardens- then a house with a few grazing animals –accompanied by the noxious stench of a rotting corpse- then a small tourist resort consisting of buildings with rooftops made of woven palm leaves. Finally I came to a riverside park, where several families were enjoying a relaxing Sunday outing. To my delight the water was cold; nearly as cold as the mountain spring waters of Basaseachi. Lying on my back, watching the wispy Cirrus clouds unfurl in the sky and the tiny islands of Hyacinth plants float by, I felt content to stay in the water forever and let the swift current propel me out to sea. When I finally climbed my way back up the river embankment, I was attacked instantly by a swarm of Mosqoes (tiny black biting flies). Conveniently my rear tire was flat, and so I sat with my patch kit and air pump and tried not to notice the endless pricks to legs and arms as hundreds of insects imbibed my blood.

A policeman rolled up to me on a four-wheeler.
“Una Espina?� He supposed that a thorn had punctured my tire.

I nodded. He began speaking rapidly, telling me about himself, and his family, praising the city of El Fuerte for its beauty and its friendly people. My Face on the other hand, poured more sweat than words. I managed on occasion to respond relevantly to his questions, which only encouraged him to complicate his stories more. After about ten minutes I lost the man’s train of thought completely, spaced out, yearned to throw myself back into the river for good. Luckily two girls passed by in skimpy swim suits with inner-tubes around their waists. They were certainly no older than sixteen, but the policeman didn’t miss a beat in intercepting them with stout flirtation. Hurriedly I pieced my bike back together and parted ways the chatter-box.

That night our beloved public plaza was transformed into a venue for an arts festival. A small stage was built up against a statue of a disembodied bronze head of some important city figure. Several performances involving the cultural traditions of Sinaloa were to be staged by students of the University of El Fuerte. By dusk the Plaza was flooded by locals of all age; little kids running around sucking on fruit popsicles, older couples sharing nibbles of roasted ears of corn topped with chili and lime, teen aged boys in groups of formidable size all with slicked back hair, serious expressions, and dapper attire marching through the crowds in search of chicas. The first performance involved a large band of college aged musicians. There were four guitarists and one bassist; they spent way too much time tuning their instruments between songs, so much so that at one point the sound engineer played tapped music to relieve the restless audience of the wait. Their songs were delicate and sluggishly off tempo. Sullen voices seemed to relate a despair that only deepened with the passage of time; I wondered if the singing would bring the audience to the brink of irreconcilable melancholy.

Luckily the next performance was conducted with a bit more vigor. A duo mime team enacted three rather puzzling stories – it was difficult in any case, to fathom any relevance to Sinaloan culture. In the first story, set to German industrial techno, the female mime is exploring some ancient tomb and awakens a terrifying mummy who chases her through intricate catacombs –invisible to the audience. In the second story, both mimes go fishing and end up fighting over the catch; it ends with the male mime being tricked into taking it just as a police officer comes about and arrests him for lack of license. The third story was set to psycadelic new age electronica music and involved some kind of sci-fi gun battle; both mimes getting trapped in force-fields. After the three Mime routines were finished Nate turned to me and asked if I had gotten anything out of the show. I had to admit that whatever theme the festival was adhering to was beyond my imagination.

For the last performance, a man and woman performed a style of dance from a Sinaloan native tribe. Both man and woman had miniature deer heads strapped on top of their own heads, maracas in each hand that they would scrape against a beaded belt fastened around the waist, and other shaker instruments strapped around the ankles. Their movements appeared painstakingly calculated, as though afraid that each step could awake some dreaded spirit in the shadows. Their alert eyes darted about the ground, sky, and surroundings as if intuitively compensating for their vulnerabilities to lurking predators. Both dancers were agile and well coordinated; their show made for a memorable ending to the night.

We spent the next day lounging around town till late in the afternoon. Jacob had tried organizing a basketball game with some locals – who had fed him beer and ceviche the day before – but had confused the appointed hour with morning time, when the locals meant to play at night. So when the temperature became somewhat bearable for athletic function we left the town. Along sidewalks paralleling the highway out of El Fuerte hundreds of people were getting in their hour of aerobic exercise; jogging, walking, pushing strollers or biking in a procession some three kilometers long. After experiencing nightly parades of families packed into automobiles driving endless circles along the main boulevard in Creel, we were happy to witness people taking their evening promenade without the use of fossil fuels.

Nonchalant in No-Man’s-land:

That night we slept upon a vast field of scorched earth. The ground bore gnarly scars of deep cracks and fissures in lightening bolt patterns; it was land long rendered impotent victim of some industrial agro-chemical. As I set up my therma-rest chair, I wondered what subterranean creature would crawl out from the mini-abyss and eat me alive.

As our cooking pot began to boil a high powered spot-light illuminated our camp sight. A half dozen or so soldiers jumped with boot-camp-precision over the barb-wire fence along the highway as if they were ramparts designating no-man’s land in wartime. Simultaneously cocking their weapons, they promptly had us surrounded. Instinctively we raised our hands over our heads and sat quietly and respectfully while the commander tried to understand who the hell we were.

“Somos gringos,� says Goat. “We’re just here to cook food and sleep. We’ll be biking to Los Mochis in the morning�.

The commander was hesitant to believe us at first. He had his men make the usual haphazard look over the surface contents of one or two of our bags, then all the men retreated back over the barbwire barrier and continued on down the road.

This being the second night-time raid of our camp in a week, it seemed probable that we would have to get used to the hands-in-the-air routine of diffusing volatile situations. Reflecting on the predicament we figured we might as well stake out a big sign advertising ‘Camp Gringo’, so that word would circulate that there are a bunch of crazies high on bikes.

Peace did not exactly descend upon our camp once the soldiers were gone; there was plenty of party activity down the street as some rural household blasted mariachi music until the late hours. A pair of rodents –or some rat sized creatures- were getting it on in a nest of twigs built up in a tree right above my sleeping area. Luckily however, no nightmarish creature crawled from the fissured earth to lay claim to my blood.

Jacob and Goat fell ill the next morning. Goat managed to eat all his breakfast, but Jacob had no appetite at all. Still he mounted his bike and began the big push to Los Mochis –about ninety kilometers. In the early morning hours Goat and Jacob stopped several times to relieve themselves on the side of the road. At any opportunity Jacob would buy Gatorades, cokes, juices, anything to help relieve his dehydration. While intent on reaching Los Mochis by mid-afternoon –so that we would still have enough sun to bike well beyond its urban limits- we stopped and rested every twenty kilometers or so, making sure Jacob didn’t suffer a physical collapse from the exertion on a zero calorie diet.

Closing in on Los Mochis proved a hectic twenty kilometers of continuous suburban sprawl. School had just been dismissed, and we found ourselves dodging caravans of buses pulling over into the shoulder to let out or pick up uniformed girls who offered mischievous ululations to our passing.

Los Mochis itself was a blur of near death experiences with merging city traffic. Nate, Goat and Jacob hung out inside an internet café while I –unsuccessfully- tried to develop some film. During that time, someone stole Nate’s helmet off his bike. A strange choice, since Nate’s helmet was liberally covered in duct tape – probably the least appealing available item and because no one in Mexico seems to ever wear a helmet. In just thirty minutes of being within the limits of Los Mochis we had cultivated such bitter distaste for its congested urban environment that we didn’t even bother picking up groceries for the evening’s meal. Nate bought a new helmet and we left for the toll-highway that would take us all the way to Mazatlån.

Running ‘Official’ Errands:

At first the toll road proved to be a terrifying experience. One semi-truck after another blasted passed us, each engaging its Jake-brake – the noise of which you can feel as tremors in your skull, as if the machinery itself were operating up against your temples. Nearly every single passing car honked their horns to expressing amused solidarity.

After the first ten Kilometers of toll road, Goat went into warp speed mode and passed us all by. Within fifteen minutes I had lost sight of him completely. I decided it better to wait at a convenient store to see how Jacob was fairing. Understandably he felt like a wreck, having biked 120 kilometers without ingesting any solid food. The three of us pushed on at a moderate pace hoping to catch sight of Goat before the dwindling twilight snuffed our safe passage along the highway shoulder. On the outskirts of Ruiz Cortines there was a turn-off for an alternate route heading east. Baffled at Goat’s disappearance, we felt it prudent to pull over and get a good nights rest.

Unfortunately finding a decent campsite proved problematic; the open land around Los Mochis was all large scale farm fields. We checked out a small side road that skirted an ancient corn processing plant with grain elevator. A sign on the high razor wire fence read ‘For rent or Sale’, a few men drinking beers by a water pump for field irrigation yelled jovially to us as we flew by, and a few dogs chained up inside the compound went wild as we skirted around the plant’s perimeter. We found a discreet location beneath a large tree, and attempted to settle down to a restful state of mind. Still suffering from some nervous energy, I decided to take my unloaded bike into the town of Ruiz Cortines to drink a few beers before bed. As I was hauling my bike over the dirt mound that blocked off the dirt road to our camp from the main paved road, a truck pulled up alongside of me. An older, disturbed looking man stepped out and immediately began interrogating me in Spanish.

“What are you doing here? Where are your other friends at?� He barked.

I explained to him that we were just riding our bikes toward Mazatlån, that we couldn’t find a place to pull over for the night, and wanted to sleep on the road skirting his field. Then I asked to verify if it was indeed his field; he nodded his head gravely that it was.

“You cannot sleep on this land; this is private property. I’m going to get the police to deal with you.� He immediately started signaling down the road where indeed there was a cop car; apparently the landlord had already notified the authorities of trespassers.

I tried reasoning with the landlord. “look… We’ll leave your land. We don’t want any trouble, we’ll leave and continue down the road… find a hotel.� I kept repeating the words, ‘No queremos problemas’, but the rest of my Spanish was slow and I was disoriented with this idea that someone could be this upset with simple bike bums. The land lord wouldn’t listen, and soon the police car came squealing to halt beside my bike. Three massive men with automatic rifles jumped out of the back of the car, immediately searched me for drugs. After this fear tactic had been invoked, the chief police officer –a relatively calm and young looking man much thinner than his cronies- asked me what I was doing. After a lengthy explanation, he quietly spoke, as if reflecting to himself, ‘you can’t sleep here’. I asked if there was a more convenient place nearby where we wouldn’t have any problems. He nodded and spoke of a few places –I only understood one word to mean a sort of public park area. Then the chief had his men go interrogate Jacob and Nate. At that point it was my understanding that they’d be made to pack up their stuff, and the police would show us to a better choice of sleeping arrangements. With that thought in mind I asked the chief man if I could go with the other officers to retrieve my bags, since they were left behind.

“No you have to stay here.� He declared sternly.

I persisted, but he ignored me. Then he asked my reasons for venturing back onto the road. All I had really wanted was a cold beer.
“Groceries.� I replied. “I just needed to get some food to cook a meal.�
“What is it that you eat?� he inquired.
“Just oatmeal, with fresh fruit.� I replied

A long silence passed and I wondered how much more I could bear being at the disposal of this officer. Then the man pointed up to a black helicopter that was roaming over the fields. It was maneuvering and surveying in stealth, without running lights, shedding no spotlights, not even the faintest glow of interior cabin lights (the pilot must have had to learn to operate the controls like a blind man).

“This is the drug enforcement people�. The chief commented.

Presently the three armed giants walked back, Nate and Jacob however were not trailing them as I had expected.

“Get your bike into the car�. Ordered the chief officer.
“Porque?� I protested; I really began to fear the worst.

They said some things that I didn’t quite catch. Finally, after having repeated ‘grocery store’ several times did I snap out of my paranoia. It became evident that they wanted to drive me to the grocery store. They assured me that we would be able to camp where we were without any further problems, and so relieved I went along with the plan.

I jumped into the back of the pickup truck, with my bike, and drove around with the law and order crew; we turned many heads –mostly young girls interested in the peculiar gringo. Once in front of the market the chief officer basically dragged me by the hand, asking me what it was I wanted. He walked very fast and looked increasingly pleased with himself for knowing the grocery store inside and out. I said I needed some mangos. He went through the slim selection of mangos feeling each fruit with his hand, then turned to me and said, ‘they’re no good, you should pick something else’. So I grabbed a bunch of bananas, and some avocados, while the officer made ready plastic bags to receive my selection. When I had everything necessary for a meal, the officer led me to the check out counter, and just before I was about to pay threw a book of matches at me without explanation. Maybe he was making sure that I’d have the ability to start a cooking fire? Having followed this peculiar leadership long enough, I figured my intimate time with the police would draw to a close. Unfortunately they insisted on driving me back to the campsite. This time they had set up a small stool covered with a towel for me to sit on. No doubt they all believed gringos to suffer emotional breakdowns when deprived of luxurious comforts for too long and had a good laugh in offering me this belittling throne. Once on the highway the chief officer pushed the accelerator to the floor, weaved around several cars, and probably hit over a hundred miles an hour before pulling off. One of the automatic-rifle-wielding giants laughed his head off while the oncoming wind threatened to remove mine.

They returned to the site of the initial confrontation. I wondered what happened to the angry landlord and how the police managed to pacify him. Before the officers left me to stumble back into the fields they imparted one last piece of advice.

“If you see our lights flashing like this…� the chief officer flipped the switch on his siren lights to illustrate. “It means there is trouble and you should leave.�

Approaching the campsite I found Jacob and Nate on the verge of passing out.
“Man, you left at the perfect time.� Said Nate. “These buff police guys came around a while ago. They didn’t say much, just listened to our usual gringo explanation and then left us alone.

“Yeah, sounds pretty rough.� I responded.
“How was your beer?� Jacob asks.
“Didn’t get around to it. But I was certainly more sociable than usual.�
“You mean, you’ve been hamming (conversing) it up all this time?� A weary Nate tried to understand.

“Man, the people of Ruiz Cortines aren’t satisfied until they’ve done everything in their power to make you feel at ease.� I tried to clarify my experience. “I’d go so far as to say I connected with some people on a spiritual level this night. By the way, I’ve got a bag full of dank food.�

It was tough work falling asleep that night; the climate too warm and muggy, the mosquitoes too noisy. In place of dreams I kept replaying a scene from the movie Full Metal Jacket in my head. A marine makes the comment: “We’re jolly green giants, with guns. When we go back to America we’re really going to miss not having anybody around who’s worth shooting at. I love these people!�
I wondered if my law enforcement friends would feel any pain of loss if there weren’t any strange gringos for amusement. Who else would be worth scaring the sh*t out of on a nightly basis?