Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Into the Great Unknown
I lingered at South Padre Island and got a little more reading done on the beach before I left. Downed a few last gas station breakfast tacos, as I don’t know if those are a thing in Mexico. They didn't have the classic bacon-egg-cheese, so all this time in Texas, I've eaten at least a dozen breakfast tacos, but not "normal" ones with bacon.
I barely had to do any riding to make it to Brownsville. I stopped at the bank to deposit all my American cash and take care of an issue with one account, then headed up to my WarmShowers host.
The actual person on WarmShowers was a young woman named Grace Mendel, but the house was her parents'. Marie graciously showed me in and had me take a shower, then explained their living situation. Her husband was a math professor in Florida, and they moved here when he got a position at UT-Brownsville. They thought it would be just like Florida, but it's not. "Northern Mexico" as Marie described it. They intend to move up north somewhere whenever the opportunity strikes. So a lot of their stuff was still packed up, even though they'd been here a few months, and would be here at least a year more.
I wondered for a while why someone from Florida would ever want to move up north, and then a few of those "oo-wah" sounds betrayed a New Yoo-wahk accent. Turns out that's where she's from, though I have no idea about her husband. They've lived just about everywhere though, including Sweden.
Their house had thousands upon thousands of books in it. I thought I had a lot, maybe a couple hundred. I was impressed!
Marie offered to take me out to dinner and gave me my choice of places to go. Of all things, I picked Mexican.
I arose early the next morning, intending to cross the border early and put a great distance between myself and the border as soon as possible. I understand the border is the most dangerous part of Mexico, so by getting away from it, I'd feel safer.
I walked across the pedestrian bridge and looked down at the Rio Grande. Even here, only a few kilometers from the ocean, the mighty river was reduced to maybe six meters wide, if that, and probably only one meter deep.
The border guards asked what was in my bags and had me open two, then let me go. That was easy!
Matamoros is not quite night-and-day from Brownsville, but if you were to compare it to 15 km north of the border, it almost is. An hour before, I was riding on a wide frontage road where the highway cuts a swath hundreds of meters across, populated by Chili's and Targets, each establishment with more than enough parking spaces. Now I was on the largest road in town, barely two lanes wide, with only about a meter separating the edge of the road with the wall of the stores. Most of them seemed to be auto mechanics and pharmacies, for whatever reason. I saw a few familiar places, McDonald's, 7-11, but was surprised to see an HEB! You mean they have them in Mexico but not in Dallas? C'mon! Move up north and bring your fresh-baked cheap tortillas with you!
I noticed a ton of people walking somewhere or simply lounging around outside in Matamoros, even early in the morning. I think if crime was as bad as some people think, everyone would stay inside for safety.
Before leaving town, I saw a billboard advertising what might be the most appropriately named website of all time: QuieroBoobies.com. My curiosity hasn’t compelled me to visit just yet, but I think that's only because I'm not curious. I already know what's there.
Once I got out of Matamoros, I looked around. It was flat. The road was good in some places, bad chip seal in some places, most of the time somewhere in between. It was hot and humid outside. There was a lot of farmland and livestock.
In other words, if you had told me I was in Texas, I would've believed you. And I would've taken all the road signs written in Spanish as proof.
The cities here are far apart, but along the major highway, there's a cluster of a few dozen houses every 10 km or so, and a small store or coffee about as often. Sometimes they're in the village, and sometimes they're all by themselves. Good to know I could buy food or water during the day if I need to. Any time I saw someone outside, they would give me a big smile and wave. A good amount of the cars did too. People here are friendly!
Halfway through the day, I saw a red truck outside of a cafe. As I approached, the men in it waved at me, but less like a greeting, more like they wanted me to stop. I figured I better not stop, but waved back, smiled, and said, "Buenas tardes!" as chipper as I could. They started the truck and came after me. I don’t like this...
They pulled alongside me at my speed and started asking about my ride, where I'm going, where I started, where I'm from. Like a dummy, I told them where I was going today and that I'm from Texas. I'm so used to answering the same questions now that I do it without thinking. This time, I should've thought twice
"Can I see your identification?"
"You mean my passport?" Since I said I'm from Texas, he already knows I have one.
"Yes, I want to see it."
"I do not understand why."
He went into a long explanation, most of which I didn't understand. I caught the word "photograph," so I decided to play dumb.
"You want to take a photograph of me?"
He went into another explanation, this time I understood more. He made it sound like he just wanted to check if I was really me, and at the end said nothing would happen, repeatedly. This still made no sense, and I couldn’t think of any reason someone would want my passport, other than to steal it.
"You want to see my photograph?"
"Yes, on your passport."
"I do not understand why."
They got antsy and left.
The highway is patrolled by police frequently, and when I say that, I mean trucks full of four or five officers armed to the teeth. Automatic weapons and body armor. These passport-wanting guys must've thought the longer this conversation takes, the greater chance the police arrive and ask what's going on. At the very least, more and more people were driving by and could later describe the red truck that was talking to the guy on the bike.
An hour later, I found a police blockade where there were multiple police vehicles and probably two dozen officers. I figured it would be a good idea to to alert them.
"Excuse me, I believe it is possible I have a problem."
I described what happened and that the red truck was up ahead somewhere, and that it knew I was going to San Fernando . They sent four - FOUR - trucks up ahead, each heavily armed and loaded with officers, to look for the red Chevy pickup I described, both on the highway and in San Fernando.
A little common sense goes a long way, and people here seem genuinely concerned about my safety. I think I'll be OK!
I managed to do 170 km with only one break for food/water.
Once I got into San Fernando, I was planning on getting a hotel, but I've made a habit of visiting churches first. It was easy to find; this is a part of the world where the church is always in the plaza at the center of town and is the tallest building in the entire city. If nothing else, I figured it would be pretty to look at.
When I went inside, a few women working for the church asked what I was doing with my bike and where I had come from. When I explained, they asked if I needed a place to sleep. They got the Padre on the phone, but it turned out I couldn't stay there. They told me to wait a minute.
I sat in the sanctuary, admiring the place. Even in a place that has never had much money, it was beautifully built. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
A young man named Josue approached me. He looked like he could be a teenager, but at a glance, he carried a lot of maturity. He had already heard a little bit about my ride, but asked me more about it. After I told him, he said he would pray for me. I asked a little about him, and he's currently studying to be a Catholic Priest.
I was called back over and it was explained that Josue would lead me to a safe hotel only a couple blocks away. When we arrived, no one was there. At a loss as to what to do, we waited a minute to see if someone would show up.
"God blesses you on your trip," said Josue. "You are not scared?"
"I am not nervous, but I am cautious."
"It would make me scared. It is not safe. This city. This whole state."
I was feeling pretty good until now! Goodness!
A woman approached and Josue handed her a few bills. I hadn’t expected that! Thanks!
The woman turned to me and said, in English,
"The morning, what time, OK let's go?"
I responded in Spanish and explained that I usually leave before 7:00 am, before it is too hot. She told me to give my key to room #5 when I leave. Then she turned to Joshua to explain something to him, who then turned to me. Nothing was translated, so I was not sure of the point, but I played along.
"For your security, you cannot leave," explained Josue. "Do you need to eat?"
"I have not had dinner, so should I go somewhere now?"
"I will get something and bring it to you. Do you like hamburgers?"
I smiled and said yes. I do not know if he picked hamburgers because I'm American, or maybe it's simply the nearest place. But it amused me that I had fajitas last night and a hamburger today.
The hotel room had no air conditioning and the toilet had to be filled manually. The water wasn’t safe to drink. I think it was hotter in the room than outside. But if it's safe, I'm happy.
Josue returned ten minutes later with a chicken sandwich and a bottle of orange juice. I might have been more excited about the cold orange juice than anything else!
"It is hot here. Like a sacrifice, for God. I will pray for you and your trip!"
The people here have a heart of gold.
I took a cold shower, rearranged a few things on Valeria, and went to bed early. There wasn’t much else to do. When I woke up at about 10:00 PM to use the bathroom, I noticed something: it was quiet.
I peeked out the second floor window at the well-lit street below. Not a soul in sight. I was in the middle of town and there were no cars, no pedestrians, nothing moving at all. There weren't even any houses with lights on, that I could see. Either most people are like me and wake up early to avoid the heat, or people are frightened to do anything at night.
There are two ways to Tampico, a town I have to go through if I want to continue south. One way is a major highway that goes to Victoria, a large city. The other way is shorter and only has a couple small towns. For me, the deciding factor would be safety.
The day before, there had been police at every highway intersection, and I figured it would be best to ask them which way they thought was safer. If I have to ride an extra 20 km each day, that's OK, worth the peace of mind.
There were no police at the intersection. There was an abandoned gas station and another small building nearby. I had already done 50 km and it was getting hot, so I thought it would be a good time and place to take a break in the shade.
When I pedaled Valeria up to the gas station, I saw a man there. He was holding something. When I got closer, I could see that it was a machete. We exchanged pleasantries, and after explaining the nature of my ride, I asked which way was safer.
"They're about the same," he explained, "The short way has less people, less police, but less bad guys too. They go the long way more because sometimes they need to go to Victoria."
According to him, I would no longer see villages and stores along the highway, but there were safe places to stay in the towns and I could buy food there. The next one was 80 km away, which would add up to the kind of distance I'm trying to do these days.
"Do you have water? Do you need water?" he asked.
He took me over to the other building, which I now presumed was his house, and gave me a full cup of cold potable water, then filled one of my water bottles. He followed this up by giving me an ice-cold Coke. The cold part is hard to come by out here!
After getting a recommendation on a hotel on town, I set out. It was hot. It was humid. Unlike yesterday, there was not a cloud in the sky. There were hills for the first time in a week. The headwind, which was more of a crosswind the day before, was back, and appears to be here to stay.
At some point, I have to believe the headwind is gonna give out. There wasn't headwind every day in Colorado, and in Wyoming, the wind was from the west. The wind can only be from the south for so long, and in a few weeks, I'll be in the tropics, where the seasons don't even change much. So that summer south wind had gotta go away sometime. I wonder when?
Despite all this, I made decent time, again aided by taking few breaks. Only two breaks today, including the one with my helpful machete-wielding friend. There's rarely shade anywhere, so it's hard to see a point in stopping only to bake in the sun.
I found the hotel right away and asked how much it cost. 250 pesos, or about $22. Air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and all the bottled water I want! Not bad! Of course, I still can't afford this every night. I'll have to keep visiting churches, unless I can ever find a sponsor to cover costs. It's not that I want to live in luxury, it's that staying in a locked, secure hotel is probably safer. And I want to keep these journals updated and stay in touch with folks as often as I can.