Make that 600+ miles, or 1k+ kilometers. But more on that later. For those who might, in spite of themselves, find the cultural commentary a bit more boring and are more interested in the motorcycle parts, go down bellow until you find the big text that says "MOTORCYCLE STUFF".
Monterrey was pretty amazing. As I said before, I stayed with a couchsurfer, and I hit gold this time. My host was a great guy with a great apartment, who gave me his room and took the couch for himself! (I didn't realize this until my last night there, when I walked down for some water and saw him on the couch--the apartment was so big I assumed there was another room I didn't know about). He also had a private outdoor garage where I was able to leave my bike and not worry about it.
But this was the ideal host for me--we talked for hours about Mexico and Mexicans and the culture here. Aside from having traveled all of Mexico himself, he was a wise person who had spent a lot of time developing opinions on his own country in a way that few countrymen really do.
Juan (nickname "Ejemplo", "example", since all the schoolbook examples everyone grows up with here feature "Juan Perez") said an audiobook had changed his life a few years ago: Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki. (Oddly enough, I grew up listening to this audiobook on the hour drive to school in the morning in 5th and 6th grade.) I would sum up a lot of his discussion on the state of Mexicans in general as falling under three vices.
Mexicans, he said, spend all of their money as soon as they get it. Many of them will tell you, "Money burns in my hands; as soon as I get it, I have to spend it." It is said jokingly, but it indicates a real problem. This is exploited by the companies in they way they pay their employees, who historically were also the source of loans for the employees--they would pay them more than enough money, it would all be spent in a drunken spree, and then they would have to go back to their boss to get a loan to make it through the month just to buy food. This poverty would push them to celebrate overly when they received so much at the beginning of next month.
It's one thing to notice it in the present, but the thing that really solidified it for him as a deeper cultural problem, was one of his trips in Mexico to an historical Spanish Goldmine in the south. He said that at the museum that had been built around the mine, there were some letters preserved by, among others, the Spaniard who was ultimately in charge of the mines. He paraphrased it for me something like this:
(Written to another Spanish Administrator elsewhere in the country, sometime in the 17th century)
'I cannot look at the indians who work for me as any less than myself; I eat with them, and they are my friends. I spend most of my time with them. I treat them very well, better than any other slave owner I know. They are the best paid workers in the whole region. What I do not understand is why they are also the most indebted; for even though I give them more than sufficient salaries, they are always spending all they have and coming back for a loan to buy bread to eat.'
I don't know what the source of this problem is, but it is certainly a natural human tendency, not just a problem of Mexicans. Americans are paid 10 and sometimes 100 times as much for their work as those in other less developed countries, and yet our collective debt outweighs our collective wealth.
The interesting dichotomy is between the well paid and the actually wealthy. This brings us to the next major problem he identifies with Mexicans (and, again, I would argue with humanity): the problem of status. Status is very important; the price of a nice house in an expensive neighborhood is not substantially less than an equivalent house in Austin, TX (despite wages being substantially less than in Austin). But to rent that same house can be less than $1k/month! He made the example very concrete by directing me to this website
, where prices of some very nice houses in the nicest neighborhoods in the city are found. (Keep in mind that $=peso as well, and that a peso is 1/13th of a dollar). On top of this, interest rates are much higher on mortgages in Mexico than they are in the US.
Still people will buy houses! And they will buy them when they can't afford them. (As do many in the US; my parents bought a house outside their means when I was 11, and lived likewise... They went bankrupt when I was 13.) Why?
He tells me that his friends who make as much money as he does (he is somewhat well off, by being self employed; he has a couple of ventures, the only one of which he described to me being industrial engineering at a machine shop) feel sorry for him for renting an apartment. Why? It's a very nice apartment, two stories, quite large, with a very large private garage, 5 minutes from downtown, well furnished... And it's only $600 (dollars)/month.
Now for him, it's everything he wants. He has no desire to buy a house, as that would be a foolish financial decision. But he has opted out of the status game that most people in his monetary bracket play.
He finds that he spends such a small amount of money every day, that he can save huge amounts of money. He then spends this on the things he enjoys, without going into debt; he has a 2007 dodge charger, a basic model, and it was bough outright after saving for some time. He also spends most of his money on travel, and travels lavishly; this is where his money can actually make him happy.
A wise man, I think.
I could keep going, but on to the fun! Independence day was Saturday/Sunday (originally Saturday, changed to Sunday by some politician at some point who wanted it to be on his birthday instead?), and my host had a great party of couch surfers from around the city, maybe 40 or 50 people. And they partied until the wee hours of the morning! There was a pinata, lots of tequila, homemade food, lots of dancing. I was worried that there would be a language barrier, but despite my difficulty talking with government officials in Spanish (functional, but bumbling), I found myself much more comfortable speaking 'party spanish'. Aside from this, it being a gathering of couchsurfers, there were also many English speakers; so I found the night a great mix of the two languages. I also stand out at a party, what with having blonde hair, so I found conversations starting themselves.
Great time! :)
I had planned to leave the next day, but the weather was supposed to still be quite bad the whole route through, so I put off driving for one more day. We went and did a little sight-seeing, looking at the old town area--there used to be an avenue filled with clubs that were almost all closed now, because of the cartel violence.
He told me that Monterrey used to be very safe, and that people used to be afraid for people when they would hear they were going to Mexico city. Now, he said, Mexico city is seen as a relative safe-haven--they'll only take your money and let you go in Mexico city. The cartel activity in Monterrey, though, at some points in the last 5 years, got so bad that you could not be out at night at all. The car theft had become absurd, too. Kidnapping was really bad for a while--for at least a year, not a week went by that you didn't hear of a kidnapping connected to someone you personally knew. In the last year it's getting better, he said; only one kidnapping he personally heard about in the last year, a friend's nephew. He said that he feels like the cartels are becoming a little more selective about their crime, more 'precise' in their picking of targets, instead of just victimizing random civilians. He talked about the shock of how desensitized people of the city had become; movies with child violence were almost funny, now, at times, given how dramatic they tried to be and how normal it all seemed. Unable to recruit any more adults for their activities, cartels had started resorting to child brainwashing and abduction. Thirteen to 16 year olds were commonly working for the cartels now, often having killed many people.
Monday, I was finally leaving. First sunny day since I'd left Austin on Thursday. Could see the mountains around the city for the first time; beautiful! You will see them in the video I'm working on.
Made it out later in the day than I intended; by the time I drove out, it was a little after noon. The planned route
. All my stuff packed up and ready to go, complete with flag my host gave me from the party:
Basic phone I bought the day before featured similar plans and prices to those in Israel... Starting to think the cell phone market in the US is a relative bubble in its setup:
My host and I:
For this drive, given its distance and how important it is to not drive at night in Mexico, I was going all toll roads where possible: They're safer, but they're also in better shape (allowing you to drive faster), and don't go through city centers like the normal highways. Give this, instead of writing out directions like I normally do, I just memorized the names of the major cities on the way and decided I'd follow the signs. In general, this strategy worked; inside Monterrey, trying to get out, however, it didn't work quite so well. I drove the same three highways back and forth trying to get my bearings before I made a leap of faith that one road was correct, and then found out it was a little ways down when I started seeing signs for "Saltillo." By the time I got there, and filled up the gas tank and 2 gallon spare in the back, and was leaving, it was 2:30pm--well behind schedule.
The roads in Mexico, as might be expected, aren't exactly like the roads in the US. Speed limits are suggestions. The common top speed listed is 110 kp/h, a little less than 70mph. There are very few patrols, however, and so everyone speeds. I pushed the bike a little harder this time than I did on the way to Monterrey, and realized that the carbs' need-to-be-cleaned-limitations are mostly evident at the top end: anything about 7.5k shows stumbling, most of the time. Still, for the first half of the trip, I was going 6.8 to 7.5 in 5th on the tach; as you all know, our speedo only goes to 85, but I'd guess it was generally somewhere around 95 to 100mph. (Tsakz should be able to shed some light with his 550 speedo on his 650 seca as to what those RPMs would indicate?)
It was a long day. And in spite of the sun, it wasn't hot, especially at speed. I bought a sweater the night before, given how cold I'd been driving most of the trip, and hearing that Mexico city rains a lot, and I'm glad I did. By 4 or 5pm, I put it on and found myself comfortable. (And a US Medium is a Large here, by the way... Found that out the hard way, as my sleeves are too short.)
The scenery was often quite beautiful up to this point... Long stretches of valley with mountains around off in the distance, lots of rolling green grass and open spaces with long views in every direction. I made myself some Quaesedillas for the trip before I left, and had eaten them for lunch earlier. For dinner, I had two 'burritos' (which were small; we would have called them tacos in Texas, for us, burritos are generally quite large) for 13 pesos a piece, about a dollar each.
By about 7pm, I'd made it to San Luis Potosi, which is roughly the halfway point; I was sure I had to be close, though. At my speed, I was basically going through most of a tank of gas in an hour (again, about 100 mph out of a theoretical max of about 120 mile range per tank, ish--haven't been tracking mpg because everything is in liters and I've been in a rush), and so stopping to gas up about every hour. I had three gas station attendants in a row, one hour after another, that Mexico City was 5 hours ahead. (ha!)
One of those gas stations had this massive 'bike' out front with a boxer engine sitting in the frame
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I was driving fast, however. (Never did get pulled over, by the way, though I passed maybe 3 cops the whole time?) So I thought from San Luis Potosi, I might be able to make it in 3 hours. Sunset, it turns out, is about 7:40pm now though. The days are getting shorter than they were 2 months ago, fast, and I hadn't thought about that much--it's not almost 9pm anymore like it was two months ago. So by 8pm is was getting cool and dark--not good--and I donned my rain-suit to block off the wind.
And took a picture.
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I had hoped to have a back-up host in Santiago de Quereterro in case I was running late or was tired--both of which I was. Unfortunately, that didn't work out (my fault that I didn't pursue it more, having only contacted two people--you should generally contact 5, and my good luck in Monterrey had made me lazy). Around this point I became determined to get to Mexico city tonight, and pushed the bike hard.
One of the main reasons you shouldn't ride at night in Mexico is that the roads are not lit; the second reason is that some people drive without lights at night; the third is that the roads are not maintained as well as in the US (though I was travelling on the best roads Mexico had to offer). Fourth can be the cartels, but that's not really a problem south of Monterrey.
So let me tell you, if you want an adreneline rush, forget skydiving. I've done that. I mean, sure, it's good. But it's short. There's something heartpounding about going 90 mph at night on poorly lit roads, however, trying desperately to make it before it gets any colder to your destination.
(I admit this was foolish. I don't expect to drive like this again for the rest of the trip, as I won't be in a hurry, and I won't be trying to span great distances in short time periods. So while I could spend this post rightfully calling myself stupid, I'm just going to do it for everyone else here at this point and just admit how intense it was in spite of that for the rest of the post.)
Eventually, I stop and get some gas and, freezing, get a big cup of coffee from an auto-coffee machine like you'd find in America to warm up. (Not so romantic). I ask some old truckers outside how far to Mexico, and I get maybe 'an hour and a half' away if I drive very fast, from Mexico/200km. I start driving and see a sign that says 250km. It just never ends. It's completely dark, and just 20 minutes down the road I hit unbelievable traffic. Stop and go. I hop on the tiny shoulder and inch around cars at a standstill at about 20mph... and I do this for MILES. I eventually checked the odometer, realizing it wasn't ending soon, and I still passed traffic like this for the next 4 miles. It took me maybe 35 minutes or more--construction was the cause. I shudder to think what it would have been like if I'd gone with traffic... hours for sure.
At some point there, my bike died suddenly. Clearly electrical. I pulled over, checked fuses--fine. I tapped the battery--boom, lights up. In a hurry, I put the seat back on and strapped the spare gas can and set off. One or twice during this the bike shut down for a second, same connector I thought, and a quick tap to the battery fixed it or it would fix itself after a moment.
Passed the traffic. It's cold again, going fast again. Running low on gas, not seeing much around me. Finally a gas station, but it's right around a corner and a semi truck kept me from seeing it in time, no option for a U-turn here, so I keep going, waiting out for another. 110 miles on the odometer. 115. 120. Nothing. Start feeling the subtle power change that tells me I don't have much more than what's in the carb bowls, 2 minutes left. No shoulder here. Go into right lane, waiting for the right moment--remember, I do have a 2 gallon can full on the back, I just need a safe place to pull over.
Finally, just in time, there's a little area of shoulder to pull off onto with a big lit "Capufe
" (use google translate's webpage translation service) truck with a sign. I pull up behind it, and as soon as I stop, my electrical problem kills the bike before I do.
No problem, I think. Just will fill it up and tap the battery and be done. The can pours slowly, though, so eventually the driver of the capufe (think the federal agency in charge of maintaining the Federal Interstates and handling tolls) truck walks up and asks if anything is wrong. I say no, just filling up. He stands by all the same as I fill it up. Tie the can back up. Turn the key. No lights. Tap the battery. No lights. Odd.
Tighten battery connections. Wiggle some wires. Untie the gas can. Pull the seat and check fuses. All fine. Wiggle more wires.
Wiggle wires coming from the ignition key switch. Unscrew the headlight and check connection inside, since I did install the key switch from my old bike onto this one after all. Seems fine.
At this point I pull out the voltmeter and check the batter. 13.07. I check the plug from the key switch behind the light--0.01, i.e., nothing. Uh huh. No electricity is getting to the key. I pull the fuse for 'head' and look closely--it's fine, it really is. No resistance from one side to the other. I check the fuse mount--nothing. There's no power going to the fuse. The Capufe guy is helping me here, checking other things as well while I'm screwing and unscrewing things. I had also tried the ignition switch, even though that shouldn't have kept the lights off, having pulled open the Haynes and looked up trouble shooting for 'complete electrical failure'. No power getting to it either.
Capufe guy checks all the fuses, and points out that only one is getting power, one of the 10A fuses. We trace it back, and eventually, the starter solenoid (if I am not mistaken--the pill shaped thing that the positive terminal of the battery directly connects to) is the problem. I need to find a clearer explanation of exactly how it works, because I still need to fix the problem. (anyone here able to help?)
So I find that if I put a metal wrench across the incoming positive and negative terminals, I hear the bike trying to turn over, but no lights, so it won't ever hit since the 'kill switch' isn't getting current run through it, I guess. But on the some of the output leads, I see no current. I don't know exactly where I should see it, or when (maybe only when turning over here, for example?), so I can't really troubleshoot the solenoid itself. But I realize the problem is that I'm not getting power to my key and kill switch. So I have to bypass them. I start talking with my capufe friend, and it's almost been an hour (and let me tell you, doing mechanics in Spanish with a kind stranger is quite an experience! haha), and I'm just figuring out the problem... And saying, ok, we need to pass current before the switch. We think.
And then, an AH HA! moment: "What if we just get wires to bypass the fuse and plug its sides into the one good fuse that has electricity running through it?"
So I get some scissors out, cut the wires, run them to the metal connectors for the good fuse...
AND VOILA! LIGHTS! I felt like McGuiver! Electronics are my weak spot, so it was an especially happy victory. I hadn't lost gumption the whole time. My capufe friend also told me I only had like 50 more kilometers to go to my friend's house, so it was good news. I get back on the road, fill out some papers for him to indicate he was helping a stranger and not wasting time (talking with him: this is his night job, his day job is being an ambulance technician--he's helping people all day. He loves his work. Great guy. Left me feeling very good about Mexico in spite of all the bad.).
And off I go. Cold again. Fast. Late. Tired. It's getting close to 1am, then past 1am. Almost there. Looking for my exit, "Ceylan". It's now misting, very hard to see through the visor. Slow down and pull up the face shield on the helmet.
Hit some very bad road as the highway dead ends for construction and turns into a different highway. Go down for a while, but it feels wrong, too far... Pull off, drive down some inner city roads and find a convenience store. Call my friend, and hand the phone to the convenience store worker to explain where I am and get directions.
The rest was another hour and a half of trying to figure out how to get to him via terrible directions, given that he hasn't been in town for four years until two weeks ago (thus me meeting him now, while he's visiting for a month). Eventually I do. He takes a taxi to meet me in the center, turns out I passed the exit somehow, apparently, though I was watching like a hawk for it.
And then I'm at his family's house. And I'm going to sleep.
Welcome to Mexico City. After getting lost at the beginning and the end, it ended up being over 600 miles. Surprisingly, the seat did not have my ass nearly as sore as you'd think--the only point of pain was my left shoulder. Don't know why? Some previous issue exacerbated? Still stretching my neck/shoulder two days later...
More on Mexico city later! Video coming soon!
Buen viaje amigos!