Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: The Shrine in the Marsh

Better late than never for more photos, right? I have two for you this week. The first one is a small roadside shrine near the Tabasco/Campeche border:

Photo by André

Photo by André

I’ve seen a lot of roadside shrines—probably one per kilometer on average—but literally none that look like this, before or since. It’s just so perfectly a folk shrine made of local materials and handcrafted elements. Inside the shrine, Jesus on the crucifix is dressed in hand sewn white garments tied with a purple ribbon in place of a belt. There’s also a shelf for votives and a number of fresh flowers indicating it’s been recently tended. Notably, Jesus is black. I cannot tell if that’s a racial choice or simply reflects the choice of a dark wood, or both. This shrine is surrounded by coastal marsh on all sides. There are occasional ranches with houses on solid land, but the cattle spend a lot of their time wading through shallow water. A few days later I reached the town of Sabancuy, protected from the Gulf by a barrier island. The only way to reach it is across five bridges. Here’s the view from beside the last bridge at sunset:

Photo by André

Photo by André

And yes, you can see both the moon and the evening star there. (Or possibly the International Space Station. I don’t really know my stars so good.)

Meanwhile, I just reached Mérida today which means the Mexico ride is so close to over! I’ll spend a few days here working, then a few more days on the final segment to my destination of Valladolid, Yucatán. I realize I have a lot of road logs to post (many of them are already written) and I’m going to try to catch them up to me around the time I reach Valladolid.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, Road Logs, Spanish, The Great Adventure, Travel

My Spanish Immersion in San Miguel de Allende

Last time I weathered a rough night in Villa de Reyes and found greener pastures in historic Dolores Hidalgo. This time I set off with my next rest stop, the popular San Miguel de Allende, in sight.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Sunday, November 30 (Day 877 of the Great Adventure)—to San Miguel de Allende

For once I had absolutely no reason to hurry. San Miguel was only a short distance away, a few hours’ ride, and I knew I’d enjoy it more if I got all my client work done before I set out. I had breakfast at the V Zone and then camped out in the hotel courtyard to do some writing. The hotel staff allowed me to remain there typing for several hours after my checkout, and by early afternoon my docket was clear.

The ride out of Dolores involved a couple steep cobblestone streets that meant walking the bike. Once underway the road was hilly but gentle and pretty. As I got closer to San Miguel de Allende I saw all the telltale signs of a tourist town that had been colonized first by foreign expats and then by the Mexican upper class. Health spas, fancy restaurants and white-walled condo developments appeared in breaks between the rich green hills.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

I approached San Miguel just before sunset. There was one final mountain and as I came over it I could see the city twinkling before me. There really is no more welcome or inspiring site after a day on the road.

For lodging I had booked an AirBnB that a friend recommended. It was in the city but far from the Centro, in a quiet middle class neighborhood. I turned off the highway on a downhill, cruising at speed toward the artery that would take me to the house. It turned out to be cobbled, and I clung to the Giant like a rodeo rider as he lurched and rattled to a stop. I walked him the last few blocks, coming up a gold-lit cobbled lane just at sunset and knocking on the big metal gate of my host’s home.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

Fay is Irish by birth, raised mostly in the US, and a longtime London resident. Nowadays she lives year round in Mexico with her two dogs, one cat, and one long-term lodger who’s rarely home. The remaining bedroom is rented out to travelers like me. The place had come recommended both because Fay herself  is great and because she had set up the room with a good work desk, good wi-fi and everything a location independent freelancer needs.

No sooner had I rolled through the gate than she squeezed me a glass of mandarina juice and put supper on. I hadn’t expected to be invited to dine and enjoyed a very healthy meal of soup and salad with her.

Fay.

The conversation was amazing. Fay is a fellow writer, mostly of poetry but also just about everything else. Her latest book rewrites the 12 steps of alcoholism treatment as a road to eventually recovering and being able to enjoy drinking in moderation. A self-described recovered alcoholic, Fay refocuses the traditional steps on creating healthy change in your life overall. You can find it here: The Steps.

Fay’s book. I’m jealous of the design and production value.

I told Fay I was thinking of going out for tacos. She needed to run to the corner store and offered to give me a mini tour of the neighborhood, including pointing the way to a hidden restaurant. I eagerly tagged along and she showed me a few landmarks plus introduced me to the store clerk. Her Spanish was highly functional, something I would soon come to appreciate made her stand out significantly from all the other retiree expats in town. She knew her neighbors and she could hold real conversations. This is really just the most basic dignity you can express to your neighbors when you move to a foreign country, but it’s one that most expats don’t really bother with.

Faye was done for the night so I went to the hidden restaurant on my own. Hidden indeed. Outside were just a few tables with parasols, the kind of place that could easily be another open air street food booth. But as I pushed open the door I caught my breath. I stepped into one of the most opulent and gorgeous dining spaces I’d ever seen—the first of several, with each room deeper into the home done up in flawless classical style complete with hardwood, marble and tile.

Photo by André

Photo by André

A waiter showed me to a table and turned the menu over with a flourish, to the English side. He spoke flawless English of his own, but that wasn’t what stood out. What stood out was how warm he was, never expressing impatience with my Spanish, not switching to English to show off or to treat me like a child but just to be cordial. I hadn’t realized how rare that was till he walked away with my order.

The place was pricier than my typical road meals but, for such a high end place, not really expensive. The food was excellent, including the free antojitos they brought out to woo me, and everything about the place was delightful except one thing: the company.

The other diners in the house were primarily expats. It was clear that the restaurant was one of those “best kept secrets” of the local foreigner enclave, which trends older and wealthier. Based on the dinner conversation they also trend shittier. A woman at one all-blanco table propounded on why Mexicans don’t make good employees—loudly, in front of the all-Mexican, all-bilingual wait staff. Another table featured two old, lackluster Caucasian men and one young, flamboyant Mexican man, their friendship hinting at the power of money to unzip trousers. The their great credit the wait staff endured all of this with poise and warmth.

Thankfully the place was far from crowded. I was far away from most of my countrymen, and soon a Mexican family arrived for a birthday celebration at the table next to mine. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Feliz Cumpleaños song drowned out the other diners.

24.1 miles

Map.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 1-2 (Day 878-879 of the Great Adventure)—Work Days

I had planned to spend two nights at Fay’s place, giving me a full work day. I quickly extended this to three nights and two work days. At the same time I was looking online at Spanish schools in San Miguel, thinking I might take a few days to sharpen my conversational skills.

The first day went very well, split evenly between writing and exploring the city. San Miguel is kind of an oddity in Mexico, a city taken over by and propped up by expats. Mexico has lots of cities with tourist economies, but these cater mainly to short-term visits. Enclaves of foreign residents are less numerous and, arguably, none are as influential as San Miguel’s.

To hear my Chilango friend tell it, it started with a single wandering American sixty years ago. He happened to find San Miguel de Allende quite charming, even thought it was a dusty and impoverished silver town at the time.

“How much to buy a house?” he asked.

“60 bucks,” came the answer. He bought it and told all his friends how cheap the real estate was. The next house sold for $70, then $80 and so on.

To hear the expats tell it isn’t much different. Fay said that when she first came to San Miguel decades ago there weren’t even phones in the houses. You had to go to a store in the centro and wait your turn to use the line. “If you bought a Coke you had to drink it before leaving the store,” she told me. “They needed the bottle.”

As the place became more popular, all the trappings of expat luxury began to crop up: coffee shops, high end restaurants, boutiques, wifi, even real working telephones. San Miguel is now one of Mexico’s most affluent cities, with an economy propped up by lavish foreign spending habits. (I felt a strange disconnect there, hearing people talk about how “cheap” everything was, when I’d been paying less in every other town.)

There’s no doubt I was quite taken by San Miguel that first Monday evening wandering around. As everyone had promised me, the city center is strikingly beautiful. There’s good food everywhere, with cuisine of all kinds. (There’s even a “New Orleans Style Oyster Bar” which I didn’t dare enter.) Despite the allure, over my time there I would become less enamored. It’s got a lot of convenience, but it’s not my kind of place.

Tuesday morning I arranged to sit in on a class at a local language school, Habla Hispana. The structure was great: four hours a day total, broken into 90 minutes of formal classroom (learning grammar, etc.), followed by a short coffee and snack break, an hour of semi-structured Spanish conversation and then an hour of reading and vocabulary practice. There were three separate classes for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. You had the same classroom teacher everyday, but the teachers rotated who was leading each conversation table so you got exposure to different personalities and styles. In other words it’s pretty much perfect.

I decided to enroll in a week of classes. Habla Hispana also offers a homestay program, and I signed up to move into one of the houses after class the next day.

I expected to have the afternoon to write, but the rear derailleur broke on my bicycle. I spent most of the afternoon trying to fix it before finally hauling it down to a bike store and having a new one put on. This was a huge waste of an afternoon but, honestly, I’m grateful that it happened in a city with bike shops instead of somewhere out on the road. The entire cost with parts and labor was $40 pesos or about US $3.00, which didn’t leave me feeling too good about the quality of the part. But I was able to bike back up the hill to Fay’s house and change gears without incident.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 3-10 (Day 880-887 of the Great Adventure)—Spanish Immersion

Fay gave me permission to leave my belongings at her place till I’d seen the homestay house. Bleary eyed, I rushed to the school and arrived only a few minutes “late” for class; but this is Mexico and class didn’t actually begin till 15 minutes after the scheduled start time. (This is a really effective system, by the way: all the problems with people being late kind of go away if we just agree to start late in the first place.)

The previous day I had chosen to sit in on the Intermediate class, which I thought might be over-ambitious, but it was a perfect fit. There were times over the week when I would actually think I might be better off in Advanced, but there were also big holes in my Spanish knowledge. At one point the teacher, Enrique, as astounded that I didn’t know the past tense version of the word for to have.

“Isn’t it irregular?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “How did you know (some other much more obscure word) in the preterite but you don’t know the preterite of tener?”

I shrugged apologetically. “I dunno.”

But actually, I do know. I’ve had almost no formal Spanish instruction. Most of my progress was fueled by living in Spanish speaking countries, using online tools or reading books. The past tense of to have just isn’t a word I needed in taco stands.

Afterwards my classmate Sky offered to walk me over to the homestay house—we were both staying at the same one. She’d been there several days and spoke highly of the house and the host family. Sky herself is a painter who just closed her gallery in Hawaii in order to be able to travel and live a freer life. She was excited when she found out I’m a writer and even more excited when I described my first novella as a work of magical realism.

“My last gallery show was entitled Magical Realism!” she exclaimed. (You can see Sky’s great work here.)

Maria and Alejandro’s house was indeed quite nice. Located on a privada just a few blocks from the school, it was laid out like a Roman villa with all rooms opening on a central courtyard. The story is that it was build by a family with eight children, and accordingly there are eight extra bedrooms, half upstairs and half down. Some, like Sky’s, have their own bathroom. I was given the one closest to the front, which Maria described as the “warmest” in the cold desert nights (my door opened to the foyer, not directly to the open air courtyard). She chose it for me because it had the strongest wifi signal, and the school had told her I needed wifi to do my work.

Maria and Alejandro’s children are grown, but the day I arrived happened to be Maria’s birthday. Their daughter, son in law and grandson were all there for the occasion, plus Sky and me. For reasons I never understood they had not one but seven separate cakes, of which two featured chocolate. Their grandson, Santiago, took it upon himself to cut and serve the chocolate mousse cake, which at age 5 consisted mostly of him licking the serving utensils.

The other member of the household, Ana, was kept busy through the whole meal. Ana is the hired housekeeper and kitchen assistant, doing a good amount of the cooking and most of the daily chores under Maria. She doesn’t live in the house but arrives early in the morning and sticks around till dinner time every day.

(You can meet Maria, Sky and Ana in the video logs for supporters.)

After the giant meal I biked back up to Fay’s house, got my belongings, and said goodbye. I was excited about learning better Spanish but I also knew I was leaving pretty much the ideal workplace. There’s no roommate in the world who understands the solitude a writer needs better than a fellow writer.

Once installed in the homestay house I had to adjust to a Mexican schedule. I had never really gotten into the rhythm of the huge mid-afternoon meal and tiny dinner. To eat with my host family—and get in all the Spanish conversation I could—I had to be ready for comida starting at 2:00, involving multiple dishes and often lasting till 4. Dinner was at 7 and involved leftovers or something small. A couple times there was no dinner at all. It may seem odd, given that I was now supposed to talk exclusively in a language I barely knew, but the hardest part of the week was probably the meal schedule.

Besides classes, Habla Hispana offers various cultural events that are free for students. I had missed the Monday afternoon tour of San Miguel, but Sky and I walked back to the school Wednesday evening to do a Spanish singalong. It was far more in-depth than we expected, and Enrique gave detailed information on which syllables and vowels are stressed in Spanish and why. This one hour of extra-curricular learning may have done more for my Spanish pronunciation than the past two years of practice.

Afterward, Sky and I swung over to a local dance school for Salsa lessons. This caused us to miss dinner, such as it is, and I headed out for a late night burger on my own.

Thursday and Friday more or less followed this pattern, except that by Friday it was clear I was getting sick. A nasty chest cold was making its way through Mexico, and I managed to catch it somewhere in SMA. (Sky suspects once of our dance partners, who went on to infect her the next day.) I managed to do a second dance lesson—this time Cumbia, which Sky and I found much easier—but after that had to spend a lot more time in my bedroom, coughing so hard it gave me a headache.

On the weekend there were no language classes. I used the time to explore (while coughing), write in cafes (coughing away from the other patrons) or sleep (followed by a coughing fit upon waking). I started to feel better by the time the next week rolled around, but I knew the cough would be a problem: rapid breathing, tough uphill stretches and thin mountain air are a bad combination. I did everything I could to get myself in shape before my departure, prioritizing rest over a number of cultural activities I could’ve done.

Class continued to go well and so did conversation around the house. I couldn’t believe my progress with Spanish. These seven days were probably the biggest period of growth in my Spanish since my first tutor in Mexico City.

During this period I also wrote El Gato Morado y el Pez Dorado.

My last day of class was Tuesday, but I decided to do one more day of homestay on Wednesday. The extra day let me finish all my client work before again hitting the windy road.

0.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 25 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3661.1 miles

More road logs are available here.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Escaping SLP

Last time, one of my patented “shortcuts” became a hardscrabble mule track in the desert and brought me face to face with a funnel cloud. I managed to wobble into the city of San Luis Potosí, an unplanned stop, hours after dark. Now we pick up in the city and try to get this ride back on track.

Photo by André

View in San Luis Potosí. Photo by André

Thursday, November 27 (Day 874 of the Great Adventure)—From the Lord’s House to the King’s

Hotel restaurants know they have a captive audience. Either the prices are high, the food is meh or both. But when I woke up in San Luis Potosí all I wanted was to eat quickly and get on with my day. 10% discount coupon in hand, I headed to the Hotel Maria Cristina’s in-house comedor. It became clear quickly that they weren’t interested in serving a foreigner. This wasn’t just the usual slow service. Table after table of Mexican families were seated, placed their orders, and saw their food come while I sat ignored. The server carefully kept her back to me at all times. I had two choices: waste even more time looking for another restaurant, or step up. I looked around, identified the manager (also with her back to me) and stood up from my table. “DISCÚLPE,” I half-yelled. Conversations stopped and all eyes fixed on the guero. The manager had no choice but to turn my way. I raised my hands, my eyebrows and my shoulders in the classic American gesture of “WTF.” She muttered the equivalent of “right away” and went to harass one of her servers, as if it was that person’s fault. I watched, still standing until the manager came in person. I ordered my food and conversations resumed around us. (Mom, if you’re reading this: thanks for teaching me how to be a problem customer.) The delay bothered me because I had a full morning ahead. As long as I was in a major city I figured I should hit the local bike shops and try to find a replacement for my damaged tire. Four local bike shops all referred me to one famed master: Bicicletas Villaseñor. I arrived twenty minutes before they opened, waiting outside his green door. A collection of hardcore cyclists gathered in the street. Three of them rode low-rider stunt bikes, complete with fat tires and front/back pegs. The fourth, an upper class kid with the air of a scholar, perched on a tall road bike—the space-age descendant of my own Miyata. His ultralight frame, pencil-thin tires and pro sports wear indicated he was a racer. The street bikes showed off some amazing stunts that the road bike wasn’t built to match, but El Académico had a few tricks of his own. Occasionally one of these urban badasses would glance my way as if wondering what my story was, but mostly they were engrossed in popping flips and wheelies.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

At no point was I tempted to show off my own stunts. For one thing, that’s not the kind of bike I rock and for another, doing tricks on a damaged tire seems like a poor choice. But mostly, I just have a different talent set: I don’t ride along curbs on just one wheel, but I can go 175 km in on day. That’s impressive enough by cyclist standards. Finally the inevitable older, Obi-Wan-looking store owner showed up and opened the door. I followed the stuntsters through the narrow opening. They all gathered around me and Obi Wan introduced himself. “A su orden,” he offered. But my wait was for nothing. He checked his inventory and had no sturdy, long-road-trip-worthy 27″ tires in stock. It’s just not a common thing in Mexico. (Cheap crummy 27″ tires or high quality 26″-ers, sure.) I thanked him and left the Villa behind This is really where I should’ve given up—if he didn’t have them, nobody would. But I’m not good at giving up. I went to a few more stores in the area, all of which referred me back to Villaseñor. I figured I would try a different neighborhood on the way out of town. Most of the day’s frustrations aren’t worth detailing. Suffice it to say that I rode through ghettos, freeway bridges and exurbs to hit two more bike suppliers. One didn’t exist except on Apple Maps (which sucks) and the other was a warehouse, not a store at all. They probably had exactly what I needed on the shelves inside, but coudn’t sell it to me. Of the two security guards at the warehouse, one wanted to shoot me for daring to walk in the office door and the other warmly drew me a map to a store that sold their products. After trying to find it twice I determined that it was either nowhere near where he thought it was or it had closed long ago. Sometime after 1 p.m. I finally shrugged off the quest and hopped on the freeway. And I was stung. Maybe it was the urgency of getting out of a big dirty city or maybe I just needed to work off some frustration. I dug my feet into the Giant’s pedals like never before and cannonballed the interstate. I covered two hours’ worth of distance in one, then turned toward Villa de Reyes on a road signposted as the “Ruta de Haciendas Potosinas” (Route of Potosian Plantations). You can see what the surroundings looked like here. At that turn a tailwind billowed up behind me. I kicked into the pedals with new muscles built strong on the mountains. The gears clicked up into second-highest. It’s an insane setting for long distance cruising, but it synced my body with the wind. We soared. Around 4:00 I came out of my trance and realized I was in some sort of town. It was Villa de Reyes. I rolled to a stop and looked around in confusion: my legs couldn’t understand why they weren’t still moving, and the rest of me couldn’t believe I was here so soon. It was two hours till sunset, and if the pace held out I could reach the larger town of San Felipe by dark. It would surely have a better selection of hotels. On the other hand, stopping here was the safe bet—if there was anywhere to stay. A cruise down the equivalent of Main Street convinced me to stay. I could only locate two hotels, one that looked like a complete hole and the other that looked delightful. (They were two different entrances to the same place.) I rolled my bike inside and got a room. I thought my troubles might be over. Villa de Reyes is a charming town, with a stream/canal running through it and houses built on bridges over the canal. But I wasn’t in for the best night. The hotel boasted internet and hot water, neither of which worked; the room was freezing; and when I asked for a receipt I was told it would cost extra (uh?). The beds were made of rocks and my only lightbulb exploded in the middle of the night. The one enjoyable part of my evening was finding a crazy good cocina economica, where the doña kept candles on a Guadalupe shrine over her brick oven. After dinner, both my mobile internet and the hotel internet failed, and I turned in for a fitful night of sleep. 33.3 miles. Map.

Friday, November 28 (Day 875 of the Great Adventure)—Oh Dolores

I had client work to finish, so I awoke early hoping for a 4G signal. It still wasn’t there, and I had to adjourn to the freezing hotel courtyard to pick up wi-fi. Wrapped in a blanket, I typed away as the sun came up. For those of you keeping score, this was when I finally ran out of prepaid internet thanks to some earlier bungling. I spent the morning variously shivering, looking for somewhere that would serve me breakfast, asking Telcel kiosks all the wrong questions, or wandering more than a mile to an Oxxo station to get a giant cup of real coffee. Finally I found a doña who could help. She ran a little electronics shop and tried to explain everything I didn’t understand about my Telcel account. Another $400 pesos later I had the internet back. It was another very late start, departing after noon. I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to Villa de Reyes and I looked forward to covering some mileage. The easy target would be San Felipe, but all signs pointed to a farther town, Dolores Hidalgo, being prettier and well worth a visit. I decided to go 60 miles and reach it, late start or no. The day was mostly uneventful. I turned onto the wrong highway as I left town, which meant narrow lanes and no shoulder. One semi truck ran me off the road, and you can see my feelings on that in the video logs if you’re a supporter. I turned a corner at a bypass road around San Felipe. The land after that made everything better. More narrow rural roads but the traffic was light. Vast hilly surroundings, green instead of brown, and I had crossed the border into gorgeous Guanajuato state. In setting like this my creative side returns. I recorded two long voice memos to myself as I pedaled, one of which became The Birth of a New Heroism. The Giant rolled into Dolores Hidalgo exactly at sunset. It was indeed a gorgeous, welcoming and thriving town—the opposite of Villa de Reyes. The second hotel I walked into, Hotel CasaMia, was pretty much the perfect place: friendly staff, beautiful space and affordable prices. After taking a hot shower I basked in the presence of two working internet signals. I was drained. I wandered around town a little bit, taking in one of the prettiest and most active Centros I’ve seen. I passed on the fancy cafes off the central jardín and found a place with a college vibe that served pizza, tacos and burgers. I chose a platter of alambre (meat and fixings supposedly roasted on skewers, but usually just grilled) that consisted of steak, bacon, mushrooms, pineapples and cheese. This I rolled up into tacos until I was so full I couldn’t eat another bite. An early night in a comfortable (if cold) room awaited me. 62.5 miles. Map.

Saturday, November 29 (Day 876 of the Great Adventure)—Rest Day

By the time I’d gone to sleep I pretty much knew I’d be taking an unplanned rest day in Dolores Hidalgo. I didn’t really need more rest so much as I was enchanted by the town and the chance to explore it. The way I travel, working while I’m on the road, has its downsides, but this is definitely an upside. I can stop in pretty much any place I fancy. After breakfast at a corner cafe I canvassed out from the Centro. Dolores Hidalgo, like Villa de Reyes, had a central canal. But instead of building over it they turned it into an attractive green riverfront. I also had something of a mission. I saw lots of artesanías (handmade craft shops) and decided to pick up a small lightweight shoulder bag. Men carry these a lot more commonly in Mexico, and it would be handy for taking my laptop or a book when I went out. Check out the result:

My bag. Photo by André.

My bag. Photo by André.

I was surprised to find a place called Zona “V” (the V Zone, meaning the Green Zone) in the local public market. They had salads, green smoothies, natural juices, vegetarian and gluten free food, and other healthy stuff. I wanted a regular unhealthy Cuban sandwich, which they were happy to make, but I washed it down with a terrific mix of grapefruit and orange juice. Much of the day was dedicated to writing, which I did in the CasaMia’s courtyard. Dolores Hidalgo is the city where the Mexican Revolution began, and I shot a video at the historic church where the cry for independence was raised. (I got every single one of my Mexican history facts wrong, however, and had to film a do-over the next morning.) For dinner I went back to the same college-atmosphere cocina and this time tentatively tried their pizza, which was actually really good. I worked late into the night and got ready for tomorrow’s ride, which would take me to San Miguel de Allende—the halfway point in the ride across Mexico. Total traveled this leg: 95.8 miles. Total traveled since Day 1: 3636.1 miles. Next time I strike toward San Miguel and my first every Spanish immersion homestay. Until then, check out all my road logs or become a supporter and get the video logs.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Tornado in the Desert

When last we left off, I had been through a harrowing ride through a desert on a nearly-broken bicycle, on the verge of being stranded out in the cold. I’d managed to reach a town, repair my bicycle by working through the night, and wobble exhausted to the dead little burg of Moctezuma, SLP. After a day of rest there, I was ready to depart the “Corridor of Oases” and strike off into desert once more…

Photo by Kevin Schraer

Wednesday, November 26 (Day 873 of the Great Adventure)—The  Road Least Traveled

Mexico’s waiters are not fleet of foot. A few very high end places defy the rule and recruit almost obsessive servers. They accost you for your convenience between each mouthful, so eager to clear your dishes that they snatch them away half full. Most places, however, from casual streetside taco stands to mainline restaurants, sit at the other end of the spectrum. The cultural expectation is not that they will come check on you in case you need something. The expectation is that they will visit you only when they must drop off your order, and otherwise stay far away. If you need your waiter, it is acceptable to call loudly from across the room.

The breakfast I had my last morning in Moctezuma pushed this standard to new lows. A server may do many things while pointedly not looking in your direction: they may chat with friends, check their phone or mop. My server opted for the latter approach—but not in the restaurant. Instead she left and swept an alley behind it, as if she had a grave duty to avoid the actual dining area where I sat, menu in hand, wanting food.

And the alley required a lot of attention. It wasn’t just the sweeping, it was caring for the flower pots and sprinkling water to hold down the dust. I assume a boyfriend was meeting her back there, and I accept that her teenage loins take precedence over my chilaquiles.

I don’t know what a Mexican customer would have done. Maybe they would’ve gone in the alley and placed their order, or yelled so loud that she could hear them from outside. There were no other customers to learn from. In any case I’m from the U.S.; I don’t chase down waiters. I sit quietly at my table hoping to catch someone’s eye, and I get annoyed.

Eventually, I heard shuffling in the kitchen. Sensing a doña, I strolled over to the order-up window.

“Hi there,” I said. “Could I order some red chilaquiles with fried eggs?”

“Sure,” she said.

Then she went outside, got the waitress (presumably in flagrante delicto) and sent her over to my table. I then gave my order a second time.

This is how the entire meal went: if I wanted something I got the doña’s attention, but instead of handing me whatever it was she summoned the waitress. At one point, the doña fetched the waitress so I could ask for more coffee; the waitress repeated this to the doña, who poured it herself. By the end of the meal I wasn’t sure if I should short the tip or double it.

Eventually I got on the bike. I headed back across the bridge to the outskirts, smashing over a hidden tope (speed bump) on the way and destroying my plastic toolbox. I picked its contents off the road and shoved them into a bag. I wondered what else Fortuna could have in store for me on such a lovely day.

My route turned off the Corridor of Oases. Where I had been heading south, I now swung east. The plan was to go completely around the city of San Luis Potosí, the state capital. There were a few reasons for this:

  • Biking through big cities is terrible.
  • I’ve already seen this city, and actually lived there for 6 weeks or so (pictures, stories).
  • I was too late to meet up with my friend who lives there, who had just left on a business trip for several weeks.

Instead, I planned to strike out for the town of Villa de Arista, then turn south and cut across some desert north of the city, turning away at the last minute on one of the highways that runs around it. I’d seek out a roadside hotel or lodging in a small outlying town. Alberto, a gentleman I’d spoken with while hitting a laundry in Moctezuma, was confident I’d find hotels in those towns. It was a medium-long bike ride for one day, but far from my longest.

There was one downside to skipping San Luis Potosí: bike shops. As a major metropolis it presumably had good ones, and there was a chance I replace my damaged tire—or even fix my wheel wobble. But the tire seemed to be doing fine and I was already in contact with a bike mechanic farther up ahead.

So I put my back to the wind and pedaled on.

The first part of the trip went well. I made a quick stop in Villa de Arista for a snack and Gatorade. One of the locals, another Alberto, saw the bike and made small talk. I learned the word for “scarf” from him (bufanda). I also asked him about the road ahead. He assumed I meant a freeway many miles east of the town, a major route toward San Luis Potosí. That wasn’t the highway I meant at all. I planned to turn south right here in Villa. I’d eventually cut over to the same highway he meant, but save many miles by taking a country road.

Alberto shook his head and told me something I couldn’t translate, which may or may not have been a warning. I politely thanked him and went on my way, sticking to my plan. After all, I had Google.

Heading south meant no more tailwind. The terrain also quickly went from green cropland back to desert. The sun grew hot. I noticed that some of the roads I passed, marked as major ones on the map, were just gravel trails. For some reason that didn’t give me pause.

Finally I reached a tiny village known as Rincon de Leijas (if anyone can tell me what Leijas means you win a bicycle shaped cookie). This was where I needed to hang a right onto a new road. But as I cruised into town, the only right-hand turn was an old gravel mule track. “That’s weird,” I thought, and figured it was a bit farther up ahead. But all I found was a residential street and a dead end.

The mule track was my right-hand turn.

I harrumphed. Going back to Villa meant nearly two hours wasted, plus having to take the longer route Alberto recommended. On the other hand, this mule track was a very short segment on the map. It just jogged over to another more major highway. With no cell signal in the desert I couldn’t get a fix on the exact distance, but I eyeballed it as maybe 2 miles. That’s less than an hour of walking.

Gallantly, I wheeled my bike toward the trail and strode off the paved highway into the desert. Farm families watched me in silence as I departed their fair burg, and I kept my head up as if this was exactly what I’d intended to do. Who doesn’t want a quick constitutional in the wasteland?

Two vehicles passed me as I left Rincon de Leijas: one mule (with a rider) and one tractor (with a rider with a parasol). Both returned my head nod and neither asked any potentially embarrassing questions.

The mule track went over a rocky ridge, so I couldn’t actually see my destination up ahead. But I was confident that the hour wasted walking the bike would still be shorter than backtracking.

The hour passed. Atop the ridge I surveyed the land before me. I couldn’t clearly see the other highway I was supposed to meet. Then again, in a rocky rolling scrubland that wasn’t surprising. My mule trail curved left up ahead, which was exactly what it was supposed to do before merging. Perfect.

It took me a long time to admit that the highway didn’t exist. Not just that it too was unpaved: I never saw any other track at all.

I considered my options. The mule trail continued in the correct direction, the direction the “highway” was supposed to run. It pointed south, where sooner or later there would be towns and San Luis Potosí. I’d get there eventually. On the other hand, the cost of backtracking had grown by another hour and a half. And what’s the worst thing that could happen wandering alone in a desert?

So, fuck it. I kept walking the bike.

I was also highly conscious of my supplies. I had the camping gear to survive a night in the desert, cold as it would be. As for food, surviving on Cliff Bars is far from haute cuisine but it’ll do the job. Water was the real issue. Expecting to be able to stop at roadside stores, I had only a liter and a half on me. I could ration half of it for today/tonight and save half for tomorrow. That ought to get me to civilization.

So I walked through the desert. Once, a truck passed me; I didn’t think about flagging him down and he didn’t think about stopping. You might think of a truck as a reassuring sign, a symbol that I really was headed toward civilization, but he could have been a rancher. There was every possibility that the mule trail would just dead end.

The afternoon wore on. I felt oddly calm. My main problem was the stones that kept getting in my shoes. I stopped bothering to empty them out. The surroundings were beautiful, and I felt at home there.

At one point the trail dipped down to cross a dry stream bed. I entered the low area, and my view of the countryside ahead was cut off just for a moment.

Then I started up the far bank, looking up. And I froze.

Towering over me, straight ahead, was a tornado.

I’ve never seen a tornado except in movies  and news footage. But there was no mistaking it. And this sucker was huge. It was a giant vertical column ripping up the beige dust around me. It moved directly over the trail. And it was close.

My mouth dropped open. Parts of me were already spinning, spooling up, plotting my survival. I had to do something other than stand there and take it.

And then it was gone. As quick as it had appeared, the tornado fell to pieces and swirled itself out into nothing. Mouth still open I started laughing, loud, hard.

It wasn’t a tornado. It was a dust devil.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a giant fucking dust devil. This isn’t one of those swirls of leaves you see in autumn. This bad boy reached to the heavens. But it was nothing to be afraid of, just a bit of dirt caught in a swirl of the wind. Even if it had run right over me, the worst I would’ve suffered was a mouthful of grit.

Still, it had my hackles up. The tornado itself wasn’t even what got me. It was the way it appeared out of nowhere, with no warning. And then seeing it disappear just as quick. “Devil” seemed right: it was conjured and banished as quickly as a sorcerer’s pet.

Still smiling, I pushed on. I walked right through the spot where it had been and everything was at peace.

Much later, a huge truck passed me. This one stopped up ahead. I squinted as various people got off. The truck drove on, leaving them there, and they stayed by the side of the road. Were they waiting for me? What did they want?

As I got closer, I realized they had tools and were digging. And then I realized something much more important, but much harder to see: the road next to them was paved.

A mere three or four hours after nodding my head to a cowboy with a parasol, I had reached the fabled paved road. It was bikable.

As soon as I touched pavement I mounted up. I surveyed the workers, head again held high. They all stopped working and stared at me like I was insane.

I’m pretty used to that look.

“Buenas tardes,” I said, nodded, and pedaled down the road.

 —

The road soon led to a village (called Nuevo Tanque, “New Tank,” which I imagine has a corporate story behind it). It had an abarrotes shop and I went in for water. From the look on the doña’s face they didn’t get a lot of gueros in these parts, and even less crawling out of the desert. A gentleman there wanted to get chatty but, now four hours behind schedule, I had to keep going.

The rest of the afternoon was increasingly green land and occasional villages, all uphill. I had a difficult choice to make. There was absolutely no question that I’d be bicycling after dark, so should I stick to the original plan, or divert and head into the city? One option meant blindly searching for lodging after sunset, and the other was a shit show of bad biking conditions.

It was tough. I really, really didn’t want to go into the city. But searching hotels on Google showed them clustered in the metro, and nothing on the freeway. That didn’t mean there weren’t any highway hotels, but holding out hope in the freezing dark on a 6-lane freeway is a rough way to spend an evening.

At the final fork in the road, right before sunset, I made the call: we’re going to SLP.

There were two more towns before hitting the big city, and I held onto at least a small hope that one of them would have an inn. Neither did, and it was at this time that my back wheel chose to resume scuffing the against the frame. I stopped twice, once in each town, and threw my saddlebags roadside to turn the Giant upside down and adjust his back wheel. The second time, I cranked those lugnuts hard. And as quick as I had stopped, I pushed on.

Outside San Luis Potosí, the boundary between country and city is so precise it looks like a video game. An overpass formed a simple border: on one side was pristine green-gold farmland, on the other was smog-stained industrial slum. Straddling the divide was a giant gas station. It had a sign for showers but none for a hotel. Shrugging, I crossed the line.

That was about the same moment the sun fell behind the mountains, and the effect was pronounced. I remember my friend the Wandering Dragon, my host when I lived in SLP, warning me there were certain parts of town you just don’t go into. The road I was on went all the way across one.

The first problem was pavement. It was such a crater field I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear artillery shells. I urged the Giant to be strong, but it wasn’t just his life that was in danger.

The neighborhood itself was a mix of slummy residential structures with metal shops, warehouses and the odd taco stand. At first it was mostly deserted, and the few faces I saw tracked me with interest. Then it got darker. They couldn’t see that I had professional saddle bags rather than a crate of produce.

Additionally, it became denser and more residential. Trash fires lined the streets. People milled about, traffic increased, other bicycles passed me. I kept my head down, hoping to blend in, and I made a point to never speak. In the dark, I wasn’t a guero unless I opened my mouth.

The ride was nerve wracking, but no worse than the bad neighborhoods I’d gone through in south Memphis or Saint Louis—and marginally better than the street party in Baton Rouge. Early on, I made an agreement with myself that if things got any worse I would just turn it around and go back to the freeway, and figure out a backup plan. I never thought of that option again. (Which may indicate how skewed my judgment is, because not much later I went past a large-scale police bust in progress.)

By the time I reached a part of town that might be considered halfway respectable, I had also reached intense traffic conditions. The road turned from asphalt to large rectangular paving stones, a pain to ride on. I remember the Dragon complaining about these and me saying they’re pretty. Eff you, past André.

To make things more interesting, it became one-way and I faced a wall of traffic. I refused to reroute to the correct-way street, but did take to the sidewalk for several blocks.

Finally, the street spat me out somewhere I recognized. I had reached a park in the Central Historic district, a perfectly safe and peaceful place to stop. These transitions don’t even feel weird anymore: guarding my life one minute, sitting on a park bench perusing my iPhone the next. I identified several hotels within blocks and set out for one that, based on the reviews, sounded affordable but nice.

A few minutes later I rolled the bike up to the Hotel Maria Cristina. Its grand staircase looked both elegant, and difficult to haul a bike up. Most of all it looked expensive. I leaned against the wall, checking my phone for the other hotels in the area.

At that point some random guy walked up to me. “Mande,” he said.

Now I know that mande means “excuse me.” At the time I didn’t know that word. So I looked up and said, essentially, “What?”

The man hesitated. He had thought I was Mexican until I spoke. (I find this happens not infrequently: remember, Latinos don’t actually come in any one skin or hair color, and have their fair share of blondies.) While he stuttered to reorient himself, I lost my patience. I had spent the last hour trying to repel potential troublemakers, and strangers usually only approach you in big cities to ask for money. Basically, my defenses were up.

“Que quiere?” I snapped, which translates as a fairly brisk whaddya want.

He hesitated but went on. “I just think your bike is beautiful,” he said in English.

Immediately my heart softened, and so did my demeanor. He could still be hustling me for all I knew, but he sure had a creative way of doing it.

We started talking about bikes and my trip. He loves old road bikes and wanted to know what kind the Giant is (a Miyata, for those interested). He owns a Raleigh not unlike the one I’d just helped a friend in New Orleans sell. He desperately wants to do long distance biking, but hasn’t had a chance yet.

“Where do you want to bike?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said. We laughed.

Finally I asked him if he could do me a favor. “I need to run in and see how much this hotel costs,” I said. “Will you watch my bike?”

He hesitated. “How long?” he asked. [Andre’s note: if you want to steal someone’s bike, this is a great tactic. As soon as he was reluctant I was 100% sure I’d found a trustworthy person to watch it.]

I assured him it would just be a minute and he agreed. The hotel turned out to be something like 500 pesos, more than I usually spend but not so much more that I was going to keep wandering the streets looking for a bargain. I came outside and told my new friend the good news.

I also asked if he lived in San Luis Potosí, thinking maybe we’d get dinner together or something. He actually doesn’t, but he’s there often for work. He told me he lives in Rioverde. Now it was my turn to light up: Rioverde is one of the area’s more pristine tourist destinations, famous for a crescent moon shaped lake. He confirmed that the lake is divinely beautiful and asked if my trip would take me that way.

“I don’t know,” I said. As I recalled, it was east of the city and well off my route.

“Well if you do, you have a place to stay,” he told me. He introduced himself by his full name—four names long—and told me that anyone in town would know him and point out his house to me. I committed all four names to memory and promised my friend I would stop by if I went that way. (Unfortunately I was right; it’s pretty far off my route.)

After that the night was a wind-down. The hotel actually had a parking garage, and encouraged me to just roll the bike in there. I chained him up and U-locked him to a railing near the motorcycle parking. The attendant nodded approvingly. “Very smart,” he said in Spanish. Bike locks don’t seem real common in Mexico.

A bellboy (bellman?) brought the rest of my stuff upstairs. The place came with free water, more nonfunctional wi-fi, and not a single outlet to be found in my room. Seeking to avoid the high prices of a hotel restaurant, I went to a cafe around the block. They handed me what could have been a carbon copy of the hotel menu. Same dishes, same prices.

My waiter, at least, was a source of familiar comfort. He may not have had an alley to retreat to, but he subscribed to the exact school of service as the girl who brought me breakfast. 59.6 miles.

Map 1. 26.3 miles

Map 2. 5.5 miles walking

Map 3. 27.8 miles.

Total traveled this leg: 59.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3540.3 miles.

Next time the biking gets easier and the hotels get a whole lot worse. Until then, here are all my road logs.

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Heroism, The Heroic Life

Why I’m Changing My View of Heroism

Art by Delawer-Omar

Over the past few weeks I’ve written extensively about expanding the definition of heroism. Today I’m going to wrap that up with my conclusions and what this means for my pursuit of the heroic life.

First, a recap. Among hero scholars it’s common to use a very strict definition of heroism: only those who take real personal risk (physical or non-physical) for the sake of others are heroes. But most people use “hero” more broadly. They use it to refer to individuals who go above and beyond in a variety of ways, even if there’s no risk involved. Generally, if someone accomplishes something extraordinary in the pursuit of something we value, we call them a hero.

My point has been that there may be a very good reason we call these people heroes—that their actions really are heroic on some level. For me this is an uncomfortable position. Most of the examples I gave, from artists to pop stars to athletes, don’t seem particularly heroic to me. For years I was in the camp that believes it’s wrong to call these people heroes, that it’s watering down the whole concept of heroism.

What caused me to rethink this was witnessing firsthand the effect that these heroes have. The speakers at the first Hero Round Table concentrated overwhelmingly on deeds that wouldn’t pass my “hero” litmus test, and yet these deeds hit home in a way that I’ve never seen from heroism discussion before. And this seemed to create momentum for many of the people present to want to follow in their footsteps.

And so I set off on the search for another way to define heroism, one that isn’t based just on risk. Instead, I suggested that heroism might be based on taking actions that inspire. There’s no doubt that all of our selfless risk-taking heroes inspire us, but so do lots of other folks. That might explain why we call such a large and diverse group of people heroes.

But just inspirational on its own isn’t good enough (just like not all risky things are heroic). If the old equation was risk + doing good = heroism, then my proposed replacement was heroism = inspiring others + doing good. Specifically you have to inspire others to strive to improve themselves in some way. If an action has that effect, we can call that action heroic.

Responses and Developments

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people seem to like this definition. What was more surprising is that a lot of other people seem to hate it. I always got the impression that being a heroism hardliner, back when I was one, is pretty unpopular; that most people wanted to call quarterbacks heroes and I was the odd one out. But it turns out that a whole lot of people think heroism is a word that should be used very, very selectively and that anything else just waters it down.

The responses from many of these individuals were instructive. They were essentially saying: rock stars don’t seem heroic to me, ergo, there is nothing they do that anyone can rightly call heroic. To put it another way, some people are inspired only by the most extreme acts while others are inspired more easily. This may be why there’s a debate over the meaning of heroism in the first place.

I also got a lot of insight into the other group, the people who like this definition. Their comments show a heavy emphasis on relatability. I don’t think any of them would deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a greater hero than, say, their lovable grandfather. Yet both individuals inspire them to strive to be a better person, and the role that their grandfather played in their life is undeniably more intimate. This, to them, makes their grandfather a greater influence on their own ability to act heroically, even if his deeds were far humbler than leading the civil rights movement.

Both of these responses were invaluable. They helped me get a better look at what’s happening when people sling around the h-word, or when they refuse to. But I’ve also begun to second guess whether inspiration is the heart of it at all. I began to wonder if feeling inspired isn’t more a symptom of what’s going on. After all, if heroism is anything that inspires us to strive to be better, what sorts of things inspire us to strive to be better?

Starting Over

If I had to start this whole series over tomorrow, I’d likely focus on values. Each of us has a set of values, some that we all agree on—like justice or selflessness—and others that are more personal, like living healthy or being a good parent. I suspect that the people who inspire us most are the ones who take extraordinary steps in living up to our values. That’s what motivates us to be better people, because such individuals are living proof that being better is possible. It’s where inspiration comes from.

If that’s the case it explains why we all agree on some heroes, like Dr. King, because they represent values we all share. And it also explains why Lady Gaga looks like a hero to some people, while to others she’s stinking up the whole notion of heroism.

Perhaps most importantly, this theory of heroism would suggest that there’s an objective mechanism behind what we call heroism, even though we each choose different people to call heroes.

Recidivism

I don’t think I’ve got heroism all tied up in a nice neat package. The theory I just gave would seem to explain all of the different phenomena we call heroism and what they have in common. But the truth is… I don’t feel it.

The whole reason I chase heroism is because of stories of great sacrifice. In Irish legend, when the hero Cú Chulainn is fighting alone against an entire army, 150 little boys decide they’re going to go help him. Their fathers are sick from a curse, so they take up their hurling sticks and march off to war against men armed with chariots, swords and spears. All the boys die. And the enemy’s advance is halted.

That is the spirit of heroism. From the smallest social risk to risking life itself, heroes traffic in sacrifice. They think less of their own wellbeing than of what they value. That is heroic, at least to me.

But then I have to question myself. I’m not wired any differently than the rest of humanity, and I’m doing the same thing we all do. I’m looking at what inspires me, what lives up to my values, and saying “that there is heroism.” And when you call David Bowie a hero, I don’t feel right about that. But so what? Why should heroism be based on my values, and not yours?

That’s not necessarily an argument to open heroism up. It might simply mean that basing heroism on values isn’t a productive way to go. By far the best objection to my idea came from my friend Ari Kohen, who said this:

…if Lady Gaga is your hero and if the situation ever arises where a stranger’s trapped in a burning car or someone’s fallen onto the subway tracks, you’re more likely to be a bystander than someone who steps up and does the risky thing.

This resonates with me. To me, creating heroism is about creating people who won’t be afraid to speak up. (Or who will be afraid, and speak up anyway.) People who won’t be bystanders. People who will act when no one else will.

I’m not as confident as Ari that Lady Gaga’s example can’t help you with that. Or the example of a charity founder, or your grandpa. The truth is we don’t have a lot of data on what sorts of things prime somebody to be the one who steps forward. But we know a few things that definitely do help prime you, and they all have to do with being aware of others and being able to envision yourself taking action. It’s not clear what role, if any, a celebrity hero can play in that.

So the end result of all these posts is I don’t know. I don’t know if a broader definition of heroism is a good thing because I can’t tell if it helps us make more heroes or not. And I have an inner struggle over whether the definition of heroism I really believe in—the strict, sacrifice-based one—is truly better or if it’s just me pushing my values on people. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that possibility.

For now the quest continues. I’m not going to stand firmly by the new definition I’ve proposed (with apologies to those of you who loved it). Nor can I return firmly to the narrow risk-based definition, at least not without further thought. That there has to be a way to understand this phenomenon we call heroism, and I don’t think we’re nearly there yet. I do suspect it’s connected to extraordinary acts in service of our values, and yet I feel that sacrifice is an important component. Making the two work together is likely my next step.

What does this mean for the heroic life? I don’t think  it changes much. I may not know, on paper, what makes a hero but I know, in my heart, exactly what I must do with my life. I have wandered and my journey has taught me my life purpose. Deeper, I know too what I stand for and what I must do if faced with a bad situation. I must put my ideals before everything else, hold them like a sword, and trust in them. They are the one part of me that can never be destroyed.

Here’s an index of all the posts on inspiration as a force of heroism:

Next time I’ll get back to road logs from my journey.

 

 

 

 

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Adventure, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: Weird Moments and a Boat

It’s been a while since we did a Photo Friday so I’ve got a few pictures for you this time. I honestly don’t remember which pictures I promised to post in my video logs for supporters, so if you’re a supporter and one is missing just email me and I’ll include it next week. (If you’re not yet a supporter but you’d like to get these video logs, you can grab them here. They show a lot of the coolest places I’ve discovered… although some of them are just me talking to the camera about what’s going on in my life on this adventure. Full disclosure.)

First off, here’s a shot of the Gulf when I finally reached the beach after more than a thousand miles of desert:

Photo by André

Photo by André

The next few are not high photography but show some of the weirder moments along my trip. This one is the world’s worst design for a wheelchair accessibility ramp:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Good luck, wheelchairs!

This next one caught my eye as I cruised through a small village on the coast. It’s the sign on a snow cone shop:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That banner reads, effectively,

Blonde guy! Blonde girl! Come on inside!

The only authentic one with the registered trademark

I’m not really sure why they’re marketing themselves to blonde people. It definitely wasn’t the kind of tourist town that gets a lot of foreigners. Despite fitting the description, I declined to go inside.

This one is just cruel:

Photo by André

Photo by André

At first I thought it was one of those want-a-book-take-a-book libraries that some cities have. That got me super excited, both on a general “knowledge is good” level and on a personal “I’d like a new book to read in Spanish” level. But that’s not what this thing is at all.

Instead, it’s just a display of books. It’s completely sealed, with no way to open it and no way to get one of the books. This clear side faces a major plaza and the reverse side is a locked steel door. I guess it’s supposed to be an ad for some place where you can get books, but to me it’s like putting a chocolate cake in a jail cell and giving no one the key. Also it’s kind of a waste of readable books, right?

Photo by André

Photo by André

This is the menu at The Monkeys Cafeteria in Alvarado, Veracruz. Apparently their mascot is a monkey with a beer belly wearing a shirt that says YES… and giving the thumbs up. (They had a Santa version of him for their Christmas display as well.) The best part is where the menu reads, as if it’s a bragging point, “100% Mono Gil” or 100%% Gil Monkey. I guess that refers to the ingredients? If so this place is macabre as hell.

Last photo! This one is more “photo of the week” material. This is a boat in the town of Catemaco. It sits on the beach of the magical lake, renowned for its mystical powers and the source of the local tradition of sorcery. It looked so lonely and perfect sitting there:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Oh Mexico, te quiero mucho. Thanks for following along everybody. I have one more piece to finish up the series on inspiration as heroism, and then next week I’ll start posting road logs again.

Adventure on…

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Heroism

Response to a Critique

Photo by Chloe

I’ve written a lot about the idea of inspiring others as a form of heroism. Specifically, that heroism includes not just taking big risks for others, but doing anything so impressive it inspires others to be better people.

That’s because inspiring others to change for the better is something all heroes do, from those who save thousands of lives to those who simply stand up to a bully. There are many ways to be a hero, but the one thing they all have in common is provoking a feeling of awe in the rest of us.

Not everyone agrees with this view of heroism. My friend Ari Kohen recently published a piece pushing back strongly against it. It’s worth reading in full, but I’m going to focus on a few key points.

What stands out is the way Ari portrays people who use the word “hero” to refer to those who inspire them:

I’m tired of everyone getting a trophy. Tired of the whole concept and all the ways it plays out in our society. I’m tired of ribbons that say “participant” on them. I’m tired of students telling me they deserve an “A” because they tried hard. I’m tired of the insistence that everyone should feel good about exerting the smallest possible effort.

I agree. But to me this doesn’t hit home as a critique of calling our role models heroes. When I ask people who their heroes are, they name just a select few. They never list every good person they know, and they rarely have long lists at all. People just don’t hand out hero lightly.

There’s no doubt that the kind of people we call heroes is a mixed bag. Often, people tell me their grandma or grandpa is their hero. Sometimes an artist or a writer or an athlete. We can argue about the merits of any one of these choices, but here’s the catch: people are naming only the most impressive individuals in their lives. It’s the exact opposite of a participation ribbon.

Similarly, Ari writes:

Many people, it seems, just want to hear good news. They want to be told that if they make someone’s day or inspire someone, they’re heroic.

I don’t think that many people are hoping to be called heroic. Most have the opposite instinct. Try telling someone you know that one of their accomplishments makes them a hero. They will get very uncomfortable and they’ll probably deny it.

If someone doesn’t agree that inspirational figures count as heroes, that’s fine by me. But I think it’s important to understand the motivation behind calling them heroes. It isn’t that people have low standards, are lazy, or can’t tell the difference between a small deed and a big one. If you ask what a hero looks like, everyone knows Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. is a good answer. But what they’re really interested in is the people in their own life experience—friends, family members, mentors, role models—who provoke a glimmer of that same sense of awe. Those people feel more real. And that means they have a much bigger impact on our heroic imagination, the trait that helps us become heroic ourselves.

And that comes to Ari’s main point. He doesn’t think inspirational figures help prepare us for heroism at all. He offers the example of someone whose hero is a pop star. Will this person be ready to pull survivors from a burning building? Will they jump onto the train tracks and rescue a child from a speeding subway? How would looking up to Lady Gaga possibly prepare them for that?

This is, I think, Ari’s strongest point. I don’t really know whether having an artist-hero prepares you for rescue heroism, or if a thinker-hero prepares you for taking action. I suppose it depends on whether inspiration works on a one-to-one basis (we copy the action we admire), or whether it provokes an internal process of self-reflection that makes us strive to be better more broadly. I suppose it also depends on what it is we admire about a particular hero; to me, Lady Gaga’s willingness to sacrifice for her art and endure years of ridicule is far more inspirational than her singing talent.

And the same question works in reverse. If your hero is someone who rescued people from a burning building, how prepared are you to stay true to your art in the face of tremendous hostility? It’s possible that people simply need different kinds of heroes, because there are different kinds of good to strive for.

The individuals who have gone above and beyond those around them, in the pursuit of any admirable quality, are what we end up calling heroes—not just those who stick their necks out for others. You can disagree with that, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as intellectual laziness. We’re complex creatures, with a multiplicity of values. That makes it pretty much inevitable that we’ll have a multiplicity of heroes as well.

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