The border guards and military personnel barely glanced at Kai & I as we walked our bicycles through the pedestrian entrance of the U.S./Tecate border and said nothing as we passed the office that we were required to stop at to collect our tourist cards, so in only a few short minutes we found ourselves starring dumbly at each other on the streets of Tecate. Laughing at how ridiculous it was that we could suddenly find ourselves in Mexico without anyone making us jump through any of the standard U.S. security hoops (taking off our shoes, belts and jewelry and then walking through a full body scan machine) or having to answer 20 questions as you do when coming from the opposite direction and entering the States, we did a U-turn and eventually found the office that dispensed tourist cards.
There, Kai & I each took turns being handed a very unofficial looking piece of paper from a young man, seemingly the only one working there, and were told to go down to the bank to pay the fee ($24US) and come back to receive our cards. The bank was three blocks down a steeply graded street into the heart of Tecate. There, we each took turns going into the bank to pay our fee and after a stumbling conversation in broken Spanish, we were told we had the wrong paperwork, and that the bank was going to close in 15 minutes. So, we hurried up the steep 3 blocks back to the office (after the long day of climbing I found myself pushing the last half block), each of us running in tag team style to get the right paperwork. Hoping we had the right papers in hand we raced down the hill with only 5 minutes left to spare. Luckily we got in the bank before they locked the doors, so like any other bank, although it was after closing time, they service everyone who is already inside and in a line.
After we made it back up the hill to the border crossing (me pushing it up again) we were unceremoniously handed our tourist cards. With a previous plan of staying at a hotel another cyclist ahead of us had said was only 3 miles south of town, we started in on the incline out on Highway 3. But I was beat and ready to stop for the day, and I kept having a nagging thought that we were going to climb out of town only to find there was no hotel, so I began asking people walking by about the hotel. The first woman I stopped told me it was closed, at least that’s what I think she said, as my Spanish was quite rusty, having only taken a few semesters of language classes over a decade ago. So we rode on a bit until I could confirm it with another local. I stopped and asked a man outside an auto-parts shop, who didn’t understand a word I was saying but promptly ran into the store and came out with a friend who spoke perfect English, and told us the hotel ahead was definitely closed.
After getting the low-down on which hotels in town were decent and which weren’t, we made our way to the Hotel El Dorado, where we had another exhausting part spoken/part miming conversation with the hotel staff, who in the end gave us a substantial discount on a ground level room. We spent two days in Tecate, walking around town, checking out the grocery stores and enjoying dinners at the open air taquería down the street where we could get a huge meal of multiple burritos and tacos for only 55 pesos (about $4US).
Feeling well rested we climbed out of Tecate toward Ensenada. A couple of hours later we were taking a break on the side of the road when a young man pulled off to make sure we were ok and to see if we needed any help. We chatted and discovered that he was a cyclist, into mountain biking, and once he found out we were cycling around the world, he ran back to his car and came back offering us a jar of Nutella! What a sweetheart.
Toward late afternoon we decided to explore camping options in the town of Playa de las Palmas and when we stopped outside a small market in town a beaming man came walking across the highway to greet us with a big and happy hello and quickly offered us a place to pitch our tent in a very cozy space that sat behind a small restaurant. Protected from the street, with access to a concrete bunker of sorts that housed showers and toilets, our night’s home came complete with a picnic table and a group of dogs who specialized in taking naps and looking cute. As the sun set upon us making dinner, we talked about how wonderful it was to have met such generous people in our first day of cycling Mexico.
The following morning I realized I had lost my safety glasses, one of my most highly prized possessions. I had almost given up hope of finding them as we were cycling out of town but decided to briefly scan the ground in front of the market we had stopped at the previous day. Within seconds an elderly man popped his head out of the market’s doorway and held up a finger, hissed and then ran back in to the shop. Not sure what it meant – was he just hissing at me for some random reason? – but catching my breath in the hope that he knew what I was looking for, I stood still, eyes not leaving the doorway, waiting for him to reappear. A minute later he came out beaming, my glasses in one hand, his reading glasses in another, while miming that he understood how important they were. Heart swelling with gratitude I just laughed and nodded, repeating “Muchas Gracias!” over and over again.
Our first 72 hours in Mexico have been filled with an enormous display of generosity and kindness, and the immediacy of which it was offered has been heartening and humbling.