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There exists a limitless amount of inquiry one can engage in with regard to equipment before setting out to cycle to the corner store. While laying the groundwork to ride through a continent or two, one should do one’s due diligence in selecting a machine. One of the most widely held opinions about cycling in Latin America is “You gotta have twenty six inch wheels!” The rationale is that being the developing world, most of the countries that you roll through have yet to adapt twenty nine inch wheels, which are the most common in the states. They certainly would not yet have fallen for the marketing scam that is the twenty seven and a half inch rim.
Twenty six is the original mountain bike wheel size. They’re everywhere. They’re not actually twenty six inches…. If you see a farmer rolling through a sugar cane with a fifty pound sack of flour in his lap all whobbly wheeled, rusted chain, and worn sneakers from using them as brakes; you can bet your ass he is on a twenty six.
I spent the entirety of a day calling and visiting shops in Mexico City, trying to find a quality twenty six inch wheel.
A subset of bike mechanics are notoriously pompous and arrogant in the United States. I once tried to buy a set of tires for a cheap bike we kept for guests. My local bike shop tried to sell me some specialty mountain bike rubbers to the tune of sixty bucks each. When I reiterated my modest specifications, the sales lad threw a box and me and said, “These are fifteen bucks each and they’re garbage.” I got the feeling that Mexican bike shop employees could harbor a similar sense of vitriol to people not purchasing six thousand dollar frame sets. I was unable to tell what they were saying, but they looked at me as if I was a shoeless hobo asking to use the bathroom. I quickly learned that it is no issue to find a twenty nine or twenty seven and a half inch wheel in Mexico.
A strange trait of the city is that it tends to group similar businesses together. You walk through several blocks of mechanic shops or electrical supply houses. The degree to which these shops specialize is astounding. One shop sells nothing but tape. All sorts of sizes colors and styles, but just tape. The next one will sell you a pair of scissors. Somehow it never occurs to the tape shop owner that if she were to invest a few bucks in some pens, paper, scissors, and maybe a stack of three ring binders; she could become a singular point for all things office and school related. She could put her friends and neighbors out of business, take over their storefronts, and expand her empire. She might even be able to buy their foreclosed homes and rent them back to her bested competitors. Perhaps such strategic thinking is only taught in mid-grade American universities…..
There is of course an area of bike shops. It is adjacent to the prostitution area and occasionally a working girl crosses over as they seem to have clocked that cyclists tend to have money. A young woman offers to clean my chain but I politely decline. There are close to thirty shops in four blocks. None of them have what I need. As I am leaving I pass an apparel store. There are two men with a table full of mannequins that they are frantically stripping of their clothes and redressing. I find it slightly disturbing.
Eventually I managed to track down a shop that had a decent twenty six inch wheel and arranged to drop my bike off.
There is never a time in Mexico City in which traffic is not a nightmare. It makes cycling a true Darwinian experience. A hundred brushes with death crammed into a fifteen minute space will make a man feel truly alive. Six lanes in each direction. No rules. Park anywhere. Leave your car running half on curb half in intersection while buying a pack of smokes. Doors opening. Reverse. City busses. Amazed as I watch other cyclists weave through slowed traffic. Salmon (those that cycle against the flow of traffic) with dogs. Wait in middle of intersection to make a left turn. Light changes before you can go. Now you're surround by busses and eventually dash through a hole not knowing if you will make it. Dogs jump at you but you can't swerve because your left side is flanked by a cab. Push carts, wheelchairs, trucks towing cars with chains. Horns in every direction. The whole world is shouting and to stay alive you need to compartmentalize each threat and filter out the mundane. Construction beam swings from a truck at my head. Hold breath and thread eighteen inch gap between bus and curb. Lock onto rear wheel of another rider hoping he is not suicidal as we dart between death and decapitation together. Motorcycles. Old women crossing. Traffic lights mean nothing. Intergalactic firefight with objects hurling your way from all directions on the horizontal and vertical axis. Squirrel drops a churro from a tree as a feral soccer ball bounces up from below. Nobody so much as slows down until the last millisecond before mauling you. There can be intersections of 4 different roads, some one way, others two, but traffic direction is merely a recommendation. Pot holes, chunks of pollution in my eyes. Shop owners pitch mop water from the front door into the road and you cut into traffic to avoid getting juiced.
I arrive at the shop. The kid behind the counter dusts off the only rim they have in my size and says something that I assume to be condescending. He tells me that it will be ready in two days and will cost $35 for the wheel and an additional $10 to lace the spokes and hub from my old rim onto it. I know this to be an absolute bargain compared to what it would cost in the states and quietly praise the fact that globalization has yet to bring the worldwide income equality that it promised.
The bike issues meant we would stay a few extra days. We were not able to extend our room. This gave Soph the perfect opportunity to move us to the bourgeoisie side of town from our quiet little middle class corner with mechanic shops and the old woman that sold baked goods in the morning and tacos for lunch. The new place was in Condesa. It was closer to a few areas that I wanted to canvas, so I did not make much noise about the doubling of rent. That being said, I went to buy a banana and mango at the local market and nearly lost the plot.
“A dollar fifty!”
“So it’s usually like a quarter.”
She shrugged. “It looks like we can get Thai food nearby.”
“I didn’t ride a bike six thousand miles for Thai food. I want rancid meat on hand pressed tortillas and viral parasites!”
“How’s the mango?”
“It’s not the best mango I’ve ever had.”
“Not the cheapest either……”
Sheila and Cary, whom we had met in Denali, had just flown into Mexico City. We got together with them and Tony and Karen for drinks and shared stories about dirty underwear, filthy hotels, and the myriad ways to prepare beans and rice on an MSR Whisperlite. Tony shows me a picture of a river that they had passed on their way into the city. It was completely covered in garbage and there was a strange tributary of black sludge feeding into it from a nearby factory. It is easy to look at it and think about how sad it is that Mexico allows this. Then you think that it could easily be making auto parts bound for the states because environmental responsibility just isn’t profitable in a world that denounces life cycle costing as a Chinese conspiracy and therefore it is imperative that carcinogens are dumped in somebody’s water. As nice as it may feel to sweep all that under the rug, water and air pollution don’t respect international borders….
To continue our tour of places housing relics of conquered cultures, we visited the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. It is one of the most impressive sites I have ever seen. As a man that sometimes pretends to be an engineer, I could not help but wonder how they dragged not one, but several carved stones the size of a Buick into the place. What sort of support was under the floor? How did they avoid cracking, or even scratching the tile? There was an English woman walking through one of the smaller exhibits taking a picture of every single artifact. The volume on her camera was on full blast and with each shot it made two quick beeps and then an artificial shutter sound.
“Bleep beep, ka chunk.”
After a while it was like having a drop of water hit me in the forehead every thirty seconds. I asked her to turn the sound off. She looked sorry, fiddled with it for a moment, and then went around the corner of a small exhibit. The room we were in was probably one hundred feet on each side with thirty foot ceilings. A moment later she picked back up where she’d left off.
“Bleep beep, ka chunk.”
I walk past a group of archaeologists working so still and quiet. Huddled at a little table inside an display of a little stone hut. Laptops in front of them. I stared for a moment. I thought they were models of modern indigenous cultures branching out into eCommerce until one of them reached for her coffee.
On Saturday night I wander our little enclave of hipsters and gentrifiers. Jazz band jamming at Périfida Cafe. I get a mescal. Herbie Hancock into Brubeck with some Hispanic flair. Somehow I am given two drinks. There was an explanation, but I did not understand it
Sitting at an outside table and constantly bombarded by children selling Chiclets, strange bars of sugar, and loosies. An indigenous woman walks up carrying a child and taps on my shoulder. I wave her off with a lie that I have nothing. She makes a motion of putting food in her mouth but I remain firm and tell myself that if she had a gentler approach that did not take me out of what I felt was a deep focus and enjoyment of my upper middle class pleasures in classic American jazz, things could have been different.
Later I pass a fifties style bebop diner with stainless steel radios, black and white tiles, and statues of Elvis and Marilyn out front. Middle class Mexicans still in ties and heels from a day of work twist from side to side just as awkwardly as your Aunt Janet at a wedding before she has had anything to drink. Johnny B Good reverberates into the street.
I get back to our apartment and realize that I need to do laundry before riding out in the morning. I’d worn the same pants and shirt almost every day in the city. I have a riding shirt and a “nice” shirt. The latter has buttons. After letting the pants soak for several minutes I wring them out and a strange dark broth seeps between my fingers. It fills the porcelain bowl. In over seven months I have become quite familiar with the mixture of my sweat, sunscreen, and dirt that creates an opaque grey porridge with a bit of oil floating on top. This was different. It was less viscous. Like beef bouillon. Considering I hadn’t been riding, it seemed a bit much. I thought about the view we’d had from the Torre Latino Americano building while having overpriced cocktails the other night and watching the sunset. The hypoxic air and rich strata reminded me of a movie quote about LA.
“They say the fucking smog is the fucking reason you have such beautiful fucking sunsets.”
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