BAJA, MEXICO — It was the strangest countdown for an amateur outdoor sports event I've heard — and I've heard dozens. It also was the bravest. It was this past Cinco de Mayo weekend in Mexico and the storied 50-mile ride from Rosarito to Ensenada was about to begin. More than 2,300 men, women and children lined up as the announcer launched into the history of the ride that on this day celebrated its 40th anniversary.
But he didn't stop there and the topic wasn't the typical one about the oldest or youngest person cycling or even why exercise mattered. Instead, he touched on the frustration that many Mexicans — as well as some Americans — feel about leaders in Washington, D.C., dressing down people south of the border and calling for a tougher, longer, higher wall. Rosarito and Ensenada are safe, the announcer stated, and good, hard-working people live here. Yet, he said, many Americans don't visit because of scary statements. If the U.S. keeps building the wall, the announcer declared, “let's hope we're all on this side.” The crowd roared!
For a second, I envisioned the ice wall of the north in “Game of Thrones” and wondered about being caught in Mexico if crossings closed. But more than anything, I cringed. To be sure, Mexico has some serious problems. Still, most locals and visitors agree that life can be very good south of the border.
After hearing for years that pedaling from Rosarito to Ensenada is more about drinking beer than anything, I discovered that this fun ride is actually an international friendship ride.Language barriers disappeared with warm handshakes and pats on the back. Hard-core cyclists supported one another regardless of citizenship, ethnicity or ability. Strangers who aren't sure they'll even be able to finish laughed together with shared nervousness. These husbands and wives, parents and children also have the same universal bonds deep in their DNA — nothing is thicker than blood on blood.At the end of the ride, moms carried babies to welcome husbands crossing the finish line; young men in street clothes congratulated young women in sweat-soaked spandex. Similar scenes played out on Rosarito's beaches where entire families rented horses or motorized four-wheelers for a romp on the sand. Closer to the water, vigilant fathers kept watch while young children made sand sculptures, dug holes or played in the ocean white with foam. Near the pier, lovers posed for selfies — just as they do along California's coastline. Under the shade of beach umbrellas and pop-up tents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles bonded while music blasted from nearby bars. On this particular weekend, Los Angeles-based rapper YG — also known as Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson — was the headliner at Papas & Beer and people of all races easily mixed. On a free stage at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, dancers in traditional, colorful dresses painted an ever-changing visual rainbow. The scariest thing over the weekend? Watching a guy in an ultralight swoop over the pier.
Ana Castro is general manager of the Rosarito-Ensenada Bike Ride and agreed that her event is more than a bike ride. “It offers the ability to summon and unite all kinds of people,” she tells me in Spanish. “It doesn't matter where you come from.” Yet Castro also echoed local shop owners when she said that there are fewer American visitors this year than in recent years. Five years ago, for example, there were 4,274 cyclists on the Rosarito-Ensenada ride. This year there were 2,386.The reasons vary, Castro notes. But she and others say a significant factor was fear. U.S. authorities, she says, made negative statements about Americans coming to Mexico and threatened to close the border. That hurt business, she allows. It also hurt relationships. What would help? “Convince the public to stop believing what is published in the media,” Castro said, “and instead convince them to form their own opinions.” She concluded that there needed to be “mutual trust and support between both nations.”
The call for stronger border security has rankled some, although it's often more about rhetoric than construction. Luis Ortiz-Franco is a Chapman University math professor and says his U.S. president “uses the wall as a code word to refer to Mexicans. He uses it for negative characteristics, drug smugglers, criminals, rapists.”Yes, that's the same thing that bothered the announcer before the Rosarito-Ensenada ride. The reality is that most people in most places just want to raise children and have a decent life. Accordingly, gated enclaves in northern Baja have about the same level of security as most gated communities in California. There are gates, walls, real-time video cameras and guards checking who drives in. But in truth, it's a lot of show rather than true security .In Coto de Caza, for example, you can walk through an open side gate. In Rosarito, you can walk up stairs from the beach and into a “secure” condo community. If you want to see real home security, check out such countries as South Africa, Tanzania and Namibia. In those countries, many homes have eight-foot walls — with no walk-through openings. Walls are topped by razor wire and security cameras. Someone's on duty 24-7.
Road to friendship
If you pay attention to your surroundings, you're usually fine in most any city in the world. But if your mother didn't teach you how to be streetwise, pay attention. One: “Do not display signs of wealth, such as wearing expensive watches or jewelry.” Two: “Be extra vigilant when visiting banks or ATMs.” Three: “Exercise increased caution when visiting local bars, nightclubs, and casinos.” The safety tips could apply anywhere, but these particular ones come from the State Department's most recent travel advisory for Baja as well as much of Mexico. That's right. Most of Mexico appears to be at least as safe as, gulp, Chicago.The State Department also advises for Baja: “Use toll roads when possible and avoid driving alone or at night. In many states, police presence and emergency services are extremely limited outside the state capital or major cities.” On the highways and byways of Baja, however, I saw plenty of armed troops and — unless you're a criminal — that's a good thing.Several Latino friends tell me they favor the well-traveled San Ysidro crossing over a lesser-known crossing that a church group used when I accompanied the group to Mexico on a house-building trip. The reason for preferring the more popular crossing? The same reason cited by the State Department: Lonely roads don't make for good companions.
But that is true most anywhere. The road to companionship requires talking and sharing.