The Wheel Turns --
A Cyclist's Tale of Misfortune in Mexico

Micky Bloom
February 2001

¡Ay, Dios mío! I squint anxiously at the cheap plastic watch on the nightstand, and it says 8 am. I have squandered 1 1/2 hours of useful, cool daylight, and the vengeful Zapotec dieties have programmed the sun to roast fragile, gabacho complexions by 9:30. If I hustle and get going quickly, I'll still get an hour of refreshing breeze before the harsh flame of the Oaxacan sun cuts the skin like a knife.

I have been sluggish and lazy this year. Arriving at my Puerto Escondido bungalow a week ago with a young friend, Jacob, he has been disrupting my training regimen by keeping our little patio filled with young guests. Our first invitee is the witty, independent Siobhan from Leicester on the last leg of a 6-month Asia/Pacific tour. She spends an evening relating her adventure to us. Next is the bevy of 4 Argentinian coeds on Summer vacation. These are Jewish girls from Buenos Aires and but for their decidedly non-Mexican Spanish, I might have known them in high school. All must be fed traditional porteño delicacies: French fries, guacamole, tamales of chicken and chepil, quesillo, etc. etc., and I am in charge of the kitchen. Jacob is the chief beverage provisioner, and many caguamas of Corona, Superior and Bohemia as well as 1/2 liter glass bottles of Coke pass across our tiny table.

I have only taken two or three short rides, a total of maybe 60 miles, and with no riding companion to keep me honest, I am left to my own weakening resolve. I look down at my waistline and think darkly of what the future might bring. How will I perform on those fast Wednesday and Sunday rides back home? I usually get a jump on my riding companions in Berkeley given the usual miserable February of Northern California which precludes any consistent training. I have yet to go into the mountains to visit familiar landmarks on the road to Oaxaca city: San Pedro Mixtepec, San Gabriel Mixtepec, Nopala. Today is the day. I will ride 50 kilometers up the road to San Gabriel and return, a fairly easy 3-4 hr ride. I am using my ancient, extremely funky, old road bike, which is left to molder quietly in its box waiting for my February arrival.

Jacob is hard abed, breathing peacefully and oblivious to my morning stirrings. He spent the night carousing in three languages, arriving home from the Bar Fly well after my aging head had dropped unconscious on the pillow. At least I got a decent night's sleep. The usual morning ablutions, the lightest weight shorts and jersey I can find, a quick gobble of bread and cheese, a cup of hot chocolate, and I'm on the road, both water bottles filled to the brim. It is actually pleasantly cool, the sun low in the sky, and I'm elated at getting out on the road.

I exit the bungalow gate into the morning rush hour of the coastal highway. Road riding in Mexico requires an extra level of attention: eyes must scan every aspect of the surrounding pavement for vehicular, animal and pedestrian traffic as well as unexpected variations in the pavement itself. There are frequent and often unannounced topes, speed bumps of varying height and condition. These are decidedly the cyclist's friend, having a wonderful calming effect on vehicular traffic; mostly taxis, buses and trucks. There are few private cars in this part of Mexico, also a boon to the cyclist.

After 10 years of riding in this area without significant incident, I feel confident and secure. I have learned that once I get 2 miles out of town in any direction I will be virtually alone on the highway, my own daydreaming and inattention becoming the greatest hazard. In order to avoid the worst of Puerto Escondido traffic I take my usual shortcut up a very steep one-block grade. At the top I am just barely turning the cranks, grateful for a brief flat respite in the intersection before a quick left turn and another 1/4 block climb. Then I'm on the reasonable, gradual grade that becomes Mexico 131, the highway north to Oaxaca city. This road has only been paved in the last 6 years. The surface quickly deteriorated after the first rainy season. This was quickly followed by the hurricane, the earthquake, etc. etc. For the cyclist it is ideal. Most vehicular traffic prefers the longer but better maintained route (Mexico 200 & 175) which leads you 50 miles down the coast before turning north to Oaxaca, leaving 131 to its sleepy tranquility. The hills and dales on the way to San Gabriel are similar in grade (but not in vegetation) to what we are used to here in the Bay area. More than once I am reminded of our Tunnel and Fairfax/Bolinas Rds. The washouts and potholes are hardly a bother uphill, and on the descent one must only be vigilant and conservative, a fair price to pay for a vehicle-free environment.

I arrive in San Gabriel after an unhurried 2 hour cruise up the slope. There are 2 or 3 short drops into valleys before the last major climb and a steep drop, in the midst of a repaving project, into the center of this small and picturesque mountain town. There is a nice, lazy feel to the place, and gringo cyclists being a relatively rare sight, I easily tolerate the swiveled heads of the curious. There is a Mexican postcard blue/pink church baking in the mountain sun placed prominently on a hilltop, in front of which a small plaza lies hot and deserted. I stop at one of the the several storefronts and have my usual Coke, water and banana. After this I pedal around the town a bit, killing some time before facing the pleasant chore of returning home.

To the East, and sharply downhill, the road leads through a hot and verdant valley to the cobblestoned village of Nopala. Just out of San Gabriel in this direction the pavement disappears and becomes terracería, graded dirt better negotiated on a mountain bike but possible on a road bike with sturdy wheels. The main highway continuing north stays fairly level for a couple of kilometers through another lush area with a running creek and then begins a gradual climb with no respite for about 35 miles. I enjoy going in each direction for a few minutes, baiting my appetite for future rides. On my last pass through town I stop for more Coke and water at another little store. I think I have done San Gabriel for the day, even though I notice a new roadside restaurant. This would be a good way to kill another hour.

Reason gets the better of this internal argument, and as I commence the climb out of San Gabriel, the repaving crew is tolerant, friendly and appreciative of my athleticism, helping me get around the equipment and fresh sand and asphalt safely. I reflect that I will enjoy this brand new surface when it is soon completed. Now I have reached the summit, and the rest (45k) of my itinerary is pleasantly downhill (with only a couple of minor, short climbs) all the way home!

On the way down I come upon an aging van with DF plates stalled in my lane. ¿Que paso? I inquire breezily as I float by. The young chilango waving me around answers with a weary smile ¡se nos acabó la gasolina! How satisfying to be on a bike, insulated from the pitfalls of the internal combustion engine! (What arrogance! What hubris!) I speed on guilt free: there is no way I can solve this guy's problems!

The heat of the day is upon me, but the wind created by the descent and the breeze off the distant Pacific releases the heat stored in my body in a most pleasant way. Hunger begins to take over my consciousness. I try to visualize what's in the refrigerator at home. I know I will need bread, so when I hit town I stop at the bakery, picking up 6 bolillos, chewy French rolls ideal for stuffing with tomatoes, cucumbers and quesillo, ingredients that I think I see in my mind's eye in the bungalow's antique refi. The rolls are in a large plastic bag, too bulky for the skinny little pockets of my jersey. The bag gets crammed under the front of the jersey plastered on to my sweaty chest and stomach, exaggerating unfairly the evidence of my recent self-indulgent lifestyle. Then it is but a quick two blocks to my favorite paleta store where I purchase two fruit bars, strawberry and pineapple. Aware that I am only 2 minutes from home and a freezer, I am sure they will last in their plastic bags despite the 90 degree heat. Somehow in the course of this hasty shopping I have also managed to stuff a can of Diet Coke in a rear pocket of my jersey. Thus happily laden, I return the few quiet, familiar blocks to the steep hill which is my shortcut back home.

Approaching the short downhill stretch that precedes the right turn and longer plunge to the main highway, I spy a very slow moving tractor going down the hill in front of me. Casually hoping to save a few seconds but going quite slowly, I swing to his left in the oncoming lane, encounter a very sandy spot, and fall instantaneously and hard to my right side. Perhaps I touch my brakes in anticipation of the approaching right turn, or maybe there is just too much sand, but I fall with great force and minimal sliding.

My right hip takes all the violence of the fall, and I realize I'm in a bad way when I can't put any weight on my right leg. Dragging myself to the side of the street I ask a passerby to bring me the bike. The tractor driver shrugs sympathetically and continues on his way. The paletas are melting, the can of Diet Coke is dented but intact and the bolillos are still in place. I drink the Coke. I am virtually in sight of my bungalow but cannot move. I have an illusion that I can get on the bike and coast home (it's almost all downhill) and make an awkward attempt to swing my leg over the saddle. Ouch!!! This is not going to happen today.

I am just beginning to ponder my next move when up the steep hill from the highway comes a struggling, dusty pickup with the word Tránsito on the door, a traffic cop's truck! I hail him, he puts my bike in the back, and I somehow manage to hobble around and get into the cab. ¿Quiere una ambulancia? he asks thoughtfully. No, I say, Nada mas lléveme por favor a mi casa, unas dos a tres cuadras de aquí. Very agreeably he drops me at the gate of the group of bungalows. I am still in denial and neglect to ask him to go down the cobblestone driveway the remaining 100 ft. to my patio. At this juncture I realize I cannot walk at all and simply collapse in a patch of grass, helplessly stranded.

After a few frustrating moments my bungalow neighbors, lounging comfortably in their hammocks, become aware of my condition and rush to help me. I find it difficult to walk even with my right side supported by the strong arm of Randy, a self-described Saskatchewan farm boy. With great sensitivity he picks me up in his arms like a baby, carries me down the treacherous cobblestone path and drops me gently in my hammock. Everybody is extremely nice. Neighbors Susan and Michelle tend to my road rash, Jacob appears to make me lunch, and I am able to find a relatively comfortable position in which to vegetate awaiting the miracle of instant recovery.

I manage to crawl to the shower and wash myself. I sleep comfortably that night but awake with more pain and diminished range of movement. Other friends, Mimi and Richard and Joel and Vitu, all who live in a beautiful house near the lighthouse, arrive to rescue me from my rustic hut, observe the extent of my injuries and carry me off in their comfortable car to the local orthopedist/radiologist.

Dr. Wilfrido Gonzalez and his gentle assistant struggle to get me in place for the x-ray, a harrowing process due to the increased sensitivity of my right hip and leg. The examination room is rudimentary; a whitewashed chamber with a cement table whose height is not adjustable. I note with apprehension that there is no fan, at times an indispensible companion to the sweating gringo. The temperature, however, turned out to be the least of my problems. There is a thin, threadbare pillow on one end of the exam table. Mounting this rather narrow perch elicits several gasps of pain from my anguished lips, much to the collective horror of those present. The first picture doesn't take, much to everyone's grave dismay since I must dismount and make another attempt in a standing position. This is relatively painless. Wilfrido reads the picture and points out a thin white line through the top of my femur about 3 inches below the hip. This is good news. There is no displacement, and Wilfrido prescribes reposo, Darvon, y no viajar. Maybe this is an excuse to stay in Mexico for a few more weeks than planned? However, my friends and I can't help noticing that the supposed fisura del femur, represented by a thin white line on the x-ray, continues through the surrounding tissue on both sides of the bone. My friend Joel, resident in Mexico for many years and appropriately cynical, suggests that this line may be the x-ray technician's eyelash hair on the lens of the camera!

I purchase a fine pair of lightweight aluminum crutches, and with the help of friends Mimi, Richard, Jacob, Joel and Vitu I am installed in a comfortable hammock on the deck of a beautiful villa overlooking the Pacific. Notwithstanding the excellent food prepared by Mimi and Joel as well as the gentle and sympathetic ministrations of Richie, Vitu, Jacob, Warren and other friends, mere mortal succor is not sufficient and no divine intervention is forthcoming.

After three nights I am placed in the scheduled airliner leaving Puerto Escondido and whisked off to Mexico city for transfer to a flight to SFO. The luggage handlers carry me up the dozen or so steps to the door of the plane in a wheelchair, and I am able to stumble into a seat at the front without incident. In Mexico City I am met by my friend and business partner, Leslie, who has heroically flown for 5 hours just to turn around and accompany me on the flight home. She doesn't even have a moment to peruse the duty-free store! I had upgraded to 1st class, and I am actually quite comfortable in the ample seat provided. At SFO and in Berkeley my stateside team of wife Emily, son Simon and daughter Sarah are waiting to whisk Leslie and me home.

The next day I go to Alta Bates emergency in Berkeley where the x-rays indicate a fracture of the medial acetabular wall of the pelvis without displacement, i.e. a crack in the socket that holds the top of the femur. My experience in Alta Bates has the usual emergency room bizarre elements as well, despite the spiffy equipment and self-assured technicians. Again I am called back for a second x-ray, and even that's not enough. The next day I must get an MRI to be sure there are no further hidden anomalies. In the end there is no fisura del femur. Ironically, Dr. Wilfrido's perscription of reposo is quite correct despite his misreading of the x-ray. I must stay off my feet for who knows how many weeks.

Since my arrival home and the posting of my accident on the internet, I have received many wonderful messages of support and advice, several from people I don't know. Thanks to everybody on both sides of the border who have been so nice to me! I hope to someday get some of my local cycling buddies to accompany me on a February adventure in Mexico without the drama of injury. My beloved Mexico bears no responsibility for my fall. The anonymous patch of sand that brought me down was stateless.

Glossary of Spanish terms
gabacho -- derogatory for white people (Mexico)
porteño -- of the port; in this instance Puerto Escondido
chepil -- tangy herb commonly used in Oaxacan corn tamales
quesillo -- Oaxacan string cheese
caguama -- giant sea turtle, colloquially signifying 2-liter beer bottles
tope -- speed bump, most of which require nearly a complete stop for cars, trucks and buses
terracería -- graded dirt road
DF -- Mexico City (Distrito Federal)
¿que paso? -- what's up?
chilango -- slang for Mexico City resident
¡se nos acabó la gasolina! -- we're out of gas!
bolillo -- white bread roll, a vestige of the French occupation of Mexico
refi -- slang for refrigerator
paleta -- frozen fruit bar
Tránsito -- Mexican traffic police
¿Quiere una ambulancia? -- Do you want an ambulance?
Nada mas lléveme a casa, dos a tres cuadras de aquí -- Just take me home, 2 or 3 blocks from here.
reposo, Darvon y no viajar -- rest, Darvon (an analgesic), and no traveling
fisura del femur -- femoral fracture

Editor's note: Micky made a full recovery and was riding again about 6 1/2 weeks after his injury. For more from Micky, see his accounts Escape to New York City written October 2001, and Return to Mexico dated February 2002.