I am trudging down a back street in Merida, Yucatan, sucking a lime popsicle and dribbling sweat. I spot a handmade sign out front of a mom’pop storefront: Rentas Bicicletas. In the cool shade of the shop a family is stringing Christmas lights. I spy a sweet little wine-purple step-thru cruiser. Papa Alejandro cranks the seat up a bit higher for me and I am sold. I rumble off down the cobblestones, cool breeze lifting the sweat from my skin. As if it could be any other way.
But in fact, I had actually almost resigned myself to navigating Merida on foot. Cycling in Merida looked terrifying. Buses and mini-buses, diesel-spewing trucks, cars, motorcycles, horsecarts, all crammed into the teeming downtown streets. Hibbledy-jibbledy pavement, potholes, cobblestones, random piles of trash. High curbs with no curb-cuts to the sidewalk, and treacherous foot-wide gutters alongside. Careening in and out between the buses and horse carts: bicycle cowboys on bmx’s and clunky mountainbikes, plus cargo-trike vendors loaded down with water jugs, baskets of fresh bread, loads of tomatoes and pineapples. Basically, chaos – in an unknown city, in a language i barely understand.
I have a reputation as a cruiser-hating snob, and the little purple step-thru is just the sort of ride i might sneer at in mountainous Vancouver. But it is the perfect Merida machine. Simple and upright, with fat sturdy tires. Kitted out with a basket and rear light, a chain-and-padlock, kickstand, and even a helmet – which i wear, even though it marks me as a total tourist geek. I quickly realize, in getting intimate with the topography of a place as you only can on a bike, that Merida has the secret virtue of being flat as a pancake. On my humble cruiser i ride upright and effortless.
I have zero innate sense of direction, but I got oriented pretty quickly on the bike (by my standards, which means I only got lost several dozen times). Merida is a neat grid of numbered streets. Odd numbers run east-west, even north-south. All the streets are one-way traffic so even busy intersections are easy to navigate and I soon adjust to the rhythm of look-right-look-left at each alternating corner. The purple cruiser bumps easily over the cracks and cobbles. What really takes me by surprise is that although the heavy traffic looked so intimidating from my perspective on foot, the drivers seem remarkably aware and courteous, giving me wide berth and stopping completely to make eye-contact at intersections. Of course it helps that I am clearly a gringa tourista so assumed to be clumsy and oblivious, which I kind of am. But i think the main reason i feel so safe riding here is because drivers are used to negotiating bikes on the road, along with horse carts and buses and trucks. More bikes, more safe. Simple.
This morning I headed over to Paseo Montejo, site of the weekly ‘bici-ruta’, where every Sunday morning the majestic avenue is liberated from cars for a rolling fiesta of skateboarders, bladers, dog-walkers, art, music, and bikes bikes bikes. In the passing parade, someone calls my name – Alejandro!- waving as he rounds the corner on his bici. In the afternoon I ramble westward in the Sunday serenity, pausing to take in a service at Cathedral Santa Ana, crash a baseball game in an outlying barrio, and eat coco helados in a bustling mini-amusement park. Going nowhere in particular.
I smack myself in the head, recalling what I tell customers in the store every day, when they excitedly rent bikes to cruise Stanley Park: there’s no better way to get to know a city, than by bike. To think i almost forgot.