Bike lanes and bacon doughnuts: God Bless America

I get sentimental when I leave places behind. Some smarting reminder of all that I have grown to relish suddenly stirs and every memory becomes tainted by a sense of loss and nostalgia.

January the 7th 2010: I was shivering and sitting astride my bicycle in the port of Dover waiting for a barrier across the road to lift so I could board my ferry to France, suspecting then that England would next feature in my life in half a decade or more. ‘Sorry about this’ remarked the lady in the ticket booth ‘the barrier’s a little temperamental’.
‘Oh yeah? Just like my wife!’ announced a burly truck driver who was leaning out of his window and grinning inanely. England, I thought, I will miss you. I will miss your quirky humour, your self-effacing satire, your casual misogyny.

It was Mexico’s job then to issue me a farewell that would serve as a keen reminder that behind me fifteen months and more than 25,000 km of Latin America would soon be dormant, my bond with the continent broken, my experience over and condensed into a scrap yard of memories. The reminder was a giant duck. To be more specific – a man dressed in a monstrous yellow duck costume who was dancing on a street corner and holding a sign which advertised the pharmacy beside him. He was raving as if his life depended on it, to some salsa infused Latin blend which blasted from speakers at a volume that would ensure it was audible in the stratosphere. So questions – What do ducks have to do with pharmacies? Why is the duck dancing? Who came up with this idea, and how drunk were they?

The answer to these of course is irrelevant – this is Mexico, or more broadly Latin America, and here loud music, dancing and dressing up are all essential ingredients of the Latin lifestyle. So why not use them to get more people into your pharmacy? It makes perfect sense, all except the choice of animal outfit, but probably the duck costume was just the one that happened to be available that morning.

The approaching hassle and hoopla involved in crossing the US border at Tijuana troubled me and I was convinced that US immigration would find some tiny infraction on which to deprive me of my 90 day VISA waver. US border guards don’t have a shining reputation in the areas of reason or lenience (or humility, humour, fairness, benevolence or compassion). I believe eye contact with a US immigration official is grounds enough for a good thrashing and a life ban from the USA. Referring to an official as buddy, bub, dude, geezer or my man carries an mandatory sentence of 25 to life in solitary confinement. Potential border guards at interview are made to watch videos of dogs doing human things in hilarious dog trousers. Failure to laugh means the candidate has either no sense of humour, or just didn’t get it. Either way that makes them the perfect machine the US government needs to stop all the scary drug addicts, terrorists, job seekers and riffraff getting in. Or at least that’s what I believed before crossing the border, I was about to be proved wrong.

Disabled people quite rightly don’t wait in line like everyone else at the Tijuana border but instead go straight through to the gate. You would not believe how many disabled people cross this border, call me cynical but I soon became convinced some entrepreneurial Mexican was renting out white canes and walking sticks to those waiting in line just down the block.

Eventually I reached the gate to meet what could only be described as a triumph in personnel selection. You would not mess with this lady, the face of the USA looked fresh from bludgeoning a small group of orphans to death for kicks. Once she signalled for me to move forward I wheeled my bike cautiously past only to hear ‘Hey!‘ I froze and turned slowly, trembling, half expecting her to radio in the SWOT team. ‘Just leave your bike here, I’ll watch it for you. It’ll be easier than dragging it through. So where are you riding from?’. I was so taken aback it took me ten seconds to mumble Mexico, which of course was obvious.

The man who would or would not issue my 90 day VISA waver had the opportunity to add some hilarity to my story but he was nothing like the stereotype either and turned out to be very pleasant, all smiles and quips, though he did linger a second longer than was comfortable over my Syrian VISA which takes up a whole page in my passport. ‘Wouldn’t want you as my doctor!’ he joshed after I told him I hadn’t worked for three years. It was a fair point.

I filled in the immigration form, making sure I added ticks to all the right boxes.

‘Have you ever been convicted or involved in Genocide?’ Yes or No.

“Genocide? well now, let me think, I’m so god damn busy these days. What was I doing Tuesday?…. Let me just phone my PA and check. Hi Jane. Yes I’m fine. Just at immigration, this nice American gentlemen wants to know if I’ve been involved in genocide at all over the last few years, can you just check in my diary for me? Great. Nothing? Sure? Maybe check under W for War Crimes will you, just to be on the safe side.”

The strange tick boxes continued “Have you ever been involved in espionage or sabotage?” Now my guess is that someone clever enough to work as a professional spy for some top secret agency or political movement would not get caught out by a tick box. I can imagine the sweat cascading down the face of a shifty looking panic-stricken man in a large over coat holding a briefcase whose brain is screaming ‘yes or no? YES OR NO?! Shit! Play it cool and think goddamn it, THINK!’

So finally into the United States for the first time ever, country number 41 of my world ride and 55 of my life. Not even a cursory search, no drugs dogs, no SWOT team, no white noise or pepper spray, just a thumbs up from the customs guy and a brand spanking new stamp in my now cluttered passport. I rolled my bike out into what I thought was San Diego – immediately there was something mightily familiar about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – perhaps it was the many Taco stands, or the Spanish road signs, or the fact that everyone was speaking Spanish, or ALL THE MEXICANS. I was so bewildered I had to return to immigration to check I hadn’t sauntered though the wrong turn-style and been directed accidentally back into Mexico, but no, this was the USA. That fact became clear when I ventured into a fast food joint to be served a burger roughly the size of my head and ate whilst cars pulled into the drive-through with wheels roughly the size of an average Mexican family.

People, I noticed, were overwhelming polite in stores, often so sunny in fact they left me dumb struck. Crazy people shuffled around muttering expletives, and there were a lot of crazy people. There were parking meters and malls and joggers and 12 lane freeways and Americans doing American things in their natural habitat. There were benches advertising injury lawyers which reminded me of a sentence by one of my favourite American authors Tom Robbins:

The logic of a contemporary American: “I’m suffering. Therefore, somebody must owe me money. I’m hiring a lawyer.”

Photo courtesy of mi amigo Max, thanks Max
I zigzagged through the southern reaches of San Diego trying to get north without an illegal jaunt down the freeway, listening to golden era west coast hip hop in my IPOD (America’s greatest invention, the hip hop not the IPOD) and soon pulled into a cafe outside of which a sign boasted ‘Top Gun. Sleazy bar scene filmed here July 1985‘. A beautiful waitress called Adra paid for my drink and told me she was getting off in half an hour, if I waited she would ride with me. Three hours later, drinking one of the twenty varieties of on-tap beer amongst the hipsters of Ocean Beach, eating noodles someone else had insisted on paying for, my inbox brimming with offers of places to crash from here to Vancouver, I was chuffed to bits to be in the States.

Life, I was sure, would be suddenly and soothingly easy once in the USA, it would be like taking off a tight pair of shoes. As it turned out, I was half right. Here cyclists are treated as worthy members of the road using community and not like some strange tribe that’s getting in the way of progress. Signs emblazoned with bikes declared ‘Share The Road’ and I felt the desire to pucker up and kiss them. And there were bike lanes, lanes just for bikes, a concept so alien to me now after my journey through Latin America that I almost forgot they had been invented. On each of the two occasions I happened upon a bike lane in South America I had an urge to call up the mayor’s office and ask politely if he or she would be available for a hug. Of course on one of these occasions the lane drifted peacefully on for a whole 100 metres before inexplicably terminating at a tree stump.

The USA – a place where I can choose from 17 varieties of peanuts in a store that opens at seven, closes at eleven and has a title to reassure me of this fact. A place in which I don’t have to worry if the ATM will spit out my card and keep the cash. A place I can drink the tap water without fear of amoebic dysentery and a place with things called signposts. HALLELUJAH!

Everything is bigger (including some of the people), faster (except the really big people), snazzier, flashier and a whole lot more familiar. But things have got a little more complicated too. I can’t afford hostels, though hospitality abounds. Internet cafes and call centres have vanished so I coughed up for my first computer and phone for three years, a pair of jeans would complete the Normal Life ensemble but I don’t have the courage just yet. People keep telling me (so far very politely) to take my bike outside when I wheel it inside stores, a habit formed from three years touring countries where I can. And there are rules, so many rules. In California I can’t drink a beer on the beach full stop, or get served in a bar without ID despite being more than a decade over the legal age limit. Technically (this is true) I can’t even throw a Frisbee on a beach in LA without a life guards permission. America might pride itself on being the country of the free, but it incarcerates proportionally more people, (many, many more people) than any other country on earth. Not all of these opened a beer on the beach, though there are more Ultimate Frisbee players in jail in the US than anywhere else on our planet. And I believe that’s a fact.

So America is a confusing place then, and so what? The fact that ‘lands of contrast’ has become a horrible cliche and features somewhere in the Lonely Planet guidebook to every country on earth is because in reality every country has it’s bizarre contradictions. My friends Benny and Jo arrived from the UK and their present, I am sure, was a comment on contemporary America. They brought me a bacon doughnut. Surely nothing better symbolises sweet and savoury America than the bacon doughnut. My palate is still in some sort of irreconcilable civil war.

The Bacon-Spangled Doughnut
The Pacific Coast Highway terminates abruptly on the way to LA, the only options are the freeway (illegal for bikers) and a road through the Pendleton Army Base. A police officer nearby informed me I would need a helmet to ride through the latter, but I thought I would try my luck anyway since I don’t have one and so was out of options. The soldier I spoke with seemed to have some sort of severe vocal tick and he would intermittently blurt out “Liability, Sir!” in answer to any of my questions and pleas to be allowed to pass. I retreated to think about my strategy but the police officer came back, now angry after finding out from the soldier with Tourettes that I had tried to get in when he had told me not to. Once he finally chilled out he radioed colleagues to find out the location of the nearest thrift store so that I could buy a helmet for the 13 miles of high liability virtually car-free, pancake-flat, benign bike path where the greatest risk would be collision with my own shadow. When one couldn’t be located close by we had a heated debate about my options (which he eventually conceded were non-existent) and I told him I would try the freeway. Incredibly he agreed this might be my best option. He AGREED! Overwhelmed by this I waved him off before he changed his mind, cruised onto the freeway and cycled as fast as I could to the next exit (stealthily past the highway patrol who were writing up a ticket for somebody and didn’t notice me). Then I was off and onto a bike path once again shouting ‘Phew!’

Now I’m not going to argue that helmets are unnecessary, that frankly, would be mental. In fact if you called me an idiot for not wearing one I might agree with you. In some countries helmets are compulsory full stop and I’m surprised that they’re not in California because there are many more outlandish health and safety measures, warnings and mandates in place, a spin off from the litigation heavy society here. As I reached Los Angeles a sign warned me I was entering a Tsunami Risk Zone. Wow. Surely as I’ve been cycling the coastline of the Pacific rim I have been biking in a ‘Tsunami Risk Zone’ for more than a year. I didn’t worry much about tsunamis before, perhaps I should have? I didn’t realise how much danger I was in. And it continued – The host of the planetarium show in the observatory in the Hollywood hills warned me about motion sickness. There are signs in America that warn people about the grave threat of falling acorns. Clearly there are a lot of things to worry about here, strangely much, much more than in the wild parts of Africa and South America I have spent the last three years. I had better be careful.

“Sorry Santa, those are the rules, I don’t care about how upset the orphans will be.”
First you have to pay for their funeral, and now this
Between San Diego and LA I stayed in a hiker biker camp for six dollars: Thank you USA, I forgive you now for getting me all scared about tsunamis, you have redeemed yourself. These are great little spots inside the State Parks and dotted all the way up the Pacific coast. It was here I met Chris, another cycle tourer who was on his way to a course to learn how to be a tour leader for the Adventure Cycling Association. We biked together the whole of the next day, cycled up through Long Beach, where I must report Snoop Dog was nowhere to be seen, and camped on someones lawn after getting nice and drunk.

The following day I consulted Googlemaps and made my way to Silver Lake to meet some old friends. Googlemaps is a wonderful thing though it doesn’t, as I found out, steer you away from gang land territory. ‘You are entering the City of Compton’ a sign told me, gulp. Having forgotten to purchase ‘The Cycle Touring Guide to Compton’ I decided to up my velocity.

Benny and Jo are old friends from the UK who were on holiday here and alongside their friend Rachel we busied ourselves taking in the sights – the freaks of Venice beach, the Hollywood mansions and hills, the Getty museum and more before watching Benny perform a gig in Hollywood. Benny AKA Benny Diction is an MC (my mum would say ‘one of those rappers’), check out one of his recent videos. Afterwards I stayed with Ryan, a genuinely nice, generous fella and the man in charge of Exploration Challenge, a TV series in production which features yours truly.

I am occasionally looking up at tall buildings in a style similar to Crocodile Dundee when he arrives in New York. I still find myself walking into a room, bar or restaurant and thinking ‘Wow, look how many Americans there are in here!’. And soon afterwards ‘Oh yeah, right.‘ But I am adjusting to the American way of life, mainly by a daily habit of consuming my weight in cheese.

Here are a five things I have learnt so far in the USA
  • Whilst store keepers are consistently chirpy, welcoming souls they do not like it when people stand by the door walking rapidly in and out in order to activate an automatic voice which tells departing shoppers to ‘Have a Nice Day!’
  • A sign with the words ‘Ped Xing’ is not, as I had hoped, advertising the presence of a road named after one of the lesser known (and Chinese) founding fathers. It’s just a short (and aesthetically painful) version of ‘Pedestrian Crossing’.
  • Every Californian is either vegan, or has at least 20 vegan friends
  • If I order a tuna (pronounced in the British way) sandwich I will receive a chicken one
  • The policy of prescription ‘Medical Marijuana’ is the most corrupt and bizarre system ever invented (and is tantamount to legalisation) though this topic alone deserves it’s own full post.

For the last week I’ve been staying with my second cousin Alan in the San Fernando Valley and have spent my days practising my presentation, writing, watching South Park and chatting in the evenings. It has been boss and just what I needed.

So thank you, thank you, thank you to my American hosts for a bad ass introduction to the USA: – Adra, Sam, Sol, Rachel, Ryan, Max, Alan and family. Cheers, you lovely people. I leave LA at the end of this month after some school and public presentations (I have given two school talks so far with around 15 more planned, including the very prestigious Oaks Christian on Tuesday where I will speak in front of 1000 high school pupils), then it’s San Francisco where my Mum will meet me and up the Pacific coast, dodging tsunamis, through Oregon and Washington until I hit Vancouver where my friend Claire will join me for a chunk of Canada.

Last month I won the annual photo competition for the Adventure Cycling Association’s annual photography competition with this winning shot from the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia…. here are the other finalists.

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Comments (4)

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    This is Sage in Anchorage. Been following you a long time and now happy to hear you've reached the outer edges of my homeland. I always love to hear the first impressions of foreigners. When (if?) you make it to Alaska, I'd be delighted to offer hospitality. Unless I'm off on my own summer cycling adventure.


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    There's a bacon donut in Portland, Oregon, at a place called Voodoo Donuts, and it's tremendous. Too bad Portland's too far inland for you (I suspect); you'll not have the chance to turn America into a bacon-donut Taste Testing and Comparing Wonderland.

    Your observations are delightfully spot-on, as ever. I have to head out now for some medical marijuana, though. The blunt'll be brought to me by an overly-tan woman with huge fake breasts, per that billboard.

    Ah, California.

    Wish you were biking into our Northern Minnesota city today, as you'd be fighting your way through a two-day blizzard that has all the schools and colleges closed. And what a post that would make!


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    Justice Assessor


    Some accurate observations. Confusingly, 7-11 is open 24 hours. Assume at one point in time it was open from 7 to 11 but not no more



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    Hey if you are planning on hitting the East Coast and Philly, I hope you know that you would be more than welcome to stay with us. You would be the first person we are sponsoring to stay with us 😀 Let me know! Enjoy USA, my friend!


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