After 5 years of traveling by bicycle we have identified two questions that people tend to ask us to nurture their curiosity. The classic: “Is it dangerous?” Followed by the obliged: “Are you guys rich?”
Of course there are a lot of different types of answers to these particular questions. In fact many cycle tourers’ answers might differ from one another, but perhaps most of us can agree at a certain level that there is one thing that makes cycle touring safer and cheaper. Of course I am talking about our very loved organisation Warm Showers.
There are many examples (every single day there is at least one of them in their Facebook page) of literally thousands of cyclists being aided, hosted and fed by this wonderful community. But today I am here to talk about a particular person that hosts in a particular city that often appears in the international news for the wrong reasons. Her name is Sandra Guzman and she lives in a city that also happens to be my hometown: Tijuana, Mexico.
On our way down the Pacific Coast Highway towards Tijuana from Vancouver, Annika and I stumbled upon the famous guide book called: Bicycling the Pacific Coast 3rd Edition by Tom Kirkrkendall and Vicky Spring. As I was skimming through the pages, one of the last pages said:
Reaching the California-Mexico Border is a thrill. It is also a good place to turn around and head back NORTH. If planning to visit Mexico for a day it is best to leave your bike in a secure place and ride the Red Commuter train to the border. Unless you are comfortable with riding in downtown Manhattan, the streets and the traffic south of the border are not for gringos on bikes.
I said to myself, “With that great encouragement who would want to visit my city?”. I felt very sad to read this. Of course I do not agree at all with what the guide book says, in fact I even question why they would write such a terrible thing about Mexico. When I shared my point of view on one of the several Hiker Biker campsites, a couple of cycle tourists told me a story about this legendary Warm Showers woman named Sandra. They told me that she is a Warm Showers member that helps people cross the border into Mexico and, of course, hosts them in the “dangerous” city of Tijuana. I had found my hometown hero.
Her stories reminded me of Akbar Naghdi, the Iranian Warm Showers host. We had the pleasure to meet him in Iran. Akbar dedicated his time to greet and host almost every cyclist he could, that entered Iran. He made sure once you crossed the border you felt welcome and unafraid of the bad reputation the media had unfairly made about his country’s people. After years of doing this he had been able to help overturn the bad reputation of his country. Now we know that at least among cycle tourists Iran is synonym of supreme hospitality and the home to incredibly helpful and friendly human beings.
Sandra was just achieving that in Tijuana, and I had to meet her. So a couple of weeks later on November 21st we arrived in Tijuana. We were greeted by a party of 20 cyclists who met us about 20 km north of the border, among them was Sandra. As soon as I knew she was there, I greeted her and thanked her for the great job she was doing in helping cyclists to cross the border into Tijuana.
She led our party of cyclists into the border, through the same route she always takes when she guides cyclists through the border. You could tell she had done this many times.
She guided Annika into costumes and immigration. I had never crossed to Tijuana by bicycle and after 5 years away from home I felt the culture shock. After Sandra and Annika finished the paper work, she led the party of cyclists through the streets of Tijuana where we were greeted by family and friends.
We stayed in Tijuana for more than 5 months, where we have had the privilege in getting to know her even more. We quickly developed a great friendship with Sandra. Sandra has been a member of Warm Showers for over 3 years and 6 months now. She is a very active member. She is short in her early 50’s, with curly hair and a friendly face. She has this aura that makes her such an approachable person. She is very smart and resourceful. She speaks perfect English and has a very go-with-the-flow like philosophy of life. She is a fighter and a very good friend.
Up until this date she has hosted more than 60 cyclists in Tijuana. When I asked her what was usually the first thing she did with her guests, she answered me, “I take them to eat tacos as soon as I can”. Sandra is well known among the Warm Showers community for making the great extra effort to ride across the border from Mexico all the way to San Diego, just to pick up her guests and guide them unto the Mexican Border.
She tells me, “I have encountered cyclists who feel very scared, almost shivering, from what they have heard about Tijuana.” She knows that, so she tries to make them feel more secure by crossing with them and guiding them towards the experience. She added, “Once they cross the border with me and eat tacos it seems to me that all feels much better. They realize that Tijuana is just another city, not the outlaw city that Hollywood has portrayed over and over”.
In order to get to know Sandra better you just have to visit her Warm Showers profile. All of her feedback has been positive with phrases like: “came to the border and picked us up”, “Sandra is legendary”, “She rode across the border and guided me”, “Sandra is a hero”, and “She cycled to San Diego to pick me up and guided me to the border”.
Sandra has been able use the organisation Warm Showers as a place where she can do good for other people, as well as give the cycle tourists a better image of her city, my city as well. For that I thank her. Sandra’s case is a beautiful example on how powerful the Warm Showers community is. It not only makes cycle touring affordable and our tours safer, it creates bonds among people and helps bring hope to cities that have a hard time trying to clean up perceptions like: It is also a good place to turn around and head back NORTH.
Warm Showers gives an opportunity for the locals to show the best part of their homes by giving locals a chance to welcome visitors with a big smile, such as Sandra’s.
We hope that in the near future, cycle touring guides include Tijuana for the positive things. A city that is flourishing with absolutely great food, local beer, outstanding night life, beautiful museums and wonderful people. And of course great Warms Shower hospitality.
We hope that this gives cycle tourists more reasons to discover what lies ahead beyond the border and contribute in the touristic development. Especially on the Baja Peninsula which is beginning to soar as a favourite cycle tourist and bike packing destination, just check out the amazing bike packing Baja Divide Route started by Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox.
For this Sandra, Annika and I would like to thank you Warm Showers. We would love to invite you to visit our city (so we made this video). As of now there are around 13 active Warm Shower members in the city of Tijuana. We hope that in time there will be more.
If you know Sandra or were hosted by Sandra please comment on the article, she would love to hear from you.