Rider: Johnny Smoke Location: Penticton, BC

Grimy Handshake: Gringo Syndrome

Ditching The Attitude Can Change The World

On a recent trip down Mexico's Baja Peninsula, fatbiking through arroyos and sand washes as the Vizcaino desert sprung into a brief full bloom, we were killing time in the van listening to Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" while driving through the emptiness between destinations. There's a part in the book where Diamond relates the differences in how people greet each other based upon their cultural evolution and illustrated this by describing how generations ago in the highlands of New Guinea, when two strangers met on a trail they were faced with three options: run from each other, prepare to fight or, in rare instances when a dialect was shared and circumstance eclipsed running or fighting, begin to talk.

Meanwhile, here we were in Mexico. The current political climate in the U.S. had me feeling nervous about this trip. Why would Mexicans feel any need to express kindness or charitable behavior toward gringos from the United States when the president of the U.S. is busy deporting people, calling for an end to NAFTA, chastising auto companies for their Mexican factories and trying to build a wall? My fears were groundless, it turned out. Mexicans were, as always, gracious and friendly, willing to gently correct my butchering of their language, happy to chat about the weather, the fishing or the folly of riding bicycles through the desert. While the big-picture politics weren't pretty, the weather was great, the dollar was strong, it was springtime and subsequently the whole peninsula was teeming with gringos.

Whenever we drove into a bigger town, where there would be heavier concentrations of large groups of tourists, the gringos behaved a lot like city dwellers north of the border—not much for eye contact, not very friendly, not prone to saying hello. They would clump together, not engaging with the locals, but also ignoring other gringos who weren't part of their clump. This was especially noticeable when we happened to be strolling through Loreto right as a cruise ship disgorged a horde of pale beings who might as well have been wearing spacesuits, given how separate from this dusty and warm place they seemed. Meanwhile, the locals would almost always respond in kind to a wave or a greeting. The more remote we got, the friendlier and more conversational the locals became, and as towns got smaller and populations thinner, even the gringos began to loosen up and start to say hi back.

 

‘Wave At Your Fellow Human.
Offer Greeting. It Might Just Change The World.’

 

Riding along, I would wave at everyone. Old farmer standing motionless among his goats, waves back. Gaggle of schoolkids in uniforms outside the mission, wave back. Dude in the F-150 tearing ass through the arroyo blaring banda music, who almost sideswiped me right out of this existence, waved back. Lady serving up amazing quesadillas in San Ignacio, talked up a storm, gave us great road information, schooled us on our noun genders and chided us for our verb-tense butchery. Truck full of vacationing gringos, no response. Gringos on dirt bikes, no response. Gringos in Tommy Bahama shirts, socks and sandals, gaping and pale in the hot noonday sun, no response.

The upraised hand as a form of greeting, and by extrapolation the handshake, has muddy and speculative origins but is generally thought to have evolved as a way of saying, "I hold no visible weapon and do not intend violence." The handshake takes that very simple but important line of communication and adds an implied bond, a trust. Look that person in the eye, grip firmly but with consideration, ditch the power struggle bullshit that the President Who Wants To Build A Wall might try with his version of the handshake, and offer yourself in greeting to another being. Hey, fellow human, animal citizen of this planet, I see you, you see me, we share this world. A little eye contact, a raised hand in greeting, the palm of one human gripped in another, a poorly enunciated version of "good morning," these things have been part of our societal dance for a very long time. They can carry an immense payload of goodwill. They are important. This matters.

Back home, in the compressed and busy part of California, riding the densely populated trails around Santa Cruz, my mind was still in Mexico, still listening to Jared Diamond talk about two strangers meeting on a forest path. I continued to wave at everyone I encountered as I rode. Old couple hiking with long walking sticks, waved back. Javelin-thin trail runner, waved back. Three generations of women on horseback, waved back. Park ranger, waved back. Homeless guy cutting the antler off a roadkill deer, waved back. Mountain biker, Specialized Stumpjumper, Smith Forefront helmet, no response. Mountain biker, beat old Santa Cruz VP-Free, Fox full-face helmet, no response. Mountain biker, Scott Scale, shaved legs, Giro Atmos, climbing like a fiend, no response.

I have been noticing this for years now, and it hints at something ugly I am afraid to acknowledge. It is ugly because it casts much of the rhetoric about just and fair access for mountain bikers in a harsh light. It hazes a doubtful smog over what is otherwise such an amazing sport, one with so many incredible community elements, populated and enjoyed by the best people I know. We have this sport we love, and after decades of commitment and hard work we have trails being built by hard-working volunteers, we have thousands and thousands of schoolkids racing bikes, we have political and social involvement at every level of our communities, we can prove that the personal and societal benefits of mountain biking are tangible and worthwhile. We have come such a long way.

But, and this is the painful bit, we are unfriendly dicks out on the trail.

If you are one of those people who greets others while riding your bike, ignore that last sentence. I am not talking about you. But the rest of you, and you know who you are, climb down out of yourselves. Ditch the gringo act. Stop being dicks. Wave at your fellow human. Offer greeting. It might just change the world.