“Ya can’t bounce back til ya’ve hit bottom.” That comes to mind from deep in the archives of my mental hard drive as I passed along a hard rive of another sort. I left Nogales in the dark yesterday morning, totally exhausted after yet another sleepless night. Entering Nogales Mexico is a plunge into hell. A young lady, shivering inside her non-offical parka, gave my van a brief inspection and waved me on. Que? OK?. I entered a scene which was part Blade-Runner, Quest For Fire and any apocalyptic film of your choice. Crooked cobbled winding streets poorly lit, except for the hi-beams of vehicles hurtling in all directions, pedestrians wandering every which way, vendors already setting up their market trucks along the curbs, rare and nebulous road signs posted just at the junctions. Add all the mad Max’s in the world trying to block you. Holy shit! I have driven in Mexico and loved it, (Well mostly) but yesterday seemed incredibly bizarre. Out on the open road finally, the signage is variably good, with long sections of road repairs, then miles later, more “deviacion.” The cuotas, or toll booths, are presently unmanned by government employees but are attended by folks begging money and demanding to know where you are going. Eventually you see a sign indicating that you are, perhaps, on the correct route. Then you hit a Tope, one of Mexico’s infamous speed bumps.
The small city of Hermosillo, was a repeat of Nogales. Even in daylight I hate the gauntlet that is this dreadful place. At nearly every stoplight a gang of window-washers assails your vehicle, jumping all over it in their efforts to clean the glass and extort a small ransom. My shouted No’s are ignored. They banged on all windows with their demands and tried to take the bicycle off the back of the van. You’re helpless, inclined to leap out in confrontation, but you know of course, that’s dangerously foolish, so you sit inside, cursing and seething at your entrapment while a gentle voice on your shoulder whispers that “This is Mexico, relax, this shall pass, these kids are just trying to help support their family.” I do get it, but a simple permission and a gracious acceptance of “No” would completely improve the business model of these junior extortionists. When driving through a congested town or city, it is utterly wise to keep your doors locked and your windows closed. I’ve decided that next time I will start photographing them from the confines of my driver’s seat and, not to be so vulnerably alone. When i returned through this city, not a window washer was in sight!
About nine hours from Nogales I blearily drove past my turn-off to San Carlos and had to back-track up through Guaymas. Yet another hour of my foolishness. Its old-town and waterfront is beautiful, an oasis of tranquility, but I simply needed to complete the journey for the day. Guaymas is also a swirling chaos of mad driving through dusty, despairing, sprawling barrios with vague signage. My on-dash GPS was useless and I was too busy trying to stay alive to have time to glance at it anyway.
Obviously, yet I live. I am writing this in the rising warmth and light of another Mexican morning. A few feet above my head is a cooing dove hidden in the dense foliage. I am vibrating-weary. I love Mexico and ache to go on south, or just stay and rest, but I’ll complete the business at hand and promises kept, I’ll turn back Northward. Low finances and a faltering vehicle demand prudence. I desperately need to take a break. Crossing back into the US will, this time, take me a long way toward an ease of anxiety. There is a band of Northern Mexico which, in my estimate,is about 200 miles wide that I dislike. San Carlos marks the latitude of Mexico where I begin to love the country more and more as I drive further south. Sadly, this is as far as I am going. I’ll complete my business here and then turn northward.
Two days later, I am now on the intended-to be leisurely and meandering return homeward. I decide to divert and stop over in Puerto Penasco on the Eastern shore of the Gulf Of California, at the top of the Sea Of Cortez, which like so many, I love dearly. I have a rule about driving in Mexico in the dark and I so I broke my own law. Onward I went through endless miles of fields, then desert, then fields, all punctuated by dusty, desperately poor barrios. I drove westward, peering into the setting sun through a dusty, bug-spattered windshield. I was desperate to find a safe haven for the night and took no more photos that day.
The best images ever are never recorded on a camera it seems, but remain in the back of my brain, as clear as the moment i saw them. I am stuck with an indelible image of children playing soccer in the ubiquitous adobe dust of Northern Mexico at dusk and I wonder at the their future. They are well dressed, and everyone has perfect haircuts yet you can see that where and how they live is well below anyone’s notion of a poverty line. They have wealth in the embrace of their expansive families and the joy of the moment is always evident despite the misery of which they know nothing else. There is clearly a joy in a life without expectations which I do not understand. The narrow, rutted, pot-holed road stretched on ahead forever it seemed. Rushing oncoming vehicles with brilliant lights, or one or none at all, zoomed past. I could find no safe-looking turnout to rest for the night. I was exhausted, my brain on auto-pilot as I resolved myself to a head-on crash. My ended life marked with another rusting metal cross on the edge of some nameless field.
Eventually on the horizon of this flat land, distant lights began to arise. I finally realized that this was what I had driven so long and far out of my way to see. I had envisioned a sleepy, Mexican fishing region, gentrified but tolerable. I had expected to find some open beach where I could park and rest for a few days. What I saw instead was a vision of hell. The place stretched on and on and lay miles off the highway.. It looked like pictures of Miami and I drove on into the night, my hopes shattered. I tried stopping in the parking lot of their airport, also miles off the road, but a security guard gave me the boost within a minute. I found a spot on the roadside, brightly lit and there I finally stopped. In the morning I jacked up the van, and pulled my rear wheels apart to try and find the source of a horrible grinding noise. U-joints was my diagnosis and so I decided to head onward to the border. Ajo or bust. First, I stopped to thank Barb’s Dog Rescue for the haven and security of their brightly lit sign. I, a dog-lover, gave myself a strict lecture, took a breath and went on in. I left quickly, head down, not looking back. All those lovely dogs. Surely I could manage to bring one home, a travelling companion and a pal for Jack. I faced reality, and drove on.
Well, I’m writing in Ajo now, a desert town. The area is a popular winter retreat. A friend is parked next door in the Belly Acres RV Park and there are new friends all around me. I slept eleven hours last night. The wind howled and a torrential rain hammered down as if I were at home on Vancouver Island. More desert flowers! Tomorrow morning the parts store and garage next door will open and the course of my fate will be determined.
“Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better.” …Albert Camus
Recently I watched a Netflix called film ‘Tracks’. It is also available elsewhere online. Based on a book of the same title written by a woman named Robyn Davidson, it is a great movie. The world first learned of her in a National Geographic article in 1978. As a young woman this tenacious character decided to trek 2000 miles of the Australian Outback in the company of the few camels she needed to pack her supplies and gear. Managing the camels was no small feat let alone enduring the ordeal of desert survival. It is a brilliant film and the sort of folks who read this blog would enjoy seeing it. A quote from that film says “Some nomads are never home and some always are.”
A bumper sticker I’ve seen says “Not all wanderers are lost.” If I find one, I may smack it onto the back of my little trailer which is now essentially complete. I must throw in a plug here for a small RV dealer in Southwestern Ontario. They’re so down home-small that they don’t have a website. In 2015 that’s an accomplishment! I discovered them on Kijiji while looking for some small windows for the doors on my trailer.
Nor-O-Tech Trailers Inc. (519-468-8772) are located in Norwich Ontario, a little east of London on Norwich Rd. Google Map shows that when you pass through Hinks Corners, you’re getting close. Mine was a small order, due in part to their very reasonable prices, but they treated me like a king. The windows were carefully packed and shipped safely lickety-split via UPS (Three days from east of Hinks Corners!) It is sad that integrity and good service are remarkable and noteworthy. Victoria and Don definitely deserve kudus. If you need RV stuff (That I couldn’t find online in BC!) check these folks out.
I’m now ready to do south again with a trailer. I’m supposed to be a sailor and this blog is about getting my boat ‘Seafire’ south but somewhere along the way I became distracted by the idea of teardrop trailers. One day by chance I saw a lovely home-made one for sale and I was hooked. I rationalized that I could also use the teardrop to haul my tools between jobs. The deal was completed and soon I was tinkering up that little wagon to suit my needs.
Along the way I met a lot of truly wonderful people who were drawn to the little trailer and it was easy enough to pull behind my four-cylinder truck. Despite some blunders on my part, it was a wonderful trip down to Jalisco State and back. Waking up on the beach in Mexico in that mobile bed was marvellous but I began to rationalize. Tip-toeing barefoot in the dark to appease Captain Bladder among the scorpions wasn’t really that romantic and I began to think of the decadence of standing up inside a trailer to enjoy the luxury of a bucket. On the drive home I began to consider converting a small cargo trailer or even a horse trailer. It was not an original idea I soon learned, other people commonly refer to these as “Stealth trailers”. The teardrop sold and I began to peruse online marketing sites.
Eventually I found a 6×12 almost-new trailer with dual axles and torsion-bar suspension, perfect for towing off-road. It had been camperized by a dealer and came with an awning, a screen door, windows, insulation, wiring, some nice cabinets and a fair price. It would tow easily and was far more road-worthy than any recreational trailer I looked at. With the versatility of a cargo trailer I could also use it as a mobile work shop, storage shed and general haul away to hide away. I’ve had some time on my hands lately and so I’ve finished the trailer to suit my whims. I’ve panelled the sides to match the existing cabinetry and installed a little laminate flooring forward to make it seem homier. The main portion of the huge bed doubles as a workbench with a smaller portion on one side which lifts up or can be stored away as required. My little windows are now fitted in the back door so I have a view directly out from the bed as well as a little more passive ventilation. I’ve installed a drop bar on those doors. I can secure them from inside. A lock for the door handle outside prevents being locked in. That bar also clips onto the top of the open doors. With a simple curtain I have a private shower area.
There are now overhead shelves along either side over the bed each fitted with LED reading lights. There is massive storage space on the shelves beneath the bed/workbench. The centrepiece that inspired the whole project is a portapotty which nestles inside a reworked wooden box. It doubles as a foot stool and seat. Everything must be multi-functional. That, of course, will be known as ‘Pandora’s box’. There’s a stereo and a small 12 volt refrigerator. As much material as possible was salvaged from places like ‘Restore’. One of those treasures is a table I found and adapted as a removable outdoor table which clips onto the side of the trailer. Two drywall jacks have been cut down and transformed into adjustable legs. I’m quite pleased with the overall result.
I nag myself that the expense and effort should have been focused into the boat but I’ve discovered that there is a wonderful world inland beyond sight and smell of the sea. Last year I watched as the gringo cruising boats anchored in beautiful little bays dictated to their crews about what they could not do if able to go ashore. Security, surf and holding ground for the anchor made for a classic situation of how stuff ends up owning and controlling the owner. I love my boat and the idea of having a home afloat in which I’m free to go when and where I like. It is a financial albatross. Certainly, I’ll admit, I do consider compromises but this old salt can’t imagine a landlubber’s existence and for the moment, maintaining the foundation of my dreams is imperative. Every day I go aboard, inhale her fragrant unique aroma and see all that I’ve put into her, I know that I am the willing slave of old ‘Seafire.’ Eventually I hope to have both boat and trailer south. They will compliment each other so that this gringo could stay all year.
That being said, I marvel at folk’s determination that bigger is better. Huge cruising boats still have an average crew of only two and seem to spend a majority of their time incarcerated in a marina with all the other look-at-me-boats. It’s the same on the highway. Huge mobile condos are dragged along behind a monstrous diesel truck. Bus-sized motor homes tow suvs or boats. Usually these RVs carry only two people. Some holiday! I am certain that for many people, owning one of these monstrosities is more about making an impression on strangers than it is about travel and discovery. Look at my big box! Maybe it makes them feel manly. Certainly you can’t get far off the pavement into the real world without getting stuck or shaken to bits. There must be a huge contingent of Rvers who travel only from Walmart to Walmart. It’s safe, convenient, free and dreadfully monotonous. It certainly does not look like an edifying or pleasant experience for me.
Minimalism, alternate lifestyles and under-the-radar discretion. Good enough. Freedom is understanding how little you need. With adequate room to stand up, lay down, and be safe from the elements what else do you really need? Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to…while doing as little harm as possible.
There’s a lot to be said for a camel and a blanket.
My beloved teardrop trailer, mi chiquito, it’s gone! It sold in forty-eight hours after first being advertised. There was a deluge of interest. I didn’t expect anyone to want it but calls came from as far away as Washington State! Of course I’m left thinking that the price should have been higher but I was daunted by the parade of folks lining up to buy it. If I’d had ten teardrops (How’s that for a song title?) they would all be sold by now. Jill did a great job with the ads. Unlike most boats I’ve sold I’ve actually broken even on this rig and it went to a very nice lady on Vancouver Island who will use it exactly as it should be. I have warned her that the big drawback will be all the attention it draws wherever the teardrop goes. Oddly, within the week, two other teardrop trailers appeared for sale but neither compared in quality and value to my baby. It’s gone now, all over but for the drinking.
I’ve decided that it is rather nice to stand up to put your pants on and in consideration of travelling southern latitudes where snakes and scorpions roam, it might be nice not to have to go outside to the bathroom in the night. Besides, it might be easier to invite guests if we don’t have to spoon! I also found the little trailer very warm in Mexico. So, despite my diatribes about stuff, I miss the teardrop, but probably as much for what it represents as anything else. So onwards toward next winter in Mexico. I’ll be reviewing every small trailer ad I come across and as the weather warms, work on ‘Seafire’ will resume. Fortunately, preparing it to sail, or sell, requires the same efforts. So my decision about parting with my floating home does not need to be made in a panic.
In recall of my recent teardrop pilgrimage and in anticipation of what lies ahead, the rest of this blog is some more photos in review and in projection of the journey.
By the way if, as some people indicate, you like my philosophies about life, spirituality, stuff and true values, check out Ken Robinson on You Tube. Sir Kenneth Robinson travels the globe expounding ideas outside the box on education, social and political interactions, truth, passion and higher ways of living. He moves at times in circles close to the Dali Lama. I love what he says and how he says it. Anyone who unabashedly promotes living away from the herd and drinking upstream of it has my vote.
In one presentation he quotes part of a poem by Anais Nin. I’ll do my best to paraphrase it.
I’ve been home a week now. If I thought things were a blur before…Wow! The memories swirl.
So much in such a short time; nearly 12,000 kilometres in five weeks. I feel like a big sponge, it’ll take a while to wring out. I’ve also managed to fall asleep while editing my photos and…well, there some incredible shots that you’ll never see. My banana fingers managed to keep on deleting after I nodded off. All the king’s techies can’t find Fred’s files again. BUGGA! You’ll have to take my word for it, there really were some amazing shots of Northern California and the South Oregon Coast.
Once out of the saddle I’ve taken my boots and socks off. Thus able to do the math I’m realizing how desperately financially broke I am for the moment. The good old truck, like a loyal pony, is dropping apart one piece at a time now that it’s home. So am I. The initial prognosis for my ankle is surgery. Of course the process requires that I help every medical specialist possible extract a Porsche payment from the system before the first diagnosis is firmly confirmed and a date for the grim day is set, and probably postponed, for some time far down the road. The weather here at home is cold and snowy and utterly miserable. In the last week a friend died tragically under very mysterious circumstances. I MISS MEXICO!
Old ‘Seafire’ is happily afloat and looking good. The recent snow has scrubbed her clean. She’s cold and damp inside but there are no apparent leaks and the old girl is tugging at her lines, wanting to get off the dock. I am now more confused than ever. I love this boat and all the dreams and assurances she provides me. She has been my home for a few years now. ‘Seafire’ is the cumulation of all the other boats I’ve owned and put so much of my life into. However, the epiphanies I sought and found are telling me things entirely unexpected.
For half of my life I have had myself convinced that I could not live away from the sea and that a man without a boat is a prisoner. If I did not own a boat, I felt like a worm. I am suddenly realizing that several hundred miles inland I survived healthily and happily. In fact, in the dry desert air, I found I could breath better than I have in years.
I actually found the same feeling of fulfilment in the vastness and mystery of the desert that I do at sea.
I have realized how much I have denied myself by accepting a barrier that kept me from travelling inland of the shore and accepting the richness of this planet which is available everywhere to perceptive people. I am also realizing the profundity of my own words when I condemn materialism.
Have I owned several boats or have they owned me? Why are my sailing friends with the most sea time also the folks who’ve never owned a damned boat in their lives?
The devastation of the ongoing recession in the US is clear. I saw people of my age, begging on the street corners. They carry home-made cardboard signs saying things such as, “We’ve lost every thing. Any help gratefully accepted.” How close we all live to the edge! I know the clear-eyed dignity of Mexican peasants and their children and realize that despite my awareness and all my words, I am as hard-wired for our superficial, consumer culture as anyone. I truly wonder who are the truly rich people. Is it those who know how little they need? In Mexico, the roadside crosses of the poor and those better off all mark people’s passing who are all equally dead.
I am among the growing numbers who ask questions and I do really want to end my days outside of the sheep pens most of us willingly inhabit. I remember George Carlin’s last time on stage and his parting words, “Folks, it’s all bullshit!” I met folks who have been freed of their life in a rut, their possessions and all the entrapment of contemporary North American life. They now live as happy wanderers and have learned to see each day for the glorious experience it can be. Repeatedly, I heard from each that one of their joys is realizing how little material stuff they actually need. Collectively they all seem to be enjoying a liberation and freedom previously unimagined. The lies which ran their lives are shattered.
I am NOT turning my back on my affinity for the sea, nor my sailing dreams. I AM realizing how wonderful it is to have my head out of that place where the sun never shines. It is wonderful to feel the affirmation of wind in my hair and the sun on my face as well of the cool darkness of deep water. I have some decisions to make and hope to find a balance to my life that I have been denying myself and those who try to love me. The journey continues. To have written and published the last two paragraphs, I hope, is a testament of progress which I claimed to seek when I first began writing this blog. Life is a journey, grow or die.
Once I’d crossed the border from Nogales, Mexico into Nogales, Arizona I collapsed for the night in the regional Walmart parking lot. Despite my aversion to the McWally world it is nice to have a safe, level place where you are welcome to park your trailer for the night and use the clean washrooms whenever you want. Dare I lament the absence of shower facilities? I mean really! Some people do appear to live in these edifices of tacky acquisition.
The next morning dawned on Valentine’s Day and I was amazed at the masses of Spanish-speaking people thronging into the place before six in the chilly morning to scoop up every card, chocolate, flower and stuffed toy.
I beat a hasty retreat into the desert. I turned Westward onto Route 289 which led me into the Coronado National Forest. The trees are twenty feet tall and a hundred feet apart. Some of the cacti are as tall. How many trees within sight of each other make a forest? As the sun rose at my back I travelled a meandering dirt track that led me through one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Rocky cliffs, caves and steep gulches form a maze that begs to be explored on horseback. I expected to meet a stage coach on every switch-back. If John Wayne or Gary Cooper stood beside a dead horse, hitch-hiking with only their saddle, I would have calmly asked then if they’d like me to brew up some coffee. I passed an abandoned mine town named Ruby and again marvelled at how the human race was able to map this country, develop it so rapidly and find rich mineral deposits so readily.
For hours I could see the telescopes on distant Kitt Peak and it seemed to take all day to drive a distant radius around Baboquivan Peak, a towering granite pinnacle which must have held great significance to the indigenous people. I stopped in tiny but lovely Arivaca, once a U.S Cavalry camp, now home to the tiny Casino Rurál and the lovely Cantina Gitana. I drove on through the Altar Valley and the massive Tohono O’Odham Indian Reserve.
This is all in the northern portion of the Sonora Desert. Once at the end of the twelve-mile drive up Kitt Peak, which rises a mile above the surrounding desert and yet still looks up at 7,738′ Baboquivan, you begin to understand the meaning of vast. You can see forever…well at least half-way to Nevada!
I can only wonder at the original inhabitants and their wonder at the abstract concept we white-faced creatures held of defining and dividing eternity.
Fortunately it appears that here, the native population truly holds a controlling interest in how the land is husbanded. I am told that only 25% of Arizona is held as deeded land. Much of the remaining area is Indian Reserve and State or National Park.
Sadly the paranoia of The US Homeland Security is at a fever pitch. They are everywhere, easily working their mandate up to a hundred miles north of the Mexican border with trucks, ATVs, horses, helicopters, drones, blimps and random checkpoints. They seem to operate carte blanche with an unlimited budget. At various check-points, many miles inside the border, huge tents cover both lanes of the road.
The guards, armed just like their Mexican counterparts are friendly and conversational. Hell, it’s lonely out there. I ask them if they ever actually catch any illegal immigrants. Their grinning, guffawing response assures me that indeed they do and that I, “Wouldn’t believe some of the drugs they try to bring in.” They really seem to enjoy their work.
The photos taken from Kitt Peak are wholly incapable of portraying the feeling of human smallness beneath the deep blue sky. The huge granite summit is dotted with several massive telescopes. It is a place where man tries to find his way home somewhere among the countless billions of stars all around us. Arizona is presently in a drought and there was deep concern about the peril of fire on the peak. To my wonder I noticed massive bald cliffs, thousands of feet above the valley floor, that glistened with the wetness of spring water still rising from deep within. It is a sad thing to find a tangibly spiritual place and have to move on. My funds were limited and I had a speaking engagement a few days away.
I stopped for the night back in the Belly Acres RV Park in Ajo Arizona where there’s a pistol-packing granny doing a splendid job of keep all things organized. As she did on the previous visit, I was warned about wild pigs, or ‘Javelinas, which’ frequent the camp at night and boldly scrounge for scraps. The end of the next day saw me in Earp, California on the banks of the Colorado River which is the border between Parker, Arizona and the final Western state. It is where old Wyatt himself is planted.
The next day saw me driving in hours-long straight lines through undulating desert which becomes known as the Mohave. It finally runs up against the Sierra Nevada Mountains where I turned north and paralleled the Western edge of Death Valley. It is stunningly beautiful, even in the dull winter tones of mid-February. This is country photographed by people like Ansel Adams and it is easy to understand how one could take an entire year trying to capture the amazing light playing on a few rocks or stunted trees. The desert here affords great solitude and peace. The quiet is palpable. The views are infinite. Mirages in the distance make perfect sense. Nights under the desert sky must be overwhelming. Mono Lake is the final jewel of the desert before it climbs into the mountains and the world changes its beauty.
Sadly there are others who see the desert differently. Areas for off-road recreational vehicles are provided restrictively so that the entire desert is not decimated but it still seems horrible to come upon an area where hundreds of motorcycles, ATVs, dune buggies and other roaring contraptions turn the desert into an apocalypse of noise and dusty mayhem. A ranch I passed has set itself up for this obnoxious activity and provides a huge tavern for the thirsty to come and tank up. Toddlers clad in body armour zip around with everyone else in this mad mindlessness. I can’t condemn something I don’t understand but it seems to me that horses and burros make a lot more sense. When the chips are down, it’s damned tough to eat a jeep.
I visited the quaint old mining town of Randsburg. It is an intact but mined-out frontier town where things seem to be much as abandoned. A handful of folks still live there and eck out a living from the tourists and more swarms of off-road warriors.
This entire desert seems to be pock-marked with abandoned mines, and the odd monstrous mess of open pit copper mines, some still working. The wealth of a few has permanently scarred the countryside. I wonder at all those who worked this dry, hard country spending and giving their lives for another man’s greed. I suppose some things never change.
Eventually, on the next day at dusk, I fetched up in South Lake Tahoe. Maybe I was exhausted, but this place is one of the most vulgar locations I have found. This beautiful huge mountain lake is rimmed with a throbbing strip mall of crass commercialism and dotted with towering casinos. Everything seemed cheap and tacky. The road westward was snow-lined, steep and winding. The rushing traffic was heavy but I drove on until I was able to park at a fairgrounds in Auburn, a suburb of Sacramento. It was a long day.
Eager to make my way to Astoria, I drove off the next morning determined to be on the beach in Oregon that night. I did not know that the photos I was taking would soon be lost.
Through the fruit and nut orchards I went, picking and eating oranges, trying to capture some of the abundance with my camera. I followed the Sacramento River northward for miles as the countryside slowly changed. I ruefully recall one photo taken in a popular waterfowl hunting area. An entire store side was painted with the message, “We Pluck Your Ducks.”
I turned west at Redding, stopping to copiously photograph the beautiful old mining town of Shasta. There was no one around, the light was soft and pure. I took some amazing pictures. They are indelibly printed on the hard-drive in the back of my skull. Westward in the thickening rain I drove the spectacular highway along the Trinity River until finally I found the ocean again at Fields Landing. Home, driving through huge thick timber, horizontal rain and crashing surf. `I wondered about the sunset down in Jalisco as I crawled into my cold, damp sheets in Bandon, Oregon. My little trailer rocked in the buffeting wind. Home! Yeah right.
Tuxpan was a hell-hole to my gringo eyes. (Pronounced Toose-pan) As mentioned in my last blog I corrected the error of my ways and got the hell out of there before total darkness fell.
I was not welcome there and could feel it in the air. Like roadside markers out on the highway, there were crosses on the streets and I knew these souls had departed their bodies for reasons other than any driving error. I had bought an eighteen inch machete with a saw-toothed back for collecting firewood but it didn’t leave me feeling more than defenceless. Occasionally you hear yet another bandito horror story but apart from my own blundering I actually feel safer in Mexico than at home. I’ve explained to a few other gringos that the big difference between here and Mexico is that our police keep most of their weapons hidden in the trunk of their vehicle.
I stayed in the back of another Pemex station that night, not at all an exotic place but I felt safe enough and sleep well. In the morning the same attendants were on duty, now sustaining themselves against the chill of dawn by drinking tequila-braced coffee from Styrofoam cups.
I declined their generosity. I drove northward stopping regularly to take photographs. The Policia Federales stopped to enquire what I was photographing and then drove off to accost a madly-careening eighteen-wheeler, all the while I’m sure, puzzling about yet another mad gringo with a camera. Being desperately broke and worried about police wanting mordida, my truck breaking down, exorbitant toll fees and whatever else that might go wrong, I made my way north on the libres, or toll-free highways. The tolls, or cuotas, equalled the price of two tanks of gas on the way down and yes things were looking that desperate. I ate once a day at the less-grotty roadside cuchinas where truckers stopped. The food is freshly prepared over wood fires, is delicious and generally cheaper than cooking for yourself. I have not had one bad meal in Mexico anywhere. I did not ever drink tap water but nor did I take any special preventions against eating the local fare.
After again passing through El Rosario, (Which I learned in amazement was founded in 1655,) the libres led me into Culicán. As usual in these places, it seemed to be rush-hour. Hot, dusty, thirsty, needing to pee, low on gas, I tried to stay alive in the traffic while desperately looking for a sign that would lead me out of mayhem. Eventually, I ended up in Navolato, about twenty kilometres on, and although I had actually passed under the freeway, I could find no way onto it or the adjoining libre. After ending up in a cornfield I began to drive back the way I thought I had come feeling very lost and frustrated.
Spotting two municipal traffic cops, I careened in front of their car, and slammed to a stop. They emerged with pistols half-drawn as I frantically tried to smile while saying “Hola amigos, hola senors. Jo gringo esta mucho perditio. Dondé esta la camina a Nogales? Esta nada signas!” They tried to explain the escape route and then decided to escort me onto the highway. With red and blue lights flashing the led me on a convoluted trail through the bustling streets as more and more cars swerved into the increasing gap between us.
Finally I found myself grovelling in gratitude as they explained that this was the highway to Nogales. They made it clear to me that this stupid gringo was to stay on this road until safely out of their country. At the moment I took it as good advice. As they were leaving, but still in plain sight of them, a giggling little man jumped head and shoulder into the driver’s window and began trying to peddle a huge bag of cocaine in front of my face. Terrified that the police had set me up for a bust I began cursing loudly and honking my horn as I drove off with this rascal still trying to close a deal. All I can recall is that he was finally gone and I don’t give a damn what happened to him.
So….yet another couple of don’ts:
Don’t drive the streets of larger urban areas with your windows open. Keep them up with the doors locked; that is what air-conditioning is for.
Don’t drive alone in Mexico. I’ll never do it again. Driving is a full time job, especially in Mexico with all its mad motorists hurtling in and from all directions. There are other characters to watch out for as well as the full-time job of watching for topés. As well as those big speed bumps there are vibradores which are multiple smaller speed bumps in rows. The name is perfect. There are also mucho baches, or many potholes. The military will set up roadblocks at random and they use heavy ship hawsers zig-zagged across the road. I guarantee you’ll stop for these. Especially with the kids in pickup trucks on the side of the road. They have .50 calibre swivel-mounted machine guns. At one check point I watched desperately as a young fellow in full battle dress cleaned his weapon. It was clearly loaded, a bandolier snaked down into the truck bed. As he polished his little cannon the muzzle swivelled wildly but all the while pointed at me. Yeah right! It’s funny now!
As an interesting footnote, a few days later, Joaquin Guzman was arrested in Mazatlan, one hundred twenty miles to the south. The “Most wanted drug lord in the world”, “El Chapo” is regarded by many as a sort of Robin Hood character, known for amazing generosity to locals. In Culicán, hundreds have taken to the streets demanding his release. Their parochial loyalty will remain rock-solid even to whomever takes his mantle. I rather expect an escalation in violence as the next in line to head the cartel is decided.
After yet another Pemex evening I arrived next morning in Guaymas, a destination of my dreams. I’ve heard so many sailors tell what an incredible place this is. After thumpy-bumping my way past a waterfront industrial area, complete with a decaying, but still-functioning shipyard I arrived at a crumbling water front and single dock.
Immediately there was someone lurking in my peripheral vision who wouldn’t face me, nor leave. After my recent adventures I was beginning to feel a bit paranoid and suddenly felt an uncanny ache to be back in Amurica. I’ll
admit, in retrospect, I was merely becoming worn-down but at the time I felt more than a little endangered, much like a brave old moose being worn down by a pack of wolves.
Downtown Guaymas is a beautiful old town and I photographed another amazing old cathedral. Broke as I was, I bought a small finch-like bird for thirty pesos from a vendor, who was puzzled that I didn’t want a cage. He seemed completely amazed when I released it. It probably flew home for him to sell again.
It made me feel immensely better. Once again, there was a lack of road signs but eventually I found my way to San Carlos, an icon of security for all yachters in the Sea Of Cortes. I found one ‘Marina Sec’ or dry-storage yard and can agree that it is a fine place to leave a boat hauled-out for an extended period. However let me warn you that the hot, hot summer and the intense ultra-violet sunlight is harder on a boat than our Pacific Northwest winters. Also, think twice about those cheap boats abandoned in Mexico. Remember that something for sale at a bargain price has not had any money put into it for a while. Apart from the tricky paper work if you want to bring the vessel home, and despite the yacht broker’s cavalier claims, you get what you pay for. What really offended me about San Carlos was that it seems to no longer be Mexico. It is a clutter of gringo holiday houses, hotels, high-end marinas, convenience stores, and hurtling, self-righteous blue-hairs in various recreational conveyances. You may as well be back in Los Angeles or San Diego. Why the hell do we always impose upon ourselves, and everyone else, what we came to escape? Enough said.
I sat on a concrete wall after scrounging a meal from the soggy dregs in my ice box. I watched the ice melt and then dry up under the sun and felt very much the same. A few days earlier I had put the finishing touch on a forty-year old ankle injury. With that throbbing pain and my sense of defeat about my stupid misadventures, I too simply wanted to vaporize. Sadly I headed for the border hoping I had enough gas and pesos to make it to the crossing in Nogales.
Invariably, when the chips are down, scavengers show up to try pecking out your eyes and strip your bones. I became overwhelmed with a sense of being extorted. The closer to
the border, the more our poisonous capitalist influence becomes apparent. The toll gates, or ‘Plaza De Cobra’ also known as ‘Pavilion Cuote’ become closer together. Each time you stop you are besieged by vendors
and kids leaping onto your vehicle to wash your windshield, clean as it may be from the last round of cleaning. I began shouting “NO!”, very loudly, and only after yelling repeatedly “No esta No!” only then did the assaults end; albeit with some very colourful Mexican curses of a vivid sexual connotation. They are especially poignant coming form the mouths of children.
Finally, I passed the Mexican aduanas where my jaunt had began so ingloriously. I returned my vehicle-duty decal and then exchanged my few remaining pesos for Americanos. I was crossing the border with US$31 to my name and a quarter tank of gas. Sheet! The crawl northward to Nogales, Arizona takes you past Nogales, Mexico. It is a sprawling barrio that runs up and over the distant hills. Barefoot children play among the garbage, wrecked cars and skinny, limping dogs.
It is a scene from hell. All these desperate people crowd against the American’s high metal border fence that extends over the hills out of sight in either direction. There is nothing more desperate than seeing thousands living with faint hope within such hopelessness. Helicopters clatter overhead and the tension in the air is palpable. There is yet another Mexican toll gate a short distance from the US border crossing, which is a blatant effrontery.
Finally you heave into sight of the Homeland Security gauntlet ahead. Still the vendors persist a few car-lengths from the gates selling everything imaginable. One woman tried selling me a beautiful puppy. When I explained that this dog-lover couldn’t take him because the pup hadn’t had his shots and papers she exclaimed, “Oh no senor, he is not for to be shooting!” I tried to explain but I’m sure she knew exactly what I said. He would have been put into quarantine within minutes but I’ll bet some gullible family rescued him. I can only imagine the wails of grief as he was hauled away.
Sniff, sniff, question, question, peek and snoop, the multiple interrogations were finally over and I was no longer in Mexico. There is a very definite line, like stepping from one planet to another, as you drive into Nogales, Arizona. Machine gun Spanish is still being spoken, but it clearly NORTH America. I slept peacefully in the Walmart parking lot, secure in the knowledge that I was now where there is at least one handgun in every purse or pocket.
By morning, I was missing Mexico badly. I could not understand why other cars were following me on the road instead of passing on a double line or a curve. Isn’t it strange? Behaviour which, would have incensed me a few weeks earlier, was now normal in my mind. How quickly we become a product of our environment! I know the one I prefer. As I sit here, now back at home watching a foot of snow slowly melt before a chill West wind, I’m already preparing to go back to Mexico. I haven’t felt warm for over a week. I’ve left a huge piece of my heart there.
Reluctantly, I’ve begun the trek homeward. I love this place, the native Mexicans and the gringos who are either permanent or regular seasonal come-backs. I could stay here forever and anyone who really missed me could come see me here. But that’s not the way I’m wired and after some misadventures here I have been rescued by my wife Jill, who still loves me for some reason beyond my comprehension. She’s at home in the cold and snow, wind and rain, with a head-cold, performing financial miracles to get me back there.
Some fellow campers, my forensic research indicates, stole my wallet. I won’t go into the back-tracking, the sleepless night, the quadruple ripping apart of truck and trailer, the long day following and the frustrated hopelessness that overwhelmed me. I posted a noticed on the La Manzanilla online message board, as locally advised, and wonder of wonders, I received a phone call. At a wonderful little bar called ‘The Club.’ A Mexican had turned in my credit cards, driver’s license and so forth. I was out about $250 and the wallet, but I have the good stuff back and a relatively cheap lesson learned. Of course it turned up four hours after I phoned and cancelled the credit and debit cards but all’s well that ends. Special thanks to Bobby, who runs the bar, and Jude, who phoned me. The story was that a local fellow came in with the goods saying they’d been found by a friend. I don’t care about his story, I’m impressed about the honour of the local thieves. Enough said. I can only blame myself for being lazy. I knew better.
“Don’t put all your huevos in one basket!” Fortunately I did have my passport and visa hidden away. So yet another don’t for Mexico, and maybe for home. Don’t carry your wallet with cash, credit cards and other important stuff together. Hide your wallet in one place, your cash in another and your cards somewhere else. Carry only enough cash for the moment. That may also help prevent impulse spending.
On the day of the wallet incident (Hier perdito mi cartera) I drove out to the beach at Tenacatita. It’s a controversial place, overwhelmed by some Mexican tycoons who evicted the hereditary landowners and have hired guards who patrol the place but it is beautiful there and well worth the visit. Unfortunately while kayaking I burst the plexi-glass window out of the bottom of my little boat and had to swim it back to the beach through the surf and swells for about a kilometre. It was a good workout. The snorkeling was fantastic, I’ve shot some good movies of very colourful fish which I will try to post.
This past weekend was ‘Rodeo’ in La Manzanilla. The town goes crazy with the dusty streets given over to all sort of madness. Intermittently throughout the days and nights a Mexican jazz band was the fulcrum of artistic delight. It is a blatant combination of amateur Mariachi sounds with a strange twist of what I can only describe as Klesmer music, all over scored with the incessant bop-boop-boop of a tuba. Massively amplified they blew out dental fillings for miles around. Whatever might be lacking in quality is certainly supplemented with enthusiasm. Volume is everything. I repeat that there is nothing tougher than a Mexican boom box.
Tonight I am sitting alone under the light of brilliant stars and a waxing half-moon. I saw an incredible shooting star. I am all alone. There is no-one else here except in a cemetery a little way off. I sit facing west on a rise between the booming surf of the open Pacific and a lagoon on my right. Strange cries and bestial calls emerge from the lagoon, or perhaps the cemetery. It is utterly magic. I face an un-named cape after driving here on a dusty road that wound from a tiny village through beautiful farm fields. A sign warns that the beach is dangerous for swimming and I have no intention of skinny-dipping in the lagoon. While turning around I sank the truck and trailer in loose sand which was deceptively matted in thick, prickly vegetation. Thanks to the gods, I have a shovel, jack-all and loads of rope with me. I dug everything out but still could not budge the truck. It was hellishly hot and getting dark. A friendly fellow with a jeep towed the truck back onto solid road and refused any tokens of appreciation. In Mexican, he explained, you cannot take money from friends. And so my love of this place grows. Mucho gusto!
I’m now sitting and working at my little table in a parking area behind a Pemex station a little north of the junction for Tuxpan. The dreadful mess that is Puerto Vallarta is behind me to the south. Joni Mitchell must have been thinking of Puerto Vallarta when she wrote” They’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The best word I can use is obscene. It is truly an ultimate piece of pornographic greedy, mindless shame that goes on for miles, right past Nuevo Vallarta. Hell’s teeth!
Speaking of which, after I left my idyllic beach camp I pulled into a small roadside cantina to photograph a beautiful old clay oven. A smiling woman came wiggling out. Her grin nearly cracking her heavy makeup. She introduced herself as Lucy and welcomed me with an offer of beer for twenty pesos. When I explained that it was awfully early in the day, she announced that she also “Sold sex”. All the while a young girl was twirling round a wooden post on the veranda, dancing to unheard music like a stripper on a brass pole. Lucy went on to explain that I shouldn’t worry, nothing would get stolen while I was being entertained. I drove off mumbling about having had my wallet stolen already. Mucho gracias!
The drive to Puerto Vallarta climbs over a pass so high that the jungle becomes a predominantly pine forest. The warm air carries a lovely scent and I stopped to take some photos in this incongruous setting. Out of the bushes leapt a young man man with a broad toothless grin. He soon explained he was hunting parrots with his sling shot and had a wonderful repertoire of calls. There are so many new things here that he may have been entirely honest but a pine parrot…. hmmm!
Tonight, near sundown, I drove into Tuxpan looking for a road to Santa Cruz, the one north of San Blas that is, not the one south. I didn’t find the turn and had to get the hell out of town before dark. The filthy narrow cobbled streets were lined with surly looking groups of young men. Even the dogs looked mean. For once, my little trailer didn’t elicit any positive responses. I locked my doors and behind closed windows avoided any eye contact as I tacked and gybed my way through this horrible setting. So far, this has to be one of the sorriest places I’ve seen anywhere. I have been told there are much worse places in Mexico. I felt like apologizing for being a gringo. Once clear of the barrios of this place I noticed people wandering about en mass on a broad paved road with no cars present. Once I saw some runway markers I understood. Not many towns can boast an airport that is used as their Malecon. But then, most runways sit level, clear and unused for ninety-nine percent of the time. I can imagine the fun of buzzing the runway to clear before landing. Just when you think you’ve seen it all!
It’s all a blur. At first I was intent on recording all I’ve seen and done on this trip but soon realized that I was beginning to produce yet another “Binderdundat.
Another weary travelogue of then I saw, then I did, then I ate. I tipped that little train off its track. I set out to loose some weight, clean my attic, get away from a dreary existence at home through yet another wet winter and make some decisions about how I’m going to live out the remains of my life. The intent of writing about Mexico is to try and share the feeling of the place.
Now that I believe I have found the real Mexico, which I deeply love and feel at home in, I have to decide if I want to enjoy it aboard my boat or if I should focus on a traveller’s life ashore. There are advantages to each and it will not be a light decision. How I will support myself is another challenge. You don’t need much, but you need
something. However those are decisions for the future and all I have is the moment. What a glorious one it is.
Over coffee this morning an idea arose about a thermometer for we gringos in the sun. It would work much like the thermometers used to tell one when the turkey is cooked. This gadget would tell you when you’ve had enough sun and are starting to burn. You could insert it in a few places as per your imagination. I’ve also considered solar-powered roadside crosses. They would have flashing led lights and perhaps play a short Mariachi tune on occasion. The Mexicans, I’m sure, would love them and I’d make my living here.
I am staying in La Manzanilla, one of three closely-located communities. The others are Melague and Barra De Navidad. Back at the US Border, the Mexican guards had not heard of these places. That, I took as a good sign. I was right. About a four and one half hour drive south of Puerto Vallarta, three days from the border, this area is also accessible by air with flights to Melaque and Manzanillo, a little further to the south. Most gringos come here for at least two months in the winter. Accommodations of any class are cheap, as are groceries and restaurant meals. I have not had a bad meal yet, in fact the fare is excellent. It is healthy food, tasty and affordable. The locals are very hospitable and I have been warmly welcomed every where. Al I have to do is use my smile and display a contrition about my pathetic Spanish skills, as well as an intent to learn another bit of vocabulary. There IS contempt about the many Quebecois who come here. They are noted for being rude, insular and demanding. Despite my aversion to categorizing anyone, I’m afraid and embarrassed to have to agree that their nasty reputation is often well-deserved. I have lived and worked in Quebec. I love it there and I am frustrated to be caught in the middle on this issue.
Driving here is a full-time job. There are scorpions and stingrays to step on. Those are the dangers. The Mexicans are friendly, warm, industrious, honest and possess a love of life that we northern folk desperately need to learn. The climate here is sub-tropical, it is lushly green and full of life. Amazing insects and lizards from tiny geckos to huge iguanas and crocodiles abound. The birds are fantastic and the fish stocks are amazing. The ocean is bath tub warm and the snorkeling is fantastic.
My computer crashed and the local computer store has bent over sideways to get me going. They took the laptop apart, disconnected the keyboard and gave me a Spanish keyboard to plug in and use while a new one arrives. (You’ll notice some weird punctuation in my blogs.* They are thanking me for my patience. The total charge will be about twenty-five dollars. A complete oil and filter change for the truck was ten dollars. Meals average under 100 pesos, about 10 dollars with tip.
It is, however, all going to hell fast here. All this beauty and graciousness may soon fade.The big money is here, the infrastructure is slowly making its cancerous way south from Puerto Vallarta. The villas and golf courses encroach on the villages and quiet bays. A few years from now this paradise may well be paved over. The moment is the thing.
Last weekend was a Constitution Day, yet another opportunity for holidays and boisterous parties. There was a massive rock concert at the far end of the beach, about five miles away. It sounded like it was next door. Let’s just say there is nothing much tougher than a Mexican boom box. They love music and it must be LOUD! This weekend is La Manzanilla Days or “La Rodeo”. It began yesterday, Wednesday. Last night the stage competitions of folk dancing and break-dancing went on into the night. Cowboys on beautiful, high-spirited horses filled the cobbled streets with children, mothers and families as well as masses of bemused gringos. It was absolutely beautiful chaos. Tonight a Mariachi jazz band is overwhelming the town square. A mile away, I can clearly hear it as I write. It is lovely. A Mexican lady here in this campsite rendered bushels of green tomatoes into salsa over a wood fire. She has finished now and relaxes with some sewing after a fourteen hour day.
Last night a small Mariachi band serenaded outside the home of a local prominent family. It is the same place where a week earlier, I was invited in from the street to a birthday party where local musicians played and sang traditional local music. A group of women danced in the cleared-out garage. I was coerced into joining them. If anyone knows me they will be amazed that this leaping ox, with all his injuries, enjoyed himself immensely. I now have friends here.
A block away from there, the mangrove swamp reaches down to the sea. A casually fenced-in portion, complete with suspension bridges and an egg hatchery, contains several huge crocodiles. Apparently, until a couple of years ago, there was no fence. It is yet removed during the summer rainy season to again allow these beasts complete access to the sea and the beaches. A sign does suggest that there should be no swimming, fishing or pets. I’ve found no coughed-up flip flops or flowered shirts….so far.
Fortunately the local fisherman’s co-op provides an ample supply of fresh fish carcases.
The local fleet of pangas provides a steady supply of fresh sailfish, dorados, snapper, parrot fish, mahi mahi, albacore, mullet, octopus, lobster and shrimp. I want to do a trip with them, but the co-op says no. I need to improve my Spanish. There is a lovely language school here.
In a few days, I must begin making my way back toward my existence as a northern gringo.
There are deadlines and commitments, bills to pay and decisions to make. I have to pay for this trip and prepare for the next one. I’ll embrace each moment there but I’ll leave my heart here. I’ll be back as soon as possible to this town on the edge of the sea, 19º north latitude. That is 30º of southing, about 1800 nautical miles closer to the equator than where old “Seafire” sleeps tonight, waiting for me. The same ocean beneath her keel is lapping here on the beach, one hundred feet away. I feel the connection. It is strong.
I know I’ve finally arrived somewhere important when there is absolutely no wifi available. I’m sitting on the beach a few feet from surf’s edge on the Sea Of Cortez. The surf is light, the stars are bright, the lights of shrimp boat at work dot the black horizon. Some
young folk sit a way off around a fire with their boom box. I’m on the outskirts of a small fishing town named San Blas. It is ubiquitously grotty, with squalor everywhere, lots of stray dogs, people sitting around dinner tables outside so that some chairs are actually in the street, boom boxes blare and thump. Trucks, cars, scooters and bicycles weave their way around each other
on the cobbled streets. In the event that something should happen to me (I’ll explain later) let me stress how much I abhor categorization, especially about people, in any regard.
However, if demanded at gun point to summarily describe Mexicans I would probably use words like ‘Gracious hunter-gather suicidal stunt recyclers,’ but let’s start with my entry into Mexico two and a half days ago at Sonoyato.
I was advised to cross there because it was a “Nice quiet” place. The guards waved me through; there was no office to pull into for official paperwork. Suspiciously intrigued I carried on through the immediate contrast of how life is lived in Mexico. There is no doubt about where you. About one hundred kilometres on I arrive at a checkpoint where the lady guards are incredulous that I have no tourist visa nor any importation papers for the truck and trailer. They loved the little silver bullet and called it “Chiquito.” However they also made it clear that they thought I was an idiot to not have the documentation. They made it clear that I had to go immediately to the Nogales crossing, where the paper work could be done, or get back up across the border into the US…which is difficult to explain when you don’t have your papers in order for the country you’re leaving.
Two hours later, in the dark and, yes, spattering rain, I arrived at the Aduanes and the Mexican bureaucratic shuffle began. Fill out forms, get photocopies over there, take all your papers to the bank wicket, go back for more photo copies, pay a six month tourist visa (Because I’ll be in the country more than six days) pay an import duty on truck and trailer, discard all the unnecessary photocopies. Fortunately there was a very kind soul there who took me under his wing and helped me through it all and then refused any gratuity.
Off into the night I went, now legally. I pulled into the edge of a field next to the lights of a Pemex station. (Most gas stations in Mexico are government -owned Pemex, always with an OXXO junk food store attached. Immediately a vehicle pulled in to check me out.
“Now what?” I wondered. A kind couple with a beautiful little daughter were making sure I wasn’t in trouble.
I later discovered that I could have done all of this paperwork at Guaymas, a port further south which I intend to visit anyway. It is just within what they call “The Hassle-Free Zone,” (Yes, go ahead and laugh) an area immediately south of the border for day-trippers. Ah bueno! That’s Mexico. This all gives me an excuse to come back for more, now that I know some of the local protocol.
Exhausted, I slept well despite the din of heavy trucks at a nearby “Topé.” This is speed bump found everywhere on paved roads and highways. They are a various sizes, some are marked, some are not, some have signs warning they’re ahead except they’re not there. Then suddenly Topé! I have bent the hitch on my trailer from hitting them too hard.
There also plenty of potholes or baches as per the translation. Anyway, the trucks braking down the hill for the Topé use their engine brakes and the uphill-bound trucks roar as they shift up and away once past. It is a din that somehow is exceeded at around 04:30 by the roosters, everywhere. Somewhere at the edge of the field a radio began to play Mariachi music. I finally dragged myself out to the aroma of burning straw (also Mex-ubiquitous) and fresh cowshit (Ditto). As I hit the road a young fellow walking by on the road’s shoulder gave me several blasts of his trumpet.
I drove south for a few hours until I found a spot safe to turn off and make some breakfast.Then the wind shifted. It turns out I was now downwind of a very ripely dead burro.Yet another aroma of the country but I finished with my “Breakfast Burro” and moved on.
Despite the usual graciousness of the average Mexican it seems to disappear when many get behind the driver’s wheel. There is nothing like Latino testosterone. I’m told it’s the same all the way to the end of Chile. Speed limits, all signs, center lines, double lines are meaningless. They’ll pass anywhere, even between meeting vehicles that at times already have a closing speed in excess of two hundred miles an hour!
The amazing number of memorial crosses, sometimes in clusters of many, and the eternal roadside shrines, bear solemn testament to this lemming need for speed and recklessness, on the open road, and in town. I mused angrily at another near-miss today, that in a country where the popular religion still condemns birth control, perhaps this is nature’s way of trying to balance things. I witnessed one horrific accident today where a wild highway truck ran everyone off the road before knocking a young mother and child, in a new car, down the bank into a swamp. The driver promptly locked the brakes on the left shoulder, lept out and ran off into the bushes!
After passing a huge prison in Hermosillo where bus loads of women and children clogged the road, waiting to visit inmates, I understand.
Of course there are the copious old beaters lurching and belching along. Bicycles with huge loads of firewood being pedalled down the freeway, small motorcycles billowing smoke, putt-putting along at the head of the parade, oblivious to everyone else. It all confounds my sensibilities and leaves me fully terrified. There’s little chance of falling asleep at the wheel as you drive for yourself and everyone behind, beside, and ahead. Last night, in the dark I came very close to hitting a man and woman in a wagon pulled by a desperately trotting mule as they crossed the freeway in front of me. A buggy whip flailed furiously as they headed for safety.
This brings me to some dos and don’ts for anyone contemplating a drive to Mexico.
I thought I had it all figured out because I’ve been in the country twice before. Until you have to drive and navigate, alone, you’ll never get it. Let me tell you that if you arrive by air you are in a gringo-oriented area. Many locals speak a bit of English and a lot of nearby Mexican reality is glossed over. I thought because I’ve rented cars and ridden on the local busses, knew a few words of Spanish, have a big smile and good street smarts, that I had it aced. No! Nada! Nunca! The hot spots like Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Matalan and so forth do very little to represent the real Mexico. If you have been down here on an all-inclusive vacation, I’m sorry, but you have not seen the country, at all.
Here are some things I’ve learned the hard way.
– If you don’t see yourself as a very seasoned and alert driver, it’s simple.
Don’t drive here!
If you do, use the main highways where you’ll pay an onion sack of pesos in toll fees, at random distances and in random amounts. If you use the secondary roads, or “caminos libre” it is all white knuckle, full-time driving. No sight-seeing while driving. Shoulders seem to be considered a decadence, there are few places to pull over. Rare viewpoints make excellent garbage dumps. I’ve missed a huge number of fabulous photographs because I just couldn’t find a safe place to stop. That’s really frustrating.
Even if another vehicle has almost killed you, let it slide. Don’t use your index finger to signal your frustration, there is a reason the copious number of Policia are heavily armed. Avoid driving in the dark, vehicles without lights and roaming livestock can appear anywhere, even in town. I almost hit an elephant! The circus was in town. I was the clown!
– Don’t expect anyone out of gringo-town to speak even a little English. I find some locals are even a bit contemptuous of my inability to speak their language well. A big smile, a few polite words and phrases go a long way, especially if you demonstrate an interest in learning the language. They’ll really try to be helpful. However, I doubt that even Spanish language immersion classes can prepare you for the machine gun staccato that the locals speak.
– Don’t expect American dollars, or credit cards to be accepted outside of tourist areas. Mucho pesos amigo! I filled up with gas at one Pemex and offered a credit card that bounced. The card was fine, but the machine didn’t like it. I didn’t have enough cash and the attendant immediately began shouting “La policia, la policia.” A backup card did the trick. In the next town, Navolato, I see the welcome sign of Scotiabank, which is entirely a Mexican institution here. It would not accept my debit card. The ATMs at Banamex were both out of service. I was told there were no more banks. I was very happy to discover an HSBC which liked my card. I hit an all-time low realizing the depth of my situation. No money for gas, for toll fees, or for police mordida, should that rear its ugly head. What if the truck breaks down? What if, what if? Onwards and southward, all’s well that ends. Don’t assume Mexico is dirt-cheap. In places some things are, but everywhere that the gringo has intruded, prices are rising.
– Treat everyone with respect, even when some are being pushy and rude. Most are just trying to feed their kids today. One of the great things about Latinos, is that no matter what their station in life, they have a strong sense of dignity. Many of the dirt-poor peasants you meet, living in apparent abject misery, can look you in the eye and smile. I was amused yesterday to see an old man, clad in filthy rags, whip out his mobile phone and begin texting. The young, in black cars with dark windows have an arrogant aggressiveness. Always remember that you’re in their patch. Bad manners are something we have taught them.
-Don’t think motels are motels to our gringo sensibilities. I didn’t understand why they were all walled enclaves with each unit having a garage with a closing door. Men appear from the darkness to explain that the units were rented by six hour increments and were quite puzzled about why I needed a room with a telephone and why I was alone. Then I got it!
– Don’t carry raw eggs in you food box or cooler, they won’t survive the topés and the baches.
It has been marvellous watching the scenery evolve as I drove southward from desert scrub land to very rich, vast volcanic farmland. I made a daily meal today in a gravel pit and as crop dusters droned and buzzed in the distance. At times the choking smell of pesticide was overwhelming during the day’s drive. Slowly the vegetation has changed from arid desert to swamp and then to lush, sub-tropical jungle. Finally you are driving along sections of beach and see pelicans skimming the waves.
I spent my second night in Mexico camped on the beach at San Blas with the music of surf on sand soothing my weary soul. In the morning a glorious sunrise broke over the mountains behind me. An old man sat himself facing the sea and began to sing. He was immersed in passion, gestured freely and wiped tears from his eyes. I wondered to whom or what he sang. A bank of fog lingers for a while then is gone. Church bells, flat yet resonant, toll in the distance. Roosters crow and burros bray. Another ancient hombre comes to feed the gulls. He expressed wonder at my little trailer, delight to learn that I am Canadian. I am terrified that this is a dream and I will wake up.
San Blas is a delightful harbour and fishing town. The church, still standing, was open for business in 1749. Longfellow visited here! An excerpt from his poem about the bells of San Blas is mounted above the town square. It is shivery stuff for me. There is some sort of festival going on. I soon learn that there is always some sort of festival going on. If you’ve missed one, wait a few days, there’ll be another. I think it is why this Catholic country has invented so many saints. Each one deserves a holiday.
A local American ex-pat has lived here for twenty years. He briefed me on things to expect and not expect. He told a story about when the town was smitten with Dengue Fever and how tank trucks drove the streets spraying copious amounts of chemical antidote. The children ran beside the trucks, cavorting in the spray!
I drive on through the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit and finally Jalisco. Three long days south of the border I arrive in an unmapped fishing village where friends winter.
I have survived the drive. The roads and drivers deserve at least a full blog. I have survived, by nan o-seconds, a horrific accident and I cannot estimate how many crosses mark fatal accidents throughout the country. They are everywhere.
The laws here require seat belts and helmets on motorcycles, for drivers. That means that the eighteen men in the back of a careening pickup truck which has justed passed you on a double-line, with more standing on the bumper, are fine. It means that a family of four, riding a scooter are fine so long as dad is the only one wearing a helmet. A police car with one headlight zooming around a curve on a hill, halfway over the center line is fine. I muse that in a country where the prime religion condemns birth control’ perhaps this is nature’s way of trying to balance things. I have abandoned a life of bizarre incongruity for new incongruous dramas here. I have no problem staying awake while driving here.
On the main highways there are government toll stations at random distances which charge random amounts. The tolls prove to equal an amount about half of my fuel costs. Finally despairing at paying and paying, I abandon the main highways for the secondary routes, or “Libres”. It is where you find the real Mexico and pass through hundreds of unmapped villages. Rounding a curve I hit the brakes as I enter Quente Ellano. The road is blocked with youngsters on burros and caballeros and the whole damned village celebrating something that is entirely obscure to me but it is wonderful.
I drive on and on and on. The sights, sounds and smells of Mexico inundate my brain and I am in love with this place. Yes there are many negatives but the local philosophies will help me overcome. That, in part, is why I came here.
Where I am now camped on the beach the sun rises on another cloudless day. Condensation drips from the canopy of palm branches over my head. Coconuts threaten to fall. Acrid smoke from a copra cook fire fills the air as a local woman begins to make salsa from bushels of green tomatoes. Exotic birds dart and chatter. Gringo joggers on the beach pass Mexicans standing waist-deep in the surf, fishing. Pelicans crash into the sea, fishing. Beyond, swimmers parallel the beach. Beyond that, whales often cavort and leap clear of the water. Their landings are heard as deep booms. On the horizon, pangas work the opean ocean. I am at a loss to describe the feeling of this place. It has vastly exceeded my expectations. I never want to leave.
Future blogs from Mexico will have a minimum of text and be mostly pictorial. For the moment I end with a quote from a neighbour. He explains the difference between gringos and Mexicans.
“We live in a state of doing. These people live in a state of being.” He had been paddle-boarding out on the bay when a grey whale breached close to him. My friend said, “Yeah, I felt the wave but I didn’t see the whale. I was too busy doing.”