Bouncing Back

San Carlos Harbour. Some call this place Tucson South where a vulgar display of wealth flies in the face of Mexican reality. But this place also has a Mexican charm.

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.

Empalme, a southern satellite community of Guaymas. The fishing fleet was in before the tide fell. Fishermen stand out in the traffic selling bags of fresh prawns.
On the main street of San Carlos is an oasis for the weary traveller. There were more Canadians there than those left in Canada. They have a web site.
A view from my parking spot. Mexicans do seem to like their walls…Donald.
Sprawling development is going on everywhere. There goes the neighbourhood!

Well, somebody has to live here…don’t they?
Maybe I’m jealous, but it seems obscene to me. A concrete artisan and his helper do not even dare think of living in a place like this…nor me.
“Hi Mom, we’re home!”
What else can I say?
Cuanto vale? Below the 200 peso notes, clockwise the coins are 50 pesos,20 pesos, old and new, 10 pesos also old and new, 2 pesos, and 1/10 pesos.
The total of the entire complicated heap is 634.1p or about $30.US
There is also a 1/2 French franc which I cannot explain.
There are many splendid vehicles in Mexico which we never see in the north. There are both novel (To me) imports and locally built vehicles. This wonderful little Mexican Chevy truck has side-steps, a place to stand on the back bumper and a hand rail behind the cab.
Reality on the other side of the bay at Marina Real. Imagine living here and going to work at the shining luxury condos across the water at Marina Real. Kids, dogs, a leaning outhouse, piles of nets and laundry.
Home Sweet Home  complete with water barrel and a rocking chair in the sand. Don’t laugh, there’s no mortgage!

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.

It seems that every grotty little Mexican fishing village has at least one upscale seafood restaurant for the gringos. How could I resist a place with a doorman like this?
How about a table without a reservation and a view like this? You know the food’s good when the locals eat there.
At the next table, an aging rock star perhaps. Note the personal beer bottle glove.
Don’t get up. The view from my table.
The appetiser. The rest of the meal was as incredible and including two beer and a tip, it was the equivalent of approx $20. cdn
Was I really there? It seemed like a dream.
The village at La Manga where poor people still live by the sea and can afford to eat seafood…because they catch it themselves.
Another panga arrives with a fresh supply for the restaurant.
There must be a story here! Note the Saskatchewan license plate. Is the old camper someone’s home?
A Mexican attempt at recycling.
Honest Umberto’s used Rv’s?
I remembered Joni Mitchell’s song about the tree museum.
Yep, yet another hotel stands beyond the foliage.
A view from the front.
A view to the rear.
A discreet luxury development near San Carlos. I’m told it has to do with laundering money. There are no lights on at night.
At least I agree with their ideas for lawns. Note the various spots where helicopters can land.
A lingering view of the open Sea Of Cortez, upon whose face I should be sailing.
As I drove up, over and down from this place, I imagined a posh British accent exclaiming, “I say! This would be a proper blighter if ever it should snow.”
The following morning, the reluctant meandering trek homeward began. I cast a sad last glance at the Sea Of Cortez from the San Carlos waterfront. It is piece of ocean I love and yet I did not even wet my feet in her this time. I’ll be back. Soon.
Out of the desert came forth wine. There are many continuous miles of new vineyards along the Sonoran highway. They extend out of sight away from the road.
“Everybody out!” A military checkpoint on the highway. Wen I was southbound trucks were lined up for several miles, each waiting for a tedious clearance. Two young soldiers, poke around inside as buses engine compartment. They were only a few surly questions for the old gringo in the old van.

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.

No visit to Mexico is complete without a look at a few churches. This is the Catholic church facade in Santa Ana.
The ostentatious church rises grandly above the squalor and poverty of this little town.
Beneath exquisite old Spanish architecture these huge and beautifully carved doors are locked; from the inside. Sanctuary?
The priest’s car I guessed. In double lock-up to keep me out…or him in?
The only caption I can think of. This is the church cupula in Pitiquito.
The bells and pigeons of Pitiquito. The church door was open and a group of ladies conversed inside.
Across the street from the church, a dark biblical mural at the taxi stand. Cheering!
A mixed theme of the Second Coming and Dias Des Muertes. I’d like this artist to paint my van!
A bright spark of happy genius. Meals on wheels indeed! LA BOMBI!

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

Homeward Slowly and Reluctantly From Tuxpan

Homeward behind a load of sugar cane
Homeward behind a load of sugar cane

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.

Another cross coming soon. A coke truck bites the dust. See! Coke really is bad for you!
Another cross coming soon. A Coca-Cola truck bites the dust. See! Coke really is bad for you!

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.

A siter Nissan truck...Mexican style
A sister Nissan truck…Mexican style

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.

Restaurant kitchen
Restaurant kitchen
Restaurant kitchen chimney
Restaurant kitchen chimney

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.

A family moment in the restaurant
A family moment in the restaurant

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.

Why panic now? Another day in a Guaymas shipyard.
Why panic now?
Another day in a Guaymas shipyard.

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.

Beautiful downtown Gyuamas... Come on in!
Beautiful downtown Gyuamas…
Come on in!

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

Where even pagans (like me) are awestruck
Where even pagans (like me) are awestruck

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.

In the barrios
In the barrios
The pigeon catcher
The pigeon catcher

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.

A detail from old Guaymas
A detail from old Guaymas

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.

The jewel of Guaymas A tribute to the fishermen of the Sea Of Cortez
The jewel of Guaymas
A tribute to the fishermen of the Sea Of Cortez

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.

By comparison... Gringoland in San Carlos
By comparison…
Gringoland in San Carlos

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

A field of broken dreams One marina sec in San Carlos
A field of broken dreams
One ‘Marina sec’ in San Carlos
The anchorage in San Carlos, a last piece of the way it was, shiny gringo casas sprawl over the hill above
The anchorage in San Carlos, a last piece of the way it was, shiny gringo casas sprawl over the hill above

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

The ubiquitous desert island. my last view of the Sea Of Cortez... for now!
The ubiquitous desert island. my last view of the Sea Of Cortez…
for now!

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.

For what the tolls pay! An overpass to nowhere
For what the tolls pay! An overpass to nowhere

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.

A moment of decision. Someone couldn't make up their mind
A moment of decision.
Someone couldn’t make up their mind

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.

The Policia Federales stopped to see what I could possibly find to photograph!
The Policia Federales stopped to see what I could possibly find to photograph!
Morning dew
Morning dew
Welcome to the swamp!
Welcome to the swamp!
Rio Bonito
Rio Bonito
At an abandoned roadside cantina. Can you hear the rusted tin siding squeaking in the wind?
At an abandoned roadside cantina.
Can you hear the rusted tin siding squeaking in the wind?
Road flower
Road flower
'Bent Hitch' A Mexican souvenir and a great name for a rock band
‘Bent Hitch’
A Mexican souvenir and a great name for a rock band
One morning in an avocado orchard
One morning in an avocado orchard
Prima Vera blooms They're everywhere I like to call them the yellow rose of Mexico
Prima Vera blooms
They’re everywhere
I like to call them the yellow rose of Mexico