Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 4

We assist a child in defrauding the government

By the second day, everyone but the driver dozed.  Beyond the closed windows of our air-conditioned car Mexico unrolled, with her heat and dust and sun and churches and shacks and cactus and fields and cattle and flashes of preternaturally purple and scarlet flowers growing out of hard, dusty ground flickering dream-like between snatches of sleep. 

    At one point, on a hypnotizingly straight highway, I fell asleep while driving and went off the road, but it was one of those places where you could run off the road for quite a distance and not hit anything important.

Late in the evening of the second day we stopped at Tepic, south of Mazatlan.  As we sat in the restaurant a little Mexican boy, maybe ten years old, watched us and tried to get our attention.  When we left he came to our car and asked for our toll road receipts.  In Mexico, toll roads appear to me indistinguishable from any other sort of road, except for the presence of toll booths, where is collected some arbitrary amount bearing no discernible relation to the length or quality of the road.  It would appear, in fact, that these are just ordinary highways on which the government has erected toll stations.  And unlike traffic offenses, tolls are not negotiable.

    I gave the boy a handful of our toll receipts, thinking to myself how the poor lad must be collecting receipts in lieu of stamps or baseball cards or some more expensive boyish hobby.

    He sells them, explained Roger, to other motorists.  A driver need only pay a particular toll once a day and then may go back and forth as many times as he wishes, merely by showing a toll receipt for the day.  So, my little muchacho was defrauding the government.  Admirable initiative for a lad so young.

Then south again, Mexico seeping through the cracks of our car.  Cattle on the road, bats flitting through the beam of our headlights.  At one point frogs hopping across the road, at another, small snakes slither.  A red glow in the night sky from a burning cane field.  Mexican music on the radio to keep the driver company while his companions sleep.

It was sometime past midnight when we entered Puerto Vallarta, the car bouncing on the cobbles.  Colonial buildings and shop fronts of the restored town, artificially constricted by the bright overhead street lights, looking like a scene from a dream.  Then across an arched bridge and south again, the road through a tunnel of trees with scarcely-seen shapes fluttering out of the darkness.  We start counting the kilometer markers.  No elation: just tiredness.

At 5:30 on our third morning, forty-nine hours after leaving home, we arrive.  Even El Patrón, for all his enthusiasm for his new house, just wanted to go to bed.  I shake out the bedclothes, for El Patrón has told us that on his last visit the staff, who are soon to be let go, had put a scorpion in his bed to discourage him from buying the house.  There was a spider, large and brown but unaggressive, and I chased him off the bed.  I was dirty and my feet were swollen, but I could worry about that later.  I slept all through that day and following night and through the morning of the day that came after.  I would sleep for thirty hours.  We were in no hurry and there would be time enough to deal with Mexico.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 3

Don't worry: this is Mexico.

If Mexican traffic enforcement is warm and personal, the same cannot be said for PEMEX, the state petroleum monopoly.  Coming from a free market country where there often seems to be a filling station on every corner, it is an unpleasant change to come to a country where stations seem to be a hundred miles apart, stations that open late and close early.  And at one point the rascals even tried to overcharge us, but as they claimed to have sold us more gasoline than our car would hold they got nowhere with their villainy.

    Late at night I found myself nervously watching the gas gauge as we passed closed stations with signs advising that the next station, which might also be closed, was 40 or 80 km away.  But I was thinking like a gringo, for Roger explained that if things got bad we had only to stop at some village and ask around to find someone who had gasoline to sell.  Don’t worry: this is Mexico. 

    And indeed, that was how we found gasoline that night.  We had found no station open and it had gotten dark and there was a little village off to the west of the highway that looked as if it scarcely had electricity, but Roger walked up to some people sitting outside a house in the cool of the evening, who directed him to another house where we bought a few litres of gasoline, that took care of our concerns until we could find an open PEMEX station.  See, said Roger, I told you not to worry: this is Mexico.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 2

Mexican traffic law, explained

Driving south through the Central Valley of California we came upon Mexico in bits and pieces.  A rack of Mexican comic books in a convenience store.  At a truck stop the only music tapes are Mexican.  More Spanish-language radio as we scan the dial.  Advertising signs in English and Spanish, then later only in Spanish.  And finally, advertisements for Mexican auto insurance.  But still only pieces of Mexico.  Latin embolisms in a northern matrix.

We crossed the frontier at Calixico.  It looks very much like a border town, but still an American border town.  For all the dark faces and Spanish signs, the visual clues confirm that we are still in gringoland.

    And then we cross a few yards of border and we are in El Norte no more.  With the abruptness of walking onto a stage set we are in Mexico, and all the clues of sound and color and proportion and surface  --  all signs of spirit visible and invisible  --  have changed and we are gone from the protestant North into the Latin South.

    We cross into Mexico in the late evening and turn east on Route 2, to drive through the desert at the mouth of the Colorado River.  To our right, far out of sight, the river empties into the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortéz.  

    The pattern of Mexican traffic begins: few cars but many trucks, wide and ponderous, and huge buses, also wide, all hurtling themselves down the highway as if pursued by devils, their draft in passing almost knocking us off the road, itself a long, straight, two-lane blacktop stretching off into the eastern darkness.  Behind us, a desert sunset, beautiful of course, but it’s late and it is too much trouble to turn around and look.  And what’s ahead of us is more interesting: Mexico.

    For several hours we travel parallel to the border and then, at Sonoyta, we turn south and east and begin our descent into the Republic.

The map is non-committal on the condition of our route, which is in places fine and modern, and in others rough and broken and shared with cattle.  El Patrón and I are dozing as Roger drives.  It is quite dark outside.  We are on a rough stretch of road, but the bouncing of the car, now familiar, goes unnoticed.  Then lights flash and Roger says “Oh, oh,” and pulls to the side, this being one of those stretches where there seems to be no actual road to pull off of.  A Chevrolet pickup with a great deal of optional chrome stops ahead of us and two men dressed like parking garage attendants climb out and come back to our car.  La Policia.

    Papers are examined and there is much serious talk as Roger and the police stand back from the car.  At length, Roger sticks his head through the window and announces that he needs 15,000 pesos (approx. US$5) to settle an illegal passing offense.  They had originally wanted 50,000 pesos, but Roger had chatted them down.  And he had passed a bus illegally, so the whole thing was quite fair.  And there would be no concern over a bad mark on his driving record, as this was a cash transaction.

At Hermosillo we stop to eat at about four in the morning at a very North American-looking truck stop.  Sunrise comes near Ciudad Obregón.  The land changes from desert to irrigated fields.  Children walk along the road to school.  There are men on horseback and men on rusty bicycles.  There are poor little villages with grand and beautiful names.

    Outside the window of our car is Mexico, but inside is still the air-conditioned order and comfort of the United States.  Soon enough the heat and dust of Mexico would wash away the residuum of our gringoism, but for now we are tired and content to take Mexico in small doses.

At Los Mochis a policeman waves us over.  This time I am driving.  I smile and Roger does the talking.  This, it turns out, is pure fraud.  The fellow is just supplementing his income.  He and Roger talk long and philosophically, and at length the policeman comes back and shakes my hand and wishes us a good journey.  Roger has convinced him that we aren’t going to pay.  As I drove away I saw him pull over another car, apparently at random, to try his luck again.

    This is how Mexican traffic law works, explained Roger.  The police are paid a pittance and must do this in order to make ends meet.  It is a sad thing, but necessary.  The fellow is embarrassed to have to do it, but that is how things are.  It is no more than an informal tax assessment to pay police salaries.  And besides, this way you know your money is going to someone who needs it, and not being paid to the government where it will be wasted or stolen by some politician.

    Warming to his subject, Roger continued: Mexican justice is not a cold, bloodless affair as it is in the protestant North.  Here it it is warm and personal  --  one might say it is Catholic.  A policeman stops you, claiming that you have done something which at that particular moment you may or may not have done, but almost certainly have done sometime in the past, and announces that you must pay some exorbitant fine.  You protest and for a while argue facts and legalisms, but this is just an opportunity to size each other up.  Then talk may turn to where you are from or such like, and at length the policeman will mention his great concern for, say, the Sinaloa Police Youth Slow-Pitch Softball League, a most deserving movement to help poor orphans, but, alas, sadly in need of funds to buy gloves and shoes for the impoverished muchachos.

   Formidable, you exclaim, for only that very morning you had remarked to your wife that you had been wanting to find some way to assist the poor orphans of the district to engage in wholesome sport, but, alas, you knew of no way to do this.  Would it be possible for the officer to convey for you a small donation to this worthy organization?

    Well, now, of course.  How it pleases the heart to find a gentleman such as yourself so generous to these poor children.  It would be a great honor to convey your contribution in small, unmarked bills to the cause of these worthy youth.  And as for that trifling infraction, please think no more of it.  Have a good journey.

(to be continued . . .)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 1

Ever since I was a little boy and first looked at a road map, I have been fascinated by the notion that you could get into your car and pull out of your driveway and, by turning at the right places and driving far enough, you could get to Mexico.  And then you could just keep going.
    For a long time I never got around to doing that.  Then one day I did.

Part 1.  A quite manageable plan.

My friend had bought a house in Mexico.  Not some modest vacation bungalow  --  for he was not a modest person  --  but a luxurious compound perched on a cliff overlooking an unspoilt and unpopulated stretch of sandy Pacific beach.  A great house with servants’ quarters and guest houses.  Three pools and a tennis court and a landing strip  --  though as a result of some misunderstanding with the authorities there was at the moment a line of palm trees planted down the center of the runway. 

He insisted that we watch over and over the realtor’s video of the property as he each time pointed out more amazing features of his new home.  As befitted the owner of such an estate, my friend had shed his former persona and now wished to be referred to simply as “El Patrón”.

When word came up from the South that the papers had been signed and seals affixed he would of course waste no time in assuming his new estate and insisted that we should immediately depart for Mexico.  As there were three of us, we could drive straight through.  Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested it would be about a 48-hour drive from San Francisco to his new property south of Puerto Vallarta.  Divided three ways, that would be two eight-hour stretches apiece.  Quite manageable.

Besides El Patrón and myself there would be Roger, a nice young Mexican fellow whom El Patrón had recently met and who, in a moment of rashness, had lent El Patrón $50,000 of his family’s money.  I was unclear what the purpose of this had been and thus far all that had come of it was that El Patrón, in one of those bursts of enthusiasm so typical of him, had purchased with some exorbitant amount of Roger’s money an elderly Renault amphibious automobile, whose leaks, he was sure, would be easy to fix.  The Amphi-Car was probably the first of a number of small incidents that had caused Roger to fear that his business with El Patrón was not going to go as he had expected and so he had arranged to be constantly at El Patrón’s elbow and would of course be going with us to Mexico.

We left early in the morning, hours before sunrise: Three Caballeros in a Jeep Cherokee.  We took turns driving, though it soon became clear that El Patrón  --  despite his claims to the contrary  --  did not see well in the darkness, and duties were divided accordingly.  He also mentioned to us in passing that the police were “holding his driver’s license for him,” but soon we would be in Mexico where such Anglo legalisms will be no problem.  It was my impression that “Anglo legalisms” were no small part of his reason for wanting to spend more time in Mexico in the first place.

(to be continued . . . )

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Doña Catalina de Erazu, the ensign-nun

My favorite book about Mexico is Leslie Byrd Simpson’s Many Mexicos, first published in 1941 and gone through many editions since.  In addition to what you might expect, there are stories of interesting characters who have been part of Mexican history but of whom we in the North have never heard, such as Doña Catalina de Erazu, the ensign-nun, who drove mules.

Catalina was born in Spain at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century into a pious and respectable family  Her parents passed away when she was very young and her aunt forced her into a convent.   Bored and finding herself with no talent for the religious life, Catalina escaped from the convent in men’s clothing and made her way to the New World where, in Simpson’s words, “she swashbuckled her way from Spain to Peru and Chile. She became famous as a swordfighter.  Sometimes she worked as an arriero (muleteer), sometimes a soldier.”  In one hard-fought battle against Indians in northern Chile she recaptured their flag and for this piece of derring-do was made a junior officer.  No one thought this unusual for a member of the fair sex, as no one was aware that she was a woman.

As this was her immediate course of action upon leaving the convent, one may infer that her aunt probably had some cause for committing her there in the first place.

The thing about being a famous swordfighter is that you tend to kill a lot of people and even in the rowdy world of colonial muledrivers this attracted the Law’s attention and finally led to her being about to be condemned to death, whereupon she revealed that she was a woman and a virgin and, by the way, also a nun, which would put her under the jurisdiction of the Church.
    The authorities in Peru decided that this was above their paygrade, so they sent her to Spain to have her case resolved there. The Spanish authorities, similarly baffled, sent her case to the Pope.  While hindsight is said to be a great aid to discernment, infallibility is even better, and the Pope was so intrigued by her story that he gave her dispensation to wear male clothing the rest of her life. Once the Pontiff had cleared the air, King Philip IV, also taken by her story, granted her a pension of 500 pesos, the magnanimity of which was somewhat qualified by the bankruptcy of his government and its consequent inability to pay any of that.
    In about 1640, Catalina returned to New Spain and to muledriving, and, Simpson tells us, “became the terror of the Mexico City-Veracruz road”.
    At this point, love entered her life and she fell madly for the wife of a young hidalgo. When he proved unsophisticated about the arrangement she challenged him to a duel which was, fortunately or not, prevented, and Doña Catalina died a few years later, in about the year 1650.  Were this a novel she might have died of a broken heart, but I somehow suspect Doña Catalina was not that sort of person.
    She was, by the way, the subject of the first novel published in the New World, but that is another story.

But what a charming tale.  (There are, by the way, other versions of it.)  In the North, for various reasons we have the impression that nothing much happened in the vasty realms below of the Rio Grande in those long centuries of Spanish rule.  And from the point of view of Whig history, perhaps not; but of human history and adventure there was a fine amount, and I was delighted to catch some glimmer of this in Simpson’s wonderful book.

If you want to know about a place, it could help to know some of the stories that the people who live there know.  Stories that are part of their mental and spiritual landscape.

For example, if you are an American, the Mexican you are talking to knows the story of the Heroes of Chapultepec because he was taught it in school, and you, very likely, do not.  As he is looking at you, it is some part of what he is seeing.  This is unfortunate, as the version he has heard may be unnecessarily anti-American, and should the matter ever come up it could avoid awkwardness and perhaps be helpful to our mutual understanding if you could give an American view of the incident.

No one said going to another country was going to be easy.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Innocents Abroad

Once upon a time, the distinction between tourist and traveler seemed mightily important to me, though it does not much any more, as oafs and boors and sensitive folk can be found in either camp, and we all ought be the sort upon whom nothing  --  even tourism  --  is wasted.  And in any event, I once went a’touristing myself, in the long-ago year of 1964, when my wife and I went to Spain:

It seemed like all the Beautiful People were going to Spain that year, or had been there the year before.  We had just been married that autumn and this would be our first summer.  I would finish my first year of law school at Northwestern and she would be on summer break from teaching at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, and we read the New Yorker and Holiday and who knows what other glossy, upscale magazines and were aspiring Yuppies, avant la lettre.
    We bought guidebooks.  In Frommer’s $5-a-Day guide to Spain we were delighted to read in the introduction that he thought you could do Spain quite well on $3 a day.  
    And of course we had both read Hemingway.

The story continues in similar open-faced innocence by clicking on “Spain, 1964,” somewhere in the upper righthand corner of this page.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Village Life

In Guatemala, in the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua, I met an elderly Swiss couple.  Now  retired, they were traveling around the world through the husband's network of contacts built up over many years as a journalist and diplomat.  They told me that the purpose of their travel was to see traditional village life before it vanished under the impact of modern communication and culture.  They said that the greatest threat of the modern world (aside from nuclear war) was the disruption of traditional values by western education and culture.

They said that in the Third World the great mass of humanity, though they lived in poverty, were content, because they compared their situation to those around them in their village.  Those who were better off were not that much better off, and there were always some people who were worse off.  And  there was no reason to think things should be different, because things had always been this way.

But all this is changing.  Today, Third World governments are pressing education into remote villages.  Even more disruptive is television, with its vast load of incidental information about life in the outer world  --  what they seen in the background in a telenovela, for example  --  so that today villagers are be able to compare their life with life in the capital or in the West.  When they see what life could be, their poverty will become unbearable.  De Tocqueville once observed that people do not rebel because they are oppressed, but because they see that their oppression is not inevitable.  When the village people of the Third World see their poverty in comparison to life in the West, then, said my Swiss gentleman, all hell will break loose.

I have no idea how prescient the gentleman was.  The process has been on-going for many years and all hell has not yet broken loose, at least in Latin America, and my knowledge of traditional African and Islamic and Eastern societies is too sparse to comment there.  And should all hell ever break loose, there is no reason even for persons involved to realize that they are revolting because their life isn’t as good as the people they have been watching in the telenovelas.

What does this have to do with travel?  Not much, which I think is a worthwhile point to make, for we travelers do not seem to be much part of the problem.  We may be dumb and ill-mannered and otherwise not influences for good, but we’re not one of the big players.

And to save the virtues and stability of traditional life are we to get rid of education and television in traditional societies  --  and perhaps demographically-disruptive life-extending western medicine while we are at it  --  or do we accept that global values are going to reach into every corner of the world?  That young people will be no longer content with the well-stocked larder of the forest, but now want money to buy motor scooters and sneakers?  That they will tire of the elder's story about how the crocodile ate the moon and want instead to go to the city where they have clubs and music?  Do we call for internal passports in Third World countries to control interchange between the city and the countryside to prevent the spread of destabilizing ideas?   Or do we accept that the entire weight of the modern world bears down on traditional life, and travelers like ourselves, however sensitive and well-intentioned, are irrelevant to what is going to happen.  That we might as well go now  --  however we travel  --  to see what is left of what once was before it is gone forever. 

Or before all hell breaks loose; whichever comes first.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

good travel writing

What does good travel writing look like?  I think it looks very much like this:

    “I come suddenly into a foreign city, just as the lamps take light along the water, with some notes in my head . . . I try out the language with the taxi driver, to see if it’s still there; and later, I walk to a restaurant which is lurking around a corner in my memory.  Nothing, of course, has changed; but cities flow on like water, and, like water, they close behind any departure.”
                                                                  -- Alastair Reid, Passwords (1964)

Reid is a poet and I think the best writing is poetic prose.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Rolf Potts recently posted on vagablogging  --  my favorite travel site on the web  --  this quote from Paul Theroux:

“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”

My own experience conforms, but I worry about it as a general advice, as Theroux and I are both gentlemen of a particular age and sort, and what is true for us may not be so for others.  I think neither Paul nor I need be concerned that we might be carried off by white slavers.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain we are now learning that it was also holding in a lot of bad sorts who, having learned their trade under the bare-knuckled police regimes of the old Soviet Bloc are now delighted to find themselves in lush pastures policed by well-meaning liberals.  European regimes that can hardly deal with gypsy children now find themselves confronted by ruthless and well-financed Eastern European gangsters.

In most foreign countries that I would go to in the first place I would trust the natives more than my fellow travelers, for while the latter may be more familiar, they are not, as are the people who live there, subject to the same constraint of concern for their reputation. 

Years ago in an antique shop in Athens the proprietor saw that I was wearing a money belt and seemed to take offense at it: “You don’t need that in Greece,” he said.  I answered that I was not worried about the Greeks, but about my fellow travelers, which he found a more reasonable concern.

And I remember, of course, that horrible little person who stole Patrick Fermor’s notebook at a hostel in Munich and could have cost us one of the most wonderful travel books ever written.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 8.

I read and wrote in my journal and sometimes wandered around the village.  I met only two foreigners, a young couple passing through.  Every so often I check the Lista de Correos for mail at the Post Office and a couple of times find a letter, which I take to an outdoor table and order a cold bottle of Cerveza Negra Leon  --  my then current favorite  --  and perhaps even a bite to eat, and in general make a great production of reading it.  I am not a frenetic traveler and a letter from home waiting for me at the Post Office in a quiet little town is a satisfying amount of excitement for me.

If I have a book that I particularly enjoy, I like to read it slowly.  It has always seemed wrong to consume in a few hours what an author may have spent months or years to produce.  So for many days I was content to idle around the house, leisurely making my way through John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán, in two volumes, with drawings taken on the spot by Mr. Catherwood.  Stephens had come to the Yucatán in 1841, when little was known of the country and essentially nothing was known of the high Mayan culture that had flourished there and had gone into decline hundreds of years before the coming of the Spanish.

Stephens, with Catherwood and a few servants, traveled around the country and by the simple device of asking the Indians if there were any “old walls” about he was led to discover and describe forty-four Mayan sites.  His book is a steady narrative of ruins and haciendas and Indians and fevers and wildlife and every other marvel that passed before him, and Mr. Catherwood’s careful drawings show us extravagant gods and mysterious artifacts and monumental temples locked in writhing coils of jungle growth.  Even if paradise is boring, books about paradise don’t have to be.

Movie night in Chicxulub Puerto

I saw from signs around town that there would be a movie, though it was unclear where.  Apparently since everyone knew where the movies were, there was no reason to say.  So that evening I fell in with some children who led me to a large building with a crowd of people.  Alberto, the principal of the school, was taking tickets and waved me in, refusing my money.  People standing in line smiled and seemed to think it was just fine, though I was embarrassed by the special treatment.
    The auditorium was a large room with folding chairs and some old theater seats and large fans on either side that little boys threw things into.  It was a Kung-Fu double feature.  The predominately young crowd talked and argued and had a fine time.  Afterward, I walked home along the beach under a bright moon.  I got in about midnight.  I was always a little surprised that I was able to find my way home so easily coming back along the beach since none of the houses out there were occupied and there were never any lights.

The place I have been describing isn’t there anymore.  Reading about the village online, it seems to have been discovered  --  rentals are quite a bit more than the pittance I paid, and life there is now very exciting, at least if the tourist literature is to be believed  --  opinion seems to differ as to whether sharks are a problem  --  and foreigners are buying houses and there is an ex-pat community.  They wouldn’t have re-staged the flag day celebration for me or waved me into the movie if they had been used to foreign visitors.  I am pretty sure they don’t do that nowadays as we are no longer the rare birds in Chicxulub Puerto that we once may have been.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 7.

Out on a walk around the village I saw Alberto, who reminded me that he had invited me to visit his school.  He said today was Flag Day and I promised I would come by to visit the next day.  I wanted to come when nothing in particular was going on, in order to be less of an inconvenience to my host.  So when I came the next day I was surprised to find the Flag Day celebration in progress, which Alberto explained was being re-staged for my benefit.

It was delightful.  It was a grade school and the children were as wonderful as little children always are.  They marched around and ran up the flag and sang songs, to all of which I was appropriately appreciative, then they handed me the microphone to say a few words.

On this trip I had been remiss at practicing my Spanish, but fortunately at that moment I received the Gift of Tongues and delivered myself of a long and enthusiastic speech on the glory of Mexico and the great affection we in the North felt for their country.  I reviewed their illustrious history from the Aztecs through Cortéz and Benito Juárez and I have no idea what else.  The children were enrapt.  I had never spoken the language so fluently.  I have no doubt that the enthusiasm of the moment caused me to invent my Spanish as I spoke, the words tumbling out in such a torrential flow as to sweep my listeners along and communicate with them directly the emotional sense of my meaning, unmediated by grammar or recognizable vocabulary.  Sort of like opera.

The whole experience left us all exhausted and happy.

Alberto said we must do this again sometime.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]