Feb 11-Mar 5, 2009
Campeche (population 200,000) is on the Gulf of Mexico, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and similar to most big Mexican towns. It built a complete system of walls in the late 17th century to enclose the town to protect them from attacks from pirates (in 1663 various pirate hordes set aside their rivalries to converge as a single flotilla upon the city when they massacred many of Campeche’s citizens). After 18 years of building, a 2.5 km hexagon wall incorporating nine forts extended out to sea surrounding the city. Only a small part of the walls and some of the forts remain. Many of the streets are paved with stone taken from the demolished walls. There are many colonial buildings painted in various pastel hues. I visited the usual gaggle of churches and mediocre museums and then biked out to the archaeology museum (the only thing I really wanted to see here) but it was closed because it was Monday.
I have several random thoughts. Topes are a necessary ‘evil’ to slow down the crazy Mexican drivers especially taxi and bus drivers. But they sure are a hassel driving as they aren’t marked. Mexicans are very noisy – they constantly play their stereos loud and could never abide noise bylaws (I was woken up last night at one AM by a bunch of kids parked down the street having a party). The common large supermarkets in the Yucatan seem to be all owned by Wal-Mart (even though they are not called Wal-Mart) and sell everything including groceries. It always surprises me how impersonal all gringos are – it is impossible to get anybody to even acknowledge you, they simply stare ahead. I believe they are missing a valuable interaction. Possibly because I am alone and somewhat starved for English conversation, I try to talk to everyone and it is a great way to find out the neat things to do. Two days ago I forced myself on a couple in the parking lot at Labna ruins – they turned out to be the best friends of a couple who are tobacco farmers from Virginia that Terry and I had met north of Manzanillo. They are rangers at Kane Gulch (the ranger station at the head of Grand Gulch, one of the prime Anasazi sites in southern Utah) and a great connection to see more “secret” ruins. The single greatest source of income in Mexico is derived from money sent to Mexico from relatives working in the US.
The US is considering making the polar bear an endangered species this week. This is important to the many towns in the Canadian Arctic that depend on the polar bear hunt for a major economic boost. The majority of the hunters are American and if the polar bear is made endangered, they will not be able to bring the hide back home to mount in their large trophy rooms. In 2006, they were paying $25,000 in Taloyoak for their bear. Each town is allotted a quota of bears for the year and if they don’t ‘sell’ their bear to a hunter, then they will simply shoot it themselves. Obviously this will not change the number of bears hunted each year and the towns will lose a lot of money. I personally would not trust the Inuit to give accurate accounts of the number of bears present. Their cultural philosophy is that the animal presents himself to the ‘respectful’ hunter and if he doesn’t shoot it, then it’s feelings would be hurt and won’t return. As a result of this cultural belief (and now they hunt with high powered rifles instead of harpoons), the Inuit shoot anything that moves.
Zimbabwe has 80% unemployment and a 100,000% inflation rate due to Robert Mugabe’s bizarre policies. He labeled his political opponents witches, prostitutes and charlatans. It was very gratifying for Robert Latimer to be granted day parole. The original refusal based on lack of remorse and fear of risk of reoffending was clearly misguided.
I had a big drive day on the 12th covering the 570 kms from Campeche to past Cosoeacaque. The 367 kms to Villlahermosa was (except for a small 50 km stretch in the middle) on a great two lane highway with wide shoulders. With the Gulf of Mexico immediately to the right and any elevation change imperceptible, I made great time. Tabasco State experienced huge floods in the fall of ’07 but I saw no evidence of them although there was water everywhere in this very low-lying state. I crossed several large rivers including the Ushmacinta where it meets the Gulf of Mexico and several large bays on big bridges. There were seven military check points, I was searched in five, and they all wanted to see my passport. Nobody so far has asked for my tourist permit or vehicle permit. They are only interested in drugs and guns, are very pleasant and non-threatening despite having sub machine guns slung over their shoulders. Tabasco State is sparsely populated, hot and steamy and has lots of oil. Villahermosa is anything but the ‘beautiful city’ that the name implies and there is little reason to go there. I did visit the Parque-Museo La Venta, famous for its Olmec sculptures, nicely displayed outdoors in dense tropical foliage. The best statues are huge Olmec heads sculpted from basalt. The largest weighs over 24 tons and stands 2 m high. The Olmec are thought to have moved them from a quarry over 100 km away using a system of sledges and river rafts. Outside of Villahermosa, the flat plains give way to rolling hills. In Coatzacoalcos (great names hey), a big oil port, a detour caused a huge traffic jam that some drivers tried to bypass by driving on the wrong side of the narrow street. I got pretty excited as one guy was about to take off my mirrors – I don’t think he understood one word of the multiple four letter words I called him but he got the idea. Mexicans rarely get angry and I think I took him off-guard – crazy gringo.
I’ve spoken many times about the lack of Spanish. Certainly it would be helpful and appreciated if I could communicate better. However I rarely see any gringos interacting socially with Mexicans (they don’t even interact with other gringos) and the main value of good Spanish is to be able to get directions better and order things more fluently in restaurants. Most Mexicans speak very rapidly and use a lot of slang so conversation would be difficult at best. I’m actually able to get by ok with most things as there is a minimum of vocabulary necessary. Knowing little Spanish is quite helpful when dealing with the police and the military. They get completely frustrated, throw up their arms and wave you through. Simply be pleasant and smile a lot.
Getting up early I drove the 300 km to Veracruz on a good four land divided highway (tolls 360 pesos) across rolling, green, moderately treed, pastoral country. With some crops and sugar cane, most was ranch country. As I couldn’t find a parking space in Veracruz and had nothing I really wanted to see, I decided to keep driving north. About 30 km out-of-town, I braked hard for a tope I didn’t see and the service brake light came on indicating it was unsafe to keep driving and advised towing the vehicle for service. After a tow (cost 2500 pesos) back to Veracruz to the Chev dealer at 40 km/hr as any faster caused swaying, it appeared that there was also transmission damage. Chev dealers in Mexico are not able to service diesels or Allison automatic transmissions. The problem seemed to “self correct” and I continued on. The people at the dealership were very pleasant and helpful. I drove through Veracruz along the Gulf, past many blocks lined with bleachers, the remnants of Carnival.
I drove 200 km north to Papantla (pop 50,000), the home of vanilla. Vanilla is the world’s only known edible orchid and as a spice is second only to saffron as the most expensive (real vanilla can take up to 3 years to cultivate and cure) and so most products use synthetic vanilla rather than the real thing. The town also has a wonderful 50 m long carved stone mural depicting Totonac and Veracruz history and the volador monument (portrays a volador musician playing his pipe as preparation for the four fliers to launch themselves into space). Everything seemed fine until I hit a small bump and all the above problems recurred. Getting smart, I continued to drive, with one gear, the 25 km into Poza Rica, a big city with a Chev dealer. As I write this I have unloaded the camper in the new car lot and after four days, we are no further ahead in really figuring out what is wrong other than it is an electronic problem and not mechanical (this should be good news but the truck is still not drivable). On Sunday, Feb 17, I went by bus to El Tejin, a Classic Veracruz ruin , then the Totonac site occupied from 100-1200 AD. Amazingly like most Mayan sites, it also features rows of square niches on the sides of buildings, 17 ball courts, and sculptures depicting human sacrifice connected with the ball game. The 7 layered Pyramid del Los Nichos graces the State of Veracruz license plate. Every hour voladores performances are held. Five men climb to the top of a vertiginously high 30m pole, four sit on the edges of a small square frame rotating the frame to twist their ropes around the pole, and the fifth dances on a very tiny platform while playing a chirimia, a small drum with a flute attached. When he stops playing, the four others fall backward and with their arms outstretched, revolve gracefully around the pole and descend to the ground, upside down, as their ropes unwind. It is a memorable performance with many possible symbolic meanings.
Poza Rica (pop 200,000) is a congested and polluted oil city described in the Lonely Planet as not worth staying a night. I’m actually quite comfortable, have a large modern mall and internet site across the street and am getting a chance to relax and read a whole lot. Reading a book every day or two, I just finished ‘The End of Faith’ by Sam Harris – a heavy read but convincing argument about beliefs and the illogicalness of believing in a god. From his point of view, we have a lot to fear from Moslems, as the Koran repetitively states that all non believers should be put to death. Another very informative book was ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’ an older but fascinating book that made it clear how foolish it is to take the bible literally. A very nice 26-year-old Mexican woman came to translate one day and she and her family have taken me under their wing. I went with her and her mother to El Tejin, her and her cousin to a movie (Cloverfield – very bad, and lots of junk food) and to their house for a nice meal of mole and tamales. Despite their low wages (she works for a newspaper and makes about 4000 pesos/month), they are incredibly generous and insist on paying for everything. The young man at the internet site where I spend a lot of time, speaks fair English. I’ve been watching old episodes of The House with him. What dribble – poor histories and physicals, esoteric diagnoses and tests, each doctor does an incredible range of procedures and their ethics and manners are abysmal. If this is representative of most TV, no wonder I rarely watch and don’t miss it. After 11 days parked in the new car lot, the problem turned out to be the transmission control module that had to be shipped from Detroit (the cost of the TCM of 13,000 pesos was not charged to me). Mariann certainly was the highlight of the town.
Returning to North America. I drove the 1300 kms to the border crossing of Del Rio, Texas in 1½ days bypassing the large cities of Tampico, Ciudad Victoria (just north of the Tropic of Cancer) and Monterrey (third largest city in Mexico with 3.5 million people). With the Sierra Madre to the west, the excellent highway crossed initially rolling forest, then very flat country with huge orange groves and cattle ranching, and then desert. Total mileage driven in Mexico was 14,360 km. After turning in my vehicle importation permit and tourist card on the Mexican side, the border crossing into the US was fast and non-problematic (they took my potatoes, citrus and avocado pit). I treated myself to a pizza. I woke up at 5 AM, feeling nauseous, vomited five times with great relief and realized that I had food poisoning – very ironic as had gone 3+ months in Mexico with nary a gut upset. Welcome to the USA.
Just outside of Del Rio, I went through a border patrol check point. The young soldier told be about a friend who was held up at gun point in Mexico. He asked if I was scared to live in Canada as it was so unsafe because of all the terrorists in our country! I think he forgot about the four shootings in the US in the last few weeks and their risk of death was related to their poor gun laws. I drove through El Paso, across SW New Mexico, through west Arizona, into Utah via Moab and Salt Lake City, across south Idaho to Boise, through NE Oregon and central Washington. I arrived in Vernon after 5 days of driving over 6,400 kms on March 5. The air conditioner was replaced by a skylight, I bought new rear tie downs, and then came home over the snow-covered Monashee. Total mileage since leaving home on Nov 5th was 19,306 kms.
A little about Mexicans. About 10% are indigenous Indians with 42 active languages spoken. The rest are Mestizo – Indian and Spanish mixed. They all have black hair that rarely seems to turn gray (unless they all use a lot of hair dye), brown eyes and darker skin. Men wear their hair short and have little facial hair. Women have long hair usually in a ponytail. Moderate obesity is very common especially in women where it is distributed in a truncal pattern – tummies and bums – and because they all wear such tight clothes, it is readily visible. They dress well, are very clean and have nice shoes. Relatively short, especially Indians, I function well in parades as few are as tall as I am and it is easy to see over everybody’s head. Everyone has a cell phone and many seem to be endlessly playing video games on their phones. They love to shop and eat a lot of junk food (hot dogs, often deep-fried are very popular). Gringos stick out like a sore thumb and everyone seems to take a good look at me although women rarely make eye contact. There is no social safety net in Mexico. Parents pay for their children to go to school, there is no medical insurance and certainly no welfare or social assistance. As a result everyone works, and if they can’t, depend on relatives or beg. At every street light and at many topes, there are people selling things (fruit, bread, souvenirs, newspapers and everything imaginable) or wanting to clean your windshield. One of the most spectacular is jugglers with batons lit on fire. Every time the light turns red, they pull out a step-ladder and juggle, getting down just before the green light to try to collect money. Many of the jobs are incredibly menial – sweeping streets, bicycle taxis or whatever people can dream up to make a buck (or peso). Mexicans resent paying taxes as they feel they receive little from the government. Mexican men are very controlling in their relationships – apparently they don’t want their wives to work and demand to know what ever they do. Divorce is common, often related to alcoholism and physical abuse that is not prosecuted at all as is vigorously done at home. Mexican men pride themselves on being very ‘macho’. Mexico has a low-grade 12 graduation rate at 40% and the quality of education seems low. School starts at 7AM. Most Mexicans I meet believe (like most fear mongering North Americans) that Mexico is not safe – Mariann refused to let me walk the 10 blocks from downtown to the Chev dealer. They felt good about hearing how safe my experience has been. In Veracruz State, (I’m unsure about the rest of Mexico), everything shuts down between 2 and 4 for siesta. Mexicans are uniformly extremely friendly.