2014 Update: It may be that the situation has degenerated significantly since 2007. We would not necessarily recommend a family road trip through Mexico, Guatemala at this point–due to increased criminal activity. Nevertheless, the commentary and tips that are written in this account are a good “snapshot” of what it was like in 2007. Also, the tips on staying safe would still be useful to anyone who is considering travelling in Latin America. Finally, the spiritual insights and some social commentary remains valid.
A few years ago, we planned to close for one month and drive down to El Salvador to bring the kids to meet their family! The trip ended up taking two months and we wondered, at times, if we were ever going to make it back! This section is a based on the journal that we wrote while we were on the trip and posted in “real time” so that our friends and patrons could read all about it while we were gone. When we returned, we found a bunch of messages from hungry patrons who were tired of waiting so long for us. We saved the notes and when I find them in my “archives” box, I’ll post a photo!
It has some useful tips about driving to El Salvador, some experiences of our journey–sometimes funny, sometimes quite tragic.
I still haven’t had time to edit this since the trip, so be patient with any errors! Also, if any of you would like us to put more detailed information ie. costs and kms so that you can plan your trip, let us know!
We Leave Victoria
Sorry it’s taken so long to write! The trip from Vancouver to Everett was the first leg of the journey. Quite uneventful and very similar geography to Victoria area–only taking the I5 you don’t see to much. It is a quick route, though. The next leg of the trip was to Oregon. Oregon is absolutely beautiful! So much space–lots of grazing animals and rugged mountain terrain. One of the striking aspects is the trees which in the winter have no leaves, but appear to be in bloom with little tiny silvery green blossoms. Absolutely gorgeous. The “blossoms” are actually lichens. The trees are so covered with lichens that the whole area becomes almost glowing with the beautiful silvery green. Contrasting with the shadows of the mountains, it’s quite striking. I asked at Ashton, Oregon whether the lichens were bad for the trees, but no…it’s part of the ecosystem! We had some intense snowfall in Ashton, Oregon and so we waited to miss the snow in the mountain passes.
Northern California goes on forever, especially when you are anxious to make a deadline to meet family!
Reminded me a lot of the Okanagan Valley where I grew up.
Los Angeles is beautiful! Coming from the Okanagan Valley, I felt right at home here. It is like a big Okanagan Valley in my mind, but Jerson didn’t feel quite the same way…he began to miss Victoria while he was here. But he more than made up for it with the love from his beautiful family here in California. His brother and wife and their two beautiful little girls are here. They gave us such wonderful hospitality! Nothing like homemade tacos at 1:30 am after a long drive! We had some eating adventure, too. I’ll have to send you some photos of “Don Lenchos” in South Central Los Angeles where we ate carne asada and pupusas with hot chocolate and an unnamed taco stand in some industrial area of North Hollywood where the fires and steam from the taco stand, with a huge line up of people attracted us like some mirage in a desert. Photos coming of this too!
We’ll let you know the next adventure when we have it!
Love Tamara and Jerson and the kids
Things are going slower than we’d planned. We saw some wonderful rock formations outside of San Diego–like mountains upon mountains of rocks piled as high as mountains–remind me to research how that geological formation happened! We’re all doing fine and enjoying the heat.
Love Tamara and Jerson
We were unable to get the technology smarts together to get the photos to you yet! We’ll try again later. In the meantime, use your imaginations!
Did I ever tell any of you about how Jerson and I take eagle sightings to be a sort of indication that things are going well… or that we are on the right track? I was feeling pretty good about all the eagle sightings that we were having on the trip! It must be a sign that we are doing the right thing. It wasn’t until recently that i realized that my “guidance eagles” have been vultures for the past few days!!!
Anyway, as I mentioned, we are going slower than we’d planned. It is a lot to manage with ensuring the dogs are watered and “walked” (read washroom breaks euphemism!)…I’m having trouble writing this to you all since Mexican keyboards are quite different! Finding places to eat which we think will not give us any stomach troubles is tricky business, too. We are being very careful, since stomach troubles can really wreck a trip!
Well, i do want to tell you about a wonderful spot in Arizona where there are petroglyphs. It was a small detour from the main road… but driving down the small two lane road with the bumps and dips made us feel like we were driving the REAL american road trip experience… on either side of us was scrub with those scrubby bushes which aren’t cactus, but which thrive in desert conditions… we used to have them in our “back yard” in the okanagan and we called them “greasewood.” Anyway, we drove for quite a while with very little signage… then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, there it was! It just looked like a parking lot and a small mountain of rocks piled on top of each other. but it turned out to be one of the most beautiful, and peaceful feeling places i ever went to! I felt like just lying down among the rocks and curling up in their embrace… the symbols and markings were very very old. Tamara and I offered a prayer to the spirits of the ancestors who had been there before us and then we had to hurry off to not lose time! We do not drive after dark.
More next time!
With love from the Hernandez Family
There is a bit of catching up to do! We crossed the border into Nogales, Mexico from Nogales, Arizona. The change in country was immediate. Within the space of a few meters, we went from a North American geography –organized grid streets, traffic lights where you´d expect them–big box stores and Chevon gas stations to raised sidewalks, traffic lights hanging at odd angles and heights, lots of people on the street and beautifully painted buildings with a vibrancy of small business activity which I´ve only experienced here in Mexico. And the dogs…they run around in small packs freely–it is an odd sight for those of us accustomed to having our dogs on a short leash and under supervision at all times! We did also see huge warehouses which I could identify as maquiladoras (assembly line manufacturing plants which are set up all along the border of Mexico-<US to take advantage of the low labour costs).
Just past the border crossing, about a 15 minute drive, is another centre where you are supposed to stop and get your tourist visas, mexican car insurance, photocopies etc. From Nogales, we drove to Hermosillo. Not much traffic on the road, we felt a little uncomfortable with this at first, but after we didn´t encounter any problems we just enjoyed driving and made good speeds. There is a small mountain range between Nogales and Hermosillo and being obsessed with the similarity to the Okanagan, I can tell you that the geography of this area is what I imagine the Okanagan would look like without the irrigation! Except, the Okanagan is more of a golden toned scrub…the mountains in this area are more rocky with little green bushes.
We passed through an area with “conventional” cactus (ie. the kind you see in cartoons) and entered the place of the people who do the dance of the deer. Have you ever seen the dance of the deer? I remember seeing a performance of it from a travelling dance troupe at UVIC and I was so impressed by it–the dancer acts exactly like a deer! We never saw the dance performed here, but this is the land of the indigenous peoples who created the dance. I thought at the time that I saw it that it was about how the hunter could hunt the deer, but the guidebooks say that it is about the triumph of good over evil–an explanation which I find a little suspect…this is probably quite a simplified version of the real underlying complexity and levels of symbolism.
One of the things which we found particularly significant is the number of tended grave sites along the highways. We don´t know if these are like the little altars which you can sometimes see in Canada where someone is remembering a loved one who died in a car accident, or if it is actually a grave. If it is from car accidents, there are a lot of them. One explanation which it might be is that the land along the highway and in the median is public land and so one can bury one´s loved ones without fee even if they don´t own land. I have to ask someone about this, but it´s kind of a sensitive topic to ask about when you don´t know someone very well!
We were concerned about taking our dogs over the border. So far, there has been no interest in the dogs or their multiple vaccinations which we got for them prior to our arrival.However…this is not a culture where people treat their pets as family members! Consequently, it has become very difficult for us to find overnight accomodation with our dogs–especially Guapo, our English Mastiff who trundles out of the truck looking more like a lion from a circus, than a dog!
From Hermosillo, we drove to Guaymas-San Carlos. Guaymas was a major port for Mexico and there was a very rich millionaire who made his money in mining and invested in a railway station. His wife wanted him to build a luxury hotel at Guaymas. It is built in a colonial style and has beautiful high ceilings, big ballrooms and intricate wood work. Apparently, the railroad baron contracted one of his employees to design the hotel, and the employee-architect worked with U.S. architects to design this beautiful hotel in the style of Colonial Mexico (ie. Guadalajara). When they inaugerated the hotel, they didn´t even invite the Mexican architect who had designed it, but they did have mariachis imported from the state of Jalisco and the American High Society wife required that the mariachis wear Charro outfits (the fancy black suits with the embroidery up the legs etc.) Up until then, mariachis wore regular clothes–but ever since this event, the charro suit became associated with mariachis. And so, a new tradition was born. Today the hotel has a sort of withered elegance. The ballrooms are empty, but you walk past a long wall of yellowed newspaper clippings which document the heights to which the hotel had risen…movie stars from the 1930´s, a visit from then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, etc. Outside the hotel, there are a series of RV sites which seem incongruent with the elegance of the rest of the property. The RV sites gave me hope that they might accept a dog or two–but to no avail. This was where I was first to learn the dreaded words “NO MASCOTAS” (no pets). The friendly lady at the front desk sent me to a motel a ways down the street…but we were worried about the neighborhood and our security so we travelled to San Carlos.
It was in San Carlos that I learned how much I dislike areas that have been infected with too much tourism! San Carlos has several half-finished real estate projects which give it a sort of modern ghost town feeling in parts. Everywhere there were time share opportunities. And there were a lot of North American tourists. We managed to find a fresh, clean reasonably priced hotel on the main strip called “Motel Creston.” The children swam in the outdoor pool, to the surprise of the locals because it was still so cold (but the kids were determined to swim after so many hours of sitting in the hot car!). San Carlos and Guaymas are both on the ocean and so we had a beautiful walk on the beach with the dogs.
We are progressing much more slowly than we would have liked. We have to be off the road by about 3 pm in order to avoid driving at night and it is very time consuming and frustrating to find a place which will accept dogs! Consequently, we have reduced driving times each day. Sometimes, we have to stop before we are tired because it is just a little to long to get to the next town by 3pm. And we are beginning to feel time pressure to progress through this very big country!
Love Tamara, Jerson, the kids and the dogs
For those of you who are thinking of traveling through mexico, this is a section devoted to the things that we have learned…
It is not really worth it to bring a lot of books because you get car sick when you read on these roads which make the truck bump and sway. This is a hard lesson for us because we are bookworms and we packed a huge suitcase and half for all the reading we were planning on doing!
If you are in a small truck with kids and dogs, don’t pack like you are in a leisurely, spacious motorhome! We packed lots of games for the kids, but there really isn´t space for them to play games! Better to just pack some drawing pencils and some paper!
Gas Stations…yes, you should always ensure that the pump is at zero before the attendant starts pumping to ensure that you are not overcharged, but you also have to ensure that the attendant doesn’t charge you the price of the amount of litres, rather than the amount owing! We were charged 28.00 (280 pesos) at one gas station instead of 14.00 (140 pesos) because the attendant was charging us for the number of litres! Jerson Hartmut figured it out, not us. He asked me a “child’s question” about exchange rates which turned out to be a sophisticated understanding of the scam! By the way, this particular attendant was particularly solicitous of us, ensuring that we noticed that the gas pump was at zero before he commenced pumping.
This only happened once in the several visits that we’ve had to gas stations, so don´t get the idea that everybody down here is a scam artist. My impression is that the vast majority of the people here are hard working, honest people. Nevertheless, you need to be aware, because sometimes there is the odd person who isn’t!
Food…while the family stood by hungry, I was forced to throw out several meals that looked delicious and cost plenty (we spend anywhere between 25.00 to 40.00 per meal to feed the family when we go out to a taqueria) because at the end I see the food handler take my money and give me change! That means that all the germs from all the cash transactions have gone into the food. So here are a few guidelines that we have since learned…
- Only buy from vendor whose food is steaming hot, or sizzling hot
- Buy only one small item from the food stand and watch how they handle the money. If they have a designated person handling money and another person designated to handle the food. Also note if the food you have received is hot–remember food that is tepid is at the perfect temperature to breed bacteria! If all goes well, and the taste is good (because it isn´t always delicious just because it is from down here!) then go ahead and buy for the whole family…
- If you can, buy tortillas hot from a tortilleria and then go and buy a roasted chicken (also hot) (followng the above rules for both) and then feast upon this–so far it is the most cost efficient way by far.
Germs–bring that antigerm alcohol gel with you and use it constantly.
Water–it goes without saying, bottled only.
Softdrinks–only those that are in bottles, because cans could have been sitting anywhere and picking up germs, mouse feces…whatever before you get it!
So far, following these rules, we have all stayed healthy!
From San Carlos-Guaymas to Ciudad Obregon: the next stage of our journey
Sadly, Jerson Hartmut had his digital camera on his lap and when we stopped the car at San Carlos, it fell into the dust when he got out of the car. It hasn’t worked since.
On the road from Guaymas to Ciudad Obregon, we stopped at a roadside stand for tacos de carne asada and tacos de birria. Tacos de carne asada tacos with beef steak which is cut very thinly and then grilled over hot coals, then the meat is taken off the grill and put on a cutting board (which is a log cut cross-ways so that it is circular) and chopped very finely. Tacos birria are from meat which is simmered in its own juices for a long time so that it is tender and flavourful. At this roadside stand, chickens and roosters strolled along and between the tables, to the delight of our children.
I was shocked to see that Ciudad Obregon has a Walmart-Sam’s Club and I hope that the big box illness which our cities have doesn’t come to infect these vibrant towns with strong and healthy cores.
Everywhere along the road from Hermosillo to Ciudad Obregon are roadside graves and places of worship. The altars to the Virgin are most beautiful and well tended. They look like tiny little buildings with fences or chicken wire in the front. Inside are candles which are most often lit, flowers and pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe. These altars are often alongside land which has no people visible anywhere. The graves are constant reminders of our mortality and the altars for a spiritual and powerful spirit. On one hand, I want to stop the car and take pictures, because they are so beautiful, but then, I feel like that would make me an observer-consumer of culture–rather than a participant in it.So, instead, I say a small prayer or go to a quiet space within when I see these altars.
There are also altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe painted beautifully on the sides of mountains.There are often steps leading up to these larger alters. It is so beautiful and touching…I cannot describe them, you’d have to feel them for yourself.
At Navojoa, there is a huge closed down bus terminal, leafy trees and lots of clean looking hotels. Along this route are lots of abandoned buildings-houses. I wonder why this is? It makes me feel a little philosophical about getting into a huge mortgage for land-buildings when they can become so abandoned! Did the children immigrate to the US or further north, searching for more “opportunity”? Did the culture of the road change, and there is no longer any time to stop at roadside stands, so the small, vibrant businesses died? The built landscape has a story to tell, but I don’t have time to stop and interpret it on this trip…
The road from Ciudad Obregon to Mazatlan:
As soon as we entered the state of Sinaloa from the state of Sonora, the landscape changes immediately from uncultivated, dry desert to lush cultivated green! As we progress southward, the land opens up into a huge fertile plain and the palate changes from light absorbing surfaces, duskier greens to shiny green leaves glinting in the light, and tender verdant plants sprouting out of rich, black soil.
The mountain ranges are far in the distance to the south-southwest, but in the west, there is nothing but cultivated fields as far as the eye can see. We also saw nopales and agave.
We’d planned to stop at Mazatlan as a special treat for me (Tamara) because it was here in Mazatlan that my love for Mexico began on a family vacation when I was seven years old. I don’t know if Mazatlan’s zona dorada had changed significantly since I was seven, or if it was because my father took me into the zona central where the tourists seldom enter, but the experience was not what I remember! As soon as we stopped to give our dogs water, a little car buzzed up and stopped beside us. Extremely friendly fellow jumped out, saying that he was an ambassador for tourists and offering us free tickets to go to the aquarium. We knew that we wouldn’t have time for the aquarium.
Then he offered us free accommodation for the night. Being suspicious of free things, we said that we wanted to pay for our accommodation…he jumped on his phone and began to make arrangements for one nights stay at his “hotel.” Then he said that he’d arranged everything. We were relieved that we’d made our night’s stay arrangement with his full knowledge of the dogs and we were ready to treat ourselves so we were willing to pay the $1500 pesos for a hotel on the beach to just relax and watch the sunset and swim in the ocean before we left early the next morning.
He told us to follow him to the place. It was not on the beach…so, then I didn’t want to pay that much…we thanked him for his help. He suggested that we try another place across from them that was on the beach. We went there, it was a run down time share where they were willing to have us take a room which was quite dilapidated for 400.00 pesos, but it only had one bed. We were worried that 5 of us couldn’t possibly manage to sleep comfortably there, so we continued. The rest of the story is tiresome. It continues in the 1000-1500 peso range, long discussions about “no mascotas.”
We finally gave in and were willing to take the initial room that the fellow had offered us, knowing that we had dogs. I went in to the front desk and gave his name as a reference for the room. They didn’t know who he was and assured us that we couldn’t have a room because we had dogs!! It turns out that he sells time-shares and doesn’t really work for the hotel section of the time share-hotel resort so we were out of luck again. Hot, tired and frustrated from all this time being wasted when this was supposed to be our special treat day, I suggested that we enjoy a few hours at the beach and then we go and drive outside the zona dorada to the outskirts of town to find a hotel room. This we did, we managed to find a room at a hotel called the “Oasis” which was priced at 300.00 pesos and looked fresher and cleaner than any room we’d seen in the zona dorada.
By the way, zona dorada is the crescent along the ocean in Mazatlan where the hotels and now time-share “opportunities” cluster, along with high prices. I feel sorry for anyone who goes to Mexico and thinks that they had a cultural experience if they never leave this zone! Incidentally, by this time, we were running out of clean clothes and so I’d inquired at a lavanderia (ie. laundromat) for the prices of a load of wash/dry so that we could once again feel fresh. It was 600 pesos for a wash and 600 pesos for a dry! Thats $6.00 US for a wash and $6.00 US for a dry!!! Compare that with Canada’s average of $1.25 to $1.50!!
Mazatlan to Tepic:
Industrial Mazatlan gives way to mango groves interplanted with maiz. The whole drive is agriculturally scenic. Tepic is not at all a tourist town. It is a self-sustaining, clean vibrant city. Just outside of Tepic, we were stuck in about 40 minutes of traffic due to a horrific accident involving a SUV. It was a single vehicle accident where a SUV had flipped over the median and landed directly on its roof. There were several police cars, two fire trucks, and a hearse. I doubt that there were any survivors. From the vehicle’s Oregon licence plates, I assume it was a family returning from their vacation time in Mexico. We said prayers for the family and carried on. It was very sobering. And it hit a little too close to home, for us.
We’ve decided to drive more slowly from now on and we are striving to not feel too pushed to make our destinations and our time schedules. Because the roads are not really patrolled for speeding, you can literally go fast enough to kill yourself. The stretch of road where this occurred was pure smooth black top and very straight. It happened in broad daylight.
Now, we are really trying to focus on living in the moment and enjoying each moment that we are blessed with. We are realizing that life is precious and tenuous and we never know when it may be taken from us.
If it is true, as we imagine, that the driver of that car was feeling time pressure to get back to work commitments in the Oregon–and so he was trying to “make time” (and we ourselves had done the same things)…well, how important are all those things now? Every moment that we are given the gift of life is so valuable. This accident has impacted all of us and made us more appreciative of every moment of life that we have.
Tamara and Jerson and the kids
We last left you in the area coming out of Mazatlan, where the accident occurred. Of course, this gave us a very direct experience of our mortality and of the fragility of life. We decided after this, to stop pushing so hard to make deadlines and to allow the trip to unfold. We felt that it would be better to arrive behind schedule, rather than to not arrive at all due to a dangerous rush rush attitude. I have to tell you, even so many days later, I am left with the vivid memory of the hearse, the crushed SUV and the assorted personal belongings piled up on the side of the road. If you read the section about driving through the mountainous sections and the dangerous roads, you will begin to understand why we are taking so long. Somehow, it has to do with being secure and making our steps based on not taking chances. The fact that the family was returning from the South to Oregon hit me so hard as well. I know that we are behind schedule and I feel badly about that. We miss all of you. But we are going to take the time that it takes. Especially since having a push push attitude down here just makes things take longer. There are so many levels of security guards, and border officials, and police. You just have to let the thing take the time that it is going to take, or you go crazy. Not to mention, you start to take chances. We are very aware of the fact that we are responsible for the health and well being of our children as well, and that we need to protect them as our first priority. The second priority is to return home to all of you and Hernande’z safely.
Okay, so to tell you about the rest of the trip…
From Mazatlan, we drove to Tequila. Jerson wanted to see the tequila factories. The blue agave gives a dusty bluish cast to the areas where it is planted. The plant seems to thrive in dry, hot climate and apparently otherwise “unproductive” land. I had to watch Guapo and Chula while the family took the tour of the facilities, so you”ll have to ask them about the details. But, the land was beautiful! The various tequila factories…and there are a lot that we”ve never heard of or had access to in Canada…have the trademark on the name “tequila” and no other part of Mexico can produce Tequila.
In Tequila, we befriended a dog. He was quite annoying actually, because he wanted to play with Guapo…but he had a major problem with his skin and fur and his eyes were all red…so he looked a bit like something from a Stephen King novel. I was worried that he would be contagious. He seemed to live in the central square in Tequila. He was just a puppy…but he was so playful, that I was sure that if he could get better, then someone would want to adopt him. The whole time we were in Tequila, we fed him. And when I left, I gave some antibiotics to the tour guides to give to him. Hopefully he gets healthy. The thing is that there are so many dogs down here! And so many dogs that just run around looking skinny and malnourished. No wonder why the hotels don”t allow pets!
On the road out of Tequila, we took a wrong turn and ended up on the regular highway, rather than the cuota highway. There was a lot of traffic. I think this is because cuota roads cost quite a bit (I”ll add up all the cuota receipts to give you an idea of how much it costs, but it is not like the Coquihalla, where you pay once for a huge stretch of highway…you pay and then drive for a few minutes and then pay again! But like I said yesterday, it is worth it.
We took the road from Tequila to Guadalajara. We had to actually enter Guadalajara because we had to purchase more car insurance (we were running behind schedule already and the car insurance was about to run out…actually, I made it to the office in Guadalajara to purchase insurance one minute before the actual insurance ran out!). You cannot purchase car insurance, except in the major cities ie. Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey…this is important information if you are travelling, because you can easily get stranded. We assumed that it would be relatively easy to purchase insurance anywhere in Mexico, but we were very wrong.
Anyway, Guadalajara is a HUGE city. And it is a bit difficult to navigate because the roads change names at the Zolcalo. Mostly we got around by driving a little way, asking directions, making a mistake, returning to something that looked relatively familiar, asking directions from somebody else and continuing on like that. When people give directions, it is very difficult to follow them because even if you speak Spanish, they are not referring to landmarks or street names, they just tell you “drive along for two streetlights”, then they make a sort of movement with their arms to indicate how to turn…and then they say something else that seems unintelligible and then make another movement with their arms in a sort of curving way…and then give you a brilliant smile. And you feel like it would be rude to try to pin them down to street names or to take up more of their time, so you give them a bright smile, too and drive off for a few more meters to repeat the experience.
At the insurance place, it took two hours to purchase insurance. A transaction that usually takes about 15 minutes here. You have to wait and then go the the manager, and then wait some more, and then go to where there is a place to pay, and then return to the manager with the receipt and then wait some more…like that. Everyone is so hospitable along the way, though, that it is hard to get upset with the waits. It is part of the culture here. There is no point trying to rush it. They have their various levels of administration and systems of authorization and there is no point trying to impose our values or expectations on them.
Guadalajara itself has old colonial houses, narrow streets and all the charm of an old colonial city. However, it is being suffocated by industrialization. A huge neon KFC sign shouts out, a contrast to the beautiful old churches. They have Seven/Eleven stores, Starbucks and McDonalds, but when you walk past some of the colonial houses and peek past the windows, you get a glimpse of the beauty and grandeur of 300 years ago. The once huge monuments and cathedrals magnificence is diminshed by the huge modern buildings of glass and steel. The central plaza lacks the vibrancy that we found in some smaller towns. There were not many vendors or tacos stands on the street..if you want to have a small business there, you will need to be able to rent a space and pay accordingly. This eliminates the family run businesses in favour of larger enterprises.
In Guadalajara, the industrial revolution has had a definite impact. I do not know if you would call it the industrial economy or the post industrial economy…whatever it is, the landscape is reflecting a major change.
I have to go now, my sister in law and my niece have been waiting patiently for too long. Will write more as soon as I get time!
Hello Friends! So sorry for the delay in updating. The keyboards were frustrating me, combined with a very busy flurry of visiting all the various parts of Jerson’s family…the updates just fell sideways. I’ll start off where we left off last so that you can continue the journey as we made it and then I’ll bring you up to date on the activities in El Salvador which is where we are now (still).
We went from Mazatlan…oh! I cannot find my notes! Okay, I’ll go back home and look at the map. But in the meantime, please read these commentaries that I still have in my notes about driving in Mexico. They are written at two different times…both are about driving but the first one is more of a socio/cultural commentary and the second one was written more about the road conditions once we left the cuota roads (there aren’t any more in Oaxaca southwards!)
A Word about Driving In Mexico…
I read about the dangerous driving conditions in Mexico before we left. The roads that we’ve taken thus far have been all well marked and well maintained cuota roads. We haven’t encountered any aggressive driving by trucks or buses on these roads. What I have noticed is that Mexican drivers are generally good communicators. They signal with flashing lights if they are going slower than the normal flow of traffic and they will drive on the shoulder to enable you to pass them. Trucks will also pull alongside the shoulder to give you room to pass …so that even in stretches of road which, in Canada, would not be recommended for passing…you can do it in Mexico. Drivers make eye contact and hand signals to communicate with each other.
The signs posted along the highway advise drivers to not drive when tired or after drinking because “tu familia esta esperandote” (ie. your family is waiting for you) and because your life and the lives of others are precious (I cannot remember exactly the phrasing they used in Spanish, but that was the gist of it). In Southern Mexico, especially Chiapas, there are signs posted near the entrances to towns that say to slow down because it could be your child. So, the responsibility for driving with care lies with the driver, but there are constant reminders of the drivers’ obligations to their family and to the families of the other drivers and pedestrians.
In this way, it seems to me that there is a sort of a driving community based on trust and on knowing your limits and needs and communicating them clearly to others. This is as opposed to driving according to enforceable rules. “I’d better not speed because I might get a ticket” is replaced with “I need to drive carefully, it’s my obligation to the community.” and “I cannot believe that s/he turned when it was MY right of way” doesn’t even exist because the other driver communicated her intention to you to turn and you either gave the driver permission by communicating with your eyes or your hand gestures, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, ie. by not making eye contact, or by ignoring the other driver or not giving s/he space…the other driver didn’t turn!
THIS IS RADICAL STUFF. Why? Because we’ve told ourselves that society must run like traffic…according to rules that all know and obey, and which are enforced with punitive consequences by authority figures. In Mexico, the society seems to run smoothly…not because all are following rules or being punished, but by constant communication and negotiation.
What if we changed our metaphor for the smooth running of society away from our model of driving to the Mexican model of driving? How would that change how we see eachother and how much surveillance we require to maintain a stable social structure?
SECOND SECTION (WRITTEN FROM THE DRIVE WHICH WAS NOT THE CUOTA ROADS!!)
This is a hellish drive…neglected by all my books and internet research. Switchback curves with nowhere to go but down steep ravines hundreds of feet down or no shoulder with only steep rock face to drive into in the event that an oncoming car comes into your lane while they are trying to pass! These mountains stretch majestically as far as the eye can see…but right now I am unable to enjoy the views and vistas. I feel trapped in an endless rollercoaster ride that I cannot go back from …only forward through endless high mountains and high mountain passes.
Somehow as I reread what I wrote, I cannot seem to be communicating how scary this drive was. I know one thing for sure, I am staying on cuota roads in Mexico and I’ll change my route if necessary.
Okay, I’ve got to go. I’ll try to post more and bring it all up to date by tomorrow or Sunday.
The highlights are…
Monte Alban in Oaxaca
The Zocalo gentleman in Oaxaca
The horrible discovery in my bag
Walmart at Tapachula
The stressful crossing of the Guatemala border
Thanks for your patience! Love Tamara
From Guadalajara we went to Morelia. Morelia is an absolutely beautiful city! They have protected their centre core so that all the heritage buildings and cobblestone streets are still intact. Even BurgerKing cannot put their neon sign on the outside of the building…this translates into a beautiful coherent core city…which I found to be in direct contrast to the haphazardly developed and graffiti filled core of Guadalajara.
In Morelia, we found a wonderful place which specializes in tacos al pastor. Tacos al pastor is pork which is seasoned with spices put onto a vertical rotisserie along with a pineapple. Then a chef specializing in tacos al pastor very thinly shaves off slices of the pork as they are cooked. It is not like anything I’ve tasted before…even though I’ve eaten tacos al pastor in North America. The vertical rotisserie is seriously cooking…not like the limpid heater cooked vertical rotisseries like I’ve seen in Canada which always look lonely and abandoned! The tacos are then topped with diced onion, and cilantro. All the tables have common dishes of these sorts of toppings, as well as salsas. Since we were not willing to risk gastrointestinal illness, we did not partake of the condiments. But, the tacos were still delicious!
There is a huge church in the centre of Morelia. It has several different altars with different life sized altars to various virgins. Each virgin has her adherents, though, as each one had beautiful offerings of flowers. It also had various Catholic saints, like a life sized monk with a child. All saints and virgins look distinctly European. It made me wonder about the Virgin of Guadalupe who, according to my guidebook, was a previously incarnate as an Indigenous goddess…
Everywhere, the architecture is imposing and made of rock. On one hand, I felt very privileged to be able to see the beautiful colonial architecture of Morelia. But, because the city is so well preserved…it made me think about how the indigenous peoples must have felt in these huge, imposing environments. I mean, it is fun for me, because I have access to all the beauty and my life is not seriously impacted by the Spanish Empire. But for those who were being colonized and converted…the architecture was not a sort of romantic evidence of an older epoch…it represented a culture that was successfully taking over their own. The powerful pillars and arches were not for all to enjoy…they were the seat of power where decisions were made which forced so many people off of their lands and caused them to become landless peasants. It’s a little like going to the Maritime Museum in Bastion Square and admiring the beautiful building, and having a vague awareness that this is also the site of so many public hangings. Now, the Maritime Museum is a beautiful historic addition to Victoria’s landscape, but what was it before?
In both Guadalajara and Morelia, the streets are named for the heroes of the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican War of Independance against the French. I still don’t know the story of the children heroes, but there are streets of Los Ninos Heroes in both cities. And, I’m sure that it is a tragic one! Streets are named after heroes like Benito Juarez, and they are called Independencia or Libertad. It is a little like the Quebec license plate…je me souvien…I wonder what the psychological effect of seeing these street names is…or if there is any at all, like when you see something so many times…you no longer really see it like you did the first time…
Anyway, coming out of Morelia on the Mexico Cuota, we saw the sun rise on the Lake. It was beautiful, with the lake reflective of the lightening day. In the lake, you can see areas of plant growth. The thick plants are growing along the shore and in the middle of the lake. I am not used to seeing this sort of growth on a lake! I never before understood how Mexico City was built upon a lake, with artificial islands…but after seeing this, I can understand it! All they would have to do would be to encourage this sort of natural dense plant growth, and they would be able to build it up! It’s amazing how important it is to visit a site to really understand how things worked…because we only have the experience that is within us to try to make sense of things. The Okanagan Lake milfoil weeds could never prepare me to understand the type of plant growth here in Mexico!
The climate in this area is changing…now there are fluffy, stocky ponderosa pines.
The trip from Morelia to Mexico City, Distito Federal…
We were nervous about going through Mexico City to get into Puebla. Every time we stopped for gas, we would ask if we could detour and everytime the answer was “no”. So, we steeled ourselves to drive the”periferico” around Mexico City to get to the exit for the highway to Puebla.
The road leading to Mexico City goes through beautiful lush pine forests. The mountains all around are so similar to the Okanagan in the summer! As you descend into Mexico City from that lush mountainous forest, you are immediately struck by the stark contrast of the highrise modern urban metropolis. Before we knew it, we were driving on the Periferico…the very thing we’d been dreading and avoiding since planning the trip months ago!
It´s been a couple of days since writing about the journey…so I hope that there´s not too much of a slip in continuity! It is hard to find time to write here…
Anyway, as we entered Mexico D.F., there was an immediate and stark contrast between the lush pine forests and the high rise urban metropolis. The Periferico is a major highway which circles the perimeter of Mexico City. We were on the Periferico driving southwards, but not really knowing where we were going when the police came up from behind us and motioned that we were to pull over as soon as we could. We did. And a very gallant and polite police officer asked to see Jerson´s drivers licence…but then his eye caught our winshield and the lack of a “permiso de importacion de vehiculos” and he immediately lost interest in the drivers license and began to question us about our papers for the truck.
…well, I have to go back to January 1, 2008 when we first crossed the border at Nogales to give you (and the same explanation to the officer)…
When we crossed, it was a national holiday, being the first day of 2008. Consequently, it wasn´t exactly well staffed at the border. There was a bit of photocopying and some stamping, and they showed me where to buy insurance…but that was it. I asked and reconfirmed if there was anything else that I needed to do (having read beforehand about the need for this vehicle importation permission)…but they insisted that that was it. They were a bit officious…and I was nervous, being that it was the first time that I ever crossed the US-Mexican border by vehicle. I didn´t want to insist…they had guns, you know! So, we drove off from the border area without the vehicle being officially imported with some kind of process. It could be that because there is a sort of tourism program that the vehicles do not need any sort of importation documentaton within that state…but when we travelled further south…there was no opportunity to get the vehicle importation. So, there we were in Mexico without it…seemingly without incident…until Mexico City….and later again at the border…but that´s another story!
Well, back to the police officers at the entrance to Mexico City…
They immediately landed on the fact that we had no importation documents for our vehicle. I explained patiently what had happened and that the fault was with the officials at the border at Nogales. To no avail. He charmingly pointed to a little handbook that explained the necessity for having an importation permit for the truck. He spent quite a bit of time with me ( I was doing the talking…a recommendation from the internet that if the police officer is a man, it´s best to have a woman do the talking and if the police officer-official is a woman, it´s best to have the man do the talking…a rather dubious piece of advice, but it WAS from the internet!) explaining the need for the importation documents, like as if I didn´t understand. He explained and re explained that my vehicle was in the country illegally and that he had the right to make the decision whether he should impound the vehicle. There was the kicker. The invitation for me to make him an offer. I didn´t take it. Instead, I suggested that we call the Canadian Embassy, since the fault was with the Mexican border officials at Nogales who shouldn´t have let us proceed without the proper permits. He asked why I was so “brava” (ie. angry woman) and suggested that I calm down (oh, yes…I was feeling very calm, he was talking about impounding my vehicle and I was supposed to be cheerful…well, actually, that´s true…I was… you see if there is anything that I´ve learned in Latin America…it´s that no matter what…one is always charming and polite NO MATTER WHAT!) I hadn´t really learned that at that point. I was tired, and hungry and flustered and scared. He came back around and suggested that perhaps there was a way that we could resolve the situation. I said that there was, that he could take the truck and enjoy it! He once again suggested that I was not being exactly graceful in the situation. He suggested that I needed to understand that the decision lay with him whether we should continue our journey or be stopped in beaurocratic circles. Again, I didn´t take the bait. Why? Because I´d seen too many police shows where the whole goal was to get the officer to request a bribe and then it gets recorded and then justice is done. So, finally, he made the request for the bribe…”if you help me economically, I can help you”. That was it…no great dramatic justice for me…nothing happened…Finally, I asked “How much?” He said $100.00 U.S.!!!! Can you believe it!? I was shocked and I made a great dramatic show of how l had no money in my secret pouch or my wallet. I got Jerson to open up his wallet to procure $10.00 U.S. Really, we do travel on a shoe string…I explained that I really didn´t have anymore and that even giving him this much was going to leave us short! But, then I opened up the ashtray where there was a few pesos and offered to give them to him as well. He most graciously declined them and accepted the $10.00. Then he helpfully provided directions on how we should navigate the Periferico to exit in order to reach Puebla…and they were directions that we really really did need! So, actually, he earned the money and we were happy for him to have it.
However, we will do anything we can to avoid Mexico D.F. because our feeling is that even if he hadn´t found the missing importation, he would have found something else. Our feeling is that police officers probably hang out at the entrance to Mexico City hunting for unwary victims with foreign license plates and we want to avoid them as much as possible.
Before this incident, whenever I saw a police officer in Mexico, (naive as it may have been ) I felt sort of protected or safe. After this incident, whenever I saw a police officer, I felt jittery and nervous…ready for another inspection to find us lacking the necessary documents.
Next part of the journey…Puebla