Archive for December, 2009

From the Yukon to the Yucatán: observations on Mexico

29 December 2009

What would the world be without Mexican contributions: the long staple “Egyptian” cotton that made the industrial revolution possible, the rubber of the automobiles and electric insulators that defined the second industrial revolution, chicle and chewing gum (although gum is now mostly rubber and not chicle, but still of Mexican origin), and two of the things that make life worth living—tomatoes and chocolate.

Speaking of tomatoes, it is hard to imagine Italian food before the Mexican contributions: no tomatoes for sauce, no corn for polenta, no beans for pasta fagioli (the pasta fazool of the Dean Martin song “When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool, you’re in love.”), no fagiolini or string beans or French haricots, no zucchine (which have an Italian name in English despite their Mexican origin, although the Mexicans do call it calabaza italiana – Italian squash), no peppers for peperoni ripieni or peperoncini, no diavolillo for the spaghetti aglio e olio. The same hot peppers or chiles that have taken the South and Southeast Asian cuisines to their arsehole ripping heights. For those of us further north in the Americas – whether we are of Native or European descent doesn’t matter – no turkey and squash for Christmas and Thanksgiving, no pumpkins at Halloween or pumpkin pie, no ketchup, no succotash, no baked beans or fêves au lard, no corn on the cob or épluchette de blé d’Inde, no peanuts or peanut butter, no vanilla ice cream, NO CHOCOLATE!!!!

I made an Italian meal for Sophie’s friend deliberately using mainly ingredients that originated in Mexico: polenta with a tomato-bean sauce, turkey breasts in prosciutto and cheese, fried zucchini, string bean salad. OK, the prosciutto and cheese did not originate in Mexico, but the other main ingredients all did.

The Mexicans:

I love the Mexicans, what else is there to say? With few exceptions, maybe fewer than in other countries, they are unfailingly polite, pleasant, helpful and honest. The main exceptions are the Estado de México cops and the bus drivers. A dishonourable mention also goes to some toll booth attendants, who can mislead you in their attempts to be too helpful (see the “Shit Happens” entry) without knowing what they are talking about.

While you get harassed in the tourist areas by shopkeepers, wannabe guides and knick-knack sellers, this does not happen in other parts of Mexico. I discovered how to deal with sellers in tourist areas: you ask how much, say too much and then walk away. Watch the price drop by about half in no time. Then offer even less. They will usually accept that. Not that they are unpleasant or dishonest, it’s just the way the game has evolved: tourist think they are getting ripped off so offer less than the asking price, the shop owners know that the tourists are going to get them to drop prices, so they raise the asking price and a vicious circle is created.

Luigi with Rosalba Peraza, artist

I would only use this tactic with shopkeepers in tourist areas; when it comes to artists or artisans selling their own work I am prepared to pay the asking price or close to it if they offer a small discount. I believe artists and artisans should be able to earn a decent living. The prices are extremely low by Canadian standards anyway: I bought a painting (acrylic on canvas) from an artist for $M600 ($CDN50) that would have gone for at least $CDN300 in Canada. I was not going to try to bring her price down. I got a deal and she got a deal I think, so everybody’s happy.

Some of Rosalba's paintings

On the other hand, I have told of experiences with Mexicans: street sellers spontaneously helping me with directions even if I was not buying from them; a food stall operator telling me I made a mistake giving her a 500 peso note instead of 50, telling her to keep the change; people just happy to give me directions when I ask, or even when I don’t ask and look lost. They all think Canada is cold but their eyes pop when I mention Canadian salaries. As I said earlier, we could do a lot worse than encouraging more Mexicans to immigrate to Canada.

And the Mexican government would not object: immigrant remittances are a large part of Mexico’s balance of payments, almost as large as petroleum or automobile exports. In fact, from an economic perspective, Mexico reminds me very much of Italy of the 1950s and early 1960s and will perhaps follow its path to economic development. Automobiles and road and expressway construction to stimulate internal demand, with large tourism spending and emigrant remittances to help the balance of payments. Other parallels with Italy include: massive tax evasion, large number of highly skilled artisans, an increasingly important organized crime industry fuelled by US demand and corrupt politicians, a richer industrial North and poorer agricultural South, and finally free access to the richer markets in countries to the North. Plus, unlike Italy, Mexico has oil and gas, so won’t suffer from having to import energy. Like Italy had Japan to compete against, Mexico has China and the rest of Southeast Asia competing against it on the basis of low wages, so the cheap labour maquiladoras producing crappy goods are no longer an option or strategy for helping development, if they ever were.

Driving in Mexico

Autopista in Sonora

Soon after crossing the border, I was on the “expressways” from Nogales to Hermosillo in Sonora. I believed everything they said about Mexican roads: the pavement was at the low end of Quebec standards and the lanes were narrow with no shoulders but a one metre drop on each side. I thought: “Holy shit, I don’t really want to drive on this kind of road.” The buses kept on passing me, doing 120-130 kph while I was doing 100. And they created a wind effect that almost sent me flying off the road, despite the signs that said the speed limit for buses was 90 kph.

Two-lane highway in Sinaloa

Things got better as I headed south. By the time I got into Sinaloa, the road actually had a paved shoulder on the right and a small shoulder on the left before the median, something like Italian autostrade. There is also great variation in the two-lane federal highways. Some, like around Villahermosa are little better than rutted tracks. East of Mexico City, it was very much like an Italian mountain highway: I was not driving fast. Others are absolutely beautiful and a total pleasure to drive on, especially the newer highways in the Yucatán: straight roads, wide lanes, paved shoulders wide enough for a car to pull over to let another pass.

Mexican truck drivers are great: they are polite and helpful. They signal they are going slow with their flashers, they signal it is safe to pass them by turning on their left turn signal. They drive skilfully on bad narrow roads as well as roads that are the equal of any others in North America.

Driving habits are yet another reason to like Mexicans. Mexican drivers—except the above-mentioned bus drivers who are a law unto themselves—are pretty good. Certainly nowhere near as crazy as Italians or Montrealers, and a lot more polite and helpful than other North Americans. If you ask, almost all will let you get in front of them. Even taxi drivers will stop to let you go or to cut in front of them, sometimes even without asking. Drivers will pull over to let someone else pass and signal each other about radar traps. I only got the finger once, and that was entirely my fault as I missed a stop sign and almost smashed into the other car. While driving a big pick-up truck on narrow roads is not always a pleasure, it is certainly made much easier by the attitude of most Mexican drivers.

The other thing I started appreciated were the windshield washers at street corners and toll booths. My first reaction was the same as in Canada: “Don’t bug me with your dirty rag!!” But then I realized it was OK and that they performed a useful service and for 5 or 10 pesos I would get a truly clean windshield. Unfortunately, they disappeared in Central Mexico.

Other than the bus drivers, there are two things I dislike about driving in Mexico. The first is the outrageous tolls on the autopistas con cuota (toll expressways). I have paid up to $M200 for a 100 kilometre stretch. I suspect they are the highest in the world. The other is the “topes” or reductores de velocidad: speed bumps. There is no fucking around with speed limits in towns in Mexico. As soon as you reach a populated place, you had better slow down to almost standstill to go over the tope, or you lose your suspension and muffler. And you won‘t get a chance to accelerate to more than 40kph (the usual urban speed limit) before the next tope.

The Mexican language

I became reasonably fluent in Spanish after taking a one-year course at McGill. My ex-wife was Spanish, which helped, although she spoke Catalan at home. I also spoke French and Italian, and, as I like to say to piss off other speakers of Romance languages, Spanish (and French, Portuguese, Catalan, Provençal, Romanian, etc.) are all just mispronounced Italian with bad grammar.

I was convinced I spoke Spanish with an Italian accent. In Cuba, servers would respond with the Italian word prego instead of the Spanish de nada when I said “Gracias”. But a number of Mexicans have told me I have a Spanish accent rather than an Italian one despite my effort to extirpate all the lithped Cs and Zs.

Having heard Mexican Spanish spoken quite often, I had thought that Mexican was the purest version of Spanish, without all the funny regional pronunciation of Spain or South America, something like Canadian English. Mexicans also think so, and are not shy about saying it. But it also resembles Canadian French in its ambivalence towards its Anglophone neighbours. When I first saw “rentar un carro” (in Cuba actually, not in Mexico) instead of the Spanish “alquilar un coche”, I thought, “Hey, this is just like Quebec French.” But rentar is a perfectly good word of Latin origin, and the English “rent” is of French origin as are most legal terms.

Just like in our Canadian French, Mexicans use a lot of Anglicisms: carro, checar (to check), clutch, tunap, güinch, mofle, lonchería where you have your midday lonche, etc. On the other hand, just like in Quebec they are leery of using English words or abbreviations on traffic signs: Alto and Arrêt instead of the “Stop” used in Spain and France, the parking signs use an “E” (for estacionamiento) instead of the “P”. Instead of the Spanish aparcar and parking (also used in France), it’s officially estacionamiento in Mexico and stationnement in Quebec.

There are also some purely Mexican or Latin American words: llanta (probably related to the French jante, rim) instead of pneumatico (tire); mofles (muffler) instead of silenciador, res (beef), elote (maize), ejote (string beans), etc. I really like the word seminuevo for used cars. I guess used car salesmen are the same kind of bullshitters right across North America.

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Mad dash to the Yucatán

24 December 2009

Tuesday 9 December, Morelia to Orizaba?

Carlos called me around 10:00 AM to let me know the truck was ready. After going to the bank, getting a cappuccino, I took a cab and got in the truck. I tested it and I don’t think the truck ever ran smoother with the camper. My faith in Mexican mechanics was fully justified, I think.

I drove towards Toluca, southwest of Mexico City, but decided to go around Mexico City rather than go through Toluca. It looked like that road would take me right through the city and I wanted to obey Karyn Armour’s admonition to avoid Mexico DF. It looked like there were major roads that would bypass Mexico, but to the north. So at the end of the Autopista, I set my GPS to go to Tula, which was on the Mexico-Queretaro Autopista. Once I get there, I figured I could head south to Texcoco and then to the Autopista to Puebla.

Of course, I miss a turn on and end up in a small village with topes (speed bumps), which I take a little fast. A few minutes later, I see flashing lights behind me, and the Policia Estatal (State police) of the State of Mexico (There is Mexico the country, Mexico the Mexican State, and Mexico Districto Federal, the Capital city) stops me. They tell me I don’t have a front license plate and that I was driving without sufficient care. I try to explain that I don’t have a front licence plate because the Yukon doesn’t have one. They tell me the fine is 230 dollars. I think, “Wow, this is pretty steep!” So I ask where can I pay it and how long do I have to pay it. They say a week, but I have to pay it in Toluca. So then comes the game of nudge-nudge wink-wink.

They say we can come to an arrangement since I am a tourist. I act dumb (actually not deliberately because I don’t get it at first) and think what the hell, I’ll pay the fine, I did go a little fast inadvertently. So I tell them I will follow them to the station and offer them my passport so they don’t have to remove my license plate (which is what the cops do in Mexico to ensure that the fines are paid: you get your plates back after you’ve paid the fine). The one cop, white European looking, tells the other cop (Indian or mestizo): “¡Explicale! (Explain to him)”. So the second one says: “Lo que el jefe dice es que … (What the chief said is that …)” and I missed the rest, but it was pretty clear that a bribe would have got me off. So I think, should I give them anything?

I decide not to. After all, I don’t think I should undermine the mainly successful efforts of Mexican governments to eradicate corruption. I also think back about a story I heard many years ago from my ex-wife’s cousin (Ricardo, IRRC) who lived in Mexico City for a while. He insisted in paying the fine rather than giving the cop a little mordida and eventually got off. So I say; “No, prefiero pagar la multa. (No I prefer to pay the fine.)” This goes on for a little while and I repeat a few times that I’d rather pay the fine. Finally, the jefe says: “¡Paganos una comida! Just pay us a meal)”. I smile and say: “Si, tengo hambre también. ¿Donde vamos? Le sigue. (Sure, I’m hungry too, where do we go? I’ll follow you.) This is where they give up on the stupid Gringo. The jefe shakes my hand, tells me to drive carefully and wished me a good trip. One little win against corruption!

A little while later, I end up in another village, with a GMC or Chevy SUV in front of me. We end up at a point where the street is blocked because of construction. He turns around and opens his window and tells me to follow him. We go on a dirt track to get on the other street parallel to this one and then the driver stops and signals me to stop. We end up chatting, and the two guys ask me where I’m going. I tell them Cancun and that I am trying to avoid Mexico City. They agree it is an excellent idea and start giving me directions on how to get to the Autopista. I also tell them about the incident with the cops and they totally approve of me not paying, with some nasty comments about bullshit cops. Then another friend shows up. This last guy drives quite often to Cancun, so we pull out the maps and he tells me the best way there. He confirms what the other two guys told me, and tells me what exits to take to get to Texcoco (East of Mexico) and the Arco Norte, a major new highway from Veracruz to the Pacific, which is still partially under construction from Texcoco to Puebla and not clearly shown on the maps. He also suggests that I try getting no further than Puebla that night and states that it will take me at least another two days after that as some of the highways after Villahermosa are in pretty bad condition because of truck traffic.

So I try to follow the directions. I manage to get to the Autopista and I get to a toll booth where government employees hand me literature on Mexico City and a circulation permit that allows me to drive on all days and not only on odd numbered ones, to match my license plates. In an effort to reduce the massive smog in Mexico City, cars are only allowed to drive on certain days depending on whether their license plates end up in even or odd numbers. Then an ambulante tries to sell me a map of Mexico so I don’t get lost and I tell him no thanks, I am going to Puebla. He tells me I am going the wrong way and that I missed the exit to Texcoco and that I have to turn around immediately, before paying the toll. Despite my hesitation, the ambulantes and the young government tourist guides all team up to stop the traffic and guide me as I turn the truck around and drive to the other side of the highway. Making a U-turn in massive traffic at a toll booth and nobody getting excited or pissed off or honking their horn. ¡I love Mexico!

I stop for gas, ask how far the exit to Texcoco is, get the information as it is a little tricky on this side of the highway. I get the exit right this time. After a while, I see the exit to Puebla I am supposed to take, except it is blocked off. At the nearby toll booth, I ask the attendant if I should turn around. He tells me to continue to the end of the Autopista. Well, that ends up 17 kilometres further southwest (instead of east) and I have to go through traffic. My GPS confirms the route. Then I decide to turn back, stop at a store to get some water and snacks (it is getting dark and I have had nothing to eat since the porridge in the morning at the hotel). They tell me to turn back around in the direction I was originally going and to continue on, as it would be too complicated to go through Texcoco. Well, I continue until the GPS tells me to make a left. Big mistake! Had I turned left just another few blocks I would have immediately got on the Autopista to Puebla.

Anyway, I start going on narrow city streets full of topes, followed by a narrow road full of animals on the shoulders, and then another village. As it is getting to the feast of the Guadalupe, there are fireworks everywhere. I go through one village where the traffic slows down considerably where there is a crowd watching the fireworks and partying to loud music. I am sorely tempted to park the truck, pull out my bottle of tequila and join the party. But I think that I need to get to poor lonely Marilyn, so I continue on. At one point I say to myself, one more tope and I will scream. Aargh! Lots more topes.

I finally get to a major street where the stupid GPS tells me to turn left, but there is a median and it is impossible. I continue for a few hundred metres and ask some cops where I can get the Autopista. They tell me a few hundred metres to the left. I, of course, miss the damn entrance to the Autopista. I decide to follow the GPS which tells me to turn right on a street. It then recalculates and tells me to continue for 37 kilometres to the Autopista. I debate whether I should listen to the GPS or turn around. As there is no space to turn around, I continue.

I eventually end up on this narrow mountainous road full of hills, twists and turns for 37 kilometres, driving at about 30 to 50 kilometres per hour, with steep cliffs on one side. Luckily it was dark and my vertigo did not take hold. For the last 10 kilometres or so, I am frustratingly driving right next to the Autopista.

I finally get on the Autopista, and drive past Puebla without incident. I regret that it was dark because I wanted a picture of the factory where our Volkwagen Jetta was born, but, hey, you can’t have everything. At around 10:30 I decide to stop at a truck stop, have some quesadillas, call Marilyn and sleep in the camper. It was a comfortable cool night since the elevation was at about 2,500 metres.

Wednesday, 9 December, Orizaba to Ciudad del Carmen

I woke up around seven, and after a Noescafé at the truck stop, I got on the way. I was just west of Orizaba. There was pretty spectacular scenery, going downhill from the heights of central Mexico to the coastal plain. Volcanoes and hills. It also gets much more humid as I descend and the pines are replaced by palm trees.

I reached Villahermosa without incident and as my friend in that village (I wish I could remember the name) had said, some bits of the road were pretty bad. I changed some travellers cheques and asked for directions as to the best way to get to Playa del Carmen, south via Chetumal or north via Mérida and Cancún. I asked an SCT (Federal government road agency) employee who happened to be in the line-up behind me and he told me to go by Ciudad del Carmen (not Playa), in the Bay of Campeche. He also offered to show me the way as it was a little tricky to get to the highway and he was going that way anyway. So I followed him until the turnoff. At the border with Campeche state, there is an agricultural “aduana”, where they ask me if I am carrying any fruit. I hand over oranges and mandarins, which they do not allow into the Yucatan peninsula for fear of disease transmission. I tell the inspector that there are also orange peels in the garbage bag, which he takes and throws out for me. I also tell him of how, in Canada, they actually wash cars when you leave the island of Newfoundland for the same reason.

I drove on quite a bit and it was dark when I got to Ciudad del Carmen. I decided I did not want to deal with driving in the dark with animals and other dangers on the road. I went to the first hotel I saw. It was a bit of a dump, but for $350 it claimed to have what I wanted: air conditioning and internet. Well neither the air conditioning nor the internet worked in the first room I tried, nor in the second.

So I got a refund and wandered around the city for a bit until I saw a taxi stand. I asked one of the taxistas to show me a decent hotel with internet and air conditioning and I would follow him. He mentioned the Fiesta Inn, and I said OK. We can’t get to the Fiesta Inn because of traffic, so he takes me to the Holiday Inn express. It’s pretty expensive, $1,580, so I pay off the taxi drive and decide to go to the Fiesta Inn. That one is even more expensive. After asking if they knew of a cheaper place, I realize I am too tired, don’t really want to go around the city some more and decide to stay there. I have supper at the hotel restaurant: chicken tacos, but they are rolled up like a cannolo, crispy and packed full of chicken meat.

Thursday 10, Ciudad del Carmen to Puerto Aventuras

The next day, I leave Ciudad del Carmen after breakfast at the hotel. Thin oatmeal and bad coffee and a fruit plate. Past Ciudad del Carmen, there is a very nice mostly deserted beach, with a few hotels and restaurants. I stop to take pictures of pelicans on pilings. After that, a long causeway takes me back to the mainland. Straight roads in flat country. I eventually turn right to go to Escárcega on the main Villahermosa-Chetumal highway, which ends up being pretty good at this point.

Since Tuesday, I see a whole lot of trucks filled with teenagers and young people in sports uniforms, with a painting of the Virgin of Guadelupe attached to the vehicle. They all act as support vehicles for either runners or bicyclists carrying a torch for the Virgin, and they obviously relay each other. I wave and honk at most of them, and, of course, slow down when I am passing them.

I drive almost continuously, hoping to make it to join Marilyn as soon as possible, just stopping to pee. I don’t think I really miss much as the countryside is pretty flat jungle. After I turn to the north just before Chetumal, the highway turns very touristy, with resorts advertised all over the place. Around Chetumal, I call Marilyn to let her know I will get there around 7:00 PM, and I do get to Sophie’s apartment in Puerto Aventuras just after 7:30.

View from Sophie's condo

Morelia

23 December 2009

Sunday 6 December

I already recounted what happened on Saturday the 5th in the “Shit happens” posting. I stayed at a Best Western Hotel, or one of these chains and paid by credit card and discovered I had lost my bank card. Knowing myself, I also carried travellers cheques and still had a few hundred US dollars. The next morning, the hotel would not change travellers’ cheques but told me that there might be a foreign exchange office open at a nearby shopping centre. I couldn’t turn into the shopping centre parking lot because there was a height limit at the gate, as is often the case in Mexico.

So I turned left on the next street, went over a tope (f…ing speed bumps that are all over the place in Mexico and destroy numerous suspensions and mufflers judging by the number of repair shops that advertise mofles y muelles – mufflers and springs). My drive shaft fell off and made a horrible noise. I immediately stopped to see what was wrong and saw the driveshaft with one end on the pavement, with a completely broken U-joint. Shit continues to happen! But then I should have got it checked before, as I was hearing a loud “clack” noise every time I accelerated or changed gears. I had just thought of waiting until Cancún to get it checked out, along with getting a tune-up done.

I thought: “Hey! I’ve paid all this money for the BC Automobile Association membership, including extra for camper coverage. They should be able to help me.” I look all over, but I couldn’t find the phone number except for a 1-800 number that doesn’t work from my cell phone in Mexico, even though it is still a US number. So I try calling Ariel in Vancouver, but there is no answer. I then try Janne in Calgary. She immediately answers, asks me why I don’t look it up over the internet, I told her I was out of the hotel. She looks up the number and I call them. After being put on hold to investigate, the BCAA person tells me they have no Mexican affiliate and don’ know anyone in Morelia who could help me. But the she tells me they will reimburse the towing fee and repair costs when I get back to Canada.

So I call the insurance company who put me in touch with the tow truck company, who ask me if I am the same guy as last night. I say I am, and they say a tow truck will show up within an hour. Of course, that is a Mexican hour, which is more like two hours, same as in the Yukon. Good thing I’m on anti-depressants. Anyway, the driver gets there loads up the truck with some difficulty. I did ask him if he also wanted to use my winch to help, but he really didn’t need it; the problem was with the length of the truck. I learned two new Spanish words: crucetas (little crosses) for the U-joints and güinch for winch (OK, the last is a Mexican Anglicism).

So the driver asks where I want to bring the truck. I say: “I don’t know, does he know any good mechanic?” He tells me about a friend of his who supposedly speaks English as he spent a few years in the States. I tell him: “I don’t care what he speaks, is he a good mechanic?” So he calls Carlos to let him know we’re coming. We drive right around Morelia to Carlos’ shop near the football stadium. He only charges me $M350 for the tow. I discuss the situation with Carlos. He offers to fix it right away—this is Sunday, remember—by welding it, which should get me to Cancun. But we agree that it is better to replace it as well as the other U-joint. He can’t get the parts until the next day, but he figures he can get it done by the end of the day on Monday. I also ask him to do a tune-up (called tunap in Mexican) and check out the speedometer (velocimetro), which has stopped working (I have been using the GPS to check my speed). Other car words are bujias (for spark plugs, same as the French bougies, unlike the Italian candela; they all mean candles), cambiar el aceite for change the oil, filtros for you know what.

Aceite is one Spanish word that is really weird to me, and probably to most Italian speakers. In Italian , aceto is vinegar, generally served with its opposite which is oil (olio). To use a word so close to vinegar as the word for oil is strange, especially since most word in Spanish are close to their Italian equivalents. Cambiar el aceite sounds too much like change the vinegar to me.

I ask Carlos to call me a taxi, but instead he drives me to a taxi stand a few kilometres away, saying that it would take too long. The taxi first takes me to a Banco Azteca which is inside the Elektra furniture store. Kind of strange: a furniture and appliance store and bank all in one, but this store seems to be common all over Mexico. I guess you can get your loan right away. They won’t change travellers’ cheques, but I do have some US dollars they do exchange, so I can pay for the taxi at least.

Armed with my tourist guides, I look for a hotel downtown near the cathedral. One guide suggests the Hotel Valladolid right on the central square. I investigated it along with two other hotels in the same block across from the central square. The taxi driver suggested a cheaper hotel, not far but it was a little too grungy. I’m getting picky in my old age; I’d rather stay in a nicer hotel even if it’s a lot more expensive. In my younger days, I stayed in a lot of grungy places with the dirty toilet down the hall just because they were cheap. Not anymore, except when I go to Ross River. Anyway, I ended up staying at the City Express hotel—Hotel Valladolid in the guidebook—which was the cheapest of the three in the main square, but did not have a view, actually no window in the room.

As a bonus, there was a “The Italian Coffee Company” right below. Finally, the prospect of decent coffee in the morning! Despite living in country that produces good coffee, Mexicans drink Nescafe, with a lot of sugar and milk—to kill the taste, I presume. I like to call it “No es café” (It’s not coffee), but Mexicans don’t seem to get it. I immediately ordered an espresso, extremely short. They were surprised I did not add milk to it. De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess. And there is a lot of good food and drink to make up for the lousy coffee.

Clown show main square

Morelia is a beautiful and exquisite colonial city whose historic centre has been mainly restored. There are a lot of worse places I could have got stuck in; if you are to break down anywhere in Mexico, I definitely recommend Morelia. It was originally known as Valladolid named after the Castilian city, but was renamed in 1821 to Morelia to honour Jose Morelos, a hero of the initial Mexican war of independence who was born there.

José Morelos' house

It is quite rightly a UNESCO World Heritage site. I walked around the centre for a while, looked into the cathedral and into another plaza (Saint Francis). I tried to get on a tour which uses a streetcar. They told me the next tour was at 4:30. I got there at 4:25, but as I was the only one there, they decided to wait until 5:00 and then 5:15. I taught the tour booth person some words and expressions in French and Italian. By 5:15, I gave up and came back at 6:00 PM. Still not enough people; the reason they gave was that it was too cold. It was in fact maybe 12 degrees or so and all the Mexicans were wearing sweaters and jackets, which I noted in my smug Canadian way while I was in shorts and a T-Shirt and commented it was a nice summer evening.

I had read in a guidebook about the best taquería in town, which was near the aqueduct. Ah, yes, Morelia also has a Roman style aqueduct with very many arches. That place was closed, but there was another small taquería next door where I ate. Back to the room for some blogging & a Skype call to Janne to try to find out what was happening to Marilyn and whether she made it to the apartment. I also note my phone had stopped working. I go on AT&T’s internet site to try to put more time into it and it tells me the number no longer exists. Which is weird, but it might have happened when I accidentally started downloading  a bunch of games into the phone and I tried to stop it by randomly pushing buttons. It eventually stopped, but I must have screwed something up. $US50.00 of time down the drain.

Monday 8 December, Morelia

Carlos had asked for an advance to buy the parts, but I did not have any cash on Sunday. So I changed some travellers’ cheques at the Scotiabank branch. Yes, they are all over Mexico and brag about being one of the world’s best banks. What they don’t say was that it was politically impossible for Canadian governments to deregulate to the extent the banks would have liked, so that kept them safe.

I had breakfast at the hotel where I got to make my own porridge rather than the watery stuff the Mexicans serve, probably because they heard it was good for cholesterol. The Great Italian Coffee Company was closed in the morning!!! Anyway, I took a cab to Carlos’ garage, gave him $2,000 and went back downtown. He told me he would call around 4:00 to let me know how it was going. Back downtown, I went back to the streetcar tour company and they told me there would be a tour around 2:30 pm and every hour after that. He also told me of a restaurant where to eat typical Michoacán food, near the other side of the plaza. I don’t find the restaurant, but there are a whole lot of small open-air restaurants inside the porticos around a square (San Agustín). I ate at one of them, some kind of enchilada with tomato sauce and cream, quite good along with a bottle of “sangría”, which was a grapey juicy pop rather than the Spanish combo of wine, brandy and fruit juice. For some reason most of the small outdoor restaurants don’t serve alcohol, not even beer.

I also saw a cell phone repair place on the other side of the street from the Plaza. I walked in and started talking to a guy by the name of Hugo who was behind a steel grate, as many of these cell phone places in Mexico sport. Hugo speaks perfect English, having lived in the States for a few years until he got kicked out. (Hello Hugo, if you’re reading this.)

Hugo asks, rhetorically: “What is wrong with someone trying to earn a decent living to feed his family?” Nothing, of course, except for some stupid laws. Here is someone obviously talented and intelligent who would b useful in any country. It is the US’ loss. But then, I might be prejudiced because my father came to Canada illegally in 1952 and made a good citizen and someone who literally contributed considerably to building our country.

Canada needs to start attracting more people like Hugo so they can pay my pension when I retire. And I think Mexicans would fit in much better than others: they are North Americans after all and despite all the superficial differences, our cultures share very much. They have Christmas trees and Santas and red-nosed caribou and we have Mexican poinsettias; we drive the same cars that come from the same factories; our supermarkets are full of taco chips, tortillas and salsas while the Mexican ones are full of the same ketchup and cereals as ours; nachos are as common as hamburgers. The regular coffee is equally bad in all three North American countries. The US sneezes and Canada and Mexico catch the same cold.

Canada should to install immigration officers at the US-Mexico border and interview and invite all the useful deportees. I talked to other Mexicans about their experience in the US. One was a gas jockey at a PEMEX station who had just come back from Minnesota where he got laid off. He worked as a roofer (legally) for—get this—$12.00 per hour! This was a legal immigrant with his green card. No wonder so many Americans can afford McMansions. “Hey, come to Canada,” I said, “you would earn well over $20.00 per hour.”

Another person I talked to was a snorkelling guide at Puerto Morales south of Cancun. He was a fully qualified master stonemason, but there was no work, so he helped his brother out guiding tourists on the coral reefs. He tried going to the US, but after paying the equivalent of two years’ income, he was immediately caught and shipped back. Canada needs stonemasons, bricklayers and other trowel tradespeople as the old Italians and Portuguese who did that work are now retiring. Let’s bring some Mexicans, they are equally qualified and just as hard working. I gave him my card and encouraged him to consider emigrating to Canada.

While Mexico’s official unemployment rate is quite low, there is clearly a massive amount of underemployment. Usually this term is reserve for poor little university graduates who can’t find work in their field and have to take “menial” jobs, such as taxi drivers or waiters. But in Mexico, it affects others too. In the Plaza in Morelia, there must have been at least 20 shoe shine stands licensed by the municipality. How many people need their shoes shined everyday, in a country where most wear sandals or sneakers? And all the vendors (ambulantes) of just about everything, some of whom are at street corners with a bag of oranges or a few bottles of (very good freshly squeezed & cold) orange juice, peanuts, pineapples, newspapers, windshield washing, etc. And all the very small taco stands, sellers of coco frío (cold coconut), etc. Since this is the 21st Century, there are now also vendors of cell phone recharging cards. In the tourist areas, they hassle foreigners by trying to sell them selling crappy souvenirs or artisanal works, but they are also present everywhere else in Mexico, albeit much less bothersome. Despite Mexico’s apparent prosperity, the minimum wage for manual occupations and trades ranges from $M65 to $M85 per day (that’s pesos, not dollars), that is five to eight dollars PER DAY. The average worker maybe earns 10-12 dollars a day.

Anyway, back to Hugo and the cell phone, him and his boss (José, IIRC) check out my phone and suggest getting a more time from AT&T. I tell them it doesn’t work and ask them to put in a Mexican chip and I will get a Mexican number. They tell me the phone will be ready at 4:00 or so. So I figure 4:30, and be there for the 4:30 tour which probably wouldn’t start until 5:00pm anyway. Mexican time is very much like Yukon time, so I’m used to it.

I wander around the city once more, then go have a beer under the porticos where I wrote a blog entry. At 4:25 or so, I go get my cell, buy more time $M500 for $M1000 worth of time as there is a special on from Telcel, who Hugo assures me is the best provider and I can also use the phone it in all of Latin America.  As soon as I got the phone, I called Carlos just in case, and, of course, the truck was not ready but he promised it for 10 AM. My new Mexico phone number is +52 (Mexico’s country code) 443 104 01 36. Telephone charges are very high in Mexico, up to $M3.50 pesos a minute.

In case you’re wondering why I and Mexicans use the dollar sign for pesos, it is because the Peso is the original dollar. After the conquest, the Spanish started minting “Pieces of eight” Reales in Mexico (using Indian slave labour in the mines). These became a very common currency and were used in the French and English colonies to the north. As it was similar to a Bohemian coin called the Joachimthaler or Tahler, it became known as the “Spanish dollar” in the English colonies, while the French called it une Piastre, a word that is still used for the dollar in the Quebec, Acadian and Cajun dialects and in Haitian Creole. The “two bits” expression for a quarter comes from the fact that the peso was divided into eight reales, and was often actually split in eight. So two of those “bits” were a quarter dollar. The dollar sign was originally a superimposition of an S over a P, short for, of course, PeSo.

I finally got my tour at 5;30 or so,as a Polish couple, another Chilean and Polish Canadian couple and a Mexican showed up and paid their 50 pesos. The tour was quite interesting. It started in front of the Cathedral, where a large number of people had assembled. The tour guide told us they were going on a pilgrimage to the Church of the Virgin of Guadelupe and that we would be visiting the church as part of the tour. We saw first the fountain and statue to fertility, then the aqueduct, which was in use until the 1970s.

Morelia church of Our Lady of Guadelupe, main altar

We then stopped at the church of the Guadelupe close to one end of the aqueduct for 10 minutes. As I entered the church, the Hail Mary’s in Spanish got to me and I automatically started to recite them in French and Italian. The impulse was stronger than me. As a traveller, I decided I needed a medal of St. Christopher (the patron saint of travellers), so I asked for one at the small souvenir stand at the back of the church. They didn’t have a medal, but I got an image instead, which I duly put on the dash of the truck the next day. My godmother and aunt Nicolina will be very proud of me once my cousins Louis or Mike relate this to her.

Church of the Guadelupe and outside vendors

To those who want to point out that St. Christopher was desanctified by the Pope a while ago, I can only say that you understand nothing about what it means to be a Catholic, even an atheist one.

Outside the church was a big fiesta with all kinds of food stands: fruit (oranges, mangoes, papaya, apples), sugar cane, tacos and other fast food, religious souvenirs. The Virgen de Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, like St. Patrick for the Irish or St. John the Baptist for the French Canadians. In true catholic tradition, the Saint’s day (December 12th) is an occasion for not only religious veneration for also for joyful partying and feasting.

I was the last one on the tram car; they were waiting for me. Back to the other end of the aqueduct was the taco restaurant I mentioned that was closed last night. I asked the driver/guide if it was true it was the best in Morelia, and he begged to differ. He then went on to describe the cuisine of Morelia and especially carnitas, which are basically pork trimmings and innards cooked in lard. We happened to pass by the office of a cardiologist just then and I said: “¡Y aquí está el cardiólogo! (And here is he cardiologist!)” to general hilarity. The driver made a sarcastic comment about people on diet pigging out on carnitas and drinking a Coke Zero (Mexican version of diet Coke) to lose weight. We also went right to the end of the aqueduct where it originally petered out and went underground. It had been covered up in the 1970s when a more modern water supply system was installed and before they got the idea that it would be nice to preserve their unique heritage.

We also passed by the University Library which was originally the Jesuit college. The Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its possessions in 1767-68. The guide’s explanation was that the Jesuits were preaching human equality (I should say equality among men, I don’t think they even thought of the equality of men and women at the time) which implied an end to the slavery and inferior position of Indians the Spanish empire depended on. This was certainly the case in other parts of the Spanish and Portuguese empire like what is now Paraguay. The Jesuits were showing their progressive stance even then. Their special oath of obedience to the Pope meant that they could ignore the local religious authorities and do whatever they wanted, which is want they continue to do in their support for left-wing causes. I once read that Jesuit priests had the highest incidence of AIDS in the world, which is not surprising as their vow of celibacy prevents them from entering into long term relationships while the priesthood has always been the way the Catholic Church co-opted gay men and the nuns’ convents for gay women.

After the excellent tour, I wanted to stay in Morelia for a few more days to explore everything I learned. But I went for supper instead. I had seen a chocolate place advertising Mexican coffee as well as the restaurant the tramway guide guy had told me about on the Portal Hidalgo off the main square. I went to the coffee place and bought three pounds of coffee (ok, a kilo and a half) from different parts of Mexico: Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca. They recommended another restaurant across the street for typical Michoacán cuisine so I went there. I asked the waiter what was typical and what he liked best. I also asked for a recommendation about a Mexican wine. He turned his nose up a bit without saying anything or recommending any wine. The message was clear and I asked if I was better off drinking beer, which I ordered. He was right, Marilyn had what was supposed to be a pretty good Mexican wine tonight and it wasn’t. But then the grocery store clerk tried to steer us to Spanish wines. I had a pretty good meal but not spectacular but I remember the dessert, a corunda which was a sweet tamale covered in cream. I then went to the hotel, posted a blog entry and tried to get psyched up for the long trip to the Yucatán over the next few days.

Getting to Morelia, Part II

17 December 2009

Dear readers, sorry about the delay. I am with Marilyn in Sophie’s wonderful apartment in Puerto Aventuras, a resort community between Playa del Carmen and Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán peninsula. I reached Puerto Aventuras last Thursday—a week ago. Marilyn has been keeping me away from my blog. I know it’s not her fault, but I need someone to blame. Continuing with the narrative based on my notes and fallible memory.

Note that the subsequent day of this  narrative (December 5) has already been published as “Shit happens”.

Friday, 4 December, Culiacán, to Tepic, Nayarit

After the usual skimpy included-in-the-room-breakfast at the hotel (bad coffee and a brioche), I went looking for a bank machine first thing in the morning. I decided to walk down the main shopping drag in Culiacán. Well, I found the market. I was somewhat surprised to see that most of the stalls were butchers’ stalls with some fish mongers for variety, very few vegetable and fruit stands. I bought some oranges and mandarins at one and had a licuado de papaya at another, which is a sort of milkshake with papaya.

The Mexican diet seems to be very meat oriented, perhaps making up for the thousands of years when protein was scarce; other than beans and corn, protein sources included only small dogs, turkeys and the occasional prisoner who was ritually sacrificed and eaten. At least that is anthropologist Marvin Harris’ somewhat disputed thesis. We of Christian heritage should not be shocked or disgusted by ritual cannibalism, after all what is communion? And if you’re a practicing Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Lutheran, you believe in some form of transubstantiation where you are actually eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God.

The climate is definitely getting more tropical and the desert is gone, as the many palm trees attest.

I stopped for lunch in Mazatlán at yet another roadside restaurant, this time a seafood one. I wanted ceviche (raw fish in lime juice) and that’s what I had. The choice was camarones (prawns) or polpo (octopus). I would have preferred fish, but those were the choices, so I had the octopus. The owner also asked me if I wanted some camarone caldo. My Italian brain kicked in: “No I want ceviche, it’s supposed to be raw not hot! Anyway, I want octopus, not shrimp.” The owner and I try to discuss this –quite politely and pleasantly—but, obviously to both of us, misunderstanding each other.  Finally, I admit defeat and tell him just to serve me as he normally does, since I don’t understand and am interested in learning. So I get a bowl of shrimp consommé or broth. It finally dawns on me: “Luigi, you dumb wop! Caldo is hot in Italian, but not in Spanish; it means broth. Caliente is hot in Spanish. You knew that!”

It was an excellent ceviche, made right in front of me. The owner washed his hands, chopped the tomatoes, onions, octopus, put it all in a bowl and squeezed a bunch of lime on it. And it was immediately served to me with taco chips. It was perfect and done in a minute. And the octopus was tender. An orange soft drink completed the meal as those small restaurants do not serve beer.  I had the usual discussion about how cold it is in Canada, especially in the Yukon and how much I liked Mexico. Most people have no idea what freezing weather is like, never mind 40 below.

He also told me he believed in the bible, which he duly pulled out. I asked him if he was Catholic, and he told me he was Pentecostal. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to offend and he was happy not to discuss religion either. I don’t understand the attraction of the fundamentalist Protestant churches to the Mexicans and other Latin Americans. The bible thumping seems rather sterile after the beauty of the rituals of the Catholic church and the adaptation to local cultures, to the point that Catholicism may be accused of providing a thin veneer over the original paganism. But then, I never understood Protestantism: why give up on 1600 years of Christian tradition and only go by the parts of the bible that appeal to one’s prejudices: a bible that was written by Catholics (in the broad sense of the word, before the filioque East-West schism) and whose canon was only decided upon 400 years or so after the founding of the religion. I guess I should mind my own business as I am a non-believer: a Catholic atheist as I like to say. But, as I discovered later in Morelia, you can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy.

I continued on, hoping to get to Guadalajara by the evening. By then it was obvious that I would not make it to the Yucatan by Sunday. Marilyn was scheduled to arrive in Cancun on Sunday the 6th. I decided to call Marilyn and Janne in Calgary to let them know I would be late just after a toll booth on the autopista.

Calgary blizzard

They had just walked in the door and had a harrowing time driving from the airport in a blizzard.Now Janne lives just a few minutes from the airport in normal times. While they were fighting the snow and wind, I was looking at palm trees and flowers.

Autopista toll booth

Autopista toll booth

The last time Marilyn had been in a blizzard like that was in 1990 in Haines Junction where we spent a couple of days in Mom’s Cozy Corner Motel. It was a lot of fun. The one drive I remember was in 1987 or so when it took us 9 hours to drive from Montreal to Quebec City.

I stopped at a roadside vendor for coco frío (cold coconut). The vendor pulled a green coconut out of a cooler with ice, used his machete to cut a bit of the top and some kind of drill to poke a hole in the top, stuck a straw in it and handed me the coconut. I drank the milk which was quite refreshing. He then took his machete, chopped the coconut in four pieces and used a curved spatula tool to get the meat out. He put it in a plastic bag, asked me how much chile powder I wanted (I said not too much), and squeezed a lime in it. So I had coconut for the rest of the day. Put the lime in the coconut…drink it all up 🙂

Tepic cathedral

Tepic main square

Since I wasn’t going to make it to meet Marilyn on Sunday, I decided to stay in Tepic, a rather nice colonial town instead of trying to make it to Guadalajara. Using the Sanborn guide, I decided to stay at the Fray Junípero Serra hotel, downtown right next to the main square near the cathedral. The Blessed Brother Juniper Serra, the Apostle of California, was responsible for the creation of numerous missions in Alta California including Monterrey, Capistrano, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and San Diego. Given my experience the previous night in Culiacán, I decided to call ahead to reserve a room. It really wasn’t needed. I had a problem with the parking and had to go around a couple of times as taxi drivers refused (understandably) to let me park in their stand which was next to the occupied hotel street parking. We finally resolved matters with the help of a traffic policewoman who gracefully allowed me to park illegally on the other side of the street while I got my hotel room, while she went to investigate the people who were illegally parked in the hotel’s space.

At the desk, I met Giovanni, a bellhop who was much more like a concierge. He spoke perfect English: he told me he lived in the States for a number of years and got deported for being there illegally. A “wetback” in his words. I think his expulsion was a net loss for the US and I would be happy to have people like him come to Canada. Anyway, my camper was too high for the hotel’s underground parking lot, so I had to bring it to another lot a few blocks away. Giovanni came with me, helped me with my bags (quite heavy as they had many books). I gave a really good tip ($M200) and I said this was an American style tip. I also told him the old Florida joke about the difference between Canadians and canoes: canoes tip; and enjoined him to testify it is false.

I went out on the town, which was still busy and found a taquería that used home-made tortillas. The young waitress was rather indifferent but the older women who were making the tortillas and serving were quite friendly. I had a couple of tacos and a couple of quesadillas and three beers. I asked them about beers they had and decided to try a few. One of the women sat at my table to eat her tacos, ostensibly to keep me company since I was alone. She was subject to quite a bit of teasing by colleagues, but I defended her and said I was quite happy to have some company. We talked a bit and I told her I was meeting my wife in Cancún, so things did not go anywhere. She eventually had to get up to serve another set of customers.

I went back to the hotel, wrote a bit on the blog, which did not get published until much later.

Observations on previous entries.

I forgot to mention a couple of things on previous entries.

On the Getting to Morelia, Part I entry.

I handed the chicken restaurant woman a 500 peso note instead of a 50 and told her to keep the change. She could have just kept it, but she pointed out to me that it was a 500, not a fifty. I did leave her a good tip. A few metres away was a stand that sold horchatas. I asked the seller what it was and he made me one. It was a very good thick drink, tasting of rice and milk but sweet.

On the Shit Happens entry

I forgot to mention I got a bottle of tequila in Tequila from an ambulante (street vendor) at an autopista toll booth. It all looked official as the four or five vendors had identification tags from the municipality of Tequila. I paid $M200 for a really tacky and ugly wood covered bottle. I asked the other vendors which one was the best. Then the vendor tried to sell me a 3-litre plastic bottle, first for $M500, then 500 pesos for both, and finally, as I was driving away, 200 pesos for the 3 litres. I guess I paid a little too much for the first bottle, but $CDN18 for a 26-ouncer isn’t all that bad.

While stuck in traffic in Guadalajara, I noticed quite a few gated communities. I reflected that this is not a good thing for citizenship. If the upper middle class and the upper class lock themselves away from their fellow citizens, where is the impetus or support going to come to improve lives, reduce crime and generally improve community conditions. Many social improvements—and as a social-democrat I might not like it but I recognize the reality—happen when the better off people recognize that it is in their interest to improve the conditions of those who are less well off or are motivated by a sense of noblesse oblige toward their community. If these gated communities expand, we might end up in a Randian dystopia of every man for himself and the death of heterogeneous human communities where all are more or less accepted, or at least not denied the right to be part of the community. This is somewhat ironic as I am currently staying in a gated community where locals get checked out before they are allowed in, but somehow one one for tourists does not seem as bad.

Getting to Morelia, Part I

7 December 2009

Monday, 7 December, Morelia, Michoacan

I am writing this having a cerveza under the porticos in the main plaza in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. The truck is the shop (I should say taller) again suffering from a broken U-joint (cruceta or cardán) on the driveshaft (arbol). But before you GM haters say anything, it turns out the same thing happens to new boy sheep trucks. If you see my page on Facebook, you will see that Lil told me that Simon had the same problem with his new Dodge Ram.

I could pick worse places to break down, like halfway up the pass between the South Canol and Seagull Creek, where I went moose hunting this year. Morelia is a delightful colonial city with a very beautiful historic centre. I could easily spend more time here.

I still have 1,300 kilometres to go to get to Sophie’s apartment near Playa del Carmen. Marilyn arrived there last night (Sunday). She told me she is in paradise: beautiful apartment, beaches, swimming pools, dolphins frolicking with people, perfect weather and hardly anyone there. Sophie is definitely getting the good bed next time she comes to Whitehorse!

Continuing with the narrative of how I got to Morelia, we go back to last Wednesday

3 December, Guaymas to Culiacan, Sinaloa, day 2 in Mexico

As I drove south, the landscape became more agricultural and less desert like. In Ciudad Obregon there were many silos and flour mills and some vegetable oil mills. Eventually the desert gave way to flat country, large fields with much stuff growing that will most likely end up on our grocery shelves this winter. Definitely not campesino agriculture; clearly the industrial kind requiring large investments in machinery and irrigation.  I was then in Sinaloa

For lunch—this will surprise many of you—I had half a charcoal roasted chicken, the pollo asado sobre carbón, a specialty of Sinaloa, and—get this—salsa with cilantro. All with a squeeze of lime on it, of course, since this is México and limón goes on everything. The chicken was excellent, as was the salsa. I am either getting over my dislike of foul, I meant fowl, or Mexican chicken is that good. The smell of roasting chicken is all over the place, and I actually find it wonderful.

It is true that travel changes one; I have disliked chicken since I walked into Zinmann’s  Jewish-Italian poultry store with my mother at the Jean-Talon market in Montreal many years ago. I gagged and had a hard time not vomiting from the foul fowl smell. So telling me that something tasted like chicken was not a good way of getting me to try something. The only chicken I could stand were the chicken sandwiches at McDonald’s, which tasted nothing like chicken, and boiled chicken breast smeared with tons of salsa verde made with anchovies, capers and parsley.

There were also some small holdings with a few cows or goats. Getting further south, I saw a number of cowboys herding cattle. Therioux points out that much of the cowboy culture and lingo comes from Mexico, even the word lingo. The other things Mexican cowboys gave include lassos, corrals, rodeos and the big, wide-brimmed hat. Well, they are still there in Mexico at least in Sonora and Sinaloa.

Arriving in Culiacán, I had a hard time finding a hotel, the first one did not have room, the one they sent me looked a little seedy, and the third also did not have a room. Finally I landed at the Hotel … which had recently opened. I have to add that I lost my way a few times, the f… GPS mislead me and led me into a number of dead ends and sent me the wrong way in some one-way streets. Luckily, Mexican drivers are quite tolerant of stupid gringos.

I have to add that Culiacán gave me a definite European impression, much more than anywhere else I have been in Mexico so far. On the other hand, I found out it is the drug capital of Mexico and I guess it was not surprising it was patrolled by federales and soldiers in pickup trucks wearing the requisite flak jackets, helmets, machine guns and passe-montagne to hide the face.

Supper was another overcooked hunk of beef at a restaurant suggested by the hotel clerk, who was also going there for some take-out. The steak was actually quite good and tender despite not being bleeding red the way I prefer it. Mexican restaurant menus all have a warning about the health dangers of eating undercooked meat. Give me a break!!

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.

6 December 2009

Wednesday 2 December, Green Valley AZ to Guaymas, Sonora

Nogales

I missed the breakfast as it ended at 9:30 Mountain time and I was still on Pacific time. Headed out to Nogales AZ to get auto insurance. Mexican insurance is compulsory in Mexico, and it is available at the border. One insurance company seems to be recommended in most of the guidebooks: Sanborns. They also publish a series of guidebooks (Logbooks) which describe what there is at different mile points along most routes through Mexico. Something similar to the Milepost, for those who are familiar with driving on the Alaska Highway, but the Milepost is much better.

Their insurance also allows your vehicle to be repaired in the US. However, why one would want to do that given the obvious competence of Mexican mechanics, judging by the vehicles they manage to keep running. I stopped at an insurance/real estate agency. For some reason, they don’t want to insure my truck for road breakdowns, it couldn’t be ‘cause it’s only 20 years old. I did live to regret this, twice but it only happened on Saturday and Sunday.

I crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona around 10:00AM. The difference was immediately obvious. At first I thought it seemed a bit European, but then I corrected myself: definitely not European or USian. I first tried to stop at a bank to get some pesos. I couldn’t figure out what the big “E” in the traffic signs meant. It dawned on me after a while, of course, that it means Estacionamiento—Parking. That was weird to me because even in Québec they use the “P”, even though, like in Mexico, they like putting the local language on stop signs. Anyway, I ended up parking on the street, went to the bank machine and collected some pesos. I didn’t stop any longer in Nogales but continued on.

The customs offices are 20 kms south of Nogales. First you need a tourist card, then a temporary vehicle importation permit. They also need photocopies of all the relevant documents, which can be done there for a quite reasonable 25 cents US each, or M$2.50. But it took the cashier at the Banjercito almost an hour to check my stuff and make two credit card payment. As I waited, I saw a pick-up truck full of federales in full battle gear—flak jackets, machine guns and stahlhelm—go by. I thought oh-oh!

Then to the customs. I decided to declare the wine I was carrying. In theory, you go through and if there is a green light you don’t get checked. If you are unlucky enough to get a red light, they go through your vehicle with a fine tooth comb. I didn’t want to take a chance in losing all that expensive wine I bought in Oregon and California. It seems I am allowed six litres of wine, so I had to pay duty on 4 bottles of a $M450.00 or so. This was totally and completely above board, with two customs agents taking my money and giving me a receipt which we all signed. Not even a hint of a suggestion that anything that was not completely honest would be acceptable. But the custom guards were a lot friendlier than I usually experienced in Canada and the US.

As an aside, it seems that Mexico has got rid of most of the corruption, at least at the lower levels. Like Canada and the US, I am sure it is rife at the higher political levels, especially (but not exclusively) among the right-wing parties. There are signs everywhere for phone numbers where once can anonymously denounce corrupt officials. It seems the days of the mordida are gone. Sanborns’ guide has this to say about the police in Mexico:

“You’ve probably heard nothing but bad stories about Mexican police. Most of them are helpful, polite and honest. While it’s true that many years ago, mordida was a way of life, things have changed. The best advice is to approach each policeman with the attitude that he is honest and just doing his job. … Some travelers have told us about policemen went out of their way to help them or guide them out of town when they were lost.”

I would act that the actions of the federales against the drug traffickers in the border towns—many of them actually losing their lives—is not exactly indicative of a corrupt police force.

Back to the chronology, I decided to stop for tacos for lunch. I saw a lot of taquerías along the way, but usually too late for me to stop. Finally, I saw one where I managed to stop at about 12:30: Taquería Lupita.

Taqueria Lupita

A customer eating there told me they were the best tacos in Sonora, made with home-made flour tortillas. They were certainly the best tacos I ever had. Birria and cabeza tacos, both with meat and covered with lettuce and tomatoes. I asked what birria meant, and the owner told me it was cow meat (carne de vaca), it turns out it is some kind of beef stew. When I first saw the word birria, my Italian mind’s immediate thought was that it was beer, birra. The tacos were served open-faced and you had to fold them yourself. I had an interesting conversation with the owner about languages and the similarities between Spanish, French and Italian. He knew some Italian from seeing movies. Lupita, his wife was rather shy and did not talk very much although she beamed quite obviously when the other customer complimented her home-made tortillas.

According to my Lonely Planet Mexico guide, it turns out that there is one of the best roast meat places in Mexico right next to the taquería: Asadero Leo’s. I should have eaten there too. This is a problem with Mexico: too many good places to eat and too much stuff to try. An unlike Europe where I know something of what the regional specialities are, I have a lot to learn about Mexican food. So much for being on a diet. But at least I am no longer snacking at night, which was one of my major downfalls.

The road continued in the Sonoran desert, which makes sense because I am in Sonora. Interestingly, the Okanagan first nation and others claim that the Sonoran desert continues into the southern end of the Okanagan in Osoyoos and Oliver. I guess some of the vegetation is the same. A lot of the desert looks like a giant orchard, with small trees or bushes evenly spaced. The saguaros (or sahuaros) were more impressive in Sonora than in Arizona, and there seems to be many more kinds of cactuses. I stopped for a break south of Guaymas on a side dirt road and took pictures of the vegetation.

Sahuaro forest

Sahuaro forest

A couple more things struck me: the colourful cemeteries and the roadside shrines. All of a sudden, there is this splash of colour and bight white, and it turns out to be a cemetery.

Sinaloa CemetaryI made it to Guaymas, stayed at the Armida hotel, which also has a famous steak house. While the steak house was full, I was directed to the hotel restaurant which featured the same menu. I had an overcooked filete (filet mignon wrapped in bacon) with mushroom sauce. Maybe I did not make myself clear to the waiter.

Shit happens

6 December 2009

5 December, Tepic, Nayarit to Morelia, Michoacan

In case you’re wondering, yes, I am now in Mexico and am still working on the blog entries for the last few days’ driving, which will be a lot more informative and interesting, I hope. I just had to get this off today. I am half-way to Cancun where I am supposed to meet Marilyn today (Sunday). But I obviously won’t make it as I still have 1300 kms to go.

On Saturday, I woke up wit a queasy stomach. Went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, where I had fruit and oatmeal. The fruit was kind of boring and rather flavourless: watermelon, cantaloupe, banana, mango, pineapple and a few maraschino cherries. The oatmeal was mostly milk, rather than the solid Scottish porridge I was hoping for. The queasy stomach turned into a full blown “turista”. I stopped at a pharmacy, got some Imodium and also took some antibiotics the doctor gave me in Vancouver. I also finally took the cholera/diarrhoea vaccine I was given in Vancouver.

Suffice it to say that I welcomed the toll booths with their toilets, despite the outrageous Mexican tolls. People have complained about my too graphic previous descriptions so I will stop here and not describe the varied quality and cleanliness of autopista toilets.

The turista gradually abated, and I survived the day on water, Gatorade (on sale, boy that stuff is gross) to replenish the electrolytes, and one orange. Should be good for my diet.

I got stuck in traffic for an hour in Guadalajara (Mexico’s 2nd largest city). Why can’t I go around any city without getting stuck? Kept going and decided I would try to make it to Toluca south of Mexico city. After a while, I pass a gas station look at my gauge and see about one-quarter tank left. I figure I better gas up at the next station on the autopista. I drive 7 drive, but no more gas stations, when up to that point there was one every 50 to 100 kms at every toll booth. At the next toll booth, I ask where is the next gas station, the toll attendant tells me 54 kilometres. Looking at my gauge, I figure that I should be able to make it, but just in case I will drive slow. I get to the next toll booth, and the attendant tells me the gas station is closed and the next one is 24 kilometres. I start to get worried and my worries are justified after another 15 kilometres. So I call the number of the roadside assistance on the map I got from Sanborn, the insurance company, but it turns out that it is the wrong insurance company and a different company underwrote my policy. I finally call the right insurance company, and after some discussion, since my policy does not cover roadside assistance, they send a tow truck for which I have pay $1,800 pesos.

As I get out of the truck, a whole bunch of paper goes flying out on the highway. It takes me a minutes to realize it’s all my money that went flying out of my pocket. I panic, but then I decide to get the flashlight and recover what I can. But it is windy. I do manage to find about 3,000 pesos in the grassy median.

A few hours later, around 9:00PM, the tow truck shows up, they siphon 40 litres of gas into my truck and I pay them $1,800 (that’s pesos, not dollars, divide by 12 to get dollars), $1,500 for the service and $800 for the gas.

The tow truck follows me into Morelia, and I stop at the first gas station. I put in $400 worth of gas as I don’t have much cash and notice an HSBC ATM, which only lets me withdraw $1,000 as I had taken out $3,000 in Tepic that morning.

I waver between getting a hotel and sleeping in the camper, but the accessibility of a toilet makes the hotel win. I get to the Quality Inn (which is wrong in the GPS, it has the address for the Holiday Inn). My credit card won’t work for some reason after numerous tries of putting in my PIN, so I pay cash instead. That’s when I realize I don’t have my bank card. I head back to the gas station (20kms each way), ask but nobody has seen the card. I call the Bank of Montreal to cancel the card, go back to the hotel and get to bed around 1:00AM.

Luckily, knowing myself, I have travellers’ cheques, so I can hopefully get some cash today.

Through the desert on a truck with no name …

2 December 2009

1 December Palm springs CA to Green Valley AZ.

Got up at 8:00 although I had wanted to get up earlier to do my laundry. I must be more tired than I think, or it was the LA traffic that did me in. Had breakfast at the hotel, did the laundry and left Indio around 11:00AM.

I-10 in the desertDesert scenery all the way except around Blythe CA where there is some agriculture. I saw my first saguaro cactus just after I crossed the Colorado River into Arizona. I took a lot of pictures of saguaros. Here is this icon of the western desert, seen in innumerable cowboy flicks and cartoons.

The second one was taken from far. I thought og getting closer, but then I thought; “Hmmm, desert, rattlers, scorpions, maybe not a good idea”. Grizzlies I can deal with, you see sign, you hear them and generally can see them coming, but those small poisonous critters, I don’t know.

ratty 1st saguaro

ratty 1st saguaro

classic saguaro

classic saguaro

No lunch stop: I survived on fruits and nuts left over from yesterday. I took the highway 95 bypass to Gila Bend on I-8 to avoid the rush hour traffic around Phoenix (Is there a rush hour in Phoenix? I don’t know but did not want to repeat the LA & SF experiences.) Turned off on I-19 towards Nogales around Tucson.

On I-19, I did a double take as I saw a road sign in kilometers, but the speed limits are still in mph.

I arrived in Green Valley around 7:30 PST, went for supper at an American restaurant (pot roast with corn and mashed potatoes, washed down with a Sam Adams) and checked in to the hotel where I had an interesting conversation with the desk person.

Driving in the States

I didn’t realize how thoroughly metrified (metricated?) I had become until this trip. I had to convert distances back into kilometers and speed into kph. Same for temperatures. Overall, it seems that Americans are slow drivers, generally respecting speed limits (always with some exceptions), unlike Canadians who tend to drive 10-15kph above the limit. They are also polite; I never got honked at once, except as a thank you after I let someone pass in the curvy Highway of the Redwoods. However, the rush hour driving around LA was just as crazy as Montreal, with some people trying to create an additional lane. In Montreal, it doesn’t bother me as I usually know where I’m going, but I did miss an exit around Riverside. Also, Americans do not see that the left lane is for passing and the right for driving: they will take any lane to pass you.

I have to say that the sanest expressway drivers are—believe it or not—in Italy where they drive at crazy speeds (speed limit is 130kph (80mph), so the minimum speed is 140kph (87mph) except for the trucks who drive at 100-110). But they stay in their lane, signal that they are about to pass by flashing their high beams, signal when they change lanes (suicidal motorcyclists excepted). The calmest heavy traffic driving I ever did in an urban area was around Rome, where everyone was driving at 130-140!

Mañana México!

California is the place I oughta be, loaded up the truck and drove to …

1 December 2009

Fort Bragg. OK, not as sexy as Beverly Hills. California! Where it seems so many things in our western culture get their start: Hollywood and stars and celebrities, Disney and Mickey and Yogi, surfing, expressways/freeways/motorways and the automobile culture, blondes in convertibles and hot tubs, fast food and McDonald’s, Haight-Ashbury and hippies and massive recreational drug use, Berkeley and the peace movement, fern bars and sushi and fusion cuisine, varietal wines (the point that now even the venerable burgundies are putting “Pinot Noir” on their labels, as if they could be anything else), JPL sending us into space and Silicon Valley into cyberspace, etc.

27 November, Highway of the Redwoods to Fort Bragg

Got up fairly early & drove down the curvy and twisty Highway of the Redwoods to Crescent City on California’s coast, not without occasionally stopping to admire the big trees.

I stopped at a Home Depot to buy a crescent wrench for the propane tank and took a look at the lumber. I was appalled: “construction quality” doug fir full of loose knots, waney edges, rot pockets. I won’t speak of the unspeakable “Whitewood”. That stuff should have gone into the chipper to make ass-wipe or termite puke board, not construction lumber.

I had a bad smoked salmon omelette in Crescent City and continued along the curvy and twisty coast road.

View from Crescent City dock

Vista from Crescent City dock

I managed to piss off quite a few Californicators in their sports cars with my slow driving. Par for the course, revenge for these Californian old farts in their bus-sized RVs who are always slowing us down on the Alaska Highway and who don’t bother to pull over. Maybe we need signs like they have in California telling slow traffic to pull over at pull-outs to let others pass.

I got to Fort Bragg around 4:00 PM. Lymond Hardy took me to the College of the Redwoods http://www.crfinefurniture.com/ woodworking school where I met a number of his fellow students as well as Brian the man responsible for their amazing stash of wood. For those not familiar with wooddorking, the woodworking school at the College of the Redwoods is probably the best school in North America and notoriously difficult to get into, so it is quite an accomplishment for Lymond to just getting accepted. The school was made famous by its founder and inspiration – http://jameskrenov.com/ James Krenov – who died recently. While I am not a particular fan of his designs – they look spindly and unbalanced – I recognize Krenov’s incredible workmanship.

Lymond and Brian

Lymond and David Welter

Lymond is making a blanket chest for his first project: coopered sides and top, held together with dovetails. Its mass and solid look make it decidedly un-krenovian and respects Lymond’s style: he is into mass.

Lymond's chest

Lymond's chest

Both of us were to tired to cook that night, so after drinking the bottle of bad lambrusco and some even worse Sangiovese (which will get turned into vinegar, shouldn’t take long), we went to a French restaurant where we had the mushroom tasting menu and crab cakes. It was OK, not bad, maybe even pretty good but we were nevertheless disappointed.

28 November, Saturday, Fort Bragg & Mendocino
Finally, sunny t-shirt weather! Well over 10 degrees Celsius! I am in California!!

After a lazy morning, we drove to south to Mendocino where we bought a bottle of California sparkly to celebrate Louise’s (Lymond’s mother’s) birthday. They were having a party back in Whitehorse. We also visited a furniture gallery full of furniture made by graduates and teachers at the college of the Redwoods. Nothing really grabbed me except for an Ash chair made by a woodworker who is to teach next semester. We also went into a place that has massive wood slabs, mainly of local reclaimed wood (redwood and cypress),  some of it old growth.Luigi with curly redwood slab

We had lunch outside in the sun where I actually started sweating even though a guy next to us had a fur hat and quilted jacket and most people wore jackets. We Yukoners are tough!

We then went to a winery right on the coast: http://www.pacificstarwinery.com/ Pacific Star. Lymond had previously met the owner, Sally Ottoson, and talked about me and how I was disappointed in the quality of the grapes I was getting and the wines I have been making in the past few years. She said she wanted to meet me and might help in finding grapes.Pacific Star winery

Anyway, there were a lot of people when we got there and Markus, her partner who used to be a chiropractor, was hard-pressed to keep up.

Pinot noir on the shore

Pinot noir on the shore

We did try a number of wines and she does use a couple of grapes I have never heard of: Roussanne—a white from the Rhône—and Charbono—a red from Savoie but also used in the Val d’Aoste. The wine is also aged in barrels which are left outside, to be exposed to the sea air. And it is aged in barrels for a long time, like up to 8-9 years. This is pretty impressive, I would be very fearful of barrels going bad in that time.

The wines I really liked were a white Viognier-Roussanne, the Barbera, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. I have to note that Lymond is a bit of a Zin addict: he started drinking wine when he was about 10 or 11 when I fed him my Zinfandel cut with ginger ale. So he has been more than partial to Zins ever since.

As there were still a lot of people, we got a bottle of 2002 Pinot Noir and went to drink it by the sea. I also had a piece of cheese I had bought in Seattle: a cheddar with the consistency of Port Salut. So we cut off the mould and had that with the wine. I also lent a sweater to Lymond as the wind made us decide to give up on our northern tough guy act. The Pinot noir was quite disappointing when we first tasted it, but it greatly, massively improved with time, so that by the end of the bottle, it was excellent. It needed time to air out. I finally got to talk to Sally after almost everyone had left, and jokingly complained that she should have opened the Pinot Noir a couple of hours before we got there. She got us to try a Charbono-Barbera, which was excellent. I then remembered I had some Vidal ice-wine in the camper, so I went to get a couple of 200ml botlles. We tried one and it was disappointing, not as good as I had hoped. I think I’ll have to let Lymond in our wine cellar at Christmas time and bring Sally back a really good bottle of ice wine.

For those not in the “know”, ice wine is quite appropriately a Canadian specialty made with grapes frozen on the vine. The grapes have to be harvested when it’s at least -10 or -12 Celsius and immediately pressed at low temperatures to extract the freeze-concentrated juice. It was originally a German thing, called eiswein, made in special years when it got cold enough. But in Canada, we can do it consistently as it always gets cold enough.

After that we went home where Lymond cooked up an excellent meal: abalone wrapped in prosciutto, battered lightly and deep fried. Superb! I also had some raw abalone, equally excellent. But it does require a serious beating. Lymond had invited two friends, Doug a colleague at the College of the Redwoods and Jennifer, his girlfriend.

29 November, Fort Bragg to the Central Valley.

I took it easy in the morning, updated the blog and had a few cups of coffee. Tim, Lymond’s roommate, came back from visiting his family in Marin and we went out for a coffee.

Lymond and Tim

Lymond and Tim

I got ready to leave and needed to get some stuff in the back of the camper. A total mess! One of the hatches had opened and a bottle of olive oil had spilled all over. Yuck!!! I had to go buy a mop with Lymond and cleaned up the camper. The floor is now cleaner than it’s ever been since Marilyn last went at it. Lymond made lunch of home-canned albacore on toast. Excellent as usual, his room-mates sure do appreciate his cooking. He gave me a can of albacore and I gave him a pound of Yukon Midnight Sun coffee and a can of my sauerkraut, which he had never tried.

Finally got going around 1:30. Drove through southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma county on highway 99. The countryside reminded me very much of Italy, with low hill, vineyards and the narrow autostrada, except that the cars were going at 140kph. Not surprising that Italian immigrants found the place so congenial. The pictures I took through the windshield don’t do it justice.

Got stuck in traffic around San Francisco. I really wanted to spend time there, but I do have to get to Cancun to meet Marilyn and time is getting short. Continued south, stopped for a subway sandwich and then went into a Best Western Motel Apricot, where I crashed out after quick call to Marilyn.

30 November, San Joaquin valley and LA traffic.

Had breakfast at the Apricot restaurant, French toast smothered in apricot syrup with canned apricots on the side. Went down the San Joaquin valley, which reminded me very much of central Spain: the dry almost desert flat plain with the Sierra Nevada in the background. Saw a number of signs on empty fields saying “Congress created this dust bowl”. Apparently, there is a shortage of water due to some smelt in San Francisco Bay or the delta of the San Joaquin/Sacramento Rivers. The one farmer I talked to was slightly incoherent ranting about environmentalists. While we can blame politicians for any number of things, I don’t think dustbowls are one of them. They are usually caused by farmers planting inadequately drought resistant and inappropriate crops.San Joaquin valley view from hotel

One thing I found interesting in the San Joaquin was the intensity of plantings: fruit trees 10 feet apart, intensively panted vegetables all obviously dependent on massive irrigation, next to fields of sagebrush and other desert vegetation. What clinched it for me was seeing pear cactus growing at the end of an orchard. When I drove through Spain many years ago, the fruit tree and vine plantings were much further apart and adapted to the amount of water available.
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Anyway, I bought some fresh fruit at one roadside fruit stand (persimmons and grapes) where I got to speak Spanish, and mandarin oranges, almonds and pistachios at another. The fruit and nuts were my lunch. I was surprised to see a skiff of snow at the Tejon pass, near LA, which went up to 1,400 metres according to my GPS.

I got stuck in traffic twice around Los Angeles, and probably wasted a total of four hours. I got there around noon and did not get out of Riverside until 5:30. I then stopped at the Best Western Date Tree Hotel in Indio, just past Palm Springs, in the desert, where I am writing this.