Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

Borders, borders everywhere

23 May 2011

Last I wrote, I was in Granada, Nicaragua. The following day, I drove to Las Peñitas to stay for a day with Chris Dray and Yami Torrens. Yukoners will remember Chris as the former Director of the Arts Centre as well as the founder of the Guild way back when. Anyway, Chris wanted to do this real estate development close to the Pacific beach in Nicaragua, but the bottom fell out of the market with the 2009 depression. He is now farming, raising cattle while Yami is going to veterinary school.

View of the Pacific from Chris & Yami's place

Ah Honduras! A place to avoid if at all possible until the country gets its shit together: the highest murder rate in the world, one of the highest crime rates, an illegitimate government elected after a coup, and the most crooked police force I have ever encountered. Actually our first trip was sort of OK, although we did have issues with a tramite (border helper) who wanted us to get involved in all kinds of shady deals and would not leave us alone in Copán, and police who tried unsuccessfully to shake us down. This time, though I was shaken down twice by the police (the cops extorted $75 from me). I bitched about Panamanians being dishonest, but Hondurans will just steal from you. At least Panamanians try to use their wiles and not just intimidation.

Actually, the first tramite who helped across from Nicaragua to Honduras, Gustavo, seemed like a good guy; I even tipped him $10 more than the $10 he originally asked for. At least he got me into an air conditioned office while the Honduran customs officer took her time to take her finger out of her arse to fill out a simple form. She was actually quite pleasant, but spent a lot more time chatting with Gustavo and others and talking on her cell phone than working. Gustavo told me his dream was to go to Canada; he even lived in Minnesota for awhile because it was the closer. He tried getting in, but Canadian immigration wouldn’t, although they did not report him to the US “Migra“. He did eventually get deported from the US.

Before hiring Gustavo, I went through the Nicaraguan exit processes on my own. First wait in line for half an hour until the Nicaraguan customs officer deigned to look at my temporary vehicle importation permit, stamp if a few times and told me to go to immigration. At least I got to chat with a couple of truck drivers. They told me they usually have to wait about 12 hours to get through Costa Rican Customs. But once in Nicaragua, they can easily get into the other Central American countries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) who sort of have a common customs and immigration process. However, as a foreigner, I do have to get a separate importation permit in each country for the pick-up and I also get my passport stamped by immigration. You get a total of 90 days for all four countries, so by the time I got to Guatemala, I only had 84 days left.

Line-up of trucks waiting to get into Nicaragua at Costa Rica border

At immigration, everyone was waiting at one window while the other one was open, until someone asked if we could go to it. I let the guy who had been in front of me go ahead before me at the second window even though he got there after me. I told him that I was from Canada where queues are sacred. He laughed saying that was not exactly the case in Nicaragua and we had a good chat.

The next border was from Honduras to el Salvador. I won’t say anything about my tramite because I would not want him to get in trouble. First the cop–whose name is , according to my tramite — extorted $40.00 from me because I did not have a “title” for the truck, even though I told him how come they let me in the country. He threatened to do a thorough inspection on my vehicle, which would have probably taken hours. My tramite suggested I bribe him $50.00, and then $40.00. So the cop let me go.

At the border, I let the tramite take my passport and go make copies. He told me he needed $15.00 and I gave him a $20 bill. I think it was a mistake not to go with him, but anyway, he gave me back my change. He later asked me for another $15 to pay for something or other. Anyway, go with your tramite when you are crossing the border, you will feel more comfortable that he is not ripping you off.

Then we needed to go to immigration, pay $12.00 for fumigation which did not happen. I don’t mind the fumigation at the borders: it is there to protect their agricultural industries on which these countries depend so much. We do that in Canada when you leave Newfoundland, which has a potato wart disease not present in the potato growing regions of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Anyway, we got to the border where there was a Honduran tourism department survey. They asked me how much I spent. I said: “$100.00. No, make that $175 including $75 in tips to the police.” The policeman next to the survey taker just smiled. Arsehole!!

Off to El Salvador, where the procedure was the usual: immigration to get my tourist stamp and then to Customs to get the vehicle importation permit. So I had to go down the hill, waiting outside in the heat where a customs officer finally deigned to look at my vehicle. He got quite friendly after I started talking to him and showed him the truck. He gave me a 60 days importation permit and we had a good chat. However, there was a mistake in the permit: he forgot to put the expiry date so he had to get his boss to approve him printing out another form. One last check on the border and I am on my way to San Salvador to the hotel I had reserved. I hand the tramite the $20.00 and he tells me he needs another $12.00 for the fumigation, which he says he had told me about earlier. I vaguely remembered him mentioning that and did not want to argue, so I gave it to him. Just inside El Salvador, I stop at a store to buy something to drink. A guy calls out to me and says my tramite had promised that I would give him a tip. I told him he did not. he insisted he did, so I told him that the tramite had lied to him and basically told him to fuck off.

The next day to Guatemala, I didn’t think I really needed a tramite, but I got one anyway. Procedure was quite simple in leaving El Salvador: Immigration for the passport stamp and Customs to hand in my importation permit. I do get a tramite, but this time I stick with him. The procedure is also OK in Guatemala: First immigration where they give me 84 days (of the original 90s I got in Nicaragua). Then to the SAT office—Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria, i.e. Department of Revenue or Finance. First hand in all the vehicle permits, then they give me a bill (160 Quetzales or about $20.00) for the vehicle permit, which is for 90 days. The amount surprises my tramite as it is usually less. On the other hand, according to what I have read on the web, the amount seems to be at the whim of the customs office. Not that htere is any corruption involved as everything is receipted and has to go through three hand. The across to the bank office where I pay it, then take the receipt across to yet another window where they hand me a sticker for my windshield.

I then drive to Antigua where I stay at the hotel Entre Volcanes and also give a call to Philip Wilson who kindly hosted my truck in his organic coffee farm last year. It’s nice to be among friends again. I also buy a piece of cloth to be used for our bedstead in Whitehorse. The next day off to Huehuetenango not far from the Mexican border. I am really dreading the border again, especially since I suspect we did not hand in or vehicle importation permit when we left Mexico for Belize in January 2010. Anyway, I know I don’t need a tramite at this border: the Mexicans frown upon it.

At the Guatemalan immigration, one of the agents asks me how to say “I am going to Mexico” in French. It turns out he has relatives in Montreal and has visited the city (where I was born & grew up, for those who don’t know). We had a little chat about Montreal. Then to the SAT office where I ask advice about what to do with my permit. I can chose to either hand it in, in which I cannot go back to Guatemala with the vehicle for another 90 days, or I can suspend it and go back anytime before it expires. There is no penalty or anything if I just let it expire without going back. No problem, so I suspend the permit just in case they do not let me into Mexico.

First Mexico immigration, fill out the card and get my 6-month tourist visa. Then to the Banjercito office to get a temporary vehicle importation permit. I tell the agent about having entered Mexico in December 2009 and leaving the following January. He looks at my truck registration which says that the vehicle capacity is 3,900 kilograms. He tells me that his records show I did not hand in my permit. I have a vague memory of talking with to a guy with a white t-shirt at the Belize border about it. Anyway, he tells me the real problem is the weight of the vehicle; the limit is no more than 3.5 tonnes.

He asks me what kind of vehicle; I tell him a normal pick-up with a camper. He looks at the truck and says that it is a small vehicle. He asks me if it could be in pounds rather than kilos, I do answer honestly that we have been using kilos for 30 years in Canada. He tells me he has to call his boss to see if he can give me a permit. I wait for about an hour in the heat; go get the required photocopies made. Finally, I go back in and he is on the phone. He smiles at me, takes my credit card ($30.00 or so) and gives me the permit and the sticker for the windshield. I suspect the wait was actually a slap on the wrist for not turning in my previous importation permit. I then go to the customs officer and ask him if he wants to see my truck. He takes a cursory look in and tells me everything is fine.

I have to say that I did not run into corrupt customs officers nor did I have to pay any bribes or tips to speed things up. The process was slow and bureaucratic and inefficient, but not corrupt, unlike the Panamanian customs in the middle of the country or the Honduran extortionist cops. The only time they checked my luggage was when I was leaving Panama, and they would only take a cursory look inside the camper.

Then into México, Chiapas State to be precise. Although Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, it is obviously so much more prosperous than Guatemala. That night in San Cristobál de las Casa where I finally find the San Nicholas RV Park after asking for directions and driving around the really narrow streets of the historic centre. Mexico has great roads, but you don’t want to be driving an extended-cab-long-box pick-up with a camper in the older parts of most towns, no more than you would want to do it in Vieux Québec, Old Montreal or the older parts of Boston or Philly. Unlike Central America, there are lots of real pick-ups in Mexico and few rice-burners, probably fewer than in Canada. But then gas is still less that $1.00 a litre for super. The next day a long drive to Córdoba in Veracruz state and yesterday yet another longer drive to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. Tomorrow to Melaque, park the truck at Pam and Bernie Phillips lot and fly out to Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon.


The dangers of Mexico

9 February 2011

We are now in north-eastern Costa Rica, in the Selva Verde Lodge in the Sarapiquí region. But I continue the story with more on Mexico City.

Mexico City proved extremely dangerous, especially for me. And not because of drug dealers, or pickpockets, or street crime. The real danger is the food. And not because of the “turista” or “Montezuma’s revenge”; food preparation is actually very hygienic. Mexicans seem to be constantly washing their hands, the supermarkets sell all kinds of disinfectants for the same Mexican vegetables and fruits we import and eat with impunity in Canada.

The real dangers in Mexico City are tacos and quesadillas and chiles rellenos and salsas and tortillas and tamales and churros and manteca and mantequilla and all manners of other local foods. Particularly dangerous are the high-end restaurants, the humble hole in the wall taquerías, the street food sellers, and all other establishments preparing and selling food. It should come as no surprise that Mexicans are even fatter than Americans. (Or should I be polite and say they have a higher rate of obesity?) Not that Canadians are much better; our fat behinds are not that far behind. North America is unquestionably the fattest continent on Earth.

Let’s not forget that the conquest of Mexico resulted in a dietary revolution in most of the world: corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, turkey, vanilla, and chocolate all originated in Mexico, as did chewing gum (chicle).

The Mexicans seem to be as fanatic about their food as Italians. They all think the best food in the world is their mother’s, then their city’s or region’s, then the food from other Mexican regions. They will only grudgingly admit that other countries might have some good dishes, especially Italy.

As an aside, Italian and Italy are sexy in Mexico. The city and the country are rife with misspelled Italian words: the favourite seems to double up consonants to make the works look more “Italian” as Spanish does not have double consonants: I have seen Italianno, Insalatta capresse, Toscanna, etc.

Mexico City seems to cater to all Mexican prejudices about food. The only mediocre meal we had in Mexico City was in we what later found out to be a tourist restaurant. But they still had excellent artisanal beers and great guacamole.

I had one of the best meals in my life at the Izote de Patricia Quintana restaurant. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of it on the Trip Advisor Web site. I did forget to mention that we started with tortilla chips and four kinds of salsa when we began the meal.

All is not perfect, however. The Mexicans still need to learn how to roast and make good coffee; despite the fact that they grow the beans. It is a sad state of affairs when one has to go to Starbucks to get a quarter-decent (not quite half-decent) cup of coffee.

¡Viva Mexico!

7 February 2011

On our way to retrieving our truck in Panama, we spent five days in Mexico City. This is after four days in Vancouver, where we needed to get new passports as ours were about to expire in March.

Mexico City was surprisingly not intimidating despite being one of the largest cities in the world – a title it disputes with New York, Tokyo and Shanghai depending on which suburbs are included in the metropolitan area. We are talking well over 20 million people in the same conurbation. That is a thousand times more people than Whitehorse, 10 times bigger than Vancouver, six times bigger than Montreal and four times the size of T.O.

Despite its size, people were all friendly (like all Mexicans, it seems) and drivers are relatively civil despite the permanent traffic jam, certainly more civilized than in Montreal or New York, not to speak of Paris or Rome. Fifteen years of social-democratic mayors who exercised the usual socialist genius for municipal administration transformed a crime-ridden massively polluted megalopolis into a quite liveable city. Restrictions on driving and improved affordable public transit eliminated most of the smog. A socialist police chief (Marcelo Ebrard, the current mayor) turned a corrupt and inefficient municipal police force into an honest and competent one. Criminals have seen their house bulldozed. The drug cartels are absent from the city. Mexico would probably be a better place if the two of the last few mayors, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and López Obrador had won the presidency instead of losing it fraudulently to the right-wing candidates.

View from the hotel room: Chapultepec park with the Museum of Anthropology in the background right

The city has some incredible museums. We stayed in a hotel room overlooking Chapultepec Park and visited the museum of Anthropology. We could have easily spent a few days there instead of a few hours; it is one of the world’s great museums. I even explained to some Mexican kids that we lived in what was Beringia and about caribou hunting by northern First Nations. One kid asked me if it was true that we did not lock our cars in Canada. I dissuaded him from that notion, but it’s nice to know that our country has that good a reputation.

We did have one mishap. I left my Swiss Army knife at the entrance, and it was nowhere to be found when we were leaving. The knife was one of the most complicated ones: I had paid about $40 for it. That is an enormous sum to a Mexican museum guard, so they offered us complimentary tickets to a folkloric ballet show happening that night. I wasn’t too keen on it as I am not much for dance performances. But it was absolutely spectacular, unquestionably worth more than the knife. We’re talking the national folkloric dance ensemble here. So things worked out happily for everyone.

View from the tour bus

We also took a tour bus on the Monday when all the museums were closed. This was double-decker, with the upper deck completely open. For ten dollars, you got a guided tour of the city and could get off and on as many times as you wanted. Occasionally I had to duck tree branches or the earphones which previous passengers liked to drape over the overhead wires that were within reach. Well worth doing to get a sense of the main attractions of the city including Chapultepec Park, the Paseo de la Reforma, the cathedral and Zocalo as well as a number of neat neighbourhoods. The tour highlighted much the architecture that went from the colonial Baroque to ultra modern, going through art nouveau of the turn of the last century and art deco. Not to speak of wonderful murals in most public buildings, not only by Diego Rivera (who was my size) but by a large number of other muralists.

Even though I like living in Whitehorse with its proximity to nature and relaxed lifestyle, I don’t think I would mind living in Mexico City, especially since the year-round weather is like a Yukon summer: sunny dry warm days (20-25°C) and cool nights (5-15°C).

Back to Guatemala

3 March 2010

Staying at the Hotel San Carlos on Avenida de la Reforma in Guatemala City, thanks to reservation made by my friend Lars. Flew from Calgary to Mexico City (5 hours) & then to Guatemala (2 hours). Flew to Calgary yesterday on Air North. Six hour layover in Mexico City airport. Yuck & tiring. But the flight from Whitehorse to Calgary cost more than Calgary to Guatemala City.

Mexicana Airlines must have the worst food in the world: it is positively inedible. I usually just try it just in case, hold down the nausea & then fill up with free beer and peanuts. Not that airline food is great, but the Canadian airlines food is sort of OK. I tasted the most disgusting pasta, tacos and french toast on three Mexicana flights so far. Mexicana has one redeeming quality: they still have free booze. But we were pleasantly surprised on the flight to Guatemala City: the chicken & rice they served was actually OK and I ate it.

Tomorrow, we retrieve the truck & camper, which is under a smoking volcano in an organic coffee farm in Antigua.

Where the hell are we?????

9 January 2010

As I have been somewhat remiss in keeping this blog up to date, I will give you a quick rundown of what we have been doing. We are now in Antigua, the old beautifully-restored colonial capital of Guatemala.

Marilyn went to Puerto Aventuras, south of Playa del Carmen on December 6th. I joined her 4 days later on the following Thursday. We mainly hung out on the Mayan Riviera waiting for my bank card, including some snorkelling on the reefs in Puerto Morelos,

visiting the Mayan ruins in Tulum,

Chichen Itzaand Coban,  replacing the toilet seals in Sophie’s apartment, etc.

We left for Belize on January 2nd. Stayed in Corozal and then headed to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. (Described in the Belize Part I posting).  The next day, we went to the baboon sanctuary to see (and hear) howler monkeys, and to the wonderful Belize Zoo. After that, we drove to Flores in Peten department in Guatemala and visited the magnificent Tikal Mayan ruins. The day before yesterday, we went to Finca Paraiso (a working farm and tourist resort) on Lake Izabal in  southeastern Guatemala. We had a wonderful experience swimming in a hot spring waterfall in the middle of the jungle.

Last night we got to Antigua.

I intend to write up a few more blogs in the next little while. A second on Belize about meeting our monkey cousins, one on our tourist adventures on the Mayan Riviera, a major one on Maya culture once I get out of the Maya country, and one on impressions of Guatemala.

That’s all for now folks. Stay tuned.

Belize: Part I

5 January 2010

We finally got on the road to Belize on Saturday, January 2nd despite our best intentions. It is hard to leave a idyllic spot like Puerto Aventuras. I received my new bank card on Monday which the Bank of Montreal branch in Whitehorse couriered to me. So, in theory we could have left on Tuesday, but Marilyn was sick, so we couldn’t leave. Wednesday was a day of recuperation for Marilyn. Thursday, New Year’s Eve, Sophie had asked me the day before to try to get the flat fixed on her car, but it turned out she needed new tires according to a local tire repair place. I believed them since they don’t sell tires. So I went and bought a couple of tires in Playa del Carmen and installed them on the car. By then it was too late to leave, so we stayed in Puerto Aventuras for that night, but we did go to bed early. Actually, we were just planning for a short nap, but we woke up in the New Year. In the morning, we talked to Helena about the keys and giving her the money to get the apartment cleaned, and we started shooting the shit. But that turned into lunch, and late in the afternoon, we decided to stay for supper. Helena’s eyes lit up when I mentioned spaghetti aglio e olio, so that’s what we had for supper.

Luigi with raw borrego in front of the restaurant

Finally we left on Saturday morning for Chetumal and Belize after tanking up at the Pemex station in Puerto Aventuras. I found out the gas jockeys only make 70 pesos a day and depend on their tips. According to the president of Mexico, that is enough money to live on, one of the gas station attendants told me. I would like to see these right wing politicians live on the amount of money they think is enough for others. I’m sure Calderón lives on much more than 70 pesos a day, and I don’t think he ever had to. One other point Helena brought up is that the policemen are also grossly underpaid, so it is not surprising they try to get bribes: they do want to feed their families. We stopped for lunch in Felipe Carillo Puerto, between Tulum and Chetumal. Absolutely excellent barbequed lamb (barbacoa de borrego)!

We got to the border around 3:30, but by the time all the formalities (surrendering the Mexican tourist license, getting the vehicle sprayed with disinfectant, getting the Belizean tourist permit, then going through customs and finally buying insurance) were done, it was 4:30. Since it gets dark before 6:00 PM, we figured we better not go too far. So we went to Corozal, the first town after the border.

We stayed at Tony’s Inn and Beach Resort (slogan: “For those who like the best”) on the south side of town. We walked into Corozal looking for what the tourist guide claimed was the best restaurant. On the way, a couple of teenagers playing basketball asked us how we liked Belize and welcomed us to their country. I think I can warm up easily to that kind of people. It was just a pleasant, warm experience, and put Belizeans in very good light. But Belizeans create Christmas light decorations that rival anything in the Yukon for their fantastic kitsch.

We finally found out that the restaurant had been closed for a few years, but recommended another two. We met a young English couple who were also going to eat. The first one, Patty’s, was closed, but Vamps’ Chill and Grill was up. So we went there and had a couple of Belikin beer. I drank my first one to Tony DeLorenzo’s health: may his arm and wrist heal perfectly. Tony and Sierra went to Belize for their honeymoon, and asked me to drink one for him. So I drank four. It’s actually a pretty good beer for a commercial product, much better than the Belizean Lighthouse lager and the run-of-the-mill Mexican beers. The guys had rice and beans and chicken while the girls had fajitas. The couple both worked in operations research (i.e. heavily mathematical applied economics), and Marilyn said she felt out-numbered.

Sunday January 2, 2010

We had a good breakfast (eggs for Marilyn, fruit plate for me with “jacks”). “Jacks”, a specialty of the hotel, were absolutely wonderful wheat tortillas folded over and deep fried, which puffed up when fried. With papaya jam, they were absolutely great. Reminds me very much of the gnocco fritto of Modena, and equally good.

On the road again I was happy to see there were no more topes. Instead, there were f…ing speed bumps all over the place! Can’t these countries find ways of reducing speeding in towns other than those damned suspension-destroying bumps????!!!! Also, Belize still operates in gallons (real Imperial ones, not the wimpy US ones) and miles per hour. When I first tanked up, I was taken aback by a pump price of eight dollars something for gas. But then I realized it was Belize dollars per gallon.  The Belize dollar is worth $US0.50, so that translates to about a dollar a litre, about the same as in Canada.

We then decided to head for the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. We had lunch there in the camper, and walked along one of the bird trails. We came across the Birds Eye View Lodge right on the lagoon. As the rooms are air-conditioned and it’s a really nice and relatively inexpensive hotel, we decided to stay here. Excellent supper of conch and chicken, accompanied by the rice and beans the Belizeans are incapable of surviving without. And more Belikin to keep me from drying out.

Great Egret and Wood Stork

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.

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


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.