Archive for the ‘Morelia’ Category


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 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!!

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.