Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

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.

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¡Pura Vida!

6 March 2011

I love the Ticos as much as I love the Mexicans. (Tico is the Central American name for Costa Ricans and Tica is the word for the cuter ones.) We have been welcomed a few times by different individuals on the street, a thing that only also happened to us in Belize.

Pura Vida Choloepus hoffmanni

¡Pura Vida! is the national slogan, which in theory means “Pure life” but is in effect completely untranslatable. Yukoners will recognize part of as what we call “on Yukon time” a relaxed attitude to life where being a little late is nothing to get excited about. They are also into what we call “Lifestyle” in the Yukon, which is our excuse for going hunting or fishing or berry picking instead of working and finishing something on time. Costa Ricans can entirely relate to that. Are Ticos lazy? Well, not really, no more than Yukoners anyway. But I do have to admit they are not quite as hard-working as Mexicans or Torontonians.

When a taxi driver saw an older couple necking in another car (we’re talking not that old, like in their late 50s early 60s), he said ¡Pura Vida! When someone asks how you are, the response is not “Bien, gracias.” but “¡Pura Vida!” Pura Vida is when anything typically Costa Rican happens.

Ticos can afford to indulge in Pura Vida. We did not see the grinding poverty evident in their northern neighbours. Costa Rica is actually a country where other Central Americans emigrate to have a better life. While there is some rural poverty, it is nowhere as extensive or obvious as what we saw in Nicaragua, Honduras, or Guatemala. Costa Ricans seem to live in trim nice little houses with TV dishes and electricity: hardly any wood and tin shacks are to be seen. The buses are newer and in better shape, very few old US school buses, and those tend to be used for student rather than public transportation.

They also got rid of their army in 1947, so did not have to suffer through the coups d’état and the human rights abuses that their neighbours had (or continue to have in the case of Honduras).

And Costa Rica has a decent social security system, including free medical care for everyone (although private care is available). Costa Rica, along with the other two countries with a socialized health care system – Canada and Cuba – is one of the three American countries with higher life expectancies and generally healthier populations than the much richer United States.

But Costa Rica is not a paradise. First, the roads are one place where Pura Vida does not apply; behind the wheel, Ticos are small-dicked arseholes no different than their other Central American neighbours. I am convinced that their life expectancy would rise above Canada’s if they started driving in a civilized fashion. And don’t tell me it’s a Latin thing: Mexican and Spaniards are decent drivers, and even the anarchic Italians have changed their habits when they were seriously faced with a fate worse than castration – the loss of their driver’s license.

The government is corrupt in Costs Rica in the same way the Canadian Government is corrupt. It is not the low level civil servants who take bribes (although the cops are not averse to a receiving gifts), but the higher level mainly (but not always) right-wing politicians.

We heard a great story about an American entrepreneur who bribed local politicians in Dominical so he could build new condos on the beach. He got the permits in violation of all the environmental laws and regulations and then spent a few millions. He did not count on the local administration changing – Costa Rica is after all democratic and has the longest tradition of democratic governments in Latin America (Chile had it until the 1970 murderous coup by Nixon, Kissinger & Pinochet). The next election, a new, more environmentally conscious municipal administration was elected and revoked the illegally-obtained permits. Yeah for the Ticos!

Nevertheless, despite its wealth relative to its neighbours, Costa Rica is still a poor country, certainly poorer than Mexico although much more egalitarian. What particularly bugs me however, is the high prices for many things, same as in Canada. I would not mind if Ticos earned the same as Canadians, but there is something wrong there. In particular, land and real estate prices are very close to Canadian prices (OK, maybe you can’t get tropical beachfront property in Canada, but still $250,000 for a 1,500 square foot house in the mountains is well within Canadian range.). This is because so many foreigners have bought properties. This is very good for those who sold the properties, but not so good for young Ticos who need housing or might want to buy a house. But now the government can’t do anything to prevent foreigners from buying land because of the CAFTA free trade agreement.

Ticos are also polite, and supposedly not inclined to stealing, cheating or lying. Crime in Costa Rica is obviously almost entirely the work of outsiders: Nicaraguans and Colombians for the regular street crime or Panamanians for the more sophisticated financial scams. We saw a wonderful satire published in Guanacaste where a restaurant was not making any money. First they blamed it on then Nicaraguan staff, then after they fired the Nicas and hired more Ticos, it was the monkeys who took the money before the waiters got a chance to get to it. But it could not have been the Ticos stealing.

If I would have to live anywhere other than Canada of all the countries I visited so far, it would be Costa Rica. You can drink the water and it has good pressure. The cops don’t always carry guns and, unlike the rest of Cental America, no sawed-off shotguns to be seen. As a matter of fact, the only armed security guards we noticed so far were in a gated community in Manuel Antonio, no doubt catering to the USian belief that, to paraphrase Mao Tse-tung, security grows out of the barrel of a gun.

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.

Morelia

23 December 2009

Sunday 6 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clown show main square

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

José Morelos' house

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

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

Monday 8 December, Morelia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morelia church of Our Lady of Guadelupe, main altar

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

Church of the Guadelupe and outside vendors

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Morelia, Part II

17 December 2009

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

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

Friday, 4 December, Culiacán, to Tepic, Nayarit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calgary blizzard

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

Autopista toll booth

Autopista toll booth

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

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

Tepic cathedral

Tepic main square

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

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

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

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

Observations on previous entries.

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

On the Getting to Morelia, Part I entry.

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

On the Shit Happens entry

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

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