I know I’ve finally arrived somewhere important when there is absolutely no wifi available. I’m sitting on the beach a few feet from surf’s edge on the Sea Of Cortez. The surf is light, the stars are bright, the lights of shrimp boat at work dot the black horizon. Some
young folk sit a way off around a fire with their boom box. I’m on the outskirts of a small fishing town named San Blas. It is ubiquitously grotty, with squalor everywhere, lots of stray dogs, people sitting around dinner tables outside so that some chairs are actually in the street, boom boxes blare and thump. Trucks, cars, scooters and bicycles weave their way around each other
on the cobbled streets. In the event that something should happen to me (I’ll explain later) let me stress how much I abhor categorization, especially about people, in any regard.
However, if demanded at gun point to summarily describe Mexicans I would probably use words like ‘Gracious hunter-gather suicidal stunt recyclers,’ but let’s start with my entry into Mexico two and a half days ago at Sonoyato.
I was advised to cross there because it was a “Nice quiet” place. The guards waved me through; there was no office to pull into for official paperwork. Suspiciously intrigued I carried on through the immediate contrast of how life is lived in Mexico. There is no doubt about where you. About one hundred kilometres on I arrive at a checkpoint where the lady guards are incredulous that I have no tourist visa nor any importation papers for the truck and trailer. They loved the little silver bullet and called it “Chiquito.” However they also made it clear that they thought I was an idiot to not have the documentation. They made it clear that I had to go immediately to the Nogales crossing, where the paper work could be done, or get back up across the border into the US…which is difficult to explain when you don’t have your papers in order for the country you’re leaving.
Two hours later, in the dark and, yes, spattering rain, I arrived at the Aduanes and the Mexican bureaucratic shuffle began. Fill out forms, get photocopies over there, take all your papers to the bank wicket, go back for more photo copies, pay a six month tourist visa (Because I’ll be in the country more than six days) pay an import duty on truck and trailer, discard all the unnecessary photocopies. Fortunately there was a very kind soul there who took me under his wing and helped me through it all and then refused any gratuity.
Off into the night I went, now legally. I pulled into the edge of a field next to the lights of a Pemex station. (Most gas stations in Mexico are government -owned Pemex, always with an OXXO junk food store attached. Immediately a vehicle pulled in to check me out.
“Now what?” I wondered. A kind couple with a beautiful little daughter were making sure I wasn’t in trouble.
I later discovered that I could have done all of this paperwork at Guaymas, a port further south which I intend to visit anyway. It is just within what they call “The Hassle-Free Zone,” (Yes, go ahead and laugh) an area immediately south of the border for day-trippers. Ah bueno! That’s Mexico. This all gives me an excuse to come back for more, now that I know some of the local protocol.
Exhausted, I slept well despite the din of heavy trucks at a nearby “Topé.” This is speed bump found everywhere on paved roads and highways. They are a various sizes, some are marked, some are not, some have signs warning they’re ahead except they’re not there. Then suddenly Topé! I have bent the hitch on my trailer from hitting them too hard.
There also plenty of potholes or baches as per the translation. Anyway, the trucks braking down the hill for the Topé use their engine brakes and the uphill-bound trucks roar as they shift up and away once past. It is a din that somehow is exceeded at around 04:30 by the roosters, everywhere. Somewhere at the edge of the field a radio began to play Mariachi music. I finally dragged myself out to the aroma of burning straw (also Mex-ubiquitous) and fresh cowshit (Ditto). As I hit the road a young fellow walking by on the road’s shoulder gave me several blasts of his trumpet.
I drove south for a few hours until I found a spot safe to turn off and make some breakfast.Then the wind shifted. It turns out I was now downwind of a very ripely dead burro.Yet another aroma of the country but I finished with my “Breakfast Burro” and moved on.
Despite the usual graciousness of the average Mexican it seems to disappear when many get behind the driver’s wheel. There is nothing like Latino testosterone. I’m told it’s the same all the way to the end of Chile. Speed limits, all signs, center lines, double lines are meaningless. They’ll pass anywhere, even between meeting vehicles that at times already have a closing speed in excess of two hundred miles an hour!
The amazing number of memorial crosses, sometimes in clusters of many, and the eternal roadside shrines, bear solemn testament to this lemming need for speed and recklessness, on the open road, and in town. I mused angrily at another near-miss today, that in a country where the popular religion still condemns birth control, perhaps this is nature’s way of trying to balance things. I witnessed one horrific accident today where a wild highway truck ran everyone off the road before knocking a young mother and child, in a new car, down the bank into a swamp. The driver promptly locked the brakes on the left shoulder, lept out and ran off into the bushes!
After passing a huge prison in Hermosillo where bus loads of women and children clogged the road, waiting to visit inmates, I understand.
Of course there are the copious old beaters lurching and belching along. Bicycles with huge loads of firewood being pedalled down the freeway, small motorcycles billowing smoke, putt-putting along at the head of the parade, oblivious to everyone else. It all confounds my sensibilities and leaves me fully terrified. There’s little chance of falling asleep at the wheel as you drive for yourself and everyone behind, beside, and ahead. Last night, in the dark I came very close to hitting a man and woman in a wagon pulled by a desperately trotting mule as they crossed the freeway in front of me. A buggy whip flailed furiously as they headed for safety.
This brings me to some dos and don’ts for anyone contemplating a drive to Mexico.
I thought I had it all figured out because I’ve been in the country twice before. Until you have to drive and navigate, alone, you’ll never get it. Let me tell you that if you arrive by air you are in a gringo-oriented area. Many locals speak a bit of English and a lot of nearby Mexican reality is glossed over. I thought because I’ve rented cars and ridden on the local busses, knew a few words of Spanish, have a big smile and good street smarts, that I had it aced. No! Nada! Nunca! The hot spots like Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Matalan and so forth do very little to represent the real Mexico. If you have been down here on an all-inclusive vacation, I’m sorry, but you have not seen the country, at all.
Here are some things I’ve learned the hard way.
– If you don’t see yourself as a very seasoned and alert driver, it’s simple.
Don’t drive here!
If you do, use the main highways where you’ll pay an onion sack of pesos in toll fees, at random distances and in random amounts. If you use the secondary roads, or “caminos libre” it is all white knuckle, full-time driving. No sight-seeing while driving. Shoulders seem to be considered a decadence, there are few places to pull over. Rare viewpoints make excellent garbage dumps. I’ve missed a huge number of fabulous photographs because I just couldn’t find a safe place to stop. That’s really frustrating.
Even if another vehicle has almost killed you, let it slide. Don’t use your index finger to signal your frustration, there is a reason the copious number of Policia are heavily armed. Avoid driving in the dark, vehicles without lights and roaming livestock can appear anywhere, even in town. I almost hit an elephant! The circus was in town. I was the clown!
– Don’t expect anyone out of gringo-town to speak even a little English. I find some locals are even a bit contemptuous of my inability to speak their language well. A big smile, a few polite words and phrases go a long way, especially if you demonstrate an interest in learning the language. They’ll really try to be helpful. However, I doubt that even Spanish language immersion classes can prepare you for the machine gun staccato that the locals speak.
– Don’t expect American dollars, or credit cards to be accepted outside of tourist areas. Mucho pesos amigo! I filled up with gas at one Pemex and offered a credit card that bounced. The card was fine, but the machine didn’t like it. I didn’t have enough cash and the attendant immediately began shouting “La policia, la policia.” A backup card did the trick. In the next town, Navolato, I see the welcome sign of Scotiabank, which is entirely a Mexican institution here. It would not accept my debit card. The ATMs at Banamex were both out of service. I was told there were no more banks. I was very happy to discover an HSBC which liked my card. I hit an all-time low realizing the depth of my situation. No money for gas, for toll fees, or for police mordida, should that rear its ugly head. What if the truck breaks down? What if, what if? Onwards and southward, all’s well that ends. Don’t assume Mexico is dirt-cheap. In places some things are, but everywhere that the gringo has intruded, prices are rising.
– Treat everyone with respect, even when some are being pushy and rude. Most are just trying to feed their kids today. One of the great things about Latinos, is that no matter what their station in life, they have a strong sense of dignity. Many of the dirt-poor peasants you meet, living in apparent abject misery, can look you in the eye and smile. I was amused yesterday to see an old man, clad in filthy rags, whip out his mobile phone and begin texting. The young, in black cars with dark windows have an arrogant aggressiveness. Always remember that you’re in their patch. Bad manners are something we have taught them.
-Don’t think motels are motels to our gringo sensibilities. I didn’t understand why they were all walled enclaves with each unit having a garage with a closing door. Men appear from the darkness to explain that the units were rented by six hour increments and were quite puzzled about why I needed a room with a telephone and why I was alone. Then I got it!
– Don’t carry raw eggs in you food box or cooler, they won’t survive the topés and the baches.
It has been marvellous watching the scenery evolve as I drove southward from desert scrub land to very rich, vast volcanic farmland. I made a daily meal today in a gravel pit and as crop dusters droned and buzzed in the distance. At times the choking smell of pesticide was overwhelming during the day’s drive. Slowly the vegetation has changed from arid desert to swamp and then to lush, sub-tropical jungle. Finally you are driving along sections of beach and see pelicans skimming the waves.
I spent my second night in Mexico camped on the beach at San Blas with the music of surf on sand soothing my weary soul. In the morning a glorious sunrise broke over the mountains behind me. An old man sat himself facing the sea and began to sing. He was immersed in passion, gestured freely and wiped tears from his eyes. I wondered to whom or what he sang. A bank of fog lingers for a while then is gone. Church bells, flat yet resonant, toll in the distance. Roosters crow and burros bray. Another ancient hombre comes to feed the gulls. He expressed wonder at my little trailer, delight to learn that I am Canadian. I am terrified that this is a dream and I will wake up.
San Blas is a delightful harbour and fishing town. The church, still standing, was open for business in 1749. Longfellow visited here! An excerpt from his poem about the bells of San Blas is mounted above the town square. It is shivery stuff for me. There is some sort of festival going on. I soon learn that there is always some sort of festival going on. If you’ve missed one, wait a few days, there’ll be another. I think it is why this Catholic country has invented so many saints. Each one deserves a holiday.
A local American ex-pat has lived here for twenty years. He briefed me on things to expect and not expect. He told a story about when the town was smitten with Dengue Fever and how tank trucks drove the streets spraying copious amounts of chemical antidote. The children ran beside the trucks, cavorting in the spray!
I drive on through the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit and finally Jalisco. Three long days south of the border I arrive in an unmapped fishing village where friends winter.
I have survived the drive. The roads and drivers deserve at least a full blog. I have survived, by nan o-seconds, a horrific accident and I cannot estimate how many crosses mark fatal accidents throughout the country. They are everywhere.
The laws here require seat belts and helmets on motorcycles, for drivers. That means that the eighteen men in the back of a careening pickup truck which has justed passed you on a double-line, with more standing on the bumper, are fine. It means that a family of four, riding a scooter are fine so long as dad is the only one wearing a helmet. A police car with one headlight zooming around a curve on a hill, halfway over the center line is fine. I muse that in a country where the prime religion condemns birth control’ perhaps this is nature’s way of trying to balance things. I have abandoned a life of bizarre incongruity for new incongruous dramas here. I have no problem staying awake while driving here.
On the main highways there are government toll stations at random distances which charge random amounts. The tolls prove to equal an amount about half of my fuel costs. Finally despairing at paying and paying, I abandon the main highways for the secondary routes, or “Libres”. It is where you find the real Mexico and pass through hundreds of unmapped villages. Rounding a curve I hit the brakes as I enter Quente Ellano. The road is blocked with youngsters on burros and caballeros and the whole damned village celebrating something that is entirely obscure to me but it is wonderful.
I drive on and on and on. The sights, sounds and smells of Mexico inundate my brain and I am in love with this place. Yes there are many negatives but the local philosophies will help me overcome. That, in part, is why I came here.
Where I am now camped on the beach the sun rises on another cloudless day. Condensation drips from the canopy of palm branches over my head. Coconuts threaten to fall. Acrid smoke from a copra cook fire fills the air as a local woman begins to make salsa from bushels of green tomatoes. Exotic birds dart and chatter. Gringo joggers on the beach pass Mexicans standing waist-deep in the surf, fishing. Pelicans crash into the sea, fishing. Beyond, swimmers parallel the beach. Beyond that, whales often cavort and leap clear of the water. Their landings are heard as deep booms. On the horizon, pangas work the opean ocean. I am at a loss to describe the feeling of this place. It has vastly exceeded my expectations. I never want to leave.
Future blogs from Mexico will have a minimum of text and be mostly pictorial. For the moment I end with a quote from a neighbour. He explains the difference between gringos and Mexicans.
“We live in a state of doing. These people live in a state of being.” He had been paddle-boarding out on the bay when a grey whale breached close to him. My friend said, “Yeah, I felt the wave but I didn’t see the whale. I was too busy doing.”