road trip


They won’t list my blog on BlogHer – yet – seems I don’t post often enough for them, but that’s changing.  In the meantime, I wish they’d do a check every once in awhile on the blogs they do have listed – I tried several and they all came back “Page Not Found.”  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, y’know.

Last week we took four days and went to Michoacan for a wedding.  Miguel’s friend from childhood – the youngest in his family and the last to marry at 33.  They actually got married in December, in a civil service just for the family, and then they lived apart in different cities until the church wedding this weekend.

In a couple of weeks they’ll move back to the husband’s family home where the widowed father and several of the older brothers live (married and single).  According to Miguel’s mother and sister, Alejandro, Miguel’s friend, has been the bane of the daughters-in-law since adolescence.  The report is, he sits down at the kitchen table points at the woman and says, “You, serve my father and serve me.  Hurry up, we’re hungry.” 

Of the three married couples living in the family home, one died (shot by her suspicious husband who then shot himself and only ended up crippled), one left (divorced by her suspicious husband who kept the kids), and one that stayed and stood up to her husband, “Put your brother in his place or I’m outta here.”  Okay, she said it in Spanish, but with the same chutzpah.  She and I get along great.

So, now we’re all wondering what’s going to happen to Alejandro’s new wife.  She’s young, about 28, a psychologist who wants to set up her own clinic here in the big city.  She’s lived with her mother in a small rural town all her life and I don’t even think she knows how to cook.  Will she have to pay for her husband’s past arrogance?

The middle brother married a powerhouse.  She moved him out of the family home and it’s made for wonderful relations.  She and her sisters and all their husbands and kids travel everywhere together and the rest of Alejandro’s family just tags along.  There are about 30 of us when we travel together.

The wedding was in La Barca, Jalisco.  About five to six hours drive on the toll highways from the northwest edge of Mexico City, depending on who’s driving.  It’s a prosperous agricultural town spread out along the river that divides Jalisco from Michoacan.  They have beautiful flat roads and lots of bicyclists and even closed down the main road to host a bicycle race on Sunday.  It was the first time I’ve seen cyclists in helmets and riding gear since I got to Mexico.

Thirty minutes down the road from La Barca is Ixtlan de los Hervores, Michoacan.  Miguel’s father is from there.  Since we got to town two days before the wedding, we went straight to the geyser at Ixtlan the first afternoon to relax in the tepid pools and de-stress from the drive.  I won’t talk about hygiene – despite being old and run down, the geyser pools are relatively clean and you really don’t want the details.  Miguel’s family goes to Ixtlan every October as one of their pilgrimage trips.  The saint in Ixtlan is St. Francis of Assisi.  That’s for another story.

Next door to Ixtlan is Salitre, Michoacan.  The powerhouse bride and all of her sisters are from Salitre.  After the geyser, we went to visit in Salitre.  More beautifully flat roads.  (Are you getting the impression that where we live on the edge of Mexico City bike riding is akin to an extreme sport with rutted, broken pavement, hills so steep some cars can’t make it, and traffic that moves at the speed of loud?)  The pavement in Salitre is new.  Miguel thinks it is, anyway, but he hasn’t been there for 20 years.  The central plaza was also declared new, but a glance will tell you that the trees – currently painted the color of the Mexican flag, red and white trunks with leafy tops precisely trimmed to look like giant green cubes – have at least 15 years growth.  This time distortion probably has something to do with him not seeing me as 50 so I didn’t bother to point out the disparity between the growth and his definition of “new.”

We sat on the main plaza with some locals for a bit, watching a basketball game.  I commented to Miguel that it was all women playing – and such a broad age range of ages (late teens to early 40’s).

He said, “Don’t you notice anything strange about the people watching?”

There were no young men.  Except for our group, everyone on the plaza was either female, boys under 12, or men bent over walkers and canes.  And one loud, fat guy about 40.

“Their husbands are all in the North.”

Where we live is City.  There are jobs to be found.  It’s worthwhile to set up a taco stand in front of your house.  The local street markets are full of entrepreneurs selling everything from housewares to temporary tattoos.  Even the old lady that sells gelatin desserts in plastic cups door to door makes enough to get by.  But here in “the Provinces” the small towns can’t generate enough income to provide their families the basic necessities.  The men go in search of work and the women stay home and shoot hoops.

The saddest part is the small number that return home.  Miguel and Alejandro are the exceptions.  Of Miguel’s circle of friends and family that have gone north, only he, Alé and Adrian have come home voluntarily to make their life in Mexico.  Even the ones that are legal Resident Aliens or have become U.S. citizens, like Miguel, rarely come home to visit their families.  They’re all waiting to put together a big pile of money and come back and start a business – but that never happens.  Life in the U.S. is about working and paying bills and taxes – no matter where you start from.  So, 5, 10, 15 years pass and you end up with a car, maybe, and money sent home on a regular basis, but never enough to go home yourself, and people are always waiting in line at Western Union to pick up what little you can send back every pay day. Yes, Western Union . . . it’s one of the hottest businesse in Mexico.

I wonder why the men in Salitre have to go all the way to the U.S. to find work when thirty minutes down the road the local Ford dealer is selling a lot of 2008 king-cab 4-door Lobos at $35k USD each.

The reality of it is that life will be a struggle wherever you choose to live it, if the struggle is what you’re focused on.  Take me, for example.  I have a good life here in Mexico – a loving husband, a comfortable home, welcoming in-laws, a good job that pays U.S. dollars – but what keeps me up at night is the struggle I have at work.  Change I’m accustomed to.  I’ve lived in almost as many different places as the number of years I’ve been alive.  I just have an inherent mistrust of new people who come in and start criticizing and changing things before they even bother to inform themselves enough to know what works and what doesn’t and why.  Arrogant change.  Change for the sake of aggrandizing oneself before proving oneself.  I whine to my CTO and he says, “Make them your customers.  Figure out how best to give them what they want without compromising your goals.”

My husband just says, “They must have problems at home, don’t take it personal.”  He says that in response to any weird people we encounter.  And I’ve found it to be the truest interpretation of every people problem I’ve ever had.  Happy people aren’t rude or arrogant or aggressive.  They don’t need to be, no matter how stressful life may get.  And people who have problems at home usually live under such a black cloud that they can’t escape it.  No matter where they go.

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Achaessa at YaxchilanWe had a great time in Chiapas last month, traveling with a group of young, professional Catholics that Miguel’s youngest sister is associated with. It was a lively, international group of about 40 people that included a psychologist, a corporate attorney, a doctor in economics, a Spanish priest based in Mexico City, an Italian seminarist from Rome and regular folks like us. They were all very warm and welcoming and Miguel and I really enjoyed being part of the group.

Miguel, his sister and I flew in to the capital city Tuxtla-Gutierrez and stayed the first night at the Crown Plaza. It wasn’t a luxury – it was preparation for the 6+ hour drive the next day. Plus I haven’t sat in a bathtub since March, so I blissed out in the giant bathroom. (Note to travelers: The Crown Plaza Tuxtla is beautiful – nicer than it’s American counterparts and much less expensive. The only glitch – to get to the Crown’s private entry, you have to traverse the Holiday Inn lobby, pass through the shopping and restaurant plaza, and cross the pool and patio area, all on foot. Then the Crown valet will take your keys and park your car in their secure lot. Very strange, but worth the walk.)

The drive to Palenque took us over the mountains where we were actually above the clouds. When the clouds opened up, the view of the jungle below was vast and densely green. I had imagined a suffocating mass of tropical plants, but it was just the opposite – and impossible to judge how far away the eye could see. I had run a map on Microsoft Streets & Trips, but it was no help. The roads were so poorly marked that we never knew where we were. In some places, there were signs right next to each other for two different highways – Mexico 99, Palenque 84 km – Mexico 98, Palenque 91km – but there was only one road. We were in a rented Tsuru – economy 4-door – not really that low, but the road bumps were often so high they scraped our underside.

Palenque was a beautiful torture. Trees, vines and plants of enormous proportions. Flowers and birds of unexplainable colors. But the humidity and the heat were at times unbearable. Thank goodness we opted for the expensive room – it not only had a private bathroom, but had air conditioning as well. It wasn’t a sealed room, in fact, the windows on one side didn’t even close, but the air conditioning box mounted high on the wall was quiet and kept the room fresh enough to sleep.

In Mexico most houses don’t have doorbells and the front door is not on the street, so the customary manner to raise the house is to knock on the front metal gate or the front window with a coin. It is an unmistakable sound. The first night at La Aldea I spent waiting for whoever was knocking on all the windows to get to our door to see what he wanted. Every 15 minutes he would knock on another window, then quiet. In the exhausted morning, I discovered that there is a small transparent lizard that makes the coin-tapping sound.

We found a knowledgeable and humorous guide the first day at the ruins in Palenque and persuaded him to be our guide the next day, too. A 30-something shaven-head Mayan – do not think small here, he was almost as tall as Miguel and more sturdily built – named Salvador. His bright green eyes were shocking in his tan face. He carried a back pack full of reference materials about the area – National Geographic articles, Mexican archaeology magazines, photos and maps. I didn’t like Salvador at first sight because of his eyes. They scared me. But after a short while his humor and professional manner won me over. By the end of the second day I even hugged him when we all said goodbye.

So the first day we went to Palenque, where the well-kept grounds and signage gave it the feel of a museum. We ended the day swimming at a waterfall called Misol-Ha. The second day we took a boat ride on the Usumacinta River, with Mexico on the eastern shore and Guatemala on the western shore, to tour the island ruins of Yaxchilan. The ruins here were wilder than those at Palenque and the air was full of jaguar screams, monkey howls and bird screeches. Then we raced to get to Bonampak before the site closed. Bonampak is the only site with well-preserved paintings (as opposed to carvings). According to Salvador, about 10 years ago the Mexican government had agreed to flood this river valley, covering these spectacular ruins, to create a hydroelectric power plant for Guatemala. Fortunately, the global community supporting the indigenous populations stepped in and persuaded them to abandon the project.

The climbing and hiking were strenuous at points. The photos you’ve seen of ruins with stairs that appear to go straight up depict the truth. In all of the sites we visited, though, there were only a few roped off ruins, and never any “do not walk” signs, so the tourists spread out and walked anywhere they wanted. From the look of the undergrowth I think the open areas rely on human traffic to keep the jungle growth from taking over again.

The last day we drove back to Tuxtla-Gutierrez. Everyone in our group had been appalled that we’d driven so many hours – most had flown into Villahermosa in Tabasco, just two hours from Palenque. They assured us there was a better driving route back to Tuxtla – still six hours, but real highway with no road bumps. Well, we got to Villahermosa just fine, and had the most marvelous lunch. A local river lobster called a Pigua, roasted with crunchy pieces of garlic. My mouth is watering at the memory of it. After Villahermosa, we immediatelly got lost. Or at least I think we did. There were no roadbumps, but it was definitely not highway and it took us seven more hours without even stopping to eat. We got to the outskirts of Tuxtla, on the other side of the city from the airport, about 10 minutes before our plane was set to take off. So we decided to stay another night.

After 9 hours of driving I was ready for another night at the Crown Plaza. Bathtub from heaven. Bed of clouds. Real air conditioning. But driving down the main avenue, we saw a fancy-looking steakhouse on a corner and Miguel decided we should stay in the hotel above it. It was an older hotel with a large modern lobby in marble. The rooms, however, were sad and dark. What the heck, we left our bags and went downstairs for steak.

Balam Steak House Restaurante turned out to be exceptional and more than made up for Miguel’s bad hotel choice.  Mexican steaks are generally paper thin, unaged beef. We were surprised by the American style thick cuts and even more surprised that the chefs knew how to cook them properly. Best rib eye I’ve had in ages. Equally stunning was the presence of salads on the menu and we were pleased to receive a variety of fresh greens and not one leaf of iceberg lettuce. After dinner we walked down to the local plaza, Jardin de la Marinba, which was still overflowing with people and vendors and mariachis at 10 o’clock.

The next day we took a boat tour up the Sumidero Canyon. A famous mountain pass flooded to build a hydroelectric dam that opened in 1981. We saw crocodiles and monkeys and white cranes. And garbage. Fortunately, the garbage was just in one football field size area and there was a work crew trying to scoop it up, but it was just another reminder of how this society truly fails to connect their personal actions with the ultimate environmental impact.

I’ve posted our photos on Box.Net at http://www.box.net/shared/0v9tfzn7jr. (Don’t worry, it’s a straight link with nothing to sign up for.) There are three subfolders – Chiapas-Ruins, Chiapas-Sumidero, and Chiapas-Vacaciones. Open the first photo in each folder and then just select Next Picture so you can scroll them all full-size. Unfortunately, my camera died half-way through the Sumidero boat tour, so that folder is sparse. The last folder, Vacaciones, is miscellaneous shots that closes with a 4-photo summary of the only form of mass transit we saw while in Chiapas (outside of the capital city).

The end of April already and I’ve been delinquent in posting news. Apologies if you’ve come back more than once to nothing new.

I was in Seattle and San Francisco the first week of March with a really bad attitude. Mexico was ugly. Dirty. Dangerous. Did I mention Ugly? I was quite distressed. Most of my friends were also distressed after hearing my travails – all true enough, but perhaps taking on an importance in the telling that they did not merit.

Either that or, as my sister will confirm, I am fully capable of now convincing myself that all is well in fantasyland.

In any event, I stayed away long enough (three weeks) to miss Miguel and when I returned, Mexico had also changed. The new municipal president of Villa Nicolas Romero had implemented a clean up program and the streets had been swept clean of garbage. The clogged riverbanks had been scoured by cleanup crews. Cavernous potholes on main avenues were filled and traffic lanes were defined with bright white lines.

Spring thunderstorms now freshen the afternoon air and in the mornings the tall eucalyptus along the river are filled with white cranes spreading their feathers in amazing postures. From the hill above the neighborhood, the trees look to be in full bloom. My patio is edged with bright ceramic pots of blooming gardenias and fuschia. In the evening the streets are brushed with aromas of honeysuckle and the distinctive sharp mint of the eucalyptus. All the smells of my childhood in Northern California.

Unfortunately, the riverbanks have returned to their former disgusting state. We were walking home one afternoon through our shortcut that crosses the river. The people on the street were all busy sweeping and prettying up the neighborhood for Semana Santa – the traditional spring cleaning during the weeks preceding Passover/Easter. At the end of the street, the family that lives next to the river had swept its garbage into a neat pile and the young son was dutifully picking it up, walking to the edge of the property, tossing it over and watching it float away. Adios garbage. His dad was doing the same.

This time last year we went to visit the Virgin of Juquila in the state of Oaxaca. Another one of my mother-in-law’s annual pilgrimages. The Virgin of Juquila is very powerful and has granted many prayerful requests. People come from all across Mexico to ask for miracles. Health. Wealth. Happiness. The usual.

When the miracles have been granted, the petitioners have to come back to leave an offering of thanks. The grounds are covered with crosses and banners and clay figurines and flowers thanking the Virgin from The Family SoAndSo for the new business, for the father’s recovery, for the healthy new baby.

They leave their garbage, too. For miles surrounding the sanctuary, El Pedimento, and within the chapel grounds, too, there are mountains of garbage. In fact, by the time we got to Juquila last year, I had seen so much garbage along the roadway that I was ready to explode. When we walked into the chapel I had no idea what I wanted to ask for, I was just so angry at the getting there, and when I saw an empty candy wrapper left on a windowsill I was immediately brought to tears of rage. All I could do was sit in the back of the chapel and cry with frustration.

At this point I have to say, for those who don’t know me, that I am not a religious person and I have never been a Catholic. Nor am I the type of person that angers easily. But I was so struck by the hypocrisy of the people coming here to ask for their miracles and then trashing the place that my anger just came of its own and I could feel the heat rising from my feet to my hips to my chest, up my throat and into my face, burning my cheeks and my eyes and the tips of my ears. The hairs were stiff on my head and my arms, and my tears wet the entire front of my shirt.

Fortunately, Miguel was the only one who noticed. He tried to console me, but I couldn’t talk. I just sat there, gratefully unnoticed, raining quietly into my lap.

Miguel went up to the altar with his mother and then came back for me. People were crowded four and five deep in the small apse. Everybody was taking pictures of the Virgin; a black stone, maybe the size of an open hand, maybe larger, so completely adorned that the only part of the stone exposed is what appears to be a fist-sized face, topped by a crown and dressed in a shimmering robe covered in small gold and brass amulets representing the asked-for miracles. They’re called Milagros – hands, feet, babies, dollar signs, hearts, houses, symbols of the desired.

“I don’t know why everyone takes pictures,” his mother said, “the face never comes out.” She and I stood at the back of the crowd, watching the flashbulbs. Miguel worked his way to the front and took some pictures, too. “They say that only the pure at heart will have the face show up in their photos. I’ve never known anyone whose pictures turned out.” I squeezed the abandoned candy wrapper in my pocket and knew why.

My mother-in-law looked at me; I must have been a sight. Her forehead wrinkled, “Don’t be sad,” she said, “Ask the Virgin for what you want. She’ll give it to you.”

I had been thinking about this all the way there. I would be living in Mexico and my own people say that the gods and the power belong to the land no matter what religion adopts them. Would I be a hypocrite to ask a Catholic saint to help with my transition to her land?

On my first visit to meet Miguel’s family on the first day of Y2K, we’d gone to La Villa – where the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to the Mexican Indian Juan Diego. We’d all thrown a coin into the fountain on the stairs to the old chapel. Mine had landed right in the center of one of the small volcanic stone bowls in the fountain. Miguel’s sister had exclaimed that I must have great luck because the coins rarely land in the bowls – “Quick, ask for what you want!”

Everything I asked for that day has come true and I have felt a certain affection for La Virgincita since that time.

So, during the trip to Juquila, I was wondering – with La Guadalupana, it was an accident, like luck, a response to a thrown coin, maybe by throwing the coin I had taken the action and the Universe had responded. In any event, I wondered, would it be wrong for me to specifically ask for something . . . okay, for a safe move from Seattle to Mexico, for the financial ability to live in Mexico . . . would it be hypocritical for me to intentionally ask, even if I was not a “believer” like the rest of these people?

But, by the time I was standing in front of the Virgin of Juquila, those questions were moot. My mind’s eye was full of garbage and anger. “Just make the garbage go away. Just make the people clean up their f***ing act!”

When Miguel’s mother found out later why I was so angry, her response was not comforting. “It’s like that at the places of all the saints. It’s like that all over Mexico where the foreign tourists don’t go.” And I knew it was true. I had traveled like a Mexican and seen the Mexico tourists don’t see.

A campaign formed in my mind in that moment. Santos en Huelga . . . Saints on Strike. I’d send a petition to the national newspaper, signed by all the Saints in Mexico, saying they’d be granting no more miracles until the Mexican people stopped with the garbage.

“What hypocrites you are, asking us for miracles,” it would say, “and trashing our sacred lands.” It would promise complete and sacred silence until the mountains of garbage were no more.

It would be followed up with a television ad campaign. Images of cherished Mexican icons – the pyramids, the memorials, the works of great art with a caption and voiceover “El orgullo de Mexico,” the pride of Mexico – followed by images of the mountains of garbage and the spoiled sacred places with a caption and voiceover “La verguenza de Mexico,” the shame of Mexico – closed with a cartoon of a little pig running across the bottom of the screen trailing garbage in its wake and the words “Que Cochinito,” what a pig!

Miguel thought my idea might be a little extreme for a foreigner. It could work, but it could also piss people off. He was right, of course, but I’ve thought of Santos en Huelga every day since then. I collected articles on people who’ve made a difference in modern Mexico, like Juan Carlos Cantu who has been the moving force behind multiple successful national campaigns to protect Mexico’s whales, dolphins, sea turtles and mangrove forests (Defenders of Wildlife, Feb. 2007 newsletter). In March I met a writer in Seattle who promised to introduce me to Leslie Iwerks, who had just received an Academy Award nomination for her film “Recycled Life,” a documentary on the inhabitants of the Guatemala City garbage dump (Recycled Life – a Documentary). I wanted to know how they’ve done it. How does one person tackle a problem bigger than a mountain? Bigger than a country? As big as humankind?

This week, Miguel’s mother got back from the annual pilgrimage to Juquila. The garbage is gone. The Mexican government has apparently, finally, taken an interest in public health and natural resources and the people are responding.

They’ve also cleaned up Acapulco – the Mexican tourist side of Acapulco. Last year it was repulsive – streets and beaches covered in plastic cups, Styrofoam plates, disposable forks, beer cans, soda bottles, food waste. The state government has invested $35 million pesos in the cleanup of Acapulco and ordered all of the street vendors to clean up after themselves – and wear black pants and white shirts for a clean appearance.

So, it looks like Miguel and I will go back Juquila to give thanks. Next time I’ll ask for clean rivers. And that the cleanups last. And that the people take personal responsibility for where they drop their trash and don’t depend on government campaigns.

Did I tell you that the pictures Miguel took of the Virgin show her face? Yes, my pure-of-heart husband.

The last weekend in November we went on one of the numerous annual pilgrimages my husband’s Mexican family takes.  A quick 24-hour run to a small town in the state of Michoacan, north and west of Mexico City, five to six hours’ drive depending on how fast the tour bus driver goes. As passengers, we are torn about the issue of speed – for safety we prefer slow, but for comfort we prefer speed. The ancient tour bus has no heat and those who’ve taken this particular trip before warn us to bring as many blankets as we can carry.

We boarded the tour bus about 9pm and arrived in the village at 2:30am.  Our bus was the 8th to arrive of over 100 buses that packed into the small town before dawn.  As soon as we arrived our family and extended family – 16 of us altogether – debarked and went in search of food and a good leg stretch. 

The central plaza was packed with vendor stalls, all covered with tarps for the night. The sellers cocooned in woven cotton blankets atop reed mats, modern tents sprinkled here and there.  The plaza in front of the church was filled with sleeping people, too; bundled and clustered like grapes on patches of dirt under precisely box-shaped trees; all awaiting the morning bell to wake them for mass.

The altar was set up on a giant cement table in the church garden because there would be too many people to hold the mass inside the chapel.  On the far side of the surrounding plaza, the main street was closed off and filled with food stalls.  A few large makeshift kitchens had their own large spaces behind the cooking areas crammed cafe-style with wobbly metal tables and chairs. Even at this early hour, many of the food vendors were crouched beside their pots and fires, pitching their hot breakfast offerings – tamales, atole (hot corn milk), chocolate, coffee, rice with mole.  We stopped at one of the large kitchens – the same one the family stops at every year – for tamales and atole and coffee.  Miguel’s godmother was thrilled to hear that later they would serve the turkey head soup she’d been craving all year.

They call the hours between midnight and sunup La Madrugada and except for the food vendors, all was quiet and empty like these silk dark hours should be. We wandered around the plaza marveling at the broad streets, now converted into a labyrinth of narrow walkways winding among vendor stalls.  Every open entry we passed led to a tiled and flower-filled walkway or patio and the side streets were full of orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit.  We located the public restrooms in a jungled courtyard inside a castle-gated wall complete with an imposing iron-studded wooden entry gate the size of double barn doors.

We sat for awhile on the curb in front of the gate and watched as more tour buses flowed in, directed through the winding streets by fires built on the pavement to block the roads they should not enter.  If the bus is very big, or the driver not very experienced, the men huddled around the fires get up to guide them around the tight corners, their sharp whistles the go-forward signal: beep-beep  beep-beep  beep-beep. Their silence and the thump of a flat hand on metal bus siding a warning to stop.  Safely around the corner, the driver hands pesos out the window into an open handed whistle-blower and the web of Mexican commerce is woven. 

There are open hands and pesos for every service in Mexico. On the street where the buses park, every third or fourth house has its entry gate opened wide, lights casting a friendly glow onto the sidewalk, with a scribbled “baño” sign hung nearby. You pay two pesos at the entry and are handed a small folded packet of toilet paper. Passing into the courtyard you find a small, cement or tar paper building, with two or three toilet stalls with wooden doors. There is usually a large cement sink nearby with a cold water spigot.  The families in this town have installed these structures specifically to service the pilgrims that come to see the town’s Cristo milagroso during one of the 11 festival days each year.  And, at least economically speaking, their Christ is miraculous because it brings so much money in through the pilgrims’ pockets.

I went back to the bus alone, hoping to get some sleep.  In our absence, though, the narrow street had filled with two rows of parked buses and I often had to turn sideways to fit between.  I couldn’t picture where I was on the street until I came to a patch of eroding adobe wall with wide windows and a small cramped door where tall tropical bushes with platter-sized leaves spilled out of every opening and filled every space on the roofless lot, rising up and over the walls like giant green heads watching and nodding.  Our bus would be just a bit further up the hill on the right, with an open space and fire on the street in front of the coach. 

Stumbling along the dark uneven sidewalk and unable to identify the multi-colored logos, I recognized the window configuration of the bus door and stepped up into the entry.  I did not recognize the person in my seat behind the driver, however, and immediately knew I’d been deceived by appearances.  The next open space I could see in the street was three buses further up at the peak of the hill.  I looked closer at the exterior markings this time and, though the spot was again occupied, I knew the face of the lady sitting in Miguel’s seat, next to my niece in my seat.  Desperate with sleep, but not related to the ancient woman in Miguel’s seat, I couldn’t figure out how to ask her to move.  In this grandmother’s absence, the tour director took the emptied front row seat across the aisle and was now deeply asleep or at least pretending to be (she’s quite the conniver).  So the grandmother had taken my seat and though she was awake I knew her to be very hard of hearing (or at least pretending to be) and very loud of voice, and I knew she would not understand my request (or would loudly pretend not to) and, well, the anticipated commotion was just not worth it.  So I turned back and wended my way through the ratpaths between and around the buses and the rest of the pilgrims coming and going, and met Miguel and the family halfway down the hill. 

I explained my presence and my mother-in-law led the way back to the bus. She had no problem confronting the woman in my seat.  The grandmother got up and stood with her cane in the entry of the bus while our family settled back in and, much to my chagrin, remained standing there talking loudly to herself as Miguel and I pulled up our blankets and tried to sleep.  I was mortified, having evicted this bent and withered woman, but would insult my mother-in-law if I relinquished my seat and would subject my husband to an ammonia-perfumed seat-mate.  My brain chewed on my embarrassment, but eventually my eyelids won and my sleep was a strong, pulling anchor.

Four hours later, we woke to an almost empty bus.  It was eight o’clock and mass had started at seven. 

Despite the morning chill, the village was bursting at the seams. The church courtyard was standing room only and beyond its wrought iron gates the city plaza was also at a standstill, people craning to see the miraculous Christ now positioned on the cement altar.

To see this crucifix inside the church, it appears small, child-sized.  But out in the open the Christ’s arms stretch to superhuman size and the crucifix commands attention from high above the heads of the crowd.  It is the oldest such figure in
Mexico – over 500 years, and made of bamboo, put in place by the Franciscan’s who arrived first in Michoacan to convert the Indians.  The miracle is that this Christ sweats.  The caretakers of the Christ gather the sweat on cottonballs and it is said that a touch of one of these can cure any ailment.  To move the Christ, the caretakers wear gloves so that their human oils don’t damage the wooden figure.  Also because it is bamboo and because it is so beloved, the people cannot touch the figure as they do the marble saints and sacred statues.  So they throw articles of clothing – a scarf, a glove, a shirt, a bandana, a baby’s blanket – to the caretakers who carefully touch the item to the bamboo Christ and toss it back into the crowd.

We tediously push through the crowds in between the vendor booths heading toward the turkey head soup kitchen.  I see stalls of wooden toys, with little logging trucks like the one I received three years ago from my mother-in-law.  There are tables overflowing with the sweet potato, coconut, and sesame candies she sends me every year. I recognize stacks of the curly-edged ceramic bowls in her kitchen.  We arrive at the food street, but there is still no sign of family anywhere. 

We circle away to the far side of the plaza, to the street the buses entered through, and it is now also filled with vendors.  Tarps in the middle of the street are covered with tropical nuts – mounds of pecans in their shells, burlap bags overspilling with roasted natural pistachios. Sixteen pesos a kilo – $1.50 USD for 2.2 pounds of pecans.  The sidewalk tables are stacked with bottles and jars of bright preserves and liqueurs and tequilas.

And there are towers of bird cages everywhere. Small wire cages and tall whitewashed slat cages stacked higher than a man can reach.  Filled with singing and squawking feathered beings the likes of which I’ve never seen even in my dreams.  An eight inch compact parrot-green body is topped with a surprising iridescent black-blue raven head.  A foot-long black body balances a screeching magpie head crowned with a spray of six three-inch feathers, black with white spots, and draped behind with a loose wedding train tail of thin black feathers with white edges.  Soft gray balls whistled complicated meadow-bird songs.  Tawny coral-beaked finches fill up the spaces between the feathered scandals. All the vendors have small falcons tethered to their hands. 

“These are not birds to be caged,” I say to Miguel, and later his mother tells me, “They are wild and many of them are on the verge of extinction.  Don’t buy them. They will die before you get home.”

Eventually, we found Miguel’s godmother at the appointed place.  The turkey head was an unrecognizable black lump.  A delicious lump by the way she sucked and savored its bones.  But she was the only one that went away happy from that meal.  The tables were so crowded that the service lagged – 15-20 minutes just to place an order with a distracted waiter, another 15-20 for the food to arrive in the hands of a harried waitress – tepid chicken leg soup, a plate of whipped and watery rice, boiled chicken thigh covered in cold overly sweet mole.  The rest of the family wandered up in twos and threes.  No one got better service. 

Half of us moved, en masse, to the next kitchen over.  From a sunny open space on the patio, we commandeered tables and seats as they became available and dragged them over to our corner.  Rather than wait for service, Miguel went to the cooks and ordered for us all – and stood there hovering while they cooked.  Pambasos – large football-shaped rolls split in two, dipped in a light chile sauce, toasted on the grill, and then spread with refried beans and cream and filled with chicken or potatoes or whatever is available. Not the best I’ve had, but significantly better than cold rice and slimy-skinned chicken.

Then we were off to the aguas thermicas; the hot springs.  The road up to the springs is where I found what I’d been looking for – painted ceramic pots for my garden.  But I was tired and just wanted to rest, and who wants to lug pots up and back, so I looked as we walked but did not buy.  Here is where we also found the fruit vendors.  20 oz. plastic cups of every tropical fruit you can imagine.  And vegetables, too.  I settled on a cup layered with shredded beets, cucumber, carrots and jicama, topped with salt and fresh-squeezed lime juice.  I’ve developed a thing for fruits and vegetables with lime and salt.  The carrots prepared this way were the best surprise.

At the hot springs, we paid 40 pesos per person entry fee, about $4 USD.  After passing through the entry gate, we were confronted with the reality that is Mexico. There were pools with water slides and wading pools and pools with fountains, but there were so many people not one more person could squeeze in and the water that was visible between bodies looked like tea. The few patches of grass were equally crowded.  So we walked to the far side of the park and arrived just as a cement table under a big roof was being vacated – a miracle of the bamboo Christ in my opinion; I just wanted to nap.  We settled in, the kids changed into their swimsuits, and I gratefully laid my head on the pillow of my coat on my corner of the table and slept.

A few hours later, rested, recreated, and fed, we left to head back to the bus.  Departure was scheduled for 4:30p and we had about 90 minutes.  I bought some lovely pots on the way, $5-$8 USD each, painted with sunflowers and calla lilies.  And then, just short of the road up to the buses, Miguel spotted a vajilla – a set of dishware, full service for six; 75 pieces in all, hand-painted ceramic in cobalt blue and white and orange with sunflowers and lilies.  Miguel negotiated the sellers down from $3,000 pesos to $2,400 pesos.  I reminded him that we already had two big bags and a box to carry.  I told him that if I’d had to turn sideways to get through, there was no way a box of dishes could fit up the strangled path to the buses, and I left him there.  He followed me.  I reminded him that our rental house doesn’t even have a kitchen to put the dishes in. 

“You know you’ve been looking at dishes like this for years.  You know you’ll never find a set like this for $200 dollars.”  He wouldn’t stop.  So I gave in.

With time running short, the entire set was packed into two boxes and I insisted we pay two young men to carry them. So we hurried back to the bus – me in the lead, the box boys in the middle, Miguel and his daughter bringing up the rear.  Miguel told me we looked like an expedition from an Indiana Jones movie, tall people hurrying through a crowd with string-tied boxes on their shoulders.

We met the rest of the family half way up the hill and proceeded together.  We were late, but we weren’t the last ones to arrive.  Again, the old lady had taken my seat because the tour director had moved her two rows back from the front.  My mother-in-law was fearless on my behalf and finally the lady stood up saying, “Well, then I guess you’re right,” and moved back to her reassigned seat.

It isn’t even my fault that they always put me in the front; the first time I went on one of these excursions, we sat in the back and the diesel fumes made me so sick I turned green (really) and had a bad episode at the first town we stopped in.  So now I have to sit up front and take the insinuations that it’s my fault that the old ladies can’t sit up front.  Truth is they couldn’t handle it anyway – behind the driver there is a wall that prevents me from stretching my legs out, so however many hours we spend on the road are hours spent with my knees at a 90 degree angle.  Sometimes I can hardly walk when the bus stops.

The trip home was uneventful except for two new passengers – the wife and infant daughter of the bus driver who had made the outbound trip sleeping in a converted storage bay in the belly of the bus!  Which is why the tour guide couldn’t sit in the fold-down seat by the door, which is why the old lady got moved, which is why . . . well, you get the picture.  Life in Mexico is an intricate web of whys and answers that often escape logic.

I’ve got to be crazy – I’m leaving Seattle to move to Mexico City so my husband can be with his 10 year old daughter. Okay, so it’s just the next adventure in the series of bizarre things I’ve done in my life. This might be the craziest, though, I mean, moving to an entirely different country? Where a policeman has already robbed me ?! Sounds crazy to me…

I was telling my dentist last night (Hi, Barry) about the cop in Toluca that accosted us when we broke the PREMIER RULE about driving in Mexico (NEVER NEVER NEVER drive at night) and after thinking something like Holy Shit but saying something much more discreet, he said something like, You need to keep us posted on your adventures.

Well, it was about the thousandth time I’d heard that, so I decided to join the ranks of bloggers – because, frankly, I tell these stories to many different people, I forget who I’ve told what to, and I hate repeating myself (I may be crazy, but I am definitely not senile, so this repeating myself thing is getting old).

I’m starting with this short post and will get back to you with the full story about the robber cop and, if the film comes out good, the photo of his evil sidekick that my husband snuck out and took while I was arguing with the first cop . . . god I’m shaking just remembering again, will that ever not happen? Well, anyway, complete coverage and photos to follow . . .

                                                                               ~~O~~

July 2006 – RV to Mexico

Well, we made it to Mexico with lots of great adventures and only minor difficulties. The US part of our trip was a real preparation for Mexico. And the people we were fortunate enough to meet personally both north and south of the border were all charming and helpful.

We only had two unpleasant experiences, really. In Utah one of the workers at the oil change shop stole our iPod (fortunately the boss sent another worker on a search and he found it in the group’s clean uniform closet). Be sure, if you ever come to Mexico, to remember that the cardinal rule of “NEVER drive at night” is written in stone for a reason. The real thieves there carry pistols, nightsticks and badges – I´ll leave it at that. 

We had a great time in Idaho with Becky and John at their ranchito on the river with its own private hot springs. John took Miguel fishing and later helped him fix some perforated plumbing in the motorhome (caused by a careless carpet layer who assured us he had carpeted many an RV). Becky and I hung out reminiscing and cooking. It was a great start to the trip.

On our night drive into Utah, Miguel saw a big comet fall into the Wasatch mountains, but the trip was otherwise uneventful. We spent a wonderful day with Charlie and Cody and Liam in West Jordan. We spent the morning lazing in their sunny back yard. Then they took us hiking around a lake in the mountains just west of Salt Lake City. We ended the evening by putting on temporary dragonfly tatoos and posing for pictures (which I’ll post here as soon as I find the discs).

The biggest adventure came after a lovely late afternoon rest in Hanksville, Utah, heading into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Highway 96. We were on the way to Natural Bridges and the waitress assured us that it was only about 90 minutes away and, surely, there would be gas stations there. I should have recalled that earlier she’d told me that she and her husband had only lived in Hanksville just over a year. In any event, off we drove, low on gas but with enough to easily drive 90 minutes.

The canyon scenery was amazing and spellbinding, but three hours later in the pitch black of night we had to stop in the middle of nowhere because we were so low on gas I didn’t want to run out in the middle of the night with no chance for passing traffic assistance. We stopped about 10p and settled in to sleep. Shortly after we laid down, one big vehicle whooshed by and no one else passed to disturb our sleep until morning.

About 8a we started up again and within 15 minutes we were in sight of a beautifully built ranch-style motel, adobe finish on the walls, rockers on the porch beside each wooden door – with gas pumps in the parking lot!!

You can imagine the sensation in my stomach as we pulled up to find the driveway blocked by a chain and a little sign that said “Closed – No Trespassing.” But there was a door open in the middle of the building, so I got out and hollered several loud Hellowww!s, but no one answered. Thoughts of our gas needle sitting on top of the big red E pushed me to cross the chain and no sooner had I taken three steps than a woman appeared at the door carrying a wicker laundry basket.

She was reserved at first. Sorry, the hotel is closed. No, there is no gas to sell. Our pathetic questions about how far to the next gas station and muttered calculations about how many gallons we have past Empty and miles per gallon softened her up. 

“Well, there is some gas in that old rusted tank, but it’s at least three years old and will ruin your fuel pump. How little can you get by with?” We settled on seven gallons, with the promise that we would fill the tank with high octane to clean out the fuel injectors at the first gas station we came to. 

Then we started chatting. Gwen was the long-time caretaker of this impeccably kept little motel. The motel was closed because there wasn’t enough water to support it – the area had been in a drought cycle for about six years and the hotel had been closed for three. She lived there with her cats and opened the little store during the daytime for passing traffic, which was sparse. She sent us on our way with good wishes and instructions to head straight down the highway to Blanding and the closest gas station. 

On the road again, we dutifully followed instructions until we saw a sign “Blanding 25, Mexican Hat 27.” A glance at our Microsoft Streets & Trips generated map confirmed that our route was through Mexican Hat and the road to Blanding branched far to the east. It was only two miles more. We had enough gas for two extra miles.

Soon enough, we were far from the split to Blanding and on our way, secure in our planned route to Monument Valley in the Navajo Reservation. We laughed about the road sign that said “Moki Dugway.” What a funny name? Ha, ha, ha.

Then the pavement changed to gravel and I began to wonder. Then the road began to descend and I would have been worried but the gravel was well graded and the road appeared to be well maintained. Then it got narrower. And steeper. Much steeper. With switchbacks. Many of them. With the bottom in sight, my brakes were getting mushy and I could smell them, but I was so intent on the curves and not nicking the overhangs with the motorhome that I forgot to use a lower gear. When we reached the end and the road flattened out, I immediately pulled over and smoke billowed out from the front of the vehicle. Thank goodness it was just the breeze carrying the smoke from the brakes and nothing awry in the engine compartment. We spent an hour in the shade of the RV, warning several other motorhomes and motorcycles on their way up the canyon.

It turns out that Moki Dugway is a 10% grade road from the mesa top to the bottom of the canyon. Imagine us being almost out of gas, in an overloaded 24´ motorhome and go to this page to see the dirt road of Moki Dugway   http://3dparks.wr.usgs.gov/2005/naturalbridges/html/md073.htm
By comparison, Mexican roads were a breeze! 

Arizona was the worst part of the trip by far. The hours spent on blacktop were like passing through Hell´s Oven. Mexico, even on the hottest days, was never so unbearable and anger inspiring as the drive from Flagstaff to Tucson – 123 degrees in the shade! One day it was so suffocating we just stopped and went to the movies just to get out of the heat.

Fortunately, it looks like our big move will be in late September, early October. Yep, the house sold and is under contract. The closing date is July 31, so as soon as I fly in on the 26th I have to go sign all the paperwork and then arrange to get everything moved into storage!  It will be a whirlwind. We´ll wait to do the move until after I finish my contract time at Frazier on September 20. That will give Miguel enough time to find us a small house to rent in Mexico and make for a more tranquil move.