Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Puerto Libertad is a notch ahead of Puerto Lobos.  At least it has some hotels, and restaurants, too—even an Oriental one, I hear.  But I know in my heart the trip’s really over, anyway, because once the rhythm’s broken, then you have to skip to the next act…and that’s LA.  So why am I going southeast when I need to go northwest?  Chill, Hardie, chill.  All is not lost, of course.  During that hour or so of uncertainty, standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus, I probably chatted with more local strangers than I have in the last thirty-five years—the hardware guy, the hotel guy, the construction guy on the bicycle—just wanting to chat, just like the old days.  That was in Mexico, too.  Sadly it happens all too infrequently around the world, and when it does happen, it’s notable.  If I may riff on a theme: “so far from the US, so close to God.” 
“Are you Gringo or Mexican?” the guy on the sidewalk finally asks me.
Cien por ciento?”
Maybe just a little bit pocho?
Puro gringo.
And genetic theories of language acquisition die another little death, racism in one of its mildest forms, the reverse Lamarckian fallacy in linguistics—acquisition of inherited characteristics—and pitfall of the uneducated.  No, language is not coded in DNA.  One of the nicest things about Mexico is that so few people speak English…or even care.  Good for them; that’s the way it should be.  If intermingling with the locals is the highest goal of travel, then passing for one is the Holy Grail.  If we all could pass for local all over the world, then there’d be no racism.  Racism in its vicious form is hatred—and fear—of the “other.”  If there is no perception of “otherness,” then there should be no racism.  But besides chatting up the locals, not much else is happening in the metropolis of Puerto Libertad.  It’s election time at the local and national levels.  At the national level PRI is predicted to win the presidency for the first time since finally losing their “perfect dictatorship” in 2000.  On the local level it’s “Nacho” against “El Melon.”  I’m getting hungry.

But of course I can’t sleep with a 5 a.m. bus to catch, so that adds insult to injury.  I need help from the desk people.
            “You’re going to give me a wake-up call at 4:30 a.m., right?
            Si, senor, a las cuatro y media.”
There’s only one problem: no telephone.  So next time I pass the desk I try to act my cutest and remind her, “you’re going to call me with a megaphone, right?”
She smiles.  Si, senor.”
Now I know I’ll never get to sleep.  I try to remember that Seinfeld episode about the long-distance runner who missed his alarm for the marathon.  What did he do?  But the concern was all for naught.  The night clerk actually did come knock on my door—twice—but I didn’t need it anyway.  I’ve got an internal clock that checks the time every hour on the hour all night, and it’s got an alarm, too.

So sometimes the epiphany is in the brilliant mistake, and the devil is always in the details.  One of the main purposes of this trip was to see wartime Mexico, and how it’s holding up.  I’m happy to report that it’s doing fine.  No one is hiding behind metal shutters—no more than usual anyway—and no one is scared to talk to strangers.  So I make my morning bus and continue on to Hermosillo, the wrong way to LA, but still holding out my options.  We’re going through Seri Indian country now, and they pile onto the bus at several intermediate stops.  They certainly don’t look like the bad-asses they’ve got the rep for, quite a handsome people in fact, far more than their fat-ass mixed-blood counterparts.  If anyone has diabetic obesity here, it’s not the natives; it’s the overweight Mexican women.  A young Seri couple sit behind me, so I listen in on their conversation.  The language sounds like somebody gargling…and then swallowing.

We finally get into Hermosillo and it’s hotter than PHX—pardon my Spanish—but I mean Phoenix, of course, Hermosillo’s sister city to the north.  If Phoenix had ended up on the other side of the line, this is what it’d look like.  The hotel I booked is located five minutes’ walk from the bus terminal, of course, something I didn’t even know at the time.  I consider begging them for a refund, but blow it off.  I’d probably fare better if I showed up to check-in today, but… naah…  I continue to the bus terminal…and the “ruta Sonora” up river toward Arizona is problematic, only three buses per day, and one of them already gone.  If I don’t like Aconchi, I wouldn’t want to wait seven hours for another bus OR spend the night in the Godforsaken place.  I just did that last night. 

So I’ll book onward trans to Tijuana through the night, get there early Sunday morning, then see how I feel.  I’d like to see how it’s doing anyway, especially after spending so much time there in the interstices of my two-year “hypertravel.”  Everyone asks me about Ethiopia, Yemen, Madagascar, and Papua NG, but nobody ever asks me about Tijuana, and that’s where I spent more time than any other single place.  I doubt I’ll spend the night, though, not with an apartment waiting for me two hours away in LA.  So this trip’s over…almost.  I ask everyone—literally everyone—how many hours it is to TJ: “Twelve hours,” like they’re reciting a mantra that they wish were true.  It’s important, not because I want to spend the night on the bus and get psychological payback for the night’s rent I paid on a hotel where I never stayed…but because I don’t want to get into TJ into the middle off the night…especially not on a Saturday night…especially not TJ. 

So I decide to go at 8 p.m. since that one’s a guaranteed seat, no wait to purchase after bus arrival and head-count.  Of course, the Visa machine doesn’t work for the bus ticket.  Welcome to Mexico.  And they stop us for “revision” no less than four times along the way.  Welcome to Mexico.  That should deter any small-timer drug dealers from competing with the big boys.  Or do they honestly expect to bore the cartels to death?  And there’s no water for the crapper on the bus, so the poop piles high.  That’s a bit too much like the old days.  Welcome to Mexico again. 

Much of the trip to TJ we’re going parallel to that fence that defines and divides cultures and families through the great southwest (Mexico’s great northwest).  Anything divided by nothing, of course, is impossible, meaningless infinities, and that’s the way it seems here, like treating the symptoms rather than looking for a cure.  Chinese restaurants line the border in San Luis and Mexicali—all looking northward—like pieces in a game of Chinese chess (Go, 圍棋,weiqi), in the process of surrounding their opponent, trying to accomplish with hot woks and hard work what others accomplish with stealth and cunning, grabbing and running.  And the trip to TJ is really sixteen hours, not twelve.  Welcome to Mexico one last time, on the way out.  So I connect straight to a bus north.  They allow an hour to cross the border.  It takes two.  Welcome to Mexico.  And the trip to LA is supposed to take three hours.  It takes four.  Welcome to Mexico.  By the time we reach Long Beach I jump ship.  I can’t take it any more.  I know my way home from here.  By the time I sit down half-starved to supper—twenty-two hours and twenty-two ounces of granola later—the sun is going down.  Welcome to Mexico…I mean LA. 

Afterword: A few days later I pay my credit card bill, so check the details first.  There’s that $38.38 charge, except that…it’s not from the Mexican hotel I booked at all.  It’s from the Air Asia flight that I booked before I left, albeit thinly documented on the statement itself.  So I’ve skipped out on a charge I really was liable for, though I never used the service.  So not only did I break even, but I really came out ahead, in effect getting payback for the glitched charge from two years ago.  Score one for incompetence.  So does that mean that “3838” is my lucky number?  Welcome to Mexico.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


(Part 2) Puerto Lobos is a study in contrasts.  If (the more developed) Bahia de Kino feels like “land’s end”—per Lonely Planet—then this is off the map, though that is changing with the new highway, as previously mentioned.  My only visit two years ago, the road had just been paved to here—from the north down the coast—shortening the distance from the big city of Caborca (pop. 60,000) and transportation links to the rest of the country.  Now that link to the links is even shorter, as there’s a bus thirty minutes to the south in Puerto Libertad, that connects to the much larger city to the southeast in Hermosillo (pop. 700,000).  But if Puerto Lobos looks like a tiny little God-forsaken Mexican fishing village on the surface, peel back a layer of the onion and there’s more (actually I prefer those large Mexican green onions for this purpose). 

There’s a tiny community here of similarly-minded ex-pat American hipsters (ex-Flagstaff, mainly) looking to get off the grid on the cheap, at least part-time—build a crib, put a lock on the door, etc.  If that sounds sooo colonial, well rest assured the Mexicans do it, too.  In fact, on weekends, and especially the Holy Week preceding Easter, the whole place takes on an entirely different personality, raucous and rowdy.  Thus, this tiny village of fishermen is nothing so much as a village of beach houses (mostly shacks, actually) for city dwellers, Mexican-style.  And when I say “get off the grid” that used to have a different meaning entirely, i.e. off the power grid.  Now civilization is impinging little by little, and power and light poles are going up one by one…and a community that used to be pitch black at night is gradually taking on the appearance of “normalcy.”  Some like it that way.  Some don’t.  There are even cell phones now, so put a little thingamajig on your laptop and that means Internet, too.

What about the war, you ask, that drug-fueled war that has in the last five years claimed as many lives in Mexico as the Vietnam War did to the US in ten?  That’s somewhere else…in somebody else’s village…in somebody else’s mind.  Oh sure, there’s a bit of drug trade here, coming from who-knows-where going to God-knows-where.  They come in, do their thing under the cover of night, and then they go home, usually.  Sometimes they hide in fifty-five gallon drums while the helicopter’s search lights probe overhead. 

As long as nothing really bad happens in town, then everyone turns a blind eye to the drug trade…the storeowners, the fishermen, the American ex-cop.  The bad guys are good customers in town, after all, for the supplies they need, so everybody wins.  Yeah right.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that’s how the war got started in the first place, everybody turning a blind eye as long as it was somebody else’s son carrying the gun and somebody else’s husband getting killed.  Now it’s starting to hit home, especially in Ciudad Juarez and Monterey, the main drug routes to the US markets.  How long before the western lands get ripped up by violence is anybody’s guess.

So in my few short days I establish a little routine—coffee and a light brekkie in the morning, long walk, see the town, see some friends, lunch, nap, internet, etc. But the best part is the afternoon swim, out about a quarter mile to the pelicans’ island.  If the tide’s out, you can walk almost the entire way.  There are miles of unspoiled beach around here.  In the right season you can even see some misguided whales taking the scenic route.  The fat-bellied mother-flippers still don’t have GPS.  All good things must come to an end of course, so I try to put together an onward plan as best I can.  First that means to get to Hermosillo, and then decide where to go from there.  I call the hotel down the road in Libertad (cell phones now, yes!) and they tell me there’s a bus at 2 p.m.  Another Mexican friend says there’s also one at 11 a.m.  With that info in hand I decide that I’ll crash a night in Hermosillo, then maybe take half a day out to Bahia Kino and back—looking for an ironwood carver (long story), then back to Hermosillo and continue onward.

Of course the Kino leg is optional, subject to my shifting moods and desire to do business when I’d really rather write, so the “continue onward” part is of primary importance.  That could give this trip a life beyond merely visiting friends.  The Sonora river route looks pretty good, if the bus schedules are sympathetic to my needs.  I won’t know until I get there.  If it all sounds sketchy, that’s because it is.  I prefer to recycle back statements (“space intentionally left blank”) for those sketches.  But the river route sounds nice, traditional little Mexican towns with hot springs and furniture makers and cows and cowboys—no more Indians.  The original Opata-speaking inhabitants are down to fifteen in number, and they all live in Mexico, D. F. now.  It’s a shame.  Or I could go farther south into the heart of the Yaqui/Mayo territory, but I’ve done that before.  So I get the brilliant idea to book a room in advance by Internet for Hermosillo.  Expedia has some, but I decide to book another on its own Spanish-language website.  It goes through without a hitch, confirmed.

The next morning I check my credit card online to see what the charge is in dollars.  It’s $38.38.  Uh-oh, that can’t be good, not in Mexico—anywhere else, maybe, but not Mexico.  A sign is a sign.  Suddenly I don’t feel so good.  D & E take me to meet my 11 a.m. bus, but there is none.  I’ll have to wait until 2 p.m.  We see the town’s few sights—there ain’t much—and have lunch, but that sick feeling won’t go away.  D & E leave me at the bus stop, but the bus never comes…never.  I’ll have to spend the night in Libertad and catch the 5 a.m. bus, even though I’ve already paid for a room in Hermosillo.  Something like this happened the last time I came here, exactly two years ago to the week.  Then I tried to book a Mexican bus in advance and never got the confirmation, so assumed it never went through.  I made other plans, then the charge showed up; I never got my money back, and not for lack of trying, including calling the bus line’s head office in Mexico, D.F.  I assume I’ll have to eat this one, too.  If things went smoothly, then I guess it wouldn’t be Mexico.  (to be continued)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


We Americans have our Wild West just like Mexico has its “norte barbaro,” and they’re the same place of course, that vast expanse of land bounded by two mountain ranges and stretching from Utah to Jalisco, Mexico.  It’s home to cowboys and Indians ranging from Utes to Aztecs, vaqueros to buckaroos.  Where I’m going is right in the center of it.  I’ll start in my former home state of Arizona and cross the border into Mexico from there.  Mexico was the first foreign country—actually second, if you count Canada—that I visited some thirty-eight years ago, along the border with Texas at El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.  It seemed so weird and wonderful that I hung around for days, just soaking up the weirdness and basking in the atmosphere.  Of course now I know why it seemed so weird at the time—it is…or was at least.  Most of those places are closed now.

No line in the sand ever separated so much, more than just America from Mexico, but also Latino from Germanic, European from indigenous, developed from primitive, wealth from poverty, law and order from, uh…pragmatic.  I can still see it in my mind’s eye—nose, tongue, skin, ear—as if it were yesterday, especially the smells, of the meat and the gasoline, somehow different from ours.  Somehow it all just smelled more pungent, earthier, and less sterile.  Bingo.  I was hooked of course, and resolved to carry this newfound wanderhunger to a new level as fast as I could.  That meant looking at the map of Mexico as if it were a secret wormhole to a hidden dimension.  I even resolved to go all the way down, to the southern border of Mexico, the edge of the known universe at that time.  To go beyond it was unthinkable. 
For that matter, to go to Europe was unthinkable, which is what normal people with wanderlust—and funds—did on their “gap year.”  In the 1970’s Freddie what’s-his-name was making big headlines with his $100 “Skytrain” flights to London, so the backpack era was on.  Go to Europe, get a $250 Eurail Pass, get a copy of “Europe on $10 a Day,” and spend a summer doing the Continent, $1500 all included…maybe.  There was only one problem.  WTF was I going to get $1500?  Minimum wage back then was about $1.75 per hour.  You could get a bus from Tijuana to Mazatlan for about ten bucks then (now it’ll get you from TJ to Ensenada…maybe).  So when some friends invited me to travel with them the next year to Yucatan (yep, wayyy down there), there was nothing else to say, but “Giddyup.”

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and within two years I’d wintered over in Guatemala one year and Peru the next, my farthest extent for ten years.  Now I’ve been to 143 and counting, but it’s always fun to go back to Mexico.  Of course back then it quickly became passe’ to hang around the border.  Exotic—and cheap—Mexico was down in Oaxaca…Chiapas…Yucatan.  And of course many of those areas aren’t as exotic as they used to be, or as cheap, and some of the border areas are quite nice…and interesting.  Indigenous culture is always one of my main interests, and Mexico has plenty of that, sixty-plus some-odd indigenous languages at last count, one of the most diverse in the world (Papua New Guinea has over 800).  If the southern biggies with multiple dialects dominate that list—like Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mayan, more than a few are found in the northern regions, particularly in the western coast and mountains extending north from Guadalajara.  There’s even a healthy handful in the border state of Sonora.  That’s where I’m going.
Sonora is Arizona’s sister state across the line in Mexico, or at least it was until the current Arizona governor started making the people we stole the state from illegal…so now I don’t know.  Regardless the two cross-border states have a lot in common, including a city—Nogales—which sits smack on the line with a fence running through it.  But that’s not the way we’re going in.  So I meet my friends Dan and Elizabeth at the Phoenix airport and—after crashing for the night in Casa Grande (pronounced “Cassa Grand” in the local jargon)—we high-tail it across the Tohono O’odham (Papago) rez toward the border at Sonoita.  It’s really quiet there, with hardly anything at all on the US side.  The Mexican side is more or less a real town, more than I remember, anyway.  From there it’s a straight shot south to Puerto Penasco (“Rocky Point”), quickest shot to paradise for an Arizonan, about an hour from the border.  We’re going further south, though, to Puerto Lobos, along the new coast-hugging highway that’s now paved past Puerto Lobos on to Libertad, where there’s a major power plant…and a bus line.  There are miles of empty desert the whole way.

The government has got big plans for this area, and this highway is crucial to it.  The basic equation is something like: if highway + beach = development, and development + tourists = income, then highway = income.  Unfortunately for the government, the Seri Indians in the area do not seem disposed to go along with the master plan, so there might have to be a detour around their area between Libertad and Kino.  They have a reputation for orneriness, and apparently prefer their own hardscrabble way of life to that which unbridled development might offer.  Like everything, it’s a double-edged sword.  Why do we have to kill the thing we love?