Mostly Mexico, Amigos
With Y2K for good measure.
(Remember when we thought $1.50/gallon gas was expensive?)
Observations from two reluctant colonists
It's all about Planning. It starts to look repetitious, and then ... it's NOT! Or, Change is good.
"By the 'way" October 1999
Leave Fairbanks on 9/26; to Seattle. Our RV is stored about 4 miles from my dad's place, at Issaquah. We will visit with dad (turns 83 this year). Prep the RV and take care of business in Seattle area for a few days
We have to be in Maryland on 10/9:
I-90: Spokane, WA to Buffalo, MT
I-25 to Cheyenne, WY
I-80 to Rock Island, IL
I-74 to Indianapolis, IN
I-70/Pennsylvania Turnpike, to the Washington, DC area
then Local Roads to Salisbury, MD.
We will be in Salisbury for about a month starting 10/9, providing support for Melody's dad who i s getting knee surgery. He and his wife will both need care. We do have projects: a new paint job for the car and new tires for the RV, and on and on. It is a pretty area. We are making reservations to spend a day on a "Skipjack" sailing fishing boat on Chesapeake Bay.
In December we want to be available in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, in the event there is a vacancy and we can get on a Caribbean cruise with Holland America again.
Post-cruise we plan to head north to Disney World, then to I-10 and the Gulf Coast, to Clinton, LA, and Casa de Sue winery just north of Baton Rouge. We plan to spend Y2K there in the backwoods with them, drinking wine and helping them on the grounds.
Caravan to Mexico
On about January 3-4, 2000, we will leave Clinton for Houston, TX, then on to Corpus Christi, TX. The goal is the Brownsville, TX (Hidalgo) area on January 9 to join a "Tracks to Adventure" RV Caravan for a 45-day tour of Mexico -- the Yucatan, Mexico City, all that.
We expect to be in AZ by early March and will probably make a concerted effort to NOT anchor ourselves much, but hop around the state campgrounds!
We will be back in Alaska by April 1. Does that sound like a really short winter???
Phil & Melody
Fast cross-country trip
Maryland. It took less than a week to cross the country, doing mostly about 550 miles a day, driving in 150 mile shifts, spending the night in truck stop parking lots. After all, with a self-contained motorhome, why pay for an RV park? Our equipment operated flawlessly and the weather was perfect. There were threats of snow here and there but nothing untoward materialized and it was a lovely drive. We did not have as much time to stop, as we like to do, and see the sights. But it was a route we'd driven before so we enjoyed a couple of books on tape, and kept on moving.
Is it just a perception?
Seeing the country as we have been, we have concluded that in a larger measure, MORE people (especially drivers) EAST of the Mississippi are not as nice as people on the west side. This is a generalization, of course, but it is more crowded here, the roads are generally of poorer quality, and people behind the wheel just seem nuttier! Take the example where signs have warned for up to two miles that "left lane ends". ONLY here in the east have people tried to force us over by staying in the left lane as it ends! Likewise, people here seem less likely to understand the concept of MERGING traffic and will attempt to force people in the right lane into traffic in their left lane rather than alter their own speed. On the other hand, people here sometimes actually stop in the merge lane rather than "risk" merging by altering their speed. (All this may be true of people who live in crowded areas, not just "Back East"!)
We wonder if it is just more crowded and a bit wilder where we have been driving in the east. I like the wild of the west better!
Meanwhile, we have also decided we'd rather live in an area without road signs identifying "emergency (pick one: snow, hurricane, flood) route". Visiting is one thing. Living in a place where these "emergencies" actually chase people from their homes in droves, makes us uncomfortable. Living in Alaska must have spoiled us. Not only are there fewer people there, but those events people back East see as emergencies, are just natural weather phenomenon in Alaska. Anyway, in Alaska, where would you run TO?
We continue to learn about ourselves from these things - and respect those who have found ways to accommodate those things which confound us! What a country!
Fuel prices continue to fluctuate wildly. We have paid as little as $1.09/gallon, and as much as $1.39 or so. We have seen it higher but managed to stay wide of the pricier locations. Last year fuel prices were as low as 87 cents per gallon in Indiana and about $1.17 in Florida. Prices seem lowest near refineries in Montana and Wyoming. It does make us wonder how fuel prices in Alaska, near refineries there, can be so high ($1.25 or more). Refineries say it is because of the higher cost of doing business in Alaska. I seem to recall the Cha mbers of Commerce at one time saying "It isn't THAT much more expensive to do business in Alaska" than elsewhere in the country. Hmmmmmm.
Several people asked what we did this summer - other than our jobs. To catch you up.... Phil enjoyed his 1983 Honda Silverwing motorcycle. Because of its age, accessories are not easy to find, but shopping the Internet has helped. Phil enjoyed the bike - a model only made for a few years in the 1980s. At this point it only has about 3500 original miles on it. Love those hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, Melody ran, and ran, and ran. Her passion is footpower, not horsepower. She ran in half- and full-marathons. The 1/2 marathon was around Chena Ridge in Fairbanks; full marathons were the Mayor's Cup (in Anchorage) and the Equinox Marathon (said to have the third toughest elevation changes in any US marathon). Melody also captained a 10-member team in the Klondike International Road Race from Skagway, AK, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. T he race is about 130 miles, with 10 legs varying in length from 9-15 miles or so. The race is a huge event, with something over 150 teams. Melody continued running daily through the winter and looking for interesting races. She and family members also did a one-day hike of Crow Pass, Girdwood to Eagle River AK, about 28 miles, in preparation for running that back-country race next year (maybe!).
The Maryland coast is sure interesting, located as it is in an area as crowded as America's "First Coast". There are still many relatively remote and beautiful areas like the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. This is an area called the Delmarva Peninsula, named after the three states that have a share in this patch of land. It is a fairly short drive to Baltimore, MD; Wilmington, DE; and the nation's capitol. Services are good on the Peninsula (including excellent medical facilities), but there are lots of wetlands, people still hunt and trap here, and fishing is important. It is an exciting place. This weekend was the Grand Prix Powerboat races at Ocean City; while local communities held fall fairs; and there was a 100-mile bicycle trek, called the Seagull Century, starting here in Salisbury. Keep in mind there are no hills to speak of here, so the bike trek would be fun, but not grueling.
Well, that is what is going on in our lives up to this point. We are settled in Salisbury, MD, for 3-4 weeks, with good Internet access so we will stay in touch.
Wednesday: Leon is doing well. Knee surgery was straightforward and the surgeon says he should be walking with help in a few days. We may actually leave Salisbury a few days early at this rate, sometime in early November.
Hope you're all doing well. Enjoy your winter.
"By the 'Way" NOVEMBER 1999
We have met the future and it is us
We are parked at Homestead, FL, and preparing to spend Thanksgiving Day driving to Key West, the very southern tip of the United States. Looking at the map it is hard to tell if Brownsville, TX, or Key West, FL, is most southern. Here, temperatures are in the low 80s. It is partly sunny, partly rainy, but the hurricane season seems to be over!
Seeing the future, caring for elders
We spent a full month in Salisbury, MD, seeing Melody's father through his knee surgery. Leon's wife, Helen, needs a fair amount of care herself so we had our hands full both while Leon was in the hospital, about 10 days including initial physical therapy. Melody did a lot of cooking, we shopped for them, and did a lot of improvements so their home is a little more accommodating to their physical needs. We left Salisbury after about a month, and Leon was walking without a cane . His surgery seems to have been a success! Melody ran in the Ocean City, MD, 10-mile race; Phil rode bicycle providing encouragement and liquids! The event was great fun and we spent night on the Eastern Shore, seeing the sunrise over the Atlantic - a night away from our "duties". Ocean City is about 30 miles east of Salisbury. The Ocean City Board Walk is nicely done, lots of small shops, beautiful beaches.
Is this Modern Medicine?
Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, where Leon's surgery was done, is impressive -- all one could ask for. They have a full array of departments from ER to oncology; one of the top 100 heart hospitals in the country. The facility seems well organized, modern, and well maintained. It serves a large area on the Delmarva Peninsula. It seems to attract talented people. The rooms are neat, clean, and fully modern, if a bit small. The staff is kind, attentive, and apparently well trained and skilled. The rooms themselves are equipped with outlets for everything from O2 to vacuum, and nurse alarms of course. Everything you could want. Just one thing: The lighting over patient beds is controlled, of all things, by a pull string, which is frequently too short for the patient to reach! So patients can look forward to the best in care, but should bring their own string or be resigned to poor lighting.
We did make a side trip to Washington, DC, as well. We had one day and spent most of it at the Holocaust Museum. What a powerful experience! Once again we are reminded of the accomplishments of our parents generation which Tom Brokaw calls the Greatest Generation Ever. We also spent a day in Annapolis and visited the Naval Academy. Frank Boice, whom we met last year in Alaska gave us a delightful walking tour laden with more history from one of the communities which once served as this nation's capital.
Compared to Home
I t's all about government
Fairbanks in located in a borough the size of the state of New Jersey. The Delmarva Peninsula, where we stayed last month, is a little smaller than that, with has numerous counties, portions of 3 states, and numerous communities ranging from a few hundred to several thousand. In the Fairbanks borough there is one other small community, called North Pole. That is it! That fact alone helps explain a great deal about how these areas differ. Even at its worst, people out west must appreciate how much simpler their lives are!
I'm Going to...
"So Melody, now that you have seen your father through his knee surgery, what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to Disney World!" And with that we departed Salisbury for the final time this year, to make our way to the land of make believe.
But first, two days and three nights at Colonial Williamsburg. What an amazing display of the nation's history from the Revolutionary War through to the Civil War. It is an interesting place - an entire community in its own historic time and place. Presentations were not as dynamic as we would have liked but certainly hold the interest of older folks (like us!).
Disney Still Does It Right
At Disney World we stayed at Fort Wilderness, a first class RV park. We spent time on wild rides, and seeing the year-old Wild Kingdom which is an excellent tour, including a superb demonstration of wild birds (mostly raptors and parrots) and their various behaviors.
Melody turned 50 as we visited Epcot Center, dining at Chefs de France. We love the international flavor of Epcot. There was an wine and food festival, two spectacular parades, and splendid fireworks to end the day. Gosh it was nice of them to do all that for her birthday.
Close Call, Ven!
Speaking of the Mustang, "Uncle Venison", Bambi's uncle, has at least one hoof in a sling after he tried to leap the Mustang at Disney World late one night. He left a small dent in our hood (his butt) and on our fender (his antler). Lots of smoke and screeching tires probably kept it from being a lot worse. Thanks for the memories, Vennie!
Road Pretzels - NOT zesty!
You may have seen on the news recently the 20 worst bottlenecks on the interstate highway system. We have been to most of them, most recently the beltway around Washington, DC, which is a freakin g nightmare! Having agonized over the pain of driving back east, we are smitten by the durability of the people who live in this part of the world (The fabled East Coast!). Everything that it takes to survive in the north with its cold, distances, snow, and so on, is nothing compared to the adaptability it takes to navigate and survive almost anywhere along the I-95 corridor ranging from winter snows in the Northeast, to hurricanes in the Southeast! We salute you all who live in this fascinating "wilderness"!
Fuel prices, by the way, have ranged from about $1.38 a gallon in some areas of the west, to $1.06 in Georgia, historically the cheapest, in our experience.
(One more time!) Down de Way..."
Once again Melody has scored a 10-day cruise, this time to the Eastern Caribbean, courtesy of her employer Holland-America Line (HAL). Initially we were to leave Ft. Lauderdale on 12/2, but the cruise has been delayed until 12/11. Our Itinerary: Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, Guadeloupe, US Virgin Islands; and Nassau, The Bahamas. These are all ports we have not visited on our previous Caribbean cruises. We will depart Ft. Lauderdale on 12/11 and return 12/21.
We will spend the extra week in Ft. Lauderdale exploring southern FL. After the cruise we'll spend about a week at Casa de Sue Winery with our friends.
We will send another newsletter before "Y2K". We expect to be in Houston TX on 1/3/2000. We leave for Mexico (from Hidalgo, TX) on 1/9/2000 for 45 days.
By the 'Way December 1999
Happy Holidays one and all!
Just when we had decided as a culture that "newsletters" were an acceptable way to stay in touch annually with our friends, e-mail comes along an adds a whole new dimension of impersonality to Holiday well-wishing. However, with that apology behind us, the technology has allowed us to stay in touch with a whole lot of friends and family, not just during "the Season" but year 'round. So, for that we are thankful.
Just back from the cruise. We managed to get in some terrific sightseeing, SCUBA diving, and wandering the streets of historic communities.
Here is a montage of us on our '99 cruise.
These islands, virtually every one of them, are not "neat and tidy" but appear to us as "civilization as it is happening"! The markets in the morning smell damp and fresh and new, and by midday smell of over ripe meat, fish too-long out of water, vegetables too long out of the ground, and poultry. But the energy level is exciting. Like small towns everywhere people all seem to know one another. There are taxis honking, people conversing across narrow streets, loud island music ranging from live steel bands to Bob Marley Reggae blaring from boom boxes on street corners and store entrances. Passing down a crowded street there is a mixture of languages which all comes out as a sort of babble - heavily accented English, some French and Spanish, lots of Creole, and a jabbering sort of patois which it seems only very select people (not us!) understand!
What an adventure! It makes us appreciate not only our good fortune to bear witness to the place, but also what we have as Americans and our own distinct culture to which we are so accustomed.
Oh! Yeah! We're havin' fun!
The pace of "de islan's" is NOT slow and relaxed, mon. That is a myth. The places bustle constantly! They are filled with energy and the effort to survive. And when the tour boats are in, the level of activity is frenzied. It is the show of shows!
We rediscovered that the term "duty-free" seldom means "cheaper". With the occasional exceptions of jewelry, tobacco and liquor, "duty-free" generally means "Since there is no duty, and no local taxes for you to pay, mon, we have jacked up the prices here to provide a tidy profit to the US or European companies that owns us." This seems particularly true of high technology, electronics, binoculars, cameras and video equipment. We did a little price shopping of such items in the US so we could make comparisons while visiting duty-free ports on the cruise.
Most of the fun came in donating to the Salvation Army bell ringers who are collecting money following a devastating hurricane (redundant) season!
As this is being written (12/20) we are approaching Holland-America's private island in the Bahamas (Half Moon Key). This is an unexpected stop for us. Turns out it is easier to stop here than Nassau since the ship has had to shut down one of the main engines due to an over-heated bearing. Well, that was their explanation! It is a delight for us, but a frustration for those who had hoped to continue "duty-free" shopping at Nassau, The Bahamas. The private island is about 2400 acres, of which about 45 acres are developed in a rudimentary way to provide beaches and recreational equipment for visitors. At this point at least, the company says this is all the development there will be. Much of the rest of the island has apparently been designated a wildlife sanctuary by the Bahamian government. It represents a chance for a last bit of snorkeling before we return to the mainland (Ft. Lauderdale).
Cruising tips: A liter of bottled water on the boat is $3.25, so bring your own water bottle and fill it before going ashore. If you like a drink in the evening, bring your own. A glass of wine with dinner is $8! Soft drinks run about $1.50 for a 12oz can. Mixed drinks tend to be very watered down and run $3-$5 in the bars. They do not like you to bring your own, but they do not inspect your luggage for beverages as far as we could tell.
A gallon of gasoline at St. Thomas, USVI, by the way, is about $1.80.
Uncle Ven! What about our Car?
For those of you who did not hear it, here is a follow-up on the deer-car story: we hit a deer in Disney World. He was apparently airborne at the time so he did not get caught under the car. As far as we know Bambi's Uncle Venison escaped pretty much unscathed. He left a butt print on our hood, and it turns out, a lesser, shoulder print as well. [Uncle Venny was on his way to a stag party --Obviously the buck did NOT stop there.] The result of his apparent desire of Venny to join Bambi's father in deer heaven, is that the hood of the Mustang is beyond repair, though it still works. So while we cruising the car is getting a new "bonnet", a whole new paint job and new weather seals on the side windows. Happy Holidays to us!
We will be in Ft. Lauderdale in two days; then will drive like the wind to Clinton, LA, the holidays including Y2K at Casa de Sue Winery.
Happy Holidays, everyone. We hope yours was a good '99 and an even better '00 (pronounced Oh-Oh!!!).
Phil & Melody
By the 'Way"
January 9, 2000
We depart for Mexico tomorrow, 1/10/00
look for installments on about 2/24/00.
February 27, 2000
Making Tracks; Out of Mexico
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The pictures shown here were taken on the trip with a first generation digital camera. We'd love to go back and do it again not only to experience the people, but get batter pictures!)
Here is where we have been:
We have made it back to the US after six weeks in Mexico, driving about 4000 miles on good roads, bad roads, trails, cow pastures, and cobblestone streets. For your entertainment, we are sending two newsletters regarding the experience which was a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-life-time adventure. We traveled with about 20 other RVs, ranging from a very nice camper van operated by a tenacious woman who had full use of only one arm, to a 40' Allegro Bus driven by a most interesting elderly couple (he is 80, she is a little younger). In between there were class Cs, 5th wheels and trailers. We traveled with Tracks to Adventure. Talking to others with caravan experience, "Tracks" is the top of the line. Our Wagonmaster was Dave Jagger. He and his wife Patty are superb. Tailgunner was Steve Dudley. He and his wife Lila were excellent in their roles as well. Steve is also Wagonmaster for caravans to Alaska.
Talking to fellow Trackers, it seems like none of us really expected what we got from this adventure. The trip took us from Hidalgo (named for Father Hidalgo, father of the Mexican Revolution) to Victoria to Tampico, and on to Veracruz, the capital of the State of Veracruz, Mexico, and then the Yucatan Peninsula. The "immersion" became complete (literally) as we entered Veracruz, and it rained; a hard, tropical, frog-strangling rain. It did not rain often, but when it did, wow!
This monumental bridge and statues to the workers near Veracruz, was an exception as we will see.
Damage from flooding, particularly in this state, was still evident in many places. It was brought home as we approached one village and the bridge over a small river was washed out. Our entire caravan of 20 rigs was vectored into a cow pasture with ankle deep mud, and over a tiny, almost impossibly narrow one-lane bridge. It looked like it might hold up an ox cart. All of us made it across without incident, but not without volunteering a toll to the locals who were doing much of the road restoration work themselves, and needed the money.
Mexico is a poor country. The further we were from such urbanized attractions as Mexico City and Cancun, the more we realized that we share the North American continent with a Third World country where people still literally labor for their daily bread. They pack firewood, corn, fruit, small children, whatever they value on their backs. They cut firewood with machetes. A Swede saw to help in that labor? Unheard of. Everyone owns a machete. Roadsides are "mowed" with a machete.
We were walking a beach late one night and a fellow American came out of the darkness. We compared cameras and he took this picture of us and e-mailed it to us when we returned to the U.S.!
Roads are almost always paved. Outside the towns, paving is an asphalt mix made with local materials, or, we observed, a slurry of concrete and available dirt, sometimes poured and mixed right on the ground. The paving is rough, often in poor repair, but keeps the dust down. In the towns, many streets are cobbled with stones or brick. They are rough riding. There are speed bumps, lots of them, in small towns and villages. These "silent policemen" are designed to keep through traffic from running down the locals. These bumps are known as "topes" (pron: tow-pays) in Mexico. Vendors frequently stand near them ready to sell motorists fruits, trinkets or baked goods as they slow for the bump. Marketing is not an altogether lost art South of the Border.
Paradox in Paradise
In Ciudad Veracruz, in a pouring rain, we toured an ancient French Fort which dates back a couple of centuries. The fort was at one time an island. Is now part of the greater port facilities at Veracruz, the largest Mexican Port on the Gulf of Mexico. The old fort was used in the creepy "alligator scene" at the end of the movie "Romancing the Stone". It is being restored as a museum. Restoration is the name of the game in Mexico. Paradoxically, Mexicans need some things to be new, modern, efficient and immediate. But antiquities is what brings in tourist dollars. We saw lots of new construction. But centuries-old churches, forts and ancient ruins are being rebuilt and studied as well. In a country with so many needs and limited funds, it is an obvious struggle.
Green Angels, our salvation
The narrators on our various tours were uniformly well-informed and not only told their stories well, but spoke great English. We had numerous local guides throughout the tour, all approved by the Mexico Department of Tourism. In some respects it was repetitious, but the different angles and interpretations made the information richer.
Speaking of Government services, our tour was accompanied throughout by a Green Angel. The Green Angels are a part of the Department of Tourism, working throughout Mexico. They roam the highways helping tourists with everything from repairs to directions. In our case we had our own Angel, David, and he was a man of enormous talent, clearing our caravan through countless military and border check points, locating parts for broken RVs, helping change tires, and directing traffic so all us gringos did not get lost or separated. In a land where money is different, the language is not native to most of us, and even a minor problem could become a crisis, David was our guardian. By the time our mobile subdivision had been on the road about a week he was a part of our family.
Our own talented and helpful Green Angel, Dave.
Curiously, David makes about $240 US, a month as a Green Angel, and he has been with the agency for 23 years! A laborer in Mexico might make $3 US a day; skilled workers like welders might make $8 US a day or a little more. Mexico is a poor country with a proud people who love their families, their work, and their religion. It is said 97% of the people in Mexico are Catholic, the other 3% are priests. Hmmmm.
The Ruins - Pre-Columbian
From Veracruz we entered the Yucatan Peninsula and began to visit Mayan Ruins almost daily. Again local narrators explained various structures, and theories about who built them and why. None of the theories include extraterrestrials, by the way. The Mayan Cultures were complex, but consisted of a ruling class which seemed to have a lock on sophisticated concepts like calendars which accounted for leap year, use of the "zero" to assist in their numbering system, and geometry. The lower classes labored to build pyramids, ball courts, temples, and other structures, all from stone. The culture thrived from about 600 BC to around 1200 AD. So it was pretty much in decline by the time Cortez arrived in the 1500s.
The pyramids at Chichen-Itza, on the Yucatan; a day's excursion from Cancun and a popular "show". A terrific evening narration and light show nightly, using headphones, in your language, so what you hear you can understand!
So, where'd they go, these people?
The decline is thought to have been a result of several things. Inbreeding of the upper classes; the lower classes figuring out that the "magic" of the upper classes (like predicting eclipses and then using them to scare the lower classes) were a fraud; and; there were other choices. Archeologists, for instance, are pretty sure that the Mayans knew about the wheel. But Mayans apparently thought the wheel, being round like the sun and moon, was sacred so it was not used for work. Then, there were the ball games. One theory is that the ball games were used to settle differences, but that the winners were executed! The theory being that the winners would go on to their version of heaven, a better place. Well, you only have to execute a few winners and you diminish the gene pool considerably. So, depending on which collection of theories one believes, it is credible to think the culture deteriorated for a number of reasons. The people did not disappear. They Mayas are still there, but the culture morphed into something else.
The ruins at Tulum are also a day-trip from Cancun. These are the only ruins known to have been built with a waterfront and the beaches at Tulum are also popular.
The colonizing Spaniards, starting with Cortes, did not help much (an understatement for the acts of a murdering bunch of thugs from across The Pond!). They enslaved and slaughtered a good many aboriginal people in Mesoamerica starting about 1521 and going through until about 1821. They burned many of the old Mayan manuscripts which would have illuminated much about the Mayan people. In fact, the people did not even call themselves Mayas. The name is said to derive from their response to The Spaniard's first questions about these people, and their response was "Maya" which apparently meant, "we don't understand what you're saying", or something like that.
So, from the sublime to the ridiculous All this history and viewing of about a dozen monuments and ruins which have been partially restored, was quite sublime. From there to the ridiculous was as simple as visiting the resort town of Cancun in the State of Quintanna Roo, replete with its American monuments: Macdonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Hard Rock Cafe, and Planet Hollywood. Cancun was created as a tourist mecca. The location is excellent, if sometimes presented as slightly tacky.
All the same, we went SCUBA diving at Cozumel, presumed to be one of the best dive spots in the Caribbean. We did a 75' wall dive and a 30' reef dive. There was an underwater photographer along who took pictures of us underwater; a first for our scrapbooks. It was a spectacular day!
The first half of our journey included ruins at Palenque, Tajin, Tulum, Chicanna, Chichen-Itza, and Becan as well as a side trip from Chetumal to Belize and the ruins at Lamanai. The tropical sightseeing was terrific, there were boat rides, bus tours and miles of hiking. There were days when it was easy to say "My brain is full, let's go back to the RV."
Melody at the ruins at Palenque. In all cases ruins have been recovered from the covering growth of the jungle, which explains why you hear, now and then, about NEWLY discovered ruins.
Rebellious behavior pays off?
We truly enjoyed the rebel state of Chiapas and the town of Palenque which featured incredible ruins; a trip to Agua Azul, a beautiful clear water cascade deep in the jungle, and a visit to the town itself. Since rebel uprisings in Chiapas several years ago, things have improved. The people are getting decent roads, the area is cleaner than most parts of Mexico, and other services are being improved. For us this state was also special because we 'd had Chiapan coffee once before, in Arizona, and it was the best coffee we'd ever had. As luck would have it, in Palenque we found a shop which sold roasted whole bean Chiapan coffee for about $85 Mexican per kilo, which is less than $4.50 US a pound! It was an adventure going into town at sunset with a mission of locating this coffee, with our rudimentary understanding of Spanish. Then, getting them to package it in half-kilo bags.
The Tower at Palenque was found to have colored murals which revealed something of life and art in the mayan culture.
World view from there
To get an idea of the remoteness of this part of the world, our guide, Ernesto, related this incident: One of the kids in Palenque went to France to see his grandparents. Getting there included a long bus trip to a major airport, and a 12-13 hour jet flight from Cancun to Paris. When the young man returned home and told his friends he flew for 12 hours they said, "12 hours! Why didn't you just take the BUS!" That is how they view things. NOTHING is too far for a bus ride!
One could argue that our neighbor, Mexico, deserves undivided attention and support from its northern neighbors, the United States and Canada. You don't see European countries showing much concern for Mexico, yet the US is EXPECTED to virtually save Eastern Europe from itself and anyone else who comes aknocking. What about looking closer to home? Let the French, who have not been too productive on the world stage lately, save Europe! Let us attend to our neighborhood, they to theirs.
Well, in a couple days, "Part Dos" of our adventures in Mexico, a visit to the largest city in the world, pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the colonial mining cities of Taxco, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato, and belly button cars. We'll outline our appreciation of a people who have, to paraphrase Winston Churchill from another time, "been doing so much with so little for so long they are now fully qualified to do almost anything with almost nothing"!
"By the 'Way"
MEXICO, Part Dos
By all appearances it could be buried in its own refuse.
Belly Button Cars The OLD Volkswagen Beetle is still being manufactured in Mexico. It is ubiquitous, and popular, and everybody has one, kind of like a belly button. Hence the term for the economical little bugs. Alas! They do not meet US environmental standards. To make them so would make them expensive. As a result, they cannot be imported into this country, Gee, that must break the hearts of the U S auto industry! In any event, this situation is a tiny sign of a problem evident throughout Mexico. There are virtually NO environmental standards. Even the simplest sorts of waste, like household garbage, finds its way to the edge of town where it is unceremoniously dumped. Sometimes it does not even make it to the edge of town. Disposable diapers (hermetically sealed in their own plastic shell) plastic & glass bottles, and aluminum cans are almost everywhere. For a country that relies on tourism dollars, it would be simple enough to teach people about solid waste disposal.
Those wonderful Colonial Towns
Certain colonial communities in Mexico dating back hundreds of years have been recognized as national treasures. As we left the Yucatan and moved inland we saw more of "post Colombian" Mexico including old Haciendas, some of which have been in families for generations. There is an old Mexican way of life which, like the Old West in the US, still romanticizes the days of vast land holdings, land barons, vaqueros (cowboys), and a comfortable rural life. These haciendas, often consisting of tens of thousands of acres, were more luxurious than the largest of US cattle spreads. They housed exotic animals, birds, stables of magnificent horses, and on and on. Some still exist today. And, like many of the "royal" houses in other countries, they make some of their money selling tours and demonstrations on their properties. It turns out they have to make money now since the Crown is no longer supporting them as in the colonial days, and as cheap as labor is in Mexico, it is not as cheap or feudal as it was in "the good ole days."
We had a great experience at a centuries old hacienda reportedly deeded to the owners by the King of Spain in colonial times. Phil, on Mexican time.
If we could return to Mexico for a couple of days, it is the colonial towns we loved the most. Specifically, Oaxaca, San Miguel de Allende, Taxco, and Guanajuato; particularly the latter. Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area on the planet, with some 23,000,000 people. It is polluted, difficult to navigate, and a relatively unpleasant (if necessary) experience. The primary component in the air pollution, we're told, is fecal dust (there is no nice way to say that!). The streets are so crowded that cars can only operate on certain days, based on the last digit of the license plate. (1-2 on Mondays, 3-4 on Tuesdays, etc.) For upper classes it is not a problem, they buy two cars. For the lower class it is not a problem, they have no cars. For the middle classes, oh, right, WHAT middle class? It's is almost non-existent in Mexico. As far as safety is concerned we were told that being out after hours is not all that safe. Like any big city, perhaps. Curiously, women driving alone at night in Mexico City do not have to stop at a red traffic light if there is no traffic. This is for their protection!
To give Mexico City its due, the museums are excellent (the Museo Archeologica ranks in the world’s top ten along with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia -- the other eight are in the US). The statuary which decorates the boulevards of Mexico City is first rate and speaks to an ancient and fascinating culture while honoring more recent heroes of the revolution as well. The architecture ranges from the utilitarian to the ultra modern, with many buildings which are centuries old and sinking into the lake bed was where Montezuma first held court and met Hernando Cortes in the 1500s.
A highlight to Mexico City was a visit to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Not because we are Catholic, but because it is an interesting story, and devout friends asked us to select a memento from the shrine to bring back for them. We did; and having that "mission" did make the visit all the more significant. The shrine itself is now a Basilica (A Basilica is anywhere the Pope has spoken). The original building is a classic stone edifice which is not only sinking (into the soil), but listing rather severely as the soils beneath give way. The new shrine, which is not terribly attractive in the manner of the old one, is a modernistic church designed to hold thousands of people. It also houses the original garment worn by the peasant Diego, who, legend has it, was directed in a vision, by the Holy Virgin to tell the Bishop to build a shrine NEAR where one was ultimately built. The garment has on it an image, said to have been put there by the Virgin. Foot note to that: If they had built the original shrine on the rock bluff where the Virgin is said to have told Diego it should have been, it probably would not be leaning precariously today.
We keep realizing Mexico is a Third World Country; and we share this continent with them. And yet most of us in the US know more about Europe and the Middle East than we do about the people right "over the back fence." Is this healthy? People should know their neighbors, right? So we have been shopping for books about the Mayan people, particularly picture books with some text of the places we have been. There are a few such books out there, usually found in used book stores. Mainstream bookstores do not tend to stock these books. In a market driven economy who would expect them to? No demand, no supply. So, why do we not demand them? Probably because there is not much interest in Mexico, to mainstream US citizens. In any event, we have noticed that having spent time on the fringes of Mexican cultures, our appetites are whetted. So we stop by places like "The Museum Store" or "The Discovery Channel Store" and ask about Mexico. Nothing. Too bad, really. Folks should get to know their neighbors.
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Keeping in mind that silver was what made many of the colonial towns thrive, we made trips to several to see the mines, and the silver work -- which varied from marginal craftsmanship to pure artistry. Near Guanajuato, there was a silver mine which produced at one time 75% of the world's silver. It is still producing, and consists of a shaft some 1500 feet deep, with lateral drifts off the sides of several hundred feet each.
The man who discovered this lode some 300 years ago promised his god he would build a cathedral on the site if he struck it rich. Today there is a splendid old church (see picture, right) sitting directly on the mother-lode - rendering it inaccessible. The Mexican government is said to have offered The Church "anything" (including relocating the ancient structure stone by stone) to allow the lode to be mined. The church refuses.
Indeed, Guanajuato would have to be our favorite town. The mining there left the bedrock on which the town sits, honeycombed with huge tunnels. In recent times the city deepened the tunnels to allow a river to flow through them, and then covered the rivers, so cars could drive in the tunnels. It is a simply amazing town. It also features an annual Cervantes Festival, headlining "The Man of La Mancha". You have to make reservations for that festival over a year in advance.
In Guanajuato (pron.: wan-na-WHA-toe), there is the Museum of the Mummies (Museo de las Mumios). As we mentioned earlier, few towns are as interesting to us as this one, but not really because of this. Part of our tour included a visit to this museum. The story of the museum and the "mummies" is far more interesting that actually touring the facility. It seems that the town recognized, sitting a it does on steep mountainous slopes, that cemetery space was getting to be in short supply. So they dug up a lot of long-dead folks and stacked them underground, thus making room for more, uhhh, tenants. Then, they set a limit on how long people could be tenants without paying "rent" so to speak - five years, they decided. Well, as they evict the long-dead, they found that through some curious phenomenon, about 8% of the remains of those in crypts had dried and "mummified" and were in, well, "perfect" condition. (About as perfect as a raisin is to a grape, but you get the idea.) Now here is were it gets weird: Someone decided that the dehydrated folks would make an interesting ummmm, attraction. Presto! A museum was created and glass "coffins" built, and these remains put on display. Needless to say the whole thing is pretty grotesque, with the raisin people, mostly nude, of varying ages, lain out for all (who WANT) to see. Oddly, many people stream in to see, and they bring their kids! The clincher: An adult ticket for admission shows the likeness of one of the adult "mummies" on it. A kid's ticket shows the likeness of one of the kid "mummies"! Pictures, anyone?
Begging is a gift! Because of the incipient poverty in Mexico, kids literally learn to beg. They usually do not need money but quickly figure out that rich Americans are a sympathetic lot (well, some groups). So, on our way to the Ballet Folklorico in Mexico City, as we awaited our coach, with temperatures in the mid-60s, little kids would hover about and say in practiced English "It is soooo cold, and I am hungry! (frowning)", and then hold out their hands. They knew NO other English (as far as we could tell) and were fairly well dressed. It was an act.
The Ballet, by the way, was spectacular, as far as it went. But about half-way into the first half, that smell of overheated light fixture ballast permeated the concert hall. By intermission the show was over. Problemas electricidad. The program was incredible and featured demonstrations of different artistic and cultural forms of music and dance from throughout Mexico. It was, and would have been, a fine frosting on the cake of what we had seen and experienced in Mexico. However, the electrical problem at the ancient Palacio de Artes was only symptomatic of a much larger challenge in Mexico, that of managing public utilities.
Water, Sewer, Electric - good luck
Throughout most of Mexico, except in high rise buildings in larger urbanized areas, water is delivered by gravity. (Drinking water is delivered by truck.) Domestic water is pumped into tanks on the roofs of buildings, and when you turn the tap, down it comes. As a result, what we think of as "water pressure" is non-existent. The advantage to this is that water systems are relatively cheap. The problem for RVers is that filling a water tank could take a LONG time; and with several RVs in a single area, water pressure was, indeed, non-existent. Our answer was to fill our on-board water tanks, chlorinate it, and then use our own pumps to access that water for domestic use.
Likewise, particularly in RV parks, electricity seemed to be gravity fed. Service in most RV parks varies wildly from 70v to 160v or so (110-120 is safe), and amperage varied from about 4 to maybe 13. So electrical appliances were always in danger. Air conditioners were never used, refrigerators were on gas, and only lighting was powered by locally produced electricity. This was true in all but a couple of RV parks.
Then there was sewer. Sewer systems were rudimentary. If every RV dumped holding tanks at the same time, the person furthest downstream got raw sewage coming out of the ground. The smell of raw sewage was pervasive in some parks. This did not seem to bother the owners, and some Americans simply said, "Well, this is Mexico." That is not good enough, actually, but that is what they said. The truth is, while good utilities cost money to install, they also generate money. I do not think it is being too pushy to suggest that good sanitary sewage handling is good economics. Oh, by the way, it is also good for health reasons, to say nothing of aesthetics.
Staying close to Mexico City we did get to the famous pyramids of the sun, and the moon (show here). You can hike the tops of the pyramids and get a nice view of the layout of this fascinating area, most of which is open to the public.
What a trip!
It is impossible to capture, in all of its glory, the excellent job everyone did on this tour. Six weeks and 4000 miles in Mexico is a major undertaking. From our wagonmasters to our Green Angels to our guides at the various stops the journey was first class. It seems almost no one in our group escaped the tour unscathed in one way or another, but that was minor. For example, we lost a front shock absorber and had a rear air shock bracket break (easily repaired by our Angels). Phil was sick one day (flu - upper GI). Some folks had "Montezuma's revenge" (digestive readjustment), some had broken leaf springs or flat tires. But nothing happened which was not manageable. The small problems were a lot like real life, and the entire "Mexico experience" was so much larger than real life!
The Oaxacan culture is perhaps one of the most colorful, but they all speak to diverse and rich cultures spread across the entire country.
Observations we make about the difficulties along the way, we hope are tempered by our love of the people and the cultures (past and present) which we met along the way. We used fewer than a dozen rolls of film, purchased small souvenirs of hand loomed wool, black pottery, silver jewelry, mescal, literature and maps. We have started collecting additional books about the history of Mexico. We have concluded that we may learn more about our neighbors after the trip than we did during the trip, though at times we feel certain our brains are now full.
We met exciting people in Mexico and on the trip. People are what it is all about. The utilities, road conditions, weather, breakdowns, and excursions are chances to interact with people - they form the basis for the experiences which made this so memorable; eight pages in two e-mails skims the surface. We will be sending out a few pictures in the weeks to come.
"By the 'Way SPRING EDITION 2000
Following Mexico, we drove across Texas, to Willcox, AZ, in two days. West Texas is a good place to listen to books on tape. Willcox, on I-10 east of Tucson, is one of our favorite haunts, for those of you who have followed the newsletter, you have heard. We were welcomed back there by our friends who operate Lifestyles RV Park and Resort. Michael and Naomi bought the business a couple of years ago. We had a delightful visit there. The kitchen staff treated us to lunch, and then Mike and Naiomi treated us to a wonderful dinner. Later we enjoyed wine in the hot tub after the spa had closed. What a nice way to shake off the dust of Mexico. Hey, it's good to be back home (in the USA) again.
From Willcox we went to Tucson, visiting with friends and cleaning the RV. Then it was on to Phoenix to get the RV serviced, and pick up Heather for a week of fun. We shopped in Phoenix, visited with Dale and Eileen in Camp Verde (thanks for the hook-up!), made it to all the attractions in that area including Toozigoot National Monument, Montezuma Castle (More ruins!), the historic mining town of Jerome, and that urban sprawl in the foothills of red rock country called Sedona. We ate well, visited for too short a time, and then headed for Las Vegas, NV.
It was cold in Camp Verde; felt like snow. Sure enough, about 30 miles north of town, on I-17, headed for Flagstaff (elev. 7000+'), it started to snow. It came down hard and lasted about two hours, until we were about 50 miles west of Flagstaff on I-40, and lost elevation to the point where the snow turned to rain. We made it to Las Vegas that night and stayed at the Circus Circus RV park which is right on the strip and very handy.
Viva! Las Vegas!"
In Vegas we connected up with friend Carol at the Stratosphere. She manage secured tickets for Heather and Melody to ride the roller coaster at the top of the Strat, and the "Big Shot", which shoots passengers up a tower at the top of the 1000'+ building. The ride is a panic (been there, done that) and having done it twice I enjoyed the view and let the ladies take the ride.
We saw several smaller shows and had a lovely time visiting and sightseeing. We also dined at the MGM Grand, Gatsby Restaurant and went to the stage show "FX" which was simply amazing. These major shows cost about a car payment (cheap car) per couple. We fancy that the shows are entertainment in ways gambling never could be, so we do shows while others go broke 25 cents at a time! Either way we leave Vegas with less money, but we think the shows make us "richer for the experience."
Heather flew back to Alaska, and the next day we hit the road for California. Our destination was new to us, Hermosa Beach. Now here is an experience. Driving through the blight that is LA, you eventually arrive at the beach communities. WOW! Nestled between the Ocean and the ghastly snarl of traffic and urban congestion small towns, shoulder to shoulder, looking serenely out on the Pacific. The beaches are lovely. There are long, almost flat, bike paths, used by cyclists, joggers, skateboarders, and roller bladers. The towns are crowded in their own way, with narrow streets. But the energy is exciting, the homes tend to be neat, and the beaches are readily accessible.
Our friends from our Mexico Caravan, Earl and Dot, located a public RV park right on the beach close to their home. We spent two nights, and could have spent two weeks enjoying their company, and the area. On thing is certain, the area is well worth a long visit. And if you drive through all that, to reach the beach, stay for a while and soak it in! (Earl and Dot, thanks so much for the hospitality, great food, and pictures from our shared Mexico trip!).
Then it was back on the road, and a meeting with Phil's brother Joe. Joe lives in Palo Alto and teaches tai chi chu'an, but was willing to drive "Out to I-5" to visit with us for a day. If you want to know more about what he does, go to "taichsage.com" on the WWW. It was great to see him as well, after not connecting for a couple of years.
The dash for Washington came next, and we drove like demons north on I-5, staying at truck stops and Indian casino parking lots, arriving in Seattle on March 16. We spent two weeks there, setting up Joe Sr's, new iMac, to replace his aging Mac LCIII. Dad says he's happy with it, but at his age (83), did not want to face setting it up.
The season winds down:
We flew into Fairbanks at about 3am on April 2, a Sunday. The cats survived yet another season of travel, including the plane ride, and actually seemed glad to be back in the cooler climate.
Here it was chilly -- compared to our season in the tropics and southern US -- about 15 degrees above zero. As we caught a cab back to our condo, the northern lights were streaking across the dark crystal sky. What a welcome home!
And so it came to pass that we arrived back in Fairbanks for another season in the land we call home. It is occasionally getting into the 30's during the day. This is spring, daylight gets close to 14 hours a day and snowmobiling and skiing herald the season's end. The motorcycle goes in for its spring "exam" and by May 1 (or sooner) we'll be enjoying that. Phil starts work on the sternwheeler Discovery III on May 14; Melody is looking at offers from tourist operations in Fairbanks.
Here's to all our friends on the road and at home (clink!).
All the best, "By the 'way"
Other RV Log Pages
RV LOG ONE, winter 1994-95
RV LOG TWO, winter 1995-96
RV LOG THREE, winter 1996-97
RV LOG FIVE, winter 1998-1999
RV LOG SIX, winter 1999-2000
RV LOG SEVEN, winter 2000-01