From Mexico to Nicaragua, an aside: Notes on Roads

A word about the differences between traffic in Guatemala and Mexico.

While camping in Oaxaca, beneath the palapas of a particularly friendly and sweet family that I hope to revisit on my way back up North (lord only knows when that particular adventure will happen, if ever, but you know, intentions for the future and so on), we complained to them laughingly about the excessive number of topes (large, ubiquitous, SERIOUS speedbumps) in Mexico, and asked whether Guatemala had many topes. The topes, it must be said, had become a running joke among us: the vast taxonomy of topes, from “shadow topes,” which are concealed by the lines of shadow that trees cast across the road, to “ghost topes,” which are topes that have been indicated by a sign and yet never actually manifest, to simply “oh fuck” topes which scrape horrendously along Cochita’s undercarriage and tailpipe. But when we asked our new friends about the tope situation, they replied in complete and concerned seriousness: No, there are not very many topes in Guatemala, and in fact it is a great concern and an indication of the inferiority of the country and its disregard for safety; how can roads be safe without topes? Guatemala, if it knew what was good for it, would invest as swiftly as possible in a sweeping program of tope reform. Topes for all!! Chastened, we dropped the subject.

At any rate, whether due to the topes or – more likely – to the increased poverty in Guatemala – the traffic over the border was immediately and profoundly more chaotic, mostly in the wild diversity of vehicles on the poorly-maintained single-lane roads. Everyone! Motorbikes (ranging themselves from powerful bikes with single riders, to rickety contraptions loaded down with multiple passengers plus a cargo of sugarcane or straw or towers of empty plastic bottles), pickup trucks with their beds crammed with people and luggage, lorries with bits of their overflowing contents flying off the top, cars of every shape and size and condition, wildly painted chicken buses, cartoon-like mini-buses on tiny wheels proclaiming LOVE JESUS on their windshields, horses, the occasional donkey cart, agricultural equipment, and every single vehicle scrambling aggressively to pass the rest of the traffic along twisting, dangerous mountain roads.

It wasn’t as bad as India, but actually, it was as bad as parts of India. And as beautiful: jungle now lining the roads, the traffic more dangerous but also more colourful, from the sunset mangoes cresting the top of a truck’s container, to the spectrum of t-shirts of passengers packed into pick-ups, dangling off of chicken buses, and clinging to the backs of motorbikes. Occasionally the mountain road would give us a slice of the view, hazy hillsides dense with forest.

Jane was driving, and she took it like a pro, gunning Cochita’s 1.6L of power to stay on the tail of passing cars, zipping past tractors and bicycles and snail-paced huge trucks then ducking back in the face of oncoming traffic. We drove all the way to Xela, without stopping, climbing to that beautiful mountain town where the streets are cobblestoned and precariously sloped and as narrow as the alleyways of Paris, forcing all of the cars to park with two wheels on the curb and two in the street and a prayer that the mirrors don’t get knocked off. Not that we didn’t encounter wild driving in Mexico as well, but it was mainly confined to the cities, where lane markings are regularly ignored in favour of cramming in an extra lane-and-a-half of traffic. (Truly, this seems to be a beloved tactic in most countries on earth – someone should get wise and maybe just paint narrower lanes.) And the cuotas (toll roads) of Mexico are fabulous, expensive but in better condition than many American highways, populated by fast cars that cost many times more than Cochita. Guatemala’s roads were the first taste of how deeply impoverished Central America is in comparison to North America (a continent which very much includes Mexico, in more ways than just road quality), and just how different each of these marvelous countries are. Mexico and Central America! Eight countries previously lumped together in my inexperienced mind as a vaguely Spanish-speaking mixture of jungle, beach, tacos, and a sprinkling of drugs and murder. You know, of course, that they’re all different. But you don’t really know, until you see for yourself.

 

From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 2: The Guatemalan Border Crossing

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Welcome to Guatemala

 

We woke early and drove to the border crossing at Ciudad Hidalgo, the most southern of the crossings between Mexico and Guatemala. It was a curiously cryptic border; there was an assortment of confusing signs as we approached Hidalgo, which led us straight into a tangle of crowded, labyrinthine streets in the center of town. We asked a number of people for directions, which was sometimes helpful and sometimes not; asking for directions within cities have proved to be a confusing endeavor, in which our imperfect Spanish mixes with people’s imperfect knowledge of which streets we should take, as well as the often-idiosyncratic nature of the directions, necessary in places where streets are not always named, or may be known by names other than what’s written on the signs. Directions wind up a perplexing mélange of references to landmarks, stores, cardinal directions, and the occasional hopeful bullshit when they simply don’t know the answer. Our border-crossing is particularly complicated because of the car, and usually takes this form, roughly:

  1. Locate the permit-cancellation office, which may be many kilometers from the border, and have our permit for the current country cancelled.
  2. Locate the office (sometimes) where the cancelled permit must be inspected, usually right at the border.
  3. Visit the customs office for exiting, and have our passports inspected and stamped.
  4. Cross the border
  5. On the other side, visit the customs office for entry, and have our passports inspected and stamped.
  6. Possibly have the car fumigated, and receive a fumigation certificate (this is a literally poisonous-seeming affair in which we drive the car towards a gas-masked man with a backpack full of pesticides and a sprayer, roll up all of our windows and turn off the air intake, and sit nervously while the car is drenched in chemicals, then pay three dollars and receive a piece of paper.)
  7. Go to the car-permitting office, where our cancelled permit is inspected, and many new documents are produced, stamped, written on; the car is inspected; photocopies are required, then stamped; the new, stamped copies must be copied again and returned to the office; fees are paid; and eventually Cochita is declared legal to enter the country and we drive away.

All of this is accompanied by a frenzied crowd of touts who offer relentlessly to “help” you through the process for a fee, tearing documents from your hands and running them around the various offices, demanding preferential treatment from harried border officials. We have become better at avoiding these men. Once they fade away, they are replaced by the calmer crowd of currency-exchangers, usually older men waving enormous wads of cash in every colour of the rainbow (albeit a very dusty rainbow), offering their rates in various languages. The rates are always bad, but as we’ve discovered, it can be very difficult to change a Quetzal (the Guatemalan currency) anywhere but the border.

After a Kafka-esque round of being shuttled back and forth over a pedestrian bridge near the border, with the city and an official, military-looking encampment on one side, and the office of the Banjercito (the Mexican public bank which manages car permitting) on the other, we finally wound up at the desk of a patient, competent older man who explained what we had to do and sent us on our way. We found the border crossing itself hidden at the end of an innocuous city street, difficult to access because of road construction cutting off Cochita’s path. A couple of grinning, relaxed guards beckoned us over the narrow entrance, studded with vibradores (big metal hemispheres, another species of speed bump), and we were through.

On the Guatemalan side, a calm and well-mannered middle-aged man named Isaiah shepherded us through the permitting process, his fee almost worth it to me because I managed to have my first real Spanish conversation with him while we were waiting for the various officials to process my documents. I learned that it is the general opinion of Guatemalans that Nicaraguans are “very poor,” and “have nothing,” and also that the word for taxes is “impuestos” – ten or so people were lined up at the customs window waiting to file their taxes, which phenomenon remains basically a mystery to me. Why file taxes at the customs office? And was it tax time in Guatemala? In which case, why were there not MORE people? Regardless, we processed Cochita’s permit with relatively little difficulty, the border crossing was charmingly peaceful and relaxed, and we drove off into the maniacal traffic of Guatemala having invested approximately two hours in the border-crossing effort.

From Mexico to Nicaragua: Part 1, our last night in Mexico and some typical traveler’s problems

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Playa Linda

 

Our last night in Mexico was spent on the coast of Chiapas. We slept on the beach at a place called Playa Linda, camping out under the palapa roofs of a man named Gilberto who approached us like many of the other Mexicans we met by the beach: shirtless, grinning, hair straggly with salt, welcoming us and offering us a broad selection of mariscos (seafood). As in many other places along the coast, we bought dinner and were permitted to set up our tent for free under the shelter of the palapa, Cochita parked nearby. Gilberto and his family had their house a bit further back from the shore, the rear guard for their collection of palapas advancing along the sand. Telenovelas were playing on a tiny television near the open kitchen where they cooked our dinner, with a fat baby asleep in a hammock nearby, oblivious to the overwrought young couple making out onscreen. The hotels and seaside restaurants of Chiapas all seemed to have a feature unseen in Oaxaca: large, low, freshwater swimming pools made of cement, the sides coming up a few feet above ground. Gilberto tended to his lovingly, pacing through the water at sunset, sweeping for debris, rejuvenating the chlorine. We never saw anyone swim in it.

That night, I ate a delicious plate of ceviche, drank mezcal on the beach, and then fell asleep in the tent with Jane for about an hour and a half, at which point I was woken by terrible pain in my stomach and spent the next four or so hours writhing and groaning miserably on the dirt outside of the toilets, enduring waves of piercing cramps that left me drenched in sweat and collapsed on the ground, or the cement stairs, or the broken-down plastic chairs, or the toilet with its tank boiling with frantic hormigas (ants); whatever godforsaken position I was when the pain struck me.

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I had experienced this type of stomach problem previously in my travels, and rode it out, stoic in the knowledge that I just had to puke my guts up a little more and the offending particles would work their way through. Near the end, Jane sat with me and, to distract me, retold the sections of Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal that we had listened to that morning in the car. “So, he went to live with the Douglases,” she said, and I rose up in my sweaty delirium to protest, weakly, no, no, Dursleys.

Shortly thereafter I fell asleep and woke up, dazed, having forgotten entirely about Harry Potter. She was recounting a bit muggles seeing wizards in the workplace and I wondered vaguely what she was talking about – wizards? – and drifted off again thinking how strange it was, that I was lying on a yellow waffle camping mat on the packed sand of a seafood restaurant in Chiapas, with my college roommate by my side, the woman who was one of my first and best friends in that singular experience, while my very first car watched over us from the side, resting with my entire life crammed into her small trunk. Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal. Perilous Mexican ceviche. Journeys undreamt of in 2003, when I probably still had environmentalist aspirations of never owning a car. Soon after, I dragged myself back to the tent and slept till morning, when we woke and drove the scant few kilometers to the Guatemalan border.

Cochita Siempre!

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We are in Guatemala!* This means that Cochita (as we have now named the car; it means, approximately, “little female car”) has travelled the entire length of Mexico, from the frontera at Piedras Negras (Eagle Pass, TX) through the states of Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Chiapas before reaching the frontera at Hidalgo and passing into Guatemala. In all, it took us exactly two weeks: we left the United States on February 21st, and crossed the border into Guatemala on March 5th.

Let me tell you, first-hand, that two weeks is a very short time to drive from one end of Mexico to the other. The country is BIG, the road and traffic conditions are variable (though generally excellent), and there is so much to see. But we were racing against the clock to deliver Jane to the Guatemala City airport on March 6th, and so we hauled ass out of Austin at 5AM and catapulted ourselves south, leaving a trail of Freon in our wake and acquiring more and more broken español. Our glorious madcap rush found us barreling along the cuotas (toll roads) at 140 km/hr, easing Cochita over innumerable topes (enormous, mind-blowingly effective, undercarriage-scraping speedbumps), and careening around the curvas peligrosas (dangerous curves) of the mountain roads of Oaxaca. In two weeks, we stayed in the same place for more than one night only once: when we camped in a beautiful, deserted meadow in the mountains near El Capulin, at one of the sites where the monarch butterflies overwinter after their great migration. In total, we spent six nights staying in hotels of wildly varying quality and expense; five nights camping, all for free; and two nights staying in hostels, where the uniformity of the international backpacking community was further confirmed.

There were times at which I felt vaguely guilty for dragging Jane and Ben along on the trip. We had hatched the plan back in November, while I was visiting Jane in Illinois. In approximately the amount of time it took to drink two beers, they decided to drive through Mexico with me. It was a rash decision. I had advertised the trip as “tons of fun.” And now, instead of making lifelong friends on a delightful local bus, or flying from Chicago to the Yucatan in the blink of an air-conditioned eye, or even drinking whisky in the comfort of their own homes in Illinois, they were crammed into a tiny two-door Honda Civic, munching on off-brand Fritos and tolerating my fondness for Taylor Swift.

The fateful November conversation had gone something like this:
JENN: So, yeah, I’m driving to Nicaragua. I’m going to spend Christmas with some friends in New York, head down the East Coast, go to Miami, visit my grandmother in Mississippi, and then get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. After that, I think I’ll pretty much head for the border.
BEN: Oh, sweet, I think I have some friends who are going down to Mardi Gras.
JENN: You should come too! I think Mardi Gras is going to be awesome.
BEN: Yeah, totally.
JENN: And then, ha ha ha, why not just jump in the car and come to Mexico!
BEN: Ha ha ha!
JANE: Hey, that sounds like fun!
BEN: And actually, I won’t have a job right then…
JANE: And I kind of want a holiday before maybe going back to school…
JENN: … Wait, for real?

And without much more discussion, really, I acquired two travelling companions for the Great Mexican Road Trip of 2015. Did they regret it? I wondered, especially during the first week of the trip, in which Jane and I both suffered greatly from a severe case of the flu. Did they wonder why the hell they were engaging in this arduous test of endurance, without even enough time to take full advantage of the opportunities car travel affords (exploring areas not easily accessible by bus, etc.)? Did 6’1” Ben’s knees just want to murder me dead? Did they flip through the Lonely Planet looking at the bus fares and comparing them to the thousands of pesos that flowed through our fingers at the Pemex stations? Certainly there were times when I wondered, myself, whether I shouldn’t have just left the car with my grandmother and booked a one-way ticket to Nepal. Why the inexorable desire to drive a four-wheeled advertisement of gringo wealth through a half-dozen countries all strongly warned against by the state department?

The road trip, though. The road trip. That’s the why. The romance and independence of the road, and the family-trip camaraderie of the backseat, yes, but so much more as well. There are things that you experience when you travel by car – or on foot, or by bicycle, or any other means in which you cross every single kilometer under your own steam – that are not experienced when you step inside a magical carriage and wake up the next morning in a totally different place.

Air travel, of course, completely occludes the areas in-between. Bus and train travel can be wonderful, and present their own unique rewards; the days I spent criss-crossing India in the sleeper cars of sardine-can trains were some of the most interesting days of travel I’ve ever had. When you drive, though, you see the transitions between places. The slow changes, the ways that one region blends into the next: in America, the way that New England gives way to the tri-state area, blending slowly through Washington DC and Virginia into the deep South, with the outliers of Miami and New Orleans keeping their own counsel. We blasted through Texas pretty quickly, but the whole border region with Mexico is like a third country. Then the north of Mexico with its endless desert and cartel domains, the influence of the United States very strong; the enormous throbbing heart of Mexico City; the vibrant culture of Oaxaca, and then the long journey over the cool, foggy mountains, descending endlessly to arrive at last on the beautiful coast.

To experience the geological and ecological shifts of the continent of North America has been incredible, and I would love to do this trip again but starting much further north, seeing the taiga thicken into forest and thin out again into prairies and deserts. Though the beaches of Chiapas are a far cry from Edmonton at -20 Celsius, I find that I’m left with a strong sense of the continuity of North America, rather than its fragmentation. Diversity, of course – inspiring, remarkable diversity – but commonality as well.

For now, Ben and I are beginning a week of immersive language school here in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, at the Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol, and thus I will have regular internet access (hurrah!) until the 13th of March.

The MAP has been updated with all of our stops in Mexico; in places where we camped, I have done my best to put the marker exactly where we were, so zoom in if you wish. I’ve also added a list of car troubles to date, which you may find amusing. Pictures coming soon!

* At the moment, “we” includes myself and my friend Ben; my friend and former college roommate, Jane, was travelling with us through Mexico but she flew home to Illinois yesterday morning.