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Posted Wednesday, December 15, 2004
The account you're about to read was sent to us by John Tomich, alias "Juan Gringo", from a beach in Sinaloa, via satellite. I was so impressed by this piece that I immediately declared John the winner of the 2004 People's Guide To Mexico Travel Writing Contest. If you weren't aware of this contest that's understandable. In fact, I came up with the idea while reading Bumps In The Road -- it is so good we just had to do something a little extra, so we created the contest and declared John the winner. I know, I know... not at all fair, but the year is about to end and we had to act quickly.
So, John will receive the Grand Prize of an autographed copy of The People's Guide To Mexico, and with any luck he'll be so pumped by this prestigious award that he'll send us more of his fine writing.
Oh yeah.... sharpen your pencils because we'll have another Best Of Mexico Travel Writing Contest in 2005. Send us your best stuff ..... I promise this one won't be rigged.
Bumps in the Road by John Tomich
Tepalcatepec Wed 4/14/04
It was a hot night Tuesday in Tepalcatepec. A humid hundred and one degrees at eight PM, way too hot to sleep in the camper. Since our inverter went bad a few weeks ago, we can’t run the 110 volt cabin fan or recharge the laptop without an outside source of electricity.
We stopped in the center of town for al pastor tacos after the truck repair and then parked next to the library so the pups could sniff around on the lawn. All of our rear lights are shorted out, so we don’t want to drive anywhere in the dark. Sometimes the bumps in the road move the camper around violently enough to pinch the wiring harness. Fortunately, this old Lance Camper has structural integrity; all of the doors and windows, drawers and cupboards, still close tightly, despite the abuse.
Next time we decide to stay somewhere for a few days, I’ll jack the camper up and string some new wires, more throughly than last time I did it.
When it looked as if no one was watching the library, I snuck up onto the patio to test the electrical outlet that Michele spotted earlier. She’s got a good eye for water taps and electrical outlets. We’ve become utility pirates. You never know what’s going to happen, though, especially with outdoor outlets. We’ve blown the circuit breakers in the camper before, and heard all sorts of snaps and pops inside the power box. This outlet barely made the tester glow, and even then only if I kept a little twist on the connector. People came walking down the street. M and the pups came to sit on the patio so that I wouldn’t look so suspicious. I tried to fix the rusted dangling outlet, but it was too dark to be messing with live wires.
Lots of folks sitting in chairs in the shade outside their houses. Too hot inside even for the natives. We set up our chairs out in the street under some trees and the girls stretch out on the lawn.
Buy a couple refrescos from the guy across the street. He sells pesticides and a few groceries, gives me a cantaloupe.
A slim shirtless guy with defined muscles walks up. His name is Victor. He’s a carpenter working on the doctor’s office next to the store. Did three years in Atlanta for possession and distribution. Comes back later with some cheese, wants to buy me a beer. I thank him, but decline, doesn’t seem like a good time to go out drinking with the guys.
The police truck goes by for the third or fourth time. Two guys in the front, two standing in the back with shotguns. Their truck has one working headlight and no taillights. They aren’t paying any particular attention to us.
I go over to see Victor’s work. He’s cutting and staining narrow strips of wood, paneling the walls with them, singing along with the BG’s on his boom box. Staying alive, Staying alive. Looks pretty good. His friend teaches me how to pronounce Uruapan. We leash the girls up and walk around town, buy some home made ice cream. Strawberry and banana. You don’t see many leashed dogs in these parts and people on the street ask about them. We always say, Frida is a Chihuahuena and she bites a little, mordita. Carmen is half Poodle and half Rottweiller, sweet and calm, you can pet her.
Seems like too much traffic on this street, so we move to a quieter one, fall asleep after midnight parked on a level spot in front of a closed fish market.
We’re screwed, was my first thought. We might be sitting here for days. Seven of the eight wheel studs had snapped and the nut was loose on the last one. Couple of old men came out of the cactus, leaned over my shoulder looking at the damage, clicked their tongues and shook their heads.
Took a long time getting the lug wrench out of its brackets in the hot engine compartment. Jacked it up, removed the outer wheel. One good stud and three just long enough to show through the inner wheel. Borrowed one lug nut from each of the other three corners and cross threaded them onto the broken twisted stubs. Limped 20 miles of hills and curves and big bumps into Tepalcatepec on one wheel, whistling and exchanging grins the whole way, imagining some of the worse things that could have happened.
Found a tire shop on the edge of town. We explained the problem to five different guys hanging out inside before we found out the mechanic was out to lunch. He’ll be back in a few, thumb and first finger held slightly apart. After we got tired of talking about the dogs and the heat, we got our chairs and books out and sat in the shade. Michele paid some kid on a bike to ride into town for a round of refrescos for everyone. Time passed.
El mecanico appeared and immediately started taking things apart. Seemed to know what he was doing. Some guys showed up in pick-up trucks drinking from big bottles of beer. Whales, they’re called on the billboards. One of them said he’s lived in Oxnard, CA for twenty years, just came home for Semana Santa. There was a discussion about why our wheel studs broke and the consensus was there’s a lot of bumps in the road. Can’t argue with that. There are bowling balls and wash basins in the road. In CA there would be guard rails and hard hats required on some of these roads. Sometimes it’s easier going off road than on the road.
The mechanic’s helper stood as if crucified holding a big piece of cardboard across his back as a sunshade for his boss. The axle extension came off, the broken studs were hammered out. Somebody rode away on a motorscooter to get the new parts. Small talk was made. Pretty darn hot today, huh. Yep, sure is. Went back to my reading.
Then it was done. Everything looked good to me. I pulled some big bills from the hidden stash in the camper and went up to the counter. Ten or twelve guys were standing around, drinking, watching. I was figuring twenty five or thirty bucks for parts and two and a half hours labor. The guy behind the counter figured for a while and then said two hundred and eighty pesos, about twenty five bucks. Tipped the mechanic, thanked everyone, including my lucky star, and rolled on into town and the library.
With the new tire in place and the front wheels balanced we headed into the hills, looking for Indian villages with interesting things to sell us. Found some blouses and rebozos in a dark wooden walk in a closet next to a little store on a steep dirt street. A woman appeared. Michele went inside and I walked the dogs around a dry fountain in the center of a small plaza. Groups of women and children in similar skirts, aprons, blouses and head scarves sat on a low wall watching us with serious faces. I approached and smiled, saying good morning. They smiled and returned my greeting, looked at Frida in her harness and leash, laughed among themselves. Probably talked about what a nice little snack she’d make.
Michele had her hand on a pile of folded bright colored garments on a crowded table when I returned. She was haggling with two women from a long passed time zone over the price. One woman was saying something like OK, 800 pesos, it’s worth twice that. Michele said that’s too much. I pulled a 500 from my pocket and handed it to M, acting stern, saying “No Mas!” The two Indian women cackled and exchanged some rapid words. I went outside. Soon, empty handed, M followed.
The day before in Ocumicho, a dirt floor, bare bulb village at high altitude, a woman coaxed us into her house to see the handpainted ceramic devils she makes. They were piled all over the floor and tables in a dimly lit room. Stunned, delighted, we wanted them all. We met the family, admired their horse, brought our dogs in. Picked out about a dozen and paid almost as much as they asked. Looking around in their house, it was hard to argue much over a few bucks. We all exchanged names and handshakes and smiles. As always, a crowd gathered and followed us to the camper. Everyone wants to see inside. We invited the woman and her husband to climb the folding stairs and have a look. It was cool, they liked it, especially the drawers and cupboards, the table. Not wanting to overwhelm, M didn’t show off the bathroom and refrigerator. Shook hands again with everyone and split with our new treasure.
Rolled through a few more little villages. Sometimes people stack their wares next to the highway. Simple wooden furniture, pottery, melons, honey, bottles and jars of indecipherable content, baskets, coconuts with straws, sizzling vats of carnitas or chicharones, small plastic bags with lemonade, embroidered blouses and dresses, other stuff. If you stop, someone appears.
In Paracho, the guitar making town, we parked near the plaza, next to a truck selling pineapples. Heard an American voice speaking Spanish and met Bob Alexander, the first gringo we’ve run across in quite a while. He’s from LA, but lives here part of the time having his custom guitar designs turned into reality. His website is del mundo guitar. We bought a half kilo of carnitas and some tortillas from a guy with a fresh pig’s head hanging from a hook over his stall and shared it with the pups in the back of the camper. Walking around, we entered a fabric store and found the $20 rebozos an Indian lady had tried to sell us on the street for three bucks.
Arrived in Apatzingan tired of driving and hot. Ate dinner under a shade tarp at one of the busy streetside tables next to a rolling taco stand on the outskirts of town. Brought our own beer, as is the custom. Drove around looking for a Vet; Carmen’s not feeling too good. Couldn’t find one. It was too dark to drive out of town without taillights, so we parked on a blown up dirt street next to a tiny Pemex station. Mosquitoes and motorcycles buzzed by. It was very humid. Went looking for a better place and tried parking next to a semi deserted hotel on another broken dirt street. Couldn’t find a level spot. Sat sweating in the cab while a dog pack passed.
Michele found the hotel guy and we tried to get him to let us park inside his gates and plug into his electricity so that we could sleep with the fan running, maybe take a shower. We suggested five bucks, that’s worked for us before. No way, he said, knowing he had us. Pay $25 for a room and do as you please. So we handed over the lana. Naturally, plugging in the extension cord caused all sorts of nasty zapping snapping sounds in our power converter. We slipped the dogs into a large clean quiet A/C room with TV and a hot shower. The king sized bed is firm and fresh. Carmen wheezes and pants, vomits, eyes all red, bleeds a little from her nose. We sleep well, anyway, shower again in the morning. Carmen seems a little better.
Two or three hours down the road the next morning, we pass through a little village. M sees a Vet sign on a store front. We park, leash Carm and check it out. Small crowd gathers. We’re out on the sidewalk, next to the road. Big guy in dirty pants and a worn t-shirt comes out of the back. He listens to us and looks in C’s nose and ears. Says she has an infection, offers to inject antibiotic. Draws about half the bottle into a syringe, and smoothly shoots it into her shoulder right there on the sidewalk. Says if she isn’t better in a day or two, to give her another five cc’s, shows us on the side of the syringe. Puts the meds and the capped needle in a plastic bag and hands it to us. All right there on the sidewalk. He refuses the pesos M offers. We go get some US money from the truck. Still won’t take it. Tells us to have a nice trip, that Carmen will be fine. He accepts
An hour or two later, pretty far from just about anywhere, the rumbling starts.
We’re parked back door toward the surf at El Faro, Michoacan, about five car lengths from the water. Carmen is much better, almost OK, maybe 90 percent. Our 100 foot extension cord just makes it into the closest palapa restaurant and shares the prime outlet with their refrigerator, TV and washing machine. That’s good.
There’s close to two dozen of these little places dotting the sand along this small bay. For a small fee they provide electricity, tables, chairs, toilets, showers, washing facilities for clothes and dishes, beer and soft drinks, various egg, bean, tortilla and fish dishes, and shade. Families pitch their tents, park their cars and set up kitchens under the open sided flat palm frond roofs. Everyone brings an extension cord, light bulbs and a music system. Even microwave ovens and blenders are on some tables. They all connect to whatever taped together bare wire cord they can find snaking through the rafters. It’s just like the fire causing octopus connections that the Fire Marshall warned me about in fourth grade. Temporary power outages aren’t unusual.
A family might have twenty people sharing four or five tents arranged around their table and chair area. They cook, eat, drink, play cards and hang out there. Their music creates a personal ambiance, a sphere of influence, a wall of sound, effectively blocking out the neighbor’s music. It’s only from a distance that you can hear eight or ten different songs playing at full volume.
We too have several hundred watts of amplification hidden under the rear seat and four big speakers that can put out a big undistorted sound. Occasionally, we create our own sphere filled with Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gay, UB40, Elton John, Neal Young, Janis Joplin, Jackson Browne, Annie Lennox, James Taylor, kd lang, Lyle Lovett or one of the Bob’s, Marley or Dylan. We have sound tracks from Hair, Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump. In fact, we’ve got about 150 CD’s on the iPod from which to choose. Campers dance past, smiling, twirling in the sand, giving us the thumbs up, saying buena musica.
A restaurant lady on another beach came out to our truck one night to tell us how much she enjoyed our music, how tired she was of the endless mariachi and ranchero banda music on her jukebox. Hey, hey, rock and roll. We also have two containers of heavy duty ear plugs and use them often to sleep. There are hundreds of people on the beach late into the night, lots of drinking, loud music, loud voices, bonfires. There are no cops or flashing lights, no life guards, and no telephones, in any case, to call them. Just a bunch of people having a good time. Laughing, polite, respectful, friendly. We never saw any trouble.
Carmie’s out playing with her friends, sniffing stuff, running on the beach, and being part of the pack. We slept here last night at Playa de Faro de Bucerias among a bunch of dads and sons and a couple daughters. The night before we slept next to a beachfront restaurant in Cuyutlan. They let us park for the night and shower in exchange for buying dinner and breakfast.
We walked south to a protected cove where a few people swam in clear water. A man asked M if Frida was her baby, said he has a chihuahuena at home. His is a biter, too. Showered and snoozed and then woke to an influx of dads and kids. Middle class looking thirtyish guys with late model full sized pickups and SUVs, they set up bright colored tents under the palapa, placed their beach chairs on the sand, and let the kids loose. Not a mama in sight. Nice folks, mellow, sweet scene.
Later we had some food from the restaurant. The bill came to about four fifty, but all we had was a Mexican twenty. Lacking change, the muchacha let us run a tab as the Juan Gringo party. Beautiful night, we sat in our chairs at the front corner of the palapa with the surf and the stars and enjoyed the beach party swirling around us.
Some families we’ve camped near have tried to integrate us. We share food, fruit, dessert. A woman taught me how to crack pecans in my hand. We sipped tequila under lantern light and played Dominoes at our table on the sand a few nights ago with Marteen and his old father in law, Loreto. Michele has made friends with lots of kids and talks to everyone. She meets local women while washing clothes and doing the dishes in the big communal troughs behind some of the palapas. She hung out at the tortilla shack a few mornings and learned how, came back proud of her napkin wrapped stack.
While his father held him, I did a little first aid on terrified five year old Victor, who had skinned his hands and knees on the rocks, We share tools, pliers and black electrical tape. They say, come and stay at our house in Guadalajara or somewhere, and I think they mean it. We have addresses. Michele gives them our address. Someday, there could be a knock on the door and a car with three generations of the Cortez family in the driveway.
The two week Easter party is almost over and by tomorrow night we’ll have the whole bay almost to ourselves again.
We were here last month, but decided to head inland after hearing about the expected crowds. Reluctant to lose sight of the ocean, we couldn’t decide which way to go. Messed around all day and stopped in a little town off of the highway for dinner. Decided to take the dirt road out to the ocean to spend the night. It didn’t look too far on the map, maybe twenty five miles, and we still had an hour or so of daylight. Turned out the road wasn’t very well maintained. Rutted dirt with craters and boulders, narrow and steep, winding through thick forest, not a light in sight after the sun disappeared.
We’d made about twelve miles in an hour and a half. but we kept expecting to get to the good part. Didn’t want to turn back too soon. Talked about Little Red Riding Hood, jaguars and crocodiles. Small creatures jumped through our lights. Another hour and a few more miles passed and we saw some lights down in a valley. Llano Grande is a dirt street village with two markets and a little school house. Some families came out to look at us when we parked in front of the closed market. The man next door said it would be OK to camp there for the night. Michele distributed individually boxed Chiclets to a bunch of kids from her Costco style street vendor pack. A group of young boys stood in the dark for the next hour about ten feet away just watching us through the screen door. Early the next morning we watched men leaving for their work commute on horseback.
After another ten or twelve miles of rough road we arrived in Tehuamixtle, maybe the sweetest little bay I’ve seen on this whole incredible coast. Stayed for five nights, ate lots of oysters and octopus, helped fix the family truck and the water system. Michele taught water color painting and english to young girls and delighted the whole family showing them pictures of themselves on her computer, along with pictures of our families and home. They stretched an extension cord out to where we’d parked next to the water and let us use their toilet and shower.
The oldest daughter, mid twenties, educated and English speaking, wants to visit the US. She has the money saved and a passport, but we won’t give her a visa. We heard this same story from another young woman who wants to visit her brother and sister in San Jose. Can’t get a US visa. Here we are visiting their house, but they’re not allowed to visit ours.
We might still be there if they hadn’t told us that five hundred people would be playing music and dancing on the beach all night during Semana Santa. It was time, we drove toward Zamora, five or six thousand feet up in the mountains.
Two little girls come by every afternoon to sell us softball sized balls of popcorn glued together with corn syrup. Goes well with cold beer. Later they’ll reappear with fresh baked rolls and desert goodies. Others pass selling fruit, vegetables, eggs, ice cream, drinking water. We have frozen stick ice creams in our freezer. Strawberry and cream, tutti fruti with jalapenos, lime, coconut.
In a while we’ll walk over to the cove and, with mask and snorkle, dive in to an aquarium of tropical fish. Michele counted up and says I’ve read 28 novels so far. We’ve been gone for nearly seventy days, so that sounds about right.
*** *** ***
Here's a P.S. from the author:
Hi Carl and Lorena
Just wanted to thank you for the great book. I've been rereading it for at least twenty years. I buy used copies at thrift stores and give them to friends. Driven to Mexico quite a few times, inspired by your stories. I'm here now on the beach in Sinaloa, coming to you live via tripod mounted satellite dish. We'll be heading down the coast probably all the way to Chiapas over the next few months.
This follow-up came after we announced his prize:
Gee whiz, Carl, thanks. I'm flattered and honored. Reading your email made me so excited, I interrupted my siesta and ran down the beach to blab the news to Michele. You'd a thought I got a fat check in the mail. Your early PG writing has strongly influenced the way in which I view and retell my Mexican experiences. You've been with me on all of my trips here. Sometimes we say, what would Carl and Lorena do? One xmas eve a long time ago, puzzled by the plumbing in a three dollar Oaxaca hotel, I opened your book and found the vocabulary and technique required to fire up a wood burning hot water heater. Thanks for making that hot shower possible.
We're in Mazatlan, heading south in our recently acquired '94 Isuzu Diesel Trek. It might deserve a mention in your "Perfect RV" debate. It's not perfect, but it's pretty darn good, better, I think, than the examples presented. I'll cherish the prize.
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