Wednesday, December 29, 2010

san luis potosí to xilitla

Grateful to be done with the cobblestone road, we drove past forty army vehicles parked on the side of the highway north. Young men in fatigues in and atop jeeps and tanks holding machine guns and the like were waiting, maybe off to take on the narcotraficantes. Mexico's compulsory military service has undoubtedly taken on new meaning for these boys and their families since the new drug cartel came to town. It no longer means stopping tourists to have a curious and harmless poke around their van. Now it's life and death. We stopped for lunch at a dusty little pollo asado stand by the road. The sign was painted on four sugar bags sewn together, the walls of the stand a stack of palettes cleverly strapped together on their sides.The mother cooked up the chicken and her daughters brought us tortillas and salsa. Hunched-over granny paced back and forth behind a fence while small dogs and chickens circled around us, vying for anything we might drop. Back on the highway, something new — a few square yards of sun-faded fabric tied to some tall branches planted in the dry soil and, in its shade, little family clusters, mostly women and young kids, waving us toward them with hands or rags or baseball caps. A tactic not likely to garner a lot of success when your clients are driving by at 100 kilometres an hour. We couldn't figure out if they were selling something or just out and out begging — something we have rarely seen outside the biggest cities in Mexico. A little further down the road, more people waved us over but this time they sat near branches tied together in a big square. Stretched vertically in the square were translucent snake skins drying in the sun and above each skin hung a little bottle hanging on a string displaying liquids of different colours. I'll have to look into that one.

On to San Luis Potosí, a good-sized city that unlike many in the centre of Mexico, doesn't get a lot of press. We couldn't figure out why. We opted to spend the night in a hotel rather than in the camping that was way out of town. The colonial centre of the town is intact and gorgeous. No litter to distract you from the beauty of the town. Much of downtown (the centro) is closed to traffic and there is square after square after church after cathedral. We didn't see any other gringos but we didn't get the unabashed stares that we came to expect in this part of the country last year. City folk are just too cool to stare. The morning was freezing. We had breakfast at a little breakfast diner — our first fresh-squeezed orange juice of the trip. MMMMM. Our meals all came one after the other, with almost enough time to finish one before the other came. This with no comment from the waitress. Par for the course, I suppose. We started on stools at the bar but finished in a booth because we were all so cold. We could see our breath while we ate. The central market was a treat, just a couple of city blocks worth but full of real things, not tourist tchatchkas. Among other things, we picked up some bolillos (very much like Portuguese rolls), perfect avocado, tomatoes (which are exclusively the roma variety), our first jícama (a crazy root veg that is like a cross between a potato and pear), a shopping bag and some arrachera (flank steak cut across the grain and delicious). After the market, we went to the fascinating Museo de la Máscara, an amazing museum of masks in an ornate building on the edge of a square. Full of masks from all eras of Mexican history — primitive, elaborate, scary, funny — masks aren't just for wrestlers in Mexico. There are elaborate dances from every state in the country and many involve masked characters enacting ages-old battles, good vs. evil, spanish vs. indigenous peoples, christians vs. heathens. A fascinating walk through the eras and folk-art tendencies of Mexico.

Back to check out and then into the van toward Lago Media Luna (Half moon lake). The drive was spectacular, out of the desert, briefly through a jungle, then through the Valle de los Fantasmas, a valley of stunning rock outcroppings, through more mountains and then into orange land — acre after acre for kilometres of orange groves. We headed south off the road just before Rioverde, toward the lake. Along the right hand side of the road ran a crystal-clear pale green canal full of lily pads and water birds. A couple of times we saw Mexican kids floating in the canal, all hanging on to yellow ropes stretched the twenty or so feet from one side to the other. At the end of the road a turn-off into the Parque Estatal Manantial (State Spring Park) and found a couple of hundred cars parked under small trees in a sloping field and beyond it a small ticket booth and a gate. We asked if we could camp here in our van. "Sure, in the parking lot,' was the answer, 'you just need to pay the entrance fee for the park." which was 90 pesos (about $8). We found a flat place to park (very important when you're sleeping beside someone who weighs a hundred pounds more than you!), donned our bathing suits and headed into the park. Through the gates we were met with a series of canals at most thirty feet across weaving their way through low pines. The clear, blue water is fed by hot springs and there is an impressive current as the lake water moves through the canals (explains the yellow ropes). We felt very, very white among the dozens of Mexican families, some in bathing suits, some in t-shirts, most wearing lifejackets playing with their kids in the 80 degree water. We jumped in the canal near the lake and floated with the current back to where most of the families played in the shallows. We couldn't figure out if we were being stared at because we were the only gringos or because we allowed our small children in the deep water with no flotation. I suspect that most Mexicans cannot swim (no access to water, no luxury of free time to teach or learn).

The kids all started the next day flying into the water off the rope swing, from the 5 degree air into the 25 degree water. Then we hopped into the car and headed toward Xilitla & Las Pozas, Edward James's surrealist fantasy world in the jungle.

Monday, December 27, 2010

el potrero chico to real de catorce

The nochebuena supper was ... interesting. We, along with forty or so climbers, crowded into a little dining room where we were offered turkey & stuffing or pork in sweet sauce or veggie patties. The turkey was a lot like white ham (gross) and the stuffing was basically sausage meat with raisins, the pork was equally strange. The Rioja, on the other hand, was delicious. Our first full night in the van was a treat although Henri froze in the new hammock, with no insulation underneath him. He came to warm up in bed with us in the morning and then we remembered it was Christmas. The kids ate sweet cereal to their heart's content and Wil packed a lunch for our hike. We left the compound, hung a left up the road and entered the famous El Potrero Chico. The road, which got washed out this year, slices its way through two massive limestone faces — the cliff walls peppered with cactus and the occasional joshua tree. We chose to walk in the river bed rather than on the road and followed it upstream (although it was completely dry) for an hour or so. Henri pointed to a pile of rocks that ran up the mountainside and asked if we could give it a try. We scrambled up the hill, helping each other find purchase in the rocks, getting assaulted by aloe and agave and assorted prickly trees. It was a blast. We had our lunch and then helped each other slide down. When we walked back through the canyon, little specks of colour began appearing on the cliff face — helmets of teeny, tiny climbers clinging to the wall, some of them several hundred feet in the air. Once you spotted one, casting your eyes fifty or so feet up or down would usually reveal their partner who was either catching up or holding the rope and waiting for the other to take the lead. The highest pair seemed impossibly high and, as we watched, one let go of the rock and swung in a big arc to join his partner a dozen or so feet away. The level of trust the sport demands is something else.

We got to see a praying mantis close up for the first time as it sunned itself on the side of the road. The young woman who pointed it out placed it gently in Henri's hands and we watched it slowly make its way up to his shoulder.

Back at the camp we tried connecting the colours on the cliff with the climbers' jackets now that they were earthbound. As nice and granola as this crowd is, it is not ours. They speak a language we do not understand (5-9s vs. 5-12s, simulclimbing, etc.) and that's all they really want to talk about. Many of them were in Potrero Chico for a month or more, only leaving the compound to turn left to climb and never right, to the rest of Mexico.

We had movie night in the van, the five of us in a heap on our bed. We took off in the morning for Real de Catorce, a former silver mining powerhouse that then became a virtual ghost town before it was brought back to life by some artists in the last fifty years. The road that leads to town is almost enough to dissuade you from going. Twenty-four kilometres of cobblestone road curves around the arid countryside and ends at the Ogarrio tunnel, the only way in and out of town. We'd read conflicting reports about the clearance. The difference would determine whether we fit or not. A couple of gas station attendants in surrounding towns seemed fairly confident that we'd fit. We pulled into the long line of cars waiting to go through the tunnel (it's only one lane wide) and the guy who sold us our ticket said we'd fit no problem. After him, we said no to a dozen or so vendors selling everything from pumpkin seeds to tuna (the very sweet fruit of the prickly cactus.) After the last of the oncoming traffic emerged, we followed the line of cars through the dusty tunnel. There were a couple of spots that looked a little low to me but we made it. All but two of the cars in front of us pulled into a large parking lot on the other side of the tunnel, we kept going until we came to a crashing stop as the van came into contact with the road. Luckily the bike rack frame took the brunt. We went all the way to the other side of town (about ten blocks on), then toward the cemetery where we'd read they tolerated campers. The doors into the cemetery were being locked as we got there. We tried across the street at a little hotel where Don Eduardo who was followed by a pack of dogs said we could spend the night. We parked and headed back into town on foot. The whole of Real de Catorce is cobblestone, much of it is on a pitch. We walked past the hundreds of stalls selling tacky coffee cups, tacky bracelets, elotes (corn on the cob which isn't as sweet as ours, usually smeared with mayonnaise, chile powder and grated cheese). We tried to share one but Frances couldn't manage it with her loose front teeth. We hung out at the tiny zocalo where families of Huichol indians were selling their paintings and weaving. The non-Huichol were a weird mix of what Wil calls dirty hippies, lots of layers and bad hair, incense and diablos and some crazy Swiss folk dressed in tight eighties ski suits. The town is certainly picturesque but it was all a bit weird.

The next morning we awoke to cockadoodledooing, some donkey braying, lots of dogs barking and a little pig squealing. It was heaven. We ate some breakfast and headed back through town on probably the hairiest road we've ever been on in Mexico. When we got through the tunnel we pulled over to ask some advice about this hike we'd read about, to the Pueblo phantasma (ghost town) over the mountain. One guy tried explaining the way to me but I didn't catch half of what he said. We decided to try anyway but when we passed by him again he was standing with a young guy who offered himself up as a guide. He told us he'd do it for "whatever we wanted to pay him." So off we went, up, up, up. A couple of minutes after we left a younger boy came running after us. "Your brother?, I asked. "My son", he replied! "He's ten." Up we went, over more cobblestone — incredible that this path was "paved". The hours and hours of back-breaking work laying stone after stone. We looped around the mountainside and looked around at the incredible scenery. "There's your van", he said and pointed to the little blue rectangle in the parking lot. We must have climbed a thousand feet in twenty minutes. We kept climbing, sometimes on the path, sometimes on pale tracks cut into the side of the mountain. We were all gasping for breath, the altitude keeping our poor lungs from getting the oxygen they needed. After about an hour we crested the last hill and were met with a gorgeous view of the stone foundations of long-abandoned houses and church nestled in a little valley. We ambled into the village, happy for a little downhill. There wasn't much to the town but the kids crawled through tunnels and climbed up a stone structure in the skeleton of the church while Wil and I sat around talking about how difficult it would have been to scratch a living out in this most inhospitable terrain. The desert is brutal. You have to look an awfully long time to find a place to sit down. The land is so hard— sand and gravel and pink rock, cactus of all shapes and sizes, joshua trees, agave, A spade wouldn't get you very far digging in this country.The sandy soil that isn't loose is like pumice. Riverbeds looks a foot deep in gravel. Even the birds are unfriendly, hawks and vultures coasting in the cool desert air. The only gentle thing about the landscape is the soft folds in the hills. As we were leaving, Frances approached a grate about ten feet across set in the ground and José-Luis jumped to his feet to warn her off. "It's the well." We all took turns throwing pebbles through the mesh but with no satisfaction; we never heard the pebbles hit bottom. Jose-Luis walked off and came back with a small boulder and launched it through the grate. First nothing, then a whoosh, then some cracking sounds as it bounced off the walls and more than ten seconds later, a dull thud.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

laredo to el potrero chico

The kids played in the hotel pool as wil & I watched, complimentary cocktails in hand, all of us enjoying American luxuries for one last night. We walked through the parking lot of the sprawling Mall del Norte to find our spot for dinner, Logan's roadhouse, a restaurant the kids fell in love with in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on the way to Mexico last year. The mall was throbbing with people. I assume most were American although we were the only whities and there wasn't much English, if any, being spoken. We kept asking people which bridge to take (there are four that cross over in or near Laredo) and number 1 seemed to get the most votes. Back at the hotel room the kids watched a cooking show while Wil and I worried in the other room. Then Wil started checking travelocity for flights to cities in Mexico from Texas. So very depressing. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion, it twists your insides and is like jealousy in that it seems to come hand in hand with that other feel-good emotion, shame. Finally got to sleep. We tanked up for the last time in the States drove through Laredo across the absolutely empty Bridge No. 1.

We crossed over with zero fanfare and pulled over to get inspected by a very nice young woman. We were in the wrong place. She redirected us to the Migración office where we pulled into the parking lot with a hundred or more vehicles, most of which were piled high with goods, everything from tables to mattresses, jolly jumpers and carrier bags, all strapped down under flapping tarps. The building was a flashback to last year. One is expected to know where to stand, what forms to fill out, where to go first and second and third. The first counter is where you pick up the tourist applications, then you find a little spot around the island to fill out the form (you need to bring your own pen). A beautiful scene as the young men and women stand over the form, patiently reading it aloud for their mother or father or grandparent, some of whom I assume could not read. After the form, you go back to get it stamped, then to the photocopy section where they give you copies of everything you need, then to the Banjercito to pay for everything and to get the hologram sticker for the car windshield. Just standing around in line with all these Mexican families made me feel better -- standing in line after line with a bunch of normal people going about their normal business totally assuaged my fears.

The Migración bathrooms were another flashback. No toilet seats, no toilet paper. I forgot to come into the stall prepared. The roll of toilet paper was probably no more than three feet away, at the entrance to the bathroom. And so begins the retraining of getting over the lifelong habit of dropping the paper into the bowl.

Unlike last year, no one inspected the car, no one came out to ensure that the VIN number was actually the number on the car. We asked a couple of older gents sitting on the back of a pickup for directions to the highway. When I asked if the highway was safe one of them kissed his fingertips to indicate what great shape the road was in. The drive was completely anti-climactic. The landscape started out as scrub, low prickly bushes filling the flatter-than-flat land, then the Joshua trees and agave flowers started poking their heads above the scrub. Not long after, hazy silhouettes of distant sierras starting appearing on the horizon. We were taking turns in the lead with a mid-eighties boat of a car, a blue cadillac with a threesome of middle-aged folk. They waved every time they passed and we waved when we passed. When we finally got into Monterrey, they pulled up beside us at a traffic light. The driver signalled to me to open the window and while we waited for the light we chatted, he asked me where we were from, where we were going, the usual. How to explain to him the comfort his car brought me on this road we'd been led to believe was going to be a life and death adventure. "Que Dios bendiga" (God bless you) he said as we pulled away.

As we approached our first destination, Posada El Potrero Chico near Hidalgo, outside Monterrey, the mountains suddenly jutted out of the haze. The kind of mountains that look like huge sheets of rock on their side, massive limestone faces, which explains the impressive population of climbers in this tiny little posada. We signed ourselves up for the Nochebuena supper. The piñata is being filled. The kids are pumped. All is well.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

la frontera

We kicked around town for a while and then I surprised the kids and Wil with the Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theatre with a twist. Each row of seats faces a long low table and is separated by an aisle. On the table is a menu with a decent beer and wine list and a menu of quite yummy food. You write your order down on a little sheet of paper and the waiter comes by to pick up and deliver in silence as you kick back and enjoy Tron in 3d. The riesling went a long way in counteracting my deep-seated anxiety about talking during a movie (even if it was to a waiter in the theatre's employ). Speaking to the staff, however, is the only acceptable communication in the house — any other kind of chatter is met with immediate expulsion by the staff (my dad would love it but the Jenny & Fiona wouldn't last a minute!)

Wil decided to head back to the garage this morning to get a new water pump installed. Having it on hand along with a garage we trust is a combo Wil couldn't resist. He decided to head back to Austin Veedub first thing.

We've decided to head straight south and cross over at Laredo based on the advice of one of the Mexican mechanics at Austin VeeDub. The owner of the shop, an older gent who spoke so quietly and slowly that you really had to strain to hear him, told us about the house he used to own in Ciudad Miguel Alemán and his love for Mexico. "I don't go anymore," he said simply. The last time he crossed over, some bandits were in the midst of carjacking him when the police arrived. When he pulled up outside his house he found it had been totalled. The whole town was taken over. The drug runners showed up at night clubs carrying bags of decapitated heads. Nice. Later on one of the mechanics told us that Edward, the owner, had spent every weekend for many years in Mexico but that the recent violence kept him away. His quiet but firm reluctance to go, despite his deep fondness for the country, was so much more persuasive than the fear-mongering we've endured since the first speech from the border guard in Richford, VT.

The water pump replacement took a turn for the worse. There is just no rushing business two days before Christmas. The weather certainly doesn't feel like Christmas. Yesterday, it was eighty, today was in the seventies. Edward loaned us a Jetta for another night in Austin while we waited for the van. Austin is a great town but not an easy one to navigate without a car. The neighbourhoods are interesting but many miles apart. After a fun morning at the great kids' museum, we killed some time at the garage walking through the nine acres of VW skeletons out back, looking for a piece from the steering column that we needed. It was a bit creepy, seeing row upon row of beetle, jetta and, at the very back, van after van (old and new) propped up on rims and stripped down. I couldn't help thinking that there was a story associated with every one; the travelling stories of people like us come to a sad end.

Another great night in Austin. This town is seriously cool. There is excellent food on offer everywhere, much of it organic & local. Ceci dit, it is absolutely deadsville at this time of year, the state politicians are no longer in session, the university of Texas is out and the newer locals (Austin is growing at an astounding rate) have headed home to be with family for the holidays. The only place we encountered any kind of crowd was at the Whole Foods Flagship store where we stocked up on some of the things we'd prefer not to do without in Mexico, namely good chocolate and wine.

We said our goodbyes to the team at Austin VeeDub, packed up the van and hit the road for Laredo. Wil and I are both battling some serious jitters. 'Butterflies' doesn't even begin to cover it. Despite our dogged resistance, the horror stories have taken their toll. Thankfully the trepidation abates a little every time we are passed by a pickup or Suburban packed with a Mexican family — every inch of the roof or pickup bed piled high with belongings & bikes & barbecues. We even saw a couple of vehicles being used as trailers — one chockablock pickup, the driver's head barely visible through all the bags, towing another pickup full to bursting with stuff. We'll spend the night in Laredo and then hit the border at 8 for opening hours.

Our dinner out was interesting. I heard the next table over speaking Spanish so I went over to ask their opinion about which bridge to take. Their eyes rolled up in their heads and they recommended that if we felt we had to go that we find people to convoy with. One of the gentlemen handed me his card and said to call him for anything (except to come pick us up he made quite clear!) As they were leaving, he came over to our table, put his hand on Wil's shoulder and asked if we minded if he prayed for us. No, we said, not expecting him to do it right there. "Father God, please keep these people safe. Father God, etc.. for literally several minutes. The kids looked on, completely mystified. I don't think they'd ever seen anyone pray before we got to Texas. Needless to say, it has done very little to settle our nerves. We'll see if sleep comes tonight.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Austin, star of the Lone Star State

We drove, drove, drove, bungee cord in place -- through Missouri and into Oklahoma, making it to the other side of Tulsa for a late dinner. The stress level in the car was palpable. Wil was straining to hear every little noise the car made, sure that the death rattle was coming and he watched the temperature gauge like a hawk. The kids were, again, oblivious and kept themselves busy in the back.

We pulled into the lovely Motel 8 in Sapulpa, Oklahoma just past Tulsa and sauntered next door to Freddie's barbecue for supper. Our waitress insisted that we all try the house speciality. She kept repeating the name telling us that "y'all 'll luv it". However familiar the name, it never dawned on me that it could be what I thought it was. Sure enough these little bowls of "tabouly" soon appeared on the table, along with the "picka plattah" -- crudités and hummus. We thought the owners must be of middle-eastern descent but as the articles and photos on the wall showed, the Texan restaurateurs were as American as apple pie and had even won awards for "Outstanding Beef Menuing." (?)

Back at the motel, Wil checked to see if he'd gotten replies from any of the mechanics he e-mailed earlier in the day. No luck but being Sunday, we weren't really expecting much.

Monday morning he got on the blower to a guy in Austin (the closest VW shop) and got the answers he was looking for. Darryl told him not to take a chance in Mexico, that the former fifth gear was now dangerous little bits of metal floating around in the transmission. If luck were on our side the bits would stay put near the magnet meant to keep them away from the other gears. It looked like we were on our way to Austin to get the straight dope.

Another 500 mile day. 8 hours of driving with a quick stop over the Texas border for lunch at Harley Dan's Grill, a cinderblock bunker of a building just off the I-35. As we jumped out of the van, the curtains of the diner parted as the regulars unabashedly checked us out. As Wil stepped through the door, a couple of fiftyish bleach blondes, skin puckered by too many cigarettes and more sun, greeted Wil with a friendly "I wish I had ME a van like that. Then I could go somewheres." The place was tiny, one end devoted to a very small stage set a couple of feet off the ground, complete with drum kit, a few mics and a television for karaoke night. A harley-orange stripe ran around the whole place, 45s thumbtacked to the walls, little shelves lined the walls, one with a little statue of an eagle with wings that flapped and glittered in rainbow colours. There were maybe six tables, one was occupied by a very large bearded man wearing a t-shirt that read "Big people are harder to kidnap", one by a young couple with their two young daughters who ran around playing hide and seek, the other by the two blondes. Everyone was smoking. The waitress took our order, calling in to Dan to make sure he had buns for Frances's hotdog and then again to make sure he had a hotdog for the bun. "Your kids sure are polite", she said. "My girls is 25 and 19 and I guess I didn't do such a good job 'cuz I'm still raising 'em up. They didn't get their attitude from me tho'-- 'cuz I still got mine." It was one of the tastiest burgers I have ever had in my life. A toothless Harley Dan emerged from the kitchen after our meal and we thanked him for the great lunch. "Couldn't pay me enough to travel in a van like that with three kids,' he said. 'I'd have to stop every hour on the hour."

Kept driving, through Fort Worth and infamous Waco. Wil relaxed enough to let me drive for a while, making me promise to keep a close eye on the temperature. The wind blows hard in Texas, with little to get in its way. More than once I found myself trying to pull past an eighteen-wheeler, coasting in the lee, only to find that I couldn't maintain any speed once I got my nose past.Then the humiliating slowdown to pull back in behind the truck with a long line of irate Texans in their pickups on my tail.

We pulled into the Austin Motel at supper time and got the last room. There's something about the place that reminds me of the Phoenix in San Fran. We went for a wander down South Congress to find funky resto after funky resto and cool little shops of every description. Frances swayed the supper vote and got us seated at a picnic table in a street-side terrasse of an oyster bar. Lovely bottle of Albarino, variety pack of fresh oysters from California, Washington and BC, Texas snapper, calamari, green beans and the best brussel sprouts on the planet. It was so refreshing to be surrounded by normal people eating real food.

Got to the garage at 7:45, fifteen minutes before opening hours and therefore got the undivided attention of Darryl, Mike and a few other mechanics who discussed the ins and outs of the engine. When Mike drained the transmission fluid he found a treasure trove of metal bits, the pathetic remains of our fifth gear. We left the van in their able hands while we went off to see some of Austin.

We had a great breakfast but found it disconcerting to be surrounded by people holding hands and bowing their heads to say prayers aloud before tucking in. And we're not talking about "for what we are about to receive...", we're talking several minutes of deeply felt personal thanks to the Lord and his son, Jesus Christ our Saviour. One praying couple sat beside us and when they heard us ask the waiter to order us a cab they told us to cancel it because they wanted to drive us where we were going. Les and Mary from outside Springfield, Missouri piled us all into the back seat of their Hyundai and drove us all the way across town. Good christians indeed.

We spent an hour walking around the Bob Bullock Story of Texas Museum, a sometimes interesting and highly-glossed-over look at the life of the early settlers. We were then treated to a hysterical twenty-five minute film of the Story of Texas, a cross between the old natural history dioramas and a light show with misting and lightning and chair-thumping. The on-film narrator, "Sam Houstoun", concluded the film with a stirring invitation to embody the maverick Spirit of Texas telling us that not having been born in Texas "dudn't" matter.

Back to the garage for the verdict. Darryl and Mike said the van was okay. Just like that. They'd driven it around and said it didn't sound like the transmission was going to fail any time soon. They said if we could keep it from popping out of fifth we should be good to go but that we'd have to look into a rebuild when we got home.

Looks like we're going to Mexico after all!! Yeehaw!

Sunday, December 19, 2010


We were so proud of our progress -- making it into Indiana by mid-day. The kids happily busy with their early Christmas presents in the back. Then the gear shift pops out of fifth. A few minutes later, it happens again. Wil's face goes ashen while unmechanical me looks on, completely clueless. After tying the shifter down with a bungee cord he patiently explains to me the repercussions of a failing transmission. We pull into a little garage and Wil asks about diesel VW mechanics as I sit tight in the car still not fully comprehending what it all means. He comes back out and suggests I use the garage's internet connection to try to find a diesel mechanic in St. Louis, the next big town on the map. The mechanic and his two teenage boys are scheduled to leave the garage but allow Wil to jack up the van so he can crawl underneath to check the transmission fluid. The mechanic doesn't have the right sized allen key but very kindly gets out his welder to weld the right sized hex bolt to a scrap of metal. Wil couldn't get it open. The mechanic didn't want to charge us for his time. Midwesterners are definitely a courteous lot. Off we go to an auto parts store in Effingham, Illinois and ask about any VW guys in the area. He provides us with the number of a guy in Sumner, the midwest's VW guru. It is all feeling a bit too familiar, this search for diesel mechanics bringing back some very vivid memories of similar hunts in Mexico last year. We pull into a parking lot and Wil calls up the guy in Sumner while the kids and I go and buy some lunch fixings.

When we get back to the van Wil is beyond grey. He and I step out of the car and he explains that the guy on the phone said that our very custom engine and similarly custom transmission means that the problem is essentially unfixable. There is a chance that the bungee cord will work for a time and there is a chance that it won't. The idea of the transmission suddenly failing and being stuck on the side of the road as night is falling on some country road in Mexico basically means that before it started our Mexican road trip is over. Our all-night drive has left me feeling completely unable to swallow the bad news. Or maybe I'm just being brave for my distraught husband, who has spent every shred of spare time since we got home from Mexico last year fixing the van's every last hiccup. The only sliver of hope the guy offered is an unnamed garage in California that specializes in transmissions for customized VW vans and their engines.

Some of the options we came up with:
- dump the van, find a house for rent in Argentina
- drive back the way we came, park the van closer to home and fly to Mexico for a backpack adventure.
- head west, try to find the transmission guys and hope to get it fixed.

We decide instead to get a hotel room and enjoy a night out in St Louis -- stop worrying for a little while and figure out our next move after a good nights' sleep. At Wil's encouragement, we all kick the van before going into the hotel.
Is it meaningful that this is happening as we cross over the mighty Mississippi?

We head out for dinner to Lombardo's for ridiculously massive portions of artery-clogging pasta as St Louis fans don their jerseys and head out to the game.
We crash. By the time I get up at 8, Wil's been in the lobby for two hours and is now armed with a list of west coast custom transmission specialists. We decide to take our chances, kill a couple of weeks taking in some of the beauty the southwest has to offer as we chase down a new transmission and see if our Mexican road trip is at all salvageable. As we step out the door of the hotel, we are met with a beautiful view of the impressive Gateway Arch -- the symbolic gateway to the west.

Some of the things we chose to pass on today:
Vacuum Cleaner Museum
Jesse James's Hideout
World's largest rocking chair
32oz Coca-Cola - $1
and, for you ma,
Buffalo Run Casino: Where winning comes natural

Saturday, December 18, 2010

where will you spend eternity? Jesus Christ has the answer

A seriously heartwarming send off from friends at the school following the kids' christmas concert.

After the sun went down, we drove through a hundred wind turbines scattered in the fields around Chateauguay NY. Kind of creepy having these silent (for us), looming giants, arms akimbo emerge from the dark above the frozen trees. I suspect that the electric utility is promoting the sale of Christmas lights in upstate NY, where house-decorating has gotten downright competitive. The latest trend appears to be mini projectors perched on front lawns which cast festive (dare I say tacky) images on the side of the house. One home had a spotlight creatively pointed at two small reindeer on the lawn, casting massive deer-shaped shadows on the house (and also lighting up the unsuspecting family settled into the sofa in front of the tv). My favourite display was a larger than life-size crèche. The centerpiece was, of course, baby Jesus bundled in his massive cradle. On his right kneeled lovely Mary, to his left proud Joseph -- with Santa right over his shoulder straining to get a look before the magi showed up.

Stopped at a diner for dinner and watched an elderly black man parked at the counter cut his baked fish special into a million tiny pieces before performing the top-lip-swallowing chew only a truly toothless person can achieve. The clam chowder cup was thicker than pudding and mounded in the cup like ice cream-- we all balked and there stood the spoon, bolt upright in the middle, until our dinner was over. We put down the beds in the van and everyone got settled in. Along the shore of Lake Ontario, heading south at windy Buffalo. Driving around the great lakes in a hightop van is about as much fun as carrying a sheet of plywood alone across a windy yard. Passing big rigs becomes a very hands-on, often harrowing, lesson in aerodynamics. You have to plot the turns of the wheel as you engage the wind, take a few deep breaths in the brief calm, brace for the wake and then settle into being buffeted about. Bobbing along in the wake, an image that kept coming to mind was pedalling a tricycle at top speed after dad has driven over the front wheel.

Wil and I switched places at fill-ups and made it over the Indiana border for breakfast. Our determination NOT to eat at the chains paid off after skipping ten minutes of strip malls to find downtown Richmond and a little bagel shop suggested by Charles, a friendly stranger on the road. Indianans (is that what they're called?) are nice. We are leaking oil. Wil is not amused.

today's favourite signs:

Monday, December 06, 2010

getting ready to go

The map of Mexico is back up on the kitchen wall which can only mean one thing. The countdown is on. Eleven days 'til we leave. The kids lobbied to put off our midday departure until after their Christmas concert so we should be hitting the road around 2:30 on Friday the 17th. The van is all packed — bedding, guidebooks, pharma & toiletries, the new & non-leaking porta-potty, rain gear, snorkel stuff, flip flops and everyone's clothes (except for mine which will inevitably be too numerous for the space allotted them). Will put together the van kitchen in the Thule — folding table & chairs, double burner and mini propane tank, wash basin, plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, tablecloth, cooking knives & some spices. The rest will be bought in Mexico. The awning is back on. With any luck, this year it will be put to use more for the sun than for the record rainfall that plagued us & Mexico last winter. The screens have all been cut down to size and fitted with rare earth magnets so they stick to the van. With the help of our friendly welder, Louis, we rigged a hammock that hangs over the front seats to replace the piece of plywood from last year. The hammock means we can use the seats and wheel wells to store stuff when we're not on the road. It's all about space management. I've got meetings scheduled with the teachers to iron out what I need to cover and what books really need to come with us. We're just about ready. Barring the unforeseen (like last year's exploding pipes the morning of), we are almost good to go.

We look at the map and talk about different routes but I think we've pretty much decided to play it all by ear.
We are aiming roughly for Chihuahua and the Copper Canyon, expecting to be well beyond the border by Christmas. After that, who knows? Perhaps through the colonial heartland and straight down to Guatemala. The only things we know for sure is that we will be in the Yucatan to meet up with some friends at the end of January and in Ajijic, near Guadalajara, to see my folks before we head home.

Take two is definitely more relaxed. Just as exciting with none of the trepidation. I am aiming to work some Spanish into the home schooling this year. We'll see how it pans out. I would love to give the girls enough of a vocabulary to make Mexican friends the way Henri did last year.

The snow, however lovely, feels like a cue. I can't wait.

Monday, June 07, 2010

barcelona day two

No alarm clock this morning. Yeehaw.

We strolled down the ramblas to cafe zurich for a quick coffee then on to the Boqueria market for a look around. The presentation at every single stand was astounding. Each stall a rainbow of colours, seafoods, blackened legs of ham, chocolates, nuts, sweets, veg. We started with a little paper cone full of croquettas of salt cod. In the end, Kiosko Universal got our vote for lunch. We shuffled a stool or two to make room for ourselves (occasionally having to get up to let the next shift in under the counter). The stand was an island, three men hustling inside a bar lined with glass shelves and white platters of fresh seafood; on the outside of the glass, a U of happy people perched on stools, oily fingers clasping glasses of beer or wine. We ordered a couple of glasses of Cava, a bubbly white wine perfect for daytime, some tiny little clams, razor clams, all fresh from the sea thrown on the griddle with a splash of oil and some crystal salt. Then some calmar on a bed of fresh fries. As soon as any of it came off the griddle, our man behind the bar squeezed an oil & garlic & parsley emulsion over the whole thing. OH MY GOD! On the top of the bar was a huge rectangular plate of mixed mushrooms which we couldn't resist. Again, fried in oil and perfect and delicious. A few chunks of hearty bread to soak up the last drops.

We wandered back to the bicycle rental place where the new attendant, upon hearing that we were from Quebec, hit us with a very interesting (post-cava) but long-winded talk about separation and the oppression of the catalan people by the centralist spanish government. We rode through the Barri Gotico, a maze of narrow alleys with foot-deep wrought-iron balconies lined with flowerpots and washing hanging overhead. Every alley hits you with a new view of the city, impossible-to-resist hidden corners, glimpses of spires, stone arches. A little shopping at Camper (can you come to Spain and NOT go to Camper?). Sandals for me. Metrosexual running shoes for my hot husband. Past the statue of Cristofol Colom pointing toward the new world and down to the sea. Then along the beach crowded with topless and occasionally naked spaniards, wandering masseuses, and very pink and very drunk brits. Bike paths abound, we rode on through La Ciutadella park and back up to the hotel for a snooze. Siestas are so civilized.

Awoke to the lovely sounds of an accordeon playing in the street.

Off to Cal Pep, our first choice for dinner, where we decided that having people standing in line behind you while trying to enjoy dinner wasn't what we were looking for. The long walk in the new shoes back across town into Parallelo to find Quimet y Quimet, a tapas bar that has been handed down from Quimet to Quimet since 1914. Brother and sister man the place. An eight-foot long bar, a pair of square-foot round tables in the middle of the floor. No seating. The fifteen foot high walls lined with floor to ceiling bottles and their posted price by the glass. We nudged our way into a spot at the bar and watched Sr Quimet concocting tapes. Little rounds of bread topped with sour cream, salmon, tapenade and a generous drizzle of honey. "Any advice for us?" I asked a Spanish trio on our right. Take whatever he tells you to take" was the answer. "He makes the best tapas in Barcelona!" Wil ordered a couple of glasses of cava and pointed to something on the bar, a practically liquid round of sheep's milk cheese. Sr. Quimet spooned a heap onto a round of bread and topped it with a few sweet, pickled chestnuts. Then a mixed platter of fish and one of seafood. Slices of salmon, sardines, bacalao, hot-smoked slices of tuna, smoked oysters with little piles of tomato salsa & tapenade, the other plate razor clams, calmar, and tiny little clams. We chatted with our neighbours, Teresa, her brother and her husband, who was a gypsy. She was born in Valencia but her parents moved to Barcelona when she was six months old. She and her family obviously did not share the bike rental guy's feelings about Catalunya and its need for independence. "We refuse to speak Catalan" they said. Teaching only Catalan in school makes us backward and keeps us from moving forward. When I asked her questions about what was on her plate, she handed me little slices of things, a thin slice of bright orange cheese, a chunk of blue, a little cube of manchego. We bought them a round of beers, they countered with a round of cava.

She tut-tutted Wil when he put down a tip on the bar. One euro is more than enough, she said. Four is criminal! We walked back, sandals in hand with my new-shoe-blistered feet, through a neighbourhood completely different from the other side of the Ramblas. Clusters of muslim women with strollers chatting while their older children pushed scooters in the deserted streets. Halal and shawarma shops testament to the big north african population. Past black-as-night African vendors with their Dolce & Gabbana handbags or sunglasses laid out on square sheets with ropes tied to the four corners, one hand ready on the rope to pull the whole into a tidy bundle for a quick getaway? Sunburnt brits in white tube tops and floral flipflops.

Barcelona is fantastic.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Our tearful departure from Abercorn wasn't nearly as difficult as I expected (except for me!). The kids, now with Mia & Kai, waved us off as I snivelled and bawled in the car. The flights were seamless, except for one AC employee telling us that checking our bags in would not hamper our attempt to get on an earlier flight, only to find out five minutes later that we couldn't possibly get on an earlier flight if our bags were already checked. Thankfully, it was the only hiccup.

Despite all my best efforts to sleep on the flight — coughing up for the stupid, fleece-covered donut pillow, the black satin eye mask, the 50 decibel earplugs, not to mention draining my parents' pharma shelf of some major tranquilizers — I still only managed to get in an hour or two. I ended up curled up on the floor (which elicited a "well... aren't you flexible!" from the stewardess as we deplaned.)

The trip into Barcelona was fun — figuring out the quickest and cheapest way in on the train. We wandered up the Rambla de la Catalunya and found our little hotel (Praktik Rambla) tucked into a non-descript facade. The young receptionist was lovely but our room wouldn't be ready until at least noon and it was only 9. Aargh. She handed us a free umbrella for the spitting sky, we left her with our bags and headed out. We stopped in to a little bar/resto next door and pulled up a couple of stools. Delicious, creamy cafe con leche with a yummy little crunchy sandwich — a lot like a ciabatta with slices of serrano ham and cheese. We strolled down the tourist-choked Rambla, a gorgeous, wide pedestrian avenue lined with vendors — of postcards and souvenirs and songbirds — that leads all the way to the beach.

We were impressed with the strings of Bicing bikes (like bixies in Montreal) strewn all across town but were disappointed to find that they weren't available to tourists. We opted instead for a pair of black witch-in-the-wizard-of-oz bikes. We hopped on and headed over up to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's freakish cathedral. We didn't brave the interior, the line-ups were just too long. Sundays in Barcelona are quiet. No traffic to speak of. A perfect introduction to pedalling around the town.

We made a quick stop at the place next door for a beer and a taste of one of their yummy tapes. A piece of bread covered with a mahi-mahi mousse, topped with aa fresh anchovy and a little pickled pepper and a yummy platter of mixed olives. mmmmm. Quick, oh-so-delicious nap at the hotel. The room is lovely, a strange combo of classic and modern, fifteen-foot high ceiling with elaborate plasterwork, painted in black and white stripes with the addition of an ultra-modern bathroom housed in a mirrored box in the corner of the room. Every inch of floor covered in beautiful tilework that changes from room to hall. Our little balcony overlooks the Rambla. Feeling seriously lucky. After our snooze, we climbed the hill on our bikes (puff, puff) to Parc Güell, the crazy multi-level park with a killer view of the sea designed by Gaudi and where he spent his final years. After the climb up to the park, we cruised back down through the lovely labyrinth that is Barcelona.

Later on to Taller de Tapas for a bottle of rosé, a plate of octopus and potato in olive oil and paprika, buñuelos, little deep-fried croquettas of salt cod (I couldn't help thinking of us crowding around Ana Maria's frying pan on those lucky days on Wilson avenue) and last, but definitely not least, a plate of a variety of fresh mushrooms fried in olive oil and caramelized garlic with parsley. Spectacular food. We returned the bikes, bought a brick of Torró d'Alacant - almonds, honey, sugar and egg whites, my new favourite sweet thing and then home for a little R&R and then off to supper at 10!

We searched high and low for a place we'd read about but we couldn't find it. Instead, we settled into a couple of chairs on the sidewalk outside a cute little family place on a corner. With nary a tourist in sight, which is no easy feat in Barcelona. A bottle of cava open on many tables. We had fresh grilled sardines (which are in no way related to the goopy, oily mess that comes out of the can), a fish soup (which couldn't have been more different from the Mexican version) a thickish, tomatoey soup with chunks of white fish and rice. A little green salad, lettuce, tomatoes and onions with a bottle of oil and a bottle of vinegar brought to the table. And slices of chewy baguette. All rounded off by a bottle of chilly cava.

Friday, March 05, 2010

the usa

The drive to the border was totally depressing. The mountains that leant interest to the landscape pulled away from the road and all we were left with was the flat scrub wasteland that is the north of Coahuila. The frontera has a flavour all its own. It just feels like outlaw country. We drove through a half dozen tiny towns on the way, rusted out vintage pickups bumping around dusty, wind-swept streets. No matter how small the pueblo, each had its own zocalo and gazebo. We stopped in Allende, 45 k south of the border to hand in our visas and give back the car import hologram which has been on the windshield since we crossed over. Watching the lady unceremoniously scrape it off felt like a slap in the face. I'm feeling ridiculously sentimental about the bits of colourful shreds she left. The name of the border town, Piedras Negras (Black Rocks) made sense as we drove past the massive cloud surrounding the Coahuila coal-burning power plant. We stopped for a quick lunch. Henri said afterward that he couldn't believe that he wasted his last meal in Mexico on a burger.

As usual, we were nervous about the crossing, being at the mercy of some yahoo with a gun. We waited and waited, inching our way forward in a sea of pickups with US plates. Of course they wanted to search the car. The US border guards could learn a lot from the Mexican military who never seem to forget that it is your car they are rifling through. They knocked every little corner of the van looking for hidden compartments, the dog hopped in and sniffed around. The guard was alarmed that we had hidden away a ziploc of money and photocopies of our documents under the dash. We explained that it was our safety net in case our wallets were robbed on the road. The look of disgust and disbelief on his face said it all. Forgive us officer, we were trying to pull the wool over your eyes. We were desperate to smuggle these photocopies of our passports and $120 dollars into the country and you caught us, you clever clever man. Aargh! Where do they find these people?

Crossing into Vermont from Abercorn is always a bit of a jolt to the system. It always surprises me how people living in a town just eight kilometres from my house can be so different. Crossing from Mexico into the US is a shock of another order. I acknowledge that Texas border country is not the best the US has on offer but it was a demoralizing contrast just the same. Gone are the little taco shacks and tiendas, women dressed like well... women, music and colour and life, replaced by mobile homes and towering billboards and a lot of large people in leisure suits behind the wheels of their large cars.

Texas is a giant, as endless as Ontario on a cross-country road trip. Through San Antonio and Houston on the 10. The billboards say it all. Gambling, god and insurance. In that order. We pulled out the beds at 8, made it over the Louisiana border by 11, pulled into a rest area and slept 'til 6:30. We need to get off the interstate if we're going to survive this leg of the trip without going into a major funk.

The late night driving gave me some quiet time to think, about our family and our trip and Mexico. It'll be interesting to see what the fallout of our road trip is on the kids and their life outside of home. I know they'll be fine but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to let them get on the bus on Monday. As for Mexico, I worry. Being America's neighbour, with its culture of immediate gratification (enjoy now, pay later) cannot be good for a country where so very many people are so very poor. They get the same message from the media as we do but they don't have the means. Can that kind of dissatisfaction breed anything but frustration and anger? I could be wrong but the dated appeal of the Catholic church seems to be slipping, creating a void that seems to be filling with more hardcore varieties of religion, with seventh-day adventists, jehovah's witnesses and baptists building followings all over the country. On the health front... yikes. #1 in childhood obesity is not a ranking Mexico can be proud of. Stores are full of crap, cheap sweets and sodas. Every village, no matter how small, has a tienda with a fridge bursting with ice-cold Coca-Cola.

We woke up and blasted through Louisiana and into Mississippi, looking to pick up the Natchez Trace Parkway right over the border. We stopped for groceries on the way in Vidalia. I had a surreal moment in the grocery store watching an exchange between a bag boy and a customer in the aisle. The customer, a very large young black woman with white and pink bangs, a leopard-skin top two sizes too small and spike hells chased a bag boy down the aisle. The scrawny fellow, a flap of greasy hair hanging over his eyes, buck teeth, hoodie under his white apron, was pinned against the cereal boxes. She pulled something out of her massive handbag and peppered him with questions in a very aggressive tone. Their heavy accents fell so squarely into the stereotype of a Southern drawl, I was completely transfixed. I knew I was staring and yet I couldn't pull my eyes away. I may have spent the last two months in Mexico but this, I thought, THIS is foreign.

The Natchez Trace Parkway, a road commemorating the path native Americans used to travel from north to south was a delight, despite the seriously crappy weather. Gone were the strip malls, the eighteen wheelers, the giant billboards. Instead the little two-lane road wound in and out and up and down through majestic hardwood and pines for over 400 miles. The art deco bridges were things of beauty. The grassy banks, full of flocks of wild turkey and chubby little robins, rolled away from the road. It was easy to imagine travelling the trace in more civilized times, on horseback, by carriage, even on foot. Not the quickest way, I'm sure, but a more pleasant way of getting through Mississippi would be hard to find. A welcome antidote for all the venom we were feeling about America.

Our thought was to go from the Natchez (which ends near Nashville) to the Blue Ridge Parkway (which begins outside Knoxville) and then find someplace to camp but the weather was not cooperating. The van was objecting more and more to being started. We chased down some glow plugs in Knoxville, but didn't have the tools we needed to change more than two of them. The Comfort Suites have become our home away from home. After a discussion over dinner we decided that, rather than drawing out the driving time, we'll put in a marathon day of driving and then spend a couple of nights in the Big Apple, putting us a day away from home for friday.

The van started this morning but when we stopped for gas a brand new problem arose. The death rattle of the clutch in low gears has got my poor husband pulling his hair out. The worrying hours he has expended on this vehicle need to end soon. We may just have to skip NYC and stay on the road until we get home. We've been driving for six hours now, with another six to go. We'll make the call when we further north.

The interstate is awful, bad drivers with bad manners, the worst of the country on display from the road, drivers using their vehicles to witness their faith. "Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word"; the clever "Where you go in the hereafter depends on where you go after here"; and my personal favourite, "When God is for us, who can be against us?" The answer to that last one may lie in the endless stream of pale brown tanks and jeeps mounted on transport trucks going past us on the road south.

Wil made the call that he thought the van could make it home. We got on the New Jersey Turnpike and headed toward our hotel in lovely North Bergen, across the river from midtown Manhattan, the thinking being that avoiding driving into Manhattan would put us in a good position to get back on the interstate without getting stuck in traffic. The one thing we weren't sure the car could handle was a lot of clutch, in low gears, in traffic, on bridges, or in tunnels. As we approached North Bergen, in the dark after eleven hours straight of driving, we made our final, tense approach. The kids were fed up. Wil and I were exhausted and already worried but when the Pulaski Skyway turned out to be a bridge and when the clutch started slipping moments before getting on, major panic set in. Wil had been shifting without the clutch most of the way from Knoxville which worked well on the way up. Slowing down was not so fun. Every time we came to a stop we feared it would be for the last time.

Rather than hang around and worry, we took a little mini bus into the city. $2.50 for a fifteen minute ride to Port Authority at 42nd & 8th. We wowed the kids with Times Square and walked down to the Empire State Building. The security guards were mostly petite black women in doorman-style red suits, all under five foot, faces half-concealed by the broad brim of their hats. We asked one of them "Should we pay the extra to go up to the 102nd floor?" (what was originally designed to be the waiting room for dirigibles). "It's a little room", she said. We waited for the rest of the answer but it never came. "I'm not gonna tell you what you to do." Alright then. The security was a surprise, though it probably shouldn't have been. Full-on airport style, belts off, the works. The maze of velvet cords made us realize how lucky we were to avoid the crush of people that must come through here during the day. Then up the two elevators to the observatory and the view. The wind swirled around us, the lights sparkled up and down Manhattan, the sheer drop off the side of the building and the teeny little cars below amazed the kids. A heavy snowstorm blew past us but not a drop of snow made it down to the street below. Island as super radiator. The languages we heard on the elevator made it feel like the United Nations, a welcome change from the homogeneity of the South. We searched high and low for a place to eat dinner in midtown. We looked and looked. As we walked crosstown, a middle-aged man who walked just ahead kept looking over his shoulder at us. I thought Henri's leaps over the garbage bags on the sidewalk were stressing him out but it turns out he wanted to make sure we knew where we were going. O miracle of miracles, a New Yorker in New York, in a ratty overcoat, collar askew, 30-year-old briefcase under one arm. "We're actually looking for a diner." "Kosher? Do you need kosher?" "Um, no... We heard about the 2nd avenue diner." "It's alright but for a corned beef, for a corned beef they charge $12.50!" He told us about a couple of other places. "This is my neighbourhood", he told us. As we thanked him and walked past he turned in toward his front door, a swanky highrise on fifth avenue.
We found our dinner and then walked back to Port Authority and North Bergen.

We headed back into the city in the morning after finding Juan, North Bergen's diesel guy and having him reassure us that if we topped up the oil every hour we could make it home. The kids really wanted to see the Statue of Liberty. Wil and I were dreading more lineups but we figured this might just be the one and only time. We wandered around downtown for a while, poking around some lovely bookshops and trying to find Phil & Sarah at Canada. Then to Chinatown for an early lunch. The first restaurant was being visited by the health inspectors so they redirected us to a place on the corner. Vegetables never tasted so good.

We went down to Battery Park hoping that the view from shore would satisfy the kids. Sadly, it didn't. We bought our tickets and went through the security rigamarole again to board Lady Liberty. It was windy and cold. Homeland security had obviously had a hand in reworking the piped-in recording about the history of the statue post 911. It was all a bit much.

Another subway uptown, a look around snowy Central Park, the requisite (always disappointing?) pretzel, a wander down regal Fifth Avenue to wonder at the wealth, then back downtown along Broadway, Canal and up into Little Italy for dinner. The maitre d's stood outside pitching us on their too-long menu, the New York version of the Mexican stall ladies, promising free desserts for the kids. We picked a quiet little place with no salesman and chose well. Dinner was delicious. The kids asked me how to say thank you in Italian. I told them gracias might be more appropriate for everyone but our waiter. Our bus boy was obviously thrilled to hear the kids speak Spanish. He asked where they learned it and we told him about our trip. "What part of Mexico did you see?" "All parts." "I am from San Luis Potosi," he said (one of the few big towns we'd really wanted to see that didn't fit into the itinerary). I so wanted (and I think he so wanted us) to be able to say Yes, we were there and it's beautiful. In New York for seven years, alone, no family in the U.S, never been able to get back but planning a visit for next year. "My mother really misses me." I wanted to give him a hug. We talked about the different family values in North America and how hard it must be for a Mexican to be without family for so long. When the other bus boys heard us speaking Spanish, they hovered around the table wanting to talk about their hometown. So many young people working like dogs in the big city, supporting their families at home, lonely and so far from home.

We hit the sack early, hoping to be on the road by six, to avoid the stop-start of rush hour in the Big Apple. The drive was tense, listening intently to the engine as the clutch struggled to do its job, dreading the uphill, hailing the down. Strangely enough the snow in New York State thinned out as we got further and further north. We hadn't seen the sun since we crossed into Texas but it started to shine in the Adirondacks. Threads of Canada geese draped across the sky. If that isn't a signal that it's a good time to head north I don't know what is. Those robins we saw in Mississippi will be here soon. The kids are bickering in the back, talking excitedly about the things they are looking forward to seeing. We're all anxious to get home.

Home sniff home. Home safe.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Cuatro Ciénegas

We finally got where we were headed, Cuatro Ciénegas, the town that marks the beginning of the National Park. The sides of the roads were alive with mounds of hairy cactus fingers, the limp kind you find on sale in pathetic little green pots at the supermarket. The land between the mountains couldn't have been flatter, plains of pale, tall grass rippling in the wind. We made it into the park, the first signpost indicating a white track leading off into nowhere, the second was the visitor's centre. We went in and asked about Becerra, the place we were hoping to camp. It's closed. It's closed?! Is there another place we can camp? Rio Mezquites, the track you just passed, but I'm not sure if it's open. If the gate is locked you need to go back to the town to find Don Arredondo to ask permission. The kids were dying to get out of the car. It was four and we'd been driving since nine. We pulled off onto the track, veering left and right to avoid the massive ruts. The open ground was entirely white. Suddenly the plaster factory we'd seen off the main road made sense. Through one unlocked gate. A little further along another gate, this one closed and beside it a pickup parked in the shade of a palapa. I jumped out with Felix and started the pitch. Can we camp? He pointed into the distance (you can see a long way in the desert), back at the town, that white building, you can camp THERE. But....we've come from so far and we're going back to Canada on Sunday. Please, please. We don't need water or showers or toilets. He was considering it. For a special price? The gears started whirring. He called over his employee to discuss. They talked it over for a few minutes and then proposed a price. Sold. He handed over a key to the gate in case we needed to get out in case of emergency, pointed down the left hand track and said that Juan would be back in the morning to collect the key. Yeehaw!

All we could see from the track were very basic palapas and these strange white conical shapes in the distance. We had no idea where we were going. The road snaked through the grass, past some of the structures and then into an open area surrounded by palapas. We pulled in to have a look. Beside every palapa was a little opening in the grass with a tiny set of wooden steps that led down into the rio, a shallow, crystal clear river of palest green and blue, the banks tall gold grass. The Rio Mezquites is a desert river, not the kind I've ever seen before, that emerges from the ground and then disappears, only to reemerge a few hundred feet away. The bottom of the river is firm, with bulbous white rock formations, tiny minnows flicking around the shore, bigger fish slinking around the rocks. The grass is so tall and the land is so flat that you'd never know the river was there unless you fell into it or clambered up one of the mountains and saw the sun reflected in its surface.

We drove to the end of the track, parked the vans and stepped out into paradise. A bowl of peaks hazy in the late afternoon sun, the mountains look as if they were shaped by the wind. We set up camp, the kids hurried into their bathing suits and jumped in the river to explore. The sun was hot but the wind was cool. We started squeezing limes for cocktail hour. The moon rose, not quite full (unlike at home here the moon fills out from the top down) but casting a crisp light on everything. The kids all went to bed and we sat around enjoying the margaritas. Once the sun set, the temperature plummeted and the wind picked up, driving a chill into all of us. We crawled into our van. Coyotes sang us to sleep. It got quite cold in the night but we all slept well. The sunrise was phenomenal, painting the craggy mountains behind us a million shades of pink. Wil coaxed me out of bed with coffee and we wandered around marvelling at everything. We watched two giant white herons staking their claim to the minnows and a cloud of birds wheeling overhead and landing on the surface of the river, a synchronized splash in this incredible oasis on the desert plains.

When Juan came by for the key we asked him for another night and he said that Don Arredondo said that we could. We made a half-hearted attempt to go to the plaster dunes a few kilometres down the road, where you can walk through 6 to 10 metre chalk white dunes but when we were told it cost quite a bit and that we'd have to bring a guide with us, the magic of the idea died. These country kids (and adults) have been enjoying the freedom of being in the outdoors without being reined in. We decided to go back to our private paradise.

The kids collected tall reeds and built themselves a teepee. They flew Felix & Lyne's kite, taking it high up into the blinding sun. They were in and out of the bracing water all day. The adults were a little more reluctant (especially me) but we all got in. The pale bottom of the river was warm, donut-shaped puffy rocks dotted the bed and it smelled just like a hot spring. Standing in the river, the rugged mountains shaping the horizon, the hot desert sun beating down. An entirely new kind of happiness.

The desert is so very quiet. The silence is welcome but almost eerie after a trip through one of the loudest countries I've ever been in. We very sadly put the Mexico guidebooks away this morning. I can't quite believe our adventure is nearing its end. Good thing I'm not PMSing. Enough said.

We all watched the sun rise this morning. We had a quick breakfast, said goodbye to our new friends and pulled out of the desert on to the highway heading for the border.

Saltillo to Cuatro Ciénegas

The drive toward Saltillo was stunning, a broad wheat-coloured ribbon laid out straight ahead of us on the brown plain, gentle ripples of mountains in the faraway, goatherds and their flocks by the roadside, horses lost in the joshua trees, tumbleweeds (yes, actual tumbleweeds! meep meep) clinging to the barbed-wire fence along the road. Then the mountains neared and the road just disappeared into them, through a pass that is positively invisible until you're in it. How people on foot or on horseback ever survived this parched unfriendly environment is a mystery to me.

We spent the afternoon doing the familiar mecanico hustle. When we got into Saltillo we stopped at a place that sold car products to ask about where to get the oil changed and if they knew of an electrical mechanic. the man came outside and looked at the car, he thought hard and asked a few friends and customers. He sent a teenager around the corner to see if the neighbourhood mechanic could do the oil change. Sure, no problem. We waited on the street and then helped push a dead pickup out of the slot to take our turn. We sent the kids off to the park after they tired of laughing at the boobie shots in the paper. After the van was drained we went back to the first place to buy the oil. The oil was way too black for not even 3000k, the mechanic thought bad oil was responsible for our troubles. Please let it be. After we settled up, the mechanic's brother jumped in the van to take us on to the electrical mechanic. A little waiting around then a voltage check to ensure that everything was okay. It was. Wil's convinced it's the glow plugs, parts that we won't be able to find until we're in Texas.

We found a place to sleep, the back lot of a hotel. Alice was so sure our friends were going to find us, she sat by the driveway waiting. Henri and Frances kicked the soccer ball around. Sure enough, when we woke up Felix and Aube appeared. It looks like we'll be together for the next couple of days, up to Cuatrociénegas, a desert national park to hang out for a couple of days before the marathon drive home. Same starting problem this morning but a shot of ether shortened the process considerably. A little internet research revealed that the only big town we have to go through on the way to Cuatrociénegas, Monclova, is riddled with police corruption and that, with foreign plates, we can pretty much expect to be stopped for some road infraction and be asked to pay a "fine". Getting hit up more than once on the way through is not unheard of. The last thing we want to do is leave Mexico with a bitter taste in our mouth. We're going to try to avoid the town if we can but the only road around it doesn't look that promising. We decided to go convoy style, driving behind our friends whose van is a little slower than ours. It was strange following -- not being the navigator -- just watching the scenery and keeping an eye on their back.

The mountains today couldn't be sharper, raw bald faces, sheets of layered rock stuck into the earth on their side, the crests look like the tops of Sahara sand dunes blowing in the wind, but the lip here isn't sand but a red rocky ridge. This is real desert — abandoned adobe houses, the desert floor awash in a million tiny white blooms, patches of yellow-green moss-like flowers. So many images stuck in my brain: a brown vaquero, mustache and cowboy hat, galloping on his tan mare beside the road; joshua trees, a crazy cross between a yucca and a palm tree, with flowers like giant yellow pineapples pushing up above the foliage; agave, an unfriendly version of aloe, ten feet across, flower stalks towering above the scrub like giant asparagus, or, once they've bloomed, like stretched out bonsai; fencing of barbed wire anchored in scrub branches that twist and bend, the closest real tree a thousand miles away; dry creek beds (the word arroyo pops into my head) the pink soil taking on shapes only water can make; walled-in panteons (cemeteries) set down on the desert, white gravestones ablaze with bouquets of cellophane-wrapped fluorescent plastic flowers; hunchback cows grazing in among the cactus; an abandoned white and red restaurant, a line of dark vultures clutching the eaves.

We stopped where the alternative road pulled off the 40. We asked a few men for advice. We think that with foreign plates we may find trouble with the police in Monclova, we said. Cierto was the answer, not the one we were hoping for. Is this other road any good? He looked the vans up and down and said "I think you can do it." Again, not the answer we were looking for. We tried anyway, a couple of hundred feet of perfect pavement followed by a chalky rutted washed-out road. And this was meant to be the better section. About face. I guess we were going to brave the Monclova police. We were tense. We entered Castaños, the town before Monclova and there, by the side of the road, was a cop lying in wait in his pickup. We couldn't have been going slower, no traffic violations to be cited, but he couldn't have been watching us more carefully. We passed him and sure enough he pulled in behind us and then beside us and then moved on to the side of Felix's van and signalled him to pull over. We pulled up behind. He looked at Felix's van and then ours and was asking why their van didn't have a front plate while ours did. I ran up to the guy and explained that ours was a fakey we'd made in Abercorn, that in Quebec we didn't need one and then I invited him to come and look ours over. He wasn't happy about it, certainly not the courteous, polite treatment we've come to expect from the police and the military in Mexico, but he waved us on. Monclova came and went. Phew! An ugly steel town that, with its reputation for dirty cops, will probably never experience the economic advantages of being on a good route through the northern highlands.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


We stopped into an AutoZone on the way out of town, looking for a diesel mechanic who could resolve the issue of the van not starting in the morning. Every day begins with three or four minutes of black smoke and a lot of hand-wringing. We started at a place in Leon, then a VW dealer on the south side of Aguascalientes who sent us on to a place on the north side of town. We drove around looking for the Garcia Kubota dealership which ended up being the Garcia Bosch service centre. We emptied the van and went for a walk around suburban Aguascalientes to try to find some lunch. While we were gone, they checked the glow plugs, fixed some kind of relay and off we went. We've both had enough of big cities so we decided to give the city itself a pass. We'll be back.

Instead we drove on. We still can't get over the fact that so much of this country is at such high altitude. The high plains just seem to go on and on. The distant mountains that followed us to Zacatecas looked like they'd all had their tops lopped off. Closer to the road were gaping seams of red earth, the pale land covered in nasty-looking cactus and surreal joshua trees. It looked more like the landscape you find on the sea floor, like clusters of coral on a bed of sand. The only thing missing is the fish. A half moon rose over the plains as we entered the city, another colonial gem 8000 feet above sea level.

We made it up to the campsite, the parking lot of a hotel on one of the two peaks that flank the town. We jumped on the tiny gondola that links the two mountain tops and then walked the steep walk down into the Centro, using the cathedral steeples as our compass. A thousand steps down through narrow streets and alleys, the sound of distant music interrupted by a barking relay as the town dogs alerted each other to our presence, looking down on us from rooftops and balconies. The centro was beautiful. The cathedral's façade of carved pink stone ridiculously busy, in stark contrast to the white interior, stripped absolutely bare during the revolution.

We sat and watched the beginnings of a political rally for the Labour Party's gubernatorial candidate, Davi. A young woman stood on the stage and waited patiently for the technician to skip through a few songs before finally launching into her performance, with lots of clutching at the air overhead and pulling it toward her heart. The poor thing didn't realize her earnest emotion was being undermined by the technicians standing right behind her pointing past her discussing the best way to do something or other. We kept on walking through town passing the rest of the rally, five thousand people or more marching with a couple of bandas behind their candidate who waved at the passersby from horseback. Many of the marchers looked like they had been bussed in from the countryside, farm folk and labourers, white straw hats, chapped cheeks, babies bundled in piles of blankets. We found a good pollo asado in a cafeteria of sorts and then walked back up the steep hill to the van. We said good evening to some surly teenagers and instead of the snarled response we'd expect they offered some unsolicited advice about which set of stairs we should be on. It was the third time this week that someone had gone out of their way to keep us from getting lost.

We woke up to a cool sunny morning after a great night for all of us. When Wil pulled back the curtains he saw a familiar VW van parked across the way. The kids were thrilled to have their playmates back and we were happy to catch up with Lyne & Félix. It's always interesting to hear how different one's experience can be despite travelling the same roads. We made a tentative date to meet up at Cuatrociénegas to experience the desert hot springs together. Wil started (or rather tried to start) the van. Five minutes of anguish followed by the happy sound of the engine purring. Change of plans, we have to stick to the cities to try to find someone to fix this problem before we can go into colder climes. We retraced our steps trying to pinpoint just when the issue first arose, both of us secretly hoping that the elevation is responsible. Keep your fingers crossed.


A short jump back to San Miguel, this time thankfully in the sunshine. What a treat being able to lift my head and look around instead of walking around hunched over, dodging puddles and downspouts. We spent a lovely couple of days with my parents, doing nothing more than enjoying each other's company. We had some lovely meals and managed to get some good quality time in despite the fact that my folks were both feeling a bit under the weather. San Miguel may be full of older folk but it is not a city that is kind to people who aren't at the peak of their physical abilities -- the sidewalks are an obstacle course, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, sometimes high, sometimes non-existant. The cobblestone streets are no better, beautiful but fairly impractical. I can't even imagine with a walking stick.

I got to sit in on my mom's daily conversational Spanish class with Elvira, a tidy, handsome little woman with two long black braids that loop down and up her back. In a blue and white crocheted dress with matching serape and skin-colour stockings she sits and waits for her group of five to congregate in the sunny courtyard of the Instituto Allende at noon every day. She takes turns asking people questions about themselves, getting them to say something, anything in Spanish and then very tactfully correcting, illuminating. If our experience in San Miguel was anything to go by, this class could easily be the only Spanish many of her students speak in a day. I got to attend one of her classes last year and it was really satisfying to find that I finally have enough Spanish to at least describe the words I don't have. I only wish I had someone like her in Abercorn.

On our walk down the hill to dinner we walked into a moment stolen from an earlier time. Three grey burros stood on the narrow sidewalk, their backs laden with dozens of canvas bags. Downhill from the donkeys stood a woman in her late sixties, dressed in a hundred layers, beautiful round face brown and leathery from exposure, her hand on a rough rope knotted on the halter. She stood in the late-day sun (which is really something to behold in San Miguel) waiting with the animals as her husband crossed the narrow street to knock at a door with his walking stick. Too close quarters to pull out the camera but it is an image that will stay with me for a long time.

We had our last dinner on a gorgeous rooftop terrace, the sun setting over the mountains on one side, the steeples of the parroquia and a couple of tiled domes on the other. The wine flowed, Wil dug into my parents' past, drawing out tales of their early days together, stories I'd never heard before. After dinner we walked over to the jardín and sat down to watch a mariachi band do their stuff. Their main audience was a middle-aged couple sitting on the low stone wall sharing a snifter of tequila. The guitars and violins made a half circle around them. The trumpets, which were as flat as pancakes, stood ten paces back to balance the sound. After a couple of tunes, the couple got up to stand with the band and the man began to sing -- quite well -- sometimes being prompted by his wife when the lyrics eluded him. When the songs were done the man pulled a wad of money out of his pocket and handed it over to the band. His comfort with the notion of paying for music is a state that seems to elude non-Mexicans, who for fear of paying too little or too much or of bearing the discomfort of being the centre of attention, deprive themselves the joy of being truly and properly serenaded.

We said goodbye and walked the sad walk home. I think we also said goodbye to San Miguel which, as gorgeous as it is, is just too full of gringos for us. If it weren't for my parents I don't think we'd ever go back, the flavour of Mexico so diluted as to be almost unpalatable for us.

One of the reasons the town is so easy to look at, like many of the its colonial sisters, is the lack of garbage everywhere. Mexico has a weird relationship with trash that I find hard to understand. There are piles of it along the highway, in some places fields of trash, the beaches are littered with plastic bottles and bags. The streets of so many of the towns we've been to are strewn with garbage. I can't count how many times we've been driving behind someone and seen a hand emerge from the window of a car or bus only to launch a handful of litter on to the road. In Chetumal when we were filling up our little cooking tank with gas, the man took our receipt, ripped off the perforated printer edge and just dropped it on the ground. Wil and I looked at each other, aghast, and then looked around -- at the hundreds of streamers of green and pink printer paper scattered in the grass and the bushes and the trees for hundreds of feet around. In Puerto Arista, one of the men's chores of the day was to burn the garbage, plastic bottles and all. When we were in Troncones, using the internet at the school library, a girl who sat in front of a computer finished a lollipop, walked to the door and threw the stick on the ground in front of a dozen friends, none of whom said a word. All this despite the very active campaign of education and fines to counteract the reflex. Someone told Wil that it harkens back to colonial days when Mexicans were the labourers but never the owners (or caretakers) of the land, a situation that in no way encouraged a sense of responsibility. Ceci dit, it sucks. For us, it is the only consistently negative element of Mexico and it's tragic that one bad habit (and the lack of political will to reform) is allowed to mar the incredible physical beauty of this country.

In the morning we hit the road for Guanajuato, going first through Dolores Hidalgo. The map seemed very clear and yet we managed to get completely spun around, entering Guanajuato from the south when we were meant to be hitting it from the north. We weren't sorry to have done the extra mileage. The scenery was, dare I repeat myself, spectacular. Rolling hills of pale brush, the soil pale and pink, dried up rivers, donkeys scattered in the hills. Most of the trees were so dry they looked like they were full of dust bunnies and, with no undergrowth to speak of, the trees that DID have leaves looked like the fake clusters you find dotting an architect's maquette.

After confirming with a guy at a gas station that our van would fit through most of the tunnels, we made our approach. I wasn't feeling that confident about navigating the town without getting lost, especially with a hangover that made map-reading decidedly unpleasant. We waved off the half-dozen offers of guides and eventually managed to find the campsite which hangs over the valley that is the town, a cubist's colourful dream laid out on the opposite hill.

We walked down into the centro, through a tunnel that seemed to go on and on, with forks leading off in every direction. We emerged near the Mercado Hidalgo where we sat down for a yummy torta milanesa. Built in the Victorian era as a train station for the railway that never came, the building is full of gorgeous ironwork and sadly little else but cheap tourist souvenirs.

We walked up to the Mummy museum, a ghoulish display of preserved corpses. Apparently the deceased whose families couldn't keep up the perpetuity payments for the burial got dug up and relocated to a mass grave. When the bodies were being pulled out of the ground, the diggers found that many of them had remained unexplainably intact. Lacy frocks on the bodies of newborns, a pregnant woman beside the unborn child mummified inside her, socks hanging loose on shrunken legs, shoes and boots in leathery pieces, mouths agape, the body of a woman mistakenly buried alive, arms thrown across a face contorted in agony. I'm expecting nightmares tonight.

While Wil and I nursed our hangovers in the van, the kids explored the little alleys around the campsite, unearthing all sorts of "treasures" and building a "shelter for a poor person" out of bits of wood, an old t-shirt, a frying pan, a car freshener. They chose to do it fairly close to the middle of the road but, hey, it kept them quiet for a couple of hours. They talked about how they hoped that someone would be able to use it. Afterward we walked back down into town, this time veering left into a long stretch of squares. What a beautiful place. The windy little roads and alleys make you feel like you're on an adventure because you never know what's going to be behind the next corner. Narrow passages open up onto lively little squares lined with absolutely square ficuses and iron benches. We spent a few minutes visiting the Juarez theatre, with its bar full of wood panelling and stained glass, the smoking room with red velvet circular banquettes, the majestic staircase reserved for the VIPs, the five levels of balconies that curve toward the stage, the ceiling carved in a million hand-painted designs, the heavy velvet curtains sagging on the stage. It felt like I could step back in time -- standing in the smoking room, in some long black number, with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, flirting shamelessly with the men in tuxes until the lights flashed. A sad reminder of the scores of theatres Montreal once possessed. We stopped in to a pottery store with the loveliest dishes and pitchers and pots. I would've been happy to buy up the whole store but we restrained ourselves. The owner couldn't have been lovelier, a woman in her sixties who literally sprinted around the store giving us the prices of every item. When we commented on how expertly she wrapped our purchases, she tapped the table she was working over and said that her career started at this very table by her father's when she was eight. She told us both her parents had passed away two years ago. When I told her I felt lucky to have found her on my birthday she asked me to choose anything I wanted from a shelf of pretty things and then wrapped it very carefully for the drive home. She wrote Happy Birthday on one of her cards, making me promise that I would keep the gift for myself and gave me a big kiss on the way out. The kids were kissing away my tears on the street.

We poked around a few of the city's jardíns, being wowed at every turn, before climbing a hundred steps to our dinner spot. They set up a table for us in front of a pair of folding doors that opened on to a spectacular view, the city laid out before us, layer upon layer of primaries and pastels, like a lego city with domes. Our lovely evening ended with the familiar hunt around the restaurant, and then the neighbourhood, for change (cambio). Aside from toll booth attendants, no one in this country ever has cambio! You may be purchasing something for 45 pesos but if you hand them a 100 peso note they roll their eyes like you just kicked their grandmother. Then the long drawn-out, usually very dramatic search for change that inevitably entails screaming up or downstairs, through a door, sometimes followed by a dash to another stall or store which invariably triggers a whole new round of eye-rolling. Everyone hoards their small bills. When you ask if they have change or they ask if you have change it's often just a matter of stalling, bluffing until the other party reveals their secret stash of twenties.

We jumped in a cab for the ride home, back to our rocky, magical aerie. It was freezing when we woke up, the kids in tears because they'd slept so poorly because of the cold. Wil had opened the side door of the van to enjoy the view of the lights and to watch the morning sun slip down into the valley. It felt a bit like Rear Window, a glimpse of daily life from across the valley, seeing people set off to school, women sweeping their yards, hanging clothes out on the line, each of them oblivious to each other in their private spaces, the walls and streets that separated them seemingly collapsed in our view from the other side of the valley.