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.