Saturday, January 15, 2011

the van throws us a fast one in Chiapas

It was nice to be back in Oaxaca. What a beautiful city. The zocalo is vast and amplified by a network of streets closed to anything but pedestrians. We decided to find a hotel south of Independencia (the north-south axis of town), out of the tourist zone and settled on la Lupita, a place a couple of blocks away from the mercado. We hauled some stuff inside and then went out for a look around. We wandered around the markets a bit, picking up some fruit and veg, a couple of embroidered dresses and aprons for the girls. We saw most of the sights of Oaxaca the last time around but we did see Monte Albán, incredible ruins set on the top of a mountain. The whole peak of the mountain was levelled off (by hand) to house the city. One of the Oaxaca highlights for Wil was the oil change which is done right on the side of a busy road. You basically park on the street, out they come with the ramps and seconds later a teenager is under the car with a pan.

The drive out of Oaxaca was no fun. The scenery was spectacular, up into the lush mountains and through dozens of valleys with colourful little pueblos settled around the almost dry riverbeds. The road was uncomfortably windy and the non-existant shoulders dropped away from us on either side. The back wheel was making an alarming wugga-wugga noise that seemed to be getting louder with each passing curve. We couldn't take it anymore and stopped at a mecánico in Xalapa de Marquez, in the foothills, to see if we could tighten up the baleros. They did what they could but the only explanation we could think of was that that the guys in Puebla had stripped the teeth off the flecha, overtightening the nut and that it had popped. We found our way out of the mountains and by La Ventosa, a barren stretch of flat land between the Pacific and the very photogenic Sierra Madre de Chiapas. Along the highway are hundreds of wind turbines and thanks to the van (which could double as a sailboat) we saw both sides of the road close up. We made it to Puerto Arista in time to see the sun set with our feet in the Pacific. We weren't sure what kind of welcome we'd receive when we got there (or even if they'd still be there). But Michel and his mother came out to see us with arms open wide. The rest of the gang here has changed a bit, Michel told us. His in-laws (mom, dad, sister & kid and brother) have all moved on, Michel's relief apparent as he told us. His brother Henry moved into town with his girlfriend and her three kids. There are a few other guys on the compound who sleep here before they head out on the water to fish. The mom, Margot, caught me up on their news. The toilets now have basic plumbing (no more buckets!), someone is building a hotel going up behind their property, and Michel is driving around a new ATV. I guess business is good. The young waiter has been replaced by two teenage girls who, after a little watching, appear to be two teenage boys in drag. They are fourteen and seventeen and both fled their homes near Tapachula. As the teenagers cleaned the kitchen, Margot flicked her head toward them and put her hands on her breasts. "No tienen. Hombres", she said. Yes, I can see that. They had Wil and the kids fooled though. It was an incredible opportunity to talk about the challenges transgender people face. I'd assumed that Mexico, as macho a country as it is, would be a difficult place for people like Presilla and Daniel, but I wonder. They seem to be more in evidence here than I've ever noticed at home. The teenagers definitely got a lot of ribbing from the family but perhaps no more than anyone else and they seemed to live together harmoniously. We figured a couple of days here and then on to Guatemala and back to Mexico through Belize.

In the morning Michel calls out to Wil as we sleep. Wil goes to check it out and comes back to get us all. A sea turtle has just finished laying her eggs not thirty feet down the beach and is covering up the hole before heading back out to sea. We watch in wonder as she uses her flippers to cover her tracks and then slowly pull herself back to the waves. After she is done, some of Michel's friends start poking around in the sand with a large stick to find where she laid them. We saw new signs on the highway in saying that Puerto Arista was now a turtle sanctuary. I thought they might try to move the eggs to protect them, as we'd seen in Puerto Escondido last year. But when I ask the dad what they're doing, he tells me they want to eat them. Sanctuary, my ass. I keep my environmental outrage under wraps but am quietly thrilled when they fail to find the eggs.

We ask Henry about a mecanico to look into the baleros which continue to make a racket and he takes us into the next village where we pull out the cotterpin (with great difficulty) and have a go at tightening the wheel. It sounds better as we drive back to the beach. When Michel comes back from setting his lines a big wave pushes them onto the shore and they crack the bottom of the motor. We asked him what he was going to do and he said he'd get a taxi to take him to the welder about twenty minutes away. Wil offered to drive him so Michel, his dad and a friend loaded the motor into the van and off they went. I started doing homework with the kids to keep them out of the sun, Michel's son Cesar came over to see what we were up to and I convinced him to do his homework too. He is in grade 2, like Frances. While she is reading books to me and learning how to write in cursive, he had four five word sentences to read and copy which he did with great difficulty.

After about twenty minutes of homework a taxi pulled up outside and whistled me over. You have the wrong person, I went over to tell him, but he insisted. "Your husband wants you to come." Where?, I thought. He must be doing something that needs translating or else has seen something cool that he wants me to see. I tell the kids to keep at it and jump in the cab. As we come around the corner, an ambulance with lights flashing is sitting at the corner — my first inkling that maybe something is wrong. How this thought escaped this pessimist for so long still mystifies me. The cab driver assures me that Wil is not in the ambulance but he doesn't know exactly where he is. We turn the corner away from the shore and head up the main road. About five minutes later, I see the van parked on the side of the road. Only when we get closer do I notice that the van is jacked up on the left side and that the rear wheel is propped against the van. Mierda. "It fell off?, I ask Wil. "Yup, and it hit a lady on the side of the road... but she's okay,' he answers.' The wheel brushed the back of her legs. She walked away but Michel's dad has taken her to the hospital. And the transmission is finished. I went over a speed bump, put it back into first and the gear just wasn't there. There was an awful grinding noise and, as i was thinking of how to break it to Michel that I couldn't take him to the welder, the back end dropped off and the wheel went flying by into the field." Wil was ashen, Michel and his companion seemed unconcerned. We talked it over and made a plan. First back to the beach to tell the family what's up, then find someone willing to drive us around for the day who wasn't going to cost us a fortune like a taxi, to the boat motor mechanic, to the welder in Tonala, then to the car mechanic down the road from the welder to bring him back to try to get the wheel on to at least park it someplace safe. We drove around Puerto Arista and nearby Cabeze de Toro to hunt down one of Michel's friends with a pickup truck, went by Las Tablitas to explain the situation to the kids and off we went to get started.

We stopped off at the van to have another look and, without a word, one of the Michel's friends jumped out and sat down on the pavement in the shade of the van. "Security", Michel explained. As we were assessing the van, a taxi stopped on the other side of the road and Michel's dad, Tabla, appeared, on his way back from Emergency. He came over and explained that the doctor had said that there would be swelling but that she was totally fine and that he'd negociated a price with her. "I got her to agree to three days," Tabla said. Translation please? "600 pesos." Hunh? Apparently the way it works is that when someone is involved in an accident, the one responsible pays the daily wage of the injured party for the amount of days they are unable to work. In this case, the doctor felt that three days was more than enough. We offered to go over to the taxi and pay the woman but, for some reason, the dad insisted that he be the one to hand over the money. I went along to apologize as he handed it over. When I got to the cab, I found three large women filling the back seat, each looking more miserable than the next. They glared at me as I proffered my very heartfelt apologies. Evil gringo. We all went back to the pickup, Tabla and Gorcha, the pickup's owner, got in the front, Michel, his friend, Wil and I jumped in the back. As we drove, Michel explained that the woman was an acquaintance of the family's and that the woman's family had a reputation of being "abusivo"; that if we gave her any kind of encouragement, by assuming the blame for what was essentially a weird fluke, that she would take us to the cleaners. "They see gringos and they think of money. They're not good people." he said. I wasn't feeling very sure about it all but I did feel sure about the family that was guiding us so I left it alone.

We drove from Puerto Arista to the next town up the coast, Paredón, to see the motor mechanic. Despite the undercurrent of feeling stuck in a seriously crappy situation totally beyond our control, the drive was surreal. Sitting backwards in a rusty old pickup, late afternoon sun blasting, wind whipping my hair into knots, watching the flowering mango trees fly past, the spectacular Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountains as a backdrop, the peaks hidden in a fluffy cotton batting strip of clouds. Wil and I sat near the cab, Michel and his buddy sat on the back corner of the bed, ribbing each other and Gorcha as they got bounced around on the bumpy roads. It was all laughs and good humour. The anxiety started melting away. They kept reassuring us that everything would be fine and I started to believe them. When we got out at the boat mechanic's, Michel's buddy was dispatched to get everyone refrescos. There is a definite hierarchy here. The guy who gets stuck doing security, the one who has to go get everyone refrescos but is the last to take a drink. All of it unspoken but obviously very clearly defined for all but us. We all stand around and Tabla entertains us with the story of his trip to the hospital — how the woman's twelve family members mysteriously appeared when they arrived and were all telling him off. Everyone, including the mechanic dismantling the propeller shaft, is laughing now. He finally hands over the casing for us to take to the welder and off we go to Tonala. More spectacular scenery — cows grazing, herons picking their way along wide river beds, women by the road holding up little plastic bags of yellow mangoes, all of it made more beautiful in the flattering light of the late day sun. Everyone does a double take when they see our very unfamiliar and white faces in the very familiar pickup (Gorcha runs a water purification plant and drives around selling the water.) We weave our way through Tonala and drop off Tabla with the propeller shaft at the welder's and go on to the car mechanic's. The first mechanic sends his son off down the road to find another guy who comes skipping up the road in a few minutes. Gorcha, Michel and I explain the situation and soon enough the tools are being loaded in the back and we're all heading down the road back toward Puerto Arista.

When we get to the van everyone jumps out, the guy who was watching the van is now three guys, Michel's brother Henry turns his motorcycle around to face the oncoming traffic as a warning to drivers that we are there. We all stand around as the two mechanics work on the van. It gets dark and it becomes clear that this busy, dark, country road is not the place to attempt surgery on a van. One of the mechanics is bound to get hit. Gorcha runs across the road to see if we can park it at his abuelito's who lives, very conveniently, two minutes away. The bigger of the two mechanics puts it into second gear and eases it onto the road. A few minutes later we pull in to the front yard of this house. While we're parking it the mechanic realizes that the reverse gear is also gone. Double Mierda. Our hosts greet us warmly, getting their kids to pull out chairs for us to sit down as we watch & try to help the mechanics go at it. The priority is getting the wheel back (with a brake) on so that it is safe to drive the van to the mechanics. First they need to dismantle it all in order to see what parts they need. The brake drum is worn down to a semi-circle when it should be a circle, the brake fluid is dripping everywhere. It's not looking good. They pull it all apart to take the bits back to the shop to try to find replacements. In the meantime, the couple hosting us and the van hang in their hammocks, asking us polite questions about us and Canada. Wil and I are both quietly grappling with what it all means for us and our trip. While we're grateful for the guidance of Michel's family, I wonder whether the woman the tire hit is getting her due. I have only seen her in the back of a taxi surrounded by scowling women and after Tabla's stories, I'm not feeling particularly sympathetic. But she is undoubtedly in pain and that sucks. Guatemala is definitely out. That window of time will now be used up finding someone to rebuild the transmission which shouldn't be too hard. The parts, on the other hand. We could be stuck here for a while. And though there are worse places to be stuck than on a beach on the Pacific, no van means no house, which means hotels which means mucho dinero. Wil sends me home with Gorcha and all our mattresses and stuff so we can set up our beds under the palapa. It's getting quite late, the kids will be worried. Gorcha drops me off. When we get back Michel's mom and wife ask "Where were you?!! We were so worried." When I was telling the kids what was up I assumed that Michel was doing the same with his wife and mother but he wasn't. We also forgot to pick up Tabla at the welder's. He pulled up in a taxi right afterward, claimed his usual hammock and launched into the whole story again for everyone's benefit. Now they were all laughing. The amount of swearing from all parties directed at the woman's family made it pretty clear that this was not their first encounter with her. Tabla told us later that we'd probably be seeing the family again. With the rapid fire converstaion I catch about half of it. Every once in a while someone takes pity and explains what they are saying in less colloquial Spanish. Wil gets home an hour or so later, totally spent. We all settle into our beach beds and try to sleep. The assurances that there are no mosquitoes don't hold. All of the kids got eaten alive as they slept. The bugs leave me alone, perhaps because I'm not sleeping. There is a fierce north wind blowing, whipping sand in my ears and my hair and my sheets. Aargh. Too many sleepless hours later, the orange sliver heralding the sunrise comes as a huge relief.

Sure enough, the next day two women walk in and sit down facing ten members of the family who were sitting around in a semi-circle after their midmorning meal. We were told not to show our faces so we stayed well away until they left. It definitely got heated with everyone was putting in their two cents. The report from the dad later was that they came to get money for the taxis to and from the hospital and were lobbying for more compensation. Later the same day, the woman's brother also showed up to ask for more money. The system here leaves me totally perplexed but the family assures us that we are being fair. We spend much of the next day trying not to worry. The kids are in heaven, playing with Michel's kids, playing on the beach, hanging out with adults that have unlimited patience with board games. Gorcha is supposed to be back at four to pick us up, to drive us to the mechanics' to pick them up and swing back to the van to put the wheel & assorted bits back on. Much of the hassle of fixing things in Mexico stems from the fact that the mechanics don't have the money to buy the pieces for the repairs so they have to go the store twice, once to see if the piece is available and again with us so that we can pay for it. Gorza never turns up so we find ourselves calling a cab at 4:20. We arrive in Tonala, pick up the mechanic and do a tour of the UAP/Napa Mexican equivalent for bearings and bits. Again the tools are gathered along with the shaft that they have rebuilt and a new brake drum that they lifted off a scrap truck at the Jonque (junkyard). We head back to abuelito's house. Again, chairs are brought out for us and they welcome us as warmly as the night before, despite the fact that our van is taking up their whole front lawn. I get some clean clothes together for us and ask the woman about the collectivo back to Puerto Arista."I'll come with you," she says, insisting on carrying one of my bags. She flags down the collectivo for me and makes sure I'm safely inside before she waves goodbye.The ride is quiet and lonely. It's incredible how fast one's bravery can fade when there is noone around to reassure.The kids are relieved to see me. I throw together some spaghetti with tomato sauce. Michel's oldest two hang around, curious about what we're eating (and the fact that we're dining after dark which they never do). I serve them both a bowl of pasta and they gobble it up alongside my three. Wil turns up an hour later. The mechanics dropped him off on the way back to Tonalá. The woman's family has been back and everyone agrees that she should see a chiropractor tomorrow to make sure that nothing is broken. Michel's wife, Marisol and I will take the woman in the morning and perhaps to get an x-ray. Wil is due back at the mechanic's at 9 to pick up the van and hear what they have to say about the transmission. We bugspray the kids, tuck them into three hammocks and make a big windbreak to keep the sand out of our bed. Wil and I sit on the beach and try hard to digest what is happening. It can be very hard to make a plan in Mexico. The mechanics always seem very confident that things will work out, right up until the moment they don't — leaving us struggling with contingency plan after contingency plan. If, o miracle of miracles, the mechanic can find the pieces he needs to rebuild the transmission, we could be here for a week or two or three. If he can't find the pieces, we'll have to backtrack toward Mexico City without first gear or reverse, which pretty much disqualifies any city or small town as a good stopping point on the way. We'll have to stay on the highway (and camp there too, if we can.) Despite this bad bit of luck, we can't help but feel lucky that this happened here, where we have access to the Isthmus and we don't have to go through a mountain range without first gear to get where we need to go. We're also grateful that Michel's family is here to help us figure out how to handle all of it.

It is so dark here on the edge of the Pacific. The waves breaking look like rips opening up in the black fabric of the sea and the sky. The stars twinkle brightly around the half moon. When we finally crawl into bed and lie down just sixty feet from the sea, we're feeling pretty lucky in our little corner of paradise.

In the morning, a change of plan. Marisol thinks that if I come to the chiropractor the woman will start seeing dollar signs. To be honest I can't think of anything I'd like to do less so I happily beg off and go to the mechanic's with Wil for nine. We bring the kids along for our trip into town. The market in Tonalá is one of my favourites, a labyrinth of stalls with two large halls, one for fish, one for meat. The roads around the market are lined with awnings and more vendors selling fruit & veg, dried chiles, sun-dried fish, mangoes and the taco stands. We first stop at the mechanics and ask him about the parts for the transmission. "No hay" he says and just like that our hopes are dashed for repairing the car in Chiapas. We'll have to go back to Puebla.

We pick up a bunch of food for Michel's family, along with a birthday cake for Michel's mom and a little one for the lady whose front lawn we took up with the van. I ask Henri and Alice to guard the cakes on the back seat on the way home. As we're approaching her house we miss a speed bump. Alice's cake is half smushed. Henri's is in great shape but Henri hits the floor hard saving the cake instead of himself. The lady who hosted the car is amazingly gracious, offering us some fruit from her tree in exchange for the cake. She tells us that they are "pobre pero de corazon" poor but of good heart and insist that we consider her home our home whenever we are in Puerto Arista. When we get back we hand over the food and Henri presents Margot with her birthday cake. She is almost as thrilled as her husband who claps his hands and cheers. Marisol gets back from the chiropractor and hands me the x-rays which say that all is well. I think x-rays of someone else's knee may qualify as the strangest memento we'll be bringing home. Michel shows us a huge sea bass that they caught on their overnight fishing trip and tells us it's for us. While Margot prepares it, the boys head out in the lancha to try to trade some cases of coke with the shrimping boats that are trawling off shore. We watch them go to one and then another. It seems noone wants Coke today. Meanwhile, Daniel & Presilla (the teenage transvestites) get the tables ready for dinner. The pecking order is in evidence once again when dinner is served. Tabla is served first, then Margot and the sons, then us, Michel's wife, Marisol, next, the teenagers eat at a separate table, as do Henry's girlfriend's kids. I encourage Alice and Frances to keep them company. After we have all had our fill, plates are cleaned for Michel's fishing buddies. The same order is respected for the cake.

We decide to head across the isthmus in the morning to try to be in Puebla by Sunday night to hit the VW dealership first thing Monday. We leave the family with some cash to pay for the woman's pain medication and for a week more of her time, if she should decide to hit the family up for more. If she doesn't, I suppose they'll use it to help replace the boat they lost this week when a line heavy with fish broke. We hit the road this morning. Wil and I were feeling so anxious we were both nauseous the whole way, hoping desperately that the road won't call for first gear or reverse, but the roads were beautiful. Dark green craggy mountains and lush hills that are so perfect they look fake — like the mounds on golf greens in extra large. Past marshland, field after field of sugar cane and pineapple which, for such a massive fruit, is so unassuming. No tree, no bush, no nothing. The fruit IS the plant. We had a couple of really tense moments, one came this morning when we encountered some construction on the road. As we were climbing a fairly steep hill, we could see ahead of us that the road was down to one lane, the oncoming one full of heavy road-paving machinery. As we approached, a man held a red flag overhead indicating that we should stop. Wil says to me "we can't stop" and keeps right on going. The man with the flag looks on in shock and I scream out the window at him that we don't have first gear and we barrel ahead, into the construction zone hoping against hope that the path is clear. As we near the end of the of the construction zone, there is a line of vehicles including a couple of 18-wheelers waiting in the left lane. If we'd been one minute later and... In the afternoon after going through Cordoba and Orizaba, the road gets brutal, switchbacking through the high mountains. Wil knew it was coming. There were tons of 18-wheelers on the road, many of them double semis. We could see the road above us snaking through the mountains so we knew that getting our underpowered van over the top was going to be a challenge. The key was to keep our momentum going. We climbed for what seemed like an eternity and then, just as the light of day starting to wane, we drove into a cloud. The kids were wowed. I'd assumed that we were nearing the peak but the road just kept climbing, the light was fading and the clouds were getting denser. Visibility was next to nil as we came upon a truck in the right lane inching its way up the steep grade. Wil indicated to pull out into the passing lane when an 18-wheeler suddenly appeared in the rear-view mirror. Wil was doing his best to keep up our speed up without crashing in to the slow truck in front of us when another truck appeared right behind the first. Wil had to hit the brakes and downshift into second gear. A few more seconds at that speed and we were dead in the water. The second the second truck passed, Wil was out in the passing lane, missing the truck in front of us by inches, another car coming up fast behind us flashing its high beams. We were both breathing hard. We pulled into the first hotel in Puebla.


Sylvie said...

ouf! je suis essoufflé! en plus je fais la translate avec google donc essoufflé de déchiffrer...C'est de l'aventure....que dieu soit avec vous ! good luck!
Sylvie maiiloux de Sutton

Unknown said...


Cathy Marie Buchanan said...

I think maybe you're having one adventure too many?? xxo