I am breathing the hot, humid air of the Gulf Coast. It grips me in its damp embrace, like a wet kiss from a thousand jungles, a thousand streams, and a thousand swamps. It hangs heavy, physical, and palpable. I must work to fend it off with air-conditioning and cold drinks, yet it returns with a persistence born of eons of knowing that it will eventually win. This air spawns moss on the powerlines, mold on the paintwork, and destroys civilizations turning even great pyramids into simple mounds of earth.
I left DF this morning to head northeast to Mérida. Yes, northeast. Sure, I have to go a bit farther south first, but once I turn north again in the Yucatán, Mexico City will be to my south. Mexico City doesn’t like being south of Mérida. Mexico City likes to think of itself as somehow not tropical, but industrious and forward-moving. This is not an attribute associated with southern Mexico, a place of banana and coffee plantations, dirt-poor campesinos, beach resorts, and rural backwaters hidden deep in valleys inaccessible to the autopistas that unite the rest of the country. Mérida is the odd man out in Southern Mexico, urban, reasonably prosperous, and educated. The rest of it is like another country compared to DF and the central highlands.
My few days in DF were bittersweet. For me, the city is full of memories, and some ghosts, both real and allegorical. I’m sure F’s late sister’s spirit still haunts the city, not just on Dia de los Muertos. As I first drove to Puebla, I bypassed DF, and literally shed a few tears thinking that this wonderful city was no longer my main destination in Mexico. Once I returned, to see Steve and Bill, it was kind of like coming home. Since 2005, I’ve probably spent about 25 days a year there, and it really does feel like a second home. Everywhere I go, I think of the time F and I were there. I think of the book fairs, the dinners at restaurants, the beers we drank on shady patios, the museums we experienced together, and the plazas we walked. It is so strange to be there without him. Yet I am totally comfortable getting around the Zona Rosa, Roma, Condesa, and other places. The metro feels as familiar as Boston’s to me. I’m at home, but I’m not.
My original plan was to stay Thursday night and Friday night, then leave Saturday. But I think of John Calypso’s advice about traveling on Sunday (“Even the bad guys take Sunday off, amigo” I hear him say in my mind). And it occurs to me too that everyone who can leave DF for Semana Santa is doing so on Saturday. So I decide to stay another night. And this also works out as my friend, Julio, couldn’t do dinner on Friday so we agree to meet Saturday night. Dinner is lovely, and I head back to my hotel to prepare to leave.
My trip was relatively uneventful. Leaving on Sunday was very smart, as DF is actually relatively calm on Sundays, and I’m able to get to the Viaducto easily enough. Zaragoza is clear sailing, and before I know it, I’m on the autopista to Puebla. Something has happened to my truck, and it is running better than I would have ever thought possible. I’m also getting over my fear of driving in Mexico, so we sail over the mountains to Puebla with aplomb, pedal to the metal when necessary.
As I cross the Puebla/Veracruz state line, the terrain becomes incredibly mountainous, the road curvy, and tunnels begin to abound. I pass alarming signs that warn me to yield to vehicles without brakes. “Not only a good idea,” I think, “but the law.” I see semis with smoke pouring out of their brakes, and I keep a sharp eye on the rear view mirror. I wonder how fast a fully-loaded semi would go without brakes, down this steep, twisty freeway. I imagine the scene in my mind’s eye. A hurtling, swaying semi, horn furiously honking as it storms down the fast lane, the driver desperately trying to maintain control. I wonder if the torpid drivers ahead will realize what’s happening and pull over, or stubbornly go to their doom as fifty thousand pounds of household products bound for a superstore push them into the afterlife. I pray I don’t witness this.
As we continue to descend, the terrain begins to change. The desert with nopales and joshua trees begins to give way to greener scenery with grass, and pine trees. Further down, fig trees start to appear. Tall, elegant white birds grace the streams and ponds, and an occasional one flies regally over the highway. Cows begin to appear on grassy farms along the road. Finally, I’m near sea level, and I begin to cross swamps and rivers. I’ve never seen this part of Mexico, and it’s nicer than I had expected, though there is a lot of it. Hours and hours of it in fact.
As the sun begins to set, I wonder where I’m going to stay. At the final toll booth (thank god!) they tell me that Minatitlán is another hour. I figure I can make it before it gets too dark. And the highway is pretty well-traveled, so I’m less afraid of unseen dangers like animals, rocks, or worse.
I finally arrive in Minatitlán. What a scary place at night! I’m on a huge boulevard, six or eight lanes wide. There’s a few dim street lamps in the center, but they shed very little light. At the side of the road are numerous combi stands, taxis, and comida corrida. But somehow the vibe isn’t good. Most of the storefronts are dark and seemingly abandoned. I keep driving, hoping that things will look better. I pull into an old “hot sheets” motel, the only place to stay I’ve seen so far, to check on rates. An old man in a grubby tank-top shows me the florid pink room, with lots of mirrors. I ask if there’s an ATM nearby as the cuotas have taken their toll (literally) on my cash. I explain that I’ll go get cash and perhaps be back.
I get back in the truck and have an internal debate with myself. Me: “You should just settle on that place, put in ear plugs, and get some rest.”
Me: “Are you kidding?!? That place is a total dive. God only knows who’s gonna check in at 2:00 AM with their Hells Angel friends.”
Me:“You could probably do worse. There’s even a garage for your truck. You’ve been driving all day, and you really need to stop. It looks clean, at least.”
Me:“I’m going to head down the boulevard a bit father just to see what’s there. No one’s in the love motel, so I can always come back. No need to hurry. It’s only 8:00 PM.”
So I head down the road. As it turns out, about five miles later, there’s a Chedraui in a mall with a cinema, a food court, and tons of families shopping and hanging out. I’ve also passed a City Express Hotel, which becomes Choice #1 in my mind for my stay. I stop at the Chedraui. Someone tries to sell me a an acid-yellow sofa in the parking lot, but I beg off as being far from home. The seller nods knowingly. I buy a couple of supplies in the store, including a 187 ml bottle of red, Spanish wine which I figure will knock me out in my hotel room. Then I go to the food court, where I have my first experience trying to talk to Chinese people in Spanish. Though they seem to speak Spanish fine, their accent throws me, and we have a ridiculous discussion about moo shoo pork and the like, with me constantly asking them to repeat what they just said. One of them whips out a Mexico-born daughter to speak to me in local-accented Spanish, and I’m instantly reminded of similar situations in San Francisco.
I eat in the food court. Unlike in Mexico City, here I am the whitest thing around BY FAR. In fact, lots of people look at me, not impolitely, but you can tell that very few Gringos come here. After I eat, I check into the City Express Hotel. The rate is reasonable. The room is clean, and it has an airconditioner that lets me fantasize that I am back in Boston.
I write my post. Next job up? Collapse onto the bed. Tomorrow I hope to make it to at least Campeche, Campeche about 600 KM from here. According to the last road sign I passed, Mérida is about 1,000 KM. Looks like I’m finally going to make it.