Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Viaje En Coche (Road Trip!)

We bought this little Honda Fit because our Puerto Vallarta neighborhood is a warren of narrow cobbled streets jammed with SUV's and pickups.

For zipping around town it's great, and we figured we'd make cross-country trips by bus or plane. But the tiny Fit has such a surprisingly roomy and comfortable interior that we decided to give it a try on our recent trip to Guadalajara, Morelia and the butterfly sanctuaries further east. We weren't sorry.

Here's Elizabeth enjoying a roadside vista while perched on the little portable throne we occasionally need to deploy between stops with plumbing. The Fit is aptly named. We had plenty of cargo space for all our gear and amenities, including E's folding bed, carriage and comfort station, and never felt cramped ourselves.

So we picked the right car for touring Mexico in the way we usually make our best choices, which is by lucky accident. Other travel wisdom, we picked up the hard way.

Asking Directions

Mexicans are generally helpful and hospitable, so if you ask them for directions they will give you some, even if they have little or no idea how to get where you want to go.

And even when they do have a clue, their instructions often tend to be vague and general, with usefulness further degraded by the language barrier. Estimates of how long it will take you to get to any given destination are likely to be severely understated, again in the spirit of helpfulness.

Route Markers

And yet, the need to ask for directions is often acute and unavoidable. You may follow one of the largely unmarked state highways into a town along your way but then find yourself unable to identify the way out because signs and route numbers don't appear when they're needed if at all.

There are sometimes two ways to get from A to B, the way you want to go and another way. There may be a sign with an arrow for getting to B, but it is sure to point you to that other way.


I pored over maps for days before we left, but they turned out to be about as useful as directions from strangers.

In Guadalajara, for example, we wanted to see the vast area called Tlaquepaque, where arts and crafts of all kinds are made and sold. We used our densely printed city map and our iPhone to navigate to this famous place. All indications were that we got very close, but I blush to confess we never found it. (Friends have since told us it happened to them too.)

We had similar trouble getting to our hotel, stymied as we were in Tlaquepaque by street names that didn't match up with the map and by a conspiracy of no-turn or one-way thoroughfares that kept us from reaching the place even after we finally had located it.

Next morning, after we had actually spotted our breakfast stop, it took us another 15 minutes to get to it because the streets that led there were one-way toward us and we got disoriented looking for one that wasn't.


Pronounced TOE-pays, these are speed bumps, but not like any you've seen unless you've driven around here. Some are big enough to be nearly impassable for a small car like ours. They often come without any notice or any contrasting color that would let you see them before impact.

Topes can appear at whatever spots people or creatures are likely to use for a crossing place, which means practically anywhere, in town or out. We encountered a couple on the main freeway through Guadalajara next to a big open-air chicken restaurant with tables set out practically on the shoulder.


Speaking of freeways, there is a pretty good network of them in Mexico if you're willing to pay the shockingly high tolls. There are fuel and bathrooms at reasonable intervals, although the only food service is convenience store snacks.

One odd feature is frequent placement of non-potable water for overheated radiators. But it was reassuring to see closely spaced emergency phones for calling in the free road repair and tow service that's included with your toll payments.

Watch out on the steep descents and curves though. Mexican engineers are apparently an optimistic bunch when it comes to driver prudence and skill.

Signs suggested that we yield right of way to trucks without brakes. Hard to imagine who needs such advice, but we twice came along just minutes after big rigs had slalomed to grief on a downslope.


In cities, most businesses accept credit cards, and ATM's ("cajeros") are as ubiquitous as they are in the U.S.

But better not head for smaller towns or rural areas unless you're sure you're carrying enough cash. We got caught short and twice tried to ask directions to a cajero with all the difficulties described above, only to find that it was either out of cash or out of service altogether. By the time we finally located a working cash machine, we had scrounged pesos from the depths of every box, bag and seat cushion we had.

So altogether, I guess I'd have to say that getting there wasn't half the fun. But I add with haste and pleasure that the people and places at the end of our road each day more than took up the slack.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fellow Travelers

We've never been able to get Elizabeth onto a horse, not even when the creatures only plod in circles like pit ponies in a Nova Scotia coal mine. So when we started planning our trip to visit the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan, it wasn't good news when we read that the recommended way to reach them was on horseback.

Ordinarily Elizabeth is a smiling dispenser of pixie dust. But in the face of anything she sees as an existential threat, such as confiscation of her iPad or a pony ride, she manages all at once to be an irresistible force and an immovable object.

Nevertheless we decided to pull up our socks and give it a try. For a week in advance of the trip, we talked up horses and their many reassuring qualities. They are trustworthy, we said, as well as loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

Maybe we laid it on a little too thick. But it seemed to work. When we described to her how she would sit in front of me on the saddle, she didn't object. I hummed bits of "On the Trail" to give her an idea of the easygoing pace we'd be setting. We interpreted silence as acceptance.

But when we completed the arduous road trip to lofty Sierra Chincua, the last mile almost too much for our little Honda Fit, and approached the stables with our guide, Adolfo, it looked like we might be in for trouble.

"I don't like horses," Elizabeth said flatly.

What to do? Pam and I looked at each other and shared a moment of despair. Then we wordlessly agreed the only way to deal with it was to pretend we hadn't heard anything. I handed Elizabeth to Adolfo, swung myself awkwardly into the saddle, reached back down for my little partner and held my breath.

Maybe she was just so ready to escape the arms of a stranger that she was willing to overlook the inconvenient fact that her familiar and beloved granddad was sitting on a horse. But whatever the reason, she came up without another murmur. Adolfo donated his sweater to make her seat behind the wide vaquero saddle horn more comfortable, and off we went.

After a few minutes she asked me, "Do you like our horse?" I said I did.

"I like our horse too," she replied.

The rest of the day was like a dream. It took the better part of an hour to get close to the small area of steeply sloping forest where the monarchs clustered, and then we had to clamber along a treacherous footpath to reach a spot where we could really see what we came to see.

They filled the chilly mountain air in thousands. Millions more massed together for warmth in enormous clusters suspended from the branches of the tall firs that surrounded us. Adolfo told us as much about them as he could without overtaxing my limited Spanish, using dead specimens picked up from the ground to illustrate the anatomical points.

It was like nothing any of us had ever experienced. We were awed and dazzled. Elizabeth clearly sensed she was witnessing one of nature's most amazing performances. She gazed silently around her, more reverent even than her horse.

The ride back to the stables seemed shorter, partly because our guide chose a shortcut that seemed steeper and chancier than the one we'd taken in. Now and then our mounts slipped or stumbled. I've been on quite a few trail rides, but this one made me nervous.

Not Elizabeth though. She fell asleep.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Get Up in the Morning at Your Own Risk

So okay, this picture wasn't taken in Mexico. But I'm quite sure there's a family on the road somewhere not far from me with the same traffic safety plan as this one.

Actually, there was a Vespa knockoff lurching along a cobblestone street near our place a couple of weeks ago carrying a family of four. Dad was driving. Big brother was perched on the seat in front of him. Mom hung on behind him with a toddler in her arms.

I did an OMG double-take. But from the above I now see that, relatively speaking, they were paragons of prudence. The bike above is carrying four adults and five kids including the one in the bucket seat. Asia has much to teach us.

We've been adjusting to Third World notions of risk allocation since the day we bought our home here back in 2005. That was when we learned that our little 7-unit condo building doesn't have any liability insurance on it, and not much insurance of any other kind either.

In a zone exposed to hurricanes and also prone to earth tremors, I observed mildly to the owners association president that this seemed incautious, although the word I choked back was "foolhardy." In response I got a prim lecture advising me to take a page from the Mexican Book of Wisdom and purge myself of the litigious "culture of blame" that prevails so unpleasantly north of the Rio Grande.

So I've been trying.

I scarcely turn a hair now when I encounter busy uncontrolled intersections, broken staircases without any railings, electrical transformers that I know are apt to fail explosively squatting at ground level next to crowded sidewalks, refrigerators standing in the beds of pickup trucks, restrained with one arm by a man balanced on the side rim, city buses driven by the criminally insane, unrefrigerated meats heaped on tables in the supermarket, etc. etc.

A few weeks ago I joined a popular hike along the coast south of here between Boca de Tomatlan and Animas Beach. It turned out to be a series of steep climbs and vertiginous cliff walks, all without benefit of warning signs, reliable footing, or anything to keep anyone whose mind or foot wandered from tumbling to the rocks below.

During the rainy season, big chunks of the trail are obliterated by mudslide. Our guide, an energetic Canadian woman, collects 50 pesos from each of her followers. She pays the money to a man who lives in the hills near the trail to build little bridges of sticks and rawhide to get us over these chasms. Many hundreds of people make this walk every year, but nobody else seems to care whether it's passable.

Not that it really is anyway. Last year somebody on this hike did trip on a root or a bit of protruding boulder and took a fatal plunge into the vertical rain forest that lines most of the coastline around here.

Tragic, but that's the culture of blame talking.

I realized recently that I'm finally beginning to silence that annoying voice. I was hanging a wind chime outside our bedroom when I dropped a large pair of scissors and saw it clatter to the bedroom balcony on the floor below.

Our neighbors had rented it to some nice people from Ohio. I went downstairs to collect my fallen shears.

"Ho, ho," quipped the tenant. "That's some pretty good liability for me to collect."

"Ho, ho, yourself," I replied. "Not around here."