Feliz Navidad!

I’m hunched in the shade writing this, my 30 minute run along the beach this morning has equated to a skin colour widely considered as neon. The sun is strong in south Mexico, even the stray dogs gather under hammocks and palm leaves for relief. We had been told about this particular stretch of sand by a fellow backpacker in the hostel in Zacatecas. From his joyous account of Chacahua National Park, (“it’s empty! It’s untouched! It’s beautiful!” etc.) we’d decided to make it our location for Christmas Day. It turned out to be quite an ambitious undertaking.

The drive to Chacahua from Mexico City is easily a two-day slog.   We headed south down the toll road, which was infamous for how heavy the tolls were. However, as we were driving through the territory where those 43 students had gone “missing” at the hands of the local government and the drug cartels, these tolls had either been greatly reduced to encourage tourism or, in one case had been wiped out completely – the toll booths in question were riddled with bullet holes and kiosk operators were replaced with local hawkers demanding we buy overpriced snacks to pay for the ongoing search for the 43. Surreal stuff.

We stopped in San Marcos, out of necessity really, as Gina’s electronics had stopped working (apart from her headlights thankfully) and we fortunately found a mechanic who got her fully buzzing again in half an hour. (10 quid for that, plus his wife made us dinner next door). Gina also had a hiccup the next morning, her battery refusing to charge after we’d filled her up at the petrol station. A family heading north stopped by and one guy poured water on the battery and then ionized it with a coin, which looked like the car-equivalent of homeopathy or witchcraft, but sure enough Gina roared and we gambled onwards to the beach, which is where we’ve been for the past three days. It’s as good as that guy in Zacatecas said it was, and leant itself very well to our Christmas celebrations, which featured – secret santa presents under a palm tree, smashing a piñata full of sweets (well a wee local girl had a shot and demolished it before we could), a running race, lots of swimming, eating and tequila. We also got the chance to go up the lagoon and dive into a carpet of luminescent plankton. Turns out that bit in Life of Pi was pretty accurate, it was fantastically odd to look down below the surface and see your body lit up like a pasty Christmas tree. We got out the water when the guide let slip we were also in crocodile territory.

All this serene nature has made a welcome contrast with the vast morass that is Mexico City, a place that in my mind was to feature endless one-storey slums and open sewers. Once again, Mexico confounded expectations and we were in a Latin American Shanghai. Modern, bustling and packed with atmosphere and music, it’s actually an incredible place. Driving there was a proper nightmare though. First up, we couldn’t enter the city on a Friday as our number plate ended with a ‘9.’ The government has brought in a bunch of measures to ease congestion, the “number plate lottery” being one of them. As we entered the city boundaries, people were honking and waving at us to turn around. Upon realising our blunder we U-turned and slept in a nearby village instead. The next day we got in successfully, only for a delivery cyclist to undertake us when we were pulling in for directions. Cue cyclist falling into a nearby car and some grumpy locals demand we pay for the damage. Cyclist being ok, haggling over damage costs completed, we got out of there £50 down. Thankfully we found free parking for Gina for our brief stay in the capital, which allowed us to enjoy Frida Kahlo’s house, Leon Trotsky’s house (where he was killed by a Stalinist and ALSO where he and Frida conducted a brief affair) some incredible Mexican wrestling (featuring dwarves and one guy performing suplexes whilst dressed as The Grinch) and the anthropology museum, hassle free. A special mention to the anthropology museum actually – thanks to the English speaking guide, I’d say it was one of the most fascinating museum visits of my life. Mexican history is dripping in a lot of stuff, mostly blood actually, but it is so varied and odd, and carries this crazy burden of the Spanish arrival in 1519 (or thereabouts) that I was transfixed in every detail. For instance, the Aztecs and Mayans played this ball-game that was somewhere between football and volleyball. The winning team had to sacrifice one of their players to the gods after the final whistle. Sacrifice was deemed such an honour that this was a legitimately sought after prize. I’d just stick to ping pong personally.

A final mention must also go to Ale, an old chum from Camp America who let us stay with her in the prosperous city of Queretaro. We were about 2 hours late to meet her unfortunately as I was navigating. I had her address down as Calle Santa Rosa. She lives on Avenue Santa Rosa. Calle Santa Rosa was 10 km south and in one of the city’s most dangerous slums. It was a hairy drive. Mexican slums are to be avoided. Finding our way north, we located Ale’s plush house which was a in a gated community and had it’s own security guard. Bit of a contrast there. Ale took us out to eat the local speciality of fried grasshoppers and worms (verdict was 2 “goods” from the guys and 2 “never agains” from the girls) and even woke G and me up at 4am to carry on drinking with her as she’d got back so late from a Christmas work party. It was a long day the next day. And this has been a long post. I’m off to rub moisturiser on my bright red face and body. Scot Abroad!

Zacatecas there…

The armed policeman was searching through our boot at the side of the highway with the demeanour of the Terminator. “Give me your passports.” He droned. “Show me your driving permit.” G and I rummaged through our documents frantically to give the android what it wanted. It examined each number on the permit so thoroughly it began to look like there might be trouble. Catriona and Ellen were perched nervously in the back. The longer the robot examined our papers, the more unbearable the tension became. “What are your jobs?” G, pointed at himself first, “Farmer.” Then Catriona. “Marketing.” Then Ellen. “Pharmacist.” Finally me. “Recruitment.” The android flinched slightly with misunderstanding. I realised my job title needed some clarification. Leaning across the driver’s seat I yelled out the window frantically, “Oil and Goose!”

I don’t know why I said it like that but I’ve been getting pelters from the gang ever since. Needless to say we were waved on our way by the confused replicant and Gina was free to continue her merry jaunt east through central Mexico. Apart from infrequent police checks it’s been smooth going, her ‘Check Engine’ light reassuringly off and her motor purring after a well-needed oil change back in Mazaltan.

Ah, Mazaltan. The ferry took it’s time to get there. Due in at 11 am we coasted in at 5pm and much to our surprise, Catriona (Treens) and Ellen were waving at us from the docks. They’d chosen quite a bad spot to wait for us actually, right next to the lorry bay, so a lot of the drivers coming off the boat thought they were exotic prostitutes, but we salvaged them and got to the hostel they’d booked us in. Mazatlan was so well-heeled, especially along the coast, you’d easily mistake it for a resort in Spain. We spent our time there catching up over cheap beers and mucking about on the beach. We ended up playing volleyball with some rich Americans, – a sport I’ve realised isn’t for me, as A) I’m a midget and B) I’m really crap.

It had been a good few years since we’d seen the girls and Treens had spent the intervening period being a global nomad. She’d also picked up a handy dose of Spanish, which means we have a new surrogate Spanish speaking mother to help us not starve and go the right way. Our new team of four broke east to Durango, along the new toll road, which is a true engineering marvel. It coasted up (and through) 2000 metres of mountains via tilted suspension bridges, rock hewn tunnels and switchbacks so perilous Gina almost needed a climbing harness. Zacatecas was next, an old silver mining town with more cathedrals than you can shake a crucifix at and a good line in public displays of affection. Everyone seemed to be snogging – on benches, on walls, on the grass – they’re an amorous bunch. There was also free ice skating and a public dancing competition hosted by a cross-dressing clown.

The undoubted highlight was the nightclub we went to, which was located about 1km into the 500 year-old silver mine. We had to jump on a wee train to get down there. Upon reaching the dance floor I was greeted with a dancing dwarf, who it turns out was a university lecturer from up north and was out partying with her students. I felt like drunk Gimli. The students bought us all drinks, showed us how to dance properly and joined us in sing-songs on the train back to the surface. Splendid!

From Zacatecas it was onward to Guanajuata, which upped the ante even further in the aesthetically pleasing stakes. This town has so many winding, tiny streets they were forced to build a network of tunnels under the city for traffic to drive through. The tunnels had junctions and parking bays, while up above the city teemed with more traffic, squeezed between churches and theatres decadently built on the cash flow from the nearby gold and silver mines. The mines in question dip way below the subterranean traffic tunnels, up to 580 metres deep in places and the site of proper Spanish brutality back in the 16th – 19th centuries, as locals were forced into five years of employment underground – five years being the average time it took to die working down there. Guanajuata is properly gorgeous though, almost like someone took every Spanish town ever built and concentrated them into one settlement on top of an ant hill. Amazing what a bit of slavery will get you. Still, it goes to prove that gold and silver will buy you a fair bit more than oil and goose ever will.

Next up! Gina’s engine light makes a haunting return! I get us amazingly lost! We all get fat on tacos!

Gina’s First Stutter

I finished my last post describing Gina as “unstoppable.” As in she can’t be stopped. On Saturday 6th, this proved a little inaccurate. Karen, our Baja companion, had borrowed her for a wee drive to Cabo Pulmo to enquire about work while G and I snorkelled around a reef. It was the only time we had ever let Gina be driven unsupervised. A few minutes into our fish ogling, there was Karen on the shore, waving hysterically like she was trying to down a plane. “She just stopped on me,” she exclaimed. “No warning, she just stopped.” A kindly local called Eddie drove us to the scene of the crime, a sandy mound about a mile down the track. Gina was there, stricken and alone. And she wouldn’t start. Bonnet open and a few confident pokes into her innards later, she turned over and we were off again, for another mile until exactly the same happened again. Houston (or the Mexican equivalent), we have a problem. Eddie suggested we find the local mechanic Pachi. He described him as very fat. We then spent a good thirty minutes asking locals about the whereabouts of Pachi, who despite his apparent size was very good at hiding. Eventually, we located his brother who coaxed the lumbering Pachi out of his cave like hovel next to a dive school. Pachi heaved his bulk under Gina and declared we needed a new fuel filter. He removed the current one and emptied a considerable amount of brown sludge as evidence. So it was off to the nearby village of La Ribero to get a new one fitted and we were off!

For about ten minutes. Gina cut out again without warning and we were left to drift to a hard shoulder (which are about as common as snowmen in Mexico) and flag down help. A couple from Yukon, Canada stopped shortly and G and the husband talked like men for a while (arms folded, random mechanic anecdotes swapped, a bit of spitting) and it was decided Gina could maybe manage a few ten minute increments to the nearest big town – Los Barriellos, for proper assessment. We staggered into a mechanics there where another large bloke, this time by the name of Aldo, said his brother Paco had the necessary diagnostic equipment to fix our beautiful Gina. But tomorrow was Sunday and we’d have to help wake Paco up if that was ok with us. No problemo we assured him and got on our way to the beach for a spot of camping. Sunday came around and Aldo confirmed our greatest fear that Paco was not to be found, hungover or otherwise and we better return on Monday. So Monday it was and Paco was surely there, electronic equipment in hand. Within ten minutes he had a diagnosis. The sensor on the crankshaft was faulty (I nodded convincingly at this) and was cutting out the engine mistakenly. If we wanted a new one (we kind of did) we’d better get to La Paz (100 km north), buy one and return to his garage pronto. G was about to head to the bus station for this little mission, when a lady by the name of Paige came to the fore.

Paige had overheard our plight the day before and put us up in her friend Chris’s place. Chris’s place was essentially three retro caravans parked round a beautiful outdoor kitchen, variously arranged hammocks and luxury tents with secluded walkways, illuminated with fairy lights and torches. I imagine Woody Harrelson would live somewhere similar. It was marvellous. Upon hearing on our new mission to La Paz, she swiftly offered to drive us herself so we could save time, in Chris’s truck (“oh he won’t mind at all”) which had the unbelievable ability to deliver COLD AIR CONDITIONING. So, sensor bought and returned to Paco, we were finally ready to catch that ferry to Mazatlan! Hooray! So happy with all the generosity at hand to ensure Gina’s return, we took her to her first car-wash and drove her round town like royalty. Gina the Grey was now Gina the White!

G then drove her on to the ferry (after three hours of customs where I had to wait in a separate room – great banter) and just as he approached the first ramp, the ‘Check Engine’ light flickered on the dash. Oh good. I’m now writing this on the top deck of the boat, midway across the Sea of Cortez, hoping that we can get bloody Gina off the bloody boat when we make land. We’re getting a sneaking suspicion it may be buses for us rather soon…

Away from the jeep japes, we had a truly splendid time getting to the bottom of Baja. For one, we got the rather incredible opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks, which feed up the bay from La Paz. They’re the world’s largest fish and spend their days hoovering plankton in titanic gulps near the surface. The biggest one we swam with was a relative minnow at ten metres, but the sheer power in it’s tail, it’s vast gills billowing like fleshy curtains and it’s apparent total serenity at our close proximity were pretty humbling. We swam and swam until the bloke who’d taken us out in his boat got restless and we left, just as a whole fleet of tourists came to take our place. All of a sudden I felt rather sorry for the creature. It’s the great hypocrisy of the tourist to be angry by the presence of other tourists, but it’s only natural I guess. We want experiences to ourselves and we’d like wild animals to be left alone, just as long as we get a look.

Well, the mainland approaches. A big thank you to Karen for keeping us straight on the way down Baja – your Spanish and advice were truly necessary! And to Paige and Chris for being all round modern day saints! We’ve made a new chum on the boat in the shape of a 60 year old guy from Derango, who was rather quick to tell us that he was returning home after a three day fling in a La Paz hotel with an elderly lady called Lulu. God bless Mexico.

Mexi-calm

Hola!  Como estas?  Me llamo Alejandro.  Dos Cervesas por favor.

Easy.  Mexico – slammed!

It was a bit of a culture shock crossing the border from San Diego, which was quite refreshing as we hadn’t had one on this whole trip up until then.  Tijuana welcomed us with open arms and an open rubbish tip with a bunch of homeless people picking through the detritus.  This was swiftly followed by people honking their horns at us for driving slowly (not our fault – Gina’s) and me telling G to take the wrong turn, which resulted in low-level shouting and awkward inner city U-turns.  Things smoothed over quickly and we were suddenly in desert country, the sun hounding us like the eye of Sauron and the hills treating Gina’s engine like she’d cheated on them.  The tailbacks were embarrassing and far less forgiving than north of the border.  At one point a Mexican man leant out his car and made a number of gestures that did not seem to say – “Welcome to my country, I’m so happy you can share the road with us at such a pleasant pace.”  We chugged into Encinada and bought a beer.

From there though, we’ve become increasingly more settled and Baja California is now proving to be a genuine highlight of our voyage.  First off, so far (and I emphasise ‘so far’) Mexico is not dangerous.  We encountered several Americans who gave advice to us like,”if I wiz y’all I’d skip Mexico altogether, unless you got a death wish or summin.’ ” I always made a point of asking if any of them had ever been, which was met with a resolute “no sir!”  Clearly. For instance –

A couple of days through the desert we took a random dirt road left and found the tiny hamlet of San Bruno.  The word ‘Hotel’ was painted on a bit of wood by the road, we pulled in to what appeared to be the set of The Alamo.  Upon entering the reception we were greeted with waves of classical music from a beaten up CD player and an old bloke called Alberto painting an 8 foot canvass of the Virgin Mary.  “Welcome to my home, you are welcome to stay” he proclaimed in perfect English.  He charged the three of us 300 pesos (£15) to stay and pointed us to the beach on the nearby doorstep.  On the beach, Karen got talking to a fisherman who’d just caught a few nets worth of clams.  He gave us four free of charge and wished us a good evening (or buenos noches or something similar).  Alberto then observed as G and I tried to work out how to open the bloody things.  Our solution involved a screw driver, a pair of pliers, a bottle opener and a large stone.  Clams eaten, washed down with local beer, it was fully appreciated that we were in a nice country populated by largely nice people.  Just like every country then.

Since that point we’ve been camping on beaches and working our way south.  The Baja peninsula is 1250 km long, with basically a single road that either hugs coast line or tracks inland and avoids cacti the size of oak trees.  On every beach we’ve met some amazing people, including an Aussie couple who have cycled from Alaska (thanks for top trumping us guys), an English couple who’ve been driving around the Americas for years in a truck so big I’m sure it’s actually Optimus Prime and a whole bunch of zany Americans who realised, unlike the vast majority of their compatriots, that Mexico is actually rather lovely.  This includes a couple who decided to park their van inappropriately close to our tent, like so close they almost ran it over.  Come bed time, the guy (let’s call him Bob) snored so loudly it reverberated through the metal of their vehicle and shook our tent like a maraca.  I swear he shook their van so violently with his nasal activity they were several feet to the left come sunrise.  To rub salt into the wound, they woke us all up at 6am to wish us a good morning.  No guys, it’s not a good morning.  It was even a worse night.  Please go park in the sea.

Next up – La Paz!  Snorkeling with whale sharks hopefully!  Catching a ferry to the mainland!  Tequila!

Quick mileage update – Gina broke the 7000 mile barrier the other day.  She’s like the sunflower seed you got at primary school that you did nothing with and when you actually checked, it was 8 feet tall.  Unstoppable!