Sunday, September 11, 2005

South of Veracruz, Mexico

9:40 p.m.

"Shacked up" at the Hotel Polymar in Catemaco. Rooms here are rented for three hour intervals and condones are sold for twenty pesos. For $30, tax included, the manager gave me a room for the night. I don’t think they even changed the sheets from the last client; they certainly didn’t clean the bathroom. But it’s a secure place to park the bike (in a courtyard carport next to the room) and rest my head. I can even watch "Gladiator" in Spanish.

Again, I waited too long to take a room, though I had few options along the way. Early in the day, along the "Costa Esmeralda" north of Vercruz, there were many camping opportunities along the beach (thatched roof shelters, hammocks and all), but I had just started out and didn't want to stop yet.

About twenty miles back, I inquired at the "Hotel Kingdian", situated high on a hillside with relatively fresh, cool air. It looked great, brand new, but the $67.00 (plus tax) price was too much for this point in the trip. (I'm trying to get close to my intended budget of $50.00 per day.) So, here I am in this dive.

***

Up at 8:00 this morning. Looking through my Spanish phrasebook, I was a bit overwhelmed. I'm engaged in a crash course here, but so far I’ve survived. As with many days lately, there was some difficulty facing what’s ahead. Down here, it's a tough mixture of tropical beauty and wretched human conditions. And it hasn't been improving the farther I travel.

It's incomprehensible to me, seeing men and women dressed in their finery, walking through the streets of small towns, surrounded by squalor and filth. Still, these people seem to conduct themselves with grace and civility. Their spirit survives under the most difficult circumstances.

From what I can see, there is little respect for the land and their surroundings. They are just too impoverished and powerless to care. Affluence buys choice. These people have neither. Trash is burned anywhere; by the roadside, near the grill preparing food, in the middle of the school yard with children playing nearby. Or bags are are tossed in heaps along the highway, or maybe carried to a community dumping area, typically just a field or gully.

Businesses that sell us this garbage should be partially responsible for cleaning it up, for its proper disposal. It is an outrage to see literally hundreds of plastic "Coca-Cola" bottles scattered on the ground at a rest stop.

So this is the stuff that makes it difficult to keep looking. I don't have a solution; indeed I'm a significant part of the problem, being relatively affluent. I generate the same waste, even more. I may dispose of it "properly", but that matters little.

But beyond the human blight (and it's difficult to look beyond it) is an incredible landscape, rich in abundance and beauty: bananas, pineapples, coconuts, sugar cane and exotic trees and plants I don’t even recognize. Enormous plantations, particularly north of Veracruz, cover hillsides and valleys. Were it not for humans, this might be paradise.

I haven’t become comfortable enough to stop at one of the ubiquitous roadside stalls, though the thought of fresh bananas and pineapple is appealing. Hopefully, before long, I will gather the courage.

Veracruz is a modern seaport and seaside resort, and the cleanest city I've seen in Mexico. Many of the American chains, including "Wal-Mart", are represented here. Almost stopped at a "Carl’s Junior" for lunch, but forced myself to instead try the popular "El Toro" sports bar in Boca del Rio, just south of Veracruz. The bar is an open patio under an giant thatched roof. "Guadelajara" was playing a football (soccer) match against "America". Eight TVs and the volume cranked up so loud you couldn't possibly have a normal conversation. But everyone here was engaged in the match, cheering for one team or the other.

South of Veracruz, the highway leads into the mountains, and the temperature drops. It's refreshing after the very warm conditions on the plains.

All the drinking water must be encapsulated in a plastic container, and the water companies are owned by "Coca-Cola” (“Cielo”), Cadbury (“Aguafiel”) and Pepsi ("Aquafina"). These companies also provide the big five-gallon water containers. Water is a privately-controlled, market-driven commodity. It's scary, and makes me appreciate what many American communities probably take for granted: that they have municipal utilities providing potable water. Of course, these containers then become part of the enormous waste problem. From what I can see, recycling doesn't exist here. People are so desperate for a peso; if businesses or the government would pay a peso (less than a penny) per recycled container it would have a huge impact on both the public welfare and the environment.

Police are everywhere (and military checkpoints are common.) Now I know how Hispanics feel driving in California, when they know a policeman needs little cause to pull them over, and perhaps ruin their day. I wave as I pass, and hope they don't bother to take an interest.

They must love their topes and vibradores (speed bumps) in Mexico. I hate them. I have bounced over thousands so far. Wherever people cross the road, and at both ends of town, you can expect to find them. Each town has their own version, some barely noticeable, others big enough to do serious damage if you're caught off-guard. But I must concede, they are effective, bringing traffic to a near-halt, and providing local merchants, artisans and hawkers an opportunity to catch drivers' attention.

Traveling here takes considerably longer; 350 miles in a day is a major effort. And under these conditions, my butt gets sore after four or five hours in the saddle.

And it's not cheap. Today I spent over $11 in tolls. There are ways around the toll roads, but alternate routes can be fraught with hazards, so you have to decide between the lesser of evils.

Traffic rules appear to be flexible. Posted speed limits are meaningless. I've been nearly blown off the road too many times, as I slow for a marked pedestrian zone. Lanes don't matter too much. If you think there's room to get by, go for it. You are expected to be aggressive. I frequently find a car, or even a truck "sharing my lane." Getting angry doesn't serve any purpose. It's all part of the game.

Had the opportunity to ride along with a half dozen Harleys (or knock-offs) for a while. In a group, you command a little more attention, and respect. But big bikes are a rare sight. So far, I haven't seen any "world travelers" south of the border.

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