Diario de la carretera

I arrive, disembark and enter the massive hall the Mexicans call “TAPO,” the bus station serving the southern states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Campech, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. I find a taxi, negotiate a price to the north station and speed off.
Between Mexico City and Queretaro
“So, where are you going?” asks Sergio, the taxi driver. He’s a slight man, handsome in that Mexican way with little if any Indian blood, lightly mestizo, small nose, thin lips and greenish eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses.

“I don’t know,” I reply, “probably Nuevo Laredo. I’ve been traveling for several weeks and it’s time to get home.”

“And where is that?”

“San Antonio, Texas.”

“If you like, stop in Queretaro on your way. It is my home town and I must tell you: it is old and beautiful,” he says, a smile beaming from the rear view mirror.

“Is there an Executive Class bus that goes there? And that goes from there to Laredo,” I ask.

“But of course, Queretaro is an important Mexican city. Many large corporations are there. Colgate, GE, Michelin, Samsung. It is very modern too.”

“I might do that,” I tell him.

He drops me at the north station and I wander inside. It is 3:30 PM. I have been traveling since 4:30 PM the previous day. A stop in Queretaro sounds great at this point.

A shower?


Relaxing walks in the old colonial streets Sergio described?

The next bus north leaves at 4:00 and I can be in Queretaro by 6:30 this evening or in Nuevo Laredo by 11:30 AM the next day.

An easy choice.
On the bus I meet Rodrigo—his cousin owns a little hostel on the outer edge of the old town. It seemed foreordained. Rodrigo calls his cousin, whose name turns out to be Juan Pablo and makes a reservation for me.

Looking out the window the landscape has changed subtly. The road cuts are of deep, soft volcanic soil. This is the rich, fertile core of the great Meso-American plateau.

Maize predominates, of course, but there is wheat and other grains and vegetables everywhere: each field bordered by rock fences and all that they imply: permanence, peasants and tradition. It is a gently rolling landscaped sculpted by the eons of annual rain that threatens to begin at any moment.

There is also the small matter of the light: gentle, slanting, almost Tuscan. I can see why my great-great grandfather settled in the area, he must have felt at home. On days like this I understand why he picked Mexico to settle.

The highways are full of buses and trucks, just as the earlier drive. I pass a restaurant with a polar bear holding a clock on the roof. Is this irony, sarcasm, a warning or just the crazy sense of humor of some random Mexican?
The bus descends into a valley, an aqueduct to the north and in the south a pair of skyscrapers that would be more appropriate in China or Singapore greet my entrance to Queretaro.

The taxi to my hotel costs three dollars and the traffic in the old colonial streets is abysmal, but I arrive just in time: the sun is setting.

The Blue Bicycle House sits on a hill and the view is all old world: aqueducts, pastels, the steeples of a hundred churches and shimmering dusk lights running up hills draped in the hues of a perfectly pink sunset.

You know, the shower wasn’t half bad either.

6 Agosto, Diario de Camino

Queretaro was not a place I’d ever thought I’d visit and yet here I am—and that is a story I will get to in a bit. Yesterday, the 5th of August, was one of those days where everything came together—the magnificent drive from Orizaba (Mexico’s big brewing town) up into the Sierra Madre Oriental, the chain of mountains that runs roughly parallel to the Gulf Coast. I’d boarded the bus the afternoon before at 430 in Chetumal, on the Caribbean Coast of Mexico, at the southern end of the Yucutan.

I’d slept most of the night and woke up just outside Orizaba. At this point, my plan was still get to Mexico City and catch the first bus to Nuevo Laredo, walk across the bridge and catch the first Greyhound home. But for the long drive up Sierra Madre Oriental full of blue skies and lush green mountains I would have. The Gulf Coast is terribly hot and humid but once I began the climb it breaks. After a month of inland Belize heat I had no interest lingering. The mountains here are semi-tropical with deciduous trees dominating until half way up and then the conifers show up. The valleys are impossible—filled with switchback after switchback, large 18-wheelers resembling insects thousands of feet below. I’m pretty sure the towering snow clad behemoth I saw was Malinche, named after the Cortes’ famous interpreter and later wife. As I crest the mountains I’ve arrived on a broad upland plateau that’s almost semi-arid, deceptive-like, but not. To me it resembled the Motagua Valley in Guatemala. But then I saw fields of golden flowers, agaves, century plants and maize everywhere.

I speed past restaurants called “Benedicion” and “Esperanza” and “Dolores Milagro,” the Catholicism runs deep here. And then I speed past towns with names like Huixcolotla, Acatzingo and Tlaxcala and the Nauhua runs deep here too, especially with Tlaxcala, the red city, city of treachery, the great unconquered nemesis of the Aztecs and Cortes’ best allies. Had they not allied with Cortes there would have been no Conquest.

And then my mind wandered, lost in random thought. But the fields persisted: perfect rows of maize bordered by prickly pears or agave, sitting between crystal clear streams running down to the Rio Panuco and cypress lined dirt roads that wooden shacks made of tin roofs and some cinder block lead to. Shepherds punctuate a landscape of lumbering volcanoes obscured by clouds, ready to erupt at any moment.

The high plateau ended as it must. I begin climbing downslope to the Great Valley of Mexico, having taken Cortes’ route. I turned a switchback and then the entire valley came into view. Bernal Diaz’s words, one of Cortes’ soldiers, were never more apt, “And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and the other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.”

What a world was lost by the Conquest.

More soon . . . in the meantime, photos can be found here.

The Road Beckons

Xunantunich's western friezeTomorrow morning I catch the southbound bus to Laredo at 900.

I’ll arrive in Laredo about 1145, walk across the border at International Bridge #1, take the city bus to the new primera classe bus station and catch the first available to Mexico City.

After that, who knows? I have to be in Belize on July 5th, which makes zipping across the Yucatan a tight schedule.

I’ll then be in Belize working on an archaeological dig for 25 days. I will leave August 1 for the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

And then, who knows?

I suspect you’ll be getting a boatload of posts on the ancient Mayans.

This is the best place to keep up with me while I am away.

Decadent Anticipation

I realize as I sit here typing this is going to sound trivial and carping, like trite complaining. In all reality it probably is. But here goes.

Bahia Navidad

I travel a lot.

I traveled a lot before I got married and traveled some while I was married but travel was always a huge matter of conflict and it was just easier to not travel and not fight about it than it was to travel and fight about it afterwards. Maybe someday I will figure out why I married a woman who wanted to marry a nomad but wouldn’t let me travel? How did I let that happen? What’s that say about me?

But I digress.

Then I got divorced and moved back to San Antonio and promptly went to Central America for two weeks with my Father. Then I went to Joshua Tree for a week with a friend. I just returned from three and a half magnificent weeks in Central Asia with my Father. We’re talking about Antarctica over the holidays to see penguins. Yes, I am trying to catch up for a handful of missed years.

So, like I said, that’s a lot of travel.

But here’s the catch: I haven’t traveled alone since July 2009 when I went to the Mexican state of Jalisco, wherein I stayed at a little beach village called San Patricio/Melaque on the Bahia Navidad to be precise. And nearby, between drunken nights and memories of blowing conch shell horns on the beach and ceviche to die for I took up surfing in the Boca de Iguanas in the mornings. It was a divine three weeks, as I recall. Only late in the trip a friend showed up and the entire tenor of the trip changed. I only traveled with him a few days and then went home.

This leads to my complaint, if you want to call it that, I see it more as a recommendation or an endorsement: nothing beats traveling alone.

Absolutely nothing.Pelicans

It is rare and decadent. There is no one to please. No one to worry about. No one to keep me from doing what I want to do when I want to do it. No one to compromise with about this food or that, this place or that, nothing or anything. My only job is to live in the moment and like a dandelion seed go where the wind blows me. (I stole the dandelion line from someone by the way.)

And for the first time in five years I am going to travel alone.

I’m actually more excited that in three weeks I am going to get on a bus at the San Antonio bus station and ride to Mexico City and see a friend than I was about going to Central Asia.

After Mexico City I will make my way to Belize where I will participate in an archeological dig at Buena Vista and Xunantunich for twenty five days: no air conditioning, cold showers every morning and washing clothes by hand in the Mopan River old school-like. Up at five asleep at eight. Devouring every last drop of knowledge I possible can from my professors on the Maya and the practice of archeology.

After that I will meander–slowly–back to San Antonio by bus, but not before spending at least three days on the Pacific Coast surfing.
Colonias Returning Home From Work

No computer.

No smart phone.

No jealous woman back home demanding I Skype or wondering what the hell I am doing and why she hasn’t gotten a call, or a text or why so and so said something to me on Facebook. (No, really, I’m not bitter.)

Hell, I’ll probably leave the camera in the hotel room most of the time as well.

Nothing will come between me and the waves, except tequila at night and my pen and notepad, because I’ve learned writing by hand is where I find that train bound for glory.

It has been too long.

And I cannot wait much longer.

When Oaxaca Was A Battleground

Preface: this story was reported and written in late 2006 and early 2007 after some of the worst riots in Mexico broke out in the idyllic city of Oaxaca.

IMG_4180“Your life will be in danger,” my friend Bill had told me the afternoon of my flight to Oaxaca in early December.

His warning was bracing. Traveling in the shadow of fear was nothing new to me; after all, I’d just returned from Iran. But direct danger?

“I could always postpone the trip,” I thought to myself. “Besides, no one really cares about Mexico anyway. It’s all Iraq, all the time.”

I called another friend experienced in situations like these, especially Mexico.

“Listen. Ask questions. Take notes like I taught you. But stay out of the riots and protests. It’ll be great; what are you waiting for?” she asked. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

The next afternoon I was in Oaxaca.

My taxi from the airport followed a truck filled with soldiers down Avenida 20 de Noviembre. As the truck stopped my cabbie said, ” Su hotel, señor,” pointing at a clean, traditional square inn with purple borders and neon sign saying Hotel Francia to his left. In between dodging several pedestrians and grabbing my bags, I saw gunmetal black and gray hanging on the back of the rearmost soldier. Tension hung over the crowded street.

The story of how Oaxaca, a city surrounded by verdant mountains of pine and streets full of elegant colonial architecture, fell from the pinnacle of Mexico’s tourism industry into its basement began in May 2006 when the annual Oaxaqueño teachers’ strike raised the ire of the state’s blue-blood governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. In June he sent in the state police to disperse the teachers. The police action quickly turned violent; eight people were reported killed (although this claim has since been corrected, it was important in galvanizing public opinion in Oaxaca), and more than 100 were hospitalized. As news spread, Oaxaqueños from all over the region converged on the city and fought off the police, regaining control of the city square.

Hotel Marques Del Valle: Closed Until Further NoticeTwo days later, an estimated 400,000 people marched in support of the teachers’ union. A unified movement of almost 200 diverse groups within the state of Oaxaca, calling itself the Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, or APPO, demanded Ruiz’s resignation. A six-month long confrontation ensued, frequently violent, sometimes murderously so, between those without the power to decide for themselves and those with the power. One casualty that suffered in silence was Oaxaca’s tourism industry.

The morning after my arrival I wandered through the streets of Oaxaca. The angry crowds were gone, their chants but an anguished echo in the valley. The gardens of the zocalo, Oaxaca’s town square, were filled with poinsettias, each with a small card attached to it, a spontaneous peace offering from the city’s families, rich and poor. Large armored trucks topped with water cannons guarded the main entrance to the zocalo.

Preparation 'F'Soldiers uneasily pitched tents under the colonnades of the Hotel Marques Del Valle, under the shade of the huge trees in the Alameda de Leon and beside the northern wall of the cathedral. Squads of gray-clad Federales marched up and down the Alcala Oaxaca’s main tourist thoroughfare while shopkeepers swept up broken glass and laborers, rushed in by the governor, hurriedly painted over the ubiquitous graffiti. Old ladies carried baskets full of pastel Aztec calendars and little boys ran around selling chicle.

Here was Oaxaca in the aftermath: colorful, full of beauty but marred by reality. The big question on the minds of most Oaxaqueños was: Will the tourists return? And if so, will it be safe for them? My search for answers begins at Amate, an American owned, English-language bookstore that has the finest collection of books in English on Mexico I have ever seen. The owner, Henry Wangeman, greets me. He has blue eyes, graying reddish hair, an identically colored beard and a warm handshake. We sit down in a cafe above his bookshop. Santo Domingo is off to my right and I get lost gazing at the mountains in the distance as Henry starts talking.

“(Felipe) Calderon (Mexico’s new president) has a chance to unite the country,” he says.

Indeed, several people in the week I visited Oaxaca had similar feelings. The manager of the hotel where I stayed told me, “Yes, of course we want to be united. We hope to be united. We are all Mexicans.”

IMG_4188However, Henry added a bit of a businessman’s twist to his comments: “I think most people would be happy if the government didn’t steal too much from us and let us work.”

“Is the government that bad?” I asked.

“There is no accountability or openness in the Oaxacan government. The caciques, the aristocracy heavily entrenched here in the state, aren’t going to let go,” Henry replied.

An example of too much government interference, according to Henry , is the Botanical Gardens of Oaxaca. Originally set up as an independent organization to conduct research on and show off the local flora, the government “swooped in” when the gardens showed revenue potential. What was once a vibrant, indigenous expression of curiosity and entrepreneurialism is now just a place full of pretty flowers for people to have their wedding pictures taken.

Henry had a laundry list of other issues he wanted to talk about, ranging from NAFTA to the old gods that still haunt the villages. Indeed, I could have listened to Henry’s enthusiastic digressions all day, but time was short and I came to the point.

“What about tourism?”

“Right now is a great time to visit for crafts many wonderful pieces have languished the last six months.”

“Souvenir hunting is hardly a reason to come visit amidst a riot,” I interrupted. “What would you tell a pair of San Antonians looking for a long weekend getaway? Would they be safe?”

He grew thoughtful, and then smiled.

“Yeah, come visit.”

Paul Leveno, an expatriate technology worker in Oaxaca, wasn’t nearly as sanguine as Henry. With sandy blond hair slicked back, he had an air of intellectual dissipation about him.

“Why do you see it differently?” I asked.

“People think that Mexico is a really great place,” he said, “because they think the Mexicans are spontaneous. But that’s crap. Spontaneity doesn’t exist here. What it is, is lack of control. The peasants, the poor, the working class, they don’t control their lives. They are ruled by the rich here. Essentially they get kicked around. And when they react, people think it’s spontaneity.”

IMG_4183When I met Paul he was deep in conversation with a raffish young Mexican man named Oscar, who was nodding in agreement with Paul’s analysis. I described him in my travel journal thusly, “Oscar looked the character. The very stereotype of a Mexican intellectual with a very Mexican mustache, wire-rimmed glasses and the air of a thoughtful and very smart young man.” Oscar, like Paul, wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions. I put identical questions to Oscar as I did Paul and Henry. To the main question, is Oaxaca ready for tourism? Oscar replied in flawless English, “No, Oaxaca will not be better served if tourism happens now. The city and region need stability first.”

But therein lay the paradox of tourism-based economies: stability is necessary to win tourists, but it’s the money tourists bring with them that provides, in large measure, the stability needed to increase tourism. A rising, or at least stable, standard of living is necessary to prevent Oaxaca-like political instability.

Luis Marti­nez and his extended family are Zapotec Indians who depend on the traditional carpets they weave for their livelihood. “If there are no tourists, we sell no carpets,” he told me the day we met. Luis’ shop sits further up the Alcala than Amate Books, right in the shadow of Santo Domingo. But Luis lives about 60 miles outside of Oaxaca in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, which I visited the next day.

Sitting on the floor of a narrow valley, Teotitlan is about 10 miles off the main southern highway we took out of Oaxaca. The landscape is surprisingly dry, almost semi-arid with plots of agave lining both sides of the road, marked out by rock fences and prickly-pear cactuses. A tangerine tree sits in the yard of Luis’ family home. Saltillo-like tiles adorn the roof of this U-shaped home. The family quarters are off to the left and the weaving wing of the home sits to the right in the shade of tangerine and mango trees. Sylvia, Luis’ cousin, greets us, ushering me into the left wing of the house to sit down. Speaking in Zapotec, an accentless and soft language, Luis translated for her.

“It is a pleasure to meet you. We have not had any visitors in many months,” she told me, adding that she hoped I liked the fresh chocolate drink and pastries she prepared. While talking she whisked the chocolate up into a froth that would have made any Starbucks barista ashamed.IMG_4234

“Business has been bad the last six months?” I asked Luis.

“Yes,” he told me, pointing to several beautiful carpets lining the walls, “all of these carpets are what you call, surplus. They are good carpets, of excellent quality,” he said. “I have won many awards in the United States for the carpets we weave here,” he added, showing me several certificates and photos of a much younger and more ebullient man.

After his parents’ death a few years back Luis became the patriarch of his family. Now he runs the business, provides a home for his unmarried cousin and money for many other family members. He balances the books, and also ran, before the present troubles broke out, a village co-op, which brought tourists (and their precious dollars) from Oaxaca out to Teotitlan. The difference between the man in the photos he showed me and the man before me reveals a person consumed with worry.

The politics of the unrest clearly affect Luis and his family, and on the drive back, I was determined to learn Luis’ views.

“Do you feel like the APPO represents you and your family’s interests?” I asked. Luis’ answer was ambivalent, at best, but hardly hostile. He seemed more bewildered by a wild storm he little understood, only wanting to steer his family business safely to port.

“It’s hard to say,” he told me. “Sometimes I am glad to see my countrymen stand up to the government. I am happy to see them do something. But we’ve all lost so much. The governor has lost his reputation, his good family name. The city of Oaxaca has been damaged, although this can be repaired. And the people, what have we gained? Maybe in six months things will return to normal, but I doubt it.”

“Will things get better?” I asked him.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders and turning his head back to the road. “How will I support my family until things return to normal? If I can’t sell carpets, we cannot eat.”

IMG_4254The rest of the ride was quiet, each of us lost in our thoughts, until we arrived back at my hotel. I offered Luis my thanks for a wonderful day.

“It was my pleasure. Hopefully you will tell people it is time to return, but I cannot say. We need them to return.”

As I wandered back through the streets of Oaxaca one last time I saw the poinsettias in the zocalo garden and thought: If anything is proof that it’s safe for tourists to return, this yearning for peace among the city’s families is it. Besides, with so few tourists, Oaxaca is a bargain.
This story was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News print edition in January 2007.

Creeks, Sands, Rivers and Missions

Mission San Jose

Cañada Verde, February 24 1828: The ground continues to be covered with vegetation which seems to increase as one approaches the interior of Texas. Herds of deer and wild cattle were encountered all along the march, which ended at a beautiful watering place formed by a ravine among the hills where good permanent water is found. The place is known as Cañada Verde. ~from the diary of Jose Maria Sanchez

Yesterday I traveled from Laredo up to the San Antonio Missions. I tracked the Mier y Teran Border Commission’s progress pretty well, but was unable to locate Cañada Verde. It’s there, I’m sure, but more than likely on private property. After this they stopped on the Frio River and then went on to San Miguel Creek for another night. Both the Frio and San Miguel were permanent waterways in 1828 and both are bone dry now, a combination of drought and the depleting our or aquifers.

Except for one stretch along Interstate 35 from Laredo up to Dilley, I took all local roads. Along the way I found two Old King’s Highway markers placed there in 1918 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. One was in La Salle county near Fowlerton and the other was in Bexar County near the Medina River. These old granite markers are fascinating. They certainly came from a quarry like this in the Hill Country near Lake Buchanan.

(The full photo set can be found here.)

I’m trying to stay off the big highways. One thing that struck me as very obvious is that the Brush Country was not always like it is now. Climate change may be altering Texas now, as heretofore perennial creeks like San Miguel are bone dry, but before climate change came man with his suite of animals that altered the landscape. Charles Mann writes about this at length in 1491–that often landscapes which look wild and untouched, have been altered by humans in many ways.

The Brush Country is a perfect example. Spanish explorers speak of prairies filled with luscious grass between the Rio Grande and Nueces. It was “an open country, with plains and a few dense woods.” One thing they don’t write of is large prickly pear prairies. In some areas Sanchez and Berlandier mention small stands of nopales–the Spanish word for cactus opuntia, but only in passing. One might think an impenetrable swath of cactus would raise the ire of early explorers. The assumption of most scholars is that they were not there then. These cactus are not immune to the cold, either, as a great cactus die off occurred in South Texas in the 1890s. Hundreds of miles died in a great, hard freeze one year. The cactus prairies we see now are no doubt the result of the cattle ranching.

Many scholars believe this area was the birthplace of the American cattle industry as well. But it was the introduction of Spanish cattle in 1690 by Alonso de Leon that altered what was once excellent cattle country into what it is now: a seemingly inhospitable landscape of cactus, wajia brush and mesquite trees. Cattle move seeds around. Brambles attache to their legs, carrying the grasses and stickle-burs far afield. By 1828 when Jose Maria Sanchez came through he was writing of a place that was undergoing many alterations. He saw wild cattle–the Spanish ranchers just let their cattle run wild, often not even branding them. By the time of the industrial revolution 75 years later the Brush Country had become mostly what it now is.

Crossing the Nueces River is to cross one of those invisible but all to real isohyetal lines. The Live Oak prairies began where before their was only mesquite. Agriculture increases, although it’s irrigated agriculture, not dry farming. Cattle ranching is still very real, it is Texas after all, but it too declines in the wake of cleared, plowed and sowed fields.

After the Frio River is an area of sandy soil, near present-day Poteet. They grow strawberries in the area and melons and have a strawberry festival every year I attended several times as a kid. Sanchez complained bitterly of the sand: “The ground over which we had to travel the following day is almost all loose sand for seven or eight leagues. It is tiresome and hinders rapid travel.”

Later in the day I ambled across an old cemetery where a couple of hundred rebellious subject of the Spanish Empire are buried. They fought nearby at the Battle Of Medina on August 18, 1813: the bloodiest battle in Texas history. As context, Napoleon was fighting in Europe and the United States was fighting England in the War of 1812.

One place that has flummoxed me to no end is a hill in this area called San Cristobal. Sanchez and Berlandier (the French naturalist accompanying the Border Commission) both write that it was large and contained iron ore. There simply are no hills worthy of note in this area. It is flat, sandy soil with lots of rivulets, gullies and the like, but no hills. This is very, very strange. Why? Because I know this area very well. I spent a large part of my youth fishing in the Medina and San Antonio Rivers and Salado Creek and Cibilo Creek. I asked several locals about it, not one of them knew what I was talking about. I then wondered if it had been mined, or somehow worn down by man, but one would think there would be notices of it in San Antonio’s well documented history. Oh well.

I then rolled into San Antonio proper and visited the four main missions in town: Espada, San Juan, San Jose and Concepcion. There is one other mission in San Antonio I didn’t visit, the Alamo, as I have been there many, many times before. But these four and the old aqueduct that is still in use, I had never visited. I spent my whole life in San Antonio and had only seen Espada once before.

Espada, by the way, was the first mission Jose Maria Sanchez saw after a week’s journey through South Texas. It must have been wonderful seeing civilization after a week worrying about Indians. He was very emotional when he first spotted it. And I will leave you with his words:

“We crossed the Cibolo, a small creek, and at a short distance saw the Mission of La Espada. The view of this temple and the few small houses that surround it made an impression upon me that I cannot express. The sight of these dwellings brought forcefully to my mind the fact that I was still living among my fellowmen.”

Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia

If all goes as planned tomorrow morning I will leave for the border paradise of Laredo. After Laredo I will make several stops along the old Camino Real, or King’s Highway, including Pearsall, San Antonio, Gonzales, San Felipe and Nacogdoches. The purpose is to re-create and walk in the footsteps of an early 19th century Mexican officer, draftsman and illustrator named Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia.

You’re probably wondering who the hell Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia is? Sanchez was attached to the Meir y Teran Border Commission, which ventured from Mexico City to Nacogdoches and then on to swampy river bottoms of East Texas to map out the border between Mexico and the United States. He wrote a very interesting account of his journey, which I learned of and first read about two years ago. I recently acquired Teran’s diary of the journey as well. I’m also picking up Berlandier’s account of the journey from the library this afternoon. I had hoped to make the entire Mexico City to Nacogdoches journey, but with the Mexican border states as chaotic as they are now is not the time.

Sanchez is one of those rare characters who kept a dairy of his journey that was not only political, geographical and biological observations. He also adds some curious and often times wonderful personal notes. Not sure what I will find along the way but I’m fairly confident there is a story in this, somewhere. I’ll be blogging the journey here. Each entry will contain a snippet from Sanchez’s diary and then my thoughts on what I’ve seen from hopefully the exact vantage points he saw in 1828.

Also, there will be lots of photos. Hopefully some good wildlife. The Brush Country of South Texas may look daunting and arid, but it is one of the most fecund places I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really a shame the white man killed off all the buffaloes, pronghorn antelope, white tailed deer and so much more.

A Short Note On Our Border Policy

Rio Grande

“La migra,” is what I shouted every time I saw the Border Patrol while out in West Texas. What I should have said each time was, “stop the insanity!”

Having passed from Ojinaga to Presidio the day before yesterday I am simply appalled, but more importantly, I’m terrified at what American has become. I do not exaggerate when I say that America is standing on the razor’s edge, tipping inexorably into a fascist surveillance state. Most people, much less those politicians who grandstand about ‘securing our border’ will ever make this border crossing. Everyone in America, however, should be forced to endure it. And I mean make the crossing, not some VIP jaunt across the border and then back with customs agents and Border Patrol officials in tow. They should be forced to sit in a car for three hours and then be interrogated at the US side of the border like everyone else passing through.

I then defy anyone who has passed through the border from Ojinaga to Presidio, or Laredo to Nuevo Laredo or Del Rio to Ciudad Acuna, or Piedras Negras to Eagle Pass and tell me me our policy is not insane. There are literally ten video cameras for each car, collecting ‘evidence’ all day long, every day of the year. The questioning is not only unnecessary but humiliating. The searches are utterly pointless, K-9 units, bomb testing materials, pulling grandmothers from cars, all the while allowing trucks to transit via a fast lane. Citizens are punished, but commerce must go on!

“Keep those fucking Mezcans outta Amurika, no matter what, but make sure my lawn gets done and my dishes get washed!”

The reason: ignorance; the cost: insane; the fear: baseless; the results: minuscule.

I’ve flown into Russia and Iran and immigration and customs there are easy and polite, especially as compared to what occurs every day in our airports.

I have crossed land borders from Kyrgyzstan to China, Turkey to Georgia, Nepal to China, Vietnam to Cambodia, Costa Rica to Nicaragua, Belize to Guatemala, Greece to Bulgaria, Macedonia to Bulgaria, Georgia to Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and many others besides: not a single one is as terrible, intrusive, rude or humiliating as returning to the US either via air or land. None of them compare to the punishment meted out to the average guiltless American citizen. I thought airports were bad.

I have never in my life crossed any international border so over the top draconian, where you are treated as guilty of something. We have thrown up literal and metaphorical walls between us and the world and we are paying a terrible price for it.

Here’s to freedom fries!

Todos somos guapos aquí. No hay feos.

A little bathroom humor from Guadaljara. And no, it’s not what you think.

The Big Question

Road ShotAs the bus twists and turns up the Sierra Madre del Sur coming out of Zihuatanejo the first thing you notice are the lush green hillsides. The next thought that logically follows is: wow, there is a lot of water here. But like the coastal ranges of California the water is deceiving as I soon discovered.

After climbing above the first range of crests, outcrops and rippling ridges we descended into a broad valley, much as I imagine the Salinas Valley in John Steinbeck’s retelling. It was dry, cactuses proliferated. Grasses burned off in the heat of a Mexican summer. Corn fields baked on the banks of a river.

“Lago muy seco,” I asked the bus driver. “Si,” he replied, “it’s the lowest it’s been in twenty five years.” The scene was well nigh apocalyptic. Everyone here in Austin is concerned about the levels of Lake Travis, one of a chain of Hill Country reservoirs built for flood control (and water management) on the Colorado River during the Great Depression. LBJ’s pork for the area when he was a Congressman and Senator. But this Mexican lake? It was forty feet low. In part of the lake fields of corn had taken over–the river snaking through where water and fish once thrived. This lake provides necessary drinking and farming water for the States of Guererro and Michoacan and now it was almost empty. The landscape was parched. Sure, I was in a rain shadow. But the sources of the lake were not, as they sat at the crest of a watershed, which in most years, brings in ample water to the region.

“It’s the hottest and dryest summer I can remember,” said Resendo, the owner of a small cafe in Melaque. Melaque is on the coast. Tropical. It is supposed to rain every day in July, August and September. Not this year. And when a Mexican complains about the heat, you know it is unseasonably warm. “It’s the rainy season,” he went on. “And you’ve been here, what, almost two weeks? Has it rained?”

“Once, for half a day?” I replied.

“Exactly,” he said.

In the last year I have traveled in almost twenty foreign nations. And there were only two (Vietnam and Singapore) where the people didn’t complain in one sense or another about massively altered traditional weather patterns. I’m not talking about ‘global warming’ here. That’s a misnomer, in my opinion, for what is happening. What I’ve heard about and what I am discussing is nothing short of global climate change.

In Indonesia Lake Toba was 10 feet higher than it had ever been. “Too much rain,” said Efan, the young man who managed the guest house I stayed in.

“The Highlands are extremely dry this year,” said Les an Australian ex-pat (and bug collector) living in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. “I haven’t seen my favorite beetle this year at all. And it’s not rare. It just needs water,” he said.

In Laos and Thailand the late onset of the cool season messed up food production. And it’s almost paralyzing Cambodia.

Although the Monsoon didn’t fail in India in 2008, my farming friends in Kerala had already almost run out of water in the Western Ghats and were worried about the cardamom crop failing. “It’s not as water hungry,” said Ahmed, “as cotton, but it is a thirsty plant.”

Oman had been devastated by a hurricane the year before. Yes, a hurricane.

Turkey? Central Anatolia was greener than many people could ever remember. But spring was late in coming. And it was a cold spring. The Judas Trees blossomed a full month later than they normally do.

“We only had a week or two of snow this year,” said Stuart, my best friend in Denmark.

Yes, you read that correctly. Viking-land lacked real snow.

And here I sit in Austin, Texas. The mercury in the thermometer is at the point of bubbling and it’s only 1100am.

All this is anecdotal. Dismiss it. Or don’t.

But here’s the whole point of my anecdotes, from an interview of Jared Diamond:

“The average per-person consumption rate in the first world of metal and oil and natural resources is 32 times that of the developing world,” says Diamond. “That means that one American is consuming like 32 Kenyans.” The problem is not the number of Kenyans, the problem is when Kenyans or, more pressingly, big developing countries such as China, gain the ability to consume like Americans.

Can’t humans simply increase the supply of resources as they have done before? “We can change the supply of some things if there is only one limiting resource. If it is food, then we can have a green revolution and produce more crops,” he says. “Unfortunately, we need lots of resources. We need food, we need water. We are already using something like 70 or 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water. So you say, ‘Alright, we’ll get around water by desalinating sea water.’ But then there’s the energy ceiling, and so on.”

That’s the big question. The question no one is willing to voice. Am I, a member of the advanced world willing to forgo some of my standard of living for those in the developing world? And if I do so, do I have the moral and ethical standing to ask those of the developing world to forgo some of their wants?

I don’t have an answer.

I can promise you one thing: we cannot have it all. The Chinese cannot live like Americans and the Americans cannot continue to live as they are. Something will break.

One night in June, as Stuart and I sat in the garden, polishing off a bottle of tequila, he asked me how I saw the world in fifty years.

“Hotter, poorer, hungrier and more violent,” is how I put it. “But it’ll still be round,” I said, taking a swipe at Tom Friedman.

“That’s pretty grim, brother,” he said, smiling at the joke.

“If history has taught me anything, Stuart, it’s this: life can be grim and history is inexorable,” I held my finger up silencing an emergent query. I gathered my thoughts and finished up, “but humanity will muddle through.”

I don’t know if I want to bequeath a world of ‘muddling through’ to our children. But that’s what they’ll get.