Well the journey has begun – flying from Belize to Denver, then a long drive back to Belize by car. “Wait here while passengers ‘unboard’ the bus,” says the hand-lettered sign at the Corozal Town bus station. The wall mounted schedules of departure, and destination arrival times are hand-lettered too, and are heavily whited-out. Can’t make heads or tails of it but, the Station Manager has agreed to “hail me,” when my bus to the Border at Chetumal pulls in. One will arrive he assured me, “right now.”
I got grief from Belize immigration because they were closed for Easter. “Well you should have come in the day before.” I was admonished sternly. Well the day before my scheduled immigration appearance was Good Friday, and you were closed that day too,” I protested. Another Good Friday surprise for Christ’s sake! Finally, my passport was reluctantly stamped.. Jesus Christ! What a way to begin my trip.
I’m in Cancun now – at midnight – suffering from “bus-lag” after six hours on the road from Chetumal Mexico. Will have to turn-in shortly at the “Muy Economico” (cheap) hotel a cab driver took me to – has a great ocean-view from the balcony though.
Actually, the bus ride was swell. Mexican buses are clean, comfortable (Take a sweater. The air conditioning is bone-chilling), and have airline-type seats – except with real leg-room. Curtains block out the sun and all the overhead gadgets, reading-lights and cool air nozzles are there for your bus-riding comfort. Three on-road movies where shown; the latest Bond movie and a Denzel Washington thriller; both in English with Spanish subtitles. The last was a surreal flick, called “Lost World” all in Spanish so I was lost too.
I couldn’t find Mickey-D’s, though I saw the arches from the my hotel room window. I’ve been in Belize for nearly a year and have a fast-food hamburger-Jones, so, had a Hooter’s Burger instead – It’s Spring-Break Woo-Hoo! Boy! Mexican beer is trash – making me miss Belize! I’m booked on an early flight tomorrow. “Would you like a wake-up call?” asked the hotel clerk. “Yes, 4:30;” but, it’s likely to be a wake up knock as there is no phone in the room. And surely, it seemed, just a few minutes later – knock.
40,000 feet – fast toward Dallas; then, to take another plane to Denver. I didn’t get the cell-phone-chip, so can’t call Rhonda when I arrive. I hope she is there and will recognize me. I warned her I had lost weight, but didn’t mention the new, mostly-salt-and-pepper beard.
Wham! Bam! Thank you Mam! Met Rhonda at the Denver airport at 2pm, and said hello again to her, and her daughter Katelyn. Ten minutes later, we both kissed daughter goodbye, jumped in Rhonda ‘s full-sized 4×4 pickup, and we are on the road to Belize!
In Protective Custody
We reached Trinidad (Colorado) at about four in the afternoon, and call it quits for the day. Drawn, we admitted by the small town’s tropical name; exactly fitting the Bob Marley sound-track that has accompanied our adventure so far. “…We know where were going. We know where were from. We’re leaving Babylon. Exodus – movement of Ja’s people! Oh Yeah!”
I have so far failed to mention that the two of us, Rhonda and me, are in protective custody. Guarded vigilantly and ferociously by two small dogs – what Rhonda calls “Pocket Dogs.” “Moose,” an gun-metal-gray, miniature female Schnauzer, is truly just small enough to fit into a raincoat-pocket. And, “Max,” equally pocket-sized, is a brave “Yorkie-boy (male, Yorkshire Terrier).” They guard the truck during gas/snack stops, and our hotel rooms, so far, mostly against pizza delivery.
Wicked sand storms greet, and follow us through New Mexico, on our way to the town of Roswell; home to “Area 51,” of alien-sighting fame. It seems that after “Trinidad,” (Colorado), we could not resist the lure of announcing our next hotel-camp, to friends following our trip, as “Roswell, New Mexico,” very near “Area 51.” We will travel 500 miles today. All the way, heavy winds rock the truck threatening to push it into the next lane; while hurling New Mexico desert-sand into dun-colored smoke-like clouds, making it hard to see the road.
And then, there is the dramatic panoramic-driving hazard. The desert landscape repeatedly interrupts, distracting the driver’s attention. Monumental rock mesas and buttes, carved by ancient geologic forces are colorfully striated tan to dark red. Fantastic shapes are conjured by late evening shadows. “That’s called a Squaw’s Tit.” Rhonda points to a conical-shaped mesa with a suggestive hard-stone remnant at its top, suggesting a plump female breast. We are redeemed later for our impolitic speech; when I spot a full-scrotum, erect “Warrior’s Dick,” rock formation silhouetted against the sky on our journey through Mexico.
About Roswell, I overheard Rhonda tell her sister on the phone, “We expected anything, but experienced nothing,” of extraterrestrial contacts. Mysteriously however, and regrettably, and astonishingly, our six-pack of souvenir, “Alien Beer,” (brewed the label says enthusiastically, ‘right here in New Mexico!) was forgotten and left behind in the hotel fridge when we pulled out next morning, headed for Texas – clearly an unnatural, if not other-worldly phenomenon. “Me? Forgetting to bring the beer!?”
From New Mexico we drove hard, over 800 miles getting to Alice Texas (not Australia) at dusk. The two dogs, have behaved admirably over this long journey. They sleep mostly; with Max the Terrier, occasionally standing like a hood ornament, from his perch atop the blankets and suitcases stuffed behind the front seats, keenly watching through the windshield as the fantastic landscapes of New Mexico and then Texas roll by. Even though walks and “Business,” and water-breaks are administered liberally at fuel and snack stops, we heave-to in Alice as both dogs signal – enough!
From Alice (Texas, not Australia) We head for the Mexican border at Brownsville where we will pause on the U.S. side to get the Canine Health Certificates required by Mexican law for Moose and Max to travel legally through Mexico. Said Certificates where never asked for, either at the Border, or at the many police/military check-points that interrupts our drive through Mexico to Belize. Disaster struck in Brownsville though, as my wallet was stolen at a local convenience store. Damned! A victim of crime in Texas, not Mexico!
Border Crossing Time-Warp
We though ourselves fortunate to cross the Border into Matamoros Mexico on a Sunday morning as there were no lines! Only later did we find out that the Mexican Officials at that Border had stamped our passports with the incorrect date, indicating our crossing into Mexico occurred in 2010 instead of 2011. Thus allowing Mexican Officials at the Border with Belize to claim later, we had spent nine months in Mexico not the six-days we actually were there! Threats were made to confiscate the vehicle and us, unless we paid a whopping $2,000 U.S. Dollars! We were “saved” by our fast-talking Belize Border Agent and, our correctly-dated, vehicle-insurance paperwork issued when we entered Mexico and, 800 Pesos to mollify the Border Officer and, a bigger tip for the Belize Border Agent. Lesson learned! Don’t get caught in a time-warp – check every stamp or modification to your passport carefully.
We would first however, be “saved” this way many times more from Mexican “officials” on our journey through Mexico, a sad fact of life that marred our trip through a beautiful country inhabited by truly friendly people. True to the warnings we had read and heard, we had driven no more than 400 yards into Matamoros, when the “grafty-game” began.
“You where speeding,” the local traffic cop gets us to understand as we plead “No hablo Espanol.,” – a recommended tactic. “You must pay a fine of $1,800 pesos at the police station,” he says waving vaguely in some direction. With coma-like looks on our faces, we shrug and gesture, like incomplete idiots repeating our no-Spanish plea.
The police officer sighs in the face of our Gringo-stupidity and is thus forced to engage his full complement of dramatic skills. A hand-held radio-device (cell-phone) is spoken to, then oddly held up to his ear for the reply. “Headquarters,” we are told, “is unwilling to cut us any slack – they are very strict he says,” in mock sympathy. But, as he laboriously gets the language-impaired ‘”Estupidos,” to understand, “we can be spared a trip to the ‘Office,’ to pay the fine by giving him the $1,800 Pesos that he will deposit for us there.” Ooh…,” we say showing slight, but weak signs of comprehension “but, we only have this many Pesos, “ says Rhonda showing the Officer what amounted to 600 Pesos – demonstrating that we can’t count either.
The traffic cop sighs hugely at this, and shakes his head in sympathy for our fate at the hands of the unmoving headquarters crowd. “But wait!” Rhonda exclaims like a Ginsu-knife pitch-man, “we have this,” she chimes brightly, showing him a U.S. Twenty Dollar bill, “can we use this?” she asks staring uncomprehendingly at the wad of cash plus the Twenty in her hand. The spell is finally broken and the Officer, smiling regretfully, accepts the “fine.” We are advised “Not to worry about those predators at Headquarters he will handle them,” and motions us to follow him to the correct road out of town. Gee, thanks Officer Friendly! We later admit to being a little shaken after this encounter of the bribe-kind – even though it was expected. But, we eventually got our humor back – until our next encounter with small-town Mexican Gendarmes.
This same scene or ones nearly like it, is repeated two more times while in Mexico; all in small towns North of Ciudad Tampico. Small towns, it appears, that can’t afford a radar-gun for a decent, U.S.-style speed-trap. We were told the speed limit in one little “pueblo” was 15 Kilometers per hour (less than10 MPH). $400 Pesos – plus the U.S. Twenty- cherry-later, and we are on our way. “Don’t worry,” that one Patrolman reassured us, moving his fingers as if typing on a computer or maybe type writer, “There will be no record generated of your very serious offense, and your good driving records will not be compromised.” We did not worry.
Interfacing, so to speak, with law enforcement, local, Federal, and military, is part of the landscape in Mexico and we learned quickly how to handle it. First, if possible travel with two very small, cute dogs. Moose and Max melted even the coldest, bullet-proof-vested heart at the many Federal-police and Military check-points we encountered on our journey (expect one as you cross every .Mexican State border and, sometimes in between. To their credit however, these are not shake-down stops. The most we were asked for, once, was some gum and a cold Coke – neither of which we had (a counter-offer of a beer was laughingly declined).
Stern, helmeted soldiers would approach the truck with weapons of every variety at the ready. Suddenly to be confronted by two tiny, inquisitive, furry heads poking over Rhonda’s shoulder. They have only stubby tails to wag, but have eyes that bring involuntary smiles to the men at arms. “Ah, Perrolitos, (tiny dogs)” says one soldier smiling. “Where are you going,” says another, still stone-faced? He demands, and then examines our passports closely. But, “What are the dog’s names,” a third asks, as Max and Moose swivel-stare from one fatigue-clad soldier to the other. Moose, Max and Belize we answer.
After a cursory inspection of our jumbled cargo of household goods, Rhonda’s bicycle, and “a lot of stuff,” as Rhonda explained at another checkpoint, I’m asked, “How much did you pay for these dogs?” “About $1,600 U.S. Dollars,” I answer, when the question finally penetrates my non-Spanish-speaking brain. This brings howls of laughter, from the heavily armed group. Even stone-face chuckled at this. One mounted soldier, armed with an automatic grenade launcher of all things, trying unsuccessfully to restrain himself, smiles too. “Adelante! (Move on)” We are waved on by the soldier, his stone-face now cracked by a smile. We soon accepted that the Federal and Military police where there to protect us and make us feel safe as they rush to and fro in convoys, or gathered at checkpoints. You will see, and meet, these men everywhere in Mexico, even in small villages.
Wait! There’s More!
Local small-town cops, as I mentioned, are the main hazard. We crept through another town barely rolling, determined not to get stopped again, at least not for speeding. So, when we were stopped anyway and the policeman came up to the window I asked in my very best broken-Spanish “what had been our offense?” This turned out to be the full comedy traffic shakedown-stop of the trip. “Uno momento,” he said waving me to be quiet, already exasperated by our “No-hablo” routine. And walks back to his car as if to find out what our violation was. On his return we are informed that our vehicle was “straddling the line.” With no lines in evidence on the street, we decide to just shut up and wait for the next act. “$2000 Pesos is the fine,” he says. Straddling invisible lines is obviously a serious offense in this pueblo.
Just then back-up arrives in the form of the formerly unseen partner riding shotgun. Scowling, hand on the butt of a big forty-five caliber, cowboy-style revolver, barely contained by its holster, he circles the truck critically, perhaps searching for other violations we may be committing. Rhonda has already launched her we-don’t-have pesos-act. Suddenly, the Officer waves her quiet, and begins dialing a cell phone.
A connection is made and Rhonda is handed the phone. The dreaded headquarters is on the line we are told, and speaking English too, Rhonda tells me after we are “saved,” once again. She is told on the phone, that “$2000 Pesos must be paid to the Officer, Do you understand this?” Rhonda is asked. “Yes,” I hear her say into the Officer’s cell-phone. “If you do not have $2,000 Pesos the Officer will have to take you to jail; do you understand this,” Rhonda recounts this in her slow-speed, comical Mexican accent? “Yes,” I hear her say into the officer’s phone. “There is nothing more I can do for you,” says the voice in Rhonda’s hilarious rendition. “Nothing can be done; do you understand this? ” Yes,” I hear Rhonda say matter-of-factually. “Now give the Officer back his phone,” Rhonda is instructed by the laconic voice, and I see her do it.
Not deterred by the threat of jail, from whoever was on the phone, (we suspect it was the officer’s cousin Julio), Rhonda re-launches her convincing, “No-Pesos” spiel. But then, I compound the issue with a Spanglish complaint that “we don’t have Pesos because the Cops in the previous pueblo relived us of them.“ This causes serious police-officer-frowns all around. Just then, Rhonda delivers her patented, gadget-hustler’s “Wait!” and whips out the Twenty U.S., and pairs it with a wad of about 400 Pesos. “Is this any good,” she asks, indicating the green-back, mouth hanging open for emphasis? Saved once again! She’s getting good at this I think.
No Tell Bella Luna
Nearing Tampico, obeying the “never-drive at-night mantra and with the sun sinking tropically-fast we frantically searched for lodging for us, and the cute tiny dogs, but we are turned down at one nice-looking hotel just outside of Tampico (no “Mascotas( pets)” allowed). At dusk and desperate, we luckily find “Hotel,” Bella Luna and pull in. We are met incongruously by “Chuck “ (actually its Carlos; a very friendly Mexican guy whose family owns the place, wanting to practice his already quite-good English. “Call me Chuck he insists.”) Hotel Bella Luna it turns out, is what we in the States would call a “No-Tell Hotel.” Designed especially for romantic assignations, it features a drive-in garage for each unit. Once inside, your vehicle is shielded by a curtain from prying eyes. We order food delivered with Chuck’s help, and accept and pay for it incognito, through a curtained window –. The room is well appointed, with a huge bed, and a shower stall big enough to host a wet T-shirt party.
The unit is very clean, linens towels and all.. A menu of ancillary items and services offered at Bella Luna is taped to the bedstead – vibrators, condoms, and varieties of stimulating gels. These “Notels,”of which we saw many throughout Mexico, are purpose-built so expect no closets, cabinets or drawers. But do expect sexy Spanish cable TV.
Escape From Tampico
We brave one more traffic-graft attempt trying to leave Tampico the next day, when a car full of City-Cops waves us to follow them into what appears to be an alley. “No way,” Officers Friendly we think, and keep driving! After exiting Tampico, driving at Gringo-Speed (the posted speed limit},with Mexican cars and trucks whizzing past us, we were not Stopped again. It seems, that the farther you get from the U.S. the less corruption and graft you are subjected to.
Still, getting lost driving through Tampico is almost a Gringo urban legend, and we were not excepted. Hopelessly turned around on narrow, crowded streets, Rhonda has a brilliant idea. We will find a cab and and hire it to lead us out of Tampico. After a few attempts at a grocery-store taxi-stand, I find one Cabby with enough English to help us and voila! We are on the road to Veracruz – $100 Pesos! We could, I thought later have arranged this taxi-leader with “Chuck,” from the “Notel” before embarking – brilliant!
Passing Road Pleasure
Mexican roads are generally good ones. The toll-roads are especially good. The road to Veracruz, (our next goal) from Tampico narrows to a two-lane one, after just a few miles. The terrain begins to turn hilly as the road raises up, and away from the coast toward the highlands. On this road, Passing or being passed by, other cars or the big trucks, some hauling double-trailers, is not for the faint of heart. This is white-knuckle, hair-raising driving. Imagine speeding trucks and cars passing in the on-coming lane, bearing down on you and getting over, back into the other lane, seemingly, just in the nick of time. Even though, the road is well marked with safe-passing- zone lines, and signs, we watched in repeat-horror as groups of cars and trucks would pass us, convoy-style; flying into the on-coming traffic lane. We winced, watching on-coming traffic closing fast, always, on the reckless tail-end Charlie. “Would the car ahead slow to give him room to get over?” I hoped so, anxiously. “Would he make it safely back to our lane,” we’d cringe? “Phew! That was close,” we said aloud – many times.
After our escape from Tampico and its environs and, perhaps worrying less about police interference, we begin to notice the beautiful the Mexican landscape. First, are high rolling-hills of sandstone, weathered into exotically (and the erotically-shaped- referred to earlier) Buttes and Mesas similar to those we saw in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico.
In between car-passing dramas, we noticed the road had narrowed further as the jungle pressed in on both sides leaving no shoulder for slower traffic or break-downs. Hills are steeper and longer now and the traffic ahead looks like Indy-cars scrubbing their tires, as drivers veer sharply in and out of the lane looking for chances to pass. This hill-country is beautiful. There are many small villages perched precariously on slopes so steep, that I worry for them about mud slides, should it ever rain.
Lost In Tuxpan
Even with some road-construction delays, we made it into Tuxpan earlier than scheduled. Tuxpan, is a charming little town to get lost in, which we did, hunting for the toll-road our map promised, and where we hoped to make up some more time. Surrounded by tidy citrus orchards, the town overlooks a wide river harboring big steel fishing boats and, has a festively dressed waterfront with restaurants and colorfully attired crowds at outdoor tables. Water-taxis ply between the river’s banks. We see all this, crossing a bridge leading to the finally-found toll-road.
Toll Many Happy Returns
Toll-roads are wonderful. Six to eight lanes of divided smooth highway, punctuated at not infrequent intervals, by Pemex, gas stations. The Pemex, “company,” is owned by the Mexican government, and their gas stations are uniformly, clean and well-staffed with attendants who, wonder of wonders, pump your gas and, on occasion, clean your windshield! Most Pemex stations, have a small convenience store attached, (a few had restaurants) to get cold bottled-water and other temptations. Following the never-less than half-a-tank rule, and of course to exercise our canine companions, we stopped frequently at Pemex stations, especially ones with maybe a little strip of grass, for you know what.
Highway signs on the roads in Mexico take getting used to but are generally accurate though sometimes confusing. Especially to the navigation-challenged, which I confess I am. So, we somehow, through my extraordinary directional skill, entered the toll-road going in the wrong direction. We drove about a quarter mile before there appeared a “Returno” sign, where we were able to turn around. To return, which is what the Spanish word means; and we do – to the toll-booth to pay the toll again, this time in the right direction. We execute this were-going-the-wrong-way-maneuver so many times driving through Mexico, Rhonda now says the word “Returno,” with a dramatic Spanish accent. We are headed for Veracruz at a whopping 110 KPH, and just a few more Pesos short. Did I mention to bring lots of Pesos for a driving-trip through Mexico?
Losing Pretty In Veracruz
This toll-road runs out after a few miles, but is replaced a nice four-lane divided highway leading us back toward the coast and flatter land. The road turns to two-lane undivided highway in places and takes us through towns with names like Nautla, and Vega De Altorre, and small fishing villages like Saint Ana where we get our first real glimpses of the Gulf of Mexico. So far though we have made good time, and commit to driving straight through Veracruz, a decision not shared by Max and Moose who sulked in their respective places, clearly wanting this leg of Mexican travel to end.
We got lost in Veracruz. Lots of “Returnos,” where made. My attempts at asking for help where no one speaks any English and my Spanish though not as bad as Rhonda’s one word vocabulary, is pretty bad.
The “cab-trick” failed in Veracruz – No English! At one Pemex, I was razzed, good-naturedly, by one Cabby who shouts out to his buddies, lounging in his Cab.“Hey! he wants to speak English! Does anyone here want to speak English,” he exclaimed laughing? I laughed at the ribbing too, but gained a new appreciation for what Spanish-only-speakers must go through in the U.S. At another Pemex a guy (No English!) drew me a map on an empty cardboard beer-box. That seemed to set us straight but, only after just a few more “Returnos.”
Anyway, we were glad to have taken the tour of downtown Ciudad Veracruz; pronouncing it a beautifully-modern, city with a certain European flair. A big, important port-city, Veracruz sits right on the Gulf, sporting skyscraper office complexes and ritzy-looking high-rise apartment buildings, right down to the beachfront. A pedestrian-thronged sidewalk follows the sandy beaches that stretch for miles. They are covered by acres of beach chairs, and colored umbrellas advertising one or another brand of beer or tequila. Beach-bars under big, bright awnings are close companions to these tightly drawn-up legions of recliners.
Just a few city-blocks inland from there (I know because we wandered around there, lost, er, sightseeing, for some time), are older, more ornate, homes and apartments. Stores and shops are everywhere advertising their wares, from hairstylists to high-tech services. Even after we wandered (navigated) through some of the more industrial, lower income areas, we decided we liked Veracruz, even above Tuxpan, and vowed that if we couldn’t find our way out of the City we would just get apartments and stay in lovely Veracruz.
We were leaving Veracruz-proper finally, on the right road to our next planned stop, Villahermosa, when Max and Moose put their paws down, and demanded in their peculiar canine fashion that we stop now. We agreed, as sulking in the back seat had been taken to new heights by Max, who tuned his back on us, and refused to respond, even for dog-cookies. This was serious! We decided then, that since we were beyond Veracruz, we deserved a break, and so did Max and Moose, who have so far, traveled more than 3,000 miles in this truck. So we took a turn toward the sea. On a whim, and, surprisingly not due to navigational error, we take a red-road toward the Gulf, so colored on our map, to indicate it is “a rural-road,” – risky. At the end of this road, is a sea-side village called Anton Lizardo says the map. And sure enough, there is- right on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico!
Anton Lizardo is a vacation town, with lots of small resorts and hotels. We chose one; or rather the dogs did, since we frequently have to negotiate their stay with the Hotelier. Luckily we were accepted (This is commonly the case. Once the hotel staff actually sees the tiny cute dogs, we’re in!) at a wonderful little hotel right on the beach. An outdoor restaurant is just out the rear door, past the indoor pool. The hotel’s veranda overlooks the beach. After a walk along the surf-line – no dogs where brave enough to dip their paws – we ate our dinner there. Peaceful.
On the road again, refreshed after our beach-side stay, we are again headed for Villahermosa, from where we intend to strike out to the Belize Border at Chetumal. But of course, it’s the wrong road. Mexican maps and signs can be deceiving, and I was, since the four-lane divided-highway marked “150,” runs parallel to a two-lane road that meanders through cane fields and tiny agricultural villages, and is also marked by signs as, “150.” We are on the latter, which, we temporize, is the slower, but more scenic route. But, all roads lead to the toll-road-Rome we are seeking, hoping it will take us fast to Villahermosa. Sure enough, after only a few “Returnos,” where the highways change from toll-road to local divided-highway, we get to our destination a few hours before dark.
No Room at the Inn.
Villahermosa is a gritty, medium-sized city of low-rise office buildings and construction-yards. The main streets are tree-shade, but traffic is very heavy on them. Surprisingly, the dogs, and therefore us, where refused at a well-known American, chain-hotel. The clerk there did however; find us a more dog-friendly American-chain. But, his English was so strained, that it took us quite a few frustrating “Returnos,” before we deciphered that his directions where to a hotel near the “airport,” not, to what we heard as the “April.” It was a big, and expensive hotel, and we considered retreating to one of the “Notels, we had passed on our way into the downtown, but it was already dark, and a weekend night, so we decided to bite the bullet. And happily, we found out later on the room’s-TV that Osama Bin Laden did too.
We were also very happy to have a good, hard-wire internet-connection at this hotel, so as to send emails, and Face-Book and such. Every lodging we have used throughout our trip had advertised having wireless-internet availability, but few actually did – even in the U.S. most had signals too weak to use the laptops in the rooms. At one hotel in Chetumal, where we were stranded for a week, waiting for a lost FedEx package containing vital, canine veterinary-paperwork, I had to sit in the lobby to make a connection. Aside from that, we did not like Villahermosa; soured I think by, dog-discrimination, and way too many “Returnos.”
Happy to be leaving the town, we have an uneventful and often scenic drive along the coast, before taking the road east to Chetumal and the Belize Border. The Border crossing is a story already told.