by Peter Nelson
When I open the door, the cavernous hotel room’s so dark, I can barely see the bed. As in just about every hotel room for the next two years, more light comes in the window from the glittering night streets than from that scrawny, insignificant 10-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling a good twelve feet overhead. Also as usual, this is the moment of thickest regret — the first night of another desperate trip into the lonely catacombs, the empty emotional spaces.
Basically, why the hell am I here?
In this ‘enlightened’ state, I head back out into the streets to look for a decent road map.
Typically inauspicious beginning. Monterrey,Mexico, after dark, after two nights and one day on the bus, numb with fatigue, bus lag, and exhaust fumes. Eight o’clock, maybe eight-thirty, but all the shops seem to be open. Importunity knocks. Or in this case, beckons with a shy smile on the face of this young lady who leans against a crumbling plaster wall covered with peeling posters. Another young person who, though physically attractive, exhibits the shocking lack of moral fiber all too common in our modern youth.
An hour later, numb with fatigue, bus lag, and perfume fumes, I’m back on the sidewalk again. Duck into a small cafe across the street, a simple meal in suspicious surroundings, many dark eyes to fathom my dark thoughts, and then once more out on the streets. The very next shop is a book-seller’s. A perfect place for maps, you’d think — rolled, folded, multi-colored — but no, not a sausage. Back to the room empty-handed.
The first night of every new trip rates the pinnacle of lower-class luxury. It’s cheap enough, but this time it’s a private room on the second floor. No plumbing, of course, but, hey, a balcony with real wrought-iron railings. Besides, having already splurged on the bus instead of hitching, I can’t come crashing down to full-tilt rock-bottom cheapest-available right away.
The next morning, fatigue and anxiety have vanished, erased by a good night’s sleep and the prospect of a warm sunny day. The sun’s bright but not too hot on the narrow road out of the city. Not a blade of grass or a bright leaf anywhere, just scrubby brush and some small dusty trees. Everything’s a sandy brown color as far as you can see.
The first ride’s a good omen, albeit a silent one after halting introductions reveal a serious language block. Two radio technicians, driving a hundred miles or so, stopping along the way to check the network of hillside antennae. So every few miles, we zip up into the hills and get these awesome vistas. Looking south, the country’s starting to level out, so the view is absolutely limitless. I seem to hear this electric buzzing midday desert heat. A dry wind? Overheated insects? Castaneda consciousness? Brain dehydration?
More rides, more quiet nights, a blur of successive brown days, until somewhere on the south central plateau, a rusted and blotchy VW van zooms past, screeches to a halt, and then comes reversing unsteadily back to me. An American family, or actually three sub-families. T. O. is a four-year-old adopted Hawaiian boy. Jack is five or six, and Carol’s eight. They belong to Julie, who’s lanky and affable. The driver is Don, or, as the kids always call him, Mr. Mayberry. He was rather dubious about picking me up. It wasn’t his idea to stop, but luckily the van’s a democracy, and he was out-voted.
I’d been planning to head straight to Guatemala, but they’re going to spend three weeks driving around the wilds of Yucatan. Can’t pass up 21 days of not having to stand on the side of the road, so we’re off.
Outside Campeche, there’s an imposing monument to the Maya right on the road into town. Literally. On. The. Road. Suddenly, with no warning signs, no advance publicity, here’s the concrete body of a bare-chested male in full revolutionary vigor, right arm upthrust to the sky, fist clenched in the universal sign of “power to the people”. Thirty feet high from belt to brow, lunging right up through the center of the highway we’re driving on, big chunks of broken pavement sliding away from his body. As if this gigantic male has just this moment burst through the surface of the road. Very effectively done. Must give you quite a start if you come upon it after dark.
In Campeche, Julie and Don want some time alone, so we pull over beside this large city park. They give me $10 and the kids, and they beetle off. So I amuse the kids for a couple of hours. Huge flowering trees with blossoms like scoops of yellow butter. The kids constantly clamoring for treats. (Note to Julie and Don: do NOT let the kids see you giving this guy money!)
Julie and Mr. Mayberry are also travelling on a restricted budget, so we camp out every night. Meals are mostly bread and cheese and fruit. Stuff from the local markets.
Hitching is about the only way of getting around in the Yucatan. Since there’s no public transportation, the locals just stand on the road and flag down rides with quite insistent gestures. Wouldn’t have the nerve to be so demanding, myself. We pick up a colorfully-dressed native, and although he doesn’t speak Spanish, we manage to figure out where he wants to go. As we are dropping him off, Julie points a camera at him, which seems to terrify him, and he runs off in a panic.
The beaches of Yucatan especially on the Caribbean side, have to be some of the most beautiful in the world — tall palms hanging over blue-green waters, the whole South Sea island bit. Ideal this time of year, usually a cool breeze, cloudless skies, and best of all, no bugs.
The Olmecs were the ancient inhabitants of the Yucatan, and they still command more attention than the present-day residents. Every city park is littered with these massive square-block heads carved by ancient sculptors. Sometimes crumbling and moss-covered, but quite startling when you stumble across them. The ruins at Uxmalare impressive — steep-sided pyramids overgrown with jungle vegetation.
Central Yucatan. After hearing through the tourist pipeline of the glories of the group of small lakes called Las Lagunas de los Colores — “They really are all different colors!” — we take a side trip into this nice little state park. And once more the faith of the skeptic is rewarded. They really are all the same color! Six or seven small lakes of rather ordinary hue. Mind you, the glare of the setting sun creates a certain icy brilliance in its watery reflection.
The highlight of this park visit is a chance encounter with three light-hearted Canadians in another van. 150 rock music cassettes, a shoe-box full of dope, and a 20-lb. bag of popcorn. What else do you need? That night after supper, Mr. Mayberry and I drift down the trail to their camp spot, following the auditory and olfactory trails of foreign music and alien smoak. One last hit of hippie culture before entering the Third World.
Put on Janis and stoke up the campfire. Round one of popcorn, round one of smoak. Three jollier gentlemen you never met. World-record popcorn consumers apparently. “22 rounds in one night,” so they claim. The fire gradually gets brighter, and we gradually get dimmer, the music drifts in and out of consciousness, and the glowing coals take on … interesting shapes. A butterfly, the nose of a dog, an outline of the state of Washington — shapes that appear, flicker, and are then consumed by the flames. By round three, the popcorn is getting incredibly salty. To say nothing of greasy. For round four, I suggest they just fry up some salt in an inch of oil and leave the popcorn out altogether.
On to Tulum, where the road basically ends. Unless you are a well-equipped expedition with four-wheel drives, ready to hack through the jungle toBelizewhere the road eventually reappears. The ruins at Tulum are rundown and tumbled around, but they’re on a lovely and deserted white sand beach on theCaribbean, reason enough to stay here for a few days.
Yes, the road ends here — spiritually as well as physically, for some. Here resides a scattered colony of burned-out gringos — their documents expired, their eyes vacant, living on their last few remaining Yankee goodies (pocket knives, old Levis and such) which they trade for food. While they sit back waiting for the sky to open.
It’s a family affair, the beach deserted except for us and a couple of what might loosely be called “guards” of the ruins. They do nothing and say nothing all day, as far as I can tell. Until one afternoon, this blonde gringo dude comes running down the sandy approach to the beach, a lovely chiquita on each arm. To this, the “guards” must respond. “Mucho carne para un hombre!”
After Tulum, it’s all downhill, driving all day for 3 days until we get to Tuxtla — Tuxtla Gutierrez where we blow the budget on a big room in a fancy hotel with a swimming pool and all. Having come down out of the mountains, we find this heat somnambulent. This far south, except on the shore or in the mountains, people move about like sleepwalkers. Our day is spent resting, re-packing, re-grouping, watching the kids splashing in the pool. Carol practicing her long blonde dives. The next night, we say good-bye late at a gas station, and I’m off alone again in the dark to the Guatemala border.
And here’s my first encounter with the dreaded Central American “oficial”, where customs regulations give him an excuse to satisfy his curiosity … and pick the visitor’s pocket as well. He’s curious about my grungy little Instamatic camera in its cotton sock “case”. No, I assure him, it’s not a weapon, not even a two-way spy radio. It barely manages to take photographs. But he’s bored with my explanations. So I’m off to Guatemala City, where the never-ending revolution is languishing at the moment. A few perfunctory gunshots are fired in the streets every night, probably just for the tourists’ benefit. Some streets are blocked off by the army, but no signs of anything serious.
Through Guatemala in a couple of days. Green and aromatic. All along the highway is the scent of freshly-sliced lemon. Scads of soldiers and brown-uniformed policemen all over the place spoil the view, roads blocked off, cars being searched, people running back and forth, nobody seems to know what’s going on. But the highlight of this country is discovering a huge mango tree in fruit, right by the road. Well, that’s it for the rest of the day. I sit down beneath it and gorge until the sun goes down, the hell with what all this ripe fruit might do to the digestive system.
Drove along the coast in the evening in this incredible torrential rain, great bolts of lighting, thunder among the volcanoes loud enough to make you think they’d come to life and started erupting. But that was just a freak rain, so they tell me. The rainy season is still a month away. I can see I’m going to be in damp spirits when it does arrive.
This is the first part of a new Millstone series we’re calling Your Stories. If you have an interesting story about your life or an event in it — travel adventures, reminiscences, anything at all — why not consider submitting it to the Millstone. Your neighbours will be intrigued.