Tuesday, January 17, 2006

From Texas to Tampico, Mexico Jan. 12-17, 2006

The link above is to a little online photo gallery from the first leg of this trip. You'll need your monitor res settings at at least 1024x768. Disfruta!

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Mexico ~ January 12-17, 2006

I don't know why it always takes be several hours to get ready and pack for one of these trips. It's always check, re-check, tighten all the bolts twice, etc. I mean, it's not like I'm going off into the void or anything. You can always find just about anything you need in countries like Mexico (except decent chain lube). But, at 2AM I was finally convinced there was no more packing and rechecking to be done.

Naturally, I didn't get on the road as early as I'd hoped. There was the last minute drop off at the post office that ended up taking an extra hour, etc. But soon I was blazing down the highway South.

The weather was a bit ominous which didn't help my launch jitters. It was overcast, grey, windy, and a bit of chill in the air. As I neared the border there was a huge fire to my right that sent a blackened-grey smoke cloud up into the already ashen sky. The smoke pillar's torso seemed to glow a dirty yellowish brown and I tried not to look at it. It sort of made me uneasy for some reason.

Every border crossing crossing I've encountered so far as been pretty straight forward with the signage. Such was not the case near Reynosa. I think there are several crossing points, but the one I happened to land at was called something like Fhatt I think. I really was skittish about crossing this time. Didn't know why, but I thought I might spend the night on the U.S. side and cross in the morning when I'd be fresh. Figured I'd pick a room close to the bridge so that I'd get up, grab a shower, and hit the Aduana with all my faculties.

I turned a couple streets and the next thing I knew was that I was inline for crossing. Oh well, no time like the present. It was already around 5PM so I thought maybe if it went smooth I'd try to ride past Reynosa and to the next town to get a room for the night. Such are the best laid plans. ;-)

There was a pretty long line to cross, but it did move pretty quick. In no time I was on the Mexican side trying to find the office for vehicle permits. You'd think it'd be right there on the other side of the bridge. There was a sign pointing left and I followed the already harried traffic until I saw a building that looked "official". A half hour later and many circles around the area, I still hadn't found it. Turns out it's only about 3 blocks away, but it's tucked behind some other buildings. Luckily someone pointed me in the right direction and again I was inline.

I should've remembered from the last trip all the hoops you have to jump through. After waiting in line for the permit, I was directed to another line for a new tourist Visa. This is where it really started to go down hill. After another wait in line, the official raised his eyebrows, counted days on his fingers, then rushed back to enter something in the computer. When he came back he told me my permit and visa had expired by six days. I explained that I knew this, and had been given instructions by both the Mexican Consulate in Austin, and Bancerito (or something like that) in Mexico City, that it was quite alright if I turned in the vehicle permit late instead of making two trips to the border. That's about when my stomach sunk as I realized he wasn't talking about the vehicle permit, but the tourist visa. He seemed pretty disgusted and said I hadn't even paid the $210 pesos for the original visa. I protested to no avail that I had paid the fee and he shook his head and said, "We know you're lying.. you have no stamp on your visa..." I again told him I paid but that the Laredo border officials must have neglected to stamp my form.

After much arguing, and a lame attempt to bribe him with "paying the fine here so I can be on my way, etc."... he sent me back to the bridge to see the immigration lawyer. Told me that that I'd have to have some kind of court the following day between the hours of 9AM and 3PM, etc. Oh boy! I think they saw me coming from a mile away. I asked if there was anyone who could help me this evening so that I could be on my way, and he said he didn't know.. "just go over to the main immigration building..."

Back at the bridge, I explained the problem to the guard on duty and explained the phone calls, etc. This guy seemed a bit more reasonable at first, then I got the same "we got your balls in a vice" sort of grin from him. Again I was told I'd have to return the next day between 9AM and 3PM to see if the official lawyer could forgive the tardiness and grant me a new visa, etc.

I said, "Look, I really love visiting your country. Heck, I wish I could live here... but I really would like to get past this little problem tonight if possible. Is there anything at all you can do to help me?". He picked up the phone and called someone. Turns out the lawyer was still there in his office and I was escorted back. The Lawyer was a short round man with white hair, expensive watch, glasses, and shoes. He smiled pleasantly and listened to my story I'd already told 4 or 5 times at this point.

When I was finished he said, "The expired vehicle permit is not a problem, but the visa fine, etc. has to be paid to the bank and our problem is the banks are closed. I'm sorry but you'll have to come back tomorrow between 9AM and 3PM to have your case heard." We stared at each other for a minute or two, and then I said,

"You look like an important enough man that you ought to be able to fix this for me tonight. How much is the fine?"

"The fine will be about $1500 pesos."

"For only 6 days late?"

He showed me some forms showing how much others had paid for 30 days late.

"Yes, but I was only 6 days late and was told by the Consulate it wasn't a problem"

"Who did you speak to?"

"I didn't get there name, but can't you be a little more reasonable about this? I really just want to be on my way as quick as possible."

He stared at me a again for moment or two then asked,

"Do you need a receipt?"

I tried not smile too big and said,

"No, I don't need a receipt."

"Well, in that case I can offer you a discount of $750 pesos if you pay tonight."

"I'll give you $50 cash right now to make this go away."

"Done, pay the guard at the front and welcome to Mexico."

FINALLY! Fours hours later I was again on my way, but it was now pretty late so I took a room a few blocks away, dumped my bags, and headed out into the Mexican night in search of a drink.

I was pretty exhausted so the search was pretty quick. Ended up chatting with a bartender in some bar called Sinatra's. The place was overpriced, but it turns out it's owned by two gringos the bartender said. The "Mexican" bars are about half this price. I didn't care, just a couple a beers and I was calling it a day anyhow.

Told him about all the hassle, the "no receipt fine", etc. and he laughed. He said, "Welcome to Mexico!"

He told me he'd lived in L.A. for almost 5 years until he got deported. Said he had his own business and 5 employees, etc. Until he got caught driving drunk and was sent back to the border. I asked him if he had to pay any fine or anything. He said no. Just a free ride back to Mexico, and if he sneaks in again and gets caught it'll be the same thing again.. just a free ride back to Mexico and he gets to keep anything he makes while he's there. I told him it seems like he should have to pay some kind of fine or at least something for the transport... "I know if I got caught somewhere in Mexico without the proper papers I won't likely just get a free ride back to the States. He said "no, likely be sitting in jail for a good while until they take everything they can get from you, but going the other way it's really pretty easy.. it's been getting harder now since September 11th though, "now they think we're all terrorists, so it's a little harder to get across.... I'm going to try again this summer I think. Too many people in L.A. but the money sure is good."

The next morning it was warm with a clear blue sky and I headed South toward Ciudad Victoria. The scenery was mostly flat and the highway straight as a pin. Didn't really look much different than South Texas until I approached Victoria where the flatlands began to give way to soft rolling hills and gentle curves. The only way I could tell I was in Mexico was when I'd stop along side the road to take a break the truckers would all honk and wave... and cars would slow down to see if I needed help... not something that happens too much on the U.S. side.

Ciudad Victoria is nestled just at the foot of the Sierras. The light is crisp and the city is very clean. Surprisingly clean.... I couldn't even see cigarette butts on the sidewalk so I tended to hang on to my garbage until I saw a can. You can't really say that about most cities in Mexico, but this one is a little different.

I took a room at a little place called Hotel California (a popular name for hotels in Mexico). It was a little beat up, but the room was large, had a TV and a very hot shower. I really liked that little town and could've stayed longer, than the two nights I stayed. Didn't even see another gringo the entire time I was there, nor did I find anyone who spoke English... a fact that hit home when I decided to buy new lenses for my glasses. It all went pretty smooth until the eye exam and the man pointed at the letters on the wall for me to read off. I know I've only been out of Mexico for 4 months, but it was a bit of a struggle to remember the correct names of the letters so I just pantomimed the letters I couldn't remember. Until, he handed me a piece of paper with text in various sizes and asked me to read the smallest paragraph. I got through it OK and I think he got the gist of it.

After 2 nights, I had my fresh new lenses, a fresh haircut, and had decompressed enough to relax a little. It was time to move on toward Tampico.

Something about Mexico, or just being on the road seems to warp time considerably for me. Only 36hrs into the new journey, and it already felt as if I'd already been gone a week or so. That's one of the things I love about traveling. It's almost like you get a bargain on life. When I'm home, my perception of a couple days time goes by in a wink of an eye. At that rate, my perceived life span would fly by before I knew what hit me. Next thing you know "ten years have got behind you, and nobody told you when to run..". But, while traveling your perceived spent time gets expanded at least 4 fold. That's a bargain any way you slice it!

I woke up screaming the first night in Victoria. I don't think there was anyone else staying there, so I doubt I woke anyone up. The dream had something to do with a small group of people who find chopped up bits of human bodies in buckets. The others and I went through the bits trying to figure out who the victims were and what had happened to them. I don't recall who the others were, but they felt like strangers. Eventually, we "pieced" together who the victims were... They were us! And, it became clear that we were in some place between the living and dead. With this horrible realization I began crying screaming, "I'm not dead! I'm not dead! I'm not dead".

Not sure what that was all about, but the next day I felt more alive than the day before. The new glasses fit nicely, snapped loads of photos, sipped coffee, etc. Next stop Tampico.

By the map it looked like the road to Tampico would be another straight boring shot. Not the case. Evidently I'd climbed to a higher altitude in Victoria without knowing it, and half the ride to Tampico was all sharp curve winding roads with drop offs overlooking Mesas and the Gulf of Mexico. Someone had told me of a place just North of Tampico called "Barra del Tordo". They'd strongly recommended I visit there and since it was sort of on the way, I figured I'd go by there first. Others had also called it a "paradise".

Stopped for gas in a little town called Aduana (I think). Someone asked where I was going on the motorcycle and I told them, "I'm going to Barra del Tordo". They seemed surprised,

"You are? Why?"

"I was told it's nice. Is it not nice?"

"No, it's nice I guess. It's only about 20 minutes more down the road."

I wasn't sure if I'd taken the correct road since sometimes the signs can get VERY confusing in Mexico. A sign will say you're on a certain highway and the next thing you know the signs will say you're on another highway. After about a half hour I figured I'd taken a wrong turn. There was nothing but farmland and no other cars, so I stopped at a little tienda for a beer and to ask directions.

"You're going to Barra? Yes, it's this way.. only about 10 more kilometers to the beach and 15 to the town."

"You sound surprised I'm going there. Are there rooms? Are there alot of people there?"

Yes, there are rooms in the town, and palapas on the beach... not too many people there though.. more come closer to Semana Santa."

We chatted for awhile and he told me he used to work in Houston. Said he made enough money laying synthetic marble to buy his house and this tienda.

"Don't tell me.. until you got deported?"

"No, I'm just too old to lay marble now. I have papers and a dual citizenship."

"But, you don't speak English? How did you get your citizenship without speaking English?"

"I just worked hard and stayed out of trouble. My employer helped me get the citizenship.. wasn't that hard. I like it here though. It's quiet."

After I borrowed his outhouse and finished my second miniature Victoria beer, I was on my way again. I couldn't wait to see this "paradise", hang my hammock, and just relax.

I passed through more farmland with cows, etc... hardly "paradise-like", but I thought maybe the pastures would give way to some drastic landscaping change as I approached the beach. I waited for it... turned the last corner and road up onto the beach. Not much. Only a line of concrete picnic pavilions and a flat beach. I thought maybe the paradise was further down and road then entire length of the playa. Nothing. Just a beat up looking palapa restaurant that didn't look like it was open, and a line of covered picnic tables. Nothing else. Hummmmm.... I suppose if you'd never seen the ocean before it might pass for a "paradise". So, I thought perhaps the town is where the paradise is. Took a couple photos, but didn't even stay long enough to take off my helmet.

Another 5 kilometers and I hit the town. Another disappointment. Just loads of garbage, beat up fishing boats, dried mud, and a few fishermen laying about in hammocks who appeared to be drunk. Hummmm... still not quite paradise unless you fancy laying about garbage strewn on the dried mud ground and hanging in an old hammock chatting it up with drunk fishermen. Maybe this was just the entrance to the town and the real "paradise" lay down the laguna a bit? Nope. Just more dried mud that gave way to your basic beach. Maybe I'd taken a wrong turn in the town so I backtracked and wound around some shanty wooden shacks strewn with more garbage. After I'd shaken off about the 6th dog trying to snag a bit of my leg, the dirt road circled back to the paved highway. Well, now I was certain. I'm sure this is paradise for someone, but not for me. Without even turning off the motor to have a smoke, I was blazing back down the highway toward Tampico.

Arriving in Tampico was again a huge disappointment.. at first. I followed the signs toward the Centro and managed to stay clear of the insane taxi drivers who evidently couldn't see me. Seeing an Office Depot, McDonald's, Church's Fried Chicken, Walmart, etc. my heart sunk a bit. All this way to find basically San Antonio, Texas.

The sun was setting and I still had my sunglasses on, but I was hoping to just pull into a hotel parking lot, grab a room and plan my escape further on down the coast in search of Mexico. A few more kilometers and the city began to change drastically. As I rode into the Centro area, the architecture looked like something out of Havana, Mexico City, and New Orleans. Just as I'd been told! It was pretty cramped with tons of people, so navigating around at 5PM on a motorcycle was a bit of a challenge.

Eventually I found a room that had a nearby parking garage, tossed my bags, and made out into the Tampico night. The city didn't initially strike me as pleasant since I'd come from such a quaint and clean city, but it does have a strange texture to it. Hard to put my finger on it. I'd only been to New Orleans once, but it didn't look like it was supposed to in my mind's eye.. wasn't as grungy, dirty, and tinged with the fragrance of VooDoo. But this town, Tampico looks much more like New Orleans was supposed to. Seems like something is lurking here behind the crooked old houses jammed inbetween large Spanish buildings. The light in the morning especially has a yellowish brown patina like the color of a pirate ghost's breath.

I've spent the last 2 days exploring the corridors in and around the old port, the old piers, and downtown. I'm really liking this city the more I'm here. And, again.. I haven't seen a single other tourist or gringo here. No one hassles me, or asks me for anything. The air is moist and warm, so I changed into my shorts for most of the hiking and only then did I get an occasional glance. Or, when I'd be studying a bit of rust on a door and then frame for a photo. I'd get asked,

"What are you looking at?"

"I'm just taking a photo of this."

"Do you own that building or something?"

"No, just taking a photo of it."

"But, why? It's ugly."

"I don't think so. I think the texture and colors are quite beautiful."

They'd just look at my shorts, shake their head, and keep walking.

I'm hoping the warm weather keeps up while I head further South. I'm told it can change drastically this time of year and turn bitter cold in just a days time. This morning I noticed all the locales shivering from cold, all wearing coats and gloves. I thought, "Oh no! And I'm not far enough South yet!" But, when I went outside it was still fairly warm. Not quite hot like it was yesterday, but still at least 75F. I guess again it's just all a matter of perspective.

I'm sitting in a little cafe called La Victoria Cafe Gourmet. Luckily they have outstanding coffee, are located right on a lovely plaza, and have wireless. ;-)

Not too interested in stopping at Poza Rica, but there are some ruins called El Tajin I might stop for on the way to either Xalapa or Veracruz... not sure which I'll go to first, but will update you when I've got another payload of "texture and color." ;-)



(click the link below to view a little video clip from this leg of the trip. You'll need Quicktime 7 installed to view)