Sunday, August 7. 2011
What do Mexicans Think About ... Posted by Mexico Mike in Books, Culture, Mexican Society at 17:58
One of the biggest obstacles to "selling" Mexico is that Americans don't know the Mexican people. I am ashamed to say it, but many Americans think most everyone in Mexico is involved in drugs, a wannabe illegal alien, or shiftless. Even among those who come to visit, many tourists pack their stereotypes with their swimsuits.
My view, after 30 years travel writing and working in the tourism industry is that if we change the misperceptions of Americans, tourism will increase substantially. If people have a negative impression of the country, it matters not how beautiful the attractions are or how much we tout them. We are preaching to the choir. Sure, statistics show that tourism is increasing somewhat. How could it not, considering where it was a few years ago? But who are we gaining? Some people who had been to Mexico before are coming back. A minority of Americans have been to Mexico's interior. How can we attract them? My clarion cry is, "Educate them. Introduce them to the real Mexican people."
I met no Mexicans who slept against cacti wearing big sombreros or huaraches with tire tread soles while interviewing about 100 people for my book, Modern Mexico Through the Eyes of Modern Mexicans, yet, those are the stereotypes that many Americans even today have of Mexicans. Some Americans will be surprised that the life goal of most Mexican citizens in not to come to the USA and wash dishes.
A better writer than I once said that there are many Mexicos. I can only add that there are many Mexicans that make each of those Mexicos blend into one country. There is no more an "average" Mexican than there is an "average" American, Canadian, German, Englishman or Frenchman. Not all the people you will meet in this book are successful or have the lives they want. That would not be realistic; it would not be the big picture. Not all Americans or Canadians are successful or have the lives they want. But we are all part of the great collage of our cultures.
Mexico's Greatest Tourist Asset Is Her People
While Mexico has lots of interesting and beautiful spots to visit, so do a lot of other countries. The reason I (and most of my fans who write me) keep coming back to Mexico is her people. Yet, most of us travel writers write about the glories of places, not the people. Perhaps that is because it is easier to take a picture of a waterfall, cenote, mountain or a quaint village than of a soul. Sure we can take a picture of a smiling artisan, waiter , old woman at a market stall etc., but the image is an abstraction of the person. A beach is a beach. It may have somewhat different "moods" depending on the time of day, but a picture tells the story. No so with people's inner selves.
We take hurried press trips, have assignments from editors and in general "focus" on destinations. Be sure to put in some local color, is a timeworn admonition. Local color is seldom in-depth. That is not what editors want. People understand where Cancun or Pto. Vallarta are. They can go visit it. We can say for sure that they could go jet-skiing on beach A. We can't say that they will meet person B and discuss life. Most tourists observe Mexicans through a veil. A few of us hear a little from a talkative taxi driver or bus boy or shop keeper and think we understand something of life in Mexico. We know only the superficial.
If you want to know more in-depth about what Mexicans think and feel, you might enjoy meeting a few people from my book.
As an average tourist:
We are unlikely to discuss with an artist what she thinks about caring for her aging parents - and what she thinks about the American way of caring for the elderly.
We might not talk to a businessman about the government, about the changing of society because of the trans-national corporations.
We might not hear over and over again why many mothers feel their children are much safer in a Mexican school than in an American one.
We probably won't talk to a university professor about why she thinks American kids are so spoiled and ill-mannered compared to Mexican kids. Nor will we understand why so many Mexicans with advanced degrees are migrating to Canada.
Nor will we talk to a tour guide who will tell us that Mexican kids today are losing their traditional values and manners. Or why he wants tourists to be interested in the majority of Mexicans, not the minority that live like they did a hundred years ago.
If we visit a doctor in Mexico, we are unlikely to discuss why Mexican physicians are more likely to listen to their patients, make a diagnosis on the symptoms they see and intuit, then order tests to confirm their opinion. American doctors do this the opposite way and spend almost no time with their patients.
We might miss the opportunity to discuss with a tour guide/philanthropist Nahuatl Indian why natives people walk down the mountains for hours in the dark to see a doctor at the IMSS hospital and are pushed out of line by the better-off citizens of town. Nor will we hear about his simple project to improve the lives of his people by giving them inexpensive smokeless wood stoves. Nor will we understand the hope that springs eternal amidst the darkest reality.
We might see advertisements for employment in shop windows with the phrase, buen presentacion but not know it is code for non-Indian-looking.
We might have a superficial conversation with an insurance salesman about how everything is more expensive today, but not get into why imports from China and a flagging NAFTA are part of the problem. We might not learn from him that the Mexican attitude towards the future is changing which is why he is able to sell more insurance policies than in years past. That insurance companies today are more likely to actually pay the benfits helps too.
Nor will we have a conversation with a 70 year-old miner, rancher and philosopher who will tell us that his opinion is that Mexico's current drug problem was decades in the making and that all people bear some responsibility for the way things are now.
Nor will we talk to teachers who see similar pressures on kids today as on kids in the USA.
Nor will we talk to musicians and find out what they think about Americans performing in Mexico. Nor will be learn how musicians manage to eke out their livings with their art.
Nor will we talk to women who have diametrically opposed ideas about the macho mentality. One woman hated that aspect of the culture and divorced her husband because he thought it was acceptable to have a girlfriend and for his wife to work. If I gave him a hundred pesos, he gave half to her, she said. Then he asked for another hundred.
Another woman quit her career as a bone marrow transplant surgeon because her husband wanted her to stay home. She told a moving story of how, because of her husband's macho attitude she knows that he will always take care of her and is devoted to her. She devotes herself to animal rescue now. Both woman are "right" because both are happy with how their lives are today.
Nah, we will wonder about such things, but we won't have any way to find them out.
The Forgotten Mexicans
So I wrote a book about what the Mexican people think about life in general. There are books about rich Mexicans, poor Mexicans, criminal Mexicans, Mexican immigrants and other media-friendly segments of society. This is about the "forgotten" Mexicans - the average middle-class Mexicans. Modern Mexico Through the Eyes of Modern Mexicans is a forum where 30 average Mexican citizens explain what they think about a variety of subjects. One thing that was driven home to me was that in Mexico, middle-class as much a matter of attitude as economics.
Overall, the picture drawn by the people telling their stories here about what it's like to be a Mexican is positive. I didn't engineer it that way. But I think that differs from most people's impressions of life in Mexico - and that given by those Mexicans who live in the United States.
But we like things to be quantified, so here is a rough guideline to the definition of middle-class used in this book and more or less echoed by most people interviewed. The middle-class is loosely defined as a family of four making at least ten thousand to twenty thousand pesos a month. It is the working people and the professional people who keep the country running and growing. These are the people who populate this book. Yep, some make much more and a few who make less. And, yes, some of the people I interviewed worked as illegal aliens in the USA, but chose to come home (or were deported) to Mexico.
I will publish excerpts from the stories of many of the people in this book on this blog. If you cannot wait for an installment, you are welcome to go to my web site and see what reviewers have said about it, and perhaps even order one for your home library. Just a thought.
Why I Could Write This Book
I'm not an economist, am no longer an expat and am a recovering travel writer. I'm a gringo who has made friends and enemies (never trust a man who doesn't make enemies - it just means he doesn't understand people) throughout the vast country, I've been asking questions and listening to Mexicans in all walks of life for forty years. Most of the specifics of what I leaned in the sixties (19, not 18) has little bearing on Mexico in the twenty-first century. Yet, the bigger picture, now a faded sepia print, has value because I've seen the country grow and change, while much of the essence has remained the same. The cultures change with the times: the culture adapts glacially.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that, like many idealists of the sixties and seventies, I tried to make a living importing artisanias (typical Mexican handicrafts). The only things I ever made money on were leather whips and velvet paintings, especially velvet Elvis's. For a time I was the Whip King of New Orleans (for selling them, that is). I say this to let you know that I did not always have the same high standards of integrity that I have today. Or maybe I was not as uptight. Mexicans thought it was hilarious to see a gringo with a Pancho Villa moustache drive out of town in a '66 Ford Mustang loaded to the roof with velvet paintings, whips and pinatas stuffed against the windows. Always leave 'em laughing was my motto.
Saturday, June 25. 2011
Romantic Hotel Revisited Posted by Roadlogger in Fortin de las Flores at 07:56
Geotagged: 18,54.0434N, 96,59.7488W
Hotel Fortin de las Flores, Veracruz One of the dangers of travel writing is that things change. That pretty much makes it impossible, or at least dangerous to coast on your reputation or rest on your laurels. Oh Lord, have I learned that over the 30 years I have been publishing travel articles. In fact, sometimes things change as soon as I am heading out of town.
So, it was with great trepidation that I approached the Hotel Fortin de las Flores in the town of Fortin de la Flores in the state of Veracruz. My memory was never the best, and as I have left sixty years of age in the rear view mirror, it seems to be eroding rapidly. Hotel Fortin de las Flores is one of those hotels Graham Greene would say had "faded grandeur." The faded part has nothing to do with being run-down. In fact, the opposite is true. Hotel Fortin is kept up and is still first-class. However, its glory days are behind it, simply because the days of travel glory are behind us all. In its heyday, people came to this hotel from all over the world. It sports a stunning view of Mt. Orizaba, a snow-capped volcano. The mountain can best be seen from the pool, which is famous in itself.
In the season (spring), the pool is entirely covered with gardenias every morning. This romantic touch is still maintained. I was so glad. Since my traveling companion (Bill Kaliher) was hardly conducive to a romantic evening, it was fortunate that we met a couple from San Miguel de Allende who checked in about the same time. I asked the lady if she thought the hotel was romantic. She wasn't sure. Her husband, however, quipped that he would let us know how things went later that evening. His wife hit him, but not very hard. I believe it would have been called a love tap. She was smiling when she did it.
The next morning, they were both smiling and giggling, so I think I got my answer. I have it on good authority that many a lovey-dovey, turtle dove cuddly night has been inaugurated there. So my dilemma was that I had been recommending the hotel with a caveat to couples, based on feedback others had given me, and to be honest, my own experiences of decades past. I was always upfront, telling them that other clients had told me it was still a grand place, but it hurt me to do that. Finances and time kept me from checking it out in the past few years.
The hotel has heavy wooden beams and hand-crafted archways all around. The polished tile floors are so perfect that is seems a sacrilege to walk on them. The gardens combine palm trees and tropical foliage that seems incongruous in the shadow of a snow-capped volcano. The rooms are ample (and, yes, they have TV, though I did not turn it on to see if it worked) and blessedly quiet. The staff is friendly and happy to be there. That is the biggest recommendation a hotel can give itself. The Internet is actually decent, with multiple routers.
When you stay there, you think of the days when men wore tuxedos (or at least suits) and women wore long gowns to come down for dinner. Elegance is gone, for the most part, in today's Mexico and USA. We are so casual now. But, if you go to the Hotel Fortin de las Flores and want to dress up, you will fit right in. Alas, part of the old days that will never be recaptured is that Pico de Orizaba blew its top several years ago and is not quite as impressive as it was. Perhaps that was Nature's way of commenting on the decline in tourism standards.
Finding the Hotel Fortin de las Flores was a challenge, due to construction, but everyone in town knows where it is. We were guided there by a wonderful lady who drove up on our right in a traffic jam and asked politely if she could cut in. She was so nice (oh heck, she was pretty, too), that we said, Sure. Then we asked her if the next exit was for Fortin de las Flores. She said it was. We asked her if she knew how to get to the hotel. Of course! she exclaimed.
Then she lead us around the construction right to the front door. We gave her our cards and she wrote us back. As it turns out, she works for the United Nations here in Mexico. The whole incident was soooo Mexico. Mexico is the land of serendipity. Chance encounters lead down a cascading path of pleasant discoveries. A leads to B, but then to E, and on to R and so on.
We were in a traffic jam for maybe 50 miles and several hours. Nobody knew exactly why. Rather than curse the jam, people got out, stretched and joked with each other. I got some great pictures. Then, because of the jam, we did not make our destination. That was how we ended up in Fortin.
Because we went to Fortin, we met the nice lady, Lucy, who shared part of her country with us. So those of you who are sitting home, imagining Mexico to be an armed camp could not be more wrong. We are here and people like Lucy are still here too. Oh, and we should not forget the nice people who took time out of their day to explain and draw maps for a shortcut to get back to the freeway.
The nice people included a shop owner and a policewoman. So don't miss an opportunity to come to Fortin because of the negative media propaganda. Just come on down. The weather and the views are fine. Hotel Fortin de las Flores Web site: http://hotelfortindelasflores.com.mx/ Rates: About $800 pesos double
Saturday, June 25. 2011
Catemaco, Veracruz Posted by Mexico Mike in Veracruz state at 02:42
Geotagged: 18,24.7935N, 95,7.2009W
Never say never. During my last trip through Veracruz last year, I had to bypass Catemaco. I thought then that I would never get back there. Never came early, because we just left Catemaco.
Catemaco is not the sort of destination that your average jet-setter would visit. I think that is a good thing. There are many Mexicos and many types of tourists. God bless the jet-setters â€“ they are the bulk of tourists to Mexico and as such, contribute to the economy more than people like you and me. And, even I have jetted to destinations when I was on press trips. It is not really how you get to Mexico that matters, it is what you do with your time and where you go once you are here.
We stayed at the Hotel Los Arcos www.arcoshotel.com.mx . This is one of those reasonably-priced middle-class Mexico hotels that I find to be such a bargain. Some say Mexico has gotten too expensive. I suppose that is a matter of debate. The Los Arcos (and most of the hotels Iâ€™ve stayed at for the last two years) costs $500 MXN single or double.
The hotel is built in a U around a pool and parking lot. Parking could not be more secure. The rooms are reasonably-sized and the ones on the side of the hotel away from the street, towards the back, are exceptionally quiet. You know me â€“ Mikey has to have a quiet room. That may be one of the personality quirks that keeps me from assimilating into the Mexican culture. In general, Mexican people are way more tolerant of noise than I am. The point for other travelers is that pretty much no matter what your quirk is, the people in Mexico will try to accommodate you.
Catemaco is about a thousand feet above sea level on the Gulf Coast. Because of this slight elevation, it has a warm, but not oppressively hot climate. I certainly love Veracruz city and the seafood, but even I have to admit that when you get away from the beaches with the breeze, it is warm in summer. Catemaco is above all that, so to speak.
Catemaco is built on the shore of a volcanic lake. There are picturesque views from just about anywhere on the Malecon. However, I remembered a particular photograph I took twenty or so years ago and wanted to return to the spot. Bill remembered the same spot as he had taken pictures there too. So we drove off down the road south of town to see if our memories were still intact. After all, the long-term memory is the last to go, so we figured we were pretty likely to find it.
Find it we did.
Why go to Catemaco? The main tourist reasons are the lake, the holistic lodge and eco-tourism park Nanciyaga, the reputation it has as a location for brujas (witches) and curanderos (healers) and just a picturesque Mexican town. For the adventurous restaurants serve a local snail from the lake.
My own humble opinion (based on personal experience and those of friends of mine who are healers themselves) is that Santiago Tuxtla up the road 16 miles north has more authentic healers. On the way there, you pass through Santiago Tuxtla where almost all of the cigars are made in Mexico. Bill stocked up but I quit a couple of years ago or I would have. I rank good Mexican cigars with any from anywhere else. But, like all travel-related things, as in the beginning of this post, taste is relative.
Another attraction is the jungle and the reforestation that is going on there. Nanciyaga can proudly boast that they have restored much of the native habitat, which speaks highly of them and the clientele that visits the. While we were there, I availed myself of the services of Ben Suykens, a European-trained, Mexican-licensed chiropractor. He has restored much of the land he owns and even the coyotes are coming back, to complete the cycle of life. Hand around Catemaco long enough and you will begin to talk like that.
My next post will be on Eyipantla Falls, an attraction I have missed seeing in all my years in Mexico. The lesson is that Mexico always has something new to offer â€“ even to an old goat like me.
See you down the road in Mexico.
Monday, June 20. 2011
The Internet has revolutionized (and demeaned) travel writing with its tyranny of immediacy and the democratization of information. Everyone who is anyone (and many who are not) has a web page, if nothing more than a WordPress blog that almost looks like a real web page. Sites like TripAdvisor make everyone an expert. Citizen reviewers are like citizen journalists. Sometimes professionals do a better job.Ã‚ We at least try to get the facts straight before publishing. And, even when we have felt unappreciated by hoteliers, we generally refrain from printing saying negative things. We may damn with faint praise, but that takes some skill. Too often, I have seen someone who had a bad experience or a chip on his/her shoulder lambast a hotel for things that were not the hotelierÃ‚?s fault. I have seen people complain about sulfur hot springs hotels because they smelled bad. Come on! Sulfur has always smelled bad. People go there because of the sulfur.
I have seen people diss a good hotel because it did not have TV in the rooms, when one of the attractions of that hotel was that it was isolated and a place to get away and mellow out. When I owned a travel agency, we lost sales and a good hotel was hurt because someone wrote a scathing review of a spa we represented. The woman had not even stayed at the spa. She had stayed at the hotel by the same name, which was a completely different setup. People who make themselves feel superior by hurting others should make sure of their facts.
Ah, but I rant. On with the story. Eventually, when I have the energy, I will put real reviews of real hotels by real travelers who know what they are talking about. And I will approve them. But that is for farther down the road. Travel writing is more than merely traveling to a hotel, staying a few days and writing about it. It is, at its best, an opportunity to show an outsider a glimpse into the society and area around a destination. It is an opportunity to marry literary excellence with journalistic impartiality. A very few writers have ever achieved that. And among those, some are just so opinionated that they get the facts wrong in order to aggrandize their egos. But hey, I have never claimed to have achieved that lofty goal. I just slog along, reporting what I can, adding a little spice of my years of knowledge.
Sunday, June 12. 2011
On June 11, Banjercito changed the fees for car permits. Now you must pay a DEPOSIT based on the age of your car (not your own ages, than God). You get the deposit back when you cancel the permit. For 2007 and newer, deposit is $400. 2001-2006 - $300. 2000 and older - $200. This is charged to your credit card immediately. It is refunded the day after you cancel your permit.
Saturday, April 30. 2011
Wheelchairs and Accesibility in Mexico Posted by Roadlogger in Accessibility, El Ocotal, Handicapped, Mexico state, Uncategorized at 05:28
As some of you know, I have done a little to promote accessibilityÂ in Mexico with a link to Isla Aguada hotel and RV park run by a quadriplegic and dedicated to people with physical disabilities. I also write about whether hotels I review are truly accessible or blowing smoke (most are). It is not much, but I try. Someday, I hope to have a page about accessible Mexico. I wrote a chapter about the trials and triumphs of Mexican people with physical disabilities in Modern Mexico Through the Eyes of Modern Mexicans.
Today I read about Richard St. Dennis and World Access Project on CNN. Richard, himself in a chair, lives in Mexico state and has been running aÂ project for years to provide wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes to those who cannot afford them. They used to rely on donated wheelchairs from the USA, but the cost was about $200 to refurbish and transport them, plus (as I learned 20 years ago when I first became mildly altruistic), getting donated good through Mexican customsÂ is a little challenging, to put it politely.Â
I am speaking for myself here, not Richard. My own experiences in getting humanitarian shipments through customs often meant long delays and sometimes mysterious shortages. Â Many moons ago, I met Stan Brock, formerly the alligator-riding, grizzly-bear tackling co-star of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I, and every young boy with a TV set,Â wanted to be Stan when we grew up. Sadly, I never wrestled an alligator or tackled a grizzly. I did fight a couple of bulls once, and that was disaster enough. Ah, but here I go, digressing.
Back then, Stan was taking a semi-truck filled with medicines to the Huichol Indians and in those pre-Internet days, had heard of my connection with them. Stan stopped in McAllen and we became friends. Later in Nayarit, I introduced him to a Wall Street Journal reporter who was doing a story on me. It felt nice to do something good for others. Today Stan is still going strong out of Knoxville, TN and operates Remote Area Medical, providing humanitarian aid to people in the USA and other countries. He recently opened a free medical clinics in Nashville,Â Los Angeles, New Orleans after Katrina and other places here jn the USA. Â StanÂ still looks about the same as when I saw him, so being a philanthropist must agree with him. Meeting Stan was one of the highlights of my life, long ago.
Alas, but as usual, I digress again. Richard St. Dennis now livesÂ near Atlacomulco, Mexico. He found a company in Mexico that makes good quality, rugged wheelchairs. With these he can help more people than he could with donationsÂ from the USA. His organization, World Access ProjectÂ Â has regular events throughout Mexico to promote awareness and raise money.
I will put up a page on my site to link directly to him, but if any of you are overwhelmed with generosity right away, you can make donations right on their site. And, if any of you drivers to Mexico want to throw in a wheelchair per person, you won't have trouble with customs and could bring it on down to them. I personally love Mexico state (though it can be chilly) and there is a magnificent old-growth forest with a park at Parque Nacional El Ocotol, not far from the headquarters of World Access Project.
You know what?Â The most important thing any one of us can do is to look at people with disabilities as people. Before I actually met and talked to a few people who traveled Mexico in their vans and RV's who depended on wheelchairs to get around, I was just as insensitive as most people. I looked through the person in the chair. I looked down on himÂ when talking to hmÂ rather than getting down to hisÂ level and being equal.
I've seen very nice tourists turn into the ugliest Americans when meeting a person with a disabilityÂ in Mexico. What if that was your son or daughter, mother or brother? It could be. All it takes is an auto accident, or a slip on the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende or a surfboard gone wild at Pto. Escondido.
So, yes, donate money to World Access Project. But remember that every person you meet in Mexico thinks you ARE the USA. Treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Go visit World Access if you can.
They do notÂ just provide wheelchairs and then walk away. TheyÂ provide a way of life to people who had none before. They teach people with disabilities how to live, how to be productive members of society, and most importantly how to have hope. They teach them to live with self-respect. Visit their web site and read and see the video.
The people at World Access Project are not just aboutÂ wheelchairs. They areÂ about peoples' lives. They are about dignity. They are about you and me and every one of us. It's not about us and them. It's just us in this world.
Monday, February 7. 2011
As a tourist in Mexico, you can be assured that you will be able to connect to the Internet in Mexico. Most Mexican hotels have Internet, even some budget ones. You will soon learn to cherish and hate the words, Internet InalÃ¡mbrico (in al AM bree co). It means Internet that is wireless or cordless or without cables! Whee! When a hotel desk clerk tells you they have, Internet inalÃ¡mbrico, you will at first jump up and down in joy. Your joy will be short-lived, however, It means that, Si, they have wireless internet, but no, it may not actually be in your room. Thus, unless you are close to the hotel router or repeater, you will have to wander the halls blindly with your laptop in your hand, tripping over hidden pitfalls that lurk in hotel hallways, or go to the lobby or restaurant. I have found that getting a hotel room closer to the lobby often results in a stronger signal. Also, a hotel room with a balcony can give you a chance to find an Internet signal. Asking the bell man which rooms have the best signal is about as effective as asking him which room is the quietest - which is to say, not very.
Moreover, when you register, be sure to ask for the clave or codigo (access code). Desk clerks will proudly tell you they have Internet inalÃ¡mbrico, but then forget to give you the code. Even hotels that have strong routers and a series of repeaters can be compromised by employees who share the code with their primos in the neighborhood, thus weakening it.
Still, we should be grateful for what we can get. Sometimes you will be astounded at the speed of your connection. Other times you will just get sleepy waiting for a download. But I remember the days when even a dial-up Internet connection was rare in Mexican hotels. And in those days I had an expense account and stayed in 5 Star hotels. Today, it's 3 for me.
If you prefer, there are Internet cafes everywhere, even in many small towns that you would hardly expect -- even in Real de Catorce, which is about as remote as most people will get. High-speed Internet connections are the norm in Mexico today. Most Internet cafes will let you connect your laptop computer at Internet cafes in Mexico. Internet cafes are dwindling because so many people have computers at home, or through their cell phones these days. I suspect they will go the way of the larga distancia or long-distance telephone offices.
Sunday, December 12. 2010
Nuevo Progreso, Mexico's Newest ... Posted by Roadlogger in Border Safety, Nuevo Progreso, Safety, Tamaulipas, Uncategorized at 11:15
We went to Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas yesterday. We went to the dentist, as we have been doing for years.Â We also went to the people pharmacy for us and the veterinary pharmacyÂ to buy flea and tick medicine for our pets. We also just like to get to Mexico now and then, even if it is only to cross the border. We also donÂ?t mind saving fortunes on dental care and pet medicines.
Alas, it was a rather sad trip. Our dentist was upbeat as always and it is a pleasure visiting with him and his wife, catching up on whatÂ?s going on in their family.Â HisÂ business is down by half from last year.Â And he and his wife have a new baby. Some dentists may close. I didnÂ?t visit my garrulous barber, which I usually do, since it was late in the day and I could not take any more bad news.
Quiet Is Muy Triste
As we walked down Nuevo ProgresoÂ?s main street, we would tell a difference from the last time we were there, only a few months ago. For one thing, there was less noise. Err, excuse me, some people would say less music. Normally, every street vendor and many of the shops have something blasting at you to grab your attention. The overall effect of this cacophony of rap, salsa, geezer rock and ranchero tunes is either quite lively or quite irritating, depending on how much of a grumpy old geezer you are. I donÂ?t think they toned it down because grumpy old Mikey was coming to town (no comparison to Santa).
While it was afternoon, the theme music should have been Silent Night. A few dispirited songs wafted from baby boom boxes, but it was as if the disembodied musicians themselves were depressed. It was actually possible to walk down the sidewalk without bumping into vendors and stands. I donÂ?t think the reason was that I have become much thinner (though I did lose 15 pounds on my recent strenuous trip and am hard at work regaining them). There were fewer vendors.
I bought a belt and a hat band for my Panama hat from Merida. I didnÂ?t have the heart to bargain with the two vendors, but they came down on their price anyway. It was a little sad.
The Only Growth Industry
There is a new growth industry, though Â? shoe shining . Both boys and men offered to shine my sneakers for Â?almost nothingÂ? or one dollar, whichever came first. Even I draw the line at that kind of munificence.
Sadness All Around
La Fogata, the venerable old cabrito restaurant was shuttered and someone had set up a stand where their front door had been. (It is always possible that they were just on vacation, but early-December is an odd time for a restaurant to close for vacation). The last couple of times I ateÂ there, it was pretty empty. Still I donÂ?t want to start an Internet rumor that they are closed. LetÂ?s just say they are Â?resting.Â?
The Canada store was open, but there were many empty shelves. Our veterinary pharmacy was still open, but prices had gone up about 15%. We were happy to pay the increase as we still saved 60%. Our people pharmacy was closed. (There are still about 1,726 pharmacies open, so donÂ?t worry). But we liked the people at the now-closed pharmacy and they always remembered us. They were our friends. There were several empty storefronts.
The point is that these are real people who have lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own. Many are our friends. They arenÂ?t involved in drugs. (Well, okay the pharmacies sell Viagra, but you know what I mean). Their town is probably the safest on the border Â? as it has been for decades. Their police (who never bothered tourists) were cleaned up when the Army took over and most people I talked to thought that was a good thing. There had been one cartel incident earlier this year or late last year. That means there were 364 days out of a year with no trouble of any kind, not even pickpockets. It is not Cd. JuÃ¡rez. ItÂ?s just a little town that depends on tourist for business.
OK Mike, What Are You Selling?
Despite an Internet rumor, GarciaÂ?s Restaurant was open as was the store (although they had empty shelves too). And that brings me to my point. Someone once asked why I harp of the safety of Mexico so much. What am I Â?sellingÂ?? I am Â?sellingÂ? compassion. I am speaking for my friends who depend on tourism to feed their families. I am raging against ignorance and intolerance. Yeah, my business suffers from bad press about Mexico too, but I have other ways to make a living. My friends in Mexico who own shops, hotels, restaurants, and so on do not.
Learn A Little Geography
The press has the responsibility to report real news. Yes, bad stuff does happen. Very bad stuff. But what those reading the news donÂ?t get is that these incidents are isolated. Bad stuff happens in the USA all the time. We accept that our country is not a war zone. We know that Chicago or Portland are not Memphis or San Diego. Yet we become geographically blind when it comes to Mexico. The entire country of Mexico is not a war zone. Neither is Reynosa or Matamoros. Even if they were Â? that would have nothing at all to do with Nuevo Progreso. BTW Â? I still go to Reynosa and drove through Matamoros a month ago. Neither my car or my person collided with any bullets.
A good part of the responsibility for the hard times in Nuevo Progreso and indeed the rest of Mexico lies with people like you and me. It is people who spread rumors like the one below, people who spread and repeat nothing but negative messages about Â?MexicoÂ? when they have no idea of geography.
After the Gulf oil spill, beaches all along the U.S. Gulf had to combat this geographical blindness among Americans about our own country, so maybe I should not be so surprised.
In case you were one of the ten people in the world who did not get the Internet Â?WarningÂ? involving the Â?Cartel Credit Card ExtortionÂ? here it is condensed. Someone made up a story that happened to Â?close friends of theirs.Â? Anybody ever heard of Snopes.com? I donÂ?t know all that many people butÂ three told me that the incident happened to someone they knew. Oddly enough, the Â?victimÂ? was three different people, not the same person known by three people. It must have been a busy day for the cartel.
In the false rumor, supposedly because GarciaÂ?s was closed, these Â?close friendsÂ? went to another restaurant to eat. (I am not naming the other restaurant because there is no need to libel it any more). They were presented with a bill for hundreds (or maybe thousands) of dollars. When they questioned this the waiter pointed to two tough-looking hombres by the door and said that they were cartel people who had taken over the restaurant. If the gringos did not sign the credit card voucher, they would not leave the restaurant alive.
Now, any rational person could see the holes in this story. But, those who just want to believe the worst about Mexico latched onto it and spread it around. Many of them added more made-up stuff Â?provingÂ? how unsafe Mexico (the whole country, mind you) is. Most of those people never went to Mexico in the first place.
Only You Can Prevent Negativity Fires
I know this wonÂ?t happen, but if there are any people with negative opinions of Nuevo Progreso (or Mexico) but with open minds, I urge you to form a posse for your protection (unarmed, please) and go across to Nuevo Progreso to see for yourself what it is really like. Look into the eyes of the businesspeople who are trying hard to smile and be friendly, but who are struggling to keep their doors open. Walk down the main street and chat with a couple of vendors (most speak English). Get to know the real people your libel is hurting. Maybe the next time you get a chance to say something bad, you will think before spread negativity and you hurt people.Â
Friday, November 19. 2010
Have you ever stayed at a hotel where you just felt like family when you walked in? The Hotel Las Azucenas (http://hotellasazucenas.com/hotel_las_azucenas) in Zihuatanejo is one of those places. Since I have reservations about making reservations, (I never know where I will be or when I will get there), I just show up and knock on hotel doors until one seems like the right one. Las Azucenas was immediately right on all levels.
Las Azucenas doubles as a hotel and a residence hotel. There is a kitchen with a stove and fridge and enough dishes to make someone who wanted to stay for a few weeks feel at home. The rooms are built around a small pool with tropical plants and flowers. There is Internet in the room closest to the front desk and in the common area by the pool. I used to get upset by not having Internet in my room, but now see that the common areas provide opportunities to meet other travelers. Since, for me, traveling is about meeting people that is better for me.
People Make The PlaceA hotel is just a bunch of rooms if there is no soul there. Las Azucenas is way more than a hotel. It is home. The owners, Lao Sotelo and Azucena Garcia make sure you feel at home without smothering you. In Mexico today, some women keep their maiden name as in the USA. I am not a big fan of frou-frou bed and breakfasts, and their approach is just right. Call me Goldilocks.
The rooms are very large and tastefully decorated.Â?TastefulÂ? is a judgmental word. LetÂ?s just say that someone with much better taste than I would appreciate the elegant touches that made their rooms so much more inviting than mere hotel rooms. As my wife has pointed out, I am unlikely to win any awards from Better Homes and Gardens or Southern Living. My idea of decorating is pinning a map to a wall and nailing a velvet painting of a bullfighter (or Elvis) next to it.
Lao (short for the husbandÂ?s hard to pronounce name) was actually raised in the building that is now the hotel. The apple does not fall far from the tree in this case. Azucena (the wife) is Spanish for lily and also the name of their daughter Â? hence Â?LasÂ? (more than one) Azucenas. These nice people are kind, intelligent and sweet. Just being around them makes oneÂ?s whole day better. They took a genuine interest in us as people, not dollar signs. They also bought one of my books, Live Better South of the Border which makes them literary as all get out.
They are building next door with plans for condos or apartments to sell to expats. I gave them a little bit of advice on the small things that gringos look for in a residence and believe that my book will give them plenty of insights. Fortunately I refrained from sharing my decorating tips. I wish them much success in their endeavors.
Should you find yourself in Zihua (as the in-crowd calls it), be sure to drop in on them and spend a day, a week or a lifetime.
Ah, But Is Mexico Safe?
I met a number of expats in Zihua and most of them had driven down this year. Gee, I guess they had not read the news stories that dominate the reporting about Mexico. Mexico is safe, driving is fine (and with the toll roads, actually easy). Some expats did express concern that we had come from the Texas border. They all came down the Pacific coast from Nogales. While they had read new reports of violence on the Sonora and Sinaloa, they knew the reports were overstated because they knew the area. But, since the Texas border was as foreign to them as Afghanistan, they bought into the media hype.
I reassured them that our safety was never in question. The sensationalist press and those individuals who spread rumors are killing the tourism industry for their own gain. Nice people like Lao and Azucena are the ones who get hurt. Stuff happens everywhere. The sensationalist reporting and rumor-mongering by individuals is hurting good people. Put the faces of nice people who are trying to provide services for tourist in front of the bad press before you cry that Mexico is not safe. Whenever someone says something negative to you, ask when was the last time they were in the interior of Mexico. They probably have never even been here. Cd. Juarez or Reynosa etc. are not Mexico. They are parts. They are not the whole. When trouble happens, just remember that there are more killings in Los Angeles than in most of the country of Mexico.
Oh, But Not All Is Peaches And CreamI have to be absolutely honest with you. I am not Pollyannaish. I am trying to report the truth as I see it. If I said that nothing bad every happened in Mexico, I would be just as inaccurate as those who try to paint the county a being one big gun-battle where everyone is in fear for their lives.
Greg (a retired policeman, who is more street-wise than most people) and I (a neÂ?er do well writer who canÂ?t retire from anything) have driven about 3,000 miles so far and only twice did we seriously feel uncomfortable. Note that I said, Â?uncomfortable,Â? not Â?in danger.Â?
Once was in Progreso, Yucatan (north of Merida). To us, the town had a gang-like atmosphere. The graffiti on most walls may have added to that impression. Someone there called me a cabrÃ³n when I asked directions, but he was nice enough to wait until my back was turned. I felt uncomfortable there the three times I visited it in the 1990Â?s too. It has never been on my list of favorite towns. But Greg had never seen it before, so his opinion is more important. People have been calling me an old goat for years, even back in McAllen.
The point is that we would have felt just as uncomfortable had we driven into any city in the USA and gone to an area with gangs and graffiti. People need to remember that there is good and bad everywhere. I grew up near Lopezville, TX, which today is the home of a gang. Driving through there might make most people feel uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with cartels. The USA is not always the safest place to be, depending on where you are.
The other time we felt uncomfortable was when we visited some Â?off-the-beaten-trackÂ? villages on the MichoacÃ¡n coast. We didnÂ?t feel in danger, per se, but we didnÂ?t feel all that welcome. It was like we had stepped into a Twilight Zone episode. The people in those towns had secrets that we didnÂ?t want to know.
After we saw several 250 peso rooms, we stopped at a modern, elegant hotel. It has the best-stocked bar we had seen in Mexico. Greg said he saw bottles ofÂ hundred dollar a shot tequila. It had Jacuzzi suites. It had bad vibes. It was 1,200 pesos. Remember that this is a poor town with little to offer.
We decided not to spend the night there, got back on the road and spent a wonderful night in Tecoman, Colima at a downtown hotel (The Plaza) with the best Internet yet and a Buddha and reflection pool by the restaurant.
So, when you read about someone having a bad experience in Mexico, take it with a grain of salt (with or without a lime and a shot of tequila). Mexico is a big country, just like the USA. There are some rough areas, just like in the USA. But they are only small areas. They are not representative of this big, wonderful county.
Stay on the beaten track (or only go off it if I have so directed you, since that is my specialty). Listen to your instincts and you will have a wonderful time. Leave your negativity at the border.
Thursday, November 11. 2010
Pie de la Cuesta. Qro.
Traveling is about both people and places. Now that I am back in my Mexican groove, I relish the encounters with people and make jokes with them, which enhances both our experiences. My jokes are quite child-like, and it is good for me to be so.
We met some wonderful, warm, proud and at the same time humble people in the past few days. Like attracts like. The night before last was a terrible one for me, full of sadness and maybe even a little self-pity.
Last night was a wonderful night for me, full of hope and renewal. The night before, we were in Pto. Escondido, where I lived in the 1980Â?s. I have been back since then, but not for many years. My, how my baby has grown up.
This morning, I am sitting at a deserted restaurant table both hearing and looking at the crashing waves breaking thunderously on the golden sand of Pie de la Cuesta. This village just outside Acapulco has also changed over the years, but at a manageable pace. There is a new town square, some upscale hotels and restaurants, but it is still honestly authentic to its spirit. This is all only my opinion. Your mileage may vary.
Few of the hotels take credit cards, and the ones that do have too great an opinion of themselves, in my opinion. At one, we politely asked if they had a better price and the drunken/stoned blonde gringa manager/owner (or paramour to the owner) came up and said. Â?We have nothing,Â? in English.
Have you ever met someone so full of dark energy that she seemed like she would suck the life out of you? We could not get out of there fast enough. We would not have stayed there at any price.
She brings up a moral dilemma of being a travel writer. Should I write about her hotel based on my encounter? Or should I realize that everybody has a bad day (or a drunken girlfriend) and the quality of the hotel is not really based on her? Or should I feel some sort of petty satisfaction by Â?showing herÂ? and dissing her hotel?
IÂ?ve been doing this for a long time and have reacted all the ways above. I think every travel writer has, at one point. If you will recall, early in these blogs, I talked about a hotel that did not remember me. I was careful to point out that had nothing to do with the quality of their product. In this case, I would imagine that woman is drunk more than occasionally. But maybe it was her birthday. Or maybe she had received some terrible news and was drowning her sorrows. I have no way of knowing. Most of all, who am I to judge?
Once you rent a room from the sober desk clerk, she would hardly impact your stay. So I will err on the side of silence. By basing my review of the hotel solely on the facts, I still serve my readers, yet do not seek personal vindication.
In this case, mentioning the hotel here would taint it, so I will make it part of my hotel reviews for clients without the story.
Then we found the Bungalows Maria Christina. I am not sure whether I liked best the sweet little old lady who owned it, her dog who wanted me to scratch his belly or the rooms. These were simple accommodations, ceiling fan only, very quiet and right on the beach. The thunderous pounding of the wave would be enough to lull a keyed-up CEO to sleep, much less two weary travelers.
She said it was very quiet, Â?with a serenade of the ocean and the sparkling lights of the stars playing with the quarter moon,Â? to keep us entertained. I told her she was a poet. She smiled. BTW, I called her seÃ±orita. No matter the age of a Mexican woman, call her a seÃ±orita, not a seÃ±ora, until told differently.
Alas, she could not accept credit cards. We are on the cutting edge of our funds now, with a couple of hundred dollars in tolls left to get to Nogales. My credit card will handle the hotels, but our meals are going to be less than sumptuous from here on out. Paying cash for a hotel is pushing it. Her rate was a mere $300 pesos for one room and $400 for the one closer to the ocean.
It was with real sadness that we left her and she understood. Vaya con DÃos y regrese, she called softly as we drove out into the night.
She taught me a wonderful life lesson. For every SOB, there are at least two nice people, in Mexico or in the USA. We went off in search of the other nice person to balance the scales. Seek and ye shall find. Like attracts like. A stitch in time Â? wait, I am running out of platitudes.
So we went back to the first hotel in town, the Hotel Pie de la Cuesta. We had been there earlier in the day and moved on. I told him I was a writer and would write about his hotel, without expecting anything in return. We had not been to other hotels to realize what a great deal he had. Now we were wiser, more educated, consumers.
The owner, Tony, is a kind and gentle man. He was kind and caring of his son and they lived in the first room of the hotel. He showed us his rooms with pride. The hotel was a mere six months old. The small rooms had tile floors, modern air-conditioners and decent beds. Most importantly, the hotel had Internet. The connection was a little weak, but that was not (as I reassured him) his fault. His service provider was having trouble, I told him. In actuality, local leeches were probably stealing his bandwidth, but that would be hard to explain and it might hurt his feelings.
He had a pit bull puppy who liked me and a cat in the restaurant in the morning. All in all, it was a loving place.
The price was $500 pesos when we left before, but I gave one last shot at getting a deal. He dropped it to $400. We were the only guests. This hotel was cash only, too, but we came up with it. I had a pang of feeling guilty for not staying with the little old lady, and so did Greg, but we were modern road warriors and were hooked on our Internet. Addicts will justify anything in order to get their fix.
So, once again it took a couple of hours to find a hotel and we met a slew of people. I wonder what it would be like to know where you are going? Nah, I donÂ?t really want to know. Life is more of an adventure lived without a plan.
The road from Pie de la Cuesta to Zihuatanejo has some serious problems with washouts and construction. If driving this way, allow a good 4 hours.
Sunday, November 7. 2010
Mike Finds A Higher Purpose at CaÃ±on Sumidero, Chiapas
Now I can die and go to heaven. Not that I am intent on the dying part, nor am I certain that heaven would be my destination (if I was convinced in the existence of those concepts). Those who know me probably think that the warmer place would be more welcoming. Ni modo. I am content.
There are very few places in Mexico that I have not seen at least once if not several times. 40 years of traveling around Mexico, mostly by car, as we are doing now, has led me down many paths, shown me many Mexicos. This journey has led me to most every attraction that I wanted to see, some I had to see as a travel writer and some that I wondered what all the hype was about.
I have driven to Chiapas many times and never seemed to have the time to see the canyon. The last time I was in San Cristobal de las Casas, I had accidentally taken a photograph that included a Maya woman. As I snapped, she walked into the scene, turned, stared at me and put the evil eye on me. Seriously. Within a few hours, I was vomiting and so ill I wanted to die. My amigos at the time knew what had happened and that a regular doctor would do me no good. They got an egg, rolled it all over me and left it under the bed. Then they piled me into our car and we hot-footed it out for Oaxaca city. I writhed in pain in the back seat all the way to the Oaxaca-Chiapas border. Once we crossed the state line, the pain stopped. After a nightÂ?s sleep in Oaxaca, I was fit as a fiddle. And just as out-of-tune.
But I digress Â? a common Â?MexicoÂ? Mike tendency. As my darling, long-suffering wife, Nicki told me:
If you get stopped by bandits, just start telling them Â?MexicoÂ? Mike stories and they will let you go.BTW, we DID get stopped by an Â?unofficialÂ? roadblock / banana toll shakedown near Cascadas de Agua Azul, but that is yet another story. The Â?tollÂ? we paid was 20 pesos and we did get a bunch of bananas as a toll receipt.Â
Chiapa del Corzo
Back at Sumidero, (the town is Chiapa del Corzo) the story continues. We are staying at a remarkable hotel, Hotel La Ceiba. It is imbued with tranquility, from the peaceful, lush gardens to the warm and understanding staff. Any hotel that has a cat wandering around the restaurant is okay by me. It made me feel right at home. And there is love here, perhaps the most important quality. I saw the manager or ownerÂ?s daughter walking her dog (there are three here). The way the dog looked at her and she at him told me that there was no love finer than that, except perhaps mine for my wife. There is a macaw here that has a spacious cage (a sad rarity in Mexico), plenty of fresh food and a good attitude. Add to that, the spa where Greg and I both had excellent massages. The rooms are about $40 and the massage was about $45. I have stayed at hundreds of hotels in Mexico and this is one of my favorites. The owner also owns the Hotel La Aldea in Palenque.Â
You can look up all the data about the canyon, like it was created by the building of a dam in 1980, has ridges that rise 1,000 meters to the sky and a depth of 300 meters at the deepest. That kind of stuff is interesting, but it all pales in importance after you have seen it.
Greg, who is traveling with me lives near the Columbia Gorge and says this is spectacular. Due to my single-minded purpose, we snagged a seat in the front of the launch. That spot is great for taking pictures, but hard on the spine and bladder. I suggest you pee before you start and then pee again.
I felt a sense of completion, entering the canyon walls. It was like Mexico had held her most magnificent beauty for me in reserve. Sure, I have seen the Copper Canyon and even driven down to the bottom. I have seen the Zone of Silence and driven though it. Real de Catorce has seen me too many times to count. To me, Sumidero tops them all.
I donÂ?t know why, but I have had the feeling that this might be my last Mexico trip. There is nothing sinister in that, it is not as I expect to keel over dead or that Mexico will disappear, it is just an unreasonable fear. And not seeing this canyon would have made me feel incomplete.
As I lay extended across the bow of our little boat, bouncing up and down with the heavy wake, I felt truly, completely alive. Snapping photos with my Nikon, getting battle-scarred, made me feel that this is the life I was meant for. I felt truly alive, one with my camera, one with the canyon, one with the Universe. For that half-hour I was living entirely in the Now. That is like stepping away from this vale of mundane existence that we all live and stepping into an alternate reality where everything has meaning, where every breeze has significance, where every thought is carried on angel wings to Heaven.
Oh, that I could be that alive every minute of every day! I know that the spiritual teaching that I struggle with tell me that we can, and I have experienced minutes of sheer bliss before, but it is rare that I can live in the present to such an extent. Yet, this happens to me every time I come to Mexico, at some point. This is why I travel, this is why I keep preaching the joys of seeing Mexico, not just as a destination, but as an alternate reality where you can release your burdens, feel your soul and touch the sky and beyond.
So now I have seen it. What next?
I t is not a question of what, or where, next, it is a question of how next. How will I live, having achieved a life goal? DonÂ?t we all experience this at some time in our lives? IsnÂ?t this the age-old question of the meaning of existence?
Could it be that I no longer need physical goals, or even spiritual ones? Could it be that I can advance beyond the necessity of needing mile-markers on my journey to being the perfect being that I already am?
I donÂ?t know and that is a good sign. As the Lao-Tse said, Â?He who says he knows the Tao, doesnÂ?t know the Tao.Â? I know nothing and am content. Tomorrow will be today in a few hours. Life is good and perfect. So am I.
Thursday, November 4. 2010
Working on some bang-up pieces about the only place in Mexico worse than Tampico, our psychic experience in Xcalac, my career as a used Panama hat salesman, the greatest hotel bargains we have seem and whatever adventures come our way tomorrow.
Was kind of bummed out and stopped writing when someone mentioned seeing typos. How foolish I was to be so sensitive, but I am who I am or yam as Popeye and Richard Wright said.
Man, if you ever wanted to drive to Mexico, this is the time. Hotel occupancy is low and prices are too.
Blogs should be immediate, non-polished writing in the moment or near it, not finished works of art. This one is written under extreme conditions. We drive all day, roll into town around dark, check out half a dozen hotels and then eat. I get a chance to blog around 10 PM, if I am not too tired, which I often am. Then it is up at the crack of 8 AM (6:30 tomorrow). We are currently back in Palenque, heading for Cascadas de Agua Azul and San Cristobal de las Casas in the AM.
At one point, we had to depend on a generator for Internet access and then only between certain hours of the day.
Generally, the hotel internet access is quite slow, so just writing and transfering the info from Word to WP screws up all the formatting and puts in funny characters. Writing live is painful on a slow connection. So, if you see typos, please don't bust my chops.
Also, some people don't seem to understand that this is about driving Mexico. The whole point of this adventure to prove to the Negative Nellies that driving in Mexico is safe. Don't believe the hype of the news media that would make you think Mexico is a war zone. It is not. I am reporting honestly on what we feel and see. Only once have we felt unsafe on the road. The scariest place was a town near Merida. Nuevo Progreso, Yucatan felt scary, but it had nothing to do with drug cartels. I didn't like the town when I went there on a press trip 112 years ago.
Oops, one of those pesky typos sneaked in! I am not that old, although I feel it sometimes on this trip. Make that 12 years ago. There are gangs there, as there are in most cities in the USA. It was the only place where I heard somebody call me a cabron behind my back. (OK, many people have called me that to my face back home, but it was always with a smile).
OK, Internet is about to go off here, so posting away. More soon.
Saturday, October 30. 2010
No Rooms, No Changes, No Refunds
It is customary in Mexico to look at a room before checking in. I almost always do and in fact, I did in Xpujil. But we did not check GregÂ?s room. Silly us, thinking that one room would be the same as another. They sort of were, except his air-conditioning did not work. Â?No problem,Â? I said, they canÂ?t be full, we will just get another room. The bellboy disagreed. They were full he said, even though the parking lot was empty. (I forgot that we were in the land of European backpackers who take busses).
Greg had spied that there was a copy a book for a support group I belong to (no, not DumbAsses Anonymous, which many people think I should join) on the bed stand. Although I had never heard of the organization being like the GideonÂ?s who put Bibles in hotel rooms, I knew they did things differently down here. I asked who was in the program. The bellboy proudly said it was the dueÃ±a or owner of the hotel. I said that was great, and I would like to meet her.
We followed the bellboy down the red-tiled corridor with the blond wood railings and steps in improbable locations to the back of the kitchen. The hallway behind the kitchen was guarded by a black iron bar gate as tall as I and with really sharp, pointed spikes on the end. If you were foolish enough to try to break into their alley by climbing the gate, you would be impaled and have to change your name to Vlad if you survived. There was also a shrine with candles, a statue of Jesus and the photos of a young woman in a grotto to the right. (Later that night, I walked by the shrine and heard the weeping and wailing of someone in terrible emotional or spiritual distress, but that is another story).
The dueÃ±a had her back to us. She was busy bent over a table shredding a leafy spice with great gusto and cries of blood-lust satisfaction. She threw the mutilated greens into a blue plastic bucket. Mexico is the blue plastic bucket capitol of the world.
The dueÃ±a had her back to us. She was dressed in a severe black dress, wearing severe, sensible black shoes. She shouted commands at the top of her lungs. Â¡Sergio, ven aca! (Come here - NOW)
By God, if I was Sergio, I would ven immediately at her command. She was no one to be trifled with.
Our bellboy smiled as if to say, Â?So you want to tell HER you donÂ?t like your room?Â? Then he told her our plight.
No hay curartos. No hay cambios. No hay reembolsos, she shouted. (No rooms, no changes, no refunds).
The bellboy asked again and she repeated the same thing only with more conviction. This was not going as I had envisioned. It was obvious that she was the boss and Greg and I had a vision of Don Corleone from the movie The Godfather. This little old lady was the powerhouse of the establishment. Every few moments, she barked orders to someone. She seemed to have been born without a volume control
SeÃ±orita, I shouted over the distance separating us (here is a cultural tip Â? no matter how old a woman may be, unless you know specifically that she is married, do not call her SeÃ±ora). I wish to talk to you about something other than the room. I noticed the book in the room. I also am a member of the same society. I have been for 29 years.
Â¿Si? She shouted. Â¿No me digas? (Polite translation Â? You are not kidding me?)
No SeÃ±orita, eso es la verdad. I am telling the truth. I just wanted to meet a fellow member.
Â¡Julio, tonto! She shouted even more loudly, abre la puerta! (Open the gate, fool!)
After a brief disagreement over whether the gate was padlocked with the padlock the size of both my fists, someone found the key and we were admitted to the inner sanctum. I stood in from of the DoÃ±a and she extended her had. I repressed an impulse to kiss it. ThatÂ?s what they did in the movie. Instead I very gently, almost lovingly grasped it in both my hands and said hello. Her hand was greatly disfigured by arthritis, something I have seen many times among elderly women in Mexico.
We chatted for a moment in the secret language of our society and she decided that I was for real.
Â¡Julio, tonto! You know we have rooms for these nice gentleman. See if #2 is clean. If not, #6 is free.While Julio went for the keys I chatted with her and asked her what she was doing. In front of her was a metal Superior beer table covered with a green leafy herb. She told me what it was and said it was used in the shrimp soup they made there. I told her that if it was made with her young hands, it must be good. She smiled for a time so briefly that a second was an eternity. She inclined her head slightly and it was obvious that the audience was over. She returned her full attention to shredding the defenseless green plants in front of her. I resisted the impulse to kiss her ring and backed out.
Surely enough, there were two rooms available. When we got ready to move, the air conditioner in GregÂ?s room was working again so we didnÂ?t have to move after all. I was afraid not to order the soup but took a chance and ordered fish instead. The DoÃ±a did not come with a ruler and smack my knuckles.
No matter what happens in Mexico there is always a way and always a room. You just have to know how to ask.
To localize us on the trip, we are now leaving Sandwood Villas, www.sandwood.com, in Xcalac, Quintana Roo. We are a few miles from Belize by water. It was great visiting with old friends, though both Andy and Ruth Sanders, the owners, are younger in spirit and more spry than I. Friends from the old days, I should say. This is an absolutely mellow location and the villas (2 bedrooms with kitchens) are a bargain at $85 off-season (April 16 Â? Dec 15) for 2 people and $139 for up to 4 people in high-season (Dec 16 Â? April 15 Â? do your taxes by the Caribbean!). They are steps from the inviting blue Carsibbean (good snorkling a few feet from shore) and near the best "Grand Slam" fly-fishing (permit, tarpon, bonefish)
There are also a couple of hotels in town, Costa Cocos ($95 off-season for 2) and a retreat for Â?intimate couplesÂ? with a Â?European-style beach.Â? For those of you who are not as worldly as I, that means clothing optional. I did not dare go check that place out.
Xcalak (it is spelled both ways) renewed our spirits, especially mine. As we were leaving the really good restaurant at Costa Cocos, the ownerÂ?s mother said, Â?MexicoÂ? Mike Nelson, I know you. IÂ?ve been reading you for years.Â? Like I said, I have a way with octogenarian chicks. I feel young at a mere 60.
Andy is also a well-connected and savvy honest real estate person here, so should you wish to buy a piece of this lovely peninsula, he is your guy.
Next post will be from Playa del Carmen, we hope. There is a storm in the Caribbean and we are watching it to decide when to return to Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas and Agua Azul before heading north to drive up the Pacific Coast of Mexico to Arizona.
Wednesday, October 27. 2010
I am currently sitting in the Silicon Valley of Xpujil. Besides Greg and me, there are three local geeks hunched over their laptops in the restaurant of the Hotel Calakmul in beautiful downtown Xpujil. For those who donÂ?t immediately localize this place, it is halfway between Escarcega and Chetumal. That is near the Belize border. It has the best Internet in town so the other guys come here. They seem a little old for geeks (look whoÂ?s talking). But it is a happy family, 5 geeks (2 of us Americans) a family of Mayans with a baby and somebody else. All the others are watching the ubiquitous TV and soccer game. Somebody is always playing soccer on TV here, always at loud volume. When not doing that, the rest of the telelandia population is crying over lost loves on the telenovelas. ItÂ?s like everyone else has a more interesting life than I do.
We had some excitement today. The Escarcega Â? Xpujil road has always had a bad reputation for bandits. This predates the cartel situation. It was supposedly a bad place to be 40 years ago. I have always warned clients to get off this road before dark. I also dissed Escarcega, Campeche.
Well, we stopped in Escarcega and gassed up (got gassed? passed gas?). The Pemex attendant was friendly and efficient. We ate at the Burger King next door. It was a nice place, but I donÂ?t think the concept of fast food was too entrenched in the employeeÂ?s mentality. But it was food and an experience.
I always said Escarcega was hell spelled backward (I am not very good at dyslexia either). There are several hotels here, some best suited for emergencies like avoiding driving the highway at night. I tottered out of the car several times, placed my backside on several beds (wait, that sounds wrong. I mean I sat on several beds to see how hard they were Â? oh heck there is no way to get out of this linguistic hell I trapped myself in).
At one hotel the laughing ladies who manned the front desk seemed awfully happy to see two guys drive up. Their very low-cut and slightly filmy camisas were probably just their hotel clerk uniforms. When one showed me the room, she seemed to have a bit more sway in her walk than necessary. I call that place the Â?Happy Hotel.Â? I think the "happy" part is extra.
The next, the Â?Gran Hotel de EscarcegaÂ? was actually quite nice and I sensed no hanky-panky on the menu. And it has Internet wireless.
We were on the suspicious section of road early, about 1:30. For once I followed my own advice. About 2:00, there was a pickup truck with some two or three guys in the back, (in retrospect, this morning, we decided it was at least 17 guys armed with Uzis and grenade launchers. By tomorrow they may have grown toÂ a platoon) and a couple in the front of the truck. It was just kind of sitting between the lanes. Greg, who is a retired cop said he did not get a good feeling from them. Neither did I. I an not even retired. We sped on and Greg watched them in the rear view.
They waited a little while and then turned onto a road into the bush. From that point on, we were on alert. We saw trouble everywhere. A campesino walking along the road became a potential threat. In short, we went from two happy-go-lucky (no play on words there) guys to real road warriors. We WERE Mad Max Light.
Greg explained just how you can run through a barricade by hitting a car at the right spot and spinning it, using the motor as a fulcrum. He was able and I was ready. Those who know me may have compared us to dumb and dumber, but hey, they weren't there.
There wasnÂ?t enough traffic to suit us. When there was traffic, it was not the right kind of traffic. All that was missing was that haunting trumpet intro to the Clint Eastwood westerns. When we finally saw an army truck rolling down to where we came from, we were very happy.
OK, what really happened? I think the guys, who were probably not members of the Welcome Wagon or the local Rotary, were in the middle of the road because they needed to turn left to their ranch. They were waiting for the traffic (us) to pass. They did not turn around to follow us or threaten us in any way. They may have been up to no good, but it didn't include us.
I remember when my old boss Charles and I drove this same road 15 years ago. We saw a Â?roadblockÂ? up ahead. We decided we would run it. I got my Swiss Army knife ready. He gunned the engine. As we approached the Â?roadblockÂ? we realized that the Â?banditsÂ? were really construction workers either making or filling potholes. We nearly killed a couple.
So, a little paranoia is a good thing, but not too much. Just keep your eyes open and donÂ?t shut off your brain when driving and you will be as sane as I. Oops, that is not much to aspire to. You get the idea. Stay cool and cool things will happen to you.
BTW, this road was one of the nicest free roads we have seen and better than some toll roads. Yay Campeche.
In the next episode I will tell you of the adventures of the Dona Corleone who runs the hotel with an iron fist, crippled with arthritis, but iron nonetheless. I made friends with her and got her to Â?findÂ? a room for Greg after she had shouted, Â?No changes, no refunds, no rooms.Â? She turned out to be a sweetheart. But I have a way with 80 year-old women.
Tuesday, October 26. 2010
Palenque and Acayucan Hotels
My how the mighty have fallen. There was a time when the news that the famoso "Mexico" Mike was in town would cause hoteliers to quake in fear and women to shiver in anticipation. Well, maybe the second statement was a little bit of a stretch, but the first was true.
When I was a well-known travel writer, hoteliers knew that my reviews could mean business for them, and often when I started visiting hotels at one end of town, by the time I was finished, hotel managers at the opposite end knew I was coming. In one case, a manager actually chased me down the street to offer me a courtesy (free) room. Most would ask me to stay without charge. The irony is that back then, I had a practically unlimited expense account and didn?t need the courtesies. Today, well, the Nelson fortune is dwindling with each mile we move forward. Who said life was supposed to be fair?
Fast-forward ten years. It?s a different story today. Even though I am now in the business of planning trips for people and making personal recommendations for hotels, sending about 500 people a year to different hotels in Mexico, nobody knows that. Even though I have an Internet page with half a million visitors a year, everybody and his brother has an Internet page. Today half a million is not a huge number, no matter how well targeted. Times have changed. Unless a hotel sees a busload of tourists pull up, he doesn't know where his business comes from.
I have found that marketing is a tough, time-consuming business and I don't market myself as well as I should. This puts me into the same category as the hoteliers. I do not intend to single out speciic hotels, but to use them as examples.
Even with the hotel and tourist business down as it is now (we have seen less than 10% occupancy), the idea of rewarding someone who promotes their business is not in the hotelier's world view. Every dollar counts. I think that is a little short-sighted, but I am not in their shoes. We have been the only guests as some hotels with 50-100 rooms . That is sad.
Selling Mexico right now is a tough sell. I think that the hoteliers who are hurting so badly should be doing more to tell people it is safe to come visit. This is no time for passivity.
On the other hand, for the first time in my 40 years of reporting on Mexico's tourism industry, hotels have actually lowered prices. This is huge. In the past, when business was bad, they raised prices, figuring to squeeze every last peso from the few guests they had. So far, we have seen reductions in prices from 30% in Tecolutla to 50% pretty much across the board in Palenque.
Acayucan had no discounts and one hotel was actually full. We stayed at the old standby the Kinaku. $45, great internet, quiet rooms (except on Friday and Saturday nights when their disco on the top floor was loud). On weekends get a room on the bottom floors. We were on the third and could have used some more concrete between us and them. They have secure parking and the same attendant I have known for 20 years. It was really first class. The Hotel Arcos del Parque is decent and quieter on weekends but not very upscale. But I liked it. There is a 3rd hotel on the other side of the square that is funky to the max. The rooms are actually quite nice, but to get to them you walk down darm corridors with strange holes for electical conduits in the walls and puddles of water. But it was cheap at about $20 and they had only 2 rooms left.
The Chan-Kah is still a very nice hotel. If I were a rich guy, I would probably have stayed there. I did not because my feelings were hurt, so this is not a negative review, just the saga of how things have changed. I will still recommend them, but now they are just a hotel to me, not a special place that I think of with love in my heart.
I do believe they are over-priced and would have believed so even if I had been recognized. But, for some people, the ambiance would be worth the extra dollars. If I were running the hotel I would make the price competetive to the others is town. But I am just pobrecito Miguelito, so what do I know?
I pitched the hotel Chan-Kah on how I have written about them for 20 years and realized that the 20 year-old kid there could care less. All he saw was an old guy talking about something that happened before his time. He was very nice, but I was wasting my breath and bruising my own ego by talking to him. I should have insisted thatÂ hecall the manager. It is that kind of fear of thinking out-of-the-box that permeates the hotel industry here. Indeed, it is a microcosm of the service industry in general. People are warm, friendly, and eager to pleaseÂ - to a point. A generalization is that employees fear taking the initiative. That is where US and Mexican tourist-related businesses differ. It is my belief that taking initiative is more rewarded on the other side of the border.
I remember the Chan-Kah when it was a few rooms and I wrote glowing articles about it. They needed the business and were such sincere people running it. One of my great pleasures as a somewhat influential travel writer was that I could help "the little guy". I would like to think that that karma was still active. The trouble is that sometimes when the little guy becomes the big guy, he forgets who helped him in the beginning.Â
Today, the Chan-Kah is huge and even advertises that they have a convention center. They still have a gorgeous setting, but seem to be trying to be something different. They have gone from being a reasonably-priced special inn to an overpriced hotel / spa / convention center. At more than $130 a night (normal rack rate), they are pushing the limit of reasonability. During this crises, they lowered their rate (for anyone) to about $90. That is still a lot. Their claim to fame is their surroundings. The rooms are so-so. They now call themselves a Resort Village. We have enough resort villages in the world. We need more unique and honest hotels.
Although their brochure advertises that they have 2 bedroom suites, they were only willing to rent them to us for the price of two rooms. Folks, this hotel was either absolutely empty or doing a good imitation of it. Had they been able to rent their only adequate rooms out for $50 they would have had 2 customers last night. We would probably have appreciated their ambiance. We both lost that night.
As we got ready to leave, we met what I thought was the manager in the parking lot. He, too, was uninterested in someÂ used-to-be-famous old guy. I am sure that if I had showed up with a press trip sponsored by the Tourism Department, I would have been wined and dined. But you know what? I have returned after a few months to hotels that treated me like a king and been reduced to commoner status.
Other hotels in town immediately drop their rack rate by 50%, except for one that tried to charge the full rate of about $90-$100. Their greed cost them two customers that night. We ended up in the Howard Johnson's. This is a very good hotel just before the turn to the ruins on the right, with ample rooms, really hot showers, internet in some rooms and in the lobby, coffee-makers in the rooms and an attentive staff. While they didn't seem to care about the infamous "Mexico" Mike either, they did not insult me and their promotion was reasonably-priced.
Alas, the old Canada has seen better days. Nice people though.
The Maya Tulipanes is now a big hotel, not the quaint jungle hotel is used to be. But it is still a very nice hotel, just modern. The staff is friendly and everything seemed in order. We would have stayed there (even though they did not know me either), but the Howard Johnson was a little less and just had a more comfortable feel.
The Mision Palenque was as I remembered it, classy and like a first-class hotel anywhere. The rooms have either gotten smaller or I have gotten bigger (no laughter, please). But they are a good hotel, on the upper end of the scale here.
Not one decent hotel we saw in any price range had more than 10% occupancy. Not one. The backpacker hotels were the most full. Even they seemed to be about half-full. Times are tough.'
AreÂ Palenque hotels worth the $100 or soÂ a nightÂ they charge during normal times? Is it worth the expected rise to $120 next year for a hotel room? That is a tough question. I do not think so. I feel that they areÂ ahead of themselvesÂ in pricing.
There are still budget places for the European backpackers, who are the most obvious and plentiful tourists. The Mayabell is still the Maya-Hell peopled by stoners. There are other bungalows nearby on the grounds of the ruins that run about $25. There is now air-conditioning, funky toilets and real live ants on the window sills. They are in the jungle, after all. At this stage of my life, they no longer appeal to me, but then I probably don?t appeal to younger people either.
Tomorrow we head for Merida, Isla Aquada or Xcalak. I will decide in the morning. Nite-nite.
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