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
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.
Saturday, October 23. 2010
Mexico is people. It is not just beaches and mountains and colonial cities. Lots of countries have those. What keeps me coming back is the friendliness of her people.
My glasses broke on the road. I had a spare pair so we pushed on. By the time we got to the actual Gulf Coast, both Greg and I were ready for a break. We meandered down to Tecolutla, a relatively untouristed beach resort right on the Gulf.
Before we got here, we stopped in the big village of Gutierrez Zamora. We parked on the square and began the search for an optician.
We reasoned that a pharmacist would know. At the first pharmacy we stopped at, the pharmacist thought there was an optician in town, and asked another guy, but neither were sure. Â?Go 2 blocks,Â? they said. IÂ?ve been around long enough to know that meant to go 2 blocks and ask someone else who might know what you are looking for.
We walked across the square, confided that our car and possessions were perfectly safe on the street. We asked another pharmacist and he not only knew where the optician was, but sent his handicapped son Ricardo to guide us. The boy was well-known and local people called out friendly greetings. He took his charge of guiding the two gringos very seriously and strode purposefully. Next to the yellow building (everything we looked for in the next few days was near a yellow building) was indeed an opticianÂ?s office.
The office was closed but would reopen at 3. Rather than be upset at this we thanked Ricardo and went to have a soda. An hour for a soda seems like a long time, but not when you are in Mexico.
Promptly at 3:20, the lady optician showed up, fixed my glasses and refused any money. We went back to the pharmacy to thank Ricardo and the family. He appreciated it. Then we all got to chatting away. A middle-aged woman, Rose, was sitting in the pharmacy. Exactly what her relationship, if any, we never determined, but she surely was chatty. It seemed that she had never been to McAllen but had heard nice things about it.
Somehow the subject of her ex-husband Vincent came up. He seems to have just walked away one day and she thought it was hilarious. She asked if we were going to Tecolutla, and we admitted it. She laughed again and said that the people there were very loving. She looked at Greg and predicted that he would soon have a Mexican wife. I apparently was too obviously happily marriedÂ to rate such a comment.
So far, Greg has not been betrothed, but it may be just a matter of time. Stay tuned.
ThatÂ?s Mexico. A simple thing like getting your glasses fixed can lead to a relationship with a whole family and your being included in theirs. Not a bad deal at all.
We checked out half a dozen hotels before settling on the old Grand Hotel Â? the Hotel Tecolutla. It has been around even longer than I and unlike me, has been remodeled several times. It looks good. They gave us a 200 peso discount because I was the famous Â?MexicoÂ? Mike. The fact that there were only three other guests at this 100+ room hotel may have had something to do with it too. They would probably give Mikey Mouse a discount.
This hotel has memories for me, all good. Many places in Mexico are like old friends, and this is just one of them. Most have changed, both psychically and physically. Here, at least, there is no pall of fear or negativity. That was not true in San Fernando.
At the hotel desk, I started a conversation with a guest, Hector, who lives in Cd. Valles. I was telling Claudia, the head desk clerk, about how GogorrÃ³n hot springs helps my psoriasis. Then I related that I had a dream to import the water and sell it but the government had told me that they owned the water and could not export it. He laughed. A good friend of his owns a hacienda there and will sell me all the water I want. He laughed, Â?We will send you a pipa (tanker truck) full of water from Mexico. Most people would want a pipa full of cocaine or marijuana, but you want water!Â?
He said it wasÂ dangerous in the north of Mexico right now. His wife used to shop in McAllen but does not drive there now. Yet, he drove here to Tecolutla. Â?That is different, it is Veracruz.Â? So the whole safety issue depends on where you are standing.
In no way can anyone say that all of Mexico is unsafe. Can someone say that the border states are unsafe? Yes, but with a caveat. We drove the Gulf Coast highway. There was so much traffic on it that the idea of an Â?unauthorized roadblockÂ? was laughable. I have talked to a lot of Mexicans who drive these roads. Up North we have the idea that Mexicans are Â?living in fearÂ? afraid to drive the roads. That is invalid. There were hundreds of them on the road with us. The biggest danger is some man-eating potholes and drunk drivers. So far we have avoided both.
We have seen a lot of military presence. We see that as a good thing. Just for fun I went up to a soldier at a gas station and asked him how far it was to Veracruz. He told me, but he was serious. I guess I would be too, if I had his job. But the Mexican people I meet are still as friendly and joking as ever. So, people are aware, but not living in fear as the newspapars report.
Wednesday, October 20. 2010
Finally got started on our adventure a day late. Those who know me are not surprised. Writing from the breakfast table at Hotel Escondida on the highway before the bypass of Cd. Victoria.
Stopped in San Fernando, Tam. It was late and we wanted to be tucked away before nightfall. San Fernando used to be a fun place to go, so close the the border, so friendly, so laid-back.
Alas, there was a psychic pall over the town. As you know, there was an unpleasant event there a few months ago. We were not worried about that, it was in the past, but the dark negativity hung like a low-lying cloud over the citizens.
The first hotel we saw, one I had written about 20 years ago when I wrote for The Monitor newspaper, was a jumble of broken glass and busted-down doors. The nice one next door, which had been the source of many fond memories was padlocked. Since it used to have a jacuzzi, I knocked anyway. A reserved woman told me they were closed. I asked if there were other hotels in town. She named one.
"Is it the best," I asked?
"No," she laughed, "but it is the easiest to find.
Apparently she doubted the great "Mexico" Mike's pathfinding ability. Wise woman.
It was rather sad. I asked at a store for hotels. At first no one wanted to talk to me, but a little old abuela told me about a hotel that was very "tranquilo" but way out of town. Nah, I thought.
I got back to the car and my companion, a former policeman and soldier, said he did not get a warm fuzzy feeling from San Fernando. I agreed and we moved on. We did not feel unsafe, not at all. If was just, "Why would we want to be around bad vibes?"
So, while I would not let the current situation discourage anyone from driving, I think I would avoid San Fernando. The negative energy still permeates the area..
Onward! There are more adventrues to have.
Sunday, October 17. 2010
One reason for this trip is to escape the incredible, soul-suckingÂ negativity of people on the border. It is not that they are bad people, it is just that all most of them concentrate on is the bad news coming from Mexico. I've been around Mexico for 40 years. People here haveÂ always been more negative than those up North.Â Right now the negativity just seems to be more intense. Negativity and fear feed upon themselves. Yep, only an idiot would say there are no bad things happening in Mexico. At the same time, there are a lot of bad things happeningÂ in the USA.
If a Mexican citizen wandered into a known gang stronghold in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles or even where I grew up inÂ Lopezville, TXÂ (near McAllen, TX)Â and got shot, would it be an international incident? Lo me dudo.
Many of my friends acted shocked that I was going to Mexico. You'd have thought I said I was going to vacation in beautiful downtown Beirut. I have not hadÂ so many people praying for me since I was a teenager and needed an army of angels to keep me alive. Their concern is touching, but misplaced. The funniest was one person who told me aboutÂ people killed in Monterrey.Â I said, "How many people get killed in Houston or Los Angeles every weekend?" She did not miss a beat. She said, "Oh those are bad people, probably involved in drugs." You can't win when talking to negative people. It's best not to try.
Friday, October 15. 2010
I will be driving all three coasts (Gulf coast, Caribbean coast, Pacific coast) of Mexico in the next 40 days. But these postings will be more than a trip of places visited. Any long trip to Mexico is an exploration of oneself, a journey of discovery. At least that is how it has always been for me. I go not just to see the scenery but to allow the destinations to evoke something in me that needs to be birthed. I travel to meet local people, to learn how they live and think, not just to see sights. I would like to introduce you to the people of Mexico who make the places worth visiting.
Don't worry, there will be plenty of what, where and why typical of useful travel writing. This won't be just the emoting of some sixty year-old belatedly finding himself. But it will be a deeper journey than many blogs I have read. There is a place for everyone on the Internet. This is my place and I invite you to join me. Mi blog es su blog.
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