¡Bienvenudo al Mundo Tercero! Driving south from Texas in a huge SUV with my friend Michael who was on his way to do field work in Belize. I was simply escaping an unbearable emotional crisis at home, the breakdown of my marriage.
We were having great conversations while I grieved inwardly – Jazz on the tape deck – Tiny, thatched huts – transition from desert to semi-tropics, from cacti to palm trees – cornfields, distant volcanoes – town drunks, ancient churches, grinding poverty. Macho truck drivers passing each other on dangerous curves, challenging la muerte – Our first night out, in our motel we were awakened by the screams of a pig being slaughtered outside our window at 4:00 AM – beach resorts – baseball games with chickens wandering through the outfield – flowering papaya trees – men on horses and burros – sugar cane – short, tired women with ubiquitous pregnant bellies – giant speed bumps (topes) at the entrance to each town – forced to slow down, we were always surrounded by kids begging or selling Chicklets – burning cane fields: yellow flames, grey smoke, green grass, white egrets eating insects at the edge of the fire – fruit stands with huge bunches of bananas – shrines to the dead everywhere on the sides of the highway – open trucks full of farmworkers – pineapple plantations – everyone in the towns selling something – cantinas/whorehouses – oil towns – moneychangers – plastic “crafts” – campesinos walking in the dark near a VW dealership – fires in the fields – a bridge next to the road, crossing nothing – pollo en mole con arroz – platanos fritos, pescados murrader (with the dreaded jabanero pepper: El Chernobilito), liquados, corn on the cob with mayonnaise stands on three-wheel bicycles – cattle ranches – RV caravans driven by fat Texans– a happy madness – passeos in the zocalos – theme from Exodus wafting out of a craft shop – local merchants patiently letting me bargain in primitive Spanish, then switching to English for the credit card transaction – swimming at a beautiful natural spring with friendly locals, then returning to the SUV with anti-gringo curses written in the dust caked on the vehicle – the exuberance and complexity of the visual/auditory/olfactory world competing with the loopy turmoil of my inner world.
A bizarre but common sight: local police or even military standing with shotguns or rifles in front of every bank or public building in every town – guarding what? From whom? These peasants? Who is the freer, more advanced population? We Norteamericanos who (after eight years of Ronald Reagan) didn’t need to have the dominant paradigms of power prominently displayed or shoved down our throats, because we had utterly internalized them, or these people, who at least were heirs to a living history of resistance? Indeed, a mere five years later, in these very towns, the Zapatista rebellion would begin.
Sensory overload in the towns – heat and traffic in Tuxpan, smelly Tampico, Coatzacoalas, Cardenas, Olmec ruins at La Venta, Mayan ruins at Xpujil, Villa Hermosa, Escarcega – then the vast cultural complex and psychedelic Mecca of Palenque, with its hoards of tall, blonde Europeans, the young women dressed scandalously in this still-Catholic region – the further south we went, the more we saw signs saying “Maya” this, “Maya” that, on every billboard or bus – the slanting facial profiles of the tiny, barefoot indigenas selling souvenirs exactly matched those on the ancient sculptures –
Dozens of huge trucks bearing “dichos” (mottos or proverbs) on their front fenders: Rambo, El Chillero, El Timido, Zorro, Casi un Angel, Corre Caminos (Road Runner), El Puma, Dios me Permitte Regresso, Cruz Azul, Christo Negro – Casi Siempre, Don Juan, No Vale la Pena, Super Galan, Angel Salvage – Vagabudo – Ama sin Dueno – Coronel Javiercito – En el Nombrese de Dios – Christo Rey, Comanche, Bonanza, Creo en Ti, Senor, Bandolero, Huevitos, Lo Siento por Ti, Quien como Dios?
But our SUV broke down – twice, three times. Each time it miraculously restarted after cooling off. Approaching Vera Cruz, we encountered the gigantic Pemex petroleum refinery, stretching seemingly for miles along the highway, with dozens of 100-foot-tall steel towers, miles of interconnecting pipes, steam, noise – a surreal, futuristic scene, yet evoking images of Hindu temples, Spanish cathedrals, Cape Canaveral, sci-fi cityscapes, the place as much a shrine to the gods of technology as the other buildings are to theirs.
Then trouble: the SUV stalled out yet again. We pulled over and opened the hood, waiting for the engine to cool down again. I got out to take photos of this scene directly across the highway from us, then returned to the SUV after a few moments. Soon, we saw two jeeploads of soldiers approaching – to help us repair the truck? ¡Pero no! Turning to the side window, I encountered the muzzles of two M-16 rifles inches from my face! I thought this was rather funny, until Michael jabbed me in the side with his elbow, informing me that my irreverent attitude was somewhat inappropriate.
The commanding officer informed us that we (did I mention that both of us were long-haired and unshaven?) looked like terrorists, and that it was forbidden to photograph the oil refinery. After reviewing our identification, he demanded my camera and was about to expose my role of film (remember film?), when Michael explained that he was an anthropologist and that we’d only been photographing ruins and cultural sights (true enough) before seeing the refinery, the photos of which were at the end of the film roll. The officer was flattered, polite, if somewhat lax in security terms; he possessed that Hispanic quality of extreme honor and dignity known as pundonor. Deciding that we were harmless, he gallantly exposed only the last pictures on the roll, handed it back to me with the remaining frames intact with his compliments, wished us buen viaje, collected his troops and drove off – without offering any assistance with the broken down SUV, which eventually started up on its own.
A few hours later we stalled again after gassing up at a rural gas station that had no services. We watched baseball for a while, but it still wouldn’t start. Eventually, some bored guys who’d been waiting for a bus came over and offered to help. They told us the local gasoline was very bad and often clogged fuel filters – No hay tigre en el tanque. We had extra filters, but no wrench to remove they old one. No problemo, they said. They asked for a large screwdriver and a hammer. One of them climbed onto the engine, whacked the screwdriver with the hammer until it drove all the way through the fuel filter, grabbed both ends of the screwdriver and turned it until he had unscrewed and removed the filter! They called their method ¡El estilo Mexicano: use what you have to get it done. They refused cash payment but did accept several beers, which we shared in the heat. The SUV started up and we left our new friends.
Vera Cruz on a weekend: thousands of partiers, soldiers, gringo tourists, police, children, musicians, Indians, teenagers and probably 10,000 prostitutes. And, in front of every small mercado, post-card stands with five-cent pictures of the same Pemex refinery, from every angle, the same photos we’d almost been shot for taking! ¡El estilo Mexicano! ¡Como Mexico no hay dos!