¡Bienvenudo al Mundo Tercero! Driving south from Texas in a huge SUV with my friend Michael who is on his way to do anthropology field work in Belize. Me, I’m simply escaping an unbearable emotional crisis at home, the breakdown of my marriage and all I had ever thought of as normal. All is illusion, Maya.
We have great conversations as I grieve 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, – sixteenth-century churches, grinding poverty. Macho truck drivers passing each other on dangerous curves, challenging la muerte.
Our first night out, in our motel we are awakened at 4:00 AM by the screams of a pig being slaughtered outside our window – beach resorts – watching 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 force us to slow down, where we are quickly surrounded by kids begging or selling Chicklets. Colossal Olmec stone heads.
Burning cane fields: yellow flames, grey smoke, impossibly green grass, with brilliantly white egrets feasting on insects at the edge of each 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.
Faithful to one woman for eighteen years, I want to make a ritual gesture of separation. However, as The People’s Guide to Mexico says, “A visit to a brothel that caters to campesinos and local businessmen is funny and surrealistic rather than erotic.” The gesture will have to wait.
Oil towns – moneychangers – plastic “crafts” – campesinos walking in the dark near a VW dealership – a bridge next to the road, crossing nothing – pollo en mole con arroz – platanos fritos, pescados murrader (with the dreaded jabanero pepper known as “El Chernobilito”), liquados, corn on the cob 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 try to 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, almost mirroring, the loopy turmoil of my inner world.
A bizarre but common sight: local police or military standing with shotguns in front of every bank or public building in every town, no matter how small – guarding what? From whom? These peasants? Who is the freer, more advanced population? We Norteamericanos who (after eight years of Ronald Reagan) don’t need to have the dominant paradigms of power prominently displayed or shoved down our throats, because we have utterly internalized them – or these people, heirs to a living history of resistance? Indeed, a mere five years later, in towns not so far from here, 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 European tourists, the young women dressed scandalously in this conservatively Catholic region – the further south we go, the more we see signs saying “Maya” this, “Maya” that, on every billboard or bus – the slanting facial profiles of the tiny, barefoot indigenas selling souvenirs exactly matching those on the ancient sculptures.
All along, we have been seeing gigantic trucks bearing “dichos” (mottos or proverbs) on their front fenders. Many are muy macho; others are self-mocking, sad or philosophical: 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? (For more, see Grant La Farge’s delightful book, Faith in God and Full Speed Ahead!: Fe En Dios Y Adelante : Dichos from the Trucks and Buses of Mexico and Latin America).
The SUV breaks down twice, but each time it restarts after cooling off. Approaching Vera Cruz, we encounter the gigantic Pemex petroleum refinery, stretching for vast distances along the highway, with dozens of 100-foot-tall steel towers and smokestacks, 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 stalls out yet again. We pull over and open the hood, waiting for the engine to cool down again. I get out and take some photos of this bizarre scene directly across the highway from us, then return to the SUV. Soon, we see two jeep loads of soldiers approaching – to help us repair the truck? ¡Pero no! Turning to my right, I encounter the muzzles of two M-16 rifles inches from my face! I think this is rather funny, until Michael jabs me in the side with his elbow, informing me that my irreverence is somewhat inappropriate.
Courteously but firmly, the commanding officer informs us that we (did I mention that both of us are long-haired and unshaven?) look like terroristas, and that it is forbidden to photograph the oil refinery. After reviewing our identification, he demands my camera so as to expose my role of film (remember film?), when Michael explains in his excellent Spanish that he’s 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.
El teniente is flattered, polite, if somewhat lax in security terms; he possesses that Hispanic quality of extreme honor and dignity known as pundonor. Taking us at our word, deciding that we are harmless, he gallantly exposes only the last pictures on the roll and hands it back to me with the remaining frames intact. He offers us his compliments, wishes us buen viaje, collects his troops and drives off – without offering any assistance with our SUV, which eventually starts up on its own. We depart from that mysterious place, unaware that 27 years later a massive explosion there will kill 24 workers.
A few hours later we stall yet again after gassing up at a rural gas station that has no services. We watch some more baseball for a while, but it still won’t restart. Eventually, some bored guys who’d been waiting for a bus approach us and offer to help. They tell us the local gasoline is muy malo and often clogs fuel filters, resulting in that double entendre, No hay tigre en el tanque.
We have extra filters, but no wrench to remove the old one. No problemo, they respond, and ask for a large screwdriver and a hammer, which we do have. One of them climbs onto the engine, whacks the screwdriver with the hammer, drives it all the way through the fuel filter, grabs both ends of the screwdriver and turns it until he has unscrewed and removed the filter! They call their method El estilo Mexicano: use whatever you have on hand to get the job done. They refuse cash payment but do accept several beers, which we share in the heat. The SUV starts up, we embrace our new friends and move on.
Vera Cruz on a weekend: thousands of partiers, soldiers, gringo tourists, police, children, musicians, Indians, food carts, teenagers and prostitutes. And, in front of every small mercado, postcard 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!
More of my articles about Mexico:
Protest, Grief and Memory in Mexico