Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mexico, mucho gusto

Tuve un tiempo fantastico. Muchisimas gracias.

A few of the many things I will remember:

1. Casa Gonzalez. I stayed in 14 different hotel rooms over the last five weeks, but I always returned to Casa Gonzalez in Mexico City. The courtyard was carpeted in fresh flowers brought in daily, the rooms were filled with heavy wood furniture and bizarre photographs (such as huge parade balloon devils) and every morning the owner would eat breakfast with the guests, advising us on our travel plans. All this for about $40 a night.

2. The Embassy Starbucks. Tucked between the Sheraton and the U.S. Embassy is the best Starbucks I have ever encountered. I was never a big fan of the coffee chain in the U.S., but here it became a comforting reminder of home. It helped that next door was a gift shop that sold the New York Times, flown in daily from Southern California. For a few dollars, you could (and I often did) get a Times and Frappucino and sink into one of the soft, plush armchairs. It was a complete delight.

3. The land. From the rugged mountains to lush forests to stark deserts, Mexico is a gorgeous country. I spent entire bus rides looking out the window, entranced, ignoring the book in my lap. The land also had the capacity to surprise -- and this was never more evident than during an interview two days ago in Cerro de las Tablas, a southern city on the Pacific coast. Sitting on a front porch, talking and drinking with several men, the land began shaking violently. My guide, Eduardo, leapt from the porch and ran into the center of the road. I was too stunned to do anything but reach down and secure my Corona. Later I learned I had experienced my first earthquake.

4. The coffee. I've never been a coffee drinker, but here they give it to you with almost every meal, whether you ask for it or not. Now I'm addicted to the stuff. Muchas gracias.

5. The cabdrivers. My basic Spanish was adequate enough that I could explain to a cabbie where I was from, what I was doing in Mexico and what I thought of the country. Without fail, this would prompt of torrent of Spanish I could never comprehend. One cabdriver, though, after I apologized for my terrible Spanish, said to me, "No, esta bien." He was probably just angling for a good tip. He got one.

(Fears of taxi kidnappings did not materialize for me. I was careful, though, in the taxis I chose, always making sure the driver had a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror. Using this fail-safe method, I always reached my destination securely.)

6.The unhurried pace of life. Interviews that would start around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and that I assumed would take about an hour, had a tendency to extend well into the evening and sometimes involve transfer to a bar for much consumption of alcohol. I learned to relax and let these things play out naturally, but I also learned to ask the most important questions early on. A few hours into interviews, getting straight answers could prove challenging.

7. The kindness of strangers. I was constantly amazed by the unhestitating willingness of people who had less than me, who did not even know me, to offer me food and drink and shelter, and, in one case, the use of an excellent horse for two days. Beyond that, they were willing to open up their lives and speak to a stranger honestly and from the heart. Their stories are the ones I will remember the most.

I return home tonight. Hasta luego.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Comings and goings

If I could take a luxury Mexican bus back to Baltimore this weekend, instead of an airplane, I would do it. I've come to love Mexico's intercity buses. They're cheap, fast and comfortable. They provide a stunning view of the country through large, tinted windows, and the best serve free sandwiches and drinks.

I can detect only one downside: the B-grade American movies that are played at a blaringly loud volume, which makes little sense because the movies are in English. Most of the passengers are presumably reading the subtitles to figure out what's going on.

I'm in Acapulco now, and on the five-hour bus ride here, we watched X-Men 2 and Extreme Ops -- loud, curious choices for a bus ride through Mexico.

Before this trip, when I told people that Acapulco was on my itinerary, they rolled their eyes, as if I was treating this as a big vacation. But if I was going on vacation, Acapulco is the last place I would come. Mexico City, with its cool, dry climate, abundant parks and delightful sidewalk cafes, is more my speed. Acapulco is hot, humid and noisy.

It does have to recommend it, though, the amazing cliff divers of La Quebrada -- a group of men who dive from a cliff at dizzying heights (30 meters or more) into a narrow cove. I paid $3.50 to watch eight of them dive last night as the sun set over the Pacific behind them. Stupidly, I forgot my camera, but the scene was so amazing that I'm returning tonight, and I'll be well-equipped.

My hotel here is $20 a night, but without air-conditioning. Sitting in the courtyard yesterday, sweating through some Alice Munro, an elderly European lady told me I could have an air-conditioned room for $5 more. I leapt at the offer, of course. I asked the lady, Nadia, how long she was staying at the hotel. "As long as the sea is good, I'll be here," she said. "When the sea turns, I'm leaving."

I had no idea what she meant, nor did I understand how she could be an invalid, as she claimed. I didn't think invalids walked 20 minutes to the beach twice a day for swims in the ocean.

My purpose here has been to arrange a trip about 200km south of Acapulco, to a small town where I think there's an interesting story involving dancers. I leave tomorrow for a couple days of reporting in this town, Cerro de las Tablas, then rush back to Mexico City for my flight home Saturday evening. That is, unless a new bus route to Baltimore opens by then.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Pyramid Questionnaire

I visited the pyramids north of Mexico yesterday, and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, the third-highest in the world. (They not only have stairs to make the ascent easier, but also handrails. An escalator can’t be far off.)

To imagine the work that was required to build these things, without animals or wheeled vehicles of any kind, just kind of stops you. This was a time when people really took their religion seriously, or just didn’t have anything better to do.

But any kind of sustained appreciation yesterday was ruined by the countless hawkers who roam the grounds of the ancient city, pushing all kinds of trinkets into your face with the word, “Barato!” (Cheap!)

I resisted them all with increasing irritation, so I was wary when two young teenagers approached and asked if I would help them with their English homework. For school, they had to ask a series of questions to English speakers. Since my livelihood essentially depends on people giving me their time and putting up with my questions, I happily agreed to help these kids.

One had a digital recorder, the other a digital camera. The questions started off simple enough:

What is your name? (Steve)
How old are you? (29)
Where are you from? (The United States)
Where have you been in Mexico? (Chiapas, Michoacan, Mexico City)
What do you do in your free time? (Read, listen to music, go to concerts, watch movies, drink with friends)

But then the questions got a little stranger:

Is addiction a bad thing? (Not necessarily, but to alcohol and drugs, yes. (Maybe, like in a choose-your-own-adventure book, this question was prompted by my response to the previous one.))
If you found something on the street, what would you do? (Try to find the owner.)
If you could be an animal, what would you be? (A dog.)
Why? (I think I would like all the petting, and the sleeping, and the playing. But the rat poison thing is kind of a deal-breaker.)

And then the questions got weirder still:

What is happiness? (Being absorbed in a job or task, being with people you love)
Do you believe in love online? (Sure.)
Do you believe in love at first sight? (I’m skeptical, but I won’t rule it out.)
Do you believe love lasts forever? (I'd like to think so.)

They seemed satisfied, took my picture (with them), and said goodbye. And I wondered if the questions I ask people are just as stimulating.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Line of the Day

From an Editorial Observer column by the always wonderful Verylyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times:

"I waited for a blank noon on one of those Southern California days that are like a shallow bowl filled with almost nothing, a day when the main event turns out in retrospect to have been lunch at Donut & Burger."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Into the woods

This was written for the IRP web site.

CHIBATI GUACAL, Mexico – By the time I was on my hands and knees, crawling under a canopy of branches that appeared to contain a beehive, I began to appreciate the challenge in guarding a mountain that sprawls over 3,000 acres. There are few clear paths, just dense forest filled with pine trees, vines, plants and bushes I had never before encountered.

There was no time to contemplate the white bumps that began swelling on my hand; there was too much work to do, too much land to cover. Every day of the year, the men of the Donacio ejido, an indigenous community in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, patrol the Chibati Guacal mountain to protect their forest from illegal loggers. The men work 30-hour shifts in groups of seven.

For a story on the battle between indigenous communities and loggers, I accompanied a group up the mountain one week in mid-March. We set out at 7 a.m., riding up the mountain on horseback, through narrow paths and up steep switchbacks. After nearly three hours, we reached a clearing and set up camp. This would be home for the next two days.

My host for this trip was Vincente Guzman Reyes, 50, who used to cut these trees before he began protecting them. For 10 years, he cut and sold the tall pine trees. But it slowly dawned on him that he was mortgaging his own future and his children’s. The indigenous communities that live on the sides of the mountains depend on the forest for their water supply. If there are no trees, there is no water.

For environmental groups, there is another concern: If there are no trees, there are no butterflies. The monarch butterfly migrates to the mountaintops of central Mexico every winter, drawing tourists by the busload. The butterflies essentially nest on the trees until March, when they head north by the millions. To stand in the midst of a cloud of migrating butterflies is an experience for which the word transcendental does no justice.

Vincente wants to protect the forest not just for the tourists and butterflies, but for the future of his community. Five of his nine children have crossed illegally into the United States for work. He wants to build a self-sustaining community they can return home to. So every month or so, with a 9mm handgun tucked under his waistband, he does his part on the mountain, looking for the tracks of loggers and for cuts in the barbed-wire fence that marks his community’s land.

There have been shootings and threats of violence, but Vincente is undeterred. “They threatened to kill me,” he said of one group of loggers. “And I said, ‘Kill me if you want, but I have to defend the forest because it is the future for my sons and grandsons.’ ”

When we came back down the mountain the next day, I was sun-burnt, bug-bitten and covered in pollen and dust. But that all would clear up, like the bumps on my hand that had disappeared overnight, and I would be left with a deep respect for these men who took seriously their obligation to make their children’s lives better than their own.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The people's protest, and car

Americans could learn a few lessons in civil disobedience here. For the three days I was in Morelia last week, the main streets in town were blocked by hundreds of taxis and vans -- a protest by the drivers because the state will not allow them to raise their fares.

I realized the extent of the problem Friday morning, when I checked out of my hotel and asked the clerk to call me a cab. I needed to go to the final session of the annual monarch butterfly conference, to meet with a guide who would take me to several indigenous communites.

But the clerk said no cabs were available. She suggested I lug my huge suitcase to the street and hope to flag one down. I went to the curb and after 20 minutes found a cab. But we couldn't get all the way to the conference site because, of course, the roads were blocked. I walked the last few blocks myself.

Happily ensconced in the conference, with coffee and cookies, I learned that the whole operation was moving elsewhere because of the protests. 'It looks peaceful to me,' I told my guide. 'But in Mexico,' he said, 'you can never tell when a protest will turn violent.'

He went to fetch his car to drive myself and three others to the new site. His car turned out to be a 15-year-old Volkswagen Bug, and into this vehicle squeezed myself, the guide, three other people, their bags and my extra-large L.L. Bean duffle bag thing. I felt like the biggest fool in the world, and extremely American.

The trip to the new site took over an hour, because of the horrendous traffic and a series of wrong turns, one of which led us up a very steep, San Francisco-style hill. About halfway up, the Bug's engine gave out and we started rolling backwards at an alarmingly high rate of speed. I never imagined this to be the way I would go, but so be it. At last, though, my guide pulled the emergency brake, the car jerked to halt and we all climbed out to walk up the hill while he drove.

Later that day, after a three-plus hour drive up and down beautiful mountains, we reached Zitacurao (my present location). The hotel requires guests to pre-pay, and it was then, as I opened my wallet, that I realized I had left my ATM card in an ATM machine in Morelia earlier in the day. I am an idiot.

I called my bank and they are sending me an emergency replacement card. They informed me they are doing this for free because it is my first time to lose my card abroad. But if it happens again, I was told, they will not be so forgiving. I will now name my bank to shame them: Bank of America. Do not bank with them.

Anyway, the Bug has reliably carried us across many miles of bumpy, rocky, dusty roads over the last few days. Tomorrow, it's back to Mexico City, where flat, smooth pavement and an ATM card await.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

On beauty

Last night I had dinner with Bill Toone, the director of the Eco-Life Foundation and a man who has devoted the last 20 years of his life to saving the monarch butterfly. Before giving himself to the butterfly, he had traveled the world researching endangered species. But nothing, he said, prepared him for the beauty he encountered in the Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Michoacan, Mexico.

When he said those words, I dutifully wrote them down but I didn’t stop to think about them. I figured it was just what passionate people say when they try to explain their obsessions. Well-intended hyperbole, nothing more.

But then I went to the butterfly preserve myself. It’s a three-hour drive from Morelia, and as our van approached the preserve, we were swarmed by orange-and-black butterflies. The driver slowed down, and the swarm parted to make way for our little party. I wanted to stop and take photos, but we pressed on. When we got to the preserve, we parked and hiked uphill for nearly an hour, the number of butterflies increasing with each foot of elevation.

My wonder (and my heart rate) grew with each step, too, and when I got to the summit, I realized what Bill Toone meant. The butterflies are beginning their migration north, so they had alighted from the trees on which they spent the winter, and the air was thick with them – thousands, if not millions. I felt their wings brush against my cheek and I heard their buzz-like flapping sound rush by my ear.

As I try to describe the scene, I keep deleting what I’m writing because I can’t find the words to explain what I felt. They may not exist at all. But it was the most stunning display of nature I have ever experienced. I stood paralyzed for a while, unable to comprehend this amazing sight. Even when I close my eyes now, hours later, the blackness is filled with fluttering orange wings.

The monarch butterfly’s home in Mexico, though, is threatened by illegal logging in the preserve. About 100,000 trees are cut each year by the indigenous communities that live in the preserve, and countless others are cut illegally by loggers who gain access by bribing the communities or the wildlife law enforcement. And that’s what I’m here to write about – the threat the logging poses to the butterflies and the communities, which won’t have the trees to live on forever and are slowly realizing they must change their behavior. The new president in Mexico has also pledged a crackdown on illegal loggers.

But standing in the preserve, choked with awe and wonder, I thought, isn’t it enough just to save something because it’s beautiful? Maybe that’s an arrogant and patronizing attitude, and maybe it’s only felt by comfortable, well-off Americans who don’t have to choose between saving something beautiful or feeding their children. But there must be a middle ground, and anyone who comes here can’t help but want to fight for it.

The answer, though, is that just being beautiful or good is not enough. Journalists and foundations must concoct complex reasons for why something is worthwhile, to satisfy themselves and their editors and the people who write them checks. You can’t say: Save these butterflies because they’re pretty. There has to be something more.

But to stand in the preserve today was to realize, if just for a moment, that sometimes beauty alone is enough.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I arrived in Morelia today after an amazingly pleasant four-hour bus ride from Mexico City. For less than $30, I got a seat on a luxury coach bus, with nonstop service to Morelia. The seats all reclined, drinks and sandwiches were served, and two movies were played, albeit dubbed in Spanish. We drove past mountains and lakes, and the whole experience was a delight.

While packing this morning, I tried to cull from my luggage unnecessary items, a constant process. Last week, for instance, I left my (unused) mosquito net in my hotel room in Tapachula. This morning, I left my (unused) poncho in Mexico City. I still have far too much stuff. Unlike Jessica, who packed two pairs of everything for her trip to Senegal and does laundry every night in her sink, I went with the more is more approach.

That meant 14 T-shirts, 14 pairs of socks, 14 pairs of underwear, three jackets, three pairs of shoes, half a dozen casual button-down shirts, half a dozen polo shirts, two pairs of jeans, two pairs of pants and countless other items I am certainly forgetting. The upside of this is that I went two weeks without having to do laundry. The downside (besides having a suitcase so heavy that some cabbies need help lifting it) is that when I finally did laundry, it was incredibly expensive.

Of course, I didn’t actually do it myself. The hotel in Mexico City had a service. So I bagged my dirty clothes and passed them off. I just now, in looking at my hotel receipt, am realizing what it cost me – $90, or about the equivalent of a two nights’ stay at the hotel. But everything came back so fresh and nicely pressed, it was worth it. When you've been without an iron for more than two weeks, these things matter.

There doesn’t seem to be a chance I’ll be taken for a similar ride at my hotel here in Morelia, which does not provide laundry service, shampoo, lighting in the hallways, or – and here’s the kicker – soap. In Mexico City this morning, I purged my bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, which I had barely used. Every hotel I’d stayed in had provided soap. I figured the trend would hold. I am an idiot.