Saturday, October 5, 2013

Occupy Tuxtla

The last day of a long research trip to Chiapas is always bittersweet. I can't wait to be home, but I already miss the culture and people here. My final landing place is Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital. It's generally a chaotic daytime cacophony of cars and colectivos, but this visit is very different: it's actually quiet.

Tent city/parking lot along Tuxtla's main thoroughfare
Well, relatively speaking. Since Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto pushed though a series of education reforms, teachers from the entire state have been demonstrating here (and throughout the country) for almost two months. A tent city of low-strung tarps and cardboard-covered pallets (makeshift sleeping areas) has blockaded Tuxtla's main plaza and a huge stretch of the city's principal road. Before arriving yesterday, I knew that there had been protests here, but didn't realize that thousands were paralyzing the entire center.

Alteration on the Verde party facade

Besides the occasional teach-in and amplified speeches, the noise level downtown has been pretty minimal, and nearby businesses are practically despondent. Some restaurants have hung ABIERTO banners across the front, and waiters mull about at tables inside, fiddling with their cell phones until customers come in. Lots of stores are closing early and posting signs offering bathroom use for 5 pesos.
Teachers sleeping along the sidewalk

Maybe because it's Saturday night, but the street life was more lively tonight. An encampment a block away projected a Sandra Bullock movie on a sheet, and a fiery speaker with an evangelical fervor paced a stage on the plaza to massive applause. Huge cooking pots steamed in the dim light underneath rain tarps, and extension cords and invisible twine guy lines threatened to snare the unwary.

It's time to head home.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Paean to the unpaved jungle road

For this trip to Chiapas, I rented a car so I could prowl around more of the Lacandón Jungle and investigate some off-the-beaten paths places that are so time-consuming to research. When a combi passes maybe three times a day, the hours really stack up against you. 

Cascada de las Golondrinas 
Well, my cheapo rental car got a merciless workout on hours of puddle-splotched and washed out terracería (dirt roads) as well as countless car-maiming topes (cement speed bumps). It was a horror show. Rocks clinked against the axle. Tall grass grazed the low frame. The shocks screeched and my jaw clenched thinking I heard blowouts. 

Plan de Ayutla ruins
The car looked pretty feeble at the end. The front bumper came loose and a skin of orange mud splattered the undercarriage. There was no way in hell the rental car folks wouldn’t notice what I’d done to their stodgy white sedan. But I cleaned it up, had the bumper reattached . . . and returned it with more than 2000 miles tacked onto the odometer. And I smiled a lot.

Dangling howler monkey at Las Guacamayas

Rental car agent: ¿Todo bien con el coche?

Me: ¡Sí, por supuesto!

Rock paintings at Laguna Metzabok
Today I sat in the back seat and let someone else do the driving. Supposedly the road to the Lacandón villages of Metzabok and Nahá was a big bumpy mess, but compared to the muddy up and down drive to the Laguna Miramar embarcadero, it was a magic carpet ride. 

Lacandón boy overlooking Laguna Metzabok

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rain + earth

It’s never dull researching during the rainy season in southern Mexico. During the morning I dashed around Tapachula, trying to finish up and then traverse the uber-curvy road through the Sierra Madre range before the afternoon rains made it impossible to see. Yesterday, I headed out too late to the coffee-growing mountain areas of Santo Domingo and Union Juárez. I’d had to pull over on the outskirts of the city and wait an hour as the thunder cracked overhead and the rain was an opaque non-navigable blob. Once I could see, certain intersections of Tapachula resembled cresting rivers, with whitewater at least two feet deep.

 I wasn’t able to leave until about noon today, but the drive north twisted through dense cloud forest so gorgeous that it made all the back-and-forth steering contortions worthwhile. The road sign pegged Motozintla at 30 kilometers, and Comitán was a few hours past that. Rounding a curve, a line of cars and trucks idled with their hazards on, and I did the same. One by one the engines went silent, so I followed suit and asked what was going on. A landslide, they said, it’s been here since this morning and it’s a few kilometers ahead.

Well, it was more like ten minutes walking until the front of the line, where a huge stripe of mud and trees had skidded into the roadway. Thirty men with shovels barely dented the surface of a hill some fifteen feet high. Combis, the vans used for regional public transportation, discharged their passengers close to the muck on both sides, and people carefully climbed over to continue their journeys with combis on the other side. Folks near that front of the stagnant queue said that the mud had dislodged early in the morning and amazingly no one had been hurt.

So it was a morning of frenzied and needless rushing, followed by an entire afternoon waiting for an earth mover to scrape the road. And perhaps a nudge for me to slow down my schedule and take things at a more relaxed pace.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Water-logged Tabasco

You can't talk about Tabasco without talking about water. With its cacophany of rivers, swamps, and blobs of land in between, the geography of this southern Mexican state looks like a toddler's squiggle drawing - though one dotted with scores of PEMEX oil drills. Somehow I always end up researching here during the rainy season, when major flooding becomes routine and the TV news kicks off with footage of families being rescued by boat.

I swung up to the northeast corner of Tabasco today for a quick visit to the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve, a massive and biodiverse wetland and river delta. Huge iguanas lumbered along the raised wooden boardwalk of the reserve's interpretation center, and chunky islands of waterlilies flew by on the river current. Driving back to the main road, I stopped to marvel at a house completely surrounded by a swampy tide and accessible only via a skinny walkway. One of the residents invited me in, but first I had to embarrass myself by inching across the wobbly planks as his family giggled and encouraged me to walk with confidence. Inside the dirt floor room, a woman cooked over a fire, three 'tween girls thumbed through bilingual dictionaries to do their English homework, and I chatted with the ten inhabitants as we waited for the rain to let up.  

Every so often you rush through a place and wish you'd been able to linger and explore it more deeply. Last night I stayed over in Tapijulapa, a little town that dazzled me a few years ago with its cobblestone alley streets, red tile roofs and never-ending green mountain ridges. It reminded me of some of the towns - mostly Spanish - I've visited in the Pyrenees, except with little kids sidling up to me to ask where I was from. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Invierno, al fresco

It's been a really difficult year. I usually fantasize about the Sierra summer backpacking season all damn winter, but the months of obsessing just didn't seem healthy this time around. I wanted to get out there NOW, even if I had to risk snow-dusted equipment and the baffled looks of friends.

When things get tough, for me it always feels good to get outside and move around. But the conditions this time of year can be pretty challenging. Like what do you do when the temperature's below freezing and liquid turns to slush in your water bottle? How about when your boots freeze into rigid blocks and you can't get your feet back inside them?

And lo and behold, I discovered that the local Sierra Club organizes snow camping trainings for fools like me. I could meet other deprived backpackers who didn't mind trudging through high altitude snowdrifts in search of their nature fix. Obsession solved.

After the last few years of sola adventures, I was a bit skeptical about joining a big group outing, but the weather was kind and my fellow snowshoers (unsurprisingly, mostly fellows) were a friendly group of outdoorsy folks who were psyched to learn about survival tips like digging snow trenches (below) and the intricacies of Leave No Trace in winter. My comrades-in-cold also delighted in finding animal tracks in the crusty snow, a trait I always find endearing.

Everything was hunky dory during the day, but after sunset I began fondling the brandy flask, popping hand warmers into my gloves and worrying about the circulation in my frigid toes. Sure, the temperature skirted the low 20s and I was socializing in a snowfield, so numb extremities were no surprise. I finally tore myself away from gazing at a ceiling of stars and dove inside my down bag, where I spooned Nalgene bottles filled with hot water. Unfortunately, it was still damn cold. Every hour or so, I tried to calculate how much heat I'd lose by unzippping to don more clothes, which didn't add up to the most restful night.

So next time I'll wear more clothes to bed. And definitely skip the summer hiking boots. But this all-season mountain thing may be a game-changer. We'll see.