are we there yet?

Hey, kids! If you were the lone remaining superpower, what would you do? Would you treat other nations and peoples with respect, in order to further humanity and create a better world? Or would you simultaneously demand blood sacrifice, bully everyone else into cooperating with you, and then do things like abrogate arms control treaties and continue refusing to sign international agreements to keep children in war-torn countries from being maimed by land mines? Guess what we're doing?

I'm going to throw the disclaimer out right now that I'm a bit cranky. The past week has made me a bit homesick and I'm still in the process of recovering my sense of humor.

We did a road trip: Puerto Vallarta to Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende to Teotihuacan. There's a variety of VW Beetle down here in the tropics, where they basically cut off the rear half of the roof and leave the back seat exposed to the air. I don't know if it's a factory or aftermarket job, but it's known as the "VW Tropical", and this is what we ended up renting.

First of all, while Cabo San Lucas and points south are warm, and Puerto Vallarta is in fact tropical, those temperatures come from a mountain range that blocks the cold, and when you pass east of the mountain range, you start to enter the highlands, which in December are absolutely, positively not warm. We did get some warning about this beforehand, otherwise we probably would have had to either scrap the idea or buy warm clothes.

A tour guy here at the resort had warned me to go around Guadalajara, since even he gets lost when he tries to go through it. We found we couldn't even do that, so late on the 7th we stopped there. We did make it to Guanajuato the next day, which is an amazing, fantastic city. It was built a few hundred years ago over a river, but due to flooding problems, they diverted the river, leaving the tunnels where it flowed under the city. Later on, they paved the tunnels and added lights to make a subterranean highway, so all higher-speed traffic is subsurface. There are pedestrian walkways through the tunnels, but the whole arrangement is, as William says, quite non-Euclidean, so the tunnel shortcuts are best left to the experienced.

I would suggest going to Guanajuato and staying there. The university attracts all sorts of great people, everything is extremely cheap, there's all kinds of stuff to do and see and places to hang out. I really wish we'd stayed there, because from there we went to San Miguel de Allende, which our guidebook (Frommer's Mexico on $45 a Day '94) lists as "the prettiest city in Mexico", which is crap. It's nice enough, I guess, worth a day trip, but it is tourist-laden and hence expensive, and Guanajuato is better in every way, unless you're focused on buying silver, tin, pewter, or stone objects. But we stayed the night there, at a nice little hotel, and left the next morning for Teotihuacan, the ancient pre-Aztec city.

We entered the state of Mexico (which contains Mexico City and a few other [vastly smaller] cities), and when we pulled over to Pemex (the gasoline monopoly, with stations absolutely everywhere), we asked directions, as always. The guy was very nice, and we pulled off to use the bathroom, and he runs over to tell us something, and after some misunderstanding I understand that Mexico City is doing car rotation, and cars with license plates ending in 5 are not allowed to drive on that day, Monday, from 0500 to 2200. He said it was very serious, and the police would see us and fine us.

I conveyed this to the rest of the crew, that this was a heavy thing, the guy seemed pretty certain we'd get caught, and it was probably a hefty fine. But the final group decision was to try and make it the few kilometers to the next exit and grab a hotel for the night. Unfortunately there were cops directing traffic such that we had to go right by them, and they pulled us over.

Cherie tries the female give-the-cop-a-sob-story trick (apparently it works in the states, although I wouldn't know), explaining that we're tourists from another state and didn't know about this. The cops weren't really impressed, told us it was a big problem, and had us follow them to the hotel. It turns out that the usual procedure here is a $4000 fine (about US$340) and impounding the car to some place far away and difficult to get to. Much discussion, they can't just let us go because they don't want to lose their jobs, etc., all very polite and respectful. And then I say the magic words:

"Well, can we pay you guys here so we don't have to go to the traffic office?"

Bingo. They say they'll go talk to their comandante and see what can be done. They come back to tell us that we can keep the car, but we have to pay a reduced fine of $2000 on the spot. We pony up, but they see we have more money and the fine becomes $2500. The cop didn't count it when we gave it to him. He folded the money and put it in his pocket, and we didn't get a receipt.

Bribed local officials: check.

After this, Mona says, "The pyramids were lovely. Now let's go home." But we do make it to the pyramids the next day, and they are lovely, and we drive away and stay the night in some random city. The next day Cherie finally drives (having dodged out of it the entire time), and she goes to pull over to a group of stores on the left--just as a pickup truck tries to pass us. Bang. On the bright side, everyone is OK.

As soon as I looked up two police trucks had arrived. I don't know where they were, but now we got to talk to them. The general consensus was that it was Cherie's fault; it might have been, maybe she didn't look, but since it was four American tourists against one Mexican guy, it was her fault. The choice was between settling with the guy, or calling the federales, which no one was keen on, since it would have meant paperwork, lost time, and a ticket for Cheri in addition to the costs of repairs. One cop was so insistent on telling me this, despite my repeated acknowledgements and saying "So we're not going to call the federales, right?", that I was afraid we'd have to bribe him not to. But it was settled for $1400 to the driver of the pickup truck. However, our rented Beetle, which has no insurance, needs a new front left wheel-covering-thingie, and some paint.

Now, Cherie had said that if she was listed as a driver on the car, some insurance on one of her credit cards would cover it, even if it wasn't paid for with the card. I was worried about this, and I asked her twice if she was absolutely certain about it. So this was on my mind, that I did not (and still don't) want to pay for the repairs. I do not think I will.

We're back in Nuevo Vallarta now, back to our boat with no cops. We're tired, somewhat poorer, but alive and healthy. We're also considering escape plans, and deciding at what point this trip may exceed thresholds of finances, stupidity, or safety (we have some rough-weather spots ahead of us, and Greg really requires prodding to teach us anything, which is unacceptable when the subject is safety procedures heading into possible 40-knot winds).

There is so much more: on the way east we stopped at Pizza La Providencia in Ixtlan del Rio, and made friends with the owners; on the way back we stopped again, and the grandmother was there and they blessed us repeatedly (yesterday was the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is an enormous big deal) and said that God and the Lady would take care of us and make sure we got home safely, and that if we came back we would be family and we could stay there. They had little money, but a lot of love.

Mexican Catholics are way cooler than American Catholics. Here, Catholicism is almost unthinkably intertwined with everything about the country, and Virgen de Guadalupe is an essential Mexican thing. A Scoutmaster in Guanajuato, Rafael, explained to us that the Virgin of Guadalupe is just what the Virgin Mary became when she got to Mexico: the Spaniards were white, the Indians were brown, so the Spaniards gave them a brown Mother of God. She is the guardian and protector of Mexico, so her day is a big one.

We went through the town of Tequila. When we stopped for directions I asked a guy what the best tequila was, and he pulled out a bottle and mixed some with Squirt soda, and it was damn good. But we don't drink that much, so I passed.

Now, I guess we fix the boat and get ready to head down to Panama. The adventure continues! This past week has actually made me somewhat homesick, so I'm working on moving past it and getting back into the traveling mode. Wish me luck.

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