Tow-TrucksWe drive south from the border on Friday and arrive in the city of Oaxaca five days later to find tanks in the Zócalo, soldiers standing about with rifles, spray-paint on the walls, burned-up tipped-over cars everywhere, and the worst insult of them all, the grand cafés that serve the thick, inspirational cups of Oaxacan chocolate completely shut down. That's the kind of trip it has been.
When I was a kid, we went back and forth from Philadelphia to Miami, and in those pre-freeway days, in the towns of South Georgia there would be paunchy, easy-going, drawling cops who took you to the cleaners for speeding ten miles over the posted limit.
All those have apparently moved to Toluca, just outside Mexico City. They changed their accents to Mexican Spanish, let their bellies go (even further), and lie in wait behind the fruit-juice stands to stop anyone with American license plates. They rise up behind you in their white and brown Fords, red and blue lights flashing, and once you've stopped, they run towards you, faces flushed in anger, yelling words like "infracciones seriosas" and "cuarenta y ocho horas sin carro" (forty-eight hours of impoundment).
I showed the Toluca police that I was retired by putting on my wrinkles and my old man whine. Very successful. It would cost me $300 (US), they explained, to go free.
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I vowed to be sage and acted on the advice of my trusty AAA Guide: I demanded to be taken to their chief. No sooner said than done, although the jefe was hidden somewhere in the thickets of the hundreds of dust-ridden cars crammed into the "grua" --- the local tow yard. As I sat in the car awaiting the judiciary, the impoundment became very real as a tow truck backed up and the words "48 horas" reëchoed in my mind.
Relieved of 3000 pesos we were soon on our way, driven by the piggy-eyed cop who had arrested us. He took us through the wilds of Toluca, not unlike the wilds of Jersey City, to the very edge of town, to the highway that would take us south. I thought he would drive us all the way to Oaxaca, but just outside the city limits of Toluca he bowed out of the picture. The thesis, I guess, is that if they are going to rob you, they will give you a (small) present in return.
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The rains had produced "derrumbes" everywhere. One was in the national forest just south of Mexico City. The only way to get around the city and its 20,000,000 people and its 30,000,000 cars and its 18 tons-per-capita smog is to take a shortcut along a tiny winding road in the forest to the mountain village of Santa Catarina, and from thence to Tres Marias where one can connect with the Acapulco Highway. We had almost made it to Tres Marias when we were met by cars backing and turning and returning on the tiny road.
They waved us down, told us that the road was blocked by a landslide, and that we would have to go back to the other end of the forest. The choice then was to return to Toluca to get robbed by the police again, or to take another road --- a footpath, really --- from Santa Catarina to Cuernavaca ... which was either 15, 33 or 90 kilometers to the east, depending on whether you asked at the gas station, the fruit stand, or went directly to the vagabond walking along the road in the rain. Visions of warm dry beds danced in our heads, so we drove in the dark in the rain on a winding road with no lines painted on it, no signs (nor signs of life), averaging about ten mph, for about 80 or 90 hours.
The summer monsoon lasted well into November this year, so I got a chance to see Southern Mexico as I have never seen it before ... as a jungle. The fields here have always been, on my previous trips, barren, resembling New England woods in the middle of January (except the temperature hovers around 85).
This year, the lot across from my pied-à-terre is filled with filegonia, prince's whisper, noon-blooming rose-dumps, donkey's knee, and laburnum. I made up all but the last name, but you get the picture. It's a glory here now.
We also get a bumper crop of mosquitoes who have returned from their summer vacation in Costa Rica. This year there has also been a bumper crop of Dengue Fever, which makes me very nervous every time I look at my arm and see one of the bitches needling my veins. Dengue, they say, is fatal to the very old and the very young. Those wrinkles I put on for the Toluca police (and forgot to take off) convince me that one injection of what they once called "Breakbone Fever" would mean that we would have, as they say in the movie picture biz, "a wrap."
I have noticed that the mosquitoes have grown much smaller and daintier, which may have something to do with Darwin, or with my cataracts. In the old days, Mexican mosquitoes would lumber in like a 747, light on the skin, and be altogether too gorged to take off, allowing a satisfying if bloody swat. Nowadays, the little buggers have taken up telepathy, know the moment one is thinking murder, and are gone in a trice (the Trice is a new Mexican ethanol vehicle which feeds on mashed tortillas and hot sauce.)
By the time I have slapped myself silly (forehead, neck, wrists) these buggers are already back in the cistern where they normally go to rest after lunching on me, to breed like rabbits, or rats, or mosquitoes --- eventually giving birth to 700,000 wrigglers to further plague my winter. The Ædes ægypti used to be known for passing yellow fever. After that went its way, the pesky little beast took up dengue, pronounced "ding-ey," like the small boat, but also like going mad.
Some of my gringo friends gave me a packet of 100% DEET, instructing me to spray it on hands, arms, neck and face every five hours, and after bathing, sleeping, eating, and congress. The first day, I was applying it to my arm and managed to squirt it in my left eye, the one that still works. The instructions told me "en caso de irritación, lave constantemente con agua... " they obviously not knowing that our local fresh-water supply is drawn conveniently from the town sewer system. And vice-versa.
For some reason, people still say that mosquitoes "bite." Having spent a couple of days looking at grisly pictures of people suffering from Dengue, and reading up on the Ædes ægypti, I know that they alight, jam their double-barrel proboscis in the flesh, spit, and then start sucking, just like you and I used to do when they served chocolate malteds with old-fashioned paper straws at the corner Rexall.
Dengue Fever isn't the only disease we must watch out for. A friend of mine to the north, who vows never to travel south of Ponders, Washington, reminds me that "there is always Yaws, Sheep Rot, the King's Evil, Blackwater Fever, malaria, tularemia, filariasis, schistosomiasis, and amebiasis, not to mention our old friends Leishmaniasis ("Chiclero's Ear")."
Outside of Yaws, there is the on-going revolution in the city of Oaxaca. The only way it has affected us so far is that we can't get any vegetables at our one local supermarket, so I cannot make my brocoli al condones or califlor de verga. The trucks that usually come down the pass from Oaxaca City can't get through, it seems. When I ask my Mexican friends about what they here call a manifestación, the only thing that concerns them has nothing to do with the governor nor politics: they are pissed because their kids haven't been to school for five months (the whole strike was instituted by public school teachers). They are steaming over that one.
When the local schools finally reopened last month, a small group of radicals tried to block the teachers, wanting the strike go on. One of my friends and his neighbors met the strikers at the door with machetes, so the revolutionaries marched away in a Sulk (the new one-cylinder scooter built especially for getting to and from your local manifestaciones).
--- Carlos Amantea