Gliding through Mexico

An early morning Greyhound bus brought us to San Ysidro on the US side of the Mexican border. Transferring into another shuttle we crossed into Tijuana, an expanding Mexican outpost known more for its drug violence than for its financial muscle. Our baggage was scanned by the customs but no
passports were checked. There were no immigration officials.

“Hey! This is Mexico, a free country. You don’t need any passports and visas here. We welcome everybody. Not like the gringos,” said a Mexican passenger pointing to the long rows of crawling vehicles lined up to enter US. Indians having a valid, once-used US visa do not require, astonishingly, a visa for Mexico and the Central American countries.

From Tijuana we transferred to another bus for the long haul to Guadalajara – a 36 hour journey covering 2,400km. Soon after leaving the city limits we got into the mountainous region of La Rumorosa. It seemed that all the rocks and boulders in the world had been brought here and piled high into heaps. The canyons in this barren landscape provide a route to adventurous immigrants from all over the world to enter illegally into the US. Many do not survive the harsh conditions. These mountains and the sandy dunes are littered with bodies of those who could not make it.

From Mexicali, the road ran through cotton country. Stacks of harvested cotton were keeping the ginning mills busy.

After San Luis Colorado we entered the beautiful Sonoran Desert that stretches from northwest Mexico into Arizona and California. For hundreds of km we drove along the Mexico-US border where the Americans have constructed a solid metal fence to keep their neighbours away. An English-speaking Mexican lady passenger working as a maid in San Diego had boarded the bus from San Luis Colorado, where she had visited her sister, and was going all the way to Mexico City.

She could not afford to fly as she was carrying an excess of baggage – household stuff for her mother. “These gringos keep us away after usurping half our country! California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida… they all belonged to us. They made such a fuss about the Berlin Wall in Europe. Here you see they have constructed their own Berlin Wall,” she said, agitated, and followed it up with some fluent profanities in Spanish. It is a mistake to assume that maids carry an empty head.

The tall saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), endemic to this desert, adds character to the rugged wilderness. Human in form, some stand alone while others huddle together as families and tribes, sometimes waving at passersby – but mostly showing their middle finger! The mind gives them life!

We continued through the desert as the full moon rose and brightened up the bleak hills. The entire route is considered extremely dangerous. Cars and buses have been hijacked and passengers killed or kidnapped and forced to work for the private armies of the drug cartels. Police checkpoints are hundreds of km apart. Twice we were made to get out of the bus, our bags scanned and then sniffed multiple times by a gigantic dog, of an unknown ugly breed, who did not seem to find any amusement in his employment. Every time the beast was made to sniff my bag I was writing my obituary. To shield ourselves from the possibility of any passenger slipping drugs into our carry-on bags, we resolved to take our bags with us whenever we stepped out of the bus. But we found that we were not equal to the task.

In mellow sleep, I woke up startled with torchlight dancing on my face. A cop was looking down at me.

“Relax,” he said in Spanish – the bold maid sitting in front of me translating.

“Are you with him?” he asked her politely.

“No. I am just helping him with the language. He is an Indian,” she seemed to have replied.

The cop’s attention turned to an old man sitting on the other side of the aisle. The air conditioning of the bus was stuck on 17 degrees Celsius and it was uncomfortably cold. The man had blanketed himself with a jacket. The cop sought permission to body search. The old man, after a meek protest, relented. Both his pant pockets were groped – and no harm was done. Another policeman at the back of the bus was frisking two young boys with impetuous energy. The good-natured youngsters seemed familiar with the process.

A little after midnight I woke up again to find the bus stopped at a wayside taco stall where the two drivers and a handful of passengers were snacking. I had my fill too and sank back into deep sleep. The next time I woke up, the bus was parked at the Guaymas bus station and three policemen were inside the bus taking the driver to task. A lady passenger had been left behind at the taco stall. We waited for almost two hours for her reach on another bus.

From Mexicali onwards, the driver had cautioned us that our journey might be delayed due to Hurricane Manuel that had made landfall in Sinaloa state through which we would be traveling. The bus had wifi connectivity and we kept a tab on Manuel. It had caused massive damage, killing over 100 people, flooding townships, causing landslides that swept away houses, roads and bridges. Other passengers waited for feedback from our iPads with breathless interest.
Waking up at 7.30 am at Los Mochis, the driver informed us that the road ahead had been closed by the police as a bridge was severely damaged by the hurricane and we had to wait for the river to recede before we could cross over. The weather report told us that Manuel had already been downgraded to
a storm and was likely to be downgraded further to a depression later in the day. Los Mochis was hot and sunshiny, and I kept looking at the sky for the thunderclouds to arrive from the south. After about three hours the clouds did come rolling in but they were fluffy white and devoid of any moisture. After another hour of waiting the driver of our substitute bus announced “all aboard”.

For the next three hours we inched ahead on the highway, stuck in traffic that had accumulated through the day. We could see some of the damage left behind by Manuel: hillsides gashed by landslides, flooded fields, streams that had become raging torrents, tiles that had been picked up by the wind from a factory and distributed further across the land. By the time we got to the damaged bridge, it had been opened from one side – it’s other side fallen into the river.

Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, where we stopped for a late lunch, was flooded in parts – but not worse than the tidal waves that strike any interior Indian town after a hatful of rain. Mazatlan, badly affected, where we had a scheduled halt, was bypassed.

At 5 am, after almost 48 hours on bus after leaving San Diego, all of it spent in idleness, sharing high-fives with fellow Mexican passengers, we were delivered fresh to Guadalajara.

To stretch our legs we headed towards the city’s famed historic centre and went straight to the 17th century cathedral to pay our respects to the residing spirits and ghosts. As we tramped out of the church, we heard loud shouting, howling, wailing. An endless procession of marchers dressed in all manners of costumes was coming down the street. Battalions of para-military forces in battle fatigue walked or rode on motorcycles alongside the protestors. The overwhelming presence of the militia was meant to intimidate them.

However, the protestors were out for a Saturday picnic – singing, dancing, clapping, sloganeering. Students, with painted faces and fancy costumes, were running amok. From what we could make out from the Spanish placards was that it was a procession of common people demanding
educational reforms and honesty in public life. It brought tears to my eyes and moved me to lend a helping hand to the noble cause. At the Rotunda of Illustrious Men, a monument honouring the distinguished citizens of Jalisco state, I joined the throngs, echoing their slogans, fisting the air,
roaring their raging as mine. I walked for about twenty steps without taking any rest and could have gone on for more had there been any media interest.

The next day, Lino, our escort for the day, informed us that these were teachers opposing recently approved reforms in education, that subjected teachers to tests, and made merit the criterion for promotions, thus putting limits on union influence in the hiring and firing process. Teachers were opposing meritocracy and demanding continuance of mediocracy. I might have rooted for the wrong cause – and not for the first time.

We saw everything there was to see in Guadalajara, prayed in all its venerable churches, tasted its debatable delicacies, checked out the salsa clubs, walked awestruck through its fascinating crafts quarter, discussed Mexico’s pioneering climate change legislation with the former Environment
Attorney of the State of Jalisco, Señor Fernando Montes de Oca Dominguez – and resolved to return to this wonderful city.

A six-hour drive through the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt brought us to Mexico City, located at 7,943ft above sea level. One hundred and seventy two volcanoes line the country coast to coast. Only two are active. Straightaway we made a courtesy call on the Indian ambassador, Mr. Sujan Chenoy, who for over an hour, narrated gripping stories of his adventures. We could have sat spellbound for another hour and heard him out – but he had to practice his sitar for a public recital he is due to give on Gandhi Jayanti.

Guiding us through the City was an eccentric 70-year-old-guide, Armando, could not resist passing a comment at every pretty señorita that came his way. He claimed to be a thoroughbred Mayan “without a drop of Spanish blood – even through transfusion”. No opportunity was passed to praise the high culture of the native Mexicans and abuse the Spaniards for their excesses.
“Are you a Catholic or still follow the Mayan religion?” I asked him.
“You have to be a Catholic in this country. You either convert or die,” he answered with a grimace.
The main square in the historic city centre was in a state of siege. Heavily armed policemen and barricades were everywhere – to keep out the stubborn, striking teachers. “Bastards! These teachers! Don’t make me say anything more. I will explode,” shouted an incensed Armando, clenching his
teeth and fist.

We walked around the ruins of Aztec temples over which the Spaniards had built their Metropolitana Cathedral; called on other venerable churches that were used to convert the natives; photographed ancient buildings of the colonial government; visited Garibaldi Square where the Mariachi, folk musicians, assemble every night to perform; walked through gardens adorned with fine statues and sculptures and dancing fountains and couples massed on benches in comfortable attitudes; got conned into buying silver articles at Rafael’s workshop; thanked profusely the pimps and streetwalkers for their generous offers – and then went to see the National Museum of Anthropology.

Located inside a huge park, the museum gives ample evidence of the high culture of the native Mexicans centuries before Christ was born. The artistic skills of their ancient Mexicans compare equally with those of the great civilisations of Mesopotamia, Nile and Indus Valley. One can spend days in the museum marvelling at the sculptures, listening to stories of antiquity told by the exquisitely carved stones, and lamenting over the liquidation by the Europeans of a noble, gifted, trusting race.

We thought we would walk back to our hotel through the park. I asked Armando if it was safe to do.

He got agitated. “Of course, it is safe. All of Mexico is safe. The only place that is not safe is the United
States. Everybody has a gun in that country. In Mexico no one has any guns. Except the police, army and drug mafia. And the drug mafia gets these guns from the United States. America is a BAD neighbour,” he screamed.

Pelted by rain, we got back to the hotel in time for our meeting with Dr Benjamin Martinez Lopez, Professor of Climatology and Solar Radiation, and Dr Arturo Quintanar, professor of Hydrology and Meteorology. Both are teaching and researching on climate change issues at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The meeting was arranged by Dr Tridip Sharma who teaches statistics at the same university.

On our last day in Mexico City we drove to the celebrated ruins of Teotihuacan, 65km from the capital, stopping on way to see the Basilica of Guadalupe, one of the four glorious churches in the world associated with the appearance of Virgin Mary. The ruins of Teotihuacan are steeped in mystery. Whatever anyone tells you about its history and culture is a lie. I hauled myself to the top of the two pyramids known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon and have suggested to the authorities to invest in escalators to transport tourists to their lofty elevation and boost revenues. The suggestion made me rise perceptibly in the esteem of my driver and guide. The ruins may have made a prettier effect when their exteriors were adorned with paintings. Now I need to go and recondition my

Tomorrow we go into Mesoamerica.