Subject: Mexican Travelogue V Ed and Edith Gray
Mexico is obviously a big place but since there are not very many CG we keep running into the same campers so we are getting to know a lot of them pretty well and we learn a lot from each other. We do get to do a few things they don't do thanks to connections that Adventure Caravan has made over the years. The other advantage we have is that Adventure has done this tour for a number of years so we have maps and locations of things to tour on our own and information on where various stores and services are located in the towns that we can go to on our free days or even on tour days there is often some free time or the day we come in there is free time. We also have the advantage in that different ones of our group do different things and then we have reports at our social gathering at 5 pm so we find out what is good, so, so and not so good and can decide what to do based on that as well as feed back from what people have said in previous years so there are some advantages to the caravan. I personally think the ideal way is for a group of two, three or four rigs to travel together. They can do some things together and some things not together. They stay together in the same parks and roughly travel together but often loosely so they can do different things if they want. I think it should be people who have camped together before and traveled together before so they know they are compatable and it needs to be people who can sometimes agree to disagree but not let it be a problem. Some advantages are that several heads are better than one, support to solve problems that come up, share knowledge on things to see and do, hopefully a couple of persons that are good at Spanish or even have travel experience in Mexico, some that are mechanically minded to take care of problems with rigs, can share tools, household things, etc. The same would be true of a non-Mexico trip. You can share vehicles for going sight-seeing, shopping, etc. Actually in Mexico a small tote is ideal for getting around on the narrow streets, returno's etc. The bottom line is we see some independent campers who are getting along fine and we also run into groups of 2-4 and they are having a great time. We have also run into several other caravans as most of them use the same CG. To me the caravans are over-priced; although this one is a lot more reasonable than any others I have found and in talking to the other caravaner's I am convinced as good, maybe better. Tracks for example allow no totes so you can not do much on your own.
A while back I talked about the fellow who pretended to know our friend Bruce but really did not. A few days ago south of Palmul on our way to Chetumal south of the tourist area which is south of Cancun and extends down to Tulum Bruce and 3 others of our group pull into a PEMEX for fuel and a break. We seen them as we went by. Anyway Bruce gets out of his F-250 and he hears this voice, Bruce, Bruce IS THAT YOU? He just can not believe it after his experience in Progresso that someone else would be pulling this same trick or that it really was someone he knew. So he looks around and WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT!!!! It is the same guy and his wife we met in Progresso that pulled the trick on Bruce. To me the odds of them happening to be in the same PEMEX at the same time that far away from Progresso is just amazing!!! I just can't get over it and neither can Bruce.
I have had some good success stories with my Spanish and some where I really struggle. It seems the hardest for me is understanding someone talking to me as they always seem to use way to many words I don't know and some that I do know I don't understand. I am getting better, most of what I say the people I talk to do understand but sometimes they just can't get what I am saying. I am getting much better at reading and now can really understand what people are talking about when they say they can read Spanish and figure most of it out but don't do nearly as well listening or speaking. I think this is the area I am improving in the most. The best way to learn would be if you were put in a situation where you had to speak Spanish period, no English or if they did speak English they only help you would get would be the Spanish word or words for what you were trying to say.
It is now 35 days in Mexico so I want to share some of our impressions. First there are trees and bushes all over the gulf coast and all over the Yucatan. That is all there is! There is underbrush and taller trees but not real tall. I would say 20 to 30 feet at the tallest. Some areas the trees thin out a bit and there is a little grass. To raise anything is a fight to clear and area and keep it clear. What little agriculture we see is small hand plots poorly tended hacked out of the trees. The big equipment seems to be owned by the government or contractors for building roads, bridges, and buildings. It does not seem to be available on farms. When you do see it the machinery and tractors would be like 1950 or early 1960 farming at best. There is a tremendous amount of hand labor and it seems everybody has a machete and is hacking away at the bushes and/or grass. You do see a fair amount of use of chemicals such as Roundup. The amount of produce that could be raised could be increased by a factor of millions if they had some capital and machinery because they have the rain and they have rich soil in many areas. Proof of this is that the Mennonites have been in a few areas we have been in and they raise food for 1000's and the reality is they are farming like we did in the 70's and 80's. Today in Campeche and Chiapas we seen the first large scale farming and some progressive cattle operations of the cow calf type. By far the best we have seen anyplace in Mexico. Here at Palenque it is getting into the mountains and we are out of this area. As we head back for Villahermosa we will see if it continues farther west or not. As we head south for the Pacific coast I am sure it will return to jungle and the agriculture will be as we have seen very primitive.
It seems in the bigger town say 20,000 and up that the income levels are a lot better but in small towns your see poverty everywhere and in the country it is worse yet. You see shacks made out of whatever people can get their hands on, no windows or doors, no sidewalks, maybe a water faucet, burn wood for cooking or possibly a propane bottle. One thing though everyone seems to have bright, clean clothing and you see lots of clean clothes hanging on the line drying. Everybody dresses nicely other than those working hard at manual labor but they don't look any different than someone in the US working on construction. In the larger towns there are lots of nice vehicles but in the rural areas and the farm vehicles and buses are really "beaters". They go very slowly, smoke and the wheels wobble. The first class buses are modern and great looking but the local buses are something to behold. I think the reason things are better in the bigger towns are that there are factories and retail store jobs available and construction jobs. In the rural areas it is ag, tiny small stores, some construction but I think there wages are very poor and the small businesses their margins and volume are very, very small. I think the problem is that the wholesalers are the rich in Mexico and they sell it so high there is no margin left. We find things are not cheap here other than food and restaurant prices are very reasonable.
There are stores and stands everyplace you turn in Mexico and people are trying to sell you something everyplace you go. The other thing is that many of the shops, restaurants and other places are open with just a roof over them for shade. I will say the bugs are not bad down here. You would think with no freezes to every kill them, water, warm temperatures and all the vegetation there would be millions of bugs. Maybe they show up in the summer but they certainly are not bad in Dec, Jan, Feb or March based on talking to people that have been on caravan's during those months. It does get warm in Feb and March in the Yucatan already and almost unbearable in May - September. If you can afford it you live by the ocean or live in Air conditioning these month or leave. The prices in Mexican super markets, retail stores and Walmart, Costco, Sam's seem about the same as the USA or higher. We continue to note that Coke, 7 UP, etc. is cheap, about 70 cents for a liter.
The kids are really friendly and all wave at the RV RIGS. The more I am here I think part of that is that they get gifts from the RVers but I will say they are not begging or standing there expecting to get something except in a few rare cases. If they do get something they always say gracias. Must of the RVers have done their homework and give them school supplies or things they can use and not candy, gum or money. Most people are friendly and I have had great success in just striking up conversations. I would say 999 out of a 1000 don't know but a few words of English which is I think perfectly normal as they really have little reason to learn to speak English. I really have only run into 3 Mexicans with Mexican mothers and fathers so far that spoke excellent English. I have run into I would say about another 20 that speak English about like my Spanish and the rest speak only a few words of English. The exceptions are those in high tourist areas where learning to speak English adds a great deal to their ability to make money so they have learned for economic reasons. This is true around the major ruins and in Cancun and south of Cancun to Tulum and of course border town near the USA.
There just are not the regulations in Mexico like in Europe, USA, Canada, etc. They don't have safety regulations to speak of, at tourist spots if you climb up and fall off it is your fault, it don't see any evidence of any sort of food safety inspection of restaurants, etc. It does look like the food in grocery stores are safe and most have labeling. The market places and handling of meat and other perishable things certainly leaves a lot to be desired. Health care is so, so but I think better than a lot of poor countries. They are trying hard to get a good education for their children but the problem is they need to be making money so often they get a good education through about the 8th grade and go to work. There are some technical schools but they problem seems to be to get into what we would call the middle class. The rich seem to get richer and keep the poor, poor and it is tough to move from the poor to the middle class. It appears in the towns over 20,000 a lot of people have been able to but in the smaller towns and rural areas and even in the larger towns there are huge areas of poor people.
There seems to be flowers all over down here and one thing that is really a major thing here is the carnivals where many, many people participate. All ages really have a good time. They have parades, music and shows. There certainly is quite a bit of socialism with the government being a big employer and so you see a lot of paper inefficiency when it comes to government things but everybody says things have improved tremendously. The number of military checkpoints are amazing so there apparently is a serious effort aimed at drug traffic and other illegal movement of goods. The one thing you soon learn is that all check points and the police bend over backwards not to bother tourists. About the only thing they do stop you for are some food inspections as they are trying to stop Newcastle disease and some other things so it is legitimate. They are very, very polite and professional and if they don't speak English they have a sheet that explains what is going on. In the USA with the airports, etc. we are getting more used to officers with machine guns but after 35 days in Mexico I really don't give the solders with the machine guns a second look and they are all over the place. You just get used to it and they don't hassle you at all. Based on previous experience as we head north toward the border we will not get waved through all the check points but rather will have some inspections.
We did go to Belize to just past the town of Orange Walk and took a boat up the river to a Mayan site called Lamani. Here is my daily travelogue for that day. Today we went to the county of Belize. Henry was our guide and he did a very nice job. We got to the border about 15 miles from the RV park. We had to fill out forms to leave Mexico. It was very interesting as in the past Henry had paid them and they just looked at the passports and let the tour bus in. They raised the price on Henry and he refused to pay them as it was coming out of his profits. The forms were in Spanish of course but with Irene's help and some of what we know we got them filled out. The most unusual thing was they wanted your mothers maiden name, your fathers and your name. We had to present that form, our passport and our FM2 Mexican tourist permit. Henry and the head guy had quite an animated discussion. It really is supposed to be free but they have been charging people. It will be interesting tomorrow when we go to the free zone if we have to pay or not (we did not and the free zone was great-actually what the deal was is that Henry was paying them so his tour people did not have to do the paper work). There was a long line and only one guy working but he started to stop looking at things and just stamped things and it speeded up after about the first ten. At the Belize border we had to show our passport, and then the Belize entry form we filled out and then go through customs and we told them we had nothing to declare which was true. We got a picture of the welcome to Belize sign. Henry answered a lot of questions about Belize. I was amazed to find the Belize City only has about 70,000 people and Orange Walk which we went through only has about 40,000 people and the total size of Belize is about like MA and they only have about 350,000 people so it is no wonder they want people to come here. Henry said the government was very corrupt and had run up a huge debt. English is the official language however most people speak Belize Creole which has some English words in it and if spoken slowly you will get some of it but spoken fast as it normally is you won't get it. It was a very interesting drive, people make more money here than across the border in Mexico. They make about $10 a day where across the border they make about $15 a week so quite a difference. They are supposed to get free medical care but usually they end up having to pay for medicine and the good doctors are in the private hospitals in Chetumal, Mexico. We also noted things were much cleaner and we think it is because people own the land and take better care of things. We seen lots of black people where in Mexico we don't see many black people. The road we were on in Belize continues all the way to Panama. He said you went on three different roads, he called them south, east and west but he said there is only one road and it was about what we were on all the way. It does not have many pot holes but is fairly narrow and not much for shoulders. I will say it was not to bad but it goes through a lot of towns so there are lots of topes so it would take a good while to get to Panama. He said other than parts of Belize City it was safe. We seen two trailer parks one of which Henry owns. I would not be concerned about driving in Belize but according to the Mexican Camping book insurance can be a real concern so one would need to check that out. I would think taking a bus down to Panama and staying in hotels would definitely work; especially if you could speak some Spanish. We arrived at the New River where we got on boats to go to the Mayan Lamania Site. It was a nice trip and our driver and guide was a birder so we seen several birds that are not seen in the United States ever. We did see one small crocodile. The site was much better than I expected. The one temple was 33 meters high and another had a face that was in as good of condition of any we have seen. This site is the longest active site in central America that had a large population and was occupied from 800 BC to 1800 AD which is unbelievable. We also seen howler monkey's. It was a nice trip back on the river. Both coming and going we talked to some Mennonites fishing and went by their farming village of Shipyard. There is a 9 mile dirt road into it. They had row crops and sell a lot of food in Belize. This is a different group than we are familiar with as they live in a community coming here in the early 1950's. They speak Spanish and possibly German but I am not sure about that. They do not have television, radio, rubber tires and other modern things but do have tractors, etc. but not rubber tires. I will have to try and check it out on the Internet and ask some of my menonite friends. I did buy a Belize t-shirt at Lamani and a Mahoganey wood letter opener. We stopped at a gift shop but no body bought much. It was different seeing the English system with things in Miles and hearing English and seeing mostly English signs. Being so close to Mexico of course we still had a good deal of Spanish influence. At the border we had to go through everything in reverse so it is quite a process. We did see that for the tariff free zone you have to check out of Mexico but you can go into the duty free zone without going through the Belize customs and then when you return you have to check back into Mexico but because of the duty free thing it should not be a hassle bringing things back in. In fact the next day we went and it was not a problem. My only question and I still am not a 100% sure if my Mexican insurance covered my vehicle in the free zone since we actually were in Belize. I drover very, very cautiously and parked in as safe a place as I could find where I did not think I would get run into or where it would be stolen and had no problem. I was told I was covered but I certainly am not sure if that is correct. I know if you go through customs into BELIZE YOU NEED BELIZE INSURANCE. One last thing you can buy and own land in Belize and have title to it.
In closing we have been eating Mexican food, going to local small restaurants and getting by fine Our immunity seems to have come a long ways!