No Space in My OPZ, Not So GR8

I can be found every weekend on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my magnetic north for the past six years, since Roberta, my girl friend, lady friend, companion, tootsie, apple of my eye…take your pick…(the awkwardness of naming older amours), lives there. And I drive there, an activity most people think borders on lunacy…”You must spend the whole weekend looking for parking. What fun can that be? You must spend a fortune on parking garages.”

The fact is that I’ve never had to avail myself of a parking garage…there are very few in that neck of the Manhattan woods anyway. But I have always found street parking, usually within 10-15 minutes. I know where all the fire hydrants are. I know where spaces are likelier to be at certain times of the day. But there are a few times that patience descends to frustration and I get careless and wrongly read the signs of parking restrictions (reading what I want it to say, not what it actually says). And with fanatical professionalism, the parking meter corps in the city, points out my errors, identifies me on a hand-held that contains the minutia of my life and spits out a ticket defining just why I have been cited. There is no privacy anymore. It’s a word that can be dropped from the dictionary, having only historical significance.

But on a trip to the city last month, there was a twist in the usual search for a space that was a mixed bag of good and bad. As usual I turned into the four square block zone that is my OPZ (optimal parking zone) and began my search. Always there is the rueful feeling that this is the day, when the parking gods will not cut me a break and allow me that rather substantial victory of finding a space. There is a high-rise apartment being built in the middle of my OPZ and about 30 parking spaces have been cordoned off, which adds a great deal more tension to the search. It has an almost organic felling, this OPZ…it moves, it pulses, it teases, it sneers…a living thing that suddenly is my competitor…me trying to burrow into its jurisdiction and it, throwing up defenses to prevent it.

It was 5 o’clock. My anxiety this particular Saturday was heightened, because we had a reservation for dinner (covidly outdoors). I made one loop of my four-block grid, finding nothing. The cars seemed to be packed in even tighter than usual. A feeling of unease crept in. I repeated the loop four more times. Cars were double parked, drivers waiting to fly to a flash of brake lights in the row of parked cars, indicating impending vacancy. These were the coveted spaces, good until Monday morning, no meters.

Finally, I found a space on one of the avenues that border my grid. It had a two-hour limit…until 7 p.m. And after that, parking was free. It was 5 p.m. I’d pay for two hours and since parking was free on Sunday…I’d be good until Monday at 8 a.m. I put my debit card into the machine that dispenses timed parking tickets, bought two hours, put the ticket on the dashboard and left, joyous at my good fortune.

Next day, I went to the car for my sunglasses. Neatly tucked under the windshield wiper was a telltale orange notice of violation. Unbelieving, I read the ticket for the infraction and the cost of returning to the good graces of the parking commissioner. It seemed that I was parked in a loading zone…a second sign placed on the pole above the two-hour limit sign told the sad tale. But, unbelievably, folded along with the ticket and the envelope to send payment was my debit card. I must have dropped it on the street (busy Amsterdam Avenue). The parking enforcer (of blessed inclination) saw it, figured it must have been dropped when the driver fumbled, putting the time ticket on the dashboard. It was an iffy presumption, but it worked for me. It was almost worth the $95 to know that honesty is alive and well and living in New York City.

Mexican Days: Off to the Races at Paricutin, 2000

I floored the rental car, after making a turn at a sign pointing the way to Paricutin, a geologically new volcano that erupted in 1943 in a cornfield near a town of the same name. There were two young men on horseback when we turned onto the dirt road leading to the volcano and they started waving wildly at us. When we didn’t stop, they began thundering after us at a gallop. Unbelievably, they were gaining on us. I went faster. The riders put their heads down and butts up like jockeys to cut down wind resistance. I felt like a pace car, starting a horse race that was about to be overtaken by the horses. The road must have been a mile long through flat fields to a small village at the end of it. We flashed by the village of Angahuan, mostly a footpath of a town that the 17th century forgot. The road drifted left. The riders downshifted their horses to a trot. I eased up on the throttle. The horsemen knew the road eventually came to an end. They had chased us not into a no-way-out canyon (as in old cowboy movies), but instead into a level field that served as a parking lot (ours was the only car) with hitching posts for horses. The few tethered there seemed unconcerned with our drama. A sign in Spanish said the horses were for rent, as were guides to lead visitors to the Church of San Juan that had been nearly destroyed by the volcano. The hombres in pursuit finally caught up to us, offered to be our guide to the church and rent us steeds to carry us there. We accepted.

Paricutin was a town surrounded by cornfields and low hills. It no longer exists…a victim of the lava from the spectacular volcano that also eliminated the town of San Juan. From a flat field of corn, the spew of the lava created a perfect cone of a mountain like a circular pyramid, wide at the base to a perfectly circular cup at the top. The lava, looking for low points to flow to, found the two nearby villages. Both were burned and buried by the lava…leaving nothing behind to rebuild, since both villages were built mostly of wood. But there was a church that partially endured the eruption and that was what we were going to see. What did survive, miraculously, were one and a half towers and a connecting arch that formed the entrance to the stone Church of San Juan. If churches were shoes, this would be a size 12 extra-wide for what would seem like size 4 extra-narrow town. Pre-volcano photographs show a rather small farming village, surrounding the church that would seem to have too thin a roster of folks to fill more than a few rows, much less the full expanse, of the church. So, armed with little prior knowledge of Paricutin, we swung up on the saddles to ride on a winding trail through gnarled trees and brush and soft earth to what remains of this large-footprint church. There is little to rival the eerie surprise at the end of a trail than to suddenly come upon a majestic tower of a church held for eternity in the embrace of hardened, sharp-edged, crumpled lava.

We climbed the uneven mountain of lava that rose from the flatland, where we had dismounted, to a level halfway up the tower, where we could gaze down at the arch and the towers that were surrounded by, but miraculously, not buried by the lava. We were about 50 feet above the level of the pre-volcano town. Perhaps 50 yards west was the alter and the back wall of the church, a survivor as well…another intact remnant. Between the front and the back there was no hint that anything man-made had connected the two. The middle part of the church was covered  by the jagged slabs of lava with some scrub that managed to push its way through cracks in it. Strange that the back and the front…entrance and altar… weren’t covered by the lava. Eerier still are pictures, taken at a distance…the top half of a church tower, rising like a misplaced stone rocket in a sea of vegetation, awaiting liftoff to outer space.

And the riders that waved at us, chased us and then guided us to the church…well they were not at the signpost where they had intercepted us, earlier in the day. One hard ride a day, no doubt, was enough.

Mexican Days: Palenque, the Silence of the Ants

Palenque is a magnificent Mayan ruin. Ruin, of course, is a description of age not condition. As condition goes, parts of Palenque that flourished in the Yucatan jungle until about 800 A.D. are in great shape. Even stucco frescoes amazingly survived well in the jungle. A good deal of modern archeological  refurbishing has made it so. The steps up its highest pyramid, then down into the depths to the burial chamber are as perfect as when they were new. A lot of the site is rake-clean and trimmed, despite the heat and humidity. The stones have lost the ferocity of the blood-red paint they sported in the power times of 800 A.D., but then Benjamin Moore wouldn’t have lasted from then to now either.

But it’s the ants of Palenque that truly inspire. True, Mayan architects and astronomers and builders and  artisans were without peer in the pre-Columbian Americas. They moved huge stones  without the benefit of the wheel. They had no telescopes, but observed the Earth’s movements with precision.. But, ah, it’s the ants  that will make us go weak in the knees from ingenuity and tenacity. Their civilization didn’t disappear after a scant five or six-hundred years of ascendency, like the Mayans did. They’re still billions strong after wars, pandemics, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and pestilence…millennia after millennia. No op-ed articles of complaints, no lobbying for better working conditions, for daycare, health care. Nope, they know their jobs and they just do them.

After a day of walking and climbing around the stones of Palenque…and swimming in the natural pools and streams and waterfalls that run through the area…we had to find lodging. And we did…a sort of motel in the jungle…a hut set in a tangle of vegetation…with a bed, a bathroom and a bare bulb on a wire, dangling from the ceiling. What else do you need? Whatever it might have been, it wasn’t there. It was the jungle primeval…with night noises that terrify city folks.

Back to the ants. We had during the day found a bakery in the town of Palenque, filled a tray with pastries… ate some, but saved some for the next morning. The ants of Palenque, we were told, will descend and eat your grub well before you can. They were here, when  the asteroid hit Earth that killed off the dinosaurs. They laughed at the Ice Age. And we thought we were going to bring something to the battle that they hadn’t seen before? You think you’re going to stop them from getting to your sweet rolls? Well, we can battle them with human intelligence. We can use guile and cunning. We have tape and string and a carry-all with Velcro closures. First we took a sacrificial honey roll and put it at the base of the wall…a diversion. It was enough to feed several million of them. They’ll wobble off on a sugar high and leave the rest of our treasure untouched, we reasoned. Then we double-bagged the rest, wound tape around the bags, put it all in the carry-all, pressed the Velcro together, hung the carry-all from a string tied to the light bulb wire from the ceiling, turned off the light and drifted off, satisfied that we had done all that we could.

Morning came with light and humiliation streaming through the lone window in the hut. The diversionary bun was gone without a trace. From the place where we put it, they launched an invasion…a wavy column of ants went up the wall, across the ceiling, down the wire, over the bulb and into the carry-all. Another wavy column went in the opposite direction, carrying bits of buns. The incursion was ongoing. They were not wobbly from a sugar high. In awed silence, we dressed as a defeated army would, slipped out with our travel bags and returned to the bakery in town to replace the pastries…and then sat in the plaza and ate quietly.

Mexican Days: Mawkish in Queretero

Of all things I found myself, sitting in the main zocalo (plaza) in Queretero, a colorful, historic city north of Mexico City and taking in the panorama of Mexican life, playing out in front of me. And I said mawkishly to myself…I’ve seen this all before, this Mexican scene…the zocalo, the palm trees, the eucalyptus, the cathedral, the food sellers, balloon sellers, the shoe shiners, the families, the kids dripping ice cream, the gazebo in the middle of the zocalo, the heat, the poor. Maybe this was one trip too many. I found myself with a feeling of boredom…something that had never happened to me in the numberless times I had been to Mexico. Maybe…feeling like a heretic…I thought I should find another country to go to.

I got up, walked past a bakery, took a picture of a garish, orange building, turned down gorditas, chalupas and tacos from a street cart vendor and wandered to a small park across from the zocalo. People sat around the lip of a fountain…sitting in the cooling spray on a hot day…as a band of young amped up Mexican musicians played popular Mexican, American and Beetles songs. And then against all expectations, they broke into Havah Nagilah, an Israeli folk song, which was as strange as snow falling in the Negev. It’s not the usual musical fare you’d find beyond joyous Jewish affairs. I’m sure they didn’t know what they were playing. And certainly their listeners didn’t. But they played it with the whiny passion of a true Galicianer, as if they were to the manor born. It was just one of those incongruities that is so compelling about Mexico, like murals painted on the outsides of buildings, since some indigenous Mexicans are afraid to go into big buildings, or the macabre Day of the Dead celebrations, or arranging mummies ominously, but decoratively in a crypt in Guanajuato, or self-flagellation as if it would please a beneficent God, or excavating new subways, only to find the remnants of old civilizations, where the new subway was supposed to go.

Like all coincidences, had I gone into the bakery instead of passing it (and I couldn’t say why I didn’t go in…I rarely miss the opportunity), I would have missed Havah Nagilah. It’s been said that everything happens for a reason. Not everything. But for me not missing Havah Nagilah in Mexico…for that there must have been a reason.

And it isn’t just that kooky eccentricities are all indigenously generated. Mexico seems to attract them from everywhere. I drove from Mazatlan on the Pacific coast, going to Durango and drove into a different time zone over the Sierra Madre. Two o’clock suddenly became three o’clock and Durango became too far away time-wise. Besides, I had passed a small dirt road turnoff to Copala, a town of old, closed silver mines. I had vaguely heard of it and a voice told me to go there.  I found the dirt road turnoff, took it,  until it ended at a left-right road. To the left through the trees I saw what seemed a mirage of ten or more tour buses…odd for a small, out-of-the-way town. I opted to go right to the what turned out to be the sleepy old part of town with a gorgeous plaza…no one there…and buildings from the town’s salad silver mining days .  I had a cerveza at a restaurant, empty but for me, that looked more like a botanical garden, walked around the plaza that could have been a dead ringer for the old American west. It was time to explore the tour-bus part of town.

It turned out that the tour buses were clustered around a large hilltop restaurant, looking over a valley of green. It was named Daniel’s for an American ex-oilfield worker who, I assume,  owned it. The buses flock to Daniel’s from Mazatlan with a cargo of passengers from cruise ships that dock there. The drawing card of the restaurant, oddly, is banana cream pie, the house specialite. Not Mexican, you say. Right, but it’s the Mexico of off-beat things. The pie, by the way, was worth not going to Durango.

Mexican Days: Oscar Near Zihuatanejo

On a two-lane road that undulated with the Pacific coastline somewhere between Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, we came upon a small, years-faded sign, begging us to turn through a vaulted entrance in a hacienda wall to a restaurant within. Intrigued, we did. There were three solid walls and a colonnaded fourth side framing the Pacific and a wide beach. But there were no cars inside, not even a hint that any had been there in a long while. Weeds grew prominently through the cracked cement of a parking lot that had likely seen its glory days years before. There was no hint of life now, but the feeling of looming dread that a forbidding, abandoned place gives off…the strange awareness that nothing good has happened there for years. Deciding that the weathered sign that lured us in was an omen, we made the first quick turn of a three-point turn to make a quick exit, when in the rearview mirror, the young proprietor (as it turned out he was) with an open white shirt, desperately waved his arms, as if we were a passing ship and he was the lone survivor of a shipwreck years before. We stopped. He caught up with us and asked in passable English, if we wanted something to eat. Conquering our fears of getting out of the car and being immediately set upon by hidden confreres, waiting in the shadows, we parked. His blandishments of making the best grilled shrimp in Mexico overwhelmed our good sense.

He introduced himself…Oscar was his name…and he regaled us with the glories of not inly the shrimp which had just been plucked from the water, but his guacamole, also the best in Mexico that he would serve us as we basked under a palapa on the sand, along with…you guessed it…the best pina coladas in Mexico. Take a swim, he said, hand signing that he’d have the guacamole and the pina coladas ready as soon as we toweled off. If he had spoken more English, or if I had spoken any, but tourist Spanish, I’d have loved hearing the story of this place where the secrecy of assignations could, no doubt, be guaranteed and the spoils of shady deals divied up.

True to  his word, the guacamole chips and two pina coladas, and two more, when we finished those, were set before us as we emerged from the ocean. And after came the shrimp, more than we could eat, and rice and salsa and tortillas. And finally there was a surprise flan, la piece de resistence to top it off. We ate languidly as if stranded for the afternoon and enjoyed having the wide beach, the ocean and the attentions of Oscar all to ourselves. From the hesitant entrance to our ecstatic finish it was an afternoon to talk about. We would have liked for Oscar’s sake, to have sent him a thousand guests to put him on the gastronomic map, But the best part of the day was to have come upon a faded sign and taken a chance on the hospitality of a stranger.

Our departure was a reprise of our entrance…Oscar in the rearview mirror, open shirt, blowing in the wind, waving his arms amid cries of adios amigos.

Mexican Days: On the Road to Xalapa

We drove south from Mexico City to Puebla, looking for good mole, since Puebla is famous for mole and historically Mexico’s moles are made there (and in Oaxaca) and recipes jealously protected there. They were protected too well, because we didn’t find any…recipes or restaurants that offered their sauciers’ distinctive versions of mole. Gourmets that we are, we did assuage our mole disappointment with bags of snacks from the hotel’s vending machine. And the next morning drove east into Veracruz State across an endless plain toward, what looked in the distance, like either a curtain of smoke or ominous weather. And beyond that mist of troubles, it looked like there were foothills (the eastern spine of the Sierra Madres), protruding from the flat plain. Our destination was Xalapa, the state capitol of Veracruz.

It was already the middle of the afternoon, when we penetrated the haze and then  got to the winding, forested hills beyond, which requires headlights, crawling speed instead of just slowing down and more than surgical attention just to stay on the road. Driving was by feel…either smooth asphalt or loose dirt…if you veered off the road.  All points of reference were blotted out…even the sun. The smoke surrounded the car was generated, as it turned out, by numberless kilns, making bricks. Evidently brick-making was an easy business to get into because every shack in the area had a kiln attached. Business must have been good, if thick smoke was any indication. It’s at times like those, that you can’t help your instinct and ask, believer or not, if maybe a higher power might not intercede on your behalf. As the road climbed higher, though, the trees did reced as did the kilns and we emerged from the smoke…prayers answered. The road widened, began going downhill and Xalapa, thankfully, was spread out in the  distance, still miles away in the fading afternoon light. As we passed by the visibility problem, though, another problem revealed itself. There, athwart our lane, was a police car, top light revolving, and a somewhat rumpled policeman, waving us to the dirt shoulder of the road along with three other cars. Not good to be in the clutches of country cops in Mexico. He dealt with the three truants in front of us, likely, giving them the choice of a small fine for a nonexistent offence or a large fine for a nonexistent offence. Then he shambled toward us, no doubt calculating what country justice he could rain down on us…we being in a rental car.

I didn’t know much about dealing with the police in Mexico. But one thing I did know was that the phrase “no entiendo” (I don’t understand), would be my first line of defense along with shoulder shrugging. If he spoke English, though, that defense was out the window. First good sign…he asked for my license in Spanish. “What”, I asked. “Licencia’, he said. “Ah”, I said, “license. Okay”. “Neuva York”, he said after studying it. “Yes”, I said not wanting to let on that my use of Spanish hardly reached the rudimentary stage of si. He tried in Spanish, telling me what I had done to spark his attention. I shrugged. He tried again. This time I employed no entiendo. He paraded my license to the front of the car, then to the back, pondering whether any enforcement would be worth the effort. He handed me my license back, said something to the effect that I should abide by the directives of the road signs in Mexico. I looked at him dumbly, giving no indication that I knew what he said. He smiled in frustration, gave a sloppy, but good-natured, salute and waved me on. I was out of the clutches of Mexican justice, but light was fading and I had to find the hotel I reserved in the tangle of streets in Xalapa.

We did think that having survived  the nearly impenetrable smoke from the brick kilns, having escaped the attentions of law enforcement, having fought off a mild case of potential bribery, having had to deal with mole disappointment, that, perhaps, we were due a stroke of good fortune in Xalapa. We glided down to see what fate awaited us.

Mexican Days: A Quandary of Streets in Xalapa

We descended the Sierra Madres into Xalapa, the inland capitol of Veracruz State in fading afternoon light…the encroaching  darkness being a challenge to anyone even with a good sense of direction, trying to make sense of its disorienting gaggle of streets and neighborhoods. Besides if any of the road signs might have been helpful, they were in Spanish. We kept impatience on a low boil, hoping that the next turn, or the one after that, would reveal the hotel. But the city, resisting directional order, was a worthy foe. Hunger, no doubt, pushed our impatience, as well as the day’s agonizingly slow ride through the nearly impenetrable smoke in the Sierra Madres from brick kilns and a stop by a country cop, wanting a bribe far more than keeping order on Mexican roads.

We were on a wide boulevard entering  the city. Not realizing how large the city was, we thought we could make a couple of intuitive zigzag turns and magically find ourselves face to face  with the city’s main plaza, cathedral and municipal buildings which were near our hotel. Old cities don’t work that way. There is no logic to centuries of growth, especially for a city that was on the route Cortes followed on the way to the Aztec capitol (now Mexico City) in the early sixteenth century and was added to haphazardly, up hills and down, over time. It wasn’t going to give up its confusing layout just to appease a couple of Gringos.

Two forays off the boulevard brought us into unknowable neighborhoods and we realized we needed help (GPS was still a few years away). By no mean stroke of luck we found our way back to the boulevard. At a red light. I opened the car window and put on a pathetic pleading look at a passenger in a beat-up pickup next to us. She opened her window and I asked in primitive  Spanish…”donde esta” and then gave the name of the hotel…as the light changed. Her husband motioned to follow them to the next red light. He got out, slightly bedraggled from his 9 to 5 labors, in old jeans, a hat as beat-up as his truck and pointy toes-up scuffed boots and said in half English, half Spanish, that his wife knew the hotel, but it wasn’t nearby. He would take us there, but first he needed gas. Just follow him, he asked, to the gas station and then he’d take us there. If you’re guessing that he was going to put the bite on me for gas money, you’re wrong. He got gas, checked that we were still behind him and motioned us to follow.

The way to the hotel was a maze of turns on narrow streets, main streets, some lighted, some not, in darkness now. Twenty minutes later he rolled down his window, pointed at our hotel and with a wave sped off. If you wonder why I kept going back to Mexico, aside from its fascinating culture and history, it’s people like them.

Another of the wonderful incongruities of Mexico…not knowing what you’re going to happen upon. We walked on a main road in Xalapa, going to a new cultural center and on the way came upon a lush park with pathways through topical vegetation and sculptures, Mexican symbols, waterfalls, pools with turtles and fish. A bit farther on we found the cultural center…new, glass, modern…nothing Mexican about it. That night it was hosting a performance of Carmina Burana, a bawdy romp of medieval European satiric poems set to music…nothing Mexican about it. But here it was in Mexico, land of mariachis and Ballet Folklorico.

Mexican Days: The Ladies of the Chains*

Scaling the steps of Kukulcan (El Castillo), a Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico to the boxy temple on top is a climb of 91 fairly narrow steps at a steep 47 degree slope that was best done with sobriety, care and no silly bravado. From the ground, glancing up, the climb seems doable, the perception being that nobody falls up. But once on top with a terrified downward look and knees suddenly shaky as Jello, the possibility of falling leaps up to the front of your brain’s amygdala. And a struggle begins to contain the shriek of “no way, get me a couple of Mayans…they built this thing…let them get me down.” For suddenly it looks like you’ve climbed to the top of the world. Mexicans who don’t usually allow for an easy escape from human miscalculation, took pity on those with the boldness to climb up, but who then got shaky legs for the return trip down.

For those souls of abandoned bravery, the overseers of Chichen provided a heavy chain, running top to bottom along the steps.** It is not an engaging sight, seeing folks bent over, gripping the chain of life for dear life, backing down…enduring the heat of a metal chain, baking during daylight hours in 95 degree heat. But what’s a little discomfort, when the safety of terra firma gets closer with each backward step. It’s surely a lot less humiliating that sitting down, face front, and slowly lowering oneself, one step and a time. Besides  a few minutes of embarrassment is a little enough price to pay for having embraced a challenge  you might not have taken, had you thought about it a little more thoroughly. But that challenging first step up usually means no turning back and for three ladies (The Ladies of the Chain) it all ended well, as they backed down, kissed Mother Earth, and retained all the bragging rights for having climbed the pyramid. Fortunately for me, four twenty-something French girls ran up and down with the ease of popping the top of an Orange Crush can. I took courage from them and descended with carefree (read careful) abandon that gave me the joyous feeling of MacArthur victoriously wading ashore at Luzon, when I reached bottom.

Years later on a trip to Mexico with my wife, we went to Uxmal, another wonderful Mayan city with a well-preserved ceremonial center…and a pyramid. Since I proved myself by climbing El Castillo at Chichen Itza years before, I retained the residual immunity from having to conquer any Mayan heights again. I declined the challenge of Uxmal, fearing I might have to resort to the humiliation of taking the chain to get back down. To adapt an adage…once lucky, twice shy. Climb Everest once and you’re inoculated from having to do it again. My wife, however. did get her pyramid climbing merit badge by ascending and descending without using the chain.

*The title of this blog was taken from the sight of three spunky ladies of less than youthful presentation…but old enough to have put more thought to it…who panicked on top before realizing there was a chain of descent.

**The OK to climb has since been withdrawn after the fatal fall of a tourist about 15 years ago. Now you’ll have to prove your climbing bona fides by climbing Everest…everyone’s doing it these days.

Mexico Days: The Road That Is, But Never Was

We flew to Mexico City with a stopover in Houston, went through passport check and customs, changed dollars for pesos and rented a car. It was the same arrival routine most times there. But once out of the airport, nothing was ever the same, since I was endlessly fascinated by Mexico and Mexico had a endless inventory of exotic places to see. Except for Mexico City, I had never been to the same place twice, but the destination this time was Zihuatanejo…a wonderful Pacific coast town southwest of Mexico City and north of Acapulco…a place I was happily returning to, for a slightly delayed honeymoon.

First time there, I flew to Ixtapa, a resort five miles from Zihuatanejo and then took a taxi there to Hotel Sol y Mar (Sun and Sea), distinguished only by a 5 a.m. wake up call from roosters in the back yard. This trip I preferred seeing Mexico from the ground, the narrow twisting roads, the topes (speed bump) towns, the barrancas, arroyos and gullies.  So we drove to Toluca, a city south of Mexico City, where we could meet up with Route 134, a thin line on the map that sloped through the mountains to the Pacific and Zihuatanejo. We had a map (GPS was not yet invented) and drove into and out of Toluca, but Route 134 did not reveal itself. We went back to Toluca flagged the first pedestrian we found, and asked the way…Route 134 to Zihuatanejo .He knew it right off and directed us with hand gestures; right, left, straight…pleased  to be able to help. Easy to follow, we found the road he described with no problem, except it led us to Route 55 and was the road to Taxco (pronounced Tahsco), a silver town…mining and crafting…not Zihuatanejo. It was three or four miles back to Toluca and now we were on the lookout for a policeman, a Lewis and Clarke of Tolucan streets and highways. We found one directing traffic…albeit a car or two every ten minutes…who told us he knew exactly the road to Zihuatanejo. Again, hand gestures, right, left, straight. We nodded and thanked him with annoyed gratitude, realizing he, too, gave us directions to Route 55. Was Taxco having a two-for-one silver sale, that everyone was directing us there? Was Toluca getting a commission on silver sales?

We’d make one last try and then have to go to a nonexistent Plan B. With great luck we found a traffic control officer…with a car…who knew the road to Zijuatanejo. We had finally found our Sacagawea whose coattails we could grab on to. Route 134, I asked again, just to make sure. Si, si, no problem.  He even put a flasher on, so we could more easily follow him. But now like Tolucan natives, we had the directions in our bones…and our bones told us this was the way to Route 55, the road they were all trying to sell us as the road to Zihuatanejo. He slowed, pointed us to the highway entrance. We waved our thanks, waited until he was out of sight. But instead of doubling back, I said, Taxco? Some power in the universe wants us in Taxco. We’ll get to Zijuatanejo, somehow, tomorrow. Besides, we had about an hour and a half of daylight left and Taxco was an hour and a half away.

In the morning, after visits to more than one silver shop, relieving them of a few trinkets (but finding no two-for-one sales), we left for the toll road going toward Acapulco and from there found the coast road north to Zihuatanejo. A couple of days later I struck up a conversation with a Danish expat, managing a gift store and told him the odd story of trying unsuccessfully to find Route 134. Oh, he said, I know that road…I drove it from Toluca to here two years ago…the most dangerous road in Mexico. I’d like to think that all three Tolucans were good-hearted souls who kept us away from Route 134 on purpose. The powers of the cosmos work in mysterious ways. Either that or the Tolucans did get a cut of all Taxcan silver sales.

Mexican Days: A Wing and a Prayer

Here is an indelible snippet of memory that I can’t fit into a larger context…neither the before, nor the after, just the memory itself. There were four of us on a trip to Mexico, a combustible group; my wife, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law and me, keeping to a companionable simmer by frequent visits to local bakeries and the application of pan dulces several times a day.

We were in Tuxtla Gutierrez airport in southern Mexico for a flight…the only scheduled one of the day…to Villahermosa, a city on the Gulf of Mexico and the center of Mexico’s oil industry. Tuxtla is in the mountains of Chiapas, a state that borders Guatemala; Villahermosa is north of it, just at sea level. We missed the scheduled flight by minutes. Where are the pan dulces when you need them. With the only flight of the day having departed and not wanting to stay in Tuxtla, I set about trying to find a private pilot with an airplane. It was that kind of casual airport and I was directed to a man, lacking the look and flamboyance I was expecting of a bush pilot and who looked, in confusion, like he was puzzling over a crossword clue. Distinctions aside, he did have at least the minimum requirements…a pilot’s license, a plane (with enough squeeze-in space for five and a small compartment for our baggage in back of the seats) and a flexible flying schedule. We were a bit of an overload, but he was sure it was fine. A caveat I try to remember is that desire overtakes good sense. Looking at the four of us with baggage, there was, no doubt, the pilot kept misgivings to himself. And  I overlooked the caveat.

We settled the financials and walked onto the runway to his plane…a single-engine, wing-on-top affair, tethered to the runway, lest a moderate breeze blow it over. We loaded up and crammed in (in-laws and wife in the back seats). The pilot didn’t smile. I attributed that to an antipathy to gringos, but he was, more likely, deep in prayer. The Tuxtla airport, contrary to good sense, was built at  the bottom of a teacup of mountains, an odd placement, considering the need to rise swiftly. It is one thing to have the limitless horsepower of a commercial airplane to climb quickly  and get out of the teacup. It is another to be over the suggested load limit and have the horsepower of a slingshot. But I subscribe to the theory that a pilot’s not going up in a plane he doesn’t think he can land…my hope being that they still all have reverence for survival and that the Hippocratic Oath extends to the flying trade. Someone cranked the propeller, since it had no electronic  ignition. The motor caught and revved. We successfully passed the first hurdle. The next hurdle, a little more requisite, was getting the plane into the air. With the end of the runway speeding closer (not to mention the mountains), I looked over at the pilot, gauging panic or nonchalance. It was the latter as he eased the plane into the air well shy of the Sierra Madres. But straight up, over the mountains was not in the flight plan. He banked left in the teacup, avoiding the mountains, gaining altitude. Three times around the airport and he was satisfied that we were altitude-worthy and he steered the plane toward the rim of the cup. To me it looked close, but we did clear it by a good 100 to 200 feet. Me, I might have opted for another time around to put a bit more space between us and terra firma, but, hey, he was the pilot. The folks in the back seat were respectfully terrified. We all had been scanning the ground beneath, scouting for possible landing spots, just in case.

It was a relatively short flight to Villahermosa, hazy from the oil industry…flat, hot, steamy…with enough visibility for a long glide down and an easy landing. Then we were hit with a blast furnace of air as the door was opened. We slow-walked through the open-air steam bath to the terminal, such as it was. My excitement at being in Villahermosa was to walk through La Venta, a park on the edge of the jungle, near the city with huge (many tons), round, baby-faced Olmec heads carved in basalt many centuries B.C. in the remote, swampy areas of Tabasco State, where the Olmecs had set up home in the vicinity of 1200 B.C. The heads were brought to La Venta, because they were on land in the center of Mexico’s oil boom. I thought everyone would share my enthusiasm for going to the park, but the consensus of the back-seaters (on the airplane) was to adjourn to our hotel and take a nap before dinner. I bristled. How many times will we be in Villahermosa? Besides we were leaving in the morning and wouldn’t have the chance to see it. A modus operandi was reached. I would drop them off at the hotel, find a bakery, gorge on pan dulces, which should guarantee a return to a companionable simmer and go alone to La Venta.