The acclaimed songwriter’s “Wasteland Bait & Tackle” blog goes South. In which our protagonist learns which rules work and which ones don’t – “gringo nervous,” indeed.
By James McMurtry
It’s different down there.
A friend of mine got married in Yucatan yesterday. I had a weekend off and my girlfriend, Kellie, and I needed to get out of our regular lives for a minute or two, so we caught the nonstop Airtran from Austin to Cancun, Quintana Roo, and drove to Merida, Yucatan. The young men who manned the Avis office at the Cancun airport seemed truly friendly, spoke excellent English, and handed us bottles of cold water to drink while we waited for our car to be brought up. There was a strange woman in the office. She gave me a map and drew directions on it, directions which eventually proved very helpful for getting out of the airport. But she kept asking questions which I had already answered. She wanted to know where we were staying and for how long, and kept suggesting that we were going to Playa del Carmen rather than Merida. I couldn’t tell if she worked for the casinos in Playa del Carmen and was trying to hypnotize me into going there, or if she were some kind of cop trying to trip me up.
We got out of the airport without incident, but I turned the wrong way on the 307 and we wound up going into Cancun. I somehow found the 180 and got us turned back towards Merida. The traffic didn’t seem much meaner than that of New York City, less mean than that of Boston, but the sight of a pickup with three body armored policemen standing in the bed, each hanging onto a high rail with one hand and carrying some modern form of AR-15 in the other, gave me the sense that we were definitely not in Kansas anymore. They may also have had a swivel mounted gun of some sort, but the traffic on my bumper worried me more than the armament, so I didn’t get more than a glance or two. Our fellow motorists were not the least bit alarmed, fully content and resigned to the notion that things could go real bad real fast, any time, anywhere. A helmetless couple motored along beside us on some kind of old enduro motorbike, a five or six year old boy sandwiched between them, sound asleep. We fought our way out through the construction, past the tire shops and junkyards to the place where one must make a choice, Merida Libre, o Merida Cuota, the free road or the toll road. I chose the Libre at first, but it was two lane and heavily trafficked, would’ve taken all day. I turned back and got on the Cuota.
The toll road to Merida was eerie. I couldn’t see the east bound lanes for the short, but thick foliage in the median. I couldn’t see anything but the strip of pavement on which we traveled, the short trees that flanked it, and the tall sky. The sky at sea level always seems tall to me, the clouds have more strata than those of inland skies, they seem to go up forever. There were very few cars going west with us, often none were visible in front or in back. Once and a while, a pedestrian or two would emerge from some jungle foot path, cross the road and disappear down the path on the other side, going where they needed to go, toll road or no toll road. Kellie said she expected to see dinosaurs, but we never saw any. Pedal carts and bicycles were prohibited according to the road signs, but they both seemed almost as common a sight as cars on that road. One man pedaled a loaded cart down the shoulder and carried a giant old bolt action shotgun slung over his shoulder, barrel down. It was the sort of gun once referred to in the U.S. as a “goose gun”, back before the ballisticians taught the goose hunters that a shotgun barrel of over thirty inches in length provided no real advantage for killing geese at forty yards. Where did he get that thing and what does he hunt with it?
We pulled off at Valladolid to look for food. My father once told me to always keep one’s female traveling companion well fed lest all hell break loose. All hell broke loose on him and his longtime lady sometime in the early seventies while they were traveling in Scotland. They both realized they were famished after a long drive, but they didn’t come to this realization until it was too late. They were caught between tea time and supper, a time of day during which one simply could not eat in the U.K. in the early nineteen seventies. The restaurants and shops were locked up tight. They never recovered from the fight that ensued, though neither can now remember what they fought about. We cruised through Valladolid past a slew of closed restaurants. It was about three thirty in the afternoon. The word “siesta” bubbled up through my memory. There was a sandwich place that might have been open, but there were no parking places close and the traffic on our tail was making me gringo nervous. Drivers tapped their horns at us, I edged to the right to let them by, but never stopped, growing irrationally panicked from a combination of fatigue, hunger, and the foreignness of the place. I circled back the way we had come. Two men pedaled bicycles into the roundabout in front of us, each with a bundle of firewood bungied across the rack behind the seat. I pulled back onto the Cuota, wondering if our relationship would survive the hundred and thirty kilometers of jungle between us and a meal. We were saved by the service area near Chichen Itza, where there was ample parking, good tacos and killer hot sauce. New Jersey Turnpike travelers should be so lucky.
Pedal cart traffic increased as we approached Merida. A large shirtless man pedaled down the shoulder, a stout woman sitting in front, in the bed of the cart. The Cuota is as flat a road as I’ve ever driven, but the shirtless man was getting a workout, standing on the pedals. It occurred to me that the road probably had some rise and fall to it, imperceptible to the driver of a late model Camry.
Merida seemed to just appear around us, Friday afternoon traffic jamming the roundabouts. Kellie did her best to read the directions I had copied from Google maps before I had disabled the data functions to avoid international data roaming charges. We found Avenida Quetzalcoatl which became Calle 65. We were then supposed to turn right on Calle 52. Numbered “calles” ran in all directions it seemed, who but a paranoid American would need the luxury of streets, “calles,” running east west and avenues, “avenidas,” running north south to provide more exact coordinates? The street numbers kept repeating themselves, ascending from one to twenty-six or so, then starting over. We pressed on growing hopeful when the numbers finally progressed past thirty. Finally we found a street called “Calle 52” and made the right. It turned out to be the correct Calle 52 and, after some circling, we found the hotel where my friend Dwight, the groom, had reserved for us a room. There was even a white curbed parking space in front. The desk clerk assured me I could park there. “Cuando es yellow, no,” she said. Things were looking up.
After a nap, and a good sidewalk cafe meal, we found a bar where the elderly waiter brought a hat rack to our table, that I might remove my Panama and hang it properly. Back home, I usually have to place my hat upside down under my chair or leave it on. I remember a time when hat racks were bolted to the backs of cafe booths, but those seem to have faded away now that only we Luddites still wear hats.
The next morning, the day clerk asked me to move the rent car because, though it was parked legally, it was in the way of the construction of a stage. Apparently there was live music in the plaza in front of the hotel every Saturday. One must know these things. By the time I was alerted to the situation, the workers had all but built the stage around the car. I didn’t think I would need the car until the next day and considered just letting them box it in. Such a sight would have made good YouTube, but the clerk and a rather gruff policeman seemed to want things done right. I had to hop the front end of the car up onto the sidewalk to get the angle to back out between stage sections and a box truck. No one seemed to mind this action. The policeman motioned rapidly until I backed the car clear of the construction. The clerk told me I could park in the hotel lot a block or so away and he gave me directions in good English. Though I thought I understood the directions perfectly, I never found anything resembling a hotel parking lot. I found another white curb at the other end of the plaza from the stage, parked the car and went about my business. There was supposed to be a gathering in the hotel restaurant, with toasts to the couple and such. Kellie and I sat down for breakfast and another hat rack appeared at my side. Old friends materialized, but Dwight, my friend the groom, never did. He owns a restaurant in San Antonio, where I once worked, briefly and with minimal competence. Several high ranking members of the restaurant staff had mutinied and walked off a couple of weeks before, leaving the remaining staff to descend into dysfunctional chaos. The crisis had escalated that day, so. Dwight’s morning was eaten up with frantic international phone calls. Kellie and I ate and then took a walk. We stuck to the big streets which led us down past the University of Yucatan to the Cathedral. The further we went into the tourist district, the harder we were sold at. It grew tiring pretty quickly. No one was mean to us. Nothing felt even vaguely sinister, just hungry. The people could not afford to let us alone. We and our ilk were their livelihood, but I just didn’t feel like playing the game. I didn’t want anything but the guitar cable I had forgotten to bring, but despite our proximity to a major University, we saw no music stores. In front of the Cathedral, a friendly Mayan managed to engage us in conversation, but before he could drag us to his shop, I reflexively shut down, and we turned back toward our hotel, further from the action, where no one would try to sell to us unless we were already in their shop. We stopped for a beer in the open air lobby of a dilapidated hotel which may have been under renovation. The waitress left us alone for the most part. Perfect. On our way back to our hotel, a young man walked briskly past us holding a cell phone to his ear with his right hand, his left hand swinging at his side, and a plexiglass covered tray of pastries balanced on his head. We got back to the plaza to find that workers were building another stage around our car. I went to the desk, got very specific directions which included actual street names. I walked two blocks to get an actual visual of the lot. Then I returned to the plaza and extracted the car in the nick of time.
After siesta, the wedding party assembled in front of the hotel and filed onto a huge tour bus which idled for quite some time before leaving. The bus went out Avenida Aleman, scraping under low tree limbs as it went. The world looks different from way up there in the bus window. When we finally reached the edge of town and plunged off into the jungle, I discovered that I could now see over those low trees. I could see patches of corn, some that looked cultivated, others just looked as if they had sprouted from leftover seed, volunteer corn as the agrarians say. We turned off the highway and rolled through the village of Conkal. People watched us, some with a hint of disdain, some smiling and waving.
The wedding took place on an old hacienda, mostly in ruin, that Dwight and his business partner had purchased a few years ago after finding it for sale on the internet. The hacienda once grew valuable crops of henequen, a spiky yucca type plant similar to sisal, from which fibers are extracted for the manufacture of rope. Henequen cultivation made the region around Merida quite prosperous in the days before Dupont’s introduction of nylon. A row of henequen plants that Dwight had planted for decoration and nostalgia flanked the building that housed the kitchen, one of the only buildings on the place that had both electricity and a roof. A band was setting up on the porch when we arrived, waiters swarmed about serving drinks, women fanned themselves with paper fans in the oh so humid air. Cooks were grilling chicken on a huge outdoor grill fired with wood. Twilight faded to darkness quickly and we walked down a road lit with candles in paper bags to the old one room chapel. The ceremony was short and mostly improvised neither the bride nor the groom being particularly religious. There was a ceiling fan in the chapel, but the electricity was out, so the chapel emptied quickly after the customary I do’s, pronouncements, and the kiss. We fled back to the kitchen porch for excellent food, wine, toasts, awkward conversations in broken Spanish. Someone said Merida was one of the safest places in Mexico, because many of the drug lords sent their children to school there. Dwight insisted that I sing a couple of songs. I obliged, but my performance caused us to miss the early bus back to the hotel. I didn’t want to wait for the late bus, we had an early morning ahead of us, as we were going to have to drive back to Cancun to catch an early afternoon flight. Monique, a woman with whom I had long ago worked, at Dwight’s restaurant, and who now lives in Merida, offered us a ride. Problem solved, so we thought. We hopped in and rolled off through the dark.
On the outskirts of Merida, we came to a police checkpoint. Monique rolled down the window to find a breathalyzer in her face, no hello’s, or polite official formalities, just a breathalyzer in the face. I heard the words, “Hay una problema.” The policeman questioned her about the breathalyzer reading. She said she’d had a beer or two, a confession she later deemed to have been a mistake. He asked her to get out of the car, commented that she spoke good Spanish, and asked if Kellie and I spoke Spanish too, to which Monique answered no. She told us she would be right back and walked back to the police car with the policeman. Monique wasn’t gone long, not long enough even for me to begin to get my head around the situation. Kellie and I decided that, if questioned, we would transform ourselves into the most confused and completely monolingual Americans these cops had ever met. It seemed like some kind of surreal dream. How was it that we mild mannered tourists were sitting beside a road, at the mercy of Mexican police, with only Monique’s poise and wits to save us? Fortunately, Monique was not short on poise or wits, she played the game perfectly, paid the requisite bribe, and was back behind the wheel in a matter of minutes. The cop wasn’t quite done. He came back to the window and said once more, “Hay una problema.” Monique fished in her purse for another hundred pesos which she handed to him. He asked again if Kellie and I spoke Spanish. Monique answered again that Kellie and I had no Spanish. Well enough satisfied, he bid us goodnight. Monique drove us to a taxi stand and brokered a cheap taxi ride for us.
None of the Airtran flight attendants on the flight home seemed to have any Spanish either. They did attempt to help confused Mexican nationals with their customs and immigration forms, but they seemed to think that if they yelled loud enough in English, people who had no English would understand them. They reminded me of the guy on the old Saturday Night Live episodes who did the closed captioning for the deaf by yelling at the top of his lungs. In my sleepy, hungover state, I leafed through mental images from the previous days. For some reason, the image of the paramilitary policemen in the pickup in Cancun kept coming up. Why they loomed so large in my subconscious, I don’t know. They never even noticed me. The policeman with the breathalyzer in Merida noticed me, but he didn’t seem so threatening, he just wanted a few more pesos. For some reason, the image that said “Mexico” to me was that of the guys in the truck with the assault rifles. Maybe I fixated on that image because I’d seen it in the movies, or because it looked just plain scary, but in retrospect, it was as American a sight as it was Mexican.
We, in the states, also have plenty of well armed body armored policemen moving about among us, but ours tend to ride out of sight in unmarked, air conditioned Chevy Suburbans. I know this, because my band members and I were once pulled over by a white Suburban on I-270 just shy of the Mississippi River, and we got to talk to some members of an Illinois Drug Interdiction Task Force(FYO in Tennessee, the Suburbans are black). We see seriously armed cops in our country. We don’t have to bribe them at the scene, but they’re all getting federal funding for the continuing war on drugs, so they already have a piece of all of us. What we don’t see in our country, is people walking out of the jungle, pedaling carts down major highways, hauling firewood on bicycles, strolling along the street balancing trays of pastries on their heads, going where they need to go with whatever cargo they must carry, by whatever means they have at their disposal.
On first glance, I entirely missed what was different down there.
James McMurtry blogs for BLURT.