Pan American Adventure
Monday, July 05, 2004

Dia de los Muertos carving
Monday, May 17, 2004
Taxco :: Morelia
Our first bus of the day carried us around curves like question marks and parentheses, tying together the mysterious mountain wilderness and bracketing small sleepy villages. Our run-on-sentence of a ride paused like a semi-colon in Toluca, where we switched buses and then continued rambling through Mexico's intestinal interior. Our initial plan was to travel directly to Guadalajara, but that was too far and required too many connections, so we resigned ourselves to a prolonged pause in Morelia with the intention of resuming our travels the following day. Still anxious to visit places like Guadalajara, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, and Real de Catorce, we expected our stay in Morelia only to punctuate the journey from Taxco to Guadalajara. To our surprise, we instead came to a full stop and reached the end of a rather significant chapter.

Morelia does not receive much attention in guidebooks and from travel agents. Being thus overlooked, we had underestimated its atmosphere. When we arrived at the very new and modern bus terminal that more closely resembles an airport, we were impressed but not enchanted. A taxi ride through the periphery of the city was equally uninspiring. However, once we found our hostel and went for an evening walk through the city center, we were overwhelmed by the unassuming beauty, artistic vibe, and refreshing climate of Morelia. The city center stretches for roughly two square miles and is an easily navigable grid of wide avenues lined by centuries-old stone buildings, cobbled plazas with ornate fountains, and towering baroque cathedrals. An archedaqueductt runs along one of the main streets, characteristically providing a sharp contrast between the city's antique infrastructure and the new and stylish cars speeding along its pillared foundation.

It was the convergence of several factors that led us to scrap our plans for onward travel and make Morelia our last stop before finally reaching the United States. First, in the bus terminal we saw that one bus company was offering first class service direct to Laredo, Texas (where we have a connecting bus on to New Orleans) for less than the estimated cost of all the buses we would take were we to continue traveling through Mexico. Secondd, I had still not recovered fromt he onset of flu-like symptoms following our trip to Taxco, and in fact I was feeling worse - Morelia seemed like a good place to relax in a mild climate and nurse myself back to health. Third, weinadvertentlyy happened to land in Morelia during the final week of their annual festival which includes a large fair for artisans and farmers, countless cultural events and performances, and culminates in a grand display of fireworks above the central cathedral, conveniently on the night before we would need to depart. These considerations made it an easy decision to stay put in Morelia for the days remaining before we would meet family and friends in New Orleans.

On our first full day in Morelia, we explored the city center, found the house of artisans and browsed some impressive examples of regional handicrafts, and then rode a colectivo to the fairgroudns on the outskirts of the city where we looked at an eclectic assortment of animals - horses, cows, ostritches, peacocks, goats, rams, and roosters . ate tacos, bought some practical jokes, hears some traditional Mexican mariachi music, and saw many more fine examples of craftsmanship in everything from home furniture to ceremonial masks to guitars to just about every odd nicknack my mother could ever dream of collecting.

Our second day in Morelia was a slow one. We ventured back to the mega-bus terminal to secure our passages to Laredo, Texas. Then, after more ambling through city streets, we found ourselves seated in the central cathedral for an evening organ concert. Concomitant with Morelia's annual fair is the International Organ Festival, and on this night happened to be performing a woman from the United States. She played some rather complicated fugues by Bach and Liszt, and a number of pieces by local Mexican composers both classical and modern. The ambiance of this concert was spectacular. The church has a high vaulted gothic ceiling and an unholy amount of gold leafing spread lavishly upon flamboyant gothic columns and an enormous neo-classical altar. The organ occupies almost the entire back wall of the cathedral, with over 4,500 pipes. Interestingly, there is an open cupola in the center of the church's ceiling that connects to the bell tower, and several times during the concert bats darted from the opening into the shadowy interior of the cathedral (making me think of the Tom Waits song Bats in the Belfry). The bats added the perfect touch to the ominous chords and chilling arpeggios reverberating from the pipes, giving both Natalia and I goosebumps. After the concert we ate a pleasant dinner and went to sleep early.

At dawn on the following day, I woke with a mounting sensation of nausea and discomfort which confined me for the entire day to our hotel room, stuck in the doldrums of some undiagnosed and quite persistent illness. Feeling miserable and not a little frustrated that over two and a half months of healthy travel through tropical disease-infested jungles, sweltering beaches, frigid mountains, unsanitary cities, and perilous bus routes should end in a rather anticlimactic and poorly timed bout of flu, giardia, or something similarly unpleasant (not Malaria, I hoped), I decided to begin a regimen of antibiotics (cipro) and aspirin. I had avoided taking any medication, apart from an occasional immodium, until now... and was somewhat remiss to admit immunodefeat, but felt it a necessary step to arrive in good form to see my family and friends. Thankfully, Natalia showed great compassion and helped supplement my self-prescribed medications with my mother's home remedies of chicken soup, ginger ale, and potato chips, wandering around Morelia to collect these items from various and distant markets (who knew ginger ale would be an almost impossible request!?).

After a very restful day and night, I was relieved to wake the next morning feeling able to leave our hostel and hunt down my own chicken soup. By midday, I was nearly back to normal. In the afternoon, we decided a movie would be a relaxing way to pass some time, so we went to see Troy, which we both really enjoyed. After the movie, some more chicken soup and an early end to the day.

This morning, I woke and was confident I had gone back to normal, as I had transitioned from worrying about being sick to worrying about the myriad dangling questions that await our arrival in the United States. And so while Natalia still lay fast asleep, I diligently went about making lists of all the things I must do or might do in the months before school starts. About an hour later, Natalia woke and said - "I see you're back to being yourself..." I was glad she said it with a smile.

We left our hostel in the late morning for a sun-drenched breakfast on a small plaza, where I began scrawling this update. Then we caught a bus to a local mall where Natalia installed herself in a hair salon while I saw another, rather bizarre movie, The Human Stain. While she finishes with her hair appointment, I am writing these last lines. This will likely be my last update from outside the United States. Tomorrow I imagine we will have a similarly relaxing day with the appropriately climactic fireworks display in the evening, and then on wednesday afternoon we will board a bus that will carry us for 15 hours across the rest of Mexico and over the US border. We are due to arrive in Laredo, Texas around noon on Thursday the 20th, and then catch a greyhound bus in the early evening for another long (20 hours!!) bus ride to the "big easy".

While this is probably the last entry I will make from outside the states (until the travel bug bites again) - in effect bringing to a close our epic "Pan American Adventure" - there will certainly be more to follow. I look forward to organizing myself and writing a postlude to this journey... and I also plan to continue documenting our travels through the United States, as we will be going from New Orleans to New York to Boston to Washington DC to Florida and eventually making our way cross-country to Stanford. There are also many people I would like to thank for making our travels both safe and exciting... but foremost, I would like to thank Natalia - for sticking through it all with me... we have had some incredible, terrible, and, without exception, unforgettable times... her courage, patience, and resilience have been indispensable in making this trip possible, and making it one of the best of my life.

Get ready, we're coming home!
Tommy & Natalia

Sunday, May 16, 2004
Puerto Escondido :: Taxco
Although we enjoyed the picturesque scenery and crashing surf of Puerto Escondido, the intense heat and suffocating humidity relieved us of any desire to extend our stay beyond two sleepless nights. The second night being Mother’s Day, I treated Natalia to a fancy dinner – a celebration of things yet to come. Despite the fact that Mexico is relatively more expensive than other places we’ve visited, a beach-front dinner for two in one of Puerto Escondido’s nicest restaurants was still under $40... and we ate so much that we felt ill afterards – we wound up packing doggie bags of stuffed crabs, octopus, shrimp, and red snapper, figuring it would be better to offer such exquisite leftovers to a homeless person rather than have our waiter scrape them into the trash. The next morning, I imagine one of the vagabonds who live on the Adoquín pedestrian mall savored a rather lavish breakfast!

The next morning we woke early and carried our bags to the bus station, where we planned to leave them for the day, as our bus would not be departing until late at night. In spite of the overwhelming ineptitude of the Estrella Blanca bus company employees, we did succeed in leaving our bags there... and trusted that they would be safe because it was doubtful that the people in the terminal were competent enough to open a zipper.

We then spent almost the entire day relaxing in the shade of a palm umbrella on the beach.

In the evening we ate dinner at a wonderful little cafe where two very old and wizened Mexican women prepared tacos to the beats of Massive Attack – some juxtaposition! We then made our way to the bus terminal to await our 11pm departure... At the terminal, we met two friendly Canadians who were also hoping to ride the same bus. They were struggling in broken Spanglish to buy tickets, so I offered to intermediate... when I began talking to another of Estrella Blanca’s “stellar” employees, I discovered that neither did she exceed the company’s room-temperature IQ limit... speaking Spanish fluently made little difference in trying to decipher what this woman was saying: System is down because bus to Acapulco is full, but when bus arrives, system will work and can buy tickets for same bus... Huh? We collectively surrendered to this woman’s stupidity and bad attitude, deciding to wait and see what would happen when the bus arrives...

We imagined that the bus should arrive in the station at least 15 minutes prior to departure to allow passengers to board and luggage to be stowed. 15-30 minutes is customary. So, our 11pm scheduled departure began to raise suspicions at 10:45, when no bus had arrived. Suspicion turned to frustration at 11:15, when still no bus... and at midnight, frustration gave way to despair. Finally, at about 12:15am, a bus casually rolled into the lot and the driver, who very ironically resembled Speedy Gonzalez, began shouting at passengers to hurry up. Thankfully, Natalia and I had purchased tickets in advance and had our seats reserved for this “first-class” cruise... once settled, I returned to help our Canadian acquaintances... Bus full, system still down, can buy tickets in a few minutes... finding someone to offer lucid assistance was like trying to find a Mexican without a moustache. Nevertheless, the mystery was solved when the driver zipped over to us and explained in rapid fire that there was standing room only... for an advertised first-class trip, I found this to be outrageous, but at this point, not surprising. Thus, I translated to the Canadians that, for the same price as a regular ticket (all the proceeds of which would clearly go straight into the bus driver’s pocket), they could stand in the aisle for the entire 8 hour trip – quite a deal, eh!? They reluctantly accepted for lack of a better alternative, and at last we were rolling out of Puerto Escondido.

As the bus pushed through the night, the air conditioner went into overdrive so that 30 minutes into the journey I was able to see my breath. After about an hour, I felt my body slipping into suspended animation... and when we pulled into Acapulco in the early morning, I woke up feeling utterly feverish and congested. Clearly I was not the only one ill-prepared to go from sweltering heat to sub-zero temperatures, since most people getting off the bus were sinffling and sneezing. In Acapulco we found a connecting bus to Taxco, and at last enjoyed a pleasant voyage of about four hours into the mountains, during which we were treated to a movie – Hook, one of my favorites. The road bent around dramatic curves overlooking vast valleys and breathtaking panoramas, and around midday we arrived in Taxco.

Several days earlier, I had done some research on places to stay in Taxco and made reservations at a hotel that was reputed to be one of the nicest in the city for a very reasonable price... we thus shouldered our packs and began the steep ascent up Taxco’s narrow and pitched streets, climbing towards the city center and hotel Posada San Javier. We found the hotel (which was no small feat) to be everything we had hoped... housed in a maze-like complex, part of which was apparently a former monestary, the hotel feels like a colonial village that wraps around a lovely enclosed garden and large swimming pool. The rooms are all stone with high ceilings and private terraces – a drastic step up from our typical roach-infested accomodations.

Once we settled in our room, we set out to explore the city. Taxco is an old silver mining town that clings to a steep hillside, with narrow, cobblestone streets weaving through anitque stone buildings and revealing impressive vistas at nearly every corner. An endless stream of VW taxis navigate the labyrinth... and Natalia at one point observed that even the cars that aren’t taxis are almost exclusively Volkswagens. I began to wonder if we might read somewhere: “Taxco – Mexico’s colonial gem proudly brought to you by Volkswagen.” Apart from VW’s vice-grip on the city, the only other visibly thriving industry is, as it always was, silver. Hundreds of silver shops line the streets, offering some spectacular pieces of work at “bargain” prices. Correction – it would be impossible to overlook the other thriving and timeworn industry in Taxco – the Catholic church... afterall, we are still in Latin America. On the central plaza there is an utterly impressive rose-colored cathedral that is a treasure of baroque architecture, it’s imposing twin-steeples sweeping into the sky above surrounding mountain peaks.

We enjoyed a pleasant evening strolling the streets of Taxco, and, after a late afternoon nap, shared a delicious dinner on the plaza with a view of the cathedral. After a peaceful night’s sleep, we woke the next morning ready to leave behind our luxurious accomodations and strike out further north...

Sunday, May 09, 2004
San Cristóbal de las Casas :: Oaxaca :: Puerto Escondido
The ride from San Cristóbal to Oaxaca was one of the worst we’ve experienced to date… although the road was well paved and there were no menacing precipices, the bus sped quickly through an endless series of hairpin turns that wound through the Sierra Atravesada mountain range, resembling a television commercial with a shiny new Lexus weaving through tightly spaced orange cones. There have been very few times in my life where I have felt even the slightest symptoms of motion sickness… the last time I can recall was standing below deck on a 35-foot boat off the coast of northern Scotland in a gale, breathing engine fumes while trying to chart a course… this bus ride can now be added to that short list. Luckily, the bus was relatively empty, so Natalia and I were both able to spread out across two seats… curled up into a ball and struggling to ignore the mounting sensation of nausea, I lay quietly awake all night as my head and rear-end were alternately compressed against the arm rests on sharp left and right turns respectively.

When the bus pulled to a stop around 10am the following morning, we both staggered off looking rather green and in need of fresh air. The fact that Natalia did not get sick on this ride gives me total confidence that she will be able to accompany me on even the most challenging sailing trips. Although we both successfully avoided falling victim to our queasy stomachs, we were subsequently doomed to spend almost our entire time in Oaxaca recovering.

Oaxaca (the city, which is also the capital of Oaxaca the state) is a relaxed, surprisingly cosmopolitan urban center in the heart of one of Mexico’s poorest states. The city center has many beautiful stone carved buildings, churches dating back to the 16th century, shady plazas sheltering numerous cafés and restaurants, and again an eclectic mix of indigenous peoples and urbanites. There is an air of prosperity in Oaxaca, and I am unsure whether that is due principally to the thriving tourism industry or to other enterprises. All the same, things in Oaxaca such as accommodations and meals are substantially more expensive than in other places we’ve been, so Natalia and I decided to only spend one night and take the first morning bus to the Pacific coast.

In the crisp morning air, we carried our bags to the second-class bus station, located in the most unattractive part of town, and boarded a bus bound for the Oaxacan coastal town of Puerto Escondido. This bus ride was not much different than our previous one – a never-ending series of sharp turns descending from the mountains to the sea… but this time we asked for seats at the front of the bus so that we could look straight ahead and focus on the road rather than the blur of scenery from a side window… also, travelling during daylight hours seemed to make a difference.

Eight hours of to-and-fro-ing carried us first up into cool pine woods and then down down down into ever lusher and hotter tropical forest. When we reached the coast, we were already soaked with sweat and, hearing me comment to Natalia about the heat, another passenger informed us that we had picked the hottest and most humid month of the year to visit… and quite possibly the hottest and most humid week of that month, too. What luck.

When our bus rolled to a stop, we shouldered our packs and quickly found some cheap bungalows on the beach where we stashed our things and set off hunting for shade and refreshments. We parked ourselves in a beachside café where we sipped lemonade and gazed upon an adorable little port full of wooden fishing boats and kids playing in the shore-break. Offshore, I noticed that there were some serious swells, and then recalled that this place is something of a legend amongst surfers – basically the Mexican pipeline. When we left the café and walked along the main street in town, the plethora of surf shops and edgy gringo transplants reaffirmed my recollection.

We have only been in Puerto Escondido for about 6 hours, and finally I am up to date with this journal! While Natalia is lying next to me, fast asleep, I have been diligently scribbling to bring this journal back into the present tense. Unfortunately, now that we’re there – or rather here – I have run out of things to write and must attempt to fall asleep on a bed damp with humidity and draped with mosquito netting that very effectively keeps out the slightest breeze that occasionally stirs outside. The heat here is oppressive. I’m not sure for how long I’ll survive here, and so once I manage to transcribe all that I’ve written into my online journal (i.e. here), I think we will look into buses to Taxco and retreat as quickly as possible to the cooler climes of Mexico’s elevated interior, all the while moving steadily closer to the United States…

A post-script to the above – I am now very officially in the present tense, as I wrote what precedes this by hand last night. Today we woke up, enjoyed a fruity breakfast, and quickly bought tickets for the lengthy trek to Taxco (TASS-Ko), which we will embark upon tomorrow evening. We then went hunting for calling cards since today, of course, is Mother’s Day. Sadly, mom, I only got to speak with your answering machine as I gather you were working… sorry to have missed you, and even more sorry that you were working on your special day. Please know that I am thinking of you (always), and am utterly proud and privileged to be your son. Natalia and I also send our warmest wishes to the rest of our families and any other mother that might be reading this – Happy Mother’s Day!

Palenque :: San Cristóbal de las Casas
Like Tikal, Palenque is famed for its impressive Mayan ruins… however, the area surrounding the ruins is entirely different. While Tikal is tucked into a pristine national park with nothing but jungle for miles, Palenque is a bustling tourist town with countless hostels, restaurants, shops, and street hawkers. Our first priority when arriving in Palenque was finding the immigration office and settling the outstanding issue of our passport stamps. With little hassle we found a taxi to take us to the immigration office just outside of town, and finally we were beginning to feel back on track.

Next, we made a lengthy to-do list which we set out with determination to conquer – develop disposable camera from Utila into digital format, do laundry (urgently!), find buses and purchase tickets to San Cristóbal de las Casas (our next destination), figure out how to get to the Mayan ruins, find a Lonely Planet guide to Mexico, check email, eat dinner… Before we turned in for the night, we had methodically ticked off each item – except for finding the Lonely Planet guide which surprised me – and were eager to get an early start to visit the ruins in the morning.

The next morning when we arrived at the entrance to the ruins, we were once again struck by how different and significantly more touristy this place was next to Tikal. When we entered the ruins, we understood a bit more why. These ruins are vast and exquisite. The architecture and decoration of this lost city is overwhelming, as is the extent to which it has been excavated. The entire city complex is made up of over 500 buildings spread over 15 square kilometres, although only the central part has really been uncovered. Nevertheless, the visible buildings have been expertly restored and you can even walk through their interior passageways and see entire rooms more or less intact.

As we emerged through the trees from the entrance, a line of temples rising in front of the jungle came into view. It was surprisingly uncrowded inside the park, and a morning mist was still wrapping the ruins in a picturesque haze. As we walked through the ruins, my mind once again wandered back in time, imagining what it must have been like for the first settlers to begin making this corner of the jungle their home around 100 B.C… what it must have been like around the 7th century A.D. when the city reached its apex and many of these temples were built – without metal tools, pack animals, or the wheel… trying to picture the pale grey stone edifices as they would have appeared at the peak of Palenque’s power – painted bright red… fantasizing about the first expeditions to rediscover a rumoured Atlantis-like civilization burred deep in the jungle, and some of the characters who braved malaria and other dangers to live in the ruins and begin uncovering them in the early 19th century, making this lost city their life’s obsession.

After several hours of exploring the ruins, and as the midday heat became insufferable, we found refuge in the park’s museum and eventually made our way back to the center of town. We enjoyed a relaxed dinner and went to sleep early in preparation for our morning departure to San Cristóbal de las Casas.

The next morning our bus pulled out of Palenque in a light drizzle and began the steady climb into the clouds of the Chiapas highlands before descending into the temperate, pine-clad valley where lies the quaint colonial town of San Cristóbal. Upon our arrival, Natalia and I both made the immediate comparison to Antigua, Guatemala. Both are favourite travellers’ haunts with pretty, rambling streets lined by colonial-style buildings with countless intriguing nooks and corners. Like Antigua, there is also a strong indigenous presence in the city. In San Cristóbal, many of the indigenous people from the surrounding villages come to sell their handicrafts or conduct business in the sprawling central market. Men are often seen wearing pink tunics embroidered with flowers, along with flat, round, ribboned palm hats. The women wear colourful shawls over white embroidered blouses. Many of the seemingly abstract embroidered patterns are actually stylised animals that hold religious/magical functions… even the square/rhombus shape of the women’s blouses (“huipiles”) is said to represent the ancient Mayan conception of the universe as having four corners. I couldn’t resist joking to Natalia that my t-shirt also represents my conception of the universe – old and dirty with a few black holes.

The indigenous contingent in San Cristóbal is slightly more vibrant and vocal than that in Antigua, however – with frequent demonstrations in the streets for indigenous rights and the commonplace distribution of leaflets or solicitation for donations to support their struggle against the conservative and unsympathetic government. This circumstance was no doubt fuelled by the fairly recent (and ongoing) Zapatista peasant rebellion, which chose San Cristóbal as one of the four places from which to launch a revolution in 1994, sacking government offices and catapulting this picturesque mountain town into the international spotlight. To support a worthwhile cause and also take home a piece of modern history, Natalia and I bought two small, handmade Subcomandante Marcos dolls from one of the many indigenous artisans (Subcomandante Marcos is the masked figure whose true identity is unknown and who has become an icon for the Zapatista revolution as well as a cult figure for many beyond Mexico). Although the Zapatista movement has been violent and tragic, the violence has waned in recent years and the tensions have eased somewhat as the conflict has moved primarily to the national congress.

We enjoyed a relaxed two days wandering through the streets of San Cristóbal before we boarded a night bus for the twelve hour ride west to Oaxaca (Wah-HAH-Kah)...
Friday, May 07, 2004
Santa Elena :: La Técnica :: Frontera Corozal :: Palenque
Although we had set our little alarm clock for 4am, which we thought would afford us ample time to catch our 5am bus, Natalia woke with a start at roughly ten to five. Apparently in my heavy sleep, I had silenced our alarm without noticing. We immediately went into a flight-of-the-bumble-bee fold-and-stuff frenzy to pack our things and get out the door in under five minutes. We hustled up the hill in the pale morning light to find our bus just readying for departure - I breathed a sigh of relief that we had made it. We climbed aboard the defunct school bus and at once began rolling out of Santa Elena and towards Mexico.

Our route took us through little pueblos such as La Libertad and El Subín, which are sparsely populated and remote from just about everything. The road we travelled was entirely unpaved and quite literally hacked through the thick tropical jungle. At times, the school bus seemed as though it would rattle itself to pieces, and I was both shocked and impressed to see some of the local people sleeping as we bounced and lurched our was across Guatemala.

As we approached Bethel, our supposed destination, a debate arose between some of the local passengers and a few gringo tourists about whether it would be faster and/or cheaper to stop in Bethel or continue on to a tiny town called La Técnica at the end of the road. The discussion centred around the lanchas (riverboats) we would have to take from Guatemala down the broad Rio Usumacinta, flowing swiftly between jungle-covered banks and forming the Mexico-Guatemala border. Apparently, Bethel is the more popular option, providing a scenic 40 minute ride on the river to the Mexican town of Frontera Corozal. As such, the lanchas that leave from Bethel are considerably more expensive (rumoured to be nearly ten times more so) than the shorter convoy from La Técnica to the same destination. This was the first time I had heard about La Técnica, as the Lonely Planet guide to Central America seems to have overlooked this purportedly cheaper alternative. Naturally, I was also a bit suspicious of the information we were receiving... it's often difficult to discern whether local people who offer information are trying to be genuinely helpful and friendly or whether they have an ulterior motive and see an opportunity to separate a few gringos from their money. The foreign contingent on the bus pow-wowed in English, French, and German before making a collective decision, relying on the logic of safety - and economy - in numbers. My concern was that if we were to travel nearly two hours further by bus to La Técnica, we would really be in the middle of nowhere and entirely at the mercy of the riverboat men and their price-setting whims. Nevertheless, the group of tourists decided to risk going to La Técnica, and ultimately Natalia and I risked it along with them.

When we arrived in La Técnica, we began the requisite bargaining ritual that eventually resulted in a river crossing slightly more expensive than our counsel on the bus had advertised, but still far below what I've known other people to pay from Bethel... so, in this case, our leap of faith was rewarded with a rare and refreshing realization that the locals were being straight with us. And so we loaded our gear onto a long, wooden, outboard-powered boat and skimmed over the eddying currents and past lush jungle panoramas towards the Mexican bank.

At Frontera Corozal, we were met immediately by a military entourage that scrutinized our passports and meticulously examined our luggage before letting us pass. Strangely, though, they didn't stamp our passports nor did they give us an obligatory tourist card. I therefore asked for migrations and several people pointed straight up the only paved road and said about 300 meters ahead. Natalia and I hauled our packs to the immigration office - which we found to be unmistakably closed-for-business. As it was roughly midday and during the working week, this puzzled me... but I thought perhaps they were just taking a siesta. After all, we were in Mexico now. We walked to a neighbouring store and asked what time immigrations would reopen, and the old man behind the counter shifted the brim of his straw hat, stared hard at us as if trying to find the words, and finally said with a forced grin: "Well, they haven't shown up for the past three days... so your guess is as good as mine." That was not the answer we were hoping for.

As we were standing in the street, I'm sure looking quite befuddled, a taxi pulled up and asked if we needed a lift to the bus terminal - for FREE (!?!?). After some questions, I understood that the taxi was indeed free, provided that we purchase tickets from the affiliated bus company. I also gathered that there would be a bus leaving soon for Palenque (our next planned stop), and conveniently there is an immigrations office in Palenque where we could have our passports stamped. Since it was clear that not much would happen at the abandoned immigration post before us, we hopped in the cab and sped off towards our next and last bus of the day.

When the taxi stopped, I was once again a little confused as there was no bus terminal in sight... just a few wooden shacks and a handful of ambling stray dogs. As this is one of only three border crossings between Guatemala and Mexico, I imagined there would be more traffic through the place, and certainly more infrastructure to cater to travellers/tourists. A corollary to this assumption was that I would be able to find a place to change Guatemalan Quetzales to Mexican Pesos, if nowhere else at least at the "bus terminal". For me, Mexico was quickly becoming the land of debunked assumptions - we were standing in front of a few wooden shacks on a dirt road in a sweltering heat waiting for a bus for which we could not pay, as I only had a pocketful of bills from Guatemala that I could not convert.

When the bus came, I asked the driver whether he would accept Guatemalan currency, at which he laughed, offered no additional information, and indifferently continued on his way. Our ride had come and gone, and nothing had changed. Soon, our taxi driver pulled up with another tourist - an Italian from Sardinia - who was similarly frustrated by the vacated immigration office and the general indolence and inefficiency of the place. Luckily for him, he had Mexican pesos, but not enough to spot both Natalia and I the bus fare. Thus, I asked our taxi driver where I might possibly change money – he thought for a while and looked plainly tortured by the process, and at last responded that there are a few places that would change Guatemalan currency to Mexican pesos at a rate of 1:1 – a quick mental calculation told me we’d be losing between US$40-50… I stared back silently for a few minutes, until he offered another suggestion – there’s a man who sometimes changes money at a fair rate, but it’s a good distance to his house/shop and we would have to go by taxi… and of course pay (an additional 10 pesos that I didn’t have). The driver agreed to take me on credit, so I left Natalia with our bags and hopped in the same cab. We sped off down the dirt road, and after only 30 seconds, skidded to a halt. Not believing that we had already covered the “long distance” the driver had indicated, I remained seated until he brusquely said, “Here we are, you can get out now.” At that moment, I could at least appreciate the irony that this man’s profession is quite literally “taking people for rides.” Vexed, I stepped out of the taxi, which immediately sped away, and walked to the door of a pseudo-shop/house. A young guy was sitting in a chair outside, and a brief conversation with him revealed that the money changer had left to pick up his daughter at school… but would be back shortly. I took a seat next to my new acquaintance, and we passed the time talking about how he had worked for a while (illegally) in Orlando, Florida, until he was afflicted by some mysterious and unidentifiable back injury, whereupon he returned to this godforsaken place since the heat makes him feel better. After about 45 minutes of this stimulating conversation, I impatiently checked my watch and noted that there was still no sign of the money changer. Concerned for Natalia and utterly exasperated, I walked the five minutes back to the bus stop, where I found Natalia happily reading and sipping on a bag of flavoured ice (also purchased on credit, I assumed). I then decided to strike out on my own and virtually go door to door through this shanty town until I either found someone to change my Quetzales or found myself on a lancha back to Guatemala, where I was sure they would change for a mediocre rate.

After about 30 more minutes of moseying through the dusty streets, I was pursued by a guy on a bicycle who shouted ahead that he would change my money… by this time I needed some amusement, so I began negotiating the rate with him in my best John Wayne impersonation, and we finally arrived at the same offer available in Guatemala... I conceded and was immensely relieved to once again be liquid.

About an hour later, Natalia and I had covered our debts in Frontera Corozal and were very happy to be on a bus heading to Palenque.