Mexico & Guatemala

MEXICO

The immigration process at the border was not very clear. When trying to board my bus the private security guard asked for my immigration papers. I did not have any. He said that immigration papers are needed to board but that he would let me through if I paid him some money. Another American was with me and subject to the same treatment. She spoke fluent Spanish. She worked out that we had to fill out an immigration form from a small immigration office within the bus station. A stay in Mexico for less than a week is free. She also complained (to immigration and the bus company) about the security guard’s attempt to exact money from us. She then got us escorted through security. Thus was my introduction to Mexico.

I only passed through Mexico. It took two days to bus through, north to south.

In the north of Mexico it was arid and impoverished, the ugly buildings were made of concrete and the cities were littered with garbage. From many stories over the years I understand that cartels control much of the territory.

The only type of work that I saw as worthwhile in arid northern Mexico is the regenerative grazing happening there.

ROOKIE MISTAKE #1

On a first class bus in Mexico.

Make sure you have toilet paper on you at all times in Latin America.” I had read the warning in travel books that most toilets do not provide free toilet paper. I came prepared with my own roll but it was in my big backpack that was checked under the bus. When I went to take a dump, there was no toilet paper. So I ended up washing my ass in the sink. While this might make for an interesting Youtube video… trying to stay balanced on a moving bus, in a small compartment, ass first in the sink… is not my preferred way to go.

There were many police check points where the bus was stopped and the luggage underneath was inspected. I was even woken up in the middle of the night by cops checking people’s pockets and counting their money. They were looking for drug traffickers bringing money south from the border. I gave them my sacrifice wallet. When asked for more money by the police, I insisted that the money in the wallet was all that I had (about $100 in pesos and $100 USD). They patted my pockets and counted my money. They did not find the $1,700 dollars I had stashed on me. Fortunately, despite widespread corruption among the Mexican police, these cops gave me my money back.

The bus drove wide around the capital city, not through it. I saw the urban sprawl devouring the countryside. I saw livestock standing alongside the highway, no fencing to keep them out. There were small traditional farmers with their patchwork of fields mixed in with more mechanized farms. It was strange to see the two farming styles blended together. Billboards advertised soy oil for cooking, extolling the supposed health benefits of consuming the toxic product.

Most of the time I just kept my face covered and body wrapped in protective silver shielding clothing. I only occasionally peeked out the window. The radiation levels from WiFi and cell phones on the bus are unhealthy.

In the Yucatan, it was hot and humid. I visited Bacalar and Playa Del Carmen. These are tourist cities. They were boring and ugly. Bacalar has a nice lagoon but I don’t see any reason to go to these places.

These cities had horrible food. I was lucky when I could find fresh fish or a coconut. The farmers markets had very few vendors. All were selling conventionally grown taste-less produce. I know it was taste-less because one vendor lied to me, claiming the produce was organic. It was not. I never waste food but I abandoned those vegetables because the flavor was so bad. I found a couple of health food stores in Playa Del Carmen but organic options were few. The health food stores in Mexico leaned toward serving vegan clientele. Thus the staff were often unhelpful in helping me find clean local meat.

San Cristobal de las Casas

I spent a little time in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. The city was interesting in many respects. Traditional Maya would come from the countryside to sell crafts on the street. There was no traffic laws as far as I could tell. Small cars drove down small streets, with lots of horns honking, and people going when it seems clear. Kids as young as five years old selling candy, fruit, nuts, or other goods. People double stacked on motorcycles without helmets. There was political graffiti throughout the city to go with a history of rebellion and resistance. Refugees from the Guatemalan civil war had fled to Chiapas. There is an interesting chaotic energy to the city, yet a flow to it all. There is no city like this in the USA.

On the one hand I appreciated the freedom that people have there. There were no obvious health codes, traffic codes, building codes, restrictions on commerce, etc. People just use common sense and take personal responsibility for their decisions.

Exposed wires. Electricity feeds straight into the shower head heating element. Water conducts the electricity that flows over the body. Talk about a health hazard.

On the downside of things, the lack of plumbing codes meant that I never saw a shower drain that worked well in Mexico. There was also some sketchy electrical jobs. The above shower heater style is present in much of Latin America. It is a good example of both dubious electrical work and poor plumbing. This is one of the nicer showers that I encountered too.

Unfortunately, San Cristobal is chock-a-block with radio frequency utility meters (’Smart’ meters). These lined the streets and transmitted non-stop. Smart Phones were everywhere and a big cell tower was erected in the middle of the city. The kill-grid is thoroughly installed here.

On the way across the border to Guatemala there was both a police check point and a Zapatista check-point. The check points were only a couple of dozen kilometers from each other. The Zapatistas were collecting a toll to pass. It was surreal to have both police and revolutionaries setting up traffic check points so close to each other.

I did not visit Veracruz or Oaxaca, both of which I have heard good things about. I doubt I will return to Mexico to see these places. Most everywhere these days is kinda similar. Cars, ugly cites, crappy food, cell phones and all the other garbage that comprises civilization. All the things that I am trying to get away from. As the saying goes: same shit, different pile.

GUATEMALA

La Mesilla border crossing.

The border crossing at La Mesilla, Guatemala was like an open street market. Vendors lined the streets on both sides. It was fairly chaotic with people bustling about. One could easily pass back and forth across the border without being stopped by immigration. It is an open border crossing and you volunteer to check in at the immigration offices on either side of the border. There is no fee to enter Guatemala. People would walk or drive through the border crossing with all kinds of vehicles: bikes, motorcycles, Quad bikes (ATVs), cars and so forth.

Guatemala has some impressive steep hillside living. Like most poor folks, Guatemalan’s are generally hardworking and creative.

Outside of the highlands, I found the climate to be oppressively hot and humid. I was there in the Fall.

PUBLIC TRANSIT

The public transit in Guatemala is the most efficient and inexpensive that I have ever encountered. There are “chicken” buses (named so because everything can be transported on them, including chickens) and collectivos (passenger vans) for public transit. They leave at frequent intervals and go to nearly every nook and cranny of the country without much waiting and no luggage fees. The operators seem self-organized and independent but I am not sure how the business model works.

From a safety point of view the freedom and chaos factor reigns here too. People ride on top of vehicles, hang off the back, passengers jump off or on while the vehicle is in motion. Some locals going for a short distance get free rides. There is a driver and an assistant who helps load luggage and collect payment. The buses belch awful clouds of diesel, making the air quality in urban areas poor.

I have seen nothing like this transit system elsewhere.

SCAMS

I was constantly on the look out for being scammed, over charged or otherwise ripped off. I was ripped off twice and avoided about six other attempts. I was basically viewed as a source of income by many people who were trying to figure out how to get money from me.

In one scam, I was in San Pedro at Lake Atitlan. I went to the dock that goes to Santiago. A man approached me, said he was the boat captain and helped me load my things onto the boat. When he told me the cost to ride the boat, I complained that the amount he wanted was expensive. It was a little over double what it should have been for the distance based on prior boat trips in the area. He said that the price is what it is. I paid him. He wandered off as I sat there waiting with the other passengers. Then I realized a second thing that seemed wrong. On the other boat trips the money was collected upon departure, not arrival. I asked another passenger if I am supposed to pay before or after the trip. She told me that payment is after the trip. I went and found the guy and demanded my money back. After some resistance he complied. Then he stood blocking the dock and said I could not board his boat. At this point two bystanders, younger men told me that the man was in fact the captain. They told me that he is honest and telling me the truth. After a few exchanges in broken English/Spanish with the bystanders, I started doubting myself. I thought that maybe things are different with this boat operator as they seem to operate independently. I gave him back the money and apologized. When we departed, I noticed that there was a different driver for the boat. That’s when I knew I had been right about my suspicions. Upon arrival at my destination, the actual captain asked for payment. I told him pago ya (which should have actually been he pago ya) for “I have paid already.” He let me pass without payment. The woman passenger who helped me realize that I had been scammed was standing close by. I think she was going to help me explain what happened. She smiled at me when I said that I paid already and I avoided having to pay a second time. I over paid a scammer and got a free ride from the real captain. Thus the world goes round.

Another incident that I know of was being over-charged by a taxi driver. In Guatemala I did not see a taxi with a meter, so basically you have to negotiate a rate. This is best to do before getting in. I had made a point of asking bus drivers what the cost of a taxi should be. It is best not to ask the taxi driver themselves, initially, as they are likely to boost the price. Unfortunately my comprehension of Spanish was quite poor at this time and I misunderstood what the bus driver told me. I should have asked him to write down the amount. After traveling a short distance, I was dropped off. Thinking about things afterward, I realized that I was charged an extra 50% above the going rate.

In total I believe that I lost less than $5 from these scams in Guatemala. There is the possibility that I might have been overcharged in other instances.

The whole time in Guatemala I did not feel like I could trust anyone and was on-guard to monitor my things.

I did meet some nice people. But the pursuance of Western lifestyles left me disinterested in the trajectory of most people.

FOOD

Food here was better than in Mexico. Many of the people in the places I visited were living subsistence lifestyles. At farmer’s markets I was able to find about 1 in 4 vendors that said they do not use agricultural chemicals in the production of their meat, fruit or veggies. Farmers sold produce everyday of the week in many towns.

SUBSISTENCE

I visited some farms outside of the highland town of Todos Santos. There was no electricity. Many lived in earthen houses with dirt floors and tin roofs. Traditional construction was giving way to new construction that used concrete and cinder block.

People here were poor. Despite this, almost everyone managed to have a cell phone. Traditional diets were giving way to junk food. Livestock and dogs in Guatemala were almost always starving with ribs showing and no body fat.

Everywhere in Guatemala people throw garbage on the ground. There is no trash service. I saw several “trash dumps” which were a hillside where the local community tosses garbage over the side of the road. Littering makes sense in this context. There were no public trash cans that I saw. If you take garbage home, you just have to haul it back out. The place that you would haul it to is some ravine a few kilometers down the road. So does it matter if garbage is concentrated and dumped into a ravine or dispersed in the towns and cities?

In the highland villages there was still traditional clothing being made. Different social groups could be distinguished by their different attire.

SEYMUC CHAMPEY

Río Cahabón

For the most part the natural beauty that I saw in Mexico and Guatemala did not stand out to me.

I generally avoid tourist attractions but Seymuc Champey was recommended to me by a friend. I did not make it to Seymuc exactly but spent about 5 days in the same area on the Río Cahabón. This is the one place where the beauty of the river and jungle was noteworthy. The Maya live along foot trails, in small houses throughout the forest.

Unfortunately a dog attacked me here, ripped my wool leggings and drew blood. I got sick from the water (probably in the shower) after the first day, following the dog bite and physical exhaustion from hiking. Nearly the whole time I was there, I was sick. The climate was hot and humid which did not help.

SPANISH LESSONS

Guatemala is the cheapest place to learn Spanish in Latin America. I knew I would need many hours of practice, so I wanted to have my money for Spanish lessons go as far as it could. Additionally, I had the idea that I would go to a poor rural Maya area to get lessons. I wanted to be able to negotiate a cheap rate, have a low cost of living, experience life in a small town/village and give my money to a poor rural community.

My plan to learn Spanish in Guatemala was basically a failure. I was visiting the areas that were hit the hardest during the Guatemalan civil war. These are among the most impoverished areas of Guatemala. Spanish is a second language for the Maya. Many rural Maya do not speak Spanish and those that do may not speak it well. Finding quality instruction was hard.

I could have just gone to one of the many Spanish schools in the cities, except that I hate cities.

At some point in my journey I realized that my several months of ProSpanish lessons had given me enough foundation to get around. I decided to just get down to South America, figure out where I want to be and then study whatever version of Spanish is there. Every country has it’s differences.

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