JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Mississippi to Mexico

November 14, 2004

THE LATEST TRIP BEGINS
Last Tuesday, November 8th, once again I took the 4:15 PM Delta Bus south from Natchez. It was 77degrees and the sky looked and smelled the way it does before a spring rain. Our trees were still green but with a slight bronze cast to them. Really there wasn't much color in the landscape that day at all. Things looked a bit somber, and that fit my mood as I took this more permanent leaving of Natchez, in the neighborhood of which I've lived since 1997.

I'd been noticing the days getting awfully short, but I was still surprised to see darkness coming on by the time we reached Woodville. At dusk the sky's alticumulus clouds looked like rows of glowing strawberries on a pastel blue tabletop. Then by the time we hit the Louisiana border, it was dark. At Baton Rouge, just like on my last trip, I caught the next bus to Houston. However, in Houston, instead of taking a westbound bus as I did the last trip, this time I continued on south, following the Gulf of Mexico's coastline.

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TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 9TH
At daybreak I awaken about a hundred miles north of the Mexican border, still heading due south, and still following the Gulf coast. The land is flat and occupied with rangeland and a few cultivated fields -- mostly cotton and grain-sorgum. Trees are low and widely spaced, primarily Mesquite. Along the road the most conspicuous bird is the Crested Caracara, a kind of rangy-looking hawk with a backward-swooped crest.

By mid morning I'm in Brownsville, Texas, about as far south as you can go in the continental US, with Mexico a short walk away. I exchange dollars for pesos and hike across the bridge spanning the green, waist-deep, 50-ft-wide Rio Grande into the Mexican town of Matamoros, get a six-month visa, and backpack through town to the bus station.

Though I've spent a good part of my life in Mexico, I've been outside the country since 1997. Friends had told me that it had changed a lot -- modernized and gotten much more expensive -- so I'm deeply gratified when I see that Mexico still looks, smells and sounds pretty much like the Mexico I remember. True, now there are plenty of big, fancy stores and there's a fair-sized, affluent middle class, and things are more expensive now, but the changes aren't so drastic that I can't handle them. Mexico is still Mexico, at least here.

South of Matamoros many fields have been plowed under after recent crops and as best I can tell they'd grown grain-sorghum there. If I'm remembering correctly, when I was a farm kid in Kentucky we called grain-sorghum milo. The plant looks like short corn with the tassels replaced by dense heads of roundish grain. You've probably seen the grain in store-bought birdseed.

Grain-sorghum grows where it's too dry for corn, beans and other such crops, and that points to the fact that this is indeed a deserty landscape. It's interesting to reflect on WHY it's so dry here.

DESERTS
Many deserts form downwind from high mountain chains. Moist winds rising over the mountains drop their moisture loads, and when they descend and continue on, they're too dry to produce much rain. That's why California's Central Valley is so dry, and why you get grassland immediately east of the US Rockies, not forest. However, no mountain chain causes the aridness around me now.

But this land is dry because of forces far grander than mere mountain chains. To grasp what's going on you need to visualize the entire Earth and all of its atmosphere.

For, hot, moist air rises at the Equater. As it rises, it cools and, since cold air holds less moisture than hot air, the rising, cooling air must rid itself of water. That's why lowland tropics are typically so wet. When the rising, drying-out air reaches a certain altitude it can rise no farther. It splits into two vast rivers of air, one flowing north and the other south.

If you think about the fact that the Earth's equatorial region is vast, but that its two polar regions are relatively small, you'll see that at some point during the winds' journies toward their respective polar regions, the sky won't have enough room for them. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winds run out of sky-room at about this latitude, and the surplus air plunges earthward.

As I travel here in arid northern Mexico I'm visualizing a vast dropping of air from a north-flowing river of air above us that's been so wrung dry at the Equator that when it descends here it can hardly manage a good rain. And this is happening worldwide. Just think of all the deserts approximately at this very latitude. There's the Sahara, the deserts of the Middle East, China's Gobi... And at the same latidude south of the Equator, there's Australia's arid outback and southern Africa's savannas and deserts.

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BUS MOVIES
All day Tuesday and all through the night I take a series of buses, all headed dead south, never wandering far from the Gulf Coast. From Matamoros to Tampico, then to Poza Rica, then Veracruz, then Villahermosa... You can see a general map of Mexico highlighting these towns at www.findsiri.com/maps/mexico_map.html.

The awful thing is that, though the Mexican bus system is much better developed than in the US, and the buses are more comfortable, long-distance buses here inevitably provide movies on overhead screens. Moreover, of the ten or so movies I'm subjected to over the entire trip, each and every one is a US movie, in English with Spanish subtitles, and all are from the 70s and 80s, and most are among the most inane, pointless and poorly executed creations to be imagined. On every bus I take I'm the only gringo, and the movies show nothing but gringos having sex, killing one another, and basically running amock.

Having not seen a movie since my German days years ago, being zapped by ten in a row is nothing short of mental torture. I just wonder what Mexicans must think of us when so much of what they know of us comes from these movies. In fact, I wonder how watching so much of this stuff affects our own opinions about who and what we are.

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WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 11
At dawn on Wednesday I'm just east of Veracruz and the landscape is as humid, green and rank as Mississippi in July. We're definitely south of the dry zone here, deep into the humid tropics. Thickets of orange-flowered heliconias grow weedily in ditches along the road and around houses dark-green hibiscuses are resplendent with bright red blossoms. There are banana trees and orange trees, and giant ceibas and strangler figs, and... as lush and green as I have ever seen, clambering over bushes and railings along the road, nothing less than mile after mile of good old Kudzu!

Those strangler figs deserve special mention. They start out as small vines growing epiphytically but not parasitically on the branches of regular trees. They send several stems down to the ground, the stems enlarge fast, the vine becomes an airborne bush growing inside its "host tree," the stems form a network surrounding the host tree's trunk, and eventually the airborne bush overtops the host tree and the fig's trunks encase the host's trunk. Before you know it the fig outcompetes the host for sunlight and water, the host dies, and what is left is a strangler fig tree, as much a regular-looking tree as the host ever was. This amazing sequence of events is not uncommon. Strangler figs are among the most typical woody species of the moist American tropics.

All day yesterday we traveled due south. Now we are curving back toward the east, staying close to the Gulf coast all the way, for now the Gulf of Mexico has given way to land, and we are traveling along the Gulf's southern underbelly. The whole day we travel east, to the hot, humid city of Villahermosa, in the state of Tabasco. Not far outside Villahermosa, in the town of Cárdenas, we pass a large chocolate factory, reminding us that chocolate is a native Mexican invention.

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THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 11
After a sweaty six-hour layover in Villahermosa, now we shoot back toward the north, this time on the Gulf's eastern shore, and, still, seldom traveling far from the coast. In other words, we are now heading north into the Yucatan Peninsula.

At dawn on Thursday morning I awaken as our bus enters Mérida, the capital of Yucatan state. What a pleasure seeing this town in the day's first light. Mérida is an old colonial city founded in 1542, and during the early 1900s it claimed more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world -- because of its monopoly on sisal fiber, from which burlap and "grass string" are made. The fibers are extracted from the plant called henequen, a tough, thorny agave still cultivated here, but not nearly as much as before.

So, we pass by very old churches and decaying mansions, and very many little, low-strung, flat-topped, stuccoed homes, mostly whitewashed but others brightly painted pink, green, yellow, whatever. Streets are narrow and sidewalks are so uneven and pinched in that two gringo- size people can't easily pass on them. I look closely at Mérida, for, for a good while now, when I think of "going into the city," Mérida will be the town I'll be thinking of.

I stay in Mérida only for a couple of hours, just long enough to find the microbus that will carry me into the countryside northeast of town. Outside of town the land is level and once again it's pretty dry, because now we are far enough north again for that sky-high river of dry air to fall onto us, keeping things here deserty. The vegetation is "thorn forest," growing only about 15 feet high, and composed of species that are very often very spiny.

The microbus zooms down long, straight roads with weeds and the thorn forest growing right up to the pavement's edge, kept back by nothing more than passing cars and trucks. In most places the forest is very weedy and the taller trees bear dead limbs, because during the dry season fires are common here, and the last hurricane to hit here in a big way, Isadora, was a whopper.

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ARRIVAL AT KOMCHEN DE LOS PÁJAROS
The microbus drops me in the center of the small town of Dzemul. If you set your browser to 209.15.138.224/inmomex/yucatan3.htm you will see a map of the Yucatan, with Dzemul maybe a couple of inches northeast of Merida, as measured on your screen.

I buy some food, ask directions, and hike out of town gnawing on tortilla-wrapped bananas, and those tortillas are still hot, and made of corn and not wheat. The town is definitely out of the mainstream of things, quiet, slow-moving, everyone I see surely pure Maya Indian, the older women often wearing traditional huipeles, which are white blouses embroidered with colorful designs.

I have traveled in about 40 countries so it is no small thing when I say that never have I been greeted anywhere with such consistent smiles and well-wishes. Twice I'm offered rides but I'm enjoying the odors, the colors, all the birdsong and friendly people too much for that.

About 20 minutes of hiking brings me into a large hacienda. I walk down the long, straight, narrow road surrounded by weedy thorn-forest and at the end find a cluster of low, whitewashed buildings nestled in the shade of strangler figs, Poincianas and other marvelous trees. My friend Ana MarÍa is there washing the dog called Leontillo.

And thus ends the present journey.

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AN INVITATION
My friendship with Ana MarÍa is a direct consequence of the fact that when I moved to Mississippi in 1997 to become an internet-connected hermit, my first major project was to create EarthFoot's Free Ecotour Posterboard at www.earthfoot.org. That site offers free Web exposure to very small scale, locally produced, low-impact ecotour operations, mostly in developing countries. Ana MarÍa is one of the ecotour-program operators appearing at EarthFoot. A year ago I gave EarthFoot to a Danish friend, and no longer maintain it.

Now Ana MarÍa has her own website, where she offers "green lodging" to paying visitors who want to be deeply immersed in Yucatan natural history and culture. You can visit her site, with the English part still under construction, at www.komchen.org

One reason I have rated an invitation to come here is that Ana MarÍa and I see most things eye-to-eye. We both like the idea of furthering ecotourism in this region, of helping the local community get involved, and of creating a living space that can inspire and instruct visitors. These are not unreasonable goals. History buffs could spend days in Merida, people wanting to see small-town Mexico could do no better than hang around Dzemul, archeology buffs have such internationally famous Maya ruins as Chichen Itza within easy driving distance for day trips, and the birds, tropical trees and clouds of butterflies are enough to keep any nature-friend happy.

So, here is the deal: You are invited to come here as a paying guest or volunteer, as described at Ana MarÍa's website. I expect to be here until late winter or early spring, and if you come I'll be glad to help you with your nature study, and alternative thinking.

But, keep in mind that this is not fancy tourism here. You can look at this place and see it as a hurricane- ravaged former henniquen plantation now overtaken by weeds, and incredibly away from everything titillating, trendy and glossy, or you can try to see it as we see it, maybe even as an excuse for new beginnings.

If you are interested in a visit, write to Ana MarÍa, who speaks excellent English, at anamaria@komchen.org

Once you see the possibilities described at Ana MarÍa's site, if you are interested in getting up a group trip, you might want to contact my Natchez friend Karen at karenwise@earthlink.net, who is checking into group rates offered by airlines serving Merida.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers, 2004

Jim

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net