JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Texas, USA to Yucatan, MEXICO

October 19, 2014

LAST MONDAY, OCTOBER 13
At 7:40 AM neighbor Phred appeared at Juniper House to let me ride with him the 35 miles south to the town of Uvalde. There we met up with one of Phred's coworkers who makes a weekly run to Eagle Pass, another 65 miles southwest of Uvalde, on the Texas/Mexico border. From Eagle Pass I walked across the bridge spanning the Rio Grande and its floodplain into Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico.

It was the end of over two years of being in southwestern Texas and the beginning of something new. I'd developed a Plan A, B, C and D -- all more theoretical than definite. With a backpack and a side bag holding all my belongings (even my new, wonderful mountain bike being abandoned) I stepped onto the International Bridge with a vivid sense of plunging into unknown circumstances. And it felt better than it felt bad.

After a few steps onto the bridge it became clear that the weather wanted to make this new metamorphosis a dramatic one. At that very moment a rainless cold front was passing through, and on the bridge crosswinds beneath a dazzlingly blue sky were stronger than I'd experienced in many years. Sometimes people had to stop walking and hold onto the railings, and we all leaned heavily into the wind. It felt as if a big monkey were swinging back and forth on the backpack and several times I nearly reeled off the elevated sidewalk into the traffic. The howling, rough-handling, joyously unrestrained and somehow good humored wind was perfect for my celebratory crossing, perfect for initiating the state of mind I needed now. Like most of the folks on the bridge, I was grinning during it all, but maybe I was grinning most broadly, and plenty of dust-grit got into my mouth.

The streets of Piedras Negras were calmer but, still, great clouds of dust and litter blew down them in swirling clouds. It was hot but the wind kept my skin dry, except for under the backpack where I sweated copiously, the sweat soaking the entire seat of my pants.

With a six-month tourist card in hand, in mid afternoon I took a bus toward Monterrey, northern Mexico's big industrial city. A little before sundown, the scrub outside my bus window -- mostly acacias and acacia-like small trees and shrubs -- was lower and the plants more widely spaced than around Uvalde, so I was entering a drier land. Yuccas on unbranched trunks averaging maybe ten feet tall -- probably the same Yucca treculeana we had more sparsely up at Uvalde -- was very common here, the plants looking like centurions with plumed helmets, their slender, spiky inflorescences jutting skyward like spears. A strange, orangish light flooding from the setting sun somehow caused the yuccas to look like flat, two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts in an otherwise vast, unnervingly three dimensional landscape. The wind still howled, even knocking the bus around, but the stiff yuccas were unmoved, stolid sentinels inside a churning, orange rage. Inside the south-bound bus I wondered what it might feel like just then to be hiking through that surreal theater, toward the rocky ridge on the horizon, so far away that if I got there I'd be unable to make it back.

Around midnight, in Monterrey, I made a quick connection with a bus heading toward the southeast, to Tampico on the Gulf Coast.

*****

LAST TUESDAY, OCTOBER 14
Next morning in Tampico I arrived sleeping so soundly that the driver had to come shake my shoulder. Within an hour I was on another bus whose little lights in the destination window spelled out the town of Poza Rica, down the coast a good bit from Tampico, and known as a hard-working, expensive town, because the poza in its name refers to oil wells, rich ones, pozas ricas.

At dawn, I was transfixed by the luxurious emerald greenness of the landscape. It was a kind of fresh, lush exuberance I'd not experienced during two years of south-Texas aridness. A heavy, rainy-season cloud cover, general muddiness and pools of water everywhere confirmed that overnight I'd gone from a biting drought of historic intensity into a deliciously normal tropical rainy season.

The wind continued on this second day, and often the road drew close to Gulf of Mexico beaches. Enormous, white, rolling waves surged onto the sand, collapsing so violently that a heavy mist like white smoke hang above entire shorelines. Now trees were tall, many with vines dangling from them, and the boughs of those trees heaved mightily, and the vines lashed like whips.

Inside the bus, though, no waves could be heard and the wind's howling was drowned out by the bus's rumbling. What you heard also were too-loud movies being shown on overhead screens, standard on all fist-class Mexican buses. They came one after another, movies of cute, rich, gringo teenagers doing inane things and of violent gringo men accomplishing impossible feats.

For a long time I sat watching out my window, a finger stuck in my ear facing the erupting speakers, wondering about this: Is it strictly by chance that in our consumption-oriented society average people crave entertainment that is no more than indoctrination in unsustainable, self-destructive behavior?

For, throughout Nature there are feedback mechanisms that keep the system functioning and in equilibrium, and humans are part of Nature. For example, during most of human history our numbers have been kept within sustainable boundaries by diseases, wars, and famines. This line of thinking could explain our current taste for society-shattering entertainment. It's as if Gaia were in the process of healing herself by encouraging a self-absorbed, biosphere-threatening civilization to commit suicide through behavior promoted by its movies.

And yet, on a certain level, from inside the bus, the wild wind, a sunset's dimension-warping orange light, gesticulating trees and crashing waves, all seemed as one with the bus's movies. And from that perspective it was all beautiful, the movies, too, for even things ugly, shrill and hurtful, in this Universe of yin and yang, only suggest the inevitability, and thus the availability, of their opposites.

At mid-day, in Poza Rica, immediately I entered another bus for Veracruz farther down the coast. That night in Veracruz as soon as I'd eaten a meal of huevos Mexicanos (scrambled eggs with onion, tomatoes and chili), frijoles (refried beans) and corn tortillas, I took the overnight bus to Villahermosa, the state of Tabasco, on the coast at the very bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. During the night sometimes rain pounding on the bus's roof awakened me.

*****

LAST WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 15
A little before dawn, in Villahermosa, once again the bus driver had to shake my shoulder. Calculating that if I took the next bus toward my goal I'd arrive too late at the final destination to get settled for what looked like a possibly rainy night, I spent the whole day killing time in the Villahermosa bus station, rain pouring down nearly continually, sometimes prodigiously. I read and wrote. A worker from a drilling platform in the Gulf struck up a conversation. He'd been sent ashore because of high wind and waves from our storm working its way across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from the Pacific. The worker told me how those gargantuan platforms on which ocean drilling is done are put together. He was a pipe fitter, now on his way back to his rancho in Guanajuato.

Wednesday night at 11PM I boarded a bus and was asleep before we got out of town.

*****

LAST THURSDAY, OCTOBER 16
At dawn on Thursday morning I awoke to see familiar streets outside my window, the streets of Mérida, capital city of the Yucatán. Narrow, broken-up sidewalks, dark green Bougainvillea vines with bright red flowers avalanching over multicolored walls hiding gorgeous interior gardens, low houses with flat roofs, sleepy-eyed Maya joking with one another on their way to work, with sloped-back foreheads and little chins, their faces all directed forward into ski-slope noses, and I was beginning to feel more at home than I had in a long time.

In Mérida sometimes before plunging into the Yucatan's interior I rest overnight with friends, but this time I was so tired I just wanted to keep going, so within ten minutes of arriving in Mérida I was on an ADO bus heading eastward to Valladolid in the central Yucatán. After an hour beneath whirring fans in a waiting room there I zagged north past the ruins of Ek' Balam, to Tizimín, where I had to walk around the corner to the second-class bus station, which also had its first and second class sections, and to get where I was going there were only second-class buses. So, after this long journey from the US I was being filtered into second-class second-class, and somehow the whole concept appealed to me.

For another hour I rested beneath furiously spinning fans, and only now in this second-class second-class world was I starting to feel the charm and easiness I like so much about the Yucatan. I took a picture of the waiting room, the first time in the trip something had pleased enough for me to take its picture. Maybe in seeing the picture you can sense some of the moment's appeal, the colors, the Virgin in her glass box on the wall, the Maya lady with her braided ponytail, the old guy with his straw hat, the open walls that air and pigeons can get through, a whole texture and composition of things unlike what we have in the US, maybe like we had 50 years ago before TV and Walmart. The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/141019tz.jpg.

I have to admit that most folks in that picture had cellphones, and they were using them compulsively, just like up north, so who knows how long this world will last? The point is, however, that that world still exists exactly as you see it, and I have been privileged to pass into it.

Then I headed north again, this the last leg of my journey, which ended at the little coastal village of Río Lagartos, Yucatán. I'd been invited to Río Lagartos by tour guide and naturalist Diego Nuñez to help in various ways. I've known Diego for years, back in 2006 having spent several weeks here. Many of the town's men offer boat trips into the mangroves across the strait from Río Lagartos, to see the Flamingos. The big Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve surrounds us, but we're so far out of the way that there aren't many visitors. Part of my job is to encourage more tourism, so consider these words an invitation. As my Newsletters continue, you'll see that there's plenty to see and experience here.

You can see some fishing boats tied up at the town's storm wall about three blocks from where I'm writing this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/141019rl.jpg.

If you have Google Earth you can type "Rio Lagartos Mexico" into the search box and explore the lay of the land here. A Google Earth image putting things nicely in perspective can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/141019mp.jpg.

In that image's center the feature looking like a white pyramid is Río Lagartos occupying its little peninsula. The long barrier island offshore is mostly sand and mangrove swamp where Flamingos stay. So, Río Lagartos has a substantial barrier island between it and the Gulf of Mexico, whose waters show up so prettily blue in the image.

We don't have sandy beaches here for sunbathers but we do have a mind-boggling community of plants and animals, and folks whose friendly, honest and good-natured ways show visitors the irony, and the lesson, that to reach an agreeable place like this you need to shift to what the uptight, rushing-by outside world likes to consider second-class second-class.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Two Minds for The Road" from the November 6, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/061106.htm.

"Egrets, Herons & Ibises" from the November 27, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/061127.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.