JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Special on-the-road edition issued from
Mérida, Yucatán MÉXICO

April 26, 2015

SOUTHWARD INTO SUMMER
On Monday, April 20th, my week-long visit with family in rural western Kentucky came to an end when I stepped onto a bus in Owensboro, on the Ohio River, carrying a series of tickets promising to carry me south to the Mexican border. That day it was so chilly that condensation formed on the car's back window.

A week earlier I'd arrived at the exact peak of the flowering of Redbuds, and now I was leaving at the peak of Dogwood blossoming. It had rained the night before and many fields were flooded, as were all the swamps and bottomlands along the rivers. There were enough hues of dark, fresh greenness to make Ireland envious, though some fields were totally yellow with flowering mustard.

Trees in western Kentucky were in the process of issuing leaves, giving roadside forests a kind of diffused look; most oaks and ashes had hardly begun leafing out, but maples were almost finished. Monday afternoon as I moved southward, spring matured around me. At sunset, just outside Memphis, Tennessee, the trees were considerably more thickly leafed, presenting a darker, shadowy look.

Tuesday morning at dawn as the bus pulled out of Dallas, Texas, the storyline had changed. During the night, passing across Arkansas, we'd traded oak-maple-ash forest for lower-growing, gnarlier and not-so-springy-green oak forest. Texas's late-leafing oaks were still a little diffuse, but by noon that day, in San Antonio, even they were fully leafed, and it was easy to see that, here, summer had come. In San Antonio's parks, screeching, strutting Great-tailed Grackles announced that we were entering the sub-tropics.

*****

CROSSING THE BORDER
That Tuesday night it was much easier entering Mexico than it'd been getting into the US. Border Patrol agents at all those checkpoints and spot checks mentioned in an earlier Newsletter didn't seem to care that we were going southward. From Brownsville, Texas, a bus ferried me across the Rio Grande into Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, México, where quickly a new 180-day visa was acquired, and the same bus carried me through town to the Matamoros bus station. There I bought a ticket for an overnight trip to the historic, Gulf Coast city of Tampico, Tamaulipas.

I slept well on that first-class ADO bus, for in Mexico first-class buses provide much more leg room, softer seats, and the seats are molded to keep the head from rolling around, which isn't the case with Greyhound's crammed, cracker-box seats. Earlier that day, all the way from Dallas to Brownsville, our bus's air conditioner had been stuck on full blast, so, with apologies from the bus driver, we'd all endured a wretched chill. Escaping from that deep-freeze back into Mexican warmth felt pretty good. Somehow I couldn't keep from thinking that the air conditioner stuck on full blast was an apt metaphor for the whole culture I was now bailing out of.

Happily, on night trips, Mexican buses don't present the endless series of Karate-Dog-type movies that plague their day trips, and that might have been some kind of metaphor, too, about Mexico, if I'd thought enough about it.

*****

TAMPICO
As when I'd passed through Tampico heading northward two weeks earlier, now I spent a day wandering around town, often reading and thinking in small parks, killing time until another night bus would carry me farther south.

I like wandering backstreet neighborhoods, like seeing which plants people grow around their homes, and it's fun to see what the local folks are like. For example, after buying hot tortillas at a little tortillaría I purchased some bananas from a dark, tiny shop that was so cramped with merchandise and four barrel-shaped señoras with faces flushed with the pleasure of exchanging neighborhood gossip that I had to move a display of packaged tostadas to reach the bananas.

"Those are for frying," the lady behind the counter said, properly summing up the situation that this gringo couldn't distinguish the local "macho" banana used for frying, from those eaten raw. "Well, we go to The Other Side and we don't know what you're saying, so it's just hard on travelers," she laughed.

Two of the women standing there smiled warmly at me, maybe tickled that I was carrying what was obviously a moisture-stained package of tortillas and speaking Spanish, but the third looked a little peeved that the store owner had dropped everything to weigh my bananas while she'd had to wait with her little bag of green jalapeños. Well, three women happy to see me out of four isn't bad, I thought.

When walking in Mexican towns and cities, you have to pay attention to where you're going. Sidewalks are uneven and sometimes gaping holes and ditches appear right in their middles with no warning. Electrical wiring dangles with exposed copper wire right at head level, and store-front roofs and glass-covered power meters jut out over sidewalks, also at the level of a gringo's head. Diagonally anchored guy wires for electrical poles are likely to be strung exactly where feet can trip over them or where they can chop you across the throat.

However, I find myself able to live with this, for in life it's good to stay fully alert. Sometimes it seems to me that in North America and Europe nearly everyone is on automatic pilot, depending on society to protect and even coddle them. Down here you're quickly disabused of such thinking, and the result is that most people are pretty much on their guards all the time, at least for the easy stuff like holes in sidewalks and throttling guy wires. Somehow this contributes to a pleasing kind of spontaneity and good humor in the streets.

*****

THE HYDROLOGICAL RESERVE ABOVE SAN ANDRÉS TUXTLA
The night bus from Tampico delivered me into the sprawling Gulf Coast city of Veracruz a little before dawn on Thursday morning. By the time the sun came up I was headed farther south in a local bus, across flatlands with tall fan-palms rising from ground-hugging fog, to San AndrésTuxtla in southern Veracruz state. The Tuxtla region is special because instead of being low and flat like everyplace else along the Gulf Coast from the US southeastern states to Mexico's Caribbean coast, it's hilly with several ancient volcanoes. Many towns in the region have the word Tuxtla in their name, and people think of themselves as living in the narrow Isthmus zone, with the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Pacific to the south.

In San Andrés I bought a two-day supply of water, tortillas, bananas, mangoes and roasted peanuts, and flagged down a "pirate taxi" headed up the steep slope north of town toward a mountaintop forest I'd spotted on Google Earth. Here I planned to rest a couple of days, and see what it was like. If you ever decide to do this, after arriving at the bus station, make your way across town to the eastern side, to the well-known street called "La Encantada," and catch your pirate there, asking to be let off at the reserve border. It should cost about four US dollars, less if there are other passengers going your way. {Check out our page profiling the hydrological reserve.}

APPENDIX:
Other pages resulting from this visit to the Hydrological Reserve:

The plot of forest turned out to be a protected, 1186 acre (480 hectares) "hydrological reserve" established by the Mexican government entity SEMARNAT, the Pro Arbol program and the Comisión Nacional Forestal. It wasn't terribly high in elevation, but the air was much cooler and fresher than in the very hot lowlands, and tree trunks were so heavily covered with mosses, ferns, liverworts, bromeliads, orchids and peperomias that the forest could be considered borderline cloud forest. An isolated, mountaintop island of Sweetgums lived there -- a situation for which the last Ice Age was responsible, and which I've talked about at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/sweetgum.htm.

I spent Thursday and Friday night camped in the reserve. You can see my tent at my first camp at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150426tt.jpg.

On the first afternoon as I lay deliciously peaceful in the tent, after a din of echoic calling of annual cicadas died down, Keel-billed Toucans began croaking, sounding like someone thumbing the teeth of a giant comb. Then came the liquid, gurgling calls of a Montazuma's Oropendula, who spent about an hour circling my tent as the sun went down. Not far away, Spider Monkeys began growling and hooting, and I'd not realized monkeys might be there. Once it got fairly dark, suddenly, from an open trail about 20 feet away, there exploded a loud cacophony of calling and feather-popping of Crested Guans, just as I'd heard them in a similar cloud forest in Querétaro back in 2006. They honked and yelped, YOINK YOINK YOINKing, on and on, until it was so dark that all I could see were fireflies.

That night I hadn't put the rain fly over my tent, so the tent was like a big, semi-transparent mosquito net -- and the mosquitoes were numerous. Hearing all these things and feeling snugly away from the mosquitoes swarming over my net, I felt exceedingly snug and content, and those two nights above San Andrés I slept profoundly.

On Saturday morning I hiked out of the reserve, flagged down another "pirate,"and soon was on a bus headed eastward -- no more toward the south -- for now I was at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, getting into position to head back toward the north, into the Yucatan Peninsula.

I can't leave the Tuxtla area, however, without remarking that the people here struck me as unusually friendly and good natured, and the landscape was especially pretty -- like Oaxaca, but without such poverty and so many political problems.

*****

BUS TO COATZACOALCOS
I'd gotten into San Andrés too late to catch the morning first-class buses eastward to my next stop, Coatzacoalcos, at the southern tip of long Veracruz state, so I took an "ordinario," one of those rattling little buses that stops wherever anyone along the road throws up an arm, and inside which the windows were wide open, and people were glad to have the breezes, for by noon that day the temperature of air gushing through the windows was over 100 degrees. And, it all felt good, as long as the bus was moving.

The landscape was flat again but, still, it was a pleasure to watch it drift by, and all the other passengers that day seemed to think so, too. Pink Tabebuias were flowering, and no matter how many times you saw them, it was always a shock to witness how gloriously red a big heap of Bougainvilleas can look avalanching over a stone fence or climbing a veranda wall. Fields of sugarcane grew along the road, some with knee-high new shoots, others with stems and leaves high as an elephant is tall, and some fields were busy with sweating, tired-looking men cutting juicy canes with machetes, and piling them up in long rows.

Orange season had passed but now roadside stands sold locally grown pineapples next to hand-lettered signs saying "piñas 4x20," meaning that you could buy four pineapples for about US $1.33. Also, it was watermelon season, so every stand displayed big, sliced-open watermelons next to it with open, red faces wet and glistening in the sunlight. During town stops, vendors rushed into the bus hawking plastic bags of thin-sliced, fried bananas, and bags of roasted peanuts in their shells, and "palanquetas," which were crisp candy bars made of peanuts stuck together with hardened brown-sugar syrup.

In mid afternoon, in Coatzacoalcos, I got back into the first-class circuit, taking a bus to Villahermosa, in the state of Tabasco, enduring two loud, dubbed, gringo movies, one of the car-chase kind, the other about cute, blond gringo teenagers doing inane things.

That night I took a movie-less, first-class ADO bus to Mérida, up in the Yucatan, where I arrived this Sunday morning.

And here this Newsletter ends.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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