One thing that did stand out about the drive from Puerto Chiapas to the Mangrove Reserve was the number of checkpoints on the roads. We weren’t stopped, except at one, which looked like a cross between a federal prison and a modern bus station: lots and lots and lots of bare, flat ground, with grass and low bushes and flowers but no trees. That was unusual for what we’d seen on the drive to this point. There were trees everywhere, and not just because these were mango and banana plantations. Trees were grown as windbreaks between fields and along the property lines next to the road, and there were forests every once in a while.
High chainlink fences and rolls and rolls of razor wire and guard towers (complete with guards with big guns) surrounded the property, protecting long, low buildings set in an ocean of asphalt, with bus bays making a jagged edge to the otherwise mathematically straight lines and hard angles. Brilliant sun on whitewashed walls and lots of bright metal reflecting the sunlight. Clean, cold looking, and sterile.
It was immaculately landscaped and maintained, which was unusual – I didn’t see, even in the plantations, anything like this level of obsessive gardening care – the place looked manicured. No dead leaves or even dying leaves or dead blossoms cluttering up the plants or the ground, close cropped grass, perfectly edged along the paths and beds. (It looked rather forbidding, quite honestly, I much preferred the more relaxed gardens and vegetable plots and plantations we saw elsewhere – those looked friendly and as though real people looked after them.)
The checkpoint wasn’t for us, the people. All we had to do was get off the bus, walk through the building, show our ID (they barely even glanced at it) and then get back on the bus. While we were doing that, the bus was being inspected for illegal immigrants. There is, it seems, a kind of underground highway beginning in South America and extending all the way up into the US and Canada. But this isn’t the same kind of railroad as helped the runaway slaves in the States find their freedom. This is desperately poor people taking a chance on their own, or being bled dry by people purporting to move them safely up to the US or Canada. I’ve known about Mexicans trying to get into the US and Canada, but I wasn’t aware that the problem extended all the way down into South America, but apparently it does, and I suspect it’s a lucrative business moving people along the route.
And because we aren’t far from the Trans America highway that extends all the way down both continents, and because we’re near the border, the checkpoints are numerous and frequent if you don’t happen to be as privileged and coddled as we are. There is also another reason for so many checkpoints, and that is typical bureaucratic stupidity, which is a feature of life anywhere you live. There are a huge number of police forces in Mexico. There are the federal police, the state police, the city police and the municipal police and there may even be a regional police force. There are the branches of the armed forces: the army, the navy, the marines and the air force. And none of them trust any of the others, so you get five times more checkpoints than you need.
Fine by us – but not with most of the rest of the bus – people were quite nervous about having to get off and file through a building and climb back on the bus – I’m not sure why. If we’d been traveling alone, or not on an excursion organized by the ship or a local company, I could see it, but Chiapas is trying to encourage tourism and I’m sure they’re not going to go out of their way to enrage a bunch of spoiled North Americans and Europeans who will then complain bitterly to the cruise line about what a nerve wracking and horrible time they had been subjected to by the authorities of said area. Even so, people were unsettled for quite a while after the absolutely boring and completely uneventful walk through a hot, shaded building.
Soconusco is fairly flat, but it’s bounded by mountain ranges. Al and I had a great time listening to the guides talk about the area and tell legends and stories about the landscape – there are some notable features on the sides of the mountains that have had stories and legends associated with them, some of them dating back far beyond the arrival of the Spanish, and some which grew up after the Spanish arrived. Some have Spanish embellishments on older legends, and I can’t for the life of me remember any but one – about a bell shaped rock halfway up a mountain that a local strongman wanted to put up at the top of the mountain for some reason, but got tired, put it down to rest and either fell into a magical sleep or died.
We drove for a long time (I didn’t have a watch or my cell phone with me, so no idea how long) but eventually noticed that the ground was getting wetter – the ditches on the side of the road were full of water, there was ground water standing in depressions, but it was dry and sunny. I figured we were probably almost there. I also started noticing egrets in the ditches, and sitting by the cattle in the fields. Egrets are lovely birds. Photos of them tomorrow.
That was when people – well, one person, really, but she was very vocal about it – started complaining that we’d been traveling for two and a half hours and when were we going to arrive. I’m normally one of those “tied to the clock” people and I’ve been missing my watch and a way to check the time whenever I wanted, but now, I was soooooo glad I didn’t have it – I had no idea what time it was or how long it had taken us to get as far as we had, and once again, maybe its my naiveté showing, but I wasn’t in charge here, and if we were late, there was nothing I could do about it, so I wasn’t going to worry. I figured the tour company probably knew what they were doing. Had I had my watch, I’d probably have been fretting as much as our vocal traveler. She was also very worried about the chances of there not being toilet paper in the washrooms at the reserve. Apparantly, on another cruise, with another line and tour company in another country, she had been subjected to the indignity of a bathroom with no toilet paper. (Pardon me if I’m less than sympathetic, but there are worse fates to befall tourists.)
It wasn’t much after her complaints that we drove onto the reserve, and it was another 20 or 30 minutes before we arrived at our destination – about which more tomorrow. (With enough photos to make up for the lack of the last two days.)