Days of the Dead:

“Muertos” has come and gone. For us, it occurred in the midst of frenzied news-junkie attention to the election lead-up, amidst planning for our trip to Guatemala (of which, more below). On the first of November (the day set aside for children and victims of accidents) we joined dozens of friends at the graveside of Thorny Robison. On the 2nd, we joined our friend Anita for the annual mole and tamales comida at her house.

There were lots more altars and sand paintings to be seen this year. The mast-head photo is this year’s annual altar by artist Boris Spider, in the driveway of his studio on the Alcalá below the Villa del Campo hotel.

The sculptures are on the plaza in front of the wedding church” next to Labastida park; there are several others located in the tourist area of central Oaxaca.

Honduras:

The first rule of travel to just about anywhere is “you can’t get there from here”. With the exception of flights to the Oaxaca coast, almost all celestial roads lead through MexCity. This is especially true when flying to Central American destinations.

After prowling the Web for hours, and looking at all sorts of plane / bus options (there is no regularly scheduled flight to the Rio Dulce) and comparing prices and times, we chose to avoid Guatemala City and fly into San Pedro Sula, Honduras, instead. The flight was about 100 dollars cheaper, and the bus ride about 2 hours shorter.

The only first class bus to Fronteras, the market town for the river region, leaves SPS at 6:00 a.m., which requires either catching the 6:30 a.m. flight to MexCity, and arriving in SPS at about 1:00 p.m. and staying in a hotel overnight – or a later flight which gets to SPS at 1:00 a.m. the following day, and hanging out at the bus depot for a few hours. We chose the overnight stay in SPS.

Both flights (OAX-MEX and MEX-SAP) were in Embraer 80-passenger jets, similar to the Continental plane from Houston to Oaxaca. Smooth, comfortable if crowded. One caveat: there are no overhead bins on one side, so carry on as little as you possible can. If you don’t, you may find yourself riding with your feet on your luggage, further cramping already restricted leg room.

San Pedro Sula is a pit. Dirty, shabby, dangerous after dark. Our hotel was plain but clean, and the elevator worked, so we checked in, dropped our luggage, and went out to see the town.

SPS has one gem, a museum of anthropology that is well maintained, with lots of documentation, laid out in chronological order.  Shown above is one of the rooms, featuring a display of metates (grinding stones) from various digs in the area. The ancient sculpture below is in the garden of the museum.  We were fortunate to get there just as a large group of students on a field trip departed, thus reducing the noise level to something more appropriate for museums.

The Zócalo in SPS is small, shabby, and unlit at night. It is surrounded by commercial establishments, many belching loud music from giant speakers: there are no sidewalk cafés, and fast-food franchises outnumber other restaurants by a large ratio. After touring the museum we ate at a mediocre joint called Pamplona, and then retired to our hotel room to get out of the noise and pollution for a while.

Later, about sunset, we went back out in search of an ice-cream. To our amazement, almost all the businesses were closing: this was at about 6:45. We soon gave up the search and went back to the hotel.

At 5:00 a.m. the bus depot is pretty much deserted, except for the hordes – nay, swarms – of young men looking to change money, carry luggage, and otherwise earn enough to feed themselves. We chose one very quickly – thus dispersing the others – and asked him to lead us to the Rio Dulce bus. He not only did so, he rounded up someone who could open the closed ticket window to sell us a ticket. Once inside the waiting room, we were left alone.

Our first class bus was about the equivalent of a second-class Mexican transport: not bad, but far from what we are used to. Still, the seats tilted, there were seat belts, the air conditioning worked (too well; we nearly froze to death before the driver cut it off; apparently it was only “on” or “off”), and the driver was competent; and we were greatly relieved to be leaving San Pedro Sula, and on to our destination.

Toledo announces his retirement:

Oaxaca’s artistic infant terrible is laying down his burdens of civic responsibility at age 70. When asked by a reporter what he will do with his time, he responded that he will devote all his efforts to his artistic endeavors, and will no longer concern himself with making sure there is enough toilet paper in the bathrooms at IAGO (“ha ha”). He is renouncing all his oversight duties at IAGO, the Bravo photography museum, the school and exhibition space in Etla, and whatever else he might have a hand in.

He has not, however, eschewed his financial support.

Amid rumors that his co-philanthropist, Alfredo Harp has left Oaxaca for somewhere safer, where kidnappings are less frequent — and that he will soon follow suit, having a home and studio in the Los Angeles area — he ducked the reporter’s question as to exactly where he would be while he creates great art.

[The bridge at Fronteras, taken from a dinghy.  The river is pretty wide here as you can see.]

The border:

You can only cross from Honduras to Guatemala during business hours. At 6:00 p.m., everyone goes home. There are no hotels, and the restaurants are pretty funky. Fortunately for us, things were in a lively mode when we arrived at about 9:00 a.m., and it took little time to make the crossing, which of course included immigration and customs on both sides of the rather large no-man’s-land. There are a limited number of buses that are allowed to pass between them. All visas are good for three months, in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and (I think) Nicaragua, so crossing the border was a snap. No fees, no fuss.

I wondered why the Honduras immigration guy asked me if I was planning to return to Honduras from Guatemala. I was to learn why later…

Dra. Berta returns:

On November 25, APPO activist and medical doctor Berta Muñoz came home to Oaxaca after two years in exile. She addressed a crowd in the Zócalo after a march marking the second anniversary of the repression of the popular APPO uprising by federal paramilitary troops known as the Federal Preventative Police (PFP).

Subjected to death threats against her and her family for having participated in “Radio Universitario”, the university radio station taken over by the popular uprising – one of the key pieces in the resistance, broadcasting news and directing the citizenry to hot spots – even as the station was under siege by the PFP, Dra. Berta fled Oaxaca with her family, first to Bolivia and then to Mexico City.

Dra. Berta was also a key player in the founding of the Frente Común Contra el SIDA (the common front against AIDS), and during the worst battles of the uprising operated a mobile first aid station out of an ambulance. Never accused of violence, or threatening violence, she was fired from her job in the Medical School after 32 years of service, for “abandoning her position” and denied her pension. There is a very real chance that she will be arrested on any one of dozens of trumped up charges that have been lodged against her at the behest of our beloved Governor.

To see her tell her story in her own words, click HERE.

I should note that Corrugated Films, and director-producer Jill Friedberg, is one of the best sources for much of the documentating of the uprising. Making movies during times of violence is dangerous (just ask Brad Will), and Jill’s work should be recognized.

Fronteras and the Rio Dulce:

[Fronteras main street. The sidewalks are narrow to non-existent]

The bus from SPS goes to Guatemala City. About an hour and a half past the border, we got dropped off at a very pleasant, clean restaurant at a large gas station just outside the town of Puerto Morelos to wait for a connection to our destination, a half hour away. It took awhile to find a bus with empty seats, but eventually we were able to complete our trip. Everyone was very helpful and friendly.

The bus station in Fronteras, like almost all the businesses in town, bellies right up to the road. There is very little “off street parking” here. By previous arrangement, our hosts (Diana’s daughter Tamar and son-in-law Don) were waiting for us, and we quickly walked the few paces back to the bridge, where we ducked down an exit ramp (did I tell you there are no usable sidewalks?), went under the bridge, and found ourselves in the world of boaters and tourists that drive the economic engine of the area.

Bruno’s restaurant is one of the oldest in that part of the river. We remembered visiting there ten years ago, where we parked our pal Dan’s van and hired a boat to take us down the river to Livingston (about which more later). Little had changed, except that some of the rooms for rent had become businesses selling groceries, boat parts, etc. Bruno himself is long gone, due to death threats received from a local drug lord after he had jilted the capo’s teen-age niece. The food at Bruno’s is excellent, especially considering the price, and the place does a land-office business.  That’s Bruno’s below.

A little social anthropology:

It’s important to distinguish between two classes of foreigners in the Rio Dulce area: boaters and landlubbers. Long before the marinas multiplied like single cells in a petrie dish, adventurous and often reclusive visitors built houses in the backwaters feeding the Rio. There were no good roads in this part of Guatemala until well into the last half of the 20th Century. Tikal was accessible only by air. Livingston, at the mouth of the Rio, still is accessible only by boat. There was some commerce on the river, which flows in a northeasterly direction, from Lake Izabal to Livingston, but for most of the folks living in the area between the Golfete, a wide spot downriver from Fronteras, and Fort Jefferson, upriver from the span, transportation consisted of a skiff with an outboard motor, or a dugout. Mostly, life was very laid back and uneventful.

There were always a few sailboats around. The Rio is a safe harbor during hurricane season, and its natural tropical rain-forest beauty makes it very appealing. However, until the last few decades, there just weren’t that many pleasure cruisers plying the western Caribbean; modern conveniences such as compact water-makers to convert salt water to drinkable water, global positioning, vhf radio, satellite internet, etc., were not available or prohibitively expensive: the “middle class” were not much into boating.

[Waiting for the bus in Fronteras]

That changed, and fast. With the rapid growth of the middle class in the mid 20th century, and the baby-boomer generation, pleasure boating has exploded, and one of the places this is most easily seen is along the Rio. The bridge has also been a (large) factor in the expansion. Built by the U.S. Army corps of engineers, it connects Guatemala City with the ruins at Tikal and the Belize border. Aside from making it easier for folks from Guatemala City to get to the new waterside resorts (still pretty rustic), the road also makes it easier for folks who need a place to leave their boat while they go off, to go and do whatever it is they need to do. In fact a large percentage of the boats are unoccupied for most of the year.

Now, there are marinas along both sides of the river, on both sides of the bridge, holding hundreds of vessels; dry docks where boats are hauled out of the water to be repaired and re-outfitted; services such as marine refrigeration and electric repair, etc.

More later:

Stay tuned for “life on the Rio”: more travel adventures; and our exit strategy, in the next Newsletter.

Notes:

*John Ross has written an article on the status and history of the scandal-plagued so-called investigation into the death of Brad Will, the NY Indemedia photographer who was gunned down two years ago while filming a confrontation in the Oaxaca suburb of Santa Lucia del Camino. To read it, just click HERE.

[None of the giant epiphytes were blooming, but to give you an idea of how big this baby was, sitting in the dinghy we would have barely managed to reach up and touch it.]

*As this newsletter is being composed, word is that the chief “suspect” in the whole Brad-gate tragedy, along with ten other political prisoners, has been removed from the nearby Ixcotel prison in the middle of the night, and transferred to an un-named location, which most believe will prove to be a far-away maximum security prison.

*The peso is tanking once again. On November 27, casetas de cambio (money exchanges) were offering as much as 12.8 to the u.s.d. This is a 30% devaluation, making Mexico a great destination for the budget traveler. Many are predicting a slide to 15. Remember the old saying: when the U.S. sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia.

*Apropos of that, the social security medical division, IMSS, just announced that they will save 5 million pesos this year, because they have their U.S. patented medicine suppliers locked in to an exchange rate of 10.6 and the peso is now worth almost 13. Of course the other side of this “great luck” is that Mexicans are now paying 30% more for U.S. products…

*Felipe Calderón, president of Mexico, gave a speech on the 27th, while most of you were chowing down. He said that 50 to 60 percent of all police are aligned with criminal elements; and that in high crime areas that figure rises to as much as 88%. Remarkable, both for the content, and because of who said it. However, it seems like a slightly conservative estimate to me.

*If, after reading the above estimate, you still don’t think that the much-vaunted “war on organized crime” being pimped by president Calderón is bound to be a miserable failure, read Kristin Bricker’s article in which she connects some of the dots in the massive narco-corruption that is law enforcement in Mexico. When you’re done, consider this: the head of the recently created federal police agency tasked with compiling intelligence and co-ordinating strategy to destroy the cartels has been arrested, and charged with taking money from one of the major gangs in exchange for advanced notice of government strikes.