Chapter 2.  Mexico transit

Day 2 – January 15 – Tampico, Tamaulipas

(Bert) Heralding a clear message that it is time to push south, the cold front came in last night, plummeting the temperatures into the low 40s. We align our RV’s in darkness and then gather hurriedly under an RV park streetlamp for last minute travel details from Shari. CB count off goes without a hitch and just as first dawn illuminates the horizon we are on the streets of Pharr heading toward the border. No wrong turns, no hesitation at the border crossing, no breakdowns, no one lost yet, our start is peacefully uneventful, in stark contrast to last year’s misadventures. The new route through Reynosa runs smoothly and safely and within minutes we are on the Mexico highway heading south through the Tamaulipas farmlands and brushlands. Although the area of our first rest stop I know to be good for birding, this morning’s chill keeps our visit short and the birds mostly hidden. We pick up Tropical Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike and Eurasian Collared-Dove before we hustle back into the warmth of our RV’s. Gloomy overcast skies threaten rain, but our spirits are not dampened. We run with the cold front, rain drops evolving from hesitant to intermittent to persistent. I search for roadside birds, although most must be avoiding the weather and am happy to catch a Peregrine Falcon in flight.

One-hundred and fifteen miles into our journey we push through the cold front and the temperature jumps to 55 deg. Seven miles later the rain stops and we drive over dry pavement. The first of many Black Vultures flaps to gain altitude and a Turkey Vulture glides on the uplift. A surprise is a flock of Cedar Waxwings overhead in typical haphazard jerky flight. At our early lunch stop the winds are strong enough to hank door handles fiercely from our clutch. From here we split into three groups of four RV’s each, making transit on the narrow two-lane highway less like a crawling traffic jam. At Soto de Marina I again see Collared-Doves as I do on several more towns, a definite increase in the population since last winter. A pair of Tamaulipas Crows at another rest stop is a good find, but better still is the flock of 5-6 Harris’s Hawks flying and then resting in a small wetland. Perched on a fence post, the Red-shouldered Hawk that displays its shoulders and banded tail is only the second I recall seeing in Mexico.

Upon arriving at the vacant parking lot that will be our campsite for tonight, I decide to hold our bird talk and travel meeting beside Ray & Nancy’s rig, using the motor home as a sturdy windbreaker. That part of my strategy is okay, but I did not plan for the advancing cold front to reach us by the 4:30 meeting and the start of rain cuts me off just after we finish our bird count for the day, leaving Shari to rush through the travel meeting while rain starts to penetrate our jackets and splash on our travel logs.

(Shari) I love it. Finally “mi poquito” Spanish is better than the Mexican’s poquito English. For those readers who not know Spanish, I will write my Spanish phrases followed in parenthesis with what I think the English means. Since my computer does not do accent marks easily and I am not sure where to place many of them anyway, I am going to skip that part. Also my spelling may lack finesse. Please forgive. In November I purchased a program off the Internet called “Rocket Spanish.” I am about half way through the lessons but I think I have learned an immense amount. At least Mi Espanol es mejor este ano que ano pasada pero todavia no bueno. (My Spanish is better this year than last year, but it is still no good.) Our drive goes well today and after lunch we split into three groups with us leading the first three rigs, Bearded Bob the second group and Tailgunner Bob the third. We have an easy uneventful drive and arrive at our stop near Tampico at 3 PM. Since the weather has been crappy to say the least with extremely strong tailwinds and on-and-off rain, we investigate the possibility of having our meeting and margarita party at the restaurant. “Lo siento, mi espanol es muy mal y hablo muy despacio. (I am sorry, my Spanish is very bad and I talk very slow.) “Yo quiero usar su restaurante por una reunion. Tengo vientedos personas y quiero unas chips de tortilla con guacamole y salsa. Cuanta cuesto? (I want to use your restaurant for a meeting. I have 22 people and I want some chips with guacamole and salsa. How much does that cost?) I am told $22. Okay, so far so good. Puedo hacer margaritas y traer aqui? (Can I make margaritas and bring here?) I am told no. “Yo pregunto mi esposo. Uno momento, por favor. (I have to ask my husband. One minute please.) Bert says the weather looks okay and we can have our function outside between Nancy and Ray’s motor home and the swimming pool. Their motor home is parked so that it will block the wind. “Mi esposo dicerme, no. Mi esposo gusta margaritas y quiere tener las reunion cerca de la pecina. (My husband tells me, no. My husband likes margaritas and wants to have the meeting near the pool.)

Now, aren’t ya’ll impressed? I never could have carried on this conversation last year. So we sit out in the cold and the wind, listing the bird species seen on today’s drive. It is amazing at how many birds people saw along the way. Bert tells me the total number is 44. Before we even finish the count however, it starts to drizzle. So I rush through our travel meeting as the drizzle turns into rain. Margaritas are cancelled as is Bert’s talk on “How to Identify Restless Parrots.” We all rush into our rigs to get out of the weather. We expect this to happen in Alaska but not in Mexico.

After writing the day before yesterday’s journal, we go to the restaurant and find three other couples already seated. We join Joanie and Mark at their table and have a lively conversation getting to know each other. This is a serious birding couple. They pepper Bert with questions about future places on the trip and seem to be chomping at the bit to raise their binoculars. My delicious $6 meal of pan fried fish with a garlic butter sauce is over way too soon.

Day 3 – January 16 – Poza Rica, Veracruz

(Bert) A city that could use a better bypass is Tampico. While the current bypass avoids the congested heart of the city, the advantage is cancelled by broken pavement, water-filled potholes, excessive topes (speed bumps), multiple tolls, and lots of truck traffic. Our slow traveling speed, though, allows for birding from my RV windows and I check off 22 species along the bypass, including Muscovy Duck and Magnificent Frigatebird. Free of the city, I welcome the open country roads. Still, they are broken and potholed, as they are each year. Signs along the way boast that the new government intends to improve 3400 kilometers of highways and we do see some sections newly repaved. I wonder if they will complete the task in my lifetime. Farther south, the two-lane highway serpentines through hills where “doble remolque” semi-trucks with heavy cargo barely advance and anxious drivers seek the few opportunities to pass these crawling road blocks. When I’m not watching traffic, I bird. An Audubon’s Oriole shoots past my windshield, barely escaping injury. At Ozuluama, I see another Red-shouldered Hawk, this one flying from the road to the woods: one seen in seven years, now two seen in two days. We arrive at Poza Rica in record travel time, allowing us time to bird the hotel grounds where we park our RV’s. For those new to this part of Mexico, I point out identifying field marks on the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Roadside Hawk, Red-billed Pigeon, Social Flycatcher and Great Kiskadee we find.

(Shari) I awake this morning to darkness and drizzle. The first group to depart, at 7 AM we crawl slowly and gently out of the parking lot for fear of getting stuck in the mud that formed overnight. Allowing myself one wrong turn per caravan trip, I get my mistake allotment fulfilled on our second travel day at the intersection with the Tampico bypass. Rebuilt since last year, the turn looks different this year and we miss it. Luckily we recover and use the 90 degree right turn lane instead of the easier curve that we missed. Bearded Bob is again leader of group two by a unanimous vote from his three followers. He does a great job and even passes us by at our 10:30 rest break. He too however makes a wrong turn right before Poza Rica. I will take part of the blame for that since the log was unclear at that point. Tailgunner Bob makes a wrong turn when Arlene moves her finger from the road log and quotes a different road section, ending up in a costly $45 fine. Luckily his three followers did not follow him on the erroneous path and are saved from that charge. By traveling in groups we shaved 90 min. off our travel time from last year. Doing it this way we only have to wait for three other rigs to get past each tollbooth, each slow truck, each tope and each stop light instead of eleven. One town alone has 13 topes. The day is still tedious. The good news is that this is the hardest day with the worst roads on the trip. The bad news is that we have to travel it again on our way home. We arrive in Poza Rica at 2 PM but parking takes us a while. Poor Judy gets herself jack knifed because she could not negotiate the turn and one does not back up with a tow attached. It was my fault too since I thought she could make the turn. Later the group meets at the bar near the pool and we talk about our future plans. The hotel provides us with hot coffee and margaritas but no nibbles like last year. Bummer! Now I have to make dinner.

Day 4 – January 17 – El Tajín, Veracruz

(Bert) A benefit of the cold front, which is still with us, is that the birds are active at the El Tajín archeological site. No rain, just enough chill to make me bundle up with four layers, we start our birding outside the ruins gate with flocks of Yellow-throated Euphonias and Cedar Waxwings (looks like a good winter for these) and three warbler species sharing a fruiting tree. Judy meets our group and tells me she saw an Ant-Tanager near the sewer ponds. Surprised, we follow her to that spot. She soon relocates the male and then I see the female also, both Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, the first I’ve seen at this location and also the farthest north in Mexico. High above us, in the crown of the tallest trees is a small flock of White-crowned Parrots and soon we find wandering flocks of Olive-throated Parakeets. Birding continues good all morning as we find another species every few minutes. Listening to comments of others, I judge their favorites are Squirrel Cuckoo, Masked Tityra, Tropical Parula (we also find Northern), Altamira Oriole and Painted Bunting. For me, it’s the hummingbirds and especially the two species I identify that we’ve not seen at El Tajín before. The first alternates between feeding and resting, though remaining in the same tree and affording ample time to study its field marks and photograph it. Drab green above and dirty white below, it’s the wing and tail shapes that grab my attention. Almost straight black bill, not much longer than its head width and a white postocular spot complete the picture of what I say is a male Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. Range maps do not show this hummingbird to reach away from the mountains this far east. The second hummingbird species is a male Canivet’s Emerald and, later, I also see a female. The brilliant green body of the male and its nicely forked black tail are striking. This species is in range, but barely so. Another range extension is a bird I didn’t see, but reported to me later by Glenn and Iris. They give me an accurate description of a female Elegant Euphonia. Like the sabrewing, this bird should be in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. From these and other of our prior years’ finds at El Tajín, it seems the birds judge the hilly forests near Poza Rica as a suitable alternative to the sierra. We take advantage of the cool weather and bird in the afternoon as well, continuing to add species to the list that finally ends at 70 species.

(Shari) At 6 AM I wake up with a start. The first thought in my mind is that I may have told Chuck wrong about Poza Rica having no Wal-Marts. I cannot sleep so, much to Bert’s surprise, I get up. I just need to tell Chuck that there may be a Wal-Mart on the way to the ruins but that I do not really remember. I meet the group at their 7 AM departure and some are surprised that I am there. I guess my reputation precedes me in that I do not do mornings well nor do I do birding. After talking with Chuck, I stay to listen to Bert negotiate driving arrangements. My, he has gotten good at getting people shuffled into cars for car-pooling. It becomes very critical that individuals go with compatible drivers. Somewhat tongue in cheek, I think it would be horrible for a non-birder to drive with a fanatic birder. The poor non-birder will want to come home at noon and the birder will want to stay until dark. Bert gets them all arranged, and the group departs.

Tailgunner Bob has fixed our open ground problem on the hotel outlets and I connect to electricity today. So I make a loaf of sourdough bread with the new bread machine that Bert gave me for Christmas and give Bob half. I promise the next half loaf to Cindy. After a good morning’s work, Bob, Cindy and I go shopping. First I go to the bank to get our tourist visas paid, and then we walk around the most delightful market: hugely covering a four-square-block area. I buy cumin, garlic, avocados and jicama at different stalls. We pass the meat market with hunks of meat strung up in row upon row. Whole chickens including neck and feet hang for us to see. It all looks clean but then Bob remarks it is cold today and the flies are not out. Bob gets strawberries and pineapple. Bob eats strawberries in spite of my warning but he tells me he did disinfect them first. Good thing Cindy bought Treada for diarrhea. We try to ask for flower of sulfur at a pharmacy but have no luck. We just do not know the word for sulfur nor powder (talc?). We all have a delightful lunch sitting on stools in front of a counter at a street vendor, eating chili rellenos and some sort of stuffed tortilla. Bob wants to know what is inside the chilis and the woman takes her hand and opens them up with her finger to show us the meat or cheese. I do not especially like her finger in my food so choose a different one. She heats them up and gives us two corn tortillas to wrap around them. It is tasty and I am not sick yet. After that we go to the large grocery store where I buy tequila and Controy for margaritas, my favorite Mexican dish of pollo asada (roasted chicken), two avocados, two large, fresh-from-the-oven boillos (spelling is wrong here-but they are tasty submarine sandwich type rolls), and seven tasty pastries filled with apple or jam. I want to buy a small table lamp for under $10 but cannot find them. Since I did so good with my Spanish the other day I think I’ll try again. “Tiene los lampos de noche? (Do you have night-lights?).” The answer may as well have been “hhlkoiu ennhbbejn m,,njioijenk jhhenn,m nhhaqnnp.” But the clerk does point in a direction so I walk that way but find nada (nothing). I guess I need Lesson 4 in my Rocket Spanish, huh?

Upon returning home, I finish correcting road logs and take a well-deserved nap. I need to be well rested for our dinner out tonight. I have arranged a group meal after Bert’s parrot talk and my travel meeting. Just after the meeting, Judy hands out gifts handmade by her mother, who is a loyal reader of these journals. The gifts are rolled dishcloths tied up with a string, topped with a decorative beaded angel. Last night each of us chose an item off the menu and wrote it on a sheet of paper. The kitchen got it all right and the food looks good and tastes delicious. It is a little cold though but I remember Mexicans do not eat their food steaming like we do. I have fish stuffed with shrimp and covered with a tomato sauce. About seven whole green olives with their pits still in them swim in the sauce as well. Strange, but tasty! The meal comes with French Fries though rice would have been better. Bert is sitting at the other end of the table so I do not get a chance to see what he ordered. I look at the meals surrounding me and all look wonderful, especially Arleen’s tomato based seafood soup loaded with shrimp. All in all it has been a wonderful day.

Day 5 – January 18 – Veracruz, Veracruz

(Bert) “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP,” a loud continuous beeping and a red light warning “low water” illuminates on the RV dash. The interruption startles me from my contemplation on the uneventful day and paucity of material for today’s journal. With an eye on the temperature gauge, I drive another couple of miles, looking for a pullover, find one in front of a small restaurant and hop out to survey the engine compartment, now liberally sprayed with coolant. I suspect a broken hose, but cannot find one. After a quick change in clothes, I crawl under the engine to see water streaming out of the radiator compartment and poke around until I see a scarred impression in the radiator mesh, bleeding fluid.

The second group arrives and we urge them to continue on the Veracruz city bypass to the campsite, some 20 mi. more down the road, while we wait for the third group and Tailgunner Bob. After changing into coveralls, Bob confirms the problem and we recognize we will need a radiator shop to repair or replace the radiator. Shari goes into the rig to call a contact we have in Veracruz. Meanwhile, two truck drivers, whose semi is also parked in front of the roadside restaurant, take interest in the problem, crawl around under the motor home and offer a solution in rapid fire Spanish. I get Shari back outside and she converses with them and gets them to slow the lingo to baby steps.

(Shari) Right now I am pretty down in the dumps. I’m alone in the motor home about two feet from a busy road at a pull off in front of a restaurant. Our radiator is out of coolant. We have been here for two hours so far and Bert has gone to the shop of a “radiator” guy. Our first indication of trouble occurs as a loud buzzing from the dash with the” low water” light lit. We quickly look for the first available spot to pull off. As I get out of R-Tent-III, I see water pouring out from under the chassis. Bert crawls under the rig and says the radiator has a 3-in. gash in it. We tell our group of three to follow the group of four to the campground, with Ray and Nancy in the lead. When Tailgunner Bob arrives, he stays with us to help access the problem and Arleen takes her group of three on into the campground also. Meanwhile I call Vicki, our contact in Veracruz. Luckily I have cell phone coverage in Mexico. As I am speaking with her, two Mexican truck drivers are under the rig looking at the radiator. NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. Bert calls me out to translate. I tell them that my Spanish is very bad and that they have to speak very slowly, one word at a time. They do slow down but not much. I get the gist that we need to put water into the radiator and follow them to a radiator shop. Or do they need a ride to the radiator shop and I should take them and bring them back? Or am I supposed to follow them in the car and bring them back? I try to call Vicki for a translation but her phone is not answering. We ponder the problem some more. Soon my cell phone rings and Bearded Bob is calling from Vicki’s friend’s phone. Enrique, the friend, is head of international relations and he says he can help us after 3 PM. He translates what the truck drivers are trying to tell me. They want to eat lunch first and then we are to put water into the radiator and follow their semi into town.

(Bert) While the truckers eat lunch, Tailgunner Bob and I collect water from a slow faucet and contemplate plugging the hole with plumber’s putty, at least while we fill the reservoir. Now, one of the truckers and I alternately pour small bottles of water into the tank and refill from a 5-gal bucket. As fast as we pour, the water runs through the system and out on the radiator hole while Bob vainly tries to close the gap. Obviously, we won’t be able to drive 10 yards at this rate, much less the needed 8 mi.

Meanwhile, Plan B arrives – Bearded Bob pulls up in his car with a radiator mechanic in the passenger seat and Cindy in the back seat. Out jumps a slender fellow in swimming suit, tank top and beach sandals, carrying a few tools in a bag about the size of a man’s shaving kit. He is not happy with the plumber’s putty and pulls is out. Poking around, he eventually comes to the same conclusion we have: there is a hole in the radiator. He has a solution, or at least we think he has, and the three Mexicans hash this out for 5 min.

(Shari) I need to call Enrique again and he informs me that we have to take the “radiator” guy to his shop where he can pick up his two amigos that will come back with him to look at the problem. They will temporarily fix the problem and then we will have to drive to their shop for them to access the problem.

(Bert) Shari dials Enrique again and the younger of the truckers takes the phone. Three minutes of rapid-fire Spanish continue until I suggest he hand the phone to the mechanic. This must irritate the truckers and they walk off looking unhappy. Before they get into their truck I give them a generous tip and they are all smiles and cheerful Adios’s. Meanwhile, Beach Man and Enrique continue an incredibly long dialog – monologue on our end – which makes us wonder why the conversation can be that long. After 5 min. X 5 Spanish words/sec, he hands me the phone and Enrique tells me the radiator has a hole in it, Beach Man thinks he can fix it with the help of two others back at his shop and we need to get them and bring them to the motor home. Importantly, Enrique has negotiated a price of $150 to diagnose the problem or $300 total to repair the radiator if that is possible. Having once paid Reno Freightliner $700 just to remove the radiator for cleaning, I have no problem with the quote.

(Shari) If they cannot fix it, it will cost $150 and if they can fix it, it will cost $300. What are our choices? Bearded Bob and Cindy leave to do errands. Bert leaves with the “radiator” guy and I head to the motor home to write this. I feel sick.

(Bert) Enrique meets us at the radiator shop and with three cars now we head back with the additional mechanics. They bring along a bucket partially filled with rusty and heavily worn hand tools and a split open cardboard box to use for crawling under the rig. I help them remove the ventilated door that opens to the radiator and they start removing bolts. Beach Man removes his shirt and sandals and gets to work under the direction of Soccer Man – number 24 on the Nicaraguan team according to his shirt – and a third man assists by handing tools to them and throwing removed bolts into a bucket.

(Shari) In about 30 min., Bert comes back leading two cars. The “radiator” guy, his two “amigos” and a 10-year-old boy are in one car and Enrique and his assistant are in the other. Another 15 min. are spent jabbering about the problem. Then the real work begins. After an hour we decide that Enrique should lead Tailgunner Bob and me to a shop to buy radiator fluid. We stop at two places. The first doesn’t have any and the second one has only one gallon. We drive another 12 mi. into town and I see a John Deere dealer. With a hand pointing left and a honk of his horn, Enrique continues on. I guess we have been abandoned and we are on our own. After all it is close to quitting time. Here goes my Spanish again. I show the nice man at the desk the gallon of coolant we always carry with us and ask if he has any. He brings out a 2.5-gallon container of coolant mixed with water. I ask if it is the same stuff and he says yes but his is complete with water already in it and mine is concentrated. Since this is done in Spanish it takes about 15 minutes. I tell him I have a large motor home. Is his coolant for that? He says yes, his coolant is good for cars and trucks and everything and yes, diesel too. We spend some time talking about how much I need. Bert told me to get 3 gallons so I think I need 3 of his 2.5-gallon containers. The clerk says I only need two until we write the equivalency on paper. Two of his is 5 gallons and 3 of mine when mixed equally with water 6 gallons. Therefore I need three of his.

(Bert) While Shari and Tailgunner Bob follow Enrique into town for radiator fluid, the mechanic team continues removing bolts for 2-1/2 hours. I count 50 in the bucket, not including washers and a few nuts, and still the radiator is not free. I lend them a couple of sockets, smaller than the ones they brought, and they remove a few more bolts.

(Shari) By the time we return, the radiator is almost off and the three men are very dirty. A bucket on the ground holds a whole lot of screws, nuts and bolts. However are they going to get this back together even if they can fix it?

(Bert) Finally the radiator descends on the car jack that supports it and they bring it out for us to see the inside surface. It’s not a pretty sight, scarred and dirty and not something I would think they could repair. The radiator fan also has a few chinks and apparently contributed to the stone-throwing mishap.

(Shari) When the radiator is off we see a long 8-inch gash and a pencil size hole in the upper left corner. Apparently the fan threw a rock into the radiator. It sure does not look good. My worst nightmare! What if it can’t be fixed? Does Freightliner have a new radiator or does a new one have to be shipped from the USA? We could be here for weeks. Now the three men are trying to tell us their plan of action, which of course I do not understand. I try to call Enrique whose phone now does not work. I then make contact with Vicki. After about 15 min. of animated Spanish with Vicki, the phone is returned to Bert.

(Bert) We try for Enrique again on the phone, but his doesn’t ring, so Shari dials Vicki who serves as our translator. Apparently it is now too dark to work on the radiator so the plan is too carry it to the shop to clean and repair and then come back here at 8 AM mañana and remount. I’m glad to hear they think they can repair it, but also know that Mexicans optimistically believe they can repair anything. I guess we’ll know tomorrow.

(Shari) He will have it back by 8 AM in the morning and we should be on the road by 10 or 10:30. What are we to do? We nod our acceptance and wave goodbye to our radiator, the three men and the boy. Bert takes off to lead Tailgunner Bob to the campground. It is now 6:30 PM and very dark. I close the drapes, lock the doors and put on the outside security light to wait for his return. Hasta Mañana.

Day 6 – January 19 – Villahermosa, Tabasco

(Bert) Prompt by Mexican standards, at 9 AM the radiator mechanics pull up in their sedan with trunk open to expose a radiator now looking very clean. To our delight they say the damage is repaired and we can see the solder distributed over the long gash and the small hole. But will it hold water? Struggling with the weight, they maneuver the radiator into the compartment and use a jack and set of 4X4 wood blocks to raise it into position and start securing the 50 bolts, now washed clean. This morning, Soccer Man (alias Cesar) switched teams and is now wearing jersey number 7 for Le Gran Sociedad. Beach Man switched to a house painter and wears his much splattered multicolored jeans and shoes to prove it. After one and half hours they’ve reattached most pieces, including some of the protective framework. Work seems to have stalled and they ask for the cell phone so that we can call Enrique. What now? Has a serious problem developed, one that they cannot overcome? We catch fragments of the long Spanish conversation and think that they are negotiating for more money. Well, that would be reasonable, for they certainly have done a lot more work than I expected since the radiator extraction was difficult and the cleanup was extra. Beach Man hands the phone back to me and I’m surprised when Enrique says that they still agree to the $300 price and that they guarantee their work, should we pass through Veracruz again. Work continues, the last bolts secured and we refill the tank with the three 2.5-gal. jugs of radiator fluid Shari bought yesterday. The radiator does not leak! I start the engine. The radiator does not leak! I drive down the road with the mechanics following in their car and Shari in ours. The radiator does not leak! Seven miles farther I park in a gasolinera and we inspect the underside of the coach. The radiator does not leak! Shari pays Cesar and his soccer team, I give them three cold cokes and three new caps emblazed with the company logo and we say Gracias and Bueno many times and bid them a joyous farewell. We are on the road again!

We leave Paso del Toro at 12:45, the others having passed this way about 7:30 this morning. Can we get to Villahermosa still tonight? I push for yes, Shari thinks no. The bad sections of the toll road are as bad as ever, yet this year many newly paved sections allow me to drive at the posted speed limit of 110 kph. Rain storms slow us down a bit. Taking no rest breaks except for fuel and waiting for no one behind us to clear toll booths, we travel faster than the caravan could have. By the onset of darkness at 6:15 we are on the boulevard entrance to Villahermosa, and if I promise to drive slowly, Shari agrees to continue the last 30 mi. to the campground. In the darkness we negotiate the last U-turn through four lanes of traffic and pull into the driveway. Tailgunner Bob and Bearded Bob are on the CB’s welcoming our return and Nancy greets us at the gate, wearing high rubber boots to wade through the water sodden grass. I park R-Tent-III in the first empty spot, without planning on hook-ups tonight. After greetings, Shari and I share scotch and wine with Bob and Cindy, relating the events of the day.

(Shari) I awake with a start. Did I hear something? Seems to be quiet. Luckily the temperature is cool because we are locked in tighter than a drum. I also left a light on in front. So, I decide to sleep on the couch anyway until Bert gets up. When he comes up front I go back to bed and continue sleeping until 8 AM. The radiator guys are supposed to be here. Since this is Mexico, they don’t arrive until 9 and they begin to work immediately. Pieces disappear from trunks, from the ground and the bucket of nuts, bolts and screws gets emptied piece by piece. By 11, our radiator is nearly complete and it is soon time for the test. Bert starts R-Tent-III and everything is ok. We drive for 10 mi. and everything is okay. UNBELIEVEABLE! Thank you Carlos, Caesar and Miquel - three top radiator guys. $300 poorer plus $32 tip, we are thankful for a working radiator. God is good; He found us a safe place to stay for the night and honest and good repairmen. But if I never hear the word radiator again, it will be too soon. Traveling alone is quite different for us and we make good time. But at every noise I am jumpy. Even when the blinker sounds because it has been on too long, my heart jumps. Once Bert looks out the rear view mirror and I ask, “What is it?” 1001, 1002, 1003, 1004. Last year, Dorothy said you must sometimes wait 10 sec. for Bert to answer. 1005, I can’t stand it. “WHAT IS IT? WHAT IS IT?” I holler. Bert says he is not sure but it is either steam or rain emanating from our back end. Yikes! Immediately we pull off. Bert goes outside. I pace. I hear him open a compartment. I run outside. “Nothing to worry about. Everything is okay,” he says. At 6 PM we have about 40 mi. to go. Decision time: should we drive in the dark or camp at a Pemex station? We decide to push on. Following a truck for guidance, we miss most of the potholes in the road and arrive at 7 PM just 6 hr. after we left. A group of 11 people takes 9 hr. I suppose groups of four would be less than 8 hr. Bob and Cindy greet us on the CB as does Tailgunner Bob. Gee, it is good to hear their voices. Nancy is outside and gives me a big hug. That was all warm and fuzzy too. We are invited to Bob and Cindy’s for Bert and Bob’s favorite scotch and I have wine. We rehash each other’s day before we retire to R-Tent-III for a quick supper and bed. It is nice to have a “family” again.

Day 7 – January 20 – Palenque, Chiapas

(Shari) “This is absolutely disgusting!” I mumble to myself as I slosh through the water to the office. Villahermosa has gotten a lot of rain both yesterday and last night and our camping area is just covered with water and mud. Luckily I did not throw my leaky boots away after our Alaska trip since I am wearing them now. I slosh the block to the office, sinking into the mud and water when I can’t avoid it. No one is at the office. I ask the guard, when the office opens. He says 8 AM. Since we will be leaving at 7, I ask how I can pay now. He says he will accept the money. I tell him I need a receipt and he says he can’t do it. I tell him to just write his name on a piece of paper. He does not understand my word for paper. “Papel” (paper) I say for the fifth time as if repeating it will make him finally understand it. I realize I am getting nowhere so slosh back and ask Bearded Bob for paper and pen. I slosh back to the office and wave the paper in front of the guard. “Como se dice este en Español?” I ask. He says “papel”. Well isn’t that what I had been saying all along? I get him to sign the paper and so now we are ready to go. Since the grounds are so wet, the group decided last night to have the travel meeting via CB. After our meeting, we lead the first group out. We arrive in Palenque by 10 AM and some go immediately to the ruins to bird. Others wait for us to take them and arrange a guide and/or bird with Bert later. Salvador takes seven of the group on the tour and Ramona and I peruse the shops. I buy two more of the embroidered cotton blouses that I like so much. They are very easy to wash, dry fast and are the coolest thing around to wear. The day is pleasant enough and by 5 PM we have a group enjoying margaritas.

(Bert) We arrive at Palenque in late morning, giving us amble time to get set up in the campsite and then head to the Mayan ruins site just after lunch. Leonard, Mark and Joanie had gone to the ruins an hour earlier and now when I meet up with them they tell me of a fruiting tree and a blossoming African Tulip Tree that is attracting many birds. Seven of our group take off to the ruins with a local tour guide and the rest of us follow Mark and Joanie to the trees. I hear an impetuous Boat-billed Flycatcher and start searching for the bird when the group calls me back to see a Bat Falcon perched high on a bare branch. A pair of these has claimed the ruins as their territory as long as I’ve been visiting here. I find the Boat-billed Flycatcher, then a second and a third and still more are flying in. How unusual, since I usually find them solitary. Now with all eyes focused on the fruiting tree, bird identification becomes complicated since we are not all describing the same bird. Joanie sees a Green Honeycreeper while I’m describing the location of an Olive-backed Euphonia. Mark has located a Bananaquit and then a flock of Montezuma Oropendolas flies into the thickly leaved tree. We keep seeing more species and then in a brief lull we check out the nearby tulip tree where hummingbirds are attracted to the oversized orange flowers. This too is confusing until I recognize that we are watching four different species, all large, but with different shaped bills and various color arrangements. Fortunately all continue to feed on nectar for a half-hour observation and we sort them out as Long-billed Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Green-breasted Mango and Long-billed Starthroat. Back to the other tree, more birds come and go, including Chestnut-headed Oropendola, White-fronted Parrot, Collared Araçari, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Swainson’s Thrush, Red-legged Honeycreeper and more. I add up the total we’ve seen on these two adjacent trees and it comes to 30 species. Although we continue to bird at other sites throughout the afternoon, all else pales in comparison to these trees. When we return to camp, Cindy tells us of the Willow Flycatcher she saw singing there earlier and comparing it to a recording. That’s a first for us at this location. While we relax in the shade, sipping margaritas, dozens of White-collared Swifts swarm in disarray high above us in a feeding frenzy. The pauraques start calling as we put away our lawn chairs for the evening.

Day 8 – January 21 – La Libertad, Chiapas

(Shari) Bert put together a wonderful day for the group. Even I get up early to join them at a private ranch some 30 mi. from Palenque. The day is splendid with glorious sunshine and blue sky. Judy is with us in our car and we talk a lot. All of a sudden she sees some birds in a field and it is one of the birds I want to add to my life list. It is a thick-knee. I not only see one of them but I see 14 of them. We get an extra treat when a flock of about 100 White-fronted Parrots fly over us numerous times. I can see the chartreuse of their feathers with flashing red as they jingle bell above us in the sky. Neat! We arrive at the ranch and Rafa, our host, tells us he is the fifth generation on the ranch. The ranch was settled in the 1870s on something like what we call a land grant and the ranch is therefore called a finca. He takes us behind the house. The view is lovely as the ranch house sits on a bluff above a river. Rafa has kayaks for the group as well as horses. Four men take off in kayaks and 7 of the group go horseback riding on the grounds of the private ranch. As the ranch hands saddle the horses I watch the cows being milked. The ranch only has two milking machines but many more cows and the cows must be herded into a narrow pen two at a time for the milking. Bearded Bob is the first to saddle up. Nancy is anxious but patiently (?) waits her turn as Ray and I watch. Everyone is a bit stiff getting into the saddle and some have more trouble than others but eventually I bid the group farewell. Juanita, Bob, Arleen and I pay Pegs and Jokers. Others walk around the property to bird before lunch is served. I make a friend with the 6-year-old son of a ranch hand. He is extremely interested in my camera, binoculars and Spanish translator and continually asks to try them out. He is a good kid though and is very careful with the electronics. At noon we are treated to a traditional meal served to family members on a Sunday. We have three kinds of beef, marinated in a special sauce and served with flour tortillas, both an avocado and cucumber salad, baked potatoes and grilled onions. All this was washed down with horchata, a traditional drink made from rice with a hint of cinnamon. After lunch I leave with a car full. Before going home we stop at the new grocery store in town. At 4:30 the group gathers by the side of our rig listening to Bert talk about kingbirds and watching the birds in the field next door. It is hard for us to go inside since we have enjoyed the day so much.

(Bert) I did not intend to stop along La Libertad Road, but when I see the field of Double-striped Thick-knees I can’t resist. Spread out across the pasture are 16 of these odd birds. Shari, who has not seen them before and curious of their names, is anxious to see their knees. With their big oval eyes, half shut by drooping eyelids, they look at us as we look at them. A few slowly walk back farther in the field. As they are nocturnal and typically inactive in daylight, I am surprised when one comes from behind, flies over our heads and lands in the field. I align my spotting scope on one and Shari gets her close-up view of the thick knees. In stark contrast to the docile thick-knees, a couple hundred White-crowned Parrots congregate, disperse and reform in raucous flocks over a ripening sorghum field. Noisy splashes of green, blue, red and white produce avian fireworks. Reluctant to leave yet anxious for our destination, we return to our cars for the rest of the drive to Finca Santa Lucia. Rafa is there to greet us and he tells me we missed a treeful of four parrot species earlier in the morning. I tell him about the parrot flock and he says the sorghum field belongs to his cousin, who is not pleased by the feeding flock. Contrastingly, Rafa is eco-minded and has continued a long tradition of preserving part of his 600 hectare ranch in a natural state that attracts wildlife. When I refer to the land as a ranch, he corrects me and says it is a finca because it was established by his great great grandmother in 1873. While Rafa was at the university in Mexico City, his grandfather wanted to sell the land, but Rafa didn’t want to see the heritage leave the family and he left the city to run the finca where he raises cattle – a cross between Brown Swiss and Brahma that is good for both milk and beef – as well as crops such as the semi-truckload of watermelon he shipped off yesterday. We walk to the back side of the ranchhouse and from the stone patio, underneath the spreading shade trees, we enjoy the idyllic view of the Chachamax River. Bob C., Stan, Jim and Leonard take out a pair of kayaks to paddle up and down the river. Seven others of us join Rafa on a horse back ride around the finca. Except for using horses to reach the Monarch preserve in the Mexico mountains, I’ve never birded from a horse before and am anxious to try the experience. Using binoculars from horseback is the same as from a speeding car: the bounce makes it hard to focus on a small object. My horse Gringo is a very docile animal and when he stops I can center in on the Double-striped Thick-knees, Grassland Yellow-finches, Painted Buntings, Green Kingfishers and other species we encounter during our ride. When we reach the pretty lookout over the marsh, Nancy has had about enough horse-riding for today and all of us are beginning to feel the hardness of saddle sitting. We continue a bit farther and then come back another way. Studying a distant hawk, we make a closer approach and find it is an Aplomado Falcon just as it takes flight. Our return is a bit faster, since we don’t stop so frequently for birds and when I finally dismount I walk bowlegged and awkwardly. The rest of our group has already gathered at the back of the house, relaxing in the shade and enjoying the occasional birds that wing past. A hummingbird comes by several times and finally sits still long enough to identify as Rufous-tailed. A few of Rafa’s students – he teaches tourism at a local college – are grilling the asado ranchero (arrachera and ribs), prepared with a traditional family recipe with sour orange. Combined with roasted onions, baked potatoes, guacamole and cucumber salads, we now enjoy a traditional Mexican ranch feast. After a leisurely meal, a few leave for the campground while the rest of us bird in the shade of the tall trees along the river. We find Yucatan Jays, Ringed Kingfisher, Wood Stork and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. By mid afternoon we all return and when we reassemble for my talk on kingbirds and a travel meeting, we remark on the special privilege we’ve had of visiting an historic and still operating Mexican finca.

Day 9 – January 22 – Chetumal, Quintana Roo

(Bert) The road to Chetumal improves each year. The stretch through the Usumacinta marshes is smoother and the Campeche roads are wider. Remaining sections of the narrow road overhung by arching branches of the thorn forest are now few. The countryside is vibrant green this season, evidence of ample rains. Hundreds of Wood Storks and dozens of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons gather around the ponds. We reach our lunch stop at Silvituc (near Centenario) an hour ahead of last year’s schedule. While Shari prepares lunch I walk outside, trying to get a view through the houses and business to the large lake beyond the village. Overhead soars a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, which I’ve not seen in this region before. On the road again, my only good find of the afternoon is a Laughing Falcon perched nearby. At our campground I hear from Cindy that she saw a King Vulture, by far the best sighting of the day.

(Shari) “My mirror is missing,” I hear over the CB. It is after lunch about half-way to Chetumal and I surmise the mirrors on two vehicles traveling in opposing directions on the narrow road, hit each other and snapped off. There is no place to stop here so we continue rolling to the next town. The other driver turns around and motions us to pull over. We reach the spot where part of our group stopped for lunch and tell the accident victim to pull off with that group and we continue on to Chetumal since there is no additional parking space. Group two had some very good people in it and could help with the situation as Tailgunners Bob and Arlene are not far behind to deal with it also. Bert and I assume it is just two broken mirrors, a very minor problem to solve with an offer of cash. We arrive in Chetumal and have our meeting by the seaside with the cool Caribbean breezes adding ambience to our margaritas. We discuss tomorrow’s Belize border procedures before returning to our rigs at dusk. Since it is so late, I assume our two lagging rigs have stopped for the night elsewhere but at around 8 PM I hear Tailgunner Bob on the CB. They have a story to tell. We are told of missionaries who helped with translation issues. We hear that the other driver’s insurance adjuster finally came out in 3 hr. and assessed a bill of $10 000 pesos (close to $1000). We think that is high, learn of the electronics built into the mirror and are glad our victim has insurance that should reimburse that amount. Immediately I get on my cell phone and try to call the insurance agency but cannot get any one on any of the three numbers I have. I call the office in the United States and ask Diane if she could call the U.S. number and have them call us. Soon someone calls my cell phone and he says he will send out an adjuster in 30 min. Since I do not hear anything to the contrary by the time I flop into bed, I assume all is well.

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