March 2000

C. Howard Replogle's


PMB 13552 – 235 Rainbow Drive Suite – Livingston, Texas 77399-2035


Telephone Messages -- 888-757-7701 extension 50581

Hello Everyone!

Welcome to my fifth ROAD STORY newsletter. I mailed my last newsletter from Mama's house in Georgia. There's nothing significant to report between Georgia and Mexico so this letter will be about Mexico.

But first! The e-mail version of this newsletter is FREE! If you have e-mail and would like to receive ROAD STORY that way, let me know via e-mail and stop sending stamps.

As you may know my purpose for participating in the Airstream Company Caravan to Mexico this winter was to qualify me for training as a caravan mechanic. I'm still in line for that training, but Mexico turned out to be much more than that for me. A case of cold feet jitters almost turned me around 3 days before the border. Years ago I was very sick for my whole visit to a Mexican Club Med and I've always been afraid of trying to function where another language is spoken. The Caravan was big; 31 rigs, nearly 60 people. Most everyone older than I and married. No Spanish speaking staff (I failed Spanish repeatedly in high school). The price of the trip was way over my travel budget. I'd heard a thousand horror stories about travel in Mexico. The probability of my participation actually leading to employment was uncertain, etc, etc. etc. I went anyway.

The trip was 52 days long and I loved the experience. Despite the shanty towns, poverty, pollution, litter, heat, risks, etc; Mexico is beautiful, exotic, interesting and very, very different. Another world at our feet. The people, geography, culture, art, music, food, social systems, history, wildlife, vegetation, everything is different. As varied as California. And even though many of those components wouldn't fit in our world, in Mexico, it works. In the words of my friend Ed Northup, "It's the Wild West." I learned to look at things differently there. For instance, I've always been appalled that the tap water there isn't fit to drink. But most tap water is used for purposes that don't require that level of purity. No problema! Purified water is for drinking and cooking, tap water is for washing. The police aren't all corrupt: they're paid very little and expect to be compensated directly by those they serve. It's just a different way.

The best thing is that I "discovered" a vast resource for future adventures and a great refuge from the North American winter! The caravan mode got my feet good and wet so Mexico is much more accessible to me now. My Spanish is still weak but much better than it was. I'm already planning a trip next November to San Miguel De Allende for a four week Spanish immersion class at a beautiful little universidad. If I can get good at Spanish, I'll be very comfortable there. Want to come along?

The caravan itself was at once a source of frustration and delight. It was a WHIRLWIND tour. See the log at the end of this letter. It wasn't militaristic like the Airstream caravans used to be but we were given specific times to leave each site which were a bit early for me (usually 7:00 or 8:00 am) and "flagged out" of the parking area by "de-parkers" and "flagged-in" to the next site by "parkers." Long days of driving terrible roads, short stays at each stop, and so much to do, in so little time. It was a frantic sampling of a huge and fascinating world. I skipped some of the bus and walking tours of Mayan ruins and cities that lasted 8 to 14 hours to avoid tour fees, to take care of Pepper, and to do stuff on my own. I went on tours of everything from the Corona Brewery to a Coca plantation to a jungle walk in Palenque, all guided by experts in their fields. Breathtaking cathedrals. Gift shopping, music and dance performances, dinning out and in, cocktail parties, museums, bicycling, and all the while maintaining our trailers and attending to the necessities like groceries, water, fuel, butane, finding a laundry etc. The energy of the participants would have been amazing if they were in their 30's. But these folks were mostly 60's and 70's. The caravan mechanic was 83! 1 missed the best prepaid meal of the trip in Cancun because I was SLEEPING! I was second to the youngest and by far the slowest driver in the group. Took endless ribbing for it too. We didn't travel in a convoy. We were provided detailed written directions and traveled alone or in pairs at our own speed with the mechanic, a.k.a. "tail gunner" at the rear. It seems to me that driving slowly is easier on my rig, safer, and more conducive to sightseeing. And I couldn't think of any reason to hurry. But everyone else seemed hell-bent to get to the next camp. I'm used to stopping at the slightest provocation but some of my fellow caravaners wouldn't even stop for lunch. I guess it's a peculiarity of my traveling style that I didn't realize, since I don't normally roll with a group.

We traveled a huge distance (about 4,000 miles with side trips) and most of the roads were unbelievably bad. Potholes, washboard, broken pavement, dirt. Thousands of speed bumps. No control of truck weights or loads. Our trailers took a hell of a beating: Cracked hitch receivers, broken hitch bolts, cracked wheels, a shattered front window, many flat tires, 8 or 9 brake repairs, malfunctioning refrigerators, 3 traffic accidents with Mexicans, one trailer separated from it's frame, broken holding tank valves. On and on. Not to mention smashed television sets and other interior cargo. The hardest day took me eight hours of rolling time to travel 210 miles. Camino malol I bolted my toolboxes to my truck bed early on, removed my load levelers and let air out of my tires to smooth my ride. I personally had a flat tire, a broken bathroom exhaust fan, a malfunctioning water pump, a loose hitch ball, a broken awning clamp, and my kitchen cupboard came loose from the trailer at one end. I considered these to be very minor problems and was able to fix everything myself. Some rigs had thousands of dollars damage and kept Lee (our mechanic) and his son Herb (also a mechanic) busy most of the time. Herb took a liking to Pepper and helped me out many times by watching him for me while I side tripped.

No injury's worse than a few scorpion stings, hardly anyone got really sick, and I think that everyone had a great time.

Some of my favorite places: San Miguel de Allende is an ancient and beautiful little town on a hillside at high altitude North of Mexico City. It's full of artists and pretty little shops. I met one woman from Los Angles that's lived there for 18 years and designs beautiful wool rugs that she has made by the craftsmen in Oaxaca. And Paa Mul, an RV Park / Dive Resort South of Cancun and adjacent to Cozumel was really nice and close to Playa del Carmen. The seasonal residents have thatched "palapas" built over their trailers which gave the park a very tropical and exotic look.

Beautiful scuba diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean. I wasn't crazy about Cancun because it's just a huge, glitzy, expensive, American tourist town, but a small group of us used the beach at the Club Med there for some excellent snorkeling. Taxco, originally a silver mining town in steep hills SW of Mexico City had the most interesting public market. Silver jewelry stores surrounded the plaza and cathedral and a maze of venders filled the buildings and streets and alleys and hillside below so densely that it was hard to tell when you were inside and when you were out. I had to ask a cop for help to get back out to the street: "Por favor senior, donde esta la salida?" Cenote Azul, an 80 meter deep sink hole with clear blue water, a nice restaurant overlooking it, and our adjacent trailer park was a refreshing break from the salt of the Caribbean and Gulf. I thought it curious that the slowest driver in our group was the only one to jump off the 20 foot roof of the restaurant into the abyss. Pepper enjoyed the fresh water swimming too, as well as the easy surf of the Gulf and Caribbean. We saw many Mayan ruins including the spectacular Chichen Itza and the beautiful Palenque. The Indian heritage is quite obvious in the Mexican people, to me, more so than the Spanish influence. Even the Catholicism there has an Indian twist. The Mayans didn't disappear, they're alive and well They just abandoned the pyramids about a thousand years ago. I met people that spoke mostly Mayan.

I made several good friends among my fellow caravaners (or "Airstreamers" as we often call ourselves). But my most interesting human contacts were with the natives I met. At Pepe's RV Park in Topotzotlan, Pepe's young employees had a garage band that practiced in one of the buildings there in the evening. They played Mexican Rock and spoke no Ingles but graciously allowed me to join them for two evenings of some pretty raggedy harmonica effort. They liked my azul version of La Cucaracha and let me record them on the second evening. At Cenote Azul, I made friends with 4 kids that were off from school in Bacalar for a faculty meeting and had come to stay with grandma who managed the trailer park. They were Ramon, Lordes, Jose, and Annel. Ages 7 to 12, spoke no English, and did their utmost to teach me Espanol. They sang Las Mananitas as I played it on my harmonica. They loved playing ball with Pepper ("perrito Pimiento" in Spanish) and thought the interior of my trailer was "fantastico!" Delightful kids. It's interesting to see people that are dirt poor by our standards but quite happy and content with their life.

Most dogs run loose in Mexico and they all looked alike in each area we visited. Lots of mangy, malnourished ones, and dead ones on the road. But since they run loose they are well socialized among themselves. Pepper enjoyed running and playing with them.

Everything is not inexpensive in Mexico. Manufactured things like tools and tires are very expensive. Fuel was about 20 cents per gallon MORE than here. Services and many foods are cheap. A kilogram of fresh tortillas is about 35 cents. A ripe pineapple less than a dollar. Handcrafts are cheap IF you're a good negotiator. Medical care and pharmaceuticals are cheap. A delicious fresh seafood meal in a restaurant for $4 to $8. Grocery shopping in a big modem supermarket when we could find one was really fun. So many different things to look at and wonder about. And to buy and taste for the adventurous.

At first I was intimidated by the endless Military and Police inspections along the road. At roadblocks they'd go in your trailer and look around and speak only Spanish. Young and serious macho hombres. Sometimes they would confiscate chicken, pork or eggs. But they were mainly just curious about us and toward the and I was trying my Spanish on them, showing them my stereo and playing my harmonica for them. And telling them no, I did not want to give them my baseball hats.

Well, I could go on and on here, and I wish I could include some pictures. Next time I see you we can do that if you want. But I'm getting antsy to head West and I want to get this out to many of you who are asking me about Mexico.

My immediate plans include (but are not limited to) Escapees Spring Escapade, Lancaster, CA, April 16 – 21; Harmonica Masterclass, San Jose, CA, June 9 –11; Port Townsend Blues Festival, Port Townsend, WA, June 25 – July 1: maybe Airstream Company Caravan to Alaska, July 10 – Aug 16

Travel since my last newsletter  10/13/99 to 3/1/00