Saturday, May 9, 2009

Road Trip! (Part 1)

So, the brakes on the car checked out fine and it seemed time for a road trip.  For this particular road trip we decided to take the road less traveled.   And, eventually, we would find out that it was less traveled for a reason.  More on that later.
We headed out westerly in the mid-morning towards the border of our neighbor state Campeche, armed only with a map, a picnic lunch and a full tank of gas.  According to the map we were headed into hacienda country which we felt should afford us some good photo ops as well as a look into a very important part of the Yucatan's past.


The haciendas, or ranches or plantations, were basically land grants given by the Spanish monarchy to wealthy patrons.  These huge plantations were worked by native Mexicans under a feudal system (basically slavery) whereby the workers, or peones were born, worked and died serving the owner's interests.  The plantations in the Yucatan were processing one thing: henequen.
The fibers of this cactus were (and still are) extracted through a process of shredding, drying and weaving to make rope which, for the better part of a century and a half, was a very lucrative business.  The plantation owners in the Yucatan were, at the time, some of the wealthiest people on earth and their henequen plants were called "green gold".
These haciendas were small cities unto themselves with churches, living quarters for the owner and his family and for the workers and their families.  Of course, the workers bought all their food and goods from the plantation-owned store using plantation printed money.
Hacienda Santa Rosa
It was the Peon family that owned most of the land we were traveling through and they owned it for several generations until 1937 when the newly formed democratic government redistributed all the land to the peasants.
This is Hacienda Santa Rosa outside of Chunchucmil.  Once abandoned and in a state of decay, a group of investors spent the better part of three years reconstructing and restoring the main plantation mansion.  It's now part of the Starwood Hotel group of "luxury resorts".  The work was done by the local descendants of the original peones, and when the work was done they were also trained to work as staff members in the resort.

The old church...

We're not sure about this building.  It was huge and looked like there were many concrete cubicles inside.

Although the rope is no longer produced, the henequen fibers are still processed on a small scale in the area and we were fortunate to run across some local artisans using their skills to make wonderful items.
The bundled fibers look something like sheep's wool...

Articles are woven by hand in a process handed down from each generation to the next...
Next door, the artists were busy making silver filigree jewelry working with torches, hammers, pliers
All items were for sale and we did purchase some of the henequen woven items which were surprisingly heavier than they looked.
Then it was off to Kochol where we found another hacienda.  This one was not, nor will it most likely ever be, restored.  But at one time, it was very impressive...
I tried and could not find any information about this hacienda on the internet.  But by looking at it, it had been an impressive operation in it's day.
These are the smoke stacks indicating the drying kilns with a work house behind them..
The main mansion.  It appears that there were servant quarters under the main house.  We had to be cautious walking around in this structure as there were collapsed floors testifying to its decaying condition.

And in the back courtyard of the mansion, a swimming pool.  We could only imagine the parties that were held here...
Change of plans...

Our next stop was to be Chunchucmil, an archeological site we hadn't heard of, but wanted to check-out.  When we got to the town of Chunchucmil, the road came to a "T" and we had no signage to indicate which direction to turn.  So we went north.  It soon became apparent that we were headed in the wrong direction, so we made one of those on-the-road decisions:  Since we were headed in the direction of Celestun, why not go up and see the flamingos?  Good idea!  And, according to the map, it was a straight shot, 25 kilometer, piece-o-cake drive to get to the highway that would take us there.
O.K.  Think of what most North Americans imagine all Mexican roads are like.  This is what we were on.
 One-lane.  And this picture was one of the better stretches.  I am not exaggerating when I report that we had to dodge hundreds of potholes, downed trees, road apples, you name it, rarely getting out of first gear.  And I kid you not, we were being tracked by vultures  in the trees above.  And little indication of civilization anywhere within eyesight.
So this little 20 or 30 minute jaunt up to the main highway ended up taking about an hour and a half of some of the most nerve wracking driving I've ever done.  Avoid this so-called road at all costs.

But we made it, and in Part 2 of Road Trip, we'll show you those flamingos.  They were magnificent.
More later,

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gimme A Brake!

We brought a new 2005 Subaru Outback with us from north of the border.  It seemed like the perfect car to have in an area which may experience driving problems from time to time, say during a hurricane.  With All Wheel Drive and a ground clearance of nine inches,  it is a rugged vehicle and quite favored by drivers from the Great Pacific Northwest.  Yes, it is a law that we from that region of the country have to say "Great" before we can say Pacific Northwest.
The problem is this:  when taking this wonderful example of Japanese engineering into a local Yucatan auto shop, one might as well be pulling up in the Mars Lander.  Subarus are rare in Mexico and seemingly even rarer on the peninsula.  Fortunately at the local tire shop in Progreso Llantica, they do our oil changes with no problems having found a suitable oil filter replacement that isn't exactly Subaru genuine but seems to do the job just fine.
This week, however, a little bit bigger task was at hand.
The brakes started making that grinding sound that indicates new pads are in order so we took it into Llantica in Progreso to see what they could do.  In short order, they said they could do nothing but no problem.  If we went to the Llantica in Merida (the big city), they could help us there.  Well.....yes and no.
The hombre in charge at the Merida Llantica sadly informed us that he could not do the job.  However, he steered us to another place, Clutchs y Frenos Chuburna.  They deal with clutches (clutchs) and brakes (frenos).  This was not in Chuburna the little fishing village, but Colonia Chuburna in Merida.  For the uninitiated, Merida is made up of many colonias or small neighborhoods and driving around town is very, very confusing as the street names and  numbers change from colonia  to colonia.
The hombre in charge obviously could see my confusion from the open-mouth stare I was giving him, i.e "this gringo will never find this place on his own", so he commanded one of his muchachos to get on his "moto" (motorbike) and lead us to Clutchs y Frenos!
All of this day so far, by the way, was being conducted in Spanish.  Sort of makes it a little tougher, but not impossible.
So off we went.
...for about 4 blocks before he ran out of gas.
No problem, he informed us and went trotting down the road with his moto to get some gas.

One thing you quickly learn about Mexicans.  Most things are "No problem" even when they are a problem.  So we waited.  And, about 10 minutes later, back he came and we were on our way again.  We never saw the gas station where he refueled....
Eventually we came to Clutchs y Frenos.
We bid farewell to our guide, marveling at the helpfulness of the guys at Llantica.  Before we headed out to the brake place we had asked the head hombre to quote us a price for a full tune-up which he did.  Do you think he earned our business?  Damn straight!  We will have that work done there.
At Clutchs y Frenos we were warmly greeted by the Gerente de Servicios, Mario Can Cuevas.  We told him we were possibly looking for a set of rear brakes as the front brakes appeared just fine.  He assured us he would have a look and to give him a call bout 2 p.m.  This was a 10:45 so we had some time to kill.
Let's look around Clutchs y Frenos.
It's a very basic and busy shop.
The machine shop complete with nudies on the wall...

And evidence of mucho clutchs replaced.....

So with over 3 hours to kill, we hot-footed it (literally it was a cooker in Merida today) to Avenue Technologico  and caught a combi bus  to the Gran Plaza Mall to have lunch and do some shopping.  If you've never ridden in a combi, you're in for a treat.  They have no shock absorbers.  That task is performed by your spine.

Only 3 pesos for a ride on a senior rate(see senior card)
And when you hit a topes (speed bump)'s a lot of "pow for the peso".
After lunch and shopping we opted for a 40 peso cab ride back to the shop to spare our senior skeletal system further combi abuse and prepared for abuse of another kind:  the dreaded "repair bill".  Sr. Cuevas met us at the cashier's window and they presented the tab:  $350 pesos (about $30.00 U.S.).  Indra immediately sensed something was wrong and they didn't replace the brakes as we had requested.  Sr. Cuevas calmly informed us that the car didn't need new brakes after all, just a cleaning and adjustment.  And sure enough, there is no more grinding sound.
I don't know of your past experiences north of the border with this type of situation, but Indra and I agreed it probably wouldn't be too difficult to find a repair shop that would have just replaced the brakes, and probably would have given us a scary story about a soon-to-fail master cylinder to boot.
Two plus years into our Mexican adventure and we continue to be amazed on a nearly daily basis.
More later,