Getting Ready for Yucatán

A Mérida Taxi Receipt from a November 1982 Trip

I finally settled on my date of departure for Mexico to take place around the middle of next month, though Volaris still has not confirmed my reservation. I will be flying to Mérida via Guadalajara both ways. I could have elected to transfer in Mexico City, but I have memories of a flight some thirty years ago while the passengers waited for hours for a well-connected wife of a politician to be boarded ever so fashionably late.

But then, when one travels in Mexico, one travels by Mexican rules. This involves an expectation of the unexpected, and a sharp attention paid to current circumstances, despite conflicting information from supposedly authoritative sources.

In preparation, I have been reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Ever since running into his book of a series of railroad journeys from Boston to Argentina entitled The Old Patagonian Express, I have been deeply influenced by his writings on travel. Theroux is profoundly cynical, though perhaps not so much as Tobias Smollett, whose journey of a trip to France and Italy earned him the nickname of Smelfungus by no less than Laurence Sterne.

Theroux provides a nice summary in his book about the land I am about to visit:

I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico, and maybe such an ambition is a futile and dated enterprise. The country eludes the generalizer and summarizer; it is too big, too complex, too diverse in its geography and culture, too messy and multilingual—the Mexican government recognizes 68 different languages and 350 dialects.

When my best and oldest friend talks about Mexico—usually disparagingly—he really means the border regions, where the drug cartels, police, and army are the major players.  I myself have visited several Mexicos:

  • Border Mexico (Tijuana, Ensenada, Mexicali, and Cabo San Lucas)
  • Pacific Beach Resort Mexico (Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta)
  • Colonial Mexico (Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel Allende, Querétaro)
  • Canyon Mexico (Copper Canyon)
  • Capital Mexico (Mexico City—a world in itself)
  • Gulf Mexico (Puebla, Papantla, Veracruz, Jalápa, Villahermosa)
  • Zapotec and Mixtec Mexico (Oaxaca)
  • Caribbean Mexico (Cozumel)
  • Mayan Mexico

My favorite is the last category, which can be further subdivided into Highland Maya (San Cristóbal de las Casas), Jungle Maya (Palenque), and Yucatec Maya (Mérida, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Campeche).

I Finally Commit

The Airline I Will Be Taking on My Vacation

I have been talking long enough about my upcoming trip to Guatemala, but I finally took steps to reserve my flight to Guatemala City and back and reserve accommodations for the first part of my trip in the highlands. These include the Antigua and Santiago Atitlán. Within the next few days, I will also reserve single-night stays in Panajachel and Chichicastenango.

The second part of the trip—to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Copan, and Quirigua—will remain fluid because of lingering transportation concerns. Right now, the plans for the second half of the trip appear to be a bit complicated:

  • Take a shuttle bus from Antigua or Guatemala City to Copan, just over the border into Honduras
  • Take “chicken buses” from Copan to Rio Dulce in Guatemala via El Florido and Chiquimula
  • Hire a car and driver to take to from Rio Dulce to Quirigua and back
  • Take a first-class bus from Rio Dulce to Flores and then to El Remate
  • Take a minibus from El Remate to Tikal
  • Return via bus to Flores
  • Fly back to Guatemala City, or take a 12-hour first class bus back if I haven’t burned up too many days by the above

My airline of choice for this trip is Colombian-based Avianca. If you are not familiar with the airline, it is the oldest commercial carrier in the Western Hemisphere—older than any of the U.S. carriers with their money-grubbing extra fees. The plane may have Taca or Lacsa livery, because Avianca purchased these two Central American airlines a few years back. The only airline in the world that is older is KLM in the Netherlands.

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but I am prejudiced against U.S. carriers. The last time I flew to South America, I had to take American to São Paolo, Brazil. I ordered a cup of hot tea. They gave me coffee instead. I spit it out (being the coffee-hater that I am) and complained bitterly to the stewardess, who insisted it was tea. Until she tasted it. Oh! So sorry! (And so typical.) On Avianca, they know the difference between coffee and tea.

Flying in the Andes

Actually, It’s Anything But Tame

I have flown over the Andes on several airlines: LAN, Avianca, Star Peru, Copa, and TAME. Because we don’t often think about South America, we don’t realize that the Andes are every bit as high, in general, as the Himalayas. I say “in general” because our method of measuring altitude is in flux, largely because the ocean level is in flux due to global warming. If we measure a mountain’s altitude from a point at the center of the earth, the highest mountain on the planet is Chimborazo in Ecuador. That is due primarily to a bulge in the earth around the equator which in effect elevates mountains atop that bulge.

In the past, I used to be disturbed by air turbulence. Now, with all the vacations in South America, I see turbulence as a sign that I am nearing my destination. Virtually all flights from Los Angeles to Lima, Quito, Santiago, or Buenos Aires involve a diagonal path over a chunk of the Andes. This usually takes place in the middle of the night, so I don’t get a chance to see the snowcapped peaks over which we are flying.

That plane in the picture was the plane I flew from Cuenca in the south of Ecuador to Quito. My brother had left a week or so earlier (also on a TAME prop plane), so we had returned the rental car to the Cuenca office of the rental company. I explored a bit on my own, taking a bus to Alausi to take a fascinating train ride; and I also visited a whole lot of museums in Cuenca. There are a zillion museums in Latin America, and most of them are fun even when there are no signs in English.

For my next trip to South America, I hope to fly to Bolivia and return via Buenos Aires. There’s a lot to see in between, even if I have to take a connecting flight part of the way.

 

Stopovers

If I Can’t Fly Nonstop, I Can at Least Look Around

If I Can’t Fly Nonstop, I Can at Least Look Around

Above is a view of São Paolo’s new air terminal. There is no way I can fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, so I picked a bargain flight with TAM Airlines, which recently merge with my favorite South American carrier: LAN. My flight lets me wander around the new International Terminal for three and a half hours before boarding another flight to Buenos Aires’s Ministro Pistarini airport, better known by its neighborhood: Ezeiza.

From Santiago, I have an even more interesting route back. I will take Colombia’s national carrier Avianca to Bogota, where I will spend three hours. Then I hop on a TACA flight (owned by Avianca) to San Salvador in El Salvador, where I quickly change planes to a LACSA (owned by Avianca) flight to Los Angeles.

Why don’t I fly on a U.S. carrier, you might ask? The answer is simple: I don’t like being treated like garbage, eating swill, and paying richly for the privilege.

Look at that airport above. Then compare it to the aging slum that is Los Angeles International. It’s almost as if we just didn’t care any more.

Drone World

Get Ready for New Legal and Ethical Problems

Get Ready for a Raft of New Legal and Ethical Problems

Technology is a double-edged sword. Every new development comes with a general realization that the people who engineered it didn’t quite think things through. Did you know that there is now a website entitled Drone Law News? Did you know that a drone flying at 2,300 feet had a near miss with a U.S. Airways Jet flying from Charlotte, NC to Tampa, FL? The newer drones have capabilities that are capable of causing nightmares, such that according to a Pew Research Center poll, “63 percent of respondents said using drones for personal and commercial purposes would be a change for the worse.”

And now, according to a friend of mine who is a motion picture cameraman, it is possible that the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappearance could have been due to the plane carrying LiPo (or Lithium Polymer) batteries such as are used to power some drones in their cargo hold. These batteries are capable of combusting and causing fires that are difficult to put out, especially when a aircraft’s cabin fills up with smoke and passengers and crew start passing out.

Over and above all these personal and commercial considerations, we have seen now for several years a growing use of drones on the battlefield. They are useful for assassinating terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Also they have a reputation for causing havoc and carnage at wedding parties in the Islamic world.

 

Cellphone Hell Is … Other People

Another Technical Innovation That Has Overstayed Its Welcome

Another Technical Innovation That Has Overstayed Its Welcome

We’ve all seen it. That shit-eating grin and the walkie-talkie walk that says, “I have somebody with whom to carry on a meaningless conversation—and you don’t!” And now the FAA and FCC have okayed the use of mobile phones on planes. Is this a good thing? For every call that actually has to be made, there will be half a thousand stating “We’re in the air over Kansas right now” and “We’ve just landed at ORD and are taxiing to our gate.”

Then there will be the fake business calls just to make the caller look important. I can just imagine the guy at the other end, “What are you saying, Jason? You don’t own any stock, and last I heard you were in bankruptcy proceedings.” Of course, we never hear the tired, slighty pissed off voice at the other end of the line, just the mock triumphalism of the caller.

There are several ways of fighting these self-important a-holes who force you to listed to their bloviating:

  1. Sneeze all over them without covering your mouth.
  2. Spill part of your drink on them and offer to pay their dry-cleaning bill, giving them a false name, address, and telephone number.
  3. Read out loud from your book, making occasional significant gestures in their direction, as if it were all for their benefit.

In the end, I suspect this will not become a major problem, if only because most people are virulently against it. In today’s news, two airlines have come out against allowing cell calls on flights: Delta and JetBlue. If any other airlines join them, I may well vote with my feet, choosing only airlines that place restrictions on the nefarious habit.

It would be nice we could do something about that other noise-making nuisance on long flights: crying babies and whining small children. But on humanitarian grounds, I think I’ll just shut up for now.