Mexico

Europe more your parents’ bucket list?Join Rick Steves, and me, for a podcast about travel in Latin America

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When a travel writer gets an invite to be a podcast guest of perhaps the single most beloved and well-known travel guru in North America – she says yes first and wonders why later. Which was exactly the order of my thought process when one of Rick Steves’ staff wrote to me about “The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway.”

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It was thrilling enough that producer Sarah McCormic was reading and enjoying my book – she’s hip, travel-savvy and knows way more about podcasts than I do. But after my steering-wheel-evoking happy dance, I found myself wondering if I’d ever seen a Rick Steves program on Latin America. My memoir retraces a road trip along the length of the Pan-American Highway, from Mexico to the tip of Argentina, not the Autobahn, The Ring of Kerry or La Route Des Grandes Alpes. In other words, why was Rick Steves willing to devote a good chunk of his podcast to my story?

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Was Tulum the connection? The story of my wedding there comes early in the book, and this photo proves Steves has been there at least once.

It turns out he’s cared about Latin America since the 80s – first visiting El Salvador during its Civil War. So maybe he was relating to my parents’ decision to drive through the entire continent in the not-particularly-stable 70s – with me and my little sister in tow. My mom and dad had no clue what they were getting into – but Steves had done enough homework to know what he didn’t know. Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote about that first visit:

I feel like an expert on Europe, but in Central America, I’m humbled by my lack of knowledge. Fortunately, my nine-day crash course in political and economic issues came with great teachers and the ultimate classroom. In speaking with so many local experts, it occurred to me that Americans who come here in search of understanding (like me) want things in black-and-white clarity. In reality, it is much more complex. I didn’t come home with the clean answers I sought, but I did return with a sense of optimism, as the societies of Nicaragua and El Salvador move fitfully but steadily forward. You can’t help but fly home from Central America rooting for its beautiful people — and wanting to do more to help them.

And he did. By championing the region for tourism even when audiences in America were more interested in Europe.

I have long recommended, “If you want a meaningful trip to Central America, consider Managua over Mazatlán.”

He had me at beautiful people. I realized Rick Steves travels for the same reason I do and writes from the same place of celebrating what connects us all. By this point in my Steves research, I couldn’t wait to meet him – even if just for a few hours in an NPR studio link. Then I read a journal entry from his return trip to Latin America in 2005, coincidentally only a year after The Drive.

My 1988 visit to Central America was filled with hope. I came again after the defeat of people’s movements in both El Salvador and Nicaragua in 1991. The tide had turned and I wondered how the spirit of the people’s movements — so exuberant just two years before — would fare after the American victories in their domestic struggles. Now, in 2005, after 14 years of neo-liberalism it is clear, there’s only one game in town. Sure, Romero lives…and Jesus lives. And half the world is trying to live too…on $2 a day. As a Christian, I like to see religion function as a liberator rather than an opiate. Perhaps that’s why I am so enamored with liberation theology in Central America.

The troubadours continue, “It’s not easy to see God in the child who cleans the windshields at a San Salvador intersection…but we must.”

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photograph by Gary Geboy

If you tune in to one of the radio stations that will play our conversation over the air on Saturday, you will learn what I did about Rick Steves. That he’s about way more than Europe, that he’s endless fascinating but refreshingly humble, and that he’s an incredible interviewer. So please, subscribe to his podcast and enjoy the conversation. Unless Oprah calls, this is the best thing that ever happened to my book.

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First night in Guatemala and way way to go (Drive Day 40 minus 14 years)

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We pick a mountain crossing into Guatemala because the guide books call it more laid back than the search-and-frisk frenzy of more coastal border stops. It is so laid back I can’t tell where the immigration officers are and Wipeout and I set out on foot to find someone to officially stamp our passports and carnet while Gary waits for our house on wheels to be fumigated. In a small building stacked with chicken crates waiting to cross into Mexico (run chickens, run!) the guard points to Wipeout. I open the file with her visa, filled in with today’s date, and hand it to him. Which he reads, upside down.

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Zaculeu ruins, Guatemalan highlands: photo by Gary Geboy

We won’t make Huehuetenango by nightfall so we boondock at the Zaculeu ruins, once the capitol of the Mam Mayan people. Who, according to legend, had to eat each other to survive a siege by Spanish conquistadores. To spite the victorious Spanish, we heat up a delicious dinner of leftovers from the San Cristobal markets: avocado and tomato salad for starters, then a one-pot masterpiece of rice, shrimp and squash – so there.

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Map by Gary Geboy

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now. Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.

 

Mountain mermaids (Drive Day 39 minus 14 years)

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San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

It is our last day in Chiapas. I’ve now witnessed candled egg massages and chicken blessings, encountered angry machete mobs and listened to drum circle dredheads under exploding fireworks but somehow this 16th century carving throws me. As readers of my first memoir know, I’m secretly a mermaid. I love finding a sister in stone, but why did the Spaniards create her so high in the mountains, literally a fish(ish) out of water? They must have felt as out of place among the native cultures as I do.

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now. Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.

Rosa of Zinacantán (Drive Day 38 minus 14 days)

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San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico: photo by Gary Geboy

Rosa speaks Tzotzil to the giggling girlfriend sitting next to her in the outdoor market but Spanish to tourists, like me. And she drives a hard bargain for the shawls she weaves after school, adding 10% to the total for Gary to take photos. She’s not shy and obviously smart but when I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up the question baffles her. “All I want is for people to buy my things,” she says.

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now. Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.

Not your typical Sunday service (Drive Day 37 minus 14 years)

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photo by Gary Geboy

No cameras are allowed so I concentrate on my other four senses to commit this place to memory. The smell of pine straw hits first, when my eyes adjust to the darkness inside the San Juan de Chamula church. Then I get a whiff of wax, which makes sense when worshippers drip it onto the tiled floor to serve as a molten base for rings of candles. Women fan out what look like black fur skirts and gracefully sit in the center of the flickering rings. It’s the perfect position for grabbing live chickens by their scrawny necks and dangling beaks inches from the heads of sleeping infants. Others pass whole eggs through the candle flames and give themselves gentle massages with the warmed shells. Men in thick wool vests strum guitars and burn torches of incense, streamers fluttering from their black hats.  It’s all watched over by traditional Catholic saints in glassed-off window alcoves, and suddenly, a busload of European tourists.

Their presence feels invasive so we slip out the back entrance. Our campground is about two hours away by foot. The Central American Handbook strongly advises against hiking through Zapatista-held villages, but the only roadblock we encounter is this group of kids demanding to be photographed: for cash.

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San Juan de Chamula, Mexico: photo by Gary Geboy

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now. Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.

 

Standoff in the Chiapas jungle (Drive Day 36 minus 14 years)

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After days of drum circles and poetry I almost forget about the ominous clippings I saved from my Library of Congress research. Until we hit a roadblock in the jungle village of Ocosingo. We’re in a tour van headed for Palenque and completely at the mercy of the mob outside. You’ll have to read Chapter 11 in the book for the whole story. Here’s a hint: it’s called Shoot-Outs. I think of Nancy in Arizona and her warning and I’m glad my gun is still hidden in the Avion back at the San Cristobal campground.

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now. Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.

El Che was, no, is still here (Drive Day 35 minus 14 years)

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Each night the zocolo fills with Rastafarians and trustafarians alike, trance dancing under a sky filled with fireworks.

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I’ve never seen so much Che merch – but it’s alongside indigenous women selling stalks of fresh Swiss chard, bundles of fragrant fat lighter and bunches of cilantro and strawberries. This is a farm-to-fighter movement and we devour its intensity.

 

 

 

 

 

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photo by Gary Geboy

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now. Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.