Sunday, January 11, 2015

it was a dark and stormy night

I will spare you the Edward Bulwer-Lytton prose.  When we started north from Juchitán de Zaragoza yesterday, it was neither night nor dark.  But it was a bit stormy.

You may recall (bending oaxaca), when we arrived in Salina Cruz last Monday, a persistent wind greeted us -- and stuck with us until we were well into the mountains on our way to Oaxaca.  A similar wind (partnered with rain) accompanied us out of Juchitán de Zaragoza yesterday morning.

The drive to and from Oaxaca was beautiful.  But the road was a bit curvy.  I was not particularly looking forward to re-living that experience on our drive to the Gulf coast.

If I had simply recalled my history, I would have remembered there was nothing to worry about -- as far as curvy roads go.  Our route was going to take us straight across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec -- the narrowest part of Mexico. 

Dreamers -- all the way back to
Hernán Cortés -- have considered the isthmus to be a perfect spot for a trade route or a canal.  The mountains are low enough that one pass rises to only 735 feet.

Engineers ruled out a canal due to the extensive excavation that would be required.  The route was far more suited to rail traffic.  One engineer came up with a fantastical scheme to build eight parallel rail lines that would carry ships across the isthmus.

That plan was abandoned.  However, building a single rail line turned out to be far more difficult than most planners had predicted.  The southern portion was a snap.  The mountains were easily tamed.  But the northern section (on the Gulf side) was and still is a series of marshes.

After several false starts and even falser finishes, the rail line was opened in 1907.  What should have been a major transport line turned out to have minimal effect on worldwide shipping.  The problem was timing.

Within three years, Mexico would be convulsed in a Revolution that shredded its commerce.  And on 15 August 1914, the Panama Canal opened -- providing a far more efficient (if expensive) solution to the problem the isthmus railway was supposed to solve.

Driving the route yesterday, it was easy to see why so many people dreamed of the route.  When we got to the Gulf side, though, it was just as evident how the marshes stopped progress on the line.

We considered stopping at the Olmec site of La Venta.  However, the weather was not our friend.  The wind had abated, but the day had turned wet and chilly.  We had heard that most of the artifacts from La Venta had been moved to Villahermosa.  So, off to Villahermosa we went.

I had previously been in Villahermosa only once before -- to catch an airplane.  Driving through the city, the place looked very little like a town founded in 1564.  The reason is simple.  Most of Villahermosa is a modern city of over 600,000 people.  The  capital of the state of Tabasco and the regional headquarters of PEMEX -- Mexico's nationalized oil corporation.

A friend of mine echoed what I have heard several people say: "There is nothing hermosa (beautiful) about Villahermosa."  After walking through a portion of the city last night, I would disagree.

A portion of the downtown area has been turned into a pedestrian walkway -- with the usual mixture of Mexican and American franchise stores.  But the walkway has preserved a series of colonial and porfirian buildings that otherwise may have been replaced by modern buildings.

The area that had the greatest impact was the plaza in front of the state government buildings.

Dan looked around the plaza and told Patty: "It looks like Disneyland."  He was correct.  That impression was nudged along by the dramatically lit buildings.

And then there was the fountain whose jets and lights were synchronized to the music coming from well-placed speakers.

No plaza would be complete without the statue of a war hero.

In this case, Vincente Guererro.  The commander of the independence forces, who was instrumental in signing an agreement that kicked the Spanish out of Mexico.  The second elected president of the first federal republic. The president who abolished black slavery in Mexico (being half African himself).

Why he is in a Tabasco plaza, I don't know.  He was born in Acapulco.  But heroic myths can be honored anywhere, I guess.

All of that is history.  At one end of the plaza, a raised stage overlooks the fountains and statues and buildings.  A group of young men were indulging in break dancing -- an activity I have seen in quite a few Mexican public parks.

These guys were not very good.  But they were filled with gallons of attitude.  The shot is not very good.  And I did not feel welcome enough to try another.

On the whole, Villahermosa was a nice one night stand.  After walking through the La Venta museum tomorrow, we intend to be on the road again.  Probably a bit further north and east.

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