Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014 in Banámichi

Water in the Rio Sonora
As we drove the last few miles of the road south into Banámichi, the Rio Sonora sparkled in the sunlight, more water in it than we have seen in years. Actually, this indicated a problem...the water was not being used for agricultural purposes as it had in the past, a long-lasting consequence of the toxic chemical spill by the Grupo Mexico mine in Cananea in early August, 2014 which polluted the river and the watershed.

Tinacos of all sorts have sprung up
In Banámichi, the roads, sidewalks and rooftops are punctuated with tinacos...large water cisterns. They come from many sources. Some are being distributed free by the trust set up as part of the remediation extracted from Grupo Mexico. Tanker trucks of water drive the streets daily, filling individual tinacos, and also filling the town cisterns. Then once a day for a couple of hours, the cisterns are opened, and water flows through the taps. It is essential to be home to catch the flow when it comes, or you will be without water until the trucks come by or water flows again.

Those fortunate enough to have tinacos on the roof or on a tower may have them hooked into the plumbing system of the house, while the owners of those on the ground are forced to carry water into the house in buckets. And this is only household water; it is not for drinking. Free 5 gallon jugs of drinking water are still available, but people are not confident even that is clean. Some are drinking it anyway; others who can afford it are buying drinking water at the local convenience store. We saw one elderly woman rolling a weighty 5 gallon jug of drinking water down the street on a hand cart. This is a tremendous hardship for the local people.

But...Banámichi is still beautiful
The scale of the tragedy is enormous. Our friend Beto, for example, has a herd of dairy cows. For almost 4 months now every day he has milked his cows and poured out the milk. No one will buy the local agricultural products that have been the life-blood of the area. Some people have received stipends for their losses; others have not. Some will undoubtedly lose their livelihoods as well as their rich cultural traditions. What the future holds for this formerly rich agricultural area, no one knows.

Our friend Tom has said: " When the spill happened there was the horror stage. Later came the adaptation stage. We have now entered the political stage, which is the scariest of them all."
Sunset in Banámichi, looking towards the river
He is right. The whole tragedy has been marked by confusion, lack of information, organizations working against each other, and governmental entities jockeying for access to the several million dollars in reparations extracted from Grupo Mexico. The result is absolute chaos. People who might be working together to make some progress are turning into enemies.The truth is out there, but no one is sure what it is.  Distrust is rampant.

At first the government said that the water was unsafe and closed the town wells. Now, 4 months later, nothing has changed and the government now says the wells are safe and wants to open them again. People have lost all faith in the government, and are blocking the opening of the wells through protests. Federal police have been brought in.

This state of chaos and confusion cannot persist. Sooner or later, the wells will be opened again and life will sort of return to normal. And then who knows? Five to 10 years down the road, will there be clusters of illnesses and deaths along the Rio Sonora? Will Grupo Mexico ever be held accountable for destroying a way of life for so many people?

For us, this has simply meant no vegetable or flower gardens this year, a small price to pay when stacked up against the daily suffering of the local people. There is an overwhelming sense of helplessness to it all. There is nothing to be done. It just is what it is.

It has really taught us profligate Americans about conserving water.  We spend our days waiting for the hour when the city water is turned on so we can  fill our tinaco. Then one of us inadvertently leaves the irrigation on and flushes out all our hard
Two Dans hard at work on our water system
earned water. Then we have a few gallons to last until the next day. When there is very little water, toilets get flushed less often, showers are short, dishes get washed in a quart of water and paper plates, which have a downside of their own, become the best alternative. Half a cup of water is enough for tooth-brushing. It is very much like camping out with 5 gallons of water for several people for a weekend. Upon our return to Tucson, it is hard to go back to normal water usage. I hesitate every time I open the tap. This could be an omen for all of us for the future. If nothing changes, in 10 years we could all be living like the Rio Sonorans are now.

What we have come to for now in Banámichi is to is to try to simply keep our fruit trees and some of our favorite plants alive with minimal water while we are not here. But, since we are up the hill near one of the town cisterns, counter-intuitively, there is not enough pressure (due to elevation) to pump water into our tinaco even when city water is available. Without that, nothing gets watered and everything dies. So first we bought a pump. Then we learned it would not shut off when there was no city water. It would burn itself out in no time. Now, the two Dans have installed a complicated system of switches to start and stop the pump at appropriate times and levels. ( Doing even this much would be beyond the means of most people here.) So far it appears to work. Time will tell.

Even in an imperfect world, there is still so much to be thankful for. Banámichi is still beautiful. The culture is warm and welcoming. The sunsets are gorgeous. The weather is perfect. Even amidst great challenges, life here is good.

Tom and the turkey
Once again, Thanksgiving has rolled around. Of course this is an American holiday that is not celebrated in Mexico. Still, friends Tom and Lynn have each year gathered an international group of folks for the traditional feast. And a splendid feast it was! It is a time to be thankful for friends old and new, for the opportunity to experience the best of Mexico and the worst of Mexico, and to hopefully to learn a cautionary lesson about how some events lead to irrevocable results that change life forever.
Friends of many countries

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rio Sonora Ecological Disaster Update

At the time of the last post, the entire Rio Sonora valley had just been affected by a chemical spill at the Grupo Mexico copper mine in Cananea. Since that time, there have been meetings reviewing the disaster and many accusations and counter-accusations about who did and did not do this or that. There have also been many news reports about the possible consequences for the mine, what is needed for the clean-up of the river, and what the future holds for the communities along the river. The information changes daily, and meaningful action seems a long way off. The only thing that is clear at this point is is that there is no clarity.

This will be a guest post, authored by Tom Matthews, co-owner of Los Arcos de Sonora Hotel in Banámichi. Tom and his wife Lynn are forming a non-profit organization to assist the people of the Rio Sonora  in gaining compensation for their losses and for the clean-up of the river.

Here's Tom:

On August 6th, a process pond at Groupo Mexico's Buenavista copper mine in Cananea, Sonora Mexico failed and dumped millions of gallons of heavy metal laced sulfuric acid into the Rio Bacanuchi and the Rio Sonora. The mine is just 25 miles south of the US border and in the past has also destroyed the San Pedro River flowing into Arizona. This recent spill has cut off municipal drinking water for 22,000 residents along the Rio Sonora (it is still off), has destroyed the dairy industry and farming, has killed wild life and has impacted all other aspects of life along the 180 plus miles of prime riparian habitat. 
Life after the spill in Banámichi (Photos courtesy of Los Arcos de Sonora Hotel)

After five weeks, people are still forced to use buckets to move water from the street to their homes. The most basic things have become more difficult. Washing clothes with buckets, trying to keep the evaporative cooler running in 105 degree heat, juggling large bottles of drinking water to get a drink or cook breakfast make things harder and more time consuming versus just turning on the tap the way people did before the spill. Bathing babies in a bucket makes a cute photo but it is difficult for someone who has worked all day. Older folks are having an especially hard time. People are afraid. They don't know if the water they use for washing is healthy, they don't know if the kid's pajamas have been washed in toxin-laced water and they don't know if their crops and animals will be poisoned and unfit to eat or to sell.

We are up against big money and their political influence at all levels. We are in the process of creating an organization to force Groupo Mexico to clean the river and compensate those affected. We are also demanding that the huge tailings pond at the mine, unlined and leaking, be fixed immediately with lined, secondary containment ponds in place. We are also demanding that the government regulators inspect and require adherence on the part of the mine to Mexican and international laws and best practices. 

At this time, we are looking for seed money to get our organization started and to be incorporated in both Mexico and in the US. We need money to begin our campaign, and to pay for phones and the travel expenses for US experts whom we have asked for help. Your donations will shine light on the problems at the Groupo Mexico mine in Cananea and send a message to every potential polluter in Mexico there is no more “business as usual. 

For more details on the spill, google  'Sonora river acid spill.' 

To make a contribution to the effort, go to http://www.gofundme.com/e7679g

On behalf of the people of the Rio Sonora, thanks to all of you for your interest, your good wishes, and your contributions.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ecological Disaster Hits Banámichi

The first we heard of it was an evening call from our friend Lynn. I could heart the seriousness in her voice even before she told us what had happened. It seems that there had been a chemical spill into the Bacanuchi river at the copper mine in Cananea, about 95 miles north of Banámichi. That river is a tributary of the Río Sonora which runs through all the towns along the Ruta de los Misiones...the Mission Route that runs along the Río Sonora. The contamination flowed through Arizpe, Banámichi, San Felipe, Aconchi, Baviácora, Ures and on into Hermosillo, the state capital, with about 800,000 people.

Contaminated Río Sonora: Photo courtesy of Los Arcos Hotel
It wasn't clear that any of the water in Banámichi was safe for any use, so we decided to postpone our trip until there was more information. By the next day, we heard that the water in town was pretty much OK, so we packed the car and headed on down, packing 10 gallons of Tucson water to be on the safe side. Once we arrived, the first thing that was clear was how difficult it was going to be to get accurate information. Seemed like there were bits and pieces of the story floating around town, along with some spurious rumors that seemed unlikely to be true. The problem is, how to tell which is which?

What we have been able to verify at this point through online articles is that there was a failure in a leaching pond at the Buenavista mine operated by Grupo Mexico in Cananea. About 10 million gallons of sulfuric acid, containing copper and other pollutants like arsenic flowed downstream into the river. This happened sometime during the night of August 7-8th, and less than 24 hours later, the acid arrived in Arizpe and later in Banámichi, where the river ran bright orange and smelled rotten. Farmers and ranchers reported that fish, and animals that had contact with the water died. Residents have been told to avoid contact with the river water.
On Monday the river still looked bad.

Meanwhile, Grupo Mexico did not report the spill until nearly 24 hours had passed, (some say not for 2 days) so the first that people knew about it was the orange river water. The Attorney General for Environmental Protection (Mexico) said the spill was caused by lax supervision at the mine, heavy rains and construction defects. Mine operators should have detected and stopped the leak before such large quantities were released.

The end result is that water supplies to about 22,000 people along the Río Sonora have been cut off at the height of the summer heat. Water trucks from Conagua (Mexico's National Commission on Water) have been coming to town and giving out free 5 gallon jugs of drinking water, 1 per family. (Some families have 10-11 people!) People have to sign for them, and today we heard that the military is guarding the water trucks. There is no water to wash themselves or clothes or dishes.

What a mess! The sulfuric acid has been more or less neutralized by the dumping of large quantities of lime into the river. Fortunately it is the rainy season, and a great deal of rain will help to dilute and wash out the acid and the lime. The larger concern is the heavy metal contamination. The local farmers and ranchers rely on the river for irrigation and livestock. If the heavy metals get into alfalfa and hay crops, they will also get into livestock, and the ranchers may not be able to sell their cattle or their milk. That being the only local industry, this has the potential to take down the entire economy of the Río Sonora valley.

In the past few years, many farmers locally have planted pecan trees in an attempt to diversify the local economy. If the heavy metals get into the pecans, those also will be worthless. Because the city water has been turned off, our hotel friends have temporarily closed down. And what about the tortilla makers, the salsa makers and all the others others who rely on water for their businesses?

The Santa Elena gold and  silver mine here in Banámichi (no connection to Grupo Mexico) has put its lab at the disposal of the town, and we are all anxiously waiting to hear their report about our tap water that comes from various wells.* The report was due to come in yesterday, bu so far there is no news. Heavy metals could also leach from the river bed into those wells over time and ultimately affect the health of people here in town. Meanwhile, Conagua has tested the river water and found that even though the PH has been pretty much normalized, the levels of aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper and iron are many times higher that the acceptable standard.

Today I heard a rumor from a local person that Grupo Mexico was illegally mining gold and silver at the copper mine and smuggling it into the US. That would explain the presence of some of the heavy metals in the spill which are not normally used in copper mining.*

We have been using the drinking water we brought from home. We also closed the intake to our tinaco (water cistern on the roof) and have been using that water very sparingly. Try a 2 minute shower using about a gallon of water! How about washing dishes in rainwater? Even so, that supply will not last long. Perhaps this is how we should have been living all along in the desert southwest!

The longer we are here, the more the impact sinks in. If the city well water is contaminated, there will be no point in planting a vegetable garden this year. Arsenic laced veggies? No thank you! Do we leave the irrigation on for our fruit trees when we leave? And do we really want arsenic in our roses and flower beds? The only alternative is to let them die.

And what has happened to Grupo Mexico? PROFEPA, Mexico's federal agency for environmental protection, has ordered the company to provide full remediation for the spill. Some online articles have said that the company will have to pay the equivalent of $100,000 in fines. Proceedings to determine other possible sanctions have been initiated. Other articles say that the company will have to pay 1-20,000 minimum wages in reparations. They have also been told that they must monitor surface and groundwater in the area monthly for 5 years, as well as cover the costs for Conagua emergency distribution of water.

To us, coming from a more litigious society, all of this seems like a mere slap on the hand given the damage that has been done. In contrast, in the US in 2009, Asarco, which is a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, payed the US government nearly 2 billion dollars to settle claims for hazardous waste pollution.Clearly, they have a poor record.

Back in Banámichi, there has been little or no information available. All of the facts presented in this blog have come from online sources. To us as Americans used to information overload, this is shocking and unconscionable. All the populace knows right now is that there has been a chemical spill, that the water is turned off and that Conagua is supplying some, but not enough,  bottled water.

Most of the folks in town are simple, uneducated people (with a lot of heart) who do not have the sophistication to think through the long term implications of what has happened. A small group of educated people has gotten together to make demands on behalf of everyone. The protest group is circulating a petition asking Grupo Mexico to dig a new well for Banámichi in a different aquifer, and to provide each household with a tinaco which is kept full at all times. This seems the least they should do!

Not many came to the town meeting.
A town meeting was called for last night, but less than 100 people were present. I am told by a local source that people feel powerless in the face of systemic corruption. Those who speak out may face punishment. We heard today that the organizers of the meeting were legally requested to come to city hall this morning. This is ominous*....as of this posting has been no word about what happened to them.

To us as observers and part time participants in the town, it seems like the sanctions on Grupo Mexico should be pretty severe. After all, BP had to pay big time for the gulf oil spill. This is the Sonoran ecological equivalent of that disaster. Grupo Mexico is also a huge conglomerate with deep pockets and so the sanctions should be proportionate. But, this is Mexico, not the US...time will tell how this will all unfold. Updates will be posted.

* Corrections as of 8/22/2014
It appears that some of the information in this article came from unfounded rumors:
  • Apparently, the Santa Elena mine never was going to test the local water, so that is the reason we never got the results.
  • As of last week, Grupo Mexico had published on its web site that it was minning gold and silver as well as copper in Cananea.
  • Finally, all is well with the protestors. They were in fact called before government officials and scolded, but were able to clarify that there was no wrong-doing on their part, so they are well and continuing their efforts.

ABC News International
El Universal

Friday, May 30, 2014

Our Very Own Tradition

A large blank wall is just a mural waiting to happen. And where better than in Mexico, where there is a strong tradition of murals going as far back as  the pre-Hispanic Olmec civilization?

When we bought the piece of property with the Banámichi house, there was an old shed at the back of the yard. It was a nasty construction of cement block that gave me the creeps to enter. It turned out to have been an outhouse. Worse yet, we soon discovered that a possum had taken up residence in the remnants of the hole.
The possum that never was...I thought he was cute!
We encouraged Mr. Possum to leave, chased him out with a broom handle as a matter of fact, and the hole was sealed up and a cement floor added. A new roof was put on the building and we began to use it as a tool shed. Then a feral cat gave birth to kittens in it, and used it as a spot to kill and eat birds. Double ick! So, we added screens  to the windows (An outhouse with windows? Let's not go there...) and a door was installed. It was plastered and painted.

Now the old shed looked pretty decent, if somewhat plain vanilla and boring. I proposed painting a picture of a possum on it for posterity, but that was nixed as being too reminiscent of the old creepiness. Tracy suggested a mural with a water feature. Even the thought of water in the desert is refreshing. I liked the idea but was intimidated at the thought of having to paint it as the resident dilettante artist. I had never painted anything that large before. Still, the idea gathered a momentum of its own, pushing me forward against my better judgement.

The great Mexican mural painters Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Alfaro Siqueiros provided inspiration. According to Wikipedia, "From the 1920s to about 1970s a large number of murals with nationalistic, social and political messages were created on public buildings, starting a tradition which continues to this day in Mexico and has had impact in other parts of the Americas, including the United States where it served as inspiration for the Chicano art movement."  "Los tres grandes" (the three great ones) as they were known,  used their murals to portray their Marxist leanings, and often glorified indigenous culture as one of the foundations of modern Mexico.

The big three all spent time in the US and also painted murals there, so the tradition became established in parts of the States as well, particularly those with a strong Mexican American presence. This became the Chicano art movement, which expressed the cultural values, political and social issues, histories, folklore and religions of the Mexican American people.They are strikingly colorful pieces that were often painted by whole communities of people rather than by just one artist.

In our other hometown in Tucson,  there are many examples of large murals on public walls and buildings. I have often admired these works of art and been curious about their creation, thinking how it would be fun to be part of making a mural.

Mural in park on 4th Ave, Tucson

Mural at Speedway and Stone Ave., Tucson

Detail of "Tucson" mural

When our friends Tom and Lynn where faced with a big blank space on the grounds of their hotel, they had a talented local copy artist Rosa Vedugo and her assistant, Baranice Lopez, fill half of the large space with an adaptation of a work by Siqueiros. She also created a companion piece of her own design for the remaining space. Together they are a great representation of Mexican art and culture. More inspiration!
Copy of Siqueiros mural by Rosa Verdugo at Hotel Los Arcos

Rosa's original creation in the style of Siquieros
As for the rest of Banámichi, there is not much public mural art. What little exists tends towards public service announcements and ads for PAN and PRI, two main political parties in Mexico.

But I digress...back to our personal mural.  Tracy came up with the design concept by combining several images from magazines, and was the cheering section and the photographer.  Sinced I lacked confidence in my ability to draw anything that large, the two Dans put together a large scale projection system and we got a basic outline drawn on the shed wall. As usual, there were some amusing moments. In the tradition of Chicano art, it truly was a community effort. 

Contemplating the wall...photo courtesy of Tracy Williams

An amusing moment...photo courtesy of Tracy Williams
I brought from Tucson many cans of leftover house paint that had been cluttering up our garage for years. (Now they are cluttering up the interior of the shed!) From these multicolor cans I was able to mix a range of appropriate colors. I worked up my courage, reminding myself that if it didn't work out, we could always paint over the mural and get back to a blank wall.

I started by laying in the background. The fountain came next. Layer by layer, visit by visit, several months went by and gradually the finished image emerged. I always have a hard time telling when a painting is done, so at some point I decided to stop before adding that one last thing that would ruin it.
The finished product
How do I feel about it? Well, Tracy likes it and I am glad she is pleased. It doesn't make a political or social statement, it can't be compared with the really good mural art out there, and I can see some things I could have done differently. Still, for a first attempt, in my own back yard, I also am pleased with the outcome. It was a lot of fun, and now I am tempted to put murals everywhere. (Lord help us!) And, it is so much better than that boring old plain vanilla shed wall!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Which Way to the Beach?

For many months we have been discussing a trip to the beach with friends Tom and Lynn. Finally it happened! The four of us headed to San Carlos near Guaymas, Sonora for 4 days last week.

Lunch at Doña Loly's
We left Banámichi on a Thursday morning and headed down towards Hermosillo, a 2 1/2 hour drive. On the drive we passed through the town of Ures, where just south of town there is an open air roadside restaurant under a shady palm frond palapa called Doña Loly's. The typical Sonoran food they serve is pretty good, reasonably priced and the atmosphere is congenial if somewhat centered on watching the traffic passing out on the road. Of course we stopped and had lunch.

After lunch we drove on through Hermosillo and then headed south on Highway 15 towards Guaymas. Another two hours and a right turn and we were headed down a palm-lined boulevard where we caught our first glimpse of the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez.

After Dan and I moved to Tucson in the mid 1960's, we often came down to San Carlos to camp on the beach. We used to go to the area around Playa Algodones (Cotton Beach) where the movie "Catch 22" was filmed. There was nothing there at the time except dirt roads snaking through the desert to pristine beaches. It was magnificent natural wilderness that we appreciated all the more for its isolation. However, as Robert Frost says, "way leads on to way," and we have not been back for nearly 40 years.

I was sure I knew where our hotel was located, but after a long and futile search discovered that I was entirely wrong! It was actually way out of town just about a mile shy of Playa Algodones! What a shock! That beautiful unsullied area was now a strip of large hotels and condos stretching out around the curve of the bay. Some would call this progress, and I am sure that the development has been a benefit to the local people in terms of  jobs and income, but in truth, what I felt was sadness and longing for a lost world and  nature irrevocably altered.

Soon we spotted our hotel, the Sea of Cortez Beach Club, one of the smaller ones on the strip. It actually proved to be a lovely place, attractive, well maintained, well equipped and everything worked! The staff were warm and friendly and actually seemed to enjoy working there. In my mind, all of this began to redeem the fact that the hotel actually existed in that location.
Sunset from the hotel
Back in the old days when we went down there, San Carlos was very popular with American tourists. We hardly ever saw Mexican vacationers there. But since then, the American economy tanked, and Mexico has had image problems in the States, so this time there were only a few Americans and mostly vacationing Mexicans. That was fine with me, this being Mexico after all.

We didn't plan it this way, but what followed after our arrival was the start of a 4 day feeding frenzy. There are many restaurants in the area. With good fresh sea food and simple Mexican preparations (onions, chile, cilantro, tomatoes and avocados in various combinations,) you can't go too far wrong at any of them. Each day over lunch, we planned where to go for dinner.
Lunch at Doña Rosita's

We quickly identified a couple of favorites. One of them, Doña Rosita's, was out in the small fishing village of La Manga, a ramshackle collection of dusty shacks, beat-up travel trailers used as housing, a newish building for Alcoholics Anonymous, and a simple dock redolent of dead fish. In spite of the poverty of the environment, the restaurant was wonderful...large, open-air, right on the ocean, with fantastic sea food. We returned there for Sunday lunch and found hordes people waiting for tables in the cavernous space. Apparently I was not the only one who longed for the older, more authentic experience! I had camarones al diablo...shrimps in a chipotle cream sauce. It was so good I could have spooned down a bowl of the sauce alone.

My new apron!
Another place we loved is called JJ's Tacos y Cosas (tacos and things) It was nothing more than a simple taco stand that has been in the middle of the tourist area for many years primarily serving fish tacos, tortas(sandwiches), and burritos - "big donkeys" as JJ calls them. Besides the wonderful smoked fish, JJ himself was the real attraction here. A wild and funny man with a friendly manner and a ready laugh, he wore an apron that said; "Many have eaten here, few have died." I loved it...had to have one! Fortunately, he he just happened to sell them.

Oh yes, apart from the food, there was also the beach...our real reason for going there in the first place. Dan and I assembled our Folbot...a kayak that folds into two largish bags... and headed out to sea. I love that boat...paddling allows me to fully enter the moment, and opens my senses to all the nuances that I might otherwise miss. I love looking at the sky, the water, the Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead, and in this case, the brilliant royal blue cannonball jellyfish in the water.

Blue Jellyfish

Pelicans on an island

One of many beaches

On another day we took the boat over to Estero del Soldado (Soldier's Estuary)...which we simply called "the estuary" in the old days. Here, progress was actually for the better...the area is now a natural preserve. Back then Dan and I did our  share of harm to the ecosystem by collecting buckets of delicious clams for our dinners. But that was a different time with different sensibilities. Now, I am glad this area of mangroves, birds and shallow waters is protected from the likes of our former selves.

Tom and Lynn try the Folbot
The list of forbidden activities at the estuary did not include kayaking, so we lifted the boat over the chain link fence and off we went, only to find that several tour groups had done the same. It was a beautiful morning...the mangroves sparkled green in the sunlight.  A breeze riffled the surface of the water. A white egret sat in the trees and watched us carefully but never moved. At the mouth of the estuary there was a flock of squabbling, flapping, black headed terns, and another flock of meditating prehistoric looking pelicans. Later, while we gave Tom and Lynn a turn in the kayak, Dan sat with his feet in the water. Small crabs scuttled towards his toes to check them out, and it was a case of move or be pinched. Ahh, the problems of life in paradise!

Our time at the beach was over all too quickly. As we loaded up to return to Banámichi, we all vowed to come back to San Carlos several times a year.  I just hope it won't be another 40 years before we fulfill our vow! In spite of all the "progress," it was a wonderful 4 days.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Trip Down

Some of the adventure of living part-time in Banámichi includes traveling there from Tucson. The trip  has become somewhat routine with time, but there are still enough surprises each time to keep it interesting.  And it is definitely an experience of Mexican culture. The atmosphere immediately changes when we cross that imaginary line in the desert called "la frontera"...the border.

Heading for the border
We generally cross at the Mariposa truck crossing in Nogales, Arizona. Abruptly, signs are in Spanish and the required lane changes are chaotic and confusing. We soon encounter a customs station where you might or might not get a green light. Getting a red light means an encounter with a very polite young customs officer who mostly just does a cursory inspection and waves us on our way with the words "Que les vayan bien!" (May you travel well.) At milemarker 21 kilometer, there is a second station for obtaining visas and car permits. Since Banámichi is not in the so-called "free zone," every 6 months we have to stop and get new car papers and leave a $400 deposit for our vehicle. The process is complicated, and on a busy day, time consuming.

Nothing to Declare  Lane? This guy got a red light!
First you stand in line to fill out the visa form, then you head to the bank and wait in line to pay for the visa. Then you go back and stand in line to get the visa stamped. Then its on to the copy booth for copies of all the paperwork you have in your possession, and then back to the bank line for the car importation and payment. There never seem to be enough clerks for the bank, and the wait under the tin roof is hot and long. The clerks patiently type in all the numbers of your license, registration and other information on the computer. Then more copies are printed out, and after about an hour, you walk away with a sticker to be placed on the windshield. Then there is yet another customs inspection. They are concerned about what you are bringing in, how much of it, and whether you have paid duty on it. Hopefully you get a second green light in the "Nothing to Declare" lane, and off you go.

Riparian area
The countryside opens up and there begin to be ranches and enormous greenhouses that grow tomatoes and cucumbers to be sold in the states. There is a beautiful green riparian area, and numerous roadside shrines. You go through a few small towns which each have topes...speed bumps to slow down the traffic. These vary in their lethality.  Some hardly qualify for slowing down, and others are bone-rattling nightmares that shake loose anything that is not packed well in the back of the car. One of the nastier ones threw our friend Tom off his motorcyle last fall.
Roadside shrines

Since anyone with any sense slows down for these topes, they are prime opportunities for vendors to sell you things. At some of them, there are stands selling watermelons and coconuts, and the Mexican Red-Cross is generally out on weekends standing in the middle of the road waving coin collection cans at passing motorists. The collectors are enthusiastic young people who are polite and grateful for any small amount they collect. We make it a point to donate a few coins each time. This is a good organization. There are clinics in the small towns that serve anyone pretty much without cost. We spent quite a bit of time in one in Kino Bay once when a friend walked into the ocean and within 30 seconds got badly nailed by a sting ray. The doctors were well trained, intelligent, friendly and helpful. Who knows when and where we might need them again?

Passing a doble semi remolque
We are on the main 4-lane transport highway---Mexican Route 15 - for produce traveling north to the states and goods going south from the states to Mexico. Doble-semi remolques...enormous tractor trucks hauling two trailers behind them rip along the road swinging and swaying, and rumor has it that the drivers are all strung out on speed. What is true for sure is that they are scary to pass...I tend to feel we are being sucked into their slip stream and I let out a sigh of relief every time we successfully pass one.

Our favorite tacos in Imuris
Heading further south, we come to the town of
Ímuris which might also be known as Tacoville. Along the main street, there is one taco stand after another, all wafting the scent of charcoal broiled beef, and all selling virtually identical carne asada tacos with grilled green onions. So far as we can tell, there are no distinguishing features, however, when we do stop we have gotten into the habit of going to Taqueria El Indio. If carne asada tacos are your thing, they are really good here and two people can eat for under $10. The tacos come with a compartmented plate of cucumbers, radishes, pickled red onions, and limes and two different bottles of salsa...one an incendiary habañero concoction and the other a cooling avocado cream. Yum!

 Almost out of Imuris now, there are more topes with vendors selling fresh cheese, quesadillas, fresh pressed orange juice, shrimp and sometimes even colorful caged birds from further south. (Boo, hiss!) By the side of the road are carts selling various chiles and home canned fruit. There are several artisan shops, one selling beautiful copper pots from the town of Santa Clara del Cobre in central Mexico. There are also two fields selling multi-level carved stone fountains, pillars, huge stone balls and busts of various Mexican heros.

Homemade goodies for sale
Copper pots and other stuff for sale

Now we come to the tollbooth where the vendors of pirated music CD's hang out and soon thereafter is the unmarked turn-off to the road across the mountains to the Rio Sonora and Banámichi. Our hotel friends lobbied unsuccessfully for years to get signage at the turn-off, and finally put a nice sign up themselves. It was promptly torn down by unknown vandals, so the turn-off is still secret to all but those in the know.

Secret turnoff to Banamichi
After the turn-off the road is two lanes with no shoulders, and enters the back of beyond...ranching country and mountains.There are some landmarks I always watch for...one of them being Rancho La Lámina ...the sheet metal ranch...with an odd corrugated sheet metal roof.

This is the road where the most of the travel surprises occur...you might whip around a bend and see a farm truck full of cattle coming towards you in your lane! Once we drove along this road and kept seeing dazed looking cows walking along the road towards us. Finally we came around a bend, and there was a huge overturned cattle truck. Eeek! Another time we narrowly avoided a gigantic bull grazing at the side of the road with its butt sticking out in the travel lane. Sometimes deer dart across the road, or swarms of turkey vultures sit in the road picking at road kill. They wait until absolutely the last minute to heft their weight and fly away as the car approaches. This can be hard on the nerves...there are many times I have involuntarily ducked and cringed, sure they were about to come through the windshield.

Boulder in the road!
After the town of Cucurpe and the Mercedes mine, the road deteriorates. It becomes an unending, unavoidable progression of bone-jarring potholes. In one canyon, a Volkswagon sized rock fell from the cliff a few years ago, seriously damaging the road. Now there is a Volkswagon - sized crater in that canyon that is generally filled with rocks, rubble and spring water. If you know it is coming you can slow down and it is not a big deal, but imagine if one came across that little surprise at speed or at night.

Bogus de Anza memorial
Further along there is shiny new historical marker which claims that on this spot on a certain day in the 1700's, Apaches attacked the explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who is buried in the church in Arizpe. Recently the de Anza Society visited and the memorial was proudly shown off. Apparently one of this very knowledgeable group remarked, "Well that is strange, because on that day, DeAnza was several hundred miles north of  here!" Apparently the memorial marks someone's fictional account rather than history.One can only wonder about the politics involved in this one...

Church at Sinoquipe

Finally, we descend from the mountains to the village of Sinoqipe and the turnoff to the south for Banámichi. It is only another 10 miles, and I generally feel I can relax when I see the cliffs on the far side of the Rio Sonora, the white church spire and the Tecate beer distributor---every village in the Rio Sonora valley has one.

The road runs along the river for a ways. There is usually not much water in it since it is sucked dry by farms and ranches upstream. Sometimes, though, there is a little water and then there is often a white heron standing in it. Cattle graze on the green vegetation near the water.  Pecan trees stand in neat rows on the farms. The peace of the valley beckons.

Soon we cross the bridge over the river bed and approach the welcoming arch to Banámichi. There is a pillar with the black seal of the town on it.  Dan thinks the seal looks rather like a road-kill beaver, but we don't say much about that in town because a friend's father designed it. We pass the new Pemex station, hang a right at the local Tecate distributor, and we are home sweet home in Banámichi!

The great seal of Banamichi (road-kill beaver?)