Friday, June 19, 2015

Pennsylvania to Palenque: 3400 miles and counting

Stepping into the unknown enables you to learn about yourself as well as the environment and people around you. As anthropologists, we constantly seek to take that step out of our comfort zones to attempt to explain why people do the things they do, how certain rituals have remained the same for hundreds if not thousands of years, and how others may change rather rapidly. Everything from religious ceremonies to architecture helps paint the complete picture of humanity.

The longest trip I had ever taken in a car was on the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The drive took about eight hours and clocked in at a total of about 400 miles. Also, apart from flying to Fort Lauderdale, Florida a few times, Washington D.C. was the deepest into the South I had ventured. Needless to say, I was in for a serious dose of culture shock on the 3400-mile drive to Palenque. The unknown was staring me in the face, and it was time for me to dive in headfirst.

Day 1: Mechanicsburg, PA to Farragut, TN
After what seemed like years of talking about what was to come this summer in Palenque, the day of departure had finally arrived. I anxiously paced around the house like a mad man awaiting Kirk’s arrival. This would be the first time my parents had the opportunity to meet the person with whom they were letting their son once again go to Mexico. After many hugs and tears (mostly from my mom) we were finally on the road. Nine hours later we passed through Knoxville, Tennessee and decided to call it a day and stop at a Super 8 in the suburb of Farragut.

Day 2: Farragut, TN to New Orleans, LA
As we left the motel around 8 AM we thought our destination was Hattiesburg, Mississippi to stay in a cabin with Cary Hudson, lead singer of the alt-country band Blue Mountain and good friend of Kirk. A text from Cary informed us we would actually be meeting up in New Orleans. It was only a few extra hours of travel, a price well worth paying to have the chance to spend the night in New Orleans.

Along the way I told my dad, a barbeque connoisseur and self-appointed pit master, we were passing through Birmingham, Alabama, to which he responded we have to go to Dreamland Bar-B-Que. This was more than a recommendation; it was a requirement. We took his advice and ordered a “full slab” of ribs to split, a task we thought would be easily manageable. Five minutes later a plate slams down on the table with twelve hunks of meat so large they must have come from some sort of mutant, dinosaur-sized pig. Once the plate was cleaned, with even the sauce sopped up with the four pieces of white bread that come on the side, we limped out of the restaurant to continue on the road. We had met our match, and a car ride full of meat sweats was our punishment. We learned you do not underestimate John “Big Daddy” Bishop. The motto of Dreamland is, “Ain’t nothing like ‘em nowhere!” and now I can say with confidence, truer words have never been spoken.
Almost finished with the full slab.
Four hours later we were crossing the colossal Lake Pontchartrain to enter New Orleans. We tuned the radio to WWOZ as we rolled into the jazz capital of the world. Driving through the streets it was evident there was a Friday night in the Big Easy. We were welcomed with open arms by Cary, who was actually in the middle of moving to a house right next door to his old one. He took us to Frankie & Johnny’s for some rice and beans with fried chicken for dinner, and Morning Call Coffee Stand for beignets and coffee in the morning before we were back on the road again.

Just one night was enough to demonstrate to me that there are beautiful, selfless people in New Orleans. Even though it was an inconvenient time for Cary and he had just gotten back from Hattiesburg earlier that day, he welcomed us and showed us around the city. That is the mantra of everyone in New Orleans. They are there for you to give you a place to stay and to show you a good time, and they are especially skilled at the latter.

Day 3: New Orleans, LA to Dayton, TX
On the way to Kirk’s hometown of Dayton, Texas, I repeatedly saw signs for “Boudin and Cracklins.” Being the “yankee” that I am, I had never even heard either of these words, so we decided to pull into Don’s Specialty Meats to get a lesson in Southern foods. I was in a state of meat-induced sensory overload, much like what had transpired just 24 hours earlier at Dreamland. It turns out that cracklins are just fried pork skins with a cooler name than pork rinds. I opted to hold off on trying that one. Boudin, on the other hand, is a special type of pork sausage that has rice and various spices mixed in with the meat. We decided to try some boudin balls, which is the meat simply deep fried in a ball rather than put into a sausage casing. Despite the heartburn that soon followed, it was a delicious mid-afternoon snack that you cannot find anywhere up north.

Then, about two hours later everything was suddenly bigger; flags were larger, highways had eighteen lanes, pickup trucks had monster truck tires. All of this could mean only one thing: we must be in Texas. We arrived at the French’s house and were welcomed with the same Southern hospitality we experienced in New Orleans. The table was lined with an array of snacks as Mrs. French put the finishing touches on the venison roast we would later eat for dinner. After some nice relaxation, it was time to eat. A sea of mashed potatoes, biscuits, and butter-soaked carrots lay in front of me as I prepare myself for yet another gorging. Not long after dinner we decided to turn in early and get some much needed sleep. That night as I fell asleep looking at several images of John Wayne hung around the room, Mr. French’s NRA membership certificate, and a photo of him posing with then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush, all I could think was, “I certainly am not in Pennsylvania anymore.”

Day 4: Dayton, TX to Laredo, TX
Before we set off for the border, Mrs. French made a breakfast suitable for a king to fuel us through the final part of the journey on the United States side. We said our goodbyes and went on our way to Laredo. ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres was wailing from the speakers as we flew down the perfectly straight Texas highway. Once we finished the album for the fourth time, we decided to switch it up with some Stevie Ray Vaughn, Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, and other Texas greats. Six hours of cruising later, we arrived at the Super 8 in Laredo, just spitting distance away from the border-crossing center.

Day 5: Laredo, TX to San Luis Potosi, San Luis Potosi, México
In order to avoid what was sure to be a nightmare border-crossing experience, we left the motel around 6:30 AM to catch the border officials while they are in a decent state of mind and also to avoid having to wait in a long, unrelenting line of cars. Being inexperienced at driving through the border, I was surprised that the former was even an issue. If the border official has been dealing with people’s excuses, “special” circumstances, or other problems all day, it certainly would take a toll. He or she may not want to let you through because you said something that didn’t sit well with them. If this is the case, a “real” reason will be found to halt you at the border. After a series of questions testing our Spanish at such an early hour, we were let through into Nuevo Laredo without even having to open our doors.

Another detail of which I was unaware is that there is a second checkpoint about 20 km after the border. As we pulled up to this check, you could feel the tension in the car. Surely, we were going to be all but cavity searched this time; almost as if the border-crossing gods had to give us hell this time for such an easy first cross. We handed the official our passports and the visa for the vehicle. He seemed jovial, a trait which I was not expecting to see from a person in his position. We were asked a few questions, he cracked a joke about how a beautiful señorita could improve Kirk’s Spanish, and then let us go on our way. For a process that normally takes at least three hours ended up lasting only about 45 minutes. Welcome to Northern Mexico.
Stopped along the side of the road for "karne asada."
On the way through the barren landscape, we stopped at a shack set up along the side of the road, of which there are hundreds, for some carne asada. A few hours later we arrived in the beautiful city of San Luis Potosi. We were lucky to have a breathtaking vantage point from our 9th story room in the aptly named Hotel Panorama.
The view from Hotel Panorama of San Luis Potosi.
Day 6: San Luis Potosi, San Luis Potosi to Teotihuacán, Estado de México
Navigation in Mexico is very different from navigation in the United States. When driving from Harrisburg to State College, one would take I-81 North to 322 West because, logically, the destination is northwest of the starting point. However, in Mexico there are no cardinal directions associated with interstate highways, and sometimes you will reach an exit and the road you are currently on splits and goes two different directions. This can certainly cause some issues when navigating without a GPS, a skill that is all but lost throughout most of the United States. Since Teotihuacan is northeast of Mexico City, theoretically we would not have to pass through this enormous metropolis.

Theory does not always equate to outcome, and we ended up in gridlock traffic in Mexico City. An hour and a half later we had moved no more than a mile we approached a line of police officers that were simply letting a certain number of cars through to bottleneck the traffic. Now that we knew for a fact we were undeniably lost in the middle of Mexico City, the largest city in Mexico and the 9th largest in the world. We stopped at a Wal-Mart to find some Wi-Fi and figure out an escape route. It was then we realized we were on the southwest end of the city, the complete opposite side from Teotihuacan. After several minutes of stressful and unsuccessful navigation, we were now in the center of the city. Finally, we saw the road we knew headed straight for the highway we needed. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel!

That light was once again blocked when two police officers on motorcycles pulled up alongside and signaled for us to pull over. One of the officers strolled up to the window and informed us that since we do not have a front license plate, he was going to have to tow us. We tried several times to explain there is no front plate requirement in Pennsylvania, but all of our pleas were met with, “Sorry, there is nothing I can do because our cameras in the city read the front license plate.” He even had the rulebook to show us. Then, suddenly there was something he could do for us, or rather something we could do for him. They wanted $300 U.S. dollars, which equates to about $4600 Mexican pesos. We had to tell them we did not have that much money, but we did have $2500 pesos ($160 U.S.). They had been schmoozing us by calling us “amigos,” offering cigarettes and gum, and giving directions to Teotihuacán. They knew we would pay to get out of the situation, and they were right. We were on our way and finally made it to Teotihuacán where we printed and laminated a photo of the back license plate to duct tape to the front of the vehicle to avoid any further problems. What was supposed to be our shortest day of driving (about four hours) but instead turned into a nine-hour fiasco. Welcome to Central Mexico.

Day 7: Teotihuacán, Estado de México
Emilio Mantillo Corona's tinacal, where pulque is produced.
For the first time on this trip down, we were staying in the same location for a whole day. Ken Hirth, another Penn State archaeologist, is in Teotihuacán with a team of students looking at obsidian tool production, so we had someone familiar with whom we could spend some time. While visiting a part of the site currently being excavated, Kirk asked the workers where he could find a tinacal, which is the location where the alcoholic drink pulque is produced. The motivation behind this inquiry is a class that Kirk is developing to teach at Penn State in the near future on the anthropology of alcohol. Intentionally fermenting grains or fruits to produce an alcoholic substance has been a staple in human societies since around 7000 B.C. when the ancient Chinese people of Jiahu began to make beer out of rice. Alcohol has been the centerpiece of many social and religious gatherings or celebrations all over the world, and the area surrounding Teotihuacán is the motherland of pulque.
Getting some free samples.
A worker who knew exactly where one was accompanied us in the car to direct us up the mountain to a very remote tinacal. There, we met Emilio Montillo Corona who was the farmer who owned the property. The land was covered with maguey cacti. Under a makeshift shack that stood about five feet high were two large barrels bearing roughly 400 liters of fermenting pulque. The original substance, aguamiel, is removed from the maguey plant and fermented in barrels to create pulque. The drink has a thick, viscous consistency and very low alcohol content. Emilio was generous enough to demonstrate some of the tools and processes associated with the retrieval of aguamiel such as a raspador, used to scrape out the inside of the castrated maguey and the acocote, a hollowed gourd used to siphon the aguamiel out of the maguey. We walked away from Emilio’s tinacal with 8 liters of pulque to share with Dr. Hirth and his team, but we would soon find out that pulque continuously ferments, transforming the semi-sweet beverage into a sour liquid.
Emilio Montillo Corona demonstrating how he uses the acocote, which he made out of a Coca-Cola bottle and tube.
Day 8: Teotihuacán, Estado de México to Palenque, Chiapas
The drive from Teotihuacan to Palenque exposes you to an approximate 25-degree temperature increase and a 7000-foot elevation decrease. One moment you are passing the snowcapped volcano of Popocatépetl standing at nearly 18,000 feet above sea level, and the next you are driving through the virtually flat plains of Tabasco. Aside from the beautiful sights along the way, it is also the ultimate driver’s test. The traffic through Puebla and Villahermosa was problematic enough, but treacherously winding roads devoid of any sort of guardrail increase the level of difficulty ten-fold.

Volcán Popocatépetl (known locally as Popo) is an active volcano near Puebla.
As we reached the top of a hill along the way we spotted in the distance a car emitting a large cloud of smoke. Suddenly, a flame shot up from the back and a black projectile was launched across the road and landed in the field of cacti lining the side of the road. Thinking it was a bird that flew over the incident, we were shocked to see the back driver-side rotor glowing orange from being dragged on the highway for several seconds. This was the first of many car wheel casualties we would see throughout the next eight hours to Palenque.

Eight days on the road is without a doubt a long haul. Over three thousand miles is a lot of driving no matter how you divide it. Crossing twenty-three state lines and one country border surpasses the number of states I had previously visited before this trip. To see such drastic changes in dialect, culture, and climate over 23 degrees of latitude change is something one could only experience on a voyage like this. The most exciting part is that there is much work to be done and data to be collected in Palenque, Chamula, and Tikal, Guatemala. This is only the beginning to an even more important journey ahead.


  1. This post makes me want to watch my DVD of Land and Water

  2. WOW, this is awesome Elijah! I look forward to reading more about the trip! Be safe and HAVE FUN!!