I took the toll road out of Chihuahua Southeast to Monterrey, and on further. Toll roads cover most of Mexico with toll booths at random, inexplicable intervals and charges that vary all over the map. You pay in cash and the toll taker, well dressed and polite, often listening to arresting Tejano music, whose accordion melody line immediately makes one think of telenovelas and the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, is careful to give you a receipt. They are not inexpensive but radically reduce travel times: the free, local highways need to be navigated slowly and carefully so that you don’t break an axle in a pot hole or get stuck behind a slow moving tractor.
Earnest looking shacks with folks selling local products – plastic tubs of honey, pine nuts, sacks of potatoes, sometimes standalone for purchase on the honor system. The occasional truck broken down, waiting to be worked on, a heavy stream of semi trailers. Kidney crushing speed bumps laid out in the most inopportune places, broken down homes in the desert scrub. Open valley bottoms with rich looking soil, greenhouses covering several acres. Farmers in jeans and cowboy hats loading a horse into a trailer, a family hand raking cut grass on the shoulder into piles to load into a pickup truck.
Multiple mountain ridges expand and recede on either side of the tollway as I make my way South. Fleets of semi trailers run South and North, although the toll road does not feel as busy as its equivalents in the U.S. are.
A shack made of pallets – is it to become a tienda, a shelter for goats, a starter home for a poor family? A building with the hopefully painted in a lively blue “Cafe Azul” on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, no turn off, no signs of life.
Painted tires announcing “Vulcas” – tire repair guys who can work wonders with a tire that encounters a rough patch on the toll road, not always according to manufacturers’ specifications. I assume that Vulco is an appropriation of the word vulcanization, a treatment that made rubber tough and resilient, which was discovered in the early 1800s by Charles Goodyear, with natural rubber harvested from rubber trees. You can say without exaggeration that this discovery made automobiles and all manner of wheeled transport possible. Prior to this, rubber was mostly a curiosity, affected by heat and cold and did not have a lot of applications.
Access to rubber plantations was essential in WW2: when the Dutch lost control of Dutch Indonesia and the British Malaya to the Japanese, this caused the Allie’s great concern. Rubber today is synthetic and petroleum based: natural rubber is used for some medical applications (e.g. latex gloves).
The vegetation grows greener and thicker now, here and there large greenhouse installations, but not on the scale one sees in the Central Valley; my guess is that both water access and land rights limit this development. I reach the Southern extent of the Chihuahuan desert: Pine, Acacia, Beargrass, Tarbush, Agave, Yucca, ¼ of the world’s cactus species, and cross into the tropics. It becomes hot and humid; more palm trees now, large fields of sugarcane but not super organized.
Campesinos waving 4’ long pieces of 4” PVC with an oblong slot with teeth cut into one side. They stroke these through the grass by the side of the road. Harvesting what – Seeds? A farmer herding goats down the median, a vaquero moving cattle down the side of the road, – the tollway belongs to the people.
When I get off the toll road onto secondary highways, things slow down in all sorts of ways; one experiences a mechanized version of what must have been rural life here for many years.. Burros waiting patiently for their masters, broken down pickup trucks, women selling fruit and snacks – these vary by region – lots of fellows with baseball caps, plaid shirts, jeans and mournful looks, like the guys you see waiting for casual work outside the Home Depot. Stores, some in palapas, some in shacks, some in neatly painted concrete buildings line either side of the road. Invariably, a large church fronting a square – the influence of Spanish urban design persists.