This is primarily a travel blog in which I write about traveling in our motorhome. Our travels have

Nacogdoches, TX, United States
I began this blog as a vehicle for reporting on a 47-day trip made by my wife and me in our motorhome down to the Yucatan Peninsula and back. I continued writing about our post-Yucatan travels and gradually began including non-travel related topics. I often rant about things that piss me off, such as gun violence, fracking, healthcare, education, and anything else that pushes my button. I have a photography gallery on my Smugmug site (http://rbmartiniv.smugmug.com).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lipstick On An Alligator

Some of you began reading my blog a couple of years ago when I started writing about our experiences on a 47-day, 18-RV Caravan my wife and I took to Mexico. We went down Mexico’s Gulf coast to the Yucatan Peninsula and back to the US through central Mexico. It was the trip from Hell but it produced some great blog material. We experienced armed bandits with AK-47s, customs agents searching our RVs for weapons at a border crossing, waiting for hours to cross the border, then being turned away from a border crossing because we were not cars or trucks and they didn’t know what to do with RVs. We had Federal Police attempting to extort us on false traffic violations, men masquerading as road workers flagging us down and asking for money, RV wrecks, car wrecks (and a $4000 charge to have the car towed 1200 miles back to US border from a Merida body shop), downed utility lines, an air conditioning unit knocked from the top of an RV by a low entrance to a Walmart, a broken wrist, several broken shocks and springs, cracked batteries, substandard electrical hookups (low voltage, high voltage, or no voltage), a snake in a swimming pool, a drive along Mexico’s “murder highway” and through the “murder capital” of Mexico, an untold number of dings, dents, and scratches on the RV’s, flat tires, narrow gates, narrow roads with no shoulders, potholes the size of automobiles, narrow bridges, temporary bridges, speed bump after speed bump, wrong turns and getting lost, bad water, and numerous other problems that tormented us on the trip.  We all swore we would never, ever, return to Mexico again! 

All of the aforementioned bad experiences aside, it was a great trip because we made some good friends. It was on that Yucatan trip that we met Richard and Helen. The next year we joined them on another RV caravan, but in the opposite direction of Mexico. It was a 47-day trip through the Canadian Maritime provinces, which produced very little exciting blog-worthy material, except for the $10,000 it cost me to have the fuel injection system replaced on my rear-end diesel.

It was on the Canadian trip that I began to doubt Rich and Helen’s sanity. Apparently they learned very little from the Yucatan trip, as they informed us of their decision to go on another RV caravan to Mexico. But some people tend to forget their unpleasant experiences faster than others. This time it would be a 37-day excursion to the Baja peninsula, which Rich and Helen said was the “safest” area in Mexico (once you manage to make it through Tijuana). You could also say of the lakes in Louisiana, the lake with the fewest alligators is the “safest” lake in Louisiana. I’m still not going swimming in it.

The Baja is a peninsula with only one “real” highway that stretches the length of the peninsula, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, a distance of approximately 1045 miles. Most of the highway is narrow two-lane blacktop with little or no shoulder. If a wheel slips off the edge of the pavement there is an excellent chance of ending up in the ditch.

Over the past few days I have received emails from Richard and Helen reporting on the progress of their trip. They related to me a horrible account of a fellow traveler named Hugo and some exceptionally rotten luck he was experiencing. Richard asked if I would retell the story in my blog just in case any of you are considering a trip to the Baja. The events are true as told to me, however I have taken some literary liberties in the retelling.

Hugo was driving his motorhome with his car towed behind it when one or more of the motorhome’s passenger-side wheels dropped off the edge of the pavement where there was no shoulder. Hugo managed to wrestle the motorhome back onto the pavement but he was not quite as lucky with the car he was towing. Still attached to the motorhome by its tow bar, the car rolled over three times, causing Hugo to lose control of the motorhome, which skidded across the highway and took out a utility pole and a power line. When the dust cleared, live, sparking wires were laying across the roof of the motorhome. Amazingly, no one was injured in the accident. 

In Mexico, one cannot move a vehicle from an accident scene until the police have given permission, which usually will not happen until after the insurance adjusters have arrived and documented the damages to the involved vehicle(s)/property. In this case there was more than the motorhome and tow car for the adjuster to evaluate. The amount of damage to the utility pole and power line would also be included. Once the adjuster had arrived and inspected the scene he agreed with the police that Hugo was liable for the damages, not only to his own motorhome and car, but also to the federal government’s utility pole and power line. Until payment was made for the damage to federal property it would be necessary for Hugo to be incarcerated. 

Hugo was taken to the police station in Guerro Negro and placed in a small, dirty cell. The lighting was bad and the plumbing worse. The bed was bad and the food intolerable. In other words, a typical Mexican jail cell. Visiting hours, or perhaps I should say “visiting minutes,” were five minutes twice a day. The jailer was afraid of his superiors so no favors could be expected from him. Any attempt to complain was countered by threats of false accusations that could only make matters worse. No cameras were allowed in the jail so no photos are available, but the description of the jail sounds like something out of the movie “Midnight Express.” Hugo decided not to eat or drink anything while in jail so he would, hopefully, not need to use the broken plumbing. I have no information on how that worked out.       

Hugo’s driver’s license, passport, and visa were confiscated and his motorhome and car were impounded. He was asked to sign papers written in Spanish even though no interpreter was available to translate the documents for him, nor was there a copy machine on which to make copies of the documents. It seems that one of the documents was in effect a promissory note to the local Magistrate for $4,000 in damages. Hugo would remain in jail until payment was made. Payment was required in cash or by wire transfer. No credit cards and checks would be accepted. Calls were placed to the US Consulate in Cabo San Lucas in hopes that they might be able to keep Hugo from being kept locked up in the “slammer.” There was no response from the consulate so the group was on their own.

Two days later an attorney, sent by Hugo’s travel insurance company, rode into town on a bus from La Paz, a distance of about 500 miles. The damages were paid and Hugo was released from jail after spending two days and nights in the filthy hole.

Hugo’s car and motorhome were released from the police impound but neither one is drivable. The car was a total loss, for which Hugo will receive an insurance settlement. The motorhome will be placed on a flatbed truck and transported about 500 miles to San Diego for repairs. Hugo and his wife will continue the trip by riding along with other members of the caravan and staying in hotels at night.

The members of the caravan were very upset with the way in which the Mexican police treated Hugo. One of the group members is reported to have given the local RV park owner an earful until he was finally convinced to offer what little help he could. The caravan members were quite vocal in accusing the police and Mexican government doing everything they could to drive tourists away rather than assisting in solving their problem. Several members of the caravan are planning on filing complaints the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, writing their US congressmen, and contacting other influential persons. They have all agreed that they would never, ever, return to Mexico (I’ve heard that before).

The group realized a degree of immediate success a day or so later while the caravan was in the small east coast tourist town of Bahia de Los Angeles. The wagon master (caravan leader and tour guide) received a visit from the Governor of Baja California Norte who was accompanied by his director of tourism in an effort to salvage as any remaining, if any, good will.

Everyone seems to agree that Baja is the safest part of Mexico in which to travel. According to Mexico’s crime statistics this is true. However, that does not mean there are no alligators in Baja. The peninsula is composed of two Mexican states. These are Baja California Norte, the northern half, and Baja California Sur, the southern half of the peninsula. Tijuana is on the Mexico–US border, in Baja California Norte, and accounts for the majority of crimes committed in that state. If you can safely run the gauntlet through Tijuana the remainder of the drive down to Cabo is relatively safe (except for the occasional alligator). But you should also know that the US Consulate in Tijuana does warn travelers to exercise caution throughout all of Baja California. 

The Consulate receives numerous reports of extortion by supposed police officers, and sometimes criminals using fake police uniforms and credentials. The latest crime craze is “virtual kidnappings.” The extortionist calls the prospective victim on the telephone, often posing as law enforcement officials, and demands payment in return for the release of an arrested family member, or to supposedly forestall a kidnapping. Prison inmates using smuggled cell phones often make these calls. These criminals have extorted thousands of dollars from their victims, all done by wire transfer.

It is interesting to take a look at the 2013 crime rates per 100,000 population (provided by RRS y Asociados S.C. at www.prominix.com) for all 31 of the Mexican states (plus one federal district). 

Combining the two Baja states as one, they would rank:

House burglary............... #1
Business burglary............#1
Car theft...........................#1
Assault.............................#1
Rape................................#1
Extortion..........................#2
Robbery...........................#3
Homicide.........................#12

So why does everyone seem to have the perception that it is perfectly safe to travel about the Baja peninsula? It’s because of a very good Public Relations (PR) campaign. The state of Baja California spent $500,000 on public relations in 2009 and then hired Allison + Partners, a public relations firm, in 2010 to “reactivate” American tourism in the region. The state of Baja California will not disclose the price tag for their new image.

The program has been so successful that in 2012 it won a Bernays Bronze Award for “outstanding public relations tactics.” In February of last year, at a pay-per-plate event – formally titled “How PR Shaped Baja California’s Resurgence” – the Public Relations Society of America paid tribute to the ongoing PR campaign. The campaign has been enormously successful, increasing tourism by 75% in Baja California. Before the PR campaign began, Baja California was on the US State Department’s “defer non-essential travel” list. As a result of the ongoing PR campaign, it is no longer on that list. The campaign has succeeded in combating the negative image of being best known for dismembered bodies to generating positive stories and hailing Baja California as a culinary epicenter with a vibrant art and music scene.

How has Allison + Partners managed to turn Baja’s image around? With what the PR industry calls “fam trips” (familiarity trips). These are paid junkets to Baja, normally reserved for people in the travel industry, for journalists and celebrities. They are wined and dined and listen to targeted pitches on Baja’s cuisine and travel attractions. There seems to be an implicit understanding that the journalists will write positive reviews of Baja and the celebrities will publicize what a great time they had in Baja and how safe it is. Journalists from the New York Times and the New Yorker have been on these “fam trips,” after which they wrote positive stories about the art and food scene.

Movie celebrities who have been on the “fam trips” include Sylvester Stallone, Emily Watson, and Robert Redford. Celebrity chefs, such as Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Chanel’s No Reservations, and noted food writers, such as Erin Jackson of San Diego’s DiningOut Magazine and www.ejeats.com, have also been on these Baja “fam trips.” Bourdain included the Baja in one of his show’s 2012 season. Bourdain said that he knew very little about Baja, but that he “helped shift the focus tremendously from murder to food and wine.” 

While searching the Internet I discovered a two-page Allison + Partners’ document titled “Bi-weekly Campaign Update,” dated August 10 – August 24 (year not given), which contains a great many bullet-points under the headings of media relations, coverage, upcoming coverage, media leads, writing, social media & website (including Twitter and Facebook), and admin/counsel.

A survey of 600 Southern Californians was conducted in December of 2012 to judge peoples’ perceptions of Baja’s reputation. Respondents “who perceived Baja as unsafe” decreased by 16% from the previous year and those “who would not visit Baja because of the perceived danger, crime, or drugs” decreased by 44%. I believe that these results most likely reflect the perceptions of the general population. So travel Baja at your own risk and watch out for the occasional alligator.

Someone may have put a lot of lipstick on an alligator, but it’s still an alligator. 

6 comments :

Bill said...

Following your trip a couple of years ago it looked like you had some bad luck, but Hugo seems to have had the worst luck. Really tough.

Robert & Carol Ann Martin said...

But what a story he now has to tell!

Stoney Shukat said...

I agree Richard and Helen are foolish to swim in a lake with alligators. She kitty uses better judgement.

Robert & Carol Ann Martin said...

Good to hear from you, Stoney. She Kitty says "Hi."

Anonymous said...

We were on the trip mentioned (to Baja) in your blog. Great trip, great people, trip of a lifetime!!!! We personally had no problems. Some funny happenings. Sadly we won't be going back anytime soon. It appears as though you need to blog your own experience rather than those of us that were there. We respect R & H greatly. But as you know S happens and the best results were achieved by the efforts of our wagon masters Bill and Nancy. The Green Angels were the best support of all
Patrick Grennan #8

Ted Donovan said...

It's sad to hear of Hugo's experience and happy it all worked out. My question would be how would you suggest the people of Baja handle what happened? A foreignor comes to their country and has an unfortunate accident which damages the power grid. What would we in the US do? Would we let them person goand hope they pay for it? Maybe. However, in foreign countries they think differently. Suggestions?