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Off the beaten path in the region


We foreign correspondents have enviable jobs. We consort with princes and poker players, bankers and brewers. We poke our noses in all kinds of places.

It’s the end of the year nearly, so I can’t help but think of the fun places and interesting people I’ve been blessed to write about in 2012. Sure, there’s been plenty of serious things to report on. But then there’s been the fun things, those that are personably memorable.

Topping the list for me this year was a trip to Baja California to visit Scammon’s Lagoon where thousands of gray whales migrate each winter. I actually got paid to do this so I could write this story. That’s my video above.

Less than a month later, I visited a town in Veracruz state that created its own currency. I had never considered the ramifications of alternative currency till I did this story.

I’m still the butt of jokes in our house for something that happened after I was sent by editors to Costa Rica to write about “poker refugees” – American online poker players who moved abroad once several online poker sites became illegal. I expected to find frat boys swigging beer and playing online. To my surprise, I found brainy engineers, Russian literature experts, math whizzes and assorted other oddballs, all of whom I quite liked.

Then I made a mistake. I mentioned to our older daughter, who is very good at math, how much money these guys were making and, er, OK I confess: I suggested that she might want to look into online poker as a temporary career option.

I might as well have suggested a life of crime for all the guff I got about this later.

Still, it was a fun story. Almost as fun was this story about an artisanal chocolate maker in Nicaragua, and this one about a ghost town that has come back to life on the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I also enjoyed writing about the Kuna Indians in Panama, a surprising number of whom are albinos.

It’s been a great year. I head off tomorrow through the end of the year to Florida so no more blog postings till January. To all my readers, Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo!


Party like it's the End of the World

Will you await the End of the World cuddled up to the stone Snake Deity at the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza (above)? Don’t bring anything except a bottle of water.

There are going to be some crowds this week. December 21 marks the end of a 5,128-year Mayan cycle, and foreign tourists are already flocking to Mayan sites.

The learned folks over at INAH – Mexico’s anthropology institute – are rolling their eyes at the fuss. They have pooh-poohed any talk that the end of the Mayan cycle means Apocalypse. But I guess they got word not to deter any mini tourism boom among New Age mystics and spiritual adventurers. So they sent out a notice this week to alert tourists of conditions.

If you plan to party like the end of the world is nigh, it’ll be tough.

Be forewarned -- you cannot take the following into Mayan sites: Food, alcohol, backpacks, large bags, coolers, child strollers, bicycles, skates, tripods, firearms, umbrellas or anything sharp.

So that leaves sun tan lotion and a bottle of water. Maybe a hat.

At least you can hydrate while we pass from what the Mayans called the 13th Bak'tun into the next era under the Mayan Long Count calendar.

Luxury hotels in Cancun have been advertising End of the World promotions, replete with oceanfront suites and champagne. But apparently in Guatemala, some hoteliers say projections that 150,000 to 200,000 tourists would flock to the area of the beautiful Tikal ruins in the Peten region were overblown (link in Spanish).

Plenty of famed Mayan sites are open to the public – like Chichen Itza and Uxmal en Yucatan state, Edzna in Campeche, Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, and Tulum in Quintana Roo – but one key site is closed. That site is El Tortuguero in Tabasco state. It is there where archaeologists discovered Monument 6 – whose inscriptions are the only known reference to the end of the current 13th Bak'tun era and the commencement of a new era.

If you want to get NASA’s outlook on Dec. 21, click here. Here’s a sum up:

“The world will not end in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.”
Britain’s The Guardian newspaper has amusing wall-to-wall coverage of End of the World fever. It notes here that dozens have been arrested in China in recent days for spreading doomsday fever. Russia also has some kooky goings on as citizens buy up emergency supplies.

The paper’s take: “So what is apocalypse fever, then? Just a few bulging pockets of apocalyptic stupidity.”


The vote is over, but PAN keeps losing

Losing elections can be hell on a political party. Just ask the National Action Party (PAN), which ruled the country until Dec. 1.

As recently as October, the PAN had 1,868,604 registered active members.

But in an interview published in El Universal Friday, PAN President Gustavo Madero acknowledged that many of the members had joined hoping that they’d get jobs under the center-right party, which had the presidency 2000-2012.

So how many members does Madero think will remain with the PAN now as the party finishes its latest registration drive? 500,000.

It could be a long, long time before the PAN gains relevancy again in Mexico.


When is one too old to pilot a jet?

Mexico Singers Plane _Nost
Age is relative, I guess, depending on one’s chosen field of work. It’s become a cliché to say 65 is the new 50, and so on.

But the stories about the fiery aircraft accident that killed singer Jenni Rivera certainly bring this issue to the fore. The pilot of the LearJet 25 was 78 years old, within weeks of his 79th birthday.

Mexic Jenni Rivera_NostWas he capable of flying the small executive jet? Probably. Should he have been carrying passengers? That’s where questions arise. In the United States, 65 would be the cutoff age.

Papers found amid the wreckage of the craft showed that pilot Miguel Perez Soto was born on Jan. 21, 1934, and had a restricted license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority that allowed him only to fly by day and not by instruments.

“Not valid for the carriage of persons or property for corporation or hire or for agricultural aircraft,” the FAA document says (AP photo above).

Turns out that Perez Soto also had a Mexican license that did permit him to fly at night and carry passengers. The LearJet 25 crashed around 3:30 a.m. Sunday, heading into a nosedived from an altitude of 28,000 feet and hitting a 9,000-foot-high mountain in Nuevo Leon state.

The pilot’s age is not the only controversy surrounding the flight. The LearJet 25 is registered to Starwood Management LLC of Las Vegas, which it turns out is controlled by Christian Eduardo Esquino Nunez, who was indicted for cocaine smuggling in 1993 in Florida and has been accused of doctoring flight records in the sale of aircraft.

Esquino Nunez was also implicated in a plot to bring Moammar Ghaddafy’s son to Mexico last year.


Yes, we have no bananas -- on board

I’m not an experienced fisherman but I just went fishing with some friends on protected Ascension Bay in the Yucatan. It felt like having a national park all to ourselves.

But here was the odd thing. Fishermen all over the world are a superstitious lot. And what came up on this trip was the following:

Don’t bring bananas on the boat. Bananas bring bad luck. They scare away the fish. You won’t catch anything.

I thought this a might curious, perhaps a Mexican superstition. But I see that it is far more widespread than that. This article says the belief is prevalent among crab fishermen in the U.S. as well, and may have roots dating back to the banana trade from Central America a century ago.

Banana boats moved to fast for fishermen to troll effectively. The boats were trying to get their perishables to market.

This LA Times article from 2001 quotes a sport fishing boat captain, Bouncer Smith, of South Florida, and the extensive efforts he goes through to rid anything redolent of bananas from his boat.

"Typically, when customers arrive in the morning, the first thing I do is interrogate them," Smith said. "First, I check for bananas, then I check for Banana Boat sunscreen products, then for Banana Republic shirts and blouses, then for Starburst strawberry-banana [candies] and, most important of all, for Fruit of the Loom labels."

Now back to Ascension Bay. This is an amazing place, part of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Turquise waters. Extensive flats for bonefishing. It takes an hour and a half along a gravel road to get there from Tulum. But it feels further. I have not seen a night sky lit up with stars like that in years. Our first day out, we saw not a single other boat after traveling miles and miles on the bay. It was like going to Yellowstone and finding it deserted. When we weren't fishing, we were seeing countless roseate spoonbills and frigate birds. 


Viewing the news through a prism

Sometimes one writes a story that proves to be a lightning rod for people’s emotions. That is the case with an article I wrote this week about a young U.S. Marine veteran from the Miami area who is in jail in Matamoros, facing up to more than a decade in prison.

The Marine brought an old hunting shotgun into the country after being informed by a Customs and Border Protection agent that he had completed the necessary paperwork. Click here to read the story.

Reaction from fellow Marines has been swift and angry. Here’s one email from a former comrade-in-arms of the man I wrote about, Jon Hammar:

This sank my heart into my stomach. If it weren't for Hammar I wouldn't be alive. We served together in Iraq and he was the one who told me about Pathway Home. I’ve known him for over 8 yrs now and I want to get him back. What do I have to do?! Cause we are pretty close to doing something non diplomatic. ...


Another person posted on our website:

Thank you for bringing this situation to the attention of the American public. People should be outraged that Mexican officials can get away with treating America citizens in this manner. No one should travel to Mexico for any reason (nor support the country with tourist dollars) because anyone could easily find themself in a similar situation.


But the reaction was very different in Mexico. Televisa, the television conglomerate, translated my article, and some readers were not sympathetic to the U.S. Marine. Here’s one typical comment:

It's true, he must pay for this crime and not go weeping to be rescued using corruption and influence peddling in our deplorable ‘justice’ system run by those responsible for over 15,000 deaths under Calderon. They sold weapons to corrupt politicians like Felipe Calderon and his entourage of murderers. Just as a Mexican is sent to prison by merely stepping on US soil, it’s also a crime to bring guns to Mexico without permission. They always believe they are so enlightened and cry about anything while Mexicans die and endure all sorts of wrongful convictions on U.S. territory. Don’t be a cry baby and face your sentence like any offender must. Do not break Mexican law. Set an example for others.



A new image for the 'Seagull'

SeagullFor most Mexicans, Angelica Rivera needs no introduction. A soap opera star, she’s been in the public eye for two decades.

But her latest role is not a stellar one, certainly not like her part as “La Gaviota,” or The Seagull, in the soap opera titled Destilando Amor (Distilling Love) that was wildly successful and told of love in the town of Tequila, cradle of Mexico’s most fabled liquor.

Her new role is First Lady of Mexico and it requires her to stay in the background of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto’s handlers certainly helped her reshape her image during the campaign. Gone were the sexy dresses. In their place were conservative clothes. The handlers also seem to be airbrushing her past.

Rivera, 42, had a 14-year previous relationship with a Televisa producer, Jose Alberto Castro, and the union produced three children. But no mention is made of that in the biography of the First Lady posted on the official presidential website, and only the briefest of mentions is made of her acting career.

“The First Lady has said on many occasions that her greatest challenge and biggest honor are serving both Mexico and the work of the man she most admires.”

Okay, already.

Pena Nieto’s official bio doesn’t point out that he was married for 13 years to Monica Pretelini, who died in 2007. The couple had three children (link in Spanish).

I guess you could call it a Modern Family, a widower and a divorcee remarry and pull their kids together. All six kids from the two marriages now live with the two in Los Pinos, the presidential residence.


Reason No. 55 for 'going to Mexico'

“Going to Mexico” has a lot of connotations for Americans or Canadians. It can mean visiting paradise, taking a self-indulgent break, soaking up culture or going on the lam.

At heart, it is getting away from it all.

This came to mind with the surprising statement by Rajon Rondo, the star point guard of the Boston Celtics basketball team who was suspended for two games after getting in a brawl with Brooklyn Nets’ Kris Humphries on Nov. 28.

This marked the three-time all-star’s third suspension in the past nine months. But if the NBA expected Rondo to reflect on what gets him into trouble, they blew it.

“I went to Mexico,” Rondo tells reporters in this video. Asked by reporters if he’d learning anything during his time off, Rondo answered laconically: “No.”

Rondo didn’t say where in Mexico he went, only that he was “glued in front of the TV” watching the Celtics play. They split two games in his absence.

So there’s another reason to go to Mexico: Stick it to the NBA powers that be.


Better news out of Ciudad Juarez

For the first time in five years, the once-murderous city of Ciudad Juarez passed a weekend without a single homicide.

Death rates have been steadily but slowly falling in Juarez, the metropolis across from El Paso, Texas, that was once _ by far _ the deadliest place in Mexico. Rival drug gangs are no longer at each other's throats as intensely.

The lack of weekend deaths merited a story in El Diario, the local newspaper. Juarez is still wracked by a lot of violence. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 25, the paper notes, there were 724 homicides in the city. But the monthly totals have fallen since January, which tallied 118 deaths.

My friend Bill Booth of the Washington Post visited Juarez in late summer and wrote this chronicle with the headline: In Mexico’s murder city, the war appears over. The story notes that at the peak of the violence in 2010, Juarez chalked up 3,115 murders.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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