Group picture, Hotel Taninul, March 2001, Left to righ; Ian Tapp, James Maney, Joe Middleton, Steve Lundblad, Craig Morfitt, Eric Hanneman, Pam Chin, Jeff Cardwell, Caroline Estes, Pam Marsh, Juan Miguel Artigas, Rusty Wessel and Larry Lampert.
If it was not for the ACA (American Cichlid Association) I wouldn't know Caroline Estes or Pam Marsh. I can't imagine how that would be. Geographically we couldn't live any further apart, I am on the west coast, Pam's on the east coast and Caroline is on what we call the third coast, Texas. We share the love of cichlids in a male dominated club, so it is only natural that we would become close friends. We each want to make a difference in the hobby, I try by writing, Pam does cichlid artwork, and Caroline owns a fish store (Amazonia). When we get together we talk up a storm, we know our time together is limited, and we want to make sure all the planning, plotting and gossip is shared equally! Meeting up at ACA is not enough anymore, we try to get together at least 2 or 3 times a year now.
Pam first went to México a couple of years ago, and when we got together afterwards, she kept saying we must go collecting. Caroline who is always game to go anywhere agreed it is something we must do in the future. I have always been the hesitant one, I can't imagine spending my hard-earned vacation out in the middle of no where, in the sun, with bugs and snakes, when I could be in a big city seeing the museums and shopping. To top it off, I don't really like the water, I know how to swim, but I am not a swimming enthusiast. Don't get me wrong, I love my fish hobby, but I usually keep it contained to the fish house! Collecting was something I had considered, but it just wasn't high on the list of things I wanted do.
Caroline came up with idea that we should go to Florida, we knew some hobbyists that had gone collecting there and had a great time. Many cichlids and livebearers have escaped from the fish farms and have become established in many of the water ways. I thought that this is better than going to a foreign country and collecting, they do speak English there. But I still wasn't really buying into it. I kept saying we have to do N.E.C., or how about the Cichlid Fin-Dig in Ohio. Then last fall, while we were in New Jersey for their "Extravaganza," Caroline told me that in February 2001, Pam was flying to Austin, they were driving in to México and meeting Rusty Wessel. She wanted me to come too, I sort of agreed. When I got home and told Gary that I was going to go to México collecting with Pam and Caroline, he said, "I don't think so." I don't know if he met, no you can't go, or he doubted that I would actually go on such a trip.
Caroline and Lyle were in Reno over Thanksgiving and Gary and I drove up to meet them for a visit. She kept saying how much fun México was going to be, and I kept saying, "I think I can get the time off," I really tried to be non-committal. Caroline didn't want to hear it; she just kept making plans. I didn't tell a soul, I just kept thinking how am I going to get out of this? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they were going to go, with or without me. I couldn't stand that thought!
In December I mentioned it to a couple of non-fish friends, they thought I was totally crazy. They couldn't believe that I was going to drive in to México. I realized that I had to make up my mind, there were things that I had to get done if I was going to go. Like get a passport, go to the doctor, and schedule the time off at work.
After the holidays I started working on getting a passport, I rationalized to myself that I needed one anyway, whether I was going to go to México or not. After all my sister and I have talked about going to exotic places someday and I would surely need one for that. When I had finally assembled all the necessary pieces to obtain one, it was questionable that I would have it back by the time I was to leave. No problem, just slap down another $50.00 and you can have it in two weeks.
I hate the doctor, but I needed to go anyway for those yearly tests. I was hoping that I could get everything I needed with just one visit. No chance for that when your HMO is like cattle care, they said, "We want to get to know you first." When I finally got to see a doctor, he said, "You are going where? I'll have to look that up on the Internet." I ended up making three visits and about 6 shots, mostly boosters for childhood diseases, and Hepatitis A. It was suggested that I get a Typhoid shot, but I would have to go to county health for it, without a doubt that was probably the scariest thing about the whole doctor ordeal! It made my cattle care look pretty impressive! Then off to the pharmacy. I had a prescription for an antibiotic (Cipro), malaria pills (Chloroquine) and motion sickness (Meclizine).
By mid January I let them know at work, I was going to be gone. I bought a couple of maps and tried to figure out exactly where we were going. Soon it was time to get a non-refundable plane ticket, that is when it really set in. I was nervous, I wasn't going to be in control, and I was going in someone else's car. What was I going to eat, I am nearly a vegetarian now. I don't want to get in the water. What if we get robbed, what if the car breaks down, what if we get thrown in jail, all of these situations where zooming around in my head. Caroline kept assuring me that, they have driven in to México many times, that Lyle speaks fluent Spanish, and we were going to have a good time. Even if everything didn't go as planned we would still be together. Okay, think positive!
Usually before any vacation I am counting down the weeks, but I didn't really get excited about this trip until 3 or 4 days before I left. There was a rash of e-mail from guys that were going, last minutes plans, and anticipation of what was to be collected. It was all coming together and it was much too late to chicken out now. On Saturday, February 24, I flew to Austin and once I was with Pam and Caroline all my doubts were gone.
We left Austin early, Lyle wanted to make it in one day, and before it got dark. This was the first time I had ever driven across Texas, and it was really beautiful. Quite flat, but the fields were so green and there were wild flowers everywhere. Caroline rattled all the names off as we passed each new color, I thought I was with Kurt Zadnik a couple of times. Early afternoon we made it to Pharr, where we had our last "American" meal. We needed to buy México car insurance before we could cross the border and this took longer than we anticipated. We also went to a drive in bank to change our dollars into pesos. It was around 4:00 PM before we actually crossed the border.
We got the green light at the border, Yippee! We got our "Turista" passes and we were on our way. It wasn't very long before we could tell that we were really in México. The further south we went there were fewer towns and the sun was definitely going down. Driving in México is much different than in the US, the roads are much narrower and you don't know what you might come up upon. There is no barrow-pit or shoulder, it could be a cane field, or cliff. Lyle began to teach us what all the traffic signs meant in Spanish. The first word I learned was topai, which in English is undulation... Speed bumps. They have them everywhere, and in the middle of no where. I learned that driving laws were merely a suggestion in México. They suggest you turn your lights on at night, but you don't have to. They tell you not to pass on blind curves, but everyone does. Now I know why Lyle did not want to drive at night.
It was about 10:00 PM when we arrived in Valles, everyone was starving, so we stopped at a sidewalk restaurant were they were cooking meat up like there was no tomorrow. I had a power bar! Then we were off to Hotel Taninúl about 15 km from downtown. As we turned off the main highway we headed up a gravel lane for a couple of miles and came upon the hotel. There was no one there, I think there were two cars in the parking lot. Even though it was dark I could tell this was going to be a great place for a base station.
We slept in; it was great, because I knew sleep was going to be limited the rest of the week. Pam and I explored the hotel grounds, which were nice, lots of trees, and it was backed up to rocky cliff with a huge cave. We were on the edge of the desert and the jungle, so there was lots of neat fauna. The sulfur hot springs pool was quite large, and quite smelly, but after awhile you got used to it. Around noontime, Lyle suggested we go back to Valles and check it out, and get something to eat. We needed something to do, as we were all anticipating the arrival of the guys this evening. We had lunch, located the liquor store, the beer depository and where to get ice. We were set!
There was huge porch at the front of the hotel, and it ran the length of the building. They had great chairs out in front, and late in the afternoon, Caroline, Pam and I, pretended to read our books while we waited for our amigo's to arrive. All of a sudden there was a big cloud of dust coming up the road, here came a compact car and two suburbans, packed to the gills with fishing paraphernalia, and out jumped 13 Cichlidiots. Rusty Wessel, Eric Hanneman, Steve Lundblad, Dan Woodland, Larry Lampert, Jeff Cardwell, Joe Middleton, Craig Morfitt, Randy Parham, James Maney, Jason Barrett, Viral Surati and Ian Tapp.
Once everyone one was settled in and the fish they had already collected were taken care of. We headed back towards Valles for dinner and celebration! Most of us have been friends for many years, and it made the occasion even more special. It was time for catching up; we hadn't been together since ACA in Cleveland, so there were plenty of stories to tell. And though it was obvious that these boys had bonded, over the past few days, they didn't hesitate to take us under their wings and into the world of "wild men" go collecting!!
Despite staying up late, I had no problem getting up; I was excited to see where we were going to go and how we were going to collect fish. We left the hotel mid morning and headed west of Valles to Tamasopo. It was about a two-hour drive, on curving roads, over mountains, and down through valleys. Driving with Lyle became more intense as we followed the two suburbans. I know Eric is driving one and Woody the other, had you not known you would have thought you were following Mario Andretti and Pernelli Jones. Then out came the walkie-talkies so they could tell each other when it was clear to pass the cane trucks. I just hung on!
Species Collected, Tamasopo, Rio Pánuco drainage
We turned off the main road and headed through the countryside, which were mainly giant fields of sugar cane. We went through the small town of Tomasopo, and it wasn't long after that we pulled up to what I would call a swimming hole and picnic area. There was a beautiful falls that went into an amazingly clear pond. Everyone bailed out of the car and began to haul all their stuff up closer to the water. I had already declared myself as "Shore Chick," my job was keeping track of the car keys, and everyone's stuff. As they headed to the water, I relaxed and read my book. I had the perfect view as I sat on cement barrier right at the edge of the "beach." The routine was to snorkel and explore for awhile, watching the fish in their natural habitat. Then it got busy, they got out the nets and buckets and everyone started bringing back their prize catches. Late afternoon we loaded up and headed back to Hotel Taninúl. Where we had an easy dinner at the hotel and taking care of the fish.
We left the hotel mid morning, and headed west again from Valles for Media Luna. This was a 3-1/2 hour drive, we would chug up a mountain and then down to the valley floor, and then up another mountain, and down to another valley. Finally we pulled off the main highway, and followed a road that paralleled a canal. We went through potholes that were bigger than the suburbans, passing all sorts of local people. As we approached our destination I could see that this was also a swimming hole and picnic area, there were many pine trees, but you could still tell that you were in the desert. The elevation was about 3200 feet, and I was surprised that we would be collecting this high. Many canals that channeled away the water from the lagoon that was fed from a spring surrounded us.
Species Collected, Media Luna, Rio Pánuco drainage
Rusty led us on a path about 1/4 of a mile from where we were parked, down along one of the canals. The water was not very deep, and it was suggested that every one snorkel first and not stir up the bottom. I was closer to the action here, and it was easy for me to hand off buckets, nets, cameras, etc. Everyone wanted me to take their picture, with their camera while they were snorkeling; I had a blast with that. I walked over to the Lagoon which was crystal clear and watched Pam and Steve explore around it. Even I could see Nandopsis bartoni swimming among the large boulders. It was beautiful site but it was obvious that the environment was deteriorating. Pam had been here two years ago and she could really notice the difference.
Caroline and Lyle decided to stay in this area for the night, so Pam and I rode in the suburbans with the boy's back to Hotel Taninúl. It was a long drive, but it went by fast, especially when you are being entertained all the way by these crazy guys. Once back at the hotel we took care of the fish, and then headed to town for dinner. It was another great day in México.
This morning we headed west again from Valles, but it wasn't long before we turned north, and headed over a couple of mountains and then down to a valley floor that led us through the sugar cane fields again. We went by a sugar factory, in the middle of no where, with huge stacks of smoke bellowing into the sky. We continued on across the fields for quite awhile, and soon we approached a small community. We turned off on to a side road in the middle of town, went a couple of blocks and pulled in to an empty lot. Below us was the Rio Salto. The water was an unusual color, on one hand it looked quite clear and on the other it was a cloudy blue green. There was quite a steep embankment down to the water, but I found a patch of even ground to sit on among the large trees, which provided plenty of shade. We had not been there long when Lyle and Caroline came rolling in with great stories of their evening in the small town near Media Luna. Across the river was housing project, or neighborhood and of course they all wanted to see what we were up to. This was also a swimming hole; there were lots of kids playing in the water. There were people washing clothes just down stream from where everyone was swimming, and at one point in the afternoon, we saw a guy jump in the water and with his bar of soap proceeded to take his bath. It wasn't long before everyone started hauling their prize catches up the bank and into the ice chests. This collecting is hard work!! We were starved and Rusty had been telling us about a restaurant in town that serves giant shrimp, it was finally next on the agenda.
Species Collected, Rio El Salto, Rio Pánuco drainage
Rusty wasn't kidding, except these were lagostino's (freshwater lobster) not camarónes (shrimp). I think it was probably the best meal I had in México. Eating in México at any restaurant is an experience; they are never in hurry. The food never comes out at the same time; so many were finished before the rest us had gotten our food. Rusty and part of the group took off for Fernando Creek, and said they would meet us there. For a change of pace, I got to sit in the front seat, with Jeff at the wheel and Eric at my right. Previously I had been in the third seat back with Steve, where at times I felt we were barely on the road or in the middle of the road. Now up front, I realized we were actually on the opposite side of the road, and I had nothing to hang on to!
We saw the suburban pulled off the side of the road; Fernando Creek could barely be seen through the vegetation, it didn't look very inviting to me. Woody and Rusty were already back up from throwing the net a few times, and ready to hit the road. As we headed back to Hotel Taninúl, we were all anticipating the arrival of Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.
By the time we had the fish taken care of, and about to give up on Juan Miguel, here he came, along with his wife Patricia and their two cute kids. He was ready to take us to dinner in Valles and even though it was late, we wanted to celebrate his arrival. It was another late night in México!
It was late morning before we were all up and ready to go. The clouds had moved in and for the first time in the trip it looked like it might rain. We headed south of Valles this time, the Sierra Madre's to our right, were huge, and the landscape was more like a jungle than the high desert we had been in. We eventually turned west and headed back into the countryside on dirt roads. It sprinkled off and on but we were with Juan Miguel and our favorite guys, and even though this was going to be our last day collecting, nothing was going to put a damper on it.
Species Collected, Tambaque, Rio Pánuco drainage
We stopped at 6 or 7 different places, continuing our way south. If we saw a wide spot in the road, or a bend in the stream, everyone would bail out and throw their nets in the water. We eagerly watched Juan Miguel in action, he knew where to find fish at every stop. Pam was in the suburban with Juan Miguel, so she got to hear all the discussions about the area, and how long Juan Miguel and Rusty had been coming to some of these sites.
Late afternoon we headed further south for Xilitla a surreal castle built by a crazy Englishman in the middle of the jungle. The clouds kept moving in and it wasn't long before we were in a steady mist. As we headed up a steep mountain, a pickup truck had rolled over in the road. A grim reminder that it was either the cliff wall or off the edge down to the valley floor. We were now in fog, and Eric had to stick his head out the window to see. Jeff asked Rusty how much further on the walkie-talkie, "Not far, just up the road." After a week with Rusty we knew that was to far us, and so we took a vote and decided to head down the hill and back to Hotel Taninúl.
Species Collected, Rio Huichihuayan, Rio Pánuco drainage
This night started like all the rest, in the fishroom, bagging fish. We girls fit right in the assembly line; blow open the breathable bag, label it, add poly filter, add water, add a fish, tie the bag, place it in the appropriate pile and then you get a swig of your favorite beverage. It was fun because we would visit about that days collecting site and then move on to solving all the world problems; there were some great discussions! However, this was our last night, and it was time to divide up the fish. We let the guys take what they wanted we were more than happy to take the leftovers.
We were up and around by mid-morning and started helping the guys pack their stuff. They would need to be on the road to Tampico by early afternoon. It seemed like they had just gotten here and now it was time for them to go, we were blue to say the least. There were lots of hugs, laughing and a few last minute photos. Of course, we wouldn't let them see us cry, so we were all smiles as the loaded up and headed out. We sat on the porch of the hotel and watched the cloud of dust go down the road and felt deserted!
Lyle was having no part of that, and immediately loaded us up in the Jeep and headed for Xilitla again. He told us that while we all had our target fish, his target site was Xilitla, and he didn't get enough of it the day before. It was good; we needed something to get our minds off the fact this was the last day.
I hadn't even made it into the Hotel gift shop, let alone any other shopping, except for beer and liquor, which is probably a record for me. We stopped and toured a village, stopped at a couple of stores along the main highway, and we picked up a few of souvenirs. Soon we were headed up that same mountain, that was so foggy the day before, but it was beautiful today, and you could see down to the valley and across to the next mountain. We turned off on to a dirt/gravel road to go up to the castle, the area was covered with vegetation, and we were definitely in the jungle.
Pam elected to hang out at the entrance with a sidewalk vendor as Lyle, Caroline and I hiked around the castle. It really isn't a castle, it is paved rock ways through the jungle, that have bizarre artwork of sculptures, columns, and rooms all connected by paths. It was very unusual and very interesting, from the art and the construction standpoint. Everything was made from concrete, and the task of just getting that up this mountain seemed impossible. Lyle knew the history behind it, and kept giving me all these facts and figures, like it took 40 men 20 years to build. I was glad that I went.
After loosing Lyle, Caroline and I made our way back down to the entrance somehow. We found Pam and her new best friend, Salvador, trying to talk to each other. He had a blanket on the ground displaying jewelry that he had made. This was perfect; this was the kind of stuff I was looking to bring back for my sister and friends. Salvador was probably in his late 20's and as cute as could be. Caroline and I were trying to figure out how to get him in a breathable bag, for the trip home! I am sure that he will tell his grandchildren about the day he thought he would sell nothing, until these three gringo gals showed up and bought nearly everything he had to sell, and then paid him in Americano's.
We headed back to Hotel Taninúl to have dinner with Juan Miguel and his family. We were late as everyone is in México, but they were waiting for us. We went into Valles and had a good dinner. It gave us the chance to have some one on one with Juan Miguel and get to know Patricia. They are wonderful people, and I am so glad I got to spend this time with them. It was really late when we got back, and we proceeded to pack the fish, and prepare for an early departure in the morning.
Lyle wanted us on the road by 7:00 AM, and we were pretty close by the time we headed down the gravel road from the hotel. We went through Valles and we drove around the town circle for the last time, and headed north. Pam and I rested for the first hour or so, but it wasn't long before we were all fired up as we reviewed the week.
I began to take notes as we went through each day, and each of our traveling companions. We didn't want to forget the dirty, funny and gross stuff, which will no doubt, end up in an article, in an alternative publication. We literally laughed all the way to the border; we couldn't quit talking about the adventure we had just experienced. Lyle just kept rolling his eyes.
When we got close to the border, Lyle told us what was probably going to happen. He said we would be questioned about what we had bought, and then we reviewed how we were going to explain the fish. As we entered the crossing, we were up on a hill and could see the cars going through ahead of us and being questioned. They had a dog they were walking back and forth around the cars, we hoped it wasn't a fish sniffing dog!
With Caroline at the wheel the guard said, "Beunas días!" "Hi we are finally home!" replied Caroline. "Are you all American Citizens?" he asked. "Yes," replied Caroline. "Where are you going?" he asked. "We live in Austin," said Caroline. "Where have you been?" he asked. "We were in Valles, for a week," chimed in Lyle. "Did you buy anything?" he asked. "A few souvenirs," replied Lyle. "Okay, have a good day!" he said as he waved us on. We couldn't believe it, but then we realized that we were so middle class and middle aged, that we didn't fit any questionable profile. We were now on the bridge that crosses the border, and back in the United States.
We were starving, and it was unanimous that we stop at the first fast food we saw. Ironically it was Taco Bell, now I was game; I was dying for some real Mexican food!! Then Caroline pointed out the Burger King across the street, and I was out voted. I had a great fish burger, while the rest were in heaven with burger and fries. We were refreshed and ready to start the next leg of the journey back to Austin.
We went back across the flat lands of Texas, through all the green fields and wild flowers that we had seen on the way down. We were still talking and laughing.. as we rolled in to Caroline's driveway that night at 9:00 PM.
This was the last night together, but we were not blue, okay maybe a little blue. As we celebrated the great trip, we couldn't help but toast our cichlid amigos, to which we are most grateful, who let us tag along on a once in a lifetime trip. We toasted Lyle, who was a real sport. There are not many men out there that could survive driving three dominate women over 3000 miles in 8 days. And we toasted ourselves, did we have a good time or what!! This was one fabulous experience that we would never forget!
Let see... I didn't get sick, I didn't get one insect bite, I didn't see one snake, no sunburn and I managed to eat okay. The only time I got wet was in the shower, it cost less than I projected and I got to see Juan Miguel, this was more than I could have asked for!
To think I nearly chickened out, what was I thinking?? A week in México with 14 guys who treated us like equals, yet with so much respect. They really were gentlemen to us, I didn't climb out of the back of the suburban once without one of them there to help me down. They quickly caught on to my Spanish skills and saved me many times. If it wasn't for Lyle and Eric, I would have surely starved. I was excited about the Mexican Cichlids that I was bringing home, but I was more excited about the adventure I had just shared with my friends. You can call it whatever you want, a cichlid-bonding, or a cichlidhood, but we are all closer friends because of it.