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Rob NelsonMexico as seen from a 1976 Chevy Van

By Rob Nelson

I lay down in the back seat looking up at the ceiling as the hot wind swirled through the van. The seat was not bolted down, the cloth that covered it was almost Bajacompletely ripped off exposing the inner scratchy padding and, when laying on it, I felt the springs in my back. The van had no windows in the back so my viewing opportunities were limited to looking at the roof, which consisted of the yellow foam insulation.

At this point we’d been on the road for 3 weeks and we were all pretty tired. At the start we all wanted seats in the front, what we called “the viewing portal”. Now we all relished the backseat where we could lay down and sleep. Thus, both the back seat and the floor became hot commodities.

Just as I started to drift off the van suddenly veered off the road and came to a sudden stop. “Sweet, we’ve gotta get this man,” I heard.

“Oh Crap,” I thought. “I’m going to have to get up.” I really wanted to sleep but I knew I had to get up and film. That’s why I was here. Besides I was the director. I could let the others film yet I felt a bit more comfortable doing it myself as I’d spent nearly seven Grand (my whole life’s savings plus some) on the camera.

By the time I had gotten my camera out, and ready, the crew had already dispersed. The scene was amazing. I stood looking across a vast plain of bizzar looking cactus. In the distance stood large rocky mountains. Some cactus, looked like upside-down carrots, something you might see in Dr. Seuss books. Others, cholla cacti, were composed of many small divided sections which we found out have spines that will stick in you causing us to carry away one section, a beautiful means of asexual propagation. One cactus was red and had spines that looked like giant fishhooks. Jonas found out that you can also play music on them by flicking the spines. And of course there grew the large (up to 60’ tall) cardon cactus, so typical of this area of Baja.

beetleMy idea for this trip began over eighteen months ago during a conversation with my relatives. They had never really seen the splendor of Central America, even though they had been to several tourist spots in that area – namely Cancun, Acapulco, and Mazatlan. They’d also been to several border towns in S. Texas and California. The result? … They couldn’t see why I’d ever want to travel to that area and outside of the tourist centers. I couldn’t believe it! My experience in Costa Rica showed me so many wonderful things. It also showed me that while there was poverty, the people are more community oriented than we’re used to and thus, in my opinion, its very safe to travel into the countryside. You’ve just got to get away from the large cities and tourist destinations. I wanted to show people this side, so I began with the most obvious country, the US’ southern neighbor, Mexico.

When you hear the word Mexico what do you think of? Unless you’re a scientist you’re probably not thinking … “5th in the World in Biodiversity” … “More pine, cactus, Agaves than anywhere else” … “Huge Reptile diversity” … etc. If that is what you’re thinking (then you’ll love the film and) you’re unique. I made the film to show those people, like my relatives, that Mexico is a hidden jewel. It’s just south of the USA yet not many people know what it really holds. Thus my planning began.

How should I tell this story? I wanted to appeal to the non-scientist and scientist alike. That’s tough. People like the enthusiasm of the Crocodile Hunter. I personally think he’s just goofy, and have little faith in the validity of most of his comments. Enthusiasm combined with believability. That’s the key! Then it came to me -- use graduate students. It’s at this point in the scientists career that the love for science and nature overweighs worldly desires for lots of money and popularity. I’m one so I know .. we’re dorks (and poor ones at that). Enthusiasm we have, and better yet, we’ve got expertise in a given field. To tell the story of Mexico though I was going to need to recruit several “experts” – enthusiastic graduate students – my friends.

Rob nelsonWhen I first began looking for those experts and asking for commitments I ran in to some problems. Everyone was excited about it, but soon, volunteering for my efforts became difficult to justify over actually doing their own research. So my original plan of having 5 Mexican experts – a geologist, botanist, marine biologist, herpetologist, and entomologist – turned into 5 pseudo-experts. 1) Clay, the only one who’d ever been deep into Mexico doing field work – Spanish speaker / botanist / conservation biologist. 2) Hazen, the herpetologist / entomologist, our second Spanish speaker, was so interested in everything that his pseudo-specialty was basically forgotten. 3) Jonas, my Swedish marine biology mate, that I worked with in Australia, ended up helping me tremendously with all aspects of the film, from planning to we design (yet knew very little of Mexico). 4) Joseph, my mate and fellow Hawaiian nature tour guide had a keen eye for evolution, yet also knew little about Mexico. 5) Daniel, my cousin’s mountaineering friend had two goals on this trip – Climb Pico de Orizaba and two swim in the ocean. (yet he too know little of any aspect of Mexico … except cacti – but he didn’t want to be filmed much so we couldn’t use it).

The point is, you never end up having it the way you may have initially planned. I wouldn’t have wanted a different crew though. No sir. Each person had a unique personality that would come out in the film. They all had a thirst for exploration and discovering what Mexico really had. I think that probably makes our crew more relatable.

And so we began, June 3rd, 2003 in the 1976 Chevy Van 10 than I had purchased for $150!

van flatI began to get worried when the drive south from Dallas to Austin took three times longer than it would have. That was due to two flat tires, and a broken headlight. That wasn’t the end of our van issues though. Only three days into Mexico we’d replaced five tires, one fuel filter, a headlight and multiple fuses and an air conditioning condenser that still just kicked out hot air.

Yet, the trip seemed to go wonderfully. As an example of how my fears were often dispelled, I remember our first day into Mexico. My biggest fear was entering the country with all our camera equipment and not knowing what the officials might say. I hadn’t had time to get proper permits. I tried, I just couldn’t get a hold of the right people in time (things work slower in Mexico). Yet crossing into Mexico was the easiest thing we’d have to do. We simply drove over a bridge and we were it! We couldn’t believe it. No one stopped us, no one wanted to see identification – nothing. I guess we must have just blended in incredibly well in our 1976 Chevy!

June 21st entry …Baja

Tonight we’re staying at the best camping spot of the trip. We pulled up to our destination and Joseph hoped out, got naked and jumped in the bay in front of us. To put this scene in perspective, imagine jagged-sided desert mountains almost 360 degrees around this bay. These mountains are covered with huge pole-shaped cacti, like you might see in a Silverado movie. Miles and miles of nothing but tall cacti and dry legume bushes. The actual bay is the Bay of Conception, a small inlet from the Sea of Cortez. Beautiful green-blue water laps up at the beach. Absolutely gorgeous. Joseph and Jonas had jumped in, I stopped filming and decided to get naked and jump in too. Mostly I stripped so as to save my few dry clothes that I had.

This area is truly a unique spot. I wish I had more time to explore. Most of it seems mountainous and hot but when we got out this afternoon, the temperature dropped and it proved absolutely amazing. The cactus diversity was great. Now it’s getting dark. Actually, it is pretty much completely dark. The moon has not popped its head up yet so the stars are very bright. That means I can sleep on the top of the van, watch for stars and listen to the sounds of the waves.

Baja is the last stretch of our 5,000 mile journey through Mexico. What I’ve learned is that Mexico is an amazing place. To really discover what it holds you’ve got to get out of the tourist spots, and get into the small towns to talk to the locals. Then, go out and look for the little things.

Live to Explore

Rob Nelson

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