Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wilma 04

Under gray skies, we headed out of Merida and onto the freeway system to Cancun. Normally, this is a four hour journey but we had no idea of how long it was going to take us today. We were on the road by 8 am. We knew we would need some extra time.

A little over two hours after leaving Merida, we arrived at the border between the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. This check point and toll booth is just past the exit to Valledolid. There was nobody in the toll booth but a state official was there, giving out information. He told us that the booth was closed and we would not be required to pay a toll for this part of the freeway. Okay then. We saved $10 right there! He also told us that the freeway was open all the way to Cancun and we could just keep going. We were, to say the least, relieved to hear this piece of news.We drove another twenty minutes further towards Cancun before we really started to see things that we knew were caused by Wilma.

The trees started to have branches missing, were at times totally ripped out by the roots and otherwise were devoid of any greenery. It was like some plague had passed through that left every tree and bush twisted and knurled and totally stripped of all leaves. It was eerie. Further along the road and the damage to the flora grew increasingly worse. At times, the freeway totally disappeared under a slippery carpet of green. The whole road would be covered in the leaves from the trees and bushes. Ever closer to Cancun and the debris on the road was increasing exponentially. Now we were encountering actual trees and huge limbs lying on or across the road. Luckily, having a small car, we were able to dance our way around and through them.

All the while we drove it continued to rain. Sometimes just a sprinkle. Sometimes so hard it was frightening. And there was still a wind. Not enough to actually blow us off the road, but at times it gusted and blew and really shook the car. I was not really frightened, but a little apprehensive about this weather. After all, Wilma was still not that far away. Out over the Gulf now, but the tailings this monstrous storm generated were still flowing over the Yucatan Peninsula and we were started to get buffeted with them. But we kept going. At times just crawling, at times almost normal speed. One and one half hours and 65 miles after passing through the Valledolid checkpoint, where the official said we should keep going, we saw it.

Up ahead was a cluster jam of cars only like one sees on a TV disaster movie. You know, where everyone is trying to get out of town but nobody is moving. There were cars on the highway ahead as far as I could see. On the road, in both lanes, off the road on both sides. There was no way anybody was going to go anywhere in this mess. We thought it was just a traffic jam that would eventually clear. Maybe a downed tree that people were trying to get out of the way? We just didn’t know. I parked the car on the side of the road and the three of us got out to go have a look see. We walked for about a mile, weaving our way in and out of the cars parked everywhere. It didn’t help that there were also throngs of people just standing around getting in the way. We could see what looked like military trucks and lots of CFE (Mexican electric company. Remember these initials) trucks with generators, spools of wire and all kinds of electrical equipment loaded onto them. But nobody from our side was going anywhere.

As it turned out, the road was blocked by water. There are virtually no hills of any import along this freeway, but there are a few pretty good dips. It was at the bottom of one of these that the water was accumulating. Maybe for a half mile at this point. We could see cars lined up on the other side of it. This was curious because we were on a divided freeway and they should not have been facing us on our side of the road. Something was forcing them onto our lane. I never did find out what for sure, but I suspect water on their side. We just stood there and looked for awhile. We tried to guess how deep it might be, but there was just no way of knowing. It was high enough that only the tops of some of the bushes on the side of the road peeked out of the water. But we did not know how tall the bushes were. Everybody just stared at it and the lake it formed as far as we could see into the jungle surrounding us. Like it would dry up if we all turned our angry, red glares upon it. No such luck though. And we could not tell where the actual edges of the road were.

Incredibly, as we watched, a bus tried to cross. But not before discharging all of its’ passengers to make their way across on foot. People started across, carrying what luggage they had with them on the bus. This particular bus did not bother to unload the luggage that is carried under the bus. They have luggage compartments there, similar to the overheads in airplanes. Most luggage is carried there. It did not take long for the water to reach peoples waists. As they continued towards us, up over their heads went whatever they were carrying with them. Even though the water kept getting deeper, on they came. The water in the middle ended up being neck high on some of the shorter people. I would guess then that it was around five feet deep there. Amid many cheers, the people finally exited the water on our side. Then it was the bus’ turn. Stupid to even try. The driver saw how deep it was on the people that crossed. But he put the bus in gear and started forward. Needless to say, before he even got to the deepest part, he stalled out and smoke was coming from the motor. Nothing for the driver to do but exit the bus himself and come over to our side. We just shook our heads, knowing that we were not going to cross here today or any other day soon.Reluctantly we headed back to the car. I was able to turn around and we carefully back tracked the wrong way on the freeway until we found a place to cut through the shrubs and headed back towards Valledolid.

When we finally reached the checkpoint there was not an official around. They had all left, taking their misinformation with them! We stopped and used the bathroom and talked to some fellow travelers. The news was not good. We had been right about the water. One guy told us that the water was almost three meters deep back there, or about ten feet. Glad we didn’t try to run it! The other bad news was that the free, non-toll, road that parallels the freeway was even worse. The water there was deeper than anybody cared to measure. We were told that whole villages along the road were now under water. Not good news for anybody. We thought about maybe cutting over cross country and taking the road the runs from Tulum in the south to Cancun. We didn’t think it would be open either. The eye passed over Playa del Carmen and we were hearing reports that it was gone, just wiped off the map. It was too awful to think about that being true. Nothing to do but head into Valledolid and try to get a room.

We entered downtown central Valledolid and it was mess. The streets were still somewhat flooded and there were people and cars everywhere. We really did not think we would get a room. There were just so many refugees about. Probably more tourists than Valledolid sees in months. But L got us a room in the first hotel we checked, just kitty corner from the main square downtown. We were relieved that at least we were going to have a place to eat and sleep without returning all the way to Merida. We parked the car in the secured parking lot and headed up to check out our quarters for what we hoped would be one night.

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