Tuxpan was a hell-hole to my gringo eyes. (Pronounced Toose-pan) As mentioned in my last blog I corrected the error of my ways and got the hell out of there before total darkness fell.
I was not welcome there and could feel it in the air. Like roadside markers out on the highway, there were crosses on the streets and I knew these souls had departed their bodies for reasons other than any driving error. I had bought an eighteen inch machete with a saw-toothed back for collecting firewood but it didn’t leave me feeling more than defenceless. Occasionally you hear yet another bandito horror story but apart from my own blundering I actually feel safer in Mexico than at home. I’ve explained to a few other gringos that the big difference between here and Mexico is that our police keep most of their weapons hidden in the trunk of their vehicle.
I stayed in the back of another Pemex station that night, not at all an exotic place but I felt safe enough and sleep well. In the morning the same attendants were on duty, now sustaining themselves against the chill of dawn by drinking tequila-braced coffee from Styrofoam cups.
I declined their generosity. I drove northward stopping regularly to take photographs. The Policia Federales stopped to enquire what I was photographing and then drove off to accost a madly-careening eighteen-wheeler, all the while I’m sure, puzzling about yet another mad gringo with a camera. Being desperately broke and worried about police wanting mordida, my truck breaking down, exorbitant toll fees and whatever else that might go wrong, I made my way north on the libres, or toll-free highways. The tolls, or cuotas, equalled the price of two tanks of gas on the way down and yes things were looking that desperate. I ate once a day at the less-grotty roadside cuchinas where truckers stopped. The food is freshly prepared over wood fires, is delicious and generally cheaper than cooking for yourself. I have not had one bad meal in Mexico anywhere. I did not ever drink tap water but nor did I take any special preventions against eating the local fare.
After again passing through El Rosario, (Which I learned in amazement was founded in 1655,) the libres led me into Culicán. As usual in these places, it seemed to be rush-hour. Hot, dusty, thirsty, needing to pee, low on gas, I tried to stay alive in the traffic while desperately looking for a sign that would lead me out of mayhem. Eventually, I ended up in Navolato, about twenty kilometres on, and although I had actually passed under the freeway, I could find no way onto it or the adjoining libre. After ending up in a cornfield I began to drive back the way I thought I had come feeling very lost and frustrated.
Spotting two municipal traffic cops, I careened in front of their car, and slammed to a stop. They emerged with pistols half-drawn as I frantically tried to smile while saying “Hola amigos, hola senors. Jo gringo esta mucho perditio. Dondé esta la camina a Nogales? Esta nada signas!” They tried to explain the escape route and then decided to escort me onto the highway. With red and blue lights flashing the led me on a convoluted trail through the bustling streets as more and more cars swerved into the increasing gap between us.
Finally I found myself grovelling in gratitude as they explained that this was the highway to Nogales. They made it clear to me that this stupid gringo was to stay on this road until safely out of their country. At the moment I took it as good advice. As they were leaving, but still in plain sight of them, a giggling little man jumped head and shoulder into the driver’s window and began trying to peddle a huge bag of cocaine in front of my face. Terrified that the police had set me up for a bust I began cursing loudly and honking my horn as I drove off with this rascal still trying to close a deal. All I can recall is that he was finally gone and I don’t give a damn what happened to him.
So….yet another couple of don’ts:
Don’t drive the streets of larger urban areas with your windows open. Keep them up with the doors locked; that is what air-conditioning is for.
Don’t drive alone in Mexico. I’ll never do it again. Driving is a full time job, especially in Mexico with all its mad motorists hurtling in and from all directions. There are other characters to watch out for as well as the full-time job of watching for topés. As well as those big speed bumps there are vibradores which are multiple smaller speed bumps in rows. The name is perfect. There are also mucho baches, or many potholes. The military will set up roadblocks at random and they use heavy ship hawsers zig-zagged across the road. I guarantee you’ll stop for these. Especially with the kids in pickup trucks on the side of the road. They have .50 calibre swivel-mounted machine guns. At one check point I watched desperately as a young fellow in full battle dress cleaned his weapon. It was clearly loaded, a bandolier snaked down into the truck bed. As he polished his little cannon the muzzle swivelled wildly but all the while pointed at me. Yeah right! It’s funny now!
As an interesting footnote, a few days later, Joaquin Guzman was arrested in Mazatlan, one hundred twenty miles to the south. The “Most wanted drug lord in the world”, “El Chapo” is regarded by many as a sort of Robin Hood character, known for amazing generosity to locals. In Culicán, hundreds have taken to the streets demanding his release. Their parochial loyalty will remain rock-solid even to whomever takes his mantle. I rather expect an escalation in violence as the next in line to head the cartel is decided.
After yet another Pemex evening I arrived next morning in Guaymas, a destination of my dreams. I’ve heard so many sailors tell what an incredible place this is. After thumpy-bumping my way past a waterfront industrial area, complete with a decaying, but still-functioning shipyard I arrived at a crumbling water front and single dock.
Immediately there was someone lurking in my peripheral vision who wouldn’t face me, nor leave. After my recent adventures I was beginning to feel a bit paranoid and suddenly felt an uncanny ache to be back in Amurica. I’ll
admit, in retrospect, I was merely becoming worn-down but at the time I felt more than a little endangered, much like a brave old moose being worn down by a pack of wolves.
Downtown Guaymas is a beautiful old town and I photographed another amazing old cathedral. Broke as I was, I bought a small finch-like bird for thirty pesos from a vendor, who was puzzled that I didn’t want a cage. He seemed completely amazed when I released it. It probably flew home for him to sell again.
It made me feel immensely better. Once again, there was a lack of road signs but eventually I found my way to San Carlos, an icon of security for all yachters in the Sea Of Cortes. I found one ‘Marina Sec’ or dry-storage yard and can agree that it is a fine place to leave a boat hauled-out for an extended period. However let me warn you that the hot, hot summer and the intense ultra-violet sunlight is harder on a boat than our Pacific Northwest winters. Also, think twice about those cheap boats abandoned in Mexico. Remember that something for sale at a bargain price has not had any money put into it for a while. Apart from the tricky paper work if you want to bring the vessel home, and despite the yacht broker’s cavalier claims, you get what you pay for. What really offended me about San Carlos was that it seems to no longer be Mexico. It is a clutter of gringo holiday houses, hotels, high-end marinas, convenience stores, and hurtling, self-righteous blue-hairs in various recreational conveyances. You may as well be back in Los Angeles or San Diego. Why the hell do we always impose upon ourselves, and everyone else, what we came to escape? Enough said.
I sat on a concrete wall after scrounging a meal from the soggy dregs in my ice box. I watched the ice melt and then dry up under the sun and felt very much the same. A few days earlier I had put the finishing touch on a forty-year old ankle injury. With that throbbing pain and my sense of defeat about my stupid misadventures, I too simply wanted to vaporize. Sadly I headed for the border hoping I had enough gas and pesos to make it to the crossing in Nogales.
Invariably, when the chips are down, scavengers show up to try pecking out your eyes and strip your bones. I became overwhelmed with a sense of being extorted. The closer to
the border, the more our poisonous capitalist influence becomes apparent. The toll gates, or ‘Plaza De Cobra’ also known as ‘Pavilion Cuote’ become closer together. Each time you stop you are besieged by vendors
and kids leaping onto your vehicle to wash your windshield, clean as it may be from the last round of cleaning. I began shouting “NO!”, very loudly, and only after yelling repeatedly “No esta No!” only then did the assaults end; albeit with some very colourful Mexican curses of a vivid sexual connotation. They are especially poignant coming form the mouths of children.
Finally, I passed the Mexican aduanas where my jaunt had began so ingloriously. I returned my vehicle-duty decal and then exchanged my few remaining pesos for Americanos. I was crossing the border with US$31 to my name and a quarter tank of gas. Sheet! The crawl northward to Nogales, Arizona takes you past Nogales, Mexico. It is a sprawling barrio that runs up and over the distant hills. Barefoot children play among the garbage, wrecked cars and skinny, limping dogs.
It is a scene from hell. All these desperate people crowd against the American’s high metal border fence that extends over the hills out of sight in either direction. There is nothing more desperate than seeing thousands living with faint hope within such hopelessness. Helicopters clatter overhead and the tension in the air is palpable. There is yet another Mexican toll gate a short distance from the US border crossing, which is a blatant effrontery.
Finally you heave into sight of the Homeland Security gauntlet ahead. Still the vendors persist a few car-lengths from the gates selling everything imaginable. One woman tried selling me a beautiful puppy. When I explained that this dog-lover couldn’t take him because the pup hadn’t had his shots and papers she exclaimed, “Oh no senor, he is not for to be shooting!” I tried to explain but I’m sure she knew exactly what I said. He would have been put into quarantine within minutes but I’ll bet some gullible family rescued him. I can only imagine the wails of grief as he was hauled away.
Sniff, sniff, question, question, peek and snoop, the multiple interrogations were finally over and I was no longer in Mexico. There is a very definite line, like stepping from one planet to another, as you drive into Nogales, Arizona. Machine gun Spanish is still being spoken, but it clearly NORTH America. I slept peacefully in the Walmart parking lot, secure in the knowledge that I was now where there is at least one handgun in every purse or pocket.
By morning, I was missing Mexico badly. I could not understand why other cars were following me on the road instead of passing on a double line or a curve. Isn’t it strange? Behaviour which, would have incensed me a few weeks earlier, was now normal in my mind. How quickly we become a product of our environment! I know the one I prefer. As I sit here, now back at home watching a foot of snow slowly melt before a chill West wind, I’m already preparing to go back to Mexico. I haven’t felt warm for over a week. I’ve left a huge piece of my heart there.