previous chapter... If you've missed the preceeding five days, check out "A Gringa Drives to Belize" here . If you're wondering about my inability to decide how many of me there are...well, you'll just have to read on... 'L ;-)
[Photos added Feb 2008. 'Lena]
_________________________________________Two Gringas Drive to Belize
Day 5, Part 2 — Monday afternoon 20 October 2003 — Just a Little More Texas..."Why 'call in sick' when you can 'call in insane'?"Mile 2528 - Austin, Texas
It is pleasant in the shade with a warm breeze blowing through the car. Denise and I sit quietly, not saying much; about to part ways and just kind of taking in the moment. We take turns glancing towards the lot where her rental car awaits.
"Wow, this is it, I guess."
"Yep. What a ride, huh?"
"What a ride..."
"Well, you must be looking forward to Houston..."
"True, true... been meaning to go for years now."
"Pretty cool, I guess, for an astro-nut like you."
"Yep, pretty cool..."
Beyond the shade the parking lot is baking in the Texas sun. No one else is in the lot; the agency awaits its only customer.
"The Company will pay your return flight."
"There's a line-item in the start-up budget for an extra flight, should that be necessary, so the Company can pay your return flight."
"You're joking, right?"
"Nope. Consider this: If something happens to me and/or the vehicle on the way down, the entire project and the future of the Company is at risk. With you along, the chances of something seriously bad happening are reduced, not by half, but by a much, much larger factor.** The Company pays for insurance; the Company will pay your return flight."
There is a confused pause. If "tug-o-war" could be a facial expression, it's on Denise's face right now.
"I already have a flight booked out of Houston tomorrow."
"There's a hundred dollar fee."
Another pause. Now she looks like she's trying to pass a stone.
"How long does it take from here to Belize?"
"Three to five days, depending on weather, how early our starts are, and how often we get lost."
"Man, that'll use up all my remaining vacation."
"Isn't this a vacation?"
"Oh yeah, oh yeah... what a ride, huh?"
"Yep, quite a ride. And really, we're only half way. The other half of the Adventure is yet to come."
"I hate you."
We both gaze off toward the rental office.
"Stuff is piling up at work."
"Yes, but one way or the other, two years from now all that stuff will be long done -- will you remember it then?"
We both gaze off toward the rental office.
"Well, I'd better go cancel the car, we're burning daylight."
Denise is gone and back within sixty seconds. There is something like a grin crossed with a scowl on her face. I'm still in the passenger seat. She starts the car, puts it in gear, punches on the A/C, and we're headed toward the on-ramp. She is glaring fiercely straight ahead.
"You always do this to me!"
"I can't make anyone do what they don't already want to do."
"I know, but you always do this to me!"Mile 2855 - McAllen, Texas
It's a brand new Motel 6, but nothing special and only OK for the price. For some weird reason the room is chilled to 62 degrees F. We actually have to turn the heat on to make the room tolerable.
I get online and book D's Belize-to-Houston one-way for the following Sunday, while she gets on the phone and moves her Houston-Seattle flight out from Tuesday to Saturday — yes, she'll still get her precious day at the Space Center...
I take care of email and the last postings before Mexico. I head to bed at midnight. Denise stays up till 1 AM doing her timecard online and "explaining" her extended absence to her coworkers via email. (Earlier during the drive she'd phoned her boss and, to her annoyance, he said "go for it.") We need to be up with the sun to get insurance, top off the tanks, and start the Mexican customs and immigration rigmarole.
After traversing seven states in five days, tomorrow we finally cross our first international border...into Mexico...== End of Day 5, Mile 2855, McAllen, TX ==
** In addition to being an engineer, Denise is an expert mechanic. And five foot ten, with some serious muscles and the attitude to match. You don't mess with Neesie....
=============================================================================Two Gringas Drive to Belize
I feel a need to preface this next segment by stating that different travelers' experiences in Mexico seem to be, well, different.
We have all heard the horror stories, and we've also heard from plenty of folks who had no difficulties whatsoever. This was our very first time in Mexico, and our experience was somewhere in between the two. And all I can say for sure, is that your experience will also be different.
Given that, I will venture a few general remarks:
1. Based on input from many folks more experienced than I, things are generally better now than they were in the "bad old days."
2. We were not there to visit Mexico, we spent very little time in Mexico, and we stuck to the major routes and made no side trips (well, no deliberate side-trips ;-). This limited our exposure: less time and fewer miles means less exposure to chance. At the other extreme, if one were to spend a year driving all over Mexico, or one made many trips through Mexico, one would eventually wind up with a horror story. Or the USA or even Canada probably.
3. We did not travel solo and, although female, we are both quite tall — taller than most Mexican men — and more-or-less middle aged. There were several minor "events" which might have gone differently had there been just one of us, or had we been, say, young men or petit young women.
4. We generally project a polite, friendly, accommodating demeanor. When required we can be firm to the point of stubborn. We are very capable of faking ignorance and even stupidity (sometimes we're not even faking ;-), and are not embarrassed to do so when called for. We understand just a little Spanish, but when convenient we understand no Spanish at all. As a last resort, we are able to become angry and even physical. Except for that last item, we used all the above on our journey through Mexico. Openness and attitude are key.
5. We are both very practiced, alert drivers, and not at all timid. Timid and hesitant do not work in Mexico (or Belize, for that matter). We quickly adopted a driving style based on observation of the drivers around us. As a result we did things and drove in ways we would never even consider in the States. We got crappy gas mileage. But within the Mexican context, we did not take undue risks. Had we driven by American rules and etiquette, we would have been at greater risk.
6. There were several times when safe passage meant applying the unwavering attention of both pilot and copilot for extended stretches. Another reason not to go it solo.
7. We had two sets of maps and Sanborn's guides and all were inaccurate and out-of-date. One of the best, newest highways we drove didn't exist. We often used both maps and the guides to sort things out. If I find an accurate, up-to-date map or road guide I'll let you know. Ditto for you?
8. We never really got lost, but we were "temporarily misplaced" on many occasions. The only real angst I personally experienced was when I let this get to me. The trick to keeping your misplacements temporary is to (a) halt the minute you experience doubt; (b) double-back and re-cross and re-re-cross intersections until you've seen all possible signage (this solved the problem in more than half the instances); (c) ask someone who has real knowledge — cops and taxi drivers are my favorite; (d) be creative in a Mexican way -- we got unmisplaced by taking dirt back alleys, driving in circles on purpose, going up a one-way street the wrong way (the cop we asked said to!), and entering a controlled access road via the off-ramp when there was no on-ramp. And backtracking, backtracking, backtracking — DO NOT keep going if you don't know where you are — you might actually get lost. You too will become temporarily misplaced multiple times — have fun — be Mexican about it — get into it! ;-)
9. We went against the common advice (e.g., night driving) at several points, but did so with care and judgment. Just because we did something doesn't mean you should follow blindly in our tire-tracks. Use your best care and judgment.
P.S. Yes, don't get your knickers in a knot, the actual Mexican segment is coming up next. Really. Trust me. ;-)
=============================================================================Two Gringas Drive to Belize
Day 6, Part 1 — Tuesday morning 21 October 2003 — Texas - Tamaulipas"Bienvenidos á Mexico (but por favor, stay close to your own border)."
As a citizen of the USA or Canada, you are free to travel in and out of Mexico with nothing more than a passport or original birth certificate. Unless you want to go south more than 20 miles or so. *That* is another proposition altogether!Mile 2855 - McAllen, Texas
Exhausted from staying up so late, we over-slept again, arrived late to Sanborn's for the Mexico auto insurance: we are not making the early start we need at the border.
Sanborn's is friendly and helpful and, for the four days' insurance we need, pretty much the same price as other numbers I've seen.
The best insurance they could offer us for my 11-year-old car was plenty adequate, and included collision and (the equivalent of) uninsured motorist coverage (but not non-collision loss like theft or vandalism), prepaid injury medical, accident-related jail bail and representation, and roadside assistance and towing; all with an in-Mexico toll-free number. Now, we didn't put any of this to the test, thankfully, but assuming all of it works, I found it more than worth the price of admission (which was somewhere around fifty bucks, I think).. . .
Sanborn's has a long reputation for providing savvy guidance and route planning as well as the insurance, but I'm thinking that maybe this isn't quite up to the original standard that set the reputation. From our subsequent experience with their over-the-counter info and the Guides, I'd have to say that their general info is merely the generic advice that everyone offers, and the specific knowledge (like that the north end of highway 97 right across the border from them is CLOSED!) is no longer there.
In reviewing the dates on their documentation, it appears to me that they may have lost whomever the force was behind that route-planning reputation (and the Guides), maybe sometime around 1999, and it would seem prudent to consider the info as outdated. The folks at their office in McAllen are extremely nice, but do not, I think, have any knowledge beyond what feedback they get from their clients.. . .
Insurance in hand, we zip over to a nearby gas station and top off the tanks (we had only clear Texas freeway from Austin: mileage = 37.8 MPG (!)), and over to the currency exchange next door.
Before attempting this trip I checked back through other folks' travelogues and made inquiries and the #2 problem (after #1: getting lost) was running out of pesos. Sanborn's recommended $250 to $400 USD, so I changed $500 at 11-point-something. We actually ended up burning about $300, but with very slight shifts in itinerary and/or "events" we could easily have used it all.
Gassed, financed and insured, we're off to the border! Based on many, many recommendations, we are traveling Mexico "turista" to Veracruz (which is a reasonable destination given our 4-day insurance, but nobody ever asked for the insurance), rather than "transmigrante" to Belize, which is, we understand, an entirely different headache altogether...
As turistas we are heading to the crossing at Pharr — a couple miles south of McAllen, with an ETF (Estimated Time for Formalities ;-) of about an hour -- instead of McAllen with an ETF of 2+ hours.
It is already pushing 11:00 AM and our schedule is now seriously at risk.Mile 2860 - Pharr, Texas
I am driving to cross the border (as it is legally my vehicle) and as we near the Mexican line in the center of the Rio Grande I am already beginning to suffer from encroaching gringmoronitis.
We stop at the toll booth on the US side of the bridge over the Rio. I look up at the uniformed gentleman with utterly no concept of his function.
"Where do we take care of our tourist and vehicle paperwork?"
There is a pause. He points south.
"At the border."
Denise leans over, speaking sotto-voce.
"Lena. It's a toll booth."
Finally there is an awareness of the large placard listing the tolls.
I hand the guy some money — pesos, dollars, I don't know and I don't know how much — I get a receipt which I hand to Denise and nearly kill it putting the car in gear. I guess I'm more nervous about this whole thing than I realized.
(OK Lena, get it together, try to remember to breathe evenly. You have been breathing, haven't you? Lena? Hello...)
The bridge is immaculate concrete, with beautiful pavement and tall, inwardly curved chainlink fencing to each side and a clear stripe between the lanes — right up to the very center — whereupon it all immediately goes to hell: the stripe disappears, large pavement flakes are lifting off, the resulting rubble scattered about, and the anti-jumper fences have mostly fallen off, in some places sagging on their supports, in others completely gone, with only the rust stains on the concrete left to testify to their former presence. As an engineer, it occurs to me that the bridge structure may, in fact, be one huge cantilever**, for all intents and purposes supported only on the US side...
** A cantilever is a horizontal structure supported only at one end, like a tree branch.Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas
And here, at last, is the Mexican border authority.
There are several non-descript buildings to the right, few signs and none of them in English — on the surface, it would appear that the Mexican government has little interest in the non-Spanish-speaking citizens of its neighbor to the north.
Directly ahead is what is clearly a customs inspection station with multiple pull-ins and inspection tables. Unsure exactly what to do, we pull up next to the nearest unoccupied official-looking person and inquire.
"Where do we go for visa and vehicle paperwork?"—Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.
It is at this point that we discover that we do not, in fact, speak Spanish.
Or comprehend much either, for that matter.
And evidently we're guilty of hubris to have thought that Mexican officials working the US border might have some ability to communicate (or at least have signs) in English. Silly us. This is a crucial juncture in our education: Mexico is showing us how it's going to be.
I point to myself, Denise, the vehicle, then southward.
I make an exaggerated, questioning gesture and show him a passport.
The uniformed fellow gives me a sour look; he is realizing that I'm not going to simply go away. He points to a dirt lot past the customs area, then to one of the many tiny, nondescript buildings.
I hesitate; don't quite believe I'm supposed to just drive right past customs. The sour look is repeated.
The finger is now clearly jabbing at the entrance to the dirt lot. A sharp elbow from Denise acts as a spur in my side, and we trot off, right past customs, and park in the dirt in the beating sun.
We bail out of the Bomber and head over to the building which most closely approximated the official's gesture. There is a line of people inside, each grasping vehicle titles and such. We have vehicle titles and such. We take this as a good omen and join.
We wait. Others join the line. We wait. There are three "windows" open, but their occupants seem to have made little progress. Another fellow joins the line; he is speaking fluent Spanish to his next-in-line, and has an air of intelligence and long experience about him. Nice looking too.—¿Habla Ingles?
I inquire meekly. I really don't do meek, and this is a good indicator of just how far I've devolved during my short tenure in Mexico.
"Certainly, how can I help you?" Perfect American-accented English.
He takes one glance at the paperwork I'm clutching and informs us that we're in the wrong line. Well, no, it's the right line, but at the wrong time.
He explains: first we walk 100 m. back north to Immigration, get a paper there, go to the next building south from there, pay something and get a stamp, go to the next building south of where we are right now, get a photocopy of that paper, come back to this building, give them all the papers, they will give us a paper, take it back to the photocopy guy, he'll stamp and sign it, bring it back here, pay something, sign twice, and you get a sticker to put inside your windshield. And make sure you get all your stuff back each time. He points to the nearest window: there are several forgotten drivers' licenses taped in the corners.
Profuse gratitude expressed, and with patience and sense of humor intact, we shuffle north to Immigration. There are no signs we can decipher, but we go in anyway.
It is a large, spacious room occupied only by a very young, cheerful pair of officials tucked behind a counter in the far corner.
"Hi. We're turistas
, going to Veracruz
We hand them over.
"Here, make these paper."
English! (Well, sort of...) He hands us each a long strip of paper. And then smiles! We are nearly overcome.
He directs us to the kiosk in the center of the room where we are to make paper. We do so. Still we are the only customers.
We deliver the papers, all made.
"What you want?"
"To go to Veracruz."
"No — *what* you want?"
I am stupefied. I have spent the past forty-something years trying to answer this question for myself. I have no ready answer.
"You want one month...six month...what you want?"
"Oh! Just a week! We're just going down to Veracruz and back."
"Six month OK?"
"Oh, yes, certainly, perfecto, six months it is."
He stamps and writes and stamps and writes. We have our passports back and a new paper each. He smiles blankly. We're done.
My ability to form English sentences seems to have been reduced to the local common denominator.
He gestures vaguely south. We exit the air-conditioned edifice into the dusty sun and shuffle southward.
We have a new operating procedure: enter every building, no matter how small or obscure, stand in every line, repeat until somebody does something.
On the second try, in a cramped little hut, we find a woman under glass who will not only accept our papers, but wants money to go with them. We take this as a good omen.
I nod my stupid grin and push 30 pesos under the glass. It pops back.
I retrieve my pesos, momentarily confused. What country am I in?
Denise produces thirty dollars and saves the day, it disappears under the glass. Sounds of stamping. Papers come back plus a receipt. The glass woman smiles blandly. We're done.
"Copy." The vague gesture is southward.
"Copy." Denise repeats, dragging me out the door. She seems to be learning the drill faster than I; maybe because she works for a corporation...
We trudge further southward, pass by the vehicle building, knowing better this time, and in the next hut discover the Copy Guy. He's a happy, round sort of fellow, and cheerfully makes copies of our stamped and restamped papers, hands them back, no charge, and another smile! No English habla-ing, but the big smile more than compensates as he shoos us off northward to the vehicle hut. His optimism is contagious.
We are finally back where we started. There is only one person before us for three windows. We take this as a good omen. Two windows promptly close. We wait.
We approach the final window. The fellow reaches for our paperwork.—Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.
"Er, yo no hablo...
The paperwork screeches to a halt on its trip under the glass and reverses direction.
He waves us perfunctorily off to one side and begins serving the next (Spanish speaking) person in line. No other window is open. I am at a complete loss.
But strangely, Denise seems calm and unconcerned. Well, she works for a corporation, so...
"I guess we wait for the English speaking person to get back."
And who knows when that might be. Another no-English client is helped, exits.
The guy who was helped before we weren't helped reappears with a paper and bellies up to the no-English window. After a minute he exits with a wad of documentation and a shiny new sticker. Denise is shrewdly observing from the sidelines; taking notes, her expression inscrutable.
For the moment we are the only customers in the hut — I take the matter in hand and boldly step back up to the only open window and resubmit my wad. This time the paperwork is accepted.
"Copies." It is a request (in English!).
"How many?" He actually looks up at me for the first time. It is a look of overwhelming forbearance.
The number required seems to be somewhat variable — we had been advised to come equipped with up to four copies of everything. I peel off two copies of everything I have and hand them over. He sorts through for the ones he wants, shoves the rest back. He begins comparing each photocopy to the corresponding original, letter by letter as near as I can tell. He makes paper.
A document is pushed my way with a vague gesture southward. My passport, drivers' license, vehicle title and registration remain firmly in his custody. I have a momentary, disconnected feeling, as if this stranger who won't even look at me has my clothes.
Meanwhile, the wily Denise, who has figured out the drill, snatches the document.
"You stay here, don't leave this window, I'll be back."
In the absence of any coherent thought of my own, I do as bidden, blocking access to the one open window. Thankfully, my position goes unchallenged, as no one enters before Denise returns and shoves the document to the no-English guy, who's activity suddenly resumes as if Denise had popped in a fresh battery.
"Where'd you go?"
"He made a copy?"
"No, he signed it."
"He signed it..." I had no idea copy guys had such clout in Mexico.
We are interrupted by a request for money. This time pesos are the desired unit of exchange. We take this as a good omen.
A new, very fancy document appears.
"You. Sign. Here. Here."
I sign. I sign. There seems to be something magical about the number two here.
A portion of the document is torn on dotted line, the remainder turned over to reveal a very fancy sticker with holograms and some serious, imbedded electronics. I've never seen the like. And these people can't afford English signs...
He says something about the car window. I start to ask—
—but before I can cause any more trouble Denise hustles me out the door, across the customs inspection area, and toward the parking lot.
The car is roasting in the noon sun. The solar oven has been reinvented. We climb back into the Bomber and start the engine and A/C.
"Put it there." Denise points to the lower-left corner of the windscreen.
"How do you know?"
"That's where everyone puts it."
How my copilot has come by this rare information I do not know, but I've stopped caring. The magic sticker is applied.
"Now let's get out of here."
I try to comply with Denise's command but there is no exit to the dirt lot which will permit access to customs — the only way out is the way we came in, which is well beyond the checkpoint.
I drive to the exit, poke my nose out into the road, wait for a customs official to indicate what I should do. Two uniforms look at us, then turn their backs.
"Go!!!"Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas
We drive off into Mexico. It's a little after noon.
Lesson of the Day:
It takes two gringos to equal one Mexican. Every situation from route finding to ordering lunch seems to require both a pilot (doer) and a navigator (spotter); and the undivided attention of both at all times. No matter how smart you are, unless you're born Mexican, you can only do one or the other, not both. Don't leave home alone.... . .
(By the way, the whole border dance took just about an hour.)== End of Day 6, Part 1, Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas ==
=============================================================================Two Gringas Drive to Belize
Day 6, Part 2 — Tuesday afternoon 21 October 2003 — Tamaulipas, Mexico"Already Lost in Margarita Ville..."Mile 2863 - Somewhere in Reynosa, Tamaulipas
Hardly more than a mile into Mexico and we're already lost. OK, not really lost, just "temporarily misplaced." The first of many such Temporary Misplacements or "TMs."
TMs are a way of life for the non-native in Mexico. A TM is relatively harmless — as long as it's still light, you have fuel, and can turn around or back up — and only becomes a TL (Totally Lost) when the imprudent non-native fails to turn around or back up once the TM has been identified.**. . .
TM #1: We're hardly more than a mile into Mexico and we're already misplaced. We know this because we're in Reynosa. This might not seem unreasonable, were it not for the fact that we started out east of Reynosa and we want to go south on 97, which is also east of Reynosa, thus the determination that we've been TM'd. The reason for this becomes evident soon enough, once we turn around and backtrack (this will become SOP — Standard Operating Procedure).
Now, as I said, we were heading west on the major sort-of-freeway towards Reynosa when we discovered we were already in Reynosa. Now, as it turns out, on- and off-ramps are expensive and take up space, while intersections create traffic congestion — all of which the Mexican highway designer wishes to avoid — and successfully does so by omitting both. Further, the omission of ramps and intersections conveniently reduces the need for signage which, as we have already seen, is unpopular in Mexico, probably for reasons of aesthetics as well as expense.
Now, as I said, once TM'd, we back-tracked underneath the sort-of-freeway until we found 97. As it turns out, the accepted procedure (really!) for making such ramp-free connections is 1. to exit on the (psychically determined) previous ramp or intersection, 2. follow the service road or "lateral" parallel the arterial exited, until you pass by the desired intersection (often no left turn possible), 3. make the next U-turn under (or sometimes across) the arterial you've been paralleling (this is called a "Returno"; sometimes there is even a sign ;-), 4. backtrack to the desired intersection and turn right, 5. proceed on your merry way. I am dead serious: this is how it is actually supposed to be done. No kidding.
OK, now, as I said, we'd back-tracked underneath the sort-of-freeway until we found 97, whereupon we were immediately presented with our next challenge: it was partially dug up and access was blocked off by a parked piece of heavy equipment; no signs, no cones, utterly no evidence of any detour, and absolutely nobody around. (And Hwy. 97 is the major north-south arterial, bear in mind.) The absence of any workers and the absence of a huge snarl of honking vehicles leads us to conclude that it must be siesta time. Either that or a national strike is under way...
Now, although we did technically know where we were, since we really couldn't "get there from here", I've taken the liberty of declaring this TM #2.
TM #2: We are stopped, staring stupidly at the enormous pavement roller blocking our advance. We look to one side where there is actually a sign, and it actually says that this is Hwy. 97. We look back to the roller. There is no way around it, over it, or under it; there is no one on it, and it is definitely not moving.
The only options are back the way we came, north towards the US border (doesn't seem like such a bad option at this point ;-), and off to one side following a narrow, muddy alley which squeezes between buildings on its way into the local shanty town. Stunningly, there are actually vehicles taking this latter route. We follow.
What ensues is a vigorous 1/4 mile of urban off-roading and mud-bogging leading to, yes, Hwy. 97! somewhat past the non-rolling barricade. Still hardly believing what has just transpired, we roll down a window to consult with a fellow off-road enthusiast.— ¿Cd. Victoria para...?
(Relevant finger-pointing.)— ¡Si, si!
(Vigorous nodding w/ similar finger-pointing.)
A sharp, cautious drop into the unfinished roadbed and we're off, heading southward on Hwy. 97...
Hwy. 97 to 101 and on toward Cd. Victoria, passes easily and uneventfully. The scenery is more-or-less Mexico's answer to Texas, sans oil. Based on every recommendation and trip report we've come across, we choose to give the Soto la Marina / Hwy. 180 route a miss — a large percentage of the complaints in re road conditions seem to relate to this route.
Tooling happily along 101 toward Cd. Victoria at 70+ MPH, we come to, and pass, an intersection with a nice new highway which doesn't exist on any of our maps. And there's even a sign which optimistically declares "Tampico" with an arrow pointing south. We grind to a halt and reverse back to the now-familiar pull-off-right-and-U-turn-left ramp. Yes, there really is a sign to Tampico — in both directions! — the road appears real enough, and there is no heavy equipment blocking it.
We take a meeting. Denise's position: it looks like a nice, brand new road, it says "to Tampico", it goes in the proper direction, and it even looks like a logical extension of a highway which *is* shown on our maps and connects with the main route to Tampico. My position: It's a honey-trap and will land us in a mudbog. Denise's motion carries. We head south on what now calls itself Hwy. 83.
What follows is a logical series of connections involving Hwys. 83, 81, and 80, none of which has the slightest connection to the lines and numbers on either of our two maps. Fortunately, Denise is still navigating, and we eventually connect up with the toll road to Tampico.
I use the toll as an opportunity to break a large bill, hand the change and receipt to Denise, and pull forward — only to be waved off to the shoulder by a police officer who was waiting for us just beyond the toll gate.
I roll down the driver's side window and he leans on the frame, shoving his head into the car, smiles like a welcoming committee, reaches into the vehicle to shake, first my hand, then Denise's. This is not a good sign.— Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.
Followed by what is no doubt intended as a friendly smile, but falls somewhat short, and ends up somewhere between comical and predatory. He is still leaning on the window frame, his face about six inches from mine. Oddly, I almost think I pick out a reference to "cold drinks" (refrescos
) and "tips" (the actual English word).
Sometimes it is very handy to be an idiot. If you can manage to pull off foreign female idiot, so much the better (though if you are not female, you might leave that part out, just to avoid misunderstandings).
I stare blankly (innocently, I hope fervently) at the sweaty face just inches from mine, and deliver a deliberate, earnest, random mix of Spanish and English syllables.— Long stream of staccato Spanish, this time accompanied by a hungry smile and a vague gesture toward the change Denise is still holding.
We follow his gaze; there is no doubt what this is about. Denise hands me the change, I take it but palm the one large (200 peso) note back to her. I hold up my handful of pocket change and look inquiring. We waves it away, gestures enthusiastically toward the $200 which, unfortunately, he's caught sight of. He makes the mistake of holding his hand open, palm up.
Smiling and looking directly at the man as if speaking to him, I say—
"Denise, put that away right now, this instant."
—and dump my handful of change into the officer's open palm. He tries to give it back, but my hands are folded demurely in my lap. He has to stand up from my window to use his remaining hand to indicate the now vanished $200 peso note.— ¡Short burst of rather annoyed-sounding Spanish!
"Yes, I know sir, and you can ask Spanish and I can reply English until we're both blue in the face, don't you know?" I am exceeding careful to preserve a sweet, confused, inquiring tone.— Increasingly frustrated-sounding Spanish.
"Yep, I sure do know what you want, but it's not gonna happen today Senior, not with this Gringa," and I throw in a troubled —No comprende...
shaking my head for good measure.— Spanish monosyllable with perfunctory gesture toward Denise and the missing $200 note.
Unfortunately for him, his gesture also includes the glove box. I reach purposefully into the glove box. A look of hopeful anticipation passes briefly across my victim's face. I deliberately withdraw a small pocket Spanish-English dictionary, show it to him, and begin to studiously leaf through it.— ¡Unmistakable exclamation of hopeless frustration!
He is walking backward, waving us away. Instead of starting the car, I call out to him, waving my text, perhaps looking like I might follow him. He is now walking briskly away with his back turned, pocket change in one hand, still waving us southward with the other. I believe that, had I got out of the car, he might actually have run.Mile 3214 - Tampico, Tamaulipas
We had wanted to make the reputedly very nice coastal town of Tuxpan for the night, but thanks to our late start, dusk catches us on the outskirts of the rather industrial city of Tampico. We are far enough south now that night is starting to fall pretty quickly.
Thanks to the twilight, a foolish attempt to circumnavigate the city via the tollway bypass, random road construction, and the crush of end-of-the-day traffic, we have missed a turn and are already beginning TM #3, though we are, as yet, blissfully unaware of the fact.
Actually, TM #3 turns out to be a blessing in disguise (or, as I like to say, a "mixed curse"), as without it we would never have discovered the first Love Shack.
So it is now definitely getting dark, and starting to rain, and we are wrestling our way through a muddy construction zone, pinched between huge trucks when, ahead on the right, there is a glorious, brand-spanking-new, gorgeously landscaped, pink-walled edifice which looks as misplaced as we in the industrial mudpit of eastern Tampico.
The sign says: Motel.
We pull in, under the huge pink arched stucco entryway, and park next to a very shiny, late model Mercedes. We are surrounded by immaculately tended gardens of tropical vegetation, spotless concrete and tile, and very curious, slightly amused-looking staff, including one very polite, cheerful armed guard with a walkie-talkie.
This last fellow, grins and waves in a friendly, reassuring manner, and keeps his distance, which we consider a good omen. A fellow who has a friendly "in charge" air about him approaches from what appears to be the office. He also sports a walkie-talkie. The female staff have all piled out of their various hiding spots and group up in the background, enjoying the spectacle.
We take in our surroundings as we await the in-charge fellow's immanent arrival. There are several driveway "isles" lined to each side with what appear to be suites, to each of which the only access is through what appears to be a garage door. There must be forty or fifty of them, all surrounded by the high, pink wall. The design, landscaping and maintenance are all perfect — the place is nothing short of beautiful.
The in-charge man has arrived. I've got a pretty good idea what we're dealing with here. But I don't think Denise does! ;-)—Friendly stream of unintelligible Spanish, this time accompanied by a generous and sincere, if slightly amused, smile.
I'm a little fuddled, not quite sure how to proceed, so Denise takes the lead, making her best impression of a room request in Spanish.—La, er, habitacion para
, er, for the night..." She looks to me for help.—La noche
, I prompt.—¿Para la noche? ¿La habitacion?
She waves her hands about and looks hesitantly optimistic.
The man looks bemused, and maybe just a touch at a loss.—No hablo ingles.
And inserts a long string of Spanish into his walkie-talkie. His voice is echoed some distance away at the guards hip, but he makes no motion.
We all stand around, enjoying the silence of each other's company, and soon another fellow, very young, approaches: the Manager.
"Good evening ladies, how may I be of help?"
We are speechless. Near-perfect American-accented English, with maybe even an undertone of college education.
Denise looks nonplussed. I believe she may be trying to get "la habitacion para la noche"
to come out again, so I take the lead.
"Is it possible to get a room for the night?"
There is a brief debate between the Manager and his #2.
"Ah, yes, but the best price we can offer you is from 8:00 PM to 10:00 AM."
It is now somewhat past 6 PM — seems odd — but whatever...
Another conference; it seems this event may be precedent-setting. A conclusion is reached.
"For eight until ten it would be $360 pesos." He seems to think this is likely to be too high. It's about $33 USD.
"No problem. Can we see a room?"
Now the young Manager is really at a loss. He's starting to look distinctly awkward.
"Ah, ma'am, ah, this is... you know, this is like... a love hotel..."
"Yeah, I know. Can we see a room?"
He is defeated. We are shown a room. It's fantastic. Huge bed, elegant decor, without question the cleanest, best appointed, most secure room we've seen anywhere either side of the border. Words don't do justice — you really need to take a look at the photos!
I think Denise may be catching on: there is a complementary condom in the ashtray.
"We'll take it. Can we pay now?". . .
We drive off in search of the restaurant the Manager has recommended. Properly fed, we return well in advance of the 8 PM assigned check-in, but it doesn't seem to be a problem. As our car appears and is recognized, we are rapidly ushered by #2 to an open garage door, while the guard, er, stands guard.
The instant our vehicle is clear, the mechanism engages and down comes the automatic door and we are suddenly ensconced in our secret love nest.
We are exhausted — take a few photos before we mess up the room, then unload — no need even to lock the car. Shower and bed. Lights out. I make Denise keep to her own side... ;-)== End of Day 6, Mile 3214, Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico ==
** I do have one report of a first-time successful transit of Mexico from Texas to Belize which disregarded this advice. The transit in question involved a large truck towing a large fifth-wheel, and a compass. Since there was, in this case, no reasonable hope of backing up or turning around, their MO (modus operundi
) was "just keep heading south." Evidently they did eventually make it to Belize (since that was where I got the story from), but this MO is nevertheless not recommended: they could just as easily now be permanently parked, sunk to the axles, and living today on some muddy, dead-end road, somewhere in Mexico...Clic here to see all Day 6 pix...Text and accompanying photographs are copyright 2003 Galena Alyson Canada.
MissLena is Galena Alyson Canada
Her email is themisslena ã gmail õ com.