Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 4: On the Road to Rio Grande

Find Chapter 1 HERE  Chapter 2 HERE   Chapter 3 HERE

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 4: On the Road to Rio Grande

        The next morning, we were finally on the road after driving back into central Chihuahua to cash dollars for pesos and to gas up and buy ice.  It was easier than yesterday, in rush hour traffic.  A night’s rest later, we were finally visaed, permitted, pesoed, petroled, iced up  and on the road to San Miguel.
        We drove hundreds of kilometers through desert scrub. Men with scarves tied over their hats to shield them from the relentless sun waved orange flags to slow us down as they oiled the other side of the toll road.  It was almost as expensive to drive here as in Europe, with all the frequent tolls.  On the second day of driving, we spent more on tolls than we had on our room the night before.  Now and then I would see some interesting sight I would have loved to have investigated, but Bob preferred to travel fast and  promised trips to the Copper Canyon and other off-road excursions on some future trip.  It had been such an ordeal getting away for this expedition that I decided not to make side trips yet another obstacle keeping us from San Miguel de Allende.  This time, we would do it his way, and perhaps the next time, too, but one day I would see Copper Canyon.
        After being stopped twice by the policia federal, Bob finally believed that he had to slow down in areas where slow speeds were posted.  In both cases, the officers spoke no English and our attempts at Spanish out of a dictionary encouraged them to give up.  The first policia saved face by escorting us back to the toll road he insisted we should take, although I was fairly sure that the camino libre (free road) led to the same place. The second time we were stopped, it was by policemen in two separate police cars going in the opposite direction, who first waved  us down  and then  turned in the road to follow us and wave us over.  Bob told me to get out the bribes which we had been told were the best way to deal with the police in a system where the collecting of the mordida  was taken into account when figuring the salary of policemen,  but in both cases of dealing with la policia  we were too inept to know how to offer them and they eventually gave up gracefully, pointing us once again in the direction of the correct road.  (We have since changed our minds about the offering of mordidas, but at the time we were innocents in Mexico, just following the advice of friends.)
        Hours later, we were on the free road which was two-way, bumpy and under construction. For the past 20 kilometers, we had been driving through deeply-rutted dirt while oncoming traffic maneuvered over a narrow strip of raised but even tarmac.  Sandwiched between 18 wheelers, our van slowed to a speed where I could actually make out the leaf patterns on shrubs and low trees.  I thought I made out manzanita, mimosa and perhaps a variety of pinion.  One delicate poppy-like flower appeared to be cotton. 
            The brilliant red sand on either side of the road drifted in places into small dunes. It was densely covered with rabbit brush and the other trees I thought I’d identified.  In the distance, the sky was dark and I made out three separate funnel clouds, all of which seem to be moving toward us. I watched the funnels uneasily, remembering the last time I saw such a sight.  Eventually, they united and broadened and seemed to break their cord with the higher heavens, but they continued to blow toward us.  At our slow pace, I wondered if they would catch us.  Then another funnel cloud––taller and thinner––formed farther ahead of us and to the right.  I forgot to watch it, concentrating on a more immediate danger as Bob got competitive with the bus trying to pass us and swung out in front of the semi we had been following.  I closed my eyes, then returned to the desert plant guide, knowing that all of the backseat driving comments I’d made earlier had done no more good than this one would have.  When I thought to look back to where the funnel had been, it had dispersed.  We had passed the semi, the bus had passed us, and the blacktop surface had been regained. 
        When we got to the next town, dozens of speed bumps did what neither a nagging wife nor la policia could do, and Bob proceeded on for a while at the correct speed limit through town, in search of a casa de cambio. Gas and tolls had eaten up the entire $150 I had cashed into pesos that morning.  It may have been cheap to retire in Mexico, but it sure wasn’t cheap to drive there!
        Here and there along our route, huge factories or assembly plants lined the road, finished or in stages of completion––Wrangler, Coca-Cola, car plants.  Now and then a huge modern sculpture dwarfed us, but we didn’t stop to read the inscription.  Next to these gigantic modern buildings were the near ruins of lines of conjoined adobe motel-like dwellings.  Then, across the street, were lines of similar dwellings, but brand new and two-storied in a faux Tyrolean half-timbered style most bizarre in this setting.
        KFC, Burger King and Dairy Queen competed with but did not in any way outnumber the burrito and tamale carts which stood beside the road.  In one small town, men in white shirts stood in the road and flagged us down, then motioned us over.  We noticed before actually leaving the road that they were trying to lure us into a lot filled with cart vendors.  We were hurrying to try to cash dollars for pesos, and we drove on without sampling their wares.          
        This deep into Mexico, I could no longer remember what I expected it to be like. It was surprising to me that not once in over 1,000 miles did we pass any car with North Americans in it.  Nor did we encounter any Americans or other foreigners in any of the towns we passed through.  Few people spoke English, even in banks, but in spite of this, no one looked upon us as an oddity.  We just were.  Like the funnel clouds and the circling white plastic bag in the middle of the street, we passed through but affected them little.  This was exactly the way I wanted it to be, now that I thought about it.  It was what I was looking for––some place that was purely itself, different from what I knew.  I longed again to be a stranger and to have the unexpected around every corner. 
        The terrain in the northwestern region I found to be not so different from the Mohave:  rabbit brush, mesquite, willows, cholla, prickly pear and willow trees.  But unlike the litter-conscious United States and because the dumps tended to be located near the main road, here there was lots of refuse outside every town.  As we drew near each dumping ground, thousands of plastic bags snagged on every fence, shrub and stone, littering the desert like some exotic flower display. Everywhere, huge chunks of concrete lay piled alongside the road––destroyed buildings or landfill––who knew?
        Frequent signs warned of livestock in the roads; and occasionally, livestock actually did appear there, as if to validate the signs.  As we drove farther south, there were fewer signs but more livestock on the roads––even the broadest and fanciest toll road between Aguascalientes and Leon.  On this road, for the first time, the four-lane divided highways came complete with median boundaries, curbs, gutters, shoulders, and a woman who hurried to herd her goats off the left-hand lane of the road as semis, cars and pickups whizzed by. 
        Our last toll having wiped us out of pesos, We drove into Rio Grande to find a casa de cambio. Since a parking place seemed to be an impossibility, Bob let me off in the crowded streets, promising to try to find me again.  When I came out of the cubicle, the sidewalks were crowded and a small parade was making its way down the street.  A policeman stopped traffic in all directions as high-school-aged students waved flags from cars.  They seemed to be celebrating some sports victory, or an election.  Banners on cars announced names.  On one car, a young girl rode on the hood, an older woman running out to position a folded blanket under her.  As she moved to adjust it, the girl cringed, as though her legs crossed out to the side of her were sore, or burned or maybe just cramped.  She wore a shiny halter and tight metallic spandex bell bottoms––hardly the clothes of a homecoming queen.  Other teenagers threw candy from car windows and one piece sailed right toward me.  I picked it up, and it seemed to me that it was a sign, welcoming me to Mexico.  It was Tomy’s––my favorite Mexican hard candy.  In ten minutes or so, the parade had passed and in ten more I spotted the tall rack on top of our van coming toward me in the line of cars making its way down the street.
        We drove on to the outskirts of Rio Grande, where we found a motel nicer and cheaper than the one the night before.  This night it was monsoon rains rather than windstorms that greeted us, settling the dust and raising the fresh smell of wet earth.  We had rejected our first room in favor of one where we could park next to the window of our room.  Once we got in bed, we could see why they had tried to put us in the room toward the back.  All night long, the huge trucks whizzed by twenty feet from our open window.  Nearer at hand was the sound of Bearcat beginning his frenzied cat box scratchings.  Half way through the night, I got up and searched through my bag to find ear plugs, which I was sure I’d packed.  I finally found them. 
        Hours later, I awoke to the glare of lights switched on by Bob, who stood at the window inspecting our van.  I glanced at my watch.  4 am.  Even through earplugs, I could hear that the car alarm was going off, so I slipped on jeans under my nightshirt and went out with Bob to see what was going on.  The boy in the office was coming out to investigate, but all was well.  I switched off the alarm.
        Feeling brave, Bearcat left the room as we did, stepping out into the rain-freshened cool night air with his ears and tail up, his nose twitching inquisitively.  I fastened his leash to the ring on his halter and we went for a stroll.  We walked for some time in the direction he wanted to go, at the speed he wanted to go, but I censored his movements when he jumped to the top of a small wall and tugged on the leash to jump over.  Taking him in my arms, I carried him back to bed.  This time, I put the litter box in the shower before inserting my ear plugs, and so both Bob and I got a few more hours of sleep. 


Judy’s Note: It’s maddening that I know I have photos of this entire trip and our period in San Miguel. I’ve been through three big boxes of letters and photos and memorabilia looking for them, to no avail. I’m afraid they are on some obsolete computer or media storage disk or tape or electronic device and that I’ll never be able to retrieve them. The result is that I will probably eventually run out of solutions for showing a photo with each chapter. 

Chapter 5 is HERE.

This entry was posted in Books, Prose and tagged , on by .

About lifelessons

My blog, which started out to be about overcoming grief, quickly grew into a blog about celebrating life. I post daily: poems, photographs, essays or stories. I've lived in countries all around the globe but have finally come to rest in Mexico, where I've lived since 2001. My books may be found on Amazon in Kindle and print format, my art in local Ajijic galleries. Hope to see you at my blog.

17 thoughts on “Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 4: On the Road to Rio Grande

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  9. Eilene Lyon

    When you said you changed your mind about paying the mordida, did you mean you thought you should have or shouldn’t have?

    Competitive driving! Why do men insist on doing this? Just when I think my husband has gotten over it…

    My family (dad,mom, three kids) drove from Oregon to Guatemala in Jan 1973. I only recall a few of the stops in Mexico: Oaxaca, Mazatlan, Mexico City (especially). Your story is a great reminder. I do hope to hear you made it to Copper Canyon, someplace I’d like to see.



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