Saturday, April 1, 2017

Rock Bottom

The pain of the following event has been replaced by the pain of a different event, which is the signal that it is time to write of the preceding event. This event, this pinche pendejo crisis, set in motion a day of pure grief, travelers’ woes, “Once upon a time in Mexico…” Dios, this was a miserable day coming at the end of so many ups and downs over the span of years wandering Latin America. This was the lowest or nearly the lowest depending on how you look at it and what standards are used. Emotionally, it was not the lowest although it was very low. Physically and financially and legally it was the lowest. In terms of the van, my faithful steed El Conquistador, it was rock bottom, although the time the rear axle bearing disintegrated on a Guatemalan mountain road was awful. Being stranded between the borders of Costa Rica and Nicaragua with Cuban refugees was indeed a strain, but the chaos was manageable because I was basically ignored by all but my own demons. But this event, this chain of evil events in Mexico, was the opposite; the wolves came at me from all sides, the moment I thought I was safely on the other side of the storm another storm hit. It was one assault after another; there was no where to hide, nowhere to run, no safe harbor, survival was my victory. The relentless punishment all started with the horrible screams from hundreds of dying pigs.

I camped in my van in Atlixco during my return voyage north. I’d lived in that tranquil setting a few years previously but I had no time to linger. The city works as a salve on me so I visited one last time and quickly continue toward the West. It was fiesta time, the entire month of September celebrates the war that liberated Mexico from Spain. In Atlixco the special meal of Chiles en Nogadas, a tempting recipe courtesy of Pueblan nuns, came with my choice of red or white wine. I chose white, in honor of Luis who was trapped in a beach town in Nicaragua, crippled by a stroke that ended his sculpting career. Luis was my friend who preferred white wine so I drank white wine and ate with gusto while watching an endless parade through the colored cement arches of the restaurant walls. My waiter showered me with attention and filled and refilled my wine glass as fast as I could drain it. I shoveled the flavorful food, a culinary celebration of Mexican independence, into my mouth like a starving peasant, barely pausing to taste the walnut sauce and spiced fruit stuffing before swallowing it with a gulp so audible the neighboring table paused to make sure I was not chocking. I was careless with my gratuity, spending money like a condemned man, scribbling an illegible signature on the bill, almost tipping over the empty bottle of wine. Bottle? When had I ordered a bottle? I thought the meal came with a mere glass of wine but somehow I ended up with an empty carafe and an empty bottle of Luis’s favorite white wine. My nose was pleasantly numb as I finished the after dinner mint and wiped my mouth with the fine, white linen table cloth. I almost fell asleep in my seat but the waiter, Jose, woke me up in time to shuffle me into the street with my leather jacket…wait, had I worn a leather jacket into the restaurant? No, I’d accidentally taken the jacket from the chair next to mine. I begged pardon, stumbled, returned the jacket, flirted with a pretty Muchacha dining with her family until Jose apologized for me and directed me back to my table. I took my own leather shirt with the Mayan temple on the back, knocked over a chair and waved goodbye to Jose like he was my only brother. “Viva Mexico!” I cried. I plunged into the busy street filled with flowers and midgets and stilt walkers and giant walking dolls, families, police, dogs, fireworks exploding inches from my face. I stumbled aimlessly, intoxicated by the exotic effervescent aroma in the night air. I needed coffee or wine and elected more wine, easily purchased at one of the dozen tiendas in downtown Atlixco. The night developed along a similar theme until I managed to park my van on an empty section of street and collapsed into my bed with most of my clothes on. God, I thought, let me be knifed here and now, a deep fatal wound to this miserable heart of mine, so I can go out feeling no pain.

I awoke to the sound of screaming pigs, dying in agony, having their throats slit by sharp knives. My head throbbed through the haze of an evil wine hangover. My face was dripping with wine scented sweat. Sweat does not have an odor but the bacteria that grows on sweat made me smell like the inside of a medieval wine bladder unearthed from a Roman settlement in England. Lord, Jesus, I thought. Why are there hundreds of pigs screaming in pain outside my van? Why? I reluctantly peeled back a corner of the curtains without a clear idea of what I would see, what country, what city, what landscape, what weather, it could be Canada or Costa Rica…I bit my lip as a spasm of atrial fibrillation rocked my chest, and saw, beyond the blinding harsh glare of mid-morning sun, that I had parked outside the local slaughter house, Yes, I remembered, this was Mexico, Atlixco, Puebla, so the reek from my own armpits was magnified by the stench of pig entrails and blood and meat. Carnitas and Tacos al Pastor do not materialize from the ether and this slaughter house was the end of the line for many local pigs and the beginning of many plates of delicious tacos. No wonder this was a section of street that no one wanted to park near. Way to go, Oggy. Death hung like captive kittens over my face.

I’m probably not the first Gringo to wake up in a van, hungover, outside a Mexican pig slaughterhouse but that don’t mean it’s something the tour guides can provide advice about. I felt confused, depleted and raw, fragile, hurt, like my liver had petitioned the governor of Puebla for clemency and decided to stop functioning while the paperwork was processed. Fuck! My hands were trembling and my brain was on fire. With nowhere to go, the wine had pooled in my blackened soul like a stagnant puddle of blood. All I could do was try to brush the cat shit out of my teeth and start my day. I decided that any destination was too ambitious for such an ominous beginning to day. My immediate agenda was something like: 1) Get Dressed. 2) See if the Van starts. My long term agenda was 1) Stay hydrated. 2) Repeat #1 until dark enough to sleep. The rest was insignificant details that involved driving that would be improvised on the spot. After two years of traveling and 6 years of mostly traveling, I had abandoned an itinerary that included more than 2 hours of plans. The day always had a stronger will than I so I obediently stumbled around the van with robotic, clumsy movements that involved putting my shorts on, finding my sandals on the dashboard, washing the crust out of my eyes, brushing my teeth and spitting the slop into the cobblestone street.

God, when will those Pigs stop screaming? Their cries were relentless, piercing, haunting. The worst was when I could identify a single pig’s cry above the others, it had a distinct tone, a note, a pitch that was unique and I could hear it over and over, crying dumbly and awfully into the open hallway. Then the cry would be silenced. I could hear cries that were similar but not exactly like that one unique cry that was gone forever to the altar of pastor tacos. I looked closer at the slaughterhouse over the cement wall and it looked like a car wash. The pigs were forced walking in one door and taco meat came out the other side. It was a hallway that silenced pigs forever. Then I noticed the local Federales patrol vehicle parked five feet in front of my van after they probably followed the messy trail of oil, blood, vomit and shit that I left on the street.

No one is safe from Los Pinche Federales. Mexicans do not trust them, they solve no crimes, they prevent no accidents. All they do is stalk citizens and tourists to fine them arbitrary amounts to pay for their salaries and to represent the absurd notion of Law and Order. I doubt they even agree in principle with the theory a handful of state employees will make a tangible difference in the lives of millions of independent citizens. All the police can do is clean up the mess so what is the point? But the job includes a vehicle and a uniform and a steady, although small, paycheck, so it's better than nothing. 

Regardless, I shifted my morning ritual into second gear to get off that street faster than a Mexican butcher can turn a pig into a tasty plate of Carnitas. I threw my digital piano onto my sweaty bed sheets. I threw my numerous instruments next to it, double checked the strap on my moped and managed to snap one or two buttons on my shirt closed. The key was still in the ignition so I turned it and coaxed the engine to life. The Federales patrol car was parked directly in front of my van but it was empty. I had no intention of staying around to chat with them so once the engine was mostly warmed up I headed toward the gas stations.

I knew Atlixco well enough to find my way to the market and the gym and the liquor store and the gas station but the route to Cuernavaca involved a tricky navigation of the town with probably three ways to get there. No, said the attendant, just go to the highway to Puebla, go North, then take the first highway West. Foolishly, I said, “But isn’t there another route? Another direction?” “Yes, the attendant said, “it is through town, a zigzag of turns and twists that will also get you to the highway to Cuernavaca, but it’s easier to go toward Puebla and then go West.”

Why didn’t I take his advice? Foolish. I blame the wine. I had entered Atlixco via the road that I was now trying to find but I wasn’t completely sure how to find it again. I knew what it looked like but I also knew there were several streets that looked similar. Of course there would be no signs, but there are never signs when I needed them. I had a full tank of gasoline so I headed in the direction I thought led to the route to Cuernavaca. First, I wove through the back streets of Atlixco, over 200 speed bumps and went under the highway that I was aiming for but there was absolutely no access to it because it was a toll road. I was not trying to avoid the toll because I knew the toll booth was further toward Cuernavaca. I was actually trying to avoid getting lost by going in the direction of Puebla because I had never seen that interchange and if I missed it then I would be trapped on the toll road toward Puebla with no way to turn around. It seemed needless to get on a highway going north when I knew there was a connecting road, not at all secret or hidden, leading to the highway west. So I turned around and drove back through the winding streets and 200 speed bumps, already my throat was so raw and inflamed that I winced swallowing some water. At least I could no longer hear the pigs dying.

I took another road, certain that this one would lead to the highway, but the road only led to within sight of the highway. Tantalizingly close, the highway was beneath me on an empty bridge. This road led to the shadow of the volcano and I had once ridden a local bus to that slope where the village of Tochimilco sat. I stopped the van and looked over the railings for a worn path to the highway. This is Mexico! Of course, I expected, some farmer had driven his truck onto the highway to save time. I looked but from the bridge I could only detect a faint path from a dead end through some high weeds to the highway. Perhaps…with some effort I could follow that path and reach the highway. It was too far away to walk to so I decided to drive to the dead end under the overpass and inspect the path. I’m a Conquistador and Conquistadors explore; that’s our nature; I explore. I drove off the bridge and turned a wide left into the dirt road that led to the highway. A large mud pond lay immediately in front of me but it was not so wide that it covered all the road. A narrow dry edge lay between the mud pond and the tall weeds on the edge of the uncultivated field. Without stopping, I knew I could slowly skirt the right side of the mud pond and not even get my wheels wet…I made it about five feet past the puddle, already looking toward the dead end, when I felt the steering wheel tug out of my grip and the van leaned to the right and my stomach dropped along with the differential housing and I heard a sickening metal-on-dirt grinding sound and the van stopped. I thought for a second I was stuck in mud that I had not seen and that if I immediately reversed and lunged forward then I could escape. No, I did not budge even an inch. I only heard the tired engine moan. The tires did not budge. The only wise thing I did all day was stop trying to force my way out of the predicament. I turned the engine off and investigated with dread in my throbbing heart. Wine was slowly being squeezed from my pores. I reeked like Charles Bukowski’s motel toilet. But adrenalin was pushing me forward so I got on my knees and confirmed the worst: I was not stuck in mud, I had driven off the edge of the road into a two foot deep drainage ditch that had been completely hidden by tall weeds. Curses! Mexican roads finally caught me with a left feint and a right jab. The mud puddle on my left had been my primary obstacle and I had steered so far clear of it that I had not seen nor expected the deep trench that was hidden on my right side.

Bandits in Mexico put branches in the road to force drivers to swerve to the right, where the bandits have placed many tire puncturing nails. The driver suddenly has a flat tire and 100 yards down the road sits a suspiciously located, busy tire repairman. Or else the bandits rob the driver. I felt nature had planted two obstacles at once in order to test my wits and I had failed the test. My wine-filled night, the dying pigs, the stomach cramps, the fierce sweats, the throbbing colon, the bleary eyes, the sweaty face, the unfamiliar road, the punishing sun, the months and years of wandering in Central America had prepared me and also had depleted me for such a test. Now I was standing before my crippled van under the blazing sun, far out of town, far from help, on a dirt road that led nowhere. Worst of all, my tourist visa was expiring soon with my vehicle permit, in about two weeks. Atlixco is not so remote that vehicle parts are unavailable but the time factor loomed like the butcher’s knife in the pig’s simple mind. I had to exit Mexico by a certain time or else the van was considered fair game for everyone. A simple mechanical problem would be fixable in that time frame, but something serious like a complete differential rebuild was out of the question. Such a repair could take months. I looked closely at the damage again: the fuel tank was on dirt. The right muffler had been bent up into the floor. The right axle was buried in dirt as both right tires were completely in a trench. The right wheels were both in the trench. The differential housing appeared to be wet. But the ground was dry. I concluded that by driving the differential housing into the hard ground I had ruptured the seal and it was leaking gear oil. I anticipated the worst but my immediate task was to get the van out of the trench and I had already determined that the wheels would not turn. I needed help but I was surrounded by only sunflowers. Pinche Puta Madre!

Desperation turns a coward into a hero and I was desperate so I ran to the paved road and prepared to wave down a passing truck. I had two bottle jacks and began to visualize how I could possibly jack the van up so I could place boulders under the tires. Piece by piece I could deliver myself from this awful predicament if it came to that but I would first attempt to find help from a passing truck. Fortunately, I did not wait long. A local farmer accessed his farm via the dirt road that I was trapped on. He looked casually at my van and resigned himself to help. These foolish gringos, hungover and reeking of alcohol, he probably thought, getting his ancient van stuck in a drainage ditch in Puebla on the edge of my sunflower farm. What can I do but try to help?

Together, we inspected the situation and decided to try to pull the van out from the back, the way it went in. I quickly dug into the earth with my bare bleeding fingers, clawing out rocks and basketball sized boulders to place in the trench behind my tires so they would have some kind of ramp to ride on. I determined that the trench was so deep that it was possible the wheels could not get out on their own without a tow truck or a rock ramp. Of course enough torque would pull the van out but it could also destroy the suspension if the wheels were forced up over a ditch ledge all at once. It could even tear the whole front end off the frame. I thought that if the trench were built up into a shallow ramp with boulders then the wheels would slowly inch higher as it was pulled backwards. That was the plan, but the heavy nylon tow rope immediately snapped in half. The rope was worn and frayed already and I spliced it back together but it snapped again. The van had not moved at all. We decided to try to pull it forward so I spliced the line again and then moved all the rocks and boulders in front of the stuck right tires, building the ramp in the opposite direction. The  rope snapped again and the farmer shook his head. The differential was too deeply embedded in the dirt road and the rope was not strong enough. I grimaced and wiped the profusely poisoned sweat from my beet red face. I wanted to vomit. The van would be stuck here and I would have to walk miles back into town for a tow truck and when I returned the van would be stripped of every piece of copper and Nat King Cole song sheet. The farmer was more optimistic. He pointed across the paved road at a field and said something quickly about a ‘tractor’. Hope welled in my diseased heart so I paid the farmer some cash for the broken rope. The farmer drove away and I ran across the street in the direction of a low diesel engine rumbling through a dusty flower field.

Suddenly, hardly ten feet into the field, my stomach announced a higher priority. I was not diseased or stricken by food poisoning, it was only the natural conclusion of the previous night’s meal and wine and debauchery. It had to be evacuated, post-haste. I quickly gauged if I might be able to postpone the bathroom break but another spasm told me that there would be no postponement. The bathroom break would arrive soon, with or without my cooperation. I quickly detoured through the tall weeds on the other side of the road and found a private area near a deteriorated graffiti covered shack. I dropped my tortured shorts and let loose with a bowel full of Chiles A’ La Oggy. It was hot and fast and made me feel like a featherweight boxer, at the height of his prowess, ready to fight another 10 hangovers. I felt good. I wiped my ass with some discarded newspaper and took the time to cover my shit with a page. I stood up and marveled at my absurd existence: shitting in the tall grass beside a sunflower seed, hunting for a tractor to pull my trapped van out of a drainage ditch. Such a predicament might cause others to reassess their life choices but, and this is the paradox, in the middle of such a crisis there is no time for tilling the manure of one's emotional pasture. The crisis requires all one's wits and more; the wine was forgotten, the pigs were forgotten, the broken hearts and lonely-soul longings. I wasn’t even sure what my long term destination was anymore. I only focused on the immediate issue of pulling my shorts up and continuing my search for the tractor.

I ducked some thorny tree branches, leaped across a ditch full of something that smelled like sewage and rotting onions, and raced at full speed into an onion field, waving my arms like a maniac to get the attention of the tractor driver. Just as the other farmer had predicted, this farmer had a big chain with hooks wrapped around his tractor hitch. Hope! An American farmer might’ve shot me dead but Mexican farmers are unfazed by bearded, ragged hair Gringos running through their field wearing flapping sandals and waving their arms in desperation. He slowed the tractor down and put it in idle. I was breathless but explained myself as best my halting, simple vocabulary would allow. My van…a mud lake…a lagoon…entrapped…near the point…near the bridge…in an arroyo…very close…your tractor…a lock…a chain…help me...I pay. The farmer grasped the issue and confirmed the direction and off he went.

I was relieved but also sick of what could happen now. I’d never needed a tow of any kind in El Conquistador and now I was asking an Mexican onion farmer to tow the van out of a drainage ditch with big chain and hook attached to a tractor…in a Mexican sunflower field…without doing more damage to the differential and fuel tank and exhaust system. Too many scenarios involved the permanent destruction of my van that I forced them out of my mind. The only thing I could do was make this work and that would happen if I threw my back into building a perfect ramp for the wheels. Everything depended on the wheels having a gradual ramp to climb as the tractor was pulling the front of the van. If the wheels could not leave the trench then eventually the force would basically tear the front suspension off the van and leave the wheels dangling in the ditch while the rest of the van was free. And the ditch was so deep that the tires would not naturally jump up two feet unless they had some kind of gradual steps to follow. Those gradual steps are what I spent a furious five minutes building while the tractor slowly took a scenic route to the site of my fury. I expected the chain on that tractor would not break, but that meant I had one chance to build the ramp so something on the van would not break instead; this was critical. I could turn the wheel slightly but I could not get the rear wheels to spin because the right wheels were off the ground in the deep trench. If the differential gear was damaged then all this was pointless because the van was doomed but it was also possible that the process of pulling the van with the tractor would do the most damage if I was not careful.

My face was filled with thorns and brambles, my ass was sweating like an Egyptian Falafel salesman. I had the ramp built in front of both of the right tires in the ditch. What more could I do except pray? We attached the chain by a loop around the main front frame, not the I-Beams. It was the only place to put the chain but it was also what kept all the suspension protected. Damage to the front frame would destroy the alignment and the suspension. Three times the heavy rope had broken without budging the van but I wasn’t sure if I wanted the chain to break or to hold fast and cause something else to break. A tow truck would at least properly lift the front end while pulling the van out of the trench. This tractor was simply pulling and not lifting so the strain on the frame would be immense. If the tires would not cooperate or the differential hit an insurmountable rock then there would be disaster. I asked the tractor operator’s opinion and he seemed optimistic, like he’d pulled vans out of much worse situations without incident, despite the fact my van is about 96 years old in 'Mexican Vehicle Age'.

I got into the driver’s seat, turned on the engine from a sense of duty, turned the wheel to the left and looked around for what could be the last time this van would ever move with me steering it. Too many memories to list. I gave the tractor operator a ‘thumbs up’ and he revved his engine and pulled the chain taut. I felt the tires complain against the side of the ditch but they both found the stone ramp I had built and as soon as they were lifted on the first rock step the differential was free of the dirt and the tractor pulled the van safely, easily away from the trench. The motor was still running so I quickly got out and unhooked the chain. I saw no bending or twisting or damage. The chain had come dangerously close to the fragile steering linkage but had been at a low enough angle to miss it. All the strain had been on the frame and it had held strong. I paid the tractor operator around $20 and he assured me everything would be ok, a van like mine could take worse punishment than that. Before he left I asked him if there was a way to the highway and he said the only route was back in the town, take a right, over a bridge, there is no missing the route to the toll road to Cuernavaca. I thanked him repeatedly. Viva Mexico!

I drove to the dead end where there was shade and I carefully rearranged the van after the chaos. I had both bottle jacks out. Clothes, water, food, guitars were thrown everywhere. I’d dug out several straps that were too thin to be used. A simple $8 tow strap would’ve solved everything but I had elected to carry 4 guitars instead of something so practical, like the time I was looking for a spare alternator and found a Lionel Richie greatest hits Songbook. Foolish!

The panic now subsided into dread. The van was out of the ditch, the farmer was gone, I was alone again in the early afternoon and had not left Atlixco although it seemed like hours ago that I had attempted to leave. I’d traveled barely 3 miles from the pig slaughterhouse, three miles in the wrong direction. Now I shelved any thought of leaving Atlixco until I had thoroughly inspected the damage I’d caused by the plunge into the ditch. First, I reorganized the chaos inside the van and washed my hands and face. Then I laid out an old sheet I used for ground cover and got on my side to inspect the differential. I had spare brake parts, spare springs, hose, fittings. I had many engine parts and ignition parts. But I did not have a spare differential and I was hoping that the dampness evident on the housing was simply brake fluid. I explored the housing seam where the plate is bolted to the bell and it was not at all damp. The metal only looked damp because it had been previously covered by dirt and the impact had removed a layer of grime. There was no obvious leak. I checked the master brake reservoir and the level was the same as it always was so I had not ruptured the brake line. I detected no misalignment in the steering, no pull in the brakes. These were never performance grade and I felt they were the same as when they went into the ditch. I checked the differential gear oil level by removing the fill plug and watched the gear oil slowly drip out the hole, a sign that it was topped off. I made a note to check it again later to monitor the gear oil level for signs of leaking. Then I splashed water on my face and drank some through my parched and cracking lips. I was exhausted but amazed the van had suffered no obvious damage after being driven into a ditch. The muffler was pushed into the floor and was vibrating like crazy against the frame but it only took some channel locks to adjust the welded bracket so the muffler was back in the original position. The ground had come dangerously close to the brake line but had not disturbed it. I was amazed. I’d driven the van into a ditch, had a truck fail to pull it out, then paid a tractor to drag it out over a handmade boulder ramp with a chain attached to the front cross member and had not done any damage. It was a minor miracle. My prayers had been answered.

I walked over to the dead end to look for any path to the highway (remember the whole reason I was on this dead end dirt road was to find a short cut to the highway to Cuernavaca) but of course there was a tall incline and numerous boulders placed strategically by the toll road workers to prevent anyone from getting on and off without paying. I could not enter here so the whole detour had led to grief and financial loss and minor damage to the van and much time lost running across onion fields but was fruitless in the realm of navigation. So I was right back to where I’d started, in Atlixco, looking for the route to the toll road. I took a deep breath and stared at the van so I could determine if there were anything that I might be overlooking in my hungover and harried state. Nothing came to mind so I sat back down and drove back up the dead end road, carefully passing the mud puddle this time with one tire actually in the puddle instead of tempting fate by trying to cut it too close to the infamous ditch now on my left side with the tell tale signs of desperation and the boulders all filling the ditch where I’d built a ramp. If someone had simply trimmed the weeds then I would’ve seen the ditch but the locals who travel on this road probably were the ones who dug the ditch to drain their road so they didn’t need a reminder where the ditch was. And they never expected a Gringo to not only foolishly drive down a dead end road but to drive off the side of the road into the ditch. They probably still talk about that incident.

I drove back toward town and saw a sign for Cuernavaca right around some flower centers. If I’d seen that sign on the way out then I would’ve spared myself so much grief. I took the right turn and soon found the main road out of town. Of course I recognized it. All I needed to do was go downtown and take the main road in the direction of the toll road. It led only to the toll road. Ah, well, live and learn. I wasn’t too far behind schedule so I casually entered the toll road and drove toward Cuernavaca, two huge volcanoes on my right and the blue sky all around.

Now, if that had been the end of this day’s trials then it would’ve been a full day, but my trials were only just beginning. Maybe I should have stopped the travel right there, found a shady park to regroup and recharge. Go to an internet cafĂ© and write about it. But, as I’ve said, I was on a tighter than normal time schedule due to the expiring visa on me and my vehicle and the consequences for overstaying the visa were not something I wanted to experience. I planned on driving all the way across Mexico, visiting a high mountain town where they sold sheep fur, then continuing across the continent to Leon, Guanajuato, designing and ordering custom leather pants, visiting Paracho, Michoacan to purchase a Charrango, then drive north to Monterrey if I had time and visit a friend. It was a lot to be done in about 2 weeks. If nothing else went wrong then it was possible but I could not simply pull over and call today a total loss because of one near disaster crash into a ditch. No, I must press on and hope that fate only had one crisis in store for me today. Decide for yourself how foolish this fancy was.

I drove into around the volcanoes, trying to get as far from Atlixco as possible. I felt as though I’d escaped death and a simplistic view of fate impelled me away from the location of the last crisis, as though distance from the accident would mean I was less likely to run into another major problem.

There is one stretch of towns to the southwest of Atlixco, each with a bank, but I passed them all in a hysterical bout of tunnel vision, aiming for the high mountainous region north of Cuernavaca. While gasoline level was still holding strong I realized I had spent all my cash when I filled up and when paying the two farmers to help me get my van out. But the whole reason I was crossing through Cuernavaca to get to Guanajuato instead of north of Mexico City is because I had passed through these misty mountains two years earlier and had seen evidence of a community surviving by selling shearling sheep skins. I was curious what garment designs they had invented. It was part of my exploration of foreign garment production so I had decided to drive from San Cristobal de las Casas to Leon via Cuernavaca area to see these shearling folk garments on a remote road. It was a quest and the Atlixco/ditch crisis was a punch in the gut so now I felt I had to get closer to my goal or else be foiled forever.

So I drove frantically past all the banks and gas stations with ATM machines until I was high in the mountains at a small village and I realized I would never be able to find an ATM machine at the source of shearling garments so I needed to find an ATM machine to get cash. Well, there was none in the village so they told me to go down the street to a collective bank. There was no ATM machine there but maybe there was one a few kilometers down the hill toward Cuernavaca. Ugh, this became a mini quest dropping thousands of feet in elevation in the direction of a OXXO convenient store, which had no working ATM machine but said there was one in the city of Cuernavaca. The whole point of the toll road is to bypass Cuernavaca and the single weaving and winding road that snakes up the mountain and here I had bypassed it and now was going down, down, down the mountain through Cuernavaca, where I needed to buy gas, and finally walking to an ATM on the street and walking back to the van, buying gas, and attempting to leave Cuernavaca in a mass of traffic. I almost parked the van and went to sleep but I felt if I could reach the mountains then I would find peace and tranquility. So I drove back up the mountain, the motor overheating under the strain of low speeds behind a chugging belching bus. Finally, I reached the right road again with gasoline and cash and I drove toward the location I remembered the sheep skins. The last chance I had to make good on that day was when I passed a protected area with high mountain meadows and ponds, certainly a place to go camping, and I did not stop. Had I stopped there then I would’ve been doing the correct thing because I’d had enough excitement for the day and the shearling salesman would be open every day so stopping in this tranquil location and clearing my head with a walk in the woods was the right thing to do. But I was still rushing through the trip and had a destination and then another destination and a goal and another destination and thousands of kilometers to drive with a time limit looming in the near future. So I passed the park and made a note to return one day.

I did buy some shearling material from the salesman on the side of the road. The garments were badly tailored shearling coats with no fashionable cut nor unique materials. They were generic and probably imported from China with the skins exported to China. It made no sense but I bought the shearling rugs for a price I thought was fair but turned out to be much higher than Leon, Gto, which was my destination.

I also had a chance to stop for the night in one of the high country towns, visiting the church, eating some pollo asado and Jarritos, watching the sun go down, but despite all the drama, I had quite a bit of sunshine left in the day so I decided to press on at least to the main East/West toll road.

Who knows what awful fate I avoided because I made the decision to press on. Maybe the awful event that did happen would have been preferable to the alternate reality event. I know I was most upset but what did happen, but the number of worse scenarios boggles the mind. It does not console me that there are worse fates, but I will describe to you what happened.

I did not make it far into the state of Mexico before I approached a busy intersection. I almost passed safely through but luck was not with me that day and I noticed 4 Federales all waving at me to stop. They blocked the road and I obediently pulled into a dirt lot. It was late afternoon and there were hundreds of travelers but the police had not been busy at that moment so seized upon me like vultures on a fresh bunny kill.

They surrounded the van and began shouting vehicle violations at me. The window tint was too dark. The van was smoking and needed a smog certification. The van could not drive because the license plate number did not correspond to the numbers allowed by law to travel on that day. My visa was expired. The van did not have proper stickers. I like to say that Mexican police will fine you if you have two guitars, and they will fine you if you have zero guitars. An American citizen must travel with one guitar and no more than one guitar or else be fined. They tore through my van looking for anything to fine me for carrying, God knows what they thought of the piano, the shearling rugs, the moped, the Mandolin...Finally, they saw my driver’s license and declared that it was a counterfeit. Well, here they were telling the truth. My driver’s license was indeed totally fake, a product of my own invention when I was in Granada, Nicaragua and realized my license had expired. It was not a convincing fake because every policeman I had shown it to said that it was fake. So, I repeated my normal response, “That is authentic. That is how they are issued in my state. Yes, it is the real license.” But these Federales were determined and refused to believe me. They said they were arresting me for having a fake license. I objected and they shook their heads and fingered their firearms. When I thought they really were going to arrest me I finally agreed that it was fake, yes, but only because I had no address to send the real one. I merely made a replica of the authentic one. I did have an authentic license but I didn’t have it with me. I was legally licensed to drive, but this specific piece of plastic was out of date. Furthermore, this made no difference since they were looking at a license issued in America and I was in Mexico. So who cares if it is expired? I produced the authentic license with the expired date and they all beamed with pride that they had been correct that I had given them a fake license. Now, they agreed, I was definitely going to jail. The van would be impounded, etc. etc. The others left to call the tow truck and so began the negotiations.

They said the fine for a fake license was 5000 pesos or something like $250. This was absurd since rent in Chiapas was $1000 pesos for one month so they were fining me the equivalent of $6000 US dollars for an expired license. I said I was not paying it. They said that it was too late. I said, take me to jail. They said, well, it’s possible that there is a way to avoid going to jail. Perhaps I could pay slightly less and the police would pay my fine for me. It would be reduced fine in exchange for taking care of it right now. How much, I asked. They said, $4000 pesos. I shook my head. I don’t have $4000 pesos. This was a lie because I had taken $5000 out of the ATM machine in Cuernavaca and the gas and shearling left me with plenty to cover the bribe. But negotiating under the watch of 4 military issue machine guns on the side of Mexican road with hostile policemen is a delicate business, especially when my paperwork is actually counterfeit and my vehicle permit is almost expired. I’ve negotiated thusly several times in my travels and my strategy is be assertive, humble, benevolent and firm, and human. The Mexican loves humility and nobility and respect. Who doesn’t? Humility and respect are the real currencies in Mexico so they are worth more than the money that is being negotiated and I pulled deep from my humility and respect wells. I pleaded for a $1000 peso fine. That would be fair. They refused flatly and said the tow truck was on the way and I should hire a taxi to take me to town. “The Law is the Law,” they said. “La Ley es la Ley.

See, the seriousness of this situation did not even occur to them but I knew all too well that my vehicle permit could not expire with me in the country with my van. Then the van would be seized and I would never be allowed back into Mexico with a vehicle. This was the story confirmed by many drivers to Mexico. The vehicle had to exit Mexico by the date on the permit. If it didn’t leave then the permit was expired and the deposit was forfeited and the vehicle was considered abandoned and could be seized. If it was already seized then it was forfeited. That meant everything in the van, my guitars and my computer would be sold at auction or be wrapped up for a Mexican Christmas present. I could not let that happen so I said $2000 pesos, which was a ridiculous sum of money. They said, $3000 pesos…and I agreed because I could not let the opportunity to escape the tow truck pass. I really felt in no position to bargain but if I showed my fear then they would take everything I had. I was carrying my wallet in my pocket but I pretended I had hid the money in a secret spot. I took my wallet out of my pocket and pretended to be grabbing it from a box while I took all the money out but $2400 pesos and I went back to the policeman and shook my head, so sorry, a million pardons, but I only have $2400 pesos. This is every penny I need to get to the border, I said sadly. He looked both ways and counted it and nodded grimly but could hardly contain his grin. Surely, he pocketed most of it and told his compatriots that I’d only been good for $400 pesos and the lies and deception never would end. I suggested meekly that other policemen could easily pull me over for the same violation that I had just ‘Paid’ for. This Federale confidently gave me his name and phone number and said it was the ‘code’ that would provide me safe passage out of the state without having to pay the same fine. I wrote it down and then I immediately asked him what was the way to the toll road to Leon. He gave me directions and I fled and immediately got lost.

Now you see the futility of trying to escape fate. The futility of running from a crisis. I never should’ve left Atlixco! But here I was bribing the police outside of Mexico City. I fled again and drove and drove in futile circles, there were police everywhere and I would drive in the opposite direction from them whenever I saw one so I was always driving in the wrong direction. I was hysterical and frantic and looking for either the toll road or a good place to camp and end this insane day. Finally, I was on the right road and 100 meters in front of me I saw a federal police car pulled behind a vehicle with lights flashing. I was afraid that as soon as I passed him he would pull me over so I drove into a gas station and hid behind a shack. I did not hide well enough because within seconds this new policeman drove up and blocked by passage from the shack. I hid in the back of the van, hoping he would not see me but he yelled for my paperwork. JESUS! Have Mercy! This was not even thirty minutes after the last robbery.

I met him at the window and he asked for my paperwork again. I said I was going north to the United States and was tired. He asked for my paperwork again. I said, Yes, I am American. He said slowly, "Sus Papeles, Licencia y Tramites" He wanted my papers, license and permits. I said, "Si, Me gusta Mexico. La Clima is linda." "Yes, I love Mexico. The climate is nice." I tried to play dumb. I delayed and delayed but he was persistently humble and insisted on seeing my license and permit. I showed it to him and he barely glanced at my fake license and nearly expired paperwork but he did say that I was in violation of the smog permit for vehicles in the state of Mexico. I pleaded with him that I was leaving the state. He said it made no difference and that he would call a tow truck to take the van until I could pay the violation. The law is the law, he said. I said that I could not pay because I had no money. He said, then call a taxi because the van was getting towed. I said, maybe I had the money, but the truth is I just paid a fine a few kilometers back. He asked how much I had paid. I took out my note pad and showed him the code and the officer’s name. “Call him. He will tell you how much he stole from me,” I replied. He said the code and the name meant nothing to him because this was a different district and that I owed for another violation. The law is the law. I said, ok, I do have my final emergency gas money but I could only afford $200 pesos. That is fair. He said, $2000 pesos. I said I could never pay more than $400. I will starve to death if I pay more than $400 pesos. He said that if I could find $1000 pesos then he would consider the fine paid right now and I would be free to go. I said, Ok., and I got $600 pesos and handed it to him. That is the last of my money. He refused it and said ‘get out of the vehicle and put your hands behind your back.” I said, wait, I forgot I have an additional $400 pesos which was money I was going to spend on roses for my mother’s grave. He produced an envelope and told me to put the money in the envelope, to count each bill. Then he asked me what that thing was above my head. It looked like a 360 degree dash camera and I wish it were because this shakedown was classic Mexican bullshit, but it’s simply the volume knob for my new stereo. I counted the money into his envelope and then I asked him, with an emotionless face, if this were the correct road to Leon. The policeman’s instantly changed into a gracious and helpful officer of the law, a man devoted to safety and service, and told me it was the correct route to the toll road and there would be signs in a few kilometers. Have a good day. “Hijole!” he cried to his partner as I drove away. I took that to mean, “Wow, what a score from one crazy gringo!”

I don't want to generalize on how to respond to the pure corruption of Federales extorting money from tourists, but I would say it is mostly bluff. Mexicans told me I paid too much of a bribe. The Police do not want to officially impound your vehicle because that will take them into the realm of official duties for which they get paid nearly nothing while the random extortion of citizens and tourists is far more lucrative. So, they are likely bluffing that they will impound your vehicle or arrest you. They merely want some money to pay for their time and buy them steak dinners later on. So, calling their bluff is a completely valid response and if you have time to kill then chances are you may delay long enough not pay any fine. But if you have actually forged a license and are running out of time to call bluffs then maybe you should do as I did and bite the bullet and pay the ferryman to avoid even bigger problems should they call your bluff and impound your vehicle only to 'find' a pound of cocaine inside it. This essay makes no prediction to the behavior of Mexican military or Federal policemen. The Mexicans I have told this anecdote to all nodded grimly. Los Pinche Federales (the Federal police are always referred to as "The Fucking Federal Police", like this is an official designation) especially from the state of Mexico, will fine a driver for looking left on a Monday or looking right on a Tuesday. Another man frowned and said, "You drove through Mexico in a 50 year old van named El Conquistador with a fake driver's license and forged vehicle title?" At any rate, you have been warned.

I drove West, but with hardly enough emotion to curse at the truck driver's who cut me off or honk at the stray dogs grazing on rabbit bones near the side of the road. I was depleted, hung over, stunned, shocked, stressed beyond breaking, robbed, raped, exhausted. I realized the futility of flight. My dreams would or would not be dashed on the rocky shores of fate, but my futile striving and effort had no effect on anything. The muffler was rattling like crazy on the floor and I was wondering why. Finally, at sunset, I pulled over in a truck stop and went far behind the building and then behind a truck to a dark corner overlooking a huge flat valley. I was on the correct toll road to Leon. I had survived so many trials and crisis since the day had begun that I had lost count. I was stunned and didn’t even know which wound to start licking. I had no money, two shearling rugs, an overheated, overworked van and a small voice in my head whispering that I should check the differential gear oil level but not really knowing why.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.