Chris was the first one out of the car. It had become unbearable for him to sit in the driving position any longer, actually, to sit in the car any longer. We weren’t even ½ way done with the trip and already tensions were rising quickly between the four of us. Pulling into the gas station I had a sense of relief that I could walk around a bit and get away from the guys for a few minutes anyway, do my own thing, clear my mind, stretch my legs, get some sun on my face. The early 90’s Honda Accord was a tight fit for four tall guys – but it got great gas mileage.
Our trip started in Illinois, driving south through Oklahoma and down Texas through Houston and on to the border crossing of Brownsville, which we heard was better than the crossing at McAllen further west. At the border we bought our car insurance for what felt like a pittance, got our passports stamped and drove on through towards our first stop which happened to not be planned, but just where we happened to be closet to as the sun was setting. The town was Soto la Marina, and it was dusty, dirty and small. We arrived on New Years Eve thinking that we would find a party somewhere, but instead we spent the evening watching terrible Mexican TV, drinking cheap beer from the convenience store down the road and eating dinner cooked on our portable camping stove. Happy New Year.
Back at the gas station a few days later after a really non-interesting drive south along the coast, stopping briefly in the town of Tampico (an oil refinery shit hole of a city) camping near some hot springs that smells like rotten eggs and drinking a bit too much tequila, we found ourselves at a Pemex somewhere on the outskirts of Acayucan. The day before we spent at Lake Catemaco. A dark, soupy black looking lake that didn’t invite one to swim, but instead we took a dip in the really cold swimming pool of the deserted camping ground where we were staying. We were the only people there, and it cost us $6 to stay the night. The sunset over the lake was mesmerizing, showing us just how much dust and dirt was in the sky, creating a show of orange, red, yellow, blue, purple and grey – but back to the Pemex.
We were always nervous about stopping for fuel. We never left the car alone by itself, always one of us inside it or near it, but never with the keys. We read a lot about driving around Mexico before heading off on this trip, and this was one of our rules. The other was to never, ever drive at night and also to bring only what we can safely lock in the trunk of the car – we leave nothing in sight in the seats or on the dash. Basically, we just didn’t want to invite a robbery of any kind. After paying and grabbing a Coke each, we got back in the car. Zach was driving now, we didn’t know where we would end up, but we had an idea. It was early in the morning so we had most of the day to make it to the coast and find a nice beachside camping spot for the next couple of days. Starting the car, he slowly put it into gear and, nothing. We sat there, the engine revving, but not moving. He put it in reverse, but the same thing, it doesn’t work. I’m sitting in the back frantically now looking through my Spanish dictionary to find words related to motors, cars, repair shop, mechanic, etc. because I was the one cursed with the most knowledge of the language, and thus the official translator, finder of hotel rooms, restaurants, negotiator extraordinaire. Zach shut the car off, and on, and off and on again but no go. We were stuck but we didn’t know why. I got out and walked up to the station while the guys got out and opened up the hood of the car. Chris was pretty good with things like this, but I had a strong feeling this was beyond what we were going to be able to manage ourselves.
I walked up to a couple of younger girls who were watching us pretty closely. They were in their early 20’s, dressed pretty fashionable and drinking some juice. I said in my broken Spanish that we needed a mechanic to help fix our car; did they know someone I could call or talk to? The first girl replied quickly that she knew someone and quickly pulled out her phone and made a call, speaking in really fast Spanish so that I didn’t understand.
I had a bad feeling about it, but still, I thanked her and walked back to the car. I told the guys that someone was coming, but I didn’t know who, how many, if they were nice or even a real mechanic. But someone was on their way to “help” us.
I don’t know why humans are skeptical of each other. That being able to trust someone takes time, that in a foreign country you just can’t walk up to someone and ask for help and not think that they want to take advantage of you. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been around a bit and felt this feeling before of people who see a white guy and think only of money. Why should I trust these two girls or their friend? But the last thing we wanted was to get stuck at a gas station on the outskirts of some town we didn’t plan on stopping in overnight without any help at all.
When we left Chris’s house in Illinois late at night in December, longing for the warmth of the Yucatan, the sun of Mexico, the freedom of a road trip, we all were a bit nervous and scared of what the trip would bring. I knew we would have car trouble at some point and I knew we would have to utilize any and all of the random skills we had collectively to fix it. That was the point really. It wasn’t to go on an easy trip; it wasn’t about taking a plane from one airport to the next, staying in a hotel, eating normal food and going about a typical vacation, no. It was about an adventure, seeing the real Mexico, or at least part of it, and discovering how good of travelers we actually were. It was planned on a thin thin budget, with no room for extras, but luckily Mexico is cheap. Travel doesn’t have to cost a lot, and these moments of interruption are what create stories and memories.
Charlie showed up on a motorcycle, pulled off his helmet and shook our hands. The girls came over – this is Charlie – he’s a mechanic. We told him, as best we could, what happened. He slid under the car for a few minutes. The cable connecting the gearshift to the engine was broke, we needed a new one, he can help. We took a moment to consider our options between us – it was Chris’s car, so in the end, it was really his choice, but we had very few options. We agreed to his help, but not on a price.
Charlie slid back under the car and slipped the engine into first gear manually. We piled in and followed him at a crawl into town to his garage – in first gear. Danny and I went in search of some food and Chris and Zach stayed behind with the car. Charlie went off to find the piece we needed at one of the other garages or junk yards in town.
Danny and I took off with what few pesos we had to find anything to eat – it was midday and we hoped to be back on the road in a couple of hours, but there were no promises. We started into town, Acayucan, and along the road found a taco vendor where we bought enough tacos for all of us for around $4. One was filled with Chef-Boyardee spaghetti and was delicious.
Back and the garage, Charlie had returned without the piece he needed. We were able to understand that much and also that he was going to make the piece we needed instead – but that the car wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow. Can we stay in town overnight? We huddled and discussed, again, with no real options but to trust him.
The hotel was cheap, around $10 for four – but we all had our own bed. The bathroom didn’t have a door, so I strung up a beach towel for a bit of privacy. The ceiling fans only had one speed, which was jet engine. It was painted bright blue. We were in the shit, really, and spent most of the afternoon wondering around town, eating paletas and drinking coffee thinking about how much money we could possibly combine to pay this guy. It wasn’t much.
Some girls in a cafe started talking to us – we must have looked terrible – unshaved and smelly, but it didn’t seem like many foreigners stopped here. The invited us out that night and we went and drank a lot of beer in an alley way with some Mexican teenagers. We paid for nothing, cigarettes were in our hands, the beer was always cold, the music was loud, no one stopped us, no one yelled. We stumbled back to the hotel – with the promise in the morning of some breakfast for us in the market – meet me there, she told us.
Acayucan hangover cure – soup with seafood and corn – big handmade tortillas – juice and Coke. The girls said goodbye, we snapped a few photos, and more or less stumbled back to Charlie’s shop to check on the car.
To our amazement, or maybe not, I mean this guy was really like a Mexican version of the Fonz – he had fixed the car. He and Chris went on a short drive to test it – it was perfect – or even better. Charlie was proud of his work and we were impressed. It cost $50 in the end – and we gave him $75 – having expected more like $300. His eyes glowed, we thanked him and still slightly hung-over, jumped in the car and got back on the road.
Up until last year, Chris still had that car. When we got back to the States, he took it to his mechanic to see if he could fix it – and he replied, that it was the best repair job he’d ever seen – he couldn’t do any better.
It wasn’t the last car issue we encountered, but it was the most memorable. We found our Mexico in a town we didn’t expect, in circumstances we didn’t anticipate. It was unplanned in the best ways – the spaghetti tacos are still in my mind, served out of a cooler. The coffee shop – the girls dancing in the alleyway – the blue hotel without a bathroom door – the smell of concrete – the dust on our clothes – the way we nearly lost it looking at the shrimp with heads in our hangover cure soup.
Whatever tension we felt before, had passed. The car became our sanctuary again. We bought bananas out of the window and drank Coke from glass bottles.
BIO: Jesse Dart is an anthropologist and a writer with an inescapable interest in islands, the Caribbean, California and the Mediterranean. Jesse has contributed to The Guardian, The Art of Eating, The Atlantic and several others and lives in Italy.