Saturday, December 27, 2014

Mexican Adventure: Numero Uno

Dried chiles at the mercado. 

We have only been in Mexico for three days and I already have so much to write! What an amazing culture! We are "stranded" for a few days without our car in Puebla, a large city in central Mexico, about an hour and a half southeast of Mexico City. Let me tell you about how we got here...and why we are stranded.

On Christmas Eve, we slept at a charming old hotel in Laredo, Texas that was right on the river that divides Texas and Mexico. It was literally right next to the two border crossing bridges. There were loud fireworks all night long. A little preview of the loud and celebratory Mexican culture to come...

We awoke early and headed to the border bridge around 7:30 am. We had lots of paperwork and passports and photocopied documents. We approached the booths in our car and no one was manning them. It was vacant. We had a green light so we just drove through. "Is that it?" We said to each other.  We were in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico and it was desolate. On Christmas morning everything was closed up tight. We knew we needed visitor visas, but where to get them? We drove around for a while looking for signs that said anything about visas. We gave some change to a woman in a wheelchair who was missing a leg. We finally stopped back at another border crossing bridge and asked for help. In broken English a man pointed us in the right direction. 

We arrived in a huge parking lot that was jammed full of cars. We parked and walked inside a large building to find many hundreds of people in a giant, winding line waiting to get vehicle import permits (which we ordered online ahead of time, THANK GOODNESS). We had planned out our day and had a couchsurfing host, kind enough to host us on Christmas, awaiting our arrival that evening, 8 hours south. The lineup would have taken hours! I made some comment when the line moved a little and a man in front of us said something in English to us. We were pleasantly surprised because we were certainly the only gringos in the whole place. He said that a police officer was just there and had taken a group to the second border crossing office just to get visitor visas, which is what we needed. So we got in our car and found the tiny office just down the street. We had our visas in 20 minutes. Back on the road.

We had read that there was a second border check-stop about 25 km into Mexico on the toll road. So we had all of our paperwork in order and as we approached this second check stop plaza, the only other human at the whole place was a man selling bread at a table. There was just some tumbleweed blowing around. So we slowly drove through in amazement at how little border control there was. Was it just because it was Christmas? 

By the third time we stopped to use a washroom that morning, I realized that toilet paper is a valuable commodity in any public place. At the first visa office, where there were hundreds of people, I went to use the washroom and there was a communal roll of TP and it was empty. None of the stalls even had a paper holder. None of the toilets had seats either. Very different. So I learned quickly to keep a roll in our car. At many of the gas stations and rest stops, there are locals selling squares of paper for a few pesos.

The quality of the toll highways in Mexico is surprisingly better than most highways in the USA and Canada... Except for a few things: Sudden intermittent giant potholes. Herds of goats. Overly-brave pedestrians. Stray dogs. Horses and donkeys grazing in the median.  Many police and military vehicles with men standing up in the back holding large guns. 

At the toll booths there are soldiers with guns. The speed limit can say anything, but people still go insanely fast no matter what. 120km/hr seems to be the minimum speed of highway driving, with plenty of people zooming past at much, much faster speeds.

Every kilometer or so, there is a little booth on the side of the road selling grilled meats. There are also men with lots of car tires and car parts everywhere down the highway. The rainbow colors of the mostly abandoned buildings and small homes are so beautiful against the brownish landscape in the northern part of Mexico. Many casas had black plastic tanks on the roof for solar hot water.

We drove about 8 hours south on Christmas to a city called San Luis Potosí. We attempted to contact our Couchsurfing host, but my Canadian phone couldn't call her phone. So I bought a prepaid Mexican calling card for use in special pay phones only. That didn't get through to her either. We wanted to arrive at her place before dark so we bought a real map. We found her home around 5pm, and knocked. No answer. We left a nice note in the door with our phone number and drove to find a restaurant and had supper. Still no call. We were advised by many to not travel around after dark. So we sat in a Starbucks at a fancy hotel and waited. Finally at 9pm Alejandra called us. She was the best CS host we have had yet. Her whole family was so kind and they all spoke great English which was very welcoming.

She cooked us some Mexican snacks that night and we had a great chat. In the morning, I awoke to the window next to my bed rattling from the 6am fireworks and mucho celebrating. We had an excellent Mexican breakfast together.  They have invited us to come back and stay for a few days on our return trip. They know of a brujo, or a witch doctor that is supposed to be an amazing healer and they want to go find him with us. Sounds pretty exciting!

On day two, we got a late start. We enjoyed talking with Alejandra and her mama so much that we lost track of time. We drove to a city called Queretaro and somehow missed a sign and ended up downtown in traffic for a while. It was beautiful. Amazing colors. 

We found our way out and then approaching Mexico City, we missed another turn that would have taken us way outside of the perimeter of the city limits. Instead we drove along the outskirts. We have never seen anything like it. Millions of shanties that looked barely livable. The smell in the air was of sewage. Just driving past for a half hour, I had a sore throat and nose from the poor air quality. There are upwards of 20 million people there. Wow

We continued of drive and as we exited the Mexico City area, the traffic got very congested and while we sat waiting to pay a toll, we spotted a cloud of ash puffing out of the top of one of the massive volcanoes, Popocatépetl. I have photos on my camera. I will have to post one later. 

We raced up the mountain passes and watched as dozens of cars were pulled over with their hoods up, engines smoking. I thought of how lucky we were that our little old Jetta was running so well after 5,000km of driving over the last 10 days. We approached the city of Puebla, which is home to North America's largest auto plant, Volkswagen, which is where our Jetta was built over a decade ago.  There is even a Volkswagen bank! All of the taxis and police cars are VW's in this city.

We sat in a creeping traffic jam for an hour just outside of the city limits. Darkness set in and as we finally drove into the city to find a hotel, our car overheated and the red temperature light came on and beeped. We had no idea where we were and it was getting late. We pulled over on the side of a city street where a police car was flashing and the officer was standing watch over the traffic and pedestrians. We asked him to lead us to a safe hotel. He smirked and said "YO???" (Me???). And shook his head no. I asked why not??? Then he asked us to open the hood of the car. A couple of minutes later, a friend of his happened to walk up and started fiddling with stuff under the hood. He was a mechanic and worked at a shop a few blocks away.  He told us to bring our car there in the morning. The police officer ended up leading us to a hotel where we hunkered down. It is a funky retro place right across from a huge bus terminal and mercado. Very loud people most of the night but it is safe and cozy. 

Morning. We take the Jetta to the mechanic. One man speaks a decent amount of English, which was helpful. Before we left Texas, we purchased a Spanish-English dictionary. Best purchase everThey replaced the thermostat and the temperature sensor. It took several hours, and it was still overheating when they finished. They closed at 2pm today and won't be back for working until Monday morning.  They will put a new water pump in next and see if that solves the issue. So much for heading to our next destination. In the meantime, I knew I needed a Mexican phone. I went across the parking lot from the mechanic and noticed the we could now see the same huge volcano from the opposite side. It was letting out tiny puffs of ash from its snow-capped flat top in the hot sun. The ash coming off of that peak might explain why come people here are wearing surgical type masks. Breathing that in constantly could be hard on lungs. 

The young man, Oscar, working in the convenience store said he didn't sell a SIM card to fit my iPhone, but offered to walk us to the phone shop about 10 minutes away. He didn't speak English so it was a fun challenge. The phone shop was in the middle of a large mercado where there were people and stuff everywhere. So many smells, colors and loud noises! We would have never found it without his help. Just crossing the street was a huge challenge. The national slogan of Mexico could easily be "Welcome to Mexico. Anything goes!"

My favorite part of the mercado was the boxes of tiny puppies! We are resting in our hotel room after a very long day. Planning which sites to see over the next two days, since the universe has decided that this is where we are to remain for a while. 

Oh, also, we were the only gringos all day and the locals seem so amazed when they see us. We feel like celebrities. It's very strange! A few people stopped us and asked where we were from. Many people are staring and pointing and especially small kids are mesmerized when they see us. It's adorable. They wave at us from car windows and they especially love the huge blonde beard on my travel partner. I have nicknamed him Barba Grande. (Big Beard). 

Stay tuned for part two...adios for now.