On the Road in the Sweat Lodge

by Felisa Churpa Rosa Rogers

Ah, vans! Tina Rosa, on the far right.

Mexico used to have a real van culture. I grew up in it. When I was two months old, we traveled across the border in a Dodge camper my parents called the Sweat Lodge. The Sweat Lodge was succeeded by a white Chevy van we called Cebu, and then by Jolly, a Forest Service green Dodge van my dad bought at a government auction.

All these vehicles were tricked out as homes on wheels. My sainted mother sewed curtains for the windows, and Steve built his “food box”, a giant cube of plywood with a lid that folded out into a tiny counter. With this contraption Steve could set up a kitchen in under 60 seconds; it was perfect for emergency roadside cooking.

 

Jolly

The box was packed with obscure ingredients, including an arsenal of spices that would have put many a gourmet restaurant to shame. If you tried to tease my dad about it, he’d get a wounded expression, as though to ask:

“What kind of philistine would embark on a four month trip without Fenugreek leaf?”

 

Steve Rogers

In those days, campgrounds and camping beaches were crowded with vans and small campers from the U.S and Canada, and I was always on the lookout for interesting new arrivals. When a van (perhaps billowing smoke and loaded with surf boards) would cruise down the beach road or into the campground, I’d crane to see if it had other kids on board. After waiting a respectful moment that allowed the newcomers to hang their hammocks,  inevitably Steve would amble over to the new vehicle to talk roads, routes, and rigs with the drivers.

As an adult, I made my first drive in a ’94 Nissan pick-up named El Gato Negro. When El Gato retired, I caught my next ride in Miss Lousianne, my friend Tia’s intrepid ’87 Dodge van. Loaded to the gills with camping gear, Miss Lousianne traversed the highlands and the coast. I was depressed to note very few gringos traveling by van and pick-up. I am always impressed by the intrepid snowbirds who still wend their way south in RVs every winter, but I’m a little sad that my own generation is missing out on the joys of driving in Mexico.

 

Churpa and Steve. In the background you can see Cebu.

Yes, the joys of driving in Mexico. It’s true that everyone drives like a maniac, but once you adopt the maniac mentality,  the rules of the road are liberating. Due to the hazardous nature of the art form, your average Mexican driver is more aware. There’s a give and take to Mexican driving, a sort of feral politeness. Yes, the truck overloaded with mattresses will cut you off, but an hour later when you suddenly realize you have to get over a lane, he’ll also let you in. Of course, all these joys turn to ashes if you have to, say, navigate the length of Guadalajara, hellish glorietas and all.

But the real benefit to having a car in Mexico is the enhanced ability to explore. On our last drive south, we explored an abandoned resort, huddled in Miss Louisianne for 48 hours straight during a spectacular coastal storm, and enjoyed many an impromptu carnita stop. Nothing can match the ability to stop at every interesting roadside eatery or make an abrupt right when you see a promising road heading in a beachly direction. Not to mention all those fascinating mechanics you meet…

Our finances did not allow a lengthy road trip this year and I was reduced to traveling por avion to Mexico City. I was thus greatly pleased when my friends Butch and Sara invited me to tag along on their road trip to Michoacan. We would have a rental car! I imagined myself traveling in air-conditioned luxury, a far cry from the rattling vans that are my normal lot in life.

In typical Mexican fashion, things didn’t got quite as planned. Although Butch took to Mexican driving (being a bush pilot in Alaska probably helps), the car wasn’t exactly a chariot. We dubbed it Muy Especial because it demanded special treatment, including periodic push starts. I spent half the trip begging water from mystified campesinos, who were out of sight of the highway and thus unable to see Especial, steaming and spouting coolant. Even when I think I’m finally high flying, somehow I always end up down by the side of the road.

 

The author peering from van.

Stay tuned for the 14th edition of the People’s Guide and a new story on one of my more alarming memories of Steve as chauffeur.

 

7 Comments so far

  1. Carl Franzon January 23, 2012 12:09 PM

    Can’t do it right now, Churpa, but remind me to write you about the time Steve fried a hamburger from the driver’s seat — while driving the Pan American just south of Chihuahua City!

  2. Tom on January 23, 2012 3:48 PM

    shouldn’t “sainted” always be in quotation marks when referring to your dear, dear mudda? Whom I love and respect. Dearly. Don’t tell her I said that.

  3. Churpa on January 23, 2012 5:07 PM

    Carl: sounds like a blog post to me, hmmm?
    Tom: You obviously know her well…

  4. Kris Peterson on January 23, 2012 7:33 PM

    Finally have taken the time to get on the People’s Guide to Mexico. Have added to my desktop. Looking forward to the next childhood memory you have. Learning more about you Churpa is a blessing to me. Love to you, your Mom-in-law

  5. monoped on January 24, 2012 6:37 AM

    That’s the Fred in the first picture. Where were we?

  6. Churpa on January 24, 2012 9:20 AM

    I was trying to figure that out myself. Maybe my mom would know? If it helps, there is a another photo from this afternoon on our facebook page.

  7. Tina Vimutti Rosa on January 28, 2012 3:54 PM

    First picture is Jack and Jeannie and Larry Brown with me, and we were at Acid Beach.

    Beg to differ, glorietas are the best Mexican invention…you can go round and round until you figure out which avenida is the one you want!

    sainted mother, always without quotes, needless to say!!!