So we made it. 6,500 miles in an ’87 Dodge van. We camped off-road in Chihuahua. We got lost at night on the back roads of Oaxaca. We drove through states, such as Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, that are known as hot spots in the narco wars. According to one study, we drove through three of the top twenty most violent cities in the world (by murder rate): Acapulco, Torreon, and Culiacan.
We rode the subways in Mexico City and walked the streets at night. The downside: getting groped once on the subway. The upside: getting plate after plate of free snacks at a cool bar that was hidden behind a tattoo shop and featured an amazing selection of Mexican microbrews. Yes, you heard me. Mexican microbrews. The upside? Getting serenaded by a group of Mexican business men who worshiped at the altar of Javier Solis. The upside? Lounging in Frida Kahlo’s garden. Finding an entire neighborhood devoted to the sale of Santo Niño dolls. Wandering the Alameda in the sonorous twilight. The upside? The tacos.
We left our van parked on a street in downtown Oaxaca for two nights in a row. The roof rack was loaded with gear: coolers, full propane tanks, a nice stove, and an unlocked box full of pots, pans, and dishes. This was probably crazy and I don’t necessarily recommend it (I’m sure Codo is horrified if he is reading this), but I will tell you that nothing was stolen.
(I know this may sound naive. But keep in mind that, despite appearances, I’m not a guileless hippie, and I’ve been around the block a few times. My theory is that sometimes the hassle outweighs the risk. We took a chance with the understanding that there’d be no handwringing if it was a miscalculation.)
Our van was searched by federales and soldiers on numerous occasions. We had to listen to a lot of jokes about pot because of our hippie van, but we were not threatened. (It should be noted that we did not carry drugs or weapons and we were always scrupulously polite.) Nothing was stolen.
We left our valuables in hotel rooms. When we had to, we carried cash. We never had our pockets picked. We parked our van in a random barrio outside of Mexico City for four days and paid the proprietors of an extremely degenerate hotel to keep an eye on it. Nothing was stolen.
We tried to follow our own rules: don’t drive at night, don’t take unnecessary risks. And for the most part we succeeded. But Mexico is the way of the curve ball, the blind corner, the wild card. As you all know, even the best laid plans…We ended up in places we shouldn’t have been: off the beaten path, in the dark. And we were met with kindness.
Two rules we managed to follow:
1. Be polite, friendly, and calm, even in the face of apparent hostility.
2. Act as though people are going to treat you the way you want to be treated.
I’m not bragging. I’m not trying to tell you that the world is not a dangerous place or that if you go to Mexico nothing bad will happen to you. I’m not trying to tell you that if you go to Mexico, no one will steal your stuff.
I am telling you that no one stole mine, or threatened me, or looked at me sideways. And I am thanking our fantastic van Miss Louisiane (and our godmother Tia!), our angels of the road (Hello Frank and Steve!), and San Judas de Tadeo for safe passage; and I am rejoicing in the grace of Mexico.
I’m not suggesting that you follow random dirt tracks in Chihuahua. I’m not suggesting that you drive through the jungle at night on unpaved roads, knocking on random doors for directions. I’m not suggesting that you set off on a 45 km unpaved road toward what may or may or not be a beach. I’m not suggesting that you leave valuables on the rack of your van in a major city. I’m not suggesting that you drive the notoriously dangerous coast of Michoacan. I’m not suggesting that you rely on the kindness of strangers. I’m not suggesting that you should take the libre when you could take the cuota. I’m not suggesting you leave your phone at home and traverse the length of Mexico in an outdated vehicle with no GPS. I’m not suggesting your order the tripe.
But we did. And it was fun.