December 7, 2013

The True Face Of Mexico

It's not like I hadn't been warned. When I announced I was going to spend a lot of my sabbatical year driving down to Mexico, specifically in the Copper Canyons, everyone questioned me whether I thought it was a safe, whether I thought this was a good idea.

«Whatever you do, don't drive at night. If possible, don't drive at all.»

«The worst spots are on the northern border states like Sinaloa, Sonora and Chihuahua».

«You can get shot just for looking in the wrong direction».

But of course, I didn't listen. I packed my van full of donations for the Raramuri, took two of my best friends with me and happily drove down to Agua Prieta and crossed into the low Sierra, which gradually changed into the sinuous road to the northern canyons.

Several hours past the turn at Hermosillo to head into the Sierra Madre, the road narrowed and some spots, usually on the other side of sharp curves, were littered with fallen rocks from the cliffs. Not a biggie, I thought, since we were driving a 4x4 van with decent clearan-THUD!!!

I hit one of the rocks at full speed. I don't know what surprised me the most; the immediate knowledge that something was going terribly wrong or the astonishment that such a small-looking rock could do any damage to the van. Less than a minute later, I lost all power, the steering went stiff and I had to wrestle it not to veer off over a cliff. In a couple moments of sheer panic, I managed to stay on the road, switch the gears to neutral, find a decent spot to pull to wedge the van between the rock wall and the road and come to a relatively safe stop.

I stepped out only to verify what I already knew; the rock had punched a golf ball-sized hole in my oil pan, which instantaneously spilled every last drop of my engine's oil on the road, in what were possibly the last moments of El Capitan's life. The engine was dead. Oil was dripping down from everywhere under the van. We were not going anywhere.

In the best case, we were stranded in a deserted mountain road in the middle of the Sonoran outback with a broken oil pan, at the mercy of everything and everyone. In the worst case, the dumping of my oil had caused my whole engine to seize, which meant that, in addition to the above-mentioned troubles, my van was also dead for good.

Either way, we were fucked.

Now I know, nowhere has no middle.

Here we were, stuck on the side of the exact treacherous mountain road I had been advised against. These roads, I was told, are traveled only by narcotraficantes, the federales that wage a war on them and a whole swath of shady characters with itchy triggers. We had nowhere to go, not a soul in sight and we knew we were miles from any village in either direction. Sitting ducks. A dead van full of goods with 3 vulnerable gringos no one would be looking for, for weeks. Easy prey.

That's when I was exposed, at my most vulnerable moment, to the true face of Mexico.

A pickup pulled over. The driver rolled down his window, and I tried to explain in FrankenSpanish the extent of my mechanical troubles.

«Don't worry, I speak English», the man said. «Let me pull over to a safer spot».

He parked and stepped out of his truck, walked down to evaluate the extent of the damage and quickly agreed my oil pan was gone and so were my hopes of going anywhere.

«Listen. You can ride with me in my truck, I'll take you to Yecora where I know they have a tow truck. But it's far, and they won't have your part. You're looking at several days before you can go.» When he realized I had friends with me, we agreed that he would take them and I would stay with Guadajuko in the van to try and watch over all our stuff. «Do you have food and water? They might only be back tomorrow». After I assured him I should be fine, He took Sweeney and Maria in his truck, waved goodbye and drove away.

Then things went silent. Very silent.

Alone, there, by the side of the road, I started unpacking the cargo tray that hangs in the back and somehow managed to cram all the bags inside the van, which was full to the ceiling with the exception of the bed, on which I was getting ready to spend the night. The darkness came quickly. Every once in a while, a huge semi blew past so close that the whole van shook and trembled. There was a very real chance that one of these monsters would hit the van and tear us to shreds.

More than four hours had now passed when I saw lights approaching. But this was no tow truck. It was a pickup, with two Mexican guys who started looking around with flashlights. They were talking to each other, but I couldn't make out what they were saying.

Could this be it? What everyone warned me about so much? Is this really happening? Are these two guys going to rip all the valuable parts off my van, and steal what's inside? What happens when they find I'm in here? Are th-«Flint?»

Sweeney's voice seemed to come out of nowhere. «Come meet Pajaro and Roberto!»

I stepped out of the van, still a little spooked. The two guys held out their hands and introduced themselves. They only had a pickup truck and I told them there is no way the can tow my heavily-loaded van up and down these twisty mountain roads. Pajaro just smiled and said «don't worrry».

He pulled out what looked like an old seat belt – I guess it's a tow strap of some sort – and started tying it under my engine, which he assured me wasn't blown. He strapped the other end to his hitch, which only left about 5 feet between both vehicles, and both men took place in their respective driver's seat. What ensued is a feat of such skill that I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself. Keeping a constant tension on the strap, both drivers managed to move together for an incredible 40 miles up and down a dark, twisty mountain road filled with fallen rocks and potholes.

«You guys are amazing!» I told Pajaro. He shrugged. «We're mechanics». I said «You are not mechanics. You guys are artists!». He laughed and gave me a pat on the shoulder. Then, noticing my rough, dry cough from a cold I've been dragging for some time, he produced a handful of candy to «sweeten my throat». He kept driving in the night, telling me I should seek out pure honey bee, and that it would work great for my cough.

«You're fixing my truck, and you're fixing my throat, too?» He just smiled and kept driving in the night. Over three hours later, we pulled into a tiny pueblo, Tepoca, of maybe 25 houses. It was late, everyone was exhausted and we agreed we would all go to sleep and wake up early to start working on the van. Sweeney, Maria, Guadajuko and I managed to squeeze through all the piled stuff in El Capitan and get some sleep after almost 24 hours of travel. My last thought that night was of gratitude, for these two amazing men and their will to help us with what little they had.

Friends at work
The next morning came quickly, with the sound of cows and roosters so typical of Mexican mountain villages. We were up for 5 minutes when our friends showed up, all smiles and looking determined to fix our broken oil pan. Pajaro sent me and one his friends to purchase 5 quarts of oil and some liquid metal – a paste and a resin that you heat up and mix to produce some sort of compound that dries almost as solid as metal.

In the meantime, the guys built a little tinder fire and placed the compound right by it.

In another feat of incredible craftiness and skill, Pajaro used a sheet of tin foil to shape into a patch, then applied thin layers of the liquid metal under and above it to fixate it to the oil pan. He nursed the mix carefully until it dried, using only his bare hands and a piece of wood.

In a little over an hour, he was hitting the pan with a stick to a loud «bang, bang!» with a huge smile on his face, demonstrating how solid his work was. I asked if I needed to replace the pan as soon as I get out of the Canyons. He said «No, this is good for months! Only replace when you're back in the States, when you find a good cheap replacement».

Then for the thousandth time, I gave him my thanks for being so helpful, so crafty and so friendly. I asked how much money he wanted for all he'd done for me. He said he needed to charge me a tow and the fix istelf, so... $150 should do it. I was floored. Anywhere else, I would've been in for hundreds and hundreds of dollars, just for the towing. I handed him the 1,500 pesos, then I handed out 1,000 more. I said «This is to have a good Christams with your family». He smiled and nodded. Then he went back in his house and came out with a huge calabassa (a very delicious-looking squash) that he offered as a gift. So we went inside the van and got him frisbees for his kids. We shook hands, exchanged more heartfelt words of thanks and prepared to head back for the road.

«You have a heart of gold», said Maria to Pajaro.

He just smiled, like there was nothing to it, and simply said «Somos buenas gentes».

We're good people.

This, this is the true face of Mexico.

And anyone trying to tell you otherwise has never been stranded, miserable and vulnerable, on the side of one of the most dangerous roads in one of the most dangerous states of one of the most dangerous countries of the world. Or so they say.

To honor my new Mexican friends, and all the numerous other wonderful people I have met in this beautiful country, I commit to learn better Spanish, to the point where I will personally translate this for them to read, right here on my blog.

Viva Mexico, i viva las gentes de Mexico!

Découvrir le visage véritable du Mexique, c'est se retrouver à nu devant l'adversité, totalement vulnérable et sans aucune capacité de s'en sortir pour qu'émergent de l'ombre des gens humbles et honnêtes qui vous tendent simplement la main, d'un humain à un autre. Le Mexique est un pays formidable, rempli de gens extraordinaires que je découvre chaque fois avec plus d'enthousiasme. Mon Pays-Ami.


  1. So true! C'est tellement vrai! I drove Mexico partly alone and partly with one girl friend in my Ford Focus Wagon 2001. Everybody was so nice and helpful. There are more good people than bad in this world. Thanks Flint for the testimony!

  2. Your story echoes how I feel about Mexico. I have received so much kindness while traveling there, and it is just one of the reasons that I keep returning.

  3. Quelle histoire! Vous êtes nés sous une bonne étoile, mais restez prudents.
    Bonne continuation!

  4. Life is good. Thsnk you for such a skillful telling.

  5. I've been driving on isolated Mexican roads, paved and unpaved, for decades and have broken down too many times. Each time I wondered if it would be the time I'd meet those legendary bad guys that everyone warns me about. I know that they exist. But all my experiences have been like Flint's---good people helping other good people. And, on occasion, it has been I who was lucky enough to help others. Thanks for giving us another true tale of the Mexico that we know. The Mexico that makes us keep going back even when everyone you know is telling you that you're crazy for going. Hope to see you there again.

  6. Belle aventure ! Ce genre de rencontre fait partie des plus beaux souvenirs d'un voyage. Je t'en souhaite plein d'autres !

  7. Thanks for sharing this. My boyfriend and I will be driving into Mexico in less than two weeks, and all the warnings and advisories have started to shake my nerves. Looking forward to reading more of your blog! N

    1. Nadia feel free to contact me if you want more info. But again, the people of Mexico have been nothing but nice and helpful to me. Everywhere.

  8. Thank you very very very much for sharing your experience in Mexico.
    I was born in Mexico and lived there for 35 years. I love this country. And I feel very sad with all the bad things are happening to many people there. I know Mexicans are good people. They have a huge heart. They are warm and friendly and would give you anything to help you out. That is what I remember. I hope one day I can go back and show my family this beautiful country with its gorgeous people. Gracias.

    1. De nada! I, also, very much love Mexico and plan on immigrating there when I retire. It is a gorgeous country filled with wonderful people who have taught me the importance of helping others and caring for the community. Viva Chihuahua, Viva Mexico! :)