Thursday, August 6, 2009

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers – A drive from Central Mexico to North Carolina

After a year and a half in Mexico, I decided I no longer wanted to be a long distance landlady. I loaded my 1985 Westfalia VW camping van with my dog, Lena, and all the items I thought I might need for three months or so until I sold my house and headed for North Carolina. This is an account of that 2001 trip.

The trip from Ajijic started off uneventfully. I didn't get lost once, only went over one invisible tope (Mexican speed bumps which are also called sleeping policemen.) at 35 mph which provided endless amusement for the village onlookers as the van took to the air and thunked down on the other side, and found a great motel, inexpensive and secure, for the first night.

The problem came the next day when I tried to leave Mexico. Ajijic friends from Texas, Dee and Al, had warned me about crossing the border on a weekend, especially a Saturday in December when hordes of people were shopping, and now I know always to listen to Dee and Al.

The line of traffic, two lanes of cars jockeying for the one lane available, started in the shopping district of Nuevo Laredo. At first I didn't mind sitting there after a long morning of driving. The hucksters, who took advantage of their captive audience of stalled drivers, gathered around with their birds in cages, Jesus figures on crosses, and cacahuates (roasted peanuts). All for sale. Cheap. Because they liked me.

The intermittent request to buy something was a diversion from the seemingly endless line of stopped traffic, but my dog didn't seem to appreciate the interruptions. She growled and moaned as each approached, and I had to reassure her and discourage the salesmen all at the same time.

We inched forward. The line of cars seemed to get slower. We were moving about one foot every twenty minutes. I kept wishing it weren't raining.

Of course, after two blocks and two hours, I was growing nervous. And I was really worried about the van. I'd turn it off to sit for twenty minutes, then turn it on to progress five inches. How many "starts" did the old thing have in her anyway?

We'd been in this stop and go traffic for more than three hours when I saw a policeman up ahead directing traffic. Surely he would speed things up and surely that customs office had to be just a few feet away.

I was wrong on both counts. The cop was simply letting in other cars off a feeder street and the customs office was across the bridge....a long, long way away.

I'd been waiting for three hours, but apparently the cars on that feeder street had been waiting, too. With so many more cars in front of me, the customs office got farther and farther away.

At dusk, I paid my toll and almost shouted with delight. Victory was mine at last! I would cross the bridge, clear customs, and find a lovely hotel in Laredo for a much-deserved night's rest.

I started inching across the bridge. And I do mean inching. The traffic going across the bridge was as slow as the traffic leading up to it. It would take at least a half hour to cross this short bridge.

At least there was one advantage to being on the bridge as the traffic was now two lanes. I eased into the inside lane. I noticed there was something wrong with the van because the fan refused to shut off, but I didn't dare test the fan by turning off the ignition for fear the car wouldn't start again.

I tried to take my mind off the knot that was growing to the size of a basketball in my stomach by studying the bridge. The Mexican half had no working streetlights or Christmas decorations while the American half was brightly lit and sported wreaths on each pole. When I reached the first pole with a wreath, I knew I'd make it to the American side. There was only a quarter mile to go. That fan must not be a problem after all.

And that's when the car died.

Now, there I was in traffic, the inside lane no less, with a lot of other frustrated people who'd been in line for three or four or five hours, too, and the car refused to go another inch. I kept wishing I'd bought that Jesus figure on a cross. Nothing short of divine intervention was going to help me now.

I truly didn't know what to do. I was afraid to tell the people around me that they were stuck behind a dead car, just a quarter mile from their goal, because I wanted to live to see Christmas. What could I do? How could a tow-truck reach me in the inside lane of a traffic-clogged bridge?

So I sat there. And felt the basketball in my stomach turn into a beach ball.

That's when two Mexicans knocked at my window.

They told me to put the car in neutral and they would push me! Push this fully loaded van, with Lena and me inside, a quarter mile? I didn't believe them. They had to be joking. They disappeared around the back, I hesitantly put the van in neutral, and prayed.

The van moved slightly. Then a little more. Someone got out of his car to stop the other lane of traffic so my van could ease its way over to the outside lane. The two men kept pushing. They didn't stop until my van was parked beside the customs office, safely on the American side of the bridge.

By that point, of course, I was a blubbering idiot, but at least I had the presence of mind to give them every last peso I had in my wallet.

And the car eventually did start again although the fan never stopped. I got through customs and found a Red Roof Inn for the night.

I wasn't through with car problems, but at least they were manageable from then on. The battery was run down the next morning because of the fan problem, but the motel manager gave me a jump and I went on my way, trying to make it past Houston. I figured I'd have to get the car jumped every morning, but some wonderful people at a rest stop told me how to avoid that.

They said to simply disconnect the battery cable every night when I stopped and re-connect it the next morning. And that worked beautifully. I made it all the way to NC, driving twelve and fourteen hour days, by simply disconnecting that cable every night.

Never underestimate the kindness of strangers!

Practicalities -
Be sure to use the cuotas or toll roads when traveling the country of Mexico. There are Green Angels, mechanics driving green trucks, who are paid by the government to help stranded motorists.
If you'd like more information about driving in Mexico, see my book Retire in Mexico at

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