Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Did You Pack Your Flak Jacket?

Henry was the reason I decided to drive to Mexico rather than fly. He’s just a bit too big to fit under the seat and there was no way I was putting him the cargo hold. When I told people my plans, here’s what I was warned would surely befall me.

I’d be riddled by bullets, caught in the crossfire between dueling narco traffickers. I’d be kidnapped for ransom (I’m sure my 13-year-old Rav 4 with its spiffy cassette player and GPS would tag me as someone worth the effort).

My GPS

I’d be stopped and shaken down by corrupt cops who’d take all my cash. I’d break an axle on my car when I hit a pothole and die of thirst by the side of the road in the desert. Worse, I’d hit a guy on a burro and rot in a hell-hole Mexican jail for the next 30 years. Gas station attendants would cheat me at the pump. I’d pick up amoebas from the bottled water that was really just tap water and die from dysentery. I’d never find anywhere to stay because Mexicans don’t allow dogs in hotels. 

And that was if I even made it across the border. I had too much luggage for a tourist and would be hit with import taxes. They’d confiscate my second computer. Henry’s papers would not be in order. And on and on and on.

Holy mother of sweet baby Jesus. I’ve done some hare-brained things in my life, but this was shaping up to be the most fool-hardy. And at an age I really should know better, don't you think?

I spent hours on-line researching the best and safest route. Old Mexico hands recommended doing as much of the driving as possible in the US, crossing the border in Texas, and then hauling straight through to San Miguel in one shot so I wouldn’t need to overnight in Mexico. So I planned to drive through the desert South West and cross at Laredo. A week before I was due to leave, hurricane Alex wiped out pretty much every highway and bridge on my route. The Rio Grande rose 30 feet above flood level and swamped the Laredo border crossing.

Not crossing here 

On to plan B: a route that had me crossing the border at Nogales; along the west coast of Mexico; a swing inland at Mazatlan; through Guadalajara; and on to San Miguel. It was about the same driving time but with the situation reversed: I’d have only one day in the states and three in Mexico.

I got Henry a lean, mean tropical haircut and tricked out the front passenger seat for him with his bed and toys so he could ride shot-gun. We’d only been on the road an hour when Henry found a spot he liked better than the one I’d prepared for him: on top of the luggage on the back seat where he could see out of the window and he spent the rest of the journey there.

King of the road

I got to the border at 6 am, taking a calculated risk that narcos were not early risers, especially on a Monday morning. I was the only person there.  I took Henry around with me while I got my visa and temporary car import sticker and nobody so much as looked at him, let alone asked to see those vaccination and health certificates I’d paid a fortune for and copied in triplicate. At the customs barrier, the young man with the rifle asked if I had any weapons. “No,” I simpered as Henry tried to lick his face through the window, “just an attack dog.” He laughed and gave us the green light. And just like that, we were in Mexico. It had taken all of ten minutes.

As advised, I got straight on a toll road and stuck to them all the way. They were magnificent: well paved and practically empty for long stretches but there were plenty of gas stations with OXXO stores and clean restrooms. The toll roads are too expensive for Mexicans and between the economy and the scare tactics, gringos are staying away in droves. Often, the only vehicles I’d see for kilometers were the Green Angels:  trucks that patrol the roads giving assistance to breakdowns – for free.  

The first two days on the road were all desert: first the Mohave then the Sonoran, shimmering in the brutal 120 degree heat. I didn’t dare let Henry out of the car for more than a few minutes at a time. Whenever I stopped for gas, he hopped out to relieve himself then jumped right back into the air conditioning. He even ate in the car. We were both happy when we finally reached the green and humid coastal zone. My favorite stretch of the journey was when we turned inland and started the long, slow climb from sea level to the Mexican central highlands at over 6,000 feet.

I solved the accommodation problem by way of Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum. I connected with a woman there who had driven from Vancouver to Oaxaca with a pit bull and had done all the leg work on which Mexican hotels would allow dogs. She kindly sent me her list and I booked our stopovers from it. My favorite was our last night on the road when we stayed at the Koala Bungalows, a lake-side nature lodge in Nayarit. Since it was the off-season we had the place practically to ourselves. Henry was able to roam around off-leash and it was a beautiful and reviving stop, the massive nighttime thunderstorm notwithstanding, before we pushed for our new home.

Koala Bungalows

I met with kindness everywhere on our journey. People were endless patient with my horrendous Spanish and made every effort to communicate with me. Shop clerks meticulously counted out my change when I gave them 200 pesos for a 5 peso bottle of water. Toll both operators gently corrected my punctuation when I checked to make sure I was on the right road. Once, when I was unsure how to bypass a town to get back on the highway, I asked in a store and a man got in his car and led me to the right place. I encountered one military roadblock and the young man sent for his colleague who spoke some English to question me about my destination. They quickly sent me on my way with best wishes. Henry was welcomed everywhere and was often the icebreaker.

The most terrifying site I saw? Bags of fresh shrimp being sold by the side of the road in the middle of the desert hundreds of miles from the ocean. My most distressing moment? I drank so much water one day that I was afraid I wouldn’t make it to the next rest stop. I pulled over on a completely empty stretch of desert highway, opened the front and back doors for shields, and squatted between them. The event that nearly brought me to tears? Missing a turn and getting lost in a one-way system in Guadalajara for two hours. Big whoop.

All-in-all, the trip was so pleasant and uneventful that I was almost let down. Almost.

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