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Mexico, Part 1 – The Chicken and the Glory

Everything I learned about driving I learned in Mexico.

While transportation in Mexico City is a thorough fuster cluck, you can, eventually, get from Point A to Point B. The same can’t necessarily be said for the rest of the country. 

The more rural you get, the more exciting the adventure.  

So, if it’s your first time in Mexico and you’re stupid enough to drive a car while you’re there then there are a few helpful driving tips I can offer. 

(These driving tips were learned long ago but I just have a feeling they still apply. Last time I was in Mexico was 2002. The conditions were the same as they were in the 1980s. Worse, actually.)

Lesson 1: If you come across a “road hazard” sign in the States, then what follows, should you keep driving, is something, or a series of somethings, that make driving extremely dangerous or, sometimes,  almost impossible. Huge craters in the highway or large rocks that fell off the side of a mountain or mangled pieces of cars strewn along and aside the road. Any of the above would constitute a “road hazard.”  

Well, in Mexico, that constitutes “the road.” 

The roads in Mexico City are a mess.  The roads in the rest of the country are a catastrophe. 

The key is don’t look back and don’t look sideways because what will kill you is generally straight ahead. Usually, in the form of a pothole on a bridge. Pretty much every bridge in Mexico has required urgent maintenance since the Mexican Revolution. 

Potholes in Mexico generally run 10 yards in diameter and you only have two ways to navigate them:

Plan A – Build a ramp right in front of the pothole, backup up a mile, then put the hammer down, accelerate to about 200mph when get to the ramp and fly over the pothole just like Evil Knivel used to do in his motorcycle when he’d fly over 25 school busses parked in a row.

This results in a total catastrophe and instant death because, when Evil Knievel jumped over all those busses on his motorcycle and landed on the other side, he’d always lose control of the motorcycle, crash and tumble down the road for a mile or so breaking around 250 bones, crushing his spleen, collapsing both lungs, puncturing a kidney, suffering permanent hearing loss and cutting himself up to the tune of 2,500 stitches.

And, HE knew what he was doing. 

You don’t. 

So, you don’t stand a chance

Plan B – Drive 3 mph and slowly, carefully navigate through the pothole.  This, also, results in total catastrophe and death because the pothole on the bridge is so deep that it has gone all the way through the bottom of the bridge so you and your car just ends up falling through the hole on the bridge. 

Your death won’t be quite as sudden because there’ll be a brief lag between falling through the bridge and landing on the meth lab 800′ below. 

It doesn’t have to be a meth lab. Could be anything.  It doesn’t matter.  Because once you’ve crashed into the ground, it’s over. In terms of vital signs, you’ll have none. 

Lesson Two: Chickens. Be alert for chickens. You know how, when you see a ball roll into the street, you immediately hit the brakes? That’s because you assume a child will appear 3 seconds later chasing the ball. You’re usually right, of course. 

In Mexico, it’s a simple answer to, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

“To get the hell away from the child who’s chasing it.”

In Mexico, the kids run around and learn safety tips on the fly.  No Mexican parent specifically tells a child not to run into the street.  A Mexican child learns not to run into the street without looking because he or she was already hit by a car once while running into the street without looking and learned it was an experience not worth reliving.  

So, if you see a chicken run into the road then you can assume a child, one who hasn’t yet been hit by a car, is chasing it. 

The reason the kid’s chasing it in the first place is strictly due to the following equation:

Chicken = Dinner

If you manage to run over a chicken then etiquette requires you to buy the chicken-owner, and his or her family, dinner. The average Mexican household consists of 18 to 25 family members so this is one reason you should bring some cash before getting in your car.

This is not information you see in Fodors so it’s a good thing you’re reading this. 

Lesson Three: Don’t run over the child who’s chasing the chicken. 

Residents of rural Mexican towns practice something you might refer to as “self-policing.”  This is useful knowledge because, while Mexican parents allow their children to “live and learn,” they take the “live” aspect personally. 

A fine example of self-policing was the National Hockey League 50 years ago.  In those days, the last thing the referees did was enforce the rules. The players did. Each team had “enforcers.”

One rule in hockey back then was, “If you hit my best player then I will have my enforcer pay a little visit on your best player.”

You didn’t need a referee for that.  

Mexicans are smart enough to understand that involving the police only slows the wheels of justice.  Besides, if the police happen to show up then they’ll just take everyone’s money and leave. Better to resolve matters without the needless delays of a jury trial. 

Mexican villages have their enforcers, too, you see. And, when it comes to self-policing and enforcing the rules, these guys are no less subtle than the ones playing hockey. One particular rule reads, “If you run over one of our ‘niños’ then we will ‘kill you very completely.'” 

This means, in terms of fitness and longevity, yours is limited. This is because the “trial” only lasts a long as it takes to kick you around for a while, drag you up to one of their bridges and drop you through a pothole. 

Having seen the inside of a rural Mexican jail, I can assure you death is a much more rewarding experience.

So, in a way, they’re doing you a favor.   

Lesson Four: If you are an American then everything is your fault. Everything. You could be legally parked somewhere with no other cars within 200 yards. If someone goes out of their way to find your car and then drives into the side of your car at 180 miles per hour causing the driver and all passengers to fly through the windshield because seat belts are prohibited in Mexico then it’s your fault.

You don’t even have to be in the country. It’s still all your fault. 

Here’s another fine example:

Let’s say some guy comes staggering out of a bar after winning an all-day gin guzzling contest, falls down 300 yards from your parked car and dies of cirrhosis of the liver because he also won the gin guzzling contest for the past 856 consecutive days.

It’s still your fault. 

You see, there is a geopolitical aspect to this because Mexicans, as is the case with almost all countries these days, blame everything on us ‘Mericans from the Good Ol’ USA of America where the bombs are bursting in air so we can form a “more perfect” union which is an interesting phrase because either you’re perfect or your not and there ain’t no such thing as “more perfect” than perfect. 

Anyway, I’m not sure why the rest of the world hates us. One possible reason is the shared view among the 8,000,000,000 non-US citizens on this planet that we Americans are rude, whiny, self-indulgent, hypocritical, thoughtless, uncouth, mean, willfully stupid and uninformed, cowardly, dishonest, self-entitled, shallow and pampered pigs-in-clover who possess an unconscionable unwillingness to do anything that we might consider an inconvenience especially if it’s something that might help others because we have no character.

I simply can’t imagine where they got that idea. 

Fortunately, in almost all countries, Mexico included,  “personal liability” runs in a very clear indirect variance to “the amount of American money you have on you.”  In Mexico’s case, it doesn’t have to be a lot of American money because, thanks to the Mexican government’s spectacular intrusion into the country’s financial matters, the Mexican Peso is worth all of 5 cents US.

Drop $100 American on the ground and you are generally no longer considered at fault. You might call this a scam but to quote Marlon Brando from a movie called The Freshman, “Scam? This is an ugly word. This is business. And, in business…this is what you do.”

Lesson Five:  If you are an American then every road is a toll-road. The road’s not necessarily marked and, for your convenience, there are no toll-booths. Instead, the police identify a car driven by an American, pull you over, stand next you with a gun in one hand while extending the other hand, palm up, towards you. That’s your signal to pay the toll. 

How much is the toll? You have no idea. Last time I was there, $20 US generally covered it. I never got any change back from the upstanding police people so I must have guessed right. 

If your IQ is lower than room temperature and you contest the toll then, in the spirit of protecting and serving the community, the conscientious officer will hold the gun to your head, tell you a kilo of cocaine was found in the trunk of your car even though the trunk was never opened and let you know the toll is now $100 US.

You’ve heard people talk about a “come to Jesus” moment.  It’s a moment where you have to make a significant life choice in a hurry. Sometimes your entire future rides in that single decision. 

Well, Tex, welcome to your “come to Jesus” moment.  Are you going to stand on principle and refuse to give in to blackmail thereby compromising your personal health or are you going to fork over the $100 and get the hell out of there with your socks on?

I have no doubt integrity can occasionally come in handy  but I’d cough up the cash, get back to my hacienda and throw down 12 shots of tequila. 

The alternative is not quite as uplifting because the cop will drag you out of the car, arrest you and announce the following:

“Tú fornicando, idiota perro cerdo americano, no puedo esperar a patearte el trasero, rata bastarda bolsa de vómito!”

I don’t know what that means but it ain’t good because you’ll then be locked in a jail cell with 15 guys who, for ease of identification later, are all named Juan Garcia.

Oh, and how did the cop know your American? Because you were stupid enough to obey the stop signs and traffic lights. 

Don’t ever do that. 

Especially at night. 

If it’s night and if you ever want to see your family again then do not stop. Period. If you stop then you’ll be descended upon by:

1) The helpful police person looking for some toll money.

2) The carjacker wanting to drive you to various ATMs so he/she can withdraw all your cash.

3) The lovely and very friendly dama-de-la-noche trying to take you to her boudoir where you will get assaulted by the pimp who takes your wallet and clothes. 

4) The kidnapper hoping you’re worth something on the open market. 

5) The town’s mayor making sure, regardless of outcome, he/she gets paid.

One more thing: when someone is honking at you it’s because the driver wants you to know the car’s brakes don’t work. 

I’m able to speak on this subject with clarity because I lived the nightmare that is driving in Mexico. My first experience was driving about 600 miles southeast of Mexico City to an unlovely municipality called Arriaga in the highly confounding state of Chiapas.  

In the States, assuming you keep the stops to a minimum and the terrain is fairly flat, you can go 600 in just about any direction in well-under 9 hours

In 1980, that 600 mile drive took me almost 20 hours on accounta I had to dodge all the potholes, boulders, dead people, enormous chunks of asphalt, roadkill, children (not yet dead but not for much longer), garbage, broken tequila bottles and father-of-the-year candidates blocking the way attempting to have me marry one or more of their daughters.

And chickens. 

What the hell is it with all the chickens? 

Everywhere. Chickens. Darting around moving vehicles and moving children chasing them. 

Mexican chickens have issues.  You could probably do extremely well opening a chain of psychiatric chicken hospitals (Casa de Pollos Locos) because these were a unique breed of suicidal, attention deficit disordered, drunk, hyperactive, speedballing, Mexican Idiot Chickens.

I only got pulled over once. I was completely guilty in that I had to stop in order to not run over some child. Total stupidity on my part. Mister Policeman was nice and only it only cost me $10 which, at the time, probably amounted to 1,326 pesos.  Which I considered a bargain.

There was a reason I went to Arriaga.  I mean, it wasn’t because I thought it’d be fun to summer there. I went to visit my friends Sara and Luke. They were a couple. I met them in college. Luke was an earnest, model-citizen who made it a point to view all things in a highly positive light.  Sara was grounded, easy-going and provided a calming influence on Luke. I had known Sara for a couple years and we developed a good-natured, comical flirty banter which was easy to do because we had no romantic interest in each other. 

Luke and Sara were serious do-gooders doing do-gooder type things through some do-good agency committed to helping children of families who didn’t have 2 pesos to rub together. They were 6 months into an 18 month commitment. In return, the agency would finance some of their grad-school once they got back to the States. Something like that. 

I liked them both. I was interested to see what they were doing. 

The pre-trip planning was mostly done by mail because working phones were hard to come by in Arriaga. 

They had to drive some place to get a phone that actually worked for more than 5 minutes. 

“So, Lukey. What trinkets can I bring you from the Mother Country? Soap? Guns? Toilet paper? You do have toilets in Arriaga, correct? Bail money?”

“Coloring books,” was his reply. “Kids here love, love, love coloring books. You’ll love it here. It’s great. You’ll love the people. The beach is amazing. We love it here. We might stay longer.  Sara’s happy we’re living here. Together. I think she’d stay here forever if she could. We might start a family here, too.   Um, so, yeah, coloring books. As many as you can find. The kids love coloring books.”

Hmmm, somebody’s trying way too hard. I’ve heard better sales pitches at mattress shops. Plus, Sara’s letters didn’t seem nearly as enthusiastic about the place. And, she never hinted at starting a family. 

“Coloring books. Message received. I’ll see what I can scrounge up. So, how’s the government oppression coming along? Any college students left in the country?”

“It’s not that bad. I mean, where we live. You’ll see. The government is really pretty helpful. You know better than to believe the news. The ocean is amazing. People here are great. The best. Like I told you, we love everything about this place. Really. It’s beautiful. I really think we may end up living here.”

Yes, I do remember you mentioning that already. Reiterating the point is for my benefit, yes?

“Jolly good. And, how’s the Better Half? Eating well? Good coat? Not going outside the litter box, I hope. “

“Sara’s fine. Here.”

Well, that was blunt.

He gave Sara the phone. 

You’re there because pretty much everyone lives in total poverty but it’s beautiful.  The government, who is currently at war with its own citizens, is ‘really pretty helpful.’  And, oh, yeah, Sara’s fine

For Luke, the glass was always half-full but he sounded like someone trying to convince me all was well in his kingdom even though, deep down, he knew something wasn’t. 

Sara sounded much better than Luke. 

“You naughty, naughty man.  Get down here right now.”  I heard the smile in her semi-whispering. 

“Yes, Dear.  So, what night do you plan on wining and dining me just so I can say, ‘No.'”

“We both know you could never say ‘no’ to me.”

“Now, look here! I’m perfectly capable of telling you, uh, you n….n…., I’m willing to consider the possibility of telling you n….., I can stand my moral ground and tell you, unconditionally, that I’m prepared to, um, say my, uh, it’s like, okay, ‘yes.’ When do I start?”

“Miss me?” She was still speaking quietly.

“Terribly. I’ve been pining at the border. Built a statue of you in El Paso. Quite stunning. Are you wacky kids really thinking of laying down roots in Tierra del Fuego or wherever it is you are. Is that what one does with roots? Lay them?”

“Sure are. Are we still handicapped with that unsuitable girl friend?”

Two word answer and a sudden change of subject.  Why, “unsuitable?”

“Alas, we parted. These days I comfort myself by arising with thoughts of thee. You’re really thinking of staying in Muerte, Mexico?  Or, whatever?

“Why not? Luke really wants to. So, yeah, maybe.”

“What am I going to do with your statue?  Actually, I need to do something with it because it’s a nude. Very tasteful.  Would you send me some highly inappropriate clothes I can put on your statue? She looks cold.”

She maintained the low volume. “You’ll just have to come down here for some of the real thing. Love me?” 

“Eternally.”

What’s with the hushed tones?

I got the feeling Luke was rushing her off the phone.  “Good. I love you. I’m getting hairy eyeballs. Get your squeezable little butt down here now. Bye-yee.”

” Au revoir, mon cher.”

Odd. Very odd. What was the whispering all about? Was there something Luke wasn’t supposed to hear? “Squeezable little butt?” Why was Lukey blowing so much sunshine up my silo?  

Nah, reading too much into this one. Gotta quit looking for something that isn’t there. Probably too many people standing around listening to the call. Made it awkward for them. If everyone seems happy and everything seems fine then just accept things as they are.

But, I was pretty bad at accepting things as they are or were. Besides, I understood, with very little reservation, nothing is ever as it seems.

Never was.

***END OF PART ONE***

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