By mid-October, everything was done, I was packed and ready to leave. I placed the cat carrier on the front seat, hugged my friends as they warned me again that I would surely be raped and pillaged, climbed behind the wheel and began my trek to my new life in Mexico.
This trip had actually begun 5 months before, when in early May 1990, at the insistence of my friends and family, I had vacationed in Guadalajara for a week. Everyone had been insisting that I take a vacation for the nearly 2 years since the death of my fiancé after a lengthy bout with cancer. Finally I had given up, sighed and agreed. I would go on vacation, but it wouldn’t be in the United States-I would go to MEXICO!
I have never understood WHY I thought Mexico would be better, and more comfortable. I did not speak Spanish, my Mexican experience consisted of lunches at the Rosarito Beach Hotel and day trips to Tijuana.
All alone in a hotel in downtown Guadalajara, I spent my days walking and basking in the sun and the warmth of the people in Tapatio Plaza. I sat on park benches, visited the lovely buildings, enjoyed the music and culture, ate watermelon from vendors, listened to the marimbas, offered shy “Buenos días and Gracias” whenever possible, and grew and healed from the several years of pain and grief and illness.
On the second day I realized a miracle was happening in me. I was feeling well, my glands were no longer so swollen, my voice was returning to normal, I could walk and be out of bed for hours at a time, without pain or weakness. The mental fog was lifting.
Following Bill’s death, I had become terribly ill and had been weak and in pain for over a year. I finally had been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Disorder and Fibramyalgia. I had been so relieved when the specialist explained that the debilitating and terrifying physical and neurological problems I had experienced commonly accompanied the syndrome, and although there was no cure for the disease, it was seldom fatal or crippling. On good days, I could, sometimes, go to the mall if I limited myself to one shop, used handicapped parking, and rested on the way to and from the car. The ability to read, to write a check, to find my way home, were often beyond my new capabilities, a bitter pill for a Type A personality, doing, caring, controlling active 43-year-old.
Now, mysteriously the second day in Guadalajara, I felt nearly well. I could do what I wanted, with just a siesta. Each day I was stronger and better.
By the third day, I knew I had come home, that somehow I belonged in Mexico. I spent the next few days with a tour group from Palm Springs which had checked into my hotel. Each morning they heard lectures from realtors, doctors, lawyers and other experts, and then toured tequila, pottery and shoe factories, traveled to Tlaquepaque and then to the Lake Chapala area, all part of retirement tour pioneer Carlos Navia’s trip, “Retirement in Guadalajara 101”.
By the end of the week, there was no decision to make. I WAS moving to Mexico. The timing was terrific, my daughter, the youngest of my three children was graduating from Dana Point High School in a few weeks, but HER life was not worth living unless she could go to Central College in Iowa, 1800 miles from California. Her brothers were already in colleges in Iowa and Missouri.
It was every parent’s secret dream, the opportunity to move far enough away before the kids could finish school and move back home. Besides-If I was to be 1800 miles from them, what difference could it make if I was South of them or West of them, and what better place to spend college breaks than at mom’s in MEXICO?
Plus, thanks to Carlos, I had learned much of the culture, history and traditions of Mexico, and of the lower cost of living at Lake Chapala, about the support systems, activities, and medical care at Lakeside, and realized that I could afford daily household help to do routine tasks, leaving my energy to do fun things.
Finally by October, the preparations were completed, I had bid fond farewell to family and friends, who all, to the last one, was sure I would be raped and pillaged and never heard from again. I had my medical and dental records, my stereo, my sewing machine, and most of my life in the car. Mexican music spilled from the tape player as I crossed the California border into Arizona and finally across the Nogales border into Mexico, the land of my great adventure, the home of my heart.
The border crossing was uneventful, and I arrived well before dark in Hermosilla, found a clean, safe motel, settled the cat in the car with food, water and fresh litter, had a lovely dinner and a great sleep to prepare for the second of the three days of travel in Mexico.
In preparation for the trip, I had sold my small Cadillac with low miles, and purchased a classic 1964 ½ Red, Thunderbird with white leather interior. My thought had been logical, the Tbird’s engine would be simple enough for any mechanic to work on. That indeed was true, BUT in retrospect, how much work would the Caddy have needed.
I had finished the process of rebuilding it, and preparing it for the trip. It looked wonderful. I felt wonderful driving it. I had personalized California plates that said, in Spanish, “Red Bird”. Who could rape and pillage me, driving a fine car like this vintage Tbird.?
That engine had a deep throated hum that made the whole world look bright and clear, and said POWER, until passing through the city of Navajoa at high noon of that second day, I heard what I thought was the city’s noon whistle blowing, until I realized it was coming from my car. I pulled to a stop beside a mechanic shop, grabbed my little phrase book, put the cat carrier in the shade, and began the most interesting 24 hours of my life.
The next eight hours, I traveled from mechanic to mechanic. In each shop, the men would first establish that I was traveling alone, and warn me of the dangers of being a woman along in Mexico – I think they said I could be raped and pillaged. They then would be most amazed to find my large black cat in the carrier, SURE an animal that large MUST be a dog, finally, the polite chatting over, we would get down to the problem at hand, my poor wounded T Bird.
They cheerfully and kindly changed thermostats, they insisted it must be the incorrect radiator cap, they checked coolants, and hoses, they poked and prodded, and adjusted, and fixed. And while they did it, somehow they asked me where I was going, and where I had been. We sipped sodas, as I explained to several young men that with their mechanical skills they would be far better off remaining in their home towns than going off to California to seek their fortunes, and end up as so many others have picking strawberries. I often wonder if they listened.
In each shop, I was charged a pittance, and sent on my way with blessings, and warnings to be careful of the OTHER men I might meet along the roads of the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, men who would not be as respectful as they had been. And by the way, where were my MEN, my husband, father and sons, that they would allow me to make this trip on my own. Didn’t THEY at least understand it could be dangerous for a woman alone? Then they would warn me again to be careful, I might be raped and pillaged along the roadside, and they would feel responsible.
At the last they offered God’s blessings, along with of all of the assorted favorite Saints and Virgins they called upon to keep watch over me. Then off I would creep feeling protected and nurtured and loved, even though the car malfunctioned again and again.
I crept along the hot dusty two lane roads from mechanic to mechanic the whole remainder of the day until dusk found me at a simple concrete block tire shop with one light bulb, far from any town of consequence.
All day I had remained focused, calm and serene, quite unlike my normal in-control, everything-better-go-right-self. Through the whole day, I knew I was safe and sound, and I was as sure as the mechanics that the NEXT thermostat would somehow make it all be ok.
As the dusk deepened, I began to face the possibility of spending the night in my packed and disabled car. As the local men finished work they gathered in and around this little building, some with tires to fix, but most just to talk, to pass the evening among friends, frequently sending the children to the tiny store for yet more cold beer.
Even strong, capable, liberated women have insights, and as the evening lengthened, and the men congregated, I sat on a convenient rock some distance away, to wait, as one man disassembled my water pump, and another took a bicycle to a distant parts shop. They rebuilt the water pump on the ground, with copious observations and advice from the gathering of men, and then they welded it back together by arcing from the battery of the car.
Just as the water pump was reinstalled and just before panic threatened, my salvation appeared. This tall, fair Mexican man was the first person I had encountered since I crossed the border who spoke English. Nothing has even seemed to be so much a gift from God. Efren explained to me that he was the foreman of the mechanics who were keeping all the trucks mobile that were being used to rebuild the local highway. Since the new water pump had not solved the problem, he suggested that he could take me and my car to the nearby motel where his workers were staying. He warned me that it “wasn’t much”, but that I would be safe for the night. What sweet words, and how true they proved to be . . .on both counts.
Soon we arrived at the motor court of the tiny village which was Efren’s home. Two of the workers agreed to share one room, so that I could use the other. The manager importantly arrived to sweep out the beer cans and cigarette butts, and to bring me a clean bottom sheet to put on the stack of time curled mattresses placed on a concrete platform. Efren then left after assuring me that he had informed all the men in the motel that I was with him, and they were not to bother me or my car. No rape or pillage to happen here. His words became even more comforting as the evening wore on.
After a day and a half in Mexico, I had become almost accustomed to toilets without seats in Mexican rest rooms. As I surveyed this motel room, I discovered a new twist, this toilet had no tank. Thankfully, with years of farm experience to draw from, I instantly realized the bucket of water beside the toilet would serve as the flushing mechanism.
After a day in the sun and dusty wind of the desert states of Mexico, there was nothing more important to me at that moment than a shower. I retrieved my overnight things from the car including my pillow, a beach towel to use as a cover, and the one remaining warm diet soda. Drawing semisheer curtains over the windowless holes, I turned out the light to undress and with shampoo, towel, and rubber shower sandals, approached the shower. Using the flashlight, I located the handles to control the water, turned them on, and nothing happened-a mystery until I discovered there was no shower head, there had never been a hole in the wall to allow a water pipe to pass with a shower head.
By now I was obsessed with the thought of a shower, so pulling on a robe, I ventured out into the night with my shampoo and towel in search of the two kind workmen who were bunking together. They were sitting on the stoop of their room, and in sign language, I explained my dire need to be clean and cool. Of course, they allowed me to use their shower while they waited outside. However, when once again undressed and in the dark, in their shower, I discovered that while there was indeed a shower head, there were no handles on the stems, and I could not get a good enough grip to turn them on. Back in my robe, having explained this new plight, I was awarded a pair of vice grips. SUCCESS!! A wonderful, glorious, tepid shower.
Returning to my room, I prepared to settle down to read, until I realized that not only was there no lock on the door, there was indeed no doorknob. Just like in the movies, I prepared to move the nightstand or dresser to cover the door-foiled again, for not only was all the furniture crafted of concrete, and immobile, to my chagrin, the door opened OUT. Determined to make the best of an interesting situation, I did the only thing possible at that moment, I took a valium with my warm soda, and slept through the night.
Early the next morning I awakened to the sounds of the two mechanics cannibalizing parts from an old Ford truck abandoned near my room. These men were up at dawn, still looking for a way to make my car functional. I had just dressed and was assessing the situation when Efren arrived to drive me to his home where his mother, wife, sister-in-law and several children awaited to prepare breakfast for me. By mid-morning he returned to tell me that the engine of the car would have to be completely rebuilt, and that parts would have to come from the states.
He suggested the bus, or plane from nearby Los Mochas to Ajijic, but I was concerned with the contents of my car, as well as my cat. Today, of course, I understand I could have taken everything on either form of transportation, but at the time, I determined a rental car was the only solution for the remaining 700 miles of the trip. All during that day Efren’s mother took me back and forth to the only telephone in the village, located some blocks away in the little store. When a call came for ” La Gringa” a child would run to tell us to come. It was not until some time later that I realized how unusual it was at that time for an older Mexican village woman to know how to drive, AND to have a car at her disposal.
By late afternoon, the rental company had delivered a van, and the lovely family helped me load my belongings, and cat. As I said tearful good-byes to the entire family, they cautioned me to be very careful, it really wasn’t safe for a woman to travel alone in Mexico. The mother of Efren quietly warned me I could be raped or pillaged-at least words to that effect. I looked back at the poor wounded Tbird parked under a tree in the yard. Efren assured me that with the $200 US cash, and my check for another $250 he and the men could rebuild the engine and return the car to me by Christmas.
The deal I worked with the rental company was the most unpleasant transaction of the entire trip. By their rules, they allowed me from 4 p.m. Wednesday until 9 a.m. Friday to travel the remaining 700 miles to Chapala. Their representative would be arriving on the overnight bus to collect the car. The price was outrageous, as they charged me mileage BOTH ways, And two days wages for the man who would be in Chapala on Friday to collect the car and drive it back. Would that I had understood bus and Mexican air travel then..
Still driven to complete this trip to my new life alone and unaided, I left Los Mochis, and drove 5 hours into Mazatlan, arriving in the heat and dark. I found out that night why everyone cautions against driving after dark.. As I was whizzing up a mountain road, I found a large semi, traveling at about 20 miles per hour, with NO lights, on a road with no shoulder, and another car careening down the mountain in the other lane. Thankfully the rental van had good brakes, and I was able to avoid the sheer cliff drop off. By the time I arrived in Mazatlan, I was too tired to even find the hotel restaurant. Another diet soda was dinner, and the cat and I enjoyed the cool air conditioned room and I especially reveled in the hot shower.
Restored, I was back on the road bright and early the next morning. The cat complaining and yowling loudly for the first time during the entire trip. Apparently he felt we could just as well have lived forever in that motel room, and was very vocal that traveling farther was senseless to him.
Without the benefit of today’s toll roads, I drove steadily and hard all day on twisting narrow, pitted two-lane roads, arriving at the outskirts of Guadalajara about 4:30, just as a torrential rain also hit the city, coinciding with the beginnings of rush hour. In 1990, there were no overhead street signs, but that made little difference to me as I did not have a map of Guadalajara anyway, so with my heart in my throat, I made my way all the way across that city of then 6-8 million persons, searching for the little street signs posted on the corners of buildings on the OTHER side of intersections.
Crossing one overpass, I noticed the retaining wall was broken and saw a car lying upside down on the street below. At least I wasn’t worried about rape and pillage, there were too many cars too close together to allow such an act. I will never understand how I managed to cross the entire city, and find that one thrilling tiny sign saying, “Chapala”
By the time I reached the airport, I almost felt I knew where I was. I was so excited to be getting closer and closer to “Home”.
Then the final straw. The old two-lane highway from Guadalajara to the Lake was in the process of being removed to prepare for the new four lane divided highway. Much of the lane in which I was driving had been removed, leaving a 2′ deep channel, with steel rebar still poking out of the soil from place to place. One of those bars pierced the right rear tire of the rental van. I was able to control the car, but unable to climb up out of the channel for some distance, so continued to drive on the flat until I reached the driveway of Agua Escondida, a housing development midway between the airport and the Lake.
The gate guard assured me in sign language that there were no phones there, and that I needed to go to the next village, Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos (which I referred to as the “IX Town”for several years.) So, in the dusk, and the drizzle, along the partly demolished highway I walked the five km to the entrance of the village. By now it was full dark, and while asking directions to the nearest phone, I became worried that the long distance phone office would be closed before I arrived. I arrived at the office at 7 p.m. and gave the operator the phone number of my real estate agent in Chula Vista. When she reached Jim’s home, he was not in. I tried the only other phone number I had at the lake, the house I had negotiated to purchase. I believed the sellers had a vested interest in me arriving at the Lake all in one piece, as I still owed them a great deal of money. When the operator reached the owner of the house, and put me on the phone, I was so relieved. My hopes were soon dashed when he said that while he would attempt to reach Jim, he could not come pick me up as it was too dangerous to drive after dark. (Along the same road I had just walked. Later, I came to realize he was talking about free range livestock, not rapists and pillagers.)
Soon my friendly real estate agent Jim called me back at the little phone office. He suggested I walk back two or three blocks to the restaurant I had seen while walking into town. He assured me that he was well acquainted with the owner of the business, and that in fact, she had just listed the building with him. Meanwhile, since he was tied up with clients he would send an associate or a cab for me as soon as possible. I explained my plight to the owner of the restaurant, then we talked and chatted and drank a cup of coffee and waited, and waited, until finally around 11 a cab pulled up. The cab driver took me to the car to retrieve the cat and my overnight things, and on to La Nueva Posada, where Mark Eager was waiting at the desk, and later himself prepared fruit, bread, and coffee for me, the first food I had eaten since the breakfast Efren’s mother prepared for me some 40 hours before.
Much, much later, I discovered that I had waited four hours in a whore house, but due to the cold and drizzle of the evening, business was obviously very slow. I often think of this trip, I wonder about the events and adventures, I traveled days through Mexico by myself, I was alone in dozens of mechanic’s shops, I spent the night in a motel full of workmen with no door knob, I walked along the highway at dark, in the rain, I waited hours in a whorehouse, and I couldn’t even get laid, let alone raped and pillaged.
This then has continued to be my experience with life in Mexico-the kindness, the generosity, the love, the patience, the blessings and the offering of the best there is to offer to a stranger in need- This is la tierra de mi corazón (the land of my Heart, My Mexico.)