Hacktreks In Mexico
Simple Matter of Supply and Demand
could look over my shoulder and glimpse the gleaming golden arches
of McDonalds standing like a beacon across the stagnant
typical American tends to have a preconceived notion of Mexico: tacos,
tequila, mariachi music, and bargain hunting for curios against the
backdrop of tourist-friendly whitesand beaches and festive colonial
cities. Beyond these novelties Mexico remains a mysterious and intimidating
netherworld teeming with pollution, corruption, and a conniving populace
more than happy to relieve a hapless gringo of his valuables.
the subject of travels to Mexico, most sources strongly advise against
driving. The roads are dangerous, the police are crooked, street
signs are oblique or nonexistent, and the gas is of miserable quality.
A breakdown can spell disaster. It makes so much more sense to fly.
Simply stow your carry-on bag, dine on free peanuts, flip through
the in-flight magazine, and perhaps indulge in a cocktail or two.
Before you know it youve touched down south of the bordera
safe and hassle-free means of travel, indeed. However, certain drawbacks
do exist. Its expensive. There are strict limitations on the
amount of baggage you can take with you. And its all but impossible
to bring along a worn out car that you plan to use upon reaching
your destination. Besides, in a pressurized airplane cabin you forego
the possibility of any en-route cultural exchange.
was the reasoning I employed when I shrugged off the advice of others
and made the decision to once again tempt fate by driving my recently
purchased thousand-dollar car sixteen hours from San Antonio, Texas,
to central Mexico where I was teaching English in a small city called
Irapuato. This trip down I was hoping to beat the usual crowds that
begin to line up at the border by mid-morning, so at 5:30 a.m. I pulled
out of the driveway of my mothers house where Id been staying
on vacation. I got on Interstate 35 and headed south to Laredo, passing
mile after mile of flat farm fields in the dark. By the time the sun
had risen, I was already in the arid brush country of South Texas that
extends down into northern Mexico. Another thirty minutes or so and
I was on the outskirts of Laredo. Passing the miles of shopping malls
and fastfood sprawl that flank the interstate in suburban Laredo I headed
through town for the muddy river that divides two different worlds.
At the border I pulled up to a tollbooth-like kiosk where a guard sat
in a chair in front of a computer screen. His eyes scanned the inside
of my car as I put it in neutral and rolled down the window. Id
been living in Mexico for a couple of months now and decided it was
time to quit relying on the ability of Mexican border officials to speak
English. This time I would instead charm them with my eloquent Spanish.
"Buenos dias," I said confidently. "Donde está
la oficina de permisos?" Surely hed be impressed that a gringo
could ask directions to the vehicle permit office.
"Uh, Im afraid I cant answer that," he replied.
Damn, I hate when they answer you in English.
"Youll have to ask once you get to Mexico. Its over
there." He smirked and pointed to a large sign halfway across the
bridge over the Rio Grande. From his outstretched finger, my eyes walked
up his government-issued sleeve and came to an abrupt halt at the black
patch on his shoulder that said U.S. Customs. How could it have escaped
my attention that I was still on the north side of the river? I avoided
making eye contact as I handed him the three-dollar crossing fee and
passed on exchanging further pleasantries. The toll paid, I started
across the bridge.
On the southern side of the bridge I stopped at another tollbooth. I
was now officially in Mexico. I restated my question and received an
answer in Spanish.
"Que le vaya bien," said the smiling Mexican customs agent
after giving me directions to the permit office. I eased through the
checkpoint manned by expressionless soldiers holding machine guns and
drove down the funnel-like lane of orange cones that deposits motorists
into the chaotic streets of Neuvo Laredo. From the garbage-strewn boulevard
lined with tiny shops and taco stands I could look over my shoulder
and glimpse the gleaming golden arches of McDonalds standing like
a beacon across the stagnant river.
I picked my way several blocks past mangy limping dogs and broken down
cars parked alongside the curb before finding the vehicle permit office
tucked behind the crumbling smokestack of a now-defunct factory. I wheeled
into the parking lot patting myself on the back for having made the
wise decision to arrive early enough to beat the deluge of cars that
stack up later in the day. At 8:10 a.m. I sauntered into the office
whistling a tune with my documents in hand ready to get in and out in
a matter of minutes. But something seemed strange about the place. As
soon as I walked into the dank lobby I realized that I was the only
soul there except for a janitor mopping the floor.
"Perdón," I said in my rough Spanish. "I need
a new vehicle permit. Am I in the right place?"
"Yes, but the officials wont be here until nine-thirty,"
the janitor told me as he continued making broad circles on the floor
with his mop. "You can wait there," he said, pointing to a
row of plastic chairs lined up against a bank of windows.
"Why is the
? Okay," I said, walking toward the chairs.
I wanted to ask the man why the hell the office was open when there
werent any employees present but decided against it, reminding
myself instead that I was back in Mexico. This being Sunday morning,
the vehicle-permit official was undoubtedly soldiering through a stiff
hangover and would mosey in when it suited him.
I sat down in one of the hard plastic chairs, twiddling my thumbs and
pondering the twelve-hour drive ahead of me, when a middle-aged American
couple walked through the doors. They looked curiously around the empty
lobby and then went through the same routine with the janitor as I had,
except they asked their questions in English. Apparently they did not
receive a satisfactory response because they stood there with annoyed
looks on their faces. I nodded to the scowling man and told him what
the janitor had told me.
"I just dont understand these people sometimes," said
the man, looking quite put out at the inconvenience.
"Hmm, then why are you coming to Mexico?" I asked. The man
went on to tell me that he and his wife owned a house on the beach in
Oaxaca. They spent the winters there to escape the cold Nebraska climate
and because the cost of living was so low. Yuck, snowbirds.
At 9:50 a.m. the vehicle-permit official arrived. He sat down in his
office chair, leaned back in a long luxuriant stretch, rearranged the
items on his desk, and then finally swung open the glass doors, ready
for business. Since I was the first in line I walked into the office,
got a new visa and vehicle permit, and was on my way in twenty minutes
time. I steered out of the parking lot, followed the sign pointing to
Monterrey, and aimed my weary car south for the long haul to Irapuato.
An hour or so south of the border, the flat brush country begins giving
way to the immensely jagged and dry peaks that form the northern tip
of the Sierra Madre, the forfeiter of easy passage for millennia until
the highway was blasted through. Closer to Monterrey, the road climbs
and plummets like a roller coaster. Along sharp curves carved out of
the sooty gray rock, dozens of small white crosses line the pavement
inches from the precipice, a sobering reminder to passing motorists
of the folly of passing on blind turns. I cruised up and down the steep
grades of the highway at a strained 65mph, trying to hear the stereo
over the screeching din of my cars engine furiously laboring away.
Skirting the outlying suburbs and industrial facilities of Monterrey,
I continued south, sweeping through Saltillo and gazing out my cars
windows at the stark mountains and bleak desert floor between the ranges.
Contemplating the sad shantytowns constructed of concrete and tin that
permeate the outskirts of all Mexican cities, I continued along, completely
oblivious to the rapidly plummeting arc of my gas gauge. About thirty
minutes south of Saltillo, I awoke from my daze and suddenly realized
that the needle was approaching empty and I hadnt seen a gas station
for miles. At first it did not seem too dire a situation, as Pemex stations
are usually spaced every five to tens miles apart on most Mexican highways.
However, just as the saying goes about a cop never being there when
you need him, so was the case with a gas station. I began getting quite
concerned after another five or ten miles of nothing but scorched desert
with not a Pemex in sight and my gas gauge now resting comfortably on
"Why the hell are there no gas stations?" I kept thinking.
"Ive never driven more than a few miles in Mexico without
After several more miles of no gas stations and a mounting feeling of
dread and disbelief, I saw a hand-painted sign on the side of the road
that said "GASOLINA" in shaky white letters. I peered at the
sign as I drove past, but did not see any gas pumps so I continued along,
sure in the knowledge that there would be a Pemex station over the next
hill. After several hills and no Pemex station, I saw another sign advertising
gas, this one spray-painted on a splintered piece of plywood outside
a shack on the side of the highway. I decided to investigate more thoroughly
this time, as by now my options seemed pretty limited. I pulled off
the highway and came to a stop in a cloud of dust.
In Mexico there is a government-owned monopoly of all gas stations,
the ubiquitous green-painted Pemex. There are no independent distributors
like in the United States. Apparently though, the person on the roadside
was forging a cottage industry selling bootleg gas to hapless travelers.
This "gas station" consisted of an adobe-and-stick shack about
fifteen feet from the tarmac and a multitude of five-gallon paint buckets
and various other containers filled with reddish-colored gasoline simmering
in the sun. I got out of the car and stood watching two little kids
rolling around in the dust on the ground. A scrawny, sunburned man and
a fat woman with long, black braided hair walked out of the open doorway
of the shack and approached me.
"Gasolina?" I asked, pointing to the greasy buckets of reddish-orange
"Si," remarked the man with a look on his face that said,
"What did you think it was?"
I bent down over one of the open paint buckets and smelled the strange
looking fluid to make sure it wasnt diesel or some other petrochemical
potentially lethal to my car. It smelled pretty much like gasoline,
but something wasnt right about its color, not to mention the
little pieces of straw and dust floating on its surface. I stood back
up and took a long look up and down the dusty highway, wondering where
the next gas station might be.
"Wheres the next gas station?" I asked him in Spanish.
"One hundred twenty kilometers," he said. "In Matehuala."
"Hes probably just saying that so Ill buy his gas,"
I thought to myself, gazing down the highway as a tumbleweed danced
with a dustdevil on the shoulder and semi trucks without mufflers roared
past. Nothing but scorched desert and the narrow band of asphalt proceeded
as far as the eye could see. I thought about the stories Id heard
from other travelers of being stranded on the roadside in Mexico. Perhaps
it would be wise to buy his gas and not gamble on the chance that he
was lying about a Pemex station not being over the next hill.
"How much does it cost?" I inquired, pointing to one of the
"Two hundred pesos," he said.
"Two hundred pesos for how much?" I asked, thinking perhaps
this was the price to fill the tank.
"One bucket," he said.
"What?" I sputtered in disbelief. This was the equivalent
of about twenty dollars U.S. and the bucket could not have held more
than four or five gallons of gasoline.
"Two hundred pesos for one bucket," he repeated. This scoundrel
was trying to take me for all I was worth. What ever happened to good
Samaritans helping those in distress?
"But it costs five pesos a liter at the gas station," I protested.
"Amigo, there are no gas stations for 120 kilometers. I have to
pay my father-in-law to drive to Matehuala to buy it for people like
you and its 120 kilometers away," he replied.
"Yeah, yeah, you told me how far it is," I felt like saying.
Ive always considered myself a generous tipper, but the fee for
his services seemed a bit extravagant. Besides, I didnt care much
for his martyr-like tone.
"Ill give you seventy-five," I said. When negotiating
a price in Mexico, its usually safe to bet that the actual selling
price will fall somewhere between one-half and one-third of the original
"Two hundred pesos for one bucket," he said with a yawn. He
must have thought he had me in a tight spot and didnt have to
"Ninety pesos," I countered, confident that hed be happy
to sell me his gasoline for such an inflated price.
"The next gas station is one hundred twenty kilometers away in
Matehuala," he reminded me.
"Damn, this guys good," I thought to myself.
"Okay, fine. Ill give you one hundred pesos," I said.
I wanted to give him the patented "Ill meet you in the middle"
sales pitch, but wasnt quite sure how to execute such a sophisticated
negotiation technique in Spanish. Besides, with my luck this failproof
tactic would probably translate into Spanish with some perverse sexual
connotation. Mexicans pride themselves on the serpentine doble sentido
of their language.
"Amigo, the price is two hundred pesos." He was beginning
to look a bit annoyed and gave no signs of weakness or caving-in. The
guy was a brick wall. Time for a shift in tactics.
"One twenty-five?" I asked, putting on the ol sad face.
"Señor, I dont have very much money. I had problems
with my car at the border." I was really stretching my Spanish
skills to get this little fib across. He crossed his arms and rocked
back and forth on his heels like an impatient traffic cop listening
to a speeders lame excuses. He then turned to his wife and jabbered
in unintelligible rapid-fire Spanish, undoubtedly thanking God for having
sent them a helpless gringo.
"Two hundred pesos," he said, his eyes sharpening. The sympathy
approach obviously wasnt working.
"I have to be in Irapuato tomorrow for my classes. Señor,
Im a teacher," I said. This was bringing out the heavy artillery.
Teachers are generally held in somewhat higher public regard in Mexico
than in the U.S. and the position occasionally commands a bit of added
respect. But he was on to my game and adjusted his approach accordingly.
"Amigo, I have a wife and children to feed." Oh no, he pulled
the reverse-sympathy technique.
Wed reached a stalemate. The two of us stood in silence. I looked
once more down the ribbon of highway wobbling in the heat waves off
in the distance. What if there really wasnt a gas station between
here and Matehuala? I wouldnt make it another twenty miles on
the gas left in my tank. The sun was now well past the top of its arc
across the sky and I was still a good seven or eight hours from my destination.
If I left now I would make it in just after dark. Even the natives dont
recommend driving at night in Mexico. After nightfall the roads are
frequently obstructed by loose livestock, vehicles without lights, blind
corners, and occasionally roving banditos. I weighed my options, realized
that I had no options, and finally admitted defeat. I coughed up the
money for the gasoline.
"Okay, one bucket," I muttered, hating myself for letting
him take such advantage of me. He smiled slightly in subtle acknowledgement
of his victory.
When I handed over two wrinkled bills, the fat woman with braided hair
scurried into the shack with the money. The man dragged over a wooden
stand that had a rusty tin bucket on top. A clear plastic hose inserted
through a hole in the bottom served as a gravity-fed gas pump. As he
placed the hose into my cars gas tank I peered into the bucket
and was horrified to see clods of dirt, dead bugs, and all kinds of
other rubbish lining the bottom rim. I felt quite certain that the sludgy
detritus from his gas pump would clog my cars gas line, but by
that point I was too incensed by the whole episode to bother making
a fuss. All I wanted was to hit the road. The man hoisted the five-gallon
bucket of twenty-dollar gas on his shoulder and began pouring it into
his hand-fashioned pump, managing to spill a good deal of it on the
ground in the process. When the last precious drop of fluid had flowed
down the tube into my gas tank, he removed the hose. I screwed the gas
cap back on and got into the car.
"Gracias," I said as I turned the key in the ignition, not
quite sure why Id thanked him for such blatant highway robbery.
At this rate, thered be nothing left for the night banditos to
take from me.
"De nada," he smiled. The man turned to lug the gas pump back
to where the other buckets of gas sat beside the shack in the hot sun,
ready for the next sucker with an empty gas tank to chance along.
I pulled back out onto the highway with a quarter tank of gas and continued
south, anxiously waiting for my car to start lurching and stall when
the tepid gas and debris reached the intake. Amazingly, my stoic little
car purred along as smoothly as ever while I scanned the horizon for
a nearby Pemex station to prove my suspicions correct. Each time I thought
I caught a glimpse of a Pemex shimmering in the heat waves I cursed
the man on the roadside and swore vengeance upon his treacherous business
practices. By the time Id somewhat soothed my ire with a salve
of obscenities I was on the outskirts of Matehuala where I stopped at
the first Pemex Id seen since parting with two hundred pesos for
a bucket of dirty gas. My disgust evaporated instantly when I realized
that the man had been telling me the truth. It really was 120 kilometers
to the next gas station. As I filled the tank I watched the rotating
digits on the pumps meter and felt a little mean for having called
him a liar when hed actually provided a valuable service. He wasnt
a crook. He was just a good businessman. It was a simple matter of supply
© Pickett Porterfield June 2003
all rights reserved