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Hacktreks In Mexico

A Simple Matter of Supply and Demand
Pickett Porterfield in Mexico
'I could look over my shoulder and glimpse the gleaming golden arches of McDonald’s standing like a beacon across the stagnant river'.

The 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.

On 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 you’ve touched down south of the border—a safe and hassle-free means of travel, indeed. However, certain drawbacks do exist. It’s expensive. There are strict limitations on the amount of baggage you can take with you. And it’s 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.

Such 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 mother’s house where I’d 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. I’d 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 he’d be impressed that a gringo could ask directions to the vehicle permit office.
"Uh, I’m afraid I can’t answer that," he replied. Damn, I hate when they answer you in English.
"You’ll have to ask once you get to Mexico. It’s 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 McDonald’s 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 won’t 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 weren’t 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 don’t 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 minute’s 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 car’s engine furiously laboring away.

Skirting the outlying suburbs and industrial facilities of Monterrey, I continued south, sweeping through Saltillo and gazing out my car’s 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 hadn’t 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 empty.
"Why the hell are there no gas stations?" I kept thinking. "I’ve never driven more than a few miles in Mexico without seeing one."

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 liquid.
"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 wasn’t diesel or some other petrochemical potentially lethal to my car. It smelled pretty much like gasoline, but something wasn’t 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.
"Where’s the next gas station?" I asked him in Spanish.
"One hundred twenty kilometers," he said. "In Matehuala."
"He’s probably just saying that so I’ll 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 I’d 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 buckets.
"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 it’s 120 kilometers away," he replied.
"Yeah, yeah, you told me how far it is," I felt like saying. I’ve always considered myself a generous tipper, but the fee for his services seemed a bit extravagant. Besides, I didn’t care much for his martyr-like tone.
"I’ll give you seventy-five," I said. When negotiating a price in Mexico, it’s usually safe to bet that the actual selling price will fall somewhere between one-half and one-third of the original asking price.
"Two hundred pesos for one bucket," he said with a yawn. He must have thought he had me in a tight spot and didn’t have to negotiate.
"Ninety pesos," I countered, confident that he’d 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 guy’s good," I thought to myself.
"Okay, fine. I’ll give you one hundred pesos," I said. I wanted to give him the patented "I’ll meet you in the middle" sales pitch, but wasn’t 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 don’t 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 speeder’s 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 wasn’t working.
"I have to be in Irapuato tomorrow for my classes. Señor, I’m 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.
We’d 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 wasn’t a gas station between here and Matehuala? I wouldn’t 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 don’t 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 car’s 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 car’s 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 I’d thanked him for such blatant highway robbery. At this rate, there’d 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 I’d somewhat soothed my ire with a salve of obscenities I was on the outskirts of Matehuala where I stopped at the first Pemex I’d 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 pump’s meter and felt a little mean for having called him a liar when he’d actually provided a valuable service. He wasn’t a crook. He was just a good businessman. It was a simple matter of supply and demand.

© Pickett Porterfield June 2003
email; Pickett75@aol.com

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