He came at me like a reaper, skinny limbs looping like a steel bolas from a blade-thin torso. A crude plaster lay across a broken nose and the purple of a bruised right eye, caught in the beach floodlights, splashed almost to his chin. He exuded menace. I gripped the sand with my toes and, calculating his trajectory, shifted slightly right, aiming to plant a left hook on the damaged snout. Two thoughts came to mind as, shirtless and barefoot, he closed the gap: He was a fighter—and a ringer for a tanned Mick Jagger.
He struck like a storm, pummeling me upright and on the way down. Appropriately, face down and spitting grit, the opening words of the De Profundis swam in the syrup of my scattered wits, and I dizzily wondered why, in all of Mexico, I came to be the only gringo with his mouth—rather than his butt—in the sand.
• • •
SHIT HAPPENS. It was emblazoned on the side of our van and, I hastily told the U.S. border guard as he read the graffiti aloud, was the work of vandals. “I wonder if they-all realized the irony,” he drawled. “Just make sure shit don’t happen here…”
A flick of his head and we were away, through the diplomatic corridor that connects British Columbia to America and on to Interstate 5, a wide, noisy cataract that rolls all the way to the Mexican border. Our rusted-out Volkswagen’s assembly of greasy engine parts had been completed only that afternoon by my mechanically inclined fellow traveler, Erich, who, with a final twist of the wrench and a brevitas baptism-by-beer, had declared the chariot roadworthy.
Taking turns at the wheel, we progressed through three states of grace: the evergreen of Washington, the ochre of Oregon, and the long, broad midriff of California, all negotiated at speed with no trouble. That began in the bedlam of Tijuana, the world’s most visited border town, where the United States meets Mexico, and traffic rumbling south carries the free-trade torch of commerce and dollar-toting tourists. Coming the other way, apart from those returning to Fortress America, is the truck cavalcade bearing the pact’s cheaper goods and the diaspora of immigrants, alien and otherwise—Chicanos chasing the American Dream.
Poised to pounce on border jumpers are guards armed and togged like SWAT teams: Dogs sniff buses, cars, carts, and even hearses, and patrol largely ineffective fences. People die regularly in the pitiless void between the two countries, or in manic nighttime dashes into a maelstrom of traffic headlights. Officially proscribed, the cheap alien labor that eludes the net is soon employed and underground.
All this was of little concern to us. Our problem was that the smooth ride of the I-5 had run into the parched, crumbling abandonment that is the precarious road snaking the thousand-mile length of the Baja Peninsula. We were already treading on our third spare tire when I saw a yellow sign and bellowed: “Curva Peligrosa?” Erich’s shrug was still in the making when brakes squealed, rubber shredded from the front wheel, the van lurched off the road, and we concluded our first Spanish lesson: DANGEROUS CURVE.
Like highway workers and gas stations, tire stores are few on the Baja. But along came Juan, clanking in an old Ford truck belching bluish exhaust. He had a tire. “It lives at mi casa,” he said. His casa was about an hour away, and he suggested one of us stay with the van. Warily, Erich hopped in with Juan. “Don’t worry, I spare you,” he said, flashing toothless black gums. Too tired to wonder if the pun was intentional, I watched them go and searched fruitlessly for some shade.
Sweating on a scorching rock slab, I watched vexatious vultures screaming in a holding pattern high above. (Several years before, off the rocky shores of turkey, a Greek fisherman had explained that the vulture’s featherless head was an adaptive advantage when scavenging carcasses. I scoffed at the time but, now, thought that nature annihilated the unadaptive. and those vultures were proof.) When not looking up, I looked around: nothing but cacti, desert sentries vigilant over seeming desolation, and a van with a rim where rubber once rolled.
Hours later Erich and Juan returned with a fresh tread. time on the Baja, we found, is relative. “Thought the vultures got you guys,” I said facetiously. “Juan made lunch,” Erich piped back. Tire replaced, the pair hugged like lifelong amigos. I offered money for his time and trouble, which Juan dismissed with a wave: “De nada.”
The decrepit ferry linking the Baja to mainland Mexico is 19 hours of penance, relieved for my part by memories of Juan’s generosity; regrettably, Juan’s lunch dish was streaming steadily from Erich’s bowels the entire trip.
In Mazatlán, culture spills from a Corona bottle. We soaked it up by the case, becoming a hit with most of the local tourism workers. “Wazzup, Canada?” they hollered as our van sputtered and backfired along the strip. We became pickled legends overnight. The van’s windshield, fragmented on the Baja during a detour from the highway (most travel books warn against night driving; this is sound advice), became a major attraction for the majority of the town’s waiters. Word spread (as did the cracks), and competitors queued to see whose punch could spider the glass further. We offered a bottle of white tequila to the winner, the egregious equivalent of offering a bottle of maple syrup to a Canadian: estúpido.
This was a foreshadowing of our Waterloo. Hailed as local heroes, we behaved like chumps and paid the price when we set out to sample the nightlife. Tourist bars? Not for us. Our Mazatlánian romp would ring authentic. Forget Coronas, Cuervos, and Cool, Calm, and Collected—we partied to Mexican rock, not Rolling Stones. The natives were not amused, and pride—lost in translation—coincided with our fall.
Had Mexican Mick Jagger hit me with a fist or a hawser? Was it a kick, a chop, a mallet? Did he have hands of stone? Had I imagined him barefoot when in fact he wore hobnails? No matter. Pain, last experienced in childhood with the bite of a bullying brat, seared through me as he sought more satisfaction by sinking his teeth into my back. Like a coyote spitting fur to get at flesh, he first bit through my designer muscle shirt, cut to enhance a season’s upper-body work. Then he chomped again, and skin splitting like a pummeled piñata fueled adrenalin enough to pitch him aside. He sprang erect, dripping my blood, then pounced again, this time burrowing between fellow assailants to take a bite from Erich’s abdomen.
They may be proud, wiry, and wily, but they only lope. Canadians, under pressure, can run. In the melee, amid chants of Mehico! Mehico! Mehico!, we got up and ran.
Sunrise: A tequila shot, a tetanus shot, and then a verbal shot from the hotel’s in-house doctor. “You think you tasted like chicken?” he chortled, clearly more impressed with his wit than our courage. Our collective tails tucked firmly between still-quivering buttocks, we packed and headed back to the van, eager for less hazardous cultural experiences.
• • •
MEXICO IS A LAND OF PARADOX. Beyond tourists and peddlers hawking tacky sombreros, desert landscapes, lush jungles, and snow-capped mountains frame ancient ruins, vintage colonial towns, and bustling urban centers. Modern, traditional, clichéd, surreal. Someone will steal your shirt. Another will give you theirs.
“This no a dangerous area,” said Manuel, after hearing of our bruising from Mexican Mick. A mechanic, he had pulled up in a once-yellow Volkswagen Beetle to offer assistance with our van, its mechanical life stilled yet again.
Manuel, poking at the engine, added: “But, you keep going south . . . where your distributor cap?” Stolen, it seemed. Erich had missed the obvious, and I was more concerned by Manuel’s tone. “What’s gonna happen if we keep going south?” I asked. He just shrugged. “You got some bread?” French, in fact. He tore a stale end off the thin loaf, stuck some speaker wire through it, then signaled Erich to turn the key. The van was restored to life.
Mexicans believe in danger, but the imminent kind does not exist. It is fundamental to their charm—and built into their hospitality. The next town is dangerous, the one after that is home to bandidos and labrones. But their town? “No problem.” Drive to the next town expecting marauding pirates, locals will laugh and say, “No problem.” But not before warning you that the next town “is big problem.”
We caught Pedro, a practiced pirate at eight years old, pilfering cassettes from our van. His scarecrow charm outmatched our censure, and we promised not to turn him in or tell his mother. On hearing this, he crossed himself and promised eternal fealty. Erich gave him a silver bracelet (small price for salvaging Led Zeppelin). Pedro admired it for a moment, then sprinted away in a puff of dust.
At sunset Pedro—the bracelet shining on a wrist—returned with a gift of his own: a tiny iguana named Poco (little). Poco, he said, had brought him luck and would do the same for us. Although we suspected Pedro had found him prone on a stone, we played along. Poco settled in on our dashboard, and we waved Pedro goodbye. “Adios,” he said, waving his arms as we rattled away, the gleam from his bracelet no match for the one in his eye. We were miles away when we discovered the pint-sized pirate had again pilfered half of our cassette collection.
And two days later the iguana too was a-gona: Poco had disappeared.
Onward: Little did we know when we met Chris that he’d feature in our penultimate Mexican adventure. We were strolling Mexico City’s sprawling Pino Suárez avenue; he was selling timeshares. His father, an aircraft mechanic in the navy, lived in San Diego; Chris lived locally with his Mexican mother.
Chris was eager to visit his father. Well into our third month south of the border, we decided to head home and agreed to convoy up with him. Our route would take us back to the coast, across the Sea of Cortez to the Baja via that arduous ferry, then directly north to San Diego. The orange monstrosity Chris called a car was a Volkswagen Thing, a relic without seatbelts, roll bar, passenger seat, windshield, or mirrors. Its wheels were warped, its tires bald, its sole ornamentation a pair of fuzzy dice duct-taped to the dashboard. Viewing this pile, Erich suggested that Chris lead the way. all went well, and we were back on the Baja when as dusk fell I spotted a statue of the Virgin Mary along the road. Sensing jeopardy, I suggested we slow down. Chris, oblivious, opened a gap ahead just as I spotted the sign framed like a halo above the Virgin’s head: CURVA PELIGROSA.
The curve ahead had already claimed a truck laden with sardines, sending a sea of google-eyed slimes across the road. Chris hit the mess at speed, smashing a metal barrier, and barrel-rolling his Thing into a crumpled pile at the bottom of a small gorge. We looked on, dumbstruck, as Chris emerged from a pile of metal and smoke. Because there, on a shirtfront already stained by blood from a head injury, was Poco! He had survived unseen in the van, and somehow transferred his abode and allegiance to the heat-conducting metal attraction of Chris’ transport. And he had indeed proven a charm: Maria, a lovely woman who stopped to help amid the mayhem of traffic and sardine, applied duct tape to Chris’ wound, and we waited for emergency help.
Lights strobed the desert darkness hours later. A police cruiser appeared and out stepped a caricature of the peacekeeper: skin-tight uniform, gleaming black leather boots that seemed to tuck to his abdomen. Through oversized orange shades that arced across his face almost at nose level—or perhaps they were night glasses—he lit a cigarette and surveyed the scene: Metal highway barrier peeled from its posts like zested lemon; stinking, slithery sardines everywhere; a mechanical wreck in the gorge; a casualty in duct-taped turban; and three inebriated onlookers (the driver of the fish truck had long since vamoosed aboard a hitched ride). The cop’s disdain was palpable. Loathe to soil his boots in the sardine mess, he signaled Chris to approach. Wordlessly, he issued no ticket but indicated a cash fine of $40 for the damaged barrier. He dismissed Chris and crooked a gloved finger at me. As I approached, he turned his back, removed hat and glasses, and settled into his cruiser, firing the engine. He rolled down the window, leered, and flashed a V sign, just as recognition flashed across my face. “Adios, Amigo,” he said. It was Mexican Mick Jagger.
• • •
A TRUCK’S AIRBRAKES AWOKE US AT DAWN. We shook the vapors of Maria’s homemade wine while she cut and peeled the tape from Chris. Having attracted no emergency aid, she drove him to the hospital in La Paz—two hours, one way—while we struggled to salvage pulp from his crushed Volkswagen. Thieves in the night had already stripped the wheels. With Chris stitched and bandaged, we rolled back on the highway. Maria, flaunting her ample chest on the back of her pickup, blew Chris a kiss. He returned a sheepish grin and goofy wave. Apparently, even duct tape has a silver lining.
The sight of silver salesmen and peddlers of all things Mexican heralded the border. I bought a blanket from a kid no more than four years old, mainly to lighten a stack that, toted upon his head, canopied his tiny body. As his sister attempted to sell Erich a box of Chiclets, I sank into my seat and stared ahead through the mile-long line of traffic and entry into the United States.
We had said goodbye to Chris in San Diego and were north of Los Angeles on the seamless I-5 when I heard the rattle. So did Erich. He lowered the pipes on Zeppelin, cocked his head again—and before he’d even made the shoulder, flames had engulfed the rear-mounted engine. He grabbed the bags, and I rescued Poco and my new blanket. Within a minute our van was an inferno. Inexplicably, neither of us appeared grieved. We saw, I think, a carefree part of life consumed—yet amid the flames a final forging of an experience that would endure. But for now we had our bags, a blanket, and Poco! And the prospect of a long Greyhound bus trip home.
The California highway patrolman arrived just before the van’s shell collapsed. He stepped from the car and, hooting, read those rapidly perishing words scrawled on its side. “Shit happens,” he howled. “What a trip!”