Mexico City in a VW
It was Christmas time. We were in a foreign land thousands of miles away from family. We had no obligations and a good couple of weeks. It sounded like an ideal time to drive to Mexico City. We were only one thousand five hundred miles away. No big deal.
We packed up the essentials, piled in the kids and headed off.
The neighbours were in tears. They had grown quite attached to our children and now we were planning to take them off into some lawless land full of drug gangs and bandits. They knew we’d all be killed and they’d never see our poor children alive again.
We were undeterred. Our major concern was how to keep them amused during the long journey. They did not seem to share our delight of travel and adventure. But then the youngest was only two.
It was warm when we left. Los Angeles never gets cold. It was going to get warmer. We were heading for the tropics.
We approached the Mexican border with some consternation. Last time we’d been here we had been refused entry. The highway was six lanes wide. They examined our paperwork, looked at my long hair and waved us through. We stopped at the customs control and three soldiers sniffed round the van with guns nonchalantly slung over their soldier. Their leader came to my window. He indicated to the side where a number of vehicles were piled up, stripped to their skeletons, upholstery ripped open, engines removed, tyres slashed open.
He explained that they might have to search the van for drugs.
I asked him why he thought I might be smuggling drugs into Mexico.
I produced a twenty dollar note and slipped it to him. He pocketed it, tilted his head on one side and reminded me that there were three of them. I passed him two more bills. He waved us through.
We drove out on the Mexican side on a two-lane cart-track full of pot-holes.
We stopped for petrol at the first service station. It was a third of the price in Mexico. American petrol was cheap, almost half the price of Britain, here they were almost giving it away.
Unfortunately the money exchange did not deal with small notes. All we had in the way of Mexican money was big bills, the equivalent of £50. That was a huge sum in Mexico. Filling the van up only came to five pounds. After he’s put the petrol in I handed him my note. He took it off me and handed me a wadge of notes in way of change.
I did a quick check. It looked a lot but they were all very low denomination. It all added up to about £15. It wasn’t even close. I called him back and without a shred of embarrassment he passed over some more notes. I counted up. We were still a lot short. After five further exchanges we managed to arrive at the correct change. He waved to us and I drove off clutching a huge wad of Mexican notes. They would come in useful.
The road to Mexico was the Pan American Highway. It was the only one. A raised up two lane tarmac road with steep sides in places and little shrines at intervals all the way along that denoted where unlucky travellers had met their end.
On one occasion we had pulled off the road to have a picnic and a car travelling at high speed careered off the road just to the side of us and disappeared in the vegetation in a cloud of dust. After a couple of seconds quiet it reversed out and with a squeal of tyres regained the road and shot off.
At another time I was driving through the night while everyone slept, keeping up a good pace of 70 mph along the empty road, when I rounded a bend to find there was no road. The van was suddenly bucking up and down as it hit pot-hole after pot-hole and careered into ruts. I managed to control it and slow down to a speed where we could safely negotiate the conditions.
We went through a small village and on the other side the highway resumed. That was a town that obviously did not pay their taxes.
We stopped in the small towns and ate the local tortillas cooked in the little stalls at the side of the road. Our neighbours in the States had assured us that these were deadlier than a landmine, crawling with botulism. We all loved them and never got ill once.
Mexico City was shrouded in a heavy mist of smog. You could taste it. We checked out the oldest church on the continent in its magnificent square and went up a skyscraper to look down on the haze. It was a brown sludge that even made Los Angeles look clean. Then we decided we’d seen enough.
We headed for the Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacán and parked up for the night. In the morning we woke to the sun rising over the pyramid of the sun. We climbed up it to look at the view and our imagination filled in thousands of years and all the history that our eyes could not see. Whole civilisations had risen and fallen. We were merely the latest in the line.
After that we set off for a small silver mining town called Taxco outside Mexico City, found a great old hotel with magnificent courtyard and knock-down prices and set up for one of our best Christmases ever. It was short on presents and family but rich with fireworks, celebrations and piñata’s which the local kids soon taught our three to bash so that the candies cascaded out.
Arriving home our neighbours were surprised to see us. We had not been killed once. We’d travelled three thousand miles, helped stranded motorists in the back of beyond, camped out, eaten the food and done everything they had implored us not to. And we hadn’t been killed once!