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high desert. small house.

Mexico Southbound – Los Mochis to Tepic

Upon waking, Brian took a mostly hot, gravity-fed shower. Meanwhile, I used two coffee mugs to heat water in the microwave in order to brew coffee. I then poured the hot water into a kettle that I could use to pour over our chemex. I discovered that I could not get the water hot enough (evidenced by the ‘bloom’ in the coffee being not as light in color as usual and nowhere near as gassy) but I hoped it was hot enough to prevent any stomach issues. I also brewed a second ‘pot’ to pour into our to-go cups from Starbucks.

Chemx coffee using microwaved water.

While Brian drank his coffee, I started making trips down the stairs with our stuff. It was a much appreciated workout. I felt wonderful being able to move my legs through a greater range of motion than had been available to me in the car. And using my glutes and quads, as well as abs for stabilizing under load, was a nice change of pace. While I was carrying my first load down, I noticed women sweeping the streets. Everything got swept toward the edge of their level, where it then made its way down the stairs and walls; all the way to the sea. That means that dog poop in the street and other random garage is part of the river flow running down our steps. Tread lightly!

Stairs between homes – not all stairs were as nice as these. The ones we used had a mini-river flowing over the bottom half.

Children were running to catch cars in every direction, presumably to go to school. All ages could be seen wearing conservative uniforms. Chickens were hanging out on rooftops and cats were secretly hidden wherever they could tuck themselves. Despite the chaos of the morning, it was relatively quiet.

We were thirsty and hungry AND we needed to find an ATM to get pesos. CapitalOne 360 states that if you use one of their Allpoint ATMS, there are no fees. The problem is, when you use the Allpoint ATM locator, it does not give you real addresses for where an ATM is. You can see its pinpoint on the map but who knows in which building it is hidden. Also, when you are unfamiliar with streets and are using an ATM locator that does not show your current location, it is insanely difficult to match up with the unnamed ATM. We blew an hour slowly driving through rush-hour traffic looking for a damn ATM. No luck.

We next went to Walmart, which had a private parking lot that required taking a ticket to enter. Note that our choices of fast food and American stores were a matter of speed, the ability to use our credit card and access to bathrooms. We knew we would need our pesos for tolls and until we could find a source of them, we were being cautious about where we shopped.

The Walmart was very fancy and fun. Nice wide aisles and odd looking brands. In general, Mexican brands are more flamboyant. I guess our sterile Walmarts in the states are a reflection of the more bland nature of Americans? The sourly stockers at the store, bright and early in the morning, were the same as our American ones.

We purchased a gigantic bottle of water, asked our checker how we should validate our ticket, did so and left. Unfortunately, we somehow confused things and could not get out of the parking garage. We pressed the button to speak to someone and after some very uncertain Spanish dialog, the person just said, “okay, it’s okay” in English and let us out.

Filling up our water bottle from our giant water jug.

Next up – Burger King. The menu was different with fun names like, “La Fiesta” and “the angry burger”. We somehow misspoke up and ordered two hamburgers with single patties (we had wanted doubles). We think the mis-speak occurred when we were specifying we wanted only the burger (not the meal); that somehow got turned into only one patty. I was famished so I consumed mine before Brian even got his corrected burger back.

There is a strong tipping culture in Mexico. You tip the person who bags your groceries (2-5 pesos we heard) and the person who wanders around the parking lot watching your car. While foreign to Americans, it is actually a neat way to give people jobs that incentivize them being great. They get tipped based on the quality of their service. The guard who watched our car while we ate our burger breakfast kept himself busy by also sweeping the parking lot. We confidently left the car running (dogs were inside) and upon returning, tipped him 10 pesos.

Sorry that the picture is not in focus. I was hurrying unnecessarily.

We finally hit the road, more than an hour and a half late. The city traffic was busy but highly functional. There did not seem to be posted speed limits in a lot of places, which we didn’t mind. But as in any city, getting out in a hurry is not always a possibility. We were glad to get on Highway 15 and accelerate. We chased a bus branded ‘ANS’ this time. He kept us aware of upcoming potholes, of which there were many. And some of them disturbingly serious.

We walked the dogs along the highway again. No lizards or grasshoppers. And around this time, the surroundings were taking on a defined jungle look.

We stopped for gas about an hour before Mazatlan. The two young, female gas attendants reluctantly came over to ask us our gas preference. They did not offer to wash the windshield and immediately took their seats again while the gas was filling. Not everybody is as awesome as the guy had been in Obregon.

I somehow managed to greatly bother a Mexican gentleman because I got confused trying to get into the ladies room. The doors had the appearance of pull-out doors. I tried the door, found it ‘locked’ and waited. A woman came out. I then tried it again. Locked! As I stood back and assessed the situation, trying to figure out if I wanted to try and ask for the key (which I assumed was the system given our experience at previous gas stations), a middle aged Mexican man came up, gesturing wildly and saying words; he pushed the door with a rapid motion and then waved his arms toward the inside. I guess it was push, not pull. El stupido! I felt like a real idiot.

We had some snack reserves in the car – a bag of pistachios, a handful of pecans and Brian’s weird peanut brittle. We were getting hungry and had an eye out for near-freeway towns that would have hot food. Over the next couple of hours, we reduced our snacks to just a small amount of pistachios and started to get really hungry. At least we had a giant jug of water!

We took the cuota road (versus the libre road – one is toll and the other free), which took us around Mazatlan. That was good. Not only are the toll roads better, but we did not want to get slowed down by city traffic. Unfortunately for our hunger level, the toll road went into farm territory where the only thing to eat was shrimp (raw? dried?) or mangoes, both being widely available along the highway. We passed and pressed on.

Our peso situation as also getting desperate. We had about 200 pesos and some change left and 2.5 hours of driving. Most of the tolls had been 60-70 pesos so my guess was that we could make 2-3 more of them before we were SOL. Then…the next toll cost 202 pesos! That took all our cash and two coins. Crap!

Some toll booths accept credit cards but this one didn’t. In desperation, we asked if she knew where a money machine (ATM) was. Her answer – Tepic, more than 2 hours away. Next, we asked if we could cambiar (change) money anywhere. She immediately brightened and told us straight ahead, only 1 km. Phew!

We drove ahead and saw the rest area she was talking about. We did not see any signage for an ATM but we did see a Subway. Rock on! We put the ATM search on hold and ordered food. I should have followed Brian’s lead and ordered a foot long. But I could not have known what was ahead. He had an Italian creation and I had a Pollo Parmesano (chicken parmesan). Thankfully, we were able to pay with credit card.

While checking out, I asked the lady if she could tell us where the ATM was. She said there was NOT an ATM and then said, “cash?” I did not immediately get the hint. After some back and forth, it dawned on me that she was asking if I wanted to change USD cash for pesos. YES, we could definitely do that. We had stashed some secret money in the car just in case. The stupid thing we did was have mostly one hundred dollar bills. Thankfully, we were able to scrounge up $30 in small bills.

Her fee was high which I assume got that way because of desperate travelers like us. She knew there were more tolls ahead and those without pesos would need a way to get money. Our rate at the tourist permit stop had been $1 = $16.50 pesos. We bought a modest amount at the time ($100 = $1,650); enough to get us to an ATM. Her exchange was $1 = $15.00 pesos and we bought what we hoped would be enough. At the time of our travels the national exchange rate was $1 = $17.88.

With our guts full, bladders emptied and $450 pesos in our pocket, we set off. We were 2ish hours away and about to start climbing into the mountains. We had messaged our Tepic host to let him know we would be into town around 6:30pm and that we had to go to Walmart first for dog food. He indicated understanding and told us to message him when we were ready to meet up and follow him to the house.

I do think it is a little strange to not just be given an address. In both Los Mochis and Tepic, the homeowners had to meet us somewhere and take us there. Given the unreliability of their postal system, and the chaos of some of the neighborhoods, I wonder if they just don’t bother with addresses in the older sections of town. With visitors, I imagine they figure that giving us directions via unmarked streets, and in an unfamiliar language, is much harder than just meeting and following.

As we climbed into the mountains, the rain started coming down HARD. At one point, a massive boulder got washed into the lane opposite us. Definitely not the time for speeding. We stayed behind a semi-truck, using his splash amounts to indicate where potholes were. Most of the vehicles put their emergency flashers on while the rain was falling so heavily.

We still had some light when we arrived in Tepic. We entered on Highway 15 and then cruised through town to the Walmart. I like maps and a compass, but we would not have performed as well had we not had our data to power Google Maps. Google Maps has a fairly good grasp of the area and led us smartly to our desired destination.

One of the first American restaurants we encountered when driving into Tepic. Is it a thing now to write out the name? Or is that just something that happens in Mexico?

This Walmart too was fancy. Being evening time, it was wildly popular. It seemed like a fair inside – laughing families bustling about and teenagers hanging out. We strode purposefully back to the pollo section, were delighted to discover they had chicken quarters, picked up two packs of 0.75 kg (about 1.5 pounds) and headed to the checkout. We had forgotten to grab some coins for tipping, so unfortunately, we could not tip our bagger.

With our chicken in hand, we marched back out to the car and messaged our host. We told him we could wait at Walmart, the only one in town and easy to find, or we could start driving on Highway 15 north. I knew which ‘subdivision’ the house was in so I figured getting away from the chaos downtown around Walmart would facilitate a smoother meetup. He messaged back and said to meet him at the last gas station before the Mazatlán exit. It was 7:00pm.

I was starting to feel the edge of hunger at this time. We had only eaten a hamburger for breakfast and a sub for lunch. The poor dogs were now 2.5 days from their last meal and likely, once again, thirsty. I was most eager to meet up and get to the house.

Things started to deteriorate when we noticed every freeway sign said Mazatlán. What?! And all of the gas stations are called Pemex. So where do we go? Since I knew where his subdivision was located, we headed to the gas station closest to it, went in and asked for help. The gas station manager did not speak English but confirmed that the gas station matched the description our host had written. While we waited, we got gas and chatted with our gas lady.

Time moved on. No show. We asked the guy where he was. He said we should get on the road and follow the signs for San Blas but to take the highway libre. Unfortunately, San Blas was written on the sign that said cuota so we did not know what to do. We decided to give one a try and took the sign that said San Blas. No other gas station appeared and having just driven in from this way, we knew there wouldn’t be exits until we crossed the other side of the mountain. We took the last off-ramp before the freeway entered jungle and headed back.

This time, we parked at the Pemex at the opposite side of the street and requested that he meet us there. We gave the name of the auto shop next to the gas station. It was now closing in on 8pm, one hour since we had messaged him. Given that his house description had stated he was “5 minutes from downtown Tepic”, we do not understand what happened to the next hour. We would ask where he was and he would say to hold on and that he was calling the auto shop; later, he said that he was 10 minutes away. He told us not to move and that he was almost there.

Sometime around 9pm, I was about to call it quits, forfeit our AirBnB payment and just find a hotel. The rain was coming down in monsoon-like sheets, the dogs had been in their crates for about 10 hours, I was starving, they were hungry and I was getting frustrated with the ‘let’s try to converse with two different broken languages’ game. I asked if we could just meet at Walmart, a location that was 25 minutes away from his house, but that was defined and known. He said he would meet us in our current location soon.

Eventually, he messaged and said he was at the auto shop. It then became clear that there were two in town at opposite ends. While we were (logically) parked at the one very near his house, he had chosen the one at the other end of town, near the Walmart. Geeze! (This miscommunication in no way completely explains his tardiness. The town is 30 minutes from end to end and it had been nearly three hours.)

When he said he was at Walmart, we took control and told him we were heading there. No question, no negotiation, no offering other locations. We were following what we should have done in the first place and going to Walmart.

Brian and I had experienced some couple’s tension while enduring these THREE HOURS of ridiculousness. Trying to navigate the bad roads in the rain and dark did not help things. Things lightened up while we drove back to Walmart. Brian made a joke that he had probably been drinking with friends so he had needed to find somebody to drive him. Nobody would drive him so he ended up asking his cousin.

I continued the joke by saying that they probably arrived at Walmart long ago, went in and joined the festivities and forgot why they had gone there in the first place. At some point, they remembered and so they messaged us to say, they were at Walmart.

We had just been kidding. Making light of and seeing the silliness in the situation.

After arriving at Walmart, we found the host, being driven by his sister and followed them to the house. The house was a couple of minutes beyond where we had sat, parked and starving for more than two hours. We had been at the correct gas station initially.

Tepic had just experienced a hurricane and the road to our rental was washed out in places. We were glad to have the RAV4. After parking, all four of us went inside. The house was huge and beautiful, much more than we needed. But it was a good deal, allowed dogs, had a garage and a fenced yard.

Once the guy started talking to me about how to work the locks, it became clear that Brian’s fictional story had been spot on. His liquor breath brought to my mind the conversations with a few particular tenants we had had while living at the apartment in Silver City; Brian said it reminded him of college.

The cobblestone street in front of the house had been much ravaged by the storm. Stones were scattered here and there, sometimes in stacks. The holes in the street were massive. (The iphone does not capture the depth of this very well.)

I don’t know how Brian did it, but he went around the house and in a combination of Spanish and English, he learned how to turn on the water pump, activate the hot water, lock all the doors (each door required a normal lock, a deadbolt and a padlock or two) and use the garage door opener.

Having done this once before, we asked all of our tourist questions and learned – Yes, poopy toilet paper goes in the basura (trash), the water is not safe to drink but we can buy it from trucks that drive by every morning and the area is safe to walk around in.

His driver was not his cousin, but his sister. She was petite, well dressed and beautiful. I was surprised to learn she was 37 years old with an 8 year old and a 4 year old. I had guessed she was between 25-30 years old. The brother was an industrial engineer and based on his drinking behavior, he acted like he was in his mid-twenties. He looked it too, but was in fact, older. How do they remain so youthful in appearance? She knew a lot of English but needed more ear practice. She said it was hard to practice with anybody because English is not widely known in Tepic, something we had heard before our trip.

View of the living room from the entryway.

While the siblings walked Brian through the house, I unloaded in the downpour and brought the poor dogs in. I gave them water, which they immediately accepted and then let them outside in the backyard. I was sorry that they had to eat in the rain but I wanted them to get something in their guts. They each ate about a half pound more than their daily allowance which was a good way to make-up for the day before.

I was a little uncertain about them coming in all wet and with muddy feet while the hosts were still there. But seeing as I had no other choice, I let them in. I had packed 6-8 towels to have on hand for when we were at the beach and mentally patted myself on the back for having them available. I dried both dogs and the woman grabbed a mop (which had been discretely stashed in a corner) and mopped up the puddles. The house is completely tile and with the region having a marked rainy season, I get the impression that a little water on the floor is no big deal.

After about an hour of instructions, they left around 11pm. Being people who go to bed at 8pm on a normal work night, this was way late for us. Despite being crazy hungry, we brushed teeth (using tap water) and crawled into bed.

I checked the sheets before tucking myself in and was pleased to find them clean. Unfortunately, I soon discovered clean did not mean ant-less. I got a few misquito bites while trying to fall asleep (understandable given we had had the doors open for awhile), so I figured the crawly sensation on my legs was attributable to another mosquito. After enduring my overactive imagination’s display of giant tropical spiders moseying around under the covers, I turned on the light and rapidly threw the blanket aside. Not spiders; just ants.

I squashed one on my leg and then put my glasses on to look for more. I found a couple but thankfully, not an infestation. I wiped the sheets off with a firm hand and got back in bed.

It had been a long, tiring and hunger-filled day. We had made several foreigner blunders and had run out of pesos. And we had probably packed more driving into a day than we should have. Despite the chaos, fatigue and delays, we were glad to be in bed in the house where we would spend several days. Moments later, we were both asleep.

View from the kitchen, down the couple of stairs into the living room.

The big bathroom with a large, walk-in shower and hidden from view, a Jacuzzi tub.

Master bedroom with a poorly made bed (my bad). Look at those flat pillows!

Locking up to head out for breakfast.

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