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high desert. small house.

Mexico Southbound – Silver City, New Mexico to Hermosillo, Mexico

We set ourselves up for a not-so-relaxing start to our trip by working the same day as we departed. Business was wildly busy, so by the time we closed down at noon, we were about ready for a nap. Instead of catching a few Z’s, however, we packed up our objects, loaded the dogs and hit the road.

All of the objects we took – two bags of clothes, toiletry caddy (I knew there was a reason I kept that thing from college), laptops, cooler, extra towels and foam roller. Oh yeah, and WAYYYYYY too many books.

The car is loaded. And fully loaded, we still had plenty of room.

The dogs are ready to go.

We had about a four hour drive to Nogales, Arizona where we planned to stay the night. En route, we stopped at a known burger house and salon in Vail – conveniently located right on I-10 – filled our guts and then headed south. While driving through the Corando National Forest, we kept an eye out for the unmarked gravel road we had visited once before when in need of a dog potty break. We found it, drove down it 500 feet and parked at the gate. The general rule in these lands seems to be entrance is permitted at green gates, gates that are located in the national forest and gates that say “Please close gate”. This one was labeled with Game Management Unit 34B. We let ourselves in, had a nice 30 minute hike, loaded back up and headed south.

An amazing grasshopper we spotted while driving southbound on Highway 90. It appears to be eating the carcass of something else.

Beautiful iridescent beetle we found while hiking on the game management trail.

Fearing no vacancy due to Labor Day Weekend, I had already reserved us a room at Motel 6, our go-to reliable chain that allows dogs. By the time we pulled in around 6:30pm, we were really dragging. The idea of doing a quick drive around town to see where we could grab breakfast the next day was exhausting. We bailed on all outing ideas, completed check-in and went to our room.

The room was maybe the smelliest we have ever stayed in. It reeked of cat pee and fake floral cleaning detergents. It was gaggifying and so strong, that had we had Fred (with his sensitive bird lungs) with us, I’m not sure we would have stayed. We were too tired to argue with the front desk, so we merely turned on the bathroom fan and initiated an air exchange detox. Unfortunately, the bathroom light and fan were wired together. In order to keep fresh air available all night, we were forced to have the bathroom light on. A worthwhile concession.

The dogs were grateful to be out of the crates, and they immediately settled in at the Motel. (In general, I would say we had nicer Motel 6 experiences during our move across country. The ones we have encountered in Arizona – in Tucson and Nogales – are definitely due for an update.)

After a rough night’s sleep, we arose at 4:30am, showered, walked the dogs and got in the car. Thankfully, McDonald’s was open and agreed to sell us four breakfast sandwiches and a small cup of hot, brown liquid they called coffee. Starbucks, the home of typically over-roasted coffee prepared with massive amounts of sugar, was not open.

In our mental haze, we failed to navigate properly to the border. We did make it but somehow managed to incorporate more turning that is necessary. We arrived at 5:46am and were the third in line in our lane. Even though we were not quite hungry, we ate our breakfast sandwiches while waiting, in order to enable ourselves to be hands free and fed for initial span of highway – which we figured would require the most attention and conversations with customs agents.

I don’t know what is supposed to happen at the border. And looking back, I’m not even sure what actually happened. All I know is that three lanes filled up with cars, the border opened, all three lanes took off as if in a race, and about a mile down the road, the lanes merged into one (possibly two) lanes. So perhaps the purpose of the three lanes is to allow more cars to line up…but down the road, the presentation of vehicles narrows to one (or two).

I believe we got in the wrong lane, possibly the one that translates to “I have junk to declare’. Or maybe we just got the red light. We aren’t sure. We thought the red light/green light game happened at the customs office. In any case, one of the lights near us turned red, made a crazy loud alarm noise and shortly thereafter, a taciturn customs woman directed us to a parking stall where a table was set up nearby (possibly for unloading objects for inspection).

After trading buenos dias ‘s, she asked us something. I replied in mostly English with some improperly gendered, wrong-tense Spanish words that roughly translated to, “We are confused and I think we took the wrong way.” She said more things and I managed to pick up the words indicating vehicle permit. I proudly yanked my organized folder out from behind the seat, pulled out the permit and handed it over. She checked it against the car’s info on the inside of the driver’s door, looked around the car and gave it back. After a polite, buen viaje, she turned her back and walked away.

We were not any more confident than we had been prior to our customs visit, but at least we had passed. What would have happened had we not pre-requested our vehicle import permit on the internet?

We headed on, proceeded to create unnecessary circuitous chaos that cost us an hour, and finally arrived at the quiet compound housing the government entity that doles out tourist cards, bathrooms, a bank and a money exchange . We walked in, filled out our cards, were directed to the bank to pay, went over and paid, and then walked back and completed the process. We paid 500 pesos each.

Our objective was to get through the customs process as quickly as possible. We set ourselves up for success by getting our vehicle permit ahead of time, by being in line early and by kind of knowing what we were supposed to do. In addition to not wanting to waste time, the reasoning behind our logic was related to the dog team. If we had waited until later in the morning to get our tourist cards, we would have had to leave our car running (and locked). We are comfortable doing that in known environs, something Mexico was not (yet). We were hoping to leave the car off while the morning was still cool enough to allow us not to fret.

While stopped, we exchanged a $100 USD for $1,650 pesos. We knew an ATM would have a better exchange rate, but having not encountered one yet, and no longer having phone service to find a bank-associated, fee-less option, we decided to change enough money to pay for tolls and some snacks.

With our tourist cards in hand, our vehicle permit attached to our window and a cool cup of brown coffee-smelling liquid, we set off again. Where was the dog inspection supposed to occur? What about questions about us smuggling in fruits and veggies? None of that occurred.

The speed limit was excruciatingly slow. Like poke your eyes out, pound on the steering wheel, shake with anger slow. Wait a second, what is with all the anxiety? Perhaps I was ramped up from our inefficient morning. In any case, Brian was obeying the speed limit signs and as a result, making me crazy. We were getting passed at high speed by everything on the road – trucks piled to twice their height in couches, semi-trucks carrying cows, normal vehicles and buses. I had read that we should more or less match our speed to the buses, but they were going so much faster than the speed limit, it seemed unwise to do it.

Just transporting a giant Jenga pile of couches and armchairs. No big deal.

The entire highway from the border to Hermosillo seemed to be under construction. Large, impressive machinery could be seen periodically, either resting or active alongside the highway. Humongous piles of dirt and gravel were usually piled right up to the line bordering the active lanes of the highway. There were some big holes right off the driving lanes that were left alone, unbarricaded, unmarked, unconed. I liked it – I like that Mexico allows fools to make a mistake, rather than protecting everybody from themselves. It allows for more adventure.

Also, because they did not create a huge buffer of ‘safety’ around the construction zones, traffic was able to keep moving at an almost-normal speed.

The speed limit would change from 80 kph to 40 kph to 60 kph, back to 40, back to 80, back to 40. It was aggravating. Brian started getting hungry about an hour into the drive. Being the navigator, I scanned the map and found a ‘city’ about 40 minutes away, called Santa Ana. It was approximately where the highway takes a bolder heading south. I figured we would find a place to pee, buy a small snack (or a big snack) and walk the dogs.

I had believed Pemex was a reliable bathroom and snack stop. I don’t know where I got that impression. Pemex is the national gas station of Mexico. Sometimes, it will be paired with, or located near to, an OXXO.

OXXO seems to be the quickie mart believed to contain clean bathrooms, packaged and fresh snacks, water, maps, etc. Pemex and OXXO are two separate entities; often near one another but not always.

We pulled into the Pemex, parked and headed inside. The gas station attendants looked at us in a bored way. The Pemex register lady asked us what we wanted. We indicated a small space, using our thumb and forefinger and then mumbled comer, trying to communicate a small food object (snack). She did not get it. We looked at the options, which included several refrigerated cases of empty space. I quickly concluded that I was not yet hungry, and that at that time, I would rather go without a snack than eat packaged junk food. In any case, I spotted the signs outside for the bathroom and abandoned Brian to sort through the few shelves.

The bathroom was a space about 3 feet wide by 10 feet deep with a toilet centered on the back wall. There was electricity and running water; but no toilet paper, no paper towels and no hot water. I was not terribly surprised because I had read that some gas station bathrooms do not provide toilet paper. I was glad that I only had to do a quick bathroom visit and that at least there was running water.

Upon exiting my bathroom prison, I took the keys and Brian’s purchase from him so that he could see to his bathroom needs. I put some water in the dog bowl and put it inside each dog crate, Trooper first and then Sydney. Despite having been in our air conditioned car for three hours (which I would think would have a dehydrating effect), they refused my offer. Oh well.

Peanut brittle cookie object

While I was taking care of them, a man began to walk in the direction of our car, acting innocent but clearly on a trajectory to terminate at or in front of our car. At the last second, he stopped at the front of the vehicle and started vigorously wiping the front windshield.

I have nothing against people trying to make money. And I enjoy the way that Mexico as a country permits unusual approaches to income generation. But I did not want the windshield cleaned with what appeared to be a dirty rag and I had no intention of tipping somebody for something I did not want.

I know that I can be overly analytical with my money. But I had read travelers’ accounts of not being willing (or able) to assert themselves when abroad and just giving out money left and right (to the windshield cleaner, the people with donation cups on the side of the street, the children with open palms saying peso, to the customer service people who purposefully give wrong change). Then they wonder why they are always getting hit up for their change.

I know parts of Mexico are rough but it is not without its areas of ingenuity, its resource abundance and its upper class. Just because Mexicans live differently does not mean I am going to automatically view everybody from a platform of pity. Instead, I prefer to view encounters with others as an experience with an individual, not necessarily as an archetype of their culture. And I will happily pay for services that I desire.

In any case, I politely said no necesito to the gentleman with the dirty rag. He smiled and rubbed faster. I repeated, less polite and louder, no necesito. Then, my obvious Spanish still not doing the trick, I switched to English and with just a tad bit of involuntary valley girl, said, “Excuse me!” That worked.

By the way, none of that was pre-mediated. Both automatically speaking in Spanish and then saying my haughty ‘Excuse me’ were more reactionary than thought out. I was impressed that I defaulted into Spanish.

I traveled to Cozumel a year or so before leaving Connecticut in order to meet up with the female members of my family and to dive. Not having taken Spanish in school (I studied French in preparation for visiting Madagascar), I spent the six months leading up to the trip teaching myself the language. At the time, I felt successful and confident in my grasp of the language. During my time in Mexico, I was able to talk with locals about their families, jobs, etc., negotiate at the market, cause and solve problems and have a fully participatory time in the culture. It was fun. Unfortunately, in the 4 or so years since that trip, I had lost nearly all of the vocabulary.

By the way, you may assume from my anxiety and stress that I am an untraveled person. But actually, it is quite the contrary. I have danced and dined in remote villages in Peru, been broken down in a boat on the Amazon, dived in Indonesia off pristine islands where the nearest decompression chamber is…..(doesn’t exist), ridden the night bus in Madagascar (where I fell asleep and woke to find I had rested my face against a grease covered object that stained my face for the rest of the day), had travel sickness while locked in a room with only a bucket for relief (because the neighborhood was too unsafe to venture outside to use the toilet), missed many a plane and backpacked solo as a woman through Europe.

But you know what? I think that having had time away from such exotic adventures had allowed me to ‘soften’ in a way. When you have to roll with the punches, one after another, dealing with unknowns and chaos, you relax and get used to it. You survive. You practice your foreign phrases while stranded places, you learn to speak with confidence, and after an amount of time that will differ for everyone, you start to see the adventure. Travel and foreign languages are so much fun! So I think my fatigue, sleep deprivation and time away from traveling combined to make my first morning on the road a little more stressful than it needed to have been.

Being jacked up on slow speed-related rage, I decided to take over the driving and apply my energy to a useful project. Brian came back from the men’s room and unwrapped his purchase. It was a giant peanut brittle-like circle. It was HARD and he said it cost 35 pesos. Having noticed that none of the objects were priced, I think this was an example of tourist pricing. Brian reports that it was not as peanut focused as he would have liked. It was ‘pleasant but sort of different than you’d expect.’

I safely maneuvered the car up onto the excessively steep, freshly paved road and headed off. Even though we were both still sans caffeine (my 8 oz cup of brown liquid does not count; not when we are acclimated to a much stronger brew ratio and a larger cup size), I was determined to at least try the Mexican driving method.

I obeyed the speed limit until a typical looking vehicle passed me and then stepped on the accelerator to match them. Apparently, the locals also believe that 40 kph (about 25 mph) is insanely slow. They were easily going 2-3 times the speed limit. I did not go quite that fast and instead set my cruise control at a speed that felt appropriate and kept an eye out for la policia. I found that I was often times going the speed limit had the unit been miles, not kilometers. So it said 40 kph and I was going 40 mph, about 15 miles over. Brian took a nap.

Even without phone service, we were able to see our blue dot move south along Interstate 15; we could at least identify where we were. We decided to stop in Hermosillo for a real lunch and then look for a dog walking spot after exiting the city.

Hermosillo had nice, clean streets, newer cars and American businesses. We ate at a small ‘taco stand’ (that did not serve tacos) and ordered two burros. I had the machaca and Brian had the Conchanita de pebil. We both made the mistake of putting the more pulverized salsa on our plates. I should have stuck with the pico de gallo. The hot salsa made your eyes start watering before it even made it all the way into your mouth. Ha! Take that gringo mouth! You can’t stand the heat!

Brian seemed to mostly adjust to his plate and finished off his burro (while crying silently). My lips were chapped and I was not in the mood to tough it out. Having not put the toppings directly onto my burro, I was able to just avoid them.

Burros in Hermosillo.

I was very proud to put together a polite Spanish question. Permisso usar el banjo? May I use the bathroom? I could see a bathroom but it was not clearly marked as being available for customers and it was more or less hidden in the back near their food storage. After a hearty ‘si!’ from the lady, I tried out my second Mexican toilet of the day.

This one was more or less an airplane toilet equivalent. I managed to sit down without smashing my knees into the wall or bonking my head on anything. Here, the toilet paper and paper towels were the same napkin as had been on our table. Smart way to keep papergoods simple. No hot water though.

By the way, in case you don’t know, toilet paper and all objects in general, do not go in the toilet in most of Mexico. I knew this from a previous trip and while not 100% certain it was still the case, I had already decided to air on the side of caution. If I noticed a trash can with paper objects, I was going to follow suit.

While in Madagascar, I stayed at a hotel for a week with a bunch of American students. We never had functioning toilets. Despite the western appearance of the hotel’s porcelain thrones, our toilets were always clogged. Knowing what I now know about Mexican plumbing and the toilet-paper-to-trash-can policy, I wonder if we all somehow misunderstand the Malagasy rules. Signage would have been helpful.

We finished our food, paid $102 pesos and left. We had left the car running for the dogs so it was a very comfortable chamber to reenter. A little further down the road, we spotted a Starbucks and decided to finally get some coffee.

There was something lost in translation when I ordered two coffees. Using Starbucks-specific size terms, broken Spanish and hand miming is hard to understand in any situation. I walked out with two GIANT cups of coffee, but at least I got more than I wanted, versus less.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Mexican Starbucks not at all likely the American version. Instead of tasting like burnt tires and coal, I found my cup of coffee to almost have cupping notes. It was mildly sweet, perhaps even nutty. The brew ratio was still too weak in my opinion, but at least it did not taste burnt. Maybe the Mexican roasters have a different strategy. And maybe it was helped by the beans having supposedly come from Chiapas, a Mexican state at the border to Guatemala. Maybe the beans were fresher (from harvest), fresher (from roast date) and roasted properly.

Due to the weak brew ratio, once it cooled down I was able to drink it like water. Feeling satisfied with life and much calmer, I turned the driving responsibilities back over to Brian.

One Comment

  1. Outstanding info once again! Thanks!

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