After a few days in L.A. I was pretty keen to leave. During this time I’d met a Finnish guy called Jukke, hired a car and cruised around noting the contrast between the gross overindulgence of Hollywood and the rundown shambles of places like, well, Inglewood and Compton. In Hollywood, we went to a fast food chain outlet – no shortage of those – called Jack In The Box for a burger and were served straight over the counter. Three miles away in Inglewood and a visit to Taco Bell, the entire front counter and staff were behind a bulletproof perspex barrier. All money and product transfers conducted through a cupboard that could only be opened one end at a time. The hostel I was staying in, had a bar, so thusly, most evenings were spent there drinking very average American beer and chatting to Elin, the Swedish barmaid who had so much metal in her head that I wondered if she could pick up radio waves. There was also a resident prostitute who seemed to conduct most of her business out of one of the hostel rooms. I chatted with her occasionally and one night in the bar, she invited myself, Jukke and a few others to her room for a daquiri party. Earlier, fortunately, I’d managed to acquire about $20 worth of weed, so off we went to her room, not knowing what to expect, but prepared for a big night regardless.
Our host certainly did make daquiris. Nice ones too, so we got stuck into those, then spliffs started making the rounds. We were all rather merry and our host was quite candid about her life and what she did for a living. Apart from myself and Jukke, I seem to vaguely recall a couple of white American guys being there, and a black gangsta type lad who also seemed nice enough – at first. Plus there were quite a few others, including a friendly bloke from Guadalajara who told me a lot about his homeland, which just fed my determination to get to Mexico myself.
Before long, the two American guys were dropping to the floor in front of everyone and trying to outdo each other with the number of push-ups they could manage, all the while hooting and hollering, “Oh yeah!!”. It could have been a scene straight out of any number of juvenile, macho American movies I had seen over the years. Meanwhile, our host was getting her tits out and having photos taken with everyone. The gangsta guy, who had seemed fine earlier, disappeared into the bathroom for a while and then returned talking just like 50 cent, showing off a gun stuffed down his jeans and acting somewhat aggressively. It was very intense… And so the night wore on. Obviously, I did get out alive though and staggered back to my own dormatory and crashed into my bunk somewhere around 7am.
As for the nightlife in L.A. well… I had arranged one day to meet the Aussie, Ross from reception at Sharkeez bar in Hollywood. Apparently that was one of the places to be. So myself and a few others took off to Hollywood for our big night out. We wandered around a bit, found Sharkeez and waited in line for a long time. Finally we were let in, had time for half a beer, then they closed and kicked us out. “Awesome night dude”. That was it, I’d had enough. It was time for Mexico.
The next day I just spent bumming around the hostel. Met another Kiwi lad and so naturally, off we went to the bar to drink beer. We were there for some time talking to Elin, when some Norwegians entered the bar. One of them, upon overhearing me speaking Swedish, came over to ask if I was Swedish and if I knew the best way to get to Mexico. Her name was Sissel and I informed her that I was dying to get down there as soon as possible. Perhaps a bus to the border and then try hitching. Sissel asked if she could come along. “Hell yeah, why not?” It would be good to have a travelling companion. Later, I returned to my dorm and observed some more blantant attempts at mass brainwashing on TV for a while, then crashed.
The next day I was up fairly early for a change, packed up all my gear ready for travel, then went to ask Sissel if she was still keen to see Mexico. She certainly was, so off we went with a small entourage – Sissel’s two Norwegian friends and an Aussie bloke – on the shuttle bus to a bus stop, then caught another bus to downtown L.A., then another to the Greyhound station. Sissel and I purchased tickets to Tijuana for $17 each, bid the others farewell and that was it. The trip took around three hours in total, plus a twenty minute stop in San Diego. When we reached the border crossing, the rather unfriendly bus driver abruptly became very good humoured and even gave us all information about Tijuana. Finally, we were in Mexico. They didn’t bother checking our passports at the checkpoint and suddenly people everywhere had caught whatever it was the bus driver had – happy dispositions and endless generosity. Completely unlike L.A. Still, Tijuana was just a huge city full of poor Mexicans doing anything and everything just to get a sniff of the green back being carried by countless American terrorists – whoops, I mean tourists – so it didn’t take long for Sissel and I to decide to move on straight away.
Mexicalí, a little further east along the border sounded good. Probably not a huge sprawling mass of humanity and theoretically easier to hitch out of. So, we bought more bus tickets for 170 pesos – $17 – each. I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger and asked what Mexicalí was like. He told me it was just a village and that sounded good to me. I asked how many people. He said, “About a million”. Christ!
We arrived in Mexicalí quite late in the evening and it was a very dark night. Neither of us had any idea where to go or what to do. Straight away, a pretty young passenger waiting in the bus terminal came over and offered to help us. She escorted us to a street where there were a few hotels, told us where we could find food and then left to catch her own bus. That would never happen in L.A. The Hotel we stayed in cost about 300 pesos for the two of us and was in a much better state than the hostel in Inglewood. We followed our noses down the street to a taco stall, which was empty except for one guy sitting at the bar having his dinner. I still could not shake the feeling of always having to look over my shoulder and being constantly suspicious of strangers, but the guy at the bar just turned straight to us and said, “Hi!” with a huge affectionate smile. His English was as fluent as his Spanish and he paid for all our food and drinks – 15 pesos for tacos – and even though it was getting late, he then took us for a tour of the village in his car.
Our new friend gave us a lot of information, stopped off at his office and even gave me a Nokia charger because my adaptor wouldn’t work. He then showed us a possible hitching spot in the direction of San Luis, then stopped at a late night supermarket and bought us maps of Mexico, bottles of water and rolls of toilet paper. The basic necessities. Afterwards, he took us back to our hotel, gave us his phone number, wished us lots of luck and then left. Wow. So far, Mexico was not bad. Not bad at all. While still in L.A., every American I had met, had basically described Mexico as being a dangerous place peopled by thugs and criminals. They really should take a good look at their own back yard. I had a very good feeling about this country that was growing stronger every minute.
The next morning we had a little sleep in, then checked out. It was damn hot outside. We walked down to the same taco stall from the night before and had breakfast and discussed what we were going to do. We then caught a bus out to the road leading to San Luis and stood hitching for a while displaying a sign we had made that said Sonoita. After a while though, the heat got the better of us and when a bus heading for San Luis came along, we jumped aboard. Once there, we walked a very long way to try to reach the outskirts of town, but never did. Instead we stopped at another bus stop and resumed hitching. Before long, a bloody huge semi shuddered to a halt towing a trailer bearing an enormous road grader. At first I wasn’t sure if it had stopped for us, or if maybe the driver needed to check something. I scurried over feeling pretty meek and insignificant next to so much machinery and scrambled up to ask the driver where he was going. He didn’t seem to speak any English, so dragging my long forgotten spanish out of the deep dark depths of alcohol associated memory loss, I managed to ascertain that he was taking this contraption some 3000km south, all the way to Salamanca. Awesome! There’s no way I was turning a lift like that down, so we climbed up, threw our bags onto the bunk in the back of the cab and away we went. Sissel sat up front while I sat behind on the bunk, under which two large, powerful JBL speakers were mounted and blaring out Mexican Mariachi music. Mario’s dashboard was adorned by small effigies of Mary and the crucified Jesus and there were rosary beads hanging from the mirror. Before he commenced driving – and indeed every morning thence forth – he said a prayer, finished with the sign of the crucifix and then kissed both Mary and Jesus. I’m not religious in the slightest, but hey, whatever keeps us safe.
We set off into the sun parched Arizona Desert at 80km/h, the highest speed this truck could muster – or most likely, was legal. I could see through the heat shimmer, that the landscape was barren and featureless aside from rocky outcrops, mountains and the giant cacti I had only seen before in Western movies. Mario, our driver, eventually informed us that he could only legally drive between about 5:30am and 6pm, so as it was indeed approaching 6pm, we would stop somewhere for the night. Our spot turned out to be in the middle of the desert, near a small taco shack where Mario shouted us dinner. I could already see that I would gain a few extra kilos in this country. The food was amazing, dirt cheap and nothing like what I’d always imagined or seen in Mexican restaurants outside Mexico. That night Sissel and I wrapped up in our sleeping bags and slept at the front of the trailer under the stars of the Arizona Desert. Now that’s Mexico.
5am and day two of our ride. Sissel and I were woken suddenly by the truck starting. We did our toilet business and off we went. Mario was a good bloke and really did his best to look after us. Still, it was a bit of a crash refresher course in Spanish for me, as he really couldn’t speak a word of English. Mario had a box of CDs consisting of nothing but more of the same Mariachi music and the big speakers below me were really thrashing it out. At first I thought this was kinda cute, the true Mexican experience after all, but by now, it all sounded much the same and I was really wishing I had earplugs. Nevertheless, when fatigue finally outdid the noise, being in the back was handy because I could just lay down and have a snooze. Around midday, we pulled over for brunch at another small shack in the middle of nowhere. Once again, really fantastic food and friendly people. Sissel and I swapped places so she could have a post lunch nap and a little later in the day, another driver signalled us to pull over. One of the twelve trailer rims had snapped around the bolts and was basically just flapping around as we drove. I gave Mario a hand to remove it and then lash it onto the trailer. With eleven wheels we continued and eventually stopped for the night in another almost deserted part of Mexico. This time, Mario told us there were known to be bandidos in the area, so we all slept in the truck. I was head to toe with Mario on his bunk and Sissel on the floor. It was uncomfortable and hot and probably quite smelly, but relatively safe at least.
Day three and another 5am wake up and off we went. Now the police were pulling us over regularly, checking Mario’s papers and sometimes checking our passports – even searching for drugs. It’s probably not often they see a couple of gringos hitching across Mexico. Though, due to neither of us being American, No soy gringo was often used. For lunch we stopped up on a hill overlooking the ocean. We had finally come out of the vast barren interior to the west tropical coast. Lunch as always was great, and there right next to where we’d stopped, was a coconut tree, although a small one. It was the first I’d seen in almost a year and was so happy to see this sure sign of the tropics that I gave it a hug. We carried on and soon after midday, arrived in the coastal city of Mazatlan. Mario put the truck to bed in a large truck parking area at a roadhouse and there we stayed. Happily, off we went for more grub – I’m definitely a food tourist. I think eating is always my favourite passtime when in foreign lands. The truck depot was crawling with police, so Sissel and I were back to sleeping on the trailer. By now it was a good three days of travelling without a shower and we were pretty manky, so it was just as well that we were outside. There was a layer of Arizona Desert covering us and we could almost have passed for darker skinned folk. That night I tried throwing my tent over myself in a pretty poor attempt at preventing my sleeping bag from becoming drenched with dew – especially now being back in the tropics. This of course, as I found the next morning, had the opposite effect. It kept the warm air in and I awoke soaking in a sauna.
Day four and Mario must have been pretty travel wary, because he started the truck at 4am and took off, then realised when the police pulled him over that he’d awoken an hour earlier than usual. We were required to wait where we’d stopped. Finally when the time was right, we were off again and before long, cruising through some hilly country and could feel from the breeze that it was hot as hell out there. Suddenly there was an almighty BANG! So Mario pulled over to have a look. One of the trailer tyres had blown itself to smithereens and consisted of nothing more than bits of rubber dangling off the rim. This time it was one of the right-rear wheels. So, now two wheels down, ten to go and we carried on in this state with the usual routine of a nice lunch stop. Later, we saw a guy on the side of the road loaded with leather canteens hanging around his neck on strings. Mario explained that he was selling tequila and asked if I wanted to pull over. “Siiiiiii!” exclaimed I. 50 pesos later and I was in possession of about 1.5 litres of the best tequila I had ever tasted. Can’t beat that. Later, just when I was starting to wonder if Mario was going to do something about the trailer, we came to a large truck stop, got both wheels fixed then parked. At the Pollo Feliz – happy chicken, we had my favourite, pollo asado – roast chicken, then, once again, due to a strong police presence deterring would-be thieves, we slept on the trailer.
Day five and I was up early without any help. Must have been getting used to the routine. Sissel was off somewhere already. I went over to the toilet block and Mario started up the beast. Off we went again. I jumped into the back and tried to sleep, but failed. Eventually we arrived at a roadworks site just outside of Salamanca. This was it. 3000km across Mexico for a roadworks site. We parked on the side of the road and Mario called us a taxi to take us into town. Sissel and I just sat and waited, a little dazed in the sunshine, watching heavy machinery moving dirt around in a great cloud of dust. The taxi eventually arrived, so we bid farewell to our most generous host and went straight to the Salamanca bus terminal. We paid the driver his 30 pesos, then hopped onto a bus to Guanajuato. This trip took a while, but the ticket only cost about 35 pesos.
Coming over the mountains into Guanajuato was certainly a sight to behold. Settled in the 1520s and apparently the oldest Spanish colonial town in Mexico with a population of about 75,000, Guanajuato greeted us with thousands of brightly multi-coloured houses sprawling over the hills – as if on a canvas, someone had drawn the outline, then coloured each individual house in contrasts of yellows, reds, greens and blues. The narrow cobbled streets were filled with people and beeping ex-U.S.A. school busses. Somehow we managed to find a small room with a double bed for 150 pesos per night at Posada de Juarez. It was pretty basic, but who cares? We’d finally made it! After five days on the road, we were actually able to have a shower and at that time it felt like the best one ever. Afterwards, I felt so good that I popped the top off my leather tequila canteen in celebration and before long, I was very happy camper indeed.
Sissel and I couldn’t wait to get out and see the sights of Guanajuato. After a bit of a wander around, we found ourselves sitting in a bar in an outdoor plaza. We ate some delicious quesadillas and then got into the beer. Indio, Sol or Corona – it’s all good. An untimely thunderstorm came upon us though, so it was straight back to the hotel again so Sissel could remove some washing from the line. After this task was completed, we were straight back on the bar hunt. There were so many to choose from, but eventually we came to a decision, sat down and resumed where we’d previously left off. It wasn’t long before we were pretty pissed – especially considering that a fair quantity of tequila was also consumed. We met a pretty girl sitting at the table beside us and started chatting. It turned out that she was a local tour guide and tomorrow would be taking some exchange students on a trip around Guanajuato and surroundings. She invited me along too – for free. ‘Shit yeah!! I’ll be in that!’ I thought – and said, at the same time. She gave me directions and told me to meet them at a certain bus stop at 8am the next day. It was a done deal. Nice!
Sissel was tired and wanted to head back to the hotel – and probably needed a break from me, so I went off with the Mexican girl to meet some of her friends in a cosy little bar next to where we’d eaten earlier. Several more shots of tequila were thrown back in between beers and the next thing I knew was that I was absolutely hammered and could barely walk. Eventually I staggered off with one of the guys, who happened to be walking past my hotel and somehow made it all the way without ending up in the gutter. Sissel had left the door unlocked so in I went, fell over taking the TV down with me and made a hell of a lot of noise giggling like an idiot and bashing into things. Finally I made it to the bathroom to urinate and also began vomiting simultaneously between fits of mirth. I then fell into bed like a dead man and thusly ended my first day in Guanajuato.
I awoke around midday, then suddenly remembered the tour. “Fuck!” I was absolutely destroyed and Sissel was already gone. All I could do was turn on the TV and drink all my bottled water. This is how I spent the entire day – bedridden and doing my best not to puke again. Sissel turned up momentarily with a slightly bemused expression, then disappeared again. I really wanted to be up and about, but there was simply no way that was going to happen. Finally around 8pm – only twelve hours after I was supposed to be up – though still feeling like shit, I was starving and gingerly made my way next door for some tacos. I used nothing spicy and ate very, very slowly – afraid that it would all come back again. Later on, I managed a couple of hairs of the dog in a bar while writing in my journal and a guy invited me to a party. ‘Oh what the hell?’ I thought and told him that I needed to drop my journal home and would return in five minutes. This I did, but the bloke was gone. Probably just as well.