Stuck Inside of Nochixtlan with the Oaxaca Blues Again
I don't know about you, but when I'm attempting to evade an increasingly tense blockade in Mexico and am approached by a gang of angry protestors masking their faces with bandanas and holding machetes above their heads, I tend to freak out a little internally.
Such is what went down yesterday en route to Oaxaca from Mexico City. The journey began with a bluster of non-eventfulness; by the end, nobody could wipe the smile from my sweaty face. It's experiences like this of course, that makes travelling via cheap and local means so great.
For five gruelling hours, my wife Demelza and myself, sat bored out of our brains, drifting in an out of consciousness on the bus from Mexico City. The nation's capital holds 22 million people and as you can imagine, is one crazy and extremely noisy place. So in a way, we were both kind of thankful for the consistent engine hum and relative piece and quiet from our front seat fairy seats of ADO bus 1274.
That was until our mind-settling peace and quiet was shaken awake by a row of Policia Federal linking arms in a human chain in order to block the highway. Two of the police entered the bus and demanded to see identification from all passengers. This is pretty normal for Latin America so we both handed over our passports and cuddled up together to try to get some more shut-eye.
We were deviated from the highway and around a narrow dirt mountain trail. Again, nothing unusual. After some thirty minutes of corrugation-induced back spasms, we had looped around the first of the blockades and rejoined the highway. Back to sleep. I just happened to wake up in time to see a seemingly infinite snake of trucks, buses and cars on the autopista below as we crossed an overpass. I woke Demelza with the suggestion that perhaps today wasn't going to pan out as planned. Her coffee and my beer were going to have to wait. We continued driving for a further twenty minutes until we hit a town that neither of us had heard of; Nochixtlan.
And there we stayed. For five hours. Five hours of wandering around aimlessly, sipping on Coronas, and trying every possible variety of street food that we hadn't eaten before. Five hours of listening to ADO officials telling us quince minutos, quince minutos. Fifteen minutes?! Six times an hour we were told that we would be leaving in fifteen minutes. Of course, no one believed that for a second. This is Mexico, after all.
Eventually, after thirty lots of quince minutos', we were all called back to the bus and told that we would soon leave the terminal and park up behind the convoy of traffic stuck on the autopista and hope for the best. We were off. For three minutes. Then we stopped and waited. After ten minutes our driver cut the engine and a few of us left the bus to get the low down. A message was relayed back from driver to driver; the protestors had no intention of clearing out for at least another 48 hours. The vehicles at the front of the queue had already been waiting for 22 hours. Was this just Mexican whispers or was it true? Were we stuck here on the side of the road for two days? Fuck that!
Demelza and I made an executive decision; we would grab our backpacks and ditch the bus. Did we have a plan? No. Did we know where we were going? Hell no. We would just do what we always seem to end up doing; improvise. Our favourite word. We were joined by two lovely local ladies, Eva and Vera, while a young drunkard, Miguel, eventually caught up with us after waking up and making a late decision to leave. He had a near full bottle of tequila in his satchel. This was going to be great!
No one really had a plan, but it was casually agreed that we would just walk until we hit trouble or, better still, hopefully hit a service station to gather supplies. We were still close to fifty kilometres away from Oaxaca so if worse came to worse and we had to hoof it the whole way, we would at least have some sustenance. The single-file trail of parked vehicles snaked over a steep hill in the far distance and over the horizon. We all knew what lay ahead of us. We each had a belt of tequila, the Mexican way, by holding the bottle up over our heads and allowing the transparent gold to cascade into our mouths like some sort of mind-altering waterfall.
Dutch courage, Mexican bravado, call it what you will, sometimes it's just a required element. We continued along the autopista in the shadows of useless machinery. As we passed several groups of truck drivers loading up bonfires with rubber and wire, we were repeatedly warned not to continue. Our bus driver and several passengers said the same; there's no way through, it's too dangerous.
For once though, Demelza and I could use our gringoness to our advantage. Finally, our local companions could use us as a protective buffer. The policia were itching for any excuse to empty their tear gas canisters on the rowdy mob and a tourist being attacked by a protestor, when all governmental departments had been given specific instruction to protect those that bring money into the country, would be tantamount to a whole lot of stinging faces. Still, it was a risk.
But what's risk without reward? Keep the faith; short of being killed, everything always works out in the end. We ignored the warnings and, amidst the perplexed stares from several protestors and police, we continued.
Several kilometres and hundreds of buenos tardes' later, we spotted a service station on the horizon. My face was hurting from trying to appear as non-threatening as humanly possible by smiling at anyone who seemed a tad annoyed. Despite the severe hunger and sore legs and faces, we marched towards the service station, our oasis, with gusto. Thirty minutes later we were just metres away.
Like a mountain climber running out of oxygen just short of Everest's peak, we too were thwarted by a situation completely out of our control. I'm not sure what the collective noun is for a mob of angry, machete wielding Mexicans (a murder?), but that's exactly what we were confronted with. No pase, no pase, was their ominous warning to us; cross them at our own peril. The group were just on the other side of the service station's entrance so we all instinctively ducked inside. The lynch mob moved on.
Peeking through the shop window to make sure they were really gone, we then noticed a solitary man approaching one of the bowsers with a machete, accompanied by a pissed off expression smeared across his dark face. Not really thinking about what he might be planning to do, I was most amused to see that he was furiously hacking apart the hose connected to the bowser. Then reality struck. Was he about to light us up? Is this it? Is it all about to end in a flourish of impatience and combustion? No. He just felt like hacking the hose apart. Whatever floats his boat.
Flash mobs are not a new thing. Come to Latin America and see for yourself; flash mobbery is an ancient tradition. One minute, you're in the clear, able to continue through life at your own tequila-sipping leisure. The next minute, you're surrounded by swarms of politically-fuelled Mexicans ready to take out all of their rage and frustrations on you. I have now witnessed this phenomenon first hand.
Two or so kilometres after the service station fiasco, things were looking good. Well, as good as they possibly could be. We still had no plans and had no real idea if we'd be able to break the lines and make it to Oaxaca. Other than the stationary vehicle situation, the roads were clear and that was good enough for us. Until that is, my flash mob virginity was broken. It wasn't painful like I thought it might be but it was certainly over very quickly. Avoiding potentially dangerous situations of this magnitude is all a matter of declaring whether you're muy simpatico or en contra. I am, and always will be, muy simpatico and I made damn sure to tell them so. They let us through, no fuss, no muss.
The grande finale was yet to come. Two flash mobs, three raging bonfires and one pitstop later, we hit our biggest obstacle. A three kilometre thick barricade of protestors, vigilantes, bonfires and tents. Time to break out our Spanglish negotiating skills. Even though we did have three locals in our expedition and obviously they spoke ridiculously fast and fluent Spanish, Demelza and I took over negotiations. A lot of Mexicans are notoriously timid in these situations, the result of generations of browbeating at the hands of mobs such as these ones, besides, Demelza being a Kiwi and myself a bogan Aussie, we like to think that we don't take shit from anybody. At least that's the perception we try to get across.
We hesitantly, but with purpose (does that make sense?), approached a small group of women. Maybe they'd be more sympathetic to our cause. No chance. Our drunk friend Miguel had a go... still no chance. Hmmm. We sat down on our packs to think for a bit. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a silver-haired hombre staring at us. He seemed to have soulful eyes but I couldn't tell if he was smiling at us or smirking at our naive stupidity. He made his way towards us; big swallow, deep breath, here we go. He was smiling!
Asking us in the nicest possible way what the fuck we were doing there, the hombre, upon us explaining to him the purpose of our spontaneously impatient mission, suggested that we follow him. I seem to remember something that's lodged into the deep, dark recesses of my mind about my mother telling me not to go with strangers, but it's probably just my imagination. So we followed.
We negotiated our way through and around clusters of protestors, some friendly, some with machetes, who ultimately let us through. This hombre wielded some serious power. At a later stage, we were approached by a woman who shook our hands, said it was nice to meet us, now kindly leave. You don't have to ask me twice, lady. Our new guide muttered something to her and we left, still intact.
The rest of the way through the blockade was pretty uneventful if I were to tell the truth. We drank tequila, shared tequila, spilled tequila and I tripped over a rock. Stupid gringo. We finally made it through the barricade to a dirt track on the other side of the paddocks. Our hombre hero left us to return to wherever the hell it was he came from, and once again we were left to our own devices. It was getting dark.
Still with no plan, we decided to forge ahead to Oaxaca. We were still over forty kilometres away but we all figured that if we could hit the main road on the other side of the hills in front of us, then we might have a chance of avoiding more blockades and hitch a lift. Then came the Navidad miracle. There were five of us, so what do you think pulled up beside us? A colectivo van full of passengers! We flagged down the van and asked where they were going. Oaxaca! We asked if there was room for five people plus our luggage. Yes! There were five seats left. How much? Forty pesos. Do I negotiate? Tempting, but no.
Miraculously timed transport is such a beautiful thing when trekking in unfamiliar territory. This was our reward for the risk taken. We came out unscathed, further educated and most importantly, with a newly restored faith in humanity. Despite the justified anger at their desperate situation and obvious frustration that a couple of gringos managed to break their lines, the protestors, for the most part, treated us with compassion, smiles and a friendly word about their plight. I promised to write about the reasoning behind what they are doing (believe me, it has absolutely nothing to do with money), and try to get it published in a decent circulation like the L.A. Times or Vice Mexico. Our hombre friend sealed the deal for us and we thank him profusely, but if it wasn't for impetuousness, enlightenment and faith, then we would still be stuck in that bus with no air conditioner and I'd have nothing to write about. Most of all, we would never have met some great people who helped us learn a little bit more about the machinations of our newly adopted country.
Two lessons learnt:
Firstly, faith is real. I'm not talking about that God malarky or religion or even spirituality; faith can be whatever you want it to be. My faith is nothing but a newly, previously unchartered feeling that comes from within. I guess you could say that it's instinct, partly, but a lot of it is just a blind belief that if you do the right thing, things will work out just fine.
Secondly, to Donald Trump supporters, Mexicans are awesome! If I were to come across the same situation in the "greatest" country in the world, the U.S.A., I firmly believe that even with all the faith in the world, I would end up copping all sorts of grief. And you fuckers have guns! Give me a machete to deal with any day. Get your shit together, Trump supporters; accept the fact that you're all a complete pack of moronic ignoramus' who think Australia is Austria, New Zealand is somewhere off the coast of Iceland and is a studio for Lord of the Rings and Mexicans are all rapist cartel members who come to your country and take your jobs. Maybe they take your jobs because you're all lazy fucks who watch way too much Fox News and Larry the Cable Guy and can't be stuffed getting off your own fat asses to get a job flipping burgers or down at the ol' lumber yard. It's the Mexicans who are feeding your sorry asses and keeping your industry afloat. Get a grip! Trump ain't gonna help you! Idiots!
Ahem... faith. It's all about faith.
*If you enjoy Benjamin Munday's writing, why not subscribe to The Low Road to receive a free download of his award winning short story 'The Ashtray'.