A Ride To Matehuala

*This is part 9 of a 13-part series. Read part 8 here.*

“So two of our guys broke down right in Gypsy territory. They got a bad reputation for stealin’ things, so our guys are like pressed against their bikes, waiting for us to come bail them out. But this crowd starts moving towards them, real slowly. They have no idea what’s goin’ on. Suddenly though, it breaks in two and this tiny old woman walks down the center. Everyone is silent…”

The suspense builds as S. and I hold our breath.

“… she hands them a screwdriver to fix their bikes.”

We all burst out laughing.

“Well, that killed some gypsy prejudices.” I chime in

“Oh yeah” he laughs. “Say would you both like some coffee? My treat.”

The Ford F-250 with the attached trailer takes up two spots. “I’m going to stay here in case I have to move it” he says while handing me 100 Q to go inside.

Although nice, it feels off to leave all our bags inside, but then again it would seem rude to lug our enormous bags in with us. Luckily, before every day starts, we safety pin important documents — passport, credit card, some cash — to the inside of our pants in case of emergency. Hopefully we’ve built up enough trust, even if the ride itself started off a little apprehensive.

 

“I could have a gun.” he says. “I mean, I’m not trying to scare you —”

One of many roadside shrines you see along the highway
One of many roadside shrines you see along the highway

Well you kind of missed the boat on that one, I think to myself.

“— It’s just Mexico is not what it used to be. I remember riding my bike everywhere. At night. Alone. No problem. Now I’ll only drive through during the day.”

He gave us a reality-check on the seriousness of the drug trade here, a danger that we downplayed. Perhaps ignorance was our bliss and we followed that bliss because it felt good. We’ve been safe this whole time, but a history of safety is no guarantee for the future.

“Here you go” I say while handing Jose the cup of coffee.

“Oh thanks.” he says while shifting gears.

“So any other interesting trips?”

Jose takes a sip of coffee. “Recently I took a group of Americans to Cuba.”

drivingroad

“Come again? How’d you manage that?”

“It has only been possible these last few years. President Obama allowed for groups with special permits to go tour the country. The only catch is…”

My ears perk up.

“… you have to ‘spread the values of democracy’.”

I slap myself in the face. I, perhaps naively, assumed that travel was all about experiencing another culture. Seeing how they are is kind of difficult when you’re telling them how to be. Anyways what happened to leading by example? Is that old-fashioned?

“But it was worth it?”

“Definitely. Cuba is a beautiful country – the people, the women, the music, the dancing. Everything. But they’ve also suffered a lot, the people know hardship. Despite that they still maintain one of the highest literacy rates in the world, highest longevity rates, and lowest infant mortality rates. Everyone came back thinking the US needs to reconsider its policy.”

I smile as he turns up the salsa music.

“So have you been up to Real de Catorce?” I ask

“A few times. Took a few groups up there. We stayed at…oh what was it called? … The Real Inn. Great place, maybe a bit too pricey for backpackers but you can stop in for a coffee. The owner is a great guy, knows everything about the area, he was an extra in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the movie.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” he laughs. “They filmed part of it up there.

“It’s home to the Huicholes right?” I ask

“Yeah. Fascinating culture. Great art – you’ll see a bunch of it up there. They use peyote you know. It’s a very important part of their culture, a very old tradition that helps them understand the world. The Mexican government legally protects its use, but only for the Huicholes.”

I love when people shatter your expectations. I assumed he would have a Mr. Mackyesque “drugs are bad” view, but he showed genuine respect and understanding

We missed the last bus to Real de Catorce, so it looks like we’re spending the night in the surprisingly sketchy little town of Matehuala.