This is a story about my trip to the Sierra Madre mountain range of Mexico in 2014. (The photo above was taken in the daytime on my way back through the route where I was stopped at night). I wrote this story to tell at a Moth Story Slam event hosted by WDET in Detroit on 05/05/2016 (Cinco de Mayo). Although I was not one of the 10 names drawn randomly, the host was kind enough to let anyone who didn’t get selected to let the audience know what their story would have been about. The response was so great that the audience persuaded the host to let me tell a shortened version of my story as a bonus story for the night. Thank you so much, WDET & Marble Bar for letting me share my story & the stage with some incredibly talented storytellers.
Obsession: Adventure travel
In hindsight, maybe my roadtrip across Mexico was jinxed by my car rental choice – Alamo. It probably also wasn’t so wise to venture to an area that was seeing serious political unrest. But the fact is I am obsessed with roadtrips and adventure travel.
I don’t care if it’s a roadtrip, a heroin addiction, or auto-erotic asphyxiation, with any obsession each time you crave a bigger risk than the last.
My journey began in Toluca, an industrial city north of the capital. My negotiations at the Toluca Alamo took longer than Santa Anna’s seize of the original one. I was going to get stuck in Mexico City rush hour traffic and never make it to my destination by sunset. And I had no idea how important it was to get there before dark.
There’s a word in Spanish, “desaparecido.” It means someone who disappeared, by force. In Argentina, in the ‘70’s, an estimated 30,000 political dissidents were “disappeared.” Something similar had just occurred in Mexico. 43 teachers college students in the State of Guerrero were believed to have been kidnapped at the order of a local politician.
Just to give you some background, Guerrero has this militant, separatist movement going on. The leaders are teachers and teaching students. Everyone is so upset about the Detroit Public School teachers’ sickout. But can you imagine if they were hijacking the People Mover? That would be awesome!
The State Department had issued a travel ban on any American federal workers going to Guerrero because “armed groups that are volatile and unpredictable have been responsible for various violent crimes including homicide, kidnapping and carjacking.” I was scheduled to arrive there around 1:00 a.m.
Driving through the Sierra Madre mountains in total darkness. No one else on the road, except for the occasional coyote darting across the highway in front of me. My cell phone had no signal. No GPS access, and no social media – terrifying, right?
I was wondering if I’d missed my exit. And then I saw lights ahead. It was such a relief. As I slowed to approach the toll station, I was annoyed. It was so late at night, but the roadside was crowded with vendors. They started to surround my car, and at first I argued with them to leave me alone. And then my eyes went into focus and I saw the toll booths ahead of me, burning.
I realized the crowd that was growing larger and larger around my car wasn’t trying to sell me anything. They were armed, and they were stopping me. There’s a Mexican phrase for this sort of situation, “Pinche madre!”
I was ordered out of the car by the young man who must have been their leader. My Spanish is very basic. What the books call “survival phrases.” It was time for survival, and no book had taught me phrases for this occasion.
I was exhausted from traveling all day. I was nervous about being held at gunpoint. I was confused by the circumstances, their intentions and their rapid-fire Spanish. But I heard one thing clearly, “cincuenta.”
“Ok, Scott. You can do this. Sound it out. You took French. Spanish is just French with a Mexican accent.”
“Cinq” means 5. “Cuenta,” “Cuenta”… “Oh my God! They want $5,000!”
I didn’t have $5,000! I was thumbing through my wallet nervously, as if maybe there was a $5,000 bill in there somewhere that got stuck between the 1’s that I had forgotten about. I had $20 US dollars and a bunch of Mexican pesos.
The leader grabbed my wallet. “Cincuenta!” He pulled a 50-peso note out, and handed me my wallet back.
50 pesos? That’s $2.50 American. I looked to the vandalized toll booth. The sign read “100 pesos.” My ransom was cheaper than the legitimate toll would have been!
I got back in my car, the leader waived the crowd to clear so I could pass. And all I could think was “Viva la revolucion.”