Land of the Free

We planned to leave La Posada early on Monday in the direction of the City of San Potosi with our ultimate destinations being Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. Our first stop, though, was the grocery store to load up on fruit and water. We had a little scare when Wesley wouldn’t start after we’d run the water pump for ten minutes to empty the month-old Virginia water that still filled the water tank, but after some quick diagnostic work we determined it was only a dead battery so we had a local jump us and we were on our way. Driving in Mexico suits me – it’s basically every man for himself since there is no formal driver’s education program folks are required to take and you can get a license once you reach a certain age – which may be as young as 14 since I’ve seen some pretty young kids driving motorcycles with one or two other friends stacked on behind them.

The view from the captain's seat

What I’ve observed it that it’s acceptable and expected that slow moving vehicles like us drive on the far right side of the road, with two wheels in the shoulder. Faster moving traffic won’t generally pass on the right, which is one thing that really bugged me on the US interstates because cars were flying by on all sides without giving me a chance to get the heck out of the way. Here, if I happen to find myself more to the center of the road because I’m avoiding a pothole, rough patch, or herd of goats, any car coming up on me will flash its lights and then wait until I move over, which I’m more than happy to do once the opportunity presents.

A typical Mexican strip mall on the road from Monterrey to Matehuala - a dirt parking lot fronting a vulka (tire repair shop), restaurant, and otherwise empty landscape

It’s a lot more interesting driving too – I haven’t seen one Office Depot or Best Buy. R and the kids made car bingo cards that included animals grazing on the median, three or more people on a motorcycle, bicyclists traveling in the opposite direction but in our lane, and someone riding a horse, and had the card complete within ten minutes of leaving town. At one point I saw a road crew making a fire by the side of the highway to cook their lunch – which may have been one of the many grazing goats we’ve seen. Many roadside stands advertise “cabrito” – goat – but we’ve yet to stop and have a taste. I’ve seen as many dead dogs on the side of the road as there were dead armadillo in Arkansas and Texas.

80 kilometers an hour is slower than it sounds. Multiply by 6 and drop the last digit and you'll see even Wesley can maintain the pace.

We made it to the smallish city of Matehuala after our first day of driving; merely a way station on our journey. We camped at a hotel/RV park recommended on one of the overlander Facebook groups we’re part of which was really just a parking lot with a very clean bathroom alongside. Matehaula, though, was our first evidence that Mexico has a middle class – we ate at a semi-fancy restaurant alongside a Mexican family that had reserved a few tables to throw some kind of party, people were walking around the streets dressed in suits, and there was a Wal-Mart which we went into hoping to find some good cheddar cheese and came out of with $40 worth of stuff, including a bottle of reposado tequila, two pairs of swim goggles, and some kind of sweet bread in the shape of a lizard.

J versus the sweet lizard bread

Here is J wearing the tail of the lizard as a war-trophy. He dubbed it Rudolph the bread-nosed reindeer.

We also got Wesley a car wash while we shopped, from some guys with buckets and sponges who were hanging around in the parking lot. Apparently the same rule that applies in the U.S. which requires it to rain within hours of washing your car applies also in Mexico and we got a short downpour as soon as we hit Santa Maria del Rio, a small town with dirt streets.

We needed to measure the height of the van to make sure we could get into the secured parking lot in Santa Maria del Rio. While sitting on my shoulders J could just reach the ceiling of the "parking garage" and as you can see here, that gave us plenty of clearance

We had planned to stop the second night in San Luis Potosi but it turned out to be a big, smelly city with lots of American chain stores, so we just drove through the city center and then kept going to this patch of green we saw on our map that looked like a national park but we must have missed a turn somewhere and ended up in this town called Santa Maria del Rio, which is famous for some kind of baby sling woven there which we weren’t in the market for. We were a little bummed about our blunder and it was too late to try to find something different so we got a hotel room on the main square for $30 and found out that we had stumbled into town on a festival night, which I’ll post R’s description of, so it turned out that we had a pretty neat and unplanned experience which are sometimes the ones that you remember most.

The following day we began our lessons in Mexican history in the town of Dolores de Hidalgo where, on September 16, 1810, a local priest named Miguel Hidalgo summoned the town to the church steps and issued what has come to be known as the “Grito de Dolores" (Cry of Dolores - the town originally named Dolores was renamed in honor of Hidalgo) - essentially calling out the Spanish overlords as money grubbing slave masters and urging the people to unite in beating them down. This was the event that marked the beginning of the Mexican war of independence and the day has been adopted as Mexican Independence day, which we will be celebrated shortly.

Some of the pageantry on the streets of Dolores de Hidalgo in anticipation of Mexican Independence Day.

As an American, I’ve learned that Mexico just exists – my New Jersey education did not include a lesson on Mexico and it’s only through some independent learning that I know an intelligent and prosperous indigent population existed before the Europeans arrived and raped and plundered in the name of the Lord, and perhaps the king as well. As we stood in the pretty town square which was decorated to celebrate the anniversary of El Grito, stared at the church steps from which the entreaty was delivered, and ate our hand-churned ice cream that comes in as many flavors as you can name including carrot, and yes, beer, we read to Coconut and J about Hidalgo and the other leaders of the independence movement. We realized the story isn’t that different from the events that gave rise to the American Revolution. Rules that were mostly inspired by squeezing more money out of the colony were imposed on a hard-working, local population by governors doing the bidding of a faraway magistrate, and the people objected.

Statute of Hidalgo with the church in the background and Vanamos family in the foreground

Vanamos family enjoying the famous hand-churned ice cream in Dolores de Hidalgo.

We were able to follow up on this first lesson on Mexican independence at our next stop. Guanajuato is a pretty colonial town high in the mountains, the history of which is centered on silver mining. It was the site of the first victory by the Hidalgo-led freedom fighters over a small garrison of Spaniards and loyalists that had holed up in the town’s granary with all the silver they could stuff in their pockets. Unfortunately for Hidalgo, he was captured shortly afterwards, beheaded, and had his head hung for ten years from a post to discourage other rebellions, which didn’t work, as Mexico eventually gained independence – but we haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. And even if we don’t get to it – Coconut and J have already learned more than R and I ever did about Mexico and how its people want the same rights, liberties, and opportunities as their Northern neighbors.