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A Transcontinental Journey   (John Joss, August 20, 2007)

It is ~700 miles from Houston to Tampico, through south Texas and across the border at Brownsville to Matamoros, world capital of flies. Half way between Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria, in the middle of a desolate Mexican highway, the Ford stopped abruptly. In retrospect I suspect a broken camshaft.

The recalcitrant lump of machinery would not re-start. Locked solid. Four hours later, after accepting a ride from a passing stranger who happened to know my putative father-in-law-to-be and could arrange for the Ford to be towed, I got on a decrepit bus and took the 10-hour ongoing ride to Tampico (I was serious about the lovely señorita). On arrival I called Bill, who had started the whole messy business, and asked him to come down to Ciudad Victoria, the State capital, to tow my car back to Houston. I could not, under Mexican law, leave it in the country. I needed it as transportation, anyway.

Bill arrived at CV in a new but battered Hertz rental car—a Ford—bearing a tow hitch. He explained that a couple of bridges were out; diversions through rocky riverbeds had caused the body damage, an explanation I accepted on its face without further investigation or cross-questioning. I had to get home. We found my car, with instructions from my father-in-law-to-be, attached it to the rented Ford, then headed north to Monterrey, in the State of Nuevo Leone, knowing that we could not tow my Ford through riverbeds on the way back to Texas.

Half way to Monterrey we had to cross a mountain range with classic switch-back highway. It soon became clear that Bill had no experience towing and was overcooking the corners. As I was urging him to slow down, my car under tow drifted off line, pulling the tow car with it. Luckily the tow hitch broke. The last I saw of my car through the rear window was its underside as it departed wheels-in-air over the cliff on the left—no guardrail.

Bill was busy. Maintaining an even, conversational tone to mask my terror, I recommended that he turn into the cliff face on our right, to slow us down. My fiancée had given me a family specialty of her mother’s, a large, sealed glass jar of goats-milk candy, and it had been loose in the back seat. It zinged around the car’s interior like an errant cannonball as we gyrated. By the time we came to rest at last in the gravel shoulder on the right, facing the wrong way, we had pounded all four corners of the car thoroughly. The candy jar had battered and crazed all the windows without itself being damaged, fortunately missing our heads. There was a long silence. Then we exhaled.

The rental car was severely crumpled but marginally drivable, headlights shining in four directions. We set out, Bill still driving immoderately, over my noisy protestations, which he ignored resolutely. All went well until a cow appeared suddenly in the road ahead, barely visible in the shattered headlights. I claim in retrospect that it died with a surprised look on its bovine visage.

The impact pushed the hood into the windshield, showering us in glass. The concertinaed doors would not open, so we climbed out the windows. The car was an undriveable mess, terminal. We waved down a passing truck (cattle guard on the front), tossed our gear in back—the natives were friendly—and were dropped off in the small town of Linares, 30 klicks north, fortunate to find a hotel room with our last dollars. It was past 11 PM.

We were awakened early the next morning by pounding on our door. The policia. We had negligently failed to report the accidents to them, required in Mexico (picky lot). The various bits and pieces of automotive wreckage and the dead cow had been found and, via adept sleuthing, we had been located. Mexico’s Inspector Clouseau was at the helm in all his glory.

Bureaucratic conundrum: the first accident (car over cliff) had occurred in the State of Tamaulipas; the second (dead cow, totaled rental car) in the State of Nuevo Leone. Solution: move the cow and rental car, on paper, back to the State capital of Ciudad Victoria in Tamaulipas, enabling the authorities to deal with one set of paperwork in one physical location. We were sent there on the morning bus from Linares and jailed for four days. Why four? Qien sabe? There was no courtroom, no hearing, no nothing. Also no explanation for our release—I intuited that my father-in-law-to-be had waved his magic wand, perhaps to get rid of me and ensure that I would not be in a position to marry his darling daughter. He even provided bus tickets to Texas for us.

Avoid Mexican jails, I beg you. Don’t ask. Just stay out of them. It has to do with various species of animal, human and otherwise. Try not to jump on Mexican buses at random, for different but equally important reasons—the next day, on that same road, the Linares-to-Ciudad Victoria bus left the highway, right where Bill and I had ‘abandoned’ my poor Ford, killing all aboard—23, including the driver. Reports in the newspaper indicated that he was an aspiring racing driver, determined to compete in some future Carrera Panamericana. Pobrecito. The official Carrera had been cancelled years earlier because of its extreme danger to contestants and spectators . . .

My father-in-law-to-be, at the time State Comptroller of Tamaulipas, had indeed bailed us out and fixed the paperwork. A little mordida goes a long way in Mexico. I found that out much later, amid much good-natured laughter at the family home in Tampico, after I had committed matrimony with his darling daughter. As things transpired, Bill and I left Ciudad Victoria and boarded a bus for Matamoros, world capital of flies, with a motley crew of humans and farm animals, traversing river beds en route where the bridges were indeed out. We walked across the border into Brownsville hours later. I rented a car from Hertz there, after asking Bill to remain out of sight, outside the office. I used my only remaining asset, an American Express card.

Bill graciously let me drive back to Houston. I . . . insisted.

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