“We will need to go South of the Wall,” she tells me, as she is a big Game of Thrones fan.
I have no problems with that, even though neither of us has a job in Mexico or speaks more than a smattering of useful phrases in Spanish. So we went on a two-week vacation there as a practice run, and drove around Baja Sur in a rented car, her seeking the beauty of Baja and me seeking fish.
We rented a car at the airport in La Paz. Usually renting a car is a brutal process in Mexico. The nominal rental rate is very low, as little as nine dollars a day, but when you try to collect your reserved car, they inform you that you are required to buy the collision damage waiver, which you are not. If you decline it, they want to put an amount equal to the whole value of the car on your credit card. This can put a crimp in your vacationing style, so most people grit their teeth angrily and buy the insurance.
Not us, though—I had thoughtfully printed out my entire reservation with Budget, which stated they couldn’t put any more than $2500 on my charge card. The people at the counter accepted this reality resentfully, and got even with me by renting me a Renault.
I didn’t even know Renaults still existed. I remembered them vaguely from my extreme youth, when they were just another boxy foreign car like the early Japanese makes and BMW’s that your more eccentric neighbors might purchase instead of one of the winged wonders then offered by American auto manufacturers. Gradually the Renault disappeared from the American road, though, as people noticed that Toyotas and BMW’s continued to run without needing repairs for long periods of time and Renaults lacked this capability.
Our Renault ran for our entire trip, but rather indifferently to my desires for it to run. When the accelerator pedal was mashed to the floor, it exhibited a Gallic hauteur towards my need for it to go faster, which resulted in me on some occasions frantically braking instead of zooming out ahead of traffic. It was an automatic, but the transmission downshifted at the slightest provocation anyway, like a Continental driver might do by hand using one of their beloved manual transmissions, if he was sufficiently hyped up on espresso and veiny cheese and confronted with the tiniest incline.
We stayed in La Paz for a few days and then headed out towards La Ventana, a place we had never visited, and promptly got lost. It’s easy to do south of the border. If you look at a map of anyplace in Mexico, you will see a plethora of street names and route numbers, but when you are behind the wheel, you’ll notice that many of the streets run their whole lengths without benefit of a street sign. Likewise, there are road signs, but not many really clarifying ones. Many will point to the destination the traveler seeks, and, optimistically, he follows them, only to come to an intersection where a decision is demanded and no clue is offered.
It is left to the sojourner to guess and, having guessed wrong, to ask for directions in broken Spanish. When amusing myself with this hobby, I found the best directions were provided by the female staffers at Oxxo convenience stores. When confronted by navigational queries, they would go into a tight huddle and discuss the matter among themselves, giving me time to realize that probably none of them even owned a car, had a license, or went very far from home. They would nonetheless emerge from their huddle with a consensus answer and useful directions, like “En quatro altos, va al izquierda” (At the fourth stop sign, make a left).
Asking men was another story. On the way out of the Oxxo, I spotted some guys loading ice from a delivery truck and decided a second opinion wouldn’t hurt. These men knew how to get anywhere and they told me where to go in a torrent of Spanish. I only understand trickles of Spanish. Probably their directions were like the directions some people give you in English, where they detail every landmark and bump in the road along with the necessary turns and give it to you, together with their opinion of likely weather conditions and your car.
I already had an opinion of my car, so fortunately I didn’t need another. We finally got on the right road, which passed underneath one of those signs that in the US say “Your Tax Dollars at Work,” and probably should read, in Mexico as well as here, “Be grateful we gave some of your money to our relatives and campaign donors to build this road for you instead of stealing it all for ourselves.”
And we saw many things and met more interesting people by heading south, but I’ve used up my allotted bandwidth for today, so this post will have to have a Part II.