A man and his family visit La Paz for two weeks while traveling around Baja California for a few months.
While they tend to prefer secluded beaches and the small campos–miniature towns where one can often camp for next to nothing–Baja’s largest city had the potential to supply many items they were in need of after traveling hundreds of kilometers of dirt roads and seeing few stores with much selection.
These are the short stories of some of the people they met.
The light began flashing green, and then in a moment was yellow. No amount of braking could have prevented the man’s Volkswagen Bus from continuing into the intersection after the light had gone yellow–except perhaps for better brakes–and so here he was.
The police officer was obvious. He wasn’t trying to hide. His job, apparently, was to sit on this corner in his car and, you know, police.
As the Bus careened into the intersection, one of those intersections where there was actually room between the opposing traffic as it headed east and west (the Bus traveling in a northern direction), so that he was able to stop and allow the rest of the traffic to pass by, it became unclear to the man as to what he should do.
In his mind, he’d already run a red light. The cop was right there, yet he hadn’t turned on the lights yet.
So, the man threw it into first gear and went.
The lights came on.
“Espanol, espanol, espanol,” the officer said to the Bus’ driver, who didn’t understand a word of it bus had been attempting to learn Spanish for the past two months.
“Lo siento,” he said. That was a mistake. Looking back on it, the man told me, it would have been better to play dumb. Mexican policeman who find US tourists too annoying to deal with will often just let them go.
“Que es la problema?” the man asked.
The problem was, obviously, that he’d run a stop light.
The conversation went back and forth, the policeman knowing nearly no English and the man speaking likely like a preschool caveman. Finally it was understood.
“It will be over $100 US dollars and you will have to go to the station after 11am tomorrow,” the officer said, but in Spanish.
“Okay, donde es la estacion?” the man tried to ask in Spanish. He pulled up a map of La Paz on his phone. The officer didn’t care.
“Or,” he continued, “you can pay here, only 600 pesos.” The man knew he wasn’t supposed to pay bribes, “la mordida” as they’re known in Mexico.
“No, pago a la estacion. Donde es?” The man was trying to say he’d pay at the station, but where was it?
That went on for half an hour. Finally, he said, “Okay, I’ll pay here.” Pago aqui.
Somehow he communicated that all of his money was in the back of the Volkswagen Bus. “Okay,” the officer allowed him to get out of the vehicle and walk to the back of the Bus. The man pulled out a small, unlocked safe and started counting money right there in the street.
“No, no!” the translation is literal, and the officer ran to the other side of the Bus, out of the street and into the privacy of the sidewalk. Clearly, he knew he wasn’t supposed to be asking for bribes. The man didn’t care though, he just hopped back into the Bus and handed the man the money through the window.
Just then he noticed another officer, kind of hiding but looking all through the vehicle at the same time. It was strange. The man probably could have remained outside of the Bus, waving the money, asking the officer to take it. That probably would have gotten him out of it.
But he’d been driving around La Paz for two days looking for a FedEx building where a much needed part for that Volkswagen was waiting for him, so instead he simply said, “Donde es FedEx?”
The officer pointed, gave some directions in Spanish which were more or less clear, and sent them on their way.
Six hundred pesos, about $30 USD, for directions to the FedEx station. Not a bad deal.
The Gringo Boat Store Owner
The man was in desperate need of a water pump to fix the kitchen sink in his VW Bus. He’d been searching ferreterias (hardware stores) all over Baja, but no one had a water pump that would work on 12v, directly from his batteries instead of requiring a 120v source (that is, a normal wall outlet).
Finally, he found one at a store in La Paz. The English-speaking Mexican salesman showed him one. It seemed small.
“Will this do the job?” the man described his needs exactly, a freshwater tank, two feet of hose, the pump, and then three feet later the sink’s faucet. He was guaranteed it would work. The salesman sold him the pump, and some hose (that was the wrong size, the man would later find out).
The hose aside, the pump itself simply didn’t work. It wasn’t powerful enough to pump the water the entire distance to the sink. So, he took it back.
The salesman was there, but sent the man to the gringo who owned the place.
Now, the man is not one to use the word gringo lightly. It seems like a slur. But being a gringo, he is also free to use the word right? Give it some power.
Anyway, the conversation went something like this.
“So this pump isn’t working,” the man described the entire situation, his VW parked just outside.
“It works,” the owner replied.
Surprised, the man repeated, “No, it doesn’t. I know how to install a water pump, and this one can’t get the water…well, pumping.”
“Well, leave it here and I’ll have our technicians look at it.” To interject, this is very un-Mexican. This is however, very fucking American. A Mexican would simply hook the thing up right there and see if it worked or not. If it did, he’d walk outside to the Bus and help you install it, maybe asking for a couple of hundred pesos to do so, at the very most.
“We can go outside and I can show you it doesn’t work,” the man said, the conversation slowly heating to a boil.
“That’s not how we do it here,” the owner said.
“No, that’s not how you fucking do it. Here in Mexico–” the man said. The owner stood up. The man took a few steps toward him and his desk. The owner was a fat old man, and almost tripped as he tried to push his chair out of the way.
“You know what,” the man tried to gain his composure, “whatever.” He left, broken water pump in hand.
Three days later he found a pump that did work, and he’s been running water through it ever since. He uses the broken pump he bought from the guy in La Paz as a reminder that though some people are rude, fat and old, at least they will–the gods willing–die soon.
The RV Park Groundskeeper
There’s an RV park just east of La Paz. It’s a Christian place, where kids come for camp and Bible study and that sort of thing. There’s a pool, a nice enough owner, and a groundskeeper.
Every single morning, and to every single guest, that groundskeeper says, “Buenos dias.”
It may seem a trivial thing, but it’s a staple of Mexico. When you see another human being, you greet them.
How often does that happen to you in the US?
The Tobacco Salesman
“Hola, buenas tardes,” the tobacco salesman told the man as he entered his shop.
“Buenas tardes!” the man replied. He was happy to find this smoke shop. Mexico’s cigarettes are cheap, but they don’t have anything close to American Spirits. If you don’t smoke, American Spirits are to Marlboros what a Harley Davidson is to getting shit on your shoe.
They exchanged a few words, the tobacco salesman speaking perfect English. As the man was checking out with his purchase of some organic looseleaf tobacco, he asked, “Do you ever get American Spirits in?”
“I can get that for you, not sure how long.”
Three days later the tobacco salesman had it waiting, in the store, no idea whether the man would ever come back.
But he did.
The Street Performer
The Volkswagen Bus came to a stop at a red light (having learned his lesson previously with how the flashing green light, yellow light, mordida situation works).
A young man with dreadlocks walked to the front of his car. He began juggling. Then juggling behind his back. Then doing backflips as he juggled. Smiling all the while.
The man immediately thought of Texas, where bums on every intersection would walk up to car windows with a sign that more or less read, “I clearly didn’t serve in Iraq, and I could get a job if I want, but fuck it, give me money or I’ll blow smoke in your window.”
The juggler, when the light turned green again, just walked between the cars, still smiling. The man gave him a few pesos.
“De nada,” the man replied, which literally translates to “of nothing”, but it was ever so the opposite meaning to the man.
In the US, there are many people who look down on Mexicans as being lazy and invading their country.
“But,” the man tells, “I have been asked for change all of three times in four months in Mexico. Most people who work the streets, they’re performers, or they’re selling something real. Mexicans don’t seem to understand the concept of begging.”
The FedEx Worker
“Yes,” he said in English, “I have your package.”
“Great!” This was the same package the man had been on his way to retrieve, after days of searching for the FedEx warehouse and trying to translate Spanish directions to no avail, when he’d been pulled over by the policeman who asked for the bribe.
“But,” he looked at the label, “you owe $376”. It was in pesos, but it was still a charge.
“I ordered this two night international delivery,” the man explained, “it’s been a month!”
“Okay, let me check.” The FedEx worker walked back into the warehouse, taking the package with him. Fifteen minutes went by, the man’s family sitting in the heat of the Volkswagen outside all the while.
“You owe $376 for storage fees,” he quoted the cost again.
“I already paid $75 US just to get it here!” the man retorted.
“I don’t know.”
“Just let me have my package, please.”
“I am not the boss.”
The man handed him 400 pesos.
“You are a thief,” the man said.
The FedEx worker translated to his colleague, who was holding one of those digital signature pads. They both laughed.
“You have to sign,” the FedEx worker informed the man.
“I’m not signing, I don’t agree.” The Fedex worker wouldn’t turn over the package.
So the man, reluctantly, signed.
The traffic light was red, and thusly a line of cars began amassing behind the man’s Volkswagen Bus. One, two, three and then fifty. Two lanes of traffic going back as far as the rearview mirror could see.
The streets of La Paz are full of drivers eager to get to wherever they’re going. It’s strange, really, because when on foot, the general attitude of many locals seems to be to take it as slow as possible. Why rush away the day? But something about getting into cars triggers an instinct in which they seem to be driven by the sole desire to go as fast as they can and obey as few stop signs as possible. Still, a stop light will prevent forward motion in even the busiest of vehicles on Mexican roads.
The light turned green. The cars to the left of the man and his VW Bus took off, down the road as fast as they could to the next stop light.
He pressed the clutch pedal to the floor, pushed the stick shift into first, and hit the gas. Just then a dog jumped into the street, causing him to fumble with the pedals and stall out. Cars behind him began changing lanes in an attempt to cross the intersection before the light turned again, and the man frantically reached for the keys to get going again.
But though the key turned in the ignition, the Bus wouldn’t start. Luckily, you can push a manual drive vehicle until it gets going quickly enough, and then “catch it in gear”, a method involving the key being in the on position, the shifter in second gear, and simply releasing the clutch as you press the gas.
Normally this is not an issue. It was a flat road, the Bus is relatively light, and with the aid of the man’s 14 year old son, they could easily achieve this maneuver and be back on their way down the road.
But traffic was thick and everyone was whizzing by, changing lanes to get around the broken down old Volkswagen in their way. The man didn’t want to put his son in harm’s way, so he got out and, with the driver’s side door open, attempted to push the Bus on his own, an endeavor that proved a bit more than he could muster.
Locals continued driving on by, the light still green.
Just then a commuter in a brand new Toyota pulled up behind the Bus, he hopped out of his car, and from the back of the Bus began pushing as well. The commuter and the man together had enough gusto to get the Bus rolling along, and so the man hopped in, popped it into second, and he and his family were off with as big a wave out the window as they could manage.
These are not meant to be generalizations of an entire people. They are true tales of an experience had by but one man in a city of thousands.
But they show a keen perspective of life in Mexico. Not everyone is a drug lord. And not everyone is a smiling waiter working some touristy restaurant, happy to serve, either. The people of Mexico are not overly nice nor are they particularly dangerous.
They are people.
When the man and his family first decided to extend their full-time traveling life south of the border and into Mexico, they were afraid.
Not of the Mexicans. But to tell their friends and family. And rightly so, because from many of those Americans, the reaction was one of dismay.
“You heard that two Australian guys were just killed there, right?”
“Be careful, I’m so worried about you.”
“That is so irresponsible. You’ve got kids!”
These are actual statements.
Then again, countless Canadians we’ve met over the years have said that they’re told not to cross into the U.S.
“It’s dangerous, they’ve all got guns down there!”
And we do. And we use them. 509 dead children in Chicago in one year. Guys with automatic weapons raining bullets on movie theaters and elementary schools. A family killed by a man who only hours before had helped them, shot dead and we’ll never know why.
Is the U.S. dangerous? Is Mexico? Would you visit Boston after the marathon? Would anyone warn you not to go to Paris after the terrorist acts that happened there in 2015?
We are slaves to our fear, and even those of us who resist it are still taunted by those who can’t.
The people of this world are, in general, good. And that was the thought this family not only had, but was eager to prove. And they did.
And they still are.