I woke about 4 am in my second floor room at the Hotel El Angel just off the public square in Linaries. I made some instant coffee in my room and spent the next couple of hours studying my atlas to make sure that I had a good route for the next leg of my trip. I planned to continue south, tracing a path down the east side of the mountains along highway 85 until I reached Ciudad Victoria at which point I would bear eastward toward the coast on highway 83, to 81 and finally to 80 into Tampico which sits about 10 km from Gulf of Mexico coast.
At six am the bells rang in the town square; a quaint sound that seemed to be telling the residents of the city that it was time to get up. I felt confident with my routing for the day and was looking forward to reaching the coast, so as soon as it was light I headed out.
Shortly after leaving Linares I passed through a small village with several roadside cafes. I had some kind of weird anxiety about eating random local food but at this point I was hungry so I decided to take the plunge and stop for something to eat. Finally, I got lucky. The hut that I stopped at was staffed by four motherly women and there was one family there having breakfast. I asked if anyone “hablo ingles” and one of the girls at the table stood and said she yes, she spoke English. She came over and tried to explain some of the things on the menu and helped me place my order. I had one taco with egg and potatoes, another with egg and spicy chicken and then, at my helper’s recommendation I added a meat and cheese stuffed pepper in a fried crust. I tried to order milk to drink which I think got mistranslated to cream. It didn’t come right away and when I tried to ask about it the lady just held up a hand and then pointed to the kitchen area suggesting that I just needed to be patient. When it finally came I realized that they had been warming it over the fire after which they sweetened it with some sugar. It was wonderful! I finished my meal and took off toward Tampico. Finally, things seemed to be getting on track.
There are a few adjustments one has to make to driving in Mexico. The worst is the topos. Topos are speed bumps that Mexican highway planners just seem to like to put down whenever they have some extra asphalt; which also seems to coincide with the times when they don’t have many warning signs. Hitting one a 40 mph is excruciating. Watching out for them is just one of things that you have to acclimate to. No matter how committed you are to paying attention it’s like knowing how fast you can take a curve, you don’t get it right until you’ve been through a few.
Another thing is the free-ranging cattle that dot the roadsides. I did much better at sighting cattle on the side of the road, and slowing down in case they wandered onto the highway, than I ever did at spotting those topos.
And the last thing is how traffic moves on the undivided, two-lane highways. Instead of passing and no passing zones, Mexican highways have a lane and a half on each side. So, whenever there is traffic and you need to pass you simply move into the center of the highway with the expectation that the driver in front of you will ease to the right so that you can have the middle of the highway to pass. Of course, if there’s oncoming traffic then you have to trust that they will move over too. I guess most of the time it works but I never quite got comfortable with the arrangement.
About a half hour after stopping for breakfast, I stopped for gas. All of the gas stations in Mexico seem to be full service so I indicated to the attendant to fill it up. I went up to the station cashier to pay and handed her my credit card. Another blow – my credit card was rejected. Of course, I knew what was happening and at first thought that it would be simple to resolve. I had purchased a cell phone just across the border and my bank has s 24/7 customer service line. I dialed the number and nothing happened. I dialed again and nothing happened, just two quick beeps and the call ended. Okay, now I am starting to panic. I have 200 pesos and I just had 350 pesos worth of gas pumped into my car. Day 2, and now I’ve now managed to turn myself into a hostage at a Mexican Oxxo station where no one speaks English.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of pure panic, a family pulls in and when I ask if anyone speaks English their daughter comes to the rescue. She takes over like a competent secretary, helping me try my call again to make sure that I’m placing it correctly; then helping me purchase a pay phone card and helping me to try the call from the pay phone on the side of the building. After about 8 or 10 attempts from my cell, her cell and the pay phone we conclude that the 800 number that I have for my bank must not accept international calls. Now I feel completely shit outta luck as the saying goes.
But, as a real-life testament to the existence of good people all over the world, her father asks how much I need and hands over $200 pesos to allow me to pay for my gas. We agree that I will follow him to Tampico where I will try to straighten out the mess and repay him. We stop once along the way at another Oxxo that has an ATM where I try again but by this time I knew what was happening. Despite the fact that I had both called and gone in person to my bank to advise them that I’d be traveling out the country, they failed to note the account and now it was blocked due to unexpected charges from Mexico.
I called my mother and gave her all of my account information and asked her to call the bank for me and try to get the card unblocked. I explained what was happening to the daughter and we got back on the road. I called my mom back from the road to see if she had been able to get things resolved but, in keeping with my luck so far, she said that the bank had refused to talk to her about my account and that they also would not call me – I had to call them. Now I am in a real catch-22 since I’ve already figured out that the bank’s customer service line will not accept international calls.
One distraction from all the credit card turmoil was rounding a corner to the sight of these windfarms near Ciudad Victoria, about halfway between Linares and Tampico.
The family and I stopped again right outside of Tampico and the daughter tells me that her dad says not to worry about repaying the 200 pesos and they wish me luck. I couldn’t blame them – they were headed to the beach and I was quickly turning into the lost little puppy threatening to take over their lives. I gave the daughter a hug of gratitude and waved them goodbye. The value of the kindness of random strangers cannot be overstated.
I checked the GPS and located a Hampton Inn and a Holiday Inn Express in Tampico where I thought I could get some international travel assistance. I spot the Hampton Inn first and stop there. There are three girls at the counter who all speak English – hooray! The girl who helps me is very attractive and sweet and she places a call for me to my sister. My plan is to ask my sister to conference me with the bank from her phone there in the US. Unfortunately, I have her on her cell phone and her cell phone’s keypad can’t seem to properly activate the touch tone prompts on the customer service line during our three-way call. While she’s trying to get through the phone menu she accidentally disconnects with me. The sweet, attractive girl who was helping me has stepped away now and another clerk, a sour faced older girl, steps over and asks me my room number. I explain to her that I would like to register but that I have to get my card unblocked. She says that since I can’t pay I can’t register and if I can’t register she certainly isn’t going to place any international calls for me. She was a complete bitch.
I get in my car and head for the Holiday Inn Express. The clerk there helps me out completely, even though it took three or four calls to get things resolved. I finally got a direct phone number to the customer service center – they wouldn’t talk to me with my sister on the line – and called back in and got things straightened out. Rooms were $69 at the Holiday Inn and despite my gratitude for the help, I couldn’t afford that for a room. The clerk added up my phone charges and we put $32.90 US on my card. At least I knew it was working again.
Anxiety has a way of making the familiar feel safer so I left the Holiday Inn Express and turned back toward a McDonalds that I had seen just up the street. I got a cup of coffee and checked my email and then drove out toward the beach to see if I could find a place to camp. I asked around and finally found a couple that spoke English who told me in no uncertain terms that it would not be safe to camp. So I headed back into town, resigned to find another cheap hotel for the night.
I spotted a couple of independent hotels across the street from the airport and stopped at the first one, but the girl didn’t speak English and trying to rent a room became more difficult than I could handle. So I left and went on to the second one which turned out to be more of a love shack than a hotel. Regardless, I got a great room, which came with a private garage and a large room above for $40. This worked out great as I really wanted to do some reorganization of my luggage. The only drawback was when I found out the next morning there was no hot water. Oh well, after everything else I had been through the previous two days that seemed pretty insignificant.
Next up: Part 2: Mexico – Tampico to Veracruz
By: Bob LaGarde
Originally published December 28th, 2010 at www.southboundrambler.com
Updated: April 23rd, 2016