“Hey! Hey, stop! ‘Scuse me! Did I hear you say that you’re from Canada?”
Paul and I looked at each other, turned and noticed the man who was speaking. We were standing outside Sanborn’s Café on Paseo de Reforma, in Mexico City. After being in Mexico for a few weeks, most North Americans are searching for a good hamburger. Sanborn’s was supposed to have the best in Mexico. Out of the restaurant charged a handsome young man; he had wavy black hair and a mustache.
“Yes, we are from Canada, why do you ask?” Paul said.
The stranger introduced himself as Tony Docal, and said “My wife, Patty, is from Canada. Do you know Saskatchewan? She is from Saskatchewan. I met her in Acapulco. She is living with me here. Would you like to meet my wife?”
It was 1969; we were young and in love. I had bought a 1954 Volvo 445 in Vancouver BC that winter. It was a station wagon. When the back seat was folded forward, the cavernous cargo area could become our home on wheels.
“We can meet tomorrow in Chapultepec Park at 2.” Tony continued. “All right?”
Paul glanced at me, I nodded. We agreed that we would meet the next day. We were always up for another adventure. This time we got more adventure than we could imagine.
Tony asked where we were staying. Paul explained that we were staying in a small hotel near the center of town.
“You can check out of there, and come to stay at my mother’s house. It is a big house we have much rooms. Part of it used to be a soap factory.”
The next day we went to the park. We found where we were to meet and waited. Soon Tony approached. There was a tall blond woman beside him. He walked up to us and said, “This is my wife Patty.” He was obviously proud to have this tall blond Canadian beauty as his wife. “Patty, these are the people that I told you about from Canada.” We introduced ourselves, and this new adventure began.
As the afternoon was closing, Tony said that he would take us to his mother’s house to stay. He and Patty climbed into the back of our vintage Volvo, and directed us through the streets of Mexico City. He said to turn this way and that. As we wended our way through the streets of the city, I became more and more disoriented. We turned this corner and that. Would I ever be able to find my way out of this maze? Were we going to his mother’s home for a safe abode, or to some place more sinister. I was wondered if Paul was at all concerned about what we were doing. Was I concerned?
The streets were clean. The buildings were 2 storied, and constructed of what looked like concrete. There were a few windows, and several large doors. The shops on the corners spilled baskets of fruits and vegetables out on to the streets. The smells of exotic foods filled the air. We heard the sounds of children laughing and women calling to each other across the streets. Soon we stopped outside a large gate. Tony said, “This is my mother’s house.” The wall was blank, except for the gate. The gate had a big lock in it, there was a chain hanging down the side of the gate.
Tony got out of the car and opened the gate. As the gate opened, we could see the courtyard spread out in front of us. It was a small courtyard. There were several doors on the ground level. The second floor was ringed by a balcony with doors leading into the rooms beyond.
“Drive in the gate,” Tony said, “You can stay here. Just park your car, and you can sleep right here.”
We were welcomed in with smiles, hugs and handshakes. “Buenos dias.” “Bienvenidos.” Tony showed us around the building. The bathroom that we would use was in the soap factory. The shower was a pipe with a nozzle coming out of the wall. The sink looked like it could be used to wash laundry and the toilet… well the toilet was a hole in the floor, with 2 footprints molded into it.
Tony’s mother, Cuca, (short for Cucaracha) welcomed us heartily and said that we were could stay as long as we liked. She was surrounded by a clutch of children, from Tony and Patty on down to the three younger boys.
I breathed a sigh of relief; I understood that we had found a safe haven, a place to stay in this massive city. From here we could explore Mexico City. We accepted this generous invitation.
After a couple of days, Tony suggested that we travel to Acapulco. He knew a man; his uncle had a friend there that owned a hotel. Tony said that he could arrange a deal for us.
“Sure.” we agreed… more adventure.
We sat in the room for short while, relaxing. Then Paul and I decided that we would go for a swim. Tony and Patty decided that they would stay behind in the room. Tony told us where to find the beach, and off we went. Tony had been a beach boy in Acapulco when he met Patty, so he was very familiar with Acapulco and its beaches.
We pulled up to a beautiful beach, opposite a more luxurious hotel, parked, locked the car, and headed to the beach. The beach was very long and wide. It looked almost deserted. We figured that most people had left for the day, returning to their hotels to prepare for the evening. There were a few people sitting in beach chairs under the palm trees that lined the street.
We took off our clothes, leaving them in a pile on the beach and headed for the water.
The beach was steep going into the water and got deep very quickly. The safe swim zone was about the first 10 feet from shore. The surf broke very close to shore. The waves crashed over our heads. The undertow pulled on our bodies. We tried to swim in the surf. With each wave washing over our heads we became breathless. Battling the pounding surf exhausted us. We turned, dragging ourselves up the beach. We returned to the safety of the beach. We stood on the beach, panting. We realized how truly lucky we had been to climb back out of the tugging surf.
Coming out of the water, we walked across the beach to our pile of clothes, dried off and dressed. Paul reached into his pocket; no keys. He must have left them in the car. We walked to the street. We looked up the street. We looked down the street. The car was nowhere. We returned to the beach. We searched through the sand, trying to see if the keys had fallen out of his pocket. After scouring the sand, we realized that someone on the beach must have been watching us. They saw us drive up, strip to our bathing suits and go into the water. They rifled through Paul’s clothes and found the keys. It was a simple matter for them to walk to the street and drive away.
The awareness of what had happened crept into my heart. I was devastated! Tears welled in my eyes as I thought, “How will I get home? How will I even get back to the room? How could I let this happen? What can I do now?” My life was in that car; passports, traveler’s checks, clothes, all the things that keep young people alive and living on the road.
Instead of falling apart, I remembered Tony. He would know what to do. The first thing to do was to hail a taxi and return to the room.
I followed Paul slowly up the stairs to the room. I was wondering what to tell Tony and Patty. Paul knocked on the room door. “Come in.” Tony called. We entered and Paul said, “We need some money to pay the taxi driver. Our car was stolen, and we took a taxi back. Can you lend us some money please?”
“Your car was stolen?” astonishment showed in Tony’s eyes. Patty dug into her purse and handed Paul enough money to pay the driver.
“We have to report this to the police stations. They are closed now; we can do that in the morning.” Tony said.
There are three levels of police in Acapulco; the Municipal Police, the “Federales” and the Highway Patrol. We had to report the car theft to each branch. Tony would come along as interpreter and guide. Early the next morning we hailed another taxi and the day’s duties began.
The taxi took us along the promenade, and turned up the hill we had driven down just the day before, when we had entered the city. I remembered how thrilled I had been arriving at this beautiful bay. I didn't feel the same thrill going back up the hill in that taxi. Up the winding road we drove until we arrived at the Highway Patrol station. Tony, Paul and I went into the office. The officer was business like. We three sat down and Tony did the talking. The reports were filled out, signed and sealed.
Next was the Federales. This wing of the police always had a scary aspect to it. These were the guys to avoid if you were doing what most young tourists were doing in Mexico. Again, Tony led the way with assurance.
Last was the Acapulco Municipal police. They were stationed in a large brick building that looked like a fortress. There was a large parking lot where we drove up, and I could see another around the corner of the building. Like so many institutions, this one was built to intimidate. Tony had been in here before; he was familiar with the place. He led the way. We sat down at the desk and the officer took our information.
He was very sympathetic to our plight, and indicated that they would do their best to help us get our car back. He took down the description of the car; 1954 Blue Volvo station wagon, British Columbia plates… filled with all my personal possessions. We had been moving back to Nova Scotia to get married. We just took the long way… or, perhaps, the wrong way?
The next stop would be the American Express office to report the theft of my traveler’s checks. The driver drove us back down the hill to the promenade, and turned left. We drove past the beach where I last saw my car. I looked, and looked; it still wasn’t there. The beach was crowded with people, selling everything from serapes to tacos, asking if you wanted a drink, begging. Why had all these people been gone when we were there the preceding evening? Where were the witnesses? There were none, except the thieves.
The American Express office was in a beautiful hotel. The agent listened to our story and said that he understood our problem. He thought that we were only missing money. He didn't know that we had lost our home as well.
I had left the copy of the check numbers at the room, so I was able to give him the numbers and amounts of the missing checks. He was able to give me $250 dollars. It was 1969; $250 went a long way then. I felt comforted as I left the hotel with the small wad of American cash in my pocket.
The nearest bank gladly swapped some of the dollars for pesos, and the day’s duties were done. We headed back to the hotel, paid off the driver, and went back to the room exhausted.
We would have to report the stolen passports to the Canadian Embassy back in Mexico City. The next day we four climbed aboard the bus to Mexico City. The trip was much less comfortable than our trip south. We swayed in the seats and smelled other people’s oranges. There were children running up and down the aisle, yelling and laughing. When we arrived in Mexico City we took a taxi back to Cuca’s home. That night Paul and I moved into the bedroom beside Tony and Patty.
Monday morning, bright and early, we went to the Embassy. We walked into the office, and Paul said to the receptionist, “We would like to report that our passports were stolen.”
The woman behind the desk looked up from her typewriter, and asked, “Are you Mr. Joudrey and Miss Blackmore?”
We were stunned. “Yes,” we said at the same time.
“Your car was found with your passports in it. You were reported as missing and presumed dead. We were just drafting letters to send to your parents to tell them that you are missing and presumed dead.” she said with a smile on her face, “You got here just in time.”
“Well, here we are, and we’re quite alive.”
The receptionist continued, “This has the possibility of becoming an international incident. There is a new chief of police in Acapulco. He has taken on the task of solving the case of the missing Canadians as his first official duty. We will have to be very tactful when we tell him that you reported your car stolen on one side of the building, while it was parked in the lot on the other side of the building.”
“Are you saying that they had the car when we reported it stolen?” Paul asked.
“Yes and the thieves were asleep in the car when they found it.”
This was becoming more than funny, it was becoming ludicrous. The police had the car and the thieves when we reported the theft.
We asked about some of our possessions, the traveler’s checks would be no good, what about the clothes and camping gear. The woman at the embassy couldn’t help us there. I felt relief, utter relief. My car was found. I could get back my stuff. We could go home.
The next day, Paul took the bus back to Acapulco to pick up the car. He arrived late in the evening. After a simple supper, he returned to the beach. He thought that he could save money by sleeping on the beach. As he crossed the sidewalk, a 6” black scorpion rattled across the walk in front of him. The hotel where he stayed was a simple one. He slept like a man saved from the beasts of the wild, safe and secure. He awoke ready to conquer the world, or at least retrieve the Volvo.
Paul went directly to the Acapulco Municipal Police station. He entered through the same door we had entered 3 short days before. He went to the same desk where we had reported the car stolen. With his meager Spanish, Paul communicated that he was the missing Canadian, that had come to get his car and possessions.
The officer led him through the many halls of the station until they walked out on to a large parking lot. There, sitting parked in the lot was the beautiful blue Volvo he had been seeking. He looked at the officer, and motioned like turning the keys. The officer said something in Spanish, and indicated the car.
Paul went to the car and looked into it. There, dangling from the ignition, were the long lost keys, just waiting for a loving hand to twist them.
Paul opened the back and surveyed the things in the Volvo. Several items were missing. The camp stove was still there. His cowboy boots from Texas were gone. The sombrero he bought in Mazatlán was gone. Sunglasses, toiletries, books and traveler’s checks, all were gone. The question was, if the police nabbed the thieves when they found the car, who took our things?
Paul opened the driver side door, and sat in the familiar seat, his butt and the seat warmed to each other. Ahhh, that’s the way it is supposed to be.
There was one major problem, the car had been damaged. Evidently, the thieves didn't know how to drive a vehicle with that kind of transmission, standard, with three on the floor. They had ruined it.
The Volvo started up easily. Putting it into gear was more of a challenge. Paul managed to force it into second, and slowly pulled out heading north. He drove the distance shifting between second and third gears. There was no reverse gear. There was no first gear. Late that night he arrived back at Cuca’s home.
The next hurdle would be to get the car repaired so that we could leave Mexico. We had purchased AAA Auto Insurance when we entered Mexico at Nogales, so the repairs would be covered. Now we needed to find a good mechanic, who could work on this exotic car.
One week, okay. We were planning a May wedding in Nova Scotia. A week would be pushing it, but we could still make it.
Back at the soap factory, things were going well. We were staying in a comfortable bed, and meeting interesting people. We were paying Cuca a small amount of money for rent, and she was feeding us home cooked Mexican food. We went for wonderful excursions with the family. I would go shopping at the corner with Patty for “hielo de fresa” and “cacahuetes garapiñados.” (strawberry ices and candy covered peanuts)
Tony’s brother, Cachi, had gone to Huautla, where the “hongos” (mushrooms) grow. He returned with amulets made from pebbles he had found in a cave. These had a special association with Maria Sabina, a Curandera (shaman). Wearing these stones was supposed to bring blessings… It was too late for them to bring us “Luck.”
One of our biggest lessons while in Mexico was that you don’t leave the house with a list of things to do. We would arrive at some official office with our request for some kind of official document or registration. As soon as we spoke with the customer service agent, she would send us to a different line. When we got to the head of that line, that agent would take a break. It seemed like as soon as they realized that you had a list of things to do, they would slow you down, putting another hurdle in your way. “You have to go there, to such and such a building or line or office. Get this piece of paper. Sign it and bring it back here.”
After a couple of days we realized that the smartest plan would be to leave the house with one thing to do. When that was accomplished, we could proceed to the next item on the list. We never let anyone know that we had a list. There was only one thing that we were going to do that day.
After the week had passed, Paul returned to the “estacion.” (service station) The mechanic said “Una semana mas.” Another week, Paul returned to the soap factory. Were we surprised? Not much, we had already learned the meaning of “mañana.” (tomorrow)
Plans to return to Nova Scotia for a May wedding had to be put aside. We would have a bit more of a delay in Mexico. Letters went out to our parents. We let them know the situation, and sat back for another week enjoying the hospitality shown us in the soap factory.
After the second week had passed, Paul returned to the estacion. The mechanic said “Una semana mas.” He could find no parts for this Volvo. He would have to modify what he could get. There had been one shipment of this model into the Pacific North West. The parts would be difficult to find. Getting this vehicle repaired would turn out to be a challenge throughout the time that we owned it. Waiting for repairs became a theme.
After three weeks, the mechanic said that the car was finally ready. Paul picked it up. The test drive was most satisfying. The return of first and reverse gears certainly made driving the narrow streets easier and safer.
We had arrived in Mexico City April 10th, and planned to be in Brownsville on the 22nd. That would be when the car insurance would expire. We were already well past the 22nd. One of the places we had waited in line was at the AAA office, waiting to renew the insurance. The agent there suggested that the repairs that took 3 weeks to complete were not going to get us back to Canada. So we should stop in Brownsville, TX to get a proper job done. He gave us a letter to pass on the agent there.
For our last meal before leaving our friends, Tony knew a man, a taco vendor. We went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to buy our dinner. We enjoyed the tacos and went back to Cuca’s for the night. Finally, we could sleep in the Volvo again, in our own bed.
The next morning I awoke, burp, feeling a little green around the gills and blue in the face. I went to the washroom. There I said hello to the hole in the floor and saw the tacos again… and again. We had heard what happens when you eat street food in Mexico. It’s called “Turista” or Montezuma’s Revenge. Tony said that he couldn’t be sure of the tacos; they might have been made with cat meat.
While I held my rolling stomach, Paul and Tony exchanged contact information. With hugs and kisses good-bye, “Thank you so much.” and “Muchas gracias.” expressed to everyone, we started driving. We were driving out of Mexico this time. After being in Mexico so long, I now was heading north, and I was taking Montezuma’s Revenge with me.
The road north from Mexico City was twisty and hot as we climbed the mountains outside the city. I was sitting there swaying back and forth, just holding my own. Driving down the switchback highway, with tropical jungle on both sides, I called for an emergency stop. Rounding another curve, we came upon a café. I remembered the one truly international word that I knew, “Toilet!” I was directed out back. Behind the curtain there was a hole in the ground. That is where I left my underwear.
By 4 PM, I needed to rest. We stopped in a small town. Paul went into a small clean hotel and rented a room. I finally felt some relief, as we lay naked beneath the ceiling fan.
Soon, Paul said that he was hungry. The last thing that I wanted was food. There was a train station across the street with a café. I decided to go with him anyway. We crossed the street and entered. There was no one there except one woman who seemed to work there standing in the corner. We saw a small table and seated ourselves.
The woman approached to take our order. Paul ordered the “especial del dia,” (special of the day) “chuletas de puerco.” (pork chops) When she looked at me, I just held my stomach and said “Turista.” She nodded. A few minutes later she returned with a cup of steaming Manzanilla tea. I sat there sniffing the tea. It had that wonderful fragrance of feeling better. I sipped the tea, allowing it to slowly fill my queasy stomach. The warmth eased my body and my mind relaxed. Suddenly there was a gurgle. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I got up to go the restroom; it was through those doors and to the left. As I walked through the doors it happened. I turned into a fire hose, as the cup of warm Manzanilla tea spewed from my mouth, projecting 15 feet across the room. The room was dim and empty. This was only between me, the walls, the floor, Paul and the kind Mexican woman. I couldn’t stop as I rushed into the restroom.
When I returned, I was so embarrassed. The kind senora waved away my concern, as she wiped up the tea. It was only tea, after all. That was the only thing that I had eaten since the tacos. The floor was tile; the mess was “No problemo.”
The next day, I felt a little better, and we bravely drove north.
We crossed the border back into the U. S. at Brownsville. We had the letter to the AAA agent in Brownsville, so we asked the border guard to show us where the office was. It was right there at the border; they were closed. Paul asked the customs agent who he might suggest for the repair. He gave us the name of a shop. He said that since it was Saturday, they would be closed as well. Paul figured that the Mexicans had put banana peels into the transmission, it had worked that poorly. We hoped for better results stateside.
More waiting, more delay. I was still reeling from the “Turista.” Searching for a cooler breeze, we headed for the beach. We travelled to Port Isabel for the week end. Here I could lie quietly in the back of the Volvo, with the cooling sea breeze blowing across my body, taking the aches away with each gust.
Monday morning, the AAA office would be open. We spoke with the agent there, and he suggested the same service station for the repairs. We drove up to the service station. It had a familiar red star that said “Texaco.” The mechanic looked at the car, “I ain’t never seen a car like this before.” he said. Paul groaned. The mechanic opened the hood, looked at the transmission, stuck his head out from under the hood and said, “Three days to get the parts.” He said as soon as the parts came that they would be able to repair the Volvo.
Smiles spread across our faces, we anticipated being able to continue our trip. It was now May 5th. It was definitely too late to plan a May wedding. Oh well, how about August???
We headed back to the beach at Port Isabel. We found a place by the side of the road that would be our home while we waited again. Port Isabel is where I tasted the foulest tasting water that I have ever experienced. It even ruined the coffee.
For leisure activity, and to kill time, Paul rented a Surfboard. The waves were rolling in with just enough curl to move a surf board. It looked like the perfect site for a beginner to learn. He caught his 3rd wave. When he wiped out the board flew up into the air over his head. When it came down it narrowly missed his head and cut his hand. That was the end of his surfing career. I was sitting on the beach watching. When I saw the board go flying, and nearly strike down the man I was going to marry, I decided that I wouldn't be surfing there either.
The parts finally arrived at the service station. We dropped off the car and moved into an air conditioned cottage while it was getting put in shape for the long haul across the south and up the eastern seaboard, destination Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
An August wedding it was. Now, what would be our next adventure?