We were warned: Don’t drive from San Miguel de Allende to Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s about an 8-hour drive and, after a Facebook post from an American couple that were robbed by armed banditos, along with a host of others who were stopped on the freeway for what they thought was a traffic accident, friends and anyone who overheard our plans, urged us to take a bus or a plane. “You’ll lose your money and cell phones. Who knows? You may lose your life!”
But my husband is a thrifty and stubborn guy who insisted on driving. I, on the other hand, ran to the American Express office to see how much it would cost to take any means of transportation other than a car. I was out of luck. It was the week of Easter, and Mexicans take Semana Santa more seriously than any other holiday. The buses were booked, and the $500 fare to Mexico City and then on to Oaxaca was more than we’d paid to fly from Chicago to Mexico.
Okay. Then I’d play it smart and hide my passport, credit card and most of my money under the rug in the front seat. In case of a stickup, I put an expired Visa card and a few pesos into a cheap wallet that my husband bought at the artisans’ market. If one of the banditos stuck a gun in my face, I’d hand over the wallet and be done with it. I wasn’t some dumb, innocent American.
Well, we never had a moment’s trouble—no trouble, that is, until we reached the outskirts of Puebla where we’d planned to spend the night. That way, we could break up the trip into two four-hour stints.
We got lost. Good and lost. Goggle Maps and all of the printed maps my husband had printed and taped together read like hieroglphics. We drove around the same roundabout at least four times—each time getting dizzier and more frustrated. (I was the navigator. Guess who got the blame? Yep, it was all my fault. Didn’t I know how to read maps? Hadn’t I reviewed the directions the night before?)
After a good 45 minutes of wasted time, I convinced my husband to pull into a Pemex station. (Pemex has a corner on Mexican gas stations. Either you buy your gas at Pemex or you don’t drive.) By this time, our marriage was on the line. I pushed buttons left and right (“I told you we shouldn’t drive!”) and my husband responded in kind: (“I’m doing all the work while you sit back and do nothing!”) At that moment, I wanted to call off our marriage of almost 40 years.
Then Patricia (Patty) appeared. She ran a tienda in the Pemex station and sold automotive stuff.
She could feel our frustration before we rolled down the car window. “Where do you want to go?”
I was about to cry. “Casa Reyna.”
I tried to explain. “We drove up that winding road but turned around because we were certain we were on our way out of town.” (By the way, this was all in Spanish.)
“You weren’t going out of town. You were going in the right direction.”
My husband and I looked at each other. Should we give it one more shot or suffer our losses and stay in the shabby hotel across the road?
“Maybe when the cab driver returns to his taxi, he can give you better directions.”
We waited. No cab driver. “Where is he?”
“I think he’s in the banjo.”
I don’t know how long we stood around. I think we pulled out our maps and shook our heads in frustration.
“Why don’t I drive you?”
Was she kidding?
“You,” she said pointing to me, “can ride in my car, and he can follow us in the rental car.”
Maybe Christ had risen from the dead.
“No es possible. Que amable!” My Spanish was paying off.
Without further adieu, I hopped into Patty’s front seat, and Alan (“Call me Alonso”) flew into our white Nissan Mini, turned the car around and, just like that, we took off with our trusted leader.
In my best Spanish, our savior and I carried on a conversation as if we’d been friends for life.
“Is there some way we can repay you? Money? Lunch? Anything?
“No. All I can hope is that when I’m lost in some strange city, someone will help me find my way.”
Any time, Patty, any time.