On the highway through Mexico: rogue tollbooths, smiling soldiers, and kisses.
Music Sin Fronteras is on vacation until Dec.6 when we will start our broadcast again. We are now in San Diego, after driving 1500 miles through Mexico from Chapala in Jalisco State to San Diego. Flying was not an option because Chula the studio dog came with us and at 90 pounds, she can’t fly in coach and we refuse to put her in a cargo hold. Besides this gives me a car in LA to go to clubs and report on the music scene there again.
When people say “you drove through Mexico? Isn’t that dangerous?” I have to smile. No, it is not. There are adventures to be had, some planned and some not planned, and of course, common sense is required, the same as in the US or Canada. The one difference is that sometimes the 4-lane divided highways are reduced to two-lane roads with breakdown lanes that busses and trucks treat like 4-lane roads, with busses passing a slow truck their right while a speeding truck comes headlong at them on the left. The three vehicles solve the problem by turning the breakdown lanes into passing lanes as they squeeze by each other. Scary the first time you see it, but becomes routine after a while.
Part of the reason it is safe and relatively fast to drive in Mexico is the toll-based highway system, or couta. The couta roads are built to US standards, have a maximum speed limit of 110 km (about 65 mph), and offer free insurance in case you are in an accident. They are also the home of the Green Angels, a Federally financed AAA-type service delivered through an army of green-painted pickup trucks that can fix flats, charge batteries, and help with roadside problems. And of course, since they re toll roads, they have toll booths some of which are rouge and some of which are rogue-rogue — but more of that later.
Tolls range from $3 to $9 and can be paid in either pesos or dollars, but pesos ae fastest and easiest. The toll booths are often surrounded by taco stands, tiendas ( shops), and gas stations. There are usually legions of trucks parked on the roadside, the drivers resting after going through the toll booths. Chula and I were spending about $$45 a day on tolls, handing the money into the toll takers in the modern steel and glass structures, which also sported electronic toll collection for trucks and buses and some cars with transponders.
Very orderly and efficient. However, as with all things in Mexico, there are “variations”. When the Federal government built the toll roads they bypassed villages, which made sense because no homes had to be destroyed and no stop signs are needed to slow traffic through a pueblo. But the bypass often robbed the villages of lucrative market traffic and subject them tolls, too. The villages ask for a share of the tolls, the Federal government said “no”, so the villagers take over the toll booths three or four days a week and collect the money for themselves.
The Feds usually ignore the highjacking because it is a very small amount of money, the local toll booth personnel live in the village and are sympathetic, plus the Feds don’t want to get into a public fight with the Campesinos they are supposed to represent. From the drivers’ point of view, it is great. The villages put up a banner, stand out by the road waving signs and playing music, and generally having a party. They ask you to put money into a bucket, but usually don’t care how much or suggest an amount about half the usual toll. And they are happy to pose for photos and selfies.
The rogue-rogue toll booths are even more interesting. The four-lane toll roads often peter out into two-lane roads that go through villages. At these points, villagers set out barrels to squeeze traffic into one narrow lane, the rest of the road being blocked by a tractor-trailer or farm machinery. When you pull up to a stop indicated by a plastic barrel, you are surrounded by laughing, dancing, high school students playing music on iPhone speakers and shaking rattles. In my case, an attractive teen couple with big smiles and bright eyes held a plastic bowl by the window. I could see that it only had coins in it and I had a 20 peso note handy so I put it in the bowl. That elicited cheers, rattle shaking, and big grins all around.
I asked the couple what the money was for in my bad Spanish and the girl told me in her good Spanglish that is was for the futbol playfield at her school. That sounded so good I gave them another 20 pesos. More cheers, rattle shaking and smiles – and then the girl put her head into my window and gave me a big kiss. I almost gave her all of my money.
There were many encounters like that: the fierce-looking soldier with the machine gun at a checkpoint who broke into a smile and asked me if I knew his aunt and uncle in San Diego when I told him where I was going; the desk clerk in Hermosillo who left his post to walk across the busy 4-lane Avenida to the parking garage to help me with Chula and my bags; the maids in Mazatlan who chased after me because I left Chula’s water bowl in the room, among others.
So I am now in LA, booking dates to see and review acts and setting up our show for Friday. We will be here through mid-January and will see you online every week.
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