Cancun – Villahermosa
You always expect the unexpected, but sometimes, regardless of your preparation, you get absolutely blindsided. Something happens by no fault of your own but the impact is irreversible and changes your path in an unforeseen and unwelcomed manner. There is nothing you can do, the change is irreconcilable and all you can do it bury your apprehensions, emotions and resentments and push forward, making the best of what you have.
Returning to Mexico from my two weeks abroad I had no idea I was walking directly into the lion’s den. I land with $13 in my pocket, non-exchangeable currency at that. I head straight to the ATM. Walk up, slide my card in, enter the pin, no luck, the bank cannot approve the transaction. I call my bank, a three-dollar a minute endeavor but grateful I can at least place the call. Forty dollars of elevator music later the representative informs me that while I was gone, another representative, the one who I had spoken to the day I left, had accidentally pulled up the wrong account and canceled my debit card. Reading from her US Bank script she apologizes for any inconvenience. I struggle to discern what this means. Can the card be reinstated? Can they wire me money? Can I access my account? Do they have branches in Mexico? “No” she replies curtly. We can send you another card that will arrive in 2 business days, its Friday. Stammered I ask her to repeat, she does, again offering her apologies. “Ah, ok” I get out, “well, I mean, I have it right here in my hand, so can you re-open it”? “O, I’m sorry” she says, “It’s an irreversible process.”
I’m half waiting for the Boiling Point host to walk out from behind the ATM machine but I know this is real. I’m four to five thousand miles from home, in a foreign country, with no money and I’m being told there is absolutely nothing that can be done for four days. I have no mailbox, no money for food of shelter, nothing at all, and I’m being told that’s just tough luck. She confirms this, we end the call. I stand motionless, cold, and furious.
The hours that ensue are frantic, nervous, my stomach tied in knots and beads of sweat dot my forehead. I’m almost four thousand miles from home with no way to access money and zero dollars in my pocket. I zig-zag all over Cancun, stop at every bank, every Walmart, every hostel. Finally, after many, many hours of tireless searching, pleading in broken Spanish, and nearly giving up, I find someone who is willing to charge my credit card and give me cash for a fee. I do it; I take every last cent from my limit. $734, how do I get home?
I spend the next day planning in Playa Del Carmen. It’s a soggy day, raining and grey. I plan to ride direct a route as possible, across the Yucatan then up the Gulf coast, getting out of Mexico as soon as possible. Driving in Mexico is more costly than in America, as are accommodations, in the US I can camp, couchsurf, stay with friends, there are no tolls, and once out of Texas, I can stop at my bank in person to withdraw funds. This strategy is not without risk. The gulf corridor in Mexico is one of the most heavily trafficked by drug cartels. The border towns are rife with gun battles, grenade attacks, kidnapping, carjacking and executions. The state of Tamaulipas is amongst the most dangerous in all of Mexico. Yet, any other route would leave me vulnerable to being permanently stranded in still very dangerous, if marginally less so, areas of northern of northern Mexico with no recourse.
6am. The alarm buzzes, boots go on, helmet strapped. The sun rises and it drizzles lazily. A wet start, not the best, but climates are local I reason, surely once I get off the coast it will clear up. Nope. It drizzles for the first 10 minutes, and then it starts to rain, then pour. The rain persists for a good two hours, its dark and cold. Hour three through six pass with intermittent storms but wet pavement never abates, I have to constantly be on my game, testing grip and braking, staying clear of cars and puddles, looking for oil slicks and debris.
After six hours across the Yucatan I cross into the state of Tabasco, nothing spicy or interesting about it, just dirty, hot, and polluted. The rain ceases only to be replaced by suffocating pollution emanating from Villahermosa, the capital city. A thick, steamy, opaque blanket of filth clings to ground shrouding the mountains, a hazy dome blots out the sun, and the air is heavy, putrid, and pungent. My lungs burn with each breath, it’s metallic yet sulfuric.
As I approach the city, two lanes become four; vegetation gives way to decaying structures and stained billboards. The cement highway divider is crumbling and graffiti laden, its central screen tattered and flapping in the wind like a wartime flag, its metal girders bent and fractured. I feel like I’m driving into a warzone. My attention heightens. While I look out and around the sky is planning its own offensive above me. As if in an instant the sky is painted black. Lightning streaks across the horizon, I can feel the electricity pulse through the air. The thunder is defining and the sky opens up. The rain is torrential. Five inches of standing water immediately form on the highway, raindrops hit like bullets, trucks hurl ten foot high waves into my chest and side, the wind howls in every direction contorting my body, the noise of water pelting my helmet is defining. I can barely see, the water washing past my facemask, I try to pull off and stop, it feels even less safe, a sitting duck to the misjudgment of moving cars and trucks. I’m only 5 miles from my hotel. I go for it, slowly, determinately, and finally, I arrive.
I sit on the edge of my white hotel room bed. I’m soaking wet. Outside, it’s still raining, dank and depressing. The sky is grey, the air heavy. I pace about, a glowing orb of mud and dirt, I’m still in my neon yellow rain suit looking for a place to hang them to dry. My body is thoroughly moist and my limbs swimming pool wet. A thick, brown liquid oozes from my boots, an eerie puddle grows on the floor beneath me. I’m cold, shivering, I pull my helmet off, and I can see again, my hair is matted and full of pebbles and dirt. I’ve been wet for some time now, my feet pruned down two sizes and I may need independent verification to confirm that these hands are indeed mine, so swollen and white from the absorption of water. Villahermosa, 880km from where I began this wet morning, 1,450km from the nearest U.S. border, 3,380km from home on the most direct route. I’m 1000km from where I intended to be today, in north eastern Belize en route to Guatemala. I pay for the room, $594 left.
Where to go from here?
My resources are limited, the options confined by circumstance. I’m hungry; I’ve not eaten all day. I can’t spend more than a few dollars, I’m still drenched. The town is not friendly, it’s dirty and meek. As I peer out my window, all shops are closed, it’s Sunday, and just a few belligerent old drunks with capped teeth and crooked eyes stagger the sidewalks looking for money and food. I think I’ll skip dinner. I’m glad I’m in early and have a safe room. Today was a warm up. The next few days will be the real trial. Villahermosa- Tampico-US- on the gulf coast is one of the most turbulent regions in Mexico. I don’t yet know the best route of travel; I know they will all be dangerous. Drug wars, carjacking, executions, grenade attacks are all a regular occurrence. From where I sit though, I have no other options. Any other corridor would take an additional two to three days; I don’t have the cash for it. And so, before I sleep, research will be my tool, public outreach my strategy, emails and forum posts my method. I will scour the Internet for advice and guidance, but no matter what I choose, my life will be at risk, here’s to customer service.