Monday, March 01, 2010

Saltillo to Cuatro Ciénegas

The drive toward Saltillo was stunning, a broad wheat-coloured ribbon laid out straight ahead of us on the brown plain, gentle ripples of mountains in the faraway, goatherds and their flocks by the roadside, horses lost in the joshua trees, tumbleweeds (yes, actual tumbleweeds! meep meep) clinging to the barbed-wire fence along the road. Then the mountains neared and the road just disappeared into them, through a pass that is positively invisible until you're in it. How people on foot or on horseback ever survived this parched unfriendly environment is a mystery to me.

We spent the afternoon doing the familiar mecanico hustle. When we got into Saltillo we stopped at a place that sold car products to ask about where to get the oil changed and if they knew of an electrical mechanic. the man came outside and looked at the car, he thought hard and asked a few friends and customers. He sent a teenager around the corner to see if the neighbourhood mechanic could do the oil change. Sure, no problem. We waited on the street and then helped push a dead pickup out of the slot to take our turn. We sent the kids off to the park after they tired of laughing at the boobie shots in the paper. After the van was drained we went back to the first place to buy the oil. The oil was way too black for not even 3000k, the mechanic thought bad oil was responsible for our troubles. Please let it be. After we settled up, the mechanic's brother jumped in the van to take us on to the electrical mechanic. A little waiting around then a voltage check to ensure that everything was okay. It was. Wil's convinced it's the glow plugs, parts that we won't be able to find until we're in Texas.

We found a place to sleep, the back lot of a hotel. Alice was so sure our friends were going to find us, she sat by the driveway waiting. Henri and Frances kicked the soccer ball around. Sure enough, when we woke up Felix and Aube appeared. It looks like we'll be together for the next couple of days, up to Cuatrociénegas, a desert national park to hang out for a couple of days before the marathon drive home. Same starting problem this morning but a shot of ether shortened the process considerably. A little internet research revealed that the only big town we have to go through on the way to Cuatrociénegas, Monclova, is riddled with police corruption and that, with foreign plates, we can pretty much expect to be stopped for some road infraction and be asked to pay a "fine". Getting hit up more than once on the way through is not unheard of. The last thing we want to do is leave Mexico with a bitter taste in our mouth. We're going to try to avoid the town if we can but the only road around it doesn't look that promising. We decided to go convoy style, driving behind our friends whose van is a little slower than ours. It was strange following -- not being the navigator -- just watching the scenery and keeping an eye on their back.

The mountains today couldn't be sharper, raw bald faces, sheets of layered rock stuck into the earth on their side, the crests look like the tops of Sahara sand dunes blowing in the wind, but the lip here isn't sand but a red rocky ridge. This is real desert — abandoned adobe houses, the desert floor awash in a million tiny white blooms, patches of yellow-green moss-like flowers. So many images stuck in my brain: a brown vaquero, mustache and cowboy hat, galloping on his tan mare beside the road; joshua trees, a crazy cross between a yucca and a palm tree, with flowers like giant yellow pineapples pushing up above the foliage; agave, an unfriendly version of aloe, ten feet across, flower stalks towering above the scrub like giant asparagus, or, once they've bloomed, like stretched out bonsai; fencing of barbed wire anchored in scrub branches that twist and bend, the closest real tree a thousand miles away; dry creek beds (the word arroyo pops into my head) the pink soil taking on shapes only water can make; walled-in panteons (cemeteries) set down on the desert, white gravestones ablaze with bouquets of cellophane-wrapped fluorescent plastic flowers; hunchback cows grazing in among the cactus; an abandoned white and red restaurant, a line of dark vultures clutching the eaves.

We stopped where the alternative road pulled off the 40. We asked a few men for advice. We think that with foreign plates we may find trouble with the police in Monclova, we said. Cierto was the answer, not the one we were hoping for. Is this other road any good? He looked the vans up and down and said "I think you can do it." Again, not the answer we were looking for. We tried anyway, a couple of hundred feet of perfect pavement followed by a chalky rutted washed-out road. And this was meant to be the better section. About face. I guess we were going to brave the Monclova police. We were tense. We entered Castaños, the town before Monclova and there, by the side of the road, was a cop lying in wait in his pickup. We couldn't have been going slower, no traffic violations to be cited, but he couldn't have been watching us more carefully. We passed him and sure enough he pulled in behind us and then beside us and then moved on to the side of Felix's van and signalled him to pull over. We pulled up behind. He looked at Felix's van and then ours and was asking why their van didn't have a front plate while ours did. I ran up to the guy and explained that ours was a fakey we'd made in Abercorn, that in Quebec we didn't need one and then I invited him to come and look ours over. He wasn't happy about it, certainly not the courteous, polite treatment we've come to expect from the police and the military in Mexico, but he waved us on. Monclova came and went. Phew! An ugly steel town that, with its reputation for dirty cops, will probably never experience the economic advantages of being on a good route through the northern highlands.

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