Solo Traveler: Held Up In Mexico

Travelers dance around their combi during the ‘hold-up’ for Benito Juarez’ birthday. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Solo Traveler: Held up in Mexico

In 2012, I decided to rehydrate my desiccated high school Spanish with a six-month swim in a Mexican lake. San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, was the perfect choice as there were few English speakers living there to distract me.

I found a teacher and some other Americans whose language skills were similar to mine. We met twice a week for a couple of hours at my casita. Once in a while we would walk to the market or a nearby cantina for lunch. Nothing like learning a foreign language over drinks in a bar!

Three months into the trip, my friend Derek came to visit for two weeks. One day we decided to go to the ruins of Toniná. It is only about 50 miles from San Cristóbal on the map, but the road to it, like many in New Mexico, snakes though mountains and little villages. It usually takes two hours to get there.

In order to slow traffic, the villages have installed topes, crude log-sized speed bumps that appear without warning and can destroy axles. There were almost always auto-repair shops within a few yards of the topes.

Our combi driver sped along, slowing down just enough to hop over each bump. Derek noted that he slowed a lot for some, and barely for others, he was that intimate with the road.

A few miles from the town of Ocosingo, in a hot humid valley, we found ourselves mired in a traffic jam. Very few cars were coming from the opposite direction so I assumed a wreck was the cause.

Other combi drivers in the line jumped out, conferred with each other, and then began a co-operative leapfrog down the line. When the road straightened out, combis up ahead would pull back slightly and ones from behind zoomed up and pulled in. In this fashion we got perhaps 50 cars ahead of where we started. The line seemed to stretch to infinity, but after a couple of hours we came upon the “wreck.”

A small village had decided to honor Benito Juarez’ birthday with a hold-up. Men from the town had made crude tools for the event. Eight-foot lengths of wooden 2x4s on wheels, with nails sticking up, were rolled out in front of cars. One man held the rope for the board while another collected money from the drivers.

The place they chose to run the operation was on the edge of their village. Hills rose up on both sides. A crowd of men and teenaged boys were lounging around on lawn chairs and blankets, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Salsa music blasted from several speakers.

A chubby fellow with a big grin gave our driver an information sheet about Benito Juarez, which I translated for Derek. The paper was full of praise for that President who returned land to the indigenous people. It went on to describe how the federal government today is doing its best to take it back.

Our driver joked around with the extortionists, paid the requested price of 30 pesos (about $2), and we zoomed on our way. I asked the driver what they intended to do with all that money. Why have a big birthday party, of course!

Many hours later, in the dark, on a different combi, we returned to San Cristóbal. We were exhausted from climbing Mexico’s highest pyramids at Toniná. While Derek appeared to take a nap, I visited with the lady next to me. It was the first time I could simply chat with someone without constantly translating my English thoughts into Spanish. The immersion worked. I had finally learned to swim.

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website:

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