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Highway To Mexico: The Latin Journey Of a Lifetime

Chi and I are married now, with kids, but this was our first trip out of the country together after we met. We were standing in a trash-strewn patch of weeds beside the 180 Libre, the free federal highway that runs east-west through the Yucatan, waiting for a bus back to Valladolid that may or may not have been coming. This was after the $20-a-night room in Merida with the horror-movie lighting that I’d tried to convince her was charming, but before the amusingly over designed suite in the boutique hotel in Playadel Carmenwith the bathtub in the middle of the bedroom. I’d already survived about of severe gastrointepalmilla-pool-view-mexicostinal distress while riding in a colectivo in the countryside, but she hadn’t yet had the bike accident en route to the cenote in which she scraped most of the skin off her knee.

We’d kissed among the ruins of Uxmal, but not yet danced on the beach in Tulum. Earlier that day, we’d visited Chichen Itza, the biggest and most famous Mayan site in the Yucatan. We’d wilted in the heat while wandering among the throngs of tourists, trotting dutifully from the Observatory to the Group of a Thousand Columns to the Great Ballcourt, taking the tiniest of sips from our water bottles, so they would last. Afterward, we’d taken a taxi to the Balankanche Caves, a few miles down the highway, where we wiped the sweat from our eyes while marveling at the Mayan pottery clustered around a giant stalagmite in the main cavern. We were the last tour group of the day. After we came blinking into the afternoon light, all the other visitors clambered back onto their great refrigerated tour buses while we walked across the highway to wait for the second- class bus to town.

The bus stop was really just an area where the vegetation grew less high. There was no sign. In theory, the bus came every hour and one more would come that day, but who knew if this was really true. We watched from across the road as the Balankanche caretaker locked the front gate to the caves and drove away. Every minute or two a tractor-trailer would barrel past at 60 miles per hour, blaring its horn at Chi. I was still getting to know her, and I was relieved that she seemed so dauntless. Half an hour went by. The sun was getting low. I wondered how long it would take us to walk along the highway to the Chichen Itza parking lot, and whether we would find a taxi there. Then our savior pulled up in a battered red Nissan Sentra, though my wife remembers it as an ancient VW Bug, which does make a better story.

Balankanche Caves
Balankanche Caves

We agree, however, on what we found when we climbed inside: leopard-print upholstery and a family of five. Sitting beside us in the backseat were two radiant little girls, maybe five and seven, their eyes as big as moons. An even littler girl sat on her mom’s lap in the front seat, twisting around to gaze at us as her dad got back behind the wheel. We erupted in a chorus of graciases, to which he replied with a casual de nada as he pulled back onto the 180 Libre. I felt certain that we were not the first stranded Americans he had rescued. The car sailed past dense, moist forests, cramped cemeteries tightly packed with crypts, and little stucco villages, each with a bodega splashed with Coca-Cola graphics. In my bad Spanish, I tried to make small talk with the driver. Had he been to the States?

Arizona, he told me, working construction. He’d come back after a few years because he liked Valladolid better. I could see him grinning in the rear view, which was hung with swaying rosary beads. Between attempts at conversation, we settled into silences that I can only describe as companionable. It felt very warm to be in that crowded, tiny car with that family. The pretty little girls kept staring, and I quickly realized they were much more interested in Chi, who is Korean, than in me. “Can you tell her how beautiful her daughters are?” Chi asked. Sus hijas son…hermosas, I told the mom, who immediately said, “Thank you” in English. I saw the girls in the backseat look away for a moment like they were bashful, and then right away turn back and start looking again.

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza

Soon we were in Valladolid’s grungy outskirts, and then among the low, boxy, yellow-and-coral colonial buildings of the city center. The driver parked outside the Mercado Municipal, and we clambered out of the car and said good-bye to the family. I asked the man if I could pay him something, even though I knew he would say no, which he did with an extravagant wave of a hand. Then he turned to greet some friends who were parked nearby, guys with pickups full of construction equipment. Others passed in the street, waving and saying hola to him. He seemed like he was the mayor. We left the family and strolled back to our hotel, feeling lifted up by the experience and happy to have embarked on this journey together. I’ve since forgotten the man’s name, but whenever I think about Mexico—and Mexicans—I remember his kindness.

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