“I may not make it out of this.” I think to myself.
I’m hurtling down a dry, broken road in back of an SUV, an hour outside of Mexico City with two Mexican men that I met one hour previously. My traveling partner and I are in back, and we have no idea where we are or where we are going. Also, I have no way of contacting anyone since my phone does not work in Mexico and I don’t know where I am anyway. It suddenly occurs to me that I might not make it out of this alive.
Let me back up: my travel partner and I planned a day to see Teotihuacan ruins. Let’s call her The Linguist, since even though she is powerfully young she is already fluent in German, Spanish and English, as well as knowing some Polish and who-knows-what-else. Ling has been invaluable in this trip through the heart of Mexico. My contribution to the team is pretty much just being gringo baggage and a false sense of security from not traveling alone.
Ling met one of these guys (let’s call him Chef) last time she was in Playa Del Carmen, a year ago. The other guy (we’ll call him Rusk) neither of us had met before, but he was friends with Chef and was a large, gregarious local who “worked for the government”. Not sure what that means…
So, we met these guys at the ruins, and instead of going back to Mexico City with the family we were staying with, Ling said “hey, these guys wanna go get something to eat, wanna go with them?”. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
So we piled into their SUV. However, instead of food they bought us each a large (liter?) serving of a local alcoholic beverage. The conversation leading to that was basically: “oh, you’ve never tried Pulque? It is nectar of the gods, lets go get you some.” (Side note: while the Pozol drink didn’t turn out so good, pulque turned out to be quite decent. Kind of like a stronger (and fruitier) version of Kombucha.) However, they didn’t buy any for themselves. Hmmm.
Now the plan seemed to be “Let’s show you a really neat local church”. The original plan of “let’s go get something to eat” seemed to be fading into the distance.
I think I’m a pretty laid-back person. I can roll with the changes and usually just enjoy whatever comes next. However, the plans seemed to be evolving rapidly as the SUV hurtled on through an area one hour outside of Mexico City called Texcoco.
Now the plan evolved again: “Let’s get some beers. And maybe some tequila”.
And that’s when I first realized I might not make it out of this.
To be fair, Chef and Rusk were super friendly; they didn’t *seem* like bad news, but I also think I’m pretty terrible at reading people and my default position on meeting new people is “everyone is awesome, can’t wait to get to know you and your specific awesomeness.” This makes for a good approach usually, but in a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language and has no means of contacting the outside world, it suddenly seemed more than foolish, it seemed downright dangerous.
Ling finished her Pulque and the three of them lit up cigarettes. I looked out at the foreign landscape around us and wondered what I could do to improve out situation. I couldn’t just blurt out my fears to Ling, the guys knew English and could hear. I couldn’t text her because my phone didn’t work. I couldn’t contact anyone to let them know where I was.
Worst case scenarios started to play out in my head. Trapped in an abandoned church. At gunpoint. Bad things would happen to me. Worse things to Ling. The more I thought of it, the less chance for a happy outcome I could see. Why were these guys driving us all over town, buying us drinks, using up all their gas and their time? What was their motivation?
Further note: most of Mexico is desperately poor. I have no idea if these guys are in similar straights and just make their living by finding dumb tourists and taking what they want. The worst case scenarios start playing more rapidly. “Work for the government”? What does that really mean?
Reality check: Ling knew Chef from last year when she want to Playa. Okay, sure, but how well could she get to know him? She was in school and he worked locally and I have to assume she got to know just as many people in her short time as I have during my time here. Which is to say: A LOT. So perhaps Chef was a best an acquaintance. So does she really know him? Unlikely.
More worst case scenarios. Held for ransom. Blackmail. Disappeared and put into some kind of slave labor.
As I was thinking all this through, we pulled into a side street and Suddenly Chef was introducing us to his father. We went inside a lovely house that was immaculately clean and decorated on the inside. We met his mother. They were both effusively welcoming. Pleasantries were exchanged, then after less than 10 minutes we hit the road again. Chef’s parents made it clear that if we should ever come back we need dto treat their house as our house and stay there. Now two new feelings washed over me: relief, and shame at my suspicious thoughts against these guys who just wanted to hang out with us and have a good time.
You would think I would have learned my lesson back in Medford. Perhaps I’m not nearly as open and easy going as I thought. These guys turned out to be just fantastic. We had lunch at a local restaurant called “House of the Crazy Uncle” (pictured below). We had an amazing array of different quesadillas (two kinds of mushrooms, potato and cheese, some kind of chorizo, some other stuff I can’t remember). Chef and I split the remains of a bottle of tequila he took from his parent’s house, with me using a glass and Chef just pouring it straight back into his open mouth, true Mexican style.
Oh, and we did finally make the trip to the church. Rusk explained this was the 2nd oldest church on the continent. It had 500 year-old olive trees, and more religious symbolism than he could explain. Sadly it wasn’t open, he explained the interior contained many references and symbolism to things like the Knights Templar and even potentially the Illuminati. Fun.
In the end, they drove us all the way back to Mexico City, braving horrible traffic and asking around 5 times or directions because we had no idea how to describe how to find out house. Also, I didn’t mention but earlier I began to feel that my luck with Mexican food was at and end. I had contracted the Mexican Bowel Shaker. Montezuma’s Revenge. The Colon Blow (okay, enough, you get the point). After the first hour of traffic and with my insides churning so much I was basically a time bomb waiting to go off, they found a Starbucks for me where my insides did things I’m not proud of and will never speak of again. Chef waiting for me in the store to ensure I was okay and could find my way back to the car.
Like I said: these guys are fantastic. And pretty much everyone I have met in Mexico is similarly fantastic. I’ll have to write up my experience with the host family in Mexico City as further proof.
All this leads me to this: traveling is trust. You have to exercise the skill of giving up control, giving up certainty, and trusting people. This comes in small ways such as trusting a taxi driver will get you through a city you don’t know. It comes in major ways such as trusting yourself to people you don’t know. It comes in the form of traveling to a new city to stay with people you’ve never met. Every time I have opened myself up to trust, I have been rewarded by amazing examples of selflessness and beautiful humanity.
Traveling is not just a diversion or a distraction. Traveling is building the skill of trusting and letting go of control. This is a necessary and valuable part of being human. I can’t recommend this enough. Go trust someone you have no reason to trust today and see what you get back.