Ajijic to LA by car: rogue tollbooths, smiling soldiers and a window kiss
Patrick O’Heffernan (Ajijic).- When I tell people I drove through Mexico to Los Angeles via San Diego just with my dog, some ask me, “Isn’t that dangerous?» I have to smile. No, it is not. There are adventures to be had, some planned ad some not, and common sense is required, the same as in the US or Canada.
There are differences, of course, besides the language and a lack of McDonald’s (but not Subways) and in many places traffic laws are…guidelines. Part of the reason it is safe and relatively fast to drive in Mexico is the toll-based highway system, or couta. The couta roads are built to US standards, offer free insurance and are also the home of the Green Angels, a Federal AAA-type service delivered through an army of green-painted pickup trucks that can fix flats, charge batteries, and help with roadside problems. And of course, since these are toll roads, there are toll booths, some of which are rouge and some of which are rogue-rogue.
The regular toll booths are very orderly and efficient – drive up, pay the posted amount and go through. However, as with all things in Mexico, there are “variations”. When the Federal government built the toll roads, they bypassed villages which often robbed the villages of lucrative market traffic. The villages have asked for a share of the tolls, the Federal government has said “no”, so the villagers often take over the toll booths and collect the money for themselves.
The Feds usually ignore the highjacking because it is a small amount of money and the Feds don’t want to get into a public fight with the campesinos they are supposed to represent. From the drivers’ point of view, it is great. The villages put up a banner, stand out by the road waving signs and play music. They ask you to put money into a bucket, but usually don’t care how much or suggest an amount about half the usual toll. And they are happy to pose for photos and selfies.
The rogue-rogue toll booths are even more interesting. The four-lane toll roads sometimes peter out into two-lane roads that go through villages where villagers set out barrels to squeeze traffic into one narrow lane. When I pulled up to a stop indicated by a plastic barrel at a rouge-rouge booth I was surrounded by laughing, dancing, high school students playing music on iPhone speakers and shaking rattles. An attractive teen couple with big smiles held a plastic bowl by the window, which I could see that it only had coins in it. I had a 20 peso note handy so I put it in the bowl. That elicited cheers, rattle shaking, and big grins all around.
I asked the couple what the money was for in my bad Spanish and the girl told me in her good Spanglish that is was for the futbol playfield at her school. That sounded great so I gave them another 20 pesos. More cheers, rattle shaking and smiles – and then the girl put her head into my car window and gave me a big kiss. I almost gave her all of my money.
There were many encounters like that: the fierce-looking soldier with the machine gun at a checkpoint who broke into a smile and asked me if I knew his aunt and uncle in San Diego when I told him where I was going; the desk clerk in Hermosillo who left his post to walk across the busy 4-lane street to the parking garage to help me with my dog Chula and our bags; the maids in Mazatlán who chased after me because I left Chula’s water bowl in the room, among others.
Mexico is a country of ¿puedo ayudarte? – can I help you?- Sure, there are bad people and bad things can happen, as they can and do NOB. But the spirit of helpfulness and joy far exceeds anything you encounter even in friendly California or British Columbia. After all, when was the last time you got kissed at a toll booth?
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