Mexico Life
The underrated Toyota Camry. The underrated Toyota Camry.

On the road: lessons learned from cannonball runs through Mexico

Drivers needn't worry: we have 130 million friends in Mexico and half of them are auto mechanics

Over a span of a decade and a half after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, a high school classmate and I borrowed another schoolmate’s car in Prague and crisscrossed eastern Europe, crowning that series of epic summers with a moonshot to Syria. Yes, that Syria.

The old coot is still traveling with me and is now 77. I am 76. We’re not ready for Golden Pond yet but maybe Copper Pond or Silver Pond.

These days we are retired and restless and bored and unbalanced enough to have driven three different Toyota Camrys, one Corolla and one GEO (Corolla) to my home in Guatemala. (1) Brownsville, Texas, to Guatemala in a 1988 Camry wagon; (2) Laredo TX to Guatemala in a 1993 Camry CE (Toyota’s somewhat rare and much underrated base model); (3) San Diego to Guatemala via Baja in a 2000 Camry CE; (4) San Diego to Guatemala in a 1993 GEO; and (5) Piedras Negras to Guatemala in a 1996 Corolla acquired from a Saudi Arabian SEAL, leaving the very evening of the day I took the keys to, as he put it “take care of an east coast Shiite problem” as in Iran/Yemen.

We learned a lot. Here are some of the things we learned: Toyota, AutoZone and Baja Bound Insurance are the best dish in Mexico.

• Don’t pack the trunk too full, there’s a spare tire in there somewhere and you are going to need it. Keeping the jack handle under the seat is a bad idea.

• It’s true that the fuel pump, however,  is underneath the back seat.

• The Robin Hood peasants who have seized control of several toll booths are our friends and allies, even though they don’t take credit cards.

• Mexican cops still unscrew license plates. Bring epoxy for the screw heads to slow them down.

• There are millions of auto mechanics in Mexico. Their advice is free and you’re gonna need it. Every Mexican female’s DNA contains a tamal. Every Mexican man’s DNA contains a mechanic’s set of tools. Open a hood and you are in an instant operating theater, with specialists crowding around.

• Thank God for AutoZone. Their orange and white signs in Mexico are a slice of America, comfort food like Motel 6 in the lodging business north of the border.

• Sanctuary. A Mexican AutoZone on a Sunday is like the cafe in Lake Wobegon or any hardware store in West Texas on a Saturday morning. If Magellan had had AutoZone for backup, all of his ships would have made it around the world and he might still be going.

Thank you, God, for AutoZone.
Thank you, God, for AutoZone.

• If you remember The Pit and the Pendulum from high school you know why at all costs you don’t want to see the inside of a Mexican jail. Thanks to Baja Bound, the San Diego-based agency for Mexico’s super modern and reliable HDI Insurance, we could sleep soundly.

• If you browse the internet you will flinch, stay home and miss out on all the fun but we have 130 million amigos in Mexico and you need not fear. Sixty-five million are mechanics. Well, maybe a few women, too.

• We didn’t see any sign of narcos but stayed one night in the town where uber-drug lord “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzmán was caught at the end of the tunnel leading away from underneath the refrigerator. Worth a repeat visit.

• Mexico doesn’t really want U.S. tourists, at least by car. There’s even a special building in Nuevo Laredo for “Repatriation of Human Remains.” Sometimes it’s better not to read Spanish, but if this scares you, just don’t go.

• There is no pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow on the map called Guatemala. Now that President Trump has finished ironing out the kinks in NAFTA, he should turn his attention to Guatemala’s CAFTA, which can turn a 40% duty into 200%.

• One fuel pump, four shock/strut assemblies, two windshield wipers, one starter motor, one radiator flush, one rewound armature and a hell of a lot of fun are a pretty decent tally for 6,000 or so miles and hundreds of speed bumps. Thank you, God, for AutoZone. Especially the four-for-the-price-of-three shocks/struts. I know I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, and again.

• Mexican paperwork is a nuisance and the green folded paper with the numbers in the corners doesn’t work anymore.

• Toyota understates the abilities of its intrepid Camrys. And they are Made in Kentucky, USA. MAGA Toyota USA.

Why Camry?

In our eastern European madness, we drove a SEAT Malaga of indeterminate age, learning only belatedly that it was really a VW, which may explain why over 15 years we didn’t even have to change a light bulb. I don’t know where it is now but sealed up and strapped on a rocket it would make an excellent space shuttle although I hate to give Elon Musk any more good ideas.

The Camrys have been equally reliable. Cheap on Craig’s List, gas-thrifty, comfortable, four out of five with AC, who could ask for anything more? Plus, in theory they are readily saleable in Guatemala if touted as “recently brought down from the USA.” Fool’s gold. Auto pyrite, as it turns out.

Who were the drivers?

The old guy took shop in high school and often holds that over my head. I didn’t take shop, since I was college-bound and Mom wouldn’t let me. Actually his early training came into play when on a hot, hot day at reasonably high speed just north of hot, hot Monterrey the engine stalled.

He mumbled “vapor lock,” pulled over for a minute and we were on our way.  An impress-your-date trick. Shop-doc went to Stanford and then to medical school. No-shop me went elsewhere. Go figure. I shoulda took shop.

I think he also went to a Montessori kindergarten, since he is obsessively/compulsively neat. This is important in packing a car, which should never be done by two or more people but as many as possible when unpacking to find the spare tire in a hurry or a fuel pump.  There, speed is more important.

I’m not so fussy a packer, always figuring that one more something will fit. I haven’t brought the kitchen sink yet on any of our cannonball runs, but I am thinking about a countertop dishwasher. And a refrigerator. And a lawnmower. And a dog.

In spite of his age, the old guy’s a good driver, at least since he got his eyes fixed with laser surgery. Before that he needed a white cane, so in our European capers I did the driving. Now it’s payback time, and he does most of the driving.

This is the first of a two-part series about the author’s cannonball runs through Mexico.

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