The Great American Road Trip – Episode V
by Carolyn McLaughlin
It was three or four in the morning when Rob pulled off the road and we all realized we really needed to sleep without motion. No one was climbing into the driver’s seat. Yawn. Tired. Sleep. Here was our first night in Mexico, another country we fit into the scheme of things. Really, why not get your passport stamped on your way from the Atlantic to the Pacific? We did.
After the delicious beach day in Corpus Christi, we were ready for the grueling heat of Monterrey, Mexico. Driving in at two in the morning was cool enough – and dark. Coming across the U.S. border was like a drive through the park, with a lot of lights. We cleared Customs and Immigration in about 20 minutes. That’s fast to me. In St Thomas, when I travel to other islands, clearing Customs is like the Judgment Day. Why are you visiting? What are you doing while you’re here? Do you have any fruit? In Mexico they just wanted to get your money and get back to the television set.
We drove far into the country on dark roads. There seemed to be only trucks on the road. Everyone else was smarter than that – they were home in bed. When we parked we found ourselves in front of an abandoned convenience store. There was a gas pump too. All four of us fell hard to sleep. At about eight in the morning Rob and I switched seats and I continued to drive. I had been awake for awhile. The car was just too small for all of us. They all slept until I got to Monterrey.
We spent the day driving through traffic that seemed like it was going in circles. It seemed like everything looked the same, but it was all so different. The street signs and directions were in Spanish. The people talking on the streets seemed to be talking way too fast to possibly be understood. And the taxis were green and white painted Volkswagon bugs.
There were a lot of huge public buses, too, that moved like they were dancing, the way they swayed and bounced along the road. After haggling with local merchants at a town bazaar and eating lunch at the food section, we took a tour. Melissa had heard about caves somewhere near Monterrey so we looked for signs or information about caves.
The bus station was set up like an airport terminal. We looked at arrivals and departures and saw Las Grutas de Garcia. These were the famous caves. We had asked Mexican-Americans on vacation if they knew anything about the caves and the father said yeah, he had seen them three visits ago, they were worth a look. So we climbed aboard one of the buses and spent the next hour driving out of town and into the mountains.
The asphalt became dust and gravel and the restaurants and air conditioned hotels became concrete houses with curtains blowing gently out the windows, into the fuzzy air and brilliant day. The site of the caves was a genuine tourist trap. All the cold beer you could want and lots of ice cream. People were more interested though, in the tram that took you up the mountain to the entrance of the caves. It was on tracks like a train, but hauled up, vertically, with a cable. We wondered why the seats in the tram were tilted….
The ride to the top was relaxing and panoramic, the mountains around us were beautiful. Once we were at the top, we were led through the caves by Jose, our free guide. He pointed out certain stalactites that resembled animals or shapes, sort of like clouds can do. There were stairs all through the caves, and because we were inside rocks in high elevation, it was fairly cool. That was quite a change from the heat of the city.
Instead of taking the tram back down, we had the option of hiking a trail. We decided to get our daily dose of exercise. Since the hike was all downhill, it was more like a stroll to the bottom.
We saw lizards and small birds along the way. I cut some cactus too because Melissa and I wanted to try eating it. We had seen an old woman at the food market taking the needles off the cactus and slicing it up the way you might prepare green peppers. I’m sure people cooked the cactus as food, but we just munched it raw. It was almost refreshing. But mostly, just bland, needles removed.
Our bus ride back to Monterrey meant more sleep time. There were more people on the bus, so more for me to watch. The best part of the ride was the little kids who came on at each stop and sold frozen flavored ice out of small coolers. They’d skip down the aisle, offering the treat which was indeed marketable in that heat. Then they’d get off at the next stop, clutching the change they’d made.
We found our car and got more money out of our bags and decided to look for a bar and dinner. After about fifteen minutes of wandering past fast food chicken restaurants, half of them closed (it was Sunday), we collapsed at a hole in the wall that promised beer on the menu. We’d have to bypass any frozen drinks. Huevos rancheros and all the refried beans and tortillas served us well after a long day.
Here we go again. There was no camping around, and we cringed at the thought of paying for a hotel. After packing our new goods into the already full trunk, or boot if you’re English, we scanned the map. Our day of a new language, bartering for blankets, bags, leather sandals, knick-knacks, was a tiring one, especially with the haul out to Garcia Caves. We knew we wanted to get out West so we started driving that night for New Mexico. Getting out of Monterrey proved to be a hair ticklish with the speeding traffic and the foreign directions. After 45 minutes we were going north again and in eight short hours, we’d be going through the border again, back into Texas.
Next: The day we found a picture of heaven and learned the true discomfort of being dirty…