The year was 1992 and I was 21 years old. I was living near the beach in southern California with one of my best friends from Redlands, working part time and attending the University of California Irvine. There was a great deal on a seven day trip to Puerto Vallarta so I decided to head out on my first international solo trip!
Mexico is a beautiful country that I had safely travelled to a few times already (well, dozens if you count Tijuana on the SoCal border because in the U.S. the legal drinking age is 21 but … not in Mexico, so imagine how popular it is for U.S. teens!). The very first day I made friends with a really sweet and fun group of locals who took me under their wing and showed me the side of Puerto Vallarta that tourists never see. They took me to small clubs where a singer playing acoustic guitar belted out beautiful love songs, to a massive underground club far away from the touristy bars where I was the only foreigner, and to swim in beautiful lagoons … introduced me to real local food and taught me how to drink tequila like a Mexican (not the salt, shot, lime way we westerners do it).
It was the most exciting week of my life up until that point and I didn’t want it to end. When my week-long holiday was done, I sat down and convinced the hotel manager where I was staying to hire me. I was moving to Mexico!
It took me the whole of two weeks to pack up my life, leave uni, tell my parents (!) and throw the essentials – which included my favourite stuffed teddy bear – into my white Jeep Wrangler. The drive down had a great effect on what happened to me later. I decided that I didn’t want to live and work at the resort because I wouldn’t continue to experience ‘real life’ so I ended up rooming downtown with one of the girls who had befriended me, Alma. Another friend, Daniel, hooked me up with side work right away, too. For $20 USD per person, I would drive American tourists who wanted to surf up to Punta de Mita in my Jeep (where the Four Seasons is today), and for $2 I would rent a board for them. Then I hung out all day on the beach, drinking aguas, nibbling on tacos al pastor and snorkelling. It was a pretty awesome life that paid a LOT of pesos in those days – enough for me to pay for all my friends drinks whenever we went out and live for a month from just one week of work. It was really fun!
Then one night I was attacked in our apartment. I was sleeping with my teddy bear on a cot in the living room of Alma’s one bedroom apartment when I was awoken by a man with both hands on me. Shocked at first, I asked what he was doing. Then eventually I started to scream LOUD, calling for Alma. It was enough to startle the guy who removed his hands, started backing away and then left. Alma called our group of friends who all came over at two in the morning to help us. All I remembered was that he wore a dark Hawaiian style shirt but that was enough for the security in our building to sort out who he was – my attacker was the brand new security guard who had started that day if you can believe it! The police were called, he was caught and he went to jail.
But for the next week I was a mess. The normal cat-calling that hueras (a person with light coloured hair) get all of a sudden scared me. I didn’t feel comfortable out on my own for the first time in my life. So I decided to take a road trip to ‘clear my head’ and sort me out…which did not turn out the way I thought it would.
I headed out to Acapulco in my Jeep with one friend. We planned our timing so that we would arrive to Ixtapa or Zihautanejo for night one before the sunset because everyone said it’s not safe to drive at night. The road from Puerta Vallarta is beautiful, with lots of it hugging the mountainside on the left with the Pacific Ocean on the right. Reading the map, our last stretch of road ahead looked like it should take about 45 minutes but after almost three hours we were still far from there, almost out of gas, and it was now dark. Around the next bend there was a huge log and several boulders in the road, so we started to slow down when all of a sudden I saw a flashlight reflecting in the rearview mirror. Then running up the embankment from the ocean side was a man with another flashlight, signalling others it turns out. Our hearts started racing because it was all clicking into place – there we were with the top down, totally exposed, and we were being attacked by banditos, h-o-l-y CRAP!
We slowed down as quickly as possible and threw the Jeep into reverse. The guy in front was getting closer. We were backing out of there as fast as we could when the guy in front pulled out a gun and fired at us! I thank the stars that he had the shittiest gun in Mexico because I am happy to say he missed somehow (how does one miss two people in a big wide Wrangler with the top down?). The guy behind us tried to grab on as we passed but we were moving too fast. As soon as it was safe, we turned around and hightailed it out of there. I can still remember uncontrollably shaking and busting out in tears as soon as we drove away.
Well, you’ll remember I said we were almost out of a gas? Now the gas light was on so we knew we couldn’t go too far so after about two kilometres we found a spot that dipped down and into the mountain a bit so we backed the Jeep in, quickly put the top up, found branches and leaves to camouflage the big white beast and sat back inside. Looking back, it would have been safer to hide elsewhere but that’s where we waited out the sunrise. Between us we had one can of pepper spray and a Swiss army knife. Seeing as how they had guns, it didn’t seem like much be we clung to them tightly all night long.
There is only one other moment in my life when I’ve been that scared so this is a night that I can pull to memory in all its technicolor detail any time I think about it. I think we jumped about two feet every time a frog would ribbit or we heard any kind of animal scamper about. Worst. Night. Ever!
Next morning, a semi truck barrelled past just after sunrise. As we passed the spot where we were attacked we saw the log and boulders pushed safely onto the shoulder of the road, waiting for the night to fall again we assumed. After gassing up at the first village we came to, we stopped at a stall run by a very cute gramma to buy water, fresh tortillas and some cheese. My Spanish wasn’t great but I understood the sweet little old lady perfectly as she warned us not to drive the mountain road alone. That tourists had been killed there just last night.
When we reached Ixtapa, I decided to call my parents (my Mom and Step Dad, who married Mom in my teens) and ask for them to wire some money so that I could pay someone to drive back with us. I hadn’t brought that much with me and it seemed like a good idea. My Dad answered and I started to give him some bullshit excuse why I needed the money and he called me on it, and told me to tell him what was going on. I basically broke down. Told him about the security guard, told him about last night and told him I was scared to drive back alone. And he did what a good Dad does…he protected me. He told me that ‘enough was enough, that this may seem like an adventure but it’s just too dangerous for me the way I’m living it, that my Mom doesn’t sleep at night because she’s so worried about me’ and every other truth that I didn’t want to hear before because I was feeling so independent and alive. He told me to start driving to Mexico City and to get a hotel and then call him back, that he was going to cancel all his meetings for the week and fly down the next day to drive back with me.
The moment I saw him exiting the terminal I started to cry. I did feel safe and relieved to have him there. He was part of the leadership team for one of the largest grocery store chains in California so needless to say he was not exactly thrilled with me for having to leave work with no notice to come drive through the sweltering desert in July to rescue me. Although later we did laugh about it, we definitely weren’t at that moment. We also weren’t driving back to collect my things or to say goodbye to my friends. He said I could have my things shipped back to me…
The first night we made it as far as Ciudad Victoria, located some 750 kilometres north of Mexico City. It’s a beautiful town with historical monuments and lots of things to see but Dad wasn’t having ANY of it. We found a hotel, showered and ate dinner IN the hotel and we crashed. He said we weren’t there to sightsee! Fair enough.
The second night we made it about 1,000 kilometres west to the coastal city of Mazatlan. The chill had warmed a bit and Dad let us head out for a couple of beers and a nice dinner out, along with a stroll along the Paseo. It was actually a really fun and memorable evening.
Day and night three I will never forget! First because it was the chunk of our trip that went almost 100% through arid desert in a sweltering heat that was almost asphyxiating. I lived at the beach in SoCal so I hadn’t installed an a/c unit in the Jeep, which made for one sticky, sweaty ride all day long.
That 3rd day we would travel for HOURS at a time without seeing air conditioned restaurants, and back then cold bottled water wasn’t something you could buy on any street corner like it is now. Even if it was cold when we bought it, after about 10 minutes in the desert heat it simply wasn’t any longer. So, in true Dad form, he told me he’d teach me a thing or two about the principles of refrigeration. He had me hold our cups out the window and tilted on an angle so the air would power through them. It did the trick! Cooled the water to something almost below our body temperature at least. Man it was hot, haha!
I don’t actually remember what border town we used, will have to ask Dad, but it was dark when we crossed into Arizona. After about 45 minutes we could see a town in the distance where we could spend the night. I also saw fireworks and said something like, ‘ahhh look, there must be a college football game or festival going on.’ Well, turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I was living the (quiet) Mexican life I didn’t really bother with calendars because … well, I didn’t keep appointments. Dad looked at me and – in a half upset / half joking tone – said, ‘ NO, it’s the 4th of July, Angie. Right now all my friends are at MY house enjoying a BBQ that I’m supposed to be at!’ haha, oops!
To this day, I’ve never been as grungy and dirty as that one day. It took a long shower to wash off the grime of that day, and the poor white washcloth was all shades of coal miner grey at the end of it! We went out to dinner, had a good sleep, woke up and gobbled down breakfast at the Waffle House and was back at my parents home in Redlands by late-afternoon the next day. Mom was VERY happy to have us back in one piece!
I’ve never written about that experience until today. I’ve told the tale before, many times! I mean, come on, it’s a great happy hour story – especially when told in more vivid detail. But today is Father’s Day and it had me reminiscing about how lucky I was to have two great Dads in my life (one who sadly is no longer with us and who I do miss very much), and the fun times I’ve had with them.
My own daughter is now 19 and last year she and two friends took a road trip as part of a fundraiser challenge for Worldwide Cancer Research from her uni in the UK all the way to Prague with NO money. This summer she’s travelling on her own to Italy and then Paris and I couldn’t be more excited for her. I’m proud, and in my heart I imagine that much of her wanderlust and spirit of adventure comes from me, all of the travel adventures she and I have shared, and also from knowing that I’m always here for her.
I think that having supportive parents is one of the biggest driving forces in how life turns out. Following your heart and stepping outside of ‘normal life’ is easier when you know you have someone there to catch you if you fall … or need rescuing from Mexico because you wrongly believe yourself to be immortal! I couldn’t imagine living this independent, expat, ‘don’t need a man to take care of me’ life that I do without all of that…
Thanks again for rescuing me, Dad…I love you and wish you a very happy Father’s Day from Hong Kong.
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