IN OLD MEXICO

By Published on .

What with all the excitement about Nafta and collapsing pesos and illegal immigration, insufficient attention has been paid recently to Mexico's biggest problem, driving its roads.

Now, however, this has been set right by a wonderful New York Times writer named Allen R. Myerson who rode around with one Mike Nelson, "known as Mexico Mike," whose entire being is consumed with driving Mexican roads and logging their condition.

Mr. Nelson works for Sanborn's Mexico Insurance Service and it's his job to get Americans to drive into Mexico (so the roads can't be portrayed as too forbidding) and to buy some insurance from Sanborn before setting out (so the roads can't be depicted as pristine, either).

During Mr. Myerson's journeys with Mexico Mike they saw no "bandidos" but encountered three federal officers reaching for their rifles as they drove up and in the town of Batopilas were informed by a hotel owner's sister, "everyone carries guns here," and that, "if one truck clips a mirror off another truck, you can have one dead and four wounded."

And in winding up his account, Mr. Myerson quotes Mr. Nelson, famously, "Mexico Mike don't need no stinkin' highway."

How it all brought back the summer when Pete Oldham and I decided to drive from Manhattan to Acapulco, intent on the way to attend the bullfights, chase women, drink cerveza, and if any of them were still around, to look up the "Viva Zapata" bunch and swap yarns about old Emiliano.

En route we would pause briefly in Houston where Oldham had an itch to meet Glenn McCarthy, long dead by now I suppose, but at that time on the cover of Life and owner of The Shamrock, then billed as the most fabulous hotel in the world. We did end up having a cold beer at The Shamrock but did not encounter Mr. McCarthy, which annoyed Oldham, who is a Yalie and you know how they are.

Our vehicle reached Houston with no difficulty, being a secondhand 1950 Chevy convertible, the top of which we never put up.

The trouble began in Brownsville. I had once as a child crossed over into Mexico at Brownsville, and being a traditionalist, insisted that was the way we had to go now. First, we bought car insurance valid for Mexico (which existing U.S. policies were not). I'm not sure if it came from Mr. Nelson's fine company, Sanborn, but we bought it nonetheless.

Next there was the matter of my revolver. I was but a year back from the Marines and had myself a Smith & Wesson .38 with a four-inch barrel which I considered might be a handy thing to have along while traveling through rural Mexico, regardless of the admiration both Pete and I had for Zapata and indeed for land reform in general and the rights of peasants.

But there were notices posted everywhere about how it was illegal to carry weapons across the border into Mexico and you were subject to fine and imprisonment. Having been brought up on movies where people armed to the teeth were constantly crossing the Rio Grande in one direction or another, I found this puzzling, but not wishing to spend even a day in Mexican jails, I decided against trying to smuggle the Smith & Wesson across and instead rented a small locker and left it in Brownsville.

At the Rio Grande we were whisked smoothly and swiftly through American formalities. It was on the other side of the bridge that we first encountered Mexico.

When Oldham and I first planned our jaunt back in New York he was very fierce about the necessity to get the appropriate inoculations and went to great lengths (and considerable pain) to do so. For my part I said the hell with it and resolved to bluff my way through on an old Marine Corps medical card showing every vaccination and inoculation this side of leprosy. Oldham, who went to a Park Ave. internist for his shots, sniffed superiorly.

Inside the border post we showed our insurance and other papers and all went well until we got to the chief medical officer, a plump gent in khaki sitting behind a battered desk and cleaning his fingernails with a hypodermic needle. When I showed the old USMC medical card, he sprang to his feet and saluted. There was a little cheer at this as other officials took it up and I went about the room shaking hands and clapping chaps on the back and murmuring, "mucho hombre" and good stuff like that.

But when Oldham produced his Park Ave. medical credentials the Mexican shook his head sadly. Nowhere on these embossed and engraved documents did it say anything about cowpox.

"Of course it does," Oldham insisted, "there it is, right in front of you, the scientific term for cowpox." "Not at all," said the Mexican authority, shaking his head. "Give him 50 pesos," I suggested sotte voce. "Nonsense!" said Oldham, very much the Yale man confronted with sin, "I'll not stoop to bribery."

OK, then, you work it out, I shrugged. The medical officer, cleverly discerning friction between these two gringos, grinned at Oldham while continuing to clean his fingernails and suggested slyly, "I could give you the inoculation here myself, right at the desk, senor."

"OK," said Oldham, staring at the filthy hypodermic, "here's 50 pesos."

The medical officer sprang to his feet. "I am an official of the Mexican government!"

We gave him a hundred and were bowed through with enormous courtesies.

I wish I could say the rest of our Mexican adventure went as well but the damned car kept stalling out once we got on dirt roads and I panicked every time a farmer in white pyjamas came over the hill and Oldham kept complaining about the hundred pesos and eventually we turned around and went on to New Orleans for the jazz and then down to Key West to fish and took the plane over to Havana to stay at the Ambos Mundos where Papa Hemingway used to write and we had ourselves a hell of a time.

Though unlike "Mexico Mike," we never did get to Acapulco. Or even Batopilas.

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