We drove south from Mexico City to Puebla, looking for good mole, since Puebla is famous for mole and historically Mexico’s moles are made there (and in Oaxaca) and recipes jealously protected there. They were protected too well, because we didn’t find any…recipes or restaurants that offered their sauciers’ distinctive versions of mole. Gourmets that we are, we did assuage our mole disappointment with bags of snacks from the hotel’s vending machine. And the next morning drove east into Veracruz State across an endless plain toward, what looked in the distance, like either a curtain of smoke or ominous weather. And beyond that mist of troubles, it looked like there were foothills (the eastern spine of the Sierra Madres), protruding from the flat plain. Our destination was Xalapa, the state capitol of Veracruz.
It was already the middle of the afternoon, when we penetrated the haze and then got to the winding, forested hills beyond, which requires headlights, crawling speed instead of just slowing down and more than surgical attention just to stay on the road. Driving was by feel…either smooth asphalt or loose dirt…if you veered off the road. All points of reference were blotted out…even the sun. The smoke surrounded the car was generated, as it turned out, by numberless kilns, making bricks. Evidently brick-making was an easy business to get into because every shack in the area had a kiln attached. Business must have been good, if thick smoke was any indication. It’s at times like those, that you can’t help your instinct and ask, believer or not, if maybe a higher power might not intercede on your behalf. As the road climbed higher, though, the trees did reced as did the kilns and we emerged from the smoke…prayers answered. The road widened, began going downhill and Xalapa, thankfully, was spread out in the distance, still miles away in the fading afternoon light. As we passed by the visibility problem, though, another problem revealed itself. There, athwart our lane, was a police car, top light revolving, and a somewhat rumpled policeman, waving us to the dirt shoulder of the road along with three other cars. Not good to be in the clutches of country cops in Mexico. He dealt with the three truants in front of us, likely, giving them the choice of a small fine for a nonexistent offence or a large fine for a nonexistent offence. Then he shambled toward us, no doubt calculating what country justice he could rain down on us…we being in a rental car.
I didn’t know much about dealing with the police in Mexico. But one thing I did know was that the phrase “no entiendo” (I don’t understand), would be my first line of defense along with shoulder shrugging. If he spoke English, though, that defense was out the window. First good sign…he asked for my license in Spanish. “What”, I asked. “Licencia’, he said. “Ah”, I said, “license. Okay”. “Neuva York”, he said after studying it. “Yes”, I said not wanting to let on that my use of Spanish hardly reached the rudimentary stage of si. He tried in Spanish, telling me what I had done to spark his attention. I shrugged. He tried again. This time I employed no entiendo. He paraded my license to the front of the car, then to the back, pondering whether any enforcement would be worth the effort. He handed me my license back, said something to the effect that I should abide by the directives of the road signs in Mexico. I looked at him dumbly, giving no indication that I knew what he said. He smiled in frustration, gave a sloppy, but good-natured, salute and waved me on. I was out of the clutches of Mexican justice, but light was fading and I had to find the hotel I reserved in the tangle of streets in Xalapa.
We did think that having survived the nearly impenetrable smoke from the brick kilns, having escaped the attentions of law enforcement, having fought off a mild case of potential bribery, having had to deal with mole disappointment, that, perhaps, we were due a stroke of good fortune in Xalapa. We glided down to see what fate awaited us.