No Money, No Passport, No Cell: Stranded in Mexico
Note to the reader: I apologize ahead of time for the lack of photography in this post. My digital camera at that time could only hold 25 photos and I didn’t bother to take it with on this journey. In retrospect that was probably for the better. You’ll see why if you read the story. If you came here hoping to see photos of Puerto Escondido, just Google it.
Bus Station Bafflement
I scanned the unfamiliar bus station in Oaxaca for “Estrella Blanca”. It was late evening as I paused in the middle of the atrium looking for the correct stall to buy an overnight bus ticket. My hand brushed against my front pocket and felt the hard lump where I kept my money and passport. It’s an unconscious tick I developed in places such as these. Everything was still there.
“A dónde vas, amigo?” (Where are you going, friend?). Sometimes being easily spotted in a crowd could be beneficial. The friendly official saw how lost I was and wanted to point me in the right direction.
The man pointed to a stall labelled “Estrella Roja” (or was it “Flecha Roja”?). I looked at the time table: Puerto Escondido, leaving in 40 minutes. The fare was slightly cheaper than I was expecting. Why had I remembered Estrella Blanca? Anyway, a ticket’s a ticket.
Soon we all loaded onto the bus. I sat next to a young man and made small talk. He told me where he was from. Some small village in the mountains.
As the bus pulled out of the station, the small talk ended and I tried to sleep. But it was impossible. The bus upshifted and downshifted, switchback after switchback. Every ten minutes the bus stopped, usually at some random point along the road with no obvious landmark. Passengers got off, new passengers shuffled on. Worst of all, it got frigid overnight in the mountains and I was dressed for the beach.
Eventually, at some early morning hour, drowsiness beat out the discomfort and sleep crept in unnoticed.
Soon I would wish I had stayed awake.
Setting out Alone
This was my second stint in Mexico. The first time, I spent an entire college semester at a rural farm helping to convert it into a summer camp. This time, I came to revisit the mostly completed camp and reunite with old friends.
I had just graduated college and had a job lined up in Chicago as a transportation engineer. I left myself a month between to travel.
The camp was located near a small town called Amealco in the state of Queretaro, a couple hours north of Mexico City. I absolutely loved that place: the people were honest and friendly, the food was addictive, and I always felt safe there.
Even so, I wanted to spend some time exploring parts of the country I’d never seen. So I hooked up with a family in Oaxaca who were connected with my friends at the camp. They taught at an international school, which interested me as a potential future job opportunity. They took me on a tour.
While chatting with the principal, I asked about day trips from Oaxaca. He told me about Puerto Escondido, a beach town less famous but “hipper” than its larger cousin Acapulco to the northwest.
They laid out the nuts and bolts of how to get there. “Take the Estrella Blanca overnight bus. It will cost about $11. There are cheaper tickets but you’ll want to stick with the better quality bus line.” Sounded simple. What could go wrong?
I woke up pleasantly surprised that I had gotten some asleep. The bus pulled in to its final stop. The sun had yet to rise above the mountains behind us. But ahead the sky and the shimmering sea were saturated with warm morning light.
Despite the bus being full when we departed, there was hardly anyone left. The two other passengers trundled off the bus. I stood up and performed my ritualistic pocket check.
I stopped cold. A sharp awareness cut through my grogginess. The reassuring lump in my pocket was not there.
I scoured my seat; jammed my fingers in the crease; got down on my knees and scanned the floor all the way to the back; then to the front. I walked up and down the aisle systematically checking above and below every surface. I repeated the whole process again. And again.
Reluctantly, I got off the bus. I told the bus drivers my predicament hoping they would find some way to help. They gave each other an uncomfortable glance and shrugged.
I was disappointed at their unwillingness to do anything. But really, what could they do? Drive me back through the mountains and find the person who walked off with my money and passport?
Like a puddle on a hot parking lot, my chances of a quick solution evaporated.
Watching the Sunrise
It was early. Nothing was open. Nobody was walking around.
I couldn’t do the thing I most desperately wanted to do: solve my problem. All I could do was walk down to the beach and wait for the rest of the world to start their day.
For a while I brainstormed strategies. Sell the contents of my backpack and buy a bus ticket with the proceeds. Ask to work at restaurants for meals. Hitchhike back to Oaxaca where I had friends that could help.
I have no photos from this time. Back then I had nothing but a flip phone. My digital camera could only hold twenty-five photos. I mostly relied on others to share their photos with me, but here I was alone.
My phone had no local plan and I hadn’t planned on using it. I carried it just in case… of this. It had no reception. Figures.
At some point brainstorming yields diminishing returns. I settled on my main approach: tell my story to anyone who would listen and see what help they could offer. That would include restaurant owners, other tourists and residents.
Since there was no more use in planning, I took in my surroundings and tried to absorb where I was. Paradise. I was lost in paradise. Hidden in the “hidden port” (the literal translation of Puerto Escondido). I tried to just be in the moment and enjoy it. It was Zen before I knew what Zen was.
An old weather-worn farmer spotted me and tried to sell me bags of coffee. I didn’t have an money. Really. I told him what happened. He had nothing to offer but company: he sat down beside me in the sand and chatted with me for ten or fifteen minutes.
Shops started lifting their overhead doors and the street started to come alive. It was time to get to business. If I was a Catholic I would have crossed myself. I said a sincere prayer with as much faith as I could muster.
In normal times, soliciting help is outside my comfort zone. I sat on a bench on the main drag and rehearsed my pitch in Spanish and English. I gathered up my resolve and was about to propel myself from the bench when a man in a buggy stopped in front of me.
“Where are you going mate?”
Fast forward a week, I’m holding a counsel with with my compatriots back at the the camp in Amealco. We are discussing how I will ultimately get back into the United States. “If all else fails, I think I can get you across without any documentation, ” one friend suggests.
Working the bureaucracy induces the same feelings of inadequacy as a pop quiz does to a student with low attendance. That’s why I’ll never be a credit card points guy like other travelers. I hate trying to figure out the process.
Unfortunately, the powers that be take immigration rules dead seriously. So if I wanted to see those amber waves of grain again, not to mention start my job next week, I needed figure this one out. To make matters worse, my decently conversational Spanish was useless over the phone. Too much static, too many specialized words. It was all just rapid fire garble to me.
Fortunately, I had some friends that were fluent enough (and willing enough) to navigate the system. And by navigate the system, I mean finding out how to get an emergency passport with no means to prove my identity. There were a few misfires. Like being told to apply at the consulate in San Miguel de Allende only to arrive and find out it had to be done at the embassy in Mexico City.
It’s amazing that there is a process to get a same-day passport with zero documentation. But what other option is there in my situation? I’m sure I’m not the first.
I spent an entire day from morning to evening awaiting my number. The only credential I brought to the counter was my right hand in the air swearing in my Chicago accent that I was telling the truth. Within a half hour I had a three page passport, hot off the press, that could be used just once.
It wasn’t so easy for the woman who sat in front of me in the waiting room. She was from Los Angeles, and spoke English with no foreign accent. But she was Mexican American. She recounted her trouble convincing the guards to allow her to enter “[her] own f*cking embassy”, as she put it, even though she had documentation.
Undocumented Laborer for a Day
Back on Puerto Escondido’s main drag, I plied the man stopped in front of me with my rehearsed story.
I wasn’t well traveled enough to know that the man with the British accent was doing street marketing for his hostel. Here’s how it works. Not every hostel can be situated right where the tourists flood in. So the places on the outskirts try to snag those tourists by driving around, quickly figuring out which ones don’t already have a place to go, and offering to drive them to their place free of charge.
Rather, I thought this man was an angel sent directly as a result of my fervent prayer. Not even kidding. So I spilled out my sob story.
“Oh f*ck. That happened to me once in Colombia. Left my passport on the toilet. Came back and it was gone. Didn’t have anybody to help me then.” Didn’t know angels dropped the f-bomb, but this was going well. “You can stay at my place,” he offered.
I got into the buggy relieved and baffled at how easy that was.
Steve was no angel though. If he was, he made a pretty good impression of a crass, jaded businessman.
I needed money. Now. I was hungry. We struck a deal. He was constructing a second floor addition and would pay me to work. The daily rate for a laborer was about $10. I couldn’t turn it down.
Incredibly, Steve spoke little Spanish despite living there. I started my work day riding around in his buggy and translating as he ran errands.
At a mom and pop construction materials yard he was impatient to get his wood beams delivered. “The wood is still drying,” they explained. After some tense back and forth we left with nothing. Before leaving, the man we had been dealing with grumbled that my companion was a “codo duro”.
Back in the buggy Steve asked what he had said about him. It wasn’t meant to be translated, but since he asked, “They said you’re a hard elbow.”
“What the f*ck does that mean?!?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never heard that before. But I bet it means something like ‘asshole’.” He seemed proud of his hard edges so I was surprised when he appeared to genuinely took offense.
That was my last cushy task for the day. The rest consisted of various construction tasks with Juan, the other hired hand.
We were tasked with transferring a mound of concrete blocks from the ground to a stack on the second floor. We went about it the most efficient way: Juan stood on the ground and hurled a block up to the sky, I stood at the edge of the roof and caught it. Over and over, block by block.
I’m used to hard labor. My summer job in college involved hauling survey equipment through mosquito infested wetlands. So the first fifty blocks were a breeze.
But they kept coming. In the thick coastal heat, amplified by the surface of the roof, I was gushing sweat. It tickled my face and slicked my hands and forearms forcing me to work harder to maintain my grip. The blocks kept coming and I became lightheaded. I envisioned myself collapsing over the edge with exhaustion. Of course, I managed to hold it together.
Out of Trouble
On my second day in Puerto Escondido I relaxed. I lounged on the beach. Got a series of cold drinks with little umbrellas. It was like living in a travel brochure.
My mom wired $200 to Steve. It was enough to have a good time for the rest of my stay and buy a bus ticket out of town. And to pay Steve for my room.
Of all the ways Steve helped me in my time of need, it was his Skype account that saved me. I used it to call my mom and explain how royally I had screwed myself over. I didn’t want to alarm her – yeah right – so I gave her a calm rundown of the facts suppressing the storm of anxiety roiling my belly.
Of course, wiring money to a stranger in a foreign country was totally new to her. The banker was incredulous. This was like Exhibit A in Common Phone Scams, 101. “Oh yeah, sure. Your son called you from Mexico and needs you to wire money to some random guy? Haven’t heard that one before.” Her assurances that the $200 was a small risk to get her son back prevailed.
When it was all said and done, it was an ordeal but not the worst thing that could have happened. I got smarter after that. I always made sure to have a copy of my passport and a backup wad of cash. For a while I sewed a secret compartment in my underwear or stuffed money in my sock. Now I always travel with family and friends. We typically load up each adult with cash, an ID, and a credit or debit card. No more plastic corners chafing my inner thigh.
It also deepened my empathy for people in trouble. Yes, manipulative people can play you. But you never know. I was plunged into dire necessity for a morning. It’s the event I reach back to in my mind’s eye when someone knocks on my door in tears and smelling of booze and asks to make a call on my phone. And then asks for ten dollars.
After all, you never know when that person will be you.