Here’s a little story from my book, where I tell about how I was driving down through Mexico toward the Guatemalan border with my daughter Madeleine, who was five years old at the time. One day we drove all day and by nightfall we still hadn’t found a place to stop for the night:
By 10 o’clock I had been driving for fourteen hours and was worn out. Mad was already asleep in the back of the van, and I felt very alone.
I was starting to get downright scared, imagining us stranded on the highway for the night and being attacked by banditos, when suddenly a tiny green sign popped up out of the darkness, off to the left of the highway. It said: San Juan del Rio. Since there was nothing but infinite blackness in front of me, I took a deep breath and turned off onto the secondary road leading to God only knew where.
The narrow road was unpaved and kept getting narrower, until we passed over something that looked like a bridge, although it was so dark it was hard to tell. Soon after, we saw the lights of San Juan del Rio. I eased the van into a clearing where there were a few small stucco houses. People had already heard the sound of the engine, and had come running out onto the street to see who had come to their village at this late hour. When they saw two gringas — a young woman and a little girl — they started jabbering away in Spanish and pointing at us. Some of the bigger children ran up and started banging on the side of the van, while the smaller ones stuck close to their mothers, thumbs in mouths, clinging to their skirts.
A stocky middle-aged man with a heavy dose of Indian blood walked over to the van and said, “Buenas noches.” I was grateful that I’d been brushing up my Spanish with Mad, and I explained to him that we’d been on the road all day, were tired and hungry and needed a place to sleep. He smiled broadly, revealing broken teeth and a couple of gold fillings, and pointed to a squat little building across the clearing that turned out to be San Juan del Rio’s only hotel. A hotel! Hot damn!
But before our host escorted us there, he suggested I leave the van at his house, because he had a yard where we could lock it inside. “Los niños,” he explained, shrugging his shoulders and pointing to some frisky adolescents who looked like they might not be able to contain their curiosity while we were asleep at the hotel. I felt a little uneasy about leaving our van with a man we’d just met, but when I saw how nice his house was, how cordial his wife was, and how safe and secure his yard was, I happily handed him the keys. I offered to pay him, but he refused. This really surprised me, since most of the poorer Mexicans I’d met always had their hand out ready for whatever the rich gringos would give them. Ah, if they only knew!
But I would soon find out that the people of San Juan del Rio were different. It was obvious that they had seen very few North Americans, since it seemed hardly anyone ever took that particular left off the highway, in the middle of nowhere. Our host escorted us to a tiny restaurant where we had delicious chiles rellenos, and then walked us over to the hotel. All the time, we were followed by hordes of kids of all sizes, and they were particularly fascinated by Madeleine, who was now wide awake and obliged them by chattering away in Spanish with them and answering all their questions.
The little hotel was charming. There was no running water, but they provided a pitcher and a basin, and the bed was comfortable and clean. We finally settled down for a long, much-needed sleep.
The next morning, the sun was shining brightly and San Juan de Rio showed us its colorful daytime face. There were flowers everywhere, bougainvillea cascading down the whitewashed walls and pastel stucco houses facing the zócalo, the town square across from our hotel. We were greeted by several of the townspeople, including our host from the previous night. Again he took us to his house, where he unlocked the gate to his yard, and there was our van, ready to go. We packed our things and after warm hugs and smiles all around, were on our way.
Now, I just want to say that something startling and almost “miraculous” happened on our way out of San Juan del Rio. But I don’t want to spoil the story, so I guess you’ll just have to wait until the book comes out! 😀