One Wrong Turn in Mexico

by Timothy Mathis

A traveler and his wife set out in search of a park in Toluca, Mexico, only to end up in the middle of a dangerous encounter with drunken strangers. This story was chosen as a runner-up of the Wrong Turns travel writing competition.

A few decades ago, leaning on a wall in our high school, a friend made one of those comments that feel profound at the time.

“You know, life is crazy. One wrong turn and it could all be over. My family is going to Michigan, and maybe we’ll get in a car crash and die. There’s no way to know.”

He could be pretty negative at times. I was just waiting for class.

“It’s true, but you can’t live your life that way. Anyway, Michigan is cool. I found $20 buried on a beach there.”

Years later, my wife and I were in Toluca, Mexico, after a six month trek through Latin America.

Mexico, as an American, is a place you learn to fear by osmosis. We’d traveled Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Chile, Peru. None produced an emotional reaction like Mexico. Every media portrayal is mariachi, drugs, violence, and murder.

We first arrived in Mexico City and spent a night in Xochimilco. A marching band passed our apartment at midnight, which our host explained was to celebrate “all the baby Jesuses.”

We bussed to the city of Toluca on the way to the famous Nevado de Toluca, Mexico’s most stunning alpine scene. Turquoise glacial lakes and jagged peaks. Locals take their children there to see the snow. The city itself is beautiful. Obama visited once: they have a life-size photo commemorating the event in the botanic gardens.

A church in Toluca, Mexico

After months of wandering in Latin America, we’d probably dropped our guard. There was a green space on the map close to our apartment, so we climbed a narrow walkway up stone steps between low slung row houses until the way petered out into a clearing. We’d expected a park, but we found a shared backyard. Laundry hung on lines, children’s toys scattered next to piles of cinder blocks. I had an uneasy feeling that we shouldn’t be there.

Turning to leave, there is a man.

He is not an intimidating man. He is staggering, with a slight build, a mustache, in soiled jeans and T-shirt. He smells like beer and sweat. He’s nobody’s picture of threatening. He’s approaching from a circle of men who are continuing to drink and talk, disinterested. We’re in their yard.

“Dame tu dinero!” Give me your money. Slurred, which I can detect even with the mediocre Spanish that I didn’t learn until 35.

“Give me your money, or I’ll kill your wife.”

That’s a demand that triggers adrenaline. The man has no weapon. The top of his head sits at my nipple line. But he also has friends, gathered around a grill, beginning to take notice of what’s happening.

“No quiero problemas.” We’re not here for problems. “I only have 100 pesos.” That is $5 US. “You take it.”

“No! Dame mas!” Give me more. “Give me your phone!”

My phone is in my hand.

The drunken man aggressively grabs the watch on my wrist, pulls at it. It’s an old Timex, but it has a nice altimeter. It got me through the Pacific Crest Trail — 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada. I pull away. The Velcro strap gives. It’s his, the drunk bastard.

“Give me your phone, or I’ll kill your wife!” His eyes are glazed, dull, focused on nowhere.

The intoxicated man bends down, grabs a handful of dirt, dried grass, a small stick.

He brandishes it at my wife as if it were a weapon.

She looks scared. She’s grimacing.

I want to knock the man to the ground. He’s small, drunk. My adrenaline is surging. We could run. Our backs are to his friends at this point, but they’re there, watching. Would they defend him? Would Angel and I escape or would this escalate?

“No toques a mi esposa!”

Shout that in public if you want to demand attention.

“Don’t touch my wife!”

The man is brandishing a handful of grass and pebbles, but he is in fact touching my wife. Swiping at her with the detritus. It’s a poorly executed assault, but it is an assault.

I grab his wrist, picture smashing my phone into his face. He pulls away, clumsily.

Now, the thing I’d been worrying about is happening. One of the friends is approaching, also unsteady on his feet.

The new man makes eye contact. Is he sizing me up? I write travel articles and have never been in a fight. I’ve been primed by decades of American media to be afraid of Mexico. Now I’m here, in the middle of a violent situation.

The man grabs his friend’s shoulder and pushes him away. “Basta! Basta!” Enough! Enough!

I feel small. “Gracias. Gracias! No queremos problemas.” We didn’t want problems.

We hurry away, humiliated, angry, hearts still racing, back down the narrow stairway to the neighborhood, faint smells of dinner wafting from kitchens. Toluca is a city at altitude. It’s a cool, clear evening. People are going about their business, sober, not interested in our phones. We walk into the center of town, shaken. There is a beautiful, busy square where Obama visited. I don’t have my watch. Angel was threatened and grabbed. But this wasn’t a catastrophe. It was a story that would someday become funny almost. Embarrassing. Disheartening.

Being robbed made me nauseous. It was the kind of story I didn’t want to tell about Mexico — this supposedly sinister place — because it reinforced ideas that already polluted my consciousness.

Anyway, you can’t live your life feeling the way that Mexico’s most ineffectual mugger made us feel. 

A road leading to mountains near Toluca, Mexico

We left Toluca the next morning, pointed towards the mountains. We hiked to the snow line at the Nevado de Toluca and were swarmed by thousands of monarch butterflies in Valle de Bravo. We climbed La Malinche, a minor peak among Mexico’s central volcanos, but taller than Mt Whitney, the highest in the continental United States. In Cuetzalan, a magical town of cobblestone streets and crumbling Catholic missions, a teenager convinced us to leap 30 feet from a waterfall. In a restaurant on New Year’s morning, an assertive busker serenaded us over eggs and tortilla:

“Welcome gringos to Cuetzalan! I hope you like it here. I am glad you came down from the north. I hope you like Cuetzalan!”

It didn’t rhyme in Spanish either.

On the way between Puebla and Veracruz, there is a town called Coatepec, a picturesque community of red-roofed haciendas and coffee plantations surrounded by rolling hills and dense forest.

In the center there was a restaurant — tables packed with Coatepec’s equivalent of hipsters. We spent an evening at the mosaic tile bar, brilliant blue and yellow, practicing Spanish on a trapped but cordial bartender, listening to a perfect mix of ‘90s grunge and reggaetón, eating torta, drinking local IPAs. 

Wandering home in the dark, drunk, as you’re warned against, we walked down the wrong street. Life can turn on one wrong decision.

We passed a storefront with light streaming onto the sidewalk. We stared in, grinning like buzzed gringo idiots. A man in a pink polo and stylish jeans made eye contact, laughed and waved us in. They were young professionals celebrating El Día de los Reyes. The man grabbed a fist-sized piece of cake and handed it to Angel. There was a plastic baby Jesus inside, which meant that we were obliged to host a party a month later, on El Día de la Candelaria.

A turquoise glacial lake at Nevado de Toluca

We wouldn’t be in Mexico a month later, but we did stay in Coatepec longer than planned. The next day, the man in the pink polo took us on a tour in his renovated Volkswagen Beetle. We visited his grandmother’s house and a friend who painted bulls, having grown up with matadors. He took us to a towering waterfall that featured prominently in the movie Romancing the Stone.

Later, the grandparents we were renting from introduced us to their daughter’s family, who took us to the eco-homestead they’d constructed in the countryside. We tried on their beekeeping suits and practiced moving hives. They helped plan the rest of our trip — miles of sand dunes at Playa Chachalacas and ruins at Quiahuiztlan on the Gulf. At a coffee shop, we ran into a woman from the Día de los Reyes party. She insisted on gifting us a book about Coatepec so we wouldn’t forget.

The next year we came back to Mexico and spent a month catching up with the friends we’d made in Coatepec. They took us to a riverside hot springs with a Gaudi-esque lobster statue the size of a building — red and blue paint, faded and peeling. I bought a new watch. We drank with friends and wandered local neighborhoods. There was mariachi, but never drugs, violence, or murder.  

Mexico is a beautiful place. It’s a country of shabby chic cathedrals, delicious food, unexpected kindness, and rich, pervasive culture.

One wrong turn and it could all be over, it’s true. But you can’t live your life that way.

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