Ciuadad Juarez, 2001, My First Trip to Mexico

My first trip to Mexico was in January of 2001. My friend Corey and I went to Ciudad Juarez after a week of backpacking in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. Back then I was a student and wrote a story about the mountains for a writing class; looking back, I don’t know why I chose to write about the hike when Juarez was much more interesting.

But the hike was sweet – the Guadalupe Mountains rise from the center of the desert in the middle of nowhere, on the north-south border of Texas and New Mexico, near Carlsbad Caverns. The outer slopes of the mountain are dry, patchy desert while the interior is forested with scraggy pines. It’s a big valley, and a small river begins at Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas, flowing downhill across the center of the range to spectacular, steep-walled McKittrick Canyon. Long ago when Texas and much of North America was underneath an ocean it was a massive coral reef. Now, when you tear off a piece of soil, you can see the crumbling rock is made up of tiny fossils.

First we hiked Guadalupe Peak on what happened to be on New Year’s Eve and 8 days through the valley and out the canyon. Through sharing our wine and liquor with the other campers on Guadalupe Peak on New Year’s, we got a lot of military meals from a father and son who were leaving. You know, the big dark green plastic bag full of dehydrated delicious.

Now we skip to Mexico. El Paso was only a few hours away, and neither of us had been to Mexico before so we decided to go, at least for lunch. I remember parking near the border and going to the newest supermarket to buy batteries for a dead flashlight. I opened it up in the parking lot and dumped two oozing lumps of battery-acid into my hand. It took a while to find a bathroom to wash it all off. It was something of a sign of bad things to come.

We showed our drivers licenses, paid the small toll, and walked across the footbridge into Mexico. We were immediately impressed by the activity – people everywhere, in and out of traffic, markets and a slowly paced hustle and bustle. We hadn’t showered in a week and were starving. We went to the first taco place we could find and ate a lot.

I remember feeling slightly overwhelmed by it all – I had traveled outside of America before and seen some strange places, but Ciudad Juarez had an odd vibe – somewhat imposing and liberating at the same time. Crumbling buildings contained massive nightclubs and restaurants, strange twisting market streets peeked out of every corner, and no one seemed to notice us, even though we were noticeably grubby foreigners. Although it is right on the border, there didn’t seem to be any Americans anywhere, unlike Tijuana, which I would find out later on my second and third trips to Mexico.

After lunch we went to a huge cantina. Inside it was all black and very dark, though it was midday and there were plenty of windows. There was a circular stage in the middle of the floor.

We ordered a bucket of beer and then two, and halfway through the second bucket the music stopped and the lights got even dimmer. Then colored floodlights started spinning and booty-bass pumped over the house speakers. Two muscular, Jheri-curled men wearing small black leather vests took the stage, dancing.

Corey and I looked around – it was the same as before – mixed crowd, men and women drinking at tables, less than half-full, most not paying attention to the dancers. As they took turns peeling off the leather vests, it was obvious that these were a special kind of dancers.

We attacked the beers and turned our chairs around. While finally leaving I glanced at the stage, and they were down to tiny white g-strings. We paid up and got right out of there.

Unprepared to get hit by the sun, we were back on the street, loose and free in Juarez after our first decent meal and refreshment in a week. We drank in various bars until just after sundown. Outside it got chilly fast – this was January, remember. That’s when Corey realized that he didn’t have his fleece.

“I must have left it in the Chippendale bar.”

So we went back. There was a doorman now who just waved us in. We entered, fearing the worst, but now the place was packed and there was a 12 piece Mexican band on stage. The jacket was still on the chair where he had left it. We shrugged at each other, ordered another bucket of coronas and sat down.

Many hours, bars, and beers later we were once again walking down the principal street. Three policeman approaching from the opposite direction. Thinking nothing of it, being legally drunk in Mexico, we had no reason to make eye contact. However, as we passed they grabbed us, threw us against the wall, handcuffed us, and yelled at us in Spanish.

Facing each other with our heads pushed into the concrete wall, Corey and I exchanged a shrug of “Now what?” I spoke high school Spanish and tried to communicate our innocence, but the third cop ignored me and went through our pockets.

He opened my wallet, took out all the money, and the put the empty wallet back in my pocket. He did the same to Corey and also took his Swiss army knife off his key chain and threw it up onto the nearest rooftop. Then they took the handcuffs off and told us to get out of there.

Now, I don’t know why but for some reason the bridge came to mind, and that we would need money to cross it. So, in broken Spanish I said something like “dinero para salir mexico.” He came back and gave us exact change!

Without any money, another bar and a cheap hotel were out of the question, so we walked back across the border with our exact change for the toll. If you had told me then that ten years later I would be living in Mexico, well I wouldn’t have believed it.

As a footnote to the story, I should include that we drove straight back to Wisconsin, which took something like 24 hours. I was driving when we crossed the Mississippi river at St. Louis and the weather had already started getting freezing cold. At that moment, tired as I was, I remembered a certain friend who always lit a cigarette when he crossed the Mississippi for luck. I stole one of Corey’s and put the window down to smoke it. The electric window went all the way down but I only wanted it cracked. How dejected was I to find that the window wouldn’t go back up at all! We pulled over. Corey woke up and got in his sleeping bag, and I put on all my winter clothes, driving with big gloves and a ski mask. However it wasn’t enough and after 3 or 4 freezing hours we taped a garbage bag to the window. It barely kept the cold out and was so loud that we couldn’t listen to music or talk to each other for the entire ride and my ears rang for days.

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