Cassie Lane, News.com.au, February 11, 2019
The morning of our trip I was woken by my phone beeping.
Seven people had been shot dead in a public bar in Mexico the night before in the town we were about to travel to, and my friends were texting to make sure I was alive.
It got me thinking it might be a good idea to Google: “Is it safe to drive through the middle of Mexico” about eight minutes before my boyfriend, Cam, and I started our two-day road trip through the middle of Mexico.
A US government website cautioned that homicide, kidnapping and carjacking were common. I also learned we would be driving through Colima, one of the five towns it told travelers, in three fairly unambiguous words, “Do not enter” due to their 2018 homicide rate being the highest ever recorded.
Stocking up on a week’s worth of supplies, I figured we’d be OK so long as we didn’t leave the vehicle. The car seemed reliable. We had everything we needed, including a gallon of Gatorade that Cam had deemed “dramatic.” What could possibly go wrong? I thought.
When we were in the heart of rural Mexico, our gas tank almost empty, and we had driven past 17 eerily deserted gas stations, I got my answer.
I Googled, “how to get gas in Mexico when no gas” and a recently published article from the Washington Post titled “Gas Crisis Hits Mexico” ranked number one.
“Jesus!” I said, before reading the article. Billions of dollars worth of gas had been stolen by the drug cartel. To propagate his tough-on-crime rhetoric, the newly elected president of Mexico had decided to close the pipelines in response, putting his entire country in jeopardy. Two states had stopped public transportation. Though we did not know it yet, a national crisis was imminent.
As I tried to think of a solution, I realized all my alternative options required the very thing that was absent. No Uber, bus or even police car was coming to rescue us. Who even knew if the ambulances had gas.
I watched five hawks fly in a circle. The arid, cactus-speckled land spread for miles before meeting the mountains that surrounded us. We still had 10 hours of driving ahead of us.
There were no houses, let alone hotels, for miles. I recalled the US warning: “Carjacking and homicide are widespread.” Running out of gas was simply not an option.
I rang a friend who lived in Mexico. “OK,” he said, calmly. “So, you’re probably going to have to buy gas from the cartel.”
“Sorry, what?” I said.
“It’s fine. Just make sure you don’t look them in the eyes,” he said, adding as an afterthought, “Oh, and definitely don’t look at their guns.”
As directed, I put all of our money and jewelry in a tampon box and grabbed “pretend money” (a wad of smaller notes) for our pockets, while Cam kept a nervous eye out for a handmade “gasolina” sign.
Our hopes fading, just as our gas light started flashing we came upon a line of around 80 cars. We saw there were four functioning pumps. Slowing to suss it out, we pulled up behind 20 cars that had started to form a new line, inadvertently pushing in front of the cars we’d just passed. I stepped outside and braced myself for the onslaught. If this was Australia, there would’ve been anarchy. But the locals were so puzzled as to how this white-haired, 6-foot girl with the peculiar accent had found herself in the middle of Mexico they were too distracted to question us.
I could see there were at least 250 cars lining up from each direction for this tiny Pemex gas station. I approached a man at the pump.
“Is there enough?” I asked, urgently.
He smiled and shrugged, my thick Australian accent hindering any chance at communication.
I pointed to the line and then raised both my thumbs, the only body language that had proven effective in my travels thus far.
He smiled assuredly, mimicked my raised thumb with his free hand and said, “Si.”
He was too calm. Had he not seen any zombie movies? Did he not recognize the harbingers of Armageddon? I noticed while standing there almost all of the cars were filling up jerry cans, often more than five per car. There was irrefutably not enough gas for everyone.
Being a third child, I do not cope well with resource scarcity. I became slightly deranged. The heat was oppressive, nevertheless, I stood next to the car, face red, arms crossed, daring someone to push in with my aggressive body language. When a car attempted to encroach on our queue I walked over to the car and stared the driver down until they looked away sheepishly and moved into another lane. The hypocrisy was not lost on me, but I also had no plans to sleep among the cacti that night.
Finally, hours late, we got gas. We applauded our hero the gas man, who responded with two thumbs up and a smug smile. On the way out, in stunned silence, we drove past hundreds of cars waiting patiently. Once on the freeway we broke the silence by erupting in cheers.
Alas, our celebrations were thwarted when my friend called back. “So, I’ve spoken to some guys here,” he said, his voice less calm this time. “And there’s every chance you’re going to experience gas theft.”
“Gas theft?” I shouted. Cam looked over unnerved.
“People are going to try to flag you down and siphon your gas.” I put the phone on speaker just as my friend said, “Whatever you do, even if the police use their sirens, do not stop.”
We stared at the phone.
“But what if they just keep following us?” asked Cam.
But we’d lost reception. My friend was gone.
For the next few hours, I was hypervigilant. Whenever a car sounded the horn, I screamed. I wore my baseball cap to hide my blonde hair. I asked Cam if I should draw a fake mustache on with mascara and he laughed as if I was joking.
“Watch out for these guys,” I said suspiciously as we passed a truck with around 15 older men sitting on top. Dirt-ridden and tired looking, they’d clearly just finished a hard day’s work and were not scanning the road for some tasty gas to steal off two gullible gringos.
Just as I started to calm down my bladder signaled it was about to burst at the exact moment I looked up to see an ominous (and misleadingly cordial) sign that said: “Welcome to Colima!” I recalled the US government’s stern warning. In 2018 Colima averaged four deaths per hour and was rated Mexico’s deadliest town. Femicide was also on the rise.
I looked back at the Gatorade bottle. I then did something I didn’t know I was capable of, nor was physically possible, to save my and my partner’s life. Some might call me a hero; others would use the term feral. Either way, I did what I had to do and we survived. I’ll let you be the judge.
In the final six hours of our trip we didn’t pass one gas station that was open. The gas crisis continued for some time, leaving the country in chaos. If we hadn’t pushed in line at that Pemex I don’t know what would’ve happened to us. Shortly after our road trip, a gas pipeline ruptured. Desperate for gas, hundreds of bystanders ran to the pipeline. When it caught fire, over 80 people were killed. The president of Mexico took no responsibility.