Mexico, Part 1 EL HOMBRE

The United Airlines flight landed in Veracruz at 10:30 pm, and shortly after customs I was ensconced in my luxurious airport hotel.

Well, perhaps luxurious isn’t exactly the case.  Think Mexican Red Roof Inn:  one foam bed, one towel, and two pillows.  A thin teal blanket.  That’s it.  Oh, and a view of the train tracks, adjacent bario, and Domino’s Pizza.
Are there Domino’s Pizzas on the moon?  I’m starting to think so.
But I was determined NOT to be…American.  I was trying to take each stride as it came, go with the flow, and throughly enjoy my first assignment in Mexico.
I collapsed into bed, stretched out on the foam mattress with the light sheet as a blanket, the teal thing balled on the floor — and I fell asleep until dawn.
Let me back up.
Two weeks ago, Stan called.  He was looking for a greenscreen photographer to handle an event in Vera Cruz, and thought I’d be perfect.  I’ve never worked internationally, but as readers of this column know, I’ve travelled internationally, and view going to Las Vegas about the same as most people see going to the corner store.  The only difference is in the mode of transportation:  jet.  So, I didn’t see any reason why I should bulk at the Vera Cruz assignment.  
It’s a good thing I didn’t bulk.  This may be the first of about 30 international events.  But we’ll see.
I gave him a proposal.
He went for it.
Except, the assignment wasn’t actually in Vera Cruz.  Vera Cruz is a state, like New York is a state, and so to say the assignment is in Vera Cruz is technically accurate, it’s kinda like saying the assignment is in New York when it’s actually in Buffalo.  You see, like New York, Vera Cruz city is in Vera Cruz.  
This event was ACTUALLY in Coatzacoales, or “Coca Cola” as Stan called it, a (according to Google Maps) three hour drive from Vera Cruz International Airport.
I told Stan this little fact when I discovered it, but he said I was smoking crack.  He was sure the airport WASN’T three hours from the Centro de Convenciones.  And, of course, he was technically right.  It was four.  
Now, please DON’T get the wrong impression of Stan.  He travels even more than I do — he is currently on his way to Korea — and is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.  We had a total blast, as I did with the rest of the team, and I have many, many stories to follow about those experiences.  But for now, sufficient to say I didn’t know Stan, and was making my own way.  And, on this, I am delighted to say HE WAS SO WRONG.  
But I decided to keep my plans as they were — I didn’t want to fly from Houston, to Mexico City, to Coatzacoales, switching planes along the way.  I was too worried they would lose the equipment.  So I stuck with my plan, and after research, decided it was OK to drive.
So that’s how I found myself in my luxurious Red Roof Inn.
Preparing to drive the 3 (4?) hours to Coatzacoales.
I entered the destination into my GPS.  “Would you like to avoid tolls?”  “No.”  “Would youl like to avoid dirt roads?”  “Yes.”  “Warning:  Travel passes through areas where detailed map may not be available.”  
I’m so glad I spent the $100 on a Tom Tom Mexican Map.  
I started out, not trusting the GPS, I turned the international data on for my phone, and utilized Google Maps.  They both agreed on the path, so I started out.  
And, it was spectacular!  Scrub land stretched on all sides of the highway, a mix of orchards and trees, intersected by the occasional river.  The only stops where Pemex stations along the highway — who was my client, after all — and little huts to get homemade tacos, beans, poblana peppers, and egg dishes (which I totally avoided).  More, enterprising farmers juiced their local fruits, put the liquid in ziplock bags, stuck in a straw, and sold them for $10 pesos each — about .80.  
I didn’t stop.  I’d been warned in my research about “Protesters”, a nice word for rebels who were causing havoc for the government.  This area of Mexico, far south of the drug lords on the US border, was deemed safe — but I decided, with about $40,000 worth of equipment in the rental car, not to be stupid for a baggie of pineapple juice or some carnitas.  I kept going.
Until the toll booth.  Rebels had taken over the toll booth, and about 200 swarmed the building.  Trucks were pulled to the side, not permitted to go through the booth by the rebels.  I slid past the trucks, right up to the arm of the booth, where a Senorita demanded I roll down my window.  I did.
“CIEN PESOS!!” she shrilled, “CIEN PESOS!!!”
I plastered a smile on my face.  “I’m a stupid American I have no idea what you are saying.”
“CIEN PESOS!!!! AHORA!”  (100 pesos!   NOW!)
I reached in my wallet and pulled out a 100 peso note.  The rebel hand lifted the arm, and I went on my way.  Heart pounding.  I didn’t want kidnapped and ransomed.
About 3 miles down the road, I saw a convoy of army trucks heading toward the toll booth.  These were army trucks just like in the movies, with soldiers in back of the open bed trucks, the canvas removed.  All had rifles on their laps.  They, I assume, were heading to take back the toll booth.
I made it to Coatzacoales without incident.  And what a shoot it was!  I’ll have more on that, later.  But for now I have a follow up to the rebels.
Actually, two.  The first was the Pemex executive who was in charge of the shoot.  When he was told I’d driven from Vera Cruz with $40,000 with of equipment in the trunk, his face paled. 
“But that’s very dangerous!” He said.  I nodded.  “Probably.  But I survived.”  I told him about the rebels.
“Tienes ************” said the executive, “Eres EL HOMBRE!”
Eh-hem.  Translation, in case your Spanish is rusty, “You have big male anatomy part. You are THE MAN!”
And then, after that?  Each time he saw me?  He shouted, “EL HOMBRE!  EL HOMBRE!”  (ME!  EL HOMBRE!)
Stan decided to ride with me back to Vera Cruz, determining he didn’t want to deal with the cluster **** of Mexico City.   So he was witness to part 2 of the toll booth story.
We got to the toll booth.  Everything was totally normal.  Uniformed workers collected the toll, and raised the gate electronically from inside their toll hut.
“Dos cien pesos, por favor,” said the toll operator.  
“Cuanto?” I asked. (Two hundred pesos, please, said the operator.  How much?  I asked, surprised.)
“Dos cien pesos.”
I paid the toll.
Maybe they just didn’t want to piss off EL HOMBRE.  In two weeks, I go back to Mexico on assignment — this time to Cuernovaca.  That area?  It’s on the State Department’s “Do Not Travel” list.  But those lists are for pussies.  I’m EL HOMBRE.  I’ll be fine.  
But if you don’t hear from me…please worry…And use my Amex card to pay any ransom.  I’m good for it.  Really.  Besides, I might as well get Starwood points for the ransom payment.

The posh airport Vera Cruz version of Red Roof Inn.
The neighborhood just outside the Centro de Convenciones 
And this is how the drive looks on google maps.