A Road Trip
By Nancy Westfall de Gurrola
After a year of college in my native Iowa, my parents decided that I needed to see more of the world. Having studied French in high school I assumed it would be Paris or the French Riviera. But no—the plan was for my mother and me to drive to Mexico City for a summer course. Obviously, I protested that I didn’t intend to spend the summer with my mother or riding on a burro or sitting under a cactus wearing a funny hat! I sulked about the trip, sure we would never survive the drive through the long hot desert and, as many friends in Iowa had told me, the “bandidos” might get us.
Despite my resistance, we left for Mexico City in June 1961 for what was to be a 2-day trek through the northern desert of Mexico. Somewhere between Matehuala and San Luis Potosí the car suddenly stopped. Mom lifted the hood of the car but had no clue what was wrong. Trailer trucks and cars whizzed by, but finally a man in a pickup stopped and offered to help the two non-Spanish-speaking “gringas.”
He began to take out one piece of the engine, put it on the ground, then another and another. My mother leaned into the window of the car where I remained sitting sullenly, cursing my fate in the sizzling heat, and said worriedly, “He’s going to dismantle the car, not know how to fix it and just leave us here!”
My mom, who spoke no Spanish, and our “good Samaritan,” who spoke no English, engaged in animated sign language. Suddenly looking very nervous, she said to me, “I think what he has asked for are my underpants! What should I do?” Still angry at being dragged on this trip, I replied that she should just give them to him.
She got in the car, slipped off the underpants and gave them to him through the window. After more sign language she said, “He wants yours too! Maybe then he’ll go away!” I complied.
But no, he didn’t go away but proceeded to tear the underpants into strips and tie them together. Observing this, my mother cried, “God help us! He’s going to strangle us with our own underpants!” Now I was frightened too!
Just as we were about to run down the road trying to escape, he began tinkering under the hood, replacing the parts of the engine that were strewn around. He signaled mom to try the ignition. The engine started! What had been a very scary moment suddenly turned into a humorous incident. He had fashioned a fan belt out of our underwear! We then followed him to a mechanic’s shop in San Luis Potosí to get proper repairs.
Why hadn’t our “good Samaritan” asked for a blouse or a handkerchief? He had needed something that would stretch! (We heard later that besides ladies’ underwear, pantyhose could be used as a fan belt but pantyhose had not been readily available until the mid-1960s and who would have worn nylons in the desert anyway?!)
Moral of the story? My stereotypes of Mexico disappeared forever! The exceptional helpfulness and ingenuity of our clever “guardian angel” inspired me to want to know more about Mexico and its people.
And I fell in love with Mexico and a Mexican. So, I remained, continued my studies, married, raised a family, became a university professor and have lived a wonderful life in Mexico. Before he passed away last year, my husband and I had celebrated 55 years of marriage.
Nancy Westfall de Gurrola