What sort of car games do children play in Mexico, I wondered on the road to Oaxaca.
The two-lane highway was like a cord tangled around hills of sagebrush and cactus, trying to lasso in and tame a rugged landscape. I was driving back in time, to a place where men rode horses slowly behind lumbering cattle, slouched low in their saddles under the meager shade of cowboy hats, kicking up dust, touching the brims of their hats when I waved.
Where the hills formed narrow valleys, men and women plowed small fields behind pairs of yoked white oxen. The men wore straw hats and carried long willow-thin whips, looking exactly like a clay model of Saint Isidro I'd seen in a Mexico City craft shop. Saint Isidro prayed for relief from the heat and the dust, and an angel came down from heaven to plow his corn field. The clay Isidro knelt stiffly between straight rows of little clay cornstalks, a look of relief painted on his uptilted face.
There were villages every 50 miles or so consisting of two rows of low buildings on either side of the street -- brown and gritty frontier towns hidden under a cloud of diesel exhaust. And in each, a single beautiful church with twin spires, usually pink, rose on a hill like a crowning halo.
Perhaps children on long road trips through central-southern Mexico play guessing games, speculating on the number of Curva Peligrosa signs there will be in any given stretch. The "Dangerous Curve" signs were dutifully posted at every point the road zigzagged past a jagged outcrop of rock, snaked along a narrow precipice or twisted like a bent paper clip down a steep hillside.
I was playing Nintendo, spinning the steering wheel back and forth like a joystick. I added some sound effects myself, screeching past small white wooden crosses that marked the spots where unfortunate vehicles had careered off into the abyss. I counted 17 Curva Peligrosa signs in one 20-mile section of road, but had guessed there would be 30.
I also made up a grim road-kill game -- one point for each small mammal spotted dead by the side of the road, three points for dogs, seven for goats and 10 for large hooved animals. Hitting anything yourself would be instant loss, especially the large hooved animals that stood defiantly on the pavement, chewing with deliberate slowness and glowering defiantly at oncoming traffic. Losers get a cross.
My traveling companion came up with the Corona game, trying to spot enough letters in road signs to spell out C-O-R-O-N-A before actually seeing a sign for the popular beer. We tried to play the game for miles before giving it up as impossible: Except for the Curvas Peligrosas, there were hardly any road signs.
It would be dangerous in Mexico to play the car game my brother loved, the one where the first sibling to spot a Volkswagen Beetle was allowed to punch the other sibling in the arm. There were too many Volkswagen Beetles in Mexico -- yellow Beetle taxis and white Beetle rent-a-cars and sometimes a whole line of Beetles in a row like a Volkswagen train. If my brother and I had been children in Mexico, I would have been pummeled to a pulp before my 10th birthday.
Hours and hours of driving, up hills and down hills, around curvas peligrosas, braking for large hooved animals, slowing down through frontier towns, getting caught behind lumbering trucks belching exhaust on roads too narrow, steep and winding to pass without getting a cross. I played my new road games and contemplated the magnificent hills and wondered what the men sitting all day in the shade of rocks, watching their livestock eat, were thinking about. Probably the same things I was forced to think about with hours in which to do it: life, death, sex, food.
Of course, we didn't spend all our time on the road. We alternated a long day's drive with a day of sightseeing, taking a little more than a week to drive the 320 miles from Mexico City to Oaxaca, doublingback to Cuernavaca, Taxco and Acapulco, where we actually spent a few days avoiding the car before returning to Mexico City. The roads were in good shape, gas stations were plentiful and although we never once saw the Green Angels -- who patrol the highway in green trucks in search of motorists in distress -- we never felt uneasy.
To be honest, I did not see much of Cuernavaca because we stayed in a bizarre hotel compound with five swimming pools, a parking lot-size sandbox, a miniature train on an elevated track, sculpture gardens and what appeared to be a huge outdoor cathedral where people sang and prayed at all hours. The sign in front said "casino," but the rollers were definitely holy.
Taxco, set in the crevice of a mountainside with steep, narrow streets that led to a beautiful baroque church and a central plaza, was the prettiest city we visited.
The silver that made Taxco famous was everywhere. At everyturn there seemed to be a shop selling a mind-numbing amount of chunky silver jewelry, silver demitasse spoons, silver picture frames, silver salt shakers, silver swizzle sticks, silver letter openers and silver cups. I like to shop as much as the next person, possibly more, but at some point I quit without buying anything and went to get a drink. Fortunately there were a few cafes tucked between the silver shops and I discovered a friendly waiter who served me a sandwich on a plain, brown plate with some battered flatware.
Oaxaca's central square was set up like a stage, or at least it seemed that way for the few hours I spent at an outdoor cafe, people watching. It had a hundred different characters and about 40 ongoing plots: tourists with cameras, merchants and beggars, children chasing pigeons, a listless political rally, students in animated conversation, dogs looking for something to eat, men looking for women, families of various sizes in various states of harmony.
In addition to its lively square, Oaxaca is notable for its many native crafts, such as wildly painted wooden animals -- whole herds of which have migrated north to popular Santa Fe-style shops.
There were churches and markets and beautiful hotels with gardens, but I was most content sitting alongside that central square, very still, perhaps to compensate for all the time I spent moving on the road.
We reached Acapulco at the end of the longest day's drive, and we checked into a high-rise hotel with pools, beachfront and a balcony overlooking the bay.
In the evenings, I'd wander down the beach and pay some guys $10 to take me para-sailing over the bay. It was a relaxing way to wind up an utterly uneventful day, to drift up over the high-rises under a silent red cloud of a parachute, pulled by a speck of a motorboat in the sparkling water far below. When I'd land with barely a thump on the beach, I'd wander back up to the hotel and start thinking about dinner.
Before the big drive, I spent a week in Mexico City. During the day I went to museums and at nights my friends took me to nightclubs, the old-fashioned kind, where a big band played salsa to a smoky room full of people crowded around small tables, and cigarette girls sold American brands out of wide boxes balanced on their hips.
The morning I went to the massive National Museum of Anthropology in the city's Chapultepec Park, I was a little apprehensive about spending hours looking at bits of pottery and baskets. I'd been to many of the major Mayan and Aztec ruins in Mexico on previous trips and nodded dully when guides told us the best treasures had been moved to the museum.
But we ended up spending the entire day there, stopping only reluctantly to eat salads in the restaurant's pleasant outdoor cafe before scurrying back to the exhibits. The pottery was not just exquisite; much of it was whimsical and entertaining. Each figurine reminded me of someone I knew or something I'd felt long ago, very vaguely. And it was an eerie thing to realize the same people, the same emotions, the same sense of humor existed long ago and far away.
The Frida Kahlo Museum in suburban Coyoacan was smaller but no less intriguing. Kahlo, the wife of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who is noted for her bizarre self-portraits, has been enjoying a renaissance, perhaps because Madonna has threatened to portray her in a movie.
The museum is her house, painted neon blue and filled with the odd bits and pieces of Mexican art that influenced her work and made the country proud of her. There are only a handful of her works, but entire walls of retablos -- folk paintings on sheets of tin depicting real-life "miracles."
There were even better retablos at the museum at the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a much-visited site. They were crude and rusted, but each had the story of a miracle carefully written out at the bottom. Bicyclists walked away from collisions with buses; desperately sick people regained their health; surgeons performed successful operations; houses were saved from fire. One of my favorites showed three smiling brothers discharged from the army.
This leads to my only disappointment in Mexico. I was with a friend who wanted a retablo more than anything else in the world. We walked, we consulted maps and we asked directions until we found what was reputed to be the very best retablo dealer in Mexico City.
He didn't have a single retablo. A woman from New York had come the week before and bought all 50 in his stock for her boutique.
Well, there was always the drive, with its curvas peligrosas and lowering cattle and cowboys and Saint Isidro. That, you can't get in New York.
Gayle Young is a UPI correspondent based in Cairo. WAYS & MEANS
Traveling by car in Mexico offers flexibility and some spectacular roadside scenery, but drivers should be alert for possibly hazardous driving conditions. Because of wandering livestock, bicycle traffic, vehicles without headlights, large potholes and narrow shoulders, drivers should keep to safe speeds and avoid traveling after dark.
Some driving customs are also different. For example, when the driver of an oncoming vehicle flashes its headlights, he is probably signaling a narrowing of the road and that he has the right of way.
The major highways in central Mexico are well kept, but most outside of the Mexico City vicinity are two-lane and may not be in top shape. If you take your own car to Mexico, make sure it's in good condition, especially the tires, and carry equipment such as a tire pump and gauge, a jack and wrench, jumper cables, flares, a white cloth to indicate you need help and a first-aid kit.
PERMITS: A U.S. driver's license is valid in Mexico, but you must obtain a free permit at the border to take in your car; drivers must show proof of ownership (or notarized authorization from the owner to drive the car in Mexico) and current registration.
You can't leave Mexico without the car, and if your permit expires while you're there, you won't be able to take the car with you without an extension from the customs office.
INSURANCE: U.S. auto liability insurance is not valid in Mexico. It is essential to obtain Mexican insurance, with the same level of coverage you'd take in the United States; it can be obtained through a major U.S. company or one of the many Mexican companies located near border cities and towns.
If you're in an accident, the police will hold you in custody until you can prove the ability to pay for any liabilities you may have incurred. And if you rent a car in Mexico, you need more than the standard insurance provided in the rental contract.
CAR RENTALS: Most major U.S. car rental companies have offices in major Mexican cities and at airports, but you can also reserve a car in advance from the United States. Hertz currently rents an economy car in Mexico City for $199 a week, with 2,000 free kilometers and 17 cents per additional kilometer; a mid-size car costs $435 a week and 22 cents per extra kilometer. Avis rents a Volkswagen Beetle for $159 a week with unlimited mileage; a slightly larger car costs $339 a week with unlimited mileage. Insurance is extra, and there's a 15 percent local tax.
EMERGENCIES: In the case of a breakdown you cannot handle alone, wait for the police or the Green Angels -- government-sponsored, English-speaking emergency road crews who provide repairs when possible.
Most gas stations offer inexpensive, reliable repairs, but you will not be able to use a credit card for purchasing gas or parts. It is customary to tip attendants for any service.
The citizens-band radio channel for emergencies is 9. The Mexican Ministry of Tourism operates a 24-hour emergency hot line, (91) (5) 250-0123.
HIGHWAY CRIME: There have been incidents of crimes against foreigners on the highways, so drivers should be wary of strangers, should not drive at night and should not sleep in vehicles along the road.
According to the U.S. State Department, Highway 15 in the state of Sinaloa and Highway 40 between the city of Durango and the Pacific coast are particularly dangerous areas for drivers. The State Department recommends that American travelers avoid express Highway 1 (limited access) in Sinaloa altogether, even in daytime, because it is remote and subject to bandits.
MAPS AND INFORMATION: Current road maps are available free from the Mexican Ministry of Tourism at 1-800-262-8900 (its local office is at 1911 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006, 202-728-1750).