I travel a bit. Along the way, I have experienced more than my fair share of dubious transportation options: rickety planes held together with tape and glue; decidedly unseaworthy ferries; smoke belching taxis and horribly overcrowded minibuses that were literally falling apart at the seams.
And along the way, I have had more than a few interminable delays, missed connections, hair-raising rides, and terrifying near misses. Yet somehow, despite the sheer volume of time spent on the road, I have never actually been involved in an accident.
That is, until this past weekend, in Mexico. Where, while travelling between Atotinilco and San Miguel de Allende, the cab I was in was involved in a full-frontal collision with a motorcyclist. Thankfully, everyone was unharmed (not including the bike). But, perhaps because I love writing stories about interesting travel experiences, the universe chose this occasion to dish up a truly great one.
Some brief context: about eight months ago a friend from Los Angeles decided to quit the rat-race and purchased a small hotel in San Miguel de Allende, a town in the central Mexican highlands about four hours’ drive from Mexico City. She promptly proceeded to pack her bags, load her two miniature poodles onto a plane, and set up shop in a foreign country. In the process doing what I am sure so many of us fantasize about from time to time – radically changing life course – but then never have the guts to follow through on.
For the past six months I have watched via social media as my friend has presided over a complete makeover of her new property, transforming an old and stuffy guesthouse into the hotel of her dreams. And when she finally announced that Casa Delphine (named after a local cat) was open for business, I decided a fact-finding visit would definitely be in order. Then, a free weekend between work obligations in Dallas and Los Angeles presented itself, giving me all the excuse I needed to make the trip….
Boy, am I glad I did. In reality Casa Delphine was even better than its photos: a truly intimate, design-inspired boutique hotel, where every little detail – from décor to service to ambiance – has been immaculately thought through. And San Miguel de Allende was the perfect complement to the hotel – a postcard-worthy rendition of every imagining I have ever had of what a colonial-era Mexican town should be like.
Everywhere I went I got to experience an unending fiesta of brightly colored, weather-worn walls, narrow cobbled streets, gorgeous old churches and bell towers, and bustling town squares packed with happy people. (Indeed, San Miguel de Allende is so picturesque the whole place was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008).
More than the sheer physical beauty of the place, the town’s atmosphere was pretty extraordinary, too. You see, over the years San Miguel de Allende has attracted a large number of runaway Americans, Canadians and Europeans, usually creative types seeking a different, slightly quieter lifestyle in the warm Mexican sun. Such that today a permanent community of about 20,000 expats call San Miguel Allende home. Which means it punches well above its weight in terms of restaurants serving world-class food, trendy cocktail bars, and fashionable boutiques selling artisanal products – everything from hand-made clothes to organic food to jewelry to knick-knacks. Plus there is live music on almost every corner, quite a few excellent markets to explore, and countless art galleries lining the streets exhibiting a lot of really interesting, really diverse work.
So basically, Casa Delphine in San Miguel de Allende turned out to be a total surprise package: a wonderful place for me to hang out in for a few days, with a lot to do, but where that mainly involved doing nothing besides aimless wandering about, and people watching.
I loved it.
Anyway, one morning I decided to visit the Sanctuary of Ototinilco, a church complex about fourteen kilometers outside of San Miguel de Allende. It was constructed in the 1700s to commemorate Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and serve as a place dedicated to his slightly hard-core religious doctrines. Notably, this includes the practice of mortification of the flesh through repeated bouts of flagellation and fasting. Apparently Ototinilco is one of the premier locales to visit in Central America if this is the sort of thing you are into.
But S&M-style worship was not why I wanted to visit there. Rather, I was more interested in the art. You see, Ototinilco has (independently of San Miguel de Allende) been designated a World Heritage site all of its own. The honor was bestowed owing to the intricate murals that cover the church’s interior. They were painted at the same time as the church was built, over the course of thirty years, by the artist Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, who apparently set out to depict the entirety of the Bible in his murals. And whilst I have no idea if he succeeded in this lofty goal, the result is nonetheless something quite extraordinary, if not a touch overwhelming to see: a riot of painted images, colorful dioramas, and biblical quotes that cover every inch of the place. Not for nothing has Ototinilco been dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico”.
Ototinilco is not in walking distance of central San Miguel de Allende, so to get there I hailed one of the town’s distinctive green and white taxis, made the fifteen minute journey, and then asked the driver to wait, so that he could ferry me back to town once I was done. I had mentioned to him I would be ten or so minutes, but the murals were pretty fascinating up close. Plus there were three huge groups of rowdy school kids on excursion visiting at the same time, holding everything up. So in the end I wound up inside of the church for about forty minutes.
This meant that when I finally emerged back into the bright sunlight of the church’s forecourt my driver – Juan Sanchez Velazquez, according to the official nametag on the dashboard of his taxi – was pacing up and down, repeatedly checking his watch and huffing in a slightly annoyed way. I had obviously kept him waiting far longer than he had planned.
This also meant that Juan wasn’t at all pleased when I stopped on the church steps. Two beggars – wizened old ladies with white hair dressed in rags – were beseeching me for some charity, under the arch of the massive wooden front door. I felt like I should give them something. But after fishing about in my pockets I realized I didn’t have any coins. So I made to turn back inside of the church, where I could exchange a note for coins at the cashier desk. I signaled to Juan with a pair of upturned finger in a kind of “V for Victory” sign – “wait, I will be another two minutes” was my meaning. He more or less scowled at me. Now I was clearly just being difficult.
Still, I went back inside, and swapped a 100 peso note for loose change. Once again I had to wait for the school groups ahead of me, so it was about five minutes more before I re-emerged from the church, whereupon I proceeded to press the coins into the outstretched hands of the begging ladies. They smiled, muttered some words in Spanish I did not understand (other than repeated reference to “Dios” – God), and patted my hand gently.
Meanwhile, Juan looked on in stony, grumpy silence. When I was done we hopped back into his cab, me sitting in the front passenger seat alongside him, and sped off. San Miguel de Allende was fifteen minutes away, I was desperate for a coffee, and Juan obviously had somewhere else he needed to be.
Less than ninety seconds later we were approaching a gentle bend in the narrow, cobbled road, when a motorbike suddenly appeared from around the corner. Juan was driving at about sixty kilometers an hour, and the bike was coming towards us really, really fast.
Juan slammed on the brakes. The motorcyclist did the same thing, but it was all too late. The bike’s brakes locked, the driver lost control, and his bike went into a skid, sliding the last thirty meters towards the taxi in an instant. Where it smashed into the front hood, hard, right in front of the passenger seat where I was sitting. There was a horrible crunching sound, the bike disappeared from view under the front of the taxi, and the motorcyclist seemed to be thrown up into the air and forward, bouncing onto the hood of the taxi before being hurled backwards onto the street to land about five meters ahead of us.
The whole thing happened in less than two seconds. But from where I sat, watching it unfold, everything seemed like it was taking place in slow motion. I saw every detail as the bike slid forward toward us on the cobbles; I watched the bike’s rear tire smoke up as it struggled to stop, leaving a wide skid mark on the stones; I locked eyes with the motorcyclist through the slit of his helmet as he careened inexorably in our direction; I felt the shock waves as his bike, and then his body, slammed into the taxi.
For a heartbeat, everything was still and quite. Then Juan sprang into action. He flung open the door of the cab, jumped out, and ran round to the front. I was shaking – quite literally – but did likewise, and joined him on the street. Before us the bike was laying on the ground, a near total wreck. It had made a reasonable sized dent and left a scrape of paint on the taxi’s front fender; the taxi’s hood was mildly dented, too. And the motorcyclist was on the ground, splayed out on his back. He was whimpering softly, making a noise that was a lot like the sound of a small child crying.
Immediately, Juan and I rushed over to where he was laying. Again, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, and in the split-second it took us to reach him my mind circled through all manner of morbid thoughts. I fully expected to be confronted with severed arteries gushing blood, and broken bones, or worse: an adult man dying on the cobble stones in front of my eyes.
But miraculously, the motorcyclist was fine. Juan reached out a hand, the man took it, and pulled himself up. His jeans and jacket were a shredded mess – no doubt they were the things that had saved him from serious injury. Once on his feet he shook his right arm, like he had twisted something, and rolled his shoulders. But beyond that, nothing: the man simply dusted himself off and began dragging his mangled bike off to the side of the road. He didn’t even take the time to remove his helmet.
Once the bike was out of the way, the motorcyclist returned to chat to Juan. For a couple of minutes they spoke, a simple and calm exchange of words, not heated or angry in any way. It all felt really weird, like they were two strangers who had bumped into each other in the toilet queue at a football game. As opposed to a pair of motorists who had just met each other in a head-on smash.
They didn’t swap any details, nor did they write anything down, nor did they take any pictures. No, Juan and the motorcyclist conversed politely for a few moments, after which Juan signaled me to get back into the car, he restarted the motor, and off we went, leaving the motorcyclist standing alone by the side of the road. In the rear view mirror I caught a last glimpse of him. He was staring forlornly down, onto the carcass of his beaten-up bike.
As we sped away from the scene of the crime, so to speak, I was feeling pretty unsettled. I mean, for fuck’s sake, we had just had a potentially fatal collision with a motorcyclist, and then we had upped and driven away like it was no big deal, which was not something I was feeling especially cool with.
Perhaps sensing that I was mucho uneasy, Juan slowed the taxi and then pulled off onto the side of the road. He reached his right hand forward to take hold of a small cross dangling on a beaded chain from the front mirror. He pointed the cross toward me and in slow, broken English said words to the following effect: “You did a good deed at the church when you gave money to the old ladies, so God was watching over you. That bike was heading directly for you, but God kept you safe.”
Juan was smiling warmly as he spoke – he meant well. But the whole situation was far from OK, and in the shock of it all my mind had done what it usually does in stressful situations: fixate on the practical details. Thus I found myself rather rudely retorting: “Yes that’s nice of God, but what happens now? How will you ever find that guy again? You didn’t take his details. Will he pay for the damage?”
Juan stared at me. He had a slightly amused look on his face – kind of like the look a parent might reserve for a foolish child. He smiled again, fixed his gaze on the road ahead, and sighed deeply.
“Senor,” he said, “the motorbike rider is alive. And you are not hurt. Today, nothing else matters.”
Then Juan pressed the cross to his lips, kissed it, and let it go. It bobbed around as he restarted the car, pulled back onto the road, and we resumed our journey. I watched that cross bobble around, fixated on its motion all the way back to San Miguel de Allende. And neither Juan nor I said another word. Because sometimes, there aren’t any words that need to be said.
I went to Ototinilco to check out a church dedicated to a long-dead saint. Only to find myself in a cab driven by a real live one instead.
So thank you Juan Sanchez Velasquez. Not just for the story, but also for the lesson.
My first book, MAN MISSION, is now available. Go to www.manmissionthebook.com for details and where to buy.