My first visit to the USA was a wonderful four month summer stay at the end of my first year at Uni. My friend Ginny and I had secured jobs as chamber maids in a hotel in Nags Head, North Carolina. We lasted less than a week and were packing our bags at the first encounter with a room that had been totally wrecked by hideous residents who had, quite dexterously, managed to squirt their own shit up at the ceiling fan. Leaving the hotel manager somewhat in the lurch, there was no love lost as we exited and headed along the coast, settling in Virginia Beach and finding work in the local Pizza Hut.
We had the usual hilarity with Americans about how we were divided by a common language. Although, the manager wasn’t laughing long when I laboriously explained that there was a ‘bloke in the loo about to do a runner’. The non-payer was long gone before anyone understood what I was trying to tell them.
After two fantastic months partying with the best of them, Ginny and I set off on an 8-week tour of the States, courtesy of a succession of Greyhound buses. We were essentially covering the bottom half of the country, ultimately aiming for San Francisco, almost directly opposite where we started on the east coast.
When we reached El Paso, we decided on a little diversion down to Mexico. We’d arrived in the border town early one morning and established that the first bus southbound wasn’t leaving until 4am the following morning. Being students, we were doing everything on a budget and felt that spending money on a hotel for a maximum of three hours’ sleep was not money well spent. We would instead try hanging out in an all night bar.
Sat in a Wendy’s discussing our options, we were approached by a lady from the neighbouring table who ‘loved our accents’ and said she could show us a bar that would be open later where we’d be able to kill a few hours that night. It was safe and the two guys who owned it were old friends of hers who would take care of us.
Sounded good so we gladly took her up on the offer of meeting them. We pulled on our backpacks and set off with her on the short walk. It was mid-morning on a beautiful, still, sunny day. The sound of a car screeching to a halt at close proximity cut bluntly through the calmness. The car mounting the kerb, pulling up sideways fully across the pavement and blocking our path put paid to the few remaining vestiges of normality.
Out jumped two men, one flew across the bonnet with a pistol in his hand. They both targeted the lady we were with and ignored us completely. They slammed her up against the wall, holding the gun to her face, slapping and pushing her while shouting unintelligible things. She didn’t react at all and we were frozen to the spot.
It didn’t last long and soon they retreated back the way they came. She brushed herself down and said, ‘Sorry about that, anyway, shall we continue?’
We presumed she was the local hard-done-by hooker and admired her cool way of dealing with gun-toting brutes.
She took us to the small bar where we met Pete and Dave, two guys in their seventies who said they’d be happy to keep an eye on us into the wee hours of the morning.
After an unsettled day, it wasn’t long before we were making our way back to the bar where we settled in for the evening. It was about midnight when Pete told us that, if we wanted, we could head across to his place which was just across the road and get our heads down for a few hours.
I’d love to say that this is the kind of offer one doesn’t think twice about when one is young and naïve, but it’s precisely the kind of thing I still end up doing to this day. Pete walked us over to the hotel where he lived, gave us his key and told us he’d check to make sure we woke in time for our 4am bus.
A total gent.
The next day we were on a bus heading for Chihuahua in Mexico. The minute you cross over the border, life changes. The journey only takes about five hours but this didn’t stop the drivers from bombing along as though their lives depended on it. Not our lives though, which were frequently in danger of becoming the main feature of the annual Dia de los Muertos. At one stage, they decided to swap over but didn’t feel the need to park up. Instead, and without dropping speed – if anything gaining speed in the process – the one driving lifted his backside up off the seat and got himself into a standing position. The co-driver slipped in under him until he was seated and between them they managed to complete a manoeuvre where the controls were handed over from one to the other without missing a beat or a pothole.
We somehow made it in one piece, arriving in Chihuahua by lunch time. We had the address of El Hotel San Juan where we wanted to go and tried asking for directions. No-one seemed to know it but we were heartened to spot a police car, confident that they surely would know everything.
In the car were two cops who couldn’t have been friendlier. After a brief discussion, they settled on where they thought the hotel was located and told us to hop in, they’d drive us right to the door.
Still with our rucksacks on our backs, Ginny started clambering in the back on one side of the car while I did the same the other side. We managed to get our bums settled but our legs hadn’t yet made it inside when, without warning, the police siren sounded, a flurry of activity came from the front seats and a lot of shouting into the radios ensued.
The car took off at great speed, Ginny and I struggling to stay on board as our legs dragged along the road. I tried to explain that we were in no great hurry to get to the hotel, spotting it approaching at breakneck speed.
‘Aqui, aqui por favor,’ I ventured, but it was clear that we were en route to an emergency. We raced straight past the hotel – attracting open-mouthed stares from the doormen – on through town straight through red lights and round bends on two wheels. We had at least managed to haul ourselves inside and get the doors shut as we continued hurtling towards our unknown destination.
For the second time in under 24 hours, we were in the presence screeching cars and men brandishing guns. God knows what was actually going on but there were loads of other police at the site and a number of shots were fired. We were told just to sit tight and stay in the car which, naturally, we were happy to comply with.
Within half an hour or so we were again driving through town, but this time at a more leisurely pace and were indeed taken right to the door of our hotel.
The doormen were quick to inform the front desk that we were obviously very well connected guests, for which we were rewarded with the Presidential suite at no extra cost and an impressive amount of pampering during our stay.
Evidently, at times, it does pay to know men with guns.