Here’s the true story (or could be fake story, depends on the lawyer we are talking with) of the time I drove a taxi cab in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
My beautiful girlfriend, Emily, and I have been dating for four years and every year her parents have been offering their “casita” in San Miguel to us, but we were way too cool to vacation with parents. For whatever reason—increase in maturity…or drop in our coolness factor—this year was different. San Miguel, Mexico is an artist town that was revitalized by young American soldiers in the 1950’s.
Most people in a new place take to admiring the scenery, which, in San Miguel, is inspiring and beautiful. But something else caught my discerning eye. The number of B13 (1991-1994) Nissan Sentras on the streets was shocking. Yes, I am a nerd. You can still buy a Nissan Sentra in Mexico, but they call it a “Tsuru.” Here’s the crazy part, it’s a brand new car. I couldn’t stop staring at them, they were everywhere. I had to get to the bottom of this. In order for me to experience San Miguel, I needed to do it through the windshield of a Nissan Tsuru.
The Nissan Tsuru is the same car that Nissan produced in the United States from 1991-1994 as the B13 Nissan Sentra. Except Mexico, like that psycho ex-girlfriend, was not able to let go of the Tsuru and they kept producing it past 1994. People went nuts for the car all through Central and South America. Touting the trophy of Mexico’s best-selling car from 1997-2011. Let me clear up a couple things:
The Tsuru started production in 1991
The Tsuru has ZERO airbags
The Tsuru weighs just over a ton (that’s light)
The Tsuru has no catalytic converter
The Tsuru has only 105 horsepower (even less with San Miguel’s altitude)
The Tsuru costs less than $8,000, new
The Tsuru will kill you if you crash into something
Why is the Tsuru so popular? Manuel (last name is not “Transmission) the taxi driver told me: “They just can’t be broken. If it does break they are cheap to repair and easy to fix.” Makes sense. The roads of San Miguel are similar to that of what you’d expect if everyone still drove a horse and buggy, or what manufacturers test car’s suspension on. Super bumpy.
There are over 500 cabs in San Miguel. And every single one of them is a Nissan Tsuru. It is a true testament to the Tsuru. Its ability to withstand abuse, and ease to fix, makes it a winner in Mexico.
We landed on New Year’s Eve and the party was raging on in San Miguel. Our casita sits at the top of San Miguel. We began our descent into town, and Emily’s parents asked us what we would like to do while we are here? We give the typical answers; shop, eat, visit the ruins, see art, go to the hot springs, and relax! Some part of me, I think it was my evil half, blurted out, “I want to drive a cab.” Without hesitation Emily’s dad said, “OK, we’ll see what we can do.”
Emily’s parents know most of the people in the town of San Miguel and it turns out that the local hotel owner was the catalyst. Barbie, the owner of Casa de La Noche—one of the top five B&B’s in San Miguel, Mexico on TripAdvisor—called her regular cab driver, Manuel, and proposed the idea of me driving his cab around town for a little while. My original idea was to pick up passengers, and take them wherever my heart desired. Manuel quickly shot that idea down. Apparently there are a few issues when trying to drive a cab in a foreign country:
1. I am not licensed to drive a cab in Mexico
2. I don’t have insurance
3. I am not covered under Manuel’s insurance
4. It’s completely illegal
Imagine trying to convince a NYC taxi driver that you have a friend from Mexico who wants to drive his cab. I can think of a couple words he’d say. Much to my surprise, Manuel agreed to at least meet with me to talk logistics.
“So you’re the one who wants to drive my cab?” Manuel said, spoken in perfect English. My odds are increasing here, and I’m becoming optimistic, until Manuel lays out all the issues. “Did you know that the motto in Mexico is, ‘Don’t hit others or be hit?’ Because no one in Mexico has car insurance. Good luck getting the car repaired, and the cops don’t care, not even the least bit.”
Hmmm, starting to get scared. “Also this will be completely dangerous and illegal, since my taxi insurance only covers me. Oh yea, locals don’t use their blinkers, and will drive AGAINST traffic if they need to.” I’m getting edgy but my inner dialogue is pushing me to persist.
I tell Manuel that I’ve never been in an accident, and I have a clean driving record. He thinks for a minute, perhaps sending a silent prayer to Guadalupe, then agrees. He’ll pick me up at 3 pm and he’ll give me 20 minutes of seat time. I’m speechless, scared, nervous, excited – all at once.
During the few many minutes that I’m waiting for him to arrive, I doubt myself. I could end up in a Mexican prison! I think of every worst case scenario and am contemplating backing out of this deal altogether. It’d be so much easier, and less stressful, to just have a normal vacation, like normal people do, doing normal vacation things. If my Mom had been around, she would have absolutely tried to talk me out of doing this. But I pushed forward and waited outside for Manuel to arrive.
I anxiously check my watch and it is 3:10pm. I was starting to think that Manuel had backed out. “Great! Manuel bailed, so now I can avoid jail time.” Just as I was about to head back home, Manuel rolls up in his bright green 2004 Nissan Tsuru that has seen more hard miles than a journalist press vehicle. Manuel decided to arrive on Mexican time, 3:15pm.
Everything about the Tsuru seemed familiar. I started to relax, telling Manuel that this was going to be “just like catching up with an old friend.” Manuel rolled his eyes. My nerves were on edge. There wasn’t much of an introduction to the car. I got in and Manuel said “Vamos”. I look over and Manuel is clutching his Guadalupe necklace. He knows that if I make one wrong move, we are both screwed. If one cop sees us, if I hit someone, if someone hits me, we are in for trouble.
Despite the odds against us, we move forward.
It brought me back to my teens when I was driving my Nissan Sentra SE-R. I think I was equally nervous as I was when I first started driving at 16 years old.
We headed north up the narrow cobble street road, and my first challenge was no more than two minutes into our ride. The streets are so narrow that only one car can pass at a time. But in Mexico no one follows those rules. I found myself sandwiched between two cars, narrowly missing the oncoming car. Manuel’s grip on his Guadalupe necklace got tighter. We proceed to a traffic circle, and I get nervous. In the United States we go with the flow of traffic. In Mexico, if you need to go left and everyone’s going right, Mexicans will just go left. They are “free spirits,” or just insane. I take my sweet time to make the move, and traffic is piling up behind me. I finally find a slot to poke the Tsuru out into, and a Volkswagen Golf swings out of nowhere just barely missing the trunk of the car. Manuel looks over at me disappointed and says, “You’re not a very good driver, are you?” I hesitated at the circle for just one second too long. That one second hesitation, almost got us in an accident. I knew I couldn’t let my nerves get the best of me, I had to just drive. And that’s what I did.
For the next 20 minutes I zipped around town like I’ve been doing this my whole life. Dodging donkeys at intersections, avoiding children jumping into the road with soccer balls, skirting lost tourists wandering the streets. The best moment, and what made Manuel laugh out loud, was when a local taxi driver did a double take at the site of this gringo driving a cab through the streets of San Miguel! I stood out like snowman on the beach of Miami in July. There I was cruising the streets in a bright green Nissan Tsuru taxi cab. We safely returned to our destination and I exited the taxi, in shock and disbelief. No arrests, no crashes, no cops. I officially navigated San Miguel in a Nissan Tsuru Taxi Cab, sans Mexican Prison.
Once I got over the initial nerves, I had a great time. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can confidently say I’m the only person in the world to have done this. Probably. After the drive I thanked Manuel profusely, and we both laughed, thankful that we made it back with no trouble.
Manuel told me he drives a taxi because he loves it. I told Manuel, I agree that life is too short to do things you don’t love. Man……I love the Nissan Tsuru.
And that is the absolutely true story of the day I drove a cab through the streets of San Miguel.