MEXICO CITY — Gabriel, the Uber driver with the black Chevrolet Tahoe, was one minute away from the group of Las Vegans standing in front of entrance seven at the international airport.
It was the minute that became the endless minute.
Gabriel was nowhere to be found after 10 minutes, but, according to the Uber map, he was still one minute away.
The tired reporters who made the trek to Mexico’s capital city for Sunday’s Raiders-Patriots game at Estadio Azteca didn’t give up on Gabriel. Maybe he was stuck in traffic.
Ten minutes then became 20, and Gabriel’s car on the Uber map hadn’t moved.
Uber ride canceled. Gabriel made an easy 150 pesos ($8) for taking a nap at a parking lot across the street.
The next three Uber rides requested never showed up, either. The Americans began to get frustrated with Uber Mexico, but then they were saved by an Angel — Angel was the second part of his first name.
“Never trust a guy with two first names,” a suspicious Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney said.
This Uber hero had a last name, actually two. Miguel Angel Martinez Ayala went beyond out of his way to show the Las Vegans parts of the city that were hit the hardest during the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that killed hundreds Sept. 19.
From the first few minutes of getting into Ayala’s black Nissan, it was easy to tell he was a friendly man with extensive knowledge of his hometown, and a fearless driver by the way he cruised around the busy streets.
Ayala, 35, seemed like the type that doesn’t panic under stress, which was evident when he didn’t have an answer to a question from his passengers. A rarity from the walking encyclopedia we spent almost five hours with.
“I’m a history buff,” Ayala said in Spanish. “If I don’t know the answer, there’s a simple solution … always Google.”
I was reassured by Ayala’s bravery when he told me his story from the day of the earthquake.
A middle-aged woman requested an Uber ride to a building in the center of Mexico City. Instead of just dropping her off, Ayala decided to park and walk the lost woman to the office she needed to get to.
The two were on the second floor when the building began to shake. The woman immediately dropped to her knees and began to pray. The intrepid Ayala called the experience a “cool roller coaster.” But Ayala knew he needed to calm the woman.
After hours of being stuck in the building, Ayala was able to get to his car unharmed.
“I remember seeing frightened people covered in blood walking barefoot on the streets,” Ayala said. “It took me almost five hours to drive four and a half miles. It was chaos.”
Ayala realized we were headed the wrong way when he found out we wanted to get to Colegio Enrique Rebsamen, an elementary school in Villa Coapa that was crushed during the earthquake and had 25 people die, including 21 children from ages 7 to 10.
The father of two young boys instantly offered to be our tour guide and help us coordinate interviews.
Ayala, who also is an accountant, began to point at the buildings that sustained major damage, like the recently built establishment that fell onto the highway, and the five-floor building that instantly collapsed on the street of Calle Alvaro Obregon. There was also the Galerias Coapa (mall) that split in half.
“It’s hard for people to forget about the earthquake when the rubble of the fallen buildings are still visible,” Ayala said. “You walk down the street and see one destroyed building after seeing four to five buildings perfectly fine and still standing.
“The city and the government have done a poor job of cleaning up the mess. Everything is just sitting there.”
Once we arrived to the school, a police officer with a rifle hanging from his chest wanted to give us a hard time. Ayala talked him into leaving us alone.
Ayala then asked a woman who was guarding her belongings in the apartment complex next to the school to do an interview. He made her feel at ease while she told her story from the horrific afternoon.
Everywhere we went, the people loved Ayala. It was as if they knew him for years.
Ayala’s strong people skills and his expertise around the city allowed us to see what the people of Mexico City are going through and how hard they’re fighting during a difficult period that has no end in sight.
Football provides escape
Ayala’s favorite sport is soccer, and he despises Club America. He’s a Pumas UNAM fan. America and Pumas are intercity rivals in Mexico City from the Mexican soccer league Liga MX.
But when he’s not watching futbol, he’s cheering for his Raiders. The Silver and Black have been a family favorite since the days of Tom Flores as coach.
“I’ll cheer for my Raiders, but the Patriots are winning,” an honest Ayala said.
Ayala said the city isn’t American football crazy, as the media makes it seem. It’s usually a game for the rich Mexicans and tourists from the U.S. But this year, the Raiders and Patriots will provide locals with an escape for a few hours.
“The locals are very excited for this game,” Ayala said. “The public is happy because it’s a distraction for them after the earthquake.
“On the political level, it’s been a disaster. The government hasn’t done things right since the earthquake. Over here, they have committed many errors.”
When the Raiders and Patriots pack up, the people affected by the earthquake will go back to wondering where they can take their next shower and when will the government allow them to return home or provide shelter.
Ayala has lived in Mexico City his entire life. He added a visit to Las Vegas to his bucket list when he found out the Raiders are moving to Southern Nevada with a shiny new stadium.
“First thing I’m going to do is visit the “Pawn Stars” shop,” Ayala said. “That’s my favorite show.”