It was March of 1994. We had been in the great country of Mexico, land of the snake and the eagle, a mere four days when I parted company with my companions. The reason was simple: they had the funds to go all the way to the South to Chiapas where Subcomandante Marcos and his peasant-rebels had been making headlines; I did not.
I stayed in Guadalajara one night, then headed the next morning for the train station. There were throngs of Mexicans in the waiting area, far too many to fit on one train. They all had the same facial expression: that of a hunter crouched in a thicket, waiting to strike. I knew some Spanish, but certainly I was capable of misunderstanding an announcement from a distorted P.A. system. It seemed I didn't stand a chance of finding a seat on the train. I'd already experienced a mad rush for the train from Mexico City. I looked up at the schedule and realized that the entire trip back to Texas was so circuitous that I would probably stand a better chance hitch-hiking my way back.
Hitch-hiking. Why not? It seemed dangerous, it goes without saying, but not out of the question. On the one hand, there was the good feeling I had been getting from the people of Mexico: the warmest people I had ever met. I desired fresh air, adventure, new sights, and the freedom that comes with traveling by car, albeit someone else's. On the other not so insignificant hand, there was the chance that I might be killed, mutilated, fondled, or spindled. There was the time in Virginia when a bunch of Budweiser-swilling rednecks had vaguely threatened my friend and me for not contributing gas money. There was also the time in Massachusetts when a kindly middle-aged man asked me if I enjoyed "the life." These were merely near disasters that were easily averted. The experience of a friend of mine who had been attacked with a machete in a Mexican border town gave me the greatest cause for worry. He escaped alive, but the banditos had relieved him of all his money and gave him a sliced-up hand as a souvenir. However, as compelling as the arguments against the trip were, I took a glance at the hundreds of Mexicans and at the trip's nightmarishly long schedule, and got my thumb in working order.
It became clear to me, after a few short, inconclusive conversations that I would have to walk to the northern outskirts of Guadalajara if I stood any chance of getting on the right highway. I walked for an hour until I reached the end of the city, trudging up and over a hill, finding the outskirts of town. As soon as I had reached the top of a hill, all the vegetation seemed to disappear. The dust was all-pervasive, chalky, and of a beautiful, faded rose color. To my right, the hill sloped down and was covered with small, modest white houses. They were stone, square and dusty, and they reminded me of the houses out in Mexico City ("day-effay," as the locals and, after not so long, my friends and I called it). These impoverished communities were huddled, thrown together collections of endlessly identical dwellings.
Down the hill, little brown children were playing in the dust, and women were standing around chatting and doing chores. The people of Guadalajara proper were cosmopolitan; these people were simple, almost living anachronisms plucked from the previous century and dropped into ours.
One of the village women, overcome by curiosity, came up to me smiling a little and squinted her eyes.
"Donde vas?" she asked me. She talked to me without an air of suspicion. She was very friendly.
I told her, in my simple Spanish, that I was hitch-hiking back to Texas. She asked me if I was on business or in school. After I said neither, she asked me why I was here. "Solamente viajando." Just traveling.
She seemed more than satisfied with my answer: she seemed pleased. She wished me luck and walked down the hill to one of the small, white houses and disappeared inside.
I had been standing in the same spot for only 30 minutes when the first car to stop for me appeared. A blue Renault from the 1980's came to a stop and the driver leaned over the passenger seat and unlocked the door. He was somewhere between his thirties and middle-aged. He was stout, but fit and strong. He wore a very sporty blue and red jump suit. Squinting, he greeted me in Spanish. After my initial response, noting that I was not fluent, he switched to a very passable English.
His name was Alberto. Any and every derogatory notion that I had entertained about the type of Mexican driver who was willing to pick up a hitch-hiker was almost immediately dispelled. He lived in Zacatecas, far to the North. This was fortunate for me because I could travel with him for the bulk of the trip.
We rode along the dusty road, and before long we were in the mountains. The peaks, the green and dusty plains, and the magnificent altitude were both frightening and postcard-pretty. Alberto must have traveled from Mexico City to Zacatecas hundreds of times. It must have been comfortable for him to drive at 60 miles an hour over the hairpin turns that showed up every half a mile. The vistas, the small towns miles below, and the tall mountains must have lost some degree of drama for him. It was all sombrero viejo for old Alberto. That is probably why when we saw a car behind us lose control, Alberto didn't give it much thought. In the rearview mirror we both noticed it veering wildly back and forth. The road curved around the mountain, and we lost sight of the car before it either fell over the mountain or regained control. I wouldn't have heard any crash because Alberto was blasting Credence Clearwater Revival.
I had previously hated CCR, but Alberto, through a careful program of subliminal indoctrination, had awakened me to their mastery of music. When I had entered the car, Credence was asking who'll stop the rain? By the time of the possible accident, John Fogerty was musing ominously upon a bad moon. By the time we stopped for a few cans of beer brewed from the clearest of Mexican spring water, he was extolling the virtues of the midnight special. Mr. Fogerty continued, time and again (with a pattern that I soon learned) to sing his entire repertoire over and over. Alberto had a fairly extensive collection of tapes (including the Vincente Fernandez tape that I wanted to hear), but it was the Revival for which he held such pious devotion, and eight hours after the ride had begun, I was among the converted.
At one point, speeding down a steep hill, Alberto noticed my hand clutching the handle above the passenger door. "David, don't worry."
I smiled and said, "I'm not worried."
"But you were holding that!" He pointed to the handle, and I was caught in a white lie. "Don't worry! I drive on these roads all the time."
In my mind I thought of how the fact that he has speeded down these obstacle courses many times before in reality only increases the chance that he will cause a major accident. But then I began to relax. Alberto seemed relaxed. Why shouldn't I? I'm in his country, and I should buy wholly and earnestly into his variety, no matter how spurious it might have been, of logic.
We got well-acquainted and talked for hours about life in Mexico and the States. Later on, we stopped at a store along the highway. "Let's get some beer!" Alberto said with a smile. Tecate, Dos Equis and Budweiser were the only choices. I wanted a Dos Equis, but then a thought occurred to me: Should a man who is driving alone treacherous mountain roads be drinking?
"Which one do you want?" Alberto asked me. "I will pay for it."
"That's okay," I answered, thinking that he might be dissuaded from imbibing by means of my abstinence. "I don't want one."
"No! You should have one. Come on!"
What was I supposed to do? Alberto chose a Budweiser. Although I had by now subconsciously appointed him as my cultural guru, and I was tempted to ask for piss-water as well, I told him I wanted a Dos Equis.
With two of the four x's downed, and the remaining two on their way to my alimentary canal, the winding roads and treacherous cliffs seemed friendlier. I was beginning to adopt to my compa–ero's way of thinking.
At last, he consented to give the classic rock a rest and let me hear my new favorite, Vincente Fernandez. I had just learned the words to that excellent mariachi classic "El Rey."
Con dinero, o sin dinero,
Yo hago lo que quiero,
Y mi palabra es la ley.
No tengo trono ni reina,
Ni nadie que me comprenda,
Pero sigo siendo el rey.
(With money or without money,
I will do whatever I want,
And my word is the law.
I don't I have a queen or a throne,
Or anyone to call my own,
But I will still be the king.)
The trumpets began their machissimo bravado, the lonely guitar's strings were plucked into a plaintive chord, and suddenly Alberto broke into the verse. By the middle of the verse, I had joined him. He looked pleased that I knew all the words, and we belted out the song, swaying our beer cans in time. Gliding over those mountains, I think this may have been the happiest moment of my life.
We pulled into the city of Zacatecas, Alberto's home town, tired and a little buzzed. Alberto gave me the grand tour. It is a small city -- less than a million inhabitants. It lies in a narrow ravine, and there is a beautiful park with a chapel that overlooks and keeps watch over the tranquil town below. Atop this peak, alongside the chapel, there sits a bold statue of Pancho Villa, the great revolutionary leader of the early part of this century. He fought against tyrannical forces from both his own and our countries, fought against his former colleagues, and even hid from General Pershing in 1914. Owing to Villa's popularity, Pershing was forced to abandon his hunt, and perhaps it was in this very town where Villa hid so stealthily.
Alberto and I parted company after the tour, and he offered to put me up at his nearby ranch. I was grateful for the invitation. Still, I was hell-bent on getting a ride to the U.S. border that night, and I hoped that some trucker was headed all the way there.
I lugged my luggage to the outskirts. It had gotten quite dark. On my way to the highway, I passed half-deserted roads, with houses or stores deposited here and there. The pitch of night there seemed darker than any thing I had ever seen. There were no street lamps. Any motion or noise contained infinite possibilities. It was late, I was tired, but my faith in the people of Mexico to do no wrong steeled me against allowing my imagination to harass me. I was not foolish -- I was prepared for the worst. However, when one is in a city that Pancho Villa has taken as his charge, one tends to feel a high level of comfort. Still, there were no rides that night, and there would continue to be no rides that night.
I took a room in the cheapest motel I could find, and woke up early. As soon as possible, after buying a delicious breakfast of coffee and bread, I headed out to the main road.
A rickety truck pulled up to me, and I could not help but feel that my luck was destined to continue unabated. Stopping, the truck caused a cloud of red dust to sprout from the ground. An old farmer sat behind the wheel, his old wife to his right. She looked me over. She was chewing something white -- seeds! She had a very large amount in her mouth, and consequently, they spilled out, little by little.
I smiled at the woman and her husband and said hello to them. She asked me where I was headed, and in the process, sent a handful of tiny white missiles my way. The saliva-soaked morsels missed my body by a slim margin, so I made a nonchalant step backwards to avoid the next round. I tried my best to cover up any expression of distaste, but it seemed as if she wouldn't have noticed anything amiss, anyway. I wondered if she considered it customary to afford those with whom one converses the pleasure of actually seeing the human digestive process at work?
The old woman gave me a thorough looking over, and then summarily excused the entire bulk of the seeds with a forceful spit. The clump landed centimeters from my feet and she told me she was going the opposite way. The truck pulled away.
An hour later, my next ride seemed promising. The driver was a corpulent, mustachioed businessman who seemed friendly enough. When I told him my destination, he said he could take me only as far as the intersection with the next highway. I accepted, not being, of course, choosy. I took out my map to see how far ahead the ride would move me. I had almost located on the map the highway on which we were traveling when the car began to slow down. The car came to a complete stop and the fat man turned to me with a smile.
"Here it is!" he said in English.
The next few hours of that day come back to me only in bits and pieces. Short rides, long waits, dust, hunger, exhaustion, a circular bus ride in a small town that dropped me off in the same spot I was picked up, school girls on another city bus who were giggling and daring each other to talk to me. . . The state of my psyche was low, and wholly dependent upon my prospects of ever seeing the United States again. I was getting closer, there was not far to go, but my meager wallet could not bear an extra day of travel, and destitution was a distinct possibility. These few hours, in which I probably traveled no more than thirty miles, seemed like an interminable sentence in prison.
Then my second substantial ride appeared -- the sophomore slump. It was a truck, a very large one, and the driver was young, probably two years younger than I. After a few terse, polite exchanges, he and I fell into a silent coexistence more miserable than the worst of marriages. Where Alberto had been warm, loquacious, and generous, this grim trucker was cold, lock-jawed, and the most envious of misers. I had no reason nor right to judge his generosity, but I don't know how to explain it -- I could just smell his paucity of spirit.
In those three or four hours of travel, we didn't speak a single word to each other. The radio didn't play, and I would have welcomed with wide open arms the worst of the worst of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The only time he opened his mouth was when he spoke on his CB to an anonymous, fellow troglodyte. It was about me that he spoke -- he assumed I didn't know Spanish (or maybe he didn't assume anything and simply didn't care.) I caught some Latin epithet which he muttered while he looked over at me and narrowed his eyes. The end of the ride was welcomed, and we pretended to not hate each other while we said our good-byes.
Money was a serious, serious issue. I had barely enough to buy water, a bite of food, and a bus ticket from the Mexican border to Austin, Texas. If I succeeded in surviving on my measly fortune, I would arrive penniless and insane, or at least penniless. The fact that I would arrive at all was not a given.
Hours later, late into the afternoon, a sixteen-wheeler stopped on the side of the road. The driver, said something in Spanish, but too quickly for my tired brain to comprehend. He switched to English and told me he was going to the border. Hallelujah! I felt very lucky. Rodgrigo was a chubby trucker, but he didn't have the saturnine disposition of his colleague. He was endlessly energetic, funny, and good-spirited. We talked about life, politics, language, love, the love of language, and the language of love ("David, I tell you, the best way to learn Spanish is from a woman -- in bed!!") He laughed incessantly, and almost every sentence ended in double exclamation points. The hours flew by as we went further and further towards my now beloved homeland. The spirit of the ride was only dampened once, when we saw migrant workers by the side of the highway waiting to find a ride and some work, and Rodrigo talked movingly of their sorry plight. Thanks to his ride, I was able to make it back on schedule and in one piece.
Immediately after I arrived in Texas, one of the candidates for president, whom Rodrigo and Alberto had told me about, was assassinated. Not too long after that, Mexico entered into a devastating downward financial spiral. Poverty, and subsequently crime, is now supposed to be phenomenal. I don't think I would hitch-hike in Mexico at the present time. I think that would be stupid. Then again, perhaps what I did was stupid. There are probably some who would say that I was just lucky, and I could have been robbed, or horribly maimed, or that I could have had my throat slit. Maybe that's true, but that's not how things turned out. Whatever the tribulations, I had been able to experience Mexico on a level that no guided tours or regular vacation could ever reveal. I was able to meet real people, both great and not so great. I was able, in short, to see the real Mexico. And I propose a toast to that great land. Salud!