Thursday, July 04, 2013

Mexico 1987, Part 10: The Long Way Home

Dec 3
San Diego
This isn't Mexico. This bus is leaving on time, a bus much different than the bus I got off of about 48 hours ago. THAT bus was a Mexican bus. We got on with tickets that assigned us seats 11 and 12, but those seats were taken and the driver, not willing to honor our assignments, offered us 2 different, non-adjacent seats. I said no, we had to sit together. A 36-hour bus ride faced us and neither of us wanted to sleep on any strange Mexican shoulders. The only seats left together were 35 and 36, which I accepted blindly, having just been sent off from Andele's with 2 tequila slammers and not realizing those seats were right in front of the bathroom. It was the first time I hadn't gotten the seats I was assigned; usually they were fussy about keeping you in your proper space. But as long as we were together, I didn't care. Until, of course, we saw the seats. They reclined about an inch, no more, and the window seat was broken and slid forward and back with the jiggling motion of the bus.

Dec 11
North to Tijuana
We pulled out of the P.V. bus station at 8:40 pm., 40 minutes late. In the first few kilometers it became clear that the trip was to be horrific. It was impossible to sleep sitting bolt up right, with your head falling front, or to one side or another, and the stench from the toilet (which broke down shortly after we left the station) was sickening.

That's when Window Wars began. In the window seat in front of us was a father of 6, all sitting beside him and across the aisle. He was in charge of 2 of the bigger children and his wife across the aisle tried to keep the other 4, of varying size, in check. Tamar was at the window, which closed just beside the head of the father, so that he had control of it. As we drove out of town the window was open, but once we were on the highway one of the drivers asked everyone to shut the windows so they could turn on the air conditioning. With the windows closed, the smell of urine thickened around us and Tamar cracked the window again, just to get a small but steady stream of fresh, breathable air. Then, after a while, the father felt the draft and closed the window. Tamar waited a few minutes for him to nod off, then opened it again. This went on all night in about 15 minute intervals.

Four people got off in Mazatlan 8 hours later and I asked one of the bus drivers if we could change seats. There were seats available now, I explained, and since we were originally assigned seats 11 and 12, I thought it only fair that we be moved up now. But the driver was already giving our seats to older, bigger Mexican women and, he kindly explained to me, it wasn't possible to move us. I reminded him that 4 people had gotten off and I tried to impress upon him the inhumane conditions we had been forced into in those seats in the back of the bus. But he was not moving us and said we'd have to wait until Obregon to change seats, sometime the next day. This seemed less than reasonable but we had to accept it, under the circumstances. At least we'd get some sleep tomorrow. We just had to make it through tomorrow. Then we saw on the map that Obregon was nearly 3/4 of the way to Tijuana, a very dim light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

I was sitting by the window now; it was 6am and my turn to play Window Wars. I had my head pressed against the window to breathe in the skinny stream of air from the open crack. I had just begun to fall asleep when Tamar said, in a level yet forceful tone, "Goddamit. Monique, open the window." In my daze I hesitated, but she was adamant. Then I saw why. A pregnant woman, trying to make it quickly to the bathroom, had just thrown up on Tamar's chair. Tamar had just leaned up against the seat in front of her and was considering waking me up to switch when the wretch occurred. It was dripping down the back of her seat and had slightly wetted her shirt and skirt. She had to ride that way for at least another hour before we made a stop and were able to reach our bags.

Tired and angry, I approached the second driver at the next station, while Tamar changed clothes in the bathroom. I tried to calmly explain this new predicament and our more urgent need for new seats. He cleared the bus and sent a man to clean up the mess, and I thought he was going to rearrange us, putting single passengers together to make room for us, making it so no one had to have those miserable seats. But he intended no such thing. I had seen people retrieve their luggage and disembark and I again reiterated the problem, pointing to a very disheartened Tamar, stressing the fact that she had just changed clothes and we were not about to sit back in those dirty seats again. But the driver most graciously pointed out something I had not yet realized: This was not the United States, this was MEXICO!

Oh! Of course, that's why we have to suffer! I tried to smile because tears were roiling up into my throat and I didn't want to give the driver the satisfaction of seeing me cry. We retook seats 35 and 36, covering the pukey seat with a towel, staring blankly out at the Mexican desert rolling by. By noon, the sun got very hot by the window and Tamar moved to an empty window seat on the other side of the aisle. When the mother of 6 - who smacked her kids every time they so much as squirmed - saw that the seat beside me was vacant, she told the most hyperactive son to sit there. He had been playing on the floor and his white shirt and white pants and every other exposed part of his body were nearly black with bus filth. I didn't want him sitting next to me and I glared at him. That deterred him a little, and he grubbed a little more on the bus floor. But eventually, mother's glare won out and he slid onto the seat beside me.

Down the road a ways, immigration officials (we were told) pulled the bus over. We had to take all our baggage off the bus and they wanted to go through all of it. The night before, when they had stopped us, they had just asked to see our passports or identification cards. They took a guy and a woman traveling with him off the bus - who, we guessed, didn't have an ID - and we continued on without them. Now everyone stood out in the desert sun fanning themselves while the officers picked through our bags for guns or contraband.

Back on the bus, the driver decided it was time to try that old air conditioner again. Everyone closed their windows and waited for the rush of air that we so deserved on this first class bus. But it just got hotter, the stench from the bathroom thickening, and I could feel the bile rising in my stomach. Back to Window Wars. I leaned forward so I could inhale the air from the cracked window. The kid in the blackened white clothes was asleep in the seat beside me and, except for the nausea, it was somewhat peaceful.

Pretty soon, people started figuring out that this was Mexico and not the U.S. and that the air conditioner on this first class, air-conditioned bus didn't work and they opened the windows again. Then, of course, we came to another station. The first bus driver, now dubbed "Chuckles" by Tamar, came back to see what seats could be offered to new passengers and became slightly miffed when he saw the dirty boy asleep in the seat where Tamar should have and Tamar in the seat that should occupy someone else. He woke up the boy and put him back in one of the 4 seats (containing the family of 8) and asked Tamar to retake her assigned seat. I said, "What did it matter? That seat was vacant and clean and by a window." And he said, "Bueno, but that's the seats you'll keep." And I said, "Oh no, you said we'd be moved up in Obregon." And he sort of winced and screwed his face up and rolled his eyes and threw his hands upward as he pivoted back up the aisle. Tamar and I grinned at each other across the aisle - this was surely somewhat of a coup.

At about 4 a.m. we hit Obregon. After everyone was off the bus, it disappeared to get cleaned or filled with gas or something, and everyone stocked up on bus station food, which in Mexico is homemade food like tacos or tamales that a woman made in her kitchen and travel books say you shouldn't trust. The bus was gone for quite a while and, when we looked around, we didn't recognize anyone. I wondered aloud if Chuckles had gotten the last laugh and left us there. It wouldn't have surprised either one of us. It would even have been funny. Things were so bad by then, all you could do was laugh. But the bus reappeared and Tamar and I smiled at Chuckles and he finally smiled back. Then he disappeared with the seating assignment. Tamar said to his absent self: "Please don't give us new seats. We love our seats. We're just happy Americans in Mexico."

We boarded the bus and I looked at Chuckles for that long-awaited seat change, our release from hell. He had assigned us 15 and 16 - we were free!! As we took our seats across from the fat Mexican ladies who had taken our originally-assigned seats back in P.V., the closest one smiled and said, "So, you're always a winner." We still had about 15 hours to go and this was Mexico, not the U.S.

I just smiled back.

[Tamar just reminded me that, when we got to the border in Tijuana, we were pulled behind closed doors by men in white, short-sleeved shirts, badges and guns and asked to open our luggage. I had bought some tea for one of my friends back home who had recently developed ulcers - I was assured the tea would cure them, but it did look a lot like the shake of those days - and we had to explain what it was. After they pawed our stuff and sniffed my bag of tea, they eventually let us pass]

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