It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friends scream, “Let me out!”
Tomorrow gets me higher, higher, higher…
Pressure on people – people on streets
Turned away from it all like a blind man
Sat on a fence but it don’t work
Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn
Why, why, why?
Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can’t we give love that one more chance?
Why can’t we give love…
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
– This is ourselves Under pressure
The highway was all chewed up and after riding far enough, we arrived at the border town. Frontera Hidalgo. The highway had done a long straight shot across flat land near the Pacific coast, places that were sometimes opened by agriculture, or otherwise just hot and humid jungle. It passed through the Guatemalan towns and cities, Escuintla, Cocales, Mazatenango… and the societies here felt impoverished, high in crime and dangerous. Now I looked at the map for what lies ahead. Mexico. The highway would pass through towns with crazy sounding names, like Tapachula de Cordova y Ordonez, Pijijiapan, or Juchitan de Zaragoza, one town was named Viva Mexico! I was worried about Mexico. I was worried I’d be going through many more towns as tragic as Mazatenango was. But I wasn’t as worried as Charlie who was planning to cross the border illegally.
We stepped off the bus and it was hot. The town looked quaint with Spanish architecture, sunny, and old fashioned. Pretty soon we were approached by a bicycle taxi who offered to take us to the border. We said no, but he was pestering, and followed us. Suddenly Charlie freaked out because of it, kind of blowing up in an exasperated volley of Spanish to the man, and confessed he was planning to cross illegally. Oh, well, that’s fine. Hop in. We got in the bike taxi. Basically… and I was confused for a little while… the bike taxi man said crossing the border illegally here is commonly done and easy, give me ten dollars and I’ll take you to the spot where you can walk across the river. He brought us through the center of town, it looked colorful, friendly, more put together than a lot of the towns I’d been in recently.
He took us to a place where we could convert our money from some men sitting in a courtyard between buildings. I sat down at a table where they were counting out quetzals and Mexican pesos. The American banks really screw you, I’ve realized it cost me 5$ to take out cash at every single ATM I’ve been to since I left the US. By now I had probably paid over 100$ in bank fees and I had begun to incur 10$ charges every time I pulled money out of my savings… I decided these guys seemed legitimate, Charlie was converting all his money here… they told me 10 pesos was 1 US dollar… I gave them 40 dollars and they gave me 400 pesos. Well, the unfortunate reality was that it was 18 pesos to 1 US dollar, so I should have gotten closer to 800 pesos for 40 US$. Basically they ripped me off an actual 20$, and Charlie too. I realized that all the money Charlie had in the world was in his wallet. The man literally only had like 70 dollars to his name… well now he’s got 50.
As we rode in the bike taxi father through the town, I thought of how desperately unprepared he was. He really should have found a way to save some more money before taking this trip. I wondered if I should give him 20$, because for me, slowly going broke, 20$ is a small slice of the pie. For him it’s half his wealth. It just seemed to me like Charlie can never make it to the US, but he’s trying- he’s struggling forward still on the date I type this.
So I paid the taxi man the 10$ in the end and said goodbye to Charlie. It was a quick and abrupt goodbye, and I wished him luck. I was dropped off at the border. I was told, meet Charlie in the park, the park is in the marketplace, alongside the river. Then I was on my own. I paid my exit tax in pesos and walked. The border was a long bridge across the river and I walked it. To be here now was a victory. I was walking into Mexico and I had made it really far overland since Panama. I looked out to the river, and I saw the park. The river was shallow, there were hundreds of people gathered around, boats were floating or being pulled across by people between the two different border towns. Kids were swimming, commerce was happening, and I saw one lone man with a backpack walking across the river but it wasn’t Charlie. Should I go find Charlie like I said I would or should I just travel off on my own again? He would be hazard now, being illegal here. Maybe it’s best that goodbye was for good.
Customs for the United States of Mexico were very friendly to me and I walked into the surprisingly modern and clean southern Mexican State of Chiapas. There was a fountain, a statue, architecture that wasn’t so beaten and run down as Guatemala. I walked from there through a teeming marketplace with people talking into megaphones from up on stands selling faux Persian rugs, people selling kitchenware, people selling everything! People saying stuff to me and I just smiled, waved, kept walking. Hola! I felt giddy here, I bought a bag of juice. I exited the market and was in the quiet open streets of the town. The sun was blazing, burning hot, the super sunlit town was an inferno in the mid morning. After a bit of walking, I saw a sign pointing to Tapachula. That’s where I needed to go. I decided, first… I’ll visit the park and look for Charlie. It took me a while of wandering around like an idiot and talking broken to people but soon I found the park.
There were vendors everywhere in shacks and under awnings. People very curiously stared at me, people would try to talk to me, a woman laughed at me, laughing for no more than the fact that I was here. Laughing for no more than me being in this place alone and obviously so far from my home. Maybe it was dangerous for me, maybe not, but I wasn’t afraid. Some children saw me, pointed at me, and yelled, “Gringo, gringo!” Ahh, shut up! That really did draw a crowd of attention to me! I sat down and ate lunch from some people cooking outside under the trees. They acted like I was gracing them with my presence and were very hospitable towards me. They set me a table, pulled up a chair, got me water, hot tortillas, and then some excellent chicken, rice and beans. “Busco mi amigo,” I told them. I looked for Charlie, but Charlie was gone. There were so many people I’d never find him. It’s a little scary to go back to travelling alone, but Charlie had helped me through many places and now I had to begin a new chapter.
I walked through the burning sun to the sign pointing to Tapachula, and there I waited to flag down traffic. My thumb was out and a bus was yelling, “Tapachula, Tapachula!” No, trying to hitchhike in a truck bed, thanks. Then another bus yelling, always looking confused when I said no. Then a third bus, then a fourth one, then a fifth one… Tapachula, Tapachula! …No! Finally the sixth bus passed by waving frantically at me, OKAY! Jeez. I got on the bus. I looked out the window, it was a pretty long ride and the Mexican dusty forests and small historic looking dwellings nestled in were lovely. Soon we were on a big modern highway, and I helplessly fell asleep.
When I woke up I was dropped off alone on the bustling city streets of Tapachula. It really was just like a normal town in the USA, only much nicer! The Spanish architecture was not crumbling, the streets were less narrow, the tall apartment buildings and businesses were still wall to wall but walking in those streets it felt peaceful. Kind of felt European. I bought for 20 pesos (about 1$) a yogurt, an apple and orange, water, wafer cookies, and a bag of by-far-the-BEST tortilla chips I’ve ever had in my life. Then I walked into a bakery where I could get an assortment of 4 different, delicate pastries for 5 pesos. They were divine. Soon I was walking through the bustling hub of a modern downtown city, with shopping malls, wifi, everything I could ever need. I bought a frozen yogurt and thought, wow! If I ever wanted to live in a city, I’d want to live in this amazing city! Wow! Mexico is not scary at all like I thought, it’s totally normal, like the USA but way nicer. So much better food is available at a whim, and it’s cheap, the city seems pretty clean too no worse than any normal town. Viva Mexico! I was giddy and back in my usual slow, rambling wandering, and I felt so free to be alone. I can go back on my own crazy schedule. Although I wondered about Charlie.
I made it to the poorer part of town eventually, but it still wasn’t that bad, a more traditional marketplace. I asked directions from random people and had some fun conversations. I was trying to hitchhike to Oaxaca, a city in the next state north, the state is also called Oaxaca. It was an awesome destination, for some reason since I was a child I knew of that place and possibly was fascinated by it from the name alone. Now what it meant was that the hitchhiking trip I had planned in the apartment room in San Jose, Costa Rica was coming to an end. I had planned it that far, Oaxaca, and would now have to figure out how to cross Mexico, which is a pretty huge country. I had decided to go to Arizona, no longer headed to New Mexico, and from there go back to Eastern California. Death Valley and the Sierras, I’ll meet my brother in Las Vegas at the airport where he’d join my hitchhiking quest and we’d go hike on the Pacific Crest Trail for 5 days. I only had 10 days or something before I needed to meet him, not enough time to get there at all! After his week spent with me was over, I’d need to find a job for two months, and it looked like my old job at Panamint Springs would hire me for just two months happily. After two months… I’d go to Australia. Now I just need to get there, and I longed to be again in my own country living a life that wasn’t so taxing, so uncertain, and so dangerous. But life is a dangerous pursuit even if you think you’re safe, today I was free and enjoying the moment, keeping faith I’d get home in one piece.
Finally, after a long time walking, I left Tapachula. The road crossed a river on a bridge and from it I looked up to some mountains. Then there was the highway, the direction I was going was north towards Mexico City. I stuck out my thumb. Saw some wretched homeless guy under the highway overpass. I was very wary of him, I was jumpy and cautious like I need to be. I am in Mexico, oh I hope I don’t get picked up by someone bad! Then I saw this van… it was huge, a little beat up and trampy looking. Oh yeah, it’s definitely going to stop. It did. The license plate read “Beautiful British Colombia”! There was a stencil spray-paint mural of a moth on the side of it and the driver rolled down the window. It was a young guy, real skinny with a wispy moustache who asked in English where I was going. He had his septum pierced and a couple tattoos. Oaxaca, I told him, eventually, but in that direction. Donde va? He was going to Mexico City, he would probably be going to Oaxaca tomorrow. Great! I got in.
After talking a little to this guy, I realized he was really cool and had some stories to tell. He was from Spain, spoke 100% English and Spanish, about my age and had been living with his girlfriend in El Salvador. He had come over from Spain to Van Cover, British Colombia (Canada) where he bought the van and lived for a while. Then he road tripped around over the course of a few years, living in the wilderness near Eureka, California, and going to El Salvador where his girlfriend was from. Now he was moving to Mexico City, a place he had lived before. But wait… I realized for a moment as he was talking… is he a guy or a girl? The way to tell if he’s a guy or a girl: No chest curves, but little muscle tone… gender neutral clothing… leg hair but bare patches of smooth skin… verdict: “Don’t worry about it!” He soon told me he was trans, biologically a girl but living as a guy. I thought that was pretty cool. His name was Kani. He said he wouldn’t be doing this if he was living as a woman; living alone in a van in Mexico. Talking to him and I was able to open up about my own personal gender identity, which was nice. We pretty quickly became friends and I said, if he wanted, I’d travel and stay in the van with him all the way to Mexico City. He was excited about that idea, because he felt better about doing this road trip, safety wise, to not be alone.
It looked like we’d have some time to get to know each other and soon I was relaxed! My hitchhiking trip had suddenly turned into a road trip with a friend. Kani was intelligent, we definitely saw eye to eye on some things. He was a person I could be relaxed around. I loved Kani immediately and we drove off down the highway.
During the drive we were stopped three times, over and over it happened, at highway security checkpoints. They stopped us, checked us out, checked our passports, and one time they did a full search of the car. For no reason, then let us go. The mountains were enormous to one side of the highway, bigger looking than the rest of Central America. Looking at the map and I realized Mexico is a very mountainous country. The highway looked for the most part like a normal American highway… one difference was that the shoulder of the highway was suddenly on fire. Then we’d drive farther and again, another wildfire. I saw a fire burning down palmetto trees, a whole forest smoldering. In Guatemala they pile their trash along the highway, but in Mexico they burn it. It added a surreal quality to the road trip and I realized, estoy aqui! I’ve always wanted to take a road trip through Mexico and here I am now doing it! I’m in Chiapas and this is awesome! This country is fiery, wild, beautiful, free, spacious and has incredible food. On that drive as the sun got low with a friend, I felt happy.
I know a thing or two about living in your vehicle and now the sun was getting low. Time to find a place to camp. In the USA, out in the country or in the desert, the place to camp is on a dirt road leading somewhere lonely and remote. Here in Mexico, those less traveled spots seem dangerous because who knows if someone is trying to rob or kidnap you. But really it’s just the unknown which is scary. Kani goes to the center of town to camp. In the USA, that would often be illegally breaking the parking rules, but in Mexico they have no rules! So we arrived in the village of Tonala, and began the familiar search of finding a place to stop driving. Kani had mentioned he had camped last night in the heart of the city of Mazatenango! I had also been in that terrifying city last night. “Oh my god what a nightmare of a town that place was, eh?” I said. “It was the worst place I’ve ever been,” Kani said grimly.
Tonala was quaint, with narrow streets between the concrete storefronts and apartments. We made it to the ‘centro’, with Kani stopping multiple times and asking directions. It’s funny to me about how unspecific the Spanish language is. In English, we might ask, “Can you tell me how to get to the center of town?” In Spanish, Kani would just ask, “Para centro?” and people would somehow know what he’s talking about! I sometimes don’t know how they get by with this language! But it’s one of feeling and emotion where people talk with a deeper connection of understanding one another. We parked in a very peaceful spot on a side street. Then we took a walk. Kani said he would enjoy camping in the wilderness, but I would now enjoy the beauty of camping in the towns and cities.
We went into the town center and people were playing drums. Boom, boom, boom, this music was lively and infectious. People were dancing including a couple gay people putting on a passionate show. “I think that guy in pink is going to regret this is the morning!” said Kani. This part of Mexico actually has a large and accepting LGBT community Kani told me, and to me it seems like the Latin culture is more sexual in general. They accept and embrace that it is a natural part of life, and they celebrate it. We went searching for some food.
We found what we were looking for- quesadillas! We sat down at a bar in front of a tiny, open air kitchen in an alley. Across the alley was another open air kitchen with a lady making tacos. We wanted our food from the lady making quesadillas! I walked around the corner of the dark alley to find another place with a lady making smoothies. I got us a pina smoothie (pineapple) and the fruit was perfectly ripe. I was really speaking Spanish too! The ladies there were talking about the weather, la venta, la juvio, es frio para la season. I told them I couldn’t speak Spanish but then I understood them and chatted about the weather. Me gusta su montanas aqui! Es frio hoy, pero es muy bonito. Something about the Spanish language really just sounds so lovely when spoken softly. I went back to eat my quesadilla and accompanied by the pina smoothie it was probably the best meal of my life. As we ate, she made us more quesadillas, and a young boy, her son, came and sat with us. It was nighttime, we all were a little sleepy and relaxed, he asked us questions about our travelling. I answered a little, but then just listened as he and his mother talked quietly with Kani. I really enjoyed the Spanish conversation all around me. Then we left and walked back to the van. We hung out for a little while talking, drinking a little of this excellent Mexican tequila called Mezcal made only in this area. Kani set me up with a nice bed from the convertible couch in the van and we went to bed.
We woke up to the peaceful morning streets of Tonala, went to walk around the village and find a public bathroom. We wandered through the market where we bought fruit, pastries and tortillas to snack on. The bathroom was grungy as usual and cost money. Kani got totally lost in the market place as he always does, he’s the kind of person who gets lost very easily. Fortunately I was there to help and find our way back! We drove out of town and away. I helped Kani navigate the streets and get to the highway we had left the night before.
I was so happy to be here on this road trip and I really enjoyed Kani’s company. I felt like I knew him for much longer than I had. He was laid back and spoke thoughtfully, but was filled with political outrage for the state of affairs in Central America. He was an activist whose life work was making documentaries. He was travelling to go live in Mexico City where he was trying to get a grant to make a documentary about transgender issues in Mexico. He had very little money and it was dwindling as he continued to live out of his van. With that in mind I was contributing my pesos to gas and food for us as much as possible. He was going to need to get that grant. He was a selfless person and shared everything he had with me once it was decided we were a team on this quest, and likewise I shared everything with him. In my opinion that is the proper way to have a relationship of any kind. He showed me art his girlfriend in El Salvador had made, it was beautiful. She had cut stamps out of wood and made fantastic pictures using them, like a man with outstretched arms holding a rose. The art made me think…
“When I met my girlfriend in Spain, she was a happy person,” Kani told me. “But back here in El Salvador she’s sad, sad again like she always was growing up. She’ll come meet me in Mexico City because she has to get out of there. Her sister is a wonderful person, but she’s sad too; stuck in San Salvador. She’s afraid to leave the house because in that city women get raped and she’s been raped two different times. The crime is so high because the illegal immigrants get imprisoned in the USA where prison gangs form, then they are deported back to El Salvador and the same gangs remain. Instead of dealing with the problem the US just sends them back more desperate than ever. The US doesn’t take any responsibility for these people and the problems here, even though its society is built from their labor.”
The art made me think. This girl is from El Salvador but it doesn’t matter. She is another creative soul living her life. Her art is beautiful regardless of her race. She doesn’t deserve to live in a place with the state of affairs as in San Salvador. Kani blamed all the problems in Central America and Mexico on the corporations/government of the USA. Kani thought the solution would be for Central America to cut all its ties with the US, close their borders and focus on building themselves a working society. “Without these people the system in the USA will crumble.” Kani thought. I posed the opposite idea, open all the borders and everyone works together, all get paid fairly for their labor and all enjoy a working prosperity. Have fewer super rich people on the top or none at all! Of course I’m just dreamin’ (of world peace), everyone will tell me our world society is too big and too filled with problems to be fixed. But, “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” Kani said.
I was comfy in that van, looking at Kanis little collection on the dashboard of wooden figurines and seashells. I added to it a fantastic seashell from Panama. I watched out the window at the dusty, uninhabited mountains of Chiapas, the sunlit open space, then we entered the state of Oaxaca. We passed through an area called “La Ventosa” (the windy town), where I saw a plantation of palmetto trees being licked by windblown wildfire flames. Then the wind really hit us and I saw the biggest windfarm I’ve ever seen. Spinning wind turbines as far as the eye could see and the van was being blown erratically all around the highway! This made Kani very stressed. After we passed the windfarm, we watched the wind in awe as it blew through tall grass and rustled it in waves out to the distance.
Then we took a turn in the road and headed into the mountains. The insane wind stopped. The mountains were totally uninhabited, forested with trees grey and leafless for the winter dry season. Cactuses poked through the forest. I loved the area. We stopped in a peaceful little desert town and bought a coconut which we drank and ate under the shade of a tree. Then we kept driving.
The scenery just got better as we drove through the land chopped with huge mountain ranges. The road climbed and had spectacular views. Before long we were in the higher elevation where it was cooler and, and we drove through pine forests. There was a type of oak tree with red leaves mixed into the pines. We talked more about our lives and society. Kani had the thought “Maybe if your life is normal and you have no problems living in this society, then you have some serious problems!” I’ve always felt this way, unable to intertwine my life with normal society. The notion is that maybe the crazy ones are the only sane ones in a society that’s crazy. Kani got me to really think about the things I’ve seen during my time here in Central America.
The sun went low as we drove through the agave plantations, where they make that famous Mezcal tequila only here in Oaxaca. I got an incredible, different style of shaved ice- ice cream for about 25 cents and met a nice girl. We drove even further for hours and hours through cactuses and mountains before finally arriving in the city.
The urban landscape was awesome here between the mountains. It was run down looking but did not look bad. Soon we made it to the historic city of Oaxaca by night. Kani was lost again but we drove through the gorgeous Spanish architecture, passed an old cathedral, and found a place to park/camp outside a bakery near the town center. Then we went and walked to the marketplace. There were incredible things there! We bought this chocolate which was like chalk, Just cocao and sugar, cinnamon and almond powder, with this crumbly texture, and it was possibly the best chocolate I’ve ever had. 40 pesos, about 2$, bought me enough to last nearly a week with me eating it constantly. It was some gourmet stuff. We also bought this fine cheese which pulled apart into spiderwebs. These two products, the chocolate and cheese, are part of what make Oaxaca so special.
The other things they’re famous for are these corn tortillas which they make super super thin and bake. I wish we had these in the USA!!! They are flaky and make a fantastic snack, but around here they make pizzas with them using that wildly amazing cheese, pulled beef, cilantro, and other vegetables like peppers/onions. It was the best meal of my life again, served with bright purple juice of some exotic fruit which was divine. Then I also bought flaky pastries filled with cream and just pigged out. Oaxaca would be a really great vacation destination where you could go, probably stay a week at a luxury hotel for 100$, and enjoy gourmet food like you’ve never had each evening for pennies. I talked on the phone and was so happy to be here, and eventually turned in for bed. But right before bed, I ran back across the city to try and buy MORE of that chocolate. I should bring as much of this stuff back with me as possible! Unfortunately the market was closed, I’d have to get more in the morning. I went to bed that night in my great little spot, camped in the van with my friend.
When I woke up in my bed in the van the first thought to enter my mind was a startling, “Where am I?” I looked across at the art on the walls of the van. The van kind of reminded me of a sailboat, just on land. I realized I was happy. I woke up in Oaxaca that morning, happy. This van is full of love and you can feel it, not like Malcolm’s sailboat, or Rick Rosenberg’s sailboat where I woke up without that feeling of love and joy. This is good, a good place to be. Wake up Kani! Let’s hit the road!
We wandered around the marketplace that morning, and Kani got lost as usual, and I got lost too! Didn’t expect that, the narrow, historic streets of this city are like a maze. We drove off, but found insane traffic on our way to the highway. Today was our day to drive to Mexico City. Kani became stressed from the traffic and I was helping him navigate as best as possible. The roads truly were scary, with 5 way intersections and often no traffic lights. People ignoring the lanes and just pushing their way through. No etiquette in merging around here, it’s more like survival. “Should I go now?” asks Kani
“…Yes!! Go now! Oh wait! Stop, no nevermind!” I’d say. “Ahh! …Okay, go!” we worked as a team to try and read street signs and get on the right highway, getting on the wrong highway and having to exit and turn around. Not easy, but eventually we made it out of Oaxaca. Then we were driving finally on a long road through the countryside/desert. …Finally, we relaxed.
Our drive today was superb, the scenery was peaceful. We were back to talking about the plight of the Mexicans, and together, we wondered about Charlie. I had told Charlie’s story, told that I had lost him at the Mexican border and had no idea what happened to him. Kani thought he wouldn’t make it, Charlie was definitely unprepared. The problem is, in Chiapas we had been stopped randomly 3 times and our passports were checked. If Charlie had been in the car he would have been arrested. “Once the illegals arrive in Mexico, they can’t travel on the roads anymore.” Kani told me. “If they get caught they are thrown in Mexican prison and are never heard from again. The only way to cross Mexico is on trains, and many don’t survive that either.” What’s really amazing is that Charlie is on Facebook and added me. So I will get to follow what happens to him on his quest. I later saw a post of his… he was hopping on a train.
Kani and I were having fun today, the scenery reminded me of Utah with dry mountains, dry forests, and red cliffs occasionally chopping the land. We’ve been seeing more and more of these saguaro cactuses lately, and until here I’ve never seen them before. We climbed a high mountain pass with awesome scenery. Kani talked fondly of Mexico City, a city where you can enjoy life partying on the streets, a city of freedom, love and passion. We snacked like kings on chocolate and cheese as we watched the intense, rocky desert scenery drop away below the road. Then we left Oaxaca, and arrived in the state of Puebla. There were farmlands on the hills and behind them was the Volcan Citlaltepetl. A bold and pointed cone. But gradually, as we got ever closer to the capital, Mexico City, the traffic increased.
It was before the city of Puebla where the traffic really increased. We had a pretty big problem we knew was coming… just by some horrible coincidence the pope was scheduled to be in Mexico City on the same date we were. Surely this was making the traffic only worse. In fact, the highway soon became scary. The road was three narrow lanes and there seemed to be no speed limit. People drove very erratically like maniacs to pass the many slow and clunky, derelict trucks moving in the right or middle lane. We would have to pass them as well, and every time we passed it seemed like a death defying experience. Car would ignore the lane boundaries and just drive! Like they were fighting each other.
Kani got stressed out, understandably so. Driving on these Mexican roads was much more stressful than any other driving I had ever done – BY FAR. I couldn’t even believe that such a scary experience like this was these people’s daily commutes. What a nightmare! But then it happened, we were passing a truck and we moved over to the left lane. Unfortunately the van does not accelerate very fast. As we were making our way passed, well I guess the pickup who came flying up behind us decided, “Hey, you’re going too slow.” And instead of slowing down, he decided, “Hey, I’m just going to pass you.” Rocketing along at 80mph or so, the pickup passed us in the narrow left-hand shoulder of the road. A loud crash as he slammed us, and the jarring sound of shattering glass. He sideswiped us and took the mirror right off! He kept on flying along as he drove away.
We were shaken up. Kani moved lanes, pulled over in the breakdown lane. “Asshole, he won’t even stop, he’s gone,” said Kani. Kani had told me they don’t have insurance in Mexico anyway, if you crash, you crash, end of story. It sucked, the driver’s side mirror was still actually attached, bent, but all the glass had been broken out of it. And we had really been making use of that mirror lately. Kani was shaking and on the verge of tears, he had no money anyway and didn’t need another problem. He was scared of the prospect of driving in Mexico City without a mirror. I stopped and just gave him a hug and let him cry a little there on the beaten, sandy shoulder of the highway.
We eventually had to keep driving and pulled back out into traffic. That was extremely difficult though, took a long time, and was nerve wracking. The only way to do it was to pull into the highway and just hope and pray they slow down. Now we knew they won’t slow down if they don’t want to. These people aren’t afraid to hit you, seeming to have no concern for their lives. To make matters worse we no longer had the driver’s side mirror. I got up from my seat and stood in the back of the van so I could look out and tell Kani when it was safe to go. I did that also when we had to pass people, we decided we would try to not pass whenever possible. But the times Kani did pass it was terrifying, “Okay… it’s good, Go! Ah wait… too late… nevermind don’t go!” as we’d switch lanes I’d have to watch the oncoming traffic barreling right for me, and standing there out of my sea I could be in real peril if they hit us.
Then in the distance I noticed a plume of black smoke. The column was enormous trailing up through the sky. I watched it curiously. It drew closer and closer. Then, when we were quite near this smoke and realized it was coming off the highway, the brake lights lit and traffic came to a halt. Oh great. The highway had stopped moving. It was only a few minutes of waiting behind this accident, and the cars in front of us all started doing three point turns! Everybody went crazy! They were getting into the breakdown lane and trying to drive away. But really, everybody went crazy, loco, it was chaos! Cars were strewn about everywhere, facing all directions. The entire highway tried to reverse itself. “What should I do?” Kani asked with his wonderfully monotone, calm/tense voice. “Umm…. I’d say start doing the three point turn and following these people… while you still cam.”
So he did. Driving in the narrow breakdown lane was a tight squeeze for the wide van, and we’d pass busses and trucks just barely. But then we came to another standstill. As the cars drove in the breakdown lane to different parts of the highway, traffic soon began moving forward. Space was being made between us and the crash, and the trucks and buses which couldn’t drive in the breakdown lane began moving forward to fill the space. So now the traffic was moving both directions and people became confused and started doing more three point turns, thinking the accident had been cleared and they could continue. Okay, well, follow the leader, we also did another three point turn and started driving again the proper direction. But soon, of course, the traffic came to a complete halt. Now we would sit, wait trapped, for the next 5 hours.
We had been making pretty good time and expected to arrive in Mexico City before nightfall. Not anymore! We looked at all these busses completely filled with people. They had probably saved all their pesos for months to take this trip, just to see the damn pope. What a sham! Now, even still, they won’t get to see him. The plight of these people; one part poverty, one part brainwashing, no help from leadership/ a corrupt government, and the corporations and catholic religion can definitely share the blame. But people got out of their cars, someone was playing a guitar and singing, after the first hour or so we relaxed. Walked around a bit. People sold us cold water and candy, people wandered around everywhere. After a few hours had passed I fired up the kitchen and cooked us quesadillas with our divine tortillas and Oaxaca cheese, sautéed onions, papaya on the side. Someone told us there had been a 13 car pile-up and people had died. Cars were on fire… We wondered if that guy who hit us, in such a rush, was dead up there or had caused the accident. We ate, we were able to stay pretty happy and in good spirits. Eventually the two of us sat together on the roof of the van and soaked in the late afternoon sun.
But then at some queue, the highway tried to go into reverse again. This was after no less than 5 hours of waiting had passed. We did our three point turn and travelled precariously in the breakdown lane. The villagers of the town where we were stuck had broken down a section of highway barrier, and cars were driving all through the dirt of a makeshift road to connect to the village streets. Kani was afraid the van couldn’t do it but we kind of had no choice at this point, and we followed the leader, directed by the villagers, off the highway and through the dirt and finally, yes! Freedom! We were off the highway and in the village.
So after a minute of driving in circles and asking directions, we found our way to the backroad highway. It was so clogged with traffic that it was unbelieveable. Literally I saw in front of me 5 cars in 3 lanes, people were ignoring the lanes and just fighting. They weren’t getting anywhere… but they were fighting. You know what? “I think we should just give up now” said Kani. I agreed. We turned around and went back to the village.
We found the center of town and parked in front of a church. The sunlight was almost gone from the sky. The village was strange with graffiti all over many of the buildings… but it seemed peaceful. Children were playing the town center common area. Women walked along wrapped in blankets to the chilly evening. It looked traditional. It looked totally unaffected by global modernization. The culture ran deep here and I loved it. It was a really nice village. I was talking to my mother on the phone when ‘BAM!’ Right over my head. “Was that a gun shot?” she asked. “Yeah, sounded like it.” I said. ‘BAM!’ again, this time I ducked and ran! Then, bam, oh I saw it, it was just fireworks. But by running I had disconnected the wifi and hung up on my mom, so now she was really worried! Haha, called her back… they were celebrating because the of the pope, and the church became filled with people walking in procession down the street carrying statues of the Virgin Mary, trinkets and things.
Then I went with Kani and we got a torta at a small, makeshift convenience store. Once again this was the best meal of my life, it was nothing like the torta I had that night in Mazatenango! It cost pennies and still blows away any sandwich I’ve ever had before, light, flaky, crunchy bread like I’ve never had, chicken, cheese, avocado and veggies in there… it was simply perfection. Kani and I retired to the van, happy and in love with this village. We talked for a long time and I got comfy in bed. How nice it was to have a bed. Karma is great, I had provided Charlie a place to stay for three nights by paying for our hotel room, now I was provided a place to stay for three nights. I hoped Charlie was okay, I learned he had made it to Oaxaca. Before long, Kani and I went to sleep, with a plan to hit the road at 4AM to avoid the traffic.
It wasn’t until more like 7AM we hit the road. Waking up early was nice and I loved this van. We had tortillas and cheese for breakfast. We both pooped in a big field with a good view to the volcano, then we got to the highway.
Driving along in the morning was alright, until unfortunately due to our not early enough start, we hit the rush hour traffic in the city of Puebla. These Mexicans have a truly psychotic commute. You see a lot of old cars from the 1950s mixed into the traffic. The family has had this car for generations and they keep using it because it’s all they’ve got. You also see trucks with a dozen people piled in the back, wrapped up against the cold morning and headed to work. In Mexico the standard work week is 6 days a week, but even with that they can’t afford a vehicle. One person in the village had a truck, so he takes everyone to work. They work in factories, and often the abysmal wages they are paid are coming from US companies outsourcing labor here. But it wasn’t long and the traffic stopped. Nooooo…!
It wound up being another one of those multi car pile ups, and we sat there stuck on the highway in the city for three hours. We watched these sad people as they became inevitably late for work. I’m not sure what all the problems are in Mexico which creates this real dysfunction. What I can tell though is that there are problems. I looked up to billboards which I sat and looked at for hours, billboards for a few American companies like Lysol and Johnson & Johnson. A chicken company. I’m pretty sure, these are the entities to blame. Maybe if the people were paid living wages for their exploit they could build functioning roads. I feel like if there is one political issue which really needs addressing, that issue is corporate greed, and it’s no wonder Kani blames the United States. So many people have so little, whole countries have so little, while so few have so much. We all live under the hand of their oppression and the system seems beyond repair. It’s greed that is destroying our world and our planet, and chances are if it continues this way my future children will not have a planet to live in. This is what I saw in Mexico, the slow collapse of their society. It brought me quietly to tears as I sat there with Kani listening to music.
It felt like we’d never make it to Mexico City, but eventually the traffic cleared enough to let us escape Puebla. I watched a distant volcano puff out huge clouds of smoke, which was really cool to watch. Traffic is never as bad between 12PM and 3PM, and we used this window to make it to Mexico City. It took us 6 hours to drive 60 miles, and after crossing a peaceful, pine forested mountain pass, we arrived on the outskirts of the capital.
Looking down the mountains and you couldn’t even see Mexico City it was so obscured by smog and pollution. Kani told me it’s one of the most polluted cities in the world. “Maybe you will be able to make a difference here.” I said. Kani had almost made it to the city he’d be living in. He was nervous and excited. “I will try.” Kani said.
Mexico City was big. We drove a long way through sprawling concrete ghettos which carried over the hills as far as the eye could see. We reached the heart of the city driving though concrete jungles, it was confusing and we got lost over and over. Kani would roll down the windows asking directions from cars next to us at stop lights. Finally we made it to the part of the city Kani had lived in before. There were American chain stores and it looked so much like one place in particular. Boston, Huntington Ave, a college area. A progressive part of the city with students and young people. He told me stories about living here. The city looked clean and normal to me, with that nice, cool, Mediterranean/tropical/mountain climate. After circling a block half a dozen times trying to figure out how to get where Kani was trying to go, we made it to a little neighborhood with extremely narrow roads winding up and down hills between the tall apartments. It was sunny with a European look.
We finally pulled into the apartment of Kani’s friend, parked on a hill, and I greeted the nice girl who came to greet us. She didn’t speak English and I may not speak Spanish but I could understand what she was saying. I gathered my things from the van and packed. Kani and I started saying our goodbyes, but then we heard a faint call… “Tamale, tamale!” The food vendor was walking around selling his tamales and Kani knew this guy. We bought a couple and oh my god. They must’ve been the best things I have ever eaten! I guess I’ve never had real tamales before. We enjoyed one last meal in the van. We hugged a bunch of times and Kani thanked me for helping him. I thanked him for getting me here, I would have had a hell of a time trying to hitchhike here. But this Mexican road trip must’ve been the bet hitchhiking experience I’ve ever had. Officially hitchhike # 16 on this quest. Now there was only one way out of this city, that was a bus, and the day was getting late. So I said my last goodbye to Kani, wished him luck here in this crazy city, and walked away free as a bird! I walked through the narrow neighborhood, passed tall houses decorated with vines and planter boxes, colorful paint of pinks, yellows, browns… Spanish-style colors. I reflected on the trip that had just happened.
Coming closer to the university and I bought some food. Asked directions, paid a peso to use a public computer and soon was hailing a taxi. I explained my story to the taxi driver, told him I needed to go to Terminale Sud to catch a bus to take me far from the city. It was a very long taxi ride which cost me 10$. The traffic was crazy due to the pope, the city reminded me of LA with its vast urban sprawl and many districts. But the driver brought me to Terminale Norte and told me this is where the bus I needed would be. No, I told him, I needed Terminale Sud, I just checked the internet, (I knew this). He insisted I needed Norte. But… I’m sure you’re wrong. And I realized it was because Terminale Sud was quite a bit farther away, he just didn’t want to take me there. I argued with him but eventually it was useless. What a jerk. I got out of the taxi, walked into the terminale where they told me, yeah you need Sud. Oh I was mad. 10 more dollars got me another taxi and I arrived at the terminal by 3PM. The bus would leave at 4.
The terminale was like an airport, it was grande! Signs everywhere, many bus companies. All the names of all the cities in Mexico marked on the walls above the ticket counters. Where am I going? Well, I decided I’m Arizona bound, so I need to go that way. I thought I’d catch a bus to the city of Los Mochis in Sinaloa, and from there keep hitchhiking to get to the state of Sonora just south of Arizona. I’d pass through the large city of Hermosillo, Sonora at some point. Taking a bus as far as the state of Sinaloa was really far, like halfway across Mexico. I knew to do that instead of hitchhike would kind of be ‘skipping it’, because you can only see/experience so much out the window of a bus. I did not care though, I’m a mess and need to go home. I’ve survived somehow this far, just get me on a bus and hopefully it doesn’t get hijacked.
So I ended up getting myself all stressed out and utterly crazy. I was charging around that bus terminal, angry. I saw one ticket counter that offered a bus directly to Hermosillo. Whatever, put me on it, the communication went badly between me and the lady, I don’t know how much it costs, some thousand pesos. My credit card doesn’t work, and I got fed up with the ATM charging me more bank fees, then went around manic trying to find some non-existent internet. It would be a 30 hour bus ride and they didn’t feed you, so I also looked for food to buy. I went up to Subway and asked the girl for the wifi password, but yeah, she said I have to buy something. But the line was so long! C’mon can I just buy a cookie real quick! ( “Puedo comprar solomente un galleta??”) No! Fine! You can imagine I must’ve sounded pretty stupid being always forced to use my broken Spanish. I crashed my ridiculously enormous backpack down anyway at a table which still had food/garbage on it. I opened it, eviscerating all its contents everywhere. And people stared at me, and I just felt like, “Fuck off everyone!” I had to totally reorganize my pack so I had what I needed in my carry on to survive 30 hours on this bus. The frantic hour rushed by fast, and soon I was getting on.
Hallelujah! …this bus has wifi! I made use of it to do all sorts of things while I absent mindedly watched movies in Spanish that the bus was playing. I looked out the window to the open countryside, we left the city behind. My stress was all tensely built up inside me. Stress from days and days of constant motion. Now I was still moving but I’d be here a while. Time to think and organize… to write… to let my stress settle down. And that Queen song came on the radio at some point, and I listened to the lyrics and thought of Mexico, of Kani, of Charlie, of the man who picked me up in Nicaragua, the good man whose truck broke down, the people I ate with in Guatemala, the doctor in Costa Rica who thought the US was an evil place… and love dares you, to care for, the people on the edge of the night… to change your way of caring about ourselves… and I broke down crying and just let it all come gushing out. And I sat there in my comfy bus seat which was getting sweaty and I was surrounded by my snacks, crumbs on me and on the floor, wrapped in my sheet, sweatshirt for a pillow, laptop on my lap, crying my eyes out. I felt pathetic, and I felt good, like I was learning some hard lessons and learning to appreciate everything good in my life. Like this bus seat. But the desire was kindling within me to help the world somehow, care for people and give love on whatever small level I can for starters.
Anyway… the bus continued. I arrived in the twinkling mountainside city of San Luis Potosi at sunset. Then it was night and I slept. I guess I slept right through Guadalajara, I don’t remember it at all. In the state of Nayarit, I had to get off the bus and let armed guards search it. It was suddenly hot, humid and tropical as I stood there by the palm jungles in the sultry night. The bus’ air conditioning felt great.
When morning came the bus was in Sinaloa and to me it looked like the American plain states, like Iowa. Only in the distance, the vast and jagged mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental edged the plains, one of the tallest ranges in Mexico. Sinaloa looked peaceful and beautiful. We passed through coastal tropical cities, Mazatlan, Guasave, and Los Mochis. Slowly I watched as the climate transitioned to desert as we entered Sonora at Ciudad Obregon. A man sat next to me who asked me all kinds of questions. He spoke English and lived in Hermosillo. He told me about his life, he was an engineer building Ford cars. He was successful, supported his family, had a car and a house. He told me his wages from his engineering career were 15,000 pesos per month. We did some math and found out that my wages as a cook in the US came out to about 30,000 pesos per month… “Woah, you could live like a king here with that kind of money,” he said. He was a little shocked to learn this truth, as a cook I am making twice as much money as him as an engineer. It showed us both the obvious corruption of our US corporations, like Ford. They rip off the world by paying third world wages to produce the cars, then rip off the American people with high mark up. Greed leads our industries and the 1% at the top literally pocket the profit, I don’t know the numbers for Ford, but I’ll bet you they are staggering and unbelieveable. If they paid the Mexicans our wage standards, Mexico would stop being so cheap (stop being third world), our corporations run the world. Or if they kept the jobs in America we’d have more engineering careers for our people. The US has become like a giant middle man exploiting everything, so that a few neighborhoods like I saw on Long Island, New York can have massive mansions that put medieval castles to shame. It’s not right! Burn em down I say! Anyway, I could go on and on…
The sun went down again over Sonora. Before I knew it I arrived in Hermosillo. The man sitting next to me was a bit amazed I had spent 30 hours on this bus. To me, it still wasn’t enough time. Crap, they’re making me get off. Time to go back into the world! I got off the bus and repacked my bag in the warm night of the parking lot. Then I walked. The first hotel I came to was kind of expensive, probably 25 US$. Ugh, here in northern Mexico things are more expensive (the US is close). I decided to keep walking, I could have taken a bus to the city center but I wanted to walk. I wanted to camp, but seeing as I was in the heart of the city and it was 10PM that seemed a little impossible. So I just walked across Hermosillo. Was I scared about walking alone at night through this Mexican city? A little, not really, not so different than walking across a US city at night. There were desert mountains in the moonlight with dwellings built into them. There were concrete street fronts, a little rough and littered. I came to the quiet downtown area and got a hotel for 15$. Then I walked around looking for food, the shops were all closed and the downtown eerily deserted. Bars on the windows, trash in the streets. I got snacks at a gas station, and jeez, they have such a better selection and prices compared to US gas stations. I knew I’d miss these unbelievably fantastic tortilla chips, why don’t we have these? That night I had an actual hot shower for the first time since… well… for the first time since I was in Colombia, living on the sailboat at the rich white man’s marina. On this trip I’ve seen the way the super-rich live (it’s evil) and I’ve seen the way the super poor live (it’s a struggle). Maybe if the rich paid the poor more they could have hot showers too.
When I woke up I walked into the hot, sun beaten desert city of Hermosillo. Hermosillo was pretty nice! I bought some groceries, you can get a weeks’ worth of groceries here for less than 5$. I walked really far, for like 3 hours having just a fantastic morning. Then I went to the city’s outskirts and tried to hitchhike. I ate some coyotas, which are a traditional regional pastry, basically a Nutella sandwich in a soft pastry. It was a long time hitching in the hot sun, some kids walked by and made fun of me, sticking out their thumbs and pretending to hitchhike. Hey, get away from me, you’re messing this up! Finally some kind soul picked me up. This guy was late for work, working at a highway toll booth and he brought me a dozen miles out of town to the tollbooth where I was dropped off on the side of the highway. Before I started hitching again, I walked off the highway shoulder and rested for a couple minutes. Hitch #17
Back to the highway, I positioned myself right after the tollbooth and was picked up almost immediately. It was an older couple, two Mexicans living in Arizona. They were going to Phoenix. They offered to take me there. Wow. I was hoping to get as far as Nogales today, the US/Mexican border. Phoenix was still 6 hours away from here. I got in the car with them.
I might have been a little more awkward on this ride than usual for some reason, (#18), but I was happy. The man spoke English, the woman did not. They went adventuring through the little village of Magdalena. Hitchhiking is great, suddenly I was included on these people’s fun road trip. They took me to all the secret spots where we could buy the best coyotas. They took me to a marketplace with this unique cheese you could only buy at that market. It was like a dry, less crumbly feta. I asked for 20 pesos worth (1$) and the man cut me off an enormous block of it. It would feed me, wrapped in homemade tortillas I bought from them, practically every meal for the next 4 days.
We then dove through the Sonoran desert. That was an awesome ride, the mountains were big, rocky and spacious, the scenery started to look more and more like the western USA. By dusk we arrived at the frontera. Nogales, the border town. Here it is, I’ve made it… my country. The town was as though it was crowded around the border, all shambled shacks built into the mountainside. We waited in line at customs, this was the first time I passed through customs in someone’s vehicle. I was nervous. The US is military, it’s scary, ten lanes of traffic waited to cross the massive barbed wire fences. I’m from the USA but still… it makes one nervous. We passed through the border without incident, welcome to the Grand Canyon State, Arizona.
Of course I felt pretty triumphant. I made it! I’m home! I crossed Central America overland, hooray! Now Death Valley was calling me and it looked like I had a job waiting there. First I’d find my brother and enjoy a hiking vacation with him. That means I would have to make my way next to the most evil empire of all: Las Vegas. But I was so excited to hitchhike in the American Southwest, and so relieved to speak English again.
We stopped at a gas station, it had clean public bathrooms! There were lots of people and things were modern. There were soda fountains with water that was safe to drink. Ah so nice, so easy, so normal. Then we drove. Nighttime came as we cruised through Tucson. I watched out the window at all the glittering lights of cities on the sprawling desert. The big green highway signs lit to the night. The streetlights, the clean, artificial and ticky-tacky civilization of southern Arizona. Sterile like the USA. Billboards hovered hundreds of feet in the air like they do, neon of McDonalds, or Motel 6, or Walmart. It seemed like this place was so foreign compared to Mexico, it was so different than Mexico. I felt like it should strike me as new, that I should be a little culture shocked. But I wasn’t. I sat there quietly watching out the window and thought of my childhood. It was just like this, yes I remember, I know this place well, this seems so normal. Wherever I am… I can tell that I’m home. Yes, maybe this place is a little bit evil, maybe this empire is in fact built on greed… but I do like it here. I tried to resist, it was impossible, and slowly… I fell asleep.