Sixty Hours to Mexico City
One long bus trip from San Francisco to the world's biggest city.
The bus thumps across the Bay Bridge, over Treasure Island, past container ships and massive cranes, a yard of cargo boxes, the Horizon and Hapag-Lloyd lines, and under a wren of overpasses. I switch seats because my light is broken, then switch again because the seat cloth is torn. In Oakland, young men wearing baseball caps with flattened brims board. The driver addresses us.
“If you have kids, control them. If you have those walkie-talkie phones, try not to use them. It sounds like a police car in here, and that’s not good. If you have beers, don’t drink them...”
My destination is Mexico City, a four-and-a-half-hour plane trip from San Francisco, but a 60-hour journey by bus. I want to see the world’s largest city, but even more appealing is the ride to get there. Buses are cramped, stuffy and dirty, perhaps the most stigmatized form of mass transport. But there is something redeeming about a long bus ride, something that can only be obtained by passing through so much land. Plate glass windows at 60 miles per hour meld the landscape into a montage of earth, structure, and sky. And while the world zips by, for once you are not part of it; your only job is to watch it go. Hurtled through the ether, spaces spanned in one slow spasm of motion, seduced by the hum of the engine, wheels racing over asphalt; thoughts are released from their tethers.
A long bus trip is time alone and time to think and time away, but most of all it’s a chance to watch time unfold through a landscape. Minutes are measured in bathroom breaks and bus depots and snack stands. Hours are deserts and mountain ranges and provinces. Perhaps the experience of Mexico City, the destination, is not merely the sum of one’s experiences in Mexico City, but the sum of the experiences one has in getting there. Wanting to know the city in this way, I took two days off work, booked a return plane ticket, and boarded a Greyhound bound for the border.
The smell of the bus is both dizzying and satisfying, a hygienic odor, like a mopped hospital floor, cleaning agents doused over the seats, the smell of rot, like a mildewed shower curtain or a boys’ locker room, years of socks and sweat, a sugary smell, candy, seats splashed with a decade of spilled sodas, and the smell of burning fuel, of sweating engines, the siren stench of petroleum, the smell of motion. The outer baggage doors slam shut, a soft thud, the psssh of the air brakes before the engine starts, a low rattling followed by a deep grinding noise, like pebbles in a blender, then the movement of wheels over pavement, a continuous hum, we’re off.
A gap between the window and the wall funnels a cold stream of air into my leg all night. I put on my hat, gloves, and a fleece, place my raincoat over my knees and try to fall asleep. At 5:30 a.m. we’re in L.A. — palm trees and oil derricks under an eggshell moon.
The station is busy. “Last call for anyone going to Compton, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Victorville,” says a driver. A kid with a black eye asks him a question.
“You have two choices,” says the driver. “Either catch the express, or go with me.”
Buses go to Las Vegas, St. Louis, and Oklahoma City. I join a line gathered for San Diego. A gray-haired man approaches a pretty woman with a business card: “It was nice to know you ma’am.”
The bus is nearly full but no one sits next to me. From the window, L.A. looks like a Third World city, rambling buildings and scattered tropical trees. Traffic clogs Highway 5. A bleached sky swallows a rising orange sun, like a paper towel soaking up juice. We pass peach-colored condos, a fitness center, an RV lot, and an IKEA.
In San Diego, I ask the driver how to get to Tijuana and he points at our bus: “Tijuana!” Back on the highway: an army recruiting station and a Seventh-day Adventist Church, small homes set behind coffee-colored barriers, immigration law offices and car insurance shops. Tamale vendors push carts and groups of workers from Mexico walk north. We switch buses and cross the border. A soldier with a gun opens one luggage compartment then waves us through.
Crossing into Mexico is surprisingly easy. I once lived near the border in the California desert. Mexico was like a big burning surprise. Another country, only a couple of miles away, across the creosote flat, just get in your car and go, and one weekend I did. Three coworkers and I drove to San Felipe, a fishing village. At a karaoke bar, I closed my eyes and picked a Mexican pop song. The next morning we ate eggs at a restaurant with yellow walls, and a man in a gray suit remembered my garbled performance. He told us about a beach 30 kilometers out of town where a development had been planned then abandoned. We wouldn’t see a soul, he said. We packed fish tacos in a Styrofoam cooler and followed his directions, turning off the road by a crumbling gate and following a dusty lane through a valley of cardon cacti. That night, we slept on an empty beach under purple mountains with the gentle Sea of Cortez lapping our toes. The other side was all the magic I had hoped for, and it never stopped calling.
The Tijuana bus station is a long, wide, squeaky-floored hallway. Coin-operated toys line the back wall: a clown on a seesaw, a Bob the Builder Cat, a gray helicopter. Slats of morning sun slice the air from skylights high overhead. Two men read newspapers while another shines their shoes. A cowboy sits in a shaft of light. Don Camione restaurant serves a buffet of meats dripping with orange oil. Next door, Super Voy sells Hillary Duff Barbie dolls, coffee makers, and a game called Punch and Crush that comes with a bendable steel bar. For three pesos there’s a bathroom through a turnstyle, toilet paper at the door. Four Jesus candles burn in front of a mural of St. Mary. Bus companies populate a long sleek countertop: Elite, Cruceros, Norte de Sonora, TAP (Transportes y Autobuses del Pacifico), ABC (Autotransportes Baja California), and Transportes Chihuahuenses. At Elite, two women in navy uniforms and red lipstick welcome me. I buy a ticket on Transportes Chihuahuenses because I like their logo — a blue and white rabbit in full sprint, much like Greyhound’s greyhound.
The bus is draped in blue, modern and empty. There’s a bathroom in back behind glass doors, and four TV monitors hang from the ceiling. Blue, red, and yellow squiggles decorate aquamarine seat cushions. Rosa Elena is the only other passenger. She’s a squat girl from Chihuahua with a thick paste of blue eye shadow and a suede coat with a tube top underneath. Her face is round and glossy, like a bubble with makeup. She’s wearing black jeans, a silver belt, and chipped red nail polish, and gets up to sit next to me as soon as I get on.
“Do you have a mother,” she asks.
“Do you have brothers?”
“Do you like Mexico?”
“Do you like beer?”
She crosses herself as the bus leaves the terminal.
Rosa Elena was visiting an aunt in Tijuana. She has never left Mexico, but has a friend in New Jersey. If she could go anywhere she would go to the United States. She doesn’t know if this will ever happen: It is too expensive. In Chihuahua, she lives with her mother, her 2-month old baby boy, Rosemerio, and several of her six sisters and three brothers.
She rests her head on my shoulder and shows me family photos from a small pink album: her brother in a military uniform; an old oval-shaped photo of her father holding a baby and squinting because the sun is in his eyes; her dead sister’s grave, crosses and flowers on a garbage-littered patch; another sister in a black halter top surrounded by snow-covered cacti, staring sheepishly at the camera. On the steeply rising road out of Tijuana, Rosa Elena becomes dizzy and returns to her seat, where she falls asleep in the fetal position with her bare feet sticking into the aisle.
The land is brown, dusty, and vacant. Withered ranch homes the same color as the soil guard fields of parched boulders. In a small town, a caged parrot perches beside a stand that sells shrimp. A banner advertises Bee Movie and a man sweeps under a clothesline.
In Tecate, a large woman and four cheery men board the bus. The men sip guava and mango juice from cans. Leaving town, policewomen on walkie-talkies crouch in the bed of a pick-up stuck in a line to cross the border, sirens silently flashing. We pass a Cemex plant and a schoolgirl wearing a black skirt, white socks, and a red and black plaid shirt, speaking on her cell phone. Outside town, the desert resumes: mountains with their faces blasted off and mountains that are nothing but piles of parched boulders. The road follows a dry river valley and used to be completely treacherous before it was paved. Around each curve are piles of trashed cars, orange smears on the gullied hillside, metal shells amidst the ocotillos, most mysteriously hollow, burnt and empty, without even seats.
Beyond the pass is a haze-covered valley, a black mountain looming above a thin smudge of white clouds. Three men stand beside a broken-down bus. A tow truck passes with a burnt and crumpled red car on its bed. An abandoned playground melts into the dry earth; its slanted sunshade stands seem foolish baking in the heat. Trucks pass with colorful foods painted on their sides, one with slices of bread, buttered waffles, and glistening peppers. The glowing vegetables seem to ridicule the landscape.
We pass a dump truck graveyard — flat tires and rotting steel hulks protected by barbed wire — an industrial park, Hotel Palomar (150 pesos for three hours), block housing, scraps of metal, men in cowboy hats and boots, a junkyard of car doors with tires sunk in the sand, parched brown land with stands of squat trees, a rusting school bus in a front yard, half-built homes at the roads edge, a larger one in a grove of palms, a white heron on a dirt pile, other birds on telephone wires, orange bushes along a dried river bed, clumps of garbage in the bushes, a cemetery beside a field of dilapidated Port-o-Potties, muddy puddles, lone willows in the middle of dried fields, a factory that makes concrete road dividers, a pack of four wild dogs, other junk car lots, and more.
Rosa Elena sleeps under a teddy bear blanket.
In San Luis Río Colorado, a town across the border from Yuma, Arizona, the bus driver tells me there are many deaths from cocaine.
“Narcotrafficking?” I ask.
A policewoman directs traffic in front of a crashed truck and a man in dark glasses talks to a pretty girl beside a Mercedes.
Just outside San Luis, in the fading light on the edge of the desert beside the border fence, a young man and an older one hail the bus. The older man sits in front. The younger man sits across from me. His name is Jesus Martinez and he plans to cross into the U.S. tonight. He hopes to be in Houston or Dallas by tomorrow evening. Jesus has lived in L.A., Portland, Seattle, Reno, Houston, Dallas, Tucson, and Las Vegas. San Francisco is his favorite U.S. city. He used to live with his uncle on Portero Avenue and worked at a restaurant where he made $10 an hour. He stayed there for five years, before immigration officials raided. He is not worried about crossing the border tonight. It’s easy, he says; it just costs money: $2,000 U.S.
Jesus has a wispy goatee, a mustache, and a shaved head. He is wearing what looks like a varsity jacket over a loose black T-shirt with skulls, and he has large fake diamond earrings. He keeps looking at the border, as if making sure it’s still there. Sometimes he smiles and sometimes he just stares. Several times he turns to me and says, “La frontera,” and points towards the U.S., reinforcing his plan. The fence looks like it’s made of vertical wood slats, perhaps 10-feet tall. It reflects gold in the setting sun and sometimes is so bright it looks liquid. On a map, Jesus shows me where he’ll get off, some dusty junction. From there, he and the older man will catch a bus to Sasabe, on the Arizona border.
The older man is thin but energetic. He stumbles down the aisle and Jesus smiles and twirls his finger around his ear, making the crazy sign. The man’s bottom teeth are missing, his breath stinks of alcohol, and his eyes are bloodshot. He is wearing Air Jordans and a loose button-up shirt with rolled sleeves like a gangster out of Scarface. He is shifty-eyed and intermittently paces back and forth or falls asleep. On several occasions, he whispers in Jesus’s ear then glances at me or the bus driver with a disapproving scowl. One time, he introduces himself then passes out on a nearby seat.
The sun sets and the southern sky streaks gold. The soft white underbellies of clouds become orange and red. A jagged ring of mountains scrape the northern horizon, thin spines. Peaks point up like witches’ hats. Above is blue and gray. At a checkpoint, a woman in a blue uniform boards the bus, taps my chest, looks in my bag then walks off. “Vaya, chica!” says the old man.
Shooter, with Mark Wahlberg, plays on TV. The president will be assassinated, a cover-up, a lot of shooting. “Good movie,” says Jesus.
At the junction, there are no goodbyes. I grasp Jesus’s hand because it feels right to do something. The pair exit on a dirt patch near a stilted stop sign and a restaurant called Cafeteria Puerro.
I go to the bathroom for the first time, a metal toilet in a tiny cubed space with blue walls. A haze of spittle covers the mirror and my reflection is mottled and ghostlike in the dim light. Outside are stars, Orion’s Belt, pricks of light in a bulge of blackness. The windows are cracked and wind rushes in. The motion is disorienting — facing forward, moving backwards, staring at my reflection, wind rushing, gears grinding, stars shining, completely alone, in a blue box that is a bathroom, racing across the dark desert on a bus to Mexico City.
I’m woozy with uncertainty, the nervousness of youth, the feeling you get after your first funeral, the uneasy sensation of not knowing what’s next, of doing something that makes no sense amidst the order you’ve established for yourself, wondering if the things you do are worth it, if they are the right things.
I watch the rest of the night go by with the driver, Antonio. The moon is a silver sliver with the full disc behind in gray. Antonio has gelled hair, a crisp white shirt, blue socks, and a wife and four daughters in Chihuahua, ages 5, 15, 17 and 20. He has just thrown a quinceañera for his 15-year-old.
Antonio asks my age. 25.
Am I married? No.
Do I have kids? No.
What’s the common age for marriage in Mexico, I ask him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “15, 19, 20, 38 — all ages.”
His hands hug the giant Mercedes wheel. Red lights on the dashboard display kilometers per hour and r.p.m. A large blue gear shift has a slinky-like handle. Blue curtains frill the top of the windshield and a Jesus statue hangs in the middle.
A stripe of yellow appears on the horizon, above that a stroke of green, then a deep blue. Clouds like swabs from a paintbrush pinken, then flash orange. They look like UFOs hovering above the dark hills. Sagebrush materializes from the darkness that is the desert floor, and on the ridges a forest rises. Rosa Elena joins us in front. Antonio passes her a CD book and she picks a song with mariachi guitars and sad violins. The sun breaks the horizon and strikes us in the face. Pinks and oranges are squelched from the sky and for a moment the world is only brightness, one thick white beam. Out of green-brown hills, Chihuahua appears.
Leaving Chihuahua, golden light brightens miles of flat land with beige and mocha colored mountains on the horizon. A man selling ham and cheese sandwiches and peanuts boards briefly. I buy a peanut pack for 10 pesos. We continue south, climbing a steep hill. The sky turns orange, then black. Stars are many. Lights of distant towns flicker on the horizon, pegs of civilization on the vast desert plain.
The first time I flew to South America I awoke somewhere over the Caribbean and gazed out the window. A wild storm brightened the sky with sharp, silent flashes. With each one I caught a glimpse of the Earth below, a deep dark cone of mountain surrounded by ocean with thunderheads hanging ominously. Never has the terror of new lands melded so closely with the indescribable allure of the unknown. Awake on the bus, gazing out the window, with other passengers asleep, I experience the same sensation.
At 6:50 a.m., the sky becomes orange. Outside are rolling hills of cactus, but no city. I am slightly disappointed, knowing the bus is due in at 10 a.m. I expected the city to have begun already, a slow march of hovels. But this is not the case. By 8 a.m., the sun is warm and high. Mist cloaks the land in thin layers. The bus exits the main road and climbs low hills of terraced farmland: fields of corn and lettuce, bales of hay, patches of paddle cactus, hedgerows of agave, that giant blooming bulb of swords.
Then, a village with colorful crumbling storefronts, a mongrel dog atop a half-built building. We’re getting there. We pass a toll that’s two dozen lanes across. More fields, a billboard that says to call 015-58-3649-101. The hills are reminiscent of California’s — golden farming land at their bottoms, green trees on their tops. Over a steep rise: This is it, I think to myself; on the other side will be Mexico City. But the other side are more hills of cholla cactus and small farms. Haze obscures the sun. A cut in the road reveals layers of ash.
We pass Gamma Steel, an ad for chocolate on the side of a half-erected building, children’s clothes hanging on the top floor, a development of somewhat more substantial homes, identical condo-like structures, little houses made of ticky-tack, Tepotzotlan, a sign that says 30 kilometers, and movie theater showing Beowulf on one screen and Bee Movie on three, another set of hills.
I’m still waiting for the blistering view of the smoldering city, but there is only a pig iron works and gullied hillsides, going down, down-down, into the valley of Mexico, into a time-ragged, swampy, ash-layered pit, the sunken terraced rind of thousands of years of humanity, the largest city on Earth is sunk in a marsh, cloaked in smog, buried by volcanoes, the coagulation of the countryside of a florid populous, and there is no ultimate vista, because we are simply there. The city enveloped the bus long ago, and there is no way to see it from the outside, because ever since I boarded with the thought in my head, I was already in it: Mexico City. • 7 March 2008
Justin Nobel is a writer living in San Francisco.
Photos by the author.