The Local to Mexico City
Tattoos, hickies, and Doritos on the road from Nogales.
The outdoor waiting room of the bus station in Nogales, Sonora was under a high metal roof with horticultural shade screens bungeed to the two-story posts. It had three rows of ripped-out bus seats, with about a dozen or so recently deported migrants slouched wide-eyed in the afternoon heat, some of them eating chicharrónes soaked in hot sauce and lime juice. I sat down in the second row and watched a teenage boy, the son of the woman who ran the food stall, whistle and tease a small parrot in a cage. His two younger siblings, a girl about five and a boy about three, rescued an injured sparrow they found in one of the spidery, cat-piss corners, and then spent a half an hour squeezing and petting the poor bird, screaming at it when it tried desperately (and ineffectively) to fly away until the kids’ mother came over to help. She was a beautiful woman probably in her early 30s, with a carefully made-up face, large hoop earrings, and a round, watermelon-protuberant gut which hung out of her tight tanktop and over her beltline. She took the child-tortured sparrow and introduced it, across the wire cage, to the parrot.
But it looked as though the parrot, instead of wanting to kiss the sparrow, sensed the introduction of a rival, and wanted to peck the smaller, injured bird to death. The sparrow itself looked as if it were being electrocuted as it vibrated violently and squeaked in fear in the woman’s tight grip. Finally, the mother gave the sparrow back to her yelping, man-handling children, and spent the next 10 minutes or so widely opening her mouth and letting out a slow, childish, single-note whistle, which seemed to be as much as she could whistle, trying to get the parrot to either calm down or repeat her unmusical call. The parrot did neither, which didn’t stop the woman from repeating her kiddie whistle over and over.
While crossing the border on foot into Nogales earlier in the day I saw a billboard that read:
La limpieza siempre habla bien de mi…
Underneath the words there were two road sign-style symbols. One was a trash can and the other a figure wearing a seatbelt. I thought, at the time, that it was strange that cleanliness was emphasized both by diminishing bodily harm (with the figure in the seatbelt) and by not littering, and that cleanliness is even mentioned in a city that finds bodies in the street every day, and not just dead bodies, but living ones, too. I thought of the common sight of migrants sleeping on the bare concrete sidewalk, or in the littered and dangerous desert hills, or in the ornate, fake flower-filled, steep hillside cemetery, where recently two decapitated heads were found.
I was sitting in the bus station next to Vulmaro, a man I had met a few hours ago in the comedor before I was called away by the Jesuit Father Sean to help bring a pick-up’s load of 50-pound bags of rice and beans into the Jesuit bodega. The bodega was is in a nearby low-income apartment tower within sight of the border, where I had lived off and on the previous summer. I had unloaded the whole bed of rice and beans myself because after our initial trek up the steps with a single bag each, hefted neatly over our shoulders, the key had stuck in the lock and Father Sean had spent nearly 20 minutes trying to open the door. When he finally succeeded he spent another few minutes trying to get the still stuck key back out of the lock. He finally gave up just as I was taking the last few bags of beans out of the truck. He didn’t know what to do about the stubborn key, and hesitated to call a locksmith because, as he said, he’d called a locksmith already three times that week — in three separate instances on three distinct doors — which at first I took to be an exaggeration, but then realized, in his sweaty sadness, that Father Sean was serious and exhibiting a deep, priestly frustration with the mundane world, and that he was telling the truth. I told him that if he had a screwdriver I could take apart the lock, as I used to install those same types of locks a few years earlier, which is true, though I think he was as hesitant to believe me as I was him. He found an old, grease-stained Phillips, and I took the lock off the door. It was another 10 minutes of tinkering, however, before I could — twisting, fighting and sweating profusely — pull the key out of the lock, an act which felt, though I’m not sure why, and still feels, like the perfect metaphor for my fatiguing and yet wonderful ride from Heroica Nogales, Sonora to Mexico City, Distrito Federal.
The bus was set to leave Nogales at six in the evening. A few minutes past six a tall, skinny European delivery type van pulled into the wide, empty, dirt and gravel parking lot. A few of the migrants and I looked at each other, mumbling some concern that this would be the vehicle to take us all the way to DF, which is some 1,700 miles away, and, for a few of the migrants, all the way to Quintana Roo, another 600 miles. A rumor quickly circulated among those of us waiting that we would ride in this van to a full-sized bus, which was waiting for us downtown. In a few minutes, however, after some of the luggage was strapped to the roof, we were beckoned to present our thin paper tickets and enter. There were 17 of us, including two drivers. The bus had 15 seats, including a half-seat in the front, which straddled the radio and dashboard. One of the drivers unrolled a carpet scrap and one of the younger men volunteered to take the space on the floor, which, he was quick to recognize, would probably end up as the most comfortable and spacious seat in the van. I squeezed into the second to last row, in a window seat, and put my bag on my lap. It would sit there for the next 40 hours, though I didn’t know that at the time.
As it turned out, the rumor was wrong, and we rode in the van for the entire trip. As there were four men squeezed into the one row in the back, they took turns slinking onto the floor, squeezed between two narrow rows, one with a single seat (on the passenger side) and one with two seats (on the driver side). We drove about two hours, during which I was wondering why it seemed as if we were driving primarily east, and then north-east, and then due north, with the sun setting over shrubby, rocky gray mountains, until the sun splintered the west into colors I can’t name (all in the family of tangerine), shocking beautifully across the desert. Then a storm swept over the whole inflamed sky, clouds lowering and lightning heralding monsoon, as we were pulling into Agua Prieta, another border town, a town perhaps even slightly north of Nogales. We dropped off one of the passengers off (which made it minimally more comfortable for the now three men in the far back, who wouldn’t any longer have to take turns squeezed into the second, carpetless seat on the floor), and then lingered for almost a half an hour in a small, unswept waiting area, watching one of the drivers, without a raincoat or even a hat, retarp and lash the luggage on the van’s roof in the pelting rain. I was impressed by how thoroughly he checked and double-checked his knots, as he was soaked to the bone and must have been shivering. He never seemed to be in a hurry at all.
One of the other passengers was a 20-year-old boy who grew up in Oakland, moved to Tennessee, got arrested, and spent three months in jail outside New Orleans before he was deported to Nogales. I would later learn that he had moved to Oakland from San Luis Potosi with his family when he was only a baby, was deported twice before, and that his name was Adrian. He was very light-skinned and spoke a slangy, fast Spanglish — which was difficult for me to understand — as well as a clean, unaccented English. At the bus station before our initial departure, one of the drivers pulled him aside and gave him a very paternal looking lecture about not drinking and being obnoxious or absurd (I heard him use the word absurdo at least twice) on the bus. I subsequently saw Adrian drink two beers and one wine cooler throughout the rest of the day.
Adrian was travelling with a chubby young woman who was his age or perhaps a few years older, and the two seemed to be cartoonishly in love with each other. The two sat directly in front of me. Adrian spent most of the trip’s 40-some hours leaned into the woman, resting his face histrionically on her shoulder, as if in sleep. It was a posture, however, in which I think it would be nearly impossible to sleep. Sometimes they would giggle convulsively, and sometimes they would spend long stretches peck-kissing at each other. At one point, during a break, I noticed severe suck-bruises on Adrian’s neck. Adrian frequently looked back at me to ask to borrow my pen. I don’t know what they were writing to each other on the shaky bus (my own notes are almost illegible), except once, when Adrian, very carefully, and, I admit, very beautifully, thickly stylographed his name in swooping cursive, as if it were a stencil for a soon-to-be-needled tattoo, onto the woman’s shoulder. He told me, during another break, that he intended to marry her. They’d met each other on the deportation flight from New Orleans to Tucson and maintained contact during their short stay in the detention center in Tucson, were then deported to Nogales together, and had known each other about one week.
Adrian had a young, sweet, open-mouthed laugh, which I imagine is often charming, except that he, maybe as many as a hundred times throughout the trip, looked at me directly in the eyes and burst out laughing. Never once did he explain his laughter, though I imagine it had something to do with the fact that I was on the bus at all. The other men on the van — who had all been deported and were going to Puebla, Michoacan, Chiapas and as far as Quintana Roo — asked dozens of times where I was going and what I was going to do there. I don’t blame them for asking me so often, even thought they had obviously overheard me explain it before (all conversations on the van were overheard by all the other passengers, excepting some amorous whispers) because I never once gave a straightforward answer, which, I admit, I still don’t have. It didn’t seem right, though it would have probably placated the other passengers, if I had simply said that I’m going on vacation. The choice of transit, however, seemed so unlike what one would choose to begin a vacation that this explanation probably wouldn’t have sufficed either.
Throughout the trip, I also asked and heard multiple answers as to the plans of the other passengers. Everyone besides the drivers had been recently deported. I heard many different explanations as to how and why they were arrested or caught, what to say to the judge, how to handle the migra, where best to cross, which coyote to choose and how to negotiate a price with him, how best to travel north, how to be sure not to carry any phone numbers (as they can be used to harass and appeal to families for money if you are kidnapped), how to lay low in the U.S.(only drink beer in your apartment, never drive over the speed limit, always show up on time to placate your foreman) what to do with all of your stuff once you are deported, and a lot of other practical migratorial advice that I have, for what I felt was a sick privilege, absolutely no use for.
The countryside we passed as we sped bumpily south into Mexico looked mostly poor, dilapidated, littered, and abandoned. The highway was filled with potholes and was only two lanes wide in both directions. Seemingly endless rows of abandoned cinderblock homes and restaurants lined the side of the road. There were mangy dogs with heavy tits and steep limps crossing the highway and sad, sun-beaten horses hobbled or tied to gateposts. Most of the pueblos we passed through were unpaved. Many of them had two or three vulcano storefronts along the highway, which had rusted gates, piles of sun-cracked tires and rusted wheels, spray-painted signs, and usually three or four young men lounged in seemingly inconsolable postures. Never once did any of these groups of men seemed to be engaged in anything but strict, fly-buzzing silence. And yet, despite the obvious poverty, I saw farmers drive many small, old tractors, dragging discs or plows across small fields. The fields seemed manageable, unlike those in the U.S., which seem to be limitlessly big, stretching to a distant horizon line of trees, and are worked and plowed and harvested by giant, car-washed John Deere specialized combines instead of basic, small-engine tractors.
And yet most of what I saw of the Mexican countryside was the inside of gas station snack shops, many of which were run by what seemed to be two or three families, or perhaps one extended family, with numerous young children, all under the age of about seven. The snack shops were mostly filthy. None of the bathrooms, except the one or two that charged a few pesos for entrance, had toilet paper, toilet seats, or soap, and a few of them didn’t have running water. Trash was often piled in the corners or in a heap outside. One snack shop a few kilometers north of Chihuahua had a buffet of red chili beef, rice, and beans, which, though within smell of the bathroom, was all delicious and very cheap. I paid 40 pesos for a large meal. The duena there gave each of us a packet of seven tortillas. I ate four. Most of the men bought something at every other gas station stop we made (we made stops much more frequently than we needed gas; we probably made 30). The men would usually buy Flaming Hot Doritos (Doritos Incognitos, they’re called); Flaming Tostitos; Flaming Cheeto; hot churritos; papas toreadas; Big Mix; Pake Taxo; Tostachos; Spirrones; Crunchitos or other spicy and limey brands of corn or pigskin fried chips; plus tall Pepsis; orange or pineapple jarrito sodas; hot dogs loaded with ketchup, onions and squeeze bottle guacamole; and sundry other sweetbreads and cookies that came in colorful packages, looked years-old, and were filled with hard-dried sweet cream either pink or white. We all bought small packets of chicle and passed them around the bus until we were all chewing and snapping and the packets were empty. This may have been out of courtesy, to calm our breath, or to fight the body smell we were all separately and together cooking up in the heat of the day.
A number of the men sat without their shirts on, including Adrian, who wore an oversized plain white T-shirt, which it was his habit to frequently lift up and expose and proudly stroke his flabby belly. When he took his shirt all the way off, I could read very clearly, and probably did so hundreds of times, the word “Olga” tattooed on his right deltoid. He also had a lagrima tattoo, the outline of a single tear on the outside of his left eye. I asked him about it and he explained that an unfilled lagrima means that somebody died on you, a filled-in lagrima means you killed somebody, and a double lagrima means that you’ve been raped in prison. His tear, he told me, was for his father, who died a couple of years ago. He said that he wanted to get it removed, but it was too expensive. I asked why anyone would want to advertise, with the double lagrima, that they were raped in prison. Adrian answered me only with a laugh. I didn’t know if he was laughing because it was an obvious answer, or it was a ridiculous question, or if he was simply laughing at me again.
I was perhaps paying particular interest to the tattoos that I think all of the men wore on the bus because the afternoon we had departed, outside the comedor, I saw for the first time a homemade, prison-style tattoo gun. It was constructed from a toy car engine and ran by pressing a little green button, which was meant to serve as the car’s accelerator on the hand control. It was a toy, I guessed, that was bought at a dollar store and was probably made in China for about eight cents. Accelerating the electric motor spun a small rotor. The rotor was wired to a hollow bic pen. Through the tip of the pen, which was grommeted with a metal stud, passed a guitar wire that was hooked to the rotor. As the rotor spun, the guitar wire shot rapidly and minutely, back and forth out of the head of the pen. As the man showed me his contraption, he took out an old Ziploc bag of ink cartridges, which, he said, you could buy at the dollar store. I had the idea, sitting there on the sidewalk and playing with the gun, that I would get a tattoo right then and there. Something simple and geometric was my inclination, something hard to mess up. I had seen a lot of migrants recently with very sloppy tattoos. The entourage that hovered behind the tattoo artist, however, proudly exhibited their recent work, which was scabby and swollen enough to make the clown faces and cursive names of lovers look smeared and as if drawn by a nearly drunk man with a makeshift gun on a dark street in a desperate hour, all of which was probably true.
In the van we watched pirated versions of the latest installment of the Mummy series (which was depressingly horrible); Babylon A.D. with Vin Diesel; a few movies that were so mediocre I can’t now, as I’m writing this, though it has been less than a day, remember anything about them at all; the last Karate Kid movie, starring Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s son, which I quite liked (though I admit I was under the influence of extremely cramped quarters); and a number of episodes of Cantinblas, a Mexico City sort of I Love Lucy/Charlie Chaplin-style sitcom starring a funny looking, chubby Mexican man with a mustache that covered only the outside of his lips and was shaved clean everywhere else (a sort of reverse Hitler mustache). The men on the bus loved Cantinblas. I quickly learned to like him, too. He muffed up séances, broke many windows, was fired numerous times, spilled elaborately decorated trays of food, danced hilariously, ruined sporting events, accidentally and repeatedly kicked his boss in the groin, innocently and forgivably ran face-first into the bosoms of buxom women, flooded apartments, fell into pools with his suit on, and often got boisterously drunk on tequila and lime. When we weren’t watching a dubbed movie on the little, shaky, drop-down screen, we listened to loud Ranchera music. There was probably only a half an hour of silence on the whole trip, and those moments only came when one of the bus drivers received a telephone call from the boss or their wives. Otherwise it was loud ranchera and filmic explosions and piercingly falsetto laugh tracks the whole trip.
The color of the dirt changed from desert dust to clay red right around Zacatecas. And south from there the hills greened; shrubs blossomed out of boulders; maguey sprouted on the hills; enormous, shack-sized clusters of inedible nopal grew sporadically in the spiny fields; and the almost-tropical wind smelled freshly of rivers and storm.
The first night I hardly slept at all. The seats didn’t recline. The seatbacks were too hard to lean forward against, and the roads were too bumpy to lean comfortably against the window. I dozed and jerked the night away, leaning forward steeply and resting on my arms which hugged my backpack. The second night, though, and I saw this with all the men, we weren’t so choosy about our sleeping positions, and we fell into chiropractically nightmarish postures, slumped to our necks with our knees high on the seatbacks, or, as I found least uncomfortable, curled straight forward as far as I could and sleeping like a snail, with my forehead level with or below my navel. Throughout all of this, however, even when I had to piss again and it was hours until dawn when I would be able to read my Jane Austen novel, I didn’t want the trip to end and even fancied, numerous times, spending the next few weeks continuing on bus all the way to Tierra del Fuego, whose name itself, besides the incredible length of travel, was enticing me like a veritable magnet.
About five in the morning, in the cold predawn dark, two mornings after we had left Nogales, I was dropped off on the side of the road with Vulmaro, the only other passenger on the way to DF. I was told that it would take too long to go into the centro and back to Puebla, so the driver gave us each 35 pesos and waited with us to hail another bus to haul us the rest of the way into the city, which was, I was told, another hour-and-a-half or so. I asked the driver if this was always in the plan, to ditch me on the side of a screaming highway in the dark to try to thumb another bus. He said that it was, though I doubted it.
After another hour of the slow rumbling bounce of a giant bus’s shock-absorbers (which, compared to the van’s stiff shocks, felt like riding in an ocean liner on a heaving sea) in the long-spreading Mexico City dawn, I disembarked at the end of the metro line with Vulmaro. The smells of roasted meat and exhaust and grease started grinding immediately at my long-empty stomach. Vulmaro and I shared a taxi with a chilango driver, as he called himself, until Vulmaro hopped out at another line of the metro, and I continued on until Colonia del Valle. The cabbie was one of those drivers who makes you wonder how he can pass an hour without causing a fatal accident, let alone make a career of sharp turns; suddenly slammed breaks; and a deportment of complete nonchalance for his consistently dangerous speed, one-handed or sometimes one-fingered driving, long blinks and occasional sustained glances at me in the rearview. A number of times in my short trip, I was about to yelp to tell him that there was a bus was approaching in the passing lane, but he always, though very nearly, cut back into our lane at seemingly the last second. He wore a tight jean jacket and a Mohawk hairdo, which was already spiked stiff with gel in the early morning. I paid him 80 pesos and rang the bell of 345 Calle San Francisco. Yessi, my hostess’s 30-year-old vagabond, free-spirited daughter, buzzed me in and I climbed the steps to apartment 101. I set down my bag, was given a brief tour of my room, and then offered coffee. I took, instead, manzanilla tea and toast with butter and avocado, chatted for a while with Yessi, who told me how concerned she had passed the night, thinking I was lost somewhere in the city.
I found very quickly that Yessi was incredibly verbose, and, slumping over my tea, I listened for nearly an hour as she explained to me what Reike is — a Japanese healing art in which the practitioners lay their hands on their patients, patients that can be people, pets, salad vegetables, and, if I remember correctly, even inorganic matter, like rocks, minerals, jewelry, hills or bodies of water. I felt then, and I have no doubt that it was due to my excessive sleeplessness, that she was making everything up on the spot, though now I imagine that any medical practice or spiritual art that she might have described to me, whether the transubstantiation of bread into the body of god, the sticking of needles into nerve centers, the radiograph imaging of broken bones, or the rapid freezing of the recently deceased, all would have seemed equally absurd to me, as Yessi described her most recent business endeavor, which was a robe with three precisely aligned pockets along the back in which crystals are placed to align with the wearer’s chakras. The crystals, she told me, should be worn in the morning for at least 45 minutes while you go about your morning routine, drinking your tea and eating your toast, or doing whatever you do in the morning. As she was explaining Reike to me, I thought she was going to offer me such a robe, and I think I would have accepted it, too, but instead I asked if I could take a shower. We turned on the water heater and I waited 10 minutes or so before peeling off my clothes and stepping slowly under the warm, dribbling faucet. I remember I felt like I was standing in the rain — a thought, though it seems so obvious, I don’t know if I’ve ever had about showering before. After cleaning myself, I finally laid down, read another chapter of Jane Austen and slept wonderfully for four hours. The only dream I remembered when I awoke had me standing in the very room in which I had been sleeping, in the midst of a devastating earthquake. • 7 October 2010
John Washington lives and writes in Tucson. His nonfiction is also published on Word Riot.
Article photo via Carlos Casas / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0