We were scared.
Our travels had gone well so far in the ol’ U.S. of A., but now we had entered Mexico. The American newspapers were filled with stories of daily carnage in la Nortena. Even our friends from Michoacan were afraid to return home.
We walked through the border crossing turnstile and joined the herd of people walking into Tijuana at the end of the work day. Getting to San Diego from Washington State by Public transit, Craigslist, and Hitchhiking was a great adventure, but the entire time we were looking towards our next big step: Mexico. But once we had crossed the border, we felt, for the first time, like lost tourists. We obviously stood out as backpackers and we were pulled aside by well armed Mexican Military men to be searched.
The sun hung low in the sky. We fumbled around looking for the Bus Station. We were nervous about who to trust, paranoid of how we stuck out like some sore thumbs.
We were not even sure where we were headed, we just wanted to make it South safely. Mazatlan was a name that we had seen on advertisements in Portland. We took a gamble and decided to get tickets there. We were suspicious of the bus companies and their sales reps and we compared all of their prices.
By wonderful grace, some fellows outside the terminal had overheard Lale’s accent as we were debating buses and wanted to know where she was from. As we spoke with them, the Chilean miners were being pulled out of the collapsed mine in the Atacama. The world media was obsessed with “Los 33,” the rescued miners. The old men warmed up to us and excitedly told us the most recent updates about the Chileans that they heard on the radio. These men also took care of us and told us to save some money by heading to the Central Bus Terminal in Tijuana.
The problem was that the Central Terminal was across town and we could not walk there safely. We nervously waved down a taxi. Our fear came out as awkwardness. Luckily Lale mentioned the Chilean Miners and like many times on our trip, they were our conversational saving grace. The driver launched into enthusiastically telling us his conspiracy theories of Los 33.
We boarded our bus to Mazatlan as the sun set. Most of the seats were empty. Surrounding our seat were just three rough looking fellows, each wearing a ‘wife-beater’ tank top. A taco vendor boarded the bus and rode East with us working up and down the aisle, selling his tamales and tacos. We declined his offer, our doctor had told us to avoid street food to prevent travel sickness.
The vendor made his way back up the aisle and asked us in Spanish, “Chicken or Beef?” We were confused and protested that we had not ordered any tacos. He informed us that our sketchy looking neighbor had paid for us! Oh man, that was sweet, but why?! Is he trying to fatten us up for the Narcos who are going to blockade the bus at night? Our paranoid minds raced rapidly as we smiled and said “Muchas Gracias.”
The bus continued East along the border, with the impoverished Tijuana slums facing a deep, steep, vacant canyon, patrolled by heavily armed and fortified U.S. Border Patrol. This truly was a frontier. On the Mexican side, humanity crammed on every inch of soil, facing the empty, militarized expanse of Gringolandia. The evening became pitch black and fast food joints and neon bars lit up the night as we traveled away from the frontier.
We settled in for a 30 hour bus ride, prayed for safe travels, and settled into sleep. We had promised our mothers that we would make it safely home.
We were awoken abruptly in the middle of the night by Mexican armed forces. They ordered us off the bus and we panicked. All of the stories of night blockades and fake police checkpoints were racing in our mind. We were the only foreigners on the bus. They lined us up inside this concrete building, forcing us to drag our bags from the bus with us. Heavily armed soldiers watched us sternly. Confused, we proceeded in the line, which culminated with a push button and a head level stop light. Folks would push the little button and either would get a green or a red light. A red light meant you would get dragged aside to be searched and a green told you to get back on the bus. By the luck of the draw, we both got the green go ahead and scrambled back onto the bus to the safety of our scattered slumber.
As we discovered throughout our travels, the long distance buses of Latin America are luxurious. The bus had filled by morning with many families as we stopped in small Northern cities. We all watched bootleg movies with spanish dubbing.
We would stop every few hours to stretch legs and buy snacks or a meal. These stops were a great time for us to make eye contact and friends with all of our fellow passengers. It turns out that our sketchy neighbors were absolute sweethearts! We all climbed back on the bus and shared our snacks and traded stories.
We all had a common purpose, getting home to Mom’s house. Lale was headed to the South of Chile to see her mother and our three friends were also heading home to see their mothers for the first time in many years. Each of our buddies had their bus ticket paid by U.S. Homeland Security and was being deported home after serving felony sentences in California.
When we had first encountered these guys, we were purely afraid of them and everything else in the North of Mexico. By the time we neared their respective hometowns, we actually felt safer having these guys as our travelling companions.
The guy in the seat in front of us traded potato chips and sevillanas and shared his life in California. He had been raised in L.A. and had not been to Mexico since he was a child. He was so nervous to see his Mom, he did not know how she would react to him being sent home. Lale reassured him that his Mother would delight in seeing her long lost child, that he would be her early Christmas gift! Excitedly, he showed us the present he had brought for his Mother. He asked “Do you think my Mama will like these photos?” We looked them over and here was him and his guys posing in prison garb in front of the weight set in the prison yard throwing down their hand signs! “Oh, your Mom will just be so happy to see you!” was our reassuring response.
The North of Mexico transformed from the Sonoran desert to lusher regions as we made it South. We felt more confident as we made it out of the land of the Nortenas. We waved goodbye to our new friends as they climbed off the bus and were embraced by their waiting families. As would happen many times on our trip South, our perceptions and stereotypes were challenged by friendliness and hospitality. And now, we were a little less scared. Real people with real stories had replaced the fearmongering headlines.