My friends asked, “You’re going by bus? Why?” I rationalized about all the experiences I’d have to write about. After vacationing for a week in the Yucatan, I was heading back to Oaxaca, where I’m spending the winter. I told my friends that taking a bus from Cancun to Oaxaca would be a great way to see the countryside. And, besides, I could practice my Spanish by talking to my seatmates.
All the while I knew the REAL reason I chose to bus it — it costs $100.00 USD less than airfare. I would spend only $50, instead of $150. True, $100 isn’t a mountain of money but it’s 800 pesos, which will buy 27 pedicures. By taking first class or executive class buses, I save money with little inconvenience, since the buses are comfortable with plentiful leg room and reclining seats.
In Cancun, I went to the bus depot at 6 a.m., and the yawning clerk, who had worked all night, suggested I take the 11 a.m. bus to Villahermosa, with a change to Oaxaca. However, she said, that bus was filled. so I would have to wait until tomorrow. When traveling by bus in Mexico, I always follow the clerk’s advice, but I didn’t want to spend another day in Cancun. Instead, feeling confident and savvy, I decided to figure out another way.
In the first class bus terminal in Oaxaca, I had noticed that buses left for Coatzacoalcos more frequently than for Villahermosa, so I decided to go there. I thought if I went to Coatzacoalcos,which is west of Villahermosa, I’d be able to catch a bus from there to Oaxaca, which I did, but….
As I boarded, the 3:30 p.m. bus in Cqncun, my seatmate, a handsome young Mexican man with soft, kind eyes and well-trimmed mustache was writing furiously in a notebook. It looked like he was writing poetry and I noticed the word “ amor,” scattered about on the pages.
“ ¿Que escribe?” What are you writing? I asked. He answered in rapid Spanish and I had to call upon my ever-familiar phrase, “ Hablo Espanol un poquito”. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish. Struggling awkwardly with each other’s language, Juan and I talked for the first few miles, before the TV movie came on. I learned that he lived in Cancun but was moving to Coatzacoalcos to be near his girlfriend. This moonstruck kid wrote love letters and poetry to his beloved for the next several hours.
Although this was a first class bus, with toilet and television, it was not a “ directo.” Heading south along the eastern coast of the Yucatan, we detoured into the towns of Playa del Carmen, Tuluum, and several other small villages to pick up passengers.
The awful movie was in English, with Spanish subtitles. I moved into a seat of my own to better hear the movie, Since I was the only English-speaking person on the bus, there was no need for loud audio. I guessed that English-speaking vacationers took the 11 a.m. express route.
A mother with a four-year old son occupied the seat behind me. Across the aisle from her was another woman with a daughter the same age. During the fifteen-hour trip to Coatzacoalcos, the children sat quietly next to their mothers, or stretched their legs by standing in the aisles. Once in awhile they patted my hair. Even the mother couldn’t resist a stroke, maybe wondering what light colored hair felt like. . . The mothers didn’t feel a need to entertain the children. They had no toys or books
Across the aisle from me was a young girl, not older than 15, with a month-old baby. During the night, mother and child, snuggled together under a white blanket, highlighted by the dim glow of their overhead light Tranquil, quiet, like an oil painting by a master artist.
I slept on and off after dark. The bus was quiet, except for a few clangings of the metal door to the toilet, and an occasional snore or grunt from a fat man a few rows back, Numerous times during the night, Migracion officers boarded the bus, looked around and left. I have no idea where we were or why they came on board. Somewhere in the middle of the Yucatan, one of these officers walked to the back of the bus. On his way back, he pointed to me and said, “May I see your papers, please?” He also asked for the papers of a tall, light-skinned man in the seats diagonal from mine. I had wondered earlier in the day if he spoke English but he didn’t. I wondered what the Migracion officer was looking for. He checked the only two gringo-looking people on the bus.
There were also several checks by health officials who boarded the bus and looked into the toilet. But mostly, I slept. The sun and our bus arrived in Coatzacoalcos at about the same time–6:30, a.m.
Double checking at the ADO bus counter, I learned that the next bus to Oaxaca left at 10 p.m., probably the connecting bus of the 11 a,m. route, As I wandered about, bewildered, the young, girl-mother steered me to another counter, where I bought a first class ticket to Oaxaca on a bus leaving in an hour. I smirked at my clever ability to outsmart the yawning ADO clerk. I would get to Oaxaca without another night’s stay in Cancun as she had suggested. Compared to the other buses in the terminal, mine was a first class bus. Compared to ADO, it wasn’t. The seats were highbacked and cushioned , not metal buckets like city buses, but this bus was a rattler, with no TV or toilet. I don’t think it had shock absorbers. The transmission located directly under my seat made loud grating and grinding noises whenever the driver changed gears. The smell of burning rubber filled the bus during one downhill descent when we got caught in back of a slow-moving oil tanker.
After a couple hours, I regetted not asking the clerk what time I would arrive in Oaxaca. Looking at the map, I determined that Coaltzacoalcos was about two-thirds of the way, so I mentally calculated that I would get to Oaxaca in 5 or 6 hours–early afternoon.
Like the trip from Cancun to Coatzacoalcos, this was not an express route, To pass the time, I started jotting down the names of the towns where the bus stopped to pick up passengers….Minatitlan, Jaltipán, Acayucan. Each town had a bus terminal in a wooden shack in the center of town. We were paralleling the coastline. and I caught glimpses of water and signs of oil tankers and shipping activity.
After a few hours of dusty towns and stretches of patched highway lined with brown shrubbery, we headed into wondrous jungly countryside. The bus chugged up the rolling hills, stopping every few miles, sometimes every few yards, to pick up and drop off compesinos ladened with produce. A bent old man carrying a carton of chirping chicks rode a few miles, then headed up a dirt path and vanished into a damp thicket of flowering shrubbery and palm trees. Women with baskets of pastries, tomales, vegetables and fruits got on and off the bus, children clinging to their mothers’ cotton skirts.
Once in awhile, the curtain of dark and dense greenery opened onto small clearings filled with rows of leafy vegetables. Corn stalks stood straight and thick in some of the fields.
“ Caballaro,” yelled the child in the seat in front of me. “ ¡Caballaro!” And indeed, close to the window were several cowboys in sweat stained hats and weathered chaps sitting straight in the saddle. A few miles farther, the bus stopped while a herd of brahman bulls crossed the road, guided by cowboys. “ Muchas vacas,” said the boy.
The weathered-faced farmers and aproned women who got off and on the bus walked down misty, muddy roads and trails, perhaps into villages or to isolated farms. In my mind I made up stories about what life is like in remote, hilly Mexico. Here, children grow up knowing that eggs come from chickens, not in cartons, that pulling gently but firmly on a cow’s teat produces warm milk, that days begin and end in the fields, that sometimes you hop on rattling buses in order to exchange bread for beans with a distant neighbor.
One smoothed-skinned woman wearing a white, colorfully embroidered dress, sat down next to me. She glanced at me frequently and smiled warmly and sincerely. Too tired to strike up a conversation, and knowing that it would terminate after a few phrases, I merely smiled back. Maybe she was making up fantasies about what my life was like. Maybe she thought I was running away from a cruel husband. Surely, some tragedy had prompted this gringa to be on a bus like this in such a place. Perhaps her shy smiles were offerings of solace. Woman-to-woman, she might be telling me to keep smiling, to be strong.
These shady stops under thick rooted trees had no stores or signs to indicate where we were. Once, we stopped at what looked like a border crossing from one state to another, but I couldn’t see an identifying sign.I felt suspended in time and place–in a vehicle without suspension devices to smooth the ride.
In a couple of hours, the cool greenery of this forested area changed to dry and dusty flatlands. The bus rolled into one town after another, where children sold sweet rolls, tamales, and ice cream to passengers through the windows. I didn’t buy anything, having decided that this was a good time to fast and lose those vacation pounds. To offset the noisey bus that smelled of sweaty farmers, I anticipated how the slimmer me would look. I imagined my pedicured feet, with their rough skin oiled and massaged to a comforting softness.
At about 1 p.m., the landscape turned from bumpy roads lined by scrubby brush, into a bustling city full of vendors and storefronts painted orange, red, blue, and green. I was sure we were somewhere in Oaxaca, in a part of the city unfamiliar to me..(By this time, I was certain this bus was not going to roll into the first class station on Chapaltepec.)
I was ready to be home, and I vowed never again to play travel agent on Mexican buses. From now on, I would take the advice of counter agents, even tired and yawning ones. I grabbed my backpack and headed off the bus, checking with the driver that this was, indeed, Oaxaca.
He looked at me with a stare of amazement I have never seen before on the faces of Mexican bus drivers. In my experience, they maintain calm, placid looks. They may joke around with people they know and with their helpers, but with foreign passengers like myself, they are shy. Helpful, but shy. This driver scowled and in an unexpected and uncharacteristically loud voice, said, “ ¿Oaxaca? No está en Oaxaca. Está en Matías Romero.”
“ ¿A que hora do we get to Oaxaca?” I asked, so flustered I couldn’t even think of the Spanish word for arrive. His answer sounded like “ Siete horas,” It mattered little whether he meant 7 o’clock or seven more hours. I grabbed a cold drink in the terminal . Back on the bus I checked my map. Matías Romero. My God, I thought.. Is that where we are?
For some reason, I thought the northern route was better and more direct. Now, I realized we had been traveling south, through the Mexican Isthmus, known for it concentration of indigenous peoples. To the south and east of us is the state of Chiapas, a hotbed of confrontations between indigeous tribes and the Mexican government.
I looked around the bus. Perhaps, some of these young men and women were direct descendents of ancient tribal royalty. I have no way of knowing–maybe they don’t either. Traditions and ways of these villagers are somewhat changed and diluted by modern influences, yet they still shadow pre-Columbian times. Embroidered cotton blouses and hand woven rebosos (shawls) mix and match with polyester and denim. Buses replace burros–sometimes.
As the bus chugged along, I realized, from my map, that we were heading toward Salina Cruz on Mexico’s Pacific coast, I knew it was about five or six hours from there to Oaxaca–since I had travelled that route before. So, at the time I had hoped to be home, I settled down for another seven or so hours of bumping through country towns, looking at the scenery, watching people, and thinking all the while of 27 pedicures.