Midnight on the Isthmus: Returning home to Chiapas from Oaxaca

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Carron Harlan

After an exciting week visiting a close friend, meeting new ones, and immersing myself fully in the rich cultural experience that is Oaxaca, I was headed home to celebrate Christmas with my family and friends in Chiapas. My husband was back in the States on business, so I had taken this special trip to Oaxaca as an early Christmas present, a rare and wonderful opportunity to indulge myself. Certainly I deserved it! I was deliciously tired and ready to relax on the first-class overnight bus to Tuxtla Gutierrez, usually an easy and uneventful 10-hour trip.

I had purchased my ticket days ahead–as one must always do for holiday travel in Mexico — and the goodbyes had all been hugged. My wait at the crowded terminal in Oaxaca was surprisingly brief. Busses were running on time, even this close to Christmas.

Most of my baggage was secured beneath the coach, and I settled into the front seat on the passenger side. Since I usually don’t sleep soundly on busses, the wide beams of the headlights and broad expanse of windshield would let me enjoy at least some of the beautiful scenery in rugged southern Mexico.

Soon we were purring powerfully up and out of the great Oaxacan valley into the dark, rocky mountains which surround the city. Large boulders occasionally appeared on the road in the glare of our lights, and our driver warned on-coming trucks and buses with a complicated series of signals which included, I think, turning on some small outside lights or emergency blinkers, then turning on the overhead light in the driver’s curtained-off compartment, followed by a rapid and impressive display of hand signals. Other drivers often reciprocated with similar cautions for us.

I adjusted the back of my seat, propped my feet up on a woven coffee sack filled with exciting souveniers from the Zapotec capital, and dozed.

There were a few stops in small towns to pick up passengers and buy “Sabritas” (potato chips) from vendors outside the terminals. But we were quickly over the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur and I recognized the low-lying tropical swampiness of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow neck of land which funnels the rest of Mexico into Chiapas to the south and into the curving sweep of the Yucatan Peninsula to the east and north.

The Isthmus stretches flat and straight from the Gulf of Mexico’s Bay of Campeche south to the Gulf of Tehuantepec, whose waters open directly to the Pacific Ocean and the Orient beyond. The distance between these bodies of water is only 130 miles. For hundreds of years this north-south strip of land has marked the informal boundary between the powerful Zapotecs of Oaxaca and the ancient Zoque Indians who claim territory from Villahermosa in Tabasco southward into the western reaches of Chiapas and east toward the colonial city of San Cristobal.

During the 1800s the railroad was king here, facilitating international trade between the Gulf and the Pacific. Near its southern terminus, the railroad connected with coastal tracks which continued through vast coffee and banana plantations in the Soconusco area of Chiapas and on into Guatemala. Today, commerce flows through the Isthmus in large trucks. Bumper-to-bumper caravans bounce heavily through deep potholes as they head toward destinations in Mexico City or busy ports along both coasts

The Pan American Highway (Hwy 190) cuts across the Isthmus from northwest to southeast. This was the highway along which my bus was traveling. We were on time — and making good time–along its straight, isolated stretches. It was the night of the winter solstice and the moon hung full in the clear, cold sky. The moon was closer to Earth this year than at any time in over a century. How pleased I was for having chosen this beautiful night to go home!

This area of the Isthmus is more commercial than “touristy” in its ambiance and not as scenic as the mountains, but there are some interesting coastal towns. For instance, Tehuantepec and Juchitan are noted for their frequent festivals and fiestas, enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. Costumes worn by native women are especially colorful, regional foods are delicious and varied, and the mood is generally warm and hospitable.

However, this area is also known for its periodic political demonstrations which often follow the celebration of saints’ days and other important events, whenever and wherever passionate crowds may gather. The location of these demonstrations along a strategic transportation artery is an especially effective way to disrupt commerce and travel between important cities. Here local grievances are assured of attracting national attention because, while there are many roads leading away from Hwy 190, these go only very short distances before dead-ending at unbridged rivers or in isolated villages. There is no way to get around accidents or demonstrations, no alternate route by which to circumnavigate a blocked road.

We were slowly, very carefully, negotiating the tall “topes” (speed bumps) in the town of Magdalena Tequisistlan, with its impressive modern bridge spanning a broad sandy river of the same name. I noticed the 18-wheeler stopped in front of us just as our driver did. I was glad we had not come up behind it on one of the treacherous mountain curves! I assumed this was another check point by one of Mexico’s various authorities–immigration, traffic police, military, or perhaps even agriculture. I looked at my watch. It was 12:15 AM on the Isthmus.

With the full moon, clear sky, and headlights of our bus illuminating the road from curb to curb, I could see familiar-looking one- and two-story buildings lining both sides of the busy highway. Typical of houses in many Mexican towns, their front rooms opened directly to the street and were devoted to various small businesses– restaurantes, papelerias, carnicerias, tiendas–the walls brightly colored and covered with handpainted signs advertising cervezas, dulces, refrescas, tacos al pastor. It was a product mix obviously designed to tempt tired travelers on their way to somewhere else.

Sleepy passengers roused slightly and awaited instructions to show passports, open carry-on luggage, answer questions about transporting uncooked meat in our bags. The usual polite cursory inspection one comes to expect when traveling in Mexico. But no officials boarded, and nothing else happened. Our driver kept the motor humming, prepared to move ahead.

The first of the passengers to ask permission to leave the bus were the smokers. They stood outside silently puffing their cigarettes, with little conversation about what might be happening. Then more passengers asked to go outside “just to stretch our legs,” so the driver opened the heavy sliding door. As babies and children awakened and complained, they were also taken out. Other passengers seemed to sleep through the unscheduled stop.

I was glad the man sitting in the seat next to me had exited at the last town. I could fold my feet under me and cover my lap with a warm woolen shawl from the bag of souvenirs stowed beneath my seat. I dozed almost comfortably and so did our driver. From far away came the mournful sound of a freight train moving slowing through the night.

I was awakened at 2:30 AM by several young girls leaving the bus, brushing against my arm as they passed. They were tourists from somewhere, speaking a little English, a little Spanish, wondering aloud what was going on. They were blondes and red-heads–recently tanned, freckled, and bare shouldered–obviously not wearing bras under their stretchy little tops. With the assurance of youth, three of them started off on foot to get to the source of the delay. Sometime later they returned and announced their first-hand assessment of the situation.

“Typical! A bunch of Mexicans demonstrating about something. They have blocked the road with rocks and they seem to be having a party, too.” Did this event have anything to do with the solstice, I wondered as I slipped back into a light sleep.

By sunrise, just after 6:00, someone suggested that the train we heard during the night had de-railed, spilling hazardous cargo, and we were waiting for the clean up. More “chisme” (rumors) floated about aimlessly, filling the bus like stale smoke.

Yes, for sure it was a demonstration, concluded another passenger. The wife of a local man had been murdered and their relatives were protesting what they felt was a lack of effort on the part of officials to bring the killer to justice. No, said another, it was a labor union striking for more money and better benefits. Or perhaps it was terrorists threatening the bridge just ahead.

No one knew.

Several federal police cars passed on the empty lane beside us. Each turned around somewhere and returned a short while later. A gaggle of backpackers, doubled over by their heavy loads, marched past as we sat. They, too, were turned back at the river and were now stepping silently, but with no less assurance, back to their bus farther up the line.

Still no news. Nothing at all to suggest what was really happening or, more importantly, when it would be over.

People were leaving the bus again, venturing out singly or in small groups, appreciating the warm sunlight. Young women in tight jeans and faded make-up huddled down on the curb and listened as a man about their age–distinguished by his multiple body piercings, tattoos, and a really bad hair cut–strummed his battered old guitar. They were going to San Cristobal and were worried about making connections.

Another group of slightly older tourists, from British Columbia, chatted in lovely English accents. They were headed first to Comitan in Chiapas, then across the border into Guatemala. They, too, were concerned. The bus driver assured them that the bus terminal in Tehuantepec had computers and would help them make reservations to their final destinations. Other than that, he could provide no additional information about why we were stopped.

With the morning came hordes of local vendors, all offering regional snacks to the miles of stranded passengers now milling along the sides of the highway. From baskets and push carts they sold “dulces” (homemade candies); perfumey tropical fruits in plastic cups with lime quarters, sweet yellow cornbread baked in large oval sardine tins; “cacahuates” (peanuts) shelled and roasted with a film of chile powder, salt, and lime juice; “elotes” (hot corn-on-the-cob) with choices of mayonnaise, red chile powder, lime, salt, and melted butter to slather on “al gusto”; and thick, warm, hand-patted tortillas wrapped in bright pink butcher paper.

For those with more “norteamericano” tastes, several small “tiendas” (convenience stores in private living rooms) opened early to accommodate the captive customers. They generally offered canned juices and sodas, and clear plastic bottles of “agua purificado”. Some hungry passengers also bought Virginia ham, thinly sliced, and little jars of mayonnaise or yellow mustard to spread on white bread for sandwiches with a familiar taste of home.

I thought to myself: entrepreneurs in this remote village had probably never seen so much money change hands in one morning!

The passengers were quiet, patient, amazingly resigned to the continuing wait. No one was frantically trying to contact business associates to cancel important appointments, nor using up the last of their cell phone batteries to contact lawyers who might take on a class action suit against someone for malicious disruption of the right to travel unimpeded.

We were obviously not on a freeway somewhere in the US!

I was tired, but not unduly so, keeping my own vigil in the double front seat of the bus. Among the souvenirs in my coffee sack were five paperback books I had bought from the English Lending Library in Oaxaca. These would come in handy if the day dragged on with no forward movement.

But around 11:00 AM a driver from somewhere farther up the line walked to our bus and advised us all to re-board. The road was clear ahead. Whatever happened during the night was finally over. To the welcome sound of hundreds of huge engines turning over simultaneously, we were going home!

The magnitude of the traffic jam was obvious as we made only very slow, restricted progress for the next couple of hours. But any sustained movement was cheered by the now weary travelers.

Our bus arrived in Tuxtla Gutierrez at 5:30 that afternoon, exactly 12 hours late. I knew my kids had been expecting me earlier and that they would be worried.

As the taxi stopped in front of my house in Copoya, my radiant daughter and her handsome young husband of two months quickly opened the door for me.

She kissed me and said, “I was just trying to send you an e-mail to find out where you were!”

I interrupted to explain why I was late and to apologize for not having been able to let them know.

“Oh Mom, I’m sorry.” Then, she blushed prettily and smiled wryly.

“Actually, we were hoping I had misunderstood your e-mail about when you were coming home; that you meant NEXT Wednesday instead of today, so we could have the house to ourselves for another whole week!”


Published or Updated on: April 1, 2000 by Carron Harlan © 2000


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