“Are you sure you wanna take a train?” I asked Igor and Tomas. We were in Mexico City, heading north back to the US border.
“Yes,” Tomas replied.
I’ve already posted you one story about my road trip to Mexico in 1997 with my two friends from the Czech Republic. And I think there will be many more to come before I’m finished with the topic. It’s such a fantastic country, in all ways: the people, the food, the varying climates, the political turmoil the country has gone through since becoming independent in 1821 that has been the subject for such artists as Diego Rivera and Alfredo Zalce while creating a ready script for novelists Carlos Fuentes and the poet Octavio Paz. But most of all, the women. Las Mujeres son bonitas. That's no overestimating, either.
We decided to buy tickets to Mexicali, a town close to Calexico on the other side of the border. Tomas wanted to see his friend from Zlin who lived in Los Angeles.
NOT THE ORIENT EXPRESS
The train was old and most of the people on board poor: the old, young families migrating to the northern cities and farmers with chickens or produce who got on and off every few stops. And then there were the entrepreneurial workers who always got on once the train ground to a station: selling tamales, slices of watermelon, bottled water and numerous other things we didn’t try as we’d heard about Montezuma’s Revenge and didn’t want to get it — since we had started our road trip, we’d avoided any form of street food and tap water, sticking to tins of chili beans, canned potatoes, and meat. We’d only eaten a few times in the more upmarket restaurants in the bigger cities because our funds had been low and enjoyed the splendour and variation Mexican cuisine offers the taste buds.
I can’t recall how long the trip took — two days was my best guess, but it seemed we were on the goddamn train for an eternity.
The landscape changed the further north we went, as it got hotter, and the lush greenery of central Mexico gave way to desert. We noticed a shift in the people and their attitude towards us too, just like it had been in Monterey, a few months before at the start of our trip. It was a stark contrast to how it had been in Oaxaca, Tabasco and the Chiapas, where we’d been warmly welcomed. In the south, there is no bad blood with the Gringo like it is in the states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas, whose histories — both militarily and economically — have been tied to their giant neighbour to the north for nearly two centuries.
“What the fuck!” I said, waking up. I turned to Igor, who was sitting to my right. “It’s sand.”
He laughed at me.
The windows to the train had been opened the whole night as an ad hoc air conditioner, and the sand from the desert the train was cutting through had blown in: it was in my hair, the floor — I could even taste the grains in my mouth.
That was in the morning. We were heading through the Sonoran Desert. We still had another night of travelling before we got to our destination.
Unfortunately for us, we’d only packed bread rolls for our trip, and due to the unsavoury look of the food available from the vendors on the train, it was our only source of sustenance until Tomas, noticing a woman with her children had no food, gave all our supplies of bread to them. It was a kind gesture, but one I didn’t really appreciate until we got back to the United States.
We were quickly approaching Mexicali. Not long now. We’d be able to cross the border and get into Calexico where we’d visit a Wendy’s and ‘eat ’em out of house and home’.
I woke up. I needed a piss. I looked down to find my shoes (I’d taken them off) so I could put them on.
“Have you seen my shoes?” I asked Tomas.
“No,” he answered.
I widened my search to the aisle and under my chair — they were nowhere.
“Stop pissing around, lads,” I said to them.
“We haven’t taken them,” Igor said.
They were the only pair I had on me — I’m a minimalist, I’ve always travelled lightly.
Just then Igor shouted out:
“There they are!”
“There are what?” I asked.
I got up, and lo and behold, a man was wearing my shoes, He was a bum, and his backside was covered in shit.
Oh Jesus, I thought to myself as I went to confront him.
“My shoes, my shoes!” I said, pointing at them on the man’s feet, which were probably rotten and infested with corns and a million other infectious diseases.
“No, no, no,” he answered as he walked on.
“Mis Zapatos,” I said, remembering the word luckily from the list of rudimentary Spanish words in my mind as I breathed in the smell of shit from his arse.
I grabbed his shoulder, pulled him back and called Tomas and Igor. They came to my rescue. The man, fearing an attack, took the shoes off and walked on down the aisle to another wagon as nothing had happened.
“Are you going to wear them?” Igor asked me.
“I’ve got no choice,” I answered, picking them up carefully, “it’s the only pair I’ve got.”