Four miles. That’s how far it is to the border. I’m four miles from El Paso, Texas. Four miles from Los Estados Unidos. I’m reminding myself of that because it makes me feel safer. I’m reminding myself, because I’m in a somewhat alarming situation right now.
Like most of the world, Mexico turned out to be a lot less dangerous than the brochure makes it seem. In three weeks I’ve had no hassles of any kind – not even the slightest evidence of criminal activity. Sure it’s there. Crime is everywhere except for Sweden and Canada. I just haven’t had any of it happen to me…yet.
See the thing is, Ciudad Juarez is a border town. It’s one of the three big border towns Mexico has with the United States. Wanna guess what the three highest crime rates in Mexico are?
It’s a universal law. It’s thermodynamics. You’ve got your hot regions and you’ve got your cold regions, and then you’ve got your tiny little spaces where the air passes freely through. Those are border towns. And when there’s a sufficient disparity between temperatures, you get a lot of activity. You get a lot of sleaze.
I’ve spent the last three days traveling by bus from San Miguel. I know, I know. Why am I taking the bus? Why am I not just flying? It’s not all that much more expensive, all things considered. There’s less risk involved. And it’s a lot quicker. But it’s just something I wanted to do, okay? I like having a map and a finish line and just working my way up one leg at a time. Maybe the idea is better in theory than in practice, but I wanted to do it.
I’m in that kind of mood.
This was printed on the side of most buses. I’m pretty sure I know what those first five mean and they all sound good. That last one, not so much.
San Miguel to Guanajuato was easy. I did it in the morning and spent the afternoon checking out the town. Through most of October, they have a big annual arts festival devoted to Cervantes and all things related to his novel, “Don Quixote,” and it sounded interesting.
The town itself is beautiful. But it’s certainly on the map as one of the main tourist traps in Mexico, and I was there at peak time, so that was kind of a drag. Cool art on display, great street performers and musicians, nifty old streets, but massive crowds making it not so much fun – especially being on my own.
What really interested me about Guanajuato was its origins as a Spanish silver mining town. For a period during the 16th and 17th centuries, the region provided about 40% of the world’s supply. They were pulling it out by the ton, melting it down, and shipping it back to the Old World in the form of doubloons, pieces of eight, and all that.
In other words, they were creating a big juicy reason d’etre for my most favorite thing in the whole world: PIRACY! It was what kept the whole operation going. As long as there were Spaniards literally making a mint, there were English and French and Dutch and Americans and whoever else trying to take it from them by any means necessary. Conquering the wealth-bearing land itself wouldn’t just have been a massive endeavor, it would’ve been an all-out act of war. It also, in my opinion, would’ve spoiled the fun. But ships carrying the riches back home were fair game.
Anyway, that’s what I liked most about Guanajuato – just thinking about that stuff. And I liked walking through the huge network of tunnels running underneath it. They used to be mine shafts. Now they’re roads.
I didn’t want to deal with having to find a hotel in town during the festival, and I wanted to make more headway, so I caught an evening bus to Zacateca.
I haven’t got much to say about Zacateca. It looked pretty boring. It might not have been – I don’t know. The guidebook went with Naomi and I was too much of a cheapskate to buy my own. I took a walk from the bus station, found a vacant spot on a hilltop overlooking the town, and read for a little while before moving on.
I took a picture of the town, but it was the most boring thing ever. I decided to make it even more boring by sticking my head in the middle and taking an auto-snapshot.
Buying a guidebook would’ve easily paid for itself in the money I would’ve saved on hotels these last few nights. Not having one, and not wanting to deal with the trouble of asking around, and not wanting to stray far from the bus stop, and being worn out from hours spent on buses, I’ve been flopping into the hotels positioned right next door. These are always around 400 pesos, or $40, which is twice what I’d be paying if I knew where to go.
After Zacateca I picked a town called Torreon. It looked sufficiently small – I’m trying to stay away from the big cities – and I figured from there I could make it to the border in one trip on the following day.
Nothing to say about Torreon. Let’s move on.
On the twelve hour bus ride to Ciudad Juarez, I discovered something that made me kind of sad: the food gets a lot better up north. Instead of the little tiny tacos in the mushy corn tortillas I was getting in San Miguel, people started coming onto the bus selling big burritos filled with meat and beans and potatoes in delicious flour tortillas. The food was much closer to what we get when we eat Mexico in the states, and it was wholly more satisfying. I’d have been a lot happier eating that for the last week.
For the most part, the view out the window looked like this.
It was really cool for about five minutes. I’d have liked to have been able to pull over and run around out there, but I couldn’t. I could just look. And it got boring.
It was nice listening to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson while I stared out at it, though. That’s certainly the right soundtrack.
The sunset that came later was beautiful. It was that thing where you get the amber glow creeping from behind the dark, crested hilltops, making them look like they’re on fire. I’m not so good at that description stuff. I think it’s generally a wank. But I wish I was better so I could descrive this sunset. It was something.
As we entered Ciudad Juarez, my cell phone came alive with noises. After three weeks of starvation, it was suddenly reconnected with its lifeline and purring like a kitten. It gave me addresses and subject headers for about a dozen new emails. One of them is from someone at the India Times and it’s titled “Looked at your site.” Now I’m all stressed-out and feeling guilty about my criticisms of India. I was pretty harsh.
My worst fear – and it seriously haunts me – is saying negative things on my site about people or places and being totally wrong. It haunts me because I know I’ve done it a lot. It’s not like I do all that much research before drawing my conclusions, and I frequently veer towards frustrated intolerance.
As a minor example, I’m reading a book about Captain Cook now, having known next to nothing about him beforehand. I made fun of his ridiculous names for things a long time ago, and even though it was obviously in jest and half the joke was I didn’t know what I was talking about, I still want to go back and insert an impassioned diatribe against my many glib inaccuracies to the interest and elucidation of no one at all.
So in summary, I’m sorry fella from the India Times. I haven’t read the actual body or your email yet, so I’m not even sure you’re mad at me, but I’m sorry about anything I might have said that was arrogant, condescending, juvenile, hurtful, or just plain wrong. That goes for every other person and country I’ve criticized.
I’m not sorry about the stuff I said that was right, though. All of that is fine.
You may, by this point, be curious about the situation I alluded to at the beginning of this entry. You may, I can safely imagine, have wanted me to get to it a long time ago. Okay. Here it is.
So I got into Ciudad Juarez around midnight and, with my phone working, I woke up some family members to let them know I’m alive and safe. My next goal was to find a hotel, leave my bags there, and go find an ATM. I always try to calculate it so that I don’t have much currency left over when I cross a border, and I always miss my target, so the final days are usually a big pain.
There was no ATM at the bus station and as I said, it was after midnight, so my options for getting cash were limited. Having indulged in one too many burritos on the bus, I didn’t even have change for a cab. I had to walk.
I’d had enough of the 400 peso hotels and decided to go a little bit further to find the second tier. That plan was actually solid. That worked fine. What I didn’t anticipate was what the second tier in Ciudad Juarez entails.
This is, after all, a border town.
I found the Motel Monte Carlo, which has single rooms for 200 pesos a night. What it also has is a nightclub attached. And you can tell by the front, it’s not a “Hi, my name is Kathy, I work in customer relations at an investment firm and drink martinis,” kind of nightclub. It’s that other kind. The kind you find in border towns. The kind with cheap adjacent motels.
But I’m tired, and it’s in my price range, and I’m here, so I leave my bags with the clerk and get directions to the nearest ATM. Also, I have to confess, I smell a good anecdote brewing.
It turns out the clerk had no idea where the nearest ATM was. I surveyed the area and it was all locked doors. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t going to take a credit card, and he wasn’t going to let me pay in the morning. I could hit the road with my bags, or continue looking for an ATM.
Tired. Price range. Already here. Anecdote.
So I walk in the other direction, which is the same direction as the broth – ahem – nightclub, and the guy out front comes up and stops me. At this point, all I can do is try to act like I’m NOT the biggest, dopiest mark in the world.
Surprisingly, even this close to Texas and in his line of work, the guy still doesn’t speak much English. But he’s seen me milling around and he knows I’ve got a problem and he seems like a fairly innocuous guy and I certainly need some help, so I let him in on my troubles.
I say, “Uh, tu sabe…de donde es un…uh…banco? Ah – Tey – Emay?”
“Machina cardo?” he says.
“There is a bank. One kilometer down. My friend will take you in his car.”
His friend Carlos comes over. The situation is explained and Carlos agrees to take me. I try to look at it from their perspective to determine my level of safety: They want my money. That much is certain. They know I haven’t got any right now and I need help getting it. Also, maybe not Carlos but this first guy is affiliated with the motel/nightclub, so if he shakes me down I’ve at least got an address to tell the police – for whatever good that’ll do.
On another level, this guy is trying to help me out. Every time anyone has offered me assistance in this country, it’s turned out to be genuine. The people I’ve encountered have been mostly friendly, and my instincts tell me that despite his job, this guy is of that ilk.
So I get in the car with Carlos. I get in the backseat, cause in front is his girlfriend, or wife, or…whatever. She about twenty years younger than him and she’s dressed like she just got off work.
He takes me to the bank. I get the money, no problem. I get back in the car.
“Tu va El Paso ahora?”
Huh? No, I’m not going to the border. “Voy en la manana. Ahora voy a…motel…por favor.”
“Ah. Tu quires mujer?”
“You want baby for the night? 50 bucks!”
“No. Lo ciento. Gracias.”
“You give me 20 bucks.” He points to his eye. “Change. 10 bucks.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about and I don’t want to.
I give him my best approximation of, “No. Sorry. Not tonight. I want to sleep.”
“Si. Quire dormir con mujer?”
“No. Solo con mio.”
Carlos laughs and gives up for the moment. This is a refined transcript from many failed attempts at communicating and he needs a break. He lets the guy back at the nightclub take over.
“You want girl?”
“No. I want sleep.”
“Okay. You give my friend something now, and you give me something too.”
I was prepared for that. I get change from the motel clerk and hand them both 20 pesos with many many thanks. The nightclub guy is okay with it, but Carlos wants 50 pesos for his trouble. I say a cab wouldn’t have cost more than 30, and I hand him another 10 pesos. He decides it’s enough. I’m off the hook.
And that leads me to here and now. When I walked back to my room, I noticed the clerk was no longer at his desk. There aren’t any other cars in the motel lot. When I started writing this, the music from the club was thumping against the wall. Now it’s stopped. About ten minutes ago, the shadow of a guy’s head moved across my window curtain. Right after that, the light stopped shining through the crease under my door. It stayed like that for a few seconds, then opened up again. I sat here frozen for ten solid minutes, staring at the crease until I could swear I saw it shrinking slowly. That was a few paragraphs back.
Sho uld I jump around, turn the light on, make noise? Is it better to just stay quiet and keep a lookout? I don’t know, but either way, I’m not going to be falling asleep for a while.
Before I got in bed, I took 400 pesos and put it on the nightstand as easy pickin’ don’t-hurt-me cash. My wallet and other things I don’t want stolen went under the mattress. I don’t know if that’s a particularly smart strategy. I just made it up.
Staying here was dumb. Not worth the anecdote. I should’ve picked up and gone to a first tier hotel.
Of course, maybe I’m acting silly and should just go to sleep. Maybe that guy was out smoking a cigarette, or maybe he was the clerk touring the grounds. Even if he was a thief, he evidently went away. He’s not still on the other side of the door, waiting for me to look away from the crease.
And then there’s the likelihood that even if I do get robbed, the most I’ll lose is a few hundred pesos and maybe some of my stuff. There’d be no reason to attack me.
Plus I’m only four miles from the border. Four miles from my own country, which is as safe as a baby’s crib and once I’m there I’ll never ever have to worry about anything like this because people don’t steal from each other in the United States.
It’s 4:30 now. I think I’m in the clear. This is one of the advantages of having batshit waking hours.
When I wake up, I’ll cross the border and catch a bus to Phoenix, then on to Los Angeles. I’m planning to visit some old friends, overdose on garlic at the Stinking Rose, try to catch up on movies, maybe stop by my favorite comic shop. After that I make my way to Seattle, which will be the end of this whole long trip around the world and the beginning of…whatever comes next.