(Veracruz to Mexico City, January 1997)
Through the Veracruz railyard and past its old boxcars turned into homes. A woman stands in the doorway of one, vigorously brushing her teeth.
The city slowly thins into village after village. Outside whitewashed buildings stand horses.
A turquoise-shirted man rides his broad-flanked chestnut horse. And the narrowing road along the tracks becomes dirt, the village’s rangelands with cattle. With a large plastic-bag-wrapped bundle tied onto the handlebars, an old man on a bicycle wobbles around the scattered stones. His stout-crowned, high-brimmed Veracruzan hat shadows his face.
We pass by broad, treed flatlands … a pasture of thin-legged colts trotting after mares. To the south stretch low, hazy hills. Past fields of full-grown sugar cane … then younger fields … and newly planted fields. Past rocky acres of dried cornstalks snapped over.
I am startled awake from a catnap by the screeching caterwauling of a young boy. He closes his eyes tightly, singing with full lung to be heard at the other end of this car. Soon he begins to walk down the aisle. His outstretched hand shakes. Through narrowed eyes I glare at him, still angered at the rude awakening. But then I dig into my pocket for a few coins. I turn to the elderly man now sitting next to me, shaking my head, rolling my eyes. He laughs softly and nods.
A woman comes before us, bucket full of sweet tamales, of pineapple, coconut. The old man insists on buying me one of each. “A gift,” he says. “You must try our regional specialty.”
Don Emilio tells me and the woman seed across from us about the tamales of Oaxaca, of Guadalajara, of Tampico.
“I have traveled much,” he says, pulling off his brown jacket. The day is warming. “I used to drive buses. For over thirty years, I did. I first got my license in 1955. But I’d already been driving five years without one. Then I got certified. Yes, I know all the roads, north to Tampico and to Monterrey, down to Villahermosa. But in those early days there weren’t many roads in Chiapas. The Indians there would walk through the mountains for days and days.”
“Really,” the woman on the opposite bench says, her mouth dropping open a bit.
“Oh, yes. They’re used to it. They are people of the mountains. And they have other interesting foods …”
My mind fatigued with now-this-second day of traveling loses itself to the passing scenery.
Brightly painted wooden walls surround a blue and white big top. Drying clothes hang on the guidewires. Zullman Circus, those walls proclaim. The hypnosis master’s penetrating eyes watch us clatter by.
The woman’s four-year-old son with bright black eyes squeals, hops up and down in his seat, playing peek-a-boo with another boy at the opposite end of the car.
“Don Emilio, how many children do you have?” I ask.
“Five – full grown.”
“Any grandchildren yet?”
His soft laugh, bright smile fills the air between us. “Grandchildren? I’ve already got great-grand-children! My two daughters work for social security there in Veracruz. One of them, the nurse, has a small son. Her man left her. One son lives in Monterrey – has two children, now with their own. He married young. Another in Guadalajara. He has three. They wanted to become bus drivers like their father. What could I say? Nothing – just advise them it is lonely, dangerous work. And my other son, he still lives with us. Twenty-two years old.”
Suddenly the mountains rise before us and their valleys fold deeply. Heavily forested, heavily green. The earth softly crumples around us. In the distance, the age-worn, bare walls of a canyon fall, falling … then disappear from our sight with the swelling of the landscape around us.
And just as suddenly, the land relaxes and gently rolls to the further mountains.
I awaken here to the swishing of a broom as our floor is swept. Two cargo cars are added. We leave exactly at noon. This city, too, feathers into the surrounding desert.
A cow grazes next to the tracks, tied off to the post of a barbed-wire fence, where laid-over clothes dry in the afternoon.
Two boys, black-haired, brown-skinned, stoop outside a scrap-board, scrap-tin shanty. Their dark eyes watch our blue cars go by.
Past lush pasturelands of grazing sheep. A black lamb, a white and a tan one leap after their white mother. Another spread of emerald green. Egrets standing on stick legs among black and white cows.
The high black walls of a prison slide by as we arrive at this town. A woman with very-coarse vein-knotted legs sells pulque in plastic bottles. From the platform, she reaches up to the open windows of our car. As we leave, she shakes a smaller bottle and drinks the last bit.
Past more cornfields speckled with husky maguey. Sand wraps around the train, around the clicking rails. The fine dirt seeps through the cracks of windows. In the distance, a dust devil rises, swirling, growing larger.
“There is Orizaba volcano.” Emilio cracks my silent meditation of this nearer landscape.
I follow his dark hand, to where he points in the distance. Its snow-streaked peak is hazed by the dust of this broad valley we pass through. The sun glints off a silver band on his ring finger.
“And your wife, don Emilio?”
“Oh, she’s back in Zempoala, where we live. She’s used to me being gone all the time.”
“How long have you two been married?”
“Oh ….” His neck rubs the slightly worn collar of his white shirt. “It must be going on forty years now.” He counts off on his stout fingers with short-cut nails. “Let’s see, sixty to seventy,” he mumbles, “seventy to eighty to ninety … Yes, almost forty years.”
“What’s the secret?”
He looks at me askance with his dark eyes, with a slight laugh. “We never argue. Well, almost never. A bit more now that the kids are gone. But, no, we never argue.
“It was never easy, though. In the beginning it was difficult. We lived in a four-by-four shack. With a bit of time, we enlarged it to ten by six. By then we had three children. Later we could buy a house.
“In the beginning, my wife insisted on working, taking in sewing. After our second child, I told her, no more. You have enough work to do, taking care of the boys. No, you let me bring in the money. And I worked, and worked hard. I was gone much of the time.”
La Malinche Mountain tears the horizon towards which we travel. A herd of goats chew on bedded corn. They flee the hum of our diesel locomotive, its plume of smoke casting a shadow on the ground alongside us.
And more fields through this valley plain. Some have been cleared for planting. In a few, long, high irrigation snakes hiss water.
In the station lights outside my window, I see six guards, black pants tucked into black boots. Mismatched jackets: a blue one … a Raiders one … two fatigue greens … two black. Five of them sling semi-automatic rifles.
I whisper to Emilio, leaning towards him. “Why are there so many of them?”
He silently shrugs.
A wildfire cuts across the flatland, a long rose rope. Even though it is many miles away, I can smell the burning grasses. Flames leap into the dense, dusky-gold smoke that reaches for the soon-to-be-setting sun. That star washes the sky bright white, bright yellow.
And on the opposite side of the sky, the ghostly near-full moon has already arisen.
The sun has fallen behind a bank of clouds, touching their tops with a brilliant white-gold, dyeing the sky with pastel colors.
Then it slips through a crack in those clouds … for just a moment glaringly orange … and again dipping behind, pale tints spreading across the distant mountains. Faint fingers of light radiate skyward … and then weakly disappear.
The now-bright-red sun cuts below the edge … sinking … pulling its colors down with itself … behind another cloud … just a sliver visible. The vague forms of those masks outlined … and defined for just an instant … before that star falls beyond the horizon.
All that’s left … is a chilled rose … and above, the golden white … fading … fading … fading …
A distant valley fills with fuchsia. And as we slide along these rails, the most brilliant of that pink shifts behind the mountains … hidden from my sight … leaving just a pale wash.
Then the colors arise again with new life … reaching into the clouds … painting them icy apricot … icy magenta … in this still-winter sky … giving depth and texture to that soft … seemingly solid … blanket.
Lights begin to speckle the passing villages. The chill of night swells within this railcar.
The landscape obscures into dull, dark green against faded beige … silhouetted against the twilight sky. Their colors, too, sink into deep greys to black.
The sky duskens … darkens. The last of the sun’s palette duskens … darkens. This land duskens … darkens.
The locomotive lamp before us barely touches the nightfall.
“You should come visit us sometime.” I hear don Emilio’s voice in the dark. “We have pyramids and a beautiful beach. Really, you should.”
I write down his address by flashlight.
From a distance, the light of the City … millions of lights … stud the valley and climb the mountains. The sour smell of heavy-metal industry seeps through this window.
Past traffic stopped by our lumbering train, now only two passenger cars and a locomotive. I don’t know when the cargo cars were unhooked. Sometime in the depths of my travel-fatigued sleep.
Past shacks built at the edge of the tracks.
The moon, two days from fullness, sheds its bright white light upon this city, flooding the streets, penetrating the ochre haze of pollution.
Don Emilio walks onto the platform at the stop before Buenavista station. Light brown jacket. Black bag to his left side, its strap across his broad chest. Green plastic bag with his fifteen sweet tamales in hand. He looks straight ahead in his steady gait, stopping momentarily, continuing on, lost to my sight, lost in the crowd.
And I continue on, watching Chilangos stand at gateways, talking. They walk in pairs down deserted streets. The roads below our overpass are congested.
Rocking … Rocking … The blare of the train horn.
Past a soccer game.
Rolling, without stopping, into the heart of the city.
Past factories and their acrid smoke swirling white into the night. Past neighborhoods. In the open doorway of a shop bright with fruit, a woman’s shadow reaches across the counter, taking a heavy bag.
My study of this passing cityscape is sliced by the young men now sitting in the bench seat facing mine.
“Oh, man, we should be on our way to Aca-pulque,” one laughs.
The other drains the last drops of the cactus liquor from the green plastic bottle. He stuffs it between his seat and the wall. “Ah, yes, in a pulque-man car, going in style.” He slouches, knees inches from mine.
I turn my gaze out the window once more.
We snarl the traffic with our steady approach.
Past a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine near the tracks. A string of lights embrace it. On a corner curb, a young woman sits on her boyfriend’s knee.
The train backfires repeatedly as it slows … coming into the edges of the railyard … entering the massive web of tracks. The horn blows. Idle cargo and tanker cars line the sidings.
We suddenly stop, forced aside by a long string of US railcars heading North, new automobiles encased in silver cocoons. A while later, three lone locomotives stop. And starting again, they bathe the night with thick black smoke.
The city lights flickering through the window mosaic the youth’s waving hand. “Oh, of course not, chauffeur. There is no hurry. Sure, go ahead and have that other cup of coffee.”
And the moon climbs higher … and higher. Its light pulls up out of the streets into the greyed sky.
The other young man scowls. “Hey, come on. Save that cigar smoking for later, man.”
With a soft giggle, I crack a smile.
Further into the depths of the maze. Trash heaps along a wall that separates this yard from those neighborhoods.
Stop … and go … and …
Finally the conductor says in his loud voice
And we enter the last set of tracks. Brakes clank stop, and rolling on and on. The platform comes into view up ahead. So slow … we crawl … to ours … Number 8 … and alongside it.