4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Mexico City to Tijuana on Autobuses del Norte

The bus is filled with noise and heat

The crowds destined for Tijuana and Guadalajara are the largest in the bus terminal. - Image by Robert Burroughs
The crowds destined for Tijuana and Guadalajara are the largest in the bus terminal.

At one of the spacious, French-built Metro stops in Mexico City in the northern suburbs, a crowd descends at certain hours of the day looking like a band of earthquake victims with their bundles of luggage, their Thermos flasks, and general air of ephemerality. The station is Autobuses del Norte on the Pantitlanline between Politecnico and La Raza, and there is a good chance that this band of prospective emigrants has just made a journey of a mere three stops from the station known as Basilica. For in the vast, fume-heated flatland of Distrito Federal’s northern hemisphere, two strange monuments stand out in uneasy mutual complement: the church of Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe, with its miraculous veil bearing the image of the Virgin, and the giant northern bus terminal where the crowds descending at Autobuses station begin a grueling, reluctant journey to Tijuana - The North.

There is indeed a kind of soft, regular clanking at the back, near the rear wheels on the right side, and the driver is clearly annoyed.

One sees the same crowds at the two places. The modern Basilica, rising like a gigantic metal Bedouin tent from the edge of the flag-stoned plaza opposite its 16th-century companion hums with a constant disorderly pullulation of worshippers and penitents. Above the altar, the veil in which the Indian saint Juan Diego gathered roses, which left a mysterious imprinted image of the Virgin. And under it, in a bizarre automated ritual, a conveyor belt carries the faithful to gaze upon, and be blessed by, the relic. The crowds on their way to Autobuses del Norte stop here first. For is there not among them that superstitious, atavistic fear of travel, of long voyages, which once led people to slaughter oxen before getting.onto ships? Their journey needs to be blessed. Purification before departure.

Highway 57 is one of the few modern roads in the Republic and takes the Expresso through rich farmland to the outskirts of Queretaro.

And it is easy to see how terrible a journey might seem. We have long forgotten the fabulous terrors of travel — who remembers Robinson Crusoe being chased by wolves over the Pyrenees upon his return from his island or Doctor Johnson packing a pistol for a tour of Scotland? But in Mexico, the legends and taboos of travel are still alive. In the chapel filled with tin ex-votos in the ancient church nearby, penitents have painted hundreds of scenes of roadside disasters: buses overturned on mountain passes, bandits leaping gleefully over the bodies of massacred travelers, flaming coaches lying on their sides surrounded by a ring of butchered bodies. And in these fantastical primitive visions, the Virgin of Guadelupe floats in her husk of turquoise light, distributing the milk of forgiveness and salvaging from memories of torment a certificate of certain salvation and transfiguration. For Mexicans, travel is not merely adventure in Club Med style; it is adventure in the style of Ulysses: trials, tribulations, and the not-inconceivable possibility of death.

"I’d rather die than do this trip. I almost got a job in Acapulco this spring...but Tijuana is regular, easy, lots of money."

From the rubbled plaza at Nuestra Sefiora, with its megaphoned music booming over from the market nearby and its drifting army of beggars and neatly groomed peddlers of Virgin memorabilia, a huge fleet of taxis take the pilgrims over the bridge through choked and burning streets to the metro station at Basilica. And a few minutes later they are in front of the concrete mass of Autobuses del Norte, clutching little fake-gold plastic-framed pictures of the Veil in one hand and looking increasingly — as they make their way slowly into the terminal — as if they are going to need its protection.

"I take this bus twice a year. I take the kids back from their holidays with me to my daughter’s house in Riverside."

In the heat of a pollution-filled day (a pollution that is often invisible under a blue sky but that always rasps the throat and stings the eyes), the terminal is an oasis of modernistic cool. Its circular frame encloses a multitude of arcades, bus company offices, lottery sellers, desultory shops, and licuado stalls, and in between these, stark eruptions of strangled wires, cables, caged electricity meters, and tortured pipes.

Their anxiety increases the closer to Tijuana they get.

By the Departures gate, another Guadelupian Virgin stands in a halo of copper-colored tinsel and blooming cineraria, before which fearful travelers, mindful perhaps of those scenes of rape and pillage painted on bits of tin, can genuflect and cross their chests. The cafeteria itself is combed assiduously by grey-faced boys in holed trousers who peer into all the abandoned trays, occasionally stopping, looking round with anguished slyness, and taking a sudden swipe at a half-eaten burger or a mound of brilliant green jelly. And in front of the ticket offices of Tres Estrellas de Oro, Transportes del Pacifico, Primera, or Sonora del Norte, the band of tense and slightly somber pilgrims heading for Tijuana wait patiently in line for tickets for the three o’clock express northwards, as if perfectly aware that where they are going, the law of the Virgin has less power than here.

The crowds destined for Tijuana and Guadalajara are the largest in the terminal, and they tend to congregate in the same cafeteria by the gates from which they will leave. But they are two utterly different groups. The Guadalajarans look like a mildly inconvenienced bunch of itinerant salesmen, visiting aunts, and commuting students. The Tijuanans, on the other hand, look curiously alienated from their surroundings. They are not the mixture usually seen in Mexican buses. In the first place — and most surprisingly for a country whose embassy actually warns travelers that if they wear “pink satin pants” they will be beaten up on the streets — there are two persons of dubious sexual orientation lined up with their airline bags and plastic bags filled with an assortment of shoes, Chicas with the tooled thighs of athletic young men. Two mops of peroxide hair distributed in bunches of tight golden curls. This apparition could only be possible in a bus station, sacred ground where the violence of machismo abates before the mysterious chemistries of journeys.

And next to them are a grandmother with two twin girls, both dressed in lace ruffs and plum-red sandals, Adelita and Rosa. They have sticky green mouths and glutinous green fingers and are en route, one imagines, to a terraced California villa with a cactus garden in the back and a mother and father who do their shopping on the weekends over the border at Horton Plaza. One would not have expected this trio to be traveling segunda clase, let alone on a bus at all, but the grandmother immediately admits that airplanes are not included in her religious vision of the world, that the Virgin might well regard them as unwelcome intruders in her celestial kingdom, and that the bus, in any case, is about a quarter the price. And the second class? Well, the air conditioning on the first class has broken down, and better second with an open window than first with a closed one. And for a moment, the thrift and cunning of a Jalisco peasant beams through the glossy lipstick and the thick orbits of eyeliner.

Around these two extremes of ostentation and respectability (and the servers at the Autobuses’ cafeteria are certainly eyeing up the transvestites with a menacing mixture of amazement and fear) sits a throng of construction workers headed for the border boom town: the odd old couple with green cards quietly escaping to a house in Chula Vista, home-visiting Tijuana clerks, job-hunting Mexico City adolescents wired up to Walkmans and wearing American baseball jackets, a smattering of dark-leather Indian faces in cowboy hats, shoulders loaded down with ragged packs tied up with multicolored string: maids, janitors, street cleaners. The group has almost nothing in common, but once crammed into the Transportes del Norte bus — a chrome-laden juggernaut done up in company colors, red-and-black stripes — a kind of orchestrated bonhomie based on the prospect of some indescribable communal suffering ahead takes hold. And before the bus has even moved, even the two transvestites, their heads discreetly covered with scarves, are chiming in with their girlish sarcasms.

“We hate it in the country,” one of them says to the pink foreigner deliberately placed (and with heavy irony) right next to them by the ticket officer. "So near to God, and so far from the United States!”

As soon as the motor starts, and the Zapata character in the reflecting shades and suave stubble, who is under the impression that he is going to drive us up to the Gates of Hell, is sitting in his vibrating throne, a tiny boy jumps into the center aisle and runs down the rows of packed seats placing, with such discretion that most people do not even notice they are there, small paper pictures of the Guadelupian Virgin on each passenger’s knee. The voyagers pay up, cross themselves, and slip the images into their handbags, their inside pockets, or into the window frames. A confetti of virgins will cover the floor when they depart.

The 15:00 Expresso leaves the city by the huge avenue of Lazaro Cardenas. A sea of traffic bogs it down as it makes its way to the Politecnico and then the Pyramid of Tenayuca, past stagnant rivers, shantytowns webbed with twisted cables, and naked winter trees. Blue and yellow houses surrounded by piles of rubble recede in all directions and between them zones of dusty scrub fringed with refrigerator shops and the skeletal frames of unfinished, mutilated buildings. The bus passes a million rooftops cluttered with disjointed crucifixes and pink and magnolia water tanks baked in the heat, half-dried sycamore and jacaranda trees, balconies of cacti and geraniums, the endless car parts stores rotting in the sun, streets hung with tinsel, cobbled alleys and ochre churches and the drab concrete motels plastered with political graffiti peering out over vast tracts of smouldering, half-burning scrub. Behind all of it, hazed mountains loom almost overhead, the slums spreading ever further upwards, a swathe of rose and pale green shacks smothered in smoke, vast power stations bristling with steel pipes thrown into a sea of lean-tos and the yellow hulks of factories drowning in their own powder lost in a forest of washing lines. In the depths of a blasted tenement, its side ripped out by the great earthquake of 1985, a solitary, pristine metal Christmas tree sits with its red baubles in a child’s bedroom, its angel sparkling in the afternoon light.

For an hour, the suburbs flow past. Towards the periphery the huge industrial complexes appear: Union Carbide, Osram, Firestone, Rexroth, Ford. Communist posters flutter on the soiled street lamps. Shrines glimmer under the power lines, always with a lone Indian woman squatting nearby holding a basket of candles in glass cups. Herds of cows flash by in bronze-colored fields. And by the roadside itself, more Indian women scrubbing clothes in filthy ditches filled with rust-colored slime. The voyagers look out wearily, unable to summon even the barest flicker of interest or surprise. The world they are escaping from has the strange late-after-noon sepia color of a lost world captured in a single, rapidly fading photograph. Perhaps when they come back the next time, it will have all disappeared, replaced by an entirely different landscape. Mexico City changes from day to day. And for those who leave for even a few months, it can seem like another city altogether upon their return.


Highway 57 is one of the few modern roads in the Republic and takes the Expresso through rich farmland to the outskirts of Queretaro in less than three hours. Peasant houses cluster by the road, their trees often fluffed with celebratory tinsel, and in the whitewashed villages sinking into the violet shadows of dusk, men on horseback canter through the dirt streets between the pickup trucks. The fields are filled with dull gold stocks of greyish corn. Plough mules are being led away into the gloom.

The bus, on the other hand, is filled with noise and heat. The helmsman’s obligatory booming salsa music has started, and the passengers either suffer or enjoy it with equanimity — there is no way of telling which. A tiny, rather dilapidated television hooked precariously to one of the luggage racks is showing tonight’s movie, Bloodfist, with thick, lurid Spanish subtitles. As night falls, the bus is lit up by luminous splashes of blood, bare knuckles, and kung-fu kicks, all performed to some wailing Chinese pop music. The deafening cacophony of the video and the driver’s music promises to last all night, yet there is not the slightest sign of protest from the clients. The Indians’ faces are already snoring under their tipped straw hats, and the others are lost in the act of devouring bags of burritos carefully stored in plastic. Through the windows, the spikey silhouettes of rows of maguey cacti in fields watered by sprinklers fade at last into total darkness, and the bus itself looks rather like a small chapel at night, lit at the far end by the blood-crazed video screen and an equally bloody plastic model of the Crucifix dangled over the windshield. Plastic blood drips over the latter’s limbs.

The wounds are far larger than they would be in Europe. And the eyes are fixed on the back row, to the consternation of the two queers and the foreigner. The night suddenly seems filled with blood and torture.

The cross-dressers are named Suzanne and Ada (pronounced like the Nabokov novel to suggest “ardor”), and they are the only ones who refuse to stop talking.

“My aunt is one of those crosses," Ada says, pointing to a cluster of ghostly white roadside crosses that flash in and out of the bus’s headlights. “You didn’t notice them? There’s one every hundred yards.

Whole families together. See how wide the road is...the big road north. About six feet. In the middle of the night, everyone goes crazy, they get hypnotized by the lights. I counted them once from here to the border.”

Her eyes go wild and wide.

“Two thousand one hundred and sixty-five.”

The Indians on the seat in front look round, equally wild-eyed. “Go back to sleep,” Ada snaps, “I’m not talking to you.”

The roadside, however, is indeed littered with these small white crosses, signs of easy death and cheap life on the road. They were right to cross themselves.

“Of course, I wouldn’t risk my life on these death-traps,” Suzanne puts in, “if it weren’t for the fact that I need Tijuana. I dance in the Noa-Noa, you know. Do you know it?”

Ada: “Of course he doesn’t know it. Look at him."

“Well, if you’re ever up that way, remember what we said about the crosses. We risk our lives for our art!” The two little girls are still awake and listening in terror to Ada and Suzanne. Looming concrete shrines fly past, brilliant pyramids of candle flame surrounded by shadowy crowds half-submerged in the bush, and they stare transfixed out of their window.

To them, the journey must seem like something out of a nightmare. One of them keeps tugging at her grandmother’s sleeve and asking her about the crosses. “Are they for dogs or badgers or people?" "Badgers, Isabella.”

“And why is the driver going so fast?”

“I don’t know, darling — perhaps he’s hungry...”

As night deepens, the landscape disappears, the dim shapes of mountains emerge with a reddish gibbous moon.

Small dusty market-towns flash by, ribbons of bare electric bulbs, donkeys, steaming open-air cantinas, and pastel churches with impossibly bloated facades. The bus lurches from side to side as it slides over the immense potholes in the village streets, tearing ’round deserted plazas and occasionally stopping by trash-covered verges of dust and grass to let mysterious Transportes del North auxiliaries on and off. The whole operation has the air of a secret organization with secret rendezvous plans that the customers are never informed of. And as in Mexico itself, the ordinary people look on, wait bemusedly, and endure. There is nothing they can do one way or the other. And it will be another six hours to Guadalajara.


No one knows how many people make this arduous economic pilgrimage every year. Emigration to the north, to Tijuana, to Monterrey, or to California and Texas, has always been principally from the central Mexican states: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacan. The roads from and through these states, of which Highway 57 is the largest, pullulate night and day with overburdened caravanserai of emigrant buses, and on these too travel the 400,000 or so illegal aliens who cross the border every year. As the suburbs of Guadalajara begin to emerge from the darkness at about five o’clock — the streets still lit up as if by naphtha flares — the two Huichol mestizos closest to the back seats turn ’round in some excitement and ask what time it is. One of them is wearing a cowboy hat with a gold tassel hanging from the back rim, and his jaws are in constant motion on some pulped cud buried in the back of his mouth, while the other is wrapped in a maroon blanket maculate with oil stains. They claim they are two mechanics who specialize in Japanese trucks on their way to a workshop in the border town of Tecate. The gold-tassel man holds up one of his hands — sure enough, the fingernails are soused in ancient oil — as if to prove the truth of a statement that might otherwise be disbelieved.

“As a matter of fact,” he says darkly, "I can hear a noise over the right rear wheels. Something’s loose. If I were you, I’d say your prayers, ladies and gentlemen!”

As the vessel rolls through the half-deserted streets of the city, there is indeed a kind of soft, regular clanking at the back, near the rear wheels on the right side, and the driver is clearly annoyed. He keeps looking over his shoulder as if to hear it better. He turns the music down. It sounds like a spoon loose in a dishwasher. He halves his speed and glances in a moment of panic into the rear mirror. So this is why he wears impenetrable reflecting sunglasses. A fearless driver must never reveal ah ounce of doubt, even in a 20-year-old machine whose gears emit a high-pitched musical note akin to the background noise of a medieval torture chamber....

The Guadalajara bus station sits in a suburban wasteland many miles from the city center. Shaped like a horseshoe, its show-piece terminals are the gathering point for the migrants of Jalisco and Michoacan. On the main road that roars past it, little wooden pontoon bridges span the roadside ditches and knots of people dash across them in terror to get to the terminal. A dull, vapor-hidden dawn sun appears, and the Expresso service stops at its bay: the driver is rotating a finger in one of his ears — a sign of hysteria? “Everybody out for half an hour!"

The mechanics burst out laughing.

There is always a crisis with Transportes. And “half an hour" in this case might mean half the morning.

The passengers shuffle, aching and moaning, into the Terminal 4 canteen for a breakfast of huevos rancheros and powdered coffee. The gold Virgin shrine on the wall shows the Divine Mother as a tiny, shriveled doll with grey skin, and however much the assembled company shows her the uninterestedness of over-familiarity, there is no question that they hope their Virgin is overseeing the replacement of the rear wheel on the right side. She, after all, would make a better job of it than most.

As it happens, the breakfast turns out to be interminable. A veritable congress of white-shirted, red-and-black-tied Transportes personnel have congregated around the rear wheel, above which a fragile metal panel opens to reveal the machinery. They are all wearing shades and crisp white shirts. Arguments are in progress. Two mechanics on their backs are probing the axle with drills, and the driver is looking as if he is about to burst into tears. At nine o’clock, he waves to the group in the cafeteria, and the officials, looking like a seminar of apprentice mafiosi analyzing a botched assassination, disperse in order to restore the situation to normal. A few new arrivals swell the ranks: villagers from Lake Chapala and Tapalpa with sunburned faces, their tatty, stone-washed denim jackets offset by gold earrings and little greasy trilbys. They take seats at the front just behind the driver without saying a word and subsequently speak to no one. The driver turns to his audience with a shrug, points dolefully in the general direction of the diseased wheel, and pulls a hopeless face. The passengers sigh, sweetly and gently. It is clearly nobody’s fault but Fate’s.

It is, therefore, in the heat of day that the Expresso finally makes its way through the city, past tropical public gardens, sparkling intersections, and grandiose fragments of bleached colonial masonry. The windows are all resolutely closed against the fumes, and it is not until we reach the surreal Parque Colonial Funerales cemetery in the suburbs — with its gold-plated Russian Orthodox onion domes — that they are opened to admit a crisp scent of smoke. For everywhere the fields are shrouded by an immense pall of trailing smoke. The sun goes out for a moment, like a snuffed candle, and the bus roars, groaning and shrieking, into the lush hills of Michoacan.

And it is only an hour later that the air finally begins to clear.


Michoacan is a land of forested semi-tropical mountains, fighting bull farms, and the spiked maguey cacti from which the liquor of the next town en route is named: Tequila. Despite protests from the boys in Stetsons, the driver does not stop in Tequila, however tempting its sprawling local-produce bars spread along the highway seem. On the outskirts of town, bullrings and steel pens filled with snorting horned monsters float by, and after them the maguey fields, acres quivering in the heat. A soft blue light spreads across the mountain as the day wears on, uniting each point of the compass with a uniform, blinding luminosity. And by the road, drifting from a mysterious and seemingly uncharted interior, strange apparitions emerge: a couple of musicians standing under a flowering tipi tree with a sapphire mariachi drum; Huichol and Cora women moving through fields of mustard flowers; children suspended in thorn trees like sleeping monkeys, their faces covered with orange dust.

Ixtlan, Union del Rio...the dull market towns on the road come and go anonymously. The afternoon wears on, and the road becomes narrower and narrower. Giant holes begin to appear in its surface, giving the appearance of a satellite image of the Great Lakes, and the bus slows to a crawl as it reaches the highest mountain passes. To negotiate the larger potholes, it has to come to a virtual standstill, rocking violently from side to side while weaving a difficult path between the oncoming juggernauts. Sometimes it is only possible to use one side of the road, and so the two streams of traffic have to take it in turn. And everywhere the tarmac itself seems to be^ rubbing away, disappearing in places into stretches of dirt, withering under the relentless pressure of tires and sun. It can easily take an hour to cover 15 miles. Long-horned cows in the bush often overtake us, and yet it is here, at the end of the afternoon, when the road is at its hottest, that the inevitable happens, the rattling noise over the axle escalates, and a dull, insistent thudding erupts at the back end of the bus.

The mechanic with the gold tassel jumps up and begins shouting at the driver and at the three helpers squatting in the cabin. He draws his finger playfully across his throat. The bus is, in any case, grinding to a halt of its own accord. It has stopped in the middle of a small plain littered with concrete drums, shreds of plastic trash, and a million warbling cicadas. A hovel marked Multiservicios has — by the hand of God or the Guadelupian Virgin — been placed in this forbidding emptiness as if the calamity had been long foreseen, and a gang of repairmen charges across the wasteland to take the ailing machine in hand. And meanwhile, not in the least dejected or annoyed, the stoic passengers simply cross the highway to the desolate hot-dog stand, a thatched rotunda containing a meaningless, incomprehensible carved-stone fountain and lavatories.

Was any of this foreseen? The two little girls have gone skipping into the long grass among the Pemex oil drums, but their grandmother (her nose suddenly painted with sun cream) forgets them for a moment to explain the logic of accidents.

"I take this bus twice a year. I take the kids back from their holidays with me to my daughter’s house in Riverside. I won’t take the plane because they fall out of the sky, and besides, I have asthma in the plane. It doesn’t go with my system. So I take the bus twice a year, and I know exactly what it’s going to be like. I don’t let them tell me the bus is new. Of course, we always get there on time; it’s just on the way there are, well, complications. It’s in the nature of the route. God didn’t intend a road through here — look around you. If you stopped for an hour, the forest would eat you. Now, Nature takes care of these things. All these people hurtling to the north: it’s madness. People are intended by Nature to stand still, and here they are...” she describes a wide arc with both her hands, while a slightly crazy expression briefly crosses her face “...racing like chickens.’’

She looks very disgusted indeed and sticks her nose up at the crippled bus slumped in the workyard across the road. “It’s pathetic,” she goes on. “Look at that. Ha, progress!”

And with this completely inexplicable exclamation she goes off to look for the children.

Everyone else is far less philosophical. The cross-dressers take advantage of the sun and sit with their shins exposed next to the hot-dog stand. The suspicious-looking “mechanics” loll around some Valvoline tin drums, and the country people take to poring over a rusted Cedarapids tractor. From the workyard, collective cries of “Oha!” “Aha!” ring out from the fat men in the Transportes del Norte ties as they lift a log, reminding one of Maori rowers pounding away at an ocean-going canoe, and before the sun has gone down, they appear to have resolved the problem with the wheel. They congratulate themselves effusively, clap themselves on their backs, and cry “Amigo!” back and forth to all and sundry. The engine is chugging away once more, and Transportes del Norte have finally won the day for the consumer. At half past six, as the hills begin to burn with the striated ambers and golds of an equinoxial sunset, the Expresso moves off - once again, all honks, backslaps, and - “Amigos!” The road ahead is even more desolate than the section we have seen at first hand, and the confetti-like Virgin images suddenly seem feebly comforting. Asked whether, in her expert opinion, it will happen again, the wise grandmother bares her teeth rather hideously (it is a kind of smile) and says: “They didn’t fix it, you can tell. It is all bravado. They’re hoping that when it happens the second time it’ll be in Tepic. If it doesn’t happen there, we’ll all be sleeping under the moon.”


Transportes del Norte have their own restaurant in the hills between Ixtlan and Tepic. It’s a small place, a single cafeteria room, with, strange to say, another European-style stone fountain standing behind the restaurant in a garbage-strewn terrace. Lit by moonlight, over which the barbarian Mexica once wandered on their way to Anahuac, or what is now Mexico City, the place has a cool and slightly sinister calm. The bright white neon sign over the road splutters and cackles, and down below truck drivers drinking cans of Tecate describe with flamboyant and mendacious gestures their erotic adventures in the brothels of Acapulco.

In this lonely eating-house, which has nevertheless all the grace and purposefulness of any reasonable provincial Mexican restaurant, Suzanne and Ada are certainly not much at home. The clientele is a little hostile, and there is no guarantee that the bus will start up again.

“My sixth time,” Ada laments. "The last time, the gas tank leaked and we stopped in the desert. If I didn’t have to get out of D.F. once in a while, I’d rather die than do this trip. I almost got a job in Acapulco this spring...but Tijuana is regular, easy, lots of money. No perverts there. By the way, we always do this trip together, Ada and I. Safety in numbers.”

When the bus does start up again, the two of them whip out some black satin eye-blinders and settle down for some serious sleep during the rest of the journey to the coastal resort of Mazatlan. The road winds its way down through the western side of the Nayarit mountains, struggling through thick, slow-moving traffic, and before long the cool air of the mountains gives way to the first stifling breath of the tropics and the littoral jungle. The bush on either side of the road grows deeper, a little more forbidding and impenetrable. The land seems darker despite the ferocious light of the moon, and for once people who are not yet asleep are looking with a slight anxiety through the windows. To break down here, of all places, in the jungle, on this fragile ribbon of semi-tarmac, miles from anywhere....

It is possible, of course, that the divinities who watch over us are of the nasty Aztec variety rather than those of a gentle, virginal disposition. For the wheel has now indeed worked its way loose from its moorings, and the bus is suddenly wobbling in all directions, the children screaming and the drivers shouting at the tops of their voices. The crate comes to a halt yet again, and this time the situation is infinitely worse. The Transportes boys are now all on their own, armed only with spanners, hand-held torches, and bravado.

What are they going to do with a broken inside wheel and a single tiny pneumatic pump? And as soon as the bus has stopped, a muffled cry goes up from the passengers: zooming in from the forest, attracted by lights or the smell of blood, a hideous swarm of huge, vampire-like flies on vile green wings has come homing in and is feasting on cheeks and forearms.

“It’ll only be an hour,” the pudgy driver says weakly, slapping his face frantically and swiping the air with his spanners.

"Two at most!”

The passengers run out of the bus and disperse along the verges. The jungle is whistling with insects. In the glare of the headlamps, the passengers look like a group of stranded time travelers gaping at a primeval world they have hitherto only seen in books. Are there caimans in the woods, or big cats, or cannibalistic bats? The men congregate manfully around the operation with the rear wheel, a veritable audience, while the women and children stand or sit at the edge of the forest, intimidated by the brilliant stars overhead and the arboreal gloom. An hour passes. The Transportes crew sweats over the wheel, which they have managed to remove. The moon begins to sink. Two hours. And then three. Suzanne and Ada begin to sing a moody, bad-tempered, bawdy song in low tones. What would it be like, everyone is thinking to themselves, to die like a caveman?

At five o’clock in the morning, the operation with the wheel reaches its conclusion and the drivers trudge dejectedly back to their cabin. No backslaps or “Amigos!” now, for exhaustion and worry are clear in their faces. The appalling road is going to test their handiwork severely, and the passengers are by now restless and sarcastic. The general consensus is that at this stage it is going to be better to spend the night in Mazatlan, and half the occupants of the Expresso make plans accordingly. The first lights of the coastal Pacific towns are greeted with impatience and subdued grumbles of gratitude, as if the world of paganism and the forest had been overcome at long last. And at six, Mazatlan appears, still asleep, empty of people, combed by gentle ocean breezes, and seeming to promise, if not a foreseeable end to this miserable journey, at least a respite from damaged wheels.

Gloomy palms wave in the morning wind, and vaguely in the direction of the sea, a pink mackerel sky begins to materialize.


The Mazatlan of the overland emigrant is not at all the Mazatlan of the Californian package-vacationer. True, the high-rises of the Zona Dorado and Sabalo are always visible as soon as one reaches the ocean promenades, but the overnighters bound for Tijuana who often break their journey here — almost halfway between Mexico City and the border — do not necessarily even see the sea or the curious, blasted villas of the old town. They stay a stone’s throw from the equally curious pudding-bowl-shaped bus station, where a smattering of basic hotels has sprung up to accommodate them: the Hotel Economico, the Emperador with its turquoise windows, and the San Jeronimo with its flowered icon of the Guadelupian.

The terminal itself is unbearably hot and claustrophobic, and the circumambient clutter of rambling hair salons, half-built houses bristling with exposed steel rods, and empty fish restaurants is helpless, against the humidity and inertia of the Tropic of Cancer. Two singular edifices further cater to the particular needs of the Tijuanans: the curved red Chinese roof of the unaccountably majestic El Dragon de Oro Cantonese restaurant and the brightly painted Clinica Dental Michoacan. For dim sum and dentists seem to be the most urgent requirements of these transients. And while they are here, staying in the becalmed and fetid cubicles of the Emperador, they will gravitate from one to the other — as Ada, who has decided to stay, explains, “Imagine the worst thing to have on the trip north through all those deserts. Diarrhea? Dyspepsia? No... toothache.”

The following morning, the contingent is up early to get breakfast in the cafes and to catch the next Tijuana Express at nine.

In the incredible heat, the dark interior of the terminal quickly sours and inflicts lethargy. The grandmother and her two charges did not get off the bus the previous night, probably disdaining to exchange even a half-broken bus for a place like the Emperador (in whose fertile indoor ecosystem a fascinating range of insect life happily thrives). The two mechanics are still here, though, and they have passed a drunken night at the San Jeronimo. Their faces are peppered with mosquito bites. One of them is eating half-boiled eggs dipped in cayenne pepper.

“We spent the night praying,” he says, trying hard to smirk.

The new Expresso bus has magnificent bumpers of ribbed chrome and the same gory Christ dangling over its dashboard.

The drivers, too, have the same colored ties, the same shades and pressed white shirts, and the same proud paunches, giving rise to renewed suspicion that Transportes del Norte is a much more cunningly organized outfit than it lets on. The passengers, though, seem to be a different story altogether. They are hard, bronzed, wrinkled, serious faces, grim migrants to the ranches, farms, and factories of the Mexican north and to the agro-industry of the United States. For them, the journey is neutral, an unavoidable discomfort leading from home to work, and they hardly bother to register anything with their eyes. As soon as the bus is moving, they close their eyes.

The road north from Mazatlan, after passing the black-and-white sign that reads Tropico de Cancer, ploughs through rolling green countryside. Abandoned buildings disfigured with the usual political graffiti (always the same enemies: Los corruptos), maize fields, forested hills, and hawks circling overhead. Between the lush ranches, the crops of tall, forked cacti, and the plaster villages, rolling meadows speckled with cornflowers and poppies break up the monotony. By the entrance to the Autopista Benito Juarez, the first glimpse of proper highway, Indian shantytowns, with corrugated iron shacks arranged in rigid rectilinear grids, send their barefoot children racing over the steaming piles of garbage and the putrid ditches to the glittering bus begging for coins. But even here, sesuvium and heliconia bushes glimmer under the palm trees, giving the slum the false color of a garden.

Gradually, however, the land becomes drier and drier. Towards Culiacan the tropics peter out and the air becomes less humid. The hills begin to look more parched, and the highway begins to settle into the disquieting, unruffled straightness of a desert road. From now on there is nothing to do but wait for this interminable landscape of rock and sand to expend itself, to roll beneath and vanish. The towns — Ciudad Obregon, Guaymas, Hermosillo — cease to have much meaning, for there is to be no stopping now. The grim-faced workers are yearning to get it over and done with, and whatever festivity characterized the early stages of the journey has quickly evaporated. An almost menacing sunset of dazzling color takes place in slow motion over lunar mountains and dried riverbeds, and the driver switches on a tape of Los Panchos ballads — music from Mexico’s romantic Golden Age of song to soothe the nostalgic heart.

In the middle of the night, the Expresso stops at Navojoa, in the freezing cold of the Sonoran desert. There seem to be no women at all now among the travelers, and the men look bad-tempered and aggressive. Hours later, as a shrill blue dawn breaks over the border town of Sonoita and the icy air brings the blood to the ends of their noses, the men start desultorily playing cards on the oil drums next to an open fire in the terminal yard, while an Indian family squatting in the mud by the outer wall holds out its hands like a group of waxworks. It is as if the passengers have changed internal gears. Everything about them is tense and lucid.

Perhaps it is the lunar coldness of the Gran Desierto and the immobile desolation of its towns. The great sparse forests of giant cacti look like something from an Edgar Rice Burroughs version of Mars or the horribly animated walking fingers of a Dali moonscape. Do they see something satanic in the North? From Sonoita to San Luis Rio Colorado, the vast arena of dust fringed with pale, crystal-like mountains could be mistaken for a Mare Tranquilitatis with roads. The heat increases towards Mexicali as the road dips, and then it is the terrifying roller coaster through the barren high peaks westward, a monstrous maze of gullies and abysses littered with the burnt-out carcasses of wrecked cars and coaches. If ever there were a satanic landscape, this is it. The migrants sit through it with clenched fists, in total silence.

Dozens of the white crosses have suddenly reappeared, and the scenes of death below have a vivid presence. How many migrants to the fabulous North ended up in those oxidized boxes below, burnt to piles of ash because Our Lady had forgotten her promises or was simply looking the other way? In the end, they are nothing, surplus peasants, desperadoes, minor technicians, and they could disappear in the twinkling of an eye without anyone so much as blinking. No vale nada la vida, la vida no vale nada. In a melancholy way, the last hundred miles seem to remind them of this. Their anxiety increases the closer to Tijuana they get.

At the beer town of Tecate on the western slopes, however, the two mechanics load up their canvas shoulder bags and bare a few gold teeth. They are winking to the driver. Are they preparing for some mad dash across the deserted border, over the formidably empty hills? When the bus stops to let them off, they shake hands and offer a sodden, pepper-stained egg from Mazatlan as a memento. It. is suddenly clear that they are not mechanics at all and that some dangerous drama is probably at hand, but one impossible to guess at.

“See you in Las Vegas,” the one with the gold tassel says, winking a little unpleasantly. They descend at a god-forsaken dusty corner at the edge of a semi-pastoral slum. And half an hour later, at the luxurious Tijuana bus terminal, already under the obscure laws of an utterly alien world, the transvestites, now looking impressively respectable, even fertile, also bid their farewells. Ada and Suzanne offer their cheeks. Three kisses each. They look pale and exhausted, even bored to death. The collective, pre-paid taxis to la linea might have taken them as well, but as it happens there is a car waiting for them, a man in a too-tight Italian suit eating an ice cream, waving to them with one finger.

Ada looks at her watch. “You see. On time, as always. The bus is always on time. Now, be a good boy and don’t forget to send us a postcard from the First World. You know, we always like to hear from a fellow traveler. And remember: if you ever take the bus again, don’t talk to strangers!”

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Donutopolis and the three-tier donut birthday cake

Poway and Mira mesa shops also offer bagels, sandwiches, and donut toppings galore
Next Article

Donutopolis and the three-tier donut birthday cake

Poway and Mira mesa shops also offer bagels, sandwiches, and donut toppings galore
The crowds destined for Tijuana and Guadalajara are the largest in the bus terminal. - Image by Robert Burroughs
The crowds destined for Tijuana and Guadalajara are the largest in the bus terminal.

At one of the spacious, French-built Metro stops in Mexico City in the northern suburbs, a crowd descends at certain hours of the day looking like a band of earthquake victims with their bundles of luggage, their Thermos flasks, and general air of ephemerality. The station is Autobuses del Norte on the Pantitlanline between Politecnico and La Raza, and there is a good chance that this band of prospective emigrants has just made a journey of a mere three stops from the station known as Basilica. For in the vast, fume-heated flatland of Distrito Federal’s northern hemisphere, two strange monuments stand out in uneasy mutual complement: the church of Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe, with its miraculous veil bearing the image of the Virgin, and the giant northern bus terminal where the crowds descending at Autobuses station begin a grueling, reluctant journey to Tijuana - The North.

There is indeed a kind of soft, regular clanking at the back, near the rear wheels on the right side, and the driver is clearly annoyed.

One sees the same crowds at the two places. The modern Basilica, rising like a gigantic metal Bedouin tent from the edge of the flag-stoned plaza opposite its 16th-century companion hums with a constant disorderly pullulation of worshippers and penitents. Above the altar, the veil in which the Indian saint Juan Diego gathered roses, which left a mysterious imprinted image of the Virgin. And under it, in a bizarre automated ritual, a conveyor belt carries the faithful to gaze upon, and be blessed by, the relic. The crowds on their way to Autobuses del Norte stop here first. For is there not among them that superstitious, atavistic fear of travel, of long voyages, which once led people to slaughter oxen before getting.onto ships? Their journey needs to be blessed. Purification before departure.

Highway 57 is one of the few modern roads in the Republic and takes the Expresso through rich farmland to the outskirts of Queretaro.

And it is easy to see how terrible a journey might seem. We have long forgotten the fabulous terrors of travel — who remembers Robinson Crusoe being chased by wolves over the Pyrenees upon his return from his island or Doctor Johnson packing a pistol for a tour of Scotland? But in Mexico, the legends and taboos of travel are still alive. In the chapel filled with tin ex-votos in the ancient church nearby, penitents have painted hundreds of scenes of roadside disasters: buses overturned on mountain passes, bandits leaping gleefully over the bodies of massacred travelers, flaming coaches lying on their sides surrounded by a ring of butchered bodies. And in these fantastical primitive visions, the Virgin of Guadelupe floats in her husk of turquoise light, distributing the milk of forgiveness and salvaging from memories of torment a certificate of certain salvation and transfiguration. For Mexicans, travel is not merely adventure in Club Med style; it is adventure in the style of Ulysses: trials, tribulations, and the not-inconceivable possibility of death.

"I’d rather die than do this trip. I almost got a job in Acapulco this spring...but Tijuana is regular, easy, lots of money."

From the rubbled plaza at Nuestra Sefiora, with its megaphoned music booming over from the market nearby and its drifting army of beggars and neatly groomed peddlers of Virgin memorabilia, a huge fleet of taxis take the pilgrims over the bridge through choked and burning streets to the metro station at Basilica. And a few minutes later they are in front of the concrete mass of Autobuses del Norte, clutching little fake-gold plastic-framed pictures of the Veil in one hand and looking increasingly — as they make their way slowly into the terminal — as if they are going to need its protection.

"I take this bus twice a year. I take the kids back from their holidays with me to my daughter’s house in Riverside."

In the heat of a pollution-filled day (a pollution that is often invisible under a blue sky but that always rasps the throat and stings the eyes), the terminal is an oasis of modernistic cool. Its circular frame encloses a multitude of arcades, bus company offices, lottery sellers, desultory shops, and licuado stalls, and in between these, stark eruptions of strangled wires, cables, caged electricity meters, and tortured pipes.

Their anxiety increases the closer to Tijuana they get.

By the Departures gate, another Guadelupian Virgin stands in a halo of copper-colored tinsel and blooming cineraria, before which fearful travelers, mindful perhaps of those scenes of rape and pillage painted on bits of tin, can genuflect and cross their chests. The cafeteria itself is combed assiduously by grey-faced boys in holed trousers who peer into all the abandoned trays, occasionally stopping, looking round with anguished slyness, and taking a sudden swipe at a half-eaten burger or a mound of brilliant green jelly. And in front of the ticket offices of Tres Estrellas de Oro, Transportes del Pacifico, Primera, or Sonora del Norte, the band of tense and slightly somber pilgrims heading for Tijuana wait patiently in line for tickets for the three o’clock express northwards, as if perfectly aware that where they are going, the law of the Virgin has less power than here.

The crowds destined for Tijuana and Guadalajara are the largest in the terminal, and they tend to congregate in the same cafeteria by the gates from which they will leave. But they are two utterly different groups. The Guadalajarans look like a mildly inconvenienced bunch of itinerant salesmen, visiting aunts, and commuting students. The Tijuanans, on the other hand, look curiously alienated from their surroundings. They are not the mixture usually seen in Mexican buses. In the first place — and most surprisingly for a country whose embassy actually warns travelers that if they wear “pink satin pants” they will be beaten up on the streets — there are two persons of dubious sexual orientation lined up with their airline bags and plastic bags filled with an assortment of shoes, Chicas with the tooled thighs of athletic young men. Two mops of peroxide hair distributed in bunches of tight golden curls. This apparition could only be possible in a bus station, sacred ground where the violence of machismo abates before the mysterious chemistries of journeys.

And next to them are a grandmother with two twin girls, both dressed in lace ruffs and plum-red sandals, Adelita and Rosa. They have sticky green mouths and glutinous green fingers and are en route, one imagines, to a terraced California villa with a cactus garden in the back and a mother and father who do their shopping on the weekends over the border at Horton Plaza. One would not have expected this trio to be traveling segunda clase, let alone on a bus at all, but the grandmother immediately admits that airplanes are not included in her religious vision of the world, that the Virgin might well regard them as unwelcome intruders in her celestial kingdom, and that the bus, in any case, is about a quarter the price. And the second class? Well, the air conditioning on the first class has broken down, and better second with an open window than first with a closed one. And for a moment, the thrift and cunning of a Jalisco peasant beams through the glossy lipstick and the thick orbits of eyeliner.

Around these two extremes of ostentation and respectability (and the servers at the Autobuses’ cafeteria are certainly eyeing up the transvestites with a menacing mixture of amazement and fear) sits a throng of construction workers headed for the border boom town: the odd old couple with green cards quietly escaping to a house in Chula Vista, home-visiting Tijuana clerks, job-hunting Mexico City adolescents wired up to Walkmans and wearing American baseball jackets, a smattering of dark-leather Indian faces in cowboy hats, shoulders loaded down with ragged packs tied up with multicolored string: maids, janitors, street cleaners. The group has almost nothing in common, but once crammed into the Transportes del Norte bus — a chrome-laden juggernaut done up in company colors, red-and-black stripes — a kind of orchestrated bonhomie based on the prospect of some indescribable communal suffering ahead takes hold. And before the bus has even moved, even the two transvestites, their heads discreetly covered with scarves, are chiming in with their girlish sarcasms.

“We hate it in the country,” one of them says to the pink foreigner deliberately placed (and with heavy irony) right next to them by the ticket officer. "So near to God, and so far from the United States!”

As soon as the motor starts, and the Zapata character in the reflecting shades and suave stubble, who is under the impression that he is going to drive us up to the Gates of Hell, is sitting in his vibrating throne, a tiny boy jumps into the center aisle and runs down the rows of packed seats placing, with such discretion that most people do not even notice they are there, small paper pictures of the Guadelupian Virgin on each passenger’s knee. The voyagers pay up, cross themselves, and slip the images into their handbags, their inside pockets, or into the window frames. A confetti of virgins will cover the floor when they depart.

The 15:00 Expresso leaves the city by the huge avenue of Lazaro Cardenas. A sea of traffic bogs it down as it makes its way to the Politecnico and then the Pyramid of Tenayuca, past stagnant rivers, shantytowns webbed with twisted cables, and naked winter trees. Blue and yellow houses surrounded by piles of rubble recede in all directions and between them zones of dusty scrub fringed with refrigerator shops and the skeletal frames of unfinished, mutilated buildings. The bus passes a million rooftops cluttered with disjointed crucifixes and pink and magnolia water tanks baked in the heat, half-dried sycamore and jacaranda trees, balconies of cacti and geraniums, the endless car parts stores rotting in the sun, streets hung with tinsel, cobbled alleys and ochre churches and the drab concrete motels plastered with political graffiti peering out over vast tracts of smouldering, half-burning scrub. Behind all of it, hazed mountains loom almost overhead, the slums spreading ever further upwards, a swathe of rose and pale green shacks smothered in smoke, vast power stations bristling with steel pipes thrown into a sea of lean-tos and the yellow hulks of factories drowning in their own powder lost in a forest of washing lines. In the depths of a blasted tenement, its side ripped out by the great earthquake of 1985, a solitary, pristine metal Christmas tree sits with its red baubles in a child’s bedroom, its angel sparkling in the afternoon light.

For an hour, the suburbs flow past. Towards the periphery the huge industrial complexes appear: Union Carbide, Osram, Firestone, Rexroth, Ford. Communist posters flutter on the soiled street lamps. Shrines glimmer under the power lines, always with a lone Indian woman squatting nearby holding a basket of candles in glass cups. Herds of cows flash by in bronze-colored fields. And by the roadside itself, more Indian women scrubbing clothes in filthy ditches filled with rust-colored slime. The voyagers look out wearily, unable to summon even the barest flicker of interest or surprise. The world they are escaping from has the strange late-after-noon sepia color of a lost world captured in a single, rapidly fading photograph. Perhaps when they come back the next time, it will have all disappeared, replaced by an entirely different landscape. Mexico City changes from day to day. And for those who leave for even a few months, it can seem like another city altogether upon their return.


Highway 57 is one of the few modern roads in the Republic and takes the Expresso through rich farmland to the outskirts of Queretaro in less than three hours. Peasant houses cluster by the road, their trees often fluffed with celebratory tinsel, and in the whitewashed villages sinking into the violet shadows of dusk, men on horseback canter through the dirt streets between the pickup trucks. The fields are filled with dull gold stocks of greyish corn. Plough mules are being led away into the gloom.

The bus, on the other hand, is filled with noise and heat. The helmsman’s obligatory booming salsa music has started, and the passengers either suffer or enjoy it with equanimity — there is no way of telling which. A tiny, rather dilapidated television hooked precariously to one of the luggage racks is showing tonight’s movie, Bloodfist, with thick, lurid Spanish subtitles. As night falls, the bus is lit up by luminous splashes of blood, bare knuckles, and kung-fu kicks, all performed to some wailing Chinese pop music. The deafening cacophony of the video and the driver’s music promises to last all night, yet there is not the slightest sign of protest from the clients. The Indians’ faces are already snoring under their tipped straw hats, and the others are lost in the act of devouring bags of burritos carefully stored in plastic. Through the windows, the spikey silhouettes of rows of maguey cacti in fields watered by sprinklers fade at last into total darkness, and the bus itself looks rather like a small chapel at night, lit at the far end by the blood-crazed video screen and an equally bloody plastic model of the Crucifix dangled over the windshield. Plastic blood drips over the latter’s limbs.

The wounds are far larger than they would be in Europe. And the eyes are fixed on the back row, to the consternation of the two queers and the foreigner. The night suddenly seems filled with blood and torture.

The cross-dressers are named Suzanne and Ada (pronounced like the Nabokov novel to suggest “ardor”), and they are the only ones who refuse to stop talking.

“My aunt is one of those crosses," Ada says, pointing to a cluster of ghostly white roadside crosses that flash in and out of the bus’s headlights. “You didn’t notice them? There’s one every hundred yards.

Whole families together. See how wide the road is...the big road north. About six feet. In the middle of the night, everyone goes crazy, they get hypnotized by the lights. I counted them once from here to the border.”

Her eyes go wild and wide.

“Two thousand one hundred and sixty-five.”

The Indians on the seat in front look round, equally wild-eyed. “Go back to sleep,” Ada snaps, “I’m not talking to you.”

The roadside, however, is indeed littered with these small white crosses, signs of easy death and cheap life on the road. They were right to cross themselves.

“Of course, I wouldn’t risk my life on these death-traps,” Suzanne puts in, “if it weren’t for the fact that I need Tijuana. I dance in the Noa-Noa, you know. Do you know it?”

Ada: “Of course he doesn’t know it. Look at him."

“Well, if you’re ever up that way, remember what we said about the crosses. We risk our lives for our art!” The two little girls are still awake and listening in terror to Ada and Suzanne. Looming concrete shrines fly past, brilliant pyramids of candle flame surrounded by shadowy crowds half-submerged in the bush, and they stare transfixed out of their window.

To them, the journey must seem like something out of a nightmare. One of them keeps tugging at her grandmother’s sleeve and asking her about the crosses. “Are they for dogs or badgers or people?" "Badgers, Isabella.”

“And why is the driver going so fast?”

“I don’t know, darling — perhaps he’s hungry...”

As night deepens, the landscape disappears, the dim shapes of mountains emerge with a reddish gibbous moon.

Small dusty market-towns flash by, ribbons of bare electric bulbs, donkeys, steaming open-air cantinas, and pastel churches with impossibly bloated facades. The bus lurches from side to side as it slides over the immense potholes in the village streets, tearing ’round deserted plazas and occasionally stopping by trash-covered verges of dust and grass to let mysterious Transportes del North auxiliaries on and off. The whole operation has the air of a secret organization with secret rendezvous plans that the customers are never informed of. And as in Mexico itself, the ordinary people look on, wait bemusedly, and endure. There is nothing they can do one way or the other. And it will be another six hours to Guadalajara.


No one knows how many people make this arduous economic pilgrimage every year. Emigration to the north, to Tijuana, to Monterrey, or to California and Texas, has always been principally from the central Mexican states: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacan. The roads from and through these states, of which Highway 57 is the largest, pullulate night and day with overburdened caravanserai of emigrant buses, and on these too travel the 400,000 or so illegal aliens who cross the border every year. As the suburbs of Guadalajara begin to emerge from the darkness at about five o’clock — the streets still lit up as if by naphtha flares — the two Huichol mestizos closest to the back seats turn ’round in some excitement and ask what time it is. One of them is wearing a cowboy hat with a gold tassel hanging from the back rim, and his jaws are in constant motion on some pulped cud buried in the back of his mouth, while the other is wrapped in a maroon blanket maculate with oil stains. They claim they are two mechanics who specialize in Japanese trucks on their way to a workshop in the border town of Tecate. The gold-tassel man holds up one of his hands — sure enough, the fingernails are soused in ancient oil — as if to prove the truth of a statement that might otherwise be disbelieved.

“As a matter of fact,” he says darkly, "I can hear a noise over the right rear wheels. Something’s loose. If I were you, I’d say your prayers, ladies and gentlemen!”

As the vessel rolls through the half-deserted streets of the city, there is indeed a kind of soft, regular clanking at the back, near the rear wheels on the right side, and the driver is clearly annoyed. He keeps looking over his shoulder as if to hear it better. He turns the music down. It sounds like a spoon loose in a dishwasher. He halves his speed and glances in a moment of panic into the rear mirror. So this is why he wears impenetrable reflecting sunglasses. A fearless driver must never reveal ah ounce of doubt, even in a 20-year-old machine whose gears emit a high-pitched musical note akin to the background noise of a medieval torture chamber....

The Guadalajara bus station sits in a suburban wasteland many miles from the city center. Shaped like a horseshoe, its show-piece terminals are the gathering point for the migrants of Jalisco and Michoacan. On the main road that roars past it, little wooden pontoon bridges span the roadside ditches and knots of people dash across them in terror to get to the terminal. A dull, vapor-hidden dawn sun appears, and the Expresso service stops at its bay: the driver is rotating a finger in one of his ears — a sign of hysteria? “Everybody out for half an hour!"

The mechanics burst out laughing.

There is always a crisis with Transportes. And “half an hour" in this case might mean half the morning.

The passengers shuffle, aching and moaning, into the Terminal 4 canteen for a breakfast of huevos rancheros and powdered coffee. The gold Virgin shrine on the wall shows the Divine Mother as a tiny, shriveled doll with grey skin, and however much the assembled company shows her the uninterestedness of over-familiarity, there is no question that they hope their Virgin is overseeing the replacement of the rear wheel on the right side. She, after all, would make a better job of it than most.

As it happens, the breakfast turns out to be interminable. A veritable congress of white-shirted, red-and-black-tied Transportes personnel have congregated around the rear wheel, above which a fragile metal panel opens to reveal the machinery. They are all wearing shades and crisp white shirts. Arguments are in progress. Two mechanics on their backs are probing the axle with drills, and the driver is looking as if he is about to burst into tears. At nine o’clock, he waves to the group in the cafeteria, and the officials, looking like a seminar of apprentice mafiosi analyzing a botched assassination, disperse in order to restore the situation to normal. A few new arrivals swell the ranks: villagers from Lake Chapala and Tapalpa with sunburned faces, their tatty, stone-washed denim jackets offset by gold earrings and little greasy trilbys. They take seats at the front just behind the driver without saying a word and subsequently speak to no one. The driver turns to his audience with a shrug, points dolefully in the general direction of the diseased wheel, and pulls a hopeless face. The passengers sigh, sweetly and gently. It is clearly nobody’s fault but Fate’s.

It is, therefore, in the heat of day that the Expresso finally makes its way through the city, past tropical public gardens, sparkling intersections, and grandiose fragments of bleached colonial masonry. The windows are all resolutely closed against the fumes, and it is not until we reach the surreal Parque Colonial Funerales cemetery in the suburbs — with its gold-plated Russian Orthodox onion domes — that they are opened to admit a crisp scent of smoke. For everywhere the fields are shrouded by an immense pall of trailing smoke. The sun goes out for a moment, like a snuffed candle, and the bus roars, groaning and shrieking, into the lush hills of Michoacan.

And it is only an hour later that the air finally begins to clear.


Michoacan is a land of forested semi-tropical mountains, fighting bull farms, and the spiked maguey cacti from which the liquor of the next town en route is named: Tequila. Despite protests from the boys in Stetsons, the driver does not stop in Tequila, however tempting its sprawling local-produce bars spread along the highway seem. On the outskirts of town, bullrings and steel pens filled with snorting horned monsters float by, and after them the maguey fields, acres quivering in the heat. A soft blue light spreads across the mountain as the day wears on, uniting each point of the compass with a uniform, blinding luminosity. And by the road, drifting from a mysterious and seemingly uncharted interior, strange apparitions emerge: a couple of musicians standing under a flowering tipi tree with a sapphire mariachi drum; Huichol and Cora women moving through fields of mustard flowers; children suspended in thorn trees like sleeping monkeys, their faces covered with orange dust.

Ixtlan, Union del Rio...the dull market towns on the road come and go anonymously. The afternoon wears on, and the road becomes narrower and narrower. Giant holes begin to appear in its surface, giving the appearance of a satellite image of the Great Lakes, and the bus slows to a crawl as it reaches the highest mountain passes. To negotiate the larger potholes, it has to come to a virtual standstill, rocking violently from side to side while weaving a difficult path between the oncoming juggernauts. Sometimes it is only possible to use one side of the road, and so the two streams of traffic have to take it in turn. And everywhere the tarmac itself seems to be^ rubbing away, disappearing in places into stretches of dirt, withering under the relentless pressure of tires and sun. It can easily take an hour to cover 15 miles. Long-horned cows in the bush often overtake us, and yet it is here, at the end of the afternoon, when the road is at its hottest, that the inevitable happens, the rattling noise over the axle escalates, and a dull, insistent thudding erupts at the back end of the bus.

The mechanic with the gold tassel jumps up and begins shouting at the driver and at the three helpers squatting in the cabin. He draws his finger playfully across his throat. The bus is, in any case, grinding to a halt of its own accord. It has stopped in the middle of a small plain littered with concrete drums, shreds of plastic trash, and a million warbling cicadas. A hovel marked Multiservicios has — by the hand of God or the Guadelupian Virgin — been placed in this forbidding emptiness as if the calamity had been long foreseen, and a gang of repairmen charges across the wasteland to take the ailing machine in hand. And meanwhile, not in the least dejected or annoyed, the stoic passengers simply cross the highway to the desolate hot-dog stand, a thatched rotunda containing a meaningless, incomprehensible carved-stone fountain and lavatories.

Was any of this foreseen? The two little girls have gone skipping into the long grass among the Pemex oil drums, but their grandmother (her nose suddenly painted with sun cream) forgets them for a moment to explain the logic of accidents.

"I take this bus twice a year. I take the kids back from their holidays with me to my daughter’s house in Riverside. I won’t take the plane because they fall out of the sky, and besides, I have asthma in the plane. It doesn’t go with my system. So I take the bus twice a year, and I know exactly what it’s going to be like. I don’t let them tell me the bus is new. Of course, we always get there on time; it’s just on the way there are, well, complications. It’s in the nature of the route. God didn’t intend a road through here — look around you. If you stopped for an hour, the forest would eat you. Now, Nature takes care of these things. All these people hurtling to the north: it’s madness. People are intended by Nature to stand still, and here they are...” she describes a wide arc with both her hands, while a slightly crazy expression briefly crosses her face “...racing like chickens.’’

She looks very disgusted indeed and sticks her nose up at the crippled bus slumped in the workyard across the road. “It’s pathetic,” she goes on. “Look at that. Ha, progress!”

And with this completely inexplicable exclamation she goes off to look for the children.

Everyone else is far less philosophical. The cross-dressers take advantage of the sun and sit with their shins exposed next to the hot-dog stand. The suspicious-looking “mechanics” loll around some Valvoline tin drums, and the country people take to poring over a rusted Cedarapids tractor. From the workyard, collective cries of “Oha!” “Aha!” ring out from the fat men in the Transportes del Norte ties as they lift a log, reminding one of Maori rowers pounding away at an ocean-going canoe, and before the sun has gone down, they appear to have resolved the problem with the wheel. They congratulate themselves effusively, clap themselves on their backs, and cry “Amigo!” back and forth to all and sundry. The engine is chugging away once more, and Transportes del Norte have finally won the day for the consumer. At half past six, as the hills begin to burn with the striated ambers and golds of an equinoxial sunset, the Expresso moves off - once again, all honks, backslaps, and - “Amigos!” The road ahead is even more desolate than the section we have seen at first hand, and the confetti-like Virgin images suddenly seem feebly comforting. Asked whether, in her expert opinion, it will happen again, the wise grandmother bares her teeth rather hideously (it is a kind of smile) and says: “They didn’t fix it, you can tell. It is all bravado. They’re hoping that when it happens the second time it’ll be in Tepic. If it doesn’t happen there, we’ll all be sleeping under the moon.”


Transportes del Norte have their own restaurant in the hills between Ixtlan and Tepic. It’s a small place, a single cafeteria room, with, strange to say, another European-style stone fountain standing behind the restaurant in a garbage-strewn terrace. Lit by moonlight, over which the barbarian Mexica once wandered on their way to Anahuac, or what is now Mexico City, the place has a cool and slightly sinister calm. The bright white neon sign over the road splutters and cackles, and down below truck drivers drinking cans of Tecate describe with flamboyant and mendacious gestures their erotic adventures in the brothels of Acapulco.

In this lonely eating-house, which has nevertheless all the grace and purposefulness of any reasonable provincial Mexican restaurant, Suzanne and Ada are certainly not much at home. The clientele is a little hostile, and there is no guarantee that the bus will start up again.

“My sixth time,” Ada laments. "The last time, the gas tank leaked and we stopped in the desert. If I didn’t have to get out of D.F. once in a while, I’d rather die than do this trip. I almost got a job in Acapulco this spring...but Tijuana is regular, easy, lots of money. No perverts there. By the way, we always do this trip together, Ada and I. Safety in numbers.”

When the bus does start up again, the two of them whip out some black satin eye-blinders and settle down for some serious sleep during the rest of the journey to the coastal resort of Mazatlan. The road winds its way down through the western side of the Nayarit mountains, struggling through thick, slow-moving traffic, and before long the cool air of the mountains gives way to the first stifling breath of the tropics and the littoral jungle. The bush on either side of the road grows deeper, a little more forbidding and impenetrable. The land seems darker despite the ferocious light of the moon, and for once people who are not yet asleep are looking with a slight anxiety through the windows. To break down here, of all places, in the jungle, on this fragile ribbon of semi-tarmac, miles from anywhere....

It is possible, of course, that the divinities who watch over us are of the nasty Aztec variety rather than those of a gentle, virginal disposition. For the wheel has now indeed worked its way loose from its moorings, and the bus is suddenly wobbling in all directions, the children screaming and the drivers shouting at the tops of their voices. The crate comes to a halt yet again, and this time the situation is infinitely worse. The Transportes boys are now all on their own, armed only with spanners, hand-held torches, and bravado.

What are they going to do with a broken inside wheel and a single tiny pneumatic pump? And as soon as the bus has stopped, a muffled cry goes up from the passengers: zooming in from the forest, attracted by lights or the smell of blood, a hideous swarm of huge, vampire-like flies on vile green wings has come homing in and is feasting on cheeks and forearms.

“It’ll only be an hour,” the pudgy driver says weakly, slapping his face frantically and swiping the air with his spanners.

"Two at most!”

The passengers run out of the bus and disperse along the verges. The jungle is whistling with insects. In the glare of the headlamps, the passengers look like a group of stranded time travelers gaping at a primeval world they have hitherto only seen in books. Are there caimans in the woods, or big cats, or cannibalistic bats? The men congregate manfully around the operation with the rear wheel, a veritable audience, while the women and children stand or sit at the edge of the forest, intimidated by the brilliant stars overhead and the arboreal gloom. An hour passes. The Transportes crew sweats over the wheel, which they have managed to remove. The moon begins to sink. Two hours. And then three. Suzanne and Ada begin to sing a moody, bad-tempered, bawdy song in low tones. What would it be like, everyone is thinking to themselves, to die like a caveman?

At five o’clock in the morning, the operation with the wheel reaches its conclusion and the drivers trudge dejectedly back to their cabin. No backslaps or “Amigos!” now, for exhaustion and worry are clear in their faces. The appalling road is going to test their handiwork severely, and the passengers are by now restless and sarcastic. The general consensus is that at this stage it is going to be better to spend the night in Mazatlan, and half the occupants of the Expresso make plans accordingly. The first lights of the coastal Pacific towns are greeted with impatience and subdued grumbles of gratitude, as if the world of paganism and the forest had been overcome at long last. And at six, Mazatlan appears, still asleep, empty of people, combed by gentle ocean breezes, and seeming to promise, if not a foreseeable end to this miserable journey, at least a respite from damaged wheels.

Gloomy palms wave in the morning wind, and vaguely in the direction of the sea, a pink mackerel sky begins to materialize.


The Mazatlan of the overland emigrant is not at all the Mazatlan of the Californian package-vacationer. True, the high-rises of the Zona Dorado and Sabalo are always visible as soon as one reaches the ocean promenades, but the overnighters bound for Tijuana who often break their journey here — almost halfway between Mexico City and the border — do not necessarily even see the sea or the curious, blasted villas of the old town. They stay a stone’s throw from the equally curious pudding-bowl-shaped bus station, where a smattering of basic hotels has sprung up to accommodate them: the Hotel Economico, the Emperador with its turquoise windows, and the San Jeronimo with its flowered icon of the Guadelupian.

The terminal itself is unbearably hot and claustrophobic, and the circumambient clutter of rambling hair salons, half-built houses bristling with exposed steel rods, and empty fish restaurants is helpless, against the humidity and inertia of the Tropic of Cancer. Two singular edifices further cater to the particular needs of the Tijuanans: the curved red Chinese roof of the unaccountably majestic El Dragon de Oro Cantonese restaurant and the brightly painted Clinica Dental Michoacan. For dim sum and dentists seem to be the most urgent requirements of these transients. And while they are here, staying in the becalmed and fetid cubicles of the Emperador, they will gravitate from one to the other — as Ada, who has decided to stay, explains, “Imagine the worst thing to have on the trip north through all those deserts. Diarrhea? Dyspepsia? No... toothache.”

The following morning, the contingent is up early to get breakfast in the cafes and to catch the next Tijuana Express at nine.

In the incredible heat, the dark interior of the terminal quickly sours and inflicts lethargy. The grandmother and her two charges did not get off the bus the previous night, probably disdaining to exchange even a half-broken bus for a place like the Emperador (in whose fertile indoor ecosystem a fascinating range of insect life happily thrives). The two mechanics are still here, though, and they have passed a drunken night at the San Jeronimo. Their faces are peppered with mosquito bites. One of them is eating half-boiled eggs dipped in cayenne pepper.

“We spent the night praying,” he says, trying hard to smirk.

The new Expresso bus has magnificent bumpers of ribbed chrome and the same gory Christ dangling over its dashboard.

The drivers, too, have the same colored ties, the same shades and pressed white shirts, and the same proud paunches, giving rise to renewed suspicion that Transportes del Norte is a much more cunningly organized outfit than it lets on. The passengers, though, seem to be a different story altogether. They are hard, bronzed, wrinkled, serious faces, grim migrants to the ranches, farms, and factories of the Mexican north and to the agro-industry of the United States. For them, the journey is neutral, an unavoidable discomfort leading from home to work, and they hardly bother to register anything with their eyes. As soon as the bus is moving, they close their eyes.

The road north from Mazatlan, after passing the black-and-white sign that reads Tropico de Cancer, ploughs through rolling green countryside. Abandoned buildings disfigured with the usual political graffiti (always the same enemies: Los corruptos), maize fields, forested hills, and hawks circling overhead. Between the lush ranches, the crops of tall, forked cacti, and the plaster villages, rolling meadows speckled with cornflowers and poppies break up the monotony. By the entrance to the Autopista Benito Juarez, the first glimpse of proper highway, Indian shantytowns, with corrugated iron shacks arranged in rigid rectilinear grids, send their barefoot children racing over the steaming piles of garbage and the putrid ditches to the glittering bus begging for coins. But even here, sesuvium and heliconia bushes glimmer under the palm trees, giving the slum the false color of a garden.

Gradually, however, the land becomes drier and drier. Towards Culiacan the tropics peter out and the air becomes less humid. The hills begin to look more parched, and the highway begins to settle into the disquieting, unruffled straightness of a desert road. From now on there is nothing to do but wait for this interminable landscape of rock and sand to expend itself, to roll beneath and vanish. The towns — Ciudad Obregon, Guaymas, Hermosillo — cease to have much meaning, for there is to be no stopping now. The grim-faced workers are yearning to get it over and done with, and whatever festivity characterized the early stages of the journey has quickly evaporated. An almost menacing sunset of dazzling color takes place in slow motion over lunar mountains and dried riverbeds, and the driver switches on a tape of Los Panchos ballads — music from Mexico’s romantic Golden Age of song to soothe the nostalgic heart.

In the middle of the night, the Expresso stops at Navojoa, in the freezing cold of the Sonoran desert. There seem to be no women at all now among the travelers, and the men look bad-tempered and aggressive. Hours later, as a shrill blue dawn breaks over the border town of Sonoita and the icy air brings the blood to the ends of their noses, the men start desultorily playing cards on the oil drums next to an open fire in the terminal yard, while an Indian family squatting in the mud by the outer wall holds out its hands like a group of waxworks. It is as if the passengers have changed internal gears. Everything about them is tense and lucid.

Perhaps it is the lunar coldness of the Gran Desierto and the immobile desolation of its towns. The great sparse forests of giant cacti look like something from an Edgar Rice Burroughs version of Mars or the horribly animated walking fingers of a Dali moonscape. Do they see something satanic in the North? From Sonoita to San Luis Rio Colorado, the vast arena of dust fringed with pale, crystal-like mountains could be mistaken for a Mare Tranquilitatis with roads. The heat increases towards Mexicali as the road dips, and then it is the terrifying roller coaster through the barren high peaks westward, a monstrous maze of gullies and abysses littered with the burnt-out carcasses of wrecked cars and coaches. If ever there were a satanic landscape, this is it. The migrants sit through it with clenched fists, in total silence.

Dozens of the white crosses have suddenly reappeared, and the scenes of death below have a vivid presence. How many migrants to the fabulous North ended up in those oxidized boxes below, burnt to piles of ash because Our Lady had forgotten her promises or was simply looking the other way? In the end, they are nothing, surplus peasants, desperadoes, minor technicians, and they could disappear in the twinkling of an eye without anyone so much as blinking. No vale nada la vida, la vida no vale nada. In a melancholy way, the last hundred miles seem to remind them of this. Their anxiety increases the closer to Tijuana they get.

At the beer town of Tecate on the western slopes, however, the two mechanics load up their canvas shoulder bags and bare a few gold teeth. They are winking to the driver. Are they preparing for some mad dash across the deserted border, over the formidably empty hills? When the bus stops to let them off, they shake hands and offer a sodden, pepper-stained egg from Mazatlan as a memento. It. is suddenly clear that they are not mechanics at all and that some dangerous drama is probably at hand, but one impossible to guess at.

“See you in Las Vegas,” the one with the gold tassel says, winking a little unpleasantly. They descend at a god-forsaken dusty corner at the edge of a semi-pastoral slum. And half an hour later, at the luxurious Tijuana bus terminal, already under the obscure laws of an utterly alien world, the transvestites, now looking impressively respectable, even fertile, also bid their farewells. Ada and Suzanne offer their cheeks. Three kisses each. They look pale and exhausted, even bored to death. The collective, pre-paid taxis to la linea might have taken them as well, but as it happens there is a car waiting for them, a man in a too-tight Italian suit eating an ice cream, waving to them with one finger.

Ada looks at her watch. “You see. On time, as always. The bus is always on time. Now, be a good boy and don’t forget to send us a postcard from the First World. You know, we always like to hear from a fellow traveler. And remember: if you ever take the bus again, don’t talk to strangers!”

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Flogging Molly plays, Pierce the Veil returns, Switchfoot carols, Tom Brosseau notes, and Billy Gibbons marries Dani & Tim

Christmas, covers, concerts, and a ZZ Top wedding
Next Article

Endless Summer Opening Reception, La Mesa Oktoberfest, Scorpions and Whitesnake

Events September 29-October 1, 2022
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close