Tuxtla Mexico Bus Station Conversations
SAN PEDRO TUXTLA, Mexico- I knew the guy wanted to talk with me when he sat down in a seat adjacent to my own when there was a pelethora of other seats available all through the bus station waiting area.
“Are you from the USA?” he asked.
Here we go . . .
I nodded. Affirmative.
The guy was a stout, young Mexican, mid-twenties, had a few well placed scars over his hands and face, and was smiling way too big for simple pleasure of meeting me. This guy was overtly friendly, and travel has taught me that 75% of the time you are approached by an overtly friendly stranger in a bus station the interaction ends up an annoyance.
The bus station is the domain of touts, hustlers, hotel runners, thieves, scalpers, drug and girl callers — sharks looking to take a commission off my dime or to take my dime for themselves. Call these guys what you please, they are like flies gravitating towards a turd, and, in the lower class bus depot of Tuxtla, I knew that I was the biggest turd they could find. What you want, my friend, I get you what you want, very cheap.
But, as chance will have it, there is that remaining 25% of the time when the overtly friendly stranger is just a fellow bus passenger wanting to try out their English or fishing for a story or experience which they could share with their buds back home — The American said that he thought Mexico was . . . haha. Because of this 25%, I know that I need to initially hear these guy-smilies out, find out their game, and proceed from there.
So I accepted this guy’s advances in the bus station of San Pedro Tuxtla, Mexico — albeit with caution. I knew that even if he was a tout he would know immediately that he would have nothing on me: I was leaving his city not arriving, I had a one way ticket to somewhere else in my pocket. From his angle, I was a mute business point.
“Where are you going?” he asked in perfect English.
“The beaches of Oaxaca,” I replied in Spanish.
“Do you already have a ticket?” he asked.
I replied that I did, and inwardly groaned as it seemed as if this guy was a representative of the annoying 75%. He was showing clear signs of being a tout, a hustler, hotel runner, drug/ prostitute middle man . . . asking me what I would like with seeming innocence and then, upon confirmation, offer to get me what I say I want — I know of this place . . . very cheap, come with me.
This is the game of the tout: they get you to show your cards and then move to take your ante; they get you to reveal to them where you are going, what you want to to, what you need, and then they offer to find it for you. This puts you in a bind, as they make it seem as if they are trying to help you get what you yourself had just said you wanted, and to refuse their service would seem to go against the grain of human logic. Why wouldn’t you want someone to get you what you just said you wanted?
Because you will pay for it.
When caught in the net of a tout, it initially feels odd to say, “I don’t want your help, go away,” but this is a subtle art of travel that becomes simple routine. But I already had my ticket out of town, and this guy — whatever his game was, I still am not sure — would not be able to find an angle in on me. So I may as well have conversation.
“Where are you from in the USA?” he asked, still speaking shaky but correct English.
“New York. You have been to the USA, right?” I began speaking in English as well.
“I was in New York for two years,” he proclaimed with excitement, “I worked construction.”
“Good work,” I said, unsure of my integrity, “it gets you outside.”
When a man comes up to me in Mexico or Central America speaking English, I know that it is almost a given that he had crossed the border illegally spent some years working in the USA. These men are often also more than willing to talk about their experiences north of the border, and I am interested in finding out what they were.
The guy told me his name was Gabriel. I told him my real name. This was not the type of conversation where I would need to call into affect my alias, Piggledy Wiggledy.
We talked about the USA some more, I asked him if he now does construction in Mexico, and all of a sudden he turned into a cook in New York, not a construction worker anymore. He told me that he works in the hotel of his brother in Tuxtla. I asked him how he got into the USA.
“Did you walk across?” I asked.
He laughed as he told me, “Yes, for three days through the desert.”
“In Arizona?” I asked.
“Yes, but they sent me back seven times.” He was laughing now. “I kept going and they kept sending me back to Mexico.”
“And it took you like three days of walking through the desert each time?”
I had to laugh at him too, “So you must know the desert out there pretty well then?”
He admitted that he did. He also said that, in all, he spent six years in the USA, and then began naming all the parts of the country he knew. A lot of strange nowhere places like Iowa, but also Arizona, Florida, and, as I would find out, Louisiana. I asked if he had ever been to Buffalo, my home region. Almost all of the men that I have met in Latin America who had worked illegally in the USA had been to Buffalo, the city seems to be a great hub in the USA for illegal workers. It is a mafia town.
He admitted that he had worked in Buffalo.
“Will you go back to the USA?” My question was a prompt, I knew the answer but wanted him to tell it to me.
“No, I can’t go back,” he explained, and then paused before saying, “I had some trouble there.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked innocently.
“I was in prison in Louisiana for two years. I am on parole now. I did some stupid shit.”
He laughed a little.
“Louisiana seems like a tough place to be in prison, huh?”
“I hate cops,” was his response. “The police here they don’t care what you do, in the USA they bother everybody.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “when the police here bother you it is because they want money.”
He changed the subject, “Do you like Spanish women?”
A tricky question given the lay of the land, to be sure.
“You mean women from Spain?” I asked hesitating, a paltry attempt at sidestepping the question.
“No!” Gabriel spoke with exasperation, “Spanish women, man, the women here.”
“Oh, Hispanic women,” I fumbled for words. “I like the pretty ones.”
This seemed honest enough.
Gabriel then though it better to talk about food. I told him that my favorite food was hamburgers, he said that his was tacos.
Petra the traveler
I wondered in San Cristobal how my daughter, now that she is able to walk, talk a little, and take charge of herself, would like traveling. As I watched her run around the bus station, yelling, trying to talk to people, and walking up to other little kids and playing with them, I had my answer:
She digs this shit.
The cleaning man
I left the company of Gabrial and went for a walk out by the buses. This was a bigger bus station, there were many different bus companies operating out of it, but every bus that pulled into the lot seem similarly beat. This was clearly not a place to catch a first class bus with soft seats that recline back all the way, where there are conductors bringing you snacks, massaging your toes, climate control, and bathrooms. This was a traveler’s bus station. I was surprised that some of the buses that I watched pull in could even still keep on lurching forward — they were essentially moving hunks of junk. I had found the bus station I was looking for.
I photographed a particularly odd looking bus that had big tires and a raised up carriage, sort of like it was primed for off road travel (perhaps it was). It was like the bus that I had once taken some years back from Palenque across the Yucatan. This bus broke down en route, the passengers all had to squeeze onto another bus that we flagged down on the highway — sort of an adventure.
I was daydreaming about the possibility of another such adventure when a man in a janitor’s costume, pulling a trash can and holding a broom, made way for me. He stopped right in front of me.
“Where are you going?”
“You have big earrings.”
“I am aware of that.”
Feeling friendly, I removed one and stuffed a finger through the vacant cavity.
The cleaning man promptly ran away to clean something.
One last time
It was five minutes before our bus was scheduled to depart. I made for the bathroom. This is a habit that my mother instilled in me which I have still not been able to shake in adulthood. I can still hear her reminding me, “Did you go to the bathroom one last time before we leave?”
Obliging mom, I went to the bathroom one last time before getting on the bus — a habit that has come in pretty handy over these years of traveling in a world that can boast a prime deficiency of well placed public toilets.
I exited the bathroom just in time, Gabriel was waving to me excitedly, “Your bus is here. Go! Go!”
Somehow my little wife had been able to carry a rucksack, a tote bag, a shoulder bag, pull a fully stuffed dolly cart, a bag of Cuban chicken, and a toddler all the way to the bus.
“How did you do this?” I had to ask.
“I saw everybody else running and I thought I had to too so that we could get seats.”
“But we have seat numbers on our tickets.”
My wife looked at me sideways, What idiot abides by the seat numbers on a ticket for a lower class bus in Mexico?
I do. I kicked some guy out of MY seat, and we braced ourselves for our first long bus ride with our newly mobile daughter.
We had to wonder what fun this was going to be.