Friday, August 15, 2008

Cuidado de los topes--Beware of speedbumps

Soludos Boludos!

So they say that sometimes it is not the destination that is so important, but the journey. This blog is about two journeys, rather than destinations, that make the story worth telling.

In my first week of travelling in Mexico, I found myself in Real de Catorce. The Lonely Planet guide book calls Real de Catorce a ¨re-awakening ghost town,¨ what Tabasco once was before the tourist industry took it over. The town was pleasant enough. It is mostly a tourist destination for middle and upper-middle class Mexicans. I found a friendly hostel and gorgeous surroundings. The highlight of the city, however, was actually the trip out.

Rather than taking the same route I took in, I opted for the ¨vintage jeep¨ ride down the ¨rough but spectacular decent¨ to the small town of Estacion Catorce (yes, they actually named the town Station 14, and it was more of a ghost town than Real de Catorce). This would allow me to travel a small city called Zacatecas--a great college-town full of culture and night life--before making the trip back to Mexico City for the International AIDS Conference. So at 12 pm I went to the town square where I was told I could find the Jeeps waiting for passengers. By vintage Jeeps, they really meant stripped down versions of what I guess could have been Jeeps but now have corrugated metal floors, rusted roofs, and no backs. Up front sat the driver and a an old and wrinkled abuelita. Seven adult women, three babies, two small children, and myself were in the cab squeezed on benches that faced each other (the kids sat on the floor). Dangling off the back were three more women and two additional children. On top of the roof were our bags, four additional backpackers, and a couple more local kids (I never did get an official count). Honest to god, there were at bare minimum 25 souls being transported down one of the steepest, roughest, and most narrow (a donkey could have run us off the mountain) roads I have ever been on.

I at first tried to calm myself by thinking that these local women make this trip on a weekly basis in order to buy their groceries (they lived scattered down the mountain, and the only store resembling a mercado was in Real de Catorce). Sure, they do this all the time. I had nothing to fear. I turned to smile at the elderly woman squashed up next to me, but she was busy crossing herself and mumbling Hail Maries under her breath. I tightened my grip on the seat.

Things that I hoped against hope for while driving down the mountain included:

1. That I wouldn´t loose my backpack. I chucked it on the roof without even tying it down because I didn´t understand the severity of this car ride.

2. That we wouldn´t die.

3. That the local women I was sharing the back with wouldn´t hate me for not giving up my seat inside and offering to sit on the roof.

4. That the Jeep´s breaks wouldn´t go out. (I couldn´t believe it was able to make this trip every day).

5. That another Jeep, car, push cart, or herd of sheep wouldn´t be going up the road while we were going down.

6. That we wouldn´t die. This is worth mentioning again.

Once the worst of the trip was over, and I regained color in my face, I loosened my grip on the bottom of my seat and opened my eyes. I smiled at the women and said, no problemas. They nervously laughed and looked away.

This next story I am just going to transcribe from my journal. It was the first time I had ever felt really nervous while travelling.

14 August 2008, 2:30 am, Puerto Escondido bus station isn´t the first time I´ve slept in a bus station. However why I´m in the Puerto Escondido bus station at 2:30 am is a good question. I had Brian and Charles drop me off in Cruz Grande, the first town North of Playa Ventura with an "official" bus terminal. (Note: As I haven´t yet written about the AIDS conference or the week after the conference, I´m posting a bit out of order here. I went to a small beach town South of Acapulco with some friends. I´ll get there eventually).

What a peculiar town. At first I didn´t think anything of it. I found good, cheap food and a locutorio from which to send a few emails. I had three hours to kill before a bus heading South would pass by, the last of the day. My final hour I spent chatting with a friend of the bus terminal attendant. She was 18 and very inquisitive. Her questions quickly turned to my love life (she blushed slightly here), and why I didn´t have a wife or girlfriend. I paused, quickly debating my options. It´s always on a case-by-case basis that I "out" myself to strangers while travelling. Sometimes the risks outweigh the benefits of honesty. In this case, I was the only foreigner in the town (or at least out in the open); we had already joked about that. I was also unaware of the local culture or common attitude towards those who are beyond heterosexual. On the other hand, I was only passing through, and I was talking to a cute, flirty, 18 year old girl.

What´s the worst that could happen?
I asked myself. So I told her that I didn´t like girls and that is why I didn´t have a wife or girlfriend. At first she feigned surprise at my sexuality. Gasping and putting her hand over her heart she cried, oh my god (in English) pero ¿porqué? But you look to masculine to be gay. While it was reassuring (and fairly surprising) I could pass for safety reasons, her statement made me wish my nails were an inch longer and painted bright blue. She asked me why I didn´t have a boyfriend. I smiled and said, let´s not go there.

I was surprised to find out that there was an established and visible gay "scene" in Cruz Grande. My new friend quickly confessed that her own brother was como así, gay. She also pointed out (literally pointed) the gays who lived across the street who had even married other men (many Mexican states, including Guerrero (where Gruz Grande lies), recognize same-sex civil unions). By gay men she really meant trans women, travestis. This became apparent to me as soon as the "gays" in question crossed the street in halter tops and mini-skirts. I was a bit disheartened to learn of sex tourism in Cruz Grande. According to my self-appointed gay tour guide, all the gay foreigners who come through town like to pay locals for sex. Some pay for boys as young as 12 or 13 years old. I assured her I had no intention of paying for sex with a 13 year old and that I thoroughly disapproved of other tourists who did. I also politely tuned down a tryst she offered to set up between me and Juan, our bus station attendant who apparently isn´t gay but just "likes action."

So it seemed fine that I chose to come out to my new friend. She was a bit disappointed--she kept asking what would happen if she kidnapped me and made me her boyfriend (wouldn´t your parents be so happy?)--but other than that, I got to learn some really interesting stuff about the town and its people that would have otherwise remained invisible. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about coming out. That was until my would-be kidnapper/girlfriend told Juan I was gay, who told other folks hanging out in the street. It was about now that I began to get a little nervous. Was it just my imagination or was news of my sexuality spreading like wildfire. Were people looking at me a bit harder and a while longer than before?

But no matter. No reason to get worked up because my bus was coming soon, and I would be gone forever. I looked at my watch. The bus was already late. I quickly hurried across the street so the bus wouldn´t pass by without stopping. So now I was standing along side the road with all of my bags, waiting for a late bus and attracting more attention than ever. A man approached me and asked what I was doing. I explained I was waiting on a bus towards Oaxaca. He said that was OK but that I should be careful because there were bad people around, hay malos--mucho peligro. I wanted to ask him if we meant the 60 year old man walking towards us with a rusty machete, but couldn´t because my throat was constricting. (Thanks all your New Yorkers who scared the shit out of me with tales of machete murders while we were camping). He told me to make sure not to wait too long. I smiled, thanked him, and told him next time I would be sure to choose a bus that was known for its punctual departures. He smelled like booze, but I tried not to hold it against him, because I smelled like B.O.

After a couple of taxistas asked me if I needed rides, I was a lone again. Were those shirtless guys drinking beer on their balcony yelling at me? Yes. Shit. What were they yelling? If I spoke English. Shit. I already outed myself as queer. Did I really need to out myself as a native English speaker as well? I quickly debated in my head whether or not to pretend to be from Russia or Italy. I decided to own up to the truth yet again (I never have been much of a liar). And they were probably just some nice guys who wanted to yell some phrases in English at me, to which I would smile and waive, and ya está. As soon as I said yes, I do speak English, one of them ran, literally ran, down to meet me. Shit.

Why did I say yes? Why do I have to be so damn honest? Why did I turn down that tryst with Juan? At least I would have been shielded from public scrutiny. Stop it!
I told myself, !ya basta¡ He is just a nice guy who wants to to chat in English. Just because one man told me there were bad people about doesn´t mean i have to go getting all paranoid.

And all he wanted to do was chat in English. He was originally from Panama, but now works in Vegas as a mechanic and visits Cruz Grande, where his wife´s family lives, frequently. Evidently Vegas is the most popular destination for folks from Cruz Grande who make the long trip al otro lado in order to find work. Even the travesti who owned the beauty salon above us splits her time between Vegas and Cruz Grande.

I continued to tell myself that he was just a nice guy, that his friends were just all nice guys, as more and more of his buddies gathered around asking him what my story was. I couldn´t help but think they were being a little too friendly, trying very hard to convince me to wait for my bus inside their bar, or even to skip the bus altogether and sleep at their hospedaje. I was understandably a bit unnerved because i kept on remembering response I received earlier when I asked my young friend if it was dangerous for gay people in the town: well, she said, in Cruz Grande the people like to drink. And when people drink they like to fight. Les gusta golpear. And Sometimes they want to fight the gays, but the gays don´t want to fight back.

One hour. All of this happened in one hour. What more could happen in one hour? Oh, well hadn´t met any of the young male sex workers yet. Let´s remedy that shall we? Three young boys (my guess was between 13-15) approached me and propositioned me for 20 pesos. Now to be fair, no sexual services were explicity offered, and while 20 pesos is an extremely low rate to charge for a trick, it is a bit much to ask of a perfect stranger in exchange for respecto, as they put it. I said no with a bit of an attitude so they wouldn´t hassle me, and all the while I hoped that if I had agreed to their proposition, they would have robbed me--they should be charging way more than 2 US dollars, especially from gringo tourists.

Just get me on the damn bus already! Oh, here comes my friend. ¿Qué pasa amiga? What!? What do you mean my bus isn´t coming? ¡No me jodas! amiga, where is my bus? NO, I am not staying the night with you. No I am not staying the night at all. I am getting on the first bus I see. I don´t care where it is going, I am just getting on.

We go back across the street to talk to Juan, who tells me that there is a problem with the bus and it is going to be running late. I remind him its already running an hour late. he says another hour or so, but he is hopeful it will still make it. I´m beginning to get paranoid.

These two are trying to pull over over on me. The whole fucking town in in on it. The taxi drivers want fares, Juan wants his tryst, the girl wants to make me her boyfriend, the guy from Panama/Vegas wants to get drunk with me, and the 13 year olds want 20 pesos.

I take a deep breath. I´m acting ridiculous. What´s that? It´s my bus! Juan, that´s my bus. Go stop my bus! ¡Ya se Va! Don´t let it leave without me! Juan took off across the street to chase down the bus. I chucked on my pack, called out chau chau to my friend, and hurry after Juan, who is waiving at me to hurry up. Ya vengo, Juan !ya vengo¡

And that is how I came to be sitting in the bus station in Puerto Escondido at 2:30 am. Juan told me that I would arrive around 5 or 6 am, but at this point, am I really surprised? Like I said, it isn´t the first time I´ve slept in a bus station, and judging by my traveling style, it won´t be my last.

end entry

I finally arrive in Oaxaca city around 4:30 pm. I got on the first second class bus leaving at 7 am. I could have waited for a more direct first class express, but the second class buses aren´t so bad, once you get over the smell. And at least in this bus there wasn´t a woman coughing up a lung sitting across from me as there was from Cruz Grande (I think I should probably get screened for TB, actually). Yes all was going well. The mountains were beautiful and the forests were lush. The temperature was cooling off and the mosquitoes all but disappeared. And then the bus broke down. I didn´t even know the name of the town we were able to coast into. But no worries. At least I was far, far away from Cruz Grande and another bus arrived about an hour and a half later.

Along the highways in Southern Guerrero and Oaxaca, formidable speedbumps seem to pop up out of no where and at times without reason. While driving our rented Dodge sedan, the bumps more often than not scraped the underbelly of the car, no matter how slowly we took them. While on the buses, the speed bumps, topes or reductores, assure a very bumby ride. I guess in this case, the road just wanted to make sure I didn´t arrive in Oaxaca to hastily, that I appreciated every part of the trip. And in the end, the journey, and all the topes along the way, made the destination, Oaxaca City, all the more beautiful.

Much love!


1 comment:

Otto said...

Great Stories.
Are you taking photos of these people? This may be a good idea for a variety of reasons.