TIP-TOEING IN TEPIC

Hasta Luego, Amigo
The Mexico Life

This is a story about the second time I visited Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It was in the winter of 2005. My first visit was in 1984.

I didn’t have particularly sweet memories of Tepic from 21 years ago, the last time I was there. But today’s sojourn there erased what few fond memories I have of the place. Come to think of it, I don’t have any memory of Tepic at all, except that I changed buses in its nasty bus station when I traveled from San Blas headed to Puerto Vallarta.

I am staying at Casa Mañana  in Playa Los Cocos. The owners, Lourdes and Rinehard, live in Tepic. It was Monday morning, and Lourdes had been at the hotel for the weekend. She was headed back home, and she kindly offered to give me a ride to Tepic. I wanted to do some souvenir shopping.

She has a spiffy new VW in a sedan I haven’t seen in the States. Almost all Volkswagens in North America are partially made here in Mexico. Street-ready VWs cannot be bought south of the border and driven home across that border; they don’t meet US specifications. More’s the pity, because they are significantly less expensive here. Many of the city police cars and taxicabs are VW bugs.

Playa Los Cocos (Coconut Beach) lies about 30 miles south of Tepic at the end of a harrowing, curvy road that weaves through the jungle and tests the nerves of even the most skilled driver. Having driven the road many times, Lourdes didn’t seem to notice as we sped along, slowing only for Mexico’s ever-present speed bumps. When we reached the outskirts of Tepic, she apologized to me and said she hoped she was not scaring me with her driving.

“One can’t be too polite when driving in the city. You have to assert yourself,” she said as she cut off a dusty pickup truck and came close to clipping a bicyclist. Seeing the near misses just as she was speaking, I believed her every word.

Salvador, the Casa Mañana waiter who has adopted me, and helps me improve what can only be described as my deplorable Spanish, had drawn a map on a napkin showing me the location at the station of the buses that traveled the road to Playa Los Cocos and would let me off in front of the hotel. He told me to use as a landmark the tall cathedral on Victoria Street. It was only five blocks from the bus station.

Lourdes dropped me in front of the station. Across the street was the “zocolo,” or the town square. There were the usual fruit stands on the zocolo edges, and a student band was just concluding a noontime concert. I kept to the street leading to the church. There was a variety of shops and farmacias. I wanted to buy presents for my family and cut-rate medicines for me. But first I had to have some cash.

There was a Banco Mexico on the street, and I went in to exchange a travelers check written in US dollars for pesos. Knowing I was supposed to co-sign the check in front of whomever was going to cash it, I started to sign it at a teller’s window. She waved me away and pointed to a counter with a pen and a calendar on display. Anyway, I thought she was pointing to the counter. I was confused, but I signed the check and took it back to her window.

“No,” she said, pointing to a bank officer in the back. At least I guessed she was a bank officer. She was seated at a desk rather than a teller window. In the States, such a configuration usually indicates a lower-rung officer.

The well-dressed, beautiful young lady, took my travelers check, and told me I had to sign it again. I pointed to my signature now in two places on the check.

“No,” she said again. “Aqui,” she insisted, pointing to a space under the signature line. I signed it again.

She took the check, carefully inspected it back and front and asked for my passport, which I handed over. She examined the photo on the passport, which is probably the worst photo ever taken of an earthling. Daniel, the kid at the hotel, who cashed a previous travelers check, teased me about it, saying it looked like a picture one would find on a wanted poster.

The bank officer held the passport up where she could compare the photo with my actual face. She frowned. By this time, I had not seen a smile in the entire bank. Everyone looked at me as though I might be an imposter at best and Ma Barker at worst.

Trying to lighten things up a bit, I said, “Yo tiene un malo dias.” I was trying to say, “I was having a bad day,” pointing to the passport picture. But whatever I actually said seemed to deepen her concern. She took the check and my passport to a more official bank officer. This one sat in a floor-to-ceiling glass office. That glassed-in officer now held my passport aloft and inspected my countenance some more.

The un-glassed-in officer came back to her desk. There were still no smiles or the slightest indication of the standard “friendly banker.” She punched a few numbers on her telephone and started writing on the back of the travelers check. When she finished, there were four closely spaced lines of numbers on the back of the check and more on the front. I’ve cashed many travelers checks in Mexico, but I’ve never been subjected to that much scrutiny.

At last she gave me the check, my passport, and a printed slip. The slip had more numbers on it. Now I had the slip, my passport, the numbered and re-numbered travelers check, but still no pesos. She returned my steady gaze, except to look around me toward the front door.

No, I thought, it’s not Ma Barker. She thinks I’m Bonnie and she’s looking for Clyde who must be waiting for my signal to burst into the bank, tommy-gun blazing. I made the gesture with upturned hands and raised eyebrows meant to indicate, So, what do I do now? She stood up and motioned for me to follow her.

Back to the original teller we went. I had the feeling she wanted me to put the items in my hand into the metal scoop at the bottom of the glass partition separating the teller from me. I looked about pondering that the officer at the desk where I sat for so long was the only individual in the bank not in a glass cage. She looked very small, but she was obviously capable of taking care of herself. Maybe she was a black belt or one of those colors that mean her hands must be registered with the Federales as a lethal weapon.

Now in front of the teller again, I felt sure I would at last get my pesos and be off on my shopping spree.

Not yet.

The teller punched some buttons on her telephone and listened as she wrote more numbers on what was now a tattered travelers check. She, too, sized me up by my passport photo and frowned. I smiled at her. There was no show of reciprocated friendliness from inside the teller’s cage.

At long last, she riffled through a stack of multi-colored paper money and pushed it at me in the metal scoop.

I thanked her profusely. “Mucias Gracias,” I said.

“De Nada,” she answered, still not smiling. At last they let me go. Glancing at a clock as I made my way to the door,  I saw that my transaction had consumed 40 minutes of the banco’s and my time, just to cash one of those quick and easy travelers checks.

Leaving the bank, I walked four or five blocks up Victoria Street, stopping in first this shop, then another. I bought shirts for the grandsons, some wooden tops, five pens, each decorated with a yarn and feather God’s eye, and I bought Daughter Mandy a pair of orange and yellow sandals “Hecho en Mexico.”

I crossed the street beside the large cathedral Salvador told me about and started down the other side of the street toward the zocolo, stopping to take a picture of the church’s tall spire against the puffy clouds in a beautiful blue sky.

I had only gone a few steps, when someone touched my arm and said, “Excuse.” I turned around and saw my arm was being touched by the long arm of the law. A member of the policia had interrupted my shopping spree. 

How nice, I thought. Like so many policemen in Mexico, he was going to inquire if I needed directions. Something was wrong, though. This one didn’t seem the least bit friendly. He must be related to someone in the bank, and it runs in the family, I thought..

He rattled off some Spanish, and I picked up the word, “photograph.” As I always do when I don’t understand a word and I think someone is being helpful, I said, “Ah, si.”

His eyes grew wider, as he took a step nearer. The touch on my arm now turned into a grasp. Not menacing, but nonetheless a grasp.  I looked at it and said, “Que?” (What?)

After a few minutes of mutual misunderstanding, I realized he was asking me if I took his picture.

“No,” I answered, and shook my head. Then, I was astounded when he asked if I took a picture of the bank. (“Photograph banco?”)

“No, nada,” I answered as plainly as I could.

There were several more questions from him all of which I answered with “Mande?” or “Que?” Then I realized he was asking me if I didn’t take a picture of him or the bank, what was I shooting?

I searched my limited Spanish vocabulary for the word, “church,” but came up with nothing. I pointed at the cathedral. Taking out my camera once again, I pantomimed as I pointed to the top of the church’s spire. I said, “church” about five times.

Having shot pictures all over Mexico, I know the protocol: (1) If you want to photograph a man, his child or his burro, ask permission. Ladies don’t seem to mind. The man will probably ask you to pay. It is rude at that point not to cross his palm with a few pesos. (2) Never take a photo of an Indian. In fact, don’t even let an Indian know you have a camera on your person. The story about a guy being stoned to death because he took a photo of a local ethnic group may be a Mexican urban legend, but I never take the chance. (3) Buildings are fair game. Shoot away.

The policeman was finally satisfied I was not taking pictures of him or the bank for the purpose of sharing them with my bank-robbing comrades. We would just have to case the joint in person. Besides, the bank was three blocks away, and it wasn’t even close to the church steeple way up in the sky. I don’t know where the cop was when I snapped the picture. But should there be a next time, which I doubt, I will proceed with the picture-taking assuming the police are all Indians.

I made a quick decision then to take a bus back to Playa Los Cocos as fast as I could. I didn’t exactly feel welcome in Nayarit’s capital city.

I made my way to the bus station and was told the bus that passed by the Casa Mañana would leave in one hour. Fine. I forked over 13 pesos, much to the confusion of the ticket agent. He pointed to 30.00 on the ticket. I just as vehemently pointed to the 13.00. I’d had about enough of Tepic’s inhospitable attitude.

There was a boy standing at the ticket booth who, I was told, had spent a great deal of time in California. The boy pointed to the 13 and then to his watch. Whoops! The 13.00 meant 1:00 p.m., and the 30.00 was the amount of pesos the bus trip cost (about $2.73). I was a little embarrassed, but all three of us laughed.  Amazing! There were at least two people in Tepic who knew how to smile. I felt better.

I bought the ticket and took a seat in the street level waiting room. The buses left the station by an exit immediately adjacent to the place where I was sitting. It soon became clear I would die if I sat for an hour breathing their noxious exhaust fumes. I sought refuge on the upper level where the buses took on passengers.

I waded through my memory weeds trying to remember leaving from that very bus station for a trip to San Blas many years ago. The bus I was to take today was considerably bigger and in better shape than the bus I rode 21 years ago.

Remembering there were reserved seats on the primera classe buses, I mused they must have abandoned the assigned seating because no one paid any attention to it anyway. When we climbed aboard the bus that was to take us to San Blas in 1984, I remember there were two people sitting in the seats that had been assigned to my husband and me. We said nothing, and took seats in another part of the bus.

When at last the driver indicated the 2005 bus was about ready to take off, I climbed aboard and sat in the second seat on the right-hand side. Almost immediately, an older Mexican gentleman told me I was in his seat. He asked to see my ticket. Mind you, almost all this communication was accomplished using hand signals. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

“Ah, cinco,” he said, pointing to the number, 5, previously overlooked, on my ticket. He pointed to the seat across the aisle.

“Lo siento,” I apologized, and stepped across the aisle to take my correct seat. A Mexican lady of my approximate age and weight sat down beside me in the aisle seat. We were a bit crowded. Our passenger list now numbered six, but I knew we would pick up more who would hail the bus from the roadside.

We were soon out of town and back on the jungle curves where we were to spend the next two hours if we were lucky. If we were not lucky, we would either spend the time in the hospital or in the morgue.

The driver, obviously trying to break a land speed record, “put the pedal to the metal,” as we said in those carefree teen years. We zoomed through the jungle missing by mere inches vehicles coming from the opposite direction.

There were tiers of mountains, fading into blue haze on the horizon. There were banana fields, agave and tobacco fields and thick jungle foliage sprinkled with the intense colors of tropical flowers. Yes, it was beautiful. I half expected to see Sigourney Weaver at the edge of the jungle cooing to a mountain gorilla. I did spot a truly fine iguana that blinked its eye as the bus sped by.

I tried to think only of the breathtaking scenery, but mostly I was scared.

Suddenly feeling a little sick, I slid the window open next to my face and drew in the fresh air. About this time, the lady in the seat beside me drifted off to dreamland. Sharp curves to the right caused her sleeping body to lean into my terrified one, crushing me against the side of the bus. She neither knew nor cared that the Angel of Death awaited us at the apex of every hairpin curve. Had he not claimed many a life at a curve in this very road, now marked with a memorial cross? Had he not called home many at one time where the curve was marked with many crosses, no doubt done in by a bus crash?

My seatmate seemed perfectly comfortable as she took her afternoon siesta. The line was crossed when her head drifted toward my shoulder. She also neither knew nor cared that I have a life-long prejudice against being touched by strangers. The same prejudice had already been breached in Tepic by the cop.

She apparently wanted to cuddle  as she laid her head so close to my face, her hair tickled my neck. I jerked my shoulder upward, which brought her out of her stupor enough to lean in the other direction, thereby avoiding what could have been a nasty scene.

As it happened the bus arrived at my hotel in only one hour and 50 minutes, knocking off 10 minutes of our ETA and at least that many years off my life. I stumbled over the cobblestones in the Casa Mañana parking lot and climbed the steps to my room. Once there, I plopped down on my bed and was soon off to dreamland myself.

But before I dozed off, I promised myself I wouldn’t take a bus or any other form of transportation, including a burro, to visit Tepic again. Enough, as they say, is quite enough.


 

Addition to story as of  2014: In my usual manner, I spoke too soon. I have now been in Tepic many times with no harm befalling me at all. My favorite dentist practices there, and several friends live there. There is a beautiful new bus station at Tepic, and most of the buses no longer belch noxious fumes. I still love Casa Mañana,  and I have spent many wonderful times at the hotel. That area along the Pacific Coast is now called Riviera Nayarit, and the tourist office is marketing it as the next big tourist area of the many big tourist areas in Mexico. My friend, Lourdes, is now a grandmother, although she still looks as though she has not yet seen 45. She built a casita on a farm near the hotel, where she raises fruit trees and keeps horses. I have yet to see it, but I hope to visit again soon

Advertisements

GET THAT MULE OUT OF MY CHRISTMAS TREE!

This is a Christmas addendum to the following story about my cousins’ homes in the country. I promised my Cousin Jimmy I would write it the morning of Christmas Eve, but things kept getting in the way and now here it is at 12:28 AM, Christmas morning.

Jimmy remembers hearing about the incident, and I remember living it as though it were last year instead of 75 Christmases ago.

It was our custom to go to the country to select our Christmas tree. We always went the Sunday before Christmas. Daddy didn’t like having a tree in the house. To tell the truth, he really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. But more about that in another story.

On the appointed Sunday in 1941, we traveled to Aunt Hazel’s house to have dinner. Afterwards, Daddy, Uncle Melvin, Jimmy and I went into the woods to select a Christmas tree. In those days almost everyone I knew had a cedar tree. We were no exception. As usual, Daddy chose a tree much too short to suit me, and I let it be known that a taller tree was a much better choice. We had the same argument every year. We finally reached a compromise, and he chopped the tree down. He and Uncle Melvin dragged it to our car and tied it on top.

It was after dark when we left to go home. Daddy drive, of course, and Mother sat in the passenger seat holding my baby sister. I was in my favorite spot in the car when we were on a longish trip:  on the little shelf at the top of the back seat, where I could watch the stars go by. Remember, there were no seat belts in those days. We tooled down the blackness, and I was loving every minute of it. Christmas was only a few days away, the stars were close enough to touch, and everything was right with the world. I was brimming over with four-year-old wonder and joy.

Suddenly, Mother screamed and Daddy slammed on the brakes. Standing crosswise in the middle of the road was a big, shaggy, brown mule. There was nothing Daddy could do. The car hit it right in its middle. There was a frightening thud, and the windshield view was obliterated by a mass of brown hair that disappeared in an upward direction, followed quickly by another sound on the roof of the car and then a thud behind the car. When we hit the mule, it sailed up to the top of the car and rolled over the roof, Christmas tree and all. Daddy leapt  from the car and ran toward the spot where the mule had probably landed. Just as he did so, the mule got to its feet and went galloping off across a nearby field, apparently not hurt at all.

Shortly, Daddy returned to the car. I was thunderstruck, and Mother was still kind of whimpering. It took us a while to gather our composure to continue our trip home.

We lived in the big house with all our extended family at the time, and when we arrived, everyone came running out to see the Christmas tree. The three of us all talked at once telling about our adventure with the mule. I was very unhappy about the tree, because I just knew it was crushed and ruined. We would never get Daddy to go back and cut down another tree.

But Dooley, my grandmother, and the others looked the tree up and down and declared it may have been a bit smushed on one side, but never mind. We would turn that side to the wall. The Christmas tree was to be set up in a corner of the living room, and it would be just beautiful.

We took the tree inside, and Dooley leaned it against the wall in the corner. The decorating was set for the following evening. I think I was still in a state of shock. I was sent to bed right away, and the grown-ups continued to discuss the mule experience in the living room. I could hear them, and it scared me. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t like it one bit.

The next night after supper, the family gathered to decorate the tree. I usually gladly took part in the festivities, but I was quite uneasy being close to the tree. Someone teased me and asked if I thought that mule was somehow still in the tree, and everyone laughed. Of course, I didn’t think any such thing, but there was something about it I didn’t like and mostly didn’t understand. For years I asked myself why was I afraid of that tree. I don’t know. To this day, I can still work up a little shiver thinking about it. There’s no doubt in my mind it was a feeling of fear, but I have no idea where it came from.

It did, however make the Christmas of 1941 prominent in my memory. I guess you could say my personal ghost of Christmas Past was a big, brown, shaggy mule.

So, there it is. I hope if you have a mule experience with your 2014 Christmas, he was there by invitation only, and that your entire New Year is free of ghosts, past, present, and future.

Thanks for reading.

AN UNFORGIVABLE BREACH OF FIFTIES RULES

When my best friend, Robert, retired several years ago, his niece prepared a scrapbook for him. She asked me and some of his other friends to write a memory of Robert to be included in the book. Here is mine.

When people have known one another for more than 60 years, said people accumulate many memories. Some of us have zip for long-term memories; others have trouble with short-term memories. Some have no memory at all, but I’m not naming names.

Since Robert and I met in the 6th grade (he says the 7th grade) and we’ve spent much time with one another starting way back then, I thought I would plod through my recollections, knowing it would be difficult to select the best one for his scrapbook. As it turned out, it wasn’t hard at all. One memory so stands out from the rest, it was easy to choose.

The event I shall relate landed us in the soup, to say the least. Today it would be a minor misdemeanor, but in the 50s it was a felony punishable by death or at least being sentenced to a year of dish washing.

Here’s what happened:

Once upon a time around 1953-1954, Robert invited me to go with him on a hayride and cookout. He attended the Nazarene Church, which sponsored the event. I can’t remember who thought of it, but the idea appealed to both of us.

We would find some way to obtain a bottle of vodka, with which we would spike the chaperones’ Big Orange drinks when we arrived at our cookout destination. Nehi orange soda pop was stuck with the “Big Orange” appellation in those days because of a popular Andy Griffith monolog in which he referred to the drinks as Big Orange. At least that’s where I think it started.

One of our best friends was Joyce Schurman, who was the minister’s daughter. We ran the idea by Joyce, to test the waters, so to speak, to find out what she thought about it and how much trouble she thought we’d be in if we got caught. To our surprise and delight, Joyce thought it a splendid idea and asked if she could join us. So, there were now four of us, counting Joyce’s unsuspecting date, Charles, who would go along, but didn’t wish to take an active part. Never mind; more was better if it became necessary to spread the blame around.

Having no earthly way to find vodka, it seems to me we really thought we wouldn’t be able to secure it, making the caper impossible to actually fulfill, but fun to talk about. Little did we know just how easily it would fall into our hands and make our daring escapade doable.

My sister’s best friend was from a big drinking family. When my sister told her friend about our plan, she immediately took us to her mother, who obliged by filling a small bottle with vodka and sending us on our way.

That night when we gathered at the church, I had the bottle secreted in a blanket. Robert, Joyce and I referred to the blanketed vodka as “the baby.”

“Let me hold the baby.” “Would you take care of the baby for a while?” “Be sure to keep the baby covered up.” And so on.

Riding in the hay wagon, we giggled all the way to our cookout destination. When we arrived the chaperones (of which there were many, in an abundance of Nazarene caution) they began to set out fixings for a wiener roast, et al. To our giddy delight, we saw the Big Orange drinks opened and lined up on a table very near the edge of the dark woods.

It was the work of only a second to figure out how we were going to do the deed. We crouched behind the table, hidden by the trees and the darkness. One of us served as lookout while the other two grabbed a drink and poured some of it on the ground, replacing it with vodka. No one saw us, and after a while, we were able to give the drinks yet another shot of the booze. By the time the Big Oranges were to be drunk, we had completed our mission.

We stayed where we were in order to gauge the chaperones’ reaction. To our surprise and amusement, one of the drinkers said, “I think this orange drink is the best I’ve ever had.” The revelation caused us so much mirth, we had to clap our hands over our mouths for fear of being discovered.

We were very pleased with ourselves for pulling off the practical joke of the century. I think the hayride was on a Friday night, but I’m not sure about that. It was Sunday afternoon when Robert called me.

“The whole church knows about the baby,” he said feverishly.
“They’re going to make me apologize to the congregation.”

“How did they know it was you?” I asked, terrified. “How did they know it was booze?”

“I guess they tasted it. We put a lot in those Big Orange bottles. But I don’t know. Joyce said one of the girls told on us. She’s grounded for a week for her punishment. And listen to this. They know I had another girl accomplice. They also know she’s a Baptist, and they want me to tell them your name, so they can tell your church and your mother about it.”

“You didn’t tell them, did you?”

“I think it’s going to go worse for me if I don’t tell them,” he said. “If they know you go to the Baptist Church, they’ll find out it was you, so I might as well tell them.”

“No-o-o-o,” I stage-whispered into the phone. My mother was in the other room, and I tried to drag the phone into my room and close the door. The cord wouldn’t stretch that far.

“Please, please don’t tell them,” I begged. He desperately tried to convince me we would get off easier if he told them who I was, on the condition they wouldn’t tell my church and my mother. “Even if they do go for that, you will have to come to my church and apologize to the whole congregation.”

So, there it was. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I pleaded with him. Some of Mother’s friends went to the Nazarene Church, and she would surely get wind of it. And after she heard about it, she would kill me.

There were many whispered conversations on the phone that Sunday. I was able to talk Robert out of telling them my name, and I didn’t want to even whisper about it further. That sucker had to be buried alive or dead. I don’t remember how it turned out, but I think he was forced to apologize. I escaped with my “good girl” reputation intact.

But the episode wasn’t over. I was not discovered, but I wound up confessing it to Mother anyway.

Mother had a mental list of “Boys Who May Not Be Dated.” At the top of the list was — I’ll call him –- Bob. Patricia, my sister, had been explicitly forbidden to go out with him for some reason now forgotten. But Patricia had subterfuge in her soul as well. Bob would send a friend to our house to pick up my sister. She would then be delivered to Bob, and when they came home, he would let her off at the corner, and she always said whomever he was had a deadline to get home, and he was running late.

I worried about her telling those lies, and I thought I had to let Mother know what was going on. I knew if I told on her, my sister would tell Mother about that damned “baby.” There was nothing for it but to tell Mother myself what I did, so I could then reveal my sister’s deception freely, and she would have no such power over me.

Mother, of course, had a conniption fit! She and her family were world-class criers. This time, I thought she was never going to stop crying. She wept buckets and paced the floor while I just stood there totally taciturn.

“No wonder Mrs. Young won’t speak to me,” she wailed. Mrs. Young, a Nazarene, was our next-door neighbor. “I’ll never be able to hold my head up again. I’m ruined. You’ve disgraced the whole family.”

When the tears slacked a little, I broke the news to her about my sister.

More tears. More anguish. More consternation. But what was this? She wasn’t upset about the Bob lies. She was still furious with me.

“You should be so ashamed of yourself to say those awful things about your sister. Don’t you tell your daddy that, and don’t confess your own sin to him. It would kill him. Oh, where did I go wrong?”

A deluge. More tears. More threats. More accusations. More everything.

On further reflection, perhaps I should have fessed up to the Nazarenes with Robert. It might have gone down better, and by then I would have come out smelling like a rose.

But it was not to be, thanks to my postponing my just desserts; it was my lying, no-account sister who was smelling like a rose. I was stinking to the high heaven, into which my mother said I would never see.

Sinners of my ilk were drop-shipped directly to the devil himself.

A SURPRISE ADVENTURE RIDING THE MEXICAN RAILS

If you become a regular reader of my posts, you will soon learn of my love for Mexico. This is the story of my ignominious introduction to my favorite place to visit.

A SURPRISE ADVENTURE RIDING THE MEXICAN RAILS

It was our first visit to Mexico. My husband John and I love trains, and we had decided to drive to Laredo, Texas, walk across the border and take a train into the Mexican interior. The three o’clock train rumbled into the Laredo station, only two hours late. Having read all the guidebooks, I was aware the Mexican people paid little attention to time and schedules, one of the country’s most endearing qualities to my way of thinking.

Boarding the sleeper car in which we had reserved a bedroom for the 12-hour trip to Mexico City, I found it wasn’t the bedroom at all. It was a tiny, one-person roomette.

“There must be some mistake, I said to the young porter, who spoke a little English. “We reserved a bedroom.”

“This is a bedroom, Senora,” The porter smiled and nodded toward the other roomettes lining the narrow aisle of the sleeper, all of which were being quickly occupied by Mexican families.

John, who was less than enthusiastic about this particular adventure, spoke: “Stop arguing and sit down. There’s no mistake. This is what they’re obviously referring to as a bedroom.” He was right. I gave up. If five Mexicans could sleep on one narrow cot, the two of us could manage as well. After all, we wanted to experience the true essence of the country, and believe me, the essence on that hot, humid, sleeper was overpowering.

Pretty soon, I heard band music. Not wishing to miss one Mexican moment, I ran to the little platform on the sleeper to see a student band arranged across the track playing its heart out. I seemed to be the only one impressed by it. Our fellow travelers paid them no mind at all.

As I listened to the music, the train suddenly came alive and lurched forward. There being no rail to hang onto, I very nearly fell off the platform. It was the first of many such experiences in my travels There are no safety rules or warning signs anywhere in Mexico. You are totally responsible for the safety of your person. If you fall off the back end of a train, you shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

I bounded from side to side back down the aisle of the swaying train and sat down on the bench in our “bedroom.” It was covered in patched plastic, the stuffing long gone. The journey was to be non-stop to Leon and then an express to Mexico City. We were no sooner off than the train groaned to a stop.

“Great! It’s broken down already,” John wailed. But no. After a few seconds it started up. I breathed a sigh of relief just as the train stopped again. After the fifth stop, which occurred in a curve, I discovered the reason. Peering out the grimy window, I saw a man alight from a car up ahead in the curve. His family was waiting for him, standing beside a campfire and an adobe hut. I was amazed to find that our express train stopped to take on and let off individual passengers.

We had now experienced at least three surprises. We’re still being surprised by this magical country even after 26 years.

We ate our picnic supper, and decided to turn in. There was nothing to see anyway. We soon discovered that was no easy feat. By standing in the aisle and with much tugging and pulling, the berth fell down from its overhead compartment completely covering our other accommodations.

Peering down into the toilet before the berth covered it gave me a quick view of the railroad ties as they sped by underneath the train. There was no need for a flushing mechanism.

By now it was at least 110 degrees in the sleeper. We clamored into the berth from the aisle. There was no sheet. Back in the aisle we shoved the bunk into its receptacle, pulled our luggage from under the bench and found our largest towel. At least it would be absorbent. The way we were now perspiring, the towel would be soaked in no time.

Back on the bunk, we found if we both lay facing the train wall and not bending our knees we wouldn’t touch one another. The bed was about 30 inches wide and about eye level to anyone passing by in the aisle. Fortunately, there was a zippered canvas curtain hiding us from the view of passers-by.

I lay there for an hour, unable to sleep and very nearly suffocating in the stifling heat and the dank air.

“I’ve got to get these clothes off!” I hissed. I was barely able to peel them off. Although better than sticky clothing, it was precious little relief to wear only my skin. I then found if I bent my body slightly, just enough to poke my posterior over the side of the bunk, I was treated to the merest whisper of air under the canvas curtain.

I was just settling in when suddenly I felt the zipper being unzipped up my backside. A voice in the aisle said, “Pardon, Senor and Senora, I have come to make up…”

There was a brief pause and then a blood-curdling scream. “Dios Mio!” cried the voice. I flopped over and peered out the curtain just in time to see the young porter dashing up the aisle. Heads began popping out of curtains up and down the sleeper car. Pandemonium reigned as the other passengers tried to identify the source of the pandemonium.

I quickly zipped the curtain up again. John still lay with his face to the wall. He hadn’t moved. Finally he spoke quietly: “I hope that boy’s reached his full growth. If not, it’s stunted now.”

“Dios Mio,” I replied.