Bus Ride from Hell, and Other Mexican Delights

Editor’s note: Tim Woodward recently returned from Mexico. This is the second of two columns from the trip.

Tourists have two options for getting around in Mexico – taxis and buses. Either can fall in the category of extreme adventure.

A third option, of course, is renting a car. One taxi ride convinced us that this might not be the smartest thing we could do. Imagine a NASCAR race on narrow, cobblestone streets and you’ll have a fair idea. We cringed in the back seat while our driver broke as many speed limits as possible, swerved sickeningly over crowded  sidewalks and played  chicken with other drivers. With people like him on the road, driving a rental would be like doing the running of the bulls backwards.

That leaves buses. Mexican city buses are cheap, frequent and get you where you need to go. That said, it should be noted that the only resemblance to American city buses is that both are large vehicles that carry people.

Mexican buses do not have functioning shock absorbers. They’re either built without them as an economy measure, or have long since worn them out on prodigiously potholed streets. Upholstery is considered a frill; the seats are hard plastic. The back of the bus becomes airborne when careening over the largest potholes, making for excruciating landings on the rock-hard seats. My back hasn’t been the same since.

The buses do have one feature, however, that American buses do not – entertainment. Musicians climb aboard and serenade the passengers by playing for tips. Some are pretty good, but one wasn’t even a bad musician. His “instrument” was a boom box, played at eardrum-shattering volume. Passengers grimaced and held their ears.

No, as a matter of fact, he didn’t get a lot of tips.

Many Mexican buses are equipped with shrines – crucifixes, holy cards, dangling rosaries … My guess is that the drivers see them as insurance for the hereafter, and considering the way they drive, they need it.

One driver had a dashboard button with a drawing of the Virgin Mary. He pushed on two occasions (possibly activating a prayer for a miracle). The first was when he accelerated just as an old man with a cane stepped into the street in front of us. The old man jumped back, narrowly avoiding becoming road kill. The second was when an 18-wheeler pulled onto the road in the oncoming lane. Our driver pushed the button and headed straight for him – playing chicken!

They missed each other by millimeters. It was enough to make us wish we’d taken a taxi.

 

***

Mexico is a wonderful place to take a vacation. It’s beautiful, friendly, inexpensive. But it has one seriously annoying drawback.

Vendors. They’re everywhere, and relentless. Yes, they have to make a living. But there has to be a better way of doing it than driving potential   customers to the point of justifiable homicide.

This is typical: We were tired and thirsty after a long, hot walk and had settled gratefully into chairs at a restaurant on the beach when the assault began. One vendor after another stormed the table, each with a “unique” product – sarongs, wood carvings, hats, T-shirts, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, dolls, puppets, blankets, fish mobiles, sunglasses, paintings, puppets, plastic skulls, parasailing Spidermen … It’s endless.

And every one of them came to our table. If one more vendor had pushed a carved wooden sword under my nose, I might have used it on him.

When the vendors finish picking your bones, the musicians take over – guitarists, mandolin players, bongo bands … My favorite was a vocal group singing – in Spanish – “Oh, when them cotton balls get rotten …”

When an accordion player headed our way, we paid the bill and fled. We’d had all the entertainment we could stand.

 

***

If your name and face are in a newspaper regularly, you get used to people you don’t know walking up and introducing themselves. It happens all the time.

In your home state.

But in another country?

I was dozing in a lounge chair by a sparkling pool, dreaming of   Margaritas, when a voice suddenly said, “Excuse me. Are you Tim Woodward?”

Dear God, did I forget to pay the tab yesterday?

I hadn’t. The stranger introduced himself as Tim Haskell. He and his wife, Bonnie, were staying at the same place we were.

The Haskells live in Boise and knew me from my column. Bonnie Haskell worked with my sister. She and Tim live a few blocks from my house.

What were the odds of that? We’re practically neighbors, meeting for the first time – 2,100 miles from home.

 

***

If there’s a black hole in the galaxy, it’s Gate 12 at the Puerto Vallarta airport.

To get to Gate 12, you pass through food courts, a security check, multiple duty-free areas, acres of shops and a corner of Guatemala. When we arrived at Gate 12 – out of breath and sweating like pigs – absolutely nothing was posted about Phoenix, our destination.

A forlorn looking sign provided one word of information:  Kansas.

Not Kansas City, not Wichita, not Topeka, just someplace in Kansas.

“Are you going to Denver?” a man in an official looking uniform asked me.

“No, Phoenix. Why does the sign say Kansas instead of Phoenix?”

“They probably changed your gate. Check the monitor.”

Good idea, only the monitor was broken. It conveniently provided information only for flights that had left hours earlier. The airport announcer, meanwhile, cheerily reported that Flight 571 – our flight – was ready for boarding at Gate 12. (Obviously it wasn’t, Gate 12 having been commandeered by Kansas.)

“Are you going to Phoenix?” I asked a weary looking American there.

“I hope so,” he said. “I sure don’t want to go to Kansas. Have you ever been to Leavenworth?”

The man in the uniform, meanwhile, continued to thread his way through the crowd shouting “Denver! Denver anyone?”  It was like a scene from the Tower of Babel.

When I returned from a restroom/sanity break,  my wife and other panicked-looking passengers were running, lemming-like, in the opposite direction.

“Hurry!” she said. “They moved us to Gate 15! It’s downstairs.”

“Is this Phoenix?” we asked at Gate 15.

“No, Houston.”

“Houston?! What happened to Phoenix?

“It’s at Gate 20.”

It actually was, too. As we climbed aboard, the clueless announcer continued to chirp that Flight 571 to Phoenix was boarding at Gate 12.

We were mercifully taxiing for takeoff when the plane stopped.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it seems we have some passengers who didn’t make it on board. We’re going to go pick them up.”

They were waiting for us at … Gate 12.

 

Tim Woodward’s column appears in the Idaho Statesman every other Sunday and is posted on http://www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Subscribe to http://www.woodwardblog.com for free if you don’t have access to Tim’s column in The Statesman. A column will be e-mailed to you every other Monday, at no charge. Contact Tim at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

 

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