"This your first time to do this?"
"No," I answered.
"You've done it a lot before?"
I inclined my head.
"This is my first time."
Tall. Lean. And a graying but still dark pointed beard. He filled out a button-up shirt of light plaid fabric tucked into his belted blue jeans. Clean cut, but not a professional. His short squat traveling companion carried a large floppy cowboy hat in his hands and a cowboy's handlebar mustache over his lip, blond. They shifted behind me in line as we all fidgeted, as we all waited to board the Veracruz-bound ADO out of Matamoros.
"So you speak the language?" he asked me.
"A little. Enough to travel. Some conversation. I'm not fluent."
"I don't speak a word." And he paused then deliberately. "No comprende," he said incorrectly.
I inclined my head.
"Are you going to Veracruz?" he asked.
"Yeah. Actually it's the first stop on a much longer trip."
"Oh yeah? Where all you goin'?"
"All across the country. I start in Veracruz and end up in Tijuana."
"No kiddin'. How long you gonna be in Veracruz?"
"A week maybe..."
"Or maybe less. Four or five days."
"So you don't have a set schedule?"
"No. I have two months to make the trip."
Another pause here. This one circumstantial. We watched jumpsuited baggage handlers trundle up a hand cart. They began pitching luggage into the belly of the burgundy and gray coach.
Then, "Are you doin' this to write about it?"
And even now, even here as I scribble this in a Veracruz restaurant some 24 hours later, it still bedazzles me. My stunned look raked up his expression. My wide eyes gripped at his. Seeing this, this unmistakable shock in me, the lean man began to grope, stuttered, mumbled something half intelligible, stammered the way people do as they seek to repair a gaffe, to gloze over a blunder, to undo an offense. The word "write" bobbled among the flounderings. Then the lean man realized his confusion. He became impatient with it, and, "Are you a writer?" asked me point blank, sweeping it all away.
"How did you know?" My only possible response.
"You said you'd traveled like this a lot before. So to make such an epic trip--didn't seem like you'd do it to see the sights."
"Yeah," I said. This, again, my only possible response. But my thoughts: Excellent! Brilliant!
"So you're writing about your trip, huh?"
"Yeah, I'm writing about my trip."
Never has someone discerned me so immediately, and with so few clues. I'm reluctant to mention my scribbling. The setting has to be conducive, the mood. I have to feel uncommonly voluble. La Fonda Vieja that morning back in December in Juárez is an example--that very first old man. People rarely take it seriously. And I would rather be known as a telemarketer than a non-serious writer, or, worse, as an "artist." Deborah guessed it. She is the only other person ever to do so. And with many more clues. This lean stranger's perceptiveness seemed almost paranormal. His line of work? Salesman for a Galveston water filter company. "We specialize in industrial applications," he explained.
Later, about five hours later, the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant in a little Tamaulipas town called San Fernando. The drivers disembarked to munch their way through a late dinner. The lean man and I stretched our legs on a dirt drive outside the dining room. The woodsmoked beef had a succulent odor. Some small talk then. Then I spied a small cross beside the road, a memorial for a highway death. I pointed it out. Some travel talk then. Then, stroking at his graying pointed beard, the lean man told me this story:
"I was in El Paso for some business, you know. And I thought I would go across the border and check out Mexico. So I get in a taxi on the American side and the guy asks me where I want to go. And I say Mexico. And he says where in Mexico. And this part I didn't really know. I kind of shrugged. To the girls? the taxi driver asked me. You want me to take you to the girls? And I shrugged kind of again. I said sure. So he takes off and he drives me into Mexico. And he drives me through the city and then we're on a highway. And he keeps driving and keeps driving and you know I'm getting nervous like where is he taking me. I've never been out of the country before and suddenly this man is driving me who knows where into Mexico. Finally we get well outside of Ciudad Juárez. There are no real houses around or anything or any businesses. And he drives up this road that takes us to the top of a hill. From the top of this hill you can see the whole city. And on top of this hill is a kind of old hacienda, big iron gates and everything. He parks out front and kills the engine and points at the gates. I get out of the car and a man lets me in through a small gate beside the big gates and leads me into this hacienda. He leads me to a very nice round bar inside. Sitting at this bar are three beautiful women, each of which is introduced to me as Maria. So I nod to them and I'm sitting there having a drink when another woman, a fourth, an older really fat woman comes up to me. I'm thinking she is the madam, you know. She says, you know, 'I'll give you a real good time' and all that. 'I've got all the videos' she says. 'I know how to satisfy you,' she says. 'I know the places.' But I declined, just shook my head, not really knowing how to say no. I wasn't attracted to her, you see. But she let me off the hook then. She asked me if maybe I wasn't interested in someone a little younger. I nodded yes. Yes, that was it. I was interested in someone maybe a little younger. Okay, she says. She sits and talks to me as I finish my drink. Then she nods to a man who leads me through a long dark corridor and then through a door to a small room with a bed. After just a minute or two a very beautiful girl comes in. Maybe sixteen. And then..."
And then his straightforward tale became circumlocutious. Innuendos, appeared, insinuations. I didn't get the lean man's gist. To indicate some sexual adventure he need only cock his head and say suggestively "you know." But he did not. He was trying to convey something else.
Finally he made it clear. "I just gave her the money," he said embarrassedly. "And left." His lipcorners twitched behind his beard. And I nodded. And I understood. And I respected him his courage for that adventure. And respected him even more so his inability to consummate it. It seemed to me very human, even gallant.
The Veracruz light is magnificent. I watch it fall shimmeringly over the harbor through the great windows of this cafe. I sit away from the windows but the windows are so large and so near the wharf that the view is still splendid. A ship out of Bangkok christened Suphan Navee floats imposingly. The ship is moored to giant concrete posts just meters from the windows. On the wide concrete piers below the ship a half dozen boy swimmers loiter. They dive occasionally into the waters, or lie on the green benches sunning themselves to a glistening sweat, or cavort with their comrades. These boys have beautifully bronzed wiry physiques. I noticed them earlier. I was not prodded to comment, however, until an Anglo in a very expensive wheelchair wheeled up to them. The wheelchair just swivels there now. The Anglo just observes them.
In the foreground, an older man passes under the awning of this restaurant in a slow gulf gait. The old man's guayabera has that dampness of the Veracruz heat about it. It clings to his skin, to that film of his perspiration. I feel this, too, this film of perspiration. It is inescapable here, but not oppressive. It feels natural, in fact, as if the heat is coming from your body as much as being put upon it.
On a moving bus to read or write means vertigo. The notepad won't be steady--my handwriting is hash marks, jagged circles. And the letters of Shakespeare jiggle about like a corps of agitated gnats. Unable to focus, I wooze. Through the fifteen hour trip from Matamoros to Veracruz I read only one single scene of Henry IV, Part One. I did find though other pastimes. In my idleness I contemplated the challenge of movement itself. How does one capture movement in something as static as words? Poetry approximates it, I guess. But prose. Prose seems to me an etching. Horizontal grooves scarred onto paper. No longitude. No grace. Poems are so painterly, so balletic.
And then I slept.
Through my first years traveling to Mexico the beginning of a trip would come very early. It would begin even before I left southern Kansas. Feelings of trepidation and foreboding would assault me a week, or even weeks before my departure. That was the trip's beginning. The beginning would then continue as a kind of paranoia, even a xenophobia upon my arrival in the borderlands. The Latin countenances would unnerve me, the language, the gestures, the laconic expressions. And then the terror of crossing the border! And then the buffetings of this foreign culture! The beginnings never really ceased for me in those first trips. The beginnings would continue, in fact, right through to the end of the journeys. I never relaxed. I was always afraid.
I bested those fears while residing in El Paso. My small verminous flat was just a ten minute hike from the international bridge. I hiked that ten minutes frequently-- along Rio Grande Boulevard, through the downtown plaza, over the bridge and into Ciudad Juárez. The fears dogged my every step in the beginning. I would think to myself: This is the United States. Then, as I strode over the bridge, I would shudder: This is Mexico. By the time I left El Paso, however, those timorous bridge-crossings had evaporated. I anticipated instead a café con leche steaming in La Fonda Vieja, or the elote I might nosh in the Juárez market. And then suddenly I would be sipping that café con leche, or relishing that roasted corn. It no longer occurred to me that I had crossed the border. The border shed its arbitrary meaning for me in that ten months. The border disappeared. I was no longer plunging over some metaphysical threshold. I was just crossing a bridge.
This trip did not really begin for me, in this regard, until this morning. I woke to dawnlight. There beyond the vibrating bus windows writhed the lush tropical vegetations of the rain forest, its empurpled greens, its interplecting mists. I woke to this and I considered the work I have to do in this rain forest. I woke to it and I wondered what I will discover therein, what mystery this green curtain hides. Life arose fresh for me again this morning. Here lies the rain forest, I thought. Look, I've begun, I thought. And suddenly I felt more at peace and more comfortable on that bus than I probably will ever feel again in southern Kansas. This country is more a home to me now than the state of my birth. Even the places of it I've never seen. Maybe especially those.
What spirit Veracruz has! "Vivo," I would call it. Alive, but simultaneously, too, at ease. It sparkles at times with the flux of the immediate, sometimes lambently glows. The marimbas symbolize it best. Soft mallets against polished wooden tones. Ubiquitous resonance, reverberance. Life spent, it is, not hoarded.
And lots of teeth, everyone smiling, everyone in the restaurant is toothily smiling. The chittering of them hubble-bubble around me, the accents bouncy, the restaurant welcoming now a late-afternoon throe of clientele.