Riding El Chepe: Part 1
I was still in Phoenix, but it felt like Mexico. As I sat in the one-room bus station in that sprawl of a town, I was surrounded by a flurry of travelers chatting in lilting Spanish. All the posters were in Spanish, as were the handwritten paper signs clinging to the greasy glass with Scotch tape. I had even mustered my best Spanish when I purchased my ticket: “Un boleto para Los Mochis, por favor.” The girl behind the window humored me for few sentences until I hit a snag in comprehension. Sensing my confusion, she switched to flawless, unaccented English, which caused my face to heat up and redden like a tomato. I’d made a pretty good stab at it, but I hadn’t regularly spoken the language for nearly fifteen years. My tongue had atrophied. The only way to give it life would be to speak the damned thing, which, judging from my first go, was going to be a messy endeavor.
I was the only guero in the room, but people paid me no mind. In fact, as far as bus stations went, it wasn’t so bad. It was well-lit and clean-ish. It didn’t reek, and it certainly had any Greyhound terminal beat. There was none of the drug-soaked detritus that so often washes up at such a place. No junkies, no crackheads, no tweakers — no sketch cases nodding, scratching, or twitching about. The people in and outside of this station were honest folks on their way back home. They were happy to be on the move and it showed in their loose shoulders and broad, uneven smiles.
It was a Friday night and the place was abuzz with kids, grandparents, men, and fleshy women in jeans that often threatened to burst. An old man approached. He wore a checkered shirt, tan chinos, and the white cowboy hat ubiquitous to northern Mexico. He sported a mustache and was traveling with a dark, diminutive woman. She gave me a shy, sugary smile as the two of them squeezed past to take a seat on one of the faux-stainless steel chairs bolted to the bench frame next to me. I eavesdropped as she talked over her phone to her who I gathered to be her daughter, picking up bits and pieces of the conversation. She was obviously thrilled for the upcoming reunion somewhere south of the line.
I was hungry and I had some time to kill, so I got up and wandered in the dark around the side of the building and through the parking lot to a food truck parked across the way. A line of multi-colored Christmas lights blinked from the edge of a canopy that was attached to the truck. Beneath was a collection of red plastic tables, at which sat a smattering of men and a few women taking down their food from white, disposable plates. I took a seat of my own, ordered, and was soon tucking into three tacos al pastor washed down with the long-necked glory that is a bottle of Mexican Coke. As I savored this exquisite little meal, I took in the overcooked action of the telenovela flashing on the TV screen above and was soon filled with a warm bloom of pure happiness. Sure I had yet to cross the border, but this was already the Mexico I was seeking — colorful, humble, and absolutely delicious.
Why Mexico? Why not just continues to chill poolside at brother’s place in Phoenix? Certainly that would have been easier, cheaper, and — at least according to news reports — safer. While I did enjoy a few terrific days with my family, they were now getting back to their routines of life and work. I still had a week free and was just a couple of hours from another country — an intriguing, tragic, and brilliant place that continued to pull me like magnetic ore. How could I not go?
The fact is Mexico had been calling me for a long time. Aside from a few short visits years before to a couple of towns near the border, I had seen almost nothing of the place, despite the fact that it had long been an object of my fascination. After moving to Korea I got to explore much of Asia, but Mexico and greater Latin America had managed to stay out of reach, if for no other reason than that they just were so far away. Sure, I’d been back to the States every couple of years, but adding a second country to the itinerary of a trip back home had always seemed like a theft of precious time.
This time, however, I resolved myself to go. This compulsion to taste a deeper version of Mexico had steeped in my bones for years now, through the books I’d read, the music I’d listened to, and the food I’d cooked in my little kitchen back in Busan. Hell, I’d even started making my own corn tortillas. So when my bus finally pulled up, I boarded it with the enthusiasm of an astronaut about to blast into space. Screw it. I was going to Mexico, cabrón.
We crossed the border at Nogales around 2 A.M., and despite a half-assed inspection of our bags (presumably for American guns heading south), they waved us through without even glancing at our passports. After that the bus shot straight down the east coast of Sea of Cortez, through the towns of Hermosillo, Guaymas, Cuidad Obregon, and Navajoa, before pulling into Los Mochis, which lies at the northern end of the notorious narco-infested state of Sinaloa. I hopped off, grabbed a taxi downtown, and boarded a local bus to take me up into the countryside. Two hours later we pulled into my first destination of the trip: El Fuerte. It had taken me nearly eighteen hours to get there, but I was immediately glad I had come.
Towns in Mexico can be uninspiring places of utility and commerce, or seductive, multi-hued historical jewels. El Fuerte could confidently claim place in the latter camp. It was a colonial town built around a wide plaza and stone church whose steeple towered above the aging settlement. The streets were also made of stone and the buildings painted in shades of lime green, ochre, crimson, and sky blue. The afternoon sun blasted down in vivid slats, while palm trees and overhanging roofs gave ample shade in which big dogs lazed. As I strolled through the town’s streets, I couldn’t help but notice a dignified shabbiness surrounding me: the sidewalks and doorways and walls were all slightly cracked and crumbling. Nothing was too shiny or overly done-up. This was no museum piece, but rather a very lived-in town with its own story to tell. El Fuerte was a beautiful place that made no efforts to obscure the patina of age. This honesty only served to enhance its charms.
I checked into the Hotel Guerrero, which offered up basic rooms in a courtyard colonial style. After showering off a day’s worth of road grime, I locked the room’s gargantuan metal door that just may have come from a jail (very reassuring) and made my way out into the common area. A tall white woman in bright hippie pants stood with her nose buried in a French edition of the Lonely Planet. This came as no surprise, as I was at the northern end of the Gringo Trail (the Latin American backpackers’ circuit), but I still had to momentarily get my bearings. For just that second, I could have been in a guesthouse in Vietnam, Thailand, or Laos.
Once again confident that I wasn’t in Banana Pancake Land, I headed out the gates of the compound in search of some grub. This was a daunting task, since the town was bursting with cheap, drool-inducing choices. After nearly pulling the trigger at a ceviche stand, I settled on a stall offering up tacos at the street market just across from my humble hotel. Why reinvent the wheel? When I go to Bangkok, my first meal is usually a plate of pad Thai. The taco, to me, is the very definition of Mexico. What better way slide back into the country?
So I sat my ass down and ordered up three tacos de carnitas. A young guy manned the grill in front of us, which hissed and sizzled under a mountain of finely chopped pork. He loaded up six corn tortillas (doubled up, street style) with the steaming meat and topped them off with a generous layer of grilled onions, which was a taco first for me. I, in turn, slathered them in their homemade red and green salsa, added a few pinches of fresh, fragrant cilantro, and dug in.
The pork was succulent and the grilled onions added a burnt sweetness that just added to the melody of flavors. These tacos were even better than I expected. I groaned with each bite. I saw fireworks. I wanted to weep. The two guys eating next to me looked up from their own little plates of heaven, nodded, and smiled.
Now that I had some food in my belly, the next order of business was ice cold beer, which, to my luck, Mexico happens to do quite well. During my previous visits to the country I had passed a lot of time sipping cervezas in shabby little bars with boozy Norteño polkas blaring at volumes unacceptable and I was determined to replicate the experience. So I jumped off the stool and began a quest for a cantina.
My wish was granted just a few doors down. I came across a white doorway with the word “BAR” painted in unadorned letters above. Accordion music accompanied by bravado vocals blasted forth, and I girded myself for entry.
Now entering unknown bars in foreign countries (not to mention small towns back home) can be an intimidating experience. Mexico is no exception, especially when you’re alone. To top things off, this bar, like most in the region, had no windows out front through which I could peek in and make the call whether or not to enter. But I was determined to have that beer, so I sucked in a lungful of hot, Sinaloa air and made the plunge.
The bar was a boxy, one-room affair, windowless and brightly lit by sickly radiating fluorescents. About ten men sat a few tables, all of whom sported white cowboy hats. My eyes darted from table to table as I walked towards the bar itself, but aside from a couple of glances, most of the old boys paid me no mind. Once I made it across the room, I greeted the bartender.
“Buenas tardes,” he returned, wiping his hands on a bar towel.
I ordered a single can of Tecate, paid, and retired to a small table against the bare concrete wall. The beer was arctic and gave new life to my dry throat. I took down half the can in two swallows.
There were several televisions bolted to the walls overhead. Companionless and still feeling squirrely, I glanced up at a TV in the far corner, expecting to see footage of a soccer game or a talk show. I was instead greeted by the moving image of a naked black guy (with a rod like a coffee table leg) giving a white woman a hard backdoor delivery. He drilled the hell out her while she gasped in pain or pleasure or perhaps a mixture of both. As I checked out the other TVs in the bar, I saw that they too were broadcasting the same slamming anal action. A few of the men seated across from me glanced up at the screens, while most of the other sipped theirs beer and chatted with a studied nonchalance.
While I don’t’ consider myself a prude, a bar blasting hardcore porn from its monitors isn’t the kind of place I prone to relax in, regardless of the country. I was already feeling self-conscious enough, so, I drained the remnants of the can, thanked the barman, and made a beeline for outside.
I wandered in search of a less penetrative experience, and soon found myself outside another joint with festive music pumping. This was a larger place with a much more palpable energy afoot. I could just glimpse people up and moving inside, so I leaned into the swinging doors and crossed the threshold.
To my great pleasure. I saw that the music pouring forth was being played live by proper little Norteño band — bass, guitar, and accordion. Again, the clientele was primarily the white cowboy hat brigade, with a few women sprinkled in. The one TV in the room was playing an actual soccer game, so I knew right away that I had come to the right place.
I ordered a large bottle of Tecate (served in a mini bucket of ice) and nestled myself at a small table in the middle of the room, where I soaked in the splendor of local music played masterfully by a local band. Soon, a silver-haired old vaquero ascended the stage and joined the trio as a singer. His soaring vocals glided over the tight notes and rhythms of the combo, reaching points both mournful and joyous — often at the same time.
The music washed over me as I took down the sweet Tecate from the tiny plastic cup accompanying the bottle. My head bobbed and my body began to sway as I melted into the chair, and soon I felt the eyes of the room warming to me. They seemed to get that I was appreciating their thing, that my love for the music and surroundings was genuine.
One guy in particular kept looking my way and waving. He was an emaciated old dude with a pair of jeans cinched up with a frayed piece of rope. His deep lined face was a roadmap of the ravages of booze. I braced for the worst as he staggered my way. Years in Korea had taught me that being a foreigner all too often makes me a magnet for the worst drunk in the room. Why shouldn’t this translate to Mexico?
Once he reached my table, the teetering old borracho held out his bony, calloused hand. As I gripped it, I looked into his foggy eyes, where I saw no malice. Just two tables over a big man shook his head, as if to say, “That guy is bad news,” but for the moment I was cornered.
The skinny dude now addressed me in a slurred waterfall of words that I had no hope of understanding. I just smiled and concentrated my energy upon the stage, hoping he’d lose interest and just leave me be. Swaying above me, my new amigo struggled to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from his front pocket. Despite his state of hyper-inebriation, he managed to fish out three and deposit them on the table as a gift. He then pointed to the door, brought his hands up next to his head in a pantomime of sleep, and weaved his way out of the bar.
The band finished its set and I got another beer. As I walked back to my seat, I was greeted by a man at a neighboring table.
“Are you alone?” he asked. “Come sit with us.”
His name was Luis. He was a big-bellied man in his mid-40’s. He told me that he was recently divorced, so he was now free to spend his Saturdays boozing it up without getting nagged. His companion must have been north of 70 — another aged bag of bones beneath a white cowboy hat. Soon a much younger long-haired dude pulled up a chair, completing the quartet. Luis ordered more beer from a rather flamboyant waiter who walked with what could only be described as a pronounced sashay.
“He is a maricon,” remarked Luis. “Un joto.” He had managed to casually employ two pejoratives for “homosexual” in just one breath. His two companions nodded in silence, as if to confirm an unmovable truth.
Some patrons whistled as the waiter swished by. More than one grabbed his ass.
“Is this a problem around here?” I asked.
“No, he’s fine here, “the young guy answered. “Everyone knows him. He can do what he wants. It’s no problem.”
Soon the band retook the stage, thankfully delaying any more discussion of homosexuality in small town Mexico. Luis and I traded rounds of Tecate, dissolving ourselves into the endless stream of traditional tunes. What is it about this kind of music that goes so well with drinking? It’s the perfect soundtrack to throwing it back. Music for drunks, made by drunks…
The music and beer flowed on, melting the hours into one moving mass. It was an afternoon and evening of pure magic — exactly what I was after — but by 9 o’clock I’d hit the wall. After I stood up from the table, said my goodbyes, I stumbled back to the Guerrero, where I called my wife to let her know that I was, indeed, very much alive.
El Chepe is the nickname for the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, a 637 kilometer line that links the city of Chihuahua with the port of Topolobambo on the Sea of Cortez. For much of its span, it climbs and runs through rugged mountain terrain that’s home to Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), a system of river gorges offering up some of the best scenery in North America. The railway serves as a vital transportation link for locals, as well as a spectacular ride for tourists such as me.
The train was a good 30 minutes late, but eventually the big diesel beast rumbled into a view and came to a stop at the forlorn little station on the plain outside of El Fuerte. People grabbed their bags and made their way to the tracks as the line of cars squeaked and groaned into place. El Chepe generally runs just one train a day each way, so this was our only chance to jump aboard.
A couple of conductors disembarked and helped direct passengers to the appropriate cars, since none of us had actual tickets. You just told them your destination and they responded with a car number. I had done some research and decided that second class was my best option, since the only advantage to first class seemed to be the availability of a wildly overpriced dining car. I had eaten a fantastically good breakfast of birria del chivo (spicy goat stew) at a street stall back into town, so I was set for food. Second class was said to offer roomy seats and relative comfort, without any other amenities, for a solid one third cheaper than the cars in the front. And even better: by purchasing second class, I avoided the busload of American retirees that poured into one of the front cars from a massive tour bus. While I applaud every one of them for making the trip, travelling with a posse of Yankee silver hairs was the last thing I wanted to do.
Upon boarding, my suspicions were confirmed. My car — the last one in the train — was at best half full. I had my whole row to myself. It was clean and spacious with a seat that leaned back to near bed level. While a visibly drunk dude who I had chatted with on the platform immediately fell into a boozy, snoring sleep, the rest of us were wide awake and excited, as a ride on El Chepe is not something you want to snooze through.
The train clanked and jerked as the engine made its way up the long shot of track towards the hills rising in the distance. A conductor walked down the aisle and collected cash based on our final destination. Mine was the town of Bahuichivo, some four hours up the line. From there I planned to hop onto a local bus and head down into the depths of the canyon to the town of Urique, which, from the cursory research I’d done online, was said to be quite a treat.
But I didn’t know. I certainly had no guidebook to continually consult, as I’d made the decision to give up the Lonely Planet some years ago. I like to pack light, and the Lonely Planet is a bulky item. This is why I was amazed to see the hippy-pantsed French woman referencing it just one day before. It just seemed like such unnecessary weight in this age of instant wifi gratification. Do people still need to cart around a three-pound book whose information is invariably inaccurate and out-of-date?
Just an hour into the journey, El Chepe began to climb up into the mountains, and immediately I understood the particular pull of this journey. The plains we had trundled across gave way to rocky shoulders, which in turn became sheer walls. As I sat in my seat, working a crossword, I noticed a few of my fellow passengers shuffling past to the back end of the car. Curious, I got up and followed them.
Two restrooms occupied the left and right ends of the car, with a door in between that led to the outside. I followed a young Mexican couple to that final door, and was somewhat surprised when it opened up. Upon passing through, I realized that this train had no caboose. Our car was indeed the last in line, with just a bit of iron railing between us and the track moving beneath our feet.
El Chepe was by no means a fast train. It pressed forth in a meaningful chug, a determined pull forward with nary a hint of haste. In a way it was perfectly Mexican means of transport — tough, determined, but never in a mad rush.
There was no better place than the actual outside of the train. I leaned over the railing to snap phone shots of the ever-stretching track behind me. The sun doused the scrubby landscape in a hard wash, with a few quilted clouds hanging back as a kind of cottony protection. As the warm air blew across my face, I knew I was living a moment sublime. The rush of the earth and air pierced straight to my spine, and I was immediately high on the fumes of big country.
El Chepe snaked up into the knobby hills, over bridges and tunnels one after another. At one point we trucked over a sizeable river pouring through a broad sandy basin down onto the plain, the mouth of the canyon land that is the trip’s main draw. As the train climbed higher, the vegetation transformed from scrub to pine and I could feel the subcutaneous pinprick of the cooling mountain air. Soon I was yawning to pop my ears in an attempt to equalize to the higher elevation, where the lay of the land was suddenly much more eastern Oregon than southern Arizona. The cacti and sand were gone, replaced by green conifers and thumbs of white rock.
As I leaned into the sweet mountain air, I looked to the Mexican couple, both of whom continually snapped away on pricey-looking Japanese cameras. My mouth opened, but my Spanish was far too weak to describe my feelings. I would need deep superlatives, but came up short. Even English did no justice, but still, I tilted out into the wind and exhaled, “Isn’t it wonderful?”