My fifth journey into the land south of the Rio Grande begins with a walk across the international border at Otay Mesa, part of greater San Diego. I am taking a Volaris flight out of Tijuana to Zacatecas.
I have a backpack and one roller bag. Just as I am about to reach the Mexico border, I see a woman and a young man walking ahead of me.
“Excuse me, folks. Are you going to the airport?” They are, and they agree to share a taxi with me. We split the fare and both parties end up paying a mere $12 apiece. This is, I think, an auspicious beginning to my journey.
The three of us end up in the same long line at the airport. When I mention having to purchase a visa, the woman looks visibly upset. “He’s a Mexican citizen,” she says of her young companion. “I don’t think he needs a visa.”
“Well, I know I do, but I’m not sure where to buy it. The airport has changed since I was here in June.”
The woman suggests I ask at a nearby airline counter. Now it’s my turn to look upset. I don’t want to go to the back of the line.
“I’ll hold your place in line,” the woman offers.
I do the unthinkable, and leave my luggage with two strangers, while I walk several yards away to ask where to buy a visa. Because the woman at the airline counter and I do not speak a common language, it is almost impossible to communicate. But she finally understands what I’m looking for and points me in the right direction.
Getting the visa turns out to be an ordeal as I run from one desk to another and back again. Mission finally accomplished, I push the requisite button at the customs booth and a red light flashes, indicating that I must submit to what could turn out to be a lengthy inspection of my luggage. I look at the long lines of people waiting to check in, and I groan inwardly.
I walk to the inspection station and lift my bag and backpack to the counter. The two customs inspectors have their backs to me. Finally one of them turns around, notices me, and ambles over to the counter. She ignores my backpack. She unzips my bag, opens the top, closes the top, and zips the bag shut again. This cursory examination constitutes an inspection. I am grateful, because the lines have gotten even longer, and I am one of the last passengers to check in for Zacatecas.
After all the passengers board the plane, we sit at the gate for what seems like an eternity. Finally, the captain comes from the cockpit and explains at great length, in Spanish, that we are being delayed because of some computer problems.
When he finishes, he looks at me and says in impeccable English, “Do you speak Spanish?”
“Only a little,” I confess. “I understood about one-fourth of what you said.”
“I just said we’re going to have a good flight,” the captain says.
“Oh, I believe you,” I say. “Especially after you listed all the items on the menu of your Christmas feast, including posole and menudo.”
Laughter erupts from the passengers around me, and the captain seems pleased at my reply. He enters the cockpit to prepare for take-off.
Finally the plane lurches away from the gate. A young father across the aisle, accompanied by his son, crosses himself. (Does he know something about Volaris’s safety record that I don’t?)
But the flight is uneventful, except for some pockets of turbulence just before landing, which elicit a collective gasp and laughter from a number of delighted children on board. My bag is one of the last to hit the carousel, and I find that Antonio Muro, the driver for Hostel Villa Colonial, where I am staying, has been waiting for me patiently beyond the security checkpoint, holding up a sign with my name on it.
Antonio shepherds me to a nondescript vehicle of uncertain vintage, and we begin the half-hour drive into the city center. I can see little through the passenger-side windshield, because it is shattered. (Has it been hit by a bullet? Have the drug wars come to Zacatecas?)
I fish my camera out my pocket and aim it at the shattered glass. I need to have a record of this windshield. Antonio laughs and keeps on driving, although how he manages to keep a vehicle with no suspension and lousy steering on the road is a milagro!
Apparently the exhaust system is riddled with holes, because I am soon bathed in fumes. The vehicle gathers speed on a downhill stretch, but labors as we begin the ascent. (I’ve owned vehicles like this in my lifetime.)
I am still reeking of gasoline fumes when Antonio deposits me at Hostel Villa Colonial. The clerk on duty tells me, in Spanish, that the cleaning woman is still working on my room, and he invites me to sit for a while in the little cocina adjacent the office. I have been traveling for seven hours, and I accept his invitation with alacrity.
After perhaps a fifteen-minute wait, my room is ready. As I unpack my bag, I realize that I’ve forgotten to bring my herbal tea bags from home, so I’ll have to forgo hot drinks for the next five days. But it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being back in the city that has won my heart.
Ice skaters at Plaza de Armas, Zacatecas
Text and photo © 2011 by Mark M. Redfearn, all rights reserved