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Sunday, November 24, 2002

Seattle-Mazatlán-Los Molchis-Copper Canyon-Chihuahua-Zacatecas-Durango

Sometimes seeing the world is hard.

I hate it when a record of my travels begins with a trip to the airport and an airplane but there isn’t always enough time to take a train or ride a bike to the places I want to see. The first leg of this trip is a breeze: two hours to LA, layover for a couple minutes and another couple of hours to Mazatlán. It’s about a four cups of coffee journey. That part I could do standing on my head, which isn’t a lot less comfortable than flying coach. Once I land in Mazatlán I can feel the heat even as I walk through the air-conditioned terminal. All I have is my pack, which I carried on, so once I get out of customs I start looking for a cash machine.

I realize I don’t know the word for cash machine in Spanish (cajero automático, as I was to learn) but it turns out that there are no cash machines in the airport anyway, which isn't a problem for most of the tourists. They go directly to the hotels on the beach. You could probably spend an entire vacation here without ever seeing a Mexican peso. Dollars are gladly accepted in the tourist towns. Luckily I brought a few dollars in cash. I changed $40 at the rip-off cash exchange place in the airport and then I walked outside and got on a hot shuttle bus.

I told the driver I needed to catch a bus up north to Los Molchis and as we drove the 20 or so miles into Mazatlán I dreaded having to do any walking with my pack in this heat. There isn't a lot of charm to Mazatlán except along the beach. I had been here years ago and I think once is probably enough. The bus was packed with other gringos headed for the various new hotels that lay a bit north of town. The driver stopped the bus and ran into a building. I thought he had forgotten about me but he came out and told me my bus was leaving in fifteen minutes. Muchas gracias!

I had just enough time to buy something for the seven-hour trip and I opted for a can of beer. When I got to the register, the little kid behind the counter pointed to a sign on the wall that said that you couldn't buy beer on Sunday after two o'clock. I told him it would be our little secret. I guess he hadn't heard that one before because he laughed as he took my money.

I got on the bus, settled down in my seat, and popped the can when a soldier got on the bus and walked right back to me. I made a half-assed attempt to hide the beer between my legs but he just wanted to check my passport. I guess checking a foreigner’s papers makes him feel like he is earning his pay.

The bus was actually pretty comfortable; they even showed a couple of movies. Only a fool would watch the driver on a Mexican bus and only a true thrill-seeker would watch the road as the driver fumbles around in his bag as he tries to load a video cassette, passing a semi while going over 110 kilometers an hour.

Watching a couple of crappy movies subtitled in Spanish on a Mexican bus gives me a whole new perspective on Hollywood. The first movie was Face Off and everyone was pretty much digging that one. There isn't a three-minute segment of that movie that isn't punctuated by some incredible (incredibly stupid) action sequence. I had to read the subtitles along with everyone else, as the volume was pretty lousy from my seat. My point is that things like action and sex transcend any language barrier. I don't think My Dinner with Andre would have gone over too well on the Mazatlán to Los Molchis bus. Come to think of it, I don't think that movie went over well anywhere.

The bus pulled into Los Molchis at about 11 p.m. I left my house at 5:30 this morning but who's counting. Now I have a couple of problems: I still need money, food, and I have to decide whether or not to get a room or just do the homeless thing for the night as I have to be at the train station at 5 a.m. I find a cash machine and then my survival instinct takes over and I ferret out a bar to make a decision. It is midnight when I finish my beer and I opt for the up-all-night option.

As I sit under an awning at a sidewalk taco stand, I watch an incredible cloudburst that fills the streets with up to a foot of water. The water level doesn't slow many of the people on the roads, as common sense seems to be optional for drivers here. I see several near collisions on my corner and after a few minutes I hear a crash down the street. After the rain stops I walk that way to check it out. There is a cargo van up on the curb with a motorcyclist-size shatter in the windshield and under the front tire, upside down, is the motorcycle. It was like a cartoon except with blood.

I got a chance to nod off a little bit on a bench at the bus station and before you know it I was in a taxi headed for the station. That's a bit like saying, "before you know it, the glaciers had receded and the ice age was over." If you want to slow down time, try staying up all night in Los Molchis, Mexico.

The Chihuahua-Pacífico railroad tries desperately to hang on to the splendid past of rail travel in this country. The express train is rather nice with a dining car and a bar but I realized very soon that it was going to be a slow trip. It is also a bit expensive. The ticket alone is over twice as expensive as what the guidebooks quote. My assigned seat was next to the only other gringo on the train and worse yet, the window was really small. I was moving to another seat as a conductor was checking tickets. The train was almost empty but he told me that I had to keep my assigned seat until we got to the El Fuerte station a few miles down the line. I was a little startled by his rigidity.

I had never encountered this sort of blind adherence to rules, at least not in Latin America. That was something I would expect on a German train--a country that makes you uncomfortable jaywalking on a deserted street. I remember what someone had told me years ago when we had run into a problem in Mexico. I can’t even remember what the problem was in that instance but I was voicing my concern to a hotel employee and he told me not to worry, “En Mexico, todo se arregla.” Here everything works out. I ignored the Germanic conductor and took a seat up front next to a huge window.

The train cuts through the Copper Canyon (barrancas del cobre) that I had read is bigger and more incredible than the Grand Canyon. The ride began very inauspiciously, slowing passing the flat coastal plain and squalid, makeshift dwellings--poverty as desperate as you're likely to see anywhere in this country. I was beginning to question my travel plans.

As soon as the train began to make its way up and through the canyon I immediately changed my mind. The territory of the Copper Canyon is as remote, as inhospitable as any I have ever seen--every bit as wild as the Slopes of the Andes as they dissolve into the Amazon basin. Roads are almost nonexistent and the few that are visible are dirt tracks. Only a handful of dwellings can be seen from the train. This is the realm of the Tarahumara Indians—Indians and drug lords. A lot of Mexican poppy for heroin and marijuana are supposedly grown in this remote area. There aren’t a lot of people snooping around and those who stumble on this place by accident sometimes don’t make it out.

The river that runs through the canyon looks unnavigable but maybe some crazy person has tried it. Passing through the canyon by train is like watching a really long nature movie, a marathon Discovery channel edition of this part of Mexico. I'm not comparing a real experience to TV I'm just saying that like TV, this is a really passive experience—just sit on your butt and stare out the window.

The train ride turned out to be longer than I had expected--17 hours in all. Ay caramba!. During the last few hours on the train I had the feeling of someone sinking with the ship as a lot of the passengers had opted to get out at Creel, an outpost that specializes in excursions to the Tarahumara Indian villages. I was sticking to my original plan of making Chihuahua in one day.

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