La Frontera Part 1: Norte
I boarded the Megabus in New Orleans just before midnight, sitting near the back of the upper level of a double decker bus, and the first thing I noticed as we pulled away from Union Station was that the man sitting across the aisle from me was chugging an entire bottle of cough syrup. Finished, he then burped loudly, like a man who was very satisfied with himself and his beverage.
Earlier that evening, at approximately nine p.m., I had convinced Andrew and Allison to take up the following proposal (convinced is probably the wrong word, and implying that I had any real agency in the matter would be misleading- I suggested a course of action and they were gracious enough to humor it): we would go to Walgreens to pick up the remaining part of my prescription for Larium, an anti-malarial medicine, swing by D’abadie Street to pick up Adam from his porch, then we four would go down to Molly’s in the french quarter for a last beer, which we would take down to the river, before dropping me off at the bus station.
We sat on a metal bench big enough for the four of us, a cool night for New Orleans on the first of August, just up the stairs from St. Philip Street, on the brick path which leads along the levee. The Mississippi was far lower than when last I’d seen it, twenty or thirty feet lower than two months ago, and the waters were roiling, swirling, back-channeling, gently but with latent danger all at once, black in the lights of the city. Great currents going in every direction, upstream and cross-stream every which way. We talked about the river, New Orleans, about my trip, about Trump and America. What do you talk about when you don’t know when you’ll see each other again?
After a bit I walked down among the rocks to the shore, rocks that were invisible in June, careful not to get too close to the water or turn my ankle as I descended, feeling very clearly an ominous sense that New Orleans could, should she choose, easily decide not to allow me to leave her again. Paid my respects to the river, as is my practice and habit, as the representation of the life-force of the city. Asked for safe passage, safe return. Felt like my request was granted. Climbed back up the rocks and Andrew informed me that it was definitely time to go. I don’t think he’s so into drawn-out farewells, and we were long past bedtime for grownups, of which demographic we probably belong, whatever our delusions to the contrary.
Outside the station I bid these dear friends quick goodbyes and swung on my giant orange pack, and walked into the world of the Megabus, which I found to be a much more orderly place than expected. A lady agent came right up to me as I walked up, as she did to each new arrival, explaining with urgency the process and indicated exactly where I was to sit and what to do. A man in uniform and utility would periodically address the whole group with updates and instructions. The two of them were in complete control of the situation, and tolerating no nonsense.
Fifteen minutes after drinking the cough syrup, as we headed west on I-10, packed in like anchovies to a tin, the tall bus swaying and shuddering, while still talking on his cell phone, the man across the aisle began to slur his words, though he continued talking, or making incomprehensible sounds, until he simply passed out, and dropped all of the things he was holding, including the phone, right on the bus floor, and slumped down in his seat. After some consideration, I decided not to get involved in any way.
At 5 a.m., after a fitful night of near-sleep, including a 2:30 stop at a gas station, during which my syruped companion snored and grunted all the while, the Megabus stopped at a parking lot in downtown Houston. He somehow instantaneously emerged from his stupor, collected his possessions from the floor all around him, and got right off the bus. I watched him holding up his pants as he skip-ran. Then it was clear that everyone was getting cleared off, and the bus pulled away, and there we were.
Half the people went their ways, disappearing into the darkened city streets. The other half of us passengers just sat or stood there with our luggage on the pavement in the humid dark for an hour and a half as the sun came up and the people of Houston started coming and going. At 6:15 the same bus with the same driver came back and picked us up again with no explanation, and off we went, farther along the I-10, deeper into Texas, and I fell into a deep and solid sleep out of pure exhaustion.
At 11 o’clock, right on time, the Megabus arrived at its destination, a barbecue place stranded somewhere in the middle of nowhere in extended San Antonio, where it is terribly and impressively hot in early August. Fresh- in only the most proverbial sense- off the bus, I walked three quarters of a mile through some fading neighborhoods and managed to catch the 44 bus.
Past the riverwalk and downtown and heading out of town again I got off and found the Turimex Internacional bus station, a little white building on the side of North Alamo Street, and learned I could potentially board a bus for Monterrey immediately. But feeling quite unprepared for international travel, well-doused in sweat, having eaten nothing since dinner the night before, I decided to regroup and try to find something between breakfast and lunch, then catch the 2:30 bus, which I bought a ticket for at the very reasonable price of $47, given that it would provide me safe passage to another world.
My plan, having considered that this first leg of the trip, from Texas through a small strip of Tamaulipas state and then into Nuevo Leon, the border region, might well be the most dangerous place I’d travel through in my whole journey, was to find a Mexican bus in the US that would take me straight through the border and its netherworld, several hundred miles to Monterrey. I did not want to have to get off a US bus in Laredo, take a first Mexican bus through a militarized zone to Nuevo Laredo, get dropped off at a bus station in that border town, and transfer to another Mexican bus out of there. I’d read the state department reports about the violence and kidnappings in this region, and of course several people had recently sent me entirely apocalyptic news stories on the current state of the Narco War. So I was definitely a little apprehensive about the day’s journey, in no rush to get started, and certainly wanting a good meal beforehand.
On the advice of the man behind the counter, I walked up McCullough Avenue a few blocks to the Oasis Mexican Cafe. And an oasis it was indeed. After just a little bit of arduous travel, the things we take for granted become luxuries. A comfortable place to sit and write, with air-conditioning!, where they bring you as much water as you can drink, not to mention iced tea or agua frescas? A palace. A dream. I had a plate of chilaquiles and about four glasses of water and two iced teas. If you want to appreciate the little things, I have an easy prescription: take a night bus into Texas in the summer, then walk a ways at mid-day with a heavy pack on your back. I guarantee your perspective will be changed.
Went back out into the sweltering street with an hour to spare, called a few people that I’d been meaning to call for weeks, and wrote a few texts knowing that my phone probably wouldn’t work anymore in a few hours. Fifteen minutes before the appointed time, I was standing there on the curb, as various Turimex buses pulled up and all sorts of people: working men in cowboy hats, old ladies, families with small children got on and off, and then it was the bus that said Nuevo Laredo/Monterrey and fifteen of us got on and I had a whole row of shabby but comfortable seats to spread out into, and there we went.