The Patron Saint Of Safe Travel
By Bill Dean
There is a lot of talk these days about whether it is safe to travel in Mexico. That kind of talk is nothing new. Saint Christopher (the “Patron Saint of Safe Travel”) shrines used to be found at Mexican bus stations and Saint Christopher medals used to decorate bus dashboards.
But in 1969 the Church downgraded Christopher’s status to that of a mere “legend.” Demotion notwithstanding, the story is worth repeating. It seems that in the third century a burly chap by the name of Christopher gained a reputation for helping travelers ford a rushing river somewhere in Asia Minor. One day Jesus appeared to Christopher in need of a lift to the other side. Jesus was just a youngster but he got to be extremely heavy (even for the strapping Christopher) because Jesus was carrying the sins of the world. But they both made it safely to the other side. The lore caught on and for centuries Christopher was the Saint of Safe Travel.
That brings me back to buses – okay, to a story about traveling on one. The year was 1979. Back then many Mexican buses were colorful old contraptions with cracked windshields, dashboard paraphernalia, and bald tires.
Our bus had a Saint Christopher medallion glued to the knob of the gear stick. (As you can see, it also had a pig on the roof. We were following a truck piled high with live chickens crammed inside tiny cages. The truck listed at a frightening angle. It missed a turn, landed on its side, and came to rest just inches from a steep ravine. Nonplussed chickens stalked freely among shattered cages strewn all over the road. We didn’t hit a single chicken.
I like to think that Saint Christopher had something to do with that. I also like to think that Christopher would want those chickens to be shared with others. Our driver thought so. He slammed on the brakes; flung open the doors; let the passengers out to help themselves to that night’s dinner. It was a “free for all” in every sense. Most folks took only one chicken, but the chap on the seat next to me took two. Then we hightailed it out of there.
That, of course, was many years ago. Many of Mexico’s buses now look like this.
Today the “lujo” (luxury) buses that run between major cities are gleaming Pullman style coaches (Mercedes and the like) with reserved seating, oversized tinted windows, wild and colorful paint jobs, seats that recline to near bed length positions, air conditioning, toilets, videos with headphones, snacks, baggage handling, and other amenities. Much the same can be said of many “primera” (first class) buses. They all run on precision schedules. Drivers are immaculately dressed and pride themselves on safety and comfort. The “segundo” (second class) lines lack many of these luxury features but they are reliable, can be “standing room only,” and frequently stop to pick up and discharge passengers. But they are affordable and widely used.
There are a lot of buses in Mexico. And that is a good thing. Buses offer affordable transportation each day to millions of Mexicans. They ply the many new toll roads that connect most major cities. They offer an enlightened approach to congested traffic, cleaner air, and reduced reliance upon oil.
So, for those Mexican vacationers who are willing to venture out from the shadows of beach umbrellas and into Mexico’s interior, consider going by bus. The “Historic” sections of the “Colonial Cities” (Taxco, Oaxaca, Pueblo, Merida, to name just a few) deserve your attention. They were laid out in the 16-17th century by royal decree with a central park (zocalo) bordered by the mansions of provincial governors, Conquistadors, and well-heeled colonists.
There is a lot to see and do in Mexico. Much can be learned at ground level that cannot be seen at 35,000 feet in the clouds. A bus ride to Mexico’s colonial cities will be just the start. And getting there may be safer than you think—which is why you are not apt to bump into Saint Christopher anymore.
(Ed. Note: Learn more about Mexico with Bill’s book, Mexico: Journey of a Nation Over a Rough and Rambling Road.)
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com