Backwater Vagabonds

Backwater Vagabonds

By James Marthai


old-mexican-bus“The new road should be near completion by now,” read the Mexican travel brochure, describing the lovely little town of Barra de Esperanza, north of Manzanillo on the tropical Pacific coast.

This is our return trip to Manzanillo on the “new road near completion.” Near completion of survey would be more like it. Three days before on the trip in, we complained of the over-optimism of quick-visit writers regarding progress in this part of the country. The “road” was a torn wound through choked forests, felled trees wilting alongside. Interrupted streams eroded many places across the narrow, winding trail. This was jungle few people traveled since well before the Spanish Conquest. Soon this pristine bay will become crowded with tourists when, and if, the road is completed.

Locals began boarding the bus and we joined the gathering crowd funneling through the door. I quickly slipped into the front seats, numbers 3 and 4, as I like to watch the road ahead. Boxes, children and palm-fiber bags, in a shuffling mass fill the worn confines of the weary vehicle. People settled down and we waited.

Children were repositioned and hand baggage moved about as we watched the brassy sun paint the horizon clouds. Silence settled. We waited. Twenty minutes behind schedule (forgive the up-tight word schedule) and not having the stoic patience of Mexicans, I stared about for some indication of action. “Night travel on this road leaves me cold, regardless of the temperature,” I smirked, wiping my wet neck with my wet handkerchief. Fragrances of fruit and flowers, bantams and babies melded in the rising temperature of the crowded bus.

Laughing voices on the still air drew attention as two couples hurried from the beach. We noted a decided unsteadiness in the men as they pumped through the soft sand. The woman across the aisle whispered hoarsely, “Madre de Dios, our drivers!” Country travel uses a relief driver for emergencies but I couldn’t decide who would relieve whom of this pair. An old, expressionless man stepped forward to the steering wheel and pressed firmly on the horn, only to receive a gay wave and the little space between thumb and index finger meaning “momentito” as our crew changed from their trunks behind a palm rib fence.

The low, red sun shone on their wet, bronzed skin as they squirmed into their clothes. With loud farewells to the two girls, our well-fueled crew pulled themselves aboard, smiling broadly at the sullen, sweating faces of the passengers. The folding door slammed shut and we ground out of town with unrestrained blasts of the horn, scattering dogs and a family of pigs blessing us with forced ventilation.

Shadows deepened as we entered deep growth at the end of the village. The road became worse in proportion to the failing light. Miles inland, we surprised an “indio” couple bathing in the stream we forded, and they slipped behind dense brush as the bus splashed by.

I envied them their stable environment as we clutched the hand rail in front of our seats. As twilight failed, the headlights bravely cast their amber glow on the road. The left light swung back and forth, following the vehicle’s lurching like a ship’s lantern. Our relief driver told some joke to the “operador” and the resultant laughter brought a change in course and another bush joined its brothers along the road.

After an hour of swaying in our seats, we nosed down the bank of a broad river a hundred meters across. The swinging headlight illuminated the current flowing over river rocks piled a foot below the surface. This was the “bridge” for wheeled traffic. Low gear was lustily engaged and we launched into the water. A splitting headache was exceeded only by my wife’s vice-like grip on my arm.

The struggle over the slippery rocks as the current rushed around the wheels brought the motor to a full steaming whistle. After a quick discussion, the driver stopped while the relief man, with a bucket over his arm, waded up front and threw up the hood. Silhouetted against the lighted river, he dipped the pail, slopping water into the steam. The motor died. The stones shifted beneath the wheels in the silence. As the driver tried starting the wet motor, the relief man climbed back in, dropping the pail in the entry step.

Slowly rumbling ahead, we sloshed through the water to the opposite shore where an adventurous truck was waiting to try the same thing the other way. From the rise of the bank, we saw the welcoming loom of Manzanillo.

Wife Gloria said, “Well, the village was lovely but I’ll be happy to get back home at Lakeside to the stability of our walled garden.” “Yes, of course,” I said. “But you know, Gloria, we can go from Valladolid in east Yucatan to the ancient village, Holohty, on the Gulf of Mexico by bus. A little ferry from the mainland to a spit of palms where thousands of flamingos gather in March.”

I could see by her look I’d better hold the subject for another time.


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