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Mexico: Train to the South, 1978

June 29, 2010

When I walked over the bridge from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, looking at the Rio Grande floating lazily eastward below, I had no idea that it would be more than a year before I returned this way and back to the land of gringos.

All I knew is that Latin America lay to the south, and that everything I was running from was behind me to the north.

The plan was to get into Mexico in a big way by taking a train from Juarez to Mexico City.  This was an overnight affair, cheap and reliable, I’d been told. I didn’t want to bother with border areas of Mexico that were too close to the USA.

The train provided a perfect solution.  After walking through central Juárez I found a public bus to the station and bought a third class ticket to Mexico’s capital city in the Distrito Federal. The price was under five dollars.

Mexico was a country that contained many different aspects and cultures.  The first notion I had to lose was my pre-conceived image of the nation, honed by years of racist television and cinema.

1,2) Mexico of the imagination – a failed State with mariachi and steel drums

Indeed.  Mexico’s Native American traditions have blended with the “new” Iberian culture to form a society unique society.  Present problems with drug cartels excepted, of course.  The insatiable norteamericano demand for dope means that the cross-border feuding will not stop any time soon.  Unless the USA legalizes drugs, political suicide for the mainstream.

But I was unaware of future difficulties as I tentatively navigated my way into Mexican reality. The train car where I found a seat was crowded and stuffy, full of campesinos in cowboy hats.  I was largely ignored, although some time during the night I had an inexpensive pocket knife lifted from my, well, pocket.  This proved to be the only time I was ever robbed in Central America.

At one of the train’s many stops, a woman ran up to our window with a basket of boiled eggs.  My partner, not knowing Spanish, asked the old lady, “Madam, combien?” in French.  We were startled to see that she understood perfectly and told us the price.

I didn’t know any Spanish, either, but I had a useful phrasebook and dictionary.  I spent a lot of time studying the book, learning rudimentary expressions to aid in day-to-day conduct.

We passed through a huge variety of scenery.  But the people scenes were the most interesting.  In several places whole families lived in discarded railway cars.

3) Guadalajara from the train

Finally and forty eight hours later I arrived in Mexico City, the huge metropolis and center of the Conquest.  I found an expensive hotel and made for the Zócalo, the city’s main square and center of the old quarter.

4,5) Cathedral on the Zócalo

The square’s architecture was overwhelming and here my love affair with Latin America began.

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