Restaurante Oaxaca - Chapter One

Oaxaca

The top of the metal steps was about even with my eyeballs. Buses didn’t kneel here like in the States. Sometimes they didn’t even stop―you just swung yourself into the stairwell as they inched ahead. But this one had stopped for me.

     Maybe it stopped because I was a gringo looking lost, standing alone not too far from a concrete bus shelter, out nowhere in the mountains, or maybe because I was old and shaking my walking stick at the driver. They respect us ancianos here in southern Mexico. That’s one good reason to love it here.

     I grabbed the handholds and pulled myself up the first step, the big one nearly two feet above the ground. Buses ride high—roads have boulders and potholes wide enough to eat Volkswagens. You need to be half bulldozer to make it through some roads.

     The next three steps weren’t so bad. At the top, I gave two ten-peso coins and got change. The driver smiled. He didn’t get many Americans out in the mountains of Oaxaca, down in this part of Mexico.

     I’d been hiding here two months, not from anyone in particular, but from everyone. My friends had been scared of me. The police had wondered. But things had cooled and most of my damaged body had healed, too. Time to head back and clear out.

     I turned past the driver and walked down the center row. The morning sun had heated the bus to near-oven levels, but I was in luck and got two seats together and stuck my head half out the window.

     I was going second-class in the kind of bus that goes out to small villages. You’d call this a school bus, like the yellow one I rode sixty years back. It had the same utilitarian look, the same cheap sliding windows, and the same sheet metal body. It might have been the very one, ten times resold, repaired, retrofitted, redone, and finally repainted green, red, and yellow with a Virgin Mary on the dash, and a mirrored sunshade covering half the cracked windshield.

     Inside was packed with unpadded, metal seats, only a little more than Disneyland-sized, but OK if you got two side by side. Especially for someone who ate all-American for too many years and carried big-guy, Scotch-Irish genes to start with.

     The bus was half full, mostly with older village men heading into town, poor men with clean, patched clothes, some with parcels, some with baskets, probably carrying things to sell. Things they made or grew. Things that were the difference between poverty and nothing—unless they had family off someplace sending money home.

     A few city workmen were on the bus, too—maybe returning from visiting relatives they’d left behind in the mountains. These men had their shirts ironed, pants creased, and shoes shined, as I should have. They sat still, looking ahead, as though they were going somewhere.

     Some older women wrapped in shawls, even in the heat, sat here and there in the rows. One young girl—OK, a woman here in Oaxaca, but one only ready for high school in el Norte—held her infant wrapped tightly, sitting up near the front.

     No young men came with us on this ride. Most were gone. Many to the north, to Mexico City or further, maybe Texas or California.  The rest were out working somewhere in a field.

     And kids. Only a couple were playing in the seats―not very Oaxaca-like to have so few, but the teachers had called off their strike, and most kids were back in class, or if they were really poor, out working.

     I settled in for the four-hour trip from the village where my friend Efraím had a friend who knew someone who had a tourist, eco-cabin setup―running cold water, outdoor john, and a lot of mud. He rented it to young, hip adventurers wanting to suffer for 25 bucks a day. He let me stay cheap. “You have suffered enough,” he said, “and besides, it is not yet the season for the young.”  

     I liked the calm up there, I liked the view, I didn’t even mind the mud after a while, but I missed my true love, a hot shower.

     Time had come to leave it behind. My broken bones had knitted. My cuts were only scars. My bruises had faded to their normal, pinkish pallor. My food had run low. My clothes were dirty and wrinkled. Mud crusted my shoes. My hair was post-punk ratty; my beard, post-Jesus long. Yes, it was time to go.

     I came up here because I’d had an incident a while back. That’s what the news called it. Another gringo died. I didn’t. That was why some blamed me. And now I’d healed and was leaving my city of Oaxaca to go back to the States where no one looked at me, where no one knew me, where I was just another old man waiting for a bus, or a social security check, or a final courtesy call to the sick ward before the last chapter ended.  

     I had my pack, a change or two of clothes, my stick, a jacket, and a hat. I’d pick up the ticket for Flight 92 to Texas later. I was kissing Mexico goodbye. I didn’t want to, but it was time. I was saying goodbye to Oaxaca. I would be saying hello Dallas, or Austin, or someplace away from here. I’d miss it here.

     The land was saying goodbye to me as I watched it slide by out the window.

     Volcanic mountains formed impossibly sharp cones pointing skyward. They had pushed up molten from some deep, liquid rock layer, but then hardened and grew sharp enough to part the covering earth as they rose a thousand feet above the plain. These prototypes for the pyramids of this land’s ancient peoples called on us moderns to pay attention to the old gods, or at least take a photo or two.

     These were not the lumps of mountains I knew from the US East, nor the crazier, jagged-rock ranges I had seen when flying west. Oaxacan mountains were memories of earlier times. True, they’d yielded to strains of grasses and cacti and crawling things, to animal trails, and to the local peoples, and then finally to Spanish burros, but they were still best flown over or observed from a distance.

     After two hours of switch-back riding, the mountains gave way to a valley, not yet broad, maybe a half-day’s walk across. A pueblo sat on a rising slope to the north. Its church dome reflected the sun; its grid of streets marked the hillside.

     The bus approached a dirt road that led in the pueblo’s direction and then went under an oversized pedestrian overpass mounted on wide, concrete pylons and painted with the normal graffiti, Tierra y Libertad—Land and Liberty, along with the ever-present A in a circle anarchist logo. The government fought back with its own slogan posted high over the highway, Vivir Mejor—Live Better, illustrated with billboard photos of a happy Mexican family: a blonde, a businessman, and a baby strapped into a new car—not too relevant here in this land of Zapotec and Mixtec Indians.

     Stalls built into the side of the overpass offered cheap grilled food, beer, and soft drinks. No cars had stopped. I watched the men standing near the food stands as we came closer and slowed for a tope, one of the foot-high, paved, speed-warning mounds laid across the roadway to keep traffic honest and awake.

      We passed. The men didn’t move. Not much to do out here but wait. We picked up speed and proceeded further down the same highway that had dropped us into the valley. Its lanes were not yet overcrowded, but as we approached the city, they carried enough traffic so you weren’t surprised by a fast, oncoming truck or an impatient car.

     Sleek, new cars flashed past, rich Mexicans’ dreams looking more like spaceship sculpture than earthbound transport. Other cars, less stylish, more useful, older, some nearing the end of their lives, sputtered by with as much power as they could. These mud-spattered, much repaired, but long-loved rides kept on trying as the burros had for earlier generations of country folk.

     Pickups came at us nonstop, too, often filled cab and cargo bed with men, sometimes with animals, even a cow once. Their engines lugged and rattled with the effort. Racket-smothering mufflers were not a necessity out here. No one replaced them when they rusted and fell off—what good were they in the country? Only the mountains, clouds, and serpientes heard the cars’ noisy passing, and they didn’t care.

     Big semis spaced themselves out every mile or so, knowing they ruled the road. Most were double-trailered, filled with oil or beer or products from factories on the coast. They didn’t hit the breaks for anyone, forcing slower cars to take the shoulder or run scared in front of them. Engineers had built this road with a two-lane vision, edged by solid stripes marking wide-paved shoulders, but vehicles raced two abreast in each direction, straddling the lines when they met, passing only inches from sideswipes, wrecks, and worse.

     Mirrors dangled and bounced on the cars that had judged poorly and survived but ripped parts loose. I pulled my head in from the window when we passed anything. I didn’t want it dangling. No one else in the bus stuck out his head for the breeze. They were hotter but smarter than me.

     We made good time. The mountains smoothed themselves into something presentable to civilization with more rounded peaks no longer snaring clouds on their crests. Roads now intersected the main highway, climbing these gentler slopes, looping back and forth like a rope thrown lazily down from the mountaintop. Small houses dotted the lower grades, each with a tiny, neighboring field of corn—yellow, dry, and dead.

     Far ahead a brown cloud of smog pointed towards civilization’s promise. We were almost there.

     The bus made another stop at another overpass. Metal on metal grabbed. We lurched, and halted.

     Two men, maybe twenty-five or thirty years old, climbed the steps and boarded. One lingered in front and finally sat; the other moved to the back row. They wore shoes, not sandals. The one in front wore a leather jacket, an old one. Their faces were weathered; the one in front was scabbed. They slicked their hair, gelled like they were going out. Both wore jeans. Both were city men. City men wore pressed jeans; country men wore cheap work pants. The two new passengers scanned the seats. One of them looked at me on my coveted row. I looked out the window.

     The bus climbed through its gears as we accelerated on the shoulder. Semis and even large cars rocked us side to side when they sucked the air away with their high-speed passing. Finally, the bus had enough velocity to turn out into the roadway, in front of a car that immediately passed and swung into the oncoming lane forcing a pickup to the far-side shoulder.

     This was normal driving, nothing to take note of. In fact, I was getting lulled senseless in the heat, hardly noticing the everyday, near-death maneuvers. The road had leveled. It was newly paved and smooth. Nap-able for me, not like the road coming down the mountain. The government said all would be paved soon. Vivir Mejor. Nap well was what it meant that day.

     Sweat ran down my ears. I shut my eyes and thought of my upcoming plane ride: foam-cushioned seats and air conditioning, luxuries most of the men in the bus would never see.

     I sat forward hearing banging in the front of the bus. The leather-jacketed man up front beat on his metal seat. He’d stood and looked out the back window. He watched for a minute. And then, as though getting some signal from God or maybe from the flashed lights of a car behind—that’s what the newspapers said the next day—he pulled a knife from his belt and held it near the driver. The driver arched his body away and swerved the bus. I grabbed my seat to get ready. Something bad was coming. Usually a wreck, but not that time.

     The guy in front held on and pushed the knife closer to the driver. “Sigue adelante―Keep going. Nothing will happen. Keep going.” He spoke the Spanish from the barrios in LA, not Mexico City slang, and definitely not the soft Spanish of Oaxaca. He turned his head toward us passengers, and called out, “In the seats, you be still.”  

     The guy in back started with a passenger six or seven rows behind me, speaking loudly in Spanish, “El dinero. Dámelo todo―The money. Give me everything.”

     The old man sitting there must have had nothing. He offered up a cloth square tied around a handful of coins. The thief knocked it to the ground.

     “Give me your money.” He swung the pistol and hit the older man, knocking him back in the seat.

      The man in the front yelled, “¡Arriba las Manos! ―Hands up! Hold your wallets over your head. Women, do not hide your jewelry. Hold everything so I can see.”  

     The guy in the back rifled through the semiconscious man’s clothes, pulled out a well-hidden wallet, and looked inside for money.

     The guy in front walked down the aisle, gathering the harvest. He had a gym bag that he stuffed with the take. He got to me and thumbed through my wallet. A credit card fell out. He just kicked it. “Cash only,” he said in English and reached for my belly.

     I had a money belt on, just like the travel guides said to do. This guy and I must have read the same books.

     He ripped it loose and aimed the gun at my leg; then he fired into the floor. I jumped, and when I found myself still living, I plopped down in the seat but then popped back up remembering his order to stay standing.

     He laughed and turned toward the back. While he was turning, one of the passengers sitting in the back row, one of the neatly dressed citymen, squatted down, pulled a gun from someplace, and fired. The thief in the back, still rifling through the poor man’s clothes, yelled and grabbed at his shoulder, dropping his gun and a wad of bills.

     “Policía ¡Suelte el arma! ―Police! Drop your weapon!” The cop yelled and turned the gun towards the guy with the knife. The cop pulled the trigger; nothing happened.

     I should have been ducking, throwing myself down like the rest, but I stood there with my hands over my head, looking back and forth like I was at some ping-pong match.

      “¡Dios mío!” a passenger yelled. Others added to the sporting event feel as they moaned like fans fearing their home team’s loss. “Santisímo Señor.”   

      “¡Maldita pistola!”―Damned gun! The cop banged his jammed pistol on the metal seat, trying to clear it. It went off and shot through the side of the bus.

     The driver went near limp and slumped over. I thought he was hit. The bus proceeded on, slowing, going forward, veering to the right, off the shoulder, tilting more and more, rolling over. We crunched into a thicket of green and then slowed and scraped into dirt on the right side as we came to a stop at about a forty-five-degree angle, one side down and one up in the air. Branches broke in through some of the windows.

     I fell forward and grabbed the seat top in front of me. The passengers hiding on the floor rolled together among the steel seat legs.

     The downed thief with the wounded shoulder had found his gun somehow in the scramble of legs and shot twice.

     The cop screamed.

     I ducked, maybe fell, finally getting smart.

     The thief in front moved back, dropping the gym bag in his rush, and helped the injured one up. They pushed out the emergency door in the back and yelled, “Do not look, do not move,” as though we hadn’t seen their faces before. The one guy was bleeding red on his shirt and the floor.

     We passengers lay still for three or four minutes.

     Birds were chirping, a dribble of water went by under the bus. The swoosh of highway cars and trucks kept on but was quieted by the vegetation. Green leaves poked in. The bus was still, sitting tilted, wedged in a streambed, too damp for it to be anything else.

     Only the cop and the driver looked in bad shape, maybe a heart attack for the driver, I thought. But then he lifted his head and got up. The passenger in the back, the one hit with gun barrel―he was getting up, too.

     I checked. Everything of mine was working.

     One of the passengers pulled himself out the emergency door in the back, the one the robbers used. Nothing happened to him. The robbers had left.

     I stood up like everyone else. We started to unload as if we’d reached our final stop in the city, except we were leaning half sideways. We got in line and held on to the seatbacks. No one yelled. No one looked too injured. Just some were hobbling and had scratches.

     Except the cop. He looked dead. We left him there. People crossed themselves when they passed.

     I saw the gym bag with our goodies lying near the backseat. One of the passengers picked it up. He was a city guy, thinking ahead.

     “If the police get this, we will never see our things.”

     He jumped down from the back of the bus, holding the bag, and started climbing. We all followed, watching the bag. No one trusts city guys.

     The passenger who was the first one out had climbed the stream bank. He yelled back, “There is a restaurant. Up the hill.”

     Somehow we all got to the place, pulling on each other and carrying bags and baskets. We sat at a big blue picnic table with pink and yellow paper flags strung over it and sorted through the pile dumped from the gym bag. I got my money belt with the broken strap and my wallet missing a credit card. No one argued over anything. We just took our stuff and did not talk. Then the passengers scattered. Who would ever want to get involved? The driver sat at the table, though. He looked woozy. He would be witness enough when the police arrived, we hoped.

     I remembered my pack and stick and climbed down to the bus. The cop was very dead, looking straight up, lying in a red puddle draining out into the creek. My pack was fine, my stick beside it. I decided to forget the hat and write off the credit card. It had been maxed for a while, anyway.

     When I got back up the hill, I walked out to the road.  Everyone had gone someplace except the driver and the restaurant owner in his apron looking down at the bus. I walked toward the city. Cars passed. Trucks passed. I decided not to try for a ride. Who knew what I would get, but a taxi came by, slowed, and flashed its lights after I had been walking ten minutes or so. I waved it down.

     You can always stuff in another fare, even a big one like me.

     We headed to the city and almost got there, up near the stadium, when I heard the whoop-whoop siren. Two police cars passed heading out towards the mountains, out toward the dead bus and dead policeman.

     No one knew I was in the bus. I wasn’t—that was my story. I hitched a ride in a truck from my eco-camp.

     The robbery would be a mess. Small-time crooks never shoot a policeman if they can help it. Police forget the rules when investigating cop-shootings. And they don’t have many rules, anyway. They will get the guy who did it. They always do. Along with a couple of bystanders too. Just to make sure.