"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

Is this the Border Zone, or the Twilight Zone?

You don't have to worry about whether you're on the wrong bus when you travel in this baby. As it happens, it belongs to Diana's daughter and son-in-law, who sail it down from Florida every winter that they can afford to do so. The bay is Xcalak, in the far south of Quintana Roo state, just 20 miles north of Ambergris Cay, Belize. If you happen to find yourself in the neighborhood, drop into Mike's Marina Bar, and say hello from us.

[Photo by Dan McWethy]


When you're a famous traveler and adventurer such as myself, you get exposed to a lot of weird things, either first hand, or because people write to you telling you of their own experiences. You get to thinking that you are pretty savvy, pretty "hip", and that you are prepared for anything that may come along.

I know all about "get it in writing", the iron rule of commerce. I would no more allow someone to take my deposit money without giving me a receipt than I would try to fly by jumping off of a tall building and flapping my arms; and I insist that they put a starting date and/or a date of conclusion on the receipt, as well. Not that I ever expect anyone to deliver on time: it's just a bargaining chip for fixing the next time I am to call in for the item (nor do I expect to be successful the second time).

I know all about having patience: life in Mexico is a postgraduate course in patience, and it takes a lifetime to get your degree. Patience is not an elective. It is a prerequisite for living here, and if you can't master it, you end up in Sun City playing shuffleboard with the rest of the old geezers who couldn't adjust. Over the last 4+ years, I have progressed to the point where I am probably in little danger of throwing in the towel. Nonetheless, now and then even I, callous and cynical as I am, get to feeling like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Here's a f'rinstance:

When we got off the airplane in Tijuana, and made our way into the terminal, we were immediately confronted with a row of ticket booths, selling bus tickets to Los Angeles. The first one we got to said "Greyhound" over the opening, and on the counter was a clock face, with an announcement: next departure. The little hand was on the one, and the big hand was on the twelve. One o'clock: ten minutes from now. Perfect.

"Is there still room on the Greyhound at 1:00?" Si, si, Se¤or. "Going to Los Angeles?" Si, si, Se¤or. "First class?" Of course. "Two, please." Thirty-six dollars, please. Thank you, here are your tickets, walk right over there, your bus is waiting.

Over there, a bus is waiting, but it is not Greyhound. It doesn't look first class. On the side is written "Crucero". There is a driver standing at the door collecting tickets. "Is this the bus to Los Angeles?" Si. "But my ticket says Greyhound." No, look, it doesn't say Greyhound, it says Crucero to San Ysidro, and Greyhound to Los Angeles. "But I asked for Greyhound." Don't worry, when we get to the border, you will find a Greyhound waiting for you. "Hmm, O.K., I guess..."

After a ten minute ride, the bus pulls up to a long, low building. O.K., the driver says, everybody out. Get your luggage, walk through the building, which is U.S. Immigration and Customs, and your other bus will be waiting on the other side. I ask another passenger if this is normal, and she assures me that it is.

The U.S. officials hardly give us gringos a glance, saving all their energy for smoking out illegal aliens (or, hassling people with brown skin, depending on your point of view), and we breeze through. When we emerge from the building, we are in the good old U.S. of A, and there is no bus. "The bus isn't here" I inform the next passenger out the door, as if he can't see this for himself. No problem, he tells me, it will come.

Meanwhile, several buses do pull up, but they are not for us. Yes, they come from TJ airport. Yes, they are going to L.A. No, they cannot take us, for they have no empty seats. None of them knows anything about a Greyhound connection.

After an hour, waiting in the sun, on the sidewalk, with no place to sit down, folks are starting to get a little nervous. I am getting absolutely apoplectic. "Honey, let's find some other way out of here, there is something seriously wrong." Relax, don't be so uptight, everything's going to be fine. "Hmmmphhh."

I notice a bank of telephones nearby, and get the 800 number for Greyhound. I call them and after about four transfers get someone in the dispatch department. I inquire as to the whereabouts of our bus. "I am at the border station, outside Tijuana. There are twenty-five of us, and we are waiting for our bus to show up." I don't understand. We've had several buses in and out of there in the last hour. Still, not to worry, it is now 2:00 p.m., and there are two more due in fifteen minutes. "Thank you, and what was your name?" Norma. Have a nice day.

At 2:30, I am ready to throw in the towel. Twilight Zone segments begin to revolve in my brain pan. I am looking for Candid Camera. The desert sun is beginning to affect my mental processes. I get so desperate, that I approach a Border Patrol agent, who has been sitting in his parked pickup under a tree a small distance away, watching us - or snoozing, it's hard to tell, what with the reflective aviator sunglasses and all. "How far is it to the trolley to San Diego?" About 20 minutes. "That's a long walk." Walk? That's by car. "What? Where the hell are we?" Otay Mesa. "This is not San Ysidro? But my bus ticket says San Ysidro." Well, this ain't it.

Back I go to Diana. "No wonder we didn't get a bus, the Crucero driver dropped us off at the wrong border crossing. This is the middle of the desert, and Greyhound never heard of Otay Mesa."

Of course, this story has if not a happy ending, at least a utilitarian one. One of our fellow passengers, also working the phones, had gotten through to someone at the Crucero office in TJ, and after three phone calls and fifteen persons, was finally able to convince someone to allow a Los Angeles-bound bus to leave TJ airport only half full.

Two and a half hours after arriving there, we bid our fond good-byes to Otay Mesa. As we pull away, I see that the guy in the pickup is still there, making our tax dollars work for us.
(June, 1999)

[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]

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