Getting to Chihuahua City - December 26, 1986
We flew American Airlines to El Paso with a stop in Dallas to switch planes on a very cold day after Christmas. We arrived in El Paso in the early afternoon and were faced with our first minor issue. We'd packed our all too heavy packs in army duffle bags that we really did not want to carry all the way across Mexico. Back in the day, flying was still fun and the airlines still had service on the mind. I'm obviously being sarcastic but my jaundiced view is likely rooted in my opinion of American Airlines following the debacle that they must have choreographed for weeks leading up to our trip to Bolivia in 2007. Regardless we had these heavy duffle bags, and believe it nor not, we were, with little effort, able to get the baggage manager at the airport to stash the bags in the luggage storage area for us to pick up when we got back. We were over our first hurdle and on that high note we were off to the Stanton Street bridge across the Rio Grande.
If you've never been to El Paso, the pedestrian walkway on the Stanton Street bridge is the main footpath into Mexico. I had my Lonely Planet guide to Mexico in hand when the taxi dropped us off just outside of the one way turnstile leading into Mexico. Just a few feet through the turnstile but rest assured after you pass through, you are in another world . . . especially for those wanting of Spanish. We walked across the bridge into the warren of streets that form Ciudad Juarez and I knew it was only about ten blocks to the railroad station. We made it about 6 blocks and were a bit turned around when a guy stopped and asked in clear English if we needed directions. I asked if he knew the way to the train station and the smart ass grammarian smiled, said that he did and walked away. Thanks a million Juan Valdez . . .
We found the station and entered the passenger terminal side knowing we needed two tickets to Chihuahua. We also needed to find the immigration office so that we could acquire the tourist card that most folks get on the plane when they fly into Mexico. At the time, Mexico had a no documents needed border zone that went about 15 miles into the country. At the 15 mile mark, there were immigration check points so a tourist card was a must have for our inland adventure. We spotted la Migra office and soon walked away with two stamped tourist cards . . . my smattering of Spanish really worked . . . or the border folks simply were too bored to screw with us. Next, I needed two tickets to Chihuahua and I spotted the ticket window where within minutes I suffered utter defeat at the hands of a ticket vendor who spoke more words per minute than an M-60 can put rounds down range. I could say what I wanted but what she said in response, I had no clue. I tried again and failed again. Great, just great, we've got 80 lb packs and we dragged them across the country to do this trip. Now, I can't get out of Juarez . . . so what to do now?
I told Dan I was really in a world of linguistic hurt but then I spotted two other Anglos talking and looking like they were about to buy some tickets. I walked over, ascertained that they were not only of the USA but one was a fluent Spanish speaker having just completed a hitch in the Peace Corps They were headed to Copper Canyon and about to buy the tickets to Chihuahua! I asked if the fellow would stand next to me when I tried again and he agreed to coach me along if I still could not pull off the transaction. This time I got through the process and soon I had two tickets for the train south. I knew now that we were either going to get to Copper Canyon or be stranded deeper in Mexico without a paddle. I don't recall these two guys names but on the off chance that one of them ever reads this, you were wonderful and to be honest your minimal effort formed the bridge that got us through this trip and built the confidence that has taken me south of the border ever since.
The fellow who helped me had requested seats next to ours and after we took a seat in the waiting area, he told us that we needed to sit together on the train so that he could somehow coach us on how to survive our trip Mexico. He did a good job doing just that, telling us what to avoid, how to get a cab, a train ticket, a hotel room, just about everything we needed to know was pounded into our heads over the next four or five hours. The train for Chihuahua left at about 5 in the afternoon and it was a four hour ride south to the capital of Chihuahua State. It was the height of the holiday weekand as we rolled through small towns there were christmas lights adorning mud homes and clutches of folks standing around burning tires in back yards. I'd been across the border for one hour in about 1976 so this was my first real trip south of the border. It was the start of a great experience but different . . . the conductor checked our tickets, la Migra checked our tourist cards and the train guard gave us the condescending eye, likley reserved for gringo tourists. Getting the eye from a guy with a cocked and locked 45 Colt automatic for some reason just seemed to catch our attention.
We arrived in Chihuahua City and I arranged for a cab ride to the hotel the other guys were going to and off we went through the night, two gringos and two packs in a very beaten up Datsun B210 with a broken hatchback, but soon enough we were at the hotel and checked in. Dan and I took a bit of a walk around the block and even dared to have a hamburgesa from one of the street vendor's charcoal grills. We knew we were asking for stomach trouble but we dove in, figuring that it was likely an inevitable occurance.
The next morning, we had a 5 am wake-up call so that we could get ready and be looking for a cab at 6 am. The other guys told us to get an head start and if we were still struggling when they left 15 minutes later, they would scoop us up and take us along with them. So far we'd made it to Chihuahua but only with a bit of linguistic help and one very rigorous prep session. Again, whoever you were, thank you . . .