El Chepe

The bus the Chihuahua was an hour late.  There are no departure boards at Mexican bus stations, you just stand on the platform and wait for a bus with your destination on the front to show up. Bus after bus pulled up at the Zacatecas station, and none of them were for Ciudad Juarez, which was the bus I would take to Chihuahua, where I would change for the train to Creel.  I had been on the platform twenty minutes early, so there was no way  I had missed the bus, but waiting was still nerve wracking.  I was already apprehensive about having to buy my train ticket same day, and hour before departure when I arrived in Chihuahuha at 5am(the cheap tickets only went on sale a day in advance), and what it would do to my schedule if it was sold out. The bus had originated in Mexico City and was ending at the US border.  It had probably been stopped more than once for drug inspections, as had my bus from Leon to Zacatecas, which had been thirty minutes late.  I asked the guy who was acting as the baggage claim agent for the arriving buses, and he said “Un momento mas”.  A bunch of momentos later, it finally showed up, and I settled in for my twelve hour ride.

I watched the sun set,

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I listened to music, I ate the rest of the bag of Fritos I had bought for lunch. My left hip hurt. I managed to get a couple hours of sleep.   At midnight, we stopped for fifteen minutes in Torreon, about halfway, and all deboarded as the bus was cleaned.

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We arrived in Chihuahua at 4:30am, the time having jumped an hour as Sinaloa doesn’t observe daylight savings.

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The train station didn’t open until 5am, so I had twenty minutes to wait in the nearly empty terminal.  Any time you end up at a bus station at 4:30am, regardless of the place or the reason, you start to think about your life and the decisions that brought you to this moment.  Twenty minutes wasn’t long enough to go too far down that rabbit hole, and an $6 taxi ride later, I was at the train station, buying my ticket.

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The train left at 6am.  I was in economic class, which differed from first class only in lacking a restaurant car, and cost half as much.  The two classes were supposed to be separate trains, departing at 7am and 6am, respectively, but today they were one, first class being the first three coaches and economic the last six.

We made our way out of Chihuahua and the surrounding sprawl ranchlands framed by distant mountains.  I settled easily into the comforting swaying, clanking rhythm of train travel.  I moved from my seat to the open-windowed space at the end of the car, breathing in the smell of cattle.

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At the first stop,  a bunch of raramuri boarded. There was a bus as far as Divisadero, two hours passed Creel, where I would be getting off, but this train was their lifeline between remote villages and the rest of the world. The raramuri were notoriously reserved,  shy.  They gained some attention through the book “Born to Run” for their ability to run long distances in the canyons wearing leather sandals.  You would see them in towns like Creel, sitting on curbs, selling woven baskets or handmade dolls, the women in their brightly colored skirts, the men dressed like cowboys, only occasionally dressed in the traditional white tunic.  The children would approach with their wares and say ‘Compras?” Hovering between a command and a question; “You buy?”  Only once did a child approach me with with an imploring “Un peso, un peso.” Some of them still lived in caves.  Living in the canyons offered them an insularity not available to people like the Mayans.  The only people interested in the place they lived were outdoor loving tourists like myself and drug dealers, who valued the seclusion of the canyons as much as the Raramuri, for different reasons.

In Creel, I was assailed by hotel touts as I stepped off the train as one of the only people disembarking, and I put one off by saying I needed time to think, and as I stood behind the station, another approached.  I accepted his offer of a room including breakfast and dinner for 300 pesos.  It was normally 500, but the other tout was offering a room for 175, but no meals.  I had accidentally negotiated a decent deal.  The meals had sold me, as I was tired of sitting alone in near empty restaurants.

At the hotel, I signed in with some other guests, discreetly handing over 600 pesos for two nights, as the young man had told me not to mention what I was paying to anyone else, since it was such a good rate.  Or maybe he didn’t want me to find out that other people, better negotiators than me, were paying less.

The showers were hot and high pressure, worth the cost of the room by themselves, and I was about to clean myself after spending nineteen of the previous twenty-two hours on public transportation and the other three waiting, when there was a knock on my door.  Another tout, wanting to sell me on a van tour for 200 pesos. Not a bad deal, but I planned on mountain biking to many of the same sights tomorrow, and told him I had just come from Zacatecas overnight, and I needed to rest.

I walked around Creel in the late afternoon,  The town was empty of tourists, which explained the competition for guests at the hotels, and for tours.  I had been through Creel on my trip thirteen years ago, coming from the other direction.

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Rain threatened and eventually followed through in the early evening, which I spent in my room watching the Brazil/Mexico World Cup group game.   After dinner, I went out to buy beer, but every place selling alcohol closed by 8pm.  I shouldn’t have been surprised in a place where alcoholism was chronic

The next morning, I woke up late and went to rent a bicycle when the shop opened at 10am.  I biked and walked to the Jesus statue above town,

then  rode to the ejido,  what amounts to the Mexican version of an Indian Reservation, another place I had visited thirteen years prior, but on foot.  This time their was an admission, 25 pesos, and a map.  The dirt roads were signed with arrows toward the attractions.  For that, it wasn’t crowded, just me on the bike and a couple minivans with Mexican tourists.
It was peaceful.  If you had blindfolded me and dropped me here, I might’ve guessed I was in the Sierras of California.

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Strange granite rock formations,

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high silent meadows grazed by cattle,

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deforested slopes stretched away around me.  I rode for four hours, down single track and dirt roads, remembering how much fun mountain biking can be.

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I rode down the two lane highway back into Creel, having gotten a bit turned around on my ride.

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It started to rain as I neared town, and though I’d brought my rain jacket, I sheltered under the awning of a shuttered licqour store, it being Sunday.

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The rain abated long enough for me to return the bike and get back to my hotel, and then didn’t let up until late in the evening.  It was a proper mountain thunderstorm, lightning flashing and rain pounding on the corrugated roof in waves.

I tried to buy my ticket for the ferry from Topolobampo to La Paz, Baja online, but neither of my credit cards would work.  I was nervous about waiting until the day of, but my only other option was to reserve by phone, and I wasn’t comfortable with my Spanish.

The following morning I tried again before the 11:45am train.  The credit cards still didn’t work.  I told myself that the worst thing that would happen if I called is that I would look stupid and hang up in the middle of the call in shame.  That seemed a better option than showing up Tuesday and finding the boat sold out, so I made the call.  It mostly went well.  There were some problems spelling my name, with is long, and my pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet was imperfect.  I completed most of the transaction in Spanish, before I was put on hold and an English speaker came on the confirm the details, for which I was grateful, and after twenty minutes, I had booked my passage.

I paced the train platform nervously.  I could’ve bought a first class ticket, but I decided to trust my luck and wait for the train to show up and get an economic class ticket again for half the price.

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As I suspected, there were plenty of open seats on the train when it arrived.  If there hadn’t been, and I had to wait to the next day, I would’ve missed my ferry.

The next ten hours were the reason people rode El Chepe.  From the Divisadero stop, you could deboard for twenty minutes and see the canyons unfolding in front of you.  I bought two beef and two relleno burritos.

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We crossed high bridges and passed through gorges along rivers in the complicated between storm light.

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At El Lazo the track looped back around itself.

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We fell further and further behind schedule.  By El Fuerte I was looking at my watch every ten minutes.

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We arrived in Los Mochis after 10pm, and I was glad I had booked my hotel the day before, so all I had to do was tell a cab driver where to drop me.  It was late, but the night was hot.  I was out of the mountains and back on the tropical coast.  I went to look for food, finding a hot dog restaurant not far away.  People sat out on the sidewalk in lawn chairs, and others gathered in plastic furniture at taco carts.

I was about to begin my last week outside the USA.

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