La Bestia

If I can’t enact my fantasies in the US, I can take them to Mexico.

I’ve mentioned Hitchwiki before; it’s my resource for figuring out how to get out of big cities. It’s almost essential in the US, where the city public transportation networks are shamefully inadequate and the highway system is so overgrown that there are only a scant few legal and sane places to stand on the road that goes to your next destination. In Mexico it’s not nearly as necessary, because there are buses that go basically everywhere, and also the highways are mostly lousy and pocked with potholes and striped with speed bumps, so you can hitch almost anywhere. But before I knew that, I checked out what Hitchwiki had to say about some Mexican places. I ended up on their map of all of Mexico, scattered with pushpins for all the hitching spots in the country, and I clicked around to semirandom spots to get a feel for the lay of the land.

In Puebla I found a note—free of context, unsigned, it was functionally information from nowhere at all. It had nothing to say about a place to hitchhike—it was a bit different:

Freight train towards Orizaba / Vera Cruz. If you have the time it’s definitely worth the wait! Stand just to the east of this point next to the tracks and look for the “Ferrosur” locomotive heading away (east) from the yard – there are normally 2 a day, early and late. Chances are there will be other people there waiting for the train, feel free to talk to them. The ride takes about 8 hours and get’s a bit cold at night (December).. no problems with police or rail employees – quite the opposite! Also, if you have to wait over night you can camp right next to the tracks and not have to worry about banditos or policia!

It grabbed hold of my imagination. Here was information on something that, clearly, was a bad idea. A really fun bad idea. I spent a lot of the first few days of the trip, and a lot of time before that while I was holed up in Beloit, visualizing this bad idea and deciding whether it was fun enough to justify. It would be a dirty, dangerous, and sleep-deprived trip if I did it. Cramped and difficult and uncertain and hot. It sounded perfect. I headed to Puebla.

Now, I knew practically nothing about Puebla before I went there. It’s an hour or two south of Mexico City and I had it pictured as a pretty nondescript continuation of the capital, just a place where people started moving when there was no room left in the valley where Mexico City is situated. Turns out, it’s one of the classiest cities in Mexico. Downtown around the main square were dozens of people enjoying a happy Valentine’s Day with ice cream and performing clowns. Fashion stores and nice restaurants were scattered around, and the cathedral in the center of everything was giant and nearly four and a half centuries old. People were selling balloons, popsicles, and toys on the square, and everyone seemed to be happy. As I wandered a little farther afield, I found a street band of guys in suits playing old classics with cello and guitar, not even begging for money, just playing so people could have a nice night. Around a few more corners, I found another band doing the same thing. Once it was dark, an elaborate light show was projected onto the façade of the cathedral, with a sonorous voice telling all about its long history, flags and colors rising and falling. But the thing that surprised me most in Puebla was a simple moment. A guy on a motorcycle cut off a guy in a car. For a moment they were side-by-side, tempers hot, and I heard the guy in the car saying, “The Law of Transportation specifically states that it’s a motor vehicle—” I didn’t hear where the conversation went from there, but I was taken flat aback that I had actually found someone in Mexico who seemed to know and care about the transportation laws. At all other places in the country, I had found transportation to be a haphazard mishmash, where anyone does whatever they can to get their car from A to B without worrying too much about what it does in between. Puebla was a world apart.

Or at least it was downtown. To try to catch the “late” train, I took a bus to a corner of town that is utterly untouched by glamor or classiness, among the factories, by the side of the stinking creek: here was where the switchyard was found. Around here you can tell that though Puebla must be fairly rich by Mexican standards, those standards are still Mexican, and its prosperous center is surrounded by acres upon acres of poor people’s cinder-block houses.

With no idea how late the late train might be, or whether it had already gone by, I sat in some long grass and waited. I was above street level, at the end of a bridge that went over a big street beneath, but occasionally people would come up to my level to cross the tracks, never paying me any attention. It wasn’t exactly peaceful, but it didn’t seem any too dangerous.

It got cold. It got boring. I realized that I had probably missed the late train, and I would have to wait for the early one. So I sat back in some tall grass, pulled out my journal, and started writing to get ready for bed. This, of course, led to a train pulling out of the yard in the middle of my journal entry, and I had to scramble and pack and shove my stuff around and prepare. Within about a minute I was ready, and I walked up to the train and found a gondola, an open-top car, and climbed up and in.

With a mighty roar of the engines up ahead of me and a thunder crack of slack action—the noise that happens when a long string of many-ton freight cars all snap taut sequentially from the pull of the locomotive, a machine-gun series of huge bangs that starts quietly all the way up at the beginning of the train and within three seconds arrives at your own car and surrounds you in hard metallic noise—the train creaked into motion. The problem, though, was that it was moving in reverse. I realized that I might not be going to Orizaba so soon after all. It backed into the switchyard and stopped, and all the air bled from the air brakes, and I realized I might not be going to Orizaba so soon after all. But, considering my options, I decided that sleeping in a secluded metal gondola was better than leaning back in long grass full of litter next to a big creek full of pungent drainage.

I didn’t get much chance to act on that decision; most of my decisions tonight seemed to be pretty fleeting. This time another train came into the yard, this one with four locomotives instead of the single one that my current train had had, meaning it was a good bet to be pushing right through, on eastward to where I wanted to go, and I climbed quickly out of my gondola and found a roomy grain car on the new train. I had to catch it on the fly (while it was moving). Strictly speaking it’s not a very good idea to catch out on the fly, but it’s hard to avoid, and fairly easy to do safely (relatively speaking) if the train is going about walking speed. The process is precise and simple. I eyeballed the grainer I wanted, I waited until its side ladder was in front of me, I started striding briskly alongside it to match its speed, I grabbed a rung with both hands, I held on tight, and then I jumped onto the car. For all the simplicity, though, the feeling is tough to describe. If you grab onto a playground carousel, or a boat, or a passing friend, that thing is going to respond to your touch and your weight—you’ll knock its momentum down a bit. That’s what your hands come to expect. But a freight train is a different class of thing altogether. You grab it and it doesn’t even notice; you could be a mosquito, and suddenly that imperturbable power is in the grip of your hands and under your feet. Through a physics eye, the train has just imparted its momentum to you, and you are now a part of it. Now one, together you continue down the track all but unstoppable.

But in fact, I still hadn’t caught my break. The train stopped just a little ways up, the air hissed out of the air brakes, and I sat still again. This time, though, I didn’t have to internally debate very long about whether to stay on and try to catch a nap. Very shortly, a flashlight beam played into my cubbyhole and a yard worker told me to come on out. He had me follow him and his companion down the track as they shone the flashlight around the other cars and pulled off several more people, some of them riding in uncomfortable places that I’ve never even heard of riding. At least one guy was actually inside a coil car. After a while, they were satisfied that they’d gotten everyone, and we all stood together on the ballast.

This, in an American switchyard, is where the bull (the railcop) would tell you all that he was going to write you tickets and you’d be due to appear in court on such and such date, or that he was going to haul you in and put you in the town jail for a night, or at the very least that you’d better get out of his switchyard (at least for eight hours until his shift ended). In Mexico, though, it’s a little different. The guys who had pulled us all off told us that that train was stopping here, and if we wanted to keep heading east, we were out of luck for a little while and we’d need to wait for another train. There would be a little one leaving in the morning around seven or eight, and that was all he could tell us so far. We could walk along the edge of the yard and across the bridge and wait in the grass that way.

And so it was that I ended up in that grass next to the drainage creek after all. The other guys who got pulled off with me went elsewhere to wait. They were Hondurans with an accent I couldn’t get through very easily, but they asked me a few questions about what the guy had said about the trains and what I knew about when there might be one heading to Veracruz (past Orizaba), and then they headed off to the other end of the yard for some reason. I saw them a few more times during the course of that uncomfortable, cold night, but mostly I slept, waiting for the little morning “trenecito” to Orizaba.

I woke up at 6:30 to see the little train driving right past me and, as I frantically packed, away down the track into the distance. There was no catching it. The damn yard guy was wrong. Now I had a long day stretching out ahead of me, and no idea when I might find another train. According to the internet’s information, it might not be until “late”. Before I had too much time to ponder my predicament, two engines with no cars headed out of the yard. And in a quintessentially Mexican moment, they stopped at the first cross street, the conductors stepped down, and they walked over to a little breakfast cart that an old lady had parked at the corner there. I walked up to join them. I got myself a vanilla atole (a thick drink made with corn flour, with a name straight out of the Aztec language Nahuatl), and conversationally asked the conductors if they knew how I could get to Orizaba on a train. Theirs was going there, they said, but they couldn’t take me; there would, however, be another train leaving that way at about one. They finished their drinks, said bye, and got back on the train; I got myself a couple tamales and decided I could wait that long.

The morning stretched out long and boring for a while, and I urged the sun further up into the sky by reading a book I’d brought along. After a while, though, I started meeting other hopeful passengers. Here’s the thing about Mexican freight trains; this was explained to me by Rubén on the drive down to the border. The Hispanic immigrants who come to the USA don’t come just from Mexico. A lot of them come from the even poorer countries south of Mexico: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. These people can’t afford a Mexican bus ticket, can hardly even afford clothes for themselves, and don’t have a passport to get by the police checkpoints anyhow, and so they ride the freight train north. The Mexican police have, after a long time of this, settled on an official policy of not hassling the immigrants, because they can’t stanch their flow anyhow. They just ignore them.

The immigrants come in huge numbers, sometimes crowding in the hundreds on top of a train, a giant influx each year arriving at the US’s border. Some of them get through, one way or another; some of them are turned back and stay at an “immigrant house” like those set up not by the government but by compassionate townsfolk in the border towns for those who don’t make the trip successfully. The risks they run are many and on all sides of them. Riding trains is dangerous in itself, obviously. If you’re in the wrong place, not holding onto a rung tight enough, when slack action hits, you could get thrown into a coupler or under the wheels and lose a big part of your body that you wanted to keep. But that’s something you can overcome if you’re careful. The bigger, much more unnerving problem is the gangs. The Mexican drug cartels see the northbound train as a useful and inexhaustible source of people who can do forced labor for them or even possibly fetch a ransom somewhere. So they’ll wait somewhere that they know the train will stop, and they’ll do something that’s probably a lot like what happened to me and the other riders in the switchyard, only a lot less courteous and with an evil ending instead of a helpful one. No wonder the train has gotten the name La Bestia—”The Beast”. Gangs only attack trains occasionally, but that doesn’t comfort you much if it was your unlucky day.

Fortunately for me, the only trains that are a worthwhile target are the northbound ones, and my train would ultimately be headed south, back to Guatemala and Honduras. That also meant I didn’t have company numbering in the dozens or hundreds. But there still were a few people heading back the other way for whatever reason. We all ended up chatting with each other as we wandered around and waited, and I relayed what the conductors of the loose locomotives had told me. There were the Hondurans I had met the previous night, with skin darker than any I’d seen in Mexico and clothes of dark blue and green; there was a small group of Guatemalans, who whiled away their time before the next train by smoking pot; and I met two Mexicans, from Chiapas, the southernmost state and the one next to Guatemala. They were just kids, fifteen or sixteen. One was lively and talkative, the other one apprehensive and a little sick. They didn’t have much family to speak of in Chiapas, and had gone up to the border to look for work in the US, but hadn’t managed to get across, so now they were heading back home. We sat in the shade against a wall and passed the time talking about what the US is like. Are the people racist there? Why do they think Mexicans are a problem?

Sometimes they would leave for long stretches to go gather up clothing that had been tossed aside into their big garbage bag full of clothes. In a lot of the world with my backpack I’ve felt like an unmentionable, looking like a scruffy, bearded failure, human detritus. Here with these two Chiapaneco kids, I practically felt like nobility. I had a fancy down sleeping bag, a waterproof tent, a camera, a debit card, a college education. But there we sat together, having water and tamales given to us by a man who passed by and told us he wanted us to have them with all respect for us and what we were doing. I let the boys have the tamales. I had a few pesos in my pocket for my next meal.

The train took its time, and we were misled over and over by a train that the yardmaster was building by sending strings out of the yard and then backing them in again. I actually ended up in the yard a couple times while I was waiting, because I would get impatient, see a string that looked like it might leave, and then I would get taken back into the yard. I got advice from a yardworker the first time, and then several hours later he laughed and asked me what I was doing back in the yard, then pointed to the car that would be at the beginning of the train I wanted. That’s how I was able to point it out to the two Chiapanecos, and we ran up to it, waited a long time—almost to the end of the train—for a good car, and grabbed onto the rumbling power and were finally off.

The train carried us, slowly, slowly, out of the cinder-block suburbs and into dry, baked-tan farmland. On stick-rail and old wooden ties, it couldn’t get us moving any faster than a brisk jog. I watched the scenery roll past. Dusty little towns appeared and left; kids walked their bikes next to the train, and men and women carried groceries by it. Some people waited on their carthorses for it to pass. Farmers looked at us from across their fields. Gradually, I realized that I had no need to hide, and peeked my head above the top of the car. A few cars back were my Chiapaneco friends, and when they spotted me finally looking in their direction they waved enthusiastically and we gave each other double-handed thumbs-ups. They were sitting on top of their grainer, and I decided that, since we hadn’t passed under any low bridges, we were moving pretty slow, and there were plenty of things to hold onto up there, I felt safe giving it a chance. This was more than I’d ever thought I’d dare to do on a freight train. The luxury, the exhilaration!

Almost immediately, as I was looking forward, the more sprightly of the two Chiapanecos appeared with a clang out of nowhere right next to me. He had just run up the length of the catwalk on top of his car, then the two cars between us, and finally over to my car, jumping over a two-foot gap between each pair of cars—all very casually. He had come up to chat about the weather and where we might be now (I had a map and he didn’t). After a brief visit he headed back the way he came, carefree. He came up to talk and orient himself several more times. I don’t know how long he’s been riding trains, but he’s obviously made himself at home on them.

After a few hours during which a bicycle could have outraced us (but not with the same cargo), we finally found the good track. It was laid with concrete ties and ribbon rail, and once we were on it, we flew for the rest of the trip. A mountain appeared in the distance: Pico de Orizaba, the tallest mountain in the country. Little towns came and went, each with the name of a different political candidate painted on a white wall marquee. The landscape was arid and empty, but with occasional bursts of character in the people below us, or in trees that rose up beside us and allowed me to snatch at pine needles. The sun slowly neared the horizon, as I tracked our slow but steady progress toward Orizaba. I made up my mind to get off at the first stop close to Orizaba, because I was likely to be in a small town where I could hitch more easily. I sat back and enjoyed the ride.

In the evening, with dark coming, we entered the White River Canyon’s basin. Here things got interesting. This is where we got into what the Hondurans had described to me as “a shitload of tunnels”, some long, some short, all pitch dark and full of concentrated train clatter. The train barreled through at an awesome pace with help from a fairly sharp downhill grade that kept going for miles. In the moments between them, I saw dusk coming to a complex of steep, deep valleys, some of them with the lights of a tiny collection of houses set in them, most of it covered in wild grasses. The air was fresher and colder and I felt invigorated.

Shortly after dark closed in entirely, the train squealed to a stop in front of a tunnel. I figured we must be close to Orizaba by now, but not in it, and on a split-second decision I jumped out. I headed back to the Chiapanecos’ car, and by the time I got there, it was already rolling toward me. “I’m getting off here!” I yelled to them. “¡Buen viaje, amigos!” The train hurtled off and disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel, and the night was quiet.

A guy who was walking nearby told me I was in Acultzingo, and directed me to the highway, where I found a place willing to sell me some sandwiches and a bus station attendant who told me I could camp out front behind the Virgin Mary shrine. The next day I got a ride out with ease and headed on toward Oaxaca. Of all the ways that trip could have turned out for me, many of them very bad, I think I found maybe the best possible one. Maybe this sort of adventure isn’t for you, but for me it’ll always be perhaps the greatest highlight of a highlight-filled trip. You just have to take a chance sometimes.

File under: trains, Year of Adventure, interesting people · Places: Mexico

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It's a good thing I didn't know about this until I know you are safe and sound, because otherwise I'd have died of a heart attack on the spot, you stinker!

Can't stop you, even if I tried, so I have to congratulate you on your moxie. And I want to give you a hug because I know you're safe at home. Grandma


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