88 Tunnels of scorching diesel fumes

There are 88 tunnels between El Sufragio and Chihuahua. We suffered in every one. It felt like the skin on my back was blistering, and in the longer ones, I thought I was going to pass out…

We had gone back to El Sufragio for a third night, hoping to catch a Chihuahua-bound freight through the Copper Canyon.

By now we knew most of the regular faces that hung around there. And you can be sure they all knew us. Word of the gringos had even spread to the small town 5 miles away. Earlier that day, Bo had stepped into an Internet café in San Blas to send some emails. Two minutes later, a swarthy slickster entered the café and introduced himself to Bo. He spoke perfect English. He said he knew about crossing the border and told Bo to call him if we needed any help. He wrote his number on a little piece of paper and left the cafe. His name was Rico.

But in El Sufragio, they seemed friendly to us now. We even made friends with a Honduran immigrant, Rigo, and his brother. They were headed for Colorado Springs, illegally of course.

His was an interesting story. He’d already been living in the USA for 7 years. He had a steady job operating heavy equipment on a construction site for $19 an hour; he had two kids, a cell phone, a car, a bank account, fake papers and lots of friends. His English was almost perfect. All in all, I got the impression Rigo was a real leader. He was responsible, hardworking and intelligent.

Two months ago, Rigo’s house was raided by the police. He’d invited a friend to crash in his spare room for a few days as a favor. But unbeknownst to him, the friend was a drug dealer. And when the drug dealer got into a bar fight and the cops found cocaine on him, they raided Rigo’s house and found 10 vials in the drug dealer’s room.

Rigo was arrested and charged with intent to supply. Fortunately witnesses came forward and testified that Rigo had nothing to do with drugs and that the drug dealer was to blame. So they pinned Rigo with possession and deported him, after a three month stint in jail.

Then they flew him home, as they do with all deportees. He had visited his family in Honduras for a few weeks and was now heading back to the USA, this time, with his 17-year old brother in tow.

“Now my credit history is all messed up,” he complained.

What happened to the drug dealer, also an illegal immigrant? He remains in the USA, and not only that, he kept his freedom… by ratting on his cocaine supplier. The supplier went to jail for 7 years. It was the same jail Rigo visited before they deported him. They saw each other inside and the supplier swore he’d kill the drug dealer as soon as he got out. Rigo wasn’t too upset by this.

Anyway, the train to Chihuahua was scheduled for 11 p.m. Having waited three days for it, this news came as quite a relief.

At 10 p.m., three rusty old units crawled out of the maintenance sheds and backed onto a string of freight cars. This was our train. And this was the signal to get on board.

We wandered down the train, looking for rides. This train was mainly composed of unrideable ribbed grain hoppers. (There are no platforms at either end, so unless you don’t mind perching above the wheels on a thin strip of metal, you’d better look for something else.)

There were other freight cars – some sealed boxcars, a chemical tanker, some flat cars – none of which are any good – and maybe 4 or 5 sausage-shaped grain hoppers, which hobos love.

Unfortunately, the sausages were already taken. We were pondering what to do…when the train started airing up and getting ready to pull out. I started to panic. We sprinted back up the train toward the head-end, where we knew there was one available ride left… a ride no one else had wanted… the worst ride on the train…

The very first wagon.

Mexican diesel engines are not like diesel engines in the States. There are no federal regulations, no minimum safety standards, no emissions controls… in Mexico, if they can pull the train, they’ll use ‘em. They look old, rusty and decrepit.

Secondly, the route to Chihuahua is mountainous. In fact, the train has to literally climb over a mountain range, ascending 10,000 ft in a little over 300 kms. That’s why they needed 88 tunnels and trestle bridges… And a corkscrew loop…

And that’s why it took them 90 years to build… and why railroad enthusiasts consider the copper canyon route to be an engineering marvel…

Here’s a good documentary about the train through copper canyon

It’s also why we wanted to ride it so badly.

But a steep climb like this requires some diesel… some real diesel… and lots of black smoke. In effect, these units were going to belch out smoke like steam locomotives and we were going to be sitting right over the exhaust.

Here’s how it felt.

It was nighttime, so you couldn’t see the tunnels approaching. You just had to let them surprise you. So I wet the collar of my shirt and pulled it over my face like a gasmask. Then I tried to sleep and hoped the suffering would go away.

It didn’t.

The first thing to change was the sound. The roar was already deafening, but when we went into a tunnel, it seemed to wrap around my head like a python and squeeze my whole body.

Then came the heat. It escalated. The longer the tunnel, the hotter it got, every second was worse. I was all wrapped up in my blanket, so the first few seconds were ok. But it intensified… until I thought it was just about to scorch the back of my legs and the skin on my back. It never did… it just felt like it was about to.

Then came that first breath. You don’t want to breathe but you have to. And you take it with trepidation. The smell doesn’t hit you at first, the heat does. You feel it on the back of your throat. It scorches. Then you exhale. That’s when you get the flavors in your mouth… the smell of diesel and the taste of soot.

Some tunnels were ten minutes long.

And just when it had occurred to you that you might be falling unconscious, the noise would disappear, the heat would lift and cool mountain wind would fill your the blanket again.

Morning was better. I could see the tunnels coming and I would hold my breath.

At the first stop, we got down and went to find our Honduran friends. They had been perching on a thin metal strip all night and wearing only t-shirts, they must have been freezing. Rigo suggested we get on top of the train…

“Look ahead,” he advised. “And watch out for branches.”

The Great Depression

We’d blown our first attempt at riding a freight through the Copper Canyon. Now we had a second chance… and it left from a freight yard on Mexico’s Pacific Coast called El Sufragio.

We’d already spent one night in Sufragio… avoiding the many thieves, soldiers, police and mosquitoes that reside there, but no train had departed.

Thinking back to my beautiful new screen enclosure back in Florida… damn mosquitoes and critters. Shout out to palmbeachpatioscreens.com for doing such a good job with that.

So we went back for a second night.

When we got there, the scene was the same. Dozens of Central American tramps were hanging around in the shadows waiting for the 9 p.m. Mexicali train. They called out to us from the dark in terrible English… “How are ju?” “I speekee English… you have moneee for me?”

If you want to sneak into the USA, you want to do it in New Mexico or California, especially if this isn’t your first time (we met some Mexicans who had been deported 40 or 50 times and were still going back.) This is because the jails in New Mexico and California are full to capacity, and judges won’t send illegal aliens to jail. (Texas is different. You get caught three times, you go to jail for 180 days.)

So the majority of the tramps want to ride the Mexicali train to California, not the Copper Canyon train to Chihuahua.

I asked a worker what time the Chihuahua train was leaving. “It hasn’t been called yet,” he told me, “but if you buy me a soda, I’ll wander over to the tower and see if I can find out what’s going on…”

I bought him a soda, and anxiously waited for him to come back with the information. He never came back. I talked to a few other people. General consensus was that there’d be no train to Chihuahua for the second night in a row. So when the Mexicali train pulled out, we jumped it instead.

Imagine a clock that reads ten minutes to two. Mexicali would sit at the end of the minute hand while Chihuahua would be at the end of the hour hand. Mexicali was in completely the wrong direction for us, but we took the train anyway because we had to get out of that yard.

We rode a grain car all night. I couldn’t sleep because I was worried we’d be robbed. Every time the train stopped, often in the middle of nowhere, I’d hear voices and footsteps on the gravel and I’d think they were coming for us. Then we’d start moving again, and I could relax.

We stopped at Guaymas at around 9 a.m. A worker told me the train wouldn’t continue north for 8 hours, so we got off and started wandering over to the store. And that’s when we saw them…

Dozens and dozens of hobos were filing off the train. And large groups, some more than 20, were walking beside it. It was quite a sight, and something you’d never see in an American freight yard.

We talked to some of them. Many had been on the road over 40 days, with little food and no possessions. But they were close to the USA now and soon everything would be better, they told us. They all planned to cross the border on foot, walking through the desert with the help of either friends or coyotes.

I realised something too: these people weren’t thieves; they just wanted to get to the USA with as few hassles as possible. And I bet 99.9% would make it too, if not on this attempt, then on the next.

“This is how it must’ve been during the depression,” said Bo.

We didn’t feel like waiting 8 hours for the train to continue north, so we got the bus back to Sufragio.

Third time lucky?

Jerry

Sissy Tourists

Black Like Me – I read it on the Canada trip – is the 1950s story of a white man who dyed his skin black and shaved his hair so he looked like a black man. Then he went to live in the segregated deep-south for a few weeks. It’s a classic book, and really showed what a terrible thing racism is.

Latin Like Me was going to be the story of our foray into the world of illegal Mexican immigrants. We were going to dye our skin and hair, grow moustaches, and speak only in spanish. Then we were going to hop freight trains north and sneak across the border without documents. Not any more. I decided it’s all just a little bit too much. I mean, imagine what would happen should we get caught? And I’m not just referring to La Migra (U.S. immigration) either.

We had nailed the perfect freight… fast, comfortable, safe and scenic. We had even got the timing just right so that we´d see all the best bits of the canyon in daylight. We had water, food, warmth. No headaches. Nothing. Everything was absolutely ideal. Too fucking ideal.

After a few hours, just a few minutes before sunrise, the train pulled into a desolate yard and the workers started adding wagons. We went back and forth a little, and at one point, the train was split right at my wagon. I wasn’t overly concerned… until I looked down to the other end and found that, somehow, our wagon was sitting all on its own on a different track!

Of all the freight cars on the train, and there must have been over 100, they´d ditched ours, and only ours!

I shoved my stuff in the bag and ran to get Bo. We darted back to the rest of the train, which was now pulling out. Once again, it accelerated surprisingly quickly. I started to panic… only this time, we weren’t so lucky. Nothing came and soon the train was zooming past us at over 30 mph.

It took a while to sink in, but we´d completely blown it.

And now we found ourselves stranded on the high sierra, miles from anywhere. No more freights would be coming through for 48 hours and even then, we couldn’t be sure they would stop.

So we started hiking up the track. After a short time, we came upon a little village where the people stared at us. There was a bus pulling out. We took it. And then another, and another….

Then we took the passenger train through the Copper Canyon. It cost $35. It was comfortable and bland. And the view through the window was nice.

copper-canyon

And every now again I´d doze. And then I´d drink an icy coke from the snack car. And then I´d wander down to the bathroom and splash water on my face and wash my hands.

We arrived in Los Mochis at 1 am, where we slept on the waiting room floor at the train station. At dawn we went to the beach. We had tacos for lunch….  and blah blah blah…

We’d blown the first attempt, but now we had a reprieve… we could try to catch the Canyon freight back to Chihuahua.

The major freight junction on Mexico´s Pacific coast is called El Sufragio. There´s a large freight yard. That´s all there is. There isn´t even a town, just a couple of coca cola stands. We got there just after dark, expecting our train to leave around 11 o´clock. The place was a hornet´s nest.

Immediately we were summoned over by a couple of soldiers with assault rifles. They wanted to fuck with us. They wanted to know why we wanted to ride the freights if we had money. Or why I had a UK passport even though I said I was from USA. I thought they wanted a bribe. They asked me why I was trembling and asked me to hold my hand steady in the torch light. It didn’t tremble, even though I fully expected it to. Then they told us which train we needed and walked off into the dark…

We walked into the yard. One train had dozens of immigrants on it. It was headed for Mexicali on the California border, and was about to leave.

These were rough desperate people from central America. Hondurans, El Salvadorians, and Guatemalans, and they all use the freights to get north through Mexico. If a Mexican wants to sneak into the USA, he takes the bus to the border and then crosses illegally. But if you are from Honduras, for example, you have to enter Mexico illegally first. And because you are illegal in Mexico, you can’t ride the bus (If the Mexican police catch you, they’ll fine you and deport you.) So the Mexican freight trains are packed with OTMs (Other Than Mexicans).

We avoided the departing train, not wanting any trouble from the hoboes, and tried to find our train instead. Then another soldier called us over and asked us to open our bags. He was carrying a pointed scythe.

We complied. But then the train to Mexicali started rolling and many more tramps emerged from the shadows, distracting him. He was trying to prevent them from boarding. But there were too many. He snapped at us to go back to the platform and keep out of the way so he could deal with a gang of Guatemalans who had just appeared. They seemed so poor and down beat. But I bet they got on that train.

Then we got chatting to some Hondurans… until we thought they were planning to rob us, so we moved on. Then we met this kid who said he was heading for USA. He didn’t have any money. He knew no one in the USA. He didn’t even have a way to cross the border unlike the Hondurans who had already paid a coyote to take them. He said he´d find someone up there who knew what they were doing and cling on. He wanted to buy a car to get around, said he´d heard cars were cheap in the USA. I admired his gumption.

Anyway, it turns out that the train the Chihuahua, the one through the Canyon, the one we wanted so desperately, never left. I found a worker to find out why. He shrugged and told me he didn’t know but that it wouldn’t be leaving for another 24 hours. Ggggrrrr.

We found a spot on an old platform near some other soldiers for safety and slept. It was a restless sleep. All night the mosquitos gorged on my bare legs – I no longer have a sleeping bag or jeans – while freight cars were smashed around just feet from my ears…

Jerry

DISASTER. ROBBERY AND DISASTER

Thank you for all your messages. I love them and will reply as time permits.

Bo Keeley´s Ford Contour is unlike any other car, but you wouldn’t know it until you peeked inside. From the outside, it might look like the sort of car a middle management administrator might drive, or an undercover policeman… four doors, white and boring. But inside, I´d describe it as a salvation army dumpster with a driving seat. All the seats have been ripped out, as has the partition to the boot. Not only does this gives Bo plenty of room to store all his junk, but he can stretch out and sleep after a long day on the road.

All the usual gubbins you might find in a car of this type has gone… the overhead sun flaps, the rearview mirror (he uses the wing mirrors) the seat belts, the glove compartment, the buckles and the light fittings. Then he´s plastered masking tape all over the interior… to hide the permanently illuminated warning lights on the console, to protect the electric window and lock switches, to tidy away a variety of electric cables…  (one electric cable runs from the car´s battery, out from under the hood by the wind shield, into the interior by the passenger door hinges, and onto a spare battery he charges up while he drives.)

But it runs well, and it doesn’t smell too bad.

Bo cleared out a space for me after we met at the Pheonix Greyhound station. I sit on the passenger side, with my bum on a couple of padded blankets, my back against a plastic crate and my feet on the dashboard. I asked Bo about the remains of a giant squashed insect on the ceiling near the top corner of the wind shield… It looked like dried vomit.

“Chinese takeout, I think. I should clean that up. Or maybe you’ll get hungry? It`s vegan-friendly if I recall correctly.”

We drove for two days, hugging the border on the Mexican side and then plunging deep into Mexico´s interior beneath Ciudad Juarez. At night, we pulled off the highway and slept in the fields. Bo slept in the car, I beside it, careful not to set up my sleeping bag beneath the back right window where Bo empties his bottle of urine each morning.

The border towns are always special, but Juarez takes the biscuit. I felt intimidated as we approached it. It felt so seedy, evil and lawless. My contrarian instincts were tingling. Taxi drivers offered us cocaine and women wherever we walked. There were no other gringos and everyone stared at us as if we were immoral Americans looking for sex and drugs. I felt immoral just being there. I should buy property…

My bag was pinched in Chihuahua. We’d gone to get tacos and when we came back, my backpack wasn’t in the car. For a moment, I worried that I´d left it in the street, because there were no signs of robbery… no broken windows, forced locks, nothing. But then Bo noticed a bag of his had gone too.

“We’ve definitely been ripped off,” he concluded after a few minutes of shuffling. “My crate of soda pop is also missing.”

I felt lucky. I still had all my money, all my documents and the expensive digital camera Kate and I received as a wedding present. But everything else was gone… my sleeping bag, bedroll, clothes, wash kit, maps, cell phone, my library book, the lot… even my shoes!

Bo quickly stepped up to the plate with a new bag for me, a tarpaulin and padded blanket for my bedroll, some clothes and a pair of shoes. We shrugged off our misfortune and drove over to the freight yard as planned…

Now I felt like a real hobo… streamlined and improvised.

There is a passenger service that runs through the Copper Canyon, it runs twice daily in each direction from Chihuahua to the Pacific Coast, at Los Mochis. For those interested in useless trivia, there is only one other passenger service remaining in Mexico, also for the benefit of the tourists. It´s The Tequila Express out of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco.

But the passenger train is for tourist sissies and it costs $60.  I use freight.

Earlier that day we`d scoped out the Chihuahua freight yard and asked all the pertinent questions. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the train, which, we had been told, would be leaving for Los Mochas sometime around 3 a.m.

We dozed in an empty gondola, my bare legs really feeling the cold of the metal floor. I was shivering.

After a few hours, the units came and hooked up to a string in the siding next to us. Departure was imminent. We should have walked down the train and bagged a ride right then, but instead, we crouched in the shadow and waited for the train to come to us, which it did, with a massive roar of acceleration.

After the units had passed, we leapt out of our hiding place and stood by the track waiting for a suitable vehicle to come past. The train was accelerating surprisingly quickly and I started to panic.

Not a moment too soon, a trusty grainer appeared around the bend. We took off together, and running as fast as we could, we grabbed the handles and leaped on.

Then came that wonderful feeling of elation I feel every time I ride a new train. “We´re on. We´re safe and we´re moving in the right direction,” I always think to myself. “In a few hours, we´ll be surrounded by some of the most breathtaking scenery on earth. Mission accomplished.”

I wrapped myself up like a burrito in the blanket and relaxed with the train´s vibrations, content that nothing could go wrong.

I should have known better. Disaster lurked just down the track. It came out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere…

THE ILLEGAL AND THE TRAMP

It’s been a while since I wrote, nearly 18 months I estimate, but now I’m not working, and I have some time on my hands, I thought I’d resurrect it! Besides, it’s a good way of staying in touch with all of you and it forces me to record my travels on paper.

Of course, the usual caveat… I get really concerned that either a) you have no interest in my spam and this email is blocking up your inbox or b) you think I am rubbing your nose in the shit just because I happen to be on the road while you are at your desk. Please delete this email immediately if either of these is the case.

So, tomorrow, I’ll be flying to Pheonix, Arizona and driving deep into Mexico with my friend Bo Keeley. For those of you who don’t know Bo Keeley, he’s this old hobo dude I made friends with earlier this year.

Bo is famous. He was world championship racquetball player… a university professor and now he lives underground on the edge of a bombing range in the desert in California. Here’s a link to his Wikipedia page.

In May and June we went on a three week hobo trip around north-western Canada and northern USA together, including that fabulous freight train trip across the Rocky Mountains. While we were there, Latin Like Me was born.

The coyotes (the bandits you can pay to sneak you across the border if you choose) would love to give us a quick shoe-ing if they figured us out. Or the rednecked vigilantes with big guns who think the government doesn’t do enough to stop the illegals entering the USA…. they are always happy to take the law into their own hands. So we altered the plan, and dropped the dye. But the name still stuck… Latin Like Me.

The new plan is simple, and comes in two stages.

Stage 1 – Copper Canyon

The Copper Canyon is the Mexican version of the Grand Canyon, and by all accounts, equally as stunning. It’s gigantic, colourful and wonderful. A railroad track runs right along the canyon floor, and my investigation leads me to believe it’s still active. We’ll catch a freight through it and then head up to the U.S. border.

Stage 2 – The Border

Freight trains cross the border, but it’s not a good way of sneaking across. Security is too tight and I given that I am not a U.S. citizen, I really don’t want to get caught. Would they kick me out of the USA if they caught me? I doubt it, but I don’t want to test that thesis either way. Instead, we’ll wade across the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park and then hike to the nearest highway, where we can hitchhike out of the desert. Keely lives in the desert, so he can guide us. if we’re caught, we just say we were out hiking and got lost. It could be a tough walk, but temperatures should be down at this time of year and we’ll carry plenty of water.

We leave on Monday. Look out for part II shortly thereafter…

Lots of love,

Jerry

First Post!

What’s up. My name is Jerry. I’m fired up to start this blog. Hang tight, I’ll drop some new posts about my travel adventures soon.