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.”

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