On the Run
I’m off to Mexico again soon, interviewing kids who, years ago, received free cleft lip and palate surgeries from Smile Network International. I’m helping Smile with a book, and I’m sure it will be extraordinary to meet these individuals whose lives were changed dramatically by one simple act of kindness by strangers.
Meanwhile, Mexico brings back potent memories. I can’t believe it’s been 28 years since my first trip there. I planned it myself, secretly, with an atlas and a phone book, in the weeks before my sixteenth birthday. When the morning of the big day arrived, I skipped school and hopped an MTC to the Greyhound terminal. I had enough money for a one-way ticket to El Paso and $67 for food and sundries en route. I wore an unattractive light gray Members Only jacket and baggy jeans, and carried a purple tote bag with the word “Ciao!” embroidered on the small label. I had braces on my teeth and a genuinely traumatic hair-do leftover from a perm gone wrong at a discount beauty school.
Nevertheless, I was shedding the stresses of my greasy job at Arby’s, the unwelcome adjustment to my 11th new school in 11 years, and the day-to-day unpleasantries of poverty and social isolation. I was happy to be hitting the road, and almost sick with adrenaline and anticipation as I counted out the bills for bus fare.
Despite sweaty palms and a dry throat, I had the benefit of recent experience with cross-country bus trips. Just before my freshman year of high school, I’d plunked down my summer babysitting cash and left the driving to Greyhound for a ride West from Minnesota to Wyoming to visit my best friend Holly in Casper, where I had lived for six years. That trip had been mostly uneventful, with the exception of a few unusual but harmless seatmates and one jarring snafu in rural Wyoming, when my 14-day bus pass expired earlier than I’d calculated, and a stickler at the transfer station refused to let me back on the bus.
However, my bus fare was hitch-free this time around. It was the whole entering-a-foreign-country thing that had me worried. I had to walk across the border from El Paso to Juárez and figure out, with two years of high-school Spanish and a pocket dictionary, how to traverse the 1,500 miles south to Cuernavaca, where I expected to look up a family for whom I’d babysat regularly before they’d moved away to Mexico.
My first shock came when I tried to ask a pedestrian how to find the train station and he apparently thought I’d asked him to lead me to a hotel. Which he did. By this time I’d been traveling alone by bus for three days and nights, my $67 was dwindling, I was dirty, tired, and losing my sense of adventure. My purple tote bag was growing heavier and heavier under the setting Mexican sun. So, at 16 years and a few days old, 1,500 miles from home, having never seriously taken up any of the usual teenaged pastimes of cigarettes, alcohol, or boys, I followed this Mexican man up the dimly lit staircase of a shabby hotel and collapsed in exhaustion on the pink polyester bedspread. I awoke to the nostril-burning scent of aftershave hovering above me, and when I opened my eyes my travel companion was staring down at me, ready for a kiss.
I lurched out of his way, exclaiming in Spanish and English and every gesture in between that he had gotten the wrong idea. And then I said something I thought he would understand in either language: “I am a Catholic girl!” I wasn’t Catholic, then or now, but the point was well taken, and suddenly this man handed over his wallet, his license, and a stream of earnest apologies and promises that he would do nothing further to offend or harm me. I believed him. Maybe because I could tell he was a good person and meant what he said, or maybe because I was desperate and without a better alternative. Either way, he kept his promises and slept upright in a chair through the night while I lay half awake on the bed. In the morning we ate eggs at a street-side cafe and he walked me to the train station, where he acted as my translator. What he said I don’t know, but somehow he convinced the border patrol to let me on the train with a Dayton’s student charge card as my only I.D.
The train carried me through the Mexican countryside to the city of Chihuahua, where I boarded a bus to Mexico City. From there, finally, I transferred onto the bus that would complete the final leg of my journey to Cuernavaca. By now I’d been on the road about a week, and when I disembarked at the Cuernavaca station, the intensity of my desire to find my American friends was staggering. I found a pay phone and fumbled through my bag for the appropriate foreign coins. I didn’t know their phone number, and suddenly the assumption I’d left home with—of being able to find my friends once I “got to town”—seemed foolish and impossible. I wandered the station in search of a phone book, furiously blinking back tears.
I was afraid to ask for help, since I was pretty sure I’d burst out sobbing and expose my stupidity. I ended up doing both, and to add injury to insult, the friends I had traveled 3,000 miles to see were no longer living in Cuernavaca. I was broke and 16. My attempt to make my way in Cuernavaca failed. The American minister and his wife who gave me shelter didn’t take long to track down my mother and send me back home to all that I’d left behind, including my trusty job at Arby’s.
About a year later, I was working the “window,” and a pretty woman with a soft, southern drawl and two not-so-little-anymore girls drove through ordering Adventure Meals (I’m not making that up, that’s what Arby’s kids’ meals were called then). It was my friend from Cuernavaca. She parked the car and brought her girls into the restaurant; I took my break and we all reminisced. It turned out they’d moved to Guadalajara about a year before I’d come.
I shudder to think of the things that might have happened on that birthday jaunt. Sometimes the thought of that pungent aftershave draws forth a memory so vivid it stops me short. But then again, I’m here to tell the tale, and more importantly, I’ve got a tale to tell. Houses are bought and sold, jobs are gained and lost, the remains of the passing year are turned under every fall and unearthed each spring…and cars, apparently, are towed away with surprising regularity. But our adventures are beyond all that. Our adventures are inspired—breathed in to transform us, breathed out again as the people we’ve now become.