The first time my bus was pulled over by the Federal Police, the officer who boarded walked right by me without a glance. He asked the young man behind me where he was going and demanded to see his ID. All the way to the back, he questioned and checked the papers of young men. Five of them were eventually hauled off, lined up on the shoulder and patted down, following which their luggage was removed from the bay and searched. Everyone on the bus craned out the right-hand windows, trying to figure out what was going on. “Que pasa?” I asked an older couple. “Pensamos que son Hondurenos sin papeles, pero no sabemos por cierto.” We think they are Hondurans without proper identification, but we don’t know for sure. Finding nothing, the officers allowed all the men to reboard and we were on our way again.
The second time even more of the passengers were questioned, but again the officers studiously ignored me. “What am I, invisible?” I muttered under my breath. When we stopped in Culiacan for lunch, I asked a guard at the station if this was normal. “Si, they are looking for drug and guns and illegals without proper ID. Nothing to worry about,” she insisted, wishing me safe travels.
Back on the bus, it wasn’t long before we were stopped for a third search. This time, the officer stopped at my seat and turned toward me. Black boots buffed to a high shine peeked from beneath his crisply pressed uniform. A coal black mustache was perfectly trimmed a millimeter above his upper lip and not a single strand of hair was out of place. My face reflected back at me from mirrored sunglasses that masked his eyes; I looked like a deer caught in headlights. “Como estas?” he asked, his chilling smile revealing perfect, pearly whites. “Bien……bien,” I stammered, wishing I was invisible. During the ride we were stopped and searched four times by the Federal police and a fifth time for a “plant inspection,” turning a six hour bus ride into eight hours.
This was just the latest in a series of problems that had begin 24 hours earlier when I arrived on Sunday afternoon at the ferry terminal to sail from La Paz to Topolobampo for the first phase in my Copper Canyon adventure. Although the schedule on the Baja Ferries website showed a boat leaving La Paz at 11 p.m. every Sunday, when I tried to buy a ticket the girl behind the window shook her head and said. “No hay,” – there is none. “There is a boat at the dock,” I insisted. “Where is it going?” Between her indifferent attitude and the thick plexiglass that separated us, I couldn’t understand a word she said. Time and time again I tried, but the more frustrated I became, the less Spanish I understood and each explanation she offered seemed to somehow contradict the last. Finally, she shrugged her shoulders, repeated “no hay,” and turned her attention to the next person in line.
Incapable of understanding or making my self understood, I threw myself on the mercy of other customers. “Habla Ingles?” I asked, until I found someone who explained that there is no longer a Sunday ferry between La Paz and Topo, there would not be another ferry to Topo until Tuesday, and the boat sitting at the dock was bound for Mazatlan. It seems that my Spanish is sufficient until there is a problem, at which point I become a blithering idiot.
Rather than wait until Tuesday, I took the ferry to Mazatlan and caught a bus north to Los Mochis, where the famous ‘El Chepe,’ train to Copper Canyon originates. Numerous people had advised me to bypass Los Mochis and instead continue on to El Fuerte, the second stop on El Chepe’s route. Not only is El Fuerte a much prettier town set in a beautiful river valley, I would be able to catch the train at 9 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. In Los Mochis I stepped to the counter to buy a ticket for the bus to El Fuerte. “No hay,” the agent said. The bus to El Fuerte leaves from the Northern Sonora station.
Certain I had understood this time, I drug myself outside and found a taxi. “Are you sure you want the Northern Sonora station?” he asked. I don’t think here are any buses to El Fuerte from that station. But come, we will find out.” We pulled up to the station and he yelled out his window to another taxi driver, asking about buses to El Fuerte. They all shook their heads. “No hay.” At that point I had been traveling for more than 24 hours; I was tired and frustrated and it was growing late. “No problemo,” the driver assured me. He wound through the narrow streets of Los Mochis and pulled up to El Mercadito bus station, where two or three old rattletrap school buses awaited, including one that clearly said, “El Fuerte Directo.” Breathing a sigh of relief, I clambered aboard, wedged myself into the narrow seat, and spent the next 20 minutes fending off vendors selling food and beggars pleading for spare change by pretending I didn’t understand – not too far from the truth. Finally, we were off on a clanking, gear-grinding ride over dusty gravel roads as the setting sun bled through our spider-cracked front windshield.
Two hours later the bus ground to a halt in El Fuerte. Too cheap to take a taxi to my hotel, which I understood to be within walking distance of the town square, I asked the local cop how to find Rio Vista Hotel. Take a right at the corner, go two blocks, then left through the plaza, right again, up the hill, etc., etc. Two blocks further, the second man I asked for directions insisted upon accompanying me the entire way and carrying my luggage. We crossed through the town’s beautiful central plaza, a lush, eye-popping square surrounded by beautiful colonial-era buildings. Past the crenelated fort museum and up two hills we continued, me taking care not to re-injure my knee on the lumpy cobblestone street. At the Rio Vista my knight in shining armor refused to take a cent from me. “No, no, I am here to help. The owner is a friend of mine. We wish you to enjoy our town.” I think I’m going to like this place.