Something from the Vault: Volume #6
Just a week before my sixteenth birthday, I’m standing on the street in front of my language school in Morelia, Mexico, a bit bored, waiting for my ride to my home-stay. Or at least I think I’m waiting, at least I think I’m bored.
As my combi, (a 1970s Volkswagon Bus striped with bright orange paint and covered on both sides by names of neighborhoods where this van will eventually deliver its passengers) pulls up to the street corner, I’m contemplating what I should do with all my free time before comida.
I have been here for a week, so my confidence, mixed with the classic arrogance of a fifteen year-old out in the world, encourages me to ride the combi to its final destination. Where that is, I’m not sure. But that’s the adventure.
The van is packed with local students, workers, and grandmothers also headed home for the afternoon meal and siesta. I stand amongst probably a dozen other passengers, swaying as the combi bounces through potholes, stops at other corners, and makes sharps turns along its route. When the door slides open for another passenger to join our merry band, the fresh, hot air cools us down for just a moment.
I contemplate stepping out of the van near my home-stay, being the first one to alleviate the growing congestion. But there are so many of us now that it’s not even an option. My choice to see the terminus of this ride is no longer an existential dilemma, my fate is decided. And I’m further trapped as everyone stays aboard.
Finally, near the foothills outside of the city, my traveling companions begin to disembark and we feel some relief. The combi climbs farther into the hills, the van lightens, and the houses and streets look more rustic, more rutted, more corrugated and ironed. No longer anywhere close to the marble-tiled floors of my home-stay, I’m seeing poverty for the first time in my life. My growing curiosity about where I am is only matched by the dozen pairs of eyes glancing my way, curious about why I am there.
Not at the top of the hill, but quite close to it, the combi driver pulls the VW van to its first complete stop. The last two passengers step out: a student in a blue uniform holding his grandmother’s hand as he guides her down the dusty road. The driver eyes me in the rear-view mirror, squints, and then turns around.
“Gringo,” he smiles, perturbed? menacingly? kindly? “This is the end of my route. What are you doing?”
I actually have no clue. Checking my watch, I think back to my earlier decision when I thought I had so much time before comida. Now I’ll be late.
“You need to go back to town?”
“Stay here. It’s my break. We’ll leave in twenty minutes.”
I nod again, cautiously, without smiling. I wait.
He laughs, “you’re okay.” He shuts the door to the van and walks over to his friend at a drink and snack cart across the street. I watch him as he points back towards me, probably retelling the story of the gringo sitting in his combi. Two small dogs chase one another down the road, and kids play soccer on a sloped field between a group of shacks.
At an outdoor stove a woman makes tortillas, and men gather around with plates in one hand and bottles of coca cola in the other. She puts the tortillas onto their plates and then spoons small piles of meat and nopalitoson top. They are all gesturing and laughing, gathering around a circle of plastic chairs, worn yellow by the Morelian sun.
Years later, I understand that I was in fact not waiting for the driver to return. And I certainly wasn’t bored. Such pauses allow for the adrenaline to calm and for extensive observation, reflection, and even naval-gazing to occur. Maybe I’d put myself into a situation I couldn’t quite handle, but during the twenty loitering minutes I sat by myself in the 1970s VW van, I soaked in the world around me, breathed in the dry air, witnessed humanity at the brink of its existence, and learned about the beauty of travel.