Hail Mexico, Full of Grace

Hail Mexico, full of grace. Even though I’ve spent many years in this country, all told, I’m still in awe of the Mexico’s grace: the magic of small moments, the smile that redeems a weary journey; the stroke of strange luck that saves the day.

Virgin mary with fish and seal

photo by Jenny Hannah Roche

Take today, for instance. I am homeward bound to Oregon, leaving the beach, leaving Mexico, which always makes me heartsick. We arrived in Melaque this morning to discover that (for some odd and no doubt distinctly Mexican reason) the first class bus isn’t running to Puerto Vallarta today. A second class bus was pulling  out of the station at just that moment, but we hesitated because it was nearly noon and we hadn’t yet eaten breakfast. The secunda clase stops at every tiny village and takes a wee bit longer than the primera.  A five hour bus ride on an empty stomach sounded grueling.“This bus stops for twenty minutes in Tomatlan. We can jump out and get tacos there, but that’s still hours away,” I told Chelsea.

“The bus stops in another village in fifteen minutes; you’ll be able to get tacos there.” The porter promised us. We climbed aboard.

The mythical taco hasn’t materialized and now, forty-five minutes later, I stare out the window, hungrily eying a chicken pecking by the side of the highway. My hypoglycemia is reaching a fever pitch as the bus lurches to a stop. The door squeals open and a man appears in the stairwell. He has a jack-o-lantern smile and carries a flat straw basket on his head. He looks older and shabbier than I remembered, but well enough content.

“No way,” I mutter. I grin and wave furiously as the man carefully makes his way down the bus aisle. It takes him a minute: at first his smile is just polite. Then he recognizes me.

“Que milagro!” he says, his eyes twinkling.

“Que milagro, indeed,” I reply in Spanish. “Here we are starving and you just happen to show up.”

The man is the former pan dulce guy from Tenacatita. He and his buddy used to drive up and down the beach road in a rusty ’82 Toyota Corolla with speakers on the roof. In between hawking bolillos and pastries through a megaphone, they’d blast Santana, a musical choice that jibed with their generally stoned demeanor. My friend Kamari and I were their best customers, always laying in wait in our hammocks, hoping they’d show up with our beloved tuna pastries and save us the trouble of cooking.

Girl dressed as mermaid holding drink


“How is Carmelita?” the pan dulce guy asks predictably, using his pet name for Kamari, who hasn’t been in the area for at least five years. Chelsea and I pick out two orejas (delicious layered pastries). He tells us it’ll cost us ten pesos for two (clearly a special good price). We gratefully settle back into our seats to enjoy the ride. At the next stop, the pan dulce guy picks up his basket to go. “It gives me great happiness to see you,” he says. “Igualmente,” I reply, sincerely. “Proximo año, si Dios quiere.”

An hour or two later we are finally arriving in Tomatlan for our twenty minute stop. Just in time–the magical effects of the pastry are wearing off and I’m feeling hungry again. For a second it seems we are just doing a turn around and not going to stop at all. My heart leaps into my throat. I’ll be dying by the time we hit Vallarta. But then the bus groans to a halt and I can see the familiar cement courtyard of the Tomatlan station. I scan the ring of fondas. Mexican Chinese food? No. Licuados? No. Ah, there it is. A taqueria with a promising array of condiments displayed on the tiled counter.

Keeping a wary eye on the bus driver (veinte minutos can mean anything from ten minutes to two hours), I belly up to the fonda. The woman behind the counter has a broad and lovely indigenous countenance;she wears a ruffled gingham apron. I order tacos (one adobada and one asada) and Chelsea orders quesadillas. I am thrilled to see a tortilla press in the tiny kitchen. Chelsea runs over to a nearby tienda to grab us some cans of Modelo and we pop the tabs and wait in anticipation.

These tacos at the Tomatlan bus station turn out to be one of the best things I eat on this trip, which has included such culinary delights as same-day-caught chula sashimi and fresh grilled huachinango. The tortillas (which the woman makes as we watch) tenderly embrace the savory meat, and the salsa selection is to die for, including a creamy green number and a dark biting sauce of the sort I associate with chile de arbol. Fine chopped cilantro is the perfect fresh compliment. This meal costs me twenty pesos (1.50 USD). As I walk back to the bus, I try to imagine what I might find to eat in an American greyhound station.

Taco adobada and taco de res on plate


Back on the road, I stare out the window, trying to sop up my last bit of Mexico. The fat pretty woman sagging in the shade of a llantera, a tienda called “La Mas Barata,” thorn trees spiraling from lurid green fields, the pink blossoms of crown-of-thorns growing from a pot balanced precariously on the tin roof of a mechanic shop, bright laundry hanging on a line above a patch of nopales, a black ‘46 dodge sedan shining in the filtered light of a sub-tropical pine forest.

Mexico makes me happy. A chance encounter with pan dulces, a perfect meal at a bus station, the wild beauty of small details. I remind myself that the United States is beautiful too, brimming with delicious food and the potential for interesting encounters. I optimistically resolve to apply my traveler’s eye and sense of Mexican relaxation to my northern stomping grounds. I’d like to live forever in a state of grace.

13 Responses to “Hail Mexico, Full of Grace”

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  1. Great writing. You know how to enjoy life. I’m impressed.

  2. churpa says:

    Thank you Howard. I learned from the masters.

  3. Tina Rosa says:

    Wonderful! Can’t believe you ran into the pan dulce guy! Remember when he didn’t have a truck and hurt his foot and was hobbling around with crutches? Glad he’s gigging the buses…probably easier. Like the idea of applying your traveler’s eye and relaxed manner to life back in the States. How is that going?

  4. churpa says:

    Ha! Easier said than done.

  5. -El Codo- says:

    Hah! Made me smile. What a nice way to start the morning here. Gracias Churpa!

  6. Jen says:

    I will be hunting down these tasty tacos this weekend as I head south for a surf trip! Loved your writing on this piece, as well as, knowing I am not the only person inspired by the magic of mexico!

    • Churpa says:

      Thanks, Jen! If you’re facing the Tomatlan bus station, the taqueria is on the right side, in front of the bathrooms. Worth a stop!

  7. -El Codo- says:

    Guy rolls by the store yesterday. “¡Callitos! Se Venden Callitos!

    Baby scallops. :Para ti señor, 80 pesos kilo” Three dollars a pound!


    Baby scallops tacos. Cooked down the sauce of the tacos to mayonnaise consistency. Spread all over the tortilla. Outrageously gnarly thin sliced monster radishes for a condiment. Baked Chayote smothered in queso de rancho, and banana nut bread right out of the People’s Guide recipes, but with an egg tossed in, twice the coconut, more ripe bananas, grated piloncillo, and real cream instead of milk. Outrageously heavy, heavily spangled with coconut. Agua de coco chilled to around 35F.

  8. Maria PLT says:

    Another great post that for me captures some of what I love about Mexico. Don’t you love bus travel? Food and drink vendors travelling between towns selling their goods, plus movies on some buses. We used to see more entertainers on the buses too — trumpet players, guitar duos, singers, poets — but not so much anymore in our area. What happened to them? Anyway, you said it and I couldn’t agree more –I love Mexico! Thanks for writing. Maria

    • churpa says:

      Thank you Maria! Taking the bus in Mexico is infinitely superior to taking the bus in the US…But it’s sort of sad that the Primera Plus and other luxury lines don’t allow the roving food vendors. One of the perks of riding segunda clase!

  9. Mayo says:

    Hey Churps ! Ha ! Ran into the pan dulce guy on the bus too. Hate it when he knows my name and I forget his ! Same with the hammock dude ! I know that taco stand very well. I actually prefer the milk run to PV, see more and meet more !

  10. John Doran says:

    I lived in El Salvador between 1986 – 88, in the Depto. De Santa Anna, in the town of Texistepeque. I would take either the number 30 or 33 bus from Santa Anna, and before we left the station there would pass through a young Native boy with bags of bananas ad his brother with bags of jocote con lima; women with papusas of every variety and other people with large canastas on their heads of delicious Salvadoran quesadillas (a seed cake having nothing in common with Mexican quesadillas, although I love Mexican quesadillas). People passed through with fresh strawberry juice, watermelon juice, melons, jicama with lime, peeled oranges with lime juice, pan dulce……even if one was not hungry how could one resist?.

    Then came through fortune tellers, people selling shoelaces, soap, brushes, and others with small but thorough general stores upon their backs. You couldn’t help but chat with your seat-mate. Now, this is one of many things that I miss about Mexico and Central America. The boring, sterile bus rides of the US and Canada lose all interest. I understand that laws are supposedly made to protect the consumer and vendor, but please! We also know that these food laws have become a business, and we, sadly, have lost a lot through these bad and greedy food law decisions. How I’d love to get on a bus and be offered the delights I was in in Mexico and Central America! How can you not absolutely love it?

  11. churpa says:

    Oh man, I love pupusas and Salvadoran quesadillas! I’d go back to that country just for the food…
    It’s sadly hard to imagine finding anything decent to eat in an American bus station, let alone on the bus itself.
    Thanks so much for writing, John.