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.
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.
“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.
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.