It was three in the morning when the bus finally came to a complete stop. I had just arrived in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, on my way to Mexico for one of my solo backpacking trips. I was still Stateside, yet it felt like I had just crash-landed in a Mexican ghost town.
Upon planting my feet on the ground, the bus hightailed it out of there. That was when the surge of adrenaline flooded my entire body. I love the mixture of excitement, anxiety and uncertainty you feel before embarking on a journey. That’s all part of the thrill. I’m a nomad, always seeking new places to discover and different cultures to immerse myself in, and I figured it was a damn shame that I’ve lived in Texas for more than a decade, and yet I had never visited our neighbor down below.
I had spent the month before consuming travel guides, books on Mexican history, and crawling around backpacker forums online. I even thought of enrolling in rock climbing classes in case I survived a 50-foot fall and had to climb the side of quarry back to the earth’s epidermis. I was prepared for any scenario.
There were only a little over a dozen passengers on the bus, and even fewer actually ended up in the bus station. Most had family or friends already waiting for them in the parking lot. The bus station itself looked like a small diner that was converted into a transport hub. I could have traveled back in time to the 60s and the station would’ve looked pretty much the same.
I walked in and saw two young employees in plain clothes, with only name tags to identify them as the people who actually managed the joint. In the far corner sat an old couple with enough luggage to carry every item in my apartment. Next to the restrooms, on the pay phone, was a teenage girl talking loudly to a person on the other end of the line.
“What do you mean Daniel’s drunk?” she asked. “Someone better fucking pick me up!”
She continued to berate the person she was speaking with, her sentences abandoning commas and periods, using every profane word in the English and Spanish vocabulary, and then slammed the phone. She noticed that I was looking in her direction and quickly flashed a smile. I smiled back and took a mental note to ask her who her dentist was, because she had the whitest, most perfectly aligned teeth I had ever seen.
I sat down on one of those orange plastic chairs typically found in bus stations all over the world; the ones that feel more and more uncomfortable the longer you sit on it. I wasn’t waiting for anyone, nor was I on a schedule. I could’ve crossed the border anytime I pleased, but I wanted to marinate in the eerie atmosphere that enveloped the town. Also, I was teasing the excitement building up inside me. It’s just more fun when you hold off your impulses until the breaking point.
I loitered around the station, studied my maps and checked my travel documents. Gradually, the remaining people in the station disappeared one by one until I was the only one left. I took that as my cue to make my own exit. I went through the back doors and saw the pissed off teen with the immaculate set of teeth yelling at the driver of a heavily-tinted Chevy Impala.
“You fucking asshole!” she shouted. “Didn’t I tell you not to drink?”
The driver responded by mumbling a fragmented sentence soaked in alcohol. After a few more inaudible exchanges, the girl finally went inside the car. As soon as she slammed the door, the Impala took off — its bright tail lights drawing neon lines down the dark street.
There I was, all alone in the middle of the quiet downtown street. The border checkpoint was very much visible from where I stood. Its white lights were so bright that it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the contrast. Like a mosquito hypnotized by a zapper, my feet inched towards the border, but I immediately stopped myself. I didn’t want to cross yet, because the Mexican consulate was still closed and I didn’t want to sit outside their gate. Besides, the old haunted-looking buildings down the street were inviting me to take a closer look.
The facade of the structures had an odd discoloration and its huge impenetrable windows looked menacing. It was the kind of architecture I was into. Between the buildings was an empty parking lot, barely lit up by two light posts.
I walked down the main street, which was lined with old-fashioned lamp posts. I stood in the middle of the street and snapped photographs for a good ten minutes without any worries of getting run over. It felt like I was in a zombie flick and that a herd of brain-eating un-deads were going to turn the corner at any minute. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter anyone or anything, but I did bump into a guy who looked like an aging actor working as an extra in a zombie film.
He wore a green military jacket, had long, unkempt hair and sported a scruffy beard. He was loitering outside the bus station, examining scraps of trash that were scattered along the sidewalk.
He spotted me.
If the profane girl’s teeth were considered a masterpiece of enamel architecture, then this man’s teeth would be the dilapidated house across the railroad tracks. Regardless, he had an aura about him that was warm and welcoming. I walked back towards the bus station. He gestured for a cigarette as I approached him. I took one out of my pack and handed it to him.
“Gracias, gracias!” he said enthusiastically. He gave me a thumbs-up.
His name was Pedro and had been roaming the streets for 15 hard years. We sat down on the curb and began a bilingual conversation that sounded like drunken banter between American and Mexican diplomats. Despite the language barrier, our conversation flowed naturally. There weren’t any push-pull mechanisms with awkward silences in between. We traded words back and forth as if we were old friends from the neighborhood catching up.
I asked him how he wound up on the streets of Brownsville. Pedro took a deep drag and began painting a picture in the air with his cigarette.
Pedro used to have a decent job and lived in a nice house in a tight-knit neighborhood on the outskirts of the town, a place where everyone knew each other by name. Then one December night in 1992, his whole life transformed into ash. The fire marshal later told him that it was an accidental fire. He said it was probably an old heater that caused the blaze. When I asked if he had a family, he just gazed into the distance. He was pretty vague when he talked about anything related to his family. I assumed the worst.
How can one carry on after such a loss? Everyone has a story to tell, but not enough people want or try to listen. I wanted to ask him where he gets the strength that enables him to move on with his life, even if that life is one filled with hardship, but before I could say anything, he answered my question with another smile. It’s the same kind of smile I’ve seen plastered on the faces of emaciated street kids in Manila.
Is pain and suffering a form of baptismal by fire? Maybe the Buddha had it right all along: this life, this world, is full of suffering and one must surpass all of that by accepting the struggle in order to reach a sublime state of being.
Pedro suddenly became excited and tapped my arm. He reached into his jacket’s pocket, fished around for a few seconds, and took out a Zippo lighter. On one side was a picture of Tony Montana clutching his beloved M-16 rifle, coked up as ever. It was one of those lighters that they sold at convenient stores, but Pedro held it like a sacred figurine. In a way, it is sacred. He showed it off; took pride in it. It was his most valuable possession.
I looked over to the border checkpoint, shining brilliantly like a Las Vegas show marquee. It resembled a glorious gate to the Promised Land — but promises can easily be broken.
People with broken hearts and shiny ambitions, hoping to materialize their dreams, come into the United States every day. We’re on the same landmass and all one has to do is cross a relatively short bridge to get to the other side, but just because you “made it” that doesn’t mean you’re immune from accidental fires or death.
Pedro looked up and I noticed that the sun was peaking above the horizon. He quickly got up and started speed walking down the street, smiling and waving back at me. I asked him where he was going. Apparently a local church — that humble sanctuary for the displaced and downtrodden — hosted a limited number of the town’s homeless population.
It wasn’t hard for me to identify with him and others like him. When you’re traveling alone in a foreign country, you’re practically homeless in a sense. The only difference is that no matter how far away my home is, at least I still have one, whereas Pedro doesn’t. The reality is that all of us can easily lose our home, whether due to fire or foreclosure, and wind up in the streets. Safety, wealth and mortality statistics are but an illusion. All of it can slip from your grasp as quick as a flash of lightning.
A vast majority of the sky was still black, but I decided it was time for me to get going as well. As I made my way towards the checkpoint, I didn’t feel so out of place anymore, and Brownsville no longer resembled a ghost town. I could say that I have at least one friend in Brownsville.
When I reached the Mexican side, I walked around the streets aimlessly, letting my curiosity lead the way. I met all kinds of people the further I went. I learned that when you looked past the superficial stuff and straight into the eyes, you will realize that we are unique products made of the same material. How else can a kid from the suburbs connect with a Spanish-speaking vagabond like Pedro?
While I was walking around a market in Matamoros, I saw a large painting of a saint. He looked almost like Pedro and I thought to myself, St. Peter — God’s border patrol agent; the guy who filters those departed souls hoping to get into heaven. Maybe that saintly man wandering around the Rio Grande Valley really was a saint.
Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.