Journey Recollected

In the works for fifteen years, the 104-kilometer Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido highway opens February 2024 and should reduce travel time to 2.5 hours. No one will now have my experience of that journey. On the other hand, the arrival of progress probably brings plumbing.

Travelog by Bus, 1993

In Oaxaca’s early morning, a father makes the sign of the cross over his grown daughter’s face before she hoists her bag to board the bus for Puerto Escondido. This is sometimes still a place where one doesn’t leave home without parental blessing. Cate and I are the only foreigners to board besides a few Australians coming for Escondido’s wicked surf.

Pto. Escondido, 1993

A man fitting the short, dark Oaxacan type slides behind the wheel, his khaki uniform pants and white short-sleeved shirt immaculate, crisply pressed. He has a radio and tape player, but his altar décor is minimal—a saint’s face on the visor, tiny crucifix on the dash—no plastic flowers in a bolted vase, no icons or dangling rosaries.

Three rows behind him, I strain through diesel rumble to hear the talk show he’s listening to, one phrase making it past the racket: otro víctima de la policia. His mirrored lens sunglasses, lips in a deadpan line, reveal nothing in the rearview mirror. Once out of the city, political slogans painted on walls change to health advisories: La mejor solución para la diarrea es lavar las manos antes de comer. We pass through village after town, población después de población, pairs of Brahmas plowing fields, roadside shrines, thin dark people who pause hoeing to watch us pass on the narrow, empty road.

The Oaxaca station fades and the driver slides in a tape of popular ballads: No quiero olvidarte…I don’t want to forget you…We crawl through the last village, slowly topping tope after tope, speed bumps that mean business, begin a long, snaking climb out of the sprawling valley. The driver pops a chicklet into his mouth, jaw muscles working rhythmically as his arms, turning the horizontal wheel to its limit one way and then instantly the other as we rise out of palms into pines, the road tightening its coils. I watch the hairpins coming, grip my seat as the windshield edges over the abyss, falls back, edges out again.

The morning sun ascends the sky, pines grow taller, the mountains rockier and we could be in Colorado. I feel the easing of the engine which means we’ve reached the summit. Veinte minutos, the driver announces, crosses the road to a private entrance, a glimpse of steaming plate on the table before the door closes behind him. We step into moist, chilled air, chaffing gooseflesh from our summer-bare arms. Two wooden outhouses squat at the cliff’s edge, beside them a barrel of water, pails; within, white ceramic toilets. You pour the water into the toilet when you’re done, hear the trickle run downslope, slick, pungent and dotted with wads of soiled white.

Two stands across the road sell bags of cacahautes estilo japonés, tortas de jamón wrapped in cellophane. The air there is sweet as sherbet, the view layered range by range. No car passes while we walk, stretching our legs, no sign of habitation mars any slope. I feel far from civilization when a fellow traveler discovers our schoolhouse Spanish, asks what we think of Clinton, our new president. Cate says he’s así-así so far.

Twenty minutes exactly and our driver appears, so we scramble aboard, glad of some warmth. On the downslope, I munch my candied peanuts, watch the endless circling of the wheel, the slenderly muscled arms, the impassive face. Now I trust this man with my life, and sleep. When I wake pines are being replaced by thick leafy jungle, vines, flowers, flashes of color on the wing. A narrow creek tumbles over stones, half a dozen women on its bank, kneeling to wash clothes, their naked children splashing after a bright red ball. Like a museum diorama, they freeze as we cruise past.

Jungle yields to low hills of palm, cactus, and the curves become long and loose and straighten into a flat run through sand, pulsing ultramarine briefly visible to the west, where the sun now hovers. Stifling salted air wraps us as we crawl through seaside towns. At an intersection, the driver raises a greeting hand from the wheel. In the rearview mirror for the first time, a grin flickers. On the corner a woman smiles a welcome home smile, a woman who has been waiting for him to pass, the child asleep in her arms.

A beach made for walking, 1993

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