Don Quixote de Managua
“It is so strange
and rare that I do not know whether anyone trying to invent such a character
in fiction would have the genius to succeed.”
Miguel de Cervantes
Even amidst the desolate and often ugly landscape of Tamaulipas a thing
of beauty sometimes grows. For the second time in the space of a year,
I found myself walking through this wasteland, my eyes eager to light on
any pleasing aspect of the landscape as a diversion from the parched arroyos
and the mesquite. A yucca tree stood out, a small palmetto bristling with
a plumage of long, green leaves, like the quills of an enormous porcupine,
and crowned with a cluster of delicate, snow-white petals growing from
slender, skyward-reaching stems. The porcupine quills even provided enough
shade for my dog Ulises to enjoy a few moments of relief from the madness
that had taken his English master out in the midday sun.
I was walking alongside Highway 180 in one of Mexico’s least populated areas, a hundred miles north of the Tropic of Cancer and a hundred miles south of the border crossing at Matamoros-Brownsville. Another mile down the road towards Texas, I was drawn to some more clusters of the yucca flower only this time they’d been removed and were hanging upside down, like bunches of grapes, from a rudely constructed frame made of stripped saplings. Seven bunches for sale, dangling neatly in a row, their petals now tinged with the transparent green of ripe grapes. The vendor was sitting on a low bench in the shade of a tin-roofed shelter. He told me that in the local vernacular they were called chochas and that you could eat them, once they’d been boiled or fried. The vendor was a stout, cheerful fellow of about sixty, and after he’d answered my questions about the chochas he quizzed me as to why I was out walking with my dog in the middle of nowhere.
“Walking back.” I told him. “ At least as far as Houston.”
“This gentleman’s going to Houston, too!” he said, introducing a small, wiry, old man sitting next to him. Thus far the vendor’s companion had remained silent and motionless within the shadow of the larger man. But now he sprang to life, rising to his full five feet and greeting me with a huge smile and a cock-eyed military salute.
“This gentleman comes from Nicaragua.” The chocha vendor continued. “He’s been on the road for twenty-seven days.”
The old man nodded his confirmation. He was, I guessed, in his seventies, but he exuded health and youthful vigor. His tough skin was as dark as a cup of coffee lightened with just a spoonful of cream, but his features were resoundingly European, down to his rakish, bushy moustache. If you’d scrubbed him up and put him in a business suit, he could have passed as the President of any Latin American country. He was wearing a baseball cap, a pair of ragged sneakers, and, in spite of the heat, a heavy rugby-style jersey, underneath which he was also wearing a polo shirt, castoffs from Land’s End and Izod that had found their way via the Salvation Army down to Nicaragua. The flimsy, supermarket shopping bag that he carried over his shoulder confirmed that he was wearing the entire wardrobe with which he’d left Nicaragua twenty-seven days before. By coincidence, it had been almost twenty-seven days since I too had set out walking, in my own case from Xalapa, about 450 miles to the south, carrying in my own backpack at any one time about 45 pounds in clothing, food, toiletries, first aid kit, dog supplies, and, for my enrichment on the lonely road, a copy of Don Quixote.
The vendor’s rude shelter had given the old man an opportunity to rest, but now he was keen to get back on the road.
“Perhaps the gentleman can walk with you for a while?” the chocha vendor enquired. “ He wants to cross to ‘the other side,’ but he doesn’t have any papers.”
“Nor do millions like him!” I said, assuming that the old man from Nicaragua would be employing tested strategies for contending natural obstacles such as the Rio Bravo and legal obstacles such as the United States Border Patrol.
“ Oh no!” said the old man, speaking for the first time and sensing my drift. “I will do nothing illegal.”
“Then I’m afraid you’ll have a tough time entering the United States.” I replied, doing my best to convey in my imperfect Spanish that a tough time actually meant a mission impossible. He merely chuckled.
“I have someone to help me,” he said. “ Queen Sofia will help me.”
“Queen Sofia!” I repeated. “Queen Sofia of Spain?”
I exchanged a glance with the Mexican who made all the signals – a rolling of his eyes, a rotation of his forefinger pointed to his temple, a soft imitation of a bird whistle – all the universal gestures that suggested we were in the presence of a lunatic. The old man chuckled again, clapped his hands, and skipped past me towards the road, slinging his worldly possessions over the other shoulder. There can’t have been too much in his bag, and the only thing I ever saw him take from it was a packet of cigarettes. But I wouldn’t mind betting he also carried his own copy of Don Quixote: this modern knight errant, about to take on giants and lions, commending himself to the protection of his Dulcinea, Queen Sofia of Spain. Ah, well! I thought to myself. Lunatic or sane, he was someone to chat with for the next stretch of the lonely road. There’s only so far you can engage in conversation with your dog before your own sanity comes into question.
Unlike my new traveling companion, I knew the road ahead. I knew, for example, that it was now a busy road all the way to the border. A few miles back, my own less-traveled road had merged with the road from Victoria on which there’s a much greater volume of traffic bound mostly for the border towns of Reynosa and Matamaros. But the road remains single-lane in either direction and thus extremely hazardous. At regular intervals, the foot traveler can make an inventory of roadside memorials to the dead, the terrible though at times beautiful testimony to the hazards of such roads throughout Mexico. For the benefit of me and my dog, this particular stretch of Highway 180 was paralleled by a trail cut into the dry earth at a generous distance below the level of the road. But the knight errant eschewed such security. Secure instead in the protection of his lady, he walked on the road itself, inside the white line of the right lane, his back to the oncoming, northbound traffic.
“Senor, that’s very dangerous!” I said to him with genuine concern. “Come join me down here!”
But he ignored me, as he ignored a convoy of cars and trucks that whizzed past his ear. I shuddered at the prospect of two trucks passing us from opposite directions. Another roadside memorial might soon grace Highway 180.
He walked slowly and steadily keeping a straight course parallel to the white line. I had to slacken my own pace to stay close to him. He had a remarkable story to tell, or so I believed, and I was determined to stretch my limited Spanish and learn as much of his story as I could in whatever time we were on the road together. I had to shout many of my questions up to him, across the gully that divided us for a while and above the intermittent and angry screeching of cars and trucks. I kept my questions simple and clear inviting equally simple answers, which, when they came at all, came after lengthy pause. But I did learn that his month-long journey had taken him by bus and on foot through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. He’d been on the coast road of Veracruz just a few days before I’d walk it myself, though I doubt if he’d stopped to linger on the beach of the Costa Esmeralda. He came from a barrio on the outskirts of Managua where his house had been destroyed by the rains. This calamity had prompted his journey to Houston to join his youngest son. I asked how he planned to bring about that reunion, specifically how exactly he planned to cross over to ‘the other side.’
“Across the bridge,” he said.
“The bridge,” I repeated. “As simple as that, eh? No papers yet you’re going to enter the United States of America across the bridge?”
We’d been walking for about 2 miles, and the generous dirt trail had disappeared. Now I was very close to him though there was still sufficient dirt and grass underfoot, enough to give me and my dog a fighting chance of survival. I had a roadmap of Tamaulipas in my pocket and I pulled it out to use as a visual aid in the lecture I was about to give.
“Senor! There are three places where you could cross ‘the bridge.’ Here they are, see! Reynosa, Nuevo Progresso, and Matamoros, which, as it happens, is where I’ll be crossing the bridge in a few days. But let me tell you this: You won’t be crossing any of these bridges without the appropriate authorization.”
He listened to my little lecture with his eyes fixed on the road. Then he looked me in the eye, he raised the forefinger of his right hand, and his face broke into a warm smile, the smile of a loving father reprimanding a child who has more enthusiasm than common sense.
“Young man, I do have the authorization,” he said. “From the President of the United States. From Bill Clinton!”
I didn’t ask him any more probing questions, and for a while we walked together in silence. Then he spoke, not to me, at least not specifically to me or for my benefit, but to the four winds, to the universe. One hand secured the plastic bag over his shoulder, but with the other he sawed the air like an impassioned politician on the campaign trail. My imperfect Spanish prevented a complete understanding of his oratory, but it was full of references to ‘the dignity of man,’ to ‘the moral rights given to us by God himself,’ and to the fact that ‘we were all North Americans.’ He fell silent as we approached Las Norias.
I’d stayed a night at Las Norias the previous year, courtesy of a friendly family who owned a small restaurant and who’d given me and my dog much needed shelter from a sudden deluge of biblical proportions. I had a photograph from that visit that I now wanted to give to the family, one of several snapshots I was handing out in Tamaulipas, a surprise package of good Karma that more than compensated for the ugliness of the landscape. The family’s tiny, adobe thatched restaurant stood at one of the most crowded spots on the highway. It looked out onto a Revision, the Federal Government’s Drug Enforcement Checkpoint, where all northbound traffic was brought to a halt and all trucks scrutinized by a gigantic, Canadian-built X-ray wagon. I explained all this activity for the old man’s benefit.
“That’s good,” he said. “Drugs are very bad!”
I told him that this was also an excellent spot to hitch a ride. All these stationary trucks were bound for either Reynosa or Matamoros. He could be at the border in two hours. I too planned to get a ride, in the back of some pick-up truck going to San Fernando, a shabby little town 20 miles to the north. But first, I told him, I was going to take a long, leisurely lunch at the little restaurant, and I invited him to join me.
The Senora in charge of the restaurant was thrilled to see me again and summoned all the children, whose names I had recorded a year before and now rattled off, much to their joy, as if I were drawing from my prodigious memory. The kids then went outside to play with Ulises, and I sat down with the old man telling him to order whatever he fancied.
“Carne de res,” he said with the authority of one who knows his meat. I gave the Senora a brief history of the past year then introduced my companion, a gentleman from Nicaragua on his way to the border at ….? I looked at him for assistance, as I hadn’t established which of the three bridges he planned to walk across, invoking the protection of Queen Sofia and the authorization of ‘President’ Bill Clinton.
“Reynosa!” he said with the same assurance as he’d chosen his meal. Two burly truck drivers looked up from an adjoining table. They too were going to Reynosa once they’d finished lunch and had a smoke.
“There you go!” I said. “You could be at the border in a few hours.”
When the food came he inspected his carne de res like a laboratory scientist. He put the thin slices of beef to one side of his plate and ate only the rice and the tomato and onion relish, also ignoring the generous helping of tortillas, a Mexican staple he would not have savored in Managua.
“Was it alright?’ I asked him when he’d set his plate aside without touching a single slice of meat. He nodded gently with a grimace.
“Take the meat and tortillas for later.” I said
He declined the invitation, again with a gentle gesture of his head.
“Then if you don’t mind, I’ll take them – a treat for my dog!” And while Ulises was the chief beneficiary of the old man’s discrimination, I sampled some of the carne de res myself. The beef was lean, succulent, and delicately spiced. Was the meat in Managua so much better?
He’d said nothing in the restaurant up to this point, other than “Carne de res,” and “Reynosa!” But now it was time for another speech. Again I understood him merely in gobbets and again his speech was replete with lofty rhetoric about human dignity and freedom. The Senora and the two truck drivers stared at the old man, as mystified as I was by what they were hearing. I shrugged my shoulders in response to some puzzled glances in my direction. The truck drivers repressed the urge to laugh, then left bidding a friendly “Adios!” The old man excused himself to go outside for a smoke, which I assumed would also be his occasion for securing a ride to Reynosa. I couldn’t see him from the table, but the Senora had her eyes fixed on where he was standing.
“He’s talking to himself!” she said. And there he was, sawing the air with his free hand in between long puffs on his cigarette. I went outside and asked if he’d gotten his ride. He hadn’t.
“No matter,” I said. “There’ll be dozens more bound for Reynosa. Like I said, you could be there …” I didn’t finish the sentence, somehow sensing that my words were futile.
“Thank you for your kindness,” he said. I shook his hand, went inside to settle the bill, and then read how Don Quixote became ‘The Knight of the Lions.’
When I resumed my own journey, after a short nap, the old man had gone, and I was pleased to think that he was just an hour or so away from the bridge at Reynosa, absurd though his plan to cross that bridge may have been. Within ten minutes, Ulises and I were in the back of a pick-up truck, summoned for our benefit by one of the Drug Enforcement officers, and on our way to San Fernando. I’d walked the dreary 20-mile stretch the previous year so it was a treat on this occasion to be facing the retreating road, seeing the kilometer markers click by every forty-five seconds. But just a few yards past the third of those markers out from Las Norias, there, on my left, the old man from Nicaragua was walking a foot inside the white line, his plastic shopping bag over his shoulder, his eyes fixed on the road ahead.
I spent that night at a familiar budget hotel in San Fernando. There was one photograph I was hoping to deliver that evening. It was of an old lady at a roadside taco stand, though her three-year old grandson had stolen center stage. But I was told the old lady had been unwell; no one had seen her working the stand for over two weeks.
I’d taken a few rides over old ground in Tamaulipas, but from San Fernando I’d be walking for the four days it would take to get to the border at Matamoros. A day’s walk north of San Fernando, I pitched tent near a small grocery store run by another friendly Mexican family who now received an unexpected photo to add to their collection. It was around 6 p.m. as I was driving home the last peg of my flysheet when my attention was drawn to the highway by the screeching of a car horn. It was a long, angry blast that said, “Get outta my goddam way!” Sure enough, there was someone posing an obstacle to northbound traffic – the old man from Nicaragua, walking his straight course, a foot within the white line.
I sat against a tree and did some calculations. I had last seen him in Las Norias twenty-six hours before. We had each traveled 70 kilometers, but I was certain he had walked all of it. I’d already established his pace at barely 3 kilometers an hour, so, allowing about three hours of rest, he had been walking continuously since we’d parted. One thing puzzled me. He’d said, emphatically it seemed, that his bridge of choice would be at Reynosa. However, just 7 kilometers back from my present camp spot the highway divides, the left branch going to Reynosa. Like myself, the old man was now headed for Matamoros.
There are just a handful of pueblitos between San Fernando and Matamoros and at each of these I asked if anyone had seen the old man. Several people had, invariably a few hours or even a day ahead of me. My faster pace brought me closer to him, but then I lost ground because of my desire for a full night’s sleep, a desire, I might add, shared by my dog. The old man had stirred much interest in Francisco Villa, a village named for the revolutionary hero (or villain!) who is better known to the world as Pancho. Folk here were puzzled that the old man had walked straight through the town’s dusty main drag without so much as a word to anyone. I told them he was from Nicaragua. One young fellow said that without local knowledge of the Rio Bravo and especially without local assistance the poor old bugger could meet a grisly end at the hands of more merciless Mexicans, who prey on vulnerable migrants from farther south as they attempt to wade across the river at night.
“He’s planning to cross the bridge,” I said. “In broad daylight!” This prompted an outburst of laughter and earned me a beer. The young man who’d expressed concern was himself a seasoned veteran of the Rio Bravo. He’d crossed it most recently to go do a construction job in Atlanta.
“Nine months of good work,” he said with great pride. “Twelve dollars an hour!”
“How did you get to Atlanta?”
“I flew.” He gestured a flight take-off, complete with sound effects.
“Flew?” I remonstrated. “Atlanta’s an international airport. How did you deal with the Migra?”
“Domestic flight. From Harlingen,” he said, outlining the simple stages available to the more resourceful illegal entrants to the United States. What a pity, I thought to myself, that the old man had not sought counsel here in Francisco Villa. Then again, such counsel would probably violate his quixotic code of chivalry.
The last photograph I wanted to present in Tamaulipas was to the first Mexican family that had extended their hospitality the previous year. Gonzalo Chavez and his family were tenants on a huge sorghum farm about 25 miles south of Matamoros, and once again they invited me to pitch tent within their simple compound and fed me both supper and breakfast. During the night, I was forced to abandon my tent with some urgency during a thunderstorm. I took stock of the chaos under the roof of an open barn where Gonzalo stored farm equipment and where Ulises at any rate was able to go back to sleep. With the torrential rain came mud worthy of the Western Front, and it seemed that I was taking in my backpack to Matamoros half the mud from the Chavez compound. Not that Matamoros was in short supply of its own mud. The storm had caused some serious flooding and turned most of the town’s dirt sidewalks into quagmires, a familiar feature of any Mexican town after a rainstorm.
Every storm, they say, has its silver lining. In this case it was a cold front brought down from Canada, providing an overcast sky and a drop in temperature to the low 70s. After the blistering heat of the previous weeks, Tamaulipas was like fall in Pennsylvania, and I rattled off the 25 miles to Matamoros with a minimum of sweat and without the customary siesta. As I neared the hotel where I’d be spending my last night in Mexico, I saw the old man. He was walking south, on his preferred side of the road, a foot inside the white line. I stopped, intending that he might see me as he came closer, though I had to shout across the city’s four-lane highway to get his attention. He did a little dance of joy and skipped across the road to greet me, like a five-year old rushing to join his best playmate.
“Well, senor.” I asked. “What happened?”
“They turned me back!” There was genuine surprise in his voice. I tried to picture the face of the US Immigration Officer on the Brownsville side of the bridge when approached by a ragged old man from Nicaragua, with not a legal document to his name, bidding the officer a cheerful “Good day!” and expecting in return an equally warm “Welcome to the United States of America!” It was hard to restrain a laugh, or a tear.
“I just don’t understand!” he continued. “I didn’t have any problems crossing the other borders.”
“So now what? Will you go back to Nicaragua?”
“Oh, no!” he said. “They’ll let me through. They have to. I have the law on my side. The real law I mean. But first I have to go to a village.” He pointed to the south. “I need to get a chicken.”
“To eat?” I asked. “If you’re hungry, I’ll buy you a chicken dinner somewhere.”
“No, no!” he said. “I need a live chicken.” He drew the shape of a chicken with his hands to emphasize its vitality.
I asked why and I was told why, though it was a lengthy explanation, which at times defeated my command of Spanish. But I got the essence all right. It seems that the unfortunate US Immigration Officer was under some kind of spell, like the enchantment suffered by Don Quixote’s Dulcinea that transmogrified her into an ugly peasant woman. This spell, and neither the law nor the officer’s malice, had prevented the good old man from making his rightful entry into the United States and joining his son in Houston. The spell had to be lifted, hence the need for a live chicken. The old man was going to open up the living chicken and release its magical powers along with its bowels. Queen Sofia and Bill Clinton alone could not overcome this new obstacle. Don Quixote was forced to see the limitations of his code of chivalry. It was time for some voodoo.
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