Walter took a bench and wondered why he seemed more wary of the others waiting in the Greyhound bus station. It wasn't just that Greyhound bus station, it was pretty much any bus station he'd waited in the United States over the years. He never felt anxious in bus stations in Mexico. There, everyone just looks like folks of various social levels just trying to get from point A to point B. Mostly average-looking folks for the most part.
The more he thought about it, and studied the others waiting with him this time in this Austin, Texas Greyhound station, he began to notice a pattern. Most folks in U.S. bus stations look like they're either going to or coming from prison, their pimp, rehab, or the military. He figured he too likely fit at least one of those profiles.
The bus pulled up and everyone slowly took a place in line. It was coming on midnight, but most looked beaten by something else in addition to the hour. No one looked thrilled to say the least, but they slowly shuffled onto the bus.
Walter headed straight for the back and asked himself, "Why do I always tend toward the back of the bus? Could be it's closer to the bathroom? No, that can't be it. The door always seems to be broken and the stench is always wafting out. Not to mention the constant opening and closing of it all through the night. Maybe I should take one closer to the front this time?"
He looked back toward the front and noticed it was already pretty full. There was a couple wrangling a baby crib into one of the seats in the middle, so once again... back of the bus.
Just as he'd settled into his seat, a very large Hispanic man sitting in the last row and just behind Walter, started hacking, sneezing and coughing like he had the plague so bad that he might not even complete the journey at all. He made such an exaggerated effort trying to rid himself of his viral-mucal disease into the general breathing space that it seemed like he planned on taking everyone else with him.
Walter grimaced that of all the seats he could have taken... then he started to smile. Getting the seat right next to the sickest passenger had been such a regularity, that he'd told himself he would get one of those surgical masks to wear for the next time. Every time he'd forget, but this time he hadn't. He quickly dug into his backpack and whipped out a fresh, bio-surgical mask and had it strapped across his face before even the second round of dramatic mucus dispersal. No one could see, but Walter was smiling ear to ear.
The border crossing was the first hurtle. In the past, he'd been harassed plenty by the generally corrupt Mexican immigration officials. Never a huge deal, but they usually tried to tump up some bullshit issue with his passport or some fake new charge they'd just made up on the spot. Most of the time they didn't pilfer anything from Walter, but every now and then he'd just pay the extra $20 or so just to keep moving.
This time, the immigration officer asked him why his passport wasn't stamped for re-entry the last time he'd been in Mexico. He thought, "Oh boy, here we go again." The first order of defense is to let it be known you speak very little Spanish to the point that it's going to be difficult to describe just how you are going to rip-off the poor gringo. This would require more effort with this gringo repeatedly replying "No comprende. I'm sorry, my Spanish is very bad. Can you please repeat it more slowly?".
It was only 6AM and Walter could tell he was breaking down the officer quickly. He told him he did turn in his visa the last time, but the fellow didn't stamp anything. The bus driver was getting anxious to keep moving, so the officer just told Walter everything was fine, "No problema. You can get your visa at the bus station in Matamoros. There's an office there too."
Walter figured he'd call ahead to his buddy at the bus station office to get ready for a nice "fine" from a fresh gringo heading his way with a passport that didn't have an exit stamp. To his surprise, there was no issue at all. The other officer was as pleasant as could be, and even filled out the visa for him. How could that be? This was going way too easy so far. Maybe the other boot would drop at the first checkpoint? Or they were laying off the tourist rip-offs since most of the tourists were too afraid of all the cartel violence and they needed any tourist that was willing to take a chance? Who knows, but there had to be something waiting down the road, it was never this easy.
There were plenty of armed military vehicles along the way. Mostly regular army, but with large caliber machine guns mounted on the hoods of trucks. There were also the more intimidating ones dressed all in black with black military swat helmets and body armor. Those were likely federal police. There were a lot more military check points than had been in the past, but most were cordial and non-intimidating. None of the forcing all the males to get off the bus and forcing their way through everyone's luggage on the side of the road. Everything was nice and polite.
There was something odd about the bus driver and his back up driver. Every time there were military or police checkpoints, he'd wave feverishly like a 3 year old excited to see a firemen. I noticed too that every time the bus would slow down for a check point, the back up driver would start scanning the side of the road slowly with a steely stare. His hand would move very slowly up his side and start to reach for something attached to his belt. He'd rest his hand there, until we were flagged through. His shirt was mostly covering whatever it was, but it looked like the butt of a small pistol.
The route took much longer than it was supposed to and went off the main roads onto rough dirt side roads. There wasn't anything Walter could do if something fishy was being loaded onto the bus when the bus driver would stop for no reason in the middle of nowhere and mess around with something on the side of the bus. He had to just try to relax and try to sleep a little.
When they finally arrived in Tampico, Mexico, they passed under a series of bridges on the main drag in the financial district. Walter had read that just a week ago, 4 bodies were hanging from one of those bridges as some sort of statement in the heated war between the de Gulfo and Los Zetas drug cartels. He wondered which of these bridges was the one.
Even though the city crawled with heavily armed military and police vehicles, Walter's well-honed travel danger sense alarms were no longer going off at all. Maybe he was delirious from lack of sleep? Or, maybe he just chose not to be afraid, or was just hungry. He took the first cheap room he found, and set off onto the streets to have a look around.
It was a bit of a chill in the air, so the sidewalk sign for hot tamales and coffee looked attractive. That was, until the woman with the most severe face and even more severe makeup beckoned Walter to take a seat. Walter asked if the coffee was instant or made in the pot? The woman said it was made in the pot and insisted he take a seat. She noticed his accent was off and asked, "Where to you come from?" He replied, "I'm from Austin, Texas." She smiled seductively and shifted her harsh voice up into a pseudo-sexy baby talk that just didn't sound right coming from that severe face. "Oh, why don't you come right in and have some of my tamales love?" Walter, "Not tonight. Not as hungry as I thought." Tamale lady, "Are you here for business or pleasure love?" Walter, "A little of both I guess. Look, I'm going to be here a couple days or so... maybe I'll come back later." The tamale lady smiled and tugged down on her smock to reveal most of one bare breast to Walter and said, "Ok love, I'll be waiting for you to come back and try my delicious tamales." Then blew him a kiss.
The next day Walter passed by the same tamale shop by accident. The tamale lady locked on his eyes and headed to catch him on the street. He smiled and waved, but was too fast for her and was already around the block and disappeared into the crowd.
Walter meandered along the banks of the crocodile-filled lagoon only a few blocks from downtown. The banks of the lagoon are also crawling with large iguana and white cranes flit about fishing and avoiding the crocs. Walter strolled along the edge of the lagoon keeping one eye on the crocodiles, and the other on the frequent military vehicles loaded with heavily-armed men wearing black masks. In between the two and oncoming toward Walter, was a large hispanic man riding what looked like a small pink bicycle. Jogging alongside of the man was a chihuahua wearing a Superman cape. Walter took the whole scene in, laughed and thought, "Yep. I'm definitely back in Mexico again. Think I'll stay here a few days."