It was an escape across the border back when it was still safe to grab a southbound Greyhound, roam the countryside as a white guy, mix with the locals, eat their food, and drink their booze. Of course, I’d been warned about drinking the water, staying out of local bars and off remote beaches at night. In fact, anything an errant GI might want to do, I was warned not to. Mexico could be hot in more ways than one.
Back in ‘65, the trip was a wonderful distraction from being stuck in Fort Polk, Louisiana in the middle of summer. It was a two week pass from military confinement and promised all of its imagined freedom of the road. Past experiences had taught me never again to go back to Minnesota while on leave. The pain of returning to military life again wasn’t worth it. That brief taste of freedom was something I couldn’t handle it emotionally or psychologically. The next time I ventured home it would be for good. So instead, Mexico beckoned me.
I picked up a Trailways Bus outside of base and took it down to the Texas border. From there we raced our Greyhound bus all the way down to Mexico City. Narrow roads and loose gravel didn’t stop our insane driver from passing other buses all the way down to the nation’s capital. A refusal by the passengers to close the windows meant there was no air conditioning all the way into town. Screaming kids, grumpy grandparents, and strange looking men kept me awake the whole trip.
In 1965, Mexico was like a third world country just slowly beginning to climb out of its centuries of poverty, corrupt governments, and a lack of economic steps for the masses.
Poverty was a way of life. Drug cartels hadn’t taken over the countryside yet. Marijuana was the worst drug around and there was no Fontaur to explode the tourism industry.
Parts of the countryside were the ‘wild west’ all over again. In the small villages, the rest stop was a quick jaunt to some decrepit toilet, brushing off the begging kids along the way and back on the bus again.
While the countryside seemed mired in poverty and some kind of medieval time warp, Mexico City proved a wonderful respite of old colonial buildings, narrow cobblestone streets and peasants kneel-walking in pilgrimages to the central cathedral in the main plaza. Nearby the campus of the University of Mexico City was a respite from the craziness of the metropolitan area. Among the many monuments and plazas the elite of Mexican society gathered and rose above the masses. Outside of town, ancient pyramids drew inspiration for the flocks of tourists that roamed their sacred grounds.
I spent a week wandering the city to places where I dared roam only in the daylight. There was a Grey Line tour that took me further out of town and then on to Acapulco and a harbor cruise.
In that growing seaside tourist town, I hooked up with a wandering group of American kids like myself. We hung out at the beach. We drank beer all day and told tall tales about college back home. They worried about the draft and I laughed at them. I was careful about not drinking the water then like an idiot I ordered a Pepsi and it came with ice. Ten minutes later I was trapped in a toilet for hours. Lesson learned.
I don’t remember much about the bus ride back to base. It had been two weeks awash with bad food, good beer and over-imagined conversations that only hinted of romance with the opposite sex. I harbored lingering envy for my new-found friends who were heading back to campus. But held on to hope for me with only six months left of olive drab and khaki.
Not that long afterwards, I got transferred to Fort Lee, Virginia and an entirely different kind of lifestyle.
But that’s another blog entirely.