We pushed through the bleak sunburnt soul of southern California on Highway 40, heading east, absorbing all the staccato beats of the bus: the engine’s steady droning through bland landscapes, the glaze-eyed hypnosis broken by sudden passages into small and mid-sized towns, usually approached through the industrial districts. There’s a blurry 10-minute stop here and a brisk-walk-down-Main Street forty-minute stop there, and then it’s back in the bus, sprawled in your little leatherette box.
Through it all, we just tried to roll with the rhythms of the road, and roll we did, through Arizona and New Mexico, where in Albuquerque, we took a highway hook, stopping the eastward drift and dropping down south. That finally plunked us smack dab into El Paso, where we were going to turn around and reverse our outbound orbit.
But as it happened, El Paso was the longest stopover—five hours—of all of our highway hijinks, and even though we came into town after 10 p.m., it was Saturday night. Plus, there was an exotic element to our El Paso escapade. Right on the other side of the Rio Grande, Mexico had given one of its classic border towns to the world: Juarez, a foreign country, just a couple of short blocks from the Greyhound station!
We walked the bridge and passed through the turnstiles, which to our great amusement, required 3 cents for the passage. We had no idea of what we wanted to do in Juarez, but our answer appeared behind us in the form of Tony, a young Mexican guy with a green card. Tony was just getting off work in El Paso and heading for a night out in Juarez. His English was good and his attitude better, and he offered to show us some lively spots in the city.
We readily accepted, and we were soon in a big crowded bar, where a loud band was singing mangled Beatles songs in a sloppy but happy hybrid of English and Spanish. Tony shepherded us to the bar, where I had my first boilermaker, amazed that the bartenders would drop the whisky shot, glass and all, down into the mug of beer. One good glass deserves another, and with no ID check to interfere, we met our Texas thirst head-on.
The bar was almost a warehouse, with a raucous atmosphere that had the joint jumping. There seemed to be mini-dramas at every corner, arguments, crazed laughter, disappointment, but I could only gape at it all, trying to read the body language, my high school Spanish useless. After a few drinks, Tony seemed restless, and he was happy when I asked if there was anywhere around to buy a cigar. I’d been smoking an occasional cigar for the past couple of years, and it seemed to me that a good stogie would cap a night out in Juarez.
But Tony wasn’t exactly thinking of cigars. He directed our taxi through the warm, humid night to a series of small, dimly lit old buildings. We followed him into the largest one, and it was unlike any cigar store I’d ever seen. We were in a large room that was almost wholly lit with candles, big and small. The atmosphere was heavy with some rich perfume, with the flickering candles (and the alcohol) steering my eyes unsteadily around the room.
There was a bar in one corner, around which were several big overstuffed chairs. Along the wall was a huge lime-green couch, above which was a large picture of the Virgin Mary. A pair of young girls dressed in shorts and light blouses sat on the couch. One of them rose and greeted Tony with a smile and a high chattering voice.
They had a quick conversation in Spanish, and then headed through a door leading out back. Tony winked and said he’d be back in a short while. At eighteen, I wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with the ways of the flesh, but I wasn’t exactly a suave Lothario, and it took a few beats for me to realize that we were in a whorehouse.
It became clearer when another young girl appeared, and she led Marty and me to the brilliant couch. Both girls seemed to act in unison: my escort put her hand on my leg almost simultaneous with the other putting hers on Marty’s. And their questions were nearly identical, something like, “Hello, I Maria, you buy me drink?”
In truth, I probably leaned more to Woody Allen than Antonio Banderas in the sophistication department, but I gumballed out a strangled “Yes,” as did Marty. Soon, they came back from the little bar with some watery beer for all of us, which tallied up to around $20. We were both so flummoxed to be where we were, in such delicate company, that we each peeled off a ten—which made our collective cash for the return home about two dollars apiece.
And which also made any thought of a two a.m. tryst with any of these sociable sorority sisters a moot point, which I felt was perhaps a relief. We all sat on the shocking couch and smiled and mumbled and looked at the shimmering scene. A few minutes later, Tony popped back in, saving us the embarrassment of ordering anything else on the menu—we had no money for liquor or for love, and at that point, I wasn’t certain if I needed either. Tony provided for the taxi back to the border, and as the TexMex night slipped away, we got on the bus for the long, long ride home.
That ride was a blur-eyed haze. All I took back from the trip was that kind of numbed brain brought about by extended bouts of busing, with strange visions of flaming lime-green couches, and the Virgin Mary laughing through bright-red lipstick. But we made it back without damnation, and not long after I had a good cigar. I still haven’t learned how to ask for one in Spanish.
Tom Bentley lives in the hinterlands of Watsonville, California, surrounded by strawberry fields and the occasional Airstream. He has run a writing and editing business out of his home for the past eight years, giving him ample time to vacuum. See his lurid web site confessions at www.tombentley.com.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.