I turned my cart into the street as a pole interrupted the narrow sidewalk then felt my cart drop as it dipped into a pothole. An old Toyota pickup without its grill jostled towards me. Savannah’s leash was wrapped tight around my hand to keep her close. I hurried past a car that was parked half in the street half in the sidewalk, then cut back onto the sidewalk to let the Toyota pass.
I paused to withdraw my phone, then looked at the map to see how far from the hotel I was. It should have been two hours from the border, but I took a wrong turn earlier and the streets weren’t exactly ideal walking.
Still two hours away, I pressed on, Savannah tight to my leg, my hands gripped to the cart, and my focus total. I didn’t want to rest, everything was happening too fast; the concrete houses with the rebar jutting out, the Mexicans all staring at the gringo, the seemingly random array of things blocking the sidewalk; they all shot into my head like bullets from a .22. I couldn’t temper their speed or dull their impact. My brain was set to full awareness trying to overlay patterns on the chaos.
In the midst of this hurricane of newness, I turned a corner and across the street were two barking dogs. Both looked like pincer/terrier mixes. They might have been sisters; their pink bellies hung off them like utters. One dog was black and the other was white.
At first I thought little of them. When I was in Georgia I was surrounded by two dogs that ran out of a trailer park. They circled me, barking, bearing their teeth. I blocked one of the dogs with my cart and kept the other at bay by swinging my hiking pole. I turned back and forth, balancing between the two, and as I did I walked slowly away from the trailer park until I was far enough away that the dogs decided I was off their turf.
For a few weeks after that I had a fear of dogs that I never had before. Luckily, when walking, encountering dogs is a daily occurrence. Every day dogs charged at me barking, and gradually I overcame my new fear and learned how to handle it.
So when I turned the corner and faced these two pincer/terriers, I thought I’d just walk right through them while they barked their jaws off.
But approaching the white dog I realized she was not like others I’d run across, she was like the trailer park dogs. Her teeth were bare, her bark had malice, and her eyes were red.
I paused. Then turned down another street.
“Nope, not dealing with that,” I said to Savannah.
The red-eyed dog leapt at my heels. I spun around and pushed my presence on her.
She backed up but was still barking. Then she hopped towards me again.
I turned and went at her with my arms out. “Get out of here. Get out of here.” I nodded down the street. The red-eyed dog backed a few steps then stayed there as Savannah and I walked on.
“Good girl Savannah.” I bent down and patted Savannah on the side. Her tail was tightly between her legs. She was only a puppy and that was a vicious, oversized dog. But it was good for Savannah to get the exposure, she’d have to face her fears just like I did.
Two hectic hours later, relief washed over me as I entered the air-conditioned uniformity that is the Holiday Inn. I booked a room the night before thinking that it would be best to have a secure place to sleep my first night in a country I didn’t yet understand. I didn’t want to be out on the streets of Reynosa disoriented and unable to find a place to rest my head.
I spoke broken Spanish to the concierge, but he transitioned into flawless English.
“You speak great English,” I said.
“Thanks. I lived in Houston.” He was tall, about the same age as me, and more Caucasian-looking than most Mexicans.
“Why’d you come back here?” Just by talking to concierge it felt like I was being normalized after such a stressful few hours. I rested my arm on the counter separating us.
“Well I was there for five years, then had to come back.”
“You had a five-year visa?”
He hesitated, glanced away momentarily. “Yea.”
“Oh, you were over there illegally?”
“So you crossed over with a Coyote? That must have been insane.”
“It wasn’t so bad. A little scary maybe, but nothing too much.”
“How much did it cost you?”
“Damn. And how’d they find out you were illegal?”
“Got caught driving.” He gestured a hand on the steering wheel then smiled and shrugged.
“Why’d you stay in Texas? They’re basically hunting for illegals. You should have come to New Jersey. I know a bunch of guys that live there illegally. Cops don’t care as much as they do in Texas.”
“That’s what I heard; anywhere but Texas.”
“Is this your first time in Mexico?”
“Yea.” I turned and pointed to my cart and Savannah across the lobby. “I walked from McAllen today.”
The concierge leaned back and pouted a bit. “I was wondering what that was. How far are you going?”
“Down to Argentina.”
“You’re walking through Mexico?”
“Yea, is that not a good idea?” I chuckled.
“No. No. I mean they’re my people so I don’t want to say anything too bad, but you know Mexicans, they can be a little rough.”
“What about the cartel?”
“Eh.” He tilted his hand. “A few years ago it was really bad, but now it’s been peaceful. You came at a good time. Things are getting better. Still…”
“Anywhere I should avoid?”
“Hmm…I don’t know.”
I pulled out my phone and showed him the route I was planning on taking. He pointed at an area to the right of where I’d be walking. “There was some fighting here. Otherwise I don’t know.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Just don’t trust anyone. Some woman may try to pull you away but you have to keep going. Trust no one.”
“A Mexican guy I used to work with, he lived in Puebla, he used to say the same thing, ‘trust no one.’ ”
“But you’ll be alright.”
“I hope so.
The concierge passed me my room key, then I tapped it on the counter.
“Well thanks,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Well nice to meet you Ben, I’m Tom.”
I slipped my room key into my pocket then brought the cart and Savannah to the room. I showered, laid down, ordered Domino’s, and watched football.
The next day I woke with the same anxiety I always do after sleeping in a hotel. It’s a concentrated form of anxiety that stems from my habits being thrown off. I don’t have to spring up and break down camp before someone might come a see me. I can sit at the desk, eat leftover pizza, and sip a coffee; that’s too weird.
So I did those things; ate the pizza and sipped the coffee, but then I meditated too. I sat with my back against the bed and repeated ‘there is no self’ for fifteen minutes with my eyes gently shut.
Then I was feeling better.
Outside the hotel I stopped at a bank and withdrew two-thousand pesos (about a hundred dollars). Then Savannah and I were on the road which would take us west then out of the city.
Thankfully there was a small shoulder. The road was six lanes of dust and smog and barely visible lane lines. I kept Savannah to my left and to her left was dried brush and trash. We had about two feet to ourselves. Old American school buses, repainted, engines coughing in exhaustion, blared by inches from me.
Men on motor scooters putted along the shoulder towards me then glanced over their shoulders and swerved around me.
The cars were all about ten years old and in need of this or that repair. Some hacked black clouds, others had tires that wobbled precipitously, a few had their hood strapped down with bungie cords. But most of the cars had tires as bald as a Costco floor after its morning cleaning; I’d never heard so many squealing tires in my life.
I put in my headphones and listened to a Spanish podcast in an attempt to coverup some of the fossil fuel cacophony.
We walked and sweat for two hours. We stopped a few times at intersections or on the dirt parking lot of an auto shop, but otherwise kept moving.
We arrived at an OXXO, a reliable Mexican gas station, and I got us some cold water, and myself some mango juice. For thirty minutes we rested, then cut down a backroad to avoid some noise and chaos.
The only thing that made the backroad a road was that there were a few cars braving it. It seemed to be made of crushed cinderblocks. The street was gray and dust followed me as I walked.
The houses on either side were far worse than any I’d seen in America. Some we decent, solidly-built concrete homes, but others were crumbling, neglected masses. I imagined even trying to build a concrete house like the ones I was passing in America, if someone attempted to put that in an All-American suburb they’d not only violate endless regulations, but they’d be chased out by townspeople with torches and pitchforks.
Dogs roamed everywhere. Some with eyes missing. Some with patches of hair missing. Some barking incessantly. When we passed one in a yard, they ran at the tilted, rusty fences keeping them in with a madness as though they’d never seen someone walk by before.
Savannah pressed against my leg when the dogs came at their fences and I thought that Savannah would be bigger than them soon and not so easily scared.
Making it back to the main street out of Reynosa, we cut across it so we could walk against traffic. There was a small shoulder again but not so reliable. Business took over the shoulder sometimes; their stands or customers nearly out onto the street.
I had to weave my cart through an obstacle course of parked cars, poles, and stacked tires (so many auto-repair shops).
It was hot. Not just because of the sun, but because of the traffic too. Savannah was panting. When we stopped again at an OXXO she drank nearly a liter of water.
But soon after that the traffic lessened and the shoulder became more reliable.
Then further still the traffic slowed to a drizzle. We were only six or so miles south of Reynosa and already it was farmland. Just like that the chaos died off.
A throws of population still existed though. There were concrete, art-deco-looking demo houses on the side of the road. Then behind the demo houses ran lines of electric poles to developments with thousands of newly laid concrete homes.
Beyond the concrete developments I reached one last OXXO at the point in the road were it was only flat ahead.
I brought my cart to the OXXO, parked it, then laid some water out for Savannah.
Immediately I was approached by a chubby middle-aged man and a scrawny, hunched-over teenager.
“Where are you walking?” the middle-aged man asked.
“Argentina,” I said with a terrible Spanish accent.
He whistled. “That’s a long way. Where are you from?”
I tried to assess the man. He wasn’t neatly kept but he wasn’t unkempt either. His eyes didn’t instill trust but they weren’t aggressive. Probably he was just curious about the cart and wanted to practice his English. “New Jersey,” I said. “You know it?”
“I lived in Chicago and Detroit for a while before getting deported. My daughters live there still.”
“But they’re citizens, right?”
He tilted his ear towards me and leaned forward.
“They’re citizens, right?”
“They were born there.”
“Oh good. Your daughters ever visit?”
“Sometimes. Not too much though. Once or twice a year they’ll come and see me here.”
“Better than nothing.”
The younger guy stood around nodding and smiling, his shirt hanging off him like his shoulders were a clothes wire.
“Why’d you come here?” the man asked.
“To see the world.”
“This is it.” He held out his arms and looked around.
I laughed but wanted him to leave so I could get some water knowing my cart wouldn’t be messed with.
“Okay, amigo, good luck.” The man patted me on the shoulder then walked to the other end of the OXXO.
As I went inside the Policía Federâles pulled in and entered the shop too. I grabbed some water and police stood around an ATM with semi-automatics slung over their shoulders and in their black body armor.
Back outside I sat on the curb and drank cold water. I gave Savannah food when I saw the stray dogs milling about had moved on.
The man and teenager I spoke to earlier returned.
The man sat beside me on the curb. “The water is no good down here,” he said. “Only filtered water is good.”
I sipped on my water, wishing the man would move on again. I was mentally exhausted from getting out of Reynosa and when I saw the OXXO in the distance I imagined sitting quietly for thirty minutes.
“Do you have enough money?” the man asked.
“Enough for food.”
“It’s tough to make money down here. There aren’t any good jobs. I sell drugs here. I don’t want to, but there isn’t anything else.”
I perked up in interest and at the same time thought about getting up and leaving. I wanted to more, but I didn’t want to be anywhere near anything having to do with drugs in Mexico.
“You work for a cartel?” I asked.
“Si, but I’m very, very low.” He flattened then lowered his hand until it touched the curb. “This is my spot. The big man gives me something to sell and I sell it here. They pay me two-hundred dollars every two weeks.”
“So they pay you two-hundred dollars every two weeks no matter how much you sell?”
“Si. But I have another job too. I wash car windows. People give me ten pesos.”
I twisted the cap onto my water bottle. I was ready to go. From all the bad things people were telling me before crossing the border, I was still on high alert. The very, very low drug dealer was almost certainly harmless, but who knew about his friends, or customers?
“Well, I have to get going, amigo.”
I stood then reached down to shake the man’s hand.
“Good luck,” he said.
After putting Savannah’s bowls in the back basket, I was walking away from the OXXO. I looked back and saw the man I was just talking to making a deal with a customer.
I walked fast and Savannah walked fast beside me. Nothing had happened, it was all in my head, but I wanted to be as far from the border as quickly as possible.