The Mérida Express

Lorraine Caputo

I. 19 December 1997 / 6:45 a.m. / Córdoba, Veracruz

Day is just breaking. The air is cool and damp.

The Mexico City train has finally arrived…late. We, its newest passengers, stumble across the tracks to where these two lone cars await their locomotive.

As I settle in for this ride—one of Mexico's most infamous hell rides, ratty and eternally late—my mind creates a variation on a late-1960s song: Don’t you know we’re riding on the Mérida ExpressThey’re taking me to Mérida All aboard the train… All abroad the train…

II.

I drift out of memories of the dream I had before awakening at four to catch this train.

We are passing by miles and miles of tasseling sugarcane. The morning mist swirls over blades of cane and around flowering mango trees, around banana trees, around orange trees heavy with fruit.

A man sings a ditty, holding up boxes of vitamins: “Oh, you can have a woman so beautiful. Oh, but on the inside, she could be oh, so sick. And with these vitamins… Only ten pesitos…."

Teenage girls giggle at his comments. Men snigger and sneer.

But as the vendor walks the length of the car, people pull the ten-peso note for those red and black magic pills from out of their pockets. The face of Emiliano Zapata watches as his banknote is passed from hand to hand.

We now pass through a narrow valley. Sugarcane stretches out to those green mountains swathed in misty clouds. Those mountains look like mango trees. Oh, and the mango trees—like clouds…. There are so many villages all along, so many houses made of scrap wood boards, of scrap tin.

III. 10:10 a.m. / Tierra Blanca, Veracruz

The car in front of us is unhooked and pulled away by the locomotive. The woman next to me says assuredly, a third one will be added.

Amid the flow of more passengers into the car, vendors pour onboard with buckets of drinks, plates of food. They can barely push by the people without seats. 

I sip atole to take off the chill. Its warmth brings back memories of Gran Salinas ruins in New Mexico, of Fito sneaking off somewhere to make a fire, and coming back with a steamy pot. All the way back to Albuquerque, we four—his brother in the front seat, me and a friend in the back—drink atole from the blue corn Fito grew.

The sun brightens my window as it weakly tears at the clouds. Along the ground, aside from our car, dogs sniff for chicken bones tossed out windows. A boy rides a donkey down the street.

Across the aisle, from the overhead rack, a father strings a hammock for his son. The young one suckles his mother’s breast.

We begin traveling again, just one car. A huge troupe of buzzards flies up off the tracks we approach.

Our train passes truck upon truck, railcars upon railcars overflowing with cut sugarcane. A man sits in his yard husking corn. Those mountains are now farther off.

You know what kind of clouds mango trees remind me of? The kind that brings summer storms—flat on the bottom and towering, billowing, into the heavens.

IV. 1:15 p.m. / Approaching La Palma

We're traveling through a vast patchwork. Various shades of green, various textures drape across the landscape. Fields of pineapples, fallow fields, pastures.

At the side of the tracks, zopilotes cast their shadows over a dead cow.

We clack past small towns of cabañas with palm-thatch roofs and cane-slat walls stuccoed over and rarely painted.

V. 3:15 p.m. / Los Tigres

We are still 45 kilometers from Medias Aguas. We will probably be there in over an hour. The train stopped briefly at this station in the middle of these flatlands.

Two women came aboard with large baskets. They call out, “Chicken, tacos, tortillas, rice, chile relleno, milanesa.” The train’s porter follows right behind, selling soft drinks and beer.

VI. 5:37 p.m. / Stopped south of Medias Aguas, in the middle of nowhere

I took a break from sitting for a while and let a mother with her two children sit.

Aboard is a young man, his hair greying already. He wears four layers of filthy shirts beneath a holey sweater. His pants are several sizes too big and held up with a rope. The tennis shoes are mismatched, one held together with a string tied around the sole. I hand him a few tacos.

It's going to be a long night—no lights in this car, that screeching kid, and the humidity. I pop an aspirin.

Dusk has fallen, and now it's too dark to write. People rush to move their belonging down from the racks to the floor in front of their seats.

The trees are getting restless. I wonder if a storm is a-coming.

It’s going to be a long, long night.

VII. 8 p.m. / Just past Chinameca, Veracruz

I am awakened by a conversation between a woman from Chiapas sitting next to me and a man in the aisle. I am held by the edge in her voice and his replies.

“It’s a disgrace how they treat us passengers,” she says.

“Indeed, it is,” he replies.

“Not giving us another car, making us squeeze into this one. Especially when there are so many people traveling now with the holidays.”

“Yes,” the señor says.

“But there aren’t any extra cars. They’re using them all to transport soldiers to the south.” Since the Zapatista uprising in her home state, many troops have been mobilized in that region.

“No, you don’t have that right,” the man states firmly. “It’s to transport soldiers and federales to the north, to Chihuahua, to fight against the narcotraffickers.”

“No, to move soldiers to the south.”

“No. It isn’t as simple as that. It’s much more complex.” He spits on the ground, leaving a mark on his pant leg.

VIII. 20 December / 7:30 a.m. / Macuspana, Tabasco

This is my second dawn upon this train that once again is nothing more than the lightening of a clouded sky and still the steady light rain. The morning mists swirl around the jungle-covered mountains. The sun is beginning to break through the clouds. Canes and vines brush against our train.

We pass a village. Most of the houses are built of rough board and roofed with tin. Turkeys waddle in the yards. One fans his ragged tail wide.

IX. 11:43 a.m. / Tenosique, Tabasco

We have been stopped here now for 20 minutes. A whole chorus of women's voices—from young girls to abuelitas (grandmothers)—chants their noonday offerings. 

                            Hay empanadas

                                                    Hay tacos de pollo

                                           Hay empanadas

                                 Hay arroz con leche

                                                    Hay tacos de pollo

                                           Hay empanadas

                        Hay empanadas

I buy three chicken tacos and a cup of rice and milk.

A musical family board. Father plays guitar and sings, a son plays güiro and takes tips. Someone plays an electric keyboard, drowning out the rest of them.

It is now 12:13 p.m., and a train is blowing its horn. Is it this one? As soon as I write the words, our train jerks forward, and on we go…

X. 3:33 p.m. / Don Samuel, Campeche

I chuckle as we pass the primary school named after Emiliano Zapata. (Again, he appears during this train journey. He's staring at me…)

XI. 5:38 p.m. / Wherever

My second dusk upon this train is falling.

Some say we will be in Mérida at about 2 a.m., others say no, 9 or 10 a.m. We'll see… we'll see…

We had been passing through the heavily wooded, rolling flatlands of Campeche State. Sometimes we dip into a cut-through in these low hills.

And now this, my second night upon this train, is beginning.

And I settle into a meditation on the purpose of my life. And I scold myself for my failings, my laziness.

XII. 7:40 p.m. / Campeche City

We've just pulled into here. According to the train schedule, it's four more hours to Mérida. But if this trip so far is any indication…

A group of soldiers come aboard and begin checking baggage. Their lights flash across the ceiling. I look out the window. More soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, walk the platform.

I quietly ask another passenger, "Why are there so many of them?"

In the darkness comes an answer. “They’re looking for drugs and other contraband. If you look suspicious, they’ll haul you and your belongings off.”

The vendors rush on with heavy baskets and jugs.

                        Hay pollo

                        Hay tamalitos

                                 Hay jugo

                                 refrescos

                                 agua purificada

                        Hay pollo

                        Hay tamalitos

                                           Hay Nescafé

                                           Hay arroz con leche

As the soldiers leave, people stare after them.

With a stomach full of tamales and pineapple juice, I snuggle down for a nap. We leave Campeche at 8:15, finally with a second car.

XIII. 21 December / 3:35 a.m. / Mérida, Yucatán

I found an open eatery just around the corner from the station. A cup of coffee warms my hand.

The train for Izamal, my next destination, leaves at 6 a.m.

We arrived here at 3:05 a.m.—44 hours later—and over 17 hours late.


About the Author

Lorraine Caputo is a wandering troubadour whose works appear in over 300 journals on six continents and 20 collections of poetry—including Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017), On Galápagos Shores (dancing girl press, 2019), and Caribbean Interludes (Origami Poems Project, 2022). She also authors travel narratives, articles, and guidebooks. Her writing has been honored by the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada (2011) and nominated for Best of the Net. Caputo has done literary readings from Alaska to Patagonia. She journeys through Latin America with her faithful knapsack Rocinante, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her adventures at www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer or https://latinamericawanderer.wordpress.com.