Sunday, June 8, 2008
On May 23 Steve and I traveled to Ixstepec where the train makes its first stop after starting out in Arriaga. We took off on a bus two hours after the train left but it only took 15 minutes of driving before we spotted it along the roadside. The trip that took us only three hours in a bus lasted all day and into the night for the train riders. The tracks along this stretch are particularly bad so conductors take it slow. Safety is important but it makes for an exhausting ride. By the time they reachIxtepec most migrants have had enough for one day and opt to take a few days rest before heading out again. For the hearty few who don't care to waste time on things like sleep, the train leaves again that evening as soon as it can change over its cars.
Steve and I made it into town around noon and as we were searching for a hotel we ran into Mauricio and Wilfredo who we had met inTecun Uman (see Mauricio's story). They had been staying at the migrant house for the last few days and were getting ready to take the train out that evening. They invited us to visit the migrant house so after finding a room and grabbing some lunch we went to check it out.
The shelter was barely deserving of its name. It consisted of a few tin roofs and a couple storage sheds strewn about on a half acre of dirt on the outskirts of town. Walls were a luxury that were yet to be acquired although a few power cords held up by dead branches assured that the TV was in working order. A couple of guys from Colorado came out to greet us as we walked walked in. They showed us around and explained that this shelter was independently set up by the Catholic Church inIxtepec. It had no ties to the Scalabarini order (in charge of all the other shelters we visited so far) which helped explain the more laid back approach. The shelter had an outdoor kitchen and offered meals whenever it had the donations to do so. We tried to sit and chat with some of the guys lounging in the shade but Rambo IV was playing in the background so the conversations were short lived.
We headed back to town and found Wilfredo and his girlfriend near the food vendors. They had just received a dinner of beans and tortillas from a generous vendor and walked over to see how we were doing. We talked about how our project was going and they invited us to join them on the freight train heading out that night. The opportunity was too good to pass up so we grabbed our stuff from the hotel, inhaled some dinner, and met them in an open boxcar down in the train yard. It was just after dark and the train yard was filled with long shadows cast by the single set of overhead lights at the far end. Despite the hour everyone was in good spirits, ready to start the next leg of their trip.
Our group consisted of six people. Steve, myself, Mauricio, Wilfredo, his girlfriend Mirian, and Nolvia who had been traveling by herself but joined the other three a few days ago. We played a few card games until we heard the train from Arriaga coming in, then we crossed the tracks and crawled into a gondola style railroad car. The top was open and the sides low enough for an average person to see out when they stood up but it provided plenty of security from falling out.
It took another hour and a half before the train was ready to go but once we left town things started to move fast. Really fast. The boom of boxcars running into each other reverberated down the track every time the conductor changed speed. The hiss of air brakes and screeching metal was almost constant. We could barely make out each other's voices over the noise. Along either side of the train were thousands of fireflies illuminating the edges of our metal transport as it bobbed down the tracks. We were moving at least 60 mph but the wind was nothing more than a strong breeze as it was whipped around in the air pocket created by the cars in front of us. Above us was an expanse of stars interrupted only by the jagged peaks ahead of us. We stood at the front of our car for hours admiring the brute force of the vehicle hurling us through narrow mountain passes and fields of fluorescent green.
It didn't seem fair to rest rather than admire the moment but our bodies eventually told us otherwise and we laid down in the middle of our car with jackets as padding and backpacks for pillows. The noise of the wheels made it hard to sleep but I eventually dozed off.
Some time during the night Steve shook me awake. A couple men had entered the back of our car and were standing over some migrants in the corner. I glanced over just in time to see one migrant hand the man some money.
Steve and I quickly woke up the rest of our crew in case the men with flashlights came our way. We hoped our group was big enough that they would just pass us by but that was just wishful thinking. They shined their flashlights right in our faces and started talking in a tone too low to decipher over the noise of the train. I didn't see any weapons but something felt wrong. Mauricio got up to talk to the men and see what they wanted even though was obvious that Steve and I were the ones causing them concern. They said they were train employees and had come to collect money for riding on their train. In other words, they were extorting money from the migrants.
Riding freight trains in Mexico is the same as in the U.S. The benefits are free albeit dangerous travel to wherever your destination is. The downside is that it is not regulated which makes riders vulnerable to theft and exploitation (In case anyone is getting ideas it is also illegal which is enforced in the States but not in Mexico). I don't know what agreement these guys had with the rest of the employees on the train but you can be sure no money they collected was going much further than their own pockets. Steve and I stood up and explained that we were reporters riding the train in order to learn migrant's stories. After hearing that their attitudes took a sudden shift. I don't know if it was the power of our reporter status or that we stood a foot and a half above these guys but they never asked us for a dime. Instead they told us we should have informed the train line before boarding that night and shuffled off to the next car. We watched as their flashlights slowly worked their way from group to group all the way up the train.
A few hours later the train stopped at a fork in the tracks named Medias Aguas and we got out and slept until morning.
Riding the trains is not the only way to get through Mexico. If you have the money many Coyotes can take you from your native country all the way to the U.S. either by car or by bus. I talked to one guy who took public buses and made it through 19 checkpoints without being asked for documents (this is extremely rare). But the trains are still the most well known way of travel since they avoid most checkpoints and fit any budget. Steve and I feel privileged to have ridden the train and not run into any problems. This is not the case for most migrants.
at 3:32 PM