Early morning. I am in bed remembering that movie scene – – you’ve seen it – – in which the wife flings a suitcase onto the bed, grabs armfuls of clothes still on their hangers, pulls open drawers, stuffs everything willy-nilly into the suitcase, slams the lid shut and departs in fury. She’s had enough.
In my mind I play my own version of this scene, in which I am the fleeing woman, here, now, in this shabby hotel in Saltillo. I could. I could tiptoe across the wooden floor, remembering the closet door that squeaks, and make my getaway while I still can, before my husband wakes up and persuades me that we’re on our way to Mexico City, where things will be so much better. I long to get away from the oppression of narrow streets, heat, and the unrelieved atmosphere of the bulls. The final straw has been our stay at a cattle ranch far out in the country, an experience disconcerting enough never to want to repeat. So I think: I could leave. Where to? I don’t know yet.
My husband wakes up, and I know what he’ll say before he says it. He says it.
“You look gloomy. Why? Don’t worry; we’ll be in Mexico City tomorrow. It’ll be much better there. More for you to do there. It’ll be fun. Honestly.”
Saltillo in the seventies was a small town in Coahuila, Mexico, 400 kilometers south of the border, in the arid Sierra Madre Mountains, and we came here originally because Kelly was drawn by its “taurine” reputation – – that is, it was a town in which the majority of the population were avid bullfight fans – – aficionados. And he did indeed meet many aspiring toreros here, young men determined to make it as professional bullfighters, to become matadors one day.
We have crossed the border by bus, and we’ve been staying in this dingy hotel while Kelly and his torero friends have been practicing their cape-work, taking it in turns to “run the horns” for each other in the venerable old wooden plaza or in the park.
They take it in turns to play the part of the bull, running at the offered cape or muleta, with maximum ferocity and cunning, arms outstretched holding a pair of full-size bull’s horns mounted on a piece of wood. It’s the next best thing to a real animal. Those are hard to come by for aspiring, penniless would-be matadors. My days are spent wandering the towns streets looking in the shops and people-watching, or reading on a bench in the park or in the hotel room.
The toreros, have introduced Kelly to Alberto Rodriguez, the owner of a cattle ranch, Santa Elena, where he raises fighting bulls. He can sometimes be induced to make available one or two or his younger animals for caping practice.
Alberto is rotund, and wears, every day, a cowboy hat, grubby T-shirt and boots. His teeth are not good, and every day he somehow contrives to have a two-day growth of beard. How does he do that? we wonder. “Beto” as he is nicknamed, is often taciturn, though not shy about bumming cigarettes.
“A little cigarillo?” he often begs, scratching his stomach and looking abjectly into the middle distance. Sometimes he’ll try out his English, practicing sentences on us, putting equal stress on each word: “I want to be your friend, yes?” or “You want to be my friend. OK?”
We meet in the busy kitchen of his house, where his wife and daughters sit at a large table chopping chilies and cilantro. “Sienten se,” they say, inviting us to sit with them. Alberto does have some cows, and a visit to his ranch is arranged. The ranch is quite a distance from Saltillo, and we will have to get there by train. Beto will meet us with his pick-up truck at a tiny station called Fraile.
It’s barely light when we get to the station platform and cold enough for you to see your breath. I buy hot chocolate and sweet rolls from an old lady at a makeshift stand, who, when I pay her, says that she hopes I’ll be blessed with many children.
The track is narrow gauge and the train, quaint and wooden, may well have been around during the Mexican Revolution. It winds its way eventually to Taxco, the silver-mining town in the mountains, making its run once a day, and stopping on the way at Fraile.
At last the train creaks and groans and, slowly, we are moving away from Saltillo and into inhospitable countryside featuring flat, stony ground, scrubby grass, and bluish mountains on the horizon. It is a brown, pitiless country, home to rattlesnakes and cactus. The village where Beto has promised to meet us is a speck on the landscape, not shown on any map.
In a couple of hours the train slows down. It stops. We get off. No evidence of a village, or a community of any kind. No people. We stand on the platform watching the train sway around the bend until it’s out of sight; a couple of pigs and three chickens are rooting around between the railway tracks. The sun is getting high now. In this desolate place there is no sign of Alberto. We cross the tracks and wait.
He eventually shows up in an unsurprisingly battered and rusty white pick-up truck. We all shake hands and climb in. No discernible road, track, or pathway of any kind seems to lead from the station to the ranch, so we drive across country, Beto gripping the steering wheel, a cigarette clamped at the corner of his mouth, as we bump and bounce our way over this impossibly rough ground, plunging down into dry creek-beds, bumping over huge stones. We are jounced around like a pair of rag dolls as Beto downshifts and prepares for his next assault on another arroyo.
After a very long time the ranch comes into view, and I am struck by a sense of disbelief: what a misnomer the term is when applied to this ramshackle collection of buildings at the back of nowhere. There are, however, some scrawny cattle grazing in the yellow fields, and that is what we’re here for. The sky now is an intense, cloudless blue.
Alberto, who is a gruff rather than a genial host, shows us to the room where we will sleep: a dark, barn-like place, where, in the evenings, it is not unusual for bats to fly in, make a circuit, and fly away through the open door, he tells us – – “but they won’t hurt you, don’t worry”.
Best not to examine the bed linen, I think, which in the dim light would not be possible anyway. There is a sort of bathroom on the other side of a weedy central courtyard. There is no electricity.
Here we are. There are cows to fight and no escape except by means of Beto’s truck; the train back to Saltillo makes only one stop a day. Better make the best of it. It will be for a couple of days at most. I am resigned.
Beto does his best to be hospitable. The kitchen is large but rudimentary and dirty. Somehow, on an ancient gas stove, Beto conjures up tortillas and scrambled eggs, and we all eat hungrily, appetites not diminished by the humble surroundings. Beto lives in Saltillo, he explains. This ranch is his country place where a few vaqueros or hands are employed by him to look after things and take care of the stock when he is away – – which is most of the time.
After lunch the three of us go out to an enclosure where Kelly can practice using his capote (large magenta cape) and muleta (small scarlet cloth) on a fighting cow, watched by two of the hands, who lean over a gate as they cast an appraising eye on animal and torero. After some bargaining, it is agreed that another session, with different animals, can be arranged early next morning. Maybe some muchachos from Saltillo will join us.
Meanwhile, as late afternoon slides into evening, there is nothing to do here except to help Alberto practice his English, supply him with cigarettes, and to read while there is still available light. The sky darkens very suddenly, and is now filled with stars. The vaqueros have gone to their houses. In this place sleeping and waking are governed by the sun, not the clock.
All is perfectly tranquil. So we creep into the barn/bedroom and read Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle aloud to each other, by the light of a kerosene lantern that Beto has found for us. As we drift off to sleep, we’re only occasionally awoken by flying creatures.
When I wake up in the morning, my skin feels itchy, and I notice small red bites on various parts of my body. I’m betting they’re flea bites.
I ask Beto at breakfast, casually, whether he thinks the red spots on my arms might be flea bites. I try to sound neutral, not accusing. “Nah,” he says, indignant at such an outlandish fantasy.
A second later, I overhear one of the vaqueros asking Beto,” What are they?” “Pulgas” (fleas), says Beto, assuming that I don’t know the Spanish word. Then, turning to me, “Tienes un cigarillo?” (Have you got a cigarette?)
We stay for two nights and on the third morning it’s time to pack up, head back to get the train back to Saltillo. By this time I am gleeful at the thought of leaving this place behind me forever, and more than ready to depart. The Saltillo hotel is looking more and more comforting with its supply of hot water, acceptably comfortable beds and absence of bats. I can hardly wait to get into the truck, to endure the trials of the bumpy ride – – it will be a pleasure. I long for the hard, wooden seats of the train, its slow progress back to Saltillo and the lamplighter who in the evening and to my delight, walks through the train lighting the gas-lamps with a long pole.
We’re finishing our coffee when Beto comes into the kitchen, a theatrically gloomy expression on his unshaven face. He is preparing us for bad news.
“The truck won’t start. A broken distributor cap; it can’t be driven. My friend comes later to help repair it, but not till this afternoon.”
Instantly I’m frantic: we must get to the train. Nothing will induce me to stay here one more night, with the fleas and the bats and Solzhenitsyn by the light of a lantern.
Conversation, head scratching, and staring into the middle distance goes on among Beto and the vaqueros, while I calculate whether it would be possible actually to walk to the station – – to stumble, blistered, bleeding and thirsty, through the cactus, as the sun climbs higher in the sky, and the rattlesnakes emerge from the brush. My only concern, now, is the train. We must be on it, or be forced to spend another night here.
“OK,” says Beto, “We’ll take the horses.”
“Fine,” says Kelly, who is an experienced rider and who clearly finds this latest difficulty an amusing wind-up to the whole adventure.
Horses? No problem?
I can’t do it. Because horses are terrifying. For one thing they’re so high up off the ground. For another they are known to have minds of their own and to gallop away with people. I won’t be able to control this animal; I’ll fall off, be dragged across rocks and through cactus, one of my feet caught in a stirrup. I’ll become a whitened skeleton in this moonlike landscape. . .
My mouth is dry, and I am trembling. But one more night with the awful kitchen, the darkness and the bats and the problematic bathroom is not an option. Choosing the lesser of two evils, I climb onto the horse, a phlegmatic lumbering beast that as yet shows no predilection for running amok. Rosinante? We set off: Beto, Teddy, two vaqueros and I. My legs are shaking, and my hands grip the reins. It’s incredibly bumpy, and as the pace increases, so does my panic.
So preoccupied have I been with the challenges of horsemanship in this god-forsaken Mexican desert, that I have failed to notice the darkening of the sky, and the, as yet far distant, flashes of lightening.
“Adelante companeros!” Beto roars, in a rare moment of animation, waving us onward like Pancho Villa, having no doubt observed the increasingly threatening sky. He urges the horses to move faster, and I slip and slide and bump in the saddle, the ungainliest of horsewomen. My companions offer a sort of pro forma encouragement, which I’m barely conscious of. My only thought is “Stay on; get to the train; before the storm comes”. The sky is now a deep, threatening indigo, and I hold on, prepared to put up with whatever it takes, as long as we get on that train.
By the time we arrive, I am almost calm, almost confident. My legs are not shaking. I can dismount; stand on terra firma with an unvoiced sense of, almost, pride. And the sky is beginning to lighten as the storm veers off.
Beto and his companions ride off, and we wait on the platform. Soon, the train appears, chugging round the bend in the track. And we are on our way back to Saltillo.
Retired high school English teacher Brenda Tipps joined OLLI-USF in 2007. Brenda has been a longtime member of the Great Books discussion group, has taught many courses for OLLI including Readers Theater, poetry and drama.