In the Time of COVID. Day 65
May 22, 2020.
Aboard the Cuatro Hermanos: Part 1
Here we are, still at home. Off through the trees, the rising swish of incoming traffic is transforming our community as we enter the four day Memorial holiday. Nearly every local that I’ve talked to, is making like a ground squirrel and burrowing down into his warren. Heads will pop up looking for an all clear but we are not interested in becoming wack-a-mole characters during the onslaught.
I’d like to be out and about myself. Two days ago, we were supposed to check in to a casa we rented in San Miguel de Allende. We were so excited that we were going revisit that colonial jewel to spend a month as the Locos of Colonia San Antonio prepared for their Grand Parade. Due to COVID we had to pull the plug. Thankfully, we got our money refunded and we hadn’t yet booked flights. San Miguel is in the same situation as we are. Hopefully things will change and we can go next year at this time. Viva Los Locos! In the meantime I rely on memories of journeys past. The last few days I’ve been thinking of my time aboard the Cuatro Hermanos.
I’d ventured into the mountainous southern Mexican state of Chiapas in the spring of 1973. I traveled with my sidekick Billy. After some months we were both running low on money and it was time to consider drifting north and working for a few months to raise enough to hit the road again. I used to say “I like work so much I can do it four or five months a year.” That was my headset in my 20’s.
Chiapas is about 3,400 miles from Seattle. We had no car. The closest northbound train was in Oaxaca, 375 miles away. Taking Ferrocarril National de Mexico would take all of 6 days to the US border, at Mexicali.
In San Cristobal de Las Casas, I met a drifter who was on the run from authorities in the US. There are many reasons why people hit the road. Being doggy is one. He was in his late 30’s, with dyed black hair. He was traveling solo, trying to cast as small a shadow as he could, but a shared bottle of mescal loosed his tongue. He mentioned that he had once caught a ride across the Gulf of Mexico from Campeche to Port Isabel, Texas, near Brownsville. He mentioned the name of the vessel. Cuatro Hermanos.
There was still a stretch of Mexico we wanted to see. When we pulled up stakes in San Cristobal we went to Tuxtla Gutierrez where we caught a chicken bus down out of the highlands into the Yucatán jungle. We were skirting the south flank of El Chichon Volcano as torrential rains came and at times the baggage guy had to get out with a flashlight to find the road. 9 years later El Chicon blew with pyroclastic anger and wiped out several villages. But that night it was just slow, dangerous, going. We avoided mudslides and arrived in Pichucalco around midnight. I was cranky, Billy was cranky. Many from the bus, slept on the benches and floor in the bus station, but we wandered off in search of a room. We found one. We slung our hammocks on the hooks and lay in our swaying sacks while pounding rain drummed on the tin roof. Down the way a group of guys were celebrating, singing, and passing a bottle. That got on Billy’s nerves but I can sleep through anything. There was a scene, between Billy, those guys, and the landlady.
In the morning Billy took the fast train for Merida. An hour later, I took the slow train for Campeche. We planned to meet up a few days later in Merida. We needed a time out.
I was riding east through the jungle on the milk train. It stopped at every rail-side village. It stopped at bridges over rivers where canoes met the train from the interior and mail and groceries were dropped off. I vividly remember the wall of jungle greenery on both sides of the train and picking up a discarded Diario de Yucatán newspaper. The headline read “Picasso es Mortal”. I bought a couple of beers and walked to the end of the train. I drank each beer and crashed them on the railroad tracks, toasting Picasso for a life well lived.
Several hours later the train pulled into the station in Campeche. I rented a room for the night in the port. I wandered down to the water’s edge and ordered black beans, rice and fried fish. I chased it with some rum. There was a Cuban fisherman there and we fell in to talking. He was ragging on the Vietnam War and Nixon and Imperialism. I was apologetic, not liking any of those three things but finally the Cuban pissed me off and I said “I haven’t anymore power over what my government or that asshole Nixon do than you have power over your government or that asshole Castro”. We took a few swings at each there and we called it a night.
The next day I wandered down to the docks where the work boats moor. There, on the left side of the dock I read “ Cuatro Hermanos .. Puerto Cortez Honduras” on the stern-plate of a small freighter. It was a remarkable coincidence. I hailed the small dark guy who was coiling rope. The skipper came around the wheelhouse. He was bigger than me and Jamaican. I said my name and that I’d heard I might be able to catch a ride to Texas. I thought he was going to tell me to piss off, but he said. “We sail in two hours. I can’t take you unless the company will put you on the manifest. Can you cook?” “Hell yes”.
Off I dashed, hanging to the side of a bus to the Shrimp Company about a mile down the beach. They were ok with it. I handed over my passport. They logged me in as “Cook”. I hurried back to the boat. Narciso the skipper handed me $20 in pesos and told me to go grab my gear, and stop by the market and buy food. He said “I’ll warn you right now, if you are holding drugs and US customs finds out, don’t worry about them, I’ll kill you”.
An hour later, The Cuatro Hermanos, with me aboard, left the harbor with a north northwest heading bound for Port Isabel, Texas. I didn’t have time to drop Billy a card.