I snuck a sideways glance at the dark, craggy man in the driver’s seat. There was nothing reassuring about his appearance, nor about the rattletrap truck that I now occupied a corner of.
But I didn’t have many options for getting out of the canyon, nor did I have much time to fret. A grinding of gears, a spray of gravel, and we were off, my roughspun caballero and I, on a five-hour expedition that was all in a day’s work for him, but a white-knuckle, stomach-twister of a ride for me.
Juan (I can’t remember his real name) was a supervisor for the state of Chihuahua, which required him to drive the company truck all over the state inspecting…stuff. I quickly learned that an official jacket and vehicle carries a lot of weight here. As we began picking our way through the nightmarish construction site on the side of the mountain, workers waved, saluted, and flagged him down for a chat.
At one point, we stopped behind a truck on the side of the “road” that was leaking black goo (asphalt?). El hefe was waved down. He stomped over to the disabled truck. A knot of men stood around, spitting, kicking dirt, gesticulating. With a lot of huffing and puffing, the boss-man stomped back and rooted through the junk behind his seat, finally pulling out a dirty, red rag. I’m not sure what the rag was all about, but in a couple of minutes he was back and we were off again.
The workers were still knotted around the truck, which was still leaking black goo, but I imagine that everyone felt better because the boss-man had stopped AND he even had a red rag.
Juan was a man’s man. He was short and stocky, with fancy cowboy boots and a strut like a bantam rooster. He had an air of authority, but he wasn’t arrogant. He waved and clapped guys on the back. Once, a worker appeared at the window, presumably with a question, and Juan roughly caressed his cheek with an open palm. I’ve never seen that gesture on a construction site.
Do you know these guys?” I asked.
Since neither of us could communicate beyond a few monosyllables, I let it go at that.
I began to realize that the purpose of a passenger in this situation was for simple companionship–for someone to talk to during a long and dangerous drive. And by God, he tried, poor guy, but I was a total flop on the companionship end of the bargain. It would have been hard for me to understand anything in any event, but Juan had a sort of growl-y, gutteral way of swallowing words. No matter how I tried or how many times I asked him to repeat himself, I was completely clueless.
Sometimes I would take a wild stab and go on at length about what I thought he’d asked. Then, I’d notice a quizzical look of incomprehension, like, Is this woman insane? So I began nodding and smiling. But eventually we both just gave up, and I was left to my overactive imagination.
All the while we were grinding over that foul, rubble-filled road that I’d just come down two days prior, dodging various mammoth machines, slamming to a stop or grinding over boulders and through loose dirt. Once, I truly thought we’d be spending the night on the mountain. The truck had completely dug in and was stuck in several feet of loose rubble.
Juan (and I think he was beginning to sweat at this point) began to rock the truck back and forth just as we northerners do in snow. The transmission was roaring like a wounded lion. Back and forth. Inch by inch. When he finally got somewhat free, he still had to back up a loooooong way in order to get a running start and fly over the mound of dirt in the middle of the “road” and proceed down the “other” side, hoping it would be passable.
We finally got through the miles of construction, mostly in first gear, and once again, we were scrabbling along the mountain rim on a one-lane gravel road with precipitous drops and curves so sharp there was no way to know what might lurk around the bend.
Another truck, at one point.
Juan sucked in his breath sharply, and I knew this was bad: two trucks head-to-head on a one-lane gravel, sheer rock on one side and nothing on the other. Slowly, slooowwly, Juan inched backward in the big company truck, just until the other truck could creep forward and gain a few more inches of clearance on the cliff side, and eventually scoot around.
Both dancers had to know the steps for this to work. The whole maneuver would have been entertaining were it not so lethal.
Darkness fell. We eventually made it to paved road, and still the hours ticked by. I idly wondered if there was some etiquette about being a passenger in the company car, some rules of the game that I should be aware of. Expectations? Quid pro quo? It was awkward.
Then a funny thing happened.
Because I couldn’t understand a thing, I began pulling out the words and phrases that I knew in an effort to tell him something about myself. I told him that I had six kids and three grandkids. I told him that I really missed them. I told him that I was Catholic and that God was important to me.
He asked me the question that was already getting old: Was I sola.
I explained that, yes, at this point, I was sola. And that El Senor had told me to stay that way, but that my life was very rich and happy anyway.
He told me that he had a wife in Chihuahua and that he, too, had grandkids. We agreed that our grandchildren were a joy and delight.
“Chicle?” I asked.
He accepted a stick of Trident.
Somehow, at this Me-Tarzan-you-Jane level, we did communicate a sense of a few important things we shared, and it bridged, a little, the barriers of language and life experience. In place of discomfort, the truck cab became a little cozier.
He told me more stuff that I only partly understood about his job and where he was going the next day and that he was staying the night in Creel (as was I) and where was I staying.
I mentioned the place I’d been before.
He said that he was staying at Casa Margarita’s and it was very clean and nice. So, to make things easy, I said I’d stay there, too.
Finally, after an eternity, we drove through Creel in the dark of night and walked into Casa Margarita’s together. I handed him 200 pesos (about 15 dollars). He looked surprised and uncomfortable.
“No, no,” he said.
“Por los nietos,” I said. (The grandchildren.)
So he accepted the money, and I was very happy to be back in Creel and poised to continue the journey. It was a good exchange.
He made arrangements for two rooms–one for la mujer. I paid the 350-peso charge. He asked if I wanted to go out for a drink or a meal, but I was fried. All the words were used up, and I didn’t want to crack open any doors of expectation.
I did meet him in the morning for breakfast at the hotel. Once again, we smiled and nodded awkwardly across the table.
He asked me something about the room, and I blathered on about how clean and pretty it was.
He told me that he had to go to a job site in the next town, but that he’d be back in Creel by mid-afternoon.
I let that one go.
We shook hands. I tried to get a photo of him by his truck, but the exposure was completely wrong.
A few minutes later, back in my room, there was a knock at the door.
The hotel manager was standing there.
“Your room costs more than you paid last night. You can pay the real rate tonight or move to a less expensive room,” he said without ceremony.
Apparently, my caballero had cut a deal for me–a soft landing after a rugged day, but now the official badge was gone and I was on my own again. No matter. I moved across the hall to the smaller room with a little ball of warm gratitude in the middle of my chest.