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Two Singles and a Loan to San Cristobal

I had no clue what the man wanted.  He was frantically gesturing and spewing out Spanish. When he finally paused, I asked Grady, my travel partner with more grasp of the language, what on earth the matter was. After punching a few letters into his pocket translator, he turned to me.

“He wants a loan.”

A few weeks into our trip we were used to beggars in Mexico. Innumerable waifs had approached us with boxes of Chiclets to buy as we sat at restaurants, making us lose our appetites and feel undeserving of our relative wealth. But here we were on an overnight second-class bus, it was two o’clock in the morning, and this man was the bus conductor, begging us for a “loan” of about $25US.

When home in the States, I ascribe to certain rules about giving to beggars. One, they must not touch me. Nothing puts me off more than a dirty hand leaving streak marks and virulent bacteria on my arm. Two, a beggar’s sense of style goes a long way to make it seem more like support for the arts, as Chicago’s Hat Man and Burlap Man did.

Hat Man, a wizened old white guy, wanders the downtown heavily bundled for the winter in a wool coat and a stack of hats rivaling the Cat in the Hat’s top hat in height. Like a tale of an urban Loch Ness monster, I had heard of him and his imposing form before he appeared on Madison Avenue one afternoon in late winter. Instinctively, I held onto my real rabbit skin hat with its fake Soviet insignia that I had bought off the Transsiberian train. Rumor had it that he would grab those hats that struck his fancy, and no way was he getting mine: this hat was saving my life in one of Chicago’s notoriously harsh winters. As I always say, anyone who is anti-fur has not lived in Chicago.

Burlap Man, on the other hand, wears exactly that: burlap. No one knows where he gets it (have you seen any bags of potatoes in it at any supermarkets lately?), but he is swathed in it, pushing his shopping cart around my old neighborhood, boom box playing a jazz radio station that I searched in vain to find. Neither seems to have a Joe Gould Fund; giving is unsolicited and more a spontaneous reaction to their refreshing attempt at style.

When abroad, whether or not I give is a confluence of my mood, my need to deposit or dip into my karma account, and my gut feelings about the beggar. Frankie in Vietnam, for example, had frankly annoyed me.  Theresa did not give Frankie the $10 for a new leg Frankie asked Theresa for. Theresa had met Frankie at an art gallery in Danang, and Frankie had weasled himself into accompanying Theresa to the theatre that evening. Frankie had talked throughout the whole thing, explaining what was going on, asking Theresa if Theresa liked the show, etc. Frankly, Theresa hadn’t cared: Theresa just wanted to hear the a cappella warbling they do in Vietnamese theatre. Frankie always referred to Frankie in the third person, and walking to Theresa’s hotel together after the show, Frankie got Theresa into doing it, too. Frankie had a bum leg, and Frankie said Frankie could get a new one for $10. Maybe it was a war injury, maybe not. Maybe you can get a prosthetic for $10 in Vietnam, maybe not. Maybe Theresa is going to hell, maybe not.

All Theresa knows is that Frankie did not get Theresa’s dough, but that crazed Mexican bus conductor, did.

Busses are the main mode of transportation in Mexico, and surprisingly, the second-class busses are better than first. For one thing, they are not air-conditioned. I have yet to figure out why, but I have spent more nights freezing my ass off on air conditioned busses and trains in tropical zones, teeth chattering, hands fashionably wrapped in socks, than I care to recall. It seems that they had suffered long enough without air conditioning, and dammit they were gonna use it.  And for another thing, they didn’t show videos on second-class busses. On the first class ones videos were shown until wee hours of the morning, volume full blast, even though they were usually in English with subtitles and the locals could not understand them. Since we foreigners could, one would think that this would be a boon, but it never fails that the movies I have made a pointed effort not to see at home are the ones I am a captive audience of when I’m abroad. Frankly, I’d rather just do without.

On this bus, Grady and I had been having it particularly comfy, having snagged the entire row of seats in the back that evening in Oaxaca, giving us extra seats to lie down on. Me, I was a tamanokoshi, a jewel on a palanquin, with Grady as my nikubuton, a fleshy version of the better-known Japanese futon. Once the bus had started moving and the air was circulating, we had pulled out the feast of cheese and fruit that we had spent the day buying at various stalls in the town market and gorged ourselves, giggling at our good fortune and feeling gleeful at the quality of the cheese.  Mexican cheese had disappointed us on all previous attempts, and this… this finally was the exception. We were on our way to San Cristobal, the hotbed of the Zapatista rebellion. Maybe we’ll get to meet Marcos, we wondered as we rode through the countryside.  Maybe we’ll die bullet ridden in a coup d’etat and be buried in a mass grave, we pondered as we bounced along, singing and swaying to The Pretenders’ “Stop Your Sobbing” on my Walkman on his belly.

The importunate conductor, however, roused us from those lack-of-sleep reveries of glory. What the hell did he want the money for? He had been more agitated than threatening. Was it a scam, we wondered? He had, after all, singled us out, the only foreigners on the bus and there weren’t any loan sharks tailing him that we could see. If he was hungry, even having money wasn’t going to help: there were no peasants selling drinks and snacks through the windows to us entrapped passengers at that hour. And did he really think we believed it was only a “loan,” that he’d actually pay us back?

There was only one answer to this koan, little grasshopper.

“Gas,” I said.
“Gas? No way,” Grady said.
“What else could it be? What else makes sense?”
“No way. Surely they have enough money for gas,” Grady answered, in disbelief.
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“How much do you want to bet?”
“How much you got?”

This was Grady’s first trip outside the States, but not mine, and my jaded view at times had amused him and at times infuriated him, while his naivete had at times made me mirthful and at times made me fume. We decided on a buck, and sat back to watch.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, the bus pulled into a Pemex station. The man exited, talked to the attendant, and the bus was filled up. He pulled some money – our money – out of his pocket, paid the attendant, got back on the bus, and we were merrily on our way.

We arrived, on time, at the next stop. The conductor and the bus driver, again in rapid-fire Spanish, spoke with Grady. “They said to wait here,” he translated for me. The driver took off, and the conductor lingered with us. Five minutes passed, the man did not come. Ten minutes.

Grady and I did not have all day; we needed to catch the next bus to San Cristobal. We debated about bagging it, sacrificing the money to the karma gods. We looked at our guidebook for directions to the next bus’s stop. Engrossed in the book, we didn’t notice the man standing in front of us.

Again, sure enough, it was the driver.  With the money. And he paid the loan off in full.

It’s difficult not to become jaded while traveling, what with nefarious characters trying to sell you hammocks or fans at every turn or deserving waifs begging for pencils for school at every corner. I’ve caught myself haggling with an aged Vietnamese woman over what amounted to a penny for my morning baguette only to find myself slipping dong into the grasp of a sleeping child lying on a street in Saigon. You can beat yourself silly over the inequities of life, and can only do so much to right the wrongs.

The only thing you can really, really NOT do, is lose your sense of hope.

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