I don’t know what it is about travel days that make me feel like I can spend as much money as I want. Maybe it’s the lack of obligations for a day, or feeling like being on vacation—or maybe the hours of low-grade discomfort just need to be offset somehow.
For the last 25 hours I’ve been on buses. I’m struck by how different Mexican bus stations are from US ones. They’re almost more like airports, minus the heavy security. They have full service restaurants, complimentary wi-fi, a coffee shop and beer. US bus stations are vaguely frightening places where staff eye you like you may be a criminal. I suppose it’s because buses are used by all classes in Mexico, whereas in the US they’re for people who can’t afford a plane.
But then you’d think the price in the US would reflect that. Just a few hours on a Greyound bus cost me $40. In Mexico I crossed over 500 miles on two luxury buses, the kind that have giant airline seats and give you a pillow, a snack and a beverage. The total trip there cost just US $80.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I left Mexico. When I entered the country I accidentally dodged the proper paperwork and passport stamps. I would have owed a sizeable fine if anyone noticed. But they barely glanced at my passport. The security guard paused for a second as he handed it back, as if considering asking where my tourist card was, then thought the better of it. I make sure to never speak Spanish at customs.
Next we stopped on the US side of the border. I was surprised how different the air smelled: like fresh summer prairies. Im sure the Mexico side smelled just as good—we drove through hundreds of miles of open steppe—but I hadn’t set foot anywhere except crowded cities for months.
Coming back to Texas stirs mixed feelings for me. I’ll get to do a bike leg with friends in a few weeks, and landing here gives me a chance to plan for the months ahead. At the same time, I feel a little rudderless. I’ll spend the next few months organizing a trans-Mexico bike trip, and I’ve never done anything on that scale before.
Mostly though it’s just culture shock. My first meal in any new Mexican town is inevitably at a small local kitchen where a grandma makes everything from scratch. My first meal in Brownsville, Texas, was the same as my last meal there three months ago: a 12″ sandwich from Subway.
Even American dollars feel different. There was a time when pesos felt frail to me, such thin slivers of paper with little transparent parts. But when the exchange counter handled me dollars today they felt like slabs of cardboard. I couldn’t fit them in my money clip, and had a hard time paying for my sandwich with the clothy bills sticking together.
But the biggest difference is my Spanish. Last time I returned from a stint in Mexico, I walked around proudly trying to use it at any chance—only to see that I couldn’t carry on a conversation. Now, “conversation” might be stretching it but I can switch to Spanish with relative ease and get the jist, at least by the second time they repeat it.
I’ve had a hard time remembering to use English. So far this hasn’t been a problem, since almost everyone around me in Brownsville and on the buses has been Mexican American and they knew what I meant. But even with the Anglo border guards I found myself saying “gracias” rather than “thank you.” It’s a hard habit to break, and one I wish I didn’t have to so that I can keep learning.
My Spanish is still nowhere near what I would like it to be, but I have a few months to continue practicing. Ultimately I suppose it will be just like my bicycling skills were when I started out: far inferior to what I needed, but enough to get by and improve rapidly.