My compadre, Silverio, and my friend, Larry, have come down here to the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, Mexico from Minnesota to help me celebrate my birthday. And today we’ve hopped aboard the second-class “chicken” bus for the hour-long trip to Petatlán, a pueblo of 25,000 located 35 kilometers southeast of Zihuatanejo.
(Petatlán is best known for two things. Foremost is the Sanctuary of the Padre Jesús de Petatlán, a church less notable for its architecture than its display of a highly-revered statue depicting Christ collapsing under the weight of the Cross, steeped in legend about its mysterious discovery in the 16th century. The town’s other claim to fame is its busy handcrafted gold jewelry market.)
Among the first aboard the bus, the three of us spread out, grabbing the few precious seats with both unobstructed views and working windows.
Finally clearing Zihua’s maze of narrow streets, we head out into the countryside on federal highway 200. It’s hot, already in the upper 80s, and the constant humidity wafting in over La Costa Grande from the Pacific belies the tawny, dry-season hue of much of the landscape. It’s mostly just the irrigated commercial groves of coconut palm and mango that remain green this time of year.
At the stop for Los Achotes, a few folks get off and a lovely young woman and her three-year-old daughter get on and sit down across the aisle from me. I say, “Hola, buenas tardes,” and both turn toward me with the kind of generous, open-hearted smiles I’ve come to associate with Mexicans.
Somehow, those smiles penetrate the corners of my consciousness, places I try to keep open, but which too often evade the light of day. It’s as if all my petty concerns —boarding the right bus, having change for the fare, getting dropped off at the right stop, the quality of my Spanish, and making sure my buddies have a good time—simply evaporate.
I feel completely comfortable, completely
safe, completely engaged, completely...
Suddenly, I’m utterly in the moment, acutely aware of all my senses. I’m struck by the colors and textures of the bus’s gaudy interior, the passing scenery, the people’s clothing and skin; the happy, polka-like strains of ranchero music the driver’s just cranked up; the smell of that slightly sweet, smoky, sweaty breeze.
I’m sitting there, turned slightly toward the aisle, one arm draped easily over the back of the adjacent seat, feeling sublimely relaxed. Here I am, I reflect, on the chicken bus to Petatlán, a shaky, noisy metal box with hard, lumpy seats and about enough leg room for a child.
And there’s absolutely no place on earth I’d rather be.
In the company of good friends, immersed in a culture I believe I’ve inhabited in a previous life, swept up in exactly the kind of adventure I so often dream of, I feel completely comfortable, completely safe, completely engaged, completely…well, complete.
I’m happy…very happy…maybe as happy as I’ve ever been!
I savor it as long as I can, but my reverie soon starts fraying at the edges, nibbled by other thoughts. As it unravels, I scan memory for other times I’ve experienced such quiet, certain joy; there have been, I regret to say, very few.
As my guilt and my self-respect have
this nervous little dance, I wonder what
kind of person I really am.
THE "SHOULDS," "CANS" AND "MUSTS"
Now I’ve never been very good at preventing second thoughts from muddling first ones. And so the rest of the trip is tinged with guilt as I wonder how a man as blessed as I’ve been could possibly count a bus ride among his peak experiences.
For God’s sake, I’m thinking, you’ve been gifted with two amazing children and two grandchildren. You married an incredible woman who has enriched your life. You’ve been to so many amazing places and so deeply bonded with Nature. You’ve seen loved ones face mortal challenges and survive. You’ve given and gotten so much love.
And yet you consider the simple, fleeting joy you’re experiencing on this bus to be among the happiest moments of your life? Have I unmasked some kind of shallowness here…or am I just being honest and spontaneous?
By the time we pull off onto the dusty bus stop at Petatlán, I’ve come to at least a tentative peace with my dilemma. In a kinder assessment of myself I realize that the joy I’ve just experienced in no way diminishes those other, perhaps weightier, gifts of life and love I’ve received.
I conclude that I can no more choose which of life’s experiences truly move me or bring me joy than I can which joke makes me laugh. No, I figure, those opportunities, those all-too-rare gifts of perfect presence, choose me.
And that’s just going to have to be okay.
So, as my friends and I start up the long steps to the church and zocalo, I turn and watch our bus pull away in a cloud of dust. I celebrate the few moments of precious clarity and centered-ness I’ve just enjoyed. And I chuckle to myself at the thought of my plucking, clucking little self doubts…still on that bus.