The Chiapas Nightmare : A Love Story


The smitten Armand Duval ( to Marguerite Gautier): Have you no heart?

Marguerite: I’m traveling light!

(from Charles Ludlam’s Camille)

Why am I in Villahermosa Mexico?

A green stench permeated the darkness on the cab ride from the airport to my hotel. The cabbie was  fat and taciturn, a man who had spent too many years sitting on his ass breathing fumes. Several times he twisted in his seat and I thought he was turning to say something to me, but he didn’t say a word the whole way into town.

We passed through several miles of low profile jungle swamp land, kept more-or-less at bay by primitive slash-and-burn techniques, just so it didn’t overrun the elevated roadway. Eventually we crossed the fat, gelatinous Grijalva River, the sole reason for the existence of Villahermosa, flowing as it does 100 miles to the sea, and back in the old days a mere 3-day banana barge trip to Vera Cruz.

I was in Villahermosa because it was the cheapest place to fly into Southern Mexico. The plan was to spend one night there, rent a car, and drive 6 hours to San Cristobal de las Casa in Chiapas, and from there, who knows? I had reserved the car for 10 days.

I had spent the previous night in a Tijuana hotel, near the airport. It was a totally spleepless and horrific night, shortness of breath and violent coughing keeping me awake. The coughing attacks had begun the previous weekend, and I had considered postponing the trip, but ultimately wrote it off as nothing more than a chest cold that would pass.

It was well after dark when I arrived at my hotel on a seedy side street off the seedy main drag in  downtown Villahermosa. I checked in, hit the bed, and spent a second consecutive sleepless night coughing and trying to catch my breath.


Villahermosa by day confirmed my suspicion that this is not just a provincial shit hole, but a world-class shit hole. I needed to find a Banamex for a cash infusion which required me to walk about 10 blocks through the center of town. I searched for sparkling fountains, leafy shady parks, perhaps a festive cantina, perhaps a friendly face, but instead found sullen cops, suspicious looking people, dust, heat, and used musical instrument stores. Turning up a street back toward my hotel, I was punched in the face by a hot blast of wind. I smelled dry pig shit, chemically treated sawdust, diesel particulates, and graphite.

Villahermosa was the backdrop for the classic Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory, set in the 1930’s when a zealous “reformist” governor of Tabasco, Tomas Garrido Canabal, declared war on the Catholic church, banned the sale of alcohol, and organized one of the earliest death squads, the Camisas Rojas, to enforce the law by burning churches and executing priests on sight.

Greene’s Villahermosa was a rotting cesspool of giant beetles exploding underfoot, black clouds of mosquitoes, and vultures hovering over the heads of the drunks and the soon-to-be-dead. Obviously, not much had changed.

Cash in hand, I took a cab back out to the dingy little airport to retrieve my rental car and begin my journey to San Cristobal. I approached the Eurocar desk where I had made my reservation, showed the man my confirmation papers, filled out the necessary paperwork and said “Where’s my car?” The man replied that there was still the issue of insurance. He jabbed at his computer keyboard, then turned the screen to face me. The insurance tab ran to $660. The cost of the car alone for 10 days was only $232.

That’s insane, I told the clerk, who shrugged indifferently and announced that there was an alternative. Instead of buying the insurance, I could put up a $5000 cash deposit. “Fuck it”, I said, walking away, “I’ll take the bus.”

“How often do the ADO buses run to San Cristobal?” I asked the next cabbie. He replied that he thought it was, like, once an hour. “To the ADO station then!” I said.

We arrived at the bus station around 1:00 PM and I proceeded to the ticket window and asked when the next bus left for San Cristobal. The agent told me the next bus left at 11:30 that night, 10 hours away.

I stepped outside to the curb and had a what-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-do-now moment, the first of many such moments to come in the days ahead. I had been sleepless, starving, dehydrated, and coughing up blood for 3 days and I didn’t think I had the physical stamina to sit in a bus station for 10 hours, much less endure an 8 hour bus trip.

Just then. a young man approached me and asked me where I wanted to go. He must have read the terror-stricken look on my face or smelled the desperation seeping through my pores. I told him San Cristobal and he said “follow me”, which I did to a side street about 2 blocks from the bus station. There, in a tiny, darkened office, a woman told me the trip by car to San Cristobal would be 600 pesos (about $45), and in a minute I was sitting in the front seat of a late model Hyundai, and on my way out of the god-forsaken hell hole known as Villahermosa.

The outskirts of town were as unappealing as the city itself: window-less derelict houses, exposed rebar, burned-out fields. dense stands of bamboo, the only color the occasional milpa splattering green against a brown hillside. But shortly, the scenery changed dramatically as the road ascended toward the central highlands of Chiapas, and within another 1/2 hour we were riding along a high crest, looking down at a vast plain called The Central Depression (the irony was not lost on me) at least 6 thousand feet below the roadway. It was spectacular and it took my mind off my misery for a few hours.

We eventually arrived in San Cristobal, and I found my way to my hotel and the bed, where I spent my third consecutive food-less and sleepless night, hacking and trying to catch my breath.

My hotel prison cell
My hotel prison cell

When dawn broke Thursday morning, I was in full-blown panic mode. I could not breath and could barely move. I thought of Harry, the doomed central character in Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro , who lie dying of gangrene in Africa on a cot beneath a mimosa tree. Harry sensed death had arrived at the foot of his cot, and could smell its rotting breath. Slowly, death moved closer, up the cot until its entire weight was on Harry’s chest.

I now felt death at the foot of my bed.

I struggled to get dressed, made my way down to the lobby, and told the clerk that I needed a private hospital. Moments later, a cab arrived and drove me 5 blocks to Sanatorio Dr. Bonilla. There, after a few tests, Dr. Bonilla declared that I was suffering from an extreme bronchial infection, and prescribed a heavy protocol of intensely strong antibiotics. Then it was back to the hotel room for two more nights that were exactly the same as the previous four.

By Saturday morning, some of my strength had reappeared. I felt well enough to shower, dress myself, and hike 2 blocks to a French bakery, where I bought an almond croissant and a cup of cappuccino. I ate and drank on a park bench across the street. It was my first nourishment in 6 days.

Now, back at the hotel, I knew it was do-or-die time. I had booked a one-way ticket to Villahermosa, but now I knew I had to fly out as soon as possible, under any and all circumstances. On-line I found an Aero Mexico flight the next afternoon out of Tuxtla Guttierez , the nearby capital of Chiapas state. I booked the flight but there was one major problem: I could not pay for it with my debit card even though I knew there was enough money in the account. I checked my email. The anti-fraud department at Citibank had detected some unusual spending patterns and had blocked my card. After 90 minutes of panically dialing a series of 800 numbers, my flight  to Mexico City and Tijuana was finally booked and payed for. Now it was just a matter of waiting.

My flight did not not leave from Tuxtla until late in the afternoon on Sunday. I mustered the strength to pack, shower, and dress, and took my backpack to the lobby for safe keeping. I had already booked a ticket on a collectivo to the Tuxtla airport and had found a pedestrian boulevard, lined with park benches, a few blocks from the hotel. I picked a spot across from a pozole  stand, determined to wait out the next few hours without budging from my perch, where I sat and watched Mexican families promenade past.

By and by, a middle aged man and his wife ambled by. He was pushing his 20-something down-syndrome son in some kind of over sized stroller. I avoided staring at them as they past, but turned to watch them as they descended down the boulevard. I didn’t have any particular conscious thought about this family other than “solid Dad. Lots of sacrifices.” probably the same thoughts that everybody else had about them who had watched them stroll past that day.

But just at that moment I caught a sudden whiff of ammonia in my nostrils, and from behind my sunglasses, for some reason, I began to cry.

Postscript # I

The evil winds of fate still had a couple of dark surprises awaiting me. A half block from the bus station, I watched in horror as my bus to the Tuxtla airport pulled away without me. It was yet another what-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-do-now moments. I had no hotel room and my plane departed in just a couple of hours. Now under the weight of a 35 pound backpack, I chased the bus up the street, screaming the whole way, but eventually lost it in traffic. I was running on pure adrenaline now, as 2 days before I could barely make it to my hotel bathroom.

But by now,  I’d learned, when it came to transportation in southern Mexico, there was more than one way to skin a cat. I hailed a cab. “Tuxtla airport!” I said and we were off. It was a late start, but the the slick, young taxista was a great driver. He drove that crest highway across the Chiapan Highlands like a crazed moonshiner, passing cars on the left and on the right, and got me to the Tuxtla airport with time to spare.

The airport was like everything I’d read or heard about the city of Tuxtla, neat, clean, orderly, almost antiseptic. My gate was close by and I settled into a comfortable slab of naugahyde, and breathed a sigh of relief. Soon I’d be home.

But that was not to be. The flight was way late arriving in Tuxtla, and even later arriving in Mexico City. I missed the flight to Tijuana by a good hour. I slept that night for the first time in a week stretched out across a bench in the Mexico City airport. My flight touched down in Tijuana at 5:00 AM.

Postscript #2

I write this now on my fifth night in the cardiac ward of Scripps Memorial Hospital, Encinitas.