Week 7: Across the Sea… on a Cargo Ship
Updated: Jun 11, 2018
"Yes, madam, there are NO ferries scheduled for Mazatlán," the voice on the other end of the line informs me sweetly.
"Until when?" I ask, my gaze shifting to the Sea of Cortez, which we are scheduled to cross tonight.
"There are none," she repeats.
"What about next week? Or the week after?"
"None to Mazatlán. Only to Topolobampo."
(Topolobampo, the only other ferry port on the Mexican mainland, is 450 kilometers NORTH of Mazatlán -- which means re-routing there would make it literally impossible to meet my parents in time for their visit; requiring us to cover 900+ kilometers in just four days.)
I thank her and hang up, laughing despite myself.
After thirty minutes of furious Googling and intermittent phone-calling during which we rule out every single alternative, another way magically reveals itself...
... In the form of overnight cargo ship.
For roughly the same price as the passenger ferry, we are allowed to roll our tiny bicycles up a grimy ramp, where a man in a jumpsuit straps them with webbing to a wall between two towering semi trucks.
Then we venture deeper into the hold, down a narrow passage sandwiched between idling trucks, over puddles and loops of piled hose, toward a steep yellow staircase.
At the top of which, a man in a turquoise polo shirt notices our hesitation and asks if we know where to go.
When we shake our heads, he asks if we know where we are sleeping.
When we admit that we don't, he nods and says: "pues, hay dos opciones."
Then the stranger leads us inside, to the blissfully air-conditioned salon de operadores, featuring movie-theater-style seating geared toward the front of the room, where several screens are playing the menu music for the movie Phantom Thread on repeat.
So grateful am I to find this haven of comfort and safety, that I don't even ask what the second option is.
"This is great," I say in Spanish to the mystery man. "Thank you, we'll be happy here." He nods and leaves us, popping his head in a few minutes later to let us know that it's time to eat.
We settle into a back row to watch the movie.
Around us, Mexican men begin rolling out blankets on the aisle floors.
When we go outside to catch the sunset, the man in the turquoise shirt swiftly re-appears.
He has an unusual appearance, with alert green eyes, a shock of white hair, and a direct way of looking at you when you speak.
His name is Roberto, and his patrón is the boss of the ship, so he's made the journey many times.
He asks questions, where we are from, what we are doing.
Qué aventura, he says with a smile.
I can't tell if his attention is too direct.
Then, without provocation, he tells us where else we could sleep that night...
"If you want, you can sleep in a truck, there is a bed inside."
We smile, thank him, politely decline.
When he insists, I shoot a glance at Bruce.
I ask Roberto if it is his truck.
"No, no. I sleep over there," he says, motioning one way. "You sleep over there," he says, pointing to a truck in the opposite direction.
He takes a key out and holds it aloft -- imploring us with his eyebrows -- as though underlining the promise of complete privacy.
The silence is tense as Bruce and I exchange another look.
It is simply too soon to tell if we can trust him.
I thank him again, insisting that we will be comfortable in the salón.
He shrugs and pockets the key, as if to say: suit yourself.
The sun sinks below the horizon as we hang out and chat.
Returning to the salón, I ask Bruce if maybe we should have taken Roberto up on his offer.
"No," he says with certainty.
Had I noticed that he'd followed us out of the salón, to the deck? He'd been inside, watching the movie, and then had come out at the same time we did.
Hmm... I hadn't noticed.
We pass the night trying and failing to fall asleep on the movie seats, finally blowing up our Thermarests and staking out a spot among the snoring Mexicans on the floor.
In the morning, we walk to the cafeteria and see Roberto, eating alone.
He nods coolly in our direction as we sit at the next table.
He ignores us as we dig into plates of eggs and tortillas.
Then, once we've all finished eating, Roberto turns and says heartily:
"Pues, durmieron bien?" (Did you sleep well?)
Thus begins our morning conversation, wherein we learn that Roberto is one year away from retiring after driving trucks for forty years.
Now, he is about to enjoy two days off with his family in Guadalajara -- which consists of seven children, twenty-two grand-children, and several great-grandchildren.
He shows us pictures of his wife and adult daughters, wearing formal gowns in a backyard somewhere.
We talk about work, and art, and the need to respect and live in harmony with nature.
We discuss a book called The World Without Us, a gift given to me years ago by my grandfather Sandy, which explores what would happen to the world if humans simply disappeared tomorrow -- leaving everything else just the same -- and how quickly nature would bounce back.
Back outside, we lean over the rail and collectively marvel at orcas, pods of dolphins, sea turtles, and one (supposed) hammerhead shark.
Then, right before the ferry docks, Roberto hands me a book.
It is a thick book, a novel, but I can't tell what it's about -- because it's in Dutch.
"The hamster on the wheel in my head is slow, because I am old," Roberto explains in Spanish, tapping his temple. "The hamster in your head is fast. You will learn, 2 weeks, no problem."
I laugh, unable to imagine adding the weight of an illegible book to my already-overloaded panniers; and equally unable to imagine refusing his gift.
"The real question," he says with a knowing chuckle, "is where it will fit on your bicycle?"
Later, after we've shook hands in Mazatlán and cycled 60km south (during which Roberto passes us in his truck on Ruta 15 and honks), and I am considering leaving the book in a random hotel room for the next traveler...
... It occurs to me, that what Roberto did NOT know, despite all our conversation...
... Was that my late grandmother never shook her thick Dutch accent, despite 60+ years living in the US; nor that my sister is moving to Amsterdam in the fall.
Realizing this, I stuff the book back into my pannier and carry it another 400+ kilometers, past acres of mango orchards and through a sweltering humidity that hits me like a punch in the face -- to where my parents can bring it back in their luggage for my sister.
After yet another instance of human kindness and connection, in the most unexpected of places -- it just seems like the right thing to do.
This story originally appeared on www.jessicamastors.com.