It is 10:00 P.M. as you step off the Greyhound bus in Laredo, Texas. By all rights you should feel exhausted after your 36-hour ride from Minneapolis. But the truth is, you feel pretty good. The air is cool but muggy on this late-August night. You are told that the Rio Grande is just a few blocks from the depot. You had intended to spend a night in a hotel on the Texas side of the river, but what the hell, you came down here to see Mexico, didn’t you? So you throw your backpack onto your back and start hoofing it toward the bridge.

You’ve done some crazy things in your life. Going off to teach school in Honduras was one. Well, that one wouldn’t have been so bad if you had done it for just a year. But, no, you had to eat of the lotus plant—root, flower, and stem—and now you just can’t seem to pull yourself away. Except for summers, of course. Honduran schoolteachers don’t make squat, so you find yourself returning to the real world every few summers to earn some real money. But this latest idea of riding the bus all the way from Minnesota back to Honduras? That’s truly crazy.

There appear to be absolutely no formalities at this border. You pay 25 cents to pass through a turnstile on the United States side of the bridge. On the Mexican side, the migracon official waves you into his country with a smile. He shakes his head “no” when you attempt to give him your passport. “Bienvenidos,” he says. “Ees open frontier.” You walk a few blocks up the main street of Nueva Laredo until you come to Hotel Sam’s, which your guidebook describes as “Spartan, yet clean and safe.” So much for the guidebook. Sam’s has no screens or glass on the windows, no bulbs in the light sockets, no water in the pipes or toilets. and no doors on the hinges. Sam’s is a flophouse. So you continue down the street, where after much haggling, you are given a clean, air-conditioned room for 11 American dollars (nowhere to change money at this hour). You buy a couple of beers at the corner store for a buck and fall asleep in your room watching David Letterman on a Texas television station.

The next morning you feel great. You change some money at one of the many casas de cambio that line Nueva Laredo’s already steamy main street. You hop into the old bread delivery van which now does service as a city bus, and jump off, soaked in sweat, at the terminal de autobus. A first-class bus to Saltillo, a city about six hours down the road, costs you six bucks. But what a bus! Far more leg room than a Greyhound. Free coffee and sodas. And numerous videoscreens where you watch a couple of recent Hollywood movies that have been subtitled in Spanish. This is great! Maybe this idea of busing it all the way through Mexico isn’t so crazy after all, you think, as the bus climbs out of the hot, humid river valley and up into the cool, dry Sierra Madres.

Saltillo is a pleasant town where the bright desert sun is tempered by an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet. Three out of every four shops seem to specialize in one trade—the sale of cowboy hats, boots, and belts, the kind with huge silver and turquoise buckles. People lounge about in the central square doing nothing. You almost expect Clint Eastwood to come riding around the corner on horseback. You spend the night hoisting mugs of beer in an old wooden saloon with honest-to-God swinging doors. Meanwhile, the local inebriates try to enlighten you about the “situacion mexicano.” It isn’t very enlightening. The politicians are all into buggery, they say—the ultimate insult in this land of machismo.

Politics in Mexico? Where to begin? Basically, Mexico is a gigantic version of the old American urban political machine. The strings are all pulled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish acronym PRI), whose fingers are into everything. The PRI is contested by the National Action Party (PAN) and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), but there really is no contest. A few governorships and senatorial seats are thrown to the PAN and PRD to maintain the appearance of democracy. But the PRI rules Mexico. They are the longest continuously ruling party in the world today, having outlasted the Soviet communists. A few politicos who have made the mistake of trying to reform the PRI have met their fates at the barrel end of a gun. Investigations into these murders implicate brothers, sisters, in-laws, and cousins of major PRI figures. The web of intrigue and incest is so complex that it makes the plot of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel seem simplistic. No, you can’t blame Mexicans for their cynical view of politicians.

The next day you find yourself in Zacatecas after another comfortable ride in another first-class Mexican bus. Zacatecas is an old silver mining town nearly 9,000 feet in the mountains. The main cathedral and several government buildings were built in an extremely ornate and lavish fashion by 18th-century silver barons. These buildings are a marvel. But the rest of the town is comprised of nondescript houses of concrete built up the sides of the mountains. A cable ear takes you up to the highest peak. The view is disappointingly unspectacular, though you find a huge monument to Pancho Villa, one of Mexico’s more colorful heroes. It was Villa’s brilliant capture of Zacatecas in 1914 that turned the tide of the second phase of the Mexican Revolution.

In Villa’s day, bandit-revolutionaries were up-front and honest about their intentions. They wore their guns outside of their pants. Villa once sacked two American towns, then dared the United States Army to come and get him. They came, but failed to get their man. Today’s Mexican bandit-revolutionaries hide behind face masks and a cordon of Red Cross personnel in the southern state of Chiapas. Mexicans appear to be as cynical about the semi-mysterious sub-comandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army as they arc about the PRI.

The following morning is spent hopping on and off numerous second-class buses in an attempt to get to Guanajuato, a gorgeous little town off the main highway to Mexico City. Like Zacatecas, Guanajuato was a silver town. But when the silver gave out, the government put the miners to work digging a honeycomb of tunnels throughout the hills upon which the town is built. The result is a unique place where pedestrian walkways and automobile passageways cut through the mountains like so many holes in Swiss cheese. The beauty of Guanajuato is beyond description. So, too, is the oddity of the Guanajuato mummy museum. The dry climate and alkaline content of the soil naturally mummifies the remains of those buried here. And unless you can afford to pay a hefty fee to have your loved ones interred “in perpetuity,” you may find them disinterred and put on display in the mummy museum 20 years hence. Very odd. And so very Mexican, this fixation with death.

Another day and another brief ride on a second-class bus brings you to San Miguel de Allende, another beautiful highland town. San Miguel and Guanajuato are considered the curia de independencia, or the cradle of independence. It was in these towns that the notion of an independent Mexico was born, and the resulting battle for independence was commenced and completed. Oddly enough, it is these same towns that possess such a strikingly colonial character—so very Spanish. Yet the locals insist that San Miguel is the corazon de Mexico, or the heart of Mexico. And as you walk the cobblestone streets, worn smooth from five centuries of use, you sense that surely it must be. This, in spite of the large number of American expatriates of a “New Age” persuasion who have settled here. No, not even a bunch of gringo astrology freaks can destroy the spirit of this place.

If San Miguel is the heart of Mexico, then Mexico City, where you arrive by bus early the next afternoon, must be its bowels. Twenty-five million people—the equivalent of the entire populations of California or Canada—reside in this sprawling mass of concrete chaos. How this place can continue to function is a mystery. Sheer inertia, you guess. Thirty percent of the water in this water-starved valley is thought to be lost to leaky pipes. Natural gas leaks regularly explode, taking out buildings, or in some cases entire city blocks. The air is a noxious yellow haze of sulphur dioxide. Breathing it is said to be akin to smoking three packs of cigarettes daily. Schoolchildren wear surgical face masks to class in a futile attempt to protect their health. Keiko the killer whale, star of the Hollywood movie Free Willy, is undoubtedly dying of respiratory disease at his home in a local amusement park.

This city couldn’t function at all, you conclude, had they not invested in a wonderfully efficient and clean subway system some years back. You leave your backpack at the bus depot’s luggage check, enter the subway system map in hand, and start checking out the sights. The Chapultepec Castle is magnificent. The National Museum of Fine Arts is exquisite. The anthropology museum is a wonder. But this place is just too big and too fast. You return to the bus depot that evening, retrieve your backpack, and buy a ticket for the 10:30 P.M. bus to Oaxaca. You climb aboard, knock back a few cold Coronas, and put your seat into super-recline. You awake at 6:00 A.M. out of the chaos and back into tranquillity.

Oaxaca is a charming, peaceful city built around a pleasantly shaded zocolo, or central park. The feeling here is much different from the northern part of Mexico. It is slower-paced and more indigenous. Really more like Central America than the north. Barefooted Indian women, their hair braided with brightly colored strips of cloth, sell baskets of chapulinas, or fried grasshoppers, in the streets. You try them and find they aren’t bad. A bit salty, perhaps. And maybe a bit more garlic than you’d recommend. The flavor is similar to beef jerky, though the crunchy insects melt in your mouth and require no real chewing.

Oaxaca was once home to two of Mexico’s former leaders—one among the most honored, the other among the most dishonored. A little Indian boy by the name of Benito Juarez learned to read and write in Oaxaca. As an adult, he led Mexican troops in defeat of French colonial forces at Quereterro. It was there that the puppet Emperor Maximillian was put up against the adobe in 1867. Another Mexican boy of a more European bloodline grew up in Oaxaca. He assisted Juarez in the overthrow of the French. But upon Juarez’s death, he assumed dictatorial powers and ruled Mexico with an iron hand for 30 years. Francophile to the hilt, Porfirio Diaz powdered his cheeks to affect a more European appearance. He lived the ostentatious lifestyle of the emperor he helped defeat. And when he was driven from Mexico by revolutionaries in 1910, he went to France, where he currently rests with past French luminaries in the Pantheon. A very curious man. A very curious country.

The following morning, the results are in on a very curious election. A rump National Consultation Poll was held the previous week. You hadn’t even been aware of it. But neither were the vast majority of Mexicans, or perhaps they just didn’t care. The National Consultation Poll was held to give legitimacy to sub-comandante Marcos and the Zapatista National Liberation Army. But the results appear to have done the opposite. Over 900,000 votes were cast at some 8,000 different polling stations. A majority of voters—53 percent—believe the Zapatistas should “remain an independent force.” The remaining 47 percent believe the guerrillas should disarm and join existing parties within the political process.

It initially appears that a half-million of Marcos’ fellow citizens support his insurgency. But further investigation shows that the election was open to Internet users, and that as many as half of the total number of votes cast may have been done by computer. Most of these came either from the United States or Spain. It is conceivable that no one in Mexico supports Marcos! In fact, not one person you have talked with on your journey has expressed the slightest support. All agree that the government is corrupt and needs changing, but no one seems to feel that Marcos is the man to change it. In fact, many Mexicans believe he is a PRI dupe who is diverting attention while other more sinister actions are taking place elsewhere.

The Zapatista political line: “The principal demands of the people of Mexico are land, work, sufficient food, health, education, culture, information, independence, democracy, liberty, justice, peace, security, opposition to corruption, and the defense of the environment.” Simple. Simply infantile. They began their insurgency in January 1994 in opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. How the importation of jobs, foodstuffs, and technology could hinder their demands mystifies you. They retreated into the forest and called a truce when government troops moved in. Lengthy negotiations about the possibility of negotiations ensued. As this is written, Marcos and company have been holed up in the village of San Andres de Larrainzar for several months. The small rebel zone is surrounded—protected would be a better term—by a “civil corridor” of Red Cross workers who, in turn, are surrounded by the Mexican Army. Cholera is endemic in the rebel zone. Lengthy negotiations about the possibility of negotiating the commencement of negotiations continue. Meanwhile, tourism, the one sure-fire income producer that the state of Chiapas had going for it, is grinding to a halt. So too is the cultivation of village lands.

You purchase an overnight bus ticket to San Cristobal de las Casas, one of the towns briefly overrun by the Zapatistas back in 1994. You are warned that bus hijackings are becoming more commonplace, so you put your passport, credit cards, traveler’s checks, and most of your cash in a small purse which you then slide down into your pants. You leave 20 one dollar bills and assorted small peso notes in your wallet. You climb aboard the first-class bus, watch a movie on the video screens, and drift off to sleep.

Andalé! Andalé! Andalé!, Chavos! Somos Zapatista!” No, this can’t be happening! The bus is stopped on the winding road leading to San Cristobal. The big overhead lights are on. It is 4:00 A.M. hi the aisle are five little Indian men with red bandannas pulled over their faces. Three are brandishing old .58 caliber pistols. The other two hold what appear to be 410-gauge single-shot shotguns. “Dame tu dinero! Rapido!” They move from passenger to passenger demanding money. You carefully pull out your wallet and hand over the contents. Not quite. In your nervousness to extract the bills from your wallet, you accidentally leave one ten peso note inside. He sees that. Whack! A shotgun barrel to the side of your head. “Dame todo!” he screams. You hand over the remaining bill. That’s not enough. He must also have your Minneapolis Public Library card and your Republican National Committee membership, both of which look like credit cards. And so it goes, each passenger getting the same treatment. One Italian is pistol-whipped until he liberates himself of his Italian shoes!

You are herded with the others out into the darkness. All passengers are liberated of fanny-packs, pocket change, and wristwatches in the process. One member of the gang holds a shotgun on the crowd while the others quickly go through the bus grabbing every purse, small backpack, and fanny pack that had been slid underneath seats in the confusion. You are then herded back onto the bus. The bus driver starts the bus, and you continue down the road.

Cigarettes are fired up everywhere, something strictly forbidden on Mexican buses. Even the driver lights one up. You have one too, even though von haven’t smoked for years. Passengers look frantically for their bags and purses. But, alas, everyone has lost everything. Money, passports, credit cards, traveler’s checks, airline tickets. You don’t mention that you’ve still got all of yours down your pants. No need to rub it in.

You continue ten miles down the highway to a federale station. The distraught driver explains what happened, then locks himself in the bus lavatory, where he remains for the next several hours. Six federales, each brandishing two semiautomatic rifles, jump into a land rover. So, too, does a passenger who knows the area well and can pinpoint the exact location of the heist. You stand around and smoke with fellow passengers. The foreign tourists are particularly devastated, having lost passports and airline tickets. Luckily, the undercarriage luggage wasn’t touched. The bus companies in this area have taken to locking the compartments at each station. The drivers do not have keys, and hijackers know this.

The federales return after about three hours. They found one wallet sin dinero on the ground where the incident took place, but nothing more. They shrug their shoulders. The driver lets himself out of the lavatory and climbs into his seat. The passengers reboard the bus, and off you go, arriving in San Cristobal at 11:00 A.M., four hours later than expected. You learn that several buses coming from Guatemala—your intended destination—were robbed during the night, too.

San Cristobal is a beautiful little town, but it’s filled with refugees. Thousands of impoverished Indian people from the countryside begging, or trying to sell little plastic trinkets. Several of our fellow passengers say it just wasn’t this way a few years ago—before the Zapatistas stirred things up. All these people lived their traditional lives in their traditional villages. But that is over now, thanks to the Zapatistas.

Zapatistas! blow appropriately named. After the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the impatient Emiliano Zapata rebelled against the revolution, thereby throwing Mexico into a decade of chaos. And the thieves who robbed you—were they Zapatistas? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the general climate of lawlessness that permitted them to pull such a stunt is the Zapatistas’ gift to this region.

Heavy rains begin to fall, adding to the depression you already feel. Refugees huddle in doorways or beneath plastic garbage bags they have taken from trash bins. You have a very late breakfast in a small comedor where, in the space of a half-hour, you are bothered 50 or more times by beggars. This is too much. You walk back to the bus station and purchase a ticket on the night bus to Chetumal, a city on the Mexico/Belize border.

The bus leaves San Cristobal at 5:30 P.M. and arrives in Chetumal at 6:00 A.M. You don’t watch the video movies. You don’t read. You don’t write in your journal. You don’t sleep. You don’t even worry about another bus robbery. You just think. What a lovely country you just passed through. What friendly and good people you met. Industrious and honest. Everywhere they were talkative, helpful, and patient. So undeserving of a corrupt government. And a “liberation army” intent on liberating them from their right to live in peace.

You cross the bridge into Belize. It’s steamy hot. But you’ve been here before. They speak English, and their money comes in dollar denominations—complete with a picture of Queen Elizabeth on each bill. So you feel safe, as if you are in some long-forgotten tropical province of Canada. You climb onto a Belize City-bound bus, take a seat, and leave that enigma called Mexico behind. You feel both relief and regret. You do not look back.