Border Crossing by Bus

Kristin Van Tassel

            Your first plan was to drive from Salina, Kansas to the southern border of Texas, park the car somewhere, cross by taxi at a major entry point, and then ride Mexican buses to Guanajuato, where you intend to study immersion Spanish.

            “That is a bad plan,” your Spanish teacher tells you. Then she tells you about a Mexican bus that runs from central rural Kansas to central rural Mexico. She emails you everything you need to know. 

            “My husband is worried about this,” she writes. “But I told him you are a very adventurous lady.” 

            You are in your forties and trying to learn Spanish. When asked by friendly Spanish-speakers if you speak Spanish, you answer un poco. A little. Pococito? they will ask. Almost none? 

            “You can’t measure that,” your Spanish teacher assures you. “And we like to put -ito on everything.” So you keep answering un poco

            After you buy the bus tickets at a small Mexican grocery store, you tell her, “I think they were surprised a gringa was buying tickets.”

            “Don’t use that word,” she corrects you, frowning. “Say americana.”

Technically, there are other americanos on the bus, U.S. citizens traveling to visit family in Mexico. Many are children, traveling with grandparent-aged adults. Seven hours into the trip, the teenager in front of you turns around, quizzical. Tienes… familia en Fresnillo? You try to sound like you know what you’re doing. Estudiamos español en Guanajuato. You don’t know how to say “immersion”—or if that would be weird to say. You cannot remember how to conjugate verbs in the future tense.

The elderly man in the seat across from you sits ramrod straight, never removing his cowboy hat during the 40-hour journey. His wife curls next to him, her legs and feet on his lap. They sleep; you don’t. The baby behind you sometimes lets out a belly chuckle, but she never cries—even during the ten hours sitting on the Rio Grande bridge, waiting behind other buses in the customs line. No one seems troubled by the wait. Eight hours in, your 11-year-old son turns to you, his face spilling the desperation you feel but have not named: “How much longer?” 

It’s hard to know. From the moment you stepped on the bus, it’s been all español. The transfer terminal in Dallas? The bathroom and food breaks? The destination announcements? Español único. This places very real demands on your un-poco-Spanish. You feel proud of yourself for telling the border officer you’ll pay all fees in the city where your classes will be, Guanajuato. But when you miss the call for customs forms? You’re downgraded to un pococito.

            Once you’re in Mexico, the final stop on the line, Fresnillo, is the equivalent of Salina, Kansas. It’s not a tourist town. One of the bus line desk clerks rides along in a van shuttle to the Guanajuato transfer, where you’ll get on a different bus for the first time in two days. He speaks rapidly the entire time, and no entiendes nada. But it’s okay. He keeps smiling, nodding his head. He holds his hands close together as if to say: just a while longer. 

            You return the smile and give a thumbs up. You know by now you arrived to your destination some ways back—sooner than you thought.

Tag words & SEO phrases: Mexican bus, Spanish language learning, border crossing, transnational bus travel or US-Mexico bus travel

BIO: Kristin Van Tassel lives and teaches in Central Kansas. Her travel essays have appeared in World Hum, Transitions Abroad, and Wraparound South.

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