by Sue Granzella
The temperature outside was 107, but it was hotter where I was that day in 1989, bouncing around with three friends in a dilapidated bus bound for Chihuahua, Mexico. Air-conditioning on this journey was simple: wrench the cockeyed windows up as far as they would go and pray to God the airflow wouldn’t be blocked by someone else’s sweaty body. My t-shirt was plastered to me, unable to breathe against the synthetic backrest. The years had sculpted a deep depression in the seat that had encircled my butt for the last two hours. It felt like longer.
We sped through desert unblemished by buildings, the sky and horizon merging in a cloud of dirty beige. Then we stopped at a flat structure with the sterile angles of a little green Monopoly house. Except it wasn’t that vibrant grass-green but a faded minty color, coated by a dusting of brown desert powder.
Everyone stood to exit the bus, so I unfolded my stiff limbs and shuffled up the aisle with the rest of my overheated companions. I peeled my shirt from my back, longing for a breeze that would cool me with my own sweat as we streamed across the parking lot toward this desert oasis.
It was dim inside, and as my eyes adjusted I saw that I was in a convenience store. Instantly I was of single-minded purpose: to acquire liquid. In 1989 bottled water was unavailable, and my Lonely Planet, Mexico book had forbidden me to drink from a fountain. I spied a refrigerator case of beverages and yanked open the door, eager for the blast of cold against my face. But refrigeration was only a mirage; the inside of the case was no cooler than the stifling air of the store. Still, I plunked a few pesos onto the counter and headed back to the sauna-bus holding three cans emblazoned with the word manzana.
The apple drink was thick and sweet like nectar, not the cool refreshing beverage I’d craved. But it was wet, and I guzzled two cans before pulling myself back up into the sweltering vehicle. We lumbered off, back on the road toward Chihuahua.
The round Mexican man with the short-sleeved button-down shirt smiled at me from across the aisle, and the two of us resumed our chat. Julie, Meg, Ray and I had met friendly Jorge around noon back in El Paso, before we’d walked across the border into Ciudad Juarez and caught a taxi to the bus station. Jorge had pegged us as the gringos we were and had made it his personal mission to ensure that we arrived safely in Chihuahua, his destination as well. He helped us secure the taxi in Juarez and find the right bus at the station. And now, though we had another three hours of bus ride still ahead, Jorge started in on his hotel-safety lecture.
I was the one who knew the most Spanish, so Jorge spoke to me, tailoring his vocabulary to a fledgling speaker. Though my mental translation was literal and awkward, I grasped his main points.
“The city not is very safe. Is important that you should go to the place that not is bad.”
My Lonely Planet book had said the same thing, but I wasn’t sure how to find the places that not were bad.
“How know I? That the hotel is safe and also has water that not is very bad?”
“To you I say—when it makes much heat in Chihuahua, maybe not there is water. The water stops in all the city.”
This was terrible news. We had to have water at the end of this blistering day, and Lonely Planet had trained us to view non-purified water as death juice. Now it seemed we’d be lucky to find a place with any water at all, much less water that was safe. With each mile, I became more parched and more anxious.
When we finally shuddered to a stop in Chihuahua at 9:30 pm, Jorge informed us of his decision. Before heading to his home, he would personally escort us to a hotel that met his standard of safety for the four of us naïve California twenty-somethings. His kindness was boundless, and I was grateful.
Growing up in my family of six, we never once stayed in a hotel. Hotels were fancy, with their multiple floors, elevators, and interior carpeted hallways. My family stayed in motels, in single rooms with two double beds and two roll-aways, in family-run establishments where my dad would try to bargain the owner down to $21 for the six of us. Sometimes we stopped at five different places before Dad negotiated an acceptable price.
The lodgings we saw that night in Chihuahua did not live up to my childhood imaginings of hotel elegance. Dragging ourselves through the dark streets, the air heavy and still, we followed Jorge in and out of small lobbies, watching sweat drip down the foreheads of the respective hotel managers. I listened for the words “Agua purificada? Sí!” but I never heard them.
Jorge pushed open another smeared glass door and the five of us squeezed into the wood-paneled office, where I spied a huge upside-down jug of water nestled into a ceramic dispenser. I could almost hear the water glug-glug as I filled the tall glass in my imagination, its chilled contents pulling droplets of condensation from the stagnant air.
After a brief exchange with the clerk, Jorge turned to us, not exactly jubilant but with an air of finality. “Already we arrive. Here you stay.”
“Is water purified?” I pointed toward the jug that was tinted blue, adding to the illusion of cool.
Jorge pressed his lips together, stuck out his hands palm-up, and shrugged. “Yes, says he.”
“Says he” would have to do. We shouldered our packs, and trudged up the dark, uneven staircase.
At the top, the hallway angled left, illuminated by one naked bulb suspended from the ceiling twenty feet ahead. We spoke in whispers, respecting the hotel’s other weary travelers. But we needn’t have bothered; we soon realized there were no other occupants. The doors on either side of the paneled hallway hung open in eerie testament to something we could feel more than observe. I peered in as we passed and was dismayed to see no beds, desk chairs, or other hotel-room furniture. These rooms were barren.
We’d now reached the hanging light bulb, and I peeked into the nearest room. This one was filled with a dozen or more bathroom sinks, haphazardly scattered about the floor. A solitary toilet stood upright in the center of the room, as if the centerpiece of an altar. We continued on in silence.
Past the porcelain room, the bulb cast enough light for me to see that the paneling had separated from the wall in places, as if someone had tried yanking it off piece by piece before abandoning the building. Just as I noticed that the paneling had darkened in irregular blotches, I detected the smell of burnt wood, swirled together with the pungent aroma of musty carpet and our perspiration.
There had been a fire here. A big one. Recently.
At the end of the long straightaway, the hallway jogged left again, and a splotch of red on the wall caught my eye as we turned. I stared at the hard plastic blob, perplexed, until I recognized it as a telephone that had melted into the wall. Melted.
We finally reached the one closed door at the very end of the hallway. Home. Ray leaned his backpack against the fire-scorched wall, and Jorge jammed the dull gold key into the doorknob. He twisted it, shook it, and jabbed at it. Nothing. One of us would have to go downstairs—back past the melted phone—and the bathroom graveyard and the burned paneling, and beg the manager to let us into this room.
Jorge headed down, while Julie, Meg, Ray, and I looked at the walls and each other.
I spoke first. “Do you think the water is really okay to drink?”
“The water? I’m just hoping we don’t burn up while we sleep!” Ray moved toward me and sat on his pack, so I scooted a few steps back. The powerful heat had not been kind to us; we reeked.
Meg headed back up the hallway with her camera and started snapping pictures of the phone.
“Should we keep looking for another place?” Julie voiced the obvious question, but if anyone suggested we continue the hunt, I knew I’d burst into tears.
Then Jorge was back, and grasped the doorknob with renewed vigor. With a rattle and a click, the lock turned and the fire-blackened door swung open on squeaky hinges.
We surveyed the room without entering. Threadbare mismatched spreads were draped over the two double beds, each with one pillow. A large oval-shaped stain darkened the worn carpet, and the lone chair had stuffing popping out of the ripped armrest and was missing a front leg. The bathroom door had no knob and hung halfway open as if in silent shame, exposing the badly mildewed tub with its curtain rod resting on the floor. Something little and dark scuttled across the floor and under the bed.
Jorge broke the silence, his tone flat. “Que feo.”
How ugly. Que feo.
And that’s what did it. I collapsed in surrender to a stomach-clutching fit of laughter. The understatement of Jorge’s observation, spoken as a simple matter of fact, was as hilarious to me as anything I’d ever heard. The heat, the phone, the toilet-altar, the fire, every aspect of the room itself… Que feo. We squealed, “Que feo! Que feo!” losing ourselves in giggles each time.
My friends and I brought in our packs, hugged Jorge goodbye, and then fell into bed. Ray was like a brother, so rather than share a bed with him, I took the floor, placing my head alongside the door. I figured I could sniff any smoke that might slip in underneath. That night in the dark, I felt a creature of some heft scuttle across my arm. Barely stifling my scream, I leaped up with the thought of whipping on the light and exposing the intruder. But then what? We were stuck for the rest of the night in that room with all its inhabitants. It was probably better not to know who else was keeping us company. I decided just to shake out my sleeping bag, wrap it tightly around myself, and let the darkness keep its secrets.
We saw breathtaking views on that trip: dizzying canyons, a valley blanketed in lava that stretched for miles, and sparkling turquoise waters. The spectacular beauty is shiny in my memory.
But the bus ride to Chihuahua and the night we spent in the hotel—those memories rest more warmly inside me than do the beautiful ones, maybe because the stumbles and ugliness have become all tangled up with longing. Remembering, I feel an ache for youth, when it was so automatic for me to trust strangers, to feel pure excitement at the unknown. When “fiasco” mostly meant “adventure.” When time and future felt endless.
I love old fences made of stone, the way weeds grow over the rounded rocks that have toppled out of line. I am captivated by abandoned barns, how they lean and slant and drop their flat boards one by one and yet still stand. I am drawn to ruins, to things that crumble. They make me wistful for the loveliness of what was. Brokenness, ugliness—they burrow into a deeper place than sheer, perfect beauty can.
I still seek out lovely places when I travel, and am filled with wonder when I find them. But the ugly parts—que feo. Those are the ones that stay with me long after I’ve left them behind.
Sue Granzella teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning work appears or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Prick of the Spindle, Rusty Nail, MemoirsInk, Switchback, and Crunchable, among others. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of 8- and 9-year-olds.
Image credit: Iker Merodio on Flickr