The Long Way There by Ronald Mackay
The most direct route to any destination may be the fastest but it’s unlikely to be the most interesting.
When, in 1974, I was offered an appointment in Mexico City, I was living in England. I consulted at my atlas. The most direct route would be from London to Mexico by plane. About 12 hours non-stop. I looked at the wide Atlantic and then the expanse of North America. I’d have to fly the ocean given that trans-Atlantic passenger ships were becoming a thing of the past but I wasn’t going to miss all of that glorious North America!
And so I boarded the flight from London to Washington DC – a trip of a mere seven hours and then bought a ticket on the Greyhound Bus from Washington DC to Laredo in Texas. The kind of ticket that allowed me to break my journey at any point for a night or two and then resume it without any additional cost.
Now I didn’t leave Washington right away. I wasn’t going to let that gem pass! So I spent two days enjoying organized tours to all of the sights and then visited a friend in Georgetown. The morning I was to meet him at the University it snowed. That charming city on the Potomac with its sober federal architecture and its quaint streets delighted me as I alighted from the taxi, careful not to slip on the cobbles lightly-covered in snow.
It was just before nine but the university campus struck me as lifeless. At the wrought-iron gates, I asked the security guard for directions. He looked at me cautiously.
“What time’s your appointment?”
“Not today, it ain’t!”
I looked at him, wondering.
I looked at the gentle covering of snow and the odd snowflake drifting down light as a feather.
“It snows here! Everything’s cancelled!”
That was my first taste of the southern distaste for what we in the UK took in our stride as the natural accompaniment to winter.
* * *
“You can’t take the Greyhound to Mexico City!” David’s voice was incredulous or disapproving – or more likely both.
“Only as far as Laredo,” I told him. “Then I walk across the bridge and buy a ticket in Nuevo Laredo from the Mexican bus-line that will take me on South.
He shook his head. He was an educated man and knew about ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’.
* * *
In the cheapest hotel I could find in the French Quarter, I stopped for two nights in New Orleans. Even that economy left me low on funds. Having walked Bourbon Street that first night scanning the expensive menus, I plumped for an Italian restaurant. Elegant though it was, one dish had caught my eye as the most inexpensive of all I’d seen.
“Spaghetti a la naturale.” It sounded simple. And healthy. And it was very, very cheap.
I went in. I sat down. The waiter greeted me, pen poised.
With the most cosmopolitan flourish I could muster to give the impression it was my most favoured of dishes, I ordered. “Spaghetti a la naturale.”
His pencil did not move. His lips did. “And?”
“Spaghetti a la naturale. That’s it?”
“That’s it!” I smiled. “Spaghetti a la naturale. My favourite meal!” He nodded barely suppressing a smirk.
Ten minutes later he placed a deep white plate of spaghetti in front of me and retired to the kitchen. I waited for the delivery of whatever accompaniment came with it.
“Is everything to your liking, Sir?” He’d returned and was looking pointedly at my untouched plate.
Then the translation kicked in. I had ordered ‘simply spaghetti’ – nothing more and nothing less. He saw my confusion, guessed the cause and kindly showed me how to dress the simple dish with olive oil and parmesan. When I finished that cheapest of meals, he removed my empty plate placed a large green salad in front of me.
“On the house!”
In the kitchen, they were dying of laughter at the impecunious Scot whose favourite meal was boiled spaghetti!
* * *
Three days it took me to cross the border from Laredo into Nuevo Laredo. Despite presenting my passport and the accompanying credentials that attested to my appointment at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the furtive official kept finding something wrong with them, though he was unable to explain what.
The Border Agent on the American side took me aside. He’d seen me make my unsuccessful attempt one day after the other and watched me walk back over the bridge, suitcases in each hand.
“You don’t know what’s missing?” He looked at me amazed.
“You got a twenty?” He showed me how to fold it into my passport. “You jes go on back there an your troubles is over!”
And they were.
I made the trip to Mexico City in stages, fascinated by the revelation that I’d tumbled two centuries backwards when I’d crossed the Rio Grande. Though in the most picturesque of ways.
On the last stage in the spartan long-distance bus, the two drivers entertained the passengers by replacing each other for rest spells without reducing the outrageous speed of their bus. Delighted passengers clapped as one driver took steering-wheel, then accelerator, then seat from his exhausted partner as we barrelled down the white line scattering donkeys.
Yes, that trip taught me that the most interesting route to any destination is definitely not the simplest!