James is our kind of guy. Hitchiking through Mexico, he tries to sleep rough in towns along the way and gets the kind of hassle that only tired, unwelcome travelers ever get to know about…
It was a long road from my cozy little home in Guanajuato, Mexico to the coast of Michoacan. On the map, it had looked like I could make it in a day by hitchhiking. I was wrong. After hours of tramping and thumbing in the scorching subtropical sun, I wound up in Morelia, a city of 500,000 and the capital of Michoacan, just as the sun was setting.
My final driver was a postman and was making his final run of the day. He dropped me near the highway and pointed the way towards Patzcuaro, which was an hour down the line in my direction. I asked if Morelia was safe, and he told me that it was, “como Guanajuato.” I decided to take a look around and see the town for myself.
The center square was impressive. Wide, open streets ran between huge old Spanish buildings. I sat in the Zocalo and ate some peanuts for dinner, asking a few local women if it would be possible to sleep there without the police harassing me. They looked at me very strangely for a minute, up and down, and then shrugged. I got the feeling that nobody really knew anything about my type of situation.
After finishing the peanuts, I was still hungry. I figured that if I had to sleep on the street, I could at least eat well and ordered a cheap bowl of soup at a restaurant. By buying something at the restaurant, I had the opportunity to use their bathroom sink. It was one of the types that sat outside of the bathroom in plain view of everyone. I could feel half a dozen eyes on my back as I pumped water through my filter for drinking and brushed my teeth. Living on the street is a great excuse for being strange.
Feeling pretty refreshed and healthy, I walked back out into the dark street, ready to find a place to lay my head for the night. It was a short walk to the bus station, where I put down on my foam mat and used my backpack as a pillow. I realized how different the world looks when you see it sideways. Most people never bother to see this, and in some ways at that moment I felt sorry for them. I was free and nothing mattered, that was the most important thing.
As I was drifting off to sleep a woman came up to me and demanded the pillow case that I had brought from my bed in Guanajuato. She said she needed it to wash cars, as she was homeless. I didn’t really need the pillowcase, anyway, so I just gave it to her. She was a middle-aged woman with broken-out teeth and slightly sinister eyes. She turned those eyes to me hungrily, and I had no doubt that she would be back for more later on.
I smiled and thanked her for letting me help her and improve my karma, and stepped away from my little bed. I stopped a woman who was passing by and asked her if I was in a safe place. “No,” she told me, “there are a lot of drug addicts and prostitutes here.” She was right. I gathered up my things, more in a bundle in my hands than a real pack. I was glad to be out of there.
I walked a few blocks back toward the center of town, and noticed a movie theatre. There were a few young people sitting on the steps outside, and I greeted them as I threw down my gear. They immediately began asking me questions, but I tried to keep to myself.
I couldn’t sleep. People were milling around and I felt very exposed. A young student began asking me lots of questions. I talked with him for a while. At some point he invited me to stay at his house. Something about him didn’t seem right to me at the time, though it was probably just paranoia. He left and I was almost asleep when a man woke me up to tell me to get away from the movie theatre, it was closing for the night and I wouldn’t be allowed to stay there.
I openly laughed at this, but it wasn’t funny. I was dead tired and needed to rest. I began to regret having entered the city. I packed my bags slowly. My eyes sagged and the acid in my stomach was turning from the stress. I continued my retreat toward the Zocalo, and was getting frustrated.
I noticed a small plaza with a little cornice hidden behind a sign. It looked secluded from the outside, and I imagined that someone could only see me from behind there if they were actively looking. The area seemed pretty safe, too; in fact, it was right in front of a government building.
I had learned my lesson from earlier in the night, though, and decided to take a good look around the area and make sure I’d be alright. There were a few people strolling around, some young college students and other creatures of the night. No one seemed especially dangerous. I searched into every crevice of the buildings around, looking for a spot to hide for a few hours. I ruminated over whether it would be safer in lamplight or in darkness.
After a while, I found myself standing in front of the massive iron gate of a cathedral. It was locked. I contemplated climbing up the five meters or so and jumping down, but considered the spikes on top and gave up. It was all so damn useless. There it was- protection and rest, just behind that gate. I’d have done almost anything just to sleep on the steps there, but the doors were very firmly shut in my hour of need. I scoffed at the church. I maybe even hated the church at that moment.
I trudged back to the spot where I had seen the sign, but when I returned, I was surprised to find that it was occupied. I could only see to about the knee, but one person was standing and the other was on his knees. I laid out my foam mat and thought about sleeping right in the open. I sat down on my pack and contemplated the surrealism of life, as I stared into the 3AM void, too tired to blink. Eventually, the figure that had been on his knees came out and slinked down the sidewalk in the darkness. He was probably a teenage boy. A moment later a larger, older man came out from his hiding place and sat down on a step within a few feet of me. He shot me several glances, and I glared back with animal rage.
He pretended to sleep sitting down, but every few seconds he would glance back to me. I became furious. I punched a tree and ranted, cursing him in Spanish and English. I wanted to show that I was insane. Eventually, I gave up, grabbed all my things up into a little bundle, and made my final retreat to the Zocalo. I expected that the police would come and kick me out, but I was beyond caring and out of options.
There were a few couples still milling around in the soft lights and I felt like I would at least not wake up with a gun in my face or worse. I put my foam mat down on a concrete bench, tied my backpack to my hand with a rope from my pack and fell deeply asleep.
Just before sunrise I woke up with a young man standing over me with his hand in my pants. He was trying to steal my money belt, which contained all my money and my passport. He was shocked to see me awake. I wasn’t even as angry as I was surprised. I had just been dreaming about my bed back home and pancakes for breakfast. I threw some punches and landed them on his mouth, not really hard enough to hurt him badly, but he backed off. I drove him back towards a fountain and almost pushed him in, but became worried about getting arrested for fighting. A homeless foreigner has no rights.
As the thief ran away, a man told me to get out of there. I grabbed my things and stumbled out of the plaza. I felt violated and exhausted, and my lungs hurt from the cold morning air. I fully expected that the police would be looking for me, so I hurried to get away. Once I felt at a safe distance, I began to look for my journal to put all of the insanity to words. I didn’t have it. I left everything except my most valuable possessions (which amounted to a water filter, tent, and a copy of “Walden”) with a street cleaning woman and ran back to the plaza to look for it. I was desperate not to lose the only record I had of my life on the road for the past 3 months.
My heart sank to find the bench empty, but as I gave up a gardener motioned to me and showed me where he had hidden it. I thanked him profusely and ran back to my main pack. It was still there. I left town as the sun rose behind me.
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