The Writers' Circle: A ride on the ‘chicken’ train


By Joyce Holdread

PREVIEW Columnist

Reynosa is one of those rough border towns where even the waitress in Pancho’s Diner warns you about the pickpockets scouring the streets in search of hapless gringos. David quickly switched his wallet from his back pocket to the front. 

“Thanks for the tip. Could you also tell us how to get to the ‘chicken’ train? We’ve heard there’s a station on this side of the border.” 

David and I had talked about an unplanned foray down south, hoping to connect with a ministry working among the poor in education or literacy. This was our initial venture.

The wrong side of the tracks was a euphemism for the condition of this train. Not only were animals herded on to it in record numbers, but also no provision was made for their defecating necessities. The poor beasts had to stand and sway in their own slop. 

“I suppose some sort of cleaning goes on at stops along the line,” I surmised. 

“I’ve learned never to take the obvious for granted,” David said as we mounted the section of the train reserved for human passengers. Cross ventilation was provided here simply and directly — broken windows. As the train rumbled through every pueblito along the track, little urchins poured out of their shacks to practice their marksmanship on a moving target. 

“Duck; move to the center!” shouted a man a couple seats down as we rounded a sharp turn and came upon a small village. Thankfully, the stones and glass fell directly to the floor. We managed all the way from Reynosa to Torreon with only minor bruises.

“There’s another ‘avian express’ we catch in Torreon,” David said. “It’ll take us to Zacatecas, from there to Irapuato, where we change again to a first-class train for Guadalajara.” 

“Why don’t we spend the night on that train?” I asked. “We can sleep on the train and we won’t have to pay for a motel. I’d rather spend the money at a good restaurant or the market.” 

The cross ventilation on this train paled in comparison with the first, but made up for it with other exciting accommodations. Somewhere between Torreon and Zacatecas, a vendor shuffled down the cars with a freshly dressed goat, holding it by the hind legs, blood still dripping from the head. 

“I guess if you want some fresh goat, they just hack it off right here, drop it in a plastic sack, and voila, dinner in the bag,” David observed.

For any unforeseen medical emergencies, there were the original snake oil merchants — sellers of potions to cure everything from ingrown toenails to severe arthritis in a matter of days. The Wild West had nothin’ over these guys — they were collecting pesos right and left as they worked their way down the aisle. Then came the niños, usually no older than 10 or 11, who boarded at almost every stop.

“Tamales, burritos, fruta, gelatina (Jello), refrescos (soda)! Señora, your children are thirsty. We have Coca with ice.” Aggressive little fellows, they had learned just the right amount of pressure, with the accompanying smile and tilt of the brow, to ply pesos from passengers. The confectioners of these goodies — their mothers — watched from the sidelines. 

We arrived in Irapuato late at night and settled into our cushioned, reclinable seats for the last leg of the journey. Despite the raucous snoring of the man directly behind, we snuggled into sleep. Hours later, we approached Guadalajara glimmering in the black wee hours like a jewel on a dark genie’s hand. We strapped on our packs and disembarked.