“I’M TRAVELING – and I wake up suddenly in the silence before dawn in a strange hotel room, in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken, and I’m shaking and shivering.”
So begins the play, THE FEVER by Wallace Shawn.
I’ve recently returned from a trip to Mexico. Around last Christmas, my mother expressed a strong desire for at least one more trip to the village where she grew up. She wanted to see her 80-year-old brother. She is 76 and traveling alone on such a long journey is not an option. I become the appointed mom-keeper. Mid-May became the date of departure because it would coincide with the celebration of the Festival of San Isidro, which this year, would be hosted by my cousin, Jorge. San Isidro is the patron saint of farmers and also the patron saint of my family’s small village chapel.
It was while in Mexico, not coincidentally, that I read The Fever.
I had the trip so perfectly planned. For our flight to Oaxaca City, I specifically chose to fly on Continental so that we could avoid the airport in Mexico City. I’ve never liked that airport and never had a good experience there. It’s too big, too difficult to navigate and for some reason, signage is scarce and information seems to be kept intentionally unavailable to travelers. On Continental we could change planes in Houston; things might make sense, might be logical; if not, I could always ask questions in English.
When my mother and I arrived in Houston, our flight was delayed by 3 hours. No biggie. We ordered margaritas at the bar near the gate. Then the delay turned to 4 hours. Lighting brightened the window at which I sat. I was startled to see rain pouring down as if from buckets.
Our plane, which was coming in from Tulsa, never arrived. There must have been bigger, scarier lightning in Oklahoma. Or maybe a strong wind came sweepin’ down the plain. Our flight to Oaxaca was canceled. Other flights were canceled as well. We stood in line for an hour to book another flight. At 10 pm, the terminal was filled with people with no place to go. There were only two agents rebooking planeload after planeload of passengers.
We finally reach the head of the line. We’re given tickets for a flight on Mexicana. We have to change planes in Mexico City. Just dandy. Our plane leaves at 2 the next day. I’m given a number to call for a “discounted” hotel room. I call and I’m offered a Super 8 Motel for $67. Doesn’t sound like much of a discount to me. But I take it. We head out to look for the shuttle service phone. Except there’s no answer. I find the phone number to the motel on the listings and call from my cell phone. The person at the Super 8 desk tells me that the shuttle service doesn’t run this late (it’s now after 11:00). It’s been 14 hours since I left my house and I’m still only in Houston. I freak out on her. I’m rude. I know she just works there but I’m tired and now I’m fed up. I hear her speak the word “taxi.” I hang up the phone while she’s talking. I know my mother knows that I’ve been rude. I don’t care. I’ve got to find us a room NOW. I run back to the board with the hotel listings. By now there are plenty of other people in line. I wait. I search for a hotel that seems to be reasonably priced and I call. They have two rooms left. I tell them I’ll take the one without the Jacuzzi. A man at the other courtesy phone shouts at me not to hang up. I hand him the receiver. He’ll get the room with the hot tub. It’s an extra $20. He’s alone. Why not?
Apparently, he’s now got the last hotel room in the Houston airport area. We head off to the shuttle pick up area, passing dozens who’ve elected to spend the night stretched out along the terminal floor. I’d rent a car and drive to Oaxaca before I’d sleep on an airport floor. I once slept in a train station in Cologne, Germany after a horrific mix-up in trying to get to Paris. Twenty years later, I ain’t sleepin’ on no airport floor.
The van for our particular motel takes over an hour.
Once we get to our room, we’ve got to get ourselves fed. There’s only one option, Waffle House.
We don’t have Waffle Houses where I live. In fact, the only other time I’ve visited a Waffle House was outside of Birmingham, Alabama when K and I attended his daughter’s grad school graduation.
Our experience at the Waffle House in Houston was, um, interesting. First, I wish more restaurants would offer hash browns topped with jalapeños. I can eat jalapeños, any time, any place and within any meal. If I had a restaurant, I would serve only foods that were made from or included jalapeños. Other than that, little was appealing. I wanted to suggest to our waitress that the menu carry more vegetarian options. Instead, I just ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. I asked for a bit of tomato.
The jalapeño-topped hash browns were the highlight. The post-1 am Waffle House crowd was a sight that I would not necessarily want to behold. I told myself it was a slice of real Americana. But the drunken woman who exposed more of herself than she was aware of worried me. I wondered too much about the men who sat at the counter. Why were they there so late? Where had they been? Where were they going? I could tell they weren’t stranded travelers. They weren’t truckers. They were locals – locals with no place else to go. They were people who’d rather be in a too brightly lit restaurant than at home. Teens dressed as if they’d just celebrated prom came and went. The Waffle House didn’t do justice to their fancy duds. It struck me as sad. I wanted more for them.
Our waitress was super sweet. I wondered if she was this patient all the time. Was she ever rude to anyone on the phone? Did she ever hang up on anyone who was just answering the phone at a dead-end job? Did she ever feel detached, separate and apart from everyone around her, as if she were observing them as one might observe animals in a zoo? Was she ever aware of a patronizing arrogance that distanced her from her fellow humans?
Exhausted, but sated by salt and grease, we headed back to our room.
Next – the dreaded airport in Mexico City.