Our family has been contemplating an excursion on the current stable of princely of luxury trains: India’s Palace on Wheels with coaches formerly owned by maharajahs ... the richly polished Orient Express ... Ireland's Emerald Express.
I won’t bore you with the plushness afforded riders of these rolling showplaces, but for those with memories of scheduled rail travel in Mexico, I feel compelled to mention another passenger train representing a bygone era that was in its own way equally memorable. This noble survivor of washed-out bridges, revolutions, clogged toilets, cheap red wine and scorched beans was known as the Bala (“Bullet”).
In more peaceful times, it toiled between Mexico’s half of the divided border city of Nogales and the interior metropolis of Guadalajara. We didn’t have to send the kids to fantasy movies for thrills in those days. Instead we would book an overnight alcoba (double compartment) somewhere in the fare range of $25 roundtrip from Nogales to the beach city of Mazatlan, about 700 miles distant.
Last I heard the Bala was out of business, at least from Nogales. Too many whiners and complainers, I say.
“No heating,” some customers sniffed. To the contrary: On one memorable occasion our coach burned to the ground and riders enjoyed its rosy warmth while standing in pajamas on the rattlesnake-infested desert near Navajoa, Mexico.
Yes, the Bala may have run short of heat, air conditioning, steam, gas, water, beans, sheets, pillows and toilet paper, but the beer bunker was always well stocked both with ice and cerveza.
Why pay big bucks for a massage at a luxury spa? With the diesel cranked up to terminal velocity of 45 mph, the sleeping berths would shake veterans of Navy destroyers from their bunk.
Which of these wondrous adventures would we never have experienced if not for the Bullet?
What about the time it inched across an ersatz rail trestle completed within the past half hour following a flash flood. The rails were cantilevered by workmen clinging to telephone poles that supplied upward leverage. The men bounced up and down at the end of the poles as the train crawled forward.
Once waylaid in a dusty village by an incapacitated Bala, we discovered a thatch-roofed cantina where the floor show consisted of dancing horses in a region that we later learned was famous for its leaping Latin Lipizzaners.
How I miss those framed proclamations securely fastened to the corridor wall of these venerable coaches that once saw service on U.S. rail lines. The faded message, signed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urged American GIs to victory in World War II.
“Say it isn’t so,” I urged the corporate bosses of Ferrocarriles del Pacifico when passenger service from Nogales was abruptly halted. In their reply, they stated that “the mechanics must go over these cars thoroughly.”
Why now? Why after decades of benign mechanical neglect must mechanics lay their hands on these faithful cars?
Sadly, however, the Bala failed to dodge that bullet. Today’s rail buffs must find their adventure on distant continents.