“Here is your spending limit,” I say as I hand them each a 100 peso bill. “Use it for food, water, whatever you feel is essential. And if you brought cash, forget anything you've heard about using US currency here. This isn't a resort area, your dollar has no value. This bill is all that you get.” Then I turn and say, “Follow me.”
As I walk by a garbage can, I toss a paper sign with the name 'George Buchanan' on it. The code-name changes every week so that I don't have to start paying off security guards at the airport. Cash is king when you operate under the table, and when one sniffs it out they all come begging. I change my appearance, switch up the meet-up point, and take different routes out of the terminal for additional piece of mind.
“Take one and pass it around,” I say as I give a handful of electronic key chains to a twenty year old male. “It's a GPS tracking device. Clip it to a belt loop, somewhere out of sight.”
A few rays of the morning sun have spilled out onto the sidewalk. I walk through the glass door and look right before taking a left. The group is glued to me. But one of the students pauses to take a picture of a rainbow-colored México sign in the median of the street. “Hey!” I say, “Save it for later. Now is not the time for tourism.” I glare at the group and then follow up with, “Nor is it for questions.”
As we continue along the sidewalk and toward the entrance to the metro, I hand a knife to the female nearest me and say, “There is an unspoken rule here that public transport is reserved for lower-class citizens. And right now we look like a group of movie stars.” I point toward one student who is wearing a bright orange undershirt and motion for him to zip up his jacket. “So we need to downgrade our appearance. Think of a time when you accidentally damaged some clothing – a dog biting your pant leg, snagging your jacket on a door handle, hopping over a fence when you came home drunk from a frat party, whatever. Take the knife and make a hole, tear or rip, not too big, but just enough to be noticed. Natural location.”
I walk toward the edge of the sidewalk and lunge downward. With my hand I scoop up some dirt. “Keep walking forward,” I say as I pass among the group. I pat the dirt on knees and elbows. “Don't take this personal, I'm trying to help,” I say as I swipe a line across one female's neck.
“It's rush hour. You are about to experience a lot of people in a hurry. We still look out of place so don't mob together. Remember that you have a tracker, I can find you. Keep a bit of distance between each other so that we don't become a target.”
As the taquilla comes into view, I hand each a 10 peso coin and say, “you're going to buy your own tickets. It's not important that you don't understand the language. Purchase two tickets, they are 5 pesos each.”
There is a bit of hesitation but I receive no objections. I observe each student as they approach the window. The first holds up two fingers. The others follow suit.
“Simple to blend in, huh?” I say as they converge back around me, “mimic and keep up.” We pass through the turn-styes and head into the station.
“If you haven't already, memorize my appearance now,” I say. “How do you pick me out? First, I'm a gringo. Two, I'm wearing a blue coat with the collar flipped up.” I turn up my jacket collar.
The foot traffic grows heavier and I have to raise my voice. “Okay, we're on Linea 5, it's yellow!” I yell, “The station that we are going to is called Autobuses del Norte!”
I stop the group in front of a subway map. “The system here is very intuitive,” I say and point toward it. “You have five minutes. Memorize it. One at a time you will give me the directions to get to the next station and then how to return here, with your eyes closed. No questions.”
It doesn't happen often but if a student fails at this task, I discretely plant a real GPS unit on them for my own peace of mind.
Everyone in this group passes the verbal test. We continue on toward the tracks. The mass of commuters behind the yellow line of entry is five thick. “Good luck!” I say as I dive into the sea of people. When the first train arrives, the mob caves in toward the opened door. One of the students squirms on. The final four remain with me. I smile with the thought that she could be the first ever to pass the final test.
The rest of us maintain our position in the crowd. In a couple of minutes we cram onto the next train that arrives. In the cab we are packed in tight, standing, without a chance to grab hold of a bar for stability. “Go with the flow here,” I say. “Stand firm, yet remain flexible. Be prepared for sudden stops and changes in direction by relaxed observation.” As the train careens around a curve, everyone within is tossed in that direction. One of the students topples into me. “Stick your heels out and dig in,” I say to him.
I breath a sigh of relief when I spot the first student waiting at our metro destination. She joins the group without the need for my signal. Then I rush them into the bus station. They follow me to the second from last counter within.
“Seis, por favor,” I say to the lady working the counter. I hand her two 500 peso bills. She hands me back three 100s. I don't pick it up. “Está equivocado,” I say to her as I point toward the stack of bills and then at the string of digits displayed on her register. The ticket lady shrugs her shoulders in surprise. They she forks over the missing 100 peso bill. I turn and look at the students to make sure that they all witnessed it.
On the way to the security checkpoint, I hand them their round trip tickets and say, “I know that we have entered a technological age where paper money is rarely exchanged, but it is more important than ever to always keep track of every dime to your name. There are scammers everywhere. Don't be misled by appearance, title, or relationship. Everyone is a con artist when money is involved. Manage your assets well.”
We continue outside to the designated terminal. Five minutes of heavy breathing pass before a bus marked with a pyramid pulls in and parks. We enter and take seats in the middle. “Alright, you have me for an hour. Any questions?” I say.
The students are usually so jacked up on adrenaline by this point that they forget how to speak. But this group doesn't hesitate. The girl who entered the metro solo is the first to say something. “When are you going to tell us what we are supposed to do?” she asks.
I bring a finger and thumb to the side of my forehead and look down for a moment. Then I raise my head up and say, “Restart. You each have only one question. Choose wisely, I may not answer it.”
At the last stop within city limits a man enters with a video camera. He passes by each passenger, focuses the lens on each face, then exits from the bus. The students turn to me with puzzled looks, but they remain silent.
“Somebody murdered a few passengers a month ago,” I say. “He's still at large.” I open a video on my cell phone and pass it around. It is footage from the bus security camera during the actual event. After the cell phone is passed back to me, I close my eyes and take a nap.
When the road turns to dirt, the turbulence shakes me awake. The bus stops a few minutes later. We exit and I walk the students to the entrance. A group of vendors charge us near the gate.
“Eyes forward,” I say.
The merchants surround us and shove trinkets in our face. A barrel-chested native blows a deafening whistle that makes the sound of a jaguar roar. From the corners of my eyes I watch the students closely. None jump, not a flinch. We pass through unscathed.
“The only way to deal with beggars is to ignore them,” I remark. “Don't sweat personal insults.”
At the entrance to the Avenue of the Dead, I stop the group near a large plaque. I give them ample time to read the description. The final lines read, Welcome to Teotihuacan. The place where men become gods.
Once everyone has looked up I say, “We've arrived. And now you have a choice.”
I hold an index finger up, “option number one.” I lower my hand and hold an open palm forward, “turn in your GPS units.” I straighten up and point north toward the Pyramid of the Moon, “You can roam freely, you'll be on your own,” I say as I sweep my hand south to the Citadel. “You already have tickets for the bus, metro, and flight.” I lower my hand. “And you know the route.” Then I look at each student individually. “But I can't guarantee your safety.”
There is a shuffling of feet amongst the group.
“Or,” I say as I shrug my shoulders, “option dos. Use your deposit.” I pull out my cell phone. “This is a secure line.” I open a financial app on the screen and hold it up. “You can keep the GPS units and you get me as a guide.” I put on my best rehearsed smile, “I only need your authorization for it to go through.”
The group is quiet.
“What is your choice?” I ask.
To myself, I begin to count, One, two. . .
The girl who traveled the metro solo is the first to make a move. She approaches me. When I realize that she isn't going to hand over my property, I involuntarily hang my head a bit. I catch myself in the act, stand up straight and hope that no one noticed. Before she is able to grasp for my cell phone, the rest follow suite.
Group behavior, every damn time.
I've tried different deposits, ranging from 100 to 1,000 USD, but it only seems to impact the amount of resumes sent in. I'll probably close up shop and seek another adventure for myself the moment that a gifted introvert with independent talent decides to take charge of their life. But for now, at three filled trips per week – business is good.