By Dawn Erickson
The bus goes off the road somewhere south of Cancun. We are returning to Cancun from Guatemala, the end of a long trip along the Ruta Maya. The bus driver chooses to go off the road to avoid a head-on collision, the one caused by another driver passing at the wrong time. Or so it seems. This I glimpse out the corner of my eye, or think I do, so quickly does it happen. The bus is buoyed by the jungle and the flat limestone landscape. There is dirt and dust and leaves and screams as baggage and people are tossed about the bus. When the bus comes to a final and upright stop, my boyfriend Jay pushes me aside to jump out the window. He fears an explosion, flames and what not. He desperately paws the window open and jumps, runs off into the palm trees. I see the driver too, disappear into the greenery, into the beautifully backlit dust, before it has settled back to the ground.
I climb out the window after Jay, but first pull our packs out of the jumbled mess of bags and boxes and groceries strewn across the bus floor. Most everything has been thrown off the open racks that run the length of the bus above the seats. I push our backpacks and daypacks out the window before I scramble out, letting myself dangle briefly before letting go and landing softly on the ground. I scoop up our gear and head to the road where I find Jay panicked and pacing. I assure him there is no gasoline leaking, no imminent explosion, only a battered bus, some broken glass, a mess of baggage, and wheels knocked completely off their axles, jutting sideways at a very unnatural angle.
We are somewhere along the Caribbean coast of Mexico, an area thick with tourists — especially Europeans. There are German, Swiss, and Italians. There are Canadians with their flags proudly sewn onto their packs. “American?” I like to ask them in a feigned German accent. And us, from the West Coast of the U.S. Mostly the bus is filled with locals who take these buses back and forth between towns on the coast — daily trips. After the Guatemalan buses, mostly re-purposed school buses, hot and packed full, these buses are deluxe. In fact, Mexico is the king of bus travel and Mexico City the grand palace, endless buses as far as the eye can see, to anyplace in the kingdom, there are the ejecutivos, with movies and food service, air conditioning. Even second-class buses are comfortable and clean. Of course, the farther south and remote you get, the farther away from tourists, deluxe often gives way to bullet holes in windows and things of that sort.
People come to Jay and me as we stand at the edge of the highway, an argument brewing. Jay waves his hands about in the dusty air, waiting for a car or anyone to pass, so he can wave them down and get himself out of there. “We have to get out of here now,” he says. But then the people come, first an old man and his wife. The man holds his wife’s arm gently and gestures to Jay. They think we can help. This first aid is something Jay knows. He digs into his pack and pulls out a first aid kit. He begins to calm down. He starts with the woman, rubs her arm, checking for broken bones, for injury, for blood. I fear blood. I faint at the sight of it. I want to let someone else be responsible.
We’ve returned to Mexico from Guatemala through Chiapas on one of the modified school buses of Guatemala. Just days before, a sunny Sunday morning, we crossed the border. But before that — somewhere short of the border the men stand in the roadway. They make a large V in the road and at the point of the V is the seeming leader, the man in charge. He holds his right arm high up in the air clutching what looks a lot like a machine gun. Stop is what it clearly says. I don’t know if this is a common thing that happens here on the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. Maybe they do this with all travelers going this way. I don’t know. We haven’t seen many travelers really. Sure, there was plenty of the international expat crowd in Chichicastenango — the lost children of the modern world wandering the streets in feigned poverty. But how did they get here we wonder, so rarely do we see foreigners on the buses we travel on.
I see the bus driver and the luggage boy glance at each other, nod, say something I can’t understand. I am sitting right behind them. I have a front-row view of everything. We are the only two foreigners on the bus and stand out. There were not many seats when we got on the bus and really we are happy for seats, any seats, so unusual is it really to even have an option of a seat. I take the one in front and Jay goes all the way to the back.
Â I look at him in the large rearview mirror and he waves and smiles and I do the same back. I see several men and women on either side of him smile. Jay cannot see what I see. He is wearing a bright white windbreaker that stands out against his black hair and brown skin, now even darker after having traveled through the sun for weeks now. He prides himself on blending in, on thinking he can be mistaken for Mexican or Guatemalan, but this morning nothing seems more ridiculous. I have never thought of Jay as tall, in fact there have been times when climbing mountains that Jay’s lack of height, his limited reach, has cost us a summit. Here he looks gigantic next most of the Guatemalan men. Next to their small frames in dusty clothes, his white, thrift-store windbreaker looks gaudy and extravagant. I am as noticeable with my l mousy blond hair, tall lean frame and pale skin; my garish purple windbreaker.
The bus driver and boy chat. I can’t tell if they are nervous, or if this is routine, but in any case he sends the boy to the back of the bus. This is what he does, the boy. When there is a stop, he will go up through the hatch door in the bus roof near the back of the bus. He catches suitcases, bags, backpacks, boxes or whatever else the passengers and bus driver toss up to him. He loads them onto the top of the bus, the modified school bus, with luggage racks welded onto the top of the roof. He tosses off the boxes, bags of the departing. He wrestles things around, lashes them down and then at some point he will pound on the roof and the driver will open the front door. In an Olympic worthy front flip, the boy will lower himself back into the bus where he rides standing in the stairwell or sitting on the steps, most always chatting with the driver. Now he disappears through the hole in the roof.
The bus stops and the leader of leader of the men in uniforms, with the berets and blue bandanas over their mouths and chins, the ones who stand at attention with their machine guns, steps forward. The bus driver opens the door and they chat. Our driver, he is a Mexican fellow, or so I surmise, given his size and mannerisms, is friendly and gregarious. Though I don’t know what they are saying, I know his demeanor is calm. The man steps up a few steps and pulls his bandana down. I can see he is handsome, his smile charming, his white teeth, straight, his eyes sparkle. He smiles at me and I can’t help but smile back as my cheeks flush red. He asks the driver something and the driver looks up into the rearview mirror at me. I don’t know what they are saying. I desperately wish I knew enough Spanish to follow this conversation. The man steps up the stairs, to the top of the steps, talks to me directly and I shrug my shoulders and smile. He throws his head back and laughs, deeply and turns to the bus driver and says something. They laugh and the driver points back to Jay. I am waiting for him to ask for my passport, but he doesn’t.
Instead he turns to the driver. They chat a few more minutes and then the driver hands the man the comics from the Sunday paper. He holds them up in his hands, turns and looks at me, smiles. I can see the colorful drawings. “Funnies” he says in English. “They make me laugh.” He turns and steps off the bus “Gracias” he says to the driver and waves. When I look back — they are gone, all of them; melted into the green. After we drive a bit, after we are well out of sight, the bus door opens, the boy flips in and they laugh, they look at me, they smile, they laugh. “Funnies” the drivers says and looks up into the rearview mirror at me and laughs.
Now I watch Jay check for injuries. A woman walks toward me, a baby cradled in her arms. I am afraid of babies, of infants. I don’t know what to with them. I am not around them, I am not familiar, I am not a mother yet. She hands me the baby. The mother looks into my eyes pleadingly — “help,” they say. I shrug my shoulders.
“No, No, No,” I say, wiggling my fingers at her.
“Si, si, si,” she says and pushes the baby into me, into my bosom so that I am forced to take the baby, cradle him my arms.
The woman steps away and looks at me expectantly. I hold the baby, awkwardly. I bend my head and lay my cheek against the baby’s tiny lips and check for breath. The baby is not breathing. I bend my head down to breathe into her mouth. I pretend to know what I’m doing when suddenly the baby gasps then screams and screams and screams. I try to hand her quickly back to her mother who shrieks with relief.
“Gracias!” she cries. “Gracias!” Her hands clasped together and lifted up, shaking at the sky. Before she takes the baby she says “gracias” again and touches my shoulder. She is crying.
Two Swiss boys come to me and ask if they can take pictures. I don’t know why they ask me but I say no. They ask how to help, as if I’m in charge. I shrug my shoulders then tell them to look around to see if anyone else is hurt. They diligently walk around the bus, look in the bushes, poke about, talk with the Germans and gesture with the Mexicans until we are sure there is no one else hurt. They help unload luggage and sort through things, bringing belongings out to the edge of the road. They are gregarious and smile and put everyone at ease. They find no more injuries, no blood. A man with a dislocated shoulder is the only real injury.
We help carry the man with the dislocated shoulder out to the side of the road. He is in pain, but no one is brave enough to mess with his shoulder. We make him as comfortable as possible, but still he screams at the slightest touch. The first pickup that stops is for the shoulder man. We help load him into the open back, the floor and sides padded with clothes and baggage and whatever else we can find to soften the ride. His friends climb in after, we toss in their packs and they disappear down the road, waving. The man has agreed to take them all the way into Cancun and to the hospital. The Mexicans shrug at the idea of waiting for another bus or of an ambulance coming, they wander off into the dusk, flag down cars and trucks as they happen by. It is all calm, measured, and patient and polite.
An ambulance arrives just as the sun is setting. Maybe the bus driver called — maybe he was running off to find a phone. We don’t know. Most everyone is gone. We gesture about the shoulder and say “camion” and point up the road. “Cancun,” I say. The driver nods and heads north toward Cancun, we think in search of the pickup truck. Then it is quiet and there is only us. Soon a car stops and takes us in, drives us all the way up the coast to Cancun. We gesture and talk badly Spanish all the way. He nods and nods and looks concerned and answers back in fast Spanish we really don’t understand. Except a few words and one he repeats as he drops us off in downtown Cancun. “Dichosos,” he says and smiles. “Dichosos.” And that I suppose we were — lucky.
Dawn Erickson lives in Washington State with her husband and young son. She had studied and traveled extensively throughout Europe as well as Central America and Africa. She also loves to explore her backyard in the Pacific Northwest. You can read more of her writing on her blog.Â
Mexico Bus: Narrow via Flickr
Guatemala Bus Souvenirs: Adalberto.H.Vega via Flickr
Tourists in Chichicastenango Market: Greg Willis via Flickr
Guatemala Bus Loading: 4Neus via Flickr
Guatemala Bus Driver: Surizar via Flickr
Guatemala Bus Ride: amanderson2 via Flickr