I missed the bus to Tapachula by 15 minutes. There wouldn’t be another until the following morning, the robotic woman at the ticket counter told me. I was trying to cross before dark, remembering the frightening scene at the border on my way in. I didn’t have enough money to stay the night in Guatemala City. I asked her if there was a second class bus station nearby that might have other options. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she said, “Por allá, dos cuadras” and looked down pretending to work on something. In Latin America, when asking for directions, your destination is always “two blocks” away. It matters not if they have no idea where it is you want to go, or if it is actually ten blocks away— it is always “dos cuadras” away.
I walked those two blocks to find myself at an intersection exactly the same as the previous two. I kept walking but every two blocks was more of the same. I was stuck on a treadmill, getting nervous as the sun moved higher into the smog-filled sky, beating down on my back. The heat of the day was rising along with my frustrations. The dust from the streets caked onto my teeth, accumulated in my tear ducts. I stopped a man and asked again if the bus station was near. “Ahí,” he said, pointing to his right. I turned and headed “over there” and came upon a bus stop of sorts, similar to the one that had taken me to Antigua a few days before, but louder, busier, dirtier. The parking lot was packed with humans, buses and cargo. The old school buses, parked every which way, rusty and spattered in sand and mud over layers of bright blue, red, green and yellow paint. Destinations were being shouted all around me. Women with armloads of babies, toddlers and groceries; men with armfuls of shovels and crates of chickens; all pushed passed each other, cramming into the buses. A symphony of conductors yelling and waving people to and fro stood in front of their camiones. I asked the man with yellowed armpits and filthy pants standing next to me which bus would be going to the border. He gave me the once over and pointed, telling me it would leave in an hour.
I sat in a comedor across the street, a closet of a shop, waiting. I fished out a couple quetzales and bought water and pan dulce and tried to enjoy my feast at the plastic table covered in the crumbs of the previous patrons. I watched the buses, keeping an eye for when people started to board. I watched a family of women cook for different groups of fat, sweaty men who yelled at each other while they ate and threw money on the table when they were finished. It could have been an hour later, it could have been two, but I was finally on the bus. My confirmation that we were indeed headed for the border, when I asked, was only a slight nod from the driver. I took my seat, squished against the window by the other bench occupant: a woman in traditional dress holding a dead chicken. She smelled like she was menstruating. The air, a mix of live (and dead) animals and bodies, of sweat, earth, blood, life and death, was palpable. Once we hit the road, the driver popped in his favorite cassette of consisting of a solitary song on loop: “Jesús Cristo, Te Amo,” whose only lyrics consisted of a creative mix of those words: “Jesús Jesús Jesús, Te Amo Jesús, Jesús Te Amo, Dios es Amor, Amor es Dios, Amor Amor Amor, Dios Eres Todo, Dios Te Amo.” Otherwise, it was an uneventful albeit scenic ride through a verdant countryside filled with varieties of plants and foliage, coffee fincas, palm trees, more goats, cats and yaks, children bathing in puddles, abandoned Pepsi plants, a Pepsi billboard that formed one wall of a make-shift house…
And then it was dark.
The bus had nearly emptied. What was supposed to be a five-hour ride must have been closer to eight. And then the bus stopped. It was pitch-black save for one street lamp illuminating a turnoff on the side of the highway where three taxis were parked.
“Oye,” the driver grunted.
I looked around.
“¡Oye!” he yelled.
I looked at him, pointed to myself. “¿Yo?” I asked.
He nodded and opened the door.
I gathered my things and headed to the front. “¿Pero no estamos en El Carmen?” I squeaked, confused.
He pointed to the door and mumbled, “We don’t go to the border after dark. One of those taxis will take you the rest of the way.”
Alone, on the side of the highway, in the middle of nowhere, a starless black night, and three taxis to choose from to take me an undetermined distance into the jungle. I looked at my choices. The first man offered to take me as he undid his pants, moved his dick to the other side, tucked his button-down shirt back in and zipped up. The second, probably having done too much blow, looked manic. I picked the third man who seemed drunk, reasoning that he would have slower reflexes. He told me to sit up front. I got in and we took off. As we drove along, he was swerving. It started raining and he didn’t slow down. I didn’t talk, just chain-smoked. I figured my only defense was to burn him with the cherry of my cigarette and the hot metal of my lighter that I kept flipping on with my right hand hidden beside the seat so he couldn’t see.
We approached a dark curve. He slowed down at the blackest part.
He asked if I was scared to be traveling alone as he pulled to the side of the road and stopped. My heart jumped and plugged my ears.
I thought I was going to blackout. I could barely hear. I was underwater.
My hands didn’t work. I didn’t know where the cigarette or lighter went. They didn’t exist in my paralyzed body.
“Sí, sí tengo miedo,” I managed to choke out.
“Por favor, Por favor no hagas esto. Please, please don’t do this,” the words miraculously escaped my mouth. He laughed again, looked at me for what felt like hours, then turned and pulled the car back onto the road, still laughing.
I was vibrating. Shaking. We arrived at the immigration office. I fumbled, trembling as I handed over the fare and got out. My legs, still quivering. The place he had brought me to was just as terrifying. A prison let loose. It was full of men shouting obscenities at me. Lurching. It reeked of old and new urine. A nightmare. I wanted nothing but to wake up. I walked up to the sole lit window of the dilapidated office to find a frail old man with coke-bottle glasses. He looked at me, shook his head, disapprovingly, and told me it wasn’t safe for a young girl to be there at night. I assured him I was well aware of the danger. As he was stamping my passport, a woman, jittery and jumpy, haphazardly dressed and half-unbuttoned— crack, I guessed— came up to the window beside me. The old man greeted Helen, and started to say he didn’t have any money, but paused, looking back and forth between us. He suggested that I pay her to escort me across the bridge to the Mexican side of the border. Helen assured me that I would not have been the first to take advantage of her services. I looked at her then behind me to the hundreds of men circling like wolves. I turned back to Helen and smiled. She linked her arm in mine and we headed for the bridge. As we walked, men swarmed us, screaming, calling me disgusting things, screaming that they were going to fuck me. She shouted back, called them out by name, told them to fuck off and leave me alone. They listened to her, kept at distance but continued to shout profanities and make physical threats.
Once on the other side, Helen got a taxi for me while I was getting my passport stamped. I gave her a dollar or two worth of quetzales, thanked her and headed to Tapachula to catch a bus back to Oaxaca. I assumed Helen had special privileges as she was able to cross into both Mexico and Guatemala freely. She, an unexpected link in the chain of diplomacy, finding her place on the limbo bridge between countries. Helen, my ángel de la guarda.
Marisa Cadena has contributed beverage recipes to New York Magazine, Health Magazine, a book on Puerto Rican cuisine and an anthology on Bloody Marys. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from NYU. Cadena is currently working on her memoir and a narrative short film.