Another Bus Another Border


We all get on the bus before the sun gets on the earth. It's four fifteen A.M. in the dusty Guatemalan city of Santa Elena in El Petén, best known as being the service city to the Tikal tourist trade. The bus station is open all night but the ticket counters are all closed, so most of us are milling around back behind the station waiting for the bus to show. It does, another big, busted out old school bus painted in bright colors. They start calling out its destinations as it coughs and sputters, backing up to the curb. "La Técnica!" is last but not least, it's the one I'm waiting for along with most people on the curb, I think. The back door is thrown open, the same door I used to practice emergency exits from in elementary school. I grab hold of the bars on either side and pull myself up, my bags bumping against the sides.

Buses, Huehuetenago, Guatemala

It's dark inside and there are only a couple other people aboard when I get on. The bus has filled up a bit more by the time we pull away at five, but most people are still sitting one to a seat, an incredible luxury around here. Most of us have hoods pulled around our heads, our heads that hang from our necks as we try to sleep and our heads bounce with every bump in the bad road. Me, I'm just trying to get up to Yucatán the cheapest way possible (avoiding border taxes in Belize), to drop my things and start planning the next leg of the trip. The rest of the people on the bus, except maybe for one very lost looking female tourist, are on very different journeys. Even though it's obvious, I haven't slept solidly in days and I don't fully realize what most of the men are doing here until around three hours later.

Bus, Guatemala

We leave the pavement somewhere shortly after dawn, while the mist is still hanging low on the deforested land like the lost souls of harvested trees, their bodies now smoke and furniture. I'm not one to let the world pass by the smudged bus windows without learning where I am, but this morning I'm content to wait out our half hour stop at a small town on the way without even asking its name. Most of the people in the bus, especially the two thick groups of men sitting up front, have gotten off the bus and disappeared into the comedores on the edges of the mercado. This is probably the last chance to eat a solid meal today. It's definitely the last chance on Guatemalan soil.

I get a good look at them for the first time when the board the bus again. They don't look like Guatemalans, but I can't be sure. They're certainly dressed a bit diferently, in hoodies and collared shirts. I'm sitting near the front of the bus, as far away from the wheel wells as possible, and I notice their fresh haircuts.

Bus, Guatemala

Before we pull onto the dirt road, a plainly dressed man has filled the seat next to me. We're off, leaving the fighting dogs and steaming atol behind in the blinding dawn. Again, one by one our heads begin to bob in half-sleep, and the bus continually stops and starts, picking up and dropping off more people. Even when it is moving, it's never moving fast. There's a young kid working the door of the bus, he's the one that's yelling "¡jále!" over and over, letting the driver know when the person and their luggage is off or on the bus. Several women enter, loaded with radishes and other greens that were probably all picked that morning. We continue on.

I figure we're about an hour away from the Río Usumacinta, which forms the Guatemalan / Mexican border here when the bus stops and doesn't start again right away. Government men are entering the bus quickly, some dressed in simple polo shirts, other in full law enforcement gear. The shirts read "MIGRACION." They ask me for my papers, which I luckily have, and have close. I hardly think they gave them a glance at all. One official is waiting on the other tourist as she fumbles through her bag, while the rest deboard several men from the front of the bus.

Bus, Guatemala

The man next to me is chuckling. We exchange looks and I tell him that I've never seen a Guatemalan bus boarded by officials once during my three week stay. He obviously has ridden this route more times than me. "No es nada," he tells me, "solamente quieren algo de los mojados." Of course the men riding on the bus were not from Guatemala. They were from el Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, still on an early part of a very long journey that wouldn't even end and the far opassite end of México, but of course in the United States. The migration officials see their type everyday and were just manipulating them for a "small bite" of the money the workers had brought with them for the trip. This isn't the first time it has happened on the trip, and certainly it will happen countless times more in the two foriegn countries yet to come.

They're back on the bus, their pockets a bit lighter. "¡Jále!" We're rolling. I watch the officials move back under the shade of a small tree, under which their cars and a moto are parked. On the other side of the road, we pass yet more former jungle that is now pasture land for the endless clustures of huge steer.

Bus, Guatemala

I lose track of the migrants somewhere near the border, when everyone starts thinking only about their own trip. No one on the bus had thought to let me know when we passed the Guatemalan border station, so I missed my chance for leaving the country legally with an exit stamp. Oh well, I should have been more awake. I should have asked. I cross into México the way everyone does from here: for 10 pesos in a long and skinny motorboat lancha that speeds across the muddy and wide Usumacinta.

In México the woman working the border station is content with just laughing at me, after I tell her a story about how there "wasn't anybody at the office when we passed and the bus wouldn't wait." She doesn't make me return to Guatemala. Somebody bless her.

These "mojados," as everyone calls them here, travel in small, tight groups. There's another group with me in the collectivo van from the border up to the Mexican city of Palenque, Chiapas. We all eventually head our separate ways and I have no idea where they sleep, even if they do sleep, out there somewhere tonight.