We were accelerating. I dug my fingers deeper into the armrest. I couldn't believe Lefty was sleeping through this.
"No hurry," I stammered, my strangled words washed away in the noise. Even if the driver could hear my protest, he wouldn't have understood. We were deep in Southern Mexico, almost in Central America; the English-speaking world was far behind us. Where we were going, in Chiapas, home of the Zapatistas, even Spanish was a minority language. In Chiapas they speak the old Indian tongues.
The driver jerked his wheel to the left. "Don't," I blurted, reflexively. Oblivious of me, he jammed down the pedal. He had decided to pass another damned Volkswagen Beetle.
The windshield was a framed horror show. Yellow light from the sodium-arc lamps cast an obscuring glare, hellishly illuminating the desert night. It was after three a.m., but the traffic was still heavy over the long, straight highway. Monstrous rigs, some pulling two or three trailers, ruled the road, but like defiant cockroaches, classic VW Bugs would inevitably appear. With their small, aging motors, the Bugs became obstacles to be slalomed through. On a two-lane highway, passing in heavy traffic is hazardous at best. At three in the morning, with eighteen-wheelers in the oncoming lanes and adrenaline coursing through our bus-driving macho, it was suicidal.
"No," I grabbed the headrest of the seat in front of me. We were on the wrong side of the double yellow line, inching past the defiant Beetle. The tiny car was hopelessly outclassed but had no plans for forfeit. Then we heard the horn.
A heavy tractor-trailer was bearing down on us, head-on. Its headlights smoldered furiously. It was putting on speed. As he had a dozen times tonight, our driver permitted himself a half-smile and gripped the wheel tighter. With his accelerator already at the floor he made a silent calculation: the distance between the oncoming truck and our radiator grille, divided by the time it would take us to pass the Beetle, multiplied by the relative value of human life. This time, his calculation was off.
It wasn't going to work, I realized. It was hard to believe our lives would end here on this stretch of desert road, but it was far harder to believe we had room left to pass the Volkswagen before the eighteen-wheeler crushed us like a beer can. More implausible still was the hope that our driver would back down and return to his lane in defeat.
I watched with rapt attention as the headlights ahead grew stronger, until their brilliance overwhelmed all other sight. I wondered if I could keep watching until the end, of if I would cover my eyes at the moment of impact. I thought of waking Lefty as the horns sounded in rising pitch. I closed my eyes.
An explosive shudder rocked through the bus, exploding my heart and lungs. I opened my eyes and saw pitch darkness in the windshield, and calm defeat in the posture of our driver. We were on the shoulder of the road, screaming at full speed over the desert rocks and gravel. A moment later he jerked us back onto the highway. He had taken us off the road rather than return to his own lane in defeat. All around me on the bus, I heard snores.
Morning came. I was grappling with sleep-deprivation and low-grade shell shock as we began to pass through military roadblocks into the state of Chiapas. We were in the mountains now, with jungle all around us. The stares of the soldiers burned through us as we passed. Their vigilance was not unjustified. Just weeks before, Zapatista rebels had entrenched themselves in the city of San Cristobal our destination and held the city by armed force. The same soldiers who now waved us through the checkpoints had been in combat only days before, fighting the guerrillas street-to-street and driving them back into the jungle. Now they were looking for stragglers, abettors and spies. Any Mexican on the bus could have been a Zapatista. We gringos were suspects too, since the rebellion relied on support from liberal sympathizers north of the border. We could have been fellow travelers or worse after all, San Cristobal was not currently on any of the tourist maps. To our relief, we passed each barricade on the way without being boarded. Getting out of Chiapas would be harder; the soldiers were most interested in preventing escape.
We arrived at dawn, kissed the good soil in gratitude for our lives, and ventured into the city. It was only on reaching our hotel that I discovered my terrible mistake: I had left my passport on the bus.
The next few days still terrify the imagination; seeking to assist Lefty in our spying, I instead impeded him and endangered our cover. I shook constantly, my stomach was spastic, and my shirts by day's end would be drenched with cold sweat. It was shattering to know I was in a war zone with no international identification.
Mexican National guardsmen peered from their trucks, fingering their M-16's. The tiny Indian women, who implored us to buy a hand-made Subcomandante Marcos doll for una peso, shot us the evil eye as we passed by. The children in the streets jeered us.
"We stick out," said Lefty. "We're obvious. These outfits were a mistake."
I nodded, blushing at my reflection on the storefront glass. The pancho and straw sombrero I wore just didn't mesh with my red hair and freckled white skin.
"The border guards won't buy us for natives," I winced. "They're going to check our passports as we leave San Cristobal."
"Can we get a counterfeit?" Lefty asked.
"Fat chance. Your Spanish is piss-poor, and we're broke. Besides, this backwater isn't on any of our networks."
"We're going to have to play it as it comes," he said. "We split at dawn."
That evening before sundown we climbed to the highest point in the city. It was a kind of Catholic, third-world acropolis with only a simple chapel at the top of its long white staircase. Like most Latin-American churches, it was lit by candles, adorned far beyond the means of its parishioners. The saints inside were tattered and fading.
We went back outside and looked down across the town. Some twenty days before we would have heard the chatter of automatic rifles, the rumble of mortar, the hollow blast of grenades. Instead, we heard the silence of aftermath, the quiescence of a poor city slouching toward night. Just below the guardrail, perhaps twenty feet down, was a mud-floored lot, some twelve feet at its longest side. It was the backyard of a tin-roofed shack not bigger than a tool shed, which was jammed on either side between identical shacks of equal size, each with its own little plot in the rear. These shacks joined countless others in a labyrinth of flat roofs sprawling over the hillside. In the mud below us stood a pig, noisily eating his supper.
The next morning, as we boarded the bus in the waxing light, my heart thrilled with the disbelief of a gambler's at what I saw. There, grinning down at us from his padded throne, was our macho amigo. Miraculously, we were back on the same bus that had brought us here. For the first time in days, I entertained the hope of leaving Chiapas a free man.
"You have my passport?" I stupidly grinned.
"Ha ha ha," he nodded, pointing me out to his co-pilot. Then he told a joke in Spanish and motioned me to my seat.
"I think he has it," I whispered to Lefty as we took our seats. "I think we're going to get out of here after all."
"Hmm." Lefty cocked an eyebrow.
We were winding through the mountains again before my radar began to blink. Why had he not returned my passport as I boarded? Did he have it or didn't he? Did the good man intend to cause an international incident, for God's sake?
"Excuse me," I tapped his shoulder. "Could I have my passport now, before we get to the checkpoints?" The passport was right there on the dash, just out of reach.
"Ha ha ha!" He nodded again with still greater humor. He then confounded my reason with another string of impenetrable Spanish that could have been Chinese for all I understood. He produced the passport and pointed to me, unable to contain his delight at the general hilarity. His partner convulsed with riotous glee.
"You want money." I guessed.
"Ha ha ha!" It was not all he said, but it was all I could make out. He seemed to be employing some form of slang that I had never heard; I didn't even recognize the vocabulary. It was clear he wanted to be paid, but how much?
"What do you want?" I sneered, opening my wallet. "What do you need? Twenty pesos? Thirty?"
Lefty shook his head behind me, observing the hopelessness of this negotiation.
"Fuck you, then," I cursed the merry soul. "Keep the damn thing."
I was turning my back to return to my seat without my passport. I was refusing to pay this man's bribe. Something was the matter with me.
"Guy's so crooked he screws his pants on in the morning." I told Lefty, taking my seat.
"Just stay sharp," Lefty snapped, "We're stopping."
A group of soldiers pulled us over at the entrance to a small bridge. The roadblock was impressive, with barbed wire and towering bonfires. I looked up into the trees. There were no birds this morning in the rainforest.
A soldier came aboard. His assault rifle was lowered, but its muzzle was gritting coldly. No photograph or illustration can capture the hollowness of a rifle barrel.
"Vamanos," he barked, gesturing with his arm. We all followed him out into the late-morning heat. My hands were in my pockets, groping for what was not there. One by one the Mexicans and tourists were interrogated and their papers checked before they could re-board. I knew this feeling well; the homework left undone, the other students reading theirs aloud.
None of the soldiers wore a cover or a uniform; they were in full combat fatigues, including their helmets and flak vests. They were ready for a brawl.
"Tu," a grunt pointed at me. "Ven aqui." he ordered.
"No passport," I shrugged, and waited. I had strayed irretrievably beyond the pale of acceptable Jinx Protocol.
"I.D," he said.
I pulled out my wallet. My soaking fingers strummed through the old and worthless clutter until I found something that approximately fulfilled his demand. It was an expired Los Angeles Non-Driver I.D., so worn with age that my picture was scarcely recognizable. It would have to do.
As the soldier called over his squad, I turned my head away in disgust. My eyes fell first on Lefty, who was shaking his head, then to the palms that swayed in the shimmering heat. Finally I turned and faced the bus driver at his wheel. It was a confrontation of sorts, a Mexican standoff in the most corrupt and violent outpost on the continent. He wouldn't look back at me. He just hung his head and stared at the dashboard gauges, breathing.
The soldier handed me back my I.D. and said okay, waving me back onto the bus. We pulled out of the roadblock, but I did not return to my seat. I stood and stared at the driver until he handed me my passport.