The bus trip was long. I had watched out of the window as leafy green scenery gave way to dry soils and rolling hills of parched brown grass and, eventually, to desert. For forty-eight hours we had both been dying to get here, but now that the moment had come, I wished that we could continue observing our surroundings from behind the secure vantage-point of the coach window.
For the last two days we had been as if in a time-capsule. The outside world now seemed frightening and I found El Paso, with its dusty streets and foreign people, intimidating.
There was a knot in my stomach as we descended from the bus and went over to collect our backpacks from the hold. I had the distinct feeling that we were being watched and turned to see a group of dark-skinned men sipping beers in the café opposite the bus station, nudging each other and gesturing in our direction. One of them made a kissy face at me. It was difficult to pinpoint which of his features was the least attractive; the gut that spilled out over his shabby brown pants, or the fact that his fly was unbuttoned.
I stared the other way and wrestled with my pack to secure the straps over my shoulders. After so long of being cooped up in a small seat, my limbs felt weak and I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry it far in the desert heat.
So this was El Paso. Not exactly the homey Texan city that I was expecting. The kind that I had seen on adverts for fajita kits. America seemed to have given way to Mexico even though we were still north of the border. Without warning, everyone around had turned into Mexicans, including those travelling with us on the Greyhound.
As we made our way towards the centre to find a hotel room, the heat began to penetrate. Anton furrowed his brow, pointing at the guidebook, “According to this, there’s a hotel on East Stanton Street that’s really close to the bridge. I think we should go there. It doesn’t look much further.” He took off his cap and rubbed his head; his dark blond hair already scorched by the sun, had turned several shades lighter. Although he was tall, his frame was slight and his arms slender and I wondered if he had more difficulty carrying that weight than he let on. I smiled and dragged my feet along behind him, the reality dawning on me that this would be the first of many such treks.
I caught sight of myself in a shop window. I looked rough. My uninspiring shade of hair colour, which can sometimes look almost blonde, in the right light, was mousy and stuck to my head in places. My backpack was nearly as big as me and caused me to sweat under the arms on to my sleeves. I really needed a shower. The cooped up conditions on the bus had certainly done me no favours.
Shop workers and people strolling by mostly ignored us, although I probably eyed them with suspicion. Two days on a Greyhound bus was more than long enough to encounter some of America’s finest. Like the curious girl in front of us, travelling from Seattle to North Carolina (about a five day journey) with her pet fish in a small Tupperware container. Or the alcoholic with the pungent smelling feet that nearly had herself ejected from the bus for steeling beer from a Chevron station, outside of Sacramento.
There were two would-be gangsters on the final leg of the journey, calling everything and everyone a “motherfucker”, and the argument that took place between a fiery Latina and an even fierier black woman was particularly entertaining. The whole bus party was unable to continue its journey because the insistent black lady had decided that she wanted the Latina lady’s seat. Sheer size gave her the upper hand and, eventually, she won, actually needing two seats to accommodate her large form.
For want of anything better to do (reading made me feel queasy) I had spent most of the duration of the journey trying to decide whether there was no truer representation of American life than this, or whether the Greyhound simply attracted all the oddballs and screwballs within the States. Perhaps the rest of America was comparatively normal and it was here on the buses that Jerry Springer found his contestants. It had certainly been an eye-opener and had made us both more aware of our belongings, and of our sanity.
El Paso is a well-laid out city, like the kind you could expect to find anywhere in North America, but there is an impoverished feel to it. Dollar clothing stores and fast food outlets line the sidewalks, and grand, modern buildings overshadow the falling down mini markets and laundries.
Loud voices speaking Spanish filled my ears as we walked passed a thrift store. Two women were involved in a heated discussion, about what I could not tell, but their husbands stood in the background exchanging amused glances.
After several wrong turnings, we reached the ‘Gateway’ hotel. Colourful beaded curtains were hanging at the entrance door and, apart from a modest sign, there was little to distinguish the place as a hotel. We walked into a room, where three men were seated – two at a sofa and one at a table – smoking cigars. They stared at us penetratingly and without warmth. Our eyes turned to the man behind the reception desk who greeted us in English, asking which type of room we were after and for how long. All I could concentrate on was the fly that had landed on his eyebrow. He made no attempt to remove it and I had an overwhelming urge to slap it off with my hand.
As we walked up the stairs with the key we heard laughter and I could feel their eyes boring into my back. I had not used my self-taught Spanish yet and Anton had no knowledge of the language, armed with only a small phrase book; we knew the next few months were going to be interesting. Although I had not quite prepared for it to be like this on “the safe side” of the border.
It was still early, something like 8.30, but I felt as if we had been up for days already and, as soon as we put down our bags, I jumped onto one of the beds. I lay down and stretched, feeling every fibre of my body lengthen. I surveyed the room. The carpet was a faded threadbare red and the fan above oscillated slowly and squeakily, its attachment to the ceiling a little precarious.
I lit a cigarette and watched as the smoke was caught by the wind from the fan and made little serpent motions. Anton was experimenting with our water purifier at the wash basin. The water came out warm and brown. I got up and went over to the window, pulling back the barely-there net curtains and looking down on to the street below. A fine layer of desert dust hung in the air. It was more visible on the other side of the street where the sidewalk was drenched in the morning sun. The streets were busy with people going to work. A bus heaved passed under the window and two children cycled by.
I let the curtain fall and withdrew into the room, suddenly overcome with tiredness. “Voila!” Anton produced a blue plastic cup filled with water. I looked at it with moderate suspicion.
“Do you think it’s safe? I know the guy in the store said that you could filter puddle water with it, but… it’s warm.”
“I dunno, but I’m thirsty and if we get really sick we can always sue.” He took a sip and passed it to me. It had a slightly clinical taste, which must have been the iodine. I lay on the bed looking up at the ceiling, concentrating my energy on the rotations of the fan. I heard Anton saying he was going out to buy some water. My head hit the pillow before he returned.
Strange dreams invaded my sleep. Images from the bus journey – I was still on the bus but we weren’t going anywhere until everybody ate five hamburgers. Then the lady bus driver turned into Anton and he was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He seemed to be speaking another language. I woke up. It felt as if I had slept through the night and awoken to a new day, but the clock said that it was quarter after three. Anton was not in the room. There was a note on the table:
“Gone for a look around – back soon, A.”
I shrugged off the wave of sleep I still felt and took a sip of the warm water beside me. I could hear the Mexican men downstairs in the lobby and I wondered if they had been there all day. I took off the clothes that I had been wearing since we left Vancouver and jumped in the shower, which seemed to saturate everything in the bathroom apart from myself, on whom it dripped and spluttered. I washed the two-day grime out of my hair.
How I remembered watching the Wrigley’s chewing gum commercials when I was younger – the ones that took place on the Greyhound. Then they had seemed so exciting and romantic, as a killer blonde in cut-off denim shorts and a tight T-shirt shook her full head of hair smiling sexily at an impossibly ripped and handsome stud. A wry smile came to my face as images of our travel companions sprang to mind: a psychiatrist’s dream (or nightmare, depending on your point of view).
There was a knock at the door – it was Anton with a coffee for me. I received it gratefully. “There’s free Internet access in the library. I just sent an email to Paul to let him know we’re ok.”
Paul was a mutual friend back in Canada, cynical, doubting and thoroughly expecting us to fail. “You don’t speak Spanish, you don’t have enough money; you don’t even know which direction to head in”. Paul had racked up a list of reasons why what we were doing was utter folly. “I know we’re heading south,” I protested, and Paul just laughed in that patronising way of his that always made me feel totally ridiculous. Underneath it all I knew it was because he was worried. He even forwarded me (and I swear this is true) a web link entitled “comebackalive.com”.
I could not help but wonder where all of Anton’s energy had come from, as I gladly sipped the coffee, rubbing my eyes. “So what’s it like out there?” I enquired. “It’s weird. The library was cool and there’s a square where I sat down and had a drink. But I went into a store to buy some smokes and the woman serving didn’t speak English at all.”
“I know, it’s like we’re there already, isn’t it? I suppose it’s a good way of easing us into crossing the border. I think I’ll go and have a look around too. Are you hungry at all? Maybe I’ll try and grab us something to eat.”
As I left the coolness of the hotel room, the heat outside hit me like a slap in the face and the desert air blew into my nostrils. The town square, as Anton had said, was where people sat and congregated. I was handed a pamphlet about Jesus as I walked passed.
I suddenly felt really hungry and decided to look for a supermarket. I made it my goal to find a grocery store, or at least somewhere to buy the ingredients to make a sandwich with. As I walked leisurely up and down the streets, taking in the sights and smells of the city, I was whistled and catcalled at, stared down and even questioned where I was going. It is amazing the difference it makes walking down the street alone, or walking down the street with Anton. I knew there would be a lot worse to come though; Mexican men had somewhat of a reputation to uphold.
After about an hour of wandering in the heat I decided to give up – there was no supermarket in El Paso. I bought a packet of chips, two apples and some rather hideous-looking iced cakes from a lady in a mini market, who managed to serve me without looking at me even once. She did not look at the cash register either, but managed to carry on her animated conversation with the man slouched over the counter, who looked a lot like the one who had blown me a kiss earlier.
Feeling sleepy and in need of shade, I made my way back to the hotel. The roads were strangely quiet. The sun had crossed to the other side of the street. My stomach twitched with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The eerie whistling of a western movie theme tune rang through my head and I felt that at any moment the sheriff would come around the corner with his gun in his holster.
The sun set rapidly at around 7. We discovered a fire escape on our floor and heaved opened the door. From there we watched as the sun sank down, leaving a streaks of reds and purples behind it. We sat at the top of the rickety staircase staring across the border, just a few blocks away. The slums of Ciudad Juarez were twinkling on the hills.
The dark shades of evening disguised the uneven sidewalks and shabby shop faces. Crumbling facades of buildings and dusty streets were air-brushed out of the picture. From this distance and in the flattering light, the sparkle of lights from the hills looked pretty; almost Christmas tree-like. The harsh, stark daylight was gone. Tomorrow we would be over there.
Back in the hotel room Anton fiddled with the television, which was one of the most antiquated I had ever seen, with a dial knob where the channels had to be tuned in. In shades of green and red we watched the only channel available – the news in Mexico. In Guadalajara, there were flash floods and we saw pictures of people splashing each other in the streets, with water up to their knees; in Oaxaca there was a student uprising (about what we failed to decipher) and in Mexico City there was a piece about a shooting.
We turned it off and took out a deck of cards from my pack. We were both strangely subdued. “You know what?” asked Anton, “that’s a real country, with real people and real problems. It’s not like Canada the wonderland anymore. It’s for real.”
“What are we doing?” I asked half laughing, half serious, with a sudden desire to be back in Paul’s apartment, digging him in the ribs about being so worried. I had a lump in my throat. We had our dinner of chips and iced gooey things, and washed it down with some iodineised water. At least I would lose some weight on this trip.