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To Puerto Madero
a tale of sweaty circumstance and survival
After what seemed like an eternity of fume-filled travel, the rickety bus I was riding in died.
We were headed south from Mexico City towards the Guatemalan border through a mountainous tropical jungle when the entire enterprise came to its final, soul-shuddering stop. With the dashboard shrine-protected bus out-of-commission and help who knows how many hours away, my fellow travelersâa dozen dusty farmers surrounded by several crates of chickens, a couple dozen baskets filled with grain, and a smelly goatâseemed to swell in proportion to the heat and humidity. Any kind of ârescueâ, I was told, was hours away.
Truth be told, I was in no mood to be amusedâor even interested in the plight of others.
I probably shouldnât have been on that bus at all.
Until the very moment I stepped on-board, some locals Iâd met along the way tried to convince me this particular âmilk-runâ trip wasnât a good idea. There were banditos in the mountains and the black-market for young American women wasnât rumor but reality, they warned. Besides, they argued, there were more direct routes (and more reliable buses) that would get me there in less time and in more comfort The fact I wanted to see the ârealâ jungle was no excuse to take such a risk. âNo matter what happens, donât leave the bus until you get to the coast,â they yelled as I waved goodbye.
It was half high-adventure, half high-stupidity to travel that route alone, but I choose to dismiss their warnings as overly dramatic. Even when the bus stalled, all that registered as being of any danger was the blood-sucking bugs. With no competition from any other source of light, the middle-of-the-night moon was bright in the sky. Discomfort aside, I had to admit it was quite dramaticâand a good travel story to tell down the line.
Earlier in the day, I passed time talking to the only person on the bus whoâd even looked my way: a music student from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico City who spoke better English than I did Spanish. He had thick, black hair that fell to the middle of his back, something you didnât see much on local boys. He was headed home to visit his family, and assured me breakdowns on this route were nothing new. âYou can come with me or you can stay here by yourself,â he said, as he stepped off the bus and headedâalong with everyone elseâup a narrow path that cut through the tropical growth. A few minutes later, we came to a clearing that was bare with the exception of a small wooden shed at the far perimeter.
I wasnât carrying much, just a small daypack and bedroll. âYou sleep against the shed,â the student said. He rolled his blanket out beside mine and we settled in. Sick and feverish, the roaring in my ears intensified with the sounds of the night. Without a doubt, my physical stateâand humongous spidersâwas the stuff of my immediate fears, not my companion.
I had no idea how much time passed before I felt his body pressing down on mine, felt the heavy mass of his hair as it covered my face, felt the sweat from his body seep through his clothes and into what felt like every fiber of my being. Every part of me wanted to throw him offâfight back! âbut I willed myself not to move. Surrounded as I was by strangers who had no reason to come to my aid, to be raped or killed seemed the obvious outcomes. I asked only that my fever and fear render me unconscious and keep me there until dawnâor until whatever was going to happen, happened.
As the sun rose, the cacophony of night receded. I sat up and looked around. It was not a peaceful scene. Scattered about were the remains of the straw basketsâmany slashed, some overturned, all empty. Some of the chickens pecking at the dirt in search of a meal; others were gone, their blood and feathers scattered up the path. Who knows what happened to the goat. Most of the farmers had moved their blankets out of the clearing and into the tropical shade. Beside me, the student lay on his blanket, his open eyes on mine.
Only then did I look down at my own body. My clothes were the same as the night before. I had not been raped. I was alive, and I was still on my blanket on that small piece of dirt in front of the rough wooden shed in some unknownâbut very beautifulâspot in a jungle.
âI was worried they would find you and take you and kill me for hiding you,â the student said quietly. âI was very scared.â You see, the banditos had come; banditos with machetes looking to replenish their supplies and whatever else they could find. I came to understand this ritual looting didnât happen every trip, but just often enough to guarantee safe bus passage for locals most of the time.
Slowly, I also came to realize this young man saved my life at great risk to his own. He did so with his body, with his heavy veil of hair, with his act of spontaneous on-the-road bravery. He didnât have to do it. He just did. It was as simple as that.
Another bus arrived a few hours later and we went on our way.