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The passengers have to wait for the driver to stop flirting with the female ticket agent so he can start loading the Tuesday morning bus to El Paso. Mothers keep one eye on their children dressed in their Sunday best while rearranging the luggage around their feet--old Samsonites fortified with duct tape, plastic garbage bags tied with a knot at the top and Mervyn's shopping bags.
For a bus station, the Los Turismos Rapidos terminal in downtown Denver is eerily quiet. Six blocks east of Coors Field, the terminal is like another world, one in which English is not spoken and most dreams are south of the border. More than 1,700 people ride round-trip each week between Denver and El Paso. They're not the travelers you see on TV advertisements. They left home without it.
Tuesday, 10 a.m.: The bus rides like a large yacht out in calm waters. A yacht with air fresheners--fourteen tree-shaped strips hanging like good-luck charms over the front door and the bathroom in back, making the air conditioning smell chemically clean. There are almost as many air fresheners as there are passengers on this run.
The sleek buses are silver and maroon on the outside with an interior that brings to mind an airplane cabin. The driver (one of two on board) asks people to take off their shoes if they want to put their feet on the seats.
Pitching and swaying down Interstate 25 at eighty miles per hour, the bus rocks passengers into a semi-sleep. But they can't get completely comfortable. On this morning every passenger has two seats to himself, but only the smallest children can stretch out and fall asleep. As if they want to sleep: The kids want to eat lunch fifteen minutes after the bus gets on the interstate.
Eduviges, who works in a furniture store in Denver, is taking the twelve-hour ride down to Ciudad Juarez, the giant Mexican city across the border from El Paso, to see her boyfriend. A little over thirty years old, she wears a checkered skirt and jacket and pumps--better dressed than the average passenger. She says she takes "El T.R." to El Paso twice a month because when she used to drive she would get caught up thinking about her novio and almost crash. Besides, she likes the on-board movies.
Los Turismos Rapidos is the newest of three bus lines that focus on the Denver-El Paso route. For $35 (compared with Greyhound's fare of $95), it'll deliver you to Mexico's doorstep. And of the three bus lines, Los Turismos Rapidos screens the most movies en route: eight on a round trip, twice as many as its competitors. Movies are shown on six thirteen-inch monitors mounted above the seats. Picking the movies is the job of the driver on break, in this case a heavyset man with a beard that hides most of his face. His first choice is a Fifties picture about a lovable but inept priest who wins the hearts of a small village with his antics. Every morning the priest wakes up with chickens in his second-story room. Only at the end of the movie does the priest, Padre Santiago, discover how they're getting up into his quarters: His landlady is throwing them through his window to try to drive him out. Eduviges says that although throwing chickens at a priest is sacrilegious, she likes the movie.
Four hours into the trip, the drivers switch duties. The slimmer, mustachioed driver has different tastes in movies. He puts on an American film called Hell in a Battlefield--a straight-to-video production dubbed in Spanish about a battle that takes place in a war zone that looks like Malibu.
Right after Hell in a Battlefield is a Jeff Speakman martial-arts film called Street Knight. One of the opening shots is of Speakman's bare ass. Two little girls in matching dresses giggle. Eduviges grumbles because this movie is in English, with no subtitles.
When the drivers trade places once again in Albuquerque, the bearded one picks out Una Para en el Sol, a Sixties musical comedy featuring a Burt Reynolds look-alike who is trying to seduce a young woman on his ranch.
3:15 p.m.: There is no smoking allowed on the bus. When it pulls off I-25 in Aguilar, near the New Mexico border, to refuel, all the smokers scurry out and light up in a sliver of shade by the side of the gas station. The bus is parked alongside an Army convoy. The smokers eye the G.I.s in helmets and fatigues warily. Seeing the soldiers prompts a discourse on politics from passenger Emilio.
Fifty-seven years old and wearing a new Checker Auto Parts cap, Emilio came to Denver to pick up his daughter and two granddaughters so he can escort them back to Mexico, where they'll visit their grandmother. He says things aren't so good in Juarez lately with the recent death of Amado Carillo Fuentes.
Carillo (nicknamed the "Lord of the Skies" because of his use of Boeing 727s to smuggle cocaine) based his cartel, the largest in the world, in Juarez. Emilio, like many other people in El Paso and Juarez, is skeptical about reports that Carillo died during a liposuction procedure. Emilio thinks Carillo is still alive and hiding. And Emilio doesn't feel very comfortable about the war that's brewing in his hometown for control of the cartel. He is also unhappy with the way the American media has portrayed the situation.