Taking a Trip Aboard

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.

"The way it gets talked about in the newspapers is wrong," he says. "Everyone in the U.S.--the people, the government, the media--all blame the Mexicans for the drug problem. But the problem is caused by the U.S." When he says "the U.S.," Emilio gestures toward the helmeted soldiers milling around their Hummers drinking sodas in the 95-degree heat.

"Who buys the drugs?" he asks, stabbing his fingers at his listener. "Where does all the money come from? The U.S. And this impression that the Mexicans are the villains is impressed on everyone." Emilio points to his two granddaughters wearing matching pink blouses and black skirts. "Even they believe that the Mexican people are to blame. It's not true.

"But the Mexicans aren't strong enough to change this rumor, this lie. Mexico is a neighbor to the U.S., but it gets treated like a little brother who can't fight back. The Americans wouldn't keep doing this if the Mexican government was strong enough to fight back. But since we can't, the Americans continue to fuck with us and lie to the people.

"Does anyone really believe that Carillo was only corrupting Mexico? Does anyone really believe that his money wasn't also in the pockets of American police and politicians?"

Emilio flicks a bug off his flowered shirt and crushes it under his loafer. "It would be nice if the stories about Carillo's death would change things," he says, "but they will not. As long as the Americans give their money for drugs, people like him will exist and the Mexicans will get blamed for the drug problem."

The soldiers start up their trucks and pull their convoy out of the station. Even though they're only fifty feet off the interstate, four soldiers on foot wearing reflective vests guide the convoy onto the on-ramp. "Pinche Yanquis," Emilio scoffs. "They can't even find the freeway without help."

5:45 p.m.: Most of the passengers are on their way to see family. Only a few are business travelers like Javier. He says he's the owner of three furniture factories in Juarez. Javier travels to Denver to pick up orders from his clients; he takes the bus because it's cheaper than flying and because he likes the movies. When he returns to Juarez, he'll pack up a truck and deliver the furniture. But today all Javier wants to do is sleep. He's hung over from the night before in Denver when he went to see the Dodgers play the Rockies. Hell in a Battlefield perks him up.

In fact, when it's over, Javier feels combative enough to get into an argument with Emilio about NAFTA. Javier thinks NAFTA is great. Emilio, however, thinks that the free-trade agreement is hurting Mexican workers. Emilio asks Javier how much he pays his workers. "I make a lot of money, and so do my workers," Javier says proudly. Emilio pokes him in the chest with two thick fingers and tells him he doesn't know what he's talking about.

"The program is not good," says Emilio. "Just because you are making a little bit of money, you forget that even more money is being made by the Americans. Like all of their other programs, it sucks Mexico dry. Mexico is like a soccer ball that needs to be filled with air. And when the Americans stick their needle in the ball saying that they're putting more air in it, they just let all the air run out."

Javier dismisses Emilio with a wave of his hand and tries to go back to sleep. Emilio scowls and opens a bag of pork rinds for his granddaughters.

8:30 p.m.: Sandy, a bleached blonde with tattoos on both forearms, is on the run from her family. She's given up trying to sleep on this trip, despite a hangover. She also has given up on her marriage. After eleven years, she just got divorced and has decided to go see her sister in Albuquerque. "I lost a lot of things in the break," she says in slightly accented English. "We've got to sell the house, both cars, pretty much everything. So now I'm on the bus." She and Javier are the only people traveling by themselves.

9:35 p.m.: With less than an hour to go, mothers groom their children, some of whom have never met their grandparents. Sons-in-law start to squirm in their seats. The lights of El Paso appear on the horizon.

"El Paso is so flat," explains Javier, "that you can sit on your front porch and watch your dog's ass run away from home for three days before you lose sight of him."

10:05 p.m.: The bus arrives at the El Paso depot, located on the same block as its two major competitors, Golden West and the El Paso-Denver Express. There are at least 25 buses parked in fenced-in lots on this block, a hundred yards away from the El Puente Libre bridge that spans the brown waters of the Rio Grande to Juarez. Even at this hour, there is a twenty-minute wait for cars to get across the bridge into the U.S. Inside the dingy office, which looks just like the depot near Coors Field, a man snoozes under the fluorescent lights.

This part of El Paso is like its sister city across the bridge: very few buildings taller than three stories, garbage in the gutters and the smell of charcoal burning. Use of the English language appears to be limited to words like "Coca-Cola," "Marlboro" and "strip club."

Taxi drivers lurking across the street listening to a transistor radio don't bother to hawk their services to the Mexicans getting off the bus; tourists walking back from the Juarez bars are better marks. The meters in the drivers' cabs are turned off, and they haggle with customers on set prices that start at approximately twice the amount it should cost.

Most of the Turismo passengers are met by relatives driving old Buicks and Chevrolets with creaky doors and drooping fenders--there's not a foreign car in sight. Greetings between family members are exchanged quietly, young children looking nervous as they get kissed on the cheek by relatives they don't remember or haven't met before.

The two bus drivers unload the luggage and head for a bar across the street. They have twelve hours to kill before heading back to Denver.

Friday, 9:15 a.m.: The El Paso depot is full and noisy. All the seats in the waiting room are taken, and the heat is turning the veneer of Coca-Cola on the linoleum floor into puddles. One sweating porter pushes through the crowd in an effort to transfer luggage between the bus just arrived from Denver and the bus about to leave for Juarez and points south. He tries to clear a path through the throng, saying Conpermisoporfavor every five seconds. Kids chasing one other keep getting under his feet. His pleas for a clear path are drowned out by the waiting passengers talking loudly to family seeing them off, and he finally resorts to bumping people with his cart.

The only people who stand out in this crowd are a young Japanese hippie with a guitar case who looks as if he just crawled out of Central America and two Americans who have been cornered by a cab driver who wants to drive them to Denver. The cab driver tells the Americans they're stupid to waste twelve hours on the bus to Denver when he can get them there in five driving his "James Bond Supertruck." If they won't take the ride, he'll let them take a picture of it for $20.

He'll let them see the "Supertruck" for only $10.
10:05 a.m.: On this trip the bus is full. Only one person decides he needs two seats for himself. That's Marco, a 27-year-old wearing a black Puma sweatsuit and a thick goatee. He's in the collection business. Marco has staked his claim at the back of the bus, and no one seems interested in challenging it.

On the ride out of El Paso, the driver tunes the TVs to a Mexican soap opera called Un Camino, Dos Mujeres (One Way, Two Women), starring Erik Estrada. When it's over, a couple of older women in front demand more telenovelas but the driver riding shotgun plays The Deep instead, a subtitled Jacqueline Bisset scuba diving for morphine in a white T-shirt. The women up front decide not to protest.

10:45 a.m.: The Border Patrol officers--la migra--don't pull the bus over until it's about forty miles northwest of El Paso. They have a roadside station set up along an open stretch of interstate with nothing but low brush on every horizon.

As soon as the passengers see the orange road cones diverting traffic off the interstate, all conversation ceases. The driver stops The Deep, and his partner, who's riding shotgun, gets up from his jump seat in the front stairwell and rushes back to sit next to Marco the tough guy. The driver parks the bus under a tall aluminum shed and gets out with his travel permit.

A squat female officer named V.J. Justice climbs on board and stands in the front of the bus. Wearing an olive-colored uniform and black gloves, she looks around around for a moment before speaking. Every compartment of her utility belt is full, and her baton sticks out at an awkward angle. In a monotone and using formal Spanish, she explains that she wants everyone who's not a U.S. citizen to get out his or her resident alien cards or travel visas for inspection. She uses the formal "usted" when addressing the passengers--imagine being pulled over by a traffic cop in Denver who speaks to you in an excessively formal and deferential manner.

She and her rookie partner, A.M. Fioria, start working their way to the back of the bus, their protruding billy clubs forcing them to shuffle down the aisle sideways. Passengers keep their eyes front and mouths shut, even after the agents have checked their documents. La migra.

The agents go through the luggage racks, the bathroom and Marco's bag. But the only one who gets pulled off is the Japanese hippie--no papers.

V.J. Justice leads the Japanese kid over to the checkpoint office, and even though Agent Fioria is still standing at the front of the bus, chatter starts up again. One of the women who wanted more telenovelas asks agent Fioria where he learned his Spanish. In broken English she explains that, for example, when he means "you," he should use "tu" instead of the formal "usted." Fioria looks sheepish and says he's from Washington, D.C. Another woman asks him why the officers didn't bring any drug-sniffing dogs on board. "When they bring the dogs, it takes longer," she explains knowingly to the woman sitting next to her.

The Japanese hippie with the guitar gets a temporary pass from Agent Justice, and the bus starts out again. The other driver comes back up to his jump seat and presses "play" on the VCR.

1:20 p.m.: Marco owns his own collection agency in El Paso. He's going to Denver to repossess a car and collect on an overdue loan. He looks like the kind of guy who will achieve his goals. His sweatsuit jacket is partially unzipped, and he's not wearing an undershirt. A thick gold chain nestles in his chest hair. When one of the drivers puts on the second movie of the day, Babe, Marco is uninterested. But as the movie about a sheepherding pig gets rolling, a frown appears on Marco's face. Fifteen minutes into the film he stands up and stalks up the aisle to the front of the bus as people pull in their elbows and knees to make way. He says something to the driver and returns to his seat. The driver turns up the volume.

2:30 p.m.: The taciturn Turismos drivers, with aviator shades on at all times, tight Wrangler pants and short-sleeved button-down shirts with undershirts showing through, seem unapproachable. Most passengers who ask questions do so meekly. But despite their intimidating appearance, the drivers aren't cold. They slow down to offer help to motorists broken down along the interstate. And there are a lot of cars broken down along the West Texas and New Mexico highways.

They pick up a couple of ranch hands whose truck is smoking on the shoulder and take them twenty miles to the nearest phone. The two men are sweating from the ninety-degree-plus heat, and they breathe in the air conditioning thankfully as they stand in the back near Marco.

Passengers who request special drop-offs are accommodated, even if it means a delay of fifteen minutes as the driver navigates the bus around a crowded Burger King parking lot in Pueblo where one teenage girl is meeting her boyfriend. The drivers do not, however, make special stops for food. Passengers either bring their own snacks or wait for a scheduled stop.

They're also on constant watch for Border Patrol and police vehicles. When they spot one, the driver riding shotgun ducks down into the stairwell to get below the line of sight. A sign posted in the front of the bus states in English and Spanish that it is against federal law to operate the bus if anyone is in front of the white line separating the passengers and the driver. When a patrol car is out of sight, the driver riding shotgun climbs back onto his jump seat and exchanges a little smile with his partner.

3:15 p.m.: Babe ends right as the bus pulls into the Albuquerque depot, which occupies one unit of a pay-by-the-week motel. A few residents stand in the doorways of their rooms and watch the passengers file off. Most of the passengers troop obediently into a small cafe next door suggested by the driver over the P.A. system. Those who brought their lunch lean up against the adobe wall of the office or crouch on the sidewalk trying to stay in the shade. Guillermo, an older man in a tan polyester safari outfit, heads off to a bar across the street.

Guillermo is 58 years old with thinning white hair combed to cover his bald spot and a tight, basketball-shaped belly that stretches his multi-pocketed tunic to its limit. In the dim cantina, three tired-looking men seated at the bar raise their heads a few inches in greeting, then resume staring at their beer bottles.

He orders a Scotch and soda in a water glass and drinks it through a clear straw in three long pulls. He delicately pushes the empty glass to the edge of the bar with his fingertips; the bartender picks it up and refills it wordlessly.

Guillermo is on his way to Denver to see his brother. He doesn't like his brother very much but is going up there all the same. He doesn't like American bars, either. The bartender pours him another. After Guillermo's third drink in ten minutes, he explains why. "American bars are very bad," he says slowly. "Very crowded and noisy, very bad drinks, and music that reminds me of cats fucking in the alley. Drinks are expensive. In Juarez, I am able to drink all day for a little money." Guillermo rubs his belly affectionately. The bartender pours him another. "I have more favorite bars in Juarez th

an I have fingers," he says. "But I have none where my brother lives." The bartender pours him another.

Guillermo pays for his eight drinks and doesn't leave a tip. He gets back on the bus, and before it pulls out of the motel courtyard, he is asleep, a slight smile on his face and his hands stretched out across his stomach.

7:05 p.m.: The driver exits I-25 at Aguilar as the sun is dipping. He gets off the bus while the Standard attendant fills the tank. Since the driver didn't say anything over the P.A., the passengers stay seated.

After five minutes people start fidgeting in their seats. But with no word from the drivers, nobody moves. Except the hardcore smokers. Two of them furtively get off and light up close to the bus and the gas pumps. A little girl walks up front to talk to one of the smokers but is careful not to get off the bottom step. The drivers come out of the office, and the smokers throw their half-smoked cigarettes away quickly and get back on board. A dubbed version of The Gods Must Be Crazy flashes on.

9:10 p.m.: Entre Monjas y el Diablo, a Fifties Mexican musical about an outcast cockfighter who makes good to save an orphanage, brings the bus into Colorado Springs. The movie automatically rewinds, and the bus is bathed in a soft blue light from the blank TV screens. The passengers are quiet except for one softly crying baby.

Seventeen-year-old Graciela, who came over the footbridge this morning from Juarez, stares out of her window at the dark landscape rolling by. This will be her first time in Denver, and she worries about what will happen if her sister doesn't meet her at the depot. Her English is not good, and she has heard that there is a lot of crime in the city. The only thing she brought on the trip is an imitation-leather handbag that says "Chivas Regal."

10:45 p.m.: The bus arrives in Denver just as the crowd from the LoDo Music Festival is dispersing. Passengers stare out the windows at the hordes of young Americans staggering along Market Street and at the people in new cars blowing their horns at one another. One of the drivers whistles at four blondes in front of LoDo's Bar and Grill. Guillermo wakes up and stares in sad amazement at the long lines outside the bars.

At a stoplight at 21st and Market, a lost tourist walks up to the bus and asks the driver where Blake Street is. The driver shrugs his shoulders and says, No se.

The driver pulls into the empty Turismos Rapidos parking lot, and the passengers file off somberly, searching for someone to greet them. Only one mother and her daughter are met. The noise from LoDo revelers faint but still noticeable, the other passengers gather their luggage and children and head into the office, sit down on the plastic chairs and wait.


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