Today I am not riding the bus. A pile of ungraded student exams stared me into a corner until I was huddled, whimpering, and anti-social. And so I thought best of it to sit still in my seat, let the billowing clouds whisper their sweet nothings through the open window and into my tickled ears, and reflect on the bloody, bittersweet, bus stop memories of the year 2010—in the heart of Albuquerque’s southern sister, Cuidad Juarez.
It was the height of Mexico’s drug violence. Ten to fifteen corpses, mutilated or riddled with bullets, dumped in random places every day. More than three thousand people were killed in Juarez that year as two Cartels and their gangboy hit men fought over the “plaza” through which billions of dollars worth of drugs are smuggled to reach addicts and bored youths all over the United States. Jolted by the media reports of such a fiery massacre so close by, my friend Roberto and I decided to spend a few days there to see for ourselves what was happening. For reasons I have long forgotten, we left our car in El Paso and took the city bus.
There are so many differences between the Duke and the Daisy, not least of which is the astronomical disparity of violence, but I shall limit myself here to a cursory exploration of public transit in Ciudad Juarez. First, of course, the buses are different. They are mostly second-hand school buses imported from somewhere in America, now painted pretty, adorned with protective saints and virgins, and in some cases decorated quite extravagantly on the inside. Secondly, they are often full of people, most of whom are travelling to or from work, and typically not drunk off their gourd. Thirdly, there is commonly some young cowboy or poor old lady clanking away on a cheap guitar and singing so finely out-of-tune about Jesus Christ All-Mighty or the baddest drug boss on that side of the Rio Grande.
The roads are also quite different, typically narrower and bumpier. On the main causeways you might hear the screech of tires and glimpse a column of masked and heavily armed federal police officers or soldiers wailing by in pick-up trucks. Smoke might rise from somewhere on the horizon, and it might just be some trash burning. As you move away from the town center towards the poor suburban expanses and mountaintop slums, the roads at times will disappear altogether, but the bus will keep lumbering on. The driver will wrench the wheels leftward, drop the clutch, and with a clunk and thud roll down into a potholed drainage ditch that seconds as a roadway—when it’s not raining, of course. Swaying violently from left to right to avoid the pot holes, the bus will lurch and moan on just beneath half-broken or half built homes of cement block, emerging from time to time for a moment, just to sink back down.
As the bus approaches the poorer, more desolate neighborhoods near the great mountainside white-stone message, “Lee la Bibia” (Read the Bible), it might squeal to a halt for a broken down car in the road, right in front of a “pharmacy”—or a drug house, where dealers and addicts make transactions out in the open. When you not-so-discretely snap a photograph through the bus window, the other passengers might begin to hyperventilate. They are afraid. After the bus moves on—and the drug dealers having failed to notice the voyeurism—everyone might sigh with relief and curse the stupid gringos.
At the top of holy mountain you can get off the bus at its last stop and walk up into the Tarahumara Indian colony, where you had best bring a present next time to show respect, lest there not be a next time! But on a good day, you might just get to see a great and beautiful rarity: a Tarahumara women’s basketball tournament!
Late in the afternoon, given the Earth still spins on its axis, you might see the sun sink and sky darken. Burning tires will send smoke and stink from all around. Children will be playing in the streets, laughing as they do. Pops and flashes will glisten in the vast expanse beneath you, and you will longingly look over it all to America, sitting there so still and quiet on the opposite side of the Rio Grande Valley. The day’s last bus might arrive just then, and you will take it, and pray for peace, both in your loving heart and out in the streets.
As the sun says goodbye, you might be walking back across the border bridge where a few hours earlier a US border patrolman shot and killed a 15-year boy who tossed stones at him from the Mexican side of the Big River’s pithy stream. Another teenager, who witnessed the slaughter from the bridge above, will be singing a corrido (story-telling folk song) about the tragic course of events. You will want to take a photograph to remember, for your mind and memory seem at times even more delicate than life itself.