I’m a Barbie bandit, face tied in a pink scrap of fabric — hours earlier around my eyes to block the night’s floodlight — now slipped down over my nose and mouth. It could be 6 am or noon with the daylight so thoroughly shaded by the canopy of vine-snared branches. I search for my watch wrist, wound intricately in the thin sheets that have snapped away from the corners of the mattress. It’s 9:30 am, and much later than I’d like, but I pack swiftly and sacrifice breakfast, though largely only because I can’t tolerate another crap meal after I hear that the Internet isn’t working to distract me from it.
I still feel that I’m getting an early enough start, but it turns out that I’m not. The first two hours of my van ride I am able to distract myself by reading, but the carsickness settles over me like a fog, and I begin my lifelong tradition of trying to find something outside the window that doesn’t move. It all moves. Through my sunglasses the window bleeds in light in an ominous red, mutated by the overlapped layers of tints. The gray skin that has peeled from the corners whips desperately at the window, drumming a vibration, as it oscillates between adhesion and departure.
Here the land is more open, more farmed, and mounded with tree-dotted hills that would make Dr Seuss erupt in rhyme. I arrive in a little town and defiantly walk to the boats; I will not be overcharged once more. I was wrong, this is a very long hot walk; where’s that taxi? But feet work and I get to a broad brown river, where I am approached by a boy who seems simply helpful at first but is simply trying to sell me a boat ride. Something about this causes me to break, lip quivering, tears building behind sunglasses, as I relent to a lofty boat fare to Guatemala.
Deep breaths and the vibration of the motor soothe me to stillness, that kind of empty exhaustion a child feels after a fit has worn out. And I’m dropped at a muddy shore whose banks I climb tentatively, affected equally by its muddy slope and groups of men calling out, “Hello Blondie.” These calls are automatic, expressionless, vocal eruptions that lift the teeth from over the tongue, clattering shut once the force of air has passed.
A rather nice local woman with startlingly blue eyes helps me change some money and book a bus ticket. I wait on the bench, reading, and when the transport is late I pull out my pillow and lay back. The sun splatters through the leaves even though it is raining at the same time. The hefty mango branches above me keep me dry and monkeys crawl down them to the ground to play with the dogs. Oh well if I get stuck; I’ll pop my tent in a field in this peaceful village and go in the morning. I smile at the charming little thought; how lovely life is! But the bus really doesn’t come and this is no longer a fantasy. Where will I sleep?
A cement porch, it turns out, belonging to the friend of blue eye’s friend. I set up quickly under the single light bulb that dangles from an extension cord and the long line of male stares from next door. Once inside, I tie my pink cloth scrap over my nose and mouth to choke out the smoke from the nearby trash fires and then I’m asleep.
Like all late afternoon naps, I awake in twilight, perplexed. And starving, but I still feel all those eyes still on me, and I resign myself to spoonful of nutritional yeast and a glass full of soluble fiber. I convince myself I can handle this. The morning bus comes at 6 am and I can survive that long. I try reading; try sleeping; my stomach squeals and whines, begging for more. I affix my valuables on my back and walk out into the night.
It’s only two blocks, but it unexpectedly requires me passing a cantina and it’s Saturday night. I head with as much not-weird speed as possible to the tienda across the street, and buy a “dinner” of chips and rehydrated soup. Some men venture near as I eat the half-cooked noodles, fork scratching, rubbery, at its Styrofoam walls. I pay and hurry home, though I am followed, calls begging my attention in my wake. Monotone, guttural, “Excuse me, baby, excuse me, excuse me, baby.” As always, the words eventually fall away with their owners, but I tie my tent’s interior zippers in double knots anyway. Inside I finally, ravenously, finish Lord of the Flies, finding it the appropriate final inspiration to clutch my knife to my chest as I slide into my sleeping bag. I hear grunts of nearby pigs as a dreamless sleep takes me.
I wake up to any sound that can be interpreted as footsteps, but eventually exhaustion grips me so hard that it holds me to the concrete with an otherworldly force. Around 3 am I noticed that my protective light bulb, swinging from its cord above me, has been turned off. Something is different this time, there really are footsteps slowly maneuvering the gravel. But that heaviness of sleep has taken over me and I fail to pull myself up from its depths. The knife is still in my hand but my grip is soft, tingling numbly with dreams.
I think I hear the sound of the pigs again but it’s snores. The full moon outlines two feet, gingerly crossed, pressing into the fabric of my tent, where they press rhythmically from the hammock that cradles the rest of their attached body. I consider both violence and sleep and the latter pulls at me, dragging me to the floor of my tent. I fight it feebly.
And then come the honks, furious, almost hilarious, as a bus careens through the streets in the dark. But I know I can’t break down my tent fast enough, and that mysterious body is still snoring outside. It’s only 4:30 am so I start packing softly inside, expecting another hour before the next bus. I don’t want to emerge unprotected from my fortress before then. And I time it almost right, but as I sit exposed outside, tent stowed away, the drunk unfolds himself from his hammock, stretches, and croaks, “Buenos días.” I nod, attempting that particular balance of politeness and non-engagement. He squints one eye, leans toward me, lips parted dryly. “Buenos. Días,” he says, drawn out, with force. I nod again, drawn out, with force.
The man stumbles off around a corner from which a bus emerges mere minutes later in an immense cloud of dust. My hand written ticket remains un-checked in my pocket as I climb on, joining the large number of men already headed toward work. Most of them attempt to sleep as I keep an eye out for the immigration station, which the bus rolls right past after a quick glance proves it empty. My driver informs me that it must be closed and shrugs when I ask if I’ll have trouble without having my passport stamped. I accept there’s nothing to be done except shrug along with him. I wedge my jacket against the window and join in the napping.