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The last time I travelled to Mexico, I weaved my way through neighbouring Guatemala. The only problem was explaining who my guide was to customs.
I got on a bus in a small Guatemalan town not far from the border, where the driver assured me he would take me to Mexico.
“Si, si, Mexico. No problem,” he nodded.
I should have guessed something was amiss when I saw the first seat was occupied by a clown. I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that nothing good comes out of sharing a ride with a clown. As we approached the border town, I spotted another clown standing by the side of the road, leaning into a phone booth and talking animatedly into the receiver.
The bus came to a halt soon after. The first clown got off.
“Mexico?” I asked the bus driver, hopefully.
“Si, si, no problema.” He pointed to the opposite bank of a gushing river that stood between me and Mexico where hundreds of Guatemalans were wading through the rushing water, clutching onto baskets, blankets and boxes on their heads or shoulders.
A man struggled under the weight of a stuffed garbage bag slung onto his back, while behind him a woman used one hand to hitch up her colourful skirt and the other to hold a cooking pot on top of her head, steam spewing forth in a cloud above her. She apparently aimed to reach Mexico before the meal got cold – perhaps even just visiting a neighbour across the river. Another carried an electric fan and hung onto her small son walking beside her, completely naked.
Hundreds more people – mostly children or families – were perched on giant inflatable rafts that floated from one side of the river to the other, which were really just slats of wood tied onto big floaties pulled along by teenage boys, one tugging a rope at the front and another pushing from the back. All along the banks on this side, families were clambering onto the row of slats laid along the top of the raft and loading up the larger bits of luggage: buckets and crates. A woman put her children on the raft and then pulled up her skirts and walked alongside it to save the extra fare.
Not having faith in my ability to scramble up Mexican shores with a backpack balanced on my head, I enlisted a boy with a raft who threw my backpack aboard and instructed me to sit on it to make more room for the 16 other people seated on the wooden slats around me. The river was not wide but the boy, working alone, strained under the weight of the load on his raft, and progress was slow.
All the gold caps on her teeth glinted in the sunlight streaming in through the door and reflecting off the beer bottle in her hand. She really loved mothers, she told me.
Arriving on the other side, we were bombarded with a sort of impromptu market, strewn with rubbish and stalls lining the banks of the river: carts laden with fruit, people crammed into tuk-tuks, a man surrounded by a bunch of bicycles, another dishing out flavoured water, women hanging second-hand clothes on lines strung across the side of a building. A tuk-tuk passed by and the man pedalling it called out to me, asking if I needed a ride to the nearest village.
I found a bus station there and waited in a grocery store across the road with an old woman sitting on a chair in the corner, who by all appearances had been drinking the store’s beer for quite a while. She pointed to the fruit on display on a shelf in front of her, and it made her laugh a lot. When I told her that I was going to meet my mother in Mexico City, she asked me what I would do when I saw her.
“Drink a bottle of wine,” I said.
This made her roar with laughter, so that all the gold caps on her teeth glinted in the sunlight streaming in through the door and reflecting off the beer bottle in her hand. She really loved mothers, she told me.
Six weeks later, trying to get on a flight from Guadalajara airport, I had a lot of trouble explaining myself to Mexican Immigration.
“Entry stamp?” the woman barked, and then, “What do you mean you didn’t get one?”
“Well,” I stammered, “there was this river, and people walking across it with their stuff on their heads and then I got on this kind of boat thing with some families and um, we got to the other side and I tried to ask someone about where I could find immigration but it was all just people selling bananas and they didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “You came from Guatemala.” Then she muttered something under her breath, shook her head and stamped my passport.
I never did find out where that clown was going.