June 2005. “De donde eres (Where are you from)? Guatemala?” asked the cab driver. “De los Estados Unidos (From the United States),” I replied. “No hablo español muy bien (I don’t speak Spanish very well).” “Ah!” he said in a knowing tone. “It’s very hard to go north,” he continued in halting English. He grinned and winked. I had the nagging suspicion that he didn’t believe me.
The highway from the bus terminal to the center of Chihuahua City was lined with motels and strip malls, much like those up north in the United States. Downtown, KFC, Subway, Domino’s, and Burger King jostled each other for customers around the Plaza de Armas. One could’ve mistaken it for a typical town in Texas or Arizona. But this was Mexico, more than 200 miles south of the border.
The air of suspicion seemed to follow me into the KFC restaurant. Several pairs of eyes stared at me as I walked from the counter to a table. The usual chatter in restaurants further south was missing. Instead, most diners, even those in groups, nervously fiddled with their crispy chicken parts in silence.
Outside, a group of Mennonites loaded their van with supplies outside a Woolworth’s store. Otherwise, the streets were devoid of families and couples that one commonly sees strolling up and down in other Mexican cities. Could I just be imagining things or was this city on edge?
The bus terminal was as busy as always the next morning. Our air-conditioned bus zoomed north across the Chihuahua Desert toward its appointment with the U.S. border. I could feel the tension in the bus as it rolled through Ciudad Juarez. Heavy traffic and the bustle of the city’s streets merely heightened the anticipation of reaching the immigration checkpoint.
After an eternity, our bus finally reached the station. The driver directed all passengers to disembark and to enter the building with our luggage. I’d passed through countless border checks before. But this time, I dreaded the process. My papers were in order so I wasn’t worried for myself. My concern was reserved for my fellow passengers whose documents might not be as solid. One by one, many were directed to take a seat in another corner of the building.
I was one of the first to get back on the bus. Others slowly trickled in. After half an hour, the driver counted his charges – more than half of the seats were empty. Then, I noticed something – I was the only male passenger left on the bus.
I had the nagging feeling that the bus wouldn’t return for the others as it made its way to the El Paso bus terminal. The endless line of motels and strip malls reminded me of Chihuaha. I was blessed that I could easily cross the border without hassle. But guilt was present, too. I survived the “sinking of the doomed Titanic” despite the old dictum – “women and children first.”