At the congregation, I announced I would travel to the USA for a few months in the hope of publishing the book. Despite the violent events, I knew several of them were devoted Christians and real friends.
"We want you back," Hortensia told me, while Nelly—her daughter— held her arm tightly, a bit too tightly.
"We will keep loving you!" Catalina—Hortensia’s aunt—shouted at me.
"Saarja, bye," Nelly said, charmingly mixing Aymara and English.
How could I not return?
During the following months, the memories of the church would help me through the harsh period I spent in the USA. Regardless how awful the following months would turn, almost certainly they would allow me to create at least the financial framework needed for the publication of the book. Moreover, I had enough internet coupons to flight back to Bolivia at any time.
The savings from the Compassion project and the meager incomes from the travel book sales, the seminary and occasional speeches and sermons at various congregations allowed me to buy a ticket to America. My American visa was still valid, since it was awarded in the days when that country still awarded 10-year visas. In order to save some money, I traveled by air to Mexico City and from there took a bus to El Paso, Texas. The plane took me over the Amazon River; despite my expectations, I couldn’t enjoy the views since a thick coat of clouds covered the entire area.
Once in a while, there is nothing like watching the world through the windows of a crammed bus scratching the globe’s surface. Mexico City is a place as enjoyable as any other to begin such a trip, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is such a casual end. An itinerary long enough to blur up trees, bad roads, uncomfortable seats, sun dried lizards, moldy food and semi-xenophobic immigrations personnel into a single kaleidoscopic quantum of perception.
To reach the terminus in Mexico City, I took the Politecnico metro line from the shiny airport building to the Autobuses Norte station. There was a two pesos flat tariff, and a truly friendly clerk selling them. She patiently explained how to reach the right station. The metro was badly marked; there were neither signs nor maps within the cars, and the stations weren’t announced. The small name signs at the stations were hard to spot from the moving train, but at least the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte was just in front of the metro station’s exit.
The terminal had a single and non-connected Internet spot. Several companies sold tickets to Ciudad Juarez; all of them were first class and cost over one hundred American dollars. Unexpectedly for Latin America, there wasn’t a terminal fee. They allowed payment in dollars, in pesos, or a combination of both. After buying a ticket, I went for some food. The snack bars in the terminal served Mexican food, and the most intriguing option was the "chilaquiles verdes con bistec." It was a spicy corn-noodle with meat dish. The coffee was from the cheap instant kind and was served in truly generous cups. While boarding, a small bag with mango juice, cookies and a sandwich was given, but other meals on the long trip weren’t included in the ticket.
Minutes before 9AM, we left in a luxurious Mercedes bus. Almost empty of passengers, it had one humongous TV screen at the front; it didn’t stop working for most of the trip, showing Spanish-dubbed Hollywood pictures. Mexico City turned to be a colossal metropolis made of an endless sea of unremarkable structures. Only almost one hour after departure, open fields appeared. The low, semi-commercial, buildings, which shaped the city, were built on an almost flat terrain; the only exceptions were sporadic hills covered with slums up to half-height. Afterwards, the trip became a list of snack stops.
Around 11:30AM, we stopped at Queretaro Terminal. Coffee and snacks were available there. The area wasn’t quite a desert, but the houses had water tanks on their roofs; at least four colonial churches adorned the town. An hour and a half later we stopped at Fonda Mony for lunch. There were many "fresas con crema" (strawberries with cream) and cocadas, a sweet made of milk, sugar, coconuts and glucose; it appeared in several varieties, from cookies to big bars, and in different flavors. After we passed through Aguas Calientes in the afternoon, the landscape became a desert with many cacti and green-stained rocks. To overcome the distress, we stopped for coffee and more snacks at Zacatecas. During this stop, the Mexican immigration checked out documents and took away three men from Guatemala, who were hiding with the luggage stored in the lower luggage compartments. There was another check two hours later. The day ended around 11PM, when we stopped for a late dinner. At this stage, I couldn’t look at food anymore. Yet, there was nothing else to pay attention too. Before sunset, the views belonged to a deep desert. The road wasn’t well marked; milestones were sporadic and unclear. As a result, it was difficult to estimate times of arrival.
At 5AM, we reached the town Chihuahua, where the bus stopped for a few minutes at its company’s local offices. Skipping a cheap coffee there turned out being an error; we didn’t stop for breakfast for the next three hours. Then, the bus stopped at a roadside tent placed amidst nowhere. Quesadillas, a flat, thin and round pancake, with a bit of cheese in its center and folded in two, were the main option available to us. Expectedly, there was no coffee here. "Muy tarde, muy tarde," the woman serving the quesadillas kept telling me; it was too late for a breakfast coffee. Shortly after, the Mexican army boarded the bus and checked the entire luggage except for handbags. Umbral del Milenio (Millennium Gate), a yellow gate in the open desert, was crossed minutes after they let us go.
At 9:30AM, the bus reached the terminal of Ciudad Juarez, just across from El Paso. On the way across its outskirts, there were many nightclubs that seemed to be the main industry in town. Just before entering the terminal, the bus stopped, and the driver opened a door next to the luggage. Three clandestine passengers got out from there. How did they pass through all the checks along the way? I couldn’t be sure, but probably bribes had been paid to the police and army along the way.
Taxis from Ciudad Juarez cost eight or forty dollars to the Bridge of the Americas or to El Paso, while a Greyhound bus to El Paso’s terminal, cost six dollars for the eight kilometers way. While buying the second, I found I could buy also tickets within the USA. However, since the passport check was a process of undefined length, I didn’t buy one.
This turned out to be wise. It took the bus over ten minutes to cross the short bridge. The entire area was crammed up, with the American immigration being the clear culprit of the delay; at least, I would gain an hour while crossing into the US.
Across the bridge was the American immigration building; it resembled what a jail built within a hangar would look if ever constructed. There, passengers were requested to leave the bus with their belongings, and enter the immigration hall. The Mexican immigration officers weren’t present; hence I didn’t get an exit stamp. As for the Americans, in addition to a visa, they requested a permit from the Homeland Security Office, fingerprints of both indexes and a digital photo; the pleasure cost six dollars. Once across the unpleasant process, I boarded a different Greyhound bus; one is not supposed to board the same one. Minutes later, I reached El Paso’s Greyhound Terminus.
(Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem; the book reads independently of Part I, The Cross of Bethlehem - The Memoirs of a Refugee.)
The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.