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AFTERWORD Robert Frost . , Central America/Austin ALONG THAT stretch of Pan American Highway that winds through the mountains and jungles of Central America, every stop of the bus is a sad carnival. As each bus crunches off the road, women and children swarm to the windows, all offering something for the traveler to eat or drink: empanadas, fried chiles, tacos, totopotes wrapped in banana , leaves, agua de coco, fruit juices, cane juices; or soft-drinks served in tied-off sandwich bags. And always there is this exquisitely sad harmony of thin plaintive voices, singing what they sell. But what really sells the product isn’t the novel offering nor the extraordinary voice, it’s the eyes. Once you’ve looked down into the deep brown almond eyes of a twelveyear-old roadside vendor, you’re sold. Mothers nudge their children into the fray, then refill the baskets atop their heads as their eyes ply the open bus windows. Some buy their way onto the departing bus then sidle down the aisle, smiling and making change until everything is sold. Whenever that occurs, they get off to make their way, I suppose, back to the bus stop to begin again. Where the bus stops in Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras, among the vendors is a man of about 30, fetching cokes. He has devised an intricate dance by which he works around the muscle spasticity that prevents him from raising his arms above his shoulders. Extending his right arm, he bows to the left until his right hand points skyward and is close enough to the open window to reach for your money. Then, with measured equine steps, he plods to the coke vendor and returns with both arms extended like a scarecrow, to bow first one way, then the other, to hand you your change and drink. At last, with his hands doubled back in their natural position against the inside of his wrists, he waves goodbye. You Louis Dubose is a frequent contributor to the Observer. He lives in Austin. remember him long after you’ve finished the tepid coke he sold you. So many here, it seems, must do something heroic just to survive. A fortunate few find work; others are strung out along the highway living off the kindness and the quotidian needs of strangers. And some look north toward home. “Only a two-day drive from Harlingen, Texas, ” our President warns us. Yet we know it’s not that easy. THIS IS, if nothing else, an intimate stretch of highway. The couple that shared a table with you in Tegucigalpa one morning, squeeze into a Volkswagon bus with you in San Pedro Sula the following after noon. You lose a fellow traveler one day, only to cross paths with her two days and three countries later. And always, as you watch the pilgrims’ progress, there are those quick commiserating glances that say adelante, we’ll make it. So, after a while, it’s no surprise that many disarm and talk. Much of the talk is , about a common destination: los estados. And getting there. Is it true, I am asked, that in Mexico buses run day and night? And that U.S. immigration officials never use their guns nor \(in the manner of their Then there are requests for more specific information. “How far north of San Ysidro, California, is the stationary immigration checkpoint?” The last question was fielded by a venerable Honduran green-carder, who makes his home near L.A., in Lincoln Heights. And so it goes. After several days familiarity breeds more familiarity until someone asks the inevitable question that redefines who and what each of us is. That is, “if you ever have, or if you would consider helping someone cross the North American border?” My stock apology, which begins with the claim that the smuggler faces certain criminal prosecution, bespeaks my attachment to bourgeois comforts. Yet I want to say yes. Something there is about a border that shatters most illusions of collegiality. There might as well be signs reminding us that here we’re all adversaries. Besieged by money changers and porters, everyone is too much aware of the limited number of customs and immigration officials, the scarcity of bus seats or hotel rooms on the other side, and the strange fact that progress, for the moment, is utterly dependent on the few ounces of paper clutched in our hands. Only the money changers, all carrying huge stacks of bills and cheap solarpowered calculators, smile. Or at least bare their teeth. Yet there are some who never square off with border money-changers or government agents who rubber-stamp our rites of passage. Ride Central America’s buses long enough and you’ll observe a curious demographic phenomenon. Just before a bus reaches the last emigration checkpoint of a particular country, a cluster of travelers grabs its belongings and requests a stop. A day later, many of the same travelers who suspended their travels in one country board the buses of another but always beyond the last immigration checkpoint. Social Darwinists might even argue that those who survive this unnatural selection process should be embraced and documented as they enter our great republic. AT ELEVEN O’CLOCK of the last night that I spent in Honduras, the southern sky turned pale white. For some three hours the sky pulsated white as explosions reverberated through this insignificant Honduran border town. In the morning, the desk clerk explained that this was normal the SalvadoAn army was bombing its enemy. “But here in Honduras,” he said, “we sleep securely.” And at midnight of the last night that I spent in Guatemala, two little boys fought for the privilege of carrying my bags across the two-lane bridge that spans the muddy river uniting Guatemala and Mexico. I thought of our great and collective sin by which we stand by and allow all of this to pass. And of my own son of nine, at home, in a good bed and fast asleep. El The Pan American Trail By Louis Dubose Something there is wall. that doesn ‘t love a THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23