by J. E. Zeppa

JUAN'S ALARM beeps loudly.  His room is so cold it's hard for him to get out of bed.  It's even colder outside and Juan has no idea that today is the first day of spring.  It's still the middle of winter as far as he's concerned.   He's running late and skips his hundred push-ups.  But his hot shower warms him up and he's grateful for this luxury.  After drying off, he puts on two pairs of socks and three layers of clothes.  Then he dons his new pair of big padded boots and heads out the door to work.

THE SUN RISES and Annie awakens.  It's already warm outside when she opens the door to greet her dogs.  It's the first day of spring, she thinks, and says a quick prayer of thanks.  Then she pulls a mat into the yard and sits for a while, just breathing.  She does some yoga exercises then brushes her teeth.  She puts on the same pair of shorts she wore to work yesterday, slips on a pair of flip-flops and saunters off down the path.

IT'S 7:03 AND Juan's bus is pulling up to his stop.  The bus, actually two buses joined together by a large industrial accordion, is called the 191 and it usually arrives at Juan's stop at precisely 7:04.  Today, it's 45 seconds early and Juan has to run to catch it.  Dan, the driver, has had this route for almost 6 weeks.  Juan recognizes Dan when he gets on, but he doesn't say hi.  He pays and walks past him.  The bus is clean and quiet.  All the seats are full and Juan easily finds a spot to stand near the back.  None of the other commuters greets him or even looks up.  Dan hears a teenager's Walkman through her headphones from five rows behind.  He waits for a red light and turns around.  Politely he asks the kid to turn down her music.  She sneers, but complies.

ANNIE'S MODE of transportation is a dusty old pick-up truck named "Lluvias de Gracia", "Rains of Grace", and it usually, but not always, gets to her stop between 7 and 7:30 AM.  Rigoberto is the driver, though he prefers to be called a "chauffeur".  He will turn 16 in a few months and he recently bought his driver's license in Guatemala City for 9 dollars.  He honks the horn five times and calls out to Annie, shattering the silence of the world around her.  He puts a tape into his radio and a cumbia blasts out so loud that it can be heard all the way in the back, over the roaring engine and the busted muffler.  Annie, still trying to readjust her mind to the clamour around her, climbs into the back of the truck.  She rides on the open flatbed alongside three men with machetes and a woman with a child strapped to her breast.  The child is feeding.  She greets each of her fellow commuters and they greet her back.

SNOW IS FALLING, and a hundred thousand cars, trucks and busses surround the 191 on all its sides.  Juan looks out the window and apart from other commuters in their vehicles, the only humans he sees are those with briefcases and backpacks waiting at their bus stops, shivering from the cold.  Sometimes a jogger runs by with a brightly-coloured anti-pollution mask covering her mouth.  Juan is happy that he's in the warm bus and he thinks about taking up jogging if he ever gets some free time.

RIGOBERTO REVS the engine and speeds dangerously up the hill out of San Marcos.  [See Atitlán map, main episode, for locations.]  From its starting point to its destination 50 minutes later, Lluvias de Gracia passes only 3 other pick-ups, the Pepsi truck and a motorcycle.  But it sees many people as it races towards San Pedro.  Barefoot children play in the road and women in their brightly coloured huipiles head off to have their corn ground into flour for the day's tortillas.  Groups of men with machetes and pickaxes head up towards the mountain to cut firewood and pick coffee.  Others walk towards the lake for their morning bath.

THE 191 IS completely packed and stuck in traffic on the freeway.  Juan has found a seat, but he is hot now and finds it a little hard to breathe in such an enclosed space.  But he doesn't dare open a window.  The air outside is too damp and cold and gray.  Juan wipes the steam off the pane and looks outside; he likes this view.  There, across 6 lanes of traffic, is a pharmaceutical company, and beside it, a white bread factory.  It's time for breakfast, Juan decides, and pulls a couple store-bought tortillas out of a plastic bag.  The bus lurches forward suddenly and the guy sitting next to Juan spills Nescafe from a Styrofoam cup onto Juan's knee.  Juan just wipes off his leg, turns back towards the window, and looks out onto the stagnant traffic and the industrial park.  He is impressed at how big and new-looking everything seems.

AS THE TRUCK rises out of town, the wind blows in Annie's face and her breath is taken away, once again, by the view.  Three ancient volcanoes rise, majestic and green, over the lake and the sun hits the water, the waves shimmering in the morning light.  Jacaranda and eucalyptus, banana and avocado trees rise up above the road.  Bougainvillea in a dozen shades of red and fuchsia and orange fences in the houses along the shore.  Coffee plants grow from the road up into the hills.  The truck slows down a bit and soon the smell of green onions fills the air.  They turn a bend and Annie looks down and smiles.  She sees the onion people, whole families, knee-high in onions, tying their wares into tiny bundles to be sold later today in the market.

THE 191 IS still stuck in traffic.  Juan is worried that he'll be late for work today, punching in at 8:02 or 8:03 and being reprimanded for it.  This has already happened once; one more time and he'll be on probation.  That means he won't start getting Sundays off, like he's requested.  He works a double on Saturdays and the church near his house doesn't offer daily masses anymore, so Juan hasn't been to mass in months.  He feels guilty, but he does thank God for his job and the fact that he's finally legal in his new country.  But right now, all he asks from God is to get the bus moving again.

LLUVIAS DE GRACIA races along the lakeshore.  Annie sees a woman standing by the side of the road.  She has a large basket balanced on the top of her head and the whirling gesture of her hand makes the truck stop.  Annie and the other commuters watch as the woman and Rigoberto discuss something in their native language for several minutes.  More women begin to appear, all with huge baskets on their heads.  There's a lot of talk with the driver, and the loading and unloading of baskets.  The whole process takes 15 minutes.  Annie's usually early for work, but today she'll be late.  No one will notice and if they do, they won't care.  While she waits, she watches a flock of butterflies swarm up and down a falling branch.  She feels very close to God right now; her prayers seem to say themselves for her as a hummingbird digs into a hibiscus flower then flies off towards the lake.

ESPECIALLY ON cold days like this, Juan's mind drifts back to his former home.  He remembers the trees, and going to work shirtless.  But he also remembers the weight of the firewood on his back, and the children who were too poor for shoes.  Making three dollars for a full day's work and coming home to a one room house with a tin roof and a dirt floor.  Now Juan makes 12 dollars an hour and he's a member of the union.  In a few months he'll even be able to send for his wife and kids so that they too may enjoy the view from his triplex apartment, the TV, the hot shower and the linoleum floors.  He's proud of how far he's come since leaving Guatemala, and he's happy that his children will know the freedom of the First World.

LLUVIAS DE GRACIA takes off loaded down with the women and their wares.  Annie is only minutes from work.  She feels calm and free and awake.  She loves her commute and the reality she's chosen.  As the truck descends into San Pedro, Annie can't help but think of her former commutes, far north of here, and her former fellow commuters.  She thinks of all those people packed into buses or in their cars, bitter and tired and stressed, jammed up in traffic, with their only view being pharmaceutical companies or white bread factories.  It's hard for her to believe that she used to be one of those people.  Today, Annie will make 5 dollars for a full day's work.  She will go home afterwards to her dogs and her one-room adobe shack.  She has no electricity or indoor plumbing, but her sleeps are deep and her feet are always tanned.
--from The Guatemala Post
Vol. 11, no. 40, pp. 11-11.
April 12-18, 2002.

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