When we signed up to be international observers on that caravan in Mexico, I never thought we'd land in the middle of a bloody disaster. I figured it would be fun, interesting and useful. Doing our bit for an honorable cause, something I'd done a lot. But from the beginning, some of our friends had doubts.
In those days I liked to give parties with twenty or thirty guests, filling our pretty little house by the river with people whose friendship I cherished. Almost every year, when the season was dark and dreary, I gave a party around Valentine's Day. Charles, my husband, shared my pleasure.
The two of us, veterans of other loves and marriages and loss, had met nine years before, in 1992. Here in beautiful, green and rainy Eugene, Oregon we were both working on a Quaker committee that was struggling to frame a statement on what an ethical economic system might look like. (Not as dry as it sounds if social justice is one of your passions.) We stayed with the committee till it petered out. Meanwhile we started to build a life together, building on what we'd learned during years of relationships, good and bad, and ramblings faraway and far apart from each other.
We'd been around longer than we cared to admit. Still we looked and felt much younger. Most of our guests were younger than we and most were politically progressive. Some had adventured with us to Seattle the previous year when, braving clouds of tear gas, we were part of a carefully rehearsed and oddly equipped crew that nonviolently blocked a crucial street corner, conspiring with tens of thousands of other peaceable activists to outfox the WTO and stymie one of their major meetings.
The World Trade Organization--not always as benign as it sounds. Too often a threat to the environment and labor rights. Favoring multinational corporations over consumers--globalization for profit, whatever the human cost. But more about that later, many chapters later.
Back at the party, the bounty of food that Charles and I had put out in bowls and on platters and on a handsome cheese board made by a talented craftsman we knew had shrunken down to a few neglected morsels. A crush of happy campers were converging on the big, oblong baking dish that our friend Betsy had brought of her locally renowned apple-berry crisp and the vanilla ice cream she'd supplied to top it. Soon, stuffed, a few of our guests would thank us politely and head out--though most would stay to gab and debate and enjoy good company in this pleasant warm haven on a chilly night. Before anyone left, I raised my voice.
"Hey, guys, hey everybody! I've got an announcement!"
The hubbub lessened a little. Across the room Charles, tall and lean with the confident look of a natural leader, was grinning at me, guessing what I had to say. "Dear friends," he shouted in his usually gentle baritone, "let the lady speak!"
"I've got an announcement," I repeated, my elation sizzling through the mostly hushed room. "Two weeks from now we're flying down to Mexico to help out the Zapatistas. We'll be international observers when their leaders travel to the capital. There's this American group we're meeting in Mexico City, then we go on with them to Chiapas. That's where this caravan starts, this caravan we're going on."
We'd both been activists much of our lives. Each of us had lived and traveled in Latin America, both of us spoke some Spanish. Two weeks earlier I'd received an email inviting me to join this effort. Charles took a little convincing but soon he agreed to come along. We'd paid the Mexico Solidarity Network for the privilege of riding with the Zapatista caravan, taking our chances on whatever might come, doing the often lifesaving chore that human rights workers call protective accompaniment. (Often people threatened by death squads in oppressive Third World countries are kept safe by the simple presence of nonviolent volunteers from more powerful nations who stay with them vigilantly day and night.)
Chiapas is in Mexico's southeastern corner. There, this militant faction of mostly Mayan Indians was demanding respect for their culture and customs, and authority over their traditional lands. There was oil under those lands of theirs, oil that engendered greed in powerful interests, and because of that they had serious enemies.
I was picturing them, their heads sheathed with black balaclavas so that they and their relatives wouldn't be brutalized in retaliation. We'd seen photos of them and some videos too, since on New Year's Day, 1994--the same day NAFTA took effect--bands of scantily armed masked men overran five municipalities in this remote state not far from Guatemala. Within days, the army had forced them back into the mountains, into the high jungles from which they'd come. Since then they'd been mostly nonviolent, a political movement that spoke for the poor and disempowered.
Our guests looked startled by my announcement. One burly man I respected, outspoken and forceful, cocked an eyebrow at me skeptically--then took a swig from his bottle of beer and seeming to relent, shrugged his shoulders.
"This caravan of their leaders," I continued, "they're starting in San Cristobal and traveling through the country on their way to the capital. The new president of Mexico, he says he's not opposed to it. And he says he'll welcome internationals-hey, he used to be head of Coca-Cola de Mexico--so I don't think we'll have any serious problems."
"Whew," said Sunshine, a teacher and a sympathetic sort, "I hope you're right."
A political science professor who kept up with all the news from Latin America leaned to his neighbor to say something about threats from paramilitaries. He was talking softly but I caught his drift. Of course it was true: The Zapatistas were always being threatened, their villages were attacked.
An artist who sometimes painted houses for a living spoke up with a chuckle. He and his partner were great at making giant puppets for political demonstrations.
"You guys are gluttons for punishment. Seattle was excitement enough for me."
I smiled, remembering the thrill of taking on that challenge and winning.
"Guess it just whetted my appetite," I said.
Ruth published a counterculture paper in town. Now she spoke up in her firm, decisive way. "Sounds fascinating but Sylvia, don't forget, you'll have to send me progress reports."
"Sure thing," I agreed, "happy to do it," and made a mental note to keep a log.
Two weeks later, stoop-shouldered under big backpacks and a double sleeping bag, we weave our way through the Mexico City airport looking for the Aviacsa ticket counter. We know we've found it when we see a sprawl of scruffy young people sitting on the floor with worn packs, sleeping bags and duffels piled around them. Beside them are a few older folks, weathered and a bit untidy like us, standing or sitting on their luggage while three trim women in chic, sporty clothes hover nearby.
Soon our leader, Tom, arrives and shepherds us to our flight to San Cristobal de las Casas, a picturesque mountain town near the border with Guatemala where the locals dress in intricately patterned, brightly colored fabrics they weave themselves. At least that's what I've gleaned from travel posters and old issues of National Geographic.
It's almost dark when we arrive in San Cristobal and start climbing toward the hotel where Tom has reserved rooms for us. Tom is a tall, big - boned man with a brusque, sometimes impatient manner. The narrow sidewalk, in places barely eighteen inches wide, is pieced together from jagged rocks perched irregularly about a foot above the stone-paved gutter. The women with stylish luggage on wheels are having a devil of a time tugging it up the sidewalk's endless steps. Charles does the sort of thing he's probably done all his life, he rushes back to help them, lifting their baggage and carrying it up the hill so those women can catch up with the rest of us. By the time he returns to me, trying not to sound winded, the moonlit night has turned surreal.
Across the street sit about a hundred Mayan Indians, silent and almost motionless. They're small and brown-skinned, the women stunning in vivid, embroidered overblouses and handwoven skirts, the men mostly wearing jeans, leather boots, and unremarkable work shirts topped by denim jackets hanging open. Many of the women cradle babies in the colorful wide shawls called rebozos. Almost all their faces, both men and women, are covered with black ski masks or bright red bandanas.
A dozen yards further up the hill, two long lines of men and women, much bigger and fairer skinned than the Indians, are dressed identically in clean white jumpsuits. Their two rows face each other, facing into the street. Suddenly with practiced precision they link hands, plunge into the gutter, and they all start chanting at the top of their lungs.
"Zapata vive, la lucha sigue, sigue.
Zapata vive, la luche sigue, sigue."
Zapata lives. The struggle continues.
"They're Italians," someone tells us. "They're welcoming the Comandancia. They call themselves "Ya Basta."
I chuckle. Their name means "enough already."
"They raised hell last September at the meetings in Prague," he adds, gloating. He's one of those scruffy young men we met at the airport. "Of course they weren't the only ones. The IMF and the World Bank, they shut down early. They didn't have a chance!"
A new-looking white bus is slowly braking its way down the hill. A man in a black balaclava flashes a V sign at us through a window. Dimly I see other masked figures seated within it. The Zapatista leadership! As the bus comes closer, dozens of their masked supporters brush past us. Stubby, determined men, they move quickly in single file, providing protective accompaniment to the bus. Dazed and awestruck, I sense their commitment and their passion. As the bus and its protective cordon disappear from sight, I stumble on with our group into our hotel.
At eight the next morning, February 25th, we board two old buses the Mexico Solidarity Network has rented and join what I take to be our caravan. A multitude of vehicles - trucks, buses, cars - plus hundreds of indigenous on foot. More ski masks, more red bandanas, women with babies swaddled to their chests in shawls, carrying bundles.
We wave to pickup trucks full of campesinos wishing us luck and safe journey.
"Que le vaya bien, que le vaya bien. Buena suerte."
"Adiós," people shout. Folks on our bus start whooping as they see how vast our caravan appears to be - but soon many of our well-wishers turn away, heading back to their villages in the mountains. Our caravan, diminished but still forty or fifty vehicles strong - mostly buses plus some private cars and vans - rolls through foggy countryside.
The delegation that fills our two Network buses includes volunteers from all over the U.S. From Montana and Missouri, Florida and New York; Boston, Minneapolis, Berkeley, Ann Arbor. One comes from Canada, two from Australia. All but three of us are white; a few are gentle, black-clad young anarchists. Most of us have lived or traveled widely in the Third World. Elsewhere in the caravan are the Italians and other internationals, solidarity groups from other parts of Mexico, and supporters from Chiapas who are not members of the EZLN - the acronym for the Spanish name of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
8:50 a.m. Friendly police hold back traffic at an intersection so our cavalcade can move through uninterrupted. Lots of people watch and wave as we pass settlements, tiny shops, stands selling pottery. As the fog burns off we see corn planted on steep, unterraced hillsides, other hillsides sadly eroded.
"Why doesn't someone teach these people to terrace their slopes to save the soil?" I whisper grimly to Charles, sitting beside me. He doesn't answer. As we start descending we see one terraced garden, then another. Fewer people in traditional costume. By 10:00 we're approaching Tuxtla. Ranks of mestizo supporters wave, flash V-signs, signal to us with thumbs up. Two boys shout, "Zapata vive, la lucha sigue, sigue!"
"You running low on water?" Charles asks me, shaking his almost empty canteen.
"Me too," I say and start rummaging in my daypack for the announcement the MSN sent us when we first signed up. On page 17 of the email I printed out I find the comforting sentence I remember reading. "We will carry sufficient bottled water with the delegation." I sit back, relaxed.
Around 11 a.m. we arrive in Tuxtla for a rally but there's little time for us to attend it. Tom alerts us to the song a performer will sing when the event is nearly over and we have to head back to the bus. Since there's no toilet on it, we have to find "servicios" as well as food and water, he says. Water! Again I dig out the announcement we received and walk forward to talk to our leader.
"Hey, I thought the Network was supposed to provide water."
Tom looks at me with irritation. "Where'd you get that idea?"
I show him that line on page 17. He glares at me, then sends Josh, his assistant, off to remedy the situation. I suspect that he's decided I'm a troublemaker but hey, if I were the passive sort, why would I sign up for a trip like this?
We search out bathrooms and buy food to go, careful not to get raw fruit or veggies that we can't peel and so might make us sick. Then we stroll down to the plaza just as the rally is drawing to a close. A row of "comandantes", women as well as men, are standing on stage holding a big Mexican flag. Their poet of a leader, "Subcomandante" Marcos stands among them, identifiable by the pipe he smokes through a neat little opening in his mask.
Behind the balaclava that hides his face, Subcommander Marcos isn't an Indian. He's a white, middle-class intellectual probably educated as a boy by Jesuit priests steeped in the liberation theology that, since the seventies, has been a powerful, schismatic movement in the Latin American church. Liberation theology calls for serving the poor through action for social and economic change, not just occasional charity from a condescending privileged class.
Fourteen years later, it will capture worldwide attention when Pope Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, voices its principles in an encyclical.
Marcos doesn't just speak for the indigenous, he speaks for all the underdogs and the disempowered, whatever their race or culture may be. Because he answers to the will of those he speaks for, he calls himself a sub-commander. Marcos speaks for fairness in an unfair society and many in Mexico love his message. As the audience cheers, we rush back to the bus.
Now a big plastic barrel of water is stationed up front near the driver, equipped with a spigot so we can all fill our canteens and bottles whenever we like. As we're leaving for Juchitán, three indigenous join us. They work for a communications project of the Diocese of Chiapas whose bishop supports the Zapatistas. Trained to serve as "honest reporters," they use video and radio to inform their isolated, mostly illiterate fellow Indians in their own language.
That afternoon our caravan stretches out along the road. At 5 p.m. we catch up with a few vehicles that have been stopped and then released by four trucks of uniformed officers wearing body armor. Some of them carry assault rifles - not a heartening sight. One of the trucks is labeled Federal Preventive Police.
As we reach the outskirts of Juchitán, cheering, waving crowds line the road. A class of little girls in ruffled pinafores stands chanting, "Marcos! Chiapas!" as a helicopter chug-chug-chugs overhead. Further down the road, Tom stations himself in the aisle to talk to us, bracing himself with his hands on the backs of seats. President Fox, he says, is trying to spin publicity about our caravan. Fox claims it's about reaching a peace agreement, not about yielding to Marcos' demands for the government to follow through on the San Andres Accords. If no agreement is reached, he'll treat it as a failure of the EZLN. The basic principles agreed to in 1996 by the Mexican government and the Zapatistas are:
Free all Zapatista prisoners.
Respect the culture and traditions of the indigenous in Chiapas.
Conserve natural resources within territories occupied by indigenous peoples and give them a greater role in determining how those territories may be developed.
That evening Charles and I share a table in a café with a dignified, middle-aged member of the National Congress from Guadalajara. He tells us he's one of a number of dignitaries, including observers from Uruguay and Argentina, riding in the first bus in the caravan, just in front of the Comandancia bus. Outside, I chat briefly with young women from Germany and Switzerland and overhear a young couple speaking French. It's great to get to know these jovenes, at least a little. International activists like these, a year and a half ago, helped us block Seattle's streets.
The next morning we're slated to leave at 7:00 for Oaxaca. When we prowl around in the gray light of dawn looking for food, all the shops are still closed so we do the best we can from food stands and vendors, collecting an odd mix of oranges, white rolls and sesame cakes. With the water in our canteens we manage to eat a good breakfast and feel ready to be on our way. But then we hear there's going to be a press conference so we have to wait.
As Marcos gets off his bus to meet with media, a girl from our delegation kisses him on the cheek. No surprise there, lots of women are crazy about him. Then Tom shows up from a meeting with the expedition's guiding council and tells us that this morning someone handed a death threat to the Comandantes' bus from a well-known paramilitary group.
"Watch out," he says as he stands in the aisle. "The mainstream media are beating the drum against the Zapatistas, telling lots of lies. If you bought one of those T-shirts with a picture of Marcos or the route of the caravan, don't wear it. Never know who's out there."
Here where the climate is warmer than in Chiapas, many folks along the side of the road are barefoot. Papaya trees grow along a fence and nearby, wild calla lilies are blooming. Our bus approaches clumps of children from several schools, dressed in contrasting uniforms, lined up eager to greet us. Their teachers wait behind them, alert. The kids are chanting and cheering, their young faces full of excitement. The driver slows down. As our vehicle crawls by, they break ranks, run alongside, and reach their hands up toward us. They're irresistible. Those of us with window seats reach out to them. We trail our hands out our open windows so we can touch, touch, touch one small hand after another. It's thrilling, electric, an exchange of love. Then the driver speeds up and we have to leave them behind.
At 11 a.m., BAM! Our bus, equipped with two worn tires supporting each of its corners, has a double blowout - but it's only carrying one spare. We all pile out while volunteers rush to put it on. In Oaxaca, a front-page headline in the local paper blares OAXACA TURNS ZAPATISTA. But then the whole state of Oaxaca has been battered by NAFTA. American grown farm products welcomed in by the agreement have put hundreds of thousands of its small farmers out of business. It's sent many of them, desperate for work, fleeing to cross the border illegally into the United States. Our rally in the main plaza draws 25,000 supporters and clearly they are not all displaced farmers. Earnest parents who look middle class carry on their shoulders little kids wearing black balaclavas in sympathy with our cause.
That night we hear that national TV and other media are slamming our caravan. They claim foreign solidarity people like us just want to strip Mexico of its resources. Lifelong activists like Charles and me? Like those great young people and all the other caravanistas hanging on through this crazy ride for Marcos and his peasant comandantes? Still we do what little we can to change our image; we shift our more brunette riders to the window seats.
The next morning a couple of people visit us from the other MSN bus. Nancy, a sassy, bright Chicana journalist from San Francisco, leads an orientation session as we wait to depart. Mexicans are dissatisfied, she says, with the PRI, for 59 years the nation's ruling party. Despite its socialist roots and its bold name, the "Partido Revolucionario Institutional" (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) has steadily grown more conservative and corrupt.
The Mexican standard of living is in a downward spiral. Since 1982, Mexico's international debt has triggered pressure from world financial institutions to follow neo-liberal policies which the government has carried out, including privatization of much communally held land. In 1994, a peso crisis cut the value of the local currency in half and inflation soared, hurting the middle class as well as the poor. Formerly solid citizens lost their homes and businesses. Over the years, the government has ended subsidies for staples like milk and tortillas, and let prices soar on electricity, gas, and heating fuel. Meanwhile education has been privatized; more and more children have been priced out of schools.
The economics lesson ends. A fellow sitting across the aisle launches into a story. "Folks around here take educating their kids seriously. When they slashed the school budget in one of these towns, the teachers and students went out on strike. So then in come the riot police and they make all these arrests. So then the community grabbed a bunch of police. They stripped them naked and tied them up in the plaza!"
Tom reappears and introduces the other newcomer to our group. "Jeff was thrown out of Mexico around the same time I was. That was a blow. I went to a "tiendita" for eggs and never got back to my delegation. Two men in sunglasses, cowboy hats and boots took me to the airport. One of them jabbed an M-16 in my back. Only time I ever had a private jet waiting for me."
Jeff says he was shipped out on a private jet too but first he was held in custody for three days. He's a slim man with short brown hair and an understated, matter of fact manner but there's an undercurrent of zeal in the way he speaks. "The minute I heard Fox was letting us internationals come back, I quit my job and I was on my way."
For three years, from 1995 till 1998, he worked with a group in Chiapas that was installing water systems. "Because that's what the indigenous wanted. That's what they still want: clean water, electricity, schools. Nothing fancy. Fifty-five percent of the power in Mexico comes from Chiapas"- probably, I surmise, from hydroelectric dams in their mountains - "but 75% of their villages don't have power. The PRI only gives water and power to the villages that support it.
"One day a village where we were working was having a fiesta. It was Good Friday, the anniversary of the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, a hero of theirs, a hero of us all, and suddenly the army attacked in force. They burned houses, beat people, jailed quite a few. Destroyed their cornfields, the school the community built, the mural they'd painted on one wall."
He pulls a battered picture postcard out of his pocket. He waves it around for a few seconds, then starts it passing among us on the bus.
"They thought they destroyed this mural," he says, "but we weren't about to let what it represented be forgotten. We internationals he pitched out, we talked to CNN and the New York Times, to people in Congress and the State Department. And this mural, it's been painted again in San Francisco and Mexico City, in Bilbao and Toronto and Madrid."
The postcard passes to Charles and me. It's bright and winning with simple images: Zapata and Marcos, flowers and butterflies, the schoolhouse they built and the Spanish word for peace. Charles hands it to the row behind us.
Our bus drives on through mountainous, arid country, past organ pipe cactuses thriving on steep hillsides, poking upward from gulches like abstract sculptures twenty-five feet high. Careful on our thin tires, our driver is taking a slow road instead of the toll road into Puebla. Burros amble beside us. Then the land gets flatter and greener with lemon orchards and adobe houses with roofs of tile or corrugated iron.
At last another city, another rally. Thankfully that evening we don't have to rush around while the rally is on, buying food to carry back to the bus. We're staying in Puebla overnight so we can enjoy what is happening. As we stand in the crowd, an announcer bellows over the public address system: "International visitors, please come to the stage for security."
The Comandancia must have received yet another death threat. Charles and I push our way in that direction, trying to be polite as we go, "Con permiso, permiso, estamos internationales," hoping our pale faces and foreign accents will ease our passage. When we get within ten feet of the stage, the press of bodies is too great for us to penetrate. We're stuck over to one side, directly in line with deafening loudspeakers where only the hardiest of supporters are willing to stand in front of us. But at least we can see the comandantes up close.
The stage is decked with white flowers and feathered headdresses. As always, a large Mexican flag hangs behind the Comandancia. On this warm evening, they wear several layers of clothing. Do they wear it all, I wonder, to hide bulletproof vests? In front they hold a smaller Mexican flag and a banner that calls for Liberty, Justice and Democracy. When Marcos comes on stage, smoking his pipe, there's a palpable gasp around us. But first other commanders speak.
Two read speeches aloud from the kind of black and white mottled notebooks that youngsters use in primary school. A woman speaks about women's rights - and I'm delighted to see her given a chance to speak out. A man who represents the indigenous of Puebla holds forth in both their Indian language and Spanish. They're not just concerned about economic issues, he says. They want respect for their indigenous culture, their dress, their music, their curanderas with their herbal knowledge.
At last Marcos speaks. I wish I could grasp all the poetry of his words but I think that together Charles and I get the gist. We Zapatistas don't just represent the indigenous. We're for all of us. One Mexico, rejoicing in its diversity. We want to build a house for everyone, even our opponents. Dignity and respect must be the bridge. When he speaks about the misery of the indigenous, a chant rises from the audience of thirty-five or forty thousand. No estan solos, no estan solos. The verb form is all-encompassing: You and they are not alone, you and they are not alone.
Back at our bus we learn that the Italians of Ya Basta, our comrades on the caravan, have been abandoned by their drivers in Oaxaca. Paramilitaries told the drivers that these well disciplined rowdies in white coveralls were communists. They threatened the drivers with death as well as destruction of their buses so they dumped the Italians' possessions out on the sidewalk and took off without them.
A local university has offered to put up everyone on the caravan. That evening, when we get there, it looks like a prosperous place with prosperous students but where are we supposed to sleep? At 11 p.m. we stand like displaced persons in a fenced-in corral in semi-darkness. We look around mournfully, searching vainly for porta-potties. Then Tom tells us we'll be bedding down inside the school's covered sports stadium and we won't have to leave until 6:30 in the morning. By midnight Charles and I have fallen fast asleep in an entry area on its second floor. But at 4:30 a.m., overhead lights flash on and announcements roar over the public address system.
We're leaving at 5:30, a mystery voice says in two languages, and breakfast is being served outside. In front of the stadium in semi-darkness, indigenous women presiding over tall, steaming kettles dish out delicious hot rice and beans, plus rolls and hardboiled eggs. When we go back inside to get our things, a bagpiper - where did they ever find a bagpiper? - is pacing back and forth on the floor of the stadium blaring "The Minstrel Boy to the War Has Gone." By 5:45, we're all on the bus, ready to take off again. To shouts of Vamanos! we head out.
It's Wednesday and the caravan is growing, picking up more people and vehicles. For security, they move the internationals closer to the Comandancia. As soon as the two main buses pass us, we fall in behind them. The comandantes' bus and its companion vehicle filled with dignitaries look alike; they're new and white with slim blue and purple swirls on their sides. Surely they have toilets, I think enviously, and their tires aren't precariously thin. Still it's an honor to be chosen to accompany them so closely if only for a couple hours.
Along the route, police no longer hold back traffic at intersections to help us pass. The caravan is falling further and further behind schedule. Nonetheless, our driver stops to finally buy the two more tires we desperately need for our bus. Soon our bus catches up to the caravan where it has stopped for a short rally. Further on, in a small town where we're just scheduled for a "wave-through," someone presents the driver with a gift for us all, a carton of food. Each of us gets a sandwich and an orange. The sandwiches are neat and tasty with ham and cheese plus thin layers of avocado and slivers of mild chiles. Something more makes them delectable. I sense that local women have prepared them for us with love.
That evening finds us in Tephé in the state of Hidalgo. The comandantes, decked with matching yellow wreaths hung around their necks like leis, stand on a stage with an overhanging roof in the plaza. They look very festive but suddenly at 7:15, although it's the dry season, a thunderstorm explodes. Rain crashes down on us, an avalanche of water. Charles and I take cover in an arcade from which we can watch the rally. People who have given up on it are still gaily chanting slogans as they run away through the storm. Eventually we join the crowd of defectors, sloshing through ankle-deep water to a house down the road where Tom has arranged for the seniors like us to stay.
That night the rest of the delegates sleep on the buses or stretch out on the floor of a public spa designed for day use only. When we show up there at 6:30 a.m., we learn we won't be leaving as early as planned. It's Thursday, March 1st and the caravan is supposed to go into the state of Querétero, on its way to the town of the same name. The caravan is heading northeast, circling around Mexico City, following the same route Emiliano Zapata followed when he led the Army of the South in 1914. The circle is a major Mayan symbol and many along this route live on semi-arid land and work for poverty wages.
The caravan's organizers want to pass through the state of Querétero but now its governor is saying that all Zapatistas deserve the death penalty; he's threatening to arrest any caravanistas who enter the state. Tom goes off to meet with the guiding council, to figure out what's going to happen. Meanwhile the rest of us settle around camp tables and sit on damp benches eating hot quesadillas and drinking coffee supplied by local women for a few pesos. After a while Tom comes back, buys himself a quesadilla and coffee, and between gulps and munches tells us what's been decided.
"We're all going in. We're keeping the Comandancia in the middle of the caravan. If anyone stops the first buses, it won't be them."
One frantic evening he mentioned that he's trained himself to get by on three or four hours sleep a night when he's leading a group. This morning he looks exhausted. Back on our bus, heading for the border with Querétero, he manages a catnap. I wish I could do the same but throughout this trip I've been running on adrenalin. Burning myself out. Can't sleep during the day and find it hard to fall asleep at night, lying with Charles's arms around me, sometimes listening to him gently snoring.
A few miles on, I see an unexpected sight. The Italians of Ya Basta are back with us. White twill arms and legs flap in a companionable way as a new bus the Italians have rented passes ours. They've hung their still damp coveralls out their windows to dry. An hour later the caravan slows. We're all just crawling, crawling down a long incline. From my seat midway back I can see out the windshield up front. We must be coming into Querétero but the local cops are stalling us.
Four days ago when we started driving out of Chiapas, the police were friendly. At intersections along our narrow road out of the eastern mountains, they held traffic back so our cavalcade of vehicles could move through quickly. Here in central Mexico, everything's different. We're on a highway now -- newer, wider, better paved, not nearly so winding, mostly straight. But we rarely see supporters waiting to greet us, just mile after mile of yellow-tan soil and very little green, just a scatter of brush and here and there a cactus.
We're at the border of the state of Querétero and the clamor of threats against us has been mounting. Still, hundreds of us from all over Mexico and many nations crowd buses and vans strung out along the road, and multitudes are waiting to welcome us at rallies further on so the caravan's governing council has decided that they won't just send in a couple of buses as an experiment - we'll all go in. If we can. If we can.
Our bus is creeping down a long incline. From my seat midway back I can see out the driver's windshield up front. Two lanes go the way we're headed, but at the end of this incline another steep hill begins and what's happening there isn't pretty. One of the lanes halfway up that hill is blocked by a police car parked across it; in the second lane another is just creeping along so none of our vehicles, stuck behind it, can go any faster. They must want to make us disastrously late for the rally that's planned for the state capital. A couple hundred feet from the bottom of the hill, all hell breaks loose.
BOOM … BOOM. BOOM … BOOM. "Get down!" someone shouts. BOOM … BOOM … BOOM. With each thunderous blast the whole bus shakes. Someone must be shooting at us. Paramilitaries? But it's not just guns. What could it be - mortars?
Abruptly we stop rolling; we feel no more concussions. Gradually we raise our heads. Then another voice shouts from up front, "Get out of the bus!"
I wonder if we're being summoned to be taken hostage or worse. But the order seems to have come from one of our fellow caravanistas and up front, people are grabbing their daypacks and racing out the door. Charles and I follow on the double. Once we're off the bus, no one grabs us. Instead men in all kinds of uniforms are rushing to surround us, not closing in on us but defining a space where too many things are happening.
I stumble forward, look around to get my bearings and see a big black Suburban parked at a crazy angle behind me with our now abandoned bus looming over it. Someone is calling my name. I don't respond. Four women push open doors on the car, wobble out, and limp past me. They're dressed more formally than any of us, in clothes that would look just fine in an office except that they're stained with blood. They seem dazed - two are teetering on high heels - but as they pass they seem to gain confidence and walk more quickly. They're heading for the comandancia bus. Then I see Charles, he's calling my name and his voice is rasping with urgency.
He's one of maybe a dozen people who've started a protective ring around the comandancia bus, a human shield. The wounded women from the black car skirt our growing line to board it as I join my partner in the cordon. Five, ten, dozens more join us. We're linking hands. People are streaming toward us from other vehicles in the cavalcade. In a few minutes we have the bus completely surrounded and a second ring is forming around us, all ages and sizes, men and women both. We're all bound together in common cause.
Meanwhile more cops - scores, maybe hundreds of men in three kinds of uniforms, local and national and I don't know what else - encircle a space like a football field. The road seems to be closed. It's not a road anymore, it's a crime scene. An ambulance arrives from beyond the back of the caravan, screeches to a stop on the far side of the bus we've abandoned, and moments later, its siren screaming, rushes back in the direction from which it came. It's eleven o'clock in the morning. A beautiful day, sunny, warm, and I don't know if I'm going to live or die.
Ah well, I tell myself, I've had a full life. Guess I'll just have to take my chances. I've been in scary fixes before - somehow I've always muddled through.
Amazing numbers of photographers are spilling out of the caravan, poking cameras between the policemen. Scores have shown up to report on whatever's coming. I figure that's a good sign, we're a media event. No sign yet of the paramilitaries - maybe they've been scared off by all these men in uniform. More activists - a scruffy, determined lot, mostly young - join the cordon, now it's five rows deep. Then a tow truck appears and hauls our bus away. Nobody comes over to tell us what's happening. Suddenly we're homeless orphans.
"How're you doing?" Charles asks me coolly. No surprise there. He lived for years in a war zone in Nicaragua.
"I'm okay," I say with a shrug. Irony colors my voice, "Sure, I'm fine, I'm fine. You know I've always craved adventure."
But I can't help asking myself, how did I get to this improbable place? Me, sometime scholar, professor, author - a total New York City person once upon a time? I'm thinking of beautiful Oregon on the Pacific, that's where I've lived for the past ten years. Soon after I moved there I met Charles and fell in love with him at least in part because his life had been even wilder than mine. Wildly altruistic, wildly international, wildly trying to save the world.
And standing in the cordon in bright Mexican sunshine - high on adrenalin, alert and oddly calm - I sip water from my canteen and think of the great city that spawned me. New York on the Atlantic where I started out, a scared little kid in a tumultuous household that didn't quite want me, that was just scraping by. That's where I first learned that life isn't fair. The indignation I felt then still burns inside me - but so does the optimism of one who's survived and done pretty well.
I'm trapped by my beliefs, guided by my beliefs: that circumstances beyond their control can torment the innocent and twist them out of shape, can make it torturous for them to carry on. But sometimes there's a way, sometimes there's hope. And when good people help and the system works then, with luck, things can get better.