The air above the asphalt shimmered like a cliché. It was stuffy in the car and smelled of Boon, but it was still more pleasant than opening a window and letting in the desert heat. Boon sat in the front and nodded, disinterested in Juan’s torrent of words. Now and then he tucked a strand of his long brown hair behind his ear, which immediately fell back into his face.
I met him in a sleazy bar in Vancouver. He had grinned. “Travelling alone is the best way.” I agreed and the next day we continued our journey south together.
We hired Juan in an alley in Tijuana. To this day I wonder how little risk awareness I had at that time. Boon had doggedly bargained until the Mexican agreed to drive us to La Paz in his tiny Honda for a ridiculous low price.
I sat in the back and stared out at the wasteland through which an astonishing number of vehicles toiled. Every now and then, Stoner Steve’s backpack would fall on my shoulder and snap me out of my thoughts.
I’ve been trying to ditch Stoner Steve since San Francisco, but anyone who’s stepped on bubble gum knows how hard this can be. We had checked into a hostel in Seattle. For some reason he saw us as his best friends and has followed us like a dachshund ever since. An annoying dachshund.
He didn’t want to put himself through the ordeal of the road trip, but he was happy to be chauffeured to the airport. He would also have liked us to take his luggage in the car, so that he didn’t have to deal with the check-in procedure for it. He had Boon, who was too nice for this world, say within seconds: “No problemo, we still have room in the back seat.”
I would have liked to throw this thing out the window, but it was too big and heavy; and I would let the heat in after all. I was already in a bad mood just thinking about Stoner Steve’s smug grin, that we had to collect again in La Paz.
The brooding, the monotony of the cacti flying by and Juan’s babble soon made me fall asleep. I woke up by the change in speed, or rather by the backpack dropping on me as a result. The traffic had become heavier and slower.
“What’s going on?” I asked Juan in Spanish.
“I do not know yet. A herd of cows maybe, an overturned truck or a checkpoint.”
The rig in front of us pulled over and hissed to a stop. Now I saw the soldiers in beige combat uniforms isolating vehicles for examination.
“Don’t panic, if they see you gringos, they’ll wave us through.”
We crept by the line of waiting trucks. Several cars in front of us, a small red one was pulled out. Then we were moving again; slowly, but forward.
Large jeeps and an armored assault vehicle blocked the road except for a gap the width of a car. Soldiers with machine guns were ready. One of them, with an orange flag, waved another car through. The last one before it was our turn, but he raised his hand. Juan drove on. Behind the checkpoint he accelerated.
“Uh, shouldn’t we have stopped?” Boon asked, turning to look out the back window.
The uniformed men seemed nervous now. The armored vehicle had pulled up and was now blocking the gap. Soldiers dashed around, and the jeeps rushed to pursuit. To pursuit us!
“Juan, stop now!” I yelled.
The first vehicle had already reached us and cut us off with squeaking tires. Juan slammed the breaks. A second jeep came to a stop behind us. Nothing happened for a moment. We stared into the barrels of the guns aimed at us and hardly dared to breathe. For the first time since Tijuana, even Juan had fallen silent.
Four soldiers exited the front vehicle and approached our car, weapons drawn.
“Get out!” someone shouted, “Hands on the car!”
Slowly, hands raised, we exited and obeyed. Only after we were frisked and reassigned to a spot away from our car did the soldiers relax.
While the captain checked our papers, the luggage was unloaded and placed in a row on the street. Several uniforms searched the car extensively and a sniffer dog was sent through the interior.
In the meantime, we had to open our bags. “Who does this backpack belong to?” asked the captain.
“A friend. He’s not here. He’s on the plane,” I replied.
The tension returned. The dog had barked.
The handler pointed to Juan and waved him over. They argued wildly. Boon started packing up his things. My duffel bag was still being searched. The handler nodded to the captain. He gave the others an order and Juan waved. “We can continue.”
Boon packed his and Steven’s bag, I gathered my stuff, and we left before they could change their minds.
“What was going on?” Boon wanted to know after the adrenaline had worn off.
“Mordida.” Juan winked.
“What’s that?” Boon asked.
“He just wanted… a small donation to make it easier for us… to continue, you understand gringo?”
In La Paz, we were already laughing about the adventure. Especially Steve. “Lucky that they didn’t find my weed.”
“You had weed in your bag?” Boon asked.
“Well, you don’t think I’m going to smuggle drugs onto a plane in Mexico, do you? I’m not an idiot.”
I savored that answer for a moment, wondering how I liked it. Then I tried what I’ve been wanting to try since Los Angeles, and lo and behold, my fist fits right into Stoner Steve’s eye.
Understand German? Read the German version here.