|My new friend Jose|
He got on the bus not long after we left Copan Ruinas, and unlike most passengers opted to sit beside the gringa. I told him I liked having a seatmate because it lets me practice my Spanish. He told me he travels the same 10-hour bus route every three days, going between Guatemala City where he works and La Entrada, Honduras, where he lives.
His name is Jose, 37 years old and still married to the same woman he met as a teenager, when she was 13 and he was 15. They've had their ups and downs but have stuck it out. They have three children, ages 20, 11 and 5. He pulled out his phone to show me photos of his youngest, who is currently feeling a bit mopey due to having some of his bottom teeth pulled out. "Are those your real teeth?" Jose asked me. "They're beautiful!" I didn't even know where to start to try to explain the many reasons why a Canadian's teeth might be better than a Honduran's.
His kids are the reason he makes the long bus trip so often, racking up 100 hours in bus time every month. He and his wife are currently raising the two young children of their 20-year-old daughter as well, who decided in October to follow the well-worn path between Honduras and the United States and seek a better future for herself and her family by working illegally in the U.S.
She left with 4,000 lempiras in her pocket - $200, not nearly enough for what is typically a $5,000 trip for those who aim to pay all the bribes along the way and hire a coyote to lead them on the dangerous journey. The family knew she'd have a tough time with so little money, as she'd have to avoid all the people who would be demanding money from her along the way and fight off the thieves who would try to steal what little she had. She would also be travelling alone, a vulnerable young woman on a journey that eats up even the toughest, best-prepared mojados. "But there's no other way to get ahead in Honduras," Jose said.
The plan was for the girl to make her way to Pennsylvania, where she has an aunt living legally. The family said a tearful goodbye to her that morning in October, then cried for the next two months straight when they didn't hear anything from her. Sometimes they were sure she must have died; other times they just kept on believing that the phone was going to ring one day soon. And it did, on Christmas Day, when she called to say she had made it to Houston.
The journey had been something that no parent would ever want for their child: Riding on the roof of the notorious train through Mexico known as La Bestia, eventually falling from that dangerous perch on the roof and into a field of desert cacti. The young woman was bruised, battered and covered in hundreds of cactus spines, embedded too deeply for her to pull out. But as it turned out, her fall was a blessing in disguise, because she later found out that immigration officials stopped the train not long after and arrested everyone on the roof.
The girl became adept at hiding from the criminals who prey on the migrants, dodging the extortionists and the rapists and all the other predators who extract their pound of flesh from the desperate travellers trying to make their way north. Against all odds - Jose has heard that only one in 10 migrants who attempt the journey from Honduras actually make it - she got herself to the border, but was in such agony from the infection in her legs caused by the embedded cactus spines that she had to turn herself into authorities.
The news stories about illegal migrants rarely mention kind-hearted immigration officials. But someone at the border took pity on Jose's daughter, and got her medical attention for her infected legs. They listened to her as she told them she was trying to make it to her aunt's house. In the end, they admitted her legally to the U.S for five years. Her aunt sent the money for her niece to fly to Pennsylvania, where the girl has now found a job cleaning houses.
She makes $250 a week and is sending $100 of it back home for the day when she returns, says Jose. Like so many other Hondurans, the young woman doesn't want to stay in the U.S. She just wants the chance to put together a nest egg - for a better house, maybe to start her own business, to pay for a better school for her children. Savings just aren't possible on the low, low wages paid in Honduras; for the same work the girl is doing in Pennsylvania, she'd be lucky to earn $25 a week in her home country, and would very likely have to work six or seven days a week just to earn that.
Jose's story-telling made the trip to La Entrada go much faster than usual. We said our goodbyes as the bus pulled up near his neighbourhood, exchanging phone numbers in case there came a time when we could be of help to each other, or perhaps so I could someday hear how the story of his courageous daughter ends. From his well-worn duffel bag he pulled out a batido, a big plate-sized fudge-like thing made from sugar-cane juice, and gave it to me as a parting gift. I shared it with my other seatmates all the way to Santa Barbara.