Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Road That Reminds

The road from Xalapa to Veracruz always feels like a liberation.

Once we leave the traffic and dust of the city, with its crisscrossing networks of electrical wires overhead and the cement buildings jammed together, the road opens up to a rolling horizon of green. There are grassy, tree-studded fields on the right, marked off with crooked white posts strung with barbed wire; and a majestic canyon to the left, spectacular and verdant during the spring months. Sometimes the trees along the side of the highway shed pink or purple petals in a gentle cascade when the wind blows. And the temperature gets noticeably hotter as we descend from the foothills of Xalapa, which is 1500 meters above sea level, to the port city of Veracruz.


This is sugar cane country and part of the processing involves burning the fibrous residue after the sugar has been extracted, so we often see a column of smoke rising up a mile or two off the highway. The smoke is acrid with a tinge of sweetness, and tiny flakes of ash float for miles, leaving a fine residue of black dust that forces families to wash their floors and dust their furniture almost on a daily basis during the harvest season.

Driving out of the city feels like freedom because my eyes hunger for more green, and the road brings me a sense of expansion and peace. The fact that our trips to Veracruz are usually recreational -- or marking the start of a trip to Cancun or the States -- may also have something to do with it.

There was one nighttime trip to Veracruz, however, that felt like hell the whole way.

We had just arrived back from the States to the Veracruz airport, and then had taken a small bus for the two-hour trip to Xalapa. Upon arriving in Xalapa in the evening, I realized that I had left my purse (with credit and debit cards, cell phone, and some other goodies) hanging from the arm of a chair in the airport's ground floor cafe, right next to the door.

We lugged our suitcases into the house, packed a few snacks for Olivia, and jumped right into the car.

We made the trip in absolute silence, hurtling through the darkness at a speed I should not mention in case my mom reads this. Both of us were already exhausted. JC was annoyed that I had forgotten my bag, and I was stewing in anxiety over whether or not it would still be there. Olivia was soon sleeping.

As the yellow lane dividers flashed by hypnotically under the headlights, I was calculating the probabilities in percentages that my bag would still be there (not more than 10%). I was also fretting about the practical implications of not finding it, because it would imply canceling my credit and debit cards. In the States, replacements arrive in the mail fairly swiftly. But in Mexico, where the mail system is extremely slow and not always reliable -- some packages arrive intact after ten weeks, others are partially opened, and a few never arrive at all -- the loss meant a solid month or two of frozen finances and anxious expectation.

We normally avoid nighttime journeys; JC is cautious by nature and the dozens of drug-related killings in Veracruz the year before had confirmed him in the decision to avoid traveling after dark. There is something about seeing photos of 37 decapitated bodies dumped onto a major highway through the nicest part of the city that makes you think twice about venturing out at night. And although there had been almost no rumors of narco war for at least a year, we preferred to travel by day.

So this was my first time passing through the countryside at night, and since I live in a city, it was one of the few occasions that I have ever seen the full array of stars in the sky over Mexico. There were a few clouds, but wide patches of clear sky were peppered with light. Along the way, we also passed a sugar-residue bonfire that probably measured 15 meters in diameter, and that generated an immense column of illuminated smoke that stretched toward the stars. Since I was already in an apocalyptic mood (losing one's bag will do that to you), I almost expected to see demons cavorting amidst the flames.

We passed through Cardel, which is a small city with an outsized nightlife and blaring music in every other shop on the main drag, and sped on to the next toll booth, where the traffic... gradually... slowed... until we were crawling along at 5 miles an hour. It took us about 45 minutes to cover two miles, which was maddening.

The reason for the delay was that there was a security checkpoint just before the toll booths, and traffic was streamlined into one lane so that the Ejercito officers, in a wide-legged stance, armed with rifles, faces masked, could see each car and its occupants (fully opened windows are mandatory) as it crawled by.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the airport and I leaped out and ran inside. I was in for a lesson in pragmatic negotiation.

The waitress who had brought our sandwiches at the cafe was still there. When I asked her, breathless, if she had seen my purse, she said she had not and that she would have set it aside for me if she had seen it. There was something about her that struck me as trustworthy, so I believed her. She said, "Look, what you need to do is go to the security guard over there and tell him that you lost your purse." And she added, "Tell him that you want to see the surveillance tapes in order to know who took it."

I went straight over to the security guard, an older man with a gray mustache, and told him my tale of woe. He nodded and said, "Describe the bag to me." So I described it in exhaustive detail, inside and out.

He simply nodded and took me upstairs to the administrative offices, where he led me to a tiny office where a woman was sitting behind a desk. She also asked me for a description of the lost item, so I went through the whole spiel again, adding that I had a photo ID inside to confirm that it was really my bag.

She seemed noncommittal, and there was a pause as the guard and the woman glanced at each other. Neither showed any signs of recognition and neither made any move.

Then I remembered what the waitress had said, so I added, "I would like to see the surveillance tape to know who took it."

At that, the woman glanced up at the guard again and then turned around and opened a small filing cabinet behind her. There in the bottom drawer was my bag, just as I had described it. Apparently, a woman with several children who was sitting in the waiting area had seen me run out without my bag. She had picked it up and tried to run after the bus to flag it down, but was too late. Then she went to the bus office and told the clerk that a passenger had left her bag, but there was no cell phone service on the road between Veracruz and Xalapa and we were already out of range. So she turned it over to the security guard, who in turn gave it to the airport administrator who handles lost things.

It struck me only later that the honesty and generosity of that woman, who made every effort to get my bag to me, was offset by what now seems like the silent complicity of the guard and the administrator. It was only when I asked to see the surveillance tape -- which clearly showed the woman giving my bag to that very guard -- that they handed over the goods.

On the ride home, considerably more at peace this time, I was thinking about my initial calculations of the likelihood of ever seeing my bag again. Somehow the outcome landed in the 10% category that I had nearly classified as a miracle. So it felt like another small reminder that my constant worrying (because I worry a lot, I really do) is an insult to God's providence.

For me, emotion-laden events (even just the anxiety and relief of finding a lost bag) tend to anchor themselves to the places, sights, and even smells that accompanied them. Now, the sight of the green countryside en route to Veracruz, with the occasional column of acrid-sweet smoke rising in the distance -- not unlike the column of smoke that guided Moses and his people through the desert -- reminds me of that little miracle.

After that one hellish journey, our subsequent trips to Veracruz have an added layer of sweetness, an extra feeling of liberation.

It's not just the greenery and the view that refresh me; it's also the memory that Someone is taking care of us, the reminder that we are not alone, and we don't have to do it all by ourselves.

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