Gunfire in the Jungle!
Olive and Blossom were two very characterful women. They explained to me that they had been life-long friends. They had never married and had lived together as companions since they were in their twenties. My instincts (gaydar!) suggested that these two striking and confident women, with neatly trimmed and greying hair, were probably partners but frankly that didn’t matter. I understood the context of the era and how coming-out was still a very risky thing to do. If they were a couple, then they were a wonderful couple. If not, then they were simply wonderful friends. To me, they were just wonderful, whatever.
They told me they had grown up in a rough part of Chicago. Olive’s father had been a pianist in a jazz bar for many years before his death and her mother had been a seamstress. Blossom’s father had been a taxi driver for his entire life, in Chicago, and her mother had worked in a variety of roles including cleaner, waitress and singer in the jazz circuit. Olive and Blossom’s parents had met through Olive’s father and Blossom’s mother being in the same jazz band together. The two families had then become life-long friends. Olive and Blossom had decided to spend their fifties, and onwards, dedicated to travelling the world and so here they were chatting with a twenty-something guy from London in a coach in Mexico! As ever, our dear Queen Elizabeth was a source of conversation and fascination to them. I started to wonder whether all people from outside Europe think that all British people actually know the Queen, personally? We don’t, by the way.
We continued to chat about our different home lands and lives until we were interrupted by a sudden flurry of what was immediately evident as gunfire. I felt my heart pounding, as I acknowledged to myself what the sound was. Our driver swerved hard and then put his foot down hard to speed us up. Some of the passengers gasped and squealed, as the coach lurched around. The coach shook hard as we made a dash across increasingly bumpy dirt roads. We had left the main road we were on and our driver started yelling out that we were under fire from bandits! I couldn’t make out most of what he was saying in incredibly fast Spanish, but other travellers near me translated and it was clear we were being targeted by a small truck with gun wielding bandits, aiming to stop our coach. I could hear the sound of fellow travellers escalating their gasps into screams as we continued our efforts to escape.
Everyone bowed down low in their uncomfortably hard seats to avoid bullets but I decided to stand up to see what we were facing. A little way behind was a small open-backed truck. It was orange, red and white and clearly rusty. It was kicking up dust, coloured much like the truck and sometimes came too close to our coach, that it would be lost in the cloud of dust our own vehicle was making. There were two guys in the cab of the truck and two guys in the back of the truck. They stood, holding on tightly, with large guns held by straps over their shoulders. They were visible over the top of the small truck cab. They were smoking. I don’t know why, but I noticed that and thought it looked so surreal.
As one of the men in the truck reached for his gun again, I ducked down for cover, though I knew they were targeting the body of the coach, rather than the passengers. I recognised this was likely to be an opportunistic highway robbery scenario, rather than anything worse. This could still have been tricky, but I didn’t feel that these guys were behaving like hostage takers or terrorists. I am not one for panicking. I knew that would be a mistake.
Without warning, our driver swung the coach round into almost a complete u-turn and he hit the accelerator hard. There was a scream from the front of the coach as I suspect passengers there could see us narrowly missing our assailants. There were clouds of dust everywhere, inside and out. Passengers, on this coach journey into chaos, were coughing as the dust filled their airways. Within minutes, the coach stopped and the driver opened the door by his side and yelled at us all to get out, run and take cover. For a split second, I wondered what to do. This felt risky. Almost on auto-pilot, I found myself hurrying out of the coach and jumping down onto the dusty earth and I turned to help Olive and Blossom down. There were many clumps of trees, rocks and shrubs and so I indicated to Olive and Blossom to follow me and we ran to a nearby copse among the beautiful, large plants and bulky rocks.
It was difficult to see exactly where my fellow passengers all ran to, but it seemed like quite a few minutes before the bandits arrived. I looked between the trees and rocks to see what was happening. The bandits drove their truck, at high speed, around our coach a few times, firing bullets into the air and at the coach, shouting obscenities about the USA as they carved out an increasing depth of tyre tracks amidst billowing clouds of dust. I made out the sound of traditional Mexican music coming from their radio and then, without explanation, they turned and left. One of the men threw a bottle at the coach as they departed and I watched it shatter into hundreds of tiny pieces as it bounced from the bullet-holed coach, onto a jagged rock in the orange dirt.
They were gone. The cloud of dust rose into the air, behind their speeding truck, almost like a trail of smoke from a fire was heading away from us. An occasional gunfire into the air could be heard, as they drove away; the sound of the music of a Mexican Fiesta celebration gradually diminishing with them. After what seemed like many minutes, the weary and very hot group of travellers that we were, made careful and cautious steps out from our hiding places and back towards our coach; the driver yelling again as we went.
Fortunately, the driver deemed the coach tyres to be in good order and he stood by the coach door to welcome us back and assist everyone back on board. He was an overweight, sweaty man and he was very stale smelling. As soon as we were all seated, having cleared as much dust and glass from our seats as we could, we set off and a spontaneous applause filled the bus and echoed its way through the surrounding terrain.
I leant across the aisle to make sure Olive and Blossom were okay but, before I had chance, they both reached out a hand to me. I held onto both of their hands and gave them a squeeze. We looked at each other, Blossom shook her head, with a few tears rolling down her face and Olive said “Thank you Lord”, as she looked up as if through and beyond the roof of the coach.
We continued our journey, increasingly passing more traditional stick houses; suggesting that we were getting closer to Valladolid. I knew that it would soon be time for me to disembark and say my farewells. As we drove back towards the road that we should have been on; heading towards the city of Valladolid, I felt a very long way from home. I smiled. I had wanted an adventure and I chuckled to myself about the drama we had just been through.
It was time for me to depart from the coach and say my farewells to Olive and Blossom. They said that they would be visiting the mighty pyramid at Chichen Itza the next day and that we may well bump into each other again and I hoped that we would meet again, for these two formidable, funny women who, by this point were squeezing my hands again, had really been a joy to travel with. In these days before social networks and the wide use of the internet, I was used to a world in which you met people and then you said goodbye, potentially forever; with the hope that paths would cross at some future point.
I stepped out of the battle-scarred coach, waving to the many faces with whom I had shared the adventure of being shot at by bandits and set off to await the village transport to Oro’s house. I stood under an enormous tree with the whitest bark; the local landmark used as a bus stop. I was thankful for the cooling shade. As my coach departed, leaving a trail of vivid orange dust in its wake, I was met by a small truck. It was not unlike the truck used by the bandits. I thanked the driver, paid him and climbed into the open back of this truck. The sides of the back of the truck were not much more than old planks of wood nailed to posts with gaps between, through which a mixture of warm air and dust permeated.
I soon found myself with other travellers; mostly young women dressed in the whitest of robes that were emblazoned with a circle of multi-coloured stripes around the neck opening of their tops, who carried woven baskets full of vegetables. The material of their robes and the intricate stitching of these coloured bands around the neck opening of their tops were an astonishing sight of Mexican culture and impressive craftsmanship.
The driver dropped me literally outside Oro’s home; a dwelling of two parts. On one side a traditional stick house with thatched roof and to the right, a new breeze block extension. The perimeter was a three foot stick fence and just in the background were a chicken house and pig house. The animals roamed free within the entire boundary of Oro’s land. I was greeted by Oro and his lovely wife who burst out of the traditional stick-built side of their home with what must have been seven or eight children who were all cheering and smiling as I arrived. Even the chickens and pigs and a delightfully scruffy dog rushed up to meet me. I felt so welcome.
In honour of the privacy that I came to understand and respect, in Mexican people, I will not write about my afternoon, evening and overnight stay with Oro and his family; apart from to state that I have never known, in people who were almost strangers to me, such beautiful humanity, grace and kindness. Oro touched my heart and I carry that memory of him, and his family, with me always.
The next stage of my adventurous journey was about to begin…