Lois on the Loose

Book Extract

Chiapas, Mexico, where my fictitious husband saves the day… 

My route took me down the West Coast of the USA to California, from where I would cross into Mexico at the notorious border town of Tijuana, before striking out for Central and South America. As far as I was concerned this was a fine plan, but not everyone shared my enthusiasm – almost every American I met bombarded me with horror stories of death, drugs and violence south of the border.

‘You’ll get robbed!’ ‘Murdered!’ ‘Or worse!’ they exclaimed, horrified at my travel plans.

Due to this catalogue of doom, I entered Mexico terrified, expecting gun-toting bandits and corrupt policemen to jump out from behind every cactus, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the scare stories were based on little, if no fact. Riding down Baja was a blast and the rest of Mexico was turning out to be a breeze (except for the small problem of not bring able to speak Spanish).

So when the policeman flagged me down, I wasn’t too worried. I’d had a couple of brushes with the Mexican bobbies, and they hadn’t roughed me up, squeezed a bribe out of me or attempted anything that could be considered in the slightest bit improper. In fact, one member of the force had even bought me breakfast, finally putting to rest the image of the corrupt, greasy-palmed policia. This latest member of the constabulary was no different; he just wanted to impart some important information to me about the road ahead. Unfortunately, I had no idea what he was talking about.

But he spoke in Spanish to me anyway, gesturing to get his message across, pointing in the direction I was heading, shaking his head and waving his gloved hands in a manner that suggested there was trouble looming. I nodded, pretending I understood, thanked him profusely and carried on. Whatever he’d been trying to tell me, I figured it couldn’t be that serious.

After a while I wondered if I’d got the wrong end of the stick; there didn’t seem to be anything on this road to hinder my journey. What could he have meant? I rode for a mile or so along the empty two-lane highway, passing a few wizened old men ambling along on their donkeys and a farmer herding an unruly bunch of cows. But after a couple of miles I put the whole thing down to a case of miscommunication and forgot all about it.Mexico Landscape

That was, until I came round a bend to discover the tail-end of a lengthy traffic jam. Oh! So this is what he meant. There must be road-works going on I guessed, and with the motorcycle proving itself as the finest form of transport, I whizzed up the side of the mile-long queue to the front, where to my utmost surprise, I found not the gang of swarthy, pickaxe-swinging workmen that I had envisaged, but instead, a mob of rowdy protestors, who, using a combination of themselves, rocks, tree trunks, branches, burnt-out cars and blazing bonfires, had brought the Pan-American Highway to a grinding halt.

Despite the impassioned activity of the demonstrators, the roadblock had something of a fiesta atmosphere, with a few entrepreneurial types selling barbecued corn and overpriced cans of Coke to their captive market. The protestors were chanting and shouting, some of them had linked arms, creating a human barricade across the road. The entire blockade was a family affair with everyone out in force, from granny and granddad down to babies slung on their mother’s backs. But although the atmosphere seemed reasonably good-natured, the message was coming across loud and clear: NOBODY’S GOING ANYWHERE.

In typical laidback fashion, none of the drivers of the trucks and cars seemed to object to the hold up; it was just another day in Mexico. Some of the truckers were taking the opportunity to have a nap in their cabs, while others strolled up and down the queue, chatting to each other. Families sat outside their cars, enjoying an impromptu picnic, as if this was the most normal thing in the world.

As I pulled up to the frontline, the noisy crowd waved their arms at me, shouting ‘NO PASAR! NO PASAR!’ and glaring angrily. From the centre of the throng, their leader appeared, a man with twinkling eyes and a face that had seen it all, brown and lined from years of outdoor toil and strenuous roadblock organisation. I had to admire his tenacity.

‘Que pasa’ I asked him. What’s happening?

The jeers of the crowd fell to an excitable hum when I spoke, all eyes turning to their head honcho, as he addressed the foreign muchacha on a motorcycle. Having made my opening gambit in Spanish, the leader understandably assumed I could speak his lingo and launched into what I guessed to be a stirring, rebel-rousing piece of agitprop, if the raised fists and whooping cries of his supporters were anything to go by. I thought it best to put him straight.

‘I only speak a little Spanish’ I explained apologetically in his language. This was one phrase I had learnt pretty quickly.

Undeterred, he continued to bombard me with more unintelligible propaganda.

After I’d listened and nodded for long enough not to be considered rude, I popped the million-peso question.

‘Es possible…?’ I asked him, motioning my request to continue my journey.

He beamed a kindly smile which seemed at odds with the vigorous shaking of his head.

‘No. No pasar’ he replied firmly.

I surveyed the hostile crowd. But curiosity had got the better of them and having dropped the offensive they were now edging towards me, pointing and nudging each other excitedly. The protestors at the front gathered around me, gingerly touching the bike and staring at my map of Mexico. I pointed to our location, and seeing the name of their hometown, they gaped in astonishment, beckoning their fellow campaigners to take a look. I smiled at one of the women and when she smiled back shyly, I realised that this was the moment. I had them in the palm of my hand and if I was going to get through this blockade, it was time to start playing the crowd.

With a big smile I addressed the leader and his followers again in my faltering Spanish,

‘What’s happening?’ I cried, ‘Please may I go through?’

The murmur of the rabble rose to an excited chatter and they stood transfixed as the twinkly-eyed man once again refused my request.

‘No pasar.’

The crowd, deferring to his command, began to ebb away, moving back to their positions.

Damn! I was losing my audience. It was now or never, and I had an idea…

With an exaggerated flourish I whipped out my Spanish dictionary from my luggage and displayed it to the demonstrators, prompting peals of laughter and a hearty cheer. They stared at me engrossed, murmuring to each other, as I quickly flicked through to the ‘H’ section where I found the translation for the magic word. OK, this was it, time for a bit of method acting. Clutching the dictionary to my heart, I imagined myself as the leading lady in a Shakespearean tragedy (not that I’d ever seen any but it didn’t matter at this moment). I stood up on the foot pegs and in what I hoped to be an anguished tone, I delivered my plea to the crowd in their language.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, please may I go through? My HUSBAND…he waits for me in the next town!’

For added effect I pulled off my left glove and raised my bare hand to the protestors, pointing to my fake wedding ring that glinted convincingly under the late afternoon sun. A gasp went up from the female members of the crowd. I turned to them, dewy eyed and pleading. But all eyes were on their leader, as they stood still and silent, awaiting his response.

In the hush I could hear the whirring of insects in the trees and the shriek of exotic birdcall high above me.

The leader looked at his people, then back at me. Our eyes met and I smiled wanly, still in character.

A dog was yapping somewhere in the queue of stationary vehicles. A tinny car radio played a wailing Spanish ballad.

The man turned again to his followers. They hadn’t moved or uttered a sound, still waiting for his decision. I stared at him, steeling myself for the worst, imagining the forthcoming night, or days or weeks even, camped out at the roadblock, hundreds of us drawing straws for the last piece of barbecued corn, starving and thirsty, forced to drink the water from the car radiators…

But just as I was getting carried away with my survivalist nightmare, I was yanked back into reality by an almost imperceptible nod from the leader. A deafening roar erupted from the crowd! The magic sign had been given! I was free to go! The demonstrators leapt into action, cheering and clapping as they hurriedly cleared me a rough path through the debris, waving me on, patting me on the back as I bounced and bumped my way over the remaining rubble. Oh! The roar of the crowd, the smell of the… er…grease. My Oscar winning performance had done the trick!

‘Muchas gracias! Muchas gracias!’ I shouted jubilantly, not daring to look back in case they changed their minds.

I gunned it down a deserted southbound Pan American Highway, hoping to make it to the Guatemalan border before it shut for the night. My heart quickened as signs for la frontera appeared and once again, I felt that stomach-churning excitement of a new country to discover and the thrill of the unknown ahead.