Belize Survivor, part 59

Desperation seized Alexis as Jordan fussed and struggled. All three of them wheezed and fought for breath, and tears streamed down their cheeks as the caustic fumes burned their eyes, lungs, and skin. The only answer was to counter the movements of frantic taxis and pedestrians in the narrow streets and get out of that city as quickly as possible. It was a good eighty kilometers east of Coatzacoalcos before the burning feeling began to subside.

"My God, what a stink-hole!" exclaimed Alexis. "My throat is raw and my eyes are still watering. My poor baby," she said, rocking Jordan back and forth on her lap. "He's still coughing." She stroked his head gently. "How can those people live there?"

"I don't know," said Max, "but those refineries, or whatever they are, make it bloody impossible to breathe. So far it's only been an inconvenience not having air-conditioning in this old wreck, but in Coatzacoalcos you could damn well die without it. What's the next major town?"

"Villahermosa," Alexis answered. "It means `beautiful city' in Spanish."

"Well, it didn't take a genius to name that one." Max gave a smirk. "Any city would be beautiful compared to the last one."

As it turned out, Villahermosa, located on the banks of the Rio Grijalva, wouldn't have won any awards for urban splendor either, but with its shining white buildings and colorful gardens, it had been, at least, a temporary reprieve. But again the scenery degenerated as Alexis and Max continued eastward to the little village of Francisco de Escarsega.

"This is ghastly country." Alexis grimaced. "Everything has been such a letdown since Acayucan. Villahermosa wasn't too bad. But look at this place. Escarsega – it’s the ends of the earth. There's nothing here. A bar, a church, a restaurant where you'd surely die of salmonella poisoning, and one gas station that sells nothing higher than an eighty-two octane. A few broken-down buildings surrounded by a barren flat. No trees, no nothing. God, it's ugly. I hope we've got better things to look forward to in Belize."

Max immediately took the remark as an attack. "So you're saying it's my fault we didn't go south to Guatemala?"

"I didn't say that," Alexis protested. "We made the decision together. I just hope the countryside improves, that's all." But through the dry wasteland of Campeche, the landscape only deteriorated. With their spirits at the lowest ebb, Max and Alexis arrived at a god-forsaken spot on the map that made Escarsega look like a thriving metropolis.

Once a center of the Mayan empire, the village of Xpujíl was now a wretched outpost of desolation. There was one grimy gas station with a sagging roof and a few dilapidated huts. Filthy snot-nosed children played on the edge of the road beside the wreckage of a burned-out automobile. A couple of mangy dogs chased after a hairless scabby bitch and tried to wrestle a suspicious-looking piece of meat from her mouth. Alexis' head pounded from the blinding sun, the pain made worse by Jordan's incessant crying. A terrible heat rash tortured his little body, and his mother’s constant ministrations seemed to do no good. Max was silent and morose as he pumped the gas into the old step-van. His skin was covered with a sticky plaster of sweat and dust. His tongue felt thick and swollen. Although he would not admit it, at that point even he had misgivings.

Max was still busy, so Alexis stepped down from the truck holding Jordan and walked around the back to take advantage of its shade. Immediately she smelled the vile odor of rotting flesh. There, ten yards away, lay the bloated corpse of a pig festering in the hot sun. The iridescent green and pink meat was blanketed with flies; the open thoracic cavity squirmed with white maggots. One of the male dogs had finally claimed the gruesome prize from the bitch; it was the snout of the pig with a tattered ear still attached by a piece of grisly hide. Having lived all her life in the United States, Alexis had always seen dogs as pampered pets, cherished and cared for. She’d never seen anything like this.

But it was far worse to see the condition of the children.

“Señora, señora," the little children called as they ran to the van. "¿Dinero, por favor? ¿Pesos? ¿Pesos?" Alexis could have cried as she saw their physical condition. One little girl looked up at her with one good eye, the other blinded by a blue-white mass of hardened scar tissue. Her crippled brother tried to reach out and touch Jordan, and Alexis recoiled as she could see the lice crawling on the boy's head.

"Let's get out of here,” she cried out, running back into the van. This place is hell on earth. Can't we do something? Can't we give them some money?"

"There's nothing you can do, Ntombi. See that drunken bum leaning against the wall over there? That's their father. Besides begging me for money, he's been watching you with those kids. I can guarantee that if you give them anything, he'll take it away in two seconds flat and spend it on more rum. Even if the kids could keep it, they'd spend it on sweets, not food. You can't save the world – not the first world, and certainly not the third world." She paused reflectively as his words sank deep. Alexis would remember them forever.