The young man hawking rides on the colectivo calls out, “Morales! Morales! Morales!” He runs the words together, adding a sense of urgency to his summons for passengers. The driver lingers, chatting on his cell phone, and then he turns his van around in front of an oncoming cattle truck. The ivory steers pass by and the young man shouts again, “Morales! Morales! Morales!”
Our load has grown from six passengers to eleven and we haven’t yet left Fronteras, or Rio Dulce, the names used interchangeably for this small town on the Rio Dulce River. The driver pulls away and takes the long bridge across the river. We’ve now entered cow country.
Wide pastures stretch to the distant highlands. Shallow streams snake through gorges edged with trees. Isolated palms stand watch on the horizon. Their long fronds spring up like feather dusters, destined to become a roof over someone’s home. Fifteen or so head of cattle graze on the emerald grass.
Suddenly the pastures merge with tree preserves, acre after acre of 12-foot high saplings topped with umbrella-like leaves. Each row lines up precisely with the next, soldiers headed to a life of latex production as these are juvenile rubber trees. One day each will wear a four-cup plastic container to catch the milky liquid.
We’re up to 15 passengers when the van stops to accept more riders. A man boards with two women. He’s a vaquero or dresses convincingly like one. His black hair is topped with a cowboy hat. His blue shirt is a bit long in the sleeves. He’s rolled them back halfway for a better fit. His silver belt buckle is decorated with a rowel, and his brown jeans almost look pressed. His boots have no dirt on them.
Cowboy attire is popular among Guatemalan men. There’s not a matching style for women. Instead many wear pastel lacy tops with short sleeves over a camisole and a long skirt that must feel like an oven inside. If the woman is a street vendor, she’ll throw an apron over the skirt to hold her cash.
The cowboy and his companions must stand inside the van. There’s not a seat left. The van stops again and loads a young man with a backpack and a duffle. The van’s conductor casually leaves the door open and leans half in, half out, of the vehicle, unconcerned that the bags could be jostled overboard. A young lady with a tidy basket of fruit becomes our 19th passenger. She stands and holds her goods aloft until she sells a baggie of mango slices to the couple seated nearby.
The young man, a different one, hawking rides for the return trip, calls out “Rio! Rio! Rio!” and makes a wave-like gesture with his hand to indicate the river. The van’s seats fill up right away and the local population continues to grow. Eventually 25 individuals, including three who stand outside on the running board and cling to a handrail, arrive in Rio Dulce. They quit the van like a flock of clowns bolting from a circus car.