17th July, 1997
Don was the first one to fall. Body and soul having given up, he simply dropped to the ground, a hollowed shell of a human being.
They didn’t even look back.
There was no need to ascertain whether he was dead or alive. A thin trickle of blood issued from his nose and his open, gasping mouth. But we kept walking.
When I looked back, already a thin film of dust had started to cover his body. Soon it will become a part of the desert. Turn into dust. Like all his dreams.
“He has a family”, someone mumbled. “A wife and two kids, someone must tell them….” His words were lost in the desert wind. We were too far away from home. Too far away to turn back.
Putting one foot after another had never been this difficult. It was as if my soul, tired of inhabiting this aching body, was screaming for relief. And yet, I felt no pain. I was numb. We had walked ten miles that day in the furnace like heat. Thirty miles the previous day. And the day before that. I had lost count. Food was scarce, water even scarcer. And death was inching even closer. Don would certainly not be the last one to be claimed by the desert.
We walked in a single file, followed closely by the men on camels.
“Faster!”, screamed one of our deliverers. “Faster, if we are to reach California!”
Deliverers. Ah the irony of it! A week ago that is what they seemed to us, to all of us who were desperate to rise above the poverty that crippled us. To all of us who dreamed of a better life for our families. What dreams they had dangled in front of our eyes! All in exchange for a delivery, they said. A small gift for Uncle Sam, they said.
Little did we know that freedom would remain a distant dream.
Most of the men around me were Mexican, a few Columbian. Most were half-dead already. Some of them were from my village, people I had known for years. Trustworthy men, most of them.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had herded us, without food and water till only a handful of us remained. But suddenly, we stopped. Our deliverers nodded to each other and one of them handed us a decanter. “Drink”, one of them said.
They needn’t have told us twice. We, who greeted each other genially at home, could have killed each other for a sip! We nearly did, only prevented by hard shoves from the butt ends of the Kalashnikovs that our deliverers carried.
Alas, who would have known that it was the last time I would know of sanity? That water wasn’t the sip of life but a descent into a never ending spiral of madness and crime?
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.
We had reached our destination, they said. A pickup truck would collect the delivery, and then we were free men.
Standing so close to our dreams, we should’ve been jubilant. Victorious. Considered ourselves the lucky ones to survive the long, tortuous trek from our homeland to the great state of California, its shores shimmering in the distance. But then why did the world suddenly shift, in and out of focus as if being looked through a haze? Where did the bright flashes of colour in my vision come from? And why did the men next to me seem like grotesque monsters from a bad dream? Nothing was making sense anymore. Was that a pickup truck in the distance? Or was it a demon that seemed to rush towards me? It must be the fatigue, I thought, as I sank to the ground in a daze. Maybe it will be over after I had rested, I thought.
The men around me seemed to think the same. Many of them had sunk to the ground as well. A few them stared into space, like men frozen in a dream.
When I woke up the world was dark and cold and no one was around. And as the aches and pains of my body made themselves known, I was conscious of a strange craving in me. It was not hunger. It was a thirst. I must have that water again.
Little did I know that I had turned into a drug addict.
And that was how I became the immigrant.