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Published on February 6, 2003

Race against the sun

Our kidneys were about to explode. My sister and I, after a few rounds of sugarcane and watermelon juice in Mexico City, needed to use the bathroom for the past three hours, but were still being forced to hold it. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. Not only was the nearest bathroom probably miles and miles away from us, but also we were unable to make any headway in its direction. We were on the Mexican highway, and the cars, which had been very few and far apart during the whole ride, had suddenly stopped, and were now queuing in three lanes.

The first half hour passed in curious pondering -- what on earth would grind the flow of speeding cars on the highway to a complete halt? The second half hour was spent in anger and revolt over what our family, assembled in the car, termed "the usual Third World chaos" where even a cross-country highway is subject to congested traffic. Mom was getting extremely irritated and urging Dad to solve the situation. With her growing impatience to start driving off again, eager to arrive at the hotel where she would be able to take those darn shoes off, shower and head for tea and gateaux at the lakeside -- a legitimate concern by all means -- she was sure there was something that the head of the family, the one responsible for our happiness and well-being, could do. Dad looked quietly at the sky, in the direction of the sun. Signs of worry emerged on his face as the dimming sphere was about to set in the horizon, casting a growing darkness over the bleak, flat landscape. At this rate, he said, we would never get to the hotel before dark, and the prospect of driving at night with three females in the car, without any means of defence, on the Mexican highway, was drowning my father's face in a heavy frown. My sister and I had only one concern on our minds: a bathroom.

As the minutes flowed, we became more vocal. "I am not kidding Dad!! I need the bathroom NOW!!" Dad, of course, tried to divert the attention: every time we verbalised our physical agony he began singing a song, or suggested we play a word game, or mentioned our friends back in Cairo. He wondered how many decades it took for the rain to fill the crater of the extinct volcano that has now become the lake on which our destination hotel was built. "How many years do you think, Nadine?" Silence. "Ok. I understand. And Injy, can you take a guess?" "Dad, I will die RIGHT NOW if I don't get to a bathroom, and for God's sake, the last thing I need to hear about is rain and lakes and water."

Dad gave up. We had been sitting there for two and half hours now. Not even he could distract us anymore. But the worst part was that, since we did not know what brought this situation about, we also had no way of knowing how long it would last. Mom had fallen asleep an hour and a half after we stopped. Dad was probably contemplating what he would do in case of real trouble (at the beginning of the trip, by way of vivid car conversation, he had relayed to us what had happened to a colleague of his at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when his wife and parents-in-law came to visit him in Mexico -- a gruesome tale involving lustful highwaymen, guns, and other terrible things that ended in calamity).

I still have no idea what thoughts my sister entertained to keep bathroom images out of her mind, but I distinctly remember that I mentally conjured possibilities that would pale the predicament in which we found ourselves. The best way to forget being stuck with an exploding bladder was to think of how worse it could be. I thought of earthquakes. We had an earthquake almost every week in El Salvador, where we were residing back then. And how many times did we not jump out of bed in our nightgowns and ran down to the garden during an earthquake to find ourselves in the presence of driver, cook, gardener, maid and housekeeper (all in their nightgowns) exchanging greetings, and exclaiming "dios mio" as the earth rumbled beneath our feet? What if it were to happen now? What if the earth were to crack under these multitudes of cars, as it once did, inflicting a permanent scar that ran the length of our terrace's marbled floor? That was how I diverted my attention away from the tears now streaming down my contorted face. I was not crying. I interpreted this purely physical phenomenon as my bladder finding a release.

Finally, Dad spotted a man walking back to his car -- surely he must have some news. And he did. The man had left his eldest son behind the wheel and walked forward, adamant to find out what exactly was the problem. A group of workers from a nearby village were lying on the ground across the highway in protest against the new machinery delivered recently which resulted in a handful of their colleagues becoming "unnecessary" and losing their jobs.

Whether or not the man explained to the villagers that their terrible plight was not our fault I will never know, but within a few minutes I heard my Dad turning the car engine on and we were able to roll again. Granted, 15 minutes later my sister and I had to use a bathroom that even our scariest nightmares could not have produced, but at that point we were not willing to sacrifice our bladders, kidneys and mental health for such trivial considerations.

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