PACARAIMA, BRAZIL – Ten destitute Venezuelan migrants who fled their country’s crisis did not get far when they crossed into Brazil: they have been living for three months on an abandoned bus just across the border.
They sleep on cardboard, except for the lucky one who gets the hammock. They cook on a wood fire just outside the door of the motor-less 1983 Mercedes Benz bus.
Two children go to the local school every morning.
The penniless migrants work at odd jobs for spare change, loading the cars and pickups of Venezuelans who cross over to buy food and goods in short supply back home.
“We’ve been living in this bus for three months,” says Hildemaro Ortiz, 24, from Punta de Mata in eastern Venezuela, who hopes to move to a bigger Brazilian city once his son makes it across the border.
Ortiz and his bus-mates are part of a flood of Venezuelans pouring into the rest of Latin America, often driven by hunger and desperate to escape an economy in free-fall as food shortages and blackouts rattle their oil-rich nation.
Tens of thousands of migrants have fled the political and economic upheaval in Venezuela through Pacaraima, the only road crossing to Brazil, creating tension at the border. About 3.7 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, mostly via its western neighbor Colombia, according to the World Bank.
Ixora Sanguino, 27, sweeps the floor of the bus and folds the blankets.
“I never thought I would ever live in a bus, and least of all in another country like this,” said the mother of three who had to leave her children behind in Ciudad Bolivar.
“There is nothing in Venezuela right now,” she said.
When she first crossed the border, Sanguino slept in the street. The bus is an improvement, sheltered from tropical rain. Now she is trying to gather enough money for a bus ticket to Boa Vista, the nearest Brazilian state capital, to find work and send cash to her hungry family back home.
The occupants of the rusty metal structure, once an express bus, dream of returning to their homeland one day when things improve there, but for now survival is a daily struggle.
Rice cooks in a pot held over the fire on an improvised grill. Usually they eat rice and bones, or rice and chicken when there is enough money between them to buy meat, she said.
A Spanish priest provides a coffee and bread roll breakfast for 350 Venezuelans daily at his mission house, but migrants must arrive before 6 a.m. to get a place, she said.
The bus offers some protection from mosquitoes and the cold of night, Ortiz said. When the bugs get bad, he starts a cardboard fire to smoke them out.
He is impatient to move to bustling cities to the south.
“If only this bus had an engine, we would have been on our way to Manaus by now,” he said.