My friend Pilo is a refugee. He’s also a bass player, a loyal boyfriend to his long-distance partner, and a devoted son, but that’s not really the story I want to tell about him. We met in London. An NGO hooked us up because I wanted to write about indefinite detention, which is a key plank of the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies enforced by the UK government ever since Theresa May’s stint as Home Secretary. When we met though, the specifics of his story made it clear that if we ‘got his story out’, he’d probably wind up getting kicked out of his life in London and back into indefinite detention. So we just hung out instead. We both hated Real Madrid. That seemed enough to begin with.

*

In Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, central Mexico, twenty dollars gets you a ticket to an amusement park that simulates the experience of crossing the US border as an undocumented person. You’re led by an actor playing the part of a ‘coyote’, a term that’s often translated as ‘trafficker’ or ‘smuggler’, but both of those terms miss some of a coyote’s actual function and reputation on the road. For instance, Javier Zamora has dedicated his poem ‘Second Attempt Crossing’ to a man called Chino—whom Zamora identifies as ‘the ex-gangster who helped me with each of my attempts to cross the border. I wouldn’t be here without him.’

Zamora’s writing situates the migrant trail right in our bodies and nerves:

Against the herd of legs,

you sprinted back toward me,

I jumped on your shoulders,

and we ran from the white trucks.

When the speaker jumps on Chino’s shoulders, speaker and addressee, migrant and coyote are united as a single bodily unit, while the ‘white trucks’ chasing them seem to have no human driver. What defies that inhumanity is the human, the physical: Zamora ends with his thanks to the dead Chino, to ‘the brown arms that shielded then, / that shield me now from La Migra.’ The memory of bodily contiguity seems to defeat death as well as borders.

*

A couple of weeks ago, I went for tacos with a colleague, at an overpriced restaurant in the neighbourhood of La Roma, Mexico City, a place destroyed by travel supplements telling English-speakers how cool it is there. In between fending off vendors, he told me about what it was like to report on the latest caravan to make its way out of Central America and weave up through Mexico. ‘I felt like there were more journalists than migrants there, man,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘You’d go talk to somebody, and they’d have this weary look on their face like, I told one of you people already. The quotes come out sounding like a recitation. Feels really bad. Because you’re not there in a clinical context either, are you? Like, you’re re-traumatising people by having them drag over this really incredibly fucking shitty story, right, and then, at the end, all you do is’—he raised a hand, tapped the air like it was an imaginary notebook—‘Sweet, thanks for the quote! Bon voyage! and off you go.’ He shrugged, took a sip from his bottle of sparkling water, and wagged his finger for ‘No’ as a guy walked up to us trying to hawk a tray of cacti.

*

When I was working as a journalist, four years ago, on an assignment covering abuse of Central American migrants by Mexican immigration agents, I visited a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, near the Tehuantepec Peninsula in Oaxaca. After spending the day listening to dozens of people, I went to bed in the shelter, under cracked windows repaired by pasting obsolete legal testimonies over the gaps. All around me in the dorm, people I’d interviewed were falling asleep, wiped out by their journeys, the blisters on their heels burst and pulpy, like boiled tomatoes, their footsoles cured to leather, the setting sun printing shadow-writing from taped-up depositions onto their skin.

The page above my head told the story of six Honduran men hiding from la Migra in a cornfield, who, having thought they were safe, smelled smoke and looked up to see migration agents setting fire to the field.

The narrator of the story—the only one to escape the deportation vans—sustained second-degree burns. I hadn’t seen a single report of that case in any newspaper, in any courthouse file. I wasn’t going to either: a volunteer at the shelter had told me that they wrote up the story of any migrant who wanted to talk, but that it was impossible to get legal follow through. Most were too afraid to give names to law enforcement. The rest were too keen to keep moving north.

It was easy to see why: one guy, Leonardo, told me in unbroken Texan-accented English how he’d built a life over the course of fourteen years in the States, and had it all come crashing down around him when he’d been pulled over for speeding. Now he was walking all the way through Mexico to avoid the buses, because la Migra was checking them. He couldn’t stop showing me pictures of his thirteen-year-old son—still in the US—on his phone.

It had been the same with Patricia, a beekeeper from El Salvador whose microfinance loan had vanished into extortion payments to the local gang members whom she’d fled once the money had run out. Her phone was cracked, but you could still make out the sturdy frame and smiling face of the teenage son she’d run away with. On the last night she’d seen him, they’d slept in the upper branches of trees, tied in place by their belts. La Migra had picked him up soon after and deported him. She had no idea where he was—none of their relatives had seen him at the airport in San Salvador.

*

Earlier in the day the volunteer staff had given me a dental mask to wear while I spoke to people through the bedsheet wall of their makeshift quarantine ward. All I had to look at as I listened were the dust-motes curling and spiraling in the air. From outside came the slap of suds and water hitting concrete as people washed clothes at a common pump. The clothes-lines were bright with kids’ onesies, with spaghetti tops, with football jerseys for teams from dozens of cities across Central America. I thought of Pilo and I watching the football. Facing the screen, we would blather on without looking at each other, and tell each other everything.

Later that evening I’d stand at the same spot and hear the noise of crickets and happily chattering babies all around. A karaoke competition would be thumping away, two Salvadoran drag-queens done up in spangles, and lipsynching to the Gloria Trevi song playing on the YouTube window of someone’s laptop. While they drew delighted hoots and applause from the crowd, a real-life couple who’d met on the train would be rehearsing verses of a bachata a little way off from the crowd, gearing up to see if they could outdo the drag queens once it was their turn with the karaoke mic.

*

Months later I was still working on the same story, sitting under the palapa of a seafood taco place in Saltillo, Coahuila, thousands of miles from Ixtepec, eating a miserable plate of rice and beans drowned in salsa and drinking four, five, six beers. I was thousands of miles from the coast, and yet looking out at the vast desert floor of a long-gone sea, the canyons and stone mountains blurring into the reefs of which they were the remains, the sound of wind singing in the wires like gulls, heat-shimmer like waterlights above the big highway overpasses. Just as Dublin is a suburb of some kind of nameless, laminate America, everything in Saltillo felt like it had been made in the United States, too: the Walmart signs, the Chevys on the road, the migrants making their way to and from the train tracks of La Bestia, the gang members chasing them, all of it a legacy either of the 1980s mass deportations of alleged gang members to their home countries, the 1980s State Department sponsorship of right-wing paramilitaries, or the 1980s outflow of US brand-names to everywhere else. Even the story I was writing—about Mexico’s Plan Frontera Sur, the 2014 anti-migrant crackdown—even that was made in the US, with funds diverted from the Plan Mérida security funding initiative to ‘safeguard the human rights of migrants in transit’, which was another way of saying that migration agents were raking through buses, pulling people down from trains, and chasing them through cornfields in order to deport them back home before they could join the thousands people at the US border waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, their throats going sore from the gelid, bacteria-loaded air-conditioning, at the mercy of the guards’ moods, their bathroom visits counted, no room to sleep on the floors, their kids dizzy with hunger because the sandwiches they’re given twice a day in lieu of meals are frozen in the middle, and the wad of cold bread hurts their stomachs. Federal police pickups were all over this city, all over any city that migrants passed through, their blue lights rippling the dark under highways, men and women and children sitting in the back with their heads slumped at the feet of the cop manning the tripod and its mounted R-15, and passing a large bottle of water back and forth between them. That’s how they’d lure you in sometimes, with promises of food and water and medical attention, right when your legs had gone bockety with tiredness, right when your mouth was parched and your throat tight, right when the winding snake of the road truly looked like it had no end, right when the notion of going into detention and going back on the plane to a home that wanted you dead seemed like a momentary break, a reset on the game, a chance to regroup and begin walking again.

At the traffic lights up the road from the restaurant where I was sitting, an Afro-Honduran kid of about seventeen, the dense bolus of a rucksack strapped to his back, dressed head to toe in black, went smiling and nodding from car to car, looking to get his battered Krispy Kreme coffee-cup filled with change, the wind and the draughts of passing cars drawing whorls and spirals of sand on his clothes. I knew him—I’d talked to him earlier in the day, at the shelter near the train tracks—and I waved to him from my palapa. The kid at the lights had shown me a Ziploc pouch that he’d pulled out of the inside of his hoodie. Inside was his passport, a photocopy of that passport, his birth cert, a photocopy of that birth cert, his school reports going back to when he was twelve, with ‘an A in everything except for maths, and a typewritten testimony from a local lawyer who’d done him the favour of attesting that his town was as dangerous as anywhere else in Honduras, confirming that he’d been threatened with racist violence, with being either recruited into a gang or shot in the head, and that his employment prospects—even if he finished school—were either to join a standing army of surplus casual labour, join a gang, or join the broken trails of people making their way out of Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, San Salvador. Purple, yellow, and ash-grey dust mingled at the bottom of the envelope. The documents looked decades old, sallowed by the drag of his hands over them. ‘I get so afraid I’ve lost one of them,’ he said. ‘I take them out, I lay them out page by page, I count the pages, then I read them all again, because it’s so easy to forget you’re someone more than just the road when you’re out here.’ I wish I could remember his name. There have been too many names, and I had to change all of them anyway. Right then, I was ready to put another dinner on my expenses, anything he wanted, and I felt a lift of goodwill under my ribs thinking how nice a guy I was, but he just beamed back, gave me a big wave, and went back to working the cars glinting under the late sun as they waited for the lights to change.

*

All of the people I was writing about flung themselves again and again against fences, against border guards, against judges, against courtrooms, and the state let that happen, encouraged it even, allowed them to keep trying to put one foot in front of the other, persisting past all hope, because to be exhausted, to be in despair, to be baffled and confused and lost is precisely the condition that the state wanted them to be in, because inertia permits silence, but a particular form of silence—that silence of dust and fog blowing over a space that people have been removed from, a silence of dust turning in spirals above the gaps between speech, between words, between paragraphs, the dust of a zone in which mourning and grief, horror and despair move breaking over and over one another, like fog shapes, like ghosts, finally like nothing. How to do justice to all of what I’d heard in language, and then to polish that language to a tone of reportorial calm, to polish that language into a voice whose underlying vision was one in which crisis is nothing more than a temporary disruption of stability? How to adopt that voice, to feign it, to feel it in my throat, the enormity of everything I would be leaving out in order to do this? A memory of running came back to me. I was chasing after a train somewhere outside Apizaco, Tlaxcala, because there were three kids wrapped in blankets—decorated with Princess Jasmine, Moana, the two girls from Frozen—who were sitting on the gondola of the train, a man towering above them, head to toe in black, a cagoule over his face against the dust and the wind, the MP5 cradled in his arms that looked so shinily like the ones you see in films that it seemed unreal. Running because I wanted to see if he had a badge on his uniform, if he was a cop, if he was private security, if he was a trafficker, but then the train pulled through the junction and put on speed and I was left with my feet clunking against the big stones of the verge, slowing to a halt, my hands on my head.

*

Masked up in the amusement park, the coyote herds you into the woods, towards the pretend version of the border. The actor playing the coyote has crossed the border himself. He’s part of the local Hñä-Hñu indigenous community, around 80 per cent of whom have emigrated to Arizona and Nevada. Visit any town in that region, and you’ll see why. From 4am, the parks of every town of any size are thronged with men queueing up to see if they’ll be chosen to work for the day on the large-scale commercial farms. You’ll see them in uniforms of faded baseball caps and counterfeit Wranglers, leaning against busts of the illustrious dead, yawning, kicking their heels against the bandstand. You’ll see them goat-footing over the currents of muck and shit that flow out of the busted sewers and along the curb. You’ll see them hopping rat-tailed electric wires that have been trailing around since God knows when. You’ll see them cadging change for the payphones that may or may not work.

The idea behind the amusement park is to deter potential migrants from these towns, but nobody who’s thinking of migrating has the twenty dollars entrance fee lying around just like that. Most of the attendees are from private schools or universities. If they were to migrate, it’d be on a scholarship to a US university, and the papers would tell their story as a ‘tragic brain-drain’, or a ‘logical consequence of Mexico’s persistent problem with the middle-income trap’.

The woman taking tickets at the desk lives in the town next to the amusement park. She says they’ve opened the place up because farming just isn’t worth it anymore.

‘We’re competing with US supermarket prices for produce,’ she says. ‘It’s because of NAFTA. It was meant to equalise everything, but it didn’t.’

When you walk through the town, it feels a bit like an assault course. The pavements are all diced up, the road is cracked, and the gap between road and pavement is an open drain. Further up the hill you’ll see the smoke of chimneys, but you won’t see any telephone or electricity wires cutting through the trees. They say the amusement park is there to prevent people making the mistake of leaving, but sometimes it feels like there’s more than that going on, like it’s therapeutic, or else the opposite, a trauma-loop they can’t get out of, even now that they’re home. A fake drug-smuggler crouches over women lying on their stomachs in the glare of the lights. There are even wrapped bricks of white powder. When he whispers his rape threats, their shoulders bunch and their faces flinch. The guy playing the smuggler was kidnapped on his own, real-life journey, kept in a safe-house under a corrugated roof. For days he listened to the metal tick with heat while rhythmic screams came from the next room. Then his family sent the ransom through Banco Azteca.

One of the kids from the university is on his knees in a flickering pool of torchlight. Locals dressed as soldiers tower around him. He doesn’t look scared, though, his eyes are shut and his chin is up, his hands on his head, a little bit like someone praying in a church.

‘Hopefully the money this brings in keeps our kids here,’ says the woman at the ticket desk.

Included in the twenty dollars is tea or Nescafé and some concha sweet breads afterwards, and the visitors whisper and giggle with relief as they eat, their eyes locked forward. All that’s missing from the real thing is the tiredness. Later they’ll laugh about the whole thing. It’s all over for them, like a bad dream, or a videogame, and the way they talk about it sounds a bit like the way that Oprah Winfrey talks about Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt.

*

In a campaign of support that caused no little controversy in late 2019, Oprah Winfrey claimed that readers of American Dirt ‘[were] going to be immersed in the experience of a migrant on the run for freedom,’ in a statement whose implications make it clear that to consume American Dirt is to play a moralising videogame. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli had been pitched to readers the same way, the previous year, as ‘the book about the crisis on our borders’. As though all of one’s political and ethical work might be completed or substituted just by reading it. Luiselli’s novel details a cross-country car-journey out of the guilty semi-bohème of New York to the desert of Arizona, by a husband and wife and their children (‘the girl’ and ‘the boy’), and incorporates fragments of poetry, Polaroid photos, and reworked chunks of text that draw from the entire map of literary modernism, from Eliot and Joyce to Daša Drndić and Rosario Castellanos. The novel’s failures are interesting, most especially when the primary narrator (somewhat implausibly) witnesses a deportation flight through the fence around a holding camp-cum-airstrip. She begins to strike the fence until her husband more or less tackles her into the car, in a clear echo of how migrants’ efforts are arrested by forces larger than themselves.

This is one image of the limits of the individual conscience against something bigger, stronger, and more brutal than itself. Another comes later, towards the end of the novel, in the bravura, single-sentence section that tells the story of the two children escaping from their parents’ motel as they try to find their two deported classmates, whose mother their own mother has been helping—or at least vaguely thinking about—throughout the novel. They slip out of the motel and into the desert. From this point onwards, the single sentence turns polyphonic, adopting the voice of a children’s book that the son and daughter have been reading—a book that in some sense also becomes a hallucination, looping in and around the son’s voice, sweeping low over the ghosts of the two deported sisters, who have died in the desert during their own migration to the US border. The imagery hovers between trains and boats, land and sea, with a ‘brick-red gondola’ acting as the pivot for this motion.

When I read it, though, I wondered what Luiselli meant by that gondola—was it one of those long, frail-hulled dinghies that make their way across the Mediterranean every day? Or was it one of those plexiglass boats that increasing numbers of Central American refugees take from the coast of Chiapas to Puerto Vallarta, so that they can bypass the checkpoints dotting the land route through Oaxaca? Or could that gondola have been one of the front cars of La Bestia, the safe ones with the most railings, the ones that every migrant scrambles to get to first when the train rolls into view?

Or was it something worse—was that gondola a metonymy for all three of those ways of travelling?

The lack of specificity was, to be sure, a daring artistic gamble, and made a poetic kind of sense. But, as the late Kamau Brathwaite reminds us, the internal mechanism of a metonymy like this can be problematic: one image relegates many images into its substance. It’s not specific enough, and the only way to narrate a regional, even global, migration crisis is to be absolutely specific.

When it feels like every story you hear is a story about migration, it’s all the more imperative not to look for the one big take that summarises all of it. Otherwise faces get lost, voices get lost, and people like Patricia, Leonardo, all the other people I interviewed in Ixtepec, and all their missing children, vanish. Books like these are just another amusement park to me. They simulate the experience of sympathy, of difference, of another person sitting in front of you telling you about the worst thing that has ever happened. Then again, journalism doesn’t do much better. Shelving the notebook, shelving the tape-recorder, shelving the latest acclaimed novel to do total and final justice to an issue you feel required by the newspapers to care about: it’s the same gesture, it’s the same silence, it’s the same drawer shut on the kind of bad thing that never really happens to someone like me.

*

Then, last week, I read about a 4,000-strong caravan of Central American migrants who’d been met by a wall of Mexican Guardia Nacional police officers blocking their way, while loudspeakers played warnings against applying for asylum across the border. They were all about to join the 55,000-odd asylum seekers being held in legal limbo by the Mexican immigration agency while their claims were processed.

All of those pictures seemed to blur into images I’d seen in The Guardian, a couple of years ago, showing Croatian police doing the same thing to refugees desperate to get across the border.

Those photos could be from anywhere. Whether they’re from Lesbos or Tijuana, Ixtepec or Slavonski Brod, those pictures all show loaded clotheslines and poorly plumbed concrete prefabs; they show suds darkening the concrete in the open-air laundries where people have to wash their clothes and cracked trainers; they show barbed wire and tired faces sick of the cameras being pointed at them all the time. Any one of those lives—their interiorities, their flights, the histories propelling them across border after border—feels too huge to do any justice to them.

And so how do you resist the sense that the sheer scale of numbers is cancelling any one of those lives into every other? Formally speaking, what is to be done?

*

There wasn’t much I could do for Pilo—buy lunch, get the pints in, check in over Messenger, go to gigs with him, hate-watch Real Madrid in sterile bars and pray together that they would lose. The little I did doesn’t get me off the hook of the ways that I failed him.

He never told me quite where the detention centre that he’d been in was, but his memories of the humming, bluish lightbulbs, the overpriced vending machines, the guitars with missing strings, the books with missing pages, the suicides, the crying, the segregation, the trans people being put in the wrong sector, all that, they tallied with the setting of other stories I’d heard—people from Burundi, from Afghanistan, from Surinam, from Comoros, people who’d go in determined not to break, saying they’d do the first day and the last day. Except that’s a lot harder when the detention’s indefinite and you don’t know when that last day’s going to be. When he talked about that shadow life, Pilo’s shoulders would drop, and his eyebrows slope towards the sides of his face.

While in detention, Pilo taught himself to read immigration law, acted as his own lawyer, and contended that being an Afro-Venezuelan socialist at a time of spiking white supremacist reaction was enough to be put in the queue for potential refugee-status cases. Until his case was put in that queue, he was allowed to go back to playing bass and eking a way around London rents, though he did so always with one eye on the exit, always ready to dart.

‘It’s shit,’ he’d say, when we met up, ‘but it’d be even more shit if I was just another person who’d spent eight months in that shitty room, and did nothing to end involuntary detention. That fight is the whole meaning of my life now.’

London ground hard on Pilo. His working hours were weird, unpredictable, under-the-table, because he didn’t want to get picked up in another raid. He’d paint houses, work in restaurants, babysit. The Home Office had kept his passport, pending his refugee application, so he had to stay in that crepuscular, time-tunnel zone where all you were doing, no matter what you were doing, was waiting. His nascent activism was on hold, too. The only tool he had was his story, but if he told too much of it too loudly, he was afraid he’d piss off the Home Office, wind up deported back to the border town in Venezuela, harassed, beaten, maybe even lynched for being black, for being a Chavista, for anything at all.

The last time I saw Pilo was in early October 2017. We met up to watch Spurs draw against Real Madrid. He was feeling low, knackered by his painting job, stressed by wanting to get out of England, unsure how to do that when the Home Office still had his passport. We used the pub Wi-Fi to look into the sail-and-rail thing, to get him to Ireland, and I made a couple of calls, pretending that I’d lost my passport but had a ticket booked that I didn’t want to cancel. The answers lifted his spirits enough for us to make a plan. He’d get the train to Holyhead, hop over to Ireland, get a lift to Rosslare from a friend of mine, make his way to France, then ask some friends he had from his band days to help him across the border to Spain, where his family were in the middle of their application for refugee status. Even though it was good-ish news, saying all of it out loud seemed to drain the strength from him. He rotated his pint-glass on its base, clicked his tongue, said, ‘That means giving up on the activism, though.’ As a joke, I suggested we start a Maoist cadre. He laughed, frowned, said, ‘Nah, they’d arrest me, and they’d flip you in seconds flat.’ ‘Alright,’ I said, ‘how about I self-immolate, then?’ He scratched his beard pensively, said, ‘That might work. They listen when white people do stuff.’

Today, at the cheap lunch place where my partner and I go about four times a week, there was a guy from Tegucigalpa pleading with diners for change, so we gave him a bit of change, ate, went home. He had on that uniform of baseball cap, faded jeans, worn-out t-shirt, peak crimped to ward off the heat. At the lunch place, the TV was showing a caravan of migrants arriving at Pijijiapán in Chiapas. The police were keeping this caravan on the outskirts, because the locals became resentful of the treatment the last caravan received just over a month ago. The pictures seemed calculated to make the migrants look noisy, messy, dirty, and a lot of their skin was on show, as if to invite viewers to project meaning onto their brownness.

*

Just outside Córdoba, Veracruz, I met with a group of around twenty-five women who have made food for migrants since 1995. Nicknamed Las Patronas—a pun on the name of their community, ‘La Patrona’, but also because ‘patrona’ means ‘boss’ in Spanish—they make and deliver around 300 lunches per day. When the train approaches, they take bags of food and jog down to the bottom of their garden and fling the supplies into the air for migrants to catch as the train slows past them. The kitchen is enormous, and the windows run perpetually with steam from their pots. The meals are hearty, just like you’d get in a three-course comida corrida place in Mexico City: rice, beans, and tortillas clapped by hand out of big chunks of masa, along with other guisados like chicken in mole or tortitas de verduras. ‘There aren’t many people at the moment,’ Nila, one of the founding members told me, on the day I went to talk to them. ‘We’re not getting many people on the train. Nobody wants to come through here. There are too many guards further up, where they get on board, and there are new, tall fences with barbed wire around the tracks, too. If you want to get on board yourself, now’s a good time: there’s plenty of room. You’ll get a good seat.’

Out back, two men from Guatemala flung seed for the hens poking around in the cold black dirt. Pigs nuzzled against each other. When I walked over to the place where the women had said the train would be, it was already there, steaming in the light. When I put one foot on the first rung, it just felt like metal. I tried to call up all the voices I’d heard travelling around the country, but none of them would come. It was like being on an old computer and clicking on the screen while it was frozen, just this dull tung tung tung noise in my head as I climbed. I lay down on the roof. The metal was warm, but soaked with rain. As the train began to move, slowly at first, I watched the gravel moving underneath the train, a video moving in rewind while the train was another video playing in fast-forward. The only time I felt scared was climbing down, afraid that I’d roll under the wheels. But even that wasn’t so bad. I even enjoyed the drop to the ground, because the dull thud of my body felt like jumping off walls when I was a kid. Already soaked, I lay there in the wet grass, under the light, watching the train snake past me. Three cars back from the one I’d gotten up on stood a mother in a black coat, the hood lined in faux-fur against the foggy cold. She was holding her sleeping kid by the elasticated waistband of his jeans. He hung by the inner curve of his elbows from one rung of the metal ladder. Their eyes were so tired that they looked like river pebbles.

*

Pilo got that look in his eyes sometimes, especially talking about people he’d missed. I used to think I understood what ‘tired’ meant until I saw that look. When he talked, his shoulders would sag like a weight on a rope was pulling him forward. The exhaustion in his voice was a form of sadness, like he was talking from inside a fog that was soaking into his bones. ‘I just wish I could sit there with everybody,’ he said. ‘Me and my father, my friends. We had this open-air cinema out in the trees. I remember the white light spilling down on the banana leaves. We were painter-decorators, and we did some building contracting, too. We had a bit more money than other people, so we put it into the community. We’d been believers for so long that when the revolution happened we were just so excited all the time. Crazy things were possible. My band got a grant to go play in France. Before, if that happened, my family would have been like, ‘No way, that’s too crazy, that’s too far,’ but there was so much potential for anything we wanted that I grabbed it with both hands. While I was gone, things got bad back home, so I stayed. The whole band stayed. The climate in the south was a bit like back home. They’re less racist than in Paris. Or maybe just less obvious about it. The band did okay for a while, but the French police want you to have your papers everywhere you go. I didn’t have all the right ones, so I skipped out. It’s hard to miss so many different homes, man, you know? And so many different times. Too many different things are gone. It’s impossible to keep track.’ On the screen, Sergio Ramos pretended to elbow an opposing player and laughed and winked when the other guy flinched. Pilo clicked his tongue at the screen. The bluish flicker of the images played over the whites of Pilo’s eyes.

*

In Honduras, I met a Garifuna guy called Walter, who told me about the sort of tiny stresses no account of La Bestia can give you unless they’ve been written by a rider. He talked about the stress of running after the train when you get down to pee and need to run to catch up, about how hard it is to find a safe place on the roof, because there are dozens of people scrambling for them, about how you will sit there waiting until the last moment possible to wait to get down to pee, because the second you do that, the safe spot will be gone. He talked about the schoolyard vibe of banter, bullying, ambient gruffness, everyone with their eyes to the front, their jaws set, clicking their tongues at other people’s bathroom habits and noisy food-wrappers and the too-loud music they play on their phones, trying to elevate themselves above their situation by making themselves feel bigger or better than others, everyone crabby with heat, cagey, scared.

*

At a party in 2015, I talked to a US State Department official who thought I was joking when I said she was ‘the enemy’, then showed me papers on her phone which proved that the Mexican government was using security funding from the US to train more sniffer-dogs at brand-new migration checkpoints. The following week, travelling through the area she was talking about, I was asked for my passport, four times, on a three-hour bus journey. At night, we drove past lit train yards, bales of razor-wire, high walls by the railroad tracks that none of the migrants would be able to climb.

*

In another life, where ‘freedom of movement’ didn’t just apply to the right kind of white people in the right zone of the imperial core, and where studio-time was subsidised by the government, Pilo would be tearing my head off for bringing down the tone of our post-rock band. But he’s in Madrid now. The Home Office sent him back his passport by mistake. ‘Clerical error,’ he told me, from Madrid, the day after he’d arrived, then sent a string of selfies of himself with his ma and his cousins. ‘The racism’s pretty obvious here, but it feels less malicious than in England,’ he says. ‘They’re polite in England, but they hate you underneath. Here, they mostly just don’t get that they’re being racist.’ He’s pursuing refugee status in Spain now instead. He seems to feel good, even confident. A lot of the people he meets say that towns in Spain are emptying out and ageing fast. They say that they need new people to immigrate en masse if the country isn’t going to blow away like so much dust. ‘I really hope they mean that,’ he says.

*

A few years ago, at the shelter near the Misterios Metro station in northern Mexico City, I met with some Honduran girls who’d been attacked in their homes for being trans. They hated the city—the heat, the cram, the harassment from men, the exhaustion, those surreal moments where the sky is the colour of the desert and the shimmer of pollution is a wave of mercury that never quite breaks. One woman, Malina, told me about a panic attack she had on the metro. ‘Everything feels like a panic attack all the time. Just that feeling of wanting to get sick but nothing wants to come up. We’re below poor, we’re below homeless, there’s nowhere on the map where we’d be safe,’ she said. ‘And I feel like anyone who talks about anything else but this feeling is a liar. And I feel like anybody who can talk about this feeling in a calm way is a liar, too. And anyone who apologises for not getting it is a liar, too, because to me they sound like they’re bragging, like they think they’ve done enough just by listening. They don’t understand what it’s like to be this tired. They don’t even understand that they don’t understand. I look at old history pictures and I see the same feeling. Or I hear things from the Bible, about crossing the desert and everything like that, and I get that feeling. Just this feeling of everything being too heavy, and everywhere being too far away. My body feels too heavy to carry around sometimes. It’s like I’m dead already, but I’m not. I wish I was sometimes but I’m not. When I was on the metro yesterday I felt sure that I was able to see everyone’s heart through their ribs. I felt sick. I saw my heart moving in rhythm with theirs—squeezing, opening, squeezing, opening. To see the veins, the blue, the red, the lumpy shape moving under all of our skins, and the sound, the drumming sound, the squelch, it made me want to stop. I didn’t want to carry this body around anymore. But I still got off at my station and I walked back here. Because whether I like it or not my body is just going to keep moving until I stop or something stops me. And it doesn’t matter how tired I am. It’s not my choice. I just keep going, whether I like it or not.’