The bus arrived right on time, and Iglesias hopped out to greet us. For some reason, I half expected her to look something like Janis Joplin would today if she had lived, maybe in her mid-50s, with gray-streaked hair and beads dangling around a fleshy neck. I was wrong. Iglesias was 29 years old, pretty, and in fighting shape. She wore a red bandanna over her dirty-blond hair, which she had done in two thick braids that fell to the middle of her back. And she was every bit as cheerful and friendly as she seemed in her e-mails.
The bus was huge and had a clean smell and what seemed at first to be reasonably comfortable bucket seats. Several video screens were positioned overhead. With roughly ten people from Miami already on, I sat in an unoccupied pair of seats toward the front.
Gubanikhin, who had short black hair and bone-white skin, was in the seat directly behind me. The Muscovite had a reserved demeanor, almost dour, that was occasionally broken by a flash of wit. On that very day, Chechnyan rebels were holding almost 800 hostages in a Moscow theater. I asked him what he thought about it. "Look at the past," he said in his small, sharp, nasal Russian accent, staring at me through wire-rimmed glasses. "I think several hundred people will die."
While we spoke, production company owner Ceresta Smith had her professional-quality, digital video camera out and was interviewing the youngest rider on the bus, Sarah Gwaltney, who sat across the aisle and a couple of seats back from me. Her mother sat directly behind Gubanikhin. I overheard the tall, freckled teenager, who looked strangely familiar, say she was a senior at South Plantation High and was afraid a war in Iraq would lead to "mass destruction."
Gubanikhin, meanwhile, was no peacenik: He said he believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was right to occupy Chechnya, as it was basically a criminal country run by Islamic extremists who had to be controlled. And, like me, he was all for the Afghanistan invasion. But not Iraq. "I really think it's about oil and not about weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Russia and the United States never went to war because of mutually assured destruction. That can work with Saddam too. He wants to be in power. Why would he attack someone? I think it will only cause further terrorist attacks down the road. Plus, there is no exit strategy."
Putin's interest in Iraq was much like Bush's, surmised Gubanikhin: It was all about how much oil he could get out of the deal. "It's good to be cynical," Gubanikhin added with a chuckle.
Although he can't vote in America, he said he wanted to see more political parties. "I'm really interested in the Green Party," he said.
That was Tina Gwaltney's cue. She rose from eavesdropping and handed us a couple of pamphlets titled "Broward County Green Party." On the cover was a Margaret Mead quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."
Tina, who has long, straight, grayish hair and round wire glasses, told me she lived just a couple of blocks from my house. No wonder her daughter looked familiar. I asked her what she was before she registered as a Green. "Republican," she said. "I was born in Miami and was a Republican, like my parents."
Just for kicks, I decided to test her Green-ness.
"What do you drive?"
"A little red pickup truck that has a bumper sticker that says 'Tree Hugging Dirt Worshiper.'"
"Not exactly a Honda hybrid."
"But I ride my bicycle to school sometimes," she offered with a laugh. "The kids hum the theme song to The Wizard of Oz when I come into the parking lot."
The school in question, I learned, was Nova Southeastern University High School, where she teaches science. Tina said she never really paid much attention to politics before Ralph Nader gave her a "shot in the arm." Being a Green, however, hadn't come easily. There was no relief from members of the two main parties: Republicans thought she was a loopy radical, and Democrats still blame her for George W. Bush's presidency. The friction apparently hasn't helped party enrollment. "Before the 2000 election, there were about eight or ten members who attended the meetings back then, but after Nader lost, it went to three," she explained. "Then we started gaining membership again, and then September 11 hit, and it just stopped. But now we're back up to about 40 members."
As Tina talked, the driver exited at Kings Highway in Port Charlotte. Only then did I realize that we had already crossed Alligator Alley and were traveling north on Interstate 75. The bus pulled into a Cracker Barrel parking lot, where the next bunch waited to climb aboard.