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The International Writers Magazine: Next stop:

In Uruguay on a Bus
Tetsuhiko Endo

I was sitting on a city bus late one Sunday night in Montevideo, Uruguay, with no idea where I was, only a vague idea of where I was going, and not a clue when to get off. 
"I'll tell you when to get off," the driver had assured me before ratcheting up the volume of the Cumbia blaring from the radio and zoning back in on the road. 

That had been half an hour ago.  Now we were the only two carbon based life forms in the cavernous vehicles and I was beginning to worry.  There are certain situations in life that I generally try to avoid – gambling with criminals, talking politics with Basques, associating with people who kiss their dogs, etc.  Paramount among these situations is putting more of my fate than is absolutely necessary in the hands of bus drivers.  I respect them, I always do what they say and I am even somewhat in awe of them, but I won't ever trust a bus driver.

They aren't like you and me.  They are made of different stuff – eyes like falcons, the reflexes of professional athletes, nerves that are made from twisted coils of sheet metal and barbed wire. They have ether running through their veins like summer ice flows in the arctic and less pity in their hearts than tiger sharks, which is to say nothing of the inscrutable mysteries of their minds.  Like truckers, pilots or Hell's Angels, they are creatures of that rare order who base their lives around being neither sedentary nor nomadic; instead choosing to inhabit a constant stage of en-route.  They are always moving, but never arriving.  Most people, including those who travel professionally, construct their lives around specific points on the map.  House, office, school; Ohio, California, North Carolina; Paris, London, New York.  Bus driver's lives are dominated by the lines in between these points, by the dizzying infinity of unreachable horizons.  There is a certain kinetic romance to all of it; answering the call of the road while providing societies with a valuable service, that is both paradigmatic and slightly sinister.

Like many American kids, my first bus drivers were the men and women who piloted the classic yellow clunkers that shuttled me and every other rowdy little bastard in my neighbourhood to school.  For one reason or another, most went by their first names preceded by Mr. or Mrs., i.e.: Mr. Bill, Mr. Mike, Mrs. Cheryl and so forth.  I don't remember them as being an overly amiable bunch.  But then, can you imagine what you would be like if you had to drive while trying to maintain control of 30 kids without ever being able to turn around and face them?  A few days of that, and most people would be parking on train tracks.  Not Mrs. Carroll.  No siree, Crazy Carroll bussed me for 5 years and was harder than old rebar.  She could scream the glare off a pit bull if you pushed her far enough, which was rare, but everyone has their limits, and when we felt those massive air breaks lock and grind us to an abrupt halt, we all knew that someone had pushed too far.  The only time there was ever complete silence on bus 13 was when Crazy Carroll pulled that mother over with a great hiss of the breaks to stalk back through the aisle and pluck some unfortunate troublemaker away from their friends like a dues ex machina with tinted prescription glasses.  That person was condemned to the front seat (naturally being the least cool spot on the bus) for a few days or weeks, or until Mrs. Carroll forgot she was punishing them. I feared her like one fears the abandoned, supposedly haunted house so common in neighbourhoods across the Midwest: with equal parts love and aversion.  Without her piercing scowl and the threat of biblical wrath that it promised, throwing things or shouting curse words out the window or switching seats in transit lost all the fun.  For 178 days of the school year, she was my mortal enemy, but she always got a gift at Christmas and hug at the end of the year.

By the time I was old enough to start getting on buses by myself that weren't yellow, I was living in Scotland and using the Fifelink to get just about everywhere I needed to go between Edinburgh and the historic port city of Dundee. The bus drivers of the kingdom of Fife, who like all Scots, consider themselves stronger, heartier, funnier, smarter, and better drinkers than their English counterparts are one wild bunch of Jacobites.  Many are local boys from fishing towns like Arbroath, St. Monans or Crail who sport faded tattoos on their forearms and speak in rolling, guttural Scottish accents harshened by smoke and booze.  They drive harder and faster than most sane people would even imagine over country lanes whose only berms are low stone walls that hug the sides of the roads like something out of a bucolic Monaco Grand Prix.  Oncoming traffic always made me nervous; the wheels on the left side of the bus flirting with the edge of the road as the wheels on the right rubbed hubcaps with unlucky Peugeots, Renaults and Datsuns.  Passing trucks or God forbid, other busses, was like jousting with side view mirrors.  Those men seemed less like drivers to me, and more insane physicists, their demented minds working out angles, quadrants and trajectories while they were buckled to the front of 15 tons of steel doing fifty miles an hour down a windy, pot-holed strip of asphalt.

If there is very little room for error in the Scottish country- side, there is none on the Amalfi coast where the Italian land mass loses all hope and plummets into the Mediterranean.  When I was 17, I took a tourist bus from Sorrento to Amalfi  with one very cool Italian behind the wheel.  His name was Andrea, and he apparently modelled himself out of a villain in Speed Racer.   His uniform was composed of tinted sunglasses, tight, cream coloured trousers and matching shirt un-buttoned to reveal dark chest hair and a gold chain with icon of the Virgin Mary.  To top off the ensemble, he sported an immaculate, cream coloured racing scarf, that I never saw him take off regardless of the temperature or time of day. Another thing I never saw him do was back up.  This is a common practice among tourists and locals alike in the claustrophobic, zigzagging streets of towns along the Mediterranean.  Drivers cut turns too closely and realize that they are going to rake their car across one of the roughly one million high stone walls in the province, so they stop, back up, and try again.  Not Andrea.  Perhaps he just had a good week, but the man never miss-judged a turn, and this in a vehicle twice the size of the puny rental cars that were forever clogging his playground. 

Driving along that coastline can provoke intense vertigo.  On one side of the road, mountains shoot straight upward, on the other, there is nothing but air and sparkling greenish blue water 100 feet below.  Andrea cruised that two-lane death trap like he had been born to do it, cool as a polar bear in a snowstorm.  The only time he even breathed was to chain smoke cigarettes when his human passengers stopped at overlook points to take pictures and vomit away car sickness.  It takes a certain type of mind to be able to endure the daily pressure of knowing that 30 lives hang in the balance every time you turn the steering wheel or ease down on the accelerator.  In Scotland, if you make a mistake, the worst that can usually happen is a few dead sheep and an irate farmer.  On the Amalfi coast, the best case scenario is that you die from the impact of hitting the water and don't have to wait to drown.  I don't know how he endured it, perhaps is had something to do the potent mix of nicotine and adrenaline that came with the job.

One thing Andrea never had to worry about was third world traffic.  This is traffic ranging from bicycles to 18-wheelers to mule carts that clog the streets of many underdeveloped countries on any given day like a perversely anachronistic circus act.  The well-worn surfer's path between San Jose and Jaco, Costa Rica runs thick with just this type of traffic most days.  It is a thin ribbon of unmarked black asphalt that sneaks through steamy rainforest-covered mountains in search of the pacific coast.  Its impossible cut backs, harrowing descents and improbable curves give one the impression of a coil of rope thrown haphazardly on the ground. For drivers, travelling on it is a two and a half hour exercise in trying to keep yourself and your passengers alive while also not sending any one within your swarm of fellow commuters over a cliff to certain death.  It's a free for all with no quarter given and none expected.   Engaged in battle are cars filled with commuting Ticos and long haired Californians stoned silly (Pura Vida, man!), animal drawn carts loaded with fruits and vegetables piloted by toothless, leathery skinned old men with wives and grandchildren in tow, motorbikes stacked with two and even three people hugging on to each other as they squirt between opposing traffic and as the piece de resistance, young boys between 10 and maybe 16 years old bombing past everyone else on one speed bikes sans breaks, sans helmet and sans any concept regarding the fragility of human life.  Amid this chaos, Tico bus drivers, stone faced and sweating through their shirts in the tropical heat, crank up the salsa music and show everyone exactly who is boss.  Thinking back, what strikes me most about their driving is that it was probably the smoothest of any that I have ever experienced, despite the unpredictability of the setting.  They never jerked the wheel, never had to break abruptly and only once did I see someone misjudge a turn and have to back up.  These were men that conducted their automotive monstrosities like they were out on a Sunday afternoon drive through the countryside.  If you subtract animals, motorbikes, small trucks and bikers of the divine wind, I suppose that's what it was.

Although the roads in Latin America are often challenging, the natural bloodlust of the conductors, their need to tempt laws of time, space and physics is limited by the overall age and unreliability of their vehicles.  Not in Spain.  Never have I seen or heard of a group that wasn't an explicitly criminal organization brazenly flaunting more laws.  An often employed Spanish curse is: "Me cago en dios" which refers to an improbably scatological act that Ernest Hemingway sometimes translated as "I profanity on God".  In a country where traffic laws are largely ignored in the first place, the bus drivers in Spain profanity on everything and everyone with hearty aplomb.  They are like the Mafia, the Yakuza and the Teamsters all rolled into one fiery Latin syndicate.  They ooze so much machismo that even the bullfighters look up to them. 

In Alcalá de Henares, a dormitory city of Madrid where Cervantes was born, traffic in the centre of town often grinds to a halt for no apparent reason.  There is no wreck, no road works, but instead two bus drivers, travelling in opposite directions who have recognized each other, stopped, and decided to carry on a brief conversation between their open windows.  If they weren't bus drivers, people would be profanitying on God, Jesus, the holy trinity, and most of the apostles.  Instead, everyone chews their lips and resists the innate Latin urge to honk until the conversation ends.   One gets the feeling that these men are less co-workers and more of a rolling fraternity.  When they aren't stopping to talk, they're not tossing newspapers to their brethren in passing busses or making relay style hand-offs with books of crossword puzzles in the middle or rush hour.

Spain is also the country where I had the most singularly harrowing bus experience of my life.  It happened on a trip from Madrid to the Southern port city of Cadiz.  About halfway through the journey, the flat, straight roads are interrupted by a narrow belt of scrubby hills and steep, rocky ravines that the road winds its way through before coming out into more arid chaparral.  I was sitting in the second row of seats behind the driver staring out the window as the final rays of sun disappeared over distant, sandy hills when a silver Mercedes cut us off.  The driver slammed on his breaks, narrowly avoiding rear-ending the other car and released a string of expletives that involved a lot of profanitying on things like mothers and grandmothers and other distant female relations of the Merc driver.  There was a moment of panic that quickly passed as the Mercedes sped up and our conductor eased off the break.  Then something funny happened. 
Our driver sped up as well.  Foot to the floor, he whipped around sharp curves and flew through narrow straightaways apparently pursuing the poor soul who had made the mistake of cutting him off.  As we neared the Mercedes again, the conductor swiped on his high beams and laid on his horn, illuminating a woman in the back seat who had turned to look back and frozen in terror like a deer about to become venison.  We came within inches of the other car and still our conductor persisted with his horn.  I could see the terrified woman in the back seat screaming at the driver of the Mercedes to speed up or slow down or apologize or God only knows what else.  Without warning, our conductor swerved into the left lane, and punched the gas.  He flew by his opponent and cut him off with one fatal crank of the steering wheel throwing his arm out the window and shaking his fist in victory. 

Just like that, he slowed down, turned off his high beams and everything returned to normal.  Stunned, I took a deep breath, wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and looked around at my other passengers, hoping to find some acknowledgement of the insanity we had all just experienced.  Some munched happily on Serrano ham sandwiches, others dozed and many gave each other knowing looks and nodded in agreement.  "He shouldn't have cut off a bus driver…"

Which brings me back, more or less, to the question of trust.  The famous statistic is that many more people die while driving than while flying, which is supposed to make me feel better about flying.  It doesn't though, because the worst part about air travel isn't rocketing through the air like a bird, it's having to trust someone I've never met to get me into and out of the sky in a semi-controlled fashion.  I wouldn't worry about flying if I were behind the controls or, perhaps wearing blue and red tights with a big S printed on my chest.  But I don't like explicitly putting my safety in the hands of people I don't know.  At best, I tolerate it.  I can fly by telling myself that the pilots aren't drunk or fresh out of making bombing runs from the USS whatever and I can use buses because I know that no one has more to lose than a driver who gets in a wreck. 

  Sitting on that bus in Uruguay, I remembered a similar experience in San Jose, Costa Rica where I was going to see a friend one afternoon.  I had asked the bus driver in polite, heavily accented, mostly butchered Spanish if he could advise me when we got to a certain stop. 
            "No te preocupes," he assured me.
            So I didn't preocuparme, until an hour later, when I found myself at the exact spot that I had gotten on the bus.  He turned around and shrugged, opening the door for me to get out and try my luck with someone a bit more compassionate.

So that was running through my head in Montevideo, squinting out of dark windows, trying to make out familiar landmarks, already beginning to curse the silent conductor for having forgotten me.  Then he turned around.
            "Flaco!  La próxima es tuya."
            Slightly surprised, I snatched up my bag and got to the door as quickly as I could, lest he deem that I was taking too long and drive on to the next stop.  As I walked through the double doors into the chilly night, I turned back and thanked him.  He looked at me with an indecipherable expression, shrugged as if to say: "What did you expect? I'm a bus driver." then slammed the doors shut and roared off into the night. 

© Tetsuhiko Endo
July 2008
<indo85@gmail.com>


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