International Writers Magazine: Next stop:
In Uruguay on a Bus
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
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
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.
te preocupes," he assured me.
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
La próxima es tuya."
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
© Tetsuhiko Endo
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