The International Writers Magazine: South American Bus - Archives
Hours on a South American Bus
You climb aboard with teeth clenched and
eyes steeled. Exhaling an air of resignation, you try and feel
ready for a day and a half of near-comatose fugue. You've prepared
for this, arming yourself with a water bottle, music, a book and
your digital camera for taking blurry shots out of the window.
As the bus pulls out of the western bus terminal
in Caracas, an armed officer comes down the aisle, videotaping everyones
national identity papers or passports, and then their faces. You give
as toothy a grin as possible. The bus courses through traffic, passing
tenements, ferris wheels, slums, finally breaking into the green of the
hills and mountains that surround the sprawling city. A constant zigzagging
ensues, the bus heaving from left-to-right, right-to-left as it switch
backs up narrow highways, past ramshackle houses, patchwork fields.
You try to read, but the swaying of the bus makes it hard to concentrate
on Lady Chatterly, so you put the headphones on. Songs from back home lull
you to sleep for spurts of time, half an hour, forty-five minutes, until
the driver slams on the brakes again, the bus tilts forward, and you shake
awake, wondering whether it was a car or a farm animal that was nearly
Mostly though, you stare out the window, as the world and so many lives
roll by, the child minding a goat as it chews vegetation in a ditch, the
old lady carrying a heavy basket on her head. No matter how hard you look,
no matter how many times you remind yourself that you will never see this
scenery again, you still can't take enough of it in. You crane your neck
to catch a second glimpse of that narrow pitched valley As it flashes
by, thereby missing the crest of the hill ahead and the morning sun through
the trees. There are so many different shades of green and light out the
window but you're separated, feeling only stale waves of cold from the
powerful air conditioner. Everything looks fecund and verdant, life stacked
on top of life, and you the temporary observer on this sterile, careening
You jerk awake again, disoriented and wondering. The rest of the passengers
rise heavily out of their seats and shuffle to the front door. Following,
you lower yourself down the handrails into the dirt and gravel parking
lot of a roadside restaurant. Inside you settle for a plate of rice, sliced
onions and tomatoes, and two small yellowish potatoes that taste delicious,
a revelation, more flavorful and textured then any potatoes from home.
You dowse the food in amazing homemade hot sauce and shovel it down mechanically,
nearly forgetting to chew before you scrape the plate clean, slap a dollar-fifty
in pesos colombianos on the table and head outside. Foggy clouds swirl
through the steep hills rising around you, and you sit on a concrete wall,
petting a mongrel dog that had a Chow somewhere in it's background. Looking
down the road, you see small children walking home from school, and more
then a few give you a double take. Maybe it's your silly haircut or your
pale skin. You smile and wave, and they smile back, laugh the laugh of
children, and then run onwards up the road.
You climb into the belly of the bus and it heaves back into motion. It
is dark now and the middle aged couple sitting opposite to you is wrapped
in blankets and curled snugly together. They remind you of hibernation,
the looks on their faces stoic and yet somehow also gentle. You feel that
this is their way, the way of most people in this country, on this whole
continent, to traverse mountains and fertile plains in these chugging
great machines, buckled and battened-down as the hours and the kilometers
unwind, constants racing against each other.
Precious little is visible in the nightscape out the window, save the
twinkling of towns here and there. Halogen lights on streets illuminate
men standing in front of small bars drinking beer, waiting for nothing.
You drift into and out of consciousness, a pendulum, a flying fish. There
is a stop at a bus station that you recognize from the last time you were
in this country, when you made this journey in the opposite direction.
You smile at the memories of this small city, eating chinese food with
your two great traveling companions and then discovering a Simpsons-themed
bar on the main street, laughing through beers under walls painted with
This time, as some passengers disembark and others come aboard, you hop
out and buy a bag of mandarin oranges. You're already peeling as you climb
back up the stairs for the last time, into the voyages homestretch.
The skin comes away easily, revealing a disappointing dryness from the
fruit inside. It's still sweet though, and shocks your tongue at first
The border between waking and sleep softens. Your eyes ache, and you open
them as wide as you can, They feel momentarily wiped clean, two red and
white balls hovering in the back of the bus. Though you have already spent
30 hours in transit, and more then half of that unconscious, there is
no tender relief of rest. You have only a cloddy dullness in your mind,
a scratching of throat from the cold air, and an overpowering desire to
lie horizontal, anywhere would be fine, just prone and completely still.
||The lights of Bogota begin,
and you recognize the apartment buildings surrounded by blue steel
fences. A familiar light rail station passes and you begin to gather
your things, the insistent thumping of a poorly paved street not
mattering now, your watch, reading 2:50 AM not important either,
The only thought that you will have arrived, and that there will
be no long bus journeys for at least two weeks.
The driver guns it through a deserted stoplight and under an overpass.
Passengers in front of you nod in accord with his desire for this to be
done, and the terminal hoves into view, a shining star, a beacon. The
airbrakes sound, the great machine settles, and you wait patiently as
everyone files out, not feeling defeated, more like a knife in desperate
need of sharpening.
You collect your pack, it's weight reassuring as you heft it onto your
shoulders, the concrete solid beneath your feet. The taxi driver guesses
the neighborhood and you grunt in assent. The empty streets of Bogota
flash by quietly as he barrels towards the target, that bed in the hostel
with your name on it. The good and old street and the silly animal painted
on the door bring an electric tingle of relief, a gulp of air embraced
after too long a moment underwater.
You ring the buzzer and the night clerk appears, yawning and rubbing sleep
from his face as he opens the door. You follow him through the courtyard
like a zombie, past the water fountain, the well-used kitchen, and into
your dorm room. In one fluid motion you stow your pack, hang your clothes
on a wall hook, climb onto your top bunk and nestle under the blankets.
You lie there, cashed in but still awake for a moment.
Your mind flits briefly to the weeks ahead, until your head finds a complimentary
angle with the hard, lumpy pillow. It is then that your breathing slows,
and you fall into merciful, blissful sleep.
Dan Gingold March 2006
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