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South American Bus - Archives

33 Hours on a South American Bus
Dan Gingold

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 everyone’s 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 crushed.

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 bus.

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 familiar characters.

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 voyage’s 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 bite.

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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