The most common misery for travelers in Latin America in the 1970s was the long bus trip. They were the hard bites-of-the-bullet, the pain we paid, to gain the far out places we wanted to visit. Then, the buses, all the rural buses at least, were like small school buses. Their seats were always crammed so closely together that they would jam the knees of all but the smallest of American travelers. Often, as many people stood in the aisles as sat down. Since the locals usually toted lots of stuff, more than could fill the rack on top of the bus, there were always cardboard boxes and gunny sacks on laps, under seats, and in the aisles. Live chickens were often carried in the boxes and sacks. You would hear their scratch against the cardboard. You would see the bulges of the sacks move. Chickens, with legs tied, were also hand carried in laps. An image I retain as a favorite of old Mexico is that of the young woman who once sat next to me on a bus bound for Guadalajara. She was exquisitely beautiful, in bright clothes, freshly washed, and in the strong make-up that only a darkly complexioned woman can wear. Probably still a teenager, she should have been a model or a movie star. I liked the contrast, the image, that she also carried a live chicken in her lap, a gift of food for grandma in the city. With all these chickens in transit, it is no wonder that Gringo travelers came up with the name "chicken buses."
Almost everyone who has traveled in Latin America, or in other "third world" or "developing countries," has had extraordinary experiences aboard such buses. Most everyone has a bus story to tell. They are often about happenings that struck as a little off from the "normal" American frame of reference, as happenings outside our operating cultural paradigm. It would be fun to have a website where past and present travelers could write and send in their favorite bus story. Perhaps the best could be collated and published.
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I wrote about one bus trip, memorable to me, in Ché Woman. Presently, I wish to present a short sketch about another. First, this. When in Colombia during the time of Hot Coffee, I once visited the small coastal town of Santa Marta. I was not pressed to return to the ship for a day or two and had the notion of bussing on from there to the next town up the coast, Riohacha. This town is on the Guajira Peninsula, an area of stark desert and scant population, mostly Indian. A bus was scheduled to leave Santa Marta at five in the afternoon. The bus station consisted of one small room with a dozen fold-back chairs, about half of them occupied. Five o'clock came and went. No bus. Six, seven and eight came and went. No bus. Finally, about nine, I decided to bag it—if a bus did leave at that hour, it would mean getting into Riohacha at three in the morning, an ungodly hour to arrive at a place surely not to have a thing open or a place to go. Just then, the bus driver sauntered in. He counted noses, then blithely announced, "No bus tonight, not enough passengers." I cursed. The other would-be passengers just shrugged and wandered off. (People, wherever I traveled in Latin America, just accepted this sort of arbitrary high-handedness on the part of bus drives, and from everyone else with the slightest bit of authority. The bus drivers, I wrote, "lord it like ship captains.") So, I did not make the trip to Riohacha and have no bus story to tell. But, a friend of mine did.
Jim traveled for several months in Colombia the year before I was there. He had sat in the same grimy little box of a bus station in Santa Marta where I waited. With sufficient paying passengers and but a two hour wait, his bus did depart. Maybe it was the same driver. The following little scene, as Jim described it, took place an hour or two out of Santa Marta, just after darkness had fallen. Although the countryside was generally desolate, a few clusters of houses—call them "villages"—sided the road every now and then. Without electricity, the houses at that early evening hour were lit up, if dimly, with candles or kerosene lanterns. At one village, the driver pulled the bus to the side of the road and got out. His helper—the buses always had one or more helpers who did any and all work other than the actual driving—followed. Since the bus was stopped and most everyone wanted to stretch or pee, the passengers got out too. Jim watched the bus driver point to a tire and heard him pronounce it "Flat." The driver told his helper to change it, which is a relatively big job, the tires being big and heavy and the spare atop the roof. The helper objected that the tire did not look flat. My friend, and all others standing around, could well see that the tire was perfectly fine, not flat at all. The driver repeated, showing displeasure at having to do so, "The tire is flat. Change it!" The helper—his slave—without daring further objection got out the jack and tire iron and set to work. The driver, meanwhile, disappeared in the dark. Jim, after hanging around a while, decided to stretch his legs, to walk the road a little ways through the village. As typical of the houses of the poor in the tropics, the front doors were open for the air and their windows were sans curtains, and sans glass for that matter. However faint the lighting inside, happenings within are hard for a passer-by on the road not to see. Inadvertently, Jim glimpsed the driver in one of the houses getting up from a bed, zipping up his pants, tucking in his shirt. The driver reappeared at the bus, Jim recalled, in what seemed too perfect timing, just as the last nut of the spare was being wrenched tight.
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The following little story takes place in Guatemala. After a visit to Antigua, Guatemala's old capital, long ago wrecked by an earthquake, I went by bus to famous Lake Atitlan. How many fraternity boys can fit inside a phone booth? Whatever the basis of this old quip, the image is a good one for conjuring the number of campesinos that can fit inside a rural Guatemalan bus. People sat on top of each other, in layers, on the seats. Just as many people stood in the center aisle—a solid mass of standing intertwined bodies. Amazingly, at every stop, yet more people pushed in. The pack in the aisle made room by inching a little further back and condensing even tighter. In the front of the bus, as an iron railing fended the driver from the press. Otherwise, people jammed tight to the windshield and filled the stairwell to the door. I stood in the aisle, about in the middle of the bus. With nothing within reach that could be held on to, I was held in place by the press of the pack. If the bus had rolled over, I do not think I would have moved an inch. The road went through mountains and had many sharp curves, the standing pack collectively swaying with the swerves. I remember it being even less comfortable because I could not stand with my feet placed squarely beneath me. They were planted instead in the only open spaces they could find, inserted at odd angles between other people's feet. With the rest of myself attached, their placement forced me to stand in a twisted and awkward position. Bouncing and jarring for most of a day, it is a wonder that my body held to the challenge—good thing it was young then. In addition to the ride itself, two incidents occurred on this trip that were extraordinary to me.
The first: As I was standing in my contorted position, with my bare, sandaled feet abnormally placed and wide spread among the numerous other feet, I suddenly felt something odd—and moving—on top of one of them. Looking down at my foot, as best I could through the mesh of other peoples' body parts, I saw that it was a two-foot long, live iguana. The reptile was casually wending its way between ankles and over feet, including mine, just as if it thought it still in the forest and these limbs and feet were of trees. Likely being toted home by one of the campesinos for dinner, the iguana must have escaped from its internment in a cardboard box or coffee sack. None of the local folks paid it any mind. Finally, it reached the driver's cage, where it got beneath his foot pedals. The driver, while turning a mountain curve with one hand, dexterously reached down with the other, grasped the iguana by the nape of its neck, and flung it out his open window. "Now that," I remember thinking, "you'll not see on a bus between Baltimore and Philly."
The second: Seemingly out in the middle of nowhere, the bus came to an abrupt stop. Up ahead, a police roadblock awaited. The driver and passengers acted as if it were routine. The passengers, as if by script, all filed out, except for two per seat. They did so in plain sight of the police at the roadblock, who stood only fifty yards away. The bus then pulled up to the roadblock. As it did so, the majority of the passengers, myself included, simply walked through the roadblock. Looking away, the dozen policemen pretended not to see the crowd walking through their gate, virtually stepping on their toes. The group of passengers, now pedestrians, walked fifty yards beyond the roadblock and stopped and waited. After the police inspected the bus, the driver pulled ahead to where we all re-boarded, again in plain sight of the police, and the bus continued on its way. This little movie, accepted in complete nonchalance by all the nationals, struck me, this alien to the land, as truly curious. No matter that I had long since dumped my academic political science, I could not let it go without at least some attempt at explanation.
Perhaps: The government of Guatemala wanted to appear modern, progressive and democratic. That it was (is) none of the three is beside the point. Appearances are important in politics and at that time, in the seventies, looking good to a more liberal, forward-looking America had real value—financial value if no other. Part of this looking good was the pretense of having an elected and accountable government. Many completely authoritarian regimes in the third-world played this game. Part too was having nice liberal, progressive laws on the books, which would include laws dealing with public transportation. Certainly, there could have been a law "in the public interest" barring overcrowding of buses. Perhaps there had been an accident(s) where many people had been killed, perhaps it involved one overcrowded bus colliding head-on with another, perhaps American or European travelers were among the killed, perhaps it drew unfavorable international press. So, maybe there was such a law. And maybe, my reasoning continued, no matter how peculiar to Americans, its enforcement worked perfectly well for all concerned parties—the Guatemalan government could hold up its progressive legislation to the world as a proof of its legitimacy and at the same time shield itself from criticism in case of a major accident—by blaming, and punishing, some hapless underling of the transportation system for not obeying the national law. The police (inseparable from the government) would have liked it, providing as it did some busy work for its rank and file and, more importantly, an easy excuse "to show the gun"—to intimidate. Certainly, the owners of the transportation companies (inseparable from the government) would have liked the setup—the number of paying passengers having no de facto limit beyond the absolute physical dimensions of the carrier.
And, the other actors in the movie, the sardines in the can, the rural poor? They, the governed (separable from the government), would have liked it too. Playing the game at the check points and crowding on top of each other is inarguably superior to walking. And, besides, they are to understand that it is not the place of the government, or of the police, or of the bus companies to look after and protect them, to get them safely to their destinations. That function belongs to God, Christ, and the Virgin Mother—given them by the Church (inseparable from the government).