Chapter 16


1990-12-23, Sibundoy

"Thou shalt not plan. Thou shalt not hurry. Thou shalt not travel 
without  backpacks, on anything other than backroads.  And thou 
shalt not, ever, in any circumstance, call thyself a tourist."
(Golden Commandments of The Overlander)

             'Video Night In Kathmandu'    Pico Iyer

Have you ever traveled in Third-world countries using public transportation? Have you crossed vast distances on boulder-filled bone-jarring dust-covered thoroughfares, rode treacherous mountain passes, been knocked about by flaying arms, legs and bodies? Dribbled on by children, squeezed, pinched, spat and puked upon while trapped within the vice-like grip of inescapable humanity? Assaulted by walls of distorted noise coming from speakers turned full-volume inches away from your ears?

You may indeed have experienced a memorable "Busride From Hell"!

These are profound experiences. Not to be taken lightly. Trials of endurance that separate the truly hardy from the weekend adventurer. For those modern world journeyers who have encountered any of the following activities, you may count Karma Points toward assuaging the sins of avarice, sloth and crass materialism.

The driver, or 'Chofer', is a graduate of the Parnelli Jones school for Grand Prix Racers. He knows two speeds, Stop and Fast.

This helps as the transmission in these conveyances often has only two gears. These he uses with flair and precision, always attempting to pass any and everything on the road.

Uphill or down, in city or on highway. One lane or two, traffic coming or not.

For the self-respecting Chofer, it's not arriving safely at the destination that counts - it's the number of obstacles successfully overcome along the way.

The Chofer, a hardy determined chap, knows no fear. He lives for today, safe in the security and faith that he is protected. Indeed, his cabin is a sanctuary and altar. Chains and silver Crosses hang from the roof. Adorning windows, lights and mirrors are red and gold tassels and round cloth bangles.

The dashboard appears sufficient to pilot the Starship Enterprise. Among all the non-functional instruments and gauges crowding the cockpit are glowing, round and geometrically cut crystal gems of every color.

On the front windshield, or in place of the center mirror is the ubiquitous 'Jesus'. Sometimes this is replaced by a somber and matronly 'Virgin Mary'. These are always flanked by naked Playboy Bunnies outlined in silver and striking seductive poses. One never knows what provides more inspiration for the humble servant of the highway.

What space in this sanctum not taken up by the symbols of religious security or sinful temptation is plastered with signs: 'Jesus Es Mi Guia', 'Don't distract the Chofer', 'Move to the back of the Bus', 'Jesus is my co-pilot'.

My favorite is: 'Only children of the Chofer ride for free'.

As every mother riding the bus carries at least one child, usually two or three, and wants not to pay for any of them, this provides an interesting social dynamic for our far-wandering driver.

So as not to distract the Captain by rowdy customers, noise or those crucial moment to moment occurrences on the road, every bus is equipped with a 1000-megawatt Stereo System. This is by far the most technologically advanced and reliable component on the bus.

With names like 'Blaupunkt', 'Alpine' or 'BMW', I have often wondered if they are standard equipment.

Unfortunately, the banks of speakers, cleverly locaed to saturate the entire enclosure with sound, are never sufficient to handle the power of those mighty Megawatt Amplifiers. Always opened to full-throttle, distortion mixes with original music to create an ambience conducive to maintaining a fully aware and awake state, though sometimes a little frayed.

Even during night-time journeys or those long 10-to-20 hour trips, music is your constant companion. If you are traveling with another companion, conversation is unnecessary and even futile. However, chances are you will never miss your stop for having dozed off.

The passenger compartment is a revelation of engineering efficiency. Space for passengers is extended far beyond the manufacturer's original intentions. Seats designed to hold two will fill with three or four. From window to opposite window there may be seven or eight intimate companions. Add one or two more in the aisles. No wasted space aboard these shrimp barges.

Children will always be present. Standing in the aisles or hanging out the windows, laying across shoulders, wrapped in slings across backs, sitting in laps, sometimes yours. And of course there is the 'small' luggage that must accompany all passengers. Sacks of food, chickens, ducks. Perhaps a goat or a sheep.

As many buses have seats for people half your height, get used to sitting with your knees against your chest.

Air conditioning may come next century to these countries. Windows are the only means of controlling ambient temperature. On most conveyances, when it is hot, all windows are permanently locked shut. Conversely, on cold mountain passes all windows are broken, and remain open.

The other occurrence when traveling the Cordilleras in Andean countries is a constant shift in temperature. Traveling from sea-level swelter to 4000-meter frigid blast. Then back down.

Along with the added benefits of the road in your face and hair. All of it!

Expect mechanical problems to plague the journey. Tires are often bald, and may be changed en route. Long worn out clutches give up just as you are climbing a 45-degree hill. Gas fumes abound. Springs and shock absorbers, helpful to cushion the ride on bare wooden seats, are virtually non-existent.

What is not broken at the start may well be before long, what with rocky pothole-covered dirt roads, turning to sliding mud, and narrow mountain passes built to accommodate Volkswagen Beetles.

Not to fear! The Chofer is a well trained Master Mechanic and is always equipped for these minor inconveniences.

Other experiences to look forward to are frequent police checks, where you may become the center of local interest by being the only Gringo on the bus. And don't miss the run-down tiendas for stops along the way, serving a smorgasbord of offerings from the menu, all basically rice and beans.

Uncovered luggage on the roof of the bus passing through waterfall-frequented cloud forest mountains is another thrill not to be missed. The only items that are covered are baskets filled with vegetables, never any vulnerable luggage.

So what of all this? Why do it? Are there any saving graces?

Only if the lure of far-off places moves you. Views of snow-capped sierras, vistas filled with unending, lush tree-covered mountain cliffs, 2000-foot crevasses, flower and waterfall-covered rainforest, lush farmland with a zoo-full of animals abounding.

Indigenous thatch-roofed huts by the side of the road. Or just the simple experience of being in the midst of, and sharing the everyday life of, another culture, another society, another way of life.

If any of this moves you, then a 'Busride From Hell' may be just the thing.

But don't forget the aspirin.

Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman

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