It was too much damn time on public transportation!
The lifestyle of a shoestring adventurer has its many advantages: frequent, deeply meaningful interactions with the local culture, thrilling gastronomic gambles, and the addictive freedom of unbridled itineraries. However, penny pinching also attracts the less attractive – shoestringers are intimately acquainted with various degrees of filth, absurdity and inconvenience…(which may or may not detract from the overall experience). In our own South American adventure, Kelsey and I have overcome explosive digestive issues in bathrooms without toilet seats, toilet paper or soap. At least, we said to ourselves, it´s better than a hole in the ground! Plus, urine is pretty much sterile right? We have faced the freezing cold Andean nights with layers of clothing and frozen toes. At least we have these seven wooly blankets, we said to ourselves. Plus, the cold and the altitude are good for the lungs, right? We have survived impossibly incorrect directions. At least we said to ourselves, we´ve had a nice long walk through town. Plus, it´s the journey not the destination that matters, right?
But more frequently than all the abovementioned excitements, we´ve endured the infamous long-distance South American bus ride many, many, many times over. An enormous (dis)advantage of independent cheapskate travel is the unparalleled experience of local overland transportation. The bus – in all its inherent filth, absurdity and inconvenience – has been an unending source of remarkable adventure throughout our travels in South America. Our experiences have been among the best and worst of our entire trip, though the polarities are at times rather interchangeable.
Our rides range from the very short to the very long - we spent no less than forty or fifty hours on a bus in the first three weeks alone. We´ve experienced the extraordinarily crowded (Kelsey´s shoulder almost unfailingly serves as a cheek-rest in such situations) to the blissfully bare. Our fellow passengers have been backpackers, babies, trussed-up chickens and disgusting drunks. Each and every boleto ensures a wholly unique experience...an utterly sensory overload of mindboggling proportions. We are regularly inundated by the bright, extraoridnary colors of indigenous textiles; the painful pixelage and intense volume of terrible movies; the unshakeable stench of unwashed human, unpleasant bodily functions and unappetizing bus snacks; the oddly organized chaos of bus terminals and seat-side shopping opportunities; the impossibly gymnastic operation of using an on-board bathroom; the stagnant, steaming midday air sinking into freezing nighttime temperatures; and, as always, the nauseating twists and turns of mountain-hugging highways. And thus, given the predictably unpredictable process of point A to point B, our long journey to Peru was certainly no exception.
Amidst the chaos of Guayaquil´s terminal monstrosity, we were swept into the care of an enthusiastic man apparently associated with our chosen bus company. He rather merrily shuffled us from the ticket window to the elevator, from the elevator to the platform and from the platform to the bus – happily herding the overwhelmed group of gringos with a winning toothless smile. I was immediately suspicious of his efforts – few are quite so helpful in a bus terminal – but I sided with my optimistic inclinations. As we were rolling towards Cuenca, our jolly toothless friend took center stage, commanding the attention of a helplessly trapped passenger audience. His booming monologue regarding the necessity of happiness, smiling and laughter (even in the event of death) evoked the exchange of curious glances between all present gringos - ´okay, does this guy actually work on this bus?´
From my happy little front row aisle seat, I was in the fortunate position to have an extraordinarily clear view of his gaping, naked gum holes – juicy with the enthusiasm of his impassioned speech. As the show continued, I was treated to frequent showers of mystery moisture, no doubt a nauseating combination of unhindered saliva, sweat dripping from his long unwashed locks, and perhaps pure droplets of happiness oozing from his overexcited pores. Our star conducted a brief trivia contest – rewarding correct answers with dubiously ´American´ candies; questions ranged from animal facts to odd jokes about Michael Jackson – (for instance, ´what is black and white and likes children?´). At the end of the gameshow, he distributed ´gifts´ of cookies, waited for the suckers to start chowing down and then collected forty cents for each ´gift´ consumed. With a whirl of melodrama and a pocketful of change, the world´s most theatrical autobus entrepreneur sashayed off stage. We were left speechless, with our brows thoroughly furrowed by floating thoughts of Michael Jackson and dental hygiene. The rest of our trip was (un)fortunately uneventful, aside from yet another excellent American film export about an immoral midget named ´Littleman.´ At least, we said to ourselves, there is such great entertainment in the absurdity of it all.
After finishing off our time in Cuenca, we began our horribly long pilgrimage to Lima, Peru. Due to no apparent reason, (aside from frequent bus driver pee-pee pull-overs), our four hour bus ride to Loja became six. Arriving at nearly midnight, we were lucky to find a soon-departing bus for the Peruvian border town, Piura. We stashed our bags with the usual suspicion and found our seats for the next eight hours – crossing our fingers for snooze-conducive conditions.
Of course, an absurdly loud dubbed American movie jerked us to attention almost immediately - ´Anaconda´ (which is not the best film to see just before going to the jungle) – involved a remarkable amount of slaughter-provoked screaming. We stuffed earplugs in our ears just to make the volume nearly tolerable. I lost consciousness somewhere between battling with my seat lever and pondering the processes of snake digestion.
Promptly around 1 or 2 am - (in the midst of a blissfully snake-free existence) - our bus shuddered to a halt on the side of the empty road. Great. Given my many other overland transportation experiences, I had pessimistic suspicions that were soon verified by the tinkering of tools. We´ve broken down, I said to Kelsey. But at least it´s nice and quiet? We spent the next two hours lolling in and out of slumber - occasionally jolted to consciousness by curious passing busloads. Yeah, it´s cool, I thought, we´re just chilling here on the side of the road with half the engine hanging out. We looked on enviously until our 3 am rescue. Dazed, confused, and looking a bit like bleary-eyed lunatics, we were unloaded and reloaded and soon delivered to the Peruvian border formalities. ´Good morning!´said the customs official. Kelsey and I weren´t sure we agreed.
We arrived at the eyesore of bordertown Piura with mussed hair and grumpy demeanors...not entirely thrilled about our impending 16-18 hour adventure to Lima. ´Let´s just do it, and get it over with. I´m so tired I could sleep anywhere,´Kelsey said. We splashed out for the cheapest bus we could find...dreading the possibility of peeing in roadside bushes. When we arrived to the terminal, with all expectations scraping along the Peruvian concrete, our bloodshot eyes widened in wonder. Our bus was a gloriously luxurious double decker construction simply emanating comfort and contentedness. Our bags were checked with tags and roped securely into a large luggage compartment...no hope for Peruvian ladrones today! The stewardess (there was a stewardess!!!) directed us up the stairs (there were STAIRS!) to our seats - each the size of Titicaca and cozy enough to promptly swallow our exhaustion. The leg rest - not just for the feet, mind you - stretched our aching muscles into a satisfied oblivion. The toilet had a toilet seat, the sink had soap and towels...there was even a window for fresh air relief while relieving yourself. When the stewardess brought out a piping hot dinner, our reading lights actually functioned, our seats reclined to a nearly horizontal position, and a film of respectable content and volume blinked on...we realized we were in autobus nirvana. We both fell into the best bus sleep known to the shoestringer world, and awoke to a bit of fresh breakfast. I questioned whether I had, in fact, died and gone to heaven.
Our autobus adventures have been the best of times, the worst of times, and without a doubt some of the most remarkably, unpredictably, fabulously filthy, absurd, and inconvenient of times. We have survived the chaos and discomfort of traveling thousands of miles. At least, we say to ourselves, we are never short on adventure. Plus, it´s the journey not the destination that matters, right?