On the Night Bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas
Oaxaca, Southwestern Mexico
The night bus from Oaxaca to San Cristóbal de las Casas? For god’s sake, spend the extra 30 pesos for the first-class ‘DL’ line. Ah, what a bus. The bathroom is spacious and daisy-fresh. There is a sunny little vestibule, streamlined and efficient with brushed steel fixtures and blond wood offering carafes of robust Chiapas coffee, bottles of spring water and fruity juices, and steaming, lavender-scented hand towels stacked in crisp and hermetically sealed plastic sacks simmering away in a tidy little hotbox. And the seats. My god, the seats. They slide beneath you to scoop you up like the hand of a giant, friendly chiropractor canting you to an ergonomically pleasing pitch so your humors don’t pool unpleasantly, and you arrive after your long, lavender-scented journey a kinder, more gracious, and wiser person than when you left.
In contrast, hooking you by running on the very same schedule, and reeling you in by charging a pittance (about three dollars) less than the magnificent ‘DL’, keens the siren song of the harpy they call the ‘Silver’ line. But, I am here to tell you that her plastic seats are gouged and sticky, her logo, I’m sure, is ‘Spewing youth at discount prices’; and her scent? It is not lavender.
The philosophy behind getting travelers from Oaxaca City in southwestern Mexico 650 kilometers to San Cristóbal de las Casas, is this: It takes twelve hours. It’s nighttime. You’ll sleep right through it all, arriving fresh, and ready to leap out into the green and foggy mountains of Chiapas rarin’ to buy beads and Sandanista t-shirts and stop shaving and fall in love with very pretty girls named Anja whose ankle bracelets tinkle when they walk along the stone colonnades, and who smell like henna and clove cigarettes, and who haggle charmingly with the fruit vendor for a good price on that kind of melon you like, which they feed to you from lovely tapered fingers as you splay naked on piles of cushions in quiet Mexican bedrooms. Anyway, that was certainly a draw for some of us; and, since we are as frugal as we are romantic, we chose to save the 30 pesos, earmarking them for melon. Like romance, though, unschooled frugality frequently ends in tears.
Aboard the cursed Silver line bus, the driver set the tone before we even got out of the station. He hauled the door shut, eyed us with disdain, and bellowed, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen,” which he didn’t appear to mean at all. Then, in really fast Spanish with lots of exclamation points and Mussolini goose-stepping he rattled off the surprisingly complicated drill for opening and closing the bathroom door whacking his thigh instructively with a rolled up map to emphasize the important points.
“Now!” he said. “To enter the bathroom! Turn the knob. Two times to the left. Pull the handle. Then! When you are inside! Close the door firmly. (Whack) Turn the knob. If you don’t turn the knob, the door won’t lock! (Strident thigh whacking here) When you exit, close the door firmly! (Whack) Turn the knob. Two times to the right and push. If you don’t turn the knob, the door won’t lock!” A flurry of thigh whacking indicated that this point was key, and he wrapped up with, “Have a pleasant trip,” which sounded like a dare.
On a twelve-hour bus trip, information about how to get into and out of the bathroom should be considered valuable and worthy of attention, but, as in all great tragedies, no one was listening. The guys in front of us were hunkered down behind the seat guffawing and punching each other and swilling contraband mezcal. Across the aisle, down which something foamy had already begun to run, a remarkably unattractive couple was coiling and writhing like a tubful of squid, the plastic seat making vulgar sounds as their back fat stuck to it and pulled.
So, with the ambiance pretty well irrevocably defined, we lumbered out of the Oaxaca bus terminal, down Ninos Heroes Avenue and into a clear evening and the Mexican countryside. Running along the valley floor, we were in purple shadow long before the sun set behind the western hills, but by the time the light was gone, we were beyond the valley’s towns, and it was very dark with only little clusters of lights far away hanging up on the hillsides like constellations.
We heaved and rolled like a galleon down the empty road. As we rose into the mountains, it was really dark. The only light in the bus was from our headlights sweeping the grassy berms on the left-hand side of the road, illuminating an occasional trotting dog or a drunk face down in the gravel verge, and on the right, beyond the smashed guardrails, the precipitous black maw of the valley far below. I’m sure it would have been a pretty drive. I dozed. The background music of my dreams was slurping noises from the kissing squid beside us, and snores and gassy explosions from the teens in front.
Some time in the night, I could hear the undeniable splash of someone getting wetly sick not far away, followed by snuffling whimpers, a burp, and the thump and jostle of friends gathering up the invalid, and about six people staggering in a lump down the pitch-dark aisle to the bathroom where they discovered they couldn’t open the door.
There was a pause, then rattling, then:
“I can’t open the door,” one of them whispered.
Hushed advice rose up from the seats.
“You have to push,” whispered someone.
“Nothing’s happening,” they whispered back.
Weeping from the patient.
“No, no! Pull! You have to pull,” a dissenting faction whispered.
Louder, more peevish weeping from patient. Frantic yanking.
Whispered coaching and hushed advice from all sides: “Pull harder!” “No no! Push!”
Weeping rising to keening howl. Feverish yanking.
“Bash it with an ax!” urged a vehement whisper.
“Sssshhhhh!” hissed twelve people from the front of the bus.
“Sorry. Sorry,” they hissed back. Vicious rattling. A committee formed.
“We’ll turn it to the right,” came the hushed verdict.
The door swung open. A small cheer rose up. The patient was stuffed into the stinky, black closet with a jolly, “O.K., now, that’s o.k. then. In you go.”
Once open, however, the door could not be made to stay shut. Inside, the roar of lusty barfing was first loud as the committee pulled the door open to toggle and discuss the locks, and then muffled as the victim pleaded weakly, “Oh please God. Shut the door.” The overall effect was an ebb and roar impression rather like the sea.
“It’s not shutting.”
“Turn the knob to the left, you idiot,” came a peevish whisper from the seats.
A harried rattle followed by a quiet, satisfying little click, and a hushed, “Oh. Yes. Alright. O.K. I’ve got it now. Wanker,” which met with the whispered shriek of “Wanker?! What the..!” and a dark form springing up and bashing its head on the luggage rack, then the rest of the bus screaming in whispers like ruptured steam pipes “Ssssshhhh! Shut up! Shut up! Oh God! Shut up! You are all wankers!” And we all fell harrumphing into a muttering stew.
Eventually, the limp husk of the patient was dragged back to its seat. The bus was winding through the Sierras down to the coast, and was quiet again. But not for long. As we hove through the curves, the bathroom door, the secret of its lock still uncracked, swung open, whacking the back wall with a rousing ka bang. Rounding the next bend, it slammed shut with a ka chunk. Another curve and it fell open (ka bang), another bend (ka chunk!). With a vindictive zeal the maniac driver sped up. Slaloming through the curves, he began flashing the overhead lights to get our attention, yanking them on and off like a strobe. Flash! Flash! Flash! Ka bang! Ka chunk! Ka bang! Ka chunk!
“Shut the goddamn door!” interpreted a clever soul.
In the strobe, someone rose to the task, staggering like Frankenstein down the flickering aisle. Flash! Stagger stagger. Flash! Frantic, blind lock jiggling. Flash! Anguished face. Flash! Arms flung skyward. Flash! Silent wail. Inky blackness. Flash!
“Turn it to the left!” we all screamed.
Flash! Quiet, satisfying little click.
And on we rode through the Mexican night arriving six hours later in a dawn as grey and chill as a bad oyster. We stayed for five days. I met no one who smelled of clove cigarettes, and melons were not in season.