My Life on a Bus
An integral aspect of traveling in South America is the time one spends on public transportation. I suspect few people think about the sheer number of hours spent going here and there, long distance and short, in the variety of bus situations this continent presents us with. What makes bus travel in South America ever-interesting is that the trip to a destination can be as exciting, or often more exciting, than the destination itself – characters get on and off, people share snacks and watch bad movies, new friends are made, languages are learned.
Thinking back on the past months I’ve spent teaching and living in Ecuador, I realize how much of my time has been spent on city busses, trolley busses, overnight busses, long-distance busses. I’ve spent so much time in public motion that I sometimes feel as though I’m living my entire Ecuadorian life on a bus – a big, blue, dusty, reggeaton-blaring bus.
The busses I frequent most are the inter-provincial lines that travel to cities outside of Machala, the same busses that any Ecuadorian traveler would have to learn to love. This particular bus routine contains a variety of notable details I now consider quite common-place that before Ecuador, I may not have considered so common.
Here’s what happens. I go to the bus terminal and ask when the next bus leaves. The man either grunts a time leaving soon or points at a bus pulling away from the terminal. If it’s pulling away I run after it and jump on or if I have some time, I buy a bag of chifles (plantain chips) and drinkable yogurt (favorite flavor: mora) and sit nibbling with my backpack on my lap. When it’s time to board I give my bag to the bus-helper (not the driver, but an assistant) who staples a number to it, which never actually gets checked. Then I step up on the bus where I am felt up by a security woman until she tells me to “sigue no mas!” Then I am either really happy because I got on a “good bus”, one with air-conditioning and new chairs with little feet rests, or bummed that I got on a “bad bus” with windows that barely open and old seats that are stuck at oddly reclined levels. I sit and sweat and finish my chifles until the bus moves.
After about a half hour of picking up random passengers around town, we actually get on our way. The bus helper starts the movie, which is almost always a really, really bad action movie dubbed in Spanish. The bus helpers favor movies with Jackie Chan, Jean Claude Van Damme, and the Wayans brothers. Then the bus helper either collects our tickets or takes money if you were one of the people who had to chase after the bus pulling away from the terminal. Then I usually drift to sleep until the bus helper comes down the aisle with our drink. As the bus lurches down the highway, she or he pours neon-colored soda into a flimsy plastic cup and hands it to you with a technique only mastered through years of bus-helping. When the busses pause, vendors of all shapes and sizes hop on selling pieces of coconut floating in coconut juice, warm empanadas, french fries covered in mayonnaise, meat on sticks, candy, gum, lemonade, ice cream. I once made the mistake of purchasing an ice cream which immediately melted all over my hand and lap while little ice cream drops flew all over my face from the wind rushing in a nearby window.
After that, the ride can be uneventful, but often it isn’t. Sometimes Ecuadorians or travelers will lean across the aisle and ask me about my story – who are you, why are you here, are you married, what is your religion – and we end up becoming new friends, scrawling emails on the corners of notebooks and making promises of trips to Bolivia or Columbia. Sometimes something happens to a tire and the whole bus ends up standing around a gas station in the blazing heat, peeling off and rolling up as many clothing items as is decent – decent being a relative term.
Sometimes the downright suicidal passing manuevers of Ecuadorian bus drivers and blaring horns of on-coming semis make me stick my head out in the aisle to see what’s coming. Sometimes the national police stop the bus and kick off those whose papers they deem insufficient (me) until they receive the bribe they’re looking for (not me) or are forced to listen to a norteamericano program director yell at them on the phone in Spanish (me).
But mostly, I spend a lot of time staring at the passing Ecuadorian countryside – banana plantations, cloud forest, coffee-beans drying in the sun on the side of the highway. I always look for hidden haciendas in the banana plantations the way I used to look for care bears hidden in clouds when I was young. I imagine the Buendia family (see 100 Years of Solitude) lives in these houses overgrown with red tropical flowers and vines.
By then the trip has passed and we pull into Guayaquil or Cuenca or Quito or Puerto Lopez and the journey ends. I shake my head at how much my feet have swelled this time, collect my dusty bag from under the bus and go on my way.