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Excess

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How to sit on a bus for 96 hours

Tuesday 14th January 2014

I have been on my fair share of awful bus rides. Once, on a bus to the salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia, I endured a 200km journey that took nine hours over a winding dirt track.

From my seat at the front it appeared as if we were constantly on the verge of tipping over the cliff as we travelled through to Uguni. Every time we made it past a particularly tight bend, everyone on the bus would cheer in celebration of the fact that our lives were spared, at least for a few more minutes. Earlier that week a bus and truck collided on another Bolivian highway, sending both vehicles over the cliff.

To lighten the mood – or perhaps just to keep himself awake – the driver played the same five tropical cumbia songs on repeat the whole way. I thought maybe his cousin was the amateur vocalist and she’d given him the CD for Christmas. Later I found out that Las Chicas Azucar are actually world famous in Bolivia.

On the way to Buenos Aires

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However, nine hours of thinking I was going to die whilst listening to the same dreadful songs was child’s play compared to the 96 hours it took to get from Lima, Peru, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Although I’d say to others that it was my choice, that I wanted to rough it by opting for a more authentic travelling experience, it was really a matter of money. It was the tail-end of a six month trip through Latin America and I needed to get back to Buenos Aires within a week to catch my flight home. Flights within Latin America were too expensive and I’d already pulled the “I’m so poor and on the other side of the world and could die at any moment” card on my mother and received a generous donation in my bank account. Thus, shameless begging was no longer an option.

With this in mind, I went to the Cruz del Sur bus terminal in Lima and handed over a few hundred dollars for the privilege of sitting on a bus for half a week. Cruz del Sur were a reputable company and had a better track record than most others for avoiding fatalities on the road.

The woman at the bookings desk allowed me to choose my seat. I chose one right up the front so at least I didn’t have to sit for four days with the back of someone’s seat caressing my face. Although I was fortunate in picking the best seat, I was at the mercy of fate as to who my neighbour would be for the journey. The anticipation was prolonged by the fact that I was the first person on the bus. I sat there, scrutinising the other passengers as they climbed on board. A teenage girl gnawing on a piece of gum got on after me. Please, please, I thought, don’t let it be her.

Thankfully, she and her blaring headphones made their way to the back of the bus.

Many more people embarked in pairs: middle-aged women, a toddler in his mother’s arms, and a few married couples. Then came aboard two good-looking young guys. Although my first thought was that I wouldn’t mind sitting next to either of them for a few days, I quickly realised that by the time we’ve been sitting in the same unwashed clothes for four days, I doubt anyone would feel like flirting.

An elderly woman with a walking stick hobbled onto the bus, eyeing up the seat next to me. Behind her was a small entourage carrying her belongings; a night bag and several boxes of Inca Kola (a radioactive-looking yellow beverage, nay institution, from Peru). I assumed she’d be transporting it to her adult children who lived in Argentina and were unable to get their hands on this national treasure, but no; throughout the journey she proceeded to drink her weight in Inca Kola.

As far as neighbours go, she wasn’t actually that bad. She preferred to mumble to herself rather than engage in conversation with me, which suited me fine. So we sat there, politely ignoring each other for the majority of the journey.

The domestic trips I’d taken with Cruz del Sur had provided hot meals and even desserts on journeys of twelve hours or more. On domestic routes with the more modest bus services, the buses would usually slow down at the start of a small town to let on the local women to sell food to the passengers.

To keep us occupied throughout the journey, the drivers played an endless supply of blood-thirsty action movies.

The women would carry bundles of cooked meat wrapped in colourful blankets. They’d wander up and down the aisles, announcing the prices of the meat, and if someone so happened to agree to buy the food in their blankets, they’d stop, put the blanket on the floor, and divvy out a portion of the meat into a plastic bag. Other women carried packets of nuts and dried plantains. They’d arrange themselves like mini walking kiosks with sticky belts covering their upper body so the packets could easily be removed when someone bought an item.

The local women would then be let off at the other end of their town and presumably someone would come to pick them up to take them back to the start of the town, ready for the next bus to pass through. When I realised we weren’t getting fed on this bus service, I yearned for the women selling unsanitary meat out of their blankets. But they were not permitted to get on Cruz del Sur buses as the company prided itself on being above all of that.

We made a stop every 24 hours for people to buy food and have a stretch. To keep us occupied throughout the journey, the drivers played an endless supply of blood-thirsty action movies. It didn’t matter that there were small children on the bus, or that they laughed when people were blown up or the hero’s lover was riddled with bullets. I learned to fall asleep to the not so soothing sounds of loud gunfire, exploding bombs, and the giggles of small children, thrilled with the violence.

I had to be strategic about the amount of water I drank; it was a toss-up between passing out because of impending dehydration or braving the foul stench coming from the toilet down the back. The tiny bowl was filled to the brim with three-day-old urine and potent disinfectant. The contents swayed and splashed as the bus went around corners, making a tidal pool on the floor. I tried to hover over it and pee really slowly so I wouldn’t get splashed, but it was hopeless. The bus drivers stressed the importance of only going “numbers ones” in the toilet. They said they’d find a place to stop if someone needed to drop off anything solid.

I felt light-headed and imagined how typical it would be if I passed out; a sorry sight with my pants around my ankles, abandoned in the Chilean desert.

An elderly woman needed to vomit while we were passing through the Chilean desert. As she struggled out of the bus with the assistance of another woman, I made a sprint for a suitable place to pee. The desert was flat and vast, and without the slightest incline or boulder that would provide a bit of privacy.

By this stage, I was desperately staggering along, praying for at least a little rock to hide behind. My wish was granted in the form of a tiny rock, but a fellow passenger had already beaten me to it. I had to wait patiently to allow her some privacy while she squatted in the desert. We could hear the bus drivers yelling for us to come back or they’d leave us behind.

Once she’d finished, she gave me a blissful post-pee smile and ran back to the bus. It was my turn behind the tiny rock, and as I began to pee, I felt the effects of soroche, or altitude sickness, coming on. I felt light-headed and imagined how typical it would be if I passed out; a sorry sight with my pants around my ankles, abandoned in the Chilean desert. Thankfully, their threats didn’t follow through and I was able to get back to the bus before they took off again.

After we’d passed through the Chilean border patro into northern Argentina, we thought we were on the home stretch back to Buenos Aires. It was only another twenty-four hours to go, but heavy rains had washed out the only road.

A stop on the long road home.
A stop on the long road home.

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We, along with many other buses and trucks, were diverted to a small town, Susques, where we had to wait out the night, hoping that the emergency team would dig like crazy and clear the road by the following morning. No one knew how long it was going to take and the bus drivers disappeared to a local restaurant for dinner. The townspeople and especially the shopkeepers didn’t mind so much. They charged extortionate prices for everything, even a small bottle of water. The local shop with a few phone booths was doing a roaring trade. Everyone was trying to inform their families of their late arrival.

I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to make my flight in time. There were only three days to go, and it took another day at least to get from Susques to Buenos Aires. However, when I tried to call NZ, the people working in the store didn’t know where it was. I tried to show them on a map, but they said “Oh no, you can call Ireland or Australia, but not there”.

As we all grabbed for our stowed luggage at the bus terminal in Buenos Aires, we hugged and promised to be life-long acquaintances on Facebook.

The streets were covered in mud from the incessant drizzle. We slipped around as we tried to walk through the streets. The bus floor was covered in a layer of mud. At nightfall, the high altitude conspired against and the temperature dropped to near-freezing levels. I slept covered in everything I could find in my bag, including my facecloth. Some people decided they’d rather pass the night sharing their life stories and drinking cask wine outside. By the time morning rolled around, they were so drunk that a fight broke out and a guy from our bus was being questioned by the police over a missing watch.

The landslide was cleared the following afternoon. We cheered as we passed through the washed out road, and I made it back to Buenos Aires in time for my flight. As we all grabbed for our stowed luggage at the bus terminal in Buenos Aires, we hugged and promised to be life-long acquaintances on Facebook.

Once I was on my flight back to New Zealand, I couldn’t get over how strange it was to be able to get from one side of the Pacific Ocean to the other within a mere thirteen hours. There was air conditioning, the seats were cushioned, and the stewardesses doled out free booze with a smile. I could even choose which movie I wanted to watch on an individual screen, but somehow, it all felt a little too easy.