Bus 5491 to Medellin

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February 16th 2010
Published: February 16th 2010
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Bus 5491 to Medellin

"‘We went through the guard rail. Everybody up top was screaming,’ the 14-year-old said in a telephone interview from his home in Vancouver, Washington. 'I had no idea what was going on until we impacted. The first 20 minutes of the trip, we're flying down a dirt road going about 75 or 80 miles per hour,' he said. ‘I opened the window to show my friend Mark, and we were both wide-eyed, going like, 'Wow!’

The teenager's spleen was removed and surgeons repaired his perforated stomach and punctured lung after the crash on a narrow, winding highway. His mother suffered more than a dozen broken bones, shattered when the seats broke free and sailed through the cabin. Her other son helped her from the wreckage."
The Washington Post, April 9, 2006.

In 2004, Colombia recorded 513 deaths and 2,782 injuries from accidents involving buses; but I didn't suspect things were so dangerous when I boarded the bus from Caucasia to Medellin to visit the great Botero Museum.

The bus looked great on the outside, with sporty blue, white and red racing stripes down the length of a new paint job and some jazzy decals to spruce it up and make it look official, but nothing could disguise the fact that it was a bus welded to the chassis of a flatbed truck. One glance over my shoulder at the grimy bus station where I had already been waiting three hours - the flies, the tired sweepers, the scabby dogs sniffing through garbage, the rotten eggs from food vendors, the alcoholics smoking and spitting - and I knew I couldn’t wait for another bus to come along.

I promised God I’d never swear again and climbed aboard. Behind a wall of hard plastic attached to a jimmy-rigged door, the bus driver was sprawled over two seats with his pants unzipped. Saliva dribbled down his chin and his right hand was tucked under his neck. Have your nap now Hugo, rather than over the steering wheel at eighty miles per hour, I thought. Hearing the ruckus as we climbed aboard, he leaped up to help passengers put their suitcases in the luggage compartments below.

Glancing around, something told me that my sleep deprivation would probably continue. The bus was so decrepit it might have been the same one that Jack Kerouac boarded in Mexico in 1948 to get back to New York City, and with the same cigarette butts still in the ashtray. It was filthy. People pushed past and chucked their stuff into overhead compartments that wouldn’t shut no matter how many times they were slammed, and they were slammed over and over again. A chemical smell permeated the air from the toilet beside me and I stopped to ponder which was worse for my lungs - the chemical reek coming out of the toilet, or the diesel smoke that was now filling the bus.

I had to find a seat, preferably the best place to survive a crash, but I wasn't sure where that would be. Up front? In the back? Right here? Families had most of their camping gear set up at the back of the bus - blankets, baskets, babies, bags of food, thermoses and lunch buckets and they were totally stuffed in their seats and by the look of it, the bus was going to be overloaded. Where should I sit? Can I get my money back or is it too late? Before I could decide, I heard the luggage compartments being slammed shut outside and the driver was back in his seat revving the shit out of the engine and suffocating everyone on board.

I started having an anxiety attack as the bus lurched and rocked forward, the driver grinding his way through the lower gears as we drove over the curb with a bang. I grabbed an overhead strap to catch myself and swung crazily around in half circles before I pitched myself into a seat beside a fellow in a baseball cap who just happened to look like Pablo Escobar. I smiled weakly and said hello. The cover on my head-rest was smudged with greasy hair stains and beneath the window rusted-out holes were big enough to shove the bus driver’s head through, but not straight through to the outside of course, because from the outside, the bus looked great.

As we sped down the road I hung on to my seat, my neck arching either left or right or straight up at every sharp bend or bump in the road until I thought I'd look like Gumby by the time I got to Medellin; and the driver had to speed around every bend too, grinding his way through all the gears and shredding and stripping them down until the sprockets spun like frisbees. The first fifteen minutes and already he’s flying down the road at seventy miles per hour?

I pushed the grimy curtain aside and stripped off the purple matting that was holding the cracked window together to watch as the scenery tore by at an alarming rate, and then I remembered reading that a twelve-hour bus ride through the Andes could take only eight because the drivers drove so fast. I closed the curtain and sat back and tried to read my book, but quickly gave up - my eyeballs felt like they were coming out of my sockets and I had to hold on to my seat.

I told myself to just relax, I'd get there or I wouldn't, but soon I thought I detected the sound of metal on metal every time the driver touched the brakes. The bus could probably do without shock absorbers, but brakes? The scraping sound was coming from the front underneath the toilet. I had a vision of the bus plummeting off a cliff with me trapped under a ton of burning metal, and dead people’s bloody body parts strewn on top of me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I prayed to God to forgive me for breaking every other lousy promise I'd ever made.

Meanwhile, beside me, Pablo Escobar had fallen asleep, blissfully asleep. He was snoring loudly, his head resting against the window, his mouth gaping open, his leg pressing and bumping against mine every time we went over a bump. He wasn’t going to stop wheezing any time soon and now I couldn’t decide what annoyed me more, the lunatic driving the bus, or Pablo whistling through his sinuses. Normally I wouldn't mind someone falling asleep beside me and snoring, but he was all over me with it. I looked at his open mouth again and nipped him in the side with my elbow, pretending I was just trying to get more comfortable in my seat. He opened his eyes and I smiled apologetically. Within ten minutes he was back at it, his jaw slack, his legs spread, his knee bumping mine. I nipped him in the side again. Oh, I'm so sorry, I said, I'm just trying to find a better position. The look he gave me suddenly reminded me of the drug war that was going on in Colombia, and that perhaps he might have bludgeoned someone to death with the butt of his rifle over a pound of cocaine, or perhaps had kidnapped a foreigner for money and thrown him down some hole where he was still, awaiting ransom money from his family in America. Thinking about the thousands who had been kidnapped in Colombia, I got up and moved.

I didn't want to sit in front of the stinking toilet but at least I was alone. The bus continued along with only conversation and flies filling the bus and people were dozing or staring out the windows when suddenly there was a piercing whine of the engine and we all lurched forward and grabbed our seats. The bus went into a mad slide to the left, the tires screeching as we skidded along sideways. We hung on in terror yelling and screaming as bags, food and clothing rained down from the overhead compartments. One woman screeched at the top of her lungs from the back of the bus and the children all started crying. The door to the toilet sprang open and swung violently back and forth, slamming repeatedly against the wall as the bus rocked from side to side; water slopped out of the toilet bowl and streaked across the floor of the bus. It smelled vile.

We rocked from side to side for a few more sickening seconds before the bus finally stopped and we sat in stunned silence for a moment. Yelling commenced from outside and the drivers opened the doors and went out as passengers sprang out of their seats and jammed the aisles, jabbering in Spanish and trampling all the debris underfoot in their push to get out. There was a pounding on the bus from the outside. I leaned forward and kicked the bathroom door shut, then pushed the curtain aside to look out my window. Holy Christ.

Looming over me with a hideous grin was the grille of a gigantic truck; we were sideways, t-boned against it. Ten more feet and it would have driven right over the bus and turned us all into grape jelly and mashed potatoes. What the hell? Where are we? I couldn't see clearly with the purple tacky paper on the window so I got off the bus and joined the crowd that had gathered. Mountain people with skinny dogs and children with runny noses and tangled hair were all talking and laughing at once. A few people kept hammering with their fists on the outside of the bus. I figured they must be sick of bus drivers. Everyone was jabbering and talking and climbing on and off the bus. The driver of the truck and the two bus drivers were arguing. I asked people in my lousy Spanish what happened. The driver had tried to pass another vehicle and realizing he wouldn't make it, had jammed on the brakes to avoid a smash-up. It was a miracle that the truck had been able to stop. I couldn’t believe how close I’d come to death and I had to sit down. I climbed back on and plopped back into my seat. We were high up in the Andes, blocking all cars coming from both ways, and we had been seconds away from disintegrating into burning metal and strewn body parts.

Should I get off now? Where are we? Maybe another bus will come along? But I knew there was no way out; it was the bus or nothing. We were in the mountains, no bus was coming soon, no town was in sight, and no hotel was within distance.

After the excitement was over and we were all back on board and everybody had lapsed back into their comas, I knocked on the flimsy door and spoke to the driver and his sidekick. Despachio, I said. Es peligroso. Drive slower. The two drivers glared at me and I slammed the door and went back to sit down, wondering if I’d been too polite, or if they’d understood my lousy Spanish, and wondering what they did up there behind that plastic door anyway. Everybody stared at me as I stumbled back down the aisle, muttering and cursing to myself. I slumped back in my seat and turned to the toothless man curled up in the seat across from me. He grinned and his head bobbed up and down and he went on grinning and bobbing his head up and down. He started to give me the creeps, especially when he rubbed his leg in what could be construed as an obscene manner and stuck his tongue out at me and waggled it. But alas, it was no time for silliness, it was almost time for a food break.

The bus stopped at an outdoor restaurant cum souvenir shop, a regular stop for travellers. The driver pulled on the handbrake and rushed out of the bus with his co-star before anyone had a chance to say “I love your driving.” We had “treinta minutos” and we strolled around and bought snacks, some others ordered hot food and sat down at tables decorated with yellow vinyl flowers in plastic cups. The drivers went and chowed down at the back of the pit stop, and I thought I’d snoop into their private room to see whether they were drinking or not, because alcohol is another reason for all the bus fatalities here, but I couldn’t see anything, and the look on their faces didn’t encourage me to hang around.

After our thirty minutes the bus drivers yelled for everybody to get back on board and we were off, leaving a trail of dust and pebbles in our wake as the tires spun out of the driveway, but we hadn’t gone forty yards down the road when I heard shrieks coming from a woman behind me. She was pointing outside. "Stop the bus!" "Somebody is missing!" “Stop the bus!” I pushed my curtain aside with one finger and saw a couple, who had been sitting behind me, yelling and waving frantically as they ran across the parking lot towards the bus. The man stumbled and almost fell and then as they got closer I noticed that he was holding a cloth to his head and blood was streaming down his forehead and cheek and into his eyes. Oh, my Christ. Did he fall down? Was he attacked? His wife helped him back on the bus and he was sweating profusely as he strode back through the bus and collapsed back into his seat with a groan, wiping the sweat and blood off his face with his sleeve and refolding the cloth that he held against his forehead. I stared back at the sickening gash and he smiled weakly as he dabbed at the blood on his face. He started to moan and groan. His wife was in the front yelling hysterically at the bus driver and pointing towards her husband. I could make out what she was saying. Doctor. Sure. Urgent. Of course. But pronto? Mas rapido? Are you out of your bloody mind?

I bit my nails as the bus pulled out again on to the highway, worried that they would drive faster, but thank God they didn't view a 5-inch gash, possible concussion as an emergency because they didn't change their pace. We watched as his wife made a few kleenex changes to the tear in his bloody forehead and a diaper was passed from the back and wrapped lovingly around his head and he finally fell asleep. I fell asleep, too, from sheer exhaustion and sleep deprivation, waking up just as the bus was descending from the mountains into the red-brick city of Medellin. I thanked God that I was here, just a few more miles.

I pulled my bag from the overhead compartment after we finally arrived at the station and stepped down. As I walked by the side of the bus I noticed liquid dripping out from underneath, in the front where I’d been sitting. The toilet. Or brake fluid. I couldn’t get away from the bus fast enough and sat down in a corner of the station to get my bearings and plan my next step. I was looking for my map when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“You need bus to Santa Barbara?” A sidekick pointed to a bus-truck idling outside, where another driver was throwing luggage into the hold. People with food baskets and babies and pillows and blankets were boarding.

I shook my head. "No, but thanks anyway."


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