11) Mother of God, from Under the Influence of Altitude

South America
July 12th 2010
Published: July 20th 2010
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The signs at the beginning were ominous. I don’t know what stood out more on our bus, scheduled to twist and turn for the next twenty-one hours from Ayacucho to Cusco. The fluorescent red faded among the tired and worn window frames on the outside of the coach. As I walked around to the driver’s side, I peeked below the undercarriage. None of the few inches of slick mud had clung to the balding tires. I pointed this out to Rosalinda, who has made many long bus journeys in Peru. Even she scrunched her eyebrows in disapproval.
The coach to the halfway point of Andahuaylas was as full of passengers as it was freight. Massive sacks of grain, bread, and potatoes were stuffed into the lower compartments. All provide an extra source of revenue for the bus company, Celtur. I watched women half the size of the freight they were transporting lift their cargo with flimsy laminated straps. Some pieces were being dragged through the black mud; their weight easily reaching one hundred fifty pounds. No one had a wheeled freight carrier. It seems for all the advancements of the modern age, that small step in the right direction has eluded a few folks around here.
The over laden coach pulled away from Ayacucho after dusk. Rosalinda and I were tucked into seats where we could stretch our legs enough to point our toes forward and strighten our knees every now and then. Looking back on our arrival in Ayacucho, this was a luxury. It is amazing how small victories such as these can be mildly uplifting in the face of a complete day’s journey through the Andes without so much as a fifteen minute stop except to get out and pee. We had a plastic bag of provisions and water to last us a full day’s travel. “What do you think of the bathroom the ticket agent promised us for the trip?” I posed to Rosalinda.
She turned around and sought one out at the back of the aisle. “What bathroom?”
“Exactly. Love your country, by the way.” Being deceived and lied to takes its toll. She did not react to my last uncalled-for and snarky comment. I regret having uttered it, even out of frustration. “The bus will have to stop several times for us to find a ditch in the middle of the night.” What surprises me about Rosalinda is she doesn’t need to get out at these times. She sleeps right through stops. It must be the Olympic-sized bladder with which she was born. I do not know how she does it. Within fifteen minutes, we bid farewell to the last flat surface of pavement we’d see until late tomorrow morning. Every now and then I turned around to look out the window and saw the orange lights that indicated Ayacucho was behind us. Ninety minutes later, we had not conquered the first mountain. The city was still in sight.
Our bodies adjusted to the constant bouncing of the bus. I wanted to reassure myself that Rosalinda was OK with this kind of trip. I faced forward at my seat and asked of her, “Are you used to such long trips like this?”
“What do you do for all that time to keep your mind occupied?” I have noticed she brings nothing to read or any small tasks to perform like sewing or studying.
“I sleep.”
“Really? On roads like this?” Just then, the bus went over a dip and sent us both up a few inches off the seat.
“Sure! In fact,” she went on, “this road is rather good.”
“Yes! Listen to me,” now she was being the instructive one about tough travel conditions, “when I was much younger, I used to have to travel from Juliaca to Huancayo. First we had to go from Juliaca to Puno, then to Arequipa. Eventually after Arequipa the road was paved…sometimes. Then to Lima. I would switch buses in Lima for Huancayo,” which we had already done last week on a very comfortable coach with an in-service hot meal. “There was no Cruz del Sur back then.”
“So the total travel time was…?”
“Forty-eight hours.” Ouch. “And on the road to Arequipa sleep was impossible. I always had to hold on to something.”
I slightly switched topics. “So if I understand you correctly, you have never known or seen a modern highway before.”
She paused to think about some of the miniscule two-lane expressways in Lima. “No, never, but I have seen how nice they are in your country when I watch the movies.”

As the later hours arrived, a calm spread over the inside of the cabin. No one really slept, but there was little conversation. I peered out the window, which was fastened and not leaking any draft, in hopes that I might see something of note. Switchback after switchback, ghostly and amorphous silhouettes of sparsely foliated trees zipped by. My I noticed them only because of the second or two their outlines were lit by the bus’ headlights. Because of the mountainous and intestinal path, the longest straight stretches of road measured a few hundred yards for…the…entire…journey.
Trouble started after the third hour. Someone from the back, a male voice, shouted out, “¡Despacio!” Slow down! The bus rattled. Since it was night and the driver’s cabin was walled off, no passenger could truly determine how fast the bus was moving. I certainly could not.
Then another highly irritated voice, that of a woman, shouted, “¡Despacio!” More cries of the same shot forward from across the aisle and from the back. I looked out the window. We were moving at a decent clip, clinging to a cliff. On turns there was no road to be seen; we were that close to the edge. Guardrails on this road were purely imaginary.
The driver did not slow down.
The pleas were not loud enough. Soon thereafter more passengers become unsettled with the speed of the coach. Rosalinda awoke from her slumber. High pitched whistling ensued, not the type to call one’s attention, rather whistling of anger and disapproval. It felt as if we were at a soccer match in Italy while physically being forced through a food processor.
Still the driver did not slow down.
Then a climactic moment grabbed everyone’s attention following a few minutes of tranquility. A man screamed in complete panic, “Oh my God, we are speeding downhill!” We all braced for the familiar sound of the hissing airbrakes which never came. Half the bus’ occupants begged, “¡DESPACIO, POR FAVOR!” The bus for the first time whirred and rocked from side to side. The look on Rosalinda’s face was one of concern. On others it was complete fear, the kind where you have no control over what could happen next knowing the results will be irrevocable.
None of the pleas being answered, another voice called to the front, “Someone bang on the door.” Panic enveloped the bus. A passenger complied and the ticket attendant opened up and turned on the light. He poked his head through and became the target of a nasty and abusive verbal assault. Now the driver could hear.
“Slow down!”
To the driver, “¡Usted está loco!” You’re crazy!
The attendant urged calm, which never came. He returned to the front cabin and shut the door. Everyone hoped the driver got the message.
Yet again, either under pressure to meet a deadline or test the coach’s threshold, he sped up on a descent and swerved hard to the left. Out the window I gazed down and saw nothing but the night.
The screams were so numerous that if nothing was done, there would be a revolt. The passengers would commandeer the vehicle. Once again a passenger banged on the door. The attendant surfaced with a what-the-hell-is-your-problem look on his face. He stupidly let out the following, “The driver has experience. Don’t worry.”
That set off an explosion.
“I have my family with me! I have children here!”
“¡Madre de Dios!” Mother of God! From her words it took little effort to tell from this woman that she was crying. This is why the Pope kisses the ground when arriving by plane in a new country; it is not because he is blessing the runway. Rather something in flight reminded him of that bus trip he once took in Peru.
“It’s OK if we get there late! Six o’clock is fine! We don’t care! Slow down!”
“We’ve all traveled this way before!” as to say most knew when the speed was unsafe. “This is wrong!”
Another elderly man, “It doesn’t matter if he has experience! All it takes is one mistake!”
The attendant once again retreated to the front cabin. Compared to being on this bus, I’d feel safer flossing a pack of rabid hyenas while wrapped in crispy bacon.
The driver never, ever slowed down. One ditch, one poorly small placed boulder, and perhaps a few of us would have been interviewed on national television from our hospital beds.
Finally nature called and he pulled the bus over. We all ran down the aisle and poured off the bus. Six men surrounded the driver and hurled threats, the type on which the half dozen were immediately willing to follow up. The driver relented, but not without an indignant, know-it-all tone.
The last two hours to Andahuaylas went smoothly if not for the bumpy road. There were no screams, no more threats. “Is it always like this Rosalinda?” I asked as she was making me a sandwich from a leftover chicken dinner.
“Yes, it is. We see on the news often when passengers tell camera crews what happened, you know, the survivors, that they begged for the driver to slow down. The driver never pays them any attention.”
We pulled into Cusco shaken and stirred in the early afternoon. Through the Andes Celtur took the same type of care for its human cargo as it did the dry goods stored underneath. We were expendable chickens. Actually, no, we were not. Chickens have monetary value. Our driver did us the disservice of not even granting us that dignity.


20th July 2010

Doesn't sound good
Makes the bus ride from Monterrey to Zacateca sound like a ride in a limo. I obviously knew you made it since you wrote this but it was entertaining. Take care and call when you get back.
21st July 2010

Yipes! Thank goodness I kept my reservations in Pensacola!
"Peru, our bus drivers drink, and no one lives to tell." The ad council has resisted my various suggestions to ease the transition to rural travel in Peru. I also suggested, "When you're dead you won't even remember the bus ride, Peru!" I'm all for that warm fuzzy 'let's better understand the world around us', but this? Dude, this is madness. I'm annoyed when the chocolate-mint is off the pillow at the hotel; if nothing else, I have learned that I will NEVER travel in Peru. That's what google-earth is for. I also like my backyard very much better now. Please keep strong, Lance has nothing on you. Let Armstrong take the bus and we'll see who's tough!

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