Friday, December 18, 2009

More about busses

I`ve commented often (too often?) about the trials and tribulations of bus travel in Ecuador and elsewhere in South America. Therefore it`s only fair to mention that despite the frequent challenges, delays and discomforts, the bus system is truly a marvel. If you consider the kilometers logged daily, the number of people moved, the goods (fruits, vegetables, furniture, animals, etc.) transported and couple this with the fact that only a very few busses plunge off the sides of mountains each year, it is more than a marvel, it is a miracle. Entonces, a toast to bus drivers, ayudantes, smoking brakes, burned out clutches and mangled guard rails – salud!

Twice I have had outstanding bus trips on the 50 minute run between Ibarra and our drop off spot for Ambuqui. The first was over a year ago, the second just last night, though it did not start off well. I got to the terminal at about 6PM, and on weekends this often presents a problem because the last bus home is at 7 – and like myself, half the residents of the Valle de Chota spend all day in Ibarra and wait for the last 2 or 3 busses for the trip home. Waiting your turn in line is still a relatively unknown concept here in Ecuador, so when the bus pulls in there is a frenzied free for all to board and grab a seat. The most skillful practitioners of this maneuver are the negritas, young and old, who live in Chota, Carpuela or Juncal. Somehow they are always first on the bus, and when they get there they promptly cover the 3 or 4 seats closest to them with an item of clothing, or a bag of food, and then claim it as “ocupado” – or saved. I once made the big mistake of arguing with a woman over a seat once, and only once - “This seat is not occupied! There is no one sitting in it!” The woman replied with a blistering string of clipped Spanish that I did not understand a word of but without a doubt clearly meant “get out of my face before I cut your balls off, gringo!” I looked helplessly at the ayudante who could only shrug his shoulders, and then I sheepishly turned away.

So, last night a bus pulls into the slot and the melee begins – but within a few seconds another Chota bound bus sneaks in around the corner – and those of us who have noticed take off like a bunch of bargain shoppers chasing down a blue light special. I arrive at the door behind 2 small children and for a moment I consider trampling over them to assure myself of a seat – who knows, the little bandidos might save every seat on the bus – but I wisely hold back and once aboard I easily find a seat. Heaven, I`m in heaven. I even have a window that opens. For the next few minutes I watch the madness as passengers stream aboard; near the end of the line is a woman loudly chastising her 2 children (that I considered trampling) for not saving a block of seats for her and the rest of the family. Finally we are under way.

The good part of this journey begins about 10 minutes later when we pick up a passenger who appears to be a vendedor – someone who will try to sell us some candies, or who will open up a notebook full of graphic photos of diseased gums, rectums, stomachs or what have you and then hawk the one dollar miracle cure. Ho-hum. But no – this guy is not a salesman. He is a stand-up comedian! And he is really good, and really funny. Within minutes the whole bus is in stitches, all the earlier tension dissipating in laughter. Ecuadorean laughter, especially in young men, is a thing to behold. It is manufactured on the inhale – as if the laugher is trying to capture the joke and bring it in to the deepest parts of his belly. It is a joy to see, and hear, and the bus was full of it, along with the more subtle chuckles of women and the older folks.

The comic gave us a good half hour – and as he went down the aisle collecting dimes and quarters from his appreciative audience he made the familiar salutation “que le vaya con dios” and then added, under his breath” me voy con la plata!” and the bus erupted in laughter once again. (May you go with god – I`m going with the money!)

He got off at the police control point, and in the darkness we rolled on, with an occasional chuckle or burst of laughter as someone recalled a joke or two . . .

The other outstanding trip, though considerably less so, occurred a year or more ago. I was waiting for my bus at a stop on the edge of Ibarra, near one of the main produce markets where I had been visiting some farmers I knew. It was mid afternoon, a blistering hot day, and as I crouched against a wall in a sliver of shade I hoped that the bus was not full and that I would have a seat.
Before long, a bus comes by. This one is a long hauler, bound for Tulcan at the Colombian border, but it will pass by Ambuqui on the way, and through the windows I see no one is standing, which is a good sign. As I step into the bus, I am overcome by a strange feeling, and it seems I am hearing angelic music coming from somewhere above, and rays of bright golden sunshine seem to fill the bus. For a brief moment I consider jumping off, for surely this bus is doomed to plunge 500 feet into the Rio Chota at the hairpin turn just before we get to Salinas – but I am too late for we are already underway.

I step into the passenger compartment and immediately I know where the angelic music and sunbeams came from. Twenty or so seats are occupied by some of the handsomest young women I have ever seen collected in one place, along with a smattering of 4 or 5 young men quite pretty in their own right, thin as rails with hair combed down over one eye or swept back in a ponytail. The women, or girls, all appear to be in their early 20`s and most are sporting sunglasses. All are dressed casually, t-shirts, tanktops, jeans. As I wander down the aisle to my seat I find myself wishing I were 30 years younger, but then remember that even if I were I would never have the nerve to approach any one of these girls. As I settle into my seat I chuckle a little, marveling at the things you see on any given day on a bus in Ecuador.

When the ayudante comes down the aisle (taking his time to smile and chat with the girls a little) to collect my fare I ask him what`s the story. Who are these kids? He tells me they are all from Colombia, and they are all models, returning to Colombia after a weekend fashion show in Otavalo (about 45 minutes south of Ibarra). He says “que suerte, no?” and I reply, “para ti, tal vez, si”. “Ojala”, he says, handing me my change and turning up the aisle to try his luck.

Yes I know I write frequently about busses! But they are such a part of life´s fabric here, there is really no avoiding it. Transportation, commentary, entertainment, jean claude van damme movies, good company and so much more. Coincidentally on my way into Ibarra today the same comic mentioned above got on our bus. The heat was stifling, his crowd subdued and ornery, and he collected only a few quarters.

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