Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Notes on a Night Bus

The jittery bus finally trundles into San Augustín, just two hours late, having been tortured by the road, which cruelly dug rocks between tyres and near shook it into ruin. And somewhere along that dusty road, the 500th hour of bus travel appeared, caught between a couple of grazing cows and a hygienically-questionable roadside restaurant.

Despite the grateful absence of any midnight robberies, or the forever-feared crash, the journey across deserted plains, mountain ranges and along two coasts, has been far from quiet.

It began haphazardly, with tickets in hand yet a bus with no space, and we were promptly left on the platform as smug locals drove away in our seats. Soon a second chance, sitting by another bus as the stench of stale urine swirled around us, and minutes ticked quickly past the departure time. A few enquiries at the ticket office brought a blunt response: the bus would not go anywhere; there are road blocks, don't you know, and it's dangerous. No, we didn't know, and nor did you it seemed when you sold us those tickets an hour ago.

And like Vladimir and Estragon, the waiting continues. During which a knife swiftly slashes at a bag, and the would-be thief disappears unnoticed, with nothing in hand but greed.

Finally, a bus. We scramble for seats, then pause to wonder at the smell; the scent of decades of discomfort oozing out of cheap seats. Yet the engine starts with enthusiasm, and on we speed towards the border. Or, rather,
through the border, immediately after which hasty pleas are shouted to the driver, who must reverse precariously to save us from becoming illegal immigrants.

Onwards once more, and the appearance of a forgettable film, directed by a gun fetish and dubbed by a disaster. A minor distraction, at least, from the infant cockroaches running across our bare feet. But as the dreary sun sets, it is the cold we begin to fear all the more, which seeps in relentlessy under the tassled windows. It is no use; we are enveloped by night and a cold which until this moment existed only in northern Russia. It is left to the kindness of strangers to save us from what we now believe (with only the slightest sense of melodrama) is death by frostbite; who pass us a heavy grey blanket without a word, and watch us disappear beneath it with childlike thanks.

At some point sleep appears, from which we are thrown periodically by internal alarms, which demand recognition of new peril: narrowly to the left - a cliff face; to the right - vast nothingness; and at the front, a driver who has become lost in a Formula One fantasy. There is nothing to be done.

And it is some time later that we are shaken from our slumber, and told to get off the bus. Confusion reigns; it is 2am and we are still hours from our destination, in an unknown place which brings to mind nothing more than the setting of the aforementioned film. And so move we do not, but bargain and wait until a passing bus is flagged down that agrees to take us sleepy souls.

Safer now, we disappear for a few hours, until woken by a Latino pop soundtrack better suited to a '90s discotheque. Realising it has got our attention, the bus seems to swerve all the more precariously in a bid to keep us entertained. Yet instead this induces only vomit, from a man a few feet away, who looses himself in a plastic bag.

With fumes of bile filling the isle, the driver refuses to slow down, and it is left to windows wide open to transport us from the scene. Yet soon enough the breaks squeek, as traffic has appeared on this sparse mountain road. The tragic reason is hinted at only by a pair of rescue trucks, and a metal cable dangling over the edge, to search for what remains.

Thus the morning passes in anxiety, until an overenthusiastic gentleman strides to the front of the bus, and announces there is just one hour to go. An hour he intends to utilise in full, by firstly questioning passengers on their bodily functions, before having a rant about the state of food exports, and concluding that all can be overcome (and World Peace prevail) if we only buy his magic powder.

Cure all but punctured tyres, that is. And so just moments from our destination, we find ourselves waiting at the roadside once more, waiting for the journey to never end.

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