Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Long Road North Part V: Crossing the Antiplano on the Bus to Lima

Video of the journey


Day 1: The Creeps

I woke up early to be at the bus terminal in Jujuy before 7am. I was groggy, having spent the night on the wiggly top of three bunks in an overcrowded and poorly-ventilated hostel dorm room with Argentine and German party animal roommates who kept me up most of the night. I had my 6am revenge, but it didn't feel as sweet as sleeping would have.

My bus was not at the terminal when I arrived, but I was early enough to not be concerned. My bus wasn't supposed to leave until 7:50, but the woman who had sold me the ticket had insisted that it was important for me to be there by 7am, so 7am was when I was there, although it wasn't clear why it was necessary to be an hour early for a bus that, no doubt, was going to show up 2 minutes before departure like every other bus in Argentina ever. When 15 minutes later the bus still wasn't there I got concerned enough to ask at the ticket window, where they told me that I needed to go to another bus station a 10 minute walk away. Why the hell hadn't they put that on the bus ticket?? But I walked over, sweating hard with my giant backpack through a not-particularly-appealing neighborhood. I had been warned about rampant theft in the area and felt helpless with all of my stuff. Fifteen minutes of walking later and there was still no sign of a bus station. I asked the one guy who happened to be out on the street, who pointed further down the road. Cursing under my breath I kept walking, and found nothing. Another guy pointed me back in the direction I had just come from. There had been no buses, no terminals, nothing. But back I walked until, sure enough, I spotted a building with the name of my bus company painted on it, but it was boarded up. There was no bus, were no people, no signs of life…this can’t be right, I thought.

Waiting for the bus


I hailed a taxi back to the main bus terminal and asked again. The guy swore that the boarded-up building was where I was supposed to go. I made him promise twice that if I waited there, my bus would come and get me. He insisted that I was going to miss the bus if I didn't hurry, so I got another taxi back and sat down to wait, sitting alone on the sidewalk in front of the abandoned building on the sketchy street that was empty except for a few men occasionally staggering by reeking of piss and alcohol and making lewd comments as they passed me.

The 7:50 bus departure came and went. So did 8:00, 8:15, 8:30… I started to think that I should go back and give the guy who had promised me I needed to wait there hell for making me wait in a weird place and miss my bus, or make him call the bus and insist that they pick me up at the main terminal where I felt much safer waiting. The whole situation made me really uncomfortable.

I was about to leave when a vehicle drove slowly by, stopped, and started to back up. I wondered if it was maybe a company representative come to inform me that my bus had exploded and wouldn't be coming or something…that or life was about to get unpleasant. I discreetly pulled my Swiss Army knife out of my purse and unfolded a blade. I wasn't sure just what I planned to do with it, it was handy enough for slicing avocados but not exactly a knife-fight worthy blade, but figured a knife was better than nothing on that street. The van pulled up to where I was sitting, and a man leaned out the window.
“Hoooola,” he drawled.
“Hola.”
“Como estas?” 
I wasn’t smiling and was wondering how I’d be able to get proof that the guy was from the bus company, and decided that I wasn’t going to get in a vehicle with anyone I didn’t recognize, and I didn’t recognize this guy.
“Que necesitas?” I asked. What do you want?
“Are you sleeping here?” He asked me in Spanish. Oh great, he thinks I’m a streetwalker.
“No. I’m waiting for my bus. It’s coming soon.”
“No, honey, your bus is late! I will drive you where you are going.” To Lima? I thought. Right.
“No, gracias. I will wait for my bus.”
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“No.”
“Coffee?”
“No.”
“Oh come on pretty girl, come get a coffee with me.”
“No.”
“Just a coffee, come on honey, I’ll take care of you.”
I turned and looked him straight in the eye and said evenly,
Déjame en paz. Leave me alone.”

He laughed, put his head back in his window, and started to inch the van forward, then stopped again and stuck his head back out the window and made kissing noises at me.

I stood up, knife in hand, and yelled,
“Fuck you, get the hell out of here. Go!”
He left.

Angry and shaken I was gathering my stuff to hail a taxi after an hour of waiting on the street, when suddenly I saw my bus come down the road. It didn't look like it was going to stop, so I walked out into the road and blocked it from passing. Sure enough, after the driver yelled at me and I yelled back and showed him my ticket, it was my bus, and the driver pulled over, threw my bags in the hold, and let me on. I was in a sour, sour mood but I’d be spending the next two days on this bus with this driver, so I figured I should at least try to be nice.

My bus ticket


The bus was full, which was disappointing. After all that time being the only one waiting for it I had hoped it would be a quiet ride, but apparently everyone had gotten on somewhere earlier down the road. There was a guy who had sprawled out across my seat, and I politely asked him to vacate my spot. He was my seatmate and I would spend the next two days smelling his BO, but he ended up being a sleeper, and I was grateful at least for that. Be it plane rides or bus rides or car rides or any rides, I like seatmates best who don’t talk. Ideally ones who don’t smell either, but I’ll take smelly over chatty. I settled into my seat for the two-day journey, then got up to make myself some oatmeal that I had cleverly thought to pack myself, since I hadn’t had breakfast yet. I got back to my seat and realized that, although I had paid for a good seat, my seat was broken and didn’t recline. At all. This was going to be a long 2-day ride.

The drive was scenic, but I had been on the first three hours of it already, so I pulled out a book and read, a book on the history of the Inca Empire.

It looked pretty much like this for 49 hours, except when it was dark.


Usually on these long bus rides I alternate between my Kindle and my laptop and snapping photos with my camera, but after that morning and all the warnings I had heard about thieves in the region, I didn’t trust anyone, and didn’t want to advertise that I had valuable stuff with me. I did shoot some videos with my GoPro, but I kept it strapped to my wrist at all times, and figured if anyone touched it, I’d punch them and scream bloody murder. A tougher target than someone knifing open one of my bags to pull out my camera or laptop. I chided myself for being so paranoid, for behaving differently than I would have in the south. In the south, passengers on the buses were usually European or Israeli tourists. It’s not that tourists don’t steal stuff, but there I was always one target among many. On this bus, I was the only non-Spanish speaker, the only person who didn’t look like they could be Peruvian, and I stood out. On other buses, people smiled at each other and shared snacks. On this bus, I got on as the last person on a full bus, a white girl with fair hair in a sea of dark faces who looked at me not with the warmth and friendliness of the south, but with frowning and suspicious, “what is she doing here?” looks. I’d smile at people, and they’d glare back at me. When I’d turn around to look behind me, there’d always be half a dozen eyes on me, the whole trip, night and day. It was creepy.

Late afternoon rolled around and we had not been fed. I wondered when they were going to bring something to eat or stop for us to get food, since I hadn't brought anything to eat other than my one packet of breakfast oatmeal. The multiple border crossings make having a food bag on the bus impossible as any food would be confiscated. Besides, my ticket read “con servicios” which means “we will feed you on the bus”, and I figured that would be good enough. At around 3pm we stopped at the Chilean border. In the three hours that we were stuck waiting to get our papers processed I could easily have walked to the nearby gas station and bought something to eat, but we were sternly told to not leave the line, and I assumed bus food would eventually come, as it always had in the past.

My giant green backpack on the border securty scanner.
My chariot for the long, long trip.


No bus food came. After being loaded back onto the bus, a woman selling egg and cheese sandwiches—i.e. everything I’m allergic to—was mobbed by the passengers and I asked the driver if we’d be eating soon. “This is your last chance until tomorrow,” he replied. WHAT?? I asked him again to be sure, explained that I was allergic to the only thing she was selling, and she had just sold out of sandwiches anyhow, that I had no food with me, that my ticket said “con servicios”, that I had nothing to eat. He was unsympathetic. I asked if I could walk to the gas station to buy something. He said no. Low Blood Sugar Carie muttered something obscene as tears welled up, and I skulked back onto the bus, slumped down into my chair, and resigned myself to a night of trying hard not to slice the arm off of my seatmate to grill for dinner.

Luckily there were some distractions from my growling stomach. Movies, as usual. Unusual was that most of the movies were not horror movies, which I was grateful for. My creepily staring busmates were scary enough. Ronan, some heist movie that I didn’t watch, Hangover III, Fast and Furious 7 (Really? There have been 7?), Rocky 7 (Grudge Match), Lone Ranger, a surprisingly not-completely-terrible movie by Sylvester Stallone about an undercover narcotics cop hiding out with is daughter in Louisiana, some terrible-looking movie with Vince Vaughn, and then a disturbing movie based loosely on the even more disturbing true story of an Austrian girl who had been locked up as a sex slave in some creep’s basement. In the movie, the guy was a stranger who had kidnapped her as a child, he waited until she came of age to start raping her, and kept her locked in the basement—except when he chained her to his bed—for 10 years before she escaped. In the real life story, the rapist was the girl’s own father who started raping her when she was 12 and kept her locked up in the basement with her seven children/half-siblings for 24 years before she escaped. That night I had nightmares about the bus driver yelling, "Obedéceme! OBEDECAME!!" (obey me) while I was locked up in the luggage hold.

And I dreamed of food.

Day 2: Welcome to Peru

I woke up dizzy the next morning, having not eaten in a full day. Breakfast didn't come. Neither did lunch, making 30 hours with no food. I slept a lot. We crossed the border to Peru, there was no food at that border crossing. I looked. I did make some friends, though, after one middle-aged woman approached me while we were waiting in line and asked if I understood what was going on. Thinking she was trying to help me, I smiled and thanked her and said I did. She thrust her papers upside down in my hand and asked if I could help her fill them out. At first I was confused. She spoke Spanish, I didn't, and the forms were in Spanish, why did she want my help? Then she started pointing to the lines as if trying to read them, but they were upside-down, and it dawned on me that she couldn't read. So I sat down with her and went through and filled out her forms for her, and just when I had finished, there were three other women waiting. I helped all of them with their forms and waited with them in the customs lines to make sure everything was okay. From then on I had people on the bus who smiled at me. Apparently the people on the bus had decided that the gringa wasn't so bad after all.

Welcome to Peru! After 7 months in Argentina and Chile, I finally made it to another country!


Finally in the mid-afternoon we stopped at a weird mud-gated building that looked like an abandoned warehouse from the outside but was a sort of restaurant on the inside. I elbowed my way to a spot in the line (one thing I had learned after two border crossings with these people was that an unwillingness to use elbows will get you left behind and unfed) and gratefully accepted the blocker-elbowings of a few of my new woman friends to keep my spot, and when I got up to the cashier I asked the women to help me order Lots of Food because I was really hungry. They were happy to hook me up with the best of hearty Peruvian Fare, and when the meal came it felt like the best meal I’d ever had. It helped that, having been starved of spice for the past 7 months, Peruvian food was legitimately flavorful. It also helped that I was famished. The women sat and ate with me, and made it clear that I was now in their protection. I was grateful for it.

Later that evening, we stopped for dinner, and I felt like my whole world was Food. It was glorious. I was in Peru. And I had food. Life was good.

Finally! A meal! Also, Pincapple and Orang.


Back on the bus, people smiled now. Maybe they had been hungry and grumpy, too. It was like being on a bus in Chile, only whereas in Chile people are warm and kind and welcoming immediately, my Peruvian busmates had taken significantly longer to warm up to me. Now that they had though they were all smiles and jokes and curiosity and advice and niceness.

I slept much better that night.

Bus rest stop bathrooms


Day 3: Arrival in Lima

The bus arrived in Lima six hours late. Six hours. Nobody seemed surprised. I didn't mind, since that meant a daylight versus a 4am arrival, giving me more time for bus sleeping, which I had now been at long enough to have worked out the optimal arrangement of baggage to produce a sleeping nest that sort of passed as comfortable. The Lima bus terminal, once we did arrive, was beautiful—an airy, glass-encased building with security guards posted at the entrances checking bus tickets, which seemed like a good sign at the time, but in reality belied the chaos outside.

My morning in Lima quickly got quite exciting. Continued in The Long Road North Part VI: Lima