Unnerving bus trips south of the border

June 21, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More

I’ll never forget my bus trip to Otavalo, two hours north of Quito, Ecuador. I was traveling with my friend (“Susan”) back in December, 1998.  We decided to take the public bus from Quito. The trip only cost a couple of dollars. All kinds of people and several kinds of animals (e.g., chickens) piled onto the bus, and off we went toward Otavalo, over some rather serious hills.  It turned out to be a bus ride for the strong of heart.  The bus driver took us around some rather serious mountain curves at high speeds that suggested our high center of gravity would topple the bus over the edge of the road and it would then tumble down the mountain and burst into flames. This sort of accident never happened, but I was fairly certain it was going to happen. In fact, I was absolutely certain that it was going to happen on several occasions. Susan and I both agreed that we should not be alive today based upon that bus ride. Not only did the driver take the bus around sharp curves, but he passed other buses on the outside while going uphill around many of those same sharp blind curves.

I will admit, the bus ride only cost us two dollars each, but we assumed that we would feel safe to our journey.  Even before we got to the twisting mountain roads, the bus sped along since straight highway at about 60 miles an hour, even though there was a 3-foot shoulder on which tiny children were walking to school. Some of those children looked to be only four or five years old. I couldn’t believe that the bus was actually shooting past these children, only two or three feet away.  It made us all the more nervous to see flowers and crucifixes marking the highway deaths every few miles.

Actually, I haven’t come to the part of the story that made me the most nervous. While we were speeding around mountain curves, passing on the outside, the driver called to his assistant and told him to check out a mechanical problem with the bus. The driver did not pull over. Instead, the assistant opened up a panel on the floor of the bus (just to the right of the bus driver) and was reaching down into that big a hole with some tools while the bus was speeding around the mountain curves. Throughout the entire trip, the only nervous looking people on the bus were Susan and I. There were dozens of other passengers, but most of them were looking bored or sleeping. Maybe this is simply the way it usually is when one rides the public bus in Ecuador. Susan and I nervously commented that the assistant was probably fixing the brakes. The repair went on for about five minutes before the assistant pulled himself out of a hole and put the floor panel back in place.

We made it safely to Otavalo, of course, or else I wouldn’t be writing this.  But we were quite shaken by the trip. So shaken that we decided to pay for a taxi driver to drive us for two hours back to Quito.

Almost everyone who has traveled by bus in rural parts of Latin America seems to have their own “bus story.”  Actually, I have another.  In Peru, I was extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu, also in 1998. In order to travel down from Machu Picchu toward the nearby city of Aguas Calientes one can take a big bus. We noticed a young man waiting to all the passengers as big board the bus. He saluted to us as the bus pulled away. The bus traveled on a extensive switchback in order to come down the mountain. At the first switchback, we noticed another young man who looked just like the fellow who saluted us at the top. This new guy was also saluting. At the next switchback, we noticed yet another young man who looked exactly the same and who also saluted to us. Eventually, we figured out that this was the same fellow, who was racing straight down across the switchbacks in order to get to each subsequent switchback mid-point before the bus arrived. At the bottom the large hill, he was there waiting for us. In fact, the driver allowed him to come onto the bus, whereupon everyone applauded, and many people offered him a tip for the entertainment he offered.

I thought about these bus stories because I just heard another bus story on Friday while I was at the airport waiting to travel from St. Louis to Kansas City. A family in front of me was discussing the fact that they were in Mexico traveling on a bus and the strangest thing happened. A man in front of me commented that at one of the bus stops, “some clown came onto the bus and started confessing his sins to the passengers, looking for money and return.” I was a little surprised at the callousness of the man’s description, but then it got more interesting, after one of the family members inquired further. The man said, “no, I’m referring to a guy who was dressed up like a clown. He was wearing clown makeup and had big clown shoes. He would walk up and down the aisle confessing his sins and looking for tips.” The man explained that eventually the confessor-clown got off the bus for the last time. A few more stops down the road, however, another man dressed like a clown got on board the bus and started confessing his sins, looking for tips from the passengers.

How odd, I thought. So odd that I mentioned the confessing clown story to a friend of mine at lunch on Friday. He stated that he had a pretty good bus story too. He was also traveling in Mexico, and his incident happened a few years ago near a Mexican resort town. He needed to take a bus trip overnight to another city. He paid for a privately run well-maintained, bus that actually had a female attendant. My friend mentioned that he got tired during the trip and fell asleep. He woke up in the middle of the night, however, and noticed that the female attendant was now riding on the lap of the bus driver, who didn’t look like he was giving full attention to his driving. Further, my friend noticed that the headlights of the bus were not even turned on, only the running lights. Somehow, he also got safely to his destination.

My strange bus stories also include a 1996 trip to Guatemala City. I was on a city bus on that trip with another friend. Our bus driver got angry at another bus driver and they started gesturing angrily at each other and trying to cut each other off.

I must add that I loved traveling to Central America and South America. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I met wonderful people and saw beautiful sites. I highly recommend these as destinations. And I’m sure that there are many bus drivers who don’t scare their passengers. On the other hand, I do have a rather vivid set of images based upon my own limited number of bus trips.

Over the years, I’ve mentioned my own bus stories to about a dozen people who have traveled in Latin America, and it seems like most of these travelers have an equally interesting story about their own bus ride.

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Category: Culture, travel, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Ben says:

    I've had a few scary bus rides like that, once on the way to Florence, Italy and once in Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. And also in the car with my dad driving on the road to Hana, Hawaii. It's a helpless kind of feeling, my life held firmly in the driver's hands. Though I'm always surprised how soon the initial fears and worry subside, and I resign myself to the near certainty that I am going to die a spectacular death tumbling down a mountainside.

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