Paul Theroux is one of the great original travel writers and purveyors of railroads around the world. His first travel book was the Great Railway Bazzar about a train trip from London to Japan and back (part of which I will now be attempting, in my revised route – more on that later). He also wrote The Old Patagonian Express about rail travel from Boston to Argentina and most recently redid the route of his original travel book in the recently released Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
Reading his stuff has been an inspiration to me. Dark Star Safari, his account of his overland trip from Cairo to Capetown was one of the inspirations for me to the the same, in reverse. Great Railway Bazzar and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star have partly inspired me to want to do the Trans-Siberian railroad. His style of writing can be caustic and quite sarcastic – needless to say, I like it.
But as it relates to my trip, I felt somewhat like the anti-Theroux. He primarily travels by train. So far on this trip, I have been almost exclusively a bus person.
Those are two entirely separate worlds.
Two days ago, I took a bus from Cali, Columbia about three hours south to Popayan. The bus was one of the mini-bus varieties – it had seats for 19 passengers. Six seats on the right, eight on the left, and five in the back row. When we started out in Cali, there were ten people on the bus.
On anything smaller than the big autobuses, the driver stops to pick up anyone along the side of the road that is waiving the bus down for a ride and is heading in the same direction. This is true for cabs you ride in, vans that run shorter routes (colectivos) between towns an hour or two away, these mini-buses, and chicken buses, of course. Basically you just stand by the side of the road and wave down the vehicle and if they have any space for you, they’ll stop and pick you up.
I wrote that last paragraph before I took the bus from Tulcan (at the Columbia/Equador border) to Quito last night. Our large autobus stopped about fifteen times to pick up whomever and whatever. The term “directo” when you ask about your bus is apparently a relative term.
In any case, back to the mini-bus ride from Cali to Popayan. At Cali we had ten passengers on board. As we traveled down the road, we picked up a new passenger here and there, until the bus was full – 19 seats and 19 passengers.
When we slowed down a couple miles later, I thought we must be dropping someone of, but no. Two more guys get on. The guy taking the money and the tickets go up from his seat on the passenger side of the front cabin and gave his seat to one of the guys. He then pulled out a bucket and some sort of cushion, flipped the bucket upside down, plopped it down between the driver and the other guy and bingo – 21st seat on the bus. He then sat on the steps that led up into the bus.
Some of these bus drivers are. . . well. . . insane. This guy certainly feel into that category. The road between Cali and Popayan was almost entirely mountainous and windy. Beautiful scenery. But it was really not a good idea to look at the road ahead of you and just concentrate on views out to the side.
It was a two lane road the entire way. At one point, I noticed us passing an eighteen wheeler. Slowly. Up a hill. Around two big curves (it took that long to pass at this speed). There was literally no way, none, that he could have seen the road that far ahead. It was double yellow the entire way, but then again, those road markings or signs are just suggestions anyway.
Another time we passed another bus on a straight part of the road. I saw, as must the bus driver, that a motorcycle was coming the other direction. No worries – we were a lot bigger than the bike – it drove off to the shoulder of the road and passed us there.
The entire way during this trip I had a song in my head (for those of you on Facebook that have read my 25 random things). The night before, I had read a comment that my friend, Chance, had written on someone’s Facebook page, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” So needless to say, for the entire ride, I had that Beatles song running in my head.
About two hours into the ride, I finally decided to flip on the Beatles’ White Album in my iPod. I started in about the middle of the 1st album – “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” then “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and then “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
Almost as soon as that song started up, the bus slowed down, pulled over to the shoulder, and onto the bus came two Columbian military guys with M-16s. It was my first random drug/passport search. These things, like border crossings, are slightly nerve wracking when you don’t speak any Spanish. This one took a little bit – the guy actually did look at everyone’s ID and did search the luggage, a little bit – but in the end, no worries.
“Happiness is a Warm Gun” while getting searched by a Columbian soldier toting an M16?? Sometimes I wonder if you guys believe that any of this stuff actually does happen to me. . . then again, I’m not that good a fiction writer.