February 27, 2012
Oh, The Places You’ll Go
I’ve talked to you before about what it’s like to ride a bus around town in Paraguay, but taking a bus for long-distance rides has its own set of rules. I recently spent 52 hours on a big trip, figuring out all the do’s and don’ts for these special circumstances. This is the most common way to get from point A to point B here, even though at times, flights to the same city are comparable with the long bus ride. The power of habit and the familiar, I guess.
So what do you need to know? Well, before you start, don’t be alarmed at the behavior of those waiting with you in the bus terminal. Many of them may be partaking of alcoholic beverages in massive quantities. Why? That was my question, too. “To help me sleep tonight.” Oh. Poor wives who were stuck lugging the baggage or caring for the whiney toddlers because Señor Drinks-a-Lot is assuring that he’ll sleep tonight.
Once you’re on board, there is a sort of unspoken rule that you don’t speak to the fellow passengers. I, of course, refuse to obey this rule, and find myself with a slew of new friends, facebook contacts, and cell phone numbers by the time we get to our destination.
If you’re going to cross the border into another country, the facilities (that tiny bathroom with the stinky blue chemical in the toilet) will not be open for use until you cross said border. That’s no problem if the border is a couple of hours from your beginning point, as usually happens to me. But this time, that border crossing happened to be 15 hours later, and that 15 hours included a meal and several bottles of water. Not pleasant. However, if you are handicapped (using crutches is enough to qualify), folks tend to give you leeway, letting you get away with things that others can’t. I was so busy balancing myself in the narrow walkway and trying not to fall over with the sudden jerks of the bus, that I didn’t even SEE the sign on the door telling me it was not to be used yet. Once I emerged, a string of women wanted to know if the sign was gone and they could use the facilities now. Oops. “What sign?”
Usually two men work each bus. One drives while the other loads and unloads suitcases at stops, passes out refreshments, and changes the DVD’s at movie time. Sometimes there are pit stops along the way for the two men to trade jobs, and the worker man becomes the chauffeur. During these stops, passengers are allowed to get off the bus and buy the overpriced snacks in the little food stand, or use the restrooms at the pit stop. One pit stop had a sign for the ladies’ room in Spanish and in English, and the English translation said, “Women Health”. I can tell you that there was nothing in that restroom to contribute to the health of any women I know. I don’t usually use hand sanitizer, but this is one trip when I was glad I had a spare bottle handy.
Should the pit stop be quicker, say, to pick up a package or let the police board and check out the paperwork, salespersons are allowed to get on the bus and make their way around to the passengers. We had the regular folks selling chipa and bread and soft drinks, but I also was offered stuffed animals, toys, cell phones of questionable origin, DVD’s, hammocks, blankets, underwear, electrical cords, towels, thermoses, and hats. I was tempted to buy a box of fake Barbies to hand out to the unfortunate little children who were enduring this long trip, but instead I got a pack of cookies to share, and a lot of grateful smiles from the tiny travelers and their parents.
Hanging from the ceiling, as on airplanes, are tv monitors. However, the rules that apply to “apt for all audiences” where you live don’t apply here. We started off okay, watching a couple of cartoons about fish and underwater adventures. The toddlers were appeased. As it got darker outside, though, the lights inside the bus dimmed and grown-up movie time started. I was pretty excited, thinking I’d get the latest date movie or maybe an action adventure spy film, or the favorite of Latinos, martial arts. Nope. This one was a sports adventure. Okay, I can deal with that. I didn’t catch the name, but a group of guys run all over their city, jumping from building to building to be the first to find a flag. Lots of acrobatic stunts, flipping over moving cars and jumping dumpsters to scale a fence, then racing the competition to jump off one building onto another, grab the flag, karate-chop the guys who want to steal it from you, and make it to the finish line. Then all of a sudden, the guys are kidnapped, shock collars are fastened to their necks, and if they make a wrong move, their heads blow up. Blood splattering everywhere. I inhaled quite deeply, let out a squeal of shock, and looked around to see if everyone else was as appalled as I was at the freaky turn this movie had taken. Nope. All calm. But, “Your kids are still awake and watching this violence!” which turned quickly into nudity. No one seemed to care. You should have seen the look on the bus man’s face when I asked if he didn’t have something more appropriate. So, yeah, be prepared. At least this time the volume wasn’t blaring, so I could put in my headphones and close my eyes to tune it out.
Sometimes you sit by people you don’t know. Sometimes those people bring their own music, but they don’t use headphones. Sometimes that music is played really loudly, even louder than the television or the conversation you try to have with anyone on the other side of the bus. Sometimes those people don’t even seem to notice that their music bothers everyone else. And sometimes people get frustrated at having to sit for 3 hours while the border patrol checks documents, and they begin a half-hour speech about the corruption of the Paraguayan government, standing in the middle of the bus, directed at all of the rest of us who are already having to endure the same wait. This speech may get violent, and the bus man may ask the lady to sit down, and they might even almost come to blows. This is all much more entertaining than movies wherein someone’s head blows up.
Part the way through my return trip, the bus driver realized he was running really behind schedule from the delay at the border, so he decided to try to pawn us off on the bus behind us. “Any of you who want to get off this bus and get on the one behind us can do so, and I’ll even help you move your luggage over.” He made a deal with the other driver, but none of the passengers was willing to move, so he drove at the most ridiculously high rate of speed for the next five hours. I was pretty sure we’d hit one of the many motorcycles and small cars that we literally ran off the road, but God’s hand of protection was working overtime that day.
I’ve learned that God’s plans for my bus rides aren’t always the same as my plans. This particular trip was an unplanned, emergency one. I accompanied a very sick friend to a rehab center, because she was too ill to travel alone. This meant that despite being the “handicapped” one, I was the least handicapped of the two of us and, therefore, in charge. By the time we got off of and boarded several buses, went up and down stairs to buy tickets and get our luggage, arrived, checked her in, and then started my solo trip back, I was just plain worn out. I was ready to abide by that "Don't talk to anyone, don't smile at anyone, don't look at anyone" bus rule. I told the Lord how much I was looking forward to recharging with Him, to just vegging out in my seat with my slow worship music in the headphones, and talking to Him while I fell asleep. I almost audibly heard him giggle and thought, “Oh, no.”
I mustered up what physical and emotional strength I had left to climb up the second story of the bus with my crutches and my luggage, wobble my way through all the passengers to the very back of the bus, then found out that Seat 53 on my ticket didn’t actually exist on the bus. The numbers ended at 47. So I wobbled back down to the driver (we were already rolling at this point), and explained my dilemma. He promptly put me in the front seat upstairs, where one can see the total view of where we’re going from those huge windows, and stretch out one’s legs when they get stiff. “Thank you, God,” I sighed as I sank in my seat. Then I noticed the young man on one side, practically crying, and the two young people on my other side. “I’m still on duty, huh, Boss?” So I didn’t get to quietly meditate on the Lord, but I did get to share about Him to a handful of people around me. And crash in the bed for a massive siesta as soon as I got back home.