October 1, 2012

You Haven't Lived Until...

The four of us were planning to go for a visit to Itauguá this past weekend, just in time to celebrate a special baby’s first birthday.  Check back for details on that fiesta, but today I’ll share with you about the trip.  As the date got closer, it became clear that we wouldn’t be driving this one, that the bus would be our travel option, and that it would only be one of us.  Guess who!

Friday, I enjoyed a relatively uneventful 7-hr trip from here to there, most of it on a mini-bus that didn’t sway and swerve like his big brothers.  Chivalrous gentlemen helped me along the way and I never once had to stand up.  Someone always gave me a seat.  I was enamored again with the friendliness of Paraguay’s people and the lovely views outside the bus windows.

The weekend went well, the party was great, and Sunday morning I started back.  I had planned to hop two small buses to get to the long leg of the trip, and I’d checked in advance for what time I needed to be on the side of the road to hail that last big bus to Encarnación.  At the last minute, plans changed and I hitched a ride in an auto, cutting out the first two buses and a whole lot of time (and effort, as it’s no fun to lug a small suitcase, a big backpack, and a cane on and off the buses). 

I got out of Sara’s car just in time to see a bus stopped at the redlight across the road, and scurried over there when we noticed the sign read “Encarnación”.  YAY!  That put me almost two hours ahead of schedule!  Not wanting to stand in the aisle with all my stuff for the next however-many hours, I asked the driver before getting on if there were SEATS available.  I waved my cane in the air and explained that I could not stand in the aisle and had to have a seat.  It’s common knowledge that they’ll tell you anything to get you on the bus, but I hoped that seeing the cane would compel him to tell the truth.  What was I thinking? 

As the door closed behind me and we pulled off, the door to the passengers’ area opened, and, yep. Standing room only.  I did the usual—stare at the healthy young men in the front seats, because they know those seats are reserved for handicapped persons.  They did their usual, too—pretend to be asleep. 

A few minutes later, I noticed a man a few rows back that I knew from Carapeguá.  TAP TAP.  “Hey, how are you?  Imagine seeing you this far from home!  How is everyone in Carapeguá?”  Of course, Paraguayan men are typically gentlemen, they just avoid this rule of character by that fake sleep thing.  Once he was awake and we were conversing, there was nothing for him to do but jump up and help me into his seat.  Phwew. 

Thankfully, the bus attendant changed the movie from pornographic music videos to a martial arts flick after about half an hour, and it seemed like I was settling in for a nice ride. 

A few towns later, I was able to move to the front row when some passengers got off.  Much better, as the middle and back of the bus sway more and generally lead to some pretty nasty nausea and dizziness.  I smiled and said hello to the young lady I sat beside, and she immediately started talking.  19 years old, slightly retarded, dad died when she was 1, mom left her to start a new life, aunts took turns raising her, one beat her up and put her on a bus to work in the city a few months ago when she found out the young gal had found a boyfriend. 

My new friend, Grace*, was excited about maybe returning to her old job in her hometown, where she worked as a maid and earned about $30 a month.  She told me the job she’d just left in the capital, 5 hours from her home, was also a maid’s position, but only $24 per month, and the lady didn’t give her food.  Grace was starving, but the lady wouldn’t pay her more so that she could buy her own food, nor would she feed her.  So my hungry friend talked the lady into putting her on the bus back home. 

I was exhausted and really wanted to nap, but every time I rolled my head over to the side and tried to close my eyes, I heard this little voice harassing me: “Did you not come to Paraguay to help young people know the Lord?  There’s a girl at your side that is totally lost in every meaning of the word, and you want to take a nap?”  Okay, Lord.  Plus, I knew where her town was and that I should have a couple hours of much-needed nap time available after she got off. 

She’d never traveled alone and hadn’t been far from her hometown before.  She only spoke a smattering of Spanish, and her Guarani was heavily accented and fast.  I sent a trillion text messages for her, trying to find SOMEONE who’d meet her where the bus would drop her off, someone who’d take her in.  Boyfriend revealed after a few texts, that he had moved on and had a new gal. The aunts and cousins were still mad that she had a boyfriend in the first place.  She had no friends.  I think we finally got something arranged, right about the time the bus broke down and we parked on the side of the road.

Before the trip, one of the house moms in Itauguá had given me a sandwich and some granola bars for the ride.  I took that food out and Grace and I shared a picnic lunch while we waited.  I talked to her about her life, her decisions, her possibilities, the God that loves her.  I gave her the best advice I could in my choppy Guarani, and she laughed and tried to teach me some new phrases. We enjoyed the slightly cool air conditioning and cushy seats while we chatted away.

After about an hour, another bus pulled up in front of us and offered us a ride.  Everyone loaded on except those of us who had suitcases, because the doors to the cargo bin were stuck closed.  They told us luggage people we’d have to wait, so I said goodbye to Grace and lumbered back up the steps and to a seat on the broken bus, just in time to hear, “Oh, we got it open, here are the suitcases!”  By now, the other bus was full, and I knew I was guaranteed standing-room-only again, this time on a nasty bus that didn’t have any air-conditioning (Did I mention that it was REALLY hot and humid?)

These passengers were in no mood to be friendly.  They’d been delayed by stopping to pick us up, crowded by the sudden additions, and the heat wasn’t helping anything.  So rather than give me a seat, they motioned me to the back of the bus, where one seat was empty.  I thought this was rather curious, seeing that there were so many people standing in the aisle.  The seat was quite broken.  If I leaned back even slightly, it fell into the lap of the person behind me.  And if any one of the seventeen trillion people standing in the aisle leaned on it, it fell into the lap of the person behind me.  Oh, well, at least it was a seat.

Pretty soon, the lady standing near me got that look that said she was about to pass out.  As soon as the man sitting beside me got off the bus, I scooted over to let her sit.  It became clear that she was close to vomiting, so we shuffled around to let her have the window…no small feat.

I felt like she looked, nice and woozy, close to losing lunch.  But she was also close to passing out, so I tried to fan her, I gave her some water, and then I asked her if I could pray for her.  About the time I began, the bus pulled over and cut off, and the surprised passengers (Why are we stopping here?) got totally silent.  Suddenly, my quiet prayer was the only noise, and the whole bus turned around to see who was doing THAT.  I finished up, the bus cranked, and we were on our way again. 

Just in time for the teen daughter of Sick Lady to grab her mom’s coat out of my lap and put it over her mouth, with this wild-eyed look of desperation.  “You’re going to vomit, too?”  Head nods.  Girl climbs into my lap and I shove her head out the window. Just. In. Time. 

I notice that the older man in the row behind us is asleep and his window is open.  Danger, Will Robinson!  
“Sir, you might want to close your window, because she is sick.”  Blank stare. “This girl is vomiting and it will come in your window if you don’t close it!”  The passengers around him frantically begin to try to explain to him, and he gets flustered and shuts the window of the girl.  Oh, no!   I reach across and open it again as quickly as possible, and the gal continues sharing her lunch with the world outside the window, and despite my best efforts to warn them and use the curtain as a shield, the passengers behind her get a spray of nastiness anyway.  Thank God I was out of the line of fire!

I eventually squirmed out from under her and made it to the standing position in the aisle, where the thankful father of the sick girl directed me to an empty seat towards the front.  Alas, I couldn’t wobble up there fast enough.  Another guy took it.  So I stood for a while, until someone got off a few kilometers later, then I collapsed in that seat.  Okay, I HAVE to take a nap, or I will vomit.   So hot, no air movement, so much swerving.  

But it was not to be.  More people crowded on and I was clobbed in the head each by their bags each time we swerved.  And I was seated by a sweet but rather large lady, whose size blocked any air movement that would have come in from the window.  Ugh.  “Please, Lord, just get me home!”

I did meet some nice people on this ride, like the precious young family with the 3-month-old baby boy who smiled at me every time I looked his way.  We had a great conversation while we were broken down on the side of the road.  And there was the mom traveling alone with three small girls, one of them about 9 months old.  She needed help, and my silly faces were entertaining to her little ones. 

By the time I got off at the bus terminal, I felt like I was leaving old friends.  Like war buddies who form a bond over the battles they survive.  But after 7 hours of battle, I just wanted a shower and the bed.  J  Never a dull moment on the buses of Paraguay!  

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