In my last dispatch, I mentioned that we were going down to the coast for a few days. Our friend John Bemus warned me that the cottage where we were going to stay wasn’t terribly good. It had a gravel beach, no palm trees or shade, and occasionally didn’t even have water.
We took his advice and decided to go to Salto Angel (Angel Falls) for the weekend. We were to take a 5-star bus at 9pm that evening, sleep in comfortable ‘bed’ style seats, and awake in the morning in Ciudad Bolivar, where we would be flown to Camp Bernal on an island in Canaima Lagoon. We would stay at Camp Bernal for 2 nights and three days, returning to Ciudad Bolivar. After that we would probably fly to Mérida.
Arnaldo came to the hotel and we paid him almost a million Bolivares cash for the four of us. This is about US$365 per person. This would cover the bus, airfare between Ciudad Bolivar and Canaima, and all of the meals while at Camp Bernal. Arnoldo would return that evening at 8pm to take us to the Terminal Oriente, where we would catch the overnight bus.
On the way to the terminal we passed through the poor section of Caracas, where the hillsides were covered in densely packed ‘ranchitos’. These were built one up against another until they entirely covered the surface of the hills. Arnoldo told us that the land was municipal, and that these thousands of dwellings were squatters who didn’t own the land they built on. Until recently, they also stole their power and water by tapping illegally into the municipal lines. There are no roads up the hillsides… just series of steps between and around the homes. Arnoldo told us that these people used septic systems, and that the hills were very weak because the ground was permeated with sewage.
Because of traffic, we didn’t get to the terminal until 8:52pm. The bus terminal was incredibly crowded, with a dozen ticket windows and lines of a hundred people at each window. When the lines reached their ticket window, they became more of a crush, with a half-dozen people crowding against the window and shouting at the agent. There were a large number of dogs scattered through the terminal which didn’t seem to belong to anyone. One of them was laying on the floor between two ticket lines and either dying horribly or having a really bad nightmare.
Arnaldo told us to go up to the mezzanine and wait for him there. We hauled our bags up. The mezzanine was filled with clots of people and animals waiting for their busses. We found an empty spot along the rail and put our luggage down. We waited there while 9pm came and went, staring down at the unmoving lines and shifting crowds.
Tyler looked at me and said “I will not stand in the aisle for 9 hours. If I don’t have a seat, I’m just getting off.” I agreed. If I was going to take a red-eye bus, I wanted at least a small chance of sleeping. I wasn’t going to spend the night standing, or sitting on the floor leaning up against a goat.
While we’re standing waiting for Arnaldo, we hear a low grinding sound, which grows louder and louder until it’s impossible to speak to someone standing next to you. It sounded like the sewage-soaked hill behind the station had given way and was sliding towards us. I looked around, expecting to see a wall of mud and bricks come bursting through the back wall of the station. Then I realized that people were running into the station. It was raining outside, an incredible downpour that drummed on the sheet-metal roof of the station.
At about quarter to 10, Arnaldo got to the head of the line. He argued at the agent for a while, and then yelled up at us that there were no big busses left. We could take a smaller bus, which did not have bed-seats but which was faster. Did we want to go by smaller bus? Tyler looked dubious, but he had been looking dubious since we got to the bus station. We shrugged and said that we would take the smaller bus.
At 9:55 Arnaldo came upstairs with our tickets for the 10pm bus. We made our way through the station and onto the platform. Arnoldo led the way, holding our tickets in his hand like an Olympic torch. He led us to one of the busses, got us on board, and left.
The bus was indeed small, and so were the seats. We grabbed four near one another and sat. We all started sweating. The bus wasn’t air conditioned, and it was hot. Our luggage was thrown into a pile near the rear of the bus in front of the emergency exit. Amazingly, even though it was 10pm, we were a few of the first people on the bus. As more people came onto the bus, the pile of luggage got deeper and deeper. I kept trying to remember if I’d packed anything crushable.
At one point, a frowning guy came in and demanded that Tyler was in his seat. There had been a small bag in that seat, but the bus driver threw it into the pile in back and told us to sit there. Now the bag’s owner was back, and insisted that he wanted his seat. We tried to look stupid, but that didn’t work. Eventually we shuffled around a little and I ended up sitting next to frowning man.
The bus was equipped with video monitors, which were showing a film called ‘Onegin’. It was a period piece set in Russia, and had lines like:
“I would like you to read my poems.”
“I think perhaps you would like me to praise your poems.”[Long silence, and then someone kills himself.]
Okay, I made that last part up, but you know what I mean. The film was in English with Spanish subtitles, but the sound was turned down very low, and only occasional phrases could be heard above the chaos on the bus (“I have come to borrow a book.” “And you have come alone?”).
A few rows in front of my, a small boy had a small white puppy in a cardboard box under his seat. The puppy was crying, loudly. The boy would take the puppy out of the box, and the puppy would pee on the boy. The boy would put the puppy back into the box, and the puppy would cry. This was not a happy puppy.
It was about this point that we realized that the bus didn’t have a restroom. Jeanne squirmed. The pile in back had grown too great, and the luggage was now piled down the aisle of the bus.
I remembered that that the words ‘bus’ and ‘plunge’ are often seen together in South America.
At about 10:30 the driver started going down the aisle of the bus asking for tickets. He got to Tyler, looked at him expectantly, and said “Boletos?” Tyler looked at me. I didn’t have the tickets. He looked at Jeanne. Nope. Shay? No. Oh-oh.
“El guía tuvo los boletas!” The guide had the tickets! Didn’t he give them to the driver? The answer, apparently, was no. The crowd, which found this drama much more interesting than ‘Onegan’, started chiming in. “Yes, the guide had the tickets!” “I was behind him in line! I saw him buy the tickets!”
The driver got off the bus. He came back with a beefy soldier guy, who looked amused, and a police officer, who did not.
“Donde es su boleta?” he demanded at Tyler. The officer looked furious. Tyler was starting to look like the puppy. “I can’t speak Spanish and I don’t know where the tickets are!” said Tyler. The other passengers suddenly became huge fans of Russian angst period films. They stared at the screens intently, trying to derive the meaning of “I have experienced consumption in St. Petersburg.”
Jeanne explained (her voice creeping up an octave) that the guide had bought the tickets and he never gave them to us. When the police officer realized that there were four of us, and not just one scruffy American 20-something, he got a lot friendlier. The other passengers started noticing us again.
Could Arnaldo have given us the tickets? I remember him holding them in his hand on the bus. We searched our minds. We searched our pockets.
We searched our seats. The tickets weren’t there.
One of the passengers pulled out a cell phone and called Arnaldo. The signal was weak, but Jeanne thinks he said he was coming back to the station. It was a half-hour drive to the station. We all decided at about the same time to get off the bus. We told the police officer that we were getting off. The other passengers seemed disappointed.
The problem, of course, was that our 12 bags were under a hundred other bags. The driver started digging into the pile, pulling up bags and asking them if they were ours (“No. No. No. Si! No…”) Tyler and Shay got out onto the platform to guard the bags we’d recovered, I shuttled bags off the bus, and Jeanne identified bags that were ours.
The other passengers seemed genuinely upset. Not that it was 11 pm and that the 10 pm bus hadn’t departed. Not that the bus was hot and humid. Not even that Vladmir was having an affair in the video. They were upset that we weren’t being allowed to ride the bus. It was fairly touching, except that we didn’t want to be on a hot, sweaty bus smelling of puppy pee with no restroom for 9 hours.
We went up to the bus station waiting area, which now was almost empty. We decided to wait for a half hour for Arnaldo to arrive. Around us, the small station shops were closing and being shuttered. We sat around waiting. The two police officers accompanying us looked at Arnaldo’s card. They shook their heads. “Es un hombre mal.” said one. This is a bad man. Oh-oh. “Do you know him?” I asked. “No.” “You think so?” “Yes.” Oh-oh.
Jeanne, Tyler, Shay, and the police were all sitting, and I was pacing back and forth. A large woman from one of the shops came over with her child and sat right next to Tyler. There were tons of empty seats, but she chose the one right next to him. (Perhaps it was his cute blue eyes.) Then she pulled up her t-shirt and started breast feeding. Tyler didn’t notice, but I thought it was cool.
A few minutes later, Tyler walks up to me and says “Ron, that woman over there… no, don’t look! She just pulled out her, well, you know. She took it out right next to me.” (I guess public breast-feeding in Philadelphia isn’t as common as it is in San Francisco.) He was totally flustered. I remarked that he was pretty freaked out by breasts for a straight man. He told me later that he looked over, saw what the woman was doing, looked away immediately and said “Oh, pardon me, I’m so sorry, excuse me.” (in English.)
At 11:30, the bus driver appeared in the terminal waving out tickets. One of the passengers had found them on the floor of the bus. (Note: It’s 11:30 and the 10pm bus still hasn’t departed.) So Arnoldo is redeemed, and we decide that the only logical thing to preserve group unity is to blame the bus driver. We’re offered a seat on the bus. “NO!” we say in unison. Luckily, the nice folks at the ticket office agree to refund our tickets, which cost 65,000 Bs., or about US$95 for the four of us.
The police officer, who has stayed with us and helped us the entire time, now arranges a cab for us. The cab driver is a big, worn-out man wearing a captain’s cap, and reminds me of the title character from “The Old Man and the Sea” only fatter. He leads us out to his car, and this turns out to be an appropriate analogy.
His cab is an old brown 1971 Cadillac. When he starts it up, the engine makes a deep, rumbling sound. We pull out of the parking space slowly, barely accelerating, and cruise across the parking lot at 5 miles per hour. It’s apparent that the car doesn’t have a muffler, and it really doesn’t want to move either. We’re fighting a huge amount of inertia, and I wonder if the ramp out of the bus terminal will be a too mighty a task for this old car. But we make it up the ramp, and we get on the highway to downtown Caracas.
On the highway, the Cadillac leaves a wake behind it, literally. The earlier rain had flooded the highways. Some cars are alongside the highway, drowned in the deeper sections of highway. One has a ‘SE VENDE’ painted on the windows. “For sale.”
The Cadillac rumbles along, throwing up a rooster’s tail 4 feet high behind it. Occasionally the driver takes newspaper and wipes the condensation from the windows so that he can see. I’m in the passenger seat and I wipe my side. My arm is hanging out of the window and I’m feeling pretty good. I think we all felt like we’d dodged a bullet by getting off that bus.
Then another car passes us, and their wake washes through my open window. The driver frantically motions for me to roll up the window, smiling for the first time. I roll up the window. We’re all laughing, including the driver.
We arrive back at the hotel at around 12:30 in the morning. Since we checked out so late the previous day, we’ve already paid for our rooms and they’re waiting for us. Tyler runs out and gets some beer, and for a while we sit in the hotel lounge, drinking and laughing. Tyler refuses to take another bus. “After tonight, it just wouldn’t be as good.” We’re going to Salto Angel, but we’re going to fly.
Tonight was crazy, and a disaster, but I felt that we worked as a group under pressure for the first time. We coalesced. No one snapped at anyone else, no one freaked out, and we were able to laugh. This isn’t necessarily the worst thing that will happen to us on this trip, but I think it was a good sign that we’re going to make it.