The bus ride from hell that I learned to love Oaxaca
"Is it always this bad?" I asked, panting in the heat.
"Oh no! Sometimes it's much worse," the grandmotherly woman across the aisle assured me. "It can be much hotter...and a lot more crowded."
The battered bus was making torturously slow progress up a mountainous jungle highway. I was hot. I was cranky. I was supposed to be in Oaxaca city, taking shelter from the heat in a cold bottle of beer. Instead I was dripping with sweat, stuck for all eternity on the bus from hell.
It wouldn't have been that bad really, if I had been prepared. I've ridden the bus from hell before - and I'll probably ride it again. But just three hours earlier I had been reveling in decadant luxury, waiting in an air conditioned room at the Puerto Escondido airport for the plane that would transport me in twenty-five painless minutes to Oaxaca city. Now I was crammed in a sauna on wheels, a bundle of bad attitude feeling anything but luxurious.
I was having trouble shifting gears gracefully.
It was May of 1998 and forest fires were raging throughout southern Mexico and Central America. The luscious blue of the cloudless Oaxaca sky had surrendered to a bleached smoky grey haze, so thick in Oaxaca city that day that the airport had been shut down. My flight had been canceled. The first class bus, by far the most desirable option, with air conditioning, bathrooms, and movies, traveled overnight. It arrived early in the morning and I had an obligation to be in Oaxaca that night, so my only option was a second class bus - I hopped in a taxi and hoped for the best.
As we hurtled toward the station, the taxi driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car, waving his arms wildly at a bus coming the other way. I eyed it suspiciously as it stopped. The bus looked road weary and past its prime, but it touted Oaxaca as its destination. Reluctantly, I jumped aboard and was on my way.
An hour into the journey found us in Pochutla at the trip's first and only bus station, which coincidentally also happened to be the site of the trip's first and only restroom. The one peso entrance fee included a complimentary square of toilet tissue, - single ply - issued by a wisp of an old man standing guard outside the door on a rusted folding chair. Once inside, a quick glance behind me revealed that the doorless restroom left me standing in full view of the waiting passengers seated on the other side of the dusty bus lot. Ah, well, privacy is overrated, and my bladder was in no mood to wait.
Back on the bus, our route would take us through the mountains separating the Oaxacan coast from the Central Valley region, over a twisting, precipitous, sometimes washed out highway. As the crow flies it is only about 150 miles to Oaxaca city. As the bus crawls, it's about ten hours.
Rolling into the grey streets of the small lowland towns, past open fronted stores set in nondescript concrete slab buildings, the bus was transformed into a mobile drive-in restaurant. With each stop, vendors clamored around the bus, offering a wide assortment of fare: tacos, tomales, plastic bags of brightly colored juice tied at the top around a straw. Money went out the open windows, and the food came in.
The driver, shirt unbuttoned and ample belly jiggling in the breeze, chain smoked under the watchful eye of the Virgin de Juguila. He had a statue of this patron saint of Oaxacan bus and taxi drivers on the dash. Blissfully oblivious to the lethal potential of the plunging mountainsides, he maneuvered the bus deftly, patiently squeezing it around an endless series of tail-chasing hairpin turns. The 40 km/hr speed limit signs mocked our 10 km/hr progress as we toiled up the mountain.
In a moment of eloquent clarity I thought, "This sucks." There had to be a silver lining, I thankfully noted that the driver was sparing us from the near-mandatory fuzzy blast of distortion - the accordians, tubas and the whiny vocal twang of Mexican country music that normally buzzed from overloaded bus speakers. No sooner had I unwittingly cursed the entire bus with this thought, than the driver popped in a tape and turned up the volume. "I'm in hell," I thought, as I peered over the edge, pondering the merits of plunging end over end hundreds of feet down the mountain. At least the music would stop.
The entire highway was a bus stop waiting to happen. Locals flagged the bus down at random points along the road, and it was soon a standing room only performance. The oppressive clamminess was intensified by the heat pouring from the bodies crammed cattle-like into the aisle. The windows were open, but the cooling breeze refused to be lured in, leaving the air hot, sticky, and tomb-like. I was dripping with sweat and feeling claustrophobic.
Determined to escape, I buried myself in my book, peering around the worn trousers that covered a butt which had unceremoniously commandeered my armrest as a seat. I couldn't complain too much though - at least I had a seat. Those less fortunate often stood for several hours: short, dark men in cowboy hats carrying bags - perhaps merchants going to market or bringing supplies back - or sturdy women in brightly colored clothing keeping their balance with one hand while holding a child in the other. Most paid no attention to the unpleasantness of the trip, scarcely even noticing. Many seemed to be regulars, and they greeted the newcomers warmly, talking and joking in Zapoteca.
I buried my nose in my book even further, ignoring the pang of guilt I felt for not giving up my seat to an older woman or a mother. Abandoning my seat would have doomed me to stand nearly all the way to Oaxaca city, an idea which beat my sense of chivalry soundly about the head and shoulders. I noted that the men often took the seats while the women stood - not exactly an ironclad justification, but I took solace where I could find it. As I read, I twitched occasionally, trying to catch the sweat dripping off my nose before it hit the pages.
Public restrooms were unknown on this stretch of road, and a toilet was one of many amenities with which the bus wasn't blessed. Much like the old adage that home is where you hang your hat, the toilet on this trip was where you...well, you know. At one stop a row of men stood shoulder to shoulder in roadside solidarity, backs to the bus just a few feet away. As one traveler described the facilities available on this stretch of road, "the left side of the bus is the ladies room while the right side of the road is for the men."
I was glad I hadn't let the wide open view at the bus station in Pochutla stop me from preparing my bladder for the trip. It wasn't that I had any qualms about getting back to nature with the rest of the passengers; I was simply afraid to leave my seat for fear I would never get it back. My butt went slightly numb as I remained seated for the duration of the trip.
Few of the ramshackle houses sporadically perched along the roadside clung to terra firma by all four corners. Most hung by two corners on the uphill side of the mountain, while the remaining two balanced precariously on stilts over plummeting vistas.
The views enjoyed by the residents of the gangly long-legged shacks along the road were superb. Sweeping vistas of steep green jungle were obscured only by the occasional wisp of clouds flirting with the mountainsides below. Million dollar views for some of the country's poorest people.
The tenacious grip of the shacks on these steep slopes was a reflection of the existence of the primarily Zapotec Indian people who live in them. Life isn't easy here. Many scratch out a living in this inhospitable region through subsistance farming, growing beans, corn, peppers, etc. Others labor on large farms such as coffee plantations. Some travel from market to market, selling their wares. Watching tiny women strain uphill under loads of wood anchored to their backs by a strap looped around their foreheads, I started to appreciate the relative luxury of my bus from hell.
That appreciation was short lived, however, disappearing rapidly as the drive dragged on. People seemed to appear by the side of the road every few feet, waving their arms to flag the bus down. Our progress danced to a staccato beat. Stop...pick up a passenger...start...grind to a halt...start...hey look, somebody waving us down...stop... The journey was defined more by its stoppage than by any actual forward motion.
Unbelievably, the last standing passenger actually left the bus in a small mountaintop village that straddled a ridge, dotting the roadside with stilted houses and the everpresent Spanish mission church. He even left behind a couple of empty seats. Hallelujah! At least that was over. The calm was simply setting me up for the storm, of course, preparing the way for a crush of standing passengers that amassed a much grander and oppressive presence than before. The bus didn't get any cooler.
"It's much better after dark," my friend across the aisle had assured me. I looked at my watch for the hundredth time, counting down the hours before sunset. The scenery repeated itself...were we going in circles? Much of the landscape that rolled by was coated in an un-junglelike brown. Dust, soil, dead underbrush. It had been dry, and the lush green of the jungle had been temporarily washed with earth tones.
I finally arrived back in the comfortably familiar surroundings of the 2nd class bus station in Oaxaca, feeling like an overwashed wet rag. It was almost midnight. I poured myself into a taxi and headed to my hotel. It was finally over.
Looking through the rose-colored glasses of hindsight, I think I got a better deal on my bus ride than I did on the effortless 25 minute plane ride to Puerto Escondido. As horrendous as the bus trip seemed at the time, I'm glad to have taken it.
It is an odd travel maxim that the most memorable and fun-to-describe experiences are often the most unpleasant. The plane to Puerto Escondido had been easy and comfortable, if a little small. I can remember very little about it, other than that there was a little girl sitting in the spot that it seemed would have been better filled by a co-pilot. But the unexpected bus ride, with its heat and claustrophobia and its numb butt, is full of memories. It dumped me smack dab in the middle of a piece of daily life of a group of people I would otherwise have missed, and gave me stories to tell.