Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To Hell and Back for 50 Cents

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Enough time has passed that I'm now comfortable sharing our experience from last Friday. It was a bit traumatic and I considered counseling until I realized that with the language challenge I would be lying on a couch pretty much talking to myself. And I do that for free already.

Things all started out so innocently. Several of our friends here had done it and even encouraged us to try. "Go for it," they said, "you'll have fun!." How could we have known what we were getting ourselves into?

I'm talking, of course, about riding a public bus from one end of its route to the other.

I know what you're thinking--"E-w-w-w---riding a bus---don't hurt yourself"--"You're getting soft, Edd"--"Don't go near a bright, scary merry-go-round, big guy"----.

Well, amigos and amigas, keep your smarty pants comments to yourselves until you've ridden about 100 miles in my shoes. Or, more appropriately, on my butt.

We've ridden specific buses several times on a very specific route that goes from the east to west ends of town and back. No problem. But only one bus line goes down Paucarbamba (really is the name of our street--I'm not creative enough to make something like that up). We've been curious to know exactly where it goes.

I say "exactly" because we have a bus schedule, but its description of all the routes is a bit sketchy. And "schedule" is actually a misnomer because there are no times listed, only streets. To catch a bus you just stand at the stop and wait. Or if you're a Cuencano you wave your arms no matter where you happen to be when a bus approaches and jump aboard as it kinda/sorta slows down for you. I haven't seen a gringo attempt that maneuver yet.

So let's more accurately say we have a bus pamphlet. A secondhand pamphlet at that. We had been told the tourist office provided schedules but when we stopped by the best the ladies there could offer was this single used one they said somebody had turned in (note to myself: if we ever leave Cuenca be sure to drop by the tourist office to return our twice-owned bus schedule/pamphlet on the way to the airport).

I was reading out street names and Cynthia was following along on our ever-present city map. Things were going really great until she couldn't find the next couple of roads I called out. Huh--well, the map doesn't show all the names, and we had a pretty good idea where we were going, so off we went.

Did I mention that it was raining a LOT off and on that day? Or that we were sharing one of those little collapsible umbrellas that pretty much keeps the inside half of each of you dry while the outside halves are getting drenched? Or that Cynthia was remarkably wearing open-toed shoes in this mess because the secondary purpose of our outing was to find a mani/pedi salon she kinda/sorta knew about that was maybe "near" the vague bus route we were about to explore?

Against this backdrop we climbed aboard the #16 and paid 25 cents each for the ride. From our pamphlet we knew the first end of the line was the new Hospital Del Rio not too far from our home, so we sat back and enjoyed the scenery as we rode along the river. Well, for me specifically that's not quite true. You see, Cuencanos are generally small, so the buses are designed with that fact in mind. I on the other hand am 6'3", and it is impossible for me to squeeze both of my legs into the space provided for one's lower appendages. Therefore I always take the aisle seat and cram myself into a pseudo-twisted fetal position.

Anyway, this first phase of our journey went well except for a very bumpy last half mile or so where the road is still curiously unpaved--hope no ambulance approaches the hospital via that route with a delicate patient or there will be a flatliner inside when they open the back doors.

Speaking of opening the doors, at the end of the line we watched all the passengers disembark. We just sat there since we intended to ride back in the other direction, but the driver turned around and made it very clear, no matter what language he happened to be speaking, that we needed to exit as well. Now. Who knew? So we dutifully left, walked ahead to the #16 right in front of the one we'd just ridden, paid another 50 cents and sat down.

Since we were the first passengers, this time I snagged us a handicap seat with much more legroom. I know what you do-gooders are thinking--cool it. I'd observed folks doing this every time I've been on a bus and nobody gave them the "evil eye" (like I'm sure you would); and now that I think of it, I haven't seen a single person in a wheelchair the whole time we've been here.

Off we went again, at first retracing our route. Then not. H-m-m--this wasn't how those east/west buses we'd ridden before had behaved. What's up? We had no clue, so we just "went along for the ride" as the bus took a curiously meandering route that kinda/sorta resembled the description in our schedule/pamphlet, picking up more and more and more passengers along the way.

The windows were all fogged up from the rain outside and the crush of humanity inside, and we barely realized that we'd just missed our stop. Now in the States you get off either in the front or the back, depending on where you're sitting. Here you enter in the front and exit from the back---period. Of course our roomy handicap seat was the very first one, right? So we had to jump up and hurriedly squeeze ourselves all the way to the back before the next stop came and went.

We got out, put up our little umbrella that kept half of each of us dry, and started wandering around in the rain looking for the manicure establishment. Thankfully we stumbled upon it fairly quickly. Not so thankfully when we went inside there was one lady there working on a customer, and her friend sitting beside her was waiting to go next. (Sigh)

Well, it was pouring outside now and a soap opera was on the TV, so we decided what the heck, sitting there working on our Spanish and staying dry was better than the alternative. Besides, maybe the wait wouldn't be that long.

It was. It turns out the woman was working on both customers at once--kind of a "manicurage a trois." The two customers kept trading seats over and over and over. The soap opera episode ended. At some point my sanity clearly started slipping away because I announced to Cynthia that going back out in the rain was preferable to this torture.

We both must have been losing it, because sane people would have hailed a cab, gone home and called it a day. Not us. We decided to finish our mission, get on the next bus and see where the damned route ended on the other side. The manicure hadn't happened; we were both soaked. Why not?

It turns out there were several reasons why not. Whoever designed this particular route was clearly using serious drugs. The bus went up and down, back and forth, hither and yon--you name it, we did it. Mere words cannot describe the madness of this journey. We kept riding and riding and riding.

Finally we recognized a familiar street name and were triumphantly relieved. "Yes," we said, "he'll turn right at the next intersection and we'll be home soon!"

He turned left.

On we went, out of town and, what? Into the mountains?? The bus climbed up, up, up, literally to the top of the mountains all the way on the other side of civilization from where we live. Was this possible? Cuenca is at 8200 feet above sea level. We were so high I looked to see if the bus was equipped with those oxygen mask things flight attendants are always demonstrating on airplanes.

And then we stopped. End of the line. Somewhere. The only passengers at this point, us, got off. We knew the drill--trudge up and get on the other #16 sitting there.

Only our chariot was closed and the driver nowhere in sight. By this time darkness was approaching, we were wet, shivering, and miserable. He finally appears and back down the mountains we go. It's odd how there's so much sky in Cuenca and lots of cumulus clouds but you never see a gorgeous sunset. There's an explanation for that--the city's so high up that the mountains literally block the view from the valley. Guess what. We watched the sunset last Friday because we were on top of those mountains.

The drug-addled bus route designer wasn't finished with us yet. Once we got back to the edge of town we bobbed and weaved through the city a completely different way. We were by this time numb to the whole experience. I couldn't even utter, "How can this be possible?" any more. Four hours after we first boarded the first #16, the fourth #16 let us off near our building.

There were "drinks and dinner" plans for that evening. Well, the "drinks" part happened at least. We peeled off our clothes, jumped under the covers, and silently got snookered.

I later realized if you start on one end or the other our entire misadventure, all 4 hours worth, can be "enjoyed" for a grand total of 50 cents. Definitely cheap entertainment, but walking is good for you and taxis are everywhere if you get tired.

All those other bus lines in town start and stop somewhere too. Where? After our ride to hell and back on good old #16, no cats will die because of our curiosity. For us it's time to get off the bus, Gus, and make a new plan, Stan.


Edd Staton said...

I know this is a L-O-N-G post. Thanks to all of you who are choosing to ride along with us!!

Jim said...

Forgive me that I found this hilarious at a time you were going through hell. But thank you for the heads up. This is one experience I do not want to have during my month in Cuenca.

Edd Staton said...

Unless you find yourself really, really, REALLY bored this is an experience you don't want to have anywhere, ever!

Anonymous said...

Hello. Reading your account a year and several months after it happened. Thanks for making such an entertaining narrative out of what was probably not the most entertaining day of your life.