The wheels on the bus go round and round … and round …

Our trip to Peru involves visiting ten cities and four islands in twenty-one days. Unless you’re James Bond or Paris Hilton, the only way to rack up that kind of mileage is by spending a lot of time on the bus. A lot. And there’s nothing exotic about sitting on a bus watching the landscape slowly change. Or not change, as was often the case between Lima and Arequipa. It’s not like a train, where you at least get to pretend that you’re plotting some kind of Old West heist, or starring in a Hitchcock film. It’s not like a plane, where you can at least reason that you’re going to wind up somewhere drastically different in a very brief span of time. Also, being equipped with your very own video screen and a near-unlimited supply of movies goes a long way toward eliminating my impatience with flying.

Our eleven bus rides ranged in length from three to ten hours, and with only two exceptions we rode Cruz del Sur, the mac daddy of Peruvian bus lines. We initially chose Cruz del Sur because the receptionist at autobuses-cruz-del-sur_-arequipa-a-puno_1235281our hostel in Lima informed us that it was the safest bus line, and while neither of us were (too) worried about being shanked on a bus, we were definitely concerned about the possibility of someone absconding with our luggage. Our entire lives were in those packs–along with a good number of Christmas presents as the days and cities flew by–and we were determined to protect them, even if it meant paying an extra 20 soles ($8 or so) for a six-hour ride. Nonetheless, our expectations were low, our heads filled with stories of women in skirts squatting behind the bus in order to do their business on a long bus ride, in which they’re seated next to a crate of chickens and possibly even a poorly-behaved llama.

Cruz del Sur checked our luggage, giving us tags we were to use at the end of our trip to claim our packs. Basically, exactly what they do with luggage when you fly except that no one ever bothers to check your claim ticket when the luggage comes bouncing exhaustedly down the carousel. Then we went through security, which consisted of a guy with a wand waving it in front of us and searching through our carry-on bags. He was usually pretty thorough, although once he encountered Colin’s stash of cameras and camera equipment, he typically waved him through, sufficiently convinced Colin was exactly as he presented himself: an American tourist. Generally, my stash of Peruvian presents and timid use of the word “regalos” (sometimes adding “para la Navidad”) got me through just fine. Just outside the bus a Cruz del Sur representative checked our tickets for the fourth time, and we were directed to our seats. Very spacious, comfortable seats which reclined and were equipped with a food tray directly in front of us. Clearly, Cruz del Sur was doing everything in its power to resemble an airline. And I wasn’t about to complain.

They started off with a video extolling the wonders and virtues of Cruz del Sur. Seguridad. Puntualidad.  Y buen servicio. Then went on to mention the presence of a bathroom in the back of the bus, which was a happy revelation and did much to ease my fears about potential awkwardness on the bus. Then the video went on to explain that the toilet was “solo para urinario” and that if any of the passengers required other services they were to ask the driver to pull over. Of course, on a three hour bus ride, that sort of limitation is no big deal, but for a six or ten hour ride? Forget it.

Colin spent the entire trip loudly pondering what the procedure was when a passenger failed to follow the poop ban. “What do you think the poor employee has to do? Do you think they have to vacuum it out or–” This is where I would usually stop him with a disinterested shrug. Yes, I was curious, and still am. But I didn’t want to linger over the particulars, especially when I was riding the bus in question. Colin’s question was very relevant because every bus ride, without fail, his or my nose would inevitably wrinkle with distaste and one of us would turn to the other with the proclamation, “Someone pooped on the bus.” Again, when you’re on said bus for ten hours, it’s hard to blame the perpetrator. No one wants to stop the entire bus in order to poop, especially not when every single person on said bus would watch you climb off and know exactly why.

On our return trip from Copacabana to Puno–a three-hour, intensely beautiful trip–an English tourist who had spent the entire trip cheerfully chatting with an Australian couple wandered passed our seats toward the back of the bus. I thought nothing of it. A couple minutes later, Colin winced and turned to me with the now-tired refrain, “Someone pooped on the bus.” Of course, this was always stated with an undercurrent of glee, both at the audacity of our fellow passengers in breaking Cruz del Sur’s no-poop rule, and because the entire situation was silly in a juvenile sort of way. Still, pretty standard for a bus ride. Until…

About a minute after Colin’s quiet announcement, the harried bus guide who had helped us with our border crossing into Bolivia went dashing down the aisle, loudly proclaiming, “Is only for number one! Is not for number two!” and pounding on the bathroom door where the beleaguered tourist sat, presumably still doing his business and now very aware of the fact that the rest of the bus knew exactly what he was doing. “Solo para urinario!” shouted the guide, as Colin and I dissolved into giggling fits, wondering whether the guide planned to stake out the bathroom until the guilty party emerged. After several minutes, he returned to the front of the bus, still muttering “Not for number two!” at the rest of us, as if we were somehow complicit in these illicit activities. And a few minutes after that the Englishman emerged, walking sheepishly, but with a small smile, down the aisle and back to his seat.

There are other things to do on the bus besides keeping tabs of the other passengers’ bowel movements. They play movies nearly continuously throughout the ride, which sounds great. It’s not though. On our ten-hour ride from Nazca to Arequipa–most of which took place in the dark and ended by depositing us at a bus station in a large foreign city around midnight–they played a series of torture porn flicks. White teenager gets kidnapped by psychopath who holds her hostage and carves up her face. Upperclass white family is besieged by psychopaths wielding guns and machetes on the one night of a year when everything–murder and rape included–is legal. All dubbed over in Spanish with English subtitles. Except when they couldn’t quite figure out the subtitles and it was dubbed over in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, none of which quite matched up. I spent that entire bus ride paranoid, with a headache that grew in proportion to my terror. Why would they show a bus packed almost exclusively with white tourists, a bunch of movies about white people being tortured on a bus ride in the middle of the night? Either it was a well-executed joke, a well-executed effort at inducing terror, or simply thoughtless. I could at least respect the situation if they were trying to scare us.

It’s worth pointing out that Cruz del Sur was, in fact, primarily frequented by tourists. And yes, I felt a little guilty when I realized we were traveling almost exclusively with European kids whose backpacks made our own look petite and whose smell put our own pathetic haven’t-showered-in-thirty-six-hours stench to shame. For the same reason that I’m not a big fan of cruises–you’re essentially signing on to spend all of your time with other people who look, speak, think, and live like you do, so where’s the adventure, where’s the cultural exchange?–I try to avoid the tourist traps. But I didn’t always succeed, and I don’t regret taking Cruz del Sur because I felt safe (when I wasn’t watching blondie having her face rearranged by crazy guy) and my luggage survived every trip intact. Also, our Peruvian hosts consistently recommended Cruz del Sur and insisted that the other lines simply weren’t safe. And there were a few Peruvians on each bus; they were just outnumbered by backpackers.

At the end of each trip, we gathered at the back of the bus or at the desk inside the terminal to collect our luggage. The handlers would not part with a single piece of luggage until you surrendered your ticket, and they were very conscientious about matching tickets to luggage. I know this because after our ride from Ica to Nazca I lost our claim tickets and spent a nearly-tearful ten minutes pleading with the handler to let us have our luggage and mentally preparing a list of items in the luggage to prove our ownership. While I didn’t enjoy their consideration at that particular moment, overall I’ve never been as confident about the security of my luggage, and when you’re hauling Christmas presents around Peru, stuff like that’s pretty important.

As to the question of whether I personally always felt safe on the bus: no. But that’s a different story for a different blog post.

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