In honor of the fact that the world is supposed to implode today and yet somehow–LOOK! we’re all still alive!– I thought I’d share a story of another day in which I thought I might die. Only on more realistic terms. This little (long) story is from my time in Argentina a few years back…
The rusty, old bus careened around the narrow dirt road, and through the smudged plexiglass window I could see pebbles being cast from the road down into a deep ravine. This driver was hell bent on getting back on time and making up for the 45 minute unscheduled stop. Having narrowly escaped arrest by the Argentinian gendarmeria already, I thought we were finally safe. How wrong I was…
We are going to die. I am going to die in a bus. A bus! An old hunk of rusty metal and no one will know what happened to me! This is not how I ever planned the last day of my life to go. This is not heroic at all. I am going to die on a stupid, smelly, old bus.
How had the day turned out like this?! I had woken with a chest cold and planned to stay in bed for most of the day stuffing my face with empenadas and watching Spanish soaps. We had arrived in Humahuaca, a small and rural town in northwest Argentina, the day before and I had immediately fallen into the squeaky mattress with a fever and a nasty cough deep in my chest.
But Frank was determined to go sandboarding–a sport just like snowboarding, only on giant sand dunes. He had heard all about it and, as a surfer, he was jonesing to try any kind of board sport. So he had gone to the local tour operator agency and returned saying, “Great news, Jose is going to pick me up in the morning to go sandboarding!” And I, as one not to miss out on a fun experience, had grudgingly decided, chest cold at 10,000 feet elevation be damned, I wouldn’t be left behind.
Bright and early the next morning, Pablo (or whatever his name was) arrived to “pick us up”. And by “pick us up”, I mean he showed up to walk us over to the bus station and buy tickets to catch the next public bus. I climbed on the bus and immediately fell back asleep. I was that excited.
Over an hour later the bus slammed on its breaks and I awoke to Paco telling the bus driver to let us off. I groggily stumbled off the bus, remotely aware of the puzzled looks the other passengers were giving us. We grabbed the boards from under the bus and as the cloud of dust it left behind started to settle, I gasped as I looked around me.
We were in the middle of the desert.
No really, let me make this clear: we were alone, on the side of the road, in the middle of the f***ing desert.
Pedro pointed to some hills in the distance and said that’s where the sand dunes were (well, presumably, that’s what he said; did I mention that he couldn’t speak a word of English, and that our Spanish was limited to ordering pizza with extra queso?).
So we walked. And then we got to the sand dunes, and we climbed. The air was already thin because of the high elevation, it was sweltering hot (wewereinthemiddleofthedesert), I had a chest cold, and here we were hiking up enormous sand dunes.
That was the first time that day I thought I might die.
But then we reached the top, and you know what? It was incredible. The view was absolutely breathtaking; from the top of the dunes we looked down at the landscape and on all sides the desert extended uninterrupted for as far as the eye could see.
Then we boarded down the sand dunes. WOW. I’ll admit, I probably spent more time sitting on my board like a toboggan, but a few times I got the courage to stand up and it was amazing! We spent hours boarding down and then climbing back up as far as our strength would take us and sliding back down again. For all the trouble that day was otherwise, the sandboarding did make it worthwhile.
The sun began creeping back toward the horizon, and in the distance we heard the rumble from dark storm clouds. We casually asked Juan how we were getting back to town. He casually informed us we would be standing on the side of the road and hitchhiking back on the next bus that passed by. My doubts were beginning to form as to the legitimacy of this operation.
We waited on the desolate road for over an hour before the bus finally came into view. Our “ tour guide” waved his arms as the bus drew near, but for some reason it didn’t appear to be slowing. The bus driver lifted his arm in a wave and as we breathed a sigh of relief thinking he would stop, he left his foot firmly on the gas pedal, leaving us, once again, in a cloud of dust in the middle of the f***ing desert.
To make a long story short(er), this happened a few more times before Carlos eventually flagged down a car who went to the nearest town and sent a cab out for us. Of course, the cab driver wouldn’t drive us the two hours back to Humahuaca, so he dropped us at the local bus station. Where, of course, the last bus of the day was about to leave and was, of course, already sold and we, of course, had to bribe some people to let us have seats. Of course.
Twenty minutes into the bus ride, having finally relaxed into thinking it would be an uneventful ride home, the bus pulled into a checkpoint. Being so near the Bolivian border where drug smuggling is rampant, police officers frequently board the bus with drug sniffing dogs and check everyone’s documents.
This would not have been a problem, had we had our documents.
Thinking we would be on a full fledged tour that would, say, provide REAL transportation, we had not thought it necessary to bring our passports along. And, as the only gringos on the bus, we were instantly singled out by the gendarmeria.
My heart pounded in my chest and visions of being left to perish in a desert jail flashed through my mind. Juan began speaking in Spanish to them on our behalf and after a few minutes of stern conversation, wild gesticulations, and some subtle exchanging of money, the forbidding faces turned to smiles as they shared a joke we didn’t understand, most likely at our expense.
Forty five minutes later the bus floored the gas and burst out of the checkpoint, which brings me back to where I introduced this story–careening around narrow cliff roads on the bus of doom.
The manic driver swerved unpredictably and tossed me violently from side to side; I grabbed the seat in front of me and held on for dear life. I squeezed my eyes shut and reassured myself, “Buses rarely crash. This guy does this all the time. I am just overreacting. This bus won’t crash. We’re going to be fine. Buses don’t crash. Buses don’t crash.”
Then, as we rounded a turn, everyone on the bus gasped and started pointing. On the shoulder of the road lay an overturned bus. Luggage and trash were strewn around it and people were still digging through it for belongings.
So… buses DO crash. There goes my theory.
My eyes welled up with tears and I almost resigned myself to the fact that we were going to die. But lo and behold, we eventually lurched into the Humuhuaca station and my shaky, weary legs stumbled off the bus.
Though it was 9:00pm, the moon still flooded the world with light. We laughed and shook our heads, reveling at what an insane day it had been.
“How could a day like this even be possible?!” I asked, meaning it to be a rhetorical question. But as we gazed up at the full moon, the answer suddenly occurred to us.
The date was Friday the 13th.
So you know what Mayan Apocalypse? BRING. IT ON.