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On the Bus to My Horizon

August 9, 2010

Waiting for a bus in Pena Blanca

When your bus stops at a village in the Honduran hills and passengers enter and exit at the front, fruit, drink, and food sellers often step into the aisle with their baskets over their heads, shouting “ ‘Fresca, fresca, fresca,” or “pappas, pappas ricas” rapidly. For moments at these stops and between them the bus is like a state fair on wheels, carnival barkers bellowing the opportunities you have to miss if you let them slip off the bus at Ceibita without buying a chicken burrito.  Passengers, in general, seem happy to have their moveable feast and take advantage of the varied and cheap options. The transaction (from what I’ve seen, which is admittedly less than it could be) is economic; a need, want, or hunger is filled in exchange for money. But as in the pure, rational market of economics mythology, sometimes feelings complicate things.

A man of medium height and a stocky build stepped on my bus somewhere roughly an hour southwest of San Pedro Sula. His left arm was in a sling; pinned to the sling were brightly colored cloth bracelets. In his right hand he carried a rack of bracelets, pens, mini-flashlights, and other trinkets. He climbed the stairs slowly and stood at the front of the bus for some time without saying anything, without yelling the titles or usages of his wares.

As the bus pulled away from the stop, he struggled to shout above the roar of the engine and the wind rushing through a bus full of open windows. He was not talking about his trinkets.  I did not catch much, at first, because of the noise and because my Spanish is quite rough even in ideal conditions, but he used the phrase “by the grace of God,” more than once. Honduras is a religious country, I thought, perhaps he is using this, TV-preacher style, to sweeten his sales a little bit (you don’t need a deity to sell Coca Cola, because it is 95 F outside and everyone wants a cold drink anyway; an inch-long, bright pink flashlight on a keychain with a detachable set of tweezers can use all the help it can get).  And he seemed to stick to my thesis for a while, as I heard “Dios,” come up every now and again and as raised his voice and pointed a finger resolutely into the air. The student in the seat next to me was not impressed and continued working on her homework. Most of the rest of the passengers reacted similarly – barely acknowledging him, glancing occasionally, staring out the window, listening because they were trapped and there was nothing else to do.

After a few minutes of shouting and gesticulating, the man did a strange thing. With his good arm, he struggled to pull his shirt up over his large belly. Failing, he asked a woman sitting nearby to lift his shirt for him. She was middle-aged, probably, and had a child with her – not a stranger-disrobing demographic. But she gamely pulled the bottom of his shirt almost up to his nipples. As she did this, the man turned his back to us and showed three clear, pink scars: bullet holes. Still shouting, he pointed to a gash in the back of his head, at a scar on his neck, and then back to the arm in a sling. He was passionate, angry, speaking with a missionary zeal. He had the passengers’ attention now. His shirt stayed high on his chest as he spoke, held up tight above his big belly. I hope he was speaking about social change and cultures of violence and forgiving your fellow human, but I could hear very little of what he said over the roar of the open bus windows. Whatever the subject matter, when he finished, he walked up and down the aisle, making intense eye contact with passengers. Many bought the trinkets and  fiddled with them for a moment, looking up at the man uneasily and back at the goods. The man finished his trip down the aisle and back, stood grandly at the front of the bus, and got off at the next stop.

This was, of course, strange – otherwise I would not be writing about it – or at least strange to me. But then what had I seen on buses just this week? I saw a river rise, rushing through the middle of adobe houses, families screaming and running to save pets, farm animals, and whatever else they could from their homes. Half a road washed into the river while I ate Doritos and took photographs of the chaos. I saw a large, happy tan dog wander confusedly from behind a semi and into the path of a pickup, which slammed into it at around fifty miles per hour, crumbling the dog with a crunch and a yip and driving on. An old, toothless man in a cowboy hat chuckling to himself as he watched the dog die – the rest of the bus interested with an academic dispassion. I saw a young man dressed as a clown, or perhaps dressed as an insane person dressed as a clown, telling baudy jokes to riders for tips – insulting individual passengers, flirting with others – all in a New York Giants Jersey and horror movie face paint, and an ancient, filthy red wig. I saw schoolchildren chat happily in clean uniforms as Bohemian Rhapsody, Spanish Praise music, intensely sexual Reggaeton, American hip-hop, and Kenny Rogers, always Kenny Rogers, played. Buses are full of chaos and weirdness and beauty because they are filled with people and that’s what people look like.

Americans often write vignettes about New York or DC’s subways, the salt and spice of the earth and the crowds and the metaphors one can pull from this sample of humanity. In buses rumbling through Central America, with the windows open, the workers coming home after a long day sweating in the fields, entire families huddled in one seat, and a constant panorama of hills and huts and Texacos, it is the subway with context. When a father gets off, sometimes you get to watch him walk up to his home and hug his children. Riders see friends on the street and wave. Dead dogs, cute girls, traffic jams, a bus too tired to make the hill; riders interact with all of this and, through it, with each other.

When I left Honduras, I did not take the bus. A North American video team drove me through the switchbacks and steep rises, through the pine forests and shaded coffee plantations, to San Pedro Sula. Air conditioning and quiet conversation and pleasant smells added additional comfort to the quickness of the trip (just over an hour instead of the nearly three that it takes on a bus). The team dropped me at San Pedro Sula’s enormous bus station, where I quickly caught a cab to the airport. The driver did not speak to me much, passed me a Spanish language Honduran newspaper, and turned on an English-language radio station. As we turned out of San Pedro Sula toward the airport, the driver excitedly turned the radio up to consciousness-filling blast: Rhinestone Cowboy, by Glenn Campbell had come on. We both sang along, quietly, about the star-spangled rodeo. The song ended, we arrived at the airport, the driver conveniently did not have enough change, and got himself a tip for the memory.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Gerard permalink
    August 9, 2010 6:11 pm

    I’m your mom, so I sort of have to like your writing. But even I was not your mother, I would be impressed. I love reading your stories, Andy. Keep writing!

  2. August 9, 2010 7:14 pm

    great story, keep up the good work, it is always nice to read you

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