As I sat in the crowded bus station in downtown Lima, I was feeling a little apprehensive about the coming journey. Why? Well, for one, I had heard stories about Peruvian buses. The drivers were crazy, some said; they would navigate the tight mountain passes of the Highlands as if they were on a Nascar track. Robberies were also a risk, I had heard. You’d rush out of the bus at one of the few stops, desperate to relieve yourself, only to be held at gunpoint with your pants halfway down. Many of Peru’s bus companies would ignore basic safety, cutting costs by hiring only one driver for a 20-hour trip. But not to worry, websites consoled me: all these issues could be avoided by paying a little extra money for a reputable, tourist-friendly service such as Cruz del Sur. So why was I apprehensive? Maybe it was because I had decided not to pay a little extra money… and to go with Civa instead.
I was one of perhaps three foreigners in the station, and as I dragged my luggage across the crowded floor, locals threw me what-the-hell-does-this-gringo-think-he’s-getting-himself-into sort of looks. My fears had not been allayed when the lady selling my ticket had insisted on me paying in cash “because we don’t have enough here in the till”. Nor was I set at ease by the man who walked through the bus after we had boarded, videotaping each passenger with a handheld camera. I smiled queasily, supposing that if this was to be the last recorded moment of my life, I might as well make it look like I was having a good time.
At 4:30 pm, the engine roared to life. I gripped the edge of my seat. Now was the moment of truth. That, or sometime in the next 20 hours. Would I make it? Or would I end up at the bottom of some crevice, with nothing but a 3-second video-clip and an unconvincing smile to remember me by? I waited. And waited… and waited. At 5:30 pm, the bus pulled out of the station, and began crawling through Lima’s crowded streets. I was on the second floor, where the semi-camas, or half-beds were. I had bought a semi-cama because they were cheaper tickets, and I thought I might have a better view. But so far, there was nothing worth seeing, except for the occasional narrowly-avoided taxi accident and a couple of street dancers who performed in front of a horde of traffic (courageous buggers).
At 6 o’clock, the bus stopped again. This time we were just parked along the side of a street. I was beginning to consider demanding my money back and going for the free walking service to Cusco, when an employee came upstairs. “We are going to have a vote,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have any DVDs on the bus, because we left them at the station. We can wait for someone to go pick them up, which will take about an hour… or we can move on, without any movies.” Well, I thought, even if Peru has terrible buses, at least they’re promoting the democratic process. As voices rose up in favor of moving on, I enthusiastically agreed. A 21-hour trip had already turned into a 22-hour one, and I’d be damned if it was to become 23 on the account of some poorly-dubbed reject from the local used DVD sale.
As we finally got out of Lima, we were served pathetic helpings of dry rice, questionable chicken, and some sickly-sweet brown soda. I wolfed it all down despite myself, and leaned back in my semi-cama to sleep. It was too dark to see anything now, and there would be plenty of time for that in the morning.
I was jolted awake by a careening sensation, followed by a smack as my body was thrown against the wall beside me. I pulled back the curtains, my hearth thumping in my chest. The windows were covered with condensation, and I began to notice that it was horrendously cold. I cleared a window with my sleeve, and almost yelled out in terror. We were careening down a narrow road, with a sharp curve ahead, and not even a guard rail between us and the sheer drop-off into darkness. I truck puttered along in front of us, and I wondered, in terror, when our driver was going to slow down. He didn’t. Swerving across the double-yellow line, the bus skidded around the truck, passing it at the sharpest point in the curve, and sending pebbles off into the chasm below. Somehow, we stayed on the road.
Well, I thought as I caught my breath, it couldn’t get any worse than that. Then again, if our driver was willing to attempt that maneuver, what wouldn’t he do? We continued to speed up and down narrow cliff roads, barely slowing down on the 180-degree turns. As if teasing me, a digital screen at the front of the bus read “0 km/ hour”. Signs by the side of the road warned “Caida de piedras” (Falling Rocks) and “Giro brusco” (Sharp Turn). There was even one that read “No cobra su vida (Don’t kill yourself). Es importante.” But our beloved driver did not seem to find this so importante.
Once I had at least partially come to terms with the very real prospect of death, the bus ride became rather enjoyable. The heat finally came on, just as the sun was rising. While the sunrise made the heat somewhat unnecessary, it also provided views that my camera, limited by movement and a glaring bus window, could only begin to capture. Spectacular views, to be sure, but after fifteen hours of sitting in my semi-cama, I wanted to stretch my legs, eat some decent food, and have a break from the electronic music blasting from personal speakers. (Few Peruvians seem to acknowledge the benefits of headphones, and I was subjected to everything from “No me digas que no” to “I want it that’a way”, which would not necessarily have been so bad if it hadn’t been competing with at least two other songs.) When we finally came upon Cusco, after a whopping 23 hours of travel, it was a sight for sore eyes. It had been a long 23 hours, and I was tired, starving, and grouchy. But it hadn’t all been bad. I had seen terrific mountains, traditional terraced farms, and quaint roadside villages. I had learned that a Peruvian could sing aloud to “Shot Through the Heart” by Bon Jovi with just as much gusto as an English-speaker. And, most importantly, I was alive.