Bus Ride through Armageddon
2 October, 2007, 08:22 pm in "Peru"
Having a week to kill before we could start art classes in Lurin, and being unable to get tickets to Iquitos on Sunday, we decided to take a bus to Pucallpa in the jungle east of Lima and the mountains, instead. Pucallpa is in the Amazon Basin but is actually on the Ucayali River which is one of the major rivers that becomes the Amazon.
We bought our bus tickets, paying double price for the "new" buses with reclinable seats, bathroom on board, air conditioning and lunch and dinner included. The bus ride is about 20 hours during the dry season. Later, at the hostel, Rowshan asked me, "Did you read the warning in Lonely Planet?"
"The one about buses to Pucallpa." He handed me the book and at the top of the page, which I'd been looking at all day but somehow missed, was a warning in a box about the road to Pucallpa. Apparently there had been numerous robberies and although most occurred at night, the robbers were "becoming bolder" and had committed several in the early evening. Our bus was a night bus.
"Maybe it's outdated," Rowshan said hopefully.
"It was published this year." I said. I took some comfort that being the expensive bus (as opposed to a slower local bus), they wouldn't have any reason to stop and pick up potential robbers.
The bus was sort of new... at least in comparison to the cheap buses from that company. The seats were cushy and leaned back but didn't have lower leg rest things... a feature which I'm not sure I really like anyway. The bus was full and behind us sat a mother and crying child.
"Rowshan," I said. "This may be a bus ride from hell." The bus didn't leave too late. It headed east over small city streets and soon started climbing through the mountains, along side the railroad track to Huancayo which has the 2nd highest train station in the world. The child had stopped crying. Lunch was served followed by a movie.
The road for the first part wasn't too bad. I was a little surprised when the stewardess passed out plastic bags in case people got sick. Rowshan speculated that maybe people would get sick because of the altitude. The bus slowly moved along, making alarming grating noises whenever it changed gears. We began to wonder if we'd make it to Pucallpa. The road wasn't as scenic as the roads around Huaraz. There were a lot of mines and the villages were mining villages. There were some llamas and sheep grazing on the mountain sides, many with colorful tassel eartags. As we went over one pass, we were met with flurries of snow.
As it started to get dark, another movie was started. This time in English with Spanish subtitles (often they show movies dubbed into Spanish with Spanish subtitles). It was Armageddon. I've told several people about our Thai bus ride to the island of Koh Tau where they showed the movie, The Island about clones who were told they were going to this paradise called the Island when actually they were being killed and having their organs harvested.
Armageddon also turned out to be a suitable movie for the trip, not because of the story line but because of the way the bus managed to enhance the special effects.
For all who haven't seen it, Armageddon is
about an asteroid about to hit the Earth. Bruce Willis and a bunch of misfit oil drillers are sent to drill a hole in the asteroid, drop a nuke in and blow the thing up, saving all of humanity.
As the movie had been progressing, the road had been getting worse. There is a scene where the shuttles carrying the miners have to go through the space rubble around the asteroid in order to land on it. As the rocks smashed into the shuttles, the bus lurched violently. As the explosions occurred on the monitors, the sounds of rocks being kicked up and smashing against the wheel wells and sides of the bus became louder and more frequent. We expected one of the huge rocks from the cliffs above to smash through the bus as the rocks smashed through the shuttle on the screen. As the characters in the movie yelled, the baggage in the overhead compartments were thrown onto the passengers below who exclaimed as other passengers reflected the flurry of activity on the screen by jumping up to try to secure their bags or stow them safely on the floor. The shuttle in the movie crash landed on the asteroid. The bus bumped and swayed, throwing passengers left and right and making horrible mechanical grating noises.
"If we had this on a bigger screen it would be like Disneyland," I told Rowshan.
Unfortunately, during the brief lulls between explosions in the film, the bus did not cease to lurch. A couple times the smell of vomit wafted through the bus. A trip to the toilet was an adventure in itself. It had remained relatively clean (probably because no one really wanted to attempt to pee while being tossed around.) I had to throw my weight against the door to open it from the outside. From inside, I tried to pull it open. It didn't budge. Worried that pulling it with all my weight would throw me back into the large toilet behind when it did open, I had a brief image of being trapped in the bus toilet for the next 10 hours... everyone would just think I was sick. I finally managed to brace myself against the toilet seat and yank the door open, then stumble back to my seat without landing on anyone's lap.
The movie ended but the bus continued throwing us about. Occasionally a short paved section of the road would lead everyone to collectively sigh in relief only to be jarred again when we hit the more frequent badly/un-paved sections.
Rowshan and I began speculating about dinner. "Hope for sandwiches," I said. We decided they'd probably serve soup.
I had read that the road was bad but only from Tingo Maria to Pucallpa (the same stretch had the bandits). We weren't anywhere close to that town yet. We were still bumping down the mountain side.
We eventually got down the mountain and reached a town. The road was still bumpy but paved at least. The bus stopped at a restaurant where we were served huge dinners by nuns. It was around 10PM. Back on the bus, the road once again got bumpy and windy. The lights were turned off presumably so you could sleep. Suddenly a man entered and started giving what sounded like a sales talk. What usually happens is people board the bus, give their introductory talk, pass out candy and then collect money from you for it. I was surprised though that all of a sudden everyone was opening their wallets and giving him money. Then, in the darkness, I saw he had a gun. Fortunately, it wasn't in his hand. The next thing I noticed was everyone was only giving him 1 sol (about 33 cents).
Rowshan asked Luis, a man we'd been talking to until the bus made us too queasy to turn towards him, what was going on.
We did not encounter any robbers on the ride. However, at a couple points the bus was boarded by a man with a gun who for a small donation of 1 sol each, would protect us from bandits over a section of the road. We paid.
Rowshan speculated that it was something similar to the guy who "for a small fee" will keep your car's
windshield from being smashed in. You pay the guy because if you don't, your windshield will most definitely be smashed in.
I'd like to believe it reflected a community effort to
make the roads safer. I did find it unnerving, though, that the bus driver was stopping to let men with guns board the bus. Rowshan said the driver probably knew their faces (In the dark on a street with no street lights.)
Whether we have our freelance security people to
thank, or if there aren't any robbers anymore because they've all become freelance bus security, our bus was not robbed.
However, the road did not get any better. All night we bumped, lurched, luggage fell, people shoved it back overhead and someone behind us puked.
I really wished I hadn't eaten that huge dinner. Unable to sleep I looked out the window trying to see the landscape change as we got to the jungle. The air was getting hotter (I could tell because the air conditioning turned off whenever the bus grinded and crunched into a low gear). Outside I saw fog and trees but we were still in the mountains. The houses seemed to utilize more wood. Perhaps we were in a cloud forest. By early morning we reached some paved yet bumpy roads. I'm guessing we must have hit some paved roads because I managed to doze off long enough to dream about passing a white rabbit around the bus... which I know really did not happen.
We weren't in deep jungle. It was tropical. There were lots of banana trees, hot humid air and wood houses with thatched roofs.
As we pulled into the station, the woman behind me held up my water bottle which had rolled back to her seat.
"Whose is this?" she asked.
"It's mine." I said, realizing as I took it that it was covered with dried puke. Rowshan placed it in our unused barf bags and we happily got off the bus.
We bought plane tickets back to Lima, first thing this morning.