A Surreal Bus Ride from Cuenca to Paute

I entered the Rio Paute bus at the Cuenca Terminal Terrestre at 4 o’clock after my women’s group luncheon. To my surprise the bus was full, all seats were taken. Or so it seemed. I was not going to get on, if I had to stand all the way to Paute. But the attendant waved me towards the back and sure enough there were two seats left in the last row next to the bathroom. I took the seat next to the bathroom, but worried how I would ever get to the front when all the other passengers along the way would get on and fill up the center aisle. By the time we took off from the terminal there were only four or five people standing in the aisle, not bad, but I knew that would not last long. A middle aged man squeezed into the seat between me and the young man hooked on to his smart phone. It was hot and things were getting cozy. I took off my jacket and sat back, my elegant lacy white blouse sticking to my body and exposing the skin of my arms. The bus was making good time and did not stop at every stop.

The man next to me started to nod off leaning closer into me. His arm was hot and I could feel his blood mixing with mine through our thin shirts. “Odd”, I thought, and wondered what his blood was telling mine or vice versa. Did his blood know I had had a couple of glasses of red wine with lunch? Did my blood know he had worked hard physically all day and that his blood was more oxygenated than mine? The heat of his arm distracted me from the occasional wafting smells from the bathroom. In a perverse way I was enjoying this communal experience.

Once out of Cuenca and on the Pan America Highway we picked up speed. I allowed the movements of the bus to lull my head back and forth, relaxing my muscles. Hmm, I thought, I could fall asleep wedged between the toilet and the man. Just as I was drifting off, the wind picked up and blasted through the bus, curtains were flapping and the weather changed from hot to cool, sweaters and jackets were going back on. I put on my red jacket and settled back in for another drift of nodding off.

However the sky was getting darker and darker and as we pulled out of the El Descanso canyon and crossed the bridge at the road construction site, it seemed as if we were floating in a grey fog. The hum of the bus was low and all I could see were the indigenous white hats looking outside at the weather change. It felt eery as if we were suspended in mid-air and floating in a parallel universe, waiting for something to happen. The bus slowed down little by little.

Then it stopped and the commotion started. “Policia”! A woman who had been standing made her way rapidly to the rear, desperately looking around. She repeated “Policia, molesta”. OK I got it, the police had stopped the bus, but why was she afraid? I watched as she squeezed between two seats where two indigenous women were seated, neither one of them making a single move. The woman, who looked like a domestic worker on her way home with a bag stuffed with medicines strapped around her shoulder, crouched down on her hunches at the feet of one of the seated women. What had she done, why was she hiding like that? The attendant rushed over and told her she could not be there. “Get up and get a seat” he told her. But there were no seats.

I finally understood what was going on. Everyone needed to be seated for the police.I saw the woman come towards me. Oh no, she is going to hide in the bathroom. If she did that the door would be sitting smack on my nose. I moved closer towards my hot man and he squeezed towards the kid next to him. The kid, still connected to his smartphone, barely moved, but we managed to create some space for the well-put together, sturdy woman to squeeze between me and the toilet. I was now sitting on the two edges of the seats, not very comfortable, but I was game for the moment. The bus slowly took off and in minutes those who were standing before were standing again as if nothing had happened. My woman pulled herself out of our vacuum packed body row and smiled at me, “gracias”. I stupidly said “gracias” too and we all laughed. A minute later the sun came out and we were all normal again, riding the bus to Paute.