There were no maps. No routes. No schedules. No stops. Just a bus. A big, cranky, big-bully bus, gaudy and ornate, crashing down the streets, its passengers clinging to the rails in the ceiling, swaying with the fringed tapestries dangling from the rearview mirror, and sticking to their seats like the Tweety Bird and Minnie Mouse characters gummed to the walls.
The first morning, as I boarded one of these buses and squeezed between a muddy window laced in dust and a fat man with a big mustache who smelled of last night’s rum, the words kept running through my head: “Never get on a bus.”
The advice seemed pretty reasonable as we rumbled down the crumbled roads, the bus swiping fruit baskets from little boys’ wooden carts and driving delivery donkeys off their lazy paths. I had no idea where I was, no idea where I going, and no idea where I’d been. For all I knew, we could have been driving in circles, passing the same street every time, and I’d never know it. Without my escort, I would have stayed on the bus forever.
Of course, I knew the real reason everybody at home told me to never get on a bus, and it wasn’t just because it was chaotic, confusing, and downright impossible to navigate. They had heard the stories of the FARC, the Colombian warlords, holding up city buses in rural areas with loaded guns and ransacking the pockets of the passengers, taking blonde hostages as meat for bribes and later throwing them out like the weekly trash after securing their funds. They had heard stories of terrorists placing suicide bombers on buses and detonating bombs just as the bus pulled out of social territory; petty thieves who robbed travelers blind just as they accidentally drifted into a momentary cap nap; desperate men waiting at stop lights for the right moment when they could thrust their dirty hands into the open windows and tear open the buttoned blouses of the women, who always kept their cash neatly tucked in their bras and not in their purses. None of these horror stories surprised me, for I had heard the stories too.
Nevertheless, my new Colombian friends understood my predicament better than expected-everybody seemed to know that this mysterious country was not designed for travelers. In fact, it even stunned the locals whenever they saw a lone tourist wandering around. However, what my Colombian friends did not understand was my desperate need for a map of Cartagena. There were none, even in the tourist shops. How this was possible still perplexes me. As was their nature, each attempted to explain with pointing fingers and square drawings where we were located, but each explanation simply set me further into total bewilderment.
In addition to the map problem, they also did not understand my astonishment upon discovering that instead of scheduled bus stops, one simply jumps up and yells “Parada!” over the blaring salsa music, hoping that the driver actually hears the screams and stops the bus. What they did not comprehend was my discomfort bus, which was often filled with birds squawking in cages hung from hooks in the ceilings, mothers with clammy hands holding twenty-five screaming children from all limbs, wrinkly men, unblinking, abrasively gaping in my direction with come-hither stares, and curious wide-eyed kids, turning around in their seats to stare at their first real blonde, blue-eyed person. I was a celebrity without having to do anything, which was discomfort enough for me, despite the obtrusive sweating and the nerves rumbling around in my stomach each time I boarded, wondering if we’d survive the road trip.
However, for a week and a half, my new Colombian friends refused to allow me to take a bus by myself. Catching a bus was even an impossibility, for as I was to discover, figuring out which multi-colored bus to get on was a delicate, learned art in itself. As there were no scheduled routes, bus drivers often wound around Cartagena however the mood struck; so in order to get somewhere, one had to know the name of the barrio they wished to travel to, and then figure out which bus catered to somewhere near that neighborhood. Then, they’d yell “Parada!,” descend the bus, and either walk or grab a taxi to their destination.
Yet despite all this, the common practice of young homeless boys passing afternoons hanging out the bus door and making money for the bus drivers by agreeing to take you to whichever barrio you asked for (whether or not the driver intended to go there), didn’t help either. I was swindled out of my money and my time more than once during my stay in Cartagena by these bamboozling boys.
And more often than not, it was required to board two or more buses (coming and going from El Centro, Cartagena’s busy center, to get between barrios, which confused me for upwards of all six months I lived there. I’m still not sure I know how to get from the University where I worked back to my house on the public bus.
So two weeks into my travels in Colombia, profusely convincing my new friends that I remembered which bus to take from El Centro to my homestay in Manga (which was literally no more than a few miles over the bridge which connected Cartagena to Manga Island), my friends waved goodbye with nervous smiles as I ran towards the red bus, flailing my hands and screaming “Manga!” with panic in my voice. The bus screeched to a stop, I handed the boy my 500 pesos (equivalent of forty cents), and collapsed into my window seat.
Soon, the bus was filled and we were en route to Manga. Being so close to the equator, the sun was setting beautifully and the Caribbean Sea sparkled in the evening twilight; I, stretched out in my seat and watching the waves pass by, feverishly watched each curve so that I, too, would know when to yell “Parada!” and get off the bus. I felt like I was finally beginning to understand this crazy Colombian world.
However, my match was soon met. A tiny old man, literally reeking of aguardiente (the grain alcohol made famous in Cartagena) and stinking of sweat and musk, staggered onto the bus and plopped down right next to me. As the bus was totally filled, I had nowhere to go but out the window, so I took the alternative and cringed, smiled meekly, and tried to concentrate on the task of figuring out where to eventually dismount the bus. The sun crept behind the sea, the black night set in almost immediately (as was custom in cities so near the equator), and the tiny old man began to strike up an unwanted conversation with me.
He began by leaning close to my ear and whispering political slurs about the American government, telling me that all ladies “up there” were feminists and that we thought we could rule the world. You crazy women are the future! he slurred, trying to put his hand on my shoulder. I giggled nervously and mumbled something as he continued by talking about all the famous women in history and how it was their husbands who really ran the world and how women needed to stay out of politics and how women should start a revolution andÃ¢Â?Â¦.
And then, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea where I was.
Stunned, my face flew to the window and I realized that I had never seen the area before. The streets were dark, there wasn’t a streetlight or inhabited house to be found, and there wasn’t man nor taxi to be seen or heard for miles in either direction. We had left civilization and entered the country.
Now, I do speak Spanish, so that wasn’t a problem. What was a problem, however, was that I was two weeks in a country that I was constantly warned about and scoffed at and that I didn’t have a cell phone or any money in my wallet. So what did I do, an independent, well-traveled, sharp girl of twenty-two?
I began to cry. I jumped up, screamed something in my native English, pushed past the stinking political grandpa and ran towards the bus driver. “Please,” I begged him in Spanish. “Please help me. Where is Manga?”
He turned slowly, looking at me with raised eyebrows. “Manga?” he repeated hastily, looking towards the boy sitting next to him on the ledge and poking him in the side. “Manga?” he said again, bursting into laughs.
“Yes, Manga,” I pleaded. “I need to get home, and I’m lost.”
The bus driver turned to face the audience of passengers, who were now all completely involved in this stunning turn of events.
“You can’t get there from here!” someone called from the back of the bus.
The bus driver smirked. “The American!” he laughed, pointing at me. “The poor little American girl got lost!” He kept repeating it, his face curled in a taunting scoff and his eyes malicious and full of spite.
“Whatever will the poor American girl do?” he added sarcastically, egged on by the entertained boy at his side. “She got herself lost in Colombia!”
Instead of backing me up, the passengers averted eye contact and shrunk into their seats, most of them either secretly enjoying the play unfolding before them or avoiding getting themselves involved with the situation. Startled, I darted my own tearful eyes around the bus. The bus was silent, for what I believed to be the first and last time in the history of that particular bus.
“Look, ma’am, I have a bus to run. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.” The driver, with a nasty grin, churned the engine.
Then, as if shaken into action herself by the sound of the motor, a young woman in a flight attendant’s uniform stood up. “I’ll help you,” she said matter-of-factly, as if there were no choice. I saw no other available choice, so agreeing with my instincts, I allowed her to usher me down the steps of the bus.
As we got off, she told me to calm down and breathe. And for some reason, I trusted her, this unknown stranger in an unknown land. “It’s ok,” she repeated evenly, touching my shoulder and comforting me. “I’ll help you get home. Just tell me where you live.”
As best I could, I tried to explain where I lived, using landmarks and the one street name I knew: Calle Real.
Her eyes jumped. “Calle Real!” she exclaimed. “However did you get yourself all the way out here?”
I told her the unfortunate story of the political guy sitting next to me. She starting laughing and shaking her head with the empathy one has when he or she, too, has been through a similar dilemma.
“I went to live in Miami once,” she said slowly, tiptoeing into English. “It took me forever to figure out where I was going. Don’t worry; I will walk you home. It will take us quite a while, but no taxis ever come all the way out here, so we don’t really have a choice.”
I sighed with relief, and flooded her with my life story. She exchanged my story for her own, and we chatted amicably as we traversed the dark streets. An hour and forty-five minutes later, I recognized the iron gates of my building’s entrance.
For the second time that evening, I started to cry. I hugged the young woman, the young woman who stood above the rest and who took me all the way home, and I ran through the gates and upstairs to my apartment.
And only after reaching my bed and collapsing face-first into the linen sheets, I realized that I’d forgotten her name.
I remember, long before I went to live in Colombia, that whenever I told someone I was going to teach English by myself in Cartagena, the reaction was always slightly different yet always from the same handful of responses. “You’re going where?” was one of my favorites, because with confidence and a sly smile I would repeat, “Colombia.” I beamed with pride and confidence at my decision, knowing that I was strong and independent and ready to see something new.
My second favorite was, “Never get on the bus!”
But as I’ve learned, sometimes you’ve just got to get on the bus, even if you’re not sure where you’re going.