Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Day Eight - The "Chicken" Bus

Thanks for the lift, Luis!
The alarm rang at 5:00am, and I rose with the others to see them off. The big city was quiet, no dogs, no roosters, no traffic but the occasional bus. Our wonderful hosts at Guesthouse Dos Molinos B&B were up and had coffee, toast and bananas ready for us. I gave a round of hugs and said goodbye to the others, then returned to my room, alone again for a few days now.

Andy had originally asked Luis to take me to the 10am Hedman Alas first class bus to Copan Ruinas. It's about 200km to Copan from San Pedro Sula, and I didn't mind paying an extra few bucks to take the nice express bus. But this morning, Luis said there was a bus at 8, so I thought "what the heck" and hopped in his minivan for the ride. His minivan, by the way, has the steering wheel on the right side. Every other car I've seen here has the wheel on the left like the rest of America, but hey, whatever works, right?

Ready for my next adventure.
Well Luis brought me to the huge bus terminal, as promised. I had asked him in my crummy spanish to help me get the ticket, since I'm a little nervous and really wanted to catch this bus! He parked and brought me straight to the ticket counter, shook my hand, gave me his phone number just in case, and left. Boy was I surprised when I only had to pay 140 Limpira for my ticket, I was expecting more like 500. I had ten minutes to find my bus. "Numero seis" said the guy at the counter. Seis, I can do that. Six, right? Wait a second, though, where are the buses, and where are the numbers? In a slight panic I rushed through the station. I finally found a door and saw lines of buses, but none of them were the big Hedman Alas superliners, they were the small, customized jobs with cracked windshields, suitcases on top, ridiculously tinted windows and lots of people in them. One of the buses had "COPAN RUINAS" in huge letters right across the windshield (right in front of the drivers line of sight). That can't be it, I thought, it's not the Hedman bus. Looking up, I saw the 6 and realized why my ticket was so cheap. That was my bus.
The bus.

Now I've traveled all throughout Mexico and have ridden on many many buses, including plenty just like this one. Except I always had friends with me, friends that could speak Spanish well. I swallowed, took a deep breath, stupidly asked the driver in crummy Spanish "Copan Ruinas" and he looked at the windshield, then at me, and sarcastically said slowly in an overly american accent "Yyeeessss." I showed him my ticket and he ignored me, so I handed my bag to the guy on the roof to be tied down with the other bags and got on board. The front of the bus was filled, but there were some open seats in the back. And here's where I made my mistake. I thought I'd like a window seat, so I could get fresh air, look out at the countryside, and maybe have a place to puke if I needed. What I didn't notice was that it was the "wheel seat" with no room for my legs, but it was too late. There was a line behind me and if I didn't sit, I might not have a seat!

So I tucked my knees up to my chest and sat down. This would be my position for the next three hours. Or so I thought. I have a CDL and was a City Bus driver for Eau Claire over ten years ago. I LOVE buses and I especially love to watch how the bus system operates. With this class of buses there is another worker besides the driver, usually a young agile guy, who handles the bags and cash and keeps things together so the driver can, well, talk on his phone, make weird whistle sounds through the bus when we pass women, wave at other drivers and even drive the bus. This other guy, he didn't like me, I could tell he was thinking what's whitey doing on my bus? So I kept my eye on him, too. Physically uncomfortable, vulnerable, and sticking out like a sore thumb - I wished I was on the Hedman bus.

But all my regrets washed away not five minutes into the trip when the bus pulled over. My god, we're not 5 minutes in and we're stopping already? Two guys dressed up as clowns got on board, then a kid with bags of fresh mango, the doors shut and the bus took off again. And now the show starts. "Mango mango mango mango" says the boy as he sticks the bags in each persons face as he walks the aisle. The two clowns start a comedy routine near the front, and all eyes are on them. I don't understand much, just a few words. And a little ways into the set, I start to hear words like "gringo" and soon all eyes are on me and the bus rumbles with laughter. Someone please get me off this bus!!!
The joke was on me. Glad I could help a clown out.

I love street performers, haven't been much of a clown guy, but I respect anyone willing to don makeup, ridiculously colorful clothing and put themselves in front of a crowd hoping for cash. These guys were obviously funny, and were taking advantage of my presence to gain more laughs. I like to think that they got more tips since I was there to be the ass of their jokes. Heck, I even pulled out my wallet and gave them a few limpira. They also pulled out some comic books and offered them for sale too as they walked the aisle. I was surprised how much they pulled in before they hopped off on the side of the road. They were replaced by a kid saying "pollo pollo pollo pollo" with an armful of homemade roasted chicken platters wrapped in plastic and a big fella with a huge bag of popcorn. You're darn right I bought some popcorn. I gave him a 20 fully expecting change, since I saw it was 10 from the people buying it in front of me. He took my 20 and walked on. I knew I deserved change, and other people saw it and knew it too. But I stupidly didn't say a word and he moved on. The rest of the people on the bus now knew I was a sucker, too. Not good. Sitting duck.

Coffee drying next to the road wouldn't pass Organic inspection
As we climbed out of San Pedro Sula I was very close to vomiting. The air quality was horrid, and the brown haze actually got thicker as we left the city and made our way up the mountain. I completely focused on each breath, in, out, in, out. We passed several sources of this pollution - a cement factory that had huge white clouds of smoke and dust coming up all around. Then a coal fired power plant (I think) with a short stack and insane clouds of black smoke spewing. There were huge piles of garbage scattered along the road, and each big pile had a beat up old pickup truck nearby with a family digging through the nearby trash.

I enjoyed my popcorn and occasionally sipped on water. I didn't want to drink much, since I knew we probably weren't stopping for a bathroom break. But water is what I needed most. Oh well. Once out of the city, and into the fresh air, I started to appreciate the ride again and was really quite glad I took this bus instead of the express. This is Honduras. The people laughed at me, sure, but I was safe. My bag was fine on top, and the driver's helper was not menacing, just tired and working hard. As we approached each little town, or even just a group of people, the driver would make the horn go "beepity beep beep beeeeeeep beeptity beeeep" and the helper guy would open the door and yell out "COPAN RUINAS COPAN RUINAS" as if the people on the road couldn't read the huge letters on the windshield (just like me) that read "COPAN RUINAS."

And so the morning went, every possible type of food and beverage vendor came on and off the bus, or hassled me through the window. I was stiff and terribly uncomfortable, but did my best to enjoy the passing mountainside and focus on the good things in life, like the great privilege I have to travel.

We passed a lot of fabric covered crops
I hadn't looked at a map, and there aren't many road signs, so I had no idea how our trip was progressing. Would it really be 3 hours, or would it be more? Eventually my legs hurt so much I had to stand up on my seat with my back on the ceiling, just to stretch them out. I could see the smirks through the corner of my eye. Even though the clowns were gone, the entertainment remained.

Horses, cows, goats and chickens...
Four hours later, we passed a giant sign that read "COPAN". Great! I thought, as we entered a bustling city. Friends had told me before I left that Copan would be full of tourists, unlike everywhere else I'd been in Honduras. But I couldn't see anyone that looked like they didn't belong there as the bus pulled to the side of the road. A few people got off, and I thought it was my cue. But enough people stayed on to make me think that this wasn't the last stop, so I remained in my spot. Bags came off the roof, then new ones went on, and the bus refilled with even more people - standing room only now. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad idea, standing sounds nice.

Turns out, we were just entering Copan the state, not the city. A sign said we had another 52km to go. I was ready to crack, so I gave myself a pep talk, had some popcorn, refocused my breathing and massaged my knees and calves. As we ascended through the mountain, I put my new coffee skills to work. I was surprised how I could identify coffee plants from great distances, and even identify those with diseases. I saw a lot of plants devastated by la roya, just like in Rio Negro. I also observed coffee processing in shacks alongside the road - hand cranked depulpers, bags piled up, and beans spread out on concrete to dry. This is one instance where coffee processing and quality come into play. It's not enough to just worry about how the coffee is grown, we need to follow it through all the way home. And in many cases, I don't think you'd want to drink the coffee. Nothing against these folks, I'm sure they are doing their best with what they have, but when you see coffee beans drying on a driveway right next to the road littered with garbage, well, I don't think the coffee is going to be that good. And it's certainly not organic. Or clean, for that matter.

My view from the tuk tuk.
Slowly more people got off than on and we eventually made it to Copan Ruinas. The bus didn't go into town, though, it stopped and turned around and parked on the outskirts. As the kid climbed on top to unload bags, men outside were attracted to my face like a magnet "Hotel hotel hotel" "do you need a place tonight, Mr. Lincoln" (my favorite) "come with me, only ten dollars" "I'll give you a ride" As I reached for my bag, several guys also reached for it, hoping to slip it into their "tuk tuk" (3 wheeled motorcycle) and take me to their preferred hotel. I politely refused their assistance, saying I already had reservations. "where?" asked a guy. "Hostel Berakah" I replied. "Oh, hop in, I'll take you there!" and so I did. I couldn't pass up the opportunity for another form of transit that I've never had before. He drove about two blocks and parked, then took 40 limpira (Yes, I got totally ripped off, did you see how much the bus ticket was?).

Quaint cobblestone, and a tuk tuk.
The driver said "cerrado cerrado, they are closed! Let me take you to my hotel, only $10, swimming pool, you'll like it Mr. Lincoln." I said "not they aren't!" grabbed my back and he pulled off. The door to the hotel was locked, and it appeared the guy was right. I knocked a few times and asked the girl who opened the door for a room. "Do you have a reservation?" "No, I don't. We're full, sorry!" Uh oh, that was my big plan, and I didn't have a plan B. I had looked up a few places on the internet before leaving, and chose just one to save the info for. Bad idea, Aaron. Now I was in the middle of this bustling city with no idea where to go or which hotel to stay in. So I went back in the Hostel and asked for a recommendation. They happily told me where to go, just around the corner, and I found it. It looked nice, so I paid the guy 300 limpira (exchange 20 limpira to 1 dollar, so about $15), got my key, opened the door and flopped on the bed. Wow did it feel good for my legs to stretch out!
Tomorrow, the ruins.

I was exhausted, even though I was just sitting for 5 hours it took a lot of strength to make it through in the fetal position bouncing and swerving all day. After an ice cold shower (hot not an option I guess) I asked at the desk where I might find a shuttle to Antigua in the morning. Nobody spoke english, so I was proud that I got my question asked an understood the answer. I walked to the travel office, paid $20 for a reservation on the minibus to Antigua, and wandered the town.

On a map I have there was a small ad for a farm that sold milk, cheese and coffee in town. I went there and the place was empty. A nice woman asked if she could helped me and I pointed to the espresso machine. I ordered a mochaccino and it was stellar. Craving home, I stopped at Bob's Pizza Copan and enjoyed a pie. It was late. Time for bed.

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