The bus ride back to Cusco from Santa Teresa was one of the most authentic feeling experiences I’ve ever had. A bus ride. Sounds simple, but it felt more like an adventure.
In Santa Maria, Drew and I along with two other tourists were hurried onto a bus by a woman with a little fanny-pack who seemed to be in charge of all Cusco-goers. Once on the bus, a man pointed to the little front-cab seat usually reserved for the second bus-driver or ticket collector. He gestured towards Drew and the other tourists toward a pile of blankets stuffed behind the driver’s seat, motioning for them to lay the blankets out on the flat surface covering whatever wires and parts connected to the gear shift. I was the lucky one with a seat in this crowded front-cabin of a crowded bus. it was clear that we were not ordinary passengers. We were extras. Add-ons to a bus that was already too full for ticketed passengers to have a seat in the passenger cabin.
The ride felt immediately wild. The front cabin was just enough room for the driver, Drew and the other two tourists on blankets, the ticket collector and second driver standing in the doorway, and myself feeling guilty and awkward for taking up the one spare seat in the front cabin.
The second bus-driver was a funny little man with eager friendliness and a wild spark in his eyes. He waited for his turn to drive by standing in the open doorway of the bus, sticking his leg out to feel the speed and make us nervous, dangling and singing out the door. He was tickled to find out Drew and I were “Americanos” and even more tickled to find out we were married. He used dramatic gestures to imply his approval of this, pounding his hand to his heart and shaking Drew’s hand. He gave the french pair a similar response with a bit more of a devilish nudging and winking kind of reaction upon learning they were “just amigos.” It was funny and I found myself laughing even when I didn’t know what he was saying. He entertained us for quite some time, whistling his inhumanly loud whistle or calling out little sing-songy things as he dangled out the open door. He chatted a bit as well, using the French traveller as his main translater.
At one point, a woman knocked on the door that connected the passenger area. Drew shuffled forward so the door could be opened. In tense Spanish, she complained that she had paid for a ticket and now didn’t even have a seat. Again I felt guilty and offered that the bus-driver could give her my seat. He brushed this off. I felt both appreciative of his kindness and annoyed at his “special treatment.” But my Spanish was only good enough to say “Te quiere?” No takers. Everyone was going to let the little American girl sit in a seat for the whole ride. I felt a little better after the ticket-collector took our money for our “seats.” I have no idea if we paid more or less than the poor women who didn’t have a seat for the first hour of her ride.
After a few hours, we made our first and only stop. The bus drivers gave us a few instructions, translated by the french guy. We were approaching a police check point. The purpose of the check-point was to assure there was no coca on board, but the concern that involved us had to do with over-crowding a bus and illegally allowing passengers in the front cabin. We were to get off of the bus immediately, acting as though we just needed to rush to the bathroom. After us, many would follow and it would be impossible to tell that we’d come from anywhere other than the flow of passengers from the passenger cabin. The ordeal was easy and felt like no more than a chance to stretch our legs, but I wondered how severe the penalty might have been if we had been caught riding up front in the driver’s cabin. The driver was praying in his driver’s seat as we approached…
The craziness in the front cabin quieted down when bus-driver number two took his turn driving, and especially so because of all the coca leaves he crammed into both of his cheeks. We left signs of towns and seemed deeply hidden in the brown-rock mountains. The air was growing colder and I could see little spots of snow on the ground. I felt as though we were far from civilization: far from anything inhabitable and yet, every now an then, I spotted a woman or child in traditional dress out among a flock of sheep or goats. Then, I began to notice little stone structures, not so unlike the structures on Machu Piccu. Some of them were just fences and others were more like shelters even with straw roofs. They blended into the rough bouldered mountain environment. I wondered what these peoples lives were like. How often did they leve these mountains and what did they live off of?
Though we’d seemed to randomly accept or deny people trying to hitch rides, each accepted one getting shuffled to the back and ticketed, there seemed to be an unquestionable acceptance for one particular woman, red-cheeked from the cold and dressed in traditional Peruvian garb from head to toe. We came upon her in the middle of the mountains and as soon as she was in sight, our bus driver and his ticket-collector began wildly gesturing for her to cross the street to where the bus door was. I immediately popped out of my seat so she could take it. No one protested this time. It was clear this woman was to be cared for.
She had wild eyes with an almost animal-like attentiveness to the world around her. In her expression I envisioned a deer with it’s ears and tail up- aware of things I couldn’t even sense. She wore a brightly colored, shin-length skirt that billowed out because of thick-fabric layers. The fabric was course, almost like tapestry and decorated with flower images of pink, red, and navy-blue. she wore a band of fabric around her chin that fastened an odd wollen bowl to the top of her head: a hat that served as a basket I guessed. Around her shoulders and back, a big piece of fabric was folded and tied into a sort of back satchel. I could only guess what was inside. Some women carried babies, baby sheep or llamas, or little food items intended for sale in these pouches. Our bus driver offered that she take some coca leaves and she took the little bunch from his fingers as though she was starving for it, stuffing it quickly into her cheeks and letting the juice drip down her lips like glossy oil. Everything about this woman seemed mysterious… she was not a woman dressed- up for tourists.
She wasn’t in our cabin long and she wasn’t ticketed. After just fifteen minutes or so, she hopped off the bus. I looked around but couldn’t see anything that might have drawn her there: no apparent destination save for a different piece of nowhere.
A little further down the road our bus driver stopped the bus to chat with and collect something from one of the little stone and mud-brick houses. Once he’d returned from the brief visit, he explained that this was his family.
The drive felt very long after this point. The drivers switched and the entertaining bus driver borrowed the french tourists place on the blanket to recline and fall asleep. As we reached more villages, the bus’s stops became more frequent, either to let people off or let vendors on and off. When at last we arrived in Cusco, the bus drivers gave us all hearty handshakes as if we’d all endured a great adventure together, and indeed it felt that way.