It’s the final day of my 72-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Lima, and the seats around me have turned into a strip mall, my fellow passengers into skeptical (but willing) customers.
It all started at the border crossing from Chile into Peru. As soon as we got through customs and back on the bus, the driver stopped to pick up two large, sweaty men wearing elaborate hats who were shouting ‘iPhone! Nokia! Camcorder!’ as they hopped on board.
Since their arrival, they’ve made like magicians, gleefully pulling infinite quantities of shoddily-constructed imitation electronics from their bags, pushing them into the faces of each passenger in turn before moving deeper toward the back of the bus. At the back door, they turn around and repeat their cycle as if they were approaching a completely new batch of fresh, rich, interested customers.
Shoot me now.
I have to admit, what passes for an iPhone down here is kind of fascinating (like a train wreck or a particularly ugly pug). Turning the device over in my hands I can see that it’s about twice as thick and a little bit shorter than a legitimate iPhone, and some of the icons are the same (though most are just words explaining what the button does, or rough images of god-knows-what thrown together in Paintbrush).
What’s really wild is that the bottom opens up to reveal an antenna which can be pulled out, allowing the owner to watch fútbol on their very own portable TV.
This is the future, folks. Steve Jobs, please take note.
A few hours later, the electronics salesmen are let off on the side of the road and a young man with a duffelbag full of plastic-wrapped Nike trainers comes aboard and starts handing out shoes to anyone who will take them. It’s explained to me by a fellow passenger that he’s doing this so that when we encounter police, they won’t know all the shoes belong to him and he won’t be arrested for smuggling.
After Mr. Nike hops off at one of the many tiny towns in the Peruvian desert that leads to Lima, a couple of old ladies climb aboard and start selling Inka Cola, water, breads, and alfajores (it should be noted that unlike Argentine alfajores, which are small treats consisting of two cookies with dulce de leche in between, covered in chocolate, these Peruvian versions are essentially big, sweet tortillas with dulce de leche holding them together; they didn’t look appetizing at all). The ladies walk up and down the aisle, smiling their toothless smiles and calling me rubio (‘blondie’).
The final night is torturous.
Not only am I not feeling very well, but the bus is speeding along at an impressive clip up a large mountain.
The road is a serpentine obstacle course, with periodic boulders blocking the path, requiring the bus to squeeze between it and the cliff face. Looking out the window I can see all the way down the mountain, my view unobstructed by anything so bourgeois as barricades or fences. One wrong move, one accidental flick of the driver’s wrist or popped tire, and there’s nothing between us and a long, slow fall.
It doesn’t help that it’s nearly pitch black outside and the only thing lighting up the night is the sparse cross-traffic and tiny lights of distant towns.
It’s about 4 am, I’m 7 hours from Lima on a freezing cold night in the mountains, and I’m fairly certain I’m going to plunge to my death before I get there.
I hope somebody bought one of those ‘iPhones’ so the survivors can call for help when we reach the bottom.
And until they arrive, we can watch fútbol.
Update: November 26, 2016
A funny thing happens when you’ve been traveling long enough: you come to have so many little stories and memorable moments, that they start to blend together. They don’t disappear, and all the details are still there, in your brain, provided you stopped to note them in the first place. But there are seldom easily identified ‘worst moments’ or ‘most uncomfortable moments’ or even ‘best moments,’ because the moments are so diverse and widespread that it would be difficult to directly compare them.
Revisiting this moment in time, I realize that, when I experience it, I was probably more uncomfortable than I’d ever been in my entire life. This says something about the immense privilege I’ve had, but also something about my priorities and what I value. This was not the last multi-day bus ride I took, and it didn’t even remain the most uncomfortable. But even knowing what I was in for, I continued taking such buses because of what they could offer me: unique experiences with people and in places I wouldn’t see, taking a more well-paved path.
The knowledge acquired on this trip, of what’s available out there beyond the services easily purchased online and the people who have Twitter accounts, immensely informed the decisions I made moving forward.