Sunday, September 13, 2009

On an "intrepid" traveler's fear of buses

In keeping with what Chris of the Art of Nonconformity was saying recently about fear and the role it plays in our lives, and how for so many people it's all about whether you let fear limit you, or become your challenge, I want to talk to you about a fear I'll bet you didn't know I had.

I'm afraid of getting lost in unknown places. Specifically, I'm afraid of getting on busses in cities I don't know, or even in parts of cities that I don't know. Subways are predictable, always following the indicated path, never veering off course, and seldom skipping stops. That's why I love them so much I wrote an article about them here.

So, back to the bus. The other night I was at a bar in La Reina, a very lovely semi suburban part of the city where I almost never go, and had a party to go to afterwards in Vitacura, an area I know because I have a couple of friends who live there, and also because the world's gentlest pediatric dentist works there and I am also terribly afraid of dentistry, which is a topic for a whole nother post or years of therapy.

But getting to La Reina (posh and suburban) to Vitacura (posh and somewhat more urban) required me to take a bus I didn't know, and truth be told, didn't have much faith in. I consulted the handy transantiagoinforma, crossed my fingers and went. Of course it all worked out, but not before I had time to clutch my new-to-me phone with GPS to look at the map of where we were as we moved (go blue dot, go!).

Which got me to thinking. Long ago, before transantiago (or as some still like to call it, transanfiasco) got underway, there used to be a bus that left from close to my house, whisked me up to a computer thingie store at Parque Arauco (very pleasant mall, as far as these things go, which also has a Boost, and their smoothies are truly delicious), and then bring me home again.

At some point, I had to go to the store, and it was a rainy, shiny, wet night, and I had some kind of a brain misfire, and forgot that in order to get home from the mall, I should not take the bus from the stop I got off at, but rather across the street. The sign on the bus on the same side of the street seemed to describe points downtown, so I muddled through the drippy evening onto one of the oldschool micros (buses). I submit the following:

The oldskool micro in Santiago

So I was kind of dozy and not really paying attention and with the grime of the city and the drips of the rain, it was hard to tell where we were going anyway. I noticed the number of people on the bus was dwindling, and that the traffic lights were growing more sparse, rather than more plentiful.

Hmmm, I thought. And I got the creepy feeling of rising levels of cortisol, and felt my mouth go dry and my stomach go all flippity.

I stayed on the bus, hoping to see either a covered paradero (bus stop) or some other landmark to let me know what to do: turn around, cross the street, etc.

Lanmarks started growing sparser and sparser, and houses bigger and bigger, until I realized I was somewhere high in the precordillera in La Dehesa, where I was sure that if I got off the bus at some random spot, I'd wake to a police officer shining a light in my frost-covered face, demanding to know what I was doing there. It was freezing cold up at altitude, and a place I clearly didn't belong. What if I got off the bus on a one-way street and was never able to find a descending bus? It was miles and miles back to the Santiago I knew.

At this point I decided to stay on the bus until the turnaround point. The busdriver eyed me curiously, but said nothing, until I was the only one on the bus, and he asked me if I knew where I was going.

Um, no. (clearly not). We settled that he would take me to the end of the line, and I'd take another bus back to town. He'd love to take me, but he was going on break, so I'd have to wait for one of his busdriving friends.

Here's where I got dropped off in a clearing in the woods, sounds muffled by a softly falling snow, and directed to a makeshift dirt-floored cabin, inside of which three micreros (bus drivers) were pouring hefty glogs of fanta into plastic cups balanced between their knees while toasting slices of bologna over a small indoor bonfire made of wooden pallets that gave off a tendrily black smoke, likely because they were damp, as were we all.

And you know what happened next? These men, who at the time were making less than minimum wage driving the busses, and knew from the soles of my shivering feet to the tippy top of my curly head that I didn't belong, in this country, in this city, on this bus, at this garita (bus turnaround hut)? They offered me a toasted bologna sandwich and a cup of Fanta while I waited.

I politely declined and waited for my gallant busdriver, the chatty, sweet, patient-with-new-Spanish sandwich toaster to give me a lift back to my world. He kept me up front with him on an odd cushioned platform, like a strangely manicured pet, as we careened out of the mountains and into the city below, finally passing the mall at the point where I should have gotten on the bus, just an hour or so later.

Of course I eventually got home, and I eventually warmed up. I'd like to say that I also eventually conquered my fear of busses, and of taking busses in unknown places. But the truth is, this whole story came storming back through my head like a cyclone when I was on that bus (the C07) from la Reina to Vitacura the other night and my mouth went dry and my stomach went flippity.

But fear is like a clingy, nay-saying friend. Always with you, always trying to prevent you from doing stuff, and wrong, a whole lot of the time.


Audrey said...

This reminds me of the anxiety of hopping on and off buses in Lima this past week. They rush up quickly, have a guy yelling a million miles a minute all the street names (that are completely foreign to us) and it feels like Russian roulette as to whether you actually get on the right one. Fortunately, we didn't experience too many disasters - just had to take a taxi rescue once. It definitely gets the blood pumping.

Margaret said...

Good one! I think most of us have had that "uh-oh, I0m at the end of the line" moment... (¿or no?)... mine was in San Bernardo... and when the surroundings became more and more rural instead of more and more urban, I knew I had made a mistake. As we pulled into the lot, the driver eyed me in his rear view mirror and asked, "so where did you THINK you were going?" (uh... downtown?)... No toasted bologna sandwich though! (no pampered cushy sit-here-my-pet ride home either!) It's all part of the adventure I guess!

Katie said...

I can understand where you're coming from. The seemingly haphazard and unpredictable nature of buses scares me too. I'm fine with taking the subway, but I don't like riding on the bus (unless I'm with someone else who knows where he or she is going!). At least the bus drivers were good to you. :)

Eileen said...

@Audrey (people, go check out her joint blog with her husband, it is so lovely it will make you weep giant tears), I can only imagine. I mean, I have a love-hate relationship with busses, transportation and being out of my element. I have had several bus misadventures that merit telling, including the one where I took a boat on the Rio Napo in Ecuador to a small town which turned out to not have any bus service. It was a long day that, one, oh yes it was. Chile will seem downright tame when you guys get here. I hope you're not bored!

@Margaret, I'm sorry you didn't get offered the hallulla and bologna sandwich, as I know we are all trying to increase our cholesterol consumption. Maybe next time. And why do these bus experiences tend to happen when we are alone, and often in the middle of the night!

@katie, Chileans are disgustingly nice to me most of the time. I'm quite sure Negochea doesn't have rapid transit, but once you know a town, the busses aren't quite so scary, I guess. I'll have to come see for myself sometime!

Fly Girl said...

That trip sounds like a nightmare to me and I don't have a fear of buses, although this post is making me reconsider. I got lost on a bus in the middle of London once. I ended up taking a black cab (expensive) back to my hotel but it was a jittery experience and I pride myself on being able to navigate transportation systems. Except NY was way overwhelming. Didn't you develop a bus system spidey sense in NY?

Julie said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and I <3 it!!! I want to sit here all day and read everything but I can't since I have to work and study. :-(

I totally agree with what you are saying about taking the bus. I just conquered my fear of travelling alone in a major foreign city, Madrid. I took the subway all over the city but I was not tempted at all to try the buses. That will have to be left for another city in another country, maybe. I just thank technology for googlemaps on my blackberry.
I can't wait to head down to South America.

Eileen said...

@flygirl, it's funny, I'm not afraid of long-distance busses, though I'm sure I should be, but busses into the outer parts of a city can freak me right out. I think my spideysense got lost with my sense of direction, and I actually do recall a concussion, in a bus shelter by the side of the road near Angel falls in Ecuador, another transit nightmare. Maybe blame that? I think my imagination is just too zippity.

@Julie, well, welcome right along! I spent some time in Madrid and I actually walked to my school (about 4 miles) every day because the metro seemed like too much of a hassle and it never even occurred to me to take the bus. During the day I don't mind at all, but at night, heebie? meet jeebie.

Looking forward to hearing more from all of you. Maybe we should talk about transportation nightmares? Might be a good group blog. Game? Lame? do tell. Also we have to do it before Richard of http::// (go! look! nifty!) starts his cape to cairo trip, because he will certainly win.

Sharon said...

That happened to me as well, only I ended up in La Pintana at 11:30 pm and no one came to my rescue. In fact, the bus drivers were pretty nasty :(

Katie said...

Mostly the fear kicks in when I'm trying to get around Buenos Aires (my preferred method of transport in that case is definitely the subway). Here in Necochea we have a bus system, but I have yet to utilize it. We have access to a car, plus I ride my bike or walk if my destination is close by.

I'd love to participate in a transportation group blog, but I don't think I have anything terribly witty or interesting to say on the matter. :(

Hawk said...

I feel exactly the same about buses - you explain it so well. Super post!

Chris Guillebeau said...

What a great post! Thanks so much for sharing the story. Next time I take the bus down south, I know who to take with me.

Emily said...

Finally getting around to commenting...I'm glad the bus drivers were so nice to you! I've never had a major bus issue in Santiago, but there was that one time I was sure I was going to die alone in Rio because I took a bus going the wrong way at 10:30pm. To this day I do not know why the bus that took me FROM Ipanema to the PanAmerican Games complex every single day without incident never seemed to come back the same way to take me TO Ipanema instead of out into the Brazilian night. But regardless of why, I stuck to taxis from then on.

Emily said...

PS. Meant to add that I fully support group blogging this one so that I can tell my Brazilian bus story in detail...details involve an entire bus staring at me as I loudly ask "perigosa?" over and over (who know I knew the Portuguese word for "dangerous" until then?!).