he men swaggered onto the bus, guns slung over their shoulders with menacing nonchalance. Dressed in black despite the roasting desert sun, they obviously meant business.
"All the men off the bus," came the order. My heart dropped--what was going on?
A boulder of a man in a tight black t-shirt glared at me from behind mirrored sunglasses, demanding to see my ID. I tried my best to look unassuming. To my relief, an American passport seemed to put me in the "of no interest" category, scarcely meriting a cursory glance before he waved me impatiently back on the bus.
"What are they checking for?" I asked the women while the intimidation crew continued their work. "Drogas," came the reply. Drugs.
The Mexican governmentís on-again off-again battle against drugs was reaching a fevered pitch, and this stretch along the western coast was prime drug running country. This roadblock was an everyday occurance for these long distance commuters in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, but to me it was an adrenaline inducing eye-opener. And a fascinating window on the lives of the locals.
Call me a glutton for punishment, but I love bus travel. I know, I know, itís not the most comfortable mode of transportation. Nor the fastest, and certainly not the most luxurious. And short of a hijacking, itís a good bet those who travel only by air will never experience strange men with guns coming on board and demanding to see ID. On the surface of it, itís hard to explain my love affair with busses.
Theyíre slow, uncomfortable, and inconvenient, and the list of downsides doesnít stop there. But one thing they do offer is an incredible insight and perspective on life at the heart of oneís destination.
Picture a bus rolling through the arid terrain between Mexico City and Oaxaca. The dusty landscape rolls past, a study in shades of brown. Whisps of volcanic steam escape Popocatepetl in the distance. Farmers in the field scratch out a living from the unforgiving soil. A goatherdís white cowboy hat glows in the brilliant sun as a burro-drawn cart plods lazily by, kicking up tufts of dust. Your eyes trip on a sudden burst of well-watered green, while nearby a man works, sunk to his knees in the muddy, curving ruts of a newly irrigated field. Small roadside shrines, too-often seen reminders of journeys cut short, hug the roadside as the unmistakeable silhouette of yet another Spanish mission church stands guard in the distance
Now picture the same trip by air. Looking down from your window seat, you see the land is flat and brown. Occasionally, the anonymous grey grid of a non-descript small town breaks the monotony. Later, you admire the beauty of the patterns made by the mountain ridges. Your trip is fast, but itís missing a glimpse into the soul of the country.
Some of the most telling views of a destination are often invisible without a little exploration outside the comfort zone. The local way of life isnít always comfortable and convenient, and sometimes the only way to go beyond a picture postcard understanding is to dive in and get your hands dirty.
Picture a hapless gringo on a second class bus limping its way over the mountains between Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca city. The bus is packed far beyond capacity with Zapotec indian passengers making their way over the mountains. Many are standing. The cool mountain air refuses to be lured in through the open windows, leaving the bus steamy and hot, and the only bathroom available is the one provided by nature off the side of the road. The gringo, soaked in sweat, is miserable and in a sour mood. His plane to Oaxaca city from the coast was cancelled, and this humid rolling inferno was his only option. The other passengers, the ones who do this on a regular basisómany of whom have been standing for hoursóscarcely seem to notice any discomfort. They chat and laugh, or just stare off into space, shuffling occasionally toward the back of the bus to make room for another passenger who has just flagged the bus down like a taxi.
Much to my chagrin at the time, I was that gringo. I hated that trip, each and every minute it, but in hindsight it was an amazing experience. I gained insights on the people of the region, on how much effort even simple things like getting from point A to point B can take, and on how easy my life was compared to theirs. I came away with a deeper understanding of the local life than I could ever have gotten observing from afar. That bus trip would not have been my first choice, but I came away richer for it.
I once met a German traveler who claimed that he could slip into a meditative state which had literally made a 15 hour bus trip in India seem like the blink of an eye. At the time, I envied him the ability. But in retrospect, it makes me wonder. What did he miss? What memories, what faces, what sights and smells? What treasures did he pass by as he rolled along, blissfully unaware?
For those intent on hitting the beach, planting their feet firmly in the sand, and maintaining a weeklong vigil with pina coladas and sunscreen, perhaps bus travel isnít the way to go. But if your focus is on experience and insights, on gaining a meaty, in your face perspective on your destination, the bus offers an unbeatable opportunity.
So hop on the bus and go...itís worth the trip.