Friday, April 13, 2012

A fine line between cautious and boring

My partner and I have heard all the cautions about not taking buses like the one we took today, and we take them seriously. But if you’ve travelled much, you know how it can be sometimes. Just because you know you shouldn't doesn't mean you won't. 
Honduras has a reputation for bus robberies in areas close to the big cities. The bus stops, a bad man with a gun gets on, and suddenly everybody’s getting robbed. Or a gang sets up a roadblock and demands that everybody on the bus pay a “war tax” before the bus can pass through.
It was one such robbery that prompted the Peace Corps to pull all 158 of its volunteers out of the country late last year. One of their volunteers accidentally got shot in the leg when a passenger on the bus she was on started shooting it out with a robber who had boarded the bus.
Those kinds of stories have given rise to bus companies like Hedman Alas, which for $17 a person will take you from Copan Ruinas to San Pedro Sula in a big, comfy high-end bus with an armed guard on board and no stops anywhere along the route. Free pop and a bag of chips, too.
I like a safe, comfortable bus ride as much as the next person, so that was the bus we took today to San Pedro Sula. But we’d also planned to spend the weekend at  Lake Yojoa en route to Tegucigalpa, our ultimate destination. Lake Yojoa is about midway between the two cities, but Hedman Alas doesn’t stop. And that’s how we ended up on the El Mochito bus, two aging gringos looking hopelessly out of place, shoving big backpacks into overhead bins that weren’t built for backpacks and stretching our feet into the aisle to give aching knees a break from leg room suited to people at least six inches shorter.
We’ve ridden a lot of those kinds of buses in Mexico, and I’ve always liked them. The guy who drives the bus is usually the owner, so the dashboard and windshield is typically decorated with various figurines, stickers, prayers and memorabilia of significance to the driver. And there’s always some young kid standing in the door well, whose job it is to hustle up and down the aisle collecting fares and also to get you and your luggage on and off the bus as quickly as possible so the driver can cram more pickups into the day.
The windows have to be open because there’s no air-conditioning, which suits me just fine. And there’s always something going on to take your mind off the long trip: people getting on and off with bulky packages; children dripping their ice-cream cones on your foot; vendors riding for a stop or two in hopes of selling you whatever food or drink they’ve got going on. (Today it was horchatas – sweetened soy milk served in little bags with straws – and big cookies sprinkled with a burnt sugar-cinnamon topping.)
Another big upside to this kind of bus is that it’s really cheap. While the Hedman Alas ride cost us $17 each for a three-hour trip, we were on the El Mochito for almost as long and paid $2.
But of course, there are stops galore, each one an opportunity for armed robbery or some other malfeasance. On the outskirts of San Pedro in particular – it is, after all, the murder capital of the world – I felt a small clutch of anxiety whenever the bus was approaching a young man in the middle of the road waving his arms around, at least until we got close enough to see that it was just somebody selling slushy drinks, a bag of oranges, tortillas.
Happily, we arrived quite safely in Lake Yojoa. And I was reminded again of how very hard it is to find the balance between caution and denying yourself interesting experiences while travelling. Bad things can happen, but mostly they don’t.

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