Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In which I make a severe miscalculation about my bladder capacity on the Bus to Cartagena (OK, not Cartagena but still to a place in Latin America)

Have I told you guys about the time I made the Mexican bus driver stop so I could run into the bushes and pee?

No. I haven't. Because I try not to tell the same story twice here.

And yes I know this is a pee story and some of you don't like that sort of thing but everyone pees. Everyone wants to know how the astronauts pee. The first exhibit I wanted to see when Primo and I went to the space museum in Huntsville was the one explaining how the astronauts did what had to be done when they were in space.

My mother doesn't like it when I blog about the toilets in foreign countries, but once you've exchanged a 1000-lira Turkish note for a piece of toilet paper about the same size as the note, which makes the thinking person wonder, Why not just eliminate the middleman and use the currency for toilet paper? and then managed the fine art of balancing just right over the hole in the ground (hint: butt should be lower than the knees), you are over your squeamishness. Now you just want to know what toilets are like all over.

After my stint in the Peace Corps, I was living in Austin, unsuccessfully looking for a job because apparently, employers thought Peace Corps = "Teva-wearing, dope-smoking, unbathed, kumbayah-singing hippie."

Which is definitely not me. Oh sure sometimes I don't shower every day, but that's because 1. I am lazy 2. my husband is stuck with me because he would be too mortified to go through a second divorce and 3. the air here is super dry in the winter. But I wear cute shoes. I might not shower every day, but I draw the line somewhere. I wouldn't be caught dead in Tevas or Crocs.

I was in Austin. Looking for a job. Couldn't find one. What a better time than when one is unemployed to hop on the bus to Laredo, then walk across the border and get a bus to Guanajuato? Great idea, huh? That's what I thought.

Buses in Mexico are easy. Mexico has good roads and the tourist-class buses are comfortable and have toilets in the back. I am not crazy about the practice of forcing passengers to watch whichever movie the driver feels like popping into the video machine, but earplugs can block a lot of car chases and gunfights.

On a 13-hour bus ride from northern Chile to Santiago, I was forced to watch Ghost, which led me to the very bad decision of getting my hair cut like Demi Moore's.

I look nothing like Demi Moore. I do not have her fragile beauty and her thick, dark, lustrous hair.

I am a sturdy gal whose ancestors gave me the gifts of a strong body that could give birth in a potato field, then keep harvesting once the baby was tied to my back. I have fine, flyaway hair that when it is not covered with Clairol #24 Clove is at best a mousy drab, only now it is graying mousy drab.

The Demi Moore haircut? Did not work on me.

Bus movies = evil.

Back to Mexico.

After I had wandered through Guanajuato's cobbled, colonial streets lined with thick walls broken by heavy oak doors and gone to the mummy museum where the disinterred, mummified corpses of those whose families couldn't keep paying the cemetery taxes are displayed, I got bored and decided I needed to go to Dolores, the small town whence El Grito de Dolores, the start of the Mexican War of Independence.

I walked to the bus station and got my ticket but still had 30 minutes to wait. I decided that Staying Hydrated (remember - this is the town where corpses mummify instead of decomposing) was important, so I bought a two-liter bottle of water.

And proceeded to drink most of it.

Before I got onto the bus.

Which, much to my surprise, did not have a toilet.

I was an old pro at Latin America bus travel, having just spent ten weeks returning from Chile, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer, back to the US over land.

I took a bus from Salta, Argentina, to Asuncion, Paraguay. The ticketseller in Salta told me the ride was 12 hours and that the bus was air conditioned and had a toilet.


The bus was not air conditioned. That would not have mattered so much if we had been going over 15 miles an hour and had generated a breeze, but it is hard to go fast when you are on a road that is mostly sand. We stopped for a break and I asked the driver to turn on the A/C.

He shrugged. "No A/C," he told me.

"But it says on the ticket! It says right here!" I demanded shrilly as I showed him my ticket, which did indeed say there was A/C, A/C that I had paid extra for as a rival bus company had cheaper tickets on non-air conditioned buses.

He shrugged again, drew on his cigarette and turned away from me. He didn't care. I could ride. I could not ride. All the same to him.

In a way, the lack of air conditioning was not so bad, because the heat that caused me to sweat out all my fluids so that the lack of a working toilet ceased to be a problem. The gap-toothed, sweating man sitting next to me who sucked down beer after beer never seemed to need a toilet, either.

Perhaps the high point of that trip was when the man behind me threw up in his seat and the driver refused to clean it up. It wasn't his vomit, the driver said.

When Lars, the Danish nurse who was sitting next to vomiting man and with whom I had bonded over our mutual discomfort in the northern Argentina heat and our mutual hatred of the noisy four year old sitting in front of me, asked the driver again to clean it up, the driver pointed out that the vomit was not actually in Lars' seat so what was the problem?

In Bolivia, the buses didn't have toilets at all, but we made frequent rest stops that really weren't for passenger convenience. They were beer breaks for the driver. My friend Kelly and I, on an earlier trip, took the bus from La Paz back to Chile. Only half an hour into the trip, the driver pulled the bus over at a cafe. "Twenty minutes!" he yelled over his shoulder as he got off the bus.

Kelly and I went inside the cafe to wait. Twenty minutes passed. Then thirty. Forty. We were looking for the driver. "Is that him?" she asked. "The guy over there? With the empty beer bottles in front of him?"

Yes, it was. Our driver. On his third beer. Ready to drive 11 hours on unpaved roads to the Chilean border.

On my overnight ride to Cochabamba (overnight is the only way to travel in Bolivia because you really don't want to see how narrow and twisting those unpaved mountain roads are), we stopped at a solitary cafe' on the altiplano. No toilets.

"Out back," a man told me when I asked.

I looked behind the cafe. I saw the mountains, looking flat in the moonlight. Small round shadows on the plains drifted and floated toward the mountain and away from it. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that the shadows were Aymara women, squatting in their full skirts and petticoats. Squatting, standing, and leaving little dark circles in the dirt.

What was I supposed to do with my used toilet paper?

Air conditioning, indeed.

The next cafe' did have a bathroom. The toilets had no seats, which was common in South America, which makes me wonder if the toilets were sold without seats or if there is a strong secondary market in toilet seats down there and if so, what are those seats used for because it's certainly not toilets. There were showers but no bulbs in the light fixtures. The illumination came from candles stuck in sand contained in cut-off two-liter soda bottles.

I was used to traveling on Latin American buses.

But I hadn't planned appropriately for a Mexican local bus.

Two liters of water? In a half an hour? Before a bus ride?

Ten minutes into the ride, I thought, "Hmm. I could pee were the opportunity to present itself."

Twenty minutes into the ride, I thought, "I need to go now."

I looked at the back of the bus, seeking the toilet because of course there would be a toilet because how else would people pee?

No toilet.

No toilet and the road was getting bumpy.

Thirty minutes into the ride, it started to hurt.

I went to the front of the bus and politely asked the driver how far we had to go.

He waved his hand and said casually, "Not far! Not far!"

I smiled tightly and returned to my seat. I knew what the Latin American, "Not far!" meant. It is a synonym of "Four more blocks," which in Chile, was the substitute phrase used to mean, "I have no idea where this place is you seek but I am afraid if I admit such to you, I will seem either rude or stupid or both, so instead, I will lie to you and then we'll all be happy."

I tried to wait. I tried to think of anything but peeing.

When that didn't work, I started looking around for a bucket or an empty 64-oz Slurpee cup or anything that could capture and contain liquid.


I asked the driver again. "How much longer?"

Again, he waved his hand. "Not far. Not far."

I waited. I waited.

It's only 57 km from Guanajuato to Dolores, but in Latin America, you don't convert the kilometers to miles and estimate your time based on 55 miles per hour. Otherwise, you get too depressed. Instead, you just look at the number and ignore the units. That is, think of 57 kilometers as just 57. That's an hour. At least. Throw in the rest stop the driver makes a few minutes into the trip because you know he's tired and you're at an hour and 15 minutes.

A few minutes is a very long time when your bladder is about to explode. You realize that Einstein was right when he talked about that time stuff and how a minute with a pretty girl is not the same as a minute on a hot stove. Something like that. I just had to pee.

Finally, I couldn't take it any longer. I returned to the front of the bus and hissed at the driver, "If I can't pee right now, I am going to die."

Proper Mexican women do not talk like that.

Heck, proper American women do not talk like that.

His head swiveled, his jaw dropped, and he stared at me. There must have been some fierce determination in my face or perhaps desperation that made him take pity on me.

"OK," he said. "OK." He gently pressed the brakes. Stopped the bus. Opened the door.

I ran. There was a line of bushes about ten yards from the road. I scooted behind them, pulled down my pants, and squatted. As the pain left my body and well-being flooded me (honestly, that feeling of getting to pee when you have needed to pee for so long is almost better than [wxyz]), I glanced up and over the bushes to the bus. Every window had at least two faces pressed to it. As I pulled up my pants, walked back to the bus and returned to my seat, they all stared at me without saying a word.

"Thank you so much," I told the driver, my chin high. I felt great. I would not be daunted.

I would also not drink two liters of water just before getting on a bus again. There is only so much kindness you can expect from strangers.