Bus Story #4 – An Incident with the Police

Craig and I boarded a bus on Wednesday, just a quick 2-hour ride from Nazca to our next destination, Ica, a sprawling desert town that reminds me of Southern California’s Inland Empire. Per usual, we “checked” our large backpacks under the bus, and brought our small Flash-18 backpacks with us. We’ve also become in the habit of taking our duffel, containing hiking boots and whatever foodstuffs we happen to have, on board the bus as well. This, we usually store above our seats in the open compartments lining the ceilings.

Only half-an-hour into our trip, the bus made a stop at a small road crossing, where several passengers disembarked. As I watched them struggle through the narrow bus aisle, the thought came to me that a tourism officer had told us to be careful of our belongings on that bus, especially with putting things above our seats, and that one of the disembarking passengers was carrying something under his jacket that looked remarkably similar in color to our duffel.

“Is our bag still up there?” I casually asked Craig, who was engrossed in the movie that was playing overhead. I never expected anything but an ordinary answer. After all, light grey is a common color for bags and jackets, etc.

“No!” he replied as he sprang up out of his seat and ran out of the bus. I watched him out the window as the usual throng of waiting vendors, always ready to board the bus and ply us with their wares, parted for him. Frightened out of my wits that the bus would leave without Craig or bag, I yelled, quite needlessly, “Espera! Espera!” and slapped my hand on the window.

But Craig returned to view, carrying our duffel, almost as soon as he had left. Later, he told me the thief gave up the duffel quite easily. As he was re-boarding, one of the vendors asked him, “Did that guy just rob you?” When Craig replied in the affirmative, the males among the vendors shot off, still holding the melon slices and nuts that made up their sales, after the perpetrator. The passengers of the bus who weren’t sleeping stood up in their seats to try and get a view of what was happening. Most were aware of the situation, since I had yelled out earlier, and Craig had explained the events to some other curious passengers.

As for myself, I simply sat and tried to wrap my head around what just happened. Did I just thwart a robbery? Was it very heedless of Craig to run after the thief, despite it being midday amid a crowd of people? Thank god we still had our boots! What a nightmare that would have been to replace them. My emotions ran the gamut, as it all had happened so fast and I’d hardly time to process it all, from shock to disbelief to relief.

Several minutes passed, during which the vendors, including the ones who had given chase, came onboard. Most passengers were too excited to even think about such prosaic things as snacks, however, and the vendors returned to the street quickly, ready to pounce on the next bus that stopped.

Eventually, a bus employee told us to disembark as well, since they wanted us to wait for the police and to give a statement. When we stepped off, we could see the thief across the street, flanked by two bus employees. Despite the inevitable time and trouble, we decided to go to the police, as our guidebook advises to do so in cases of theft, and we almost always do what our guidebook tells us to, it being the Holy Bible of our trip.

We endured a few awkward moments when the thief was brought over to sit right next to us.

“Excuse me, my friends, excuse me. I’m sorry, my friends,” he said in English, with an ingratiating smile. We noticed his nice clothes and fancy shoes and dismissed his pleas.

No queremos hablar contigo,” said Craig, not quite achieving disdain, as we were still in a bit of shock over the events. I managed to roll my eyes, just barely concealing the hysterical laugh that was threatening to overwhelm me. Since we had recovered the bag and escaped the tragedy that would have befallen us if we hadn’t, the whole situation had taken on a sheen of comedy. Life felt surreal and strange.

La Policia came quickly, driving what Craig and I recognized as a taxi. They bundled the thief off and we were to follow them in another taxi to the station. We climbed into an ancient and grimy station wagon, the plastic body cracked or peeling in most places. We rattled along with one of the bus employees (the other one having gone with the police) and another passenger who was sharing the ride, as all taxis are collective in Peru and most of South America. My scrambled state of mind became obvious then–I actually thought the other passenger might be the taxi driver’s invalid dad, who he was driving around since he couldn’t be left at home!

The ride was about 25 minutes long, and I admired the passing landscape, which included fertile fields and tawny, desert mountains rising in the background. A herd of goats had to be negotiated around, and any number of adobe structures dotted the road. All of a sudden, we heard a loud clang and our large, asthmatic taxi driver mumbled a string of curses. There followed an exceedingly quick tire change, the driver wheezing the whole time. A feeling began to creep over me, and would last throughout the entire ordeal, that we were being a huge nuisance. I wondered if any of the bus employees or police were wishing we had just let the thief get away–it would certainly have saved them a load of trouble!

When we arrived at the station, we sat for some minutes in a strained silence with two of the bus employees, while the police dealt with the thief. My guilt at dragging so many people into our mess, when we could easily have decided not to pursue the matter, weighed on me. Finally, I got up the courage to ask the employee closest to me, “How long have you worked for this bus company?”

“Six years,” he replied.

“And this situation…”

“It’s the first time,” he said, with a grin. There followed a nice, comfortable chat about Craig and my doings, our thoughts on Peru, his recommendations for anything to see… it was really quite congenial and removed most of my guilt. I think most Peruanos would prefer not to have thieves and criminals running rampant in their country and it seemed a duty to other travelers to give a statement. But eventually they had to get back to work, and the police didn’t need them any longer for questioning. Craig and I were left to ourselves in the empty office, for the next three hours. My nerves, already wearing thin, were tried by a seven-year-old boy named Fernando who persisted in staring at us, mostly hidden behind the doorway. Our attempts at drawing him into conversation were not successful, and we eventually let him be, but I wished he would go away. I felt out of my element enough without him reaffirming the fact that we didn’t belong there.

The police never asked us any questions except for our IDs, and we eventually found out that we would be taken back to Nazca, where there was a police station just for tourists to handle situations such as this. We were waiting for transportation, since the little rural station didn’t have any police cars (hence the taxis).

Finally, it was announced that a friend of one of the policeman’s had lent them a truck. We piled in with the thief, who began to talk loudly about people from the United States coming to take advantage of poor people in Peru, etc. etc. Really, his communist rant might have been convincing if he hadn’t been wearing nicer clothes and shoes than most other people I’ve seen. He had a down puff jacket, for goodness’ sake! Even I don’t have one of those! He then made a “phone call” to somebody and said, “Hello, honey? I’m not going to be able to come home for dinner… you’ll have to eat bread and water tonight.” Hah! Any last remnants of guilt were totally swept away by the actions of this shameless man.

At around 4:30pm, we arrived back in Nazca, more than five hours from when we left. Craig and I were by this time starving, so I ran across the street for some take-out. By the time we had scarfed down our food, the police officers were ready to take our statements.

I will say that my Spanish has improved markedly, but the way the police officer made me sound in my statement is beyond a level of sophistication that I could ever hope to achieve. In it, I have perfect grammar, if you ignore the fact that it was all written in one long, run-on sentence, and my vocabulary–well! Here’s an especially fun quote that I’m keen on: “Me encuentro realizando turismo por este hermoso pais acompañado de mi novio de nombre Craig y ingrese al Perú el 22 Abril…“, which is to say, “I find myself a tourist in this beautiful country, accompanied by my boyfriend of the name Craig, and entered Peru on the 22nd of April…”

Perhaps the police officer who took my statement had a hankering for becoming a writer! Craig did not have the same luck with his officer, and as a result, I sound much more learned than he does on paper!

I think police procedure is very similar in Perú to that in the States. Which is to say there is a lot of waiting, a lot of paperwork, some fingerprinting, and a lot of waiting. It wasn’t until 8:00pm that we finally were asked to point out the thief in a line-up–yet another surreal experience. After that, we were “free to go”, as they say, and we dragged our weary bones back to the bus station to attempt once more the road to Ica.

Things are probably not quite so disorganized back home, but I will say that our experience, though long and tiring, was one that did Perú credit. I never felt disrespected, and everybody treated us with kindness and courtesy. They seemed to desire justice just as much as we did, and nobody, except for the thief, ever tried to make us feel that we were only some rich tourists throwing our weight around for the fun of it (in our book, spending 9 hours in a police station is not really fun). In fact, the jefe of the station even told us that the minimum sentence for petty theft without violence was 1-3 years! Although he did amend this by adding that the thief would most likely be put on parole quickly. I’ve never been responsible for anybody going to jail (that I know of), and this just gives me one more strange emotion to tack onto all the others that have arisen.

We are in Huaccachina now, a tiny pueblo springing out of the desert around a tiny lake that is no longer natural due to the demands of tourism. It reminds me a lot of Disneyland since it’s essentially a manmade oasis surrounded by curving sand dunes, and lots of tourists flock to it for its unnatural splendor. At any rate, it’s a nice, quiet place that allows for a lot of contemplation of everything that’s happened.

I’m so glad we still have our hiking boots… and I feel comfortably sure that this makes up for losing our tent poles. But oh, what a horrible, funny, strange experience to add to our repertoire!

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Bus Story #3

This is the car our bus rear-ended on our way to Arica. Apparently, we’re having amazing luck on our bus rides lately!

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I also forgot to say that I lost the hat I knitted for this trip during that same bus ride on which I lost the tent poles. Le sigh…

Bus Story #2

I’ll be honest–buses here are probably loads better than Greyhound in the States. Not that I’ve ever ridden a Greyhound and can actually comment on them confidently, but just the name Greyhound evokes long, dirty bus rides through endless deserts with only criminals and hooligans as your fellow passengers. This is probably totally wrong, but I’ve never ridden Greyhound, Craig’s never ridden Greyhound, and nobody I know has ever ridden Greyhound. I think that, and the fact that it’s the only widely known long-distance bus company throughout the country, illustrates why I have the opinion I do.

Now, check out this sleek example of modernity and comfort:

Oh yeah, totally badass.

Buses down in South America are usually like the photo above and have more leg room and seats that recline back way more than airplane seats. They will almost always give you one snack per every 6 hours, their bathrooms are no worse than airplane bathrooms, and they also play movies (invariably starring one of these three actors: Vin Diesel, the Rock, and Sylvester Stallone).

In short, I like riding the buses down here. Now, this is why our 18-hour bus ride from La Serena to Iquique was not indicative of typical South American bus travel…

Our bus was supposed to leave at 7:35pm, but it arrived 10 minutes late at La Serena station. As we lined up to put our luggage into the cargo bay, we were told that the bus was broken and we would have to wait for another one to arrive. This next bus didn’t come for one hour, but since they couldn’t give us an exact time, we had to just sit and wait outside in the cold.

Finally, we get on the bus and get going. I enjoy a showing of dubbed “We Bought a Zoo”. Scarlett Johansson in Spanish is kinda funny (but still extremely attractive). At around 3:00 in the morning, the bus stops on the side of the road. It is the middle of nowhere and pitch black. We wait… and wait… Nobody was sure what was going on, but it’s South America, the middle of the night, and most everybody is sleeping. At 4:00am, we are suddenly told that we need to change buses (this is why we were stopped for so long) because the second bus that was supposed to replace the first broken bus, ALSO broke. We stumble around to our new seats on this third bus, bleary-eyed and exhausted. The bus driver and attendant move our backpacks from one cargo bay to another for us.

Third bus’ speedometer warning (they all beep loudly when exceeding 100km/hr) was either broken or circumvented, because at one point we passed a checkpoint and I saw we were going 107. This gave both Craig and I some serious carsickness.

Finally we get to in Iquique 3 hours later than the time we were supposed to arrive, having subsisted on the free snacks of crackers, wafer cookies, and juice. Craig and I were feeling way too sick to try and eat our warm and soggy sandwiches. When we get off the bus and get our backpacks, I notice that our tent poles, that survived 10 weeks strapped to the outside of my pack, have vanished (along with a pair of socks). Bus company attendant is rude and unhelpful when we point this out to him.

We trudge into the bus station to talk to somebody at the ticket window, but she is also unhelpful. “I’m just the ticket office person, I can’t help you.” Well, what, are we supposed to just personally inspect every single one of your buses?! Can’t you just CALL somebody?? No, no… apparently WE have to do the calling, even though they don’t give us a number or any advice on how to go about it.

And so, the morals of the story are:

  1. Don’t ride on any buses that are associated with Pullman Bus, especially Atacama VIP.
  2. Pay the extra $6 per fare to get on a slightly better bus company.
  3. Make sure you check your luggage when others are moving your backpacks for you, especially when you’re half-asleep and you’re in the middle of nowhere.
  4. Don’t strap anything important to the outside of your pack (doh!).

The upside to all of this is that it makes the decision of whether or not to keep lugging our tent around totally irrelevant. There is still the tiniest, remotest possibility that we’ll recover the poles, but I think the chances of that happening are very small. Considering how unhelpful the people we’ve encountered so far were, I can’t imagine anybody mustering up any energy on our behalf in trying to find our lost poles.

There are lots more bus rides in our future, so hopefully this will go down as our worst experience… I hear some gnarly things about buses in Bolivia, though, so we shall see…!

Bus Story #1

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This is a random picture of the hostel cat in Bariloche. She had nothing to do with what this post is about, but she was sooooo cute!!

Craig forgot to mention that when we went up to Cerro Otto, we lost our bus passes but didn’t realize it until we got on the bus back into town after our hike.

We stood there awkwardly as the bus continued on its route, patting and searching all of our pockets in a panic. We hadn’t brought any money with us, since we heard there was a possibility of punk kids lying in wait to rob hikers on the empty trail (that’s why we’re carrying big sticks in the pictures).

“I think we lost our passes,” said Craig to the driver.

“Ask one of the other passengers for the fare,” he replied.

Errr! Even though it was only 9 pesos, barely more than $1 US, I had my doubts about this suggestion. In Seattle, there are two outcomes if you get on the bus and can’t pay: 1) The driver kicks you off and 2) the driver is nice and just lets it slide. I suppose there is the possibility of a third option–another passenger paying for you, but this is totally far-fetched in my mind. You also can’t actually pay for more than one person’s fare with our metro system’s bus card. The whole system is not built for that kind of generosity.

But within seconds of Craig looking around at the crowded bus, a woman pulled her card out and offered it to us. Remarkable.