A Nighttime Travel

Colombians like to travel at night. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because they can sleep. They have such a beautiful country it is a shame to travel at night: it isn’t like endless miles of North Dakota, an experience I’ve had and am not particularly keen to repeat.

I don’t know how they sleep, though. There’s always something on: music, movies, something. All the buses have screens and play movies—and you can guess which side of the illegal/legal border they’re from. What was unusual about our bus was that when they played an R-rated movie, some of the people shouted protests at points (pigs! filth!). To no avail, of course, but at least some kind of complaint was registered. (I’ve seen Fireproof two times in Colombian buses. It seems one must either have the one or the other, Fireproof or the R-rated, which is why I have stopped complaining about the R-rated.) When the movie is gone, they’ll put on music and after that probably another movie.

It may be that Colombians travel at night because they only have to see one movie: I don’t know since I’ve only traveled once at night. They ran the movie once, it jammed, they tried it another time and it went. I must say that it was kind of appropriate that they played that movie at night since it was set in the 70′s, the decade of nightmares. When it was done they quit and it was vallenatos after that, all the way till 3 AM in the glorious bus terminal of Neiva.

But perhaps the clinching reason for traveling at night is that it goes by quickly once you fall asleep. That, for me, was almost worth missing the landscape. How we managed to fall asleep is perhaps the mystery in all this.

B Bus Terminal Culture

As you can surmise from the whole movie situation, the Colombian bus system seems to be run by evangelicals and lewd fellows of the baser sort. The terminals reflect this sinister blend, and they fascinate me, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. The quiddity of a terminal is smarm, or perhaps a smarmy hustling: sweating, fat men counting bills with strange intensity under a light besieged by insects. A lot of unregulated dealing goes on in the terminal, and there is a sort of symbolism of this kind of dealing in the shops and restaurants you find there. These places regularly serve bus drivers, bus hawkers (I’d call them conductors, but then you would get wrong ideas about solicitude. Example: our ‘conductor’ scrutinized every bill he received with undisguised suspicion, scowling. Of course, the passengers started it by cheerfully shouting for the air to be turned on—no air on this one—for the movie to start, for a discount, for refreshments—ha!), and the nameless scum who perpetrate the religious movie . . . and the lewd. So these places have something of the same grease and diesel fume residue, of the unbuttoned shirt, of ties and short sleeves, of the fixed stare of avarice.

The Colombian passenger is equal to all these hazards and is seldom bested. I don’t know which came first: the customer or the service, but they correspond like an empanada and aji (chips and salsa, for the couch potato crowd). The crowds move restlessly in the terminal, vainly seeking tickets at the ticket counter, successfully finding tickets in the narrow passages that connect the general ticket purchasing area to the general waiting area—vague designations for places of ambiguous purpose and dubious use. In these passages promises are made, haggles are waged, deals are accomplished, and a seat is secured.

3 AM in Neiva. Restaurants open, sulky, hot weather, quarreling bus drivers blocking the way, mephitic restrooms that will set you back 900 COPs, and the always cheerful passengers complaining, wheedling, feigning outrage with grins, knowing that in the end they’ll feel like they’ve won, that whatever the system takes out of them, it is a triumphant system because however they do, they will arrive.

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