The alarm for our bus stirs us at 4:15am, earlier than our earliest riding days. It doesn't matter what time you go to bed, 4:15 hurts. But to get out of these mountains, past the equatorial heat of the lowlands, 4:15 doesn't seem so bad. Our destination, Trujillo, is only 8 degrees of latitude south of the equator but the cold waters of the Humboldt current cool the climate a surprising amount. The Darien Gap sits at 8 degrees North, a sweltering hotbox that we'd no longer even consider trying to be active in. But the highs in Trujillo have been in the high 70's, low 80's, temperatures that are (hopefully) manageable. The mountains of northern Peru are too much - too big, too frequent, too steep, for us to cover any distance. So we must descend to the coast and Trujillo, making the bus a necessary evil.
We're packed and to the station by 6:30, soon rolling into the loading bays outside. There's already a few dozen people people waiting for buses, and they watch us roll in with the singular attention to which we've grown wearily accustomed. People stare, they stare hard, and we unload our bikes like we always do. Our bus is already there, and the driver's assistant is throwing bags into the undercarriage luggage bays. I roll up and tell him we're on his bus and we have bikes to load. He looks over at Kelly amid our pile of gear and spews a torrent of rage at me that is unintelligible at this hour of the morning. Yes, I say, the bikes will fit, where should we put them?
He shakes his head and storms into the station. Soon a man in a white polo strolls up and puts his hands in his pockets. These bikes are very big, he says.
Yes, but the wheels come off my bike, and the trailer comes off hers. They'll fit.
He nods and shrugs, to acknowledge that sure, they'll fit, and then dismiss that fact as unimportant. 30 dollars, he says.
$30? That's too much. The tickets were only $24!
He shakes his head. No, $30. Down here bus drivers operate their buses like their personal fiefdoms and this particular route is only serviced by one bus company. He has us over a barrel and he knows it.
We don't even have $30, we only have $25!
He remains unconcerned.
Kelly pulls my wallet out of her CamelBak pocket, her cheeks flushing in anger. Opening it up, we do have $30, not a coin more. She pulls out the last of our cash and hands it over. He slides it in his pocket, nods, and motions towards a bay on the waiting bus.
For $30, you help. Kelly says. She's working herself into a boiling rage. Kelly has a finely tuned sense of right and wrong and this interaction has put her over the top. The driver was too pompous in his skeeziness, too obviously fucking us over just because we're white foreigners (and therefore could obviously afford the bribe amount) and because we have no other option to get where he's going. I just want us and our gear to make it to Peru. She smirks in his face as he struggles to manage her bike and loaded trailer. Yes, it's heavy. She says.
She's in his ear the whole time they work to load our gear: $30 is a a lot of money. How many beers can you buy for $30?
No, only food.
I bet you buy more than food. Does this make you happy? Do you feel good about yourself? Will the beer make you feel good?
No beer, I only buy food!
No beer? Maybe you need to buy women then. How many women can you have with $30? Will the women make you happy? Maybe if you buy beer and women you'll feel good.
No! I'm a good man.
Kelly is unconcerned.
He tries to direct the loading of the bus, but Kelly's onto him like a pitbull on a chew toy: No, for $30 we put the bike where I want to put it. For $30, I say where this goes.
After a few minutes of this he cracks, throws his hands up, and has to walk away. Those who line their pockets of the vulnerability of others want the process to proceed like it's a normal thing, they aren't used to having it shoved back in their faces.
When the bikes are loaded, Kelly piggybacks me up onto the bus and the driver settles into the cab, lined with mother Mary and Jesus pictures, a rosary hanging above the steering wheel. I just hope they don't leave us when we have to get off the bus for border formalities. The only other people on the bus are three civilians (two guys and a girl) and seven nuns. The nuns are young, barely into their 20's, which seems both odd and sad, like baby-faced soldiers. We depart to the hominal singing of their habited cohorts, who have lined up to see them off.
I fight motion sickness for the first hour or more, as the bus winds and dips along the mountain roads. For hours we tangle through this knot of mountains, the landscape gradually drying out as we descend. Locals get on and off at squalid clusters of brick buildings. It's getting hot, both inside the bus and out. There's no air, and we can't get a window open. Outside people lounge, sweating under tin roofs, and lay in hammocks beneath the speckled shade of fruit trees. I don't feel guilty for riding the bus anymore. Having done it, and knowing that I simply can't handle the physiological stress provides a measure of peace.
The border is a muddy river with temporary shacks on either side. Kelly gets off with my passport, apparently they don't need to see me in person. On the other side of the road a man in military uniform sits beneath a plastic tent watching cars pass his checkpoint. After 10 minutes or so he gets up and waves down a car, which speeds by without a hint of acknowledgement. When the next one approaches he moves an orange traffic cone into the lane.
The poverty in the northern Peruvian hinterlands is numbing (or is it the heat?). Buildings are crumbling, whether made of mud or concrete, surrounded by dusty paths and trash. Everywhere trash, piled high or wind strewn to lay a tin and plastic sheet over the land. Goats roam near most houses, probably the only domesticated animals that can thrive in this scrubby wasteland. There are a few cows, whose ribs chafe at their skin. The sad, dirty reality of global inequality passes for hours on end. The hills get smaller and 7 or more hours in the land flattens out, soon we're zooming past the artificial green of irrigated agriculture. Near the coast, civilization creeps in, gas stations and Peruvian chain businesses. We pass five or more "Dino's" in an hour, it's some sort of concrete and construction supply and they must be doing well. There is always construction, rarely finished, whether by happenstance or design - rebar soars from concrete foundations, waiting the day that additional floors can be afforded. There's something both maddening and strangely ambitious about this.
The driver's assistant walks through the aisle offering to change dollars to soles. He doesn't ask us. It's miserably hot and I pass the time by rationing squirts of waters over my face and shifting uncomfortably in my seat. By the time we finally reach Piura, a little after 4pm, I'm cooked and have to will myself to function. We load our bikes and roll to the the next door station, which operates buses to Trujillo. The next bus is at 10:30pm. We buy tickets and the excess baggage charge for our bikes is negotiated up front by a smiley, reasonable youth. We have no problem paying a little extra to load our bikes, they are huge, so long as the fee isn't arbitrarily imposed based on how much one entitled scumbag thinks we can afford. Here, the days shifters are friendly and joke with me about smuggling their colleagues away to America.
We settle down for our 5 hour wait, though I'm too hot to do anything but dab myself with a wet rag and watch the station pulse. Around 6 the place fills up for a 7pm departure to the mountains. Some walk in with loads of saran wrapped cargo, others with only a purse. It's a packed house, with all eyes glued to some talent show on the television. So far there's a much wider variety of appearances than Ecuador, from pale olive skin with mile-high legs, to squat frames with cocoa skin and everything in between. Just after the 7pm bus leaves a (probably unlicensed) taxi/clown car and a rough and tumble family (mother and 5 youths, probably not all blood-related) squeeze out with a pile of luggage packed to the roof. I'm guessing they just missed their bus and they spend the next hour or more causing a ruckus between themselves, the ticket lady, security guard, and a random fat man who yells at everyone with a spittley fury, who appears to run the place like an iron sheik, though it's unclear what he actually does or whether anyone actually listens to him. More or less the drama plays out like this:
Fat man looks at family's tickets, yells at them. Family takes tickets to ticket lady and pleads with her. Ticket lady spend 20 minutes appearing to work on something. Security guard conferences with family. Mom returns to reason with ticket lady. Son yells at ticket lady. Fat man returns to yell at family. Son yells at fat man. Fat man yells at son. Son has no recourse but violence, and the fat man is much bigger than him. He walks away in frustrated rage of wounded machismo. Young daughter puts face through window to stare, forlorn, at ticket lady. Ticket lady appears to find some solution, shows mom. Mom looks pleased. Fat man returns to yell at ticket lady. Mom pleads with ticket lady. Fat man yells at snack shop waitress (unrelated). Fat man yells at ticket lady (again). Mom, dejected, walks outside to rejoin 2 children who've been watching luggage. Family waits another 30 minutes, then packs into a taxi and leaves. I wish I could hear everything that was being said, but it's probably more interesting that I couldn't.
At 10pm Kelly and the baggage guy get our bikes loaded onto the bus with no issues. When they're done the fat man comes up to us and looks down with a scowl. You paid very little to transport those bikes, he says.
I know, I say.
Yes, not much, Kelly says.
He stares at us. We stare back. He turns, shuffles to a moto-taxi, and disappears.
At 10:30 Kelly piggybacks me onto the bus then run out to tip the baggage kid for being a normal human being. The bus is a double-decker and we're on the plush bottom level. The seats are huge and cushy and recline well past 45 degrees. The air-conditioning works. We're both dozing before we hit the open road. Kelly gets solid chunks of sleep, and I'm out straight through to Trujillo. We arrive, clattering along ruined pavement at 5:30am, to a dark, open-air garage. We load our bikes, set our lights to blinking, and ride into the still, moonless night. We find a gas station at the first big intersection, buy water, drink coffee, and wait for the sun to rise. It's cool in the early morning and I'm buzzing to be in a new place. The road is flat and we move with speed towards the beach.