© Copyright 2002 by Katherine Jamieson
This is a piece about traveling in Guyana, South America, where I lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in the late nineties.
Minibuses are speeding yellow, green and red missiles with chrome hubcaps that provide the only affordable long-distance travel in Guyana. They are emblazoned with silhouettes of naked women or perverse Calvin and Hobbes decals, christened names like “Georgetown Massive” or “Magga Man,” and piloted by 20-year olds with gold teeth. This is public transportation.
In a country where having a pair of jeans is a luxury, owning a minibus shows that you have arrived. A culture has grown up around these vehicles which only started running here ten years ago. At the school where I taught, there were stories about minibus drivers extorting sexual favors from school girls who couldn’t afford rides. I told my students not to worry about having a “front-seat face,” being pretty enough to be asked to sit next to the driver. They laughed at me and shook their heads as if to say, “Miss, ya don’t know.”
These buses are a toss-up to fate, roulette on wheels. My first few months in Guyana every time I boarded one I said the Lord’s Prayer or some other fearful plaint to God to please spare me again, just this one time more. Sometimes I fantasized that, because of our head-long speed, crashing in a minibus would be more like being vaporized, and perishing would be sudden and painless. With older Guyanese I discussed the merits of sitting in the seat directly behind the driver, because, in theory, when he swerved to preserve his existence the impact would come on the other side of the vehicle. I also weighed the pros and cons of riding in “corkballs,” older dingy white buses, with dented bumpers, peeling stickers, and a tinny radio wailing Indian movie music. Some of them did drive slower than the “boom-boom” buses, but I imagined them crumpling like a piece of wadded, metal Kleenex in an accident. One of my friends had ridden in a corkball and realized halfway through the trip that the bus never stopped fully to let passengers out. When he inquired about it, the driver confirmed that there were, in fact, no brakes.
Often I really had no choice about which bus I ended up on-- fate played a leading role in most of my trips. The car park, where minibuses waited for passengers, swarmed with touts who called out their destinations in an infinite, rhythmic chant: “Berbeece! Berbeece! Berbeece!” or “Pareeka! Pareeka! Pareeka!” As I stepped over piles of chicken bones and mango peels, weaving through children selling sticks of gum, touts would glimpse my white face and start shepherding me toward their vehicle. “Hey white gyal, nice bus, shiny bus! Come sit front seat, whitee!” Three or four would approach as I stood, watching from behind my sunglasses, coolly assessing the limited safety features of each vehicle. The simple need for relief from the sunlight and the men in my face usually got to me quickly, and I would make a swift and often random decision, simultaneously beginning my mental prayers.
The lucky tout would hustle me on board, taking my money as I lifted my leg high to embark, then crouched down to ease my body in to the low-ceilinged space. I would assess the condition of the interior of the bus, searching for any mysterious cracks or rusted areas in the frame, but I rarely changed my mind after the initial selection. The die was cast. Settling into my seat, the vinyl rose up to meet my skin where it would stick for the next three hours. The inside of the bus was completely different from the turmoil of the car park. Passengers sat placidly in the cool, dim interior, resigned to wait sometimes hours until there was the full load necessary to begin the journey. Children quieted. No one spoke.
When the tout had squeezed as many passengers as possible into the bus, and often one more, he would slide the door shut and yell, “Mash!” to the driver, an abbreviated command for “Mash ya foot on de pedal, and go!” How a driver left the car park was a good indication of what was in store for the trip. If he swerved out into the road in front of a donkey cart, wrenching the bus around so that my stomach lurched, I knew that it was going to be a long afternoon. For these situations, a Guyanese friend and I developed a simple protective shield, our own minibus amulet. We crossed our fingers, on both hands, for good luck and so that we could continue to live, or believe we would live, against the odds. Sometimes I would keep my fingers crossed for the entire trip, unwinding them three hours later stiff, but still attached to my hands.
After stopping to fill up on gas and buy bread for any passengers who needed it, we’d move on to the highways. The dub music would begin then— a deep thumping sound that filled the bus, blasting into your ears at an unlikely high decibel. The vehicle and all the passengers seem to conduct the vibration as one, like metal conducts heat. It was unbearable until the sound passed from your ears to your body to your blood and then the music was in your bones, and then it was your thoughts and you had never known anything different.
Out of the city, flat green land spread out in all directions, sugarcane fields and rice paddies backed by a line of palm trees in the distance. For a time, the Atlantic Ocean was visible, its waters muddied by the great Orinoco River which feeds the interior of Guyana. We passed dilapidated rum shops and throngs of people in the markets buying large jungle fruits, live parrots, dried fish, cow’s face. I watched the small children playing near to the road, and shut my eyes, willing them to move back. If it was harvest time, there would be rice on the road, drying in great piles against the hot concrete. Sometimes I saw the sun set from the tinted window, a glowing ball dulled by the plastic overlay. If I opened it a crack to see the real colors burning up the sky, the dust flew in and the wind was strong. When I closed it again I could hear the breeze whistling against the side of the bus and I felt, strangely, at peace.
For the truth is that most people do not give up their lives to the minibus gods. I took hundreds of minibus rides, blazing down highways, swerving around corners, missing livestock, people, and trucks by inches, yet missing every time. I was always safe, though I never knew it until I was on the other side of the journey. A friend who was unlucky enough to be in a bus that did hit a cow said that the experience was not altogether unpleasant. At first the passengers were a bit shaken, but they promptly exited the vehicle and began to butcher the dead animal which, because it had not been corralled properly, was now the property of the driver. Everyone went home with a good bit of fresh meat, and their bodies intact.
These minibus trips were how I learned Guyana, how I saw much of the land and began to understand some of the people’s ways. It is an equatorial country of harsh elements and, given my tendency toward heat exhaustion and severe sunburns, one of the better ways for me to see it was from a window. I never felt so connected to the Guyanese people as on these trips. There was a sense of oneness in the minibus that was taken for granted, independent of race, gender or age. The landscape, the ancient rhythms in the music, the smell of powder and sweat and curry all blended and became a part of me, as I became a part of it. The passengers, the driver, the crazy, vibrant vehicle we inhabited for this short time melded into one: one trajectory, one sound, one smell, one person. We were all in this together, living in Guyana with places to go. If we were to die I knew it would be one death. These trips should have been intolerable, but they became my education and my escape. The part I remember best of all was getting home safely.
I am a poet
and creative nonfiction writer and my work has been published by Tucumcari
Literary Review, Lynx Eye and Poetry Motel, as well as the online Moxie
magazine and the Peace Corps Readers and Writers website. In 2000, my essay
"Telling Time" won the Peace Corps Experience Award for the best one-page
essay on being a volunteer. In March 2003 my story "One More Story to Tell"
will be published in a Lonely Planet anthology, "Rite of Passage: Backpacking
'Round Europe." I work as a Holistic Health Counselor and yoga teacher
in New York City and I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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Another story by Katherine--Throw Away Baby