Any bus ride you take in Puerto Vallarta is a sightseeing tour. It won’t be the kind of tour that tourists from the States get after being sales-talked into a timeshare presentation with free city-excursion hook. It won’t be the kind of tour that expatriates take when they venture away from their air-conditioned seaside condos. It’ll be the kind of tour that,….
Getting to “Centro” one morning for a Spanish class is easy. We know all buses go to Centro, and we’ve seen a bus come by on our street every 15 minutes, so we walk across the street and catch the first one that arrives. Easy, we say to each other. But after class, it’s not so easy. We walk back to where we got off the bus, cross the street to catch it going in the other direction and then wait for lots longer than 15 minutes. There are buses, but they are going to Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Sheraton, Tepic or Tunel, and though there are lots of numbers we see no No. 3. So we walk here and there, and we see some more buses here and there, but no No. 3. After too many blocks here and even more blocks there, we come across one of the people who stands at a bus stop doing something or other with buses and bookkeeping. In language that would undoubtedly make our new Spanish teacher cringe, we ask about “numero tres.” The man says “Lopez” and points at his feet, then north. So, we wait where we are.
There’s a bus with a Lopez sign. Okay. We get on and sit in one of the front seats. Thank goodness there is a front seat left. Seats in the back of these buses bounce up and down four inches every time there’s a pothole.
Right away, we notice we’re the only foreign-looking people on the bus. Everybody else is brown skinned and more polite than Americans would be in such a crowded condition. Incomprehensible staccato Spanish is loud enough to be heard over the incredible racket that one of the oldest buses in Puerto Vallarta is making over the cobblestones. Then a four-note troubadour starts up, even louder. I can’t imagine how the baby across the aisle in his mother’s arms continues to sleep through all this din.
We try to see out the bus windows past a large woman in hotel uniform, a teenager with an entire tray of pastries and a man with an axe under his belt. As the ride continues, every time someone gets off the bus, someone else gets on, so it doesn’t get any easier to tell where we are. Really, one little grocery shop and a couple of houses with a laundromat on one corner look pretty much the same as another little grocery store, a couple of houses and a laundromat on another corner. Aren’t we on a different route than when we came into Centro? I think so. Maurice agrees. Oh dear! Well, we say, the bus has got to wind up on our street at some point.
I think I see our street sign,… or did I? I can’t be sure. I tug on Maurice, but he’s sure that we’re not anywhere near our apartment.
The scenery is changing. We are now on dirt roads instead of cobblestones, meandering right, up a small hill, down into a large pothole, then up again and left and another pothole. We see a drab school with a concrete basketball court, one backboard with a metal hoop but no netting at one end, only the backboard at the other end. We see a partially complete concrete structure of some sort, clusters of two-room houses with window sills but no windows, a man standing in his yard taking a shower with a hose, a woman with her arms in suds doing her wash outside in a tub. Chickens here and there. A dumb rooster crows at fading daylight, and we realize there are no streetlights. Oh, wow! There’s an ox standing by the road. We’re in the boondocks. Where are we?
“We’re in Lopez,” we say to each other. We’re in the country. We’re in the real Mexico.
People are now getting off the bus and nobody is getting on. This goes on for 20 minutes until we two are the only riders. We’re feeling a little nervous. The bus driver stops at a remote outpost probably known by the Lopezians as the corner store and picks up what I swear is a dead ringer for Chuckee, from those horror movies.
So now it’s Maurice and me and the bus driver and Chuckee, who seizes a broom from the front of the bus and advances toward us,… then past us to go to work in the back of the bus. The air is soon thick with even more dust than has already blown into the windows. Dust coats everything that can be seen inside and outside the bus in the little light that’s left.
Chuckee finishes bashing the broom around just as the bus driver pulls over and stops. The driver turns toward us with a gesture that says “Where are you going?”
Maurice tries to say something simple that might be understood: “You stop in front of my casa. But you didn’t.”
The driver responds, “Where casa?”
Maurice does his usual “hero dee patri,” which isn’t going to translate to la calle Heroes de la Patria or anything understandable, much less get us anywhere. And we do need to get somewhere. Chuckee is now looking as though his head will at any moment turn around 180 degrees three times. “Get off the bus!” he shouts.
Maurice tries to ask the driver if the bus is going to return to Puerto Vallarta, but he can hardly make himself heard over this kid who really does need an exorcism, and right now. The driver does hear what Maurice is asking, though, and tells us he will not be going back.
What are we supposed to do? Walk back? It’s miles.
The driver turns away from us and just sits there wearily shaking his head. In a moment, though, he seems to rally. Maybe it’s kindness, a trait we’ve encountered almost everywhere in this country. Or maybe he’s just embarrassed by Chuckee, the most hostile person we’ve ever met. Whatever it is, he starts his bus up again, drives back along the road a few blocks and points. We realize there’s another bus parked by the side of the road in the dark. Our driver calls to its driver, we don’t understand what, while Chuckee waves his substitute chainsaw at us and shouts again, “Get off the bus.”
We get off the bus. Boy, do we get off the bus! And we get on the other one, which, thank goodness, takes us back to lights and safety and drops us off right in front of our house.
So now we know where Lopez is. We’ll probably never go back.