These days it’s not really worth taking a night bus if it can be avoided. True, you don’t need to pay for a room for that night, but you also miss out on all the scenery, and unless you are a local or suffer from narcolepsy, probably won’t sleep more than a few hours, and will arrive at your destination a wretched wreck. That was certainly the case when I traveled from Bogota to Cartagena.
It was pouring rain when I arrived at the station and I got wet just dashing from the terminal to the bus. Then a woman in front of me leaned both seats all the way back to make a bed for her children, and another mother sat down beside me with a new infant on her lap. I was boxed in. We’d just left the station when I felt something hitting me in the side and saw that the baby, with a full head of black hair, was kicking me. This went on for a while and seemed very purposeful. Every time the mother looked down the baby would stop. When she looked away, it would start kicking again.
After a few hours we stopped at a restaurant and at that point the mother took her baby and moved to a seat in the back. Only a few minutes later, however, a teenager approached me and took the open seat. I’d heard him and his buddies horsing around since we left Medellin, and couldn’t understand why he was coming to me now. As soon as the bus started moving, he went limp and collapsed into me, his bristly hair poking through my shirt. I tried to use my shoulder to jar him awake, but it was like he’d been drugged.
Sometime around dawn, I collapsed as well, and now couldn’t stay awake, even though I was missing everything that passed outside the window; the green grasslands, the brahman cows, the blue mountains in the distance. At one point I went to rearrange myself and noticed that the teenager was gone. It was too late to get comfortable. My tailbone, which had recently been diagnosed as fractured, was on fire.
I’d just slipped into a coma once again when the bus stopped and some policemen got on, searching for drugs – marijuana and heroin – as they announced. There was nothing in my backpack but broken dreams, but I was still anxious. After we got back on the road, I was overwhelmed by dread, with no idea where my next paycheck would come from. I’d gotten some unemployment during the pandemic, but hadn’t worked going on four years now. In the past I’d always been able to find the right job, right in the nick of time. Now I’d only gotten a few interview requests, for jobs I was unsure I was capable of faking the enthusiasm for.
The bus station in Cartagena turned out to be miles away from the city center. Stepping off the bus, the heat and humidity were overpowering. I needed to find an ATM machine before I could do anything, as I didn’t have enough pesos to even pay for a taxi. A driver tried to intercept me before I was ready to speak to him. When I’d found a machine and gotten some money he reappeared, his smile winning me over even though his ride looked less than official. He knew the area where I was staying. The traffic was terrible. He tried every shortcut he could think of, probably putting on more miles going sideways than he did going forward.
When we got to the hostel, I thought he must’ve decided to drop by his house. We were in the middle of a ghetto, with nothing resembling a hostel anywhere on the block. No, the driver insisted. This was it. He pointed to a blue and white chapel with a gate around it. It used to be a monastery. Now it was a hostel. He shouted though the gate and a few men came out to observe me. They didn’t look like travelers. It appeared I’d booked a room at a mission. All the other guests were rootless locals, charity cases.
They finally tracked down the manager, who came out tattooed and surly. I was praying he’d misplaced my reservation. No. He tracked it down. I’d made it for a week.
Is that right? A week? I think it was just two nights. I don’t remember.
No, my friend. Right here. It says seven nights.
What could I do then but step up and pay the man?