Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Atheists Pray

The jungle in Gucamayas, a little
slice of heaven before the combi ride from hell.
A combi in Mexico is a van, usually a Toyota van, stripped on the inside with bench seats installed along each wall, behind the driver's seat, and across the back. Packed they can hold upwards of 20 people, with many standing and holding onto bars installed across the ceiling.

I've had some amazing and frightening combi rides. One in particular was along Lake Patzcuaro when the van was packed so solidly that if it rolled, probably everyone would have remained in the same place when it righted itself. Fortunately, even though the driver was going too fast, on a rainy night with all kinds of livestock looming out of the darkness, we didn't have an accident.

Combies stop and go all the time. Anyone can flag down a combi and unless no one else can be squeezed in, the driver will stop and let more people get on. Combi drivers have a reputation for crazy fast driving around turns, passing other cars on blind curves, for sliding over the yellow line into the oncoming lane and all kinds of driving misbehaviors, yet, miraculously, you almost never hear of a combi flying off a cliff and killing everyone. Sometimes they go off the road and people get hurt, but more often than not, the drivers are just careful enough.

Combis that go between towns are usually newer and have seats like a van or school bus. The more expensive the ticket, the more comfortable the seat. Sometimes a combi is owned by the driver who pays a commission to the company he drives for (I say "he" because I have never seen a woman driver....). Sometimes they are paid only a percentage of the take for the day, another reason to pack-out the little bus.

And once in a while a driver is so bad you know your time on earth is limited, so bad an atheist would pray.

Such was the wild ride from Las Guacamayas through the mountains to Comitán.

I had a clue. I could have gone with my gut and not gotten on in the first place, but combies go to Las Guacamayas only when they are called, it's not a regular stop, and I'd been waiting for two hours. The driver was young, probably not yet 25 years old. The van was old, rusty in spots, the back tires bald, and the interior had a foul odor. I knew from experience the odor was the least of my worries.

Clue number two was the windshield. There was a big crack running across it. The top 1/3 of the windshield was covered with some kind of sun shade material to block all light The bottom 1/3 had an opaque layer of white with writing on it, something about trusting God. And directly in front of the driver, just above the steering wheel and directly in his line of vision was his radio with a springy cord holding the mic. And to block his vision even further, he had danglies hanging down that swayed back and forth as he zoomed around corners.  I'd guess he had maybe 20 percent of the normal visual range.

THEN, he had a radio blasting scratchy Mexican folk music full volume so he couldn't possibly be further distracted from the job of driving a van full of trusting passengers. Oh but I was wrong. He could be further distracted. Not ten miles into the trip we picked up a pretty girl who sat in the front seat next to him, and his driving took an immediate turn for the worse, the showing-off and driving fast to impress a girl kind of worse.

I sat in the far back, my arm out the open window, hanging onto the ladder used to put stuff on the roof. I was thrown back and forth across the bumpy seat until I thought my arm might come out of its socket. The window was a slider and it occurred to me that should we go over the edge, the window might just slice my arm off below the elbow. Of course, I might also be dead so it wouldn't matter too much.

They say travel changes you. I thought it had changed me. Long ago I took the attitude that there is only so much I can do to keep safe, the rest is fate.  But in that combi, I was back peddling like a reformed druggie at a Rolling Stones convention.

I was scared. I wasn't at all serene about the idea of a violent end. I wanted OUT. But there was no getting out. We were flying through curves on mountainous roads in the middle of nowhere, in the jungles of Chiapas, zipping past guys on horseback, for Pete's sake. What would I do, alone on that road with my backpack? Could it possibly be any more unsafe?

Ultimately we made it out of the mountains and down into a valley to a small town called Maravillas Tenejapa. I told the driver I was sick, which wasn't the whole truth, but not a lie either. He offered to let me sit behind him. I said no, I wanted out. On solid ground I found a restroom and a nice lady who was selling tortas under a porch. Together we waited in the cool shade for another combi.

This combi also had a cracked windshield with only one dangly, a cross with Jesus on it. The driver was an older man and the tires had tread. He drove fast too, but somehow it was different.

There comes a time when you have to do something, anything, to change your own fear even if you can't really change anything else.