A bus is the ideal captive audience for your average Latin musician, storyteller or charlatan.
In Latin America the bus is king, holding the place occupied by the automobile in North America or the train in Europe. More than the dominant form of transport, it’s a locus of culture and social interaction. In Peru, Ecuador or Colombia, the bus terminal is airport, train station and truck stop rolled into one – a place where all the world eventually passes through.
And if you travel by bus in these countries, you are bound to encounter the bus busker. Perhaps not on the modern long-distance buses which roar smoothly between the capital cities, but certainly anytime you travel a slightly shorter distance or opt for a lower fare class.
These are the buses of smoky exhausts, narrow aisles, worn seats, and dirty curtains. The ones with a musty atmosphere redolent of dust and unwashed alpaca wool, where passengers optimistically try to shove huge bundles into the overhead racks, children are perched uncomfortably on their mother’s knee, and the conductor makes a last-minute dash into the terminal to try to round up a few more passengers.
The scenario soon becomes familiar. Within half an hour of entering or leaving a major town, a passenger near the front slowly gets out of their seat, clears their throat, and turns to face down the aisle.
“Ok, I know what you’re all going to say,” they start. “Well of course I’d be happy to get a job – if I could…”
Then follows the story of sorrow, unemployment and hardship, and the trip down the aisle to dole out a trinket or a couple of sweets, with the request that passengers offer “a small collaboration”.
At first, your western sense of propriety is outraged. After all, this is the bus. You’re already tired out by the unrelenting intensity of Latin American life, where it seems there’s always someone wanting to beg, sell, scam or steal. You paid for your ticket. You’ve endured the cramped seats, the jarring potholes, the screaming babies, the raucous Jean Claude van Damme video with the fuzzy picture. Now there’s somebody hassling you for money again. Dammit, why doesn’t the conductor make them stop bothering the passengers?
And the person requesting charity is normally not the poorest of the poor. If you were going to give money, why should it be to them? But a different logic prevails in this part of the world. While you fume, the other passengers listen politely, and often hand over a couple of coins they can probably barely spare themselves. The Christian edict of ask, and you shall receive seems to operate.
After a while, you learn to expect and tolerate this routine. And as you begin to discern the differences in approach, you realise that these people are not really begging, but busking. In lands where life is an ongoing drama, it’s all about the performance.
The bus busker must at very least command the stage and project their personality. At best, he can provide an entertaining distraction from the journey’s discomforts. I well remember a crammed night bus between Quito and Cuenca in Ecuador, where a man with only flimsy trinkets to offer warmed up a cold and bedraggled crowd with a series of lame-but-funny jokes. My favourite was a groanworthy pun on the identical first-person singular form of the verbs vender (to sell) and vendar (to bandage or blindfold).
‘If I have 100 turkeys and I vendo (sell) one, how many do I have?’ asked the bus busker. There were several cries of 99!, but the bus busker shook his head. ‘No!’ he answered triumphantly. ‘If I have 100 turkeys and I vendo one, I still have 100 turkeys – one of them vendado (blindfolded).’
Sometimes the busker is actually a street hawker with an adventurous sales strategy, and may have something of real value. On a minibus coming through the sugar cane fields outside Cali, still shaking from the driver’s Michael Schumacher impressions through the tight mountain bends of Colombia’s southwestern cordillera, I was persuaded to buy a wide-buckled belt of handsome Colombian leather.
The young guy with the bag of leather goods pointed out a slim zip pouch on the belt’s underside. ‘This is where you can hide your money, for when they try and rob you in Cali,’ he grinned.
Other times, it’s the person themselves that turns out to be an unexpected treasure. Heading through the outskirts of Lima to begin the climb into the Andes, a young man got on who was peddling little booklets on healthy nutrition.
For twenty minutes, this bus busker maintained a passionate soliloquy on the tragic decline in national dietary standards. He launched a tirade against saturated fat. He lamented sadly the neglect in the nation’s kitchens for the great indigenous vegetables and historic whole grains of Peru. He reached a crescendo of stinging criticism for the burgeoning consumption of fizzy soda. He strode down the aisle to where a young mother was cradling a half-drunken bottle of sickly-sweet Kola Real, and held the bottle aloft. ‘SeÃ±ora! Stop poisoning your child! Throw this out the window!’ he ordered.
He followed up with advice on nutritional approaches that could help alleviate overtiredness, erectile dysfunction, and the female menopause. His health science was sound; his explanations clear; his recipes promising.
He stumbled off in the dark at the next stop having sold a couple of booklets and collected a few coins. Had he been born in a different country, he could have got a job with an international NGO and attended conferences in Geneva.
Then there was the volunteer from the local self-defence force who hopped on the bus at dawn in the leafy jungle area of Tingo Maria, a stronghold of the Shining Path during their terrorist insurgency, and to this day a notorious route for drug traffickers from the coca fields in the Huallaga Valley. He was red-eyed and unshaven, trailing an automatic weapon behind him like a neglected shovel.
‘There’s still a lot of delinquency in this area,’ he told the passengers. ‘We have to work hard to patrol the area and make sure you people can travel through safely. We’d really appreciate any donations.’
It was a brainwave of now-disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori to promote the establishment of these community defence militias during the early 1990s, when rural villages were caught between the terror of the Shining Path and the brutality of the Peruvian army. It’s not something you’ll find in the UN peacekeepers manual, but it worked.
Tourists normally go to museums to learn about history. I handed over a couple of coins in appreciation for a more direct insight into the region’s troubles.
But the bus busker I remember best was a stout man who hauled himself awkwardly out of his seat as a bus I was on left the city of Arequipa. ‘I’m not much for talking,’ he said. ‘What I do is sing. You people know the drill.’
He then belted out a melodious a capella version of the mariachi favourite Volver, Volver, Volver – a song about the yearning to return to a foolishly abandoned lover. It was sunset. I was heading out of town on my way to fly out of Peru, leaving behind people I’d grown to love, and a country I’d almost started to understand.
The bus windows shook with the tenor’s vibrato, the tune rich with nostalgic melancholy. When the singer finished his performance and shuffled hopefully along the aisle, I made sure I offered a generous collaboration.