In the Time of COVID. Day 33
April 20, 2020
The Burning Bus in Paradise
In 1975 I rode the The Jungle Train. It was an 8 hour trip by narrow gauge from San Jose to Puerto Limon, in Costa Rica. The landscape of waterfalls, precarious iron bridges over gaping gorges, and intense jungle vegetation, was mesmerizing. We skirted sheer cliffs as we dropped down into what seemed an oceanic green canopy. Off too the east , lay the Caribbean Sea. The writer Paul Theroux sang this train’s praises in The Old Patagonian Express, published in 1979. The 7.7 earthquake of 1991 destroyed the rail route and flattened Puerto Limon.
In 1997, I returned, this time with April and our son, Myles. We bought bus tickets at Gran Terminal del Caribe ( not so grand) and departed San Jose for a trip out of the highlands, descending too Limon.
Several surf bums watched their boards being loaded, and did what young people do, they piled on the bus, took up the back area and talked loudly and happily. They had sun bleached hair and deep suntans. Their destination was Puerto Viejo and the best east coast surf breaks in the country.
The rest of the passengers were a mix of tourists like us, local residents returning to the coast, a few nuns, and some hung over merchant seamen from a cargo ship down in Limon. They were returning from blow-out shore leave in the capital. They sunk down in their seats to weather their headaches and shut their eyes.There were other folks that looked vaguely North American or European and a guy dressed in that ubiquitous missionary-uniform, a white jacket, with prominent crucifix, one sees all over the 3rd world. He clutched a massive black bible like it was a hammer or an axe. He read it , rocking incessantly.
Off we went down the beat-up highway. It was paved but pot holes pocked the tarmac and slowed our progress. Semi rigs lurched by us every chance they had to pass. The cliffs were still sheer but the allure of the train was just a memory. This was a daily run, crowded with people, steam covered the inside windows. The escape hatches in the ceiling were open and as tropical rain came and went, waterfalls cascaded from each opening and swamped the floor.
We settled in and we talked about going to Tortuguero to see the leatherback tortoises, and then down to Cahuita south of Limon were I’d spent Samana Santa those years ago.
Eventually we started to reach the low lands where banana plantations stretched for miles.
A Gal across the isle joined our chat. She was in her 40’s, dressed like a Nebraska Sunday school teacher. Hair up in a bun, peter-pan collar on a small print dress that came below the knees. She wore no makeup. She was skinny as a rail and had really weird pointed white plastic shoes and a cardigan sweater. Everyone else wore sandals or flip flops. She was not dressed for the jungle.
She said, years before, she’d spent two years in the Peace Corps living in an indigenous Bribri settlement. The Bribri are matriarchal and she said she felt most complete there. She was returning to teach in the little school she had started years before.
The rain came again and the roof gushed down on us all. Suddenly the missionary stood in the isle. He opened that bible, pointed a damning finger he shouted “Salvation!” Just then, a screech and whop whop whop came from under the bus. A rear tire ceased up and the bus started rattling and quivering.
the driver wrestled the bus to a flat area, half way off the road. We started piling off, tractor trailers blasted their horns, and fire was flying out from under the motor compartment. The bus had caught on some wire, dropped from a flatbed. It wrapped around the rear axle. We thought the bus would explode.
When April stepped to the ground , right where she stood in the grass , there was a red strawberry Poison Dart Frog, she screeched. Myles and I went back on the bus, grabbed our bags and then someone opened the luggage stows under the bus. I grabbed our suitcases and the three of us walked east about 50 yards away from the inferno. I was afraid a semi would slam into the bus, making matters a whole lot worse. The others just stood around helpless. The driver shook his head , over and over.
I stuck my thumb out, and an old minivan stopped. Two middle aged women had just gotten off work at a banana plantation. April and Myles and I jumped in out of the rain. They were headed home to Limon. Nice gals, wanted to practice their English. The next 40 miles was a blast, though the front end of the van was out of alignment and shimmied the whole way. Those pot holes are a killer.