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Sunday, 31 May 2009

Solo Bus Adventures: Atacama to Salta

Written by Kara Carlson
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Solo Bus Adventures: Atacama to Salta, travel chile, travel argentina


I had been traveling alone through South America for three weeks when I awoke the morning of my 20-hour bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, to Salta, Argentina, with a throbbing headache and transported myself to the bus stop more slowly than my brain deciphers long division.

I toiled to board the bus and descended in to my seat, my head stationary against the hard cushions. I closed my eyes. Before I could sigh, the woman in the seat next to me leaned forward and introduced herself to me as ‘Nellie.’ I slit one eye open, savoring the one shut eye’s exhilaration. Nellie’s thirty-four-year-old (I know this because she later showed me her passport) face, clad in glasses and a schoolgirl smile, was five inches from mine. I reluctantly lugged my other eye open, smiled, and introduced myself.

We exchanged pleasantries, and then the questioning commenced with the rapidity of a stereotypical California teenage girl’s idioms. After covering where I was from (San Francisco), how old I was, whether I had a husband, how many children I had, how many siblings I had, their names, ages, and what they did for a living, why I no longer lived with my parents, and what my full name was, the following questions ensued:

“What you doing?” she asked me.

“Oh, I’m just traveling.”

“No, what, what you do-ing? What you do?”

“Oh, I guess I’m technically in real estate,” I said with a smile. I closed my eyes.

“What real estate?” she inquired.

I explained real estate, informed her that I was very sorry, but felt like I was dying because I was so tired, and relinquished my eyes to their natural and satisfied state: closed. Had I felt like a normal human being, I might have been physically capable of participating in conversation. Today, I felt as alive as a flamingo without legs or wings. After my dying statement, Nellie subsequently sang ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, the alphabet, and some clapping song that I vaguely recollected from my distant childhood. I couldn’t wholly recall the song because with each crashing clap my brain threatened to collapse.

“I a English teacher in Peru. I teach English!” she explained with continued applause. How anyone who couldn’t construct a simple sentence properly was an English teacher made as much sense to me as OJ Simpson being declared “Not guilty.” However, I do not judge, I just question. By this time my Spanish knowledge had swelled to three sentences and 23 words. I wasn’t attempting to teach Spanish, of course. But I do live in California, with a more populous Latin contingent than Caucasian. Thus, one would think I would have picked up on a few words in my life.



Nellie demanded I teach her a song, and then interrupted her own explanation of desiring to teach it to her class by telling me she had friends all over the world. I endeavored to appeal to my brain for a song but the best I could engineer was the alphabet, which she clearly already knew. With all this thinking, my cranium threatened to detonate and I could sense the commencement of a coma. She misinterpreted my sunken head in hands as encouragement, conjured photos of her and her class like Merlin the wizard, and then sang Madonna’s Material Girl. “I love Madonna!” Nellie exclaimed excitedly. I handed her my iPod, scrolled to Madonna, and pressed play. Nellie persisted singing, but as she was not directly addressing me, I felt at ease to attempt sleep and bowed back my head (i.e. anvil).

Madonna songs only survived for one and a half precious hours before we struck the border and exited the bus. I stood in line contentedly envisioning my bed when I heard my name in a now-familiar accent. Before I could finish the word, “what?” Nellie was towing me away to take a photo with her. One photo became 17 as we assembled in varying poses. This had to resemble a marriage photo shoot, or at least an engagement photo shoot. As I envisioned the six Peruvian children we would surely adopt, I would never have predicted I would end up with someone named Nellie, man or woman.

Back on the bus, Nellie requested my e-mail address. Sure, of course. She handed me a paper she had written out with lines for my first and last name, e-mail, telephone number, address, birthday, and parent’s address. I filled this out and handed it back, at which point she presented me with a paper with her identifying information. She studied my responses, clarified and re-wrote some, and then proclaimed she would call me on my birthday and visit me in California within the following year. “Ok, great,” I replied with enthusiasm paralleling that of the Simpson’s Mr. Burns. I just wanted sleep. She sang Happy Birthday to me. This woman was evidently under the impression that she was Mariah Carey.

Solo Bus Adventures: Atacama to Salta, travel chile, travel argentina

“See, I have friends over the world!” she broadcast at the conclusion of Happy Birthday with such enthusiasm nine passengers spun around to stare at us. She then presented me with a bracelet. The bracelet consisted of lime green bulky beads and resembled something my cousin’s six-year-old would construct. I felt indebted and gazed at my own wrists. Aside from the newly acquired Peruvian present, I was wearing two black hair things. I removed one, put it around her wrist, and then was as lost as George W. Bush at a spelling bee, so I kissed her on the cheek and smiled. At this time the movie 2 Fast 2 Furious sparkled across the televisions. I submerged myself in my chair and revolved my eyes to the screens. Nellie produced a book entitled, ‘How to Teach English.’ This book was fifty pages long in size 16 font complete with pictures, and was identical in style to something a seven-year-old would read.

The opening scene of the movie corresponded to Nellie’s questioning. As she labored over the English words, she asked me questions. “How you say ‘educate’ in Spanish?” “How you say ‘they’ in Spanish?” “What it mean?” “What the Spanish word for ‘students’?” This word I knew: estudiante. This woman was clearly delusional in her estimation of my Spanish abilities. I have the language skills of a mentally handicapped walrus. I did enunciate the correct way to say ‘the’ to her 19 times, but aside from that, I was not much assistance.  She composed pronunciation notes in her booklet/pamphlet.

A bus attendant distributed chicken and Mayonnaise sandwiches to all the passengers. I was prepared with avocado and seasoning. After I altered my sandwich into an edible creation, Nellie handed me hers and impatiently motioned for me to adapt hers so she too could benefit from the accoutrements. Nellie evidently comprehended the American marriage adage ‘What’s mine is yours.’ This was further evidenced when she embezzled my water and thrust a quarter of the bottle down her trachea.

Hours later I was in a satisfying sleep reverie when Charging Bull breathing beat my ears. A hand/clamp then affixed to my forearm. I grudgingly opened my eyes, expecting to see Grendel from Beowolf. Nellie profoundly respired and said, “I sick,” and then faintly gestured her arm through the air toward the front of the bus. “I’m sorry, but... what? Que?” I asked. “I sick!” she shrieked. This outburst was unexpected. What happened to singing? “Ok...” I replied. “Get help!” my commander ordered. I looked over to the person across the aisle, who helplessly shrugged. After a unanimous negative response to my inquiry for any doctors on board the bus, I returned to my seat.

“Lo siento, pero no doctors” comprised my Spanish struggle. Nellie rewarded my efforts with a despised look. “Get driver!” she commanded and then relocated her sweatshirt directly over her head. I didn’t think this very feasible, but a death stare met my appeal and I retreated to the front of the bus feeling like a verbally abused wife and questioning my dad’s assertion that I would be a good lawyer. I returned with a bus attendant, because the driver was driving and unavailable, and determined I would do all I could to make Nellie content in her ailments, but our relationship would have to terminate with the bus ride. I also reconsidered the six children. Maybe five. Or four.

©Kara Carlson

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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