On the Skids
On a Monday afternoon after Brunie and I had spent a weekend in the capital city, we caught a two o’clock bus back to Glória, a trip of 126 kilometers, close to 80 miles. At home, that might have been a 90 minute ride, but in Brazil’s interior, frequent stops on the unpaved road stretched the trip to at least four hours.
Brunie had been in Glória a full year before I arrived. I had been there only four months.
Brunie had explained that many people from the interior, unused to motorized transportation, suffered from motion sickness. When we traveled, she suggested that we choose aisle seats across from each other, if available, to avoid being between a sick passenger and a window.
Three employees worked on each vehicle. One was the driver, of course. Another took care of the luggage compartment under the bus and was also the mechanic. If the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, we hoped he could repair it. The third man collected fares. He had to keep track of where each person got on and off so he knew how much to charge. Many people couldn’t count, so they just handed the man some bills hoping he would return the correct change.
That day rain swept across the countryside in sheets. The windows were closed. The dense atmosphere was humid enough to keep our clothes clinging to our damp bodies.
The bus stopped at each small town, but it didn't seem to have any other regular stops. People stood up and went to the front of the bus and asked the driver to stop anywhere along the road. Other passengers stood at the side of the road, ready to flag down the bus. Most wore a hat or a sheet of plastic to protect themselves from the rain. The mechanic, in a plastic raincoat, emerged to open the luggage compartment for new passengers or departing ones.
Many Brazilians carried their packages with them, especially if their possessions were alive. That day I counted three piglets and five chickens. One passenger had an unidentified creature moving inside a cloth sack.
In the back of the bus sat the man everyone called O Crente. ‘Crente’ literally meant ‘believer,’ but was used to refer to Protestants, mostly conservative evangelicals, as opposed to members of the majority religion, Roman Catholicism.
O Crente, The Believer, caught the bus in his own town at about 2:00 in the morning and returned home the same day on the 2:00 pm bus from the capital. Each time we traveled to the capital city, he was already on the bus when we boarded. He read the Bible to his captive audience, both coming and going. He didn't read in a normal speaking voice. He read dramatically, shouting the scriptures like a fire and brimstone preacher. Most Brazilians thought he was crazy. I usually chose to sit as far from him as possible. Because he lived in the town beyond Glória, I knew he would be with us for the entire trip. That day there had been no empty seats near the front. With the rain and O Crente, it was going to be a long four hours.
I didn't know how O Crente was able to afford bus fare 6 days a week. He solicited donations from passengers, but never gathered more than a few centavos. I donated nothing ---I wasn’t about to to encourage him ---but I often wondered how much of a donation he would accept in exchange for a few minutes of silence.
I tried to read, but couldn't concentrate on my book. I couldn’t even watch the scenery in the passing hinterland. The side of the road could barely be seen through the pelting rain and steamed windows. Several times, the wheels spun on the mud while the bus tried to climb a small grade. Leaning my head back, I closed my eyes, allowed my paperback book to drop to my lap, tuned out O Crente, and dozed in the stuffy bus.
Suddenly, the back of the bus lurched sideways. I grabbed the handle on the back of the seat in front of me. In a second, the bus was in a deep ditch on the right side of the road, leaning on its side, its left wheels off the ground. I had been hurled from my seat partially by the movement of the bus and partially by the force of the female passenger to my left. I still held onto the seat, but I had twisted my wrist. I untangled my legs from Brunie and an elderly woman who had been sitting to her right.
People yelled in frantic Portuguese. Children cried. Chickens squawked and piglets squealed their disapproval. The driver yelled orders to the passengers.
“Quick, get out of the bus," someone screamed in a high-pitched voice. "The driver is saying that everyone should get off."
I pulled myself to my feet. I held my hand out to the woman who had been to my left. Her face had lost its color and her hand trembled as I helped her scramble into the tilted aisle. We helped Brunie and the old woman under her to their feet. Once the woman headed toward the rear emergency exit, Brunie and I scurried to the front door.
Outside my sandals sank into the mire beside the road.
"You okay?" Brunie asked.
"I think so. I'll have a few bruises," I answered, rubbing my wrist. “How about you?”
Brunie had hurt her elbow, but otherwise was okay.
"I was dozing,” I said. “I never expected anything like this." Up to that point I had been calm, but suddenly felt like my blood sugar had dropped to zero. I leaned on Brunie until my dizziness passed.
I noticed that the luggage compartment had been thrown open by the force of the skid. I recognized our suitcases, both covered with mud. Several people were grabbing at their own cloth sacks, probably filled with flour, rice, or cornmeal. To protect them from the rain, they carried them into the disabled bus. Several wooden liquor crates were broken, some of the bottles smashed.
We waited until most of the Brazilians had picked up their own possessions, before venturing near the vehicle. Just as I leaned to grab my suitcase, O Crente grabbed one of the liquor bottles which hadn't broken. Smashing the bottle against the side of the bus, he yelled, "Diabo! Demonio!" Glass fragments and whiskey splattered toward me. Reaching for another bottle, the man yelled again. Brunie and I backed away.
"What’s going on?" I asked in my imperfect Portuguese. O Crente was yelling and speaking so fast, I couldn’t understand him.
Another man grabbed a bottle by its neck, pushing the broken end toward O Crente who was reaching into the crate.
Brunie answered in Portuguese, "The Crente is blaming the desastre of the bus on the liquor. He says it's the devil's work ---he's trying to break the rest of the bottles. The man in white owns a bar in the next town. It's his whiskey." To be polite, we never spoke English around Brazilians.
I found it quaint that the Brazilians referred to even the most minor of accidents as a ‘disaster.’ Luckily, no one had been seriously hurt in this one.
The bus driver, the mechanic, the fare taker, and several passengers pulled the men apart. O Crente continued to make aggressive gestures toward the tavern owner waving his Bible in the air. Eventually several men wrestled him to the ground ending the ruckus.
By the time everyone was calm, O Crente and several others were covered with mud. O Crente wrapped a handkerchief around his bloody hand. Several men placed themselves strategically between the combatants. Several stood with their heads tilted toward the pelting rain, wiping their faces.
As we retreated to a nearby tree, the bus employees and several of the male passengers spoke for several minutes, with broad hand gestures, some arguing, and finally hand shakes. The driver crawled through the back door and moved unsteadily to the front of the slanting bus. He started the engine. Several men picked through the mud to find pieces of broken glass and move them out of the way. The mechanic explained that everyone was needed on the right side of the bus to push it back onto the road.
I was sure no amount of mere human effort would upright the huge vehicle. And if the bus tilted more, passengers could be crushed. Afraid to admit my apprehensions, I placed myself near the back end, thinking I could scramble out of the way, if the bus toppled over. Feet slipped from under the passengers as we tried to push. Several landed on their knees in the mud.
When that didn't work, the bus employees asked the women to get in the bus and stand or sit as close to the left side as possible while the men pushed on the right side. That strategy didn't work either. The mechanic took some pieces of thick jute rope from his large metal tool chest. He tied them around the posts between windows on the left of the bus. The men pulled on the ropes while the women stayed inside on the left. Then everyone tried pulling on the ropes. Nothing worked.
An hour passed. The rain subsided to a gentle drizzle. Most of the men gathered in small groups, smoking. Although everyone was thoroughly soaked by then, a few passengers crawled inside the bus to escape the rain.
Covered in brown slime, O Crente sat apart from the others on a stump, reading loudly from his muddy Bible. I wondered if he were reading the story of Noah.
A few women, a middle-aged couple, Brunie, and I sat on our luggage a few meters from the bus, under the lone tree. The main topic of conversation was how long we would have to wait for help.
Eventually we engaged in other chit-chit. One woman asked me about the United States. She told me my Portuguese was good, which I knew was not true. “At least I can understand you,” she said. “The American priest in my town has been here for five years, but I can’t understand anything he says.”
One more hour went by before another vehicle approached. The bus driver flagged down the jeep. Everyone watched as the two drivers spoke. The jeep’s owner shook his head saying he couldn't help; his jeep was too small. He said to wait. Soon trucks would come from the market in one of the interior towns.
In another thirty minutes, a truck filled with goods and passengers, turned the bend, followed by a second truck from the market. The bus passengers buzzed with expectation while the mechanic tied ropes to the jeep and both trucks. The fare taker organized the passengers from both the bus and the trucks to push on the right side of the bus while the jeep and the trucks strained to pull the bus from the ditch. It seemed like even that wouldn't work. Then, suddenly, the bus bounced onto all its wheels, the tires grabbed, and the driver was able to steer it onto the muddy road.
Many handshakes and "obrigados" followed. The luggage compartment was refilled. Passengers reentered the bus. Packages were redeposited on the overhead racks and under the seats. The bar owner and O Crente were kept at a safe distance from each other, the latter loudly proclaiming that his prayers had resulted in a miracle that saved us from the satanic whiskey.
Settling into my seat, soaked through to the skin, I looked at Brunie. Laughing, I said, "We must look like a couple of drowned rats."
Brunie smiled. "Maybe not even that good."
I ran my fingers through my wet hair. "How often does this happen?"
She wiped her face with paper from the roll of toilet tissue she always carried in her bag. Handing the roll to me, she said, "Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. Of course, when we tell everyone in Glória, we'll hear all kinds of stories about desastres."
I looked at my watch and said, "We were supposed to be back by six. It'll be after nine 'til we get to the school. Our literacy students will be waiting for us."
Brunie assured me that everyone in Glória would know as soon as the bus was late and everyone in town knew exactly which residents of Glória were expected on it. The literacy students would not even show up. She fumbled in her bag again. Handing me an orange, she said, "It will be good to be home, won’t it?"
I nodded enthusiastically. After four months, I was finally feeling as if Glória really was my home.