A couple of days back, in my blog post about The End of the World, I made a brief mention of the sort of filler article one might see on the front page of a newspaper, citing as an example a typical two-inch item about a bus plunge in Peru. This got me to thinking about a book I had read years before, Tom Miller’s The Panama Hat Trail.
From the title you might glean that it is a book in the “travel literature” vein, although it has precious little to do with Panama, because, inexplicably, the celebrated headgear actually hails from Ecuador. Go figure. Miller traces the making of one Panama hat from its inception in the straw fields through the weaving and finishing, then the marketing and export, with insightful and often humorous observations of the process at each step along the way. At one point, the author finds himself aboard one of those third-class Andean buses, of the very sort that contribute to the aforementioned two-inch blurbs in the bottom corner of Page One of your city newspaper. And he realizes, with Growing Dread, “I am on the Bus Plunge Highway.”
I knew whereof he spoke, as several years back, while doing volunteer work in Guatemala, I too traversed the Bus Plunge Highway, albeit not in a bus, and happily lived to tell about it. In fact, I wrote a song about it, which goes, in part:
Little item, morning paper, read one every week or two
Bus goes sailing through a guardrail, off some mountain in Peru
Take me down the Bus Plunge Highway, on a roller coaster ride
Take me down the Bus Plunge Highway, get me off this mountainside
I really wanted to write it about Guatemala, but rhyming possibilities were limited, especially for a poet of my caliber. Anyway, for my BP Highway experience, I was in the back seat of a Chevy Yukon, the second vehicle in a two-car convoy, bound from Guatemala City to a lakeside retreat in the mountains. Four of us were in the truck: the driver; a young American dentist who rode shotgun (also known as “the death seat” in Latin America); and my ex, Cyndi, and I in the back. The driver piloted the Yukon with a ferocity that bordered on mania, both of which considerably exceeded his skill level. At one point we were literally up on two wheels, during which time the passengers hung on for dear life to any available handhold, and silently invoked St. Christopher (although I suspect the driver was offering up his prayers to St. Earnhardt). We prevailed upon our chauffeur to make a pit stop in a small village, ostensibly for refills of Pepsi, and took the opportunity to have a chat with Marco, the lead driver in our convoy. We praised Marco’s driving skills profusely, but noted on the sly that our driver (who should probably remain nameless) was nowhere near in the class of his fearless leader, and asked if perhaps it would be possible to ratchet back the cruise control a few notches, in the interest of our all arriving alive. It was definitely the way to play it, as nobody had to lose any face; I found out later that the way Marco spun it to his amigo was to say that one of the passengers (probably yours truly) was coming down with altitude sickness, and “we’d better slow down or the gringo will likely hurl all over your nice leather upholstery; what can you expect from soft Americans, right?”
Still on balance, I have to say that I’d rather be a live soft (and in this case, somewhat duplicitous) American, than a polite, stoic, and honest-to-a-fault dead Canadian, if those are the only choices on offer. At least until I am not on the Bus Plunge Highway anymore.